I have just had the most incredible two day Poetry Retreat hosted by Small Giants and held at the White House (no, not that one) in St Kilda. The facilitator of the workshop was Pádraig Ó Tuama, the incredible host of the Poetry Unbound podcast. During the pandemic and Melbourne’s many lockdowns I used to escape into the back garden and listen to his voice sharing poetry and insights while I hung out the washing. Getting to spend the last two days in his presence, diving deep into the power of words and stories has been amazing. He was smart and funny and created an amazing safe space for all our stories to be heard. It was so good I didn’t want it to end.
It was easy to be inspired in such amazing surroundings. Small Giants put on an amazing event with fabulous food, marvellous music and gorgeous floral arrangements. Throw in Nathan’s movement, breath and yoga practices along with Van’s warmth and organisational wizardry and you have one incredible event. And of course the poetry. Can’t forget the poetry. There was so much good poetry. I was soo, so lucky to be able to take time out from the everyday and meet amazing and inspiring people. Huge shout out to Mary Freer @freerthinking for putting me on to this workshop.
The retreat was carefully crafted and structured to balance the emotional and mental strain of writing and sharing poetry with the needs of the body to move, eat and rest. I didn't end up getting any pictures of the incredible food cooked with love by Slow because I was too busy stuffing my face with baked eggplant, shiitake mushrooms on rice cracker puffs and baked artichoke hearts.
There were published poets, emerging poets as well as people who don't write poetry at the retreat. All of them were there for a shared love of the power of poetry and what words can do to console and comfort or confront and confuse. Pádraig's presence and gentle manner created a safe and welcome space for writers of all abilities to feel comfortable sharing their work with the room.
Each of the sessions contained writing prompts as well as poetry from famous poets such as Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens and Marie Howe. After we read Always Under Your Breath by Kei Miller, I went home and pulled his book, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion off the shelf. I bought it a couple of years back when I met him at Poetry on the Move in Canberra. I was blown away by his performance, got excited and bought his book only to put it in a bookcase when I got home. I tend to buy more books than I can read, it's a guilty habit!
My favourite exercise was the one where Pádraig got us to answer eight questions. We had to write a single line in response to each question - as long as the width of our page but no longer. Once we were finished, we then numbered the lines and rearranged them to create a pantun. It was such a great way to get people who don't write poetry to write a cleverly structured poem that fells like you're being a poet. I also found it a much better way to approach the form than trying to come up with the lines and shoe-horn them into the poem. His approach felt more natural and organic.
I also liked the way Pádraig talked about the different forms (sonnet, villanelle, pantoum) having their own flavour, qualities and attributes. He is so knowledgeable and widely read, it made me hungry to learn more. There's always so much more to know that I think I'll alway be a student!
We were also treated to an amazing, curated cello performance by Josephine Vains. Her cello was made in 1800 and has an unusually shaped bow and ram's gut strings so the sound is scratchy and raw. She taught us about Baroque music and the language of affects as well as the meanings of the keys which she matched with her pieces. In times past, music and emotion were paired together and songs consciously created to evoke a response in an audience. My favourite piece was her version of Metallica's Nothing Else Matters.
Meeting your heroes is a strange thing. You feel as if you know them already and can take up a conversation where you left off. Of course you've never spoken to them before but it feels like you have. I wanted to sit down in the sun and talk to Pádraig for hours about all the things but my awkwardness and shyness holds me back in social situations. I feel as if I am only mimicking being human and need to give myself little reminders like 'smile' and 'remember to ask questions' and 'don't scare them with your enthusiasm' and 'don't be a conversation hog' because when I get excited about a subject I get carried away and overwhelm people. I see their faces glaze over and know I've gone too far. And then I don't know what to do next or how to save face or how to exit gracefully.
Its the ultimate magic trick - how to be yourself in a crowded room full of strangers you've only just met. Forget about pulling rabbits out of a hat or sawing yourself in half, the real magic is other people and how we communicate with each other. Figure that out and you're set! If you've worked it out, please, please drop me a line and share your secret!
I was also conscious of all the people there who were as excited as me to be meeting one of their heroes. We all wanted to have those conversations with Pádraig, to share a few pints and chew the fat. Luckily he has a huge body of work with six season of Poetry Unbound that I can go back to and listen to again.
There's also the feeling that your hero is their own person and that they are there doing a job. Being polite to you is part of that job and you never really know how they feel about you, even if you want them to be your new best friend. I'm not sure where I read it, but building a casual friendship apparently takes at least thirty hours and to make a good friend, 300 hours. Although a retreat can feel like a super intense experience where you've made lottos new friends, when you've left you're only halfway to making an acquaintance. Chances are your paths will never cross again. But you know, that doesn't really matter because those beautiful souls shared a beautiful moment with you. One that you all will be able to carry and look back on over the years.
On the flip side, I met people who knew my work and a young woman who had bought a copy of pas de deux at the Book Barn in Belgrave. She told me that my book, along with others, had helped her through a difficult patch. Little did she know that hearing those words would help me through a difficult patch. Writing is a solitary craft. We writers create our work and then send it out into the world, hoping it will meet interesting people and make new friends. But we don't always know if that will happen. So there is grief in the joy of creation, of letting go and coming home.
And then there is the feeling of gladness when someone tells you that the work you are doing is important, that it matters, that it made a difference. Hearing that gives me the strength to go on. To keep doing the work. And it inspires me and gives me energy because I know that what I am doing is not in vain. Doubt dogs my steps and nags at every turn. For a little while now I'll be able to ignore its yelps and whines and focus on doing what I love.
Stepping out from behind the computer screen this weekend was so affirming. I met so many incredible people, heard so many inspiring stories and witnessed what happens when people consciously come together to create. I am so blessed to have met so many lovely people who made the retreat an amazing experience. Thank you!
A day later, I am struck by all the conversations I had and all the ones that could have been. The faces that I smiled with or shared a look of understanding and those that remain an enigma. All those beautiful beings who shared the room and made this retreat a welcoming, safe and nurturing space. So many of us were mothers, taking time out of busy child/partner filled lives to nourish our selves so we could go back home and say, 'I am here. I can do this. I love this.'
I love my life. I am here. I can do this.