Welcome to Try to Praise the Mutilated World – a poetry writing project which will last for the duration of the current English lockdown, which is expected to be one month. The name is both a summary of what we’re doing, and a manifesto. It comes from this poem by Adam Zagajewski.
This is an absolutely unique time, and a fat lot of good that is to us. I’ve always said ‘it’s not pain, it’s raw material’ but I hadn’t reckoned on quite this much pain – for everyone, everywhere, and all at once. Still – it is a deep reservoir of raw material. We can dive into it time and again – sometimes looking for monsters, sometimes for pearls.
In the past months, we’ve all learned more about working and living online. Even the technophobic have now been introduced to Zoom meetings or online booking systems. We can now…
At our house, we’ve just completed eight months of a combination of shielding, enforced lockdown, and self-isolation. Most of it was, well, bearable. We had months of good weather to work on the garden, and reclaim another bit of the neighbouring farmer’s field for a wild flower patch. When the weather was bad I had picture framing, decorating…and in between showers, repointing various walls and gable ends. I had the ‘When all this is over’ project to keep my my brain ticking over in May and June. The annual trip to St Ives for a poetry residential was cancelled, but I managed a consolation in the form of a Garsdale Zoom course tutored by Kim Moore.
But right now I’m stalled. If you’re from my part of the West Riding the resonance of this will be understood. When my mum or my grandma said ‘I’m stalled’ they meant they were stuck, depressed, bored, fed-up, frustrated and generally out of sorts. I’ve finally become unable to shut out the appalling state of the country and its wilful mismanagement. I can’t think straight or clearly. I had an email from the poet Steve Ely (who will feature in a moment) in which he said he was ‘******* stir crazy’. He said he could go to the gym, and go for walks but (and this is the kicker) “there’s no joy in it” . Not a fashionable word joy. But I know exactly what he meant. Where’s the joy? It’s compounded by the fact that I’ll spend Thursday in Pontefract Hospital for minor surgery. I wouldn’t think twice about it in the normal run of things. But nothing’s normal, and for the first time in my life I’m assailed by anxiety, timidity. Today was set aside for writing an enthusiastic appreciation of Steve Ely’s latest pamphlet I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen. But my head’s like a washing machine, and I can’t do it justice. Apologies for that, but to keep the cobweb ticking over, here’s an edited version of a post I wrote almost exactly three years ago.
For the last four years I’ve been more or less bogged down, stalled, stymied – call it what you like- with a project that won’t let me be. It started with a reading I heard at the Red Shed in Wakefield, a group performance by the Sandal Writers. It was a compilation, something on the lines of a radio ballad, about a pit disaster at Lofthouse Colliery near Wakefield in 1972. I can’t explain why it stuck, why it bothered me, why it generated random images and narratives. I just know that I wanted to/had to write about it. Which is when the the problem of The Sequence wandered into my head and won’t wander out. I keep thinking I’ve cracked it. I’ve got one poem that I thought would open the door. It’s published, in the estimable Pennine Platform (2020) so maybe we’re finally getting there. Fingers crossed.
Last shift, winding up
Half a million years a metre,
faster than light they come
out of the sparkling dust
of ancient ferns, of seeds, of crinoids
pressed thin as frostleaves in the seam;
out of an ancient England,
a polar world of icecaps rising,
falling; a tropic land under a moon
come close and huge;
an England slipping north
on the shift of continents.
up through compacted tailings
of the silt and grit of worn-down ranges,
winding up into light,
into the sky of England now.
Time travellers, they come blinking
at exploding flowers of flashbulb fire;
minstrel-eyed, with red wet mouths,
black faces estuaried with sweat.
They walk heavily like warriors.
Slab-muscled, in filthy orange vests,
steel booted, in buckled metal greaves,
webbing belts, and battery packs
and helmets, here they come.
They could have fought
at Towton, Adwalton Moor, Orgreave.
They check in their brass tokens
for the last time; officially they are alive.
They will check in their gear,
sit in the hot rain of the shower,
and if they weep, no one will see.
They will not say much.
They have been wound up out of history
into this moment. Into England now.
Of the future they can say nothing at all.
(At Kellingley, the last deep coal mine in England,
the last shift clocked off in December 18, 2015)
I’m not even sure what I mean by ‘a sequence’ beyond the feeling that I want to write about a particular something and that one poem won’t do…and possibly not six or ten. How many poems does it have to be before it’s ‘a sequence’? When I published my first pamphlet it was simply a case of organising poems I’d written into some kind of order, with a suggestion of a beginning, a middle and an end. Subsequently I found I’d written sequences by accident, the unintended consequence of undeclared passion or obsession. My second pamphlet, Backtracks is a back to front narrative, Poems that tell the story of me, my parents and grandparents. Anyone can do that. It’s a given.
And then there were the problematic ones…the deliberately conceived sequences. For instance, when I was half-heartedly doing an MA in Creative Writing I determined to write a sequence about the Highland Clearances as they affected the Isle of Skye. I read a lot, and I went on a good many walks to clearance sites like Suishnish and Boreraig (including another kind of dereliction in the remains of an abandoned marble quarry). But the places didn’t fit my preconceived emotional narrative. I went looking for ghosts and found none. I wrote a handful of poems, but not the ‘sequence’ I thought was there, somewhere.
Then there was the late 19th C painter John Waterhouse…I’ve always liked that late-post-pre-Raphaelite sort of painting based on poems and myths and fables. I was fascinated by the fact that one face turns up in painting after painting. There’s no conclusive proof, but it’s supposed the model was a Miss Muriel Foster. I spent nearly two years reading all I could find about it all. I was intrigued by the idea of a triangular relationship between the artist, his model and his wife (who was also a painter). In the end I wrote four poems, and realised that it needed a novel and that either A S Byatt or Jill Dawson or Hilary Mantel should have written it. I think that what it comes down to is something Helen Mort said to me…something on the lines that you can MAKE a poem be, but it won’t be any good. Pretty much what Keats said about poetry needing to come as naturally as leaves to the tree’. And I guess that applies to ‘sequences’, too.
And then there were the sculptures. I worked for a few years in a college in the grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and every day I’d pass Elizabeth Frink’s ‘Seated man‘ and Michael Ayrton’s Minotaur. I got in the habit of passing the time of day with the seated man, and conceived the notion that these great sculptures contained the souls of the famously transgressive and of fallen angels. Bit by bit, mainly because I really wanted to experiment with ‘voices’, I wrote enough fallen angel poems to fill a pamphlet. I enjoyed that, and it became a book, but I still wonder if it’s the real deal. I know I like performing them, and I know that the idea of the narrative voice was the key that opened the door. But when it comes the seven men killed in the Lofthouse Disaster (six never recovered) the key is elusive.
I’ve asked various poets for advice. One was frankly dismissive, another was amazingly helpful. And one more thing that helped enormously was to bite the bullet and find the chutzpah to ask poets I admire if they’d share their experience. Particularly, I asked two poets who write recognizable and wonderful sequences…..especially I asked them this
I’ve been struggling with a writing project. I’ve got shedloads of material…I’ve been assembling that for well over a year. What I can’t manage at the moment is to find a place to stand and say: we start here. I’m convinced that could come about in a trice. A phrase, an idea for a holding form, a structure, a phrase, a refrain. It doesn’t matter how.
I’m particularly interested in the fact that each of you have done substantial amounts of research into a reality that absorbs and excites and energises you. It may be a blind roadmaker, your forebears who you trace to the banks of the Tyne, Amazonia, or medieval priests and criminals,
At some point you had to make a decision, or one was made for you. Where do I start? What’s the language, the structure, the voice of the teller….there comes a moment, as I found in writing about, say fallen angels, when you see a way through.
Would you be prepared to share some thoughts about the experience? A paragraph would do…or maybe it wouldn’t. It’ll make its own mind up, won’t it?
So, here they are, each one identifying a different way into, a way of shaping, what they urgently wanted to say. I’ve learned a remarkable amout from them, and I hope you will too.
Steve Ely : on voice and persona…who tells the story?
I organised my third book of poems, Incendium Amoris, around the figure of Richard Rolle, the 14th century hermit and mystic. Rolle suited my purposes because he was associated with the Cistercian Priory of Hampole, which is located in my natal Barnsdale landscape, which remains an enduring obsession. My previous two books had written public, political poetry out of that landscape. I wanted my third book to reflect a more personal, autobiographical engagement. Further, Rolle’s mystical writings are charged with an earthy carnality – his relationships, with God, women and the created order are often erotic in both the technical and popular senses of that word. That suited me as well – my earliest concept of the book was that it was going to be about ‘shagging down the fields’. I suppose I reinvented Richard to suit my purposes (and partially in my image) and used his life, writings and landscape to unify, inform and perhaps soften the guerilla-pastoral idiom that wouldn’t be suppressed and broke out anyway.
Pascale Petit : On sequence and motif in Mama Amazonica
My books grow organically, and Mama Amazonicagrew very much like the Amazon rainforest it explores. But I can say that there was a single poem that set it all off, though I didn’t know it at the time, and this title poem ‘Mama Amazonica’ was slow and painful to write, laborious even. But there seemed to be an energy in it that was new, so I persisted, even though it felt like one of those experiments that will probably not work. I showed an early draft to my husband, who is my first reader, and he encouraged me, and suggested I could expand it. He was excited by it and this made me more confidant. At the heart of the poem, and indeed the whole book, is the central image of the poem, of a huge waterlily in a slow Amazonian backwater, the water still and sluggish, the drama unfolding of the lily’s sex life, which involves pollination by beetles. I compulsively watched every time-lapse video of this extraordinary process. The lily is my mother and she is in a psychiatric ward undergoing deep sleep therapy, remembering meeting my father.
To write the rest of the book – all 112 pages (and there were many more poems I discarded) – I would concentrate on the lily in that backwater, like a trance. I didn’t yet know why, but by the time I had written eight more poems I began to see that for once in my life I was writing about my mother tenderly. The poems express love, as well as terror of her and of what she suffered. It astonishes me that I have created a book in which I love my mother. I did not love her and she did not love me. This felt important, to have an artefact in which our relationship was transformed.
So I suppose what I’m saying is that the whole sequence grew out of one powerful feeling, trancelike, filmic, a moving image of a flower in time-lapse motion that is apart from ordinary life and ordinary time. I did not think the book through analytically or consciously even, just let the images grow, and the feelings that are also colours and sensations and pictures. Because the book records what happened to her when she met my father, the tragedy unfolds chronologically, and that’s roughly how the book is ordered, like a story told in pictures and sculptures.
I hope this helps? I suspect we all have different ways of compiling a sequential collection, but I try to do what what Rilke advises, to search within myself to find my way, “Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write”.
