Hearing voices, and a Polished Gem: Judy Brown

George_William_Joy_joan_of_arc

It’s the voice that grabs your attention, the image that sticks. Not the Joan of Arc sort of Voice…you want to watch out for that sort of thing, the rapt, the Enthusiastic. It ends in tears. The voices I have in mind are the ones I keep writing about, one way or another…the ones that I hear that make me want to buy their owners’ pamphlets and collections. I can’t remember ever buying poetry because of a reviewer, though I sometimes buy collections because a friend says I must. Carrie Etter’s Imagined sons was such a one. Kim Moore wrote about it on her blog, and I bought it, and was not let down.

For the most part, though, I buy poetry because of readings. I’m sometimes surprised about how many, because I don’t go to Poetry Festivals, where I imagine you could rack up an impressive numbers of purchases and a concomittant debt. I suppose I go to more poetry nights than I think I do.

But voices and images, now. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate them.The first poetry reading I ever went to was Tony Harrison reading in our college staffroom..I remember the persistence of rhythm, the urgent rhetoric of it, [Wordsworth’s matter/water are full rhymes] but mostly I remember images, especially ones from The nuptial torches…the stray dogs whose skin grows/puckered round their knees like rumpled hose;  or the imagined ghosts of the dead of the auto-da-fe: Let..no crowding smoke / condensing back to men float in and poke ./their charcoaled fingers at our bed.

Sometimes it’s the voice you’re caught by first, and for me it’s almost always got a sort of incantatory quality, it’s own rhythmical ideolect. Kim Moore reading Train journey from Barrow to Sheffield in the bland meeting room of  a Premier Inn; Steve Ely reading A sin and a shame in a pub in a scoop of the moors at Marsden; Clare Shaw reading This baby in the back room of The Albert;  Julia Deakin at an artspace in Huddersfield, reading with the precision of a Hockney pencil line..The half-mile high club. Most recently, David Constantine at Dean Clough in Halifax….I was completely entranced by the effortless way he said (rather than read) long and lovely poems with long looping sentences.

Sometimes though, it’s not the performative voice; some readers have a stillness and what superficially may come across as diffidence, but which is actually a voice that lets the image shine through, so it’s the image you remember first and the voice after. I’m thinking, say, of Tom Weir and the men with stubble like burnt corn [The cuts], and most memorablythe child with an ice cream which you wore / like a glove as it melted over your hand  [Day trippin’]. Those particular moments, those images. Because, although you may , I never tire of repeating Clive James’ flat assertions that

‘you hear the force of real poetry at first glance’

and

‘declaring itself to be a poem is one of the main things a poem does’

and

‘everything depended, and still depends, on the quality of the

moment..whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in’

burning_books.

Which brings us to our guest for today…let’s give a warm cobweb welcome to Judy Brown, who heard reading for the first time at Writers in the Bath, in Sheffield, on Valentine’s day this year. I like this poetry group which Cora Greenhill runs with a rare zest. But it’s a truth universally acknowledged that this particular room at The Bath can be one in which it’s hard to concentrate on the poems. It’s a corner room with a fireplace across one corner. Sometimes the fire is lit and it becomes a very warm room. If the door is opened to let out the heat, the pub noise of the tap room joins the reading. In summer there’s stuff outside. The second time I went (to hear Jo Bell, I think. Or Julie Mellor) I thought my new hearing aids had gone wrong. I thought I had rhythmical tinnitus. Turned out to be Morris dancers in the street. Of course it did. It morphed into a fight which involved shouting. What I’m saying is, it’s a room in which occasionally you may struggle to hear properly, if you, like me, are a bit deaf. The other thing, this Valentine’s day, never having met Judy before, and also being a guest poet, I was sitting next to her, and therefore slightly behind her when she stood up to read.She reads clear and quiet, without fuss or histrionics or show. And still the moments came, bright- minted and memorable. Moments like these from her second collection Crowd sensations.

There’s a joyous crowd of them in The street of the dried sea-food shops, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong.  :  ‘the ruinous bisque of dog-chew’  (it’s ‘bisque’ the nails it); cockled sheets of pemmican (the cockling of unstretched water-colour paper is what I see); kilos of brown mussels, complex / as rucksacks.

You notice that here’s a poet with the eye of a painter. I think that’s almost always a Good Thing. They’re not just pictures, or snapshots. That’s not what I mean. It’s true looking, true seeing. Like these moments: Spring was birdsong loud as broken glass, and the drunk outside Tesco face as bright as a rufous fruit; another one of her personae whose anger was rising like bread, and another, hauled back to Cumbria to this bucket of hills . And then there are the fires. I guess it’s a mark of how these moments stick that I think, somehow,there are far more fires in Crowd sensations  than there actually are: cinders have shivered /to dead-bird ash as I froth up dust / with the balding brush. The surprise of ‘froth’ is dead right, the textures also. I said to someone a couple of days ago, as I was thinking about this post (which, you’ll have noticed, is late again. Slapped wrist/naughty step), that when I read through Crowd sensations for the first time, I decided I’d pack in writing poems and do something I’ve more aptitude for. Something with a chainsaw. And it was images and moments like these. But not just them. It was the emotional intelligence, and heft and range of the poems too. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Time to meet our guest.millom2

Judy’s quite sparing of her biographical details…or concise, or succinct. I could learn a lot from her, and these posts would be over sooner. Still there’s a lot to think about:

Her second collection ‘Crowd Sensations’ (Seren, 2016) is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her first book, ‘Loudness’ (Seren, 2011), was shortlisted for both the Forward and Fenton Aldeburgh prizes for best first collection. Judy was Poet-in-Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in 2013, a 2014 Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone’s Library and is a 2017 Hawthornden Fellow. She has won the Manchester Poetry Prize, the Poetry London Competition and the Templar Pamphlet Competition (with ‘Pillars of Salt’, 2006).  Judy was a lawyer until she started writing poems, but now lives in a churchyard and writes and teaches.   judy-brown.co.uk

It’s worth saying that for a time she was a lawyer based in Hong Kong. and I was intrigued at that reading in The Bath by the way her poems ranged around the world, from Hong Kong to Grasmere, and, what grabbed me straight off, to the unfashionable, run-down, end-of-the world coast of Cumbria, the untouristy un-Romantic-daffodilly coast. Millom, Maryport, Workington. Old iron-ore ports. And strangely beautiful too. Haunted, maybe.Judy told how, during her Grasmere residency, she took off , Bill Bryson style, to wander down that coast, staying in small hotels and B&B’s along the way. I was hooked…years ago, visiting teaching practice students along that coast, I used to stay in those places. Often quite odd, or run-down, or eccentric, sometimes diffusely menacing places.There’s a sequence that’s stitched through ‘Crowd Sensations’ . Songs from West Cumbria, each poem voiced by an unaccompanied (solitary? lonely? it’s hard to say) visitor. I loved them, straight off. Here’s one that’s possibly my favourite.

