Poetry Season #6 – Tyrone Guthrie Artists’ Retreat Centre

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“The Big House”, Tyrone Guthrie Centre

The sixth and final piece of homework for the Andy Jackson course. The prompt for this week, greatly summarised, is to write a poem about poetry. I spent two weeks at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre last year, and when I started this exercise, memories of how hard it is to sit and write all day, every day for two weeks, came flooding back.

Tyrone Guthrie Artists’ Retreat Centre

Co Monaghan, Ireland, April 2018

From this bay window, the black lough,

the banks of bulrushes, the boathouse, 

the silhouetted swans, the scent of pine

are all perfect and …

…and across the stable yard the artists work away in their high-ceilinged, light-filled studios. I envy them, their brushes and canvases, their jars of water, their tubes of paint, their watercolour sets, their space rich with the scent of oils and turps. They have their easels and their palettes. All I have is a blank page and a pen and my thoughts. I’m sitting here in this beautiful room with an idyllic view, in this stately house. But I can’t write about a lough and a boathouse and a forest. That’s too obvious. I have to make the lough a metaphor for something, and the boathouse a metaphor for something else, but not too something else because that would be mixing my metaphors. The artist can just paint the lough and the boathouse and the swans – job done. And if they paint a unicorn on the hillside nobody will accuse them of mixing their metaphors. They can daub paint onto their canvases and they’re away and they can call the painting the first thing that comes into their heads – “Swans on Lough” or “Composition 8”. My first line has to be stunning, my title has to grab attention. They can say “Oh I just go where the brush takes me” and I think “Wonderful”, but when a poet says “Oh I just go where the pen takes me” I think “Wanker”. They can choose from a varied but limited palette. I have the whole fucking English language to choose from plus foreign words. There are over 200,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary and new ones, like “amazeballs” and “omnishambles” being added all the time. Jesus Christ, how to decide? They can mix and smudge and layer and smear. I can only use strictly defined letter shapes in black on white. The most artistic shape on my page is a sodding semi-colon, and poets sneer at them. Nobody says to artists “Show don’t tell” because they are always bloody showing. “A picture paints a thousand words” proclaimed Captain Obvious. I think he/she was vastly underestimating. And you can tell they’re artists, with their dungarees and their paint-blotched fingers, but who can tell you’re a poet unless you go the full Oscar Wilde with black cloak and lily and if you did that down the village pub here you’d get beaten up before you could recite the first stanza of The Ballad of Reading Jail. They have their art exhibitions, where they hang their works on some fancy gallery wall and people come and drink wine and stand back and cock their heads and stare at the paintings and “ooh” and “ah” and eat those little bits of pineapple, cheese and cocktail onions on sticks and handover more money than a poet makes in a lifetime. Us poets, if we’re lucky, might get a reading at a launch in front of a handful of people who are only there to get drunk on the cask wine and scoff the sausage rolls and try to steal a fucking book on their way out. Everybody can name at least a handful of painters – Van Gogh, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Monet, Picasso – but how many can name more than one or two poets eh? Maybe Famous Seamus and Wordsworth and the daughter of that crashing-bore at work who won the school poetry competition and that’s it. And downstairs the artists are sitting round the breakfast table, waving their arms and talking excitedly about perspective and light and tone and symmetry. Over in the poets’ corner they’re arguing about the correct pronunciation of enjambement and what’s the difference between prose and prose poetry (answer “fuck all”). And when you go to any city there’s always an art gallery but do you ever see a poetry gallery? Hell no! You’d have to search out some sticky-carpet dive to uncover a collection of penniless, broken-arsed poets droning into a cheap mic and none of them listening, just shuffling their papers impatiently waiting their turn. And what about all the fucking constraints poets have to adhere to – bloody fourteen line Petrarchan sonnets which are somehow different from Shakespearean sonnets, and villanelles and haiku and ghazals and mind-numbing sestinas. So many bloody rules that some smartarse will accuse you of breaking if you use a single bloody extra syllable. Jesus, all the painter is constrained by is the canvas and they can make that as big or small as they like and paint it all black if they want and it will still sell. And the further you get away from a painting the more sense it makes – the further you get away from a poem the less sense it makes (though this can also happen when you get closer). And everyone wants to own an original artwork to hang on their wall, but offer somebody the framed piece of paper on which you wrote the first draft of your best poem and they’ll think you’re bonkers. No wonder poets turn to drink and end up as bitter, twisted curmudgeons who’ve lost the ability to rhyme and try to pass off prose as poetry.

