Here we are, back at The Old Olive Press* and just starting a week of writing tutored by Mimi Khalvati, with a bunch of writers new to me…apart from the splendid Seni Seneviratne, who I met when she read at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield. But instead of looking forward, I’m looking back to the first time I came here in May 2013, and meeting someone who transformed the week. Gyula Friewald is a craftsman in metal; a sculptor, a forger, a blacksmith, an artist…all of these. He has made thousands of stunning things, like the bas relief Nomad, which is my headline image this week; he has created monumental gates for embassies, beautiful cast street lamps, elegant steel trophies, stunning staircases…he has made things for streets in capital cities, for restaurants, for private houses. His range and energy are formidable. But, like he says, it’s physically punishing, and he’s retired. He lives in Spain. He writes poetry in English. And he is one of the best walking companions I have ever met. In the late afternoons, before the evening meal, we’d sit and workshop his poems, with me helping (I hope) him to find the English idioms that would keep the meanings he intended, in a language not his first or his own. But after lunch, we’d go for long walks, and, if we hadn’t done that, I’d never have learned the landscapes we were walking through. It was a week of tumultuous history lessons, philosophy, discovering the names and properties of flowers, watching eagles, far off, uprooting steel snares, finding the bones of a fox, speculating on the meaning of petroglyphs, the behaviours of metals, the weight of anvils, and laughing a lot. When I came here the second time, I hoped he’d be here too, and found that he was, even if he wasn’t..I found myself on every solitary walk wondering what Gyula would make of this or that, and pointing things out, even though he wasn’t there. In the end I had to write a poem for him. So that’s what this week is: a poem and (I don’t know if this is wise or not; maybe you’ll tell me) a whole bunch of images of things he explained to me or told me stories about.
(for Gyula Friewald: sculptor and teller of stories)
On my own, months later, by the footprint
of St Jaume, the candles in the niche, I could swear
I heard you still forging meanings…all this terraces…
and you held an arc of sky in one hard palm,
drew a pure line on the air …..these bancals, was the Moors
who build …you put your hand on the drywalled stone,
tracing its joints, so I felt the weight and drag,
the ugly labour that it took to make those lovely
contours where olives, almonds, lemons grow.
And where we came on the bones of the fox ….
…you want sculpture; look at your own hand, the way…
The sea so far and vague. Back on the track
you were hunting words to tell the meaning
of that finger-painted petroglyph..maybe this man
he wants to make a power over the dark….
By a burned tree stump above the deep arroya..
…was the time my father had to hide away from Stalin….
and in the meadow profligate with flowers
you know why this Hungarian has a German name?
In the dark below the grandfather’s Christmas table
the mill race ran….between the boards
you could see..You know that…..
……kow why I like England? We were
by a two-hundred year old olive tree,
a mountain floating in the sky beyond
….because is surrounded by food….and we watched
the eagles spiralling on thermals, miles away
…you know what my country is surrounded by?..
In a blink, the eagles slanted off into the sun
…is by enemies. Leaving nothing to be said.
Late afternoon, on the Via Dolorosa
below the castle ruin…that big anvil that I have
to leave behind in London..maybe two ton..between
the Stations of Veronica…but that big hammer
gives the sound..like bells, maybe…and of Simon of Cyrene
…you know is right…you raised your arm. your fist
and I thought I could see how the forge, the heat
and that hammer take their toll on the body, the bone.
Day after day, this lore of flowers, the secrets
of copper, of silver, the forging of steel,
how a carob pod smells of chocolate,
the hinges and hanging of church doors, ten metres tall,
of damascening, of the breaking of Hungary,
how love can fracture on the anvil of work…all of it.
In the cool green light where the village women
used to do their laundry we said nothing at all.
I watch mosqito larvae struggle with the surface
tension. Listen to small sounds of water. Bells
On Wednesday, Gyula is planning to come for the day, and we’ll walk over the col , where we found the bones of the fox, and down to Sella. And back. I am looking forward to that.
