Ah yes…the guilt chest. I have a chronic habit, driven by thoughtlessness and good intentions, of spontaneously offering to do things without thinking through the consequences. Amongst other things, this means that I currently have a backlog of things to do that keep me awake at night or wake me up feeling uneasy.
Sometimes they’re things that I decide on the spur of the moment will be A Good Idea. Which explains why there are six 1920s dining chairs in the garage which are halfway through being refurbished to go on eBay. They’ve been halfway done for about four months. However, since they’ve sat gathering dust in the garage loft for about two years, it doesn’t matter to anyone but me when they get done.
And then there are the jobs that come under the heading of Promises To Keep (and miles to go before I sleep). Currently they include critiquing draft collections that friends have sent me, a review of a significant book about Ted Hughes that I started on in July, of which I’ve written and scrapped four drafts, because I’m terrified of being wrong; a review for the cobweb of a beautiful collection by someone I love; two polished gems on the stocks and two more coming in….and then there are the unwritten poems, and the one that has to be sorted out in time for tomorrow night’s workshop in Huddersfield.
I keep putting them off, and do displacement things. And to be fair, some of these are things I love doing. Like reading at Gill Lambert’s Shaken in Sheeptown poetry night in Skipton on Thursday night. I got to be a guest poet with the wonderful Clare Shaw. Who wouldn’t jump at that! And the Puzzle Poets last Monday, where guest poet Emma Storr was a revelation. Two more readings coming upon in the next ten days, and then there’s that Kim Moore reading in Hebden Bridge as well. It’s too easy to defer and procrastinate when you’re doing the things that come easy. But sooner or later, you knuckle down, and do what needs doing. With the curious result that when you do it you can’t understand why you didn’t do it sooner. So in the last two days I’ve bitten the bullet, written an application I was dreading, written a careful critique of a bunch of poems and sent it off; last Sunday I finally got round once more to the real business of sharing the work of ‘polished gems’. Next week I’ll write that review, feedback on a collection and write a long post about a new collection. There. That’s out there in public. No way back. Phew.
So after much delay I’m delighted to welcome today’s guest poet and polished gem, Pauline Yarwood. Pauline is a poet and ceramic artist living in Cumbria. In 2013 she was mentored by Judy Brown (a Polished gem in April 2017) at the Wordsworth Trust, and collaborated with artist Kate Bentley to write a short series of poems for her exhibition Skyline. She is co-director, with Kim Moore, of the Kendal Poetry Festival, and runs Kendal Brewery Poets (which was where I met her and invited her to be a guest) .Her first pamphlet Image Junkie was published by Wayleave in 2017.
But, of course, she can introduce herself. Here she is.
“I was born in Cumbria, brought up in Manchester. I’m notoriously bad at sending stuff out – I always find an excuse. (me too, Pauline. me too) . I’ve been published by Fire Crane (Mick North from New Writing Cumbria (which doesn’t exist any more) Mick was the first person to publish my poems which was a huge encouragement). The Interpreter’s House and The North. Most recently I have two poems in the new book of Cumbrian poets: This Place I Know (published in Oct. 2018) by Handstand Press).
I had mixed feelings about poetry at school. I hated Walter de la Mare and especially William Henry Davies’ ‘Leisure’ – the ‘if we have no time to stand and stare’ one.Loved the sentiment, hated the poem! Strangely, like lots of other kids of the time, I loved Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Tennyson’s The Lotus Eaters.
I was dreading having to get to grips with poetry when doing my teacher training, thinking that it was too difficult and I wouldn’t understand it. But, I was wrong. It was Gerard Manley Hopkins that set me off with Inversnaid, and that last line about wilderness, obviously playing into my attraction to the Ancient Mariner and The Lotus Eaters. Then Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas drew me right in, and when I discovered that there were political/apocalyptic poems – Alan Brownjohn’s To See the Rabbit,Edwin Brock’s Five Ways to Kill a Man, Norman Nicholson’s Windscale, Peter Porter’s Your Attention Please and Edwin Muir’s The Horses, I was drawn in for ever.
I used those poems regularly when teaching, and the kids loved them too. Gradually, women poets moved into sight – Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Stevie Smith, Plath, Duffy and I discovered a whole new kind of writing.Along the way I became a potter, too, and taught ceramics in an Oxfordshire comprehensive for a while .I did an MA in Women’s Studies at Lancaster in 1998 – my dissertation was on gendered subjectivity in the art of the four contemporary women artists.
I followed some literature seminars also and gradually began to think about the process of writing and I included a short series of self-reflective poems in my dissertation.They really came out of no-where, apart from how difficult it is to write, but I was completely hooked by this time, and have written poetry ever since.”
