Stand up and be counted (for Mary Gauthier)

To save me patiently working through this cobweb strand and making minor adjustments, here’s the deal. I wrote most of this on September 17th and planned to post it on Sunday 20th. And then the wonderful Anthony Wilson told me he was putting my Guest Post out on that day. Mirabile dictu!!!!! Fantastic!!!!! Pow!!!!! So this is now coming out a week later than anticipated. So the appearance of the guest poet and polished gem has still to be decided. Cliffhangers, eh? Anyway. The strand for September 7th starts here: just imagine that when I write ‘last week’ it will mean ‘the week before last’, and so on.


Here starts what I suspect will be an even more rambling post than usual. It’s because I’ve had a couple of 500 mile round trips to read at literature/arts festivals in the last three weeks; I got to read in a brilliant cafe with windows that looked out on a dark sea and a darker mountain; I got to read in a sunlit white room upstairs in a church on the south coast;  I got to thinking how I ever got to this. However did I find myself compering a regular open mic.? However did I find my calendar full of poetry events? Because the Gary Larson ‘Cow poetry’ cartoon pretty much sums up what I imagined poetry readings to be like. I’d been to readings, either by accident, or because poets were booked at teachers’ and advisors’ conferences that I went to when I worked for a living. I got to hear Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Charles Causley..and, I suddenly remember, Wendy Cope, who was splendidly waspish when asked if she’d do an encore. But essentially, those were famous names even though they weren’t necessarily in big venues. No. I’m thinking of open mics. and readrounds in pubs and coffee shops. I came to these  late in life. Here’s the story of how. It’s just a story. No need to take notes. Like I said last week…it’s a no-uniform day.

In the 90’s I started going to singaround folk clubs, because my partner is a fan of singer-songwriters, Americana, acoustic guitar players. These days she gets to guest with her singing partner. I like folk clubs, and guitars and banjos…when it’s done well. Came the day I got asked if I wanted to sing. By someone who had clearly never heard me sing…and then he said, well, next time, maybe you’d like to do a poem. That’s how it started, and how I built up a collection of stuff I could do. What goes down well in folkclubs is poems that rhyme, and poems that are funny, and, preferably, poems that do both. I built up a list of ones that went down well, by people who wrote the kind of poems I still can’t write myself. Pam Ayres, Roger McGough, John Hegley, Matt Harvey, Shel Silverstein, the incomparable Les Barker, and my favourite, McGonagall. I did some of Carole Ann Duffy’s ‘The oldest girl in the world’ (especially, The babysitter). I learned something about getting introductions right for this or that audience, about timing and pauses, and how a bit of redundancy in a poem is what you want to give the audience time to catch up, and, at one club, how to use a mic. to work quietly. All good stuff. But came the day when I’d sat through enough nights where unaccompanied singers sang Authentic Traditional Folksongs with millions of verses and the chorus after every one. They almost always sing flat. Enough nights where beery chaps murdered Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan. I got fed up of the way that many singers have a repertoire of three songs and never vary or learn new ones. I got fed up of Eric Bogle songs, much as I love his own versions. I got fed up of the maudlin false nostalgias.

poetry slam chickens

About this time, I started going to poetry workshops, and I realised that I wanted to read MY poems, and also that they weren’t what would work in a folk club. I didn’t do ‘funny’. Over the last five years I’ve written ones that might work, and I keep them in a folder marked : Stand-ups and stockingfillers. They could turn out useful useful for relieving a bleak sequence. Like I said at Havant last week , I tend to do bleak. Anyway, I started going to poetry nights instead of folk clubs. Thankyou, The Albert Poets for introducing me to so many guests who changed the way I read and think. Julia Deakin, Clare Shaw, Mike de Placido, Char March, Gaia Holmes, John Duffy….all of them. Gradually I got used to signing up for open mic.s, and eventually I got to do guest slots, and finally to find myself co-organising and compering (is that how it’s spelled? The extra ‘e’ looks wrong) The Puzzle hall Poets Live where I got one of my very first guest slots thanks to last week’s polished gem …Gaia Holmes. And now, here we are, writing a weekly poetry cobweb strand. Who’d have known.

However, despite the pleasure I get from this mutually supportive and inspirational bunch of people who constitute the world of small poetry groups, I’ll tell you what I miss. Since I shifted away from the music, I miss the gigs I’ve been to where I’ve seen and listened to talented artists. Tom Russell, Steve Forbert, Slaid Cleaves, Diana Jones, The Waifs, The Be-Good Tanyas, Laura Viers, John Wright………even the legend that is Rambling Jack Elliot, who can casually tell you, en passant, how he did this or that with Woody, or how he got Kris Kristofferson on stage, and so on.What they all had in common, what made them special for me, was that they were working small venues. Pubs, church halls, concert-rooms (as in club concert rooms). They were doing it for not very much, and some of them had been doing it for years. They know how to tell a story, how to work a mic., how to put a mixing desk to rights, how to balance a set, how to warm an audience. They put in hard hours and hard miles; they can be living from hand to mouth, but they go on doing it. You can learn a lot about how to be a guest poet from folk like this.Inspirations all.

