The ins and outs of residential poetry courses.


Well, here we are, a day late, and posssibly later. No excuse really. Just that yesterday (Sunday, in case it really is later) I put on an unfeasible number of waterproof, windproof, fleecy layers and headed off in the driving sleet and rain to Mount Pleasant. Arguably the most ironically named Rugby League ground in the world….whether it’s the bleakest is arguable; I seem to remember that Workington’s ground is pretty inhospitable…..but anyway, even going to sit down in the covered stand did little to stem the sensations of encroaching hypothermia, and I spent last night getting warm again instead of writing this for the cobweb. So, thank you for your forbearance and general air of cheerfulness. It will not be forgotten.

As it happens, there’s a bit of serendipity involved, which I’ll explain as I go along. I’m feeling a bit confused and conflicted about the business of writing poems at the moment. This morning a copy of The Interpreter’s house dropped through the letter box. It’s full of good things, including poems by cobweb guest poets Keith Hutson, Wendy Pratt, Wendy Klein and Julie Mellor, and, among so much good stuff, a fulsome review of Much Possessed by Dawn Gorman. Wow. Thank you for that. A review! every stage of writing you can feel you’re ‘arriving’, though I can’t imagine you’ll ever quite feel you’ve arrived. I hope not, because then you’d have to get off the bus and look for work. First poem in a journal, first commendation in a competition, first invitation to do a reading, first pamphlet, first collection. First review. How did I ever get here? I’ll come back to that.

Because there’s sometimes a downside to the business. In my case it’s paradoxically to do with having won a competition…jointly won, because it was a shared submission…which you can check out if you like. I wrote about it on Dec 3rd, feeling especially proud of my fellow writer, Andy Blackford. The prize is to have a collection published. Here’s the thing. No one from the business that runs the competition (and I believe it’s a reputable affair) has ever contacted me directly, only Andy. He forwarded a copy of a publishing contract for me to sign in January. I sent off my two copies, but have heard nothing, nor has my copy been returned, countersigned. We have repeatedly emailed the organisers and still have had no reply. Andy begins to believe it’s a scam. I don’t, but it makes me cross. What would you do? Comments welcome if this resonates with you in any way..but there it is. I’m simultaneously delighted, frustrated and cross. How did I get here?


In my case it’s because I’ve started by going on day courses, and then won competitions…one of my pamphlets, and my first collection, were published as the prize for winning, first the Camden/Lumen, and then the Poetry Business Pamphlet Comps. And now the latest one, Much possessed. There are other routes, and tougher ones, especially those taken by the writers who submit and submit and submit and submit to journals and magazines, and build up a painstaking porfolio of published work. They’re the ones who win my admiration and respect. They know who they are. But thing is, how did I come to write enough poems in the first place. Well, it started, as I say, with one-day workshops, and with small writers’ groups, but at some point I applied to go on a residential course. Moniack Mhor. That’s it, with the Wagnerian sky in the background.

I’m not sure I would have done so had I not known a bit about Arvon Courses in the first place. Which is why there’s a picture of the back yard of Lumb Bank at the top of the page. I ‘ve always thought the real character of the building and, indeed, the place, is in that back yard with its hard granite setts.It’s always, for me, been the setting of Full moon and little Frieda. It’s the spirit they went for in the recent TV Bronte drama. Uncompromising. It’s leaked into a couple of poems in the last two years. In Banked up

“somewhere out in the yard a bucket has blown over

rackets about the cobbles like a big man in a rage

like a man who’d smash his fist into a gritstone wall

and sing about the blood”

and in So I’m thinking

“….of Ted Hughes’ gritstone house,

that tunnel of a yard, its slippery flags,

that valley of unsmoking chimneys,

knee-deep in brown leaf-litter,

an old artillery firing blanks at a Pennine moon”

It certainly made a big impression when I first went there in the mid-80s, not as a course participant (because I’d never heard of Arvon or Lumb Bank till then), but because as part of my job as an LEA English/Drama Adviser I co-ordinated an annual residential course for selected 6th formers from the Calderdale schools. It’s how I came to meet Berlie Doherty, John Latham, Terry Caffrey, Lemn Sissay and Graham Mort among others. Maura Dooley was warden then, and for a few years it was a retreat and a bolthole when I needed to avoid the increasing misery of being turned into an Inspector. Very fond of Lumb Bank, then, though I’ve never been on a course as resident member. And that’s how I became aware of Arvon, though I didn’t write poems until a good deal later.

Like I say, in the late 90s I discovered writing days, which made me write stuff, even though my heart wasn’t yet in it. And I began to meet more like-minded folk and make ‘writing friends’ and think there was something to the whole business, though I wasn’t sure what. It was my partner, Flo, who was the one behind my going on residentials. Determined that I wasn’t going to mooch through retirement like a mental tramp, she looked things up, told me Liz Lochhead was tutoring a course at Moniack Mhor, and told me to apply for it. So I did.I liked Liz Lochhead’s poetry. That was the only reason. And I didn’t enjoy it. Not one bit. Not at all.

But my partner was indefatigable. I’d become a Poetry Business writing day addict by then. Look, she said. Your friend Ann Sansom is running a poetry course in Spain. Spain! I might not have gone, but my oldest friend lived only 100miles south of where the course was..and had been very ill…and I reckoned I could go and visit him, too. I’m glad I did, because he died a couple of months later. And I’m more than glad I went to the Old Olive Press, because that’s where I met Hilary Elfick who told me, without qualification or hesitation, that I should and would be published. It was truly astonishing.


Everything about it was astonishing. Heat. Mountains. Walking. A swimming pool. En suite bedrooms. Food. Writing every day, for day after day. Amazing. I keep going back. And here’s the cost less for a Saturday to Saturday course in Spain (including the air fare) than it cost me to drive to Inverness (which involved a B&B stop…it’s a long long way) for a Monday to Saturday Arvon course. Money’s an issue, but so is value for money. I’ll come back to this. The thing is, I enjoyed it so much, got so excited by it all, that I went again, for a course tutored by Jane Draycott..which was brilliant…on which I wrote a poem that won a prize that paid for a return to Spain the next year, a course with Mimi Khalvati, and something towards another with Ann Sansom.


And so it goes. I’ve been on others…to Cumbria, to Whitby, to Keswick, and to St Ives (where I’m going again on Sunday, and very handsome it is, as you can see)..and it’s on these days and weeks that I’ll base what I’ll write next. But, caveat emptor. This will be partial, subjective, and possibly unreliable. I can only share what I’ve gathered from experience that is probably not typical; I’d love to hear from others who may have quite different perspectives. Still, here we go: the ins and outs of poetry residentials as far as can tell.

You need to ask yourself what you hope to get out of it. The first one I went on, I think I expected some kind of magical transformation. I was very vague about what I thought that might mean, but I supposed that by spending time in the company of a famous poet, I’d achieve poems by osmosis; inspiration via proximity. Forget that. I rather hoped that someone would show me ways of thinking and working that would help me to be a better writer. That didn’t happen either, and it made me cross.I expected to be pushed and stretched and challenged. That didn’t happen, either. So, what can you look for before you commit yourself?

Firstly, don’t just go on the ‘name’ of the course tutor(s). Ask around. Facebook’s a good place to start, because I’m assuming that you’ll have acquired poetry chums. But ask people to message you in response. You don’t want poets being slagged off on a public forum.

I want to know how the tutor normally works. I know what works for me, and I want to find a good ‘fit’. For instance, I like to work fast, under pressure. I know in advance that a Poetry Business will do that for me. But you may like a gentler pace, something more reflective. You know how you learn best. So think hard about that.

Alternatively, I like structure. The most productive courses I’ve been on have been carefully and explicitly structured, and they tell you explicitly or implicitly what the course objective will be. So, a Jane Draycott course very quietly, day on day, focussed on building up a toolkit of techniques that let you dramatise your poems: place, voice, character, (the who, where,what, when and why of things). The techniques were illustrated via the ‘starter poems’, and the whole thing was purposeful and accretive. I loved it.

A Kim Moore/Carola Luther course focussed on myth, and ways in which its retellings enable you access ways of understanding and communicating your own life experiences and belief. It actually changed the way I thought. It was hard work. I loved it. A Kim Moore/Steve Ely course focussed on voices and ventriloquism. I don’t know a better way of breaking out of your own default voice and its rhythms. Anyway. You get the idea.

On the other hand, I went on one course tutored by someone who came highly recommended by folk I trusted. What I failed to do was check out the tutor’s own poetry. Which is technically amazing, but essentially lyrical and doesn’t ring my rhetorical/narrative bell. Maybe I hoped it would challenge me more than it did, but there was a lot of analytic/reflective discussion and all I wanted to do was crack on. So, make sure you know, as far as you can, what the ‘teaching/practice’ is going to be like before you commit.

