On writing sequences: with guests Keith Hutson, Steve Ely and Pascale Petit

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For the last 18 months I’ve been more or less bogged down, stalled, stymied – call it what you like. It started with a reading I heard at the Red Shed in Wakefield, a group performance by the Sandal Writers. It was a compilation, something on the lines of a radio ballad, about a pit disaster at Lofthouse Colliery near Wakefield in 1972. I can’t explain why it stuck, why it bothered me, why it generated random images and narratives. I just know that I wanted to/had to write about it. Which is when the the problem of The Sequence wandered into my head and won’t wander out.

I’m not even sure what I mean by ‘a sequence’ beyond the feeling that I want to write about a particular something and that one poem won’t do…and possibly not six or ten. How many poems does it have to be before it’s ‘a sequence’? When I published my first pamphlet it was simply a case of organising poems I’d written into some kind of order, with a suggestion of a beginning, a middle and an end. Subsequently I found I’d written sequences by accident, the unintended consequence of undeclared passion or obsession. My second pamphlet, Backtracks is a back to front narrative, Poems that tell the story of me, my parents and grandparents. Anyone can do that. It’s a given. There were other poems that became what I’d call ‘groups’..poems about one of my sons, about the Macpherson’s of Achnacloich, about the Norsemen and the NE Coast of England, about the Greek and Roman pantheons.

And then there were the problematic ones…the deliberately conceived sequences. For instance, when I was half-heartedly doing an MA in Creative Writing I determined to write a sequence about the Highland Clearances as they affected the Isle of Skye. I read a lot, and I went on a good many walks to clearance sites like Suishnish and Boreraig (including another kind of dereliction in the remains of an abandoned marble quarry). But the places didn’t fit my preconceived emotional narrative. I went looking for ghosts and found none. I wrote a handful of poems, but not the ‘sequence’ I thought was there, somewhere.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)

Then there was the late 19th C painter John Waterhouse…I’ve always liked that late-post-pre-Raphaelite sort of painting based on poems and myths and fables. I was fascinated by the fact that one face turns up in painting after painting. There’s no conclusive proof, but it’s supposed the model was a Miss Muriel Foster. I spent nearly two years reading all I could find about it all. I was intrigued by the idea of a triangular relationship between the artist, his model and his wife (who was also a painter). In the end I wrote four poems, and realised that it needed a novel and that either A S Byatt or Jill Dawson or Hilary Mantel should have written it. I think that what it comes down to is something Helen Mort said to me…something on the lines that you can MAKE a poem be, but it won’t be any good. Pretty much what Keats said about poetry needing to come as naturally as leaves to the tree’. And I guess that applies to ‘sequences’, too.

Anthony Gormley's Terracotta Figures Return To Their Birthplace

And then there were the sculptures. I worked for a few years in a college in the grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and every day I’d pass Elizabeth Frink’s ‘Seated man‘ and Michael Ayrton’s Minotaur. I got in the habit of passing the time of day with the seated man, and conceived the notion that these great sculptures contained the souls of the famously transgressive and of fallen angels. Bit by bit, mainly because I really wanted to experiment with ‘voices’, I wrote enough fallen angel poems to fill a pamphlet. They are all dramatic monologues. Queen Victoria speaks in the style of Emily Dickinson, The Angel of the North in Miltonic blank verse. A lot of the poems involve pastiche. I enjoyed that, and it became a book, but I still wonder if it’s the real deal. I know I like performing them, and I know that the idea of the narrative voice was the key that opened the door. But when it comes the seven men killed in the Lofthouse Disaster (six never recovered) the key is elusive. A few weeks ago I went on a writing week in which I hoped there’d be a tutor who might help me find that key. I was disappointed. Worse, I felt as though I’d had my legs kicked out from under…I almost persuaded myself that it was a foolish notion, and indeed, that I should possibly give up the whole writing business. I’m over that self-pitying stuff now, but what helped enormously was to bite a bullet and get the chutzpah to ask poets I admire if they’d share their experience. Particularly, I asked three poets who write recognizable and wonderful sequences…..especially I asked them this

I’ve been struggling with a writing project. I’ve got shedloads of material…I’ve been assembling that for well over a year. What I can’t manage at the moment is to find a place to stand and say: we start here. I’m convinced that could come about in a trice. A phrase, an idea for a holding form, a structure, a phrase, a refrain. It doesn’t matter how.

Now, I’m not asking for help with this, so you can say ‘phew’ and keep reading. What may clear my mind though is to write a blog post for the great fogginzo’s cobweb in which I explore the issues of writing ‘sequences’, for want of a better word.

I’m particularly interested in the fact that each of you have done substantial amounts of research into a reality that absorbs and excites and energises you. It may be a blind roadmaker, your forebears who you trace to the banks of the Tyne, Amazonia, medieval priests and criminals, or half-forgotten musical acts.

At some point you had to make a decision, or one was made for you. Where do I start? What’s the language, the structure, the voice of the teller….there comes a moment, as I found in writing about, say fallen angels, when you see a way through.

Would you be prepared to share some thoughts about the experience? A paragraph would do…or maybe it wouldn’t. It’ll make its own mind up, won’t it?

So, here they are, each one identifying a different way into, a way of shaping, what they urgently wanted to say. I’ve learned a remarkable amout from them, and I hope you will too.

Keith Hutson: On research and poetic form

routines

Here’s my response to your request. By all means share it with the others if you wish:

I’ve now written over 100 sonnets about music hall and variety performers, 30 of which have been published in a Poetry Salzburg pamphlet (Routines), more to be in a forthcoming Laureate’s Choice pamphlet, (Troupers). Quite a lot have been in journals and some have been placed etc in comps. And I’m going for 140 for a future full collection, Revival. So you could say I like sequences!

 

WHAT GOT ME STARTED? This is a subject that interests and excites me. That, for any sequence, is essential I think. You have to have a passion about your subject. You have to want to research it because you like getting lost in it, totally absorbed by it. I had an uncle who, when I was a kid, took me up and down the country to watch performers (comics mainly but other acts too) many in the twilight of their careers. I was too young to appreciate them, but something stuck – the theatre atmosphere, the audience reaction, the fascinating otherness of this world, the joy and suspense of it. As a young man with a love of comedy I became a Coronation Street scriptwriter and a gag writer for a lot of comedians – and from the wings I watched a lot of greats performing, holding an audience, sweating but not seeming to, staking so much of themselves on the night’s performance. This, to them, was life and death. I bloody loved it. So, as a poet with a desire to write a sustained body of work about one subject, this was right up my street.

 

WHERE TO BEGIN? The problem is, the wealth of material for any sequence can be overwhelming, it can cause paralysis. I focused on one person, Tommy Trinder, then intensified that focus further, to his catchphrase, You Lucky People. Then I thought, I’ll try to capture the essence of the man, his world, the people he entertained, but not as biog – biog can be boring. A poem should transcend its subject, shouldn’t it? But what form should this first poem take? Well, as I was essentially writing a love poem, and I wanted to keep it intense, concentrated, and to showcase a traditional performer, I thought ‘why not a fairly traditional, strict form sonnet for this first poem?’ People like Trinder performed routines. A sonnet is like a little routine. So I didn’t start writing to see where I ended up, I deliberately set out to write a sonnet. If you’re interested, here it is

 

You Lucky People

i.m. Tommy Trinder 1909-1989

 

One simple line and you could tread the boards

for years. Nobody cared it made no sense,

it was the look, the timing, not the words

that packed them in twice-nightly. And the chance

to mock some spot-lit nincompoop who seemed

more desperate than them – which made a change:

back then most buggers looked like they’d seen

better days. They hadn’t. So, in droves, we came

each season, scrubbed and buffed, to scoff, but dream

too: heavy-handed lives on hold, we’d bask

inside the twinkle of a grin, a glance;

industriously bellow out the laughs;

gaze up at more ridiculous routines

than ours. A softer kind of song and dance.

