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.

Now what? Or: What next?

degas 1

I don’t need many excuses to use this picture. When I was doing A Level Art, my art teacher, Louis Wilde, made me copy it. I mean, really, copy it. It was probably a poor quality reproduction, maybe 4 inches square, at most. He told me I had to figure out how it was all put together. I had to draw it and redraw it. I started to understand what was going on with lines…that strong diagonal of the worktop, the echoed vertical curves of the women’s arms, the shapes made by the orange scarf, the shapes around it. It became more and more abstract the more I looked and looked.

And then I had to paint it and paint it. Bear in mind, this was a Boys’ Grammar School in 1959. I was the only one in the whole 6th form who was doing Art. It was not a well-equipped department. The papers were rubbish. The available paint was powder paint. Still. I struggled and struggled to get the texture of that work top. I put paint on top of paint. I started again. And again. And Louis Wilde just let me struggle. Keep going. he’d say. You’ll see. And I did. I’d have seen straight away if it had been the original, and you can see much clearer with a screen image. But the fact is, there’s hardly any paint on that pale oatmeal-y area at the bottom. Mainly, what you can see is the canvas, as is also true of the top part of the image. He was teaching me to look, was Louis, and I’m still grateful.

Drawing and redrawing the two figures and then painting them made me look at how the upper body is put together, the ways it works. You can feel the weight of bone and flesh and muscle, the ways they flex. I never managed to figure out how Degas managed to suggest that the weight of the figures continues all the way to the unseen floor, hidden by the diagonal line of the worktop. Miraculous. But here’s the kicker…we were into Abstract in 1959. Representional painting was dead. Or unfashionable. Much the same thing, when you’re 16. Louis had me doing synthetic cubism quicker than you could say Braque. So I never really got to think about what the picture was saying about these women and their work. I never for a second considered what Degas was well aware of…their tiredness, the steamy heat…look at that big stove, or copper, or whatever it is…look at the haze of light, muzziness. I was reminded of this, reading U.A.Fanthorpe who voices one of the women in this painting. I can’t remember the title of her poem. But in a footnote, she remarks that Degas got the title of the painting wrong. It’s called Women ironing. Fanthorpe says that these are women trained in a trade involving skill and stamina. They’re professionals. The painting should be called Ironing women.

What she’s interested in isn’t art history. It’s living breathing human beings. I’ll come back to this. Now, when I started writing this yesterday (May 21) I was in an odd frame of mind; no, not odd. Uncomfortable, mean-spirited. Why would that be? I think that it’s because for the last four years in poetry I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants. I’ve been ridiculously lucky to be able to do that. Four pamphlets, a first collection, and now a second, joint collection which will be available in June. And very handsome it looksgap year facebook

Why the odd feeling of flatness? Surely, everything is wonderful? Isn’t this more than you could ever dream of? I remember suddenly realising that Degas wasn’t using much paint at all on that surface that I’d been trying to reproduce by laying paint on paint. I saw how it was done, and what I felt was …deflated. I’d been missing the point all along. Less was much much more. I have to say it was a lot later that I recognised that the women in the picture, their situation, and work and humanity was what mattered, and the technique was a means to an end. Not the end, any more than ‘having a collection’ is an ‘end’. It’s a means of telling what you make of the world.

Poets I love have told me how they went to sleep with their first published collections under their pillow. I watched a poet I love sit in a daze of happiness on the day a parcel of copies of her first collection arrived. I saw her reading the other week, and during her reading she talked about how she’d written nothing, really, for a year after that. Not writers’ block, whatever that is, because I think that describes a kind of desperation. Not wanting to write and being unable. That wasn’t it at all. It was just..not writing.

I haven’t felt it like that. I’ve gone on writing and writing. But I think I may have made a mistake in getting involved in that poem-a-day-April, which coincided with finishing the new collection. I wrote 50+ ‘poems’. I worked on every unfinished draft from two years of going to writers’ workshops. I’ve read them all over and over. I feel as though I’ve spent all my savings in one big splurge, and I’ve nothing to show for it and less to fall back on when it rains. Flat. A bit like realising Degas didn’t use much paint. The ‘is that it?’ feeling. Well, it is what it is, and we’ll ask for the serenity to accept it until it decides to go away. Because it will. In the meantime I found myself writing a series of shortish poems which wonder whether poetry’s all it’s cracked up to be. You know you’re in trouble when you start writing poems about poems. I’ll share them with you. Think of it as confession. Have a read of Auden’s ‘Musee des beaux arts’ first.

degas 4

The whole of the moon

 

1.

They give themselves airs, poets,

make large claims on the world,

like starving men

who stake little flags in cairns

in wildernessess of snow and cold.

 

You don’t get painters doing that,

the ones for whom it’s enough

to sit still, to look and look and look

till they almost believe they know

how the moment works,

 

the art where you see all of it

at once, at the same moment

as everything else  inside the frame,

right to the very edges

where the moment stops.

 

A poet wonders how would it be

if the picture went on round

the corner, if you could see

where Breughel’s hunters came from,

and who or what was following.

 

Poets  tell you what matters

is the moment, but really

they’re hooked on narrative,

the why, the who, the what and when,

the dumb ghosts in the machine.

degas 5

 2.

painters give you everything at once,

you stand in the space where they were,

they gift you their eyes, don’t stand

behind you to explain or point.

 

Poets are always at your shoulder,

touching your elbow, you can’t

shut them out. You go at their pace,

top to bottom, left to right.

 

A painter sees the sea, the cliffs,

the clouds, the boy scaring crows,

the ploughman turning clods,

the ship, a splash. Doesn’t write

a title underneath. A poet tells you

what the painter meant.

 

Through the scrim and scaffolding

of words you will never see

again  the world he saw.

 

3.

A painter can stop the moment

of a girl lit from a window,

pouring milk from a jug. The milk

makes no sound, a stilled liquid purl.

degas 6

4.

Intent and still as a cat, a painter

sees a woman ironing, the turn

of her shoulder, the planes

of greenish light, the way flesh

isn’t white at all, how, like snow

it borrows colour, blue and violet.

 

You look through the eyes of the cat

and see with a start that it’s true,

the way a torso shifts to press

down on an iron, how a finger

moves a strand of errant hair,

how red is the inside of a yawn.

 

He watches how a dancer watches

herself in a long mirror. He doesn’t

say she loves herself in her froth

of muslin, her satin shoes. He doesn’t

say how tired is the ironing woman,

how hot, or bored, how long the day.

