Tag Archives: prose poetry

Our doubt is our passion

A couple of days ago I wrote about the process of beginning to write again after a break. Bobbie Darbyshire commented on the importance of doubt and it made me realise that the epigraph I have for this poetry sequence is also about the importance of doubt:

We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.

Henry James

Then today I received a blog post from Richard Gwyn (an excellent blog to follow) about the self doubt of William Carlos Williams:

In his autobiography Williams claims that what drove him to write was anger – somewhat like Cervantes – and his anger was clearly kept warm by his self-doubt and insecurity, his dislike or loathing of certain contemporaries (especially Eliot, of whom he claimed, late in life, to be “insanely jealous”) and his fear that he was not considered an ‘important’ poet.

How terrible the tribulations – real or imagined – of the poet, how fragile the music.

http://richardgwyn.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/the-resentment-and-insecurity-of-the-poet

I’m not in a state of anger or loathing and have no illusions about important poet-hood, but I can empathise with ‘insanely jealous’ and this post and other offerings on doubt set me thinking about the line between healthy doubt and crippling self-mistrust. The music is fragile and it’s so easy to be overwhelmed. The key, I think, is in that quote from Henry James.
Healthy doubt recognises that we are trying as hard as we can in the dark; that the results will be flawed, but it does not paralyse us, on the contrary it drives us, it is our passion. As Samuel Beckett put it:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Doubt, after all, isn’t the death of faith. So this week I’ve been trying again and it’s been a fantastic week. I have one more day left and I’m looking forward to being home, but a concentrated week has given me lots of research material, a whole batch of short prose poems for the first section and three new sections in first draft. I remain full of doubt, but I think I’m failing better.

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Work in Progress

During the autumn when life was taken up with launches I had an idea that I’d have much more time to blog in the new year. Well, February has dawned and I’ve managed one post so clearly that didn’t work out. What I have done a lot of is editing – seven new collections (well, one is an enormous anthology) are all in progress and hurtling towards publication in the first half of this year whilst another batch of books, including a fantastic short story collection from Matthew Francis, are in the process of being printed.

In he midst of this quiet period I decided to grab a week to catch up with my own work in progress. I planned to write at least two books in a week, but, probably for the best, pinned myself down to work on one project instead and have been immersed for the last few days in the poetry sequence about Cwmorthin, the abandoned slate village above the village where I live.

It’s a strange fascination. The disappeared lives in this now extraordinarily wild and tranquil valley, were male, victorian, Welsh-speaking. In short a long way from the life of a Cambridge educated feminist theologian, poet and editor who has been struggling to progress beyond toddler Welsh for years. Yet something, many things, in the place simply won’t leave me alone. I’m enthralled by the contradictions of a place that has gone from Dantean hell to rural idyll, but also from a cauldron of debate, philosophy, religion and culture to emptiness. I’m intrigued by the parallels between the decline of the slate industry and depopulation and the decline of the chemical industry on Teesside, where I grew up. And I’m simply mesmerised by the landscape and the psychogeographical possibilities of it.

So this week I’m not editing or launching or doing anything but the most scant keeping an eye on Cinnamon emails. Instead I am writing. On Saturday I decided that I could no longer write. I’ve had a break since taking on Cinnamon alone just over eighteen months ago and last year was not only my first full year of doing everything, but also taken up with the process of divorce. In that time I’ve done lots of research and scraps of writing, but nothing sustained and I had a sudden epiphany that it was all over. I took a long time over some research, wrote one line which was no good, watched two films and took two hot baths. On Sunday I set about journalling on why I could no longer write and had another epiphany. After I left the church, after a succession of violent assaults in the parish and an avalanche of events that ensued from that I needed to write a lot of rubbish for a long time to work it out of my system. Eventually I wrote Stale Bread & Miracles, a novelised sequence of prose poems on my journey through the church. I e just been through another major life event and I probably need to write a lot of rubbish that never needs to see the light of day – its my way of processing.

Once I’d acknowledged this rather obvious fact I suddenly had ideas for two new sections in the Cwmorthin sequence, completely unrelated to writing rubbish about my life, And over Sunday and today I’ve written first drafts of both sections and feel excited about the writing. What my work in progress needed was for me to give myself some breathing room as another work in progress.

