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…..

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….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. 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.

Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write (2): A little learning

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A couple of weeks ago [August 14] I was getting over-dogmatic (as it seems to me now) about the pleasures of ‘research’….indeed, about the absolute necessity for it if you’re ever to get beyond yourself, if you’re ever to become the dark watcher you need to be.

Last Thursday I was in Pontefract for one of Steve Ely’s ‘Dissonant voices’ monthly poetry readings. It ought to attract a massive turnout. Maybe it was because it was the time of year, but on Thursday there were five of us…for an Ian Duhig reading. Ian Duhig !!!! You’d think they’d be beating down the doors. As it was, we sat around one table and listened to Ian talking about the kind of research that goes into his work. Interviewing ex-policemen, investigating terrible acts of violence and injustice, researching the history of Chapeltown Road in Leeds, Blind Jack of Knaresborough who surveyed and engineered that road and read the earth with his feet….and so on. Utterly unpredictable and fascinating. We wondered about the history of the Kingdom of Elmet, the names of its parishes, the fact that the only journey HenryVIII made to the North was to Pontefract, and why the main road from Airedale into Leeds ran through the nave of Kirstall Abbey. Place names; why in the West Riding, and the Rhubarb Triangle, liquorice is still called ‘spanish’. We talked about Islam, about Catholicism, about Irishness, about the intercession of saints, about confession and repentance and forgiveness. And much else.

I drove home with ideas buzzing like wasps, wanting to know more, wanting to write about them. I think that often this is the problem. I’ll go chasing after stuff, like a labrador in a field full of rabbits. My daughter-in-law has me bang to rights; this is a present she bought me last Christmas.

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Perhaps it should be a tee shirt that I’m made to wear at writers’ workshops. I have a scattershot approach to conversation and to finding things out. I think that I’ve grasped ideas when I haven’t. It’s not unique. I was reading Anthony Sher’s autobiographical memoir a couple of nights ago, and all I wanted to do was go and read The year of the King again. And those RSC books (mostly out of print)..Players of Shakespeare. And why not Ken Branagh’s Beginning. And Simon Callow. And John Barton. Before I know it I’ll be thinking I know something about acting, or Shakespearean verse-speaking. And I’ll misremember..like Anthony Sher. I can’t resist this extract. Sher has been at a memorial service for Monty, his therapist.

“we learned a strange thing. Before he trained as a psychotherapist, Monty’s profession was not that of doctor, which we all thought, but that of dry-cleaner. Dry-cleaner?

I looked at my fellow ‘clients’ in bewilderment.

‘It’s not just me , is it? I put it in Year of the king [Sher’s account of his playing Richard the Third at the RSC in Stratford] – that he’s a GP turned therapist —I must’ve got that from him. I wouldn’t just have made it up’

‘No, no, I remember him telling me too,’ said Richard ‘and how he delivered his daughter’s babies’

‘I got insurance on one of my films,’ said Mike Leigh, ‘on the basis that my therapist was also a qualified doctor’

‘While actually he was a dry-cleaner,’ Roger Allan commented.”

(Extract from Beside myself:  Anthony Sher.  Random House 2002)

I was much taken by Sher’s being particularly disconcerted that he had put what he genuinely believed in a book. Because you can’t retrospectively take it out of a book. It’s out there. It has a life of its own. It’s been validated by print. And it’s not true

Which brings me nicely to looking back at a couple of cobweb posts from last year. Last September I wrote a guest blog for Anthony Wilson’s Life-saving poems. (Whose life is it, any way). I wrote about how conflicted I’d been about putting friends into poems without their permission, and how it hadn’t really mattered until they were published. I wrote this about a poem that won a competition prize:

“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 this year. I wrote from memory and feeling. Some things I know are factually true and some as though they ought to be.

Norman

 

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.

 

Now, there’s just one detail in this that’s not researched, not properly checked out. The detail about the Herdwick. Norman’s wife Effie has never said to me that this is wrong. But I really feel I just went for the easy otion of choosing that word because it fit better in the line than ‘Cheviot’ or ‘Black-faced sheep’, both of which seem now to be more factually likely. It’s a small thing, but it niggles, and asks questions about a writer’s responsibility.

A month earlier, in the cobweb, I wrote a post called ‘Putting the record straight’. This was more complicated. I’d written poems about my grandparents..who I never knew..and my mother, who I thought I knew. I never wrote about my mum and dad until both had died. And I put these family biographies in my second pamphlet ‘Backtracks’. I wrote about my grandma, Ethel, about her suicide; about her husband Alfred’s death in or during the First World War. I wrote about my mother being orphaned. I based all of it on family anecdote. And then I was invited to a ceremony at Batley Cemetery, created by a Batley group who keep up the graves of Batley men who lost their lives in WW1. They have carefully commemorated the centenary of each and every one. And researched them just as carefully.

