Red Shed Poetry Competition – closes 28 April 2018

A great competition. Small but beautifully formed.

The Poetry Shed

Red Shed Poetry Competition 2018
Sole adjudicator: Maria Isakova Bennett
Closing date: Saturday 28th April, 2018
Prizes: 1st— £100, 2nd—£50
​Short listed poems – £10

Wakefield Postcode prize—£25 

Generously sponsored by Mocca Moocho café


About the Judge

The amazingly creative Maria Isakova Bennett is one of the founders of Coast-to-Coast-to-Coast, the beautiful hand-stitched poetry journals you’ll have heard about. Maria lives in Liverpool and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. She won a Northern Writers’ Award for poetry in June 2017, and has won and has been placed and commended in many poetry competitions.

Find out more and enter here.

View original post

A serious business, and a polished gem :Jennifer Copley


toilet roll crop

Two things have stuck in my mind as the hook(s) I’ll hang this week’s post on.

I remember Ian McMillan saying, in a short film he made with Martin Wiley, something to the effect that ‘funny’ poetry is regarded as less important than ‘serious poetry’. When he said this I think he actually pronounced it as Serious Poetry, and I believe I knew what he meant, even though I also knew that what we mean by ‘funny’ is a lot more complicated than it might seem on the surface.

I thought of this when I saw in a Facebook post an image of faces crafted from toilet roll tubes. My first reaction was to laugh out loud. My second reaction was to see them as sinister and unsettling. They’re like the faces you might find in Breughel, or maybe in Bosch, and perhaps in some of Lautrec’s more grotesque sketches, and Boz’s illustrations for Dickens. They hover somewhere between caricature and realism. Unsettling is the word I’ll settle on.

The other thing was that for some reason I chose to take ‘funny’ poems to read on the open mic. at The Puzzle Poets Live monthly do this week. I particularly chose some of Rory Motion’s poems as well as a couple of my own. Now, it may be that you have never heard of Rory Motion, but you should. I’ve written before about how I started to do open mic poetry in folk clubs. What goes down well in folkclubs is poems that rhyme, and poems that are funny, and, preferably, poems that do both. I built up a list of ones that went down well, by people who wrote the kind of poems I still can’t write myself.

I built up a big file of stuff that wouldn’t let me down. Poets like Matt Harvey and Les Barker. I used a lot of Marriott Edgar. And I came to respect what Pam Ayres did. She’s a crafty, clever writer despite her TV persona. I’m very fond of ‘Clive the fearless birdman‘. I learned a lot from watching Ian Macmillan’s live performances in libraries and other small venues…especially when he worked with Circus of Poets. And I think Roger McGough is frequently brilliant.

bubble compilation 1

But the one who I came to enjoy and respect most was Rory Motion. You can find out about him via this link.

He honed his stage skills on the stand-up comedy circuit in the late 80’s and early 90’s, being described by Time Out as a “a post-Hippie comic”, which by way of cheerful response is how he described Time Out. Finding the increasingly gladiatorial nature of the stand-up world too limiting, he decided in 1992, following a successful national tour with Frank Skinner, to move to Bwlch y Cibau, a small village in Powys.

A regular contributor to national radio, he has appeared on comedy shows, the literature panel game ‘Booked’ with Roger McGough and Miles Kington, and written and presented his own programmes on Radios 4 and 5. In 2001, Rory and fellow poet Matt Harvey created a series of programmes called ‘One Night Stanza’ which, in a victory for poetry lovers everywhere, made the coveted 6:30 Radio 4 comedy slot. In the same year Cassells published Rory’s collection of poems, ‘Neither is the Horse’. It’s still available, and remarkable value at £7.50 for a pocket-sized hardback of 125 pp of poems.





He performed at every Glastonbury Festival from 1989 up until 2008. ( He also paints landscapes, interiors and text-pieces, and in 2007 exhibited at the Peter Pears gallery in Aldeburgh, in conjunction with a reading at the Aldeburgh poetry festival).
Rory is a huge fan of the late Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band (which tells you a good deal) and in 2013 and 2014 supported them at the York Duchess. In 2015, at the Ilkley Literature festival, Rory gave an entertaining, and apparently very successful, practical tutorial on the mysteries of solving cryptic crosswords.

Why he’s not better known, I cannot fathom. But if you hunt down his flash fictions like Mid Wales (a darkly brilliant precis of Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill) or Spear of destiny (which item is for sale at a carboot sale in Totnes) or poems like  Mrs Donkersley’s Chutney (an extravagant rhapsody enacted on a bus between Pocklington and York) you’ll encounter a poet of real craft and imaginative engagement with the rich oddity of the world. It’s simply not possible to pigeon-hole or categorise him, but if I think of the company he might keep it would be poets like John Cooper Clark, and, particularly, Ivor Cutler (who regularly entertained, puzzled and unsettled me when I heard him on the radio…the Home Service as it was…in the late 1950s). Surreal, surprising, artful and impeccably crafted work. Funny, serious, and, yes, unsettling.




Which brings me to today’s guest, and a long-delayed post that I’ve been wanting to write for weeks, ever since I was invited to read at A poem and a pint in Ulverston, and where     I heard her read two poems that simply stuck in my mind like burrs and would not let me go…..because they were funny, spare, beautifully written, and, well, unsettling.

Time to introduce Jennifer Copley who lives in Barrow-in-Furness with her cat, dog, husband and a vast quantity of Victorian furniture inherited from her grandmother. She enjoys polishing and often gets ideas for poems while rubbing up the sideboard. 

You may have come across her work via Kim Moore’s The Sunday Poem but because I think she’s one of those talented poets who tend to fly under the radar, you may not know that she’s published four pamphlets including Ice (Smith Doorstop 2002) and House by the Sea (2003) and three full-length collections Unsafe Monuments (2006), Beans in Snow (Smokestack 2009) and Sisters also by Smokestack in 2013.