Sometimes life gives you riches just for the asking. I feel a bit like one of those naive characters (usually girls…the male equivalents are often ‘fools’ or guizers) in folk tales who set off into the forests and thickets and are given things of power that help them to survive and flourish. The possible keys to the kingdom. Form. Voice. Image/motif.I’m glad it’s three, if only for the sake of narrative convention.
I’ve looked back over some recent posts and find I’ve been teasing this strand out for some time. A reminder, then, of other ‘keys’ to sequences that I’ve considered. Kim Moore’s work in progress ‘All the men I never married’ tells you that the key could actually be a title! (and there’s her sequence at the heart of The Art of falling where the key is the mythic narratives of metamorphosis). Ruth Valentine and Christy Ducker show you that alpabetical order can be a key. Jane Kite uses the timeline of an imagined family as a key. The answer for you might be to find a narrator or to build a chronology. And how about objects. I’m attracted by the title of a book on my shelf as I look up: A history of the world in twelve maps. And also by Uncommon ground which is a list sequence of dialect names for landscape features..one page for each and an accompanying photo, organised geographically from the SW to the very far North.
Whatever, the basic problem will be that an interest became an enthusiam or an obsession, that involved research, that eventually needed to be given some sort of poetic shape. If I think a sequence is anything, I think it’s something that involved you in research. Or maybe not.
Thanks for reading all the way through. Thanks and ever thanks to Steve Ely and Pascale Petit for their time and amazing generosity. The least you can do is buy their books. If by a miracle you’ve not read their work before, a bibliography follows.
After 400+ posts on the cobweb, I’m bound to repeat myself, I suppose. But I still have to remind myself that when I started it, it was simply to share my enthusiasm for poets who I called undiscovered gems…or (un)discovered gems. It depended on whether they’d already been recognised by a publisher and had work ‘out there’.
Over time I got distracted by what seemed like the need to sound off about the business of poetry in general, and on occasions, like last week, to have a bit of a strop. Mea culpa. I’m determined to get back to basics, albeit not on a weekly basis.
So here we go, with a poet I’m very fond of; I’ve enjoyed listening to her at Poetry Business Saturday workshops, and I’m delighted to have a guest who, among other things, has been active in the campaign to save Sheffield’s street trees and was arrested for the first time at the age of 70.
Jenny has a background in Anthropology and had a career in Sociology. If I’d only read her poems, I’d have guessed at Archaeology..I think a lot of her poems are like careful excavations. Jenny has written that her aim has been:
to notice the everyday and give it due weight. And that’s what I write about mostly, my lived or remembered everyday. I want to hold or recover the moment and gently scrutinize it
I think this illuminates all her work. It chimes with MacCaig’s lines in An ordinary day
‘how ordinary Extraordinary things are or
How extraordinary ordinary Things are, like the nature of the mind And the process of observing.’
Jenny writes about memories of childhood and family (and the memorials of them enshrined in documents and objects, the work of their hands). The response to this might be a world-weary doesn’t everyone? The family anecdote, the familiar, the quotidian are staples of our memories. But poems that we remember. that seem to memorise themselves as we read take us beyond that. They surprise. They illuminate our own experiences. They will involve what Clive James calls ‘the moment that draws you in’ and what Jane Draycott calls ‘the point of ignition’. Let me share some of the moments that drew me in, and then Jenny will tell you a bit about herself before I share some of the poems with minimum interruption.
I was born dwarfed by the dead and/all their impedimenta , she says. And that last unexpected, accurate word lifts the idea out of the ordinary.
She sleeps , (as we all do, without thinking about it ) under a bedroom ceiling, the other side of which is the dustbound side of everyday.
Which is how, from now on I will have to think of lofts and attics. Which may, or may not, store memories, and which she searches out:
to a high shelf..[she says]….. to a legacy of albums and attaché cases /I take my ignorance
Of a painter- Grandfather she writes about how she comes to take possession of his
sunlit room, and something up there
laid out above his wardrobe
under the pall of a dustsheet’s folds
Here, the past is probably unnerving, and tantalisingly out of reach, or possibly forbidden. These images stick. Her observation is acute, too, as in the cleaning of a fish and its stamp-hinge scales. Love that one. I like the bit of grit that jams the Dyson, a bit of grit that comes out of Deep Time; grit the oyster turns to pearl in a later poem.
I love the house of (I think) an elderly relative, up a
fern-choked clough….a nudge of pasture at her kitchen window.
So far, so Laurie Lee. But then there’s a line that stops me dead in my tracks: Cute as a grave/ here’s her garden.
There are poems about birds and animals that remind me of MacCaig (again). A mouse in the house has battery-powered whiskers; birds in the garden trees are perched like saints or green men.
I could go on. But I think you get the point. Enough. Here’s Jenny to introduce herself, and then some poems she’s shared.
“I am a poet and until recently an active academic. Then I gave up the day job to find more time for poetry. I wanted to feel, think and hear through poetic language, as well as the academic words I had written in their many thousands. Memory, loss and the objects that survive us have been longstanding research interests and they remain an important inspiration for writing poetry.
Ed. : Why poetry, why poems? I ask
Rupert Bear Annuals were a feature of my early childhood. My grown-ups only read me the text under the pictures and I now discover it’s all end-rhyme couplets. Did that set my ear? There was little spare cash after my mother divided the housekeeping into her five labeled tobacco tins in the kitchen drawer, but she bought me Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ one Christmas, and I adored it. I wish I could recapture what its simple language evoked for me, so skillfully written from a child’s point of view: the child in its bed; the child watching from the window; the child re-imagining its garden as a battleground. I never wrote anything myself but I did read and re-read and re-read A.S.Collins ‘Treasury of English Verse, New and Old’, given to my mother by my father ‘with my very deepest love, for Christmas 1946’, an inscription I could never marry with my parents’ apparently boring lives. I was six months old that Christmas. Did Mum find time to read it, with a new baby and no washing machine or fridge? And with ‘duty before pleasure’ as her mantra.
Me reading aloud A.S.Collins ‘Treasury in bed on long light evenings makes me smile at myself now. As a parent (and grandparent) I think it might unsettle me to hear a child intoning poems for what I remember as hours. What did I actually read? Wordsworth’s ‘Westminster Bridge’, Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’ and Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, almost all of Keats and Tennyson, Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’ , almost all of De la Mare and then Masefield’s ‘Sea-Fever’
Ed.: which I find impressive and unnerving in equal measure
As a young parent I wrote little, but kept the faith. Two of the four poems I eventually produced in the early 1980s were included in The Raving Beauties’ No Holds Barred (The Women’s Press, 1985). That set me off, with regular Arvon courses and The Mutiny Poets group in Hull. In 2013 I received a New Poets Bursary Award from New Writing North (http://newwritingnorth.com/) and, after magazine and anthology publications, my debut collection, Going to Bed with the Moon, is now available from Oversteps Books.
I’ve written as a member of Cora Greenhill’s inspiring poetry workshop for women, ‘Living Line’; I’m also a member of Tuesday Poets, a workshopping group, and of The Poetry Room, a group that reads poetry collections as well as workshopping its own poems. I also relish The Poetry Business’s Saturday writing days and absolutely value its presence here in Sheffield. where I live with Bob, my partner, in a house sandwiched between two parks. I continue to write about loss, but also the tree- and bird-filled landscape that surrounds me. And along with my leaning towards the downbeat, I am always inspired by the quirky, surreal and laugh-out-loud hilarious nature of everyday life.
When my debut collection, Going to bed with the mooncame out with Oversteps in 2019, I introduced myself at the launch as ‘a recovering academic’.
I’ll still put lots of words into long complicated sentences when I write poetry. Or still assume too much on the part of the reader. But being trained as an anthropologist did sharpen my capacity to notice the everyday and give it due weight. …….. I’ve never visited Mars or Atlanta in a poem, never taken on the persona of a historical figure or inhabited a painting by Breughel. But there’s still time.”
Ed.: To which I add: oh yes there is
So. As everyone says. For no reason at all. The poems. First from Going to bed with the moon, which the editor descibed as a collection which moves from the beginning to the end of the day, and from the familiar world of home to unknown travel destinations and their imagined challenges.
There are a lot of poems about remembered tactile love in the collection, bound up very often with memories of foreign travel, a touch of glamour. I chose this one because of its compression, its absolute assuredness, because of the image of layers, an idea that quietly and unobtrusively runs through the book. I think its a stunner
Concrete and Clay
We lay there a long time, really
chilling to the draught which blew beneath the door.
We were like statues, weren’t we,
one above the other like folded rocks,
massive in our contentment.
It mattered to us then
if you remember.
Jenny says : I’ll still put lots of words into long complicated sentences when I write poetry. I’m not sure if the next poem is the kind of thing she had in mind, but what grabbed me was the way the matter -of -fact, decidedly prosaic language of the ‘memoir’ is suddenly transformed into something quite other in the second stanza. Maybe the pivot is that ‘cut throat razor’, but Grandfather’s suddenly not a comfortable old buffer. There’s something of the folk tale about growing longer than the alcove, and sonething decidedly insettling about the line
and I came intopossession of his bed
And as I said before, the last four line absolutely nail it.
Meredith Charles Watling
was an acknowledged East Anglian
painter, I read in the 1955 obituary
that fluttered from the unlocked leaves
of my mother’s diary. He filled our house
with the scent of linseed and St Bruno
pinched from a flat Bakelite pouch
with a screw-off inset lid; pared his nails
with a knife, stropped a cut-throat razor.
When I grew longer than the alcove
in my parents’ room, they moved me
downstairs by Grandad’s easel and paint
— until Addenbrookes took him one night
and I came into possession of his bed,
his sunlit room and something up there,
laid out above his wardrobe,
under the pall of a dustsheet’s folds.
One more from the collection; this is the last poem in the book, and exactly where it needs to be
The Party’s Over
Oily scraps of veg, drabs of bread
and napkin shreds,
red wine, salt and cigar butts
and I’m drink-dazed for sleep,
drained with the weight
of my own unspoken words.
And in the small room where three flames burn
on the green fish candlestick
that I cycled seven French miles to choose for myself
at the cost of several hundred francs,
I spit on my finger and thumb
and draw down the darkness.
I like this for its filmic quality, the way the camera moves slowly, the way it lingers, the way it takes us through the house to the last room. I love the assuredness of the narrator, the conjuring of the darkness. I love the way the screen goes black.
And now, to finish, the bonus of two new poems, a bit edgier, a bit more swagger. And that trademark thing of the unwritten subplot…as well as another attic.
Jesus with Guinea Pigs
There’s always something to be done in our house.
But in between, my mum gets out her paints, completes
another Jesus and props his wet radiance on the easel,
his wounded body hanging there as I walk in from school,
fists clutching roadside grass grubbed up for Ginger
and Bobby Charlton squeaking their heads off in the shed.
Always that quiet conversation going on — something about
The Other Side, evidence of uncles who have crossed over.
