“I once promised a Scots friend of mine (and a great folk singer and mandolin player) that I’d write him a song about Culloden, to the tune (and stanza structure) of ‘The tinkerman’s daughter’. And I did, but he had to wait ten years. It’s not been quite as long as that, but it’s been at least 18 months since I said, in a car on the way to the Poetry Business Saturday Workshop: ‘ if no-one else seems to be doing it,I’ll write a review of your poems, Julia.’”
I wrote this two years ago, [ Dark Watcher July 2014 ] when I’d not long started this cobweb-weaving business and had never written any kind of a review. So it’s really nice to be back, feeling a tiny bit more confident, to see what’s been happening since. A bit of context, first, though.
Julia Deakin and I taught together in the 1980s in the English Dept at Boston Spa Comprehensive School, along with two othe Cobweb Alumni, Yvie Holder and Roy Cockcroft. Yvie came to update us recently.We’ll be having a visit from Roy in September…look out for that.
Julia is one of my inspirations. Ever since she gave me a copy of her first pamphlet – ‘Picasso’s Child’, I was hooked on the idea that one day I’d do that. And I’ve watched lots of her poems emerge at the Poetry Business, in that trademark, precisely provisional pencil, with minute, exact annotations, and the neatest crossings-out the imagination can deal with. And then later seen them in her two collections. I wanted to be like that, too. In collections, that is. Not in pencil. And certainly not provisional.
Dark watcher? why? I think that I came across this haunting phrase sometime in the 70s; I think it was in an article by Geoff Fox in Children’s literature in education…maybe about A wizard of Earthsea. It’s phrase that a 12 year old girl used to describe herself as a reader …. a sort of hidden, secret eavesdropper on, and fascinated observer of, other lives. Not sinister, but, simultaneously, emotionally involved and moved and engaged, and distanced and disengaged. It makes me think of Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden who observes because she’s basically left out, curiously detached, rueful, and occasionally cross. That’s how I see Julia as a poet. A dark watcher. Not always dark, but often. I often look for analogies in art to explain a poet’s work.
When I read Julia’s poetry I’m reminded of the work of Carel Weight, who was deeply unfashionable in the 1960s, but who my art teacher loved, and made sure that I thought I did too. The headline picture is his, as is this one.
There’s always something very precisely and obliquely and slightly disturbingly observed in Weight’s images; they have puzzling subtexts, and I think that a lot of Julia Deakin’s poems have this quality, too. And sometimes she can be like Lowry. And sometimes, Beryl Cook. She can be very funny, and very tender by turns. So I couldn’t be happier to have her coming back to the cobweb and telling me and you what’s been going on in the last two years and a bit. Big hand, please, for Julia Deakin…
“Go, litel blog
I appreciate John’s review – if you haven’t read it, please do. There have been others, notably Sally Baker’s in The North 51, also much appreciated. All have been generous, but none deeper or more engaged. A certain amount of personal knowledge perhaps makes his focus more autobiographical than I’d like but no matter – go litel book, and all that.
The pencil is provisional but also tactile: I like the sight of wood, the friction of graphite on paper, the sharpening ritual and much more – aptly summed up in Grevel Lindop’s ‘Pencil’ (Luna Park, Carcanet 2015).
Choose a poem for us to revisit.
(I asked all my revisited gems to choose a poem to revisit…I actually meant one of theirs, but it got interpreted in different ways; for instance, Simon Zonenblick chose to revisit Thom Gunn. Julia generously took two options)
Writing just after Jo Cox’s murder and before the fateful Referendum, Benjamin Zephaniah’s ‘To do wid me’ (YouTube) and Derek Walcott’s ‘Love after love’ (Collected Poems, 1989) seemed and still seem to sum up the artist’s dilemma of how to relate both to the world and to oneself. Now, post June 24th, Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ comes to mind:
‘I lost two cities, lovely ones, And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two cities, a continent.’
‘It wasn’t a disaster’ she says, unconvincingly.
Also apt are Auden’s ‘A Bride in the Thirties’ (‘Easily, my dear, you move your head…) and Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916’ (‘All changed, changed utterly.’) If poetry makes nothing happen, good. Far too much has happened.
If you mean a poem of mine, ‘Checkpoint’ (YouTube; Without a Dog p19) deals with the humanitarian issue of migration – although my conscious focus when starting it was the heritage industry.
