Category Archives: Author Reflections

Fiction and Reality: The Ambiguous Writings of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Campbell McCluskie

by Alistair McNaught, The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie

Some contemporary scientists give the impression (whether deliberately or not) that the gap between what is known and what is yet to be discovered about life and the universe is too small to accommodate the existence of a deity. And yet, that gap remains and, to my mind, always will remain infinite.

From El Pensador Solitario by Alejandro Hijo de Nada

The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie

Alain Robbe-Grillet and Campbell McCluskie began their writing careers at roughly the same time, in the years immediately following the Second World War. Alain Robbe-Grillet started work on his first novel, Un Régicide, at the end of the 1940s, but it was not published until 1978. During the 1950s, he went on to write the four novels upon which his reputation rests: Les Gommes (The Erasers), Le Voyeur, La Jalousie, and Dans le Labyrinthe. His international reputation grew with the release of L’Année Dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad), a film for which he wrote the screenplay and which was directed by Alain Resnais. Although little read in the United Kingdom, Alain Robbe-Grillet became highly regarded in the United States, where he taught in various universities. There is no evidence that he ever knew the work of Campbell McCluskie, although an obscure French writer, Edouard Charogne, who was briefly associated with the authors of the Nouveau Roman, did write an essay on McCluskie’s play Deeds and the Crow. It appeared in the journal Tel Quel in 1962, with an introduction by Philippe Sollers, so loaded with irony that it made both Charogne and McCluskie appear like figments of his imagination. Ian Alexander McDuffy, writing about Deeds and the Crow in his biography of McCluskie, rather overstated the impact the playwright had made on the writers of the Nouveau Roman.

McCluskie’s brief period of fame ended with his murder in 1954. In the following years, he was virtually forgotten. The revival of The Irresistible Rise of Tam McLean in the Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre in 1968 did little to restore his reputation, and for most people the playwright remains a rather spectral figure, akin to a character in an unpopular novel.

Outside the United Kingdom, Alain Robbe-Grillet never became as marginalised as Campbell McCluskie, but he fell under increasing criticism for the prominence in his films and novels of troubling scenes of sexual sadism. Some literary critics almost wrote him off. John Fletcher, for example, though recognising his importance in literary history, considered that his work in the 1970s had led him into a blind alley; that younger authors, like Ian McEwan, were taking the novel in fresh new directions. But even John Fletcher found promise in an autobiographical fragment written by Alain Robbe-Grillet in the late 1970s, which was later expanded into the book Le Miroir Qui Revient, translated as Ghosts in the Mirror. It is this unusual work of autobiography which I am going to consider now, and to compare with Ian Alexander McDuffy’s equally unusual biography, The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie; a book that remains sadly, for most people, the only way to experience McCluskie’s ground-breaking literary works.

“I have never spoken of anything but myself. From within and so this had hardly been noticed.” Such was how Alain Robbe-Grillet opened the short autobiographical fragment that was originally published in the late 1970s; a perfectly reasonable opening for an autobiography, but it appeared to the group of writers and intellectuals with whom he was linked at the time to be a flagrant betrayal of their orthodoxies. Radical literary theorists had argued that Robbe-Grillet’s work represented a complete break with the humanist concerns of conventional realist fiction. He was famous for his objective descriptions of objects. His characters were often reduced to mere cyphers indicated by the initial letters of names that were never given. They seldom had the invented pasts that readers traditionally demanded of literary characters. His novels were filled with repetitions of scenes, apparently unfolding in the present, with no indication of chronology, and none of the techniques used in conventional fiction to differentiate imagined or remembered scenes.

In his most famous novel, La Jalousie, the reader gradually comes to understand that the entire narrative, such as it is, is given from the point of view of the absent husband; the whole work being nothing more than the unfolding of his obsessive, jealous suspicion that his wife, A, is having or has had an affair with Franck, the owner of a neighbouring plantation. The husband repeatedly observes his wife through the venetian blind (in French, ‘jalousie’ – a pun lost in the English translation) covering her bedroom window, or he continually goes over the few occasions he has seen Franck with his wife, seeking any indications of her infidelity.