 

WHERE NEXT? I thought, right, I like the sonnet form for my artistes, so I’ll set myself the challenge of sticking to sonnets for, say, half a dozen more poems. But who to write about next? And do I stick to a combination of light comment about the performer with a broader social or personal comment? Yes, I thought, because I don’t want this to be a trip down memory lane by an anorak who wants to corner you and bore for England. I then read, and made notes, from several books, and also mined my memory for impressions of people I’d seen, heard about, worked with. I love research, it’s voluntary learning. I left school at sixteen and have been playing educational catch-up since, so I crave information, knowledge, and I want to lose myself in worlds. So, I knew I wanted to write sonnets, and I knew what about, and I didn’t care if anyone else liked them or not, I just wanted to do it. For me, strict form in poetry is a strait-jacket made by angels – it gives me the chance to be liberated by discipline, so I see the sonnet, terza rima, ballade, whatever, as my friends. But the doubt as to whether I could sustain the sonnet form again and again, and (though with variety) make them recognizable sonnets not just 14-line poems, both made me anxious and determined.

 

100 sonnets later, I’m still at it. It is a labour of love. It doesn’t feel like effort. So I’d say this about any sequence:

  1. Love your subject
  2. Keep it narrow and let it widen naturally.
  3. Don’t write biog (or not exclusively anyway)
  4. Don’t be frightened of humour (a lot of mine are funny and light)
  5. Don’t try to show off your knowledge, it puts people off.
  6. Research, research, research.
  7. Don’t care what people think about your poems, Know that what you’re doing has value because it has value to you.
  8. But you must entertain, in the broadest sense, or it becomes self-absorbed, and there’s too much of that in poetry – that’s why it’s a minority sport audience-wise.
  9. Why not try to stick to one form, at least to get you started? Push yourself.
  10. If you get bored with it, your readers will get bored too. Anyone can write a sequence, the ones that work do so because the poet cares about them and has the ability to convert that care into the right words.

 

Steve Ely : on voice and persona…who tells the story?

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Hi John

I organised my third book of poems, Incendium Amoris, around the figure of Richard Rolle, the 14th century hermit and mystic.  Rolle suited my purposes because he was associated with the Cistercian Priory of Hampole, which is located in my natal Barnsdale landscape, which remains an enduring obsession.  My previous two books had written public, political poetry out of that landscape.  I wanted my third book to reflect a more personal, autobiographical engagement.  Further, Rolle’s mystical writings are charged with an earthy carnality – his relationships, with God, women and the created order are often erotic in both the technical and popular senses of that word.  That suited me as well – my earliest concept of the book was that it was going to be about ‘shagging down the fields’.  I suppose I reinvented Richard to suit my purposes (and partially in my image) and used his life, writings and landscape to unify, inform and perhaps soften the guerilla-pastoral idiom that wouldn’t be suppressed and broke out anyway.

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Pascale Petit : On sequence and motif in Mama Amazonica 

 

My books grow organically, and Mama Amazonica grew very much like the Amazon rainforest it explores. But I can say that there was a single poem that set it all off, though I didn’t know it at the time, and this title poem ‘Mama Amazonica’ was slow and painful to write, laborious even. But there seemed to be an energy in it that was new, so I persisted, even though it felt like one of those experiments that will probably not work. I showed an early draft to my husband, who is my first reader, and he encouraged me, and suggested I could expand it. He was excited by it and this made me more confidant. At the heart of the poem, and indeed the whole book, is the central image of the poem, of a huge waterlily in a slow Amazonian backwater, the water still and sluggish, the drama unfolding of the lily’s sex life, which involves pollination by beetles. I compulsively watched every time-lapse video of this extraordinary process. The lily is my mother and she is in a psychiatric ward undergoing deep sleep therapy, remembering meeting my father.

 

To write the rest of the book – all 112 pages (and there were many more poems I discarded) – I would concentrate on the lily in that backwater, like a trance. I didn’t yet know why, but by the time I had written eight more poems I began to see that for once in my life I was writing about my mother tenderly. The poems express love, as well as terror of her and of what she suffered. It astonishes me that I have created a book in which I love my mother. I did not love her and she did not love me. This felt important, to have an artefact in which our relationship was transformed.

 

So I suppose what I’m saying is that the whole sequence grew out of one powerful feeling, trancelike, filmic, a moving image of a flower in time-lapse motion that is apart from ordinary life and ordinary time. I did not think the book through analytically or consciously even, just let the images grow, and the feelings that are also colours and sensations and pictures. Because the book records what happened to her when she met my father, the tragedy unfolds chronologically, and that’s roughly how the book is ordered, like a story told in pictures and sculptures.

 

I hope this helps? I suspect we all have different ways of compiling a sequential collection, but I try to do what what Rilke advises, to search within myself  to find my way, “Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write”.

 

Sometimes life gives you riches just for the asking. I feel a bit like one of those naive characters (usually girls…the male equivalents are often ‘fools’ or guizers) in folk tales  who set off into the forests and thickets and are given things of power that help them to survive and flourish. The possible keys to the kingdom. Form. Voice. Image/motif. I’m glad it’s three, if only for the sake of narrative convention.

I’ve looked back over some recent posts and find I’ve been teasing this strand out for some time. A reminder, then, of other ‘keys’ to sequences that I’ve considered. Kim Moore’s work in progress ‘All the men I never married’ tells you that the key could actually be a title! (and there’s her sequence at the heart of The Art of falling where the key is the mythic narratives of metamorphosis). Ruth Valentine and Christy Ducker show you that alpabetical order can be a key. Jane Kite uses the timeline of an imagined family as a key. The answer for you might be to find a narrator or to build a chronology. And how about objects. I’m attracted by the title of a book on my shelf as I look up: A history of the world in twelve maps. And also by Uncommon ground which is a list sequence of dialect names for landscape features..one page for each and an accompanying photo, organised geographically from the SW to the very far North.

Whatever, the basic problem will be that an interest became an enthusiam or an obsession, that involved research, that eventually needed to be given some sort of poetic shape. If I think a sequence is anything, I think it’s something that involved you in research. Or maybe not.

Thanks for reading all the way through. Thanks and ever thanks to Keith Hutson, Steve Ely and Pascale Petit for their time and amazing generosity. The least you can do is buy their books. If by a miracle you’ve not read their work before, a bibliography follows, and also links to Keith and to Steve in some earlier posts.

 

Pascale Petit’s Poetry

Icefall Climbing pamphlet (Smith Doorstop, 1994)

Heart of a Deer (Enitharmon, 1998)

Tying the Song Co-editor with Mimi Khalvati (Enitharmon, 2000)

The Zoo Father (Seren, 2001)

El Padre Zoológico/The Zoo Father (El Tucan, Mexico City, 2004)

The Huntress (Seren, 2005)

The Wounded Deer: Fourteen poems after Frida Kahlo pamphlet (Smith Doorstop, 2005)

The Treekeeper’s Tale (Seren, 2008)

What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo (Seren, UK, 2010, Black Lawrence Press, US, 2011)

Poetry from Art at Tate Modern editor, pamphlet (Tate Publications, 2010)

Fauverie (Seren, 2014)

Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe, 2017)

 

Steve Ely’s Poetry , Fiction, and Biography

Steve Ely has published four books of poetry,

Englaland (Smokestack Books, 2015)

Oswald’s Book of Hours (Smokestack Books, 2013).

