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.
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. https://www.christyducker.co.uk/
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 http://northeastheroes.org/ 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 http://www.emmaholliday.co.uk/north-east-heroes.html
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 https://thumbprod.wordpress.com/
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.
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.