 

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There was a goat outside the window of my Classic Double,

working a bald strip of tilted earth behind wire.

Between us lay a five-foot-deep concrete alley

through glass; my admiration at its brown head and neck

on a white body, like two beasts severed and sewn;

and some prison dreams neither of us would divulge.

 

In the bar, low sun glimmed off the sea.  I couldn’t

get a seat near it.  The men from the power station who could,

as a squadron, turned their heads from the window

to watch the TV above mine.  For me too, it was hard

to believe in the beach that stretched for miles each side

like an adhesive strip ripped off something useful.

 

Breakfast was an open bag of Kingsmill White,

some soft croissants pouched in cellophane, plus

one bruised pear which I took out of fellow feeling.

I had to get us out of here: away from the owners

talking business in their sagging tracksuits, away

from this disowned ground, its hand-hot rain.

 

[From ‘Crowd Sensations’ (Seren Books, 2016)]

 

There’s so much going on here, like a film storyboard, all the deft edits from the goat seen through the window, and the fellow-feeling of the watcher; the narrator wanting to sit with a view of the sea but becoming part of the view of the men from the power station, unable to shift out of its awkwardness; the sad breakfast offerings..that one bruised pear. And the stick- in- the -mind images/moments: the beach like an adhesive strip ripped off something useful, that hand-hot rain. I loved it when I heard it. I still do.

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The next poem is a traveller’s poem too. I realise that a familiar trope is rising in my mind. Dark watcher. That’s what it is that draws me to Judy Brown’s poems…the observations of the unattached and the simultaneously imaginatively engaged. The exact opposite of withdrawal and alienation.

 

From Platform 1, Blackfriars Station

 

There’s something over-familiar about the cranes

rising through the city.  For centuries its huddle

was spiked only by the paraphernalia of spires.

Through the river-soaked glass of the new station

we can measure the torturer’s bamboo as it grows

into a friable body.  The shallow-rooted boroughs

might be peeled off, easy as a roll of turf.

Here the earth has already crumpled, spills skeletons

which are coppery-blue from buried money.

Skyscapes are a story I’m bored being bored with.

Still, the latest towers are eating light like plants,

donating grace as they hurry into their final poise.

A confession has been exacted, then simplified.

All that remains as we sink down into the tunnel

between platforms is the city’s current heraldry,

its long bones opening our skulls to the air.

Published in The Scores (thescores.org.uk), September 2016)

 

I suspect I shall never see a cityscape in the same way again, never be easily entranced by the insouciance of cranes and steel and the swagger of engineering. It’s the image of the ‘torturer’s bamboo’ that exacts and simplifies a confession. The way the sky yields to the spiky upward thrust of steel and glass, the way the towers ‘are eating light like plants’. City as insatiable consumer. Memorable and disturbing. Maybe you see now why I thought I might pack in poetry and leave it to the grown-ups.

The last poem (which is not unconnected from the money – wonderland world of the Shard) I like because of the way it reminds me of what seem like revelatory personal poems in Crowd sensations :  the ones that are the stories of love betrayed, or lost, or broken..the loves that may be exorcised by the fires I thought there were more of, and the loves that seem transgressive and tempting, like Eve’s apple or Pandora’s box.

 

The Frog Prince

 

This man believes a woman can feel the muscle

of money changing his skin, a second landscape

mapped over pectorals, biceps, his long back.

 

It’s a language that means she reads his body

in several translations: precious metals unfold

in the altered curve as thigh flares into buttock.

 

It’s not about the palm’s pleasure but signification.

No woman loves him without moistening her lips,

the word price commingling with mint on her breath.

 

She keeps his heat and spill in her throat: investment.

This is exegesis, the note of the glassware, the slap

in the lift to the thirtieth floor  The actual moment

 

is nothing, it’s about what she learns of her value.

Down on the cushiony carpet is a private education.

You cannot touch me, he says but she’s expected to try.

 

Under his eyelids the message is: amethyst bruises,

unpettable dogs, as his hands mete out a currency

that more than repays the damage done to him.

 

[Unpublished: till now]

I’ll not say any more about it. It’s deft, it’s poised. It can speak for itself. Thank you for being our guest, Judy Brown. The least we can do is now rush out and buy your collections. Or the sedentary amongst us can go to the link below and then hit the Paypal button. Repeatedly.

I have no idea what’s happening next week. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Thank you to Seren for permission to print Was this review helpful to you?  Let’s hope that we repay you by visiting your site and buying lots of books. Here’s the link

https://www.serenbooks.com/productdisplay/crowd-sensations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On sequences. And a Gem Revisited: Steve Ely

sequence

To begin with, an apology, and an also an acknowledgement.

The apology first. On Friday night I was lucky enough to be the guest reader at the laconically-named Manky Poets,  in Chorlton. Great audience and quality open mic. A listening room. I would have done well to remind myself of what I wrote some time ago in a post about how to behave at an open mic. evening: thus

For readers. Reading

Rehearse. Rehearse your timings. Find out how long you have, and rehearse how many poems that is when they’re read aloud. Stick to it.

Well, I’d been told, and it was on the poster. Finish 9.30. Somehow I got it in my head it was 10.00. So, Copland Smith, I’m sorrier than I can say that you had to do the thing of holding up your arm and tapping your wristwatch, meaningfully. Mea maxima culpa. I hope I can come back some time. I’ll get the time right.

And the acknowledgement. I decided I wanted to write this post after reading one on Sequences by the indefatigable Roy Marshall   (here’s the link: https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/2017/03)/01/on-sequences/). As is his wont, Roy writes about the what and the how of the business -which is of more use to the prospective writer than my own tendency to to muse about the whys and wherefores. I’ve lifted a couple of chunks to illustrate:

First of all, a practical reason: “In my experience sequences can provide the writer with the feeling that they are rich in material; that they have ‘something in the bank’ and that even when not actively producing poems, there is a subject to return to an explore.”

I think the key notion here for me is the one that points to our need for a comfort blanket, the feeling that we have ‘something in the bank’ . Drawing on his own experience of putting his two collections together, Roy also reflects on the business of sequencing itself:

Once a number of poems have been written, the next challenge is to select poems and lay them out in the order that works best.  One absorbing aspect of assembling a sequence is deciding which poems to include and to work out the relationships between poems so they work together to their collective advantage.  While it is undoubtedly hard to write a batch of poems that maintain a consistently high quality, it is  important to try and recognise any weaker poems and remove them or risk weakening the impact of the whole sequence.

