A short post this week. Three tantalising teasers before the launch next Tuesday of Pressed for Time (Calder Valley Poetry). Shortly there should be a link via the Menu (top of the page)to My Books which will hopefully take you to the PayPal facility. Once it’s up, check out the special offer, available up to may 14th. In the meantime, here are three more poems which I hope will balance the bleakness of some of the work………..If you’re one of those who understand the urge to collect fragments which we shore against our imagined ruins, then this brick is for you.
By the Tide of Humber
Here’s the brick I fetched
from the grit of a beach so hot
my feet were blistered
that day at Spurn where sometimes
clouds of goldcrest blown off-course
make landfall, exhausted, too weak to move,
are picked off by rats and gulls.
This brick, more pig-iron than clay,
a small cylinder block. Little pebbles
wedged in four of its six holes,
picked up the day two dolphins came
rollercoasting up the muddy Humber
while container ships sat top-heavy
on the tightrope horizon, waiting for the tide.
Brittle marran, dusty thrift, rusted beer cans,
bits of glass at the end of the walked world.
Two dolphins, distant as birds
and blithe as birds. This brick.
The second poem is the title poem, and at the centre of a sequence exploring the astonishing processes of earthbuilding needed to take a man’s life in the underground of deep time. I don’t think WordPress will cope with the format, so I’ve had to use a screen grab.
And finally, out into the air, in a poem for my Dad and all the working people who knew how to see what the world had to offer if only you learned to look
Something Going On
Brick gable ends, gardens of dock and dandelion,
Privet, trodden clay and rusting prams.
A beck that ran hot, ran yellow, red and indigo.
The park and its ornamental lake
and fountains choked with mast and mulch,
and the ancient peacock clattering
the brittle sticks of its fan.
My father took himself to sewage beds,
marsh, canal banks. Dipper. Moorhen. Heron.
Gritstone moors, old quarries soft
with Yorkshire mist; curlew, lapwing, wagtails
were his familiars. Old woodlands;
coal tits, blue tits, yellowhammers,
chaffinch, robin, wren.
A poet in Hessle watched a man who pushed
a lawnmower down the cobbled street,
and wished him grass. He saw how a roofer’s trowel
makes diamonds of a slanting sun. Everywhere,
they told me, there’s a view. Something going on.
Something definitely going on next Tuesday 7.00-9.00pm at Brighouse Library. Launch of Pressed for Time with a supporting cast of Calder Valley Poetry poets. It’ll be lovely, and I’d love to see you there. If you’re not sure how to get there, here’s a link.
It’s alright, Ma.(I’m only bleeding). Bob Dylan …………….
“It has been a quiet week, here on Lake Wobegon. It snowed twelve inches on Tuesday”.
So begins my favourite Garrison Keillor radio story. I’ve written about it before, in another context, because it’s a story about stories, about storytelling and storytellers, and the covenant between audience and author/performer. About expectations and surprises, about truth and falsehood. Which is more important now than at any time in my life, as we stumble through the sleep of reason in which monsters are born.
I suspect there will be a lot of quotations in this post which I’ve been struggling to start for about two months. Ready-to-wear ideas may well be what you get, instead of the bespoke ones that are, more often than not, eluding me. I can envy Keillor, who, whatever his doubts about what came next, always knew what the first sentence was going to be. And that what followed would be about ‘the quiet week’.
It’s been a horrible year here in the UK. It snowed on Wednesday. Things went on getting worse.
Who wants more? Thought not.
Six weeks ago I started a programme of chemotherapy. I wasn’t prepared for the lethargy or the mental tiredness. I thought I was already mentally tired by the unchanging circumstances of ten months of shielding/lockdowns/self-isolation. Though I suppose it was some kind of practice. It would be so easy to catalogue the frustrations of 2020 and would serve little purpose. Everyone else has been there. I’ve grown spiritually and physically agarophobic as the world has consistently shrunk.
I dream of going out to an actual shop and buying things with physical money. I’d like to have trips out to places that aren’t hospitals or surgeries….though every now and them they’re the highlight of the week, because they involve meeting people I don’t know, and having conversations, and, often, a laugh.
