First pressings (4)..Prole Books: Brett Evans and Phil Robertson


It never looked like this when I was a kid, when it was a working mill, one of three mill complexes that comprised J T & J Taylor’s shoddy woollens manufacturing company in Batley.  In the early 1950’s, at the age of 100, Mr Theodore Taylor was still arriving for work at 7.00am, Monday to Friday, chauffeured there in his Daimler, all the way from Grassington in Upper Wharfedale ..about 40 miles…They don’t make them like that any more. Just about everyone in my extended family worked for Taylor’s at some time or another…weavers, spinners, clerks designers. I worked in the warehouse for a couple of summers as a student. Mr Taylor was a patriarchal chap,  one of the first, and one of the few, manufacturers to run a profit-sharing scheme for all his employees; it had its downside. He would peremptorily sack any of the men who tried to recruit for the union. He took it as a personal betrayal that anyone would think he didn’t do his best for his ‘hands’. And he did take every single one of them to Blackpool to celebrate his 100th birthday; he hired the Winter gardens and booked three special trains. As I say, they don’t make them like that any more.

Still, by the most tenuous of links this brings me to today’s guest publisher, Prole Books, and their editors Phil Robertson (Prose) and Brett Evans (Poetry + entertainingly vituperative Facebook posts, and vintage jazz via You Tube). The link, which I doubt you’d have spotted , is that Prole is a profit-sharing business. Which makes it pretty special in the poetry publishing world. I couldn’t be happier to feature them today. And to acknowledge that I’m not the first to sing their praises. Wendy Pratt gave them a shout-out in Northern Soul [ ] in May 2014…I’ve borrowed her intro from that, because it chimes with me in so many ways:

“It seems like a miracle that a couple of lads who met via an online creative writing chat room could decide to set up a literary journal without any Arts Council funding and, while one of them works full time, make a roaring success of it. Welcome to Prole, the literary journal that champions the underdog and gives a platform to writers who may otherwise fall through the net.

There’s a special place in my heart for Prole. They’ve published my poems and their press, Prolebooks, took a chance on me as an emerging writer and printed my first pamphlet, Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare. They are a rags-to-riches story, except with more rags than actual riches, and are fast becoming a journal to be reckoned with.

The editors Phil Roberston and Brett Evans (prose and poetry, respectively) live some distance from each other. Phil is in Bolton and Brett is in Abergele, North Wales. Phil works full time as a primary school teacher and neither of them have much ‘free’ time, but somehow through their dedication they manage to squeeze in all the grinding editorial stuff and meet up for booze-fuelled editorials on a regular basis.”

Roy Marshall sang their praises in his blog in April 2015 [ ].He managed to elicit a quotation I can’t resist’s a nice insight into the ethos I think Prole is noted for:

“[Roy] Do you have any general advice to potential contributors, either writers or those wishing to offer cover art?

Surprise us. Delight us. Make us laugh or cry, pinch the skin or punch the gut.”

I suppose you could follow the links, and ignore the rest of this post. But I’ll take it kindly if you don’t. Here we go.

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It was those distinctive monochrome covers that first drew me to Prole (that and the uncompromising title) and made me want to submit work to them. And made me happy to have work accepted. I suppose we should register an interest, shouldn’t we. More about the covers later. On with the interview.

If you could kick off by describing what you’ve done so far, that would be nice. A story is always a nice beginning.

Before Prole, what was your connection with the strange world of the fiction and poetry writer?

Phil: I’d always dabbled with writing short fiction – but only on and off. When I finally sprang for a broadband connection, I discovered a now defunct writing site where writing could be shared and commented on. Overnight, I went from an audience of one (my wife) to an interested community. Having an audience, at least for me, promoted my motivation – and with practice and many failures, I started to get a few publications. As an aside, this is also where I ‘met’ Brett. Besides being my co-editor at Prole, he’s also, now, a life-long friend. Funnily enough, since starting with Prole, time for writing has been squeezed to virtually zero. My connection with the strange world of writing, is now almost exclusively, as a reader.

Brett: Phil has a much funnier version of that but I don’t suppose time allows on here. Much like Phil, I was just writing for myself and reading as much as I could. My ‘connection’ these days seems to mostly consist of ranting about poets on Facebook.

OK, now 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.

Phil: Personally, I’d prefer beer and crisps.

Brett: Yes, beer for me too please. And any cheese you may have knocking about.


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?

Phil: Honestly – we were drunk. That’s not to say we didn’t take it seriously, we did – but it did give us the audacity to swill pints and plan what we wanted to do. I think I can speak for both of here when I say we were frustrated with a good many literary publications: overly long turn-a-round times; funded but not paying their contributors; a feeling that there was often a selection policy that involved recognition of names over substance and, more frustratingly, style over engagement. I’m not speaking for Brett on this one, but I do feel uncomfortable when I see an editor’s poem (for example) contained in any publication.

