[Before I start: an apology is due. The poems in the post are stanzaic, but despite 3 re-edits, WordPress keeps removing the stanza breaks. For the sake of sanity, then.
Before the flood is in 6-lined stanzas, except for the one beginning ‘the fifth year’ which has 8 lines
School Caretaker is in 4-line stanzas
Baba Yaga’s Daughters is more complicated. The seuence of lines is 4/2/4/5/6/7/3/6/2]
Thank you for coming. You look especially smart, today…shirts neatly tucked in, no trainers, nice hair, all sitting up straight and eager. And so you should be. I’ve been looking forward to this cobweb strand for a long, long time. Let me declare a vested interest. I owe a huge debt to Steph Bowgett, and to the Albert Poets, which she’s jointly run for years and years. Steph will tell you more about the Albert Poets anon, but my gratitude stems from an invitation to read at The Albert a few years ago, when I had published nothing, nor had any poems in any journals. Sally Goldsmith and Cliff Yates and Gaia Holmes were the other three readers. Ann and Peter Sansom were in the audience. I’ll not forget what that did for my self-esteem. Since then I’ve been a regular in the audience, and in her Monday night workshops, with John Duffy (a recent guest on the cobweb) in which they both keep me on my toes, and my feet firmly on the ground.
Steph Bowgett is one of those people who champions other people’s poetry, and is absurdly modest about her own. Self-effacing and self-deprecatory, she strengthens my firm belief that the best poets I know are the most modest, and often unsure of and unconfident about their own work. Almost invariably it’s because they know a lot about poetry and its craft and its best practioners, and are over-inclined to compare themselves with the best and find themselves wanting. I should also say that I firmly believe that all too frequently the opposite is true, too…the confident and cocksure are rarely as good as they think they are, though they are pretty hot at self-publicity. I think I’d better not pursue that any further.
The title of her brand-new first collection is a gift. A poor kind of memory. I’m totally committed to the thesis that imagination is essentially the practical use of memory. I wrote about this at some length in the early days of the cobweb, so I’ll not trouble you with it now, but you can always check it out in a spare moment. You can find it in the archive : June 16, 2014. It’ll explain what lies behind the endorsement I wrote for A poor kind of memory:
“Accurately sensuous, beautifully crafted poems that range through the dark undertow of folk tale, myth and fairy tale, contemporary multicultured landscapes, a childhood in post-war Germany and the curious double moral standards of the English 19th Century; a collection packed full as a beehive with crackling energy and riches. Wonderful.”
When I re-read this, I think I should say that I wanted ‘sensuous’ to include ‘sensory’, because it’s this sensory, as well as empathic, memory that makes Steph’s poems memorable and moving. And it’s all informed by wide reading, a vibrant sense of the realities of the historic past, a keen moral sense, a hatred of injustice, and above all, by love. You could at this point go back to the archive, and luxuriate in the poem that gives her collection its title. It’s a poor kind of memory that only works backwards. You can find it in the posts for June this year. Go and have a read and I’ll see you in a short while.
Ah, here you all are again. Good, isn’t it? Told you so. Right, I’m going to hand over to Steph, now, but I’ll interrupt every now and then to share a poem or three. Our guest: Stephanie Bowgett.
” I only started writing poetry in my forties though I’ve always loved reading it, and chose the 20C poetry unit as part of my Open University degree. This gave me a magical week’s summer school at York University where Seamus Heaney read on the first night, got chatting with my tutor group about eight of us, and then stayed the week attending our tutorials. I always enjoyed teaching poetry as well and got good results and did some training sessions for the LA but I still didn’t write.
Then in 1992, the TES ran a competition for teachers to win an Arvon writing week at Tottley Barton. They asked for examples of lessons using a particular poem. To be honest, I was just as excited about the prospect of staying in that lovely old building as I was in writing. I wrote about a series of lessons using “I know why the caged bird sings” with my Year 6 class. The school I taught in had a predominently Pakistani heritage intake, but we also had African Carribbean children, children of Indian heritage and European migrants. I always tried to reflect their histories and cultures in the curriculum and this poem was part of a project on migration. It caught the eye of the judges and that was my first experience of intense writing and then having that writing analysed and criticised. The tutors were Kit Wright and the lovely late Gerard Benson. It was Gerard who encouraged me to continue writing, especially when he discovered I lived in Huddersfield, then dubbed Poetry Capital of the UK
( I think it probably still is , but in any case, this is nice opportunity to share the first poem, which reflects that concern for her multicultured classroom she talks about…..and her absorption in biblical myth and narrative, which she roots in a recognisably contemporary consciousness. Whence comes the perspective, and the workings of love)
Before the Flood
The fields grew white with salt;
our cow licked and licked,
worked her blue tongue. Her belly swelled
but not with calf. She died.
