There’s a great Tom Russell song. Mineral Wells. Like all his best songs, it tells a story…in this case that of the Fat Boy and the Filmstar. Both down on their luck. She sleeps in the backseat of a Cadillac on a backstreet in the Hollywood Hills with her box of old photographs. Fat Boy was at one time a film critic. She’s played Shakespeare on the London stage. He’s seen all her films. He wears grey overalls, weighs 400 pounds. It’s never going to be a marriage made in heaven. But they can dream:
She told him of a fountain of youth
In the hot Texas earth
It’ll heal and renew us
It’s somewhere west of Fort Worth
And she met Errol Flynn there
In the Crazy Water Hotel
And they danced down the street
In the moonlight of old Mineral Wells.
And off they go, Fat Boy and Filmstar, Greyhound bus, all the way to Texas to find ‘the fountain of youth’s all dried up’. It’s a country song. What did you expect?
Where’s all this going, you may be thinking. Bear with me. I recently worked out that me and two other poetry-writing friends have thirty four grandchildren between us. And, briefly, just fleetingly, I wondered if I was getting old. Because I don’t feel old. I don’t feel essentially different from when I was a teenager. Just as foolish, loud, over-enthusiastic, given to unnecessary swearing; still hooked on rock ‘n roll (never drugs; sex something of a distant memory).
Feeling young is just feeling alive. Poetry makes me feel more and more alive. Writing it, and writing it in the company of others; workshops. Reading it and performing it. A mic. and a room full of people. And the essential ingredient – young poets. I gave up on folk clubs and folk festivals partly because the poetry I wanted to perform simply didn’t fit, but also because I felt as though I was surrounded by people who embraced ageing in the guise of real ale, weight gain and an absence of dress sense. The fashion of choice in your folk club, it seems to me, is the fleece. And despite the likes of Kate Rusby and Seth Lakeman there’s a notable absence of youth and the youthful. Course, I’ll be told it’s not like that. It’s not like that at all. But I can only say how it seems, and if your experience is other than that, then good luck.
I realise, now that I’d better qualify that phrase ‘young poets’. Because I have no doubts they don’t think of themselves as ‘young’, and may well be indignant if they read this. Because some of the ones I think of as young are as old as my children. Come to think, that’s probably why. And one of them who is incorrigibly young is actually 75. It’s about vitality. But still. Who are they, these young ‘uns who raise my spirits and make me raise my game every time I meet them? I met Luke Yates recently at a Poetry Business writing day. He bowled me over. And then was one of the winners of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition. Wow! Yvonne Reddick who reads with a rare exactness and precision, who writes elegant, researched poems that stick in the mind. Liz Venn who’s unafraid of the coexistence of poetry and science. Julie Mellor (same age as my daughter) who constantly startles and excites with her range of reference. David Tait, who I’ve never met personally, not to chat to, and whose poetry makes me feel untravelled and gauche. Maria Taylor- editor, published poet (who I’ve reviewed) and mother of twins, and also absurdly young. Gaia Holmes, whose oddly surreal and passionate poems with their combination of wit and fragile vulnerabilities are a continuing delight. Kim Moore. Well, I wrote my paean of praise/fan letter about Kim a couple of weeks ago. Clare Shaw, whose readings lift the hair on the back of my neck. It strikes me that many of them are teachers, or work in one way or another with young people.I feel blessed to know them all, and their enthusiasm and their passion and their zest. Elixirs. It’s the company you keep.
So that’s the context for this week’s polished gem: Lindsey Holland. I first met her (where else?) at The Poetry Business in Sheffield. She stuck in my mind as impossibly small and burdened. That was probably because of the out-of-scale backpack she was lugging about, and which appeared to be full of books. Maybe it happened to coincide with the fact that I’d been recently reading Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Lost’ and anyone with a backpack would seem waif-like. Every time after that, the backpack would come along with her…until last week at Poetry by heart in Leeds for the launch of Kim Moore’s collection: The art of falling. No backpack, this time, but with a teenage daughter who seemed not much younger than her.
