I don’t need much of an excuse to post images of the gritstone/sandstone Pennines. If I want to go walking, I love the limestone Pennines more, but if I want dark sculpture, then the moors between the old mill towns of West Yorkshire and East Lancashire are where I’ll go. Here’s the Upper Calder valley…Hebden Bridge and Todmorden. Ted Hughes’ first home..and a later one at Lumb Bank.
Home, too, of today’s returning guest. Many of Clare Shaw’s poems (like those of Steve Ely’s ‘Englaland‘) are those of one of the Edgeland’s inhabitants. I’m thinking of the inbetween landscapes of council estates on the edge of Pennine moors, between the dirty glamour of the Lancashire plain and its cities, and the high sour cottongrass and peat and gritstone, and the small towns of the Calder valley, the Ribble valley, the mix of rundown mills, steep slopes, small farms.
I thought I’d not be writing a cobweb strand today….got to be up at 4.00am tomorrow. Off on holiday, and I thought today would be all packing and panic. Instead of which a) I find I’m better organised than I thought and b) Clare Shaw did much more than send me a brief updated biog and two or three new poems I asked her for. She pretty well wrote the whole post. I could not be happier, and here’s why.
The last time she was a guest was in 2015…if you haven’t met her before, you may like to start there, by following this link :
Butyou don’t have to. One thing I wrote then was this:
“I first saw Clare Shaw read to a less than full house at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield . Striking,beautiful, tall, with an athlete’s poise and grace, and in black, like a gunslinger. I was bowled over. I’d been roped in to compering duties at the last minute; as far as I remember I described her set as a rivetting combination of Patti Smith/Bukowski/ Dylan/ Morrisey and John Cooper Clark if they had that accent of the Lancashire Pennines where they rhyme ‘hair’ with ‘fur’. She reads with a rare intensity and poise. Gunslinger. Her poems have you unwaveringly in their sights. They’re urgent and full of love. I find it hard to separate the poems I hear at a reading, but this time one stuck in my brain. I wanted to hear it again and again.
This baby is a hurricane –
it’s the thunder of an underground train.
You can hear it coming from miles away.
You can feel it in the walls, the floor.
It’s the roar beneath the city street;
the earthquake that wakes you,
shaking beds, breaking plates.
This baby dislodges slates –
felled a steeple in Dudley.
This baby could kill.
This baby is news, big news.
This baby makes you huge.
Makes you Africa and Russia,
proud. A high hot-air balloon fat-filled with fire.
You could explode with it.
Stand clear! This woman could blow any minute.
This quick blood-bloom of certain cell
could grow to anything –
snowflakes forming like a wildflower,
a sly-eyed gull; a dinosaur;
a deep bellyful of weed.
This baby is a fallen seed.
The thin grass blade that ruptures the road.
It could open you up –
your stomach, the shape of a book not yet written;
the curve of the first word
of the book you wake speaking,
It’s like that, this baby –
the light of a star that no-one can see
travelling ten thousand light years
to catch you unaware
knelt as you are in the slow Autumn rain,
heaving with dreams
and your body a poem
on the theme of ‘This Baby’.
Think of a name.
[from Straight Ahead]
Hard to say how much I enjoyed inexpertly typing this poem, feeling it reveal itself letter by letter, typos and corrections and all, hearing the craft of it that I’d missed in the rush of hearing it read. The universality and particularity of THIS baby, the surprise of the rhymes, the lovely juxtapositions of gulls and wildflowers, the immanence of THIS baby. I love, too, the way it makes me think of Sylvia Plath’s ‘high-riser /my little loaf’ ….but THIS baby’s ‘proud’ way beyond the proud of flesh or a risen loaf, a small insidious force that will grow to an earthquake, ‘the thin grass that ruptures the road.’ Everything is exact and crafted and thunderous with energy. It had me in its sights, alright. I wanted to read more. So I did.”
