Just Saying

Scores of writers who never thought they could write discovered they could, thanks to this lovely man

Ian Clayton

IAN-CLAYTON-CASTLEFORD

An old mate of mine once told me ‘I never buy a newspaper because I can read them for nowt when I have my fish and chips’. I said to him, ‘That’s alright, but the news might be seven weeks old by then!’ Undeterred he just winked and said, ‘Aye! and I’m seven weeks older by then as well.’ I then asked him if he ever bought the local newspaper. He said, ‘Oh! aye, I buy that, because that’s ours!’

Last Thursday I wrote my penultimate column for the Pontefract and Castleford Express. There was a paragraph in that piece which I hoped would let people know that I wouldn’t be writing for that paper anymore. To their credit the paper published my article, but they did edit it in such a way that people might have thought I myself had decided to leave the paper. I hadn’t decided…

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Events

Launch of Steve Ely’s collection Werewolf (see ‘Authors’ for details) will take place at The Tap and Barrel, Front Street, Pontefract, WF8 1AN on Thursday 7th April. 7.15 (ish) st…

Source: Events

My Express Column

My Express Column

Let’s all applaud Ian for telling as it is, in the way he always has. And let’s reflect on a culture that pays obscene bonuses to bankers for making a disastrous mess that costs all of us, and thinks that writing isn’t work, or if it is, it’s not worth paying for.

Ian Clayton

IanC-PontefractFlyover

In the autumn of 2010, I was approached by the then editor of the Pontefract and Castleford Express, a lady called Rebecca Whittington, and asked if I might care to contribute a weekly column to the newspaper. We sat at my kitchen table and I asked, ‘What should it be about?’ Rebecca told me that I could write about local culture, but put an Ian Clayton twist on to it. I liked the idea, I have long been a supporter of the local press and advocate on its behalf at every opportunity.

We drank a second cup of tea and then Rebecca said, ‘We can’t pay you, but feel free to advertise any of your projects or books in your piece.’ I felt a bit deflated by this and so said, ‘If you think I’m worth having, you should pay me and you’ll get a good professional job, because…

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lights and bushels: another Polished Gem..Mike Di Placido

mikes books

I promised you last week that we’d be having a guest, and also that I wouldn’t keep you waiting with a lengthy lot of musings about whatever had distracted me during the week. On the other hand, I did say I’d explain the business of an important Rugby League game. If you’re not passionate about big lads knocking lumps off each other on cold hilltops in West Yorkshire, then you can skip the next bit.

Last Sunday, I not only had the huge pleasure of telling you about Vicky Gatehouse and her poetry but also the infinite pleasure of watching Batley Bulldogs snatch a last-second draw against much-fancied full-time professionals, Bradford Bulls. You really had to be there. This is what made me extraordinarily happy.keegan hirst

Right. Enough of that. Because what you came for was poetry, and poetry you shall have. If you read Kim Moore’s blog posts in The Sunday Poem on a regular basis, you’ll have come across our guest, Mike Di Placido before (September 2013), as you will if you go to Poetry readings at places like The Albert in Huddersield. You’ll probably know him if you’re from North Yorkshire. But the chances are you’ve not come across him despite his being published by Smiths/Doorstop. As far as I’m concerned that’s like a lot of Michelin stars; it means Ann and Peter Sampson say he’s good, and that’s good enough for me.

I first heard him before I heard of him…at the Albert, one of four poets that included Kim Moore. And, like Kim, I was a fan straight off. He’s got a stand-up comedian’s dry delivery and sense of timing. He knows how to deliver a line. Low-key and quick on his feet. There are poets who do a lot of self-publicising. Mike Di Placido isn’t one of them..all light under bushel and low profile. So, if he won’t blow his own trumpet, I’ll blow one for him.