Mum and Mr Sperring, the worry of his gifts.
Easter and I’m crossing the Cleveland Hills,
Losing My Religion full onthrough the sun roof
as you stow the relics of a dead husband
in your attic, filling a tall house
with withered climbing gear,
a grounded kayak I later help you free.
Picture us down at the quayside, posing
by the whale bones, the Abbey’s silhouette.
Thirty years on and you’re not
anymore, I’m losing my religion.
Jenny Hockey, you may be losing your religion, but you’re not losing your touch. Thank you for being a guest on the cobweb, and for sharing so many poems.
Right.I think everyone should now follow this link, and buy the book
In a normal world with the company of friends (and strangers, and acquaintances), in the normal world of to- and -fro conversations, and chats, and arguments, at some point someone’s bound to say ‘So, what you’re saying is…..’ and you’ll say, ‘no, that’s not it at all; what I’m saying is….’ and so it goes.
In my current world, where we’re now in our eighth month of 99% lockdown, where I’ve been shielding, and then (officially) not shielding, and puzzled to know whether I am, or I should be; when face-to-face conversation is a brief chat over the garden wall to our lovely neighbour who nips up to Lidl for us every few days, or a visit to the surgery or the hospital, gloved and masked, for an injection, or a CT scan or to see a consultant -when the conversation is not-exactly to-and-fro; when this morning I was suddenly impelled to get in the car and just drive for 30 minutes, just to see something slightly different…..
What am I saying? No-one’s said, what are you on about, or jeez…..just get to the point. No-one’s around to keep me on track or up to scratch, and the only feedback I’ll get is that of one of the several versions of me that live in my head, like disgruntled squatters who are clamouring for better conditions, or room service.
The other thing is that the various changes to my programme of meds have come with the advice that side-effects may include low-level anxiety, mild depression, loss of concentration and joint pain. What that actually means in practice is tetchiness, irritability, intolerance and a tendency to swear even more. On Facebook, this manifests itself as a kind of keyboard Tourettes. So bear that in mind as this post progresses.
Over the last couple of years of poetry workshops and small-group critiquing sessions, I’m becoming increasingly conscious of a trend/fashion/fad for poems that can look not unlike a collage of ineptly curated poetry fridge magnets ( That’s excessive. What am I saying? I told you I was tetchy).
Let’s have a bit of context. At one time I wanted to get away from what seemed to be my default ‘voice’ which was, and probably still is, iambic. Also Iwanted to push myself to write about, and for, people as opposed to the other default of landscape….a poetry equivalent of Sunday watercolourists’ pretty daubs. I was very much in thrall to the venriloquisms of AS Byatt’s Possession, and I was equally fascinated by the sculptures I passed every day on my way in to work at Bretton Hall via the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Three in particular: Michael Ayrton’s Minotaur, Elizabeth Frink’s Seated Man, and Igor Mitoraj’s Light of the moon. I wondered how it would be if they could speak, and why, and decided they imprisoned the souls of the deliberately or unwittingly transgressive, reduced to immobility and made dumb.
The voices would have to be distinct, and this is how I eventually wrote a set of dramatic monologues, which became a sequence Outlaws and fallen angels. Finding a voice for the angel of the North seemed simple enough. It would have to be Milton. An aged tragic Mary Magdelene turned out to have a Tennessee accent. And so on.
The one that gave me the most difficulty was Queen Victoria, or the version of her in Manchester’s Picadilly. The young Victoria was flirty and funny, and here she is frumpy and cross, entombed in a monumental masonry crinoline. It’s horrible.
Her diaries are often girlish and sentimental; she can gush, often it’s butterfly prose. She is good company. When I settled on a voice for her it was because of the one AS Byatt chose for her fictional Victorian poet, Christabel la Motte. Which is, in turn, a pastiche of Emily Dickinson…or at least a lyric, stanzaic verse that uses a lot of dashes.
This is the authentic Emily Dickinson:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
They’re very seductive, those dashes if you don’t stop too long to ask what they say about her voice, about the pace of her thinking. As though she pauses, minutely to think, to linger; or maybe she stops to think what comes next (no…I know). But it struck me that the young Victoria could be seduced by it, or it might be a bit like her slightly scatterbrained diaries. So I borrowed it.
Queen Victoria in Piccadilly Square
We are Set- here on this Monument
not like – Patience
but old and looking Cross
the epitome – of Discontent.
A pencil Study –I drew
my own Likeness – and delicate
I think it does not – Flatter me
I thought – I made it True.
Enthroned ten feet high
Twice life-size – Cold
Victoria regina – Empress
of half the Earth – I Solidify
O my True love – my only Albert.
he had my Image – made – a Keepsake
in his Dressing-room – all Loose my Hair
my white Shoulders Bare
Here I am – made Squat – a Toad
these Tons of stone – Drapery
a small and silly – Crown
Years and – Dirt – bear down on me
There’s more. But the thing is I was just, I realise, borrowing a ‘trick’, the use of Capitals and – Dashes, but without any essential understanding of what Emily Dickinson was up to. It’s a pastiche. A game. It’s not, when we come down to it, an authentic poem.
What am I saying? Basically that I’m a bit distrustful of more and more poems turning up that are either the dense text of what may, or may not be, authentic prosepoems, or scattergrams of poems that may use the black Sharpie blockings-out of ‘redacted’ texts, or fridge magnet collages of cut and paste phrases, or white-space sprawling text which does without Emily Dickinson’s Dashes and uses spaces instead. This is my problem. It’s the problem I have with much of contemporary art. How do I tell the real deal from the superficial bit of pastiche?
I’m interested in the craft of writing, as in the craft of any art. I’m interested in line breaks and punctuation and single spaces and double spaces, and rhyme schemes and rhythms, and I think, (because my Art teacher drummed it into me) if you’re going to break the rules or subvert the conventions, you really need to know what they are, and be able to use them. I worry about the kind of contemporary art (conceptual or otherwise) that comes with a catalogue of impenetrable abstractions mashed together in gruesome prose. I am deeply suspicious of any art that comes with an instruction manual about how to understand it. It puts me in mind of Vernon Scannell who wrote in 1993
At a time when contemporary poetry seems to be written for specialist exegetists in universties, in order that they may practise their skills in deconstruction, I have, as Wordsworth said ‘wished to keep the reader in the company of flesh and blood, persuaded that, by doing so, I shall interest him’
and also what he called
“genuine poems; that is to say poems that have been written from a sense of compulsion, a real need to explore and articulate”
I know. It’s easy to dismiss him as dated and just a bit pompous, but the thing is, he was a craftsman who wrote powerful, memorable poems. And at the moment, he chimes with the way I’m feeling.
And then, of course, there’s Clive James, who I am always happy to listen to, and his own tetchiness about
“slim volumes by the thousand…full of poetry…but few…with even a single real poem in them”
as we live in a time
“when almost everyone writes poetry, but scarcely anyone can write a poem’
and of the would-be poets
“who want to keep technique out of it, because they don’t have any”
What am I saying? I’m saying that there are lots of writers about who have been seduced by, say, Sharon Olds (who I have come to appreciate, to admire, to want to learn from). It’s as though they see a passage like this
As for the condition of being beaten, what was it like: going into a barn, the animals not in stalls, but biting, and shitting, and parts of them on fire?
and see that she does odd things with line breaks, and ends lines with words like what, the, and …and feel empowered to do exactly the same thing themselves without actually having the voice that powered those breaks or the passionate involvement in the experiences that powered the poem in the first place.
Like I’ve said, I can learn or copy what seem to be easy tricks or devices from poets who can actually do pretty well anything, technically, but who choose to push the boundaries, one way or another. But if I’m just pulling tricks, it’ll never be the real deal. Maybe I feel a bit like John Cage who recounted a conversation with Schoenberg:
After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, “In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.” I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, “In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.”
The thing is, when Cage created 4.33 he knew exactly what he was doing. He made a silence in a very particular space, with an audience who probably came with educated expectations. He knew what he was leaving out and he knew why. But if I charged people to watch me sit at a piano, I’d be pelted by people wanting their money back, and quite right too.
Modigliani is famous for his frail attenuated skeletal sculptures. What you don’t see are the maquettes he pared down and down until they collapsed in bits and dust, and that’s how he learned the exact point of tension when you have to stop.
What am I saying? Not much. I just want us all to to be bothered to work with the constraints of rule and convention before we decide to break or subvert them. I want us to know what we’re doing.
What am I saying. Nothing. Nothing happened.
[That, by the way, is a quotation, but the poem hasn’t appeared in a book yet. Though it will.]
Enough. When I started this poetry blog it was with the firm purpose of sharing the work of poets you might not have encountered, or were flying under the fashionable radar. Time I got back on track. No more tetchy irritable stuff. Just poets I like. See you soon.
Miles to to go, and promises to keep. It’s not the first time I’ve promised to write about the work of someone I owe a debt of inspiration to. For one reason and another, it took me months to bite the bullet and write a review of Yvonne Reddick’s work on Ted Hughes as an eco-poet. And equally, to sit and write about Ian Parks’ translations of Cavafy : Body Remember [Calder Valley Press: 2019]. As headline poet, he introduced it at The Puzzle Poets Live in the Navigation Inn in Sowerby Bridge. August 2019. And I said I’d write about it. Over a year has passed. Covid has been a distraction, but no excuse. Mainly, it’s been down to a diffuse terror that I’d not do him justice. It won’t do. Because the voice of these poems is one we desperately need in in the sleep of reason we’re currently living through. Bugger it. Here goes.
If you are a follower of the cobweb, you’ll have encountered my enthusiasm for Ian Parks’ work before. If not, then you might like to fill in the background by following this link, which will give you a flavour of his voice, and also a detailed bibliography
You might also have come across other things I’ve written about my feeling of temerity when it comes to approaching or evaluating someone’s translations of other poets’ work. I wrote a revirew of Peter Sirrs’ Sway, his translations of troubadour poems from 12thC Occitan. I bothered for ages about the business of translation/homage/retelling/inhabiting. As a life-long monoglot, I bothered about the problems of the business of affect and connotation. A good friend, the Spanish poet Alicia Fernandez explained for me what this might mean even to a fluently bilingual professional translator and gifted poet.
“Behind the things we write about, and the way we write about them, there is a heavily-loaded layer of meaning guiding our choices for words. I believe these choices are based on how our own life events have allowed us to delve in the many nuances clustered in those words. For example, when I describe something as green in English, my experience of the colour is not the same as if I resorted to the word verde when writing in Spanish – verde is the colour of the olive groves amongst which I grew up, and it makes my heart skip a beat with homesickness as I picture my grandfather hitting the branches with a wooden rod during harvest season; verde is also the colour Lorca used to represent death in poems such as ‘Romance Sonámbulo’, and having read his poetry since my adolescence, I cannot detach all those implications from the word.”