I don’t know about you, but I really recognise and respond to the seeming randomness of this, the accidents that bring some of us to poetry and eventually find us writing poems. Which is, ultimately what this Sunday post routine is about. Oh. Yes. A sideways look. What’s that about? Sometimes I stick a post title in the drafts and then forget why it seemed a good idea at the time. I suppose it came from a phrase in the first poem that’s coming shortly.
the slippery-slidey look you almost saw,
One of those things that just stick, and seemed to me to catch a quality that I like in Pauline’s writing. A sideways look can be suspicious. It can be cautious or secretive. It’s the quality of noticing that seems to come with a withheld comment. And it also suggests to me the things accidentally seen, that come without the filter of expectation, as though seen for the first time. Think of walking through a city street and suddenly seeing your reflection in a shop window, that elderly/dishevelled/comic/clumsy/ill-dressed you who can’t possibly be you, that isn’t you looking as you imagine you’re seen, but as you actually are in that split second. The you a dark watcher would see, and withhold judgement, but be thinking it anyway. A sideways look sees something on the periphery, and brings it to the centre.
I wanted out of childhood,
away from unexplained asides,
the slippery-slidey look you almost saw,
the put that lip away you, now.
It seemed to me that film stars had it sussed,
always smiling satisfied, grown-up smiles.
I wondered how they did it, how they fixed that grin.
My plan was to look like that, and so I thought
if I wedged my pillows high behind me,
tightened the sheet over the blanket,
sat bolt upright, hands good-girl folded,
and fell asleep with a smile as wide as the sea
then my smile would last forever,
fixed in perpetuity.
You can take that look off your face
But, no, I can’t. I can’t.
I like the sure-footedness of this poem, its clarity, the iambic ease of it. It never misses a beat. And I especially like the ambiguity…or do I mean ambivalence? I like the observation of the way that children find adults puzzling, hard to read, but suspecting that somehow they have spotted a transgression that was never intended in a look you almost saw. The strategy of sitting bolt upright with a fixed smile that will ‘stay’ and make a film star of you is beautifully surprising, and I love the doubleness of the italicised ending, which may declare a ruefulness or a defiance. Maybe that I can’t is really an I can’t, because it isn’t in me. Nailed it.
The next poem comes into the category of the image seen on the edge of vision that turns into something much more serious; an awareness that what we don’t notice is maybe something we really should. That shift (signalled by the ruptured centre which reminds us that the centre cannot hold) from the web to the fell to the alienated young of the streets is an admonition that we owe it to ourselves to notice things. Which is, I suppose, what poetry is ultimately for.
Across the door frame
caught by slantwise sun
a rainbow cobweb stretched from
corner to corner
a single thread holding
the ruptured centre
up on the fell
the mewing of a young buzzard
and the sound of a single gun shot
in our cities the young,
Pauline Yarwood’s poems never seem to stand still, constantly change the viewpoint and the landscape. Here we are in the cosmetics dept of Harvey Nicks, being judged against standards no one has troubled to explain, pitched back into the sideways looks of childhood.
Applying lipstick in Harvey Nicks
The doorman is stone-faced and mirthless,
eyes me up and down,
sees that I don’t look like I flash the cash,
but lets me through, straight into cosmetics.
Try red I say, and climb onto a high stool.
I feel childlike, as though someone
is going to put a plaster on my knee
or pour gripe water into my mouth,
but the sleek assistant selects a lipstick,
twists the barrel and fills a brush with ruby red.
Part your lips.
I hold my mouth unnaturally open,
and she outlines the edges,
intimate and invasive as an unwanted kiss.
She outlines, fills in, blots.
Smile, she says, hands me a mirror,
I’m nervous, expecting transformation,
but not this:
The Joker looks back,
the grotesque killer-clown who leaves his victims
with a permanent post-mortem grin.
I decide to go back to the doorman,
give him something to smile about.
Revenge being a dish best served cold, you wouldn’t want to be that doorman, top hat or no. Well, would you? And finally there’s a poem that teachers everywhere will respond to. You hear that note again…the sense that one way or another we’re being judged, tested.
It takes some courage to cone
a lump of clay with sixteen year olds.
You know and they know,
or guess if they don’t,
how your hands feel against the clay,
the initial give, the softness of the gradual rise,
the flow of movement, the firming,
the forming of something different.
They stand in a close group,
two at the back hold hands,
some touch shoulders
they’re eager, ready,
there’s a strange intimacy.
The class heart-throb shifts,
folds his arms, grins,
done this before, Miss?
I worked with a young art teacher who said that the problem with throwing pots is that, if your thinking runs that way, a pot can only be either a phallus or a vagina. Which pretty well sums up the preoccupations of savvy 16 year old boys. I imagine that, as with the Harvey Nicks doorman, the poet gave the class heart-throb something to smile about. This poem certainly made me smile.
So there we are. How Pauline Yarwood manages to teach, throw pots and co-organise the Kendall Poetry Festival and write poems of this quality is a wonder. Thank you, Pauline, for being this Sunday’s guest. Please come again.
Image Junkie : Wayleave Press  £5.00
This place I know: Kerry Darbishire, Kim Moore and Liz Nuttal [ed]
Handstand Press  £10.00