Werewolf (Calder valley Poetry 2016)

Incendium Amoris (Smokestack 2017)

He’s also published a novel,

Ratmen (Blackheath Books, 2012),

and a biographical work,

Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made in Mexborough (Palgrave MacMillan, 2015).

 

Keith Hutson

 His poems, apart from those in his current pamphlet, have been published in just about every poetry magazine and journal you can think of..including, recently, The Manhattan Review

Two posts involving Steve Ely’s work (and, ironically enough, some thoughts about sequences. I’d forgotten that)

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2017/03/19/on-sequences-and-a-gem-revisited-steve-ely/

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/08/30/knowing-your-place-a-polished-gem-8-steve-ely/

 

and two involving Keith Hutson

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/02/28/stand-up-a-polished-gem-3-keith-hutson/

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2017/07/16/through-the-looking-glass-1-and-a-gem-revisited-keith-hutson/

 

On sequences. And a Gem Revisited: Steve Ely

sequence

To begin with, an apology, and an also an acknowledgement.

The apology first. On Friday night I was lucky enough to be the guest reader at the laconically-named Manky Poets,  in Chorlton. Great audience and quality open mic. A listening room. I would have done well to remind myself of what I wrote some time ago in a post about how to behave at an open mic. evening: thus

For readers. Reading

Rehearse. Rehearse your timings. Find out how long you have, and rehearse how many poems that is when they’re read aloud. Stick to it.

Well, I’d been told, and it was on the poster. Finish 9.30. Somehow I got it in my head it was 10.00. So, Copland Smith, I’m sorrier than I can say that you had to do the thing of holding up your arm and tapping your wristwatch, meaningfully. Mea maxima culpa. I hope I can come back some time. I’ll get the time right.

And the acknowledgement. I decided I wanted to write this post after reading one on Sequences by the indefatigable Roy Marshall   (here’s the link: https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/2017/03)/01/on-sequences/). As is his wont, Roy writes about the what and the how of the business -which is of more use to the prospective writer than my own tendency to to muse about the whys and wherefores. I’ve lifted a couple of chunks to illustrate:

First of all, a practical reason: “In my experience sequences can provide the writer with the feeling that they are rich in material; that they have ‘something in the bank’ and that even when not actively producing poems, there is a subject to return to an explore.”

I think the key notion here for me is the one that points to our need for a comfort blanket, the feeling that we have ‘something in the bank’ . Drawing on his own experience of putting his two collections together, Roy also reflects on the business of sequencing itself:

Once a number of poems have been written, the next challenge is to select poems and lay them out in the order that works best.  One absorbing aspect of assembling a sequence is deciding which poems to include and to work out the relationships between poems so they work together to their collective advantage.  While it is undoubtedly hard to write a batch of poems that maintain a consistently high quality, it is  important to try and recognise any weaker poems and remove them or risk weakening the impact of the whole sequence.

I like the reminder about the need to weed out poems that may fit thematically, but don’t stand on their own two feet. And also the reminder that you try to figure out the best order. I’d only add to that the idea that it can be like tweaking and fine-editing individual poems. You can often end up where you started, and reflect that that way madness lies. I know I’ve been open mouthed with admiration when poets describe how they lay hard copies of each sheet of a pamphlet or a collection out on the floor and move them around like chessmen. I can’t do it. I actually don’t know how I do it. Instinct. Something. But not a floor full of paper, which would bring on nightmare memories of double-checking 360 folders of English coursework for GCSE by setting them out on the floor at home. AAArgh.

I do know that one of my editors in particular has an amazing instinct/ear/eye/brain for spotting a glitch in the succession of poems. Ann Sansom (for it is she) shifted one poem in Much Possessed from near the beginning to the end. Where it belonged. I’d never have seen it. And she shifted one poem , about apples and the Fall of Man from 4th to 2nd, when it became apparent that it was in the voice of Lucifer (the voice of the first poem)…the thing is, when I wrote it, I didn’t know. When you put poems side by side, they begin to have conversations with each other and won’t do what they’re told. They take on an independent life. Which is as it should be.

I’m intrigued by that notion of an independent life. Somehow, poems will grow out of things that simpley will not leave you alone. I think of, say, Yvonne Reddick’s new pamphlet Translating Mountains which grows out of her father’s death in the Grey Corries, and her ancestor’s gem-hunting in the Alps. I think of Tom Cleary’s latest poems about his father’s trials in the Irish fight for independence, of Keith Hutson’s Troupers and his longstanding love affair with almost forgotten music hall and variety acts; of Kim Moore’s sequence on domestic violence in The art of falling, and her new poems about ‘All the men I never married‘…and of course, of Steve Ely (but more of that before long). Roy got me thinking of the way sequences appear or don’t appear in my own writing. Thinking about it I’m aware that I’ve created sequence about the death of my son, David; about my parents (my mother, especially) and grandparents; about a crofting community on Skye, about a village in Spain; about hospitals and about the Fall of Man. The thing is, I never set out to do any of it. Not like that. The poems got written over a period of years and then found each other’s company. I never set out to write ‘sequences’ about any of them, though theing is, once you’ve got, say half a dozen, you begin to wonder if there can be more. I have to say that in my case that’s the point at which I start to write bad poems.Because I’m forcing them in to being.

I’m also aware that quite accidentally I’ve written a lot of poems that feature birds. I know very little about birds. I can recognise them because my dad was a keen bird-watcher, and I suppose he taught me, but I’ve never set out to study or research them. And there has never been a reason to group the poems together simply because they have birds in them…probably because they’re not actually about birds at all.

I’ve set out, sometimes, quite deliberately to write sequences: one about a painter and his wife and his model and his paintings (think of Fiona Benson’s Van Gogh sequence in Bright Travellers)….I spent over a year reseaching and ended up with three poems. That should have taught me something, but I’ve since tried the same thing with Clearance sites on Skye, with Culloden, and (with a bit more success) the notions that famous statues may be able to speak…at least I had a proper purpose with that, one of experimenting with dramatic monologues, and trying out other people’s voices. In general, I’d judge them all relative failures, mainly, I think, because I was trying too hard.

They say you live and learn, but I’m currently battling away at an idea seeded at an open mic night…ostensibly a sequence about the Lofthouse mining disaster. It involves versions of God, Mrs Beeton, Mary Anning, flower pressing and the evolution of the planet. I suspect it will end in tears. And on the strength of one poem written in a workshop a poet I love and respect suggested I write a twelve poem sequence. I am already having nightmares about it.

So it’s a huge relief to turn to a poet who writes sequences with huge assurance, fed by phenomenal (as it seems to me) scholarship, research and absorption in contemporary political history, in the the world of birds, and in the heft and texture of Yorkshire dialect and its roots in medieval English. Welcome back, Steve Ely.

priory 5

When Steve was last a guest (August 2015)  I wrote quite a lot about landscape, about ‘knowing your place’. Particularly, I wrote about Englaland

Englaland isn’t edgeland. It’s right in the middle of England, the landscapes of farms and pit villages and power stations and their great white plumes of condensation, despoiled monasteries, forgotten castles, the remains of priories . It’s the landscape that D.H.Lawrence wrote about, and his loathing of the man-made England. Because pit villages are never pretty or picturesque in the way of, say, Pennine mill towns. But they are surrounded and inerpenetrated by an older farmed and forested England. Which is Steve Ely’s ground.

