Milestones and landmarks (3)…with Kim Moore

drowned village 2

[Just to bring you up to date:

Today’s post will be the 275th since the cobweb was started in April 2014. I realised a short time ago, on the the basis that each post averages out at about 2000 words, sometime recently we passed the half million word mark. I reckon that’s worth celebrating, so I asked three poets to be guests again. I could have asked lots of people and namechecked many more…Hilary Elfick, Andy Blackford, and The Poetry Business in particular.

However, I wanted to say thank you for three landmark moments…

first solo guest poetry reading,

first invitation to be a guest blogger,

and

first time as guest poet on a poetry blog. Which, for me, was April 2013

So. Here we go.]

Like I say, there are so many people in the poetry world to whom I owe so much. Almost all of them have been guests on the cobweb, and some of them are extra special. However, I thought I’d stick to ‘milestones‘, and the final one of three is Kim Moore. She’s been a guest more times than anyone else, and she’s probably name checked more than anyone else (though it may be a very close-run thing with the Poetry Business).

I’ve been a fan of her poetry blog, The Sunday Poem for a long time, so when Kim invited me to send her a poem for her poetry blog it was a very big deal. I’d gone to a Puzzle Hall Poets Live night, in the days when Gaia Holmes was running it. Kim was the guest poet;I did one poem on the open mic and Kim took a punt on it.  Now, four years ago I’d had very few poems published, and I’d certainly produced no books or pamphlets. It’s moments like this that show just how important to your confidence it can be to have your writing validated by someone sharing it.

But that’s not all. Since then, Kim has been inspirational in all sorts of ways, not least via her residential courses. I’ve had two prize-winning poems come out of those. She’s taught me how to be rigorous with my own stuff ,how to read,  how to breathe through poems with long sentences (we both like those). She helped me to write honestly about the death of my son, and to find a language to frame it in. She gave me (and others) the example of her own courage in confronting personal trauma in her poetry, and also (for me) the way in which the myths of transformation can be a holding frame for our own stories. She has never stopped encouraging me to believe I can do it. Whatever ‘it’ is.

I’ve said thank you before. If you have the time, you can follow the link to something I wrote the year her first collection The Art of Falling came out https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/12/27/centenary-special-and-a-christmas-star-kim-moore/

When I read that collection I was convinced it would make a big splash. I couldn’t understand why it didn’t win every prize going. I felt personally affronted when it seemed to very quietly slip out of sight. But two years on, it’s suddenly got the recognition it deserves. Kim writes about this in a moment. So. On with the post.

I asked her for a poem from an earlier blog, and this is the one I chose. Whenever I read it, I think of the drowned villages that appear in times of drought. I like everything about it, its fully imagined landscape, that strange (but right) image of the man and woman whose hair flowed to their waists…and the bleakness of its vision, its pity for the human condition makes me weep.

 

drowned village 1

How The Stones Fell

(after Ovid)

 

We learnt that we were born from stones, that the last

man and woman to survive the flood climbed from their raft

onto the shoulders of a  mountain and looked across the water

which had swallowed everything.

 

For days there had been a sea but no shore, now as the water

curled back its lip and let go of the tops of trees

the man and woman followed, walking down the slope,

their feet touching the edges of the water,

 

their arms full of the bones of the earth, their hair long

and flowing to their waists.  They cast stones behind them

and from the hand of the man a stone fell and grew into

another man and from the hand of the woman

 

a stone fell and grew into another woman and so we grew,

our eyes like flints and our mouths tasting of the earth.

We were born from stones and we were destined to live

like stones, warming ourselves in the sun,

 

cracking when the temperature fell, we said there was

something of the sea in us, but in this, like many other things

we lied, it was never water in our hearts, we carried stones

in our pockets, we carried them in our hands.

 

It’s a poem that matters, isn’t it? It’s a real poem. A real poem?  I stick with Clive James’ definition. A real poem is  ‘Well separated’ . You hear ‘the force of real poetry at first glance’ . It’s marked by its clarity, its avoidance of ‘the spectacular expression that outruns its substance.’ What an important idea that is ..just that one word ‘substance.’ How good it is to be reminded that a poem has to be about something real and concrete, because ‘everything depended, and still depends, on the quality of the moment…whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in.’ 

