Is Memory Always Author?

When we ventured forth these past few days I saw the first rowan berries. There were leaves that had the first blush of autumn on their leaves. This week Storm Ellen blew threw and knocked out our electricity for nearly twenty-four hours. Then there was the knock-on effect to the internet server up on Arigna Mountain when their backup generator gave up. The sky has often had interesting splashes of Prussian Blue on its palette. In the meantime, in the long hours when I was conserving the juice in all my devices, I wrote pages of longhand. All of it prose. Not a jot of poetry.

Some is prep for the online creative writing workshop that will begin on 1st September. There is a single space left! So if you have been humming and hawing over it, grab it while you can. Full details here: https://sojourningsmith.blog/2020/08/18/creative-writing-workshops-on-zoom/.

The hours of prose breaching the margins of my notebook is thanks to an online course I have been following, courtesy of the Cavan Arts Office. Online courses are a very good way to fill the creative well. You never know where they will take you. I have been looking at one being offered by the Cavan County Writer in Residence, Anthony J. Quinn, Wild Storytelling: Nature and Landscape.(http://www.cavanarts.ie/Default.aspx?StructureID_str=6&guid=188). In the murky light as the rain poured down and the wind raged, toppling trees and decapitating gladioli, I surprised myself with the flood of memory pouring onto A4 pages in my notebook.

Now my life is not all writing. I have spent many hours as a Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark guide, leading tourists around Cavan and Fermanagh and the Geopark’s fringes. Nature and landscape are really important to my life. But the very first exercise pulled me back to a very different geography.

My childhood was spent in Marcellus shale country, not in the border country where the two pieces of Ireland rub shoulders. Memories flooded in. What was meant as a nature and landscape piece became page after page of an inscape, a memoir of growing up in a small Pennsylvania town in the 1960s.

This came as a complete surprise to me. Quinn did lead me into the wild, into the unexpected terrain of long ago memory. The Celts reckoned that memory was the fount of all poetry. Perhaps. At the moment it is the fount of prose. I have a very messy draft. But then wildness is not known for its tidyness.

The craft of writing is about clearing up after your messy drafts. But I am still deep in the flotsam and jetsam of the memories storming across the pages. I need to allow it to blow through me onto the page and then move to the screen where it will get shuffled around, arranged and rearranged. There will be cuts. Those always hurt. But I remember what my mentor said about thinking of those edits as conjoined twins. You are not killing your baby. You take that sliver of infant writing and put it into a separate incubator. Hope that it may survive and thrive to have a life of its own in a separate piece.

Over the next few weeks the Sunday Weekly may be more about prose than poetry. We shall see. But I do have a poem for you this week. It is only at third, or possibly the sixth or seventh (whose counting?) draft stage and has been lying in its cot for a month or so. The Relic Road is the local name for a lane that used to lead to the old Protestant cemetery, which nature has obliterated. It is heavily wooded now. Every storm brings down limbs and branches that litter the narrow lane’s way.

If Marc Chagall Painted the Relic Road
 
Every fragment is sanctified,
flesh long saponified salts the earth,
skin slipped off like a gown. 
 
Souls of the departed sail, swooping
in the singing trees - their echoes hoop
where no one lives but the Pleiades.
 
The ground is grit of knuckle bone.
Also luminous as winter’s bright aconite.  
The shivering trees are acolytes looking on
 
at tombstones long past subsided, 
swallowed by earth, erased by wind, the wind,
season upon season. No names remain.
 
No descendants survive to look on and remember.
Just the trees.  Their murmuring. The sky.
The music of ghosts flying past.
 
 
Copyright © Bee Smith, 2020. All rights reserved.

