Well met; a Polished Gem: Christopher North

If you’ve followed the various strands of the cobweb for some time, you’ll have seen this photograph before. The limestone range that circles the villages of Sella and Relleu in Alicante, the village of Relleu itself, and, seen between the trees, the blue house. Almaserra, the old olive press that’s the home of today’s guest poet, Christopher North. I can say without any exaggeration that this place changed my life and made it clear to me that what I needed to do was to write poems. 

I can’t explain why it’s taken me so long to ask Christopher to be a guest, but I suppose the trigger was that this year he was one of the winners of the 2018 Poetry Business International Pamphlet Competition, a prize that he adds to the dozens he’s won over the last 20+ years. There’s a synergy here, because I’ve no doubt that the residential courses he runs at the old olive press are one of the two main reasons why I wrote poems that eventually won the same pamphlet prize in 2016. So be warned….this will not be an impartial review, but an enthusiastic ‘thank you’. 

I met Christopher at a coffee shop in Alicante Airport in 2013, where he told me that the guest tutor for the residential course I’d enrolled on was forced to cancel at short notice, and that I could have my money back and fly home, or take a punt and stay, and that he’d try to take over the tutoring duties for the week. I chose to stay, and it was one of the three best decisions I’ve ever made..we drove along the coast, and, just short of Benidorm, turned inland into a landscape I’d not imagined and which I’ve come to love. Big uncompromising limestone mountains, a blue reservoir, huge views. Places I learned to walk in and find the bones of a fox, among other things.

Christopher has quietly introduced me to a dried up 17thC dam, prehistoric cave paintings in a stifling remote valley, the best paella bar in Alicante, another which is a shrine to the Civil War and left wing revolution, a Stanza group in room decorated with crumbling late-renaissance frescoes, and, memorably a steep shale hill below a cliff where we went to find shards of Iberian pottery and where he ripped the arse out of his trousers. I wrote a sort of prose-poem for that

We’re climbing this hill

a shaly slope ,a broken spine of stone, the tilt of strata, all levels and layers , silicas, sandstones, 

blue, green, grey muds, coral flowers, when he says :  from here we have to bushwack

CUE:  

long shot from a winding canyon rim, mesquite, stallions, bitter dust,   rawhide quirts, and stetsons, cactus, creek and willow, mineshaft tailings, clapboard stables, saloon and whorehouse, Colt repeaters, pianola, mirrors, scrolled mahogany, sleeve bands, tight black bowler hats, tooled leather, spit, unshaven desperadoes, shifty mexicans and crooked sheriff, dark Apache , in his birdbone breastplate, three crow feathers pushed into his blueblack hair,  a wired up Commanche on a piebald horse, contempt like a scalp on the tip of a lance, the sage chief  of the Black Hills Sioux, with the eagle bonnet,  the softest buckskin fringe, plumes of smoke in the lodge by the oxbow’s quiet shadows, and thin dogs doing nothing in particular,  the hero carefully turned out, the  rancher’s daughters prim as prayerbooks , careless dancehall girls, their knees and tucked up skirts, their buttoned boots and ribbons, ah, so many ribbons, the double door that swings both ways, a silhouette, a shadow bringing conversations to a stuttering halt, like traffic, that exact moment that the piano stops midtune, a pause like a burial plot, just waiting on its allotment of words.

And from here, he says, we have to bushwack.

Whatever that is.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

This year is the first in six years that I haven’t been to one of the writing weeks that he and his wife Marisa host. It’s been like a year without Christmas. At the old olive press I’ve met so many writers and made lasting friendships. Tutors Mimi Khalvati, Jane Draycott, and Ann Sansom. Fellow residents Jane Kite, Shirley McClure, Wendy Klein, Carole Bromley, Fokkina Macdonald, Martin Reed, the photographer Ton Out, and, especially, Hilary Elfick and Gyula Friewald. Most of them have been guests on the cobweb, and you can find them easily enough. 

I’ve checked today, and established that of the poems I’ve written in workshops there 22 have been published, four have won prizes in competitions, and one, surreally, has been read to a bilingual audience in the frigid air-conditioned basement of El Corte Inglese in Murcia.

So there you are. The people, the friendships, the amazing places. I owe him so much, this urbane, companionable, erudite, entertaining man. Time to meet him and his poems. He’ll introduce himself better than I could .

“Through the seventies and eighties I worked as surveyor doing structural surveys, mortgage valuations, court work and some house-building I was in private practice with an expanding firm – and though I read a good deal of poetry, (to keep reasonably sane), I wasn’t writing it. I did keep a journal and the odd phrase or observation suggests that there was a spark of creativity in my writing. I sold my business in 1988 and was thus contracted to a corporate. I no longer had the weight of responsibility I carried before (I had five partners and about 30 employees) so I was freed up somewhat. By a mischance I attended week long writing course in Provence run by John Fairfax, of Arvon fame, and the poet Sue Stewart, who I believe later held a creative writing fellowship at Stirling University. It was a week that changed my life. John Fairfax was particularly encouraging. 

A little later I went to a Literary festival in Devon followed by a Lumb Bank week (at John Fairfax’s suggestion) and from on then poetry became a major element in my life.  When retirement from ranging rods and valuation tables came over the horizon, I  had to honour an old promise to  my wife Marisa that we would move to her country of birth, Spain. I had long carried the idea of facilitating residential courses in poetry – and ten years mixed up with the London poetry scene, and eight years running my own poetry workshop, we looked for a place suitable for housing Arvon style residential courses. After a number of abortive negotiations we find a derelict industriel building on the lip of a ravine within the ‘casco’ of a mountain village. As soon as we saw the rear terrace with its panoramic view of terraced mountains and a 10thcentury castle, we knew we had found the right place. It was an old olive press with the machinery still there – albeit under mounds of rubble. In two years we rebuilt  the ‘Almassera’ always with the view of creating an ambience for creative courses. We had our first pilot week in 2002 .

After  ten years, in the nineties, mixed up with the London poetry scene, and eight years running my own poetry workshop, Metro-land Poets, I had the confidence and contacts to engage the poetry elite as tutors and host a huge number of aspirant poets and writers from England, Scotland, Ireland , Wales, France , Germany, Holland along with a dash of Americans. Running these courses has been an intense pleasure for us. I have attended most of the courses as a student, so had the in house perk of five or six course a year with the likes of Mark Doty, Michael Donaghy, Mimi Khalvati, Matthew Sweeney, Alfred Carn Penny Shuttle, Vicky Feaver, Ann Sansom, Tammy Yoseloff, Jo Shapcott., Christopher Reid, Graham Fawcett, James Harpur, Mario Petrucchi and others.  As a result my own poetry developed rapidly. We have also hosted retreats in our annexe in a village house.

Poetry grows in the doing of it, in causing it to become organically part of you and part of the day, every day. It is ancient, endless and essential – more so now than at any time, save possibly when the country is at war.” 

He chairs The UK Poetry Society‘ Stanza Alacant ’in Benissa, Spain which is now in its eleventh year. He is currently working on a monograph exploring his diary entries during the 25 years of the ‘Way With Words Literary Festival’ in  Dartington , Devon, England.

Christopher’s  first collection ‘A Mesh of Wires’published by Smith Doorstop was short-listed for the UK’s ‘Forward Prize’ in 1999. He has published two full collections since: ‘Explaining the Circumstances’(2010), ‘The Night Surveyor’(2014) and a joint , bilingual collection ‘Al Otro Lado del Aguilar’(2011) with Terry Gifford  – all with Oversteps Books. His pamphlet collection ‘Wolves Recently Sighted’Templar Poetry 2014 was launched in Matlock 2014 and his latest pamphlet collection ‘The Topiary of Passchendaele’was a winner in the Poetry Business competition 2018. Almassera Vellain Relleu, Alicante, Spain. (www.oldolivepress.com) He chairs The UK Poetry Society‘Stanza Alacant’in Benissa, Spain which is now in its eleventh year. He is currently working on a monograph exploring his diary entries during the 25 years of the ‘Way With Words Literary Festival’ in  Dartington , Devon, England.

And since that will have certainly whetted your appetites, it’s high time for the poems. Chris has sent me three and I like them a lot.

The Smudge of Andromeda

Counting the trillion or so stars of Andromeda

or persuading others to count the trillion or so

stars of Andromeda — and considering the 

apparent impossibility of counting

the trillion or so stars of Andromeda —

or maybe containing them in a dark room 

and closing the door — preferably a room

where despite the dark, and the curtained windows,

all the pictures on the walls are shrouded.

They will be going on and being present in the room

beside the trillion or so stars of Andromeda,

also going on and being present in the room

as outside in the evening sky and its first planets,

the wood will be breathing and the last

of the day’s swallows will be flicking through the air

seeking roosts in the darkening trees and roof spaces.