Secondly think about accomodation and setting. This, I think, is much more important than I explicitly recognised at first. Ask yourself: do you want a spartan room, a novitiate’s bed,  and a walk along cold landings to a distant shower/bathroom? Do you want to prepare food for other people? (as it happens I love doing that, so my Arvon course was saved by my being able to spend every afternoon prepping and cooking in a big kitchen with and industrial sized range. very few people understand my enthusiasm. And I wouldn’t want to have done it at Lumb Bank). It’s a simple fact that residentials in hotels are more comfortable, and you get your food cooked and served by professionals. In dining rooms. Counter-intuitively, they also tend to be significantly cheaper.

However, it can also feel slightly odd to be writing in a hotel, where there may also be a convention of Charismatic Christians, or water polo players or whatever. You can lose you concentration, whereas at Arvon it’s wall to wall poets and poetry. So think about that. Equally, about the locality. I want to be in a space that I’m happy in. I want distance, I want to be able to walk but not in streets or in constrained, fenced countryside. I don’t want to be in woodland. I want to be able to get away for an hour or two each day, just to let my brain stretch, and to stop talking to people. Think about where you’re likely to feel happy. Seriously.

Thirdly ..this doesn’t bother me so much, because I’m able to switch off from my surroundings when I’m working, to blank out what’s going on around me…but what about the people? This sounds misanthropic, and I don’t intend it to be. If you’re not convivial, then being in close proximity to the same (intense) group of people for several days might not be what you want. You’re not going to have the tutor’s unlimited personal attention. And then there’s the business of what everyone else does when you’re not in a timetabled session. You’ll see people earnestly writing on and on, at tables, in armchairs, tapping away at laptops, and if you’re not careful, you’ll start to worry because you’re not. And you need to blank out the conversations about ‘how much have you written?’ Because it’s not a competition. The only person who matters is you. You’re there to get better at what you want to do. One more thing. It’s possible to find out by asking around if a given tutor is always accompanied by the same group of accolytes. I’ve seen this twice, and learned from it. You can feel frozen out. I’m thick-skinned but it still irked me. You have better things to do with your life

Lastly  (because I’ve gone on for too long, and I’m rambling). Residential courses are not cheap. For me, they are actually my holidays, but you can be forking out anything between £500 and £1000. (which partly accounts for the demographic.Don’t expect too many young folk in the group). And if they’re any good at all, they’re hard work. If not exhausting. It’s important that you do everything you can to make sure you’re going to be in good company, in a place you like, which is comfortable, with a tutor who will drive you up a level or two. Even when they’re not very good, residential courses are places where you strike up important friendships, and, in my case, where your life may change. So don’t for a second let me put you off by saying: think about it, check it out, ask.

And with that, that’s me for a couple of weeks. Because I’m going on (surprise) a residential course next Sunday. And I couldn’t be happier.








Shifting gear and a gem revisited: Julie Mellor


Do you go through spells when you feel as though you’re ploughing the same ground and wondering why nothing fresh is coming up? I just noticed that last Sunday I posted my 200th cobweb strand. That’s about 400,000 words. Not all of them have been mine, obviously. All our generous guest poets have contributed a goodly number of those, and I couldn’t be more grateful. Because I become uncomfortably aware that though I don’t exactly run out of ideas, I do find myself revisiting things I’ve said before, sometimes without being totally conscious of it. And the same goes for poems.

One of my wise sisters, Hilary Elfick, told me that I wrote so much in a relatively short time because I hadn’t written much for decades, and it had all been dammed up. (Ironically, I realise that I’ve written this before, somewhere in the cobweb. There you go.) In the best of times, you’re on a roll, you have something, a theme let’s call it, that insists on being explored, on being written. You don’t have to force it. It has been given; it is a gift, and you only become properly grateful in retrospect. For ages, for me, it was the landscapes and stories and people of Skye. For a spell, it was my fascination with the notion that if great sculptures had a voice they would have startling things to say. I mined the reach seam of stories of my family…my parents and grandparents…for a good while. The story of my son’s death, and my feeling of complicity in that, too. For some reason, at the moment there are a lot of Vikings and the shores of the North East demanding some attention. But sooner or later that will run its course, and there’ll be a time when nothing demands to be written about. I’ll go on ‘forcing’ poems, but they won’t amount to spit.

And then there’s the ‘voice’. It’s seductively easy to fall into a default rhythm. Mine is iambic, possibly because it’s the closest to the rhythms of English speech. (Not my observation; Tony Harrison’s, among others). With the iambic comes an easy shift into a default line length. Mine is between 8 and twelve syllables. Another default element in my writing is long sentences that run over a lot of lines. Not bad in itself. Kim Moore does it. David Constantine does it…and they’re  gifted . I can muck about, and cheat it by playing with line breaks…and I do, but blank verse line breaks are rarely just arbitrary; those lines tend to hold a rhetorical unit very handily. I could go on, but for whatever reason, I’m not very good at short poems, at compression. I think that also tends to mean that I’m not very good at lyricism. And it’s just too easy to go along with the tried and tested without noticing that it’s getting a bit tired and predictable. At some point you need to shift a gear. Or maybe buy a new car. (a weaselly voice in my ear just reminded me that when I was teaching English, I used to tell students that if you’re in an argument and you resort to metaphor you’re probably losing the argument. And that the same thing applies to your opponents. I should listen to my own advice).

What I’m not going to do today is to write about what to do when you find yourself in this situation. I’ve done it before. It may make no sense, but you’re welcome to have a look. Here’s the link:

It doesn’t address the business of ‘the voice’. I’ll go and have a good long think about that. For now I’m just happy to move on to today’s guest, Julie Mellor, who has in her latest writing given me great hope. Because it seems to me that she’s one of those hardworking writers who sticks at it…and, I think, one who has shifted gears in the last year or so.

When she was last our guest in August 2015, I wrote this as introduction:

“My guest for today writes about men who can hold ice, trains that fall from viaducts, (not the one in the pictur), fossilised trees, the folklore of fruit, the fears of geese,  Pennine graveyards, Sicilian breakfasts, volcanoes …in short a poet who never fails to engage and delight me: Julie Mellor


While I was rereading her Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition winner Breathing through our bones (chosen by Carol Ann Duffy! Yes, it’s that good.) I realised what it was I liked so much about Julie’s writing…it’s that every poem is a surprise, that each one is unexpectedly different from the last, and at the same time the voice is reliably the same. And the other realisation is that there’s not a shred of ego, or self-consciousness. Just a genuinely curious delight in the unaccountable richness and diversity of things.Julie Mellor asks a question in one of her poems Autobiography

How do I know about the price
of porter, about fleas in the mattress,

the pawning of ulsters –?

The answer is that she spends a lot of time in museums and churchyards and books and other people’s poems and lives and landscapes; because she has endless curiosity. That’s what research is like. And we could do a lot worse than follow the advice in the closing lines of  her poem Drawing the line

Look at these graves,
how they hold their names ready for us,
how we stoop to read with surprise
what, for centuries, has been lying at our feet.


Now, if you follow her poetry blog  [   ] you’ll have noticed that recently that curiosity of hers has taken her through the streets of Sheffield and that particular graffiti have sent her off in unexpected direction. You might also notice that her verse form and lines have been more experimental, more risky; she’s changed gear. Which is a metaphor with more than one layer. Essentially she gives me hope, and I’m delighted that she’s back today to share new poems and to update us on what she’s been up to since she was here last. Here she is:

Julie lives near Sheffield and holds a PhD from Sheffield Hallam University. Her work has been widely published in magazines such as Ambit, Mslexia, The North, The Rialto and Stand. Her pamphlet, Breathing Through Our Bones was a Poetry Business pamphlet competition winner and was published by Smith/Doorstop in 2012. Her new pamphlet will be published by Smith/ Doorstop later this year. She writes:

“I’ve had the good fortune to be involved in lots of interesting and exciting things since I was last on your blog, John, including, in no particular order, the Urban Forest project lead by Oliver Mantell, Millstone Grit (an anthology edited by Rosemary Badcoe, Carolyn Waudby and Noel Williams), Voices in the Landscape (led by John Anstie and Ann Hamblyn at  Wentworth Castle, Stainborough) and currently, the Hear My Voice project in Barnsley, which has put on free readings and workshops by some stunning poets, including Suzannah Evans, Steve Ely and Helen Mort. I also completed the Poetry Business Writing School last May (a fantastic 18 month course run by Peter and Ann Samson).

I’m sending you three new poems which give a flavour of where my poetry is at the moment.

Ode to the Scar on my Wrist was commended in last year’s Ilkley Lit. Fest’s Walter Swan Trust poetry comp. judged by Andrew McMillan.

Darling, What If … was written at one of Nell Farell’s wonderful workshops at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet (another group I was involved with last year). The poem also won second prize in the Nottingham Open, judged by Liz Berry.

Finally, I’ve included The Lodging House, which was first published in Stand magazine last Spring. Focussing on the last line of this poem has helped me clarify my thinking around my new pamphlet, so I have a bit of a soft spot for it!

