Critics, poets and the common reader (PartTwo)

This being the second part of my appreciation of Yvonne Reddick’s Ted Hughes: Environmentalist and Ecopoet.

Ted Hughes was a prodigious reader of just about everything, and a prodigious writer of letters (700 pages of the collected letters), of poems (1200 pages), of plays and essays and so on. He was an educator, a broadcaster, a lecturer and a performer. He was conflicted hunter, a conflicted farmer (how many other poets do a full time job like that?), a conflicted and unfaithful husband, father, lover. He grew up in the physically and historically imbricated landscapes of the upper Calder Valley, and of Mexborough. Landscapes of the kind D H Lawrence grew up in. When I read Reddick’s accounts of various critics’ condemnation of his inconsistencies when it come to ecopolitics, I get annoyed. Because, I think, why should a poet be consistent, why should a life be simplified into ‘consistency’? 

There’s a very useful and concise summary at the end of Chapter 2, which begins

Ecopoetry, then, is a poetry of habitat; it explores our relationship to the environments and ecologies that surround us, the alterations we have made to them, and our imbrication within their system. It can no longer present the supposedly untouched landscapes of earlier nature poetry.

What hooks me is that notion of our imbrication within their system. I read this through a particular refracting lens. My habitat is a landscape that I see through the lenses of what I’ve read, the images I see, the physical familiar world I move through. In turn, that becomes the lens through which I read any poet of place, any ‘topological ‘poet.

Where I grew up there was a mill at the bottom of the street and a farm at the top. A quarter of a mile up the road were acres of municipal park woodlands. Beyond that, an open-cast valley, more woodlands, brickworks, some working pits. In the valley where I live now, not far away from where I was born, is polluted river, a canal, a railway (think : The Rainbow).  There are defunct mills,a defunct marshalling yard. No one can build on the field beyond my back garden because it has pitshafts in it. There’s an even older pitshaft under my neighbour’s house. And so on. Everything formerly ‘organic’ has been managed, enclosed, changed, even the river itself. I live on the edge of a coalfield where the 19thcentury houses are on the boundary between stone and brick. My horizon is the skyline of high moorland from Holme Moss to Oxenhope. This is the lens through which I read the poems of Remains of Elmet, through which I imagine the landscape of the Wodo’s wanderings, the corroded dystopian landscape of Crow, and through which I see foxes, thrushes, pike, hawks.

And then there are the voices of other poets of place: Nicholson, McCaig, Hill, McLean, and also the poets and writers of the edgelands: Lawrence, Steve Ely. The painters of place, too: Len Tabner, Peter Hicks, Peter Lanyon, Norman Ackroyd . I sometimes wonder what kind of implied writer and implied worlds I’d ‘read’ if I’d grown up in a big industrial city..Manchester, say, or out in the flatlands of the East Riding, or the Fens.

And there, I suppose, is where literary criticism and scholarship comes in, to help us see differently, to ask us to consider looking through different lenses. Which brings me finally to Yvonne Reddick’s book, the scope and sheer knowledgeability of which makes it difficult for me to do it justice. It’s so packed I found it helpful to think of it a collectionof books, each of which could be read in their own right. 

In her introduction she is clear that the she will focus more closely on Hughes as a public figure than on his personal life. She aims to explore the environmental and ecopoetic richness of Hughes’ work, and to also pay attention to the intersection of environmental preoccupations with other themes. She argues that one of the main reasons he became an environmentalist was to restore mankind’s broken relationship with “the source”. In that Hughes sought to restore this disrupted relationship via writing as well as environmental campaigns, it is ecocriticism, ecopoetry and his idea of ‘nature, that will be explored in order to find out how he did this.

The first chapter proper (or book, if you like) Hughes, Ecocriticism and Ecopoetry is a tour d’horizon that takes the reader on a guided exploration of the thickets of the ecocriticism of Hughes’ poetry. Given the density of the terrain it’s a credit to the clarity of Reddick’s prose that it always seems like a manageable journey. Beginning with an exploration of Hughes’ developing concepts of ‘nature, and of what we may mean by the meanings and oppositions of the human, the animal and the ‘mechanical’, she goes on to curate/summarise the categories and sub-categories of the ecocriticism world. It’s a complex, imbricated world, but through a dense range of citations and references, there’s an assured voice that keeps the reader on track. Each shift to a new topic is signalled by capitalised subheadings. It’s a note-maker’s dream, and literature students, as one, will give heartfelt thanks.

Subsequently, the book follows a chronological course through Hughes’ development as an ecopoet (and subsequently, as a public ‘activist’); it was this that I found particularly helpful, having the reassurace of a quasi narrative. I know where I am with a story. The next chapter, which deals with Hughes early life in Mytholmroyd and Mexborough (drawing especially on recent work by Steve Ely), and the next two, on Hughes’ ‘green’ literary influences were the ones I found most satisfying, the ones that illuminated the work in new and intriguing ways. I don’t necessarily agree with Reddick about the relative forces of authenticity and myth, but it was good to be reminded of his working in a tradition that included Wordsworth, Blake, Yeats, Hopkins, Edward Thomas, Lawrence and Dylan Thomas, as well as the influence of his reading of Jung, and of Graves’ The white goddess. It’s particularly interesting to be shown how poets he was drawn to as an undergraduate at Cambridge influence the technical elements of his verse as well as their concerns.

Chapter 5, on ‘Animal agency, America and early environmental views’, is a welcome reminder of Hughes and Plath’s setting off for the USA in 1957, and that Hughes was anything but parochial in his reading and thinking. It also explores his fascination with native Americans, with the shaman and the animal, and his uncompromising assertion that if you are chosen ‘you must shamanize or die’. The density of this chapter defies summary, but it throws an interesting light on the genesis of The thought fox, and on the apparent preoccupation with violence in the animal poems of Lupercal. I relished the beautifully contextualized readings of Hughes’ passionate realisations of the jaguar and macaw, the otter and pike, and the hawk roostingAnd one thing that shone out, even though it’s only mentioned briefly. Lupercal , Reddick reminds us, is focussed on hunger. And she highlights something from a draft of the Birthday Letters where Hughes refers to an ‘ever-hungry childhood’. I hang on to that when I come to the later chapters exploring the conflicting moralities of farming, hunting and fishing. I’m 76, and even at this age, I was in the first generation of British children not to be hungry. Friends of mine, the same age as Hughes, were children between the wars, and remember the hunger. And I think that’s something well-fed critics need to keep in mind when then getting in a moralising stew about Hughes’ ‘inconsistent’ attitudes to hunting. This, for me , is the most engaging chapter; 40 deftly-marshalled pages of close and contextualised reading of the the early ‘animal’ poems and those in the aftermath of Sylvia Plath’s death…engaged readings of the poems for ‘what is there’ rather than for ‘what fits this or that thesis’. Amongst other things it will teach literature students a thing or two about being a reader.      

Chapter 6 places a reading of Crow in the context of the emergence of the environmental movement, via The silent spring, into environmental activism and Hughes’ growing role as a public/polemic theorist….though my interest was caught mainly by the character of the trickster Crow in his post-apocalyptic and degraded landscape, whilst Chapter 7, in its focus on Hughes the farmer, provides a context for readings of Moortown, Season Songs, and, to a lesser extent What is the truth?. Chapter 8 does a similarly efficient job with River(which I’ve never managed to properly engage with) and Hughes’ imbricated relationship with the art and ethics of fishing in the context of the pollution of rivers throughout the world.

