What a delight it was to be back in Geneva this past weekend and plunge into the refreshing, healing power of poetry!
I attended a poetry workshop and masterclass organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group, with guest instructor Laura Kasischke. I’d read and admired Laura’s poetry and novels and was very keen to hear her in person. The workshop was everything I had hoped for and more and you can see some of my initial impressions of it on the GWG blog.
Prose can not quite do it justice, so instead I will attempt a confetti of poetic impressions, like petals gathered from the quotations, ideas and timed writing exercises we listened to over the course of these two days.
You can’t create compassion with compassion, or emotion with emotion
where is the body, where are your senses?
I have no way to express this in words
so I just sit down with a pen and try to find the words
it’s the very essence of being
but it has to use the language of shared experience
The recipe for writing a poem?
Nothing to do with subject matter.
It comes from somewhere else, as if your mind
and pen is seized by someone
the poem was coming to him
although he had yet to hear the words
he knew it was already written
Sharp edges she slices to
control the slopes
feel the reassuring bite
and crunch of bones and dreams beneath her
poetic and creative insights come not haphazardly
but only in those areas in which we are intensively
on which we concentrate our waking, conscious experience
a writer who means to outlive the useful rages
and despairs of youth
must somehow learn to endure
the desert of writer’s block
Nothing was in the mind that was not first in the senses.
When our mind is actively thinking about one thing,
we can be writing about something far more interesting
I throw a lot of stuff away
better start from scratch then spend too many years
on a mediocre poem
There’s plenty more where that came from
The time-maker, the eye-maker, the voice-maker, the maker
of stars, of space, of comic surprises
over the future
I’d rather be a restaurant that is not to everyone’s liking
than the lowest common denominator
Karen and Jack’s house in Provence may be a little corner of paradise, but I wasn’t just going to laze around in a night-gown and listen to harp music all day. I had tremendous plans going there: I was going to finish my novel and send it to my mentor for structural edits. But that was based on the flawed assumption I made back in early June that I would have spent a total of 5 weeks on the novel by now. Needless to say, that did not happen between July and October. I wrote precisely zero words since mid-June.
Having all the time in the world and inspiring landscape galore was not immediately productive, however. I wrote about 1500 words and rewrote a full outline of the novel, filling up any plot holes, but no more than that. Now, I could choose to focus on what I did not achieve, but for once I will focus on the positive.
Lulled to sleep in the evening and woken up in the morning by poetry (Karen has a whole room full of poetry books – 4 bookcases full!), it’s to be expected that I succumbed to my old passion. I read 13 books of poetry during those five days, so it was like bathing in sunlight. Of course, you know what it’s like with poetry collections, you don’t read them cover to cover, you find the poems that really resonate with you.
Here are some which I would love to share with you, all by women poets (although I also read William Stafford and Peter Meinke, I spontaneously picked up women this time):
Let’s start a conversation. Ask me where I’m from.
Where is home, really home. Where my parents were born.
What to do if I sound more like you than you do.
Every word an exhalation, a driving out. (Vahni Capildeo)
I keep finding you in ways I didn’t know I noticed, or knew.
Every road, every sea,
every beach by every sea,
keeps lining up with what you loved.
Here’s a line of silent palm trees.
It’s as if you answered the phone.
(Naomi Shihab Nye)
I caution you as I was never cautioned:
you will never let go, you will never be satiated.
You will be damaged and scarred, you will continue to hunger.
Your body will age, you will continue to need.
You will want the earth, then more of the earth –
Sublime, indifferent, it is present, it will not respond.
It is encompassing, it will not minister.
Meaning, it will feed you, it will ravish you,
it will not keep you alive. (Louise Gluck)
I, like a river,
Have been turned aside by this harsh age.
I am a substitute. My life has flowed
Into another channel
And I do not recognise my shores.
