Now what? Or: What next?

degas 1

I don’t need many excuses to use this picture. When I was doing A Level Art, my art teacher, Louis Wilde, made me copy it. I mean, really, copy it. It was probably a poor quality reproduction, maybe 4 inches square, at most. He told me I had to figure out how it was all put together. I had to draw it and redraw it. I started to understand what was going on with lines…that strong diagonal of the worktop, the echoed vertical curves of the women’s arms, the shapes made by the orange scarf, the shapes around it. It became more and more abstract the more I looked and looked.

And then I had to paint it and paint it. Bear in mind, this was a Boys’ Grammar School in 1959. I was the only one in the whole 6th form who was doing Art. It was not a well-equipped department. The papers were rubbish. The available paint was powder paint. Still. I struggled and struggled to get the texture of that work top. I put paint on top of paint. I started again. And again. And Louis Wilde just let me struggle. Keep going. he’d say. You’ll see. And I did. I’d have seen straight away if it had been the original, and you can see much clearer with a screen image. But the fact is, there’s hardly any paint on that pale oatmeal-y area at the bottom. Mainly, what you can see is the canvas, as is also true of the top part of the image. He was teaching me to look, was Louis, and I’m still grateful.

Drawing and redrawing the two figures and then painting them made me look at how the upper body is put together, the ways it works. You can feel the weight of bone and flesh and muscle, the ways they flex. I never managed to figure out how Degas managed to suggest that the weight of the figures continues all the way to the unseen floor, hidden by the diagonal line of the worktop. Miraculous. But here’s the kicker…we were into Abstract in 1959. Representional painting was dead. Or unfashionable. Much the same thing, when you’re 16. Louis had me doing synthetic cubism quicker than you could say Braque. So I never really got to think about what the picture was saying about these women and their work. I never for a second considered what Degas was well aware of…their tiredness, the steamy heat…look at that big stove, or copper, or whatever it is…look at the haze of light, muzziness. I was reminded of this, reading U.A.Fanthorpe who voices one of the women in this painting. I can’t remember the title of her poem. But in a footnote, she remarks that Degas got the title of the painting wrong. It’s called Women ironing. Fanthorpe says that these are women trained in a trade involving skill and stamina. They’re professionals. The painting should be called Ironing women.

What she’s interested in isn’t art history. It’s living breathing human beings. I’ll come back to this. Now, when I started writing this yesterday (May 21) I was in an odd frame of mind; no, not odd. Uncomfortable, mean-spirited. Why would that be? I think that it’s because for the last four years in poetry I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants. I’ve been ridiculously lucky to be able to do that. Four pamphlets, a first collection, and now a second, joint collection which will be available in June. And very handsome it looksgap year facebook

Why the odd feeling of flatness? Surely, everything is wonderful? Isn’t this more than you could ever dream of? I remember suddenly realising that Degas wasn’t using much paint at all on that surface that I’d been trying to reproduce by laying paint on paint. I saw how it was done, and what I felt was …deflated. I’d been missing the point all along. Less was much much more. I have to say it was a lot later that I recognised that the women in the picture, their situation, and work and humanity was what mattered, and the technique was a means to an end. Not the end, any more than ‘having a collection’ is an ‘end’. It’s a means of telling what you make of the world.

Poets I love have told me how they went to sleep with their first published collections under their pillow. I watched a poet I love sit in a daze of happiness on the day a parcel of copies of her first collection arrived. I saw her reading the other week, and during her reading she talked about how she’d written nothing, really, for a year after that. Not writers’ block, whatever that is, because I think that describes a kind of desperation. Not wanting to write and being unable. That wasn’t it at all. It was just..not writing.

I haven’t felt it like that. I’ve gone on writing and writing. But I think I may have made a mistake in getting involved in that poem-a-day-April, which coincided with finishing the new collection. I wrote 50+ ‘poems’. I worked on every unfinished draft from two years of going to writers’ workshops. I’ve read them all over and over. I feel as though I’ve spent all my savings in one big splurge, and I’ve nothing to show for it and less to fall back on when it rains. Flat. A bit like realising Degas didn’t use much paint. The ‘is that it?’ feeling. Well, it is what it is, and we’ll ask for the serenity to accept it until it decides to go away. Because it will. In the meantime I found myself writing a series of shortish poems which wonder whether poetry’s all it’s cracked up to be. You know you’re in trouble when you start writing poems about poems. I’ll share them with you. Think of it as confession. Have a read of Auden’s ‘Musee des beaux arts’ first.

degas 4

The whole of the moon



They give themselves airs, poets,

make large claims on the world,

like starving men

who stake little flags in cairns

in wildernessess of snow and cold.


You don’t get painters doing that,

the ones for whom it’s enough

to sit still, to look and look and look

till they almost believe they know

how the moment works,


the art where you see all of it

at once, at the same moment

as everything else  inside the frame,

right to the very edges

where the moment stops.


A poet wonders how would it be

if the picture went on round

the corner, if you could see

where Breughel’s hunters came from,

and who or what was following.


Poets  tell you what matters

is the moment, but really

they’re hooked on narrative,

the why, the who, the what and when,

the dumb ghosts in the machine.

degas 5


painters give you everything at once,

you stand in the space where they were,

they gift you their eyes, don’t stand

behind you to explain or point.


Poets are always at your shoulder,

touching your elbow, you can’t

shut them out. You go at their pace,

top to bottom, left to right.


A painter sees the sea, the cliffs,

the clouds, the boy scaring crows,

the ploughman turning clods,

the ship, a splash. Doesn’t write

a title underneath. A poet tells you

what the painter meant.


Through the scrim and scaffolding

of words you will never see

again  the world he saw.



