Don’t give up….

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Whatever else you do, don’t give up on work you’ve started. Never throw anything away if you’ve written it legibly. Leave it alone for long enough, and one day you’ll find it and won’t recognise it as something you wrote. You may well think: Mmmm…that might have legs.

derby day notes 001

This handwritten sheet with the quotation from the Daily Sketch, for instance. I found that in a notebook I bought when I was doing a sabbatical year at Bretton Hall. In 1981! The sort-of-sonnet was probably written in 1984. I wasn’t really serious about writing poems, evidently. But I went back to it, and eventually, about 30 years later, it turned into Camera Obscura, which ended up in a Forward Poetry Anthology. There you go. Don’t give up. You simply never know.

Computers mean, of course, that you accumulate documents faster than you can remember. So, two days agoI was having a stock take of my files and stumbled on something I thought was long gone…it was an essay I had to write as part of my ill-judged MA course a dozen years ago. I started to read it with a kind of embarrassed fascination. Because what I’d done was to spell out a set of aims or ambitions. Embarrassing, because I did nothing about them for years. Fascinating, because after long delays, and years when I did nothing at all, I finally did do everything I said I would. I thought I’d share this, just to say: whatever you do, don’t give up. My essay (which is very essay-ish) started with a question:

“Why write? James Britton [196?] suggested part of the answer when he asked the question:
‘Why do [we] constantly improvise upon representations of reality?…because we never cease to long for more lives than we can actually live.’

Britton is actually speculating here about why we are impelled to read, and, particularly, to read stories. What I can take from his formulation is the concept of ‘improvising [] representations of reality’. I like this because it embraces the representations of music and of plastic art as well as verbal composition. The second part of his answer may satisfy writers of fiction, creators of imagined worlds and narratives. It doesn’t answer for me; I have no aspiration to be that kind of writer, possibly because, as David Lodge [2000] has one his characters say, how could I voluntarily spend:
‘long ,solitary hours….staring at a blank page…trying to create something out of nothing, to will creatures with no previous existence into being, to give them names, parents, education…God, the tedium of it! And then the grinding, ball-breaking effort of forcing it into words.’?  [‘Home truths]

I actually do quite relish the business of words, of crafting, the texture and resonance of language, but it goes beyond that. It’s not so much the longing for more lives as not losing the life (or lives) I have actually lived. Maybe the answer to that opening question, for me, is implicit in Eliot’s poignant line:
‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’
What impels me to write is a felt need to find the ‘meaning’ in experiences which snag my memory, my attention. I don’t seem to have a conscious choice about the process; I’m keenly aware that something seems to edit out the powerfully personal—the experience of a broken marriage, the death of a father, of a son, the remorseless and protracted mental and physical decline of my mother—and I suspect that sooner or later this will have to be dealt with.

[Twelve years later, I can look at the pamphlets I produced in 2014, and say: Yes. It was later, rather than sooner, but, yes. I did it. I did}

But I had to begin with the poetry of observed and remembered landscape. This is what I wrote, twelve years ago:

The problem as I see it is that of pinning down a moment as it is, and, simultaneously to catch the felt experience—and not to let it be distorted by the history, the clutter, that language carries around with itself, willy nilly; the way’, I mean, that it splinters and refracts, or blurs and distorts, or softens and sentimentalises like a Vaseline-smeared lens. Constantly I stumble up against Hughes, or Heaney, or R.S.Thomas, all in thrall to the bleak, the elemental, resistant indifference of things.

[I’ve written in other posts about how I tried to confront this in my poem Achnacloich, precisely because of the way in which the seen landscape of Sleat was constantly refracted through the lens of Hughes’ poetry and the seductive tug of its textures and cadences. I had to sift his writing, particularly Moortown and Remains of Elmet ,to pin down the intrusive—and illuminating– phrases, particularly the one that seemed to unlock the right door:
your ‘words joined with earth
and engraved in rock
were under my feet’    (a nice ambiguity in that last line!),
as well as the rhythms and consonantal toughness of ‘the bareblown hill’, ‘the blueprint bones‘’, the’gulleys gouged in the cold hills’ before I could work from my notebooks. In the essay I go back to one of my notebooks to try to clear up what I think I meant. Like this:]
‘… on this hill with no shorthand. Everything very sharply in focus and out of meaning. Tiny white starry flowers, one here, one there. One brown furry caterpillar straddling two bleached plantain stems. Dry flower heads brittle pink. One plump crimson/blush/rose cushion of spaghnum, complex jewelly florets, bright with water drops scattered….Deer slots, random, occasionally, a single one sharp in a cupful of peaty mud….Amber, yellow grasses like blades, flexing.’

There are pages and pages like this; oddly, all sorts of things are edited out of the record, like my anxiety, teetering on a too-steep slope, unsure of up or down; my vertigo that I cope with by focussing hard on what’s close and directly in front. And every so often there’s an unacknowledged sense of Hughes’ presence:
‘Flat dry outcrops, pale and clean—they feel high, but there’s always another top, another tumbled outcrop beyond, and getting to the very highest top, the land falls away and away and away and far beyond the edge is the sea.’

Echoing faintly behind this, it seems to me, are Hughes’ ringing horizons, his image of immanence and ultimate unreachability.
There are times when I think that this ‘observed poetry’ is enough, that the meaning for the observer is implicit both in the choice of what is ‘seen’ and the choice of language which struggles to be a correlative for what is seen, and its emotional resonance for the reader. It doesn’t need rhetoric or commentary such as Hughes’ authorial glosses—
‘the suffering of water’, ‘a stage for the performance of heaven’.

I’m intrigued by the notion that that some poetry is analogous to the work of landscape painters like Len Tabner who is based near Staithes, but has painted around the world…down deep mines, inside the Arctic Circle, from small boats out in the Atlantic.. I choose him because his response is to the kind of landscape I am drawn to, and quality of his vision. Fred Inglis [1998] talks about:
‘Tabner’s deep-rootedness in that blurred, dramatic ,difficult country…river and sea surging endlessly; the big changeful sky, heavy with cloud, now touching land and water…’

Len-Tabner-High-Boulby-winter-sw
How does Tabner achieve this? By a constant physical absorption in the place itself, whether working fast on the 20 foot Atlantic swell off Fingal’s Cave, absorbed in the cold, the spray; or lying in frozen grass up above Boulby Cliff, pricked by sleet flurries, relentlessy ‘catching’ the nervous geometries of a February hawthorne. There’s no need for commentary or explanation; the shivering cold and the tug of the wind is ‘there’ for what it is. There’s no need for an explanation of what the Black Cuillin ‘means’ for the artist—what it means is there in the drama of the brilliance of light, the dark weight of rock and the saturated air. It’s a meaning that comes from the choice of materials and the speed with which they’re used that simply can’t be done by photography; my photo of a sunset may say something about my choice of frame, my selection of an image, but nothing about the shimmer and fragility of light and moving air that’s Tabner’s statement about the winter sea off Hummersea cliffs
‘(the) deep preoccupation with the moment of deliquescence in all natural life… the moment at which seaspray turns to light….the much-painted hawthorn…to thin lines of eked-out colour against the grey, ochre, and umber streaks of winter sky’

Tabner himself says ‘I want that sense of being in the landscape, not looking at it’
And that sums up the struggle for absorption in the landscapes I ‘research’ by recurrent walking, listening, looking and recording. Like Tabner, I ‘am trying to express the whole feeling of being present in a place, as well as the presence of the place itself.’
This begs a question about the mastery of the medium (or media, in his case), and the patient exercise of words and grammars (or paint, or clay, or stone…) which makes the vision possible. It seems obvious that part of the writer/researcher’s job involves an absorption in vocabularies and syntax, and forging of a written idiolect, a distinctive voice that is he essential meaning of the realised text.
I come across the impulse in a note book, stuff I’d written sitting in a car up on Holme moss, looking back down to the Holme valley.

