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What I’m Up to Wednesday: Creatively Retreating

There’s something about the summer time that makes me want to study.  Apparently the sunshine makes most people want to lie by the sea and do nothing, but I have a sort of Pavlov’s dog reaction after so many years of summer meaning revision and exam time.

It’s always good to set aside a little time for what in teaching used to be called ‘continuing professional development’, so I’ve been along to a few workshops recently.  The first was a poetry workshop led by Gregory Warren Wilson.  I couldn’t believe it when I saw the poster: I had to run to my bookshelf to make sure that I’d recognised the name, because this was a poet who read my poems nearly twenty years ago when they were mostly teenage drivel, annotated them, and met up with me and my cello teacher in a little cafe in Sevenoaks to go through them one by one.  IMG_1597

His workshop, on poetry and music, was wonderful.  In time-limited tasks, we played with rhythm and its effect of language.  My favourite exercise was to ‘translate’ a poem from a language nobody in the group knew, going only by the rhythm, line breaks and sound of the words to discern meaning.

Of course, I had to catch him afterwards to thank him profusely for taking me seriously in 1999.  He didn’t remember doing it, but was glad he had, because, he said, “Someone did the same for me before my voice had formed, when my poetry didn’t deserve to be seen.”  It struck a chord, reminding me of that part of the communion service, ‘When we were still far off, you met us in your son…’ A sort of poet-to-poet version of grace.

Next, I returned to Otley Hall, where I try not to miss anything Malcolm Guite ever does, and listened to him talk about Tennyson.  The retreat day took place, as he pointed out, in the garden of a ‘moated grange’ and surrounded by the mournful cries of peacocks.  It’s a wonderful place if you ever get the chance to go.  I learned that I didn’t know nearly enough Tennyson.

Finally, this weekend, I shall be at Scargill House on my favourite retreat of all, the ACW* writers’ weekend.  I’ll have to write about that one once it’s actually happened.  I wonder whether I will have got my summer learning urge out of my system by then?

Poetry Mondays: Partying Angels

Since I was performing this one again on Saturday as part of my Celebration Stories programme (newly rewritten for 2017!) I thought I’d pop it up here.

It has appeared in various forms at various occasions, including as a rhyming skit shared with a puppet, but I prefer performing it exactly as I first wrote it; and while it does make little references to the stories that have gone before, it works by itself too.  Whatever else has happened first, I always introduce it by reading Luke 15 verses 7 and 10: ‘Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance…there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

When the angels have a party, there’s excitement in the air
as they gather in a great big heavenly hall;
and I bet they decorate it with balloons on every chair,
and feathered bunting strung along the wall.
There must be swinging music from a cherubic big band,
while seraphim sing anthems in the heights,
and angels jitterbug and jive, all hand in hand,
with the sun and moon as giant disco lights.
I’m sure that there are platters made of silver, full of treats,
with a pristine tablecloth spread underneath:
crisps and tiny sandwiches and cherry buns and sweets
(and in heaven, sugar doesn’t rot your teeth).
And of course there is a cake – it’s not a party without cake –
and on the cake, in icing, is a name:
it’s the name of an extremely special person, for whose sake
the party started and the angels came.
So who is it, this famous one who’s making Gabriel play,
for whom archangels threw this jamboree?
When I accepted God my father and his love, that day –
the party held in heaven was for me.

Poetry Mondays: Patchwork

Today’s poem is a meditation on a patchwork quilt, written years ago when I started a ‘poetry blog’.  I’m not even going to link to that blog, which flailed about for a bit and then stopped, but I’m still proud of some of the poems there, and will be moving them in here bit by bit. I’ve tweaked this one a little because the scansion wasn’t quite right.  Some of it is still not quite right, but I think that expresses the rustic charm of a patchwork quilt made from scraps.

Patchwork

Patchwork’s the craft of rescuing dreams,
a fabric of memories fastened in seams,
where old is not worthless and scraps are not poor,
where awkward shapes fit and where less can be more.
A conglomeration, collection, selection
of numerous oddities viewed with affection.
The disparate cloths to the right and the left
now match in bright harmonies found in the weft
and whether the eye traces high up or down
a hanky may sit indistinct from a gown.
Each chosen and precious, the pieces all share
a holy identity through being there
The kingdom of heaven’s all over the place:
wrapped in a quilt lies an image of Grace.

Throwback Thursday: Letter to a Young Author

As I mentioned at the start of this blog, I’m moving in here gradually, which will sometimes mean going over to an old blog and picking up some stuff that might come in useful and finding a new place for it here.  Having an occasional ‘Throwback Thursday’ seems like the ideal way to do that.