Sisters sprang from a photograph of two unknown girls she saw on a post-mortem website. The poems in the first half of the book imagine the lives of these two motherless girls brought up in a strict Victorian household. The second half explores the nature of sisterhood, the predicaments that siblings face, in life and in death. A new pamphlet is due shortly from Happenstance on whose website you’ll find the endorsement many of us would give several limbs for:

U.A. Fanthorpe has described [Jennifer Copley’s] work as ‘urgent, visceral, written out of a fierce commitment to truth’ and Carol Rumens finds ‘a Chagall-like, magical-realist quality to Copley’s delicate shape-shifting’.

She has been published by The Rialto, The North, Stand and PN Review, also twice in the Forward Prize Anthology. She was 2nd in the Cardiff International  and 3rd in the Bridport Poetry Prizes and although she was shortlisted for the Strokestown Prize twice and flogged all the way to County Roscommon, she didn’t win any money. I’m also gratified to learn (via Google) that for the last few years her poems have been used in Poetry Unseen Revision Papers for GCSE students.

In other words, she’s a serious poet; the whole nine yards, the full monty. And she writes poems not unlike the images I started the post with, poems that make you smile, or laugh, and then quickly reassess what just happened. I’d like to say they’re edgy, but they’re more subtle than that. Frequently, they’ll be as tender, lyrical but always clear-eyed, as these images from

Ten Places Where I See My Mother

Mondays, in the kitchen, her arms all suds.

I peer through steam but she’s disappeared


Later she’ll be upstairs, taking off her wet blue dress


In the dark she’s in different places:

the end of my bed, the space by the wardrobe,


Her footprints glow for ages after she’s gone.


Sundays, I see her under the earth,

peacefully asleep, her mouth slightly open,

but she comes to when I start arranging flowers.


What I love about this the matter-of-fact tone, the way this mother will never die and sees nothing remarkable about it. It makes me think of the ‘normalities’ of folk-tale and the narrow boundaries between the mundane and the wonderful. Although Jennifer Copley has something to say about them, too.

They’re only fairy tales, say our mothers,
who serve us porridge that’s far too hot;
and who are they that we should trust them
when they prick their fingers,        (from ‘Fairy Tales’)

I love the way she brings the reader up short in this line: ‘who are they that we should trust them’, the way it wryly and sardonically subverts my expectations of ‘our mothers’. Subversive..that’s the word; and that’s what the last line of The robin subverts.

The Robin

– was dead but no one knew who’d killed him.
–Snow in the wind, said the sparrow.
–Ice in the water butt, said the wren.
–Frost on the five-barred gate, said the blackbird.
–A poisoned snail, said the thrush.
–God, said the canary who had no respect.
–Then they all turned on each other, shrieking and accusing, although
no one had liked the robin since he’d bullied the goldfinch children to death.

What makes very tiny children laugh is surprise (which may be frightening) followed by relief. Everyone who ever played ‘Boo!’ with child in a cot or a pram knows this. And Jenny Copley’s poems know this too. She herself says ‘I must tell stories. Stories about people (or animals) in improbable situations. I’m interested in how they react and how they resolve (or don’t) the things they face.’

So here we are with the two poems she sent me to share with you all, both, as it happens set in cellars of the kind you might finding Chris Van Allsberg’s wonderful book The mysteries of Harris Burdick. If you were looking for visual equivalents of the images that Jennifer Copley creates, you could do a lot worse than start there. Basement starts in a cellar in 1940, which sets up a set of expectations that’s immediately put in question by that flat but they feel safe here. 


1940, but they feel safe here,

between the ping-pong table

and the bottled fruit.

Light from a tiny barred window

spills down dust-motes.

There’s a birdcage

he always knocks his head on,

a cupboard that creaks.


Today it’s hot.

They remove more clothes than usual.

Her buttons roll into mouse-holes.

His braces, hurriedly unsnapped,

fly into a corner where they stay

for fifty years.

Upstairs, pans clatter.

Where’s Lizzy? Someone shouts

but with his tongue in her ear,

Lizzy doesn’t cotton on.


Not knowing the way war will turn,

all their arrangements,

love tokens,

sweat from their bodies,

moons from their fingers,



lie in scuffs on the floor.

I like the story-teller’s ‘they’ that demands you have to find out who ‘they’ are, between the deliberately comic ping-pong table and the bottled fruit, lit dimly by what comes through a window that’s ‘barred’. Which should make you think twice. Whoever they are, they come often because ‘there’s a birdcage / he always knocks his head on’. And yes, it’s comic, until it’s unsettling. Because they take off more clothes ‘than usual’ in a fumble of snapped-off buttons and unsnapped braces. A poem of desperate love in a time of war that’s not comic at all but as serious as salt and moons and semen. I love it.


cellar crop

The second poem, Cellar was the one that made me sit up and take notice at Ulverston. It has that quirkiness that makes me think of Ivor Cutler, and that disingenuous matter-of-fact quality that is so unsettlingly at odds with the story.


Here’s where we live,

buried under ground,

our hats in our hands.

We came down in 1963

to fill up the scuttle

and the door slammed shut.


The light knocked off in 1984

so we live in the dark, bowed over

like the hulls of two old boats.

You say ‘tomato’ and I say ‘tom-ate-o’.

Apart from that we get on well enough.


Our children call down the coal hole

occasionally. They almost try the door

but their hearts aren’t in it.

After all, what would they say to us,

it’s been so long since we

kept a grip on things, on them.


Understated, memorable and unnerving.  I wish I could do work like that, so economically and apparently without effort. Thank you Jennifer Copley for the poems and waiting so patiently for me to write about them.

St Ives 2017 014


And now I’m going to check all my lists for the umpteenth time, and double-check my packing, because first thing tomorrow I’m off over to Greater Manchester to collect two poets and then we’re heading off to St Ives for a week of poetry reading and writing. There may not be a post next Sunday, but I reckon you can put up with that, and I’ll see you when I see you. Thank you for reading.











