Hearth and home! The wood-burning stove was blazing merrily as we all arrived from our various starting points - Stourbridge; Ludlow; Bridgnorth; Shrewsbury and Clungunford. Carole had made a delicious soup - leek, potato and celery, with Allen's home-made bread, followed by a lentil flan - wow! What a lunch!
Within minutes of being here those of us who had been before felt as though we had never been away, and our two new 'Retreaters' felt completely at home too.
We settled down to a quiet afternoon: Mary in the barn, Sue, Sue and Liz in the Pink House across the field; Mum, Liz and I in the sitting room. Tea with home-made lemon drizzle cake at 4 o'clock, followed by more quiet reading, writing, knitting as it took our fancy.
The barn from outside
The barn interior
At about 6, we began to gather in the sitting room for our pre-dinner drinks, joined by the marvellous Welsh bard, Menna Elfyn. Chatting over drinks we learn that Menna has recently been in Russia, India, New York ... is working on an oratorio to be performed by the Welsh National Opera; that her work is being translated into Hindi; that she looks after her 18 month old grand-daughter on Wednesdays; that she has recently completed a body of work called Field Notes - a collaborative work with an artist - that poetry is alive and kicking in Llandysul and around the world!
From the Bloodaxe website:
Menna Elfyn is the best-known, most travelled and most translated of all Welsh-language poets. The extraordinary international range of her subjects, breathtaking inventiveness and generosity of vision place her among Europe’s leading poets. Murmur is her first new book since Perfect Blemish: New & Selected Poems / Perffaith Nam: Dau Ddetholiad & Cherddi Newydd 1995-2007, and includes translations of poems by Welsh folk hero and poet of peace Waldo Williams (1901-71) which challenge the notion of the Celtic melancholy and testify to a ‘hesitant hope’. Her own poems have facing English translations by leading Welsh poets: Elin ap Hywel, Joseph Clancy, Gillian Clarke, Damian Walford Davies and Paul Henry.
'Menna Elfyn is the firebird of the Welsh language, bright, indomitably modern and as undestructible as the phoenix. She gives hope to all writers in lesser spoken languages that great things can rise from the ashes' – Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill
'Elfyn is a poet of healing…both compassionate and celebratory. Like a soul doctor she questions and probes, like St Teresa she endures the darkness, but in the end she sings a song which affirms that flawed humanity is indeed perfectible’ – Katie Gramich, Planet
'Liberation and enclosure are powerful themes in Menna Elfyn's work. She is a political poet, writing with passion of the Welsh language and identity for which she campaigns. But she makes her claims with realism…a restless, intensely responsive imagination’ – Helen Dunmore, Observer
Talk over supper ranges from poetry to cats; from Shakespeare to the 21st Century book industry; from Wenlock Poetry Festival back to cats again. Much laughter. Wine. Blackcurrant pudding (from the garden).
After supper Menna delights us by reading from her new, not-yet-published book: Murmur - coming out in September from Bloodaxe. The poems are moving, funny, lyrical, heart-breaking and powerful. She reads them beautifully, in English and in her native Welsh (she always writes in Welsh and has other poets - Gillian Clarke, for example - translate them into English.) We ponder the difference between pleading/begging/imploring. We ask her to read some of her poems twice through so that we can really hear them with our hearts as well as our minds. We listen to differences. We feel truly blessed.
This morning after our delicious breakfast (home-grown rhubarb, home-made marmalade, home-collected honey, home-made bread etc etc) we read the first of our short stories.
This retreat grew out of a desire to read short stories in the way you might eat really, really rich chocolate - a little bit at a time! We had been talking at one of our Reading Days about how short stories need to be read, then left to 'settle', enjoying just one a day perhaps, rather than working through a whole collection in the way one would read a novel. The idea of having a retreat that actually prioritised short stories just seemed perfect. So what we do, is read (aloud, usually me) a short story after breakfast. Then we walk - today in blustery, misty, slightly rainy weather - along the beach, or coastal path, or the nearby Preseli Hills, coming back to Broniwan in time for lunch. Today's lunch was a gorgeous spicy soup followed by another of Carole's wonderful quiches with salad and (Allen's home-made) bread. All of our stories this year are taken from the Self Help section of Collected Poems by Lorrie Moore. This morning's story is just called How and is about the disintegration of a relationship. More to follow after this evening's discussion.
It's after lunch now and we are all scattered around the house and barn doing our quiet activities - more knitting, reading and writing poetry, blogging (me!) ... enjoying being in company without the distractions of chatter or busy-ness. In a little while Carole will serve afternoon tea in the dining room, with views over the lake and fields, the distant hills disappearing in the cloud.
