How are you feeling: Hospital poems (4)


If you’ve never quite understood Waiting for Godot it’s possible that a stay in hospital will provide a key. Overheard conversations, especially the ones between doctors that they don’t expect you to listen to, are quietly unnerving. Particularly on a ward at night. Which is one reason I like today’s poem so much. Another reason is that it’s a homage to Louis McNiece. Always good, but rarer than it should be.

Eclogue on ward 46   :      Ian Harker


Leeds General Infirmary.

Two junior doctors.



Ladyboys are back



That’s how you tell the time

of year here



Tennis then the Ladyboys

then German Market.

It’s like Millennium Square is a heart

and you could reach in

and hold Leeds’s heart in your hands

a pump in a tin box



Scruffy frightened bird

sand coming out the ends

of an hourglass



Think that’s what it’s like?

I saw one last year



Funny we should be on about hearts



I saw one. It was underneath

the ribs, banging away



Like a washing machine

you think it’s going to kick free



Angry little bald bloke

red like it’s holding its breath



or a face at the bars



I said it looks heavy

like a snooker ball

it looks like it should be smooth –

on baize with its own balance



I held a brain from a jar

You can smell it I said

formaldehyde the technician said

no I said

it’s someone’s life

this guy’s life getting heavier

in my hands. I could smell

all the rooms his life added up to

like morphine

a clean white smell



Morphine’s death –

you can’t feel death,

it’s cold at the edges.

Anything that’ll kill you

in cold in the end.

I think dying must be like

being sunblind,

like walking into a room

and you can’t see



This woman on Ward 4

said her mother had been to visit her

I looked at her notes and she was 84

she died in the night

half past three it’s always

half past three




Wonder where she was from.

From Jubilee

you can see the sunset over Beeston,

redbrick sunset.

I can almost feel people’s lives

sieving through my fingers



More people are born here

than die



That’s what I mean



How d’you mean?



Something about weight –

brain weight

heart weight

some fucking meme on Facebook

about the soul having a weight,

the body weighs slightly less dead

than it does alive



I need to get out of these scrubs



School uniform

Remember how it smelt

after a whole day?

Half past four

before your parents got back



Everything used to be summer

hot like the back of a car

even Christmas used to feel hot

like a pint glass that’s just been washed,

as warm and new as that



Remember old TVs?

That was weight too

eyebulge in the corner

and it took two of you



You could see yourself in it

when you switched it off

full length in this afterglow



After school



Not really

half term in the holidays

midnight and not having to get up

till midday sneaking downstairs




I used to think the Earth would glow static

if you switched out the stars

like maybe you could hold it






Hold it in your hand

and there’d be the sea rolling around

in your palm, if you lifted it

to your ear



I’ve got to get back



Remember more people

are born here than die



Massive Fuck You –

Congratulations, Mum –

it’s a Fuck You



You know – I know you’re late –

but you know we’ve colonised 80%

of the planet’s land mass

and killed 80% of the mammals



’cept chickens.

This weird bird that can’t fly

it’s almost extinct and we spread it

across the world, it’s everywhere,

most successful animal there is

more of them than there are of us



You’ll be late



See you around



See you




Under all the weight

or not under it – around it



You’re knackered mate



Tell Death Fuck You from me

if you see him



See you



see you around


Ian Harker

2005 Communication and Cultural Studies and Media alumnus of Leeds Trinity University, Ian Harker secured a two-book deal with respected poetry publisher, Templar Poetry in 2015.  Ian was chosen as one of three winners of Templar Poetry’s Pamphlet Competition and his debut collection was The End of the Sky. (Templar Poetry Dec 2015) ..His work has been published in a number of magazines and he has been shortlisted for two major competitions – the Bridport Prize and the Troubadour prize.
Since graduating, Ian has worked at Blackwells Bookshop, in Leeds.

With Andrew Lambert, in 2017 Ian has created Strix – a new magazine of poetry and short fiction.  Issue One  appeared this summer, and submissions for Issue2 were invited up to September 30th. If you didn’t know, you’ve missed it. Look out for the submission window for Issue3

His second collection Rules of Survival launches this September. Today in fact. You could be in time to be there. Chemic Tavern. Leeds This afternoon


How are you feeling? Poems about hospitals (3)

hospital 5

When it comes to young children and A&E, I guess I’ve been sort-of lucky. Four sons more or less guarantee hospital visits, but when mine were young it was usually more chaotic than traumatic. Like the time my eldest son at the age of about two or three ran into  glass partition door headfirst. He had a brown paper bag over his head at the time. Which caused the problem and saved him from serious slicing. Nonethless, we drove, he and I, to Middlesbrough General. Friday night in A&E. Always interesting. At some point, small son vanished, but later reappeared, hurtling round a corner pushing a rattling dressings trolley and pursued by an irate Irish nurse. So I guess I’ve been lucky…never been in the place that Charlotte Ansell’s poem takes me to. But I know that all of us with children know that tumultuous panic. We know what we are supposed to be able to do as parents, and know that we can’t. Which is why we love the NHS.


Wound: Charlotte Ansell

You will remember this night in pieces

like the glass as it shattered,

the moment when her chatter was drowned out

by a thud, the splattering of tight sharp shards,

that endless pause before she howled,

how we all just feet away tried to run

and you scooped her out of her auntie’s arms,

seeing the too bright too large drops of blood,

not knowing where they stemmed from,

looking first at her knees,

prising at her fingers as she still screamed

and her dad pulled back her sleeve,

dropping it immediately

“Jesus- call an ambulance!”

panic sounding like anger.

You looked again at the wide wound

that etched a tattoo on your brain,

replayed in flashbacks through the night,

all of the next day,

how you held her wrist so tight,

her arm above her head

to slow the sickening tide of red

as your other daughter backed away sobbing,

you held out your spare arm to her

but she wouldn’t come,

she wouldn’t come.

You will hear like a jerky soundtrack,

the staccato words as her uncle dialled 999,

as you held her close, close,

kissed her face, wrapped strips of wipes

around her tiny wrist,

tried to keep the flaps of skin together.

You will remember your own arm dead

from holding hers aloft,

that nothing would possess you to let if fall,

from within a towel

the hugeness of her wide blue eyes,

her silence that she’d never had before

no words, not even a nod of response

just huddled in, in shock.


At the hospital

the blinding of the lights,

the kindness of the nurse,

the picture on the wall that caught your eye,

though you wished it hadn’t;

of a smiling boy in a photo

with two dates underneath not one-

23.02.03- 07.04.05.

