The voice that draws you in: a polished gem…Christy Ducker

liver building

Tempting to start like Garrison Keillor…It’s been anything but a quiet week here on the poetry front. On Monday it was the Beehive Poets in Bradford. The Beehive, like The Puzzle and the Albert is one of those poetry groups in West Yorkshire that’s been around for decades; famous for its open fires, its gaslights and its general air of shabby desuetude, it’s been welcoming new and established poets and keeping the flame alive for ages. This week I went to cheer for guests Gaia Holmes and Laura Potts. You should know them, but if you don’t, you can sample their work in earlier posts by following the links at the end of the post (as well as a link to a splendid pubishing project)

 

Gaia has just put together a third collection which will be seeking a clear-eyed publisher very shortly. and while Laura has yet to be published in pamphlet or collection form, it clearly won’t be very long. She’s enormously talented. It was a great evening.

On Thursday I was off to Liverpool to support the launch of Coast to coast to coast, a project created by Maria Isakova Bennet and Michael Brown…they’ve created a limited edition of handcrafted, handstitched books with lovely fabric covers. I’ll be telling you more about this in a post in a couple of weeks. Liverpool is wonderful, these days. The waterfront is full of the big bright light of the river, the Albert Dock was full of Round-the world Clipper ships; the new buildings are full of swaggering confidence, and their huge glass walls reflect the baroque handsomeness of the 19thC city. It all feels more European than English. It reminds me of Cartagena, and makes me think of Bilbao, and even of New York. Architecture like that works wonderfully in the light that’s made by a big river or the sea. There’s a fantastic buzz. What a place to read your poems in. I loved it.

Which, tenuously, brings me round to today’s guest, Christy Ducker, who comes from Northumberland..another land of huge skies and the alchemy of light and water.

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I’ve wanted to have Christy as a guest ever since I heard her reading with Jonathan Davidson at Bank Street Arts a couple of years ago. I wrote this about her in a review for the Compass magazine not long afterwards.

“For the record, at poetry readings it’s the tune I hear, first. The words come after; it’s the rhythm, the space of vowels, the textures of consonants. It’s the authentic accent, the distinctive voice. Sometimes words read at leisure don’t live up to the memory of the voices, but not so with  ‘Skipper’ and its clear-eyed concern for the business of setting the record straight.

Christy Ducker’s voice has the rising inflexions of Northumbria, the dance of its dialect, its crisp consonants…and so does her poetry.

 

 

Four clear themes run through Skipper, her first full collection:

the way a love affair and a marriage might, wonderfully, be the same thing ;the transformations of childbirth and motherhood; the indignities of hospitals, of surgery; and the elusiveness of historical truth.

The tone of Skipper is set in the first two poems. “And” proclaims its utter surprised delight at the birth of her son

and I am astonished

by the way you smell of bloody bread

………….

And I know the glee

at the indignant heaving bellows of your belly

The one word ‘glee’, and the nailed-down rightness of ‘bloody bread’, that iron and yeast, tell you right away that you’re in safe hands. The second poem, “Skeletons” sets the reader up for her explorations of the collusiveness of ‘History’ and its ethical claims. Considering that you might trace your stock back to the owners of, or traders in, slaves, she asks

At what point do we say There. It stops there

and decide to forgive….?

I like the qualified answer, that ‘perhaps’, when she considers the case of her husband’s family ‘who used to duck witches’, or of her mother-in-law’s ivory box. Because this is love, and this is family, and because this man rescued her from drowning:

Perhaps it’s the point at which I might learn

to love the present flesh that softens bone.

It may seem wilful, or rueful, that ’perhaps’. Or, perhaps a considered weighing up of moral balances. But listen to the way the distinct ‘t’ sounds determine the pace of the first line, the way the consonants soften, like bone, in the second. She’s an artful writer, Christy Ducker. I’d like the space to talk about the poems of boatyards, watch-houses, groundings, harbours, drowned valleys and the bad art of hospital wards and corridors. It’s a rich collection, this. But I shall concentrate on the way Skipper opens out into a sequence about Grace Darling, the Victorian lighthouse keeper, who the poet says she found to be unexpectedly ‘eccentric, scientifically expert, and fiercely literary’.

 

 

 

There’s a salutary entrée to the sequence in “Meet the Victorians” where she admits how she went to the story of Grace Darling with feminist/revisionist intentions,

Expecting a sermon, but finding an orgy

of sorts, I realise I’ve packed the wrong things

to deal with a raucous Queen Victoria, a playful Darwin and all the dubious affairs of the Victorian underworld, for instance. So how does she deal with the ‘fiercely literate’ Grace? The solution turns out to be simple and brilliant. Twenty-seven poems chart Grace’s life through her gradual mastery of numeracy and literacy. In “Grace Darling learns to count” each numeral becomes a mnemonic and an ideogram of her island and its landscape. ‘2 is…  a plane for wood…… /  it’s the cold squat of yesterday’s iron’, and ’10 is your mother at her spinning wheel’. It’s a beautiful idea which is sustained through the twenty-six poems of ‘Grace Darling’s A.B.C.’ : a poem of three precisely weighted regular quatrains for each letter. Christy Ducker plays with the graphics of the letters..  ‘A is the point of intention  /  she sees at the tip of her pen’ which is also a tool to carve out her alphabet. O, memorably, is the coins she earns from salvage

flat as the faces of drowned me

she pulls from the sea like moons

E is ‘the flight of three small steps  /  she climbs to reach the lantern room’ and also the letter ‘that warms all vowels’. In these regular eight-syllabled lines she explores the letters’ shapes, their assonance and consonance and weaves them into a story of Grace’s growing into womanhood and difficult celebrity. Christy Ducker also reminds me of the way museums seem to sentimentalise embroidered samplers; she makes you remember poor light, sore fingers, the physical work that underlies achieved literacy. Every poem is full of unobtrusive slant rhymes and assonance, of surprising true images. My favourite?

 U is the round-bottomed coble 

 she punts across the page to write

‘our Universe, or keep ‘us’ afloat

but you can take your pick. If I was allowed just one word to describe Christy Ducker’s writing in this collection it would be canny; a Northumbrian word, weathered and layered and rich as the patched hull of the boat on the book’s cover.”

So, there you are: I’m a fan. Christy  is a poet and teacher of creative writing. Her first full-length collection, Skipper, was published in 2015, and includes work commended by the Forward Prize judges. Her pamphlet, Armour (2011) was a PBS Pamphlet Choice. Her commissions include residencies with Port of Tyne, English Heritage, and York University’s Centre for Immunology and Infection; she is also the director of North East Heroes, an Arts Council England project. She is currently working as a research fellow at Newcastle University’s Institute for Creative Arts Practice. https://www.christyducker.co.uk/

She’s been really generous with her time, and sent me this review of her work so far:

“Since Skipper was published in 2015, I’ve enjoyed producing two new poetry pamphlets in collaboration with artists. In 2016, I published Heroes which was illustrated by Emma Holliday’s gutsy linocuts. And this year, I’ve produced Messenger, in collaboration with Kate Sweeney – her photographs accompany the poems throughout. I’ve found that I really love working in collaboration with visual artists – it’s been so interesting to see how different art forms talk to each other and develop together.

