Cathedral Poet-in-Residence: A Sociable October

Although writing is a solitary activity, it can also be very much a shared and social one. It’s an aspect of writing I’ve been very much aware of during October in my tenure as Chester Cathedral’s Poet-in-Residence.

‘A contained vastness,’ a sense of being in the present moment but standing under ‘the weight of time’ are two comments made by workshop participants in Write for Growth’s ‘From Stone to Story’ at Chester Cathedral on the first Saturday of the month.

As we start, I ask people to introduce themselves and say what has brought them here. A common desire to write in these surroundings quickly emerges. ‘I just love this building,’ says someone. 

‘Are there women bishops?’ asks another. Yes, I tell her. ‘So one day,’ she says, gazing up at the sober episcopal portraits looking down on proceedings, ‘there will be women on these walls, too.’

Nine of us are here in the Library, a part of the Cathedral that several never knew was there. In fact, I was not really aware of it before my Residency. It has a slightly musty smell of scholarship, with books lining shelves that extend out from and reach up high walls. I’ve wound up the blinds on the tall windows to augment the valiant but inadequate lighting. Glass cases contain documents, writings, pictures and memorabilia that form the Charles Kingsley Collection. In the middle of it all, a large modern round table is set like a lifebelt that we all gather round.

Getting into the Library has been the day’s first triumph. It is scrupulously locked with three separate keys for the outer door (another for inside), which seem recalcitrant on the best of days. 

Fortunately the Verger on duty is a practised hand at coaxing open the door into this Aladdin’s Cave.

We warm up with some free-writing about being here. Some find attention drawn to their inner state of mind; others are more conscious of the noise and music of the colourful Vegan Food Fair outside the nearby Town Hall. 

We use the story of the Three Stonemasons to write different perspectives on our own stories and those of the stones in the building around us. We explore the Cathedral, looking for words and images of those who are remembered there, using our creative imagination (and in some cases, a little Google research) to bring these characters to life. Finally, we source words and phrases from around the Cathedral to create our own poems, individually and as a group.

A workshop is not a place where we generally leave with polished pieces of writing, but as the morning ends, there is much enthusiasm for coming to write here again. You can find details of upcoming Write for Growth workshops at Chester Cathedral here .

The Library has also been the setting for reading together, as my monthly Faith In Poetry Discussion Group gets up and running. There is a particular enjoyment in reading poetry with others, and not only in hearing the same poem read in another’s voice. 

A poem meets many readers on its travels, and each is a unique person-to-person encounter. As we read with the active engagement a poem requires, we bring our own history, expectation and understanding. This gives each reading a unique nuance.  Similarly, despite common ground, there are variations how one person is experienced by those they meet. Different encounters bring out different facets. A good poem has the same breadth of hospitality. And we may find we can appreciate a person from a new angle when we see them through someone else’s eyes.

So far we’ve sampled a range of poets from George Herbert to Mary Oliver and R. S. Thomas; from John Donne’s passionate demands for God to break powerfully into his life to Dennis O’Driscoll’s wistful observations of ‘Missing God.’

We’ve also explored what makes poetry a distinctive genre, with a diverse range of responses to the issue of poetic form, and some lively conversation on the place of rhyme! 

Finally, in this more interactive month, I’ve been contributing poems to the Cathedral’s corporate worship life, based on the readings set for each occasion. As I’ve noted on my Poet-in-Residence page, my first event was Sunday Compline, on a rather challenging passage, which you can read about here .

Next, came Eucharist on October 5th, National Poetry Day. This year’s theme was Truth. I smuggled the word into a poem based on Jesus’ sending out of the Seventy in Luke’s Gospel, though we were a few short of seventy in this quiet, lunch-time service. Finally, I joined the Benedictine Group in St. Anselm’s Chapel, and enjoyed taking part in the community discussion as well as offering a poem in their worship. The group is a small, but committed gathering, which works well. Poetry loves company but never worries about numbers. 

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  • About Julia


    From writing stories for my younger brother, to penning poems for the School Magazine and filling a growing pile of personal journals, the written word has always been part of my life’s journey.

    I started out as an English Teacher and subsequently retrained as a Counsellor. I have counselled in a GP Surgery and worked with various Employee Assistance Schemes and Charitable Trusts alongside seeing private clients.

    Although I have done some freelance journalism and written four non-fiction books, creative writing has become my main focus in recent years.

    My poems have appeared online on sites including Amaryllis, Silver Birch Press, Clear Poetry, Spilling Cocoa Over Martin Amis, Riggwelter and Ink,Sweat and Tears. I have been published in Curlew and Bucks Mill Magazine, and anthologised in Our Hearts Still Sing. My first poetry collection, Chester City Walls, came out in 2015.

    Read more about Julia
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