If I don’t live inside a language, how can I know the exact and complex resonances of a key word for the writer. Equally, how can I understand the music of it if I’m not even sure of how it should sound. And so on.
In the end, it was Peter Sirrs who offered two answers, one explicit and one that wasn’t even a conscious answer.
The first was a kind of response to something I read in a scholarly essay about translation (I can’t remember whose):
The translation-maker’s duty is to the original, yes; but his primary duty is to the new poem which, through the process of translation, “becomes” the translator’s poem and not just a transliteration of the original poet’s work. In this view, the translator is active and not passive; an originator and not a transporter; a transformer and creator and not just some drudge who, dictionary in hand, roots for and writes down linguistic equivalents.
Sirrs makes it even simpler in his Afterword to Sway:
“These are not, it should be said, scholarly translations…I played fast and loose with form and image.”…….. Translation is never fixed or finished; it answers a contemporary need to engage with and remake in the language we have available to us whatever calls out to us from the past”.
and finally in the key he gave me to approach the work:
It’s just one line in one of the poems: “oh I was the quare one”. I think this was the moment that I realised that one way to listen to these poems was to imagine an Irish voice; that dialect and accent were probably the key to imagining these 900 year old voices, written before the idea of French (and Standard English and R.P.) existed
I think it turned out to be as simple as that. Just listen. Listen properly. Which is what I set out to do when it came to Ian Parks’ Body Remember , the third of the trio of his tributes to, and celebrations of, Cavafy. Because, at the end of all, I firmly believe that what matters is the authenticity of the voice. And, because the loss of lives and love in time is something I think Ian Parks has particularly tuned into, I also hang on to this observation by Daniel Mendelsohn,
“The common approach to interpreting Cavafy for many, many years now is that he has two subjects: history, the Greek past from classical times to Byzantium, and then as if it were an entirely different subject, desire….
And I don’t see it that way………. I make a case for thinking about Cavafy as a poet who was only interested really in one subject, which is time and the passage of time, and how it affects how you see the past, whether that past is a Byzantine emperor’s failed attempts to restore the empire or one’s own love affair with a beautiful boy in Alexandria in 1892. It doesn’t matter to Cavafy. What he’s interested in is a relation to what has already happened. “
When I asked Ian about his long love affair with Cavafy, and about the business of translating from early 20th Greek, he wrote me this:
“I first came across Cavafy through W H Auden’s brilliant essay on him in Forewords and Afterwards. Auden was keen to point out that while Cavafy possessed ‘a unique tone of voice’ his poetry also ‘survived translation’.
I thought that was a fascinating concept and set about trying to prove to myself whether it was true. I’d be in my twenties at the time and I found, by and large that it was – in that the existing translations (particularly those by Keeley and Sherrard) conveyed something of the essence of this poets enigmatic and philosophical work. However, I became increasingly aware of how these translations were literal – that they provided a word for word, line by line, and stanza by stanza rendition of Cavafy’s poems into English.
While that provided the reader with a clear idea of the content of the poems it did little (in my mind) to convey either the musicality of this poet’s work, his undoubted lyric gift, or the subtlety of his poetic thought. And so it was that I set about to teach myself modern Greek in order to put myself in a position where i could read these remarkable poems in the original language. It took me ten years to reach a level of basic proficiency – just enough to understand the drift of the poem, much as a dog might catch the drift of human conversation through level, intonation, and tone.
My method is to transcribe a version from the original, line by line, and then to treat it in much the same way as I’d treat a first draft of my own and take it through a process by which clarity gradually becomes apparent. This way i can visualise the whole poem from above rather than allowing myself to get entangled in the detail. When in doubt I’ll compare my results with other translations in order to see what nuances emerge – but i very rarely adhere to them. My intention is always to be true to the spirit and integrity of the poem and to convey something of the atmosphere and flavour of the originals. I wanted to refract rather than reproduce, to refine rather than to define. :”
Don’t you love that line: much as a dog might catch the drift of human conversation through level, intonation, and tone.
And this after ten years of patiently teaching yourself Greek. There’s a labour of love. Love, as it happens, turns out to be another key idea in understanding what Ian does with his translations. A love which he combines with the patient task of literal translation, and the idiom, the rhythm of his own, familiar idiomatic language.
To see how this works it’s useful to have a look at other peoople’s versions of the title poem of the pamphlet: Body Remember. I’ve not found a way of setting poems side by side for WordPress, so it may feel a bit laborious. Bear with me.
Body, remember not only how much you were loved, not only the beds you lay on, but also those desires that glowed openly in eyes that looked at you, trembled for you in the voices— only some chance obstacle frustrated them. Now that it’s all finally in the past, it seems almost as if you gave yourself to those desires too—how they glowed, remember, in eyes that looked at you, remember, body, how they trembled for you in those voices.
[Reprinted from C. P. CAVAFY: Collected Poems Revised Edition,
translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard,…probably the touchstone translation]
Body, remember not only how much you were loved, not only the beds on which you lay, but also those desires for you that glowed plainly in the eyes, and trembled in the voice—and some chance obstacle made futile. Now that all of them belong to the past, it almost seems as if you had yielded to those desires—how they glowed, remember, in the eyes gazing at you; how they trembled in the voice, for you, remember, body.
[Trans. Aliki Barnstone]
Body, remember not just how much you were loved,
not simply those beds on which you have lain,
but also the desire for you that shone
plainly in the eyes that gazed at you,
and quavered in the voice for you, though
by some chance obstacle was finally forestalled.
Now that everything is finally in the past,
it seems as though you did yield to those desires –
how they shone, remember, in the eyes that gazed at you,
how they quivered in the voice for you – body, remember
Trans. Stratis Haviaris
You read them aloud, and you can start to ask what difference is made by the choices of ‘lay on’/ ‘on which you lay’/’on which you have lain’ to the tone and feel of the poem..as well as its rhythm, its music. Whether a slightly archaic syntax is the right thing. And so on. What about ‘tremble’ versus ‘quavered’?
And what about
only some chance obstacle frustrated them.
as opposed to
some chance obstacle made futile.
by some chance obstacle was finally forestalled.
As you work through them, line by line, considering the choices, I think that, like me, you’ll become conscious of bum notes, little snags.
Now try a different tack. What’s Cavafy writing about here, in his later years? What’s he asking for…not for what can’t be brought back, but what is in danger of being physically forgotten. We take for granted that the body has the wonderful facility for not being able to remember pain. The circumstances yes, but the actual pain, not at all. But what if the body forgets sensual, tactile, auditory pleasure, the loveliness of it all.
Now, here’s Ian Parks’ version.
Body, remember how much love you drew –
not just the beds, the hot illicit rooms
but how that love so fiercely burned
deep in the eyes of those that gazed on you:
how voices trembled even though
some random moment always intervened
to stop the dream from coming true.
Now everything is contained in the past
it feels as if, in fact, you gave in to
all those desires that fiercely burned;
remember, through the eyes of those that gazed on you,
or the voices trembling. Body, remember.
I love the tenderness of this, its authenticity of voice. The way you forget that this is Poetry in the way that the other three translations are constantly reminding you of, if only because they don’t quite get it right. A reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement put it better.
Parks captures the measured graceful voice and quiet humour on which so much of Cavafy’s poetry depends in a way that makes us feel we are reading it properly for the first time, This, you feel, is exactly what they would sound like if they had been written in English.
I’m struggling to choose another from the pamphlet, because I want to choose them all. I could choose any of the ones that celebrate craftsmen..jewellers, for instance…and painters and poets who quietly observe themselves making art. But I think I’ll settle for this, about Caesar’s son, who is called to an imagined life as the light fades in the poet’s room.
My intention was to check the facts,
to pass a quiet hour or two
among the names and places of the past.
The volume that I chose contained
a history of the Ptolemies.
The praise becomes monotononous:
the men are just, magnificent and bold,
the women upright, beautiful.
Just as I was about to close the book
and place it on the shelf
I came across the briefest mention of
Kaisarion – Little Caesar, Caesar’s son.
I was drawn to it inexplicably.
You stood there full of praise and charm.
Because the record is so sparse
I filled the sketch out in my mind,
made you sensitive and shy –
a dreaming far-off face
despite the name they gave you, King of Kings.
So vivid did I conjure you
that as the lamplight dimmed
you came into my darkened room. came close and stood in front of me
weraing the expression that you wore
in fallen Alexandria,
imploring them to pity you –
Octavian’s henchmen, those murderers
who said One Caesar is enough
I suppose at this point I could share more poems from the pamphlet. But I won’t. Just go and buy it*, discover its range and its many voices as it travels between the worlds of classical/historical Greece and of the early 20th C.
First line nerves. I wrote a whole post about that, years ago. This is the 400th post since I started the cobweb. Just do it.. Come on brain…out of lockdown. Start somewhere. Start with a bird.
“ The underside of a buzzard above
me again. This one, a curl of chocoalte
dark etching the afternoon, porridge-meal
stomach aaginst a lid of bleachy silver,
Promises to keep. I’ve promised myself for months that I’ll write something about Jane Burn, a poet who unfailingly makes me sit up and pay attention, whose writing is full of turns and rhythms and moments that draw me in. For five and a half months I’ve been ‘shielded’, which is a euphemism for ‘under house arrest’. And I’ve been distracting myself with projects like ‘When all this is over’ and an abortive project which attracted precisely zero responses to an invitation to illustrate stories by my friend and collaborator, Andy Blackford.
But inventive or analytic thinking has been beyond me quite. Concentrated, reflective reading, too. I decided I should systematically read the whole of Auden’s Collected Poems and see what I could learn…about technique, for instance. That lasted about a week, rather than the planned year. It’s hard to concentrate, especially when you’re distracted by frustrated rage at a country seized by the sleep of reason, and at the dreadful schism in the British nation.
Seeking for hook to hang the post on I went back, as I often do, to Tony Harrison. The school of eloquence, especially, and the extended sequence of sonnets that grew from it in Continuous. The theme that runs through them all, in one way or another is articulacy , the making of language and meaning which is ‘the tongue-tied’s fighting’.
‘The tongueless man gets his land took’; the working man is silenced by ‘the branks of condescension’, or even more brutally, by the local gentry who lower a convict down a bottomless pit to see how deep it was, and winch him back; flayed, grey, mad, dumb’.
In Them and Uz he took a long, slow-burning revenge on Mr Jones, the Grammar School English teacher who derided Harrison’s south Leeds accent. Mr Jones was one of those (and their name is Legion) who didn’t understand the difference between articulation (as in Received Pronunciation) and articulacy. And for a time, as Harrison wrote ‘that shut my trap’. But not for too long. One wish, at least was granted.
