The Watching Place

Beetor cross

This is Beetor Cross on Dartmoor. It’s on the B3212 that crosses the moor from Moretonhampstead to Yelverton. It’s also known as The Watching Place, and there are several stories in circulation as to why this might be the case.

The first is that it was the haunt of a highwayman called John Fall, whose speciality was leaping out at his victims and taking them by surprise. Then there’s the theory that it marked the point beyond which French and American officers on parole from Dartmoor prison during the Napoleonic wars and living in Moretonhampstead were not permitted to proceed. Or that in mediaeval times it was the site of the gallows, where relatives or friends of the condemned person would watch and wait for permission from the Lord of the Manor to cut down the corpse.

My favourite story is that the name dates back to an outbreak of plague in 1626, which was spread by soldiers and sailors travelling between Barnstaple and Plymouth via the Mariner’s Way. Some of the inhabitants of a settlement called Puddaven, near Beetor Cross, were afflicted, and as they were no longer able to care for themselves, every evening neighbours placed provisions for them on a flattish stone at some distance from the house. They would then retreat to wait and watch. If the food was removed, fresh supplies would be left the following day. On the fifth day no one came and the food stayed where it was, so the neighbours understood that the last survivor had died. So, having approached the house, with no response to their shouts, the neighbours set fire to the thatch and burnt it down in the hope that this would stop the plague spreading further. From this time, it is said, the area became known as the Watching Place.

Something about this old story, the solidarity shown by neighbours during a time of great fear and uncertainty, lifted it above its rivals and prompted me to start writing a story of my own. As part of my research, I read all the folklore I could connected with the moor, and found several other stories associated with outbreaks of plague.

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Notably, there was the story told about Merrivale by the celebrated chronicler of Dartmoor, William Crossing, who recalls that the area of Bronze Age relics on Longash Common was once known as Plague Market, the tradition being that during outbreaks of plague at Tavistock, food would be left there by moor folk for townspeople to collect.

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And another that attaches itself to sites all over the country, but on Dartmoor to the ruins below Hound Tor: that the mediaeval village was abandoned during the Black Death. I visited and was moved not just by the deaths of the villagers but by the detail of their lives also, such as the fact they built their houses into the side of a hill, with livestock housed in the shippon at the lower end, and a gully cut to drain the slurry, and the step leading up into the cramped communal sleeping chamber.

And I read and wrote, and wrote and read, and after seven years there was a coming-of-age novel, and after a few more years, during which it sat on my laptop while I wrote poetry, and won a prize to have a collection published, it finally emerged into a largely oblivious world under my publishers’ Tamar Books imprint.

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I picked up a copy the other day and read the back. Swine flu … avian flu … SARS … We are frequently warned of imminent, drug-resistant pandemics. But what is it really like to wait for the end of the world? Then I opened it and flicked through. Social distancing. Self-isolation. It’s all in there, centuries before these practices were formally identified and their names coined.

There’s even a scene involving frenetic hand washing, though no emphasis on that as a way of avoiding infection, because my characters, stuck in 1349, wouldn’t have known that. And besides it’s fleas they should mostly have been avoiding.

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Every day on Twitter there are countless stories of selflessness, bravery and idiocy surrounding Covid-19, and I’m reminded again and again that while pandemics come and go, and technology and medical treatments improve, people are essentially the same as they’ve always been. We’re all in the Watching Place now, and I feel a renewed closeness to characters that were such a big part of my life for so long.

If you’d like to read an extract of ‘Dart’, please click on this link.

Cover illustration and map by Dru Marland

 

This blog was first published on The Red Dress of Poetry.

 

 

 

Making something of the situation

Poets are natural hoarders. They understand the importance of memories to the process of writing, and stockpile them for when a future poem might demand the inclusion of, say, a complicit glance, an unexpected gift, or the fall of sunlight through a woodland glade thirty years earlier.

The restrictions placed upon outdoor activity by COVID-19 means that everyone will now be ransacking their reserves, falling back on memories of loved ones, favourite walks and landscapes, past holidays in distant places, to get through these lean times.

And once we’ve exhausted the highlights, it will be the mundane that sustains us. The memory of a bottle of glue in a Christmas stocking, the luxury of using it for sticking pictures in your scrapbook. Carefully stabbing open the slit on the red rubber top with the sharp point of a pair of scissors. Turning it upside down and dabbing it hard on a bit of paper to get the glue flowing. And when it was all used up, the disappointment of going back to the gloop of your mother’s homemade flour and water paste – its squidginess between the stuck down picture and the page, the inevitable damp wrinkles, the speed with which it congealed in its jam jar.

We all have the wherewithal to get through this time. It starts between our ears. It turns into words on a page, a drawing filling a blank piece of paper, the rise and fall of notes on suddenly cleaner, quieter air. Don’t say you can’t make something of this situation. You can.

A Perfect Circle

A Perfect Circle is from Deborah’s fourth poetry collection, The Shadow Factory. More poems from this collection can be read here on the Indigo Dreams website.

This blog was first published on The Red Dress of Poetry.

 

Writing Group Vacancies

 

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We still have a few vacancies in our new poetry writing group, the first meeting of which will be on Friday 22nd November 2019, from 10.00am – 1.00pm, upstairs in the Music Room of Bristol Folk House, 40a Park Street, Bristol, BS1 5JG.