As appalled you turned away

from what could so nearly

have been your child,



(Publ. Mslexia 2014)


Charlotte Ansell has published three poetry collections. Other publications include work in Poetry Review, Mslexia, Now Then and Butcher’s Dog and anthologies including The Very Best of 52 anthology (Nine Arches Press, 2015) and WordLife (Wordlife, 2016). She was the winner of the Red Shed Open Poetry Competition, one of 6 finalists in the Fun Palaces Write Science competition in 2015 and winner of the Watermarks Poetry Competition 2016.Charlotte Ansell is a poet and part-time freelance creative writing tutor.

How are you feeling? Poems about hospitals (2)

A patient waits in the hallway for a room to open up in the emergency room in Houston, Texas

The thing about public places is that anyone can go in them (including you…it’s interesting how you /we/I have a default assumption that we’re normal and reasonable and personable and sane ). Standard fittings on buses and trains as I remember them when I was a lot younger were: the Unexpected Shouter, The Wide-Eyed-Confider, Your New Best Friend, The One With a Twitch, the Weeping Woman, and the Psycopath. I suspect that this is writ large in Hospitals. I seem to meet more eccentrics in them than elsewhere..though it may be the result of hypersensitivity brought on by fear. Whatever.

A Visit to Hospital :  Neil Clarkson


In the hospital corridor

a man approaches menacingly,

ripe red sores between stitches.

He holds up a sign that reads:

“My lips have been sewn together.”


In the hospital canteen

a man in the corner is waving

his finger furiously.

As I approach he holds up a sign that reads:

“My lips have been sewn together.”


In the hospital pharmacy

a man is gesticulating

like a frenzied traffic cop.

As I approach he holds up a sign that reads:

“My lips have been sewn together.”


I find the man I am here to visit

On the intensive care ward.

He is bruised, cut, in plaster, in traction.

“I am the man who sewed the lips of men together”

Says the sign he holds up.


Neil Clarkson is a regular member of the Albert Poets Monday night workshops in Huddersfield. His first pamphlet Build you again in wood is published by Calder Valley Poetry (Feb. 2017)

How are you feeling? Poems about hospitals

hospital 1

Sooner or later we’ll all end up here, as patients or visitors. Either state is stressful. I suppose it’s all at the forefront of my mind at the moment, just getting over minor plastic surgery. On my forehead. But here’s a thing..I’ve been in and out of hospitals for about 70 years. Hours spent in X ray, or sitting by a bed in an Intensive Care ward, or having morphine nightmares in High Dependency, or observing with an odd curiosity the sociology of General Wards, or marvelling at the linguistic ineptness of a minority of consultants, or at the insouciance of tanned anaesthetists, or being put through the rituals of admission.

I love the NHS, which has saved and prolonged my life and the lives of those I love. But I’ve never got over the sense of being depersonalised, processed. I think it must be like going into prison. That’s what I think when I read the sequence in Solzhenitsyn’s The first circle, when the apparatchik Volodin finds himself in the Greater Lubyanka. Here’s part of the sequence I mean:

“May I dress?” asked Innokenty…but the barber left without a word and locked the door.


After a while he got into his underclothes, but just as he was pulling on his trousers the key rattled in the lock, and still another warder, with a fleshy purple nose, came in holding a large card.


“Volodin” the prisoner replied without arguing, although the senseless repetitions were making him feel sick.

“Name and patronymic?”

“Innokenty Artemyevitch.”

“Year of birth?”

“Nineteen nineteen”

“Place of birth?”


“Take all your clothes off”

Half dazed, he took off those he had on.


And so it continues. Of course, the whole system is designed to demoralise the prisoner, take away all his resistance, individuality, his selfhood. I’m not saying that’s what the NHS is remotely after. But the passage invariably pops into my mind when I’m once more repeating all my details…birth date, address, doctor, all that…. and when I’m in an awkward cubicle taking my clothes off and trying to deal with one of those amazingly humiliating backless surgical gowns, and trying to fit my stuff into a plastic shopping basket, which I may have to carry down a corridor full of normal people in their normal clothes. It’s all necessary, and simultaneously dreamlike…something you hope to wake from, soon. So it’s with that in mind I asked if folk would send me their poems about ‘hospital’ and their experience of it. I’m delighted by their response, and for a few days I’ll be posting what they sent me.

What better place to start than with this poem from Bob Horne

Waiting Room

With a flick of fins the fantails

twist and tumble, shimmy and climb

through clear water between shingle bed

and still air resting on the surface.

Hexagonal tank: perfunctory aquascape

of single black rock, more fit for a wall;

tall plant with a look of ivy,

and bubbles rising like hopes.


Our files are on the trolley outside Room A.

Have you seen to next week’s nutrition?

Three rows of chairs; front left’s mine.

I’m fitting things in, doing bits of both.

Opposite, a metal cabinet in battleship grey.

I’ll get found out if they ask any questions.


You just go blonde, you’ll get there.


We’re running late; there are whispers,

shufflings as bodies are rearranged,

timetables changed. The goldfish,

refracted in angles of glass,

wind and weave in their element,

while we, with a weather eye,

we sit on, stare at the floor:

blue linoleum, like a big sky.


Bob Horne has featured in cobweb posts before ; you can read more about, and of, his work via these links

His pamphlet Knowing my place is published by Caterpillar Press (July 2016)

He is the publisher/editor/presiding genius of Calder Valley Poetry

Footings, scaffolds, and a polished gem: Jane Kite


Just before we start….it’s lovely to see you all on this warm amber September morning. Just to say that for the last few weeks I’ve been generally run down and generally assailed by self-pity. As ever, this ends up with my being cross and tetchy and irritable. So, if I’ve been a bit terse of late, I’m sorry. Because life’s too short, and there are too many good things to celebrate.

