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.

Where all the ladders start [1]

junk shop 1

I’ve just been trawling Google for ‘rag and bone shops’. Fascinatingly, nearly everything that shows up seems to be about faux-antique shops in pleasant places. Post-modern yuppie emporia for Grand Designs and interior decorator addicts. Almost certainly expensive and probably pretentious. Not what I was looking for, by a long chalk.

And why? Partly it was the realisation that the first bits of poetry that hit me in the solar plexus rather than in the intellect were Yeats’.

This is no country for old men.

An old man’s eagle mind. 

And this

“Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.
III
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
The circus animals’ desertion caught me off guard, and bypassed the usual Prac. Crit. sieve that A levels and University equipped me with. I didn’t ‘understand’ it in any analytic way. It felt true and important. It still does. I hear Yeats asking ‘who was I kidding?’, telling himself he’s lost his way, needs to get back to basics. And the reality of the ‘basics’ felt shocking to me, then. I supposed then that he meant to embrace ‘realism’…which was fashionable enough in the 60s if you meant ‘kitchen sink’. Whatever that was. I knew about rag and bone men; they were familiar enough down our street in the 1940’s and 50’s. As was their cry. Ra’bones!.any kind of old rags! God knows how worn out things had to be before you’d think of throwing them away, but somehow, someone could make a living out of them. And after all, I lived in the Heavy Woollen District where things like blankets and overcoat material were spun and woven from recycled rags…which was called ‘shoddy’. My dad spun yarn from shoddy for 50 years.
junk shop 3
I didn’t consciously think through whatever layers of meaning were implied by that ‘foul rag and bone shop’. I had a diffuse sense that he meant that truth didn’t reside in the myths of Oisin, or Cuchalain, that he’d been distracting himself from the real stuff, whatever that was. I didn’t stop to think that this stuff was worn out from life and use and carried its musty histories in its warp and weft. It’s a lot later that I came to see how the foul rag and bone shop of unconsidered memory is where poems that are (or seem to be) the real deal can come from.
I’ve been reading Julie Mellor’s poetry blog recently…she’s been reflecting on the processes of breaking out of a default way of drafting and composing by using randomising devices like cut-ups…just to see what happens. Other writers’ ways of working fascinate me. It reminds me of the pleasure to be had from watching actors, or listening to musicians in rehearsal (as opposed to in concert or performance). You can follow what she’s been doing via this link. Well worth it.
https//:juliemellorpoetsite.wordpress.com/
At which point I thought I might revisit poems that had seemed to come unbidden,  yet seemed to be important, and to think about what was involved. At the risk of the whole business seeming a self-advertising ego trip, I thought that I’d like to have a look at poems I’ve written that have got ‘out there’ and done well for themselves, and to wonder how it happened. Today I’m going back to a poem called ‘Julie
 Scan 1.jpg
It starts in a Jane Draycott workshop. Among the many tasks was one that I tend to distrust…where you’re given an image at random and invited to respond to it in one way or another. This one is from those nice boxes of Postcards from Penguin. 100 postcards using covers of vintage Penguin books.
And I have to say, I couldn’t see what could possibly be done with it. I feel that way when I look at it now. Somehow you need to bypass the rational/analytic bit of the brain, and especially the bit that worries about ‘writing poems’,here’s the notebook scrawl from 2013:
julie 1julie 2
One of the reasons I keep all my workshop scribbles in bound books, and why I number the pages, is that I can revisit where things start, and remind my self what kind of trigger was involved. It’s why I write down what the workshop tutor says about the task. What did Jane say? You have to learn to search for or listen for the point of arrest. That intrigues me still, as does one of her phrases about the ignition point of a poem. I’ve come to conflate this with Clive James’ the moment that draws you in. It might be a word or a phrase, or a rhythm or a sensory memory. For me it’s almost always a visual image that may initially be diffuse and unfocussed, but it’ll be one that may snag and nag.
And then she went on to say:
the point will be be …what this is not, what this might be,  where this isn’t. 
It was the last bit that stuck I think. Flames. If not here, then where? I used to live between Redcar and Saltburn, and in the night there would be the flares of the ironworks up the coast, and sometimes the stacks of Wilton ICI ‘flaring off’. That’s where these flames would be. I’d recently had a reunion with Andy Blackford who I’d not seen in over 30 years. He has a house in Staithes, where the inland skyline is dominated by Boulby potash mine. It has a tall chimney. It doesn’t flare, but somehow it got conflated with those of ICI. A rag and bone shop of half-remembered stuff.

 

Staithes is a fishing village; the lovely fishing boats, the cobles that are descendants of Viking boats, sit tilted on the mud of the river at low tide, and suddenly I’m making a link with Whitby, where what mattered right then was my partner’s cousin Julie, mortally ill but defying the consultants by living on beyond the allotment they’d settled on. Just like that, she becomes the centre of the poem, the landscapes initially incidental, and then starting to take on a resonance that’s not just geographical. None of this has been intentional. I didn’t set out to write a poem about Julie. I didn’t set out with any purpose at all. On the other hand, it seemed essential that I saw her in her place in Whitby’s Old Town, low-ceilinged and bursting with stuff. Nutty and magical. Photos don’t do it justice, but here’s a flavour. Every single object has a complicated personal history. A wonderful ‘rag and bone shop’ if you like.

 

 

The way it fixed itself in the five minutes or so of first drafting was the house becoming a sort of theatre, or maybe an iconostasis for  you perched like a wire bird/ up on your kitchen top. but I think the poem takes off in a way that was new to me when I focus on Julie rather than the anecdotal details. I’d never written a line like this

Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face

Basically, I’d never written directly and honestly about someone I knew…it’s the kind of thing I avoided because there was always the terrifying possibility that the someone would read it and deny that it was true. It’s a real blocker, the fear of embarrassment, for me at least. But it’s what I think I started to learn about the rag-and-bone-shop of the heart. The shops I knew. But the heart was dangerous territory. There’s a huge release in writing a line like that, feeling it directly..if you’ve not done it before. A leap. But it puts the flames in their proper place, and at this point, the poem expands outwards into everywhere.  Julie died a couple of months later and never got to read what I’d written. I know I’m glad I wrote it. Here’s the finished poem. Not a lot has changed, has it. Sometimes you’re awarded that kind of moment…but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. All the material, all the images were already hanging about, uncurated, all in a jumble, like the junk shop. What they needed was the catalyst. The nudge was the postcard, but the catalyst was ‘the heart’ , I think.

Julie

According to the specialists you died six months ago

and I like sitting with you, proving there’s an afterlife

as we roll cigarettes, you perched like a wire bird

up on your kitchen top beside the angel

that I made for you before I knew you weren’t alive.

 

Your fridge’s crusted like a wreck, with magnets

and pictures of BobDylan, and you show me

that programme that Patti Smith had signed for you

not knowing you’d been applauding from the Underworld.

