6 August 2015

Close-ups and Longshots


I’m thinking about blank pages and scrawls, space and containment, yawning horizons and sharp focal points, and how they apply to poetry.  For if a poem ideally is a nugget of experience, how much padding do you include, how much wide angle?  

In Loutro, a former fishing hamlet on the south coast of Crete that can only be reached by boat, I spent a week this last June on a poetry course contemplating such issues.  It helped all thought processes that the sea, only yards away, could be swum in at 7.45 in the morning, that an intensity of blue was everywhere, and that bowlfuls of juicy cherries (and sunhats) could be bought from the shop just below my room.

Led by our tutor, the poet Henry Shukman, we delved into an array of work by Thomas Hardy, Sharon Olds, Robert Frost, Mary Oliver, Tomas Tranströmer.  We attempted to uncover the authorial genius behind decisions about precisely what to include and what to leave out.  There were poems diluted down to a few words yet carrying a full payload of history, such as Dan Pagis's Written In Pencil in the Sealed Boxcar, whose exquisite terseness needs no more than its six explosive lines.  There were more sweeping snapshots in the uncomfortable take on modern America, as  in Hard Rain by Tony Hoagland.  Or dizzying leaps between lines in extracts from Judith Taylor's Curios.

Henry used aspects of meditation to kickstart - or perhaps infuse - the day, drawing on his experience as a teacher at the Mountain Cloud  Zen Centre in Santa Fe.  But then came business, ten-minute exercises with the rules: write, don’t stop, don’t edit, use concrete images, and if you find yourself heading into uncomfortable territory, advance fearlessly and go for the jugular.  Spurred by his encouragement, we sat scribbling around a table outside the Scirocco Café, drinking tea and coffee (Henry swearing by Nescafe Frappé) and into my notebook sprang unexpected items about crossroads, fishing nets, wartime collaborators, and parrots.  

We were only four in the group - Hugh, already published, with his keen observation and perceptive critiquing, Mary Ann with her sensual poems about Greece, Juliana with a natural flair for rhyme, who also was the only one to attempt a piece based on the Fibonacci sequence (which she called Fiberace, conjuring up visions of the mathematician’s and Liberace’s lovechild).  One morning we welcomed an infiltration by the course’s enthusiastic prose tutor David Swann and his two students - Leandra (Juliana’s sister) bringing tales of life below the surface in the Bahamas and Dave with his raw stories of Liverpool and Toxteth.  As the sun crept higher through the awnings, we swapped ideas and considered whether examples of flash fiction, with syntax tweaks and different line breaks, might claim kinship with narrative poems.  

But back at my desk in the afternoons the ponderings continued.  The holy grail of all students on such courses is, quite simply, how to write brilliant poems.  What exactly are the tricks?  And how can I use them?  What can I learn from the greats, what can I absorb of their originality while at the same time unlocking my own?  Answers do not come easily, yet from the work we had seen it seemed to boil down to this - success apparently lay in the power of the emotional or philosophical charge, which could be conveyed in all manner of styles - concise, conversational, strictly adhering to form or more relaxed.  In essence, it appeared that the authenticity of the poet's voice mattered above all, and if, behind it, further layers could be discerned, so much the better. 

Well, duh, I've always kind of known this but now, with my own work and drafts more under the microscope, I began to notice that my, at times, over-zealous editing can beat the air out of an idea.  Efforts to slash and burn the 'extraneous' can run the risk not so much of creating hiccups in understanding as severing a reader's possibility of empathy or connection.  

Or so I think, for the moment.  

Between times we took canoes out in the bay, worried about the goat marooned on the rocky outcrop, and (the hardier) walked down the Samaria Gorge and spotted griffon vultures on the wing.  

On the last night, in an even tinier hamlet named Phoenix, we dined on a terrace and read selections of work as the sun set.  The close-up?  The bloom of bonhomie and wine on faces as we boarded a boat back to Loutro.  The longshot?  A night sky above us, punctured by stars.

I booked the course through Espirita, a not-for-profit organisation with intriguing trips on offer.  Check it out!

24 May 2015

Ten Words for Sorrow

Ten Words for Sorrow

When my great-grandmother
discovered she was the last speaker
of the mid-west dialect,
she ditched her songs
of wind and tumbleweed
to mime for me
ten words for sorrow.

Her garments were eased
to show a sorrow that salted
deep folds in her skin.
That rose and hooked
the back of her throat.
That contoured
into an hourglass,

squeezing the very rasp
out of her. And how
the same word, with new
inflection, connoted a type
that dripped slowly,
tipped her over,
then trickled again.

She taught me
the word for sorrow
that out-shrieks darkness.
That descends like gauze,
yet no beast can rip through.
A kind that fastens itself
to the span of just one day

or to a rusted peg
where cast-off jackets droop.
And when her hands
measured empty space, I saw
it made a difference whether sorrow
remained the vehicle,
or became the entire road.

© Katie Griffiths

8 April 2015

A High Five To...


