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