A praise poem (for Emma Gonzales) : John Duffy


Praise poem

Emma Gonzalez,

I wish I had never heard of you,

I wish I had never seen you

wiping tears from your eyes

as you stood on the platform

and spoke for the people,

for the young people who died,

for the young people who survived,

for all the people who know

that what comes out of the barrel

of a gun is inadequacy and

envy and smoke and hating

people as beautiful as you,

Emma Gonzalez, you

with your words that shame

the traders in death and lift

sad friends, miserable families,

bewildered children, and all of us

across your country and the planet

who stand amazed at the power

of your voice,  Emma Gonzalez,

your angry laugh,

your daring your president

to become a man, to own up

to his blood money in deep

pockets, I wish I had never seen you

rooted on the stage, defiant,

your head like a wonderful marine’s,

Emma Gonzalez, cropped short

and meaning business, meaning

to clean up big business,

meaning justice, meaning a scattering

of vendors’ tables: your tongue scourging

the ones who trade in carnage

and the ones who watched

the gunman swagger, the gunman

pose, the gunman possessed

by misery, by smoke, by nothing

of any worth.  You have given us

hope, Emma Gonzalez,

by your courage and your words.

What a sister, what a friend,

Emma Gonzalez, what a daughter!

emma 2

Emma Gonzales’ speech – extracts

Every single person up here today, all these people should be home grieving. But instead we are up here standing together because if all our government and President can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see. Since the time of the Founding Fathers and since they added the Second Amendment to the Constitution, our guns have developed at a rate that leaves me dizzy. The guns have changed but our laws have not.

We certainly do not understand why it should be harder to make plans with friends on weekends than to buy an automatic or semi-automatic weapon.

I read something very powerful to me today. It was from the point of view of a teacher. And I quote: When adults tell me I have the right to own a gun, all I can hear is my right to own a gun outweighs your student’s right to live. All I hear is mine, mine, mine, mine.

When we’ve had our say with the government — and maybe the adults have gotten used to saying ‘it is what it is,’ but if us students have learned anything, it’s that if you don’t study, you will fail. And in this case if you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead, so it’s time to start doing something.

We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because, just as David said, we are going to be the last mass shooting. Just like Tinker v. Des Moines, we are going to change the law. That’s going to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas in that textbook and it’s going to be due to the tireless effort of the school board, the faculty members, the family members and most of all the students. The students who are dead, the students still in the hospital, the student now suffering PTSD, the students who had panic attacks during the vigil because the helicopters would not leave us alone, hovering over the school for 24 hours a day.

If the President wants to come up to me and tell me to my face that it was a terrible tragedy and how it should never have happened and maintain telling us how nothing is going to be done about it, I’m going to happily ask him how much money he received from the National Rifle Association.

You want to know something? It doesn’t matter, because I already know. Thirty million dollars. And divided by the number of gunshot victims in the United States in the one and one-half months in 2018 alone, that comes out to being $5,800. Is that how much these people are worth to you, Trump? If you don’t do anything to prevent this from continuing to occur, that number of gunshot victims will go up and the number that they are worth will go down. And we will be worthless to you.

To every politician who is taking donations from the NRA, shame on you.

They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS. That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.


John Duffy’s poetry

Glamourie. [Calder Valley Poetry 2016] £7.00

The edge of seeing.  [The High Window 2017] £10.00




Where all the ladders start (2)


Just back from five days at a writing retreat at Garsdale Head, about eight miles up the valley from Hawes.

It felt strange, last Monday, to be driving past the Ribblehead viaduct, all the moors streaked with snow that lies longer in the lea of the gritstone walls that march straight up big hills, for no purpose other than enclosure, the marking of boundary and ownership. Deeper drifted snow in hollows and ghylls; curling snow cornices on the edges of landslip. I drove past the turn to Dentdale, and realised with a kind of lurch that years ago, on my first hiking holiday, I’d walked from Dent youth hostel straight over the moor top to Oughtershaw and Langstrothdale, down into Buckden and then to Kettlewell. The lurch came from seeing how big the moors are, how far. I didn’t know better then. I just did it without thinking. Last Monday, I knew I’d never do anything like it again. I’d be too timid, too anxious, and in any case my legs wouldn’t let me. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, that sense of inability, and if you let it in, it makes you feel as though there are lots of other things you can’t do any more. Like writing anything you’d want to read again.

I think that diffuse draining of confidence leaked into the workshop tasks, which all seemed to become reflective, introspective, all about ‘I’ and ‘me’. You lug a lot of baggage into workshops. Or at least I do. Often it’s useful baggage, stuff you’ve just read or done, that lets you come at the moment obliquely. A simple example would be the way you can approach your own inner life via the narratives of myth or folk tale, via ventriloquism, hiding inside another imagined self or persona. This last week has been about finding no hiding place, and being unsure of the way language can let you speak truly about the unadorned experience. I think that’s at least part of what Yeats meant about the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. I firmly believe that it was just what I needed. Whether I liked it or not was neither here nor there. When I’m asked what I expect from a writing workshop I say, blithely, that I want to be shifted out of my comfort zone. I wasn’t disappointed. Thank you, Kim Moore.