Which brings me to Mary Gauthier.

mary g compilation

Maybe you’re not into Americana, and  you’ve not heard of her. Well, now you have. Mary Gauthier is one of those who make me optimistic whenever I’m feeling down about where the writing is going, or if it’s worth the effort. I first heard her sing at The Pheasant Inn in Sheffield. It’s a place that in the 90’s used to host many of the Americana musicians I’ve mentioned earlier. It wasn’t the most salubrious or glamorous place. I remember queuing outside in late Autumn gloom and drizzle, and then walking through to the concert room via a taproom with a carpet that stuck to your feet, and young mums who sat with toddlers in prams, and fed them crisps and bright pink drinks. The overall colour scheme was brown in all its variations, the lighting was perfunctory, and the stage was cramped, and too high (just click on the picture for the full effect. I could swear that piano was at The Pheasant). And then on comes Mary G. and lights up my night. One woman with a guitar and a mission. I’ve seen her since in a church in Leeds, in a church hall somewhere in rural Leicestershire with a backdrop painted by the Scouts for a pantomime, above a wine bar in Wakefield. Man, does she work. To my absolute delight she’s battled and battled and worked and worked and now she needn’t work crap bars filled with people who don’t listen, on stages like the one in the triptych. Now she’s on radio shows; she plays festivals all over the States and in Europe; she seems to be booked up for every day,forever. And she’s played The Grand Ol’ Opry. Isn’t that something for an artist who’s gay, who’s battled drug addiction, who wrote a song for Karla Faye -executed in Texas to the applause of George Bush-, who’s protested that Woody Guthrie never got inducted into the Country Hall Of Fame. She’s brought out a succession of critically acclaimed albums. I guess that helps.

And why am I writing about an American singer-songwriter in a poetry cobweb? Because what she teaches me is that if you want to be any good you work and work and work. You learn from the best, and when it’s all going to hell on a handcart, you grit your teeth and dig in and keep going. And because she writes lines that stand up in any company. I stole momma’s car on a Sunday / and lit out for good / moved in with some friends in the city / in bad neighbourhood. And she did. Aged fifteen. So I’m indulging myself with this big ‘thankyou’. The first time I saw her a long time ago, I wrote a poem and emailed it to her. You know what? The next day, she wrote back and said ‘thankyou’. Star. I’ve rewritten it a few times, and I’ve read it at folkclubs and at poetry readrounds and open mic.s. It’s a poem about one night in Sheffield, and it’s also a poem about her songs. Which makes it, I suppose, an ekphrastic tribute poem. There’s a niche category.


a cold autumn night and this cold Sheffield bar
smells of 60 watt lighting and yesterday’s beer:
and this lady of the shooting stars
is wondering how she came to be here

with her dreamers and thinkers, her junkies and drinkers
the lovers and dancers, the liars and chancers
the outlaws and angels and whores

in gigs like this in a Thursday night bar,
where the spotlight shines in her eyes.
For a moment she stands there looking lost,
or maybe just looking surprised;

then she unpacks her old blue Taylor guitar
from its scuffed and well-stickered case;
she peers into the 60 watt distance;
and wonders aloud…says: is this the right place?

She fiddles with tunings, tries a coupla chords;
through the mic. comes her quiet country drawl:
hi. I’m Mary Gauthier, from Louisiana;
come here to sing songs for y’all………

and I’m hitching a ride on a back country road
through the landscapes of Mary Gauthier
a ride through another country….
well… they do things differently there:


bright lights and lost dreams, poets and drag queens
trailer-trash has-beens, death cells and limousines,
and the angels are falling
and there’s fire in the fields
and places flash past through the windscreen of song
like phrases or rhymes half heard in a dream
Juarez, Las Cruces, Prairie du Chien
Thibodeaux to Raceland…you know what I mean.

And you’re hitching a ride on southern states voice
that sings cool and clear as the moon,
tho’ it isn’t exactly singing
but more like talking in tune

one that lingers on sweet and curdles on sour
holds on to a note like a child plucks a flower
lights on a phrase like a bee on a stem
lets the words run like water held in a cupped palm

or just fades to whispers like a moth in a flame
like the wind in the grasses, like the rain in the pines
like the hushing of tyres when the wet blacktop shines……

so thanks for your leaving home stories
and the roads you’ve travelled before
the poets, the dancers ,the lovers, the chancers,
the angels, the liars, the burned- out high fliers,
the drinkers, the thinkers, the junkies, the whores;

yeah….. here’s thanks for the ride, Mary Gauthier;
the journey was over too soon.
I’m still listening to shooting-star stories.
Still singing along to your tune.

You can follow Mary Gauthier via her website. Google it. You can travel round the States and Europe with her. Go listen to the music. But make sure to start with Drag queens in limousines’  because that was the one that did it for me. And then you can hear the rest:


  • Dixie Kitchen (1997)
  • Drag Queens in Limousines (1999)
  • Filth and Fire (2002)
  • Mercy Now (2005)
  • Between Daylight and Dark (2007)
  • Genesis (The Early Years) ( 2008) – 15 track compilation from the 1st three albums
  • The Foundling (2010)
  • The Foundling Alone (2011) Acoustic Demo’s of songs in development, from The Foundling
  • Live at Blue Rock (2012) 11 mixed new and old tracks plus a hidden Mercy Now
  • Trouble and Love (2014)

I just looked at my planning notes and realise this wasn’t what I set out to write. I guess I should make sure I make up for it next week. It’ll be about poetry readings. It may well turn out to be one of those poetry posts about what to do and what not to do. It may step on toes. I will think about that. And then, the week after, we’ll be having a proper poetry guest, and it will not be a non-uniform day. See you all next Sunday. Run and skip if you like. It’s a no-uniform day today.

I just read this last paragraph. Forget some of it. Next week we have a guest poet. From the Midlands. So.Collars, ties and proper shoes. No trainers. Don’t be late.

Guest blog post: Whose life is it anyway? by John Foggin

A hazy sunny Autumn morning made sunnier and gauzier. Thank you so much, Anthony Wilson for the chance to guest on the blog I think we all learned from.