*The Old Olive Press, Almaserra Vella, Releu, Alicante. Find them on their website
** Broken English is from Running out of Space. For details, see My Books at the top of the page
Three big influences when I was growing up..or growing older. Richard Hoggart’ s Uses of literacy; Raymond Williams’ Culture and society and The long revolution; and C P Snow’s lecture on The two cultures. It’s a curious triumvirate. The son of a Welsh railway worker, a working class lad from Hunslet, and then C P Snow, riddled with class insecurity, a scientific career civil servant, Private Secretary in the Wilson government, a man with a PhD on spectroscopy, and successful writer of turgid novels that, unaccountably, I read avidly at the age of 17. What they had in common, apart from the fact that they were never quite seen as ‘one of us’ by the great and good of academe, was a deep and heartfelt concern about the fragmentations of ‘culture’. The fact that Snow and Hoggart in particular set up a rhetoric about dichotomies didn’t help the cause, but they were, at the time, enormously influential. Snow had an immediate impact on sixth form education, in as much he he threw a strong light on the grammar schools division of their 6th forms into Arts and Science Sixths ( he was, I think, also indirectly responsible for the appearance of the Use of English exam I sat in 1961, and which I ended up teaching a few years later). This division led to earlier ones. I dropped all science subjects at the age of 13. The choice in my school was between History/ Geography, and Chemistry/Physics ….there we were. O level courses sorted. It seems unthinkable…and Snow was right. It was absurd that,culturally, a knowledge of Literature and Art and Music (with capitals, so you know what sort we’re talking about) had cachet. F R Leavis regarded Snow as little more than a PR man for engineers. It seemed OK in polite society, as Snow pointed out, to be effectively innumerate, and ignorant of how the world was physically put together. Maybe it’s something to do with the snobberies that are the truly unpleasant thing in English culture and society. But it’s an old division. Dickens saw the damage done to education when it chooses between Mr Gradgrinds ‘Facts Facts Facts’ and the fancy of Mr Sleary’s horseriding. Maybe it goes back to Descartes; maybe it’s even older, even though we may no longer believe in angels or think science is witchcraft.
So what’s this to do with a chatty poetry blog on a Sunday afternoon? You didn’t sign up for this, did you? It’s just that at one time art and science and music and maths and literature weren’t compartmentalised. Maybe the Industrial revolution, and the mechanisation of print and imagery have something crucial to do with it. And maybe that’s for another day. But painters like Joseph Wright were fascinated by science and its attendant technologies. Milton thought it obvious that Adam and the Angel would pass the time discussing the structure of the cosmos. Da Vinci was fascinated by the structures of everything, the way water fell, how a tree grows, the technologies of destruction, the wonders of human anatomy.
My art teacher in the 6th form was more concerned that I dabbled with Taschism and Cubism, so I didn’t get to know much about the Renaissance. But I did get Metaphysical poetry as a set book for English A level, so I got Andrew Marvell, and coy mistresses, and above all, John Donne and those ‘stiffe twinne compasses’. For the first time in my life I thought I could see how and why a metaphor worked, and fell in love with that fusion of sex and wit and science and passion and religion, and all that cleverness. Well maybe it’s predictable, that appeal to a smartass grammar school adolescent. But I’m still glad of it, and still happy to find poetry that embraces politics and passion and technology…and, well, knowledge. I like poems that think it’s OK if the reader sometimes has to look things up. You can see why I like Tony Harrison…when I read his early stuff I thought I’d met a real-life Metaphysical poet. I got the same buzz when I first saw Bronowsky’s Ascent of Man, which I can watch again again (thankyou BBC DVD) but less of a buzz from the patrician Kenneth Clark’ Civilisation. Though I still watch both. Technology, eh?
And, if you’re still with me, this is why, when I met her at a Poetry Business writing day, I was much taken by one of Liz Venn’s poems, and why I want to share my enthusiasm. I would have loved to have posted The bone man and the way it easily wove a knowledge of bones and antomy into a poem full of a sense of wonder; but it’s out with a magazine at the moment. I shall look out for its acceptance with some eagerness. I said at the top the page that she’s an (un)discovered gem. This is to cover my embarrassment…I discovered her in much the same way as Europeans discovered America, as though the Oglala Sioux and Commanche and Seminoles and all the Nations had not previously noticed they were already living there. Liz is actually the House Poet for the Carol Ann Duffy and Friends series of poetry readings at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. She did a distance learning writing course tutored by the immensely-talented Bill Greenwell; she did a creative writing MA at MMU. In the same year as Kim Moore, and at the same time as David Tait. It’s a small world, and I still don’t know much about it. Mea culpa. She’s been published in the splendid CAST** anthology: The Poetry Business Book of new and Contemporary Poets. She’s been published in lots of quality magazines..The North, Iota, Magma, Smiths Knoll. She won the 2014 Poets and Players prize. So all of you who knew this can smile quietly….keep up, Foggin. Keep up. She also teaches creative writing for science communication, to undergraduate life scientists, and I think her easy synthesis of scientific knowledge and poetry is what I responded to. She can write matter-of-factly, and with a great sense of fun (as she does in The women I’ve worked with) and a nice ruefulness about her dad who’s out shopping for grout and wishing I’d found a man to do these things for me, but I’m going to choose just one poem today, and tell you to check out the magazines, to buy your copy of CAST**, and to visit her website: http://lizvenn.wordpress.com/
I’m assuming that I’ve made you want to. And think on; next week I might be asking questions. Just in case, here’s the poem.