The final three chapters explore in careful detail the poet’s increasingly public and ‘political’ involvement in green/environmental issues, in hunting, in conservation, and are evidently informed by scrupulous research of a recently released and substantial body of articles and correspondence in the British Library’s new Ted Hughes archive. Which is the point at which ‘the common reader’…me, that is…became less involved, less careful about the reading. Reading comprehension and reading purpose have to work together. All I’d say is that any student- reader engaged with the politics of environmental conservation, the human relationship with the natural and animal world, and where the artist’s notional responsibilities may lie, will almost certainlyfind this as elegantly informed as I found the readings of the poems.

I suppose that in any evaluation of any book there will be a but. For me, it’s the fact that, even within its own strictly defined terms of reference, it seem to brush over Ted Hughes’ passionate commitment to education. It was a substantial and significant part of his life. As Melvyn Bragg wrote: in seeking out the ancient ley lines of thought and feeling…Hughes found much of this in children

For a decade or more he was the champion of the The Daily Mirror’s ‘Children as writers’ annual competition (one of the offshoots of which was Jill Pirrie’s On common ground ….now, like so many good things, out of print). I hunted through the index and citations for references to Hughes’ seminal 1970’s lecture Myth and education , a text which, like Poetry in the Making, had a profound effect on my teaching. Another part of my imbricated self; how many of us young teachers (as we were, then) were taught by these texts how we should read and teach poetry? There’s a passage in the lecture which seems central to understanding his core concerns as a poet.

Our educational system differs from what Plato would have called wisdom. Our school syllabus of course is one outcome of three hundred years of rational enlightenment, which had begun by questioning superstitions and ended by prohibiting imagination itself as a reliable mental faculty, branding it more or less as a criminal in a scientific society, reducing the Bible to a bundle of old woman’s tales, finally murdering God. And what this has ended in is a completely passive attitude of apathy in face of material facts. The scientific attitude, which is the crystallization of the rational attitude, has to be passive in face of the facts if it is to record the facts accurately. The scientist has to be a mirror first. He has to be a mirror second too, because the slightest imaginative bias in his presentation of the facts invalidates his findings and reflects badly on his standing as a scientist. And such is the prestige of the scientific style of mind that this passivity in the face of the facts, this detached, inwardly inert objectivity, has become the prevailing mental attitude of our time. It is taught in schools as an ideal. The result is something resembling mental paralysis. It can be seen in every corner of our life. It shows for instance in the passion for photography. Photography is a method of making a dead accurate image of the world without any act of imagination, and the ultimate morality of that was shown in an article I saw a few years ago in an American magazine. This article consisted of a number of photographs of a tiger mauling a woman. The photographs were taken at very close range. The story was that the tiger was really a tame tiger owned by the woman. The photographer wanted to take snaps of her and her tiger. Whether it was the presence of the photographer or his camera or what, the tiger suddenly turned savage and attacked its owner. It didn’t merely attack her – it pulled her down and began to maul her seriously. Meanwhile what was that perfected product of the scientific attitude doing?

The answer is that the photographer went on taking photographs. You can argue about Hughes’ take on photography…I can’t imagine Fay Godwin taking that lying down…but you can hardly argue with his passionate defence of the imagination in the health of the psyche and in our relationship with the ambient universe. It’s a piece of polemic that made me want to learn to read the great myths, the stories that answer the question why?while the scientist answers the question how?  It was this lecture which sent me to the stories that enchant us into a powerfully privileged sense of why we are human, the blurred distinctions between the divine, the human and the animal. 

I was also intrigued as I read Ted Hughes:Environmentalist and Ecopoetto suddenly think about how relatively few people there are in the poems….think of Causley, Larkin, Fanthorpe whose poems are crammed with people, with individuals. It’s not that Hughes poetry isn’t populated. It’s full of voices and ,for a better word, characters. But how many of them are ‘mythic’? That’s worth thinking about. 

But. There’s room in the world for a book about Ted Hughes as an eco-poet teacher and educator, one which that does justice to books he wrote for children, the ones like Season songs and What is the truth? in particular, and the light they shine on the wider work. It occurs to me that I can’t think of anyone better to write it better than Yvonne Reddick.She’d bring to it the qualities she brings to this one, qualities beautifully summarised in this endorsement:

It is very thoroughly researched, lucidly written and critically acute. An important merit is that is examines each stage of Hughes’s career in historical context, thus avoiding anachronistic retrospective criticism. Perhaps the most important change it makes to our understanding of Hughes is that he emerges as a public intellectual, rather than the reclusive poet of popular perception.’ (Neil Roberts, Emeritus Professor, Sheffield University, UK)

Well, it’s taken me an unconscionably long time to write this. I’m glad I have. I’m glad it’s finished. I won’t need the book any more, so here’s the deal. I’m putting it on ebay. Any money that I get for it will go the Caris Camden project that provides night shelter for rough sleepers. 

Stop Press: It went for a tenner.

Critics, poets and the common reader (Part One)

ted 2

Ted Hughes:Environmentalist and Ecopoet: Yvonne Reddick [Palgrave Macmillan 2017. £79.99]

As you know, I’ve become resident poetry blogger for Write Out Loud. I can’t manage to write two brand new posts a week, but I know there are lovely folk who follow the great fogginzo’s cobweb, but may not have hooked on to the WOL site. So, as promised, for the time being I’ll be re-posting articles and other ramblings from WOL on the cobweb. The most recent is huge…over 4000 words…so I’m splitting into two parts. I’ve riffed on the business of academic publishing, what it means to be a reader, on poetry criticism, and on why I think Ted Hughes’ work as a champion of educating the imagination was so inspirational. I’m also be telling you why I think Yvonne Reddick’s book is really really good. So here we go.

“What do I want in a critic of poetry? I am a slow and basic reader: clarity, first of all. Everything else, the enthusiasm, the insight, even little bits of esoteric knowledge, can all come later. I need to see what is going on”. (Anthony Wilson)

Procrastination is the thief of time. More months ago than I like to remember, I was asked if I’d like to review Yvonne Reddick’s new book. 

No problem, I said Send it over…I’ll do it forthwith. 

The book arrived shortly after, and very handsome it is. Compact, satin-y hardback, high quality paper. 335 pages of complex exegesis, plus an additional densely-printed 16 pages of citations. Daunting, but it sat nicely in the hand, with a comforting heft. And I settled down to read it, immediately realising that I probably wasn’t qualified to critique it, but persuading myself that I could make a fist of saying what I made of it, and what it taught me. 

Some time…quite a long time…later, the book was bristling with post-it stickers, and my notebook was filling up with quotations, and queries and jottings, and I didn’t know where to start. Nevertheless, I started, threw away the draft, started again, put it away for a bit, thought about it, forgot it, felt guilty, started again..and so on. 

Meanwhile I missed a deadline for submitting to The North, found the next one was an Irish edition, but finally gritted my teeth, set myself down and wrote a review. I thought I’d done justice to the job, and proof-read and tidied, and then looked up the publication details because the price isn’t on the book cover. The price! I thought I’d misread. Anything from £65 to £79.99 depending on where you look. 

A bit of context: Ted Hughes in context: Terry Gifford (ed) C.U.P. 2018 is priced at an equally eye-watering £75   Why? Apparently it’s because they only sell in small quantities. Maybe the price is one reason for that? What do I know? Anyway, here’s an response from the academic and writer Kate Beswick’s blog; she’s bemoaning the pricing of texts by academic publishers, like this and hers, and the way it it arguably significantly reduces her readership.

