A church full of trees and a Polished Gem: Sue Vickerman


Sunday Dec 1oth : 12.30

This time last week I  was heading out of Pickering, not on my usual route to Whitby, past the Hole of Horcum and over Fylingdales Moor (which is as close to flying as you get in a car) but by Rosedale, through villages in the tight little valleys that were still full of snow and snowmen. Proper snowmen, with twig arms and carrot noses and scarves and c aps…they do things right in the Dales. Then up over the Castleton Road, with its endless horizons, and glimpses of distant grey sea, to stop and visit The Seated Man. I’ve wanted to see him ever since pictures of him started to turn up on social media. Over 3 metres high, cast in bronze and painted in what seems to be enamel…..sitting on his campstool with his satchel on his knees, looking out over Westerdale.

It’s hard to tell what he’s thinking. For me he was thinking that he’s got miles to go before he sleeps. Perhaps it was because I was trying to shake off a cold, and I was heading off to a writing week, and thinking that maybe I had nothing that I especially wanted to say;  there was a cold wind, and though it’s an easy half mile walk over the moor, it was wet and mucky, and I felt as though the batteries had all run down. Whatever. The seated man has the air of one who does what he sets his mind to. It might be hard, and he might not feel like it, but it needs to be done and it will be. I think he will be my role model.

So off I went to Whitby, worrying about whether I’d write anything worth a tinker’s toss, and equally, about Christmas, about things done and not done in preparation, and the annual resentment of supermarkets all tinselled up in November…all that. And then you walk into a church full of christmas trees and lights, and you watch a sunset through the dark ruins of the abbey, and stare at the grey sea running and breaking white, and everything’s fine. You might write. You might not. It doesn’t matter, because the world is complicatedly wonderful, and doesn’t care whether you write anything or not. It’s just that if you worry about the writing, you’ll miss what’s going on. Eliot had it nailed down. You have the experience but miss the meaning. Let it be.


I had a nice week with people I like a lot, came home, and yesterday  bought a Christmas tree, trimmed it to fit in its base, and we got all the Christmas trimmings down from the Christmas cupboard. The house is full of coloured light, and I cannot understand how grumpy I felt a week ago. The Seated Man understands….just do it. It’ll be right.

So, enough with the ‘what I did on my holidays’, and on with what you come here for, which is poems and poets. I met today’s guest, Sue Vickerman, when we were guest poets at the Beehive Poets in Bradford in early November. I didn’t know her, or about her, or her work. How that could be, I have no idea…..I don’t get out out and about enough, I suppose. What I do know is that I liked her voice and her poems; I liked the moments that draw you in. The moments that make you want to buy the book and hear it all again. As it happens, Sue’s newest pamphlet Adventus could not be better timed….because it’s an Advent collection, and a lot more sustaining than an advent calendar with cheap chocolate behind the doors. As we shall see. But let me introduce her.

She was born in Bradford and has lived on four continents. She spent five years in a remote Scottish lighthouse where two of her poetry collections Shag and The social decline of the oystercatcher came into being. She has supervised the publication of Kunst, a poetry collection by her invented protegee, the erratic poet and life-model Suki;  Sue has co-written a third poetry collection with Suki, Thin bones like wishbones (Indigo Dreams 2013). An international readership follows the ‘Suki’ character’s online serialised life-story – a tale both funny and desolate.

Sue‘s paid employment has been incoherent, ranging through teaching for a decade with long stints abroad, picking apples, writing academic and current affairs articles, working for the Methodist Church, support work with the homeless, cathedral tour-guiding in Berlin, mindless grafting for local authorities, German-English translation, and delivering poetry workshops in Scottish schools. Returning latterly to Yorkshire, Sue co-founded The word birds Poetry Showcase with whom she has performed UK-wide.

She has received three Arts Council (UK) awards for her poetry, novels and short stories, and garnered some glowing reviews and endorsements:  ‘Passionate, laconic poetry’ (UA Fanthorpe), ‘salt-drenched – I loved it’ (Sandi Toksvig), ‘Excellent’ (Bloodaxe’s Neil Astley), ‘piercingly topical – a glorious achievement’ (Magnus Magnusson).