Here, therefore, is a letter which originally appeared on my family blog, The Rev’s Family, because I had nowhere else to put it at the time.  Now that we’re in the school summer term again, it’s a good moment to revive this one.

Dear Young Author,

I read about you on Michael Rosen’s Facebook page, where I found a link to this article.  I read that you were worried, because you thought the kinds of questions that baffled you in the SATs tests might mean you had to give up on your dream of being an author.  I was pleased to see that lots of authors have already responded on that page.

Perhaps I’m too late, but here’s my message to add to the others.

I’m an author. I always knew I would be one, because I spent my childhood telling stories to my friends, my sister, my parents, my teddies and anyone else who would listen.

My English teacher at school used to put ticks next to the bits he liked best in my stories.  If there was one tick, it was something quite good.  If there were two ticks, he was seriously impressed.  Any more ticks than that, and he had probably done a victory lap of the room and opened a bottle of champagne before sitting down to continue marking.  Once, I wrote quite a long story about a girl who had to run up a mountain and warn some people hiding in a cave that there were soldiers coming to get them.  When he marked the story, my English teacher put THREE ticks next to the sentence ‘Rocks, lots of rocks before the cave!’

Now, I know what you’re going to say, or at least I know what the person who set the SATs tests would probably say.  That isn’t a sentence – it hasn’t got a verb in it.  Also, it has an exclamation mark where there should have been a full stop.  It uses the word ‘rocks’ twice when it could have used an interesting synonym, and it has no ‘wow’ words in it at all.

The reason it got three ticks, my teacher said, was that taking the verb out and repeating the word ‘rocks’ gave the sentence a breathless, hurried, stumbling feeling, which helped him to imagine how the girl looked and felt as she raced up the mountain and was faced with climbing over loads of rocks when she was in such a hurry.

My English teacher knew what he was talking about.  Every now and then I still check over my writing for a ‘three ticks’ moment.

There isn’t actually an exam type of test that can test good writing.  The only way to test good writing is to see whether people enjoy reading it.  If you can write a story which makes people want to carry on reading it, which makes them worried about the character in it, or which makes them feel breathless or excited or happy or sad, or which makes them laugh until they cry, then the story has passed the test.

It’s never about YOU passing the test, by the way.  If the story doesn’t pass the test, it doesn’t make YOU a bad writer.  It just means that the story needs polishing, or that you could try writing a different story until you find one that works.  I have notebooks full of stories that didn’t quite pass the test, and I think every good writer probably does.  Each one helped me to become a better writer, not a worse one, because that’s what good testing should do – unlike the SATs.

I look forward to reading one of your books one day.

What I’m up to Wednesday: Dragons and Hats

Now that I’ve got the hang of Poetry Mondays, I’m hoping to use the occasional Wednesday to share what I’ve been up to, whether writing, storytelling or wearing one of my various other hats.

Speaking of hats, I wore several at an Easter Parade in Caldecote on Palm Sunday, telling journey stories as we made our way from the park to the social club.  Since there was a hat competition at the end of the event, I made sure to wear a different hat to suit each story – and the final tale of the Road to Emmaus used two hats to swap between the characters of Mr and Mrs Cleopas.  Even Zach had a hat!

Wonder the Baby Dragon had an outing for St George’s day, telling dragon and monster stories at Hardwick Primary school.  They all enjoyed joining in with the story of Louisa Freya the Dragon Slayer, and hearing about how one of their classmates had cunningly escaped from a dragon island by solving a riddle, but I suspect the highlight was the one where I make this face:

IMG_6218

It’s a story for which I’m very grateful to Steve Stickley of the Footprints Theatre Company: I learned it mainly because after hearing his telling of it, my own children pestered me for daily retellings for months.  Unlike Steve, though, I never tell the ending: the children make it up as part of the workshop.

It’s become a bit of a fascinating experiment.  You see, the story begins like a sort of reverse Cinderella: three sisters and a mean Mama who aren’t at all nice towards the only son in the family.  When a child-eating monster captures the sisters, and I hand the story over to the children, it’s not at all clear to them who is the ‘baddy’ – I mean, what’s worse?  A monster or an unpleasant sibling?  Although some choose to rescue the girls, or have them escape, several groups have found a perfectly satisfying ending in letting the nasty sisters get gobbled up.

You can tell which children have a grounding in traditional tales: it’s the ones who spot that there are two problems in the story, the monster and the family, and try to solve both in their ending.  They also tend to use information from the first part of the story in the way they solve the problems.  Interestingly, bits from whichever other stories I’ve told find their way in there, too.