I'm reading the poetry entries for the Wenlock Poetry Festival competition, and also dipping into David Whyte's wonderful, soulful book The Heart Aroused (see him at our festival this year) about the need to live with -
... one foot planted solidly in the light-filled world,
the other desperately looking for purchase in the
At the same time I've just started Daniel Pennac's (author of the much-loved Rights of the Reader) School Blues which I've been wanting to read for a while. I love the feeling of having lots of books on-the-go at the same time; picking up one for an hour or so, then turning to something else. I know that at some indefinable and unpredictable point one book will suddenly take precedence over all the others and I will be unable to put it down (how I love that moment!) but until then I am happy dipping in and out. A Reader's Retreat is simply heaven for me - complete with wonderful food and really good company and conversation morning and evening: what bliss this is.
After another lovely supper - delicious red bean chilli with a fragrant rice and the best cabbage ever (sautéed in strips with broken spaghetti, spring onions and lemon juice - mmm!) followed by perfect meringues with plums - we had our discussion of the short story we read earlier in the day. How by Lorrie Moore is the story of a marriage and its decline and eventual dissolution. Told in the style of a self-help manual, as would have been fashionable in the 80's this is a spare, seemingly didactic set of instructions on how to end your marriage. Looking more closely though, a different story is revealed; of two characters, male and female, meeting and trying to build a life together with hugely different needs and expecations - often unrecognised by either of them. The man is clearly trying to please his family by finding a nice girl to marry and raise a family, 'a neat nest of human bowls'. She is more ambivalent, tries to keep some independence - doesn't want the same thing at all. An agonisingly painful period of adjustment follows as the husband tries to shape himself to suit her, while she criticises him in order for her to find a good excuse for leaving. 'A week, a month, a year ...' is a constant refrain as time passes by without either one finding any sustained happiness. Eventually the husband becomes ill, which further delays her ability to walk away, until such time comes when she simply has to go.
The writing is deceptively simple. Beneath the surface layer of short sentences and brief paragraphs roils the murky and complex life of a couple in pain. We feel sympathy for both, and neither; we regret with them the futility of wasted time, and we feel some sense of relief and release when the marriage eventually ends. Images of the couple 'next to each other, silent, stiff, silvery-white in bed. ... like sewing needles' are disturbingly powerful.
Thoughts of leaving will move in. Bivouac throughout the living room; they will have eyes like rodents and peer out at you from under the sofa, in the dark, from under the sink, luminous glass beads positioned in twos. The houseplants will appear to have chosen sides. Some will thrust stems at you like angry limbs. They will seem to caw like crows. Others will simply sag.
This morning we read our second Lorrie Moore short story - What is Seized, followed by a brisk and blowy walk on nearby Penbryn beach, with Fan and Cai, our resident border collies, enjoying chasing sticks and running wild and free! (Forgot to take camera!)
Lunch was again delicious - soup, bread, and a lovely rice and mung bean dish that was most unusual and absolutely lovely. Mum, Mary and I called on Ela, Carole's mother, after lunch for a quick catch up - and the afternoon has been spent as usual in quiet work/rest time. We don't all read or write - here's Mum doing what she loves best!
Now as the sun goes over the yard arm, we start to gather for our pre-dinner drinks by the fire, already mournful that we have only one full day left in this reader's paradise!
Supper this evening was spinach roulade with sautéed potatoes and a lovely tomato dish - colourful and delicious! Carole's cooking is very much her own invention - she never quite follows a recipe, always having an intuitive sense that if she adds a little of this or a smidge of that it will transform an ordinary dish into something memorable: dessert was apple crumble - but better than any apple crumble you may have ever had before! The apples were cooked with Broniwan honey which gave them a lovely, lovely taste - and the crumble was just perfectly crunchy and sweet. Served with Joe's Home-made Italian ice-cream - we're all eating too much. Conversation around the table feeds us too, and takes us all around the world and back again.
Breakfast this morning wonderful as always (I should mention that I get up an hour before breakfast each day and walk up the looooong hill at the back of the farm and back, in order to make room for yet more food!) and the sun came out as promised for the first time this week. Three of us took the dogs on a lovely walk around the farm, past the cow-shed, through the gorse and up 'Cardiac Hill', through the grave yard, past the derelict farm, along the track, along the lane and back to Broniwan. We walked for about an hour, enjoying the beautiful views across to the Preseli Hills, the wonderful sight of red kites wheeling above us and the feel of sun on our faces.