Well-found. A review of James Caruth’s “Narrow water”

james caruth 7

Are you tired of winter? I am. Bone tired. Someone said yesterday that it’s been going on for five months. He was quite upbeat about this, being a climber….there’s still deep snow on the Scottish mountains, and big ice-climbs still viable on the Nevis. But I’m tired of rain and greyness. And possibly just tired. I’m feeling stale, my brain’s clogged, I can’t think fast enough. Hungover with poetry and poetry travelling. Three weeks ago I was in the snow of Upper Wensleydale on a poetry residential that took me into some dark places…very introspective and uncomfortable. When I look now at what I wrote, it seems a lot more upbeat than it felt at the time, but it was, well, tiring. And then I was off to read in Cork at Ó Bhéal…it’s a great place to read in is The Long Valley, and I loved doing it; Cork is a lovely looking city, but it takes it out of a chap. Train cancelled, flight delayed, late night, and so on. I’ve been down to Sheffield for a poetry night (thanks for a great reading, Roy Marshall) and again for a Writing Day. And also to the outskirts of Penistone  for a launch event for today’s guest poet, James Caruth. At the start of this week it was a two day journey for the funeral of one of my best friends; a funeral in the pouring rain of Northampton. Over-travelled and emotionally drained.

Enough of the self-pity. I’d rather celebrate being alive and surrounded by so many good things, and the poetry of Jim  Caruth in particular. Promises to keep; this was due to be written last week, but better late than never.

I’ll start with notes I wrote in the back of Jim’s new pamphlet Narrow Water.

March 23. near Penistone. The Methodists are dark and closed. No-one’s here but me. Later the Penistone Poets arrive and now there are six of us. Eventually someone turns up to lat us in and there is light and warmth. Jim arrives…he is unwell; his face is badly swollen, but he’s here and up for it, and we have poets and poems. Julie Mellor and Jim. Doll’s houses and Bukowski, Friday nights after school, waterskiing in a disused gravel pit, and changing out of wetsuits in a changing room improvised from curtaining, in that hour that was solitary, those unwinding sentences. Jim does landscapes of stone and gorse, small unroofed churches, one like an upturned boat in a bitter wind, the pigeon crees of Penistone Road. Everyone in the audience buys a book. Every one. This is something that should catch on. In his second set we meet the men and women of his family, the landscapes of their history, Donegal and Slieve Foy. It’s a lovely evening. I have a head full of images and music.

james caruth 3

It seemed then, and it seems now exactly right that Julie Mellor would introduce Jim’s reading, and provide the support. They are both winners of the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition, and the title poem of Julie’s pamphlet,  Breathing through our bones ends like this:

Here in these towns where everyone

is someone’s cousin twice removed,

we are all breathing through our bones.

and it’s just right, because it evokes, for me,  the kinds of buttoned up small communities that provide the landscapes of many of the poems in Jim’s new collection Narrow water, where

The women of my childhood

are practiced in silence…………

hide their hair in tight knots……….

are deep buttoned chairs…………..

know lost words for love.


I wrote about Jim’s poetry a couple of years ago, and I’ll be recycling elements of that post, but if you don’t know his work already I’ll introduce him properly.

James Caruth was born in Belfast but has lived in Sheffield for the last 30 years. His first collection –  A Stones Throw was published in 2007 by Staple followed by a long sequence – Dark Peak, published by Longbarrow in 2008 and a pamphlet – Marking the Lambs, from Smith Doorstop in 2012.

His poem from this collection – The Deposition won the Sheffield Poetry Prize in 2011. His work has also been included in The Sheffield Anthology (Poems from the City Imagined), Smith Doorstop 2012 and The Footing, Longbarrow Press 2013 which includes a sequence of poems Tithes, based around the village of Stannington in South Yorkshire where he lives.

His pamphlet The Death of Narrative was a winner of the Poetry Business Competition 2014 It was judged by Carol Ann Duffy who said –

James Caruth’s poems tell stories that draw the reader in. His voice is warm and moving, and there is music to his writing which is completely captivating. This is an outstanding collection.

She said this as well:

James Caruth’s remarkable poems are unlike anyone else’s. They are knowing and disingenuous at the same time, clear-eyed and romantic.

One of the poems from that collection is Lethe. It’s poem that has always stuck like a burr in my mind,  eliding a mythic Underworld with a salmon that leaps from a silver pool, and the entry into Hades of a shell-shocked, flustered woman with a harmless life of small sins of omission, who cannot remember the name of the Ferryman

her face pale as a clock / her wide eyes emptying.

It makes a strong connection for me with Narrow Water, a collection  whose monochrome palette is that of Don McCullin’s photographs and Norman Ackroyd’s etchings, and with the same accuracy of vision. In its landscapes of stone and water and cold wind one trope is constant, and it’s that of separations as narrow as those between the dead and the living, the present and the past. There’s a haunting phrase…a book title in fact. it’s Conrad’s…… that comes to mind. The shadow line. It makes me think of Rothko’s shimmering canvasses. And also of the space of cold silver between the solid land and the fluid shifting water that you see when you look across a big sea loch, or at a headland. It’s that intangible narrow separation that comes to mind.

As Jim Caruth says in Rain God:


On days like this the slippage of a soul

might go unnoticed and I can’t summon

the faithfulness to live in the future tense.

Along with poetry in my pocket,

I carry a little hope.


I’ll come back to this note of something that I can only think of as a deeply spiritual agnosticism. But to get to the heart of the collection I go to the title poem, and all its complex layers. The Narrow Water of the poem is is the lough below Slieve Foy, separating it from the Mournes of Ulster, its

skyline bleeding like a bad engraving

It’s a place of deep division

from the first scour of ice

this place has known violence

and also a shore where the poet remembers holidays, the rows of caravans, and being

mesmerised by this narrow strip of water ,  where he asks the unnerving question:

Was this our Styx where we passed over.

The subtitle of the poem should alert the reader:

i.m. 27th August 1979.