Which reminds me that two poetry residentials I’ve booked and paid for have been cancelled (and the hotels that would have hosted them have just gone into administration; my heart goes out to the staff); our annual trip to Skye has been indefinitely postponed. I miss the sea, the hills, and the creative buzz of it all. Poor me.
How to switch this around?
I have one friend, a singer/songwriter/performer/teacher/artist in his early 80s. He’s started these days to talk about not having much time left. Another friend, not quite 80, just emailed me and his post included the phrase ‘in the months that remain to us’.
I’ve been reading recent work by David Constantine, and by Martin Zarrop in which, quite co-incidentally, they share a trope. The business of hill walks you could once manage but know now that these days you can’t. And also the business of walks you you used to do with close trusted friends who are now dead and gone.
Then there was the Christmas card list. I realised that so many friends have died and so many addresses are dead-letter boxes that I need to start again with a new address book. A real book. Which brings me to the first quotation
………….he not busy being born is busy dying
In my early 20s I suspect I didn’t hear the ambiguity of it, any more than I did in The Who’s lyric ‘hope I die before I get old’. To which I now say a fervent ‘amen’. Because I understand, now, that getting old isn’t the same thing as the passage of time, and that dying is about not being born, every possible minute. For years my partner and I cared for elderly parents, one way and another, and I watched as their worlds shrank, physically, as did their curiosity. Slowly and inevitably they stopped taking any notice, stopped listening, stopped reading, being interested, talking. They were just busy dying.
I’ve decided I want none of it. I can learn from Solzhenitsyn and his take on Epicureanism, especially in One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch. The idea that happiness lies, at least in part, in taking inventory of the day and identifying how it could have been much worse if X or Y had not happened or didn’t exist. And then focussing on X or Y. Things that made life better. An extra bowl of kasha. A bit of hacksaw blade. Building a wall.
What did I do in 2020? I have a house, I have a garden, a field beyond the garden, a view beyond the field. I have a garage full of bits of timber and power tools. In February three days of incessant horizontal rain worked through the gable end and round the kitchen window and poured in. So when the rain stopped, I got out the gear and repointed all the damage, and replastered and painted inside. I enjoyed it. Most of it.
The weather was nice this summer. I repained a lot of the outside woodwork; when it rained I decorated indoors or resprayed picture frames.
On a whim, via the cobweb and FacebookI invited folk to send me poems inspired by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s wonderful, artful poem Swineherd. Scores of people sent me poems, and then Bob Horne of Calder Valley Poetry suggested that we make a book of them, which involved asking Kim Moore to select the 26 best ones in an alphabet of occupations we’d leave When all this is over.
It’s only just struck me that probably every single submission involved a future of being left alone. You’d have thought that lockdown might have inspired dreams of crowds, of festivals of concerts. What most folk seemed to dream of was travelling alone, and almost invariably, in wild places or on the sea. Yes. My dreams too, I realise. But there you are. A book out.
I missed physical poetry courses, but I’ve been, virtually, to Garsdale Head with Kim Moore, to Sneaton Castle with the Poetry Business; I’ve joined in Joe Bell’s project To heal the mutilated world …and that was terrific…as well as Winston Plowes’ and Gaia Holmes’ Muse-li courses. And every Monday night, via Zoom, there was the Albert Poets’ Workshop. What else…oh yes. Tom Weir and I will be zoom-workshopping together, hopefully right through 2021. A lot of extra bowls of Kasha.
Then there was the field. It’s been fallow most of the time for the last 50 years. Next doors’ started to reclaim a patch in 2019. Dug out decades of crap (including substantial car parts), tons of bindweed and bramble and nettle, constructed raised beds, planted veg.
I was less ambitious and elected for wild flower meadow patches. We really should have asked the farmer, but no one has done anything with the field for half a century, and anyway……this year I decided to start another patch.
One August afternoon this year, Freda, the field’s owner decided to clear it all out. No idea why, but one morning there was a JCB scraping off decades of tangled briar, and we were rumbled. In the end I put into a poem which conflates events over two summers, but which made me happy when I made myself do it last November
It turns out
she’s been watching from her bedroom window
on the gable end side of the house which, officially,
does not exist. It turns out it was the smoke.