I wanted to say all that before sharing one of those poems that seem to come without worry or effort, because sometimes I forget to say thanks for their turning up. Of course, they don’t come out of nowhere. It’s nice to acknowledge a debt to those who make a place to start. Here’s a task that came at the very end of a Poetry Business writing day. Task 7. One of Ann Sansom’s six line specials, with four or five minutes and no more to finish your morning on a high.

for true naming

How does it work? The instruction is to write a succession of lines, and each of the lines must contain one of the prompt words or ideas. A hero, a time word, some sort of headgear, something to do with a church, a free choice line and the name of a county. Any of those could be a trigger, but it happened that I’d been reading, and rereading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. I’d earmarked several things. One was his writing about the Finnish Kalavela, and the hero Vainamoinen who the legend credits with winning the gift of fire for mankind. The other wonderful core idea is that of the naming of places, and of landscapes, that the world is en-chanted into being by knowing and saying its True Names.

What else comes along, what baggage? For me, the quest of Ged in Ursula le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. The end of Ged’s quest is to understand that he can only know his true self by naming it with his true name. Names are the core of magic. The journeys of the innocent heroes and heroines of folk tale are important too….journeys through dark forest, over mountain passes, on the edges of dark seas. Elemental places, much like the snow-streaked dark moors or the coast of Northumbria; Dunstanburgh and the Farnes where the mythic is just about to break in like hail. And there it is, a workshop prompt that lights a fuse for a fire you’ve been building without really thinking why. Without Macfarlane, that line ‘for the true naming of the world’ wouldn’t have jumped on the page to introduce a list of everything you might need. I should write a praise-song for lists and listing, and their seductive forward-pushing rhythms. Here’s the finished version.

For the true naming of the world


For the true naming of the world

you need one who will recognise a fish

that has swallowed a star

that fell through the vaults of the air;

one who wears a helmet or bears a sword

forged in the heart of mountains,

from metals whose names no man ever knew,

to bear a name that can not be forgot,

a name to fit in a verse to be sung at a feast;


you need one to be sent on a quest

through silent forests, stony wastes,

to a bony church and a hillside that opens

to a way that he’ll walk through all the ages,

to come dumb and dazzled to the seashore

under huge lucid skies, into the wind,

to build monasteries, to illuminate gospels;

to speak to otters, spear the sea like a gannet,

to be one with wind and with seals.


Then stones and flowers might come

to know themselves. Day’s-eye, comfrey,

coltsfoot, mallow, vetch, stonecrop, feverfew.

Hornblende, granite, wolfram, flint and gneiss;

valleys might come know their depths,

and becks and burns to know the purposes of rain,

and the ways of the clough and the gorge

under blood moons, hare moons, the moon

when horns are broken. Then.


Almost everything in this is borrowed. I’m pretty sure the ‘hillside that opens’ is from William Mayne’s Earthfasts, set in Arkengathdale. I imagined the kind of hillside that loomed over the house I stayed in last week. This oneIMG_2612

the lucid skies are the astonishing skies of the Northumberland coast; the founder of monasteries is Cuthbert, the gospels are from Lindisfarne; Cuthbert spoke with otters and seals, but the imagining of it is from Robert Westall’s The Wind Eye. The naming of flowers is from Macfarlane, and the Native American names for the moons of different seasons are from Dee Brown.

Sometimes it’s even less complicated. Sometimes you seem to be given something that comes pretty well fully-formed. In this case a sort of retelling of a parable from Bede. More Northumbria, but in my mind, it happens in Whitby. It seemed to have its own urgent rhythm.In the meantime

and the finished version, which just seemed to know its own linebreaks

In the meantime


because that’s how it is, the sparrow

flying into the meadhall, bewildered

by smoke-reek, gusts of beer-breath,

out of the wild dark and into the half-

light of embers, sweat, the steam

of fermenting rushes, and maybe

a harp and an epic that means nothing

in a language it doesn’t know, this sparrow,

frantic to be out there, and maybe

it perches on a tarry roof beam, catches

a wingtip, comes up against thatch

like a moth on a curtain, and it beats

its wings, it beats its wings, it tastes

a wind with the scent of rain, the thin

smell of snow, of stars, and somehow

it’s out into the turbulence of everywhere,

and who knows what happens next.


So there we are. Every time you think you have nothing to say, or it all seems too hard and miserable, say a little prayer for the ones you were given free, like a blessing.


[Both poems come from Much possessed .  smith|doorstop 2016.

Available  via The Poetry Business, or from me direct. See  My books  at the top of the page]

Where all the ladders start [1]

junk shop 1

I’ve just been trawling Google for ‘rag and bone shops’. Fascinatingly, nearly everything that shows up seems to be about faux-antique shops in pleasant places. Post-modern yuppie emporia for Grand Designs and interior decorator addicts. Almost certainly expensive and probably pretentious. Not what I was looking for, by a long chalk.

And why? Partly it was the realisation that the first bits of poetry that hit me in the solar plexus rather than in the intellect were Yeats’.

This is no country for old men.

An old man’s eagle mind. 