O, how many fine sights I have missed,
How many curtains have risen without me
And fallen too…
And how many poems I have not written
Whose secret chorus swirls around my head
And possibly one day
Will stifle me… (Anna Akhmatova)
This poem is dangerous; it should not be left
Within the reach of children, or even of adults
Who might swallow it whole, with possibly
Undesirable side-effects. If you come across
An unattended, unidentified poem
In a public place, do not attempt to tackle it
Yourself. Send it (preferably in a sealed container)
To the nearest centre of learning, where it will be rendered
Harmless by experts. Even the simplest poem
May destroy your immunity to human emotions.
All poems must carry a Government warning. Words
Can seriously affect your heart. (Elma Mitchell)
The result of this electrolyte bath of poetry? I wrote 25 new poems of my own. All requiring a lot of work still, but more than I’ve written in the 6 months January-June 2016. I will make sure I always have at least one book of poetry on the go at any moment in time.
Of course we all dream of relaxing and creative holidays in beautiful landscapes, so it won’t come as a surprise to hear that the 5 1/2 days I spent in Provence were simply fabulous! The weather was mostly cloudy, there was even some rain, so I only had 1.5 days of sunshine, but I didn’t care. This was paradise.
You won’t fully appreciate just how much those days away from family and work meant to me, until you hear of the weeks preceding it. Of course, the usual insomnia, anxieties great and small, travelling for work with tiring, woefully unprepared workshops (not only on my part), tense moments with my parents who had come to look after the children while I was away, meticulous forward planning but still not enough time to do all the laundry. It all culminated on 21/22, when I had the following timetable:
06:00 CET: get up extra early to get to the training venue to change some slides and check in online (as the friend I was staying with was having some internet issues)
09:00 – 16:30 CET – ‘stand and deliver’ all day
16:30 – 17:00 CET – polite small talk and feedback with client
17:00-17:30 CET- rush to the airport
17:30 – 20:30 CET – discover the flight is delayed and there are additional security checks in force for UK destinations, while the 90 minutes free Wifi at Geneva airport expires and doesn’t allow me to access my mobile boarding pass at the gate
23:00-01:30 GMT – unpack one suitcase and pack two (for myself and the children), leave the house reasonably tidy for some friends who would be staying there over the holiday week, print out boarding passes for everybody, make sure my parents have packed everything, driving instructions to the Provence, telephone numbers for all of my children’s friends, confirmation for rental car, save chapters of my novel on a USB stick etc. etc. etc.
01:30-05:15 GMT – disturbed sleep on armchair-bed in study, with a restless cat trying to rest on my legs and waking up with a wonky shoulder
5:15-7:15 GMT – make sure everyone eats, gets dressed, leaves behind keys they don’t need, takes with them medicines and keys they do need, don’t forget their mobiles or cuddly toys, take everybody to the airport, leave car at long-term car park, make sure my parents find the way to Terminal 4 while we get through security in time at our terminal
7:15 GMT – 12:00 CET – another flight, another delay, but arrived safely in Geneva, where I hand the boys over to their Dad, and get my rental vehicle
13:30 – 19:30 CET – drive down to Provence, but have to avoid the Swiss motorway (no vignette, you see), then take a wrong turn and end up going the long way round, adding at least an hour to my journey
19:30 – 20:30 CET – the final portion of the journey was in complete darkness, along narrow country lanes with ditches on either side, trying to find a tiny ‘hameau’ while avoiding the beguiling road signs for Roussillon
FINALLY make it to my friends’ house and have a glass of wine to celebrate before collapsing in bed and sleeping for 12 hours straight
My friends, Jack and Karen McDermott, are American, but used to live in Geneva. They retired to the south of France four years ago and bought an amazing farmhouse in the Luberon, which they have lovingly renovated.Karen is an artist (painter, ceramicist, photographer), as well as a poet, so you can imagine all the lovely little touches that have gone into both interior and exterior decoration.
Three years ago, Karen and Jack opened up their wonderfully cosy, welcoming house to writers and artists who need some quiet time to rest, refocus and create. So far, all their guests have come through personal recommendations, so you can be sure that you will feel very much at home. Prices vary according to room size and season, but each room has its own quirky décor and, more importantly, all contain a desk for writing and good reading lights. A family after my own heart, who knows just what a bookworm needs. Oh, and did I mention that the house is full of books?
