Following her residency as part of Writing Places 2018, we asked J.R Carpenter to tell us about her time at Greenway.
I was born in rural Nova Scotia, in Canada. I went to school in a town called Windsor, which was across a river called Avon from a village called Falmouth. Nova Scotia also boasts a Berwick, a Chester, a Yarmouth, a Liverpool, and of course a Dartmouth. I had no idea, as a child, that these place names were borrowed from elsewhere. It never occurred to me to wonder why Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, was not at the mouth of a river called Dart. We keep our Dartmouth across a harbour from a city called Halifax, which is near a town called Bedford.
For nineteen years I lived on the French-speaking island of Montreal, where all the streets are named after saints. In 2009 I moved to the island of England, which, as Elizabeth Bishop writes in her late great poem ‘Crusoe in England,’ “doesn’t seem like one, but who decides?”
You can imagine my confusion upon arriving in South Devon. The green hills falling into tidal rivers and ships harbouring dreams of the salt sea seemed vaguely familiar. Long-forgotten place names returned to my vocabulary like the ghosts of old friends. Only, every place new to me was clearly much older than the old places I’d once known. And on the maps, all the names were rearranged.
Questions of place and displacement have long pervaded my writing. Maps have often figured prominently in my web-based work, operating, often simultaneously, as place-holders, repositories for longing for belonging, for home. I was a writer in residence in the Performance Writing area at Dartington College of Arts during the last year of the college’s existence. During this residency I taught a module on narrative mapping, working with first-year undergraduate students. We used Google Maps to collaboratively author a digital narrative about the River Dart. From 2009-2016 I lived in the South Wing of Sharpham House. During this time I did a lot of thinking, walking, rowing, and writing in and around the Sharpham estate, the River Dart and environs. I maintained a Twitter account [@TheRiverDart] to which I posted daily observations about nature, weather, human, and nonhuman happenings on the estate and along the length of the river. The writing I did in this period, combined with archival research undertaken as an Associate of the Informatics Lab at the Met Office in Exeter, culminated in a digital writing project called [This is a Picture of Wind: A Weather Poem for Phones]. This work combines live weather data with closely observed nature writing specific to the River Dart.
I offer this long preamble to what is meant to be an account of my residency at Greenway to emphasise the degree to which, for me, this house and its history are inextricably linked to its setting. Greenway is situated high on a hill overlooking the River Dart near Dartmouth in Devon. The River Dart is a ria, a coastal inlet formed by the partial submergence of an unglaciated river valley. Although, or perhaps because I was a newcomer to this region, the combination of experiences of living and working in close proximity to the River Dart at Dartington and Sharpham prompted me to think deeply about the stately home as a place which is both public and private, situated in a landscape which is both natural and highly orchestrated.
On the morning of my interview for the post of Writer in Residence at Greenway, one of the many kind volunteers I encountered told me a story about how Agatha Christie came to buy Greenway. Christie, who was born in nearby Torquay, had been looking for a holiday home in the region. When the house came on the market in 1938, she knew where it was at once. She had never been inside. She had never set foot on the grounds. But she had passed the house many times from the river. Greenway is a house entirely oriented to the River Dart and to the sea beyond. This is was to be the focus for my residency.
During my residency I began work on a piece of writing which I’d been thinking about for quite some time. I wanted to intertwine the voices emerging from the current role of the house and grounds as a popular tourist attraction with voices from the multiple histories of the site. These histories include the house’s most recent and best known function as a holiday home for Agatha Christie. But Greenway was of course also the site of the ancestral home of Sir Humphrey Gilbert who famously sailed to Newfoundland in 1583 to claim the territory for Queen Elizabeth and thus founded the British Empire. Perhaps slightly less well known is the close association between this portion of the river and John Davis, a contemporary of Gilbert’s, who sailed four times for the discovery of the Northwest passage in this same period. There is a delicious resonance between this history of exploration and Christie’s extensive experience of travel, the constant stream of visitors from far and wide who pass through the house each year, and the constant stream of traffic on the river, for commerce and for pleasure. What is it about this particular site that has attracted so much coming and going? What would a fluid multi-layered multi-voiced history of this site sound like? What kind of writing can capture these eddies and currents, this ebb and flow?
One of the ways I went about trying to answer these questions was to play tourist myself. Each time I visited the house over the course of my residency I approached by a different route. I was especially attracted to the water approaches as they allowed me to observe the geology the of river valley first-hand. One day I took a ferry up from Dartmouth. Another, from Dittisham. On National Poetry Day, 4 October 2018, I Tweeted fragments of writing about the River Dart near Greenway. The thread grew throughout the day to form a poem. [Here is what the poem looked like on Twitter].