 

You make me laugh each time you tell the phone

it can get stuffed because it’s your mad mother

who will not believe that you’re not with us any more.

 

Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face,

then sink, then glow like cigarettes, like the ironworks

up the coast, or the small lights on the cobles

tied up and tilted on the mud; like the strange flares

from the stack high up on Boulby Cliff, where the shaft

goes down a whole dark mile of ammonites, and heads off

far away beneath the weight of oil rigs, and sunken ships,

and shoals of cod, and all the grey North sea.

 

 

It was a special poem for me in so many ways, not least that it won The Plough Poetry Competition in 2013. Andrew Motion picked it, and talked about that ‘expanding out’ of the last lines. Still, for me, it stays a poem from the rag-and-bone-shop that turns out not to be foul, after all.

Depending on the reaction, I’ll write some more posts about poems that have been significant for me, and how they came about. What I’d really like would be to share other poets’ stories. If you’re interested let me know via

john.foggin@outlook.com

Ideally, it would involve you still having the original drafts and a clear memory of the where and when and who of the process. But let’s just see, shall we.

Thanks for reading. I’m off on a writing week tomorrow, so there may be no post next Sunday. It’ll be as it’s meant to be.

NaPoWriMo: Breaking Point

wave 2

Just past the half way point of Poem-a day-April. Starters from Carrie Etter. Starters from Jo Bell. More starters than you can shake a stick at. I’m going to stick at the business of fine-tuning and editing whatever your starters have turned up. Last week it was first lines. This week it’s line breaks. So, no ideas for new poems. Just things to think about once you’ve got drafts you think may have legs.

Just one thing before we get started properly. At the end of the day, you really hope someone is going to read what you’ve written, and someone’s going to care, someone’s going to be moved, someone’s going to be entertained, or brought to tears, or to see the world just that bit differently. Otherwise, what’s it for? You really hope someone will like it enough to publish it, and you’ll put up with all the polite ‘thanks for sending us your poems but……..’ for joy of the one that says ‘we loved your work and we can’t wait to publish it.’

I was mithering some time ago about the frustrations of having won a competition, the prize for which was to have a collection published. The frustrations came from long delays and unanswered emails, the feeling that perhaps it had all been a mistake or a dream. And then, yesterday, what arrived but the proofs. There it was, with all its lovely stuff about moral rights asserted, its ISBN, its pages for dedications and acknowledgements, its Contents page…80 lovely pages. It’s a collection, what’s more, that came out of a collaboration with one of my ex-Sixth Form students, Andy Blackford. Not having seen each other for 45 years, we set out to swap a poem a week for a year, workshopping and critiquing as we went. And just like everyone up to their poetic oxters in NaPoWriMo we had no idea what would become of it. It was enough to be writing for each other. So hold on to that thought as you struggle with a nonet or a pantoum today, and maybe all your dreams will come true. I’ll make a wish for you.

Right. Line breaks. This will be a slightly edited version of a post I wrote some time ago. I hope it’ll be useful.

There should be a reason why every line ends where it does.

Contrary to the truth universally acknowledged that British children aren’t taught standard English and the conventions of writing it down, here’s the actual truth.. What they HAVE to be taught has been there in black and white in the Framework for the Literacy Hour for years. Politicians don’t trouble themselves with this kind of detail. Maybe they should. So spare a thought for the teachers of 4-7 year olds who have to make sure that young children know how to use a full stop correctly. And, as a corollary,that they have grasped the concept of a sentence sufficiently for them to recognise one when they’ve written it. Think for a moment about that. You know a sentence when you see one. You just read some. Now tell yourself what a sentence is, or what it has to do to be a sentence. Maybe you say it has to have a finite verb in it. Forget for a moment how you’d set about explaining that to a 6 year old. Now get a copy of Bleak House, open it at chapter one and read the first 30 lines or so. Lots of full stops. Sentences like these.

London.

Implacable November weather.

Fog everywhere.   

Not a finite verb in sight. Why does it work? Because these are oral sentences, written down. All grammars leak. So keep this in mind while I spend a Sunday ruminating on the business of when a poem is or isn’t a poem, and how curious and puzzling and endlessly shifting is this business of lines and line breaks. And I’m going to start with (and maybe stay with) punctuation.

jane austen letter

Think about this handwritten letter. I assume it’s in sentences….Jane Austen wrote it. I wouldn’t like to proof read the punctuation, though, because the words are close together. You don’t just need space around words, but space between them. White space is punctuation, and you need white space to put those visually insignificant punctuation marks in. The more white space you have, the easier it is. Here’s a thing. 5 and 6 year olds have to learn how to write instructional texts, and the easiest way to to get them started is to write recipes.

What’s the first thing?

Ingredients. And equipment.

You will need.    

What comes next?    A colon.  You will need:

What next?

A new line.

And then you can write a list.

What comes between items in a list?

Commas.

Or, even more fun,

*Bullet points.

A new line for each.

See how the white space lets you see clearly. And what next? Instructions. A numbered list, and a new line for each number.

  1. Take three eggs, and separate the yolks and the whites. (Full stop)….and so on.

You don’t need to define a verb (and I can’t anyway. I can tell you what it does). In each line, it’ll be the first word in the sentence. But the text you produce will be easy to read because there’ll be a lot of white space. The space shows you how to read.  The text will look a bit poem-like, because it it’ll have a justified left margin and a raggedy right-hand margin.Hold on to that.

Now, a different kind of thought. Here’s a couple of pages from Dickens.

dickens-charles-bleak-B20122-15

One thing I used to tell A level students (and, indeed, undergraduates) who were daunted by 500 page novels, was that dialogue moves the narrative and the plot along, so you can’t ignore it. On the other hand, a densely printed stretch of text is likely to be reflective or descriptive, and if you’re reading a 19thC novel in particular, the first sentence of the paragraph should tell you what’s in the paragraph, and you can ignore the rest. (This is just for a first reading, to get the shape and sweep in your mind, you understand…I never did synopses or Coles notes). What you rely on is the amount of empty space. If there’s a lot of it, you can’t ignore the text. This is hard on Thomas Hardy, but there you go.

‘And your point….?’ I hear you ask. I guess it’s that poetry is largely empty spaces round not a lot of words, and that there’s no hiding place for any word that’s not doing a job. And also that you become very conscious, as a reader, of the curious tension between what your eye tells you and what your ear tells you, and, for me, this is one of the great pleasures of poetry. One the other hand, as a writer, it’s one of the things that frightens me, because I can hardly ever explain to myself why I make a line break where I do, except that it sounds right. ‘Sounds’ rather than ‘feels’, although that’s at work too. Whatever it means.

