Do you go through spells when you feel as though you’re ploughing the same ground and wondering why nothing fresh is coming up? I just noticed that last Sunday I posted my 200th cobweb strand. That’s about 400,000 words. Not all of them have been mine, obviously. All our generous guest poets have contributed a goodly number of those, and I couldn’t be more grateful. Because I become uncomfortably aware that though I don’t exactly run out of ideas, I do find myself revisiting things I’ve said before, sometimes without being totally conscious of it. And the same goes for poems.
One of my wise sisters, Hilary Elfick, told me that I wrote so much in a relatively short time because I hadn’t written much for decades, and it had all been dammed up. (Ironically, I realise that I’ve written this before, somewhere in the cobweb. There you go.) In the best of times, you’re on a roll, you have something, a theme let’s call it, that insists on being explored, on being written. You don’t have to force it. It has been given; it is a gift, and you only become properly grateful in retrospect. For ages, for me, it was the landscapes and stories and people of Skye. For a spell, it was my fascination with the notion that if great sculptures had a voice they would have startling things to say. I mined the reach seam of stories of my family…my parents and grandparents…for a good while. The story of my son’s death, and my feeling of complicity in that, too. For some reason, at the moment there are a lot of Vikings and the shores of the North East demanding some attention. But sooner or later that will run its course, and there’ll be a time when nothing demands to be written about. I’ll go on ‘forcing’ poems, but they won’t amount to spit.
And then there’s the ‘voice’. It’s seductively easy to fall into a default rhythm. Mine is iambic, possibly because it’s the closest to the rhythms of English speech. (Not my observation; Tony Harrison’s, among others). With the iambic comes an easy shift into a default line length. Mine is between 8 and twelve syllables. Another default element in my writing is long sentences that run over a lot of lines. Not bad in itself. Kim Moore does it. David Constantine does it…and they’re gifted . I can muck about, and cheat it by playing with line breaks…and I do, but blank verse line breaks are rarely just arbitrary; those lines tend to hold a rhetorical unit very handily. I could go on, but for whatever reason, I’m not very good at short poems, at compression. I think that also tends to mean that I’m not very good at lyricism. And it’s just too easy to go along with the tried and tested without noticing that it’s getting a bit tired and predictable. At some point you need to shift a gear. Or maybe buy a new car. (a weaselly voice in my ear just reminded me that when I was teaching English, I used to tell students that if you’re in an argument and you resort to metaphor you’re probably losing the argument. And that the same thing applies to your opponents. I should listen to my own advice).
What I’m not going to do today is to write about what to do when you find yourself in this situation. I’ve done it before. It may make no sense, but you’re welcome to have a look. Here’s the link:
It doesn’t address the business of ‘the voice’. I’ll go and have a good long think about that. For now I’m just happy to move on to today’s guest, Julie Mellor, who has in her latest writing given me great hope. Because it seems to me that she’s one of those hardworking writers who sticks at it…and, I think, one who has shifted gears in the last year or so.
When she was last our guest in August 2015, I wrote this as introduction:
“My guest for today writes about men who can hold ice, trains that fall from viaducts, (not the one in the pictur), fossilised trees, the folklore of fruit, the fears of geese, Pennine graveyards, Sicilian breakfasts, volcanoes …in short a poet who never fails to engage and delight me: Julie Mellor
While I was rereading her Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition winner Breathing through our bones (chosen by Carol Ann Duffy! Yes, it’s that good.) I realised what it was I liked so much about Julie’s writing…it’s that every poem is a surprise, that each one is unexpectedly different from the last, and at the same time the voice is reliably the same. And the other realisation is that there’s not a shred of ego, or self-consciousness. Just a genuinely curious delight in the unaccountable richness and diversity of things.Julie Mellor asks a question in one of her poems Autobiography
How do I know about the price
of porter, about fleas in the mattress,
the pawning of ulsters –?
The answer is that she spends a lot of time in museums and churchyards and books and other people’s poems and lives and landscapes; because she has endless curiosity. That’s what research is like. And we could do a lot worse than follow the advice in the closing lines of her poem Drawing the line
Look at these graves,
how they hold their names ready for us,
how we stoop to read with surprise
what, for centuries, has been lying at our feet.
Now, if you follow her poetry blog [ https://juliemellorpoetsite.wordpress.com/ ] you’ll have noticed that recently that curiosity of hers has taken her through the streets of Sheffield and that particular graffiti have sent her off in unexpected direction. You might also notice that her verse form and lines have been more experimental, more risky; she’s changed gear. Which is a metaphor with more than one layer. Essentially she gives me hope, and I’m delighted that she’s back today to share new poems and to update us on what she’s been up to since she was here last. Here she is:
Julie lives near Sheffield and holds a PhD from Sheffield Hallam University. Her work has been widely published in magazines such as Ambit, Mslexia, The North, The Rialto and Stand. Her pamphlet, Breathing Through Our Bones was a Poetry Business pamphlet competition winner and was published by Smith/Doorstop in 2012. Her new pamphlet will be published by Smith/ Doorstop later this year. She writes:
“I’ve had the good fortune to be involved in lots of interesting and exciting things since I was last on your blog, John, including, in no particular order, the Urban Forest project lead by Oliver Mantell, Millstone Grit (an anthology edited by Rosemary Badcoe, Carolyn Waudby and Noel Williams), Voices in the Landscape (led by John Anstie and Ann Hamblyn at Wentworth Castle, Stainborough) and currently, the Hear My Voice project in Barnsley, which has put on free readings and workshops by some stunning poets, including Suzannah Evans, Steve Ely and Helen Mort. I also completed the Poetry Business Writing School last May (a fantastic 18 month course run by Peter and Ann Samson).