‘Sky lines recede, one by one, under a slough of driven cloud. Layers and layers.The near fellside acid sour and bracken brown, tired of cloud, of weight, of wet, ofwaiting. A hiddle of oaks in the lee of the ribbon road; black-brittle, acid-burned’

and then I find a shift into something that’s beyond ‘observation’. For some reason I remembered going to my uncle’s wedding in Todmorden some time in the 1950s, the darkness of the valleys, the pall of smog that hung over milltowns in the West Riding.

‘ a place of artful and raw complexities. These chapels are scoured clean back to their golden sandstone start. Where’s the black mourning of the mills? Gone with the chimneys, the cloying stink of lanolin, the mindless loom-clatter, and the dark pall over the valley. Gone with the buses, the black Humbers ,Morrisses, Fords, Austins and grumbling, struggling Albions’

Here’s a history, a change that invites investigating since it’s my history, from childhood till now, the remembered darkness of the mill valleys now filled with art galleries and summer wine tourists. I feel the same impulse to deal with the narratives of my observed Scottish landscapes, the stories of the Clearances. Of Culloden and Glencoe, and for the first time to find myself consciously planning research, needing to ‘know’.

[At this point I announced that I wanted:]

to populate my landscapes, to understand these histories. What sort of research might this involve? I need, for instance, to go beyond the physical scale and drama of Glencoe and the way it shrinks and absorbs, in seconds, parties of scramblers and climbers. How can it possibly be considered or contained?

Part of the answer may lie in my fascination with maps; two things in particular: those close-packed contour lines, as complex as the whorls of fingerprints, and the way every burn, fall, corrie, ridge, and bealach is named. The fingerprinting contours give the illusion that we can grasp this huge and complex land. The scratchy Gaelic names say: we owned this; we understood it, controlled it; they are jabbed into the contours of the text like dirks, like pitons, snagging the eye with their cluttered consonants…. Sgurr na Fonnadh, Bheinn a Creachin, Achtriachtan, Aonach Eagach. I need a Gaelic dictionary before I can hear them, and there they are transformed to breathy complex vowels and soft glottals, and there’s music and poetry in their translation: the Notched Ridge, the Corrie of Capture, the Valley of Slate and Churn.

It’s this verbal landscape that frames the massacre of Glencoe (in which 10% of the clan died; literally, decimated…not the prevailing sense of 90%). When men, and women and children fled into the snow in that cold dawn, ‘half-dressed, unshod’, they were wrapped in the plaids they habitually wore, and disappeared into the high corries where they herded their rustled cattle, and everywhere they hid they knew and had named.

[and then I set out a kind of project. I would write about Clearances, about Glencoe, about the crofters of Achnacloich. If you’ve been following the great fogginzo’s cobweb for some time you’ll notice that, eventually I did all of that. Ten, eleven years later. Nothing’s wasted. Then I went on to write this:]

waterhouse_study_of_miss_muriel_fosterInventing characters seems to be beyond me, but I think that I can maybe try to inhabit characters who already exist historically or fictionally. I want to work on engaging with different ways of thinking and feeling from my own, and to start from the image, the figure, I see every morning when I wake—-John Waterhouse’s Belle Dame sans Merci; she crouches in a dark copse, heart on sleeve, ensnaring her looming, armoured knight with her living hair, fey and yearning and vulnerable. The face, and the submissive/seductive pose is disturbing, bothering, and repeated again and again in Waterhouse’s work. She may be a mermaid, Ophelia, a nymph (unnervingly cloned into seven of eight others, imploring Hylas to joins them in the embrace of the water); Pandora, Flora, Mariana, Juliet, a siren, a nymph finding the head of Orpheus or wakening Adonis, a naiad, a hamadryad…..

Whatever the role there is the same pale, translucent tenderness of flesh, the same submissive, desiring gaze that Waterhouse catches in his charcoal and pencil sketches. He, himself, is a constant unseen presence in all these drawings and paintings but for me he’s obsessed, haunted, helplessly in love. We know a lot about his public life; bourgeouis, comfortable, successful (an academician), and married. We know he had two children who died in early infancy. We have portraits of his wife, and of his sisters and sister-in-law who modelled for him. But we know little of his private life; and who was the nymph who haunted him?

The evidence is slim; one charcoal sketch of her head has the pencilled title The head of Miss Muriel Foster. Almost everything else is conjectural; the only source of information I have found is a website that is now unavailable, but just one sentence has snagged my attention in the way that the landscapes and iconic stories of the Highlands and islands have done:
‘Little is known about Muriel’s life. She apparently studied nursing during the years she posed for Waterhouse, and eventually found her place in that field in the Oaklands nursing home in St Leonard’s on Sea. It was there that she died in 1969 at the age of 91’

The sub-text of this is as irresistible to me as her face was to Waterhouse. She must have been about 15 when she first modelled for him in 1893. How did that come about? Waterhouse habitually painted his models nude, for preliminary studies, even though they may be clothed in the finished version. How was that managed? How did they meet? What did they feel about and for each other during that apparently symbiotic relationship that continued for 24 years until his death ( with a gap between 1906-9) and during which her painted image stays as fresh as it did at the beginning.’

Well I kept revisiting this, in a desultory way, just as I kept revisiting the notion of giving a voice to what I imagined were the imprisoned souls that inhabited some of the great sculptures that fascinated me….Michaelangelo’s David, Gormley’s Angel of the North, Henry Moore’s King and Queen, for instance. And twelve years later, one way and another, they’ve been ‘dealt with’, written into poems…enough, in fact for a pamphlet, which I’m utterly delighted to say will be out and available any time now.

So there we are. Not what I promised I’d be writing. But a nice reminder that if you don’t throw away your notebooks and you don’t despair, one of these days, you can get to write what you thought you’d never see on a page.

I’m making no promises for next week. I may not be able to keep them.

Picture books and a polished gem [14]. Maria Isakova Bennett

New Image

About fifteen months ago ago I wrote a post, Pictures and stories. I guess this one will be Pictures and stories Revisited. I guess, too, that it all started, if not with A level Art, then with this chap…Elizabeth Frink’s Seated man. For ten years on and off I would start my working day at Bretton Hall college, driving into the grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and past the seated man. I’d stop to take photos of him from time to time, especially in snow, when he would look especially glum and stoic. I have no idea why, but I conceived the notion that though none of us could see it, he was imprisoned in his allotment shed, forever frozen, unable to move or protest as the earth around, his brassicas and spuds and crysanths, were trampled barren by thousands of visitors…all of them unable to see what they were doing. I came to wonder what he had done to deserve it.

At some point I realised the truth, as I’d walk from the car park down into the college, and look at other figures on the mown hillsides. Igor Mitoraj’s Light of the moon: a huge, blank, eyeless face that silenced every shrieking party of primary kids that found themselves in its proximity. Another monumental piece like a cross between a christmas tree decoration and The Three Graces, made of three thick, perforated aluminium sheets. The most poignant was almost hidden behind the dance studio. Michael Ayrton’s Kneeling Minotaur. I always believed the Minotaur a victim. They don’t tell schoolchildren of his conception to satisty the lust of Minos’ daughter for the white bull, nor of the complicity of the artificer, Daedalus, in making that wild congress possible. We tell them about Icarus of course. There’s a cautionary tale. Do as your dad tells you. Anyway. I came to believe that great sculptures like the ones I saw every working day imprisoned the souls of the transgressive. And, indeed, of fallen angels.

