Tag Archives: John Hewitt Spring Festival

What’s in a word?

IMG_0676Yesterday, I made what has become my annual pilgrimage from the north coast to Carnlough – a beautiful little seaside village nestled beneath the cliffs where, every Spring, the John Hewitt Society’s Spring Festival takes place.

The route I take to get there hugs the coastline; the road winding through quiet villages; stretching over sparse, windswept hilltops, and twisting and turning beneath canopies of crooked trees – all against the backdrop of a glittering blue ocean and sweeping blue sky. In short, I relish the drive almost as much as the Spring Festival, and for the past three years, I’ve been blessed with wonderful weather each time.

Stephen Sexton reads from his debut poetry pamphlet, Oils.

Stephen Sexton reads from his debut poetry pamphlet, Oils.

I’m writing a review of yesterday’s poetry readings – which came from Belfast poets Stephen Sexton and Ciaran Carson – for Culture NI, so I won’t go into that now, but I did want to pick out something that both writers mentioned when it comes to writing poetry.

Apparently, Ciaran Carson, who lectures at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University in Belfast, always tells his students to ‘look every word up’ when they write. A lot of the time, he said, you’ll find the word doesn’t mean exactly what you thought it did. It will help your poetry, was the implication.

I do this now and again when I’m reading. A word might keep cropping up that I read all the time and roughly know, in context, what it means, but then I’ll think – if someone asked me, I couldn’t give them a definition. So, I’ve looked up a few words in my time (!) and have usually found exactly as Ciaran said – that the word will mean something slightly different from what I thought it did, or it will have multiple more meanings which immediately make it more interesting and give me more ways in which to use it in my own writing.

Belfast poet, Ciaran Carson, chats about writing and reads some of his work.

Belfast poet, Ciaran Carson, chats about writing and reads some of his work.

Both Stephen and Ciaran (Stephen is an ex-student of Ciaran’s) have done this in their work, and both are very successful poets. I’m not saying everyone has to use this technique, I do think it’s a good idea, as words can change their meaning over time, or still have meanings that we’ve forgotten about or never really knew.

When it comes to language, we never know it all. Language is full of twists and turns, and is always metamorphosing, so there are endless possibilities, I think, when it comes to weaving those words together…

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Goblin Market

Goblin market1Morning and evening

Maids heard the goblins cry:

“Come buy our orchard fruits:

Come buy, come buy:”

In 1859, Christina Rossetti wrote her epic poem, Goblin Market – a fantastical fairytale which has compelled critics and fans of the work to pick it apart; to study it; to mould it into whatever suits their purpose… Rossetti herself, allegedly claimed that she ‘did not mean anything profound by this fairytale’, which, whether this be true or not, only goes to show the transformative power of the poetic voice.

I think the poem is certainly one worth a read (if you have the time – it’s Long!), drawing from it your own conclusions as to what you would like it to mean. Or, simply savour those words – Rossetti was ridiculed by some at the time for daring to create a poem outside the restrictive

“We must not look at goblin men,  We must not buy their fruits:  Who knows upon what soil they fed  Their hungry thirsty roots?”

“We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?”

confines of traditional poetic form, but in her daring, she produced an experimental poem still being discussed today and her sing-song rhythm in the piece makes it a rather lilting, fun poem to read.

Following on from my recent poetry workshop in Carnlough as part of the John Hewitt Spring Festival, where we talked about maintaining an air of mystery in poetry, I feel that Goblin Market, which at first glance seems to give it all away, actually does weave a spell over the reader. Well, the varying opinions on ‘What It All Means’ is proof of that…

For an interesting summary of the poem and reaction to it at the time, I refer you to a brilliant new resource at the British Library here, which also includes a great selection of accompanying images, some of which I have reproduced in this post. I have only just begun to explore the website myself but, suffice it to say – it is a wonderful online library of material for anyone with an interest in literature.

Twitch’d her hair out by the roots,  Stamp’d upon her tender feet,  Held her hands and squeez’d their fruits  Against her mouth to make her eat.

Twitch’d her hair out by the roots,
Stamp’d upon her tender feet,
Held her hands and squeez’d their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat.