You can catch up on all that by following this link https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/08/30/knowing-your-place-a-polished-gem-8-steve-ely/

Time now to get up to date, with this poet who writes sequences..though, as we’ll shortly see, not just sequences. Since he was last here, his account of Ted Hughes’ Mexborough years has been published, as has his unnerving, chunky pamphlet Werewolf of which Sheenah Pugh writes:

“the poems in this collection which discuss individuals’ propensity to violence, how they control it and how it can be exploited by the state are extremely thought-provoking and memorable, and mostly not because of their often harrowing subject matter but because of the skill with which it is handled. The jackdaw approach to history, assimilating different peoples, events and eras, brings home, as nothing else could, our essential likeness to each other, and viewing our own thoughts, words and actions through the glass of the “other” is as instructive now as it was when Euripides used the prism of the Trojan War to condemn the Athenian invasion of Melos. I don’t think anyone could read “Inyengi” and not be, at least temporarily, more careful in their language, or “Spurn” and not wonder “could it happen here?”

I think that’s why Steve Ely speaks so directly to me in his collections, Oswald’s Book of Hours and Englaland. He reminds me of the jolt I got when I first read E.P.Thompson’s The making of the English Working Class, and Hobbsbawm, and The common muse, and Roy Palmer’s The Rambling Soldier, of when I first listened to Charles’ Parker’s radio ballads…especially The ballad of John Axon ….. and Tony Parker’s Red Hill (the story of a mining community).

breakfast 001

OK. What he sent me when I asked him to come back to the cobweb needs not a scintilla of editing. Steve..off you go.

Since August 2015, I’ve:

  • Run
  • Been out with the dogs a lot and got into confrontations with any number of landowners, farmers and gamekeepers.
  • Been birding in South Uist
  • Found a kestrel’s nest with two young-uns and been caught up in a tornado on the same day.
  • Published my biography of Ted Hughes’s early years, Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire, with Palgrave McMillan.
  • Been involved in the organisation of the second Ted Hughes Poetry Festival in Mexborough.
  • Gotten myself a PhD – the guerilla-pastoral, anarcho-yeoman anarchism, Bakhtin, Gramsci, Kipling, Pound, Moretti and Kavanagh …
  • Started teaching creative writing at the University of Huddersfield.
  • Been appointed Director of the Ted Hughes Network at the University of Huddersfield.
  • Published a hefty (who knew pamphlets had to weigh less than 0.5 grams and be printed on point 4 font on a butterfly’s wings?) pamphlet, Werewolf, with the estimable Bob Horne’s Calder Valley Poetry.

In 2017, I’ll:

  • Run
  • Continue my guerilla-pastoral campaign against landowners, farmers and gamekeepers
  • Dig some holes
  • Get a third dog for my roster, probably a lurcher of some sort
  • Go birding in South Uist
  • Publish a book of poems called Incendium Amoris with Smokestack Books  (June)
  • Be involved with the third Ted Hughes Poetry Festival in Mexborough (main weekend 23rd –25th June)
  • Help facilitate the symposium, ‘Ted Hughes & Place’ at the University of Huddersfield, with my colleague James Underwood (June 15th –16th)
  • Be delighted and excited to welcome Dr Heather Clark to the University of Huddersfield as International Visiting Scholar in June. Heather’s biography of Sylvia Plath will be published in 2018 by Knopf.
  • Write some excerpts from a mythic autobiography
  • Grow a some dangerous plants on my occult allotment
  • Publish a book of poems called Bloody, Proud & Murderous Men, Adulterers and Enemies of God with High Window Press (December).

I’ll also be keeping it real – on the street and in the ’hood. (he adds)

IMG_2043

Unlike the pigeon, pursued onto my window by the sparrowhawk which filled my garden with feathers,there’s not the slightest suggestion that Steve will be brought up short by the unexpected.He’s sent me two poems to share. They are poems with birds in them. They may not be about birds.

How great is that darkenesse

Ring road glazed in lights.

Buffering macula, dampened panes;

muted YouTube central heating.

Cold coffee and donuts,

gastro-oesophageal reflux.

The heart’s a torn up map, voyaging

blind through doldrum darkness.

Through muffling glass

high greylags trumpet,

skeining wild and north.

I reckon that if you had to visualize the first circle of hell, you’d do worse than think of a ring-road or a motorway service station in the dark early hours. It’s a place for a dark night of the soul, being itself soulless in its unnatural light and much-breathed, centrally-heated air, its windows glazed with condensation. An edgeland place, neither here nor there, but between real places and lives. The sense of spiritual displacement is concentrated in that phrase ‘the heart’s a torn up map, voyaging blind’ and I love the accuracy of ‘doldrum darkness’…the doldrum of becalmed sailors in the middle of a great ocean. And then the poem expands, out and up and away with the ‘high greylags’, migrants moving along known instinctive routes to where they have to be, ‘skeining wild and north’. ‘Skeining’ is lovely, being at once a shape and a sound, a call. And a great word to end on: north, resonant with literature and history. No accident that Heaney chose it for the title of a collection

campsite-north-uist

The second poem shifts us north. If you follow Steve Ely on Twitter or facebook you’ll be familiar with the posts about bird life on Uist. Here’s a poem that explains the love of it all.

No man can serve two masters

Walking that kelp-wrecked,

Hesperidean strand, notes

sanderling, turnstone, purple sand.

Shags hard and low across the surf swell,

crab boat’s outboard drone.  Hauled pots

and crates and nylon holdalls,

pagurus, AKs, shrink-wrapped keys,

the freedom of the golden isle

where phalaropes flirt

and red-throats flume and wail.

Norman MacCaig country, this…not geographically, but spiritually and linguistically..where shags fly ‘hard and low’ and small birds work busily on the low-tide wrack. It’s a moment to rest in.

I’ll know whether I’ve got it right this coming Tuesday night at Huddersfield University, when Steve is leading a writing workshop built around Ted Hughes’ Gaudete. He’ll certainly not leave me in doubt. Thank you anyway for being our guest, Steve Ely.

If you don’t own his books you can put that right. The detail of all of them, as well as of the other poets’ work I’ve mentioned at the beginning, follows. See you next week when we’ll be having a new guest. It’ll be great.