This coincided, as I’ve written in another post, with my starting an MA in creative writing, in desperately trying to break out of endlessly describing bits of landscape, and in discovering Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, and in starting to write dramatic monologues that would give voices to the lives stilled in stone, and bronze and wood and steel. I tinkered around with them for years, before I started to sit down and write for real. The first one was a gift…Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North would speak in Miltonic blank verse. Obviously. It turned out the Minotaur was tormented by the white slenderness of young girls delivered as sacrifices he could not understand. The seated man, it transpired, contained the soul of Rene Descartes.

I didn’t just ‘do’ sculptures; I became fascinated by the stories of the painter John Waterhouse, his wife, Esther, and his favourite model, Miss Foster, and tried to find voices for them. And, at some point I learned there was a name for all this. A truly ugly word, but a word nonetheless: ekphrasis. I learned there’s even a magazine devoted to it, and also that it seems to be something of a niche business these days. This I cannot understand. As a young teacher, I grew up with Voices and Junior Voices. Books of poems that happily sat side by side with pictures. Metonomy and metaphor cheerfully bouncing off each other. I grew up with Remains of Elmet, poet and photographer happily exploring the same territory together; later it was Hughes’ collaborations with artists like Leonard Baskin. You’d think it would be more common, much more widespread, anyway. But I still come across poets who tell me they don’t like ‘poems about pictures’. They do like Musee des Beaux Arts, of course, and why not.

It seems to me that it used to be taken for granted, this symbiotic realtionship between verbal and plastic arts. Renaissance painters spent their days recreating myth and legend. Pre-Giotto, it would be the Bible. For Pre-Rapaelite painters, translating literature into pictures was their bread and butter. Boy, did they love Keats and the Morte d’Arthur and Shakespeare. And later, didn’t their successors just plunder Tennyson. Why doesn’t it seem so common in reverse?  Ode to a Grecian Urn. Ozymandias at a pinch. OK. Off the top of your head, tell me more. Contemporary poets.

frida-kahlo-what-i-saw-in-the-water

 

Well, I’ll give you Pascale Petit’s What the water gave me. And there’s Frieda Hughes’ Waxworks. There’s a lovely sequence based on Van Gogh’s paintings in Fiona Benson’s Bright Travellers. You might remember Poets at the Tate. And now, because I’m quite thinly read, I’m stuck. Why should this be? It seem obvious to me that writing about and in response to visual and 3D images should be just as common as responding to first-hand experience, or, indeed, to other people’s poems. (There’s plenty of that about.) Because, after all, all art selects and fixes moments in time for your attention, takes them out of the bewildering flux of experience; moments of crafted stasis. Just the act of arrest makes the moment significant, just as when, on a walk with a friend, you grab her, or his, arm, and point and say. Look. Look. It’s ironic, I think, that, as people seem to have moved into a world where no one trusts memory or words any more, and where they take so many photographs and publish them so indiscriminately,  the whole purpose of photography itself is being lost.

caveat

At which point we awakwardly segue into the point of today’s cobweb strand which is to share the poetry of Maria Isakova Bennett, her first published collection, Caveat, and her current collaboration with Middlesbrough poet, Michael Brown, writing in response to artworks in Liverpool’s Walker Gallery. It helps that she is facinated by Gormley’s iron men on Crosby Sands…I’ve written about one of them myself, as well as his unnerving army of small clay figures Field for the British Isles (I think that was an installation in Liverpool at some time, too).

Maria Isakova Iron Man sinkingMaria Isakova from Hightown (2)

I suppose it helps too that I have a soft spot for art-trained poets with a penchant for hippy hats. Though this is not, you understand, a sine qua non. I first met Maria earlier this year in Leeds at an Interpreter’s House launch, and I was knocked out by the poems she read from Caveat which had just been published. Painterly poems. Passionate poems. Sexy and edgy poems in beautiful landscapes with big skies and seas, or in seedily glamorous cities, in bars and brasseries. Time you met her too. This is what she says about herself:

“Maria, from Liverpool, is an artist and poet. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University in 2012. Over this year, Maria has worked as Project Support Assistant for a charity working with people who suffer various forms of bereavement, supports a poet- in-residence at Merseycare, teaches English to Asylum Seekers, and is working collaboratively with the poet Michael Brown on projects at the Walker Art Gallery, the Lady Lever Gallery and on a river project linked to work at the Liverpool Museum.

She has been published widely in the UK, US, and Ireland, including work in  Antiphon, Crannog, Envoi, Manchester Review, Orbis, and Southword.

During 2014 Maria was highly commended in the Gregory O’ Donoghue Competition, shortlisted in the Munster Literature Fool For Poetry Chapbook Competition, and awarded first prize in the Ver Open. In February, her first pamphlet, Caveat, was published by Poetry Bus Press, Ireland.

This year, in addition to reading in galleries in Liverpool and at launches of journals, Maria read at Heart Poetry Cafe in Headingly in January, as part of Poets and Players at the beautiful John Rylands Library in Manchester, at the Harris Gallery in Preston (as part of Korova), at UCLAN as part of The Wild and Rural poetry events, at the Bluecoat Gallery for Storm and Golden Sky.

If you’re anywhere near Calderdale, next month she will read in Todmorden as part of Kava Kultura . Here’s the link for more details  http://kultpoet.blogspot.co.uk .

She’s sent me four poems to choose from. Let’s start with this one:

 

Nocturne

In room ten you want to kneel to pray
but words won’t come
and the gallery is dizzy tonight–

the tug of a boat at Heurteauville,
flat sands, a low tide
a tumult of sky at Egremont.

You listen for his note
somewhere in the medieval room
or before Psyche,

consider a bouquet imprisoned in the corner –
each flower a white star,
the hapless grey of roof tops

offset by orange light;
take in the simple geometry –
a red cloth, and the quench of peaches.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/nocturne-97346

Read the poem, really read it before you even think of opening the link that lets you see the painting. What it does for me, and it does a lot, is recreate the sensory dizziness of art galleries, that feeling of of tipsy overload (it pivots on that word ‘tumult’) before you are quietly steadied, led to ‘consider’ the stasis of a still life, its calm balance of light and colour, the trapped energy of flowers like stars, and, satisfyingly, the utter surprise of a ‘quench of peaches’. Wow. Now you can click on the link and let the poem and the picture talk to each other, illuminate each other. I’m a sucker for colour, but there’s so much more to it than that.

Fabric sculpture M Isakova

The next poem is, by contrast, tactile. I may have some trouble making wordpress reproduce the artful line layouts. Let’s cross our fingers.

The green vase will break
in transit

so smash it now;
either you will try
to carry your memento, and it will crack,
or you will refuse to leave it behind
and never travel;

broken is the only way to carry
the vase,
each piece a doll’s house saucer
of light,
each a palm open
to the room where you pack to leave.

Beat the light into crystals
so that you are free to move –
and when you travel,
fold them in a cloth.