Guest blog post: Whose life is it anyway? by John Foggin


A few weeks ago I was writing in my own blog, the great fogginzo’s cobweb, about the way I had found myself conflicted about learning things about my granddad’s life that that didn’t fit with poems I’d written about him; how I was feeling uneasy about the truths of documentary records, and the truths of poems and poetry. I think it bothered me particularly, because it took me a long time to put people in my poems at all…ten years ago, pretty much all my poems were like my photographs: unpopulated landscapes.

I tried deliberately to break out of the straitjacket of endlessly writing pretty/atmospheric/repetitive (inevitably) evocations of places like Skye and the Pennine Moors. I took my cue from Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The world’s wife’, because I saw that I could try ventriloquism, learn the way of other people’s voices. I wrote monologues for all sorts of famous statues, like The Angel of the North, and for an artist who had fascinated me, and for his wife, and his model.  But never about real, living people…or, at least, about people who I knew, and might get to read the poems.

I suppose the first breakthrough of sorts came in the guilty relief and release –for both of us, I want to believe – that came when my mother died in her 90s . She spent the last fifteen years of her life in a nursing home following a  severe stroke. She fought against every moment of it. She resented and hated it. I took her ashes to the Valley of Desolation, her favourite place in Wharfedale, and soon after, wrote a poem about it as a sort of atonement or prayer for absolution. Then I felt guilty that I’d not written for my dad, so I wrote about his birdwatching, his shoe mending, his singing; and then I had to balance it up with more about my mum. It’s a strange thing, guilt, but the outcome was that over about three years I’d written a handful of poems, and more about my grandparents, and it seemed to come more easily with each one. I didn’t feel as if they were looking over my shoulder, tutting.  Or not as often, or not as loudly.

But I can pinpoint the big breakthrough to specific dates. In October 2013 I was on a writing course at Almaserra Vella in Spain, and the tutor was Jane Draycott. She gave us a quick writing exercise…first impressions, get-it-down stuff on a randomly chosen postcard, which happened to be a Penguin book cover that had images of flame on it. And I wrote about our friend Julie who we’d visited in her flat in Whitby a couple of weeks before. Julie was dying of an incurable cancer; she’d confounded the specialists by outliving their predictions by over a year.

Flames. The most tenuous of connections. But a flame burned fiercely in Julie, and in the underlit smokestacks of the Boulby mine just up the coast. Maybe that was it. I typed it up with very few changes the week after. When she died a couple of weeks later, I nerved myself up to give the poem to her brother at her funeral. I was genuinely frightened. But he liked it, shared it. Gave me a permission I realised I needed: to write honestly about and for real living people. That poem Julie won first prize in the 2013 Plough Competition. Andrew Motion had liked it! I used some of the prize money to put together and print my first two pamphlets.

John Foggin pic

Which is where it gets just a little more complicated. We’ve been going to the Isle of Skye for twenty-odd years, renting a bungalow from Norman and Effie Macpherson in the crofting valley of Achnacloich on the Sleat peninsula. Norman was a shepherd all his working life, on Ben Lomond, on Ben Nevis, and finally, till his death four years ago, back on his home island. Every now and then I’d try to write about them, but always felt conscious of what I imagined would be their wry, dry take on the whole sorry impertinent business. What did I know? Even so, when I put my first pamphlet together I wanted them in: a seven-poem sequence titled Crofters.

If anyone else had given me permission for that, it was MacCaig, who I read and re-read, trying to nail down just how he did it; that apparently simple thing of writing about the people and hills of Assynt that he loved and knew better than I’d ever know Skye, or Effie and Norman. Anyway, that’s the thing I was after. The way Norman would hide behind the barn to smoke, the quiet pauses of Effie’s speech. Here’s Norman

He’s laid up in the house:

joint pains, congested lungs,

bladder like a bag of knives,

and maybe sheep-dip’s to blame.

and Effie, the first year after he died, feeding the sheep that come running

like threads to a spool,

and milling like a boil of beans –

ignore the black and white dog,

the woman in the pilled grey fleece,

her hair that breezes cannot ruffle.

It was an expensive dog, that one. Norman went down to Tyndrum to buy it. A serious business, buying a working dog.

I still didn’t feel right about publishing the poems. In a diffuse sort of way, a way that says: well, they’re not going to see these poems. No-one’s going to buy them after all.  That sort of thing. And then I wrote some more, and sent some in for competitions. A poem called Norman came 2nd in a York Literature festival competition this year. I wrote from memory and feeling. Some things I know are factually true and some as though they ought to be.



could birth a lamb in the lee of a dike,

smit a skittish ewe in a squall,

pin down a ram and not give a jot

for its yellow stare, the black slot of its sideways eye,

wear a two-year Herdwick like a scarf

over three miles of bog,

make good a tumbled fence with a twist of twine,

strip out an axle on a Subaru,

stand half a summer to his waist in the slop of the dip

haul a whole flock through

and still tell a tale

over the clamouring misery of bleat.

He could walk all day

in a pelt of rain and a sack for a coat.


To put down a runt

or one with a goitre

or one with a sprain or a maggoty arse –

that was beyond him quite.


The days for the slaughterman’s truck

he was away over the moor.


He knew where the first primrose showed.

I knew all about the Subaru, but the Herdwick was there for the heft of the word. It would more likely have been one of the blackfaced sheep. I don’t know the proper name. What I was after was the mix of Norman’s durability and the sentimental side he could show.

