Category Archives: Bardic

Colouring for poetry

One of the things about illustration work, is that the spark of inspiration tends to come from somewhere else. When I’ve got my colouring hat on, I’m several stages down the chain of inspiration. Writing inspires a black and white drawing, which Tom then passes to me, and I do my best to make colour-sense of. What I do is very much led by what’s already been done. On the plus side, this means I can often work on colouring when I’m feeling short of personal inspiration.

 

This is one of our more recent pieces – a cover for a poetry collection by Adam Horovitz.

Working on the convolvulus had me thinking that I could perhaps go back to drawing plants in detail – something I’ve not done since my late teens.


Finding a direction

It’s been clear to me over the last few weeks that one of the underlying problems for me with my creativity, has been a lack of direction. I needed a sense of what the work would be *for*. I’ve long since established that money does not motivate me to write, and most of us in this industry will never make much money anyway. I came to writing as a child, wanting to say something that would make a difference, but that’s far too vague.

It’s been like finding the pieces of a puzzle, and those of you who read posts every day may have noticed the trajectory that’s been developing. I didn’t know there was a trajectory even until a couple of days ago, but sometimes you have to keep doing a thing before it becomes properly conscious and visible.

I’ve made several bardic dedications in the past, and they’ve tended to be about using my skills for the good of the tribe, and the good of the land. I’m returning to this concept with some very specific ideas about what it means in the current climate.

Many of us are alienated from our own bodies. Most of us live in ways that are deeply at odds with what our animal bodies need. We don’t experience those alienated bodies as being in the land, in the seasons, in the soil as a culture. Certainly there are individuals who do, but most people are alienated from their natural mammal selves. Provoked into thinking about this by Becoming Animal by David Abram, I think he’s right and that our treatment of the Earth is only possible because of our deep alienation.

I’ve experienced that alienation – trauma caused a retreat into my head, a dislocation from my feeling self. Stress and anxiety kept me there. I’ve spent years finding my way back towards my own body, and finding my body in the physical realm it inhabits. I can speak to the being lost, and to the process of returning. Dedicating to reconnecting person and planet serves my own journey and healing, but it also means I should have enough insight to be helpful to others.

Having just read a book that has greatly impacted on my life, I am reminded that writing is powerful, and can change things for people. I can’t fix everything, but I can work in a way that supports the idea of all the changes I want to see being possible. It’s a place to stand, and as I’ve managed to write a poem and a song in the last week, I think it’s a place I can work from.


Sharing your fire

  • In the current environment, being passionate feels risky. Many of us are keeping our heads down. It’s harder to be a passionate creative if you feel you’re surrounded by wary and measured people, or worse yet, cynical cold people.

When someone else shares their fire, the cold in my heart eases a bit. It doesn’t seem to matter what form it takes – overt creativity, the passion of activism, reading poetry, laughter that comes from the belly, affection that comes from the heart. I’ve never been the sort of person who could get by without other people. If I’m not in contact with other people’s inspiration, I wither away.

I can tackle this by picking good books to read, listening to great music, seeking out inspired films. I can book tickets for gigs and other live shows. I can actively seek other inspired people to help me keep my own small flame going. When I’m depressed, it’s harder to make the effort to do that, simply. I’m guessing it’s not just me, and that when we dare to share our passion, intensity and inspiration, we may all be able to lift each other a bit.

During the dark depths of last week, I had a flash of insight about how important it is to me to be in contact with other people’s inspiration, and the first small, creative piece of writing I’ve done in ages came into being as a consequence…

Show me your fire.

Show me the starstruck, moon crazed

Heart surging tsunami rush,

Deranged, intoxicated, transfixed.

Show me the wild honey

On your lips.

Show me the swan flight

In your dance, show me

Enchantments, woven with fingertips

And more than this,

Show me the consuming blaze of it

In your eyes, as though

A spark could leap the gap,

One igniting the other.

And awen bolt striking as lightning,

None to say which the source

And which the destination.


Naming the creative challenges

It’s not easy to be creative at the moment. I thought it was just me, but having put a hand up to admit this, I’ve found a lot of other creative people are struggling to be creative. Why is it hard now? Well, there are reasons that impact on many of us, and I think we need to talk about what’s going on because much of this has implications outside of the creative industries, too.

  • It’s harder to create if not creating feels like personal failure. If a sense of guilt, inadequacy, loss of inspiration is haunting you, and that feels like it is your fault, that can just add to the blockage.
  • The world is terrifying right now. There are so many big issues, so much that needs changing, that any small creative act seems too little in the face of it all. We may feel guilty about not undertaking other forms of activism, we may feel our art *should* be able to do more and be frustrated that it can’t. The climate is not a good one in which to be a sensitive and creative person.
  • Following on from that, this is not a climate in which you can afford to spend too much time imagining things. It is harder than it has ever been to image anything good, and if you accidentally start imagining how any of the not-good stuff is going to play out, you’ll hurt. Many of us are not imagining too much, as a protective measure. You can’t spend most of your time not imagining and then expect the imagining to turn up for specific jobs.
  • Angry, hate-laden, nihilistic attitudes are everywhere. Put something good out there and the risk of being torn to shreds is higher than ever. Especially for those of us who aren’t creating material with that tone, graphically violent and violently sexualised material. It can feel there’s no point making anything kind, tender, beautiful, when the world seems to be craving the exact opposite of these things. Of course not everyone wants the ick, but the icky demographic shouts loudly and a lot and drowns out quieter voices sometimes.
  • In the current environment, being passionate feels risky. Many of us are keeping our heads down. It’s harder to be a passionate creative if you feel you’re surrounded by wary and measured people, or worse yet, cynical cold people.
  • The creative industries are a mess, and it is ever harder to make a decent living doing it. This is a real barrier for many. Some of us do okay being creative part time. The industry causes despair, disillusionment, financial misery, stress and challenge. Creative people have to be able to afford to eat, the majority of us are finding it hard to do what we love and pay bills.
  • Wider society offers massive instability – housing costs, health care, the price of food – it’s not like throwing it all in to get a ‘sensible’ job until things settle down is even an option. Are there any sensible jobs left that can genuinely be relied on? There are people who find instability and uncertainty are fuel for their fire, but you may not be one of those people and the massive scale of insecurity may be impacting on your concentration.

 

That’s probably not an exhaustive list, but it is a place to start. I’ll be following on from here in the coming days by talking about what we can do to change things – not as individuals but in small groups. Because if you’re feeling beaten, trying to pull yourself up is bloody difficult, and there are other ways.


Creativity and risk

There can be no real creativity without taking risks. Of course, there are a lot of good things a person can do who doesn’t want to take risks as well. Study, practice, developing skills, learning about relevant things – this doesn’t have to feel risky not least because we never have to share it.

There is a school of thought that says we should create purely for ourselves, driven by our own passion and inspiration and to hell with what anyone else thinks. Many creators we now think of as great were not valued in their own lifetimes. There’s another school of thought that says a piece is not complete until it has an audience and that the audience is co-creator of the finished work. Without someone to interact with a piece, an important part is missing. This is more how I feel about things.

When we set out to create, the idea of impacting on another human tends to be part of the mix. We want to move them, and we’ll probably know how we want them to feel. Write a horror novel and you want to scare your reader, and maybe gross them out and give them nightmares. Write erotica and you want to give them some hot flushes, and so on and so forth. Most of us, at heart, want to be liked, and want what we make to be liked, because that’s validating. And on a practical note, people who like what you do are more likely to pay for it, and this leads to being able to eat. Living only for your muse is fine if someone else is paying the bills, but most of us don’t have that option.

No matter how good you are, there will always be someone who doesn’t like it. That’s inevitable. Many people deal with the pain of bad reviews and negative feedback by having some people they trust, who like them. It’s a lovely thing to create for people who get what you do and are going to enjoy it. Of course, finding those people can be a messy trial and error process. How much risk can you take on that journey? How much negative feedback can you bear? Is there a point when a person should admit defeat and quit? Or should we never give up? I don’t know.

I come back to this blog, always. I’ve been through more cycles of despair than I care to count – it’s really tough in the creative industries at the moment without any personal angst on top of that. I have plenty of personal angst, too. I’ve wobbled repeatedly, and every time I’ve wobbled, people have come back and asked me to keep this blog going. It’s not my most creative work, it’s not a means to anything else, but it’s wanted, and I would rather put something wanted into the world than not. There are still days when blogging feels like a risk – too much exposure, too much vulnerability – but it’s useful, and that keeps me going.

So, thank you to those of you who keep coming back, keep commenting, keep saying that you find this useful. When I can’t write anything else, I push myself to write this, and there are times when it’s the only even slightly creative thing I do. I believe firmly that every human should have the right and the space to create, but that’s difficult unless we hold those spaces for each other. Thank you for turning this space into something meaningful for me.


Where is my inspiration?

To be creative, to be innovative, a person needs inspiration. We call it the fire in the head, with reference to Yeats. For much of my adult life, it’s been a given – a head full of ideas and a heart full of a passion for creating. What happens if it isn’t there, or if it goes away?

When finding the words for a blog post, or a simple email takes considerable effort.

Last summer, I decided to change tack and try to sort out more of my general body and mental health issues rather than worrying about where my inspiration had gone. My theory was that fixing those things might well solve the awen issue anyway. I can’t say it has. I take more time off, rest more, I’ve tried to increase the amount of stuff I’m exposed to that could inspire me, but the fire in my head is just old, cold ashes.

A few observations on life for this blog is the best, and often the only writing I do in a day. I’m not often motivated to get out an instrument, or to learn new music. I’ve written a couple of poems in the last six months. Nothing comes. Nothing sparks. Nothing flows.

I know if I was talking to anyone else about this, I would tell them that inspiration is something we’re all entitled to, and so is creativity. I’d tell them that their creativity mattered, and was wanted and needed.

Part of the trouble is that I know that fiction and poetry are the least helpful things I can do with my time. There are so many creative people struggling right now, because the creative industries are an exploitative mess. The world has more writers than it needs, by factors of a lot. It needs more reviewers and book bloggers and readers and people who support the idea of creative culture. Doing that has become my day job, and I do it well.

Being a creative person can make you the centre of attention, make you feel important, and valued. That’s attractive, and it’s part of why so many people want to write books and so forth. Giving up on the idea that my vision (now absent) my creativity (now lacking) is important is part of the process I’m in. I think what I can make as a creative person is less useful, less needed than what I can do by spending my time and energy on blogs and social media supporting other writers and creative people.

How do I justify giving time over to writing, when I could be helping other people? And that’s without opening the can of worms that is activism and the need to change and fix so many things in the world. Fiction is the least useful thing I can do right now. I think it’s this awareness, beyond all else, that has cost me my creative inspiration. Nothing has come into my head that seemed big enough, powerful enough, intense enough, passionate enough to be more important than any of the other things I could do with my time.

Maybe, if I push the other way, I can make it more feasible for other creative people to create. I do believe that has worth, and the more I can do there, the more worth it will have.

Last autumn I thought long and hard about rededicating to the bard path, but am increasingly thinking that what I need to do is dedicate myself to other people’s bardistry instead.


Bardic initiation

Many Druid gatherings offer bardic initiations, although what’s meant by this can vary. My first initiation was at Stonehenge, in the dew of a midsummer morning, and I repeated back the words and wasn’t sure about them at all, but such is life. As a bard of the Lost Forest I both initiated bards, and re-dedicated myself.

It’s natural to want rites of passage to mark important points in the journey, but it’s also important to ask, and keep asking what initiation does, what it’s for, what it means.

Some people may experience a bardic initiation as opening them up to the Awen. For some, it’s an affirmation – community recognition of what they’re doing. For some, it will be a doorway opening onto a new path, and for some there is very little effect.

It’s good to make dedications, and to have them witnessed, and rituals can provide the ideal opportunity for this. I think the essence of dedicating to the bard path is dedicating to creativity, to honouring and working with the flows of inspiration and using that inspiration for the good of the land, and tribe – however you identify those. It is creativity as a spiritual journey, but to be a bard is to be public facing as well. Dedicating to this is powerful, if it’s meant and as is always the way of it, the more you invest in it, the more powerful it will be.

I feel quite strongly that true bardic initiation doesn’t happen as a thing that is done to you, or given to you in a ritual. It happens when you perform, and it happens repeatedly. The first time you step up as a bard, is a rite of passage. The first time you take any new way of performing into a public space. The first time you face a microphone, or you cock up in public – these are all rites of initiation. Either you go through them and grow, or you falter. Every time something magical happens while you’re creating or performing, there is also an aspect of being initiated into a new level.

No one can do this to you, or for you. It’s between you and the Awen, and the odds are each round will be a private process.


Bardic: Performance and the Awen

The awen (a Welsh word) is invoked by Druids in ritual, usually by chanting it. This is one of the traditions we owe to revivalists, not to ancient history. However, the experience of flowing inspiration is something that can and does happen – during periods of creativity, but also sometimes when performing.

For me, it’s a sensation of being completely taken over by what I’m doing and being able to do it in a totally different way – with more drama, intensity and depth than usual. On rare occasions, it’s had some very odd effects indeed. I recall a ritual when three of us spontaneously improvised music together, and another ritual where I re-wrote one of my own songs as I went to better fit the situation. I had no real memory afterwards of what I’d sung.

Awen is something that turns up when it does – it cannot be summoned by force or will. You have to be open to it, welcoming of it, ready for it, and also perfectly able to keep going if that other level of magic doesn’t happen. Sometimes it comes as a trickle, adding a sparkle to what you were doing. Sometimes it’s a tidal wave that will wash you away.

When it comes, it is best to let that flow direct things rather than trying to control it. If you want the kind of magic controlled by will and personal intent, this is not something to try and court. If you are willing to be a flute the awen can play its own tunes through, it may do just that.


Thirteen treasures – a poem

I dreamed there were thirteen treasures in Britain,

Not the wealth of feudal kings, nor yet their power,

No weapons of war, no tools for control.

 

I saw the generous loom

Taking but a small handful of threads

To warm and clothe a humble back.

 

The log that burns and yet remains.

Come near it and find warmth

Though the winter be long and harsh.

 

A seed that is a garden, plant it now,

Harvest its bounty in the days ahead.

Cause the barren soil to flourish.

 

The wooden cup, hand-turned cherry

Fill it as you please for any draught

Brings ease for every sorrow.

 

Honey sweet candle, never smoking,

Burns but sets naught else aflame.

Lights the dark night of the soul.

 

The golden sheep shares wool to warm

You all, gives milk and comfort

Inspires kindness in all who meet her.

 

An amulet of Goddess power,

Protector of child bed and labour,

Safety to the wearer and her babe.

 

A touch of the toadstone eases all

Relieves the aches and pains of life,

Keeps none from death’s final blessing.

 

The ever full cauldron of porridge

Creamy thick and filling bellies,

No hunger unsated, no body refused.

 

The heroic axe, tree felling in one blow,

Drawing shape from wood at need,

Never will it bite flesh or taste blood.

 

The singing kettle, making golden tea

From water alone. Soul feeding,

Hope brewing, reviving the weary.

 

The wooden spoon, kitchen enchanting,

Stirring friendships, celebrations,

The feast that makes community.

 

Thirteen treasures. I would find them in kitchens,

At hearths, the magical hiding in plain sight

Wondrous only when we share this bounty with each other.


Bardic skills: Tricks for remembering

Longer pieces are inevitably harder to learn than short ones. On the whole, where there is a story I don’t find learning longer ballads especially difficult. What’s really tricky, is learning something that has no narrative logic. I’m going to talk about one specific song for this post but there is plenty of material out there with similar issues.

So, here’s Lay the Bent to the Bonny Broom – listening is not essential, but it’s an excellent song! This is Brian Peters, and it’s his arrangement.

 

The difficulty with this song is that you have a set of nine riddles followed by nine answers, and really the answers need to come in the same order as the riddles, and remembering all nine is easier if you get them in the same order each time. There’s no narrative order to the riddles, but there is a slight escalation, and the one on its own at the end is the one at the end – this kind of thinking is an aid to remembering.

However, the method that helps me most is to get the rest of my body involved. I run the riddles through my fingers, using the same finger for each riddle every time I sing it, and the same finger for the answer as I did for the question. It’s a small physical prompt, and it definitely helps. I’ve used the same technique on other songs where order matters but at the same time there’s nothing much to help hold that order together.

Remembering is not just a brain activity. We have muscle memory – essential for learning tunes and dances. We can remember all kinds of shapes and patterns. If a piece is difficult to learn, looking for other ways to remember it can really help. Using physical gestures, patterns of movement, or just this simple trick of counting on fingers can get other kinds of memory involved to make the process easier.