I’m awash with poems and poets and poetry. Saturday and today : Poetry at the Parsonage. A two day poetry festival in Haworth; two stages, and more poets than you could shake a stick at. I’ve never been to a poetry festival before, let alone being asked to read at one. It reminded me of all the small folk festivals I’ve been to, with much less instruments and infinitely less alcohol. In fact , not like a folk festival at all, except in one important way. This is an entirely personal thing. In both cases there’s usually too much choice, a bit like when you’re just finishing your meal at an Indian restaurant and see someone on another table about to tuck into something that, quite unreasonably, seems more inviting than what you’ve just had.
To be honest, I’m exactly the same about art exhibitions. I can only hold so much in my mind before it starts to turn into visual noise. I guess the ultimate expression of this is the RA Summer Exhibition.
It’s the way one image will push away another, or jostle for attention, when what every image deserves is space and time. A surrounding quietness. The same goes for poems, with me. I’m too easily distracted by people wandering in and out of a performance space, or by the worry that something’s overrunning, and I’ll miss something else.
So today I had to miss readings by Clare Shaw, and by Anthony Costello, and Steve Pottinger, and…..so on and so on.Now, before this sounds miserablist, let me get something straight.In the time I was there, yesterday and today, I got to read with Patrick Lodge. I partnered him on Helen Mort’s lovely ‘Leads to Leeds’ project, writing poems in response to his without ever having met him or talked to him. All by email until we actual met yesterday. Briefly, but we met. So thanks for the project, Helen Mort which brought 10 pairs of poets onto the stage inside just over an hour. More than 30 poems about Leeds, in one way or another! (by the way, if you haven’t come across the project, give yourself a treat and follow this link http://leadstoleeds.com/ )
I got to hear Alison Lock, whose textured work I like a lot; there was Wendy Pratt, and Carole Bromley. There was Gaia Holmes whose poems can move from exuberant near-fantasy, to lines that can break your heart. I’m looking forward to having some of her new ‘Orkney poems’ sequence on the cobweb before too long. I got to see three great comperes at work. Three different styles, but all able to juggle plates and keep smiling, and know everything about the performers with apparent ease and aplomb. Thank you, Geveieve Walsh, Winston Plowes and Mark Connors. In fact thanks to everyone who assembled and stocked this cornucopia of talents. It’s none of your fault that I can’t take it all in.
Tomorrow I’ll be running the open mic. at The Puzzle Poets Live at the Blind Pig, in Sowerby Bridge. Our guest will be Greg Freeman, who will take time out from publicicising poetry via the estimable ‘Write out Loud’ to actually performing. And I’m really looking forward to that. And Tuesday will be the launch of Bob Horne’s first pamphlet [thanks to Simon Zonenblick’s Caterpillar Poetry] following the launch of four pamphlets by other people this year via Bob’s own Calder Valley Publishing venture.
I’ll be supporting him, along with Gaia Holmes and Vicky Gatehouse, whose work you’ve been able to read on the cobweb already. Anyway, it would be lovely to see you. Brighouse Library, 7.30pm. Tuesday July 5th. Poetry four days in a row. I know this is normality for some of my friends. Where do they get the stamina? I envy them. But right now, I’m putting up my feet and handing over to my revisited gem, Yvie Holder, who was one of my very first guests, in June 2014.
I wrote then about the business of reunions and friendship, about how I came to know Yvie, and she let me have a couple of her poems. This was one of them.
I liked the quirky, unnerving invention of ‘Cracked’ which reminds me of the way Guillermo del Toro scares me in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’.
Don’t step on the cracks. You might
slip. Lie flat across pavements,
peer in, one-eyed: you’ll see us,
broken, like crumbs, packed into
an ill-fitting darkness, lost,
straining up to the greylight.
Some of us once spanned the sky
between the dawn and dusk, lolled
in the space between telegraph
wires, between words; wove love-talk
around hushed voices, formed air
between leaves and breezes;
we dappled green through branches,
we rode the blue among stars.
Fault lines opened, or, we slipped.
How to return to you up there,
you, the sure-footed who
never need to lok down? Will
we stay forever between
cracks, trying to recall
the idea of firm ground
and how broad the daylight is?
So, what’s she been up to? Over to Yvie.She’s even given it a title. I call that service.
Getting back to ourselves in time
This slightly-later-than-planned contribution to Fogs’ series of blogs on ‘gems revisited’ had to give way to the flowers I grew for a friend’s daughter’s late-May wedding. Plants remind me of teenagers, at times. ‘You know that wedding you wanted us to be ready for? We slept late. Is it still on? Oh, it was two weeks ago? So we’re not going in a bouquet then?’ Poems, similarly: ‘You know that deadline you were trying to meet, for that comp? Well, I’m ready now. Oh. That was last month?’
Writing has taken hold in the past few years, often squeezed in around life’s dramas, and, sometimes, reflecting them. For me, nature, gardens and landscape tend to be a refuge from an unsettling world. Some poems, fortunately, have been ready ‘in time’ and are out there in publications, online (and, gratifyingly, in people’s memories). They’re on Carole Bromley’s YorkMix blog; on Nutshells and Nuggets, waiting to appear in Poems in the Waiting Room; in The Friargate Anthology; in Poems for Nepal: Hardship and Hope (which meant reading with Carole, Antony Dunn and Zaffar Kunial at a very moving evening in York hosted by York Explore); longlisted (darnn!) two years’ running in the York Literature Festival Poetry Competition; and published in Opening a Different Window: a poetry and illness anthology, (Poetry Business, now an e-book), which arose from a project looking at whether, and how, poetry comes into play in the experience of chronic illness.