And though I’m not the believing type
I’d believe in the iron souls of trains,
a hollow soul for carrying things
with a spark blown through its fingers.
I’d believe in the souls of drystone walls,
that rise up in rough hands and hold themselves.
That wear the wind on one side, moss on the other
and stand fornothing, except to turn sheep back.
I believe in the fragile souls of light-bulbs,
metallic and easily broken, or dig
to find the ugly clay soil of the North.
I’d believe in souls like chocolate buttons,
that start to melt as you hold them,
in souls that aren’t actually souls,
but chemistry, in the way that carbon breaks
and heals itself through all its different faces,
from the slippery memory of pencil lead,
to the beautiful laboratory of leaves.
There are great images, here. I like the blown spark, and I particularly like the walls that (ambiguously) stand for nothing. But what’s memorable for me is that ‘beautiful laboratory of leaves’ and that conceit of carbon, metamorphosing itself into the souls of everything. So there you are. I’m delighted to have (un)discovered Liz Venn’s poems. Just one thing before I go. Distrust those who spell Culture with a Capital, and equally, Literature, Art, Poetry and Music. They’re trying to keep it for themselves, behind their upper-case fences. Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart got me starting to see that (and, later, John Berger). When was the last time you saw science, and mathematics, and physics and chemistry and biology in capitals (except on an exam paper or a university prospectus)? C P Snow got me to think about that.
Next week, we’re coming from Spain. I want you to meet a Hungarian sculptor who writes poems in English. I was lying about the questions.
**CAST: The Poetry Business Book of New Contemporary Poets ed Simon Armitage, Joanna Gavins, Ann Sansom, Peter Sansom [Smith/doorstop. 2014] £10
I remember with some fondness one of Alexei Sayle’s full-on rants, all shaven-headed aggro and strangled scouse vowels. ‘Werkshops! ****** werkshops! Legwarmers and poncy improvs…listen. If it hasn’t gorra lathe and bench fulla spanners, it’s not a werkshop!’ And recently, with no fondness at all, a Facebook post where some slack-witted journalist was having a sneery pop at Creative Writing courses..MA’s in particular. I think I said that even though my own MA course was a staggering let-down and that other friends felt equally short-changed, I had no reservations about why I paid to go on it, and why I’m happy to pay to go to poetry workshops; the reason’s simple. Because I want to learn how to do things better.
They don’t all work. I’ve been on a truly disappointing Arvon course. It was the first one I’d been on, and it might have been the last…except that because I was used to poetry workshops I knew it was because me and the tutors were a mismatch. Not their fault, I like to think when in a charitable mood. Anyway, what I want to write about is the ones that work for me and why, and also about the truly talented writers I’ve met and become friends with because of them. Nothing that follows will come as any surprise to those in the know, but I’ll be delighted if I reach anyone who’s not, and persuade them that this could be what they’re looking for (without knowing it).
Here’s one of my inspirations …Ian Clayton. Ian’s a broadcaster, writer, storyteller extraordinaire. He’s edited photgraphic essays on the days of winter Rugby League. He’s written hilariously about the music that’s been the soundtrack to his life; he’s written heartbreakingly about the death of his daughter, Billie*. He’s championed the cause of giving a voice to working-class communities in the mining villages of West Yorkshire. For years he ran a writer’s workshop at the sadly now-defunct Yorkshire Art Circus in Castleford, and that’s where I met him when I signed up for six month’s worth of Thursday morning workshops. The core of the group were women from Castleford, Normanton, Sharlston, Featherstone…towns whose pits and whose heart were ripped out in the 80’s. I didn’t learn much about writing poetry. Most of the folk were focussed on writing autobiography and family history. And, perhaps, even more than that, on telling stories. What I did learn was how to keep a note book. I wrote non-stop during each morning’s session, recording as much as I could of what people said, and what I thought about them and about their stories. I learned to write without thinking about how it looked or how it sounded, fast and impressionistically. I filled a big fat A4 notebook. I salvaged a couple of poems from it all, but the trick of letting words on to the page without worrying was the gift I was given…that and some brilliant stories. Without that experience, I doubt I could have got as much as I have from the following five years. Which takes us nicely to:
Ann and Peter Sansom. My poetry heroes. Julia Deakin introduced me to the Saturday Poetry Business writing days** when they were still based in Byram Arcade in Huddersfield. I would have been, I think, out of my depth among so many people who knew each other, and were comfortably familiar with the world of poetry and publishing and poetry readings. But I knew how to sit quiet (not like me at all) and write non-stop, regardless. So I did. I guess the format doesn’t suit everyone, the business of six or seven writing tasks, intensive 5 minute bursts of writing on the basis of the most minimal cues. It suits me because I’m lazy and I work best under pressure…paradoxically it frees me from second thoughts and second guessing and irrelevant self-censorship. It’s pure drafting, and it plunders the memory you didn’t know you had. I wrote down something Ann Sansom said about the magic of how it works : because you are writing for yourself; because you tell yourself things you didn’t know you knew. It’s a kind of ambush on the unconscious. Sit and deliver.
