A Story

Read this and weep. Or take to the streets.

Roy Marshall

This morning the UK Secretary of state for health Jeremy Hunt has stated that the Chancellor will not grant a pay rise for nursing staff unless the NHS becomes more productive.  It is unclear to me how the productivity of the NHS is linked to pay of nursing staff. As a response I am posting my short story, Late, which covers a few hours in the life of a newly qualified nurse on a coronary care unit. Late was  previously published in Bare Fiction magazine and highly commended in their 2015 Fiction prize.

LATE

I love you even though I have a blood bag in one hand and a drip stand in the other and I should be concentrating on explaining the need for a transfusion to my patient who tells me he didn’t understand a word the doctor said. I’ve got to check the details on the bag against his notes…

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Clear vision, and a Polished Gem : Judith Willson

 

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We’ve been on Skye, as we have for 30 years at the end of October (and in a good year, the end of March). The first time I went I made no sense of it. It was too big, too extreme, too wild, too wet. Too much. Over the years it’s changed…by which I mean that I’ve changed. I’ve learned to look, to let it be.

As you learn to look, it all rapidly becomes not featureless at all. You rely on a rock outcrop to give you a rough line on where you’re going. You learn to avoid the bright green bits. And faced with a quarter of a mile of what looks like wet, boggy land that you can’t go round, you learn to see that sheep (and deer) being intelligent and helpful creatures, as well as creatures of habit, have made paths through the tussocky, reedy stuff. If the sun’s in your eyes, you can’t see them easily, but otherwise they’re clear. I’ve learned to love sheep tracks, not only for showing me the way across flat wet stuff, but over becks and burns in deep cut gullies and ghylls. Look for the bruise in the bracken, or the shine of small stones, and sooner or later you’ll find that they’ll take you to the spot where it’s easiest to cross running water, and the way up the other side. And they’ll take you to sheltered spots, too. Stands of silver birch and rowan, with a bit of turf to sit on. Desire paths. That’s what sheep make.

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What I’ve never noticed (or acknowledged) till this year is the sensory overload. My partner, Flo, who’s a painter, can be thrown by the prodigality of the light, its changeableness, but at least she’s working in the right medium. I’ve realised that despite taking all my notebooks and all my good intentions, I can’t write poems for toffee when I’m there. It’s as though the visual cortex takes over, trying to deal with the extravagance of scale and texture and distance…the sheer excitement of everything you look at, the speed at which images change, and the shifts of perspective and composition for every 10 or 20 metres you make up a hillside. The way you can be stopped in your tracks by coming across red deer in a stand of birches, or the line of a gull’s flight on the wind over Loch Eishort, or a sudden blaze of light coming aslant across Bla Bheinn, or……

The thing is, at the time, there’s no room for words, and later, too much that you decide has already been said, especially by Norman MacCaig and Sorley McLean. The bit of my brain that deals with words has turned to mush, and the rest of it is concentrated on weather and route finding, and trying to ignore the fact that one ankle has equally turned to mush, and that I can’t walk as far as I could or as far as I’d like. I can’t get enough of Skye, and at any given moment it will always be too much. That’s how it is, and to be honest, I wouldn’t change a scintilla of it. Because it surprises, always. Take the  odd image at the top of the page. I’ve passed it scores of times, but a big squall off the loch stopped me by it and I looked for the first time. It’s the skeleton of something piscine that apparently would come inshore to browse on whelks. Sometime in the 19thC this one got itself stranded. I don’t want to do anything about it. I’m just glad I actually saw it. Just as it’s lovely to be not quite sure of where you are, and to come over a moor top and find a familiar road shining like a silver river.

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Which, one way or another, bring us to today’s guest, because here’s a poet who reminds me that there’s clarity and quiet and precision to be had in poetry. You just need to learn to wait. And learn a craft.

I met Judith Willson for the first time at one of the Monday night workshop session at the Albert Poets in Huddersfield (regular readers may become fed up of reading this particular line, but it’s unavoidable) and was immediately taken by two things. One was the precision she brings to her writing. There is a precise craft that is also fluent, never stiff or artificial. It’s that kind. The other thing was the sensory quality..texture, light, shape, space. Painterly and musical. I think the first poem I remember workshopping with her was this one that appeared in The Rialto later….it was the title and the first stanza that nailed it.

Julie’s boat is in the field behind my house

A gale’s punched the sheets on the line all day, now they’re fighting out of my arms
to get back to the brawl and there’s Julie’s boat on the crest of the field
goose-winging into the slap of rain, prow sheering high
over a hawthorn reef.

There’s a detailed critique of the whole poem that does more justice to the writing than I think I can. Here’s the link.

https://www.therialto.co.uk/pages/2016/03/04/julies-boat-is-the-field-behind-my-house/

At which point you might leave the cobweb and forget to come back. Of course, if you do, you’ll be missing more lovely writing. Let’s meet Judith, shall we?