That explains to me why some poems simply nail ‘it’ for me. Poems that are memorable for themselves, that hold together, and surprise, and make themselves your friends for life. Like the poems that Gordon Hodgeon let me share with you. Like Jo Bell’s ‘The archaeologist of rivers’ and ‘Eve naming the birds’. Like Fiona  Benson’s Bright travellers. Robin Robertson’s ‘At Roane Head’.  But above all, and especially in these last three years, poem after poem by my inspiration, involuntary mentor, and special landmark/milestone guest, Kim Moore. And here she is to bring us up to date:

“The last time I appeared in the Cobweb was Christmas 2015 as a ‘Christmas Star’.  I can’t believe it was a full two years ago!  Back then, in 2015, I was still working as a peripatetic brass teacher for two days a week, which involved working in three schools and conducting three junior brass bands every week.   The rest of my gainful employment was spent as a freelance writer, running poetry workshops and reading at festivals. 

The biggest change since then is I’m no longer a brass teacher.  In September 2016  I was lucky enough to be awarded a Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarship to study for a PhD, which meant I could take a step away from music teaching and become a full-time student.  My PhD is a creative-critical PhD, which means that part of my thesis will be my second full-length collection. 

Brass teaching is the only job I’ve known – although as a student I had part-time jobs, brass teaching was the first job I had which became part of my identity.  It feels strange to not be a brass teacher anymore.  At the same time, I know it was the right time for me to move on.  It’s easy now to feel nostalgic about teaching, and if I go and see the junior band that I set up and built over those 13 years, I’m filled with longing to go back into my old life.  I almost enjoy that feeling of longing though – because it means I don’t remember the annoying aspects of the job. 

My PhD project is to write poetry which explores and represents experiences of sexism and I’m particularly interested in whether poetry can play a part in changing the way we talk about sexism, or even who talks about it.  A member of the audience at a reading came up to me a couple of weeks ago and said they  hadn’t even thought about the fact that they hadn’t read any women writers during their degree, until they’d heard me read poetry about sexism.  For me, this proves that poetry can be part of a conversation that will hopefully change the way we think and discuss sexism.  I know that writing poetry about my own experiences of sexism has changed the way I think about those experiences  – so poetry becomes a way of investigating, a way of knowing about not-knowing. 

The PhD has given me the time and space to think about the type of poet I want to be, and the type of poetry I want to write, and what I think poetry is for.  I don’t know all the answers to those questions yet, but I feel like I’m getting closer.  In 2015, I mentioned a sequence I was working on – ‘All The Men I Never Married’.  Who knew that this would grow into a fully-fledged PhD? Not me!

I’m still continuing with my freelance work as a writer around the PhD.  Luckily for me, I have a mortal fear of being bored, and I like working till late at night – usually till midnight, so I manage to fit in everything I want to do.  I am part of Versopolis, a European-funded poetry project which helps promote the work of ‘young’ poets in Europe – this year I got to read at the amazing Struga Poetry Festival in Macedonia as part of this project.  I run Dove Cottage Young Poets**, a fortnightly writing group for teenagers, which is one of my favourite things I get to do as a writer.  My friend Pauline Yarwood and I set up Kendal Poetry Festival in 2015 and we’ve had two successful sold-out festivals, and are planning our third, which will be running 7th-9th September 2018.  My favourite part of my work as a freelance writer is running residentials.  A residential poetry course changed my life, and I believe they can be powerful and exciting.  This will sound cheesy, but the participants who come on my courses feel like part of my poetry family now.  Many of them return year after year, and it is a real privilege to work with them as writers over the years.

Perhaps the most exciting thing that has happened to me happened very recently – my book, published in 2015, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.  Maybe I’m destined to win prizes with the name Geoffrey in the title? The judges were Gillian Clarke, Katharine Towers and Tom Gatty, and Gillian said such nice things about my collection in her speech that she made my mum and dad cry.  It was particularly nice to win this prize because I knew nothing about it until I’d already won it, so no nail-biting shortlists, just a lovely surprise that I wasn’t expecting.

**I should have said something earlier about Kim’s generosity, and about how hard she works, and about her concern for those young poets, too. Hannah Hodgson is one of them, and she’s been a guest poet on the cobweb. Not only a poet, then, but an inspirational teacher too.

I’m going to finish with three poems I chose from the many she sent me. The first one I loved the first time I heard her read it at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds. It’s got the long sentences that she effortlessly breathes through, that never lose their balance, and possibly my favourite image, the moment that draws me in, that memorises itself

 

 we lay twice a week

in each other’s beds like two unlit candles.

