Friday, 30 September 2011

Driving Back

So here am I back in Italy feeling rather schizophrenic - it's very strange, this shuttling back and forth between different cultures, languages and weather.   This time we drove, so that we could collect my car, since Neil's ancient banger has finally come to the end of its life.  Mine isn't even vaguely new, but it's newer than his!  And it also meant that I could bring out lots of bits and pieces for the little house in the olive groves to make it more home-like.

This time we took an overnight ferry from the north of England to Belgium to avoid the long, frenetic drive down the length of England.  These ferries are amazing - like floating hotels - so big I couldn't get it into just one shot, or even two.

We went to sleep somewhere off the coast of Yorkshire and woke up in Zeebrugge - trying (as we're both nervous passengers!)  not to remember the terrible ferry disaster there some years ago. 

Then the epic drive - down through Belgium this time (the toll roads are cheaper than in France), through Luxembourg and then Alsace - sometimes in Germany, sometimes France and finally Switzerland, opting to go over the St Gotthard pass which was still snow free.

It was getting dark, and we were very tired, but with grotty hotels asking 140 euros for a basic room without services, decided that we'd just drive on.  It would have been nice to see the swiss lakes in daylight, but that will have to wait for another trip.

After the expense of Switzerland (11 euros for a macdonald's burger in a service station!)  it was a relief to cross into Italy.  Where else would you get a motorway cafe selling the complete works of Kafka, Darwin, Pirandello and Garcia Lorca?

We reached Pietrasanta in the early hours of the morning and left the car still fully loaded while we fell into bed.  It's taken two days to recover, but we're very glad to be here and our two wild cats - Batcat and La Grigia were very glad to see us too!

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Tuesday Poem: What the River Told Me & This is What the Sky Says

What the river told me .....

Nothing escapes
the memory
of water.

is what you are made of.

This is what you are afraid of.

This is what the Sky says .....

Don’t wait up.

I have all the time in the universe.

I'm currently in transit between England and Italy.  These are two small fragments from the series I'm working on based on the Haida Gwaii Indian beliefs and poetry.   Their shamanic rituals were mostly in the form of poems and incantations and they all have wonderful titles which are irresistible as prompts for poems.   I'm having great fun exploring it all!

The photographs are from an autumnal, cloudy, but rather beautiful northern England.

For more Tuesday Poems, please visit the Tuesday Poets' Hub at

Friday, 23 September 2011

A Heron on the Bridge

Very quiet at the moment on the blog front because I'm in the UK attempting a punishing schedule of work, packing up the house for the winter (to return to Italy) and catching up with friends and relatives.  The weather is arctic here in the north (6 degrees last night) with grey skies, cloud, rain and a bitter wind.  And it's only September!!!     But walking into the town yesterday, we found a heron standing on the rail of the footbridge and, for once, he didn't immediately fly away.   A rare moment of sunshine made the moment complete.

Tomorrow - Saturday 24th of September -  I'm running an all day poetry workshop for the Sedbergh Literature Festival, The Write Idea, on the theme of memory and imagination, with a look at form and patterning. 

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Tuesday Poem: Barbara Crooker, In the Late Summer Garden

In the Late Summer Garden

Green beans lose their adolescent slenderness,
broaden in plump pods.  One pumpkin swells,
fills a corner with its orange lamp.
At night skunks slink in to dig for grubs;
in the morning we see their small excavations.
My friend's cancer has grown, spread to her femur
and liver.  Everything that can be pruned has now been taken.
Tomatoes spark starry yellow blossoms, hope against hope.
Some will turn into hard green marbles, but the sun
has moved past equinox, days shorten and cool.
My son is learning his multiplication tables;
he flips flash cards at the maple table.
Numbers multiply like random cells.  I am learning
the simpler but harder facts of subtraction. .......

For the rest of the poem click on the link.