Featured image is a Photo by Michal Ico on Unsplash

Solstice Sun Up Meditation

Shortly after the moon entered the sign of Aquarius at 3am this morning I found myself awake. Then wakeful. As much as I would have loved to get back to sleep I have experienced the amrit vela hours of summer solstice. It’s not exactly dark then. But you do need a little extra illumination to do any writing. But mostly I was thinking. Yesterday was the penultimate event in what has been a hectic workshop season for me starting on St. Brigit’s Day, 1st February. I have worked intensively with children. Yesterday the Arts Officer from County Cavan asked my creative colleague and sometime workshop collaborator, Morag Donald, and I what we had learned from the workshops we delivered. 

What I have learned is that we are rearing a generation of children who are not passionately engaged with words. With each group of kids I work with I begin by asking them to describe themselves as being a ‘words’ person or a ‘picture’ person. Overwhelmingly, they identify as pictures people. Of the thirty-five in the audience at Trivia House yesterday , about five put hands up as Words people, with about two describing themselves as both verbal and visual. 

A good deal of my work with school age children touches on ‘The Lost Words’ – those words naming the natural world that were expunged from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in the 2015 edition. Words like birch, wren, nectar, acorn and dandelion. Words that with climate change may become extinct in an actual sense. It is as if we are extinguishing not just the natural world, but our language to describe our experience of it.  As someone living in a country where the indigenous language was erased as policy for generations, I am sensitive to the fact that when you lose language – the words to express your reality- then you also erode and destroy a culture. We may want to be environmentally aware and climate change smart, but you need the language to connect with the natural world that is at stake.

Ben Okri has noted in his book of essays A Way of Being Free that toxic stories make toxic societies. Many of the stories we offer our children are of war, crime and consumerism. Plot needs conflict, of course, but how do we resolve it? Most often with violence, force, sex or shopping. How can we change this narrative? Fairy stories were dark tales, too. In those medieval folk tales it may have felt like the world was ending; this generation actually faces the prospect of the decimation of home planet earth. We need to create garden arks for the planet. But we also need to create language arks to be able to adequately express out feelings of connection to others and the wider world. For if we cannot name our feelings, describe our inner reality, how can we hope to form a bridge and comprehend those who are not exactly like ourselves? With the language to express that reality we might  have less bullying, less reason to punch and physically harm others, and more peaceful resolutions of conflict. We need to be able to express the shades and degrees of our feelings with a wider range than an emoticon. That is shorthand. What we are losing is the longhand skill metaphorically speaking. (As well as the actual skill of cursive handwriting which is no longer on the curriculum in many places.)

How can we build a vocabulary of resilience in our children? Because it feels to me this morning that we are losing our mother tongue as much as a connection with text.  I was reared by a mother who read aloud for 365 days a year for fourteen consecutive years. Being read to teaches listening skills, not just vocabulary with visual aids of picture books. It is a sensual experience – the snuggling in, the rise and fall of the reader’s voice, the taste or smell of the drink or snack you might be having as you listen. For me, words are the ultimate comfort, books my suckie blanket.

Ironically, to incite people to read the words in this blog I am tapping out on my iPad, I will need to add a visual teaser.  I am not anti-technology. I yipped with glee over word processing and spell checker. I am delighted to capture the birdsong and ghostly moon at 5am for your delectation. But what legacy is there without the language to give context?

The daily poem…eventually.

My Mother’s Jewellery Box 

It’s mine now, but

it used to belong to my mother.

She had few gems or other

priceless items made of gold –

some clip-on earrings, folded

news clippings, old prayer cards –

a display of her regard,

the printed word beside a broach,

a badge of honour, a vote

for what has equal value.

Copyright 2019 Bee Smith. All rights reserved.

Weaving Art in the Geopark

My creative colleague, Morag Donald, and I have been leading art and creative writing workshops with a Foróige youth group in Templeport, Co. Cavan since January. This was just one group taking part in the Cavan Youth Arts Lab, of which there are ten across County Cavan with approximately 150 youth getting a chance to try out and play in various artistic disciplines. The Cavan Arts Office initiative received EU funding through Peace IV, part of the ongoing funding in cross-border communities that has oiled the mechanics of peace and reconciliation after the Thirty Years conflict ended with the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday, 10th April, 1998. Rural border towns were especially impacted by that conflict in many ways too lengthy to enumerate in this blog post.  Here we are twenty years on, approaching Good Friday, still doing the healing work.

