Meeting Notes 2020

Social evening

This evening brought a festive close to the season and the promise of new beginnings for the year ahead. There were gifts in the poems each of us read out and in the sharing of nibbles and drinks. We listened to work by the Navaho and Tennyson and Thomas Hardy, by Gillian Clarke and Elizabeth Jennings and Maya Angelou, by Leonard Cohen, WS Merwin, Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins and Simon Armitage and many more. We brought to mind the old year and the new, the way the reading of poetry inspires the writing of poetry and the way words address loss. There were stars choosing to be flowers, beetles with spruced-up sheen and rills amongst hidden crags.

Notes by Helen Overell.

6th January 2020

Lemn Sissay, presented by Tony Earnshaw

During the evening's presentation Tony E provided an illuminating introduction to Lemn Sissay. This was enhanced with video links, biographical notes and poems. Tony conveyed a wide-ranging insight into Lemn Sissay's background relating to: his birth mother, fostering and adoption (his given first name was changed to Norman). Also explaining that Lemn had a number of rejections which led to him being placed in care homes during his teens. At 18 he discovered via his birth certificate that his name was Lemn not Norman. Consequently at 21 he found his mother in Ghana.

In June 2015 Lemn Sissay was elected chancellor of the University of Manchester for a seven-year term. He is involved with projects on lunches for the hungry, Ted talks and in Landmark poems such as 'Let There Be Peace' - Said the sun to the moon/Said the head to the heart/We have more in common/Than sets us apart. This is painted onto a wall two-storeys high on the University of Huddersfield's Creative Arts Building.

Lemn's poetry features his experience of growing up and his roots and background. Tony also pointed out that Lemn's sense of humour is also conveyed in his poems such as in the story 'Gold from a stone'.

The group read and listened to Lemn's poetry from the books; Tender Fingers in a Clenched Fist 1988, Rebel without Applause 1992 and Morning Breaks in the Elevator 1999. The poems selected by Tony included; 'Anthem of the North', 'Invisible kisses' , 'Mother' and 'Gold from the stone'.

These choices provided an opportunity for the group to discuss and explore how identity and belonging feature strongly in Lemn's poerty. This was illustrated by Lemn Sissay's Manchester chancellor poem using YouTube. Accordingly, Tony facilitated an exercise relating to identity and belonging asking the questions: Where do we come from? Where do we feel we belong? The group was given five minutes to jot down some thoughts, maybe a poem or a start of one.

The final poem of the presentation was 'Open up' from New poems, Gold from the stone.


You Tube


To read Lemn Sissay poems on line

Notes by Sharon Williams.

27th January 2020

Haibun Workshop: Dialogues, led by Diana Webb

Diana led an afternoon of Haibun with her normal insights and talent for the form. Haibun by Fran Masat, David Jacobs, Matthew Caretti and Diana herself were read aloud and discussed, noting the use of dialogue within the prose, the range of subject matter and the variations in form. Some of those read were prose with a single haiku at the end, some interspersed several haiku within the body of the prose, each one had a relationship between prose and haiku in which the haiku was not strictly 'about' the subject of the prose but was relevant and built on what was being said in the prose.

We were then challenged to write some ourselves with writing prompts ranging from a portrait by Lucian Freud of his wife holding a kitten to a piece of lego or of Turkish Delight. These exercises including the collaborative and the individual and prompted some nice pieces of writing in both the prose and haiku sections as well as in the whole. Subject matter ranged quite widely, even given a common prompt, demonstrating the power of the creative imagination.

Notes by Tony Earnshaw.

8th February 2020

A Gospel of Flowers, presented by Tony Marcoff

The evening's presentation was given by Tony Marcoff and titled: A GOSPEL OF FLOWERS. Tony illustrated the talk with a wealth of poets and poems for the group to discuss and explore. Beginning with a consideration of the 'flower power' of the sixties and remembering the fashions of the times. Next, to read was 'You Ask Why' by Li-Po (705-762) in which peach trees blossom. Also, 'Bouquets' by Robert Francis, who asks to see only one flower at a time and Rimbaud's 'Mystic' considering 'the flowering sweetness of the stars'.