A painter can stop the moment

of a girl lit from a window,

pouring milk from a jug. The milk

makes no sound, a stilled liquid purl.

degas 6


Intent and still as a cat, a painter

sees a woman ironing, the turn

of her shoulder, the planes

of greenish light, the way flesh

isn’t white at all, how, like snow

it borrows colour, blue and violet.


You look through the eyes of the cat

and see with a start that it’s true,

the way a torso shifts to press

down on an iron, how a finger

moves a strand of errant hair,

how red is the inside of a yawn.


He watches how a dancer watches

herself in a long mirror. He doesn’t

say she loves herself in her froth

of muslin, her satin shoes. He doesn’t

say how tired is the ironing woman,

how hot, or bored, how long the day.


He lends you his eyes and quietly

goes, leaves you to make of it

what you will.

degas 2

What was all that about? Not for a moment was I thinking of stopping writing to take up painting. I think what was behind it was thinking about the whole purpose of signs and symbols as a way of illuminating the world, celebrating it and the people in it. And at the same time thinking that either I’d said as much as I possibly could, or that however much I did it I’d never say anything particulary new or memorable, or both.

And then you’re given a gift. A poet who says she didn’t write anything for a year after her first collection was published. But who is now writing wonderful new stuff. And another; yesterday, I reblogged a post from Julie Mellor. When you’re finished here, do go and read it. It seems ages since she was a Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition winner, and then seemed to go off the radar (though I’ve kept reminding you how good she is via the cobweb). She’s been quietly working away, listening, watching, researching, absorbing. She’s finding herself in new places, exploring things she hadn’t expected to explore. If that doesn’t cheer me up, nothing can.

So when I write: Now what? Or. What next? you can imagine two distinct ways of saying it. One irritable and tetchy. Or one that say, let’s get cracking. Work to be done. This morning, it’s the second voice, and I’m grateful to the ones who made me feel this way.


For Winnie Johnson and Keith Bennett



You dream of cottongrass

of threaded ghosts of baby’s hair,

white water spilled on blackstone grit.


You know that you will never know

where your boy is, has been

this forty year and more;


you know this as you know

the iron and salt of hot rare meat

the smell of his skull, his skin.


Thin winds pick among the rags

and bones of brittle heather,

sunken jaggers’ roads;


trouble dammed black waters,

the sour weeping of turned turfs

that won’t give up what’s held


where men in raincoats walk

in ragged lines with long white rods

testing the depth and smell


of the peat the way a shepherd

probes drifted Pennine snow

for buried sheep that eat their own fleece


You knew such things could be,

breathed vowels. Air.

Now you know nothing else —


the texture of a house

this pale moth-knowing

in a shadowed room,


ringed by black moors, dark humps:

tumbled cairns that mock

the lost, that will not show the way


(First published in “Much Possesssed” smith|doorstop 2016)


At the time of her death in 2012, almost 50 years after Keith went missing, her son, Allan said:

“Winnie fought tirelessly for decades to find Keith and give him a Christian burial.

“Although this was not possible during her lifetime, we, her family, intend to continue this fight now for her and for Keith. We hope that the authorities and the public will support us in this.”

Ian Brady died in prison today, without ever revealing where Keith lies buried.



Found in translation: an (un)discovered gem…Alicia Fernández Gallego-Casilda (with an afterthought)

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First off, I’ll use any excuse to revisit  posters of the Spanish Civil War. But I do have a reason, which will become clear soon enough.

Secondly, this may turn out to be a shorter post that usual…or one that I revisit and add to during the next couple of days. The thing is, I’m really really tired and finding it difficult to concentrate. The latter is because I’m currently treating patches of sun-damage/skin cancer on my face with what the specialist describes as the dermatological equivalent of oven cleaner. I looks worse than it is, and people keep asking me if I’ve been in a fight…basically it looks like your knees looked when you’d graze them as a child. It’s sore and and it itches and burns, and I have to keep it up for three weeks. Just three days to go now, but it does wake me up/stops me from going to sleep.

I’m also tired for a good reason, which is that I was out four nights running last week, and three nights were poetry events. By midnight on Thursday I’d O.D.’d on poets and poetry, head buzzing with it all. Another thing to stop me sleeping. Wednesday I went to Square Chapel in Halifax, where Keith Hutson hosts Word Play. Guest poets were Roy Marshall, Kim Moore and Alison Brackenbury, any one of whom I’d cheerfully travel long distances to listen to…add in an open mic that included Cobweb guests, Julia Deakin and Laura Potts, and you have a night of riches.

Thursday was the Albert Poets. No open mic. there, but three star poets. Geoff Hattersley, who I’ve finally caught up with. Dry, laconic, ironic and utterly listenable. Keith Hutson, whose one-man show built round his sonnets celebrating variety and music hall artists and artistes will shortly be going to Wilton’s Music Hall. Wow. No wonder Carol Ann Duffy’s so enthusiastic about his work. And a poet I didn’t know, but now want to know a lot more about: Ruth Valentine. Since Thursday I’ve read and reread the collection I bought: Downpour [Smokestack 2015]. It really is a stunner, proving that it’s possible to write about death and hospitals and be nothing but life affirming, and life enhancing. I think I may come back to this in a post of its own. Don’t let me forget.

And there was Monday, The Puzzle Poets Live at The Blind Pig in Calderdale. Two great guests in Mark Connors and Genevieve Walsh, each celebrating the launch of a new collection. And in the open mic, my guest for tonight, Alicia Fernández Gallego-Casilda. (How’s that for a smooth segue!)

I heard Alicia read for the first time at Mark Connors’ poetry venue..Word Club at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds. It was also the first time I’d heard another of our cobweb guest poets read..Ian Harker. At an earlier event, I heard Tom Weir for the first time. It’s worth a trip is Word Club! Alicia reads with great clarity, great rhythm and engagement. It made me sit up and listen. I sat up even straighter when she read in Spanish as well as in English.