 

 

 All the Men I Never Married
No 1.
(after Andrew McMillan)

 

There was the boy who I met on the park

who tasted of humbugs and wore

a mustard yellow jumper, and the kickboxer

with beautiful long brown hair that he tied

with a band at the nape of his neck, and the one

who had a constant ear infection so I sat always

on his left, and the guy who worked in an office

and could only afford to fill up his car with £2

worth of petrol and the trumpet player I loved

from the moment I saw him, dancing

to the Rolling Stones. The guy who smoked weed

and got more and more paranoid, whose fingers

flickered and danced when he talked, the one

whose eyes were two pieces of winter sky,

a music producer, long-legged and full of opinions

and more trumpet players, one who was too short

and not him, and one who was too thin and not him,

are you judging me yet, are you surprised?

Let me tell you of the ones I never kissed,

or who never kissed me, the trombonist

I went drinking with, how we lay twice a week

in each other’s beds like two unlit candles.

We were not for each other and in this we were wise,

we were only moving through the world together

for a time. There was a double bassist who stood

behind me and angled the body of his bass into mine

and shadowed my hands on its neck and all I could feel

was heat from his skin and the lightest breath

and even this might have been imagined.

I want to say to them now though all we are to each other

is ghosts, once you were all that I thought of.

When I whisper your names, it isn’t a curse or a spell or a blessing.

I’m not mourning your passing or calling you here.

This is something harder, like walking alone in the dusk

and the leaves, this is the naming of trees,

this is a series of flames, this is watching you all disappear.

 

Previously published in The Dark Horse

 

The next one reminds me of an exercise that Kim set…I think it might use a Clare Shaw poem as a starting point….but the focus is on those sins of omission that plague us sometimes before we wake up properly. The memory of a wrong that passes without our intervention, because we’re afraid to do what we think is right.

street row

 

 

   All the Men I Never Married
No. 15

 

Remember that night we’d been out drinking

and on the way home heard raised voices,

 

saw a couple across the road, arguing, leaning

towards each other and then he slapped her,

 

once, across the face then turned and walked away.

She stood there for a while and then she followed,

 

down Rawlinson Street as the lights from passing cars

fell on her, then swept on by.  We didn’t call out

 

or phone the police.  We didn’t speak, not to her

or him or to each other.   When we got home

 

we didn’t talk about the woman in the denim skirt,

holding her white shoes by the straps.  I wasn’t

 

close enough to see her feet, yet I remember them,

the blackened soles from walking on the pavement,

 

the sore on the heel where the strap had rubbed

and raised a patch of red.  We did not speak of her

 

and so we made her disappear, limping into the night,

trying to keep up with that man, who knew she’d follow

 

so did not turn around, hands thrust into his jeans,

front door key hot between his fingers.

 

Previously published in Poetry Ireland Review

 

Finally, an absolute stunner, a showstopper. A poem that should make you rethink what you feel about Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian urn’ and its ‘still unravished bride of quietness’. How easily that ‘unravished’ can slide past your attention. It makes me think especially of Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne” that’s so astonishingly made, so flawless, that you forget what it’s about, what’s happening. I chose this to say thank you for the gift of Ovid, and the tales of metamorphosis and transformation, and for the way Kim’s poems that confront the business of domestic abuse and its trauma made me see the Greek myths differently, and made them help me to see my own life more clearly.

ApolloDaphneFeature

 When I Open

When I open my ribs a dragon flies out
and when I open my mouth a sheep trots out
and when I open my eyes silverfish crawl out
and make for a place that’s not mine.

When I open my fists two skylarks fly out
and when I open my legs a horse gallops out
and when I open my heart a wolf slinks out
and watches from beneath the trees.

When I open my arms a hare jumps out
and when I show you my wrists a shadow
cries out and when I fall to my knees
a tiger slips out and will not answer to me.

Now that the tree that grew in my chest
has pulled up its roots and left, now that I’m open
and the sky has come in and left me with nothing
but space, now that I’m ready to lie like a cross

and wait for the ghost of him to float clear away,
will my wild things come back, will the horse
of my legs and the dragon of my ribs,
and the gentle sheep which lived in my throat

like a breath of mist and the silverfish
of my eyes and the skylarks of my hands
and the wolf of my heart, will they all come back
and live here again, now that he’s left,

now I’ve said the word whisper it rape
now I’ve said the word whisper it shame
will my true ones, my wild, my truth,
will my wild come back to me again?