Tony introduced the poet George Seferis who tells of a small garden full of roses that follow him down the steps. Then looking at 'Music of the Spheres' for soprano solo, chorus, orchestra and distant orchestra by Danish composer Ruud Langgaard. This is written in 15 short sections, each with a title and these in themselves form a 'found' poem with one line beginning 'The gospel of flowers'. An anonymous Hebrew text 'Rain Song' ends with 'Those who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy'. Plus, Ben Okri's 'Mental Fight' which speaks of hope with echoes of William Blake.

It was freshening to consider the use of flowers in haiku by Basho and read contemporary haiku and tanka including some by Tony himself and Diana Webb. At this point and linking to the theme 'A GOSPEL OF FLOWERS' there was a reminder of the Buddha's sermon of the flower and of the sermon in Matthew's gospel 'Consider the lilies of the field..' Tony then read his wonderful and thoughtful prose poem 'vision of the world' – a dawn of magnolias, 'sky huge with light and wing', 'river swift with dream and kingfisher' – a 'hymn to the world'.

Furthermore, to highlight the powerful impact of Tony Marcoff's presentation A GOSPEL OF FLOWERS; Tony Earnshaw (Poet and Playwright) referenced the presentation in his blog piece High and Lows on 26/02/2020. Writing:

'Shafts of light into this gloom were provided by Tony Marcoff who delivered a moving talk entitled 'the gospel of flowers' to this week's gathering of Mole Valley Poets. It was not just the insights of poets from around the world and across the centuries that inspired, although that was part of it. It was also the observation that there appears to be an outpouring of creativity. More and more people writing poetry.'

Further Reference

Selected Readings from: A GOSPEL OF FLOWERS

Notes by Sharon Williams.

24th February 2020

Helen Dunmore, presented by Richard Lister

This was the first online Skype meeting and presentation for the Mole Valley Poets. Richard Lister presented: 'Sensuous Magic & Sharp Delicacy' The Poetry of Helen Dunmore. A comprehensive handout prepared by Rich was circulated to the group by email prior to the meeting. The handout proved to be a superb way to facilitate the group interaction on line.

Rich gave a sympathetic introduction to the 'Sensuous Magic & Sharp Delicacy' of the poetry of Helen Dunmore (1952 - 2017). Rich explored the following areas: Who was she? Plus where did her poetry come from? This included, the range of her learning and work also together with background on countries and culture. Next, discussion on Helen Dunmore and the natural world and then moving on to human longing for story. At this point Rich introduced a five minute writing exercise for a poem. After which poems were read from Helen Dunmore's work.

A member of the group identified that it seemed to be as if there is transience, loss and regret in Helen Dunmore's work as well as a strong sense of story and of wonder at nature. Rich read 'If Only' in which the poignancy of the lines 'if only I'd trusted your voice / instead of believing your words' acts as a turn in the poem.

The group was invited to think about how their own poetry evolved. Maybe coming from memories, nature, a word or a phrase or the need to create a space so as to let the ideas develop. Rich also read 'The Wasp' and 'The Polish Husband'. The group then wrote in response to story or nature or visual images and some pieces were shared. Oher poems by Helen Dunmore were read: 'Virgin with 2 cardigans' and 'I should like to be buried in a summer forest'. In a further writing exercise the group wrote in response to quotes on legacy or else on threads of grace and again some pieces were shared.

Further Reference

Notes by Sharon Williams.

30th March 2020

Is life too short to write a villanelle? Presented by Rosemary Wagner

This was the second online monthly meeting for the Mole Valley Poets. Rosemary Wagner gave a thought-provoking presentation 'Is life too short to write a villanelle?' This began by listening to Dylan Thomas read 'Do not go gentle into that good night'. Then Rose engaged the group with a light-hearted a quiz on aspects of the villanelle. This provided answers by exploring the elements that make a villanelle including, iambic pentameter, rhyme scheme and repetition/refrain to the question: What is the formula for writing a villanelle?

