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Kevan Manwaring and Bardic Poetry

by Anthony Nanson 

9781906900427.jpgKevan Manwaring excels in a wide range of creative pursuits. One genre in which it seems to me he’s made a particularly major contribution is that of ‘bardic poetry’. ‘Bardic poetry’ is a form of performance poetry, but may be distinguished from other kinds of performance poetry – such as slam poetry – by aspects of form and content that draw upon the bardic traditions that flourished in ancient times in the British Isles and have today been revived by Druidic and associated communities. So you will find in Kevan’s bardic verse the exaggerated wordplay and rhetorical tropes of Celtic bards, as well as kennings and alliteration as used by Germanic skalds and scops, and the deployment of motifs from an encyclopaedic knowledge of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Arthurian myth and folklore.

The scale of Kevan’s output of poetry of this kind is prodigious, ranging from individual lyrics to ambitious epics. For more than two decades he’s been performing such material in all kinds of situations, wherever opportunity has arisen. Much of it has been published in pamphlets and anthologies, sometimes mixed in with ‘page poetry’ of a more conventionally literary kind. It struck me that this line of Kevan’s work was such a significant achievement, and one potentially inspiring to others who feel drawn to writing and performing poems in this bardic tradition, that it deserved to be gathered into a major omnibus collection. Voila, Kevan’s new book, Silver Branch: Bardic Poems & Letters to a Young Bard, which brings together the bulk of his bardic verse to date. As the title hints, the book also includes Speak Like Rain: Letters to a Young Bard, a distillation of Kevan’s expertise in the art of composing and performing bardic poems, which complements the inspiration to be had from reading his poems with practical instruction and wisdom pertaining to this art form.

Silver Branch can be ordered through Awen’s website and the usual retail channels. Here’s what it says on the back cover, including a quote from Caitlín Matthews’s lovely foreword and also a comment from Philip Carr-Gomm of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids:

What does it mean to write and perform bardic poetry in the twenty-first century? This monumental collection, from the author of The Bardic Handbook and The Way of Awen, brings together 25 years of selected verse to explore that challenge. The diverse range of poems can be enjoyed for their own sake and will also inspire others to craft and voice their own creative responses to identity, ecology, and community, grounded in the body, the land, and conviction. Silver Branch includes an introduction to the author’s practice as a performance poet, originally published as Speak Like Rain, along with the Bardic-Chair-winning poem Spring Fall; Bio*Wolf; Green Fire; Dragon Dance; The Taliesin Soliloquies; Thirteen Treasures; poems from the stage shows Arthur’s Dream, Robin of the Wildwood, Return to Arcadia, and Song of the Windsmith; plus more recent bardic poems and songs.

‘Within Silver Branch, the ancient and modern worlds are woven together in the remaking with which we have to engage at every moment, perceiving the ancient and allowing its currency to irrigate our time and deepen our, often, surface culture. As ancestral structures fall away, as wise councils fall into argument … as the beauty of nature is despoiled, so it becomes our bounden duty to listen harder and deeper to the mythic levels of our collective life … Fall silent now and hear the voice of the bard!’

Caitlín Matthews, author of The Lost Book of the Grail and Celtic Visions

‘In addition to a selection of Kevan’s poetry, ranging from earliest to most recent, this book includes a detailed and enthusiastic exploration of what it takes to produce great performance poetry. “Speak Like Rain: Letters to a Young Bard”, inspired by Rilke’s famous “Letters to a Young Poet”, feels like required reading for any poet – aspiring or experienced. Utterly absorbing and inspirational!’

Philip Carr-Gomm, author of The Prophecies and DruidCraft

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Honouring

The Bardic Academic

The friends in our life are a true measure of success – the harvest of a life well-lived.

I am fortunate to know many talented people who I find inspiring and good company to boot. To be around them is a buzz, and their achievements mutually empowering. We raise each other up by stepping into our own power, by not being afraid to shine. I love seeing my friends do well. I praise their successes, cheer them on. Because I know something of their journey, of their struggles and sheer effort. When I am with them I feel more complete, because in some mysterious way they ‘hold’ something for me, an aspect of my own personality that they manifest in full. They are fully themselves, of course, but something in them draws me to them. I sense a kindred spirit. We share common ground – interests, experiences, obsessions, ambitions, sense…

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Silver Branch book launch 19 August 2018

On 19 August 2018 we gathered in the Ale House in Stroud to celebrate two things: the launch of Awen’s newest title, Silver Branch: Bardic Poems & Letters to a Young Bard by Kevan Manwaring – and also the author’s birthday! 

