Catching up: John Duffy’s “A Gowpen”

I’m a fan of Terry Pratchett – that wise, witty, inventive, humane man. I have 30+ of his audio books on a flash drive, and I listen to them over and over in the car. I love his characters, not least Tiffany Aching, the witch and keeper of sheep. She has a great love of words that she experiences in a kind of synaesthesia. They are mobile, tactile, visual, aural, all at once.Like this:

Susurrus . . . according to her grandmother’s dictionary, it meant ‘a low soft sound, as of whispering or muttering’. Tiffany liked the taste of the word. It made her think of mysterious people in long cloaks whispering important secrets behind a door: susurrususssurrusss … (The Wee Free Men)

There’s one that’s stuck in my head of late. Desultory. Limp-wristed, indolent, dilatory. That’s me. That’s twelve months of self-isolating and procrastination. It’s what happens when days fail to have meaning as events or sequences, when deadlines seem like irrelevances. Time to do something about it. Time to catch up.

It’s what we say when we haven’t seen someone for a long time…”let’s get together and do some catching up”. Of course there is the obverse …as in “playing catch up” which is when a team will rush things, and forget the plan and take risks, and generally lose the plot on the way to losing. I’ll keep that in mind. The thing is, poets go on writing, and even through a year of Covid, books are published and I buy them, and I mean to tell folk about the ones I liked. And then I go all desultory. So here’s the plan. I’m going to do some catching up; I resolve to get back to a proper routine of regular cobweb posts and tell you about the books that have made me happier in the last year. And we’ll start with……..

John Duffy “A Gowpen” (Calder Valley Poetry 2020)

In normal times (remember them?) I try never to miss the Albert Poets’ workshop at The Sportsman’s in Huddersfield. I love those Monday nights, getting feedback on draft poems from people who are on top of the game. I’ve never gone without coming home with an improved piece of work. It’s everything a workshop should be…democratic, critical, supportive, and warm. So thank whatever gods have not abandoned us for Zoom, and the virtual continuation of those Monday nights, and the company of, among others, John Duffy.

He’s been a guest of the cobweb  before when his earlier collection was published : [the link, if you’re interested is:]

 Glamourie. You don’t need to look it up. It’s a Scots word. It means ‘enchantment’, and it’s an enchanting collection of poems from a man who loves words and the craft of words. You may be aware that it’s not the first time you’ve seen the word. Kathleen Jamie‘s already used it as the title of a poem that relives a moment of bewitchment in an everyday wood, of feeling a sudden loss, of a search for a lost one. Here’s a flavour of it. It explains ‘glamourie’ better than I ever could

“It was hardly the Wildwood,

just some auld fairmer’s

shelter belt, but red haws

reached out to me,

 …………………………. I tried

 calling out, or think

I did, but your name

shrivelled on my tongue”

Well, we know full well that the words rarely shrivel on Kathleen Jamie’s tongue, and neither do they on John Duffy’s. Time for an introduction. John writes of himself that he:

” was born in Glasgow 70+ years ago, and has lived in Huddersfield since 1984. He has worked as a social and community worker in Glasgow, London, Huddersfield and Bradford, and as a bibliotherapist in Batley.He has run writing workshops mainly with community and mental health groups since the mid 1990s, and is one of the founders of Huddersfield’s Albert Poets, still going after 25 years.

He gave up employment in the 1980s to look after the house and children (not in that order), while Cathy qualified as a midwife (he calls this the practice of husbandry). When he moved to Huddersfield he made good use of Kirklees Council’s Writing in the Community workshops, and met the other Albert poets.

He likes reading, baking bread and making soup walking and singing, and is much given to utopian speculation.”

To this I’ll add a very recent bit of information he shared in one of our Zoom workshops . He once, years ago, overheard himself described by someone (who may well have been one of his clients) thus : the only social worker I ever met who wasn’t totally f***ing useless. There’s an endorsement to treasure.