Frankly, we knew nothing about how to achieve what we wanted – but we knew what we wanted: to publish quality writing that engages, entertains and challenges; have a reasonable turn-a-round time (currently about four weeks max – often shorter); to pay our contributors; not to seek funding – if Prole was to succeed, it was to stand on its own two feet – and neither of us could or can afford to subsidise Prole. It had to, and does, fund itself. Finally, it had to be fun. For the most part, it’s been a blast.

Brett: Phil, you can freely speak for me regarding editors who publish themselves.

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Prole has established a clear identity as a magazine…and also as a competition. You’ve attracted a lot of submissions from well-established and otherwise successful poets. What do you put that down to?

Phil: I’ve no idea how we managed it for issue one. That was our biggest worry – would anyone take us seriously enough to submit? Seems they did. What we’ve always done is focus relentlessly on (what we consider to be) writing of quality that engages, entertains and challenges. I’d hope that while not every piece we publish hits the spot with every reader, everything we publish has quality to appeal to most. When it comes to selecting pieces, I shortlist prose, Brett shortlists poetry. We then swap. If there’s anything we don’t like after exchanging, it doesn’t get in.

Transparency is also central to what we do. Four months after publication, we send all contributors a royalty statement showing sales, costs and their royalty share. We pay out 50% of any profit for each issue. The fact that writers are recognised in this way – though they are never going to get rich on it – shows, I hope, the value we place on their contributions and skills.

We do publish ‘successful’ and ‘well-established’ writers (and also many who are not) – but we’ve also rejected the same. We publish the writing, if we think it fits our criteria, no matter who has sent it in. I’d hope that a focus on quality means that whoever submits knows that, if accepted, their writing will sit alongside other pieces that shout and sing. (I remember the joy of having a poem accepted once – then, having received my copy, realising that, generally, the content was poor – and what did that say about my offering?)

Brett: *nods* (agreeingly – not off to sleep).

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

Phil: A sad admission, I tend not to follow specific publications, but read journals from here and there. From what I’ve seen, I like The Interpreter’s House – though for my taste, not enough prose. And while this doesn’t answer the question, I’ve not discovered any small UK publication that carries a good amount of quality prose.

Brett: Definitely The Interpreter’s House, there’s always a wide range of styles in there and rare, thoughtful editorials. Bare Fiction is another I enjoy and respect, I love that scripts can be read there (I’m a sucker for reading scripts or plays). I do miss Other Poetry since it closed down and really keep hoping to see it return.

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?

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(parenthesis…this cover’s my favourite)

Phil: I’m not aware that we’ve consciously borrowed from anywhere – though subconsciously, I’m sure we have. We decided we wanted photographic, black and white covers – usually with some element of humanity on it. Other choices, quite honestly, happened because we learned on the job (knowing nothing when we started) and just found a workable way through our enormous ignorance.

Brett: I seem to recall being influenced more by what we didn’t want but memory does not always serve the truth. I know that a perfect bound publication was agreed on from the outset and I think also the black and white photography too.

Tell us something about the snags and frustrations you encounter…

Phil: For me, it’s all to do with time. I get great holidays, but while I’m working, I have little time for anything else. I suppose it’s the small things that eat into that time that can be frustrating. For example, we don’t open attachments until we get to know a writer – so writing to request a resubmission takes time – as does filtering out all the spam we receive. My god! If they were all genuine, I’d be drugged up to my eyeballs and have every STD going. I know my lack of time can sometimes mean we complete tasks a little last minute – that’s a huge frustration.

Brett: Jesus. People sending submissions to the wrong address, selecting the wrong payment options, writers who sign and return our publication agreement then ask questions proving they have not read that or the submission/payment guidelines in the first place. I try to be as personal (ahem) as I can in replying to submissions and queries, and to keep a quick turn around so not to keep people waiting this all takes time so time taken up on these other things is frustrating. And yes, the spam – though some of it is very amusing.

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

Phil: Brett has done a brilliant job with social media – and I think that has been a huge benefit for us. We also have a large mailing list that we try hard not abuse – perhaps about six times a year. A lot of publicity seems to have happened organically – because we keep people informed, a Google search often finds little mentions and links back to us we weren’t even aware of. Reviews were hard to come by in the early days, and we actively contacted people asking them. Now, though not often, they just seem to happen.

As for competitions, for us, they serve two purposes. The first is they raise revenue and help us continue as a publication. (let me add my twopennorth to this. There’s been a mean-spirited thread on Facebook recently in which various sad voices have denounced all poetry competitions as elitist scams. They should listen to this) It’s not cheap. While each issue (besides issue one) has made a profit – which we’ve retained half of – there are other costs to meet: web fees, some travel costs, setting up and risking capital on new ventures we’ve no idea we’ll get our money back from etc. Competitions also, I hope, bring Prole to the attention of writers and readers who may not have heard of us, or who only look at more established publications. I do get nervous with competitions – because our editorial control is lost. Entries are handed over to whoever we’ve asked to judge and we have to trust they select something that reflects Prole – again – to engage, entertain and challenge. So far, I’ve not been disappointed.

Brett: Marketing is time consuming but the wonder that is the internet offers so many places where both print journals and ezines can be listed. I’m amazed there are so many writers accepted to keep us all in material.