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We are sure we know the truth as we are told it, and as we pass it on to our children and their children, and so on. I thought I knew my granddad -or at least about him – even though he died 28 years before I was born, even though my mum hardly remembered him herself. She was four when he died. I knew he’d been a soldier, and simply assumed he’d been killed in action. And then, years on, I was rooting through an old attache case of my mum’s, full of small deckle-edged photos, and newspaper cuttings, and random documents like birth and marriage certificates.  I’m convinced that I remember finding a War Ministry telegram regretting to inform my Grandmother, and all of us, that her husband had died in an Army hospital in Aldershot. But I couldn’t have done. Because he didn’t. And how do I know? Because a group of volunteers, knowing nothing of me or my writing had done the research, and told me this:

Before the war Alfred had served his painting and decorating apprenticeship with John Tomlinson of Upper Commercial Street, Batley. He had joined the Batley Volunteers and Territorials in 1901 and had been promoted to Sergeant before WW1 broke out. He was entitled to a long service medal by 1914 but the war had interfered with the receipt of the medal.

When his camp at Whitby was broken up Alfred accompanied the Territorials to Doncaster, Gainsborough and York. His comrades went to the Front without him and he returned home to Batley. After a short stay at home he was sent to Beckett’s Park Hospital, Leeds as he was suffering from Bright’s Disease (a chronic inflammation of the blood vessels in the kidneys) resulting in protein in the urine. He was never to return home and died in hospital on Sunday the 8th of August 1915.

Whereas I’d written this:

Alfred

There he is. Grinning and unsoldierly,
the despair of the RSM. The joker in the trench.
Except, I’ve no way of knowing if he ever was.

Maybe, Ypres and Mons and Passchendale
meant no more to him than Chapel hymn tune names –
O dass ich tausand zungen haite. Armageddon.

All based on just one photograph.

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Unsoldierly. Except it turns out he wasn’t. You don’t get to be a sergeant by being ‘unsoldierly’. I see, though, that subconsciously I was giving myself a get-out clause :

Except, I’ve no way of knowing if he ever was.

Maybe there’s absolution in that. I’ve begun to notice that there are a lot of ‘maybes’ and ‘I thinks’ and ‘perhapses’ in my poems. What’s all that about. Why be tentative? Why not do the work, and find out. It gets more serious when I find I’ve written a poem that says my mother was orphaned at 14 and then , because I’m invited to a graveyard ceremony I find it’s not true. For years and years I believed that my grandma Ethel drowned herself, and that my mother was a teenager when she was left homeless. What’s more, my daughter Julie tells me that that’s the story she believes, and she believes her gran told her so. But I stood by a grave a year ago that says quite unequivocally that Ethel died in 1937. When my mother was 26. I managed to change the poem when I did a third reprint of Backtracks, but I can’t do anything about the first two printings. I know how Anthony Sher felt. But I put it in a book !

Now, what’s all this to do with a photograph of the Easter Island heads? Well, sometimes you can spend a lot of time getting excited about writing something and then find that it’s simply wrong. Not technically (though it may be) but in terms of its premise and its rhetoric. Here’s a cautionary tale. It starts on May 30th this year, in a poetry workshop task in Spain. It starts from a poem..Peter Carpenter’s Orion. It involves apostrophising a star. A four minute ‘get writing and don’t ask yourself questions’ task. I’m looking at my notes and find I wrote:

Most of this sublunary world being water and there are oceans where no stars are navigation lights. no one knows who carved the giant heads of Easter Island

Where did that come from? Sublunary is Shakespeare. Isn’t it? No idea. The other stuff is Bronowski’s The ascent of man. I’d got so fed up of ex-Blue Peter presenters infantilising TV ‘documentaries’ I thought I’d treat myself to a grown-up DVD, with a grown up very clever presenter. I believed everything Bronowski said about Easter Island..particularly something he said about the inhabitants being unable to leave because they had no stars to navigate by. Unlike us lucky folk in the Northern Hemisphere with the Pole Star at our disposal. A couple of months later, I knuckled down to bashing it out into a poem which I took to a Poetry Business writing day.

No direction home

 

Here’s a constellation came from murder,

this one from rape. The casual and insincere

atonements of the gods for petty spites,

for violently requited lusts.