“Every six years or so, UK academics have to submit our work to the Research Excellence Framework where its ‘quality, significance and rigour’ is graded anywhere between 1 and 4 stars. …… there are still good reasons to choose an academic publisher….. if you are hoping to submit a book to REF. Most obviously because with an academic publisher your book will be subject to a rigorous peer review by someone in your discipline, which means there is quality control and you can have some confidence the academic world thinks your work is worthwhile.”

Me? I did the only thing I could; I panicked. I couldn’t send in this review; what if everything I said was wrong or just naive? After all, here’s a book that’s self-evidently the product of extensive, meticulous scholarly research, and has most certainly been peer-reviewed within an inch of its life. What more could I possibly add that would be of the slightest interest to anyone, especially to folk who know a lot more about Ted Hughes than I ever will. And thus I missed the Spring deadline. Procrastination. 

But a promise is a promise. This won’t be a review, not properly. Like Bleak House’s Esther Summerson, ‘I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever.’ Let me qualify that. For ‘have’ read ‘had’, and for ‘clever’ read  ‘ill-qualified’. Think of it as the musings of a particularly common reader. Let’s start with something apparently straightforward, an extract from a poem you can find very nearly at the end of Charles Causley’s Collected poems 1951-2000 

When I asked

what the poet did, a girl said,

‘Make up true stories

of people and animals

in his head’

When I told them 

he was also a farmer,

they said they thought

farmers didn’t have time to write

stories and poems.


‘Once,’ I said,’he took home

a wounded badger.

Nursed it well, then set it free.’

All the children smiled;

clapped their hands very loudly.’

(In a Junior School: to Ted Hughes)

It seems so simple to these children, the idea of a farmer-poet who once nursed a badger. I imagine they would not have been fazed to know that in his early life he’d hunted and trapped and killed animals, and throughout his life had been a fisherman. They would possibly be baffled by the fact that critics of Hughes and his poetry find it problematic. What Yvonne Reddick’s book does, with a clarity that belies its density, is to sure-footedly take the reader through the thickets of academic controversy that surround the poetry and the poet; to analyse their relationship to the burgeoning environmental  movement; to deftly unpick interpretations of art’s relationship with ecology, and equally to the alarming number of sects and subsects that occupy the fields of eco-poetics and eco-poetry.

The publisher’s blurb is a useful starting point if there’s to be an element of evaluation in what follows. 

“This book is the first book devoted entirely to Hughes as an environmental activist and writer. Drawing on the rapidly-growing interest in poetry and the environment, the book deploys insights from ecopoetics, ecocriticism and Anthropocene studies to analyse how Hughes’s poetry reflects his environmental awareness. Hughes’s understanding of environmental issues is placed within the context of twentieth-century developments in `green’ ideology and politics, challenging earlier scholars who have seen his work as apolitical. The unique strengths of this book lie in its combination of cutting-edge insights on ecocriticism with extensive work on the British Library’s new Ted Hughes archive. It will appeal to readers who enjoy Hughes’s work, as well as students and academics.”

 Let’s add to that a crucial caveat acknowledged by Reddick in her introductory chapter:

It would be foolish to suggest that reading Hughes’ work through the lens of his environmentalism is the only way of reading it.

Exactly. There’s an implied ‘as’ in the title, and the reader needs to hold on to that, to avoid saying but what about…..?. We need to go elsewhere for the ‘what about’. What are we to be concerned with? I’d say it was the meaning of being human, and of being human in relation to all other sentient creatures, and the complex eco-systems they live in, and on, and through; the challenges to human imagination and responsibility presented by the degradation of our complex environment and eco system. The argument is for all of us, and the book is is presented as being for ‘readers who enjoy Hughes’s work, as well as students and academics’.

Well, I’ve never been an academic, but I fit in the first category of ‘reader’, and I’ve never really stopped being a student, so I’ll take it from there. In the 1980s I was introduced to the sometimes baffling world of meta-narrative, and semiotics. I probably remain baffled, but one text that stuck was Wolfgang Iser’s The implied reader. I probably still don’t quite understand it, or else it’s simpler than it seems. This passage, an interpretation of Iser, was central, for me

“When an author is composing a text, they [sic]have a particular reader in mind, which is in part represented in the text. This reader is not identical to a real, flesh-and-blood reader, but is “a textual structure anticipating the presence of a recipient without necessarily defining him…the concept of the implied reader designates a network of response-inviting structures, which impel the reader to grasp the text.” Iser separates the concept of implied reader into two “interrelated aspects: the reader’s role as a textual structure, and the reader’s role as a structured act.” 

The textual structure refers to the reader’s point-of-view as found within the text. This standpoint is multifaceted, because the narrator, the characters, the plot, and the fictitious reader all offer sides of it. Further, the reader’s role as a textual structure is defined by the “vantage point by which he joins [these perspectives], and the meeting place they converge.” All, as component parts, operate together to shape the reader’s role as found within the text.”

Now, I’m pretty firm in my belief that in the first instance this doesn’t apply to poems at the moment they’re being written. I’m on the side of Ted Hughes when he wrote in Poetry in the making that the whole business is about focussing absolutely on what it is you think you’re trying to capture. I think ‘capture’ is the right word here, and it’s germane to the debate about Hughes’ imaginative and ethical engagement with animals that is reviewed in Reddick’s book. 

But it undeniably applies to a work of evaluative criticism, which attends to the imagined reader just as much these lines that I’m currently writing. If I wasn’t conflicted about my imagined audience, I’d have written this months ago. And I’m not sure that it would be possible to attend to the needs of the common reader AND the student AND the peer-academic simultaneously without going slightly mad. So who is this book intended for? Since Yvonne Reddick’s writing is beautifully poised and coherent and rational, I’m guessing that, whilst she’ll always have one eye over her shoulder, anticipating the what abouts of a specialised segment of literary academia, her primary implied reader is the student, and I’ll argue later that if this is the case she makes a stunningly good job of it.

Whenever we read anything we bring to the text all the accumulated baggage of previous reading and experience, and this becomes the lens that distorts the message the imagined writer intended for the actual reader. Several times in the book, Yvonne Reddick uses a word I’d never before encountered. Imbricated.I had to look it up, and have to say it’s a remarkably useful word. It means that something is in a complex way, layered. You could think of roof tiles, which are each distinct and separate, but simultaneously part of a single structure. I found it more useful to thing of something organic and flexible. Like the scales of a snake. In this case, applied to Hughes and his poetry, it acknowledges that they are made up of many layers, and that some of them may seem contradictory; this becomes especially relevant when it comes to the last chapter of the book…on hunting, shooting, fishing and conservation…in which the inconsistencies of Hughes’ public positions on this are described as ‘problematic’. Reddick pretty well keeps her powder dry on this…a studious objective neutrality is one of the hallmarks of the book….but I can’t.

Melvyn Bragg wrote, for the Observer,in a review of an unauthorised biography, 

There was so much of him. He lived the lives of many men called Ted Hughes. Driven, all of them, by a core of energy so bright and fierce it burned out many of those he encountered. By the time he reached manhood, he had, fully developed, an appetite, even a greed, above all a relentless questing passion for the life of passion itself which he sought and fed with poetry, sex and transformative mysticism about the earth and its meaning. Sometimes jubilant, sometimes tormented. He had a compulsion, which seemed to him to be mysterious, to confess and describe everything that claimed his concentration. And at whatever the cost.

