Second place in Poetry Teignmouth’s local competition

‘Murmuration’ took second place in the Keats’ Footsteps prize. Judge Jennie Osborne said:

I loved the use of language here, its visual nature, its fresh, shifting images that conjure the idea of crow, rather than telling us about crows. It is an impossible task to speak in the voice of other beings, but I think an important one, if we are to try to fathom their otherness.

The reading and prize-giving was a wonderful event, with beautiful readings. I particularly enjoyed Martyn Crucefix talking about his translations of the Daodejing. It was great to rub shoulders with poets and writers again.

I don’t expect they’ll mind if I reprint the poem here. It was inspired by a flock of crows shape-shifting above the valley.

 

Murmuration

This is no ordinary murder:
thin as rumour; dense in our folds as coal.
A waveform of curling crows,
crow-consciousness, our own idea of crow
smudged above the wounded combe.

Here we come, and fade again, a ghost
pulling itself out of empty air.
A sketch, a fingerprint of crowing,
contorting wing and sinew into scavenger
and funeralist with an actor’s clever-clever.

We’re riders on our own black wind.
We are pure language: ink cannot trace us.
As soon as our shape is there it’s gone.
And pinning us to the page is to see a shape
where, after tricks and turns, there isn’t one.

Poems in Urthona & Live Canon

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I’ve had some poems published recently, including three in Urthona: Buddhism & the Arts. It’s a great magazine if you’re into Buddhism, meditation, and literature. Here’s ‘Waiting for Al-Khidr’ from the magazine. Also in the issue are ‘The Pearl’ and ‘How I Became a Prophet’. It’s the current issue so consider subscribing if you’re interested to read them.

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‘The Cord’ appeared in Live Canon‘s New Poems for Christmas anthology.


 

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‘Labyrinth’ appeared in Live Canon‘s 2015 competition anthology. See their publishing back catalogue here.

 

Impermanence

impermanence

In the co-ordinator’s office of the meditation centre where I’m volunteering, there’s a piece of wood engraved with the following:

A beautiful day. It will not come again.

As a call to appreciation, it seemed more urgent than carpe diem. This came home to me while looking out of the window of a bathroom on the upper floor, having ushered a ladybird from the sill behind the toilet to the ledge outside. I stopped to look at the rain lashing the chimney pots and garden, puddling on the flat sections of roof below. That set of circumstances: the grounds, the rain, me, the people in my life right now, will never line up again in quite the same way.

I took the photo above on another beautiful day, not long ago. The door was on a side street, metres from the shops and harbour of a Cornish fishing town. Afterwards, I had it in mind to start a photography project with impermanence as a theme, but gradually let go of the scheme and decided once again to just get along with life and see what happens. A few Big Ideas have come since, and it’s interesting to see how I grab onto them in response to a need for security, or recognition, for example. Sooner or later the Big Idea passes but hopefully a few, small, good ones will have taken care of themselves.

Brother Wolf – dream poem

Beaten and bruised, my brother led me
over the wastes to the foot of the mountain
standing like a broken white tooth.
The red light of the sun had no power here.
Below us, the troubled village.

He led me to the pass, and I faltered.
“Please brother!” I begged. “Do you not trust me?”
“From here you go alone,” he said.
“Or I too will hunt you. Do not come among us for food again.
Or we will feed you feathers and bolts.” And he beat me.

A wolf cried in the sky’s great vault.
Those who can live outside the village,
must live outside the village.
“Where will you go, brother,” I asked,
“who can neither leave nor stay?”

He looked doubtful and said, “to family.”
“Get off this mountain before sundown, brother,” I spat,
“for I am not helpless or alone.”

He parted without another word.
The moon rose above the white broken peak.
The mountain cried as a guttural wind
shuddered in its crags and gorge.

My brother was gone.
I threw my head back,
let the pain inside be
and I howled.