(Some time later, I scrapped all the stuff I’d written, admitted to myself that I wasn’t thinking straight, and started again on a miserable, grey drizzly Monday morning. Please the lord I’ll not have a head full of wool)

Right, let’s crack on with today’s cobweb strand. I’m going to take you back to the late 1940s and a trip to York with my mum and my Grandma to visit my wayward Auntie Lillian, who in those days lived in The Shambles..which was a something of a slum street, and nothing like the potpourri-sweetened tourist trap it is today. At some point we went for a walk and found ourselves staring up at the two towers of the Minster. They’re pretty awesome at any time, but 6 year olds can’t quite process visual scale in the same way as adults. For a start, they’re lower down. I have no idea why the memory should stick as it has for nearly 70 years, but it seemed momentous and terrible when my Auntie said we should take a good look, because, very shortly, scaffolding would go up both towers, restoration work would start and would go on for over twenty years. And it did. I could not imagine twenty years. I could do sums well enough to work out that no one would see what I was looking at until 1960-something. I could not imagine waiting that long or being that old. I did make a special trip to see the Minster emerge again, but I’ve never quite got over my ambivalence about scaffolding as simultaneously structurally enabling and healing, and also disfiguring, masking, obscuring.

Footings are different. That’s about clearing the site, about measuring, excavating (digging…that should do it for any poet) and pouring foundations. Hard graft but deeply satisfying. It’s all hidden, eventually, invisible…but it keeps everything stable and secure. I can feel a tangled metaphor coming on…press on regardless. Because, clearly, you need to have a ground to set your footings in. You need to be sure where you’re standing, and that you own it. Where’s this going? Essentially, I’ve been wrestling with the ghost of a poetry sequence for longer than I like to admit. I’ve done the easy stuff…the research. I’ve got shed loads of notes, jottings, crossed out draft lines, references, internet links to stuff about the geological history of the earth, about British mining disasters, creation myths, flower pressing, fossils, local history. If you like, I’ve emptied the building supplies people for miles around. but I can’t make a start on the poem, the building, because I’m not clear about where it stands, or what kind of foundations to lay down…or, finally, its structure. Its scaffolding. I don’t doubt that it’ll get built eventually. It’s waiting for that flash, that insight that says: it needs to be in this kind of voice; it needs to have this shape, this kind of line; it needs to be a narrative; it needs to be a collage of different moments; it needs to be rhetorical; it needs to be lyrical……

I’ve been reading sequences by poets I like, trying to get a clue of some sort. How Ian Duhig scaffolded his Blind Road-maker poems. The way Christy Ducker hit on an alphabetic scaffold for her tribute to Grace Darling. The way Ruth Valentine chose the alphabetic sequence to structure her fundraising pamphlet for the Grenfell survivors: A Grenfell Alphabet (I’ll feature this next week)The way Fiona Benson lit on a particular voice to tell her Van Gogh sequence. The way Kim Moore saw the light of Ovid’s Metamorphoses illuminate a way to tackle her poems about domestic abuse. The way Steve Ely inhabited the rhythms and textures of medieval English verse to shape his poems about medieval clerics and the landscape he and they share…..I guess the eureka moment will happen if I don’t push it. I need to learn to wait. Serenity..that’s the thing. Still, I think that on and off I’ll explore this idea in more posts; for the moment, though, I’ll accept the idea that whatever the scaffold is, it will need to give me security and shape rather than obscuring and disfiguring. And eventually, it will need to come down, (or at least, become invisible) and leave the poem to stand up on its own.

Which, in the roundabout way I seem to come at things,  brings us more or less to today’s guest poet and polished gem: Jane Kite. I’m delighted that she’s here because her recent collection Distaff shows me what can happen when you have a pile of material, and suddenly the way to put it all together seems clear and right. More of that later.

Jane Kite lives in Otley, West Yorkshire. She is joint managing editor of Otley Word Feast Press/Half Moon Books. She was commended in The Poetry Society’s 2013 Stanza Poetry Competition on the theme of ‘Drought’, judged by Neil Rollinson.

Let me ask her to introduce herself.


“Here’s the story of how Distaff came about:

I had a load of poems written over 20 years or so.  Some of them drew on my family history and some were about unrelated people. I thought I could bring the people together as an imagined family.  I did this and sent it off to a publisher who shall be nameless who accepted it.  I went to see them and we got on really well and everything was going ahead for several months though I didn’t have a written contract. This was 2013.

Something entirely unrelated to my poetry happened (I’d tell you, but it would take too long here) and the publisher backed out of the deal.  He said I’d have no trouble finding another publisher, and other junk.  This made me smile and think him very naive even though I was upset and angry with him for going back on what had been agreed.  It had meant a lot to have my first book accepted for publication.  I sulked for a bit and then sent Distaff to Carcanet who, after eight months, said no.

One brash day, I sent in an application to the Ilkley Literature Festival to do a fringe event based on one of the people in Distaff.  They accepted Bad Jenny and because I didn’t have enough poems about Jenny, I had to write some more.  The Jenny in Distaff is based on my grandmother’s life as I remember her telling of it. As I worked up some additional poems, I started writing about her being a prostitute in France which I knew was not the truth, but my Grandmother’s birth was not registered and neither was my father’s. There are almost no official records of their lives so not much to go on.

Bad Jenny was done at Ilkey and then we did a performance of it at ELFM radio and another at Lux Cafe Pudsey.  Several people including Greg White and John Hepworth helped with the performances.  I think this was 2014. ”

(At this point, I’ll interrupt and say that I’d met Jane properly on a writing course in 2013, during which she wrote a poem I’ll feature before long, and subsequently via the publishing venture she’s involved with, along with Peter White (formerly of Poetry by Heart events in Leeds) and Sandra Burnett. A sort of symbiotic relationship with Word Club, the poetry event group based at The Chemic Tavern in Leeds, has developed since then. Otley Word feast Press has morphed into Half Moon Books. Between them they have run the Otley Poetry prize, and published several anthologies. Right. Back to Jane)

“In 2016 Peter White (not for the first time) said that Half Moon Books (OWF Press) should publish me.  I think I had been holding out for something that didn’t look like self promotion as I didn’t want Half Moon Book to be about that.  But this time I agreed, looked again at the manuscript which by now I was rather tired of, took some poems out and put some others in.  While doing this, I again scoured the Internet for evidence of my grandmother’s life.  I found two records:  one of her living as my grandfather’s wife (they weren’t married) in Skipton (just up the road!) and the other one on a passenger list of a ship gong to La Pallice, France using my grandfather’s surname and address, but travelling alone.  The date (1936) was wrong for the events in my poems, but maybe this wasn’t the first trip. Who knows.

My real grandmother was brought up by nuns and was illiterate.  She was a milliner, abortionist, cafe proprietor, property owner and wearer of scary furs.  She was also a much more horrific abuser than the Distaff poems suggest and had a big impact on my life.  This is probably why I was shocked when people responded with empathy to the Bad Jenny of the performances.  I wanted to say: you’re not supposed to like her.  But nothing’s that simple.