[the German astronomer Simon Marius re-discovered the Andromeda nebulae in 1612 saying it shone like a candle through horn]

What has often struck me in writing workshops with Chris is the way he seems to effortlessly manage poetry (and conversation) that uses long, complex, beautifully constructed sentences without ever losing a rhythm that gives then a musical coherence. I suppose the other thing is an erudition, and encyclopaedic knowledge that ought to be chaotic but isn’t, an erudition that’s lightly worn and which provides a huge source of surprising reference that he combines with lyricism. Which is what this poem does.

You need to read it aloud more than once, realising that the first stanza isn’t actually a sentence but a proposition that’s like an extended title (a bit like the long chapter headings of 18th C novels). I love the way it combines the confusion of ‘a smudge’ with the focussing precision of what we’re being asked to consider…the repeated trillions of stars in a room where all the pictures are shrouded, where the stars are inside and outside in the sky, and the organic rhythmical processes of dusk, the breathing of trees, and the flight of birds coming home to roof. It’s dreamlike (with all the accurate precision of dreams), incantatory and magical.

The next poem is equally magical and slightly unreal, but firmly rooted in what is effectively a narrative, and anecdote. “Remember that night when….’

The Night Surveyor: Dartington Gardens

(For Ben Okri)

After the farewell party we grabbed a bottle

and, on your suggestion, headed into the gardens,

pitch dark, rustling leaves, I don’t know how many came.

Giggling, without a torch we found the Tiltyard,

above us Cassiopeia, a slumped Great Bear.

Now be our night surveyor you said.

I declared to the six (or were there seven?):

‘The Cypress is twenty metres from the twelfth Apostle;

the fountain, two chains, fifteen eleven

Starlit dunes of Devon fields gleamed above trees

as we crossed silvered lawns and I announced:

we are four hundred feet above the sea

then led them up endless steps, finding risers with gentle kicks.

There’s this place of seven echoessomeone whispered

someone counter-whispered: No there’s only six.

Full fathom five.. I shouted from the bastion. 

No please not that one surveyor  you murmured, 

O trees of dark coral made?  – ‘No try something else.

Some bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch…

No echo but a leaden voice climbed inside my ear.

Over Staverton, or Berry Pomeroy’s lowly thatch

hung Jupiter, no Venus, or was it Mars?

One shouted:  I embrace the universal me,

voice cracked and small beneath shades and stars.

Two melted into trees: We remaining passed round wine.

The town below lolled in sodium as if bathing

and you yawned Get us back surveyor, I think it’s time.

I counted steps. Shadows rose and fell in bands.

Feeling for damp and stone, plotting silhouettes 

and shadows, gradually we became a chain of hands.

I really like the filmic quality of this, a film by Peter Greenaway…the draughtsman’s contract. The story of the bunch of tipsy chums stumbling around in the dark under a huge starlit sky, stumbling over silvered lawns, declaiming of bits of Shakespeare, the absurdity of it that gradually comes to its senses, and back to earth as The town below lolled in sodium. I love the way the declaiming poet comes back to the role of the measuring and sensible surveyor and the group of friends who became a chain of hands. The whole thing is witty, elegantly constructed, and ultimately life-affirming, lyrical and loving.

I’ll take a risk with the last poem, the title poem of Christopher’s winning pamphlet, selected by David Constantine. I’ve picked an image of calculated regularities and dreadful repetition.

The Topiary of Passchendaele 

Clip the box precise,

       make corners a right angle

and thus contain the Cherry tree

       in a low wall of green.

Lower the cypressus 

       to see the horizon file of poplars

flickering in afternoon wind.

        Make it horizontal, check

with a spirit level,

        always control height — 

all needs daily attention

         before cheese, fine cheese

and beer, fine beer.

Order these gardens,

          contain the beds and herbs,

they must be shielded, neat.

          Allow no thistle or spurge, 

ground must be raked clean, pure —

           cleansing makes for calm.

Be exact in measurement,

           correct in the lie of paving,

check privet, manicure the arborvitae.

           It is imperative to be uniform.

It needs hourly attention

            before cheese, fine cheese

and beer, fine beer.

It’s a poem that makes me think of the kinds of calculation that lay behind the obscene economics of concentration camps, the apparent rationality of the mathematics of slaughter in WW1. It’s done with such precision, the clipped tones of a set of instructions about clipping, the obsessive fact of tidying:

                       Allow no thistle or spurge, 

ground must be raked clean, pure —            

                       cleansing makes for calm.

As though there could be atonement in raking and minutely manicuring; as though we could take our beer and cheese with a clear conscience, conscious of a job well done.

I realise I can’t do justice to what Christopher North has done through his quietly passionate championship of poetry, to the windows he’s opened for so many writers over the years, to his own poetry.  But I can say thank you. So I will. Thank you.

The company you keep, and a Polished Gem: Maggie Reed

maggie reed 3 

When I was doing a bit of back-reading for this post I was looking at an earlier one when the guest poet was Martin Reed. The reason for this will quickly become apparent. I introduced that post like this:

“When people ask ‘Why do you write?’ if the answer isn’t ‘Because I’ve got things to say and this is the way I do it…rather than music or painting or sculpture or essays or journalism or graffiti’ then something’s not quite right. If you’re having to make yourself write, then what’s all that about? I think that’s what Keats was getting at with this business of poetry needing come as birds to the tree. Poetry. Not poems or a poem, note. That’s usually going to be difficult, because words don’t just line up and snap to attention. We’re going to draft and redraft and get second opinions, and polish and refine, and we’ll never quite get it right, because if we did, there’d be no point in carrying on. We need to say what’s on our minds. We have to have something to write about, if you like. Ideally we need to be full as an egg and brimming and bursting with things to say. “ 

Julie Mellor has been approaching this idea, on and off for some time in her always-thought-provoking poetry blog. If you don’t follow it already, I highly recommend it. Here’s the link:                   https://juliemellorpoetsite.wordpress.com/

I’ve got a different problem at the moment. I’m busting with ideas I want to articulate, experiences I want to nail down and share, and simultaneously physically/mentally tired; I can’t seem to think clearly, or concentrate in the right way, and it seems the only thing to do is just to let it be. There’s no rational reason to believe that I can’t go away and find it all waiting when I come back. Maybe what’s needed is some peace and quiet inside my head.

Quietness. I think that’s the keyword when I come to think of the work of today’s guest, Maggie Reed . It’s a quality that attaches to another poet whose work I love…Jane Clarke. I’m a noisy, rackety sort of person, and I don’t do that sort of grounded serenity. That quietness. I wish I did, and I’m grateful for those who do. At which point, let’s meet Maggie Reed, originally from Cumbria who now lives in West Malvern where she writes poetry and short stories. She graduated from Lancaster University in 2015 with a merit in an MA in Creative Writing and in 2017 achieved a Post-Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes at the Metanoia Institute, London.

In 2016 Maggie had three poems published in the North magazine and won third prize in the Settle Sessions Poetry Competition. In 2017 she had another poem published in the North and self-published her first pamphlet ‘Life Lines’. In August 2018 another two poems are due to be published in the North. Previously, in 2011 she won a merit in the Nottingham Open Competition.

Before taking herself seriously with her creative writing in the year 2000, after attending an Adult Ed evening class, Maggie worked in Further Education in Cumbria, Lancashire and Central London, with a focus on teaching and supporting adults with learning difficulties and disabilities. Prior to teaching, she ran her own sign-writing business in the Lake District, painting signs for hotels, pubs, shops and cafes, whilst also working part-time in a factory packing dried food products, driving a van for Securicor parcel delivery as well as assisting in care homes for the elderly.

Maggie enjoys the beautiful British countryside and loves walking in the Lake District as well as discovering the wonderful landscape surrounding her new home in Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire and Gloucestershire. Much of her writing reflects her life experiences and the people and places that matter most to her.

She met and married her soulmate, Martin Reed last year, after meeting him at Whitby on one the Poetry Business writing residential courses – life right now couldn’t be better!”

So now you see why I was re-reading that post from a couple of years ago about Martin Reed. Essentially, this is a first: a guest poet who met, on a Poetry Business Writing Week in Whitby, another guest poet who I met on a Writing Week in Spain, tutored by Ann Sansom of…the Poetry Business. Which has a nice sort of synergy, and makes me very happy. As do the poems she’s sent me to share.

maggie reed 2

John Arnold

 

First week in my new job,

lesson observation still on my mind,

he came in the office to suss me out

with words like Silver Book, Ofsted.

 

You’re not one to rock the boat then.

He knew as soon as I smiled

he’d get at least one coffee from me.

He preferred the company of women,

 

wolves, some of them, circling on him

as he sniffed around the smoking room.

Had a lad in a headlock this morning.

No one throws tools in my shed.

