Participants’ Poems ~ The Epistolary Poem Writing Workshop
After an introductory tour of the epistolary poem’s distinguished history, we discussed the full spectrum of letter types, from complaint and farewell to expressions of apology and love. The form lends itself to personal exploration and intimacy, often providing a ‘way in’ to difficult subjects. Our warm-up exercise was to write in response to a Katherine Cuthbert painting of a postbox leaning against a tree. Reading Hannah Hodgsons’s poem Dear Body encouraged the writing of letters to parts of the body or self. A poem by Neil Curry (from his collection Some Letters Never Sent) proved rich inspiration for writing to a real or imaginary person from history or the present. Participants were also invited to use a cherished personal letter as a resource, either writing to the sender, or in the sender’s voice.
The epistolary poems below, some finished and others evolving, were all written at or following the workshop. Perhaps unsurprisingly, letter poems to close family members predominate, but there are also letters to a teacher, to body and self, and to Dorothy Wordsworth. These letters bring both sender and recipient to life. Moving, haunting, unsettling, sometimes darkly humorous – they are clearly letters that had to be written.
Poetry Workshop Tutor
I have been without you longer than I knew you.
I felt I was robbed when you passed away.
I did not know of your death until my return from holiday.
It is fifty-two years and I still miss you.
I did not say goodbye.
I did not mark your demise.
How I value the times I spent with you.
You let me dress up with your scarves.
You let me play in your pantry mixing potions from your stores.
You nourished me, praised me, bought my grammar school gymslip.
You took me to London to visit aunts and the 1951 Exhibition.
I did not ask you about your life.
I did not ask you for your yeasty spice fruit cake recipe.
I did not ask you to teach me how to crochet.
But I do have your button tin.
Grandpa’s Letter of Response – From The Other Side
It’s a long time since we were last in touch.
You asked how things were with me now and if
I remember how you sat and chattered
to me on my bed in the quiet attic
with its skylight views of clouds and hills.
And how for hours you watched me knit dish-cloths
from balls of string; the only therapy they knew for
nightmares and breakdowns. They call it PTSD now;
we called it shell-shock then.
But the clicking of the needles reminded me of
easing bolts on rifles as we hugged the wet
trench walls, waiting for the whistles, shouts and flares
that would send us over the top.
I treasure how you held my hand to
walk me up the garden path. The old man and the little boy.
Your presence calmed me, especially when
you found me shaking behind the kitchen door.
Yes, I remember all the bad things but
they count for nothing now. The din and bedlam of mud and rats,
the fear and stench of death, have all been wiped away
by memories of your kindness and gentle ways with me.
No more worries now my little friend. I’m home and safe at last.
To: Mr Challenor, St Edwards RC Primary School, Green St, E13
After Neil Curry
Time changes everything, except
We wouldn’t recognise the place now.
And now you wouldn’t recognise me either – headteacher
(retired). Indeed! Hard to believe, isn’t it. Like Mick
Jagger becoming – a ballet dancer.
Or perhaps you saw it all along. The rod not spared,
to save the child. The boxing ring your (head)master plan
to beat in the discipline required – for my salvation.
And I do feel saved. The plan worked – well, almost.
You will be disappointed in my atheism. I can’t believe
it’s nearly fifty years since Father Ralph received
my last confession. Forgave me for my impure
thoughts. (But not the deeds I neglected to mention.)
Do you remember the knife? I swear to you it wasn’t
mine. Yes, I’m sure you’re right – guilt
was written all over my face. And, yes, my hands were red.
But Billy Casper was innocent – and so was I.
When you made us climb those concrete stairs, all hope
died. We held out our hands, the air was sliced
and – there’s something I’ve got to tell you:
your six wouldn’t feature in my all-time ‘best of’.
You never really had the heart to make us bleed. That,
and Latin, had to wait until we moved up to Big School.
Speaking of lashings, you will surely remember my mum.
I know there were occasions when you felt the sting
of her tongue. I was the chosen one, you know.
The Altar Boy, who would one day replace his white
surplice for the chasuble, stole and alb. Yes, you’re right!
Like one of the Cray twins becoming – a poet.
We wouldn’t recognise the place now.
Time changes everything, except
A Belated Letter of Apology
I am sorry. I should have written sooner
and discussed you, me, and food.
Not to acknowledge the obvious problems was unwise and rude.
For such tardiness, I am paying the price.
I should have drunk my food
and eaten my drink, not just a chomp and swallow,
thought about my digestive system and how I’d feel tomorrow.
Tomorrow is here and I am paying the price.
I should have consumed my meals slowly,
not worried that my hands were shaking.
Forgot the other diners, watching me, while they were waiting.
In too much of a hurry and paying the price.
I should have broken the gluttonous habit
of devouring such large portions,
taken heed of raised eyebrows and other well-meant cautions.
I ignored all the warnings; I am paying the price.
I should have practised yogic breathing
when I woke up and could not sleep.
Found some other form of comfort and tried not to eat.
Still not sleeping and paying the price.
We could have shared a caring relationship,
if I had listened to you – my physical self.
If I had made contact sooner and talked about our health.
We are paying the price now.
L S Gray
I came across your letter today, Ma,
from the end of November, 1971,
penned in a pause after breakfast,
before the waiting weekly wash.