I like the reminder about the need to weed out poems that may fit thematically, but don’t stand on their own two feet. And also the reminder that you try to figure out the best order. I’d only add to that the idea that it can be like tweaking and fine-editing individual poems. You can often end up where you started, and reflect that that way madness lies. I know I’ve been open mouthed with admiration when poets describe how they lay hard copies of each sheet of a pamphlet or a collection out on the floor and move them around like chessmen. I can’t do it. I actually don’t know how I do it. Instinct. Something. But not a floor full of paper, which would bring on nightmare memories of double-checking 360 folders of English coursework for GCSE by setting them out on the floor at home. AAArgh.

I do know that one of my editors in particular has an amazing instinct/ear/eye/brain for spotting a glitch in the succession of poems. Ann Sansom (for it is she) shifted one poem in Much Possessed from near the beginning to the end. Where it belonged. I’d never have seen it. And she shifted one poem , about apples and the Fall of Man from 4th to 2nd, when it became apparent that it was in the voice of Lucifer (the voice of the first poem)…the thing is, when I wrote it, I didn’t know. When you put poems side by side, they begin to have conversations with each other and won’t do what they’re told. They take on an independent life. Which is as it should be.

I’m intrigued by that notion of an independent life. Somehow, poems will grow out of things that simpley will not leave you alone. I think of, say, Yvonne Reddick’s new pamphlet Translating Mountains which grows out of her father’s death in the Grey Corries, and her ancestor’s gem-hunting in the Alps. I think of Tom Cleary’s latest poems about his father’s trials in the Irish fight for independence, of Keith Hutson’s Troupers and his longstanding love affair with almost forgotten music hall and variety acts; of Kim Moore’s sequence on domestic violence in The art of falling, and her new poems about ‘All the men I never married‘…and of course, of Steve Ely (but more of that before long). Roy got me thinking of the way sequences appear or don’t appear in my own writing. Thinking about it I’m aware that I’ve created sequence about the death of my son, David; about my parents (my mother, especially) and grandparents; about a crofting community on Skye, about a village in Spain; about hospitals and about the Fall of Man. The thing is, I never set out to do any of it. Not like that. The poems got written over a period of years and then found each other’s company. I never set out to write ‘sequences’ about any of them, though theing is, once you’ve got, say half a dozen, you begin to wonder if there can be more. I have to say that in my case that’s the point at which I start to write bad poems.Because I’m forcing them in to being.

I’m also aware that quite accidentally I’ve written a lot of poems that feature birds. I know very little about birds. I can recognise them because my dad was a keen bird-watcher, and I suppose he taught me, but I’ve never set out to study or research them. And there has never been a reason to group the poems together simply because they have birds in them…probably because they’re not actually about birds at all.

I’ve set out, sometimes, quite deliberately to write sequences: one about a painter and his wife and his model and his paintings (think of Fiona Benson’s Van Gogh sequence in Bright Travellers)….I spent over a year reseaching and ended up with three poems. That should have taught me something, but I’ve since tried the same thing with Clearance sites on Skye, with Culloden, and (with a bit more success) the notions that famous statues may be able to speak…at least I had a proper purpose with that, one of experimenting with dramatic monologues, and trying out other people’s voices. In general, I’d judge them all relative failures, mainly, I think, because I was trying too hard.

They say you live and learn, but I’m currently battling away at an idea seeded at an open mic night…ostensibly a sequence about the Lofthouse mining disaster. It involves versions of God, Mrs Beeton, Mary Anning, flower pressing and the evolution of the planet. I suspect it will end in tears. And on the strength of one poem written in a workshop a poet I love and respect suggested I write a twelve poem sequence. I am already having nightmares about it.

So it’s a huge relief to turn to a poet who writes sequences with huge assurance, fed by phenomenal (as it seems to me) scholarship, research and absorption in contemporary political history, in the the world of birds, and in the heft and texture of Yorkshire dialect and its roots in medieval English. Welcome back, Steve Ely.

priory 5

When Steve was last a guest (August 2015)  I wrote quite a lot about landscape, about ‘knowing your place’. Particularly, I wrote about Englaland

Englaland isn’t edgeland. It’s right in the middle of England, the landscapes of farms and pit villages and power stations and their great white plumes of condensation, despoiled monasteries, forgotten castles, the remains of priories . It’s the landscape that D.H.Lawrence wrote about, and his loathing of the man-made England. Because pit villages are never pretty or picturesque in the way of, say, Pennine mill towns. But they are surrounded and inerpenetrated by an older farmed and forested England. Which is Steve Ely’s ground.

You can catch up on all that by following this link https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/08/30/knowing-your-place-a-polished-gem-8-steve-ely/

Time now to get up to date, with this poet who writes sequences..though, as we’ll shortly see, not just sequences. Since he was last here, his account of Ted Hughes’ Mexborough years has been published, as has his unnerving, chunky pamphlet Werewolf of which Sheenah Pugh writes:

“the poems in this collection which discuss individuals’ propensity to violence, how they control it and how it can be exploited by the state are extremely thought-provoking and memorable, and mostly not because of their often harrowing subject matter but because of the skill with which it is handled. The jackdaw approach to history, assimilating different peoples, events and eras, brings home, as nothing else could, our essential likeness to each other, and viewing our own thoughts, words and actions through the glass of the “other” is as instructive now as it was when Euripides used the prism of the Trojan War to condemn the Athenian invasion of Melos. I don’t think anyone could read “Inyengi” and not be, at least temporarily, more careful in their language, or “Spurn” and not wonder “could it happen here?”

I think that’s why Steve Ely speaks so directly to me in his collections, Oswald’s Book of Hours and Englaland. He reminds me of the jolt I got when I first read E.P.Thompson’s The making of the English Working Class, and Hobbsbawm, and The common muse, and Roy Palmer’s The Rambling Soldier, of when I first listened to Charles’ Parker’s radio ballads…especially The ballad of John Axon ….. and Tony Parker’s Red Hill (the story of a mining community).

breakfast 001

OK. What he sent me when I asked him to come back to the cobweb needs not a scintilla of editing. Steve..off you go.

Since August 2015, I’ve:

  • Run
  • Been out with the dogs a lot and got into confrontations with any number of landowners, farmers and gamekeepers.
  • Been birding in South Uist
  • Found a kestrel’s nest with two young-uns and been caught up in a tornado on the same day.
  • Published my biography of Ted Hughes’s early years, Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire, with Palgrave McMillan.
  • Been involved in the organisation of the second Ted Hughes Poetry Festival in Mexborough.
  • Gotten myself a PhD – the guerilla-pastoral, anarcho-yeoman anarchism, Bakhtin, Gramsci, Kipling, Pound, Moretti and Kavanagh …
  • Started teaching creative writing at the University of Huddersfield.
  • Been appointed Director of the Ted Hughes Network at the University of Huddersfield.
  • Published a hefty (who knew pamphlets had to weigh less than 0.5 grams and be printed on point 4 font on a butterfly’s wings?) pamphlet, Werewolf, with the estimable Bob Horne’s Calder Valley Poetry.