Kevan organised the evening with his usual generosity of spirit, giving us a showcase of bardic talent from Stroud and Bath – and beyond. There were poets, musicians and storytellers sharing many different versions of the bardic arts that Kevan has worked in and encouraged for 25 years, representing a cross-section of his acquaintance with bards from his youth in Northampton, through his time living in Bath and now in Stroud.

He started the evening himself, with a rendition of ‘Taliesin’, from the poetry cycle The Taliesin Soliloquies, about the tale of the legendry British bard who is said to have lived in the sixth century. Kevan has taken great inspiration from the tale, the poetry and the man himself over the years.

Next up was Kevan’s partner in the storytelling and music duo Brighid’s Flame, and fellow Fire Spring, singer-songwriter Chantelle Smith, performing her song about the banshee.

Another Fire Spring followed, Kirsty Hartsiotis, bringing in the third bardic art of storytelling with a rendition of the tale of Mabon son of Modron in the Welsh story of Culwch and Olwen.

Two Stroud-based poets came next, Tim Bannon and Jehanne Mehta.

Then publisher and fellow Fire Spring Anthony Nanson with another bardic piece – a storytelling rendering of the Song of Amergin, one of the legendry forefathers of the Gaels of Ireland.

Kevan acknowledged the inspiration he had had from the next performer, his old friend Marko Gallaidhe, who continued the Irish theme with a song and a tune.

Marko was followed by one of Kevan’s students in the bardic arts, Wayland the Skald, who said that Kevan was one of his favourite people – and thus gifted him with his favourite folktale, a Yorkshire tale in which the Devil comes good!

He was followed by Earthwards, who are Jehanne and Rob Mehta and Will Mercer, who sang a song about Runnymede – the ‘rune meadow’ where the Magna Carta was signed.

Two more Stroud poets followed, Robin Collins, and Jay Ramsay, who delivered from memory a bardic poem about the fire in the head of bardic inspiration.

Current Bard of Bath – the 20th, Kevan was the third – Kirsten Bolwig gave us a true tale from her work with teenagers, which had us on the edge of seats – a tale of tempers, stories and stolen double-decker buses on the Mile End Road!

Recent Stroudie, but old Northampton friend, Simon Andrews gave us a song about unity. Jeff Cloves contributed a poem about book launches – and Nina Simone – from his own recent collection.

Then Peter Please told a spine-tingling story of dream and connection and birthdays and resonation through the generations – all the way back to the Ice Age. The evening was rounded off with a poem of Rumi’s, performed by storyteller Fiona Eadie, and then finished with a bang with another song by Simon.

We’d like to thank the Ale House in Stroud for providing a venue, and we thank all the performers and all the listeners!

If you missed the Stroud launch, Kevan will be launching the book in Bath at Poetry and a Pint at St James’s Wine Vaults in Bath on Wednesday 19 September, 7.30pm.

If you’d like to see some videos from the evening head on over to our Twitter account @Awen_Books, and you’ll discover Kevan and friends there!

All images copyright Kirsty Hartsiotis, save for the image of Kirsty, copyright Chantelle Smith and that of Peter Please, copyright Kevan Manwaring, all 2018.

Behold, the Shining Brow!

By Kevan Manwaring (Lughnasadh 2018)