Swaddled by stories,

we say the random stars

align themselves for our convenience

 

She-bear Callisto. The Plough.

Archer, Water-bearer, Crab and Swan.

A join-the-dots menagerie.

The unimaginable universe

a children’s bedtime picture book.

 

No one knows who made the huge stone heads

of Easter Island. No one knows why. Only

that they had no idea where they were,

and if they left, they had no idea where to,

and drifted till they died.

 

Staring, monumentally blind

stone heads of Easter Island.

Staring at unbroken sea,

the empty curve of the earth,

waiting for sails, waiting for gods.

 

If you lived on a star. If.

You could never leave.

You could never find your way

in the dazzling dust of galaxies.

 

[“Easter Island is 1000 miles from the nearest inhabitable land.How did men come here?….by accident. Why could they not get off?………because there is no Pole Star in the Southern Hemisphere” :Jacob Bronowsky: ‘The ascent of man’]

And got my first comeuppance. Here’s the poem after a bit of workshop commentary/criticism.

no direction

Now, I’d no problems with all the suggestions about what was weak, and what wanted ditching and so on. But what really knocked my legs out from under me was the indefatigably encyclopaedic Simon Currie telling me that all the heads stare inland ..not out to sea, but back towards the ancestors. And, unsurprisingly, he’s right. He usually is. Think about it. If you put it right, it rips out the core image of the poem. AAArghhhh!

I sent the poem to my friend and mentor Hilary Elfick (see cobweb post Nov 15 2015). Hilary lives in New Zealand for half the year. She’s a sailor, too. She knows about navigating the southern ocean in a sailboat. And she pointed out what I should have known if I hadn’t simply taken the professorial Bronowsky at his convincing word. What about the Southern Cross? What indeed. And she took the trouble to send me a photograph of it.

IMG_1867

 

It’s very very bright. And there we are. ‘No direction home’ indeed! That’ll learn me. A little learning may be a dangerous thing. It certainly leads me down miry ways, and into dark corners and cul de sacs. He had it right, that Mr Pope and his acerbic couplets.

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring;
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.”

 

Is that a note to end on? I think it is. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. There’s always going to be a tension between ‘poetic’ truth and verifiable documentary fact, but at what point does it turn into a conflict? Tell me.

(I reckon I’ve exhausted this strain of argument. Next week we’ll have a proper post with a proper poet, and I’m really looking forward to that. I hope you’ll join me)

Oh…and look out for Steve Ely’s poetry nights in Pontefract:

http://www.pontefractandcastleford.co.uk/event/dissonant-voices-poetry-in-the-key-of-the-north

And if you want to buy poems that may or may not be misleading or downright lies, then go to ‘My Books‘ and Paypal will let you buy more copies of Backtracks than you can shake a stick at.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of the ordinary. A Polished Gem: Mark Hinchcliffe

rothko 2

Is there anyone in the English speaking world – teacher or student – who hasn’t come across Norman MacCaig’s An ordinary day? Who hasn’t enthused about it, or been invited to be enthused

I took my mind a walk

or my mind took me a walk –

whatever was the the truth of it

I met it first in one of Geoffrey Summerfield’s ‘Voices’ anthologies and insisted that several generations of my secondary school students took their minds a walk. We could all sign up for a recognisably post-romantic idea of poetry. It was about ‘observing’ and being surprised. I don’t think I ever stopped to consciously acknowledge that what MacCaig observed was light on water, gulls, cormorants, small flowers, bees, various ducks, a cow, weeds in clear water. Or at least, I never stopped to see the disconnect between MacCaig’s familiar, known place..the West Highland coast, I suppose… and what my students were familiar with. Urban or suburban landscapes. Edgeland places. I never stopped to think too hard about why they didn’t ‘get’ what MacCaig was up to. Or that they might not really want to take their minds a walk round a council estate in Leeds, or down Marton Road in Middlesbrough. Or if they did, it might have been better to start from poems with people and conversations …or bits of conversations .. in them. Water under the bridge. What’s at the back of my mind is the business of the poems we ‘get’ as opposed to the ones we don’t ‘get’.

As ever, I fall back on analogies with paintings. My partner is a painter. She’s taken me to look at Rothkos. She clearly ‘gets’ Rothko. And I don’t. I try; I listen to explanations of what it is I’m missing, but nothing clicks. There’s something missing in me that Rothko tries to talk to. It’s still a foreign language in which other people are fluent. My bad, as one of my granddaughters might say. I think that for all of us (some of us?)  the same is true of poetry. There are poets we (I?) don’t get. I don’t ‘get’ a good deal of contemporary American voices. I don’t get minimalists, and concrete poets. I don’t get poets who write abstractly. I found myself thinking this reading some of Anthony Wilson’s recent posts. Poetry like this:

When poets discover
that their words refer only
to other words and not to reality
which must be described
as faithfully as possible,
their despair.