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Heroes grew out of my work on Grace Darling – I’d written a lot about her in Skipper, trying to find a way of vouching for this strange woman on her own terms. I found I wanted to write more about heroes: the unsung ones, the misunderstood ones, the ones with secrets! I was lucky enough to get funding from the Arts Council to develop a project called North East Heroes – this involved researching four Victorian heroes whose papers are in the Northumberland county archives. I wrote poems about each, and then wrote poems about the contemporary equivalent of each Victorian – the proto-feminist, Josephine Butler is counterpointed by Malala Yousafzai, and so on. I also got young people in pupil referral units writing about Victorian heroes and their own heroes – we put together a creative writing website which features some of their work, as well as the exercises we used to spark things off http://northeastheroes.org/ I love running education work in parallel with my own writing experiments – I often feel I learn the most when I’m teaching other people! Meanwhile, Emma Holliday made a linocut to go with each of my poems – some of the linocuts developed in tandem with my drafting, some were completed later http://www.emmaholliday.co.uk/north-east-heroes.html

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Messenger is quite a different beast, coming from my interest in trying to write about grief. I wrote it whilst poet in residence with York’s Centre for Immunology and Infection. In collaboration with the immunologist, Dimitris Lagos, and visual artist, Kate Sweeney, I explored how we wound and how we heal. I was keen to work with scientists to explore healing, believing this might bring greater precision to my writing. To an extent that happened, but as always creativity moved crab-like – I found myself most fascinated by the metaphors scientists use to make their work accessible. Drawing on that seam of metaphor helped me to translate grief into poetry in a way that made sense to me. I’d found grief paradoxical – I experienced it as a noisy emotion that would turn to silence on the page when I tried to write about it. Working with a scientist who specialised in RNA ‘silencing’ offered new images for me to work with, and helped me to express this difficult emotion. The pamphlet begins autobiographically, but engages increasingly with socio-political wounds too (I wrote Messenger in a year of great political upheaval). Kate Sweeney’s striking photographs accompany my poems throughout the pamphlet. Meanwhile, dialogue with Kate influenced many of the poems. Kate also made two fantastic film-poems that grew from my writing https://thumbprod.wordpress.com/

 

I’m delighted that Heroes and Messenger are both published by smith/doorstop – Ann and Peter Sansom are among my own heroes! (and mine) In addition to those two pamphlets, I did a stint in 2015 as poet in residence with Northumbria Police – this led to a small chapbook called All Eyes (Newcastle University), about the policing of domestic violence and the language of power.

 

I’ve been reading from all of the above, mainly in the North of England, and particularly enjoyed reading at Newcastle’s Poetry Festival (which is rapidly going from strength to strength!) For the next while, I’ll be writing poems as a research fellow at Newcastle University’s Institute for Creative Arts Practice. My focus there is on bringing medicine, science and poetry together. At the moment, I’m writing a new series of poems about the exhibits in the Wohl Pathology Collection at Edinburgh’s Surgeon’s Hall Museum. This is not as ghoulish as it sounds! My aim is to write about the possibilities these exhibits offer for redemption and understanding in our own era. The poems are turning out to be quite political so far…”

The sentence that stood out for me was this:

Drawing on that seam of metaphor helped me to translate grief into poetry in a way that made sense to me. I’d found grief paradoxical – I experienced it as a noisy emotion that would turn to silence on the page when I tried to write about it.

That really resonates with me. It took Kim Moore’s example of finding Ovid’s Metamorphoses to give her the distance and the holding frame that let her write so powerfully about domestic abuse…that sent me back into the Greek myths to find a place and an imagery to write about the death of my son. Fighting out of the silence. What a notion that is! Because what I respond to is poetry that matters, and poetry that matters is on the edge. So, time for some poems. Christy sent me three. The first one shows what I understand by edge…it’s a difficult subject, but I love the sense of emotion contained, or just-restrained by the clarity of diction, the economy and discipline of its tight two-line stanzas

Meridian

What they didn’t know was her brain

was a world that went on turning

 

even after they’d forced it down

the long grey chute of coma –

 

that when she woke, the hemispheres

would parley, how nations can

 

translate, on each other’s behalf,

new circuits. Her bright message

 

lights up, one child, one teacher,

one book, one pen. Though she’s altered

 

she tilts towards the sun, still

bickers with siblings, can’t cook,

 

loves pink and Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

They didn’t know she’d purge worms

 

from the education of girls –

her face opens out from its prime

 

meridian, sad to the east,

fierce to the west. She stands as straight

 

as noon and raises her medals,

her garland of A’s, her hopes

 

to the sky with hands touching,

and I will set my clock by her.

 

It never puts a foot wrong, does it? I love the simple assertions of a clear faith: She stands as straight/as noon….and I will set my clock by her. You can read and re-read this densely elliptical poem, and its layers keep on giving. I think it’s a wonder. There’s the same emotional clarity in the next one that uses the science of super- lenses to find purpose and shape in apparent randomness and carelessness of things. The way she uses ‘crazy’ as a verb seemed to anchor the poem that pivots around it.

Resolution

 Sometimes, it helps to come back to you

in detail, right down to the atoms

that made you, because they were only

ever on loan from the world – true,

if I zoom out a bit, things crazy

to molecules, cells, and how you made

a life for yourself through your hunger

for chatter, people, anywhere noisy,

but sometimes, when you rush back at me,

it helps if I think you really were

just trillions of small parts teetering,

a madcap egg-and-spoon – how lucky

I was, to meet you before you fell

in pieces, to kiss what couldn’t hold.

 

I’m reminded, too, by this poem, what I should have said earlier. There’s a tenderness in Christy’s poetry that sings to me; it sings all the louder and purer because of the deft control of line and rythm. It’s not easy to sustain that rhythm and coherence through a long single sentence. I love it.

Finally, a poem that conflates the power of folk tale and science to heal us, emotionally. This is a poem that had me in its grip from the very first line that with great insouciance hijacks Stephen Spender. I liked the notion that folk and fairy tales are ‘children that are rough’ and that their morality runs much deeper than the conventional social moralities of, say, the novel. All you need to do is ask why the girl who tells lies to win a king and whose life is, on the surface, saved by Rumpelstiltskin who spins her straw into gold….why she is ultimately richly rewarded and he is cruelly punished. Here’s poem with the hard-won defiant swagger of Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Little Red Cap’ or Liz Lochhead’s After leaving the castle.