Templeport, Bawnboy is also a Geopark Community, with sites of importance for Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark (another monument to cross-border cooperation, founded in the wake of the Belfast Agreement.) Morag and I proposed a project allowing the group to try out a range of arts and crafts, story and poetry that they would be unlikely to encounter in school.  We took as our thematic touchstone ‘Landscape and Heritage.’  PEACE Cavan Youth Arts Project Facilitator Kim Doherty matched us with a Foróige group of 12-14 year old girls. We met them in evening sessions and one daytime in Templeport Community Centre and had a day long outing in Cavan Burren Park, Shannon Pot and a workshop in Dowra Courthouse Creative Space. Because as far as I am concerned you cannot have a project on land without getting outdoors.

Over the course of the first quarter of 2018, ten young women gamely tried out lots of new stuff. In the first session I asked them if they related more to words or pictures. Most felt more comfortable with visual media, but they also courageously tried out words. And I do mean courageous. One young woman when asked how she felt about writing a poem said, “Terrified!” And she was being dead honest. But, to her credit, she felt the fear and did it anyway!  And it didn’t really hurt at all in the process – a bit to her surprise.

We started with giving them journals to collage and keep a record of their own work and thoughts.

Cavan Youth Arts Lab Journals
Collaged journals, Cavan Youth Arts Lab at Templeport

Morag Donald, a certified tutor in Touch Drawing, gave them a taste of this way to express themselves using this unique technique.

Cavan Youth Arts Lab Touch Drawing
Cavan Youth Arts Lab Touch Drawing

Morag also taught skills in felt making, needle felt pictures and weaving.

 

 

First, call your friend who has some alpaca wool going spare. Then, encourage girls to get over the animal aroma pre-washing.  Next, wash it, roll it, pass it around! Felt making is a truly communal and co-operative operation.

But weaving offered each individual the opportunity to weave in her own contribution as part of a greater whole.

Cavan Youth Arts Lab Weaving
Weaving one’s own contribution to the bigger picture

For the words part of the project I chose ‘The Lost Words’ as a theme. This harks back to a poem of my own (Lost Worlds) inspired when I read that many words describing natural phenomena were being dropped from the Junior Oxford English Dictionary. Now, for these young women living in a rural setting, conker and bluebell are still very real and known. But for urban children those words deemed ‘irrelevant to modern childhood’ won’t have either a memory or a reference. So it seemed important to impress that these girls had a unique place in being the storykeepers of some of the lost words. In our final session they each chose a word as theirs to keep. For Emma, who dipped into the tin and picked kingfisher, it seemed absolute kismet since they have some kingfishers close to her home place.

 

 

Story is a way of communicating our heritage. On our day out on the Cavan Burren and Shannon Pot, in my Geopark Local Guide guise, I shared the folklore of the turlough and rocks, the swallow holes and megalithic tombs with them. Then, at Shannon Pot Tony Cuckson, my husband, shared with them the story of how the Shannon Got Its Name From a Girl.

Cavan Youth Arts Lab Shannon Pot
Tony Cuckson Tells the Story of how the Shannon Got Its Name from a Girl

In the workshop after lunch in Dowra Courthouse Creative Space I encouraged the girls to write short haiku to accompany some of the photos taken on their phones.

 

 

The Japanese poetry form also lends itself to collaboration when you create a renga. A haiku is made up of three lines of seventeen syllables. A tanka is a haiku with two more lines of seven syllables each. A renga is a series of linked tanka. Mind mapping is a real help when you are working on these.