In 2017, I’ll:

  • Run
  • Continue my guerilla-pastoral campaign against landowners, farmers and gamekeepers
  • Dig some holes
  • Get a third dog for my roster, probably a lurcher of some sort
  • Go birding in South Uist
  • Publish a book of poems called Incendium Amoris with Smokestack Books  (June)
  • Be involved with the third Ted Hughes Poetry Festival in Mexborough (main weekend 23rd –25th June)
  • Help facilitate the symposium, ‘Ted Hughes & Place’ at the University of Huddersfield, with my colleague James Underwood (June 15th –16th)
  • Be delighted and excited to welcome Dr Heather Clark to the University of Huddersfield as International Visiting Scholar in June. Heather’s biography of Sylvia Plath will be published in 2018 by Knopf.
  • Write some excerpts from a mythic autobiography
  • Grow a some dangerous plants on my occult allotment
  • Publish a book of poems called Bloody, Proud & Murderous Men, Adulterers and Enemies of God with High Window Press (December).

I’ll also be keeping it real – on the street and in the ’hood. (he adds)

IMG_2043

Unlike the pigeon, pursued onto my window by the sparrowhawk which filled my garden with feathers,there’s not the slightest suggestion that Steve will be brought up short by the unexpected.He’s sent me two poems to share. They are poems with birds in them. They may not be about birds.

How great is that darkenesse

Ring road glazed in lights.

Buffering macula, dampened panes;

muted YouTube central heating.

Cold coffee and donuts,

gastro-oesophageal reflux.

The heart’s a torn up map, voyaging

blind through doldrum darkness.

Through muffling glass

high greylags trumpet,

skeining wild and north.

I reckon that if you had to visualize the first circle of hell, you’d do worse than think of a ring-road or a motorway service station in the dark early hours. It’s a place for a dark night of the soul, being itself soulless in its unnatural light and much-breathed, centrally-heated air, its windows glazed with condensation. An edgeland place, neither here nor there, but between real places and lives. The sense of spiritual displacement is concentrated in that phrase ‘the heart’s a torn up map, voyaging blind’ and I love the accuracy of ‘doldrum darkness’…the doldrum of becalmed sailors in the middle of a great ocean. And then the poem expands, out and up and away with the ‘high greylags’, migrants moving along known instinctive routes to where they have to be, ‘skeining wild and north’. ‘Skeining’ is lovely, being at once a shape and a sound, a call. And a great word to end on: north, resonant with literature and history. No accident that Heaney chose it for the title of a collection

campsite-north-uist

The second poem shifts us north. If you follow Steve Ely on Twitter or facebook you’ll be familiar with the posts about bird life on Uist. Here’s a poem that explains the love of it all.

No man can serve two masters

Walking that kelp-wrecked,

Hesperidean strand, notes

sanderling, turnstone, purple sand.

Shags hard and low across the surf swell,

crab boat’s outboard drone.  Hauled pots

and crates and nylon holdalls,

pagurus, AKs, shrink-wrapped keys,

the freedom of the golden isle

where phalaropes flirt

and red-throats flume and wail.

Norman MacCaig country, this…not geographically, but spiritually and linguistically..where shags fly ‘hard and low’ and small birds work busily on the low-tide wrack. It’s a moment to rest in.

I’ll know whether I’ve got it right this coming Tuesday night at Huddersfield University, when Steve is leading a writing workshop built around Ted Hughes’ Gaudete. He’ll certainly not leave me in doubt. Thank you anyway for being our guest, Steve Ely.

If you don’t own his books you can put that right. The detail of all of them, as well as of the other poets’ work I’ve mentioned at the beginning, follows. See you next week when we’ll be having a new guest. It’ll be great.

Steve’s books

Oswald’s Book of Hours   [2013 Smokestack Books] £7.95

Englaland                             [2015 Smokestack Books] £8.95

Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made In Mexborough [2015 Palgrave MacMillan ]

Werewolf                             [2016 Calder Valley Poetry ] £7.00

and others I’ve referred to:

Kim Moore The art of falling    [20125  Seren] £9.99

Yvonne Reddick  Translating mountains  [2017 Seren] £5.00

Keith Hutson Troupers [2016 Poetry Salzburg]

Roy Marshall The great animator [2017 Shoestring Press] £10.00

Tom Cleary  The third Miss Keane [2014] Happenstance] £4.00

Poems, poets, and a polished gem : Carola Luther

poet 2

Prior warning: early parts of this cobweb strand may come across as tetchy. If so, it’s not intended. I worry that someone might think it’s personally directed. It isn’t. Anyway. Here’s John Keats, listening to, or for, nightingales on Hampstead Heath. Now, that’s what a Poet looks like. Or it’s what one painter thought a Poet should look like. I suspect that poor Keats was more likely to be found in straitened circumstances somewhere unfashionable in London. But you get the picture. I’m not sure at what point you get have a capital ‘P’ for your status…probably you need to be dead for a good long time, by which time you’ll be known for writing Great Literature. In any case, it’s not something we should worry about for ourselves. My worry, if worry it be, is a small one; it itches and irks, and I want shot of it.

It’s this: I get uncomfortable with folk I don’t know, except via a few poems and Facebook posts, or bit of Twitter,calling themselves ‘poets’. I more than suspect that they shouldn’t. That it’s for other people to use that label for you. I get distinctly uncomfortable when someone calls me a poet. I usually say..no; I’m someone who writes poems. I believe there’s a real distinction to be made. I’m an ex-teacher who writes poems. On the other hand, it would never cross anyone’s mind, would it, to describe Larkin as a librarian who also wrote poems. ‘Poet’ is the word that comes to mind. It’s got me thinking about what it is when someone becomes a ‘poet’…because he or she has decidedly got something that I know full well I haven’t.

I was kicking it over in my mind on a two hour drive back from a birthday party in Whitby last night. I suppose it may have had something to do with the fact that the birthday girl is the daughter of someone I wrote a poem about. The poem won a prize and it made me believe I could go on writing poems, because someone might read them. Here’s a couple of stanzas from the poem  that did it.

Julie

According to the specialists you died six months ago

and I like sitting with you, proving there’s an afterlife

as we roll cigarettes, you perched like a wire bird

up on your kitchen top beside the angel

that I made for you before I knew you weren’t alive.

…………………………………

 

Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face,

then sink, then glow like cigarettes, like the ironworks

up the coast, or the small lights on the cobles

tied up and tilted on the mud; like the strange flares

from the stack high up on Boulby Cliff, where the shaft

goes down a whole dark mile of ammonites, and heads off

far away beneath the weight of oil rigs, and sunken ships,

and shoals of cod, and all the grey North Sea.