Next, Rose spoke about the history of the villanelle and explained that scholars apparently disagree on the origin. Followed by a discussion and reading of poems (all villanelles) in a handout, read in preparation for the online meeting. These included 'Villanelle for an Anniversary' by Seamus Heaney, Maureen Jivani's humorous 'A small confession' followed by Elizabeth Bishop's 'One Art' which begins in a light-hearted way and becomes more serious. In addition, to illustrate the work of a Mole Valley Poet it was refreshing to read 'Mindfulness' a villanelle written by Rose.

In addition, Rose led a conversation on how to write a villanelle and the pros and cons of writing a villanelle in 21st century. Also included were tips to think about when writing a villanelle. For example, to make sure to choose line endings with plenty of rhyming partners and begin by deciding on the last two lines.

In conclusion Rose wrote; 'Writing a villanelle can be a good discipline that's fun as well as challenging, which can get you writing when you are stuck. Not too old-fashioned to be modernised in a skilful way, so that people don't even notice the form until a second reading. Never forget the form must not transcend the poem's essential meaning. But some of us may well feel that life is too short to write a villanelle. Even so – now try and write a villanelle. Good luck!'

Further Reference

Notes by Sharon Williams.

27th April 2020

Mark Doty. Presented by Denise Bundred

Denise gave a moving introduction to the work of Mark Doty, an American poet, b 1953, and the author of more than nine books of poetry. He won the TS Eliot prize in 1993 for his collection 'My Alexandria' written for his partner who died of AIDs. We read three poems from this collection including 'No' in which the children 'hold a house / in their own hands' – this being a wood turtle 'the color of ruined wallpaper'. We then looked at sections from the beginning, middle and end of 'Murano' a long poem to his late friend, the poet, Lynda Hull. This is illustrated with photographs of the Venetian glasswork that informs and inspires the writing – 'sheet-glass / married to a hammered golden foil' and 'Broken, the better to glitter' - the sense of loss and of affirmation permeates the work. We read two poems from 'Deep Lane', again gentle and contemplative and filled with detail 'the first fireflies' and the little mammoth 'one month old, / and forty thousand years without my mother'.

Notes by Helen Overell.

1st June 2020

'Even in the Shadow – poems for the planet' book launch

The book launch for the anthology 'Even in the Shadow – poems for the planet' was held online on Monday 15th June using zoom. This was most enjoyable and much appreciated by the audience. Ten of the thirteen contributors read their work – there were just over thirty people taking part in the zoom call. The reading was followed by a brief discussion.

This anthology takes its inspiration from the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage who described the climate crisis as a "background hum that won't go away".

"Now nature has very much come back into the centre of what poetry can, and should, be dealing with. And you can't write poems about the natural world now unless it's in an environmental context. Every word you write on that subject sort of quakes with the background predicament."

With the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic highlighting how much the world can change, this collection of poems looks at the despair and hope of how we can affect the natural world.

Readings from Even in the Shadow book launch

Notes by Helen Overell.

15th June 2020

Water. Presented by Judith Packer

Judith provided a wonderful overview and in depth insight into the nature of water which is an important part of us and of our world. We began with reading 'Where Many Rivers Meet' by David Whyte where the interplay of rivers, clouds, rain is remembered in the sea. We were invited to write down our first memories of water while listening to music from Kate Bush. We read an extract from 'Once upon a Raindrop: The Story of Water' by James Carter. We considered water supply and distribution and evidence from the Hubble telescope of water molecules in the Helix Nebula. We read 'Rain' by Edward Thomas and 'Water is taught by thirst' by Emily Dickinson. We drew a mind map for ways of describing water while listening to Handel's 'Water Music'. The Thames Tideway Tunnel is designed to replace Bazalgette's Victorian sewer system based on London's lost rivers. Dorothea Smartt was commissioned to write 19 poems, each one about 150 characters, to be displayed on the ventilation columns at nine of the Thames Tideway Tunnel sites and we took turns to read these. We considered water as a power source and water as droplets and bubbles. We wrote from the perspective of water prompted by an image. We concluded with a reading of three of Tony M's short poems from 'River of the World'.