Steve’s books

Oswald’s Book of Hours   [2013 Smokestack Books] £7.95

Englaland                             [2015 Smokestack Books] £8.95

Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made In Mexborough [2015 Palgrave MacMillan ]

Werewolf                             [2016 Calder Valley Poetry ] £7.00

and others I’ve referred to:

Kim Moore The art of falling    [20125  Seren] £9.99

Yvonne Reddick  Translating mountains  [2017 Seren] £5.00

Keith Hutson Troupers [2016 Poetry Salzburg]

Roy Marshall The great animator [2017 Shoestring Press] £10.00

Tom Cleary  The third Miss Keane [2014] Happenstance] £4.00

A gem revisited: Wendy Pratt

A gem revisited: Wendy Pratt

lapstrake

Well, there’s serendipity. I was looking for an image of a lapstraked boat  and up comes this one, on the shore of possibly my favourite place in the world. This is on the shore at Armadale, just by the pier where the Skye ferry from Mallaig docks. In the background, on the left, is the Gaelic college on its headland. And across the Sound is Knoydart, and beyond it, miles of roadless wilderness. Lovely.

lapstrake-1

Lapstrake. It sounds old and Norse. According to my dictionaries it only turned up in the 18thC…which is something of a surprise. It means the same thing as ‘clinker-built’, made of overlapping strips. This one at Armadale is what Viking boats looked like, utterly beautiful, perfectly designed. I heard the word first when today’s guest, Wendy Pratt, read at the Puzzle Hall Poets Live, and it resonated and stuck. It’s the title of her third collection (details at the end). I liked it so much that I had to put it in my poem ‘Bheinn na Caillich’. It’s a poem about the Norsemen and the boats that took them to Miklagard, to Greenland and Iceland, and the western seaboard of the Americas…the Vinland and beyond.

because nothing could gainsay

a well-caulked, lapstraked boat

with a flare at the bow that perfectly

fit a space the water would make for it:

their oceans were swanspaths and whaleroads

So here we go: a big thankyou to Wendy for a word that makes a line sing. I’m not the only one to sing her praises. Before I knew her, she’d been a guest on Kim Moore’s Sunday Poem blog, where Kim wrote:

“Today’s Sunday Poem is by Wendy Pratt, who I read with a couple of months ago in Leeds at the Poetry By Heart reading series in the Heart Cafe in Headingley.  Wendy read from her pamphlet ‘Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare’.  The title poem to this pamphlet is fantastic – I loved it as soon as I heard it.

nan-hardwicke-image

From the first line Wendy establishes the character of Nan with that colloquial, confiding ‘I will tell you how it was’, so it feels as if the poem is being whispered in the readers ear. I love how the balance of power is explored in this poem – you can see this in the line ‘so I could settle myself like a child within her’ – the hare is the place of safety and Nan is a child – but then later on ‘An odd feeling this,/to hold another’s soul in the mouth like an egg’ so by this line it seems that Nan is in charge again.  Another favourite line is the description of the mind of the hare ‘Her mind/was simple, full of open space and weather’.  I read that and thought, well yes, of course, what else could a hare’s mind be full of?  I would really recommend buying the pamphlet – it is a moving collection of poems exploring loss and transformation.”

It is indeed. I wrote about it in an earlier post, and also reviewed it with great enthusiasm.

“One of my fictional heroes is Esther Summerson in ‘Bleak House’. Most of the students I’ve ‘taught’ on A level and on degree courses disliked her or dismissed her as wetly pious. I argued long and hard for her courage, her moral strength;  I always believed in her genuine humility rooted in a sense of her own worthlessness. It takes a lot for her to believe that she can truly be loved, as opposed to being relied on. I’m not sure if this is germane to this week’s cobweb strand. Who knows where we’ll end up. But, like Esther, ‘I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I am not very clever.’ She adds: ‘I always knew that’. I wish I could, hand on heart, say that. And let me clear up what I mean by clever here. I’m not talking about smart arse clever (I always knew that) or clever-clogs clever. What I have in mind is ‘knowing’; the knowledge of the heart and the imagination, and the knowledge of the physical self.. I first tried to clarify it in The other side of silence, a post on 28/12/2014. This what I wrote about poems by Fiona Benson:

 ‘There’s a physicality about these poems that’s unanswerable, and a synthesis of the solid worlds of absolutely imagined birds and wild creatures, of weathers and the leaching of soils and the decay of rocks with the intensely particular personal life of the poet that makes this collection so wonderful and distressing. She [Fiona Benson] reminds me of Wendy Pratt, not just because of the coincident experience, but their way of somehow living on level terms with it, and their way with words. Like this from ‘Nan Harwicke turns into a hare‘

I will tell you how it was. I slipped

into the hare like a nude foot

into a glorious slipper. Pushing her bones

to one side to make room for my shape

so I could settle myself like a child within her.

In the dark I groped for her freedom…..

There’s that physicality, that sensuality, again, and again infused by the unspeakable loss of a child that has to be spoken and spoken for.’

What I hung back from was that it’s not an accident that some of the poems that have moved me most of late are written by women. It’s not an accident, either, that I’ve been absorbed in stories of metamorphosis, particularly in retellings of Ovid. What has been consistent in this is the feeling that women have access to knowledge that men can’t have. The feeling that women are metamorphic and tidal, that they go through changes that a man can’t imagine, and that this makes them capable of different modes of imagining. It doesn’t mean that all of them can articulate it, or are necessarily consciously aware of it. But, when they are, the results are powerful and unnerving. When I re-read Ted Hughes’ retellings of Ovid, and even Robin Robertson [in ‘Swithering’] I think they are external. Powerful, but externally dramatised. I’m struggling to articulate it. What I find in, say, Fiona Benson, and in the passage from Wendy Pratt’s poem I just quoted is a kind of emotional fluidity and in Hughes and Robertson a sort of epic stiffness, like renaissance paintings.

Kim writes about poems exploring loss and transformation. Exactly. Wendy Pratt finds ways of writing about the unsayable, the desperation of the loss of a child, the agonising uncertainties of fertility/infertility, and the way that may draw you as a writer towards the analogies of myth. I understand that.

But it’s time Wendy took over. I asked her to revist a poem, to tell us what she’s been up to since her last appearance on the cobweb, and also to bring us a new poem. So here she is Big round of applause for Wendy Pratt.

ballet-shoes

“Here’s my revisited poem:

Danse Macabre

 

You wear your death like dance slippers,

taking them out of their coffin-box

at the barre, while you arabesque and plié,

allegro lightly round the room, touch the mirror,

turn, feel your feet bleed into the blocks,

assemble on your own edge, bitter

and full of remorse. The dance becomes a quick-step,

a flamenco, a stream of soft tap, a fox-trot.

The slippers lead. But you are no black swan.

Someone needs to stop you, pull you back, help,

step quicker.

 I’ve chosen to go back to this one because at the time that I was writing this I was very much proving to myself that I could work in fairly complex forms. This is a curtailed sonnet, though not the strictest form of one. It has 11 and a half lines, and an ABCABC DBBDB Which isn’t exactly correct according to the form examples that I have read about, but is exactly what I wanted to do with it. The idea was to start the poem off following the form and then start to disrupt it until the half line where the ‘sonnet’ falls off, uncompleted. I’d been working on Lapstrake, when I wrote Danse Macabre and had delved into some very complex forms throughout it, it was almost like I couldn’t stop solving puzzles. I haven’t been as fixated on form since then. I must have proved to myself that I could do it. Why did I need to prove it to myself? Because I didn’t feel like a ‘proper’ poet until I knew the rules well enough to break them, which is a total cliche, but a true one.  I’ve written a couple of sonnets and I often write Haiku as they’re like little photographs of moments, and I like that. But mostly I am writing free verse now. ”

“So, what have I been doing since? Well, Lapstrake was published and did very well, I’m still very proud of it, and I have a second full collection with a new publisher that I am waiting to hear about. I also finally finished my Selkie pamphlet which I have been writing for about three years now; that is now at the polishing stage, ready to go out to competitions and publishers. I am working on another full sized collection about infertility and body image, which sounds dark and heavy, but is actually proving to be a celebration, and acceptance of the physical. My husband and I have recently decided to not have any more IVF after five rounds, so that is a bit of a catalyst for re-examining how I feel about myself. The poems in the collection are an examination and questioning of ownership, particularly in regards to pregnancy and fertility. I think most women will recognise the themes. I’m also now at Hull University, doing a practice-led poetry PhD. It’s based around the use of language, how poetry works, what poetry IS, using the sea as a model. The whole thing is sea based, and the concept of aquariums as containers similar to how we contain with words is key to it. I had my first PhD poem published recently, which eased my imposter syndrome somewhat.