What the Poetry Business added to Ian Clayton’s work was, not surprisingly, poems. Sometimes I would write things that needed minimal editing, as though they’d been waiting around and hoping to be found. The picture that starts this week’s post is of a couple of the six notebooks that I’ve filled almost exclusively at P.B. workshops. And they are all in continuous prose. I can put the line breaks in later, if it’s a piece that’s worth keeping. I think I’ve done about 400 different exercises. How Ann and Peter think them up is a matter of abiding wonder. It’s always artful and without artifice, and is always about memory. The notebook page I chose to photograph is actually of a task at a different workshop, with Jane Draycott (of whom more later) but it’s typical, except that in this case the notes became a poem that won me a prize, a poem that Andrew Motion chose, and a poem that has made a huge difference to the way I think about myself as a writer. The poem is ‘Julie’. It’s in my pamphlet ‘Running out of Space’. I’ve discovered that if you click on the headline photograph you get a full-size image, large enough to read the text. What you find is that the notes are almost word for word the same as the opening of the finished poem.Somedays the gods smile. The prize money from ‘Julie’ paid for the printing of the pamphlet, and 80% of the poems in it came from Poetry Business writing days. The other thing they do is introduce you to a staggering range of contemporary poetry via the extracts they use to start many of the writing tasks. I cut them to size and stick them in my notebooks and reference them to the tasks they triggered. So I’ve learned to read more voices, and to buy more poetry. I’d never heard of Billy Collins, Alison McVety, Helen Mort, Denis O Driscol, Emily Berry, George Szirtes, and all the dozens of others. You learn from the company you keep.
There are two other things I value the Poetry Business writing days for. If the morning sessions surprise you into writing poems you didn’t know you had in you, then the afternoon sessions teach you about reading and editing. It’s hard, concentrated work, reading and listening to maybe ten other poets’ work, and getting focussed feedback on your own work. You learn that what you thought was probably pretty damn fine is, after all, provisional, and that you have to knuckle down to make it work for a reader. You learn that criticism is provisional too..a question of comments on the lines of ‘why not try this and see what happens’ and ‘do you really need this or that line/image/adjective’. You discover that readers find subtexts and layers you never anticipated. From Ann, in particular, you learn how reversing the order of a couple of lines, or, even more startling, making tiny adjustments to punctuation, can make a poem sing. Just to show we’re up to date, I was in Sheffield today, at a PB writing day, and apart from seven new sets of might-be-poems, and afternoon workshop poems of rare quality, I copied out yet another Ann Sansom bon mot. There was one poem that had a line in which poppies were growing at the edges of fields. She homed in on that one word. She said: you can come back to this; it’s one of those words: like drawing pins, that you use to stick the line together, till you can come back and fix it properly. I love that. It’s no good being a writer if you don’t learn to be a reader. So that’s one good thing. The other is to find that you’ve been admitted to a community of writers. Which takes us to:
Residential courses. If a day in the company of writers is good, then 5 or 6 or 7 days is (for me, with one exception) wonderful. I’ve said before that I like mountains and vistas and you can’t get much more of either than at the Old Olive Press. Lumb Bank is great, and so is Whitby, but this place does something extra for me. On an Arvon Course I get distracted by cooking in the afternoon. Can’t keep out of the kitchen. But at Almaserra Vella, thanks to Christopher North and Marisa, it doesn’t arise. You work flat out for three hours in the morning, eat your lunch. And then, (me, anyway), walk for miles in the afternoon, (or sit by the pool, or in the library, or in the cafe by the church) and let the words do as they will. And while you do that, someone cooks your evening meal. Astonishing. And you meet new tutors with different styles. Last year it was Jane Draycott, who, every day, added a new bit of kit to the poetry toolbox. How to use viewpoint, voice, dialogue, setting, pace, line-length…on it went, layer after layer. And she left me with two phrases that see me through the trudgy bits of the process. She said, as she set us off on a task: off you go, opening doors, and lighting candles along the way. She said:look for the point where the poem detonates . So I do. One day I’ll be convinced I know exactly what she meant. In a couple of weeks I’m off again. The tutor is Mimi Khalvati; she has, I’m told, a formidable reputation. Well, if you rest, you rust. I can’t wait. And please, Google ‘The Old Olive Press’….you won’t regret it. If you look closely at the picture, you can see it. It’s the blue house.
