It’s that Friday in the month that we hold the Writers’ Café. Always a special day for me and one that I only miss if I am out of town. Nothing else keeps me away. It was back in the early 80s before I was married, before I moved abroad and I’d actually started to make my living as a writer that I attended my first writing class. It was held in the village of Kings Cliffe in England and led by June Counsel, a fine woman who had worked at Bletchley Park during the war, taught in school and, in retirement, turned to writing children’s books about a dragon who went to school. It was there that I realised how inspiring it was to spend time regularly with people who share my love for something and to be forced out of my writing comfort zone into other genres. Ultimately, we all explored other ways of writing that had been alien to us, much like the newcomer starts, tentatively, to explore a new city. Some of us, in the end, even come to love the place.
I remember my first foray into fiction. June had been scathing.
“You are a journalist and a poet. Stick to that,” she had written in red ink at the bottom of a rather terrible, plotless short story. I took that to heart and it was many years before I dared venture back into fiction. Yet, it was in that group that I recognised how important it was to meet with other writers, of any age, nationality, ambition or standard. When I began to move round the world I learned that it was there in a writers’ circle that I would find my closest friends, my soulmates. I could exist happily in two parallel worlds: the outside world and the blissful inner circle of writers.
It seems that everywhere I have lived abroad I have started my own group. Having learned that I needed a circle as much as I needed food and air, and with no other circle in existence, I went on to start groups in Dubai, Muscat, Stavanger and the Hague and now, of course KL. In all these groups we simply did a bit of speedwriting, shared any work we had written in the interim (usually none) and talked and talked while eating cake.
But it was a little under a year ago, when taking part in a writing retreat in Devon that I had organised with my friend Christine, I realised that we could do more and go further in our meetings by simply adding a task that would stretch us. And so the Writers’ Café was born. Now we still do our speedwrite but then we spend 20 minutes on a task. Last month we all wrote a well-known fairy story from the point of view of a minor character, maybe even an inanimate object. I wrote from the viewpoint of Cinderella’s kitchen sink. Nova was Sleeping Beauty’s spindle. A new genre, a new idea, trying something alien, much, you’ve guessed it, like living abroad or trying to walk in heels for the first time.
Today, though, I decided to stick my neck out and set everyone a task based on poetry. I tend to shy away from forcing poetry on people, knowing that some folk do not get it, some are terrified of trying to write it and others are scared of the emotion it contains. Right away I knew which poem I was going to use and I had first seen in the incredible multicultural anthology, Staying Alive, published by Bloodaxe. Entitled The East-West Border… by Estonian Jaan Kaplinski. it goes:
The East-West border is always wandering,
sometimes eastward, sometimes west,
and we do not know exactly where it is just now:
in Gaugamela, in the Urals, or maybe in ourselves,
so that one ear, one eye, one nostril, one hand, one foot,
one lung and one testicle or one ovary
is on the one, another on the other side. Only the heart,
only the heart is always on one side:
if we are looking northward, in the West;
if we are looking southward, in the East;
and the mouth doesn’t know on behalf of which or both
it has to speak.
translated from the Estonian by the author with Sam Hamill and Riina Tamm
I knew this poem was perfect for an expat, someone who, like me, lives between cultures every day, many who, every few years move on again and end up morphing into an amalgamation of identities.
We read the poem and everyone took a deep breath of recognition as the poem resonated with them. We could write whatever we wanted. I wrote another poem but others stunned us all with their insight, their authenticity and their vulnerability. It was truly a magical morning.
This was my offering:
ripped from home by April winds.
in a posting’s summer.
Plummet into dank grass,
when harvest’s past.
go to ground.
I dare not raise my eyes to see
my naked branches mourn.
Immersed in the interminable bleakness of winter,
And yet Easter always comes
and with its throbbing pulse
a bud of hope breaks free,
slow at first,
But stand back
and view the time lapse
of this loop
For in the end