Robbe-Grillet’s work in the late 1960s and 1970s represented an even more radical break with traditional realism. The novels Topologie d’une Cité Fantôme (Topology of a Phantom City) and Souvenirs du Triangle D’or (Recollections of the Golden Triangle), published in 1976 and 1978, respectively, were assembled from various collaborations with visual artists which had been published earlier in that decade. Scenes and events seem to arise from nothing, unfold in a series of extraordinarily precise descriptions, and then shift abruptly to other scenes, to which they are only tenuously linked. There are human figures whose appearance and gestures are exactly described. They are given names, but they have no histories or character traits. They perform sometimes violent and sadistic acts, but without motive or passion. Scenes are repeated, with variations or expansions. There is no attempt at verisimilitude. There are no coherent plots, no single story moving towards a denouement; just a series of meticulously assembled and vividly evoked episodes; and yet for me these novels still have a haunting, hallucinatory and suggestive quality that is impossible to describe without repeating them word for word.

Alain Robbe-Grillet began Le Miroir qui Revient (Ghosts in the Mirror) by pointing out that everything had changed dramatically in the seven-year interval since the opening words of that autobiographical fragment were written. It was 1984. Clearly, in France, as in the UK, there had been a shift in society away from the radicalism of art, literature, music, and politics which had characterised the previous two decades. Conventional realism once again became the dominant form in literature and cinema, if not in art. Although it seems to me that this had more to do with the kind of capitalism that was being ushered in during the 1980s by people like Margaret Thatcher; in which the accumulation of wealth began to be seen as an admirable pursuit in and of itself, and in which monetary value was to become the sole measure of success in any field. Consequently, in 1984, Alain Robbe-Grillet thought his decision to write an autobiography would be welcomed by the new orthodoxy that was then coming into being. In his opening paragraph he hinted at these changes, but nevertheless he concluded that he should persevere in his project, because ‘the same questions still come up, perennial, haunting, maybe pointless’. He then wrote the words, ‘Who was Henri de Corinthe?’ – just as a puzzled reader might well ask, ‘Who was Campbell McCluskie?’

The English title, Ghosts in the Mirror, rather gives the game away, as is the case with some translations, when the publisher wants something more commercial for a title, or the translator wants to give the reader a clue as to what the book is about. The French title, Le Miroir qui Revient, could more accurately have been translated as ‘The Returning Mirror’.

Robbe-Grillet introduces Henri de Corinthe as a friend of his father, whose erratic, eagerly awaited visits would always occur in the evening. For a reason that was never made clear to the young Alain, his father did not want him to meet Corinthe, and so, despite having earlier written a very clear description of Corinthe warming himself at the fire, he later confesses that he is not sure that he has ever even seen him. He even questions his description of the house, which is much grander than Robbe-Grillet’s childhood home. Chronological discrepancies are also introduced, which gradually cast doubt on Corinthe’s very existence, while he is yet evoked in a series of beautifully described scenes that on the contrary make him appear as real as Robbe-Grillet’s mother, as his grandfather, as the wild Breton coast near which Robbe-Grillet grew up, as the sea that used to terrify him as a child, as the fearful legends of sea monsters that used to haunt his dreams.

The key episode of the book occurs when Corinthe is riding his white horse near the coast on a calm moonlit night. As he comes close to the shore he hears a rhythmic noise coming from the direction of the sea. Robbe-Grillet uses all the virtuosity of his writing to describe Corinthe riding down on to the beach. his realisation that the noise is coming from an oval mirror floating on the waves, and his tribulations with his frightened horse. When he finally struggles out into the increasingly rough sea, and against all the odds drags the heavy mirror back to the shore, he sees by the moonlight in its ‘cloudy depths’ the reflected face of ‘his lost fiancée, Marie-Ange, who was drowned on a beach in the Atlantic near Montevideo and whose body has never been found’.