Time for introductions: Mike lives with his wife and two daughters in the village of Seamer, near Scarborough, North Yorkshire. He is an ex-professional footballer and England Youth International – although that time seems to be, increasingly, like some previous incarnation.
His debut pamphlet, Theatre of Dreams (Smith/Doorstop: 2009), takes its title from his magical trial with Manchester United in the early seventies. His time there is warmly recorded in snapshots of Messrs. Busby, Stiles, Law and, not least, his fourth person of The Trinity, George Best.
After peddling his soccer wares from York City to Australia and New Zealand in the mid-seventies, Mike returned to study, eventually taking an MA in Poetry at Huddersfield University, in 2000, while working as a househusband
His second collection, A Sixty Watt Las Vegas (Valley Press 2013), features poems in celebration of his home town of Scarborough, North Yorkshire. He is currently working on a Poem/film about the town’s literary, cultural and historical legacy.
Mike’s poetry has appeared in magazines such as Pennine Platform, The Rialto and his spiritual home The North; and also in Poetry Anthologies by Templar Poetry, Poetrypf and Valley Press. His poems have been shortlisted four times in The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition and once for The Bridport Prize (2012). He has appeared at numerous literary festivals including those of Manchester, Wakefield, Bridlington and Scarborough. His poems have been translated into Romanian and German, and have also been broadcast on both British and European radio.
He is currently working on a new poetry collection, a celebration – in his own poetry and prose – of the work of Ted Hughes, and on a verse drama, based upon the malevolent dragon of Old Norse and Germanic myth and literature, entitled: Delivering the Dragon Stone. AND he is also involved at the moment with a theatrical touring outfit, called Live
Canon (www.livecanon.co.uk), who have invited him to respond, with a poem, to a
Shakespeare sonnet, which will be included in a forthcoming anthology as part of
this years 400 year commemoration of the bard’s death. There is publicity about
it on their website. AND he had two poems on a CD they produced, in 2012, celebrating
Scarborough, entitled, succinctly enough, ‘Scarborough in Verse.’
He also still harbours a lifelong ambition to be a Frank Sinatra impersonator on a cruise ship. (I can also vouch for the fact that he is a mean pool-player; one of those things you can learn on a Poetry Business residential)

Three things to pick out. How many ex-international footballers do you know who write poetry? How many poets do you know who’ve been shortlisted four times in the PB Pamphlet Competition? How many poets do you know who are not only working on a new collection, but actually know what the title is? I reckon that should have whet your appetites. Time for poems.

One extract to start us off, from a poem about an encounter with Simon Armitage.

Meeting Simon
(The Oak rooms, Byram Arcade, Huddersfield; 13th June 2008)

We were getting on famously ….

Then he was gone, Time to melt into
the Huddersfield air, he said, poetically,
leaving me wondering if he ever took a night off
and if I’d upset him somehow? Pictured him
padding up the darkening lane to Station Street,
nervously checking over his shoulder
as he made his way back to his golden life.

It was that last phrase ‘his golden life’ that stuck in my mind when I heard him read it, deadpan. Self-deprecation edged with irony. It made us laugh. But there’s a lot more to his work that that. Like poems about animals.

Heron

You wouldn’t be surprised if you heard
the clanking of metal when he took off.

Perhaps you’ve wandered into Jurassic Park?
Ridiculous, this gangling oddball.

But not that skewer of a beak
you imagine a fish seeing

through the shattering glass,
the whirl of water.

 

I love the way this nails the strange ungainlines of the heron as it takes off and lands, like a broken kite…and then the unwavering stiletto concentration of the bird, motionless in a stream, and hunting; I love that switch of perspective that makes the heron not funny at all. Mike does a similar thing with the hare in a stubble-field

 

Hare

Alone
in a fallow field
as though he can’t be seen.
(And you amazed, again,
at just how big they are.)

Not the brightest of course:
like jay-walking pheasants
or partridges, losing it,
just when the gun’s being cocked.

But you really like him. Just know
he’d be a riot if he could talk –
how well you’d get on.
And those semaphore ears!

Now he’s off again:
going like the clappers
over the furrows, doing that
buckled
bicycle wheel number

as though
just for the hell of it. As though,
even through
those clenched gnashers,

he just can’t keep it all in.

 

I think what I really like about this is the quality of observation and the way that apparently conversational, idiomatic language makes you see that hare doing that
buckled bicycle wheel number, the sense of barely contained energy….and the ears!

Two more poems, now, this time from the human menagerie. A lot of Mike’s poems are drily streetwise, and these are two of my favourites.

 

Not Quite Birdsong

A butcher where I worked once
was a whistler – you know the type:
aggressive, soulless. I’d stand around
being useless somewhere planning his death.

Days at his block and bacon slicer
rending the air, making his shrill statement.
Clocking on to clocking off –
Colonel Bogey or The Sheik of Araby.