He’s too modest to tell you what scores of poets around the West Riding (and beyond) will happily tell you…that there are scores of poets who owe him a huge debt for his quiet encouragement and support, for his  enthusiasm, for his sustained stewardship of the Albert Poets in Huddersfield, along with Stephanie Bowgett. And, as I’ve said, there’s the Monday night sessions where I’ve grown accustomed to John Duffy’s shrewd editorial ear and eye. I’ve never taken a draft to share without coming home with something tighter, righter, better. So let me share with you a taste of A Gowpen. Which is a Scots word,  from the Old Norse gaupn – a hollow made by cupped hands. An image of openness and generosity.

One of the first thing to strike the reader is the sheer variety of styles, subject, and, indeed, shapes. It’s a rattlebag of a collection, which reminds me of the unpredictability of what John will bring to workshops…it may be a succession of highly crafted dialogues between True Thomas and Duns Scotus. Or an anecdote about the kinds of encounters he had as a Glasgow socialworker. Or a praise poem for the making of soup. In A Gowpen you’ll encounter priests, Samuel Beckett, the Paris of tourists and wanderers, urban edgelands, Richard the Second, a Lanark bing, a shape-changing fox, and all sorts of birds and animals observed in the way that MacCaig would record encounters with toads or Dippers: mating bees, ducks, nest-building rooks, a blackbird drinking.

What always strikes me, too, is the matter of what Clive James calls ‘the moment that draws you in’. The phrase or short sequence that arrests you with its rightness, which seems to memorise itself. Like the mating bees


A knot of fumbling 

fluff that tumbles 


or a sudden rainfall


seeds spilled from a huge hand 

crackle of an egg hatching 

or tractors and their haymaking trailers on a steep slope


            They clamber uphill, dogged as ladybirds


or a crow on a Huddersfield chimney pot


who crouches, hops 

a quarter turn east

            on nimble feet


or a small patch of woodland where


the beck steps

down in twelve-inch

cascades, each 

with its own cool 



or a night sky, far out at sea


           There is the moon, the stars like dice


I could go on and on, but you get the picture.  I’d like to share some of the lyrical poems that play elegantly (and, I guess, fashionably) with shape on the page, but I know WordPress will corrupt them, and you will just have to buy the book to find out how they work. But I’m more than happy to share two chunkier narrative anecdotal poems (because I like narrative) and finish with the title poem, which is a gem.

The first I chose because I like the voice, and the owner of the voice. I like the reflectiveness of it, and I especially like the half echoes of Larkin and also of Douglas Dunn at the end. That man. I wish him grass.

That Priest in Immingham

You’d think that when the rub and blur of the wind 

stops and the engine stops its unheard throb 

that there would be relief for us in port – all 

those wishful rumours of rum-laced dance halls 

crammed with girls who come in packs being true –

but all we get, another three-hour shift, shifting 

unrevealing containers to the cranes, securing 

the containers that take their place, 

and every grubby place begins to look like all 

the places where we sweat and schlep: 

in and out of port so quick, these cranes these days,

no time to smoke, let alone get drunk or laid

or visit temples, hills, shops. See any children. 

The ship will never wait for anyone and then 

where are you? Back at sea: fight the war

with rust – scraper primer paint –

tighten the bolts that secure the crate towers. 


                        There is the moon, the stars like dice, 

the empty sea on a four-hour watch.

A lonely ship light passes sea-miles away,

you wonder if they wonder about you: 

you sometimes feel like an actual sailor,

the morning light, the patterns 

in waves and clouds and trailing birds;

and the shipmates who keep you sane 

from port to port. For months. There was 

that priest in Immingham asked

what he could offer us. I know what my crew,

the skipper said, would really like. 

All they get to do is walk on steel.


We got out of his minibus in a car park 

in a flat street by a bland church. 

Between church and street, a lawn. 

For half an hour we walked 

barefoot on damp grass. 


The second one I’ve chosen for its sheer range, its tumbling detail. I like the dry irony of  “I will be a flâneur”. Because this narrator is anything but.

Parc des Buttes Chaumont

The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned

and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.                                                             



Alone and idle in Paris for an hour –

quiet Sunday morning, Belleville – I amble. 

I will be a flâneur. Here is the market, 

the clatter and clang of poles as the traders                        

erect their stalls, unfurl awnings, unpack flowers. 