Lunch was a lemony leek and potato soup (divine) followed by spinach pancakes stuffed with penchneb, a Welsh dish of puréed root vegetables. After teas and coffee some of our group went to Aberaeron to visit the craft centre there, while the rest of us read, wrote and slept!
Allen has been to lead his reading group in Aberaeron this afternoon - an eight year old group, they are reading Trollope, The Way We Live, and he came back quite fired up by the exhilaration of talking books with like-minded people.
I have been reading more of David Whyte's marvellous The Heart Aroused, Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. Beautifully written, deep, insightful and soulful, this is about how poetry can help put soul back into the workplace - thereby saving the lives of its workers. I'm lucky (so lucky!) in that my daily work is also my daily love, but even so, this book is inspirational and resonates at a very deep level. I love it when reading one book leads to others - I am now on the lookout for the Burton Raffel translation of Beowulf, and must renew my acquaintance with Camille Paglia and am eager to re-read all of my Pablo Neruda! What a feast this is! Also a wonderful quote from Kafka is singing in my mind: "A good book should be an axe for the frozen sea within us."
David Whyte is appearing at the poetry festival (scroll down to 4pm!) where he will be doing a reading called Able for It -Shaping an Imaginative, Resilient Self through Poetry:
One of the powers of poetry is to establish
an inner imaginative discipline, which allows us to live a fiercer, more courageous, if simpler life at the centre of momentous events and besieging circumstances. In this way, we are able to create a more beautiful mind, to find a clearer focus, to work from a surer internal foundation than the one the media tries to establish for us, all the while cultivating a sense of humour and celebration that binds our independent selves into a larger community.
In this presentation, David Whyte will look at a body of poetry, his own and others, which looks at the ability of the imagination to create a robust, independent self that is equal to, if not larger than, the tenor or difficulty of the times.
Supper this evening was Chick Pea and Butternut Squash Tagine, served in an antique dish that belonged to Allen's mother in America and was shipped to the UK along with a giant moon which is now in the Natural History Museum - but that's another story! The tagine is of course delicious, with cinnamon, lemon, "a bit of this, a bit of that ... " Followed by a Welsh pudding that has something to do with Eirun's gooseberries?? (I didn't quite catch the Welsh)) and 'plank cooked' Welsh tarts - I need help with this one, Carole!
After supper, we go through to the sitting room where we have a mini book-sale of various classic editions that Allen no longer needs, followed by our discussion of How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes) by Lorrie Moore. The discussion is slightly rushed because we are anticipating our next event, but even so we enjoy again Lorrie Moore's acute observational skills; her inventiveness of form (this is a story told backwards, like unpeeling an orange) and her ability to say so much with so little. There were criticisms, but in the main our admiration for this writer grows, and most of us will probably go on to read her later stories.
Next though, Carole herself comes through to give us a poetry reading: some six years ago, for her MA in Creative Writing under the supervision of Menna Elfyn, Carole wrote a long sequence of poems about the Welsh princess, Nest. Based on meticulous research, Carole's poetry gives voice to this young woman's life in a way that has never been done before. Abducted, taken hostage, raped, married off, children taken from her - it is an incredible life, and one which has repercussions in Welsh and Irish history and culture to this day.
What makes Carole's work unique is that she uses empathy and imagination to bring Nest to life as a girl and a woman - not just accepting the crude facts of her eventful life, not just placing her as a footnote to kings and princes - but positioning her at the centre of her own life and truly making us feel and realise the hardships, sorrows and losses that she bore - as well as the loves and passions.
The poetry is beautifully realised, with wonderful images that are rooted in the Welsh landscape and livelihood that Carole knows so well (her home overlooks the Preseli Hills where Nest would have lived before her abduction). Carole uses a variety of poetic forms, including an ancient Welsh form that she reprises by literally unpicking the form syllable by syllable from old Welsh poems, but whatever form she uses, her own inspired language shines through to create a work of quite stunning beauty and originality. This sequence of poems was breathtakingly good and we felt honoured and privileged to hear them. (Next step is to get them published ... )
We talked late into the night.
A later start than usual, and a last reading and discussion of a story before brunch. We finished with How to be a Writer a wonderfully comic piece that we enjoyed very much, and that the writers in our group ruefully identified with.
Our final meal together - much quieter than usual as we begin to make the transition from this lovely literary week that we have enjoyed so much, back to the realities of our own everyday lives. We have had such an excellent retreat - thank you to all the participants who entered into the spirit of the retreat so wholeheartedly, and thank you to Carole and Allen (and to Helen for helping), whose generous and abundant sharing of their lovely home makes the perfect and only setting for this endeavour.
Till next time ...