I’m feeling more than normally muddle-headed tonight, for a whole bunch of reasons. I guess having woodburning stoves installed, and a fireplace opened up, and being more or less amateurish when it comes to brick-cleaning acids, and patch-plastering, and getting the hang of a chain saw, and exploring the capacity of a new long-handled axe…that sort of thing…has contributed. I know that I’ve been confusing my planning for guests on future cobweb strands with planning for guests on next year’s programme at The Puzzle Hall Poets Live, and thereby confusing various friends. So, if this week’s web-strand turns out less coherent than you and my guest deserve, then mea culpas in advance.
I think the best thing to do is to say what I plan to riff about, before I introduce Roy Marshall to you, and then cross my fingers that I stay on the right page of the hymnsheet. Two things on the agenda, then. One will be the business of where a writer is ‘located’, what you think of as ‘their place’. The other is the way in which a poet’s collection defies you to pigeon-hole or categorise it. With luck, we may even nail down a connection between the two.
The first issue is that of ‘landscape’. This lodged in my mind last week, probably because I’ve spent a lot of time of late reading Robert Macfarlane on the language of physical, topographical landscape, the iconographies of place. The poet Lindsey Holland put up a short post on her Facebook page about teaching the first session of her undergraduate course on ‘Poetry and Place’. I immediately felt envious. I wanted to be a student on the course, and I simultaneously wanted to teach it. I wanted to proselytise about Raymond Williams and the shifting meanings of the ‘country’ and the ‘city’, of the urban and of the pastoral. I wanted to explore how I become aware that, though I’ve lived in towns all my life, there’s almost no urban imagery in my work at all. I wanted to explore why and how that might be.
I was thinking about this when, a day later, Roy Marshall sent me an email in which he wrote, among other things,
I’ve been very interested in the contrast between us- you are from a place and know that place intimately – I was born in one place and moved three times before I was ten. Also, my mum is from another country. I am currently living somewhere that I don’t really feel is ‘home’, but then I’m not sure where that is exactly.
What interested me was that I have somehow given the impression that I am from a place, and that I know it intimately. It’s true that I know it spatially and visually, but I went to university 100 miles away in Durham, and then Newcastle. I taught for six years after that in Middlesbrough, and lived in a former iron-mining village not far from the sea. After that I lived and taught in Newcastle for four years, and after that, for ten years, in Leeds. I still have traces of a NE accent from that, but not a trace of cities in my writing, except for a short sequence about Leeds this year. For the last 30 years I’ve been living in a small town less than ten miles from where I was born and grew up. More or less in the same valley. And I still don’t know the street names, which tells me that somehow, unconsciously, all this time I’ve been thinking of it as temporary. So if I’m from ‘a place’ I think that place is ‘North’ and my thinking and imagery is ‘North’. The poets and poetry I respond to are northern. I don’t ‘get’ poetry written out of warm or hot or lush or metropolitan or exotic landscapes. It’s my loss but there it is.
Another thing. A friend wrote to me yesterday about the alien nature of a place without trees, wondering how and what Autumn could mean without trees. Trees don’t engage my imagination (except in the context of axes and chainsaws)…maybe it’s the way they obstruct a view; maybe it’s all that greenery and complicated lush texture…but I understand what she meant, how her life and imaginings needed trees. So when a poet says to me that he’s not exactly sure where ‘home’ is, I’m engaged.
Which, with a bit of luck, may bring me to the second thing; it started with a conversation I had with Roy at an open mic. in Hebden Bridge where he was guest poet. We were talking about poets we like (or not) and had no problem about agreeing on our mutual enthusiasm for Julie Mellor and Kim Moore. As we chatted, we came round to a kind of view that in each of their Poetry Business winning pamphlets (Breathing through our bones and If we could speak like wolves) although there was a clear and distinct voice in each, we could not predict or anticipate, as we turned the pages, what the next poem would be like, or about. They are constantly surprising. So many collections (and this is not a negative point) will have at least some thematic element or clear thread of linking narrative. It may be how a lighthouse keeper’s daughter learned to read, or the story of Van Gogh’s paintings, or the progress and failure of a love affair, or the slow death of a parent, or the history of a valley, or…you know what I mean?. It was at this point I said to Roy: you know what? the ‘surprising’ thing? that’s what I like about The sun bathers. Which is Roy’s first full collection.
I reckon this is as good a point as any, on this evening of muzzy thinking, to properly introduce (if you’ve not already met him) Polished Gem Number 10:
Roy Marshall was born in 1966. His mother was born in Italy, his father in London. Roy wanted to be a writer as a child and young man but became distracted for about twenty years during which time he found himself variously employed as a delivery driver, gardener and coronary care nurse, amongst other occupations.
His pamphlet ‘Gopagilla‘ was published by Crystal Clear in March 2012 and was very favourably reviewed by Andrew McCulloch in the TLS.
‘Gopagilla’ has sold out and is no longer available. A full collection ‘The Sun Bathers’ was published by Shoestring Press in November 2013 and has been shortlisted for the Michael Murphy award. The book has also been received very positively in ‘The Warwick Review, ‘Under The Radar’, ‘The North’ and elsewhere. You can buy a copy by clicking on the ‘Sun Bathers’ page of his poetry blog. at http://roymarshall.wordpress.com/.