Judith was born in London and grew up in Manchester. She now lives in a village near Hebden Bridge. She spent some years as an English teacher, but most of her career has been spent in book and journal publishing, initially as a freelance copyeditor, then in a series of in-house editorial and production roles.

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She’s been very generous with her time and work, and I like the synergy of my coming home with my mind full of blurred edges and morphing sensory images to what Judith says about her writing:

I am interested in blurred edges and porous borders: the illusory doubleness of reflections and repetitions; estuaries that are both / neither land and sea. Places where boundaries between past and present are thin and unstable, their meanings constantly remade. Short-sighted since early childhood, I have always been fascinated by optical tricks and illusions, the slipperiness of what we think we see. You can make the world wobble like stage scenery if you tilt your glasses; a new lens prescription will make a startling difference to how you perceive contours and distances in the short interval before your eyes adapt. Much of what I write seems to return to ‘seeing’ as transformation and interpretation.

And then there’s language. I don’t have any special linguistic skills, but in hindsight I think one of the most useful steps I ever took towards becoming a writer was to slog away for two years trying to learn Arabic. Sadly, I hardly remember any of it now, but what has stayed with me is the impact of entering a language whose fabric was so radically unlike any European language I was familiar with. It was a new lens. I like poems that have the textures of other languages in them, and the unsettling effect that a translated poem can have when nothing in the language feels inevitable. I occasionally try translating poems, usually when I don’t feel I have much to write about. It’s the best way I know of refocusing my attention on language and form.

I’m fascinated by borders in a quite literal way, too. The wonderful poet Roy Fisher wrote ‘Birmingham’s what I think with.’ I have never written from that sort of identification with a place, although I admire many poets who do. I am drawn to write about places that aren’t ‘home’: transits, places where languages and cultures rub against each other. Border cities, ports, outposts. Or lost places made strange by memory, imprinted with the layered traces of what has passed across them.

These are ideas that I think I will be exploring further. At the moment I’m drifting in post-book slack water. Two sequences are at a very tentative, doodling stage. One has a working title ‘Translations of the word after from languages I do not speak’. I’m beginning to think about how to write a kind of irrecoverable narrative full of traces, glimpses and fragments. It could just evaporate (appropriately enough) or develop into something else.

 

 

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The alchemy of circumstance and chemistry in five photographs

 

Tacita Dean’s Blind Pan’

 

[Exile, no sun]

This is a photograph of twenty years. There are no people

in it, and no shadows. He carries this famine

on his back; he carries his country in his mouth

and it has no word in it for home, no proverb of forgetting.

 

 

[Antigone leading, dark clouds]

Walking under rain. Who was your father? Gunfire in villages,

dogs at the gates. What does her voice look like?

Like the weight of her coat. Like bread. Like Take my hand,

walk in my footsteps. No. Who was your father? Like rain.

 

 

[Furies, ‘your steps are dark’]

Forests run howling for water; air shredded, wingbeats.

She cannot look into the burning, curls under herself

as if she were unborn. Walk in my footsteps. Her hand.

He leads her over the border, into dark, out of sight.

 

 

[Colonus, just out of frame]

Halting. Halt where a spring overflowing a basin

returns his face to him in silver and sunlight slipping over the brim

through wet, open hands. He sees the place when he knows it.

No one can look directly at the sun.

 

 

[Light. End here]

It begins, no way back, in a dark room, something taking

the imprint of light. In this photograph are constellations,

musics, scribbled maps; our chancy travel across peopled time.

And there is no exposure long enough to make this visible.

 

 

 

‘The alchemy of circumstance and chemistry in five photographs’ is a response to a set of five photographs that make up Tacita Dean’s ‘Blind Pan’. Dean’s title alludes to a panning shot, to the blindness of Oedipus, perhaps to the fact that the photographs seem almost empty of content – just five black and white photographs of a featureless moorland. Dean has over-written the photographs with instructions, as if the photographs were a storyboard for a film about Oedipus and his daughter, in exile, travelling across the landscape to Oedipus’ death. The viewer, looking from left to right across the five frames, creates the imagined journey. The poem’s form and language echo the five stills of the artwork. I wanted to create spaces a reader could move through without a context being over-specified. In each stanza there is a blind place, a negation, an invisibility but also, I hope, a dark room where images take shape.

  1. 3/5

 

Noctilucent

 

We cross the garden: late sun, evening’s slack tide.

He is remembering woods below San Pietro, the ragged end of a war.

Soldier and red-cloaked shepherd meeting on the road,

the old man calling his dog, waiting in the white road.

He watches how it goes on happening, the time it takes

to wade knee-deep in dazzle

towards the soft chalk curve between the trees.

The red cloak burned in his eyes. His hand, unsure.

 

He says, If a person walking raises his hand

he sees the shadow of each finger doubled.

 

Trees slide down to lap us, attentive to our solitudes

until the hollow dark is filled with memory of light –

fluorescence, phosphor glow, poppies’ slow burn.