I’m going to digress for a bit at this point before we come back to Alicia and her poems. At the time I heard her first, I was struggling with a book review. (I did finish it. It’ll be in the July edition of The High Window). I was trying to come to terms with the fact that the collection was a homage to, or a translation of, Occitan troubador poetry from 12th C France. I couldn’t work out which. In the end, I decided it didn’t matter. Here were poems, and the thing to do was read and respond to them, just like any other poems. Except they’re not, quite. You can’t stop yourself wondering what the originals actually sounded like. Not French, certainly, any more than Piers Plowman or Gawain sound like modern English. I wondered about what’s lost in translation, the music,the nuances, the irreplaceable rhymes. After all, English suffers from rhyme-poverty in comparison with inflected languages, doesn’t it.

That’s one issue. If a poet is writing into another language..a Spanish speaker writing in English, say…or reading into another language, making links between English and Occitan, say…..what’s happening exactly? I have no answers. Just the fact that it bothers me, because I can’t imagine it.

The other issue grows from a friendship I have with a Hungarian who I met 4 years ago at a writing residential in Spain…an artist in metal, a sculptor, a creator of serious street furniture, great embassy gates..that sort of thing…and exquisite smaller pieces. And he writes poetry, in Hungarian and in English. I’ve spent a lot of time with him on courses, and via emails, workshopping his English poems. Sometimes he’s translated from Hungarian. Sometimes they’re written directly in English. My job is usually to work with him to find the core idea and the context. I may ask him to give me the literal English translation of the idea he had in Hungarian. And then I try to find the idiomatic English that fits his intentions and, if possible, his rhythms. I learn a lot about my own language from writing with Gyula Friewald.

So, there we are. I’m puzzled by the business of translation, the way ideas and feelings may only have their true form in this or that language, and what it’s like to to write in or into a foreign language. My sister in law has lived in Germany for so long now, she says she thinks in German and has to translate back into English. Me, I can ask for directions, prices, food, drink and cigarettes in four languages. That’s it. Not enough to write poems in, that’s for sure. It’s hard enough writing in English. Especially when I’m tired. Time for our guest. Let’s have a picture, because ever since I read Homage to Catalonia 50 years ago I’ve been in love with a certain idea of Spain. Humour me. There will be a poem that draws on the Civil War before long, honest.

alicia 2

I asked our guest to send me two or three poems, and also, if she had the time, to reflect on what it’s like to write in a language that’s not your first, but may well be, nevertheless, your own. Here she is:

Alicia Fernández was born and raised in Spain. She is a translator and conference interpreter, and currently lives in Leeds. Her poems have been featured online by Sleepy House Press and Algebra of Owls, and published in print as part of the anthology ‘Freefall’ by Bradford Poetry Foundation (Wellhouse Publications). She has been recently shortlisted for The Poetry Kit’s Open Poetry Competition 2017. Her debut solo pamphlet will be published by Half Moon Books in September 2017.

and this is what she wrote for the cobweb.

We feel in the primary language into which we’re born. We apprehend our surroundings through this language and it marks all our first experiences; and that language for me is Spanish. When all your emotional transactions start to happen in another language, they will be inevitably permeated by your mother tongue.

Behind the things we write about, and the way we write about them, there is a heavily-loaded layer of meaning guiding our choices for words. I believe these choices are based on how our own life events have allowed us to delve in the many nuances clustered in those words. For example, when I describe something as green in English, my experience of the colour is not the same as if I resorted to the word verde when writing in Spanish – verde is the colour of the olive groves amongst which I grew up, and it makes my heart skip a beat with homesickness as I picture my grandfather hitting the branches with a wooden rod during harvest season; verde is also the colour Lorca used to represent death in poems such as ‘Romance Sonámbulo’, and having read his poetry since my adolescence, I cannot detach all those implications from the word. All this isn’t to say that using a second language implies an impoverishment of your writing by default – in fact, it can add a wonderful creative dimension it. The silver lining to writing in a second language is that the untranslatability of certain expressions can sometimes result in idiomatic “errors” that become a stylistic added value to the poem.

As a full-time translator, and plainly as a Spaniard living in England, my brain spends most of the day trading out meaning from English into Spanish, and vice versa – it is a constant quest for the idiomatic. My creative process entails that quest too. Spanish is the starting point in my mind more often than not – it’s only natural. Once an idea is in my head, I start building around it. When it begins to take shape, I try to transpose it into English. Sometimes the potential it had is ‘lost in translation’ (using Eva Hoffman’s expression): the alliterations and the sonority are gone, or the metaphor doesn’t work. However, some other times the translation offers a pleasant surprise and turns into something that works much better in the target language. I agree with George Szirtes when he says that “over a period of time both the first language and the second begin to talk to each other, so that they seem both natural and unnatural at the same time”. That is the blessing in disguise of bilingual writing – that blurry line between grammatical correctness and awkward or made-up expressions that can result in a distinct voice.”

I think I know, from hearing Alicia read in Spanish, what she means by the loss of sonority, alliteration…and dance and rhythm, too.There’s a regularity that comes from inflected languages that creates a music that we have to force into English. I think.

I love, really love, that notion of the first and second languages talking to each other, and the way a slight discord or snag of idiom makes a meaning fresh and unexpected, the way the reward of the struggle and the dialogue can be a new distinct voice. And a distinct(ive) voice is what we’ll share now.


In Praise of Exit Lights
Oh, green stock cubes of hope!
How you twinkle from above door frames
and revolving glasses that lead nowhere,
everywhere or home after bad news
or failed attempts at breaking something off.

Gentle bulky reminders of a way out,
you look down on us but never in reprisal
for the arrogance with which we lie
about our past amid fumes and booze,
the pitiful quivering of our hands
or the humdrumness of the goodbyes we bid.

May you always have our backs
so that we can feel righteous or brave
when we cross the auspicious thresholds
that you guard from the heights and burst
out into the future,
yet unspoiled.