You have to admit that working in traditional forms can often solve that problem, whatever other technical problems it creates. Iambic pentameters/ blank verse…wonderful. Close to natural speech rhythms, di DUM di DUM …five of them…and end on a stressed syllable. Line breaks? Sorted. Syllabics? Haiku? Sorted. Any rhyming poetry and you have the line-breaks for every rhyming line.

Then along comes Modernism, with its ears finely attuned to the strict rhythms of all the traditions that fed it, and careful craft apprenticships of its inventors, so it knew just which rules it was breaking, and why.

Along comes Free Verse. There’s a seductively misleading name for you. Same in the visual arts, of course. Picasso and Braque and Matisse and the rest could all handle paint and line and perspective. They served their time and knew what the rules were stopping them doing and just how to break them and why.

If you want an impassioned and wholly idiosyncratic take on this you could do a lot worse than spend 20 minutes with Bob Dylan’s musings on 50-odd years in the business of singer-songwriting. It’s a sort of ‘Tradition and the individual talent’ lecture, but a lot more fun than T S Eliot. Just Google Bob Dylan Musicares speech. You will not for a second regret it. What he constantly returns to is the trope that everything he ever created he learned from repeated absorption in other writers’ work., in older traditions. Here’s a flavour of what he said…it’s even better to listen to

These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.
I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.
For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.
If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.”
If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.

Here’s a legend (yes he is) who is clear about what’s obvious. The more you listen, the better you hear. The more you practise, the easier it will look. There’s no short cuts.

Problem is, of course, you may not have fifty years to spare; I certainly don’t. And that still leaves us with the business of the free verse most of us are wedded to in one form or another, or unrhymed irregular stanzas, or whatever. And line breaks. I’ve honestly tried to get to grips with it, to get beyond the intuition of the ear, and the feel of internal rhythms. Pasted into the back cover of one of my workbooks is a photocopy of an article by Dana Gioia (I Googled him).

‘Thirteen ways of thinking about the poetic line’.

Every now and then I have the feeling that I sort of get it, but more often I have the same sense of hopelessness I got from Euclidean geometry when I was eleven. I ‘got’ the first couple of axioms, but when I tried to see how they all interacted they turned into wool. It’s still worth struggling with it. Line by line it all seems like commonsense. Have a go. See what you think. I like Number 4.

There should be a reason why every line ends where it does.

Yup. I’ll vote for that. Also for number 13.

The line break is nearly always audible (and always visible) even if only as a tiny pause or echo.

I really ‘get’ that..it’s that business of the tension between what your eye and your ear are simultaneously telling you. It says you have to listen.

What else? I’ve had workshops with Mimi Khalvati and with Jane Draycott, both of whom seem exquisitely at ease with the technicalities of form and line. Mimi even startled me by counting the lines of one of my poems, and declaring herself happy to find there were 26. I still don’t get it. At the end of the day, for all the elegance of their analyses, what I carried away was the awareness that it was coming down to the fact that they had more finely attuned ears than mine, that they could spot the tiniest of bum notes when I couldn’t. And perhaps that Dylan has it right. You just have to get on and do it and listen as hard as you can to as much poetry as you can.

But here’s a game you might like to play. It comes out of my genuine puzzlement about prosepoems, about my inability to see what they’re for. (I guess Carrie Etter will put me right on that).  One of the reasons for this is that I’ve been reading a lot of Hilary Mantel of late, and being struck, again and again and again, how much of her prose actually seems to be veined with what feel and sound like poems. (Whatever that means). How about this from ** The giant, O’Brien.

The Giant: ‘If only I could get a good poet. Somebody to recite at him. A good poet can recite a man to death. A poet takes a person’s earlobe between his finger and thumb and grinds it, and straight away that person dies. With a wisp of straw and a cross word they drive a man demented. They chew flesh and set it on the threshold and when a man steps over it he drops to his knees and expires.

The poet has his memorial in repetition, and the statesman in stone and bronze. The scholar’s hand lies always on his book and the thinker’s eyes on canvas travel the room to rest on each human face; the rebel has his ballad and his cross, his bigot’s garland, his wreath of rope. But for the poor man and the giant there is the scrubbed wooden slab and the slop bucket, there is the cauldron and the boiling pot, and the dunghill for his lights; so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week, so he is a no-name, so he is oblivion. Stories cannot save him. When human memory runs out, there is the memory of animals; behind that the memory of the plants, and behind that the memory of the rocks. But the winds and the sea wear the rocks away, and the cell-line runs to its limit, where meaning falls away from it, and it loses knowledge of its own nature. Unless we plead on our knees with history, we are done for, we are lost. We must step sideways, into that country where space plaits and knots, where time folds and twists: where the years pass in a day.

Just take that first paragraph, and think what happens if you put line breaks in it. Like this:

A good poet

can recite a man to death.

A poet takes a person’s earlobe

between his finger

and thumb

and grinds it

and straight away that person dies.

With a wisp of straw

and a cross word

they drive a man demented.

They chew flesh and set it

on the threshold

and when a man steps over it

he drops to his knees and expires

 

Why those line breaks?   What changes if you make the lines longer?

 

A good poet

A good poet can recite a man to death.

A poet takes a person’s earlobe between

his finger and thumb and grinds it

and straight away that person dies.

With a wisp of straw and a cross word

they drive a man demented. They chew flesh

and set it on the threshold

and when a man steps over it

he drops to his kness and expires.

 

What have you got that the prose hasn’t? What have you lost, if anything, that the first version had? I think it’s flatter. Less engaged, more ‘reasonable’, less angry. Or try the second paragraph, or at least part of it:

But for the poor man and the giant
there is the scrubbed wooden slab
and the slop bucket,
there is the cauldron
and the boiling pot,
and the dunghill for his lights;
so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week,
so he is a no-name,
so he is oblivion.
Stories cannot save him.

Maybe it’s because most of my first drafts come from writers’ workshops where I write flat-out in continuous ‘prose’ that I feel comfortable with this kind of game. Except that it isn’t prose, any more than these extracts from Hilary Mantel are prosaically prose. There must be some kind of governing rhythm in there that comes from things like repetitions of all kinds. Maybe it’s a question of learning to listen for it and its tricks. Anyway, if your Sunday is lacking spice, have a go with this game. At least, unlike Milton and Browning and all the other indefatigable toilers, you’ve got a word processor that lets you create version after version at the touch of a key. Aren’t we the lucky ones?

I hope you’re all on the crest of a wave this Easter. Keep riding it. No wipeouts.