Ghostlights to guide our double-going.

 

‘Noctilucent’ is a scientific term meaning ‘night-shining’, used of flowers, for example, that glow in the dark. The poem evolved very slowly. I first drafted it as a retelling of an incident that had been told to me. It wasn’t a story that had any point or consequence; it was just a meeting that lasted minutes, which had been remembered for sixty years. Early drafts struggled with this. I couldn’t see how the poem could go anywhere. I invented and padded, then did too much research. Many drafts in, I realised that the centre of the poem wasn’t the incident itself, but the memory of it. There was something mythic to me, archetypal, in the meeting of soldier and shepherd: the poem found its form as a sonnet. I have broken open the formal structure at the point where the memory breaks off at a slant.”

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

What can I say to or about all this? Well there’s a hint, isn’t there, about the point where memory breaks off at a slant. I get the sense that you need to immerse yourself and, probably, over-learn, before  the moment arrives when a slant light reveals a shape you need, or an image or an idea that anchors a poem or a sequence. In the meantime I can savour the moments that draw you in, the moments that seem to be memorising themselves as you see them for the first time. Moments like these:

 

a spring overflowing a basin

returns his face to him in silver and sunlight

I love the way this elides a precisely photographic image with the slightly out of focus memories of myth, the half-remembered story of Narcissus which may or may not be intended.

and this

he sees the place when he knows it

that’s how I want feel about last week. Why does it stop me, bring me up short? Because of that quietly understated reversal that you hardly notice, but which demands your attention by puzzling you.

And then I like this line that drops me back where I was at one point last week, in a birchwood where I’d just seen two young red deer, and remembering how it felt

to wade knee-deep in dazzle.

Finally, these two lines for their enormous resonance in a world of the displaced and abused millions …and also for the gap between the meanings we sometimes think we want to make, but cannot make at this moment, right now.

he carries his country in his mouth

and it has no word in it for home, no proverb of forgetting.

 

Judith Willson: thank you for not only sharing your poems but showing us ways of reading them. The least we can do is to buy the collection that she refers to when she wrote: At the moment I’m drifting in post-book slack water. This is it. Buy it.

MirrorLine cover

Carcanet Press, Limited26 Oct 2017 – 80 pages £9.99

Praise for Judith Willson: ‘Judith Willson’€™s poetry takes us, in a dazzling flow of images, to lives which have the solidity of Central European fairytale with all the frightening reality of history behind them. Richly inventive in form and precise in tone, this is an amazingly assured debut collection.’ 
Elaine Feinstein 

Postscript

While you’re waiting for the book to arrive in the post, if you live anywhere near Calderdale, you can hear Judith reading her work…she’s the guest poet for November at the Puzzle Poets Live in Sowerby Bridge. Nov. 6th, 8.00pm at The Shepherd’s Rest. There’s a great open mic, too.

 

Rainy day women

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It’s been raining much of the night. There’s water running down the road, and the cliffs by Boreraig are streaked white. The moor will be sopping, and walking sloppy. So it’s a morning indoors while the the rain blows itself east and things dry out a bit. Thirty years ago when we first started to come to Skye there would be frost at the end of October and always snow on the Cuillin and on Bla Bheinn…in two days, I’ve yet to see them this year,the cloud low-hanging.

Yesterday afternoon it cleared down here by the seashore..dry enough for a wander. I met a chap who wasn’t quite sure of where things were or went. He asked me where was the best place to see ‘the otters’. I was on the point of saying ‘on a calendar’ but bit it back. The thing is, in thirty years I’ve yet to see one. I’ve sat for hours in the hide at Kylereah and seen a lot of seals and even more kelp. In the cluster of cottages where we stay at Ord, the residents complain about them. They tend to come off the shore in winter and shelter in the spaces under the houses. The bring fish with them.What they don’t eat rots and stinks. I still haven’t seen one. I didn’t tell the chap this, either.I pointed out the rocks about half a mile along the shore where I’ve been told I’d be guaranteed to see at least a couple. I didn’t tell him that I hadn’t, but he looked disappointed, as though the half mile was an unsurmountable obstacle, and wandered back in the direction he’d come from.

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Five years ago I was staying here with my youngest son, and his mate Steve, who’s a professional cameraman. He’d driven up from London eager to try out his very expensive new camera. On a brilliant clear morning with a mediterranean sky we drove up to Glen Brittle, walked up by Eas Mhor, the biggest waterfall on Skye…full of of white water…..and up into Coire Lagan. 2000ft up from the shore, a mini lochan in a volcanic bowl surrounded by a 275 degree amphitheatre of 1000ft cliffs and scree. The view to the Outer Islands was astonishing and lovely. When we got back some hours later, he wanted another walk, so I sent him off along the shore. An hour or so later he was back.

“Do you get a lot of otters round here?” he asks, his camera full of images of a family of them doing tricks and dance routines. There again, there are folk who’ve been to Skye many times, usually in the summer, and never seen the Cuillin completely clear of mist.  Anyway, here’s a poem I wote for Steve. I couldn’t quite keep the bitterness out of it.

