Invective Against Swans
Retreat

This week I have been on a writing retreat in Oxford. I told several people before I left that I was going on a retreat, and the general reaction was one of bemusement. Why should that be, I wondered? Perhaps there is something about use of the word retreat that surprised them. In one respect, the definition suits my reasons and goals perfectly: a retreat is ‘a place affording peace, quiet, privacy or security.’ When not directly applied to a location, it is ‘a period of seclusion, retirement or solitude’ (I should mention here that I am not alone; part of the joy of a retreat for me is coming away with my regular workshop group, who are long-standing friends as well as fine poets). It is most commonly associated with religious contemplation. But other definitions bring in a more negative connotation: a retreat is an act of withdrawing, especially from danger, the process of going backward, conceding a position (as in the retreat of a military force). That suggests that a retreat, while being a form of escape, also takes into account the situation one has abandoned, which might be a difficult or unwelcome position. I think of my desk at home in London, and its usual array of paper piles: students’ poems to read, lesson plans, unpaid bills, invites, bank statements. In addition to that, the floor in the London study has now become an acceptable alternative for shelving; some stacks of books are specifically for future projects and teaching, but another is a secondary ‘shelf of shame’ (the poet Julia Bird’s term for a section of the library comprising recently-purchased but still-unread books). I look at my temporary desk in Oxford, and although my habit of creating little piles of paper activity has been continued, the piles are manageable, and they do not contain any documents which pertain to the life of work, bureaucracy or finance. This desk is smaller, a manageable space (almost, dare I say, monastic), a place on which I can concentrate on one thing: writing poems. In a way, the epicentre is my laptop, which is the real container of my life. On its hard drive is my collected works, nearly everything I have written since computers entered my existence. Which makes me extremely portable (most poets are, of course. Wordsworth didn’t have a Vaio, but I assume he carried a pen).

But being away from normal concerns forces one to concentrate on the present moment; London has entered the past (at least for a few days). In Oxford, I have already established a pleasant routine; I go for an early-morning run around Christ Church Meadow, then back for breakfast and a shower, and I am at ‘my’ desk by about 9:30. I have never been particularly disciplined in setting a daily routine for myself in London – there are too many distractions, interruptions, multiple tasks to draw my attention. I make copious ‘to-do’ lists, and I get great satisfaction in crossing things off them. But there are some distractions which for me are necessary. I can’t remember what my life was like before the Internet. You might think that Internet access would be against the principles of a retreat (one thing many people seem to want to retreat from is modern life), especially a poetry retreat. But Google is the great gift to poets – I can find a reference or the right word or term without leaving my desk. There is a danger of creating what some have coined the ‘Wikipoem’, a piece that wears its new-found facts in a blatantly obvious manner. Jenny Lewis, our host this week, is about to go on what I consider to be a serious retreat – a month’s fellowship at Hawthornden, the writers’ centre in Scotland (endowed by Drue Heinz, the American heiress who made her fortune in ketchup). There are strict codes of behaviour that writers are expected to observe (including a no-talking rule during the day) – I have nothing against such restrictions. But when Jenny explained that there is no Internet access, I found myself wondering if I could survive for a month without Google. I doubt it.

Ok, you may laugh. But I’ve written three poems since Wednesday, and I’m working on a draft of a fourth, which for me is an extraordinarily good rate of success. So as long as there is a broadband connection on that desert island, I’m fine.

A week in poetry (and a short tour of independent bookshops)

There have been times (usually when I’m in a bit of a slump) when I have asked myself why I continue to write poetry. Apart from the pleasure it gives me, I realise it will never bring me vast numbers of readers or great wealth. Auden was right: poetry makes nothing happen. It will not change the world (although it should, of course). It is often considered precious, esoteric, obscure. But there are times when poetry rewards me for my patience, my dogged determination. Last week I gave four readings (in Oxford, London, Galway and Dublin respectively) and taught three classes. I have to admit this is not typical – four readings in the space of six days must be a record for me. But I can’t think of a better way to have passed the time.  