I extended Distaff into the future so as to emphasise that this is not a biography (and because I write poems about the future too).  As to what it is about – I have been very surprised at what other people take from it.  To me (and this is retrospective) it is mostly about the precariousness of life (announced in the first poem) and has a secondary theme about the management of human fertility.  (But that sounds a bit dryer than I mean it).  And about how the stories of lives can be partial, not complete neat narratives.   I also have a bit of a thing about people with one eyes – Glad-eye (P28) is fairly straightforwardly autobiographical, though many of the other poems aren’t.

That’s probably enough!”

Well we’ll see about that. Before we come to the poems from Distaff, though, I want to say what drew me to Jane’s writing in the first place, and to do that I’ll use this poem that she wrote in a shared writing exercise at The Old Olive Press in Alicante.

Writing trip May 2013 140

This is the actual olive press as it looks today, in its reclaimed, renovated surroundings. It’s hard to give a sense of the monumental scale of this thing made from Guaderrama granite. The writing exercise grew out of a video of the olive press at work. It’s a bit grainy, recovered from VHS tape shot in the 1980s. But there’s Gonzalo, its owner demonstrating how it works…the noise must have been phenomenal, and the vibration. Its speed is utterly unexpected. The twist in the tale is that Gonzalo was killed in a tractor accident a couple of weeks after the film was made, and it’s like watching the film of a ghost. The tractor overturned on the edge of one of the teraces that contour the valley sides in the Alicante mountains; he was trapped under it, and died of the injuries. My response to this was a big poem, full of sound and fury and groaning with textured description. Jane’s, which she mentions as being commended in the 2013 Stanza Comp. was different. Here it is


Today I have nothing to say.

Your mother’s breath was loaded

with dust from the mountains.

You were oil dunked on account

of the dryness. You slept all afternoon.

Your father called you pimpernel.


Today I have nothing to say.

Your mother’s eyes were blue, not black,

your father traded olives for a gun,

stole swallows out of their nests.


Today I have nothing to say.

I would feed you almonds and oranges.

Your sweet name gluts my throat.

You were gone for weeks.

I came outside and scoured the sky,

found you asleep in the sun.


I loved the quiet assertiveness of this, the authenticity of the voice and the mind it inhabits…this is beautifully imagined lyric/dramatic verse. When I try to nail down the quality that sticks, I think of Lawrence’s ‘Odour of Crysanthemums’ ..where the collier’s bitter wife washes and cleans the body of her dead husband brought home from the pit. The way its beauty excludes her, the way she resents it, the way she is bereft. That last line ‘I..found you asleep in the sun’ does all that for me. It’s like a line from a song in Cymbeline. Simple and haunting. The (apparent) simplicity and the ability to inhabit a voice or a life…that dramatic ability…is what runs through Distaff, and we’ll finish with some extracts from the collection.

The collection tells the story of Jenny’s family and descendants from 1887 to the distant future (there’s a handy genealogy that helps you to navigate). It comes with a cast list of characters, cross-referenced to the poems, and begins with Jenny, newborn, abandoned naked to die in the street, and picked up up by a man grieving for his dead wife. He hands the child in to a foundlings home run by nuns, and gives her his wife’s name. So we begin in a scene from Dickens or Mayhew, and it’s rarely a comfortable journey from that point on. What about ‘scaffolds’? I saw this almost as film, or scenes from a film where each poem is a voice over, a complex commentary. It’s easy to see how it could work as performance, each poem coming with its specific date, and resonant with social/documentary history.  Jenny lives a bleak twelve years with the nuns, escapes, inveigles heself into the life of a pawnbroker, Abel Duckworth, supplants his wife and then ditches him

” so she took up with a fancy man

and caught the steamer to France.

Left the old man sucking soup”


You can see why Jane says : you’re not supposed to like her. Which brings us to

1913: Across the Channel

 He was green-gilled on the boat

and spewed onto the fine red silk

of Jenny’s stolen frock.

When they reached Le Havre,

where he quickly recovered,

the fancy-man scarpered

and Jenny sat on the harbour

in the stink of it and shivered.


But her blue eyes did their trick

and she found her way

with sailors and butchers

tailors and cobblers and tinkers.


And then the war was on.

She’d no fare back to England.

A gendarme picked her up

and dumped her at a Maison Tolérée.


..where, like a hard-eyed Moll Flanders, she takes up work in the government-approved brothel, and in the next poem we hear Jenny’s voice for the first time :

And we are the girls/ with our cock-eyed faces. /We are the girls with our / filthy flounces.

I like, and wince at, the way she becomes one voice in the chorus of a desperate music hall. Cabaret. Distaff and Moll Flanders. They’ve become elided as I reread the collection, sometimes not quite sure whose voice I’m hearing, but fascinated by the way it’s grounded, like a good documentary in the kind of images that make you think of Bill Brandt, fascinated by the way she, the clear-eyed survivor, turns up again on Abel’s doorstep, and back into his life. She’s a user, is Jenny. It’s a hard world and she takes hard measures. Given the tenderness of Abuella, the bleaknesses of Distaff can feel surprising. But they are never sensational. The world is what it is. Let’s finish in 1965, well short of the end, and a poem that has all the qualities I like about the collection

1965: Housework

I empty the old water

and fill the crystal vase afresh

for last week’s flowers –

they have a day or so left.

There’s a sad story

on the wireless

– a child who fell

down a disused well.


I dust the banister and skirting boards,

remove yesterday’s Evening News

from the table, glance at the headline

about a small body found on the moors.


There’s a stain on the kitchen window.

My neighbour’s outside with her boy.

The girl was a trouble and had to be put away.


I wipe over the mantlepiece ornaments,

the blown-glass swan, the china dog and its pup.

I am safe from all that, with my lack.

Each month’s jolt is the wrench of a thing

that will not happen.


I straighten up the maps my husband

has left out, dust the globe, rock his world

slow on its axis. My earth is flat

and has precipitous edges.


I fetch the Hoover from under the stairs,

watch its brown bag inflate, push

the monster that I hate

around the lounge to suck up imagined dirt.


I still have my bedroom slippers on,

and think of the ones my mother wore,

blue checked felt with pompoms.

Sometimes I inhabit her old body

and my tread is tentative.

I take the stairs with care,

remembering her fall.

Something pierced her heart.

There is a glass tine in me,

a sharp quill.


