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.

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

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

Launch of new poetry collection

Thursday 1st October is National Poetry Day – the perfect day to launch my new poetry collection. I can’t believe it’s my eighth! And I’m exceedingly lucky to have been able to make a short film about it with James McDonald from Clear Picture Productions Ltd. As well as readings of some of the poems, the film describes how the book was created in collaboration with illustrator Louise Regan.

Background to the book

In June 2019, I arrived with my note book and pen in the Oxfordshire village of Cropredy, with the aim of writing poems about what I discovered. My inspiration for the pieces I wrote came from buried skeletons, a jackdaw, the Battle of Cropredy Bridge, the churchyard, the short mat bowls club, the canal, street names, love… and, of course, the annual Fairport Convention music festival. When I came across Louise Regan’s artwork in a gallery, I was immediately attracted to it and she agreed to illustrate my poems! “Producing the illustrations for this book has been a joy,” she says. “I hope, in my drawings, I have captured the essence of our lovely little Oxfordshire village which is so welcoming and brimming with life.”

Film premiere

To watch the film premiere on YouTube on Thursday 1st October at 7:15pm follow this link. There’s no need to sign in to watch, but if you do, you can set a reminder in advance, feel the buzz of the countdown, take part in the chat and add a comment if you like. If you can’t make 7:15 on Thursday, it will be available to watch after the premiere at any time.

To buy the book

To the Future, Love Cropredy is available from Lapal Publications, price £12 plus postage & packing.

Black Country Tongue and Talk

Tomorrow at 4.30pm, you can hear writer, performance poet, Wolverhampton Poet Laureate and good friend Emma Purshouse exploring Black Country dialect on BBC Radio 4.

In a programme made during lockdown, Emma considers the impact of industry, heritage, landscape, and the changing nature of close-knit communities upon dialect writers, of whom I am one. I’m really looking forward to hearing which bits of our interview she selected for inclusion. There’s definitely a poem – I know that much. And it will be great to hear the voices of lots of folk I know too. Do join us by tuning in tomorrow at 4.30 or listening when you have half an hour to spare. Here’s the link:

Tongue and Talk – Ep 4 The Black Country

For other Black Country posts on my blog see Writing in Black Country dialect

More found poetry

In 2015 I blogged about ‘found poetry’. It’s one of my most viewed posts. Yesterday, I uploaded a podcast on the same subject, showing how poems can be created using articles in newsletters or magazines and by listening to audio recordings.

IDC Alarum Prod logo 1

The podcast is number ten in a series put together for the Alarum Theatre I Dig Canals project which tells stories of women’s involvement in campaigns to save the UK canals. We have researched published material from post war to the 1970s and interviewed women who got involved from the 1960s onwards.

As part of the project, I ran a writing workshop, the results of which can be heard in the podcast. It features the work of writers who came along and some pieces by me too. In each case, you can hear the source material followed by the poem.

I produced something similar in 2014 when I was commissioned to make a soundtrack to be played in the branches of ‘trees’ in a forest made of carpet inside Kidderminster Town Hall. It was a surprisingly magical installation where people sat beneath the trees as if it was a real forest. My contribution was made up of poems and songs I had written inspired by interviews with people who worked in the carpet industry. Here’s a link to the recording.

Photo of carpet forest

The writing I did about the carpet industry was the inspiration behind starting this blog. All of the poems have been posted on it and are available as a collection, Weaving Yarns, from Black Pear Press.

‘I Dig Canals’ writing workshop 13th Feb

Second flyer FINAL

Back in 2015, I wrote a blog, which gets regular hits, called Found Poetry – 3 ways. It shows ways of creating poems using other written pieces.

On Thursday 13th February 10:00-1:00 I’m running a workshop which will include writing from found sources, both written and oral. The location is unusual – a (stationary) narrow boat moored on the canal near the historic Dudley Tunnel.