And this

“Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
The circus animals’ desertion caught me off guard, and bypassed the usual Prac. Crit. sieve that A levels and University equipped me with. I didn’t ‘understand’ it in any analytic way. It felt true and important. It still does. I hear Yeats asking ‘who was I kidding?’, telling himself he’s lost his way, needs to get back to basics. And the reality of the ‘basics’ felt shocking to me, then. I supposed then that he meant to embrace ‘realism’…which was fashionable enough in the 60s if you meant ‘kitchen sink’. Whatever that was. I knew about rag and bone men; they were familiar enough down our street in the 1940’s and 50’s. As was their cry. Ra’bones!.any kind of old rags! God knows how worn out things had to be before you’d think of throwing them away, but somehow, someone could make a living out of them. And after all, I lived in the Heavy Woollen District where things like blankets and overcoat material were spun and woven from recycled rags…which was called ‘shoddy’. My dad spun yarn from shoddy for 50 years.
junk shop 3
I didn’t consciously think through whatever layers of meaning were implied by that ‘foul rag and bone shop’. I had a diffuse sense that he meant that truth didn’t reside in the myths of Oisin, or Cuchalain, that he’d been distracting himself from the real stuff, whatever that was. I didn’t stop to think that this stuff was worn out from life and use and carried its musty histories in its warp and weft. It’s a lot later that I came to see how the foul rag and bone shop of unconsidered memory is where poems that are (or seem to be) the real deal can come from.
I’ve been reading Julie Mellor’s poetry blog recently…she’s been reflecting on the processes of breaking out of a default way of drafting and composing by using randomising devices like cut-ups…just to see what happens. Other writers’ ways of working fascinate me. It reminds me of the pleasure to be had from watching actors, or listening to musicians in rehearsal (as opposed to in concert or performance). You can follow what she’s been doing via this link. Well worth it.
At which point I thought I might revisit poems that had seemed to come unbidden,  yet seemed to be important, and to think about what was involved. At the risk of the whole business seeming a self-advertising ego trip, I thought that I’d like to have a look at poems I’ve written that have got ‘out there’ and done well for themselves, and to wonder how it happened. Today I’m going back to a poem called ‘Julie
 Scan 1.jpg
It starts in a Jane Draycott workshop. Among the many tasks was one that I tend to distrust…where you’re given an image at random and invited to respond to it in one way or another. This one is from those nice boxes of Postcards from Penguin. 100 postcards using covers of vintage Penguin books.
And I have to say, I couldn’t see what could possibly be done with it. I feel that way when I look at it now. Somehow you need to bypass the rational/analytic bit of the brain, and especially the bit that worries about ‘writing poems’,here’s the notebook scrawl from 2013:
julie 1julie 2
One of the reasons I keep all my workshop scribbles in bound books, and why I number the pages, is that I can revisit where things start, and remind my self what kind of trigger was involved. It’s why I write down what the workshop tutor says about the task. What did Jane say? You have to learn to search for or listen for the point of arrest. That intrigues me still, as does one of her phrases about the ignition point of a poem. I’ve come to conflate this with Clive James’ the moment that draws you in. It might be a word or a phrase, or a rhythm or a sensory memory. For me it’s almost always a visual image that may initially be diffuse and unfocussed, but it’ll be one that may snag and nag.
And then she went on to say:
the point will be be …what this is not, what this might be,  where this isn’t. 
It was the last bit that stuck I think. Flames. If not here, then where? I used to live between Redcar and Saltburn, and in the night there would be the flares of the ironworks up the coast, and sometimes the stacks of Wilton ICI ‘flaring off’. That’s where these flames would be. I’d recently had a reunion with Andy Blackford who I’d not seen in over 30 years. He has a house in Staithes, where the inland skyline is dominated by Boulby potash mine. It has a tall chimney. It doesn’t flare, but somehow it got conflated with those of ICI. A rag and bone shop of half-remembered stuff.


Staithes is a fishing village; the lovely fishing boats, the cobles that are descendants of Viking boats, sit tilted on the mud of the river at low tide, and suddenly I’m making a link with Whitby, where what mattered right then was my partner’s cousin Julie, mortally ill but defying the consultants by living on beyond the allotment they’d settled on. Just like that, she becomes the centre of the poem, the landscapes initially incidental, and then starting to take on a resonance that’s not just geographical. None of this has been intentional. I didn’t set out to write a poem about Julie. I didn’t set out with any purpose at all. On the other hand, it seemed essential that I saw her in her place in Whitby’s Old Town, low-ceilinged and bursting with stuff. Nutty and magical. Photos don’t do it justice, but here’s a flavour. Every single object has a complicated personal history. A wonderful ‘rag and bone shop’ if you like.



The way it fixed itself in the five minutes or so of first drafting was the house becoming a sort of theatre, or maybe an iconostasis for  you perched like a wire bird/ up on your kitchen top. but I think the poem takes off in a way that was new to me when I focus on Julie rather than the anecdotal details. I’d never written a line like this

Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face

Basically, I’d never written directly and honestly about someone I knew…it’s the kind of thing I avoided because there was always the terrifying possibility that the someone would read it and deny that it was true. It’s a real blocker, the fear of embarrassment, for me at least. But it’s what I think I started to learn about the rag-and-bone-shop of the heart. The shops I knew. But the heart was dangerous territory. There’s a huge release in writing a line like that, feeling it directly..if you’ve not done it before. A leap. But it puts the flames in their proper place, and at this point, the poem expands outwards into everywhere.  Julie died a couple of months later and never got to read what I’d written. I know I’m glad I wrote it. Here’s the finished poem. Not a lot has changed, has it. Sometimes you’re awarded that kind of moment…but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. All the material, all the images were already hanging about, uncurated, all in a jumble, like the junk shop. What they needed was the catalyst. The nudge was the postcard, but the catalyst was ‘the heart’ , I think.