In a world full of casual and understated violence, there’s a stoicism in the voice that’s laced with a simmering resentment….and it comes to that fine point at the end. The glass tine. The sharp quill that might just puncture the puffed-up brown bag of the Hoover and its cargo of imagined dirt. The precarious balance of things is beautifully captured in that line: My earth is flat/ and has precipitous edges.

So there we are. I’ve been struggling to get my ideas clear of late. I can’t seem to get my ducks in a row. But what I hoped to do was

a) to clear up some ideas about ‘scaffolding’ and the business of finding a  holding form and a foundation for a ragbag of research that seems (or seemed) really important and

b) to share the work of a poet I admire, and who has been flying too long under the radar. You’ll let me know if I’ve done either.

Let’s say thank you, Jane Kite for being our guest. Next up, during the week there’ll be poems about the business of hospitals. And next Sunday another poet who teachesme something about the business of sequence and scaffold. See you then x


Distaff:  Publ. Half Moon Books [2017] £8.00






Shining morning faces..and First Pressings (5). The Interpreter’s House, and Martin Malone

It’s that time again. The back to school time again. As a teacher I really, genuinely used to love it. I know times have changed, terribly, and that I wouldn’t last two minutes in a school nowadays. It would be a toss up between which came first…walking out or being sacked. But the past was a different country, and I truly loved it. Shining faces, clean walls, new books, old friends. 99% of the kids I taught came back to school in September full of fizz and hopefulness. They never learned from experience. It was like the past was erased, there was a clean slate, and this year they would be successful beyond all their dreams. I reckon that the mood lasted for about 3 weeks, until reality asserted itself, and most of them unconsciously gave up trying and believing for another year. I loved those three weeks…we could all be stars.

And here’s the thing; one of my many weaknesses as a Head of Department was that it never occurred to me that not everyone on the staff felt the same. I mean….who wouldn’t want to get in a week early, and plan all that good stuff, and make the greatest displays in the history of education, and unpack and stamp all the new stock, and check out all the new class records? So it’s come as a huge shock this early September to find myself temporarily (I believe that) without fizz or hope. Having facial surgery that’s left me looking like the wrong end of a pub brawl…that hasn’t helped. But the problem is (or was) poetry. For various reasons that I won’t trouble you with, in the last couple of weeks I came to feel that I couldn’t write, that nothing I’d written so far was up to much, that everything I believed I could rely on as a writer was an illusion and a sham. I was singing along with Dylan….flat, out of tune

And I’m one too many mornings
An’ a thousand miles behind.

It’s a restless hungry feeling
That don’t mean no one no good
When ev’rything I’m a-sayin’
You can say it just as good

Imagine losing the joy you see in those photos of young Dylan and Suze Rotolo, singing as desolate and bleak as this

The project I’ve been reading and working around for nearly a year seemed to be pointless. I could hardly bear to read any poetry: I suddenly failed to see the point of the whole business. For the last four or five years I’ve been riding a wave, and suddenly find myself high, dry and useless. I certainly didn’t fancy carrying on writing every Sunday about something that didn’t seem all that interesting or significant. Here we were: Sepetember. I’d always believed that anything was possible in September.

For some reason, feeling sorry for myself, one eye completely closed up and stitches niggling, I remembered that Kim Moore wrote a poem ‘On Eyes’. It’s in her collection: The art of falling’. I read it, and was glad that I didn’t have a black eye because I’d been hit, because someone meant to hurt me. I was glad that I hadn’t been put in fear. I read steadily through the poems of survival in the sequence How I gave my body up to his keeping. I remembered how excited I’d been as I read these poems in various stages of manuscript; how moved. I remembered how they set me off in new directions, how they took me to Ovid, how they let me write about my son’s death twenty year after the event. For everyone and everything that undermines your purpose as a writer there’s someone like Kim Moore who puts you to rights. We’ve all met them and we all love them and can’t understand how much we owe until something kicks our legs from under us, and they come along and stand us up and dust us down. People like the poets we attach ourselves to, and the publishers who take daft risks to put us ‘out there’.

three covers for the cobweb

I’ve just looked up at the poetry journals on the shelf above my desk; it strikes me that though, yes, while there’s The Rialto and the like, I don’t have a lot, but I do have sets of Prole, Butchers Dog, Under the Radar, The North and The Interpreter’s House. You may discern a pattern there, and it’s one I’m tempted to riff on in another post. I can see the title: The North/South Divide. Something like that. But today, it’s TIH for which I have a very fond spot, being the first journal to accept work I’d submitted, the one to publish a stunningly generous review of my first collection, the one with the lovely graphics, and one that regularly publishes the work of poets I’m very fond of. I guess I really do need to declare an interest. So I have.

I was really pleased that Martin Malone was willing to share his experience of running and editing The Interpreter’s House. I met him for the first time at a Sheffield writing day, during which he announced he was taking on the job….that was five years ago!…and sold me a copy of the journal. I read it on the tram, on the way home, and I’ve been hooked ever since. So here we go, and from here on in, it’s all down to Martin. Give him a big hand, and settle back. You’ll enjoy the ride. Ladies and gents: Mr Martin Malone!

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


I came – or, rather, returned – to poetry late, after studying literature at university but veering off into rock music in various guises: guitarist, songwriter, singer, producer and recording engineer. Once the law of diminishing dignity kicked in I rationalised my failures and called it quits. I was always going to have a creative project on the go, however, and poetry came quite naturally after song-writing. In my opinion, the two are related but distinct crafts, so adjustments did have to be made, lyrics are not poetry despite frequent flirtations with the idea. However, the great thing about poetry after rock bands, is that it relies only upon one sociopath as opposed to four or five. So, in practical terms at least, it’s easier to realise as an artform. Once I got started I kept at it and, feeling the need for some sense of a cohort, I did the Creative Writing MA at Manchester Metropolitan University. My portfolio for that had the good fortune to win the inaugural Straid Poetry Award, which involved publication of my first collection with Templar Poetry. In retrospect, this was a bit of a mixed blessing because, as a sequence, it probably wasn’t quite ready to be my first collection in a world of first collection prizes, where received wisdom dictates that one should ‘make your first collection work hard for you’ (that’s a genuine piece of advice I was once given). Still, who’s going to quibble about a first book publication when it’s handed to you? And anyway, The Waiting Hillside is not without its virtues, nor has it failed to  open a few doors. Following on from that I published my second collection, Cur, with the estimable Shoestring Press, whose John Lucas, I love. And around the same time I took over the editorship of The Interpreter’s House.