Words and wordlessness. Between the two
the gauge went almost ga-ga. No R.I.,
no polysyllables could see me through,
come glossolalia, dulciloquy.
Sweetness of sound and glossolalia : speaking in tongues, languages of en-chantment. The fire of Pentecost :
cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost,
and began to speak with other tongues
Pentecost has always excited me as an image or an idea, the notion that we can go beyond the language we are assigned to talk across boundaries. There are poets who use language in ways that I think of as Pentecostal. Jane Burn is one of them. Exuberant, unguarded, dangerously vulnerable and full of joy. Distinctly unfashionable that sort of thing. Which is why I wanted her as a guest.
So, what about the buzzard we started with? The lines are fromPerlemorskyer, the final poem in Jane’s 2016 Indigo Dreams pamphlet Nothing more to it than bubbles. The bird lands ‘a hieroglyph on a fencepost’, its mate stays hovering in the spindrift falling on a tight-bunched herd of heiffers. Caught in a dream of flight the poet wants to ask the birds
Did you go where the sky is painted like pearls?
Perlemorskyer. The polar stratospheric clouds of the Arctic which have been seen as far south as Whitby. Which is , like Jane, in and (now) of the North East. I like the sense of connections being made between words and images and moments, and the electric crackle of it. I like the fearless, and occasionally eccentric way Jane will plunder the wordhoard. Here’s a sample to go along with perlemorskyer
(While I was typing this I found myself reorganising the list so I could chant it. It’s not quite there, yet)
I like the way her poetry is crammed with the moments at draw you in, that memorise themselves, the prodigality of phrases like canker-cups, or fingers that become five baby eels emerging from their cavern of cuff or the woman who walked the skim of jigsaw floe. I like her fascination with shape-shifting in fire and water and the confusions of identity. And I like the voice. It’s the tune I hear, first. The words come after; it’s the rhythm, the space of vowels, the textures of consonants. It’s the authentic accent, the distinctive voice, which like Christy Ducker’s has the rising inflexions, the dance of dialect, its crisp consonants. Jane Burn is not from the North East originally, but it’s claimed her voice in a way that it claimed mine.
So I’m going to stick my neck out again and say it’s the stuff that takes you by surprise, that’s exciting but something you don’t understand, something you want to understand…that’s what you wait for, or go hunting for. Like this poem.
Telephones are malevolent. Cradle-bones biding until you have felt the evening’s quietness spread above the room and you, uneasy, try to settle below it. . Then, it will rack the air with shrill – you leap from the chair, stub a toe in your hurry to answer. It slips, soapy from your hands. This is how the complexities . of twilight pass. Dusk is easy to close the curtains against – night comes like the healing of a wound. You close your door upon it, shove the key down the throat of the lock, spin it dead. . Dawns keep coming – it has been your habit to rise to them. Mornings you squat on the step, watching sun fledge through the wall’s topping of broken glass, edges tinkered . with glim. You know how jagged this place is. How it makes you afraid. Policemen knock in a way peculiar to them – their knuckles on wood say something’s wrong and your heart . goes all clatterbash in your chest. Tonight, they are door-to-door after someone called about screams on nearby scrub. You say, it’s vixensmake a noise like that but even as they go, slicing . the wasteland with knives of light, coining a fox’s eyes with beams, you lie in bed, headful of murder grasses and think how a pair of arms would be a comfort. You live where you can afford to live – . most days, you just get on with it and dream of fields. Exist in little things – see how fingers of spruce grasp invisible wind, how, in a thistlecrack, petals feather from spiny bulbs, turn to down. . Step to avoid torched bins. When you live somewhere rough, you can choose to hold sun in your eyes. Search out the trees. Discover the best and worst of places look beautiful under snow.
[First published in Crannog ]
It was the sound of consonants I heard before the meaning. All the hard k sounds that create that sense of anxiety and threat that go along with the knock on the door, the police torchbeams slicing the wasteland night, beyong the wall topped with broken glass. I love the way the shift from thistlecrack to feather and down is managed. And then the muffling release of snowfall; everything, the best and the worst, smoothed and white.
Time to introduce Jane, if you don’t already know her. And also to identify the link I felt with Tony Harrison, and his experience of schooling:
“I didn’t really have a voice until I really began, about eight years ago, to properly write. Before that, I was just a mish-mash of copycatting, of parroting other people’s behaviours, of doing whatever it seemed necessary to do in order to fit in. I was not really a success with friendships or relationships. I don’t need to go into all of that. I have always loved reading, writing, art and craft but I never quite managed to hit my stride, or fathom what it was I really wanted to do. I hadn’t really matured at all. I had no idea who I actually was or what I really wanted. I felt useless. I felt like one giant waste.
My forties have been about really beginning to learn who I really am. It was about courage too – and like I said in a previous interview earlier this year with Fran Lock, in not fitting anywhere, I have sort of fitted everywhere, if that makes a grain of sense. I can’t claim any great creative writing academic credentials, though I keep on treasuring the hope that at some point finances will magically allow me to go and get some.
I struggled at school – I was always tried to be a conscientious pupil and I worked as hard as I could but always at the wrong things, like making a beautiful job of colouring the blue sea in round a map for geography, producing intricate diagrams in physics but ending up with no idea what capital city belonged where, or which equation would give you what mass. In fact, my well-meaning, kind physics teacher would give me extra lessons after school. He once said to me (in frustration), “I don’t understand how someone can try so hard and learn so little.” That really seemed to set the tone for my life. Maths was a nightmare. I just used to sit and cry. So often, my mind would simply go blank and wander away and I would have missed whole lessons.
My mental health has been repeatedly misdiagnosed but at long last, I know who I am. I have a long journey ahead of me now – this sounds like such a cliché but it is true nonetheless. I can look forward to the future with a deeper understanding of who I am. I feel the need to look back too, which will be a lot more painful. My autism has always affected my ability to know right from wrong, to know how to say no. It has made me too easy to abuse. It must be responsible for the disintegration of family relationships which led to my family’s complete rejection of me. This is not an easy thing to face but at least some of the endless wondering ‘why’ can be offered a sort of explanation. This is oversimplifying I know.
I began to write. I am lucky (unlucky?) to have no filters. I write about whatever is in my head, my heart, my soul and none of these are easy, settled places. I write about the difficulties, the challenges of life. I write about love and sexuality, my body, my bones. It is only in poems that I am free – that I feel articulate. (my italics)
It is only in my poems that I don’t feel as thick as that girl did, all those years ago. I am an obsessive researcher. I am an obsessive writer. I write every day. Day and night. My brain does not switch off. For some reason, poetry opens a gateway for me and it is there I tell all my ugly and beautiful truths. Poetry is where I am free.
I guess my first ‘big break’ in poetry came in 2014, I think it was. I was at a local poetry event called Poetry Jam in Durham and one of the guests was Degna Stone. She mentioned at the end of her set that she was editing a magazine and looking for submissions. I was so clueless at that time with regard to poetry magazines that I had no idea what a lovely magazine it actually was. I asked her for the details and sent three poems. I was stunned when one was accepted – the poem was Froghopper and the magazine was Butcher’s Dog. It was such a big thing to happen to someone who saw herself as a complete nobody and the poem was even nominated by them for The Forward Prize. I think that it has taken magazines a while to get used to the way I write – I know my poems are often not the easiest to read. They have been described as ‘bricks through a window’, ‘scattergun’, ‘stressful’ and ‘difficult to place’. I never gave up, though sometimes I felt like I wanted to. Some magazines have been so supportive though – like The Rialto. They have been brilliant and I am awaiting the latest issue, which will see the publication of my seventh poem in there. I am so grateful to them and it has kept me hoping.
I’ve italicised the phrases that explain what it it is that energises and excites me in Jane Burn’s poetry. It’s the combination of hungry research and unguarded honesty, with her intuitive grasp of the sound and rhythm that bind them. They are generous and disturbing poems in a locked-down world that needs more bricks through windows. So let’s have some. They won’t do justice to her prolific output, but I hope they’ll send you searching for more.
Let’s start with two that might just explain the labels stressful and difficult to place. Because these are not comfortable poems. The first puts me in mind of some of Goya’s more unnerving images. There’s some Paula Rego in there, too. Everything is hot and curdled, a stew of inchoate guiltiness that invokes Leda and the Swan, but it ends in an affirmation of self-belief that makes it fly, finally.
Ogre’s Burrito . Parcelled in linen, a crack of smudged eye opens. Under-sheet in a claustrophobe, arms pinned, I am an ogre’s burrito. A salt-sweat salsa of the nights inappropriate dreaming stains me, soaks the bedding. Sour. I can smell myself – I feel basted, the musk of arousal as I split my welded legs apart. For a while, through the sleep hours, I was unafraid. Oh, how you were on me, how I was on you – hip grind, deep kiss, wet hot, touch. Lord, if you could see me now, in all my repulsion! I did not remove yesterday’s mascara – flecks on my sockets like new-born flies, grease and stickum. Today, no manning the till, no school run. Time to wallow in slattern filth a while longer, time to tune to the wants of me. Soon, the scourge of shower scrub, toothbrush, hairbrush, scent. I want you on me still, incubus – not ready to be churched of your raking hands. Dregs of lip remembered on my skin, silverskim of lover’s argot sleeping the curls of my ears. I open my mouth to the spoiled dairy of waking breath. We were a chimera through the dark time. Vagary. I stew myself for a ghost. For the ache of a fool’s paradise, a sapid drowse to ease the limbo of kitchen sink, carwash, teacup, name-badge, smile. I am hoarding you, a swallowed swan, mute inside the Tabernacle of my chest. Soon, the fall of dusk – our gullets sing the sound of feathers, I am not ugly in the sable of your eyes.
[First published on And Other Poems]
The second reminds that I talked briefly about how some of her poems involve shapeshifting and metamorphosis, in water and fire. This one is all blaze.
Self-Portrait as an Inferno .
I saw the birthing of a crazy phoenix – saw it raise hackles of fire, span its bright wings of pain, sear the night with a flock of sparks. .
It made a spear of embers and flew its pyre into the night – crackled with vicious feathers, spat its language of waste . from a vivid, orange tongue. I looked square in its red-cleft beak, saw a gizzard drunk with boiling doom, saw it arm the flue .
of its shocking neck with bellyfuls of apocalypse. This blistered bird
pegged its talons to my boneless cheeks and infiltrated every breath .
with filth. I’ve had uglier meat than you fed down my scalded throat, I crowed and beat my voice against the smouldered void. . My pupils rolled wide as dark wheels – I wore the shape of flames upon my eyes, doused greedy tinder beneath each blink, met its furnace .
and found that I was not afraid. I’ve been through worse, I hissed into its scorching ear, watered vessels full and bore it a cure .
of moon-reflected pools to quench its rage, wore its shroud of vengeful smoke like my own defiant coat. I cursed it in its own .
kindled speech. Grew hooded with dust, tasted reeking night and lapped the dry well of my parchment mouth, looked toward .
my aftermath of filthy hair and frowned the colour of fumes. I saw the grimy mark of evil flight upon my skin, was alive though .
the night had flickered with angels, made a soiled font of my face.