He once told me he knew a secret place in the woods beyond the headland. He’d take Effie there to show her the first primroses. They can’t be got at now, because of the deer fences. He was cross about them, because now there are no deer to keep down more competitive plants.

The man at the garage in Armadale told me that all the neighbours were pretty sure that years of exposure to organo-phosphates in the sheep dip played a part in his illness. That had to find a way in.

That’s Norman who I didn’t know all that well; but it’s the Norman I remember. I worried about whether Effie would recognize him. Or think me obtrusive. An incomer.

The business was finally settled for me when Liz Lochhead picked a poem as the winner of the 2014 Plough Competition. It pivots on something Effie happened to say when I told her about an odd meeting in the rain down in Tarskavaig. This is it.


Washed up on a rucked-rug  shoreline,

floats, fish-boxes, rubber gloves,

fertiliser sacks, kelp, clots of wool,

and the cockle –pickers, peat-pickled

bog-creatures, leathery, with ruined teeth,

long, dirty nails, eyes as dark as iodine.


They tinkers. Och. says Effie. You’d do well

to look to the barns, and count the spades,

and what did they ask you for,

the leather women, old coats belted with rope,

rubber boots patched with gaffer tape,

hair like seaweed, when they tapped

on the windscreen, brown as selkies.


For a light only, the bright ember,

blue smoke blown on the wind, the spit

of rain off the sea, and thanks we’re away

down the road and done with the day,

with turning stones, with lifting kelp,

browsing the hard shore for a knuckly net

of cockles, iron, amber,cobalt, rust.


What’s to be done with the Tarskavaig tinkers

who come up out of the peat or the sea?

And when the light goes, where do they turn?

We’d had a laugh over that. Not ‘PC’ that ‘tinkers’. ‘But they’re tinkers just the same’, said Effie. And I cut her some cake. Well, it takes more than a slice of cake to say ‘thank you’ for putting someone out there in public, when you never said ‘please’ in the first place. I had sleepless nights over it all,  then said the serenity prayer. The bit about asking for courage to change the things we can. I made a neat parcel of my three pamphlets, and wrote a letter that took me more redrafts than most poems, all explanation, mea culpa and apology, and posted it all off to Achnacloich on the Sleat peninsula of Skye.

Then I waited. And nothing happened. I thought maybe she’d gone to visit her cousin, or gone over to Ireland for a holiday, or…….. I thought over and over, what if she’s upset, or worse. Last week I bit the bullet and telephoned. O, hello, she said. I was meaning to ring you…I feel guilty now, you know how things get put off, it’s been a terrible summer, och, the worst I remember, dreich days, and grass poor, we’re taking supplements up to sheep; yes I got your books. We liked them. Norma says I’ll be famous now. Och, no, of course I’m not cross.

For two days I walked on air, and in November I’ll be able to go and see her, and all will be well. Whose lives are they anyway, when we write? I have no idea. But I know we’re responsible for them, and the truth of them. Whatever that is.

Anthony Wilson


A few weeks ago I was writing in my own blog, the great fogginzo’s cobweb, about the way I had found myself conflicted about learning things about my granddad’s life that that didn’t fit with poems I’d written about him; how I was feeling uneasy about the truths of documentary records, and the truths of poems and poetry. I think it bothered me particularly, because it took me a long time to put people in my poems at all…ten years ago, pretty much all my poems were like my photographs: unpopulated landscapes.

I tried deliberately to break out of the straitjacket of endlessly writing pretty/atmospheric/repetitive (inevitably) evocations of places like Skye and the Pennine Moors. I took my cue from Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The world’s wife’, because I saw that I could try ventriloquism, learn the way of other people’s voices. I wrote monologues for all sorts…

View original post 1,753 more words

Magic toyshops…..a polished gem (9) Gaia Holmes


“Comparison is the thief of joy”

–Teddy Roosevelt

“You wake up one morning. You check in with Facebook. Skim the latest updates. And there it is: another writer announcing their latest prize-winning success, followed by several hundred ‘likes’ and congratulatory comments. You add your own, with a smiley or two.”    ( you can feel a ‘but‘ straining at its leash, can’t you?).

Thus Robin Houghton in her excellent guest post for Anthony Wilson’s blog recently ….I’ll leave the link at the end, because it’s well worth a read.

It certainly chimed with me. Robin’s post takes a cool look at the business of envying the success of others. Two things go through my mind. One is an acknowledgement of the ‘why not me?’ feeling. The other is the memory of the pleasure other people’s success has given me. Kim Moore, Jane Clarke, Keith Hutson, Pam Thompson, Wendy Pratt…their pleasure has made my life richer. And, I think, envy is on a spectrum that, at its other end, contains rich and positive feelings and emotions. I might ‘envy’ a writer who can do things that I can’t…but then I can qualify that. I can believe: ‘I can’t do that YET’. We learn from the company we keep. Simon Armitage said something at a workshop he ran a couple of weeks ago and it has stuck. He says that the only piece of advice he’ll give his students without reservation is : READ. How are you going to get better at your trade unless you spend time in the company of people who are better than you? Certainly, in the company of people who are different from you, who can do things that you know you can’t do. YET. I guess it comes down to the difference between ‘I wish that was me instead of you’ at one end of the spectrum and ‘what will I have to do to join you?’ at the other.