 

His shed, the engineering block:

metal vices, cold radiators, stacks of scaffolding.

Lunchtimes in the pub rather than

filling forms, meeting deadlines.

 

Kids loved him. He could teach them

to fix a car, jazz up a bike.

Tell them how to learn best,

on the job.

 

He sat in our staff room

flashing his white bushy eyebrows,

his failed career at BAE Systems

waving at him across Walney Channel.

 

I heard and read this for the first time as a draft in a critiquing workshop. Sometimes a poem just speaks direct to a specific experience.In my case it was having to do an Ofsted style inspection in a bleak technical college, observing the ‘teaching’ of a morose individual who despised his students, the job, and probably, himself. John Arnold lifts me above that, because of its humanity, its gentleness. I feel as though the narrator, and John Arnold with his failed career at BAE Systems / waving at him across Walney Channel, are both out of synch with where they find themselves  She should be lining up her lesson-observation checklist sheets; self-evidently, he shouldn’t have

Had a lad in a headlock this morning.

No one throws tools in my shed.

but there’s the mutual sympathy of outsiders who recognise each other in a cold and angular environment. And after all, kids loved him. And what survives of us is love. It’s poem that couldn’t have been easy to write, in the sense that it needs to persuade the reader to suspend a rational criticism of a teacher who assaults students, goes down the pub at lunchtime, and is a ‘failure’. But it does. Quietly.

When you listen to the next poem for the first time, you may think you’re in over-familiar territory. You may be inclined to think : nostalgia. But it has a trick up its sleeve.

 maggie reed 1

Visiting.

 

A red-brick vicarage in a northern coastal town

near the football club by St Andrew’s Church.

My father, taking me to Roker Park,

asked a policeman to stop the traffic

so we could cross the road.

 

I remember cold winters, hands over gas rings,

velvet curtains drawn, matching blue carpet,

draughts under the door.

Mrs. Donkin boiling sheets, wooden tongs,

struggles with the mangle, steam,

pegging them out in the back yard,

 

Do you remember holidays in Saltburn,

staying in Marlborough House

on Emerald Crescent, taking Peter,

our cat, how he never ran away?

Always smiling at the flowers

in the window, eating homemade

chocolate cake for tea;

riding my bike in the garden,

no, it must have been a tricycle,

I was only three.

 

I remember these things because you told me

from your chair in the nursing home,

eyes searching then holding my own.

 

I do remember these things, don’t I?

Or was it you?

Or was it me?

maggie reed 4

I like the way (as I read it) the poem invites me to assume the “I” of the narrator who tells me about the vicarage and the policeman, and the old woman doing the washing is the voice of the poet. If it was, then I guess this would just be a piece of nostalgia, which is as interesting to a listener as a stranger’s photograph album. But something happens very quietly in one line which retrospectively made me re-read and re-evaluate:

Do you remember holidays in Saltburn.

Just like that, the poem turns from a soliloquy to a dialogue. Who asks the question? Who’s being asked? Why?  I make an assumption that it’s a daughter (because it’s a woman poet; yup, that simplistic) and I know she’s visiting a parent (a mother, I assume, because in my experience, it usually is) in a care home. But the thing is, that I don’t know whose memory is unreliable, who rode the trike, who owned the cat. And at the end I don’t know whose memory is more unreliable. And I find it hugely moving. It’s quiet and unassertive and it won’t let me be..

One more poem. It reminds me of U A Fanthorpe and a kind of love called maintenance. A poem of love and undramatic happiness. Which is a condition we can all devoutly wish for.

February

 

It’s a day in February,

Monday, perhaps Tuesday,

it doesn’t matter.

Birds are on the feeders,

washing-up is still in the sink,

Radio Five Live on too loud.

 

I’m remembering images from that dream:

the crowd on the staircase

the sketch I made of pillows in sunlight,

how I ordered a sherry at the bar.

I can hear you in the shower

and think of the books you’ve read

on Stalin, Scannell, Country Walks in Worcestershire.

 

This time five years ago I lay

curled on my mother’s bed,

remembered how she held me,

how she loved the scent of snowdrops.

seedfeeder-400

So thank you, Maggie Reed for the poems, for the quiet, and the smile you’ve put on my face.

I’m not sure about next week’s post. I have a guest waiting patiently in the wings, but on Friday I’m delighted to say I’ll be driving up to Kendall to read with my hero Kim Moore at the Brewery Poets; on Saturday, I have promises to keep, and though I’ll certainly be knackered, I mean to be at the Poetry Business in Sheffield for a day’s writing. And on Sunday I’m off to the prize-giving for the Red Shed poetry competition, and listening to all the winning poems as well as seeing Maria Isakova Bennett who judged it. So the Sunday post may be delayed.

In the meantime I’ll be trying to set up some launch events for my new pamphlet. Did I not mention that? Perhaps I can keep quiet sometimes. It’ll be out in June. I’ll tell you more about it later. Quietly. Well, fairly quietly.

 

Advice to a Traveller 723

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crowdfunding with Anthony Wilson: in praise of anthologies

Anthony Wilson’s crowdfunder is something you can really get behind. You can be part of a venture to launch a new anthology of poems that really ought to get more attention. All the details you need are available by following this link

https://unbound.com/books/no-one-you-know

Not only that, but in support of crowdfunding their new anthology of poems, No One You Know, with Unbound, Sue Dymoke and Anthony are starting a series of blog posts about anthologies which have influenced us as readers and writers. The first one is about an anthology that inspired me. Again…just follow the link

Discovering Geoffrey Summerfield’s Worlds

Anthony also writes

We would be interested to know which anthologies got you, our readers, going.

So here goes with a reworking of a post I wrote a couple of years ago. Your favourite anthology might be something like The Rattle Bag. Mine are ones that initially kept my head above water as a young teacher, and then introduced me to a world of poetry. Here we go:

 

The Best of…………..

……..punk, bluebeat, blues, rhythm and soul, Bob Dylan, the 80’s, Motown, Stax, Atlantic, Leonard Cohen, ska, Reggae Greats, Miles Davis. A flavour of my record collection. I reckon 80% of it is compilations. Very few single albums that hold my attention all the way through. Albums without a dud track. Cohen’s ‘I’m your man’. Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ (although you could argue that it’s actually a compilation of great artists). ‘Who’s next’. Tom Russell:’The man from God knows where’. I’m pushed to think of many more, off-hand. And I’m a bit like that about poetry, though that’s been changing over the last three or four years. Anthologies. That’s been my thing. Maybe that’s why I frequently go blank at poetry events when friends talk with great familiarity about poets I’m not sure I’ve heard of, and feel a bit gauche when poet friends post photographs of new collections they’ve bought in a retail frenzy at this or that poetry festival. So this week’s cobweb strand is in praise of anthologies and anthologists…or, at least, one particular anthologist. OK. Close your books, tidy your pens, sit up straight, look this way, remember it’s your own time you’re wasting and now…..

….let me take you back to 1972, when the then Education Minister, one Margaret Thatcher of blessed memory, ordered a review of the teaching of English. It was the first of a long series of attempts (which grew more successful over the years) to take political control of the school curriculum, and of English in particular. What it produced was hardly what she hoped for. The report was ‘Language for life’ (popularly the Bullock Report)…a generally humane and informed document, which you might have expected of HMI. It’s taken SATS, league tables and OFSTED to put the kibosh on that kind of subversive lefty nonsense. What we have in its place is government ministers sounding off about how we should teach the history of the First World War, and what poetry should be force-fed to the children of Albion, and how. And now…..

anthology 3

….as the wheel turns inexorably full circle, let me take you back another twenty years when I passed my 11+ and went to Batley Grammar School and was presented with Book One of a series of five English course books written by a man who sold at least 70 million copies of his prolific output by the time he died in some comfort in the 1990s. You might not remember just how drab and battered English course books used to be, but just to be clear, that jazzed up ‘contemporary’ later stuff was just as stuffed with clause analysis, punctuation exercises, comprehension exercises, jumbled proverbs and all the rest of the nonsense. Oh, and each chapter would begin with a bit of text, an extract of prose and, maybe twice in any one book, a poem. The one I remember from Book One was something by Masefield. Followed by exercises that sqeezed every last ounce of syntactic, grammatical, and vocabulary juice out of it.

anthology 2

 

Of course, we were offered books of poetry which contained no exercises. But generations of desperate pencilled marginal notes. Palgrave’s Golden Treasuries, and the deeply dispiriting, but jauntily alliterative Paths to Parnassus: The poet’s pageant. I remember the second one from the  stock cupboards in my first teaching job. Exercises and heritage. Whose heritage was never in question. Probably not that of the lads I taught on my first teaching practice at Wharrier Street Secondary Modern School in Walker on Tyneside..alma mater to the great Eric Burdon, as it happens. So the question would arise. If you don’t want this stuff, what’ll take its place? All my secondary and university education in English Lit. stopped dead round about 1916. I was well up on prose fiction…northern realists like Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, John Braine, Keith Waterhouse, and I was totally sold on the short stories of Dylan Thomas. And I was shortly immersed in a golden age of children’s fiction. Alan Garner, Joan Aiken, Robert Westall, all of them. But I simply didn’t know enough poetry to offer an alternative to what seemed to be on offer.. The Bullock Report noted it was still a problem in 1972.