So much for appearances. What was more important was the workshopped poem she brought to that Saturday writers’ day last year. It was one of those poems that immediately grab my attention because it was skilful and crafted, because it involved repetitions ( and therefore, elements of a list), and because the repeated element was the word ‘Because’. I’m a sucker for any sentence that begins with ‘because’ because it makes you wait. It happens that the poem was a list of reasons for a particular falling into love. And it had memorable images, like a shore ‘where starfish clap at waves’. That ‘clap’ is so exact, so surprising, so right. As is the sailor who ‘learnt to roll / with the buckle of wood over water’. You can’t improve on that ‘buckle’. Anyway, it persuaded me to ask her if she had poems to sell, and I bought this:
I was surprised by a cover that seemed to come out of early 1970’s graphics for a science fiction story. Even more surprised and delighted by the poetry. The workshop poem was comfortable (for me) in its historical/biographical narrative. A lot of the poems in ‘Particle soup’ disconcerted me as I read them on the Supertram on the way to Meadowhall to pick up my my car. Words I’d never encountered before. What was ‘biopoeisis’? What’s a ‘mandelbrot set’? Who was this poet with an unfeasibly large backpack who could invoke a strangely sleazy transgressive world in a stanza like this from ‘The mourning before’ ?
‘On humid nights, we’d get drunk on Leffe
until the cockroaches’ speed seemed ridiculous
but not enough to beat him’.
Well,now I know, and I’m happy to know it. Lindsey Holland was born in 1976, [yup…young] in Ormskirk, Lancashire. Her poetry has appeared internationally in magazines and anthologies and her first poetry book, Particle Soup, was published by the Knives Forks and Spoons Press in 2012. She’s recently finished writing a pamphlet and she’s currently working on a full collection of poetry — both of these comprise poems based on her family history. She was Highly Commended in both the 2014 Café Writers competition and the 2015 Wenlock Poetry Festival Competition, shortlisted for a Cinnamon Poetry Collection Award in 2011 and commended in the Cheltenham ‘Buzzwords’ competition in 2013. She co-edits the new online magazine The Compass and she’s the founder of the network North West Poets. She edited the anthologies Sculpted: Poetry of the North West and Not on Our Green Belt and she was Poet in Residence at Chester Zoo in 2014. She has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick, where she was also part of the Heaventree Press team, and she currently teaches poetry at Edge Hill University. She ran her own photography business for several years and won numerous awards for her photographic work. Her interests include dog walking, nature, psychogeography, genealogy, singing and metal detecting.
It’s the photography business that throws me. When did she have the time? That and psychogeography. I had no idea what it was, but now I do, I understand better the damaged and slightly dangerous urban landscapes where some of the poems of Particle Soup live; the business of the sometime playful exploration of built-up places, and sometimes the business of trespass. I think that both elements inform this poem I particularly chose from the collection:
The Trails are Mostly Invisible
It’s not enough to know of the castle,
plan a train, walk past that kid with the plump tongue
licking ice cream,
find the moat bridge, garrison, museum, see
the crawl space where
men ghosted bodies.
The walls are lying. They cover themselves. We
climb stairs, delve and probe,
read the blurbs and stop at photographs.
This can’t be that place we constructed.
White paint spreads its skin around the rooms,
there’s a rose bush in the courtyard,
and you and I are lost in here. It’s not enough
to pick like archaeologists; cracks
are filled and plastered, even keyholes
peep at nothing dirtier than brooms.
The clocks don’t blink,
the coffee shop is closing
but we can guess their path: with dyed clothes
and fake papers, hidden cash, they must have run
across the field at the back where steel gates
warn of a pylon. Wild grasses,
brambles, nettles are shoulder high
and only an escapist would think
to climb and drop, tear a path.
We might be treading their exact route, making
their decisions. The soil records
our feet as we scramble. I look back
and the castle’s windows flame in the sun,
from this hill, again, repeat.