 

**Hilary Mantel, The giant O’Brien  [Fourth Estate. London,. 1998]

 

breaking point

wave 1

Contrary to the truth universally acknowledged that British children aren’t taught standard English and the conventions of writing it down, here’s the actual truth.. What they HAVE to be taught has been there in black and white in the Framework for the Literacy Hour for years. Politicians don’t trouble themselves with this kind of detail. Maybe they should. So spare a thought for the teachers of 4-7 year olds who have to make sure that young children know how to use a full stop correctly. And, as a corollary,that they have grasped the concept of a sentence sufficiently for them to recognise one when they’ve written it. Think for a moment about that. You know a sentence when you see one. You just read some. Now tell yourself what a sentence is, or what it has to do to be a sentence. Maybe you say it has to have a finite verb in it. Forget for a moment how you’d set about explaining that to a 6 year old. Now get a copy of Bleak House, open it at chapter one and read the first 30 lines or so. Lots of full stops.

London. / Implacable November weather. / Fog everywhere.   

Not a finite verb in sight. Why does it work? Because these are oral sentences, written down. All grammars leak. So keep this in mind while I spend a Sunday ruminating on the business of when a poem is or isn’t a poem, and how curious and puzzling and endlessly shifting is this business of lines and line breaks. And I’m going to start with (and maybe stay with) punctuation.

jane austen

Think about this handwritten draft. I assume it’s in sentences….Jane Austen wrote it. I wouldn’t like to proof read the punctuation, though, because the words are close together. You don’t just need space around words, but space between them. White space is punctuation, and you need white space to put those visually insignificant punctuation marks in. The more white space you have, the easier it is. Here’s a thing. 5 and 6 year olds have to learn how to write instructional texts, and the easiest way to to get them started is to write recipes.

What’s the first thing?

Ingredients. And equipment.

You will need.    

What comes next?    A colon.  You will need:

What next?

A new line.

And then you can write a list.

What comes between items in a list?

Commas.

Or, even more fun,

*Bullet points.

A new line for each.

See how the white space lets you see clearly. And what next? Instructions. A numbered list, and a new line for each number.

1. Take three eggs, and separate the yolks and the whites. (Full stop)….and so on.

You don’t need to define a verb (and I can’t anyway. I can tell you what it does). In each line, it’ll be the first word in the sentence. But the text you produce will be easy to read because there’ll be a lot of white space. The space shows you how to read.  The text will look a bit poem-like, because it it’ll have a justified left margin and a raggedy right-hand margin.Hold on to that.

Now, a different kind of thought. Here’s a couple of pages from Dickens.

dickens-charles-bleak-B20122-15

One thing I used to tell A level students (and, indeed, undergraduates) who were daunted by 500 page novels, was that dialogue moves the narrative and the plot along, so you can’t ignore it. On the other hand, a densely printed stretch of text is likely to be reflective or descriptive, and if you’re reading a 19thC novel in particular, the first sentence of the paragraph should tell you what’s in the paragraph, and you can ignore the rest. (This is just for a first reading, to get the shape and sweep in your mind, you understand…I never did synopses or Coles notes). What you rely on is the amount of empty space. If there’s a lot of it, you can’t ignore the text. This is hard on Thomas Hardy, but there you go.

‘And your point….?’ I hear you ask. I guess it’s that poetry is largely empty spaces round not a lot of words, and that there’s no hiding place for any word that’s not doing a job. And also that you become very conscious, as a reader, of the curious tension between what your eye tells you and what your ear tells you, and , for me, this is one of the great pleasures of poetry. One the other hand, as a writer, it’s one of the things that frightens me, because I can hardly ever explain to myself why I make a line break where I do, except that it sounds right. ‘Sounds’ rather than ‘feels’, although that’s at work too. Whatever it means.

You have to admit that working in traditional forms can often solve that problem, whatever other technical problems it creates. Iambic pentameters/ blank verse…wonderful. Close to natural speech rhythms, di DUM di DUM …five of them…and end on a stressed syllable. Line breaks? Sorted. Syllabics? Haiku? Sorted. Any rhyming poetry and you have the line-breaks for every rhyming line. Then along comes Modernism, with its ears finely attuned to the strict rhythms of all the traditions that fed it, and careful craft apprenticships of its inventors, so it knew just which rules it was breaking, and why. Along comes Free Verse. There’s a seductively misleading name for you. Same in the visual arts, of course. Picasso and Braque and Matisse and the rest could all handle paint and line and perspective. They served their time and knew what the rules were stopping them doing and just how to break them and why.

If you want an impassioned and wholly idiosyncratic take on this you could do a lot worse than spend 20 minutes with Bob Dylan’s musings on 50-odd years in the business of singer-songwriting. It’s a sort of ‘Tradition and the individual talent’ lecture, but a lot more fun than T S Eliot. Just Google Bob Dylan Musicares speech. You will not for a second regret it. What he constantly returns to is the trope that everything he ever created he learned from repeated absorption in other writers’ work., in older traditions. Here’s a flavour of what he said…it’s even better to listen to

These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.
I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.
For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.
If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.”
If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.

Here’s a legend (yes he is) who is clear about what’s obvious. The more you listen, the better you hear. The more you practise, the easier it will look. There’s no short cuts. Problem is, of course, you may not have fifty years to spare; I certainly don’t. And that still leaves us with the business of the free verse most of us are wedded to in one form or another, or unrhymed irregular stanzas, or whatever. And line breaks. I’ve honestly tried to get to grips with it, to get beyond the intuition of the ear, and the feel of internal rhythms. Pasted into the back cover of one of my workbooks is a photocopy of an article by Dana Gioia (I Googled him).

‘Thirteen ways of thinking about the poetic line’.

Every now and then I have the feeling that I sort of get it, but more often I have the same sense of hopelessness I got from Euclidean geometry when I was 11. I ‘got’ the first couple of axioms, but when I tried to see how they all interacted they turned into wool. It’s still worth struggling with it. Line by line it all seems like commonsense. Have a go. See what you think. I like Number 4.

There should be a reason why every line ends where it does.

Yup. I’ll vote for that. Also for number 13.

The line break is nearly always audible (and always visible) even if only as a tiny pause or echo.

I really ‘get’ that..it’s that business of the tension between what your eye and your ear are simultaneously telling you. It says you have to listen. Who else? I’ve had workshops with Mimi Khalvati and with Jane Draycott, both of whom seem exquisitely at ease with the technicalities of form and line. Mimi even startled me by counting the lines of one of my poems, and declaring herself happy to find there were 26. I still don’t get it. At the end of the day, for all the elegance of their analyses, what I carried away was the awareness that it was coming down to the fact that they had more finely attuned ears than mine, that they could spot the tiniest of bum notes when I couldn’t. And perhaps that Dylan has it right. You just have to get on and do it and listen as hard as you can to as much poetry as you can.

But here’s a game you might like to play. It comes out of my genuine puzzlement about prosepoems, about my inability to see what they’re for. And one of the reasons for this is that I’ve been reading a lot of Hilary Mantel of late, and being struck, again and again and again, how much of her prose actually seems to be veined with what feel and sound like poems. (Whatever that means). How about this from ** The giant, O’Brien.

