We wrote a poem on a leaf…

I’m just back from a glorious weekend teaching creative writing with Anna Robertshaw from Freestyle Yoga Project, who was teaching the yoga. Yoga and writing proved a perfect combination, or maybe that was the group who came. Or even the venue, glorious Tilton House, just up the road from the Bloomsbury set’s famous Charleston Farmhouse on the South Downs.

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There’s a beautiful garden at Tilton, which Shaun and Polly, the owners, are gradually clearing in parts to show off more of the views. And best of all, a fairy light lit walk through the words to the yurt – we shared our sessions between the yurt and the library belonging to Tilton’s previous owner, John Maynard Keynes. I know, it’s a hard life! Here’s Anna, at the door of the our yurt.

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I’d intended to do a writing exercise using the garden but it was raining that day, so instead, we collected leaves on the walk back from the yurt to the library, choosing them like children – precious treasure we might otherwise have walked over. Then in front of the log fire, we wrote haiku – not counting syllables though (sorry haiku writers) but working to combine image and emotion to catch a moment, a passing moment. We’d been talking about the concept of wabi sabi earlier – how time changed things into a different kind of beauty.

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Then we wrote our poems with sharpies on leaves, pinning them over the fireplace like autumn decorations, or writing them on the logs to feed into the fire.

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The joy was how each leaf dried in a different way over the next days – curling round our words like they were keeping a secret.

This was the original poem we used as inspiration, it is by the Russian Poet,  Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I love this poem, and somehow it seemed appropriate in the current news cycle (series of disasters).

I Hung a Poem on a Branch

I hung a poem
on a branch.
Thrashing,
it resists the wind.
“Take it down,
don’t joke,”
you urge.
People pass.
Stare in surprise.
Here’s a tree
waving
a poem.
Don’t argue now.
We have to go on.
“You don’t know it by heart!”…
That’s true,
but I’ll write a fresh poem for you tomorrow.
It is not worth being upset by such trifles!
A poem’s not too heavy for a branch.
I’ll write as many as you ask for,
as many poems
as there are trees!
How shall we get on in the future together?
Perhaps, we shall soon forget this?
No,
if we have trouble on the way,
we’ll remember
that somewhere
bathed in light
a tree
is waving
a poem,
and smiling we’ll say
‘We have to go on.’ …

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And of course, the next day, the sun shone… but we decided to let our poems gently disintegrate and took a silent walk up to the South Downs instead. Magic.

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Making Patterns in Vietnam – a prose poem and a song

To being with it was the uniformity that gets you. You feel as if the patterns on the hillside were reflecting and softening the patterns inside you. Like walking the labyrinth, you are being settled by the landscape.

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Dig your fingers in earth for five minutes has the same chemical benefits as taking a Prozac pill – you’ve repeated this fact so often who cares if a word here and there has fallen off, the meaning of the sentence remains unaltered, and that’s when you notice that the rice fields are of course all different.

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Looking closely, you see the circles and whorls, necessity shaping distinct personalities until you feel you could recognise each rice farmer if you met them. As you walk on you make a game of it,

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let your eyes drift before focusing intensely on one spot.

 

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Inside the barriers to begin with, but then at the walls themselves. Were they made by hand? How did they hold firm?

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And isn’t this what you are trying to do – to build walls around yourself just so you can stand up. Only close up becoming distinct, recognisable? But get too close, and you miss the true miracle. How, despite everything, you’re still clinging on. One of many, a small part of the pattern. You walk on. And on.

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And now here’s a treat. A Vietnamese friend let me record him playing a traditional Black Hmong song on a leaf just for you…

Listen, says the labyrinth

This is a post in which I not only review a book about labyrinths but show you how to draw one…. so I should issue a little warning – it’s completely addictive. Like counting syllables in haiku, once you’ve done one, your fingers will be constantly itching to circle round and round again.

