Expect themes of mothers, environmentalism, postcolonialism & future generations.
Free entry, drinks available to purchase
The Mother Country by Helen Moore (Awen Publications, 2019)
Under English law a parent has the right to disinherit their offspring. The Mother Country – exploring British colonial history in Scotland and Australia, and themes of personal, social and ecological dispossession – is a poet’s response to being written out of her mother’s will.
I heard last night that our beloved Jay Ramsay had passed away that morning (30 December), peacefully and without pain. I saw him in hospital in Torquay on 23 December. He was very poorly, and both medics and family were preparing for the worst, yet there was such a fire in him still that I hoped he might bounce back once more. He said, ‘See you!’ not ‘Goodbye.’ His last words to me, just as I was leaving, were, ‘Give my love to everyone.’
I can’t yet believe he’s gone. He will leave such a big space in the healing and poetry communities of which he’s been such a leading light. He was Awen’s biggest champion, just as he championed and encouraged so many individuals on their creative and spiritual journeys. He said to me once that for him poetry and psychotherapy were essentially the same thing, equally concerned with transformation. He had no time for poetry that didn’t have some kind of transformative intent.
Jay referred to his cancer journey as an ‘initiation’. I feel privileged to have got to know him more personally during these last years, when new levels of courage and grace blossomed in him. Although he fought so hard to find healing, and felt there was much he still wanted to do in this life, he seemed not to fear death. I remember him saying, ‘It’s just a gateway, after all.’ Conversations with him reinforced my conviction that death is not the end and there’s a multiplicity of possibilities of what comes after.
Jay was the author, editor, or translator of 48 books, by my count; three of them just this year. He launched The Dangerous Book, his interpretation of the Bible, at a well-attended event in Stroud on 1 November. Perhaps it was fitting that such a supremely ambitious work, accomplished while he had cancer, should be his swansong.
In the course of the past year, Jay attempted to revive his true name, John. He felt an affinity with St John, the beloved disciple, the one who tradition says laid his head on Christ’s chest during the Last Supper and thus heard the heartbeat of God. The heartbeat of God certainly pounds through Jay’s writing, just as it did through his life.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It 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)
Jeremy Hooker has been for many years a major figure as both poet and literary critic. He has had an enduring interest in nature, landscape, and place. So it’s both an honour and also a lovely fit for Awen to have published a collection of his principal essays on the relation between ‘poetry’ in the broad sense (including literary fiction) and the ecological. I’ll let the description and comments from the back cover speak for themselves:
Ditch Vision is a book of essays on poetry, nature, and place that extends Jeremy Hooker’s thinking on subjects that, as a distinguished critic and poet, he has made his life’s work. The writers he considers include Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, Richard Jefferies, John Cowper Powys, Mary Butts, and Frances Bellerby. Through sensitive readings of these and other writers, he discusses differences between British and American writers concerned with nature and spirit of place. The book also includes essays in which he reflects upon the making of his own work as a lyric poet. Written throughout with a poet’s feeling for language, Ditch Visionis the work of an exploratory writer who seeks to understand the writings he discusses in depth, and to illuminate them for other readers. Hooker explores the ‘ground’ of poetic vision with reference to its historical and mythological contexts, and in this connection Ditch Vision constitutes also a spiritual quest.
‘For thirty years and more I have admired Jeremy Hooker’s poetry, criticism, and journals. These essays touch both upon some of his familiar and deeply loved subjects, and on concerns that are more recent. His prose is clear and resonant, a pleasure in itself. His views are always challenging. He is, and has been for many years, a necessary voice.’ John Matthias
‘Lovely intense encounters with landscape come into these essays. Suddenly, in a discussion of poetry, there is the presence of warm earth on a Spring day in chalk country, or sunlight coming through trees, or drying shingle when the tide has just withdrawn. Throughout Hooker’s writing about poetry, place and environmental concern, there is this direct and frank openness to particular moments of experience, and the power they have to keep people constantly changing. Hooker searches for an environmentalism rooted in these moments of intense and poetic yet everyday experience, but also alert to global perspectives and to history. In this search, he reads other poets, including several who have been unjustly neglected, and tells the story of how place and memory influenced his own development as a poet. To all of this he brings the skills that his poetry, his childhood and his places have given him – his love of imagery, speech-rhythm, conversation and colour.’ Richard Kerridge