Vaccine

My mother kept me from fairy tales,

not wanting those women in boxes

with all their waiting to stall me,

but when I grew up and found myself

boxed-in, I couldn’t see the walls

for years, not having rehearsed horror

 

in miniature, how a storyteller

or scientist might. Today, in the lab

I learn how to make a horror small,

that we boil it and pin it inside

our own blood, to teach ourselves

the lesson: naivety kills

 

but memory inoculates, measured out

at the right dose. For lupus, try

absorbing a microgram of its snarl

so you might bite back. For Cinderella

disease, take only its slippers,

appear to swoon but prepare to kick.

 

The science of self-protection asks

we rewrite the story of what appals:

be glad the hairs on the back of your neck

stir when a wolf comes near you.

For grief, devour a sugar skull

and dance on the Day of the Dead.

 

I love the alliterative stamp and dance of the last line. And that line ‘naivety kills/ but memory inoculates’  memorises itself as you read it. What else can you ask of a poem? It’s the moment that draws you in.

Image result for rackham little red riding hood

Thank you, Christy Ducker for finally being our guest, and for three memorable poems. I couldn’t be happier. Nothing left now but for all you readers to buy all her work. Don’t delay. Next week we’ll be welcoming another of those selfless small poetry presses. See you then.

Links:

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2016/07/17/alchemies-and-islands-and-a-gem-revisited-gaia-holmes/

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/09/14/magic-toyshops-a-polished-gem-9-gaia-holmes/

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2016/11/06/the-young-ones-and-an-undiscovered-gem-laura-potts/

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/11/22/picture-books-and-a-polished-gem-14-maria-isakova-bennett/

 

 

Confessions of a tripe addict

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Maybe it’s because I wrote myself out earlier this year..NaPoWriMo turned up 54 new poems of various degrees of inadequacy…maybe two or three could stand on their own two feet. But since then, it’s been a fallow few months. And I suspect that that’s probably a Good Thing. But one outcome has been that I seem to have lost the habit of systematically reading through this or that ‘Collected Works’ and of scribbling in  a notebook last thing at night. Instead, I’ve been bingeing on Netflix and LoveFilm. Particularly on series: The Killing, The Bridge, Borgen, Spiral, True Detective, The Wire, House of cards (the American one); night after night and then finishing off with a comfort blanket novel or two. Currently a chapter from each of Joyce Carey’s ‘The horse’s mouth’ and John le Carre’s ‘The little drummer girl’. My partner Flo used to reckon that she could tell when I was coming down with something by the books on my bedside table. Dickens. Le Carre. A.S.Byatt’s Possession. Big long novels with complicated plots, and a degree of escapism. Much like my choice of comfort blanket films. In the car it’s Terry Pratchett audio books. You get the picture.

But it’s got me thinking. Where did all that come from? And I think I have an answer of sorts. Tripe. Not the stuff they sold in grim little shops when I was a kid, their small windows displaying horrible, slithery heaps of pale honeycomb, and darker stuff. No. The stuff my teachers dismissed as tripe/rubbish. The stuff I read voraciously. When I was a lecturer in teacher training I used to argue passionately that all developing readers need a healthy mixed diet of books that challenge linguistically, morally, emotionally..but that they won’t handle any of it if they don’t read lots and lots of stuff that’s formulaic, predictable; stuff where they feel comfortably at home. Because they can’t understand when someone is breaking the rules and pushing the limits of what’s possible if they don’t know what those rules and limits are.

I’ll try to illustrate what I mean via a potted history of my own reading, but first, let me share something I read  in the 1970s in Children’s literature in Education. It’s from a talk, A Defence of Rubbish by Peter Dickinson, author of The Changes trilogy, and aroud 50 other books.

“The danger of living in a golden age of children’s literature is that not enough rubbish is being produced.”
Nobody who has not spent a whole sunny afternoon under his bed rereading a pile of comics left over from the previous holidays has any real idea of the meaning of intellectual freedom.”
“Nobody who has not written comic strips can really understand the phrase, economy of words. It’s like trying to write Paradise Lost in haiku.”

dandy and beanohotspur and wizard

I remember how that hit me right between the eyes. It was a revelation. I did an English degree which almost killed my ability to read. I became very good at writing essays that seemed to satisfy some unspoken need in my tutors, but I forgot how to read, and I didn’t learn to read again until I had children who I read stories to. Hundreds of picture/story books; Catherine Storr’s Clever Polly; Flat Stanley, The Narnia books…stuff like that. I remember our Michael and Julie (5 and 7) literally danced around the room the night that Charlie Bucket found the Golden Ticket. Because they knew what I’d forgotten. We read stories because we want to know what happens next, and we want to know what happens next because we care about the characters it happens to. And then we want to read it again to reassure ourself that it’s still real. We learn to value the repeated and the predictable, because real life is neither.

The important thing, I used to argue with my students, is that you need to read a lot of it. You read until you get sick of it and want a change, you want to move on; you want stories to accompany you as you grow and change. So I moved on from the Dandy and the Beano, and the Hotspur and the Wizard. You can guess where to, because you probably did, too.

famous five

I used to argue that you can’t get your head and heart round Susan Cooper’s and Alan Garner’s fantasy stories unless you’ve binged on The Famous Five. Garrison Keillor has a story about a father telling his children the story of Hansel and Gretel. He says something about stories and their audience to the effect that ‘You can’t disappoint them, but you’ve got to surprise them’. So Desperate Dan has to have a new adventure each week, but he always has to have a cow pie at the end. And the horns and tail have to stick out of the crust, because if they don’t it’s not a cow pie. The Famous Five may sail boats or go on cycling jaunts, but Timmy the Dog has to say ‘Woof’ and ‘wag his feathery tail’, and the policeman MUST say ‘well done, Famous Five’ and someone will give them a crisp ten-shilling note, and Julian will sound ‘quite like an adult’ and the tomatoes will always be homegrown. William will have to dream up new tricks to foil the Hubert Laneites, but at some point will have to wear ‘an inscrutable expression’. You can write your own examples by the score. What we want is the formula AND the surprise.

horror

And so we grow older, if not up. I never quite left William behind (mainly because Richmal Crompton was a brilliant writer) but the Famous Five palled, became irrelevant, the stuff of childhood. I moved on (if not up) to WW2 escape stories, The Saint, the Pan Books of Horror Stories (there were so many of them). I reread most of them many times. Tripe. I supposed they paved the way for James Bond. You get the picture.

The thing is, all this went on in parallel to, and totally separate from, whatever we were expected to read at school. Dull stuff in duller covers. Lorna Doone. The Black Tulip. And ‘poetry’. ‘Paths to Parnassus’, ‘Palgrave’s Golden Treasury’. Most I can’t remember, because I never read it with interest, and never re-read any of it. Whereas I can remember huge swathes of tripe, in the way I can remember the words of scores of Methodist hymns, and of pop songs. Repetition of formulaic art with variations and surprises.