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


I described the long lead-in to my taking over TIH above, but I’ve always written in one form or another since I was a kid. For instance, I must have written hundreds of songs down the years, though I’ve only put out, or been involved with, about seven albums and a few singles worth. Also, my first paid full-time job was a government scheme that allowed me to be writer-in-residence at an arts centre in Liverpool, where I wrote drama scripts and co-wrote a screenplay. I went on to do a Screenwriting MA at Liverpool John Moore’s in the late 1990s and wrote a sitcom that was kicked about a bit by the BBC, as these things tend to be without ever really having a cat in hell’s chance of getting made (too much ‘sit’ not enough ‘com’). And I’d written some shorter fiction, which is a medium I intend to return to after my next collection comes out. However, other than running poetry workshops and mentoring a few poets, I’d had no experience of editing a whole journal when I took over at TIH. I had set up an independent record company, however, so knew a bit about creative economies of scale, knowledge expensively acquired in that particular case.



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: I want some of that. What was the trigger that got you involved in journal editing?


Well, I saw the call for candidates put out on the Poetry Society website, and I liked The Interpreter’s House as a journal. I’d been published a few times by the then editor Simon Curtis and always felt that it was punching a little beneath its weight in terms of quality-to-profile ratio. I thought it deserved to be more widely read and that Simon had got something good going for the magazine. When, sadly, it transpired that he had a terminal illness and couldn’t carry on, I wanted to honour his efforts by helping to keep the magazine running in whatever way I could. It was just fortunate that I hit it off with both Simon and the magazine’s founding editor, Merryn Williams. I got the gig and hope I haven’t let either of them down. Also, the opportunity came at a very particular moment in both my creative and private life and I genuinely wanted to ‘give something back’ to a poetry scene which had been pretty welcoming to a raggy-arsed immigrant from rock music. I suppose I felt that I had enough heft and experience behind me at that point to make a decent fist of it. I refer anyone reading this to the recent Editorial of Issue #65 for any ethics I’ve subsequently tried to model as an editor.


TIH 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?

A ‘successful poet’, to me, is someone who sends me in a really good poem and that is all. But, yes, I know what you mean, we’ve been fortunate to have had a number of well-established writers contribute to the magazine over the years and this is important. For other writers, perhaps starting out on their publishing ‘career’, it is significant to be seen alongside names who are perceived to be successful and well-established. I consciously try to lard each issue with one or two for that very reason. Though, nothing quite beats publishing a great poem and finding out that it is the poet’s first publication. This sensibility has been with us from the start and has, hopefully, helped to establish that clear identity you talk about here. Incidentally, I’d be fascinated to know from people what their perceptions of that identity is. Putting together a magazine is a little like making your own sandwich: you never quite know how good it is until you eat someone else’s. But I take your point, we wanted to take the magazine into new areas and be open to new voices. We constantly go over our page limits and the number of poems we initially set out to publish each issue. This might be seen as weak editing and I sometimes wonder if the perception of us is as a journal which publishes too many poets and is a rather beautiful photocopier. This would, of course be utter bollocks: we get well over a thousand poems submitted per issue and we’d rather take a poem which excites us than let it go elsewhere. I’d even be interested in seeing how good an issue would be, which is compiled from those excellent poems that didn’t quite make it past our final deliberations for each of the 15 issues.

The competition is a slightly different beast. It is certainly vital to keeping the magazine going year-on-year. I think for the three competitions we’ve run so far, we’ve been lucky in getting a succession of fine young poets whose stars have been on the rise to be the judge: Liz Berry, Jonathan Edwards and Niall Campbell. This was a conscious choice and they’ve done us proud. Their reputations have been vital in attracting the hoped-for number of entries and having been judged to have written a prize-winning poem by these writers has, I’m sure, provided a tremendous fillip to our winners, some of whom have gone on to considerable further success. For my last competition – when I want to leave the coffers bulging for the new editor – I might try to get a ‘really big name’ to judge Open House 2018. Who that will be I don’t yet know. I’d best get my skates on, I suppose.

What I put all this down to is a combination of kindness, luck, shrewd judgement, and the eternal reciprocity of tears as I’m begging people to bestow their greatness upon us.

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

Some of these I like, some I respect, I’ll not say which is which. I think Templar continue to make beautifully produced books and pamphlets. Flarestack are rightfully acknowledged to be publishers of damn fine poetry. Two Rivers Press produce good-looking books from commensurately good writers. I like the Russian Constructivist look of the Poetry Salzburg Pamphlet Series and, on a similar theme but for more political reasons, I greatly respect Smokestack books, they publish some important alternative voices, such as Paul Summers. I’m bound to namecheck Shoestring Press, not least because they publish Roy Marshall, whose recent second collection was as good as anything published by ‘The Big Five’ this year. I think that Eyewear put out fine-looking fayre, though, like many others, I’m not keen on this recent ‘pay to submit’ business. Imprints that deserve our wholehearted support are Helena Nelson’s Happenstance, Brett Evans’s Prole and P.A. Morbid’s rumbunctious The Black Light Engine Room Incidental Series. Up here, Tapsalteerie have started to bring out some smart looking pamphlets and they are not alone. What’s great about pamphlet culture is that it is probably the most dynamic medium at the moment, so that it’s quite hard to keep up with all the small poetry presses and their publications. I’ve not mentioned many fine examples, simply because there are so many. I’d love to be on the panel judging a competition like the Michael Marks Prize, actually, because it would be an education in what is getting produced out there. So, I apologise if I’ve missed out someone worthy of mention. You ask why I like these presses, well, it’s a combination of production values and the freewheeling, chance-taking spirit of their editors and founders. There’s something fearless and properly ‘indie’ about pamphlet publication right now, which I like.

(I loved reading this…the generosity and camaraderie of small poetry publishers is a thing of rare loveliness in a naughty world.)