I think competitions like the Michael Marks are healthy enough for those with such ambition but, without wanting to sound self righteous (but you can bet your arse it will) I always feel a little uncomfortable with such amounts of money being thrown about in the name of ‘the arts’ when I see such little being contributed to where it really matters. *Gets off high horse*

What next? More in the pipeline?


Phil: Previously, we’ve published pamphlets and one full collection. In Caboodle, we published six pamphlets in one, physical collection. This year we’ve held our first pamphlet competition. At the moment, pamphlets are on the back burner, but the pamphlet competition will remain. In October we’re holding our second Prolewrites workshop, followed by an open mic session. The first one we held (without open mic) was great fun. Hopefully, this one will be too. Perhaps some more Prole events would be something we could develop.

You didn’t ask, but….

Phil: Returning to your first question about why – the trigger.

This is going to sound pretty self aggrandising – but I’m going to say it anyway. Brett and I have shown that a printed literary magazine can stand on its own two feet and be self funding – at the same time as gaining a following , and winning a best lit mag award (Brett: And bottle of gin). We turn submissions around in good time and pay our contributors. We don’t publish ourselves** and we only (I hope) publish quality – regardless of name. I still wonder, especially in cases where publications receive funding, just exactly what they are doing – especially with the money. For the record, I do believe the arts should be subsidised – but there should be value for money. (And no – I’m absolutely not a Tory.)

You didn’t ask this either, but…

Phil: Setting up and running Prole has been hard work but extremely rewarding. When I do write, part of the reward is the simple act of creating something new. While the content of Prole isn’t our creation, we have created something new – and goes out there into the world because of what we have done. Our little babies. I’m probably due a fall – but I’m very proud of what we’ve done.

It also survives, as far as I’m concerned, because in Brett I have found an excellent friend

Brett: Bless him.

And bless you both, I say. Thank you for being so generous with your time, chaps.

** and while you don’t publish yourselves, it would be churlish to fail to point out that my readers can still buy The Devil’s Tattoo : Indigo Dreams Publishing [2015] £6.00. So they should.

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Right. I’m off to Spain next Friday, and I won’t be back till September 9th; and on the 10th I’m off to Staithes to read with my mate Andy Blackford as part of the Staithes Arts festival weekend. So there won’t be a cobweb post now until Sept 17th. But there will be guest who’s well worth waiting for. Thanks for being here, and I’ll see you all in a bit. Once more…big round of applause for Brett Evans, Phil Robertson and Prole.

Ooops..nearly forgot.   The latest issue , Prole 23 is out can buy it via their website, using one of those cunning little Paypal buttons,. Even better, why not become a subscriber?               




The voice that draws you in: a polished gem…Christy Ducker

liver building

Tempting to start like Garrison Keillor…It’s been anything but a quiet week here on the poetry front. On Monday it was the Beehive Poets in Bradford. The Beehive, like The Puzzle and the Albert is one of those poetry groups in West Yorkshire that’s been around for decades; famous for its open fires, its gaslights and its general air of shabby desuetude, it’s been welcoming new and established poets and keeping the flame alive for ages. This week I went to cheer for guests Gaia Holmes and Laura Potts. You should know them, but if you don’t, you can sample their work in earlier posts by following the links at the end of the post (as well as a link to a splendid pubishing project)


Gaia has just put together a third collection which will be seeking a clear-eyed publisher very shortly. and while Laura has yet to be published in pamphlet or collection form, it clearly won’t be very long. She’s enormously talented. It was a great evening.

On Thursday I was off to Liverpool to support the launch of Coast to coast to coast, a project created by Maria Isakova Bennet and Michael Brown…they’ve created a limited edition of handcrafted, handstitched books with lovely fabric covers. I’ll be telling you more about this in a post in a couple of weeks. Liverpool is wonderful, these days. The waterfront is full of the big bright light of the river, the Albert Dock was full of Round-the world Clipper ships; the new buildings are full of swaggering confidence, and their huge glass walls reflect the baroque handsomeness of the 19thC city. It all feels more European than English. It reminds me of Cartagena, and makes me think of Bilbao, and even of New York. Architecture like that works wonderfully in the light that’s made by a big river or the sea. There’s a fantastic buzz. What a place to read your poems in. I loved it.

Which, tenuously, brings me round to today’s guest, Christy Ducker, who comes from Northumberland..another land of huge skies and the alchemy of light and water.

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I’ve wanted to have Christy as a guest ever since I heard her reading with Jonathan Davidson at Bank Street Arts a couple of years ago. I wrote this about her in a review for the Compass magazine not long afterwards.

“For the record, at poetry readings it’s the tune I hear, first. The words come after; it’s the rhythm, the space of vowels, the textures of consonants. It’s the authentic accent, the distinctive voice. Sometimes words read at leisure don’t live up to the memory of the voices, but not so with  ‘Skipper’ and its clear-eyed concern for the business of setting the record straight.

Christy Ducker’s voice has the rising inflexions of Northumbria, the dance of its dialect, its crisp consonants…and so does her poetry.