It’s also a great illustration of the freedom of imagination that storytelling produces.  Without images, each child pictures the monster differently, and this shows in their solutions: for some, it’s a small enough monster to trap inside a pot, while for others, it’s such a big monster that the boy can prop open its mouth, climb inside and pull his sisters up through the throat.

I now know over a hundred great ways for the story to finish, including the 40 or so I picked up last week – and isn’t that what sharing stories is all about?

Poetry Mondays: Christus Victor

I’ve been out in the garden today, looking at the signs of spring – snowdrops and bright yellow flowers (I’m not a botanist) are appearing like a hidden hoard of gold turned up by the plough, reminding me of this spring/Easter poem I wrote a couple of years ago.

 

 

I’m very fond of medieval imagery, and I have to confess that this isn’t the first time I’ve used the word ‘oriflamme‘ in a poem – I’m not sure what that says about me!  The whole sonnet, though, is based around the medieval theory of atonement called Christus Victor, which I first met (and loved) reading Piers Plowman.  The central idea is that Christ is sent as a sort of ‘bait’ or ransom, so that the devil is tricked into killing him, not realising that he is God and will rise again, breaking the gates of hell.  There’s a flavour of this in Narnia when the White Witch triumphantly kills Aslan, but forgets the ‘deep magic’ that his sacrifice will awake – and of course, in Narnia too, the spring returns.

Christus Victor

The dragon Winter made a treasure trove
and all the jewels of Earth were in his keep.
He shut it tight, and fast the bolts he drove,
and, sealed with ice, stored it in caverns deep.
But all unseen, a thief came in the cold
and stole inside, before he shut the lid.
Life stole inside among the hoarded gold
Curled up beneath the covert gems, and hid.
Then, while the ransacked earth, by theft undone,
covered her shame and sorrow under snow,
Life smashed the roof.  Now look!  Catching the sun,
gold cowslip, daffodil and primrose grow.
That knight who stole the stolen, stands most brave:
Life’s oriflamme flies from that plundered cave.
April 23rd 2015

Poetry Mondays: John 1

Last week I wrote this blog post for the Association of Christian Writers’ blog, More Than Writers.  It finishes with a poem called Katalambano (click above and have a look at the blog post to find out more about what that means!)

The poem is one of a pair, but I wrote them years apart.  The first one is called Source, and was written at Spring Harvest 2013 as a creative meditation on the first few verses of John 1, that Bible passage often heard at Christmas and also known as the Prologue.  When I wrote Katalambano in October 2015, I wasn’t setting out to write a companion piece, but it was immediately obvious that the finished poem belonged with Source: in the same rhythm, based on the same passage, and both written from a simple list of words in my journal.

Here they are together.

Source

He is the Source, the Beginning, the Maker,
The Origin, Big Bang, Primeval Earthquaker,
The Author, Composer, the Dreamer, the Dream,
Foundation, the Cornerstone, Load-Bearing Beam,
Creator, Inspiring, he sang the first song,
Alpha, Word, Logos, the There-All-Along
The initial brush stroke on the page waiting white,
The Crux and the Reason Why, Let There Be Light
Firstborn from the dead, he’s the one up before us
The Number One, Rising Sun, leads the dawn chorus
The breath before speaking, the thought before breath,
The spark before thinking, the Life without death.

Katalambano

When light shines in darkness, the darkness is gone.
In darkness, light cannot be swallowed or won,
Contained or attained, or explained, grasped or gained,
Seized or perceived, acquired or obtained.
The dark doesn’t get it.
The dark hasn’t found it.
The dark cannot wrap understanding around it,
For darkness cannot comprehend light, or know it,
Cannot overwhelm, overcome, overthrow it;
The dark has not conquered or crushed or controlled it
The dark doesn’t get it.
The dark cannot hold it.
In Jesus was life, and the life was the light, because
He held life – lightly –
So that we’d hold it tight.

 

Poetry Mondays: Rebekah

Since yesterday was Advent Sunday, today I’d like to share a sonnet I wrote during Advent last year.  Every Advent, we use a Jesse tree to remember the characters and stories that make up the bigger story of God’s saving plan for his world.  Rebekah is one of those people, called out of her home to join the family of God. I was struck by the beautiful moment in Genesis 24:62-65 when Isaac and Rebekah see each other for the first time across a distance, and the parallel between the way they approached each other and the way we, as a church, approach the coming King who is on his way to meet us.

Rebekah

She saw the bridegroom, so she veiled her face.
Between them hovered hope, and the unknown;
Love longing lay between, across the space.
Love was between them, and was not yet shown.

Her love stepped out, stepped into the between.
Her beauty now belonging to his praise
Now that she saw him look, while still unseen
She veiled her beauty, waiting for his gaze.

