A serious business, and a polished gem :Jennifer Copley

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toilet roll crop

Two things have stuck in my mind as the hook(s) I’ll hang this week’s post on.

I remember Ian McMillan saying, in a short film he made with Martin Wiley, something to the effect that ‘funny’ poetry is regarded as less important than ‘serious poetry’. When he said this I think he actually pronounced it as Serious Poetry, and I believe I knew what he meant, even though I also knew that what we mean by ‘funny’ is a lot more complicated than it might seem on the surface.

I thought of this when I saw in a Facebook post an image of faces crafted from toilet roll tubes. My first reaction was to laugh out loud. My second reaction was to see them as sinister and unsettling. They’re like the faces you might find in Breughel, or maybe in Bosch, and perhaps in some of Lautrec’s more grotesque sketches, and Boz’s illustrations for Dickens. They hover somewhere between caricature and realism. Unsettling is the word I’ll settle on.

The other thing was that for some reason I chose to take ‘funny’ poems to read on the open mic. at The Puzzle Poets Live monthly do this week. I particularly chose some of Rory Motion’s poems as well as a couple of my own. Now, it may be that you have never heard of Rory Motion, but you should. I’ve written before about how I started to do open mic poetry in folk clubs. What goes down well in folkclubs is poems that rhyme, and poems that are funny, and, preferably, poems that do both. I built up a list of ones that went down well, by people who wrote the kind of poems I still can’t write myself.

I built up a big file of stuff that wouldn’t let me down. Poets like Matt Harvey and Les Barker. I used a lot of Marriott Edgar. And I came to respect what Pam Ayres did. She’s a crafty, clever writer despite her TV persona. I’m very fond of ‘Clive the fearless birdman‘. I learned a lot from watching Ian Macmillan’s live performances in libraries and other small venues…especially when he worked with Circus of Poets. And I think Roger McGough is frequently brilliant.

bubble compilation 1

But the one who I came to enjoy and respect most was Rory Motion. You can find out about him via this link.  http://www.rorymotion.com/

He honed his stage skills on the stand-up comedy circuit in the late 80’s and early 90’s, being described by Time Out as a “a post-Hippie comic”, which by way of cheerful response is how he described Time Out. Finding the increasingly gladiatorial nature of the stand-up world too limiting, he decided in 1992, following a successful national tour with Frank Skinner, to move to Bwlch y Cibau, a small village in Powys.

A regular contributor to national radio, he has appeared on comedy shows, the literature panel game ‘Booked’ with Roger McGough and Miles Kington, and written and presented his own programmes on Radios 4 and 5. In 2001, Rory and fellow poet Matt Harvey created a series of programmes called ‘One Night Stanza’ which, in a victory for poetry lovers everywhere, made the coveted 6:30 Radio 4 comedy slot. In the same year Cassells published Rory’s collection of poems, ‘Neither is the Horse’. It’s still available, and remarkable value at £7.50 for a pocket-sized hardback of 125 pp of poems.

 

 

 

 

He performed at every Glastonbury Festival from 1989 up until 2008. ( He also paints landscapes, interiors and text-pieces, and in 2007 exhibited at the Peter Pears gallery in Aldeburgh, in conjunction with a reading at the Aldeburgh poetry festival).
Rory is a huge fan of the late Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band (which tells you a good deal) and in 2013 and 2014 supported them at the York Duchess. In 2015, at the Ilkley Literature festival, Rory gave an entertaining, and apparently very successful, practical tutorial on the mysteries of solving cryptic crosswords.

Why he’s not better known, I cannot fathom. But if you hunt down his flash fictions like Mid Wales (a darkly brilliant precis of Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill) or Spear of destiny (which item is for sale at a carboot sale in Totnes) or poems like  Mrs Donkersley’s Chutney (an extravagant rhapsody enacted on a bus between Pocklington and York) you’ll encounter a poet of real craft and imaginative engagement with the rich oddity of the world. It’s simply not possible to pigeon-hole or categorise him, but if I think of the company he might keep it would be poets like John Cooper Clark, and, particularly, Ivor Cutler (who regularly entertained, puzzled and unsettled me when I heard him on the radio…the Home Service as it was…in the late 1950s). Surreal, surprising, artful and impeccably crafted work. Funny, serious, and, yes, unsettling.