Ditto, poetry journals, from the ‘great’ to the ‘small’

In terms of journals, I’ve always been fond of The Reader, it is a genuine literary publication run by knowledgeable people, is beautifully produced and always does you proud when it publishes you. I’m a fan of Robert’s work at Bare Fiction. I’ve always had a soft spot for Stand and respect its history. I think Jane Commane has done an amazing job with Nine Arches Press and Under The Radar. Gerry Cambridge has made The Dark Horse a serious and heavyweight journal, every bit as good as the ‘big name’ magazines it is directly up against. I’m fond of Pat and William Oxley at Acumen. Young Andrew Wells does a great job with Haverthorn. I prefer Poetry Ireland Review to Poetry Review. There are a lot of good journals around to be honest. Lighthouse is good and is also the best-smelling one out there (trust me, sniff that paper). Butcher’s Dog has come a long way fast, though the north-east was waiting for a unifying and good journal. I loved the ethos behind Nutshell, is it still going?. Up here in Scotland, I like the free broadsheet that is Northwords Now and the sheer antsiness of Poetry Republic. Again, I’m probably leaving many good journals out here but this isn’t an acceptance speech and these are simply those that come to mind. As for the online journals, I like the hefted pdf of Angle and Ink, Sweat & Tears remains the best one, for me. Overall, I think we’ve an embarrassment of riches and I’m constantly impressed by the quirky and innovative pop-up publications – Elbow Room, for instance – that are coming out all the time and which tend to be set up by precociously young editors. The journal and the small run pamphlet have become the new punk indie labels to a certain extent but, then, I would see things in those terms.


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?


The credit for TIH’s justifiably fine reputation for good looks rests overwhelmingly with Jen Shaw, the artwork co-ordinator. When we took over the magazine she was pregnant with Fionn and we thought it would be a project we could run together which was a long way from changing nappies and raising the merry hell of our young son. At the outset, we sort of scoped out a shared aesthetic sensibility inspired by, I suppose, the artistic generation of the 1920’s and 30’s, who quietly went about their creative business and left a vibrant material legacy that future generations might chance across and still find worthy of attention: i.e. the absolute opposite of the hollow glamour chase of the 21st century. So, I guess our spiritual ‘model’ was the generation described as Romantic Moderns by Alexandra Harris in her fine book of that name. After that, it was all down to Jen’s good eye. The idea was to use strong colour as a background to each issue which foregrounded a strong emblematic image that had some glancing affinity with the spirit of each issue. We engaged artists whose work was individual but linked by the fact that they used graphically designed images. And we owe those artists – all of whom let us have their work for the paltry fee of 5 contributor copies – so much. We also try to run a link to their web page on our site which features their images. I’d love to have the launch of my final issue at a gallery which displays the work of our cover artists, though this may be difficult to organise.

Tell us something about the snags and frustrations you encounter…

It would be easy to exaggerate these aspects of the job but, looking back over my four years in charge, I can honestly say that it hasn’t been so bad. Sure, there are regular snags and minor irritations but these are more to do with the astonishing lack of emotional intelligence or mere bad-mindedness in a tiny minority of people I’ve had to deal with. And a lot of that has been to do with social media, so it merely reflects to world we live in, I suppose. Our Facebook Account, for instance, was never supposed to bear my name, but the original Interpreter’s House one was blocked as a result of an idiot troll transferring his own very real problems onto others’ situations. Pretty par for the course, I guess. And people’s occasionally astonishing sense of entitlement to immediate answers now, the odd ludicrously insensitive or arrogant remark and a general lack of awareness of what this job actually entails have caused the odd ruction. But, really, over the whole period these have been very few and far between. Sure, poets simultaneously submit because, well, I guess we all do sometimes. I’m not going to get worked up over that. If someone withdraws a poem late because ‘it has been taken elsewhere’ then I’d humbly suggest they’re missing out since TIH is a great magazine to be published in.

Ultimately, if I had one beef it would be the number of people who have obviously not read the submissions guidelines on our website before sending stuff in. Please do this as it’s the most basic courtesy one can pay, and it ‘ain’t hard. Individuals think that it only takes a minute to deal with this niggly stuff but add up all those minutes and it aggregates to hours of my life that I’m not going to get back, just because someone can’t be arsed to be good-mannered. I’m sure that’s a niggle every editor will recognise. That said, we never send stuff back – except that which arrives outside of the submissions windows – but, really, people!

How did 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

To be honest, when I took over, I was gifted a bit of an open goal on this one. The magazine was a lovely thing but had absolutely no digital footprint at that time. So, building a half-decent website, and setting up Facebook and Twitter accounts immediately opened up a whole new audience and actually made me look better than I probably am. It’ll be interesting to see where the new editorial team take TIH from here, given that they won’t have the standing start I had. In many ways that’s trickier. Of course, to a hopeless old Trot like me, notions of ‘brand’ and ‘marketing’, particularly for something like a poetry magazine, are a bit of an anathema. But, you know, I’m not stupid: I know what it takes to raise a journal’s profile in the community it serves. Perhaps I’d just use different terms for what is essentially the same job. I’m not exactly what you’d call a ‘digital native’, however, and someone like Robert Harper over at Bare Fiction puts me to shame in terms of innovation. Like it says in my Twitter strapline, I’m a poet, editor, git and curmudgeon. Probably in reverse order.

In terms of reviews, well it wasn’t something I particularly wanted to be heavy on at the start. ‘Bigger’ magazines like Poetry London and Poetry Review publish a lot of reviews. Then again, for a host of reasons, they tend to not publish reviews of many writers whom I think deserve some critical attention. So, I see TIH as conscientiously taking up a bit of slack in this area. Over the years, I have picked up a handful of trusted reviewers who have good critical prose styles and a bit of nous. They have formed into a bit of a core team supplemented by a number of people, often writers themselves, who approach me wanting to try their hand at reviews. I have the utmost respect for anyone reviewing for a magazine like ours, since, I know myself that it is both difficult and unpaid work. I find reviewing hard work so respect others who want to do it. And, even when I’ve reviewed for bigger magazines, I can tell you that you’re not paid all that much. I do enjoy it, however, and, more importantly, find it a really useful meditation upon one’s own sense of possibility and writing practice. I think I’ll do a bit more reviewing when I finish with TIH. As an editor, however, it can be a surefire way to lose you friends. Be warned!

I’ve been asked about competitions a lot recently (though my opinion matters no more than anyone else’s). Again, I’d refer folk to my editorials, particularly in the autumn issues when I’m about to launch our own competition, and to the excellent Acumen symposium on the subject published as a recent insert to Issue #. Coming from a serial competition winner like yourself, John, the question comes hefted with some significance. Whatever I think about ‘competition culture’ as a writer is less significant than my appreciation of it as a means to keep magazines like The Interpreter’s House going. But your question is more interesting in that you mention something like the Michael Marks’ prize, which rewards something more ‘long-haul’ in its focus upon whole pamphlets and the work of small presses. Without wishing to run down single poem competitions, I guess that I’m instinctively more drawn towards something which seeks to recognize the long-term commitments of small presses to the poetry commonwealth. It’s not an either/or, just a personal inclination. More of this type of competition, then, please. Though, I’m not sure that a journal like TIH would be eligible for a prize like this and I’m dead against those awards which ask those shortlisted to canvas for votes on social media. It just seems so undignified and I’m not that bothered, to be honest. As a society, we’ve lost sight of the concept that doing a good job is reward in itself. And, as I said in my last editorial, being a poetry editor is a privilege. Personally, I need no external affirmation of that fact. But, yes, maybe we should have an annual award for poetry journals, why not? Spread the love.