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The Weather Outside is… not too bad

This year I was prepared for the snow. I got the wood in early and bought new torches and some snazzy LED battery-operated lights that are dotted around the house ready for power cuts. I stocked up on food that will last if we can’t get deliveries and bought back-ups for Christmas (frozen veg in case the Asda van can’t make it with fresh veg before Christmas.) It has been bitterly cold and we’ve had some torrential, but not untypical, rain, but apart from a flurry of hail and wet slush that sprinkled the ground a patchy white on Monday, we’ve had no snow and the forecast keeps saying the next few days will be slightly milder. The superstitious bit of me left over from childhood keeps thinking that if I hadn’t prepared we’d have several feet of snow like last year, but despite not really believing that I’m grateful that my family will be able to travel here on roads that aren’t treacherous with snowdrifts and ice.

I’m always excited about Christmas. Eleven years ago it was a marathon of church services – Advent services, carol services (including those for local schools) and finally Midnight Mass and the Christmas morning service. Now life is very different, but I can’t resist Advent calendars and lighting the candles each Sunday to count down the weeks, and I still bring out the little olive wood nativity figures given to my now 25 year old son at his baptism by his godmother, Jo. The change began fourteen years ago, another Advent in another place, and is charted in my collection of prose poetry, Stale Bread & Miracles.

Stir up Sunday

It’s the morning after the autumn fair. I sit alone on the vestry floor by the door of the open, empty safe. It is cold here in November, cold enough for a Christmas turkey store, I joke each week with the sacristan. It takes a long time to notice the cold today. I don’t know how long I’ve sat like this: iced numb. I force myself to walk through the church, forgetting to lock each door on the way. As I reach the porch there’s a rattling noise, someone banging the double door. I hear a thin whine become a wail. It’s coming from me.

Meg! Meg! Rob hammers the door.

I slump on the other side and sob. Eventually I let him in.

The money… the fair… the… someone… the safe…

The police seem to appear immediately: a fair woman taking down details. I have it clear like a film, but the sound-track is gone, except for threats and expletives.

It was not a single incident that led to the final break, but you can read more about that in the book… the upshot was several years of illness and uncertainty that led to this wonderful place and, eventually, to Cinnamon Press. So here I am – hunkering down into the winter and, between cold weather preparations, catching up with all the admin and editing that took a back seat during an autumn of launches.

There are six books in near states of completion all in need of final tweaking so that they can be signed off and go to the printer, but today I’ve been uploading electronic information on forward titles to the book trade websites and writing emails to secure launch venues and dates for next year. I’ve also managed to complete a new cover with Cottia home from university to work with me on the design.

All in all the weather is not too bad at all – I wish I could say the same for the political landscape – as a wonderful ninety year old friend who once had to flee the US during the McCarthy trials reminded me today, there is plenty of cold, ice and storm on that front. In such an economic climate there is no certainty for a small press, but I’m grateful that not only am I not snowed in, but once again I can say at the end of this year – I’m still here.

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A Deliberate Life

I often visit Cwmorthin – a ruined slate mining village in a valley just above Tanygrisiau. I’m working on a poetry sequence on this place, examining links between landscape, architecture and emotion and it is a place that continually draws me back.

When I reach the top of the hill, I turn and look down over the ruins dotted around the lake. It is hard to imagine this place vibrating with the sounds of iron being hammered; trucks thudding along tracks; men shouting orders in the fast, guttural consonants of an endangered language; men coughing, each dust-filled heave tearing at their lungs; mules braying; the rhythmic chip and clink of slate being hewn or rived; the spray and hiss of water hosing down slate or churning in wheels; the occasional muffled boom of an explosion somewhere inside a tunnel. It is hard to imagine the smells: the sulphur and tar tang of coal burning, the gritty alkaline of dust and slate particles choking the air. It is hard to imagine the swell of activity in this place that was a little taste of hell, now transformed to a place of wild tranquillity: uncompromising, but beautiful.