Listen to the chatter as they unload their vans; 

their voices fill the square, too early for the snarl 

of traffic. I walk beneath these plane trees,

towards the park on my map. Here is the gate:                   

a dozen steps in I am surrounded, 

passed, thronged, jostled from all sides 

by runners, joggers, Nordic walkers,  

in pairs or in groups or alone; crowds 

do tai chi; that must be a Pilates class;

here are skippers. There is a man 

walking backwards. With fervent faces 

they stretch, bend, jump, swing, 

twist, kick thin air, lunge, crunch, 

carry ropes and poles and bottles 

of water and towels and backpacks. 

They have headphones, they narrow their eyes

as I stroll among them, fully dressed, 

without purpose, a sane man in Bedlam. 


There’s the lake and the hill; the temple on top 

of the pinnacle; the waterfall in its grotto;

the stalactites, and miles of rustic log fences, 

all made from concrete, complete with knots 

and grains and streaks. Thomas Coryat’s Crudities

describe this spot: The fayrest gallowes                                  

that I ever saw, built on a little hillocke, 

where people were hanged then hung

by the dozen for years; de Coligny’s headless 

corpse swings by its heels, Quasimodo 

holds dead Esmeralda in the charnel house below. 


 This bare hill where lepers were housed,

whores reformed, horse corpses cut up,

communards shelled, is a gym for the brothers                              

who need to be fit to massacre cartoonists, 

and brush past me, perhaps, this morning.


From the hilltop I look at all the rooftops, 

chimneys, domes, mansards, ridges;                      

turn away from the temple of Sybil, 

make my way down, across the Suicide Bridge.


It’s a very artful poem that starts with the accumulation of sensory detail, the narrator going with the flow of things, oh, look  Here is the market, …..Here is the gate. He seems to be carried along and essentially separate

as I stroll among them, fully dressed, 

without purpose, a sane man in Bedlam. 

But he’s a man who knows history and understands its complex ironies. It’s a very disingenuous poem, and unnerving in the way it takes the reader out of the park, away from the crowds, across the Suicide Bridge. It’s a poem to spend time with and return to, because there are discoveries to be made on each visit.


One more poem to end with. It’s an obvious choice.

A Gowpen

To make a gowpen: cup your hands 

together, hold that hollow of skin and light.

The portion of oats allowed each pauper, 

a gowpen of gold the youngest son 

snatches from the Fairy Barrow, a gowpen 

of meal at the miller’s door (Quick, 

before the Master comes back!), a scoop  

of water for thirst, a scrape of dirt   

to make a grave. We carry nothing, 

but our hands are never empty. To calm

the child’s fever, a gowpen of snow.

Shape of pleading, gesture of beggars,

all you can carry in two hands, a gift  

to a lover, this bowl of moulded air. 


The whole collection is as generous as this. Give yourself a treat. Buy it. Here’s a link:

Life-changing: Walking with Gyula Friewald

I’m looking back to the first time I went on a poetry residential at The Old Olive press in Relleu, in Alicante in May 2013. I’m looking back to how I met someone who transformed the week and changed me. In fact, there were two. The other one was Hilary Elfick, who has been a guest poet for the cobweb; the other was Gyula Friewald.

When my first collection, Much Possessed was published in 2016 it was dedicated to My three wise sisters, Hilary Elfick, Gaia Holmes and Kim Moore. Hilary was the first person to tell me that my work should be published. Gaia was the first person to give me a headline guest slot at a poetry open mic. And Kim Moore was the first to publish one of my poems on a poetry blog. They have, all three, gone on encouraging, inspiring and enthusing me. Inspirations, all three of them. And there’s another who’s never had a dedication in a pamphlet or a collection, but should have. So here’s a post, dedicated to him.

Gyula Friewald is a craftsman in metal; a sculptor, a forger, a blacksmith, an artist…all of these. He has made thousands of stunning things, like the bas relief Nomad, which is my headline image this week; he has created monumental gates for embassies, beautiful cast street lamps, elegant steel trophies, stunning staircases…he has made things for streets in capital cities, for restaurants, for private houses. His range and energy are formidable. But, like he says, it’s physically punishing, and he’s retired. He lives in Spain. He writes poetry in English. And he is one of the best walking companions I have ever met.

