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Writers, Retreat

Fall back, poets! I’ve got the supplies in; you need only bring yourselves.

I’ve designed Writers, Retreat as a wild tour of the remote huts, palaces and wind baffles used by poets and artists to keep their notebooks from the elements and their writing from interruption. We’ll pay Dylan Thomas a visit in his ‘house on stilts’, listen to the rain on the roof in Pascale Petit’s garden shed and briefly brick ourselves into complete isolation with the fourteenth-century anchorite Julian of Norwich.

But a writer’s residency is a tangled thing. The idea encompasses everything from monastic solitude to a private holiday to a kind of public office in a glass garret. Alongside publications and awards, residencies can be highly prized and yet, if time and space is already a difficulty, all too tricky to prize open. Even a good, properly-funded residency might be feasible for just a precious few who can afford to withdraw from their other responsibilities for weeks or even months.

Poets without access to a spare room or the spare hours required to complete all the application forms for those residencies still need space and time to write. Poets with full-time contracts and poets with fixed or limited annual leave need space and time to write. Poets who are parents and poets who are carers need space and time to write. Poets with changeable and varied schedules, health, abilities and resources need time and space to write.

I have undertaken residencies in a guard tower, a woodland, a ceramics factory, a fell cottage, an art gallery, an archive and a university. In most of these, even when I was the spitting image of the Romantic recluse, there were teaching responsibilities, events and my own freelance work to take care of. I often had to construct a retreat within the retreat just to get half a poem started. When I returned home, it was this little construction that I brought back with me, rebuilding it again each day so that I might, at least, get the second half of that poem finished.

So, Writers, Retreat is less of a ‘writers’ retreat’ and more an invitation to get away from trying to get away from it all. As my course description promises, we will direct most of our energy into designing, building and maintaining the best and most robust structures for protecting our writing time within our weekly routines. This might be a quiet shed at the end of the garden but, equally, it might be an exercise we can repeat at the end of each day.

I want the structures we build together to be as flexible, expansive and inexpensive as the cloth house Uncle Feedle builds in the thirteenth and final episode of Bagpuss. If you’ve never heard Madeleine and Gabriel the Toad sing this strange story, then let me introduce you to it here:

In a weird mondegreening of the traditional folk song ‘The Tailor and the Mouse’, which — let me clear my throat — goes a little something like ‘hey diddle-um-come-feed-all’, a rag doll called ‘Uncle Feedle’ experiences some unnamed sadness and tries to build himself a house. He stitches a kitchen together in no time, leaving out a bottle of milk, appliquéd from watered silk, on the blue bombazine mantle but, being made of rag, Feedle’s house can’t stand up. It keeps collapsing back into the velvet grass. To solve this problem, he turns the house inside out and stuffs it with cotton wool, supporting the structure from the inside. This works well enough except, of course, his living room and bedroom and dining room and kitchen are now four inside walls turned outside, flush and continuous with the meadows and hedges and skies and soils of his world. Now, when he draws the plush curtains closed and lights his way to his quilted eiderdown bed with the calico candle, he is at home everywhere, his house extending from that bombazine mantelpiece to the most distant observable star. ‘Yes’, says Uncle Feedle, ‘I like that house. It suits me’.

Like a ragman building a rag-house, we will build new spaces for poems out of poems. We will study the constructions of work by Amy Key, Jen Hadfield, Wisława Szymborska, Rachael Boast, Maria Fusco and Alice Oswald and, by the end of this course, we will return from our retreat having turned everything inside out, finding poems at home everywhere.

Seek creative solace in solitude and silence on Holly Corfield Carr’s Writers, Retreat. Book online or ring us on (0)20 7582 1679.

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