The fig tree died. I taught the children
to lance a cactus leaf, to suck its sap.
Old man Noah lost his head, began
to collect rope and asphalt,
barrels and pitch; to corral wild beasts,
bear, hyena, leopard; to dismantle
his house and build a boat. His wife
would scuttle past without speaking.
A first, second, third year passed.
People grew thin. A fourth year
and they wandered the city, prayed hard
for rain. My little ones whimpered;
I gave them rags to suck. The cactus
shrivelled like an old hag’s dug.
And all the time, that mad man Noah
hammered day and night, chanting
cubit lengths like a mantra. We got no sleep
for the hammering. His poor wife wept
begging him to stop. And the clouds
penned like sheep. Not a drop of rain.
The fifth year, and no livestock left, but Noah
filled the fold: mountain goats
two land-locked crocodiles, a pair
of aardvarks, a peacock and a peahen.
The stench was unbearable. And the hammering.
One night, I tried to catch the peahen;
she screeched and flew onto the roof and Noah
came out, caulking brush in hand.
The sixth year has come and gone. The sky
rumbles over the cracked town. Noah,
his mouth full of nails, hammers on. Dear God
how we need the rain. He’s penned his wife
on the deck with lions, scorpions and silverfish.
She screams and screams.
My little ones don’t cry, don’t squabble,
they sleep. I watch them sleeping. There is a saw:
The sleeping and the dead are like one another.
Seven years ago this would have been a comfort to me.
Seven years ago, I would have wagered my last shekel
that this leaden sky presaged rain.
(Like so many of the poems in the collection, I heard it first in a Monday night workshop. And like so many others, it caught me unawares, made my skin prickle. Steph continues:)
These were heady days and Kirklees then funded three workshops in Huddersfield Library, one in Dewsbury (which I later lead with Mandy Sutter), and one in Holmfirth all with paid leaders. I knew John Lancaster who went to a Monday workshop in the library; this was for advanced writers. He read some of my first attempts and said he thought I would be fine there, so I went. Jeanette Hattersley was leading the group at the time, but my first session had the three John’s: Duffy, Bosley and Lancaster, as well as Milner Place, David Morley and Janet Fisher. The group was soon taken over by Simon Armitage for a while and Phil Foster started coming. It was a baptism of fire, very nerve-wracking and lots of people came once and never again. After the workshops, we would go over to the Albert.
The next year, I was lucky to get an early reading at the library for International Women’s Day with three other new women writers, and felt sorry for the male poets who were new to the workshops.. so we arranged a one-off reading for them in the backroom of The Albert which was very well-received. (There was a precedent;Milner Place had had a reading there to celebrate his 60th, before I was involved.) This got John Bosley, John Duffy, Phil Foster and I thinking that we would like there to be regular opportunities for poets from the workshops to read for a decent amount of time as a scheduled poet…. not just one of many at an open mic.. We wanted it to be open to anyone, so decided on the 15-20 minute reading followed by a 15 minute break which enabled audience members to come just for short bursts if they wanted to. I went up to the bar and asked if we could have a regular slot in the back room and they gave us the second Thursday of the month which we have had ever since.
(Time for another poem: this one I want to share because many of Steph’s poems draw on her childhood in Germany in a British army family. This one makes me shiver, but I love its wit, its layered-ness. It’s a rich seam to mine when your Dad is given a copy of Mein Kampf signed by Hitler, and the gift is without conscious irony)
School Caretaker – BFES Essen
She wore her grey plaits, coiled into earphones
still that blonde Mädel in a dirndl skirt in the snap
with Ernst that she kept in her pinafore pocket.
He’d been right, she insisted, to divorce her;
the Fatherland needed children;
a barren woman was no fit wife; her life
was to serve. This school had been
the Gauleiter’s house, was her pride and joy.
My father caught her in a cartoon on his poster
hands in the air, wire glasses awry, cups flying
as she collided with that wayward child.
Please do not run in the corridor
In truth, it was Frau Schütte who ran.
Everywhere. Staccato as a scrawny chicken,
she ran round after Dad, Herr Director,
wrongly anticipated his every need.
When he left, she gave him a gift; something
she treasured. He must take it to England,
she said, bobbed a curtsey, thrust it.
into his hand. He protested, she insisted.
A copy of Mein Kampf. signed by the Fuhrer.