That and the red tee shirt in her field. Her husband,
himself a burner of fields, was keen on trespassers.
Its her field now, fallow fifty years, a seething sea
of bramble, bindweed, cowparsley, twitch and dock.
Every seven years, her husband (much older and now dead)
would assert his right of way, sometimes by burning,
one time with a greatbladed JCB that scraped it bare.
But now he’s dead, his rights of way have lapsed.
Next doors’ dug out a fair sized patch of field,
put raised beds in, planted spuds and onions and kale.
I cleared out my own; dug out miles of poplar roots,
asbestos sheets, old nettles, briars, furnace bricks,
and had a day of fires. Which is is when she saw me
from her bedroom window. The blue smoke, red shirt.
Came round to our front door with her nephew,
Kev, a big lad with earrings, hair like Johnny Cash
and letters on his knuckles. She said
she’d been watching from her bedroom window
That’s my field you’re burning. What’s going on?
I could have taken her round to look, but
her seeing Tony’s vegetable garden
didn’t bear thinking of. I’m seeding wildflowers.
I should have thought to ask. I meant no harm.
I bought her the packets to see.
Kev got back in the van. I’m Freda, by the way
she said. Freda Parkin. Would you like to do the field?
There we are. Busy being born. As to dying before you get old. I think they may be the same thing. It’s taken me two months to write this. I feel outrageously happy to have done it. Happy enough to end with two quotations, both from Tony harrison.
Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting
The tongueless man gets his land took.
When all this is over, I think I’ll have one of these tattooed on my arm. And maybe another on the other.
Miles to to go, and promises to keep. It’s not the first time I’ve promised to write about the work of someone I owe a debt of inspiration to. For one reason and another, it took me months to bite the bullet and write a review of Yvonne Reddick’s work on Ted Hughes as an eco-poet. And equally, to sit and write about Ian Parks’ translations of Cavafy : Body Remember [Calder Valley Press: 2019]. As headline poet, he introduced it at The Puzzle Poets Live in the Navigation Inn in Sowerby Bridge. August 2019. And I said I’d write about it. Over a year has passed. Covid has been a distraction, but no excuse. Mainly, it’s been down to a diffuse terror that I’d not do him justice. It won’t do. Because the voice of these poems is one we desperately need in in the sleep of reason we’re currently living through. Bugger it. Here goes.
If you are a follower of the cobweb, you’ll have encountered my enthusiasm for Ian Parks’ work before. If not, then you might like to fill in the background by following this link, which will give you a flavour of his voice, and also a detailed bibliography
You might also have come across other things I’ve written about my feeling of temerity when it comes to approaching or evaluating someone’s translations of other poets’ work. I wrote a revirew of Peter Sirrs’ Sway, his translations of troubadour poems from 12thC Occitan. I bothered for ages about the business of translation/homage/retelling/inhabiting. As a life-long monoglot, I bothered about the problems of the business of affect and connotation. A good friend, the Spanish poet Alicia Fernandez explained for me what this might mean even to a fluently bilingual professional translator and gifted poet.
“Behind the things we write about, and the way we write about them, there is a heavily-loaded layer of meaning guiding our choices for words. I believe these choices are based on how our own life events have allowed us to delve in the many nuances clustered in those words. For example, when I describe something as green in English, my experience of the colour is not the same as if I resorted to the word verde when writing in Spanish – verde is the colour of the olive groves amongst which I grew up, and it makes my heart skip a beat with homesickness as I picture my grandfather hitting the branches with a wooden rod during harvest season; verde is also the colour Lorca used to represent death in poems such as ‘Romance Sonámbulo’, and having read his poetry since my adolescence, I cannot detach all those implications from the word.”
If I don’t live inside a language, how can I know the exact and complex resonances of a key word for the writer. Equally, how can I understand the music of it if I’m not even sure of how it should sound. And so on.
In the end, it was Peter Sirrs who offered two answers, one explicit and one that wasn’t even a conscious answer.