And you could tell he worked at it –
thought he was good. I’d think
of his family, how they coped.
Thought about sympathy cards.

And the other butchers? Surely
he was pushing his luck
next to all those knives and meat-hooks.
Not forgetting, of course, the mincer.

 

What I like here, apart from being reminded that I no longer have to work alongside men like the butcher, in warehouses, or on conveyors, is that shift of attention or perspective that lifts the poem from being an entertaining anecdote. I’d think of his family, how they coped.  It’s that sudden imagining that this insistent whistler has a life beyond work and that while the poet can go home, the butcher’s family are already there. Work and pleasure…the next poem makes me wonder about the wisdom of a certain kind of family day out.

flamingoland

Flamingo Land

Cracking some gag about tomato juice
outside ‘Drac’s Diner’, I’m Harry Houdini
escaping from the family rucksack. Shouting
“I’ll catch you up by the Zebras!” I collapse

on a bench. A woman’s yelling “Ro-ry!”
as grown-ups go skipping by with their kids
till superego’s wagging finger
puts them sharply back in step.

A wrist-slashing jingle repeats itself so that
I see the attendant losing it,
ramming the throttle on full pelt and running
screaming into the Lion pit.

Those cockatoos seem happy enough,
and a red-arsed monkey’s
attempting to brain another with a stick
while a third looks on masturbating.

All things considered, it’s quite heroic really,
families making a stab at it under
an August thunderscape—though Rory’s
mother’s at it again (what could he be up to?).

Then at ‘Thunder Mountain’, I pass a man dressed
as a pterodactyl, and a strapping young lass
in t-shirt and shorts with an ad across her chest
which I try not to read.

 

I guess we have to overlook the poet’s escape from responsibility, and try to forget who’s left looking after the shop. I’ll forgive him (well, I’m a bloke…what do you expect) but just for that one conceit.

I’m Harry Houdini
escaping from the family rucksack

It’s the image of stout canvas, of straps and buckles that does it, and the insouciance of a Houdini, pulling off another trick. Sleight of hand and misdirection, and there we are, sitting on a bench, watching the stressed-out world go by, or trying to ignore that  strapping young lass.

 

So there we are. Thank you Mike Di Placido for being our guest and sharing your poems…the last four are all from Theatre of Dreams. Queue nicely, buy your copies, and he’ll sign them, and possibly tell you a joke.

Next week I’ll be revisiting the business of  Residential Writing Courses, and still telling you why they are A Good Thing. Should you feel tempted to take the family to Flamingo Land this Easter, read the poem, and think again.

 

Theatre of Dreams : [Smith /Doorstop 2009] £5.00

A 60 watt Las vegas : [Valley Press 2013] £7.99/ Kindle edition £2.99

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Undercover poets and an (un)discovered gem: Vicky Gatehouse

duplicates

First of all, an apology…I’ve lost count of the polished and (un)polished gems who I’ve had the pleasure of sharing with you all. Or I mixed up the numbers. But anyway; from now on they’re (un) numbered. Forgive me.

And I realise that I want to tie up some loose ends. It may not look like it, but there is a degree of planning goes into these posts. It’s just that I often to forget to check my notes, or I get distracted and follow threads that were quite unplanned and unanticipated. So I’m going to tie up the loose threads of a post I wrote a few weeks back…..Poems made by hand (Feb 7).
I was musing on what you get out of copying poems by hand; when I first decided it was worth the musing, I had in mind something that started by accident, and then became the foundation of so much of my teaching. I suppose it starts with my telling children that they were to write a poem, and the children who would ask, innocently or otherwise: Please, Mr. F.what’s a poem? It came at a time when I was struggling to motivate and enthuse them, and it came out of a tradition of English teaching that assumed that it was enough to set tasks, supervise them, and then mark them. Stimulus/response English teaching. Read a passage from Kes, and then ask the class to write about the time when their drunken brother strangled their hawk. That sort of excuse for teaching.