Hughes was a prodigious reader of just about everything, and a prodigious writer of letters (700 pages of the collected letters), of poems (1200 pages), of plays and essays and so on. He was an educator, a broadcaster, a lecturer and a performer. He was conflicted hunter, a conflicted farmer (how many other poets do a full time job like that?), a conflicted and unfaithful husband, father, lover. He grew up in the physically and historically imbricated landscapes of the upper Calder Valley, and of Mexborough. Landscapes of the kind D H Lawrence grew up in. When I read Reddick’s accounts of various critics’ condemnation of his inconsistencies when it come to ecopolitics, I get annoyed. Because, I think, why should a poet be consistent, why should a life be simplified into ‘consistency’? Fortunately, she does not. She sticks to the task. And in the next week’s post I’ll try to tell you how well she does it. See you in a week. Thanks for reading xx

Keeping up with keeping up

I said in my last post on the cobweb that I’d been more than delighted to be invited to be the resident blogger for Write Out Loud. It’s a poetry site that does a wondrous job of posting every poetry gig in the land on a weekly basis, as well as updating us all about what’s what in the bustling world of poetry, and poetry events.

I also said that I wasn’t up to writing two brand new posts on a weekly basis, and that a) I would publish my post on the WOL site, and then b) repost them here, because I know I’ve got readers who aren’t hooked in to the WOL site. You might want to have a look at it anyway, and then decide to click that ‘Follow’ button: here’s the link

I kicked off by using some older articles as an introduction for new readers. There’ll be three or four of them before we get back into the swing of brand new posts and stellar guests. So here’s one from a few years ago.

Whose life is it, anyway?

A couple of years ago, I was writing about the way I had found myself conflicted about learning things about my granddad’s life that that didn’t fit with poems I’d written about him; how I was feeling uneasy about the truths of documentary records, and the truths of poems and poetry. I think it bothered me particularly, because it took me a long time to put people in my poems at all…ten years ago, pretty much all my poems were like my photographs: unpopulated landscapes.

I tried deliberately to break out of the straitjacket of endlessly writing pretty/atmospheric/repetitive (inevitably) evocations of places like Skye and the Pennine Moors. I took my cue from Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The world’s wife’, because I saw that I could try ventriloquism, learn the way of other people’s voices. I wrote monologues for all sorts of famous statues, like The Angel of the North, and for an artist who had fascinated me, and for his wife, and his model.  But never about real, living people…or, at least, about people who I knew, and might get to read the poems.

I suppose the first breakthrough of sorts came in the guilty relief and release –for both of us, I want to believe – that came when my mother died in her 90s . She spent the last fifteen years of her life in a nursing home following a  severe stroke. She fought against every moment of it. She resented and hated it. I took her ashes to the Valley of Desolation, her favourite place in Wharfedale, and soon after, wrote a poem about it as a sort of atonement or prayer for absolution. Then I felt guilty that I’d not written for my dad, so I wrote about his birdwatching, his shoe mending, his singing; and then I had to balance it up with more about my mum. It’s a strange thing, guilt, but the outcome was that over about three years I’d written a handful of poems, and more about my grandparents, and it seemed to come more easily with each one. I didn’t feel as if they were looking over my shoulder, tutting.  Or not as often, or not as loudly.

But I can pinpoint the big breakthrough to specific dates. In October 2013 I was on a writing course at Almaserra Vella in Spain, and the tutor was Jane Draycott. She gave us a quick writing exercise…first impressions, get-it-down stuff on a randomly chosen postcard, which happened to be a Penguin book cover that had images of flame on it. And I wrote about our friend Julie who we’d visited in her flat in Whitby a couple of weeks before. Julie was dying of an incurable cancer; she’d confounded the specialists by outliving their predictions by over a year.

Flames. The most tenuous of connections. But a flame burned fiercely in Julie, and in the underlit smokestacks of the Boulby mine just up the coast. Maybe that was it. I typed it up with very few changes the week after. When she died a couple of weeks later, I nerved myself up to give the poem to her brother at her funeral. I was genuinely frightened. But he liked it, shared it. Gave me a permission I realised I needed: to write honestly about and for real living people. That poem Julie won first prize in the 2013 Plough Competition. Andrew Motion had liked it! I used some of the prize money to put together and print my first two pamphlets.

Which is where it gets just a little more complicated. We’ve been going to the Isle of Skye for thirty years, renting a bungalow from Norman and Effie Macpherson in the crofting valley of Achnacloich on the Sleat peninsula. Norman was a shepherd all his working life, on Ben Lomond, on Ben Nevis, and finally, till his death eight years ago, back on his home island. Every now and then I’d try to write about them, but always felt conscious of what I imagined would be their wry, dry take on the whole sorry impertinent business. What did I know? Even so, when I put my first pamphlet together I wanted them in: a seven-poem sequence titled Crofters.

If anyone else had given me permission for that, it was MacCaig, who I read and re-read, trying to nail down just how he did it; that apparently simple thing of writing about the people and hills of Assynt that he loved and knew better than I’d ever know Skye, or Effie and Norman. Anyway, that’s the thing I was after. The way Norman would hide behind the barn to smoke, the quiet pauses of Effie’s speech. Here’s Norman

He’s laid up in the house:

joint pains, congested lungs,

bladder like a bag of knives,

and maybe sheep-dip’s to blame.

and Effie, the first year after he died, feeding the sheep that come running

like threads to a spool,

and milling like a boil of beans –

ignore the black and white dog,

the woman in the pilled grey fleece,

her hair that breezes cannot ruffle.

It was an expensive dog, that one. Norman went down to Tyndrum to buy it. A serious business, buying a working dog.

I still didn’t feel right about publishing the poems. In a diffuse sort of way, a way that says: well, they’re not going to see these poems. No-one’s going to buy them after all.  That sort of thing. And then I wrote some more, and sent some in for competitions. A poem called Norman came 2nd in a York Literature festival competition. I wrote from memory and feeling. Some things I know are factually true and some as though they ought to be.


could birth a lamb in the lee of a dike,

smit a skittish ewe in a squall,

pin down a ram and not give a jot 

for its yellow stare, the black slot of its sideways eye,

wear a two-year Herdwick like a scarf

over three miles of bog,

make good a tumbled fence with a twist of twine,

strip out an axle on a Subaru,

stand half a summer to his waist in the slop of the dip

haul a whole flock through

and still tell a tale 

over the clamouring misery of bleat.

He could walk all day 

in a pelt of rain and a sack for a coat.

To put down a runt

or one with a goitre 

or one with a sprain or a maggoty arse – 

that was beyond him quite.

The days for the slaughterman’s truck 

he was away over the moor.

He knew where the first primrose showed.

from Much Possessed (smith|doorstop 2017)

I knew all about the Subaru, but the Herdwick was there for the heft of the word. It would more likely have been one of the blackfaced sheep. I don’t know the proper name. A Cheviot? What I was after was the mix of Norman’s durability and the sentimental side he could show.

He once told me he knew a secret place in the woods beyond the headland. He’d take Effie there to show her the first primroses. They can’t be got at now, because of the deer fences. He was cross about them, because now there are no deer to keep down more competitive plants.

The man at the garage in Armadale told me that all the neighbours were pretty sure that years of exposure to organo-phosphates in the sheep dip played a part in his illness. That had to find a way in.