 

Let’s be clear. I didn’t decide to write a poem. I just wanted to say something about someone who meant a lot to me, and I wanted to find out what it was. It’s one of those gifts, those insights you’re sometimes granted, and you feel duly grateful. It didn’t make me feel remotely like any of the things I’ve trawled from the internet this morning. Like these:

“When one does something, one must do it wholly and well. Those bastard existences where you sell suet all day and write poetry at night are made for mediocre minds – like those horses that are equally good for saddle and carriage, the worst kind, that can neither jump a ditch nor pull a plow.”― Gustave Flaubert

Well, I’m sorry, Gustave, but I’m not ready to give up the day job. Nor can I get on board with Sylvia Plath, who wrote “Oh what a poet I will flay myself into.”  Though I sometimes bump into those who seem equally desperate to be ‘poets’. Anyway, flaying isn’t on my agenda or in my bucket-list.

I got a quiet smile from the self deprecation of someone called Mary Karr who wrote :“I’d spent way more years worrying about how to look like a poet — buying black clothes, smearing on scarlet lipstick, languidly draping myself over thrift-store furniture — than I had learning how to assemble words in some discernible order.” I say this despite the fact that my partner Flo is wont to say as I head off in my collarless shirt and waistcoat to some reading or other: “hey up, Fogs, you’ve got your poet set on again
I’ll run a mile from the orotundites of one Greg Bear (who he?) who says without apparent irony: “Once, poets were magicians. Poets were strong, stronger than warriors or kings — stronger than old hapless gods. And they will be strong once again”, or Wallace Stevens: ‘The poet is the priest of the invisible.’   You can see how easy it is to be completely uncomfortable with the idea of calling yourself a poet. Bob Dylan is easier company, for once: I think a poet is anybody who wouldn’t call himself a poet.

I could go on. And yet. There are those who I can only think of as poets, albeit some may have been priests or librarians, or hospital receptionists or teachers. It seems they were always poets first and the other things were incidental. Men and women with astonishing imaginative/empathic reach allied to the (apparently effortless) control of words, of the capabilities of language, syntax, rhythm, form. Men and women who are artists with verbal language in the way that, say, Hockney, lays down a mark, or Picasso makes a pure line. They seem to have been born that way, regardless of the phenomenal effort they put into assembling their craft.

What I think distinguishes them from someone like me is the feeling that they simply can’t help themselves. I’m going to struggle to articulate this, but it’s what I feel when I read Gerard Manly Hopkins (especially him), and R S Thomas with his hardscrabble neighbours on poor farmland. Sometimes, it’s as though they’d rather not be carrying the burden of this impossible urge. Think of the two poets who defined poetry for my generation. Ted Hughes. He was 27 when ‘Hawk in the Rain’ was published. Heaney, only 4 years older than me, was also 27 when Death of a naturalist appeared. What they each had was a visceral engagement with the world out there and the way it spoke to and through them; one that was fed by an absorption in the physical world of farms and foxes as unanswerable as, say, Slvia Plath’s engagement with the inner world of the psyche. The thing is, it went on and on, poem after poem. The landscapes might change, but the charged connections, rarely if ever.

I think, if I’m lucky, that might happen to me once or twice before I die, but I can see the same quality of ‘not being able to help yourself’ flare up in the contemporary poems that have excited me..ones by Christy Ducker, by Fiona Benson, by Pascale Petit, Kim Moore, Steve Ely. Ones who do it often enough for me to think of them as poets rather than people who write poems. Forget the hierarchies, the rankings, the ‘who’s better than who’ nonsense. Some have done more than others, and some have had more success in terms of public recognition than others, but whatever it is, they have it, and they are poets. They are passionately moved by what they see and feel around then..it’s a quiet passion, but passion it undoubtedly is.

Which brings me, if you’re still reading, to today’s guest, Carola Luther. Two quotations will help me make the link with what I’ve written so far. Kim Moore, first, from a Sunday Poem post of 2012, writing about a poem from Walking with the animals:

– it was hard trying to pick a favourite.  I narrowed it down to eight across the two books, but decided to go for ‘Mourning’ .   I think this was maybe the poem that gave me the open door into Carola’s work – it is like a like a prayer or a benediction

malarchy

And then this from Carcanet publicity for another of Carola’s collections:   Arguing with Malarchy which, the writer, says is:

full of voices: tender, sinister or angry, the glimpsed depths of their stories, the distances they have travelled. Carola Luther’s poems are alert to the ways a life can be briefly snared in the turn of a phrase – or in the moment when language fails. She explores silence, absences, the unspoken communication between animals and human beings, the pauses and boundaries between what is remembered, forgotten or invented, the living and the dead.

Both of these pick out what I think is a numinous quality in Carola’s work…’a prayer or a benediction’; ‘the glimpsed depths’; the way they are alert to ‘the moment when language fails’…and thereby rescues it through language. It’s this quality of being alive to the moment that makes me think of Carola Luther as something more than ‘someone who writes poems’. Let’s meet her.

She’s characteristaically brief about herself; she sends me this:

“Carola Luther’s first poetry collection, Walking the Animals was published by Carcanet Press in 2004 and shortlisted that year for the Forward Prize for First Collection.

Her second collection Arguing with Malarchy was published by Carcanet Press in 2011.

Carola was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in 2012. Herd, a pamphlet of poems written in that year, was published in by The Wordsworth Trust (2012).

She has also written texts for theatre and mixed media performances. The most recent of these was the libretto for Lilith, (composer, Dimitar Bodurov) a piece commissioned and conceived by soprano Claron McFadden. Other composers Carola has worked with are Jenni Molloy (UK) and Byron Au Yong (Seattle).”

I’ll let all that speak for itself. I know Carola through the Albert poets, both as a guest reader and generous host, and even more as a member of the critiquing workshops I go to on Monday evenings in Huddersfield. I’ve come to rely on her sharp ear and keen editorial eye, and especially the way she responds to the work, and what it says. She has that quality of quiet engagement in a workshop that I like so much in her poems. She’s sent me three to share with you. They’re quite long, and packed. It’s a treat.

The first is one I wanted for the way it illuminates Kim Moore’s sense of a prayer or benediction. Carola provides an explanation of the use of what might feel like an arcane bit of lexis. ‘The word Selah appears in the Psalms. Its exact meaning is not clear. It is thought to mean ‘pause’; or be an end (similar to amen); or be a musical direction indicating a breathing space. It is also apparently similar to the Hebrew words for lift up and praise.’ The poem recreates one of those moments that can be too-easily missed.

Pause

Driving north towards the first snows

I see the moon’s blue hare

balance on its ears.

Except for a ridge of cloud

the sky is clear

suspended

waiting for its morning

happening.