Finally, any new writing group is a daunting experience. But I find I can hide behind the physical business of non-stop writing; head down, focussed on the page, the physical act of making marks with a pen, I can blank out a room, and everyone in it, and simultaneously feel safe in the knowledge that in this situation it’s an entirely natural thing to be doing, whereas writing on my own sometimes feels terribly pose-y. And then, one day you find you want to read out something you just wrote, and that when you do, no one laughs. And you start to make friends who, it turns out, have been published and actually are famous but still treat you as an equal. Not only that, but sometimes you see poems emerging that you later meet again in published collections with the bonus you can hear the voices behind them,and the days when you first heard them. Some become especially special, as though I was somehow part of their making, even though I wasn’t. I met Kim Moore because, in one PB morning workshop, she read the draft of a poem she’d written that morning, on her way. Train journey, Barrow to Sheffield, which had such memorable images in it…the sheep that stand and drown in the incoming tide of a shallow estuary, the man waking up on the train, shouting ‘I’ve got to find the sword’ …..that it made me ask her for a copy. And she sent me one. That poem’s in her Poetry Business pamphlet competition winner: If they could speak like wolves. James Caruth, with the unfair advantage of a voice like Heaney’s, workshopped a draft that he’s written that morning. I’ve got a photocopy of the handwritten first version of ‘Lethe’ that we offered comments on, the newly-dead with her ‘ face pale as a clock.‘. That’s in another winning pamphlet: The death of narrative, and so is ‘Pigeon lofts, Penistone Road‘, from another afternoon workshop. There was Julie Mellor (yup, another winning pamphlet: Speaking through our bones) taking Heaney on with her poem about blackberries, and making me sit up straight with the image of the mole that marks a man for hanging. Julia Deakin not only workshopped poems from two collections (‘Slice’ , the tumultuous prosepoem ‘Checkpoint’, ‘Kingfisher on a tram’, amongst others) but I sat and watched her writing (5 minutes) what turned into For what we are about to receive, and the ‘Blackie’s children’s classics’ that taught us ‘that as children we belonged in prison’. And Gaia Holmes’ delicate ‘Trinkets’ asking for the gift of words you could arrange…make them say what you’ve always wanted me to say. So I’ve learned to hear the voices in poems from the voices behind them. And so much confidence
Writers’ workshops, their tutors, and friends like these help me find my voice. And if anyone asks why that’s important, I repeat a line of Tony Harrison’s, one that should be written on every blackboard/chalkboard/whiteboard in every school in the country. The dumb go down in history, and disappear. That’s why.
Next week I promise you another undiscovered gem (except she isn’t), and, maybe some snapshots from ‘poetry readings I have been at’. Something like that. Thanks for listening.
*Ian Clayton: ‘Our Billie’ [Penguin. First published 2010] and ‘Bringing it all back home’ [Route. 2008]
The Poetry Business pamphlets are published by Smith/Doorstop.
For details of Julia Deakin’s collections, ‘Eleven Wonders’ and ‘Without a dog’ see my post of a couple of weeks ago
**The regular Poetry Business Writing Days are on Saturdays, once a month, and meet at the Premier Inn in Sheffield (though there are also occasional PB Writing Days around the country)
You can contact the Poetry Business via their website (just Google Poetry Business) for all the information you could need about workshops, publications, competitions and submissions. And you should.
Puzzle Hall Poets last Monday night. At ten o clock, tea lights were lit on each table of a crowded house, the main lights of the pub switched off, and all the open mic poems were read into the flickering candle glow. It was lovely and it was moving and it set me to thinking about how and why we remember and memorialise. It seems slightly odd to me to feel uncomfortable at the media coverage of the centenary of the beginning of WW1, but I do. Maybe it’s the distance most of the commentators have from it all, the easy platitudes and what feels like an affectation of gravitas and solemnity. Maybe it’s my age, but I don’t think so.
