Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A swarm of writers landed on Frome Library on Tuesday. Wendy Miller-Williams, who will shortly be canonised for beatific services to local literature, put on her bee-veil and dealt with the buzz of the newly-formed Self-Help Writing Group - louder than a children's party, more chaotic than Railtrack - and hived us off into some sort of order. The Words@Frome Festival committee reconvened, the Poetry Cafe promo is out and so are my snowdrops. Spring is nearly sprung, but I seem to be still circling somewhere above Santiago.
I can still smell the exotic strangeness of sun and smog and eucalyptus. I still hear the ceaseless birdsong, taste the fresh figs, feel the velvet smoothness of the water at dusk. I remember the night we saw the comet like a long silver smear across the sky, the snake on the road that day I borrowed the mountain bike and cycled to the village. I look back at my journal. The day we went to Yerba Loca, in the mountains.
Picnic of watermelon. Tortolita flitting in the trees above us - are they morning doves or mourning doves? Here we're 2000 feet above sea level, high above the dust road, yet the meadow is moist and scattered with flowers like a Klimpt painting. The Californian poppies and orange orchids have given way to tiny blue and white alpines, yellow of hawkweed and some little scrambling butter-golden trumpets. Tall creamy white umbellifers. Butterflies with black & white chequer board wings. River below me, thundering constantly. Mountains ahead, mountains behind, their white muzzles biting into the voracious blue sky. Rocks, grey, stubborn in this soft green verdancy, sudden and obdurate. "You'll never meet anyone in the rest of your life who has been here," says Susan.

We were talking, one day at happy hour, about why we write. It was Sandra’s question. For her: curiosity and challenge. For Merle, creativity. Frank: to say something. Susan simply enjoys it, more than anything else she does. For me it’s like breathing, it’s how I process my life, how I know myself.
Interestingly, as Sandra pointed out, none of us said “To be published, to be famous.”
The question for a writer, I suggest, is: how much do you want to share your writing? And how much of it do you want to share?

Monday, January 29, 2007

How was Chile?
Fifteen creative writers, all far from their homelands of England, Canada, Holland, South Africa, Japan and Singapore. Our hostess and course organiser is Susan from England. The theme of transition is resonant; their words are fascinating. We work around a long table in the shade of the sala throughout the morning, then after al fresco lunch, the afternoon is free to read by the pool, swim, or walk around the parcela - smallholding - which comprises vineyards, fields of cattle and horses, and a small hill. As the afternoon sun becomes more gentle and the Evening Primrose flowers unfurl again, Susan appears with a tray of wine and tapas and announces Happy Hour. We reconvene, talking of poetry and publication and other passions, until its time for dinner.

Well that's a typical pattern...

I did other things too - went hiking in the Andes, climbed a path to a glacier, took a trip to the coast and a tour of the crazy coast house of Pablo Neruda, Chile's Nobel Peace Prizewinning poet and favourite son.
I went on the metro, and the bus, saw the bourgeois side of Santiago and the bohemian quarters, the downtown area and the new malls.
I toured museums and art galleries, sat in coffee bars and a seedy liquor bar, ate Chilean dishes at pavement cafes and in an elegant 15th-storey restaurant.
On the parcela where I stayed I saw amazing wildlife daily - butterflies as big as bats, a huge Great Horned owl like a primitive mask, tiny picui doves, quails dashing along the dust road with their chicks, scores of foraging falcon-like caracara, and listened nightly to the lapwings' screech.
I could go on about the flowers, too: the cactus with their red parasite-blossom, exquisite and deadly, and a kaleidoscope of exotica along the hillsides and verges.
But I think I'll shift focus from these unchanging aspects to what struck me most: the pace of change here.

Acceleration is too slow a word for it. Everywhere I'm reminded of 70s sociologist and soothsayer Alvin Toffler, who warned that change itself is changing. Santiago is a boom town in a boom country.
Half of the population of Chile live here.

Susan's rural paradise is 20 minutes from the biggest mall I've ever seen, including a supermarket with 65 checkouts.
It's one of 29 around the city. The drive begins on a dirt track and joins a 6-lane highway. In one generation the huaso's children are quitting the labour that needs horses and big brimmed hats and flooding to the malls to stand at the checkouts. And prices may look good to the gringo, but here a basic monthly wage is around £100.

Of course it's impossible in 3 weeks to make value judgments, but I can't help being a bit sad to see Pied Piper of Dunkin Donuts and Macdonalds has lured so many children from their traditional culture. It makes me realise when we talk of the pace of change in the UK, we know nothing. Here I met people who had been residents less than a decade ago, now literally unable to recognise their own sector of the city. In a country where tax returns must be submited online not on paper, our parcela didn't even have a working phone as the lines are regularly vandalised for their copper.
On a less Cassandra-like note, and despite the culture shock, I enjoyed every minute of my stay. I saw breathtaking scenery, basked in constant sunshine, met people who were generous and interesting, and above all enjoyed some amazing writing. I'm hoping to add some samples here, but in the meantime will end with a quote from a cafe wall which - now I've got it translated correctly - I intend to use as my motto for this year:
"Sólo quienes se arriesgan en ir más lejos
descubren hasta dónde pueden llegar"
Only those who risk going further discover how far they can really go.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Looking ahead -
because it doesn't seem right to leave ho-ho-ho imagery on my blog until February, here's a nudge to all poets in striking distance of Frome: Our 'Poetry Café' reopens with a flourish on 13th Feb for 'Valentine Vices' - an evening with the spotlight on personal passion, with Rose Flint, artist, writer, broadcaster and Glastonbury goddess, supported by Gordon Egginton the popular winner of the 2006 Festival Slam, and Frome’s own Lucy Howlett. Open mic and prizes. Email me if you need to know more.
And looking back: Ben and his dad, also a Peter, are recreating one of those touching green-aware dialogues that must been frequent among the conscientious in the aftermath of Christmas:
- family member 1 (indignant) "Mum liked the goat!"
- family member 2 (goading) "It never writes."