Well met; a Polished Gem: Christopher North

If you’ve followed the various strands of the cobweb for some time, you’ll have seen this photograph before. The limestone range that circles the villages of Sella and Relleu in Alicante, the village of Relleu itself, and, seen between the trees, the blue house. Almaserra, the old olive press that’s the home of today’s guest poet, Christopher North. I can say without any exaggeration that this place changed my life and made it clear to me that what I needed to do was to write poems. 

I can’t explain why it’s taken me so long to ask Christopher to be a guest, but I suppose the trigger was that this year he was one of the winners of the 2018 Poetry Business International Pamphlet Competition, a prize that he adds to the dozens he’s won over the last 20+ years. There’s a synergy here, because I’ve no doubt that the residential courses he runs at the old olive press are one of the two main reasons why I wrote poems that eventually won the same pamphlet prize in 2016. So be warned….this will not be an impartial review, but an enthusiastic ‘thank you’. 

I met Christopher at a coffee shop in Alicante Airport in 2013, where he told me that the guest tutor for the residential course I’d enrolled on was forced to cancel at short notice, and that I could have my money back and fly home, or take a punt and stay, and that he’d try to take over the tutoring duties for the week. I chose to stay, and it was one of the three best decisions I’ve ever made..we drove along the coast, and, just short of Benidorm, turned inland into a landscape I’d not imagined and which I’ve come to love. Big uncompromising limestone mountains, a blue reservoir, huge views. Places I learned to walk in and find the bones of a fox, among other things.

Christopher has quietly introduced me to a dried up 17thC dam, prehistoric cave paintings in a stifling remote valley, the best paella bar in Alicante, another which is a shrine to the Civil War and left wing revolution, a Stanza group in room decorated with crumbling late-renaissance frescoes, and, memorably a steep shale hill below a cliff where we went to find shards of Iberian pottery and where he ripped the arse out of his trousers. I wrote a sort of prose-poem for that

We’re climbing this hill

a shaly slope ,a broken spine of stone, the tilt of strata, all levels and layers , silicas, sandstones, 

blue, green, grey muds, coral flowers, when he says :  from here we have to bushwack

CUE:  

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

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

Whatever that is.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

This year is the first in six years that I haven’t been to one of the writing weeks that he and his wife Marisa host. It’s been like a year without Christmas. At the old olive press I’ve met so many writers and made lasting friendships. Tutors Mimi Khalvati, Jane Draycott, and Ann Sansom. Fellow residents Jane Kite, Shirley McClure, Wendy Klein, Carole Bromley, Fokkina Macdonald, Martin Reed, the photographer Ton Out, and, especially, Hilary Elfick and Gyula Friewald. Most of them have been guests on the cobweb, and you can find them easily enough. 

I’ve checked today, and established that of the poems I’ve written in workshops there 22 have been published, four have won prizes in competitions, and one, surreally, has been read to a bilingual audience in the frigid air-conditioned basement of El Corte Inglese in Murcia.

So there you are. The people, the friendships, the amazing places. I owe him so much, this urbane, companionable, erudite, entertaining man. Time to meet him and his poems. He’ll introduce himself better than I could .

“Through the seventies and eighties I worked as surveyor doing structural surveys, mortgage valuations, court work and some house-building I was in private practice with an expanding firm – and though I read a good deal of poetry, (to keep reasonably sane), I wasn’t writing it. I did keep a journal and the odd phrase or observation suggests that there was a spark of creativity in my writing. I sold my business in 1988 and was thus contracted to a corporate. I no longer had the weight of responsibility I carried before (I had five partners and about 30 employees) so I was freed up somewhat. By a mischance I attended week long writing course in Provence run by John Fairfax, of Arvon fame, and the poet Sue Stewart, who I believe later held a creative writing fellowship at Stirling University. It was a week that changed my life. John Fairfax was particularly encouraging. 