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I’ve just started back working on campus at the University of Kent, this time not as a visiting lecturer but one of the Royal Literary Fund Fellows there. Not only does this mean I get to spend time with students on all aspects of their writing, but I can creep out to visit one of my favourite places of all time. Look at this view (yep, that IS Canterbury cathedral) and I think you can guess why…

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The labyrinth on the University of Kent campus was the brainchild of Jan Sellers, so as I sat on one of the few free benches beside the labyrinth on Tuesday, eating my sandwiches and writing in my journal, I was grateful to her vision and determination.

Jan is also one of the two editors of a recent book about how labyrinths can be used as a learning device, Learning with the Labyrinth, Creating Reflective Space in Higher Education, which I reviewed recently for the NAWE magazine, Writing in Education. Here’s the review, the title of this post is a line from one of the poems by Victoria Field featured in the book:

Learning with the Labyrinth, Creating Reflective Space in Higher Education
Edited by Jan Sellers & Bernard Moss
Palgrave Teaching & Learning, ISBN 978-1-137-39383-8

listen, says the labyrinth,
there’s no here nor there
just the path
one way, an oak tree
the other, a eucalyptus

Fittingly a book that takes the labyrinth as its subject, it’s hard to squeeze this in to a pre-determined academic agenda; as suggested in this extract above from the poem ‘Choice’ by Victoria Field. A different ‘Poem from the Labyrinth’ separates each section of this book which explores the theory and practice of labyrinths, looking particularly at how they are being used in universities and higher education spaces throughout Britain.

I have to admit a bias here as I have taught for several years on the campus of the University of Kent, which, thanks to the efforts of co-editor Jan Sellers, has its own Canterbury Labyrinth. Having watched students use it and walking it many times myself, I have both seen and experienced the benefits first hand. What did surprise me, however, is that there are currently 129 labyrinths on college and university campuses, according to the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator (out of a total of more than 4700 labyrinths in at least 75 countries.)

This book brings together the views of academics, support staff, students and artists from across the world, looking at how the labyrinth can be used to create reflective spaces in Higher Education. One of the few common factors between the essay writers is both their positivity towards using a labyrinth in this field and interestingly, their own ambiguity when they were first introduced to the concept.

‘Facilitating the labyrinth in a commercially driven environment in which clients paid substantial sums of money for sessions, and expected tangible outcomes, carried significant reputational risks for me and the university…’ writes Alex Irving of Liverpool John Moores University, about her work with the business development team at the University’s Innovation Laboratory.

Sonia Overall at Canterbury Christ Church University, writes a diary account of using the labyrinth with creative writing students:

1.30: The Labyrinth. (Light) rain. I offer encouragement: this is a place for emptying the head, focusing ideas. It’s not a race, I say. Think Sebald, I tell them. Think Borges. The students jump, hop, skip and slide to the centre. Some mime a minatour. They clutch damp notebooks. One of them actually writes something down.

Both of the editors have a distinguished academic history, with an emphasis on good teaching practice. Dr Jan Sellers is a National Teaching Fellow (NTF) and was the University of Kent’s first Creative Learning Fellow. Bernard Moss is Emeritus Professor of Social Work Education and Spirituality at Staffordshire University, and a Principal Fellow and National Teaching Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. They have both also trained labyrinth facilitators, but the strength of this book is in the practical case studies of how labyrinths have actually been used in many different settings.

Reflect: Receive: Return, these three R’s are how I learnt a labyrinth is most usefully tackled. It’s a structure that we see used in this book by Michelle Bigard of Central Michigan University with first-generation and low-income students as part of a Hero’s Journey Labryinth Workshop. Di Williams reports on how the labyrinth has been introduced to the University of Edinburgh by Chaplaincy Support Services, while Dr Jill Raggett and Steve Terry of Writtle College write about how labyrinths used by an artist in residence Jim Buchanan allowed students to work with the concept of space, collaboration, reflection and aesthetic enjoyment. The labyrinths discussed in this book may be elaborate turf structures, or simple finger models, traced on to canvas, or temporary structures made from sand, candles and even chicken feed. They are used by dancers, design students, midwives, health professionals, creative writers, business executives, artists, counsellors, and lawyers.

