First pressings (3): Sarah Miles and Paper Swans Press

paper 3

Let’s welcome a special guest, today, the third in an occasional series of interviews with the folk who run small poetry presses: Sarah Miles.

I need to declare an interest. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for all those selfless souls who run themselves ragged to put published poetry in your hands, but I owe a special debt to today’s guest, who has published several of my poems  in her Press’ anthologies, and very handsome they are, too.

Sarah Miles

What I do is to send out a kind of open-ended prompt sheet, and invite these lovely folk to respond. Their generosity is wonderful. Sarah miles continues the tradition. OK. Ready? Sitting comfortably? Here we go:

If you could kick off by describing what you’ve done so far, that would be nice. A story is always a nice beginning. Then tackle the following questions. If it’s OK, I’ll then create the illusion of a dialogue, as though we’re both sitting in a room, with cake and coffee. That sort of illusion.


There seem to be hundreds of small poetry presses about, and I imagine they struggle to make a living, competing as they do for what is essentially a niche market; something led you think: there’s room for another. What was the trigger that persuaded you to set up your own publishing venture?

From what I’ve experienced, there is much more camaraderie between small presses, than competition. Basically, we are all in the same boat: struggling to break even, desperately trying to get great poetry ‘out there’ and scrabbling around to fund ourselves —  big bookshops won’t take our books unless we go down channels where we make about 5p a book and Amazon also takes a fair cut (plus many of us don’t agree with their ethics, and we’re a moral bunch, us publishers!). So, most of us rely on selling through our websites and this summer, I am going to try to set up a new independent website to facilitate buying from indie presses…watch this space!


My inspiration to set up Paper Swans was The Emma Press. I love their quality of books and the poetry within and, one day, voiced to a friend of mine (designer of our logo, Helen Braid), that I would so love to do the same thing and the thought of editing, publishing and producing beautiful books was something that had been a pipe-dream for a long time. She simply replied, ‘Well, why don’t you?’ The seed was planted and, in a way, I suppose she gave me the ‘permission (confidence)’ I couldn’t quite give myself and I’ll always thank her for it. I had a little bit of money set aside and gave myself a two-book deadline. If it crashed — well, I had tried. But it didn’t and, I’m happy to say, Paper Swans is going from strength to strength.


You chose to feature themed anthologies that called for submissions.  Did you have any particular criteria for you choice of theme, or were you blessed by happy accidents? You’ve attracted a lot of submissions from well-established and otherwise successful poets. What do you put that down to?

The first theme (The Darker Side of Love) was a personal choice. I think a lot of poetry is therapeutic and there’s nothing like a bad love affair to get the poetry flowing! Most people have experienced love gone wrong and I wanted to counteract all the glitter–clad romantic nonsense and publish a pamphlet for Valentine’s Day that possibly a lot more people could identify with. I also had the good fortune to have been tweeting with Maggie Sawkins, who had recently won The Ted Hughes Award, and she submitted poems from that to our very first anthology! I will always be grateful for, what has always seemed, a huge leg-up when we really needed it. She gave us credence and put faith in us from the start.



Our second theme, Schooldays, was trying to tap into an experience that most people have enjoyed or endured. Again, I wanted to produce a book that a lot of people could identify with and get something from when they read it.  From there, our anthologies have always kept that ideal of tying in with the broader experience, of both the writer and the reader. We have always kept our submissions fairly unspecific too, to allow the poet to write freely, for example, The Chronicles of Eve is about women and that covers a very wide range of interpretations and perspectives.

C of EVE Cover copy


Our most recent full anthology, Best of British, was conceived pre-Brexit and wanting to give people the chance to break away with what we were being told to think and allow them to say what Britain really means to them: it’s quirks, it’s places, it’s truth. It’s a wonderful journey through people’s memories and tales of Britain, from its back-alleys to its lochs to the longing of an expat for peanut butter.

best of

Of all the lovely small poetry press publications, which are the ones that you particularly like yourself, and why?

As aforementioned, I still adore The Emma Press; I think the quality and individuality of her books sets them apart. Mother’s Milk Books are also beautiful; I particularly liked the poetry duets pamphlets they produced. And, I have to mention Paekakariki Press who use letterpress printing which makes their books unique and beautiful. Great name, too!


Tell us something about your design choices. Did you consciously decide you wanted a house style? Did you have any models that you wanted to borrow from?

I kind of fell into a house style for the anthologies. The first two books were produced using a template I had set up and a lot of people kept telling me how much they liked it, so I kept it! As for our covers, again, the first two were similar, but I didn’t want to be restricted on cover design and I was thrilled to have Sophia Platts-Palmer design the cover for The Chronicles of Eve. She was fresh from art school and had sent me some ideas. Her work is so unusual and intriguing — I have the cover art for Eve up on my wall!


Tell us something about the snags you encounter…how about how you set about the business of marketing, about getting the brand out there. It may be that it’s something you feel a bit at sea with. How do you get folk to review the stuff, for instance? How do you feel about the business of competitions for small publishers…stuff like the Michael Marks, for instance? Riff on this topic as you feel appropriate

Definitely the hardest part about being a small press and surviving is sales and marketing. There is no money in poetry (alas) and most presses simply aim to break even, which is a real shame as the books produced are, in my opinion, far more beautiful and interesting than the ones you’ll find on the shelves of Waterstone’s. As I said earlier, large book shops aren’t interested in stocking us and, even if they do, by the time they and their supplier have taken a cut, we would end up making very little, or even a loss. So, it’s a no win situation a lot of the time. Awards like Michael Marks and Saboteur are a great way to gain some recognition and, perhaps, spur people on to go buy a book, but they are few and far between. We rely heavily on social media and trying to get our name known through word-of-mouth and poetry websites like yours. It constantly amazes me that poets seem to be so modest — often on something like Facebook, I will plug a book that a poet is published in and they will ‘like’ but not share! To all writers — please share any posts like this! Not just so we might sell a few more copies, but in doing that, more people are reading your work.

It’s funny, I have had many conversations with other poetry friends or those who work in music and there seems to be such a juxtaposition between the arts and marketing. Somehow, driving sales feels ‘wrong’ or tainting the work somehow. It doesn’t, of course, and without funding, many wonderful projects would never see the light of day, but it often doesn’t sit right with publishers and artists alike. For me, I feel that if I don’t keep pinging things on social media etc. then I am doing my writers an injustice. It’s my job to get their work to as many readers as possible. It’s also the reason I accept previously published work (apart from the pamphlet prize). It seems a shame to give a wonderful poem only one airing; much better to give it the exposure it deserves!


What next? More in the pipeline?

Yes, lots! We have recently published our first young poets anthology, with poetry from 16-18 year olds and we will shortly be announcing the winner of this year’s poetry pamphlet prize — last year’s winner, Glass by Elisabeth Sennitt Clough, won The Saboteur Award this year for best pamphlet, so that has prompted even more people to enter. Our judge, Jill Munro, has had a very tough job!

young ones

We currently have submissions open for an anthology of flash fiction and for a new project of pocket poetry, which will be ongoing. We aim to produce small, but beautiful books on various themes. All details are on our website.

Further to that, we are once again, planning an online publication for National Poetry Day later in the year and will also be at The Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in London this September, if anyone wants to come and say hello.

Well… can’t say fairer than that, can you? Sarah Miles, it’s been a pleasure to have you as our guest today. Good luck to Paper Swans Press and all who sail with her. May you go from strength to strength.



And now, some advance notice. I see that I’ve posted eleven cobweb strands this July. I normally plan to do four or five a month. So I’m having a two week break to catch my breath, and hopefully do a bit of research, and come up with fresh ideas and topics, and line up a whole load of new guests. I can promise you that I’m definitely returning with a particular guest who I’ve been hoping to feature for a very long time, and I’m really really looking forward to it. See you all then. I hope the sun shines on all of you xx







Unfinished business: Our David


our david c 2

July 29th. He’d have been 46 today, and I go on writing poems for him. I’m taken aback, every time. I think there’s nothing left to be said. But there is. There always will be. Happy birthday, lovely boy


I made this box,


ran quick lead in the veins of driftwood roots,

the silver grain of bleached board and the wind-eyes

of burnished beachstones – rose quartz, granite, flint,

bound them with silver wire to honey oak, red pine,

and clenched them tight with sea-rust iron nails.