I'm travelling at the moment so have put this up in advance -  A wonderful poem by Barbara Crooker which appeared in the Valparaiso Poetry Review.  Just click the link.  It's rather sad in the beginning, but a great sense of seasonal rhythm and the natural cycle of life.   Feeling a bit autumnal myself - first of the autumn storms yesterday leaving us without internet for a while - and sad at leaving Italy which I'm growing to love more and more.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Flowing Forms of Helaine Blumenfeld

Taking Risks

This is the latest exhibition in the Piazza at Pietrasanta and one of the nicest for a long while.  The work, in marble and bronze, is by a woman called Helaine Blumenfeld.  Do check out her site because her photos are much better than mine! Helaine is one of the older generation of sculptors working in Pietrasanta and very distinguished.  She originally studied in Paris under the Russian sculptor Zakhine and has built herself an international reputation. 
Helaine's personal studio

She’s based here, working in her own studio and in the marble studio SEM and specialises in exploring the territory between figurative and abstract forms.

These three bronzes I think of as three dancing women and I was amused to see some older Italian women out shopping and taking turns to pose for photographs beside them!

Pietrasanta is gradually getting back to its normal self after the tourist chaos of the summer.  One innovation is that the local police have adopted very strange two-wheeled vehicles to patrol on.  The Carabinieri of course, still dash around in cars!

Monday, 12 September 2011

Tuesday Poem: Isobel Dixon - The Tempest Prognosticator

Moth Storm

The lamp stands on the stoep
so the moths crash the party,
fighting for the limelight,
their moment of brightness,
their fifteen minutes’ flame.

Tomorrow we’ll dust, and sweep
crisp wing-shreds up, wash
from the window panes the blight
of their massed batterings,
seeking the heart, the heat.

No: the house itself, with us,
has surged forth in the night,
a lit hulk lurching
to the clefted hill, urgently
in search of the ultimate

faraway blue, of the indigo wick,
blinding its placid glass
against this fitful blizzarding.

Isobel Dixon

Moth Storm comes from Isobel Dixon’s latest collection, just published by Salt. Salt is one of those amazing small presses (Two Ravens is another) that publish poetry and literary fiction of a very high quality. Like many of the best small publishers in Britain, its existence has been jeopardised by recent Arts Council cuts. One can only hope it manages to continue, as an antidote to the over-hyped commercial products that seem to be all that’s emerging from the big publishing houses these days.

‘The Tempest Prognosticator’ has to be one of the best titles of the year. The title poem refers to an ingenious appliance (illustrated above)  constructed in 1850 by a Dr George Merryweather - appropriately named because his prognosticator was invented to predict storms. It consisted of 12 glass bottles in a circle with a bell hung above them. In the neck of every bottle was a small piece of whalebone, connected to a hammer. Each bottle also contained a leech and when the air pressure dropped, signalling a storm, the leeches climbed up the glass, disturbing the whalebone and ringing the bell. A model of it is apparently in Whitby Museum in Yorkshire.

This is an intelligent, carefully crafted collection, with poems that may take several readings to give up their cargoes of thoughts and ideas, caught in cleverly structured nets of language. Reviewers like JM Coetzee have described it as ‘virtuoso’, and elsewhere the contents have been praised as ‘lusciously feral and finely crafted poems’ that are ‘a wake-up call to the imagination and the senses and suggest myriad possibilities of what a poem can do and be’. So, if you like poetry that makes you dig deep, you’ll like this.

Moth Storm is one of my favourites - I love the tautness of the language, the sub-text under each line, the wind that blows all the way from the southern hemisphere - all the way from Africa. I particularly like the image of the house ‘surging forth’ into the night, ‘a lit hulk lurching/to the clefted hills.’

Isobel Dixon comes from South Africa, where she has won several awards for poetry. She is currently living in the UK, where she is a literary agent. I’m privileged to have her as mine! If only all writers could have agents who are writers too.

For more Tuesday Poems please visit the Tuesday Poem website at

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Neil's New Marble

Today is the day Neil's latest opus in marble has come home from the yard to be erected in the olive grove.  It's always a question of where to put them if you don't sell them straight away.  And if you're collecting things together for an exhibition, storage is a problem. Luckily there's a lot of olive grove out there just waiting for a few sculptures to liven it up!

The Process starts with the hunt for a suitable piece of marble.  You have to go to a quarry, or to a quarry yard, and look.  Some of the blocks weigh tons and cost thousands - sometimes tens of thousands if you want particular colours or quality.

Neil is looking for a smaller piece that costs a lot less!   In the marble yard where he works, you can get offcuts - they make shelves and fireplaces and marble porticos.  There's a huge machine for cutting the marble and they have compressors for power tools.