According to the specialists you died six months ago

and I like sitting with you, proving there’s an afterlife

as we roll cigarettes, you perched like a wire bird

up on your kitchen top beside the angel

that I made for you before I knew you weren’t alive.


Your fridge’s crusted like a wreck, with magnets

and pictures of BobDylan, and you show me

that programme that Patti Smith had signed for you

not knowing you’d been applauding from the Underworld.


You make me laugh each time you tell the phone

it can get stuffed because it’s your mad mother

who will not believe that you’re not with us any more.


Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face,

then sink, then glow like cigarettes, like the ironworks

up the coast, or the small lights on the cobles

tied up and tilted on the mud; like the strange flares

from the stack high up on Boulby Cliff, where the shaft

goes down a whole dark mile of ammonites, and heads off

far away beneath the weight of oil rigs, and sunken ships,

and shoals of cod, and all the grey North sea.



It was a special poem for me in so many ways, not least that it won The Plough Poetry Competition in 2013. Andrew Motion picked it, and talked about that ‘expanding out’ of the last lines. Still, for me, it stays a poem from the rag-and-bone-shop that turns out not to be foul, after all.

Depending on the reaction, I’ll write some more posts about poems that have been significant for me, and how they came about. What I’d really like would be to share other poets’ stories. If you’re interested let me know via


Ideally, it would involve you still having the original drafts and a clear memory of the where and when and who of the process. But let’s just see, shall we.

Thanks for reading. I’m off on a writing week tomorrow, so there may be no post next Sunday. It’ll be as it’s meant to be.

No hiding place…. and a Polished gem: Matthew Stewart


This still from Werner Herzog’s ‘Encounters at the end of the world’ has been called ‘one of the great existential moments of modern cinema’. It’s one that has me in tears. For some reason this one penguin has has left the tribe (according to wikipedia , a group of penguins on land is called a waddle. Other collective nouns for penguins include: rookery, colony, and huddle. None of them seem to credit their air of social purpose. I’ll stay with tribe). The others are purposefully plodding seaward, towards food and salvation. This one is equally purposefully heading inland to a certain death. The camera pulls back, and goes on pulling back until the penguin is microscopic in an infinity of white. Herzog’s voice-over speculates that the only reason for this behaviour is that the penguin has become insane. It’s heartbreaking.


I should say that I’ve spent the last couple of days in bed, feeling physically done in. A bit like the early symptoms of flu, without the coughing and sneezing. Just very tired and achey. So this post post might be more incoherent than usual. Still. Press on. Basically I’ve been thinking about how to introduce today’s guest poet, who happens to write short poems…not necessarily lyric, but short. I’m very conscious that I don’t do short, and admire poets who do, mainly because I think it takes more confidence and craft and discipline than I have. I suspect I’m afraid of white space, because, essentially, it leaves no hiding place. Every word is exposed, and has to justify itselfScan 3

Here’s a bit of one of my writing workshop notebooks. You don’t need to read it to see that it fills the page, edge to edge. No line breaks, no white space except for that between the words and the lines. If I ever try to write a first draft that looks like a poem I get stuck, because I start looking at words and phrases and I start thinking, and stop writing. It’s the way I am. It’s just easier to write a lot without stopping and worrying. I’ll leave that idea there, because I fancy writing some posts about how some of my poems came about, and this extract will feature. But you see what I mean. I hope.

Let’s try another tack. How about a one-line poem…say, from Blake’s Proverbs of hell.

the cut worm forgives the plough

The space around it invites you to consider it as significant, and it’s instantly vulnerable to scrutiny. If it works at all it’s because it yields up layers of meaning or significance. Ask yourself where the stresses go. If the stress falls on cut then it invites you to think of what the alternatives might be. crushed? slain? Why cut? Is it that if it’s a slight wound, it can bring itself to ‘forgive’. Just an accident..no worries. What if the stress is on worm. What if it was dog or wolf or…After all ‘worm’ can imply weakness, moral, spiritual, physical. But what if there’s an implied unspoken qualifier? Even the cut worm. Hmm. What if the stress is on plough. Do we understand that the plough may be forgiven but not the ploughman. It turns out that it looks like one short line, but it’s powerfully ambiguous and complicated. Who knows what Blake intended. We might even want to read the line in the light of everything else he wrote. You see what I mean. Short poems surrounded by lots of white space need to do a lot more work than lines in a long poem where they can hide in the forward push of rhythm or rhetoric or emotion. I can’t write them…or, at least, very rarely, and when I do they’re not much good. Which is why I admire those who can, which brings me to our Polished Gem for today; Matthew Stewart.

I met, and heard, Matthew for the first time about a month ago when he read at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield. I knew his poetry blog, Rogue Strands,and I’d read about him in posts by Paul Stephenson and Abigail Morley.

You can check those posts out via these links….worth reading, and save me some time while I’m feeling muddy-headed.



I liked the poems a lot. I liked their urbanity, their layeredness. I like the way he told them, and the way they were robust enough to stand up for themselves when they had to compete with non-poetry chatter at the other end of the room. One reviewer, Rory Waterman puts it better:  “Matthew Stewart is a poet of consolidation, truth, and freshness, with a masterful sense of economy. His poems matter, and his first full collection has been too long in coming. These poems have the rare quality of resonating a long way beyond their modest physical limitations.”  Exactly

So I asked him to be guest, and here he is. The biog he sent me is brief, succinct, and somehow just right as an introduction for a poet unafraid of white space.