 

A watched pot

 

You can watch all day for an otter

among the delusions of kelp;

if you think you’ve seen an eagle

odds-on it’s a buzzard;

for days, in the Glen, The Cuillin

could be there, but all you’ll know

is blown grey mists and ghosts.

 

So, that time on Am Mam

as I eyed the two miles down

to the shore, when the eagle came

unlooked for, below me, and not gold

but matt brown in the smirr,

freewheeling on the wind,

why would I fumble for a camera,

drop pack and gloves, faff about,

when I could just be still and stand

and watch, try to see, remember?

 

When I looked up it was a mile away,

vanishing into Bla Bheinn’s flank

like a thrum in a bolt of tweed.

 

Young Steve: first time on Skye,

hikes by Eas Mhor – a hundred feet

of bridal lace and champagne flutes –

Corrie Lagan crisp edged, gun-metal blue

under a cerulean sky without a cloud;

photographs an otter family in the bladderwrack

not five minutes from the house.

 

Well, good luck to him, I think.

It’s the metaphor that bothers me.

A watched pot never boils. Fine.

Don’t watch the pot. But when

the pot boils dry? What then?

 

(first published 2014 in Running out of space . See the My Books link)

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If the weather turns fair, there’ll be no more posts from Ord. And if it turns foul, there’ll be more Rainy Day Women. Win-win situation.

 

You can go home now: hospital poems (16)……the epilogue

 

Last hospital post. A stay in hospital is invariably disconcerting, often uncomfortable, invariably filled with periods of boredom and irritability. But the routines,(and the odd surrealism of its being normality for the amazing folk who actually work there, day in and day out), are sometimes punctuated by moments of pure comedy, and sometimes by things that are utterly and joyously memorable. So here’s my favourite memory of a ten day stay in Dewsbury General. There’s a back story to this that I’ll keep to the end

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Confidence trick

 

Here is never quiet, quite,

nor dark  enough for sleep.

Urgency and purpose

are never reassuring —

 

like this castanet clatter

of curtain rings, the flourishing

of  fabric that tents an empty bed;

white coats, blue-belted nurses

that come in a flurried huddle,

like bees, and, in a sudden,

pull aside the screens. And go.

 

A wonder sits in a bubble of light,

immaculate in white.His wide sleeves

fall as easily as water from his wrists;

he winds and winds a turban,

his fingers long and tapered, the ribbon

like a stream..  He is quite at ease.

 

He sits cross-legged, his knees, his calves

flat on the sheets, his feet,

pale-soled, together like a prayer.

 

He is alien and beautiful. A hawk.

His beard is silver-frosted,

eyes dark, his face sun-black.

 

Here are red and ochre mountains,

ash, the tang of woodsmoke, juniper,

and dung. Here is dust and stone,

hot wind, kites, a huge white sky.

 

No-one know why he is here

or how to speak his language.

No-one knows how old he is.

He knows  how to be still.

 

Next morning

his bed’s been stripped,

and he has vanished.

For me, the magic, trick or not,

was real . I wish him well.

 

[Unpublished. Till now]

magic

 

 

I should acknowledge lifting the last line from Douglas Dunn’s ‘Terry Street’..the poem about the guy somewhere down the Hessle Road, pushing a lawnmower in the street. ‘That man, I wish him grass’.

The character in the poem turned up in the middle of the night. His installation seemed to involve most of the hospital night staff. Because you’re drugged up a lot of the time, you assume it’s a dream. But next morning, there he is, as described in the poem. For three days he taxed the ingenuity of all the hospital staff, who tried him on Arabic, Hindi, Panjabi, Pashtun and a range of other languages..all to no avail. And then he was gone. I missed him enormously. He was, simply, a visual delight. It turned out he was a con man who had been working his way around the hospitals of East and West Yorkshire. It seems even now a ridiculously complicated way of blagging free bed and board.

 

So that’s it . Thank you to all our guests for their time and their poems xx Thanks:

Bob Horne, Neil Clarkson, Charlotte Ansell, Ian Harker, Becky Cherriman, Rose Drew, Hilary Elfick, Lydia Macpherson, Andy Humphrey, Keith Hutson, Christopher North, Maria Taylor, Andy Blackford, Rebecca Gethin and Joe Williams

And thanks and ever thanks to the wonderful thing that is the NHS.

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ps.

There will now be an intermission of some days. Next post should be  Oct30th..