What’s all this to do with the painting of Battersea power station and the Thames? It’s a fair question. The answer is ‘because of Louis Wilde’. He was my Art teacher in the 6th form. I’d written appropriate stuff about Macbeth, and Kipps and The Eve of St Agnes, and I was setting out to write more about Hamlet, and Thomas Hardy, and, presumably, some poetry. Because you have to read poetry for A level English. But we didn’t, in the first year, and then we were given an anthology of selected Metaphysical poetry and the world turned on its axis and the top of my head blew off. University put a damper on all that, of course. But starting my A Level Art course, Louis Wilde put a book in my hand, and said : if you want to understand why artists are artists, read this.

two horses

Because he wasn’t an English teacher, I did. No English teacher up to that point had suggested I read something because it could open my eyes to the way the world worked. We read things, in ‘English’ because they were ‘Literature’ and we learned how to write clever essays about them without understanding a word they said. I read The Horse’s Mouth like I read the books in my parallel world. Except it wasn’t that kind of book. Quite simply, it changed the way I walked about in the world, looking at stuff.

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Maybe if Louis hadn’t set me to copying reproductions of Degas it wouldn’t have worked. But to my complete surprise I was hooked on the first sentence, and I still am. I hadn’t read the book for over ten years, but when I put it on my Kindle last week, I felt as though I could quote whole chunks of it verbatim.

“I was walking by the Thames. Half-past morning on an autumn day. Sun in a mist. Like an orange in a fried fish shop. All bright below. Low tide, dusty water and a crooked bar of straw, chicken boxes, dirt and oil from mud to mud. Like a viper swimmimg in skim milk. The old serpent, symbol of nature and love.”

I can look at it now as I type, and see that it’s a thing that’s been done and done again. But I’d never have fallen into the rhythms of Ulysses, and I’d never have seen what Gerard Manley Hopkins was up to without that book, and its impressionist prose. The fact that the narrator is just out of prison, and will actually go back there before the book’s halfway through, grabbed me too. And because I was 16, although the book is often described as comic masterpiece, to me it was pure tragedy. Gulley Jimson chases his vision of the ultimate work of art throughout the novel and it collapses just as he thinks he’s pinned it down. He quotes from Blake. He’s an anarchist. A Romantic. He’s irresponsible. He’s scandalous. I loved him. And I loved his vision, too. I still do.

“And I went out to get some room for my grief. Thank God, it was a high sky on Greenbank. Darker than I expected. But the edge of the world was still a long way off. At least as far as Surrey. Under the cloudbank. Sun was in the bank. Streak of salmon below. Salmon trout above soaking into wash-blue. River whirling along so fast that it’s skin was pulled into wrinkles like silk dragged over the floor. Shot silk. Fresh breeze off the eyot. Sharp as spring frost. Ruffling under the silk-like muscles on a nervous horse…….

The fog-bank was turning pink on top like the fluff trimmings on a baby’s quilt. Sky angelica green to mould blue. A few small clouds dawdling up, beige pink, like Sarah’s old powder puffs full of her favourite powder. Air was dusty with it.”

Gulley Jimson showed me the way to understand Carel Weight and Stanley Spencer. He made me want to go to art school, just as the Famous Five made me want to outwit crafty foreigners, and Alf Tupper made me want to prove that a working class lad could show the Toffs a thing or two. Dreams, escapism and fantasy. Louis Wilde pointed out that I wasn’t good enough for Art school, and a good thing too.

What’s all this to do with a poetry cobweb? I rather lost my thread as I was writing. No matter. The link is tenuous, but here it is. Joyce Carey’s Gulley Jimson taught me to feel more intensely (in a particular way, it’s true: to see the world as primarily visual).

Surrey all in one blaze like a forest fire. Great clouds of  dirty yellow smoke rolling up. Nine carat gold. Sky water-green to lettuce-green. A few top clouds, yellow and solid as lemons. River disappeared out of its hole. Just a gap full of the same fire, the same smoky gold, the same green. Far bank like a magic island floating in the green. Rheumatic old willows trembling and wheezing together like a lot of old men, much alarmed at the turn things were taking, but afraid to say so aloud

Here’s Monet, and Turner, and Sisley and Carel Weight…and here’s the thing. It’s all done with words, and what’s more, in words you could turn into a poem in a blink. Which is what I realised last week when I read that first sentence of ‘The Horse’s mouth’ for the first time in a decade or more. I realised it had gone a lot deeper than I thought, and it had done so because I’d read it again and again in the way I read the ‘rubbish’ that Peter Dickinson defended in the 70’s. It sent me back to my notebooks; I wanted to find out that what I suspected was true. That in teaching me a way of seeing Gulley Jimson taught me how to write about it, How about these bits from notebooks of about 10 years ago:

‘… on this hill with no shorthand. Everything very sharply in focus and out of meaning. Tiny white starry flowers, one here, one there. One brown furry caterpillar straddling two bleached plantain stems. Dry flower heads brittle pink. One plump crimson/blush/rose cushion of spaghnum, complex jewelly florets, bright with water drops scattered….Deer slots, random, occasionally, a single one sharp in a cupful of peaty mud….Amber, yellow grasses like blades, flexing.’

This was was up on steep moorland near Achnacloich on Skye. And further on:

‘Sky lines recede, one by one, under a slough of driven cloud. Layers and layers.

The near fellside acid sour and bracken brown, tired of cloud, of weight, of wet, of

waiting. A hiddle of oaks in the lee of the ribbon road; black-brittle, acid-burned’

I reckon all that detail of colour and texture is something I learned from a book an Art teacher gave me in 1958. Sometime later, other people taught me that you can put line breaks in this sort of stuff and persuade yourself you’re writing poetry. Like this

a day of edges,

patched plough and fallow;

a slanting sun catches

the fold and furl of the fields,

the tops of the dark trees,

their wind-whetted fringes

silver and steel

running like cold flames,

a cold lambent burning;

the distances are jewelled,

wet stones shining precious,

nuggets, faceted and gold-faced;

scattered studs of turquoise fodder bales;

the roads a burnished pewter

until a cat-grey cloud bank

prowls from the west,

dark and depthless;

the whaleback moor-line blurs;

the sunlight’s arch of lemon-silver shrinks.

Rain comes in fronds and veils,

in trailed tendrils, skeins,

and the light drains and drains

and sudden diamonds bead the screen;

a ghost of rainbow to the north

promises something;

in the background

someone sings:

 

I spent a long time thinking that painting word pictures of landscapes was the same thing as writing poems. Later I spent a lot of time reading and rereading Norman McCaig, and found out different. You learn from the company you keep. But I’ll argue forever that you need to keep some rough old company to appreciate a fine wine, and that reading rubbish will do you no harm, so long as you read too much of it.

Thanks for you forebearance. It was nice to get that off my chest. Maybe I’ll start writing poems again. Or not. In any case, next week we have a very special guest, so turn up early. Clean shirts. Tucked in.