Four clear themes run through Skipper, her first full collection:

the way a love affair and a marriage might, wonderfully, be the same thing ;the transformations of childbirth and motherhood; the indignities of hospitals, of surgery; and the elusiveness of historical truth.

The tone of Skipper is set in the first two poems. “And” proclaims its utter surprised delight at the birth of her son

and I am astonished

by the way you smell of bloody bread


And I know the glee

at the indignant heaving bellows of your belly

The one word ‘glee’, and the nailed-down rightness of ‘bloody bread’, that iron and yeast, tell you right away that you’re in safe hands. The second poem, “Skeletons” sets the reader up for her explorations of the collusiveness of ‘History’ and its ethical claims. Considering that you might trace your stock back to the owners of, or traders in, slaves, she asks

At what point do we say There. It stops there

and decide to forgive….?

I like the qualified answer, that ‘perhaps’, when she considers the case of her husband’s family ‘who used to duck witches’, or of her mother-in-law’s ivory box. Because this is love, and this is family, and because this man rescued her from drowning:

Perhaps it’s the point at which I might learn

to love the present flesh that softens bone.

It may seem wilful, or rueful, that ’perhaps’. Or, perhaps a considered weighing up of moral balances. But listen to the way the distinct ‘t’ sounds determine the pace of the first line, the way the consonants soften, like bone, in the second. She’s an artful writer, Christy Ducker. I’d like the space to talk about the poems of boatyards, watch-houses, groundings, harbours, drowned valleys and the bad art of hospital wards and corridors. It’s a rich collection, this. But I shall concentrate on the way Skipper opens out into a sequence about Grace Darling, the Victorian lighthouse keeper, who the poet says she found to be unexpectedly ‘eccentric, scientifically expert, and fiercely literary’.




There’s a salutary entrée to the sequence in “Meet the Victorians” where she admits how she went to the story of Grace Darling with feminist/revisionist intentions,

Expecting a sermon, but finding an orgy

of sorts, I realise I’ve packed the wrong things

to deal with a raucous Queen Victoria, a playful Darwin and all the dubious affairs of the Victorian underworld, for instance. So how does she deal with the ‘fiercely literate’ Grace? The solution turns out to be simple and brilliant. Twenty-seven poems chart Grace’s life through her gradual mastery of numeracy and literacy. In “Grace Darling learns to count” each numeral becomes a mnemonic and an ideogram of her island and its landscape. ‘2 is…  a plane for wood…… /  it’s the cold squat of yesterday’s iron’, and ’10 is your mother at her spinning wheel’. It’s a beautiful idea which is sustained through the twenty-six poems of ‘Grace Darling’s A.B.C.’ : a poem of three precisely weighted regular quatrains for each letter. Christy Ducker plays with the graphics of the letters..  ‘A is the point of intention  /  she sees at the tip of her pen’ which is also a tool to carve out her alphabet. O, memorably, is the coins she earns from salvage

flat as the faces of drowned me

she pulls from the sea like moons

E is ‘the flight of three small steps  /  she climbs to reach the lantern room’ and also the letter ‘that warms all vowels’. In these regular eight-syllabled lines she explores the letters’ shapes, their assonance and consonance and weaves them into a story of Grace’s growing into womanhood and difficult celebrity. Christy Ducker also reminds me of the way museums seem to sentimentalise embroidered samplers; she makes you remember poor light, sore fingers, the physical work that underlies achieved literacy. Every poem is full of unobtrusive slant rhymes and assonance, of surprising true images. My favourite?

 U is the round-bottomed coble 

 she punts across the page to write

‘our Universe, or keep ‘us’ afloat

but you can take your pick. If I was allowed just one word to describe Christy Ducker’s writing in this collection it would be canny; a Northumbrian word, weathered and layered and rich as the patched hull of the boat on the book’s cover.”

So, there you are: I’m a fan. Christy  is a poet and teacher of creative writing. Her first full-length collection, Skipper, was published in 2015, and includes work commended by the Forward Prize judges. Her pamphlet, Armour (2011) was a PBS Pamphlet Choice. Her commissions include residencies with Port of Tyne, English Heritage, and York University’s Centre for Immunology and Infection; she is also the director of North East Heroes, an Arts Council England project. She is currently working as a research fellow at Newcastle University’s Institute for Creative Arts Practice.

She’s been really generous with her time, and sent me this review of her work so far:

“Since Skipper was published in 2015, I’ve enjoyed producing two new poetry pamphlets in collaboration with artists. In 2016, I published Heroes which was illustrated by Emma Holliday’s gutsy linocuts. And this year, I’ve produced Messenger, in collaboration with Kate Sweeney – her photographs accompany the poems throughout. I’ve found that I really love working in collaboration with visual artists – it’s been so interesting to see how different art forms talk to each other and develop together.