I was an echo of waste, built from tomorrow’s cold remains. .
[First published on Idle Ink]
It’s something of a relief to move to a different cold from the slack aftermath and ash of fire.
Villanelle to Cold Psalms
Here among the gloam owls, their cry of cold psalms
I am treetops, bearing a crown of night. The dark is born.
I imagine the death I would make in the strange of your arms,
shiver beneath the void of stars, sing the charm
of moths. Wish them against my neck. My skin mourns,
here among the gloam owls, their cry of cold psalms.
Dusk is a lie. This is crushed light, visions of curious calm.
I am prey, twitching in uneasy sleep, a distant spire’s thorn.
I imagine the death I would make in the strange of your arms.
Here are the tendons of my neck. Here is the throb of harm.
I am lost as one drop of rain is lost to a storm,
here among the gloam owls, their cry of cold psalms.
I bear a ghost of gloom in the curl of my palm.
I am the moonlight’s gash where the sky is torn.
I imagine the death I would make in the strange of your arms,
shiver of mist upon my mouth. I drink its balm,
damp upon the tip of thirst. Leave me to mourn,
here among the gloam owls, their cry of cold psalms. I imagine the death I would make in the strange of your arms.
[First published on Poethead ]
It’s a poem that should remind you that Jane’s apparent emotional unguardedness might distract you from the fact that her poems are almost always crafted as well as surprising and unnerving.
I’ll end with a poem that not only hints at the wide-ranging nature of her poems, but also takes us away from the intensely personal to the ultimate cold. I have my own near obsession with the narratives of early Polar exploration, and with Scott and Titus Oates in particular. I wish I’d written this one. Jane adds the footnote: Titus was a nickname given to Captain Lawrence Oates (1880-1912).
To which I might add that Oates kept his own detailed journal in which he religiously and regularly recorded his contempt for Scott’s leadership. It tends to get edited out of the popular myth
Wilson Oates Evans Bowers Scott .
Everything real died in front of our eyes. Our ponies, raw with fur and numb with cold . wore drifts upon their backs, blurred between sky and horizon. Our dogs thinned to their wires. . One by one they gave away their lives – we would turn to see them swallowed by white . and push on, through pale blindness. Everything else survived, as a sad fascination – . our sugar. Our butter. Our brittle bones, un-fleshed by cruel weather, marrowed with snow. . Remember our hut, where enamelled cups still swing from nails like tinny leaves? We sat, . cosy-smart in our yarns, penning ourselves immortal. We left our minds and hearts, our hope . behind in copious notes – glass tubes eternally hoard the ghosts of our experiments inside. . The table is a tundra of scrubbed wood – a chill of dust settles a bottled world . of camphor flowers. The aching gripes of wind haunt each room, mourn the unworn clothes. Our books . are frozen closed, while dull lamps make poor stars. We were not the first. The footprints we left . soon filled afresh –this bitter place erased each step. Remember Titus bridling up . the nags? His poor bitten feet. How he passed from canvas to blizzard, vanished from sight.
[Shortlisted in the Wells Poetry Competition, 2019]
What I particularly like about this is the voice. Who’s talking to who, and how did the speaker come by the knowledge, the perspective, the hindsight? I like, very much, the precision of the two-line stanzas, the accurate economy of the images, the dogs that one by one would be shot thinned to their wires, and in the silent, frozen huts that they left behind, enamelled cups that still swing from nails like tinny leaves, and on the abandoned tables and shelves a bottled world of camphor flowers . No bricks through windows here, no ‘scattergun’.
I think that early on I used the word unfashionable. What I think seems to be fashionable at the moment is the cool, the redacted, the ‘experimental’, the minimalist, the poetry of white space. Which reminds me of Roy Fuller’s waspish squib (about The Movement, I’m fairly sure).
“You praise the firm restraint with which they write
– I’m with you there, of course:
They use the snaffle and the curb all right,
But where’s the bloody horse?”
What I like about Jane’s poetry is that the horses are often untamed, and kick down the stable doors. And there are lots of them. As there are in her painting. I didn’t mention the painting, did I? Try her Facebook page.
Thank you for being our guest, Jane Burn. For those who want to know more, here’s a precis of her work:
She has been a member of 52, the North East Women’s Collective, the Tees Women Poets and the Black Light Writing Group and regularly perform at many poetry nights.
Her poems have been published in many online magazines such as, Ink Sweat & Tears Antiphon, Algebra for Owls (where my poem was voted Reader’s Choice), The Blue Nib,: Journal of Art & Letters, Deepwater Literary Journal, International Times, John Foggin’s When this is all over project and the 2020 Write Where We Are Now project from Manchester Writing School.
Her magazine publications include Black Light Engine Room Magazine,Strix, Under the Radar, Bare Fiction, The Rialto ,Prole, the Oxford English Journal and the New European, and her work has featured in anthologies, including ones from Seren, Picaroon, Three Drops Press, The Emergency Poet, Poetry Box, Beautiful Dragons, Paper Swans, and The Emma Press
Amongst her many competition successes, she was nominated for the Forward Prize Best Single Poem category, won 1st prize in the inaugural Northern Writes poetry competition,had four poems longlisted in the National Poetry Competition between 2014 – 2017,was awarded the first place Silver Wyvern in the open category in the Poetry on the Lake competition and 1st place in the PENfro Book Festival Poetry Competiton, Shortlisted in the Live Canon Poetry Competition. In 2018 she had two poems nominated for The Forward Prize Best Single Poem category,and in 2020 won1st prize in the WoLF poetry competition
Pamphlets and collections :
fAt aRouNd tHe MiddLe  Talking Pen Tongues of Fire  The BLER Press nothing more to it than bubbles  Indigo Dreams This Game of Strangers (co-written with Bob Beagrie)  Wyrd Harvest One of These Dead Places  Culture Matters Fleet  Wyrd Harvest Remnants (co-written with Bob Beagrie)  Knives, Forks and Spoons Yan Tan Tether  Indigo Dreams
Whether you’re looking for something for your locked-down children to get stuck into, or you fancy it yourself, here’s a collection of stories by my friend and poetry collaborator, Andy Blackford. It’s more than unlikely that this could end up as an actual book. We think it will stay as a webpage story. But what we’re inviting is book covers, title pages or moments from a story. Whatever catches your imagination.
You or your children, or your grandchildren, or friends’ children don’t have to be artists…just be inspired by ones like Brian Wildsmith, and all the others I talked about two posts ago. In any case, children draw and paint what they truly see when they hear or read a story.
To kick it off I asked one illustrator, Kate Rolfe, to inspire you with two of hers. You can see what she came up with:
If you want to be involved and want more detail, (especially about the resolution we need for the images) contact me at john.foggin.outlook.com and I’ll get back to you pretty well straight away. I’ll be accepting your illustrations until the end of August, and posting them as they come in. After the deadline, Andy Blackford will choose the ones he likes best, and they’ll then form part of the story text. Basically, we’ll be choosing the best overall book cover, a title page for each story and up to three images in the body of each story.
How about it? Lostriches, Hummingbirds, Magpies, Cuckoos, Woodpeckers, Swans, Penguins. Any medium. There’s talent and imagination out there.
ROCKY the WOODPECKER
Rocky was a baby Woodpecker. He lived in a nest in a tree in a forest with his mum and dad and his three brothers.
One day, a great wind shook the trees and Rocky fell out of the nest.
Before long, he was hungry. He was too little to catch flies to eat. But he could peck through milk bottle tops. Every morning, he hopped around the town, and drank the milk on people’s doorsteps.
The people didn’t like it, of course. But they forgave him because he was only a baby.
All that milk made Rocky grow big and strong. And all that pecking gave him a very tough beak.
Soon, he became the loudest Woodpecker in the forest.
But he soon grew tired of pecking wood. “Wood is far too easy to peck,” he thought. “I think I’ll be a Brickpecker instead.”
So he went to the town and pecked holes in the houses.
The townspeople were very cross. They went to the Mayor and complained. So the Mayor had a quiet word with Rocky.
But Rocky just laughed. “ Don’t worry. Bricks are far too easy to peck. From now on, I’m going to be a Stonepecker!”
On Sunday, the townspeople went to church. But the church was gone. Rocky had pecked it all away.
The people went to the Mayor again. “You must lock that Woodpecker up,” they cried, “or he’ll peck the whole town to bits!”
But the Mayor was a wise and kindly old man. He went to visit Rocky in his nest in a tree in the forest. “Rocky,” he said, “why don’t you peck us some nice, stone statues? They will make the Park look nice. Then perhaps the townspeople will like you again.”
Before long, the Park was full of stone animals and stone mayors and huge, stone woodpeckers.
The Mayor invited everyone to a party. When Rocky arrived, they sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Woodpecker!”
But from the corner of his eye, Rocky could see the bridge over the river. “Hmm,” he thought. “Stone is far too easy to peck.
“I think I’ll be a Steelpecker!”
SHIRLEY THE SWAN
Shirley’s very first memory was of two big white question marks, reflected in the river. They were the long, curvy swans’ necks that belonged to her Mum and Dad.
Of course, little Shirley didn’t know what a question was. But then she asked one: ‘What’s a swan, Mum?’ ‘Why, you are, dear!’ her Mum said. ‘We are!’ said her two brothers and two sisters. Shirley was looking at a family of ducks who were paddling past.
She asked her second-ever question. ‘Are they swans?’ ‘Certainly not!’ said her Mum. ‘We don’t mix with their sort. They’re ducks.’ The ducks gave Shirley a cheery wave. Shirley waved back. ‘Shirley!’ snapped her Mum. ‘Just ignore them!’
And Shirley asked her third-ever question. ‘Why?’ ‘Well, because…because…’ Shirley’s Dad said, ‘Because they’re small and mud-coloured, not graceful and gorgeous like us. Also, they quack.’ ‘That’s right!’ said Mum. So do as we say and leave them be. All five of you.’ ‘Four,’ corrected Shirley’s Dad. Shirley’s Mum looked around and counted the cygnets. ‘One…two…three…four…five. Five!’ Shirley’s Dad frowned. ‘Hmm. I could have sworn there were only four. Oh well, dear, you know best.’
The Spring turned into Summer and the little cygnets were growing up fast – at least her sisters Lily and Iris, and her brothers Bulrush and Skunk-Cabbage were. But Shirley was falling behind. Before long, she was quite a lot smaller than the rest.
Her Mum and Dad were worried about her, and gave her more food than the others. But it didn’t seem to make any difference – except that her brothers and sisters were cross with her because she got more to eat than they did.
