Words, hunger and overwhelm

There is always a ‘psycho’ on the train. Once, coming home from Exeter, I had the company of a chap who’d absconded after his rehab class (he had a tin of still-warm sausage rolls in his lap) and thus set off the ankle bracelet he was obliged to wear after committing GBH.

A fortnight ago, I got the train to Derby for Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. It was a Saturday morning in the school holidays: the train was full. Perhaps a third of the passengers were wearing masks. I spent the first ten minutes resisting the urge to run up and down the aisle shrieking ‘let me out!’ I calmed down enough to fish out my headphones for some quality time with Jeff Buckley: banging tunes, the voice of an exiled angel, and sufficient melodic interest to hold my attention. What I forgot to take into account is that when I am listening to songs (as opposed to ‘desk music’) I am on my feet, either doing cardio or pushing the hoover round etc. In other words, when I listen to songs, I move. Twenty minutes in, I opened my eyes to discover I was being stared at. A middle-aged woman, moving to music no-one else can hear. Must be a total psycho!

By the time I’d reached Swanwick and found my room at The Hayes, it was time for the Chairman’s Welcome. For the past eighteen months I have been in a household of three, only encountering the crowds during efficient raids on Tescos. Suddenly I was in a conference hall with 200 people and no social distancing and barely a face-covering to be seen. The demographic was (predictably enough) white, predemoninantly female, middle-aged and upwards (with a small cohort of millenials who’d won their places in writing competitions), and middle class. It would be interesting to learn how many of those present were hobby writers on holiday, and how many were professional writers doing CPD.

The opening event set the tone for the week. In the following days I began to suspect that an edict had been passed demanding that anyone seen sitting quietly alone had to be ‘engaged with’. I was neither lost nor lonely: I am an introvert with limited capacity for social interaction. I was doing my best to manage constant overwhelm. Everyone I met was great. Individually. Successively and en masse I began to view them as an ordeal.

Mealtimes in particular were a source of ongoing stress. I was looking forward to a week of not having to think about food for a change. I was not expecting to be hungry for much of the time. I’d been assured that a plant-based diet was catered for as standard. ‘Standard’ evidently includes hastily reheated leftovers (served with an apology) from the previous day. Half a small baked potato with a splash of passata, two broccoli florets and a spoonful of peas is apparently a ‘standard’ evening meal. I am a creature of energy and appetite: it was miserable!

I didn’t take part in the many social activities, partly through disinclination, partly through Covid-caution and partly through physical and emotional exhaustion. I did attend as many classes and workshops as was feasible. The highlights were Roy McFarlane’s four-part course Eliciting the Past, Present and Future Through Poetry and Della Galton’s hour-long session The Magic of Characterisation.  Roy’s approach focuses on ‘habit, habit, habit’ as the means to get poems written. To my delight, he even set homework! I wrote three new poems and came away with the seeds of several more. Those sessions were an absolute tonic: they were vibrant and inclusive and on the final day he gave us a fifteen-minute set. Mercy, can that man perform a poem!

Several times a day I asked myself if I would like to come back next year. Several times a day my answer changed. Back home, and after a few good dinners, I realise I appreciated my time at Swanwick more in retrospect than while I was actually there. Given a nicely full belly, less Covid-related anxiety, and not so much bombardment by the new, I would have the resources to appreciate it more. I might go so far as to actually enjoy myself! I think I would like to go back.

In the corner, in the spotlight

Thinking about The Man Who Fell To Earth while waiting to have the light of ten suns fired at my retinas is not the wisest move but my mood is sufficiently buoyant I decide I can risk indulging in a brief, carefully contained, catastrophising session. No harm done.

It’s funny how opticians always remark on my distance-vision: we might see one like you a year… . There’s a metaphor here, no doubt, but it must be right under my nose. It’s an effort to bring it into focus. I come away with a prescription for new reading glasses, with light-sensitive lenses so I can take my books into the garden next time April stops reminiscing about January and gets on with the business of ‘breeding lilacs out of the dead land’ etc. Several days later and I have yet to get my ‘sea-legs’ with these glasses. While I’ve got my nose in a book they’re grand. But I forget I’m wearing them and am halfway down the stairs before dizziness catches up with me and I have to grab the banister and re-calibrate.

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Last Sunday I attended my first poetry workshop, on Zoom, for NaPoWriMo. It was…challenging! I must stress there is nothing wrong with the group: they seem nice people. But everyone apparently already knew everyone else and there was a lot of chat and, as usual, I kept my distance, wondering what I was doing there, observing my fellow-humans as if they are an alien species. I am not unfriendly but neither am I sociable. I lack the talent for (and, if I am honest, an interest in) small talk. I miss my cues and by the time I’ve figured out what I’m meant to have said, the conversation has moved on. It took many years for me to be anything like at ease with myself on this account. To accept my quietness and not take on other people’s potential discomfort as something that I am responsible for alleviating. Not least because I’m a poet, for God’s sake: it’s not my job to fit in and make everyone feel nice and cosy! However, successive lockdowns have left me out of practice. I considered leaving the session, especially when the main writing prompt assumed a shared experience I don’t have. I didn’t leave: I worked some more on a previous prompt (and have since written two drafts of a poem) and even spoke up and shared something at the end, though to do so is like coaxing pears from a willow tree. I am determined to give it at least one more go, and see if it gets any easier.

UPDATE: I attended a second session yesterday and actually enjoyed it, even when we went into break-out groups and there was no corner to hide in!  And I came away with the rough beginnings of two more poems.

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On Wednesday afternoon I went to the Cotswold Playhouse in Stroud to record my story for Stroud Short Stories’ next event, to be broadcast on YouTube on 9th May. Strangely, sitting in an upstairs office in front of a camera and microphone, I was more nervous than the previous time reading live on stage to an audience. Perhaps because then I deliberately shifted into ‘performance mode’ whereas this time I still felt like ‘ordinary me’. If my voice is a little nerve-strangled at times I do at least have the consolation that it fits the story. (I hope I have not over-compensated and delivered my poor words like the Ten Commandments coming down from the mountain-top.) I don’t get a preview. I will watch ‘my bit’ from behind the sofa but I can’t wait to hear the other stories!