Let’s finish with one of my favourite passages from The Horse’s Mouth

The moon was coming up somewhere, round the corner from the old bow-window, making the trees like fossils in a coalfield, and the houses look like fresh-cut blocks of coal, glittering green and blue and the river banks like two great solid veins of coal left bare, and the river sliding along like heavy oil. It was like a working model of the earth before someone thought of dirt and colours and birds and humans. I liked it so much I wanted to to go out and walk about in it. But of course I knew it wouldn’t be there. You never get the real world as solid as that

Eardley

The Horse’s Mouth. [1944] Originally publ. Michael Joseph

subsequently published by Penguin in Penguin Modern Classics

Guess what…yet another book I think everyone should have a copy of is out of print. You can pick up a copy via Amazon or Abe Books for anything from 77p to £5.00

 

 

First pressings (3): Sarah Miles and Paper Swans Press

paper 3

Let’s welcome a special guest, today, the third in an occasional series of interviews with the folk who run small poetry presses: Sarah Miles.

I need to declare an interest. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for all those selfless souls who run themselves ragged to put published poetry in your hands, but I owe a special debt to today’s guest, who has published several of my poems  in her Press’ anthologies, and very handsome they are, too.

Sarah Miles

What I do is to send out a kind of open-ended prompt sheet, and invite these lovely folk to respond. Their generosity is wonderful. Sarah miles continues the tradition. OK. Ready? Sitting comfortably? Here we go:

If you could kick off by describing what you’ve done so far, that would be nice. A story is always a nice beginning. Then tackle the following questions. If it’s OK, I’ll then create the illusion of a dialogue, as though we’re both sitting in a room, with cake and coffee. That sort of illusion.

So:

There seem to be hundreds of small poetry presses about, and I imagine they struggle to make a living, competing as they do for what is essentially a niche market; something led you think: there’s room for another. What was the trigger that persuaded you to set up your own publishing venture?

From what I’ve experienced, there is much more camaraderie between small presses, than competition. Basically, we are all in the same boat: struggling to break even, desperately trying to get great poetry ‘out there’ and scrabbling around to fund ourselves —  big bookshops won’t take our books unless we go down channels where we make about 5p a book and Amazon also takes a fair cut (plus many of us don’t agree with their ethics, and we’re a moral bunch, us publishers!). So, most of us rely on selling through our websites and this summer, I am going to try to set up a new independent website to facilitate buying from indie presses…watch this space!

 

My inspiration to set up Paper Swans was The Emma Press. I love their quality of books and the poetry within and, one day, voiced to a friend of mine (designer of our logo, Helen Braid), that I would so love to do the same thing and the thought of editing, publishing and producing beautiful books was something that had been a pipe-dream for a long time. She simply replied, ‘Well, why don’t you?’ The seed was planted and, in a way, I suppose she gave me the ‘permission (confidence)’ I couldn’t quite give myself and I’ll always thank her for it. I had a little bit of money set aside and gave myself a two-book deadline. If it crashed — well, I had tried. But it didn’t and, I’m happy to say, Paper Swans is going from strength to strength.

Print

You chose to feature themed anthologies that called for submissions.  Did you have any particular criteria for you choice of theme, or were you blessed by happy accidents? You’ve attracted a lot of submissions from well-established and otherwise successful poets. What do you put that down to?

The first theme (The Darker Side of Love) was a personal choice. I think a lot of poetry is therapeutic and there’s nothing like a bad love affair to get the poetry flowing! Most people have experienced love gone wrong and I wanted to counteract all the glitter–clad romantic nonsense and publish a pamphlet for Valentine’s Day that possibly a lot more people could identify with. I also had the good fortune to have been tweeting with Maggie Sawkins, who had recently won The Ted Hughes Award, and she submitted poems from that to our very first anthology! I will always be grateful for, what has always seemed, a huge leg-up when we really needed it. She gave us credence and put faith in us from the start.

schooldays

 

Our second theme, Schooldays, was trying to tap into an experience that most people have enjoyed or endured. Again, I wanted to produce a book that a lot of people could identify with and get something from when they read it.  From there, our anthologies have always kept that ideal of tying in with the broader experience, of both the writer and the reader. We have always kept our submissions fairly unspecific too, to allow the poet to write freely, for example, The Chronicles of Eve is about women and that covers a very wide range of interpretations and perspectives.

C of EVE Cover copy

 

Our most recent full anthology, Best of British, was conceived pre-Brexit and wanting to give people the chance to break away with what we were being told to think and allow them to say what Britain really means to them: it’s quirks, it’s places, it’s truth. It’s a wonderful journey through people’s memories and tales of Britain, from its back-alleys to its lochs to the longing of an expat for peanut butter.

best of

Of all the lovely small poetry press publications, which are the ones that you particularly like yourself, and why?

As aforementioned, I still adore The Emma Press; I think the quality and individuality of her books sets them apart. Mother’s Milk Books are also beautiful; I particularly liked the poetry duets pamphlets they produced. And, I have to mention Paekakariki Press who use letterpress printing which makes their books unique and beautiful. Great name, too!

 

Tell us something about your design choices. Did you consciously decide you wanted a house style? Did you have any models that you wanted to borrow from?

I kind of fell into a house style for the anthologies. The first two books were produced using a template I had set up and a lot of people kept telling me how much they liked it, so I kept it! As for our covers, again, the first two were similar, but I didn’t want to be restricted on cover design and I was thrilled to have Sophia Platts-Palmer design the cover for The Chronicles of Eve. She was fresh from art school and had sent me some ideas. Her work is so unusual and intriguing — I have the cover art for Eve up on my wall!

 

Tell us something about the snags you encounter…how about how you set about the business of marketing, about getting the brand out there. It may be that it’s something you feel a bit at sea with. How do you get folk to review the stuff, for instance? How do you feel about the business of competitions for small publishers…stuff like the Michael Marks, for instance? Riff on this topic as you feel appropriate

Definitely the hardest part about being a small press and surviving is sales and marketing. There is no money in poetry (alas) and most presses simply aim to break even, which is a real shame as the books produced are, in my opinion, far more beautiful and interesting than the ones you’ll find on the shelves of Waterstone’s. As I said earlier, large book shops aren’t interested in stocking us and, even if they do, by the time they and their supplier have taken a cut, we would end up making very little, or even a loss. So, it’s a no win situation a lot of the time. Awards like Michael Marks and Saboteur are a great way to gain some recognition and, perhaps, spur people on to go buy a book, but they are few and far between. We rely heavily on social media and trying to get our name known through word-of-mouth and poetry websites like yours. It constantly amazes me that poets seem to be so modest — often on something like Facebook, I will plug a book that a poet is published in and they will ‘like’ but not share! To all writers — please share any posts like this! Not just so we might sell a few more copies, but in doing that, more people are reading your work.

It’s funny, I have had many conversations with other poetry friends or those who work in music and there seems to be such a juxtaposition between the arts and marketing. Somehow, driving sales feels ‘wrong’ or tainting the work somehow. It doesn’t, of course, and without funding, many wonderful projects would never see the light of day, but it often doesn’t sit right with publishers and artists alike. For me, I feel that if I don’t keep pinging things on social media etc. then I am doing my writers an injustice. It’s my job to get their work to as many readers as possible. It’s also the reason I accept previously published work (apart from the pamphlet prize). It seems a shame to give a wonderful poem only one airing; much better to give it the exposure it deserves!