Selah.

Nnnn the sky half-belonging

to the night Nnnn the sky on tiptoe

reaching for its day

everything today explained by sky

its bank of deep blue becoming

pink without a threshold

strip of violet. Should there

not be violet ?

No.

Selah.

Radio alert. Soon a gale

will blow from Russia

and the tight contours of a front

make mountain maps of storm

though now it’s bone-china

dawn give thanks

selah.

Give thanks the trees are still as cakes

whole canopies dipped in sugar in the night

and in the light

remaining

lit.

Close-up

etched rooks.

Claw-lock.

Zip-breast

black anorak

of wings.

Tucked.

Sheep tucked.

Isolate.

Each sheep motionless

in its cumulus

and I too

bring my car

to a stop.

Selah.

Looking up

I see the outline of the moon

fading in the early light.

Blue hare

hangs yet.

It could break through

at anytime twisting

upright from its caul

to escape

and haunch away

before the onslaught

of the storm

of day

give thanks.

Or if it proves too late selah for that

might it fall unseen to earth

defrost in its plastic bag

inert

a knuckle knurl selah

grey blue

selah

selah

till night ?

You should read it aloud, following its length down the page, listening for its rhythm, hearing the stage directions of those line breaks. Then you can go back and relish the precision of the moments: each sheep motionless in its cumulus, trees ‘still as cakes’, the zip – breast/ black anorak/ of wings. And  become aware of the counterpointing of rounded and spiky textured sound, the images that are as precise as the ones in dreams. It’s lovely.

floodtown 2

The next one is one that stopped me in my tracks at a Monday night workshop, and it’s a special request from me. Carola lives in Sowerby Bridge, and I suspect the narrative of this flood has special resonance for everyone from the upper Calder valley. (Whatever WordPress has done or will do, this poem should be in quatrains)

The Rising

The roof of the distant house is still attached,

lashed down with tarp and rope

by the woman who floated past

on a section of road.

 

Now fieldlakes are sea. I watch wavelets

lap at tip-toey hooves of sheep and goats

on archipelagos. Tail to tail

they stand stock-still and stare

 

at this tree, at the house, at the ridge

in the distance that hides the farm.

Only when hocks go down do they bleat.

The bleating goes on.

 

The man who thought he was alone in my tree

croons a song of comfort. A tenor.

He sings to the beasts in a tongue I don’t know

but it could be Hebrew. Perhaps he’s a cantor.

 

He reminds me of my mother so I join in quietly

in Levantine Arabic, her home language.

I’m godless and tone-deaf but harmonise

as well as I can.

 

He looks up at my branch, shock in his eyes,

raises arms in the rain. I think he weeps.

We both sing louder. From the visible

tip of the hill, a bark. Vixen.

 

Two dogs howl from the house.

The woman leans from an attic window

dog either side and a chicken. She’s waving.

I think she’s a Christian. She sings

 

of waters that stood above mountains,

covers of the deep flung out like garments,

and a God who came to rebuke

the waters, and the waters fled, they fled.

 

A bellowing stag on a knoll to the east.

I hear scream of hare and keckering

badger. Moles and beetles join in

with squeak of weasel, squirrel, rat,

 

even dumb worms open their mouths

to mouth at capsizing frogs

and otters that mew from a channel.

Then the sounding of cattle.

 

It is ox-horn and shofar calling

to the planet’s diaspora, and I see herds

in silhouette from the milkfarm amass on the hill.

A lion from the zoo on the moor

 

roars his answer, and there is sweetness

in the sound of cow and lion lowing together.

I think of my lover and I miss her.

And just as  noise reaches crescendo, birds

 

rise up like bodhisattvas, and all things with wings

strain skyward as one to lift the world.

Crows, bees, peregrines, pulling

skyward with bats and swans,

 

and on the backs of hawks, the little things

singing and singing, mayfly, crane-fly, wren;

and high up, a harrier, and there a dove,

I’m certain I’m looking at a collared dove,

 

and I turn to ask the man who chants kaddish

when I realize that he and the sheep

have gone quiet, the goats are swimming

in silent circles, and water pulls at my hips.

 

The forward momentum of this poem is as irresistible as floods. There’s an en-chantment in the naming of creatures, and of the consolations of song and of religion and of gods, which means that I found the last line shocking. You think you know where you are in this poem until it takes your feet out from under you with an alarming shift of perspective; twice.

The man who thought he was alone in my tree

croons a song of comfort

In the way of a dream, you have no time to reflect on the oddity of it; it is what is, with all the inevitability of a dream. I just have to go back and reread this poem, aloud, letting the voice sink in.

Finally, a poem full as an egg with richness: (an apology…this poems is constructed in couplets. WordPress has a habit of closing stanza breaks. If it has done it again after two re-edits, I’m mortified)

Theft

The first blossoms are caught in the slow-motion act of bursting

their scabbards. The timid will survive, not these flamboyances

 

blowing out innards, shaking out pleats from their whites too early

not to be nipped in frost or unfrocked by the forecast snow.

 

Today has been full of such sorrows, regrets felt as motes of perfection

breaking, something important breaking, a pod, a contract,

 

contraction of the heart. If I let myself be flamboyantly open, I feel them

these minuscule mistakes, as well as my own betrayal of the trees,

 

the birds, the animals. For example, what does it mean to walk in, again

and again, on that young heron? I say walking in, as if the bird is human,

 

as if its long pond floating with weed and the single-track road laid down

like carpet before it, were the boudoir, the bedroom, the madre

 

chambre  of a tender king in which only the beloved is allowed. A mallard

sieves green with its beak. Everything else is quiet in the aftermath,

 

outbreathing relief, it is easter holidays, dusk, and at last the people

go home. Trees wait. Blossoms hold tight. Breath. Beat. All clear.

 

The woodpecker grinds open its gate and the evening rituals begin:

the deer lips the earth, the mallard dips, birds call and chunter

 

as if before doorways of shops, squirrels running along branches

doing chores like the branches are streets, and the breeze shaking

 

brand-new canopies, their signs of new leaves, buds, little white flowers.

And then here I am. Each evening this week I have come, walking into fright

 

and the scattering of animals interrupted while doing their thing, disturbing

the sheep, disturbing everything, especially the young heron who feeds here,

 

drinks, looks at himself, looks at, and into himself with a concentration

that could be creating. Yesterday when I came, he turned to stone

 

to wait it out. But with the evening pull of hunger and disappearing

light, he risked it, dropped his head to puncture water, sup, sip,

 

try to concentrate, to ignore me, get the depth back. It didn’t work.