A little later I went to a Literary festival in Devon followed by a Lumb Bank week (at John Fairfax’s suggestion) and from on then poetry became a major element in my life.  When retirement from ranging rods and valuation tables came over the horizon, I  had to honour an old promise to  my wife Marisa that we would move to her country of birth, Spain. I had long carried the idea of facilitating residential courses in poetry – and ten years mixed up with the London poetry scene, and eight years running my own poetry workshop, we looked for a place suitable for housing Arvon style residential courses. After a number of abortive negotiations we find a derelict industriel building on the lip of a ravine within the ‘casco’ of a mountain village. As soon as we saw the rear terrace with its panoramic view of terraced mountains and a 10thcentury castle, we knew we had found the right place. It was an old olive press with the machinery still there – albeit under mounds of rubble. In two years we rebuilt  the ‘Almassera’ always with the view of creating an ambience for creative courses. We had our first pilot week in 2002 .

After  ten years, in the nineties, mixed up with the London poetry scene, and eight years running my own poetry workshop, Metro-land Poets, I had the confidence and contacts to engage the poetry elite as tutors and host a huge number of aspirant poets and writers from England, Scotland, Ireland , Wales, France , Germany, Holland along with a dash of Americans. Running these courses has been an intense pleasure for us. I have attended most of the courses as a student, so had the in house perk of five or six course a year with the likes of Mark Doty, Michael Donaghy, Mimi Khalvati, Matthew Sweeney, Alfred Carn Penny Shuttle, Vicky Feaver, Ann Sansom, Tammy Yoseloff, Jo Shapcott., Christopher Reid, Graham Fawcett, James Harpur, Mario Petrucchi and others.  As a result my own poetry developed rapidly. We have also hosted retreats in our annexe in a village house.

Poetry grows in the doing of it, in causing it to become organically part of you and part of the day, every day. It is ancient, endless and essential – more so now than at any time, save possibly when the country is at war.” 

He chairs The UK Poetry Society‘ Stanza Alacant ’in Benissa, Spain which is now in its eleventh year. He is currently working on a monograph exploring his diary entries during the 25 years of the ‘Way With Words Literary Festival’ in  Dartington , Devon, England.

Christopher’s  first collection ‘A Mesh of Wires’published by Smith Doorstop was short-listed for the UK’s ‘Forward Prize’ in 1999. He has published two full collections since: ‘Explaining the Circumstances’(2010), ‘The Night Surveyor’(2014) and a joint , bilingual collection ‘Al Otro Lado del Aguilar’(2011) with Terry Gifford  – all with Oversteps Books. His pamphlet collection ‘Wolves Recently Sighted’Templar Poetry 2014 was launched in Matlock 2014 and his latest pamphlet collection ‘The Topiary of Passchendaele’was a winner in the Poetry Business competition 2018. Almassera Vellain Relleu, Alicante, Spain. (www.oldolivepress.com) He chairs The UK Poetry Society‘Stanza Alacant’in Benissa, Spain which is now in its eleventh year. He is currently working on a monograph exploring his diary entries during the 25 years of the ‘Way With Words Literary Festival’ in  Dartington , Devon, England.

And since that will have certainly whetted your appetites, it’s high time for the poems. Chris has sent me three and I like them a lot.

The Smudge of Andromeda

Counting the trillion or so stars of Andromeda

or persuading others to count the trillion or so

stars of Andromeda — and considering the 

apparent impossibility of counting

the trillion or so stars of Andromeda —

or maybe containing them in a dark room 

and closing the door — preferably a room

where despite the dark, and the curtained windows,

all the pictures on the walls are shrouded.

They will be going on and being present in the room

beside the trillion or so stars of Andromeda,

also going on and being present in the room

as outside in the evening sky and its first planets,

the wood will be breathing and the last

of the day’s swallows will be flicking through the air

seeking roosts in the darkening trees and roof spaces.

[the German astronomer Simon Marius re-discovered the Andromeda nebulae in 1612 saying it shone like a candle through horn]

What has often struck me in writing workshops with Chris is the way he seems to effortlessly manage poetry (and conversation) that uses long, complex, beautifully constructed sentences without ever losing a rhythm that gives then a musical coherence. I suppose the other thing is an erudition, and encyclopaedic knowledge that ought to be chaotic but isn’t, an erudition that’s lightly worn and which provides a huge source of surprising reference that he combines with lyricism. Which is what this poem does.