I made this box for you


I filled it with fragments, beachcombed

sea glass, wisps of snagged wool.

I wanted you to know

the random loveliness of being alive,

to know it in your bones and blood.


I put in :


snow, to remember draughts

and rooms with cold corners;


a black handled knife, sharp as silk

in a grey-vaulted market, the scent


of cut flowers to show that fathers

give like the gods; a bicycle stammering


through stems of barley, willowherb,

to understand that gravity may be defied;


the humped glass of a brown river,

black branches snagged on the weir’s rim;


these bundled letters in different hands

and inks to show how words fall short of love.


I put in riddles:


silhouettes of mountains, oiled gun barrels,

a sheriff’s badge, a dust-blown street,


a child running in a drift of grasses,

a scrubbed deal table in a pitman’s house.



I wondered if you’d find the answers

if I might understand the questions.


I did not want to put inside my box

your cold clay mouth

this pale oak chamfered cube

and my two hands holding it, all


I wanted was you holding my box

in a high place

where you could only fly, not fall

our david c 1


I made this box” appeared originally in Much Possessed. smith|doorstop 2016

South Downs Poetry Festival: bonus tracks…Sarah Miles and Louisa Campbell


We read a poem:


Swineherd:    (Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin)

When all this is over, said the swineherd,

I mean to retire, where

Nobody will have heard about my special skills

And conversation is mainly about the weather.



I want to lie awake at night

Listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug


I want to see an orchard where the trees grow in straight lines


The extracts give you a flavour of the Swineherd’s dream……..of a life utterly different from the one he has. He doesn’t say what it involves. You understand that from what he dreams of.

Now, Pick a task or occupation. Maybe you’ve done it, dreamed of it, would hate it. Lighthouse keeper, pigs head boner, chiropodist, dentist, mudlark, lady’s maid. What will you dream of doing once it’s all over.


My workshoppers have five minutes to react to this, to write, as far as possible, without conscious thought…at the very least, without an editorial voice in their heads. I promised that if anyone wrote something they thought worth keeping they could send it to me and, all things being equal, I’d put the poem on the cobweb. And I was delighted that two writers did, and even more delighted to like the poems and to keep my promise. Here we go.     First, Sarah Miles.

window 3


When this is all over

(said the window cleaner),

I will go to a place where houses

with thatched roofs beckon the open air;

alive with insects, clicking,

keeping me awake at night.


I will sit on the fat window ledges,

my legs swinging and my thighs

spreading on the cold concrete,

absorbing the dust, the chill

and the crannies of the windowsills.


There will be no storeys,

no need for extensions or ladders.

My feet will be forever grounded,

my world will be smeared

and streaked with weather and bird-shit.


If I see suds, I will pop

each bubble,

one by one,

till there is nothing left to see

but a memory.


and Louisa Campbell

milkman 4


Delivery Song

The milk-white moon
holds a wispy finger
to his gentle mouth, whispers,
as I clink bottles on stone,
soft-step back to my float.

Puttle of tyres on road,
7, 9, 11, but not 13,
fox’s warrior stare,
hedgehog’s tippy-toddle,
all add their pulse to mine
as I long for the world to stay
like this forever: poised, hung-
over, quiet in ink blue,
ready for anything.


Sarah Miles runs Paper Swans Press and is co-founder of The Poetry Shelf along with Abegail Morley and Jill Munro.

Louisa Campbell‘s  poetry has appeared in journals including ProleAcumen, and Three Drops From a Cauldron. Her first pamphlet, The Happy Bus, is forthcoming with Picaroon Poetry.

Through the looking glass (2) : David Wilson


(To start with, an afterthought…something I came across after this cobweb strand was published. A sort of oxymoron. A postscript that comes at the beginning. As so often, it’s an insight gleaned from Clive James’ Poetry Notebook 2006-2014.

He’s writing about memorable lines, ‘tightly integrated things’ and on achieving fame …or not achieving fame.

[On U A Fanthorpe]  “It wasn’t that she wrote one thing that put everything else in the shade. Though she had been awarded, very quietly, in 2003, the Queen’s Medal for poetry, her whole output was in the shade, and then suddenly it all came to light at once: at the very end of her life, and partly because Carol Ann Duffy, who has a gift for fame, was an admirer of hers. Thus, Fanthorpe’s gift for obscurity was overcome: until then, despite her having published several volumes with a faithful minor publishing house (the much lamented Peterloo Poets) she was was read mainly by her devotees, and it is one of the laws of poetry and of the arts in general that the instructed are an insufficient audience: one must break through to the uninstructed.)


That would have made a great title for this and last week’s post: ‘the instructed are an insufficient audience.

I guess that at the heart of last week’s post was this fond wish : What I want to do is to  consider those poets who break out of the bubble, this hall of mirrors that multiplies and multiplies the image rather than the reality, and are heard by folk who aren’t that interested in poetry as such. Who are they, and how do they do it?

So here’s another take on that question, and also an opportunity to share and celebrate the poetry of someone  who I met via The Poetry Business Writing Days, whose work I’ve always liked for its quiet precision…and also, to be fair…. because of a shared enthusiasm for mountains and the stories that surround them. Climbing them? Not so much; dodgy bones and vertigo put paid to to my climbing decades ago. But the literature of mountains and mountaineering. Oh yes.

That was reinvigorated by Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Mountains of the mind‘ and its exploration of the shifting imagery of our relationship with high places. It does a job like  Raymond Williams’ The country and the city did for the opposition of ideas of urban and rural in art and literature. It’s a job which Macfarlane continues to do with books like Landmarks, and Simon Schama in Landscape and memory. And I ought to namecheck Terry Gifford, one of my tutors on the MA Creative Writing course I did; apart from writing critical appraisals of Ted Hughes, he also used to organise international conferences on the relationship of climbing and literature. Clearly, I’m not breaking new ground here. Just setting a stage on which to introduce today’s guest.

David Wilson’s not the first by any means to write poetry that goes through the looking glass to engage the attention of folk not normally keen readers of poetry, and more recently there are other collections and pamphlets that occupy the same territory.

helen and yvonne (2)

Helen Mort’s recent ‘No map could show them’ has a double reach since it also celebrates those Victorian women alpinists, and ticks the boxes of both feminists and mountaineers. The backstory of Yvonne Reddick’s Translating mountains engages in another way because of its poignant personal family history . You can check it out via the link

I’m personally fascinated by epic tales of suffering and death on high mountains. Joe Simpson’s Touching the void showed how such a story can reach out to a much wider public, just as the myths that have accreted around Mallory will engage readers who have never set foot on a rock face. And since one of the poems that David Wilson wrote which proved a breakthrough for him is about Everest, it seems a good place to introduce him.

“David  turned to writing poetry a few years ago after being
inspired by Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Midsummer, Tobago’ on the wall of a
hospital waiting room in Leeds. He then discovered the Writing Days
run by the Poetry Business in Sheffield, leading to his first attempts
at poems since primary school.
David was born and brought up in North London and studied at the
London School of Economics, followed by a Masters degree at Leeds
University, which at the time had the only indoor climbing wall in the
country and was close to excellent outcrop climbing.

He has climbed
extensively in the UK, Alps and further afield, at a standard best
described as erratic.  In mid-life he got hooked on windsurfing, but
writing about climbing led him back into it.

David’s poems have appeared in The North, Poetry News, Rialto,
Scottish Mountaineer, Climb, Alpinist and the Cinnamon anthology
Journey Planner. He has also been a prize-winner in competitions:
Poets and Players (twice), Kent and Sussex, Buxton International
Festival,  Poetry News and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. His
first pamphlet, Slope, was published by Smith/Doorstop in 2016.