The Giant: ‘If only I could get a good poet. Somebody to recite at him. A good poet can recite a man to death. A poet takes a person’s earlobe between his finger and thumb and grinds it, and straight away that person dies. With a wisp of straw and a cross word they drive a man demented. They chew flesh and set it on the threshold and when a man steps over it he drops to his knees and expires.

The poet has his memorial in repetition, and the statesman in stone and bronze. The scholar’s hand lies always on his book and the thinker’s eyes on canvas travel the room to rest on each human face; the rebel has his ballad and his cross, his bigot’s garland, his wreath of rope. But for the poor man and the giant there is the scrubbed wooden slab and the slop bucket, there is the cauldron and the boiling pot, and the dunghill for his lights; so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week, so he is a no-name, so he is oblivion. Stories cannot save him. When human memory runs out, there is the memory of animals; behind that the memory of the plants, and behind that the memory of the rocks. But the winds and the sea wear the rocks away, and the cell-line runs to its limit, where meaning falls away from it, and it loses knowledge of its own nature. Unless we plead on our knees with history, we are done for, we are lost. We must step sideways, into that country where space plaits and knots, where time folds and twists: where the years pass in a day.

Just take that first paragraph, and think what happens if you put line breaks in it. Like this:

A good poet

can recite a man to death.
A poet takes a person’s earlobe
between his finger and thumb                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         and grinds it,
and straight away that person dies.
With a wisp of straw
and a cross word
they drive a man demented.
They chew flesh and set it
on the threshold
and when a man steps over it
he drops to his knees
and expires

Why those line breaks?  (apart from the fact that when this goes out via Facebook, the line ‘and grinds it’ gets right-justified, rather than left-justified. I can do nothing to change its mind about this. Soz). What changes if you make the lines longer? What have you got that the prose hasn’t? Or try the second paragraph, or at least part of it:

But for the poor man and the giant
there is the scrubbed wooden slab
and the slop bucket,
there is the cauldron
and the boiling pot,
and the dunghill for his lights;
so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week,
so he is a no-name,
so he is oblivion.
Stories cannot save him.

Maybe it’s because most of my first drafts come from writers’ workshops where I write flat-out in continuous ‘prose’ that I feel comfortable with this kind of game. Except that it isn’t prose, any more than these extracts from Hilary Mantel are prosaically prose. There must be some kind of governing rhythm in there that comes from things like repetitions of all kinds. Maybe it’s a question of learning to listen for it and its tricks. Anyway, if your Sunday is lacking spice, have a go with this game. At least, unlike Milton and Browning and all the other indefatigable toilers, you’ve got a word processor that lets you create version after version at the touch of a key. Aren’t we the lucky ones?

Next week we’re having a guest, and you can lie back and be entertained rather than lectured and hectored. OK. Put the chairs away, and off you go. No running.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why this vanished from Facebook on Saturday night, only to reappear this Sunday morning, it’s because I took a piece of reasoned criticism to heart and made a couple of changes. x

 

**Hilary Mantel, The giant O’Brien  [Fourth Estate. London,. 1998]

the bigger picture

tidy_iceberg

A short post this week. I’m celebrating an anniversary. A year ago today I sent off a selection of poems to The Plough Open Poetry competition, and while it didn’t change my life it certainly changed a significant chunk of it, and it changed the way I thought about it,  and about myself. I sent five poems. One made the long list (which would have blown my socks off on its own), another made the short list, and a third won the first prize. The judge was Andrew Motion. I can still remember the incredulity when someone emailed me to congratulate me. Since I didn’t know why, I thought it was a wind-up. So I rang the Plough organisers. And it was true. Incredulity plus delight. The feeling persists. That poem  ‘Julie’ was written for my partner Flo’s cousin, Julie, who was outliving the expectations of specialists who had given her the diagnosis of terminal cancer. There she was in her amazing treasure house of an upstairs flat in the Old Town part of Whitby, a place she loved. I wrote the poem in a ten minute workshop exercise, at Almaserra in Relleu [The old olive press]. Jane Draycott was the tutor. The starting point was a postcard that bore no relation whatever to Julie. But the image had flames in it. I thought of flare stacks at Wilton ICI on Teesside, and the flares of the ironworks between Middlesbrough and Redcar, where I once lived, and the huge stack of the Boulby mine above Staithes, and about Whitby and about Julie and the last time I’d seen her. That was where it came from. I must have been thinking about her for ever. I changed almost nothing of the original handwritten draft. And it won a major prize, which let me pay for the printing of my first pamphlet: ‘Running out of Space’ [for details of that click on My Books at the top of the page].

In January, I sent poems off for another competition. At this point I didn’t know I’d won The Plough. I was attracted to the Lumen/Camden Competition because the proceeds go to a charity for night shelters for the homeless. One of my sons once was a rough sleeper .. though I didn’t know at the time. These things matter. And I won that one, too. And, amazingly, the judge was Andrew Motion. A man of rare discernment; that’s how I think of him. The poem this time was one that I’ve revisited every five years or so since I first tried it as a sonnet in 1984. It was a truly crap sonnet; I found the old notebook. I’d be embarassed to reproduce it. The subject was one that has haunted me for decades, ever since that wonderful BBC drama series : ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ and the book by Midge MacKenzie that went with it. I fell in love ( inappropriately, probably) with Sylvia Pankhurst. And was haunted by the image of Emily Davidson at the moment she was killed, bringing down the king’s horse at the Derby. I couldn’t understand how the image could be so precise, so clear.more pixels

A couple of years ago at a Poetry Business Day I was brought up to speed by Nina Boyd, who pointed out it was a single frame from a newsreel film. I’d been imagining a plate camera on a tripod. What bothered me more was that in the bigger picture from which I cropped this image, most folk are looking the other way, watching the field galloping down towards the distant grandstand. So, the poem is Camera Obscura, and it will be in the chapbook that is my prize for winning the Lumen/Camden Competition. And you can read it in The Forward Book of Poetry 2015  because it got a commendation when it was submitted for that award. Double wow! The chapbook is called Larach, and it’s published by Wardwood Publishers, and edited by the acute and efficient Adele Ward. On Dec 3 I shall travel down to Camden, and read at the launch of my very own book. Triple wow! Since I’m advertising the event all over Facebook, I’ll not do that here. Dignified and modest. That’s the style. I feel neither. Chuffed. That comes closer.

A year on, I’m starting to enter for competitions again…especially The Plough and the Lumen/Camden. I expect not to win again. Maybe I should just look out for ones that Andrew Motion judges. And no, I’ve never met him.