Cavan Youth Arts Lab
Creating a renga with a group of four. Cooperation and collaboration skill building

Part of collaboration is about listening to others. From the very beginning we borrowed the Native American tradition of using a talking stick. This teaches each person to respect the person talking who holds the stick. By holding the stick you actively draw attention and people really listen to your words. You learn not to interrupt and to show respect for what everyone has to say. We made a talking stick for the girls to take back to the larger Foróige group in Templeport. After discussion, Rachel was elected as Talking Stick Keeper for the one they  made during the project.

Cavan Youth Arts Lab
Rachel is the Templeport Foróige Talking Stick Keeper

In our final session we wove our lost words into the collective weaving. Then, using two of the lost words, ash and wilow, the girls made a frame for the weaving and mounted their needle felt pictures.  The bottom right needlefelt piece is a collaboration three girls initiated to create a single piece.

 

 

 

We also created a traditional wishing tree using felled branches. The group was asked to write out a wish or blessing – three lines beginning as follows:

May you…

May I…

May we…

The cloutie tree, or wishing tree, derives from the Gaelic for the word cloth. Since cloth and textile had played such a large part of the project it seemed fitting to end it with the group adding ribbons and lace along with their wishes, which we had printed on to cloth so they could tie it on. There was great sweetness and heart in their blessing wishes.

And this was my own wish.

May you always see the beautiful light inside you

May I always honour the beautiful light in everyone

May we always live with courage and act from a loving heart

Cavan Youth Arts Lab
Some of the Templeport Foróige group that participated in Cavan Youth Arts Lab with Bee Smith and Morag Donald

And what did the girls learn? Well, some of the comments on the feedback sheets made these statements.  “I learned that I was unique.” “I learned that I have some imagination.” I learned about communication skills and listening.”  “I learned I could be creative.” And any of those are all really helpful skills for peace-building in the future.

Lost Worlds

Fellow blogger, Traci York of  www.traciyork.com, spotted the anniversary even before WordPress sent me a notification. Four years ago, I started this WordPress blog on the back of an amazing opportunity to travel and learn and write at Lumb Bank, Yorkshire and in Manchester. I was travelling with a company of strangers cum creative colleagues and tutors; the whole travel package was courtesy of Cavan Arts Office and the Cavan Office for Social Inclusion through EU funding programmes. (If anyone bad mouths EU funding projects, I passionately defend them because this one certainly renewed the lease on my creative life and mental health. ) Living in a remote rural area I had had a few of my own creative wilderness years. That trip and blog changed everything. So was born Sojourning Smith, sometime tour guide, writer and creative writing tutor. Exploring the world one word at a time. For within a word, there is a whole world. And some are being lost.  You might think it odd then that the title for this anniversary issue is Lost Worlds, when what happened  for me personally was a world regained.

Continue reading “Lost Worlds”

Geopark Ghosts

New month and another inspirating jaunt out with fellow creatives on Cavan Council’s Ancient and Wild project. Journeying with the Cavan Arts Officer, we met in a remote corner in the southwest of the county. At Trinity Island we contemplated place and its impact on people, as well as the function of memory and time, and how all interplay in creating art in all genres. This project seeks to explore the relationship of artistic expression and the unique landscape of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, which straddles the Cavan/Fermanagh region.    And, as well, the subject of ghosts and haunting cropped up in conversaton.

Trinity Island is an watery outpost as the rim of the geological ribbed moraine, the largst on the planet.  A causeway links it to drier, higher ground.  Privately owned by the O’Dowd family, who steward this heritage site, we viewed the ruins of its Abbey and learned of its long history of humans inhabiting this space.

Trinity Island

Trinity Island Abbey was one of three abbeys in this ancient landscape. Founded by the Premonstratensian order of monks, it was a daughter house of the Abbey on Trinity Island in Lough Key, Co. Roscommon.  Tom O’Dowd describes them as ‘White Canons’. The ‘White Fathers’ or Augustininians had their Abbey in nearby Drumlane. Elsewhere in the Geopark Augustinians had an Abbey in the middle of Lough Erne at Devenish Island; they also give their name to the White Fathers Cave in Blacklion, West Cavan.

