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.
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 (https://wendyprattpoetry.wordpress.com/2017/04/28/a-blackbirds-skeleton/), from Anthony Wilson (https://anthonywilsonpoetry.com/2017/04/29/the-next-swim/) and from Kim Moore (https://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com/2017/04/23/sunday-poem-jennifer-copley-5/). 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.
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.
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.