The stock cubes of hope make me grin…but how about

revolving glasses that lead nowhere,
everywhere or home after bad news 

What I like so much is that sequence: nowhere|everywhere|home. It’s a songwriter’s sequence, I think, that you understand without analysing.

And finally, a poem that reminds you that here’s a poet pretty much comfortably at home in two languages and two countries and at least two cultures. It’s rare to come across the Small Faces these days, so to find them in this poem is very heaven.


The plan is to plunge into the canal

and collect treasures that I can

tape to your bed frame:

shivering damp daffodils

and rusty Czech crowns.

I will spend hours knelt over them

on the floor, sorting through the colours

and the different levels of degradation

and glow. I intend to take my time.

In the absence of a garland of ivy

there will be unravelled tape from a cassette

of the Small Faces’ greatest hits

and a collection of blanched stamps

featuring forgotten railways and beaches.

I will fill you with fugitive expectation

in an attempt to retain you. Don’t go yet.

Paper butterflies and fairy lights

will do the rest. It will take a while.

Once I have finished my display,

my hand will grab your hand and

drag you back from the caustic world

where I left you behind.

Should you ever have wondered what it would be like to transpose Ophelia from the 17th Century to a contemporary cityscape, look no further. Here’s rosemary for remembrance. Or the unspooling tape of the Small Faces Greatest Hits for garlanded ivy. I can see it. I can hear Steve Marriot belting out All or nothing. It’s a poem that had my attention from the first line. The plan. Plan? To plunge into a canal, to tape its dredgings to a bed frame? Your bed frame? Those stamps with images of ‘forgotten railways and beaches’. Everything intended and precisely odd.

I have a feeling I’m not doing this justice. I said I was tired, and I am. I shall stop, here. I shall say thank you, Alicia, for being our guest. I shall post this now, because I feel guilty if I don’t post on Sunday. I shall come back to it in the week and if anything needs doing better, then I promise I shall.  But nothing’s been lost in translation. Really.


There were things I sort of planned to write, but tiredness intervened. Feeling perkier on Monday, so here’s a couple of thoughts. Tacked on. Coda. depends on how generous you feel.

Did you watch that very odd BBC drama about ‘Charles the Third’? I was watching it on catch-up, and thinking about this post. Which was distracting, because I couldn’t concentrate on either. What struck me was that the playwright, having made a decision to write it in blank verse, then had the odd idea of writing in a pastiche of Shakespearian blank verse. What I found curious was that Shakespeare was writing in , for him, contemporary English in a basic iambic rhythm. Now, the thing is, as Tony Harrison has said again and again, is that blank verse is as near as formal verse gets to the rhythms of everyday English speech. The example that Harrison used when I heard him has always stuck. Overheard on a bus. ‘His brother worked at Bisons outside Leeds.‘ Totally natural and unforced. Some of the time in the script of the play, the language had this unforced naturalness. And then there were these snags and jars….. mainly bits of anachronistic and totally unnecessay inversion and elision. Obvious things like ’tis and ‘twould. Cringeworthy enough. You had to feel sorry for the poor actors who had to fit their mouths and minds round it. But it was the clunky and pointless inversions that really made me groan. Take this:

‘….Finn, who was a dick, if truth be told, but because we lived in different cities did text our love.’

Now, I assume there’s a line break somewhere, but I’m buggered if I can see where. And you think for a second and wonder why on earth you’d write that when you could much more easily write

‘….Finn, who was a dick, if truth be told, but we lived in different cities, and we had to  tell each other that we loved each other by text’


‘….Finn, who was a dick, if truth be told, but we lived in different cities, so he used to send me texts to say how much he loved me’

It’s still a bit lumpy, but at least it’s idiomatic. And it’s in regular iambics. What the play felt like was someone trying to translate a modern tale into some sort of imagined 16th century English without grasping how it worked originally. Does that make sense? It’s the business of thinking in the rhythms of the language. Which is what Alicia, our guest, does with great assurance. It’s because she’s so assured that you notice the occasional glitch. Let me take a couple of small examples, not to carp or criticise, but to acknowledge what a huge accomplishment most of the work is;

I will fill you with fugitive expectation

in an attempt to retain you. Don’t go yet.

There’s a lot of abstract /Latinate words, and they’re packed together. I really like that first line, the sound of it, the dance of it. I think I’d like to see what happens if you switch to simpler, more direct stuff in the second line.

I will fill you with fugitive expectation.

I’ll do anything to keep you. Don’t go yet.

I love that ‘don’t go yet’…as though the writer knows she’s losing his attention, as though he’s stopped listening. I wanted to say how reading these poems challenges me to know more about how my own language works. I wanted to say, that after all, I forget this is a poet writing in a second language, and I become a workshopping second-guesser. It’s a privilege to be allowed to do it. Alicia, thank you.

Just one more thing. There may not be a cobweb post for a couple of weeks. I’m waiting on poets to accept invitations to be guests, and if they don’t, what will I write about? Parasite. That’s me.

The young ones: an (un)discovered gem….Hannah Hodgson


If you’re on Facebook I’m pretty sure you saw this image some time ago. I’m pretty sure it was taken, and shared, to provoke a dog-whistle response from those of us with short memories. And it did. Tutting in various shades of articulate disapproval.

Young people these days…In my day…made our own amusements…climbed trees…read books….something should be done about it…tut tut……etc

Here’s the thing, predictably enough; in my day, back in the second half of the 1950s, it was television that was turning young people into cretins. Television and rock ‘n roll. Bill Bryson somewhere made the point that exactly the same thing was said about radio before TV arrived. And in an earlier age, about books – novels in particular, which were deplored for softening the brains of their (mainly female?) readership. Raymond Williams wrote a wonderful book : The country and the city. The core thesis is that a study of literature reveals an infinitely regressive sort of nostalgia; every generation deplores the loss of a golden age that’s curiously always about 100 years earlier..or maybe two generations. But you get the point.