I got fed up of 15 year olds telling me English was boring, and poetry was boring and I was boring and hawk-strangling was boring. So I asked them what their favourite subjects were. The ones that weren’t boring. Top of the list, easily, came Home Ec (cooking and fabrics) and CDT (as it used to be called). So I sorted out times when I could go and see these children doing what wasn’t boring. I waited outside a CDT room with my 15year olds; Wilf, the technician, opened the door, they trooped in, got their aprons, got their work in progress, and started work. No one told them what to do. They cracked on with making coffee tables and magazine racks and so on. Every now and again someone would get stuck, and ask a teacher or Wilf how to solve the problem. And in that instant, I knew what I wanted. I wanted English lesson to be like that, to break out of the endless round of stimulus and response, of nothing happening until a teacher said what should happen.

woodwork

Now here’s the thing. What made it work (and I can hear all you teachers out there telling me that mine was a golden age, and it won’t work now, and they’re probably right) I reasoned, was that they knew what they were doing. There was a product they could visualise and see the point of. It didn’t matter that they didn’t need a table, or an appliqued apron, or a pie. The point is that they knew what these things were and what they were for. A poem? What’s that? I didn’t know and I couldn’t tell them. So what was there in ‘English’ that they could visualise, that they could see as a product? Simple. Newspapers. Radio programmes. Books. Artefacts. Things they could make. It turned out that they’d happily make poetry anthologies, and if that involved copying out poems and writing their own, and even writing about them, then that was fine.So that’s what we did. We became self-publishers.

So if you’re wondering what those odd images are at the top of the page, that’s how we published our stuff, before PCs and photocopiers were a dream on the horizon. Banda spirit duplicators. Gestetner dulicators. Pigment coated sheets that you could write on with a stylus. Wax coated sheets that you could put in a typewriter. Headily toxic solvents, and greasy inks that wouldn’t come off your hands or clothes once it was on. Bill Bryson gets rhapsodic/lyrical remembering the scent of spirit-duplicated worksheets. I bought machines from second-hand office suppliers so we could have them in the classroom. I would happily rationalise the whole business for the benefit of visiting HMI (and the Head), by quoting Harold Rosen’s article in the LATE magazine: ‘Giving kids the means of production’. I was powerfully influenced, too,in the 1970s,by the example of Stepney Words, the way Hackney Downs School published its pupils’ work, and especially by Ken Worpole one of the founders of the  Federation of Women Writers and Community Publishers, and of Centreprise…the publisher of stuff like Stepney Words, and A people’s history of Hackney.  Goodness knows where I’d be now in a world of Academies, Free Schools, SATs and Ofsted. Out of work, I imagine.

Still, back to the point: my pupils/students/kids would work absurdly hard at their writing once they knew it would be in a book..handwritten, duplicated, whatever. Something they could hold in their hands. Words that didn’t go to die in an exercise book. I understand that…I still have work that some of them did, 30+ years ago; I like the physical business of turning pages, of reading the text and the illustrations.bookbinding 005

It’s why, when one of my favourite poets asked me to give some feedback on the draft of a collection I actually made the print-off into a book, so I could get the idea of a book  in my mind, and see how it read as a book.

bookbinding 003

 

Now, some of those children would have written, no matter what.  I know that that some others discovered in the process that they got some pleasure from writing, from the discoveries of writing, of finding that could actually write. But I suspect that, for a goodly proportion of them, writing was what you did to get a book (or equivalent artefact). I think about this whenever I encounter a writer who either asks me if I have a collection, or why I haven’t got one. I’m never sure what the subtext of this actually is. I think and worry about it when I meet writers who tell me,and indeed the social media virtual world, that they so much want to have a collection, that they can’t wait to have a collection, that they want to know how to get a collection. I wonder why they are writing. I know why they want to have a book. It’s how I ambushed 15 year olds into doing something they’d told me was boring. Maybe they want to be famous. Who knows.

But by indirect and serpenting ways, like Milton’s Lucifer, this brings me to the purpose of this sunny Sunday’s post. When I started the cobweb I wanted, among other things, to publicise the writing of poets who fly under the radar…the ones without a ‘book’. I quickly learned that most of them were not ‘undiscovered’ at all. They just weren’t self-publicicising. They had been published in respectable and reputable magazines. They had won prizes. They just didn’t go on about it. They didn’t have a collection. They didn’t particularly do open mics, or get guest reader slots. But they couldn’t half write. At least as well, and often, I thought, a good deal better, than some published poets. And such a one is today’s guest, Vicky Gatehouse who I keep meeting at the Poetry business, or, by accident, at open mic.s and readings, and who I finally heard reading her own poetry a few months ago. I knew straight off that I wanted her as guest, when she read poems like this one:

THE MOTH

This is her time –
birds dark-stitching telegraph wires,

the woods blue-shadowed,
crackling with dusk.