That’s Norman who I didn’t know all that well; but it’s the Norman I remember. I worried about whether Effie would recognize him. Or think me obtrusive. An incomer.

The business was finally settled for me when Liz Lochhead picked a poem as the winner of the 2014 Plough Competition. It pivots on something Effie happened to say when I told her about an odd meeting in the rain down in Tarskavaig. This is it.


Washed up on a rucked-rug  shoreline,

floats, fish-boxes, rubber gloves,

fertiliser sacks, kelp, clots of wool,

and the cockle –pickers, peat-pickled 

bog-creatures, leathery, with ruined teeth,

long, dirty nails, eyes as dark as iodine.

They tinkers. Och. says Effie. You’d do well

to look to the barns, and count the spades,

and what did they ask you for,

the leather women, old coats belted with rope,

rubber boots patched with gaffer tape,

hair like seaweed, when they tapped

on the windscreen, brown as selkies.

For a light only, the bright ember,

blue smoke blown on the wind, the spit

of rain off the sea, and thanks we’re away 

down the road and done with the day,

with turning stones, with lifting kelp,

browsing the hard shore for a knuckly net

of cockles, iron, amber,cobalt, rust.

What’s to be done with the Tarskavaig tinkers

who come up out of the peat or the sea?

And when the light goes, where do they turn?

from : Much possessed. (smith|doorstop 2017)

We’d had a laugh over that. Not ‘PC’ that ‘tinkers’. ‘But they’re tinkers just the same’, said Effie. And I cut her some cake. Well, it takes more than a slice of cake to say ‘thank you’ for putting someone out there in public, when you never said ‘please’ in the first place. I had sleepless nights over it all,  then said the serenity prayer. The bit about asking for courage to change the things we can. I made a neat parcel of my three pamphlets, and wrote a letter that took me more redrafts than most poems, all explanation, mea culpa and apology, and posted it all off to Achnacloich on the Sleat peninsula of Skye.

Then I waited. And nothing happened. I thought maybe she’d gone to visit her cousin, or gone over to Ireland for a holiday, or…….. I thought over and over, what if she’s upset, or worse. Last week I bit the bullet and telephoned. 

O, hello, she said. I was meaning to ring you…I feel guilty now, you know how things get put off, it’s been a terrible summer, och, the worst I remember, dreich days, and grass poor, we’re taking supplements up to sheep; yes I got your books. We liked them. Norma says I’ll be famous now. Och, no, of course I’m not cross.

For two days I walked on air, and that November I was able to go and see her, and all was well. Whose lives are they anyway, when we write? I have no idea. But I know we’re responsible for them, and the truth of them. Whatever that is.

Green thoughts, and a Polished Gem: Alison Lock

I was watching BBC2 last night. Anthony Gormley on How art began. I got the buzz and the jolt I remember from when I first saw Bronowski’s Ascent of man, or John Berger’s Ways of seeing. It was quiet, it was thoughtful, it was utterly gripping.

There was none of the nonsense that attends the contemporary culture-tourist programme, usually hosted by some breathless ex-Blue Peter presenter, or D-list ‘celebrity’ who no-one has ever heard of. The nonsense that begins ‘I’m going on a journey to discover…’ The last time I heard that one was on a programme about St Kilda, where the excitable ‘discoverer’ appeared to think she was the first to tell a story that that the BBC had documented, using contemporary film records, and broadcast about 20 years before she was born. I got ridiculously cross. It does me no good.

But last night was the real deal, how things should be, delivered by a man who knows exactly what he’s talking about, and why; a man genuinely awestruck by images made 40,000 years ago. Not the the prints of hands, but the images of the absence of hands that became dust 40,000 years ago. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll not spoil it for you….just make sure not to miss it.

One thing I just had to write down…..there was so much, but this especially….was his response to what he described as a tender piece of art, an animal drinking, so it seemed, from a pool. He called it (I think)

  an art of interdependency…. a pre-narcissistic art

There you had it. Art is essential to our selfhood, our sanity and our spiritual health. But great art is somehow ego-free. Gormley said something startling. He said ‘I don’t like Picasso. He was a predator.’ You get your money’s worth with Gormley, much as you do with Hockney. Television for grown ups. What Gormley explored, among other things, was art as a responsive connection to the multifarious world and the place of the people and the individual within it.

Which brings me to the business of ‘green thoughts’. Not the languorous state I read in Marvell’s ‘annihilating everything that’s made/to a green thought in a green shade’ but the business of art’s response to and redefining of the ‘natural’ world…which is a concept I find problematic, but I’ll not pursue that now. I’m thinking of the whole complicated continuum from Pastoral poetry to the current imbroglio of ‘eco/environmental poetry’. I’ve been wrestling with this ever since I read Yvonne Reddick’s tour de force of exegesis in Ted Hughes: environmentalists and eco poet. I think I lost my way in the second chapter in which she summarises the sects and subsects of ecopoetry criticism: the topological, the tropological, the entropological and the ethnological. There are probably more by now, but they didn’t help me to entangle what I think of as ‘nature’, living as we do in a land where every metre has been named, walked, farmed, exploited, fenced, walled, built on, abandoned and reclaimed. All I know is that is if we continue degrade the ecological balances of the world it will die. The earth will get over that. It doesn’t care. It’s already gone through four major extinctions, not least being the one caused by the emergence of oxygen in the free atmosphere. It doesn’t care for us. But it seems obvious that we need to care for it if we care anything for ourselves.

When it comes to poetry that concerns itself with the natural world (and I’ll strenuously avoid that capitalised cliche Nature) I guess my first big eye-opener was Raymond Williams’ The country and the city which was my introduction to the idea that words like that are culturally constructed, and go on being deconstructed and reconstructed. Very little of the poetry we were given at school concerned itself with the city and the urban. It was pastoral, nostalgic and often sentimental . Poems like ‘The deserted village’. Poems like ‘Daffodils’. It took me a long time to work out why I distrusted ‘Daffodils’ but the clue’s in the first line:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

The first word; I. It’s not about daffodils, is it? It’s about the poet and what the daffodils can do for him as he wanders (ie purposelessly) and lonely (ie in self-elected solitariness) as a cloud (ie diffuse and without responsibility). It’s what I thought of when I heard Gormley’s phrase ‘ a pre-narcissistic art’. He did a revolutionary thing, Wordsworth. It’s a shame this poem is what he’s chiefly remembered for by folk who aren’t that interested in poetry. He opened our eyes to a power and loveliness beyond the bounds of a predominantly urban and urbane culture. I’ll hang on to that as I come to introduce today’s guest. I’ve taken far too long to share my enthusiasm for her work.

Alison Lock is a poet and writer of short fiction whose work has appeared in anthologies and journals in the UK and internationally. She is the author of three poetry collections, two short story collections, and a fantasy novella. Her latest collection of poetry, Revealing the Odour of Earth, Calder Valley Poetry (2017), is an observation of life as seen through the natural environment: ‘landscape made language’ (Bob Horne). She finds inspiration in the moorlands and the natural environment of the South Pennines, which is often reflected in her writing, but she is also influenced by her childhood home of the West Country. More about her writing can be found at

I really like that phrase of Bob Horne’s…‘landscape made language’. It chimes with Macfarlane’s ‘landmarks’. Unconsciously, I hyphenate it. landscape-made-language.  And also language-made-landscape.  So much of Alison’s poetry is a poetry of place. A topological poetry if you like. I hope these poems will explain what I mean. (yet again, apologies for my having to use screenshots of the poems. It keeps the shape but loses a bit of clarity)

The Wordsworthian note is there right enough…the I  that wants to emboss its prints on the new snow. But it’s a shared experience, a shared place. I especially like its physical presence, its textures, its solidity… ‘the ribcage of stone’ and the texture of the ice, its ‘milky slipcovers’. The paths are set with traps. I like the sound of the landscape, too, the susurrations, the chitterlings, the whisperings, its nervousness in a world that will shortly unleash a madness, or enchant us all into a sleep of reason.