Let’s start with the first one, which Julie featured on her own blog in January; her introduction to it couldn’t be more appropriate to the business I started this post with:


[Sheffield graffiti, artist unknown. Photograph by J. Mellor]

“As far as the New Year is concerned, I’m all for looking forward, rather than looking back. However, many of my recent poems have purposely involved looking back in order to try and make sense of the past and my place in it. The writing has taken a more personal turn, something that feels quite new to me, and at times difficult to manage. Sheffield’s graffiti continues to amaze and inspire me, as do the many wild poets out there. One of the books I received this Christmas was Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals. I’m only 6 poems in and already I can tell you that it’s edgy, energetic, playful with language, and very aware (almost self-consciously so – and this is a strength) of the extraordinary power words have to unnerve and surprise us. What a gift!”

Ode to the Scar on my Wrist

Yellow stars of skin where the break was pinned,
a car crash, Hereford, student weekend
of Pernod and black, my friends,

Susan with the cowlick fringe,
her boyfriend from the Rhonda,
and Steve, who would run naked down any street

at midnight for a dare, all of us in a hire car,
speeding down that road with the hidden bend,
scream of wheels spinning mid air,

the roof crushed in the long roll down the bank
and us, after our minute’s silence,
clambering out with no more than a graze,

except for the compound fracture to my wrist,
and weren’t we the lucky ones, in love
with ourselves, the resilience of our bodies

taken for granted, and didn’t we drink ourselves
stupid the following night, quoting Talking Heads,
this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,

 this ain’t no fooling around, me with my arm in plaster,
flirting with the fireball from a box of matches,
a pub trick that set my face alight.

I see what she means about the poems taking a more personal turn; there’s a more immediately personal voice in this poem, too, something of a swagger, and also something of the trangressive. I’m much taken by these lines that colour the whole of the poem:
and weren’t we the lucky ones, in love
with ourselves, the resilience of our bodies

taken for granted, and didn’t we drink ourselves
stupid the following night

I love the double-edged ending: flirting with the fireball from a box of matches, / a pub trick that set my face alight.

The next poem strikes off in new directions, too. When I wrote about Julie’s poetry before, I focussed on the way so much of it was rooted in a clear-eyed process of fascinated research. This is a different, freer kind of fascination, I think. It’s a remarkably potent and liberating thing to simply say  ‘what if?’…and then follow it through:

( a PS. I was rechecking this post about 4 hours after it went out on Facebook and Twitter, and saw to my distress that whilst it was fine when I posted it, WordPress has, as it will, closed up all the stanza breaks. Nothing I have done persuades it to do as it’s told. I shall have one more go to make it right, but just in case, the line count of the stanzas is as follows: 1/4/4/2/4/2 )

Darling, What if …

What if I choose this one small fly, iridescent on the daisy’s white ruff.


What if I choose to follow it with my eye from flower to flower

as I sit on this bench, a wooden sleeper resting on two grindstones.

And what if other flies circle, for example, that fat atheist the bluebottle,

searching for something more akin to a shopping mall than a lawn.


What if nothing happens but sound, trains across the way

sliding in and out of town like pharmaceutical salesmen or lovers

who’ve met on the internet. What if the wind repeats rumours

of their wedding vows from mid-week town hall ceremonies.


What if the fly disappears, only for a minute, but completely,

dizzying blindly through a portal into another world.


I know this can’t happen, because a fly has a thousand eyes

and can’t go anywhere blindly. Imagine our world as it appears to the fly,

like a shop front on a 70s high street, stacked with t.v.s,

all tuned to the same channel.


This is the closest you’ll ever get to understanding, not being a fly,

but at least being able to picture it, the feeling inside my messed-up head.



I can leave you to speculate, if you wish, on who is the ‘darling’ of the poem, why it could be some sort of letter, and, indeed, why it’s being written. What I will hold on to at first, is its specificity, the  dreamlike clarity of its images. I loved the trains that slide in and out of town, like pharmaceutical salesmen. It’s an image that’s simultaneously funny and sinister. I think I’ll keep revisiting this poem, because bits of it insist on memorising themselves. And so to the last poem, whih has a different voice again, that improvises on shapes on the page, leaves (apparently) unaccountable gaps.

The Lodging House

after L.S. Lowry

Light burns above the doorway

grey as a pearl             faces queue

without bodies                        men whose lungs

are clogged with cotton dust

hands in empty pockets

tongues            without words

this is the time of day

when pigeons attempt to coo

where the breath moves

like a child amongst overcoats

and net curtains shift       against

the casual undressings of the heart.

I remember being entirely puzzled at the age of 17 by the regard in which my English teacher held the Imagists, how excited he got about early T S Eliot. I just thought it was pictures of things in streets. I think I know better now. That line about breath moving like a child among overcoats says as much as I care to think about suffocation, the negation of the purposes of breath. The shift of net curtains gives a textured physicality to the disturbance of  the figurative draught in the last line which seems like a bleak prohibition. Or not.

Anyway. I’m going to offer up my own personal thanks to Julie for coming back to the cobweb, and above all for reminding me that we can all change gear,and that it’s exciting.

I hope to see you next week. I think I’ll be musing on the business of residential poetry courses. Or not. Depends which gear I’m in.

Writing poems in the sleep of reason


I remember one of my uncles, a life-long trades unionist and old-style Labour man. He was an interesting man…he completed his OU degree when he was 80. He’d lived through the 1920s and 30s, and once told me that the cleverest thing the Tories ever did was to introduce the Giro. His argument was that when you were unemployed and drawing benefit, it came through the letterbox in an envelope. He said that when he was a young man in a time of mass-unemployment and poverty, men went to the Labour Exchange to draw the dole. There’d be queues along the pavement…what else was there to do? So there was an audience for the political activists of all persuasions. He said that was how people became politicised (unless they clung tenaciously to their membership of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists Union).

I remembered that story when I was teaching A Level Communication Studies… getting students to critique the concept of Mass Media. I forget where I read it, but I came across an interesting argument to the effect that Goebbels understood the principle of Mass of his plans was to install loudspeakers on street corners where people would have to gather to listen to radio news. I thought of this when we considered the way the Indian government at one point financed the provision of a television in every village. The overt aim was to expand education and literacy. It’s easy to see how both systems were double-edged, but the point of my uncle’s argument held. No one would receive information in isolation, and so information would be shared and communal…and open to debate.

I’m not dewy-eyed about the vision BUT as someone who spends far too long on Facebook, I have no illusions that I’m using ‘social’ media, or ‘mass’ media. Media platforms now are essentially individuating, nucleating and isolating. If you read the posts on my Facebook page you’d imagine the world was made entirely of left-leaning, pro-feminist poets, runners, birdwatchers and landscape artists. Whereas when I go down to Sainsbury’s for my shopping and make myself read the front pages of the tabloids (and, indeed, the so-called quality papers) all I see is parallel universes where people speak a different language and live in a completely different country from the one I think is mine. We need no longer meet anyone who disagrees with us. I don’t have to make myself check out the Mail and the Express and the rest on a daily basis. But I do.

We can all ‘publish’ with little effort, and accumulate lots of ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ and smiley faces, and almost imagine we’re changing people’s minds. But on my bleak days, and there are many of those of late, I see that I’m at the bottom of a deep dry well, and I can shout all I like, but the only feedback I’ll get is the distorted echo of what I’ve just said. I wrote a very cross poem about this some time ago. It’s not a good poem, but it makes the point well enough:

Je suis Charlie

 (after:  ‘Known to the guards.’  Martina Evans )

in a week of men in black

with guns as big as motorbikes

in Kevlar vests in black boots

in helmets like the eyes of flies

in the chatter of static

and breathless newsmen

recycling scraps of film and tape

and sputtering phone-in

solutions no one wants to listen to

to problems no one can articulate

and Facebook Shares, emoticons

and cursor clicks that tell the world

Je Suis Charlie

in weeks like these

how can anyone say anything

when after all, our number’s up

and all of us are in the lenses

of a million cameras

and all of us are known

to the guards

who have the guns

and the vans and the planes

and can guard none of us from anything

and who will keep us from each other ?


I feel much the same about aspects of the online chatter about poetry…who’s in, who’s out, who’s won and who’s lost, the febrile to-and-fro about the Forward or the T S Eliot or about the effrontery of a white poet who tried to inhabit a black voice. And so on and so on. Meanwhile, children are being starved and burned, mosques are razed to the ground,  a monstrously unstable bigot is the President of the USA, and I’m invited to considered evident nonsense like ‘post-truth’ or alternative fact’ as part of a meaningful discourse rather than a thoroughgoing attack on the very purposes of language.

Yesterday I spent the day with many people I’m very fond of, reading and writing poems, and I found it all very difficult. Why were we there?  What did we think we were accomplishing? Let me rush to say that I have no intention of giving up, but sometimes I need to get it in proportion. And there’s no irony in the fact that when I set out to do that, I’ll turn to poets as readily as to anyone else. More readily in fact.

