Fiona Sampson has worked extensively with cross-arts projects, intergenerational projects, and arts in healing (see her publication The Healing Word). She is the director of Poetryfest - Aberystwyth International Poetry Festival.
Graham Harthill, co-founder and committee member of LAPIDUS (The Association for the Literary Arts in Personal Development) and co-founder of the Poetry in Healing Project 1992, has worked extensively in arts and social services. His most recent book of poetry is The Lives of the Saints (RWC Press).
The Ledbury Poetry Festival wanted to encourage participation of not only the festival visitor but the residents themselves, and recognise that Ledbury's older citizens are, for various reasons, often isolated and on the fringe of such events as the Festival. They proposed that the two well respected poets Fiona Sampson and Graham Harthill do outreach work with local residential homes.
The project was largely successful because of the considerable enthusiasm and support of both the festival administrators and the staff of the various locations where we worked.
I had spent a few days prior in the run-up to the festival by preparing the ground; this was made easy by an introductory meeting set up by the festival director, Peter Arscott, with Phillip Weaver (a social worker with the elderly) and Meg Rendell of Age Concern. Phillip showed me around Ledbury and introduced me to staff in the homes, the day centres and the Cottage Hospital. Meg proved to be a great help in recommending a few local individuals to take part, and facilitating transport and teas for the concluding Friday afternoon get together and reading.
Although we had plenty of people with which to work, my conversations with those outside the institutions proved to be very interesting and generated some excellent work on locally historical themes of interest to the community at large.
Were the project to be developed next year, I would recommend a somewhat increased emphasis on work with elderly people throughout the town itself, and a conclusion (be it reading/event, publication or both), that invites the public to attend. Such a finale would also establish the project as a fully-fledged ingredient of the festival proper.
- Graham Hartill
A web of words is what we are born to: it is the world our culture spins of recognitions, names, descriptions, meanings. We bend and grow to a bigger pattern; our I-ness is captured in it and while we wriggle to escape, we tighten it for our day-to-day sustenance.
Everything we think or feel is twin to light or shadow. The open and the secret, the desired and the feared, the known and the unknown, the joyous and the terrible: life cannot be imagined without these contradictions. Thus we are both the fly and the spider in language's web.
This afternoon, I'm standing here talking, but the words were here first. In the society of the spectacle we are continually urged to elevate countless flickering TV dots to transient stardom; mass-media babble is the dominant discourse of the western world. It's become crucial to me to try to open a space in this delirium for real experience of one another's sayings: to meet, take part, and recognise each of us as fundamental knottings in the web. Our individual psyches are always essentially creative in that they draw their lives from the infinitely reflective pattern of metaphors that language is. Between us lies a creative transitional space which is where we play and live.
See that green up there on the mountain?
All that green.
There's another green field there.
All those green fields that's behind them,
that's the top of my land.
And it's a funny thing,
you can go where the hell you like
and you'll see them fields.
(Cyril Jones of Ty Mawr Farm
Greenhill Nursing Home
Everybody who works with us is already a poet or becomes one, often in collaboration. My and Fiona's job as facilitators is diverse, but essentially it's about meeting with others to assist this everyday poetry to take its place and to find its shapes.
I'm using keywords here - words that open doors and can themselves be unlocked for etymology and metaphor: Web, Imagine, Contra-diction, Knotwork, Psyche, Insight, Soul (ultimately I believe that all authentic artwork is actually one way of making soul). Also "life-story": telling tales is an original human act by which a community knows itself and holds itself together, how a culture tells itself of other cultures, how a tribe communicates with others, not just in the facts of history but in the manner of its telling: the imagery used, the rhythms of language, its "figures of speech". Someone told me recently that a life-story is what opens time and space between life and death.
Poetry's a tricky business (hopefully!). I started out myself with a fascination with derangement, stimulated by Beckett, Absurdism, Joyce and Dylan Thomas: intoxications, coming at language afresh, invigorating it by jumbling up the syntax, committing creative violence on words to free their powers. This is and was a subversive project; from there grew an arguably over-romantic interest with the deconstructions of schizophrenia and dementia.
Fiona and I think of ourselves primarily as poets in our work, but also scribes. We ask ourselves continually where we stand in relation to those we work with: taking it down, assembling what they've written, what they say. It's impossible really just to "scribe" - even a flicker of punctuation can, as every writer knows, make all the difference. We think of ourselves as poets who often work with others, making together. Important ethical patrol the boundaries of exploitation and mutuality; the keywords here are dialogue, collaboration, acknowledgement, intention and respect.
It can be a very uneasy business, and not just on the aesthetic front: making poetry, making soul together, is an intimate one. When working with those who are ill we come up against our own disease; with the incarcerated our most secret selves; with the mentally distressed our emotional fragility, and with the dying, our ultimate uncertainties.
The very word "poetry" is oxymoronic: an elite activity practised by hundreds of thousands, R.S Thomas and Ice Cube. For many it's still what rhymes, in the face of the Bible, Homer and eighty years of modernism. One of the skills we try to apply in our work as facilitators is listening out for poetry in its countless forms and bearing witness to it. One of modernisms central tenet was "make it new", implying an openness and alertness to the minute-by-minute potential of words. But yes, it's also work. Fiona and I talk about Seamus Heaney's famous poem "Digging", where he compares his act as a writer with his father cutting peat and, by extension, with the life-of-the-soil traditions of Irish peasantry. But physical grind for a desperate living is really not the same as writing a poem. In writing about my father's death, one thing I chose to pay tribute to was a somehow inherited determination for precision.