Her poems have appeared in Orbis, The Rialto, Acumen, Stand, The North, Smiths Knoll, Other Poetry, Mslexia and Envoi, and have been included in anthologies by Diamond Twig, Polygon, the 2001 Lancaster LitFest, and others. One of her poems was shortlisted for the 2010 Bridport Prize.. Sue’s work was also highly commended in the Arvon Postcard Competition and commended in the Ver Poetry Competition.
(at which point I chip in with a mea culpa…she’s been around for ages.Why didn’t I know? It seems that everyone else did.)

Sue’s latest poetry collection Adventus is 24 poems which, though perennials, may be read as daily pre-Christmas reflections from 1st December. Or, this year, from the 11th. Sue sent me three poems for the cobweb, and before we get to Adventus, I want to start with one that gives you some idea of the range you can expect.


A translation of Verspielt by Kathrin Schmidt


so the buzzard let go of the berries

he was carrying under his wings and soared

over the village church, casting his shadow

into the yard onto the child, a girl

skipping on the forecourt, her little legs

dictated his imminent

split-second timing, plaits

bouncing on quick breaths, ratatat

of wingbeats, his attack so fast our eyes

barely took in the impact, and us so slow

to react, realize

it might be our daughter.


Sue’s provided the background to the translation:

“I went to meet and interview the writer GDR-born writer Kathrin Schmidt for the first time this summer at her Berlin home. She is now supporting me to try for an Arts Council grant to translate her poems, only seven of which currently exist in English – and I think I can do a better job than her first translator.

Kathrin is a renowned novelist. She won the German Book Prize in 2011 with Du Stirbst Nicht which was translated into 20 languages but never yet into English. I could start a rant about what this says about the English-language publishing world and how ‘worth’ is evaluated, but you’re probably in the picture. Anyway as a poet I am focused on her four poetry collections dating back to the early 80s.

My motivations are various and personal. I want to have a foot in mainland Europe to help me bear the grimness of Brexit. I don’t need to extoll the virtues of Berlin; I did live there for a couple of years, have always revisited regularly, and have just counted up that I now have more friends there than in London, where I also lived once and which now gets a sour look from me, up here as I am in the disadvantaged, disdained and ignored north.

Which brings me to my intentional selection of an East German poet of roughly my own age. The reason is, I would always, when living in East Berlin shortly after reunification, identify more closely with East German peers than West Germans.  As a little child in grey industrial working-class Labour-voting Bradford in the sixties, my circumstances and experiences more closely parallel those of the just-get-on-with-it Osies than the affluent Wesies who had cars, fridges, central heating, cameras, house telephones…

So I sought out East German women poets in their fifties and chose Kathrin for her biography as well as her poems. She is a left-wing feminist and was politically active at the time of reunification. Her poems are not the easiest. I’ll need to go on speaking to her and reading everything I can about her and also discuss with native Germans to be sure of getting all the cultural references. Furthermore she uses a lot of wordplay – sometimes as playful as the supreme word-play poet Ernst Jandl, whose poems are often transmuted rather than translated, which would be impossible; his poems’ messages or points of fun have to be conveyed by poems of parallel ideas.  Kathrin’s poems are a massive challenge to me: I studied Theology, not German. But I’m really excited by the whole new world of poetry translation unfolding before me. And another motive for this endeavour is to use Kathrin’s poems as triggers for poems of my own.

So Brexit is at least proving good for my brain’s health, making me stuff German  into it daily with the ambition of becoming bilingual so I can give this my best shot. ”

I thought this well worth posting…and not just for its sense of mission, and its fellow-feeling. I just wanted to say that though I know no German, and next to nothing about the principles and challenges of translation, here’s a poem that makes me want to know more of and about Kathrin Schmidt. This poem drew me in from the first line, the way its alliteration sets up a kinetic dance that energises the whole poem, which is full of staccato movement. I love the precision of all those consonants, the way the narrative is packed into one short sequence; I love the filmic editing, the perspective shifts, and finally, the dark turn of the last line which switches the world into that of the folk tales of careless parents, lost children and shapeshifters. As I say, I don’t know the original and I know no German, but I’m prepared to bet that if this was my poem I’d feel well-served by its translator and her ear and her craft.