I’ll turn, say to Bob Dylan, and go along with idea that he articulated the anger and aspirations of a generation at point in history, when he could sing for Civil Rights marchers, and in Washington for Martin Luther King. Songs like The times they are a changing,  The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll,  the Ballad of Hollis Brown. I think I thought, at the time, that the songs were changing the world. Not that they were articulating a change that other people were making by direct action and incredible acts of physical and moral courage. I remind myself that he’d probably have vanished without trace at the time of MacCarthy, because not enough people would have been ready to listen, and in any case, no one would have broadcast him. There were wonderful things written in the Soviet Union under Stalin and later, but they circulated in secret as samizdat.  Thing is, I don’t ever want to forget that Dylan also wrote this:


“It’s a restless hungry feeling

That don’t mean no one no good

When everything I’m a-sayin’

You can say it just as good

You’re right from your side

I am right from mine

We’re both just one too many mornings

And a thousand miles behind”

[One too many mornings]


That’s how I felt yesterday….everything I’m saying, you can say it just as good. Or much better. And who’s listening, and why should they care?  I’m over that for now, but I recognise the irony of writing about the pointlessness of writing. The point is, I think, that Dylan wrote it, and hey, I can’t write it just as good. Which is why I’m borrowing his words.

There’s a demagogue in the White House and millions have marched to protest it. The news media can manipulate that, and they do. They can edit out events, because whoever controls the past controls the future. They can, with apparent impunity, present lies and call them alternative facts. The chattering and privileged classes can have elegant arguments about the concept of ‘post truth’ without ever saying simply that it’s an obscenity. If we don’t hang on to the true purpose of language which is the business of true naming, then we are lost. Auden didn’t bring down Hiltler, but he articulated the essential nature of tyranny that lets us truly name a monstrosity like Donald Trump.

Epitaph on a tyrant

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.


And the poetry he invented was easy to understand.  There’s a line to cling to. Life is wonderfully and terribly complicated and muddled and difficult. Tyrants understand that language needs to be used to simplify, and to reassure the ones they seek to control that they can make the world comforting and comprehensible. Brexit means Brexit. Give us back our country. You know why Corbyn is unpopular…because he keeps saying it’s not simple, it’s not easy, it’s muddled. He must be muddled, mustn’t he? Weak. As opposed to ‘not a tyrant’.

I suspect that poetry is sometimes used in a potent way to suggest that everything will be OK in the long run. There must be thousands of people who know little about poetry, but who have somehow come across this bit of Shelley.




I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”


You know what?  I remember at the age of 15 or so the excitement of realising how irony worked. ‘Look on my works ye mighty, and despair’ . Hitler and Stalin were both dead by then. Which, I thought, proved the point. Tyranny won’t survive. I guess I didn’t read the rest with any real attention. Nothing beside remains. That fallen statue lies in a wasteland of the King’s making. There are no people. Nothing grows. I didn’t see that, maybe, I should look on that and despair; that the past was irredeemable. We read and we hear what we want to hear. Oddly this makes me want to kick out of the despair, and to write. Because if I know anything, it’s that if  I really write…if I really pursue the business of true naming… I may just find that I know things that I didn’t know I knew, or that I would never acknowledge, and I might know the world better. If that speaks to someone else, then that’s a bonus. But perhaps I’m coming to believe that my first reponsibility is myself, and my health depends on speaking truly.

I know this is an incoherent post for a Sunday. Still, I’m inclined to believe that when Matthew Arnold wrote Dover Beach his first purpose was to understand his own spiritual despair…and I’m inclined to think it was in the process of writing that he discovered that there was an answer to that despair.

“The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


North facing shingle beach looking out across rough sea and surf, Kingston, Moray, Scotland

One hundred and forty years ago, ignorant armies clashed by night, and the world was a darkling plain. Sounds familiar? So why am I reading it again, and finding a reason to keep writing. Hasn’t it all been said before, and better? Wasn’t Dylan right? Yes and no…there’s a line I can cling to, like a life raft in a cold sea. It’s not remarkable, except that it’s said in a spirit of apparent hopelessness.

Ah, love, let us be true to one another!

Because if we can’t do that, then we are truly lost. And how  can we be true if we can’t say how. Which is why I’ll go on writing, whether anyone reads it or not.


A gem revisited: Jane Clarke



(Before you begin: an apology. I’ve repeatedly rest the poems with the proper stanza breaks, and WordPress doggedly keeps eliminating them. I have no idea why nor how to stop it. So, just in case it does it for the third time, I’ll tell you the stanza breaks for each poem as it arrives)

Jane Clarke was our guest on the cobweb in July 2015. It feels too long ago. Her rightly-praised first collection The River had just been published by Bloodaxe, and I loved it, as so many others do.You can catch up with that post, if you wish, via this link

In any case, I’m going to lift part of it to start today’s post. I was riffing on the the significance of landscape and the feeling of belonging in, and to, a place. Jane’s place was, and probably still is, Roscommon, and the water meadows of the River Suck. Anyway, I wrote this:

“ I don’t know what to make of woodlands and forests and greenery. I can make even less of flat places, saltmarsh, estuaries. I’m starting to wonder if it’s because I grew up in relatively (though undramatically) narrow valleys. I live on a hillside where I can look up and down the valley, or across the valley to the opposite hillsides, and beyond to the Pennines. I begin to think that what I’m conscious of is hillsides and gradients and the stone underneath them. It’s as though what I’m aware of is ‘valley’, and that the river is incidental, as though it came from the hillsides and not the other way round.

I’d not considered this until I was reading and re-reading ‘The river’ , the first collection by today’s Gem, Jane Clarke. I began to wonder if growing up by a river among green fields under a wider sky than mine might be a key to poems that are full of time and the passage of time, of transience and spaciousness. I suspect this will not hold water, but maybe there’s a sort of truth in there somewhere. And so we find ourselves by the River Suck, that flows through Roscommon. ‘It was where  /  we’d go to talk, or cry, or be quiet  /  in the company of the current’, writes Jane in her poem, The Suck.

It’s a river, she says, that flows, rolls, that drifts, smooth and slow. The Suck, An tSuca, the origin of whose name is lost (says Wikipedia) in the mists of time, and may be derived from an older Irish word for ‘amber’. Or not. Nobody knows. It flows and rolls and drifts through limestone country to the Shannon. Lakes appear or disappear in rain or drought. Turloughs. Lakes that  swell and shrink as though the earth was breathing. What a lovely word. I don’t know how it’s pronounced. I imagine long vowels. A soft fricative ff, or an even softer glottal. Whatever the truth, the river runs sure, through that stunning first collection.”


Of course it’s not just the physical landscape, and its psycho-topography, but also the landscapes and inscapes of family, and those who farmed it down the years. I think of The Rainbow, and the Brangwens who had lived on the Marsh farm for generations, the way a family may be bound with the land they worked. That feels especially poignant today. Jane’s father Charlie died four days ago. She’d written to me some time ago when she was looking after her Dad who’d had a fall, and said this in passing:

My parents love music – folk music, Percy French, Thomas Moore, anglican hymns and even now Dad regularly quotes Hiawatha, Julius Caesar, the psalms, the bible, Yeats (even though he left school at 14) – must have influenced me without my knowing it all those years. 

That found its way into a poem at some point…I just hunted for and found it. It was on Josephine Corcoran’s poetry blog : And other poems…almost exactly a year ago. This excerpt…. the first three stanzas….is what I thought of:

The Finest Specimen                                     [3 line stanzas]

When I was a child my father wrote the twelve fair days

of Roscommon on the back of a Players pack

and taught me to recite them as farmers used to do.


He showed me where the blacksmith had inscribed

1865 on a gate – the year Yeats was born, he’d say.

There’s one date you have to remember, your great


great great grandfather, the one with the whiskers,

was born the year of the rebellion, 1798,

any family history before that is just imagination.


(previously published in the Fish Anthology 2015)

A couple of days ago, she posted another poem for her Dad on her Facebook page. It ends like this, with a wish, or a prayer:     [it should be in 2 line stanzas]

That I could take him back

to his cobblestones and barn,

his rooks in the birch trees, his nettles

and ditches, limestone and bog.

That I could find the words to tell him

what he will always be,

horse chestnut petals falling pink in the yard,

the well that’s hidden in a blackthorn thicket,

cattle standing orange in the shallows,

a summer evening’s hush.

(From: That I could .,First published in One online journal,with thanks to Richard Krawiec.)

For today, while her Dad was still alive, I asked Jane to choose a poem for us to revisit, (ie one that I used in the first post) she chose ‘Every tree’ from The River.

Every tree                                                  [ 2 line stanzas]

I didn’t take the walnut oil,

linseed oil,

the tins of wax

or my lathe and plane

when I closed

the workshop door.

I left the grip of poverty

on the bench

beside my mallet,

whittling knife

and fishtail chisel

with its shallow sweep.

