POETRY / The local Muse service: 'You have to write, and you have to meet.' Rosie Millard reports on the compulsion of the Waverley Writers

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The Independent Culture
'Poetry has become part of my existence,' says Sheila Singleton. 'I even take my notebook when I'm at the doctors. I jot down pieces of poetry all the time. My children just think it's one of Mum's foibles.' Foible maybe, but for Sheila, a member of the Waverley Writers, composing poetry has become as natural and as fluent as speaking on the telephone. 'You just start off with a tune in your head, and you've got it,' she says.

A group of 10 women who all live around Godalming in Surrey, the Waverley Writers meet one morning a week in a member's sitting-room for the purposes of writing and reading out their own poetry. On first impressions, the gathering of chunky necklaces and cosy cardigans looks more like a well-heeled Surrey church meeting than an impassioned debate about blank verse; yet the Waverley Writers have been discussing that, as well as sprung rhythm, iambic pentameters and internal rhyme, for over seven years and in this time, the creation of verse has become central to their lives. For each two-hour session, no phone calls, family commitments or other interruptions are allowed to interrupt; with their strict term times, coffee breaks and homework, the Waverley Writers take their craft seriously.

'Any notices?' asks Ronnie Clothier, the group's founder. 'Any competitions or poetry events we need to know about? Any publications?' It's a serious question; the group has had a fair amount accepted by the National Poetry Foundation.

According to Ronnie, the key to writing poetry is simply to put one word on a blank piece of paper. ' 'The' is often a good start,' she says helpfully. Ronnie, like Sheila, is something of a poetry fanatic; but only since her involvement in the group, which began by complete accident. Having enrolled for a course of bridge classes at Guildford Adult Education Centre one year, she became hopelessly lost in the search for the classroom.

'I found myself in the Creative Writing room, so I just sat down and joined the class. After getting us to write things about our own experiences, the tutor put a piece of paper in front of us and asked us to write a poem about a cat. The next week, I thought damn it, I've managed to write this thing, so I had to go back.' From never having read, let alone written, any poetry before, she took it up with energy; and found the group began to gel. At the end of the year, their tutor suggested they carry on in an independent group, and the Waverley Writers were born. The group is all-female, though not by choice. 'We did have two men,' says Ronnie, 'but unfortunately they both died.'

Each member writes a poem during the week to be read out at the meeting; in addition to this 'homework', 15 minutes in each session are devoted to spontaneous composition from a given title. This task, which many people would regard with horror, is viewed by the Writers, seven years into the exercise, as something of a doddle. 'Pens out,' announces Ronnie. 'Your subject for today's poem is either 'There Will Be No Christmas This Year', or 'Busy Bees'.' According to Ronnie, most in the group find it no problem to knock off 40 lines of poetry (the given maximum), in such a short space of time.

The group reaches for their battery of Jumbo Jotters and Pentels. Suddenly, they are all writing as if their lives depended on it. A woman looks ceiling- wards for inspiration; on her sheet is evidence of an attempt at the 'Busy Bee' option, but she has only managed four lines so far. Everyone else is scratching away with remarkable ease. 'Have we really got eight minutes left?' asks one woman. 'In that case I think I'll knock off another.' The Busy Bee woman abandons her hive and starts off on the Christmas topic, but even then, the going is hard. 'I'm getting carried away here,' says her neighbour. 'Lucky you', she responds grimly.

'Time up]' says Ronnie. 'Una, you're first.' Una, who has also gone for the Busy Bee option, ends her poem with the couplet 'The busy bees teem / Gathering nectar for their Queen'. Silence falls over the group. 'They teem?' queries Ronnie. 'Yes,' falters Una. 'They're Busy. They . . . well, they're teeming.' The Waverley Writers sit and consider teeming bees before moving on to the next member. For a 15-minute dash, the results, albeit with varying degrees of artistic success, are remarkably different, ranging from a haiku to a piece complaining about how insulting the terminology of 'Busy Bees' is to the average housewife. Sheila Singleton calls her composition 'absolute doggerel'; still, its 20 lines rattle along without ludicrously forced rhyme, or meaningless phrases.

'It's very enriching to be able to compose poetry,' says Ronnie. 'You know there will be no time when you will ever, ever get bored.' Other advantages of regular composition include a vastly improved vocabulary. 'Words you may not have used for a number of years, come back to you. I was writing to a friend the other day, and I used the word vicissitude.' She paused. 'Now, that's not a word in common parlance, is it?'

The Waverley Writers, although nominally open to all, do accept that not everyone can get the hang of writing poetry as quickly as they do. 'We have had people in the group who simply could not write at all,' Ronnie says. 'They left of their own volition. They realised they were a bit out of their depth.'

Group critiques are very much part of the weekly session; Elizabeth Hamilton-Jones, whose collection Apart from Sermons was published by the National Poetry Foundation last year, says the criticism offered by fellow members is invaluable. 'It's very humbling, hearing other people's views, but very good for one.' She feels very passionate about her poetry: 'Why does one write; why is one sick? For the same reason; it just has to come out. I began writing after she death of my husband; it has made all the difference to me. If you write things down, they can't run away and come back to hit you in the back.'

This week's meeting is the last before the group takes its Christmas holiday; but the members are still expected to take home some work for the break. 'The homework for the holidays,' announces Ronnie, 'is a poem around the title 'History Enacts the Counterpoint of Human Life'.'

The Waverley Writers groan. 'What on earth does that mean?' Una says. 'Haven't you got an alternative?' Pauline asks. Ronnie looks rather put out. 'You asked me for a title and this is my title. I think it's obvious, but if you can't do anything with it then I suggest you take one word out of it, like 'Counterpoint', and write something about that.'

The break is viewed with a certain apprehension by the members. 'It's become a way of life,' says Barbara Jasinski. 'We used to really suffer when we broke for holidays; I suppose we're used to it now. But it is hard. You have to write and you have to meet. These meetings get us going. They stop you from flagging; they set you off.'

As I leave, Ronnie is poised to embark on her poem about Horror while the group discusses the past participle of the word 'forebode'. 'The thing to remember,' whispers Barbara, 'is that you can say an awful lot in a very few lines. And that we've all got it in us.'

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