Since I’m interested in dementia, this was a valuable project in all kinds of ways. I’m writing a series of pieces which reflect the grief(s) and the occasional, unexpected delights of that condition, and they’re emerging both as poems and as prose. I’m still working on a memoir, honouring and exploring the experience of my father, who had that illness, and that of the generation of immigrants who arrived, strived and contributed to an ambivalent UK of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, and who are passing away without their stories, and those of their families, being written.
I’ve been hugely encouraged during various courses, in particular for the memoir by Andrea Stuart and Julie Wheelwright and a fab group of students with amazing stories to tell; and on poetry, by Mimi Khalvati and Daljit Nagra (with another fantastic group. Lucky me). Both those were at Arvon’s The Hurst. Last summer, an Inscribe course, with Dorothea Smartt, Khadija Sesay and Jackie Kay, shortly before Jackie was announced as Scotland’s Makar, also reached dizzying heights, of hilarity and inspiration.
Input was also welcome from the University of York’s Advanced Creative Writing Course (tutored by Carole Bromley), which has now, sadly, ended, and the Rural Yorkshire Stanza, facilitated by Pat Borthwick.
I love collaborating. With Leeds-based Jenny Zobel (JZ), we’ve created poetry and prose gigs for York’s International Women’s Festival since 2014. Drawing on our Caribbean, African, American, UK and European connections, we’ve explored themes of migration, freedom, identity, love, loss and celebration; we read our own pieces, as well as sharing the thoughts of those who’ve inspired and sustained us over many decades, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Grace Nichols, Wole Soyinka and Joseph Zobel, among many others. The last session, in March this year, was full to capacity.
It’s been a joy developing a new initiative in East Yorkshire, the Words on the Water Poetry Cafés, with another local writer, Clara Challoner-Walker. You know how it goes – an idea over coffee…next month, it’s on (though ‘next month’ was a big ask!). We’ve run three so far, with audiences of between 20 and 40 in village halls, and raised over £1000 for local charities, thanks to fantastic support from a wide range of regional poets, and the volunteers doing a great job of providing everyone with tapas, wine (optional) and raffle tickets (compulsory!).
Those Poetry Cafés have provided a platform for 18 poets, a mixture of unpublished and published, and some local musicians. People said they enjoyed being able to go to a poetry gig on their doorstep; they made all kinds of unexpected connections with each other, and comments such as ‘I didn’t think I liked poetry, but I enjoyed this,’ were common. We’re having a break at the moment and hope to do more when life’s dramas give us some breathing space.
Thanks to those of you who bought my pamphlet, Abolition Blues and Other Poems, which sold quickly…oh and somewhere amongst all this, songs have begun creeping into my writing. So, if you’re at one of my readings, you may well find yourself joining in. Be warned.
There have been several pauses while I was writing this, as mid-June’s awful events have been unfolding.
Here’s a poem with a bit of hope in it, which arose out of a radio piece about a care home.
I can’t help
this: all my life
the early song,
first one ringing,
piercing the near-light,
cracking my night-shell,
then another, almost an echo,
like a chuckle, then a love-call
and more and more, scooping me up
out of sleep into life, out to the scent of dew-damp earth
and the clinking rhythms of glass and crate, out into my secret bliss,
my own street chorus, the swirl and the whoop of it –
every dawn my rebirth.
Here, no-one remembers the way things were, no-one knows who I am:
as soon as I wake to the music, the calling, they’re swishing around
in plastic aprons, smothering me at four in the morning,
flushing away my crimson dawns, weighting my limbs
with sleeping-pills. I’m gagged, bound
and buried inside
I can’t help
to break the muzzle in my head,
to breathe, to stretch and touch the pristine air,
sense its pinch on my cheeks, gulp its moist breath, be airborne
among warbling eaves and aerial-staves and silhouette-quavers
on whispering wires, riding the breeze in the morning streets, ascending
to my invisible choirs, my madrigal joy.
Postscript. July 2nd 2016
I was writing before the referendum and the current turmoil. ‘Mid-June’s awful events’ referred to the assassination of Jo Cox. We were trying to hold on to the values of #moreincommon
Today, as we stumble on ground that seems to be shifting so quickly beneath us, when it’s as though we’ve woken up among attitudes from that Britain of fifty, sixty or even seventy years ago, (which broad-minded and forward-thinking people rejected as outdated even then), as though all that work has been for nothing – I’m reminded of Maya Angelou, of the resonances in the title of her collection I Shall Not Be Moved, published in 1999; and of the last lines of her poem Human Family: We are more alike, my friends / Than we are unalike. At her sell-out performance at Hay Festival in 2002, Benjamin Zephaniah, introducing her, summarised her view that her work was meant to say ‘you may encounter defeats, but you must never be defeated.’
How we need our ancestors, our forbears, literary and otherwise, to help us take the long view; to renew our resolve and refresh our creativity; to nudge us towards common ground; but above all, to bring us back to ourselves, remind us who we can be.
Yvie…you couldn’t have come visiting at a better time. Thanks for coming. Thanks for the update. Thanks for the hope and the milkman. xxx
Next week, it’s a guest I’ve been wanting for a very long time. ‘ll say no more, other than that he’s Irish, and he’s been a winner of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition. Maybe that’s given the secret away. See you next week, if not sooner.