In the late afternoons, before the evening meal, we’d sit and workshop his poems, with me helping (I hope) him to find the English idioms that would keep the meanings he intended, in a language not his first or his own. But before that, after lunch, we’d go for long walks, and, if we hadn’t done that, I’d never have learned the landscapes we were walking through. It was a week of tumultuous history lessons, philosophy, discovering the names and properties of flowers, watching eagles, far off, uprooting steel snares, finding the bones of a fox, speculating on the meaning of petroglyphs, the behaviours of metals, the weight of anvils, and laughing a lot.

When I went there the second time, I hoped he’d be here too, and found that he was, even if he wasn’t..I found myself on every solitary walk wondering what Gyula would make of this or that, and pointing things out, even though he wasn’t there. In the end I had to write this poem for him.

                      Broken English     

                      for Guyla Friewald, sculptor, and teller of stories)


On my own, months later, by the footprint 

of St Jaume, the candles in the niche, I could swear

I heard you still forging meanings ……all this terraces…

and you held an arc of sky in one hard palm,

drew a pure line on the air…..these bancals; was the Moors 

who build.. and you put your hand on the drywalled stone,

tracing its joints, so I felt the weight and drag,

the ugly labour that it took to make those lovely 

contours where olive, almond, lemons grow.


And where we came on the bones of the fox.

…. you want sculpture; look at your own hand, the way…..

The sea so far and vague. Back on the track

you were hunting words to tell the meaning 

 of that finger-painted petroglyph..

maybe this man, 

he wants to make a power over the dark….


 By this burned tree stump above the deep arroya …

was the time  my father had to hide away from Stalin…..

and in the meadow profligate with flowers 

you know why this Hungarian has a German name?,

In the dark below the grandfather’s Christmas table

the mill race ran…..between the boards you could see..

You know that…


                            ………….. know why I like England? 

a thick-boled olive, two hundred years old, 

and a mountain floating  in the sky beyond…

because is surrounded with food.…….and we watched 

the eagles, spiralling on thermals,  miles away…..

 you know what my country is surrounded by?…..

In a blink the eagles slanted off into the sun…..  

                       … by enemies…leaving nothing to be said.


Late afternoon, on  the Via Dolorosa

below the castle ruin….that big anvil that I have 

to leave behind in London…maybe two ton… between 

the Station of Veronica,…but that big hammer

gives the sound…like bells, maybe. and Simon of Cyrene know is right…. you raised your arm, your fist, 

so I felt  how the forge, the heat, and that hammer 

take their toll on the body, the bone.


Day after day, this lore of flowers, the secrets

 of copper, of silver, the forging of steel, 

how a carob pod smells of chocolate, 

the hinges and hanging of church doors ten metres tall, 

of damascening, of the breaking of Hungary, how love 

can fracture on the anvil of work……all of it.


In the cool green light where the village women

used to do their laundry we said nothing at all.


I watch mosquito larvae struggle with the surface 

tension. Listen to small sounds of water. Bells.


Since then I’ve stayed at his home in Murcia, and we’ve written together on a retreat in Relleu, and we’ve walked over the watershed to Sella, and we’ve talked and talked about everything. I have no idea when or if I’ll see him again. And my passport’s expired. I collected the bones of the fox, and they sit on my study window ledge, reminding me of him.

The fox on the window sill

grows articulate, what’s left –

skull and grinning jaw, femur,

scapula, pelvis, vertebrae.


She says over and over

how she  once all fitted,

how each stiff bright hair lay

flat, went bracken-dark in rain,

how each grew loose and fell away,


how she grew used to her own sweet decay,

how she leached into the crumbled stone

among the thorn and cyclamen


how she listened into the wind

how she smelled the far-off ocean,

the taste of cordite, juniper, sun


how she remembers a fall  

out of high places, blue distances,

how once she could move like smoke

how wet and red was her long tongue.


Light  comes through the paper lantern

of her shoulder bone;

translucent, my fox,

with not a thought in her head.

It’s his birthday today. Happy Birthday, Gyula. Thanks for the memories.

Poetry readings, Small Presses, and Competitions

Let me share with you my reasons for entering poetry competitions, because I hope I’ll persuade you to enter at least one.  Which one is it? It’s The Red Shed Poetry Competition, which is organised by the Currock Press..

