Poetry progress : from Sheepwash to the Sierra Nevada

The hot summer of ’76, the one everyone remembers; the summer, in the short life of my fictional private eye, Scott Mitchell, between Amphetamines and Pearls and The Geranium Kiss; the summer I drove my green Citroen 2CV down to the south west, to Totleigh Barton, a sixteenth century manor house close to the village of Sheepwash and the River Torridge that was the Arvon Foundation’s first residential writing centre; a week in which to get to know one’s fellow students, share the cooking, lean on the tutors for advice and swop pulp fiction for poetry.

I arrived before most students on the first day and combing the house for the best of the shared bedrooms still available, I came across one in which the occupant, having claimed his space, had set out the small library of books he’d brought with him in a neat line. I can’t remember now what they were, but one quick glance was enough to suggest their owner might be an interesting person with whom to share.

Alan Brooks turned out to be an American temporarily living in London, a rural conservationist and a fine poet, someone who has remained a good and close friend. It was with Alan that the idea for Slow Dancer magazine was formed; Alan, after his return to Downest Maine, who became the magazine’s US Editor through its thirty issues.

The covers of the first few – designed by Nadia Stern – will give an idea of the range of poets we were publishing in these early years.

Just as it’s easy to look back on that meeting with Alan Brooks as being of singular importance in that part of my life concerned with the writing and publishing of poetry, so I can point to my attendance in 1993 and again in 1995 at the Community of Writers poetry programme at Olympic Valley – Squaw Valley as it was then called – in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada, as being of great significance on both counts. In terms of my writing, through example and through suggestion and discussion, I was encouraged to vary the style in which I’d been writing, experiment a little, enjoy the feel of language, rhythm, find subjects in the natural world. In the afternoons we would listen to the staff poets such as Robert Hass, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, Brenda Hillman reading and talking about their poetry, and it was Robert Hass’s work which affected me most strongly. I can still remember the first occasion on which I heard him read – poems which moved seamlessly between the abstract and the deeply personal, which incorporated philosophical ideas alongside close observations of the natural world, while taking in references to the films of Kurosawa and the blues of Mississippi John Hurt. All of this without missing a beat or losing for a moment the listener’s attention.

The mornings were spent in small workshop sessions headed by those same poets, during which we would read and discuss the poems we had somehow found space and time to write the previous day. Every day. Poems that you left outside the door to be collected in the early hours and photocopied in time for the morning seminar. I doubt I’ve been much happier.

The Community of Writers has recently published Why to These Rocks, an anthology of poems written over a period of 50 years by staff and participant poets and edited by Lisa Alvarez, in which I’m proud to have a short poem – just five lines – Out of Silence – which I think, short as it is, captures something of the essence of the time I spent so happily far from home.

Out of Silence

How the light diffuses round house corners;
redwood walls, the breaking colour of packed earth,
ochre in the mouth.

The red woodpecker testily chiselling sap from a small ash
the only sound in the valley.

Author: John Harvey

Writer.

6 thoughts on “Poetry progress : from Sheepwash to the Sierra Nevada”

  1. Slow Dancer was a great magazine. We sold quite a few in the Public House Bookshop. I was thinking of Paul Evans the other day. I found the typescript of an unpublished poem of tucked deep inside the gatefold of an Albert Ayler record.

  2. Thanks, John. Hoping to include a couple of poems in which Paul is mentioned in a forthcoming blog. I went to his American Lit course in Regent Street for a couple of years and was introduced to some great work.

  3. Second time lucky? Oh my…..I still have editions 1-3 of Slow Dancer; not sure why I dipped out after that, maybe 50p was just too much out of my pocket money?! I also have a newspaper cutting from The (Stevenage) Midweek Gazette about the launch and your writing career – with a corking photo! You may have abandoned teaching and us two years before, but you see we were still loyal. You inspired me to read and enjoy literature as a girl from a bookless house; I can still hear you reading to us in class! I think probably, for a price, I could keep the photo quiet…….Jane

  4. Jane … Thank you for the kind remarks about the teaching. It’s good to be remembered in such a positive way. As for the photograph, I’ve long gone beyond embarrassment. Besides, tucked into my copy of SD 1, I have an almost equally embarrassing photo from the Hornsey Journal, taken at around the same time. Let’s face it, it’s what we looked like, some of us, back then.

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