He goes on to say something that I think might throw a small light on that element of unpredicability you encounter in successive poems, the way there’s no driving ideology or thematic urge, but instead an abiding curiosity, which might just be the clear-eyed curiousity of the outsider.
“…… you might say that I didn’t start reading or writing poem really s seriously or sending any out until I was in my thirties- I think this helped- I had something to write about. Also I had little education in English (unless you count an e grade at A level in the early eighties) and this probably helped a little as no-one was telling me what I could or should do, either in terms of writing or ‘going for it’ submissions wise- my first published poem was in The Rialto, my second came third in the Ledbury poetry comp. I’ve been really lucky (my publisher, John Lucas read my Crystal Clear pamphlet and asked if I had any more poems as he’d like to publish a bookfull!) but I also worked really hard, reading, writing, drafting- and ‘catching up’ on the gaps in my knowledge. Among other things poetry has educated me as I’ve pursued ideas and words and looked things up, and on a more basic level I’ve learned to spell and punctuate properly in the last few years- at school I was the youngest in the year and gazed out of the window a lot.
I think being displaced or being neither here nor there has it’s advantages- and I recognise the traits I value in people regardless of where they hale from. But belonging? I’m still figuring this out, and I guess poetry is the place I belong most of all…”
I think that’s the key for me. Because here’s writer who has worked, and goes on working, at ‘becoming a writer’. By reading and reading, and learning and learning, from as many places and influences as possible. This is a poetry that’s interested in everything and that’s why the collection won’t be pinned down, why it constantly surprises. Time for the poems then. I heard Roy read this first one at The Square Chapel in Halifax, and found its central image completely memorable and telling
Being no twitcher
I can’t tell if it’s a black swan or cormorant
speeding beside the train, the near-naked trees
to turn a glimpse of what must be
the most elegant of trajectories
into a zoetrope that strokes
the rooted eye,
wings fully open and now
closed, neck stretched to spear the sky,
and me in the carriage, alone
and transfixed, as far from that bird
as a child, his eye to the slot of a spinning drum
in an empty Victorian nursery.
First Published in New Walk Magazine
First I liked, a lot, the elision of the zoetrope’s imperfectly synchronised moving image with the flick/flick of something seen from the windows of a fast train. It seems to me exactly right. I like the exactness of verbs: interloping, strokes, transfixed. I like the simple honesty of it all. I can’t tell. It comes without the knowing self-deprecation of that line of Larkin’s that I’ve never liked, in a poem that I love: someone should know. And finally, that image of the poet, alone, transfixed, not knowing, being involved and ‘outside’, simultaneously. It’s a beautifully crafted poem, I think.
The next poem Roy sent me I’d have chosen any way for its precise lyricism and that one word ‘birl’. And for the surprise of that ‘guillotine’. Love that.
And here too, in the place that loved you back,
your absence grows; in the guillotine of greenhouse
glass, in a trellis slung from the hips of a rose.
The sun hangs in an empty feeder, which jigs and birls
on the cherry tree, a web spans tongue to heel across
your weather-cured shoes, still two sizes too big for me.
From ‘The Sun Bathers’, Shoestring Press (2013)
Nick Drake wrote of Roy’s first pamphlet: ‘Absolutely fresh, surprising, precise, concise, vivid, moving.’ I think all those qualities are in this deceptively simple-seeming poem. Finally, one that strikes a completely different note, in the way that I like about the collection, and in the way we’d talked about at that open mic. in Hebden Bridge.
Meat is Murder
When, overnight, his trade was re-named
in letters daubed five-feet high, that bled
down the step and over the pavement
he stopped hanging those soft stretched bodies,
dew-clawed and raspberry-eyed, their felt ears
lifted on diesel breeze whenever a lorry went by.
The son of a butcher, who was the son
of a butcher’s son, he prided himself on brain
and brawn, ruby jewels and red jellies
a plump pink purse, frisked from a carcass
tenderly placed beside rib rack and loin.
That stunned morning he gave me a fiver
to peel plastic blood from the glass with a knife,
while he scrubbed shadows from the feet of passers-by,
then sent me for tins of paint for the sill, black gloss
to better reflect the times. Years later, I saw him
in the paper, and though I’d known he owned a gun,
I’d forgotten how night after night, his moon-face
shone blue in the fly-catcher’s light, that sheened
the scrubbed slab and marble counter, as he listened
for voices over the refrigerator’s hum.
I loved the narrative of this, but, even more, the rich sensuousness of the language, the way the texture and colour of the meat is realised, the way those two verbs frisked and tenderly placed nail down the dispassionate craft of the butcher who takes pride in his work with ruby jewels and red jellies / a plump pink purse; you don’t easily forget the pallid white face in the blue light of the neon flycatcher. As Kim Moore wrote of his work: this is ‘… very self-contained, poised and graceful writing’
or, as Tim Love wrote: these are ” … the sort of poems that are easy to read yet hard to write” . I’d add one word to that. Apparently easy to read.
Thanks, then, to Roy Marshall for being this week’s polished gem. I managed to muddle through it. I hope it does him justice. Now, off you go and buy The Sun Bathers. All the details you need are above, somewhere. Next week we’ll finally get round to the business of open mic.s and their manifold delights. See you next Sunday. Bring your friends,