(Two things I’d want to highlight, because, I suppose, they fit the ‘looking glass’ argument. First off, his poems have appeared in serious poetry journals, but also in climbing and mountaineering journals, as well as winning a prize with the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. Second, you’ll notice that the endorsement on the front cover of Slope isn’t from a poet, but a world-famous mountaineer. You’d give an arm and a leg for an endorsemant like that. Or perhaps not, if you’re a mountaineer. But you get the point.)

David adds some thoughts on writing poetry which are relevant.

“Prior to writing poetry, I occasionally wrote fiction, both short
stories and a well-received novel.
In seeking to write about the experience of climbing, and its social
and historical context, Robert McFarlane’s Mountains of the Mind  was
one influential book, another was Wade Davis’ Into the Silence: The
Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest; and a third,  M. John
Harrison’s novel Climbers. The poets Les Murray and Norman McCaig were
helpful in gaining insight into writing about climbing and landscape.”

Praise for his poetry has come from the worlds of poetry and of mountaineering. Here’s a selection.

‘These poems bring back great memories. And I empathise with the
questions some of the poems raise.’
Chris Bonington

‘Both Helen Mort’s ‘No Map Could Show Them’ and David Wilson’s ‘Slope’
clearly show that great poetry about climbing is not only possible –
as Coleridge surely realised in his state of ‘prophetic trance and
delight’ when descending Broad Stand – but that it is very much alive
and well in Britain today, well over two hundred years after that
euphoric adventure on Scafell.’
David Pickford, Editor-in-Chief, Climb magazine.

and, to introduce the first poem:

‘A brilliantly imagistic rendering of a place. The finding of likeness
between Elvis and Everest …is truly spectacular.’
Paul Muldoon on ‘Everest’, which he awarded the 2015 Poets and Players prize.


Once it was Chomolungma,
Mother Goddess of the Earth,
a face whose veil rarely lifted,
its whiteness the White Whale’s.

Now it’s like Elvis near the end,
a giant in a soiled jumpsuit,
blank, useful for percentages,
a sheet from which the music’s fled.

What I like particularly here is how much is packed into an eight-line poem; the history of a mountain and of the death of legends; it charts a descent from the divine to the mysterious, to the popular myth, to the pathetic and shopworn. It has the kind of resonance I associate with Black Elk talking about Wounded Knee: the hoop of the nations is broken and the sacred tree is dead’.

The image of a sheet of staves which has lost all its notation resonates particularly with my images of failed ascents, the tiny black dots of climbers who vanished into whiteout.

Mind you, it would be doing David an injustice to suggest that he’s somehow caught in a niche subject. That isn’t remotely true, any more than it would be of Helen Mort or Yvonne Reddick. All I was suggesting at the start is that it does you no harm to be able to write about subjects that break the shiny walls of the poetry bubble. Because the odds are that then those readers will find all the other poems, and read them, too. Poems like this:


Duke of Edinburgh’s

After Biology’s birds and bees
Mr Palmer taught us Civil Defence,
how to raise a burned body part
above the level of the heart,
to recognise the four minute siren,
Duck and Cover if caught outside.

He prized his Mega-Death Calculator:
two cardboard discs, one over the other.
We’d offer a number in kilotons;
rotating the discs with two fat thumbs,
he’d read off deaths to the nearest ten k
within five miles of Camden Market.

The President gave his ultimatum.
Subs and missile ships sailed on.
Mr Palmer fiddled with his Calculator.
“Don’t giggle! It looks likely tomorrow
that most of our numbers will be up.”
Across a field the First Eleven trained.

The drunks who cursed outside the tube
gone in a flash. Tufnell Park white ash.
The blast hitting Highgate Hill, Marx’s Grave,
the suicide bridge on Archway Road.
Helen Shapiro and her beehive vaporised
as she walked back to happiness.


We had teachers like that at the time of the first hydrogen bomb tests; we ghoulishly pored over diagrams that told us how our houses and our skin would look if an H Bomb was dropped on Leeds. Privately, I had nightmares.

David’s poem beautifully dramatises the mindset of intelligent teenagers (I guess they were all boys) at the time of the Cuban Missile crisis. It’s the precision of location and geography that makes this work for me…and that one telling bit of ephemeral history. Helen Shapiro’s beehive hairdo. It nails one generation’s priorities, (and maybe its uncertain preoccupation with birds and bees) and horrifies with the absolutism of that verb: vaporised. I love the art of this poem, the tying up of its narrative.

The Hydrogen Bomb UK civil defence poster

David generously sent me more poems than I can use in one post, but I reckon we can manage three more. The thing I notice as I read and re-read them is their concern with mortality, the fragility of human life. Most climbing literature will return again and again to reflections on the belief of great mountaineers. Namely, that putting themselves at risk in sublimely dangerous high and inaccessible places gives then renewed insight in the preciousness of being alive. I think these poems are illuminated by this core idea. See if you agree. The first is full of innocence. I love it.

Bivouac at Harrisons’ Rocks

Leaves turn from green to grey.
On the breeze a scent of hops.
A star appears. A bat.

Beyond silver birch trees
a train sounds its two-tone horn,
slows for a bend, disappears.

We’re fifteen years old
with apple pies, cans of Sprite,
and dreams of the Eigerwand.

Above our ledge a sandstone roof,
below us the drop. Not far
but far enough.

I read a lot into that ‘far enough’…meaning: far enough to be thrilled and frightened, for the adrenalin rush; far enough to be killed if you fall off. The thing about climbing is that it’s addictive. It’s never enough. There’s always something that bit harder, that bit bigger.


The next poem Palimpsest commemorates Rachel Slater and Tim Newton who went missing on Valentine’s weekend 2016, buried in an avalanche on the North Face of
Ben Nevis. Their bodies were not found for many weeks.


How softly we climbed last winter,
touching the snow as if it were skin
on the slope that led to the routes,

knowing they were somewhere beneath us,
partners who left their tent at dawn,
her in her red jacket, him his new boots.

It could as easily have been us,
lost beneath an unreadable surface
as layers of old and new compressed.

It’s yet another poem that does so much in a small space. The title, I think, is brilliant. Not just for the obvious whiteness of snow that covers imperfection and loss, but more radically, the scraping off of a record ready for new marks and tracks. How well it connects with the first lines

How softly we climbed last winter,
touching the snow as if it were skin

‘Softly’ is exactly right. That held-breath tentativeness, that fear of the surface fragility, that precariousness. And the the softness with which you might touch a loved one. And how you might pause to touch the dead body of a loved one. I find this powerfully moving.

The final poem I chose isn’t a ‘climbing’ poem. But the voice is one I want to end with. It’s a voice that says that being hopeful is  a condition of  being alive. And I’ll settle for that on this July Sunday.

The Day

You reminded me, how years ago on the school run
I said one day we’ll just keep driving,
past the railings and bells and latecomers

to see where the day takes us,
perhaps the beach, perhaps back home,
and I’d let you decide when it should be.

It didn’t happen but knowing it was enough
you said, the best thing I ever did.
And I wonder if the same is true for me;

perhaps, when nestled among flowers
with the rear door of my limousine shut,
you might ask the man in black

to keep driving, see where the day takes us,
to hills, the sea, or just around the block
like an uncertain bride taking her time.

So, thank you, David Wilson for being our guest and being, involuntarily, part of an argument I’ve been having about the place of poetry in the oworld.

Two things coming up. Midweek we’ll have two poems from a workshop I ran. Because I like them. And next Sunday (or Monday) a tribute to another small poetry press: Paper Swans. Hope to see you then.