In my own poetry writing, I embrace the experimental and, whilst this sometimes results in works that I really can’t explain afterwards, that too is part of what draws me to it. When you begin to write a poem, you may be inspired by a particular idea or theme – you may have a message in mind that you wish to share and then… often, the words take over and lead you on a merry dance to somewhere quite unexpected but nevertheless compelling. Where you end up may not be quite where you intended to be, and where the reader ends up after poring over your poem may also differ.

An epic narrative work like Goblin Market reminds me of the fun it can be to explore more in my writing – to embrace the adventure – and that, my friends, is the magic of poetry.

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John Hewitt Summer School!

John Hewitt masthead

Following on from my jaunt to Carnlough for Cherry Smyth’s creative writing class in May, which was part of the John Hewitt Spring Festival, I decided to apply for the bursary for the 2013 John Hewitt Summer School in July. Having perused the programme for the School the past few years, I had never yet managed to get down to experience it for myself, what with clashing schedules, dog-sitting arrangements to organise and the cost etc etc.

ImageSo, it was with much delight that I read an email from the John Hewitt Society yesterday which informed me that I had been granted one of the bursaries to attend this year’s Summer School! The bursary is one of two grants made available by the Coleraine Borough Arts Committee, which I was able to apply for via Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart. In fact, this year they actually made two awards available, so I await news of the second recipient!

As part of the award myself and other bursary holders will stay in Armagh for the duration of the five-day Summer School, with access granted for all workshops, talks and events. The guidelines stipulate that we should attend at least 70% of these but I don’t think that will be much of a problem, as I fully intend to make the most of the opportunity and go to everything that I can! I will also write a report of my Summer School experience afterwards and will of course be blogging about it all and writing an article or two for The Chronicle.

It will be the best kind of busyness and I look firmly forward to July 22!

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I may have to admit that I’m missing NaPoWriMo… just a little. The demand to write a poem a day was sometimes quite stressful but then again, they got written and May has brought with it a distinct lack of poetic creativity! (Well, so far). 

Anyway, I wasn’t able to go to Ms Gruer’s writing meet-up this week, due to work commitments, but I understand she posed some abstract questions to the writers who did make it, such as ‘what can you catch on your tongue?’ and ‘what would you do with a tail if you had one?’ I might have a think about those myself!

What I have been doing (other than posing with my Blackstaff Press books for a wee story in the paper!), is cracking on with ‘The Draft’ and seeking feedback… First up, I met with my friend (picture-book Jenny) at the weekend to exchange some encouraging words on our respective projects. Whilst I am poring through my novel making amendments, Jenny is currently crafting her picture book and I really enjoyed hearing what she had written so far. 

We both identified local writers we could approach about our writing and I will be having coffee with one of these – young adult novelist Debbie McCune – next Tuesday in Portstewart. Having just seen her book ‘Death & Co’ published (and so far very well received), Debbie has very kindly agreed to read a few of my chapters when she gets through her current flurry of PR activities. So… I will update on that as and when it happens.

Meanwhile, Jenny has now read my first chapter and delivered a very nice review, so that has boosted me quite a bit and added to the hope that it is actually, maybe ok after all… I was worried about getting the portrayal of my main character just right and her comments have helped allay the fear that I hadn’t described her as she was in my head!

As far as my editing goes – I’m now mid-way through the third read-through and this time around, it is much easier to spot phrases or paragraphs which need tightening up or simplified, having already corrected bits and pieces on previous occasions. It’s surprisingly sometimes what you can miss! After these corrections though, I’m confidant I will have a manuscript poised for the next step…

I may have missed El’s class this week but tomorrow evening I will be taking the scenic route to Carnlough – to the Londonderry Arms Hotel to be precise, for a creative writing workshop with poet, critic, curator and now novelist, Cherry Smyth, who is taking part in 11th John Hewitt Spring Festival. I’m looking forward to both the class and also to meeting more writers and seeing bits of the north coast I have to admit I haven’t seen before, so… more details on this next week! Image

I actually had the pleasure of chatting with Cherry this morning, as I’m writing an article for the paper about her writing experiences and the forthcoming publication of her debut novel ‘Hold Still’. So… I will leave you with some of her words…

“Life-changing events… are very very affecting. Poetry is a cure for that. You can look back and see the state you were in and see yourself coming out of it from the poem.

“I love having those sort of verbal trophies. It’s like an image of the struggle and the poem is the prize.”

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