Notes by Helen Overell.

29th June 2020

Lines from Lockdown

We had a very successful evening. Thanks to Darren Cheek for being the MC. There were 34 people on the Zoom call, 9 Mole Valley Poets reading, lots of use of the chat facility for comment, and a few poetic offerings from the 'audience' in the discussion session. All in all a very warm and creative evening.

Readings from Lines from Lockdown

Notes by Helen Overell.

15th July 2020

Poems for the Planet. Presented by Heather Shakespeare

Heather's inspiring introduction to the writing of Poems for the Planet included work from several poets past and present. Ecopoetry is tethered to the natural world and is ecocentric, not anthropocentric. An eco poem portrays nature threatened by human activity and aims to unsettle. We read 'God's Grandeur' by Gerard Manley Hopkins, written in 1870, in which 'all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;' and yet 'nature is never spent'. Further poems included 'The Wild Geese' by Wendell Berry which ends 'What we need is here' and reminds us of the need to live in relationship to the world around us. 'Sojourns in the Parallel World' by Denise Levertov draws attention to our reluctance to admit ourselves part of 'Nature'. We then listened to Simon Armitage reading 'Fugitives' where 'satellite dishes of blue convolvulus / tuned to the cosmos' gave hope for 'nature as future'. We were invited to write in response to one of three 'first line' prompts and shared some of the writing. We then read work with bleaker outlooks by Dom Bury, Dante Di Stefano and Janet Lees followed by my imagining of pylons celebrating conversion to renewable energy. We were invited to explore the writing of Ed Roberson, a limnologist.

Notes by Helen Overell.

27th July 2020

Summer School: Trees. Presented by Helen Overell

The Summer School went well. There were ten people altogether and we met on Zoom. We began with a reading which included poems by Mary Oliver, Kathleen Jamie, Seamus Heaney and Robert Frost. The writing exercises considered favourite trees and being amongst trees and writing arising from this. There was the opportunity to share what had been written and there were many striking images. Each person chose a phrase for the group to work from and these contributions gave rise further writing. There were beginnings of poems to take away and work on further.

Notes by Helen Overell.

8th August 2020

Sylvia Plath. Presented by Liz Barton

The evening's exceedingly interesting online presentation Strange Glitter – The Poetry of Sylvia Plath was delivered by Liz, herself a published poet. With enthusiasm for the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Liz gave the group an overview of how Plath's early life, mental health issues, marriage to the poet Ted Hughes and birth of her children all contributed to her poetry.

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was born in Boston, Massachusetts and her key works are:

Interestingly, Liz explained the significance of her choice of the words "Stranger Glitter" for inclusion in the presentation title. They are taken from 'God Help the Wolf after Whom the Dogs Do Not Bark', in the collection, Birthday Letters, by Ted Hughes, written years after the Plath's death. Liz observed that Plath's poetry contains many references to different sources of light: stars, moon, candles, reflecting mirrors. She said there was a tension in her poetry between light and darkness, hope and despair.

The first poem that the group read was You're (1960). This was written during Plath's first pregnancy and is a poem addressed to an unborn child. Much of Sylvia Plath's poetry is visual and Liz commented on how she liked the poem as it is vivid, original and affectionate.

The next poem to be read out was The Colossus (1959). The group learnt that this poem was about Plath's father and based on the Greek Colossus in Rhodes. Liz stated that this poem was honest and open as well as being contemporary and fresh, with humour displayed in the first verse. Plath uses the statute as an extended metaphor for grief. Plath's father died when she was only 8 years old. The fact she wrote this powerful poem almost 20 years later demonstrates how deeply she felt his loss.