To look across the narrow water is to look across to a different world, from Ulster to Eire, at the beginning of ‘the Troubles’. This place has known violence, going back to the Viking longboats rounding the point. Every name is redolent with dark histories

Warrenpoint, Rosetrevor, Kilkeel.

Little towns comfortable in their anonymity

where momentous events go unrecorded.

I still imagine the small front parlours,

teacups rattling on china plates,

the sudden screel of a bird

an ancient echoing

Warrenpoint was the place of the IRA ambush that killed more British soldiers than any other single attack. Two RUC men were shot dead in their patrol car at Rosetrevor. Kilkeel has a long history of violent sectarian division. The poet says

given time, water alters everything


we dig our past out of a drowned bog,

read runes in bones washed up on the tide

but as I read, I suspect that the little towns comfortable in their anonymity/ where momentous events go unrecorded stay buttoned up, like the men and women of his childhood, the men particularly, who kept words locked away…./….hide in small rooms.

These people are soothsayers, says Jim Caruth in  Latitudes;  doom-merchants, conjuringold slights in a hurl of words

I’ll say straight off that it’s not ‘the Troubles’ that are at the heart of Narrow Water, but the separations of which the ‘Troubles’ are only one. I’d say too that though the landscapes are predominantly those of Northern Island, the collection has a much wider range, emotionally and geographically, and follows its emigrants across a much wider water in a group of poems centred on New York. I chose to print  one in full because it illustrates very beautifully what Carole Ann Duffy wrote about Jim’s poetry: knowing and disingenuous at the same time, clear-eyed and romantic. ‘Clear-eyed’ is the phrase I seize on. It’s the eye for the moment and its textures.

Play the harp backwards meets that criterion of Clive James about the image, the moment that makes the poem. When I was reading  background for the post, I came across this documentary photograph. It’s as exact, as balanced and true as the poem

Play the harp backwards

Who taught them to sling bridges from wires,

to walk straight-backed as convent girls,

along the narrow girders of high towers,

backs to the wind, never daring to look down.


Clustered in the tenements of Brooklyn

and the Lower East Side, like raucous gulls

lining the white hem of a small island

whose name comes in a half-remembered tongue.


At nights you’d find them in the bars

along the waterfront, reciting a catechism

of names as they listened to the old songs,

while outside snow fell on the desolate streets

and the Hudson heaved like a wounded animal.


When the money ran out, they fingered

the dust in their pockets, staggered home

to small rooms, to dream of a mail-boat

rounding the Head, a town shivering

in the yellow glow of street-lamps.


There’s not a foot put wrong.  It’s a poem as deft and confident as the high-wire scaffolders and rivetters who built Manhattan. The images  nail it down:

straight-backed as convent girls;      

like raucous gulls / lining the white hem of a small island;     

the Hudson heaved like a wounded animal.

Here’s the history of a place and of a people caught in a moment in time, on the white hem of a small island, on the edge of narrow waters, unable to leave the past they are spiritually and emotionally bound to. There’s a phrase in another poem, The emigrant’s farewell, that catches this mood exactly:

Somewhere out there is a language of loss

but I have no words for this. 

There’s a paradox to savour! Because this collection is written with a deftness and confidence of language that marks it as special and memorable. In Latitudes,  the observation is as sure as MacCaig’s, and as accurate

The coast road is sleek with kelp.

On the seafront, pastel coloured

lightbulbs sag on a wire


In Apostle, which is a hymn to an old man brought down by dementia there’s this beautifully textured image of the wife gently washing his back at the kitchen sink, as (I suppose) a grandchild watches

she bathed the white flesh

of his back. a ripple of ribs

showing through like a frost

on the roof of a coal shed

That combination of texture (a ripple of ribs) , lovely fragility (frost) and the solidly mundane ( the coal shed’s corrugated iron roof) is beautifully and apparently effortlessly achieved.

In those last weeks he never offered

a single word to anyone but God

The poet remembers him again in the Prado, as

 Ribera’s St Andrew, half naked

and lost in thoughts of heaven.


There’s a great tenderness in these poems, where you may encounter James Joyce, and Munch and Tom Eliot among the people who live by the narrow waters, and where there could just be a bridge where  hope spans the narrows /wind sings in the cables. The note of rigorously honest and spiritual agnosticism.

One more thing. With Jim Caruth it’s a voice that commands the attention and then the poem that justifies it. I’ll not take up your time with my thing about the unfair advantages of the Irish [North and South] when it comes to poetry. The dramas of their history and its terrible deprivations, the strangeness of their mythologies and folktales, the iconography of Catholicism and the transgressive disciplines of priests and nuns….and the voice, the accents. Enough to say that Jim has a voice, like Heaney, that you simply want to listen to, and that you go on hearing in his poetry when you lift it off the page. Think of Heaney and you’ll not go far wrong.


“Jim Caruth’s writing balances risk against hope and hope against experience. The place names and landmarks of Northern Ireland dot a collection where deep time and deep water are often close at hand. This is a gentle, humane and philosophical account of a life lived thoughtfully.” Jo Bell

Narrow water : Poetry Salzburg  [Pamphlet Series 24. 2017]








Where all the ladders start (3)… borrowing voices


I was planning to celebrate another poet’s work today; indeed, I meant to write a review, but I’m distracted and excited by the fact that I’m off to read at Ó Bhéal’s in Cork tomorrow, wondering what the weather will do, praying this incipient cold will stay incipient till I get my reading done…in a word, nervous.

