This review of Wolverhampton Madonna is by Neil Leadbeater on writeoutloud.net :
Jeff Phelps has been writing and publishing poetry for more than 30 years. He is co-editor of The Poetry of Shropshire (Offa’s Press, 2013) and has had two novels published by Tindal Street Press. He lives in Bridgnorth.
The title of the collection, Wolverhampton Madonna, refers to the painting Madonna and Child by the Austrian artist Marianne Stokes which is currently in Wolverhampton Art Gallery. The painting is reproduced on the front cover of the pamphlet. In his poem ‘Madonna and Child’, Phelps brings her down to ground level. The poem is provocative because of the way in which he chooses to position her in the context of the 21st century.
At the centre of this collection is the long poem ‘River Passage’. The narrative moves seamlessly from one character to another, rather in the manner of one relay runner passing the baton to another, starting and ending with a schoolteacher but travelling outside the classroom to the schoolyard and then on to the river. Phelps uses mathematical imagery to hold the taut narrative together. Despite its length, it is fast-paced and always holds the reader’s attention. If there is such a thing as a perfect poem, this must surely be it.
His poems are full of wisdom and they address for the most part the big issues in life. This is a poet who treats his readers on equal terms so that we can readily identify with what he is saying and feel engaged with his words. Beneath the surface his poems run deep. There is a wry sense of humour at work in poems such as ‘Cooking in a Bedsitter’ (a nod to Katherine Whitehorn’s classic Penguin book of the same title) and ‘Note of caution for a son going off to university’. These are counterbalanced by the serious tone of ‘Blackberries’ where Phelps quietly makes the connection between his subject matter in the opening and closing lines, just as he does in ‘Oxygen’ where he compares and contrasts two very different situations to dramatic effect. The clever wit displayed in ‘Angry Haiku’ rounds off the collection with panache.
Stone steps I can’t help taking
These are the wonderful stone steps leading from the chapter house at Wells Cathedral in Somerset. The chapter house is at the top of the flight, flooded with its own light. Look at the way the steps from the right flow and merge into the ones coming straight down. They are almost fluid – a real visionary feat of construction.
When we write about places – just looking
These beautifully ploughed fields on the way to Wolverhampton have always caught my eye, but I’d normally been driving past and hadn’t been able to look at them properly. So an assignment to write a poem in the voice of a ‘place’ was a perfect excuse to take a closer look. (more…)
Sometimes it’s good to be a learner writer
We did a writing workshop on Saturday 24th September at Morville village hall in deepest Shropshire. Ruth Cameron led us through the story of Ceridwen, the powerful sorceress of Welsh legend, and we took turns to imagine ourselves inside the heads of the different characters:
Why did I mix up that brew, what did I think of the other characters, how did I get on with my husband, was I jealous or angry? Exactly how did it feel to be transformed into an otter?
It turned into a deep exploration of motives and story, but there was comedy and high drama, too, with a wonderful transformation and chase scene.
Of course, being writers, we: a) had coffee, tea and biscuits and b) wrote about it, then c) talked about what we’d written.
And of course everybody made something different of it. Thank you, Ruth, for taking us on this journey. It feels like a rich seam of inspiration with lots of potential. It would be fascinating to have the motives of fictional characters and situations analysed, for instance. I hope Ruth manages to run more of this type of workshop. There’s so much potential.
It felt good to be stretched and to try new things among supportive friends. It’s great to be a learner sometimes.
So I still use a pen and paper – a red one at that – well, sometimes. I like the feel of the biro on paper.
I like the look of it, the messiness of it. Sometimes I write in alternate colours – not at the same time, but on different days. All right I know it will have to be typed up eventually but until then it just feels more manageable this way – more temporary and less ‘cast in stone’. The pages are more mobile, paragraphs can be re-written. I’ve even been known to use sellotape and scissors. Apologies to computer buffs. I know. It’s positively prehistoric. But I like it.
Writing or typing
Words on Water
On the morning of 20th August we went on the narrow boat, The Shropshire Lad from Lyneal Wharf to Ellesmere and back. We looked at poems inspired by canals and water, learnt about the wildlife and about the chequered history of this canal. Then in the afternoon we did it all over again.
On the way back we did some writing and shared our work. Then on 17th September we had a slot at Merefest where we read our work to the appreciative visitors in the Literature Tent. What a great event.
Amazing how much good writing can come out of days like this. It’s a lesson to keep on looking, researching and thinking. And there was so much knowledge amongst our writers – which they were all willing to share generously.
The whole day and the Literature Tent was arranged by Simon Fletcher whose Offa’s Press is based in Shropshire.
Flashes of inspiration
Blakenhall Writers’ Group in Wolverhampton asked me to lead a Saturday morning workshop about short stories… it’s flash fiction, and they’re preparing an anthology, as a look at their website will tell you, on the subject of ‘identity.’ Entries from non-members are welcome, so it’s a great chance to see your work in print.
I found myself asking ‘what exactly is flash fiction, anyway?’ I’ve seen requirements for pieces as short as six words – that seems more like a shopping list – or as long as 1200. Sometimes the boundaries between prose and poetry almost seem to disappear. The Blakenhall group have chosen 500 words as their upper limit, which is a pretty good place to settle, I think. It’s about a page and a half. You can do a lot in that space.
In my panic-stricken researches I’ve seen instructions that insist that flash fiction must have a beginning, a middle and an end – just like a full-length story or a novel. I’m not sure it works like that. There isn’t room in a very short piece to set out a situation, make full-scale character development and resolve a plot. As well as some stunning very short stories, I’ve seen pieces of flash fiction that really don’t work because they are summaries of something that ought to be much longer. Who wants to read a summary? We want an experience, even in a page.
Flash fiction needs to be intriguing and to have a sense of possibility – that it might lead somewhere. It needs to be complete. It shouldn’t just be a description or a short story trying to escape. All that in 500 words. Tall order. Maybe it comes down to something Tess Gallagher said: Tell me… something I can’t forget.
I’m delighted to hear that the workshop on Saturday 12th September 2015 is already full. That suggests people hope to find the answers to some of those questions. I trust, between us, we’ll have a go at that, perhaps be a little inspired and maybe start some writing for that anthology.
…and if, after all that, you still have flash fiction looking for a home, Shrewsbury flash fiction are also on the lookout for fresh content for their website.
This Autumn looks busy already. It’s a great season for being productive and doing things. I’ve been putting my two novels, Painter Man and Box of Tricks into a format for production as e-books, the first time they’ve ever been available electronically.
They should be ready and available by the end of this month – September 2015. Watch this space…
Wenlock Poetry Festival
Wenlock Poetry Festival runs from Friday 24th to Sunday 26th April this year in the lovely surroundings of Much Wenlock in Shropshire. There’s always an amazing atmosphere with stuff going on at The Edge arts centre, Wenlock Pottery, the parish church, the Priory Hall and the Methodist Chapel as well as in the pubs and cafes and outdoors.
I’ll be introducing a whole day’s poetry at Wenlock Pottery on Saturday 25th, from 11am to 4pm, plus getting in a few of my own poems.
On Sunday I’ll be part of The Busk at the Methodist Chapel. Introduced by Liz Lefroy it runs on both days, but I’ll be reading some time between three and four. It’s a great chance to hear a huge variety of poets – some of whom are appearing at the festival in their own right – in an informal atmosphere. You can buy a ticket, get a stamp and come and go all day!
But don’t take my word for it. Download a programme to see who’s on (there are some cracking guests) and what’s happening or link to the website that’s been building since before Christmas. Hope to see you there!