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Words that Work

Biblio-Poetry Therapy includes the practice of reading a poem and writing in response with a therapeutic intention, usually in a group setting. The emphasis is firmly on process rather than the product. I’ve been using poems as a form of bibliotherapy for over twenty years now, so you’d think I’d be able to tell which poems will resonate with a particular group and which ones will fall flat or backfire.

Among the groups I work with are people affected by addictions, people experiencing mental ill health and people living with dementia. I also work with mainstream groups, and although the same care goes into the choosing of poems, I feel more grounded. The poems I find interesting, challenging, and that can be used as a springboard for writing, are hopefully the poems others will engage with.

To illustrate the process, I’m going to reflect on a session I delivered for the Saturday Recovery Group in Portsmouth. The group, which has been running for several years now, is open to anyone battling with substance misuse, mental ill health and/or homelessness. The day before I was due to deliver the workshop, I spent an hour or two looking for a poem that might speak the same language to someone in, or has been in, active addiction. There are poems I’ve used before, that I know ‘work’. ‘Love after Love’ for example, by Derek Walcott, an unusual love poem which concentrates on loving the self after the breakdown of a relationship. In a previous session, one woman fighting a heroin addiction commented that listening to Mary Oliver’s ‘The Journey’, a poem that focuses on the need to leave behind what is harmful and start out on a new path, was better than acupuncture. Likewise, people are always moved by Louise Gluck’s poem ‘Snowdrops’ with its powerful last lines urging us to ‘risk joy in the raw wind of the new world’.

It would be easy to play safe, to use tried and tested poems, but I want every workshop to be as much as a discovery for me as it is for the participants. Surprisingly some poems that I thought would work haven’t always gone down well. William Blake’s ‘Poison Tree’ for example evoked a plethora of phallic interpretations from one participant in a writing for well-being group; and Carl Sandburg’s ‘Happiness’, a simple poem that I much admire, has elicited unfavourable comments on three occasions.

So here I am, the day before the workshop and still undecided on which poems to bring. The poem I’d really like to share with the group is one I’ve been trying to learn by heart:  Macbeth’s soliloquy: ‘Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow’.  I find a copy on PoemHunter and print off several copies.  However, I’m having second thoughts. I’m not sure how this poem could be used as a springboard for writing; I haven’t a clue who will be in the group and fear some participants might consider it beyond them, so I look for a safer choice. I discover Edip Cansever’s poem ‘Table’ on page 15 of Bloodaxe’s Staying Alive Trilogy.   I’m imagining how I might use it as a springboard to inspire the group to write their own poems. Something along the lines of: If there was a table as big as the world what would you put on it? I’m hoping people in the group will be able to tap into impossibilities, to bring the future poem beyond the realms of the pedestrian.

On the day of the workshop I go along to the third floor of Portsmouth Central Library. When I arrive there’s a group of people hanging around.   They’ve spent the morning practising Acceptance Commitment Therapy and have just finished a healthy buffet lunch. In the middle of the room there’s a table covered in flyers and posters. Someone asks if I’d like a drink. ‘Sorry it’s not whisky!’ they joke. ‘Just as well,’ I reply, ‘It’s a bit early for me.’

After a short wait I ask who’s here to join in with the creative writing. Slowly a group of seven gather around the table. One of the participants tells me that he hasn’t had a drink for five months after finding God; also he won’t be able to read or write because he’s forgotten his glasses, and oh, he’s dyslexic. I tell him not to worry as we’ll be writing a group poem and it’s OK just to listen.  I begin by asking everyone to introduce themselves and to say one thing that they’ve left behind today and one thing they’ve brought with them. Usually with an icebreaker like this I mention that the things can be either abstract or real (like fear or your wallet), but today I don’t need to explain. The group have immediately cottoned on. Some of the things they have brought with them are optimism and hope. Things they have left behind are confusion and a dirty sink. I tell them that I’ve left behind my dog and I’ve brought with me two poems.