So I’ll post something already half-written, which is probably the last of this mini-sequence about where poems seem to come from, and what persuades them to turn up. I’m conscious that Julie Mellor is doing a similar thing on her blog, and I’m reading it with real interest. Because while my posts are essentially about ‘what poems are about’ hers are about how they might be generated through structured playing with language. They’re not alternative ways of thinking about writing or approaching it. They sit happily  side by side; they’re neither exclusive nor exhaustive…go and see what she’s up to. If you have time, come back and see the rest of this. Here we go.

dummy 4

You may or may not remember this. Michael Parkinson was reputedly incandescent afterwards and swore that ‘that **** will never work again’. What’s definite is that Rod Hull built a career out of flustering, embarrassing and attacking people by proxy. It wasn’t Rod Hull being offensive and anti-social; it was Emu, the archetypal imaginary friend who stole the cakes, dropped the dishes, tracked mud in the kitchen. An alter ego absolves you of responsibility; wearing a mask allows you to say things you wouldn’t normally dream of saying for fear of reprisal. It can also let you say things which aren’t offensive to others but which you feel afraid to confront; it frees you to speak your own uncomfortable truths. I supposes it reaches its apotheosis in drama .. especially, for me, in Shakespeare who can inhabit the characters of those like Edmund or Iago who give you access to dark places. Maskwearing, ventriloquial poetry, dramatic monologue. It doesn’t have to be dark, of course. You can choose your personae. I’m thinking of a recent guest on the cobweb, Sue Vickerman, whose alter ego,  Suki the Life Model, has a whole collection under her belt. T S Eliot borrowed Prufrock and Tiresias. Your persona can be anything you choose, benign, cuddly, sinister,amoral.

What’s certain is that, whether you like it or not,  they’ll not just give you access to imagined different ways of thinking, but also reveal yourself to yourself in ways that can surprise you. What I do know is that, for me, trying on the personalities and voices of real and imagined characters..painters, angels, gods, Lucifer (three times), and so on…is liberating. Trying the voices of women characters is also challengingly educative. I’ve managed to one poem that an exclusively female group believed was written by a women. When it works, you know you’re getting somewhere.

Two years ago I was on a residential course toured by Kim Moore and Steve Ely.  Part of what Steve asked us to do was to try on ‘transgressive voices’, and he gave us unnerving examples of personalities we could try exploring. Like the prophet Samuel. Tyndale’s translation of the Old Testament softens no edges, if you want to contemplate Samuel’s hewing Hagag to bloody bits in front of the assembled tribes. Not an easy man to like, Samuel. Anyway, having being softened up, we were invited to choose our own villain/anti-hero. Anyone. Later on I tried out Myra Hindley and Harold Shipman, but the first to come to mind was Richard the Third, of whom the goodmen of York recorded on hearing the news of Richard’s death at Bosworth :

        this day was our good King Richard most greviously murdered and slain.

Here’s the first step…the notes I made, listening to Steve

Richard 2

It’s pretty obvious where my sympathies tend to lie…with the subversive, the Mephistophelian; the ones who in general are good with words, and have a dark humour. I’ve picked this example, because we didn’t go from the prompt direct to the draft. There was a gap of time..I can’t remember how long, but certainly a coffee break..and then an intensive bit of work producing this

richard 1

I was intrigued when I went back to the notebook to see that though I was sure I wanted to try on Richard’s voice, I didn’t know where to start.What was the pivot, the core moment. Maybe something had percolated from that musing about Browning’s Duke. If someone’s talking they need to be somewhere and somewhen, and they need a reason to be talking. Who are they talking to? And I suddenly thought that this would be before his last battle, that everyone would have abandoned him except the boy who might have brought him food and who would be too afraid to run away with the others. And I thought that Richard has every right to be distracted and autocratic, but it turns out that my Richard is the one I learned from Josephine Tey’s The daughter of time..that lovely revisionist history that starts from the portrait of Richard that shows an intelligent and sensitive man. My Richard understands fear imaginatively, and he knows this boy is frightened. He might be abrupt, offhand, gruff, but he knows this boy has stayed with him, and he’s both concerned and grateful. At which point, of course, I should learn something of my own tendency to be sentimental. But I’m just happy to have found a place where Richard can convincingly stand. I’m also happy to find that he has a Yorkshire accent that I can use to displace the Lawrence Olivier stuff even while I plunder what I remember from his longer speeches. It’s got no shape yet, but it’s got the sense of things happening. It’ll do, for now. And so it sat for a couple of weeks, and then I tried it on screen, tinkered with it, took stuff out, put stuff in, worked on the blank verse, took stuff out. What surprised me was the end. I never expected that. I just know I like reading it out. Here’s the finished thing.

Richard before Bosworth


Boy. There’s no need for you to stay. I can fettle

all this gear. The rest have all fucked off.

Go if you’ve a mind. There’s no one’ll blame you.

I shan’t. The priest made his excuses. The ingrate

greasy sod. But I tell you this. By God,

I stand here your rightful and anointed king.

Blessed by three suns rising in the smoking frost

the day that Edward died and the Lord did grant

to us the field. Bustle then. Make yourself useful.

Buckle on this shoulder brace. Pull this strap tight.

Don’t look surprised. What did you expect?

A hump like a fucking minotaur? One wasted

leg, a lurching gait; not quite the monster, am I?

Never killed a man I wasn’t looking in the eye.

That bastard Richmond and his traitor’s lies…

bottled spider that bitch Margaret calls me.

Listen. Your age I was riding chargers.

Those slick-tongued pretty boys. I’ll tell you what.

I’ll not burn in hell for that fat whoreson, Clarence.

Drowned in a butt of malmsey? The fuck he did.

Drank himself to death, god rot him. I had

their women? Course I did. And so would you.

The Lady Anne? O yes. Spat  right in my face.

She did. I gave it time. Forget that tale

About me and her husband’s coffin.

I waited for a day or two. Don’t look like that.

A sweet armful, Anne. Said I made her laugh.

More ways than one to skin a cat. Do I see ghosts?

Round every corner, boy. Kill enough, and so will you.

Don’t think I lose a fucking minute’s sleep.

All my family butchered. I can’t smell blood these days.

Right. You’ve done a grand job with these greaves.

Light a candle for me if I don’t come back.

Get yourself to York and light it there.

Give me my sword. By God’s grace I am

England’s king. So. Let us go to it. Pray for me.