 

He lends you his eyes and quietly

goes, leaves you to make of it

what you will.

degas 2

What was all that about? Not for a moment was I thinking of stopping writing to take up painting. I think what was behind it was thinking about the whole purpose of signs and symbols as a way of illuminating the world, celebrating it and the people in it. And at the same time thinking that either I’d said as much as I possibly could, or that however much I did it I’d never say anything particulary new or memorable, or both.

And then you’re given a gift. A poet who says she didn’t write anything for a year after her first collection was published. But who is now writing wonderful new stuff. And another; yesterday, I reblogged a post from Julie Mellor. When you’re finished here, do go and read it. It seems ages since she was a Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition winner, and then seemed to go off the radar (though I’ve kept reminding you how good she is via the cobweb). She’s been quietly working away, listening, watching, researching, absorbing. She’s finding herself in new places, exploring things she hadn’t expected to explore. If that doesn’t cheer me up, nothing can.

So when I write: Now what? Or. What next? you can imagine two distinct ways of saying it. One irritable and tetchy. Or one that say, let’s get cracking. Work to be done. This morning, it’s the second voice, and I’m grateful to the ones who made me feel this way.

 

The ins and outs of residential poetry courses.

lumb-bank-exterior

Well, here we are, a day late, and posssibly later. No excuse really. Just that yesterday (Sunday, in case it really is later) I put on an unfeasible number of waterproof, windproof, fleecy layers and headed off in the driving sleet and rain to Mount Pleasant. Arguably the most ironically named Rugby League ground in the world….whether it’s the bleakest is arguable; I seem to remember that Workington’s ground is pretty inhospitable…..but anyway, even going to sit down in the covered stand did little to stem the sensations of encroaching hypothermia, and I spent last night getting warm again instead of writing this for the cobweb. So, thank you for your forbearance and general air of cheerfulness. It will not be forgotten.

As it happens, there’s a bit of serendipity involved, which I’ll explain as I go along. I’m feeling a bit confused and conflicted about the business of writing poems at the moment. This morning a copy of The Interpreter’s house dropped through the letter box. It’s full of good things, including poems by cobweb guest poets Keith Hutson, Wendy Pratt, Wendy Klein and Julie Mellor, and, among so much good stuff, a fulsome review of Much Possessed by Dawn Gorman. Wow. Thank you for that. A review!..at every stage of writing you can feel you’re ‘arriving’, though I can’t imagine you’ll ever quite feel you’ve arrived. I hope not, because then you’d have to get off the bus and look for work. First poem in a journal, first commendation in a competition, first invitation to do a reading, first pamphlet, first collection. First review. How did I ever get here? I’ll come back to that.

Because there’s sometimes a downside to the business. In my case it’s paradoxically to do with having won a competition…jointly won, because it was a shared submission…which you can check out if you like. I wrote about it on Dec 3rd, feeling especially proud of my fellow writer, Andy Blackford. The prize is to have a collection published. Here’s the thing. No one from the business that runs the competition (and I believe it’s a reputable affair) has ever contacted me directly, only Andy. He forwarded a copy of a publishing contract for me to sign in January. I sent off my two copies, but have heard nothing, nor has my copy been returned, countersigned. We have repeatedly emailed the organisers and still have had no reply. Andy begins to believe it’s a scam. I don’t, but it makes me cross. What would you do? Comments welcome if this resonates with you in any way..but there it is. I’m simultaneously delighted, frustrated and cross. How did I get here?

moniack-mhor-lst194651

In my case it’s because I’ve started by going on day courses, and then won competitions…one of my pamphlets, and my first collection, were published as the prize for winning, first the Camden/Lumen, and then the Poetry Business Pamphlet Comps. And now the latest one, Much possessed. There are other routes, and tougher ones, especially those taken by the writers who submit and submit and submit and submit to journals and magazines, and build up a painstaking porfolio of published work. They’re the ones who win my admiration and respect. They know who they are. But thing is, how did I come to write enough poems in the first place. Well, it started, as I say, with one-day workshops, and with small writers’ groups, but at some point I applied to go on a residential course. Moniack Mhor. That’s it, with the Wagnerian sky in the background.

I’m not sure I would have done so had I not known a bit about Arvon Courses in the first place. Which is why there’s a picture of the back yard of Lumb Bank at the top of the page. I ‘ve always thought the real character of the building and, indeed, the place, is in that back yard with its hard granite setts.It’s always, for me, been the setting of Full moon and little Frieda. It’s the spirit they went for in the recent TV Bronte drama. Uncompromising. It’s leaked into a couple of poems in the last two years. In Banked up

“somewhere out in the yard a bucket has blown over

rackets about the cobbles like a big man in a rage

like a man who’d smash his fist into a gritstone wall

and sing about the blood”

and in So I’m thinking

“….of Ted Hughes’ gritstone house,

that tunnel of a yard, its slippery flags,

that valley of unsmoking chimneys,

knee-deep in brown leaf-litter,

an old artillery firing blanks at a Pennine moon”

It certainly made a big impression when I first went there in the mid-80s, not as a course participant (because I’d never heard of Arvon or Lumb Bank till then), but because as part of my job as an LEA English/Drama Adviser I co-ordinated an annual residential course for selected 6th formers from the Calderdale schools. It’s how I came to meet Berlie Doherty, John Latham, Terry Caffrey, Lemn Sissay and Graham Mort among others. Maura Dooley was warden then, and for a few years it was a retreat and a bolthole when I needed to avoid the increasing misery of being turned into an Inspector. Very fond of Lumb Bank, then, though I’ve never been on a course as resident member. And that’s how I became aware of Arvon, though I didn’t write poems until a good deal later.

Like I say, in the late 90s I discovered writing days, which made me write stuff, even though my heart wasn’t yet in it. And I began to meet more like-minded folk and make ‘writing friends’ and think there was something to the whole business, though I wasn’t sure what. It was my partner, Flo, who was the one behind my going on residentials. Determined that I wasn’t going to mooch through retirement like a mental tramp, she looked things up, told me Liz Lochhead was tutoring a course at Moniack Mhor, and told me to apply for it. So I did.I liked Liz Lochhead’s poetry. That was the only reason. And I didn’t enjoy it. Not one bit. Not at all.

