Trailing stories

Oe'r Hill gate

From an interview with storyteller, writer, and mythographer Martin Shaw, upon being asked how to find new stories relevant to times we live in:

"First thing we gotta do is trail the stories not trap them," Martin answers. "If you trap a story, you’ve put it in a little allegorical cage where you pretend you know what it means. The moment you think you know what the story means from beginning to end, it’s lost its nutrition, it’s lost its protein, it’s lost its danger.

"Seamus Heaney, the poet, says that a poet is somebody with a tuned ear. And in a way tuning your listening to stories is a discipline. You know we are living in a world where people spend endless amounts of time in the gym, endless amounts of time toning their body, but their minds lack discipline. You know what it is: you have to let a story have its way with you. You can’t tell the story what it is. You learn to sit in the radiance of it until something comes from the story that disturbs you or bugs you or makes you happy, until you have to do something with it. But that is not the same thing as using a story to make a psychological point or to support a contemporary polemic.

Sweet sheep 1

Hound and oak leaves

"Because I’m a storyteller and a writer, people are always saying to me, 'Can you find us a story so we can make this point? We want to make a point about climate change. We want to make a point about gender. Will you send us something over that supports it?' Now that’s backwards to me. Story is first. You have to be in the presence of the story, which I regard as a living being: it’s a wild animal; it’s got tusks, udders; it’s got a tail; it doesn’t behave; half the time you want it to be there it’s disappeared, it’s shuffled off somewhere else. Stories should be filled with so much consequence and danger, they won’t behave for your polemic."

Sweet sheep 2

Oe'r Hill

"There’s no way we can’t create stories," he adds, "which are the things that really feed our bones; that’s what we’re hunkering down for. Stories bring in what is at the edge of our vision and not right at the center. So in other words, in an old myth, if there’s a crisis in the story, the remedy for the crisis always comes from the edge not the center. So when I think about the times we’re in, and I think about what is actually happening to our gaze -- what we are fundamentally staring at all the time -- I think, that’s not a mythological move. A mythological move is to be aware of all the hundred trembling secrets at the edge of your vision. Because they are the things that want to secrete their intelligence into you about the problem that’s right in front of you.

Dartmoor pony 1

"But if you think about great myth -- if you keep staring at Medusa, you get turned to ashes. And when I meet a lot of activists at the moment, I meet a lot of people utterly consumed with the seemingly horrible narrative of our times. I see a lot of burn out, because they have no shield to reflect, they have no art to reflect, the immensity of what’s right in front of them. If all you do is stare into hell, you will become ashes.

"Stories are a way, an artful way, of negotiating very difficult things in such a fashion that, in the very demonstration and articulation of those stories, more beauty works itself out into the world."

Dartmoor ponies

Following the trail home

Words: The two passages above are from "Mud and Antler Bone," the transcript of a podcast interview with Martin Shaw by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee (Emergence magazine). The poem in the picture captions is from Fishing for Myth by Heid E. Erdrich (New Rivers Press, 1997). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: A walk and visit our animal neighbours on a fine autumn day.


The difficult path

Meldon Hill

I've had one of those days that most writers (indeed, most artists in all fields) are familiar with: a piece of work I thought was going to be simple and straight-forward turned out to be anything but. I just couldn't seem to get the words down on paper in a coherent way, as thought I'd lost everything I know about writing and had to start again from scratch.

Often you know when you are about to tackle a difficult part of a work-in-progress...but sometimes it take you by surprise. It's like walking down a familiar trail and suddenly finding you've lost your way. You didn't expect to need a map; you haven't allotted enough time before the sun goes down; and all your confidence drains in a whoosh because it wasn't supposed to be like this.

Meldon Hill 2

Meldon Hill 3

As I took a deep breath and soldiered on (with deadlines hovering, there was simply no time to give in to self-doubt), I remembered these words by Jane Hirshfield, from her wonderful book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry:

"Difficulty itself may be a path toward concentration -- expended effort weaves us into a task, and successful engagement, however laborious, becomes also a labor of love. The work of writing brings replenishment even to the writer dealing with painful subjects or working out formal problems, and there are times when suffering’s only open path is through an immersion in what is. The eighteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib described the principle this way:

For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river -
Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.

Meldon Hill 4

"Difficulty then, whether of life or of craft, is not a hindrance to an artist. Sartre called genius ‘not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances.’ Just as geological pressure transforms ocean sediment into limestone, the pressure of an artist’s concentration goes into the making of any fully realized work. Much of beauty, both in art and in life, is a balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance -- a gnarled tree, the flow of a statue’s draped cloth. Through such tensions, physical or mental, the world in which we exist becomes itself. Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life. We seek in art the elusive intensity by which it knows."

Meldon Hill 5

Likewise, Wendell Berry has said:

"It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings."

And so I keep on working, blindly and baffled. But singing.

Meldon Hill 6

Words: The passages above are from Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield (HarperCollins, 1998), and Standing by Words: Essays by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2011). The Hirshfield poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (February 2017). I'm a huge fan of her work, and highly recommend her collections.  All rights to the text and poetry quoted here are reserved by the authors. Pictures: Meldon Hill in mist and autumn finery.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

An illustration for The Mabinogion by Alan Lee

This morning, music from Wales and beyond....

Above: "Pan O'wn Y Gwanwyn" by Alaw (Oliver Wilson-Dickson, Jamie Smith and Dylan Fowler), from their gorgeous album Dead Man's Dance (2017). The video was filmed Twyn y Gaer, a hill fort near Abergavenny.

Below: "Glyn Nedd," performed live by Alaw in the Acapela Studio in Cardiff.

Above: "Diddanwch Gruffydd ap Cynan" by mother-and-daughter duo Delyth & Angharad (from Swansea), which appears on their second album, Llinyn Arian (2018). "This is a traditional Welsh tune," Angharad says, "that I learnt as a child from hearing my mother playing it with the folk band Aberjaber. When Delyth was pregnant, I was the bump that the harp rested upon. Gruffydd ap Cynan was the King of Gwynedd from 1081 until his death in 1137. The tune comes from Edward Jones’s collection The Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards, which was published in 1784."

Below: "Night, Moon, Dance" by Toby Hay (from Rhayader, mid Wales) and Jim Ghedi (from Sheffield). This lovely piece can be found on their new album, The Hawksworth Grove Sessions: Duets for 6 & 12 String Guitar (2018).

Above: "My Love's in Germany," a 17th century ballad performed by The Trials of Cato. Originally from Wales and North Yorkshire, the trio honed their sound during a year in Lebanon, returning to Britain to launch their debut EP. This song comes their terrific new album, Hide and Hair (2018), recorded at Penylan Studios in mid Wales.

Below: "Gloria" by The Trials of Cato, which is also from the new album.

The art today is by Alan Lee, illustrating The Mabinogion: stories compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th-13th centuries from earlier oral traditions.

The Mabinogion by Alan Lee


An invitation from the fairies

The Changeling & the Trolls by John Bauer

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Art by John Anster ''Fairy'' Fitzgerald

Please join us on Monday night (UK time) to see what the Modern Fairies interdisciplinary art project has been up to.

''I Shall Go Into a Hare,'' music by Fay Hield, drawing by Jackie Morries

The paintings above are by John Bauer (1882-1918 ) and John Anster "Fairy" Fitzgerald (1819-1906). The sketchbook drawing is by Jackie Morris, for Fay Hield'a song-in-progress, "I Shall Go Into a Hare."

The Modern Fairies website & blog is here. My posts about the project are here and here.