The moon untethers her,
she pitches from fence to wall

to leaf, would hurl herself
for miles, such is her faith

and you think of how she gorged
on hawthorn and thyme, spun

herself a mantle, hung tight
inside the blackout

of her own skin
before the breakdown, the forcing

of all that remained
through the veins of her wings,

this lit-bulb junkie,
wrecking herself on your porch light.

[Published  in Ink, Sweat and Tears, 2015]

 

I really get a buzz from the controlled energy of this…….and the way images imprint themselves. how she gorged / on hawthorn and thyme. ‘Gorged’ is absolutely spot on and surprising. And  the blackout of her own skin is rich and layered. Blackout curtains, fustian and dusty; blackout unconsciousness…a binge-drinker’s blackout that springs the trap for the ambush of this light-bulb junkie. You can read and re-read this and it keeps on giving. What’s more, for such a densely-imaged poem, it reads aloud beautifully. Listen to the push of its rhythm, the way line breaks make perfect sense. You see what I mean about being better than some published poetry you come across. Poems in a proper book.

Anyway, time for Vicky to introduce herself.

I was born in Leeds, have a first degree in Biochemistry and an MA from MMU in Poetry. Poems have been published in a number of mags including The North, Magma, The Rialto, Poetry News, Mslexia, Prole, Interpreters House,  and online via Ink Sweat and Tears, Poetry Space and Carol Bromley’s Yorkmix blog! I have poems in anthologies including Not only the Dark (WordAid), Fanfare and Her Wings of Glass (Second Light), The Emma Press Anthology of Mildly Erotic Verse, and Chronicles of Eve (forthcoming from Paper Swans).

Competition successes include the Elmet Yorkshire Prize (2010),Ilkley (winner 2011), , Poetry Society Members’ Poems (one of the 2015 winners) Mslexia runner up 2014 and 2015)Prole Laureate , Interpreter’s House, Poetry Space, Portico Prize, and Wordpool

I’ve done a few readings in my time including Shindig, and Word Play (Square Chapel, Halifax) and am down to read at the Bradford Literature Festival.

The North. Magma. The Rialto. There you go. When I read this I felt exactly as I did when I read Liz Venn’s poetry biography. (Two cultures: Posted August 1914)Another scientist with an MMU MA in Poetry, and a track-record of publishing success and recognition, under the radar, undercover, and without a collection. Maybe someone will read this, and put it rights. But time for more poems. The next one I found fascinating, because it asks the question: what’s a prosepoem? I’m not saying that that’s the intention, but something that arises out of the shape on the page. And then again, it’s almost blank verse, and it’s a sort of free verse, except that it’s tight and disciplined. And the line breaks matter. And it’s all one sentence…which I can never resist for reasons I’ve never articulated.

BURNING MOUTH SYNDROME

The doctor says it’s nothing serious, something
she’ll just have to live with, a malfunction
of the nerves perhaps, not uncommon in women of her age
and she leaves with a script for a mild antidepressant,
a leaflet counselling moderation in alcohol, tobacco
and spicy foods and when she returns, he says it again
after taking a look at lips, teeth and tongue –
‘nothing to see’ and he says it with a smile when she can feel
the bees humming in her blood, the tips of their wings
chafing artery walls and she knows without being told
they’re house bees, the ones who feed, clean
and ventilate the hive, pack nectar into the comb
without really tasting it, the ones who wait for mid-life
to take their first orientation flights and she can really
feel the smart of them, the bees in her blood, unfurling
their proboscises to touch the corolla of her heart,
so many years spent licking out hives, all the burn of it
here on her tongue and they’re starting to forage now,
to suck sweetness into their honey stomachs, and the doctor
he’ll keep telling her it’s nothing when they’re rising
like stings, the words she’s kept in.
Runner-up, Mslexia Poetry Comp, 2015 (published Mslexia 2015)

 

I like the way the doctor’s voice is distinctly not the voice of the writer, and the way the most well-meaning doctor falls far short of articulating what the problem is, even as they ask, phatically, ‘What seems to be the problem?’ It’s left to the poet to explain that the only way of explaining is metaphor. The bees build up their own power and energy, these                                                bees in her blood,unfurling
their proboscises to touch the corolla of her heart,
so many years spent licking out hives, all the burn of it
here on her tongue and they’re starting to forage now

There’s that exactness again: ‘forage’. The last line is a clincher, a stunner, where the conceit of the bees and mutual incomprehension and the purposes of words all come together. Lovely. As is this very different poem which was  chosen to be broadcast over the tannoy at Covent Garden Tube Station on National Poetry Day, 2015

POWER CUT

You strike the first match –
the room lurches
from black to indistinct

before colour reasserts itself
in ambers and golds.