Here’s an example. One of my mentors, Hilary Elfick, told me once that all my poems are silent films, full of visual imagery and without sound. That brought me up short. I was reminded of it this week at the open mic. I compere at The Puzzle Hall Inn in Sowerby Bridge; one of my favourite Calderdale poets, Tom Cleary [(un)discovered gem No.5, 30/11/2014] was reading, and I was struck by the way sound matters in his poetry. There was a train ‘snaredrumming over the points’; there were the RUC, looking to split scalps, ‘the tap and slap of truncheons on their palms’. I thought: ‘I wish I could do that’. He does first lines, too. The kind that defy you not to read on…’her first husband fell into a machine at work’ or ‘since the scream he hasn’t moved’. And I thought. ‘I wish I could do that’. The answer to which is: well, work at it if you want it. Otherwise stop feeling sorry for yourself.

And thus, after much procrastination and delay, we come to my guest for today. I’m going to use a lot of analogies to explain what her work does for me. I hope they work.

QUEEN peter blake

Whenever I read Gaia Holmes’ poems, or hear her read, I’m put in mind of the world and work of Peter Blake. To nail my colours to the mast, this image of Alice is how I’d picture Gaia’s narrative voice. Not quite other-worldly, but knowing things I have no immediate access to, and aware that the world is strange and lovely and that it can make us vulnerable. It’s a voice that makes me think of the doughty, unworldly, resourceful, compassionate clear-eyed heroines of folk tales. The ones who have no expectation of the kindness of  stepmothers and stepfathers and spiteful siblings, who are stoic about their work among the ashes, who undertake unnerving journeys through forests to the hen’s leg houses of cruel aunts, who understand that everything you are given is a gift to be used for the betterment of the world….all that.

The Toy Shop 1962 Peter Blake born 1932 Purchased 1970

I just realised that I’ve been enthusiastically banging on about this and that, and altogether forgetting the magic toyshop analogy.  I saw the Granada film version before I read the book.. It starred the unnerving Tom Bell. It’s completely unavailable anywhere in any format as far as I can make out. Why? It was great. As is the book. I love the arbtrariness of it all…the arbitrariness of the folk-tale. Once upon a time there was a sister and two brothers; their mother and father went on a journey and never came back because they died suddenly. So the children came down in the world and went to live in a toyshop. C.S.Lewis’s siblings have to learn swordplay and archery and war, and then become kings and queens. Carter’s have to play at puppetry, and at Leda and the swan. Carter’s tale has a terrible erotic charge among the feathers and the wedding satins and the dancing red-haired aunt. I think of toyshops and orphan girls when I read Gaia Holmes poems. Not all of them. But enough. Let’s meet her, shall we.

Gaia Holmes is a Luddenden-born poet whose work digs beneath the surface of mundane, urban life to reveal a remarkable seam of exoticism. Her carnival of characters – bingo callers, burger sellers, critical theorists – are all cast from the least expected places. She is a graduate of Huddersfield University’s English with Creative Writing BA, and has previously made a living as a busker, a cleaner, a gallery attendant,an oral historian, a lollypop lady , a poet in residence at Bradford Library, a free lance writer and Creative writing lecturer.
As well as being a familiar face on the local poetry scene, Gaia Holmes is also known nationally. She has read at literary festivals throughout Britain and beyond. Her poem ‘Claustrophobia’ was highly commended in the ‘best individual poem’ category of the Forward Poetry Prize, 2007 and ‘A homesick truckie In The Algarve’ was the featured poem in Frieda Hughes’ weekly literary column in ‘The Times’ (May 2007). Currently she runs the Halifax-based writing workshop ‘Igniting the spark’, and hosts Themes For Dreamers’, a fortnightly show (sundays 4-6pm) on Phoenix FM (Calderdale’s community radio station) along with William Thirsk Gaskill and Dave Higginson and featuring a flavorsome blend of music, poetry and other literary things. ‘Often we give away prizes; broken kettles, muses and poetry books. Often we press the wrong buttons or say the wrong things.’ she says. And they do. Being a guest is a rare and wonderful experience. Take it from me.

[The narrator exits stage left (because that’s where his sympathies lie) and returns two days later]

You should be reading this on Sunday night. At this rate you’ll be lucky if it arrives on Monday, and even if it does, it could be more incoherent than usual. How do these young poets manage to travel and travel and still seem lucid? I’ve only driven 500 miles and my head is now full of warm damp wool. Still, if anything will wake me up it’s the poems of Gaia Holmes; here we go.

First of all, I always misremember Gaia’s poems. When I remember them, I remember something like a magic toyshop, something slightly ramshackle and magical, full of awkward corners and odd surprises and surreal pilings on of impossible detail, the wacky inventiveness of one who would clear her life of the tidemarks and dullings of old lovers with Cillit-Bang, and the crazy imaginings of the salacious neighbour who thinks the poet ‘snorts cocaine, sleeps in a coffin,  /  eats dead kittens drowned in gin’ . I  invariably ‘remember’ feather and patchouli, and saffron lampshades, and the interiors of the cover of her first collection. This one:


And here’s a thing. If you want to buy it via Amazon the cheapest will cost you £15.00 + p&p. The most expensive is currently about £65.00, which, ironically, means that since the first print run is finished, Gaia probably can’t afford to replace her own copy when she loses it, or when it falls to pieces, or when she loses it, or when someone steals it. Whichever is first.

But as soon as I open up her her poems and read, rather than rely on this memory then before long I’ll be chilled and close to tears. There’s a lot of ice; there’s even an Ice Hotel. There’s the cold of loneliness and love gone wrong, and broken things that might be hearts or dreams that make you think twice about walking in bare feet. There’s the orphan voice of a narrator who sees things that no-one seems to notice her seeing. Like this.