Having tuned in to the needs and mood of the group, I decide to begin with Edip Candever’s more optimistic poem ‘Table’. I give out copies and read the poem aloud.  What follows is silence. For a moment I don’t know whether the poem has resonated or whether it’s fallen flat. I read it again. Sometimes when you read a poem, Derek Walcott’s ‘Love After Love’, as I mentioned before, where the narrator of the poem greets his younger self at his own front door, you know that everyone gets it, there’s no need to analyse. There’s often a universal ‘Wow’. The poem has touched the spot and the discussion begins. But today there’s a reticence. Understandably so. How on earth can you put ‘the sound of a bicycle’ on a table? I’m not giving in though. I think the poem deserves a bit more time. So I begin to go through the poem line by line. I explain how the person in the poem is filled with the gladness of living’ so he begins by putting ordinary things on the table, things that could easily fit: his keys, flowers, eggs and milk. The next thing he puts on the table is ‘the light that came in through the window.’ The group is interested now. By the time the man puts the ‘things that happened in his mind’ on the table, they begin to understand that this is not a real table. Someone suggests that the table is a metaphor for life and so you can put on it everything that you’ve ever experienced. I’m relieved. They seem to like the poem – it’s beginning to resonate. I ask which lines stand out and a few say the line ‘three times three make nine’. How can you put that on a table? I’m as intrigued as they are. Perhaps it’s memory I say, the things we remember, like learning the times table. Everyone agrees. Now they get the poem, and I do too.

The next stage I suggest is that we use this poem as a model for our own writing. ‘If you had an imaginary table what would you put on it?’  I ask. I offer them the option of writing a group poem or making a poem of their own. Everyone opts for the making of a group poem. It feels safer, so I offer to scribe. ‘You tell me what you want to put on the table and I’ll write it down.’ After a couple of suggestions, something surprising happens. Everyone in the group, apart from Paul who earlier declared himself a dyslexic, says they’d like to write their own poem. I hand out paper and pens and leave them to it.  While everyone is engaged in writing, Paul sits quietly staring at his copy of ‘The Table’. Two women have decided to work as a pair, and every now and again they get stuck. I invite them to look again at the poem to see how the poet uses his senses. Apart from things he can see, he puts in smell, sounds and things he can taste. One of the women puts on the table ‘the soft touch of my daughter’s cheek’, and the image brings a lump to my throat. Because of their history of substance misuse and chaotic lifestyles, I know that these women may have lost contact with their children. I wait until most people have come to the end of their writing and then I invite them to share what they have written.

I’m encouraged by the response. One of the women has put on her table ‘the soft sounds of the sea’. That’s a lovely example of alliteration I tell her.  I make the suggestion that their poems are worth saving. That typing them up and seeing them in print gives them authority. One of the women offers to type up all the poems. Someone suggests that a corner of the newly organised notice board could be designated a ‘Poetry Corner’. I really hope that it happens. Usually I’ve noticed people leave their work behind. Paul, the guy who says he can’t write, says he’s going to write his own poem when he goes home. Another says he’s taking his poem with him to work on.

And I say thank you to Edip Candever, for your poem, ‘The Table. It works, and I shall use it again. Shakespeare didn’t get the airing I’d hoped for. Sitting there with a group of people trying their hardest to ‘escape the way to dusty death’, the sentiments didn’t seem appropriate. But I’m happy to report that after much practice I can now recite ‘Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow’ by heart.

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Masterclass in Bucharest – My Journal

Six of us British Poets, along with luggage, squash into the airport taxi and the driver delivers us to the plush Golden Tulip Hotel. I’m so pleased that my room on the eighth floor has a view across the rooftops. As I look out I notice an old mansion type house directly opposite that looks deserted. Over the next few days I will come across many such buildings in this intriguing city.

After freshening up, we meet in the hotel restaurant for an evening meal. I’m a fussy eater but the menu looks more than appetising. I order beetroot salad in horseradish sauce while the others order something heartier. We wash it down with a bottle of red Romanian wine. Tomorrow we will be delivering the first of our masterclasses at the Romanian Cultural Institute. Anne tells us that the students will be eager to get going. I’m not sure what to expect so I’m preparing to ‘play it by ear’. Fellow poet, Joan Michelson, is worried about having to sit in one place for too long and announces she is going to take her hot water bottle. I’m worried about not being able to sleep and have another glass of red wine. Wendy French has promised to ring me at 7 am—if she survives her night in ‘Room 101’. I go to sleep comforted by the sharing of human frailties with my fellow poets.

First Day

I wake while it’s still dark and look at my watch. It’s 5.30, which means (as Romania is two hours ahead) it’s really 3.30 am. I close my eyes, cross my fingers, and wait to drop off. A short while later the phone rings. It’s Wendy French with my wake-up call. I go down to the restaurant where a breakfast feast awaits: mozzarella cheese, grapes, ham, scrambled eggs, olives, rolls, tomatoes, and cucumber. I join the other five poets who are already there tucking in. Alongside Graham Mummery’s teacup I notice three large pills and a map of Bucharest.