Elsewhere the book reads like a traditional autobiography. He recounts the history of his mother’s family, provides anecdotes from his childhood, describes his father, who was badly injured in the First World War, in which he served as a sapper, battling the enemy in nightmarish makeshift tunnels under No Man’s Land. Often these are sentimental scenes of the kind abjured by his literary followers. However, he constantly undermines his descriptions of these scenes by pointing out how far they stray from the reality of lived experience. At the same time, he shows how these remembered scenes have cropped up in his writing, and films. Controversially, he openly discusses his parents’ extreme right-wing sympathies and his own sadistic sexual fantasies which started in his early childhood. These fantasies and his terrors about the sea and its imagined monsters represent for Robbe-Grillet the ghosts that haunt his writing, like the ghost haunting the mirror.

During the Second World War, he was conscripted by the German government to work for a year in a tank factory in Nuremburg. This experience was to be the defining one in determining the kind of writer he was to become, much as Campbell’s wartime experience in Normandy would offer him the stimulus to write his first play.

As a French foreign worker, Robbe-Grillet was treated relatively well by the Germans. Initially he saw nothing to clash with his parent’s admiration of the orderly German nation, which they felt showed up the manifold failures of the French Third Republic. But Alain soon saw evidence of the horror lurking behind the façade: the shop signs forbidding Polish workers and Jews from buying cakes, or the brutal treatment of a Russian prisoner in the hospital attached to the factory. However, it was only the revelations of the concentration camps after the war that disclosed the full extent of the madness underlying the Third Reich, and it was then that Robbe-Grillet ceased to share his parents’ views. Henceforth, he began to distrust order and the psychological, philosophical, and political systems that seek to uphold it. That is not to say that he completely relinquished his need for order, but he considered that the struggle between this need and the opposing attraction to disorder are present in different proportions in every human being. He concluded that writing experimental fiction was the best way to explore this conflict.

In editing The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie, I very soon realised that Campbell’s plays reveal in their ambiguity a similar distrust of order to that expressed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, although the plays are not in any obvious way like Robbe-Grillet’s novels. There are strong characters, most notably the central male characters in the plays, who pursue their various ambitions and desires in clearly delineated settings. There is none of the chronological and spatial dislocations of Robbe-Grillet’s novels, and yet there are odd, unsettling details (like the presence of diamonds in The Irresistible Rise of Tam McLean, which seem to predict future events in the play, or the details of stage design in The Massacre which suggest a possible order underlying the chaotic city, or the way the character’s madness is expressed in Deeds and the Crow through lighting effects clearly visible to the audience but not to most of the characters on stage) which I would argue create small gaps in the narratives as profound as the more overt dislocations created by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Moreover, in one very evocative paragraph Robbe-Grillet describes the sensations he experienced at nightfall in the winter city, which he says impelled him to write in the first place and which seem to parallel the epiphanies Campbell experienced in his youth at the sight of Clydebank and the Clyde valley as seen from the hills to the north, or when his Aunt Dorothy arrived at his house for the first time.

Then there are the more obvious links between Robbe-Grillet’s autobiographical project and Ian Alexander McDuffy’s biography of the playwright. In The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie, the descriptions of Campbell’s plays are set against the narrative of Campbell’s life, in the same way as Robbe-Grillet sets his own work against the autobiographical sections of Le Miroir qui Revient. And so we are shown the brutal misogyny of Campbell’s maternal grandfather and its impact on his daughters; the troubled relationship of Campbell’s parents; Campbell’s haunting experiences during the Second World War; Campbell’s complete split with his father, which remained unresolved at the time of the playwright’s death. Unlike, Robbe-Grillet, however, McDuffy is not seeking to question the relationship between his descriptions and the reality of Campbell’s life. On the contrary, he is seeking a meaning in the playwright’s life which will explain why his mother died giving birth to him, and he doesn’t always appear to notice the numerous contradictions and ambiguities arising from his sources. Nor does he seem to have any awareness that he shares his mania for meaning with Inspector Grieg, whose investigation of McCluskie’s murder has such dire consequences.