Many of today’s canals would have been lost had it not been for a group of dedicated campaigners. The phrase I Dig Canals was a campaign slogan in the 1970s when the word ‘dig’ had a double meaning. Reading today about that period, you would think only men took part in the work to save the canals, but of course women were there too. The I Dig Canals project was set up by Alarum Theatre, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, to unearth hidden stories about women’s involvement in these campaigns in the Black Country in the 1960s and 1970s which I remember from my childhood and teenage years. Here I am on our family-owned narrow boat Laurel, an ex-working boat.

Heather Smith on Laurel

The Workshop will take place on board The Vic Smallshire, Dudley Canal & Tunnel Trust, 501 Birmingham New Road, Dudley, DY1 4SB. Participants will use oral history recordings, written accounts and documentary sources such as magazine articles to create poetry or prose pieces that capture the essence of the stories. The workshop is free of charge and those attending will be invited to perform their work at the final project celebration on Saturday 4th April at 6pm at Dudley Canal & Tunnel Trust. Some of the work created will also be included in a book.

To book, email Nadia Stone, Project Manager idigcanals@alarumtheatre.co.uk. Click on the link below for the I Dig Canals flyer with further information.

I Dig Canals flyer

The boy who couldn’t say his name – book review

John Lawrence’s The boy who couldn’t say his name is a joy to read, a book of poems packed with heart, humour and a unique slant on everyday life. The collection is underpinned but not dominated by the story behind the title, the painful experiences he endured as a child. His relationship with a Maths teacher is vividly described in Report: Maths 31%…

Her pinched cheeks, ivory, close enough to claw;
her quink-black eyes, close enough to skewer
with my newly sharpened HB pencil.

In the title poem, he refers in third person to a boy who is bullied because of his stammer ‘in the game of seek-and-chide’. In My Father’s Cap he writes

The day the kids at school find out
I’m Sally Army, I show them blood
but little fire. They vent their fury

at my deceit: this kid deserves
an extra slap. Bruises the colour
of my father’s cap.

Cornet Player on the Run opens with these lines:

Guilty. I deserted from the Salvation Army
halfway through Onward Christian Soldiers –

I have always enjoyed John’s poems, and it has been good to watch him gradually conquer stage fright over the years since I first warmed to his work. In An account of the last moments of the poet he translates his terror with his trademark humour:

When I take the wrong turn and find myself
clomping up the steps to the block,
take my word, it’s not what I want to do –
a bloody inconvenient way to go.

And in the hilarious DIY and Me, he expresses a similar – though not so extreme – feeling of alienation as he joins the queue in ‘Plumbers R Us’:

I join the queue, trying to stand like a plumber,
…..
As a huge fan of close-coupling, my ears prick up,
…..
I feel like a fish out of water
like Ricky Gervais on Songs of Praise

There are some memorable lines like, for example, in Inventory: in my shed I have the following

one garden rake, handle whittled to a point
a Charles and Di ashtray with a half-smoked joint

He’s good on titles too:

In the Museum of Air Guitars
Hair Loss: The Musical
The Lament of the Zanussi Luminary

It has always been a pleasure listening to John’s work, and I am delighted that V Press are publishing this collection so that more people can enjoy, and no doubt relate to, his unique take on the ordinary and his wicked imagination.

Heather Wastie

Click here for further information about The boy who couldn’t say his name.

100 Women of Croome

Back in December – on 14th to be precise – it was 100 years to the day since women first voted, and I was back at Croome Court to see the new exhibitions. Having been involved in several projects there as poet and performer, I am proud to be one of the 100 Women of Croome whose portraits are projected in succession alongside Amy Jayne Hughes’ Garniture.

Arriving early, I took the opportunity to wander round the grounds and take a few photos. It’s such a beautiful place and there is always pop-up art inside the building. One of my previous projects was Plumlines, a series of poetry-writing workshops with schools, writers’ groups, history groups and Croome volunteers. Click here to read more about the work and the exhibition of paper poetry saplings.

If you fancy experiencing Croome from your armchair, then do listen to this podcast which I was commissioned to create 3 years ago, featuring some of Worcestershire’s finest poets. And if you would like to read my poems about Croome, you will find them in Don’t Oil The Hinges, published by Black Pear Press.

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