Liz asked the group to participate in a short writing exercise (based on 'The Colossus') in the following format:

  1. Think of someone you care about.
  2. Now think of a landmark that reminds you of them. It could be manmade (e.g. The Leaning Tower of Pisa, Stonehenge) or a natural wonder (e.g. The Grand Canyon, Mount Snowdon).
  3. Write for five minutes, making comparisons between the person and the landmark. You could address the landmark directly as 'you', as Plath does in 'The Colossus': I shall never get you put together entirely...

The third poem to be read was The Moon and the Yew Tree (21 October 1961). Plath's poetry took on a darker tone around this time. It is a bleak poem, with reference to religion and loss of faith, possibly attributed to Plath's life after the death of her father. The poem began as a writing exercise suggested by Ted Hughes. Plath had learnt from attending Robert Lowell's writing class in Harvard that writing exercises, such as looking out of the window and writing about what you see, could help free up the imagination.

Finally, Liz gave an overview of a poem about Plath's son, Nick and the Candlestick (27 October 1962). The title is based on a nursery rhyme. Plath learnt about the power of nursery rhymes from her poet friend, Anne Sexton; their open rhymes and strong rhythm influenced her 'Ariel' collection. This poem is one of 40 remarkable Ariel poems written in the last months of Plath's life and published posthumously. They reveal the poet's true self, her anger, passion and struggle with depression. Liz ended with this quotation by Plath's biographer, Anne Stevenson:

'With long years of patient, disciplined effort at her craft, Sylvia Plath was able to forge a universal art and transform crippling disability into exalted achievement.' (Bitter Fame)

Recommended Reading

Notes by Sharon Williams.

28th September 2020

2020 Vision – poems from an unusual year, by Zoom

The Arts E Live 2020 Vision reading was a lovely evening with much positive feedback. Behind the scenes work gave rise to a well run Zoom call. It was good to welcome several listeners who, together with the 10 Mole Valley Poet readers, formed an appreciative audience. There were about 24 people in total. Themes reflected the unusual times in which we live whilst also giving cause for hope. While this was a free event, donations to the Community Fridge were very welcome.

such a wonderful evening last night

a most entertaining and inspiring evening

the poetry was excellent

Notes by Helen Overell.

19th October 2020

John O'Donohue. Presented by Sharon Williams

For this evening's online presentation Sharon introduced John O'Donohue, an Irish poet, author, philosopher and also for a time, priest, who was born in 1956 and died in 2008. Born in Co Clare in Ireland into a Gaelic speaking family living in on a farm in limestone valley near Galway Bay. This area seems to have influenced his writing and this is reflected in his published works, radio interviews and public speaking.

O'Donohue studied philosophy, theology and English literature in Ireland. Then went on to study a masters on the German philosopher Hegel, followed by a PhD on Meister Eckhart a 14th century mystic and philosopher.

ANAM CARA (1997) (this means Soul Friend in Gaelic); was O'Donohue's first published book which became an unexpected best seller and propelled him into the international limelight. In addition, Sharon highlighted that O'Donohue has published two books of poems. The one that she really enjoys is CONNEMARA BLUES (2000).

The group began by reading 'Fluent' in which a river unfolds and then 'Decorum' in which novice reeds bow at the lake's edge. Moving on to 'For Presence,' Sharon explained that the lines evoke for her a sense of mindfulness, peace and wellbeing. The group were invited to choose a line from this poem which resonated for them.

Next to be read was 'Beannacht', the Gaelic word for blessing, O'Donohue wrote this for his mother Josie. It is also included in 'Tools for the Trade: Poems for New Doctors' and was read in 2011 during the President of Ireland's inauguration; President Michael D Higgins was also a personal friend of O'Donohue.

On reading 'Beannacht,' this provided the group with a thoughtful discussion around how the lines in 'Beannacht' hold moving acknowledgements of weariness and loss together with blessings of balance. Plus, being awakened by flocks of colours and onwards and through clarity of light to words of love as an invisible cloak held in place by the wind. There is a deep sense of nature as a living presence and of the gifts within Celtic spirituality.