The Swing

Wood pigeons burble contentment
from the chimney above my childhood garden
as light falls from the sky
burning at an unknown horizon
beyond the oak leaves and fence.
The compost heap buzzes murkily.
The chains of the swing squeak:
each moment lives on this hinge.
My parents will soon call me to bed.
For now, the rush of falling upward.
How blissful not to want even happiness.

Downshifting: balancing your job, life, and your art

I stumbled on this old productivity post which, ironically, I never did anything with. I wrote it a while ago when I was preoccupied with getting it all done: work, writing, music, life: the full catastrophe. I’m not sure in all honesty how good I am at implementing these strategies. I have a more relaxed attitude now, and try to write when the mood takes me, and time allows. I suppose on a fundamental level I’ve tried to arrange my life so that happens more regularly, but I try not to force it.

On one level, my interest in downshifting arose because I thought it would enable me to increase my focus on writing and other ambitions. It has since become more about appreciating life in the moment, on its own terms. I’m gradually learning to say ‘no’ even to good ideas, to make room for those things that happen almost by themselves.  Like anything else, there’s always more downshifting to do…

Downshifting: balancing your job, life, and your art

In her obituary Maria de Villota, an F1 test driver, was quoted as saying “Life is beautiful. All we have to do is take it slower and enjoy it.” Her career and her life depended on speeding through fractions of a second, and yet she knew the importance of slowing down.

Maria was paraphrasing one of our great philosophers:

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.
– Ferris Bueller

There’s a lot that we can learn from this as creative-types and people-with-one-too-many-projects. The artist’s job is to be stubborn and slow: to stop and look around at what others have missed. That’s all very well, but for many artists and writers the hours of 9 to 5 are block-booked. As well as our jobs, we have families, friends and community commitments. When will we find the time to stop and look around, let alone finish that magnum opus? Like everybody else, we rush around trying to do more and get more.

Over the past few years I’ve been tried numerous schemes and strategies for balancing work, family life, personal projects, and leaving time to reflect and enjoy life. Here are some thoughts about getting things done in a lower gear.

Dossing days and doing days

The hardest thing is doing nothing. If I’m lucky enough to have tumbleweed blowing through my calendar before I know it, I’ll have spent half a day on a spur-of-the-moment idea (such as this post). Be watchful, and when the urge to do something arises, hit it with the whack-a-mole mallet of rational self inquiry. Do I really need to do this? What would happen to this urge if I tried letting it be? Try having at least one or more days where non-doing is top of the to-do list.

Find out where the bus goes

Creative people often have many things they are interested in and many things they love to make and do. It’s all part of making connections and playing with new ideas. Remember that your time is limited. By all means, try many different art forms and endeavours but be prepared to give a subtle preference to one of your pursuits when it develops beyond the others. Once you’ve guessed the general direction your talents have been leading you in, stay on the bus and find out where it goes. Try to actively avoid working on everything else unless it feels like fun.

Luddism 2.0

Make sure your technology works for you, not the other way around. It’s easy to get suckered into the dopamine reward systems of social media and checking your email. Turn your phone off every now and then. Your voicemail will get the calls. Get away from the internet. If you’re a writer, turn the computer off and write on paper once in a while. Jonathan Franzen would approve, and that’s the most important thing.

Deep time

All artists need to experience deep time: contemplative, empty time. When was the last time you had no idea what time it was? Try to avoid counting the hours when you work. Don’t let the clock decide whether today was successful: judge by the quality of one sentence, musical phrase, or brushstroke.

Disengage to reengage

Many of us have jobs that are, on a basic level, very similar to our passions. We work at computers all day only to open up the laptop when we get home. As far as our bodies are concerned this is no different from working a 14-hour day every day. Going for a run, to the gym, or doing yoga and meditation after work might clear your mind before you hunch over your MacBook in a self-inflicted stress position for another six hours of word-blending.