I was two when WW2 ended. I don’t remember that, and I don’t have any real memory of the great winter of 1947, and none at all of any sort of hardship or deprivation. I grew up with comics that routinely presented the Hun and the Boche and the Nips as enemies, and we played at war, much as we played at cowboys and indians, and the English and the cowboys always won. Looking back, it was no more or less real than the Famous Five or fairy tales. When I was at secondary school, I read, voraciously, The Dam Busters, The Colditz Story, The wooden horse, Reach for the sky….all of them, and more than once. You might have expected that to colour my world view; it actually didn’t seem to have anything to do with the real world at all. The only thing that surprised me when I went hitch-hiking through Germany in 1960 was not that Germans seemed exactly like everyone else, but how clean it all was.
There were books and comics and films, and then there was real life. I had two uncles who went through the war on active service…one was at the liberation of Belsen .. and I worked in warehouses with men who had been at Anzio and in India; I worked with one chap who had been on the front lines in WW1. And none of them ever talked about it. We went to Remembrance services in market places and chapels, we had a minute’s silence each year in school assembly. We had ‘at the going down of the sun’. But the people I lived with seemed relieved that it was gone, and that it didn’t have to be talked about. Perhaps that’s what makes me uncomfortable with the post-Diana legacy of easy public displays of emotion…I don’t think it’s grief. I’m even more uncomfortable when a Minister of State for Education makes a bid to appropriate the memory of WW1 to a cause I don’t subscribe to.
But I do have personal connections that I need to make sense of. My grandfather, Alfred Terry, for one. This is one of two photographs I have of him.
My mother was four when he died of Hodgkinson’s disease in Chapel Allerton hospital in Leeds. He was a sergeant in the Kings Own Yorkshire Life Infantry…the TA version. He wasn’t a regular. He was expecting to go to France with his regiment, but became ill and was sent home, and then hospitalised. But I grew up believing he’d died in the trenches. And then that he’d died in an army hospital in Aldershot. He had been a journeyman housepainter. My mother told me nothing about him at all. Perhaps she knew nothing about him, remembered nothing. What she did tell me were stories of her mother, and my aunts and uncle, growing up in poverty in a fatherless house, with no state support or pensions, no health service. My parents lived through two world wars, and it’s the aftermath for women and children they talked about. Not often, but enough. I wanted to say what that meant to me in this poem.
There he is.Grinning and unsoldierly,
the despair of the RSM. The joker in the trench.
Except, I’ve no way of knowing that he ever was.
Maybe, Ypres and Mons and Passchendale
meant no more to him than Chapel hymn tune names –
O dass ich tausand zungen haite. Armageddon.
But all the same, a bit of a lad. No more than a lad,
father of four, and husband of – I think –
a small girl, left all alone to scrat and fend.
My grandma, Ethel, who went deaf, who sat
with her head in the swelling horn
of the wind-up gramophone.
Listened to the scratchy tinnitus
of brittle shellac records until
they hissed like the sea on a shingly shore.
Who drowned herself, a poor Ophelia,
in the beck that ran hot from dyehouses,
that ran blue, and plum and crimson red,
Who died – I think – wreathed in bindweed,
those wide white silky flowers,
and the pink of balsam, sour as a sink.
It was a good thing to light candles,last Monday, to remember, as we always do, The Fallen. It’s a good thing to remember that most of the fallen were not soldiers, and maybe most of them were women and their children. And here we are, watching Syria being blown to bits, and half the world going collectively insane. Leaving nothing to be said, and the duty to say something. Anything.
I’m not thinking of inspiration as a eureka moment…like this Frank Dicksee painting of La belle dame sans merci, My best friend Nick destroyed that one for all time by sending me a postcard of it and a speech bubble pasted in. The knight’s saying. ‘For gods sake, Sharon..get the WD40’. What I am thinking of is how difficult it is to describe—- I think that real inspiration is a slow-burning business that you only grasp in retrospect. Sometimes a long, long retrospect. I think it involves two key elements…encouragement (and the hope and self-belief that engenders) and (crucially) example. Kim Moore and Gaia Holmes tick both boxes for me. I’ve talked before about their encouragement ( and to save them embarassment, I think I’ll try to stop writing about it) but not about their example. They are both incredibly hardworking, they practice their art and craft, they are absurdly modest, they are both great readers of their own work, they are always looking for the next step, they are self-critical, they seem to absorb everything….. that kind of example. So this week’s post may be a bit shorter, but if I’m .
not careful it could go on indefinitely. Here we go. My inspirations, in chronological order.
