It’s October. It was summer last time I looked. Then:
The world tilted , the sun shone slant,
showed up every crack and canker,
made the million cobwebs shine.
There was dew and people thought of fires.
Children went back to school.
This year everything would be better,
a clean book, new pens, a blazer
to grow into.
Where was I? Ah, yes….looking back at a post in which I was musing on those periods of curious flatness that overtake you from time to time. And for some reason, here’s another. Maybe there’s been so much going on that when it stops you’re mildly disorientated. That must be it. I remind myself of the episode in John Hillaby’s book Journey through Britain. In the early sixties he walked from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, using, as far as was feasible, only footpaths and drovers’ roads and bridleways. Arriving in Bristol tired and jaded he seeks the advice of a boxing trainer who examines his legs, looks up, and says: what you need, sir, is exercise. Which turns out to be sound advice. When in doubt, just do it. So I shall.
I have no excuse; last Monday was a day I’d looked forward to for months. The guest poets at Puzzle Poets Live were two of my inspirations. Kim Moore and Clare Shaw. What a double bill! Poets whose reading makes you more alive, who electrify and excite you. One of the folk in the audience was David Spencer (cobweb guest in July) who had cycled from Huddersfield to Sowerby Bridge to be there. Valley to valley over a big Pennine hill with the M62 at its top. And then had to cycle back. That’s how good they are. It was a brilliant night. Along with their new work, Kim read Train from Barrow to Sheffield and In that year ; Clare read This baby and I do not believe in silence, and I could not have been happier. This week I found a warm review of my pamphlet Advice to a traveller in Indigo Dreams’ Reach Poetry 241 (thank you, Lynn Woollacott, and then…..
I’ve had a summer of doing stuff, pretty well non-stop; brickwork, woodwork, paintwork, garden work. I looked forward to it all being done, and then it was and suddenly I’d nothing to do. Except that I have…a review that should have been sent off months ago and which I keep rewriting and scrapping; feedback on lots of poems for two special friends. Why don’t I just do it? I’ve a horror of not being busy. I always have. It’s that Conradian thing, the need to work and work to avoid reality, or something. I dreaded retirement …and it was destabilising when it came, that lack of imposed obligations. What I’m not so good at is dealing with self-imposed obligations. A bit like the feeling that most teachers know, the Sunday afternoon feeling, the knowledge that there’s a pile of marking that must be done for Monday, that’s grown because you didn’t do it when you could have done, because you’ve put it off.
What saved me was finding poetry and writing. I have a fear of unemployment and silence. Like Clare Shaw, I do not believe in silence. I cannot sit still. I cannot be quiet. So when today’s guest sent me her review of what she’s been up to since she was a guest two years ago, what she wrote resonated very powerfully. She writes about how she is saved by words. Yes, I say, yes. And here she is.
‘Laura Potts is twenty-two years old and lives in West Yorkshire. Twice-recipient of the Foyle Young Poets Award, her work has appeared in Agenda, Acumen and Poetry Salzburg Review. Having worked at The Dylan Thomas Birthplace in Swansea, Laura was last year listed in The Oxford Brookes International Poetry Prize and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She also became one of The Poetry Business’ New Poets and a BBC New Voice for 2017. Laura’s first BBC radio drama aired at Christmas, and she received a commendation from The Poetry Society in 2018’.
This is her reflection on the last two years since she decided not to finish her degree and make a life in writing.
“Two years have passed, and as another season leaves I think of last time I was here. Two years and a world away. And I do not recognise the words I wrote. The syntax strange; the sentences too academic, too composed. I do not like the way they kept my life so guarded, so controlled. They do not sound like me.
Life – and living – has changed since then. I am older and younger at heart by the day. More attuned not to needs but desires of the mind, and my light glows brighter for it. And my most drastic change was in education. I didn’t complete my degree. I didn’t stand on a stage with a scroll in my hand and feel like that was the height of my worth. I dropped formal, regulayed education, and instead I started to learn.
