Stephanie Green: Douglas Dunn Workshop at Balmungo House

Saturday 9 March 2013

Poet Stephanie Green writes about her experiences of the first of StAnza's 2013 workshops at a sunny (!) Balmungo House with Jean Johnstone and Douglas Dunn.  

Just before StAnza proper began I was thrilled to attend two all-day workshops, not just one as last year, at the beautiful Georgian Balmungo House surrounded by the vibrant abstract paintings of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. For more about the artist, one of the St Ives set, and background history of the house, have a look at my StAnza Blog last year.

Jean Johnstone and Douglas Dunn (Credit: Stephanie Green)

Workshop One was rich and varied, with artist Jean Johnstone and Douglas Dunn, poet and former Head of English at St Andrew's university on the relationship between art and poetry, and starting with a slide-show of Barns-Graham's work and talk by Dr Helen Scott, the curator.

Jean showed us her own fragile artist's books made from hand-made paper, such as the dark, textured 'mountain-paper'- made in Bhutan and Nepal, which must be shaken so that the pen does not snag on dust and seeds. As precious objects they are enfolded in beautiful silks (which reminded me of seeing sacred masks in Bali revered this way) and Jean's unwrapping of silks, then ribbons and finally unfolding the pages was indeed like a ritual which she insisted should be done slowly. She has responded to many poets including Michael Longley, John Burnside and Kathleen Jamie. Writing the verses in her own hand, rather than calligraphically, she always chooses one image, and prefers something skeletal, like a leaf after the winter etched in burnt umber.

Mountain-Paper Books (Credit: Stephanie Green)

We were allowed to handle the books, to sniff the faint bees' wax from the coating on their covers and encouraged to finger the edges of the pages. This was a wonderful meditative experience to set us up for writing our own poems, or as Douglas Dunn said, notes for poems—so liberating not to be expected to produce a finished poem.

Encouraged to wander freely round the house, we chose a painting to respond to in our writing. There were so many stunning, vivid works, some vast, that it was difficult to choose and inspiring to say the least. 'Response' rather than description was the operative word as Douglas, in his charming way, full of poetic snippets and light-hearted asides, which led to the heart of the matter, suggested approaches to our work.

And there were always the swathes of snowdrops under the trees we could write about Douglas Dunn suggested, if we preferred, though his expression hinted he was teasing. "So difficult not to be twee", he added with a twinkle.

The day ended with a reading by Douglas of two of his poems from 'A Line in Water' his collaboration with artist Norman Akroyd. A perfect day and a perfect ending. (Sorry for being twee, Douglas.)