I reckon, on the evidence of my own adolescence, that I’d have been one of these kids, developing dexterous thumbs, Twittering my life away, headphones plugged in. No idea what I’d be listening to, being of an age when music seems to have stopped being dangerous and offensive to older people. You see how easy it my day…proper rock n roll….this stuff they call R&B these days…tut, tut, tut. But I’d have devoted most most of my waking hours to being one of the in-crowd.

In my Boys’ Grammar School 5th Form ( trans: Y 11) and Lower 6th Modern (trans. Y 12), being one of the in-crowd involved two key elements. Clothes, hairstyle, music AND avoiding any hint of weakness…usually involving sensitivity, sincerity or deeply held belief. We took a deep interest in the dimensions of trouser bottoms, the question of button-down collars; suede shoes were good, but Chelsea boots were what you wanted; you could be terribly conflicted by a choice of a crewcut or a Tony Curtis. We worked incredibly hard being on the ironic/sarcastic spectrum. The overall outcome was that it became impossible to praise anyone, since this was immediately assumed to be a piss-take. We distrusted just about anything our friends said to us. We worked terribly hard at being terribly unimpressed. Cool, I suppose. The idea of expressing any sincere enjoyment of literature was totally foreign to us. We were very good at writing clever essays about it. The only poetry I actually liked was Metaphysical poetry, because it was clever, witty, sardonic and sexy…all of which I secretly aspired to. The idea of actually writing a poem would never have occurred to us. And if it had, we’d have hurriedly suppressed it, in case anyone found out. And so I think I really do understand, and retrospectively empathise with, these kids being studiously unimpressed by great art. Plus ca change. That’s what I think.

Which is why I’m so impressed…maybe even awestruck…by these young ones, like Laura Potts [ ] and by today’s guest poet, Hannah Hodgson. By their talent, by their commitment to their trade, and I think, by their courage. I’m 50 years older than they are and they put me to shame. There you are…mea culpa. Time for our guest, who Kim Moore has encouraged, mentored and championed, and without whom I would never have come across .


                   The Chris May Award for Personal Achievement

I really couldn’t resist tracking down this photograph, which will be explained very shortly. Just as I couldn’t resist following her You Tube clips, and her posts. I asked her to write her own introduction:

“I have recently been published in The North magazine, as part of a feature on Dove Cottage Young Poets, a fortnightly writing group that I attend tutored by Kim Moore. I have won several Young Poets Network competitions organised by the Poetry Society.  I was Poet In Residence at the Lakes Alive Festival in 2016 and Young Poet In Residence at the Kendal Poetry Festival in 2016. I am a finalist in The National Memory Day best young writer competition run by Literature Works and the Poetry Archive. (results for this will be announced on May 18th, so fingers crossed)  and winner of  The Chris May Award for Personal Achievement in the North west cultural Education awards  I run a blog ( and a YouTube channel ( I run the poetry club at school, and am a student librarian. ”

Now, if you follow the Youtube link, you find Hannah doing something I could not have dreamed of  all those years ago. Amongst other things, she talks about her love of books, of writing, and her struggles with her illnesses and physical condition; she talks about all of it with candour and a complete lack (apparaently) of selfconsciousness. She really does have things to say. Which is why she writes poetry that stands on its own two feet. Off camera, she’s self-deprecating about her poems. She writes to me:

“I have attached three poems, I hope they are okay. I was wondering if after you have posted about the poems if it would be okay for me to perform one of them on my YouTube channel, then put a link that people can click on to read what you had to say about it? Also, if one day by any chance I ever got a pamphlet or collection or something (bit of a pipe dream at the minute haha), would I need to reference to your blog?”

The answers are:Yes. Please put one or more of them on You Tube. No. When your pamphlets and collections come out I will advertise them and promote them on the cobweb. Promise. Right. Just a little more context before we get to the poems, because I think Hannah’s achievement so far has been hard earned and well deserved. I took this from the Kendal Poetry Festival page:

” One thing that we believe makes our festival unique is the inclusion of young writers throughout the festival.  Members of Dove Cottage Young Poets meet once a fortnight to read and discuss poetry and write their own poetry with Kim Moore, one of the Kendal Poetry Festival Directors.  The group is funded by The Wordsworth Trust and this year they’ve already performed with Ian McMillan at the ‘Picture the Poet’ exhibition.

We believe they will bring a unique energy and enthusiasm to the festival, and at least one Dove Cottage Young Poet will be performing at every Main Reading.  If you’re wondering what young people write about, we can tell you their subjects range far and wide.  They’re writing about sexism and feminism, politics and relationships, family and the impact of the media.

When we were putting together the programme for the festival, we considered giving the Dove Cottage Young Poets a separate event but we decided we wanted them to feel part of the whole festival, and part of the wider writing community in Kendal.

This is one strand of the festival that we’re really looking forward to developing and growing over the next few years (assuming we’re crazy enough to do this all again!)  We asked Dove Cottage Young Poets to send in an application to be our Young Poet-in-Residence this year, and friend of the festival David Tait read through their poems and personal statements, and after much deliberation selected Hannah Hodgson, pictured at the top of this post.

Hannah will perform at the Launch of the Festival, and will also perform alongside Clare Shaw and Hilda Sheehan on Saturday afternoon.  She will also receive mentoring from Clare Shaw as part of her residency.

In the judges report David Tait said:

Hannah Hodgson’s poems here are sparsely furnished, small artefacts with odd yet particular details: alphabet spaghetti, a wish that the brain could talk, words slipping through a back gate, Alzheimer’s and what a ring should and shouldn’t mean. I like that the poems tackle big themes but remain small. Each word is weighted just so.