Heroes grew out of my work on Grace Darling – I’d written a lot about her in Skipper, trying to find a way of vouching for this strange woman on her own terms. I found I wanted to write more about heroes: the unsung ones, the misunderstood ones, the ones with secrets! I was lucky enough to get funding from the Arts Council to develop a project called North East Heroes – this involved researching four Victorian heroes whose papers are in the Northumberland county archives. I wrote poems about each, and then wrote poems about the contemporary equivalent of each Victorian – the proto-feminist, Josephine Butler is counterpointed by Malala Yousafzai, and so on. I also got young people in pupil referral units writing about Victorian heroes and their own heroes – we put together a creative writing website which features some of their work, as well as the exercises we used to spark things off I love running education work in parallel with my own writing experiments – I often feel I learn the most when I’m teaching other people! Meanwhile, Emma Holliday made a linocut to go with each of my poems – some of the linocuts developed in tandem with my drafting, some were completed later

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Messenger is quite a different beast, coming from my interest in trying to write about grief. I wrote it whilst poet in residence with York’s Centre for Immunology and Infection. In collaboration with the immunologist, Dimitris Lagos, and visual artist, Kate Sweeney, I explored how we wound and how we heal. I was keen to work with scientists to explore healing, believing this might bring greater precision to my writing. To an extent that happened, but as always creativity moved crab-like – I found myself most fascinated by the metaphors scientists use to make their work accessible. Drawing on that seam of metaphor helped me to translate grief into poetry in a way that made sense to me. I’d found grief paradoxical – I experienced it as a noisy emotion that would turn to silence on the page when I tried to write about it. Working with a scientist who specialised in RNA ‘silencing’ offered new images for me to work with, and helped me to express this difficult emotion. The pamphlet begins autobiographically, but engages increasingly with socio-political wounds too (I wrote Messenger in a year of great political upheaval). Kate Sweeney’s striking photographs accompany my poems throughout the pamphlet. Meanwhile, dialogue with Kate influenced many of the poems. Kate also made two fantastic film-poems that grew from my writing


I’m delighted that Heroes and Messenger are both published by smith/doorstop – Ann and Peter Sansom are among my own heroes! (and mine) In addition to those two pamphlets, I did a stint in 2015 as poet in residence with Northumbria Police – this led to a small chapbook called All Eyes (Newcastle University), about the policing of domestic violence and the language of power.


I’ve been reading from all of the above, mainly in the North of England, and particularly enjoyed reading at Newcastle’s Poetry Festival (which is rapidly going from strength to strength!) For the next while, I’ll be writing poems as a research fellow at Newcastle University’s Institute for Creative Arts Practice. My focus there is on bringing medicine, science and poetry together. At the moment, I’m writing a new series of poems about the exhibits in the Wohl Pathology Collection at Edinburgh’s Surgeon’s Hall Museum. This is not as ghoulish as it sounds! My aim is to write about the possibilities these exhibits offer for redemption and understanding in our own era. The poems are turning out to be quite political so far…”

The sentence that stood out for me was this:

Drawing on that seam of metaphor helped me to translate grief into poetry in a way that made sense to me. I’d found grief paradoxical – I experienced it as a noisy emotion that would turn to silence on the page when I tried to write about it.

That really resonates with me. It took Kim Moore’s example of finding Ovid’s Metamorphoses to give her the distance and the holding frame that let her write so powerfully about domestic abuse…that sent me back into the Greek myths to find a place and an imagery to write about the death of my son. Fighting out of the silence. What a notion that is! Because what I respond to is poetry that matters, and poetry that matters is on the edge. So, time for some poems. Christy sent me three. The first one shows what I understand by edge…it’s a difficult subject, but I love the sense of emotion contained, or just-restrained by the clarity of diction, the economy and discipline of its tight two-line stanzas


What they didn’t know was her brain

was a world that went on turning


even after they’d forced it down

the long grey chute of coma –


that when she woke, the hemispheres

would parley, how nations can


translate, on each other’s behalf,

new circuits. Her bright message


lights up, one child, one teacher,

one book, one pen. Though she’s altered


she tilts towards the sun, still

bickers with siblings, can’t cook,


loves pink and Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

They didn’t know she’d purge worms


from the education of girls –

her face opens out from its prime


meridian, sad to the east,

fierce to the west. She stands as straight


as noon and raises her medals,

her garland of A’s, her hopes


to the sky with hands touching,

and I will set my clock by her.


It never puts a foot wrong, does it? I love the simple assertions of a clear faith: She stands as straight/as noon….and I will set my clock by her. You can read and re-read this densely elliptical poem, and its layers keep on giving. I think it’s a wonder. There’s the same emotional clarity in the next one that uses the science of super- lenses to find purpose and shape in apparent randomness and carelessness of things. The way she uses ‘crazy’ as a verb seemed to anchor the poem that pivots around it.


 Sometimes, it helps to come back to you

in detail, right down to the atoms

that made you, because they were only

ever on loan from the world – true,

if I zoom out a bit, things crazy

to molecules, cells, and how you made

a life for yourself through your hunger

for chatter, people, anywhere noisy,

but sometimes, when you rush back at me,

it helps if I think you really were

just trillions of small parts teetering,

a madcap egg-and-spoon – how lucky

I was, to meet you before you fell

in pieces, to kiss what couldn’t hold.


