A Writer's Process: Penny Walker

Penny Walker was a shortlisted runner-up in the Wild Words Spring Solstice 2015 Writing Competition with her entry Above Grasmere.

"Although I do a lot of writing for my work, I’m only an occasional creative writer.

This poem records a precious day, when I went on a school trip with my younger daughter.

There’s a secret double meaning in its title. We were ‘above Grasmere’ in the Lake District. But it was also her final year at Grasmere Primary School in Hackney, London. This school trip for families to a namesake beauty spot was a goodbye to primary school because she would soon be ‘above Grasmere’ and moving on to secondary school.

The whole trip was a rite of passage: fun, exciting, and also poignant.

I wanted to capture how I felt about her and about my own changing identity. The first few lines emerged pretty much fully formed, and I scribbled them down. I wasn’t sure that there was any point in trying to write any more, but I took the risk and a few more verses came. The hard work was trying to see whether phrases and ideas that were 100% meaningful and understandable to me, would make sense to a reader who wasn’t inside my head.

I didn’t fully manage to strip it of cliché, but I’m pleased with some of the images and compactness.

When I was happy enough with it, the first person I shared it with was my daughter. After all, it was her story too. She encouraged me to do a final polish and was OK with the idea of me trying to get it published in some way.

And I’m glad it has been. But its importance is very personal - it’s a love letter to my daughter and to the bittersweet aching pride in letting your child leave you behind, beyond your protection, as they have to."

My Creative Process by Charlotte Stevens

Charlotte Stevens was a shortlisted runner-up in the Wild Words Spring Solstice Writing Competition 2015 with her poem About Witches. You can read her work here.

She told me about her creative process...

"I have a preoccupation with form when writing.

I have felt in the past that my writing has to have some kind of established form to be 'valid', and so I have often struggled with trying to capture the ideas and images I want to explore in a formal and recognised structure.

'About Witches' represents a breakthrough for me.

I was working with these ideas relating to dissent and disorder but was trying to write them in an English sonnet form. I liked the contrast, but wrangling the words into the established form was difficult and somehow 'flattened' the work. So I broke it apart. I pulled out lines and messed them up and around, and I felt this freedom to do something different and create something that worked better.

The outcome, this poem, is by no means perfect, but it is different to the way in which I was writing before, and revisiting it influences how I write now.

Since then I have been exploring free verse - still rather obsessively with my syllable counting and metrical forensics! - but it has moved me forward and opened my writing up."

Seeking Authenticity by Kester Reid

Read Kester Reid's piece, 'Stream', listed for the Wild Words Competition, here:

To write, I seek to experience authentically – unexpectantly, and unhurriedly. I respect every being and every force as something alive with a present power to animate our shared reality. I await their messages, their teachings. To express such experience is impossible. To integrate it is my only goal. To reflect and write about it is to explore it again, to explore its essence, and share it perhaps. Poetry is the most honest way for me to do that. I go back there and look again, with words.

My piece for the Wild Words competition ‘Stream’, began as a journal entry during my time living amongst the Achuar tribe of the Western Amazon. For some years I have been drawn to this particular tropical wilderness, and into tribal realities. The isolation, both cultural and physical, of such experiences, taught me a huge amount about myself and my cultural mode of experiencing. Wild forests and native friends taught me a more natural way, a more human way.

Stillness and observation are critical aspects of an indigenous lifestyle. Cultivating these practices, and states, is vital to noticing the intricacies of the world around me – in order to thrive, physically and spiritually. Such a mode is a survival tool, but also the gateway to recognising the beauty and mystery of the world, which is a momentary happening to which I am integral, which pulses heavily on the waves of my own breath. I recognise the power of natural forces, the creativity there, and the mystery. And suddenly, everything is alive, so alive – as alive as me. This intuition that my experience of consciousness is a marvel not unique to my own species is deeply connective – it makes me humble before the Great Mystery, it uplifts me as a part of the Great Mystery.