9781906900427.jpgAs a mode of enquiry for a creative practitioner interested in the bardic tradition, my poetry has, for over a quarter of a century, been a sustained commitment to what I eventually called the ‘Way of Awen’ (from 2004). I began to write poetry in 1991, inspired by a trip hitchhiking around Ireland – a young man interested in Celtic legends, with a nascent inclination towards Paganism. I met my ‘muse’ figure in a park in Galway and corresponded with her, writing her long letters (in those low-fi days before the internet became ubiquitous) and my first attempts at poetry. I wove in magical symbolism, inspired by W.B. Yeats, Dion Fortune, William Blake, and Jim Morrison, among others. I started going to ‘open mike’ events and inflicting my poetry on others. I quickly realised that reading from a text can create a barrier between the performer and audience, and so I began learning my poetry by heart. This freed up my hands, allowed me to make greater eye contact, and, by hard-wiring the poetry into myself through repetition, enabled me to embody the archetypal energies I was invoking. Each poem became an invocation to a particular deity, genius loci, or sacred festival. Over the next few years I wrote more poems, and expanded my repertoire to encompass the full ‘wheel of the year’ – material that I finally collected together in one volume: Green Fire. I started performing as a storyteller too, and weaving in the occasional ‘bardic poem’ into the texture of my shows. Invitations to perform at events started to happen – Witchfest, Wessex Gathering, Mercian Gathering, Druid Camp, Lammas Games, handfastings, and Bardic Chair competitions. In 1998 I had won the Bard of Bath competition with my epic poem, Spring Fall, which relates the legend of Bladud and Sulis of Bath. I hosted open mike events, ‘bardic showcases’, and book launches (after I founded Awen Publications in 2003). Often I would drop in a poem to set a mood, warm up the audience, break up the evening’s texture. I performed my poetry at Tate Britain (& Modern) and in front of thousands of protesters gathered in Trafalgar Square. On one memorable occasion I performed my Green Man poem naked while waiting to go into a sweat lodge at a Male Mysteries gathering! I realised then that, even if I was ‘skyclad’, I would never be short of material! As a bard I carry a library in my head – a repertoire of hundreds of stories, poems, and, these days, songs. I continue to use my bardism in key aspects of my life – teaching, guiding, and writing – and over the years have passed on my bardic skills to many students, helping the awen to keep flowing. The Taliesinic Effect is one too precious and powerful to be contained or controlled by one person, or a single organisation. I believe that all brows should shine. It is our innate potential awakening within us.

Silver Branch: Bardic Poems and Letters to a Young Bard is published on 19 August 2018. It will be available direct from Awen Publications here.

Grit and Pearl: An Exploration of the Cancer Journey, with Poetry

Jay Ramsay has made a short film about his experience of the cancer journey, including some of the poetry it has inspired. He was due to give this presentation at the AHP Conference ‘Love, Madness & Transformation’ in London on 28 June 2018, but instead filmed it at Hawkwood College, Stroud. The text will appear in the AHP journal Self & Society.
You can view the film here: https://vimeo.com/277625151

The Gramarye of Place

We walked alone together up the steep hillside, finding our own desire paths through the boggy heathland, climbing our own mental inclines, the hidden engines of our hearts driving us forward, the mental cable of our thoughts reeling us up the slope – providing the traction of deferred gratification. We had come the wild West Brecons to make mythopoeic pilgrimage to Llyn y Fan Fach, a glacial tarn associated with the Tylwyth Teg, the ‘Good Folk’ of the Brythonic tradition, and with the legend of a lake maiden.

On the brow of the hill, catching breath, we caught a first glimpse of the llyn, a cauldron of water held by savagely beetling cliffs, which dropped precipitously to its shimmering fastness. The surface was a digital mirror, pixilating with waves of re-rendering detail. The wind, kinked into tight vortices, catspawed the gelid waters into sudden surges of serration, looking for all the world like a murmuration of otherworldly beings just beneath its reflection of the apparent reality. Here, another was co-existent. It was easy to believe this place to be a portal to Annwn, or the parlour of identical lake maidens, giddy with their doppelgänger dance – lost in their own enchantment, their hall-of-mirror beauty echoed into infinity, and laughing at the maddening effect it had on incautious wanderers who became bedizened by their alluring shimmer.

View of Llyn y Fan Fach (c) Kevan Manwaring
View of Llyn y Fan Fach (c) Kevan Manwaring

It was hard not to be drawn in, not to succumb to the spell-binding gravitational pull of Llyn y Fan Fach’s gramarye of place. We found a ledge to eat our lunch on – with a reassuring boulder acting as a buffer zone between us and oblivion, hundreds of feet below. At three thousand feet the wind was breath-taking, and it was essential to sit out of its icy slap. Hunkering down, we broke bread, offering some to the tutelary spirit, with a bit of cheese to be on the safe side – though casting it into the void from the precipice was not risk averse. Such was the custom – and it’s wisest to heed local knowledge.