Two fingers of a left hand are mending, after they unsuccessfully went one round with the pavement in London.

The little finger, still a swollen cocktail sausage, is recovering from an operation in which a pair of  tiny divining rods were inserted into the bone to pull it back into line.  Now, it snuggles close to the ring finger, its bigger and functioning sister, copying and sheltering.  

But it's reverted to toddlerhood, learning to walk, to talk, to go to the park, to demand the swings.  

Each day it sucks in its paunch, stiffens its stooped back to pull itself up to its full height, blend in with the crowd.

Each day it strives to work in community - to grow nails, tie a shoelace, open a tin, search out a spoon, hold an octave.  

With its siblings, it has a go at making shapes.  A gate.  A rake.  A limping dinosaur.

It struggles to fan outward into the kind of delta where a continent’s river system disgorges and over-wintering herons land.

And it religiously does the drill; to bow deeply forward in the belief that the top of its head can indeed touch the palm’s outstretched skin. 

27 February 2015

Deliver Me From The News

‘If I want to know what’s happening locally?  They’ll tell me when I pop into the bar.  And if I want to know what’s happening internationally?   They’ll tell me when I pop into the bar.’

Thus said an acquaintance a few years ago, who had foresworn watching or listening to the news in favour of a more tranquil life.  To be, shall we say, so deliberately under-informed seemed an alien concept, but his words set me on an examination of my own relationship with the news.  

And it was a needy one: waking up to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, followed by dips in and out of news media on the internet, rounded off by early evening news and, even later, by News at Ten.  I couldn’t leave news alone, but neither would it take its hooks out of me.  I began to be affected by the ‘barrage of bleakness’ as Charlie Beckett put it in a recent Radio 4 programme entitled Good News is No News.   It was not merely my feeling of impotence in the face of stories of violence and cruelty, of political crassness, of greed and manipulation, or of pending environmental catastrophe which rankled, but an extreme annoyance at the manner of delivery – combative interviews, unremitting speculation, a negative agenda and doomsday scenarios.

A year or so ago, I switched allegiance in the mornings to Spanish radio on RTVE.  Quite apart from the fact that I could only understand half of its foreign sounds, which gave the impression of waking up in a tiled hostal and only a stroll away from the beach, the necessary preoccupation with all issues Spanish that did not impinge upon me gave a welcome distancing.  With less hand-wringing, I could simply listen to how interviewees were, for example, given much greater rein to answer questions without constant interruption.  Or how excitement would mount audibly when days like Los Reyes approached.  Or how gems and curiosities that made few waves here in the UK would surface, such as the story about El Pequeño Nicolás, a twenty-year-old who hoaxed his way into the highest circles, even getting in under the radar, at a reception of dignitaries, to shake the hand of the new king Felipe on the day he assumed the throne. 

Lately, however, I have forsaken even Spanish radio at sun-up, preferring a gentler entrance into the day with Solfeggio chants and a few yoga stretches.  News, I contend, especially first thing in the morning or last thing at night, can be extremely bad for you.   At a time when the ‘human race has never been healthier, wealthier or more peaceful’ (as Charlie Beckett put it in the programme Good News Is No News) notwithstanding that blood-curdling acts do happen, we are perhaps being given a distorted view.  Doom and gloom are a daily diet.  

Twenty-two years ago, the newscaster Martyn Lewis was apparently pilloried when he attempted to argue that ‘normal journalistic judgments should be applied to all stories instead of pushing positive stories automatically on to the spike.’  Warned not to challenge the status quo, with his job put on the line, he got nowhere in his efforts to start a discussion about ‘holding up a proper and sensible mirror to society’.

That the news is essentially negative was underscored by Tony Gallagher, deputy editor of the Daily Mail.  ‘The reality is that it’s a gloomy world out there and bad things happen.  And we tend to be a conduit for bad things.’  When asked by Charlie Beckett whether this was not giving an Old Testament view of a world full of plagues and disasters, he answered: ‘ It’s a tiny fragment of the real world, and it’s an extraordinary fragment of the real world, which is why we should be covering it in the depth that we are.  Of course it doesn’t relate to the ordinary person’s existence any more than a crime thriller relates to the ordinary existence of somebody living in suburbia.  But we are competing for people’s time and their attention, and the reality is that bad news does sell.’

Recently, in what could be seen as a proliferation of shocking news, media organisations have begun to apply correctives, ‘solutions-based journalism’, like ‘The Optimist’ in The Washington Post and ‘The Fix’ in The New York Times.  Huffington Post’s ‘What’s Working’ section is doing well.  ‘Stories that reinforce our faith in human nature are shared three times more than the combined average of all our other sections’ share rate,’ said Ariana Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief.  Jim Waterson, political editor of Buzzfeed, echoed this.  ‘Stories that are shared the most do tend to be positive – there’s something about your identity, there’s something you’re proud to support or something that you want to get involved in.  But,’ he added, significantly, ‘when there is massive news, then that overrules everything.’