This is probably one cause
for modern poetry’s sombre tone.

[Czeslaw Milosz]

Anthony ‘gets’ it and it clearly speaks to him and moves him. It says something important. But not to me, who can’t get past the feeling that it’s a part of an essay with line breaks, and that I’m not engaged with the argument anyway, because it doesn’t seem urgent to me.That’s one kind of thing I mean. That Rothko thing.

I don’t mean the poets who take us out of a comfort zone but to whom we still, at some deep level, respond. Those are the ones who don’t readily fall into a category. Basil Bunting. Geoffrey Hill. Those excite me, in the way that some painters puzzle and excite me, because I can’t put them in any sort of category, and I’m not quite sure what’s going on, but at some level I’m engaged and moved and bothered. And I think it comes down to the business of a particular voice. I fall back on Clive James to articulate what I can’t myself. I keep re-typing these assertions in these cobweb posts. This must be at least the third time.  They’ve stuck:

“You hear the force of real poetry at first glance”

Everything depended, and still depends, on the quality of the moment…..it’s the moment that gets you in”

and never forget the adage about the ‘well-separated poem’ that  makes it almost impossible to memorise what you can never quite forget’

Which is a very articulate way of saying something that can’t quite be articulated. I just have to say I know what he means, and you have to take my word for that, just as I know that my partner knows what Rothko means, and that she can’t be doing with this image that either says nothing much to her, or just gives her the creeps, and which fascinates me.

fairy feller

Richard Dadd. The fairy feller’s masterstroke. Painted in a mental asylum. Obsessively realistic and accurately rendered and packed with small frightening or disturbing or saddening images and narratives. You can’t categorize it. It either speaks to you or it doesn’t and I can’t explain it. It’s like nothing else that I’m used to liking.

Which is, as ever, a very roundabout way of coming to our special guest for this week. Mark Hinchcliffe. I’ve known him for two or three years since I met him first at a Monday night poetry workshop at The Albert in Huddersfield. He brought a poem to work on that totally threw me, because I had no handle on it, I didn’t know what it was for, because it seemed strange and arbitrary. D H Lawrence was in there. And a fox. It was odd. And I couldn’t forget it even though I couldn’t quite remember why it was stuck in my mind. I’ve got to know him and his poems better since then, but he’s never brought one that didn’t disturb/surprise without ever being self-announcing. If I had to think of one word for their immediate quality , it would be ‘diffident’. Only to say the next impression is ‘not diffident at all’. Very Richard Dadd. And very magical, like Chagall…or, at least this phase of Chagall.

chagall 2

I think it’s an easy transition from this image to one of Mark’s poems.

Pieta

 

A fox slowly swayed

down the middle of Cowlersley Lane,

eyes glassy and dazed.

 

People ran out of their houses

to look

and you brought a bowl of milk.

 

Dressed in a pink tutu and purple glittery wig,

you knelt beside it as it lay down

in the gateway to a garden.

 

The people peered into

the darkness of its eyes

as if they looked into a stable

or a volcano slowly burning out,

holding up their hands

to catch the sparks

from its glowing tail.

 

I can’t explain why I think it works. I want to say…but that’s not my sort of poem, not my sort at all. And it ignores me and goes on memorising itself.While you’re thinking about that, you should meet the poet. He’ll introduce himself. I’ve italicised a couple of passages. It will be obvious why.

My first taste of poetry was an ‘A’ level set text in 1976 (when I was 16), the anthology of Gunn and Hughes. Our English teacher played a record of Ted Hughes, one of his radio broadcasts-Capturing animals, where he read his poems and talked about writing. I never forgot his voice, and sought out his poetry, and then found out he was born in Mytholmroyd, and made a pilgrimage there. Over the next few years I found and read his poems, essays, stories, book reviews, all I could lay my hands on. I also started writing poems of my own just after hearing the record.

I have always seen poetry as a healing energy, and when my father died ( I was 17) I wrote about my feelings, I wrote another poem about him the other week.

I went to Birmingham University to read English, kept writing, and published poems in the University magazine. I also started to correspond with Ted Hughes, and later he asked me to send my poems to him, and he commented on them. My last card from him was a few weeks before he died.

I worked for 25years as a psychiatric nurse and used to write as a way of honouring the people I tried to help, and to help me make sense of the chaos that flourished within psychiatry.