But my partner was indefatigable. I’d become a Poetry Business writing day addict by then. Look, she said. Your friend Ann Sansom is running a poetry course in Spain. Spain! I might not have gone, but my oldest friend lived only 100miles south of where the course was..and had been very ill…and I reckoned I could go and visit him, too. I’m glad I did, because he died a couple of months later. And I’m more than glad I went to the Old Olive Press, because that’s where I met Hilary Elfick who told me, without qualification or hesitation, that I should and would be published. It was truly astonishing.

olive-press-2016-007

Everything about it was astonishing. Heat. Mountains. Walking. A swimming pool. En suite bedrooms. Food. Writing every day, for day after day. Amazing. I keep going back. And here’s the thing..it cost less for a Saturday to Saturday course in Spain (including the air fare) than it cost me to drive to Inverness (which involved a B&B stop…it’s a long long way) for a Monday to Saturday Arvon course. Money’s an issue, but so is value for money. I’ll come back to this. The thing is, I enjoyed it so much, got so excited by it all, that I went again, for a course tutored by Jane Draycott..which was brilliant…on which I wrote a poem that won a prize that paid for a return to Spain the next year, a course with Mimi Khalvati, and something towards another with Ann Sansom.

treloyhan-1

And so it goes. I’ve been on others…to Cumbria, to Whitby, to Keswick, and to St Ives (where I’m going again on Sunday, and very handsome it is, as you can see)..and it’s on these days and weeks that I’ll base what I’ll write next. But, caveat emptor. This will be partial, subjective, and possibly unreliable. I can only share what I’ve gathered from experience that is probably not typical; I’d love to hear from others who may have quite different perspectives. Still, here we go: the ins and outs of poetry residentials as far as can tell.

You need to ask yourself what you hope to get out of it. The first one I went on, I think I expected some kind of magical transformation. I was very vague about what I thought that might mean, but I supposed that by spending time in the company of a famous poet, I’d achieve poems by osmosis; inspiration via proximity. Forget that. I rather hoped that someone would show me ways of thinking and working that would help me to be a better writer. That didn’t happen either, and it made me cross.I expected to be pushed and stretched and challenged. That didn’t happen, either. So, what can you look for before you commit yourself?

Firstly, don’t just go on the ‘name’ of the course tutor(s). Ask around. Facebook’s a good place to start, because I’m assuming that you’ll have acquired poetry chums. But ask people to message you in response. You don’t want poets being slagged off on a public forum.

I want to know how the tutor normally works. I know what works for me, and I want to find a good ‘fit’. For instance, I like to work fast, under pressure. I know in advance that a Poetry Business will do that for me. But you may like a gentler pace, something more reflective. You know how you learn best. So think hard about that.

Alternatively, I like structure. The most productive courses I’ve been on have been carefully and explicitly structured, and they tell you explicitly or implicitly what the course objective will be. So, a Jane Draycott course very quietly, day on day, focussed on building up a toolkit of techniques that let you dramatise your poems: place, voice, character, (the who, where,what, when and why of things). The techniques were illustrated via the ‘starter poems’, and the whole thing was purposeful and accretive. I loved it.

A Kim Moore/Carola Luther course focussed on myth, and ways in which its retellings enable you access ways of understanding and communicating your own life experiences and belief. It actually changed the way I thought. It was hard work. I loved it. A Kim Moore/Steve Ely course focussed on voices and ventriloquism. I don’t know a better way of breaking out of your own default voice and its rhythms. Anyway. You get the idea.

On the other hand, I went on one course tutored by someone who came highly recommended by folk I trusted. What I failed to do was check out the tutor’s own poetry. Which is technically amazing, but essentially lyrical and doesn’t ring my rhetorical/narrative bell. Maybe I hoped it would challenge me more than it did, but there was a lot of analytic/reflective discussion and all I wanted to do was crack on. So, make sure you know, as far as you can, what the ‘teaching/practice’ is going to be like before you commit.

Secondly think about accomodation and setting. This, I think, is much more important than I explicitly recognised at first. Ask yourself: do you want a spartan room, a novitiate’s bed,  and a walk along cold landings to a distant shower/bathroom? Do you want to prepare food for other people? (as it happens I love doing that, so my Arvon course was saved by my being able to spend every afternoon prepping and cooking in a big kitchen with and industrial sized range. very few people understand my enthusiasm. And I wouldn’t want to have done it at Lumb Bank). It’s a simple fact that residentials in hotels are more comfortable, and you get your food cooked and served by professionals. In dining rooms. Counter-intuitively, they also tend to be significantly cheaper.

However, it can also feel slightly odd to be writing in a hotel, where there may also be a convention of Charismatic Christians, or water polo players or whatever. You can lose you concentration, whereas at Arvon it’s wall to wall poets and poetry. So think about that. Equally, about the locality. I want to be in a space that I’m happy in. I want distance, I want to be able to walk but not in streets or in constrained, fenced countryside. I don’t want to be in woodland. I want to be able to get away for an hour or two each day, just to let my brain stretch, and to stop talking to people. Think about where you’re likely to feel happy. Seriously.

Thirdly ..this doesn’t bother me so much, because I’m able to switch off from my surroundings when I’m working, to blank out what’s going on around me…but what about the people? This sounds misanthropic, and I don’t intend it to be. If you’re not convivial, then being in close proximity to the same (intense) group of people for several days might not be what you want. You’re not going to have the tutor’s unlimited personal attention. And then there’s the business of what everyone else does when you’re not in a timetabled session. You’ll see people earnestly writing on and on, at tables, in armchairs, tapping away at laptops, and if you’re not careful, you’ll start to worry because you’re not. And you need to blank out the conversations about ‘how much have you written?’ Because it’s not a competition. The only person who matters is you. You’re there to get better at what you want to do. One more thing. It’s possible to find out by asking around if a given tutor is always accompanied by the same group of accolytes. I’ve seen this twice, and learned from it. You can feel frozen out. I’m thick-skinned but it still irked me. You have better things to do with your life

Lastly  (because I’ve gone on for too long, and I’m rambling). Residential courses are not cheap. For me, they are actually my holidays, but you can be forking out anything between £500 and £1000. (which partly accounts for the demographic.Don’t expect too many young folk in the group). And if they’re any good at all, they’re hard work. If not exhausting. It’s important that you do everything you can to make sure you’re going to be in good company, in a place you like, which is comfortable, with a tutor who will drive you up a level or two. Even when they’re not very good, residential courses are places where you strike up important friendships, and, in my case, where your life may change. So don’t for a second let me put you off by saying: think about it, check it out, ask.

And with that, that’s me for a couple of weeks. Because I’m going on (surprise) a residential course next Sunday. And I couldn’t be happier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write.

tyndale-gospel-of-john

I suppose that begs the question: why write at all? It’s a question that I spent a lot of time on, in the 1980s, when I was writing a book about the teaching of writing, or working as a consultant on the emerging National Curriculum, or when I was putting together a series for GCSE. It’s easy to sidestep, by concentrating on the categories of writing that children and students need (we believe) to get to grips with. Lists, explanations, reports, summaries, persuasive and analytic pieces.