Tony Harrison. Here’s the reason that I ever thought I might write poems (if not poetry). This comes with stories. In 1971 I moved to Newcastle to be a lecturer in a College of Education. When I took my children to school of a morning, there were very few men doing the same, and one of them was a striking figure..lean and handsome in an RAF greatcoat, very Dostoevskian. Eventually, I asked our Julie (5 yrs old) ‘who’s that bloke?’. ‘That’s Max Harrison’s daddy.’ ‘What’s he do, then?’ ”He doesn’t do anything. he’s a poet.’ I’ve dined out on that story, but the point is that though contemporary poetry meant absolutely nothing to me, then, I mentioned this to a colleague, who invited Harrison to come and read to our 3rd Year B.Ed English students, and so it was that I went to my first ever poetry reading.
Only about 8 students turned up that evening, so we used the staff common room, sitting in a circle of comfortable chairs, and Harrison (trademark greatcoat and all) sat on a sofa, and read. He read along with his trademark lengthy introductions to many poems. He read with a compelling intensity, flattened Leeds vowels, and exact consonants. He read from ‘Loiners’ ...(the collection that his mother had thrown on the fire and then snatched back, realising it was a library book); he read Thomas Campey and the Copernican system..the poem about the crippled bookseller in Leeds Kirkgate Market from whom a young Harrison would buy all sorts of esoteric (to me) stuff: Mommsen, Spengler, Gibbon. He read The nuptial torches and the hairs on my neck prickled as he made the flames of the auto da fe crackle in a hushed staffroom. Above all he read National Trust, which then was still a handwritten draft in his notebook, and he told the backstory of the Edale gentry lowering a prisoner from the local lock up down the shaft of a cave to find out how deep it was. It was only later I learned the craft of it, this immaculate blend of demotic English, linguistics and scholarship, and the elegance of its complex rhyme scheme..this 16 line sonnet that became another Harrison trademark. And I have never ever forgotten the last lines:
mes den hep tavas a-gollas y dyr / (Cornish) ‘the tongueless man gets his land took’
What Tony Harrison did that night was a revelation. Poetry could be angry, political; it could give back a voice to the tongueless, it could be passionate, it could use rhyme and structure and scholarship as a natural part of its rhetoric. It could be funny and sexy. So I was hooked. I still am. I’ve been to readings of his in big auditoria…I’ve even introduced him at one…I’ve seen him on film and on television. But nothing ever comes close to that first reading, the one that made me want to write crafted poems about, say, the struggle of 19th C industrial workers, or about a suffragette (like the one about Emily Wilding Davidson) and ultimately, because of Them and uz about MY parents, MY childhood. My signed copy of The school of eloquence is arguably my most treasured possession (family not included). So. Thank you Tony Harrison. And, of course, you have no idea.
That’s thing, isn’t it? Some years ago the Guardian Education had a regular column called My Inspiration. It’s editor then was Emily Moore. Emily, I owe you a thankyou. Invited famous folk would nominate a teacher from their past as their ‘inspiration’. Jill Dawson nominated me. What struck me then, and still does, is how different her and my perception of that time are. I genuinely had no clear ideas about what I was doing with this first-ever A level group at an almost brand-new school. I wasn’t short of ideas. They just weren’t clear. But Jill Dawson says that I made The waste land make sense. If that’s true, we must have discovered it at more or less the same time…and it was simple enough. If you treat it like music and hear it aloud and perform it, then it makes beautiful emotional sense. But in truth, I wasn’t all that aware of Jill except as a particularly,absorbedly, perceptive, quiet, rather private student. A dark watcher. Yes. But apparently I made some kind of process possible. Just as Harrison did for me. By accident. Anyway, it’s payback time.
I was writing in an earlier post about how hard it can be to find a way of imagining people…not inventing them (that’s for novelists) but realising their otherness. Jill Dawson sent me copies of all her books, each one signed with a different message. They are my most treasured possession, too. I was trying to write sequences about 19thC painters, and about soliloquising statues. And in came one book especially. Fred and Edie. One reviewer wrote: Flaubert would have loved this story. I certainly did. Jill takes the story of the (then) notorious murder of the husband of Edith Thompson by her younger lover, Frederick Bywaters. Both were hanged in 1922. She takes the story of this folie a deux, which interweaves the imagined voice of Edie in her prison cell, with real and imagined letters sent to her ‘Darlint’ Fred. What captured me was Jill’s ability to inhabit the voice of Edie, with all her cultural and social aspirations and self-consciousness and vanities, the way she caught Edie’s linguistic tics and small pretentions: How much more interesting life is when one has occasion to write about it, says Edie. That one stuck. And still does. It’s impossible to do justice to the delicacy of what’s achieved in this novel. You’ll have to read it (There’ll be a full bibliography at the end; reach for the PayPal button now). But I can’t not point out that one of the introductory epigraphs (is that right? it doesn’t sound right) for the story is from The Waste Land, and one of my favourite bits too: ‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; they called me the hyacinth girl’. I think I might have gone on a bit about that, to my 6th form group. And one more thing about inspiration. I suspect there’s a thread of envy in there, too. Why can’t I do this? Why don’t I do this? Well, I will. So, thankyou, Jill Dawson; ventriloqual novelist par excellence. My inspiration.