(I’m delighted that Julia picked this poem. I heard her workshop it when the Poetry Business was still up in the roof of the Byram Arcade in Huddersfield. I’d just seen the film ‘The Golden Door’ (with the amazing Charlotte Gainsberg)…Sicilian emigrants and Ellis Island. And I’d just read Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes. So I was all primed to be blown away by the rhetorical force of this image-packed wonderful poem. It’s even more relevant today).
We come from hell. A history of short measures, rough justice,
public executions. Rules of thumb. From backs bent in fields,
mines and furnaces, we walked miles in rags through becks
clogged with debris, hitching lifts on carts down rutted tracks
or shut for days in cramped, smoky carriages on splintered slats
with cocky strangers leering legally,
to cities ruled by horses
in the hands of drunks, the sound of klaxons, screeching,
oaths and tolling bells obscuring backstreet screams of birth,
crude amputations, barber dentists, TB wheezing up the stairs,
spit and spittoons everywhere, cataracts and goitres rampant,
fingers green with nicotine and ink, the tang of coins fished
from gutters, rivers heaving with the dead. Rain and slime
between our toes came with us into dim rooms close with soot
and sulphur, clogging nostrils picked for smuts flicked into rugs
thick with grit, chairs with dust and hair oil, privies cold
and wet or fetid, just vacated, hands from here unwashed
to hack food with a penknife used for fingernails and hooves
in kitchens home to cats, dogs, beetles, maggots, grubs in fruit
and slugs in greens at tables wiped with cloths boiled with kerchiefs,
bandages and nappies brought from bedrooms shared with mice,
bedbugs, nitcombs, pisspots, plaster peeling onto damp bolsters,
clammy sheets and memories of leeches, layings-out and wakes,
clothes seamed with sweat heaped souring in moth-filled closets
next to pictures over mould and trapped birds in chimney breasts
and hard soap scum in aluminium tubs of cooling water
fanned by draughts from grey net at the streaming windows,
springtails in the rotten frames and in the attic, books and papers
pulverised, riddled rafters, wasps’ nests, pigeon lime.
We’re here now. Gated, lighted. Vaccinated, regulated.
Vacuumed, smokeless, enzyme clean. It’s been
so long, like centuries.
Everything stank. Tanneries and pits and breath.
This is the past. Do not turn us back.
[Read it aloud. Shout it. Whatever you do, don’t just look at it on the page and imagine you can hear it. Right..back to Julia…I ask for an update. Wow!]
What have you been up to?
Until last August I taught English Literature at Bradford University, which took most of my time and energy. As well as teaching, I was considering doing a PhD. But did anyone move me enough to pick over their entrails for three years? Was there any clear question I could spend 65,000 words answering? What about the creative writing ‘route’? Could I write an extended commentary on work in progress without compromising that work? Two years and some synopses later I still don’t know.
Meanwhile, I began writing up every poem I had ever received in a workshop. Last month – 70,000 words and 319 poems later – I finished. It’s been a useful exercise, perhaps bloggable, if not publishable, but is just between me and my workbook. I comment on each poem’s structure, form and subject, what they do to me or for me, what writing it might have sparked, sometimes adding biographical notes if they seem to help. In workshops I read superficially and miss so much, and in recent years I have attended fewer because after a while the same context can trigger the same memories. From the start many of my poems, while usefully trialled at workshops, were written outside them – unglamorously, at home, at my desk.
I haven’t yet found the best arrangement of paper, keyboard and mouse there though, and don’t like sitting long at a screen, so aim for at least one computer-free and one car-free day a week. I walk – last year I re-walked the whole of the Stanza Stones trail – and ice skate….. three days a week I set off for the Bradford rink at 6.45. My participation in a Christmas show we rehearse from May, with colleagues mostly in their fifties, is a big deal for a non-sporty type like me.
Driving to Bradford, and on various walks, I have been learning bird song, from Simon Barnes’ inspirational Birdwatching with your eyes closed (Short Books, 2011) and from assorted CDs, to extend my auditory frame of reference. I can now identify quite a few birds from CDs, where they all obligingly sing in aphabetical order.
More assured and, hopefully, poetic performances have included – with John Hegley and others – George’s Jamboree, in Oxford; with Anne Caldwell at Puzzle Hall; with Gaia Holmes at Rastrick Library; with Carole Bromley, Antony Dunn and others at East Cottingwith; with the Pennine Poets in York; the Bridport Prize Awards; with Grey Hen Poets in Preston; with Tom Weir at Writers in The Bath; with John Duffy, Mark Hinchliffe and Carola Luther at The Albert Poets; at Honley Library on my own (well not quite – there was an audience); and with Adam Strickson and others for Holocaust Memorial Day in Huddersfield. Sadly I had to miss the London Troubadour Prizegiving.