For most of the time in schools it’s so we can assess how well children write, and also to assess what they’ve understood or what they know. About history, geography, science, economics….whatever. In English lessons, we ask them to write in response to poetry or novels or plays. But why do we ask them to write stories or poems or scripts? I’m not sure it’s a question that enough teachers of English bother about sufficiently. It’s sort of a given. It’s what ‘English’ is.

I know when I was at school I’d be asked, or told, to write a story; and when I was a young and not especially reflective teacher, I’d be the one to do the asking or telling. There was always the one or two or three who would very reasonably say: I don’t know what to write about, Sir / Miss. I guess they were written off in school reports: ‘Lacks imagination’. I was OK at school, because although I knew very little, I read a lot and I’d figured out the tricks of writing a story. Poems, not so much. But we were rarely asked to write a poem, so that was OK.

And then, many years later (in my case) 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’. It’s the voice from childhood, all over again. Please, Miss. I don’t know what to write. I’ll stick my neck out. Here’s the answer. It’s because, for one reason or another, you have nothing to say. Not for ever. But just now. It’s because nothing is exciting or puzzling you.

You can make a list of what ought to intrigue you: your childhood, relationships, friends, school….the whole autobiographical shtick. But if it doesn’t excite or puzzle you, why should it interest anyone else? Places, landscapes, other lives? Ditto. Stuff you know you know about? History, science, cars, philately? Ditto.

So I’m going to stick my neck out again and say it’s the stuff that takes you by surprise, that’s exciting but something you don’t understand, something you want to understand…that’s what you wait for or go hunting for.

I was talking to the poet Helen Mort a week or so ago and she said something that caught my attention (she said a lot of things that did that) and I had to write it down. She said that when she went to Cambridge she was thrown by the way so many students took the place for granted, as though they didn’t actually ‘see’ it. Whereas she, as an outsider, an incomer, was gobsmacked and excited and baffled and all that…And I was immediately transported back to the interview I had in Cambridge, aged 17. I felt like an alien. Which meant, I suppose, that I was differently observant. It was like trying to learn a four-dimensional foreign language. And then Helen said:

                             Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

They are ideally, I suppose, the dark watchers I wrote about last week . They are writing to discover, because that’s the medium they make their discoveries in.Helen said:

I can make poems to be written, and they might be OK, but that’s all

By which I understood: if you’re not puzzled by what you’re writing about then you won’t be writing the poems that need to be written. I’m really glad I was there to hear that. To record it. And then to get on with this bit of cobwebspinning. I’m going to reflect on the business of finding out what it is you need to be finding out for the poems that need to be written.(  I’ll leave that tortured bit of syntax as it is. It’s symbolic).

 

You have to start, somewhere. Maybe you start here.

 

He is the sparrow, the Friday lord.

I hoped to be the watcher on the rooftop,

but He was first. I’m flake of his fire,

leaf-tip on His world-tree”

[ From: Tyndale in Darkness .

U.A.Fanthorpe: Selected Poems, ed R.V.Bailey. Enitharmon Press 2013 ]

I have no idea why I downloaded U A Fanthorpe’s ‘Selected poems’ to my Kindle, round about midnight on a too-hot night in Spain a couple of months ago. Perhaps I’d looked her up on Google and realised that here was another poet, like Causley and Vernon Scannell, whose work was now to be sought via Abe Books. Whatever. On the verge of sleep, I stumbled into her sequence of poems where she voices William Tyndale, and I read these lines, and the hairs at the back of my neck stood up. That feeling that I’d never read anything like this, that it was amazing that it could have been written with such simple assurance. Later on I recognized the echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and of George Herbert too, I guess,  but that hardly matters. I felt I’d learned something new-minted and important.

In a moment she will take you from the ‘dear preoccupied people’ of 16thC Gloucester, to Gethsemane,

‘and they weren’t used to late nights, his disciples

…………….why did He ask them to stay awake

when he knew they couldn’t? Because He always does.’

 

and back to Gloucestershire, and Tyndale remembering that

 

I heard the ploughboy whistling under Coombe Hill,

and I thought, I could do that. Give him God’s word.

I mean, in his own workaday words. And I did.

 

I think this astonishing and lovely, the way the translator of the Bible into English walks into my life. It’s done with such apparent ease..the ease of imaginative familiarity that only comes with total involvement, absorption in a life that’s loved and troubling.

By the time you come to the fifth poem in the sequence-the Passion, two voices have come together in a single voice that’s simultaneously Fanthorpe’s and Tyndale’s. The voice of the poet’s living faith, and that of Tyndale imagining his imminent execution at the stake.

The powerlessness. This is the day He dies,

Jesus the Friday sparrow, the watcher on the cross

who forgives those who put Him there. He’s dying now,

and His world is dying too. I made this world twice

after God. I translated Genesis.

All I could think was: how does she do this, how does she move me so much? I’m an atheist, aren’t I? How did she make me care, make me believe this was important? How could she do it so ‘easily’? Well, here’s the thing I want to concentrate on: she knows what she’s writing about. ‘Knows’. Not ‘knows about’. This is felt knowledge. But at first it could only be facts, history. It had to be read and learned. And here’s the other thing: it couldn’t be understood, truly known like this until it was written like this. She didn’t know what she knew till she said it.

So what I’m saying is, there’s an answer built into the implied question of my title: I don’t know what to write . The answer being a hard one: well, go away till you know something enough to be intrigued and excited by it.Not sure that you undersatnd it but feeling as though you should. Which will involve you in reading, watching television, watching films, knocking around with mates, walking around cities or up hillsides in rain, or digging, or playing football, or cooking or looking after ageing parent, or after young children, or falling in love, or having an affair, or going into hospital, or having an interview. Getting to know stuff. Finding out. Living it. Which is not the answer people on poetry courses and so on are likely to be comfortable with. But let’s leave that hanging. Let’s go back to Tyndale.