Walls and ceilings shift and dip,
all down the street
windows flickering,

half the valley out by the look of it
and your face, as you reach

for the corkscrew, is like it was
before the lines crept in
all the rough edges blurring –

we’re adrift, you and I
in aureoles of light, and then

the splutter and fizz
of overhead strips, the glare
of electricals back on again

your fingers sliding from mine
to nip out all the little flames.
Poetry Society ‘Poem of the Month’ Oct 2015
First published in Poetry News

http://poetrysociety.org.uk/membership/members-poems-2/

What I like is the way the diction can shift from one mode into another, the easy idiom of half the valley out by the look of it living productively side-by-side with aureoles and the way his/her fingers  nip out all the little flames. ‘Nip’. She nails the moment and the image with those artfully chosen verbs.  Just one more, which I chose for the chutzpah of taking on Carol Ann Duffy on her chosen ground. I’ll not say anything else about it.

LITTLE RED

So much has been said of me,
the girl in the red velvet cap
with her basket of cake and wine –
so sweet, so kind.

You think I wanted
that do-gooder woodcutter
to snip open the wolf?

It was dark in there,
so magnificently dark,
all the better to hear
the surge of his heart
through artery and valve

and I would have stayed,
would have raged through his blood
like a blizzard, clawed my fingers
into the pads of his paws,

his pelt, a hand-me-down coat,
his mouth, my mouth, dripping
from the last kill,
not knowing when or how

to stop, only knowing
to stay on this path, collecting stones,
would be the worst kind of death.

[Published in Prole, 2015]

So, there we are. Thank you, my undercover poet  for this mistily sunny March day.  Vicky Gatehouse, thanks for coming. Thanks for your uncollected poems.

Before I head off to watch the match of the century (if we win I’ll tell you about it next week; if not, the rest will be silence) I’ll just say that if you still hanker after having a collection. you can always print your own. I do. Just to see what my poems look like altogether in a book. If you need further guidance, on Josephine Corcoran’s exemplary blog, there’s a great link  to a great book. Here it is

https://josephinecorcoran.wordpress.com/2016/03/13/a-self-help-book-for-poets/

and in the way of the internet it will introduce you to Helena of Happenstance who wrote it…via this link

How (Not) to Get your Poetry Published by Helena Nelson, HappenStance Press, 2016.

Right. That’s me for today. Next week we’ll be having another undercover(ish) poet. But without the long rambling bit at the beginning.

 

 

Identity theft and artful pronouns

identity theftPG

This all kicked off from a week’s writing residential in St Ives with Kim Moore and Steve Ely. The course was called ‘Thrown voices’; it had sessions with titles like  Shape-shifters and ventriloquists,  Deviant voices and the dramatic monologue,  and Holding your tongue. It set rabbits racing off in all directions; it set off a series of small explosions in my head. I’m still trying to take it in, and I doubt this post will be too coherent, but it may help me  to sort out some ideas, and possibly persuade you that identity theft could be for you. It’s not a new idea, by any means. It’s self-evidently the job of the dramatist. I remember one of my sixth-form students asking George Macbeth why he wrote dramatic monologues.

‘Because I can only imagine one person and invent one voice at a time,’ he said. ‘If I could do more than that I’d write plays.’

It’s also what Keats and T S Eliot found so crucial..the business of im-personality, Keats’ assertion that

The ‘poetical Character’ is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in an Iago as an Imogen .What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet. 

(I just realised that this is what happens when I start to write a post before I’ve got my ducks in a row…I grab for quotations in the hope they’ll give me a hook to hang my hat on. Well, here goes nothing…a bit more Keats…) What we’re after is getting beyond the purely personal, out of the self, into the thinginess of things:

Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason –
or, less metaphysically

if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.

