An old postcard of Petergate in York… spark any ideas?
An old postcard of Petergate in York… spark any ideas?

Can you capture a holiday moment in a few lines? YorkMix Poet In Residence Carole Bromley offers some tips for those postcard poems

Wherever you are, on holiday or at home dreaming of being on holiday or, perhaps, looking back to a holiday long ago, this month’s challenge is to take a break from building sand castles and send us a poem about a holiday destination.

They are coming in already from readers sunning themselves in Tuscany or shivering in Rhyll. I’d really like one from you, so don’t send a postcard, send a poem.

I am just back from a family holiday (all 20 of us) in rural Derbyshire. If you ever want to rent a house that sleeps 14 I can recommend the National Trust property, Southwood House Farm, at Calke Abbey.

The kids had a ball. Actually they lost a few balls in the stream, and a frisbee and quite a bit of Lego but that’s another story.

It’s quite hard with that many people to find the space to write but no doubt poems will come later. My son was over from Australia so I’ll start with a poem of mine about saying goodbye at Sydney airport. Airports, like train stations, can be pretty emotional places so why not set your poem in one? The journey might be easier to capture than the destination.

The Terminal Building

 
Already it’s not Australia
though duty-free shops sell
coasters of aboriginal art,
didjeridus that would have to go
as hand luggage, giant frogs
that croak as we pass.

At the gate you hand me my laptop,
I touch your hair. We hug,
the little boy at playgroup
who never moved from the curtain
and the mother who didn’t know
what to do in the empty house.

 
Carole Bromley (published in A Guided Tour of the Ice House)

It’s often a good idea to start with the specifics of what’s around you and move on to the emotions or memories they stir. I can’t stress enough the importance of keeping a journal in which you record your impressions of a place, perhaps a snippet of a poem or, if you’re lucky, the whole poem to be tinkered with in the cool light of day when you get home or when the kids are in bed and you’re putting your feet up with a glass of ouzo.

Writing actually on a plane or a train is another good tip. How often do you get all those hours of peace and quiet? Well, OK, maybe not quiet but at least you don’t have to actually do anything. And how many times can you play Angry Birds or watch High Society?

Here’s Edward Thomas remembering every detail of sitting on that train in Adlestrop. You can bet he had a little notebook in the pocket of his army uniform.

I often think of writing a first draft as painting with a pen. Don’t worry if you don’t have an idea in your head, just go and sit somewhere quiet with a bit of a view (it really doesn’t matter whether it’s the Jungfrau or Bondi Beach, it works just as well with a clifftop campsite at Primrose Valley or the lower slopes of Roseberry Topping).

Start with a clean page and a sharp pencil and just jot down what is around you, any sounds you can hear, that smell drifting from the gorse, the taste of the apple you’re munching on, the roughness of the tartan rug you brought with you.

Go on, don’t worry about where this is going, just enjoy noticing stuff, that tree bumble bee on the wild rose, the puffin with his little clockwork feet. ‘All the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.’

The emotion, the memory, the wanting to freeze this moment, the fear of loss – whatever this scene conjures up is up to you. It’s your poem. But start with the birds and bees and the sharpness of that thistle you’re sitting on and just see what happens.

york-walls-postcard

Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to go on holiday. You might want, like Billy Collins, to write about how that feels.

In his very funny poem, Consolation, Collins writes about all the pointless, touristy things he might have been doing in Europe instead of spending the summer at home. Do read it. It begins

How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hilltowns.

Needless to say, the reader is unconvinced and is left with two pictures, one of the poet’s hometown in America and the other of the places he wishes he was visiting. Here he is reading it.

Try writing your own version. You’re stuck at home for whatever reason, the cost maybe or illness or the difficulty of taking small children abroad. Where would you like to be? Do a bit of research if you’ve never been there. It’s what Google is for!

If you think about postcards (and I want you to think of your poem as an alternative to a postcard) the best ones don’t attempt to show the whole resort. They focus instead on a small detail: six beach huts, one small child in a rock pool, one monkey at the zoo. Bear this in mind.

Don’t try to tell the whole story of your holiday or the pub will empty before you can say candyfloss. You are a camera. Zoom in on one interesting detail. Here’s James Fenton in Paris. He’s in love so he never leaves the hotel room. All he sees of Paris is a crack in the ceiling.

And here’s Robert Lowell in Water describing sitting on a rock with his lover in “a Maine lobster town” where the very ordinary scene is transformed by the affair:

Remember? We sat on a slab of rock.
From this distance in time,
it seems the color
of iris, rotting and turning purpler

Here’s the whole poem, one of my favourites.

Because I can see every detail of that place, I am convinced by the ending:

We wished our two souls
might return like gulls
to the rock. In the end,
the water was too cold for us.

Don’t forget the power of names. Write a poem using the names of beach huts or write a found poem using the names of stations you pass through on your journey.

Sit outside your tent or on the balcony of your hotel and jot down an overheard conversation. We once went camping in France and there was a young couple in the next tent who would zip themselves into the tent, have a flaming row then come out as if nothing had happened. Nothing more interesting than other people.

Use snippets of the local language too, a place name. Mention a particular bird or plant that’s found there.

Or just write about something you do on holiday. It’s good to be a child again. Here’s Simon Armitage choosing a perfect moment, catching a cricket ball.

bootham-bar-postcard

From apples to strawberries. Why not write about a summer taste? A taste is probably all we’ll get after all so enjoy it while it lasts. Here’s that fine Scottish poet, Edwin Morgan, sharing strawberries.

Send me your poems. I want to hear about your travels whether it’s to Filey or Tierra del Fuego. See if you can transport me there just with paper and pen.

I’ll publish the best ones here and, by the time I do, all the shop windows will have signs in saying Back to School – so get out there and make the most of it.

And don’t forget to pack a poetry book or two even if you’re only taking hand luggage. A poetry collection takes up so little space and weighs next to nothing. Why not take Alice Oswald’s Woods etc or Dart with you to the countryside, or The Selected Poetry of John Clare?

Take Billy Collins to the beach (Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes or Ballistics) Don’t go to Oz without Les Murray or to Scotland without Norman MacCaig or to Japan without Michael Longley.

And bring back some poems from wherever you go. Something in translation perhaps. And if you’re in Italy treat yourself to one of those notebooks covered in handmade paper. And write something in it!

 


 
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.