I started to write regularly/seriously round about 2012/early 2013. I’d been going to Poetry Business Writing Days for several years before this, but not writing in a committed sort of way. Tinkering, if you like. I was nearly put off for life by a residential course in 2012…the course and I were not made for each other…but took a punt on another residential in Spain in May 2013. Partly this so I could visit my oldest friend, and partly because the course was to be tutored by Ann Sansom. The tragic death of one of the Sansom’s sons meant that Ann couldn’t be there, but Christopher North took up the job of running the workshops; I fell in love with the hills around the Old Olive Press in the Alacant village of Relleu. I met people like Hilary Elfick who told me I could write and should write more. It was a game-changer and a life- changer. I went again and again, as well as to residentials run by Kim Moore and by the Poetry Business, and I wrote and wrote. I sent poems off to magazines and entered competitions because they gave me deadlines and targets.
In a purple patch between 2013 and 2016 I won first prizes in some big poetry competitions. Validation in bucket-loads. Each winning poem represents a landmark. Here they are.
2013 The Plough Poetry Competition. Judged by Andrew Motion.
.Julie was written for our friend Julie Child, who loved her adopted town of Whitby with a fierce, all-embracing love. And Whitby returned it. The church above the town was packed for her funeral. Standing room only.
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 Bob Dylan, and you show me
your programme that Patti Smith had signed, for you,
not knowing you’d been cheering 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.
2013 Camden/Lumen Pamphlet Competition Judged by Andrew Motion.
.Camera Obscura is a poem that started off as a sort of sonnet in 1983 (when I wasn’t really bothered about writing poems) and which I kept revisiting and worrying at like a loose tooth, until I finally sat down and sorted it more than 20 years later. Never throw anything away!
(Emily Wilding Davison. June 1913)
The reasons for your being here
are out of sight. They can’t be seen –
your Cause’s colours- sewn inside
your decent coat: white, violet, green.
The camera sees the moment you began to die:
the jockey, trim in silks, is doll-like
on the grass and seems asleep;
his mount is spraddled on its back;
its useless hooves flail at the sky.
Your spinning, flower-trimmed hat
is stopped, distinct, mid-flight;
your hair’s still not come down;
you’re frozen, inches from the ground;
your boots are neatly buttoned,
take small steps on the arrested air.
You’re stopped in time. No sound,
no texture, no sour odour
of bruised grass and earth. Just
silence and the alchemy of light.
How did you comprehend
the shock of muscle, hair and heat
in that white moment
when the dark came down?
The camera cannot tell;.
its business neither truth nor lies.
It shows a fallen horse. A woman falling. A crowd
in hats and blazers staring down a long perspective;
the field intent upon the distant fairy icing
grandstand. The waving flags. The finish line.
Until the image blurs, dissolves in silver flowers,
it’s there on celluloid in shades of grey;
the camera only says that in that instant
you are dying, and everyone has looked away.
2014 : The Plough Poetry Competition Judged by Liz Lochhead
At Tarskavaig is an anecdotal poem about a chance encounter in one of my favourite bits of the Isle of Skye. I was told by an influential and much-lauded poet that anecdotes are not the stuff of ‘real’ poetry. So the success of this poem gives me much pleasure.
Washed up on a rucked-rug shoreline;
floats, fish-boxes, trawlermen’s gloves,
fertiliser sacks, kelp, clots of wool,
and the cockle –pickers, peat-cured,
leathery, with ruined teeth,
long, dirty nails, eyes as dark as iodine.
They tinkers. Och. says Effie. You’d do well
to look to the barns, and count the spades,
and what did they ask you for,
those women, old coats belted with rope,
rubber boots patched with gaffer tape,
hair like seaweed, when they tapped
on the windscreen, brown as selkies.
For a light only, the bright ember,
blue smoke blown on the wind, the spit
of rain off the sea, and thanks we’re away
down the road and done with the day,
with turning stones, and bladderwrack,
browsing the cold shore for cockles,
to fill a knuckly net…iron, amber, cobalt, rust.
What’s to be done with Tarskavaig tinkers
who come up out of the peat or the sea?
And when the light goes, where do they turn?
2015 The McLellan Poetry Prize. Judged by Simon Armitage
Bheinn na Caillich is another poem that comes out of my love of the Isle of Skye, and, in this case, one of its many legends. “The hill of the old woman” is one of the Red Cuillin group that rises behind the village of Broadford. There is a cairn on the hill’s top, and the legend is that it’s the burial of Mad Mary, a Norwegian princess, who was notorious for demanding a toll for passage of the Kyles. The poem was triggered by my reading of Robert MacFarlane’s The Old ways.
2015. The Ilkley Festival Prize. Judged by Blake Morrison
Short back and sides needs no commentary. I wrote it as a tribute to my father-in-law, Stan Rogers.
Short back and sides
It’s fine, Stan’s hair. His wife, Vera, says:
“He gets it from his mother.
They were all fine haired, her side.”
He’s soft-skinned, too. Big hands
with liver spots. They tremble, agitate
an invisible test tube, like a chemist.
Big ears, lobes like small ox-tongues.
He likes his hair cut short.
Curious to be holding his head still,
gentling the clippers in the back of his neck,
hearing the buzz, feeling light hairs fall.
I’ve eaten snake, he says. A python.
He could butcher anything the lads brought in.
He’ll not eat curry. When you smell that
you know you’re closing on a village.
On Recon. they’d take the headman’s son.
Shackle him on the bonnet of the Jeep.
See, if no one made a fuss we’d know
no Japs was up the trail. Drive him for a bit
then let him off. The skin of his scalp is fragile,
scissors cold on the pink of the skull.
His goalkeeper’s hands beat a soft
tattoo against his knee, When he remembers
he clasps them like a handshake, or a prayer.
In jungle once, he came upon a pal
pinioned to a tree, opened up from throat to groin,
his piled entrails at his feet, a black buzz of flies.
I’ve never told our Vera that. I tidy round his neck.
I’ll shake the teatowel outside on the step,
watch the hair blow, like dandelion clocks.
His hand have freed themselves.
He has forgotten them.
2015/16. The Poetry Business International Pamphlet Competition : Judged by Billy Collins
Obviously, this one isn’t a single-poem competition. Additionally, Ann and Peter Sansom chose to offer me the chance to expand the original pamphlet to a full-sized collection. I’ve chosen the title poem to stand for all the rest. Much Possessed is a tribute to the work of Polly Morgan which I first encountered via the BBC series What do artists do all day? Polly Morgan is, quite simply, fascinating. Her art is precise, painstaking and unnerving. A combination of skilful surgery and surrealism. Astonishing.