 

Previously published in The North

daphne

 

What a way to end the year. Here’s a prayer and a candle lit for 2018. May your wild come back to you again. Although , in Kim’s case, I think that it possibly has.

 

If you haven’t already bought her books, then now’s the time.

If we could speak like wolves:  [smith|doorstop 2012]

(available via the Poetry Business)

The art of falling   [Seren 2015]

 

Milestones and landmarks (1)…. with Gaia Holmes

IMG_0978

Today’s post will be the 270th since the cobweb was started in April 2014. I realised a short time ago, on the the basis that each post averages out at about 2000 words, sometime recently we passed the half million word mark. I reckon that’s worth celebrating, so I’ve asked three poets to be guests again. I could have asked lots of people and namechecked many more…Hilary Elfick, Andy Blackford, and The Poetry Business in particular.

However, I wanted to say thank you for three landmark moments…first solo guest poetry reading, first invitation to be a guest blogger, and first time as guest poet on a poetry blog. So. Here we go.

Ladies and gentlemen, the altogether wonderful Gaia Holmes!!!!!

Gaia has been very important to me. One of the people who validate what you’re doing. They may not know they’ve done it, or think that what they did do was no big deal. As a teacher, I’m often thrown when I encounter folk I taught years ago, and who say that I did X or Y or Z that changed their lives. Every teacher has had this experience, and very often don’t have any memory of what it was they did. They were just doing their job. Anyway, to cut a long story short, Gaia gave me my very first single billing guest poetry reading at The Puzzle Hall Inn. This was before I’d had anything published, but it was one of those occasions which made me feel I should do something about it, if only to have something to sell at poetry readings.

Gaia’s been a guest twice before…why not check out what I wrote about her? here are the links

 

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/09/14/magic-toyshops-a-polished-gem-9-gaia-holmes/

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2016/07/17/alchemies-and-islands-and-a-gem-revisited-gaia-holmes/

 

Right. Good to have you back. Now here’s my Milestone Thankyou to Gaia Holmes. I’ll start with a poem she shared with us previously, and then let her bring us up to date.

 

Whenever I read Gaia Holmes’ poems, or hear her read, I’m put in mind of the world and work of Peter Blake. To nail my colours to the mast, this image of Alice is how I’d picture Gaia’s narrative voice.

QUEEN peter blake

Not quite other-worldly, but knowing things I have no immediate access to, and aware that the world is strange and lovely and that it can make us vulnerable. It’s a voice that makes me think of the doughty, unworldly, resourceful, compassionate clear-eyed heroines of folk tales. The ones who have no expectation of the kindness of  stepmothers and stepfathers and spiteful siblings, who are stoic about their work among the ashes, who undertake unnerving journeys through forests to the hen’s leg houses of cruel aunts, who understand that everything you are given is a gift to be used for the betterment of the world….all that.

As soon as I open up her her poems and read, rather than rely on this memory, then before long I’ll be chilled and close to tears. There’s a lot of ice; there’s even an Ice Hotel. There’s the cold of loneliness and love gone wrong, and broken things that might be hearts or dreams that make you think twice about walking in bare feet. There’s the orphan voice of a narrator who sees things that no-one seems to notice her seeing. Like this.

The Allure Of Frost
Boxing day.
No fire in the grate and unopened presents
stacked around the base of the tree and fairy lights muted,
switched off, and the brandy that swells the fruit starting to eat
the cake in its tin and all the mirrors doused with tea towels
and your raw-eyed mother keening into a pillow in her bedroom
and too many men in black whispering and nodding
and I don’t know what the rosary is and whether to curtsey
to the priests when I hand them their tea
and the phrase ‘fruits of thy womb’ seem too ripe and too rich
for this and, Mary mother of God, I don’t know
how to cross myself and fear I’m invoking the devil
and the scent of death’s so thick
that it’s tainted the water and it’s heavy in the curtains
making them bend the rail
and your lips taste of the oils that grease your dead sister
and when I kiss you, you push me away and I want to spit
and weep and slap the corpse where she lies in her coffin
all done-up with hair grips and lipstick,
her sunken cheeks plumped out with wads of cotton wool
and the rictus of sin softened
by the crust of Rimmel Natural Beige powdering her face
and it’s so hot in here
that the cheese is sweating and the butter is liquid.
The chocolate coins are dripping from the tree.
Your Aunt’s un-bitten sandwiches
are curling upwards on her plate
and the lilies are wilting and stinking in their vases
and the cat stands quivering and retching
against the cold crack beneath the back door.
Outside the frost, not knowing any difference,
continues to sparkle. And I’d like to go out there.
I’d like to stand in it until my feet turn blue.