 

 

 

Which brings me to today’s guest, and a long-delayed post that I’ve been wanting to write for weeks, ever since I was invited to read at A poem and a pint in Ulverston, and where     I heard her read two poems that simply stuck in my mind like burrs and would not let me go…..because they were funny, spare, beautifully written, and, well, unsettling.

Time to introduce Jennifer Copley who lives in Barrow-in-Furness with her cat, dog, husband and a vast quantity of Victorian furniture inherited from her grandmother. She enjoys polishing and often gets ideas for poems while rubbing up the sideboard. 

You may have come across her work via Kim Moore’s The Sunday Poem but because I think she’s one of those talented poets who tend to fly under the radar, you may not know that she’s published four pamphlets including Ice (Smith Doorstop 2002) and House by the Sea (2003) and three full-length collections Unsafe Monuments (2006), Beans in Snow (Smokestack 2009) and Sisters also by Smokestack in 2013.

Sisters sprang from a photograph of two unknown girls she saw on a post-mortem website. The poems in the first half of the book imagine the lives of these two motherless girls brought up in a strict Victorian household. The second half explores the nature of sisterhood, the predicaments that siblings face, in life and in death. A new pamphlet is due shortly from Happenstance on whose website you’ll find the endorsement many of us would give several limbs for:

U.A. Fanthorpe has described [Jennifer Copley’s] work as ‘urgent, visceral, written out of a fierce commitment to truth’ and Carol Rumens finds ‘a Chagall-like, magical-realist quality to Copley’s delicate shape-shifting’.

She has been published by The Rialto, The North, Stand and PN Review, also twice in the Forward Prize Anthology. She was 2nd in the Cardiff International  and 3rd in the Bridport Poetry Prizes and although she was shortlisted for the Strokestown Prize twice and flogged all the way to County Roscommon, she didn’t win any money. I’m also gratified to learn (via Google) that for the last few years her poems have been used in Poetry Unseen Revision Papers for GCSE students.

In other words, she’s a serious poet; the whole nine yards, the full monty. And she writes poems not unlike the images I started the post with, poems that make you smile, or laugh, and then quickly reassess what just happened. I’d like to say they’re edgy, but they’re more subtle than that. Frequently, they’ll be as tender, lyrical but always clear-eyed, as these images from

Ten Places Where I See My Mother

Mondays, in the kitchen, her arms all suds.

I peer through steam but she’s disappeared

…………

Later she’ll be upstairs, taking off her wet blue dress

…………..

In the dark she’s in different places:

the end of my bed, the space by the wardrobe,

……………….

Her footprints glow for ages after she’s gone.

……………

Sundays, I see her under the earth,

peacefully asleep, her mouth slightly open,

but she comes to when I start arranging flowers.

 

What I love about this the matter-of-fact tone, the way this mother will never die and sees nothing remarkable about it. It makes me think of the ‘normalities’ of folk-tale and the narrow boundaries between the mundane and the wonderful. Although Jennifer Copley has something to say about them, too.

They’re only fairy tales, say our mothers,
who serve us porridge that’s far too hot;
and who are they that we should trust them
when they prick their fingers,        (from ‘Fairy Tales’)

I love the way she brings the reader up short in this line: ‘who are they that we should trust them’, the way it wryly and sardonically subverts my expectations of ‘our mothers’. Subversive..that’s the word; and that’s what the last line of The robin does..it subverts.

The Robin

– was dead but no one knew who’d killed him.
–Snow in the wind, said the sparrow.
–Ice in the water butt, said the wren.
–Frost on the five-barred gate, said the blackbird.
–A poisoned snail, said the thrush.
–God, said the canary who had no respect.
–Then they all turned on each other, shrieking and accusing, although
no one had liked the robin since he’d bullied the goldfinch children to death.

What makes very tiny children laugh is surprise (which may be frightening) followed by relief. Everyone who ever played ‘Boo!’ with child in a cot or a pram knows this. And Jenny Copley’s poems know this too. She herself says ‘I must tell stories. Stories about people (or animals) in improbable situations. I’m interested in how they react and how they resolve (or don’t) the things they face.’