The first was a kind of response to something I read in a scholarly essay about translation (I can’t remember whose):
The translation-maker’s duty is to the original, yes; but his primary duty is to the new poem which, through the process of translation, “becomes” the translator’s poem and not just a transliteration of the original poet’s work. In this view, the translator is active and not passive; an originator and not a transporter; a transformer and creator and not just some drudge who, dictionary in hand, roots for and writes down linguistic equivalents.
Sirrs makes it even simpler in his Afterword to Sway:
“These are not, it should be said, scholarly translations…I played fast and loose with form and image.”…….. Translation is never fixed or finished; it answers a contemporary need to engage with and remake in the language we have available to us whatever calls out to us from the past”.
and finally in the key he gave me to approach the work:
It’s just one line in one of the poems: “oh I was the quare one”. I think this was the moment that I realised that one way to listen to these poems was to imagine an Irish voice; that dialect and accent were probably the key to imagining these 900 year old voices, written before the idea of French (and Standard English and R.P.) existed
I think it turned out to be as simple as that. Just listen. Listen properly. Which is what I set out to do when it came to Ian Parks’ Body Remember , the third of the trio of his tributes to, and celebrations of, Cavafy. Because, at the end of all, I firmly believe that what matters is the authenticity of the voice. And, because the loss of lives and love in time is something I think Ian Parks has particularly tuned into, I also hang on to this observation by Daniel Mendelsohn,
“The common approach to interpreting Cavafy for many, many years now is that he has two subjects: history, the Greek past from classical times to Byzantium, and then as if it were an entirely different subject, desire….
And I don’t see it that way………. I make a case for thinking about Cavafy as a poet who was only interested really in one subject, which is time and the passage of time, and how it affects how you see the past, whether that past is a Byzantine emperor’s failed attempts to restore the empire or one’s own love affair with a beautiful boy in Alexandria in 1892. It doesn’t matter to Cavafy. What he’s interested in is a relation to what has already happened. “
When I asked Ian about his long love affair with Cavafy, and about the business of translating from early 20th Greek, he wrote me this:
“I first came across Cavafy through W H Auden’s brilliant essay on him in Forewords and Afterwards. Auden was keen to point out that while Cavafy possessed ‘a unique tone of voice’ his poetry also ‘survived translation’.
I thought that was a fascinating concept and set about trying to prove to myself whether it was true. I’d be in my twenties at the time and I found, by and large that it was – in that the existing translations (particularly those by Keeley and Sherrard) conveyed something of the essence of this poets enigmatic and philosophical work. However, I became increasingly aware of how these translations were literal – that they provided a word for word, line by line, and stanza by stanza rendition of Cavafy’s poems into English.
While that provided the reader with a clear idea of the content of the poems it did little (in my mind) to convey either the musicality of this poet’s work, his undoubted lyric gift, or the subtlety of his poetic thought. And so it was that I set about to teach myself modern Greek in order to put myself in a position where i could read these remarkable poems in the original language. It took me ten years to reach a level of basic proficiency – just enough to understand the drift of the poem, much as a dog might catch the drift of human conversation through level, intonation, and tone.
My method is to transcribe a version from the original, line by line, and then to treat it in much the same way as I’d treat a first draft of my own and take it through a process by which clarity gradually becomes apparent. This way i can visualise the whole poem from above rather than allowing myself to get entangled in the detail. When in doubt I’ll compare my results with other translations in order to see what nuances emerge – but i very rarely adhere to them. My intention is always to be true to the spirit and integrity of the poem and to convey something of the atmosphere and flavour of the originals. I wanted to refract rather than reproduce, to refine rather than to define. :”
Don’t you love that line: much as a dog might catch the drift of human conversation through level, intonation, and tone.
And this after ten years of patiently teaching yourself Greek. There’s a labour of love. Love, as it happens, turns out to be another key idea in understanding what Ian does with his translations. A love which he combines with the patient task of literal translation, and the idiom, the rhythm of his own, familiar idiomatic language.
To see how this works it’s useful to have a look at other peoople’s versions of the title poem of the pamphlet: Body Remember. I’ve not found a way of setting poems side by side for WordPress, so it may feel a bit laborious. Bear with me.