‘The teacher is often faced with the task of showing that poetry is not some inaccessible form of utterance, but that it speaks directly to children, as to anyone else, and has something to say which is relevant to their living here and now.

BUT

It is exceptionally difficult for the individual teacher to keep abreast of all the new poetry that is published. Indeed, except for those with a particular interest in it there is often a time lag, so that the teacher is not aware of much of the work produced in the last two decades. A good anthology will do a great deal to introduce teacher and pupil alike to new and unfamiliar material, but it should not be a substitute for the extensive reading of poetry by the teacher himself.’

I remember reading that bit about anthologies not being a substitute for extensive reading. I didn’t know whether I felt guilty or indignant. Because what I believed then, and still believe, is that the best anthologies offer the shared experience of an committed enthusiast’s extensive reading. It’s taken me a long time to get round to standing up for anthologies. But here goes.

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For years, the BBC ran a schools’ radio series called Books Plays and Poems,  lovely landscape format booklets that accompanied the programmes and in the mid 60’s they were the first source I had of an eclectic mix of poetry that included contemporary work (including the lyrics of Penny Lane). They had photographs in them, too! Imagine. And then, in my fifth year of teaching along came Geoffrey Summerfield’s Voices [Penguin. 1970]. It was the first of a series of four anthologies, and pretty soon accompanied by four more Junior Voices.

 

And here’s the thing; they not only didn’t look remotely like school books, but they didn’t read like school books either. They were full of surprises, and, in the case of Junior Voices, they had stunning imagery in colour. They were books you could sit and browse, and every page brought a fresh surprise, if, like me and the rest of the teachers The Bullock Report talked about, you didn’t know much about poetry and poets and poems (unless they were on O and A Level syllabuses).

What’s more, none of them seemed to have designs on a reader, other than to share a boundless enthusiasm and apparently encyclopaedic knowledge. They were eclectic and exciting. They weren’t overtly thematically organised, so there was none of that invitation to compare and contrast we were all programmed into. It was all done by smart juxtapositions.Let me tell you who they introduced me to. Roethke, Elizabeth Jennings, e e cummings, John Clare, Basho, Stanley Cooke, Norman MacCaig, Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, Patricia Beer, Yevtushenko, Neruda. They sold me on Sylvia Plath’s ‘You’re’, and Ted Hughes’ Hawk roosting, and Auden’s Musee des beaux arts. There were medieval riddle poems, and playful stuff like ones from Alastair Reid’s Ounce, dice, trice. Haiku and and shape poems. Carlos Williams. Maybe it was Summerfield’s connection with NYU, but there were lots of American poets who I would otherwise never have come across. It was the inclusion of MacCaig’s I took my mind a walk that ended up with my reading his collected works, beginning to end. Years later. But that was the seed. Those anthologies opened my eyes and ears to world I had no idea existed.

And that wasn’t all. Hard on their heels, in 1974, came Geoffrey Summerfield’s Worlds

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And for me, as for Anthony Wilson, this one was truly a revelation.  ‘Worlds, says Anthony, ‘is one of the most important books in my life.’ I’ll second that. It will come as no surprise, I suppose, to discover that you can now only buy second- hand copies of these lovely books. Meanwhile, Coles Notes go from strength to strength, and supermarkets stock books of exercises to drill your children through their SATs and their phonics, and so the world turns,and the mills of Gove grind exceeding fine. Thank god for Geoffrey Summerfield and Michael Rosen and the rest, and whoever picks up their mantle in coming years

Now, it may well be that lots of you have parallel experiences. Anthony and Sue would be delighted to hear about them. But before I go, I want to say a word about about a different way of encountering an anthology. I’ve been going to Ann and Peter Sansom’s Poetry Business writing days for a good long time. In the process I realise they’ve assembled a very special anthology for me. Very often, a writing exercise will begin around, or from, a photocopied poem. I’ve religiously trimmed them down and stuck them in my workbooks so I know which poem triggered which draft or prose ramble. And now I have probably a couple of hundred, and in the process I’ve realised that these workshops have done for me now what Voices and Junior Voices and Worlds did, way back when. Without them I’d never have met Alison McVety, Thomas Lux, Billy Collins, Liz Berry, Martina Evans, Frank o’Hara, Tishani Doshi, Matthew Sweeney, Robert Van Dias, Claudi Jessop, Stewart Conn…and on and on it goes.

That’s what a great anthology is. The shared experience of folk who know more than you and who fill you with enthusiasm to know more than you do. To want more of the best of the best of. If that was all very teacherly, I guess it’s what I do. Certainly what I did for 40 years. Hard to shake off.

Not sure who’ll be the guest next week. But he or she will be stellar. Promise.

 

So you wanna be a rock ‘n roll star: some thoughts on ‘being published’

To put it all in context. In the last year or so, I’ve reviewed – or blogged about – collections that I love. Kim Moore’s The art of falling. Christy Ducker’s Skipper. Fiona Benson’s Bright travellers. Jane Clarke’s The River. Work by Shirley McClure, Maria Taylor, Hilary Elfick, Tom Cleary, Bob Horne, Steve Ely, Clare Shaw., Wendy Pratt…loads of them. I’ve been asked to read manuscripts of draft collections and wished they were mine. For the last three days (with the invaIuable help of Sandra Blackford) I’ve been collating a new collection of poems by me and my friend Andy Blackford, fiddling about and agonising over sequence and continuity and beginnings and endings. I just signed a contract for a first collection of my own poems…of which more in another post. And I’m involved in a frustrating email exchange about the cover design. How did I get here? Because I never set out to get here. Let me tell you how.

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We can all dream. Write poems. Get them accepted by The Rialto, Magma, Poetry Review...all of them.Find a publisher. Bloodaxe would be nice. Get great reviews, prizes. Sit in Waterstones and sign copies while the queue stretches out of the door and along the street. We can dream, and so we should; our reach should exceed our grasp, or what’s a heaven for?  But.

Some time ago I was riffing on the various cries of pain I hear on Facebook. We’re a fragile lot, us poets, I wrote.  You find yourself, for reasons you can’t fathom, writing, or trying to write, poems; meeting other bewildered and enthusiastic folk in the same pickle. And every now and again hearing (or reading on Facebook) the complaint that someone is ‘blocked’ or ‘stuck’ or has ‘hit a blank period’. You become addicted to Anthony Wilson’s blog, and his dialogues with The Book. The self-doubt, the angst…and the casual indifference of the mephistophilean Book. You understand every bit of it. But.

You go on writing, and maybe you get some poems accepted by magazines. And for a bit you feel sort of content. And then folk start asking: have you got a collection out yet? And you look at the growing files of poems you’re more or less pleased with. Your ouevre. And that ‘what shall I write about?’ morphs into ‘when will I be published?’. More specifically, ‘I want a collection’. Which morphs into ‘When will I be famous?’. And then poet-envy. Then doubt. Despair. Oblivion.

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It doesn’t have to be like that. This won’t be one of those helpfully informative ‘how to’ posts. I leave that to folk who are better at it than me ..lovely folk like Roy Marshall (https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/). Specifically, the post you want is at the end of this link https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/putting-a-poetry-pamphlet-together/ .  And  other lovely folk like Josephine Corcoran (https://josephinecorcoran.org/), for instance. Everyone’s route to a collection is different. ( I nearly wrote ‘journey’ and caught myself just in time). This was mine.

I had one abortive attempt at taking the business seriously a few years ago, when I did a part-time Creative Writing MA. To be honest, I really did it because I was semi-retired, and struggling to cope with free time. I thought that committing to a course would put some discipline into my life. It didn’t, but that’s another story. On the other hand, I was struck by the diffuse ambition of my (much younger) fellow students. None of them asked questions about how to make their work better. But they constantly asked about how you set about getting published. I didn’t get it. I genuinely thought it was hard enough to actually learn something about the craft of writing, and to actually write some poems. In the end I didn’t do much of either, and I got an MA, and that was that for some time.

But. I’d got a taste for it, even if I didn’t acknowledge it. It was Poetry Business Writing Days that set my feet right. You learn from the company you keep; I was taken along for the first time by Julia Deakin, to whom I shall be eternally grateful. I sat in rooms with people who seemed to write as though writing, and getting it right, was enough. I was comfortable in their company. Eventually, though, the conversation would turn to magazines and pamphlets and collections, and I realised after all that just writing better wasn’t enough. What was the point, if no one was reading your stuff? But.

