I don’t go to church, but there’s a part of it I miss. I’ll explain.
My family’s history is of being religious nutcases. My grandfather was in the “Exclusive Brethren”, a ludicrous quasi-Christian cult that meant he couldn’t consort with non-believers, which included his wife, who had decided to opt instead for the more enlightened “Open Brethren”. This meant that my nan cooked meals (women’s work) and trudged down the corridor with his on a tray to eat alone in the parlour, plonked it in front of him, and trudged back to the dingy dining room to eat with the kids.
I was brought up in the Open Brethren, which involved going to “meetings” (not church services) every Sunday morning and evening with my head covered as a sign of my female inferiority to men. There was no organ or accompaniment for hymns, as this was felt to inhibit the flow of the Holy Spirit, who (which?) was believed to run the meetings by inspiring the brethren to speak. Generally the women sang the melody while the men sang in harmony. (As a result, my dad – whether in the meeting or not – was actually incapable of singing a melody and could only harmonise.) Sometimes the hymns sounded beautiful, but often, having no accompaniment, the singing petered out when the tune became too high or too low for the human voice to manage.
The problem with allowing anyone to say what they believed the Holy Spirit had led them to say was that sometimes people would say things that others disapproved of, so these people were “silenced”. I can’t tell you how this happened, because I was a child at the time and children were all led to the hallway outside the main meeting room and supervised by the Sunday School teacher as the big meeting room doors were closed, and children feared they may never see their parents again.
So then they had a system of “Elders”, and only the elders were allowed to speak. Then one of the elders came back from being a missionary in Nigeria with a heightened Christian fervour involving “speaking in tongues” and “prophesying” inspired by the “Charismatic movement”. This caused another split, and my parents left the church with the other charismatic-leaning brethren and went to the local Baptist church instead, where they weren’t particularly charismatic, but at least everything was written down and organised so that you could sing a hymn without gagging on the melody, and no argument over who was going to say what and when.
Now here’s the point: I miss it. Not the ludicrousness of it, or the complete lack of logic, or the head-covering, or the silencing, or the obsession with “sin” (which I don’t actually believe is a thing; only a Christian concept used to further people’s religious agendas), but the regular Sunday morning period of reflection. As a child I would be trying to think what my sins had been that week so that I could be asked to be forgiven for them. The best one I can remember was putting too much sugar on my Rice Crispies and chucking them out of the first floor dining room window onto my poor unsuspecting nan putting the laundry through the mangle in the garden below. So I don’t miss reflecting on “sin”, but I do miss reflecting on my behaviour and its consequences. I can’t help thinking that this whole godless country would benefit from people spending an hour each week thinking about the consequences of their behaviour.
My personal reflections this Sunday morning are that I take my gorgeous, longsuffering husband too much for granted, and that I’ve been micro-managing my teenager over anxiety for his mental health. These reflections surely have the potential to improve our family harmony.
Wouldn’t it be lovely to do this together every Sunday morning? I tested the water with a quick tweet today, and people seem to like the idea. But how to do it, without creating an organisation, with pontificating Captain Mainwaring-types, or do-gooders offering unwanted advice, or narcissists trying to offer the most dramatic reflection, thus causing major disruption for the “reflectors” and attention for themselves? How to do it without people in charge, or different groups “splitting” over differences of opinion? How to do it without straight, white mansplainers telling everyone what’s happening and what it should be called? Without annoying the hell out of each other?
My aforementioned husband pointed out that groups of Chinese people meet every morning to practise Tai Chi together – no speaking, just those beautiful movements in harmony. I’ve been lucky enough to see them in Beijing, swooping their arms together as if they could almost take off and fly. We don’t really have the weather for it, though. Can you do Tai Chi in the rain?
So here’s my suggestion: anyone who fancies it could maybe offer a humble reflection on their behaviour and its consequences, or a warm, positive thought, or a lovely photo each Sunday morning with hashtag #NotChurch. No one in charge; no one offering advice; no one offering their opinion. Anything that might make someone’s day better. Maybe we could start there and see what happens.
Learning styles and their relationship to our poetry lives
Recently I’ve started admitting to what feels like a big secret. Here it comes…
I hate poetry readings!
I have never been able to understand why people want to sit and listen to poems being read out loud, when the poet’s gone to so much trouble getting their poems perfect on the page. I try so hard, I really do, but I start to drift off and miss at least half of what’s being read.
I’ve been discussing this with friend and rather lush poet, Siân Thomas, who perceptively asked me what my learning style is. Learning styles can be categorised in many ways, and there are a lot of people who know a lot more about it than I, but, briefly, your style can be aural, visual, or kinaesthetic. The kinaesthetic learning style is also referred to as the “tactile” one, but I’m sticking with “kinaesthetic” in this blog post, because I relate strongly to needing movement.