The promise I made to myself that day will always remain. I promised to live for myself. Nobody else would tell me; no media would push me; no guilt would force me to live without a love for my life. I started to write. Perhaps, at a time of both great hope and vulnerability, it was my Freudian throwback to childhood: those hours at home, as a very young girl, reading by firelight; or the gravel of my grandmother’s voice, reading Chaucer and Keats; or writing my own tales of Peter Rabbit because, like Beatrix, I too thought he was better than any friend. So when I sat at the desk to establish this new, epic plan for my life the answer was already there: I was writing, and that was enough.
Others seemed to think so too. My words were ample; were adequate; were ‘bountiful and bound to become’, as one editor wrote. Looking back, in those early days of sudden freedom I wrote to compensate for the absence that lived where friends and noise had always been. I found comfort in an imagination which can dream up any person on a page, and have lived very well without the white noise of the world ever since.
In those early six months, my poems sat in the hands of editors and sang themselves off the page. Solid journals like Prole and Poetry Salzburg accepted them; Ezra Pound’s Agenda spotlighted them; The Yorkshire Post reviewed them; a reading club in New Zealand even printed them on shirts. I had never felt so estranged from and connected with the wider world, which seems to be the paradox of writing. And this, among others, would be one ethical point I discussed in my BBC New Voices interview soon after.
Last year, of all the years in my young life, was by far the most academic. Far surpassing my school years (in which learning was only for passing exams and never for joy alone), I gave myself an education. I led myself not towards examinations but outwards:out to schools of thought and further I’d been before. I chose to write, for BBC Radio, a set of poems based on the lives of those who had lost loved ones to war. It was a project which turned the singular act of writing into a connective one, and brought catharsis with it. The poems, featuring Carnegie-Medal winner Berlie Doherty, were broadcast alongside Carol Ann Duffy on The Christmas Verb last year and have since been archived by The Imperial War Museum.
And who knows what comes next? The writing alone is enough for me. If I had words but no world, that would still be enough. My inner heart is still, as ever, the same. I may have since been a Pushcart Prize nominee; I may have received an award from The Poetry Society; I may now be writing for The King’s Chapel in London, but I will always return to a book in my hand at the end of the day, as I always have. It is a love of words; a belief that in the beginning is the word alone; and no end of shouting and spitting and stamping on stage will ever be a match for that.
Remember. Poetry is alive and well, and that’s good enough.”
That’s a manifesto to stir us all. I try to imagine having the courage to say that over 50 years ago. I can’t, but I can try to live by it. Right. Time for poems.
Widow-black and winter, evening took me south into
lamps burning blue in the dusk. Out and over my hometown musk
lay the hinterland hills breathing low in the dark. Still,
frostspark sharp on the city streets, holy rain sweet
in the winter and the wet, with no evening stars ahead I let
the pavement take me home. Through the town nocturnal, gloam
and grey, my chimney throat coughing its smoke, I saw aslope
on the city’s slow spine those old black gates, the summer of my days
inside. Grief cracked my face. Those navy girls and me, a pace
always ahead. But in the pale stairwell light the ghost of my girlhood dead
in its fresh green spring and gone. From roadside wet I looked on
at this child of light, her afterglow bright, her ashes of life
already black. The cold breath of loss on my face. At my back
a schoolbell cracked at the evening air. I saw Death at my table there
tipping his hat, and the years in my face that sank as I sat
at that desk at the back of the class. I remember that. And last,
on an old December evening, down hallways dark the wilting hymns
of girls turned ghosts before their time, I saw their eyes
like candles cold, like lights no longer leading home. Outside, to the bone
I shook and swung, the darkened seas that were my eyes done
and gone at the sight of myself. Each girl ringing her own passing bell.
Well, in that mist and half-dark morning, my face a clenching fist
in pavement pools, I saw that septic, terminal school for what it was.
I never went back, of course. I tipped my compass north.
The first time I heard this poem, I wanted to see it on the page. You need to hear it first, and then you need to have it in front of you, so you can read it aloud and try its syntax and rich texture on the tongue. I love the way it starts, in a landscape realised like an Atkinson Grimshaw painting (which is why I chose one). I love the persona of the narrator, a dark watcher who puts me in mind of others, like Jane Eyre, Mary Lennox, and of Stephen Dedalus, the ones who examine their isolation, or alienation, and square their shoulders, and become resolute. As she watches her own ghost with a mixture of pity and a huge sense of loss, of being cast adrift, the clenched fist of a face fighting back tears becomes the clenched fist of defiance. That last sentence nails it.