 

 

How are you feeling now? Hospital poems (15)

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I’d decided that there would be just one more guest post in this series. But yesterday, by a strange kind of synergy, under an ominous grey sky with a very small dull red sun, I went off to St James’ Infirmary (there’s a Blues sung specially for it, you know) and the incredibly light and beautifully designed Oncology Dept. It has a big spacious atrium, and there’s a Baby Grand at which a succession of absorbed pianists tinkle soothing things throughout the day. There’s lovely looking fruit stall, and as a bonus yesterday, Macmillan Charity workers were selling the most staggeringly more-ish selection of homemade cakes you could shake a stick at. Up on the next floor in Nuclear Medicine I drank lots of water and then went along corridors with infinite perspectives to a a white room with a scanner straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was beyond white. It was very very white. Before that, in the waiting room, I read a lot of Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica. It’s astonishing. And I read three poems Rebecca Gethin sent me. And here are two of them. No explanation needed.

1.

Coming round :  Rebecca Gethin

 

I was breaching frost-cold water

but which was me and which was water

I couldn’t tell, the current drawing

what seemed to be a mind

further down to open sea

where taste was brackish,

vision salt and smarting

 

and my limbs moved

in the fallingfeeling

lived in its breathlessness,

but I breathed through its pounding

as though breasting

its tugging and pulling

by lying within it,

resting on its will.

 

2.

 

En route   

 

Corridors are like tunnels –

turns to left, right, right, left –

 

the blue line I was told to follow

is one among several

and other people flow along different ones,

their footsteps tapping –

 

a white corridor with an electricbuzz

lies before me.  I am tipped downhill

past a chapel with a cross on the door,

Oncology at the bottom

 

and still further on towards

Nuclear Medicine.

More edges and corners

to a cul de sac –

 

the waiting room.  Windowless.

Were it not for all the people waiting

the room would be empty.

 

We wait on the cushions

of our shadows.  Our names

pull each one through the door alone.

 

Rebecca Gethin  won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award with her first novel, Liar Dice, which was published in 2011. Her first poetry collection, River is the Plural of Rain, was published by Oversteps Books in 2009 and was followed by a second collection, A Handful of Water, with Cinnamon Press in 2013. What the Horses Heard is her latest novel and was published in May 2014. Her two latest collections are A Sprig of Rowan  [Three Drops Press], and All the time in the world  [ published in Feb 2017 :Cinnamon Press]

 

Last hospital post tomorrow. That’s definite.

How are you feeling now? Hospital poems (14)

handle with care

They can do wonders in the NHS. No question. But as singers through the ages have told us there are things they can’t do. Leonard Cohen was clear enough:

 

“..I can’t believe that time is
Gonna heal this wound I’m speaking of
There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love”

 

and Robert Palmer offered the prognosis

 

“… you like to think that you’re immune to the stuff, oh yeah
It’s closer to the truth to say you can’t get enough
You know you’re gonna have to face it, you’re addicted to love”

 

Which brings us nicely to our penultimate guest poet of this tour of the worlds and wards of the hospital

 

 

Endoscopy : Joe Williams

 

My doctor sent me

to have an endoscopy.

 

The instruments they used

made me gag and retch,

 

and in the end they said

they couldn’t find anything wrong with me,

 

that the burning in my guts

was probably just love,

 

and there was nothing they could do

about that.

 

 

Joe Williams is a writer and performing poet from Leeds. He tells tales of lost love, people in pubs, and how not to dispose of the bodies of family members, with the occasional moment of crushing heartbreak just to keep you on your toes. His debut poetry pamphlet, Killing the Piano, was published by Half Moon Books in September 2017.

ps He is also this year’s poetry slam/open mic champion at Ilkley Literature festival…..as from last night!

 

On writing sequences: with guests Keith Hutson, Steve Ely and Pascale Petit

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For the last 18 months I’ve been more or less bogged down, stalled, stymied – call it what you like. It started with a reading I heard at the Red Shed in Wakefield, a group performance by the Sandal Writers. It was a compilation, something on the lines of a radio ballad, about a pit disaster at Lofthouse Colliery near Wakefield in 1972. I can’t explain why it stuck, why it bothered me, why it generated random images and narratives. I just know that I wanted to/had to write about it. Which is when the the problem of The Sequence wandered into my head and won’t wander out.

I’m not even sure what I mean by ‘a sequence’ beyond the feeling that I want to write about a particular something and that one poem won’t do…and possibly not six or ten. How many poems does it have to be before it’s ‘a sequence’? When I published my first pamphlet it was simply a case of organising poems I’d written into some kind of order, with a suggestion of a beginning, a middle and an end. Subsequently I found I’d written sequences by accident, the unintended consequence of undeclared passion or obsession. My second pamphlet, Backtracks is a back to front narrative, Poems that tell the story of me, my parents and grandparents. Anyone can do that. It’s a given. There were other poems that became what I’d call ‘groups’..poems about one of my sons, about the Macpherson’s of Achnacloich, about the Norsemen and the NE Coast of England, about the Greek and Roman pantheons.