I’m reminded, too, by this poem, what I should have said earlier. There’s a tenderness in Christy’s poetry that sings to me; it sings all the louder and purer because of the deft control of line and rythm. It’s not easy to sustain that rhythm and coherence through a long single sentence. I love it.

Finally, a poem that conflates the power of folk tale and science to heal us, emotionally. This is a poem that had me in its grip from the very first line that with great insouciance hijacks Stephen Spender. I liked the notion that folk and fairy tales are ‘children that are rough’ and that their morality runs much deeper than the conventional social moralities of, say, the novel. All you need to do is ask why the girl who tells lies to win a king and whose life is, on the surface, saved by Rumpelstiltskin who spins her straw into gold….why she is ultimately richly rewarded and he is cruelly punished. Here’s poem with the hard-won defiant swagger of Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Little Red Cap’ or Liz Lochhead’s After leaving the castle.


My mother kept me from fairy tales,

not wanting those women in boxes

with all their waiting to stall me,

but when I grew up and found myself

boxed-in, I couldn’t see the walls

for years, not having rehearsed horror


in miniature, how a storyteller

or scientist might. Today, in the lab

I learn how to make a horror small,

that we boil it and pin it inside

our own blood, to teach ourselves

the lesson: naivety kills


but memory inoculates, measured out

at the right dose. For lupus, try

absorbing a microgram of its snarl

so you might bite back. For Cinderella

disease, take only its slippers,

appear to swoon but prepare to kick.


The science of self-protection asks

we rewrite the story of what appals:

be glad the hairs on the back of your neck

stir when a wolf comes near you.

For grief, devour a sugar skull

and dance on the Day of the Dead.


I love the alliterative stamp and dance of the last line. And that line ‘naivety kills/ but memory inoculates’  memorises itself as you read it. What else can you ask of a poem? It’s the moment that draws you in.

Image result for rackham little red riding hood

Thank you, Christy Ducker for finally being our guest, and for three memorable poems. I couldn’t be happier. Nothing left now but for all you readers to buy all her work. Don’t delay. Next week we’ll be welcoming another of those selfless small poetry presses. See you then.




Confessions of a tripe addict

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Maybe it’s because I wrote myself out earlier this year..NaPoWriMo turned up 54 new poems of various degrees of inadequacy…maybe two or three could stand on their own two feet. But since then, it’s been a fallow few months. And I suspect that that’s probably a Good Thing. But one outcome has been that I seem to have lost the habit of systematically reading through this or that ‘Collected Works’ and of scribbling in  a notebook last thing at night. Instead, I’ve been bingeing on Netflix and LoveFilm. Particularly on series: The Killing, The Bridge, Borgen, Spiral, True Detective, The Wire, House of cards (the American one); night after night and then finishing off with a comfort blanket novel or two. Currently a chapter from each of Joyce Carey’s ‘The horse’s mouth’ and John le Carre’s ‘The little drummer girl’. My partner Flo used to reckon that she could tell when I was coming down with something by the books on my bedside table. Dickens. Le Carre. A.S.Byatt’s Possession. Big long novels with complicated plots, and a degree of escapism. Much like my choice of comfort blanket films. In the car it’s Terry Pratchett audio books. You get the picture.

But it’s got me thinking. Where did all that come from? And I think I have an answer of sorts. Tripe. Not the stuff they sold in grim little shops when I was a kid, their small windows displaying horrible, slithery heaps of pale honeycomb, and darker stuff. No. The stuff my teachers dismissed as tripe/rubbish. The stuff I read voraciously. When I was a lecturer in teacher training I used to argue passionately that all developing readers need a healthy mixed diet of books that challenge linguistically, morally, emotionally..but that they won’t handle any of it if they don’t read lots and lots of stuff that’s formulaic, predictable; stuff where they feel comfortably at home. Because they can’t understand when someone is breaking the rules and pushing the limits of what’s possible if they don’t know what those rules and limits are.

I’ll try to illustrate what I mean via a potted history of my own reading, but first, let me share something I read  in the 1970s in Children’s literature in Education. It’s from a talk, A Defence of Rubbish by Peter Dickinson, author of The Changes trilogy, and aroud 50 other books.

“The danger of living in a golden age of children’s literature is that not enough rubbish is being produced.”
Nobody who has not spent a whole sunny afternoon under his bed rereading a pile of comics left over from the previous holidays has any real idea of the meaning of intellectual freedom.”
“Nobody who has not written comic strips can really understand the phrase, economy of words. It’s like trying to write Paradise Lost in haiku.”

dandy and beanohotspur and wizard

I remember how that hit me right between the eyes. It was a revelation. I did an English degree which almost killed my ability to read. I became very good at writing essays that seemed to satisfy some unspoken need in my tutors, but I forgot how to read, and I didn’t learn to read again until I had children who I read stories to. Hundreds of picture/story books; Catherine Storr’s Clever Polly; Flat Stanley, The Narnia books…stuff like that. I remember our Michael and Julie (5 and 7) literally danced around the room the night that Charlie Bucket found the Golden Ticket. Because they knew what I’d forgotten. We read stories because we want to know what happens next, and we want to know what happens next because we care about the characters it happens to. And then we want to read it again to reassure ourself that it’s still real. We learn to value the repeated and the predictable, because real life is neither.