Body, remember not only how much you were loved, not only the beds you lay on, but also those desires that glowed openly in eyes that looked at you, trembled for you in the voices— only some chance obstacle frustrated them. Now that it’s all finally in the past, it seems almost as if you gave yourself to those desires too—how they glowed, remember, in eyes that looked at you, remember, body, how they trembled for you in those voices.
[Reprinted from C. P. CAVAFY: Collected Poems Revised Edition,
translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard,…probably the touchstone translation]
Body, remember not only how much you were loved, not only the beds on which you lay, but also those desires for you that glowed plainly in the eyes, and trembled in the voice—and some chance obstacle made futile. Now that all of them belong to the past, it almost seems as if you had yielded to those desires—how they glowed, remember, in the eyes gazing at you; how they trembled in the voice, for you, remember, body.
[Trans. Aliki Barnstone]
Body, remember not just how much you were loved,
not simply those beds on which you have lain,
but also the desire for you that shone
plainly in the eyes that gazed at you,
and quavered in the voice for you, though
by some chance obstacle was finally forestalled.
Now that everything is finally in the past,
it seems as though you did yield to those desires –
how they shone, remember, in the eyes that gazed at you,
how they quivered in the voice for you – body, remember
Trans. Stratis Haviaris
You read them aloud, and you can start to ask what difference is made by the choices of ‘lay on’/ ‘on which you lay’/’on which you have lain’ to the tone and feel of the poem..as well as its rhythm, its music. Whether a slightly archaic syntax is the right thing. And so on. What about ‘tremble’ versus ‘quavered’?
And what about
only some chance obstacle frustrated them.
as opposed to
some chance obstacle made futile.
by some chance obstacle was finally forestalled.
As you work through them, line by line, considering the choices, I think that, like me, you’ll become conscious of bum notes, little snags.
Now try a different tack. What’s Cavafy writing about here, in his later years? What’s he asking for…not for what can’t be brought back, but what is in danger of being physically forgotten. We take for granted that the body has the wonderful facility for not being able to remember pain. The circumstances yes, but the actual pain, not at all. But what if the body forgets sensual, tactile, auditory pleasure, the loveliness of it all.
Now, here’s Ian Parks’ version.
Body, remember how much love you drew –
not just the beds, the hot illicit rooms
but how that love so fiercely burned
deep in the eyes of those that gazed on you:
how voices trembled even though
some random moment always intervened
to stop the dream from coming true.
Now everything is contained in the past
it feels as if, in fact, you gave in to
all those desires that fiercely burned;
remember, through the eyes of those that gazed on you,
or the voices trembling. Body, remember.
I love the tenderness of this, its authenticity of voice. The way you forget that this is Poetry in the way that the other three translations are constantly reminding you of, if only because they don’t quite get it right. A reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement put it better.
Parks captures the measured graceful voice and quiet humour on which so much of Cavafy’s poetry depends in a way that makes us feel we are reading it properly for the first time, This, you feel, is exactly what they would sound like if they had been written in English.
I’m struggling to choose another from the pamphlet, because I want to choose them all. I could choose any of the ones that celebrate craftsmen..jewellers, for instance…and painters and poets who quietly observe themselves making art. But I think I’ll settle for this, about Caesar’s son, who is called to an imagined life as the light fades in the poet’s room.
My intention was to check the facts,
to pass a quiet hour or two
among the names and places of the past.
The volume that I chose contained
a history of the Ptolemies.
The praise becomes monotononous:
the men are just, magnificent and bold,
the women upright, beautiful.
Just as I was about to close the book
and place it on the shelf
I came across the briefest mention of
Kaisarion – Little Caesar, Caesar’s son.
I was drawn to it inexplicably.
You stood there full of praise and charm.
Because the record is so sparse
I filled the sketch out in my mind,
made you sensitive and shy –
a dreaming far-off face
despite the name they gave you, King of Kings.
So vivid did I conjure you
that as the lamplight dimmed
you came into my darkened room. came close and stood in front of me
weraing the expression that you wore
in fallen Alexandria,
imploring them to pity you –
Octavian’s henchmen, those murderers
who said One Caesar is enough
I suppose at this point I could share more poems from the pamphlet. But I won’t. Just go and buy it*, discover its range and its many voices as it travels between the worlds of classical/historical Greece and of the early 20th C.