In Oxford, six poets spent much of the weekend discussing each other’s poems. We are all working on new books or sequences, and so coming together and critiquing over a concentrated period is invaluable. We were fortunate to have Rhona McAdam with us, on an extended visit from Canada (see her pictures of our weekend on her blog, Iambic Cafe: http://reallygoodwriter.com/ ). The highlight was a group reading at the marvellous Albion Beatnik on Walton Street. The Albion Beatnik is reminiscent of the first bookshops I frequented in New York as a teenager – crammed to the rafters with books, with a fabulous poetry section including lots of work in translation and American imports (I bought a beautiful CB Editions bilingual selection of Francis Ponge). The audience was crammed in too, in every available corner, and the mulled wine was flowing; the large turn-out was due to the efforts of Jenny Lewis, our host for the weekend, and a much-loved tutor in creative writing for Oxford University (http://jennylewis.org.uk). What struck me about our reading was how diverse we were as a group – we have very different formal approaches and distinct concerns – but somehow that conspired to make a truly varied evening.

Back in London, and a very different venue and line-up for the Penned in the Margins Christmas party, hosted by Tom Chivers (http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/). Not a bookshop this time, but the flagship London branch of Aubin & Wills, the clothing store. Five of us read our poems amongst the lumberjack shirts and chunky sweaters (and all the time I was wondering what Auden would have made of it, or Eliot!). A little odd, but then again, why not? Why shouldn’t poetry be brought into places where you would least expect it? Isn’t that the problem, that poetry has been sidelined, marginalised? The thing about poetry is that it is portable, easily transmitted. So when you think of it that way, Aubin & Wills is perfect. The shop itself is all whitewashed wood, full of quirky furniture and posters advertising past readings (they’ve been hosting literary evenings in the store for some time). And fairly lights of course. Tom was a brilliant host, bringing together another diverse bill of poets. I like the energy of Tom’s evenings – he has a policy of putting on new voices along with more established writers, mixing performance poets with more page-based readers. And I won a snow dome in the Christmas quiz for knowing a line from that famous seasonal poem by Louis MacNeice!

And then it was off to Ireland. I arrived in Galway in time to have a stroll around town, and to visit Charlie Byrne’s bookshop, which is more ramshackle that the Albion Beatnik, with lots of rooms on different levels, like a book maze. It has, as you might expect, a great section of contemporary Irish poetry (I bought an anthology of the best Irish poems from 2010, edited by Matthew Sweeney – a series I haven’t seen for sale in England). Galway is one of those places where there is always music somewhere – on the street, or just audible through the open door of a bar. There was a Christmas market in Eyre Square; it felt as if it ought to be snowing, although there was just a light sprinkling of rain. I was reading for Kevin Higgins and Susan Millar duMars in their Over the Edge series (http://overtheedgeliteraryevents.blogspot.com/) . Kevin and Susan are terrific hosts; the last time I read for them it was in a packed little room upstairs at Sheridan’s Wine Bar, but this time we were in the spacious surrounds of the Galway City Library. As before, it was a lovely, enthusiastic audience, followed by a Christmas gathering at McGinns pub. I’m always struck when I’m in Galway by the concentration of poets and poetry-making (the wonderful Salmon Press is based there). It is a warm, welcoming city, even in the depths of December.

And finally, to Dublin. The last time I was in Dublin was about ten years ago, so the first thing I did when I got off the bus was to buy a map and get my bearings. I like Dublin because the city centre is easy to navigate on foot, and I soon found myself on Grafton Street. There was a busker attempting to hawk his collection of poetry; and groups of carollers in Santa hats singing Van Morrison and the Pogues. I made my way to the plush wood-panelled sanctuary of Hodges Figgis, that grand old Dublin institution, where I tried to limit myself to one book (airline weight restrictions are an excellent way to curb impulse poetry purchases): I bought a lovely Gallery Press edition, the Selected Poems of Seán Lysaght, a new poet to me, but recommended by Chris Meehan, one of my fellow Galway readers.

But the highlight of my trip, and possibly of my whole week, was the gathering I attended in the evening, organised by Yvonne Cullen (http://yvonnecullen.wordpress.com/). I was put in touch with Yvonne through Mark Granier, a fellow Salt poet and photographer based in Dublin, who I met when he came to launch his last collection, Fade Street, in London last year (http://markgranier.blogspot.com/). Yvonne hosts gatherings of musicians and poets in her home in Glasthule, and everyone brings food and drink, so it’s more like a party. What a civilised and wonderful way to hear poetry. There was some gorgeous music by Dermot McNevin, and Yvonne, Mark and I read poems. It was one of those evenings that was perfect in every way. And before we all disappeared into the night, Yvonne took me through Sandycove, past terraces of little Victorian villas, to the sea, with the lights of Dublin Bay behind us, to show me the Martello Tower where Joyce and Oliver St John Gogarty lived, and where Ulysses begins, Stephen Dedalus standing on the parapet, staring out at the snot-green sea, the scrotum-tightening sea … the great sweet mother.