If I am cautious in my own consumption of news, and seek to turn down the volume of negative in favour of more pleasing stories, does this make me ignorant?  Am I sticking my head in the sand or recognising the limits of a personal sphere of influence?  If I sometimes turn a deaf ear to the bickerings of politics, am I rejecting civic duty or aspiring to achieve what a Buddhist might describe as non-complaining mind?  If I try to appreciate what is actually going right in society (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it) am I merely Pollyanna?  

Since the time of Martyn Lewis’s stance, our way of consuming news has been overturned.  It has now become our own responsibility to control and ration what we see or hear.  No longer does one, or even a set of, authoritative broadcasters hold the key to editorial control.  We can obtain news from hundreds of different news organisations and social networks.  We can watch - at times grotesque - amateur footage, as well as professional coverage of events as they unfold.  We can binge on whatever news is out there to the point of sickness or, by finding the more wholesome, seek balance.

Or we can take the occasional break, and dare to switch off the news altogether.

5 February 2015

When the Horse Knows Best

Home stretch

This could not have happened in the kingdom of Health and Safety.  Nor would it have happened if the extent of the challenge had been fully explained.

It was late September in the Lecrin Valley, near Granada.  I had signed up to go for a horse ride – by 'ride', of course I meant ‘sit', for I had never had riding lessons despite having been conveyed by pony from A to B with minimum disruption on holiday trundles.  Picture a beach, with a bored quadroped being led by a string.  That is the level of my horsemanship.

My details had been handed in to the riding school: 1. no, not experienced 2. have only gone at walking pace - trotted (accidentally) once.  Meeting my steed, I was pleased that it had neither satanic stare, nor  dimensions of a battle-Percheron, astride which a body would rip in half.  In reality, this was a tiddler, and I was truly thankful.  It bode well for the one-hour session.

Again I emphasised to the owner:  no he galopeadoNo soy experta.  By which I hoped to imply that I had never galloped and was not an expert.

We set off in a small band - our leader Rodrigo, inveterate Canadian outdoorswoman Jean, and Englishman Robert who had trekked the length and breadth of South America on horseback.
‘Have you taken your painkillers?’ asked Jean.


‘Yes.  This is going to hurt like hell.  I’ve already taken two Ibuprofen.  At the very least, make sure you take some tonight and tomorrow.  You’ll really be aching after this two-hour ride.’

Two hours?' 

And so we set off, through the village streets, towards the side of the valley, and before long, were winding up a steep twisting path.  The horses' hooves slid in the narrow path's dust, inches from the sheer drop beside us.  My palms went clammy.  Vertigo came in hot waves.

'Don’t worry,’ said Jean, ‘your horse knows what it’s doing.’

Small consolation.  At each hairpin bend, there was no telling whether my animal might be seized with a lemming wish, or simply miscalculate and stumble, or whether I, in averting my gaze from the chasm, might lean the wrong way as my pony hopped up, yes, hopped up over rocks.
This was not the time to adhere to the Spanish style of riding, in which you hold the reins in one hand only.  Yet, during the midst of the perspiration and dread came a moment of utter clarity.  Here, between heaven and the boulders far below, it was no good panicking, or wishing I hadn’t come.  There was no way out, but forward.  I had no choice but stay on that horse’s back and have faith in its ability to get on with the business of climbing.
As we reached the top I breathed a sigh of relief to see the path opening out on to a flat plain  overlooking the town of Albuñuelas.  Things would get easier.  My beast, on the other hand, was of a different mindset.  Seeing the others racing ahead, and paying no attention to my hauling back on the reins, it sprang to action - first breaking into a trot then, Dios mio, a brisk gallop.
I bounced up in the air and slapped down as if on a bucking bronco.  If there was a preferred method of timing my landing on the horse's spine, which minimised the chances of falling off, I had little opportunity to finesse it.
Jean and Robert rode hard to catch Rodrigo.  'She’s never galloped before,' they said.  He glanced back at the spectacle of me see-sawing on the horse’s back.  'Sure she has.  She’s fine,' he replied.

Hang on, I told myself through clenched teeth.  Trust.  Trust the horse.  And gradually, over the length of the route, I began to learn to do just that.  To tune into to its rhythm.  To be firm, but not to fight.  I also constantly checked in with my own muscles – tensing this one, flexing that one, slightly twisting my body one way then the other to take tension off my back.  By the time we had ridden across the entire ridge, through olive groves, down through the village of Saleres and along the riverbed, I was non-plussed when, without warning, my horse staggered on a rock. 
After a total of two and a half hours I finally dismounted, cocky to be still in one piece.  Oddly, though I took no painkillers at all, nor the next day, there was not one twinge in my body.  

Would I do this again?  I’m not sure.  For a novice it was risky.  

But it left me with an exhilaration - and a keener sense about surrender and letting go, about trying to get into harmony with an animal, with a moment, with an experience.  Magical.