In editing McDuffy’s biography, however, I found something that I have not been able to discern among the contradictions, gaps, and erasures in Robbe-Grillet’s work. It seemed to me that I was constantly catching glimmers in The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie of a kind of underlying meaning; like a watermark running through the text. This was not the irrefutable meaning offered by the totalitarian systems of the Nazis and the Communists. Robbe-Grillet argued that these were closed systems that brooked no opposition, and were therefore like a kind of death, if death is viewed as an absence of possibility. He also argued that Freud’s ideas represented a similar closed system, in that Freud would overcome any opposing argument by reducing the individual who made the argument to a category of his own system of thought. It would seem to me that such systems are currently offered by extreme religious groups, who offer one fixed meaning of holy books that are often ad hoc assemblages of contradictory and ambiguous texts, or even by scientists, who create unsubstantiated theories, such as the existence of dark energy, in order to iron out observations that contradict the Big Bang.

In Le Miroir qui Revient, Alain Robbe-Grillet makes clear that he is not advocating one approach to writing. He is merely setting out the ambiguous and changing approach he has taken to writing over the years, to prevent his ideas from becoming dogmatic, and to carry out the impossible task of overcoming his own ambiguous and ill-defined nature. At one point, he compares characters in novels to ‘the unquiet dead forced by some evil spell or divine vengeance to live the same scenes from their tragic destiny over and over again’. Just as Campbell McCluskie is doomed repeatedly to follow the same sequence of events from his birth to his violent death, in minutely described scenes that seem at the same time chaotic and inevitable. And yet, if you reread The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie several times, as I have had to do in the course of my work as editor, you too may find, in its odd repetitions and inconsistencies, tiny gaps (like that mentioned by Hijo de Nada in the above quotation translated from his ineffable and only published work, El Pensador Solitario) that open on to the infinite wonders and possibilities that are our only consolation, and where a God or a void might equally exist.


‘It’s All One Place’ – recollections of and tribute to my friend Jay Ramsay

by Diana Durham

Diana Durham edit.jpgMy poems were still in the bottom drawer of my desk, and the very idea of performing them was challenging, when I first met Jay, around 30 years ago. Like many other poets before and after me, I got to experience Jay’s extraordinary kindness and encouragement, and soon had a first volume of poems from the Diamond Press with the help of Jay and publisher Geoffrey Godbert. Not long after that, I joined the other members of what was probably the second generation of the performance group Angels of Fire, with Jay, Lizzie Spring, Carolyn Askar and Taggart Deike.

Jay became a lifelong friend and colleague, editing four poetry anthologies that I contributed to, editing two of my poetry books, writing endorsements, offering his Chrysalis imprint for my collection of sonnets. He came over to America after I moved there with my family, and we had a lot of fun giving workshops and readings. My daughter was eight years old at the time, and I will never forget the ‘living sculpture’ of driftwood and flotsam she and Jay built down along the marshy edge of the tidal pond close to our home. It stood for a surprising number of years before tides and weather dismantled it.

Jay’s generosity functioned within his own passion for and dedication to the craft of poetry. The number of his poetry books alone is legendary. But, more than this, what I valued always was his unabashed staking out of what he called ‘the visionary dimension’. Jay’s perennial theme is that the worlds of vision and form are intertwined:

I cross the threshold, and wade

Where the breath hangs in the sunlight and the green

And there’s no sound, only the breath whispering,

Humming inaudibly like bees, at my feet …


And the light pours down, the light is pouring down

Over my head, drawing me into silence

So there’s no difference between the light

And what it’s shining on—it’s all one place

from Pilgrimage

Why is this important? Because: ‘Where there is no vision the people perish.’ Visionary awareness brings coherence, brings life. And for Jay this is what poetry enacts, what it is for:

Poetry, stuck like a rare transparency

Pressed between the pages of a book

When we need it written all over the air

A mile high, so blind eyes can see?

from ‘prelude-for Ted’ in Monuments

Jay persisted in this understanding, the poems flowing out through decades dominated by the intellectual arrogance of postmodern nihilism, reductionist science, and the juggernaut of global markets. His poetry forms a significant thread in the gold weave of vision sustained by all great poets – and which in turn sustains us.

