Monday, 14 July 2014

Poetical Chester

All smiles after the hard work - photo credit Maureen Weldon

I was delighted to be asked to give a workshop with

Chester Poets, such a friendly and talented group of people! It was 

held in the Friends' Meeting House, set amid the city's truly 

arresting architecture. 


This was particularly appropriate as I'd chosen to introduce the 

work of William Stafford, who was a Quaker, and to look at both 

his poetry and his prose writings on the process and the teaching of 


When I first read him, a year ago now, his words had an immediate 

and inspiring effect. The quotes below are from two of his books –  

Crossing Unmarked Snow and You Must Revise your Life.

A writer is not so much someone who has something to say 

as...someone who has found a process that will bring about new 

things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say 


“My morning writing would begin for me by getting up about four 

o'clock. ...I lie down on the living room couch in front of a 

big...picture window which looks out on our quiet neighbourhood. 

The giant fir trees, ...rhododendrons and so on outside. I'm lying 

there relaxed, I have a blank sheet in front of me. I put the date on 

top, and I start letting whatever swims into my attention get 

written down on the page....I welcome anything that comes along.  

I don't have any standards.......I am not trying to contend for a 

place in magazines or in books. I'm just letting my attention flow 

where it wants to flow. And the relaxation of it is part of the charm 

for me.”

Among his themes are

the linking of inner and outer – the world of actual events located 

in time and place, and the world of the imagination, the river of the 

inner life.
Writing as exploration & journey. In this journey there are no maps 

but you are accompanied by your own inner compass and guidance.
The importance of being authentic, rather than 'good'.
The necessity of making mistakes/the value of getting lost and of 

developing total trust and belief in your own processes.

I used one of his writing exercises as a starting point. The road to 

your home or town or to an imagined home where you would like 

to live.

The day was humid and sultry, the windows of the room were 

open, but it was hot inside, and silent, just the sound of 

concentration, (yes, it has its own sound, like the faintest hum of 

distant bees) notebook pages flicking over, people lifting bottles of 

water and replacing them, heads bent over pages, people wrote 

quickly, without editing their thoughts first, immersed in the 

present, going where their inner river took them. Faint murmur of 

voices from people sitting outside in the garden.

When people read out their work, there was a childhood memory 

of coming home from school with 'rooks rioting overhead'. More 

than one person followed a path or came to a gate or doorway 

where a threshold was crossed, marking a boundary into another 

world, only subtly different from this one.

There were contrasts between urban 'whirlpools round the ringroad' 

and rural, 'trees [that] protect me' and there were train journeys, 

rain on windows and nostalgia, there was a character setting out 

into a completely unknown world, reminding me of Parsifal the 

innocent, about to enter life's theatre and learn, through the 

mistakes he will make, about the ways, customs and meanings of 

the world, how it differs from his own imaginings, how it will 

eventually, reconnect with the larger world, of the imagination, of 

metaphor, of soul and spirit.

'...if you're lost enough, then the experience of now is your guide 

to what comes next. None of us knows what comes the next second.'

'Let me plead, not for ignoring advice from wherever it comes, but 

for allowing in your own life the freedom to pay attention to your 

feelings while finding your way through language. ….........Into the 

unknown you must plunge, carrying your compass.....You must 

make 'mistakes'; that is, you must explore what has not been 

mapped out for you......Like Don Quixote must loosen the 

reins and go blundering into adventures that await any traveller 

in this multilevel world …..and like Don Quixote you must expect 

some disasters. You must write your bad poems and stories; for to 

write carefully as you rove forward is to guarantee that you will 

not find the unknown, the risky, the surprising. Art is an activity in 

which the actual feel of doing it must be your guide; hence the 

need for confidence, courage, independence.'

William Stafford

For the second exercise, since William Stafford stresses the 

importance of 'being lost' – a remembered or imagined lostness. 

One of the enjoyable things about using a fairly broad topic like 

this, is the different ways that people will interpret it. 

Being lost in some cases involved that powerful feeling of lines of 

connection, linking trails and sense impressions dissolving, being 

rubbed out, vanishing and mocking your sense of being part of 

anything beyond you, and the acute and sudden alienation that can 

bring. This usually involved being on mountains and in unknown 

terrain. The word panic came up a few times, reminding of the 

nature god Pan, at home in his terrain and challenging your 

presence there. Will you pass the test and be allowed to find your 

way out of the wood or down from the mountain?