Trinity Island Abbey

With their white cowls it is little wonder that the lady who was the solitary congregant at Mass in the ruins of the Abbey one wild Christmas morning mistook a ghost for a real priest. Tom was told by another priest that if one of the ordained died before saying a Mass for a Special Intention that sometimes their souls suffer from a guilty conscience. And they come back looking to fulfill their promise. Because the lady could find no mortal priest who had journeyed out into that Christmas storm to say Mass that morning.

The other Abbey in the area was a remnant of the Celtic Catholic tradition that was subsumed after the Whitby Synod in CE654. So the Trinity Island area had three abbeys all within a short paddle along the tributaries of Lough Oughter.

The O’Dowds have uncovered various archaelogical treasures over the years, which have been whisked to the secure haven of the National Museum. Replicas of finds are given to the landowners and we were shown a Celtic cloak pin and a stone face of a man circa 700BCE.

We had thought provoking talks by artist Patricia McKenna and musicologist/musician Sean McElwaine exploring the interplay between landscape and art and music.  Sean also introduced me to new Irish trad band The Gloaming. Check out a sample of their work on You Tube, which includes the haunting fiddle of Martin Hayes, here.The Gloaming.

But what haunts me is that long jawed, wide, generous smile on the face of a man sculpted sometime more than 1,300 years ago. The horizontal lines across his cheeks might have been facial tattoos.  Which might have been interpretted as fierce. The weathering over time has given him a bit of a cauliflower nose, but this man looks more of a lover than a fighter. That smile speaks to me of an ancestor preeminantly happy and confident in his own skin. I would have been happy to know him and imagine him living close to the water and fenland. Perhaps he carved the wooden boat, or cot as it is called, discovered in the Trinity Lough’s mud. It was resubmerged, unlike this visage who smiles out at us from the ages.  He thrived. Possibly his descendents survived. I hope so. Who would not want to descend from such a Happy Cavan Man? Whatever his personal story, that face shines out, immortalising our ancestors long before they began to document the story.

At Home With Heritage

This summer I have been participating in a Cavan County Council Artists in the Geopark project. Musicians, animators, a ceramicist, visual and landscape artists, and writers have been viewing various sites within Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark as a touchstone for individual projects. The wider project is the brain child of the Cavan County Arts, Heritage, Tourism and Geopark officers, and is a a great example of how imaginative an interdisciplinary approach can be, especially when it comes to supporting the arts.

For those of you who may wonder what the heck a geopark is then, in brief – UNESCO recognises certain regions around this good earth as having a unique international significance for their natural, geological features, as well as ‘built’ heritage. Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark was the first cross-border Global Geopark, in the world. Its sites extend from Louth Melvin on the Donegal boundary, through a swathe of south Fermanagh, onwards east through to mid-County Cavan. Cavan is the location of the world’s largest ribbed moraine on the planet. You can only see it from an aerial view, but it gets geologists seriously excited.

Of course, the land formed the people and the people made the built heritage. So this week I had a date with twelve other artists at Corravahan House near Drung, County Cavan. It is an example of how people used local materials to create homes of both beauty and utility. Formerly a rectory built in 1840 by a Reverend Beresford on a career trajectory toward the Archbishopric of Armagh (which is as good as it can get for a Church of Ireland clergyman), Corrovahan House is a building full of grace, as well as full of individual quirks from its succession of owners.

It is Heritage Week here in Ireland. This part of Ireland breathes an ancient and wild heritage. But it also domesticated itself, a bit like my semi-feral cat Felix. Home comforts are welcome, but there is always an air of the wildish about him. Corravahan House encompasses how there is practical adaptation of a house to social context and status, but  how it also includes certain whimsicalities that are very individual to the people who inhabited its space. While Corravahan House is part of Irish Heritage Homes and is open to the public for sixty days each year, it remains a family home with much evidence of the current layer of heritage archaelogy being built up.