[from Much Possessed. smith|doorstop 2016]



See you next week…with a proper poet.



A praise poem (for Emma Gonzales) : John Duffy


Praise poem

Emma Gonzalez,

I wish I had never heard of you,

I wish I had never seen you

wiping tears from your eyes

as you stood on the platform

and spoke for the people,

for the young people who died,

for the young people who survived,

for all the people who know

that what comes out of the barrel

of a gun is inadequacy and

envy and smoke and hating

people as beautiful as you,

Emma Gonzalez, you

with your words that shame

the traders in death and lift

sad friends, miserable families,

bewildered children, and all of us

across your country and the planet

who stand amazed at the power

of your voice,  Emma Gonzalez,

your angry laugh,

your daring your president

to become a man, to own up

to his blood money in deep

pockets, I wish I had never seen you

rooted on the stage, defiant,

your head like a wonderful marine’s,

Emma Gonzalez, cropped short

and meaning business, meaning

to clean up big business,

meaning justice, meaning a scattering

of vendors’ tables: your tongue scourging

the ones who trade in carnage

and the ones who watched

the gunman swagger, the gunman

pose, the gunman possessed

by misery, by smoke, by nothing

of any worth.  You have given us

hope, Emma Gonzalez,

by your courage and your words.

What a sister, what a friend,

Emma Gonzalez, what a daughter!

emma 2

Emma Gonzales’ speech – extracts

Every single person up here today, all these people should be home grieving. But instead we are up here standing together because if all our government and President can do is send thoughts and prayers, then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see. Since the time of the Founding Fathers and since they added the Second Amendment to the Constitution, our guns have developed at a rate that leaves me dizzy. The guns have changed but our laws have not.

We certainly do not understand why it should be harder to make plans with friends on weekends than to buy an automatic or semi-automatic weapon.

I read something very powerful to me today. It was from the point of view of a teacher. And I quote: When adults tell me I have the right to own a gun, all I can hear is my right to own a gun outweighs your student’s right to live. All I hear is mine, mine, mine, mine.

When we’ve had our say with the government — and maybe the adults have gotten used to saying ‘it is what it is,’ but if us students have learned anything, it’s that if you don’t study, you will fail. And in this case if you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead, so it’s time to start doing something.

We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because, just as David said, we are going to be the last mass shooting. Just like Tinker v. Des Moines, we are going to change the law. That’s going to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas in that textbook and it’s going to be due to the tireless effort of the school board, the faculty members, the family members and most of all the students. The students who are dead, the students still in the hospital, the student now suffering PTSD, the students who had panic attacks during the vigil because the helicopters would not leave us alone, hovering over the school for 24 hours a day.

If the President wants to come up to me and tell me to my face that it was a terrible tragedy and how it should never have happened and maintain telling us how nothing is going to be done about it, I’m going to happily ask him how much money he received from the National Rifle Association.

You want to know something? It doesn’t matter, because I already know. Thirty million dollars. And divided by the number of gunshot victims in the United States in the one and one-half months in 2018 alone, that comes out to being $5,800. Is that how much these people are worth to you, Trump? If you don’t do anything to prevent this from continuing to occur, that number of gunshot victims will go up and the number that they are worth will go down. And we will be worthless to you.

To every politician who is taking donations from the NRA, shame on you.

They say no laws could have prevented the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call BS. That us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works. We call BS.


John Duffy’s poetry

Glamourie. [Calder Valley Poetry 2016] £7.00

The edge of seeing.  [The High Window 2017] £10.00




Where all the ladders start (2)


Just back from five days at a writing retreat at Garsdale Head, about eight miles up the valley from Hawes.

It felt strange, last Monday, to be driving past the Ribblehead viaduct, all the moors streaked with snow that lies longer in the lea of the gritstone walls that march straight up big hills, for no purpose other than enclosure, the marking of boundary and ownership. Deeper drifted snow in hollows and ghylls; curling snow cornices on the edges of landslip. I drove past the turn to Dentdale, and realised with a kind of lurch that years ago, on my first hiking holiday, I’d walked from Dent youth hostel straight over the moor top to Oughtershaw and Langstrothdale, down into Buckden and then to Kettlewell. The lurch came from seeing how big the moors are, how far. I didn’t know better then. I just did it without thinking. Last Monday, I knew I’d never do anything like it again. I’d be too timid, too anxious, and in any case my legs wouldn’t let me. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, that sense of inability, and if you let it in, it makes you feel as though there are lots of other things you can’t do any more. Like writing anything you’d want to read again.

I think that diffuse draining of confidence leaked into the workshop tasks, which all seemed to become reflective, introspective, all about ‘I’ and ‘me’. You lug a lot of baggage into workshops. Or at least I do. Often it’s useful baggage, stuff you’ve just read or done, that lets you come at the moment obliquely. A simple example would be the way you can approach your own inner life via the narratives of myth or folk tale, via ventriloquism, hiding inside another imagined self or persona. This last week has been about finding no hiding place, and being unsure of the way language can let you speak truly about the unadorned experience. I think that’s at least part of what Yeats meant about the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. I firmly believe that it was just what I needed. Whether I liked it or not was neither here nor there. When I’m asked what I expect from a writing workshop I say, blithely, that I want to be shifted out of my comfort zone. I wasn’t disappointed. Thank you, Kim Moore.

I wanted to say all that before sharing one of those poems that seem to come without worry or effort, because sometimes I forget to say thanks for their turning up. Of course, they don’t come out of nowhere. It’s nice to acknowledge a debt to those who make a place to start. Here’s a task that came at the very end of a Poetry Business writing day. Task 7. One of Ann Sansom’s six line specials, with four or five minutes and no more to finish your morning on a high.

for true naming

How does it work? The instruction is to write a succession of lines, and each of the lines must contain one of the prompt words or ideas. A hero, a time word, some sort of headgear, something to do with a church, a free choice line and the name of a county. Any of those could be a trigger, but it happened that I’d been reading, and rereading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. I’d earmarked several things. One was his writing about the Finnish Kalavela, and the hero Vainamoinen who the legend credits with winning the gift of fire for mankind. The other wonderful core idea is that of the naming of places, and of landscapes, that the world is en-chanted into being by knowing and saying its True Names.

