Sue Burge Retreat Days

Another fabulous weekend of courses here at the Cambridge Writing Retreat! Sue Burge is a wonderfully warm, highly experienced tutor of all kinds of creative writing, and this Friday she taught ‘Memoir Writing: This Is Your Life’. Not a dry autobiographical detail in sight. Instead we focused on a patchwork approach to memory, keeping in mind that there is no such thing as the ‘truth’ in any recall we have. We wrote vignettes, free-writing pieces and a little bit of poetry. We all came away with our creative metronomes a-tickin’. The same with Sue’s ‘Nature Poetry’ course on Saturday. She introduced us to some fabulous nature poetry (not a daffodil or dormouse in evidence) such as Mark Doty’s exquisite, ‘A Green Crab’s Shell’, and ‘The Biography Of a Cloud’, by Billy Collins. She also packed us off round the garden here to take inspiration and write a ‘lunchtime poem’, after Frank O’Hara. Here are two produced on the day by Helen Moss and Katherine Tansley. They are quite wonderful and capture the essence of the farmhouse, garden, people and dogs!

What was so thrilling and rewarding for me was watching people —some self-avowed non-writers or poets— lose their fear and trepidation and write some amazing pieces. By the end of the courses, people who had tiptoed in with ‘imposters’ syndrome’ were volunteering to read out their work! It was testimony to the wonderful Sue and her gentle and inclusive style, as well as the group’s kindness and support, that these people felt confident enough to share. It was magical, and the reason I am running this whole enterprise.

So, here are some pics of both courses. And two ‘lunchtime poems’ (oh, and beautiful Haiku by Helen).

Garden Haiku

Summer lipstick pink,

Rose petals cling on for the ride

As the wind picks up.

Through the green-gold hedge

Sudden October sunlight touches

November’s bonfire.


Avenue Farmhouse, Elsworth, October, 2018.

A Lunch Poem inspired by Frank O’Hara’s “A Step Away From Them”

Crunch, the gravel path protests,

as I step out with a blank page.

Two half-drunk sun-loungers hang out with a hammock.

They’ve had a night on the town, I guess.

All hungover. One has lost its cushions.

Charlotte stops, lost in thought

beneath a skinny white silver birch,

leaning to gossip with her neighbour.

They rustle their leaves extra loud

to be heard over the hooligan wind

and the drone of a car pulling away from The Poacher,

zipping down Smith Street far too fast.

Down past the five-bar gate.

a dishevelled sheep peeps in, catches my eye,

makes a nothing to see here face

and mooches on by.

Annie and Phil, two poets I know,

criss-cross the lawn

with its windfall leaves

and zig-zag of drought-cracks.

This is 2018, remember,

the year of the jam-hot summer.

The hottest since . . .

A girl’s long shadow waves to me from 1976 -

all picnics and half-filled paddling pools,

and Dad’s fifteen minutes of fame,

photographed in The Farmers’ Weekly,

pointing glumly at his dried-up pea crop.

It’s catching up with us now.

It’s four in the afternoon, the sun sliding down,

Bronzing the beech hedge.

The vegetable garden waits meekly.

Runner bean tepees, ruby chard --

(A motorbike roars past)

and Brussels sprout stalks lining up,

like a way-too-early Christmas card.

A.J. pauses under the arch.

She makes a note – about a seedhead, perhaps.

The laughter of unseen women scatters

from behind the weatherproof white walls

of Avenue Farmhouse, home of brownies,

warm shared bread and soup and words.

I stop by the bench for an exchange with Katherine,

in her geometric-patterned summer dress,

about what makes a poem good,

or not.

We don’t have the answer. Instead, we watch Pepper

race a gust of wind - ears streaming back -

for no reason but the joy of it.

And it’s time to head in for tea.

Past the wheelie bins snug in their nest

of clematis-sequestered trellis.

Their sleek blue and green plastic chests

stamped with South Cambs District Council crests.

Even enchanted places have their rubbish.

But nothing goes to waste.


Helen Moss

Avenue Farm

Tea break, quick step out in the sun.

Birds wheel, tyres whir, ‘A’ road passing.

Stone pear, smooth, ripe, black gates standing.

2010 the year, P and G woz ‘ere.

Pink roses bend at the end of the bough

where thorns spike, piercing;

round box-bush an overgrown football. The footfall

of would-be poets. Who’d know it

at the end of the drive: an escape

from the world. Paul with his dog leads; no heed

to the cars on the forecourt: Avenue Farm.

Elsworth phone wires, bird alighting. Resting its wings

as it sings for its mate at the gate in the field. I yield

to the impulse, hum along to the beat of its song.

Wilf passes by, white fluff barking; harken as

I cross the lawn thick strewn with leaves that crunch

at my tread as I head

to the vegetable plot. What a lot

of plants, askance in the earth, no dearth

here of cabbages and beans. Slug chewed,

how rude, unthinking. An arch with roses,

poses a sight, white and purple

with delicate perfume. Michaelmas daisies

filling the spaces

free of veg and a hedge of beech

marks the reach of the garden.

Motorbike rents the air, indecent noise,

spoiling the peace of the zone, my own

quiet space. Greenhouse filled to the brim

with trim tomatoes, I ask you,

too many to eat. And the tools of the trade, the ladder,

the spray keeps insects away.

Shepherd hut’s door’s shut,

where a bed for the night in a peaceful spot

could be your lot with no sheep

to tend. And now it’s the end

of my break, I make for the house

and go back in.


Katherine Tansley

Jessica Evans