'Wind Artist' was the final poem to be read. The group discussed this poem where 'How it was in the beginning' is followed by 'space rippled to dream things' and there is a strong sense of spirituality.

Further reading a selection of publications

Notes by Sharon Williams.

26th October 2020

Full circle. Presented by Tony Earnshaw and Helen Overell

Review of the year

Membership healthy – currently 17 and has been fairly consistent all year. Some members have been 'absent' or intermittent because of Skype/Zoom not suiting them or being practical for them but most have attended regularly. We have gained energetic new members, partly as a result of Zoom events, partly from the website. We were sad to lose long term member and ex treasurer Sylvia Herbert who died earlier in the year.

Finances healthy, and we will contribute to CRY again as a result of anthology sales. Attendees at two of the Zoom events were encouraged to donate to the Community Fridge – we don't have an audit trail on this but hopefully it produced some money for them.

Monthly meetings have been held on Skype since March and have covered a range of topics including A Gospel of Flowers (our last physical event for the year), a session on writing a villanelle, poems for the planet, water in poetry and poets including Helen Dunmore, Mark Doty, Lemn Sissay, Sylvia Plath and John O'Donohue.

Public and other events

External contacts

Some restrictions of this in 2020 but we remain engaged with Surrey Hills Arts

Publicity and profile

Publicity for events all by email and online. We've had between 10 and 15 non members at the reading events.

Profile was raised in 2019 and this continues, not least with increased online presence


Paul Overell continues to run the website, and keeps the books for the treasurer.

Tony E, Helen and Sue continue to meet from time to time (virtually!) to think through events and logistics etc so as to avoid these discussions taking too much time at the meetings and have liaised with Surrey Hills Arts, Arts Alive and others.

Notes by Tony Earnshaw.

Full circle

This time last year no-one had heard of Covid-19. The pandemic has brought challenges for us all. There are both blessings and sorrows amongst all the difficulties. We have continued to continue. We keep on writing. Poetry needs to be read aloud, to be shared and our meetings on Skype give the opportunity for constructive feedback. Poetry needs to be taken out into the wider community and we do this with our public events – on Zoom this year – and also by taking part in local art projects and sending work off to magazines and competitions.

Helen read three poems: A convocation of pylons considers how to celebrate country-wide conversion to renewable energy was brought to MVP for feedback some time ago and was successful in a competition this year, The Apple Orchard which was also successful in a competition this year and Cope, Steeple Aston from the Lute Society booklet of Helen's poems, 'Measures for lute' which was published in November 2020.

The Programme for 2021 was discussed. Three workshops are proposed, one from Diana on Haibun, one from Liz on Nature and the Summer School led by Helen. Themes and leaders for the Monday meetings were agreed. There was a brief writing exercise leading onto the workshop session.

Notes by Helen Overell

30th November 2020

In conversation with Ann Pelletier-Topping

We were delighted to be in conversation with Ann Pelletier-Topping via Zoom.

Born in French-speaking Montreal (Canada), Ann Pelletier-Topping lives in Devon. She has been writing since 2012 but her interest in poetry began in 2015 while doing a Creative Writing module at the Open University. Writing and reading poetry have since become a necessity and a little haven of happiness. She won second prize in the National Poetry Competition (2019) and her poems have been published in Moor Poets' Isolation Diaries (2020) as well as in their Fourth Anthology. She belongs to a Poetry Seminar Group, led by Greta Stoddart of the Poetry School, and to Black Ven Stanza (Exeter), led by Sarah Acton. When she's not writing, she teaches French in Totnes.

The evening began with introductions and then Ann gave a reading which included the sestina that won second prize in the National Poetry Competition. There was discussion on sources of inspiration for poetry and on the use of form which can appear to be a constraint but which in fact often liberates new avenues of thought. Writing practice was discussed and ideas shared. Ann then led a writing exercise with images of the full moon, and a list of names of the moon, as a prompt. Some pieces were shared and feedback given. The evening was both enjoyable and inspirational.

Notes by Helen Overell

7th December 2020

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