Right..it’s just over two years since I wrote that, and a lot has happened in the meantime, and as we all know, not all of it good. But there’s a resilience in this world. If I were to devise a coat of arms for Clare Shaw, the motto would not be in Latin..it would be a line from Larkin. What will survive of us is love. Clare recentlydid something I find unnerving even now. She sent me the manuscript of the new collection she’s been putting together and asked me to give her (detailed) feedback on it. Two other poets have asked me to do that. It’s terrifying…if I have to say why, then you wouldn’t understand anyway. In each case, it’s turned out to be a labour of love. And in Clare’s case, a labour of love about a labour of love. (I’ve just re-read that. As rhetoric, it’s pretty sad, don’t you think? But I mean it. So it stays. Soz) . Poems full of the love of her place and her people. What she’s sent us for today will make that plain.
“May 24th 2015: it’s been just over two years since I was last on John’s blog. At the time, I’d just finished my first NaPoWriMo*, and I was working towards the completion of my third collection. It’s taken me all this time to finish the bloody thing. It’s been a packed two years, but then aren’t they all?
(* just a comment, here. If you didn’t follow Clare’s progress on NaPoWriMo in April this year, you missed something astonishing. Maybe there’s a way of finding the poems she posted on Facebook. If there is, then do so. Some, like many in her latest draft collecton, working title Floodtown, are poems for her home of Hebden Bridge, flooded once again this year. The image is what Clare saw from the upper window of her house)
“In September 2015, I started work as the Royal Literary Fellow at the University of Huddersfield. It’s not as grand as it sounds: I spend two days a week helping students and staff with their writing skills. It’s far from creative – I’m working with grammar, punctuation, style, tone, criticality, on essays about the care of ulcers, or the economic development of Hartlepool. But to say I love it is an understatement: pig in shit is more like. To spend two full days wallowing in words, glorious words – tinkering and restructuring, mending, polishing. It’s a far cry from the work I’ve previously done in mental health, self-injury and suicide awareness – but it’s still underpinned by my absolute conviction that everyone has the right to express themselves to the best of their ability. That to do so is not only a lovely thing, but is potentially transformative.
My work in mental health has been tremendously important to me for a long time, and that continues to some degree: since 2015 I’ve delivered training to staff at St Mungo’s and the University of Leeds; and I’ve published more work on self-injury and suicide including “Otis Doesn’t Scratch” (PCCS 2015), a resource for young children affected by self-injury.
But the bulk of my working life now is spent as a poet. I work for a range of organisations: the Poetry School, the Wordsworth Trust, The National Writer’s Centre of Wales, and the Arvon Foundation, individual mentoring clients – anyone who asks nicely / pays well/ offers me an extraordinary and unforgettable opportunity. I’ve had a few of those … one that springs to mind is working with the University of Chester to provide poetry and text for an exhibition and artbook of Tom Wood’s archive photography of patients in the closing days of Rainhill Psychiatric Hospital (to be published later this year). Here’s one of the poems:
The shelves tell you half of my story.
They are empty of anything good.
That tin of sweets
with no sweets in it;
if you want me to talk,
to the books
which nobody reads;
to the chess board
with none of its pieces.
Don’t ask me to say how I feel;
ask the carpet.
It is like
it has never been clean.
I don’t need to speak out.
It’s clear at first sight
that the table is angles
and does not count
and the chairs
are as red as sin
and none of the white
has ever been white
and nothing about this has ever been right
and the plant does not fit its pot.
And the corridor flooded with light.