One thing before I go. You could well be asking: that Bill Tidy cartoon…what’s all that about? The bigger picture; yes, you’ll have got that. That’s about the cropped image of Emily Davidson. But a polar bear and the Titanic? It’s possibly Bill Tidy’s greatest single cartoon. For me it’s a reminder about perspective and point of view. I’m totally euphoric and absorbed by getting ready for various readings, for a launch, for the Poetry Business residential in Whitby in a couple of weeks. My Facebook pages are full of poets and readings. You could almost imagine that there’s a world out there that actually knows and cares. In truth, it’s a small world, this poetry world. Three years ago I hardly knew it existed. I certainly had no idea of the sheer hard work and self-sacrifice that I now know about. I’m not talking about me. I’m talking about poets I admire, ones who’ve made a name. The ones who are famous in this bubble of a world of poets. Let me tell you a story. Earlier this year, my friend Kim Moore drove from Barrow (it’s a long way to anywhere from Barrow) after a day’s work, stayed at our house, drove, the next morning, with me to a poetry event where she was bought no drink and offered no food, where she was given scant time to read and where no one bought a single book. Another poet had travelled from Middlebrough, another from Wigan, another from South Yorkshire. They all paid for their own petrol and they all got the same treatment. Kim then drove up to Lake District to be at another event that night. I have no idea how typical this is, but there are readings where poets get nothing. I’m delighted that our own Puzzle Hall Poets and Winston Plowes’ Shindig in Hebden Bridge, send the hat round and collect enough to cover travel expenses at least. I have no idea how common this is. All I know is that I’ve been staggeringly lucky to win prizes that have paid for at least some of what it costs to write poems.  I’m over the moon to be reading in Camden on Dec 3rd; I’ll see lots of friends there, people I used to teach, people I’ve met through poetry workshops, and lots (I hope) of folk I’ve never met before.

At the same time, I’d better be pinching myself, and thinking of that Bill Tidy cartoon. As the White Star Line knew too well: no such thing as a free launch.

 

Writing workshops…opening doors and lighting candles as you go

IMG_1247

I remember with some fondness one of Alexei Sayle’s full-on rants, all shaven-headed aggro and strangled scouse vowels. ‘Werkshops! ****** werkshops! Legwarmers and poncy improvs…listen. If it hasn’t gorra lathe and bench fulla spanners, it’s not a werkshop!’ And recently, with no fondness at all, a Facebook post where some slack-witted journalist was having a sneery pop at Creative Writing courses..MA’s in particular. I think I said that even though my own MA course was a staggering let-down and that other friends felt equally short-changed, I had no reservations about why I paid to go on it, and why I’m happy to pay to go to poetry workshops; the reason’s simple. Because I want to learn how to do things better.

They don’t all work. I’ve been on a truly disappointing Arvon course. It was the first one I’d been on, and it might have been the last…except that because I was used to poetry workshops I knew it was because me and the tutors were a mismatch. Not their fault, I like to think when in a charitable mood. Anyway, what I want to write about is the ones that work for me and why, and also about the truly talented writers I’ve met and become friends with because of them. Nothing that follows will come as any surprise to those in the know, but I’ll be delighted if I reach anyone who’s not, and persuade them that this could be what they’re looking for (without knowing it).

clayton

Here’s one of my inspirations … missed him in that last post. Sorry Ian. Ian’s a broadcaster, writer, storyteller extraordinaire. He’s edited photgraphic essays on the days of winter Rugby League. He’s written hilariously about the music that’s been the soundtrack to his life; he’s written heartbreakingly about the death of his daughter, Billie*. He’s championed the cause of giving a voice to working-class communities in the mining villages of West Yorkshire. For years he ran a writer’s workshop at the sadly now-defunct Yorkshire Art Circus in Castleford, and that’s where I met him when I signed up for six month’s worth of Thursday morning workshops. The core of the group were women from Castleford, Normanton, Sharlston, Featherstone…towns whose pits and whose heart were ripped out in the 80’s. I didn’t learn much about writing poetry. Most of the folk were focussed on writing autobiography and family history. And, perhaps, even more than that, on telling stories. What I did learn was how to keep a note book. I wrote non-stop during each morning’s session, recording as much as I could of what people said, and what I thought about them and about their stories. I learned to write without thinking about how it looked or how it sounded, fast and impressionistically. I filled a big fat A4 notebook. I salvaged a couple of poems from it all, but the trick of letting words on to the page without worrying was the gift I was given…that and some brilliant stories. Without that experience, I doubt I could have got as much as I have from the following five years. Which takes us nicely to:peterann1

Ann and Peter Sansom. My poetry heroes. Julia Deakin introduced me to the Saturday Poetry Business writing days** when they were still based in Byram Arcade in Huddersfield. I would have been, I think, out of my depth among so many people who knew each other, and were comfortably familiar with the world of poetry and publishing and poetry readings. But I knew how to sit quiet (not like me at all) and write non-stop, regardless. So I did. I guess the format doesn’t suit everyone, the business of six or seven writing tasks, intensive 5 minute bursts of writing on the basis of the most minimal cues. It suits me because I’m lazy and I work best under pressure…paradoxically it frees me from second thoughts and second guessing and irrelevant self-censorship. It’s pure drafting, and it plunders the memory you didn’t know you had. I wrote down something Ann Sansom said about the magic of how it works : because you are writing for yourself; because you tell yourself things you didn’t know you knew. It’s a kind of ambush on the unconscious. Sit and deliver.

What the Poetry Business added to Ian Clayton’s work was, not surprisingly, poems. Sometimes I would write things that needed minimal editing, as though they’d been waiting around and hoping to be found. The picture that starts this week’s post is of a couple of the six notebooks that I’ve filled almost exclusively at P.B. workshops. And they are all in continuous prose. I can put the line breaks in later, if it’s a piece that’s worth keeping. I think I’ve done about 400 different exercises. How Ann and Peter think them up is a matter of abiding wonder. It’s always artful and without artifice, and is always about memory. The notebook page I chose to photograph is actually of a task at a different workshop, with Jane Draycott (of whom more later) but it’s typical, except that in this case the notes became a poem that won me a prize, a poem that Andrew Motion chose, and a poem that has made a huge difference to the way I think about myself as a writer. The poem is ‘Julie’. It’s in my pamphlet ‘Running out of Space’. I’ve discovered that if you click on the headline photograph you get a full-size image, large enough to read the text. What you find is that the notes are almost word for word the same as the opening of the finished poem.Somedays the gods smile. The prize money from ‘Julie’ paid for the printing of the pamphlet, and 80% of the poems in it came from Poetry Business writing days. The other thing they do is introduce you to a staggering range of contemporary poetry via the extracts they use to start many of the writing tasks. I cut them to size and stick them in my notebooks and reference them to the tasks they triggered. So I’ve learned to read more voices, and to buy more poetry. I’d never heard of Billy Collins, Alison McVety, Helen Mort, Denis O Driscol, Emily Berry, George Szirtes, and all the dozens of others. You learn from the company you keep.

