Stocking fillers [2]

Just a reminder about why I thought I’d start this occasional series of ‘poems I’d never dream of sending out to magazines or journals’.

“One reason why I write poems, and about poems, is that some years ago I used to go to folk clubs which were essentially sing-/play-arounds. ……. That’s how it started. At first I’d perform other people’s poems…Pam Ayres, Roger McGough, Mike Harding and so on. Because poems in folk clubs basically, need to be funny, probably need to rhyme, and need a punch line. They need to be compact and robust. Which is what much oral poetry was, originally. After a bit, I started to write my own, rather than (or as well as) freeload off other poets. Bit by bit I assembled a folder that I called ‘Stand-ups and stocking fillers’. Sometimes I’d use some of them to finish a set at a reading, just to leave the audience with a laugh, or sometimes to relieve what may have been a bleak sequence. One or two have been published. “

Very often, writing workshops would set a task that prompted what I’d think of as  a stocking filler. When I think about it, most of them started life like this. I don’t think I ever sat down unprompted, thinking, you know what? I think I’ll write something funny…a stand-up poem.

The first two “stocking fillers”, posted a couple of weeks ago, were written in response to invitations to write about imaginary/invented places.

Today I thought I’d share two about real places. The first in response to a prompt to write about somewhere you’ve never been, but as though you know all about it. It’s an invitation to plunder your favourite films and novels, when you come to think about it. If you’re ever stuck for something to do, why not try it?


Travellin’ man

     There’s a fat wet slap of paddles, the gambling boats

on Pontcharrain;  damp lawn and cotton, sweet lavender,

limp dogs in the streets, dancing girls and their laughter,

a slow slow blues playing somewhere, and high-yellow girls

in first floor windows, the slow swing of a silky leg

from a fretwork iron balcony, a shiver of hibiscus,

pale bougainvillia, a yellow playbill in the lazy breeze

of a dusty street, the tilt of a tight-brimmed bowler hat,

a flash of white teeth, and a reek of skillet oil, 

of cornbread frying, the iodine of fresh-shucked oysters,

tobacco juice, the moonlight tang of smoke from lit cheroots,

a boardwalk castanet of heels, the alarm of mockingbirds,

a slur of Cajun French and all the icing sugar saloons 

and bars, bordellos, gambling joints, and the river

huge and brown and slow, its towheads, boils and rips,

shoals of punched shell by the button factories. Spanish moss.


New Orleans.


Never been there.

Read about it, some.

The second one was a response to an invitation to write about something someone said. It could be something odd and out of character; it could be something they often say, something quite peculiar to a malapropism. My first wife’s great aunt used to tell neighbours I worked in ‘one of them apprehensive schools’. I sometimes think about writing a poem describing the curriculum.

This however is about something said by the poet and all-round good chap, Christopher North, and said in a real place. In the real place we were scrambling up a steep place below a cliff, looking for Iberian pottery shards. In the real place, he slipped and ripped the backside out of his trousers.



we’re climbing this hill,

a shaly slope ,a broken spine of stone,

all levels and layers , silicas, sandstones, 

muds, and coral flowers, when he says :  

from here we have to bushwack . 

Cue long shot :

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


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


Whatever that is.


Right. I’m off for a hearing test; 8.00am tomorrow I’m having a CT Scan. I’ve booked a telephone appointment with the doctor to find why, after chemo, I’ve got chronic joint pain and permanent fatigue. My dad used to have a joke he’d trot out in these circumstances, the punch line being. Does it hurt? Only when I laugh. Exactly. Where would I be without you all?

I’ve got a great guest poet coming up for the next Catching Up post…hopefully this Sunday. See you then. Crossed fingers xx

Lost and found in translation: John Foggin


Last lap. First of all , thank you, Gyula Friewald for a morning of writing that pushed me (for one) into new and uncomfortable places. I can’t say that I understand the business of adaptation/translation any better than when I started.

Recently I wrote, for the excellent on-line journal The High Window, a review of Peter Sirr’s Sway (versions of poems from the Troubadour tradition) by Peter Sirr [Gallery Books 2016.  €11.95] . You can read the whole thing, if you want to chart the problems I had with it: ). This was my starting point, and one, I think that illuminates what I was up to with my own retellings (I think that’s what they are) of Gyula’s poems.