He opened wide his resignation. Flew. Immediately I missed

 

the grey-white body, his ponytail, his tribal, inner-city Manchu queue,

I missed the pharaoh eye out-lined in kohl, his neck-tube, narrow, vulnerable,

 

and down the throat-front, the long punk zip, as if in the past his throat

had been slit lengthways, then stitched back together in hurry and remorse, suture

 

upon suture in thick black thread. On the heron’s chest two dreadlocks

of sorrow, the hunter’s own hair I imagined, sewn as a sign, a message

 

to sisters and brothers to leave this bird alone, he has died once

for no reason, and should not die again.  I did not shoot or even throw a stone,

 

but here I was nonetheless, staring at wounds, demanding as my right, ownership

of looking, and only now asking, do creatures and trees not need

 

what I need, to be left alone, to be unseen, sometimes, in order to be

themselves, and what I write becomes a question to myself, about privacy,

 

when have I had my allotment of looking, when is it enough? And I realise

of course, I am talking of theft. I am talking of the snake at the water trough.

 

 

It’s so crammed and so particular, I look for analogies in painting. It has the strangely disconcerting quality of a Richard Dadd, and the lush sensory qualiry of a Rousseau. I love the way it says thankyou to D H Lawrence, one poet to another. I like the cheeky insousciance of the title. I hope you do too. Thank you Carola Luther for finally being a cobweb guest. The pleasure was all ours.

Acknowledgements: Versions of two of the poems in todays cobweb have been previously published. Theft first appeared in Herd a pamphlet published by the Wordsworth Trust in 2012.  The Rising was first published online in The Compass Poetry Journal  March 2016 (ed Andrew Forster and Lindsey Holland). With thanks to The Wordsworth Trust and to Andrew Forster and Lindsey Holland.

Finally, a reminder; Carola’s collections are available from the publisher. Just go the the Carcanet site. And buy them.

Arguing with Malarchy

Published: July 2011 Carcanet Press

Walking the Animals

Published: April 2004 Carcanet Press

See you next week.

Between the lines: drafts, workshops, and how to survive them

keyboard-1

A spot of deja vu this afternoon. It’s lovely to be back after a two week break, but I notice the last  post I wrote (about poetry residentials, just before going on one) starts with a moan about the weather AND the unpleasantness of watching my RL team Batley Bulldogs on a cold day with rain siling down. Guess what. I’m off to Mount Pleasant, the most ironically named ground in English rugby league, and it’s cold, horrible and tanking down. I may have to thaw out before I can finish this week’s post. Fingers crossed we get a win. (why do managers and players of football teams always say they wanted to get ‘a result’? A draw is a result. So is getting hammered by a team you should walk all over. Just a thought. Anyway, I’m off to get layered up. I’ll be back in a while. Behave, while I’m away.)

bulldog-2jpg

Well. You’ve been very patient. It’s Monday afternoon.This is what it looked like yesterday. Detail from a brilliant photo posted by Paul Butterworth on the supporters’ facebook page. It was cold, it was wet and it was unrelentingly nailbitingly brutal. It’s taken me till now to get warm, and I was only watching. Right. Back to business.

I had great week in St Ives with writing tutors Kim Moore and David Tait, in the company of talented, committed folk who I already knew, like Meg Cox, Martin Zarrop, Rachel Davies and Hilary Robinson, and a whole bunch of folk who I met for the first time and taught me lots.

Because they are gifted teachers, Kim and David did three things that a good residential ought to do. 1:They are very clear about what the course is for, about what to expect, and, day by day, what’s coming next, and why. 2: They surprised me with poems I’d never seen before, and put them in a context that shifted the way I read them and wrote out of them. 3: They gave me tasks that disturbed and challenged me. 4: They gave me the security to handle it.

It was a week that did what a good residential should do: it took me out of my comfort zone, it made me look at stuff that I unconsciously try to avoid. It will eventually make me write differently, and, hopefully, better. And it also made me think very hard about workshopping my own poems and those of others…which will be the point of this delayed cobweb strand.

keyboard-3

Just to be clear; what do I mean by a workshop? In this context, it’s not one where you write new work from prompts or whatever. I mean workshops where you take a poem that’s unfinished or unsatisfying in some way, in the hope that someone will spot what’s going wrong and suggest a possible solution, or to discover that it’s unsatisfying because it’s actually not very good and probably not worth persisting with. The two I go to on a regular basis are the (theoretically) weekly meetings of The Albert Poets at The Sportsman’s pub in Huddersfield, and the ones in the afternoon sessions of the monthly Poetry Business Writing Days in Sheffield. They’re the ones where I feel simultaneously safe and challenged. I’ll try to explain why I think both of these conditions are essential as I go along.

Safety/security first. Groups like these work because they have very clear ground rules. On residentials where there’s a critiquing workshop, and where there are people who haven’t met before, its good to be told what they are.(They include making enough copies of your poem for everyone to have one) David Tait reminded me of the importance of this in St Ives, because he told us all very clearly, and I’m going to borrow what he said.

First: don’t bring a poem that you’re unwilling to change; a workshop isn’t a place to go to be told how much you’re loved. If you want applause, go to open mic.s and take your chance with the rest. Now, you might think this is obvious, but nothing is more uncomfortable than dealing with the ones who don’t get this basic premise.

Second. Everyone’s got a copy. You read your poem aloud. And then you keep quiet. You don’t explain why you wrote it, or its backstory..none of that. The poem has to stick up for itself. You don’t argue or interrupt. You listen as people say what they think. You may think what they say is stupid. (a few weeks ago, a newcomer to one group gave my poem nul points, saying that it was full of similes that have no place in poems any more…something of the sort). Grit your teeth. There should be a time span for this bit..depends on the size of the group. 5-10 minutes. At the end you should have the chance to respond. Not indignantly.

Third. What about the critiquers? Rules vary, but I like the format of the Poetry Business. When you respond to a poem you start with some thing(s) you like..two or three….and then things that puzzle you, or don’t seem to work. What you say needs to be helpful, potentially. And it needs to be about THIS POEM. And even if you love it, you need to say why. And if you want to suggest changes, PLEASE make them provisional. You have to believe that you don’t necessarily have the answers or solutions. Preface your comments with something on the lines of: what happens if ….what happens if you cut this line/if you shift these stanzas to the beginning/ if you make the title the first line. That kind of thing

Fourth. I nearly forgot this. It’s a rule I personally want to add. When you listen to someone read her poem, listen to what it’s saying. Think: what’s this about? Too often people jump in with a comment about details and techniques without giving any indication that they’ve listened to what the poem means. So say what you think the poem means. The poet thinks she knows but if you’ve heard something different then that’s important. It tells her that she hasn’t got the message/significance/meaning across to one reader at least, and she may need to think about why.

In other words, there’s a contract between the poet and the readers, and everyone has to trust everyone else. I tend to think this works best in groups of a certain size. For me, 5 or 6 is optimum, 10 is manageable, and bigger than that means that whoever is in the last three of the session will not actually be heard by anyone. Because it’s a tiring business. It really is.