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Why would they would be reading yours? Who would notice? How will they find it in the multiverse of books and bookshelves and libraries  and bookshps? I remember saying to Ann Sansom that I couldn’t see why folk would pester publishers. Or why poetry publishers put themselves through it. There’s no money in it for anyone, that’s for sure. Or you might get published by someone who it turns out isn’t that bothered about the most important thing in your life.

publishing

Something that’s stuck in my mind since then is an anecdote that Simon Armitage put in his account of walking the SW Coast Path and reading at various venues along the way. (Walking away. Faber). He’s staying overnight at what was the home of Peterloo Poets…who, inter alia, were the publishers of U.A.Fanthorpe. At some point, they simply went out of business. And left behind thousands and thousands of unsold copies, gradually falling prey to dust and damp. There you go. No one’s going to see your stuff on those crowded shelves, and eventually you’ll be remaindered or pulped. It’s a profoundly depressing thought. But.

You send stuff out, you enter competitions, you do open mics. You realise (well I did) that even if someone offers to publish you, it could be over a year before anything happens. And maybe you think you haven’t the patience for it. That’s what I felt like, but at the same time there’s something deeply unsatisfying about a whole bunch of poems that sit there in their Wordfiles, that have no physical heft. As it happened, still struggling to cope with semi-retirement, I enrolled in a bookbinding course at the Tech in Leeds. Learned very simple techniques, learned kettlestitching, all about endpapers, about boards, and even about embossing. Decided that for my assessment projects, I’d make books of my own poems. So I did.

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Two things happen. Well, they did for me.

The first is that when you go through the business of choosing and sequencing your poems, you realise that you didn’t really know your own work. You knew it, if you knew it at all, as this poem or that poem. And then it hits you that there are themes and preoccupations you were barely aware of. It’s fascinating and possibly unnerving. I’m reminded that last week, Roy Marshall (see above) was guest poet at The Puzzle Hall Poets and said, in passing, that he was surprised how many birds there were in his poems…especially since, unlike Steve Ely, say, he knows next to nothing about birds. That chimed with me. I’ve just assembled a collection and realised that I write a lot of poems with birds in. And a lot with God .. or gods…in.It’s an odd thing for a card-carrying atheist to discover that he may be in the wrong club after all.

The second is that when you have your homemade book in your hands, you’re the only one who knows it’s homemade. You can head off to an open mic. and read from it. At which point you realise the snag. There’s only one copy. Someone asks: where can we get that?(if you’re lucky) and there it is. A seed’s been sown. So what do you do if you want multiple copies? The answer is ridiculously simple. You make a template. You page set your poems. You design a cover and think of a smart title, and you type that seductive line: Poems by Me. You find a nice printer, show him the layout…just take in your memory stick…sort out a price and you pay for a properly printed batch of poems. If you’re active on Facebook and you go to open mic.s and you have lots of poetry chums (and I’ll bet the farm you have) you’ll have no problem selling 50 or more. That’s what I did. I did one, and that went well, so I did another. I used any ‘profit’ to pay for a reprint, and each of mine have gone through three reprints. I’m still selling the odd copy via the My Books link at the top of the page.

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Not all small printing firms will do perfect binding …forget the chapbook. A pamphlet, though is perfectly realistic. Stapled. Have a look at the pamphlets you’ve collected here and there. Size varies, but don’t go smaller than 12 X 18.5 cm, whatever you do. (A5 is nice.14.5 X 21 cm)  And learn from the best. Design a dust jacket. If you want to see just what a difference a dustjacket makes, look no further than the Poetry Business pamphlet competition winners. Hide the staples…which just look amateurish. It really is that simple. One other thing. If you want to persuade a bookseller to take some copies, you need to get an ISBN. You can find all sorts of isbn. suppliers on line. Just make sure you get get one that comes with a bar code. Bookshops need the barcode, usually. And note that unit costs are cheaper if you buy  more than one. Because you may develop a taste for it. You want to be published? Just do it. And feel that surge of pure joy when you collect your box of fresh-printed  pamphlets, and you just want to have that smell of new paper and ink in your life for ever. Two of my happiest memories are seeing the big smiles on the faces of Kim Moore and of Jane Clarke when their brand new collections came out. Is there a downside? Depends how you judge the market. Accept pretty well that whatever your plans, you’ll be torn between a book that goes out of print and a box of as-yet-unsold stuff. Like this.

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There are other ways of doing it and you choose one that you think suits you. I enter a lot of competitions, and the prize for some of them is to have a pamphlet or a chapbook published. That’s how I come to have copies of Larach to sell. Quite a lot at the moment, because the publisher let me have all his remaining copies at a generous discount. I suppose it’s officially out of print, now. But if you go to My Books, I’ll sell you one. I’ll sell you lots. At the moment I’ve another (jointly authored) pamphlet collection on a shortlist. We’ll see what happens with that. Whatever happens, we’ve had the pleasure of squencing, and editing and discovering things we didn’t know about our poetry.

Other choices? Well there’s the sheer hard slog route. Kim Moore, for instance, has indefatigably submitted to journals and magazines for years and built up a portfolio of published work (as well as winning the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition) that she could take to a publisher and have published as a collection. The art of Falling [Seren 2015] is, as I never tire of saying, a stunner. Or my mate Keith Hutson, who maintains a rigorous routine of writing every morning, of submitting and submitting (about 60 poems published in major journals over the last two/three years), and is rewarded with the breakthrough of being asked to put together a pamphlet. It’s out now. Routines [Poetry Salzburg 2016]. And that’s a stunner, too. Or if you work at your open mics and submissions, you gradually become aware of small poetry publishing firms. We’ve got two in Calderdale: Caterpillar Poetry and  Calder Valley Poetry. And in Wakefield, The Currock Press. Find what’s around you. Make friends with them. Email them. Talk to them. But here’s the thing. Don’t sit around mithering about wanting to be published. If you really want it, you’ll do it.

I started off by making handmade books, just for the fun of it. Then I got a printer. Then I won a competition. Then I won another. I’m a lucky boy. My first collection’s coming out in November. I may even post pictures of it. Or, like Jane Clarke, go to sleep with it under my pillow. You’ll never be a rock ‘n roll star. That’s not what it’s about.  But whatever you do, just do it. You know you want to.

The Best of…………..

……..punk, bluebeat, blues, rhythm and soul, Bob Dylan, the 80’s, Motown, Stax, Atlantic, Leonard Cohen, ska, Reggae Greats, Miles Davis. A flavour of my record collection. I reckon 80% of it is compilations. Very few single albums that hold my attention all the way through. Albums without a dud track. Cohen’s ‘I’m your man’. Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ (although you could argue that it’s actually a compilation of great artists). ‘Who’s next’. Tom Russell:’The man from God knows where’. I’m pushed to think of many more, off-hand. And I’m a bit like that about poetry, though that’s been changing over the last three or four years. Anthologies. That’s been my thing. Maybe that’s why I frequently go blank at poetry events when friends talk with great familiarity about poets I’m not sure I’ve heard of, and feel a bit gauche when poet friends post photographs of new collections they’ve bought in a retail frenzy at this or that poetry festival. So this week’s cobweb strand is in praise of anthologies and anthologists…or, at least, one particular anthologist. OK. Close your books, tidy your pens, sit up straight, look this way, remember it’s your own time you’re wasting and now…..

….let me take you back to 1972, when the then Education Minister, one Margaret Thatcher of blessed memory, ordered a review of the teaching of English. It was the first of a long series of attempts (which grew more successful over the years) to take political control of the school curriculum, and of English in particular. What it produced was hardly what she hoped for. The report was ‘Language for life’ (popularly the Bullock Report)…a generally humane and informed document, which you might have expected of HMI. It’s taken SATS, league tables and OFSTED to put the kibosh on that kind of subversive lefty nonsense. What we have in its place is government ministers sounding off about how we should teach the history of the First World War, and what poetry should be force-fed to the children of Albion, and how. And now…..

….as the wheel turns inexorably full circle, let me take you back another twenty years when I passed my 11+ and went to Batley Grammar School and was presented with Book One of a series of five English course books written by a man who sold at least 70 million copies of his prolific output by the time he died in some comfort in the 1990s. You might not remember just how drab and battered English course books used to be, but just to be clear, that jazzed up ‘contemporary’ later stuff was just as stuffed with clause analysis, punctuation exercises, comprehension exercises, jumbled proverbs and all the rest of the nonsense. Oh, and each chapter would begin with a bit of text, an extract of prose and, maybe twice in any one book, a poem. The one I remember from Book One was something by Masefield. Followed by exercises that sqeezed every last ounce of syntactic, grammatical, and vocabulary juice out of it.

