02 Oct 2018 / #Arvon50
I took my first Arvon course about ten years ago, at Totleigh Barton, with George Szirtes and Helen Ivory. I was a teacher back then, and lucky enough to get a teacher’s grant which allowed me to take the course, and was much appreciated.
It was a revelatory experience for me. I loved the setting and the sociability but what mattered more was the freedom to be with poetry. I was new to writing, and to have the time and such close contact with tutors was formative. George’s love of form must have been infectious, because I’ve been drawn to writing in different forms since then, and have often reached back for some of the formal poems we read in those morning sessions.
Staring out of the window of my little room overlooking a field of sheep, got me thinking about sheep. You don’t see so many in Brixton, where I lived at the time. I wrote ‘The Calmness of Sheep’ in that little room, and later sent it to the Arvon International Poetry Competition, where it was commended and earned me £500. That was probably the first money I earned from poetry, and that poem has served me very well, appearing in my first pamphlet, and just recently being published again in a Candlestick Press anthology – Ten Poems About Sheep. Who’d have thought this urbanite would ever be writing about sheep at all? I guess that’s what Arvon does – take you away from yourself, and give you time and new imaginative space. Later, I took another Arvon at Moniac Moor, tutored by Jo Shapcott and John Glenday. John gave me invaluable support with my writing during that week, and later, through the writing of Chick, my first collection. I think it’s fair to say the book wouldn’t have existed in the way it did without his input.
Since that time, I’ve been back to Arvon as a guest reader and a tutor. I’ll be teaching a course with Michael Laskey this summer at the Hurst. I love teaching those courses, but a little part of me still wishes I was on the other side of the table, with my notebook and pen, waiting to be inspired. I’ve always found Arvon to be inspiring and when I think back on the courses I took there, I can say they were truly transformative.
The Calmness of Sheep
The summer I was eighteen I stole a sheep.
It was very late, I’d left a party,
climbed the wet black hill behind the house.
Hands sunk in the sheep’s wool, I dragged her through the fields,
her eyes like small moons that looked straight at me,
a gaze I couldn’t fathom: as with all animals,
their thoughts are theirs alone.
Soon I let go, walked on, she calmly followed
over hills wrapped in the pale smoke
of dawn. I recalled the sheep I drew as a child,
flocks of faceless clouds on sticks pinned to kitchen walls.
We went on, our solitude unbroken until the first wall,
a road, a house, the sound of a crying child.
Here on the verge we sat and I smoked,
remembering the party and what followed –
how I had longed to climb the hill, to be alone.
I could smell the sheep, the warm stench of an animal,
and even now that night comes back to me –
her wool and the wet black fields
that I sometimes watch from this deafening house
where there are always parties
and never the calmness of sheep.
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