Great Canal Journeys & shows this weekend

It wasn’t easy keeping quiet about filming for Great Canal Journeys last May! But now the programme has been aired I can share this lovely photo of Kate Saffin and I with Sheila Hancock – all of us managing to conceal that fact that it was a miserable, cold day! The programme features tales of the so-called ‘Idle Women’ whose stories we tell in one of our Alarum Productions shows. Click on the photo to go to the Channel 4 website and watch the episode.

Kate Saffin, Sheila Hancock & Heather Wastie, Hatton Locks.

This coming weekend, there are two chances to experience my new solo piece The Idle Women Story – a combination of short pieces about the wartime trainees, some of which you may have seen before if you’ve been to an Alarum show. But this new version includes some recently unearthed letters from one of the women and also some of the men, written whilst considering whether or not women were capable of handling working boats… As well as my online performance, there’s a fascinating live dance interpretation by Hannah Warren. Kate will also be performing live in her solo piece The Mary Rose: a boat of ill repute which is all about a brothel on a boat! The live shows are taking place, along with several others, canalside in Rickmansworth. My online show can of course be seen from the comfort of your own home. Click the photo to go to the event website.

Photo by Terasa Newton

Why and how I write

In early June, the outgoing Worcestershire Poet Laureate Leena Batchelor invited me to perform some of my poetry at a Zoom event – a night of performances by previous Poets Laureates and interviews by Leena. I was Worcestershire Poet Laureate in 2015-16 and really enjoyed catching up with Tim Cranmore, Suz Winspear, Nina Lewis and Leena together with former Staffordshire PL Emily-Rose Galvin and the brand new WPL Ade Couper.

Here are the questions she asked each of us followed by my replies.

Why is poetry/writing important to you and why do you think it’s important/relevant to today? How has writing helped you and why did you start writing? How do you write – where does the inspiration come from and how do you start?

Accepting my Poet Laureate trophy from Worcestershire Poet Laureate Emeritus, Maggie Doyle in 2015

I’ve been writing poetry for as long as I can remember. My first poem was written at infants school in response to a story. So I must have known then that poetry is a good way of telling stories. It’s also a way of expressing and exploring feelings, explaining things and imparting information in a concise way, entertaining with rhyme and rhythm, and raising a smile or laughter. I like patterns. Poems are made up of patterns. I love language. Poetry is a way of playing with words. Lots of people have turned to poetry – writing or reading – as a way of dealing with the pandemic.

I get a sense of satisfaction from writing pieces I’m pleased with. And I get pleasure from sharing my work with others, in performances or publications. Some of my poems have helped me process traumatic experiences too.

There are several ways I can be triggered into writing a poem:

When something unexpected inspires me – a turn of phrase, an incident, an interesting thought I want to explore, a news item; When I decide I want to write a poem, perhaps for a competition, for a friend or just for its own sake; When I go to a writing workshop; When someone commissions me.

Sometimes I start with lots of research and don’t do any writing for quite a while. Lots of my researched pieces are ‘found’ poems where I use existing material and present it in a new way. Poems can come from oral history interviews where I quote verbatim. In these instances it’s about selecting the right material and arranging it. Sometimes a poem comes out ready formed in a flash of inspiration. Others grow from stream of consciousness writing, where you put pen to paper and don’t stop at all for 5 minutes or more. It’s amazing what can materialise from your subconscious when you do that.

I like to start with pen and paper then move to the computer when it starts to take shape. I keep going back to it and when I think it’s finished I save it and don’t look at it again for a while so I can see it afresh. That way I’m more likely to notice errors or flaws which I didn’t see before because I was too close to it.

New audio released

I’ve been so busy recently I haven’t had chance to blog about my latest creation! It’s an audio trail I produced for Alarum Productions with sound designer Sam Frankie Fox.

View from Windmill End Bridge today (photo by Brenda Ward)

Stewarts & Lloyds, Coombeswood, 1972

‘The Netherton Cut to Coombewood’ celebrates the history of the Dudley No 2 Canal, based on a 2.5 mile walk between Windmill End Junction and Coombes footbridge.

It features oral history interviews, music, historical information, poetry from me in Black Country spake and much more!

Click here to listen to the audio trail which lasts around 23 minutes.

I also did an interview about it with Jason Forrest for the Milk Bar podcasts. You can listen (from 26:25) on Podbean or watch on YouTube.

While I’m here, would you like to come to my next online writing workshop? It’s on Thursday June 24th, 2:00-4.00pm.

Rhythm in your fingers, rhythm in your feet.

From di-Da di-Da to tiddley-pom, we will play with syllables and stresses to give our writing a sense of rhythm. After looking at examples in song lyrics and poetry, we will write our own poems, both individually and as a group.

Here’s a link to find out more.

The beauty of BSL translation

At Alarum Productions we were lucky enough to secure an emergency grant in 2020 to help us through a difficult time, when the pandemic curtailed plans to stage live performances. One of the many facets of our Arts Council bid was to look at ways of making our work more accessible. We decided to commission RAW to add BSL (British Sign Language) translation and subtitles to one of our videos, and the one we chose is a performance of my poem Histrionic Water, filmed at Debdale Lock on the Staffs & Worcs Canal.