At the beginning of this year I decided that my new year’s resolution was to take my work seriously. I guess I wanted to take myself seriously too, but it feels weird to say that, I’m not sure why. I have changed my writing practice accordingly. I now say that I am a writer and small business owner, rather than a small business owner who also writes. I am heading towards the end of the year feeling like I have accomplished this, to a certain degree. I am now applying for residencies, awards, positions, teaching and workshopping work, and just like when I first started submitting my poems and I used to cringe at the idea (me? Sending poems out? People will laugh!) I felt the same about applying for work. I still end up doing quite a lot of free stuff, but I am much better at saying no.

I just heard that I won second place in a competition with a poem I am proud of. I’m proud because the other two competitions I won, last year, were with poems about my daughter, who died in 2010. I have a lot of poems about her, and I still write about her. But I’d started to feel that I was only writing about her, and those were the poems that people wanted to see, and I felt defined by the loss. I made a pact with myself to write about other stuff and found myself writing other stuff. I worried I wasn’t good enough, but this poem, The Sound of Geese, it is like confirmation that I can do this.”

rainy-day

Anyway, my new (ish) poem. Not unpublished, it first appeared in The Dawn Treader and is in the new collection.

Pluviophile

 

When it comes; thick and soft

as the pelt of an animal,

I am grounded, brought down

to calm in the smell of damp earth.

We wait like the wet starlings,

under tree cover, their song-work

undone in the shallow hiss

of leaves and rain. I am paused,

smelling the green of the grass,

the hung heads of daffodils,

watching the plough furrows

fill with water. A dog barks

somewhere, on one of the farms,

the spaniel lifts his wet head, waits

as I wait, we are communed,

marooned, standing peacefully,

watching the water make mud

out of soil, movement out of stillness.

a-rainy-day-on-welcombe-mouth-beach-by-david-gibbeson

I love the texture of this, the apparent plainness of words enriched by the wet sibilant sounds of falling rain, the deftness of the rythm and line breaks, the healing quiet of it all. Should you ask about the final image…well, it’s because Wendy posts many images of her beachwalk landscapes, the shore at Filey, the slumped boulder clay cliffs, the patterning of waveshaped sand.

It’s been a treat having her. If you haven’t already bought her books then the details follow. Next week we have a poet whose first pamphlet will be launched at the Albert Poets next Thursday, and we’ve got plans for the cobweb to move to new and elegant premises. It all depends of the IT savvy/magic of my son Michael, but if all goes well there’ll be a new book of mine that can be yours by the wonder of Paypal. Fingers crossed, and thankyou again, Wendy Pratt for being our guest and doing so much work for me xx

Nan Hardwicke turns in to a hare :  (with a preface by Alison Brackenbury)  Prolebooks  [2011.] £4.50

Museum Pieces (with a foreword by Abegail Morley)       Prolebooks  [2013] £6.50

Lapstrake (Flarestack Poets) £5.50

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.

bwf-2007-book-signing

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.

chatterton

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.

lots-of-books

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.

img_1621

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.

img_1622

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.

img_1623

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.

A polished gem (2) Wendy Pratt….and a hostage to fortune

hare flippedpsd

One of my fictional heroes is Esther Summerson in ‘Bleak House’. Most of the students I’ve ‘taught’ on A level and on degree courses disliked her or dismissed her as wetly pious. I argued long and hard for her courage, her moral strength;  I always believed in her genuine humility rooted in a sense of her own worthlessness. It takes a lot for her to believe that she can truly be loved, as opposed to being relied on. I’m not sure if this is germane to this week’s cobweb strand. Who knows where we’ll end up. But, like Esther, ‘I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I am not very clever.’ She adds: ‘I always knew that’. I wish I could, hand on heart, say that. And let me clear up what I mean by clever here. I’m not talking about smart arse clever (I always knew that) or clever-clogs clever. What I have in mind is ‘knowing’; the knowledge of the heart and the imagination, and the knowledge of the physical self. That’s what’s been preoccupying me for weeks, and while the point of this week’s cobweb strand is to celebrate poems by my friend Wendy Pratt, I’m concerned that it’ll get tangled up with ideas I’m wrestling with as I try to write a review of collections by Wendy, and by Clare Shaw. I first tried to clarify it in a post on December 28 [The other side of silence]. This what I wrote about poems by Wendy and by Fiona Benson:

‘There’s a physicality about these poems that’s unanswerable, and a synthesis of the solid worlds of absolutely imagined birds and wild creatures, of weathers and the leaching of soils and the decay of rocks with the intensely particular personal lifeof the poet that makes this collection so wonderful and distressing. She [Fiona Benson] reminds me of Wendy Pratt, not just because of the coincident experience, but their way of somehow living on level terms with it, and their way with words. Like this from ‘Nan Harwicke turns into a hare

I will tell you how it was. I slipped

into the hare like a nude foot

into a glorious slipper. Pushing her bones

to one side to make room for my shape

so I could settle myself like a child within her.

In the dark I groped for her freedom…..

There’s that physicality, that sensuality, again, and again infused by the unspeakable loss of a child that has to be spoken and spoken for.’

 

What I hung back from was something I’ve been trying out in not-very-coherent conversations; this is the idea that it’s not an accident that some of the poems that have moved me most of late are written by women. It’s not an accident, either, that I’ve been absorbed in stories of metamorphosis, particularly in retellings of Ovid. What has been consistent in this is the feeling that women have access to knowledge that men can’t have. The feeling that women are metamorphic and tidal, that they go through changes that a man can’t imagine, and that this makes them capable of different modes of imagining. It doesn’t mean that all of them can articulate it, or are necessarily consciously aware of it. But when they are the results are powerful and unnerving. When I re-read Ted Hughes’ retellings of Ovid, and even Robin Robertson [in ‘Swithering’] what I think is that these are external. Powerful, but externally dramatised. I’m struggling to articulate it. What I find in, say, Fiona Benson, and in the passage from Wendy Pratt’s poem I just quoted is a kind of emotional fluidity and in Hughes and Robertson a sort of epic stiffness, like renaissance paintings, like this artwork I found, mooching around the web.

hare 1

Do you see what I mean? It’s an analogy at best. Just for now, it’ll have to do. A hostage to fortune. But I’d like to know what readers think, before I dig myself any deeper in what may be a misconceived notion. I’ll leave it at that, for now, take a deep breath of relief, and get on with letting Wendy Pratt introduce herself:

Wendy Pratt was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire in 1978. She now lives just outside Filey. She studied Biomedical Science at Hull University and worked as a Microbiologist at the local NHS hospital for thirteen years. She recently completed a BA in English Literature with the Open University and is now studying towards her MA in creative writing with the MMU.

She has enjoyed publication of her poetry in many journals and magazines and her first poetry pamphlet, Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare was published by Prolebooks in 2011.It was well received, being reviewed favourably in the TLS. Her first full size collection, Museum Pieces is also published by Prolebooks. It was launched in Leeds, in January 2014.

Wendy is the poetry correspondent for Northern Soul, where she writes a regular column called ‘Northern Accents’. She is also part of the womentoring project. Her third collection, a pamphlet entitled Lapstrake will be published by Flarestack Poets in 2015.