Frau Schütte was the only card-carrying Nazi
Dad ever met in Germany. And, despite it all,
he wouldn’t have hurt her for the world.
(Right. Back to Steph)
“The first reading was Christmas 1993 when the four of us read. Our audience included Simon Armitage who has always been hugely supportive and the place was full; a triumph considering they had to contend with crowds ouside watching Mr Blobby turn on the Christmas lights. By our third reading, we had got caught up in a “Poetry is the new Rock and Roll” thing and the media showed an interest. The Telegraph sent a reporter to that reading and shortly after that we were filmed by ITV’s Calendar and recorded for BBC4’s Kaleidoscope. Now people were asking to read. Local well-known poets Simon, Ian MacMillan, Ian Duhig and Geoff Hattersley have always been very generous with time and support, and over the years we have hosted many excellent readers including Jacob Polley, Philip Gross, Linda France, Kim Moore, John Hegley David Morley, John Lyons, Ian Parks . …….(I will have missed out loads of important people in that list). We have never lost sight of the reason we started, though, and we include newer and less well-published poets from our workshops, often giving them their first public reading.
(as I said earlier. I was one of them. I even found a picture of it on Google…Cliff Yates is reading and I’m listening)
The funding for the workshops disappeared, so we carried on the Monday workshops, running them ourselves, currently meeting in The Sportsman .(also in Huddersfield). John Duffy and I also run a workshop in Huddersfield library on Tuesday afternoons and also sessions in the Lord Street Mission.
I won a prize in the Arvon competition and one in the Peterloo, and won the Ilkley and Nottingham competions. John Harvey of Slow Dancer asked me to submit poems for a pamphlet. This was “The Grape-eating Fox” published in 1995 and launched in London at The Troubadaur and now out of print. In the meantime, The Albert poets have performed in fields, pubs, coffee bars and for several years at with Michael Massey, Adrian Ingram and assorted other musicians The Marsden Jazz Festival.
Parly because of personal circumstances,including a much more demanding job and partly a loss of confidence, I stopped sending stuff to magazines (I had been published in Wide Skirt, Rialto, London magazine, poetry London, Smith’s Knowl etc.) I still enjoyed writing and the workshops and readings.
It took Bob Horne to make an offer I couldn’t refuse. He is amazing; his vision and enthusiasm in setting up Calder Valley Poetry and the speed with which it has been established as a recognisable brand is inspirational. He made it very easy and by now, I’ve got a lot of poems! I have really enjoyed putting this pamphlet together with his guidance and help.
(God bless Bob Horne, I say. I’m just as indebted to him, and I’ll shortly be writing a post about the business of the small poetry press, in which he’ll tell you more about it. But right now I just want to say what a pleasure it’s been to have Steph Bowgett as our guest, and to share one last poem. This one isn’t in the collection, but I heard it a couple of weeks ago at a workshop and just had to have it, because it encapsulates, I think, all the those qualities I wote about in my endorsement of A poor kind of memory. And also because it has Baba Yaga in it. I’m a total sucker for Russian folk tale.)
Baba Yaga’s daughters
You never could tell us apart,
that one in the mirror and me.
Wolves in the forest howl, yellow as yolk
and Bublik, we know you are one of their ilk;
why else would we languish, pine for you here
in a house that struts on the legs of a hen?
And this is a riddle
I riddle for you:
Why have one girl
when you can have two?
Listen! Our mother is pounding home
grinding stars in her mortar.
She wants you
for a lampshade
on a post by the door,
And we agree, me and the one
you mistake for me. Cornered,
your eyes are wide as a girl’s.
We giggle, kiss your loose lips,
pass you from tongue to tongue
dissolve you like sherbet,
me and my sister, the silver needle,
threaded behind my lapel,
She stitches you up in the hem of my skirt.
Swing there heavy, while I clap,
clap, clap to the balalaika;
arms akimbo, pirouette;
stamp my feet in little red boots
Hold tight, Bublik! One of us you’ll wed
but both of us you’ll bed, and Mother,
oh Mother will never know.
And this is a riddle
I riddle for you,
why have one girl
when you can have two?
In the dark they say,
all cats are grey
So too, my dear, are wolves
So too, my dear, are wolves
A poor kind of memory, indeed! All that’s left for you to do now is break out in rapturous applause, say ‘Thank You, Sephanie Bowgett’ and then buy the book. Here’s your link.
Looking forward to seeing you all again next week. I just bought U.A.Fanthorpe’s Collected Works. I think I’m going to write about it with huge enthusiasm.