I think this poem has everything in it that I think of as ‘Gaia’s poems’. The piling on and on of sensory detail, the Alice in Wonderland, or folktale, sense that the logic of things is wrong, the wistfulness, the vulnerablity, and the pluck of a girl who will stand in a sparkling frost till her feet turn blue and the world becomes real again. Lovely.

 

And now your update and two new poems. Over to Gaia.

13613144_1729970957252816_1320774807572407494_o

“Gosh, is it a year since I appeared on the cobweb?! Phew! Yes, looking back at that post I see my poems were a chilly little bunch- full of winter, death, hospitals and shivering islands. I think I’ve written most of that time out of my system, for now at least…though most of my poems are slow walkers and tend to come to me two or three years after the experience…since that blog post some nice things have happened in my writing life…I spent the whole of January reading and writing within the cosy walls of Hawthornden Castle near Edinburgh. I was there with 5 other writers and all we were expected to do, all day, every day, was to write. It was like being a child again. We were fed, coddled and given a whole rich month without our usual responsibilities. Whilst I was there I wrote loads of new poems and sequenced and edited poems for my 3rd full-length poetry collection which will be published some time in 2018. I also learned that my poem ‘Guests’ had won 1st prize in the Bare Fiction Poetry Competition and this was a great boost which added fuel to my pen. After returning from the castle with the manuscript of my 3rd collection ready, at last, to be sent out into the world I focused on a collaborative project with fellow poet, Winston Plowes which culminated in a joint poetry collection called Tales from the Tachograph, published by Calder Valley Poetry. The poems in this collection all deal with the realms of roads, service stations and motorways. I haven’t written much lately but I’m not panicking about this as I used to do. I am using the time to read about colour, to immerse myself in the wonderful art of Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Andrea Kowch, Catrin Welz-Stein, and I am learning how to draw flamingos as I think that someday it might be a useful skill to have. I am filling my notebook with them.”

And now, the poems. She sent me loads. I’ve chosen two.

 

 

 

In transit

 

How heavily they lift

their paper coffee cups.

How heavily they sigh

and plough spilt sugar off the table

with the sides of their hands.

How heavily, like arthritic camels,

they turn away from each other,

pretend to study

the barista bashing coffee grounds

into the stainless steel bin,

observe the man walking his dog

between the service station trees,

stare at rain or a moon

that isn’t there.

 

How hungrily they gobble down

these distractions, this transient space

where women, wet-necked with perfume,

and men, carrying neat bunches

of forecourt flowers,

prepare to drive home.

 

How tenaciously they cling

to the in-between,

wanting to stuff their mouths

and their pockets full of it,

wanting to soften their worlds with it,

because when they have walked

the distance from café to car,

when they have shut the doors,

sealed themselves into the miles,

there will be static,

there will be him and her

focussing on the rear-view mirror,

watching other people driving home

to warm houses that smell of bread

and oregano,

where red wine breathes

on the kitchen table

and touch is not a shock,

 

there will be him and her

craving the glow of those better lives

as they go back to the cold things

they cannot talk about,

the clean, unloved rooms

they sit apart in,

the draughts and silences

they breed,

the brittle cheese

and boiled potatoes

frosting in a fridge

that always ices over.

(From Tales from the Tachograph (Calder Valley Press, 2017).)

hopper

Hope

Though it seems so dark

and the ceiling of the world’s a wound

and so many hours have been bruised,

and so many lives have been broken,

there are stars up there tonight

and we must name them,

we must love them,

we must whistle them down like dogs

in faith of their shine

and they will be loyal.

They will show us where their bones are.

They will teach us

their soft, bright tricks of devotion.

 

And even on the blackest nights,

when hope and protest

are knotted in our throats,

when our smiles have been tarred

and buckled with the weight and stain

of shadows,

we have to remember they are there,

those glittering sky-hooked prayers,

prickling and humming,

embedded in that thick and lovely blue,

guarding us from spite,

keeping the moon from slipping,

herding the pale lamb-like dawns

into our sleeping houses

where they flow

through all our rooms

fluent and loving as milk.

 

Cold Dawn

 

Thanks for being my first milestone guest today, Gaia. Thank you for the poems.