Because from here on, I’m going to be riffing around the business of research, and the way it can be a strange and reflexive business. Sometimes the poem comes first, as it did with Tyndale in darkness. and then sends you off to find the world of the poem, which in my case turned out to be the history of a book, and a biography, too, and a work of detection. It’s subtitled : ‘William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the bloody birth of the English Bible’. The book is Brian Moynahan’s Book of Fire [Abacus 2002]. I mentioned to my mate Keith Hutson (a guest poet on the Cobweb in February 2015) that I’d read Fanthorpe’s  poem, and Keith immediately lent me Moynahan’s book. Which is now bristling with post-it notelets, and waiting for me to transcribe all sorts of quotations and snippets from it….although I haven’t got round to that, because I’m skimming through Hilary Mantel again, finding out what she wrote about Thomas More, and (she’s sure)Thomas Cromwell’s enthusiasm for a vernacular Bible. And at some point I’ll be back with Fanthorpe’s poem, marvelling at the way  she lets you know that what you’re reading is the essence and the truth of a hugely complex and contested tale. I know it will be provisional and I will change, and maybe one day the poem will seem less true. But I hope not. What I do know is that I now know a lot of stuff I didn’t know before I read about the Friday sparrow, and I now I’m writing about it. Not poems that need to be written. But later, maybe. They’ll say if and when they’re ready.

sula sgeir 3

Or maybe you start here…not with a poem, but with the glimmering of an idea. Maybe something you didn’t know you’d noticed at the time, but which comes back and surprises you. I’ve written before how I need workshops to generate that kind of surprise; I know I can’t consciously sit down to find stuff out to make into poems. I know, because I wasted months trying to do that with a 19thC painter. But here’s an illustration of what I mean. I wrote a poem recently from a workshop draft. Here’s just a bit of it: I wondered of the Celtic saints of the Outer Islands

if they knew that gulls and fulmars

would nest in the cloister of their ribs.

I had an idea where that had come from, because it certainly wasn’t mine. I tracked it down to Macfarlane’s The old ways and his journey to Sula Sgeir in a small boat. Something I have never done, will never do. I know that Macfarlane had taken me back to Adam Nicholson’s Sea Room, where I’d been led by reading Kathleen Jamie, who also took me to books about St Kilda and the Greater Blaskett…and so on. Sea-girt mountain tops, puffins, gannets, bird migration, white-tailed eagles, nests in the ribcage of a saint. He’ll do that for me, Macfarlane. I don’t know if it’s plagiarism…I know that some of his phrasing lodges in my word-hoard and sort of roots itself there. Like this from another poem about a burial cairn on Bheinn na Caillich on Skye

because their oceans were swanspaths, whaleroads.

because they wrote their maps in the wind,

the whole idea is lifted from Macfarlane. I know, because I knew I hadn’t invented it, so I tracked it down. I didn’t take his words. But I had to write my words to understand what he meant, so I could tell you how the idea excited me. Does that make sense?

sula

 

Before I started this bit of the cobweb, I scribbled a list of the stuff that was hanging about waiting to be read, or re-read. The stuff with post-it notelets stuck in it. William Tyndale, British mining disasters, a journey through the English moorlands, A sky full of birds by Matt Merritt, Antarctica (including the remastered films: South (Shackleton) and Scott of the Antarctic, David Wilson’s new pamphlet: Slope [smith/doorstop 2016]. Tectonic plates. Coal measures and the Jurassic. The building of the Himalaya.

I know that at least a bit of that comes from a poetry reading at the Red Shed months ago when the Agbrigg Poets performed a sequence about the Lofthouse Colliery disaster …which was only a couple of miles from where I live, but might as well have been on the moon. And I know that as a result of that, I’ve been finding out about Onibasha. And I can’t make myself write about any of it. It needs to settle into my thinking, become something I don’t know that I know, and wait for it to be surprised into a shape I can share.

Now, I need to make it clear that I don’t think that ‘research’ is the answer to everything. I confess that I’m drawn to poems that announce themselves as knowledgeable rather than (just) elegantly lyrical. Writers like Steve Ely, Ian Duhig, Christy Ducker, Pascal Petit, Julie Mellor. I’m looking forward to the postman bringing me Helen Mort’s new collection which grows out of her research into pioneering women rockclimbers and mountaineers. But I also think that for myself I’m particularly taken by the way ‘research’ can throw a bright, unnerving, illuminating light on what you thought you knew. Childhood, parenting, a parent’s death, or the death of a relationship.

I’ll remind my self of what Helen Mort said:

Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

I think you have to become an outsider looking in on your own life. You think you know it, but you don’t, because it’s too near to see.

I know that it was only by reading and re-reading versions of the Greek myths that I became able to write about the death of a son in a way that didn’t exclude other readers. I’ll stick my neck out, and guess that it wasn’t until she’d been absorbed into the ‘Metamorphoses’ of Ovid that Kim Moore became able to write the poems about domestic abuse and violence in the way that stops me in my tracks. I’m biased…I think these poems are the powerful heart of ‘ The art of falling’. Like I say, I’m sticking my neck out. Tell me if you disagree. I really would like to know.

I was going to go on to write about the way the process can go wrong, and how you can find yourself writing what are essentially lies. But I realise I’ve rambled, and there’s enough in that for whole post of its own.

But just a cautionary note. If you have a project that excites you, be careful who you share your enthusiasm with. Maybe you’ll want to keep it to yourself. Because a poet I love shared her project with someone who went off with it, and used it, and reaped great reward thereby. For me, if you want to write about tectonic plates or Shackleton, go ahead. I don’t know enough about them. Yet.

 

 

As a matter of fact: a polished gem (7) Julie Mellor

tolson 2

As a matter of fact, I couldn’t resist this image of a Pennine poet among the display cases of the Tolson Museum in Huddersfield. The reason should become clear as we go along, but I warn you in advance that this is the third post I’ve written in the last two days (the other two for other cobweb spinners and weavers who’ve asked me to guest on their sites; I’m not sure when they’ll be posted, but I couldn’t be happier to be asked.)….however, all three involve a bit of reflection on the writing process as I know it, and the thing is, I fear they may start to bleed into each other, or run like watercolours, and I’ll lose the thread. Fingers crossed.

I’ve just noticed I’ve managed to stack three metaphors into three consecutive clauses in one sentence. Sorry about that.

I’ve been thinking about that question that writers of all kinds get asked: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I’m not thinking of the business of what prompts you to recover them from the dusty, badly-curated bits of your memory and unconscious. That’s what writing workshops do for me. No, I’m thinking of the question of where it all comes from in the first place. What if you’ve had a pretty uneventful life? What if you’re not widely travelled. And why do we improvise on these first hand memories and on vicarious experience? James Britton memorably said it was because we never cease to long for more lives than we can actually live. So we read, we read, we watch films and television, we go to art galleries, we wander around cities, we walk through landscapes. We might even go into museums. I’m reminded that when I was doing a lacklustre MA in a lacklustre way for lacklustre reasons I had to write an essay about the ‘Writer as researcher’ and to reflect on the nature of the research I undertook in order to write poems. Where do I get my poems from? What are they about?