There are two other things I value the Poetry Business writing days for. If the morning sessions surprise you into writing poems you didn’t know you had in you, then the afternoon sessions teach you about reading and editing. It’s hard, concentrated work, reading and listening to maybe ten other poets’ work, and getting focussed feedback on your own work. You learn that what you thought was probably pretty damn fine is, after all, provisional, and that you have to knuckle down to make it work for a reader. You learn that criticism is provisional too..a question of comments on the lines of ‘why not try this and see what happens’ and ‘do you really need this or that line/image/adjective’. You discover that readers find subtexts and layers you never anticipated. From Ann, in particular, you learn how reversing the order of a couple of lines, or, even more startling, making tiny adjustments to punctuation, can make a poem sing. Just to show we’re up to date, I was in Sheffield today, at a PB writing day, and apart from seven new sets of might-be-poems, and afternoon workshop poems of rare quality, I copied out yet another Ann Sansom bon mot. There was one poem that had a line in which poppies were growing at the edges of fields. She homed in on that one word. She said: you can come back to this; it’s one of those words: like drawing pins, that you use to stick the line together, till you can come back and fix it properly. I love that. It’s no good being a writer if you don’t learn to be a reader. So that’s one good thing. The other is to find that you’ve been admitted to a community of writers. Which takes us to:almaserra )ct 2013 051

Residential courses. If a day in the company of writers is good, then 5 or 6 or 7 days is (for me, with one exception) wonderful. I’ve said before that I like mountains and vistas and you can’t get much more of either than at the Old Olive Press. Lumb Bank is great, and so is Whitby, but this place does something extra for me. On an Arvon Course I get distracted by cooking in the afternoon. Can’t keep out of the kitchen. But at Almaserra Vella, thanks to Christopher North and Marisa, it doesn’t arise. You work flat out for three hours in the morning, eat your lunch. And then, (me, anyway), walk for miles in the afternoon, (or sit by the pool, or in the library, or in the cafe by the church) and let the words do as they will. And while you do that, someone cooks your evening meal. Astonishing. And you meet new tutors with different styles. Last year it was Jane Draycott, who, every day, added a new bit of  kit to the poetry toolbox. How to use viewpoint, voice, dialogue, setting, pace, line-length…on it went, layer after layer. And she left me with two phrases that see me through the trudgy bits of the process. She said, as she set us off on a task: off you go, opening doors, and lighting candles along the way. She said:look for the point where the poem detonates . So I do. One day I’ll be convinced I know exactly what she meant.  In a couple of weeks I’m off again. The tutor is Mimi Khalvati; she has, I’m told, a formidable reputation. Well, if you rest, you rust. I can’t wait. And please, Google ‘The Old Olive Press’….you won’t regret it. If you look closely at the picture, you can see it. It’s the blue house.

Finally, any new writing group is a daunting experience. But I find I can hide behind the physical business of non-stop writing; head down, focussed on the page, the physical act of making marks with a pen, I can blank out a room, and everyone in it, and simultaneously feel safe in the knowledge that in this situation it’s an entirely natural thing to be doing, whereas writing on my own sometimes feels terribly pose-y. And then, one day you find you want to read out something you just wrote, and that when you do, no one laughs. And you start to make friends who, it turns out, have been published and actually are famous but still treat you as an equal. Not only that, but sometimes you see poems emerging that you later meet again in published collections with the bonus you can hear the voices behind them,and the days when you first heard them. Some become especially special, as though I was somehow part of their making, even though I wasn’t. I met Kim Moore because, in one PB morning workshop, she read the draft of a poem she’d written that morning, on her way. Train journey, Barrow to Sheffield, which had such memorable images in it…the sheep that stand and drown in the incoming tide of a shallow estuary, the man waking up on the train, shouting ‘I’ve got to find the sword’ …..that it made me ask her for a copy. And she sent me one. That poem’s in her Poetry Business pamphlet competition winner: If they could speak like wolves. James Caruth, with the unfair advantage of a voice like Heaney’s, workshopped a draft that he’s written that morning. I’ve got a photocopy of the handwritten first version of ‘Lethe’ that we offered comments on, the newly-dead with her ‘ face pale as a clock.‘. That’s in another winning pamphlet: The death of narrative, and so is ‘Pigeon lofts, Penistone Road‘, from another afternoon workshop. There was Julie Mellor (yup, another winning pamphlet: Speaking through our bones) taking Heaney on with her poem about blackberries, and making me sit up straight with the image of the mole that marks a man for hanging. Julia Deakin not only workshopped poems from two collections (‘Slice’ , the tumultuous prosepoem ‘Checkpoint’, ‘Kingfisher on a tram’, amongst others) but I sat and watched her writing (5 minutes) what turned into For what we are about to receive, and the ‘Blackie’s children’s classics’ that taught us ‘that as children we belonged in prison’. And Gaia Holmes’ delicate ‘Trinkets’ asking for the gift of words you could arrange…make them say what you’ve always wanted me to say. So I’ve learned to hear the voices in poems from the voices behind them. And so much confidence

Writers’ workshops, their tutors, and friends like these help me find my voice. And if anyone asks why that’s important, I  repeat a line of Tony Harrison’s, one that should be written on every blackboard/chalkboard/whiteboard in every school in the country. The dumb go down in history, and disappear. That’s why.

Next week I promise you another undiscovered gem (except she isn’t), and, maybe some snapshots from ‘poetry readings I have been at’. Something like that. Thanks for listening.

*Ian Clayton: ‘Our Billie’ [Penguin. First published 2010]  and ‘Bringing it all back home’ [Route. 2008]

The Poetry Business pamphlets are published by Smith/Doorstop.

For details of Julia Deakin’s collections, ‘Eleven Wonders’ and ‘Without a dog’ see my post of a couple of weeks ago

**The regular Poetry Business Writing Days are on Saturdays, once a month, and meet at the Premier Inn in Sheffield (though there are also occasional PB Writing Days around the country)

You can contact the Poetry Business via their website (just Google Poetry Business) for all the information you could need about workshops, publications, competitions and submissions. And you should.

[The Poetry Business/ BankStreet Arts/ 32-40 Bank Street/ Sheffield S1 2DS]

 

 

 

 

And promises to keep

Being congenitally lazy, allied to a fear of starting a job, and to habits of procrastination, I discovered a long time ago that I need to make public promises that X or Y will be done. Add in a deadline, and the fear of breaking a pledge, and I will sit down at the last minute, and somehow get it done. Driven by guilt. Of course, this means that a piece like this will rarely be as orderly as the elegantly rhetorical pieces that come so clearly in the mind a nanosecond before you wake up.