The group will take place on the penultimate Friday of every month (bar October 2020), same time and venue, and the cost is £10 per session.

Dates booked for the first twelve months are as follows: 22nd November and 20th December 2019, and 24th January, 21st February, 20th March, 17th April, 22nd May, 19th June,  24th July, 21st August, 18th September, 16th October, and 20th November 2020.

We don’t require people attending to be at a specific level of expertise, although very inexperienced poets might be asked to submit a sample of their writing when they apply to join the group. What we do need from you is a willingness to improve, to write and read poetry widely, and to work towards getting your poems published.

If you’re interested and would like a further details, please contact us at admin@theleapingword.com.

 

Only connect

One of the best things about running an open mic is when people who have never read in public before arrive with a poem and, after a little encouragement, walk to the front of the room and launch it for the first time. The look on their faces as they get to the last couple of lines and realise they’ve not only done it, they’ve nailed it, is marvellous; a mixture of delight and relief that spreads to everyone present, if the explosion of applause that follows is anything to go by.

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It’s a long time since I first got to my feet in Bristol Central Library, the then home of Silver Street predecessor, Can Openers, to read a poem about my great-great-grandmother, Mary Block of Christmas Steps. I was so nervous I managed to flick the black Bic I was holding (I’ve no idea why) right across the floor and into the listeners. Yet when I reached the end, I was amazed by how much I’d enjoyed the experience.

Since then I’ve learnt various techniques to improve my performance. (All page poets who read their poems in public are also performance poets.) Chief amongst these is preparation of my set – I time everything so I never have to ask ‘Am I doing all right for time?’ and I rehearse not just the poems but how I plan to introduce them too. I leave nothing to chance.

Until last Thursday evening, that is, when I read at Lyrical at Trowbridge Town Hall, along with Dawn Gorman, Anna-May Laugher, Shauna Darling Robertson, Chaucer Cameron and Helen Dewbery. Together with Pey Oh (who wasn’t able to be there on this occasion) we’ve formed a group called Strange Cargo, and have recently been discussing the possibility of improvised readings – ie taking poems on a loose theme to a poetry guest slot and then riffing off each other’s work, with no running order, no introductions, no safety net. Letting the poems echo and connect with each other, which is altogether scarier than a planned reading.

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Our theme on Thursday was walls and windows, and nerves were slightly calmed when we saw that our poems would have the perfect setting. And once we’d started, we realised it was nowhere near as terrifying an experience as we’d anticipated. We found ourselves tuning in to each other’s body language, so that the poems flowed well and there were no awkward pauses. If anything, perhaps we followed each other a little too eagerly.

The aspect that struck me most was the enhanced quality of listening this format requires. Usually at open mics or in more planned group readings, I find it quite hard to focus on the readings that come before my turn because half my mind is worrying away at my poem, intent on getting it right. We had no such luxury on Thursday; we had to concentrate on the other poems as they were being read so that we could find the best responses to them.

By the end we were brimming with ideas for improving the experience: for instance, managing the pauses better, so that they act in the same way the space around a poem on the page enhances the poem; and looking at whether even poem titles are necessary. What interested me the most, however, was the possibility of including the audience in the actual reading itself, rather than having separate open mic sessions. I would love the other poets present to be part of the process, and to take that involvement away with them so that they too can experience a different way of reading and listening to poetry.

Tracy K Smith at the Bristol Festival of Ideas

In these days of sweeping funding cuts, the chance to see top poets reading locally come along only a couple of times a year, yet I can think of no more valuable a way for poets to learn and be inspired than to listen to the best of their peers reading their work in person. So when I learnt that Tracy K Smith, the US poet laureate, was coming to Waterstones in Bristol as part of the Festival of Ideas, I seized the opportunity of seeing her.

Tracy K Smith

Most poets tend to write about a corner of their own experience or a particular interest – for example, you might think of yourself as  an eco-poet, or someone who is especially good at capturing what it means to be a survivor, or a poet suited to political declamation. Smith herself is known for poems about the body, focusing on intimacy, love, and sexuality, but her work also encompasses, apparently effortlessly, political poems of enormous sensibility and empathy, such as the sequence she read from her second collection, ‘Duende’, which gives voice to Ugandan women kidnapped by rebel commanders, and such vast subjects as … well, the universe.

‘I don’t have a great brain for science,’ she claimed, to a frankly disbelieving audience during her reading of her sequence ‘My God, it’s full of stars’ from her 2011 Pulitzer-prize winning collection, ‘Life on Mars’. But in case you’re starting to think her work might be altogether too rarified, the quote about stars is from Arthur C Clarke’s novel, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, proving that Tracy isn’t afraid to tangle with pop culture either. She even writes affectingly about that ultimate starman, David Bowie.

And as you wing out across the universe of Tracy’s poems, you are being lifted on the most perfectly pitched reading of them. I would urge any poet who wants to improve their delivery of their work to listen to her read. There are lots of videos on line, or you can buy a CD of Duende. Better still, go and hear her read in the flesh … though now her book tour has ended, you might have to fly to America for that.