Then, I would have read it simply as it is:
six sides of writing paper with news
of cows and calves, a broken fence,
and Pa looking forward to a helping hand,
the Christmas cake ready to be iced,
an extra one for your sister,
plus the gingerbread men.
And the thieving cat.
Looking through the lens of fifty years
I see more than a letter:
the energy and verve of the text
flowing from a fountain pen,
lines that rise from left to right,
the slash of the crossed t’s,
vigorous sentences, correct grammar
and punctuation, and peppered with !
And a mind that raced ahead of the hand,
yet delayed the dairy chores
and the feeding of the hens
to write to me.
I marvel now at your zest and optimism.
If only I had told you.
I am so pleased that we understand ourselves and get along quite nicely.
You are as close, nay closer to me than a flesh and blood sibling could be.
Still, we are distinct, with different personalities and perceptions of things.
We do have common origins, experiences, knowledge, basic beliefs, and,
Whilst we do support one another through thick and thin, sorrow and joy,
The ways we interact with people and sometimes, even with ourselves, can
Cause confusion, consternation, mayhem. ‘That wasn’t like you!’ we’d say.
You are well-mannered, measured, empathic, courteous and accommodating.
I can be crass, rash, worse than thoughtless and too enamoured of attention.
On a good day, our most appropriate Self steps forward, Thank Heavens!
On a poor day, things can go awry with the wrong one of us responding.
We can be seen as a wee bit like Jekyll and Hyde and need to be more aware
Of the dangers of being the wrong self in the wrong place and the wrong time.
Letter from Jane Marshall to Dorothy Wordsworth – June 27th, 1802.
O Dorothy, my dearest friend,
I received your letter today.
It contains such agreeable news
I feel I must write to you by return.
I rejoice at the announcement
of William’s proposal to marry
your mutual acquaintance
and true companion, Mary Hutchison;
a worthy young woman
who will sympathise, no doubt,
with your own situation
as William’s ‘still eligible’ sister.
I am mindful of your deep love,
your esteem for your brother.
This causes me to ponder
the effect on your sensibility.
You now feel obliged to relinquish
the day-to-day running
of the household you longed for
– and cherish so dearly.
As children are born, you may be expected
to act as nursemaid, governess,
duties you loathed in the home of your aunt,
from which William, himself, delivered you.
Surely your brothers may grant you
an ample allowance, now that Lord Lowther
intends to pay his debt to your family. Moreover,
I urge you not to discount your own promise;
as a spirited walker, an observant writer,
must you devote your life in service to others?
My advice is to take time to consider this role
which you appear so inclined to accept.
With my most sincere wishes for your future happiness.
Your devoted friend,
‘still eligible’ as opposed to ‘unmarried’ as Jane had teased Dorothy about possible admirers on previous occasions.
Letter from Jane Marshall to Dorothy Wordsworth – July 10th, 1802.
Dearest Dorothy, your reply came so swiftly,
I was certain there must be some news
of William and Mary’s forthcoming wedding.
I was quite unprepared for your revelations!
On the subject of family – you urge me to secrecy –
I am astonished to learn of the existence
of William’s ‘natural’ daughter, Caroline,
conceived and born in France;
a bye-blow of an affair with Annette Vallon,
an older lover he was too poor to wed.
So, William – a father – on a frivolous sojourn
on the eve of the French Revolution!
You go on to tell me that you bore the burden
of disclosing this scandal to both of your guardians
and have zealously written compassionate letters
to Annette – for the last nine years.
You may have prejudiced your own well-being
by your reluctance to disclose these troubles till now.
Your compassion does you credit, dear friend, yet
I cannot help feeling your sacrifice is too great.
Now, you and William are planning to travel
to France to resolve money matters with Annette,
for the upkeep and welfare of their child –
as well as to reveal his intention to marry another!
I wish you well with all my heart.
Please write again and share your thoughts
before your departure for Calais.
I am ever your true friend and confidante.
After ‘Lovers, Queen’s Gate SW7’ by Katherine Cuthbert
Post-box Hugs Condemned Old Friend,
Read the headline.
One really ought to pay less attention to such sentimentalities.
Green policy, like all others, must be efficient, and efficiency
Requires compromise. We must take the shortest route to save our half an hour. But
Every old tree in our way will be replaced, you have my word. In keeping with our time-
Saving strategy, felling will take place at the earliest convenience.
Minister of Vanity Projects, 2020
Dad, I am writing to ask you
Why you never loved me.
You wrote this treasured letter to
My mother in her absence.
The person writing this letter must
Have been you
And yet I never saw this person behind
Your angry face.
You never spoke directly to me, or touched
Or cared for me.
This person who writes so openly of
Love and adoration
Must be you – although I never saw
Your handwriting here
Is so even and neat.
The paper, though faded by time,
You have written in pencil,
Perhaps the only thing to hand.
Using pet names, you speak freely
Of your love for my mother.
Why could you not give me this
Love I craved so much?
Mum has written in biro at the top
‘23rd October 1944’.
When I hold this precious yellow
Paper in my hand
I hear her scream of anguish
When she found your note.
Knowing that you were setting off
Towards a living hell.
You ‘sail at dawn tomorrow’
Heading for ‘the blood bath’.
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