I am also a Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark local guide. When I am showing certain archaelogical sites in Cavan Burren Forest I like to imagine how it was to live in that ancient time. There is a particular glacial erratic split by neolithic inhabitants. Archaelogists reckon it was a project to create a capstone for a dolmen. But plans went awry when it split at an unprojected seam.  The remains are proximal to hut site foundations. I always feel sympathy for the husband who had to have the remains of his DIY disaster in the backyard for an eternity. Literally. Possibly having to listen to his wife kvetch about it, too.

In Cavan you have many opportunities to see the layer of human interaction with landscape. You can see it in carefully conserved homes like Corravahan House. But you can also see it in relict landscapes like the Cavan Burren Park, where there was continuous human habitation from the earliest human arrivals in Ireland, right up to when Coillte, the Forestry Commission took over when the last farmer retired.  Thousands of year, eons even, have all wondrously brought us to this place.

I feel fortunate, blessed and humbled, to have had a walk on part in its ever unfolding story. Meanwhile, I need to get back to my own project. I am editting, revising and collecting my own Geopark inspired writing from over the years living here. Watch this space.

 

 

 

Committing

First full workshop day at the Arvon Lumb Bank with South African born poet Carola Luther. We start with some creative writing limber up exercises  that involve writing a collaborative poem, which segues into our own solo efforts.  Carola then introduced several poems that come under the category of list poems.   This is my take on the list poem.  You could also  take it as advice for future Arvon Lumb Bank participants for packing or preparing to embark on an Arvon course at Lumb Bank.

What Every Arvon Participant Should Pack for Lumb Bank

A plaster. Prescription and over the counter drugs.

Travel is hazardous business.

A torch. A torch?! Well, it’s on the website.

A small, wind-up torch. In it goes.

Pens (6). iPad.  Laptop.

Too many wires and leads.

Flashdrive. Camera. Batteries.

Wires and leads tangling asymmetrically.

Layers- singlet, long T’s, light sweater, heavy sweater.

Many pairs of socks.

The indoor shoes. The hat and gloves.

The waterproof coat.

It’s the Pennines. It will rain. Definitely.

No more than three books. They have a library.

Many blank sheets of paper.

An open mind.

A truce with silence.

The guardrail down on real life.

Bee Smith is travelling in March 2014 with the Leonardo da Vinci Life Long Learning Programme “Developing Creative Practice Across Borders” to Yorkshire and Lancashire organised by the Cavan Arts Office.

Sojourning

staying temporarily

moving on and through

ever shifting viewpoints

what shall I take?

what shall I leave behind?

sojourning smith

 
     I embark 1st March on a two week sojourn to Yorkshire and Lancashire on a Life Long Learning course “Developing Creative Practice Across Borders”.  In this case I will be sojourning with ten others, mostly strangers to me, embarking on this creative writing fortnight practice.   This is a Leonardo da Vinci Life Long Learning experience facilitated by the Cavan Arts office, the EU and Leargas.
 
 
     What will happen to my writing without the daily distractions of virtual internet world,  my own context of jaw dropping scenic beauty and rural splendour, the domestic procrastinations that quell creative writing time. Once I get to the Arvon Centre in Yorkshire will I go on a book binge reading jag when I get an eyeful of their library?  Will I dry up before the blank page? Will I have the courage to write anything, even the really bad, poorly formed sentences that get past the internal censor?
 
 
     Once I get to Manchester will the country mouse go de-mob mad in the big city? Or will I hole up in the hotel room tapping away at the keyboard, once again hard wired into wifi?
 
 
     A sojourn is by definition temporary.  Some people go on creative writing retreats. Rather than going in I am venturing out from my rather splendid rural isolation. Let’s see what crossing some borders does to my consciousness and see what decides to communicate with the sojourning.