The important thing, I used to argue with my students, is that you need to read a lot of it. You read until you get sick of it and want a change, you want to move on; you want stories to accompany you as you grow and change. So I moved on from the Dandy and the Beano, and the Hotspur and the Wizard. You can guess where to, because you probably did, too.

famous five

I used to argue that you can’t get your head and heart round Susan Cooper’s and Alan Garner’s fantasy stories unless you’ve binged on The Famous Five. Garrison Keillor has a story about a father telling his children the story of Hansel and Gretel. He says something about stories and their audience to the effect that ‘You can’t disappoint them, but you’ve got to surprise them’. So Desperate Dan has to have a new adventure each week, but he always has to have a cow pie at the end. And the horns and tail have to stick out of the crust, because if they don’t it’s not a cow pie. The Famous Five may sail boats or go on cycling jaunts, but Timmy the Dog has to say ‘Woof’ and ‘wag his feathery tail’, and the policeman MUST say ‘well done, Famous Five’ and someone will give them a crisp ten-shilling note, and Julian will sound ‘quite like an adult’ and the tomatoes will always be homegrown. William will have to dream up new tricks to foil the Hubert Laneites, but at some point will have to wear ‘an inscrutable expression’. You can write your own examples by the score. What we want is the formula AND the surprise.


And so we grow older, if not up. I never quite left William behind (mainly because Richmal Crompton was a brilliant writer) but the Famous Five palled, became irrelevant, the stuff of childhood. I moved on (if not up) to WW2 escape stories, The Saint, the Pan Books of Horror Stories (there were so many of them). I reread most of them many times. Tripe. I supposed they paved the way for James Bond. You get the picture.

The thing is, all this went on in parallel to, and totally separate from, whatever we were expected to read at school. Dull stuff in duller covers. Lorna Doone. The Black Tulip. And ‘poetry’. ‘Paths to Parnassus’, ‘Palgrave’s Golden Treasury’. Most I can’t remember, because I never read it with interest, and never re-read any of it. Whereas I can remember huge swathes of tripe, in the way I can remember the words of scores of Methodist hymns, and of pop songs. Repetition of formulaic art with variations and surprises.

What’s all this to do with the painting of Battersea power station and the Thames? It’s a fair question. The answer is ‘because of Louis Wilde’. He was my Art teacher in the 6th form. I’d written appropriate stuff about Macbeth, and Kipps and The Eve of St Agnes, and I was setting out to write more about Hamlet, and Thomas Hardy, and, presumably, some poetry. Because you have to read poetry for A level English. But we didn’t, in the first year, and then we were given an anthology of selected Metaphysical poetry and the world turned on its axis and the top of my head blew off. University put a damper on all that, of course. But starting my A Level Art course, Louis Wilde put a book in my hand, and said : if you want to understand why artists are artists, read this.

two horses

Because he wasn’t an English teacher, I did. No English teacher up to that point had suggested I read something because it could open my eyes to the way the world worked. We read things, in ‘English’ because they were ‘Literature’ and we learned how to write clever essays about them without understanding a word they said. I read The Horse’s Mouth like I read the books in my parallel world. Except it wasn’t that kind of book. Quite simply, it changed the way I walked about in the world, looking at stuff.

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Maybe if Louis hadn’t set me to copying reproductions of Degas it wouldn’t have worked. But to my complete surprise I was hooked on the first sentence, and I still am. I hadn’t read the book for over ten years, but when I put it on my Kindle last week, I felt as though I could quote whole chunks of it verbatim.

“I was walking by the Thames. Half-past morning on an autumn day. Sun in a mist. Like an orange in a fried fish shop. All bright below. Low tide, dusty water and a crooked bar of straw, chicken boxes, dirt and oil from mud to mud. Like a viper swimmimg in skim milk. The old serpent, symbol of nature and love.”

I can look at it now as I type, and see that it’s a thing that’s been done and done again. But I’d never have fallen into the rhythms of Ulysses, and I’d never have seen what Gerard Manley Hopkins was up to without that book, and its impressionist prose. The fact that the narrator is just out of prison, and will actually go back there before the book’s halfway through, grabbed me too. And because I was 16, although the book is often described as comic masterpiece, to me it was pure tragedy. Gulley Jimson chases his vision of the ultimate work of art throughout the novel and it collapses just as he thinks he’s pinned it down. He quotes from Blake. He’s an anarchist. A Romantic. He’s irresponsible. He’s scandalous. I loved him. And I loved his vision, too. I still do.

“And I went out to get some room for my grief. Thank God, it was a high sky on Greenbank. Darker than I expected. But the edge of the world was still a long way off. At least as far as Surrey. Under the cloudbank. Sun was in the bank. Streak of salmon below. Salmon trout above soaking into wash-blue. River whirling along so fast that it’s skin was pulled into wrinkles like silk dragged over the floor. Shot silk. Fresh breeze off the eyot. Sharp as spring frost. Ruffling under the silk-like muscles on a nervous horse…….