Booze blues

Graham Greene could only write when ‘absolutely sober’. Despite apocryphal stories, Hemingway didn’t actually ‘write drunk; edit sober’. Be warned: if Saturday morning is the only time you have to work on your passion, a hangover from Friday night is not going to help.

When the mood takes you

While I often wake early, I don’t usually get to jump out of bed and start scribbling. I’m sure that’s a productive thing to do but it’s also good to see what comes naturally. I do try to meditate before I’m mugged by the confusion and bustle of the day, and, if I have enough presence of mind, I’ll try to get the most important things done first while I’m fresh enough to do them well. Having said that, I think much of my early development as a writer came during midnight (and later) sessions when moon and muse were at their apogee. History’s most creative minds were early risers, though, and who am I to argue?

Stop and enjoy life

Chances are you’re impassioned to create because you believe there is something worth sharing or championing in life. Making yourself miserable for your art would be self-defeating. It’s tempting for maniacs like you and I to think of time out as a transaction by which we receive rest or inspiration to fuel another long creative session, but sometimes life is simply for living. Remembering Ferris’ wise words, I think I’ll stop and look around right now.

Live Canon 2015 Anthology

Hello all, the new Live Canon anthology is available to buy on Amazon. In it you’ll find a new poem by Geraldine Clarkson, ‘After If–‘; Isabel Rogers’ ‘Boys in the Storm’; my poem, ‘Labyrinth’, and lots more besides. All the poems have been shortlisted for the annual Live Canon competition and the winning poem will be announced on the 22nd of November after a performance by the Live Canon troupe. Go to livecanon.co.uk to find out more.

The Hero’s Inner Journey

This morning I belatedly saw a connection between two ideas I’m interested in: the hero’s journey and attachment theory.

The hero’s journey is a fundamental narrative that’s claimed to be at the root of all stories. It was proposed by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in books such as The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The theory goes that in every quest the hero progresses, or fails to progress, through a series of common stages: the call to adventure, initiation, mentoring, journeying beyond the bounds of their world, trials and tests, ordeals, defeats and victories, and a final return to the world with a boon. Campbell and others have proposed various heroic archetypes who undertake this journey. Campbell noted that these heroes are frequently orphans or those whose parents are conspicuously absent. For modern reference points, think of Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins.

Attachment theory is a widely accepted psychological model of human development. Developed by John Bowlby and others, it emphasises the importance of parental, particularly maternal, love and connection for the healthy development of identity. This connection should be neither abandoning or engulfing: ‘good enough’ is best. Bowlby was sent to boarding school aged seven during the bombing raids of the Second World War. It was a terrible time for him and he would later investigate the psychological effects of separation on infants and young children. Bowlby found that children with unmet emotional needs carried them into adulthood. As adults we then try to satisfy these needs through certain behaviours and strategies – some healthier than others.

Could it be that the hero’s journey is fundamentally a quest to resolve a deeply rooted childhood fear of abandonment? Do our mythical heroes respond to the call to adventure because of the desire to resolve an unmet need for connection? Notice that nearly always, the hero undertakes a project for the good of society and returns to society – if he or she can – at least briefly to bestow boons. Similarly, the quest nearly always involves mentoring, a kind of reparenting, in which the hero participates in a special bond with a teacher who initiates (or births) them more fully into previously hidden ways of the world. I was encouraged to make this connection by hearing therapist Mark Epstein talk about his book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, in which he reinterprets the Buddha’s journey in light of his mother’s death one week after his birth – Epstein describes this as almost a passing detail in the canon, but perhaps a crucial one.

Perhaps these stories resonate with us so deeply because – regardless of how well we were parented, and how fully our emotional need for secure connection has been met – we all carry unresolved needs. Life, then, is the enactment of the hero’s journey as we find a mode of living, connecting, being in the world that enables us and those around us to identify and meet those needs in mutually constructive ways. This is indeed a heroic quest requiring much courage and fortitude.