It seems apposite, just now, to write about walls, and differences between good fences and boundaries between peoples.

  First published – Anapest: Issue One

It’s a poem of exact true observation, that gives each stone its heft and surface, and it’s given that extra jolt that makes you see a work of hands in a new light in the turn of one line:

How she imagines each unique rock 

A stone wall as an imaginative act which is about the suppression of ‘self’, imagination in the way that Michaelangelo thought he could feel the shape inside the stone, the way he could release it. Lovely. Robert Frost would have liked it, I think.

One more poem (which absolutely had to be done with a screenshot!)

Landscape that speaks our lives, and which requires us to speak for it in turn. Alison, thank you for being our guest today. Thank you for the poems. Please come again.

News flash

Changes are afoot with the cobweb. I’m delighted and unnerved to be asked to be a resident blogger for Write Out Loud. I can’t resist the thought of a considerably larger readership. We’re not entirely sure how this will work out BUT I know I haven’t the stamina, the imagination or the bottle to write two separate regular posts a week. I’m barely keeping up with one. The plan is that I’ll write for Write Out Loud, and then repost to the cobweb a week later. I need to keep the cobweb going for loyal followers in the States, for instance, who won’t be likely to pick up WOL. Anyway. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll be writing to future guests to make sure they’re happy with the plan. If not, I’ll give them posts exclusively on the cobweb. In the meantime, thank you for following. Don’t go away.

fearless creating

I’m in-between blog posts at the moment, and feeling conflicted about priorities . This post of Julie Mellor’s is exactly what I needed on this January Sunday night. Thank you, Julie. xxxxxx

Julie Mellor - poet

fearless creatingFearless Creating by Eric Maisel (Tarcher Putnam 1995)

At the Poetry Business Writing Day yesterday I was talking to the wonderfully talented Laura Potts about how, when we don’t have the opportunity to write, our anxiety levels soar. I thought back to Eric Maisel’s book, Fearless Creating (above). It’s a while since I’ve read it, but he’s very insightful on the tension between working and not working. I’ve just dug out the book from my very disordered bookshelf, opened it at random and found this:

Is it honourable to say ‘no’ to the work? Yes! Is it vital to say ‘no’ to the work? Yes! Is it permitted to sit in the sun and sip a soda and not feel guilty about not working? Yes! Is it right to say ‘no’ to the work when you hear your child crying, when your loved one wants a hug, when your day…

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On hearing and listening. And an (un)discovered gem: Emma Storr

Growing deaf is hard to explain. Harder than explaining failing eyesight, which you can demonstrate, with a picture. I’m reminded, too, that some eye conditions might account for the spectacular success of some painters. There’s a fascinating book by the ophthalmologist Patrick Trevor-Roper: The world through blunted sight ; first published in 1970, it presents a fascinating study of the work of painters, sculptors, poets and prose writers throughout history. Was Impressionism born of a generation of short-sighted artists? Was Constable’s fondness for autumnal tints due to colour blindness? Did Modigliani actually see his nudes as unnaturally elongated through distorted sight? Leonardo, Rembrandt and Titian all suffered from increasing long-sightedness in old age – is this the cause of the loss of detail in their later paintings?

And so on. I get that, but I’ve never understood how Beethoven coped with being deaf.

Having lost about 50% of my hearing, even with hearing aids, there’s a lot of music I can’t listen to because I’ve lost all the top end (which makes the sublime Everley Brothers sound as though they’re singing flat), and being in a pub for a reading can produce a sound effect in which all the individual sounds claim equal value and lose their relative depths and distances…the sound equivalent, I suppose, of an out of focus image, which can be quite pretty until the image you’re looking at is print.

Where’s this all going? In December, I was on a writing weekend, with readings from extremely gifted poets in the evenings. It may have had something to do with the room, which was very large, but I found I could hear them only in the way I can see that grey image that I think may be about multiple choices. I heard them, but couldn’t listen to them, because listening implies you’re making sense of what you hear.

Now, where was I? There’s been a three hour interval while I loaded a futon mattress into the car, got the firewood in and went to a cold rugby match. All of which I enjoyed. A chap can lose track. Ah, yes..hearing (listening later, that was it).I’ve been to several readings since the start of December, and what I especially liked about them was that I could hear the poems. It was nothing to do with the mic being set right. It was all about the the readers and their delivery, which was so clean and clear I could do without hearing aids. One reader was Julia Deakin, who is always accurate, distinct. One was Tom Weir (twice) who read quietly, but always with that concern for the heft and texture of the words, who, like Julia, tastes the consonants that matter, and also, like her, reads with a rhythm that falls on the key words, so sound never displaces meaning, never over-rides the syntax and the sense, and lets the words have their surrounding silent space, which is the aural equivalent of white space on the page. And one poet was today’s guest, Emma Storr, who I’d never heard reading before and who was a revelation. We all know poets, some of them famous, who simply can’t read like that. I wish they’d make the effort. It’s not about theatricality, or volume or elocution. It’s about diction and a concentration on the meaning of the words they say. Thank you Tom and Julia for letting me hear the poems, and thanks to both of them for respectively guesting at the last session of The Puzzle Poets Live (at The Shepherds Rest) and at the first of a new venue which we hope will now be our permanent home..The Navigation in Sowerby Bridge. And so to our guest.

Emma is a member of Leeds Writers Circle and has a background in medicine and teaching but is now turning her attention to poetry. She recently completed an MPhil in Writing from the University of South Wales. Her poems have been published in The Hippocrates Prize Anthologies of 2016 and 2018 and Strix Nos. 2, 3 & 4. Emma is currently putting together a collection that celebrates the extraordinary workings of the body. It will be published before very long by the estimable Calder Valley Poetry. Look out for it. She enjoys the challenge of using her scientific knowledge and medical experience in lyrical ways to create different voices and styles.

I remember saying at her reading that all doctors would benefit from a thorough immersion in poetry, in writing it, in developing the empathy, the imaginative reach for the other that it demands. I guess that’s because I’ve occasionally encountered the opposite…like the surgeon who breezed past my hospital bed one Monday morning, saying airily, en passant, good, good, everything normal. I was guilty of losing my rag. ‘Normal! Normal? It’s not ****ing normal’. He was torn between being haughtily cross and being taken aback. The junior doctors all looked shocked/worried. I told him that it might be a normal day for him, and that I respected his professional skill, but I’d be grateful if he respected mine. My specialism was language and communication, I told him, and when you have been sliced open from groin to sternum and then put back together with 30 staples, and you haven’t had any solid food for over a week, and you are in some pain ‘normal’ didn’t do it. And so on. To be fair, we got on pretty well subsequently, but it was partly why my heart sang when Emma read this first poem.