Here is the poem in its entirety:
a river runs
green in the shadow
of a steep wooded bank
deep roots tangle in dense strata
the rucked sheets of the Dartmouth beds
the ancient stone of the Lower Devonian
a dark strip between water and leaf
slate slants askance at the falling tide
mist eats green leaves alive
cloud shadows the far shore
counterfeits the coast
the river rolls out its yardage
bolts of shot silk shiver silver
rain like we haven’t seen for some time
stains the parched fields green
pummelled plums fall
purple eggs from the sky
I’m particularly interested working through ideas by engaging with the site and with the public, through talks, workshops, walks, and informal discussions. Far from seeing these activities as separate from or outside of my writing practice, I consider these kinds of activities to be central to the way I work. At the beginning of my residency hosted a zine-making table at a fete at Greenway, teaching young and old alike to make zines (small folded booklets). I went on to create a zine version of the poem I’d written on Twitter for National Poetry Day. These were handed out at subsequent events. I had planned to host a reading circle where participants shared favourite writing about the weather. Ironically, this event had to be cancelled due to high winds.
One of the writing experiences I devised within this residency was designed to engage young visitors to Greenway with the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of autumn. Individual lines of a poem were written on pieces of slate and placed in harvest baskets in and around the gardens and woodland trails that surround the house. When all the lines were collected they formed this poem:
a rumour of autumn in the herb garden
a hubbub in the rhubarb
a plot to overthrow the allotment
an ancient fig drops its lobed leaves
fishes in the river flit past fast
peaches in the glasshouse grow gnarled stones
winds down apples in dappled shades of green
dogs dream: a crop of tennis balls falls from the sky
Towards the end of my residency I taught a Creative Writing Workshop at in the cosy kitchen at Greenway. One of the most daunting challenges that all writers face is getting started. Where to begin? In this workshop we began with a single object in the house and worked our way outward from there, but even this didn’t narrow things down much. Greenway is a house full of collections – of pocket watches, pill boxes, walking sticks, ceramics, sea shells, fossils, novels, reference books, art works, and writing implements. Of all of the thousands of items held in the collection of collections at Greenway, we began somewhat arbitrarily with a clock by the side of Christie’s bed.
We began as if we were detectives arriving at a crime scene. We knew nothing about this clock. We didn’t want to jump to conclusions because that would jeopardise our case. We started by asking questions about the clock: Where did it come from? What is it made of? Does it work? What time does it say? Asking questions got us thinking about what we haven’t thought of yet. We would come up with lots of questions leading in lots of different directions. We started to follow some leads. We learned from the National Trust website that this isn’t a clock at all, but rather, a pocket watch in a silver and leather case. Pocket watches were generally carried by men. This immediately raises more questions. Whose watch was this? Is this a commemorative frame? What is it commemorating? How can we frame time?
All writing is a form of time travel. Over the course of the afternoon we just travelled into multiple possible pasts. We wrote about a pocket watch which has travelled to this room in this house from another time and place. It was made by Weir & Sons, Dublin. Their motto is: marking life’s moments since 1869. This motto prompts yet more questions: How do we mark time? How does time mark us? How do we move through time? How does time move us? What does it mean to carry time with us?
Most of the participants admitted they were surprised to discover that they were able to develop a fair amount of material in a short amount of time. Myself included! Here’s the poem I wrote during this workshop:
Time exceeds language.
Face and hands are words
borrowed from the body.
Watch, a word for vigilance.
Pocket, a soft absence.
Time, a frame.
In the present tense
we wind up here
using the same word as wind,
a general disturbance of air.
In the past, tense.
A ticking time.
Does not heal all.
We use the word to wound.
My residency drew to a close at the end of November 2018 with a final exhibition. Poems that I’d written over the course of the residency were framed and placed in corresponding locations around the house. The pocket watch poem, for example, was placed beside the watch in question, by the side of Christie’s bed.
After that, all that was left was to write this blog post. But for various reasons I just wasn’t able to. Now, a year later, perhaps I know why. Most of the weird work we call writing happens when we’re not looking. We think we’re too busy. We forget we know how. But high winds keep bending branches at the back of the brain and the mind’s eye keeps glancing at the slant of the slate rising from the brackish river and there’s something that the ferry master said and something else in a book since read. Slowly these pieces fall into place.
In May of 2019 I was commissioned to write a new poem to be performed at the launch of a book put together by Publishing MA students at Plymouth University. The students’ book was based on the voyage of the Mayflower, a topic I’d been studiously avoiding. But suddenly I knew how to answer slightly different versions of the questions which had underpinned my residency at Greenway. What would a fluid multi-layered multi-voiced history of this voyage sound like? What kind of writing can capture these eddies and currents, this ebb and flow? The resulting piece will be published by Guillemot Press as a single-poem chapbook called Words for Worlds Upended in time for the Mayflower anniversary, at this time next year.