The fog-bank was turning pink on top like the fluff trimmings on a baby’s quilt. Sky angelica green to mould blue. A few small clouds dawdling up, beige pink, like Sarah’s old powder puffs full of her favourite powder. Air was dusty with it.”

Gulley Jimson showed me the way to understand Carel Weight and Stanley Spencer. He made me want to go to art school, just as the Famous Five made me want to outwit crafty foreigners, and Alf Tupper made me want to prove that a working class lad could show the Toffs a thing or two. Dreams, escapism and fantasy. Louis Wilde pointed out that I wasn’t good enough for Art school, and a good thing too.

What’s all this to do with a poetry cobweb? I rather lost my thread as I was writing. No matter. The link is tenuous, but here it is. Joyce Carey’s Gulley Jimson taught me to feel more intensely (in a particular way, it’s true: to see the world as primarily visual).

Surrey all in one blaze like a forest fire. Great clouds of  dirty yellow smoke rolling up. Nine carat gold. Sky water-green to lettuce-green. A few top clouds, yellow and solid as lemons. River disappeared out of its hole. Just a gap full of the same fire, the same smoky gold, the same green. Far bank like a magic island floating in the green. Rheumatic old willows trembling and wheezing together like a lot of old men, much alarmed at the turn things were taking, but afraid to say so aloud

Here’s Monet, and Turner, and Sisley and Carel Weight…and here’s the thing. It’s all done with words, and what’s more, in words you could turn into a poem in a blink. Which is what I realised last week when I read that first sentence of ‘The Horse’s mouth’ for the first time in a decade or more. I realised it had gone a lot deeper than I thought, and it had done so because I’d read it again and again in the way I read the ‘rubbish’ that Peter Dickinson defended in the 70’s. It sent me back to my notebooks; I wanted to find out that what I suspected was true. That in teaching me a way of seeing Gulley Jimson taught me how to write about it, How about these bits from notebooks of about 10 years ago:

‘… on this hill with no shorthand. Everything very sharply in focus and out of meaning. Tiny white starry flowers, one here, one there. One brown furry caterpillar straddling two bleached plantain stems. Dry flower heads brittle pink. One plump crimson/blush/rose cushion of spaghnum, complex jewelly florets, bright with water drops scattered….Deer slots, random, occasionally, a single one sharp in a cupful of peaty mud….Amber, yellow grasses like blades, flexing.’

This was was up on steep moorland near Achnacloich on Skye. And further on:

‘Sky lines recede, one by one, under a slough of driven cloud. Layers and layers.

The near fellside acid sour and bracken brown, tired of cloud, of weight, of wet, of

waiting. A hiddle of oaks in the lee of the ribbon road; black-brittle, acid-burned’

I reckon all that detail of colour and texture is something I learned from a book an Art teacher gave me in 1958. Sometime later, other people taught me that you can put line breaks in this sort of stuff and persuade yourself you’re writing poetry. Like this

a day of edges,

patched plough and fallow;

a slanting sun catches

the fold and furl of the fields,

the tops of the dark trees,

their wind-whetted fringes

silver and steel

running like cold flames,

a cold lambent burning;

the distances are jewelled,

wet stones shining precious,

nuggets, faceted and gold-faced;

scattered studs of turquoise fodder bales;

the roads a burnished pewter

until a cat-grey cloud bank

prowls from the west,

dark and depthless;

the whaleback moor-line blurs;

the sunlight’s arch of lemon-silver shrinks.

Rain comes in fronds and veils,

in trailed tendrils, skeins,

and the light drains and drains

and sudden diamonds bead the screen;

a ghost of rainbow to the north

promises something;

in the background

someone sings:


I spent a long time thinking that painting word pictures of landscapes was the same thing as writing poems. Later I spent a lot of time reading and rereading Norman McCaig, and found out different. You learn from the company you keep. But I’ll argue forever that you need to keep some rough old company to appreciate a fine wine, and that reading rubbish will do you no harm, so long as you read too much of it.

Thanks for you forebearance. It was nice to get that off my chest. Maybe I’ll start writing poems again. Or not. In any case, next week we have a very special guest, so turn up early. Clean shirts. Tucked in.

Let’s finish with one of my favourite passages from The Horse’s Mouth

The moon was coming up somewhere, round the corner from the old bow-window, making the trees like fossils in a coalfield, and the houses look like fresh-cut blocks of coal, glittering green and blue and the river banks like two great solid veins of coal left bare, and the river sliding along like heavy oil. It was like a working model of the earth before someone thought of dirt and colours and birds and humans. I liked it so much I wanted to to go out and walk about in it. But of course I knew it wouldn’t be there. You never get the real world as solid as that


The Horse’s Mouth. [1944] Originally publ. Michael Joseph

subsequently published by Penguin in Penguin Modern Classics

Guess what…yet another book I think everyone should have a copy of is out of print. You can pick up a copy via Amazon or Abe Books for anything from 77p to £5.00