‘Stream’ began with an experience I never intended to write about. The same curiosity that drew me out to those forests, and down that particular stream, somehow guided me to explore it with words. The root of it all is out under the changing sky, and inside the wild mind. Coming to close to the Earth, and all Nature, our nature. The rest is just reading and writing and honing – becoming more honest, more open, more honest.

I am pleased to be connected to the Wild Words circle. Thank you."

 

Spring 2015 Competition Shortlist

The shortlisted entries are, in alphabetical order, Stream by Kester Reid, The Room at Waterside House by MJ Oliver, In the Valley of the Shadow by Adrastos Omissi, About Witches by Charlotte Stevens and Above Grasmere by Penny Walker.  Congratulations to you all!

You can enter the Wild Words Winter Solstice Writing Competition now.  Entries close on December 21st 2015.

Stream

by Kester Reid

The sunshine takes me walking.  Rainy season sweetens heat.  Sun is climbing, near its peak, but this leafy space is cool-cool, and has yet more hours of rowdy peace before heat rises, and reaps its silence.  I make for my stream ‘Piedrita’: little stone.  And here the sun itself streams thickly into shadow scenes.  So bright, it deepens shaded space, emboldens the dance of Dark with Light.  And the Truth is never still.  Here my glinting marvel is this stream’s tiny perfection.  Miniature river of round yellow pebble, complete with pools and patches of sand.  I sit central on a gracefully twisting log, wet with gleam.  Waiting for nothing, I watch the moving silence.  And liquid light ripples gold upon green undersides of leaves.  Fallen branches arch over in grand decoration, vines entwined throughout them, splaying, displaying. I notice ahead of me, you are an oh-so-slowly winding vine, bridging the brook.  And your yellow trumpet flowers peek at me, seductive; each one hanging, hidden, under a perfect leaf roof, fleshy green, and spread out in a fan.  And underneath each roof of leaf you show me dark splashes of red.  Wombish stains of your claim to our same blessing: life and death.  I marvel, your leaves so wide-flat-fan spread from creeping stems, waving hands of soft flesh that shelter delicate secrets flowering.  Whilst from above all is so green and unseen.  I hear a hovering, a whirring, and ‘jempe’, hummingbird, humbers past in a blast of streaking brilliance.  Right beside me and through an impossible gap, a stream-portal of fell-chance over a miniscule pool gurgling…through in a flash, and then gone.  But you’re buzzing, I hear you, and so suddenly there! dipping, splashing, dancing for moments, and then gone.  Now back!  And again gone, like a splash – in the green serene lake of my dream.  But now here’s a deeper hum.  Look to my side and here is bumble bee, but BIG, striped BOLD black and yellow and buzzing strong.  I watch you a time as you return over and again to just the same sticky spot of good mud… what are you doing?  Not eating, as I thought. Not drinking, no.  You trundle on the ground, collecting great mouthfuls of puddle paste.  You hover for a moment and transfer to dangling legs.  Again you land, munch, hover, and transfer.  And so grow two building bundles hung with care on bumble limbs.  And then off downstream at a steady hum-buzz, and gone for a minute or two.  Back again, and same task at wing… you must be building things.  Caves and tunnels and honey-pods perhaps.  A whole home of foraged earth.  Wet right now, but drying firm and proud by when the afternoon brings cloud.  Do you know you are a true master?  And didn’t you teach us of cement?

I wander downstream a few steps, still sands shift beneath my feet to swirl and swim, and tiny pebbles crunch together softly. Spiders’ homes are strung every place, in great communities, or alone.  Many cast their net horizontal, trampoline-like over streamlife, and I guess you must be specialists in your sport.  I step around, and careful-through: ‘won’t be the one who breaks you’.  Turgid pop of swamp-loving stems bursting under my weight, as I slow-rustle through fleshy foliage and find a fungus garden foresting the steep slopes of dying tree-roots.  Tiny white mushrooms curving up from the buttress mountainside, like a vast rolling stand of tropic palms.  Clinging on just tight enough, not tight at all, ready to fall.  Delicate cloud-grey caps tremble altogether – ‘do you feel it, my vibration?’  And here above, a nest, abandoned at head-height, with a single leaf drifted down upon its top.  Tiny, for a tiny bird, who weaved it fine with living threads, and worked in softening moss to line the bed of feathered babies, who shreeped for some busy time, then flew, and gave her rest.  A story willingly left, and all alive.  Here the perfect stream spreads into swamp, and I’ll not pass.  Crystalline divine dives into spreading dark.  And upstream from where I sat all closes out to thorns.  No more than 30 winding paces in between.  One of the tiny places holding worlds in which to Dream.