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Tŷ Newydd and That Report

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Tŷ Newydd and That Report

Tŷ Newydd and That Report

I just have to add my voice to that of a poet and teacher who has in many ways changed my life for the better.
Two things I HAVE to say. First of all, the fact that this ‘report’ is written with the protection of anonymity. I’d say that in itself that’s an act of intellectual and moral dishonesty and cowardice. If you’re going to write something that threatens the livelihood and wellbeing of others, do it in the open, or just button it.
Second: my own involvement with Arvon..and Lumb Bank in particular…. started in the 80s. As an LEA English Adviser, one task I inherited was to arrange an annual residential writing course for 6th form students in my authority. Not hobbyists, not retirees…young adults whose lives in some cases were changed, as mine was, for the better. Then there were collaborations with Yorkshire for would-be Writers in Education in collaboration with heads of English from the secondary schools in my LEA. Most participants mainly in their 30s. Among them, Lemn Sissay. I might rest my case right there.
And then, the residentials I’ve been on. Not Ty Newydd, as it happens, but courses run by The Poetry Business, Kim Moore, Almaserra Vella. Till I went on them I published nothing, and had no plans to do so. But since then (in the last 5 years) I’ve had  2 collections published, and four pamphlets. I’ve won competitions judged by, amomg others, three poets laureate. I’ve even come to the point when I can be asked to run a writers workshop at a Poetry Festival.
What do places like Lumb Bank and Ty Newydd offer professional writers? Well..employment is a word that springs effortlessly to mind.

I’ll set aside the evidently not-right-on  sneer about ‘retirees’. I doubt that the report would ever have dreamed using a phrase like  ‘hobbyist women‘ or ‘hobbyist people of colour’. Apparently equal opportunities don’t apply to older folk. As a 74 year old I find that insulting. There you go. Apparently wanting to continue living a full creative life doesn’t meet whatever criteria the reporters have set for themselves. It’s interesting, I think, to ask who actually pays for them to write their report. I imagine it’s the taxpayer. Just for the record, I’ve been paying taxes for over 50 years.
So, to the anonymous and unprincipled jobsworth who wrote the section of this report quoted by Kim I’d say: engage brain before opening your mouth. And have the courage not to hide behind the anonymity of a damaging and inaccurate piece of misinformation.

Kim Moore

Last week, I saw via a post on Facebook that an Independent Review of Support for Publishing and Literature in Wales had been published.  Within those pages the Tŷ Newydd Creative Writing Centre had received damaging criticism, which is so at odds with my experience of Tŷ Newydd that I feel obliged to write this in support of Tŷ Newydd

You can find the report here

The paragraph below is taken directly from the report.

Tŷ Newydd seems to be mainly aimed at ‘retired hobbyists’ but it was unclear who Tŷ Newydd caters for and why it is receiving public subsidy. It was also unclear how many individuals, who have attended a course at Tŷ Newydd, have gone on to publish a book. This kind of residential literary course is viewed by many to be outdated in the current creative writing boom in the digital age . Tŷ Newydd offers little…

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Through the looking-glass (1): and a gem revisited….Keith Hutson


A meme has persistently popped up on my Facebook page recently. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Hmm. It occurs to me that my days have been defined by poets and poetry for the last few weeks. Residentials, a festival, readings, workshops, poetry blogs, planning programmes. A week ago I was given a guided tour of the stunning renovations of Halifax’s magnificent Piece Hall…an epic space that was once the centre of the European cloth trade. Merchants came from Russia to the Piece Hall. Easy to forget that in the 1970s it was saved from demolition by the casting vote of the mayor at a council meeting. A huge piazza surrounded on all four sides by classical galleries in (these days) golden sandstone. It wouldn’t look remotely out of place in a great Italian city. The Square Chapel that was a near ruin in the 1980s has now been stitched into the complex by very smart, visionary architects. My mate Bob Horne and I were being shown around prior to checking out a performance space…our very own Puzzle Poets Live are invited to put on two hours of live poetry as part of the re-opening day celebrations on August 1st! How do we feel? Gobsmacked. That’s how we feel.

Last Tuesday I was in Bradford to listen to Vicky Gatehouse and Ann Caldwell reading at The Beehive Poets. Wednesday, I was happy to be back in Halifax where Michael Brown and Maria Isakova Bennett were two of the four guest poets at Keith Hutson’s Word Play in Square Chapel. Thursday I was reading at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield. The week before, a new and beautifull magazine, Strix, had its launch at the Hyde Park Book Club Cafe in Leeds. I think it’s fair to say that my world has revolved round poems and poets and poetry of late. Clearly, it’s very important.

And yet. Important to whom? Well, to thousands..but in my case, to a few hundred people I know or know of. There again, so is my beloved Rugby League team…but as far as most of the world’s concerned it barely registers, if at all. Poets, the unacknowledged legislators? it’s a big claim, isn’t it? Unacknowledged, yes. I get that. But if I had to select the crucial legislators…the layers out of laws that govern the world, I’d pick mathematicians. Put it another way. Ten years ago, or thereabouts, poetry was something I read from time to time. Poems were things I tinkered with, intermittently and irregularly, without any real conviction. The world of magazines, competitions, prizes, poetry reading groups, open mics., workshops, residentials, festivals were literally invisible. Poetry’s important to the people it’s important to; I have to pinch myself and remind myself that to a great extent it’s a bubble I’ve come inhabit in which I talk to like- minded people and sometimes forget that there’s a world out there that doesn’t give a toss. By and large, the people who buy my books are folk whose books I buy in return. Ditto, people who listen to me read and, probably, people who read my blog posts.

mirror 2

Before you decide this is altogether too depressing, I rush to say this is the bleakest version of a whole spectrum of shades of the truth about poetry and its place in the world. What I want to do is to tweak this a bit and to consider those poets who break out of the bubble, this hall of mirrors that multiplies and multiplies the image rather than the reality, and are heard by folk who aren’t that interested in poetry as such. Who are they, and how do they do it?

bubble compilation 1

I’m going to stick my neck out…I guess I expect some brickbats…but what the heck. I started reading/performing poems in folk clubs, and learned very quickly that if I wanted to keep the attention of a room of folk mainly there for the tunes and the beer, then I’d better do poems that rhymed (probably) and were funny (certainly). I built up a big file of stuff that wouldn’t let me down. Poets like Matt Harvey and Les Barker. I used a lot of Marriott Edgar. And I came to respect what Pam Ayres did. She’s a crafty, clever writer despite her TV persona. I’m very fond of ‘Clive the fearless birdman‘. I learned a lot from watching Ian Macmillan’s live performances in libraries and other small venues…especially when he worked with Circus of Poets. And I think Roger McGough is frequently brilliant. McGough has always written lovely serious stuff along with stuff like the PCPlod sequence, and A lesson and Nooligan and the rest. But I think there’s no argument that what let him break out of the poetry bubble was the Penguin anthology that rode on the back of Beatlemania in the 60s. And I’d argue hard and long that Ian Macmillan and Pam Ayres owe a lot to their voices and associated personae that worked so well on radio and TV. In other words, they’re known beyond the poetry world as ‘entertainers’. I’ll come back to this.

bubble compilation 2

And then there’s the collections/anthologies that sell lots and lots of copies, and travel well outside the niche poetry world. In the case of Staying Alive and Lifesaving poems you’re as likely to come across them in parts of bookshops that deal with ‘lifestyle’ and ‘self-help’ as in the less than crowded poetry shelves. I think the reason(s) for their popularity don’t need spelling out. They’re full of stunning poems, but I suspect they’re sometimes leafed through by people wanting something to read at funerals. In a sense (though not in terms of the quality and seriousness of their poems) they occupy the same kind of cultural space that Patience Strong used to dominate. The thing I’m focussing on is the fact that they’re bought and read by folk who don’t naturally buy poetry.