(Whatever you do, read this aloud to yourself. Try different speeds. Read the spaces and silences. Read it reflective. Read it in a rage.. Listen, really listen, to every negative, every not, every nothing, and then think hard about how you want to say that final ‘YES’. Listen to the consonants, the assonances, the near rhymes, the echoes. Listen to that understated craft. Right that’s me done. It all Clare from here on in)
I’ve also been working regularly through this year with the Wordsworth Trust’s “West Coast Schools” project, tutoring thirty-plus Year Seven students in a Catholic school in Workington; and I’m currently teaching “The Poetry of Survival”, an Online International Course for the Poetry School. Here are two excerpts from a recent assignment which illustrate how my life as a mental health activist and my life as a writer are still intimately interwoven:
“Today, I ran the fourth of six monthly sessions with a group of 11 and 12 year olds in a school on the west coast of Cumbria. It’s a deprived area; and this school is in a particularly deprived town. The kids span a wide spectrum of ability: some struggle with basic writing skills and few of them had any knowledge or confidence around poetry when we started out. It was a long, long, day but I was energised by the evaluations they had filled out at the previous session: “I didn’t know any poetry but now I know more and I like it”; “I like it more than normal lessons”; “I like it because I can express myself and I am more consus of myself” ….
We all need story. Story binds together the disparate moments and facts of our life. It gives us coherence and identity. We are raised with a certain story of ourselves and our families, which is given the status of truth. We may live happily with that story all our lives; or we reach a point where it no longer ‘fits’: in the turmoil of adolescence perhaps, or as a result of a single disordering event later in life – loss of relationship, job, home; rape or assault. The sort of event which, in Susan Brison’s words “shatters one’s fundamental assumptions about the world one’s safety in it” and “severs the sustaining connection between the self and the rest of humanity” (Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self, 2002). It’s a process of liberation and loss: all that we took for granted has been upended, and we can for a time be lost in a dark world in which nothing makes sense or feels safe. And at this point we can come to the possibility that we can tell our own stories and create our own truths. Here lies the saving, sustaining, transforming potential of words – especially poetry.
How do I know which truth to tell? Is it the one which makes me feel better? There’s mileage in that – but I think, more importantly, we should tell the truth which needs to be told. In poetry, some essential story emerges. A story we need to tell. When we work with image, metaphor, association – essentially, the unconscious – that story erupts from us – whether we like it or not. It brings us to a knowledge of ourselves, here and now, in this moment. Not catharsis for its own sake; but a new knowing of ourselves; a new and often deeper story. As the young girl in my poetry class said, we don’t just express ourselves, we become conscious of ourselves. This is me. Through my words, I define myself. I tell you who I am. You listen. You tell me who you are. In the meeting of your world and my world, we both exist.
Through poetry, our connection with ourselves, the world around us, and each other, is re-established”.
I had a rough time a few years ago, and I guess you could say I lost my faith in poetry for a while. In the past two years, I’ve rediscovered it. John has been part of that; and two mutual friends of ours: Kim Moore and Keith Hutson. People with a wildly different but similarly unwavering commitment to language, and an enviable level of energy. Profoundly generous with it too: John, Kim and Keith have all helped me with the task of finishing the third collection, and they should know how grateful I am for their insight and friendship. Another loved and lovely friend, Choman Hardi, in her Anfal sequence in “Considering the Women” – shortlisted for the Forward Prize – exemplified everything that poetry should be: urgent, unflinching, painful and utterly necessary. The cross-pollination of passion, commitment and affection amongst writers is a wonderful thing: I’m incredibly excited that
Kim and I have recently co-authored a sequence which will be published in the North; we continue to collaborate. In April, we organised and hosted a feminist poetry jambouree as part of a national ‘Persisters: Holding the Line’ event, organised in response to Trump, Brexit, the Tory Austerity government, and other atrocities. We had hoped that we might attract an audience of say, 25-30 people; as the event started, I stopped counting at seventy. Poetry is alive, and it’s vital.
Gregory Orr’s book “Poetry As Survival” was a happy discovery I made recently after agreeing to tutor the Poetry School course. I won’t try to précis the book: suffice to say, it’s like someone cut me open and read what was inside me. Here are two line from it, which seem very relevant this month: “Trauma, either on an intimate or collective scale, has the power to annihilate the self and shred the web of meaning that support is existence. Yet the evidence of lyric poetry is equally clear – deep in the recesses of the human spirit, there is some instinct to rebuild the web of meanings with the same quiet determination we witness in the garden spider as it repairs the threads wind and weather have torn”. Here’s a poem which pretty much summarises how I feel. I wrote the first draft of it on the last day of NaPoWriMo 2015: and it’s a kind of thank you letter to Kim Moore and to all the other writers who brought me back. PS. I finished the collection today. Thanks.