What she modestly doesn’t mention is her absorbed interest (no, it’s more passionate than interest) in the archaeology of her part of the East Coast, in its Viking past, in urn burials and antlers, in handled stones and bone fragments. And she understandably doesn’t mention what is central to her most lyrical and elegiac writing…which is the loss of a child and the metamorphoses of fertility and infertility. But you should buy her books and read that for yourselves. She’s sent me two poems for the cobweb. The first she calls her ‘headline’ poem. It’s from her Nan Hardwicke pamphlet

Bag
Stop playing the fool, bag,
spooled round the wind, in the corner
of my yard. Stop teasing me.
Stop folding the sky through the creases
of your polythene skin, stop inhaling the breeze
with your single billowed lung.
You act like you’ve only ever known the air
but I’ve seen you lumped with your brethren
on the back seat of a Volvo, or slung
on pushchair handles, your belly hung low
like a dead deer between two poles.
Stop touching the leaves like you love them, bag,
they are not for you.
Yes, you’ve been passed around
and done your duty as a rubbish bin, lunch box and
wet trunks receptacle, but, bag, I love you.
Don’t spurn me now, for a few weightless seconds.
Come home, where you are loved for your humble willingness,
your honest shape. I’ve seen the simple pleasure
that you take in caressing the meagre shopping of the old,
the loose testicular swing of a pair of oranges
or mandarins. Bag, I’ve let you carry my own.
I’ve folded you over my secret purchases, we’ve shared
our half truths, bag. You’ve slipped into the pocket of my jeans
on those long dog walks and risen, brimming with bottles
on a Friday night. We’ve forgotten the world together, bag.
Don’t leave me now, for imaginings of flight.

 

There’s cheek, that riff on MacCaig’s toad….stop looking like a purse…….and sheer improvisational verve, all the play with a plastic bag in a windy backyard. I love that. But I think it goes beyond homage and playfulness and exuberance. It morphs does this bag, like ghosts, like undersea things, like ectoplasm, and the poet’s in a collusive morphing relations ship with it. ‘Bag, I love you.’ They share secrets and half truths. The last two lines make the whole poem into something quite different from what I thought it was going to be, or mean. Think on the resonance of that line:

We’ve forgotten the world together.

Because Wendy Pratt is a serious poet who takes on seriously important issues. So much of her poetry really is a matter of life and death. I’m delighted that she sent this new one for me to share with you. I have an image of the tiny shoes of a child wrapped in faded tissue, and it has coloured the way I read the poem. That’s what reading is. Every implied reader becomes an implicit and collusive co-writer. Maybe I should have kept this comment to the end. But I’ll leave it as it is, say thank you to Wendy, and finish with her poem. And a hare for Nan Hardwicke.

 

Danse Macabre

You wear your death like dance slippers,

taking them out of their coffin-box

at the barre, while you arabesque and plié,

allegro lightly round the room, touch the mirror,

turn, feel your feet bleed into the blocks,

assemble on your own edge, bitter

and full of remorse. The dance becomes a quick-step,

a flamenco, a stream of soft tap, a fox-trot.

The slippers lead. But you are no black swan.

Someone needs to stop you, pull you back, help,

step quicker.

 

 

 

What is the Truth 036

‘There’s something eerie about a hare, no matter how stringy and old……..into your dreams she waltzes strung with starlight’  [Ted Hughes: What is the truth]

 

Wendy Pratt’s books:

Nan Hardwicke turns in to a hare :  (with a preface by Alison Brackenbury)  Prolebooks  [2011.] £4.50

Museum Pieces (with a foreword by Abegail Morley)       Prolebooks  [2013] £6.50

 

(the stunning image of the golden hare at the top of the page is one I found in a random Google image search. The artist is Jackie Morris. The woodcut of the hare is one of many illustrations that R J Lloyd did for What is the truth. Buzzing with energy.)

A polished gem [1] Anthony Costello

Anthony-Costello

The more I get to know about the world of poetry, the less familiar it feels. A little knowledge can be a comfortable as well as a dangerous thing. And I certainly feel uncomfortable with the occasional squabbles and small jealousies I may encounter, when most of the time the bit of the poetry world I actually know is welcoming and generous. Thus it was that I was simultaneously taken aback and entertained by Anthony Howell’s ‘Fear and loathing in the Royal Festival Hall’ ( an article someone Shared on my Facebook page from The Fortnightly Review. Another bit of the poetry world I’d never heard of). Because I’ve always enjoyed the splenetic squabbles of the world of Pope, Dryden and Swift I suppose I felt a guilty pleasure at the sustained crossness of Howell’s piece. At the same time I was puzzled by the crossness. There’s a lot wrong with the world that’s worth getting more cross about than whose poems win what. Still. I was intrigued enough by bits of it to make notes about what he describes as the ‘generic British poem’ …’the poetic equivalent of a rather staid life-class’….’well-crafted….more or less free….more or less scanned…..decent’….’middle of the road, narrative.’ I put that together with something I wrote down in a workshop I was at last year. I wrote it down because its languid condescension made me very cross indeed. ‘The anecdotal, the bus-stop conversation has its own charm.’ And I thought, well, that’s me put in my place. Howell and the languid commentator probably sum up the level of where I, personally, am in poetry. But British poetry? All of it? Really? Is it really so insular, the default voice of the ‘successful’ British poem. Is it really so ‘nice’? This seems remarkably at odds with what I’ve been wrestling with for the last few weeks, the unnerving imaginative challenge of work by poets like Clare Shaw and Fiona Benson, for instance.

But let me go back to that phrase ‘middle of the road’. Well, pretending that metaphor is a substitute for sustained argument is a dubious trade at best, but surely, the middle of the road is by no means always the safest place to be. On the other hand, I do come across puzzlement and resistance in various workshops to things that are out of the familiar run of language and allusion…literary, biblical, scientific, historic, geographic references..even those to the world of popular culture, anything beyond a comfortable frame of reference seem problematic. Or  pretentious. Or seen as ‘showing off’. And I start to ask: where is the resonance to come from? I’m thinking of John Barton discussing how a complex Shakespeare speech could make sense to the chunk of his audience that was illiterate. Barton argues that the verse is carried by resonant keywords, packed with layers and levels of meaning..words like gold, iron, fire, lion, cur, sphere, sun,king, rebellion, tempest…that create the emotional colour and meaning of a stretch of text. Barton would tell his actors to locate them, make sure that if nothing else was heard that they would be. Shakespeare could assume how these words would work on a listener. The Metaphysicals and  the Stuart and Hanoverian poets wrote for coteries whose knowledge they could assume. 19th century poets, before universal education and literacy, seem to assume a shared knowledge of the Bible and, to a degree, of Classical literature.

I sometimes wonder if ‘The WasteLand’ was the first poem to be deliberately and bloodymindedly uncomfortable in its parade and assumption of literary and other knowledge …as opposed to experience. I used to resent trying to get to grips with it. And then, as with Shakespeare, learned to enjoy it, in the way you enjoy gradually coming to terms with a foreign language.Why shouldn’t we all have to be prepared to do a bit of work as readers?And isn’t Tony Harrison’s trademark lengthy introduction to a poem before he reads it part of the pleasure?