The world’s wife is a different case. For me, it’s one of the most important collections I ever bought. It gave me a whole new and liberating way into my own writing. And, I should add, there are a lot of poems in there that went down a storm in folk clubs. Robust, strong, forthright poems. Funny poems. Memorable poems. I loved performing The Kray Sisters…in a not very convincing Michael Caine voice. But there’s a lot more to it than the craft, the wit, the bravura quality of the whole collection….which it shares with Liz Lochhead’s Dreaming Frankenstein. I remember coming across it about the time I met the first of the feminist-slanted revisionist picture story books: The paper bag princess. Both appeared at what seems to me the exact right time…you might not be into poetry, but if you were into feminism, then this was a must-read. The message was just as important as the poetry. It was innovatory, brilliantly simple as a concept, completely accessible and absolutely politically right-on. (It’s also beautifully crafted. Little Red-Cap is stunningly written, full of internal rhymes, slant rhymes, assonance, texture..wistful and sardonic and finally triumphant by turns). And it’s gone on and on and on being popular.

I think I’ll nail my colours to the mast with that resonant word ‘popular’. Of and for the people. Lets’ be fair. A lot of poetry isn’t. It’s of, and for, coteries. But Macmillan and Ayres and McGough come out of a long proud tradition of oral poetry. Poetry that’s performed as much as, if not more than, it’s read. It’s accessible…and anyone who thinks writing accessible, entertaining, and (particularly) genuinely funny poetry is easy, well, all I can say is: they’ve never tried to do it. I’m also reminded of something that Ian Macmillan said in a filmed interview with Martin Wiley. He said that much of the stuff written for Circus of Poets was written collaboratively…something on the lines that it’s hard to write funny poems on your own because ‘you can’t make yourself laugh’. So, bearing those ideas in mind: popular, collaborative, public, entertaining, I finally get round to re-introducing today’s returning guest poet: Keith Hutson.

Keith was last a guest in February 2015. You can follow the link to that post here if you like:

troupers collage

I finished that post by writing that I’d hoped “he might have let me have one his poems that draw on the world of the music hall; it turns out that Widow Twankey is currently seeking employment elsewhere, as is another I wanted …Frankie Vaughan at a lad’s boxing club in Ancoats.If you want a taste of the world of the music hall comedian in the dying days of the craft, you can find three sonnets in The North 53, and make the acquaintance of Sandy Powell,Tommy Trinder, and Robb Wilton who each apparently built a career on profoundly unfunny catchphrases. Keith’s uncle would take him, as a young boy, to see all the comic greats who appeared at Blackpool and other theatres in the North, and a lot of his recent poetry pays tribute to the performers he loves. He is working towards a collection of these poems, called Troupers. (Any offers anyone?)”

As it happens, he has done much more than work towards a collection, and as we shall see, he’s had offers. Let’s let him introduce himself:

“Since I was last on the Cobweb, I’ve had more poems published in journals, and some successes in competitions including the Troubadour, Mclellan, York, Cornwall, Canon, Rosamond, and Rialto Nature. [he’s understating again: the Poetry Business uses this endorsement from Keith on their webpage: ‘Since I began attending the Poetry Business Writing Days two years ago,[ie in 2014 or thereabouts] I have gone from having no poems published to forty, all in well respected journals. This is due to the encouragement and support of Peter and Ann Sansom and all the monthly writing day participants’ 

My debut pamphlet, ‘Routines’ (31 sonnets celebrating music hall performers) was published by Poetry Salzburg in October 2016 (I was subsequently invited to join the Poetry Salzburg editorial board). [Just let that last sentence sink in before you read on]

Image result for keith hutson routines

In February this year I read, as Carol Ann Duffy’s guest, at the Royal Society of Literature’s TS Eliot Memorial event at the British Library. Carol Ann has asked me to be a Laureate’s Choice poet for 2018, which will mean another pamphlet, ‘Troupers’, this time published by smith|doorstop, who have agreed to publish a future full collection too.

I tour the country with a one-man show, also called ‘Troupers’, next appearing on 28 September at Harrogate Theatre.”

So, let’s think about Routines and Troupers and the connection with my musings in the first part of the post. If you are going to break out beyond the bubble, you probably need a lucky break, some sort of special boost. I’d draw a parallel with a former colleage of mine, Gervaise Phinn. English teachers and English Advisers throughout the country knew all about his brilliant storytelling about the ups and downs of advising and inspecting schools in the North of England. No one else. Then he had a chance meeting with Esther Rantzen via his work for Childline..he made her laugh so much he ended up on TV, won a publishing contract, and became a bestseller of books about the life of a schools’ inspector in the North Yorks Dales. The stories were the same, but no longer inside the selfreflecting budbble of the world of English teaching. In a similar way, Keith Hutson caught the eye and ear of Carole Ann Duffy. That’s always going to help. More than that, though. He can tour his poems in a one man show that fills a theatre. Beyond the bubble. Brilliant. Let’s see just how.

Bad Impresario

i.m. William Paul 1820 – 1882


William Paul, with millions to waste

on battling boredom, wondered which place

in Blighty had the least discerning taste:


could he unearth a town where utter tripe

would be considered culture at its height –

silk purses not sow’s ears – night after night?


Two dozen hardened scouts were sent to scour

the land; five hundred flops auditioned for

his troupe; the ten most woeful went on tour


including long-abandoned novelties

like Lady Clock Eye, Baldwin’s Catholic Geese,

The Human Mop, Frank and his Dancing Teeth:


from Cumbria to Cornwall no one asked

them back, except the Palace, Halifax.


First thing I particularly like is Keith’s ear for the punchline. His sonnets take you for an eye-opening journey through the often bizarre world of music hall and variety acts from the the 19thC through to the late 1950’s when they were effectively killed by television. The big stars were enormously famous…think of rock stars and you’re not far wrong. The ones who weren’t famous were frequently bonkers. I love that list of B and C list performers that seem to come from a deranged surrealist. Or Monty Python. Except that they were real. Keith does an enormous amount of research. Equally, he’s adept at using the sonnet for its ability to hold a compressed narrative, to supply a turn and a closure.

Very often the stories of the really big stars have a familiar trajectory. Many of them came out of appalling poverty and deprivation, and many of them were destroyed by depression and drink, or just ended up, sadly and anticlimactically in care homes. Though not without being able, sometimes, to pack a punch, still. Like Joan Rhodes, the Strong Woman, the tearer of telephone books and bender of iron bars.

Coming On Strong

i.m Joan Rhodes 1921-2010                                         


Three and in the workhouse, ten when you ran,

missing till twenty then, as lean as luck,

in fishnets at the fair, you tore a phone book

up, bent iron bars, broke nails, took four men


on at tug-of-war and won, which led to

lifting Bob Hope while Marlene Dietrich

loved a woman tough enough to keep

refusing King Farouk, who wanted you


to wreck his best four-poster bed with him

still in it. Joan, I’ve seen your photograph,

fab in a basque and tan, that cast iron bath

held high, before you disappeared again,


found in a care home where, I understand,

greeting the manager, you broke his hand.


As with many of the sonnets in his sequence, Keith can show a great tenderness and respect for his Troupers. This one starts with the beautifully compressed ‘early life’ that packs a huge unwritten backstory. And I love the economy of that ‘lean as luck’. And the schadenfreude of the couplet that does a slightly different job from the one in the previous poem. What’s clear is that the sheer fascination of these carefully researched subjects is what lifts them out of the world of poetry into a world of entertaining and informing. You just have to remember that these are also beautifully artful, crafted poems.

Two more poems (Keith’s been really generous. Thanks Keith). The next one is more kinetic…basically because the act it describes was a man standing on a stage miming the running of a fried fish shop. Night after night. The past was another country.

The Fish Fryer                                                                             

i.m. Billy Bennett 1887-1942

 The secret is to get the audience

to flinch with you: imaginary hot fat

should surprise them too. A shared experience.

But ration out the twitches, make every spit

and spatter count. Your elbow action should,

however, never stop. You’ve got to work

that non-existent haddock, scallop, cod

till they can smell the sizzling. You’ll look

a fool, standing on stage behind a range

that isn’t there, but that’s what they’ve all paid

good money for. Somehow it entertains

them – a ninny in a pinny plagued

by boiling oil. Don’t try to analyse

their appetites, though. That way madness lies.