“Matthew Stewart works in the Spanish wine trade and lives between Extremadura and West Sussex. Following two pamphlets with HappenStance Press, both now sold out, he has recently published his first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, with Eyewear Books. He blogs at http://roguestrands.blogspot.com.




The four poems he’s sent me to share are all from The knives of Villalego, and they make me think of a phrase I’ve used before in my posts. Dark watcher. The point of view of the unseen observer, or at least the overlooked observer who can see what’s going on but can’t affect or change what happens. Maybe it has something to do with the fact of his living in and between two countries and two languages. It’s something that Kim Moore picked out in one of her Sunday Poem blogs when she posted one of his poems : Twenty years apart

Ignore the smells, swap Spanish for English,
back streets of Villalejo for Oxford.
Muttered stories mirror muttered stories.
I’m still in the background.

Kim commented:

the outsider is always an outsider, whether in Villalejo or Oxford. When the speaker in the poem urges the reader to ‘Ignore the smells, swap Spanish for English’  the reader starts to realise the speaker is an outsider where ever he goes.Yes. It’s that quiet understatement, a sort of self deprecatory quality, a rueful one, but a truthfully observed one too. There’s more than that in the collection, though. Enjoy this selection. I’d love to sit and tell you why I enjoy them as well as telling you I do. But this bug, whatever it is, is asserting itself. Maybe I’ll come back in a couple of days with a clear head and finish the job properly. But I promised our guest he’d be featured today and a promise is a promise. Here we go.

The 23rd


i.m. George Stewart


It casually loiters in the fourth line

of April, pretending not to stalk me,

the expiry date on David’s passport

and the start of a trade fair in Brussels.

It knows full well you chose your namesake’s day

to die, as if you were somehow afraid

I might forget. As if I ever could.



You’ve reached 020…


I dial and dial, never leave a message.

What I dread is your picking up one day

and your voice turning unpredictable.


I love to hear it tinny, caught on tape,

giving a number rather than a name,

as if you were the prisoner, not me.

Sooner or later


For the moment it skulks

below forgotten gifts

and out-of-favour shirts

in the spare-room wardrobe.


Maybe tonight, maybe

next year, a sudden call

will bring it centre stage,

rushed to the dry cleaners.


They’ll hanger it. Shoulders

will thrust like instructions

for use. There’s not a hope

of dodging the dark suit.


Let me finish for the time being, though, in the kind of place you’d be happy to be a visitor. You might feel like an outsider in some Spanish village cafes and bars, but the smell of hot oil and frying dough, and chocolate (and, possibly, caporal tobacco) speaks a universal language. I’ll take it for my comfort this evening.

Chocolate con churros


The vat of oil must haze the air,

the batter sticky but slick.

He pipes it gently through the nozzle.

Spatulas dance as it ripples

in ring after fizzing gold ring.


Just after dawn his café steams.

Hunters, half-cut teenagers

and widows all hunch over cups

in the hubbub of the churros

being dunked in chocolate.


Thank you, Matthew Stewart, for poems unafraid of white space, that prove that when it’s done right, less is more.


Reasons to be cheerful

About 11.00am this morning I realise I’ve had nothing to eat since my breakfast porridge on Saturday. I have a headache and I am ridiculously happy. Let me tell you why.
Summer, Buddy Holly, the working folly
Good golly, Miss Molly and boats
Hammersmith Palais, the Bolshoi Ballet
Jump back in the alley and nanny goats
Eighteen wheeler Scammells, Dominica camels
All other mammals plus equal votes
Seeing Piccadilly, Fanny Smith and Willie
Being rather silly and porridge oats………………

August 1979 saw the worst disaster in the 100-year history of ocean yacht racing, as a freak storm hit the Fastnet race leaving 15 crew members dead.Starting in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, the 605-mile Fastnet race is one of amateur yachting’s greatest challenges. Competing boats set sail from Cowes, travel along south coast of England, up across the Irish Sea to the Fastnet Rock (the most south-westerly point in Ireland), then sail back across the Irish Sea to Plymouth.

The 1979 race began on August 11 in fine weather, with 303 yachts – carrying 2,500 crew members from all over the world – taking part. But two days later, over a period of 20 hours, they were facing a terrifying, deadly storm, as violent, force 10 winds whipped up 50ft waves in the Irish Sea. More than a third of the yachts were knocked over until their masts were parallel to the water, and a quarter capsized completely.


Meanwhile, my family and me were on our annual camping holiday in Osmington Mills in Dorset. Force 8-10 gales blowing for three days solid. The tent got blown down twice, poles bent, no-one sleeping because of the noise of the wind. The campsite was stripped bare as tents were simply ripped or blown away. We stuck it out, mainly because I’d paid for two weeks in advance. What it was like at sea is unimaginable. In the middle of this, coming and going on the radio was Ian Dury’s ‘Reasons to be cheerful. Part 3’ to which we sang along through gritted teeth. I put it down to having been in the Scouts (who, as we know, smile and whistle through all difficulties).