The Allure Of Frost
Boxing day.
No fire in the grate and unopened presents
stacked around the base of the tree and fairy lights muted,
switched off, and the brandy that swells the fruit starting to eat
the cake in its tin and all the mirrors doused with tea towels
and your raw-eyed mother keening into a pillow in her bedroom
and too many men in black whispering and nodding
and I don’t know what the rosary is and whether to curtsey
to the priests when I hand them their tea
and the phrase ‘fruits of thy womb’ seem too ripe and too rich
for this and, Mary mother of God, I don’t know
how to cross myself and fear I’m invoking the devil
and the scent of death’s so thick
that it’s tainted the water and it’s heavy in the curtains
making them bend the rail
and your lips taste of the oils that grease your dead sister
and when I kiss you, you push me away and I want to spit
and weep and slap the corpse where she lies in her coffin
all done-up with hair grips and lipstick,
her sunken cheeks plumped out with wads of cotton wool
and the rictus of sin softened
by the crust of Rimmel Natural Beige powdering her face
and it’s so hot in here
that the cheese is sweating and the butter is liquid.
The chocolate coins are dripping from the tree.
Your Aunt’s un-bitten sandwiches
are curling upwards on her plate
and the lilies are wilting and stinking in their vases
and the cat stands quivering and retching
against the cold crack beneath the back door.
Outside the frost, not knowing any difference,
continues to sparkle. And I’d like to go out there.
I’d like to stand in it until my feet turn blue.

I think this poem has everything in it that I think of as ‘Gaia’s poems’. The piling on and on of sensory detail, the Alice in Wonderland, or folktale, sense that the logic of things is wrong, the wistfulness, the vulnerablity, and the pluck of a girl who will stand in a sparkling frost till her feet turn blue and the world becomes real again. Lovely. It makes me think of Richard Dadd’s fairy feller. I’m not sure why, but indulge me. I do like a picture every so often.


And then there’s a more worldly voice. I’m struggling to make up my mind about which poem to choose next, because I’ve been so many to choose from, and her newer poems are quite hefty (which I like) and I think that three is probably enough to make you want to go and pay £65.00 for that first collection. However, I plump for this one.


You reach a certain stage in your life
when you seem to spend a lot of time
holding other people’s babies.

At parties, the bottles of M & S berry crushes
on the kitchen table
outnumber the bottles of wine
and it seems you’re the only one drinking.

Tonight you’re nursing your second glass of Chianti,
warming it against your chest
as the other guests sip Mocktails
and talk of teething rings and Farley’s rusks
and you’re trying to find a way in, but failing

and one of the kids is doing that cute thing again
with his hat pulled down to his nose
and everyone starts taking photos
and clucking and cooing and you take one too
just to fit in, even though you know
that you’ll delete it later
in favour of a landscape
or something you can understand
or something you can have

and you want a cigarette but no one’s smoking
so you go and stand outside the front door in the sleet
to smoke a roll-up but it gets wet
and you’re sucking on nothing

so you go back in. You cut through the branny fug
of milk and nappies with your reek of smoke
and they look at you cow-eyed with pity
and you know they’ve been talking about you
and one of them says “It’s not too late at forty”

and you mumble something and walk into the kitchen
to pour yourself another bigger glass of wine
and you sit there for a while listening to them talking
and think about the things they have:
the husbands, the high chairs, the family-sized toasters,
the pairs of tiny red wellies lined up by the door,
the huge American fridges
covered with glitter-crusted playschool pictures
and you think about your lack.

You think about your cat that moved next door,
your scrawny Basil plants withering on the windowsill,
the bread you bake always turning black

and you go back into the lounge,
move mounds of small, pale woollen things off a chair
and sit down wishing you had some ballast in your pockets,
wishing you were not made of straw and dry things,
wishing you were not quite so old and flammable
because they’re all looking at you
and it seems you’ve turned into
the hollow witch levitating in the corner,
that lonely, awful thing
that they could have become.

The first time I heard this, a couple of months ago, it took me aback and took off in new directions. It’s a great poem to read aloud, working the breathing-through of long, burgeoning sentences, which I’m currently addicted to. But a second reading picks out the trademark observation, those sensory images that are always surprisingly right…that branny fug, for instance, and the incredibly frustrating business of sucking on a wet roll-up, sucking on nothing, surrounded by Farley’s rusks and Milton, and milky babies, and mounds of small, pale woollen things. So far so ‘Guardian’ till the poem takes a tilt into something darker, and it’s the darkness of the folktale and the fairy godmother who may have things in her heart that you don’t want to know about, wishing she were not made of straw and dry things  /  the hollow witch levitating. Don’t tell me that last verb didn’t catch you out.

I’ve come to sudden decision. I’m going to stop explaining, or trying to explain,I’m going to stop reviewing and evaluating and being teacherish. I’m still jet-lagged, or whatever the word is that decribes the brainscramble of driving too fast for too long. So, with no more ado, I’m simply going to share two more poems with you.

Rain Charm For Stirling Street

Oh, the itch and nag of it-
this rainless month
when sapless slugs
fruit our yards like prunes
and the lawns
in the salubrious parts of town
are brown whispers.

Even inside
red roses yellow
and spill their petals
before they’ve had time to bloom.
Hard green mangoes
rot before they’ve ripened
and in the fridge
milk thickens and clots
in the necks of bottles,
the cheese gets louder and louder
until it roars.

And lately, we have had
restless nights too hot to touch,
deserts between us in our beds,
Sirocco winds blistering our dreams,
our waking bodies
black with fruit flies.

All you sun-junkies,
you lovers of deck chairs
and Ambre Solaire, forgive me.
I am taking action.
I am standing behind the kitchen door
wobbling a cross hatch saw
to make the sound of thunder.
I am cooking lightning
in the microwave.
I am pouring rice on to a saucer
to make the sound of rain.
I am summoning a storm.