Why? Because Emma Purshouse is judging will be launched by the lovely man behind The Currock Press, the poet, story-writer, co-organiser of The Red Shed Poetry Readings in Wakefield, and writing tutor, John Clarke. 

Why? Because poetry competitions fund small presses and poetry ventures. The entry fees for The Red Shed Competition essentially pay for the readers and readings at The Red Shed in Wakefield. It’s one of the truly wonderful venues that actually pay the guest poet a decent fee, and it’s why they attract some really great readers.

You can look out for it being publicised via Facebook, and sites like Write out Loudand Spoken Word.Amazingly for the Northern fastnesses of this fair kingdom you’ll be able to pay by Paypal. Which is nice. Or in kind, if you’re into barter.

And to help you on your way, I’m reposting a strand I write at this time in many years. Because it may be useful if you’re tweaking poems you wrote under the daily pressure, and you think may go the distance, and it may give you an idea or two about the ins and outs of poetry competitions if you’ve not entered one before. Ready? Here we go…………………………….

Let’s get something out of the way right from the beginning. The odds of your winning a poetry competition are dramatically increased if you enter. Simultaneously, so are the chances of losing, but not by the same amount. And I guess most of us don’t buy a Lottery ticket expecting to win. If you’re like me, you buy yourself a dream.

In earlier posts on the cobweb, I’ve riffed on my own reasons for entering competitions. First comes the dream. What next? I look out for competitions run by small publishers, because when you pay for your entry, you’re in a win-win situation. Your entry fee is going to keep these small concerns alive…I’m thinking of ones like Prole and The interpreter’s house especially. Or you may be helping to promote a small festivalThe point is, you’re not wasting your money.

Next thing is: who’ll be judging the competition. With the small presses, I don’t mind; however, when it comes to medium and high-profile affairs then what’s important to me is whether I like that poet’s work. Why? Because part of the dream is not anything to do with money (and there’s often not a lot of that involved) but the thought that my work is going to be read by someone I admire and from whom I’ve learned. If the judge’s work is not the sort of thing that floats my boat, then I don’t enter, because I guess that more likely than not, it’s going to be mutual. For example, if Pascale Petit were to judge a competition I’d enter like a shot, but not if it was someone who went in for avant-garde shapes on the page. It’s just how I am. I certainly think twice about competitions where the work is filtered by a selection committee before it reaches the star judge….The Bridport comes to mind….but they’re likely to be the ones with big prize money. For my money, I’d say that if it doesn’t guarantee the judge reads all the entries (as, say, Simon Armitage did for the McClellan) then I’d not bother. But take your choice….it’s up to you.

Is there anything else? I’m personally attracted to competitions which offer publication of your work as a prize. Some will guarantee that runners-up will appear in their magazine (as in The Rialto/ RSPB). It’s certainly worth checking out ones where the prize is a the publication of a pamphlet/chapbook. Indigo Dreams is one such.

Finally, some poets I know will tell me they would rather submit to magazines. My answer is always that it’s not an either/or choice. I do both. But I know I’m always less disappointed by not winning a competition than getting ‘sorry, but no thank-you’ emails from magazine editors. I get a lot of those. I suppose it’s because I don’t expect to win a competition, but I’m absolutely convinced that Magma, The Rialto and the rest would be mad not to jump at the chance of publishing my poems.

Anyway, let’s suppose I’ve persuaded you. What advice can I give?

I’ve thought hard and long about this, ever since John Clarke asked me to judge The Red Shed a few years ago. I’ve had a lot of luck in competitions. I’ve had poems chosen by Andrew Motion (twice), Liz Lochhead, Blake Morrison, Billy Collins, and Simon Armitage (twice). I have not caught the eye of Carrie Etter, Alison Brackenbury, Jo Bell, George Szirtes or Roger McGough (though with the latter, he probably never got to see it…it’s a huge comp, The Bridport). It’s hard to see that they have much in common apart from being immensely talented, and being poets I love to read.

