Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Poetry at The Blue Teapot

I am very happy to announce that I have become the Poet-in-Residence at The Blue Teapot, Mytholmroyd  (http://www.blue-teapot.com/) .  This will encompass a variety of poetic contributions to the cafe, as well as activities and events.  Our debut event will be on the 23rd May, featuring guest poet Nuala Fagan, supported by Calder Valley Poetry's Bob Horne and myself.   Before providing details of this, let me explain briefly about my collaboration with The Blue Teapot, and the nature of this poet residency in the context of the area and its history.

My involvement with The Blue Teapot has evolved from my early visits to the café last summer, when I helped to plan a poetry event for October's Mytholmroyd Art Festival - the Mad Tea Party - which was held in the café.  This party was very successful and well attended, a real festival atmosphere, and poets came from miles around to perform.

Madhuri ZK Ewing
"H" entertains us with her poetry ... and her hat!

I felt the venue was greatly suited to such events, being situated in the hub of an artistic community, easy to reach (off the main road and within walking distance of the train station) and, above all, such a friendly and attractive café.  I had also found that the ambience of the café in the daytime had led me to write as I sat by the window with my coffee. The music, the conversation, and of course the fact that The Blue Teapot is a vegetarian café, were all conducive to the creative spirit.  It is one of several vegetarian and vegan venues in the valley, all of which I regularly visit, but what drew me back so often to The Blue Teapot was the fact that it lies at the very  point of one of my favourite Calder Valley canalside walks - the walk from Sowerby Bridge to Mytholmroyd, via the lush hills of Luddenden Foot and the beautiful cottages of Brearley.  It is a good stretch through changing scenery at any time of year, and nothing makes a better conclusion to the journey than to call at The Blue Teapot to recharge my batteries - nutritionally and poetically!

Canada Geese by the Rochdale Canal at Brearley.
A heron reflects by the canal near Mytholmroyd.


Around this time, I began having conversations with Kirstie Fagan, the cafe's owner, about the possibility of a poet residency. We anticipated that this might begin in the New Year, before our plans were somewhat unexpectedly curtailed.