There is no odour of industry, the air is cool and clean; the sharp iron tang of snow in the winter, the soft pungency of damp grasses for most of the year. The lake is quiet, an occasional lap of water on stone, but from here it gives back only silence. The sounds now are of an occasional bird calling, my own feet scrunching across the dry, springy heather, and the wind, which waxes and wanes in a fast repeating cycle; howling, keening, whistling before it suddenly falls away, exhausted and still. In those moments the hush spreads a blanket over the ruins: the barracks and lakeside workshop, roofless and fast becoming grim, eroded shapes of decay; the chapel, known as the sheepfold, with its roof newly disappeared, its walls still reaching towards heaven in one last push; the little cottage, the only intact building which I have a constant longing to save, mourning as the first roof tile falls away, knowing that inside the damp is winning, the stairs are already rotten, that no-one will ever sit on the step in a moment of sunshine, watch the water play with stones on the shore, gaze up into the oddly out of place, but pleasing monkey-puzzle tree and think, this is where I live. 

What has been lost? Hell has given way to a fiercely exquisite landscape.  The air is fresh and good. What was once a Blakeian inferno is now a Thoreau-idyll. He writes:

A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depths of his own nature. (Walden)

Cwmorthin now is such a place; a haven where nature has won, where walkers can sit by a calm lake surrounded by the imposing grandeur of the Moelwyns and measure their own existence.

There is some truth in this, but it is also a fiction; a narrative we weave to give meaning to loss or progress or the mixture of the two. There are no cabans now; the ‘private groups’ where men met at lunchtime in the mine to debate politics and life and practice hymns The area was depopulated in the late 1970s and has never recovered; jobs are scarce, skills scarcer, economic depression commonplace. But, of course, it was never a fair trade – political engagement and skill should not have such a high price – men coughing their lungs to destruction, frequently dying in their early forties, children fetching and carrying in mines at ten, working full-time by the age of twelve, women carrying unbearable domestic and emotional loads, often with the need to make extra money as well.

That something is lost and gone does not mean it should be hallowed and sanctified. The mine at Cwmorthin was known as the ‘Slaughterhouse’ – hardly a place or way of life to feel romantic longing for. But harsh conditions invariably wake the human spirit to acts of resistance. ‘Resistance,’ Alice Walker tells us in her remarkable novel about, among other things, the horrors of female genital mutilation, ‘is the secret of joy.’ What we should be nostalgic for is not the hard, grinding labour or stink of toxic industry, but a quality of engagement with life that Cwmorthin threw up in the face of overwhelmingly harsh conditions; a quality that other times and places might nurture and cultivate in other circumstances, even sitting by a tranquil lake meditating on the depths of existence.

Blake certainly thinks that community is a corollary of rural, rather industrial, areas, but he had no experience of harsh, but relatively small industries folded into a wild mountain landscape. Thoreau maintains that he knows ‘of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.’ This ability has not been lost. The cabans have gone, but in Tanygrisiau, the tiny strip of village tucked under the valley in which Cwmorthin sits and which provided the Slaughterhouse and other slate mines with many workers, there are seeds still of resistance, of political engagement, of community, that I have not experienced in cities or small towns. It is far from uniformly idyllic – it is an area with social and economic problems, yet I remain impressed by the quality of neighbourliness and goodwill here and by the number of people trying to live innovative lifestyles. At the beginning of Walden Thoreau says:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear…

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Chapter 2

A great deal has been lost in this wild, beautiful place, but there are people here who are trying to live deliberately, who do not have economic wealth, but front the essential facts of life – it is part of what makes this small place so dear and an ideal place for a small press.

This is the title piece from the first section of the sequence, a prose-poetry section:

iv: Tŷ Schrödinger

The one remaining house is closed: windows boarded, padlocks guard the doors. Inside, unseen inhabitants, their lives already past, are yet alive and dead—until the seal gives way to break the spell. We know that they are gone, the dead, not smeared into some living-dying-life-inside-the-box; not caught between—but do not know the how or when the murk of maybes became death.

And in our box we wait until the measurement is made.

Cwmorthin by Cottia Fortune-Wood

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