There was a lost object, and the blurring of a visual sense, an ironic 

take on a 'riverside walk' where 'you can't get lost' if you keep the 

river on your right, but which actually went nowhere near the river, 

highlighting the strange logic of public signs! Another involved the 

loss of a moral compass, a 'man without maps' and there was an 

atmospheric description of a 'lost' building, eerily abandoned, but 

with its own individual sense of desolation.  

In David Subacchi's Journey, we get the sense of moving fast 

through landscape, one image coming into focus then falling away 

behind, Time here has rhythm and urgency, as we move through 

history as well as space.



Cardigan Bay at my back leaving screaming gulls
And postcard sunsets behind
Climbing afforested hills
Through grey ribbon villages
Past the long abandoned spaces
Of stone churches and Victorian school rooms

Up over Eisteddfa the moon landscape
Where in winter snow descends
Like a theatre fire curtain
Blocking passage to all
On, on eastwards by-passing Llanidloes
With its ancient market hall
Following a road that once was a railway
To industrial Newtown burial place of Robert Owen
And scene of Chartist riots
A place where labour was sold to factory and mill owner
Then forward to Welshpool’s agricultural wealth
Where dignity was sold to Lord Powys

North now in and out of England’s border
Rodney’s Pillar glaring down over Criggion’s quarry
To Oswestry more Welsh than English
Yet part of red soiled Shropshire
To arrive at Bersham where high above
The last relic of coal mining
Dominates the landscape for miles
Desperate attempts to grow trees
Failing miserably to disguise
That this is a slag heap

And so to Wrexham biggest town in North Wales
Border town, garrison town, once a mining
Brewing, brick and steel making town
Now a battered town
Scrambling for its dignity
Holding the line
Between survival
And obscurity.

David Subacchi
July 2014

And in his Empty Property, while it is the house that is 'lost', the 

powerful energy of abandonment that inhabits it seems to prowl 

like a wounded creature protecting its own space.


The front door was stiff
Requiring a kick to open
The sort of kick I imagine
Policemen or bailiffs deliver
When enforcing entry

As is normal when houses
Have been vacant
For some time
The smell of decay
Hung everywhere

With pen, paper and clipboard
I made cursory notes
More to prove I had inspected
Than to record anything
That might be worthwhile

A glance at every
Decaying room was enough
To satisfy me
That this was really
A bit of a dump

Turning to exit
The door resisted
Refusing to budge
As if showing contempt
For my disrespect

In panic I forced myself
Out the back way
Into an overgrown garden
Rusted hinges
Groaning in protest

Not looking back
I stepped over a garden wall
Into the alley way
Looking this way and that
Blushing with embarrassment

Behind me the empty house
Sneered in its loneliness
As I limped back to the car
My throat dry
Every muscle aching.

David Subacchi July 2014

(Both of these were written during the workshop, and are 

reproduced here with his permission)


Here you can read about David Feela's encounter with William 


And after the workshop, there was just time to walk along 

Chester's walls overlooking the racecourse, and watch the last race 

of the day!


three sea horses said...

This morning I heard Jackie Kay talk about the idea of a Road - and how when she went to Africa to find her birth father's place, the road she trod seemed to already have her footsteps as if waiting for her.. And she wrote a poem in collaboration with a musician who plays his piece while she recites! lovely!
talking of finding the way, of being lost and of allowing oneself to listen to surroundings for guidance. Talk of making mistakes being necessary ... What a brilliant workshop to have, M! and also loved especially the poem about the empty house. I don't know why exactly but it seemed to put me in touch with some lost memory, I felt I knew that place that feeling - but obviously I don't really.
Thanks to David Subacchi.
Have found the term 'lost soul' coming to mind quite often these days, then block the thought off - 'cant be that, can't have that'. what you have written has given me lots of hope and lots of inspiration. Thank you! xxx

dritanje said...

I am so pleased that the topic quotes and poems have given you inspiration 3 sea horses. W Stafford certainly inspired me I drank up his words like a plant. Glad too that David's poem gave you a feeling of recognition. Or a feeling you recognized even if you don't know that particular house. Which is one of the gifts that poetry can give us like entering or re entering a forgotten room in our house,that sometimes happens in dreams. M xx

dritanje said...
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Forest Dream Weaver said...

I like William Stafford's words.
Thanks for sharing the poems.....Wow!