*Adventus is a slim pamphlet, but jammed with riches. It starts with The coming, the Brexiteers’ imagined nightmare of a horde of refugees appearing as a deluge on the rim of the moors above a Pennine valley….it’s comically, horribly realised. And it’s right. This is Advent, the coming of a child from a temporarily displaced small family in the Middle East. The collection riffs on themes of motherhood, of the condition of the refugee, on marital stress, on sibling rivalry. There are many voices. The landscapes range from Nazareth to Withernsea via Berlin. The forms range from couplets, triplets, blank verse, a prosepoem, regular 5 and 6 line stanzas to Ginsberg-inspired 17-syllable lines, and (one splendidly insouciant) ghazals. It’s serious, playful, loving,  bleak and joyous. So you know that you just have to buy it…the ultimate stockingfiller for someone you love who knows good writing. Two poems to give you the taste…then off you go (please) to Amazon. First, the wise men of good northern stock….who you hear via the distracting echoes of T S Eliot’s Journey of the Magi. A cold coming.

The three wise men


To cap it all it was cold. Really cold,

and rough terrain, and all of us old,

and nearly coming to blows over the route

through those dark dunes to get to the bairn,


and we were loaded up. So heavily loaded

and the camels weren’t good. How they groaned

under all that gold. But we had a role,

and there is no record of us moaning,


nothing of three wise men with frost-bitten toes

missing strong brown Yorkshire tea

in that strong-brown-tea-forsaken desert

and nobbut camels’ milk, no cows,


and no really boiling water, nor proper pot,

and blaming each other for who’d forgotten it

and as we plodded, read in the stars the laddie’s fate –

what we each thought we could well foresee –


but disagreed on every time and every date,

and finally had to agree to disagree.


There’s more to this than meets the ear, isn’t there? A story of redemption, about which no one can agree. Especially the officially wise. I’ll finish with another monologue which, unsurprisingly, stood out at the reading at The New Beehive. It’s the one that straight away made me want to buy the collection. It’s another with a distinctive voice, another with its own dark humour. It’s not ‘typical’ of the poems in Adventus…mainly because there are aren’t any that are ‘typical’. Each is distinctive and different, as befits an advent calendar of a book, where each turned page is a door into a new and fresh surprise.

Jesus’s big sister


It’s not in the bible, what he had to put up with

in that stable, poked with a sharp straw –

his torn, sore mother too weak, Joseph

dealing with guests – that poor child

smothered nearly to death with false kisses.

What did it do to him,  having hot wax

dripped on his cheek, his blanket set fire to?


The shepherd starts saying All I’ve brought is

but Big Sister snatches his lamb: I want that!

You take the brat. The scuffle wakes Jesus.

She stings his face with donkey-poo bullets

then spots a gift tucked into the manger.

Frankincense. She flings it everywhere, Joseph

laughing it off, putting the myrrh on a top shelf,

the kings nice about it – she has made a temple,

holy air, the first woman to honour him.

Take our word – they’ll come in droves, beg

for his touch, clean his feet with their hair.

Big Sister gives them the finger.


And when her brother shines at theology

she snickers at the back mocking him,

smokes pot, flunks her catechism.

My brother thinks he’s so good. Arsehole.

Down the souk Saturdays, she starts nicking


and at night, on the shared roof where they lie

on their mats beneath the stars, she spits

bad words at him – When you were born

I dropped out of our parents’ orbit. Bastard –

he silent, she sneering into the dark  –

you make me puke. Why love everyone?

People hate people like you.


Every good thing, she does a big yawn.

When it turns out he has healing gifts

she goes in the dunes with camel-men

then when his ministry takes off full-blown,

she steals the gold and elopes to Babylon.


What made him forgive so much sinning?

Why didn’t he hate all females? His mum

For letting her bully him; Mary Magdalene?

How come, right through, Jesus still loved women?


There’s a poem that ends with a question worth the asking. Thank you Sue Vickerman for being our guest on a December Sunday with snow coming down.

The next three posts will celebrate a particular milestone, with three special guests who have been in one way or another inspirational for me. They won’t necessarily appear on Sundays, but I’m hopeful that the third will be on New Year’s Eve. I’m looking forward to seeing you all again, and hope that your Christmas tree hangs on to its needles. Oh, and if you were wondering, the church full of trees is St Mary’s in Whitby. Worth climbing all the steps for.



*Adventus.    [Naked Eye 2017]    £7.50



2 thoughts on “A church full of trees and a Polished Gem: Sue Vickerman

  1. Fretting about things done and not done… annual resentment… But then getting the tree decorations down from the loft and thinking – just do it. It’ll be alright… Yes that’s Advent.


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