‘The Understory is the group I so badly needed and didn’t know how to find.  How could you possibly look this up on the internet?  And now here it is:  the beginnings of an innovative, experiential, inclusive conversation about what it means to be human, as a poet, in a flailing but wondrous world.  I can bring a poem to a meeting.  I can bring a problem or a thought, about writing or about my understory.  I can bring all of these things – or none of them.  This is utterly liberating.  How many poet-group-spaces do that?’

An Understory group member

I wrote my poetry collections Noir and The Girl Who Cried from what I’ve called my ‘Understory’: I’d always had a distinct sense of life running along two parallel lines, even as a child. And I learnt very young there were things it was acceptable to talk about, and things it was not. On the whole, unhappy things were the ones that caused trouble.

I think in terms of having an ‘elephant’ that decides what I actually do in life, whatever my rational brain might say. It makes the big moves. 

And I, or my elephant, ended up shaping my collections around the subjects I’d found most painful in my life, and most difficult to talk about. Noir (HappenStance, 2016) explored vulnerability as a teen, and the fallout from exploitation; and The Girl Who Cried (HappenStance, 2020) probes a lifelong struggle with attachment.

Writing these made more sense of things, somehow. As though the invisible suffering wasn’t all for nothing.

Ongoing group

So then I decided to set up an ongoing online group under the banner ‘The Understory Conversation’ – for other poets who are also curious. The group has been meeting since autumn, and feels truly nourishing. 

Here’s what a couple of members have said:

‘The Understory, for me, is first and foremost a space:  a space into which I can step, as my human self as well as my poet self, and share and talk and listen to and with others who have chosen to step into that space.  As a member, sometimes I want it to be a head space;  other times I want it to be a heart space;  and – actually, most often – I want it to be both:  a head and heart space.

The Understory is unique because it facilitates all of these spaces, all at once, for all of us:  it’s multi-dimensional, it’s open, it’s fluid – it is a fully human space for poets.  But it’s not wishy-washy or groundless.  It is tied together by a single golden thread:  a mutual intent to meet around a theme, The Understory.  That’s it; simple and as vast and as layered as you want to make it, on any of the occasions that you take part.’

‘I couldn’t come up with one phrase that distils my experience of the group. But therein lies its richness. I often feel rather pressured in ‘normal’ writing groups – to write well, to share my work and opinions, or sometimes even to keep those opinions to myself. However productive and stimulating they may be, and they often are, I find writing groups exhausting and tense. Not helped by Zoom, I’m sure. But I leave our group feeling reinvigorated and reconnected – to myself and my writing. It’s a safe space to share anything that’s pressing on my creative mind – a poem, a draft, a phrase, a thought, a feeling, a dilemma, a discovery – and I know that whatever I bring will be welcomed, listened to, nourished and returned to me with deeper understanding and compassion.’

‘The Understory is a unique ongoing conversation that is endlessly thought-provoking.  Charlotte provides a wonderfully open and nourishing space in which to explore and share thoughts about what motivates us to write and how our life experiences influence, enhance or, indeed, sometimes hinder our work.  It’s a rich seam of revelation, every session.’

The thing I think we most value is the fact we meet with a shared understanding that having an Understory is part and parcel of normal human experience. So we start from there, without pathologising.

It’s liberating. 

Common themes emerge in a way that’s almost uncanny. We learn so much from hearing from each other. We really listen.

And the group offers some refuge – as each member wends her way through the processes of writing, submitting, publishing.

New groups

I’ve now decided to explore setting up new groups – if you’re interested please let me know. (There will, necessarily, be a small charge for these. But the whole spirit is one of collaboration.)

These aren’t therapy groups. They are reading and writing groups, and they are experiential groups, which reflect as they go.

Email me, in the first instance. On ckg [at] seestep [dot] com.

I am also very open to critical partnerships – one-to-one Understory Conversations with me, while you write. A companioning along the road.

Will you join The Understory Conversation?

From The Girl Who Cried, and appearing, here, on its back cover.
Poem first published in The North.


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