I quit the craft

my father had carved into me

when I was pliable

as fiddleback grain,

left all at the threshold,

except for the scent of wood,

a different scent

for every tree.


It says what I’ve tried to describe about the nature of work in Jane’s poetry, or, specifically, about the work of hands. I think it’s also about legacies and about moving away, about becoming, about why we can’t go back. And also, perhaps, why we shouldn’t want to. I’d give a lot to learn the art of its quiet economy. The weight that a short sentence can bear. I left the grip of poverty / on the bench. Do you see what I mean about spaciousness? About resonance? It’s lovely.

I also asked if we could  have a new poem or more that she was happy to share. Jane replied: Here are three new poems, attached. Feel free to choose your favourite. They were published in a US Irish Studies Journal in Spring 2016 (New Hibernia Review Volume 20, Number 1, Spring, 2016) so it’s unlikely that your readers will have seen them before.

I can’t choose. So I’m sharing all of them.

The first, The yellow jumper, I liked especially because of the sense of shared riches in a family story that stretches back and back, and the love that’s implicit in the best story tellings. That clinching word in its last line: splendid

The Yellow Jumper                                     [3 line stanzas]

We weren’t married long when I saw

a turtle-necked jumper in Murray’s window –

yellow as happiness, as the flash on a goldfinch’s wings.


I imagined your father wearing it at the fairs,

standing out from all the rest in their greens

and greys. Eighteen shillings and sixpence,


I paid for it on tick, thruppence a week.

For all that he smiled on his birthday,

it remained on the back of the bedroom chair.


One day I folded and packed it in the chest

with the spare candles, letters, photographs

and the other questions I didn’t ask.


I like to think of him there, among pens

of breeding heifers, weanlings and hoggets,

splendid in yellow.


The second poem is in that same tradition of shared memory.


The Pianist                                            [3 line stanzas]

I don’t know how she did it,

smuggled a spinet,



all the way from Beijing.

We didn’t want trouble,

neighbours said we should burn it,


but if you saw how she touched it,

you’d know why we found

a hiding place in a faraway shed.


Like everyone else,

she spent long days in the fields

but come the night,


she’d be gone for hours at a time.

We didn’t ask,

didn’t want to know;


only sometimes we heard notes

carried, as if from the heavens,

by hard frost or on the wind.


What I like so much is the combination of the matter-of-fact …..the plain telling…and the mysterious, the sense of a kept secret, the deliberateness of ‘not knowing’ as though knowledge would be dangerous, or fatal to the music. It’s a haunting poem in so many ways.

The third poem brings me back to the work of hands and trades, but it’s also unobtrusively a poem like Heaney’s Digging ,  and, I suppose, The door into the dark , that connects the work of hands with the work of words in a communion of craftsmanship.

When winter comes                                                   [ 2 line stanzas]


remember what the blacksmith

knows, that dim light is best


at the furnace, to see the colours

go from red to orange


to yellow, the forging heat

that tells the steel is ready


to be held in the mouth

of the tongs and it’s time


to lengthen and narrow

with the ring of the hammer


on the horn of an anvil,

to bend until the forgiving metal


has found its form

in the sinuous curve of a scroll.


Then file the burrs, remove

sharp edges, smooth the surface,


polish with a grinding stone

and see it shine like silver, like gold.


When I read Jane’s post on Facebook last week, I said I’d light a candle for Charlie Clarke; I suppose this post is part of that promise.  And her poems remind me that Larkin’s cautious qualifications and ‘almosts’ miss the point. Because without qualification: what will survive of us is love. Thank you, Jane, for sharing that love.

[With my ‘revisited guests’ I’ve usually let them tell you what they’ve done in the interim before sharing new poems. That didn’t feel quite appropriate. I’ve left it to the end, and let the poems Jane sent me to work their magic. But if you’re meeting Jane for the first time, then you’ll want to know.

In 2016 Jane won the inaugural Listowel Writers’ Week Poem of the Year at the Irish Book Awards as well as the Hennessy Literary Award for Poetry. Jane’s first collection, The River, was shortlisted for the Royal Society for Literature Ondaatje Award, which celebrates literature evoking a sense of place. She has been continuing work on her second collection and has had poems published in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Irish Times, Poetry Ireland Review, New Hibernia Review, Resurgence and Ecologist magazine, Elementum magazine and the US on-line journals, One and Prelude. 2016 reviews of The River were published in The North, Poetry Wales, the Dublin Review of Books, New Hibernia Review, Resurgence & Ecologist and Artemis Poetry. She also continued a series of readings from The River, which took her to Wales, California and Washington DC as well as Sligo, Limerick, Newcastle West, Dublin, Cavan, Roscommon and Limavaddy.

The River [Bloodaxe 2015. £9.95]

The textured language, vivid imagery and musical rhythms of Jane Clarke’s debut collection convey a distinctive voice and vision. With lyrical grace these poems contemplate shadow and sorrow as well as creativity and connection. The threat of loss is never far away but neither is delight in the natural world and what it offers. Rooted in rural life, this poet of poignant observation achieves restraint and containment while communicating intense emotions. The rivers that flow through the collection evoke the inevitability of change and our need to find again and again how to go on.”

Poetry readings, and a polished gem: Ian Harker


Some Sundays I’m scratching around for a hook for the cobweb post, and some Sundays (like today) I’m offered a gift on tailor-made platter. I was playing around with the reasons why I’ll buy books at a poetry reading and not at others. Or why I come away sometimes buzzing with something I can only describe as excitement. Or not. So god bless Facebook for someone’s sharing Lemn Sissay’s succinct musing on the importance of ‘the voice’. This is part of it:

“Authenticity in the performed poem is in the voice – high low mumbled screamed inhibited or expressive –  and the voice is shaped by the words.  I remind myself to read the poem as if I had just written it.  This allows me to feel the text.  The space between feeling the text and speaking the text is vast.  It needn’t be.   It is the role of the poet on stage to close the gap to capture the feeling they had when they wrote the poem.  A performed poem needn’t be outwardly expressive but it must be internally explosive. Believe me. However  quiet the poet is on stage, however inhibited they may be, if they feel their poem the audience will too.   Move and be moved.”

– See more at:

And he’s just summed up what I’d have struggled to articulate; I went to three poetry readings in four nights this week, and at each of them I heard poets who ‘closed the gap’, who moved and were moved.

Monday was the Puzzle Poets Live in Sowerby Bridge, where an attentive audience crammed itself into a small upstairs room to be treated to a master class by Ian Duhig. If anything, Ian is an understated reader, quiet though emphatic. But there’s no mistaking the passion; what he writes about is important to him, and he makes it important to the listener. He frames his poems, he gives them context, he shares the processes of their making in a way that makes coherent and accessible a huge range of ideas …a blind roadmaker who he invited us to think of as ‘love’; Franz Kafka and the (apochryphal?) story of a lost doll, and the letters she may or may not have written; England as ashtray land; a character who asks ‘what the fuck’s the Holy Grail?’ ; the Book of Job and one individual against the world; the reminder that ‘by the breath of God, frost is given’; the makers of meaning (all poets and lawmakers, I supposed) ‘whose words they feared betrayed it’. Running through all this was his advice on constructing a pamphlet , or a collection. ‘Don’t overplan…let your poetry surprise you’. What kind of voice were we listening to? One that convinced you that poetry would always become accessible if you listened hard enough. And one other thing. He read and talked for twenty minutes, and then stopped, leaving everyone wanting more. Like I say. A master class. If I hadn’t already bought ‘The blind roadmaker’ I’d have bought it there and then, feeling I’d been invited into its world.



And so to Wednesday in Halifax, at The Loom Lounge, in Dean Clough Mills. Keith Hutson who organises the WordPlay monthly readings in Halifax has done an amazing job of attracting poets from all over the country, but I reckon he surpassed himself on Wednesday, when David Constantine came all the way from the Isles of Scilly….thankfully to  good sized audience. Two of the support readers I already knew, and knew I’d enjoy their readings. Bob Horne treats his poems as actor would a text, I think. Every word gets its appropriate attention and no more. His timing… comic, ironic, reflective, whatever’s required…is always exact and felt. Ann Caldwell reads her work with a quiet conviction, and the authority that comes from knowing what you’re talking about.