 

 

Gaia Holmes’ poetry ….you know christmas as upon us.

Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed  [Comma press 2006]  via Amazon: anything from £15 – £65

Lifting the piano with one hand      [Comma Press 2013]  £7.99

Tales from the Tachograph   (co-authored with Winston Plowes)                                                                    [Calder Valley Press, 2017).

 

Lost and found in translation: John Foggin

girl

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

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

“The translation-maker’s duty is to the original, yes; but his primary duty is to the new poem which, through the process of translation, “becomes” the translator’s poem and not just a transliteration of the original poet’s work. In this view, the translator is active and not passive; an originator and not a transporter; a transformer and creator and not just some drudge who, dictionary in hand, roots for and writes down linguistic equivalents.

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

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

He goes further:  “These are not, it should be said, scholarly translations…I played fast and loose with form and image.”…….. “Translation is never fixed or finished; it answers a contemporary need to engage with and remake in the language we have available to us whatever calls out to us from the past”.

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

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

clockwork

Like clockwork

 

Old mother. Shapeless, bloated;

yesterday they found you on the street

and now you’re carrying the card:

 

officially unstable. You husband went

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

How your lungs labour; tired wings.

 

Your wasted years, the years you never lived,

are clenched  knots of old arguments

you couldn’t win. The table’s rigged,

 

the cards are marked. You have a ticket

to the Public Gardens. Wild flowers,

herbs and simples. Asphodel.

 

Welcome to your pension-free retirement;

welcome to a crochet comfort blanket

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

 

Poor Ophelia in your little music box

the apparatchiks engineered. A trap

of stiff coiled springs and ratchets

 

where you wake and wail and wail;

you croon old nursery tunes and discords;

you grow slow; you are catatonic.

 

And this is the System’s lying diagnosis.

It’s prescription: factitious dramas,

depressives. Psychosis is in its blood

 

like yeast in bread; like genes.

The politicians of the media

chew listlessly, hand feed you nostrums

 

simple as barbed wire border fences.

Parliament squats in a Neo-Gothic dream.

Plays chess with you. With all the people.

 

child on a step

Waiting

The mountains of Buda were green

and smiling in the distance. Hope

planted trees that whispered.

Nine carpenters came before me.

Men with calloused hands who built roofs

that cradled my first years. My forefathers.

 

The years and family collapsed

like ancient rafters, fell on the deaf ears

of yellow daffodils that nodded,

as I waited by the river,

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

wrapped in his dreamed immortality.

 

Lost. Absorbed by anthill circuses

I saw crouching dragons

where I waited in that old, slow

Danube backwater; waited,

tranced, forgot the breaking

of my family, the twitching of its severed hands.

 

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

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

hands

 

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

 

 

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.

Polished gem: Shirley McClure

IMG_0995

In a few weeks I’ll be back in the blue house in the middle of the picture. Almaserra Vella, in the village of Relleu in Alicante. I’m not sure I need an excuse for posting it, but I do have one. Because it’s the house where I met today’s guest poet..a year ago, on a writing week tutored by Ann Sansom. She’s not the first guest from that week. We’ve met Jane Clarke and Martin Reed, and equally, another guest who I wouldn’t have met but for the Old Olive Press…my friend Hilary Elfick. I’m not sure why it took me so long to ask Shirley McClure to share her work with us. However. Better late than never, and I’m delighted to see you all looking so smart and keen. You’re a credit to yourselves.

By way of introduction, then, a story I thought twice about sharing, and then decided it was too good not to. You know how it is at a writing workshop. Deep concentration, silence, the susurrus of paper, the scratch of pens. Sighs. The creak of a chair. And the task. It wasn’t one I associate with Ann Sansom…she’d given each of us a postcard of a portrait. The task was to adopt the voice of a character in the picture, or to create a stream of consciousness sort of thing. I got the equivalent of a ‘Hello’ photoshoot of three languid landed sisters by John Singer Sargent. Shirley McClure, it turned out, had been given one by John Waterhouse ….one of my favourite painters…..of his favourite model, in the guise of a nymph or a mermaid or a minor deity or a dryad. He did a lot of those. Anyway, it was one of those spells in a morning’s writing when I sort of drift off, my mind elsewhere, and folk were reading their drafts, and suddenly I was startled by this sardonic, no-messing Irish voice saying                    ‘John; I know you want to ride me…..’