 

What next? More in the pipeline?

Yes, lots! We have recently published our first young poets anthology, with poetry from 16-18 year olds and we will shortly be announcing the winner of this year’s poetry pamphlet prize — last year’s winner, Glass by Elisabeth Sennitt Clough, won The Saboteur Award this year for best pamphlet, so that has prompted even more people to enter. Our judge, Jill Munro, has had a very tough job!

young ones

We currently have submissions open for an anthology of flash fiction and for a new project of pocket poetry, which will be ongoing. We aim to produce small, but beautiful books on various themes. All details are on our website. https://paperswans.co.uk/category/blog/

Further to that, we are once again, planning an online publication for National Poetry Day later in the year and will also be at The Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in London this September, if anyone wants to come and say hello.

Well…..you can’t say fairer than that, can you? Sarah Miles, it’s been a pleasure to have you as our guest today. Good luck to Paper Swans Press and all who sail with her. May you go from strength to strength.

saboteur

 

And now, some advance notice. I see that I’ve posted eleven cobweb strands this July. I normally plan to do four or five a month. So I’m having a two week break to catch my breath, and hopefully do a bit of research, and come up with fresh ideas and topics, and line up a whole load of new guests. I can promise you that I’m definitely returning with a particular guest who I’ve been hoping to feature for a very long time, and I’m really really looking forward to it. See you all then. I hope the sun shines on all of you xx

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfinished business: Our David

1971-1992

our david c 2

July 29th. He’d have been 46 today, and I go on writing poems for him. I’m taken aback, every time. I think there’s nothing left to be said. But there is. There always will be. Happy birthday, lovely boy

Scan-110104-0097

I made this box,

 

ran quick lead in the veins of driftwood roots,

the silver grain of bleached board and the wind-eyes

of burnished beachstones – rose quartz, granite, flint,

bound them with silver wire to honey oak, red pine,

and clenched them tight with sea-rust iron nails.

 

I made this box for you

 

I filled it with fragments, beachcombed

sea glass, wisps of snagged wool.

I wanted you to know

the random loveliness of being alive,

to know it in your bones and blood.

 

I put in :

 

snow, to remember draughts

and rooms with cold corners;

 

a black handled knife, sharp as silk

in a grey-vaulted market, the scent

 

of cut flowers to show that fathers

give like the gods; a bicycle stammering

 

through stems of barley, willowherb,

to understand that gravity may be defied;

 

the humped glass of a brown river,

black branches snagged on the weir’s rim;

 

these bundled letters in different hands

and inks to show how words fall short of love.

 

I put in riddles:

 

silhouettes of mountains, oiled gun barrels,

a sheriff’s badge, a dust-blown street,

 

a child running in a drift of grasses,

a scrubbed deal table in a pitman’s house.

 

 

I wondered if you’d find the answers

if I might understand the questions.

 

I did not want to put inside my box

your cold clay mouth

this pale oak chamfered cube

and my two hands holding it, all

 

I wanted was you holding my box

in a high place

where you could only fly, not fall

our david c 1

 

I made this box” appeared originally in Much Possessed. smith|doorstop 2016

South Downs Poetry Festival: bonus tracks…Sarah Miles and Louisa Campbell

swineherd

We read a poem:

 

Swineherd:    (Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin)

When all this is over, said the swineherd,

I mean to retire, where

Nobody will have heard about my special skills

And conversation is mainly about the weather.

………………………….

 

I want to lie awake at night

Listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug

…………………………………………..

I want to see an orchard where the trees grow in straight lines

 

The extracts give you a flavour of the Swineherd’s dream……..of a life utterly different from the one he has. He doesn’t say what it involves. You understand that from what he dreams of.

Now, Pick a task or occupation. Maybe you’ve done it, dreamed of it, would hate it. Lighthouse keeper, pigs head boner, chiropodist, dentist, mudlark, lady’s maid. What will you dream of doing once it’s all over.

 

My workshoppers have five minutes to react to this, to write, as far as possible, without conscious thought…at the very least, without an editorial voice in their heads. I promised that if anyone wrote something they thought worth keeping they could send it to me and, all things being equal, I’d put the poem on the cobweb. And I was delighted that two writers did, and even more delighted to like the poems and to keep my promise. Here we go.     First, Sarah Miles.

window 3

 

When this is all over

(said the window cleaner),

I will go to a place where houses

with thatched roofs beckon the open air;

alive with insects, clicking,

keeping me awake at night.

 

I will sit on the fat window ledges,

my legs swinging and my thighs

spreading on the cold concrete,

absorbing the dust, the chill

and the crannies of the windowsills.

 

There will be no storeys,

no need for extensions or ladders.

My feet will be forever grounded,

my world will be smeared

and streaked with weather and bird-shit.

 

If I see suds, I will pop

each bubble,

one by one,

till there is nothing left to see

but a memory.

 

and Louisa Campbell

milkman 4

 

Delivery Song

The milk-white moon
holds a wispy finger
to his gentle mouth, whispers,
Shhh…
as I clink bottles on stone,
soft-step back to my float.

Puttle of tyres on road,
7, 9, 11, but not 13,
fox’s warrior stare,
hedgehog’s tippy-toddle,
all add their pulse to mine
as I long for the world to stay
like this forever: poised, hung-
over, quiet in ink blue,
ready for anything.

 

Sarah Miles runs Paper Swans Press and is co-founder of The Poetry Shelf along with Abegail Morley and Jill Munro.

Louisa Campbell‘s  poetry has appeared in journals including ProleAcumen, and Three Drops From a Cauldron. Her first pamphlet, The Happy Bus, is forthcoming with Picaroon Poetry.

Through the looking glass (2) : David Wilson

touching-the-void_420

(To start with, an afterthought…something I came across after this cobweb strand was published. A sort of oxymoron. A postscript that comes at the beginning. As so often, it’s an insight gleaned from Clive James’ Poetry Notebook 2006-2014.

He’s writing about memorable lines, ‘tightly integrated things’ and on achieving fame …or not achieving fame.

[On U A Fanthorpe]  “It wasn’t that she wrote one thing that put everything else in the shade. Though she had been awarded, very quietly, in 2003, the Queen’s Medal for poetry, her whole output was in the shade, and then suddenly it all came to light at once: at the very end of her life, and partly because Carol Ann Duffy, who has a gift for fame, was an admirer of hers. Thus, Fanthorpe’s gift for obscurity was overcome: until then, despite her having published several volumes with a faithful minor publishing house (the much lamented Peterloo Poets) she was was read mainly by her devotees, and it is one of the laws of poetry and of the arts in general that the instructed are an insufficient audience: one must break through to the uninstructed.)

 

That would have made a great title for this and last week’s post: ‘the instructed are an insufficient audience.