Fifth: (actually, I’m not sure this part of the sequence BUT it’s coming here nonetheless).

It’s about one-to-one workshops. These are a feature of most, if not all, residentials. David Tait, again, is very clear about ground rules.Let’s assume this is not a session where you are asking how to get published, or how to sequence a pamphlet, or how to get readings, or how to become famous.

The first is that you will have a time allocation. Whatever it is, both you and the tutor must honour it. You will be punctual. The tutor will be punctillious. When you time is up, it’s up.

Secondly, you supply the tutor with two or three poems that you want advice about. You do not turn up with a manuscript, or ask the tutor to read a potential collection. You’re going to get twenty minutes. Deal with it.

Thirdly, you do everything you can to help the tutor to help you. Ask the tutor if s/he’d like you to highlight the bits that you think are not working. S/he may prefer to read the poems blind, but it does no harm to ask.

Fourthly, in any case you should go to your workshop/tutorial with your highlights ready. It might be the title, the last line, the pivot; it might be that you think there’s too much or too little; it might be that you can’t make it dance…but have an idea what you want to focus on.

Now, you might think this is obvious, commonsense, doesn’t need saying. But I’ve been in a blind-reading workshop (all the poems anonymised) where an extremely famous poet said that my contribution was a ‘crock of sh*te’. And to be fair, it wasn’t much good, but the point of a workshop’s being to make poems better vanished right there. It didn’t do much for the ambience either. Tutors can break the contract, but so can ‘students’…the ones who, despite everything, want to be told how to write a collection or get on the radio or whatever, who want to criticise the course, or just turn up for vaguely poetry-related therapy. The rules are crucial, and we have to trust that we all make them work.

So what’s it like, chucking your poem into the ring, like a prize-fighter’s hat. I thought I’d finish with a sort of case-study. Let’s start with the version of the poem I wanted to workshop because it wasn’t working.

Inside out

 

Men caught heaven,

made a place to hold it. Light fills it

like a cistern, to the brim.

 

Outside : cliff-face, course on course

of great stones shutting off the sky,

the earth breathing its last, pressed to death.

 

Inside: suspended gravity.

Mass without weight,

where everything takes flight…

 

cobweb banners of dead regiments –

small dry waterfalls,

the arrested drift of falling leaf…..

 

where stone grows like trees, like flowers,

spreads its arms, its fingers

that it clasps in prayer.

 

where light smells of incense, wax,

scented dust and God;

sounds like the oldest music

 

that murmurs and whispers;

a shout would vanish,

a pebble in a well.

 

Press a palm on the stone,

its cool grain, small snags

where a mason’s chisel slipped;

 

make yourself remember

this is simple stone –  quarried,

split, carted, hauled

 

by men with callouses,

fighting brute inertia,

bulk,weight,awkwardness,

 

who wove traceries in stone

and netted heaven

like a bright moth.

 

The copies circulated round the group weren’t highlighted in red, but just for convenience, they are here..they’re the bits I wasn’t sure about. I’d started from the simple idea that great Gothic cathedrals are bigger inside than out, that enchantment of stone to create the illusion of weightlessness. When I was writing, in my mind I was standing outside Durham Cathedral, outside York and Lincoln and Winchester and then walking inside into that rare light.

Now..you see what it does when I tell you that;  it’s special pleading before you can read what’s in front of you. I started to think that maybe the idea is a) blindingly obvious, b) the poem was just assertively arguing a case that didn’t need arguing, and c) that it probably wasn’t worth salvaging, but we could give it a chance. Intriguingly, some readers didn’t see that it was about cathedrals; maybe I was making too many assumptions. (I grew up with Bannister-Fletcher’s history of architecture). Anyway, it made me think.

As well as people in the group making oral suggestions, several will annotate their copy and give it to the writer afterwards. I think this is great, regardless of what they write.Here’s two to make a point:

inside-out-4inside-out-3jpg

What do I make of this? The left hand one reinforces my unease about the title. It means I need to do something about it…I trust this responder, as it happens. Ditto the suggestion about omitting two stanzas. Why? Because I’m not sure about the introduction of scent and sound into a poem that’s focussed on sight and touch. I really like the images, but I have to ask if they belong, if they earn their keep. What about the right hand one?  Well it’s curtly radical, isn’t it. It would be easy to take umbrage or shrug it off. But maybe I need to listen to the voice that’s saying: this poem is too long, there’s too much stuff going on. It needs some cuts. Possibly not these.

Meanwhile, as group members are making their annotations, I’m making mine.

inside-out-2

What’s happened is that I feel confirmed about the title. Lots of folk mentioned this. Ditto, the inside/outside opposition which tips the rhetoric of the poems in the wrong dirction. It’s clunky. Get shot. As I read the poem to the group I heard what was wrong with the the line about the leaves…I heard it before I got to it and changed it as I read. You think you’ve read your poem aloud, but it’s different reading it to listeners. I decide to get rid of the pebble in the well, much as I like it. It’s distracting. And so on. On the other hand, no one has found that those imperative verbs, press, make yourself, are a problem. Maybe I can keep them. A week later, I go back and edit. I don’t think this poem is up for submissions or competitions. It’s OK, but I suspect it didn’t want to be written as much as I thought I wanted to write it. On the other hand, I think it’s better than it was,thanks to that workshop. Here it is.See what you think.

Weightless

 

Men caught heaven,

made a place to hold it, a cistern,

full to the brim with light,

 

suspended gravity,

mass without weight,

where everything takes flight…

 

cobweb banners of dead regiments:

small dry waterfalls –

arrested drifts of falling leaf;

 

where stone grows like trees, like flowers,

spreads its arms, flexes fingers

that it clasps in prayer;

 

where light smells of incense, wax,

scented dust and God,

sounds like the oldest music.

 

Press a palm on the stone,

its cool grain, small snags

where a mason’s chisel slipped;

 

remember

this is simple stone –  quarried,

split, carted, hauled

 

by men with callouses,

fighting bulk,weight,

awkwardness;  men

 

who wove traceries in stone

and netted heaven

like a bright moth.

I’m sorry you had to wait till Monday. Thank you for turning up and thank you for listening. As a treat, next week we’re having a guest poet I’ve wanted ever since I started writing the cobweb. See you next Sunday (or Monday)

PS. If you’ve been persuaded by the last two posts, you could do a lot worse than have a think about this tasty-looking course coming up shortly. It could be just what you need:

Residential Poetry Course
April 10th – 14th 2017
Tutors: Kim Moore and Jennifer Copley
Abbot Hall Hotel, Kents Bank, Grange-Over-Sands, Cumbria
£396 To book please contact hotel  015395 32896