At this point I confess, guiltily, that I didn’t know David Constantine’s work. There’s a huge amount I don’t know about poetry and poets. I knew that he’d judged the McClellan Poetry Competition this year, because I entered it, but other than that I had no idea what to expect appart from knowing that he has an amazing cv..He read for 30 minutes and it felt like 30 seconds. What was remarkable to me was the complexity of poems made out of entirely accessible lexis, and the way long looping sentences that turn back on themselves are stitched together by barely noticed slant and full rhymes, by a precisely placed set of rhythms that are exact and reliable, and simultaneously unobtrusive. And I noticed all this because he made me hear them. His control is remarkable…he makes the business of breathing through long sequences seem effortless. I sat and wondered if he’d been an influence on Kim Moore, who also is adept at breathing through sentences that can run over a 5 or 6 stanza sequence. The thing is, I was simultaneously entranced by the performance, as by a skilled instrumental musician AND by what the poems say.  The monologue of the monomaniac; the voices of the Greek chorus and messenger; the adaptation of fado that name checked Ewan McColl’s dirty old town, the Manchester Ship Canal…and never once seemed odd or forced. Do you see what he did? I have never heard or read this poems before, but they’re lodged in my mind. And that’s why I bought the Collected Poems. Because I already knew I would read and re-read them. I’ve not started yet. I have to finish my rationed reading of the Collected U A Fanthorpe. That’ll take another month, but then I can start on David Constantine..and all on the basis of his reading in a cafe/bistro in a monumental former carpet mill in Halifax.

And to finish my ‘week’, the Albert Poets in Huddersfield. I’ve rarely heard a poor reader there, one who mumbles, or faffs about, or does the ‘poet voice’. but from Thursday night’s readings, among many good things, I want to pick out two. One of the guest poets was Tom Cleary, who read a poem about his father, about the terror of being brutally interrogated during the Irish Civil War, about being repeatedly beaten, about the demand that he SPEAK. Now, I can signal that this word is important. I can capitalise it. I could surround it with  white space                speak                     but what I can’t do with written text is what Tom Cleary could do in performance, in the line that dissects the phonics of the word, and then in the performance of those phonic elements inthat one syllable. And then in the silence that he let surround it, so that you had to understand its bleak irony, and the ambiguities of Tony Harrison’s line:

“in the silence that surrounds all poetry”.

When this poem is finally in print I shall buy it. The same is true of a poem that David Borrott read, and equally, it will be because of hearing it as the writer heard it (I believe) in his own mind. David’s poem was written around a childhood memory, an anecdote of being caught by the incoming tide on the mudflats of Southend. Why was it important to hear it in performance? Because the voice is that of a child refracted through the memory of the adult. The child has no language for the enormity of what is happening as the cold sea rises above waists and chests…and makes one anyway. Like Riddley Walker in Hoban’s astonishing novel. All the bafflement of how we got into and out of this near-drowning was there in David’s reading. So, on the evidence of this week at least, there’s no default poetry voice around my bit of Yorkshire, and I understand what Lemn Sissay meant about closing a gap, about moving, and being moved.

Which brings me handily to our guest for this week. Because I heard Ian Harker reading at Mark Connors’ Word Club at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds, and I knew straight off that I wanted him to let us have some poems for the cobweb. He reads with that clarity and confidence that I like, readings that follow the meaning of the poem and let the rhythms work as understated counterpoint or harmony, He can do drily ironic, too. He has great timing. And he means what he’s reading. So here he is:

Ian Harker’s poems have appeared in magazines including Agenda, Stand, Other Poetry, and The North. He has been Highly Commended in the Bridport Prize, and has been shortlisted in the Troubadour and Guernsey International prizes.

His debut collection ‘The End of the Sky’ was a winner of the Templar Book & Pamphlet Award in 2015, and his first full collection, ‘Rules of Survival’, is forthcoming through Templar. I asked him to say a little about the influences that have gone into his poetry…I suspect that what he writes about Paul Durcan put the seed for the introduction to this post in my mind. This is what he says about himself:

“For me, a poem always starts when a voice starts speaking. It usually begins with a first line, or at least phrase. From then on, I try and work in what I admire in other people’s poetry. Much as I dislike him personally (and politically) I can’t get away from TS Eliot – the energy and intensity of his poetry up until ‘The Hollow Men’ is stunning.

Then there’s Louis MacNeice: he gets a bit of a raw deal because of Auden, but in a celestial poetry slam, I reckon Louis could beat Wystan poem-for-poem. I love the way he bends meaning to snapping-point, the way his poems quiver on the edge of sense. That, and the way he brings everyday speech – clichés and jargon into his poems. He picks up language we’ve hardly noticed ourselves using and turns them into poetry. Also his moral energy: he lived and wrote through the worst years of the 20th century, and I think all his poems are really trying to work out what the bloody answer was to so much brutality and crushing of spirit.

Finally (probably most of all) there’s Paul Durcan. I heard him read at Beverley Literature Festival in 2010, and I’ll never forget it. What I adore most about his work is the ways he finds to come at a subject. He’s always completely unexpected, surprising, but by the end of the poem you feel that how Durcan’s written the poem is the most completely perfect way to express just the thing he was driving at. That, and the fact that he can be laugh-out-loud hilarious in one line, then deadly serious the next; in fact he can be both at the same time. (I think this is what I noticed about Ian’s own poems too, when I heard him read in December)

So here we go. Ian’s sent me three poems to share with you. They are all from the upcoming pamphlet. As soon as it’s out, I’ll publicise it on the cobweb. It’s one to look out for. How do I know? because I’ve heard his reading.


Urban legend: Astronauts


They say it sends you crazy –

a range of hills at your back,

the ground ahead not much more

than an ellipse and you’re staring back

at everything you’ve ever known.


And what you thought was black

when you stood in the yard staring up

at the tailfins of meteors

or the appendix scar of Hale-Bopp

or the moon that’s now inches

from the soles of your feet

is in fact a solid wall of starshine

reflecting in the goldfish glass of your helmet

and you feel like you felt learning to swim

when your mom took her arms away

and the human mind is very very small.


I think I like everything about this artful, deceptively simple poem, one that make this reader dizzy with its queasily shifting perspectives, the uncertainty about just where we are and how we got here. The physical dislocation comes along with metaphysical and emotional ones, as the the ground that appeared close turns to a ‘solid wall of starshine‘ which, I suppose, is anything but solid; as the grown-up astronaut becomes a child, and ‘it’ clearly does make ‘you’ crazy’. And, by the way, I’d have given much to have come up with that oddly precise image: the appendix scar of Hale-Bopp…..there was a comet visible in daylight, and its tail as pale as a healed scar. Wonderful.


It struck me that Ian’s poems have that knack of making you see things differently, surprising you into all sorts of reappraisals by unexpected shiftes of perspective..and equally of assuming the voices that allow him to do that. Which is why I especially enjoyed the voice of the next poem.As I alsdo enjoyed the title, and, hard on its heels, the first line…I think of both of them as poential competition winners, ones to snag the unwary reader’s attention.And then the gradual discovery of the narrator’s voice and his subterfuges. Another to read aloud for yourself.


The caretaker compares himself to the happiest man alive


Freddie Mercury employed a butler

to serve cocaine on a silver salver.

Me, however – I’ve been a caretaker

for thirty years, give or take –


I had a spell

as Creative Director

of the Royal Opera House,

Covent Garden –


but now I’ve got to get up at half six

and work one Saturday in four, locking doors,

unlocking doors, switching off lights, moving chairs

for layabout provincial thespians.

But you get free tickets they say down the pub –

not seeing that I got free tickets at Covent Garden

but would give them away to incredulous

Community Support Officers,

who doubtless sold them on eBay.



the Happiest Man Alive

does not have to get up at half six

or work one Saturday in four and does not have to put up

with the square outside full of ladyboys.


How I wish I was caretaker for the ladyboys,

the ladyboys who come every year from Bangkok –

all the way from Bangkok and I would come with them

and move not chairs and water-coolers

but armfuls and armfuls of sequin bodices,

piles of lilies, stargazer lilies making me sneeze

and lashing my new tan with sticky bitter welts –

on my arms, my shoulders, the teeshirt I bought in Dortmund

so that when I go on my break and stand in the rain

smoking a fag people look at me strangely

covered in suntan and pollen and I smile and say

Yes! I am caretaker to the ladyboys

of Bangkok! And I’m on my fag break!

The Happiest Man Alive!


He seems a deliberately untrustworthy narrator..there are characters like him in Camus. What I’m uneasy about is who is being taken for a ride. But if he is a conman, he’s a conman with an absurd dream that makes me smile.

The last poem is more lyrical, but like the previous two, you (I?) can’t be quite confident about the perspective, although I know the voice is urgent.



Blue God

That first summer other boys

were tight shadows,

static at the tips of my fingers

till out of a steel-white sky

that could have been cold to the touch

came you – blue like Krishna.


No one else knew.

No one could see the cobalt stream

from under your shirt. I was hot

in a school jumper but my eyes,

closed like a corpse’s, opened

and found you – dancing

if you did but know it

at the end of the sky,

at all the far reaches.


And everywhere around you abundance –

petals and filigree, water

through dry earth.

And a point of light under your hand

where all the other light started.


Decide who it is who’s talking to you. I’m not sure, and I haven’t heard Ian Harker reading this one. But I want to. At least I can thank him for being our guest on the cobweb this Sunday, and promise we’ll buy the pamphlet as soon as it’s available.