I started going to The Albert Pub in Huddersfield, and read there for the first time in 1998. Later I was an organiser for the readings. I still love being involved with the Albert, and going to the workshops- they generate most of my poems.

I recently had a collection published by Calder Valley Press, edited by Bob Horne, and this has meant a great deal.

raven

I love to see myself in a circle of poets, past and present, William Blake, Keats, Wordsworth, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Kathleen Jamie, Frances Horovitz, Carola Luther, Adrian Mitchell, Thom Gunn amongst others.

For me there is no experience that comes close to how I feel when I have written a poem, to see those words on the paper which I have charmed into being.

In  recent years, I have been followed by a gang of spirits, clamouring to be written about, they are like musical themes, they are cats , hares, The Green Man, mermaids and foxes. They slip in through cracks in my mind. An old man, an archaeologist killed by fundamentalists is always behind me, tapping on my shoulder, and a boy who looks for aeroplanes on the moors is much in my mind.”

 

There’s a matter-of-factness about the way Mark says most things, so you almost miss them. The raven and the laughing head is his first pamphlet; this is not only someone who sent his poems to Ted Hughes, but corresponded with him over the years. There’s a special endorsement on the back cover of the pamphlet (this first pamphlet)

“There’s a lovely lyrical completeness about your poems. So natural and full – they just float out. Something perfect about them. So wholehearted and affectionate. (So rare!)”

Ted Hughes [Letters of Ted Hughes. ed Reid. (Faber and Faber 2007. p734)]

Whatever it is that makes you read Mark Hinchcliffe’s poems more than once, and which lodges them in your mind, be assured that Ted Hughes got there first. And, whatever you do, keep in mind the gang of spirits that slip in through the cracks. The boy who looks for aeroplanes on the moors keeps turning up on Monday nights in Huddersfield and bothers me as much as he does Mark.

At which point I shall say: here are two more poems. When you’ve read them, read them again and then close your eyes. Don’t analyse. Either you’ll get them or you won’t. It’s something that ultimately we can’t help.

 

Skins

 When you stood up

from your chair

your skin peeled away,

raw red strips,

the flesh stuck,

 

and you took the wolverine skin,

laid it on your neck,

 

placed the otter skin on your shoulder,

the jaguar on your chest,

and the leopard on your back.

His spots pricked into your skin

like tattoos.

 

The wild boar covered your legs,

the wolf lay around your ankles.

 

And you ran,

you sprang through the window

into the garden,

 

the apple trees shook their heads,

they quivered,

the blossom danced,

and under the grass

your bull stirred, bellowed,

his ring shimmering like the moon,

like a buried hoard.

 

(actually, I want to say….’that ring, shimmering, that round moonlike glimmering ring’..I can’t keep quiet about it. Let’s see if I can be more disciplined about the next one)

 

Outlaw Olympics

 

Billy the Kid plays croquet

with his gang.

 

Frank and Jesse James

play tennis doubles

against the Earp brothers.

 

John Wesley Harding races cars.

 

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

blow peas through a hole in the wall.

 

Guests from abroad,

Ned Kelly plays blind man’s buff,

Robin Hood climbs trees, and

Little John plays basketball.

 

But the Oglala Sioux

led by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Black Elk, and Red Cloud

take all the gold medals

back to Dakota.

 

They keep the sun in the sky

for seven weeks,

they talk to the eagles,

they dance on the earth,

green shoots spring up.

 

This is what another of the Albert Poets, Carola Luther, wrote about Mark’s work. She puts it better than I can.

“Mark Hinchcliffe writes love poems, praise poems and poems of lamentation and devotion…these are not ironic poems. They weave myth into both the dark and the everyday with a seriousness and attention that could be prayer”

The phrase that really nails it for me is these are not ironic poems. Nor are they naive or innocent or playful, though they might be any or all of these things. I said at the start there are things I just don’t ‘get’ and I should end by saying there things I think I ‘get’ but can’t explain. I just know that I keep re-reading these poems because they keep puzzling me.

So thank you, Mark Hinchcliffe for being our guest on this sunshiny Bank Holiday Monday.

Just two things before we go. Next week will be a sort of complicated explanation about misinformed research, and how poems go wrong. It wasn’t scheduled, which means that a Poetic Gem Revisited : Roy Cockcroft will be a week later than planned, as will every poet who comes after him.

Second thing. Go and buy Mark’s pamphlet. It’s available from Calder Valley Poetry via the following link.           https://caldervalleypoetry.com/about/

Thank you for coming. It was lovely to see you all.