You can check your learning style via the link below. It’s a simple little 20 question test. I’m sure there are much more accurate tests with hundreds of questions, but it’s been road tested by several of my friends, and most people relate strongly to their results. (N.B. My computer says this site is “not secure”, but my McAfee Antivirus Security seemed perfectly happy with it.)
Some people seem to be quite balanced, and score fairly equally across the three styles, but most seem to come out more strongly for one than the other two.
Now, Siân’s preferred style is aural. She likes to listen, and at zoom readings, will turn off the screen, lie on her sofa and listen, as if to the radio. She loves radio; I only listen to it if trapped in the car with it on a long journey and there’s no one to talk to. I discovered my style is kinaesthetic; I like to do, not listen. So I prefer readings where there is audience participation, or discussion. This explains why I have been loving the Penned in the Margins events where there’s a discussion of a theme, and three writers each read a poem or two, or a passage of prose, to illustrate points made during the conversation, brilliantly chaired by Georgia Attlesey. My favourite was ‘Angels and Daemons: Writing the Mystical’, with Khaled Nurul Hakim, Rebecca Tamás and Luke Kennard. You can find out about forthcoming Penned in the Margins events here:
I digress. Because I like to jump around. That’s us kinaesthetic types for you.
Another poet friend of mine is the amazing (I do not use the word “amazing” lazily) artist, kazvina, who has a Distinction in MA Fine Art and Studio Practice. Her learning style is, unsurprisingly, visual.
‘How do you get through poetry readings?’ I ask her.
‘I get pissed’, she replies.
I was recently asked to step in to read from my forthcoming collection, ‘Beautiful Nowhere’, at a poetry zoom event with little time to prepare. I ended up accompanying the poems with far too much blah. I now realise that I was responding to my subconscious belief that I must not bore people by reading for too long without breaking things up with stories, facts, or discussion. Some audience members (presumably those of a more kinaesthetic persuasion) seemed to enjoy this, but for Siân and the other “aurals” in the audience, I know it must have been annoying. Luckily, I was specifically asked to have a question-and-answer session after the reading, so I was in my element there!
Learning style theory asks questions of how a poetry reading should be conducted. My first pamphlet, ‘The Happy Bus’ was considered “performance poetry”. One of the poems involved audience participation during which they were invited to create the sound effects. I loved doing that! My favourite part was handing out drinking straws so that people could blow into their drinks at the appropriate moment to accompany the words “brewed a potion” with group burbling. I wonder now was I annoying the aural-style audience, or did they actually enjoy the sound effects?
I’m thinking we should try and consider everyone; maybe start with a few uninterrupted poems, then introduce an anecdote and possibly a little discussion for the rest of the set. I do like to start a reading by going straight into the first poem — no intro at all — because that always feels dramatic!
I made the mistake at my recent reading of going too far and explaining some of the poems, reflecting my anxiety that people would have no clue what I was on about. I must learn to trust the reader and let the poems speak for themselves. There’s a difference between telling an interesting anecdote related to the poem or giving a fascinating piece of information on the theme, and explaining the poem, thus ruining the experience of hearing it, much like giving the punch line to a joke at the beginning.
Of course, a show like Maggie Sawkins’ Ted Hughes Award-winning ‘Zones of Avoidance’ pretty much caters for everyone, with sumptuous readings incorporated into a live literature show with interactive films. No wonder it won the award! More info here:
There’s also scope here to think about creating poetry film backdrops which might enhance a poetry reading. This needs to be done carefully so as to not overwhelm the poems themselves. A backdrop is a different animal to a poetry film, but that, as they say, is beyond the scope of this discussion. For expertise on the matter, I’d recommend the film poem company, Elephant’s Footprint:
This learning style theory also relates to the poems themselves. I now realise my poems usually have a lot of movement in them. In ‘Beautiful Nowhere’, for example, a chandelier falls, people turn into paper dolls and fly away, a traumatic experience rattles a cupboard door. Siân’s are unsurprisingly full of sound. Kaz’s poems are full of images.
Here’s something worth considering. I checked through my editor’s favourite poems in my collection, and they all have plenty of movement in them. Could it be that he chose to publish my collection because his main learning style is also kinaesthetic? If this is the case, we may be able to identify which editors are more likely to enjoy our work, based on mutual learning styles! This definitely requires more research.
Thanks for reading. I hope you’ve found it interesting and useful. If you have the time and inclination, I would love to read your comments below.
Details of ‘Beautiful Nowhere’ can be found here: BEAUTIFUL NOWHERE | Boatwhistle