(Clare’s told me that wordpress has screwed up the formatting of the poem that comes next. I’ve re-edited it twice, but it keeps getting screwed. Thhis is the stanza line pattern : 7/7/6/8/8/7/3. My apologies if it’s still wrong…as I’m looking at it now it’s as it should be. I’ll update it one more time)
I came back
to the sound of birds in the morning,
to heavy rain falling. Back to the holding of hands.
I came back from the storm
to shelter. Though they said
there was no way back
I came back in a taxi, by darkness
and no-one could see my face.
I came back from the brink, from Broadoak. There was screaming inside my ears. I came back running, back from not speaking.
I made the same noise for years. I came back by grafting, back with my arms open wide and laughing.
I was brought back by daisies.
I was brought back by doctors.
Saved by a surplus of air
because somebody needed to breathe it;
I came back to the feeling of mud, I forgot
I forgot how to cross the road.
I was not brought back by love.
I was brought back by stone
and by falling. I was brought back
by hitting the floor. I was wrapped in a blanket,
brought back by hurting,
by the sight of my own insides
and I did not like it and I could not stop it
but back is the way I came.
I was brought back by words
though I didn’t believe them,
I came back to a yard in the sun.
I was brought back by pain that I could not escape.
When they stitched me, I could not run I was sweating. I will never forget them. I came back to my mother’s eyes and the sound of the telly left on.
I came back the long way round
and I did not mind about distance.
I was brought back by violence, my own.
I came back for vodka, I came back for fire,
for your animal breath in my ear.
For the colour of leaves in the darkness.
I came back for your eyes in the darkness;
to houses that did not care.
For tracing the flames with my fingers,
how you parted my knees with your hands
and when the fires had all lost their voices
I came back from the page’s blank stare.
I was brought back to words: moon,
falling. I was right I was right all along.
I came back.
I lived through thunder.
And I did not come back for the sun.
Poetry as survival. Clare Shaw, thank you so much. What will survive of us is love. There’s so much love in Clare Shaw’s writing. Resilience, too. Sinew. Steel. Poems on the edge. Like rockclimbers, seeing just how far you can go and stay in balance. Fingers crossed that the third collection will find its chosen publisher very soon. In the meantime, if you haven’t read them yet, then you can do no better than make up for lost time and buy the first two collections. Both of them.
Straight ahead: [Bloodaxe 2006] £7.95
Head on : [Bloodaxe 2012] £8.95
While you’re at it, you could check out another collaboration
Seeing Poetry is a collaboration between acclaimed poet Clare Shaw (Bloodaxe 2006, 2012) and illustrator Louise Crosby.
Louise illustrates poetry by Clare Shaw in comics form. Her illustrations were first designed as single spreads to be shown in exhibitions; these are now being reworked to book format.
That’s me for a couple of weeks. I’m going away to do some writing, and when I come back, I’m off to my very first poetry festival. AND I’ll be running a poetry workshop, so if you’re around Lewes/ Brighton at the end of June I’d be delighted to see you.
LEWES – workshop, SHAPESHIFTING AND MIND READING with John Foggin
|John Foggin is a prize-winning poet, with 30+ years of teaching and in-service training experience.
Actors and children understand how the wearing of masks (which can be other people’s voices) can liberate our ways of seeing and feeling. We get stuck in routines of saying and thinking. In this session, we’ll be giving voices to places, things and people, fictional, mythical and historical, and in the process we’ll find new rhythms of writing. You don’t need to be an experienced writer. All you need is to be willing to suspend some disbelief, to use your empathy and imagination.