Which means that you’re now more than ready for the poems. Here we go:


Teenage/ Ill, Ill/ teenage

 I’m a teenager

I’m an ill teenager.

Those three letters tower above me

like skyscrapers.


The teenage me wants to drive

the ill me can’t.


The teenage me wants vodka

the ill me can’t.


The teenage me wants to go backpacking

the ill me can’t.


Teenage me is locked

behind the bars of my chest.

We can only do some of the things

she suggests in her begging letters

to my body.


I had so many things I wanted to do.


I read these poems in a way I rarely do. I don’t read them aloud because I can’t physically inhabit the voice. I can imagine it well enough. I can’t describe it.

I see straight off what David Tait meant about each word being weighted ‘just so’, about the apparent economy of effort in tackling the ‘big themes’. The teacher in me enjoys the resonance of the strikethroughs of the title and the opening. It’s clever and deft. It sets up that conflicted sense of self and identity. I like the observation of the physical shape of ‘ill’ as a skyline. I’m haunted by the unspecified things that ‘we can only do some of’. The last line is utterly shocking in its plainness, and in the layers of meaning in ‘I wanted’ when I’m expecting ‘I want’.


The diagnosis


I see a bruise on his vocal chords

as he delivers a package

no postman could.


“You aren’t going to get better.”

I try to breathe –

but my eyes sting of paper cuts


and my chest heaves silent tears

into storage.

I nod, words trapped


behind the clasp of my lips.


This second poem nailed my attention in its first line; carrying weight you’re not equipped to carry will hurt and bruise and distort. The sting of paper cuts. Utterly unexpected. And finally, that line break as ‘my chest heaves silent tears / into storage’; ‘heaves’ is used in a way that produces a doubletake. You think it’s intransitive. It turns out you’re wrong. You go back and think again, about this poem and its desperate parcelling up, locking away, it’s held breath, the compression of its lips, its fear of saying out loud in case it all comes out wrong. Or just comes out.


The wait


The consultant arrives,

a smile sewn on

like a scouting badge.


He braces and his words hit.

He gives a tsunami apology –

given and then retracted.


Elastic home stretches away.

Home, a hallucination.

My operation will take place in weeks –


a month.

Now I wait, tethered to a drip stand,

a dog, stranded outside a supermarket.


Is it just me, or is the poet becoming more battle-hardened as I read through the sequence? I ask, because as someone who’s spent a great deal of time in hospitals, one way or another, and who’s been told this or that is incurable or inoperable, I may be just that bit too ready to assume the poem/poet and I agree about the stitched on smiles of consultants, the ones who may be deft enough with scalpels and sutures, but have never quite got the hang of empathy. And I may be a bit too ready to assume we feel the same about that sense of abandonment that comes over us when we become appendages of bits of equipment. What I do know is that I’ve tried often enough to write about the experience of ‘hospital’, and while I may have got the detail right, I’ve never come near the pared-down honesty of these three poems.


Thank you Kim Moore for introducing me to Hannah Hodgson, and recommending her poems for the cobweb. It’s been a huge pleasure.  Hannah, thank you for being our guest.




April:not the cruellest month. And a Polished gem: Natalie Rees

workshop 4jpg

It’s been a sort of ‘putting your affairs in order’ months thanks to Carrie Etter’s poem a day group, a decluttering month. Over two years of notebooks and work books trawled and tidied, and fifty scruffy prose-shaped drafts knocked into things that look like poems. Whether they are actually poems, well, I don’t know yet. Some may be. But it’s nice to know that habits of never throwing anything away ‘because you never know’ have paid off. Reminds me of a poem I wrote in a workshop (!) that Roy Marshall said he liked. A list poem. It’s now a sort of metaphor for this last month, which answers the poem’s question. I just tried it as ‘prosepoem’ [as in : without linebreaks. Which may not be quite the same thing. And wordpress did it as follows. Which for reasons I can’t fathom. I like]

After I’m gone

who’ll oil the letter press, know to use clean boards, the way the big drill sticks, or throws out bits;

who’ll keep the lengths of flex,the spare plugs, the oil stone, the small wood box of printers’ plates,

a plastic box of scavenged seashore rope, a basket of broken bits of blue/white crock, acrylics in half-

litre tubes: a good sized crate, a bag of driftwood pieces all with interesting holes, or knots or nails,

a basket of assorted woodstains including antique walnut, mahogany, pitch pine, a cabinet of jumbled

screws, and nuts and bolts, and washers, cotterpins,a black binbag of pine cones brought from

Gironde and Charente, a fox’s skull, bits of vertebrae, a chunk of Coruisk gabbro, a tin of blunted bits

that only want a bit of work, packs of steel wool in different grades, a case of modellers’ enamels in

little tins, a pack of mirror glass pulled from a skip, some bundled withies, a bag of batik wax, some


The answer is, they actually do come in useful, in ways you never envisaged. Keep on accumulating, that’s what I say. So, there’s one bit of April put to bed.

What next. Yes…a few weeks ago I was grumbling about the slow progress of a new collection. Not the writing of it…that was great. It’s not the sequencing. That’s fun. It’s not the finicky business of proofreading, of which the only thing you can be sure of is that you will never find every punctuation and spelling glitch, and you will never stop wanting to tinker with this line or that word order. You just have to say at some point: that’s it. No more. It turns out, not for the first time, to be problems over cover designs. Again and again my co-writer and I  think we’ve found an image which is just right, only to be scuppered by the fact that the resolution’s not high enough.

Cover proof 7JPG

The minute you stick the text in, you can see the image quality’s wrong. We’re still hunting for the one that’ll do it. So cross you fingers for us…and remind us, if you wish, that’s a problem we should be more than grateful to have. The book should be out by the end of the month. I’ll keep you posted. Of course I will.