Now, two inspirations who I’ve never met and who don’t know me, and almost certainly never will. First up is A S Byatt. Actually that’s not accurate…the inspiration is that one novel: Possession, the one novel I’d cling to in any wreckage; a great baroque treasure house of a novel that I never tire of. There’s so much I could say about it, but two things in particular. One is the sheer sensuousnes of it all. I’ve never read anything with so much colour and texture..it’s incredibly rich and visual and tactile, but always in the service of understanding the characters and their intense, sometimes heartbreaking relationships. It’s one of the few novels that can have me in tears.. What about the garden full of roses, swarthy damask, thick ivory, floating pink….fantastic spotted lilies, curling bronze and gold, bold and hot and rich’ ? This told me what I might be after with my pre-Raphaelite painters, as does her description of a photograph of Randolph Ash. ‘..thickenings and glimmerings in the black…..the beard, a riverful of silvers and creams, whites and blue-greys, channels and forks..’. I know an English teacher who was so persuaded of Ash’s historical reality that she asked for his work at the University in Leeds. But more important was the impact the book had, about the same time as Jill Dawson’s Fred and Edie. When Jill Dawson taught me to listen carefully for the tics and nuances of speech and the way you might capture them in writing, what Possession did was to show me the importance of absorbing, really absorbing, how texts work, how they’re put together. Think about what Byatt does in this novel..she creates persona after persona. She writes their letters; more than that, she writes their correspondence. She writes their journals and diaries. She does pastiches of academic criticism. She invents autobiographies written by other people. She writes her character’s invented tales and poetry, Christabel’s fairy stories, her mini-epics, Ash’s ventriloqual dramatic monologues, Christabel’s lyric poems-like Emily Dickinson-and she can do all that because, as she says, she has immersed herself from childhood in Victorian poetry (as well as everything else..she’s got a frightening range of reference as well as an acute ear and a painter’s eye). And what she taught me is that you have to work, you have to read and read and read. And listen to poetry, its complex syntax and lexis. You learn from the company you keep. Thank you A S Byatt.
Last, but not least: Carol Ann Duffy and ‘The world’s wife’. For the most part, though she’s not ventriloqual (although The Kray Sisters goes brilliantly if you give it the delivery of Michael Caine at his most deadpan, Elvis’ twin sister relies on a perfunctory ‘y’all’ to set the southern lilt going) she still gets under the skin of her characters, and takes her own voice in there with her. ‘Girls,I was dead and down in the underworld’ ; Eurydice gets an urban edge. Which is why I chose the particular photo you see above. She’s looking right at you as she sounds in the poetry. The inspirational example I took from this collection, though, was to see how a sequence of poems could be crafted from borrowed identities through which you could discover how you thought about the world, and, perhaps, how the world saw you. If I could only have one poem from the collection it would be Little Red Cap. And if you want to know why, then sit and copy it out by hand, several times, and be delighted by the discoveries you keep making about the craft of writing. Like I say, I’ve never met Carol Ann Duffy, though I know she’s read some of my poems because I’ve put them in for competitions she’s judged. But I don’t hold it against her. Thank you, anyway, Carol Ann.
There you are then. Four inspirations and a labour of love. Four people who teach me in so many ways that nothing is real till it’s named, and that’s what poetry is for. As Christabel la Motte (who is, after all, a poet made completely of words) writes in a poem that is, after all, only imagined:
The first men named this place and named the world;
They made the words for it; garden and tree,
Dragon or snake, and woman, grass and gold
And apples. They made names and poetry
I think I should set homework. What and who are your inspirations? Answers in the Comments box at the end of the page, please. Thanks for your time. Who knows what next week will bring?
Jill Dawson: Novels: all published by Sceptre: Trick of the light ; Magpie; Fred and Edie ; Watch me disappear ; The great lover ; The tell-tale heart 
As Editor: all published by Virago: How do I look ; The Virago book of wicked verse ; The Virago book of love letters 
Poetry: White fish with painted nails [Slow Dancer Press]