The more I look back, the more I see how one idea or notion will lead to another in ways that take me by surprise, and I accidentally stumble on information and images that find their way into poems….or become poems. And to be fair, how some of the books I read bleed into my writing. Here’s a confession. Every now and then I realise that I’ve hijacked another writer’s turn of phrase, or even come close to incorporating whole phrases and clauses into my writing. Not consciously. It’s as though they’ve morphed into ‘my’ thinking. John Prebble is one such. Wanting to make sense of crofters and Clearances inevitably took me to Prebble, and I find I’ve lifted a phrase about ghosts from ‘Glencoe’ that turns up, not much changed, in a poem called Boreraig, and another called A kind of history. And these are the ones I know about. It’s an odd thing, this ‘research’.

I’ve stumbled on stuff in Prebble, say, about Portugeses mercenaries fighting an awful rearguard on the slopes of Glen Shiel…why does it bother me? Why do I want to write about it, re-imagine it? Reading about the painter, John Waterhouse took me down sideroads of myth and legend, to Ovid, and then to Ted Hughes, and by another road to statues and sculptures, and thence to Queen Victoria’s journals, and the building of Nelson’s Column, and thence to his ships and his battles and his wounds. Vikings, the Spanish Civil War, crucifixion (did you know the sloping wooden ‘step’ on a cross is a suppadaneum?), Albert Pierrepoint, railway navvies, Mayhew’s street people………of late it’s been the history of maps, and, especially, Robert Macfarlane who has taken me back to the Vikings, to Everest, the geology of the Cairngorm. And people ask: where do you get your ideas from? As though that was problematic. The problem for me is knowing when to stop, to concentrate.

And so we come, by some indirection, to my guest for today, who writes about men who can hold ice, trains that fall from viaducts, fossilised trees, the folklore of fruit, the fears of geese,  Pennine graveyards, Sicilian breakfasts and volcanoes…in short a poet who never fails to engage and delight me: Julie Mellor

penistone

While I was rereading her Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition winner Breathing through our bones (chosen by Carol Ann Duffy! Yes, it’s that good.) I realised what it was I liked so much about Julie’s writing…it’s that every poem is a surprise, that each one is unexpectedly different from the last, and at the same time the voice is reliably the same. And the other realisation is that there’s not a shred of ego, or self-consciousness. Just a genuinely curious delight in the unaccountable richness and diversity of things. But I’m forgetting my manners. If you’ve not met Julie Mellor before, then let me introduce you.

Julie was born in Penistone, (which, as you’ll notice, has a viaduct…always a commendable thing, and is also one of these towns where everyone is someone’s cousin twice removed) where she lives with her partner and her most treasured possession: her dog. After doing various jobs, including working in a shoe shop on London’s Oxford Street, and as an au pair in Sicily, she gained a degree in English at the University of Huddersfield. She went on to do an MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam, followed by a PhD, which she completed in 2003. Her poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies including Ambit, Mslexia, The North and The Rialto. Breathing Through Our Bones was published in 2012,  ‘Poems with a real ability to own their subject – whether spontaneous combustion or the collective thought of geese – and which remain to intrigue long after reading’ – says Carol Ann Duffy. I’m not about to argue with that.

I’ve known her for a few years as a regular at the Poetry Business writing days, which is where I’ve seen many of the poems in her pamphlet appear for their first airing in public. And thing is, they ‘stick’. They’re always memorable.  Not just the subjects, but the turn of phrase, the exactness of images. Here’s a few examples, just so you tune in.

You’ll encounter The roots of lycopsid trees , the Bishop of Tours, St Martin who chose to live with geese, Joseph Prigg, aged thirteen, who died of injuries at work, four days before Christmas, 1869. Because here’s a poet who spends time (like Simon Armitage) in the Tolson Museum in Huddersfield, who is interested in churchyards and gravestones, and brings the dead to life and breathes through their bones. Anyone can be quirky and eccentric with their choice of subjects. Making them connect with our lives is another thing altogether, and that’s what her poetry does for me. It grabs my attention, too, with images that are surprising and true. I truly hate canal towpath walking, and this is why.

Each bridge is a bleak stone rainbow
and when the water is calm,
it mirrors the arch

to a circle, a giant gun barrel
we are propelled through, side by side.

There it is, the rainbow with no gold at the end, that endless perspective, the speed of its narrowing, and for me, the no-progress of walking, looking at it endlessly receding. Or, how about this: a kitchen whisk  Like the winding gear at Dodworth pit. Or this:  ice melt running through my fingers / as if I was squeezing it dry. I really like the paradox of that. Neat, concise, exact. Or this, about a beck in spate. Listen. I’m running late;  / see the jolt in me……  ‘see’ where you’d expect ‘feel’; ‘see’ when you’ve just been told to ‘listen’. And so it goes. OK. I’ve made you wait. Time for complete poems. The first  I’ve always liked for the swagger of taking on Heaney on his chosen ground (though, to be fair, I can’t imagine anyone less given to swaggering than Julie Mellor.)

Blackberries

We have darkened like the end of the year,
the knuckled hulls at our core
white as a maggot or a baby’s first tooth.

Clusters of sorcery, we store the sun.
The juice of us is a blue flame.
Even the wary fall for our frumenty smell.

Between children’s fingers we bleed black,
store our vengeance until Michaelmas,
when the devil unleashes himself in spit

and piss, and we rot like the underside
of hide buried in lime, lose ourselves
in softness, sink back into what we are,

almost fruit, almost tar, resist the creeping nights,
the toll of winter curfew, wait
in our thinned clusters like the eyes of the blind,

until eel worms eat at our ingangs,
hang on to the last, juice thick as oak bark liquor,
seasoned, vile,

then shrivel back to seed,
like the mole on the back of the neck
that marks you for hanging.

Isn’t this a witchy poem and isn’t it textured? Just read it aloud and relish the consonants, and the creepy resonance of maggots, eels, the mole that marks you for hanging. Poetry as enchantment ( thanks for that, Dana Gioia). The next one is more tender, and I like it because it illustrates the surprise you can look forward to as you turn a page in the pamphlet. This one was published in The North.  (I can’t find which issue. Mea culpa)

 

Great Aunt Lucy

When I say I was hungry,
I’d already eaten the tiled hearth,
swallowed the coals in the scuttle
one by one, chewed the armchairs,
the cushions, all that wadding.

When I ate the television,
I felt the tube explode inside me.
My head swam. I was walking
on stilts, my slippers miles away,
small pink embellishments
at the end of my varicosed legs.

Eating the curtains took
the best part of a week.
I started with the nets; soft with dust
they went down the way
a christening shawl passes
through a wedding ring.

The curtains themselves I unpicked
like a moth, worked in from the corners,
followed the thread, like Ariadne
unwinding her ball of string.

When I’d done, the room
was full of grey light
and I saw myself properly
for the first time in years,
in an empty room, without my hat.