Recently returned to the UK from America, I managed to see Jay twice. Once in a sunny cafe, when he looked radiant, the second time at the launch of The Dangerous Book, when he looked more gaunt. Now he is no longer here, in form anyway, although I know he is here in presence. Nevertheless, I will miss him, miss co-creating, miss hearing his beautiful voice.

Some words about Jay Ramsay

by Lindsay Clarke

lindsay-picThe last time I saw Jay was at the launch of A Dance with Hermes in the Black Book Cafe and I remember how astonishingly well he looked despite the various ordeals of both illness and treatment he had so recently undergone. It felt characteristic of his courage and resolution that he coped so well with conditions that might have left a lesser spirit utterly debilitated. As with my old friend John Moat, he was fortified and invigorated by the presence of poetry within him and the indomitable power of the spiritual imagination.

He and I were friends – at times close friends – for around a quarter of a century, during which time I often teased him for an occasionally over-portentous seriousness of purpose which, in these days of arid intellectual scepticism, I also deeply admired. I must have tried his patience at times but he always received my jocular critique with good humour and a shrewd awareness of my own deficiencies in the spiritual realm. In many ways, he was like a younger brother to me, one from whom I had much to learn.

Jay carried light within him through this dark time. It shone through his work as it resounded, unforgettably, in his voice. That illuminating presence will be deeply missed by me and by the many others whose souls it so feelingly touched.

Jay Ramsay, a Tribute

by Verona Bass

verona bass croppedI knew him as Jay, although he tried to revert to being known as John near the end of his life. I have a book of poems by him acquired in 2008, with an inscription addressed to me: ‘for Verona. In your heart’s life and dreaming, warmest and best, Jay. Waterstones. (9.10.2008)’

The title of the collection is Out Of Time, which seems poignant now that I know that he ran out of time on 30 December 2018, just over ten years later.

On the dedication page are several quotes, all of which now seem prescient:

Time becomes more and more dreamlike. It’s often only possible to know something happened or somewhere was visited by seeing the marks I made … (Kurt Jackson, Sketchbooks)

This is journey without distance, to the place you never left. (Tom and Linda Carpenter, Healing the Dream)

How we imagine our lives is how we will go on living our lives. (James Hillman, Healing Fictions)

Jay (or John) influenced people both by who he was and how he wrote. I didn’t know him well, and didn’t often see him, but it doesn’t take that much time for someone to have an impact. He seemed kind, had an instinctive understanding of the human condition. He was a performer of great power and presence with a quiet authority. They say he was a healer. He practised psychotherapy. He conducted teaching sessions to encourage creative writing, and it is here I encountered him in a day of in-depth writing at Hawkwood College in Stroud. I booked to attend a longer course with him, somewhere remote, which he had to cancel because of his father’s illness.

In Out of Time, there are poems about his father: ‘Driving Home on Christmas Day’ and ‘Golden Leaves’. In the latter one he describes sweeping up golden leaves on the garden path in the last light of day, with his father indoors, ‘wondering if you can see me’ … It was a task, a duty, but an act of devotion for his dad, and it begins, poignantly:

I was in the darkness, Dad

and you were already in the light.

One of my most telling encounters with him was when we both tried to offer support to a fellow poet and friend, Mary Palmer, before she needed to go into a hospice. It was a short but sympathetic overlap.

These moments are the stuff of what makes us human, what informs the transactions we regularly make as we navigate the currents carrying us through life. Jay’s flow has entered a different realm but we will feel the ripples in the wake of his passing.

The launch of Green Man Dreaming and By the Edge of the Sea, 5 December 2018

On Wednesday 5 December Awen was delighted to host the launch in Stroud at the ever-wonderful Black Book Café of two of our newest books. These were Green Man Dreaming: Reflections on Imagination, Myth and Memory, Lindsay Clarke’s selected essays; and By the Edge of the Sea, a short story collection by acclaimed New Caledonian author Nicolas Kurtovitch, translated into English for the first time by Anthony Nanson. Lindsay travelled up from Somerset to join us – and Nicolas beamed in from what was for him the following morning in New Caledonia, which is 11 hours ahead of Great Britain.