Nobody could have predicted the scale of the "Boxing Day Floods" of 2015 - a torrential, building-wrecking maelstrom which wreaked through the valley (and other parts of the country, with equally dreadful results) during the fag-end of the year, sweeping away walls, roofs, bridges, the entire frontages of shops and half the main street of Mytholmroyd in its wake.  Two weeks of continual rain in December caused the River Calder to burst its banks - a problem exacerbated by a host of ecological and economic blunders, such as flood-fund budgets being cut and the plunder of local moorlands for the purposes of grouse shooting.  I first became aware of the floods late on Boxing Day night, and watched the devastation on tv, with streets submerged in water, car roofs peeping above the surface like enormous, curving lily pads.  Rushing back to the valley from staying with family in Leeds, my own experience of the post-flood relief effort is now a blur of hectic memories - stumbling into the clean-up by the Calder and finding myself scooping mud from factory forecourts, unloading food parcels at Christ Church, Sowerby Bridge, emptying shops and to-ing and fro-ing between friends' properties as they struggled to rebuild their lives.  Naturally, at some point in that drenched, downhearted week, I found myself also at The Blue Teapot, and spent a surreal hour carrying cooking equipment into a yard, too dazed to know much of what was going on or whether my clumsy stumbling - sleep-deprived and running on empty - was really much of a help, or a hindrance.  As the New Year staggered into being, and the streets gradually dried out like tired, de-toxing drunks, it was clear that any plans for a Poetry Residence at The Blue Teapot must be firmly put on hold.
However, poetry in the valley did not stop, and though many of the premises and businesses in Mytholmroyd and Hebden Bridge were closed, there were several very successful poetry and music nights to raise funds for the flood relief.  I was able to read at one - at The Fox and Goose, Hebden Bridge - and when I next liaised with Kirstie it was very much in the spirit of wishing to build on this spirit of goodwill for the area which permeated so much of these community events.  Once The Blue Teapot had re-opened this spring, we decided that there was no time like the present, and set about arranging the particulars of a poetry residency, and the basis of an inaugural event.  But - what should this include?  Undoubtedly, the area's poetic reputation is much indebted to the richly deserved heritage of the Hughes/Plath imperium, and this history played a part in the motivations for my own early visits to, and decision to relocate to, the valley.  Always decidedly on the Plath side of the spectrum, I had for some years felt underwhelmed by Mytholmroyd's most famous son, feeling his poetry was rooted firmly in an aggressive, Anthropocentrism.  The Poet Laureateship, seeming the epitome of an artist's surrender to the State (not to mention the crown) and its associations with animal blood-sports, was for me as good a reason as any to shun the great poetry of Ted Hughes, which I managed somehow to scrupulously avoid for quite a time, before realizing the absurdity of this position, and resolving to embrace the wealth of poetry he produced on its own terms, and for its own sake.  For me, Hughes and Plath at their best represent some of the finest poetry in the English language.  Without question, the poetry and influence of both will feature in my efforts as a Mytholmroyd Poet-in-Residence, but there are also many talented contemporary poets in this area, all of whom I would have been delighted to approach to read at this opening event. However, one of these stood out in my mind as the obvious choice for our debut guest poet - Nuala Fagan, whose collection Not All Birdsong I published under Caterpillar Poetry last November ... and whose surname is by coincidence the same as Kirstie's!
Nuala's poetry is magnificently exact, painfully honest and beautifully crafted - or as John Foggin has described it, the voice of the rueful but unrepentant confessional... quietly life-affirming ... happily defiant.  In his Introduction to the collection, John quotes from one of Nuala's finest poems, Living in the Song, where Nuala, drawing on the heritage of Irish folk song:
When the song calls me
I am in the song,
I am comeback to Erin
and I am called Mo Chushla.
I am called Mavournin,
I am handsome, I am pretty,
I'm the girl from the golden city.
I am the silver goddess
seen only by the poet
as he dreams
by the leafy stream.
and to hear her read these poems is to taste at first hand the acute poignancy, and at times joy, which glistens through them with a marvellous, delicate control of language. 
On the book's blurb, its editor Bob Horne - whom I met through the local poetry readings circuit (not least in his role as compere at the Puzzle Poets) and through creative writing groups - pays tribute to the lyric and rhytmic control, her wit and thoughtful, often unexpected imagery ...resilience and redemption that he finds in Nuala's poems of love, loss and time passing.  And without hesitation, I knew it was Bob I wished to recruit to provide the evening's supporting role. 

Something of a poetic entrepreneur, Bob taught English in schools and has played an active role in the local poetry scene, his literary identity has evolved over the last few years from enthusiastic writer and supporter of poets, to fully-fledged publisher: his pioneering Calder Valley Poetry has already brought collections into print by three different authors this year!
Bob's own poetry is reflective and insightful, sometimes funny, often detailing powerful or significant observations drawn from childhood memories, moorland cycles, and a lifelong love of cricket.  His poetry is rooted in his native West Yorkshire and depicts the natural world in compassionate, quietly respectful ways:
                                                 Like a sheet of white shadow
                                                 close enough to disconcert
                                                 it climbs from the cottongrass,
                                                 iolaire suil na greine-
                                                 eagle of the sunlit eye-
                                                 smoulders for a moment
                                                still as a Stone Age carving,
                                                until it rises, in its own time,
                                                above this wilderness, the bay, the ocean, 
                                                leaves me at best 
                                                a fleck of a far-off star.
It is with great happiness that I can confirm both Nuala and Bob for this poetry evening on the 23rd May, where both will be reading poetry of such high quality as their work quoted above. 
I am very happy to be able to support The Blue Teapot, and it is very exciting to be able to do so through the medium of poetry.  The café has proved such a happy and creative place for me, and I hope that others will be inspired to enjoy its ambience, its wonderful vegetarian food, and of course the poetry evenings which I hope will offer something for all poetic tastes.  The local area has a rich poetic heritage and I want to explore and celebrate this, as well as shining a light on the contemporary poets of our valley, sharing with you my own poetic offerings.  I hope everyone enjoys Poetry at The Blue Teapot.

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