Right, another bit of clearing up some loose ends. I was delighted to open my emails and find new posts from Wendy Pratt (, from Anthony Wilson (  and from Kim Moore ( You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, and isn’t lovely whan it comes back again?  Whenever I don’t feel like writing my blog post, they’re there to remind me that not feeling like doing something isn’t really a reason for not doing it. A bit like a poem a day in April, I suppose.

It was Kim’s post that gave me the most pause, and what snagged my attention in it was this

 I started to wonder whether my poems about experiences of sexism are actually confessional poetry.  The thing about these poems is that they have to be true.  They have to be a ‘lived experience of sexism’.  If I made them up, or appropriated someone else’s experience of sexism as my own, I think the reader would rightly feel manipulated, or annoyed.  Their power needs to come from the fact that they are an individual experience, but that they reach out into a wider social context, that they are recognisable by other women.  I felt uncomfortable and worried about having the confessional label applied to my poetry, and then started to wonder why that was.  I think it gets used as a dismissive/disparaging term still.  Like most labels, it’s not actually very helpful, and I’m halfway through this book of essays and haven’t found a definition of ‘confessional poetry’ that I agree with yet.


 It turns out, as it often does, that this uneasiness starts from the kind of reading you encounter doing a post-grad degree. You have to read books by people who wrote books because they were doing PhDs or Masters or whatever, and felt obliged to prove they’ve thought of something that’s never been thought before, and then have to wrap it up in a lot of references and footnotes to prove it’s reliable. It arises, above all, from the business of labels and definitions. One of the authors Kim has turned to is one, Joan Aleshire, who, as part of her thesis goes the last resort of the desperate..hunting for a convenient definition as a prop. Thus:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines confession as the declaration or disclosure of something that one has allowed to remain secret as being prejudicial, humiliating, or inconvenient to oneself

Not finding this supportive enough, she gives the game away as follows:

I see the confessional poem as a plea for special treatment, a poem where the poet’s stance is one of particularity apart from common experience.  Confession in art, as in life, can be self-serving – an attempt to shift the burden of knowledge from speaker-transgressor to listener.”

“In the confessional poem, as I’d like to define it, the poet, overwhelmed or intoxicated by the facts of his or her life, lets the facts take over.  To say that a poem is confessional is to signal a breakdown in judgement and craft.

What she’s doing is saying this : for the purposes of this argument you have to accept two basic and unsubstantiated assumptions, and we’ll take it from there, since it will from this point allow me to put poets in convenient (for me) boxes.

It’s pointless and distracting. The minute you start to wonder what box a poem belongs in you might as well stop writing the stuff and train as a warehouseman. For what it’s worth, confession has traditionally been an essentially private business, as it is in the Catholic tradition. It cannot be made public. And its purpose is to seek absolution, with a firm purpose of amendment. It will require acts of atonement. It’s something that’s particularly close to me at the moment; there’s an issue that I’m trying to write about, not because I want to lay myself and my soul and my shortcomings bare in public, but because it’s a problem I share with millions, and I want to understand it as truly as I can. Poetry happens to be the medium I’m working in. It’s only purpose is to look for ‘the truth’.  So there you are…that’s my take on ‘confessional poetry’. Labels get you nowhere. However, I’ll come back to this in a bit. Bear with me.

The loose ends are tied and tidied, and it’s time for a guest poet I’ve wanted on the cobweb for ages. There’s serendipity, too. Yesterday (or the day before, if the cobweb’s

delayed) I was was in Otley for this jolly event.comp

It’s just a year ago, in the same venue, at the Otley Open Mic that I heard today’s guest read for the first time. For me it was the stand-out voice and the stand-out poem, though she wasn’t the winner. Natalie Rees reads with a rare musical clarity…I’ve written before how I’m a sucker for Irish voices, and Irish vowels…but it was a lot more than Irishness that made me sit up and listen. This was the poem she read.




Washer Woman

By night she would take their best poems

out into the back yard.

Douse them in lemon and vinegar.

Scour each word

with baking soda and salt.


She would unpick

the awkward images;

the forced connections

that itched their neck by day.


She would wring out the phrases

dyed with language that did not fit –

the Greek myths,

the borrowed registers,

the Latin names for trees.


She would carry them in a heap.

Peg up their stanzas in plain knit,

let their line endings drip.


I’m not often a fan of poems about poems and poetry (The Thought Fox, and Digging apart) but in the minute or so when I heard this, what I saw was washing, and the hanging out of washing, the physical fact, the rhythm, the texture. The details are telling, every one – the lemon and vinegar, the baking soda and salt;  the itchiness of  ill-fitting, or stiff, collars;  the teasing out of creases in that one word ‘unpick’; the physicality of wringing out phrases, and the precision of the last line

let their line endings drip.

It’s so artful and exact, the placing of those two words that begin and end the line. It was only afterwards that I registered the extended metaphor… realised it was about poetry. I wondered why. When I have the poem on the page, I see how the title and the first line did it. The oddity of the washerwoman ‘by night’. Who hangs washing out at night? Why’s she so secretive? And another thing. What does she hang out? their poems. Not hers. Who are they? Why’s she the one to sort out their laundry, make it fresh? What’s she purging, cleaning, making fresh? the latin names for trees, and a great deal of other classical clutter, apparently. It’s so layered, so clear, so apparently simple, this poem. Clive James says :                      

“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”


I think that this moment, the washerwoman going about her business mysteriously and matter-of factly, as in the manner of folk-tales, is just what he’s talking about. It’s what made me want to hear and read more of Natalie Rees’ poems. The next time I heard her was at a grand event as part of last year’s Bradford Literature Festival. It was in a huge room in the Midland Hotel, a room like something out of the Titanic. Mirrors, chandeliers, banquet room chairs and a dubious sound system. She shared a bill with Peter Riley and Kim Moore among others, and read her poems and told the stories that surrounded them with absolute assurance. A natural. I asked her that afternoon if she’d be a guest on the cobweb, and she said she’d rather not, that she didn’t have enough work out there to give some up for the blog. But I’ve persisted, and finally here she is to introduce herself:

I suppose I have always had the makings of a writer in me but it’s been a bit of a journey along the way to find my voice, which I think don’t really came until I found myself. I began to write poetry in my school days, elbowed on by a wonderfully cynical, disaffected English teacher, Ms. O’ Neill, who submitted a piece on my behalf to ‘Young Cuisle’, the national Irish secondary schools’ poetry competition. I won £20 IRE and a copy of ‘Higher Purchase’ by Rita Ann Higgins; I spent the twenty quid on a good night out.