What about the poems? I can’t see any pattern there, either. I sort of thought that most of them had been narratives of one sort or another, but when I check, I find it’s not exactly true. It’s a variety of elegaic, historical/political, mythic, anecdotal, and biographical. Possibly it’s a list that’s light on the lyrical. There are poems about Ted and Sylvia, Milton’s daughter,selkies, suffragettes, cocklepickers, cutting hair, a 10thC princess, Everest, and the plumage trade. They’re not all in the same voice. One is in the voice of a witch, another of a crucifixion expert. They’re all shapes and sizes. What it comes down to, I suppose, is that there was something in each that caught the eye, or the ear and ‘stuck’. Carole Bromley, who has judged the YorkMix Competition for four years, had to read 1800 entries in 2016, and tells me (and I paraphrase)

it just jumps out, it’s an instinctive thing…but you know it when you see it

And that leads me to the one piece of advice that I’m totally convinced about. You don’t try to second-guess the judge. Because she, or he, simply doesn’t know. I could tell you who my favourite poets are, but I doubt it would help. Vernon Scannell, Charles Causley, Tony Harrison, John Donne, Milton, Pope, Bob Dylan, Christy Ducker, Kim Moore, Roger McGough. Blank verse, free verse, quatrains, sonnets, rhyming couplets, multiple rhymes. It’s not a question of this or that form. But judges all know when something jumps off the page. And the thing about poems that win competitions, which makes them that bit different from poems that get accepted by magazines and journals, is that they are one-off experiences. They don’t have to fit a house style, or sit comfortably/interestingly with anyone else’s poems.

So what sort of things are we talking about?

None of this will be unexpected, I think, or new. I can only tell you what makes me pause as I look through a collection, for instance, what makes me want to buy it.


They don’t win competitions but they can snag the attention. Ones that explain exactly what the poem is about don’t do that. But this one does:

Sometimes you think of Bowness

It holds your attention even more because it’s also the first line. And it begins a list of the things that you remember. And each line of the first stanza begins with ‘and’.It’s just a poem that grabs you visually and puzzles you just enough to give it your attention. She can do that, Kim Moore (for ’tis she). She does great titles. If we could speak like wolves.  When I was a thing with feathers. A previous year’s Red Shed judge, Julie Mellor, does, too. Speaking through our bones.Yes. Check out her pamphlet of the same name. So..think about titles.

First lines (which may also be the title). 

(A small caveat here. I said you don’t try to second-guess the judge, but not everyone thinks that using the title as the first line is a good idea. I happen to like it, and I do it a lot, but Helena Nelson for one is dead against it. So maybe it’s not a bad idea to find out if the poet/judge does it in her own work.)

The first line may not have been where the poem started in its first or later drafts. But now you know what the poem’s ‘about’, so you’re playing to get an uncommitted reader’s attention. At the same time you don’t want to give the game away. A good first line will certainly make me pay attention. 

Like The first hymn is Abba: I believe in angels.  Double-take. What’s going on? Must find out. 

Or this one:  They lashed him to old timbers / that would barely float. Him? who is he? A game with a pronoun to create a little hesitation, a suspense. 

Or this: Isn’t it enough that I’ve yanked out my heart?A question will catch the ear, especially if we don’t know who’s asking it or why. 

I’m not offering recipes or nostrums. Just saying: look at the title. Listen to the first line. Ask yourself: why should anyone bother?

The moment.

I go again and again to Clive James’ beautiful Poetry Notebookand his insistence on the memorable, the hard-to-forget. Here’s the thing that strikes me as the heart of the memorable poem, the one that sticks, the one that may just win the prize. ‘Everything’ says James

depended on, and still depends on, the quality of the moment……whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in.

That moment has to be brought alive  and bright in language. It will often be an image, but it could be a startling turn of phrase, or a beautifully placed rhyme. Trying to explain it is like trying to explain a tree or a table. It’s easier to point at some, and say: there’s a table, and so is that. And that. Here, then, are ‘moments’ in poems that persuaded me to buy collections. There might be a lot. It’s enjoyable tracking them down.

How about Robin Robertson’s At Roane Head

He went along the line / relaxing them /one after another / with a small knife

It’s the shock of that last line that nails you. Well, it does me.