‘There is no wrong way to walk the labyrinth,’ write the editors, which of course can prove difficult for the ticks and crosses of most academic evaluations. Although the research element is bravely tackled by John W Rhodes, he admits that ‘the “gold standard” of the double blind research design likely will not be met in labyrinth research.’ Interestingly Rhodes concludes by saying that while the actual uses of the labyrinth (as exemplified in the book) must inform future research, in future the roles could be reversed with research informing the practices of using the labyrinth as a tool for engaging with teaching, learning and researching in higher educational establishments.

It’s a statement that sums up the pioneering feel to this book. Like the labyrinth itself it offers reflections rather than direct answers, but there are more than enough practical examples here to offer inspiration for anyone interested in exploring contemplative, creative and aesthetic ways of enhancing learning. And I defy anyone reading not to try at least the pencil labyrinth drawings for themselves.

End of review.

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But HOW could I possibly leave you, my lovely blog readers with that last line of the review, without showing you some of those pencil labyrinth drawings, so here’s my very professional how-to…

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ENJOY!

On a day so beautiful even the trees danced…

We had a picnic lunch on a log under this tree today, and I looked up to see the branches swaying in the wind, just as if they were dancing, lifting up their skirts like teasing can-can dancers, so lightly I could almost hear them laughing.

And then when we got home, I realised I left my phone on the log too – maybe the trees had wanted to see the video and watch themselves?

Luckily a lovely man called Dan rang me within half an hour of returning home to say he’d found my phone, he’d had lunch on the same log just after me, it seems. I was so pleased that I forgot to ask him whether he’d watched the trees dancing.

And if you’re wondering how yesterday’s herb workshop went, well, we had cake and made haiku bunting and wrote beautiful poems… there’s a write-up here with some of the exercises we did etc… 

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Come and write with me…

Come and indulge your senses with a Herbal Infused Poetry Workshop at the beautiful Physic Garden at Westgate Gardens, Canterbury

Saturday 24th September – 11-1pm

Costs £4 (including tea and cake)

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How could such sweet and wholesome hours be reckoned, but in herbs and flowers?

Andrew Marvell

I’m running a workshop in Canterbury designed around herbs – their history, their myths and all the remedies – sensible and gloriously silly – associated with them. Enjoy a morning writing and reading poetry with me, inspired by the Physic Garden. We’ll look at myths, make up new remedies, explore the senses and have fun through a series of practical exercises – all you will need to bring is a pen and paper. This workshop is suitable for all levels of writers, and is a chance to play on the page in the beautiful surroundings of Canterbury’s historic Westgate Gardens.

Sarah Salway is a novelist and poet, and author of Digging Up Paradise: Potatoes, People and Poetry in the Garden of England. Find out more at www.sarahsalway.co.uk

Because numbers are limited, booking is strongly advised, please visit http://www.westgateparks.co.uk/events/ or telephone the Canterbury Ticket shop on: 01227 787787. There may be some spaces available on the day.

Contact Sarah Salway, sarahsalway@gmail, for more information.

This event is funded through Canterbury City Council’s Westgate Parks ‘Parks for People’ HLF Project

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Narcissus Garden – a post especially for Sarahs

On a recent visit to Stockholm, we caught an exhibition of Yayoi Kusama’s work, and fell in love particularly with Narcissus Garden.

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Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm

What’s not to love? Look at all those me’s! It was originally created in 1966 for the Venice Biennale, and consisted of 1,500 of these silver balls on the lawn outside the Italian Pavilion. This is the only picture I could find of it then.

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Apparently once the work was installed, Kusama sold the balls for two dollars each to visitors under a sign ‘ YOUR NARCISIUM FOR SALE’. Art as commodification.

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In the gallery, we weren’t allowed to touch, let alone buy, so we just all stood and looked, and most of us took selfies of ourselves reflected again and again. Narcissium in action? Of course, back in 1966, this wouldn’t even have been a thing.

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It got me thinking about one of the events I’ve been part of that still makes me laugh – in that delighted gurgle sort of way. This is the Sarah Party – a party of people invited just because we were called Sarah. We were strangers who didn’t have to ask our names. Behold us in all our glories in a garden….