You know what? I believe Gaia Holmes can make rain. I know that cheeses can roar. I take that as the West Riding dialect word for ‘weeping’. ‘Give ovver roaring or I’ll give you summat to roar ovver’ my Gran would say. In a kindly, apple-cheeked way. Gaia Holmes can write bittersweet, tender love poems, too. And does. They make me want to gather ‘her’ up, whoever is the her of these poems, whoever is the ‘I’; I want the world to set itself right and more kindly.

Inspired by the paintings of Andrea Kowch

My life is full of gaps.
The barbed wire fell away
from our fences
leaving rotten posts.
Wind shucked the glass
from the greenhouse frame
and rabbits gnawed our apple trees
to stumps.

The turnips and beetroot we planted
are soft and rotten beneath the dirt
and the dry-teated cows
can give us nothing.

We sell what we can: rare eggs with no yolk,
scant scrapes of honey, the last plump fish
from our dying lake.

and there’s not enough love
in my wrists
to make bread.

In bed at night
my husband’s hands
fall through me.

When I read these poems I have to remind myself of the subversive truths of the folktales, of the resilience of folk, and that, somewhere and somehow, the innocent and the loving will endure and triumph. I believe that, as Gaia writes in another poem, in lines I hope she’ll forgive me for taking out of context:

Tomorrow I’ll be out at dawn
shovelling sunlight into sacks,
siphoning it into jars and bottles
I will pipe the edges of his world
with gold.

I think it will be the gold of the sky in Peter Blake’s Alice;  the cold house of the toyshop will be hot with flames and we will all run over the ridge tiles in the night with not an idea where it’ll all end. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I have. I think I have an idea for next Sunday’s post, but I can’t be sure. Still, you all looked very smart today, and I’m proud of you all, and next week, as a treat, we’ll have a no-uniform day. Let’s say ‘Thankyou, Miss Holmes’, and then off you go. If you want to buy her books she only has one at the moment. Maybe you can save up for the other. Here’s the detail.

Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed  [Comma press 2006]  via Amazon: anything from £15 – £65

Lifting the piano with one hand      [Comma Press 2013]  £7.99

Oh….and you can follow Gaia and read more of her poems and other things via this link.

oops…nearly forgot. You can read the full text of Robin Houghton’s ‘On Literary Envy’ from July 19th this year, via Anthony Wilsons’s wonderful poetry blog at


A thing about lists

(Thomas Edison’s list of  Things to Do).

Edison's list

Which just goes to show that if you make lists, you’re in good company. I think it was probably in the late 70’s that Myra Barrs (who was then the English Advisor for a London LEA) wrote an article in the NATE journal, English in Education. It was called ‘In praise of lists’. It was an oddly quirky article; even though it was based on action research,it sat well to the side of the usual articles about literature-based learning. It stood out, and it stuck in my mind. It still does.

Just to put it in a contemporary context, here’s where the making of lists stands in the pecking order of writing ‘skills’ which teachers are required to hammer into their children and then test them on.

Year 1–  (that’s 5 year olds, to you and me)
write to communicate meaning – simple recounts, stories that can be re-read, with basic beginning, middle and ending

Attempt writing for various purposes, using features of different forms such as lists, stories and instructions

Write a recount or narrative. Begin to break up the series of events with connectives other than and

Two things to notice: yes, children should write lists BUT as soon as possible they need to be shifting away from the reliance on that pesky connective and.

Of course, that’s quite commendable. Complex sentences do things that compound sentences can’t, and lists won’t get you everywhere you want to go. But I want to share Myra barrs’ enthusiasm for the things they can do. Just think…alphabetic lists (phone directories, dictionaries, indexes); ingredients..things you will need to do something; birthday and christmas lists, shopping lists, books of baby names, war memorials, to-do lists, bucket lists, league tables and best-seller charts. Just think. No dependent clauses, no verbs, no plot, nothing to hold you up. No explanation, no ‘why’, no rhetoric. Heading and bullet points. Or commas, or and…and…and. They speak for themselves and…and…and..they’re theoretically limitless. You could put everything in the universe in a list. They’ve got a seductive appeal, lists. No wonder they’re one of the earliest writing structures that children grasp after the idea of a label, why their early stories are and/then lists of events that can be as mundane or fantastic as you like.

(Nick Cave’s list of words that intrigued him. Aneurism and auto-eroticism, amongst others)

list 2

What’s all this to do with us….isn’t this supposed to be a poetry blog? Bear with me. This all comes about because, while I don’t know much about contemporary poetry, I seem to come across more and more of what folk will refer to, sometimes dismissively, or condescendingly, as ‘list poems’. And, to be fair, I seem to write a fair number of them myself. It could be that this cobweb post is little more than a bit of self-justification. Or not. Let’s see how it goes.

If you go to lots of poetry workshops, as I do, you may start to notice that a lot of starters for quick writing tasks are invitations to write lists. Like these..

things you bring back from holidays

things you never got round to throwing away

things you meant to do

things that stopped you doing the things you meant to do

things you can’t do without

(but never, for some reason…or maybe because Ian Dury got there first)

reasons to be cheerful

Now, there’s a couple of things that strike me. First of all, a list like this is full of things that resonate. They’re all memory joggers. Second: a list will build up a rhythm. It has musical and rhetorical possiblities. Like I say. Lists are seductive. The performers of early oral poetry liked a list. It kept up the rhythm, and it gave you a breather while you tried to remember the next bit of the narrative. It was always nice, I imagine, to arrive at a new character who needed introducing. Say, a king in ‘Beowulf’

Often Scyld, Scefi’s son from enemy hosts
from many places seized mead-benches,
and terrorised the Heruli after first he was
found helpless and destitute he then knew recompense for that
he waxed under the clouds throve in honours
until to him each of the border tribes
beyond the whale- road he made submit
and to yield tribute that was a good king!

