You are stood at the bottom of Broad Lane. 16 people with pens and notebooks are spilling over the pavement, musing vaguely or jotting things down. One of their number stops. He points at the colour image of a newborn baby installed above the door of a small photo-business; then at the blank self-storage building further along. He talks about juxtaposition. He says something about Ezra Pound. The strange posse moves on; past the barking of a city kennels; an alien graffiti-montage by Phlegm. They stop again and the man is gesturing at what amounts to a wild-flower garden in a central reservation; then at the clean lines and colour blocks of new-built hotels and offices. He’s talking about the romantic living side by side with the modern.
On Saturday 23rd June, with the aid of Brian Lewis of Longbarrow Press, I ran a writing workshop as part of the programme of events set up by occursus / plastiCities. Moving with Thought was set up to explore the relationship between walking and poetry – between the body, the mind and the landscape. After reading and musing over the work of such exemplars as William Wordsworth, Rebecca Solnit, Basil Bunting, Roy Fisher and Ken Smith, we set out to reconnoitre edgelands space along the River Don. We moved from The Riverside to the relics of smelting and manufacture at Kelham Island; from the flumes (and fumes) of the Neepsend gas main, over the railway, up towards Parkwood, before slanting down a leafy tunnel towards the kart-racing track. We were scavenging for images; trawling our nets for all kinds of sense data; jotting down feelings and resonances. We were playing with Solnit’s idea of the walker as ‘watchman on patrol to protect the ineffable’; trying to escape the ‘interiors built up against the world.’
All was carefully planned, and I’d written some poems and thought-experiments for key stopping points. Of course, the nature of this kind of event is that things don’t go according to plan. That’s why you go out into the world – to be surprised. During our dry run, finches were out in force at Parkwood – flitting over razor-wire; following or criss-crossing the gas main. I was looking forward to pointing them out – but on Saturday they’d gone AWOL. This didn’t seem to matter. I was surprised by how little stimulus our group needed from me. People became absorbed with their own findings and speculations. I even wondered if my interventions were a distraction. In the end, I was happy to step out of the frame.
We did spend some time musing on the square pastures of gravel on the defended side of gates and fences. What was that gravel filling or covering? Was it the foundation of something imminent? Yellow warning signs were everywhere – ‘Trespassers will be fined’; ‘Don’t Eat on Site’, ‘If in doubt, please ask’. No sign taught you anything about what was going on. One of our group started to record every piece of text she encountered on route and it was fascinating to read this litany of negative imperatives when we got back.
In our number were writers, teachers, a free-lance artist or musician or two, a photographer, an arts development worker, and even someone working in mental health. People had plenty to say; but, equally, were happy to drift along in the kind of silence needed for what Robert Graves calls ‘the trancelike suspension of normal habits of thought’. Poems have already started to trickle in, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest. Brian will be creating a sound-collage interweaving ambient noise with readings of the poems. Hopefully, there will be a small publication. Many thanks to all the participants, whose thoughts and company Brian and I so much enjoyed. Thanks also to Amanda at Occursus. We’re encouraged to keep exploring events of this kind, so if you’re interested keep an eye on the Longbarrow Press website.