What else comes along, what baggage? For me, the quest of Ged in Ursula le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. The end of Ged’s quest is to understand that he can only know his true self by naming it with his true name. Names are the core of magic. The journeys of the innocent heroes and heroines of folk tale are important too….journeys through dark forest, over mountain passes, on the edges of dark seas. Elemental places, much like the snow-streaked dark moors or the coast of Northumbria; Dunstanburgh and the Farnes where the mythic is just about to break in like hail. And there it is, a workshop prompt that lights a fuse for a fire you’ve been building without really thinking why. Without Macfarlane, that line ‘for the true naming of the world’ wouldn’t have jumped on the page to introduce a list of everything you might need. I should write a praise-song for lists and listing, and their seductive forward-pushing rhythms. Here’s the finished version.

For the true naming of the world


For the true naming of the world

you need one who will recognise a fish

that has swallowed a star

that fell through the vaults of the air;

one who wears a helmet or bears a sword

forged in the heart of mountains,

from metals whose names no man ever knew,

to bear a name that can not be forgot,

a name to fit in a verse to be sung at a feast;


you need one to be sent on a quest

through silent forests, stony wastes,

to a bony church and a hillside that opens

to a way that he’ll walk through all the ages,

to come dumb and dazzled to the seashore

under huge lucid skies, into the wind,

to build monasteries, to illuminate gospels;

to speak to otters, spear the sea like a gannet,

to be one with wind and with seals.


Then stones and flowers might come

to know themselves. Day’s-eye, comfrey,

coltsfoot, mallow, vetch, stonecrop, feverfew.

Hornblende, granite, wolfram, flint and gneiss;

valleys might come know their depths,

and becks and burns to know the purposes of rain,

and the ways of the clough and the gorge

under blood moons, hare moons, the moon

when horns are broken. Then.


Almost everything in this is borrowed. I’m pretty sure the ‘hillside that opens’ is from William Mayne’s Earthfasts, set in Arkengathdale. I imagined the kind of hillside that loomed over the house I stayed in last week. This oneIMG_2612

the lucid skies are the astonishing skies of the Northumberland coast; the founder of monasteries is Cuthbert, the gospels are from Lindisfarne; Cuthbert spoke with otters and seals, but the imagining of it is from Robert Westall’s The Wind Eye. The naming of flowers is from Macfarlane, and the Native American names for the moons of different seasons are from Dee Brown.

Sometimes it’s even less complicated. Sometimes you seem to be given something that comes pretty well fully-formed. In this case a sort of retelling of a parable from Bede. More Northumbria, but in my mind, it happens in Whitby. It seemed to have its own urgent rhythm.In the meantime

and the finished version, which just seemed to know its own linebreaks

In the meantime


because that’s how it is, the sparrow

flying into the meadhall, bewildered

by smoke-reek, gusts of beer-breath,

out of the wild dark and into the half-

light of embers, sweat, the steam

of fermenting rushes, and maybe

a harp and an epic that means nothing

in a language it doesn’t know, this sparrow,

frantic to be out there, and maybe

it perches on a tarry roof beam, catches

a wingtip, comes up against thatch

like a moth on a curtain, and it beats

its wings, it beats its wings, it tastes

a wind with the scent of rain, the thin

smell of snow, of stars, and somehow

it’s out into the turbulence of everywhere,

and who knows what happens next.


So there we are. Every time you think you have nothing to say, or it all seems too hard and miserable, say a little prayer for the ones you were given free, like a blessing.


[Both poems come from Much possessed .  smith|doorstop 2016.

Available  via The Poetry Business, or from me direct. See  My books  at the top of the page]

Where all the ladders start [1]

junk shop 1

I’ve just been trawling Google for ‘rag and bone shops’. Fascinatingly, nearly everything that shows up seems to be about faux-antique shops in pleasant places. Post-modern yuppie emporia for Grand Designs and interior decorator addicts. Almost certainly expensive and probably pretentious. Not what I was looking for, by a long chalk.

And why? Partly it was the realisation that the first bits of poetry that hit me in the solar plexus rather than in the intellect were Yeats’.

This is no country for old men.

An old man’s eagle mind. 

