Under the Cover: Begun in Grief and Silence—The Writing of Bedlam Cowslip

March 3, 2016

The romantic world of Victorian England is brought to life in Bedlam Cowslip, the latest collection from Jeanette Lynes, published this past fall by Wolsak & Wynn. Through an exploration of the life and work of John Clare, a working-class bard of the English countryside, Lynes brings a postmodern voice to a time long past. But how did her interest in the work of John Clare start? We turned to Wolsak & Wynn to find out.

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The romantic world of Victorian England is brought to life in Bedlam Cowslip, the latest collection from Jeanette Lynes, published this past fall by Wolsak & Wynn. Through an exploration of the life and work of John Clare, a working-class bard of the English countryside, Lynes brings a postmodern voice to a time long past. But how did her interest in the work of John Clare start? We turned to Wolsak & Wynn to find out.

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Jeanette Lynes’s seventh collection of poetry, Bedlam Cowslip: The John Clare Poems, almost didn’t exist. Nominated for two Saskatchewan Book Awards, the book shows Lynes at the height of her powers and yet, to hear her tell it, she was writing from rock bottom.

In May 2007, my mother passed away. I had planned to attend the Hawthornden International Writers’ Retreat for the month of June 2007. I teetered on the edge of cancelling….I truly didn’t know if I could handle [it], considering my recent loss.

Despite her reservations, Lynes forced herself onto the plane. Another writer had described the residency as “a golden opportunity,” and Lynes was determined not to waste it. But when she got there, “I could hardly write a word.”

Hawthornden Castle had no Internet access at the time, and the retreat called for silence during the day. And so Lynes found herself far from home, still reeling from her mother’s death, cut off from the outside world and with a serious case of writer’s block. (Proving that even such devastating loss and a difficult situation can’t dampen her sense of humour, Lynes recounts how she “trudged through the mud for two miles each way to [the] creaking old computers [at the town’s public library] for half an hour [before] the librarian would kick us off”.)

To help pass the time, Lynes wandered the grounds, which included “a lovely little library” where she found Jonathan Bate’s biography of Romantic poet John Clare. Says Lynes:

I was instantly enchanted, took the biography back to my room, crawled into bed and read. ‘If I can’t write,’ thought I, ‘at least I can read.’

Fortunately for us, reading led to writing, and the result is a wonderfully imaginative collection of poems full of euphonious seventeenth-century words, the grace and sensibility of England’s “poet of the countryside” and Lynes’s trademark wit (perhaps best showcased in “The Briefest Nature Poem Ever Writ,” which simply reads Tesco / sod off).

Bedlam Cowslip: The John Clare Poems is dedicated to Lynes’s parents, “lifers on the farm” (“and it was no pastoral experience, either,” Lynes is quick to clarify).

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Thank you to Wolsak & Wynn, especially Emily Dockrill Jones, and Jeanette Lynes for sharing this story-behind-the-story. If you like reading these types of behind-the-scenes stories of some of your favourite CanLit titles, check out our previous Under the Cover features.

 


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