Gems revisited: Maria Taylor


Self indulgent post today….even more than usual. Because it’s my birthday. Which I’m celebrating via my son Mick’s present to me: a redesigned slick new look for the great fogginzo’s cobweb. I hope you all like it as much as I do. I was getting a bit bored with those bookspines every week. Now it seems to be an everchanging panorama of photographs I’d forgotten were on my files. Wow!! And also it’s David Bowie’s birthday. And Elvis’s. And Shirley Bassey’s. (It’s Nick Neale’s and Mick Bromley’s too…you won’t have heard of them, but they’re both very talented, take my word for it).

74! And in the words of Micky Mantle, “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d of took better care of myself“. Anyway, I’m giving myself a birthday treat, because, slightly out of sequence, my special guest today is Maria Taylor, and I can give another airing to some musings on reviewing poetry, I can reprise some of what I wrote about her in October 2015,  and then you can find out what she’s been up to since then. Are you sitting comfortably? Then off we go.

“The first proper review I wrote was for The North, and by a happy chance, one of the collections reviewed was by Maria Taylor. I’ll plunder some of that review for this cobweb strand, with due acknowledement to The North.

I remember I was very nervous about it, and I thought I’d better read some poetry reviews, not only in The North but in other magazines and journals; I have to say that my heart sank. Maybe I was reading the wrong ones, but I was instantly time-warped back to university and the strange language of ‘Lit. Crit.’ It was a register I had to learn, but I hated it. All of it. I was informed, in no uncertain way, that I was not, on pain of derision and contempt, to use the word I. The reasons were never made explicit, but it was made very clear I had to assume an authority I did not have, and to use the word we. ‘We are not sure of the perfect grasp of the conventions of the sonnet’s rhetorical structure and authorial voice in this less than authoritative sequence.’  That sort of pretentious claptrap. We recognise. We are profoundly moved. Never you. The reader is taken on a lyrical journey into darkness. And I would think: how do I know what ‘the reader’ thinks. I only knew (on a good day) what knew. I knew straight off what Tony Harrison was on about. Uz. Uz. Uz. I’m with Caliban. I’ll not thank you for learning me your language, Durham University. ‘We’. It’s an arrogant impertinence. I’ll tell you what I think. You can make your own mind up. We’re not in a fictitious, collusive relationship. It was still going on when, years later, I was marking undergraduate essays. I was told not to write on their work: What do YOU think? You’re not an authority. Just be plain and honest with me. If you don’t understand it, then tell me, and tell me why.

I have no patience with reviews that have an agenda of league tables and pecking orders, or with reviews designed to showcase the writer. Here’s an analogy. I’m addicted to Sunday Supplement restaurant reviews…well, to A.A. Gill’s, anyway, because I like acidulous writing. But you know the kind of thing when it’s bad. Where the reviewer riffs on his/her sojourn in Calabria or some remote upland village in the Tatras…for about 1000 words, and then spares a 100 for a dismissive review of a new Turkish/fusion joint in Notting Hill or Golders Green. Always in London. Or, at a pinch, Edinburgh. Their London. Their world. They sound like second rate Brian Sewells, but without the wit or scholarship that makes you not mind the strangely plummy enunciation. Stuff that, for a lark, I thought. Let me say thanks, right here, for Don Patterson’s new book on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. That’s the voice I want to hear, authentic, idiomatic, partisan and partial. I reckon it gives me permission to write the way I want. You’ll either like it or you won’t but at least you’ll know what I think. And make up your own minds.”

And so, having got that off my chest, let me set about persuading you why you should be as enthusiastic as I am about Maria Taylor, who I first met, like so many others, at a Poetry Business Writing Day, and whose company I have looked forward to ever since. Let me introduce you. Or rather, let her introduce herself:

‘I am Greek Cypriot in origin and was born in Worksop and lived in Notts as a child. My family moved to London when I was 6, after my father found it increasingly hard to find work in the local power stations. We lived in Acton. When I was 18 I went to Warwick University to study English Literature and Theatre Studies, and then onto Manchester University to study for an MA in English. I worked as a Teacher until I had twins at 30. After the twins were born, I found myself going back to poetry. I’d actually studied Creative Writing with David Morley at Warwick, but had strayed off the poetry path. It was partly David’s influence that guided me back to poetry. Since then I’ve been busy writing and reading. I’ve had poems published in various magazines, including The Rialto, Ambit, Magma and The North. In 2012, my first collection Melanchrini was published by Nine Arches Press and shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize. I currently teach Creative Writing at De Montfort University in Leicester. I also have a blog, find me at:

[Lets’s also add that she’s review editor for Under the radar, and asked me to contribute a review for that. Told you. Shameless hook].

So what’s she been up to since then?  All my returning guests have been sent the same list of prompt questions. What I really like is that they all come at them in their own way. I was much taken by the fact that Maria wrote me a letter; I see no need to edit it.

“Dear John,

Hope you’re well. I thought I should write my response in the form of a letter, rather than a post. This is more to do with needing structure rather than a return to the past. So thank you very much for asking me back to your wonderful blog.

Not About Hollywood

I sit next to Uncle Tony in the waiting room
who says he’ll be lucky to get six months

and can’t be sure if it’s his blood pressure
or the ghosts in his head that’ll kill him.

He wears a jacket removed from a corpse
with his life savings stitched under tweed,

‘So they don’t get at it,’ he whispers,
they being banks, governments, wives.

My mother’s seen it all. I was born
into melodrama. But we’re still here for him

the way a scratching post is there for a cat.
He talks. We listen to the silences.

Magazines find their way onto our laps
and we lose ourselves in other lives:

premieres, evening gowns, red carpets.
He gets up, humming something staccato.

His step falters. We tell him not to worry
as his name flashes in blood-red lights.

Last year, one of the poem’s featured on the Cobweb, was a poem called ‘Not About Hollywood.’ This poem is now featured in my new pamphlet with HappenStance, Instructions for Making Me. The pamphlet came out this September. At one point the working title of the pamphlet was Not About Hollywood, but Nell Nelson thought that might be a clunky title for a collection as opposed to a single poem. If anything, this year I’ve started thinking more about poems working in collections as opposed to the usual flinging them out. There’s not much I’d change about this poem now, it was published in New Walk and in the pamphlet so I guess it’s a ‘grown up’ poem. It’s gritty and based partly on reality and it’s not a ‘pretty’ poem. Actually, I’d like to write more poems like this!


(I can’t resist adding: so would I. I commented at the time that  “There’s a line that arrests me,  My mother’s seen it all. I was born / into melodrama ; it makes me want to spend time with Maria Taylor’s poems . Over a year later, it still does.)

You also asked me what else I’ve been up to. I’ve had a poetry ‘sabbatical’ this year. This consists of taking stock and placing my energies into the pamphlet. Now it’s out it’s probably time to get back to the important business of generating and editing new poems. After all I am meant to be a ‘poet’ and writing poems is what we do! I’m sure it’s in the job description. This year’s been quieter. I think this is fairly normal, we’re not poetry machines. I currently have notebooks full of ideas that could be sculpted into poems. I do like the ones which come from nowhere, almost fully formed. Those don’t happen often, but I like their spontaneity. For the most part I think poems need graft; you have to spend a lot of time with them. You have to let them do your head in for a while. The rewards are often worthwhile though.

So in 2017, I hope to write lots of new poems that might ‘do my head in.’ This year, and I appreciate it won’t be 2016 for much longer, I’ve been working and teaching more workshops.  I’ve been ill a bit so I hope that will pass in 2017! My proudest magazine moment this year was having a couple of poems accepted by The North. This is mainly because I wrote the two poems after the poems in the pamphlet. That gives me some hope! I know we both love The North. I’m going to give you one of The North poems for your blog, ‘What it Was Like.’

Ok, so onto the poems. Two are from the pamphlet. Regarding said publication – and I know I’ve mentioned it quite a few times already – Matthew Stewart  kindly said that I employ ‘numerous different forms and deals with all sorts of thematic concerns, and yet…it all hangs together.’ I wonder if that’s influenced by reading different forms and styles of poetry. I like to have variety not only in form, but also in tone and subject. So yes, one minute I will be dealing with a horse, the next writing a lyric or cocking-a-snook or having fun with Daniel Craig.  I don’t see why not. When I was a starry-eyed teen I used to read Frances Stillman’s The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary. It was already over 30 years published when I got my hands on a battered second hand copy. Francis said you could write a poem about anything, so I didn’t argue with Francis. My chosen poems for you are: ‘Poem in Which I Lick Motherhood’ , ‘Travelling on the 10:21 with Tom Hardy’ , and ‘What It Was Like.’ Ok, I’ve yammered on long enough! Here are the poems. Thanks again for asking and may your blog continue to flourish!


Poem in Which I Lick Motherhood

I have several children, all perfect, with tongues made of soap
and PVA glue running through their veins.

My boys and girls benefit from eating the rainbow.

I iron children twice daily. Creases are the devil’s hoof print.

I am constructed from sticky-back tape, pipe cleaners and clothes pegs.