It’s this belief that if you want to know the truth, especially the truth about yourself, you need to get out of yourself. I suppose that takes us into the company of those artful pronouns. I. You. And that problematically gendered business of He and She (no problems with the plural. Always handy in an essay). but because I’ve not been right well this last week, and I’m clouded with antibiotics, I’ll leave that till a bit later, and try to find a new place to kick off from.

A month or so ago, I scribbled some notes that I thought would structure this post. I reminded myself that I’d written more than once about how, in order to to find a way of writing about people, I needed to borrow masks and identities. Like those of the sculptures who inhabit my new pamphlet, ‘Outlaws and fallen angels’. I reminded myself of all the writers who showed me different ways of doing this.

Especially, I remembered Carol Ann Duffy’ The World’s Wife. The more I read it I saw how taking on a mask, a new persona, she could throw a clarifying light on her own inner life and her past. I love the way Little Red-Cap lets her side step autobiography into something truer and more universal that I can share, and the way The Kray Sisters let her play with the ambiguous and puzzling business of gender. Because what happens when you try on someone else’s life is that you suddenly recognise and acknowledge things you’ve denied (though you may have suspected) about your own.

Let me give you an example. I was playing at retellings of various myths. I’d always been enthralled by the tale of Daedalus and Icarus, but I’m not sure that I’d really thought it through. On the surface it seems to be a familiar trope..that of the over-confidence of youth. You forget why Daedalus would craft wings from a framework of wax and feathers in the first place. In case you don’t know, Daedalus and Icarus are imprisoned in a high tower because Daedalus was complicit in enabling Theseus to find a way through the labyrinth. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, suggests that Daedalus constructed the Labyrinth so cunningly that he himself could barely escape it after he built it. Daedalus built the labyrinth for King Minos, who needed it to imprison his wife’s son the Minotaur. The story is told that Poseidon had given a white bull to Minos so that he might use it as a sacrifice. Instead, Minos kept it for himself; and in revenge, Poseidon made his wife Pasiphaë lust for the bull with the help of Aphrodite. For Pasiphaë, as Greek mythologers interpreted it, Daedalus also built a wooden cow so she could mate with the bull. It’s a long trail of causes and effects that brings me to this point in my own poem:

pinioned in a parchment sky,
his mind a kite-string ravel,
he stares at distressing
white comets’ tails of feathers,
down at his dwindling son.

It’s a poem that brings me face to face with the business of guilt and responsiblity. One of my sons died like Icarus, in a fall from a great height. It was only by borrowing the mask of Daedalus that I came to be able to write my way to some understanding, and to share it. And I think the key word there is : Share. Some writers like Kim Moore, Wendy Pratt and Fiona Benson ….poets I’ve written about before……seem able to do this without recourse to maskwearing. I don’t have their control, their steel. The point is, shape shifting and identity theft are ways for me to write about rawly personal experiences. But they don’t always have to be so bleak, and this is what I rediscovered in St Ives. It’s great to be invited to play a role.

While I was thinking about this post, I made a list of the characters I’ve played, or would like to play. In one way or another,  they are my heroes.

There are the ones who are unjustly treated by history, by custom and by the gods: Eve, Pandora, Prometheus, Demeter, Hephaestus, Echo, Arachne, Joan of Arc. So many.

Then there are the ones who who endure, by their wit, or trickery, or, most of all, their capacity for love. Anthony Wilson has his life-saving poems. I have my life-saving heroes: Huck Finn, Riddley Walker, Little Dorritt, Esther Summerson, Quoyle of ‘The Shipping News’, Ivan Denisovitch, Winnie Verloc, Smike. I’m interested by how many of these I know through their own first-person voices.

And of course, there are the subversive and transgressive: MacMurphy, Mr Toad, Just William, Falstaff.

But what about the wicked and the downright diabolical? Mephistophilis, Lucifer, ‘King Lear’s Edmund, Richard the Third…the ones with the gleefully self-revelatory soliloquies. Or the as-yet-unvoiced. Myra Hindley, say, or Mary Bell or Harold Shipman. It’s interesting that dramatists like Marlowe and Shakepeare, and poets like Milton and Browning seem to enjoy inhabiting a villain, the ones who love the smell of napalm in the morning, ‘the blue-eyed bad boys on the bus’ in Lydia Macpherson’s splendid phrase. What do you find when you dress up as these? It’s what we were invited to do in St Ives. And why did I love it so much?

