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.
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
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  £8.00