I think of this when I’m going through the doldrums, as I have been of late. Because sooner or later, there’s yet another reason to be cheerful. Like going in for my quarterly check-up for my prostate cancer and being told that the new injections are doing the trick, my p.s.a. is down to 4.6 (apparently this is a Good Thing, so I don’t ask what it means) and almost certainly I’ll not be needing chemo or radiotherapy. Not for some time, anyway. And I’m told that sudden attacks of tiredness, headaches and mild baseless anxiety is simply a side effect of big doses of oestrogen. I begin to understand more about the female condition. Or imagine I do. Reasons to be cheerful, indeed.

Good things come for unasked and unexpected. Friday night, about 10.30, I’m idly checking my emails and messages, and there’s a post from Kim Moore telling me that their guest poet for a poem and a pint has been struck down by the ‘flu, and can I stand in at short notice. Can I do it tomorrow, in Ulverston. I’m knackered; it’s a 250 mile round trip. Can I do it? Of course I can. First of all I’m flattered; this is my involuntary mentor and inspiration asking;they’ll pay me. And there’ll be an audience. I don’t know about you, but I realised a long time ago that of all the joys of being alive, the buzz of performance is right up there with the best.

I need to do two 20 minute slots. Imagine! It’s like winning the pools. Gold dust. I need to knock out a gig list. I need to practise it. I need to find out where Ulverston is. I need to get the diesel topped up, to check the tyres. By 3.00pm on Saturday I’m already tired. There’s a traffic jam in Mirfield. It takes me 45 minutes to get to the M62. It should take 10. I discover the windscreen washers aren’t working. I notice the diesel pre-ignition light is still on. I will agonise about this all the way there and back. What can it mean? The delightful satnav lady tries to persuade me to leave the M6 at a junction earlier than I think right. I override her, which means she tells me too often that she needs to recalculate the route. By this time it’s getting dark, time’s passing, I haven’t time to stop to get something to eat (I probably did, but panic is an interesting thing) and when I get to Ulverston I find there is a one-way system that the nice satnav lady is unaware of. At 7.10pm I find a car park and the venue…the Coronation Hall……and I realise I have been seeing it on and off for at least 10 minutes. I am sweaty, tired and anxious. The journey that should take two hours ten minutes (says the AA) has taken three and a half.

Why am I telling you this? Because five minutes later, Kim Moore greets me fulsomely, someone buys me a coffee, I meet Kim’s husband, Chris; someone takes my books and looks after the selling of them, and I sit down in a handsome room full of extremely nice people, and I listen to five splendid poets. One is Kim who reads ‘Men I never married No. 25′ and sends shivers down my spine. And Jennifer Copley reads poems that are wry, precise, sightly off-kilter, funny, dark and memorable. I am already very happy.

I get to read two sets to a full room. In between there is music from Demix. They do John Prine’s Speed of the sound of loneliness , which I’ve loved for years. I sell a goodly lot of books. I am buzzing. I could go on all night. I could take up Kim and Chris’s offer of a bed for the night, but I’m so wired on adrenaline I decide to drive home and sleep in my own bed. I do this in just over two hours, running on fumes and perfectly content(apart from that pre-ignition warning light).

Here’s the thing. This is a one-off. So I’m thinking of gigging poets who do it for living. I think about Pascale Petit and all the others like her, on what seem to be endless train journeys. I think about the ones who drive long distances, regularly, just (just!) to read to rooms of indeterminate and unpredictable size and warmth. I think about the ones travelling from centre to centre, to tutor workshops. I taught just one last year; I was knackered.

Today I’m tired and happy. But I’ve had two huge bacon and tomato baps with a lot of grease. Tomorrow I don’t have to go anywhere. All next week, in fact. Reasons to be cheerful. Thank you, lord for adrenaline. And thank you for all the travelling, gigging poets and tutors who do it again and again and again.

From me, a special thank you to the organisers of a poem and a pint in Ulverston.

Let me persuade you to enter their Poetry Competition, to be judged by another of my inspirations, the poet and wild-swimmer, Clare Shaw. It’s competitions like this that fund great poetry nights. I can’t find a link via google as yet, so I’ll make do by scanning in the details from the competition flyer.

a poem and a pint competition

Next week, another reason to be cheerful…a new guest poet. See you then.










One for the Road

You know what I think? I think everyone who writes poems and worries about the chatter that seems to surround ‘poetry’ should print off the last paragraph of Julie Mellor’s new post…..preferably on an A1 sheet….and stick it just above their laptop or PC or Mac or whatever, and read it aloud every morning. It does my heart good.

Julie Mellor - poet

OftR_Cover_copyOne for the Road, ed. Helen Mort & Stuart Maconie (Smith/Doorstop 2017)

I always feel lucky when I have a poem accepted. I saw my good friend (and good poet) John Foggin on Saturday and he reminded me about how surprised I was when I had my first pamphlet published. I was a winner of the Poetry Business pamphlet competition in 2011. The pamphlet, Breathing Through Our Bones, came out about six months later, in 2012. So, you’d think I’d have had enough time to get used to the idea!
In truth, I still have days when I question how and why my work has made it into print. It’s the writer’s equivalent of impostor syndrome, that difficulty in internalizing achievements, of thinking it’s more down to luck and timing, rather than effort and talent. What has this got to do with One for the Road? Well…

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First pressings (6): in stitches; “Coast to coast to coast” with Maria Isakova Bennett and Michael Brown


A couple of days early because there’s news of a great competition that closes on Feb 10, and you might just squeeze in.