When I first approached Alex from RAW he wrote back: ‘There’s some very strong, visual English language and I’ll need a bit of time to work out the best signs’. Then when the edited film arrived, I was taken aback by how much the expressive movements of the signer, Gary, added to the meaning behind the poem. I was mesmerised and feel privileged now to have this new dimension to one of my pieces. I asked if RAW would be happy to share an insight into the whole process, and what came back is fascinating:

Process of filming the BSL translation by Real Arts Workshops (RAW)

Alex Vann from Real Arts Workshops (RAW) was delighted to get the call from Heather Wastie from Alarum Productions, to add British Sign Language and subtitles to the film of her wonderful poem ‘Histrionic Water’.

Alex is hearing and signs to level 6. He sometimes does communication support work in education and has previously added BSL to films and live performances. However, when it came to this project he asked his partner, in business and in life, Gary O’Dowd, to do the signing. This is because the words of the poem are so expressive and visual that it made sense for a native Deaf BSL user to perform the poem.

Most people who have studied BSL will quickly learn that it isn’t just about doing things with your hands and arms. Rather, it uses the whole body to communicate – facial expressions in particular – and it was felt that a Deaf signer would convey this with maximum authenticity.

When it came to translating ‘Histrionic Water’, it was vital to Alex and Gary that a Deaf audience would understand what it meant. It wouldn’t do just to translate the English straight into hand gestures, like other forms of communication – Makaton and Sign Supported English for example. It had to go further and tell the story and almost act it so that a Deaf audience would understand not just the words but the meaning. Alex and Gary worked on translating the poem on paper first, and Gary practiced and practiced until the poem flowed.

Filming was problematic because Gary obviously can’t hear the poem so Alex had to use hand signals and pointing to sections of the poem off camera. Even then – trying to match the timing of the spoken word was near impossible. So they shot it in small sections, in front of a greenscreen, and Alex had the unenviable task of ‘stitching’ the pieces together in video editing software to match the film of the poem. There are some fades between the signed sections because one thing BSL must do is flow – and not jump from one sign to another.

Initial feedback from Deaf audiences is very encouraging:

“What a beautiful poem: powerful too. I’m intrigued to take a walk on the canal.”

“Wow, brilliant BSL translation, You ought to join ‘See Hear’ on TV!”

“Brilliant, fantastic translation. Love it.”

“Love it. Very impressed.”

“Very awesome, wow.”

“Fantastic”

Alex Vann from RAW said: “We love working in collaborations with other organisations and artists so when Heather got in touch about this project we were very excited. One of our key values as a business is inclusion so making a film Deaf accessible is right up our street. We hope Heather’s film is a huge success and that we get to work together again in future.”

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Thank you RAW! To watch the finished film, click here: Histrionic Water

Throwback Thurdays

On social media – I use it on Twitter and Instagram – the hashtag #ThrowbackThursday refers to a post which is a reminder of something from the past. This poem doesn’t, strictly speaking, fit that category. I was thinking about the present, the recent past, and lockdown limbo.

Throwback Thursdays

I will throw back Thursdays
into this pile of Days:

The Day
we sent a birthday card
to a grandchild who thinks
we live inside an iPad

The Day
snow was forecast
but though the snow tried hard
it could only rain

The Day
the scaffolding was removed
from the new house
which wasn’t there a year ago

The Days
we sit on the settee
with our lap tray dinners
and watch tv

The Days
of vaccine news
needle after needle in arm after arm
blue fingers pressing

The Days
we put out bins
pick post off the mat
wash our hands

The Days 
we walk
or don’t, talk
or don’t

© Heather Wastie
February 2020
 

BBC Panel: Black Country Tongue and Talk

Next Thursday, 11th February, 7.00-8.00pm, I’ll be taking part in this online event:

Behind the Tongue and the Talk – panelists talk about their role in the creation of the Black Country edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Tongue and Talk – The Dialect Poets’. Join City of Wolverhampton Poet Laureate, Emma Purshouse, as she natters to actress, writer and series producer Catherine Harvey, poet and playwright Brendan Hawthorne (Poet Laureate for Wednesbury), singer songwriter and poet Heather Wastie, along with dialect expert Esther Asprey. Expect discussion about our local vernacular, with some Black Country dialect poetry and song thrown into the mix.

As you may have guessed, you’ll be getting some poetry and a song from me, plus some canting (which has absolutely nothing to do with being hypocritical, pious or righteous). If you’re from the Black Country, you’ll know what I’m talking about; if not, do tune in and find out! Here’s the link for more details and to book.

The Black Country Museum

Writing workshops

Kate Saffin and I (Alarum Productions) have planned a series of 3 online writing workshops you may be interested in. They’re on Thursdays 2-4pm, a month apart, using Zoom. If you’re unfamiliar with Zoom, we’re happy to help you set it up.