So here we are with the two poems she sent me to share with you all, both, as it happens set in cellars of the kind you might finding Chris Van Allsberg’s wonderful book The mysteries of Harris Burdick. If you were looking for visual equivalents of the images that Jennifer Copley creates, you could do a lot worse than start there. Basement starts in a cellar in 1940, which sets up a set of expectations that’s immediately put in question by that flat but they feel safe here. 

Basement

1940, but they feel safe here,

between the ping-pong table

and the bottled fruit.

Light from a tiny barred window

spills down dust-motes.

There’s a birdcage

he always knocks his head on,

a cupboard that creaks.

 

Today it’s hot.

They remove more clothes than usual.

Her buttons roll into mouse-holes.

His braces, hurriedly unsnapped,

fly into a corner where they stay

for fifty years.

Upstairs, pans clatter.

Where’s Lizzy? Someone shouts

but with his tongue in her ear,

Lizzy doesn’t cotton on.

 

Not knowing the way war will turn,

all their arrangements,

love tokens,

sweat from their bodies,

moons from their fingers,

semen,

salt,

lie in scuffs on the floor.

I like the story-teller’s ‘they’ that demands you have to find out who ‘they’ are, between the deliberately comic ping-pong table and the bottled fruit, lit dimly by what comes through a window that’s ‘barred’. Which should make you think twice. Whoever they are, they come often because ‘there’s a birdcage / he always knocks his head on’. And yes, it’s comic, until it’s unsettling. Because they take off more clothes ‘than usual’ in a fumble of snapped-off buttons and unsnapped braces. A poem of desperate love in a time of war that’s not comic at all but as serious as salt and moons and semen. I love it.

 

cellar crop

The second poem, Cellar was the one that made me sit up and take notice at Ulverston. It has that quirkiness that makes me think of Ivor Cutler, and that disingenuous matter-of-fact quality that is so unsettlingly at odds with the story.

Cellar

Here’s where we live,

buried under ground,

our hats in our hands.

We came down in 1963

to fill up the scuttle

and the door slammed shut.

 

The light knocked off in 1984

so we live in the dark, bowed over

like the hulls of two old boats.

You say ‘tomato’ and I say ‘tom-ate-o’.

Apart from that we get on well enough.

 

Our children call down the coal hole

occasionally. They almost try the door

but their hearts aren’t in it.

After all, what would they say to us,

it’s been so long since we

kept a grip on things, on them.

 

Understated, memorable and unnerving.  I wish I could do work like that, so economically and apparently without effort. Thank you Jennifer Copley for the poems and waiting so patiently for me to write about them.

St Ives 2017 014

 

And now I’m going to check all my lists for the umpteenth time, and double-check my packing, because first thing tomorrow I’m off over to Greater Manchester to collect two poets and then we’re heading off to St Ives for a week of poetry reading and writing. There may not be a post next Sunday, but I reckon you can put up with that, and I’ll see you when I see you. Thank you for reading.

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

cow poetry

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

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

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

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

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

‘Matty lived for a whole year

in a hardwood and glass shed on the lawn’

or

She had her eighth baby, little Jude,

when all the students had gone home for Christmas’

or

‘Her first husband fell into a machine at work.

She missed the touch of his rough hands’

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

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

Goose

I saw her first at the bridge where we went

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

They all wanted her but she chose me.

Come with me for the goose, she said.

 

Her father’s face was swollen with burst veins,

his nose a welk. He winked at me

over the whisky glass. He squeezed my hand.

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

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

tipped his head to one side, and sidled off.

 

His mother lay all day on a chaise longue.

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

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

round the door. Get in here, Sis.

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

and footsteps rushing upstairs. Her brother scowled,

his oily hair swept back.

 

Here in our house she leads me blindfold

through ravines of corridors, and hollow caverns of rooms.

I stumble on footstools. Wardrobes embrace me

like portly dancing partners. In my room,

the apple brushes my lips, caresses my gums

but eludes my teeth. I sit on the iron bedstead

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

 

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

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

http://www.happenstancepress.org/

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