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Of course, we were offered books of poetry which contained no exercises. But generations of desperate pencilled marginal notes.

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Palgrave’s Golden Treasuries, and the deeply dispiriting, but jauntily alliterative Paths to Parnassus: The poet’s pageant. I remember the second one from the  stock cupboards in my first teaching job. Exercises and heritage. Whose heritage was never in question. Probably not that of the lads I taught on my first teaching practice at Wharrier Street Secondary Modern School in Walker on Tyneside..alma mater to the great Eric Burdon, as it happens. So the question would arise. If you don’t want this stuff, what’ll take its place? All my secondary and university education in English Lit. stopped dead round about 1916. I was well up on prose fiction…northern realists like Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, John Braine, Keith Waterhouse, and I was totally sold on the short stories of Dylan Thomas. And I was shortly immersed in a golden age of children’s fiction. Alan Garner, Joan Aiken, Robert Westall, all of them. But I simply didn’t know enough poetry to offer an alternative to what seemed to be on offer.. The Bullock Report noted it was still a problem in 1972.

‘The teacher is often faced with the task of showing that poetry is not some inaccessible form of utterance, but that it speaks directly to children, as to anyone else, and has something to say which is relevant to their living here and now. It is simply that much of the work of this half century, and perhaps particularly the last two decades of it, has a voice to which a larger number of young people can more readily respond. Moreover, it is fresh to many teachers themselves and some feel able to read it to their pupils with the pleasure of a new discovery. BUT  It is exceptionally difficult for the individual teacher to keep abreast of all the new poetry that is published. Indeed, except for those with a particular interest in it there is often a time lag, so that the teacher is not aware of much of the work produced in the last two decades. A good anthology will do a great deal to introduce teacher and pupil alike to new and unfamiliar material, but it should not be a substitute for the extensive reading of poetry by the teacher himself.’

I remember reading that bit about anthologies not being a substitute for extensive reading. I didn’t know whether I felt guilty or indignant. Because what I believed then, and still believe, is that the best anthologies offer the shared experience of an committed enthusiast’s extensive reading. It’s taken me a long time to get round to standing up for anthologies. But here goes.

For years, the BBC ran a schools’ radio series called Books Plays and Poems,  lovely landscape format booklets that accompanied the programmes and in the mid 60’s they were the first source I had of an eclectic mix of poetry that included contemporary work (including the lyrics of Penny Lane). They had photographs in them, too! Imagine. And then, in my fifth year of teaching along came Geoffrey Summerfield’s Voices [Penguin. 1970]. It was the first of a series of four anthologies, and pretty soon accompanied by four more Junior Voices.

voices 2voices 3voices 4voices 5

And here’s the thing; they not only didn’t look remotely like school books, but they didn’t read like school books either. They were full of surprises, and, in the case of Junior Voices, they had stunning imagery in colour. They were books you could sit and browse, and every page brought a fresh surprise, if, like me and the rest of the teachers The Bullock Report talked about, you didn’t know much about poetry and poets and poems (unless they were on O and A Level syllabuses). What’s more, none of them seemed to have designs on a reader, other than to share a boundless enthusiasm and apparently encyclopaedic knowledge. They were eclectic and exciting. They weren’t overtly thematically organised, so there was none of that invitation to compare and contrast we were all programmed into. It was all done by smart juxtapositions.Let me tell you who they introduced me to. Roethke, Elizabeth Jennings, e e cummings, John Clare, Basho, Stanley Cooke, Norman MacCaig, Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, Patricia Beer, Yevtushenko, Neruda. They sold me on Sylvia Plath’s ‘You’re’, and Ted Hughes’ Hawk roosting, and Auden’s Musee des beaux arts. There were medieval riddle poems, and playful stuff like ones from Alastair Reid’s Ounce, dice, trice. Haiku and and shape poems. Carlos Williams. Maybe it was Summerfield’s connection with NYU, but there were lots of American poets who I would otherwise never have come across. It was the inclusion of MacCaig’s I took my mind a walk that ended up with my reading his collected works, beginning to end. Years later. But that was the seed. Those anthologies opened my eyes and ears to world I had no idea existed.

And that wasn’t all. Hard on their heels, in 1974, came this

voices 6

This one was truly a revelation. A carefully edited selection of each of the seven poets (and by then I was beginning to think I knew them) BUT accompanied in each case by a personal statement or essay by each poet AND a photographic essay on each poet by the wonderful Fay Godwin (and if you haven’t got her collaboration with Ted Hughes in Remains of Elmet then you can do no better than to rush out and buy it. It’s never too late). As I was doing a bit of googling, trawling for images for this post, I was delighted to stumble across a post by Anthony Wilson in September 2013. Anthony describes how he encountered Adrian Mitchell, and therefore one of his selection of Lifesaving poems, in this very anthology. ‘Worlds, says Anthony Wilson, ‘is one of the most important books in my life.’ I’ll second that. It will come as no surprise, I suppose, to discover that you can now only buy second- hand copies of these lovely books. Meanwhile, Coles Notes go from strength to strength, and supermarkets stock books of exercises to drill your children through their SATs and their phonics, and so the world turns,and the mills of Gove grind exceeding fine. Thank god for Geoffrey Summerfield and Michael Rosen and the rest, and whoever picks up their mantle in coming years

Now, it may well be that lots of you have parallel experiences. I’d be delighted to hear about them. But before I go, I want to say a word about about a different way of encountering an anthology. I’ve been going to Ann and Peter Sansom’s Poetry Business writing days for about five years. In the process I realise they’ve assembled a very special anthology for me. Very often, a writing exercise will begin around, or from, a photocopied poem. I’ve religiously trimmed them down and stuck them in my workbooks so I know which poem triggered which draft or prose ramble. And now I have probably a couple of hundred, and in the process I’ve realised that these workshops have done for me now what Voices and Junior Voices and Worlds did, way back when. Without them I’d never have met Alison McVety, Thomas Lux, Billy Collins, Liz Berry, Martina Evans, Frank o’Hara, Tishani Doshi, Matthew Sweeney, Robert Van Dias, Claudi Jessop, Stewart Conn…and on and on it goes.

That’s what a great anthology is. The shared experience of folk who know more than you and who fill you with enthusiasm to know more than you do. To want more of the best of the best of.

OK. If that was all very teacherly, I guess it’s what I do. Certainly what I did for 40 years. Hard to shake off. I promise the next cobweb strand will be much less about me and infinitely more about a poet who stops me dead in my tracks. No. I’m not telling you who it is.

And finally, and without a shred of shame or irony, I’m going to advertise not an anthology, but a collection. My collection. I posted this at the wrong time, I realise, bang in the middle of Black Thursday, so I’ll run it past you one more time.

larach cover for cobweb 001

I’m really delighted to say that I’ve had to bespeak a reprint of Larach. Thanks to everyone who’s already bought a copy. Now, here’s the deal. Having Larach published in the first place was my prize for winning the 2014 Lumen Camden Poetry Competition with the poem about Emily Wilding Davison ‘Camera Obscura’. (If you follow the cobweb strands you’ll know that I posted it a couple of weeks ago as a reminder of what the right to vote cost so many courageous, selfless individuals). The judge was Sir Andrew Motion who is a patron of the charity. This year’s judge is George Szirtes. It’s a great competition, no question. If you entered this year, then good luck…results must be out soon.

The purpose of this annual competition is to raise funds to support a winter night shelter for rough sleepers. One of my sons was once, for a short time, a rough sleeper. It’s a charity near to my heart. It was the reason I entered the competition in the first place, knowing that my entry fee would go to help the charity’s work. There is no profit from the winners of this competition.

If you already bought the book you paid £3.00….I always thought that it could raise more, so here’s the deal. WardWood agreed to reprint the book at a price to me of £3.00 a copy. I’ve had the book repriced at £5.00. For every copy I sell £1.00 will go to the charity. I’ll use the balance to cover post and packing for orders I take via the cobweb site. Just check out the details about ordering copies by clicking on My Books at the top of the page. And anything left over after that can go towards funding any future reprint (Fingers crossed)

I hope you’ll all be happy about this arrangement. If you are then I’d take it more than kindly if you reblogged this post, or Shared it in Facebook and/or Twitter. And let me know what you think about it all via the Comments box below. I really do want to feel as though I’m doing the right thing all round.

(un)discovered gems Number 6 : Tom Cleary (and some thoughts on unfair advantages)

cow poetry

This has always been one of my favourite Gary Larsson cartoons, and pretty well describes what I thought poetry readings were like, till I actually started going to them fairly regularly in the last two or three years. I guess I imagined an aura of quiet piety and the scent of Earl Grey, punctuated by thoughtful Mmms and occasional hesitant polite applause. It’s been nice to be disabused. So this week’s cobweb’s about readings and readers, and prompted by the fact that on Friday next I’ll be off to Camden for the launch of my chapbook, ‘Larach’ [WardWood Publishing]. I’ll tell you all about it next Sunday, or maybe the week after, because next Sunday I’ll be off to Whitby for the Poetry Business residential, and the company of 17 other hardworking writers, and the inspirational Sansoms.