The first thing to notice is that this is one block of 14 lines. There’s no resting place. Then you think about the speed of it from flinch to surprise to spit to spatter. The rhythm’s manic, staccato, nonstop like the act. And the couplet does something different this time. Because the poet finally gives up trying to understand just what made the act work. And, possibly, Billy Bennett, too.

Finally, because there’s a lot of light and shade in the whole sequence, I asked for on that illustrates the bittersweet, or pathetic or tragic, or just plain heartbreaking ends of so many of these stage careers. This poem’s about Hutch. It’s also about poverty, the class system and the rank racism of British society for most of the 20th C. A world in which the BBC were still showing The black and white minstrels into the 60’s, and Love thy neighbour and It ain’t half hot, Mum were still thought to be amusing.

Ctroupers 3

Slave Song

for Leslie Hutchinson 1900-1969


Black. Baritone. Breathtaking, Coward said.

Now let’s diminish you with this instead:

Lady Mountbatten so adored your dick,

she got a jewel-encrusted cast of it

from Cartier, to comfort her when you

were entertaining Noel, Novello.


Prohibited from singing on a stage,

you did Cole Porter from the pit, to rave

reviews; received sweets from the royal box.

Received Cole Porter too. But when the facts

about how in demand you were came out,

Lord Louis sued the press and swore in court


No nigger fucks my wife. Cut down, voice gone,

you died selling yourself in Paddington.


I reckon this needs no commentary. But you’ll have gathered that here’s poetry that riffs on the sonnet form and makes it sit up and beg; poetry as social history; poetry that entertains. Poetry that travels outside the bubble. Thank you Keith Hutson for being our guest and sharing your poems. Next week, a slightly different take on the the theme I opened with. See you all then, I hope



Lost and found in translation: John Foggin


Last lap. First of all , thank you, Gyula Friewald for a morning of writing that pushed me (for one) into new and uncomfortable places. I can’t say that I understand the business of adaptation/translation any better than when I started.

Recently I wrote, for the excellent on-line journal The High Window, a review of Peter Sirr’s Sway (versions of poems from the Troubadour tradition) by Peter Sirr [Gallery Books 2016.  €11.95] . You can read the whole thing, if you want to chart the problems I had with it: ). This was my starting point, and one, I think that illuminates what I was up to with my own retellings (I think that’s what they are) of Gyula’s poems.

“The translation-maker’s duty is to the original, yes; but his primary duty is to the new poem which, through the process of translation, “becomes” the translator’s poem and not just a transliteration of the original poet’s work. In this view, the translator is active and not passive; an originator and not a transporter; a transformer and creator and not just some drudge who, dictionary in hand, roots for and writes down linguistic equivalents.

That seemed to resonate with what Peter Sirr says in his splendidly helpful –and reassuring – Afterword: I hung on to this ; he says he began the collection by a combination of fluke and compulsion:

“It was the lines in what we now call Old Occitan that I couldn’t get out of my head. The opening gambit ‘Farai un vers de dreyt nien’ (I’ll make a verse out of nothing at all’) leapt from the page, seeming to arrive fully-formed in its self-confident flourish and strut,….playing …with the idea of poetry and the role of the poet”

He goes further:  “These are not, it should be said, scholarly translations…I played fast and loose with form and image.”…….. “Translation is never fixed or finished; it answers a contemporary need to engage with and remake in the language we have available to us whatever calls out to us from the past”.

I could go along with that, as with Clive James’: “A real poem?  A real poem is  ‘Well separated’ . You hear ‘the force of real poetry at first glance’ (I love that!). Because ‘Even if you don’t set out to memorize a real poem, it somehow seems to be memorizing itself for you’.”

The message is simple enough. Read the poems as poems. Listen to them. Ask if they have that kind of force….and above all, find the moments, the core images where the poem’s meanings seem to cohere.So, here are my versions.


Like clockwork


Old mother. Shapeless, bloated;

yesterday they found you on the street

and now you’re carrying the card:


officially unstable. You husband went

years ago; you can’t breathe. They own the air.

How your lungs labour; tired wings.


Your wasted years, the years you never lived,

are clenched  knots of old arguments

you couldn’t win. The table’s rigged,


the cards are marked. You have a ticket

to the Public Gardens. Wild flowers,

herbs and simples. Asphodel.


Welcome to your pension-free retirement;

welcome to a crochet comfort blanket

of 24 hour TV, the vodka you’ve got stashed.


Poor Ophelia in your little music box

the apparatchiks engineered. A trap

of stiff coiled springs and ratchets


where you wake and wail and wail;

you croon old nursery tunes and discords;

you grow slow; you are catatonic.


And this is the System’s lying diagnosis.

It’s prescription: factitious dramas,

depressives. Psychosis is in its blood


like yeast in bread; like genes.

The politicians of the media

chew listlessly, hand feed you nostrums


simple as barbed wire border fences.

Parliament squats in a Neo-Gothic dream.

Plays chess with you. With all the people.


child on a step


The mountains of Buda were green

and smiling in the distance. Hope

planted trees that whispered.

Nine carpenters came before me.

Men with calloused hands who built roofs

that cradled my first years. My forefathers.


The years and family collapsed

like ancient rafters, fell on the deaf ears

of yellow daffodils that nodded,

as I waited by the river,

waited on the step, waited for my ash-gey father

wrapped in his dreamed immortality.


Lost. Absorbed by anthill circuses

I saw crouching dragons

where I waited in that old, slow

Danube backwater; waited,

tranced, forgot the breaking

of my family, the twitching of its severed hands.


I’m not sure what Hilary and Christopher discovered as they worked through this exercise. I think they stay closer to the originals, their shapes and rhythms. To their diction, too. They preserve more of the abstract thinking. But I see how illuminating was Christopher’s pointing out the centrality of the image of hands in one poem. I think, too, that I learn a good deal from the way he applies a cool precision to his version of the ‘Clockwork’ poem. And I was more than impressed by the way Hilary preserved the shape of the ‘Budapest Boy’, seeing it as an image of cupped hands. I’m interested too, by the way she makes a coherent narrative of it. I’m not sure what I make of my versions. I’m pretty sure that what I responded to in ‘Waiting’ was the central (for me) image of the child on the step. It triggered suppressed guilt about what I see as my own absenteeism during my children’s growing up. Not a physical absence. It’s just that I let work be far too important. I wonder where on earth Ophelia came from in the other poem. No idea. I don’t even know if she belongs there.

Still. At the end of it all, it seems to me that the whole business was about connection, about imaginative listening. About reaching out of your self. You never know. There could be a spark.



We’ll be back to something more normal on Sunday (or Monday, or….) we’ll be having a returning guest. So, uniforms tidy, ties tied, shirts tucked in, and no chewing. See you then.



Lost and found in translation: Hilary Elfick

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Here’s the second of the posts featuring interpretations, (translations, adaptations, or what you will) of two poems by Gyula Friewald. These two are by Hilary Elfick.

Hilary has been, in her time, a producer for BBC Radio 4, and subsequently on radio/television in New Zealand, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, and has featured on BBC Radio 2 and BBC World Service..

She has lectured and performed presentations in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe. Hilary is a member of ASLEC-ANZ (Association for the Study of Literature, the Environment and Culture, Australia and New Zealand) and of The Australia and New Zealand Shakespeare Association.

An Ordinary Storm, a sequence based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and based in Polynesia was published, performed, recorded and filmed by The University of Otago in Dunedin.. Recently she has collaborated with award-winning photographer David Malikoff on two books: Bush Fire, and Red Hill: the dreaming (Blurb Books:Australia)

her other work includes the following:

The Horse Might Sing (1990), Unexpected Spring (1992) and Going Places (1994) Envoi Poets Press

Bush Track, Harpoon the Breeze (1999) and The Third Mile ( 2009) Guildford Poets Press . A new edition of her novel, The Sleeping Warrior (1999) Cromwell Press, was published in 2016 .