 


© Mike Hopkins 2019

image of Tyrone Guthrie centre taken by Mike Hopkins

NaPoWriMo 2018 – #21 – “Have you seen Mickey Finn?”

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The disused Jam Factory / railway station at Newbliss

I did a fair bit of writing today, but nothing interesting would come. So I borrowed the house bicycle and cycled into the nearest town, Newbliss, for a pint of Guinness. I came back with a story.

 

Have you seen Mickey Finn?

Somebody has dropped a cigarette into the tub, next to the bench where I’m sipping a Guinness outside the pub in Newbliss. The shrub is emitting smoke, threatening to turn into a burning bush. A man in the doorway says “For fuck’s sake” and tells one of the smokers to go in and get a pint of water. After several pints of water, the fire is extinguished. A man recites a list of names which includes “Jimmy the Dog” and “Mickey Finn”. There must be hundreds if not thousands of Mickey Finns around the world, but how did Jimmy get to be called “the dog” I wonder? A white van pulls up, the driver shouts, have you seen Mickey Finn?”. The doorway man says “No”. It drives off. Being close to the border, I’m wary of why someone might be listing names, or enquiring the whereabouts of another. I’ve nearly finished my Guinness when a red Ford Focus pulls up. A man about my age, but much heavier, gets out, comes straight up to me, says “Hello, where are you from, you’re welcome, would you like a pint?”. I accept his offer. He disappears inside and re-appears some time later with two pints of Guinness. He wants my life story and when I mention the Tyrone Guthrie Centre he says “Great man, great man, he paid for my first pair of shoes”. I confess to knowing little about Guthrie and he fills in some of the gaps. Guthrie was a Protestant and had no children. He left his huge estate mostly to the Irish Government to be used to promote the creative arts but also a significant part to his Catholic neighbours. “Where is he buried?” I ask. “Hop in and I’ll show ye” he says. We’re in the red Focus driving to Aghabog Church of Ireland cemetery, where Guthrie and his wife and his ancestors are buried. It’s a large, but not enormous headstone. We then drive back towards the town but he veers off, up a country road. “Do you want some fun?” he says. I’m a bit concerned by the question, but before I have time to answer, he has swerved a hard right into a field and is speeding around it, wheels spinning. He comes to a halt next to hedge with a hole in it. “Come in” he says “Have a cup of tea”. “Is your wife home?” I ask and am relieved when he replies that she is. We duck through the hole in the hedge to a bungalow, with a new Jaguar parked outside. That’s mine” he says “The wee Ford is Sarah’s”.  Inside, his wife Sarah seems unsurprised to see a total stranger following in her husband’s wake. “Will you have a steak sandwich?”. “No thank you, just a cup of tea”. I sit and am presented with a mug of tea, a plate piled high with steak sandwiches and another plate of Swiss Roll. “Ah, Just have one, at least”, she says. I daren’t tell them I’m vegetarian, knowing the disbelief it would cause. I force down a steak sandwich and a piece of Swiss Roll, wash it down with the tea. “Well now, let’s get you back” he says. We jump into the Jaguar this time and speed off. He stops at a bridge over a disused railway line. “That was the railway station”, he says. “Joe Martin and Mr. Guthrie bought it and started a jam factory. Irish Farmhouse Preserves it was called. Mr. Guthrie put a lot of money into it. I’ll say no more. But we used to pick strawberries and blackberries for the jam making. That was my first job. That’s how I got my first pair of shoes.”

 


 

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image : Mike Hopkins

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NaPoWriMo 2018 – #20 – Realising Perfection

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Realising Perfection

at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig

From this bay window

the black lough,

the banks of bulrushes,

the silhouetted swans

 

are perfect and yet:

a longtail boat

churning a wake

across the surface

 

or a boat woman

hawking soft drinks,

and one plastic bottle

floating in the shallows?

 

Below this bay window

the perfect lawn

is disturbed only by

the shadow

 

of a beech tree

but maybe:

tyre tracks

gouging the turf,

 

fast food boxes

scattered around

and a stray dog

scavenging?

 

The perfect sky

could be tinged

with exhaust haze,

the perfect silence

 

pierced by jack hammers,

the perfect paths

pitted with pot holes

and broken pavers.

 

The scones and cream

could be served

from a street cart

by a Bánh mì lady,

 

the brewed Italian coffee

made piquant

with a blob of

condensed milk,

 

the vegetables coated

in cheap chilli sauce,

the spotless kitchen

could sport a cockroach,

 

the empty roads

might feel the pulse

of swarming motorbikes

that I might fully realise

 

this perfection.

 

 


 

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image of Tyrone Guthrie Centre: Mike Hopkins

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)