And then there were the problematic ones…the deliberately conceived sequences. For instance, when I was half-heartedly doing an MA in Creative Writing I determined to write a sequence about the Highland Clearances as they affected the Isle of Skye. I read a lot, and I went on a good many walks to clearance sites like Suishnish and Boreraig (including another kind of dereliction in the remains of an abandoned marble quarry). But the places didn’t fit my preconceived emotional narrative. I went looking for ghosts and found none. I wrote a handful of poems, but not the ‘sequence’ I thought was there, somewhere.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)

Then there was the late 19th C painter John Waterhouse…I’ve always liked that late-post-pre-Raphaelite sort of painting based on poems and myths and fables. I was fascinated by the fact that one face turns up in painting after painting. There’s no conclusive proof, but it’s supposed the model was a Miss Muriel Foster. I spent nearly two years reading all I could find about it all. I was intrigued by the idea of a triangular relationship between the artist, his model and his wife (who was also a painter). In the end I wrote four poems, and realised that it needed a novel and that either A S Byatt or Jill Dawson or Hilary Mantel should have written it. I think that what it comes down to is something Helen Mort said to me…something on the lines that you can MAKE a poem be, but it won’t be any good. Pretty much what Keats said about poetry needing to come as naturally as leaves to the tree’. And I guess that applies to ‘sequences’, too.

Anthony Gormley's Terracotta Figures Return To Their Birthplace

And then there were the sculptures. I worked for a few years in a college in the grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and every day I’d pass Elizabeth Frink’s ‘Seated man‘ and Michael Ayrton’s Minotaur. I got in the habit of passing the time of day with the seated man, and conceived the notion that these great sculptures contained the souls of the famously transgressive and of fallen angels. Bit by bit, mainly because I really wanted to experiment with ‘voices’, I wrote enough fallen angel poems to fill a pamphlet. They are all dramatic monologues. Queen Victoria speaks in the style of Emily Dickinson, The Angel of the North in Miltonic blank verse. A lot of the poems involve pastiche. I enjoyed that, and it became a book, but I still wonder if it’s the real deal. I know I like performing them, and I know that the idea of the narrative voice was the key that opened the door. But when it comes the seven men killed in the Lofthouse Disaster (six never recovered) the key is elusive. A few weeks ago I went on a writing week in which I hoped there’d be a tutor who might help me find that key. I was disappointed. Worse, I felt as though I’d had my legs kicked out from under…I almost persuaded myself that it was a foolish notion, and indeed, that I should possibly give up the whole writing business. I’m over that self-pitying stuff now, but what helped enormously was to bite a bullet and get the chutzpah to ask poets I admire if they’d share their experience. Particularly, I asked three poets who write recognizable and wonderful sequences…..especially I asked them this

I’ve been struggling with a writing project. I’ve got shedloads of material…I’ve been assembling that for well over a year. What I can’t manage at the moment is to find a place to stand and say: we start here. I’m convinced that could come about in a trice. A phrase, an idea for a holding form, a structure, a phrase, a refrain. It doesn’t matter how.

Now, I’m not asking for help with this, so you can say ‘phew’ and keep reading. What may clear my mind though is to write a blog post for the great fogginzo’s cobweb in which I explore the issues of writing ‘sequences’, for want of a better word.

I’m particularly interested in the fact that each of you have done substantial amounts of research into a reality that absorbs and excites and energises you. It may be a blind roadmaker, your forebears who you trace to the banks of the Tyne, Amazonia, medieval priests and criminals, or half-forgotten musical acts.

At some point you had to make a decision, or one was made for you. Where do I start? What’s the language, the structure, the voice of the teller….there comes a moment, as I found in writing about, say fallen angels, when you see a way through.

Would you be prepared to share some thoughts about the experience? A paragraph would do…or maybe it wouldn’t. It’ll make its own mind up, won’t it?

So, here they are, each one identifying a different way into, a way of shaping, what they urgently wanted to say. I’ve learned a remarkable amout from them, and I hope you will too.

Keith Hutson: On research and poetic form

routines

Here’s my response to your request. By all means share it with the others if you wish:

I’ve now written over 100 sonnets about music hall and variety performers, 30 of which have been published in a Poetry Salzburg pamphlet (Routines), more to be in a forthcoming Laureate’s Choice pamphlet, (Troupers). Quite a lot have been in journals and some have been placed etc in comps. And I’m going for 140 for a future full collection, Revival. So you could say I like sequences!

 

WHAT GOT ME STARTED? This is a subject that interests and excites me. That, for any sequence, is essential I think. You have to have a passion about your subject. You have to want to research it because you like getting lost in it, totally absorbed by it. I had an uncle who, when I was a kid, took me up and down the country to watch performers (comics mainly but other acts too) many in the twilight of their careers. I was too young to appreciate them, but something stuck – the theatre atmosphere, the audience reaction, the fascinating otherness of this world, the joy and suspense of it. As a young man with a love of comedy I became a Coronation Street scriptwriter and a gag writer for a lot of comedians – and from the wings I watched a lot of greats performing, holding an audience, sweating but not seeming to, staking so much of themselves on the night’s performance. This, to them, was life and death. I bloody loved it. So, as a poet with a desire to write a sustained body of work about one subject, this was right up my street.