The Room at Waterside House

by M.J. Oliver 

A leopardess paws

at the cage of my thinking,

wanting out.

Seductive and dappled

as jungle sunshine, the abattoir scent

on her breath the only clue

to ferality. Through the bars

I see her eye-lids slowly open,

slowly close, a gentle dusting

with her lashes, tear-ducts

gleaming. Her cub

rubs his forehead

on the rosettes of her throat,

triggering licks

from her muscular tongue,

his closed eyes smile

in feline idolatry.

Irritated by his idiotic frailty

she sinks her teeth in his neck, chews,

spews out the meat

in mouthfuls

through the bars of the cage,

curls up alone inside my head

and roars. 

In the Valley of the Shadow

by Adrastos Omissi

Uncoffined, they laid her. The sunlight, dappled by the stained glass, touched her face. The patterned light took some of the deathly, waxlike pallor from her skin. But she did not look like she was sleeping. They never look like they are sleeping.

He knelt before the altar, staring at the body. He had no more tears. They had run until they had washed his soul away and now he was an empty vessel. One empty vessel looking at another.

The monks had finished their chanting and the church was emptying again. A novice, casting furtive glances at the body, was changing the candles in the chancel. Hoping to send the boy fleeing with a harsh word, he wearily filled his lungs with air, but all that came forth was a pitiful moan, like the sound corpses make. It caught in his throat with a rattle and he sobbed. The boy fled anyway.

He could not bear to look at her, nor could he find the strength to look away. How had he been so foolish? After all these years, how had he been so foolish?

He had cheated death in the famine under Edward of Caernarfon. He had survived the great plague under Edward’s son, in 1348 and again in 1350. He had outlived an arrow that had pierced his groin at Homildon Hill. He had outrun pneumonia, bloody flux, a dozen fevers and poxes, and even given old age the slip more times than he knew how to count. Each time, the sands in his glass had run down to their last and he had made his flight. Each time it had cost another, but before so monstrous a thing as death any price had to be paid.

Where had he learned it, this gift of his? He could no longer remember. Only in rare and fleeting moments, when the smell of rain on pine trees would take him back to a long forgotten past, could he recall any life he had lived that was real. When he smelt the pine trees beneath the rain he would remember, for a fleeting moment, a distant song and warmth and red hair between his fingers.

He knew that he had been old, so very old, when the Northmen came across the sea. Even in those long forgotten days, before William, before Alfred, he remembered the scent of pine, and how it haunted him, and how it made a weariness that he could not bear come down upon him. And he would run. But he could not escape the weariness. It was inside him.

He had learned it, that much he knew. This dark magic had not been born in him. Someone had it taught to him, for he remembered the words. Nothing more than little snatches, here and there, but he remembered them. He remembered them in English, though he knew that they had not been so spoken to him.

He knew now nothing of the language that had first quickened on his tongue. He longed to speak it, but it stuck in his throat and would not come, like a dream fleeing before the morning. It was all gone, save only that one, terrible word. Maithair. Mother.

Keep nothing close that you love.

Those were the words. That was how to do it. How to survive. How to keep going inside. How to keep cheating that wind that blows the candle dark.

This choice he had not expected to be foisted on him. True, he had wondered how it would be to leave her behind and go on in the world without her. But he had expected that moment to be far from him, to enjoy many happy years in the bliss of her youth.