I suppose I should declare an interest in today’s post, having been a beneficiary of “Coast to coast to coast” and of Michael Brown and Maria Isakova Bennett who accepted poems of mine for the first two issues of their lovely limited edition, and hand-stitched little gems. And I must say thank you to Robin Houghton for this photograph of Open Eye Gallery and its surroundings, which I found via Google. And to the audiences of both launches who were, quite simply, a delight. Plus a thank you for the pleasure I felt to find myself published alongside the likes of John Glenday…how good is that!

As ever with this occasional series on small poetry presses I ask a standard series of questions, and the publishers do all the work for me by answering them. Because Michael was snowed under with his teaching work, Maria’s answered for both of them…like this:

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 all sitting in a room, with cake and coffee. That sort of illusion.

The Coast to Coast to Coast story so far

Coast to Coast to Coast, a hand-produced, stitched, limited edition journal, was launched on Aug 17th 2017 at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, but the idea for a stitched journal had been in my mind for years, and particularly since creating fabric sculptures over 10 years before. Those thoughts were just that until Michael and I saw some handmade books and a small press exhibition. One discussion developed into another, and at the beginning of last year, I thought that if we didn’t turn thoughts into action, we’d spend years musing, and maybe never create the first journal.

I tend to work (in art and writing) without a particular plan, but with a kind of faith that the next step will come out of the one I’m working on. I think this has a lot to do with a background and interest in art, and being aware of the distinctions between fine art and craft drummed into me over time by various tutors.

So, with this way of working and creating in mind, Michael and I announced Coast to Coast to Coast, asking for submissions for Issue 1 in April of last year. The first issue was a wonderful learning roller coaster on which I learned everything I thought there was to know about tissue papers, needle sizes for my sewing machines, bookmaker’s thread and its alternatives, and about how to alter font sizes so that pages printed to the size needed for Coast to Coast to Coast whilst still being legible.

From the beginning, the concept of the journal was as collaboration, especially in terms of the editing and arranging launches. It’s enormously important to me to have a co-editor, and Michael and I read the poems without seeing the authors’ names (Martin prints out poems), and come to decisions together about selections. This process is extremely valuable because, although we often have similar tastes, it’s enjoyable to have vigorous discussions about strengths and weaknesses. Due to the format of the journal, and again because of the concept behind it, we don’t want more than 20 poems in an issue. This gives us very tight parameters to work within. I would say that although the labour involved in producing each journal as an individual work of art is intense and demanding, the most difficult part for me is emailing rejections.

albert open 1

The importance of the launch is integral to the concept of the journal, and as with ideas regarding forthcoming issues and the direction in which the journal will travel, ideas about the launches are quite organic. We want regular launches in Liverpool, but envisage other coasts and other locations and settings too. There’s an exciting project in the pipeline for the summer (awaiting confirmation).

Although the principles and the concept of the regular journal are set as the basis for Coast to Coast to Coast, we’re open to developments. For instance, we recently opened submissions for a competition*, the winner of which will receive 30 hand-stitched copies of their pamphlet, and we’re in the process of planning a special location issue.

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. Which are the ones that you particularly like yourselves, and why?


I’d say I’ve got catholic tastes as far as journals are concerned and while I enjoy and admire the ‘bigger’ journals such as Poetry London, PN Review, and Poetry Review, these serve something different to what Michael and I are doing. I have real delight in being accepted by and receiving copies of Abridged, (a Derry Journal) edited by Greg McCartney with its various formats and sizes and arresting photography often linked to exhibitions. In terms of smaller presses, I loved Butcher’s Dog and Elbow Room. Crannóg, published in Galway has been a long-term favourite— I’m always excited to see the covers as well as the range of poetry inside. There’s a wonderful archive of small poetry journals in the Central Library in Liverpool and I can’t help feeling that spending time in that archive fuelled desire to start the journey. I love artists’ books, and this love must have been an important motivation behind Coast to Coast to Coast. We don’t want to compete with or duplicate what exists or has existed though.

Something lead you think: there’s room for another. What was the trigger that persuaded you to set up your own publishing venture?

I love artists’ books, and this love must have been an important motivation behind Coast to Coast to Coast. We don’t want to compete with or duplicate what exists or has existed though– our journal is an art piece / object in addition to being a poetry journal, and is produced in limited editions.

How about the poets you’ve chosen? Did you have any particular criteria, or were you blessed by happy accidents?

We have open submissions, so we don’t really know what will come in, but word has spread beautifully so we’ve had some established poets sharing word of our journal on social media which has meant an even greater spread. Fortunately, both Michael and I have similar taste when looking for poems for the Journal. The only set criteria is length, due to the size of the journal.

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?