I guess that at the heart of last week’s post was this fond wish : What I want to do is to  consider those poets who break out of the bubble, this hall of mirrors that multiplies and multiplies the image rather than the reality, and are heard by folk who aren’t that interested in poetry as such. Who are they, and how do they do it?

So here’s another take on that question, and also an opportunity to share and celebrate the poetry of someone  who I met via The Poetry Business Writing Days, whose work I’ve always liked for its quiet precision…and also, to be fair…. because of a shared enthusiasm for mountains and the stories that surround them. Climbing them? Not so much; dodgy bones and vertigo put paid to to my climbing decades ago. But the literature of mountains and mountaineering. Oh yes.

That was reinvigorated by Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Mountains of the mind‘ and its exploration of the shifting imagery of our relationship with high places. It does a job like  Raymond Williams’ The country and the city did for the opposition of ideas of urban and rural in art and literature. It’s a job which Macfarlane continues to do with books like Landmarks, and Simon Schama in Landscape and memory. And I ought to namecheck Terry Gifford, one of my tutors on the MA Creative Writing course I did; apart from writing critical appraisals of Ted Hughes, he also used to organise international conferences on the relationship of climbing and literature. Clearly, I’m not breaking new ground here. Just setting a stage on which to introduce today’s guest.

David Wilson’s not the first by any means to write poetry that goes through the looking glass to engage the attention of folk not normally keen readers of poetry, and more recently there are other collections and pamphlets that occupy the same territory.

helen and yvonne (2)

Helen Mort’s recent ‘No map could show them’ has a double reach since it also celebrates those Victorian women alpinists, and ticks the boxes of both feminists and mountaineers. The backstory of Yvonne Reddick’s Translating mountains engages in another way because of its poignant personal family history . You can check it out via the link https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2016/12/11/taking-off-a-polished-gem-revisited-yvonne-reddick/.

I’m personally fascinated by epic tales of suffering and death on high mountains. Joe Simpson’s Touching the void showed how such a story can reach out to a much wider public, just as the myths that have accreted around Mallory will engage readers who have never set foot on a rock face. And since one of the poems that David Wilson wrote which proved a breakthrough for him is about Everest, it seems a good place to introduce him.

“David  turned to writing poetry a few years ago after being
inspired by Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Midsummer, Tobago’ on the wall of a
hospital waiting room in Leeds. He then discovered the Writing Days
run by the Poetry Business in Sheffield, leading to his first attempts
at poems since primary school.
David was born and brought up in North London and studied at the
London School of Economics, followed by a Masters degree at Leeds
University, which at the time had the only indoor climbing wall in the
country and was close to excellent outcrop climbing.

He has climbed
extensively in the UK, Alps and further afield, at a standard best
described as erratic.  In mid-life he got hooked on windsurfing, but
writing about climbing led him back into it.

David’s poems have appeared in The North, Poetry News, Rialto,
Scottish Mountaineer, Climb, Alpinist and the Cinnamon anthology
Journey Planner. He has also been a prize-winner in competitions:
Poets and Players (twice), Kent and Sussex, Buxton International
Festival,  Poetry News and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. His
first pamphlet, Slope, was published by Smith/Doorstop in 2016.

slope_web

(Two things I’d want to highlight, because, I suppose, they fit the ‘looking glass’ argument. First off, his poems have appeared in serious poetry journals, but also in climbing and mountaineering journals, as well as winning a prize with the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. Second, you’ll notice that the endorsement on the front cover of Slope isn’t from a poet, but a world-famous mountaineer. You’d give an arm and a leg for an endorsemant like that. Or perhaps not, if you’re a mountaineer. But you get the point.)

David adds some thoughts on writing poetry which are relevant.

“Prior to writing poetry, I occasionally wrote fiction, both short
stories and a well-received novel.
In seeking to write about the experience of climbing, and its social
and historical context, Robert McFarlane’s Mountains of the Mind  was
one influential book, another was Wade Davis’ Into the Silence: The
Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest; and a third,  M. John
Harrison’s novel Climbers. The poets Les Murray and Norman McCaig were
helpful in gaining insight into writing about climbing and landscape.”

Praise for his poetry has come from the worlds of poetry and of mountaineering. Here’s a selection.

‘These poems bring back great memories. And I empathise with the
questions some of the poems raise.’
Chris Bonington

‘Both Helen Mort’s ‘No Map Could Show Them’ and David Wilson’s ‘Slope’
clearly show that great poetry about climbing is not only possible –
as Coleridge surely realised in his state of ‘prophetic trance and
delight’ when descending Broad Stand – but that it is very much alive
and well in Britain today, well over two hundred years after that
euphoric adventure on Scafell.’
David Pickford, Editor-in-Chief, Climb magazine.

and, to introduce the first poem:

‘A brilliantly imagistic rendering of a place. The finding of likeness
between Elvis and Everest …is truly spectacular.’
Paul Muldoon on ‘Everest’, which he awarded the 2015 Poets and Players prize.

Everest

Once it was Chomolungma,
Mother Goddess of the Earth,
a face whose veil rarely lifted,
its whiteness the White Whale’s.

Now it’s like Elvis near the end,
a giant in a soiled jumpsuit,
blank, useful for percentages,
a sheet from which the music’s fled.

What I like particularly here is how much is packed into an eight-line poem; the history of a mountain and of the death of legends; it charts a descent from the divine to the mysterious, to the popular myth, to the pathetic and shopworn. It has the kind of resonance I associate with Black Elk talking about Wounded Knee: the hoop of the nations is broken and the sacred tree is dead’.

The image of a sheet of staves which has lost all its notation resonates particularly with my images of failed ascents, the tiny black dots of climbers who vanished into whiteout.

Mind you, it would be doing David an injustice to suggest that he’s somehow caught in a niche subject. That isn’t remotely true, any more than it would be of Helen Mort or Yvonne Reddick. All I was suggesting at the start is that it does you no harm to be able to write about subjects that break the shiny walls of the poetry bubble. Because the odds are that then those readers will find all the other poems, and read them, too. Poems like this:

1950_IfanA-BombFalls_EffectsofAtomicExplosions_color

Duke of Edinburgh’s

After Biology’s birds and bees
Mr Palmer taught us Civil Defence,
how to raise a burned body part
above the level of the heart,
to recognise the four minute siren,
Duck and Cover if caught outside.

He prized his Mega-Death Calculator:
two cardboard discs, one over the other.
We’d offer a number in kilotons;
rotating the discs with two fat thumbs,
he’d read off deaths to the nearest ten k
within five miles of Camden Market.

The President gave his ultimatum.
Subs and missile ships sailed on.
Mr Palmer fiddled with his Calculator.
“Don’t giggle! It looks likely tomorrow
that most of our numbers will be up.”
Across a field the First Eleven trained.

The drunks who cursed outside the tube
gone in a flash. Tufnell Park white ash.
The blast hitting Highgate Hill, Marx’s Grave,
the suicide bridge on Archway Road.
Helen Shapiro and her beehive vaporised
as she walked back to happiness.

