Notes from Assynt Writing Retreat 2014
It’s the morning of my 72nd birthday. I’m sitting in the group, on the gravel drive outside Glencanisp Lodge, under the watchful eye of Suilven. The thrushes are singing, a robin has been feeding on redcurrants from the bush by the door – I haven’t seen that before. There’s a little breeze, which is keeping the insects away. Midges are a morning and evening threat, clegs are around whenever it’s sunny and warm.
I saw a whinchat yesterday, hunting for insects and spiders among the stones of the path. I kept still and it ignored me, until a too-sudden turn of the head sent it off into the gorse bush. The scent of coconut, which pervades flowering gorse bushes in May, is due to an organic compound – gamma-nonalactone.
The group sang Happy Birthday round the table, and a party is promised for this evening, after dinner. At some point today I want to play the Assynt skyline, on tenor and alto saxes. It needs legato playing to capture the landscape – mountain, upland rocky ridges, hidden valleys, clefts and crags, deer-grazed knolls and human paths between named and nameless places.
Mainly this week I’m revising poems, but I’m also writing new ones. When I step into this landscape it’s as if I start to channel Norman MacCaig. I know it’s because my love for his poetry and this place, which he wrote about so often. I just can’t help sounding like him here. And my childhood memories of him as my primary school teacher at Craiglockhart mean that I can recall vividly his voice and the way he spoke.
It’s good to have the chance to look again at finished but unpublished poems, to see if they need revision. Some of them have been rejected by magazine editors, and while I accept that there have been extrinsic reasons for some of the rejections, in other cases it’s down to issues of quality – there’s something wrong with them. At home I’ll maybe fit in some revision time maybe once a week, but I’m doing it in the middle of other activities. Here I have a squeezebox of time to study them objectively and work on them. This tends not to happen in home time, but in Assynt time I can do it. The major errors are in word repetition, and in unsatisfactory endings, both correctable. I’m still finding time to walk, socialise, and just be, in this place of surpassing beauty.
One of Mandy Haggith’s warm-up exercises was to write about why we write. We don’t normally share what we write at these sessions, but I’m happy to go public on this one. We were enjoined just to write what came into our heads, without editing, so this is what I came up with:
I write poems because I’ve enjoyed reading poetry since I was a child. I didn’t like most of the poetry on the secondary school curriculum, but the anthology we used in class had some more modern work at the end of the book. I read T S Eliot and others while the teacher was discussing Pope and other classical poets. Gerontion was the first poem which opened my eyes to the possibilities of free verse. Later, when I was unhappily studying chemical engineering at Heriot-Watt College, I discovered The Paperback Bookshop in Charles Street, Edinburgh. I bought issues of Evergreen Review, Poor Old Tired Horse, and Donald Allen’s Modern American Poetry. I loved it immediately, and began writing my own poems, after dropping out of college.
Looking back from a more mature perspective, I’ve always seen poetry as an act of communication. Every poet, every human, sees the world from their own individual angle, and if the things we know and have experienced are interesting in themselves, or can be made interesting through our writing, it’s our job to express them, imaginatively and in an aesthetically pleasing way. I have things to say about many things, and poems are the vehicles of discourse I’ve chosen.
Around the table, most of us now have haloes of flies around our heads. They are part of the conversation.
Wading into the water of Lochan Suardalain on a warm sunny afternoon, the temperature of the water was an immediate surprise. It seemed close to body heat, and the deeper I went in, the more pleasant it became. Mud underfoot squished between my toes, but I occasionally stubbed my toes on unseen rocks. Next time, I must bring flip-flops or old trainers.
From a tree by the shore I could hear a wren scolding. Rising fish make a ‘clop’ sound which translates into ripples spreading out until the wavelets become too small to see. Stepping on a patch of submerged rotting leaves I saw little bubbles rising. I imagined the smell of decay, but in truth I couldn’t smell anything but smell of vegetation from the lochside, that almost yeasty odour of things growing. Where does it come from, this smell? From which part of which organism does it originate? I don’t know. I am content to be surrounded by it – it energises me.
My happiest memory of my time here, because it was the most personal, was my birthday party. Before dinner I was presented with an envelope which contained, not just cards, but poems about Suilven written by all the other writers on the retreat. After dinner, we had a reading of the ‘72 ways of looking at Suilven’. It was moving, sometimes startling, and great fun; the best birthday party of my 72 years.