 Everything about the journal – format, the nature of the hand-stitched cover, the way it’s fastened and packaged – comes from a desire to create an art object and a small journal that we hope will be treasured, read and re-read. I suppose in some ways I wanted to create something that’s the antithesis of ‘too much’. I love all sorts of poetry, but I’m interested in the idea of the labour that goes into honing a poem and I wanted a sense of that labour to be present in the creation of the journal, and for the journal to really value each poem selected and published. The issues are created as limited editions (70 for issue 1 which sold out in a week). I hope that due to its size, the poems within its hand-stitched pages will be reread and maybe returned to like little meditations




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

 I don’t really have a marketing bone in my small body – I’m the person who sold a car for fifty pounds to a guy who knocked at the door because I felt sorry for him – but I’ve learned that if I believe in something enough, I’ll learn what I have do to make it work. I try to access the help I need as I go. I created a website with the generous help of my eldest daughter and I’ve started using all the relevant social media, but try not to be excessive so it doesn’t take time away from making.  From the paper to the wine and refreshments at the events, the whole project is self-funded. Hundreds of hours go into the making of the journals and the project as a whole, and I don’t see any funding in the near future, so I’m happy to create the occasional competition if it means the journal can grow. We’re very new, so we haven’t really looked at the competition in the field and haven’t been reviewed, as far as we know. However, we have just placed Coast to Coast to Coast in the National Poetry Library in London, and we’ve had wonderful reviews from individuals on websites and blogs, and at launches.

What next? More in the pipeline?

 Issue 3 and 4, and a special issue, will be published before the autumn. In addition to this, an individual poet’s journal (mini pamphlet), will be published early summer. This means I’ll be sewing at least another 300 journals over the next few months. I think that’s enough to be going on with, but I’m sure I’ll come up with new ideas while the sewing machine’s humming.

We have some new ideas about how the launches are going to develop, and some ideas about specific and interesting locations to add to the concept of Coast to Coast to Coast.

Any advice for them as fancies doing it? If you could have done anything differently, what would you have done?

 I’d say if you really want to do something creative, set out and let it grow as you go. Be prepared for lots of hard work and little (if any, initially!) financial reward, so make sure it’s for the love of art, the curiosity about the development of the project, the admiration and respect for poetry, the amazing feeling of bringing people together. I’m trying to think of ways to keep the project viable as it develops.

Anything else I’ve forgotten that you’d like to add?

 Bringing together poets from different parts of the country to a city that I love and feel proud of is enormously pleasurable. One big bonus has been the number of non-poets who’ve happily come along to launches. It’s always heartening to receive even a sentence of feedback about the work that we do. We’re encouraged enormously by comments we’ve received at launches from people who now own copies of the journal. It’s exciting to see how word about our project has spread and to wonder about where it might travel…Coast to Coast to Coast

*that competition…..this image comes from the ‘Coast to coast…’ Facebook page  But you can find out more via the  page.

coast to coast 5


Should you want to know more about Michael Brown and his own poetry, there’s a great interview with him on Roy Marshall’s poetry blog …via this link



Maria has been a guest poet on the cobweb…you can find her in the archive for 2015.

If you want the handy biogs, then here they are

  • Michael’s work has been published widely including in The Rialto, Butchers Dog, Lighthouse Journal, Other Poetry, Crannog, The Moth, South Bank Poetry, Envoi, The North, Brittle Star, New Walk and The Interpreter’s House. He was selected for the Advanced Arvon by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke in 2013. In 2014 he won the Untold London Competition with his poem, ‘From Hungerford Bridge, Looking East’.He was shortlisted for the Bare Fiction Collection prize judged by Andrew McMillan in 2015. He was placed third in the York Poetry Prize, 2015, with the poem Water Lilies and recently collaborated with Maria in projects at the Walker Gallery and Open Eye Gallery.In 2017 his poem ‘The Waiting Room’ was shortlisted in the Basil Bunting Award judged by Ahren Warner.

    The pamphlet, Undersong (2014) is available from Eyewear Publishing.

    His most recent pamphlet, Locations for a Soul appeared in 2016 from Templar Publishing. He is currently working towards his first poetry collection.


    Maria has an MA (distinction) in Creative Writing from Lancaster University, a Masters degree in Education from Liverpool University, and postgraduate qualifications in Fine Art and Art History.

    She has poetry and reviews widely published in the UK and Ireland, wrote and performed ‘The Ferry on the Mersey’ in partnership with the BBC, as their Merseyside poet for the 2016 National Poetry Day festival, and appeared in Eyewear’s anthology of The Best New British and Irish Poets, 2016.

    Over the past year, Maria has been highly commended for her own and collaborative work in several pamphlet competitions, and has been shortlisted and placed in several International Competitions including Bridport, Keats-Shelley, Cinnamon Prizes, Plough and Mslexia.

    Maria was highly commended by John Glenday in the Wigtown Poetry Competition, has been awarded first prize in the Ver Open Poetry Award, and commended last year by Andrew McMillan in the same competition.

    and finally, both won Northern Writers Awards last year and places on the Poetry School New North Poets Mentoring Scheme, 2017.


Now then. What next? I genuinely haven’t a clue. I’ve come to rely on a Wishlist of poets I’ve met recently and who I want to be guests. Essentially, I have to have heard them reading and to have been moved and enthused. Ian Parks was the last one…but I’ve run out of ‘poets new to me’ just for now. I think I’ve also run out of ‘issues’ that I feel an urge to write about. There’s one more small publisher who I need to contact, but not for a little while. I’m looking forward to a couple of writing residentials in March and April, and I’m very excited to be reading in Cork in March. I have no doubt they’ll fire me up with new stuff. But in the meantime, I suspect I’ll be taking a cobweb break till I have something that feels worth sharing.I hope you’ll all still be around when I come back. Thank you for reading xxx