September sparks off vivid memories of new terms at school and college – and is a great starting point for creativity, says YorkMix Poet In Residence Carole Bromley
…Then I’ll begin. It’s the end of August and the beginning of lots of things: school, university, evening classes, the Great British Bake Off, the football season, autumn, playing conkers or maybe just hoarding them in a bucket till they don’t shine any more, blackberrying, dark evenings, coal fires.
The best of these for me, of course, is the Great British Bake Off. I feel I’ve been starving without it.
Now my Tuesday nights are filled with macaroons and fondant fancies, with picky but kind Mary Berry and a newly slim, tanned Paul Hollywood who doesn’t pull any punches and didn’t you just know the guy who used salt instead of sugar would be shown the door, or is it the flap as they’re in a tent?
But Lucy’s eviction came as a bit of a surprise. I never realised there was so much to a muffin. The show must be doing wonders for cake tin sales, and as for blue plasters…
Beginnings. Hmmm. Cue brainstorm and frantic searching in anthologies for anything to offer as a model. One of the reasons it’s hard to know where to begin is that poets are a gloomy lot, on the whole, and tend to write about endings – death, loss, unrequited love, the worm in the bud.
Maybe we should make a stand and go back to writing about spring, dawn, our first loves, the first time we felt our unborn child kick, the first fish we caught, the first house we lived in, that first kiss.
My granddaughter, Jemima, starts school next week and it felt like the beginning of something very big when I sent off for a pink spotted gym bag with her name on it in lower case.
Most of us remember our first day at school very clearly (I wet myself and cried all afternoon) or maybe your memory of starting university is strong? (I got on the wrong train and went non-stop to Taunton. It was dark by the time I worked my way back and it earned me a reputation for being totally disorganised. I think, actually, I just didn’t want to go).
Or perhaps you could write about your first job? First jot down lots of impressions, things in the workplace, people’s names, an anecdote or two, what sounds or smells you associate with that shop / garage / paper-round / café etc. Something someone used to say, a few technical words to do with the job.
How did you feel about it? Can you remember the clock you watched? Or the jokes / songs you and your work colleagues passed the time with? Give it a simple title: Nelly’s Bar, The Red Lion, Autowrecks, Paper Round. Write the poem quickly using your notes and whatever else comes back to you as you write.
My first job was in a department store on costume jewellery. I spent most of the time pointlessly polishing glass cabinets. Anything to stop me sitting down. I worked for a slave-driver called Mrs Cammidge who was straight out of Are You Being Served?
The beginning of a love affair is another very rich subject. Go back to the very first time you set eyes on this person. What was it that attracted you? Can you remember what was said? What he / she was doing? What they were wearing? Precisely how they made you feel?
First kisses are a great subject for poems too because so often they are both wonderful and also clumsy / embarrassing / comical. I bet you can remember the name of the first person you kissed and the exact spot where this momentous occasion took place.
I could tell you about mine but I’m not going to because it just occurred to me that it might make a great poem! I will just tell you that his name was Tony Leech and we were walking by the Trent, somewhere near the sewage works.
No! I just remembered that wasn’t the first kiss at all. That was at school and I did it for a dare. His name was Richard Whitchurch. He was lovely. I used to spend half my time writing his name in different ways in my rough book and decorating it with big flourishes. He never did ask me out.
Here’s a poem of mine about a number of beginnings, the start of a train journey but also the first stirrings of a new kind of tenderness. It was written in response to a poem called Tracks by the Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer and if you haven’t read him, do! Here it is, read by Jane Hirshfield.
Unscheduled Halt by Carole Bromley
Midnight and a new moon. The train
had stopped at Lille. The town
slept, at least as far as I could see.
Phil had his head on my shoulder;
I remember wishing I was not so bony,
no-one had ever rested his head on me before.
And when they did, when my babies
nodded off, their fists open, trusting,
I would remember this glimpse of Lille.
The night pricked with stars.
A stopped train. Midnight. A new moon.
