When I was talking with someone recently about feeling ‘over-whelmed’, I had the sudden urge to look up what ‘whelmed’ means.

Definition of whelm
transitive verb

1: to turn (something, such as a dish or vessel) upside down usually to cover something : cover or engulf completely with usually disastrous effect
2: to overcome in thought or feeling : OVERWHELM
whelmed with a rush of joy
— G. A. Wagner
intransitive verb

: to pass or go over something so as to bury or submerge it

Hmm… somehow I thought it might be more positive – like we all hope one day to ravel ourselves together, or to become hibited, or to have our spirits pressed. But no matter, it danced its way into one of the many lockdown poems I’ve been writing recently about what’s going on right now. I’m going to share my practice on here more – there, if I say I’m going to, I’ll have to do it. Enjoy!

Top hat and tails
Sarah Salway

When we ask each other what we miss most
the answers spin off like arabesques:
crowded pubs, hugs, a train to nowhere
essential, evenings in sold-out theatres
forgetting real life, planning holidays.

Then there are the second drink answers:
enough years to play with grudges, politicians
who aren’t out to kill us, a tomorrow
where we might finally make that difference,
but maybe the more interesting question

is what we will take with us into new normal:
having time to pick up a dictionary and look up
whelm – to be swept beneath by a wave. Over
under, we’re cheek to cheek now, swimming
into the future, backwards and in high heels.

Well, what strange times we are in. And although I’m one for seeing the silver lining wherever I can, I’m struggling at the moment. Small kindnesses, for sure. I do like your hat…

photo-1533055640609-24b498dfd74c

So it’s good to see some of the creative responses that are happening. Kathy Fish and Nancy Stohlman, for example, are offering free creative writing prompts here, and writer Carolyn Jess-Cooke is planning an online literary festival via twitter.

My friend, Sally Beazley-Long and I have paired up to play a little game using her art history expertise and my literary passion. I’ve been giving her poems and stories to match with paintings, and vice versa. We thought it would just be fun, but the results have been wonderful. A whole new layer to both the painting and the poem. Here are some:

For Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still…

cindy

I matched Dorothy Parker’s short story, A Telephone Call.

And for William Stafford’s A Ritual to Read to Each Other, Sally gave me Marc Chagall’s Le Champ de Mars, 1955…

chagal

We paired Ellen Bass’s Eating the Bones with Jan Steen’s The Fat Kitchen. OF COURSE WE DID!

Steen, Jan, 1625/1626-1679; The Fat Kitchen

There are more that we’ll share over the next few weeks, but it’s such a lovely way of looking a bit closer than we might otherwise at both the poems and stories AND the paintings.

These are seeds that can only grow. And tomorrow I’m going to be planting real seeds out in the garden. Even in the rain, actually especially if it rains!

igYwebGnTzGRrRBvrk3ctg

 

 

I have been reading all the wonderful letters in the Dear Poet initiative on Poets.org – I find every one touching, both the questions from the school children and the care taken by the poets in responding.

writing letter

The correspondence from Alice Ostriker to her poem, Move, though was really moving. I wish I’d had a poet to write to when I was growing up – particularly one who would offer this lovely image: “I was not at all like the salmon or turtle that has no doubts–I only wished I were.”

Do read the poem before you read the letters, as many of the images are reflections of ‘Move’. And also because, although this project is for children, I think we all want to be:

Thirsty for a destiny like theirs,
An absolute right choice

And it’s got me thinking. Which poet would you write to, and about which poem?

 

 

 

This time last year I was still on a high from giving a TEDx talk – possibly one of the scariest but best things I’ve done in my writing career. You can watch it – In Praise of Everyday Words –  here.

c39abe40-bf2d-49c2-bec4-76f537ad0d7d

In fact I was so inspired by the AMAZING team putting the whole event together, that I volunteered to help put on this year’s event. And I can’t tell you the number of people who’ve told me that they’d wished they’d known about the day, so this is a little bit of a public service announcement – the TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells event is on this Saturday, 1st February at the Assembly Halls in Tunbridge Wells.

YOU’VE NO EXCUSE NOW and you are not too late. The organisers have just released an extra tranche of tickets because of demand.  Do come and say hello if you’re there. I’ll be one of the people in TED t-shirts showing people where the loo is.

You can see the speaker line-up here (hence the subject heading). I’ve been in on some of the conversations and I can tell you that they are going to be amazing!

ted

But back to me.

My talk last year featured the Oxford Word of the Year, and as the one for 2018 was TOXIC, I hoped that 2019 might be more positive. Well, folks, it’s CLIMATE EMERGENCY. Hmmm. One of the things we did last year was invite the audience to think of their own words – but sadly hug, hope and authentic didn’t make the grade.

jgr+qqbqthsscjl2a2x78q

Anyway I’ve updated the poem I wrote for my talk to include Climate Emergency – the other words of the year are in bold or underlined with their year beside them.

I like the idea of doing this every year from now on, with a poem that gets longer and longer….

 

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,
while we could still pretend
Climate Emergency was just for cranks, (2019)

and 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 …

face-with-tears-of-joy_1f602 (2015)

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.

IMG_7805 2

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.

0pHIoYKBRAaKXI5y50oUvA

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.

IMG_7793

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.

f55e5305-3dce-46e7-8aed-f8803e55138b.jpg

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 …

face-with-tears-of-joy_1f602 (2015)

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.

0vtdl6a1tbaufunil1voaq

wv0nwnlnsjc+njk+at+naw

 

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.