Maybe it’s because I grew up with set-books that sometimes seemed as remote and unattainable as Alpha Centauri. Shakespeare, Milton, the Metaphysicals, ‘The silver poets of the 16th Century’ (Championship), ‘Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of…’ (Premier league). There didn’t seem to be a Bronze Cert. for poetry. What there certainly wasn’t, when I was at school and university, was anything that came within passing distance of the 20thC. I (I should say ‘we’) had to find out about all sorts of problematic stuff, like pre-Copernican Universes, and medieval physiology, myth, fable, folktale, 18thC politics. From footnotes. Mainly. Gradually, it either did, or didn’t, cohere. The point was, you had to work at it. It was, of course, after University, a delight to encounter accessible texts, stuff that spoke to you in a familiar, or seemingly familiar, language…Heaney, Hughes, MacCaig, Larkin, the Mersey poets, Adrian Mitchell, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg. And with the considerable help of anthologists like Geoffery Summerfield (oh! praise the lord for ‘Voices’ and ‘Junior Voices’, and BBC Education’s ‘Books, Plays and Poems’) we passed them on to our pupils. Contemporary, accessible and sassy poetry. And, I suspect, somewhere along the way, forgot about some of the harder stuff. This sounds curmudgeonly; it’s not meant to. It’s just that less and less I expect to come across brand-new writing that surprises me by its reference. I expect you’ll all tell me that I don’t get out enough. You’re probably right. I can only say how it feels.

It’s a roundabout way I’ve come to introduce tonight’s guest poet, Anthony Costello, and to introduce the cobweb’s new category of ‘the polished gem’. I’ve been caught out by calling some of my poets ‘undiscovered gems’ only to find out they are pretty well known. From now on, I’ll be more careful. The polished gem will be a cobweb category for poets who are reasonably well-known around my neck of the woods, but not necessarily in other parts of the country. They will be recent discoveries for me that I want to share. And thus to Anthony, who I met at the world-famous Puzzle Hall Poets when he signed up on the open mic., whose book launch I read a jazz poem at, and who invited me to guest at his own poetry venture at the Kava in Todmorden.

Three things struck me on that first meeting. The first was the silence that followed his poem ‘Feeling blue nr. Russell Square’ ( which follows shortly). The second was that Anthony didn’t read the poem. He didn’t recite it. He said it, almost as if it was extempore, improvised, an entirely natural way of speaking. I’ve seen/heard him do this several times since. It never fails to set me back on my heels; it’s impressive, without any intention of seeming so. The third was the conversation we had afterwards. But here’s the poem first. Anthony apologised in advance in case we would find it sentimental, and explained it was for someone he loved who had died.

Feeling blue nr. Russell Square

for an Essex girl

A good place to feel blue, Bloomsbury

all those bookshops, all those cafes,

 

I imagine a life

of the could have been a writer kind

 

with coffee breaks to be a kind soul

talking with a tourist about jazz

 

transporting America’s luggage

along a charming London Road,

 

the trail of blue plaques – Lenin,

Roger Fry, Jerome K Jerome,

*

I’d travelled by Tube to the weald

to sprinkle ‘Country Meadow’ on the grave

 

I sat under pines and sweet chestnuts,

the trees friends and the morning sun

 

the dappled seeds’ friend.

 

I spoke to the grave in the present tense.

I put a name to love.

 

What caught me when I heard it was the voice. What catches me now when I read it is the memory of the quietness that settled around that poem when Anthony said it, and the deceptiveness of what looks simple. You don’t notice the repetition of ‘kind’ in the time it takes to say the poem, nor the shift of meaning that happens. You don’t notice the odd syntax that disturbs the even surface like barely suppressed grief. Anthony quotes Fiona Sampson’s editorial in Poem where she writes about the way mediocre poems may be improved by being read aloud. Now, I think some accents, some voices, can make anything sound good, but I don’t think this poem is mediocre, and I think it grows with being seen on the page. He thinks this poem is sentimental. I don’t.

But, before we forget: three things that struck me. Third, the conversation. I’ve rarely had a casual conversation that involved German metaphysical philosophy and 19th C French poetry. But that tends to happen in Anthony’s company. Maybe his version of his biography may go someway to explaining the eclecticism of his talk and his poems. He wrote the 3rd person, but he says: ‘edit away’, and I’m editing some into the first person, because he’s not really an impersonal guy.

I was born in Halifax, and left school at 15 to work in a boiler-making factory. I left for the South-East aged 21, and for several years worked as a barman, labourer and salesman. Aged 25 , as a mature student I began a degree in Literature and Philosophy, then took a PGCE course in English and History, and taught in a Secondary school in Sussex. Later, I took an MA at the University of North London. After leaving teaching, I worked as a senior bookseller, and, after a 2-year horticultural course, as a self-employed gardener. I took a sabbatical from work in 2011 to travel the world; in the same year I started writing poetry.’

His travels were mainly in SE Asia, and for a time he lived in France. He has published widely in magazines and anthologies, and his first collection The Mask was published by Lapwing Publications, Belfast (more detail at the end). His collaborative translation of the Poems of Alain-Fournier, a project he undertook in 2013 while living in France, will be published by Anvil in 2015. Now he’s back in the West Riding, living in Luddendenfoot ( a valley at the foot of a valley) a saying poems at the Puzzle Hall Inn, the Square Chapel, and elsewhere.

Which brings me to The mask and also back to the point where I started and the business of reference and allusion and resonance. It’s a collection I don’t read sequentially, though there are thematic elements. And this, I think, is because as you wander through the pages you’ll come across Mark Gertler, Kandinsky, Neruda,Whitman, Larkin, Heisengerg, Schrodinger, Schubert, Coleman Hawkins, Morgane le Fay, Roger of Ockham, Dennis Hopper, the Brontes, John Cage,Stanley Spencer, Kant, Kraftwerk, Rothko, and all the cerebral lobes. Amongst others. Some of the poems may feel a bit rough round the edges, but the whole collection, for me, is like sitting round an assymetric dinnertable with lots and lots of clever, interesting people. Anthony gave me a free hand to choose, and though I was tempted to pick ‘Written on the eve of my 50th birthday’ which is a homage to Gregory Corso, in a sequence of homages, I’m going to pick Billy Ockham for its sardonic edginess, its wit and its wordplay. And, I guess, because there’s the ghost of Tony Harrison’s ‘Loiners’ in there somewhere, too. And because Occam’s razor is one of my favourite logical tools.

Billy Ockham

looked like he was at the end of his tether,

paced up and down – raged -got into a lather

 

decided to leave his Surrey village forever

with the curse of God, a sharpened razor

 

it wasn’t just the bawling of the butchered hogs

or the cartwheel squeaks or the barking dogs

 

the yeomen shouting, the pedlars peddling

the anvil twanging, and church bells ringing

 

that got Billy’s goat, or that he was ‘villein’

as earmarked by the Lord of the village

 

nor the hall-mote blackballing Billy’s

social climb to the lore of peasant yeomanry

 

more that the night before in a drunken state

he’d taken the blessed life of his namesake

 

a man Billy had envied from afar

a man revered as ‘good’ and bound for Oxford

 

the village Seer, a Latin speaker, logician

(a word Billy didn’t comprehend…..’Lodgeishtinian!’)

 

a Franciscan monk under Holy Orders

up to his neck in blood in Ockham’s latrines

 

Billy died. Same vein. Same blade. Intestate.

Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate

 

was sent down, in folklore, as Ockham’s Razor

 

I keep reading this, puzzled by oddities of punctuation, and enjoying the tasty linguistic relish of it. Thank you, Anthony, for being this week’s guest.

And, like I say, the rest of you can do much worse than spend time with the whole collection. The Mask by Anthony Costello is published by Lapwing Publications. It’s £10 well spent. It truly is.

Now, I am committed to writing reviews and to writing some stuff of my own for the next week or so. You may have to put up with a week off, or to an edited repost of an earlier cobweb strand. But thank you for your time and for your company. See you later