We enjoy a meander through this new city, searching for the place where we are to meet our students for the first time. Wendy remarks that we must look a motley crew. After a while, trying to follow the map and searching for short cuts, we realise we are lost. We ask a passer-by for help. Eventually we arrive at the Romanian Cultural Institute where Prof. Lidia Vianu introduces us to a sea of student faces. We are then led to our allotted table.

My first translation workshop is about to begin and I’m worried that I won’t remember anyone’s name. The first text to be read aloud by the first student is an extract from a memoir written in the form of letters. The text’s title has been translated as ‘The Trader of Beginnings’ and the subject of the letters is Kafka, one of my favourite writers. The first thing I notice is that Romanian sentences tend to be longer than the English equivalent. However, I am impressed with this student’s translation.

An interesting part of the process is the unravelling of nuances, especially when it comes to figurative language. For example, in another of the prose pieces, I discover that what had been described as ‘a brown penny’ turns out to be a tobacco stain on the ceiling. This is the character in the text speaking:

‘And if I read, I smoke. Someone before me had the same habit, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a brown penny on the ceiling.’

Mmm. After this first session, us six British Poets are escorted to the impeccably swish Restaurant Doina by Bogdan, our brilliant student guide. On the way I ask him if he has ever seen a bear—I had been reading about Romanian wild life in my Lonely Planet Guide. Unfortunately, he tells me, he has only seen a bear once, and that was in a zoo.

In the evening another student, Stefan, escorts us to the restaurant of the national hero poet, Mircea Dinescu. When we arrive, the food is laid out on the table: a bean dip and a kind of ratatouille made with spinach, and olives and bread, and it is all delicious. The meal, which we discover, was only the starter, is accompanied by wine from Mircea’s vineyard, plus three musicians on accordion, fiddle and something else, who play American tunes, such as Sinatra’s ‘I Did it My Way’. Our Romanian host asks them if they can play more traditional music, which they do—but with much less gusto. When the main course arrives (lamb meatballs and salad) Wendy and myself wish we hadn’t gorged ourselves so much on the first course. There is little room for anything else.


After the meal we climb into a bright yellow taxi and meet up for a nightcap in the Golden Tulip restaurant. Discovering we had to get up in the morning to deliver workshops, the waiter does his best to discourage us from ordering a round of plum brandies. ‘You will need a clear head,’ he says. ‘You’re better off having orange juice.’ However, we are not deterred. Anne gets her plum brandy, Graham an ouzo, Peter an Irish Whisky. My Courvoisier, arrives in a brandy glass balanced over a glass of hot water, on top of which is a serviette containing coffee beans. Wendy, who is being virtuous, ends up drinking the hot water. Joan has wisely gone to bed. The waiter tells me that he has been to my home city of Portsmouth. He remarks on the number of people he’d seen there with tattoos, including a pregnant woman. Come to think of it, I haven’t noticed any Romanian people with tattoos since I’ve been here. It’s quite refreshing to see people’s skin ‘in the nude’.

Second Day

At breakfast the restaurant is full of young professional types attending a conference in the hotel. We arrive at the Romanian Cultural Institute 15 minutes early just as the staff are laying the tables with snacks for lunch. Some of the students tell me that their texts are ‘difficult’ to understand even in the original Romanian language. One extract, written from the viewpoint of a dog, for example, has us all baffled. I was glad I had taken it back to the hotel yesterday so I could become more acquainted with it. A paragraph, which describes the dog drifting in and out of a dream, reminds me of James Joyce’s stream of consciousness prose in Ulysses.

In the evening Ştefan and Bogdan escort us to the National Theatre. Along the way I ask Bogdan about the earthquake of 1977. I notice that many of the older, deserted buildings have a large red spot declaring them unfit for habitation. I try to imagine what it must be like to live with the threat of the earth disappearing from under your feet.

Ionuţ Mihai Corpaci, the artistic consultant of the National Theatre, is waiting to give us a guided tour. We learn much about the theatre’s history and about the architecture during the Ceausescu era. It’s refreshing to hear that the Romanian government supports the theatre so well. Seats, we are told, are a lot cheaper than in the UK. In the basement gallery, there is a statue of Toma Caragiu, one of Romania’s greatest actors, whose life was cut short in the 1977 earthquake.

After dinner at the University we return to The Golden Tulip for a nightcap. The waiter tells us that he is going to the Isle of Wight Pop Festival in the summer. I tell him that I was there when Jimi Hendrix played. I think he’s impressed.

Third Day

Today it’s cold and the students arrive in dribs and drabs for our workshop. Translation in some ways is not so unlike the process of workshopping poems in one’s own language. Entering the mindset of the writer is a slow and intimate process. Sometimes it seems there are endless possibilities, endless interpretations. The students ask me about poems that rhyme. They are interested to know whether, as a poet, I would prefer to lose the rhyme or the meaning.