Gaia Holmes, another poet I like a lot,  will do this kind of thing. A sort of surrealism that works because it stays deadpan, even as it piles the improbable on the implausible, and then turns round on itself in the ambiguities of a room full of grey light, and something that’s wistful, and bleak and comic, all at once. Lovely. Now, just one more. This one has been published in Ambit 219. I think it’s one of the few of Julie Mellor’s poems that are explicitly personal.

Propolis

I’m aware it’s the stuff of bee spit and wax,
that it turns soft when the sun warms the hive,

and the bees, busy with their work of sealing the gaps,
are animate and fondling in their movement.

In truth, it’s not propolis I’m talking about,
but those unwanted spaces where words land and rest.

Think of old windows, how the putty has hardened
under layers of paint so the glass rattles loose in the frame.

When I say it’s turning cold, remind you
to shut the door to stop the draft,

what I’m really saying is, here is my heart,
raw as lambs’ liver, leaking on a white plate.

It shouldn’t be so exposed. There shouldn’t be
all this quiet air around it.

What grabs me is that line..what I’m really saying is, here is my heart.  It’s simple, or it seems simple.But it isn’t at all. And you can’t ignore it, plain and unadorned amongst all the analogies that dramatise that business of trying to find the right words when the plain words were the right ones after all. So there you are.

Julie Mellor asks a question in one of her poems Autobiography

How do I know about the price
of porter, about fleas in the mattress,

the pawning of ulsters –?

The answer is that she spends a lot of time in museums and churchyards and books and other people’s poems and lives and landscapes; because she has endless curiosity. That’s what research is like. And we could do a lot worse than follow the advice in the closing lines of Drawing the line

Look at these graves,
how they hold their names ready for us,
how we stoop to read with surprise
what, for centuries, has been lying at our feet.

Right; you’ve been quiet and attentive and I’m really pleased with you all. Off you go, and make sure you buy a copy of Breathing through our bones (Smith/Doorstop Books. 2012. £5.00). You can do it simply by following the link on this wordpress site.    https://juliemellorpoetsite.wordpress.com/

I hope that’s right. In any case, Google her. We’re having another guest next week. As a matter of fact, another Yorkshire poet, and a man who knows the finer points of a whippet. Don’t be late. And remember: More haste, less speed.

train crash penistone

Elixir: a polished gem (4) Lindsey Holland

Crazy water 2

There’s a great Tom Russell song. Mineral Wells. Like all his best songs, it tells a story…in this case that of the Fat Boy and the Filmstar. Both down on their luck. She sleeps in the backseat of a Cadillac on a backstreet in the Hollywood Hills with her box of old photographs. Fat Boy was at one time a film critic. She’s played Shakespeare on the London stage. He’s seen all her films. He wears grey overalls, weighs 400 pounds. It’s never going to be a marriage made in heaven. But they can dream:

She told him of a fountain of youth
In the hot Texas earth
It’ll heal and renew us
It’s somewhere west of Fort Worth
And she met Errol Flynn there
In the Crazy Water Hotel
And they danced down the street
In the moonlight of old Mineral Wells.

And off they go, Fat Boy and Filmstar, Greyhound bus, all the way to Texas to find ‘the fountain of youth’s all dried up’. It’s a country song. What did you expect?

crazy water 1

Where’s all this going, you may be thinking. Bear with me. I recently worked out that me and two other poetry-writing friends have thirty four grandchildren between us. And, briefly, just fleetingly, I wondered if I was getting old. Because I don’t feel old. I don’t feel essentially different from when I was a teenager. Just as foolish, loud, over-enthusiastic, given to unnecessary swearing; still hooked on rock ‘n roll (never drugs; sex something of a distant memory).

Feeling young is just feeling alive. Poetry makes me feel more and more alive. Writing it, and writing it in the company of others; workshops. Reading it and performing it. A mic. and a room full of people. And the essential ingredient – young poets. I gave up on folk clubs and folk festivals partly because the poetry I wanted to perform simply didn’t fit, but also because I felt as though I was surrounded by people who embraced ageing in the guise of real ale, weight gain and an absence of dress sense. The fashion of choice in your folk club, it seems to me, is the fleece. And despite the likes of Kate Rusby and Seth Lakeman there’s a notable absence of youth and the youthful. Course, I’ll be told it’s not like that. It’s not like that at all. But I can only say how it seems, and if your experience is other than that, then good luck.

I realise, now that I’d better qualify that phrase ‘young poets’.  Because I have no doubts they don’t think of themselves as ‘young’, and may well be indignant if they read this. Because some of the ones I think of as young are as old as my children. Come to think, that’s probably why. And one of them who is incorrigibly young is actually 75. It’s about vitality. But still. Who are they, these young ‘uns who raise my spirits and make me raise my game every time I meet them?  I met Luke Yates recently at a Poetry Business writing day. He bowled me over. And then was one of the winners of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition. Wow! Yvonne Reddick who reads with a rare exactness and precision, who writes elegant, researched poems that stick in the mind. Liz Venn who’s unafraid of the coexistence of poetry and science. Julie Mellor (same age as my daughter) who constantly startles and excites with her range of reference. David Tait, who I’ve never met personally, not to chat to, and whose poetry makes me feel untravelled and gauche. Maria Taylor- editor, published poet (who I’ve reviewed) and mother of twins, and also absurdly young. Gaia Holmes, whose oddly surreal and passionate poems with their combination of wit and fragile vulnerabilities are a continuing delight. Kim Moore. Well, I wrote my paean of praise/fan letter about Kim a couple of weeks ago. Clare Shaw, whose readings lift the hair on the back of my neck. It strikes me that many of them are teachers, or work in one way or another with young people.I feel blessed to know them all, and their enthusiasm and their passion and their zest. Elixirs. It’s the company you keep.

So that’s the context for this week’s polished gem: Lindsey Holland. I first met her (where else?) at The Poetry Business in Sheffield. She stuck in my mind as impossibly small and burdened. That was probably because of the out-of-scale backpack she was lugging about, and which appeared to be full of books. Maybe it happened to coincide with the fact that I’d been recently reading Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Lost’ and anyone with a backpack would seem waif-like. Every time after that, the backpack would come along with her…until last week at Poetry by heart in Leeds for the launch of Kim Moore’s collection: The art of falling. No backpack, this time, but with a teenage daughter who seemed not much younger than her.