Since then I’ve read Stone dress, and found myself brought up short, and sometimes close to tears, by the poems about mastectomy, about the relentless business of cancer and its treatments, by lines like these from A marriage: ‘At home we made delicate love /watchful of bandages’, or from Photoshoot ‘ Nurses rave about the handiwork, / scars are praised…..yours is the best we’ve taken……there is more than one way to find fame.’

Bloodaxe poet, Katie Donovan describes that voice for me when she writes of Shirley’s recitations of deadpan lust. That’s the word I wanted: deadpan

But that was the first time I heard Shirley McClure reading.  I’ve said before that it’s the voice that sells me the poem, and I’ve also said, more than once, that the Irish have an unfair advantage when it comes to voice. Not all the Irish, I suppose I should say. Not the Irish of the Falls Road and the Shankhill, where every vowel sounds like a grudge or a grievance . But it’s that drily sardonic Irish voice that I hear when I read so many of Shirley’s poems, and I love it. I like the drawl, the vowel song.

stone.dress1 jpg

And now it’s time to introduce her. Born in Waterford in 1962,  Shirley lives in Bray, Co. Wicklow.She studied English Literature and Spanish at Trinity College Dublin and undertook a Master’s degree in Latin-American Studies at Liverpool University. She went on to do a variety of jobs including volunteering in a mens’ hostel in Liverpool; teaching English as a foreign language in Reading, Dublin, Vigo and Quito; tutoring in literacy and creative writing at the Dublin Institute of Adult Education and Tosach, an AnCo centre in Dublin’s inner city; project work in Focus Point (now Focus ireland) which included drama, literacy and counselling; teaching English to Vietnamese refugees in Dublin. Since 1992 she has been a natural health practitioner and teacher. She practices shiatsu and aromatherapy (see http://www.shirleymcclure.com) and works with a number of community and holistic organisations, teaching and facilitating groups. She also teaches creative writing with a particular interest in writing and health.

stone dress 2

Shirley’s collection, Stone Dress (Arlen House) and her CD Spanish Affair, with her own poems plus poetry and music from invited guests, both came out in 2015. All proceeds from the CD go to Arklow Cancer Support Group, where Shirley facilitates a writers’ group. Her first poetry collection, Who’s Counting? (Bradshaw Books) won Cork Literary Review’s Manuscript  Competition 2009. She won Listowel Writers’ Week Originals Poetry Competition 2014, and the title poem of her new collection, ‘Stone Dress’, won the Penfro Poetry Competition. And now you’ll be wanting to know why she’s a prize-winner. Time for the poems. She’s sent me a slack handful from Stone dress, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

The first one is typical of her clear-eyed unflinching gaze, and the diction that tells you exactly how to listen to the poem.

Engagement

Nurse dresses the wound,

we talk hormones, oestrogen,

how the levels will drop

like water in a summer pool

that yields only a dry ring,

a glaze of salt.

 

She says I can swim in salt
water, now that the wound
is healing; she says to ring
if there’s a problem. Oestrogen
used to be my friend. The pool
is out of bounds, but I can drop

 

down into the waves, swim till I drop,

crawl out covered in salt.

Sea water gathers in a pool

at my feet, and even the wound

shines. Sunbathers beam oestrogen,

and I stand, hopeless in a ring

 

of bare-breasted women. Can’t ring

any nurse about this. Can’t drop

out of the world because of oestrogen.

I change in our room, taste salt.

My sun-dress won’t cover the wound,

I pull on an old t-shirt, curl up by the pool.

 

You find me at the pool.

Still not used to your ring –

the ring came before the wound,

before the floor dropped

out of the world, before salt

baths and the war against oestrogen.

 

– Was it the oestrogen                                            

you fell for, or the reflecting  pool,                

or my image conserved in salt?                         

Would you rather I gave back the ring,                

would you rather we dropped                               

the whole plan? I wound

 

you with questions, wound with oestrogen,

the drops I have left, run from the pool,

your ring glued to my finger with salt.

 

It was Kim Moore who made me try to write a sestina, and it was Kim Moore who explained that what a sestina is ideally suited for is the exploration of an obsessional idea. Which is exactly why this poem grips and grips and won’t let go. That, and its echoes of the mythic, of women turned to salt, of the iconography of rings, of the lost, like naiads by pools in legendary clearings. So many layers, and always, always, rooted in the here and now, the unavoidable. Stunning. By contrast, the next one is in what feels like more familiar territory, and what makes me think of Heaney…and, indeed, of Jane Clarke. A poem full of love. And, I think, the only poem I know about table tennis.