There are so many untold stories in this poem, so many backstories to guess at and speculate on. Angela Topping talks about the collection’s invitation to mysterious journeys. Luke Kennard highlighted the way her poems invoke and explore non-existent spaces between love and fear. This poem helps me to understand what they mean. Nothing is certain (this can’t be the place we constructed), and everything is exact, precise. ‘Keyholes peep at nothing dirtier than brooms’. Dirtier? How? Why? I have no idea where I am or who ‘we’ are. Or perhaps I have too many ideas. In either case it’s unsettling.
Three years on, Lindsey’s poems are moving, as she says, into explorations of family history. I’m intrigued by the next poem that she’s sent me, because it seems to elide the threatening urban edgeland, and the lives of the past. And it has an urgency and energy that makes me want to chant it.
Things She Learnt on Gomer Street
Be careful not to sing before 9am on Sundays
Be careful not to bother Mrs McFee in the washroom
Be careful when your father has gin breath
Be careful of gin
Be careful to stitch your own holes and make patches
Be careful when running not to knock the gentlemen’s canes
Be careful with your tongue
Be careful to cover your bruises
Be careful around your mother when she coughs up blood
Be careful around blood
Be careful not to get your dress soaked and catch a fever
Be careful with the flour
Be careful at the gates to the dock where the Devil lingers
Be careful of pickpockets better than you
Be careful of seafood
Be careful of no food
Be careful of your father, always of your father
Be careful when pissing in the shadows at the timber yard
Be careful with the sugar
Be careful not to lose that purse with the farthing
Be careful of the Queen Anne
Be careful not to yelp
It’s an awful catechism for a child, this, and an utterly realistic one. Life is beset with threats and none are greater than another. The Devil, a prohibition on Sabbath singing, the flour, the blood, Mrs MacFee, the need never, ever to show fear or pain. Be careful not to yelp. I love the way the lines loop and link and reinforce each other. It’s as though you could take random lines from Henry Mayhew’s children, his mudlarks and watercress sellers, and cut and paste them into a chant children could turn a skipping rope to. It’s a lot cleverer than it looks. Even so, I want to end with a poem that’s gentler, or, at least, more full of the possibilities of love. It’s the Third of May. It’s too cold to be out, not even to put in bedding plants or pot up tomatoes. It’s cold enough for casseroles and stews. Here’s a poem to warm us up. like the one I heard in a workshop last year, it has a sailor in it. And it was Commended in the Buzzwords Competetition 2013.
He called you his chou-fleur, for the pleated hems
and frills you stitched in the palpitating light
of a porthole. At twenty-two, in half a gale
you barely tilted. When he put up bulkheads
you’d slip up to the jib, your tiny feet concealed
by layered folds of ochre. Near to port,
your headscarf’s tartan slumped across your shoulders
and black-gloved hands small birds on the rail,
you’d watch for gulls. ‘There’s too much machinery’
you murmured once, your jaw against his collarbone
and warm limbs heavy as you entered the troughs
of Irish waves. ‘I wish we were kittiwakes
with nary a struggle but sea and shrimp’. At harbour
you waited by the gates. Discharging cargo
bought a couple of hours. You’d stray down vennels
to streets that dripped with whisky and tobacco,
the judder of engines, an airborne oil
that soaked through fabric, that licked his skin.
Isn’t that exact and lovely, the dance of refracted light off broken water, that ‘palpitating light/ of a porthole’ ? And what a surprising verb it is in that last line. ‘Licked’. So here we are. Thank you all you young ones who have something to say. I don’t care how old you think you are. And thank you Lindsey Holland for letting me share your poems. Thank you to anyone who may be reading this.
Now. Cold and wet or not, someone’s got to get out and shout for my beloved Batley Bulldogs, and I shall now, on this May Sunday swaddle myself in thermals and gloves and fleeces. Next week we’ll be having nothing but The Best (of……). see you then.
* Mineral well….this song ( Russell is accompanied by Katie Moffatt on this one) is on the 17 track album The long way around. [Hightone records]. Buy it. You won’t be disappointed. It’s got the wonderful Andrew Hardin doing amazing things on guitar. Listen especially for The angel of Lyon.