 

WHERE TO BEGIN? The problem is, the wealth of material for any sequence can be overwhelming, it can cause paralysis. I focused on one person, Tommy Trinder, then intensified that focus further, to his catchphrase, You Lucky People. Then I thought, I’ll try to capture the essence of the man, his world, the people he entertained, but not as biog – biog can be boring. A poem should transcend its subject, shouldn’t it? But what form should this first poem take? Well, as I was essentially writing a love poem, and I wanted to keep it intense, concentrated, and to showcase a traditional performer, I thought ‘why not a fairly traditional, strict form sonnet for this first poem?’ People like Trinder performed routines. A sonnet is like a little routine. So I didn’t start writing to see where I ended up, I deliberately set out to write a sonnet. If you’re interested, here it is

 

You Lucky People

i.m. Tommy Trinder 1909-1989

 

One simple line and you could tread the boards

for years. Nobody cared it made no sense,

it was the look, the timing, not the words

that packed them in twice-nightly. And the chance

to mock some spot-lit nincompoop who seemed

more desperate than them – which made a change:

back then most buggers looked like they’d seen

better days. They hadn’t. So, in droves, we came

each season, scrubbed and buffed, to scoff, but dream

too: heavy-handed lives on hold, we’d bask

inside the twinkle of a grin, a glance;

industriously bellow out the laughs;

gaze up at more ridiculous routines

than ours. A softer kind of song and dance.

 

WHERE NEXT? I thought, right, I like the sonnet form for my artistes, so I’ll set myself the challenge of sticking to sonnets for, say, half a dozen more poems. But who to write about next? And do I stick to a combination of light comment about the performer with a broader social or personal comment? Yes, I thought, because I don’t want this to be a trip down memory lane by an anorak who wants to corner you and bore for England. I then read, and made notes, from several books, and also mined my memory for impressions of people I’d seen, heard about, worked with. I love research, it’s voluntary learning. I left school at sixteen and have been playing educational catch-up since, so I crave information, knowledge, and I want to lose myself in worlds. So, I knew I wanted to write sonnets, and I knew what about, and I didn’t care if anyone else liked them or not, I just wanted to do it. For me, strict form in poetry is a strait-jacket made by angels – it gives me the chance to be liberated by discipline, so I see the sonnet, terza rima, ballade, whatever, as my friends. But the doubt as to whether I could sustain the sonnet form again and again, and (though with variety) make them recognizable sonnets not just 14-line poems, both made me anxious and determined.

 

100 sonnets later, I’m still at it. It is a labour of love. It doesn’t feel like effort. So I’d say this about any sequence:

  1. Love your subject
  2. Keep it narrow and let it widen naturally.
  3. Don’t write biog (or not exclusively anyway)
  4. Don’t be frightened of humour (a lot of mine are funny and light)
  5. Don’t try to show off your knowledge, it puts people off.
  6. Research, research, research.
  7. Don’t care what people think about your poems, Know that what you’re doing has value because it has value to you.
  8. But you must entertain, in the broadest sense, or it becomes self-absorbed, and there’s too much of that in poetry – that’s why it’s a minority sport audience-wise.
  9. Why not try to stick to one form, at least to get you started? Push yourself.
  10. If you get bored with it, your readers will get bored too. Anyone can write a sequence, the ones that work do so because the poet cares about them and has the ability to convert that care into the right words.

 

Steve Ely : on voice and persona…who tells the story?

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Hi John

I organised my third book of poems, Incendium Amoris, around the figure of Richard Rolle, the 14th century hermit and mystic.  Rolle suited my purposes because he was associated with the Cistercian Priory of Hampole, which is located in my natal Barnsdale landscape, which remains an enduring obsession.  My previous two books had written public, political poetry out of that landscape.  I wanted my third book to reflect a more personal, autobiographical engagement.  Further, Rolle’s mystical writings are charged with an earthy carnality – his relationships, with God, women and the created order are often erotic in both the technical and popular senses of that word.  That suited me as well – my earliest concept of the book was that it was going to be about ‘shagging down the fields’.  I suppose I reinvented Richard to suit my purposes (and partially in my image) and used his life, writings and landscape to unify, inform and perhaps soften the guerilla-pastoral idiom that wouldn’t be suppressed and broke out anyway.

Mama-Amazonica-cover-with-PBS-Choice-192x300

 

Pascale Petit : On sequence and motif in Mama Amazonica 

 

My books grow organically, and Mama Amazonica grew very much like the Amazon rainforest it explores. But I can say that there was a single poem that set it all off, though I didn’t know it at the time, and this title poem ‘Mama Amazonica’ was slow and painful to write, laborious even. But there seemed to be an energy in it that was new, so I persisted, even though it felt like one of those experiments that will probably not work. I showed an early draft to my husband, who is my first reader, and he encouraged me, and suggested I could expand it. He was excited by it and this made me more confidant. At the heart of the poem, and indeed the whole book, is the central image of the poem, of a huge waterlily in a slow Amazonian backwater, the water still and sluggish, the drama unfolding of the lily’s sex life, which involves pollination by beetles. I compulsively watched every time-lapse video of this extraordinary process. The lily is my mother and she is in a psychiatric ward undergoing deep sleep therapy, remembering meeting my father.