Best Of Three

When it first came in, they’d use cigar box lids

for bats, a champagne cork for a ball.

They played it after dinner, as a parlour game,

the fathers back from India keeping score,

the uncles in their uniforms shaking hands.

 

Our dad taught us how to hold the blade,

coached us on how the sleight of hand required

to spin the ball depended on your stance,

your handshake grip, the flick of wood and rubber,

showed the three of us the chop, the loop, the kill.

 

Jack Frost  was outside but we were holed up

round the table in the echoing house, and sweating.

Everyone played, even Uncle Arthur, whose hands

big as mill wheels dizzied and spun the spectators,

each grateful for the pipe-smoke lightness of the  ball.

 

Last night in the Parochial Lodge, my hands shook

as the ball danced away from me. New rules,

faster, up to eleven only and  two serves each.

Slowly I corrected my footing as though

my father still stood by the net, score-keeping.

 

I’m hooked right from the first line; if this was to turn up in a bunch of submissions for a competition I was judging, it would go straight into the ‘probables’ pile, just for that first line. Ah, the power of the pronoun, that artful ‘it’. And then, like Heaney’s father, digging:   my father……….scorekeeping.  Lovely. As is the next poem.

Katie Donovan says of Shirley McClure’s work in Who’s counting: “Quirky and wise, studded with razor-sharp double entendres and droll fantasies, these poems introduce a refreshing new voice in Irish poetry. Fuelled by a combative curiosity about the underbelly of human relationships, this is a poetry of candour and folly, and ultimately of discovery. Themes include sexual jealousy, bereavement, and how a woman regards her physical self. …….. Here is a poet sure of her craft, ready to share incantations of desire and domesticity with poise and elan. From recitations of deadpan lust to the sensitivities of one who is flying on the margins of mortality, the poems in Who’s Counting? become friends whom we cannot resist revisiting.”

I hear the voice that I heard a year ago in Spain whenever I read this poem.

The Kiss

I could have been

a better student – learned Lorca

from the library stacks,

 

not lying

on the shag rug

in the lecturer’s flat.

 

I half-listened to his Verde,

que te quiero verde,

knowing he would kiss me later;

 

half-believing that his tongue –

its twist and roll

around my own –

 

would transmit linguistics,

short-cut me

to fluency.

 

It’s the laconic bit about the shagpile rug in the lecturer’s flat, and its guiltless trangressiveness that makes me laugh, and then feel slightly guilty about. My bad. As one of my granddaughters says. But she writes sexy poems as well as harrowing ones does Shirley McClure. I’d like to share the whole collection ( all these poems are from Stone Dress)…but then you wouldn’t need to buy it, and you really, really must. So, just one more.  I wanted to share one about hoovering, but wordpress can’t cope with the formatting of a shaped poem, but I’m just as happy to share this one instead.

 

The Amorous Cat

 The Amorous Cat bookshop in Aigburth

closes its door for final time

– Liverpool Echo, 2012

 

Do you ever take a walk in Sefton Park,

browse in the bookshop on Lark Lane?

Is there still a bookshop on Lark Lane,

are any lefties left in Sefton Park?

 

Do you ever have occasion to remark

to Fabiana, Donna or Lorraine

how much you miss la lucha, the campaigns,

the prisoners’ letters, every Saturday a march?

 

Or could it be you never settled down,

that when you said don’t ever contact me

because I can’t forget you, that you meant it,

mean it still; oh, but I hope your Liverpool’s a town

grumbling with bookshops – that you’ve forgotten me,

just as I’ve kept my promise – written this, not sent it.

 

Actually, it’s nice to finish with a love letter, however bittersweet, rather than falling down a flight of stairs with a hoover. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself this afternoon, and I can see that you have. If you want to know more about Shirley McClure’s work you can check out her webpage here

http://www.thepoetryvein.com/

If you line up nicely, she will sign her book and sell you one. And if you forgot the money, then here’s where you can buy them once you get home.

Who’s Counting? from Amazon’s Book Store. … Paperback: 63 pages; Publisher: Bradshaw Books £9.00

Stone dress [Arlen House 2015] from Kenny’s bookstore:  http://www.kennys.ie/  €13.00

 

Next week we’ll be doing something slightly different, inspired by ‘Grand designs’.