I tipped my compass north.
I really like that stripped back line after the rich language that comes before. And I like that rich language too. Laura kicks the fashion of the day. It’s worth quoting something she wrote for her first guest post.
My earliest memory of writing is of a seven-year-old me in my grandmother’s old armchair back home. She would read Kipling’s ‘If’ to me over and over again, and to this day I can still recite it. She wasn’t well-known in the writing world, but she’d had a few poems published in her time and was a great lover of words. I used to sit on her knee and she’d read in her great gravelly voice verses of Tennyson and Chaucer for hours. Of course, I didn’t understand it back then, but something about her vocal lilt made the words alive to me even when I was young. I often think of those times. That’s how it started. I owe my own love of writing to her.
You don’t have to listen too hard to pick up elements of an older poetry, and elements of Dylan Thomas, too; another who was unafraid of language like
Outside, to the bone
I shook and swung, the darkened seas that were my eyes done
and gone at the sight of myself.
There’s an echo of The Tempest there, too. You might not like it, but I do. I think of artists like Picasso, and Hockney who understand that you need to work with older forms and rules and make them easily your own before you know how to break them. You need to know your craft before you can do without it. Enough. Promise me you’ll read the next poem aloud; get the rhythm of it, all the repeated rhymes and internal rhymes that drive it along, and then let the last two lines expand in your mind. Don’t try to rationalise it. Not yet. Let it work.
The sun slit a knife through the womb-wet night
and bled like an egg, like a budburst head:
in the swell of the sweat on the belly of the bed,
broken-throated then and red, you said
the clench of winter let the roses grow instead.
But time has fled with jenny wren and left
the meadow dead. And overhead a mouth of moon
has called the mourning on this room, and soon
an ever-bloom of moss will clot the loss of you.
For the years between us are wide as a child;
and the tears as wet as a wound.
The last poem moves outwards to larger stories and histories.
Forever as the shepherd’s hook pulled up the dusk and ever-dark,
when far-off foxes coughed the frost and laughed that more must be,
beneath the dropping eyes of stars that fought that winter to the last
was always you and me. The storm departed from the sea; the war from we
whenever through the cold-bone blue of mist came you, chin uplifted on
the winds in wedding lanes we never knew. Until in this the airfield age,
with planes that screamed the world awake, we felt again the fist of truth:
sleeping in that infant rain stood one more crooked tooth. These the graves
that ever grew to guard the isle at night, the bones beneath them ballroom-bright
that fight the thunder and the tide, and bend and beg surrender to decline
their ebbing heads. And with the herrings overhead, remember this instead:
that somewhere as the embers fled, a minister took to his bed and only ever dreamt
the dead. Oh never will the waiting world forget the winters, blue-of-birth, that
never wake the sleepers here: ever in their slumbers at the first snow of the year.
I keep re-reading this poem, still not sure what to make of it, not quite sure of the landscape I’m in. It elides folk ballads, 18thC pastoral, derelict Lincolnshire airfields; I puzzle over the you and me, and the minister who took to his bed. It might be a dreamscape if it wasn’t so cold and concrete. It puzzle and challenges with its tone of fierce purpose, and its music holds me. It does what Clive James asks of a real poem. It announces itself as a poem and is laced with the moments that draw you in.
You’ll have realised that I’m an unashamed fan. I cannot understand why we’re still waiting for a publisher to snap her up. It won’t be long. Thank you, Laura Potts for being our guest and sharing your poems. Thank you for reminding me that I don’t believe in silence. Please come again
I hope you all enjoyed this as much as I did. A special thank you to my partner Joan Foye for letting me use two of her edgeland landscapes. For those who like to know this kind of thing they’re pastels, and 2’X2’…and stunning.
Looking ahead: upcoming guests include Tom Weir, Pauline Yarwood and Peter Riley. There’s also a review of Gaia Holmes’ third collection Where the road runs out on the stocks. I’m very happy.