Also, she was finding it harder to keep up with the rest of the family as they swam up and down the river. She would paddle away with her short legs and her little webbed feet, while her brothers and sisters seemed to glide along smoothly with hardly any effort. ‘Get a move on, Duck Face!’ shouted Bulrush. Shirley was hurt. ‘Why did you call me Duck Face?’ Bulrush replied, ‘Well now. Let me think… Could it possibly be because you’ve got a face like a duck?’
Shirley looked at her reflection in the water. Was it true? Did her mouth look rather flat and wide – perhaps a bit more like a duck’s bill than a swan’s pointy beak? Every day, they’d pass the duck family, who would smile at her and quack in the most friendly way. If her Mum and Dad weren’t looking, she’d give them a shy little wave in return.
Then one day, she just couldn’t keep up.
The swans vanished around a bend in the river and she was left far behind, exhausted and out of breath. She tried to call out but instead of a swan’s cry, all that came out was a sort of squawking noise, like something made of iron that needed oiling.
By the time she got her breath back, the Swan family were nowhere to be seen and she began to panic. The sun was going down, she was cold and she started to cry.
But suddenly, an otter’s head popped out of the water – quickly followed by the rest of an otter. You don’t often see otters, but otters wearing spectacles are very rare indeed. ‘Hello!’ he smiled. ‘Lost?’ ‘I couldn’t keep up with my family,’ she said, ‘and now they’ve left me behind.’ ‘Hop on my back,’ said the otter, ‘and we’ll have you back with your folks in no time!’
As they sped through the water, the otter said, ‘I always try to help lost ducklings.’ ‘Ducklings?’ squawked Shirley. ‘But I’m a swan!’ The Otter disagreed. ‘I’ve seen a lot of swans in my time, and even more ducks. I think it’s pretty safe to say that you’re a duck.
‘You see, it’s a bit of a thing with me. Back in the Spring, I picked up a lost duckling and delivered it to a family of swans by mistake. The ducks never forgave me. That’s why I wear glasses nowadays – so I can tell the difference.’
‘No, you don’t understand! I really am a swan!’ ‘Well, if so, you’re going to have a hard time of it. Your beak’s all wrong – your feathers are a funny colour – you’ve got a quacky voice and I don’t mean to be rude but you’re a midget.’ ‘That is quite rude,’ Shirley said. ‘Do the other swans call you names?’ ‘Sometimes,’ Shirley admitted, ‘they call me Duck Face. And Mucky. And Donald. And Daffy. And Crispy. And Quackers. And…’ ‘Yes, yes, I get the picture,’ the otter interrupted. ‘And it’ll only get worse, trust me.’
Then around a bend in the river came the family of ducks that always waved at Shirley. The otter swam towards them. ‘Mother Duck!’ he called. ‘What is it?’ she snapped. ‘You’re that otter what lost our Tracy!’ ‘True,’ said the Otter, ‘and I’m very sorry. But I think I’ve found her again!’ And he pushed the little duckling towards her.
Mother Duck stared at Shirley than suddenly threw her wings around her. ‘Derek!’ she screeched to her husband. ‘It’s our Tracy! She’s come ‘ome!’
And that’s about the end of our story. Tracy (for that was her proper name) felt much happier with her real family. And Mrs Swan had to admit that she might have been wrong about how many children they really had. ‘Eggs all look the same,’ she explained. ‘It’s hard to remember exactly how many there are.’
‘Yes,’ replied her husband. ‘Of course, dear.’
THE BEST NEST CONTEST
It was Spring and time for the big Nest Competition. The Blackbird had to visit every tree in the forest.
The birds worked hard to make sure their nests were clean and tidy.
The Robin’s nest was on the ground, round and neat and lined with soft, green moss.
The Swallow’s nest was as hard as wood, with a little hole for a doorway. The little Wren’s nest was tiny and pretty, just like the Wren.
The Greenfinch made her nest in a little house in a tree in someone’s garden.
Even the Dove tried hard to make a safe, warm home for her family.
But when the Blackbird flew to the tree where the Cuckoo lived, she couldn’t believe her eyes. What a mess!
The Cuckoo was still trying to build her nest. But she wasn’t doing very well.
First, she tried to make the nest with grass – but it just fell to bits. Then she tried sticks, but they wouldn’t stick together.
Then she tried string. Then she tried mud. She even tried cake.
‘Rubbish!’ cried the Starling.
’That’s a good idea!’ said the Cuckoo. But it wasn’t.
She tried baking foil. And fur. She even tried toothpaste. But nothing seemed to work.
The Blackbird shook her head. ‘My dear Mrs Cuckoo, why don’t you come and stay with us instead?’
And so the Cuckoo laid her eggs in the Blackbirds’ beautiful nest. She had never been so happy in her life.
In case you missed the last post: we’re looking for illustrators of any age. Whether you’re looking for something for your locked-down children to get stuck into, or you fancy it yourself, here’s a collection of stories by my friend and poetry collaborator, Andy Blackford. It’s more than unlikely that this could end up as and actual book. We think it will stay as a webpage story. But what we’re inviting is book covers, title pages or moments from a story. Whatever catches your imagination. To kick it off I asked one illustrator, Kate Rolfe, to inspire you with two of hers. If you want to be involved and want more detail, (especially about the resolution I’ll need for the images) contact me at john.foggin.outlook.com and I’ll get back to you pretty well straight away. I’ll be accepting your illustrations until the end of August, and posting them as they come in. After the deadline, Andy Blackford will choose the ones he likes best, and they’ll then form part of the story text. Basically, we’ll be choosing the best overall book cover, a title page for each story and up to three images in the body of each story.
When Malcolm the Magpie collected heaps of silver paper and 5p coins, nobody minded much.
But then, one day, he came home with the Crown Jewels.
His wife, Maureen, said, “Those belong to the King! When he notices they’ve gone, he’ll be cross.”
But Malcolm just winked. “He won’t know it was me!”
Next day, the King knocked on the Magpies’ tree. “I see you’ve got the Crown Jewels up there.”
“What?” called Malcolm. “These old things?”
“Don’t worry”, replied the King. “It’s just that whoever has the Jewels is the King. So, er, well done!”
“Me? KING?” squawked Malcolm. “Brilliant!”
The ex-King flew off to Barbados. “This is more like it!” he said, as he lay on the beach in the sun.
Back home, King Malcolm made lots of new rules.
Everyone had to live in trees…
….and sleep in nests…
…and eat worms.
By and large, the People didn’t like it.
So one morning, when Malcolm was still asleep, Maureen wrapped up the Crown Jewels in a handkerchief. Then she set off for Barbados.
The ex-King was fed up, too. Nobody called him Sir anymore.
Also, it was very hot. He tried to buy an ice cream. But he forgot that Malcolm had all his jewels, and he couldn’t pay. The man made him give the ice cream back.
Maureen flew across the sea for three days and three nights. The jewels were very heavy. ‘I wish the King collected something a bit lighter,’ she thought. ‘Like stamps. Or feathers.’
At last she saw an island ahead. It was Barbados.
The King was sitting on the beach. He was hot and grumpy. But when his jewels landed plonk! on his beach towel, he was happy again. “Holidays are no fun,” he said, “if they never end.”
Next day, the King knocked at the Magpies’ tree. “I’ve got my jewels back!” he called. “So you’re just an ordinary magpie again. Sorry!”
The People cheered. “We’re not sorry! God Save The King!”
“I’m not sorry, either,” Malcolm whispered to Maureen.
“Nor me,” said Maureen. “I think we’ll stick to silver paper in future.”
ROYSTON WINS HIS WINGS
When Royston the penguin burst out of his egg in Antarctica, there was only one thing on his mind.
He lay on his back in the snow and stared at the gulls, wheeling and soaring high above.‘I was born to fly!’ he told his mum and dad.
‘Don’t be silly,’ said his dad. ‘Penguins forgot how to fly thousands of years ago. Stop wasting your time staring at the sky!’
So Royston went to see the albatross. ‘Show me how to fly!’ he said.The albatross frowned. ‘Your wings are a bit short,’ he replied. ‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’
‘I’m sure,’ Royston insisted. ‘Ok, watch me!’ said the albatross. And he ran across the ice, faster and faster, beating his wings. Then he rose slowly into the air.
‘Brilliant!’ squawked Royston. But when he tried it, he just ran and ran ‘til his legs got tired and then he fell over.
For days, he tried to fly. He even collected feathers and stuck them to his wings to make them longer. But nothing worked.
In the end he sat down and cried. The albatross felt sorry for him. ‘Why don’t you hop on my back and I’ll take you for a ride.’P
The albatross dived and climbed and swooped and wheeled and soared. Royston was so scared, he just closed his eyes and hung on. ‘This is horrible!’ he whispered to himself. ‘I’ll never try to fly again!’
Then the albatross turned quickly and Royston slipped off his back. He tumbled head over heels through the air. ‘Oh no!’ cried his mother, far, far below.
Then he splashed into the sea and sank down, deeper and deeper. ‘I’m going to drown!’ he thought. But then he flapped his little wings and suddenly he was shooting up again.
He dived and climbed and swooped and wheeled and soared.‘I’m flying UNDERWATER!’ he cried. (But only bubbles came out).
When he bobbed up on the surface again, the albatross smiled. ‘Even I couldn’t do that!’ he said. All the penguins were cheering. ‘Well done, son!’ cried his dad.
I have friends in the world of poetry who will tell me that they ‘don’t like poems about pictures’. Sometimes I’m not sure what they mean. Does that include Auden’s Musée des beaux arts or UA Fanthorpe’s Woman ironing ? Probably not. In another life I sometimes dream I could have been a painter rather than a writer of poems. I love visual imagery, and all its complex apparent immediacy.
Which is why I’m going to take a bit of time out from writing about poetry, why I’ll share my abiding enthusiasm for picture story books, and then invite you to contribute to one.
For about ten years of my 40 in the teaching business, I was in teacher training, teaching would-be primary teachers how to teach literacy. Which self-evidently includes helping young children to see how books ‘work’. The bit I always liked best was the business of exploring how we can learn to read the subtexts of pictures, of illustrations, and the ways in which the very best don’t literally mimic the text (which is invariably the case in Enid Blyton books, and, indeed, in so many reading scheme books) but enhance it, comment on it, respond to it, and sometimes tell a slightly different story from the words.
Here’s what I mean. One of my absolute favourites of the last 30 years is I’ll take you Mrs Cole. It’s the story of a parental threat. Every child understands the dark and generally non-specific threat a desperate parent will make when the child is naughty. Let’s have a look at the first three images. The first two might be ignored by a reader because the first page proper is page three. (Ask yourself why an artist would go to the trouble of illustrating an end paper and a title page). Here we go
The first is the inside cover. 4.00pm. Kids coming out of school into a foggy evening. It’s cold (how do I know that?) Two of them seem to be a lot happier than the the one in the red top. Why?