On the way back to the Golden Tulip, we pass Revolutionary Square and the monument of Heroes and Martyrs that has been nicknamed ‘the baked potato’. I think how in English we would probably call it ‘the jacket potato’.

Fourth and Fifth Days (rolled into one)

Sunshine. Hurrah! At last I can wear the summer dress and flip flops I bought for the journey. During these last two sessions, I introduce the group to some creative writing exercises, including automatic writing and riddles. It is great to see the students so inspired and equally wonderful to hear them read their own creations. The imaginative quality and verve of their writing is impressive. We finish our last session with the writing of a group riddle poem.

Here it is:

What Am I?

I come in all shapes and sizes. I can open the door. I have more than one eye but I can’t see. I slip through holes but not in the ground. Sometimes I’m told to be quiet. I can be made of chocolate. I can be made of bone. I spend most of my life tied down but if you eat too much I might fly away. I’m there at the beginning. I am the last resort.

Sixth Day

In the afternoon, we take a yellow taxi to Elena Nistor’s home, where her mother has cooked us a traditional Romanian dinner. It’s a privilege to see where and how real people live. On the way, we come across a beggar dodging in and out of moving traffic. He is wearing hardly any clothes, his body is covered in burns, and his arm is a stump. The taxi driver dismisses my exclamation. I wonder about the plight of people who have lost everything and who have very little left to lose.

We return to the National Theatre that evening to see ‘The Fever’, a powerful one woman dramatic monologue and commentary on the divisions between affluence and poverty. During the performance, I find myself dreaming about bringing my own one woman play, ‘Zones of Avoidance’, to this beautiful theatre in Bucharest. In one of my sessions the students told me that issues like mental illness and addiction are not spoken about openly in Romania.

During the reception, the artistic consultant gives me his card and invites me to send him details of my play. Afterwards I speak to the English Ambassador. ‘What does an Ambassador do?’ I ask. He tells me that this morning he attended the funeral of a Romanian tourist who recently died after jumping from a bridge during the recent terrorist attack in London. Tomorrow we will be going home.

Post Script

I’m back in Portsmouth—the city of tattoos—and for the past two days I have been reading Ioana Ieronim’s, anthology, ‘House of the People’. Her words, written in poetry alongside the testimonies of others, are a truly powerful way of sharing history. I realise how little I know, and feel inspired to learn more about Romania.  I hope to return.

Romania’s Moment

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Before My Voice Disappeared …



Before my voice disappeared
like a rabbit up a sleeve
I wanted to be a singer
in the Folies Bergère.

The doctor is a kind man
he keeps me warm,
he feeds me seed cake
and Assam tea.

But sometimes he makes me crawl.
Pick up the crumbs
my little goose.

At night I lie beside him
more silent than a blade of grass.
I allow his cold fingertips
to circle my heart.

Tomorrow, he says,
I must rehearse for the show
in the auditorium of the Saltpêtrière.
The doctors will love me.

He has made me a hat
of peacock feathers.
He has taught me to bark.

When he stares into my eyes
he can make me do anything

But he can’t make me sing.

That poem, written while studying for an MA in Creative Writing in Chichester, was an early attempt to write in another person’s voice. It became the title for my first small published collection.

The person in question was Blanche Wittman, a patient of Jean-Martin Charcot, the first of the great European theorists of hysteria. Blanche was among the main attractions at Charcot’s frequently staged events for members of his neurological service at the Saltpetriere Hospital.

A reviewer in Magma observed: ‘[Charcot’s] domineering personality is vividly evoked in the poem. Although I find it hard to square the poem’s purely submissive image of Blanche with other accounts – of a bossy, capricious woman who was nicknamed the queen of the hysterics – the poem, like the collection, succeeds beautifully on its own terms’.

However, perhaps the reviewer had missed the nuances contained in the last lines ‘he can make me do anything, but he can’t make me sing.’ Blanche Wittman, even under the hypnotic spell of the doctor, possesses the ultimate power.

Other reviewers described my voice as ‘beguiling’, ‘distinctive’, ‘brave and new’, although the voice that spoke to me, my own voice, had rarely felt that way. Meanwhile, I came to realise that the voice in the poem was not really that of Blanche Wittman, but my own. I had unwittingly tapped into my own psyche. Poetry had helped me to create a voice from the tension which hovered between between desire and fear.

In contrast then, here’s a relatively new poem which taps into the more defiant scale of my spectrum Continue reading

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