Today’s post will be the 270th since the cobweb was started in April 2014. I realised a short time ago, on the the basis that each post averages out at about 2000 words, sometime recently we passed the half million word mark. I reckon that’s worth celebrating, so I’ve asked three poets to be guests again. I could have asked lots of people and namechecked many more…Hilary Elfick, Andy Blackford, and The Poetry Business in particular.
However, I wanted to say thank you for three landmark moments…first solo guest poetry reading, first invitation to be a guest blogger, and first time as guest poet on a poetry blog. So. Here we go.
Ladies and gentlemen, the altogether wonderful Gaia Holmes!!!!!
Gaia has been very important to me. One of the people who validate what you’re doing. They may not know they’ve done it, or think that what they did do was no big deal. As a teacher, I’m often thrown when I encounter folk I taught years ago, and who say that I did X or Y or Z that changed their lives. Every teacher has had this experience, and very often don’t have any memory of what it was they did. They were just doing their job. Anyway, to cut a long story short, Gaia gave me my very first single billing guest poetry reading at The Puzzle Hall Inn. This was before I’d had anything published, but it was one of those occasions which made me feel I should do something about it, if only to have something to sell at poetry readings.
Gaia’s been a guest twice before…why not check out what I wrote about her? here are the links
Right. Good to have you back. Now here’s my Milestone Thankyou to Gaia Holmes. I’ll start with a poem she shared with us previously, and then let her bring us up to date.
Whenever I read Gaia Holmes’ poems, or hear her read, I’m put in mind of the world and work of Peter Blake. To nail my colours to the mast, this image of Alice is how I’d picture Gaia’s narrative voice.
Not quite other-worldly, but knowing things I have no immediate access to, and aware that the world is strange and lovely and that it can make us vulnerable. It’s a voice that makes me think of the doughty, unworldly, resourceful, compassionate clear-eyed heroines of folk tales. The ones who have no expectation of the kindness of stepmothers and stepfathers and spiteful siblings, who are stoic about their work among the ashes, who undertake unnerving journeys through forests to the hen’s leg houses of cruel aunts, who understand that everything you are given is a gift to be used for the betterment of the world….all that.
As soon as I open up her her poems and read, rather than rely on this memory, then before long I’ll be chilled and close to tears. There’s a lot of ice; there’s even an Ice Hotel. There’s the cold of loneliness and love gone wrong, and broken things that might be hearts or dreams that make you think twice about walking in bare feet. There’s the orphan voice of a narrator who sees things that no-one seems to notice her seeing. Like this.
The Allure Of Frost
No fire in the grate and unopened presents
stacked around the base of the tree and fairy lights muted,
switched off, and the brandy that swells the fruit starting to eat
the cake in its tin and all the mirrors doused with tea towels
and your raw-eyed mother keening into a pillow in her bedroom
and too many men in black whispering and nodding
and I don’t know what the rosary is and whether to curtsey
to the priests when I hand them their tea
and the phrase ‘fruits of thy womb’ seem too ripe and too rich
for this and, Mary mother of God, I don’t know
how to cross myself and fear I’m invoking the devil
and the scent of death’s so thick
that it’s tainted the water and it’s heavy in the curtains
making them bend the rail
and your lips taste of the oils that grease your dead sister
and when I kiss you, you push me away and I want to spit
and weep and slap the corpse where she lies in her coffin
all done-up with hair grips and lipstick,
her sunken cheeks plumped out with wads of cotton wool
and the rictus of sin softened
by the crust of Rimmel Natural Beige powdering her face
and it’s so hot in here
that the cheese is sweating and the butter is liquid.
The chocolate coins are dripping from the tree.
Your Aunt’s un-bitten sandwiches
are curling upwards on her plate
and the lilies are wilting and stinking in their vases
and the cat stands quivering and retching
against the cold crack beneath the back door.
Outside the frost, not knowing any difference,
continues to sparkle. And I’d like to go out there.
I’d like to stand in it until my feet turn blue.
I think this poem has everything in it that I think of as ‘Gaia’s poems’. The piling on and on of sensory detail, the Alice in Wonderland, or folktale, sense that the logic of things is wrong, the wistfulness, the vulnerablity, and the pluck of a girl who will stand in a sparkling frost till her feet turn blue and the world becomes real again. Lovely.