There are instructions for making me. Look at the appropriate shelves
in reputable stores.

I am fascinated by bunk beds, head lice and cupcakes.

You will only leave the table when I have given you clear instructions.
So far I have not.

The school-run is my red carpet.

Yes, you’re right, how do I manage it? Though, I didn’t ask you.

Dreaming is permitted from 7:40 to 8:20 am on Saturdays, Bank Holidays
and on mornings when I will be engaged in healthy outdoor pursuits.

My children’s reward charts are full of glittery stars. I am the Milky Way.

Crying is dirty.

One housepoint! Two if you eat up all your peas.

I always go off half an hour before my alarm. In the morning I speak
a complex language of bleeps and bell tones.

Chew with your mouth closed. No. Don’t chew at all. Admire the presentation.

Underneath my ribs is a complex weather system of sunshine and showers.

Heat rises from me and blows across the gulf stream of my carefully controlled temper.

Sometimes I am mist.

(First published in Poems in Which)

(I relished this one…couldn’t resist trawling Google’s unnerving catalogue of terrifying magazines devoted to ‘mothering’ and the cultivation of sel-excoriating guilt in hapless parents. Favourite line in the poem? “Creases are the devil’s hoofprint”. And the wistfulness of the last line. And the guilty laughs all the way through. It’s rather fine to read the next poem hard on the heels of the last one…and particularly of its last line.)

What It Was Like

When the stranger’s baby cries, my body remembers

the shrill, tuneless song of need. It remembers

endless nights of cat and dog rain. It remembers

our road falling asleep, as we forgot to remember us.

That summer, clothes stopped remembering

to fit. We’d look through thin curtains and remember

the sun, mimicked by sodium light. I remember

the feel of warm, sleep-suited limbs, still breathe in

their powdery smell. The stranger I used to be lives

in the present tense now. The baby fidgets on her chest

like a rabbit. Then he’s calm. His blue eyes gnaw

on me for a moment till his head’s at rest,

the frail, dreaming head of infancy that only knows

a need for love and milk, that won’t remember any of this.

(First published in The North)

(for me there’s a moment in this poem that nails the pure egotism of babies, their amoral neediness; I think it’s what the whole poem spins around:

” ‘His blue eyes gnaw on me for a moment”.

That one verb is unnerving, isn’t it?  ‘gnaw’ .  Anyway, on to the last poem, which takes us into a different place, but oddly and equally wistful. Another poem about loss. About all kinds of loss. A very lovely and loving poem.)

Travelling on the 10:21 with Tom Hardy

Hardy calls to his dead wife

at Castle Boterel, St. Andrew’s Tower.

He calls quietly over Wi-Fi,

Can it be you I hear?


Fields fly without answers.

A smudge of rabbit hops away

and vanishes into a grassy tuft.

A horse’s silhouette awaits a rider.

My heart’s a dog-eared Metro.

I hold my book under the table

as if I’m keeping his love a secret.

I am. We’re both out of style

amid a one-upmanship of screens.

His simple question skims the roofs

of expanding towns. It pauses

over a clock’s stopped hands.

(Appears in  Instructions for Making Me, HappenStance 2016)

There you are, then. As I said; a self-indulgent post…a birthday present to myself. Thank you, Maria Taylor for sharing these poems. Thank you all for turning up and helping me blow out the candles. See you next week, when I know you’ll be showing me the newly purchased copies of   Instructions for Making Me [HappenStance 2016. £5.00]

just follow this link for more details

2016: My favourite bits (concluded)..October, November and December

2016: My favourite bits (concluded)..October, November and December



Anthony Costello :The battle of the sexes

A strange treatment onlove, with echoes
of Sirk and Rosselini: anachronistic sex
in a cable car above some alpine state,
a pencil-skirted, platinum blonde … American?
A dark-haired man in suit and tie … Italian?
She considers their fleeting romance ‘platonic’
but, empathetic to his character and need,
hands the gentleman a handkerchief.
She turns her back and he turns his,
as- cut to mise en scène – he masturbates.

As an act of kindness, it seems
enlightened, unlike the attempted rape
of Athena, the shot load of Hephaestus,
her foster-son, on her virgin’s thigh.
Wiped off and dropped to earth
on a scrap of wool, a boy germinates,
who is reared by Gaia and placed,
on Athena’s orders, into the box where
he grows to the length of a serpent:
frightening to death the women who lift
the lid and look inside, the kind of half-man
half-snake that curls around your neck.


John Duffy:   Gravity and the bairn

” I didna ken whaur I was, or what I was daein,

nae mair nor a soukin bairn. H. Hunter, Edinburgh. 1894″

Gravity grips the moses basket,

pins the baby to the sheet –

holds us to the Earth,

cradles Sun and planets.

Brick, stone, cement and wood

shelter this flight of stairs, this room;

stand tensed against that weightiness

and the baby, who knows none

of the words for gravity,

waves arms in the air, kicks off

the quilt, lets the hand teach –

reaches, grasps a toy, lifts and squints:

inside the skull, sparks leap

from lobe to lobe; beneath the skin

nerves, sinews, veins churn,

roots in a springtime meadow.

One day she’ll stand, this bairn,

speak and sing and cry and laugh;

rattle the bars; put down the mighty.



Wendy Pratt: Pluviophile


When it comes; thick and soft

as the pelt of an animal,

I am grounded, brought down

to calm in the smell of damp earth.

We wait like the wet starlings,

under tree cover, their song-work

undone in the shallow hiss

of leaves and rain. I am paused,

smelling the green of the grass,

the hung heads of daffodils,

watching the plough furrows

fill with water. A dog barks

somewhere, on one of the farms,

the spaniel lifts his wet head, waits

as I wait, we are communed,

marooned, standing peacefully,

watching the water make mud

out of soil, movement out of stillness.


Laura Potts:  Yesterday Calling


a gull snaps its wings

and laughs

as I stretch out the past

to the city with its dark heart

and us,

splitting our skins for a kiss.

On the rim of a memory,


we fizz

like silver pins

on that street

or this.

My lover’s words I remember


like globed pearls on tepid stars

the hot dark of torchlight


from the pavement


as he went.


with eighty-six years in my face,

I read books

and play cards

and years have dried up,

slow prunes

in a vase.

But last,

in my crabbed hands his skin,

doused with river lights,

no foul breath of wartime but

a whole lost world of long-kissed nights,

thin films of eyes candled bright

in the lobes of my palms,

the four-medal arms deliberate,



Afterwards, the distant salute of a bomb.


Stephanie Bowgett: Baba Yaga’s daughters

You never could tell us apart,

that one in the mirror and me.

Wolves in the forest howl, yellow as yolk

and Bublik, we know you are one of their ilk;

why else would we languish, pine for you here

in a house that struts on the legs of a hen?

And this is a riddle

I riddle for you:

Why have one girl

when you can have two?

Listen! Our mother is pounding home

grinding stars in her mortar.

She wants you

for a lampshade

on a post by the door,

And we agree, me and the one

you mistake for me. Cornered,

your eyes are wide as a girl’s.

We giggle, kiss your loose lips,

pass you from tongue to tongue

dissolve you like sherbet,

me and my sister, the silver needle,

threaded behind my lapel,

She stitches you up in the hem of my skirt.

Swing there heavy, while I clap,

clap, clap to the balalaika;

arms akimbo, pirouette;

stamp my feet in little red boots

Hold tight, Bublik! One of us you’ll wed

but both of us you’ll bed, and Mother,

oh Mother will never know.

And this is a riddle

I riddle for you,

why have one girl

when you can have two?

In the dark they say,

all cats are grey

So too, my dear, are wolves

So too, my dear, are wolves



Yvonne Reddick :   V. Resteau, Geologist Manqué

His treasures: eyeflash of tourmaline

in a matrix of white,

wink of gwindel crystals

their shade a warlock’s smokescreen,

an iron rose, the weight

of angular petals,

the blood-lustre garnet

a dark vein between us.

I turn them between my fingers

and see a man with my eyes

make the slow climb from Göschenen to Airolo

across the divide between rivers,

the watershed of languages.

He sips a Ticino red at the Ospizio –

nerves steadier, he hauls on

boots and rubberised Mackintosh,

the miner’s lamp still quavering in one hand.

The cristallier unfurls the rope ladder

and my great-grandmother’s grandfather

shins down to the blind-end fissure –

squirms his head and shoulders

into the cavity of mineral fangs.

An hour later, he emerges,

whiskers thick with dust,

face beaming. In his hand,

a dusty lump of spikes.

He returns to Evian

with the worst torticollis

his doctor has ever seen

and du quartz fumé magnifique.

His peeling specimen-label reads

St Gotthard, 1859.

Still, his careful hand

beckons in sepia ink, to the keyhole pass

So there we are; all our guests from 2016. Thank you, each and every one of them, and thanks to you for turning up throughout the year and being an audience that makes the writing worthwhile. I’m already looking forward to the guests of 2017. Hope you’ll join me. xxx