At your destination,
don’t try to reassemble
the vase;
its old form has gone –

but in the workshop at the lough-side
tip out the crushed pieces
and fuse them into something new.

http://www.munsterlit.ie/Southword/Issues/27/i_bennett_maria.html

The line spacings and indents of the original mime the fragmentation of the vase, the bits laid out but not aligned, but if I can’t recreate that, then just listen to the crack and rattle of consonants. And enjoy, as I do, a recipe which is almost like an incantation, for remaking. But you will need to be at a workshop, at the lough-side. I love the way that transports you to a place that seem specific and haunted. Not any lough-side. THE lough-side. You know the one. Of course you do. Close your eyes and make it.

uk_crosby_anotherplace_2005_013_ref

Finally, because these figures haunt me, an iron man poem. This time there’s a narrative.

The Forty-ninth Iron Man
(after Antony Gormley’s installation, Another Place.)
Over a mesh of sand, her bare feet tense
on ribs, and clavicles,
she listens for a foghorn across
the pitch of the sea,
unbuttons her coat for him –
cast in black under a Hunter’s Moon
his shoulder sheds metal scabs,
grates her skin as she strokes him
and tastes him; a tang of rust.

Together we are a beautiful performance,
he assures her,
but he holds her indifferently –
racing waves peak and trough,
the tide rises and the moon is lost
in churning clouds. She founders
but is fastened to him –
at high tide they will drown –
only to resurrect.

 

I’m caught straight off by the physicality of bare feet on the hard cold corrugations of lowtide sands..ribs and clavicles. Yes. I wasn’t expecting clavicles but the texture and dance of it are exactly right, I think. It’s a haunting story; like tales of the selkie, and all hopeless loves, the indifference of the crusted, scaling iron man, the vulnerablity and desire of one who ‘unbuttons her coat for him’ under a scud of cloud, a wavering moon, and the melancholy warning of a foghorn across the cold drowning flats. So there we are. Thank you so much Maria Isakova Bennett for being our guest and sharing your poems.

You’ll be wanting to buy and read Caveat, not least for lines like these from ‘Looking for the source of madder’

I escaped while he slept. But every May / I make alizarin from his recipe – / and paint my body red

Caveat : [Poetry Bus Press 2015] 7.50 euros

Next week we’ll be thinking about the Bible. Consider dressing accordingly.

 

 

 

 

 

Tipping the scales: Polished gem [13]….Hilary Elfick

I read this passage today in Roy Marshall’s poetry blog. It gave me the hook I need to start today’s cobweb strand:

“My new poem also owes a debt to those who have helped me develop my craft.  In a list that might read a little like an Oscar acceptance speech, I can think of writing workshop facilitators, writing partners, friends, mentors, editors. All have added something to my understanding, or helped me look at what I have written and see it in a different way.  Disagreeing with feedback and learning to stick to your guns can make you more sure of your work, and being able to explain why you don’t want to change a poem, at least to yourself, is as useful as realizing that maybe you could make suggested changes”
Here’s the link to the full article.    https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/poetry-ego-success-rejection-a-few-thoughts-and-reminders-to-self/

Writing trip May 2013 128 (2)

So, here we go. Not quite an Oscar acceptance speech. A tribute. Lucky thirteen. Lucky for me. I’ve written about my inspirations before, but until now I’ve not said thank you, publicly, to the one who tipped the scales between my feeling sort of inspired, and actually putting in the graft, taking the whole business of writing seriously. Why the picture? Because you can’t always put a possibly-life-changing moment in a specific location AND a specific time AND reach into the magic cabinet of a virtual library, and lift out a photograph, and say: it was here. But I can. It was on a Thursday afternoon in June 2013, on the terrace of this blue house in Relleu. This is where Hilary Elfick sat me down and told me, very firmly, that I was to put together a bunch of poems and send them to a publisher. It was there she said she I had a recognisable ‘voice’ and that I would, come hell or high water, have a collection out, one day. I still haven’t. But I still believe I shall, because Hilary made me believe it. Other people have said it, and it’s nice, but believing is different. So if this week’s cobweb strand is a bit fulsome, forgive me. I lack objectivity when it comes Hilary Elfick.

She’s one of the few poetry friends I have who are actually my age or older. She’s not much older than me in years; she’s incorrigibly young-spirited; in terms of lived lives she’s one of those people who makes me feel incorrigibly inexperienced. It’s a feeling I am not unhappy about. I first met her that week in June 2013. Within what felt like moments she was showing me images on her i.pad. I’d never seen one before. She enthused about the way she could be swapping edits with a collaborator in Australia at the click of a cursor, she had me marvelling at a crystal clear image the head of venomous and frighteningly beautiful snake. What was exciting her..and then me…was that in the dark centre of the snake’s eye was a pin sharp image of the photographer, taking a photograph of a snake that was equally focussed on him. It had the same unnerving stillness and endlessness of the image you create by standing between two parallel mirrors. It was the first time I’d ever met someone slap in the middle of writing a new collection. Not curating existing poems. Actually in the middle of writing them, responding to images sent half-way round the world from an international prize-winning photographer. I thought it was a bit like wandering into a conversation between Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin. I told you I lack objectivity. Bear with me.

shopontheedge

About a year ago I wrote a review for The North (my first review, ever). On the edge…a collaboration with David Head. I wanted to find a way of describing or defining Hilary’s poetry, and the way that for me the cumulative effect of the poems was more telling than individual poems. I think I got close-ish with this:

Hilary Elfick was, in one of her many lives, a BBC producer, and I fancy this book is in the spirit of the BBC of Charles Parker’s radio ballads. It has that blend of empathy, artistic form and documentary that grows from years of attentive listening to the voices of others. It reminds me, too,of the documentary writing of Tony Parker who set out to recue the voices of ‘the dumb [who]go down in history and disappear’.

What’s missing from this is the encyclopaedic quality of her work. She reminds me of one of those doughty Victorian women explorers, who had probably met Darwin, or stowed away on The Beagle, or documented the growth of rare lichens in Iceland. Within minutes of meeting her, it seemed, I’d been introduced to a rare and dangerous snake, learned about her collaboration with David Malikoff (internationally renowned photographer: look him up), about the Strangler Fig, about the migrations of birds of the southern hemisphere, about Norfolk reed beds, about tectonic plates, about an Australian bee-keeper who is reclaiming a swathe of raw land. And she was making me laugh. And then she did something unnerving. She gave me a draft of a new poem, and asked me for feedback. (Bear in mind I was already out of my depth among published writers and the widely travelled). And then she changed bits of it; she took me that seriously; she trusted me. Who wouldn’t fall in love with that. here’s part of it, from her long sequence, Red Hill

……………………………………………..Lillypilly.
The Sydney merchants in their disrespect
gave this name to a river gum so charged with grace.
She’s in a grown-up city; let us call her by
her grown up name: Syzigium Francisii.
And see how they have wrapped her round with spikes
to stop the cockies and the starlings resting, nesting.
Alone on her small island she shouts for all of us
against sterility: how they will edit out our baggage
if we let them. The microscopic creatures in my skin,
my nails, my hair belong to me, and if sometimes
I need to cough or shout, excrete or weep
or scratch then so I shall.

This has the quality I was trying to pin down, to find a phrase for. Lyrical documentary. Or Documentary lyricism. Hilary’s poems almost always tell stories, they educate, they inform. They are wide ranging. When you know more about her, you understand why. Here’s her Poetry Society profile.