Last minute hook up with Nicolas as Richard starts the event! Thank you, Glenn!

There was a nervous few minutes while we waited for Nicolas to appear on the skype call that our good friend Glenn Smith had set up for us – after all, when we called Nicolas it was only 6.30am! But, bang on the dot of 8pm our time he appeared, ready to share a virtual coffee with us. Anthony then interviewed Nicolas about New Caledonia and its situation in the world – poised between Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea – Nicolas’ inspirations for his long writing career, and particular for this writing collection. He spoke about how he had gone to live on Lifou, an island off the main island of New Caledonia, among the Kanak, the indigenous people, and how the landscapes and people he knew came into his stories – and how he wanted to share his relationships and personal experiences with the world, to bring the lives of the Kanak into a wider view. At that time in the 1990s, New Caledonia was just emerging from a period unrest following a failed bid for independence from France – ironically, just weeks before the launch of this collection in 2018, there had been a referendum on whether to stay part of France or become an independent nation. This time, the New Caledonians voted to stay – but not as many did as was assumed. Here’s a clip of Nicolas talking about inspiration from Australian travels – apologies for the sound quality, he’s coming from a long way away!

Anthony and Nicolas then read part of one of the stories from the book, ‘Desert Dreaming’, Nicolas starting it off in the original French, and then Anthony picking it up in English. Here’s a taster:

Then it was time for Lindsay, ably introduced by our emcee for the evening, Richard Selby, who runs the story, song and poetry night, What a Performance!, in Bath.

It’s probably best to leave Lindsay to speak for himself on the reasons for pulling together this collection of his essays, lectures and personal anecdotes of the many other literary figures he has known. Here, he talks about some of his thinking and philosophy towards the raising of consciousness that he feels is so desperately needed in both the individual, in society as a whole and beyond:

He then went on to read from the book, exploring, first, the concept that we all have our own, personal, daimon – and what that means for us:

More readings followed, going into dreams, and back out again, via the I Ching, and into his novels, The Chymical Wedding and The Water Theatre, and back to the personal. We’ll be sharing some of this on the blog at a later date. Then there was time for a question and answer session – and the all important book signings!

Putting on a launch event is always very much a collective effort, so we’d like to say our thank yous! Of course, big thanks are due to Lindsay and Nicolas for joining us and sharing their thoughts to create a meaningful, warm, fascinating evening. Thanks also go to our hosts Black Book Café for providing such a warm and welcoming atmosphere … as well as coffee and cake! Thank you to Richard for the excellent emceeing, big thanks to Glenn for coming down and making the tech happen for us, thanks to Kirsty for managing the book stall – and, of course, to the audience!

We’ll see you at the next event!


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:

Transparency in Action

by Jay Ramsay

Jay Ramsay Pembroke College cropped (2).jpgIt occurs to me again today that the task for poetry couldn’t be clearer where poets are choosing to bring their work into the field of social justice and (as Andrew Harvey would say, with utmost relevance) ‘sacred activism’.

The real story, which is surely the environment now, is being masked by a puppet show diverting our attention from what urgently matters in our collective consciousness. However, every effort is being made through the best of social media to keep that story at the frontline of our awareness.

Of course, our human story matters as well: we live at a time when all the world’s wrongs are being exposed in a time of transparency. This great transparency, in my view, has the absolute backing of the spiritual world where that transparent light originates. When that light informs a poet’s eye, we also have poetry that matters.

You must have asked yourself, as I have many times, what does the spiritual world make of the state we are in? With a new century so quickly mired in sourness that is at the same time an unavoidable process towards our awakening, the dark before the dawn, the End Time, Revelation … and now with two important films released recently on both sides of the Atlantic: The Post, with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, recalling the great Vietnam cover-up through a series of White House administrations, and the Washington Post’s brave decision to publish leaked documents; and on this side of the pond Darkest Hour, where Churchill stood firm in 1940 against all the forces of appeasement to take Hitler seriously as the very real threat that could have (would have) changed our island history.