We chewed over aspects of the lake maiden story, turning it in our conversation to reveal different cleavage plains. Depending on the version, the apparently fortunate farmer is granted the comely lake maiden as his wife upon stern conditions set by her otherworldly father – that if he should strike three causeless blows, he would lose her forever. This seems temptingly easy to avoid, so he agrees, thinking that he would never strike his beloved new bride. But with folkloric inevitability, like salt to meat, the three causeless blows occur – sometimes ‘provoked’ by the fairy wife behaving in, surprise surprise, a fey-like manner: laughing wildly at a funeral, or crying sorrowfully at a christening. By the time the third ‘blow’ is struck (usually a playful tap on the shoulder), the farmer’s fortunes have reached their zenith. But with the geas broken, the lake maiden withdraws her favours and leads all their fat livestock into the waters of Llyn y Fan Fach. Remarkably, the offspring of their union remain (unlike in equivalent selkie tales), each with a strange gleam in the eye, and the descendants of these become the renowned Physicians of Myddvai, gifted with uncanny powers of healing.

The gifts of the Otherworld, it seems, arise mysteriously and can vanish just as unexpectedly. But on a more human level, perhaps the tale tells us never to take for granted the ones we cherish. That love, and its cousins – affection, friendship, companionship – are blessings we should count every day. Perhaps it is a proto-feminist folk tale. The female protagonist, has, for once, agency. She chooses to manifest before the farmer, and she chooses her time and manner of withdrawal. Her graces we can no more grasp and claim as our own than the catspaw upon the waters. An essentialist reading, however, would suggest that men and women are fundamentally different, and we will never fathom each other’s depths. Whatever the truth of the tale – and its facets are many and morphean – the overwhelming mystique of the place remains. If magic still lingers in these lands, then this is one such frost-pocket.

Light on Llyn y Fan Fach (c) Kevan Manwaring
Light on Llyn y Fan Fach (c) Kevan Manwaring

And it is in such places that I have found inspiration over the years – fountains of awen that I bathe in through my efforts of making pilgrimage. Innumerable times I have experienced their numinous power, their landscape-medicine, and felt compelled to articulate and honour the genius loci in, most of all, poetry, which I have found captures such little epiphanies more concisely, more holistically, than any other form. A photograph captures two dimensions, a poem, four, if not more. One’s body is the camera, and the experience is ‘recorded’ in an intensely visceral way. This embodied knowledge is poured into the poem, which distils it, one hopes, into memorable wisdom – though only time will tell. To be fully in the moment is all. Often the act of taking a photograph can take us away from the actuality of the encounter; whileas a poem (or drawing) can take us more deeply into the moment. A photo can act as a handy aide-mémoire, but notes – or a sketch – done in situ are far better. They retain the tang of the wild.

We traversed the perilous ridge of the Black Mountain and descended quickly as body temperature plummeted – this was not a place to dally, but for a brief while it felt like we had walked amongst the gods, imbibing the rarefied atmosphere of myth.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 3 May 2018

 

Silver Branch: bardic poems by Kevan Manwaring is published by Awen this summer:

https://www.awenpublications.co.uk/

With thanks to Anthony for an epic day, another ramble-sublime!

Mysteries – Stories and Poems of Faerie by Chrissy Derbyshire

 

9781906900458.jpgBy Anthony Nanson

Chrissy Derbyshire is a master of style – lyrical and accessible, archly ironic, and yet at the same time charged with the sensual feyness of Faerie. The eight stories in Mysteries take tropes from myth and fairy tale and animate them, through the alembic of lived experience, with a potent contemporary spark. The ten poems also included in this collection do the same,  in a more focused epiphanic way. In the literary cosmos, Chrissy’s work fits somewhere between Tanith Lee, only with more sense of humour, and Storm Constantine, only more lyrical. Ten years after this book’s first publication, Awen is pleased to release a second edition, including an additional story and three extra poems, with a foreword by fantasy author Kim Huggens and stunning cover art by Tom Brown. You can order Mysteries, like all our books, from the website.

Here’s the information from the back of the book:

This enchanting and exquisitely crafted collection by Chrissy Derbyshire will whet your appetite for more from this superbly talented wordsmith. Her short stories interlaced with poems depict chimeras, femmes fatales, mountebanks, absinthe addicts, changelings, derelict warlocks, and persons foolhardy enough to stray into the beguiling world of Faerie. Let the sirens’ song seduce you into the Underworld.

‘All of the pieces in Mysteries are entertaining. But they also speak twice. Each one has layers of meaning that touch on the ultimate that cannot be put into words and speak to our inner landscapes that are so full of desire for meaning. Chrissy’s journey, elaborately retold in the arena of mythology, is our own journey.’  Kim Huggens