Right now, I’m going to reflect on two readings last week, and what makes a reading special. I wrote in an earlier post that the first time I ever went to a reading it was nearly 30 years ago, and it was Tony Harrison. What I found utterly compelling then was not only the poetry, but the reader, the focussed intensity of Harrison’s delivery, the unwaveringness of it. That and the tension between the sometimes esoteric range of reference and the inflections of a Leeds accent that came through the overlays of grammar school and university. There’s always a sense of controlled danger in Tony Harrison’s voice, I think. It’s never tentative. It’s partly why I found ‘The nuptial torches‘ so terrifying, and why the tenderness is so powerful, the desperate pity for Isabella, who prays ‘ O let the King be gentle and not loom/like Torquemada in the torture room’, gripped as she is, this young girl, by the horror of the auto da fe, of the burnings.

Utterly different was the second reading I went to. This was an accident. A wet night in Stratford in the 70s, mooching about with my colleague Tom Baker a couple of days into a residential course for our BEd English students, and wondering what to do with ourselves. Which is why we came to be reading a notice board outside the Shakespeare Institute, and finding a handwritten note that said Seamus Heaney would be reading in about twenty minutes time, in the upstairs room of a pub in the next street, and that we would be let in for a charge of 25p. So we went. I remember that he had a fiddler with him and that they read and played alternately. I remember that I bought Heaney a pint of Guiness. But most of all, I remember the voice, the one that tells me how to hear every poem of his that I ever read thereafter. And realising that poetry was an unfair business, and there were poets born with a headstart, with gift of a certain kind of dialect or accent, absolved of the curse of RP.

It’s something I think of particularly whenever I hear an Irish poet reading. Frank Ormesby was one. James Caruth is another. They are voices made for poetry, in the way I think that voices like Garrison Keillor’s and Bill Bryson are made for prose storytelling. It’s difficult to describe the quality I’m thinking of. It’s not the fact of a tenor or a baritone voice. It’s the business of rhythm and of softened consonants and the space that’s given to vowels that does it for me. (Harrison’s consonants are nailed down, if you see what I mean. They don’t compromise. They put an edge on the words). I’m thinking of the way the lines come in a series of waves, often the rise and fall of three or four syllables, almost regular but never metronomic, like small seashore waves. A bit like the patterns of Anglo Saxon poetry, but more spacious. The result is always unassertive, unemphatic, and it has both authority and authenticity. Like I say, it’s an unfair advantage. I could listen to them reading catalogues and bus timetables.

Which brings me, circuitously, to (un)discovered gem Number 6: Tom Cleary. The first time I heard him at an open mic I was riveted. That voice. The quiet unassertiveness. The rhythm. The Heaney thing. The Jim Caruth thing. I was too entranced by the rhythm to properly take on the poems, although there were clear strong resonant images in there, and a strong feel of the narrative of a natural storyteller. The next time, another open mic, the phrases and their authority, started to stick, especially the opening lines. Like these:

‘Matty lived for a whole year

in a hardwood and glass shed on the lawn’

or

She had her eighth baby, little Jude,

when all the students had gone home for Christmas’

or

‘Her first husband fell into a machine at work.

She missed the touch of his rough hands’

Now listen to those lines in a soft Irish voice, and imagine the merest hint of a rising inflection on the last words of the lines, and you’ll get the idea. So understand my pleasure, after performing woefully through a headcold and a bronchial cough at Poetry by Heart in Leeds (which deseves much better…it’s a lovely venue), I drove up to Hebden Bridge the next night to listen to Tom read, along with the absurdly talented Gaia Holmes, at the launch of his debut collection ‘The third Miss Keane’. You can find all about it and its publishers, Happenstance, at the end of this post. But before that, I’ll tell you a bit about Tom, and then leave you with one of the poems from the collection. He gave me carte blanche to choose. I hope he thinks I chose well.

Born in Co. Tipperary, he did a degree in English and Irish at University College, Dublin. He taught English for 30 years, in London, in Manchester, in Leeds. After he took early retirement, he did a degree in Spanish and Russian at Bradford, and then lived for three years in Spain, teaching English. Now he lives in Hebden Bridge where a canal and a river and a railwayline are squeezed into a narrow steep-sided valley, along with an unseemly number of poets. Like me, he started to write seriously when he was around 70, and got a leg-up when he won the Writers Forum/Happenstance Competition in 2011. And here’s the poem I chose. I’ll let it speak for itself.

Goose

I saw her first at the bridge where we went

for the dancing. Her legs leapt to the frenzy of the fiddles.

They all wanted her but she chose me.

Come with me for the goose, she said.

 

Her father’s face was swollen with burst veins,

his nose a welk. He winked at me

over the whisky glass. He squeezed my hand.

His mother raked out grates and swept floors, he said.

She shouted at him to get out. He wrinkled his nose,

tipped his head to one side, and sidled off.

 

His mother lay all day on a chaise longue.

She wore a black patch on one eye, and offered me

a hand like twigs to kiss. Her sister squinted at me

round the door. Get in here, Sis.

Don’t think I can’t see you. A fall and a tumble

and footsteps rushing upstairs. Her brother scowled,

his oily hair swept back.

 

Here in our house she leads me blindfold

through ravines of corridors, and hollow caverns of rooms.

I stumble on footstools. Wardrobes embrace me

like portly dancing partners. In my room,

the apple brushes my lips, caresses my gums

but eludes my teeth. I sit on the iron bedstead

while she strokes my hair. I hear the key turn in the lock.

 

Don’t forget for a moment to listen to how that has to sound, that rhythm I tried to describe. Tell it to yourself, as you realise you may have thought you were into a straightforward narrative of rural Ireland and then find yourself morphed into a folk or fairy tale; something odd, sinister. That’s what Tom Cleary does. It sounds as it sounds, but nothing will be as it seems.

You’ll be wanting to know more,and I hope, wanting to buy the book. Here’s the link you need.

http://www.happenstancepress.org/

Tomorrow I’m off to the Puzzle Hall Poets to listen to Steve Ely, and to compere the open mic. I may see you next week. I’ll certainly see you the week after. Thank you for being here. Don’t forget to put the chairs straight.

 

 

 

Writing workshops…opening doors and lighting candles as you go

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I remember with some fondness one of Alexei Sayle’s full-on rants, all shaven-headed aggro and strangled scouse vowels. ‘Werkshops! ****** werkshops! Legwarmers and poncy improvs…listen. If it hasn’t gorra lathe and bench fulla spanners, it’s not a werkshop!’ And recently, with no fondness at all, a Facebook post where some slack-witted journalist was having a sneery pop at Creative Writing courses..MA’s in particular. I think I said that even though my own MA course was a staggering let-down and that other friends felt equally short-changed, I had no reservations about why I paid to go on it, and why I’m happy to pay to go to poetry workshops; the reason’s simple. Because I want to learn how to do things better.

They don’t all work. I’ve been on a truly disappointing Arvon course. It was the first one I’d been on, and it might have been the last…except that because I was used to poetry workshops I knew it was because me and the tutors were a mismatch. Not their fault, I like to think when in a charitable mood. Anyway, what I want to write about is the ones that work for me and why, and also about the truly talented writers I’ve met and become friends with because of them. Nothing that follows will come as any surprise to those in the know, but I’ll be delighted if I reach anyone who’s not, and persuade them that this could be what they’re looking for (without knowing it).

clayton

Here’s one of my inspirations … missed him in that last post. Sorry Ian. Ian’s a broadcaster, writer, storyteller extraordinaire. He’s edited photgraphic essays on the days of winter Rugby League. He’s written hilariously about the music that’s been the soundtrack to his life; he’s written heartbreakingly about the death of his daughter, Billie*. He’s championed the cause of giving a voice to working-class communities in the mining villages of West Yorkshire. For years he ran a writer’s workshop at the sadly now-defunct Yorkshire Art Circus in Castleford, and that’s where I met him when I signed up for six month’s worth of Thursday morning workshops. The core of the group were women from Castleford, Normanton, Sharlston, Featherstone…towns whose pits and whose heart were ripped out in the 80’s. I didn’t learn much about writing poetry. Most of the folk were focussed on writing autobiography and family history. And, perhaps, even more than that, on telling stories. What I did learn was how to keep a note book. I wrote non-stop during each morning’s session, recording as much as I could of what people said, and what I thought about them and about their stories. I learned to write without thinking about how it looked or how it sounded, fast and impressionistically. I filled a big fat A4 notebook. I salvaged a couple of poems from it all, but the trick of letting words on to the page without worrying was the gift I was given…that and some brilliant stories. Without that experience, I doubt I could have got as much as I have from the following five years. Which takes us nicely to:peterann1

Ann and Peter Sansom. My poetry heroes. Julia Deakin introduced me to the Saturday Poetry Business writing days** when they were still based in Byram Arcade in Huddersfield. I would have been, I think, out of my depth among so many people who knew each other, and were comfortably familiar with the world of poetry and publishing and poetry readings. But I knew how to sit quiet (not like me at all) and write non-stop, regardless. So I did. I guess the format doesn’t suit everyone, the business of six or seven writing tasks, intensive 5 minute bursts of writing on the basis of the most minimal cues. It suits me because I’m lazy and I work best under pressure…paradoxically it frees me from second thoughts and second guessing and irrelevant self-censorship. It’s pure drafting, and it plunders the memory you didn’t know you had. I wrote down something Ann Sansom said about the magic of how it works : because you are writing for yourself; because you tell yourself things you didn’t know you knew. It’s a kind of ambush on the unconscious. Sit and deliver.