Or this, in a different way, from Clare Shaw’s Ewe in several parts..about the imagined(?) loss of a baby, taken by sheep, unprotesting, because

She must have liked it 

the way she likes dogs 

her hands to its mouth and stamping 

like she does when she’s pleased

I kept the line breaks here because they’re part of the way the moment is made to work. Think about it.

Sometimes the moment can declare itself as an image- metaphor or simile- as this  does in Wendy Pratt’s Nan Hardwicke turns into a hare.

An odd feeling this, / to hold another’s soul in the mouth like an egg

That stops me in my tracks. What would carry an egg in its mouth? And how full would that be. Awkward and fragile. It’s packed, isn’t it?

The important thing is that they will lodge themselves in my mind. They stick at a first hearing. 

There’s one like this that I heard when Kim Moore was reading at the Chemic Tavern some years ago. I can’t remember it precisely or exactly, but I can’t forget it. She’s writing about an old boyfriend, how twice a week they would lie together, and apart, on or in a bed, not touching, asexual, like unlit candles.And I know I can never forget it. 

Just in case you get the idea that ‘moments’ are necessarily emotionally fraught or traumatic, the apparently funny and inconsequential will do it, too. Like this opening moment of Mike de Placido’s Diktat song(great title, too)

Some people are bad for the soul. Avoid them.

I quote granddad: Never wrestle with chimneysweeps.

You can’t legislate for it in your own poetry, but when it works, it WILL be recognised.

Technique, form and structure.

Clive James talks about ‘the spectacular expression that outruns its substance’. It’s not about formal structures or freeform or rule breaking or experiment. It’s a question of whether the words and their arrangement are doing their job, that they have to be as they are, rather than being flaunted to make an impression. I have no preference for one kind of poem or another. Sonnets, sestina, terza rimas, rhymed quatrains, couplets, tercets, villanelles. Just so long as they’re not like that to be decorative. Sonnets really do need to be about a particular kind of ‘argument’ don’t they. Sestinas deal happily with the obsessional..otherwise, what are those repetitions for. And so on.


This is a personal thing. But I like to know that a poem’s finished. And it’s not always the case. It doesn’t have to be a rhyming couplet; you can be brought up short by endings that surprise, that turn the poem on its head, that make you reconsider what you’ve just read. In the way that the end of that four line stanza of Robin Robertson’s does…’with a small knife’. The way it subverts what you expect ‘relaxing’ to mean, the way it throws a frightening light on the cold calculations of the man who, you realise, has just casually slaughtered his sons. 

There’s an art to an ending that encompasses and goes beyond the neat sign-offs of the rhyming couplet, or the rhetorical tying-off of a well-crafted sonnet.

And one more personal thing. I once spent some time selecting poems for an anthology. As with competitions, all the entries were anonymous, but it taught me something I’d not explicitly acknowledged to myself. I can’t be doing with pretentiousness or sentimentality or ego, or writing that’s out to impress. This is not the same as being esoteric, or having a wide range of reference, or writing poetry that expects the reader to do a bit of work to follow an allusion or reference. It’s just that if it looks hard, you’re not trying hard enough.

I know there are thousands of people out there who are better writers than I am, and better than I shall ever be. I hope they all enter The Red Shed Poetry Competition and make Emma Purshouse’s life impossible.

Good luck. Get those entries in. All of you.

Here’s the outline details of the competition

The Red Shed Poetry Competition 2021

Deadline: Wed 31 Mar 2021

Prizes: 1st £100 2nd £50 Shortlisted poems £10 Wakefield Postcode prize £25 Open to anyone aged 16 or over. 

Sole adjudicator: Emma Purshouse

Generously sponsored by Mocca Moocho café, Cross Square, Wakefield 

Deadline: Wednesday 31st March 2021

And here’s the link to the competition page:

The books I’ve referred to were:

Robin Robertson: The wrecking light[Picador Poetry 2010] £8.99

Clare Shaw :Head On [Bloodaxe 2012] £8.95

Wendy Pratt : Nan Hardwicke turns into a hare[Prolebooks 2011] £4.50

Mike de Placido :A sixty watt Las Vegas [Valley press 2013] £7.99

Kim Moore : The art of falling[Seren 2015] £9.99

Pascale Petit: What the water gave me[Seren 2010] £8.99