"Tell me, what was it like when you lifted the plane? It was heavy oblong lump of ash and steel. You'd lift it up by the shiny dark red well- palmed handle, your eyes steady above the vice, then swing it down. The oiled and certain blade would whisper the pine off in fragrant curls. I never had your hand for this kind of thing Dad, I pushed it away. You wanted, you expected I suppose, me to take you up on it. Well, I try to do the same with words instead, to make a table or chair that will take the weight.'
(from "For My Father")
A table must stand up, the joints must fit and the web of words should hang together.
- Graham Harthill
©2000 (version 2001)
Why do we workshop? In other words, what do we think we're doing when we run a project, like this one in Ledbury, which collects and works with what people in the community, people who don't see themselves as writers - Simon Armitage in his reading last weekend suggested the term "civilians" - have to say?
I think one answer is to be found moving against the grain of Armitage's joking suggestion itself. It seems to me that there is no absolute division between writers and non-writers.
Of course, there are people who call themselves, and whom we call, "writers". And what we usually mean by that is people whose job is to write: who develop technical skills which help make their writing public and useful in some way: out there for people to read, enjoy, even critique. There's also a lot of writing, both paid and unpaid, which is almost unbearable to read. The kind that numbs you and knocks you out; the kind that has you counting the pages to go with a haunted expression; the kind that seems to have been written with no idea that someone else - the reader - will have to get intimate with it, have to work up some desire for it and want to know more.
Both of these kinds of things get brought up by sceptics about writing workshops. And both seem to me to be, let's say, pink herrings. They're not completely irrelevant; but they aren't particularly relevant either. Much closer to the question "Why workshop" than "Who is a writer?" is the question "Why write?". The impulse to write, or to speak - I don't myself think there's such a distinction between them - seems to me to be the common ground between someone who's in the Cottage Hospital waiting for their hip to heal and the facilitating writer with whom they enjoy spending the afternoon. And you often hear the saying "I could write a book about it" or, less often, "Everybody has a book in them". What, then, is the impulse to write and speak? For a radio commission recently I wrote,
In the spaces of writing we can be forgiven for who we are. Anonymous, private, we play as many roles as we like. We can change what we like. We can memorialise what we like.
The spaces each word throws open are a laboratory where we are all plastic surgeons engaged in endless self-invention. They are a green room where we can practice playing ourselves. Are a theatre, a podium, a soapbox where we can forget what we cu-e, "throwing" our voices beyond our selves. The spaces each word releases are unspent possibility. They are like the smell of heat haze at 5am. They feel like new clothes. They sound like promises. (1)
It seems to me that language is a world we enter and move around in with great pleasure because it is so full of possibility. Everything, from a joke to a confession, is changed by how we tell it. In language we are all Dante entering the dark forest, sensing the ghosts of poets moving among the trees. That's why, when a writer goes into a day room with a notebook in her hand, the reminiscences she gets to record turn out to be so evocative, so poetic:
It's only me there.
The kids has left.
They might come back
to work on the farm
when I've gone to the Lord:
I won't want it!
Cattle and sheep.
You just go at it.
You keeps walking about
and picking things up,
you don't bother.
You don't bother about
as long as you keeps
I've been a farmer
all my life,
Tom is a member of the Phoenix Group which supports people living with dementia. (2)
On a darker note it's also, perhaps, why people who are experiencing difficult feelings or situations so often write and read poetry. Here at least there is space for longing and hope and possibility. A space where it is possible to return to childhood, to Houseman's blue remembered hills. Indeed the primary formal requirement of all poetics, inside or outside the workshop, seems to me to be that they open up this kind of space.
. . .
Writing - poetry - workshopping opens up spaces for voices that can get drowned out by the loud sound of experts - families, clinicians, even politicians - and doesn't open up just another space for the writer to do their thing. That's why a project like this, which does allow us to integrate our own writing practice with that of project participants, is so valuable and so refreshing. The customary lack of space to think through our own ways of working, though, is nothing personal: in fact it's perfectly impersonal. Being there as a facilitator doesn't mean being there as someone with their own preferences, agendas, history. Though of course you have them. Mine, for example, include a kind of fury at the things illnesses and disabilities do to us, and at the discontinuous things societies do to people while they're having those illnesses or disabilities:
When they brought me to see him the first time it must have been summer but I don't remember that. The day outside the windows was a faraway and hung up flag (probably faded) and the windows were big white frames. He was in the second of a row of chairs I think. They were sort of a peachy plastic. He was in the second from left as you came in. We came in. He was crossing his legs. His jaw chewed (but not his mouth), it was a slow stretching. At times I used to think (after the guard had gone, after we were alone together in the locked day room) that his whole skeleton (he was very thin) could stretch like this, it was as if he stretched towards you as if he was all tentacles and his eyes stretched back wide in his head. He was like a space man. You couldn't be sure whether he understood this. He said I am an alien. He was untenable. The sun came and filled the windows and he was the alien, the fisheyed god. You could see light through his fingers. There was a panic button by the door. He was twenty-two. He was the world. The illness chewed and translated him. He had trainers and jeans. He smelt of gum and lilies. There were things he knew. When he got clever the illness waited for him. His chair was always the same one. His head turned into a cube, he was a receptor. The illness looked blandly out of his eyes at me. His voice was stac-stac-static. Sometimes the guard forgot our tea.
Instead of being an expert, in workshop, then, I try to be neither writer nor reader but the quiet sheet of paper itself: a white space of opportunity in which the words can be placed, perhaps cautiously at first but then with rising fluency. A space in which anything can still happen.
© Fiona Sampson
1. Sprung Release with Pauline Stainer: Southern Arts 2000
2. Attributed quotes are by participants in the Life Lines Festival project who have given permission for their work to be reproduced in this way.