Her advent brought him, searching, from his place:
His advent made her faithfully prepare.
She journeyed on, but now, she veiled her face.
He searched until he found, and met her there.

Is that my Love, come out to meet His bride?
Give me my veil, and bring me to His side.

 

Poetry Mondays: The Kingdom’s Down Here

 

I wrote this – what is it? A performance poem, doggerel, a rant? – a few weeks after Brexit, and I think that in the light of the American election it may be worth sharing it again.  Some people might find it useful for Advent and Christmas, too, as it explores ideas about the kingdom of God, the incarnation and Mary’s song.

It really works better read out loud, because as with most of my ‘performance’ poetry, the scansion isn’t obvious.  I initially posted it on Facebook as a video, but that makes it harder for others to make use of it, so this is the full text.  If you think of it as being loosely in anapaests, you’ll find the scansion easier to pick up!  The style is inspired by the things Glen Scrivener writes, so if you want to see this kind of thing being done really well, have a look at his videos.  I wish I had his filming and editing expertise.

 

The Kingdom’s Down Here

 

I write at the end of a fortnight of news

That has left many hurting, divided and bruised.

I don’t think I’m alone here. The world’s a disaster.

And we Christians pray, ‘Let God’s kingdom come faster!’

But the kingdom’s down here, if you have eyes to see:

Like when God picks an unmarried teen refugee

To be pregnant, alone, with no family supporting,

Gets dumped by her bloke, and instead of aborting,

She sings! She rejoices! She calls herself blessed,

Says God scatters the proud, raises up the oppressed,

Knocks the powerful down, fills the hungry with food,

Sends the rich home with nothing. She says God is good

And remembers his mercy. And all of her hoping

Is how she is living, not just how she’s coping.

She’s seeing the world in this radical light;

In the Light of the World. It’s because, not despite

The way that things are, that the kingdom shines through.

In the light of the world we can glimpse what is true.

So where is this hope? When the mighty are strong,

When the hungry are starved, have we cause for a song?

Yes! The song of the kingdom’s the song of the blessed.

It goes: blessed are the losers. Blessed the distressed.

Blessed are the poor, the downtrodden, the slow,

The refugees running with nowhere to go,

They’re all blessed. The grieving are blessed, and the weak,

The bullied, the broken, the unspoken meek,

Blessed are the victims. Blessed the oppressed,

Blessed are the stressed, blessed the depressed.

And blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed beyond measure

The pure-hearted ones who discover this treasure,

This parallel kingdom, invisible, true,

And bring it to blessing. And they could be you.

The kingdom’s down here, if you have eyes to see,

With the hungry and poor, and in you, and in me.

For the kingdom is doing its mustard seed thing

Where a gaggle of losers who loved a dead king

Start to meet; washing feet; sacrificing their lives

Every day, like their king, always dying to rise.

Because here in this kingdom, it’s all upside down.

The humblest are highest, the poor get the crown

And the winners who sprinted to be in first place

Are arriving to find that they lost the whole race

To the stragglers and limpers who loped at the back

And the ones who served drinks at the side of the track.

So don’t worry. The kingdom is here. It’s not gone.

It’s existing in us. Love has already won.

Poetry Mondays: All Saints

Today being All Hallows Eve, tomorrow must be all hallows, or all saints’ day.  The church will be celebrating the lives of the saints: Christians who have lived and died before us.

Here’s a performance poem that I wrote quite a while ago for a primary school assembly on all saints’ day.  It was performed with props and bits of costume which had to be put on, picked up and thrown down again at high speed, adding to the silliness – but, hopefully, it makes a memorable point by the end.

St Peter was a fisherman, he fished the whole day long,
When Jesus asked him questions, Peter got the answers wrong,
When they said he followed Jesus, Peter swore it wasn’t true!
If St Peter is a saint, then we can be saints too!

St Paul was an unpleasant man with just one thing in mind:
To hunt down and to murder all the Christians he could find.
Yet he’s the one that Jesus chose to send his message through,
If St Paul can be a saint, then we can be saints too!

Saint Matthew was a taxman who stole far more than his share
Everybody hated him and said he was unfair
But Jesus said “Hey, follow me”: Matt stuck to him like glue
If St Matthew is a saint, then we can be saints too!

St Martha was a fusspot, and when Jesus came to stay
She wouldn’t sit and listen to a thing he had to say,
She squabbled with her sister as she tried to cook the stew –
If St Martha is a saint, then we can be saints too!

None of us is perfect, we don’t always get things right.
We lie and steal and misbehave, we argue and we fight.
But Jesus says, “Just come with me, and I can make you new,
I did it for these saints you’ve seen – I’ll do it for you too!”