When and where were you born? Warwickshire, England, 1940
Can you say a bit about where you live (and work)? I live and work in Cambridge, UK, and Whangaparaoa, New Zealand, spending about 5 months a year in each. The rest of the time I am in Australia or Spain.
Who or what made you interested in poetry and why? I won a school poetry competition when I was 7, but it was Byron’s Ride on a Wild Horse (from Mazeppa) that turned me on. Plus Robert Louis Stevenson, read to me from an early age.
Which poems or poets would you recommend to other members?  Charles Causley, RS Thomas, George Mackay Brown can still move me. Today’s poets – John F Deane, Michael Longley, Paul Farley all make me ache to write like that.
Have you ever been to a poetry performance/reading? Too often to remember. I have been going to the Aldeburgh Festival almost every year.
Have you written and/or published any poems? My 15th book is just being published. I appear in anthologies, and magazines such as THE SHOp, as well as newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald and The Herald Sun (Australia)
Are you part of a poetry community? Many of my friends are poets – all over the world. I have performed my work in several countries and one book is published in Romanian.
What might people be surprised to know about you? That I have flown above the Alps in a hot air balloon and encountered at closest range, unprotected, the largest Eastern Brown snake ever recorded in Australia – one of the ten most deadly.

Well, there you go. And this says nothing about her work in radio, her ocean sailing, her nature reserve guiding, her work in the Maori community, her teaching…I reckon the only things I know more about than her are Rugby league and the visual arts. But it still leaves me feeling like like one of my grandchildren who knows far more than I about Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s no surprise that her poetry is so wide-ranging, as though the world might be inexhaustible, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying to exhaust it. So let’s sample some of it. It won’t do her justice, but there’ll be a book list at the end.

There’s a motif that runs right through Hilary’s work, and it’s her passionate concern for ecology coupled with her abiding love of ornithology. Last summer she couldn’t wait to tell me about the orioles and how they didn’t show up at the house of Dutch photographer, Ton Out. She has a weakness for photographers. Here’s an extract from the poem that followed.

Ton’s house in June

Let us sit back on your terrace shaded by the white planks of your roof
…………………………………………………….

And let us sip Rosado while it lasts and half-close our eyes
against the glare of limestone terraces far older than the sea

Let us smile, breathe deep and turn our thoughts to orioles, the way they call,
the way they just appear out of these implacable dry hills

to steal your grapes, juice matting the soft down of their whiskers
………………..

….we shift our seats while you tell me about Afghanistan in the eighties
and how the Japanese are hard to comprehend,

Refill our glasses with the grapes the oriels spared last summer
and peer out into these bleached hills sprigged with sage and thyme

For bee-eater and eagle owl, stretching out our arms to marvel at the span
and find it is, on such a day as this, too hot even for them…

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She can do quiet moments of reflective recollection. Like this.

Blackcurrants

All summers rolled into that one.
The trucks on the embankment behind the chestnuts
and the blackcurrants we stripped with forks,
how we packed them deep with sugar
and you brought out the bowl of yellow crumble
to blanket them.
I don’t remember the garden table,
nor what the dishes looked like
nor what any of us was wearing;
I only remember the sound of the low stream
and the shunting trucks, and the scrape
of our spoons against the last ring of crust
stained with purple, in sight of the bushes
where we’d been sent two hours before,
and you there, you red-faced from the Aga
in your wide apron, us browning in that Summer
which became for me all summers since.

What I particularly like in this is a sense of time and space that is, and is not, precise, where time rolls like shunting trucks. The particularity of blackcurrants ‘stripped with forks’ in the shadows of railway embankment chestnuts, and the elided memories of a day long ago that becomes ‘all summers since’. Just in case you should think that what you can expect is pastoral and faintly nostalgic, you can soon be brought up short. Like this.

At the Edge

If the world were never torn apart

if rocks never burst the air
cracks never opened and old cracks fused

if seas never heaved up to crash and consume
and toss and overwhelm and drown

if the world were smooth as a child’s featherbed
water would lie everywhere
four kilometres deep.

If the ice which topples a bird from its branch
never ground rock to glorious loam,
never chiselled out freshwater lakes
trout streams and salmon runs

if unendurable heat never set small nations
loose from from their moorings
pressing continents to drift like leaves in a pond

(Kazakhstan from Norway,
London from New York at a fingernail’s growth)

then ours would not be the blue planet,
the spinner of tectonic plates, with
Winter, Summer, Springtide, Harvest,
leaf fall and leaf unfurl.

We exist on the edge;
because of the edge we exist.

I’ve always liked. the way this poem celebrates survival and fragility, the impossible balancing act of things, how easy it is to fall out of kilter. I thought of it particularly, and more seriously, tonight, in the aftermath of senseless killings, in the migration of the terrified, of small nations set loose from their moorings, the shifting tectonic plates of humanity. It takes tenacity and love to go on existing, and my friend has both in spades. At the start of the year she was in a boating accident in which she was trapped between the propellors of her boat; she might have drowned. As she’s been recuperating, she’s been to Spain, and written the poem about orioles, she’s been to Orta to pick up a poetry prize, she’s been on her annual pilgrimage to Aldeburgh, she’s collaborating in a mixed arts project, she’s off the Middle East, and then back to NZ. I’ll be seeing her again in June and being blown away and overwhelmed by the sheer energy of the stories. And the expectation that I shall make something of myself. I shall feel 14 again. I’m delighted she’s been my thirteenth guest. I doubt I’ve done her justice, but those who know her will let me know. And I can always rewrite any bits that I have wrong. In the meantime, here’s one final poem from my ‘best of’ selection. It’s one I think of when I read the poems she’s written about the beekeeper and the tender of figs.

Prospero on Caliban

And yet despite myself I watched him covertly.
He’d take his canoe up the flood tide, keep our food store packed
with sprat and gurnard from the shallow sea,
while I kept his ovens burning, burning with the wood he’d gathered there.
He knew the rock ledge in the lagoon where crayfish gather.
He would stand on flat rocks watching them,
or lie there in the shallow water, waiting.
And then he‘d drive his outrigger far beyond the reef to catch
our barracuda, stingray, kingfish, even conger eel.
I watched him paddle, dip and steer, play fishing like a game of patience.

He had his tools of course, those that his mother left him –
his arrows, darts, his sling, his bow, his noose, even the wooden chisel
he clenched between his teeth, diving in the sea.

He found wild turnip, cabbage, berry, seed, sweet scented grass,
mushroom, even fernroot. That was our staple then.

And yet each meal that made me strong served only
to refresh my mind, restore to me my studies.

from An Ordinary Storm [University of Otago Press and Oversteps Press]

This verse play used paintings by Alan O’Cain, the composer Richard Morris, actors from three
countries, instrumentalists and solo contralto, and students from the University