And this

“Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
The circus animals’ desertion caught me off guard, and bypassed the usual Prac. Crit. sieve that A levels and University equipped me with. I didn’t ‘understand’ it in any analytic way. It felt true and important. It still does. I hear Yeats asking ‘who was I kidding?’, telling himself he’s lost his way, needs to get back to basics. And the reality of the ‘basics’ felt shocking to me, then. I supposed then that he meant to embrace ‘realism’…which was fashionable enough in the 60s if you meant ‘kitchen sink’. Whatever that was. I knew about rag and bone men; they were familiar enough down our street in the 1940’s and 50’s. As was their cry. Ra’bones!.any kind of old rags! God knows how worn out things had to be before you’d think of throwing them away, but somehow, someone could make a living out of them. And after all, I lived in the Heavy Woollen District where things like blankets and overcoat material were spun and woven from recycled rags…which was called ‘shoddy’. My dad spun yarn from shoddy for 50 years.
junk shop 3
I didn’t consciously think through whatever layers of meaning were implied by that ‘foul rag and bone shop’. I had a diffuse sense that he meant that truth didn’t reside in the myths of Oisin, or Cuchalain, that he’d been distracting himself from the real stuff, whatever that was. I didn’t stop to think that this stuff was worn out from life and use and carried its musty histories in its warp and weft. It’s a lot later that I came to see how the foul rag and bone shop of unconsidered memory is where poems that are (or seem to be) the real deal can come from.
I’ve been reading Julie Mellor’s poetry blog recently…she’s been reflecting on the processes of breaking out of a default way of drafting and composing by using randomising devices like cut-ups…just to see what happens. Other writers’ ways of working fascinate me. It reminds me of the pleasure to be had from watching actors, or listening to musicians in rehearsal (as opposed to in concert or performance). You can follow what she’s been doing via this link. Well worth it.
At which point I thought I might revisit poems that had seemed to come unbidden,  yet seemed to be important, and to think about what was involved. At the risk of the whole business seeming a self-advertising ego trip, I thought that I’d like to have a look at poems I’ve written that have got ‘out there’ and done well for themselves, and to wonder how it happened. Today I’m going back to a poem called ‘Julie
 Scan 1.jpg
It starts in a Jane Draycott workshop. Among the many tasks was one that I tend to distrust…where you’re given an image at random and invited to respond to it in one way or another. This one is from those nice boxes of Postcards from Penguin. 100 postcards using covers of vintage Penguin books.
And I have to say, I couldn’t see what could possibly be done with it. I feel that way when I look at it now. Somehow you need to bypass the rational/analytic bit of the brain, and especially the bit that worries about ‘writing poems’,here’s the notebook scrawl from 2013:
julie 1julie 2
One of the reasons I keep all my workshop scribbles in bound books, and why I number the pages, is that I can revisit where things start, and remind my self what kind of trigger was involved. It’s why I write down what the workshop tutor says about the task. What did Jane say? You have to learn to search for or listen for the point of arrest. That intrigues me still, as does one of her phrases about the ignition point of a poem. I’ve come to conflate this with Clive James’ the moment that draws you in. It might be a word or a phrase, or a rhythm or a sensory memory. For me it’s almost always a visual image that may initially be diffuse and unfocussed, but it’ll be one that may snag and nag.
And then she went on to say:
the point will be be …what this is not, what this might be,  where this isn’t. 
It was the last bit that stuck I think. Flames. If not here, then where? I used to live between Redcar and Saltburn, and in the night there would be the flares of the ironworks up the coast, and sometimes the stacks of Wilton ICI ‘flaring off’. That’s where these flames would be. I’d recently had a reunion with Andy Blackford who I’d not seen in over 30 years. He has a house in Staithes, where the inland skyline is dominated by Boulby potash mine. It has a tall chimney. It doesn’t flare, but somehow it got conflated with those of ICI. A rag and bone shop of half-remembered stuff.


Staithes is a fishing village; the lovely fishing boats, the cobles that are descendants of Viking boats, sit tilted on the mud of the river at low tide, and suddenly I’m making a link with Whitby, where what mattered right then was my partner’s cousin Julie, mortally ill but defying the consultants by living on beyond the allotment they’d settled on. Just like that, she becomes the centre of the poem, the landscapes initially incidental, and then starting to take on a resonance that’s not just geographical. None of this has been intentional. I didn’t set out to write a poem about Julie. I didn’t set out with any purpose at all. On the other hand, it seemed essential that I saw her in her place in Whitby’s Old Town, low-ceilinged and bursting with stuff. Nutty and magical. Photos don’t do it justice, but here’s a flavour. Every single object has a complicated personal history. A wonderful ‘rag and bone shop’ if you like.



The way it fixed itself in the five minutes or so of first drafting was the house becoming a sort of theatre, or maybe an iconostasis for  you perched like a wire bird/ up on your kitchen top. but I think the poem takes off in a way that was new to me when I focus on Julie rather than the anecdotal details. I’d never written a line like this

Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face

Basically, I’d never written directly and honestly about someone I knew…it’s the kind of thing I avoided because there was always the terrifying possibility that the someone would read it and deny that it was true. It’s a real blocker, the fear of embarrassment, for me at least. But it’s what I think I started to learn about the rag-and-bone-shop of the heart. The shops I knew. But the heart was dangerous territory. There’s a huge release in writing a line like that, feeling it directly..if you’ve not done it before. A leap. But it puts the flames in their proper place, and at this point, the poem expands outwards into everywhere.  Julie died a couple of months later and never got to read what I’d written. I know I’m glad I wrote it. Here’s the finished poem. Not a lot has changed, has it. Sometimes you’re awarded that kind of moment…but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. All the material, all the images were already hanging about, uncurated, all in a jumble, like the junk shop. What they needed was the catalyst. The nudge was the postcard, but the catalyst was ‘the heart’ , I think.


According to the specialists you died six months ago

and I like sitting with you, proving there’s an afterlife

as we roll cigarettes, you perched like a wire bird

up on your kitchen top beside the angel

that I made for you before I knew you weren’t alive.


Your fridge’s crusted like a wreck, with magnets

and pictures of BobDylan, and you show me

that programme that Patti Smith had signed for you

not knowing you’d been applauding from the Underworld.


You make me laugh each time you tell the phone

it can get stuffed because it’s your mad mother

who will not believe that you’re not with us any more.


Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face,

then sink, then glow like cigarettes, like the ironworks

up the coast, or the small lights on the cobles

tied up and tilted on the mud; like the strange flares

from the stack high up on Boulby Cliff, where the shaft

goes down a whole dark mile of ammonites, and heads off

far away beneath the weight of oil rigs, and sunken ships,

and shoals of cod, and all the grey North sea.



It was a special poem for me in so many ways, not least that it won The Plough Poetry Competition in 2013. Andrew Motion picked it, and talked about that ‘expanding out’ of the last lines. Still, for me, it stays a poem from the rag-and-bone-shop that turns out not to be foul, after all.

Depending on the reaction, I’ll write some more posts about poems that have been significant for me, and how they came about. What I’d really like would be to share other poets’ stories. If you’re interested let me know via

Ideally, it would involve you still having the original drafts and a clear memory of the where and when and who of the process. But let’s just see, shall we.

Thanks for reading. I’m off on a writing week tomorrow, so there may be no post next Sunday. It’ll be as it’s meant to be.