What struck me was the calm objectivity of the voice, the way the poet/doctor dissected her own response to the shock that the first line delivers in its matter-of-fact way. There’s something particularly unnerving about the phrase ‘half her face’. It’s a phantom of the opera moment, except that it ‘opened a warm cavern in her head’. That ‘warm’ is beautifully juxtaposed with the the only previous reference point of

those rigid plastic models / we’d studied in anatomy

and having no resource but to pretend this is ‘normal’, to say ‘all seemed well’, to ask ‘how do you feel?’. It’s a poem about the falling short of language and of emotional resource. I thought it was special. It illustrates the difference between hearing and listening, and the way the latter means you not only have to imagine who you’re talking to but to imagine who you are at the same time. I love its emotional honesty and the way it’s contained in those calm-seeming couplets. People aren’t customers or clients. They aren’t diagrams. No wonder her poems have appeared in the Hippocrates Prize anthologies.

Which brings us neatly to the next two poems. (I should say that I’ve been driven nuts by WordPress’ way with lineation, and have, in desperation, overcome it by taking screenshots of the word documents. It keeps the shape and loses the clarity. We’ll get there in the end. bear with me. It was unavoidable with these two that rely totally on the way the words sit on the page.)

I’m not normally a fan of poems that play about with shape, but sometimes it’s exactly the right thing to do, as in this loving engagement with someone known who is being changed by (I take it) dementia. I like the fracture of ‘fractions’. the lengthening of ‘long division’ , the unnerving reversal of east and west, that loss of spatial compass, and the heartbreak of home hiding round corners.. I like the next poem, too

I like the visual trick that gives the text the shape of a helix, and how that tells me the rightness of the business of cell division and destruction. I like the way it steps down the page, and I like the way it made me look at and see the back of my hand (which we’re supposed to know absolutely better than anything) in a different light.

Just one more poem, that might usefully be handed out to every new doctor in training. One of my grandsons is just coming to the end of his seven years’ hard of exams and hospital placements..I think I’ll send it to him and see what he thinks.

It’s one of those poems when I want to say to the poet: don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s all very well to point fingers and say Physician, heal thyself..But if you make a mistake, how do you live with it and yourself. This poem catches, in its looping repetitions, that failure to get a sense of shame or guiltiness out of your mind, how it circles and repeats I didn’t think when I told you.

In its plainness it refuses to make excuses. It seems so baldly simple, because that’s what the truth is. So there we are. Thank you Emma Storr for the honesty and accuracy of these poems you’ve shared that tell us all we need to listen better. I’m looking forward to the collection. Please come again.

The glittering prizes, and the return of a Polished Gem: Stephanie Conn

Here we are with the first guest poet of 2019, and I’m hunting for a hook. Which turns out to be the business of the hopefulness at the start of any new year. I suppose for a lot of us who write poetry it’s the firm intention to write better this year, to send out all those poems we’ve been sitting on and humming and hawing about, and, if you’re like me, checking out the plethora of competitions that seem to come swarming around now. You might be lighting a candle for the ones you sent in for the National (which is the poetry equivalent of the Lottery double roll-over; spare a thought for Kim Moore lying on her sofa…she notes in her latest blog post that she has 9,500 poems to read through before sending in her choices for the long-list). Or you may, like me, be checking out Poets and Players or the Kent and Sussex, or Prole or York Mix……the list stretches out like Macbeth’s line of taunting kings. As regular readers know, I’m a sucker for competitions. I like the tingle. And I’ve been lucky, but it’s worth recording one illusion I was under at one time. I thought if I won a big competition, the world of poetry would beat a path to my door. It doesn’t. Basically, if you want to make a mark (which significantly, I haven’t) you have to keep on writing and working and submitting and begging for readings, and networking like crazy. The company you keep is important, but no-one owes you a living. You get the days of euphoria, and then it’s back to earth.

On the other hand, if I’d never entered and won a competition I’d never have met today’s guest who was a joint winner in 2016 of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition. And if I hadn’t, my life would have been the poorer. And after the most contrived hook/intro in the history of the cobweb, let’s welcome Stephanie Conn.

Stephanie launched her debut collection, ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ with Doire Press in March 2016 and, having been selected by Billy Collins as one of the winners of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition, three months later she launched her pamphlet, ‘Copeland’s Daughter’.

Between 2010 and 2013, she completed a part-time MA in Creative Writing under the tuition of Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Leontia Flynn and Sinead Morrissey.

During this period, her poems were being published more regularly and in 2012, she was shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Award and highly commended in the Doire Press Poetry Chapbook and Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet competitions. The following year she was selected for Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Series.

Diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, she says she felt stripped of her identity. There were so many things she could no longer do but she could still write and now had the chance to commit fully to it.

She began to arrange a full manuscript, submitted ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ to Doire Press and was thrilled when they accepted the collection. In 2015, as well as being highly commended in the Gregory O’Donoghue Poetry Competition and coming third in the Dromineer Poetry Competition, she won the Yeovil Poetry Prize, the Funeral Services NI Poetry Prize and the inaugural Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing.

By the time Doire Press had decided to publish ‘The Woman on the Other Side’, she was already busy with new work. She received an Artists Career Enhancement Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to research and begin writing her second collection, Copelands Daughter inspired by her ancestors who lived on a small island in the Irish Sea. It was a selection of these new poems that became a joint winner of the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition, after which she was giving readings and facilitating workshops, and then heading to the other side of the world for the Tasmania Poetry Festival .

There’s a c.v. to make you sit up!  As I’ve said,I met Stephanie for the first time in Grasmere at the Wordsworth Trust… the prize-giving ceremony for the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition winners. She read from her pamphlet Copeland’s daughter, and blew me away. The Copelands are a small group of islands of the coast of Northern Ireland, and the poems tell tell the story of her ancestors who lived and farmed and fished there, until they were forced to leave, like so many who have struggled on poor land and in hard weathers, like the ones forced from Mingulay, from the Blasketts, the Shiants, St Kilda. So many. These poems ticked so many boxes for me. And she read with a passion, and a clarity. 

I was sold from the very first poem: 

The first lighthouse…Cross Island 1714.   

A lighthouse in ‘these twenty acres’ that ‘never did attract the sun’

‘three storeys of island-quarried stone, picked

and carried on the convicts’ backs.

They built the wall two metres thick’

Billy Collins wrote of this poem: “The First Lighthouse” should be read in every classroom. I know what he means. It has the same kind of heft that I love in Christy Ducker’s work…coincidentally, in Skipper,  the core of which is a sequence about poems about small islands The Farnes, and the story of their lighthouse, and of Grace Darling.

Of Stephanie’s writing Collins says  :

Precise description rendered in physical language lifts these poems off the page and into the sensory ken of the reader. 

This, the first poem of Copelands Daughter, shows you just what he meant


We are cut off from the mainland again;

a pile of unopened letters sits in Donaghadee;

there is flour and salt and treacle in the grocer’s,

bags of coal and paraffin to fill the empty tins,

but the boat keeps close to the harbour wall.

Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.

Still, the bread is baked and the butter churned,

the blocken cured and the rabbits trapped,

mussels are plucked from the island pools

and pickled in jars on larder shelves.

The firewood and driftwood is stacked.

Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.

Inside the lamps are lit and curtains pulled,

while out at sea, the wind and waves confront

each other in torrents of eddies and pools

and the gulls circling above the spume

could be vultures in the thick sea-mist.

Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.

But we know what the darkness brings;

it drags us from sleep into nightmare, lost in fog

we’ll be struck by ship after floundering ship;

forced into the driving rain, where muffled voices call

from their wreck. We’ll run to the shore to save all we can.

Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.

In a place such as this, we are used to the ghosts,

but not to their dying; never to the bodies of young men

washed up on the shore, with their puffed up faces

and gaping sockets where the eyes should be; or the tiny crab

emerging from a silenced mouth to scurry, ever sideways.

What I really like about this is the side-by-side-ness of the routine management of household comforts, the self-sufficiencies when the boat can’t come from the mainland, the security of a storm bound house….and the way the ghosts of the drowned will find their way in, one way or another. For me, the poem turns on one plain observation that make me re-evaluate everything I’ve just read.

In a place such as this, we are used to the ghosts,

but not to their dying

Well, that was in July 2016; now it’s time for her to bring us up to date. Here she is:

“Once I returned home from Tasmania it was back to the work of writing. The research and writing on the Copeland Island built and it soon became obvious that a full collection would need to follow the pamphlet – there was more to say! 

When you’re busy writing away and developing new work in isolation it is wonderful to get a little boost along the way. It helps keep you buoyant. So, it was wonderful to learn that my first collection ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ had made the shortlist of three for the Best First Collection in Ireland’s Shine/Strong Award 2016.

‘Island’ builds on and includes some of the poems from Copeland’s Daughter but moves beyond the tiny island of my ancestor’s to Ireland’s coasts – north and south. It was published by Doire Press in March 2018 and launched in Belfast in April.


In the lead up to the launch, I was busy with promotional work and interviews, and afterwards hit the road with fellow Doire-Press author, Rosemary Jenkinson, for a cross-border reading tour ‘Island Secrets, Urban Lies’ which was great fun. Most recently, we made the journey to Clare Island off the West Coast of Ireland as part of the Westport Literary Festival. 

There are lots of photos of our travels on the ‘Events’ section of my website.

So much of a writer’s life is spent hidden away that it is always a delight to work with other poets and have the opportunity to contribute to anthologies and get involved in collaborations such as the Beautiful Dragons Collaboration, Metamorphic: 21st Century Poets Respond to Ovid and most recently, the Aldeburgh Collaborative, alongside other ‘Coast to Coast’ writers. 

I continue to send work out to poetry journals and this year I’ve had new poems published in Poetry Ireland Review, The North, Iota, Southword, The Open Ear, Banshee, Bangor Literary Journal, Honest Ulsterman, Ofi Press, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Tangerine, Coast to Coast, Stony Thursday Book, Interpreters House and The Pickled Body.

In September, I started a full-time PhD by practice in Creative Writing at the University of Ulster. I’m working on a new poetry collection inspired by my own experiences of living with an invisible, chronic illness, as well as looking at the experiences and work of other creatives and public figures. This creative works sits alongside a critical examination of contemporary poetry of illness. That will keep me busy for the next three years, at least!

I love that….knowing where you are and where you’re heading. I’ll keep that like a small lamp to light my way into 2019. Right. Time for the poems.

The first I chose for its link to the Copelands, to islands, to hard living. I think, too, because it echoes another poem I love…Wet harvests by Roy Cockcroft. You can check it out via this link:

And also, of course, because it illustrates what Billy Collins said about her poetry: Precise description rendered in physical language lifts these poems off the page and into the sensory ken of the reader. 

Biding Time

She sits by the split cottage door knitting

a navy sweater on five thin needles – 

seamless, to resist salt water, biting

winds, the neck tight enough to make ears bleed,

no swell wild enough to strip it from skin.

She knows the pattern by heart, each bobble

stitch is a prayer, each basket weave a hymn

to the deep. She ignores the new grumble 

from her swollen belly, thinks of the dropped

stitch above the waist, a small gap in wool

to identify the man she loved – loves.

His worn boat has not been seen for days, caught,

perhaps, on some other island’s rocks. Still

time to return before the next storm hits.

You have to remember that a fisherman’s jumper needed a code knitted into the pattern; a fisherman gone over the side in a big sea or a sudden swing of a sail might not be recovered for days, carried miles by currents and tides, preyed on by fish and crabs. That jumper would identify the body, say where he came from. So every stitch becomes a naming and a prayer. What I like especially about this poem, apart from its empathy, its imaginative engagement, is the textures, and especially, the craft of the line endings. Exact and sure-footed. Lovely

I chose the next poem because it puzzles me and bothers me, because I can’t quite work out who’s talking to me. It’s magical; it asks for a sort of leap of faith. (it also asks for something WordPress is steadfastly refusing to do, which is to recognise stanza breaks. You’ll have to visualise them in this poem of five 4-line stanzas. My apologies)

The Saline Scent of Home

They said it was here; buried before my birth.

I had no reason to doubt them. Besides, I loved belief.

That, and myth. I could almost see it through their lens,

their open window, doorway frames, the rusted locks

but this door never did lead to the beach, not once,

and the marram grass I feel scratch at my soles

never did take root. I am both fish and toad, and neither,

turquoise and aquamarine, gills flapping, mouth closed.

I must hold my breath long enough to descend

to that air-pocket place of half-dream, and blink twice,

must look myself in the eye for the second time,

note the tint of iris, grown strange, the pupil’s pulse.

My eyes are clear, like the sea, and blue is an illusion.

The mirror’s frame is tarnished gold, layers of nacre

glint in curved drops, collapse distance. The folds 

of my dress gather at my feet as liquid charcoal.

I hear an underwater echo of wood on water,

the flat slap of paddle and the time rushing in,

knowing I have not captured the moment on film,

knowing there is no time lapse of woman becoming shell.

The puzzle starts in the first line. They said it was here  What is it, this it? It does a lot of work, that small pronoun. And who are they who I had no reason to doubt? Everything in this poem is dubious, the door never did lead to the beach, things are almost seen at best. Everything is fluid, everything shape shifts, the mirror distorts. It’s a dreamworld of illusion, with the strange clarity and reality of dreams. That last line is a shock, because despite the layers of nacre that shell is unexpected and unexplained. The whole poem is a moment that draws you in and keeps you there. Wherever ‘in’ might be.

One more poem to end with. Another abandoned place but more obviously rooted in a physical place I imagine I could visit, though without this poem I would not know its meaning or its histories. The voice of it reminds me of the poems I tried to write about Clearance villages on Skye, the way I wanted them to be something they may not have been. I longed, like the poet, to feel gothic. (by the way, there are no stanza breaks to imagine)


May flowers are still in bloom by the hazel wood.

You stay to breathe in their bruised sweetness;

I walk away to all that remains of the walled

garden, rest my back against quarried stone.

All this belongs to us now. The grand house

is gone, its slender turrets forgotten –

nothing could be done. I’d love to see 

its empty rooms, stripped floorboards,

an open door, but there is only fern and moss, 

a rectangle of cut grass. I long to feel gothic.

Scrabo Hill rises behind me. We have strolled

the tree-sheltered track, looked back over 

the patchwork slide of farmed land, kissed

at the summit. You once turned a leaf 

to reveal three types of caterpillar: Grayling,

Barred Umber, Nut-tree Tussock. I wondered

if we’d see them morph into butterflies.

Today there are none. We are too far 

from bark and the magic’s wearing thin.

I never wished for wings, prefer the certainty

of black dolerite, sandstone, agglomerate.

This is the only thing I cannot bear to lose.

I steady myself. Prepare to break it.

So there we are. What a great way to start 2019. Thank you Stephanie Conn. May the next three years be as productive as the last.