Next week I’m hoping we’ll be exploring the ins and outs and ups and downs of ekphrastic poetry. Yes, I’m worried, too. But it depends on the availabilty of Polished Gem Number 14, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed. In the meantime you can Google ‘ekphrasis’ and confuse yourselves. More profitably, you can read more of Hilary Elfick. Here’s your reading list. Jawdropping. And you can preview her latest collaboration; it’s a stunner. Here’s the link

http://au.blurb.com/b/6345153-red-hill

red hill

Books by Hilary Elfick

Folk and Vision, Hart-Davis 1971
The Horse Might Sing, Envoi 1990
Unexpected Spring, Envoi 1992
Going Places, Envoi 1994
Bush Track, Guildford Poets Press 1999
Harpoon the Breeze, Guildford Poets Press 1999
The Sleeping Warrior (novel) Cromwell 1999
Let Time Hold Its Breath (The Wedding Poem) Saint Publishing 2003 (New Zealand)
Attending to the Fact (Elfick and Head) Jessica Kingsley 2004
An Ordinary Storm, University of Otago New Zealand, 2007
(ditto, abridged, in Oversteps Press, UK)
The Third Mile, Guildford Poets Press 2008
On the Edge (Elfick and Head) Pennings Partnership Press 2013
Water Colour, Grey Hen Run 2014
Red Hill – a Dreaming (Elfick and Malikoff) 2015

wish we were here

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….here being the watershed above Loch Dughail, and the first magic view of the Cuillin before you drive down a steep winding road to Achnacloich. Norman Macpherson, the crofter and shepherd who rented us his holiday bungalow for years, told us how he saw a White-tailed Eagle fly slowly above Loch Dughail, and how it was perfectly reflected in the cold still water. There’s steel barriers now,  to stop you coming off the road for the first quarter of a mile. Didn’t use to be; it was a bit unnerving in fog. Even more so if was snowing. One night a few years ago, a couple of lads missed the corner at the bottom and drove their truck into the loch by the outfall. It was said drink might have been involved. The lads legged it. Diesel got into the loch, and that put paid to the drinking water supply for a bit.  One of those stories we used to look forward to when we arrived each year. Who’s building a house; who thought it was a cracking idea to build miles of deer fence; isn’t the new road nice, but don’t you miss the windy bit by the Black Lochs? I need no photographs of Achnacloich any more. I carry it in my mind, everywhere.

11, Achnacloich

A flicker of white water on the burn
below the alders where the heron roosts

In the short grass, a flirt of dunnock
that sets the sheep trotting

Rain dragging its skirts
across the skerries in the ebb

Right on the rim of the moor
three hinds , watching

A curl of bluegrey turf smoke
from the red-roofed croft

I keep it like this.

The heron just crumpling
into the alders,
like a broken kite
the deer watching
between the moor and the sky
small birds lifting from the field
like the hem of a skirt in a breeze
the lamentations of sheep
the bright red tin roof of a crofter’s house

I love the Isle of Skye. I always have, but I never quite understood why until I went to a Greek island …Alonissos, (though it could have been one of hundreds). I realised it was the way mountains rise straight out of the sea, and that gives them a scale that much bigger mountains don’t have. The Cairngorm or the Nevis range are much bigger and more massive, but they don’t have the same drama of scale and light. And I like the weather. I like rain that you can see coming for half an hour before it arrives. Should have been there last week, but for various reasons had to cancel. I shall miss charging my batteries. I wrote last week that I planned a bit of self-indulgence. This will be it. The last couple of years, while Norman’s bungalow’s been unavailable, we’ve stayed a few miles along the road at Ord. Between Tarskavaig and Tokavaig, there’s probably the best view of the whole Cuillin range.This is a just a bit of it. Tokavaig. It comes with a poem. (Told you it was a self-indulgent week).

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Tokavaig

sea thrift ruffling,
turf rooted lush in the quartz,
black wet skerries
beyond low cliffs;
stand in the wind
to watch weathers coming
bundled up like refugees,
trailing and shedding
odds and ends of stuff
packed hurriedly
or grown burdensome
or too awkward
to bear.

Drive a few more miles of steeply twisty road, and here you are, in Ord. You can see as far the Red Cuillin peaks, Sgurr na Stri, Bla Bheinn with snow on the top, and, just across the loch, the headland of Suishnish where there are eagles. It looks placid enough, but you could be in a squall in half an hour’s time.

crop blaven (2)

When I first came here, about 30 years ago, I read in a guide book that this part of the island, the Sleat Peninsula ‘holds little to interest the serious walker’. As someone who repeatedly gets sort-of-lost within a mile of this cottage, I’d disagree. But I’m not a serious walker, I suppose, even if I aspired that way. I just like wandering about on the hills, sort of lost, but always with a view to give me my bearings. I love the way the land changes perspective with every 50 or 100 feet you climb. I don’t know what it’s like in summer. We go in late October or the end of March. It’s not green. It’s like this.

2014-11-04 14.53.13

There are few paths as such; you follow deer and sheep tracks and rely on them to keep you away from the awkwardly steep and overly wet bits, through draggy bracken and whin, and tussocky bog. And so you keep moving up, and every time you look back (say, from where the last picture was taken) there’s treasure.

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There’s the Clearance crofting village of Boreraig on the other side of the loch, the gleam of while coraline sand where seals lie at low tide, the white house where no one is ever in. I can take it with me, anywhere. I take it to the gym (when I go)…I can go for walks in this landscape. Start the treadmill and go.

Ord

Bracken flat from the wind
and snow come from the west;
that boat bucking the wide loch’s swell and chop.

Glints of outcrop quartz,
stumps in an old jaw tired of chewing
the cud of weather and time; tired of wind.

The hum of the strung fence;
the soft wet glottals of snowmelt becks
in a clutter of tumbled gullies.

The nameless plants of sour land,
all ruby, emerald and rust,
that nothing can live on but spiders.

A soft gleam of coral sand
where seals used to lie,
and the tide coming in.

I’ve learned to walk without preconceptions. I used to try to make the place fit the ideas I’d half-assimilated from John Prebble, and all the other writers about the Highland Clearances, about the military road builders, about Culloden. It took a walk to Suisnish, and a walk to Boreraig, to put that to rights. They’re both of them antidotes to lyricism. That’s where we’ll finish.

Suishnish.: Croft

We try to claim the land                                                                                                                                                          with histories, or maps;                                                                                                                                                       sealed and signed
with thumbprint contours;

land shifts, won’t be fixed;
mapped tracks to Suishnish come and go;
a new fingerpost at the road edge
points to only slough and moss
where one day there’ll be stands
of rowan, holly, aspen, oak,
birch and willow, alder, ash;
they’ll turn the clock back to an age
before the blackfaced sheep.

Metalled roads will crumble
while sheep potter and nibble
between polished stones
on the shore at Camas Malag;
maps will need redrawing,
and histories rewritten,
here at Suishnish,
where the track runs out
by one grim croft, sinking
in a moat of hoof-pocked mud,
set about with desperate trees
brittle and grey as bones.

Its floor’s a trodden slurry;
the chimney lintels tumbled,
spilling rubble in cold hearths;
doors hang drunken, hinges broken.
Someone once had thought to make a go of it;
put on a bright tin roof, hung doors,
glazed window spaces; fixed boards and cupboards,
lit fires; brought in a stove, a table, chairs, a bed.
Then, one day, just upped sticks,
cleared out; fled.

The glass is gone, fires long out;
the roof is rust, its edges fretted;
the stove’s tipped over,
and in an iron bed frame,
like a threat or malediction,
grey snagging snarls:                                                                                                                                                         barbed wire.

It’s a sad bleak place that croft. But I wouldn’t leave you on a headland where people finally gave up the ghost. It’s cosier in the cottage back at Ord . Wish we were there.

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Thanks for your company. Next week we’ll be having a guest. I think that, like half the world, she’s at Aldeburgh right now. All I’ll say is that without her, I wouldn’t be writing, and you wouldn’t be reading this cobweb strand. Be early to avoid disappointment. By the way, I just discovered, by accident, while I was proofreading this post, that if you click on the pictures, you can see a full-screen version. You probably knew that. Me? I’m like a kid with a new box of Lego.