What next? More in the pipeline?


Editorially, three more issues of The Interpreter’s House and finding the right successor(s) whomsoever they might be. I always said I would do the job for 5 years/ 15 issues before handing it on, and I knew that I’d stick to that. Charles Lauder (my excellent Deputy Editor) and I are probably due a bit of a break. I think editors can overstay their usefulness, and risk over-influencing the free flow of ideas and styles if they stick around too long. Far better to saddle up and move on. I feel the same way about readings, incidentally: always understay your welcome.

Personally, I’ve just about finished my third collection: the one related to my PhD at Sheffield, which was in Great War poetry. The Unreturning I’m hoping to have published in 2018, ideally on the 11th of November, given its subject. Meanwhile, a pamphlet of stuff from the book – a sort of EP from the LP – is coming out in the next 6 months with Poetry Salzburg: Mr. Willett’s Summertime. It’s taken from the more recognisably ‘elegiac lyric’ sequence in the book, which is intended to parley across the lines with the ‘neo-modernist’ prose poem sequence that opens the collection. Initially, I thought it might be two shorter books but two collections on the same topic is quite a big statement and I don’t want to become known as ‘that Great War guy’. Besides, others, better than I, have already been that.

There has been some discussion about my setting up a completely new journal from the house up here in Gardenstown on the Moray coast. We’ve scoped out a general look and aesthetic for it and I know it’ll be just two issues a year. I also think that the next editing job I do will involve some modest level of renumeration, beyond expenses. I feel I’ve now earned that. But, truly, I need a bit of a rest from it all, so it’s very much on the back-burner is Berg. I’ll let you know if or when it might appear. I managed to edit TIH at the same time as doing my PhD and bringing up wee Fionn, simply because I was on a grant and had enough ‘free’ time, but ‘the poor man’s aqua fortis’ of need dictates that I must work for a living once more. Something has to give, in order for me to write my fourth collection, so let’s see how I manage my new-found free-time. I guess these considerations signpost why, throughout history, so much mainstream culture has been produced by the patronised, the well-to-do, or those with  private incomes. But, hey, I seized the means of production for a while. Up the revolution and close the door behind you.

Wow. That’s what you get when you ask a hopeless old Trot if he’ll share a few thoughts about the indie poetry business! What you get is a comprehensive guide to the whole business. The full nine yards. Not so long ago I was looking down a dark tunnel. The generosity of my friends in (mainly but not exclusively) the North is amazing. Thank you so much Martin Malone. Good look with the remaining issues and with your own work. Which reminds me that new readers can get a taste of your poetry and also another interview via these links

The waiting hillside [Templar Poetry 2011 ] £8.99

(I should have checked with Martin. When I looked it up it  seems that , via Amazon at least, it’s only available 2nd hand. Boo!)

Cur : [Shoestring Press 2015] £10.00

See you next week. Not sure what we’ll be up to, but I’m looking forward to it xx


First cuts. Poems and hospitals


I seem to have been away for ages, and I’ve missed you. Proper post coming up on Sunday about proper poetry people, but since I spent this afternoon in a theatre very like this one, (but with not such a clear view because I was the one on the gurney), I spent some time trying not to think about the multiple injections in my forehead, and musing about how many poems about hospitals I could think of. Off the top of my head, ironically enough. Or not. I struggled. Hilary Mantel writes brilliantly about the experience of being in hospital; Norman MacCaig’s Visiting hour says all I ever want to say about hospital visiting. And U.A.Fanthorpe cornered the market in poems about patients, and doctors and hospital administrators. But, I thought…there must be loads of others. And then could not bring any to mind. No doubt you’ll put me right. Or maybe I should just put out a request on Facebook and see what happens, beyond the humiliation of not knowing what everyone else will know.

Still. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in hospitals over the last 25 years. I’ve had large and small operations, unpleasantly invasive investigations into places I’d rather not think about. I’ve hallucinated in High Dependency wards, and I’ve sat with a boy in a coma in Intensive Care (it had a happy ending). I’ve spent 100s of hours visiting old, frail parents and in-laws in geriatric wards and nursing homes. And I’m vaguely surprised that I’ve actually written maybe a dozen ‘hospital poems’. But there must be memorable ones that I don’t know and really should. Or is it that folk resort to prose when it comes to writing about illness and hospitalisation (as opposed to birth and death)?

I find that when I look at what I’ve actually written, it seems that what bothers me about hospitals is not the physical experience, the small humiliations, the pain, the discomforts and so on. I prefer my poems to grit their teeth and soldier on, and not make a fuss. What intrigues me is the way that being in hospital is like being deported to a foreign country whose language you only vaguely understand. Like this.

By now I should know


all the brusque ways of medicine and healing.

I should be fluent. Tongue-tied instead,

in over-breathed warm air, in the clutter

of trolleys, by the cheese-faced women

in drab dressing gowns, by the swish

of curtainrings, by alien everyday routines;


by the purpose of all who move with urgency,

and by coffin- shaped people on gurneys

being briskly bundled into warehouse lifts

by stocky lads with tattooed darkhaired forearms

and pale blue plastic overshoes.


I should be fluent in the language

of consultants, their calm ways of telling me

there’s no need to worry, that the stats are on my side,

and that this or that procedure is routine.


As, indeed, it is, for them. It’s just a job,

the antiseptic disembowellings,

slicings, disjointings, sluicings, stitching up

the comatose, swapping stories of their gites

in the Algarve, the way an Audi service

costs a fortune, the unreliability

of au pairs and phones.


By now I should be fluent.


It’s all over my head

Patients smoke outside University College Hospital in central London

I’m back in tomorrow for a CAT scan. For some reason I’ve always felt comfortable in XRay departments. I take a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward with me. Guarantees conversation about literature…where I’m on safer ground. As I say, normal service resumes on Sunday, and I hope you’ll ll be there.