Bloody poets, sometimes they say exactly the things you need to hear. Take this line from Rumi – “If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished?”

Life’s a bit ‘exciting’ at the moment, with colds, infections, bad tempers … and that’s just me. Let’s not talk about A&E visits, house moves I can’t be there to help with, work weeks away and then there are the excitements ahead of being a granny etc etc etc. So when I woke up AGAIN feeling both busy and poorly, I was tempted to put off doing something poetic this morning, even if it was for the loveliest of things – the launch of  the Samsara Retreat and Yoga centre in Kent.

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That’s when that Rumi quote above flew out of a book I’d picked up and hit me. But not only was there the chance to be polished, there needed also to be time spent thinking what I want to do. So I took a cup of tea into a quiet spot and thought – what DID I want to do.

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So I got into my car and drove to Samsara, and set up a poetry tree so people could enjoy the poems I’d already selected for them, even if I couldn’t stay. And on my way there, the sun started shining, I found lanes I hadn’t driven down before, saw lambs, and apple trees in blossom, and when I got to the beautiful beautiful retreat centre Lorraine and Dipu have created so generously, I felt so lucky to be even a small part involved.

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Bloody poets. Bloody lessons. But look how gorgeous these poems look on the tree. New leaves, every one of them.

And yes, Rumi was one of them. And yes, this was the poem…

The Guest House
(Translated by Coleman Barks)

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

The Chiddingstone Literary Festival has been called ‘one of the best literary festivals in Britain’, according to the Tatler magazine, and it’s certainly one of the most beautiful settings for it. SO, lucky me, I got to give two workshops in the historic library there over the weekend.

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It wasn’t hard to find inspiration, especially when you enter through this door, and then come across this Egyptian mummy on the way up the stairs.

And then there’s the library itself which looks like a collection belonging to someone extremely privileged. In fact, as I pointed out, some of the books there were probably bound by the previous owner of the castle, Denys Eyre Bower himself, and he had learnt bookbinding when he was in prison. But that’s a whole different story. Look again, look harder, look in a different way! That was the message of the workshop.

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We looked at quick-fire ways of getting inspiration in the morning with a series of short exercises that led into one another. Here’s one – taking the work of Joe Brainard who wrote the now iconic book,  I Remember:

I remember ‘no ankles’ on some old ladies.

I remember trying to imagine my grandfather naked. (Eck!)

I remember having a crush on a cousin and mother telling me that you can’t marry a cousin and, ‘But why can’t you marry a cousin?’ and, ‘Because it’s against the law,’ and ‘But why is it against the law?’ etc.

I remember white marshmallow powder on lips.

I remember a very big boy named Teddy and what hairy legs his mother had. (Long black ones squashed flat under nylons.)

I remember Dagwood and Blondie shorts before the feature started.

I remember not allowing myself to start on the candy until the feature started.

I remember big battle scenes and not understanding how they could be done without a lot of people getting hurt.

I remember crossing your fingers behind your back when you tell a lie.

I remember thinking that comic books that weren’t funny shouldn’t be called ‘comic books’.

We wrote our own ‘I remembers’ around books, and libraries, and castles… and then just as quickly wrote a second list. This time, starting again with I remember, we wrote lies. As wild as you liked. It was interesting to see how the mind had to work harder with the fictional memories, but we agreed that both lists took us to surprising places.

This was one of several themed poems we read, And Yet the Books by Czeslaw Milosz:

And Yet the Books
Czeslaw Milosz

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will still be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

For our last exercise, YES WE WORKED HARD!, we looked at haiku – as in the capturing of a moment. This was part of thinking about how we noticed things – not just the sight of something, but also the questions we might have, the other senses we feel, the insights that come to us. I suggested that they might leave their poems and lines around the castle and during the rest of the day, I kept coming across them like mini treasures. They had indeed become part of the Chiddingstone collection. Here are some that I found, and I know there are others I hope to stumble across next time I’m there:

In the afternoon, I ran another workshop in Getting Published – focusing particularly on short stories, essays and poetry. It’s one of my favourite workshops to give because it’s always an eye-opener in how much there is out there. If anyone would like a copy of my handouts for this, including where to find magazines, examples of how to write your biography, etc etc, do email me on sarah@sarahsalway.co.uk, and I’d be happy to share.

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It was the end of a perfect weekend really. I’d been at the castle on the Saturday too, with Michael and John from the Poetry Exchange, recording people talking about the poems that had been a friend for them for the podcast. None of the festival’s recordings are up just yet, but you can listen to many others prepared earlier here. The Poetry Exchange is always a magical, surprising experience for everyone involved. This time round, we had Wilfred Owen, David Whyte, Mary Oliver, H W Longfellow, C P Cavafy, and Kathleen Raine all come and take tea with us in the castle Housekeeper’s Room. I’m pleased to report they got on very well indeed.

 

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‘If  one day, you have no companion…’ That sounds such a sad phrase, but was probably one of the reasons why I loved this book, Something To Do, so much, I think. It never presumed you were going to be surrounded by friends. Most of the activities are quiet and creative. I wonder if this is why when I posted this morning on Facebook about it, so much of the love has come from fellow artists and writers? Personally I’m sure it helped to build my curiosity and ‘can-do’ muscles.

It’s based round the months of the year (think Lia Leendertz’s Almanac but with more games) and  has a special place on my desk bookshelf. I’ve been reading it again recently for a larger – secret – project I’m involved with. And you know what? It’s still brilliant. I’m not surprised that on my Facebook people have been been citing pages and activities they particularly liked and remembered. So here, for Frances and Hilary, is the fudge recipe (obviously I’d cooked it a bit messily several times) and ‘something to do with cotton reels’…

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What a lovely thought that you might just have a wooden kitten needle and two spare cotton reels just hanging around!

It’s part of what makes this a highly comforting book: even though the authors, Septimus, are anonymous, they give the impression that they all hang out in each other’s kitchens (probably drinking gin and bitching about the kids, but who cares?), and the illustrations are by Shirley Hughes – how young must she have been then?

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But it’s also full of facts about nature – I actually remember going out with this drawing and identifying buds…

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… and it’s got poems in it – not as a chore to learn but offered as a possible pleasure!

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In fact, I might just try to grow myself a pineapple plant this weekend…

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Who else had it? And what do you remember doing from it?