Christmas is coming: Lumen/Camden

larach cover for cobweb 001

It’s nearly a year ago that I had the time of my life in Camden for the launch of my pamphlet, Larach. That’s what you get if you win the Lumen/Camden Poetry competition. They have just announced that their latest competition is now open for entries. Adele Ward posted this on Facebook today:

“The International Lumen and Camden Poetry Competition is open, with a chance to win publication of a chapbook of your poems, 50 copies of your book, and an invitation to read in Camden if you would like to. The judge is George Szirtes and proceeds support Cold Weather Shelters in the Camden and Kings Cross areas. Previous winners have gone on to be published in the Financial Times, reviewed in the Poetry Book Society Bulletin and to have their collection in the top 19 in the prestigious TLS/Michael Marks Pamphlet Awards. The weather will soon be getting cold so do enter early.”

Amazingly, you can enter up to 6 poems for only £10. All proceeds go to Caris Camden [Patron Sir Andrew Motion]which provides winter shelter for rough sleepers. If you win you will have a perfect-bound pamphlet. For five years the winners’ pamphlets have been published by Ward Wood Publishing, who have, this year passed on the torch to Soaring Penguin Press. Adele Ward, who did a brilliant job of editing Larach has had to pass on the task because of pressure of other work, but will still help promote it. You can check out Soaring Penguins via this link  http://www.soaringpenguinpress.com/competitions/  and there’s also information on the Camden and Lumen website, and the Lumen and Camden Facebook page. The winnerwill be given 50 copies of his/her own to read and sell. Profits from the copies held by the publisher go to Caris Camden.

So, there you are. You genuinely cannot lose. And it can change your life. Believe me. It truly can. And now, my own salespitch. I sell copies of my winning pamphlet ‘Larach’ for the cover price of £5.00, p&p free. £1.00 of each sale will go to the charity. I’m aiming to raise £75 …which involves selling every copy I still have in stock. If you buy a copy, you give a £1 to charity, you get a copy signed and dedicated to your specification AND at the end of the year, I’ll announce, via the cobweb how much we’ve raised AND I’ll thank everyone of you personally.

So how easy is it to buy Larach for one you love? Go to My Books at the top of the page. There you’ll find a PayPal button, You won’t even notice you’ve paid, you’ll be doing someone a good turn, and you’ll have bought a handsomely published book of poems which will drop through your letterbox a couple of days later.

There you are. Enter a competition. Buy a book. Give people presents. You know you’ll feel good.

larach cover for cobweb 001

When a book won’t let go

here’s what teaching really is; read, learn and inwardly digest, Nicky Morgan. Then take yorself off somewhere you can do no harm. Try a checkout desk. Numbers, systems, repetition and boredom. Right up your street.

Jayne Stanton POETRY

I might have said this before: I’m a slow reader.  It can take me weeks to read a weighty novel.  Dense text, small font size and narrow spacing puts me right off.

I like a page that’s easy on the eye.

With plenty of white space around the words.

Something that I can read

in

bite-size

chunks,

if I need (or want) to.

“Like poetry”  I hear you say?

So I understand, to some extent, how pupils with specific reading difficulties feel when faced with page after page of the stuff.  You can see the panic in their eyes each time they turn the page.

I love my work as a teacher and tutor of struggling readers. I love guiding them through the morass: facilitating background knowledge, making it relevant; ‘picturing’ powerful passages as screen shots (with sound effects.  Why not?); finding the poetry in the prose (goes without saying) and all that grows a lifelong love…

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Labours of love……….and a Polished gem [12] Martin Malone

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Five years ago, or thereabouts, I had no real idea that poetry magazines existed….or at the most, the kind of awareness you might have of magazine for computer buffs, or amateur photographers, or rockclimbers, or for people who breed whippets, or walk around the countryside with broken up-and-over shotguns. I certainly had no idea just how many there were, and how important they were in the lives of people who wrote poems, and with whom I gradually became friends.

Gradually, it has been borne in on me, not least via my addiction to Facebook, that for so many poets out there, submitting to, and being accepted by, these journals and magazines is a pretty big deal. I’m embarassed to recall that the first poems of mine to appear in one of these magazines, was in The North. Embarassed, because I didn’t formally submit them. I’d written one of them very fast in response to a Poetry Business workshop task. It was about my first really really serious girlfriend. Somehow, the Blackpool Pleasure beach (where I’ve never been) found its way in there, as did Marlene Dietrich. I love these writing tasks. Peter Sansom asked me if he might consider it for The North, it would be nice if I had one or two others for their consideration. When Big Dipper, and  Achnacloich were printed in The North [48] I was unprepared for the congratulations that I got from my Poetry Business mates and I was surprised that it seemed to be a pretty big deal. I know better now, as the polite ‘thank you for letting us read your poems but this isn’t precisely what were looking for at the moment and please continue to send us your poems for further responses not unlike this one’ letters and emails continue to pile up. What I also know better now is the sheer amount of slog is involved for the hardy, selfless souls who labour away at the business they believe in: the business of providing a platform for poems they think should be heard.

Not long afterwards, I met Martin Malone at a Writing Day. He’d not long taken over the running of the estimable The interpreter’s house. I’d had a recommendation of it from my friend Wendy Klein, who said I should seriously think of sending in poems, and that Martin was an editor who gave serious attention to every submission. Which turned out to be true. Anyway, that day I bought my first poetry magazine, from Martin: The interpreter’s house [54]. I read it right through on the Supertram on my way to pick up my car by Meadowhall. And  I found myself reading all sorts of folk I knew and liked. Carole Bromley, Wendy Klein, Kim Moore (a review!), Wendy Pratt. And others who, one way or another, I’ve come to know via blogs and Facebook: Josephine Corcoran, Hilda Sheehan and David Tait among them. At which point I determined to actually submit to submitting, and sent some off to Martin. Lo and behold, in Issue 56, there were two poems of mine. A heady affair. It filled me with a false confidence. Why, I thought, this is a breeze! Thankfully, I’ve learned better….a sadder and a wiser man. So many Ancient Mariner reminders. On the plus side, I’ve got to become familiar with the processes of several magazines. I like Magma  enormously; I have conceived a particular affection for Brett Evans and for Prole. I will get a poem in Butcher’s Dog if it kills me…I really really like the shape of it, the artwork of the covers. But, at the end of the day The interpreter’s house will always be the first I submitted to.

three covers for the cobweb

I like its totally distinctive covers, of which Martin says, in an interview with Roy Marshall:

The beautiful covers are entirely the work of Jenn Shaw who has a great eye and knows where to look for good artists. It is she who should get the credit for this. We started off with the punchy print graphic approach and after a few issues decided that this would be the overall design aesthetic.

Just like Prole it’s an instantly recognisable brand. You know where you are. You know you’re in safe hands. The other thing I like apart from its consistently high standards and its eclecticism is the way the poets appear alphabetically. Simply because I can quickly find the ones I know. And then I can go back to the beginning (or the end…just to be fair to poets like Martin Zarrop) and read through, steadily, backwards or forwards, accordingly.

And so it is, on a day I did not expect to be writing a cobweb strand, but to be wandering about on Skye, just introducing my guest poet, Martin Malone is a real consolation for missing a holiday. Here he is. He’s actually quite terse when he’s aked to write about himself.

Born in County Durham, Martin Malone now lives in Scotland. He has published two poetry collections: The Waiting Hillside (Templar, 2011) and Cur (Shoestring, 2015). An Honorary Research Fellow in Creative Writing at Aberdeen University, he is currently studying for a Ph.D in poetry at Sheffield University. He edits The Interpreter’s House poetry journal.