As a dear friend and local poetry lover, Sally Whitman, said who saw it (and I paraphrase): ‘I mean, what kind of Britain do we want ? A trivial nation, or what?’

This is transparency in action, through the Self, through intuition; and of course this is fire in the heart which is the passion that knows how much it matters: this is where we will recover our moral compass, and not only that, but our own authentic orientation as people living now who want to make an empowered contribution.

As Robert Bly, 92 this year, put it in ‘Advice from the Geese’:

Every seed spends many nights in the earth.

Give up the idea the world will get better by itself.

You will not be forgiven if you refuse to study.


(Reproduced in Diamond Cutters: contemporary visionary poets in America and Britain, ed. Andrew Harvey & Jay Ramsay, Tayen Lane, San Francisco, 2016)

On the Cover: Glossing the Spoils


by Kirsty Hartsiotis

b694b1_08f653f8784c44929d43a376cccf6604mv2I’ve always been fascinated by hoards. To me they are deeply poignant and offer a glimpse into a moment in another person’s life. It’s easy to imagine a scenario from the thin thread of evidence – the coins tucked away in a bag or pot – and see a desperate person hastily digging a hole, stuffing in their only treasure, covering it over, staring at it to try to drum the place into their memory, then snatching up a child, the rest of their belongings, tugging away a horse, and running from the chaos they’ve left behind, a raid, a battle, perhaps, but with one thought in mind – I will come back. Implicit in there is the thought, I will come home again, and pick up the reins of my old life, and all will be as it was. But we know that that didn’t happen. For whatever reason, the person who buried the hoard didn’t return, and the little bag of coins remains there until a metal detectorist or archaeologist strays on it one day and the ancient metal is brought to light.

When I first saw the cover image for Charlotte Hussey’s Glossing the Spoils, that’s exactly what I thought we had. The coins on the cover are from the Hallaton Hoard, a massive collection of Iron Age and Roman coins found near Market Harborough in the East Midlands. How fitting, thought I, a coin hoard is the perfect cover for this collection of poems expanding out, glossing, inspired by medieval texts from all over Western Europe. So often, in early medieval writing at least, all we have are the remains, the scraps, and our understanding of the complex meanings behind the poems in the Anglo-Saxon corpus, say, or the Mabinogion, and the lost tales they reference is like our understanding of coin hoards – we can imagine a bigger picture, we can gloss and explain all we like, but to capture that moment of writing, the societal context of the poet, the writer, and their world view, that’s all but impossible.

However. Some coin hoards are not like the one imagined above. Sometimes there’s a whole lot more going on. The coins on this cover are just a few of the 5296 coins found in no less than fourteen coin hoards on the site. They were deposited at some point just before or soon after the Romans came to Britain, but not because people were running away from invaders or civil war; rather, as part of a collective, community ritual. The people who deposited these coins came to the place, feasted, and held a ritual that resulted in the burial of these coins and the bones of the pigs they ate. And a Roman helmet. And, sadly to us today, it seems that the site was important enough to need to be guarded at all times – three dog skeletons have been found, psychopompic guards protecting against all spiritual comers. The coins show the exuberant horses, dots, and symbols of Iron Age coins, mixed in with the artistic inspiration – coins from the Empire across the Channel. What relationship did these people have with Rome? Who were they beyond the name Corieltavi? How did they get the helmet? Why did they stop coming?

Always there are more questions than answers. A quick glance won’t do. That’s what I take from the cover – and from the poems inside the book. There is everything to be gained from looking under the surface. In those deeper places lie discoveries – not just the materially obvious hidden treasure, but an elucidation of hidden lives and, perhaps, a glimpse into ourselves and a chance to have a deeper connection with both ourselves and the the myriad lost lives of the past.

You can find out more about the Hallaton Treasure here, and if you’d like to dig deeper into Hussey’s book, it’s available here.

Word Temple

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Roselle Angwin has blogged about poetry and Iona here – as it’s on blospot this is the closest we can get to a re-blog!