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The postcard of the Sarah Party, with our hostess, Sarah Pletts looking beautiful in the middle of us all

The Sarah Party was the initiative of two producers (called Sarah) at the BBC, and was open to everyone – so long as you were called Sarah. Nearly 75 of us attended, and I can’t tell you how much fun it was. We had badges with ‘hello my name is Sarah’, Sarah tiaras to wear, Sarah food, Sarah games, even a Sarah shrine.

It was even the subject of a 30 minute programme on BBC Radio 4, which was Pick of the Week in the Radio Times (although I do remember the review saying something like ‘maybe of particular interest to listeners called Sarah…!) I have to tell you that even as I’m writing this, I’m laughing to myself. What a wonderfully mad idea it was. A bit narcissistic maybe, especially as we just didn’t care.

Below is the piece I was commissioned to write for the Sarah party, which still makes me smile now. Feel free to share with other Sarahs, or indeed if you’re called Sarah please feel free to share your own thoughts. If you’re not called Sarah, I’m not so interested to be honest.

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Ten things about being Sarah
Sarah Salway

1. Once at the start of a writing group we were asked to tell a story about our names. I told everyone that Sarah meant Princess. ‘That’s so appropriate,’ they all said straight away. I secretly think of myself as modest and humble so I was a little shocked, but when I’ve told other Sarahs this story, they’ve received the same reaction. It seems we can’t always hide the princessy bit.

2. My uncle made a speech at my wedding. ‘Sarah,’ he said, ‘is harass backwards, and she has certainly always been very good at that.’

3. My real name is Sarah Jane. Once when I was being chatted up by a stranger on a train, I told him this. I didn’t think of it as something funny but he started laughing so much that he slapped his thigh too hard and got worried he might have given himself a bruise. Luckily I was able to get off at the next station.

4. Sarah, Sarha, Sahra… how hard is it to spell? Once, after three attempts over the telephone, the man on the other end told me crossly that it would be easier if I’d been called ‘banana.’

5. Ever since that wedding speech, I can’t stop thinking about ‘hairy ass’. Princess, I whisper to myself at these times. Princess, princess.

6. When my children were little, I told them that Bob Dylan had written his song, Sarah, just for me. After that, my daughter kept asking for me to play it in the car. I didn’t feel guilty until she told me that one day she wanted to find someone who would love her as much as Bob must have loved me.

7. French people find it hard to say Sarah. ‘Zhere are..’ they keep telling me and I am still waiting to hear what they are going to say next when I realise they are not just halfway through a sentence but are saying my name. For this reason, Sarahs can often appear suspicious in France. It is as if we can’t always remember what we are calling ourselves today.

8. People are often disappointed when they meet me. They tell me they expect Sarahs to be small, bubbly and blonde, but most Sarahs I have met are dark like me. Dark, brooding and princessy.

9. Sarahs don’t always respond to their name in crowds. There are too many of us. We tend to look a bit wary when someone shouts ‘Sarah’ as if we will be caught out pretending to be popular if we respond. A Mercedes or a Camilla, on the other hand, feels free to yahoo wildly at even the whiff of a ‘Merc…’ or a ‘Cam..’

10. Once when I went into a school to teach creative writing, I spent too long with a little Sarah. She had called the heroine in her story Sarah. ‘Is it about you?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she said, frowning at me very fiercely. ‘Why do you think that?’ I told her I had no idea ‘It’s because it’s the nicest name,’ she whispered to me then, and she put her hand in mine under the table to let me know that this was our little secret.

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A snail eats its way to the stars

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Tonight the world is twisting its face too hard
against my window – a man guns his way
into a room of beautiful people – a friend cries
how it’s inoperable – the politician who lies

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and lies before asking, ‘can’t you take a joke?’
‘Oh’ my friend cries, ‘my children, my children’,
and although the only real answer is ‘your children’,
I lie instead and tell her, ‘they will survive’,

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while outside in the moonlight a snail
eats its way slowly through the English hedgerow,
leaving the trail of surprising beauty:
a silver spirograph, laced leaves.

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We will all survive, the world’s children,
some of us may even leave beauty behind us,
but it’s slow. So slow. And hard to trust
when even clouds have hearts to break.

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