I’ll dodge that question, apart from noting that having had a lurching gait for the 65 years until I had hip replacements, I find it very easy to slip into the role of Richard the Third, and am much less uncomfortable with being him, temporarily, than with being Daedalus confronted by the consequences of his own cleverness…..or the lapse of his imaginative reach.

It suddenly occurs to me ask what would have happened if Wordsworth had taken the trouble to write about Michael or The Leech-gatherer in the first person, and what he might have discovered about the men of the hard fells. And about his own assumptions. I’d like to know how Michael felt about the ceaseless round of toil, in a house where not even the kettle gets a rest, or just how close to being a noble savage the leech gatherer felt, up to his oxters in the mud of a cold tarn. It makes me speculate about two things. One is the way shapeshifting might make you challenge what you thought you knew about yourself in the world, and the other is to make you ask why you would want to try on this identity or that.

And here’s another thought. I re-read Steve Ely’s Oswald’s book of hours when I came back from St Ives, where I tried out some of his Old Testament characters. Who does he try on: John Nevison the Highwayman (and his Confessions); Wat Tyler; Johon Schepe; Robin Hood (our Robin Hood of Barnsdale and of the West Riding); Thomas Haukes at the day of his burning at the hands of Queen Mary’s men.Outlaws every one. Sometimes in the first person. Sometimes in the second. Never, I think, in the third. Go on. Buy the book and read them; ask: who is this Steve Ely who spends his days in the company of those beyond the law and beyond the Pale? If you haven’t the time for that (though if you’re reading this, you probably have) then have a go at Robin Robertson’s At Clachan Bridge and At Roane head from The wrecking light and ask yourself ‘who’s the ‘I’?  Who’s the ‘he’ ?

Get out your copy of The art of falling and ask yourself, when Kim Moore wrote How the stones fell who did she mean by ‘we’? Who did she feel herself in sympathy with, or complicit with? What is her kinship with the other or the others in this ‘we’, and why does it matter to her?

I’ll tell you what. I had no idea I’d end up here, but it brings us nicely to that business of artful, or artless pronouns. Because even if you take on or borrow an identity you’ll still need to choose whether you’ll write in the first or the second person. I find I quite like using ‘you’ when I really mean ‘me’ or ‘I’….the business of treating myself as someone I’ve just come across and might treat dispassionately. Or feel as though I do. It’s a shifting of responsibility, too, now I think about it. Or maybe a cheat and self-deception, especially when I’m feeling uncomfortable about the confessional nature of ‘I’. Or its self-importance.

I do know that of late I’ve been writing two versions of poems that seem to come a bit too close for comfort. One about one of my unjustly treated mythic characters, for instance. In the first person it sounded/felt sentimental and self-pitying. In the second person some of my readers said they were puzzled about who was addressing this ‘you’. One said ‘why don’t you use both? Make it into a dialogue’. I did, and it worked. I think. Once it’s been rejected by the competition it’s in for I’ll post it, and you can make up your own minds. But in the meantime, here’s a game you can play.

One of the characters I tried on in St Ives was Myra Hindley. I felt so bad about this I felt I should try on Keith Bennett’s mother, Winnie, by way of expiation. But I’m toying with the business of pronouns.  I’ve no intention of sending Myra Hindley off to magazines, so we can play around with her here. I wrote her in the first person. What happens if this gets changed into the second person? Have a go. Copy and paste it, turn it into second person. Tell me what difference it makes. Make sure you read it aloud.

Myra
They look at me and I know
what they think.
They think that I know
where the dead are buried.
And I tell you what
I dream
I dream of cottongrass
its million white heads
its tender flowers
streaming white
like the blood of Jesus
like the love and mercy of Jesus
white as forgiveness
in the wind from the west
and there are no bodies
if there ever were
bones sunk in the peat
the weeping black dams
they are gone in the whin
in the bracken
ground exceeding small
between millstones
and they think I know
where the bodies are buried
and I know I can look in this mirror of steel
and I do not know for a second
the woman who stares back at me

 

Right. I’m off to take the next dose of antibiotics. And then I’m off to Otley for an Open Mic. competition. This afternoon, Matthew, I shall mainly be  Richard the Third, of whom the good citzens of York wrote in the city records after Bosworth: Today was our good king Richard mostly grievously murdered and slain

Next week we’ll be having a guest, and the week after, too. So no more homework for a bit.

Just the one I set today.