After school, I went on to train as a primary teacher. I taught for ten years, only going to the odd open mic here and there but always reading. The Bloodaxe anthologies were the gateway for my revived attempts, and in 2008, I signed up for the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. It was a full-on year studying under Vona Groarke and John Mc Auliffe, and I gave a few readings of my final portfolio. Then life got in the way – wedding, house, child, career change (copywriting), bereavement – there was always something to keep the engine going.

Poetry is that thing that does not let you go though, and it has always boomeranged its way back to me through people and through places. If were to give it a relationship status, it would read ‘it’s complicated’. But over the past two years, I’ve given the old literary chakras a good unblocking – I’ve done the Bradford Literature Festival; Poetry at the Parsonage in Haworth; Hebden Bridge Folk Roots Festival; and the Albert Poets.

I began submitting too and won highly commended in the ‘Watermarks’ competition organised by Blue Moose books, judged by Clare Shaw; and had the wonderful opportunity of reading alongside the other winners in the Portico Library, Manchester. This month, I have a poem coming out in Prole.

Until early this year, I was Reviews Editor for the online poetry journal The High Window, and have met some great people along the way. I have to add here that the Calderdale crowd have welcomed me with open arms; I’m made to feel like an honorary citizen every time I make the twelve miles across from this side of Bradford.

At the moment, the largest portion of my time is dedicated to my postgraduate studies in Play Therapy and my clinical placement. In my spare time, I am writing when I can and I am in early-day cahoots with Bob Horne at Calder Valley Press working towards my first pamphlet.”


There’s so much to think about here, but one thing sticks in my mind and won’t leave me:

                        Poetry is that thing that does not let you go

Natalie Rees writes what won’t let her go. There’s (in hindsight) the most tenuous of links to my musings on ‘confessional poetry’ earlier. It’s this. When she read in Bradford last summer, Natalie told story about her complicated childhood. It wasn’t done with any self-dramatising, though I could imagine another writer wringing out every last drop of emotional trauma, like the washerwoman in the night. I thought it was a powerful example of how poetry lets us understand our own selves, where we came from, who we are. When we can get it clear to ourselves, then we may be ready to tell others the story.

I’m so pleased that Natalie has let me share the next poem, which is the one that stood out in her  Bradford set. Read it aloud. Hear it in an Irish voice. Think of a small Irish town where almost all the population is Catholic.


No. 6 Highfield Grove                                                                                                  


Every Wednesday they would come.

Fill all the spaces on our street,

just after the RTÉ news at 6.


Ford Fiestas, Mazdas, Fiat Pandas.

The Christian Mafia

armed with leather concordances, tambourines

and acetates in plastic sleeves

with the guitar chords penned over the lyrics in red

like tiny bullets lined up to lose their lives for Jesus.


We are waging war on the kingdom of darkness.


From three fold-up beach chairs, two foot puffs,

an armchair and a couch.


And they would shape their bodies

into capital ‘y’s,

their closed eyes squinting towards the light

of some invisible sun as the guitar strummed on


“Shine Jesus, shine, fill this land with the father’s glory”.


Then it would always start with one – a word of knowledge,

two – a prophesy in season,

three –  a foreign tongue,

four – an interpretation of the foreign tongue.



By then Margaret would have a vision,

there would be a light growing around me,

God would have a specific healing ministry for my life.


I am five.


This would be followed by the laying on of hands,

there would not be enough room for the onslaught

of soldiers for Christ scattered across my sitting room floor,

and Jimmy the Baker writhing like a long-tailed rattle snake,

my father swiping the air above him with the sword of the Word.


I would count shoes: two pairs of runners,

six pairs of navy, five brown.

Line my wax crayons in order from black to white,

rearrange my fuzzy felt shepherds and kings.


Put the manger on its own on the hillside with the sheep.


Afterwards in the kitchen, I would push the butter

through the Rich Tea biscuits with my tongue,

carry tea and coffee orders for my mam,

her head stuck in the press pulling out glass mugs

and hand-printed napkins of Bavarian girls

balancing milk pails on long wooden poles.


Far away now from their Black Forest home.


Was it Michael Symmonds Roberts who said (of poetry) ” narrative is dead”. James Caruth had one answer for that in his Poetry Business-winning pamphlet ‘The death of narrative’, and this poem is another. So many subtexts. Like Oranges are not the only fruit wrung to its essence by that washerwoman in the first poem.

The last poem is pure moment, stasis. Lyric.

After The Flood


It is night time outside my window

and the peacefulness disturbs me –

the birch that touches

the soft shoulder of another,

the moon that hangs

on to its wholehearted sky,

the cars that hum in old hymns

winking one to the other as they pass.

I am high

above the canal for now,

my dry shoes by the dry door



(Highly Commended Winner in ‘Watermarks Anthology’, Bluemoose Books.)


I think this pivots around that line :I am high /above the canal for now. Especially for now.

Let’s stop there. Let’s say thanks to Natalie Rees for finally being a cobweb polished gem. Look out for her first pamphlet from Calder Valley Poetry later this year. I’ll make sure you hear about it.

Next week we’re having one of the Young Ones as a guest. Please come early if you want a seat.