Blimey. You could spend a good deal of time speculating about the subtexts and backstories of all this. You could write a book. What he doesn’t say is just how much of himself he puts into all this. I can feel exhausted, charting his progress around the country, setting up launches of each edition of The Interpreter’s house, judging poetry competitions like The Havant, working on a Ph.D, and, praise the lord, writing poetry, putting together collections, getting them published, reading at yet more launches. I’ll put the full details of his two collections at the end, but to whet your appetites, here’s what they look like. And very handsome, too.

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CUR cover Hi-res jpeg (1)

They couldn’t be more different could they? The tender colours of the first. The film noir quality of the second, which puts me in mind of Vernon Scannell’s poem about the cat : there’ll be no place to hide when all sides split / and a big black cat strides out of it. I’m much taken by the way the frame of the cover can’t contain the dog, the way it puts the viewer inside, looking out. It’s not comforting to wonder why we’re looking out from groundlevel. I don’t know whose graphics these are; I’m still waiting for my copy to thud through the letterbox. But it’s an artist who has sensed Martin Malone’s absorption in visual arts (including his huge enthusiasm for the work of Eric Ravillious….which he shares with Robert Macfarlane. Martin was accidentally responsible for sending me out to find out much more about both of them. Thanks.). At which point, I think it’s high time we had some of his poems.

The first one I’ve chosen from those he sent reminds me of his link with Ravillious, quintessentially the artist of the rare and luminous light of the chalk Downs, those images with the transparency of  a fine textured porcelain.

ECLOGUE

Anything from a polecat to a dryad
could be stepping from this wood
into Tuesday light but it is you,
ten years back down the Ridgeway path.
Hitching up those jeans, you reach to take
my hand, palm off doubt, knuckle faith
onto ringless fingers. This isn’t you
– this feral stuff – low impulse being
more my thing but that day you push me
up against a tree as old as Silbury.
We emerge from the thicket-gloom aglow
with escape and getting away with it;
it an as yet indeterminate: some fuzzy
co-ordinate on a half-sketched map.

Today I stick to the downland track
that skirts the spot, though stop to look.
Anything from a polecat to a dryad
could be stepping from the wood
into this light but it was you,
among the things I could not see.

‘Low impulse being more my thing’ ? I’d say this poem that makes me doubt the truth of that. What makes me attend is the way the numinous and magical are rooted in the specific..the precision and layered-ness of ringless fingers, and the brisk textures of knuckle, thicket, stick, skirts in a by a tree place as old as Silbury. Tough and tender at once. Lovely.

The next poem certainly looks different, being one of a series of prose poems, and feels harder, but it has a shared concern for the way the past lives in the present and demands our attention. Or, at least, it’s a poem that demands we attend.

10. School Run

If you’ve a minute, tweet this: the car-struck badger you’ve driven past these last two weeks, pikelhaube snout irate in death, body bloating with fetid air, hind-legs rigid in surrender. Kamerad, emptied of essence, this is the boy from your home village; that snotty kid with a terrier whose Dad liked a drink, the one who pissed himself when Miss Manning caught him with a rat in his desk. Him: always the last to put up his hand, always unlucky in love. His losing streak continued over here and now that’s him rotting away to your left, hung on the brambles of a B-Road: a passing stain in no man’s land, fuel for the coming spring. He’ll walk no more on Cotswold.

(First published in Blackbox Manifold)

I like the way the title wrong-footed me.I like the disingenuous conversational opening. I especially like that last sentence: He’ll walk no more on Cotswold, It has the resonance of an Anglo-Saxon eulogy for a dead hero. I think Steve Ely would recognise the impulse. Read it aloud.

Finally, something that gives you a flavour of the emotional range you can expect from Martin Malone…this one’s apparently a down-to-earth sort of anecdote. Maybe I shoulkd confess that it grabbed me because it made remember Popsie; she was a pitman’s wife, one of the many who worked at the college I went to in Durham in the 60’s. She was a ‘bedder’. Unbelievably, we undergraduates had women who came in each morning and cleaned our nasty rooms and made our beds, and talked to us as though we were their sons. I used to go down to the butcher’s in Durham market place on a Friday and buy minced beef pies for the bedders on our ‘wing’ at Hatfield; in return, they made me tea that turned my teeth to teak and made me explode with sugar-rush. And Popsie would lend me her wrestling magazines..another of those arcane publications, not unlike poetry magazines, in the passions they aroused in their masonic readership. Thanks for reminding me of that, Martin.

Lords of the ring

Now that was a world order Aunt Norah
could understand: fat lads and uncles tucked
into spandex, proving nimble with Saturdays.
While East and West faced off, the big boys
got to grips in some grunting town hall.

Warrenpoint and moonwalks were nothing to her,
so long as Dickie Davies rolled up
with his Mallen streak and kipper tie;
glint in his eye and ‘tache well-groomed.
He can light up any room, that lad, said
she on her knees beside the grate.

Giant Haystacks got her riled when, behind
the referee’s back, he leathered Leon Arras
the Man from Paris, though that was nothing
to her scorn for Harvey Smith or the way
Pat Roach knocked out The Nature Boy.

While ‘77 was The Pistols and Jubilee,
for me it was the sight of Norah
tearing raw meat from the telly as
Big Daddy unmasked Kendo Nagasaki:
Do him Shirley! He’s a nasty bugger!

What she liked was how Les Kellett always
seemed out-on-his-feet but managed to win,
the way Catweazle tickled Mick McManus
into submission and a distant sadness
in the lost blue eyes of Jackie Pallo.

It’s the lost blue eyes of jackie Pallo that turns me back to reconsider what I just read. Makes me think, too, of the world that my friend Keith Hutson is exploring in a sequence of sonnets…the world of music-hall comedians at the end of their careers. Vanishing worlds, if not quite vanished. Maybe there’s a sonnet sequence buried deep in Kent Walton’s world of Saturday afternoon grappling fans.

In his interview for Roy Marshall’s blog, Martinn was aked this question:

I wonder if you’ve found the editorship to be beneficial to your own poetry and if so in what way.
Hm. I’m struggling to think of many tangible benefits to my own writing, if I’m honest. That’s not being grumpy it’s just the way it is. The editorship benefits me indirectly in other ways, I suppose. With over a thousand poems per issue to read, editing benefits your reading whilst stealing time from your writing.
Any advice for would be editors?
Advice for would-be editors would be to not do it. And, if after deciding that, you still do it then you’ve got yourself an editorship. I took on the gig for 5 years – sometimes wish I’d said three – and I think that’s about right at one journal. Otherwise, it becomes too much a part of you, as an individual, and the publication struggles to grow as a result.

So, let’s say thank you, Martin Malone, for not taking the advice that, in hindsight, you’d give to would-be editors, and thank you for sharing your poems. It’s made our Sunday afternoon special. It’s certainly made mine special.

You’ll be wanting to read more of Martin’s work, and you may also want to know what else he told Roy Marshall. So, notebooks out. I’ve told you before. I don’t do handouts.

https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/2015/03/31/interview-with-martin-malone-poet-and-editor/

The waiting hillside [Templar Poetry 2011 ] £8.99

(I should have checked with Martin. When I looked it up it  seems that , via Amazon at least, it’s only available 2nd hand. Boo!)

Cur : [Shoestring Press 2015] £10.00

Right, next week, since I was expecting to have a two week break away from wifi, I shall be posting something shorter and utterly self-indulgent. Now then; that’ll be a first.