You need to read it aloud more than once, realising that the first stanza isn’t actually a sentence but a proposition that’s like an extended title (a bit like the long chapter headings of 18th C novels). I love the way it combines the confusion of ‘a smudge’ with the focussing precision of what we’re being asked to consider…the repeated trillions of stars in a room where all the pictures are shrouded, where the stars are inside and outside in the sky, and the organic rhythmical processes of dusk, the breathing of trees, and the flight of birds coming home to roof. It’s dreamlike (with all the accurate precision of dreams), incantatory and magical.

The next poem is equally magical and slightly unreal, but firmly rooted in what is effectively a narrative, and anecdote. “Remember that night when….’

The Night Surveyor: Dartington Gardens

(For Ben Okri)

After the farewell party we grabbed a bottle

and, on your suggestion, headed into the gardens,

pitch dark, rustling leaves, I don’t know how many came.

Giggling, without a torch we found the Tiltyard,

above us Cassiopeia, a slumped Great Bear.

Now be our night surveyor you said.

I declared to the six (or were there seven?):

‘The Cypress is twenty metres from the twelfth Apostle;

the fountain, two chains, fifteen eleven

Starlit dunes of Devon fields gleamed above trees

as we crossed silvered lawns and I announced:

we are four hundred feet above the sea

then led them up endless steps, finding risers with gentle kicks.

There’s this place of seven echoessomeone whispered

someone counter-whispered: No there’s only six.

Full fathom five.. I shouted from the bastion. 

No please not that one surveyor  you murmured, 

O trees of dark coral made?  – ‘No try something else.

Some bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch…

No echo but a leaden voice climbed inside my ear.

Over Staverton, or Berry Pomeroy’s lowly thatch

hung Jupiter, no Venus, or was it Mars?

One shouted:  I embrace the universal me,

voice cracked and small beneath shades and stars.

Two melted into trees: We remaining passed round wine.

The town below lolled in sodium as if bathing

and you yawned Get us back surveyor, I think it’s time.

I counted steps. Shadows rose and fell in bands.

Feeling for damp and stone, plotting silhouettes 

and shadows, gradually we became a chain of hands.

I really like the filmic quality of this, a film by Peter Greenaway…the draughtsman’s contract. The story of the bunch of tipsy chums stumbling around in the dark under a huge starlit sky, stumbling over silvered lawns, declaiming of bits of Shakespeare, the absurdity of it that gradually comes to its senses, and back to earth as The town below lolled in sodium. I love the way the declaiming poet comes back to the role of the measuring and sensible surveyor and the group of friends who became a chain of hands. The whole thing is witty, elegantly constructed, and ultimately life-affirming, lyrical and loving.

I’ll take a risk with the last poem, the title poem of Christopher’s winning pamphlet, selected by David Constantine. I’ve picked an image of calculated regularities and dreadful repetition.

The Topiary of Passchendaele 

Clip the box precise,

       make corners a right angle

and thus contain the Cherry tree

       in a low wall of green.

Lower the cypressus 

       to see the horizon file of poplars

flickering in afternoon wind.

        Make it horizontal, check

with a spirit level,

        always control height — 

all needs daily attention

         before cheese, fine cheese

and beer, fine beer.

Order these gardens,

          contain the beds and herbs,

they must be shielded, neat.

          Allow no thistle or spurge, 

ground must be raked clean, pure —

           cleansing makes for calm.

Be exact in measurement,

           correct in the lie of paving,

check privet, manicure the arborvitae.

           It is imperative to be uniform.

It needs hourly attention

            before cheese, fine cheese

and beer, fine beer.

It’s a poem that makes me think of the kinds of calculation that lay behind the obscene economics of concentration camps, the apparent rationality of the mathematics of slaughter in WW1. It’s done with such precision, the clipped tones of a set of instructions about clipping, the obsessive fact of tidying:

                       Allow no thistle or spurge, 

ground must be raked clean, pure —            

                       cleansing makes for calm.

As though there could be atonement in raking and minutely manicuring; as though we could take our beer and cheese with a clear conscience, conscious of a job well done.

I realise I can’t do justice to what Christopher North has done through his quietly passionate championship of poetry, to the windows he’s opened for so many writers over the years, to his own poetry.  But I can say thank you. So I will. Thank you.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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’.