What have you published since we last met?
In the past two years new poems have appeared in The North 53, two Beehive Poets anthologies (Bee Five and Beehive Poets 2015), Pennine Platform 73, Riptide 9, The Bridport Prize Anthology 2015, Beaumont Park Anthology, the Leads to Leeds website, the Troubadour website, and I’m waiting to hear about two more on a shortlist. All will be in my new collection if I can find a publisher.
Published poems have been anthologised in U. A. Fanthorpe’s Memorial Anthology, The Book of Love and Loss (a sumptuous cloth-bound hardback edited by Fanthorpe’s partner R.V. Bailey, and June Hall); Three Grey Hen anthologies (Colours, Seasons and Extraordinary Forms), Fifty:Fifty (the latest Pennine Poets Anthology) and possibly others I can’t remember, having lost my record-keeping chart when I moved office.
Finally it’s an odd claim to fame but ‘Codicil’ (The Half-Mile High Club, p19) has been read at several funerals including Lynda Bellingham’s in November 2014.
Knowing how few competitions I’ve entered during this time, I’m chuffed that ‘Hope’ was highly commended in the Troubadour 2015, ‘Elizabeth I at Fourteen’ was one of five highly commendeds in The Plough 2015, ‘1973’ was commended in York Mix 2014 and ‘How can I tell if the bluebells in my garden are Spanish?’ won Third Prize in the Bridport 2015.
What have you been reading?
Every new year I start to keep a record and after a week I stop, but what stands out include biographies of Larkin, Thomas (Dylan), Eliot and Hughes; Memoirs of an Old Balloonatic by my Great Uncle about his WW1 service, including his harrowing amputation in a field hospital; Celtic Fringe by my one-time copywriting colleague Di Reed; ‘The Narrow Cut’ by my former university Head of Department Ken Smith – both well-crafted page-turners; lots of great library books I’ve forgotten; Don Paterson’s breezily refreshing ‘Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets’, and many stonking poetry collections.
A trip to Budapest in 2015 led me to explore Hungarian poets Attila Jósef, Miklos Radnóty, János Pilinszky, Agnes Nemes Nágy, and Sándor Weöres, none of which I can pronounce but whose work in translation is awe-inspiring. Nágy’s essays on poetics I find particularly remarkable, and would give you a reference if that too hadn’t disappeared between offices.
I’ve also been catching up on unread poetry magazines. I subscribe to Poetry London, The North, The Rialto, Pennine Platform and Poetry News. When I was working I hadn’t time to read or even to open these for several days. I’d glance through for familiar names then shelve them for some unimaginable future leisure. Later I might skim through in search of themes for a workshop, but now I’m reading carefully for everything from wisdom to inspiration.
Lastly, in order to sort 30 years of photographs, I have been reading my own diaries, kept almost daily, with a lapse last year, since 1962. Here’s my seventh birthday, and – as Ms Bronte-mad Teenager 1972 – my sixteenth.
This year I started re-reading them. It’s a strangely consolatory experience, re-claiming the day-to-day minutiae and cataclysms of one’s past life, which I hope will result in new poems.
[It makes me hugely happy to be able to share that image of the handwriting that’s fascinated me for years and years. And then I ask:]
Can I have a new poem that you’re happy to share.
Julia replies: From my North Staffordshire years…
Windy Arbour, three mile on
afore Water’ouses, tinna much of a harbour
or farther from water, nout there
but crossroads, signpost
an’ boarded-up Green Man
long-gone fetched up at,
hooked up, split lips, trees
upped sticks an’ nout nah whimpers
but wind. Yer canna go wrong.
Julia…thanks for coming back, thanks for Checkpoint, thanks for the update, thanks for the memories. You can’t go wrong.
Julia’s books/pamphlets : Without a Dog has now had a second reprint, so both this and Eleven Wonders are available from graftpoetry.co.uk at the fashionably retro prices of £6.95 and £7.95 respectively. Pence-per-poem, you won’t get better value. The Half-Mile-High Club is still available from poetrybusiness.co.uk and there’s a CD, £7 direct from Julia.
A warning. Next week brings no entertaining guest. You will need to have pencil and paper at hand. You will be expected to take notes.