Hilary say this about the translation workshop process:

We talked about the shape of his stanzas being echoed by ours, about echoing the spirit/feeling rather than word by word, by our translations being ‘after GF’ rather than a direct translation. And in his answering our questions and so our reaching the backstory, we helped him to find, as we would in any other workshop, what he remembered and wanted to say, that was not yet present in the poem. In my version I incorporate some of that.
He is a live poet. His poems are organic, still developing. Our versions serve him when they find ways the things he discovers he wants to say, and incorporate those in our versions. Neither his Hungarian nor his English versions were yet set in stone. This was a workshop for him as well as an exercise for us.

So here we go. Like I say, I’ll reflect on the different ways in which we read and heard the heft and meanings of these two poems once I’ve finally posted my own versions tomorrow.

music box



One music box, Early 21st C.Hungarian. Some damage to mechanism

(after Gyula Friewald)


Bulbous as a globe this mother they found yesterday,

homeless in the street. But now she’s in The System.

Has a plastic card. ‘Mental disability’.


Her husband vanished long ago. Since then

a slow descent, seeing nothing, sprawling,

struggling to find her next breath.


Those wasted years clogged by now

with the strangulated hernias of endless arguments

with righteous men in uniform,

desk-bound and backed by Law.


O, she can take her Sunday season ticket

into the Public Welfare Garden,

stocked with intoxicating toxic herbs, weed and parsley


or in her pension-free retirement

she can slouch before Daytime Television

meticulously crafted into Motor Sport and Panel Shows,

repeated formulae to pass all her remaining time.

To awaken her. Awaken what? Her connections now psychotic.


The System has placed her in a broken clockwork toy.

She wakes. She is Ophelia, her melodies distorted into wailing.

Trapped by old flexible springs she croons the half-remembered songs,

the pentatonic music of her childhood. She has become mechanical.






A Gothic Parliament, gum-chewing politicians

cynically feeding all her kind with explanations simple

as a Border fence, mind-numbing, as they’re meant to be,

high-minded arrogance obliterating any sense of shame,

remorse. Legitimised delirium enforced by impotent electorate

spellbound, held in checkmate, by the scent of poisonous herbs.


The Breaking

(after Gyula Friewald)

The green mountains framing Buda to the north smiled in the distance.

Hope planted the whispering trees which grew

to tower over my widowed grandmother.

The nine carpenters of my family

felled and seasoned the wood,

their stories cradling my emerging life

in the safety of the structures I watched them build.


But the rafters decayed, began to fall,

silencing the trumpets of the daffodils in my garden

where I would wait on the steps for my

ash-grey father. Waited. And again.

A waiting that entered myth.


We lived in a backwater of the Danube,

the only river, green and muddy between the trees.

I would crouch on the banks over our own slowly silting water,

seeing sleeping dragons. Watched an anthill circus, drawn to the detail

of this world on the edgelands, whole days passing, gradually blotting out

the slow fragmentation of my whole family advancing like a terrible mutilation.


If you’re faithfully following this, I feel deeply apologetic about the fact that you need to go back and forth between posts to compare the original with the reworkings. If I could overcome the formatting problems I’d do it like a shot. But I promised people I’d do this, and I’ll press on. I’ll post my own versions tomorrow, and then reflect briefly on the completely different poems that the ‘translations’ produced. Thank you for your patience x


Lost and found in translation: Christopher North

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If you missed yesterday’ post, this may not make sense, and you’ll be better off reading that first. And if you didn’t miss it, this is just a reminder that I’m reflecting on the business of translating/interpreting/adapting poems from other languages; in this case with the built in advantage of being to workshop the poems with the poet him/herself.

Today’s interpreter is Christopher North.His poetry has won many prizes. His first pamphlet collection A Mesh of Wires was short-listed for the Forward Prize in 1999. His first full collection Explaining the Circumstances was published in 2010, followed by a bilingual joint collection Al Otro Lado del Aguilar in 2011 and a second full collection The Night Surveyor in 2014 (all Oversteps Books). Wolves Recently Sighted  was a winner in the 2014 Templar Pamphlet & Collection Awards. He facilitates poetry retreats at the Almassera Vella in Relleu, Alicante and chairs Stanza Alacant for The Poetry Society.


Chris said this about the process..

“The workshop began a process for Gyula and for us.

I would say our first drafts were interpretations, hence versions rather than translations.

I attempted to pare down somewhat, seeking the core. A fascinating workshop.”

I have say, I really like the notion of ‘interpretations’. I’m comfortable with that.


Musical Box

(Translation from ‘Lejárt zenélödoboz)


Found on the Street yesterday,

the fat women sprawled

but clutching her ‘Mental Disability Card’.


Husband vanished long ago,

she sinks down and through the hours,

her breath rasps and snags.


After all those years, scarcely alive

and filled of strangling arguments

with the force of law,


all she can do with this ‘season ticket’

is enter their henbane ‘Garden of Welfare’

with its fake scent of flowers and parsley.


But concealed within her

there is music – inside

she is Ophelia screaming.


In this hard edged mechanism of wire,

she croons and hums her melody

locked inside her catatonia


They try to calm her with hypnosis.

They tranquillize her,

calm her defiance, her psychosis.


Step into pension-free retirement!

Drop into its embroidered TV fakerie

and the pit of daily alcohol.


The gum-chewing politician

feeding his crap,

his explanations simple as a border fence;


his doctrines create a stupor.

They beggar remorse

with lofty arrogance.


This ‘Respected Parliament’,

this Gothic delirium-quarry,

this spell bound electorate of pawns.



The next poem really interested me because it was Chris who finally unpicked the connection between the craft of the nine carpenters and the ‘severered hands’ that stood for the breaking of families. Hands as craftsmen and hands as employees. Hands as the makers and shapers of things. Hands that can touch lovingly and hands that can strike, can curl into fists. I like the way the title draws attention to this, now


The Hands

The green mountains of Budapest

smiled in the distance.

Hope had planted whispering trees

and the hands of my carpenter forefathers

raised from them the lofted roof

that covered the cradle of my emerging life.


Then rafters of the collapsing years

fell down to nodding daffodils

beside the garden steps

where I waited

for my ash-grey father

cloaked in his immortality.


Yes, on the green and muddy Danube

I couched beside a backwater

to gaze on sleeping dragons

and later on an ant hill circus.

I slowly forgot the last grasping tugs

of my severed family’s hands.


Thank you so much for these, Chris. I’ll wait until all three sets of interpretations/adaptations are posted and then try to draw some conclusions. Tomorrow’s post will feature Hilary Elfick. See you then






Lost and found in translation: Gyula Friewald

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Three weeks ago (as I wrote in an earlier post) I was part of a writing retreat in Alicante with poets Hilary Elfick, Gyula Friewald, and Christopher North …who is the presiding spirit of  Almaserra Vella at the Old Olive Press in Relleu, Alicante. (If you’re interested in the residential courses he offers just follow this link:

We’d agreed that each of us would volunteer to run at least one morning workshop over the seven days. For me it was a chance to try out some workshop activities; Hilary and Chrisptopher are already experienced tutors. I wanted to find a role for my friend Gyula.

Actually, I should introduce him, before we go any further. Gyula, as you can see from the image, his Tree of life, is a craftsman. These days he does relatively small pieces, working in a variety of metals and wood. What you can’t see in the image is that it’s a laminate of layers of worked sheets. It’s intricate, and as full of stories and significance as the cave paintings we went to see during the week. Gyula used to create monumental ornamental works..street pieces; great ornamental embassy gates, beautifully forged lamps, doors, staircases. His works grace the streets of Budapest, and the streets of London. He’s a talented man. He’s also a courageous man. A Hungarian with German forebears (as are so many, since Hungary’s been used as moveable feast by its stronger and conscienceless neighbours.) He’s had access to senior government offices in his time, because of his work. But he left it, work, workshop, tools…he’ll describe himself as a dissident. He left Hungary and just kept going until he reached London, and built up a new workshop and a new life. He now lives in Murcia, and makes small, beautiful pieces of work in his garage workshop. And he writes poems.