“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.

That seemed to resonate with what Peter Sirr says in his splendidly helpful –and reassuring – Afterword: I hung on to this ; he says he began the collection by a combination of fluke and compulsion:

“It was the lines in what we now call Old Occitan that I couldn’t get out of my head. The opening gambit ‘Farai un vers de dreyt nien’ (I’ll make a verse out of nothing at all’) leapt from the page, seeming to arrive fully-formed in its self-confident flourish and strut,….playing …with the idea of poetry and the role of the poet”

He goes further:  “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”.

I could go along with that, as with Clive James’: “A real poem?  A real poem is  ‘Well separated’ . You hear ‘the force of real poetry at first glance’ (I love that!). Because ‘Even if you don’t set out to memorize a real poem, it somehow seems to be memorizing itself for you’.”

The message is simple enough. Read the poems as poems. Listen to them. Ask if they have that kind of force….and above all, find the moments, the core images where the poem’s meanings seem to cohere.So, here are my versions.


Like clockwork


Old mother. Shapeless, bloated;

yesterday they found you on the street

and now you’re carrying the card:


officially unstable. You husband went

years ago; you can’t breathe. They own the air.

How your lungs labour; tired wings.


Your wasted years, the years you never lived,

are clenched  knots of old arguments

you couldn’t win. The table’s rigged,


the cards are marked. You have a ticket

to the Public Gardens. Wild flowers,

herbs and simples. Asphodel.


Welcome to your pension-free retirement;

welcome to a crochet comfort blanket

of 24 hour TV, the vodka you’ve got stashed.


Poor Ophelia in your little music box

the apparatchiks engineered. A trap

of stiff coiled springs and ratchets


where you wake and wail and wail;

you croon old nursery tunes and discords;

you grow slow; you are catatonic.


And this is the System’s lying diagnosis.

It’s prescription: factitious dramas,

depressives. Psychosis is in its blood


like yeast in bread; like genes.

The politicians of the media

chew listlessly, hand feed you nostrums


simple as barbed wire border fences.

Parliament squats in a Neo-Gothic dream.

Plays chess with you. With all the people.


child on a step


The mountains of Buda were green

and smiling in the distance. Hope

planted trees that whispered.

Nine carpenters came before me.

Men with calloused hands who built roofs

that cradled my first years. My forefathers.


The years and family collapsed

like ancient rafters, fell on the deaf ears

of yellow daffodils that nodded,

as I waited by the river,

waited on the step, waited for my ash-gey father

wrapped in his dreamed immortality.


Lost. Absorbed by anthill circuses

I saw crouching dragons

where I waited in that old, slow

Danube backwater; waited,

tranced, forgot the breaking

of my family, the twitching of its severed hands.


I’m not sure what Hilary and Christopher discovered as they worked through this exercise. I think they stay closer to the originals, their shapes and rhythms. To their diction, too. They preserve more of the abstract thinking. But I see how illuminating was Christopher’s pointing out the centrality of the image of hands in one poem. I think, too, that I learn a good deal from the way he applies a cool precision to his version of the ‘Clockwork’ poem. And I was more than impressed by the way Hilary preserved the shape of the ‘Budapest Boy’, seeing it as an image of cupped hands. I’m interested too, by the way she makes a coherent narrative of it. I’m not sure what I make of my versions. I’m pretty sure that what I responded to in ‘Waiting’ was the central (for me) image of the child on the step. It triggered suppressed guilt about what I see as my own absenteeism during my children’s growing up. Not a physical absence. It’s just that I let work be far too important. I wonder where on earth Ophelia came from in the other poem. No idea. I don’t even know if she belongs there.

Still. At the end of it all, it seems to me that the whole business was about connection, about imaginative listening. About reaching out of your self. You never know. There could be a spark.



We’ll be back to something more normal on Sunday (or Monday, or….) we’ll be having a returning guest. So, uniforms tidy, ties tied, shirts tucked in, and no chewing. See you then.