The sculptors work in small cubicles behind the main commercial workshop.   This is Neil's marble in a more advanced state.

This new sculpture weighs a lot, even though it's small, so a forklift and a lot of manpower was required to get it into the back of the car and then out again, protected by wood and polystyrene.  It came down the path on a bogey and Neil has used some acro-props to erect a primitive lifting device using a 'paranca manuale'  to winch it up.    It was all very tricky.

Still some work to be done inserting metal pins into the marble to hold it.   But the finished product looks fantastic.  Just waiting now for someone to ask 'what is it meant to be'?

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Ups and the Downs of a Writer's Life

This is proving a weird week, with lots of ups and downs. Sunday saw the end of ‘il gran caldo’, with thunderstorms and 36 hours of much needed torrential rain. The landscape looks greener and the air is cooler, particularly at night.

On the work front, life seems to go according to this graph borrowed from Karen Ball on A.B.B.A.   After a really difficult period, suddenly everyone wants me! I’ve had two approaches with exciting non-fiction projects I can’t say much about yet, and an offer has been made to my agent for a Japanese edition of Katherine Mansfield. I googled her name in Japanese and this is what appeared.

Neil and I have also, after a lot of effort, internet bother and swearing in two different languages (Italian expletives now quite fluent) published a small collection of short stories on Amazon Kindle as a Kindle Single. THREE is a collection of 3 stories, one rather longer story (called Three) previously unpublished and two other stories published in anthologies and read on BBC Radio 4.

The hardest part of the exercise was getting it onto, which makes E-books available to Sony e-readers, i-pads, Nooks, phone apps and several other formats. Their submission criteria and formatting are very tricky indeed, despite the downloadable handbook. Just one code or character in the wrong place and the whole thing goes crazy. But we managed to put Three up there and my other e-title A Passionate Sisterhood.

I’ve been blogging about the sheer hell of it over on what used to be the Kindle authors blog site. This has been forced, by Amazon, to change its name as an infringement of their copyright. You’d think they would welcome the publicity, but no. In addition their legal department has requested us to remove all mention of kindling or kindled in our past web posts for the same reason.  The Link will only work until Friday, and we have only a few days to decide how to rename ourselves.

Apparently no one, anywhere (not even in the paragraph above) can talk about kindling or being kindled except with reference to flames or small sticks of wood, without a writ appearing through the mail box. Despite both words being in the English dictionary and some powerful precedents - googled, googling -hoovered - hoovering - Have amazon never heard of the phrase ‘household name’? But, since they’re the only e-retailer offering 70% royalties on books, they have us by the proverbial short and curlies!

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Shamanic Journey: Part Two

I promised to tell more about my Shamanic journey.  As I said earlier, I had serious doubts beforehand, being a sceptic, about whether anything would happen, or even whether I was capable of entering what I believed would be some kind of induced trance state.  The only thing I was sure of was that I trusted my friend utterly.

I was shown into a small quiet room where incense sticks were burning and various rock crystals and stones were scattered around. A meditation tape was playing. We sipped herbal tea while B explained that she would take me on a short journey at first and then bring me back again. I mustn't say anything, but must write down the experience straight away in the notebook she'd asked me to bring.

B told me that the three dimensions could be thought of like a tree - the roots underground, the trunk in the world, and the branches reaching up into the sky. She asked me to think of a tree - a special tree that I knew well and could visualise strongly. I knew straight away that I would use the big sycamore that grew beside a mountain stream when I was a child. I used to believe it to be a magical tree because it had split into two when only a sapling and a circular basin had formed between the trunks that was always full of water reflecting the sky.

B made me lie down on a soft rug and covered me with a blanket. I was blindfolded with a scarf. After a few moments of deep breathing and relaxation B put on a CD of shamanic drumming. You must always go on a journey with a question, looking for something, B told me. On this first trip I must will myself downwards through the roots of the tree and I must look for a special animal who would be my protector. My Power Animal. How would I recognise it? The animal would approach me and then follow behind me.