I’m sending you three new poems which give a flavour of where my poetry is at the moment.
Ode to the Scar on my Wrist was commended in last year’s Ilkley Lit. Fest’s Walter Swan Trust poetry comp. judged by Andrew McMillan.
Darling, What If … was written at one of Nell Farell’s wonderful workshops at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet (another group I was involved with last year). The poem also won second prize in the Nottingham Open, judged by Liz Berry.
Finally, I’ve included The Lodging House, which was first published in Stand magazine last Spring. Focussing on the last line of this poem has helped me clarify my thinking around my new pamphlet, so I have a bit of a soft spot for it!
Let’s start with the first one, which Julie featured on her own blog in January; her introduction to it couldn’t be more appropriate to the business I started this post with:
“As far as the New Year is concerned, I’m all for looking forward, rather than looking back. However, many of my recent poems have purposely involved looking back in order to try and make sense of the past and my place in it. The writing has taken a more personal turn, something that feels quite new to me, and at times difficult to manage. Sheffield’s graffiti continues to amaze and inspire me, as do the many wild poets out there. One of the books I received this Christmas was Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals. I’m only 6 poems in and already I can tell you that it’s edgy, energetic, playful with language, and very aware (almost self-consciously so – and this is a strength) of the extraordinary power words have to unnerve and surprise us. What a gift!”
Ode to the Scar on my Wrist
Yellow stars of skin where the break was pinned,
a car crash, Hereford, student weekend
of Pernod and black, my friends,
Susan with the cowlick fringe,
her boyfriend from the Rhonda,
and Steve, who would run naked down any street
at midnight for a dare, all of us in a hire car,
speeding down that road with the hidden bend,
scream of wheels spinning mid air,
the roof crushed in the long roll down the bank
and us, after our minute’s silence,
clambering out with no more than a graze,
except for the compound fracture to my wrist,
and weren’t we the lucky ones, in love
with ourselves, the resilience of our bodies
taken for granted, and didn’t we drink ourselves
stupid the following night, quoting Talking Heads,
this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
this ain’t no fooling around, me with my arm in plaster,
flirting with the fireball from a box of matches,
a pub trick that set my face alight.
I see what she means about the poems taking a more personal turn; there’s a more immediately personal voice in this poem, too, something of a swagger, and also something of the trangressive. I’m much taken by these lines that colour the whole of the poem:
and weren’t we the lucky ones, in love
with ourselves, the resilience of our bodies
taken for granted, and didn’t we drink ourselves
stupid the following night
I love the double-edged ending: flirting with the fireball from a box of matches, / a pub trick that set my face alight.
The next poem strikes off in new directions, too. When I wrote about Julie’s poetry before, I focussed on the way so much of it was rooted in a clear-eyed process of fascinated research. This is a different, freer kind of fascination, I think. It’s a remarkably potent and liberating thing to simply say ‘what if?’…and then follow it through:
( a PS. I was rechecking this post about 4 hours after it went out on Facebook and Twitter, and saw to my distress that whilst it was fine when I posted it, WordPress has, as it will, closed up all the stanza breaks. Nothing I have done persuades it to do as it’s told. I shall have one more go to make it right, but just in case, the line count of the stanzas is as follows: 1/4/4/2/4/2 )
Darling, What if …
What if I choose this one small fly, iridescent on the daisy’s white ruff.
What if I choose to follow it with my eye from flower to flower
as I sit on this bench, a wooden sleeper resting on two grindstones.
And what if other flies circle, for example, that fat atheist the bluebottle,
searching for something more akin to a shopping mall than a lawn.
What if nothing happens but sound, trains across the way
sliding in and out of town like pharmaceutical salesmen or lovers
who’ve met on the internet. What if the wind repeats rumours
of their wedding vows from mid-week town hall ceremonies.
What if the fly disappears, only for a minute, but completely,
dizzying blindly through a portal into another world.
I know this can’t happen, because a fly has a thousand eyes
and can’t go anywhere blindly. Imagine our world as it appears to the fly,
like a shop front on a 70s high street, stacked with t.v.s,
all tuned to the same channel.
This is the closest you’ll ever get to understanding, not being a fly,
but at least being able to picture it, the feeling inside my messed-up head.
I can leave you to speculate, if you wish, on who is the ‘darling’ of the poem, why it could be some sort of letter, and, indeed, why it’s being written. What I will hold on to at first, is its specificity, the dreamlike clarity of its images. I loved the trains that slide in and out of town, like pharmaceutical salesmen. It’s an image that’s simultaneously funny and sinister. I think I’ll keep revisiting this poem, because bits of it insist on memorising themselves. And so to the last poem, whih has a different voice again, that improvises on shapes on the page, leaves (apparently) unaccountable gaps.
The Lodging House
after L.S. Lowry
Light burns above the doorway
grey as a pearl faces queue
without bodies men whose lungs
are clogged with cotton dust
hands in empty pockets
tongues without words
this is the time of day
when pigeons attempt to coo
where the breath moves
like a child amongst overcoats
and net curtains shift against
the casual undressings of the heart.
I remember being entirely puzzled at the age of 17 by the regard in which my English teacher held the Imagists, how excited he got about early T S Eliot. I just thought it was pictures of things in streets. I think I know better now. That line about breath moving like a child among overcoats says as much as I care to think about suffocation, the negation of the purposes of breath. The shift of net curtains gives a textured physicality to the disturbance of the figurative draught in the last line which seems like a bleak prohibition. Or not.
Anyway. I’m going to offer up my own personal thanks to Julie for coming back to the cobweb, and above all for reminding me that we can all change gear,and that it’s exciting.
I hope to see you next week. I think I’ll be musing on the business of residential poetry courses. Or not. Depends which gear I’m in.