And now your update and two new poems. Over to Gaia.
“Gosh, is it a year since I appeared on the cobweb?! Phew! Yes, looking back at that post I see my poems were a chilly little bunch- full of winter, death, hospitals and shivering islands. I think I’ve written most of that time out of my system, for now at least…though most of my poems are slow walkers and tend to come to me two or three years after the experience…since that blog post some nice things have happened in my writing life…I spent the whole of January reading and writing within the cosy walls of Hawthornden Castle near Edinburgh. I was there with 5 other writers and all we were expected to do, all day, every day, was to write. It was like being a child again. We were fed, coddled and given a whole rich month without our usual responsibilities. Whilst I was there I wrote loads of new poems and sequenced and edited poems for my 3rd full-length poetry collection which will be published some time in 2018. I also learned that my poem ‘Guests’ had won 1st prize in the Bare Fiction Poetry Competition and this was a great boost which added fuel to my pen. After returning from the castle with the manuscript of my 3rd collection ready, at last, to be sent out into the world I focused on a collaborative project with fellow poet, Winston Plowes which culminated in a joint poetry collection called Tales from the Tachograph, published by Calder Valley Poetry. The poems in this collection all deal with the realms of roads, service stations and motorways. I haven’t written much lately but I’m not panicking about this as I used to do. I am using the time to read about colour, to immerse myself in the wonderful art of Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Andrea Kowch, Catrin Welz-Stein, and I am learning how to draw flamingos as I think that someday it might be a useful skill to have. I am filling my notebook with them.”
And now, the poems. She sent me loads. I’ve chosen two.
How heavily they lift
their paper coffee cups.
How heavily they sigh
and plough spilt sugar off the table
with the sides of their hands.
How heavily, like arthritic camels,
they turn away from each other,
pretend to study
the barista bashing coffee grounds
into the stainless steel bin,
observe the man walking his dog
between the service station trees,
stare at rain or a moon
that isn’t there.
How hungrily they gobble down
these distractions, this transient space
where women, wet-necked with perfume,
and men, carrying neat bunches
of forecourt flowers,
prepare to drive home.
How tenaciously they cling
to the in-between,
wanting to stuff their mouths
and their pockets full of it,
wanting to soften their worlds with it,
because when they have walked
the distance from café to car,
when they have shut the doors,
sealed themselves into the miles,
there will be static,
there will be him and her
focussing on the rear-view mirror,
watching other people driving home
to warm houses that smell of bread
where red wine breathes
on the kitchen table
and touch is not a shock,
there will be him and her
craving the glow of those better lives
as they go back to the cold things
they cannot talk about,
the clean, unloved rooms
they sit apart in,
the draughts and silences
the brittle cheese
and boiled potatoes
frosting in a fridge
that always ices over.
(From Tales from the Tachograph (Calder Valley Press, 2017).)
Though it seems so dark
and the ceiling of the world’s a wound
and so many hours have been bruised,
and so many lives have been broken,
there are stars up there tonight
and we must name them,
we must love them,
we must whistle them down like dogs
in faith of their shine
and they will be loyal.
They will show us where their bones are.
They will teach us
their soft, bright tricks of devotion.
And even on the blackest nights,
when hope and protest
are knotted in our throats,
when our smiles have been tarred
and buckled with the weight and stain
we have to remember they are there,
those glittering sky-hooked prayers,
prickling and humming,
embedded in that thick and lovely blue,
guarding us from spite,
keeping the moon from slipping,
herding the pale lamb-like dawns
into our sleeping houses
where they flow
through all our rooms
fluent and loving as milk.
Thanks for being my first milestone guest today, Gaia. Thank you for the poems.
Gaia Holmes’ poetry ….you know christmas as upon us.
Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed [Comma press 2006] via Amazon: anything from £15 – £65
Lifting the piano with one hand [Comma Press 2013] £7.99
Tales from the Tachograph (co-authored with Winston Plowes) [Calder Valley Press, 2017).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 sequencing, and editing and discovering things we didn’t know about our poetry.
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.