What the Poetry Business added to Ian Clayton’s work was, not surprisingly, poems. Sometimes I would write things that needed minimal editing, as though they’d been waiting around and hoping to be found. The picture that starts this week’s post is of a couple of the six notebooks that I’ve filled almost exclusively at P.B. workshops. And they are all in continuous prose. I can put the line breaks in later, if it’s a piece that’s worth keeping. I think I’ve done about 400 different exercises. How Ann and Peter think them up is a matter of abiding wonder. It’s always artful and without artifice, and is always about memory. The notebook page I chose to photograph is actually of a task at a different workshop, with Jane Draycott (of whom more later) but it’s typical, except that in this case the notes became a poem that won me a prize, a poem that Andrew Motion chose, and a poem that has made a huge difference to the way I think about myself as a writer. The poem is ‘Julie’. It’s in my pamphlet ‘Running out of Space’. I’ve discovered that if you click on the headline photograph you get a full-size image, large enough to read the text. What you find is that the notes are almost word for word the same as the opening of the finished poem.Somedays the gods smile. The prize money from ‘Julie’ paid for the printing of the pamphlet, and 80% of the poems in it came from Poetry Business writing days. The other thing they do is introduce you to a staggering range of contemporary poetry via the extracts they use to start many of the writing tasks. I cut them to size and stick them in my notebooks and reference them to the tasks they triggered. So I’ve learned to read more voices, and to buy more poetry. I’d never heard of Billy Collins, Alison McVety, Helen Mort, Denis O Driscol, Emily Berry, George Szirtes, and all the dozens of others. You learn from the company you keep.

There are two other things I value the Poetry Business writing days for. If the morning sessions surprise you into writing poems you didn’t know you had in you, then the afternoon sessions teach you about reading and editing. It’s hard, concentrated work, reading and listening to maybe ten other poets’ work, and getting focussed feedback on your own work. You learn that what you thought was probably pretty damn fine is, after all, provisional, and that you have to knuckle down to make it work for a reader. You learn that criticism is provisional too..a question of comments on the lines of ‘why not try this and see what happens’ and ‘do you really need this or that line/image/adjective’. You discover that readers find subtexts and layers you never anticipated. From Ann, in particular, you learn how reversing the order of a couple of lines, or, even more startling, making tiny adjustments to punctuation, can make a poem sing. Just to show we’re up to date, I was in Sheffield today, at a PB writing day, and apart from seven new sets of might-be-poems, and afternoon workshop poems of rare quality, I copied out yet another Ann Sansom bon mot. There was one poem that had a line in which poppies were growing at the edges of fields. She homed in on that one word. She said: you can come back to this; it’s one of those words: like drawing pins, that you use to stick the line together, till you can come back and fix it properly. I love that. It’s no good being a writer if you don’t learn to be a reader. So that’s one good thing. The other is to find that you’ve been admitted to a community of writers. Which takes us to:almaserra )ct 2013 051

Residential courses. If a day in the company of writers is good, then 5 or 6 or 7 days is (for me, with one exception) wonderful. I’ve said before that I like mountains and vistas and you can’t get much more of either than at the Old Olive Press. Lumb Bank is great, and so is Whitby, but this place does something extra for me. On an Arvon Course I get distracted by cooking in the afternoon. Can’t keep out of the kitchen. But at Almaserra Vella, thanks to Christopher North and Marisa, it doesn’t arise. You work flat out for three hours in the morning, eat your lunch. And then, (me, anyway), walk for miles in the afternoon, (or sit by the pool, or in the library, or in the cafe by the church) and let the words do as they will. And while you do that, someone cooks your evening meal. Astonishing. And you meet new tutors with different styles. Last year it was Jane Draycott, who, every day, added a new bit of  kit to the poetry toolbox. How to use viewpoint, voice, dialogue, setting, pace, line-length…on it went, layer after layer. And she left me with two phrases that see me through the trudgy bits of the process. She said, as she set us off on a task: off you go, opening doors, and lighting candles along the way. She said:look for the point where the poem detonates . So I do. One day I’ll be convinced I know exactly what she meant.  In a couple of weeks I’m off again. The tutor is Mimi Khalvati; she has, I’m told, a formidable reputation. Well, if you rest, you rust. I can’t wait. And please, Google ‘The Old Olive Press’….you won’t regret it. If you look closely at the picture, you can see it. It’s the blue house.

Finally, any new writing group is a daunting experience. But I find I can hide behind the physical business of non-stop writing; head down, focussed on the page, the physical act of making marks with a pen, I can blank out a room, and everyone in it, and simultaneously feel safe in the knowledge that in this situation it’s an entirely natural thing to be doing, whereas writing on my own sometimes feels terribly pose-y. And then, one day you find you want to read out something you just wrote, and that when you do, no one laughs. And you start to make friends who, it turns out, have been published and actually are famous but still treat you as an equal. Not only that, but sometimes you see poems emerging that you later meet again in published collections with the bonus you can hear the voices behind them,and the days when you first heard them. Some become especially special, as though I was somehow part of their making, even though I wasn’t. I met Kim Moore because, in one PB morning workshop, she read the draft of a poem she’d written that morning, on her way. Train journey, Barrow to Sheffield, which had such memorable images in it…the sheep that stand and drown in the incoming tide of a shallow estuary, the man waking up on the train, shouting ‘I’ve got to find the sword’ …..that it made me ask her for a copy. And she sent me one. That poem’s in her Poetry Business pamphlet competition winner: If they could speak like wolves. James Caruth, with the unfair advantage of a voice like Heaney’s, workshopped a draft that he’s written that morning. I’ve got a photocopy of the handwritten first version of ‘Lethe’ that we offered comments on, the newly-dead with her ‘ face pale as a clock.‘. That’s in another winning pamphlet: The death of narrative, and so is ‘Pigeon lofts, Penistone Road‘, from another afternoon workshop. There was Julie Mellor (yup, another winning pamphlet: Speaking through our bones) taking Heaney on with her poem about blackberries, and making me sit up straight with the image of the mole that marks a man for hanging. Julia Deakin not only workshopped poems from two collections (‘Slice’ , the tumultuous prosepoem ‘Checkpoint’, ‘Kingfisher on a tram’, amongst others) but I sat and watched her writing (5 minutes) what turned into For what we are about to receive, and the ‘Blackie’s children’s classics’ that taught us ‘that as children we belonged in prison’. And Gaia Holmes’ delicate ‘Trinkets’ asking for the gift of words you could arrange…make them say what you’ve always wanted me to say. So I’ve learned to hear the voices in poems from the voices behind them. And so much confidence

Writers’ workshops, their tutors, and friends like these help me find my voice. And if anyone asks why that’s important, I  repeat a line of Tony Harrison’s, one that should be written on every blackboard/chalkboard/whiteboard in every school in the country. The dumb go down in history, and disappear. That’s why.

Next week I promise you another undiscovered gem (except she isn’t), and, maybe some snapshots from ‘poetry readings I have been at’. Something like that. Thanks for listening.

*Ian Clayton: ‘Our Billie’ [Penguin. First published 2010]  and ‘Bringing it all back home’ [Route. 2008]

The Poetry Business pamphlets are published by Smith/Doorstop.

For details of Julia Deakin’s collections, ‘Eleven Wonders’ and ‘Without a dog’ see my post of a couple of weeks ago

**The regular Poetry Business Writing Days are on Saturdays, once a month, and meet at the Premier Inn in Sheffield (though there are also occasional PB Writing Days around the country)

You can contact the Poetry Business via their website (just Google Poetry Business) for all the information you could need about workshops, publications, competitions and submissions. And you should.

[The Poetry Business/ BankStreet Arts/ 32-40 Bank Street/ Sheffield S1 2DS]