But then he had fallen. The rock had caught him as he fell and then… that final moment as the ground found him. He had never known anything like it, as if pain were a lake that he had been quenched in and it had soaked deep through him, shattering his bones. When she came to his side, he had no time to think. Life barely clung to him. He reached up, and he took life from her.

And now, uncoffined she lay beneath the altar. Pine branches had been laid about her, as if to mock him. Their perfume rent at him.

You had to believe that their story was not your story. That the songs they sung were not your songs and their joys could not reach your joys. That was how you kept going, kept fighting the weariness.

For death was the greatest evil and it could only be fled. Before death there was no other recourse. Death had to be fled, forever.

And you could not believe that if you loved them.

He stood and turned from the altar. He could not stay to see her buried. The scent of pine had found him and now he must go far away. Far away to live, and live, and live…

A dry sob racked through him as he thought of it, and he slipped from the church. He wanted to die. But he knew he never would.

About witches

by Charlotte Stevens

~~

Ripped out of me this thing. Ripped out of me.

 

How did it come to this? How did it come

To me who knew to keep my secrets tight,

Fist-tight, not flung palm-spread, lips tight-shut dumb?

My wet heart once conker hard, conker bright,

 

Safe in its wrathful shell, rendered to none,

 

Spun. Spun from the belly warmth of my trees

To things unknown. Me, who saw what flames do.

By fire we were scourged, flames filling the breeze,

But dawn was different: the reproach of dew

And it was cold water took out my breath.

A defeat so profound, a drowning fate.

No glory fire. A defeat that took death

By water to rightly articulate.

 

It is a lust, the scent of a lightening spark,

That curling paper black and slow, so played

Open slow in creeping orange light.

 

How did it come to death by their wet zeal?

How did it come to daylight’s bright ordeal?

 

Clutched feathers, feather light and fingertips.

All I asked for were feathers. All I asked

For were some scraps of paper, light as down,

And ink. Some blackish ink and little scraps

And quiet. All I asked for was black ink

And quiet: pillow quiet drawing down.

Black ink, soft feathers, quiet: dark and down.

 

But there's a magic to this suffering.

Oh, there's a beauty in the twist of it.

How did it come to this from mutterings

By light of lapping candle flames soft lit?

 

And vouch how with my thumbs to my toes bound?

With my mouth stuffed, arms pinned, feet tied, vouch how?

My heart was in my mouth; my mouth was gone.

 

Yet I wasn't afraid. In madness I wasn't afraid.

With scrying best kept to blue midnight's arms,

In my brokenness, multiple, I wasn't afraid,

Laid out, bound, with all my broken charms.

 

And now

 

Each offering, each muttering, each scrap

Are words half-formed in half-light, a struggle fight:

The play, sun bright, of flames on water mad. 

The ghosts of things deranged, exhilarated

In flames.

 

Yes, best keep scrying to blue midnight's arms.

In moonlight gather up twigs and things:

The toy light of small dark things igniting.

Each scrap alone is un-declarative,

Half-formed,

But gather pieces scattered up.

Above Grasmere

by Penny Walker

We climbed above Grasmere, not really together:

Clumpy mums behind skinny skipping kids,

Your heels higher than my head all the way,

Until the grass levelled out and Easedale tarn glittered up at us.

Folding your fleece, I held your soft shirt to my face

Warm, sweet child-smell, will-o-the-wisp.

I built a cairn of clothes: pants in pockets, socks in shoes

Covered the pile with a beach towel, garish against the gentle turf.

Your legs were thinner in the water, greeny white, paler than bone.

You faltered, crouched - firmer with each deepening step.

Stretched out fully you slipped through the chilled broth: a seal-frog.

Swiftly too far out for me to call you back.

The rock in the middle was big enough for two gangly girls.

You stood and waved: brave, strong, independent.

Shivering slightly, showing all your pearly teeth in mile-wide smiles,

Mermaid hair dropping silver favours to the fish.

Your safe return is a commonplace miracle.

I cannot swim out to you – too old, too slow, too cold.

Your supple aquatic youth brings you back.

I enclose you in moss-flecked terry cotton as you dress.