 

To write the rest of the book – all 112 pages (and there were many more poems I discarded) – I would concentrate on the lily in that backwater, like a trance. I didn’t yet know why, but by the time I had written eight more poems I began to see that for once in my life I was writing about my mother tenderly. The poems express love, as well as terror of her and of what she suffered. It astonishes me that I have created a book in which I love my mother. I did not love her and she did not love me. This felt important, to have an artefact in which our relationship was transformed.

 

So I suppose what I’m saying is that the whole sequence grew out of one powerful feeling, trancelike, filmic, a moving image of a flower in time-lapse motion that is apart from ordinary life and ordinary time. I did not think the book through analytically or consciously even, just let the images grow, and the feelings that are also colours and sensations and pictures. Because the book records what happened to her when she met my father, the tragedy unfolds chronologically, and that’s roughly how the book is ordered, like a story told in pictures and sculptures.

 

I hope this helps? I suspect we all have different ways of compiling a sequential collection, but I try to do what what Rilke advises, to search within myself  to find my way, “Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write”.

 

Sometimes life gives you riches just for the asking. I feel a bit like one of those naive characters (usually girls…the male equivalents are often ‘fools’ or guizers) in folk tales  who set off into the forests and thickets and are given things of power that help them to survive and flourish. The possible keys to the kingdom. Form. Voice. Image/motif. I’m glad it’s three, if only for the sake of narrative convention.

I’ve looked back over some recent posts and find I’ve been teasing this strand out for some time. A reminder, then, of other ‘keys’ to sequences that I’ve considered. Kim Moore’s work in progress ‘All the men I never married’ tells you that the key could actually be a title! (and there’s her sequence at the heart of The Art of falling where the key is the mythic narratives of metamorphosis). Ruth Valentine and Christy Ducker show you that alpabetical order can be a key. Jane Kite uses the timeline of an imagined family as a key. The answer for you might be to find a narrator or to build a chronology. And how about objects. I’m attracted by the title of a book on my shelf as I look up: A history of the world in twelve maps. And also by Uncommon ground which is a list sequence of dialect names for landscape features..one page for each and an accompanying photo, organised geographically from the SW to the very far North.

Whatever, the basic problem will be that an interest became an enthusiam or an obsession, that involved research, that eventually needed to be given some sort of poetic shape. If I think a sequence is anything, I think it’s something that involved you in research. Or maybe not.

Thanks for reading all the way through. Thanks and ever thanks to Keith Hutson, Steve Ely and Pascale Petit for their time and amazing generosity. The least you can do is buy their books. If by a miracle you’ve not read their work before, a bibliography follows, and also links to Keith and to Steve in some earlier posts.

 

Pascale Petit’s Poetry

Icefall Climbing pamphlet (Smith Doorstop, 1994)

Heart of a Deer (Enitharmon, 1998)

Tying the Song Co-editor with Mimi Khalvati (Enitharmon, 2000)

The Zoo Father (Seren, 2001)

El Padre Zoológico/The Zoo Father (El Tucan, Mexico City, 2004)

The Huntress (Seren, 2005)

The Wounded Deer: Fourteen poems after Frida Kahlo pamphlet (Smith Doorstop, 2005)

The Treekeeper’s Tale (Seren, 2008)

What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo (Seren, UK, 2010, Black Lawrence Press, US, 2011)

Poetry from Art at Tate Modern editor, pamphlet (Tate Publications, 2010)

Fauverie (Seren, 2014)

Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe, 2017)

 

Steve Ely’s Poetry , Fiction, and Biography

Steve Ely has published four books of poetry,

Englaland (Smokestack Books, 2015)

Oswald’s Book of Hours (Smokestack Books, 2013).

Werewolf (Calder valley Poetry 2016)

Incendium Amoris (Smokestack 2017)

He’s also published a novel,

Ratmen (Blackheath Books, 2012),

and a biographical work,

Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made in Mexborough (Palgrave MacMillan, 2015).

 

Keith Hutson

 His poems, apart from those in his current pamphlet, have been published in just about every poetry magazine and journal you can think of..including, recently, The Manhattan Review

Two posts involving Steve Ely’s work (and, ironically enough, some thoughts about sequences. I’d forgotten that)

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2017/03/19/on-sequences-and-a-gem-revisited-steve-ely/

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/08/30/knowing-your-place-a-polished-gem-8-steve-ely/

 

and two involving Keith Hutson

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/02/28/stand-up-a-polished-gem-3-keith-hutson/

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2017/07/16/through-the-looking-glass-1-and-a-gem-revisited-keith-hutson/