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I met him five years ago at Almaserra Vella. We went for long walks; he found the bones of a fox for me and told me about his life and his philosophy. I wrote a poem for him, as you do for a man who remarks casually that his father once had to hide, in a hollow tree, from Stalin’s motorcade. The backstory is worth a book on its own. Still. Translations. That’s what this will be about.

I’ve spent time workshopping Gyula’s poems with him, and at a distance via email. Two difficulties emerge…he tends to explore life philosophically and metaphysically. This tends to shift his writing towards abstraction, and it leave me pushing him, for good or ill, to find the moments (images, stories, objects, landscapes) that the abstract meanings grow out of. Sometimes he writes directly in English, sometimes he translates from his Hungarian originals. In either case, we’ll come up against the problems of idiom and syntax that stop his intentions coming through. You’ll see how this works before long. Anyway, I though it would be good to spend a morning which he could lead by giving us poems in Hungarian, and also their English adaptations. He could read the Hungarian so we could hear the texture, rhythm and rhyme of the original; we’d read his English version back to him. The key thing is that when the idiom /syntax made the meaning puzzling or unclear, we could ask him to unravel them for us. He could give us backstories where we needed them. And then we’d go off and write our translations/adaptations. And later, we’d workshop them in the afternoon sessions we set aside everyday. So, there we are. The context and the rationale.

What I’ll do now is three posts in a row illustrating what happened.

In this first post, I’ll give the texts that Gyula brought to the sessions, but I’ll also annotate the English version, adding the questions we asked him for clarification, and the answers we needed. I’ll leave those of you determined to press on to think about how you might set about writing your versions, and then day by day, I’ll post what three of us wrote in response. How’s that?

Ideally, I’d set Gyula’s Hungarian text side by side with his English version. WordPress has defeated me when I’ve tried to do this, which makes it a bit awkward to work between the two texts. I hope you’ll find itt worthwhile


Lejárt zenélődoboz                                 


Panoráma szélesnyomtávú anyuka,

tegnap óta, járdán heverő

szavatossági félcédula birtokosa.


Embere rég nem került elő

Elmerülő, a terpeszkedő vak idő

lassan,szárnysuhogva énekel a vastüdő.


El nem töltött  évekkel,

kiforduló sérvekkel,

jogerővel átitatott érvekkel,


Vasárnapos  bértlettel beléphet

a Népjóléti beléndek kertjébe,

a vadvirágos, petrezselymes tömjénbe.


Nyugdíjmentes jólétbe,

a tv, kézihímzett kamuterhes ölébe,

onnan a napi alkohol gödrébe.


A törvény kötényében elrejtve

cifra kis szelencében

nyekergő Offélia eszmélve,


a rugók kelepcéjében dudorász,

pentaton dallamot.

Állapota kataton.


Gyökvonással hipnózis.

növekvő adrenalin dózis

a család élesztője:  pszichózis.


Rádiógumin edzett politikus

egyszerűen, ravaszul etet:

a kerítéssel a határaidon életed véded.


Tanítása…? Ereklyézett bódulat,

Kolduló alázat és

Fennhéjázó gyalázat.


Újgótikus álomfejtő hagymázas,

választási, bizományi varázslat

övezi a T. házat.


You’ll pick up on qualities of sound and something of rhythm….you can see the end rhymes, and you’ll certainly have a sense of the rythm of polysyllabled words (they may look impenetrable, but just think how easily you deal with them in your own language: multiplication, reciprocity, comprehensible). You’ll also get the sense that there are a good many hard ‘k’ and ‘g’ sounds as well as the softer ‘j’ and ‘ch’ , and the soft and hard ‘th/d’ . You may think about whether translation includes translating sound. It’s nice to have a Hungarian text, I think, because, like Finnish, it’s not an Indo-Europen language. You’re not much distracted by things you think you know as you may with German or Spanish, say. Right, here’s Gyula’s version in English with the notes that resulted from our asking questions about what was puzzling us.

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Elapsed Musical Clockwork                                                  (Musical box)


Panoramic wide stance mother,             (she’s gross, obese; we don’t know why)

yesterday found on the street and now,

she has a valid mental disability card.       (in theory this guarantees some help)


Husband vanished long ago, since

she sinks in sprawling blind hours,

Her iron lung sings on slow wings.          ( she can’t breathe, her lungs are shot)


Her never lived years, turned into

strangulated hernias of arguments,

bulging with full force of the law.


With her Sunday season ticket she can go        (metaphor; the social system is  a trap,

into the Public Welfare henbane garden,          a deceit; it’s a poison garden

scented with wild flowers and parsley.              camouflaged with herbs and simples)


Step into the pension free retirement, drop in          (pension-free. Think on.

the hand embroidered, fake loaded lap of TV,            Daytime TV..same everywhere…

from there into the pit of alcohol, daily.                      this what you sink into)


Concealed in the apron of the law,                       (the apparatus of the apparatchik)

a  little hidden fancy box. Inside,                          (the music box,the central image)

Ophelia awakens and caterwauls.


In the trap of stiff  hard springs              (coiled clockwork springs…not sofa springs)

she croons, hums pentatonic melodies,                    (discords)

her condition is catatonic.


Extraction of roots with hypnosis               (basically, the lying diagnoses and ‘cures’

growing adrenalin doses,                              of the system and the state)

the yeast of family is psychosis.


Gum chewing radio politician                      (we suggest that these last three

Shrewdly hand feeding us.                            stanzas could be collapsed)

Explanations simple as a borderfence.


His doctrines…?  cause

residual stupor, beggers remorse

with haughty, lofty arrogance


The Respected Parliament:

a New Gothic delirium quarry,    (the building is Neo-Gothic)

a spell bound electorate of pawns.

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The second poem is more obviously personal, autobiographical. I think all three of us felt on more familiar/accessible ground. The literal meaning of the title is ‘Decay’



Buda hegyei a távolban mosolyogtak.

A remény dúdolgató fákat ültetett.

Családomba született ácsok

vénen és korhadtan faragták

érkező életem inoga kunyhójául

ősatyai legendák lobogózott tornyait.


A roskadó évek gerendái hullottak

a virágoskertjem megsüketült

sárga, bókolgató nárciszaira,

amint a hallhatatlanságba

csomagolt hamuszürke

apámra várakoztam.


A zöld sárfolyó öblében

a két kőparton kuporogva,

alvó sárkányokat dédelgetve,

a hangyaboly cirkuszán ámulva,

lassan elfeledtem a család levágott

kezeinek utolsó görcsös rángatódzását.


And Gyula’s English version: When we talked it through, the backstory emerged..the storyof his childhood, an absentee father who worked on the State railway, a grandmother living on the banks of a Danube backwater….a woman who managed the forest that surrounded them, and nine relatives, forebears, who were carpenter roofbuilders. He also talked about how he would sit on the step, waiting for his father to come on a weekend visit. You hear that, and the poem breaks open like a flower.


Budapest Boy´s Birth

Buda´s green mountains

smiled in the distance.

Hope planted whispering trees.

Aged carpenters of my family    (these are the nine relatives, uncles..)

built flagged towers of forefathers,  (the intricate structures they built)

to cradle my emerging life.


Rafters of collapsing years

fell on deafened yellow nodding

daffodils in my garden,

as I waited for my

ashgray father,

wrapped in immortality.


In the bay of the green, muddy river   (for ‘bay’ think ‘backwater’)

crouching over  both banks,

I saw sleeping dragons.

Amazed by an anthill circus,

slowly I forgot the last convulsive

twitches of my family´s severed hands.   (this is the broken family)

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So, there you are. You go away and try to write your own version that’s as true to the intention, the meaning, and possibly the shape and heft of the original as you can. Have a go. Tomorrow I’ll start to post what we came up with. And reflect on what we might have learned from it. See you soon.