 

We had teachers like that at the time of the first hydrogen bomb tests; we ghoulishly pored over diagrams that told us how our houses and our skin would look if an H Bomb was dropped on Leeds. Privately, I had nightmares.

David’s poem beautifully dramatises the mindset of intelligent teenagers (I guess they were all boys) at the time of the Cuban Missile crisis. It’s the precision of location and geography that makes this work for me…and that one telling bit of ephemeral history. Helen Shapiro’s beehive hairdo. It nails one generation’s priorities, (and maybe its uncertain preoccupation with birds and bees) and horrifies with the absolutism of that verb: vaporised. I love the art of this poem, the tying up of its narrative.

The Hydrogen Bomb UK civil defence poster

David generously sent me more poems than I can use in one post, but I reckon we can manage three more. The thing I notice as I read and re-read them is their concern with mortality, the fragility of human life. Most climbing literature will return again and again to reflections on the belief of great mountaineers. Namely, that putting themselves at risk in sublimely dangerous high and inaccessible places gives then renewed insight in the preciousness of being alive. I think these poems are illuminated by this core idea. See if you agree. The first is full of innocence. I love it.

Bivouac at Harrisons’ Rocks

Leaves turn from green to grey.
On the breeze a scent of hops.
A star appears. A bat.

Beyond silver birch trees
a train sounds its two-tone horn,
slows for a bend, disappears.

We’re fifteen years old
with apple pies, cans of Sprite,
and dreams of the Eigerwand.

Above our ledge a sandstone roof,
below us the drop. Not far
but far enough.

I read a lot into that ‘far enough’…meaning: far enough to be thrilled and frightened, for the adrenalin rush; far enough to be killed if you fall off. The thing about climbing is that it’s addictive. It’s never enough. There’s always something that bit harder, that bit bigger.

palimpsest

The next poem Palimpsest commemorates Rachel Slater and Tim Newton who went missing on Valentine’s weekend 2016, buried in an avalanche on the North Face of
Ben Nevis. Their bodies were not found for many weeks.

Palimpset

How softly we climbed last winter,
touching the snow as if it were skin
on the slope that led to the routes,

knowing they were somewhere beneath us,
partners who left their tent at dawn,
her in her red jacket, him his new boots.

It could as easily have been us,
lost beneath an unreadable surface
as layers of old and new compressed.

It’s yet another poem that does so much in a small space. The title, I think, is brilliant. Not just for the obvious whiteness of snow that covers imperfection and loss, but more radically, the scraping off of a record ready for new marks and tracks. How well it connects with the first lines

How softly we climbed last winter,
touching the snow as if it were skin

‘Softly’ is exactly right. That held-breath tentativeness, that fear of the surface fragility, that precariousness. And the the softness with which you might touch a loved one. And how you might pause to touch the dead body of a loved one. I find this powerfully moving.

The final poem I chose isn’t a ‘climbing’ poem. But the voice is one I want to end with. It’s a voice that says that being hopeful is  a condition of  being alive. And I’ll settle for that on this July Sunday.

The Day

You reminded me, how years ago on the school run
I said one day we’ll just keep driving,
past the railings and bells and latecomers

to see where the day takes us,
perhaps the beach, perhaps back home,
and I’d let you decide when it should be.

It didn’t happen but knowing it was enough
you said, the best thing I ever did.
And I wonder if the same is true for me;

perhaps, when nestled among flowers
with the rear door of my limousine shut,
you might ask the man in black

to keep driving, see where the day takes us,
to hills, the sea, or just around the block
like an uncertain bride taking her time.

So, thank you, David Wilson for being our guest and being, involuntarily, part of an argument I’ve been having about the place of poetry in the oworld.

Two things coming up. Midweek we’ll have two poems from a workshop I ran. Because I like them. And next Sunday (or Monday) a tribute to another small poetry press: Paper Swans. Hope to see you then.

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Tŷ Newydd and That Report

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Tŷ Newydd and That Report

Tŷ Newydd and That Report

I just have to add my voice to that of a poet and teacher who has in many ways changed my life for the better.
Two things I HAVE to say. First of all, the fact that this ‘report’ is written with the protection of anonymity. I’d say that in itself that’s an act of intellectual and moral dishonesty and cowardice. If you’re going to write something that threatens the livelihood and wellbeing of others, do it in the open, or just button it.
Second: my own involvement with Arvon..and Lumb Bank in particular…. started in the 80s. As an LEA English Adviser, one task I inherited was to arrange an annual residential writing course for 6th form students in my authority. Not hobbyists, not retirees…young adults whose lives in some cases were changed, as mine was, for the better. Then there were collaborations with Yorkshire Arts..courses for would-be Writers in Education in collaboration with heads of English from the secondary schools in my LEA. Most participants mainly in their 30s. Among them, Lemn Sissay. I might rest my case right there.
And then, the residentials I’ve been on. Not Ty Newydd, as it happens, but courses run by The Poetry Business, Kim Moore, Almaserra Vella. Till I went on them I published nothing, and had no plans to do so. But since then (in the last 5 years) I’ve had  2 collections published, and four pamphlets. I’ve won competitions judged by, amomg others, three poets laureate. I’ve even come to the point when I can be asked to run a writers workshop at a Poetry Festival.
What do places like Lumb Bank and Ty Newydd offer professional writers? Well..employment is a word that springs effortlessly to mind.

I’ll set aside the evidently not-right-on  sneer about ‘retirees’. I doubt that the report would ever have dreamed using a phrase like  ‘hobbyist women‘ or ‘hobbyist people of colour’. Apparently equal opportunities don’t apply to older folk. As a 74 year old I find that insulting. There you go. Apparently wanting to continue living a full creative life doesn’t meet whatever criteria the reporters have set for themselves. It’s interesting, I think, to ask who actually pays for them to write their report. I imagine it’s the taxpayer. Just for the record, I’ve been paying taxes for over 50 years.
So, to the anonymous and unprincipled jobsworth who wrote the section of this report quoted by Kim I’d say: engage brain before opening your mouth. And have the courage not to hide behind the anonymity of a damaging and inaccurate piece of misinformation.

Kim Moore

Last week, I saw via a post on Facebook that an Independent Review of Support for Publishing and Literature in Wales had been published.  Within those pages the Tŷ Newydd Creative Writing Centre had received damaging criticism, which is so at odds with my experience of Tŷ Newydd that I feel obliged to write this in support of Tŷ Newydd

You can find the report here

The paragraph below is taken directly from the report.

Tŷ Newydd seems to be mainly aimed at ‘retired hobbyists’ but it was unclear who Tŷ Newydd caters for and why it is receiving public subsidy. It was also unclear how many individuals, who have attended a course at Tŷ Newydd, have gone on to publish a book. This kind of residential literary course is viewed by many to be outdated in the current creative writing boom in the digital age . Tŷ Newydd offers little…

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