We are offering these workshops as Pay What You Can events. Here’s some info with links to further details and booking:

Life writing – Feb 25th – with Kate Saffin

The term ‘Life Writing’ is still quite new. In this workshop we’ll explore some of its different manifestations – autobiography, diaries, reminiscence… before getting down to some writing, using prompts to help us think about different moments in our lives. Click here for more.

Bringing the past to life – Mar 25th – with Heather Wastie

Using observation, memories, senses and imagination we will write an article suitable for a newsletter, newspaper, magazine or blog, describing a place or event connected to an element of history that interests us.  We will also be creating a piece of poetry that connects to our chosen subject. Click here for more.

Monologue – April 22nd – with Kate Saffin

A monologue is a performance by a single actor – sometimes as part of a play (Shakespeare was very fond of them) or sometimes it is the play. We’ll explore the different approaches to monologue and then get down to writing one. Click here for more.

If you have any questions about the workshops, do ask!

Alarum Productions logo

Review of ‘To the Future, Love Cropredy’

‘…the timeless quality of the stories and descriptions of village events make it just as much a love letter to every village community in Britain.’

This lovely review (see below) was published in Towpath Talk (January 2020). I hope it’s big enough for you to read! You can also read it on the Lapal Publications website where copies of the book are on sale.

At this difficult time, I hope these words and illustrations (both in the review and in the book) brighten your day. Wishing you a Happy New Year wherever you are.

Online writing workshop

Ask two poets to write on the same subject and their poems will almost certainly look quite different from one another. Next Thursday, 19th November, I’m running an online poetry workshop for Alarum Productions with a few tips on how to shape a poem. How long will the lines be? How long will the poem be? Will it be separated into stanzas? Will there be some rhyming going on…? The subject of the poem will be the writer’s choice and anyone who likes to write is welcome. Inspired by poems from published poets, we will write our own words and play with arranging them on the page.

In order to support those on little or no income, one place will be free of charge. Click here for full details and to book. (Kate’s workshop has already taken place so scroll down a little way for the relevant info.)

I’ve published eight poetry collections. Here I am signing copies of The Muck and Shovel Brigade, commissioned by Canal & River Trust for The Ring project in 2018. The photographs in the book are by Max Sinclair (featured in yesterday’s blog about The Battle of Stourbridge) and one of the poems is dedicated to him. I’ve copied that poem below. It can also be seen on a display board alongside the lock at Vines Park, Droitwich.

MAX

The waterside his playground, he loved the thrill
of Severn barges, the grace of steamers.

Delighted by freeze and frost, he skated the cut to Droitwich,
played ice hockey matches at Hanbury Wharf.

At Hawford he watched Italian prisoners fill in the channel,
block it with concrete for D-Day tanks, sever the cut,

butcher Brindley’s beautiful bridge,
too steep, too lightweight for war.

His beloved canal abandoned, water seeping away, one day
he wrote to the Birmingham Mail, and that’s how it started.

Battling the threat of M5 spoil, three hundred thousand tons
of mud and soil and a tangle of hostility and inertia,

whether caked in mud, shovelling dirt, or dressed in a suit for persuasion,
he knew the value of patience, grit and determination.

© Heather Wastie

#BostinNews The Battle of Stourbridge

This is my final blog about the Bostin News project. Of the five pieces I initiated for this Creative Black Country commission, two were written and recorded by me. I blogged about the first one last week. Now, let me tell you about The Battle of Stourbridge.

I decided to tell this story in a poem when I came across a series of photographs on the Inland Waterways Association website. Since writing the piece, IWA have revamped their website so the photographs are no longer there, but luckily I found a different source. Here’s my favourite. The boat is Vesta, owned by Max Sinclair who is standing at the tiller. Almost in the centre of the shot is a woman looking after two of Max’s children. One of them is Ian, who kindly sent me the photographs.

Everybody involved. Don Evans on shaft. Garth Allan on tiller not his usual paintbrush.

As you can see the (original) photo caption doesn’t mention the woman or children by name; I’m not convinced they were in mind when the word ‘everybody’ was used either. Most of the photos were taken by Phil Hutchings though Max probably wrote the caption, and, together with the other shots, have an immediacy which draws us into the drama of trying to get these boats up the Stourbridge arm in 1961.

And I know how exciting it must have been. In fact I was probably there because my mother remembers it. She told me that, while the long line of boats waited behind Vesta when it was stuck under a bridge, she carved up a cake she had on our little cruiser and handed out pieces as far as they would go to hungry people on the adjacent craft. A few years later we had our own 70 foot historic boat, struggling to move it on the neglected canals and determined to do everything we could to get them restored.

I wanted to write a poem which put the photos into context and expressed the spirit and dedication of the enthusiastic volunteers. The piece, as text and video, is on the Creative Black Country blog. It’s also on my YouTube channel. I feel a bit bad that the woman in the middle of the action isn’t mentioned in my poem. One day I’d better have a go at writing something just for her.