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.

 

I’ve been honoured to be asked by so many people for a copy of the poem I read out at the Tunbridge Wells TEDx day, so I’m happy to share it here. It was made of the Oxford English Dictionary‘s words of the year from the last nine months – Vape, post-truth, selfie, squeezed middles, omnishambles, toxic, youthquake, Big Society and … well, look at the end of the poem for the ‘word’ for 2015… a little challenge for a writer.

I hope you enjoy it. And if you fancy doing a TEDx talk yourself, I’ve given some tips here. It’s not compulsory to write a poem.

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Icarus vapes over a dictionary (2014)
by Sarah Salway

The weather was post-truth that summer, (2016)
we lounged in our gardens,
took selfies in lycra. (2013)

Those sunny Sundays,
even us squeezed middles (2011)
could imagine ourselves gods –

with music breaking through walls
and us dancing,

a rest from the omnishambles (2012)
of so many toxic headlines, (2018)

and if sometimes we looked up
in the hope
that it might never end,

perhaps we were waiting
for the promised youthquake (2017)
who would build us a Big Society, (2010)

a term many of us still liked the sound of
but few had ever understood –
if we were completely honest …

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And yes that last one was the Word of the Year in 2015!!

It was also a joy to see alternative words put up by the people who attended the day of talks, including more positive words that we WOULD LIKE to remember 2019 with. Here they are. I’m going to have to make a new poem, I can tell.

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NB, Thank you to Simon Pearsall, the wonderful cartoonist who drew that cartoon at the top during my talk. It was a reference to how I use words in the same way as a builder uses bricks.

shopping

ONLY THREE SHOPPING DAYS LEFT BEFORE CHRISTMAS…. but I had the loveliest free present this morning: a dear friend, John Prebble, recorded himself reading one of the shopping poems from my collection, Transaction, and sent it to me. He read it so beautifully it took me some time to realise it was my own poem! Enjoy the recording just below…

And here’s the poem….

Transaction

If it’s going to be too sudden,
then I’d rather it didn’t happen.
if there’s not going to be any tenderness,
I’ll just leave now before we both regret.
If we’re not going to try to share,
laugh about it, make it something rare,
I won’t do it. It’ll become too hard.
But if, when I hand over my card,
in that moment of flesh brushing flesh,
meeting of eyes, cheeks burning fresh,
if in that moment, I feel the waves
inside subside, no longer a slave
but a master, all bad thoughts funnelled
into this, then it’s worth it. I’m lulled,
everything that’s gone before a sign,
and it’s more than perfect, it’s sublime.
I’m already longing for the next time.

John and I met properly through The Poetry Exchange, so do listen to some of the podcasts there if you are longing for some poetry discussions over Christmas!

So lovely to hear Jilly Cooper on the radio this morning, talking about dogs, OF COURSE! It made me nostalgic for discovering her books for the first time, just getting lost in a book that didn’t make me cry, for once. I wouldn’t hide her books now, that probably said a lot about the pretentious moi of that time, so here’s a poem I wrote about her last year.


A love letter to Jilly Cooper

Angel Gabriel left me cold, all that too pure
for second hand goods stuff, and don’t get me started
on Jude. Keats felt like those boys who’d write my initials
again and again on their desks but never talk to me,
And was Shakespeare real? I was never quite sure,
but Heathcliff came for my heart every stormy night,
I could have been the one to cure him.
I think you understood that, which was why I chose
that book to hide yours in when I first found you.
I wasn’t sure what these books were. Were you
supposed to actually laugh at novels? And could
women get things so hopelessly wrong? And still live?
Admittedly I saw it happen all around me:
my parent’s friends getting drunk, my mother laughing
on the phone about it all, and then there was hair
drama, tennis matches, car prangs, second GandT’s,
children hugged too tightly or left too much alone,
chocolate bars missing, diets started, abandoned,
fistfuls of waist compared, good intentions started.
But that was real life. In novels, women either got it
right or died, on train tracks, or in rivers,
or were left to rot in dusty houses in the country
with husbands curiously maimed. But not your women.
No wonder I hid your books, they were my secret map
to a future, partying in London with dark haired men
who’d reach across to stroke my cheek laughing
when I got things wrong. I liked it. I liked them.
I wasn’t quite ready just yet though,
which made you even more delicious. I cut your photo
out of newspapers, read the gossip pages enough
to know that you were every one of your heroines
and possibly the heroes too, and not only were you
still alive, you were laughing about it all too.
How I loved you, pretending it was your books
I loved, but knowing all along it was you.