Imagining the descent into the centre of the earth was the most difficult, but the drumbeats were hypnotic and the more I listened and blanked out all irrelevant thought the more I began to drift into a long tunnel like Alice down the rabbit hole. At the end of the tunnel was a light, and I came up through a pool in a clearing in beautiful woodland. A deer was standing beside the pool - very graceful and timid and I wondered whether this was going to be my power animal. But suddenly a wolf with red eyes emerged from the darkness of the wood behind the deer and approached me. As I began to move away, it followed.

I wandered about in this strange imaginary world followed by the wolf for some time - at one point I was on a ridge looking down on a valley, and then I was standing on a beach on warm sand, with the sea calmly hissing around my ankles. It was unbelievably peaceful and I was quite sad when the drumbeats changed and I was called back by B, retracing my journey as instructed, over the ridge, through the woods, down through the forest pool, into the tunnel and back up to the tree still followed by the wolf - my very own Patronus. I couldn't help thinking about Harry Potter - J.K. Rowling took so much from old mythologies and traditions of magic for her books I suppose it was inevitable that the 'power animal' would evolve into the magical Patronus.

Afterwards I felt incredibly relaxed. B told me I had been to the 'Clear and Shining Sea' where everyone goes eventually. Later I did another journey through the top of the tree, eventually surfing through the stratosphere, looking down on myself peacefully stretched out under the blanket. This experience was amazing, and when I was given the 'call back' I really didn't want to return which was rather scary.

Looking back on it now, it felt like that deep imaginative trance state you experience when you're deeply into a story - inhabiting that imaginative landscape, listening to your characters speak, waiting to see where they are going to take you. It is a creative journey inside your own imagination, your sub-conscious mind, exploring the deepest recesses of your psyche. I think for anyone with writer's block it would be liberating.

Perhaps Shamanic Journeys have always been creative - generating the huge amount of story and poetry passed down by the Shamen. And then there's the art, the music and the dance .....

This could be a tool, I thought, a way of entering a heightened creative state. It was certainly a wonderful way to relax.

If anyone is interested further there's an introductory book called 'Shamanic Journeying: A Beginner's Guide' by Sandra Ingerman (I've only read a sample on Kindle), and there are several shamanic drumming CDs on the internet. Then there's the novels - Carlos Casteneda and Paolo Coelho have made vast amounts of money writing about their own shamanic journeys.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

A Shamanic Journey

I became fascinated by the Haida Gwaii indians - a culture wiped out at the beginning of the 20th century - while reading ‘A Story as Sharp as a Knife’ by the American poet Robert Bringhurst.   This book is an account of the Haida culture - their art, religion and literature - the latter expressed in a highly developed tradition of oral poetry. 

Theirs was a hunter/gatherer society, living in clans under the banner of either the Eagle or the Raven, and their religion was Shamanic.  Many of their major poems - eg Raven Travelling - appear to be about shamanic journeys.  On a journey the Shaman could traverse the three dimensions - earth, sea and sky - easily, flying to the bottom of the sea, or swimming up into the sky.

So, I began to read up on shamanic journeying in order to understand just exactly what it entailed and how it was done.   What I discovered is that its practitioners still exist, though these days it’s used most often, not as a religious ritual, but as a means of spiritual healing, or self-enlightenment. 

Now, I’m a science and logic girl, and have always been sceptical of anything vaguely new-agey - while at the same time accepting (with Shakespeare) that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio’ etc etc, and that the mind has amazing powers we haven’t even begun to explore.  I also believe that when Christianity threw out witchcraft, it also threw out a lot of useful knowledge at the same time.

So, with this crazy mixed up basket of thoughts and ideas I was bound to be intrigued when a friend (who is a Reiki Master) confessed over dinner that she was also a fully certificated Shaman.
‘Let me take you on a journey,’ she said.
And I agreed to give it a try.   Would going on a shamanic journey give me any insight into the practices of the Haida Gwaii?  Would a journey into the depths of my own psyche have any benefits in accessing locked-up creativity? 

Would I be able to do it at all - given my innate scepticism and strong personality?  Years ago someone once tried to put me into a hypnotic trance, but had to retire defeated - apparently I was too much of a control freak to allow anyone to mess with my mind.

This has already been quite a long post, so I will write about what happened on Sunday.  I’m still feeling surprised and a little weird!  But I do have a few more insights into the culture of the Haida Gwaii and the roots of their story-telling.