So what have I promised? That I will share a poem by Gaia Holmes, and that somehow I will talk about myth and poetry. So, Gaia first. I love both her collections: Dr James Graham’s Celestial bed (2006) and Lifting the piano with one hand (2013) …both published by Comma Press. I tried to explain to myself what it was that I recognised as Gaia’s distinctive voice. Jane Draycott talks about the point where the poem detonates. I find that incredibly helpful when I’m trying to see why this or that poem isn’t working, isn’t taking off. With Gaia’s stuff, I’m put in mind of Chemistry lessons in the blissfully pre-Health and Safety 1950’s, when to demonstrate the meaning of the word crepitation a teacher would toss a slack handful of crystals (potassium?) into a sinkful of water and stand well back. Gaia’s poems do that, in line after line. Multiple detonations like dangerous Rice Krispies. And because many of her poems are about separation and loss of love or lovers, sometimes tender and sometimes vengeful,sometimes wistful and sometimes heartbreaking, they take me into dark woods and lose me. Folk tales. No getting away. Here’s her poem that I said, last week, that I wanted to change (slightly).

Road salt

Snow falls plumply, prettily,

whites out the dog-eared leavings

of Christmas,

dolls-up the ragged end of January,

mutes the road between us

with its whispering glamour

and we’re stuck –

you in the East and me in the West

with miles too thick and deep to cross

 

and, once again,

without you, I fall asleep

listening to the frost

patterning the insides of my windows,

laquering the edges of my bed.

 

If I could

I would send you

seal-skin boots and brandy.

I would send a sledge

and a savvy husky to guide you

across the blinded miles,

 

but instead I go out

into the bright, dumb darkness

with my pockets full of road salt,

toss it to the night

like chicken feed,

try to melt myself

a path to you.

 

I hope you’re like me, snagged and reeled in by listening to frost, thinking of its laquering, and being out in the bright, dumb dark. But I did want to change that ‘chicken feed’ to something like ‘breadcrumbs’. Because I bring my own luggage to a poem, and I’m in a folktale world of snow and lost girls, and chickens make me think of Baba Yaga and her  house on hen’s legs. And chicken feed takes me in a different direction from the one that I’m pulling towards like a demanding child.                            Anyway, that’s a promise kept. Thank you for letting me share your poem, Gaia.                                                                                                                                                                   Now I have to somehow get from folktales to myth and thence to goodness knows where. It was all clear when I started. Or just before I woke up.

When I was a lecturer in Primary English at Bretton Hall I had to make sure my students could go out there and ‘deliver’ (yes, that’s the kind of language that’s used in the world of Mr Gove and his ilk) the Literacy Hour, which requires, inter alia, that young children are taught about folktales, legends and myths. I think that comes in one term, and then they move on to greater things. So my students had to understand it first. I relied heavily on a transcript of a lecture given in Leeds by Marina Warner (I hope I’ve got that right) in which she essentially defines Myth as the stories of the gods, Legends as the stories of heroes, and Folktales as the subversive stories of the people. My take on this was to see that myths are about why the world is at is, about creation, about mortality, about the amazing gift of fire, about the archetypal flood. How was the world created? Why do we have to die? Why do we have language? Why, of all creatures, can we manage fire? These stories are the oldest, and they are oral stories. When the Greeks wrote them down they turned them white and silent. Legends are aristocratic, naturalistic and courtly; they have plots (though I guess Robin Hood lives in the edgelands of legend and folktale); they are, I think, irreversibly literary. The folktale world is ,I think, that of a plucky underclass of giantkillers and orphans. At all events, its winners start off poor.

Something just popped into my head, or tugged at my sleeve. Tons of great films have been made retelling legends. Jason and the Argonauts, Robin Hood, William Tell, King Arthur. And the Western made its own legends. They make great movies, legends do. But whoever made a great film about a myth? Or of a myth? I bet this new movie about Noah will make my point for me. Films of folk tales? There are some great animations, I think, and I’ll have to think about Angela Carter. Not now, though. There have been some horrible films of late that riff on folktales, but always seem to make them into jokes or CGI nasties. Pan’s Labyrinth ? Or does that take us off into the realm of fairy tales and fantasy and horror films? Tell me what you think. Fairy tales make good films, no question. But I’m just trying to reflect on why it’s myth and folk-tale that find their way into my poems, but not legends. Mm.

When in a hole, stop digging. Myth…that’s what I said I’d do. In 1970 Ted Hughes gave a lecture at the Exeter Children’s literature in education conference. It was called ‘Myth and Education‘. He reflects on the fact that while Plato couldn’t be doing with poets in his Republic, he thought it essential that young children, before they were old enough for a formal education, should know the great myths. Hughes argues that this is because without an education in imagination we can never be fully human. I’d like Mr Gove to be forced to learn the whole transcript by heart. And then to be sacked. If we want to understand what it is to be human we need myth. We need to hear it. We need storytellers. We need to constantly dream the world or it will die as we sleepwalk into the limbo of getting and spending.

Which myths dream me? Because of that wonderful book The god beneath the sea [Garfield and Blishen..illustrated by Charles keeping] ….and unforgiveably, out of print…. I find myself in the stories of Hephaestus, Promethues, Daedalus and Icarus, Orpheus, Demeter and Persephone, Pandora …those, especially. So here’s another promise. I’ll post a poem next week where I found one of these stories telling me what a significant moment in my life meant. And maybe why the squabbling bullies of Olympus make me so angry. But to finish this week, here’s a poem that came out of a 5 minute workshop task at the Poetry Business in Sheffield on Saturday, and without any thought on my part, it ended with something I threw into a ramble about folktales last week.

The uses of Literacy

(for Richard Hoggart)

‘The Daily Herald’. That went, long ago,

like ‘The Batley Reporter’ –

(both left-leaning, doomed) –

them and the outside lavatory

we shared with the three Armitage sisters,

all tiny and pinafore-d like Beatrix Potter mice.

 

In winter, the wooden toilet seat,

scrubbed all-year-round with non-conformist zeal,

and never dry, would wink

like diamante ballroom frocks.

Newspaper to sit on, or you frosted fast.

 

The tang of Dettol, coal-smoke;

damp newsprint that smelled like parsnips.

A little Kelly lamp against the cistern’s freezing up;

a library of squares of paper on a nail.

The sisters took ‘The news of the World’.

Tantalising. Scandalous.

 

…..shapely red-haired Walsall

housewife, Moira kershaw (43)

broke down in tears when

recounting her terrible ord….

 

Breathing grey, I learned to read between the lines

to fill in gaps, imagine worlds

that could have been ordained or ordinary,

and came to understand that sentences have full stops.

And stories don’t.

 

Thank you for your forbearance (oh, just one thing. There were 30 pencils on my desk when we started. No-one leaves till they’re all counted back in)