The second is the title page. It’s 4.15pm. And he’s running. Why? How many stairs does he have to run up?
Finally, the third…and the first page of the story. It’s 4.30pm. We know he’s had 15 minutes to turn the living room into a fantasy. But we only see what his mum sees. She can only see a mess. She can’t see his face. But I think I can. Michael Foreman has done something remarkable with those eyeholes, simply by tilting them inwards. And here come the threat. I’ll take you to Mrs Cole. Which will escalate as the tale progresses. Wonderful.
Viewpoint’s important. At a crucial point in the story we start to see events as the child sees them…and so on.
OK. here’s another favourite. Jan Ormerod’s retelling of Chicken Licken. Anyone whose only experience of the story with their children is the dire Ladybird version will likely roll their eyes. But this is what a great illustrator can do to enrich a simple, repetitive tale.
Basically there are multiple narratives, and they each have their own subtext and backstory.
First of all it’s the story of the performance of a primary school play .
Then there’s the traditional story which is retold in speech bubbles. The narrative’s told by a Narrator, in his top hat (my guess is that he’s the best reader and best behaved boy in Year 6) and the dialogue is performed by various characters. I like the costumes.
Then, of course, there’s the story of the audience. The parents, in silhouette. And one child.
Finally, there’s the tale of the baby in the moses basket who has just woken up and started to take an interest.
Each of these narratives is visually separated, and part of the fun is to find out how they might start to interact.
Happy so far? Here’s another one that deals in simultaneous parallel narratives. Dear Daddy by Philippe Dupasquier.
Dad’s on a oiltanker, and once a month he sends a postcard (and, I think, a letter) to his daughter who writes back to him. Which means we get a calendar of changing seasons. Ask yourself why the artist took such pains over a bashed up car being towed away, and why it’s apparently of no interest to the child. What does dad write? What are mum and the neighbour talking about?
What about the artist and the characters in a story. Sometimes an illustrator’s imagined hero/heroine is, for me, the only imaginable one. Tenniel’s Alice, for instance. Or E H Shephard’s Mole from Wind in the Willows
Lots have tried but they always fall short of what seems like authenticity. But for the purpose of this post, I’ll concentrate on the fact that illustrations can be expressive and apparently simple. Take the image of Mole, lost in the Wild Wood. It’s a heartbreaker. It works because he’s alone (that’s what the white space around him says) and very small. The trees are huge, and we are quite high up, looking down. Artful stuff. And it doesn’t have to be as obviously art-trained as Shepard’s. Quentin Blake does a really good job of pretending he isn’t
And also of showing transformation in time, like a medieval muralist.
Some best-loved characters have been been made ‘simply’. David McKee’s Elmer, and the two monsters; the wonderful John Burningham’s Borka (the goose with no feathers…his take on the Ugly Duckling).
Before I get on to the real point of the post, just a word about book covers. They can kill a book stone dead, if you’re not careful. In the case of Mrs Cole, the original cover showed the hero looking dismayed at a mucky breakfast table as his mum sets off for work. A later one gave the whole game away by using a picture of a red-faced jolly Mrs Cole. Whose idea was that? Someone with no idea about how stories work, I guess.
Here are two I like a lot. I like the way Rosemary Wells suggests that Norah is the younger/youngest, her sister is ‘sensible’, her dad can only cope with one child at a time, and Norah is going to seek attention (by which we mean love) one way or another. The artist takes one moment from the story to make it stand for the story’s meaning. And will Norah find love….you need to read to find out. Harry’s Bee is also illustrated by the author. I like this one because while it’s not a scene from the story it’s clear that Harry’s Bee is out of the ordinary, that people stop in the street to point him out to each other. What’s the deal with this bee? You need to read to find out.
And now we get to the point. I’m looking for illustrators of any age. Whether you’re looking for something for your locked-down children to get stuck into, or you fancy it yourself, here’s a collection of stories by my friend and poetry collaborator, Andy Blackford. It’s more than unlikely that this could end up as and actual book. We think it will stay as a webpage story. But what we’re inviting is book covers, title pages or moments from a story. Whatever catches your imagination. To kick it off I asked one illustrator, Kate Rolfe, to inspire you with two of hers. If you want to be involved and want more detail, (especially about the resolution I’ll need for the images) contact me at john.foggin.outlook.com and I’ll get back to you pretty well straight away. I’ll be accepting your illustrations until the end of August, and posting them as they come in. After the deadline, Andy Blackford will choose the ones he likes best, and they’ll then form part of the story text. Basically, we’ll be choosing the best overall book cover, a title page for each story and up to three images in the body of each story. So here we go with the first two stories, and I’ll post the rest two at a time so the post doesn’t get ridiculously unwieldy
by Andy Blackford, with illustrations by Kate Rolfe
(and others to be decided)
The Humming Bird
The Magpie King
Royston wins his Wings
Rocky the Woodpecker
Shirley the Swan
The Best Nest Contest
Once upon a time, the Ostrich could fly.
But only just.
One day, he took off from his home in Africa.
There was a great storm. It blew the stars away and the moon got stuck in a tree.
The Ostrich was blown across the sea and half way around the world.
When the sun came up, the Ostrich was a Lostrich. He had no idea where he was. He only knew it wasn’t home. The City was big and cold and dirty. There were no trees and no birds.
He was chased by a huge yellow monster with sharp black teeth teeth.
He was so scared, he busied his head in the sand. It popped up in the middle of a desert. It was nicer than the big city. There were a few trees and a big animal with humps on its back. But it wasn’t home.
So he pulled his head out of the sand and flew away. Soon he had left the City far behind him. Down below, he saw a huge green lawn with sand pits on it. He said to himself, ‘This is more like it!’
So he landed on the lawn. He was just about to eat the lush, green grass when something small and hard and white nearly hit him on the head. He was so scared, he buried his head in the sand. It popped up in the middle of a jungle. It was better than the desert. There were lots of trees and animals and birds. But it still wasn’t home.
So he pulled his head out of the sand and flew away as fast as he could. Down below, he could see the seaside. He landed on the beach. The children shouted at him and chased him.
He was so scared, he buried his head in the sand. This time, it popped up in his favourite place in the whole world… home!
With a loud squawk of joy, he wriggled through the hole in the sand. All his friends made a big fuss of him.
He said to himself,
‘I’m not a Lostrich anymore! I’m an Ostrich, and that’s the way I’m going to stay.
‘I shall never fly again.’
And he didn’t.
THE HUMMING BIRD
The people on The Island were choosing a bird to put on their stamps.
All the birds gathered in the jungle. They argued about who was the most beautiful.
One tiny bird sat on a branch and didn’t say anything.
‘They certainly won’t choose you!’ the rest of them told her. ‘You’re far too small. You’re not even a proper bird. You’re just a bug!’
And they all pointed at her and laughed until she flew away.
At first, the little bird was upset. But then she thought, ‘Right! If they think I’m a bug, then a bug is just what I’ll be!’
First she went to see the butterfly. ‘Please can you make me bright and beautiful like you?’
The butterfly painted her until she shone like a rainbow.
Next she went to see the spider. ‘Please can you show me how to make a nest like yours?’
And the spider showed her how to use spiders’ webs and moss to make a perfect little home.
Then she went to visit the bumble bee. ‘I’m fed up with eating worms,’ she said. ‘Please can you teach me how to drink from the flowers?’
And the bee showed her how to suck nectar from the flowers.
While she hovered by the flowers, her tiny wings made a humming noise, just like an insect. ‘From now on,’ she said, ‘this sound will be my song!’
The day came when the people had to make up their mind which bird to put on their stamps.
The birds all lined up while the people looked at each one in turn.There were tall birds, short birds, fat and thin birds, brown birds, yellow birds – even pink bird.
Right at the end of the line hovered the smallest bird of all.
Straight away, the people fell in love with her. ‘She’s so pretty!’ they cried. ‘And just listen! She’s a humming bird!’
And from that day on, the humming bird’s picture has appeared on all the island’s stamps.
[Copyright. Andy Blackford 2020]
Andy Blackford. has been a rock guitarist, a professional skateboarder, an extreme marathon runner, a biographer, and a diving instructor. He was a partner in a major advertising agency (creating the UmBongo advert, amongst other things. They drink it in the Congo) and has written at least twenty books for children, including titles in the Oxford reading Tree scheme. He co-authored a poetry collection with me. Gap Year [SPM Publications 2017] as the result of a yearlong collaboration after we met up again after a break of about 40 years.
Kate Rolfe Kate Rolfe is an illustrator based in Suffolk, UK. She is currently studying an MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art, and has previously worked in graphics and textile design. You can find many of her latest creations at stripykite.etsy.com. Kate has a lifelong love for storytelling in all its forms, and is particularly passionate about picture books! See more of Kate’s work at katerolfe.com, and follow her at Instagram.com/katerolfeartand twitter.com/katerolfeart
The books: Publishing details. Some are a bit problematic, since they’ve been published by different houses over the years. Some are out of print, though available from Abe Books. And so on.
I’ll take you to Mrs Cole: Nigel Gray and Michael Foreman
(Picturemac. First publ. 1985)
Borka. : John Burningham. (Jonathan Cape. 1963)
Noisy Nora: Rosemary Wells v (Puffin . 2000)
Dear Daddy: Philippe Dupasquier (Anderson Press 2002)
The true story of Chicken Licken: Jan Ormerod
Elmer the patchwork elephant : David McKee
(Anderson Press 1989)
Two monsters : David McKee (Anderson Press 2009)
The Twits: Roald Dahl (Jonathan Cape. 1980)
ps. During August I’ll also be writing about poetry, and poets, including Ian Parks, Jane Burn, Martin Zarrop, Steve Ely and Jenny Hockey.
Twenty eight years ago the whole family sat round a huge round table at a Chinese restaurant in Leeds, celebrating our David’s 21st birthday. A few weeks later he took his own life. None of us had the first idea how troubled he was.
I’ve chosen this photo, because here he is maybe two months after we adopted him. His brother and sister were entranced by him. We all were.
The thing is, you live imagining you have all the time in the world, until you don’t, and then it’s too late. Years after he died I wrote a poem for him; I thought about how my own Dad never told me any stories about his life, about his childhood, about who he was before he married, before I was born, and about how I never really knew him.
I wanted to tell our David the stories I failed to tell him, because, after all, I thought we had all the time in the world, or we didn’t have the time for it. And then it was too late. So here it is, a belated present for his 48th birthday.
I made this box,
ran lead, quick, in the veins of driftwood roots,
the silver grain of bleached board and the wind-eyes
of burnished beachstones – rose quartz, granite, flint,
bound them with silver wire to honey oak, red pine,