There you go, a list of attributes. That’s the sort of thing you expected – a catalogue of battles: who he killed, the largesse he handed out in the meadhall. Killers and givers of rings. That’s what you wanted in a king.

What about slightly different workshop exercises? You may be asked to think of places where: you said goodbye to someone, where things changed for the better or worse, where you might meet someone from your past. You might be prompted to think of bus stations, train stations, airports, places you worked, inbetween places like transport cafes. And, more often than not, you’ll be asked to think of three things you can hear, three you can see, three you can touch….and guess what. You’ve started a list. Sometimes you might listen to a poem or an extract before the exercise starts…poems like this.

Let us sit by a hissing steam radiator a winter’s day, gray wind pattering frozen raindrops on the window,
And let us talk about milk wagon drivers and grocery delivery boys.

Let us keep our feet in wool slippers and mix hot punches–and talk about mail carriers and
messenger boys slipping along the icy sidewalks.
Let us write of olden, golden days and hunters of the
Holy Grail and men called “knights” riding horses in the rain, in the cold frozen rain for ladies they loved.      (Carl Sandburg)

or this:

‘Song of myself’
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.     (Walt Whitman)

I just love the exuberance, the expansive limitlessness of it all. I love the rhythm. It’s American, I sometimes think, like country music and blues. And it’s ‘modern’…or maybe what I mean is that it seems to speak to young contemporay poets who I like. Or maybe I like them because of the lists. Because of their energy, no question. The one who, for me, is probably responsible for the way lists have found their way, more and more, into my own writing is Kim Moore. She’s not unique, but she is the one I know best, and whose poems I love to read (aloud) and re-read(aloud). And they are invitations to perform. It’s no accident that a trumpet player wrote these poems you have to breathe through. Both extracts are from The Art of Falling….probably my favourite collection in years.

My People
I come from people who swear without realising they’re swearing.
I come from scaffolders and plasterers and shoemakers and carers,
the type of carers paid pence per minute to visit an old lady’s house.
Some of my people have been inside a prison. Sometimes I tilt
towards them and see myself reflected back. If they were from
Yorkshire, which they’re not, but if they were, they would have been
the ones on the pickets shouting scab and throwing bricks at policemen.
I come from a line of women who get married twice. I come from
a line of women who bring up children and men who go to work.

I like the way repeated phrases create a scaffolding for the variations played on the underlying rhythm, and the way that lets the writer spring surprises, like  ‘which they’re not, but if they were,’ . It sounds artless, but it isn’t. It’s like jazz, that little shift of tempo.

Lists can be heartbreaking, too. If I only had one poem I was allowed to keep from the collection it would be this one.

In that year

And in that year my body was a pillar of smoke
and even his hands could not hold me.

And in that year my mind was an empty table
and he laid his thoughts down like dishes of plenty.

And in that year my heart was the old monument,
the folly, and no use could be found for it.

And in that year my tongue spoke the language
of insects and not even my father knew me.

This isn’t the whole of the poem, but it’s more than enough to show what that undervalued ‘And’ can do. Ever one of the them is a hammered nail. I remember having a an argument.. with a teacher in one of the Primary Schools on my patch. She was religiously convinced that you couldn’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t ever start a sentence with ‘And’. I’m not sure what she thought would happen if you did. The end of the world as we knew it perhaps. I pointed out that it was good enough for the Authorised Version. ‘And in those days Caesar Augustus sent out a decree that all men should be taxed’. Apparently that didn’t count, beause it was the Bible.  But poets know how to tap into the resonance of that 17th C verse, don’t they?  God bless them, I say. Here’s a thankyou for lists, for workshops, for Whitman and Sandburg and Kim Moore and everyone else who taught me that lists are great. And sometimes self-indulgent.

for lists of things on fridges -Ryvita, milk and matches, anchovies and mozarella
for lists of things to do to the damp patch, the bike chain, bread dough, christmas angels
for lists in pockets – names of debtors, and parking tickets
for the necessary lists of day to day, for provisioning expeditions to the Pole, for holidays,
for bills of lading, tonnages of whale-oil and baleen, bales of plumage
for the lists of yesterdays
for The Fallen and the fathers of The Fallen, for the Glorious Dead
for the bones of trawlermen, and those who fall from rigs, and those who choke in mines
for lists of the goodness of kings, of deeds in battle, of valiant defeats
for lists of the attributes of scornful lovers, of nether lips and lustrous hair and unclasped pearls
for the makers of mnemonics which is the daily bread of here and now
and the pulse and heart of poems
and also of psalms


It occurs to me that I’ve not just been self-indulgent, but also (and it may be the same thing) schoolteacherly. I’ll put that down to the ‘Back-to-school’ feel of early September. On the other hand, next week we’re having a guest. So, collars buttoned, ties straight, and no inapproriate hair-dos. Off you go. No running.

(Woody Guthrie’s list…New year resolutions. Write a song every day.Dance better. Beat fascism)

woody guthrie list

If you haven’t already bought it, then go and buy The art of falling [Seren.2015] £9.99. Why not head on over to

I’m pretty sure there’s a link there that will let you buy it without leaving your chair. Put it on your ‘Things to do’ list.