Outdoors is just as enticing, pure balm to the wounded or exhausted spirit.
Of course, the vineyards of Provence are all around (and Karen and Jack have the perfect wine cellar for it), as are lavender fields and olive trees. The delightful ochre cliffs of Roussillon, the picture-perfect hilltop village of Gordes and Menerbes of Peter Mayle fame are a short drive away, while Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Chateauneuf du Pape and Manosque (home of Occitane en Provence cosmetics) all make for perfect day-trips.
But I was there to work, not gallivant about. There was a small amount of gallivanting involved though, as you shall discover in another post. But, for now…
You may not always be able to say what confines you.
And the Prison is sometimes called mistrust.
If it were that easy
one wouldn’t have any pleasure of it.
That is all I seek:
always something other than heroism.
I try not to forget how to jest.
Based on the Selected Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. The picture above is one of a series of pictorial prompts on the theme of ‘Arrangements’ from dVerse Poets Pub. The colours reminded me so much of Van Gogh’s palette. Plus, I tend to be a stickler for a tidy desk arranged just so before I can start writing…
I was never a full convert to Mary Oliver’s poetry. Heresy, I know, but I dismissed it as ‘greetings cards’ type of poetry – plenty of feel-good factor, but too obvious and too easy to read (and dismiss). Too much of a bestseller?
Was this slim volume of selected poems entitled ‘Felicity’ going to change my mind?
At first, I thought not. The questions were almost touching in their naivety and blandness.
Things take the time they take. Don’t worry. How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?
Why do people keep asking to see God’s identity papers when the darkness opening into morning is more than enough?
There are plenty of aphorisms, of the type which I thought had died out after the Enlightenment or Oscar Wilde:
All important ideas must include the trees, the mountains and the rivers.
Beauty can both shout and whisper, and still it explains nothing.
The point is, you’re you, and that’s for keeps.
But then I came across the poems about love. And there the freshness, candour, surprise and even platitudes suddenly seemed appropriate when punctuated by breathlessness. You can feel the delight and search for new ways to express an emotion which catches us unawares every single time and makes youngsters of us all.
I did think, let’s go about this slowly. This is important. This should take some really deep thought. We should take small thoughtful steps. But, bless us, we didn’t.
Are the morning kisses the sweetest/ or the evenings/ or the inbetweens?/ All I know/ is that thank you should appear/ somewhere./ So, just in case,/ I can’t find/ the perfect place – / ‘Thank you, thank you.’
Mary Oliver is best known for her close observation of nature – and you won’t find much of that in this volume, so perhaps I am being somewhat unfair to her. So perhaps not the best introduction to her work if you are new to it, but a useful source of quotations for your own poetry? What do you think, am I being unfair to a poet that is appreciated by so many who would otherwise not read much poetry?
Back in February 2012 I had just recently arrived in Geneva and was so busy settling everyone else into the new environment that I forgot to make myself happy. I was lonely, frustrated and feeling uninspired. But then I discovered the Geneva Writers Group and attended their biennial conference. I ‘accidentally’ attended a poetry workshop run by the wonderful Naomi Shihab Nye and suddenly the words were gushing out of me, after a twenty-year absence from poetry, and nearly as many years of not really taking writing of any kind seriously enough. The first poem was a bit gauche and hesitant, but a clear manifesto. And I haven’t stopped writing since (or only temporarily, because finding the time for it is still challenging, although far less than it used to be).
So you bet that I am excited to be attending my third Geneva Writers Conference later this month! We have some wonderful writers/publishers attending as instructors and panelists: Tessa Hadley, Jane Friedman, Carmen Bugan, Ann Hood, Liz Jensen, Shaun McCarthy, Frederick Reiken, Andrea Stuart, Susan Tiberghien, Jason Donald and Wallis Wilde Menozzi. I expect to be challenged, inspired and kicked into action. After all, who understands writers better than other writers?