(Published in The North and in A Guided Tour of the Ice House)
Here’s Fleur Adcock’s poem, Kissing. Notice how Adcock chooses to write in the third person and splits the poem into two stanzas, to contrast the way young people kiss with the way older people do. It’s still about beginning but also about changing.
And here’s Carol Ann Duffy in her poem, River, from Rapture describing the beginning of a love affair. Not her first kiss but perhaps the first kiss with the new lover.
Of course, you could simply write about dawn, the beginning of a new day, and poets have many, many times. The trick is to actually be watching the dawn, your senses heightened by the solitude and closeness to nature.
Never write about what you expect to be there, write about what actually is there, however bizarre it may seem at the time. Be precise, use the names of colours, birds and creatures, place names.
Listen hard and think what those sounds remind you of. Does the new day smell different? Here is Ted Hughes in The Horses showing you how it’s done.
Isn’t that fabulous?
Another way of thinking about beginnings is to go back to our own childhood and write about something concrete like the first house we lived in. It’s likely you will have to do this from memory and / or photographs though a pilgrimage to the actual street with a notebook in your hand would be better still. They might think you’re casing the joint, of course, but that’s a risk you’ll have to take.
Did I tell you about the time I was writing about Larkin’s statue at Hull Station and the transport policeman came over and had a word? When I explained and showed him the poem in my notebook he muttered darkly “You can’t be too careful. You never know what folk might be up to standing about with notebooks”!
If you do revisit a place it gives you a chance to contrast the street as it was with how it is today. Sadly, it is bound to have changed, been gentrified perhaps or, worse still, demolished.
I can’t resist giving you Thomas Hood to read at this point but please don’t go all archaic on me. Rhyming might suit this subject well, however.
While I was writing this piece I heard the sad news that Seamus Heaney had died. Heaney wrote wonderfully about all kinds of beginnings and some of my favourites of his poems concern the poet’s own roots and the beginnings of his life as a writer.
In this poem, Digging, Heaney is thinking back to the influence of his forefathers, to the father who dug potatoes and the grandfather who cut “more turf in a day / Than any other man on Toner’s bog”. He concludes, of course “I’ve no spade to follow men like them.”
Times have changed and the young man must use whatever comes to hand to “dig” with, in his case, memorably, the pen, and perhaps the two implements are not so different after all:
“Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.”
Where did your writing begin? Who influenced you? Do some digging. Can you remember watching a family member perhaps doing something skilled around the house or the garden? It really doesn’t matter what.
All skills are valuable and have to be worked at. You could write about your mother knitting, your grandmother lighting a fire or your father chopping logs, mending a car engine, baking bread, carving, handling a boat and see if you can connect that admiration with the beginnings of your own gift as a writer. Go on, try.
I’ll do it too, in memory of Heaney who was an early influence on so many of us and who taught us all to search for the beginnings of our selves in our early experiences of the world with all its tragedies and all its ordinary, everyday pleasures. The secret, as always, is in the detail, the nitty gritty of whatever it was you were watching that grown up doing.
Read Heaney. He’s wonderful.
So, whatever beginnings you decide to write about, send the resulting poem to YorkMix and the best will be published here later this month. And, if you’re starting school or waving someone off to school for the first time, good luck.
If you would like to begin something new you could do worse than think about joining my evening class (Advanced Creative Writing Workshops) at King’s Manor.
- Email your poems to Carole at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please attach them as a Word or PDF document, and include your name on each poem
- Closing date: Tuesday, September 17
- Read all of Carole’s blogs here
Carole Bromley is married with four children and lives in York. Twice a winner in The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, she has two pamphlets with Smith/Doorstop (Unscheduled Holt, 2005, and Skylight, 2009) and a collection A Guided Tour of the Ice House. She has won a number of first prizes, including The Bridport and Yorkshire Open, and her poems have appeared in a range of magazines and anthologies. Carole is a graduate of the MPhil in Writing at Glamorgan University and teaches creative writing for York University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning.