A Week in Arvon: Cecilia Knapp

In our second entry from one of our Writing Room participants, Cecilia Knapp talks about her time at Arvon, accessing old memories as part of a week’s writing retreat.

Lumb.015-Eddie-Jacob

Lumb Bank

I’ve just got back from Arvon to a grey, busy and loud London where quite frankly there aren’t enough open fires, communal dinners and writing sessions.

Arvon is a charity that runs residential creative writing courses and retreats. I was lucky enough to go to their Hebden Bridge centre, which is Ted Hughes’ old house. A big stone cottage looking out over a valley, complete with endlessly long dining table for sitting and eating with fellow writers each meal time and a huge barn full of books and sofas where the writing sessions take place. You cook together, write together, share new work for 5 days and its complete and utter bliss. Each morning, you have a long session with tutors, and each morning they surprise you with ever more engaging and exciting exercises. The afternoons are yours to walk, go to the village pub, write or just sit and stare.

Living in London, I so rarely get to feel like I’m actually a writer. I spend so much of my time doing other things, teaching or performing or getting caught up in the chaos, that to spend a week just writing new work was an unfathomable luxury. I turned my phone off the entire time and read and wrote more than I ever have time to at home.

I could go into a long blow by blow account of how wonderful the surroundings were, how many books were at our disposal and how many amazing writers I met and worked with, but instead, I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote when I was there. It was one of many and came from workshops run by my wonderful tutors Hannah Silva and Ross Sutherland. Ross facilitated a free writing session based on memory on about day 3 of the course. He made us write down a random memory and connect this memory with a new memory and continue this for about 20 minutes until we had a wealth of memories written about. It was an incredible way of accessing material to write about. I found, buried in my brain somewhere, a memory about my best friend and I smoking tealeaves aged about 9 or 10. I used this as the basis of my poem and then during the editing process, I used some of Hannah’s techniques for generating interesting vocabulary to enhance descriptions. She showed us a technique called the cut up method, whereby you find words in random books, they can be in other languages, or manuals or magazines and in this way you expand your vocabulary and find surprising ways to describe things in your writing, taken from these random books.

So here it is, ‘Tealeaves’, written in Arvon’s Lumb Bank centre January 2016:

Tea leaves

Miri suggests peppermint. I champion bog standard. I argue

it looks more like tobacco.

As we set about cutting notepaper to look like cigarette skin

our warm, young hands ripping the membrane of the bags and dusting

the tealeaves in, we’re almost

hysterical. We light the ends, cat’s eyes in the dark, exclamation marks

dancing

amongst the green bean triangle skeletons. We

feel the burnt paper enter us. Our eyeballs

smart like our noses have been sliced, the caves at the back

of our throats on fire. Faces weeping smoke she pats

my back with her open palm.

 

Far from that glass eyed town, no longer chicken chested,

we walk arm in arm, her perfect red nails around

her 20 Marlborough’s.

Tartar behind our teeth, Vaseline smiles. I open my mouth to breathe her in,

wrap my hands around her tighter,

they are stinging from opening endless bottles and crushing

limes at work the previous night

The cold re opening the wounds, mottled and purpled and translucent

I hold my palms up to show her these moons.

We compare scars, wine mouthed and scrunched up

Against the wind, walking home,

where we hide our bank statements in our freezers,

to kill the monsters within them.

Want experiences like Cecilia’s? Find out more about what resources we have for developing and emerging artists, including our projects, participatory programmes and artist development events. Watch this space for more on The Writing Room dates, coming soon…