So much for appearances. What was more important was the workshopped poem she brought to that Saturday writers’ day last year. It was one of those poems that immediately grab my attention because it was skilful and crafted, because it involved repetitions ( and therefore, elements of a list), and because the repeated element was the word ‘Because’. I’m a sucker for any sentence that begins with ‘because’ because it makes you wait. It happens that the poem was a list of reasons for a particular falling into love. And it had memorable images, like a shore ‘where starfish clap at waves’. That ‘clap’ is so exact, so surprising, so right. As is the sailor who ‘learnt to roll / with the buckle of wood over water’. You can’t improve on that ‘buckle’. Anyway, it persuaded me to ask her if she had poems to sell, and I bought this:

lindsey 1

I was surprised by a cover that seemed to come out of early 1970’s graphics for a science fiction story. Even more surprised and delighted by the poetry. The workshop poem was comfortable (for me) in its historical/biographical narrative. A lot of the poems in ‘Particle soup’ disconcerted me as I read them on the Supertram on the way to Meadowhall to pick up my my car. Words I’d never encountered before. What was ‘biopoeisis’? What’s a ‘mandelbrot set’? Who was this poet with an unfeasibly large backpack who could invoke a strangely sleazy transgressive world in a stanza like this from ‘The mourning before’ ?

‘On humid nights, we’d get drunk on Leffe

until the cockroaches’ speed seemed ridiculous

but not enough to beat him’.

Well,now I know, and I’m happy to know it. Lindsey Holland was born in 1976, [yup…young] in Ormskirk, Lancashire. Her poetry has appeared internationally in magazines and anthologies and her first poetry book, Particle Soup, was published by the Knives Forks and Spoons Press in 2012. She’s recently finished writing a pamphlet and she’s currently working on a full collection of poetry — both of these comprise poems based on her family history. She was Highly Commended in both the 2014 Café Writers competition and the 2015 Wenlock Poetry Festival Competition, shortlisted for a Cinnamon Poetry Collection Award in 2011 and commended in the Cheltenham ‘Buzzwords’ competition in 2013. She co-edits the new online magazine The Compass and she’s the founder of the network North West Poets. She edited the anthologies Sculpted: Poetry of the North West and Not on Our Green Belt and she was Poet in Residence at Chester Zoo in 2014. She has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick, where she was also part of the Heaventree Press team, and she currently teaches poetry at Edge Hill University. She ran her own photography business for several years and won numerous awards for her photographic work. Her interests include dog walking, nature, psychogeography, genealogy, singing and metal detecting.

It’s the photography business that throws me. When did she have the time? That and psychogeography. I had no idea what it was, but now I do, I understand better the damaged and slightly dangerous urban landscapes where some of the poems of Particle Soup  live; the business of the sometime playful exploration of built-up places, and sometimes the business of trespass. I think that both elements inform this poem I particularly chose from the collection:

The Trails are Mostly Invisible
It’s not enough to know of the castle,
plan a train, walk past that kid with the plump tongue
licking ice cream,
find the moat bridge, garrison, museum, see
the crawl space where
men ghosted bodies.

The walls are lying. They cover themselves. We
climb stairs, delve and probe,
read the blurbs and stop at photographs.
This can’t be that place we constructed.
White paint spreads its skin around the rooms,
there’s a rose bush in the courtyard,

and you and I are lost in here. It’s not enough
to pick like archaeologists; cracks
are filled and plastered, even keyholes
peep at nothing dirtier than brooms.
The clocks don’t blink,
the coffee shop is closing

but we can guess their path: with dyed clothes
and fake papers, hidden cash, they must have run
across the field at the back where steel gates
warn of a pylon. Wild grasses,
brambles, nettles are shoulder high
and only an escapist would think

to climb and drop, tear a path.
We might be treading their exact route, making
their decisions. The soil records
our feet as we scramble. I look back
and the castle’s windows flame in the sun,
from this hill, again, repeat.

There are so many untold stories in this poem, so many backstories to guess at and speculate on. Angela Topping talks about the collection’s invitation to mysterious journeys. Luke Kennard highlighted the way her poems invoke and explore non-existent spaces between love and fear. This poem helps me to understand what they mean. Nothing is certain  (this can’t be the place we constructed), and everything is exact, precise. ‘Keyholes peep at nothing dirtier than brooms’. Dirtier? How? Why?   I have no idea where I am or who ‘we’ are. Or perhaps I have too many ideas. In either case it’s unsettling.

Three years on, Lindsey’s poems are moving, as she says, into explorations of family history. I’m intrigued by the next poem that she’s sent me, because it seems to elide the threatening urban edgeland, and the lives of the past. And it has an urgency and energy that makes me want to chant it.

Things She Learnt on Gomer Street

Be careful not to sing before 9am on Sundays
Be careful not to bother Mrs McFee in the washroom
Be careful when your father has gin breath
Be careful of gin
Be careful to stitch your own holes and make patches
Be careful when running not to knock the gentlemen’s canes
Be careful with your tongue
Be careful to cover your bruises
Be careful around your mother when she coughs up blood
Be careful around blood
Be careful not to get your dress soaked and catch a fever
Be careful with the flour
Be careful at the gates to the dock where the Devil lingers
Be careful of pickpockets better than you
Be careful of seafood
Be careful of no food
Be careful of your father, always of your father
Be careful when pissing in the shadows at the timber yard
Be careful with the sugar
Be careful not to lose that purse with the farthing
Be careful of the Queen Anne
Be careful not to yelp

It’s an awful catechism for a child, this, and an utterly realistic one. Life is beset with threats and none are greater than another. The Devil, a prohibition on Sabbath singing, the flour, the blood, Mrs MacFee, the need never, ever to show fear or pain. Be careful not to yelp. I love the way the lines loop and link and reinforce each other. It’s as though you could take random lines from Henry Mayhew’s children, his mudlarks and watercress sellers, and cut and paste them into a chant children could turn a skipping rope to. It’s a lot cleverer than it looks. Even so, I want to end with a poem that’s gentler, or, at least, more full of the possibilities of love. It’s the Third of May. It’s too cold to be out, not even to put in bedding plants or pot up tomatoes. It’s cold enough for casseroles and stews. Here’s a poem to warm us up. like the one I heard in a workshop last year, it has a sailor in it. And it was Commended in the Buzzwords Competetition 2013.

Kittiwake
He called you his chou-fleur, for the pleated hems
and frills you stitched in the palpitating light
of a porthole. At twenty-two, in half a gale

you barely tilted. When he put up bulkheads
you’d slip up to the jib, your tiny feet concealed
by layered folds of ochre. Near to port,

your headscarf’s tartan slumped across your shoulders
and black-gloved hands small birds on the rail,
you’d watch for gulls. ‘There’s too much machinery’

you murmured once, your jaw against his collarbone
and warm limbs heavy as you entered the troughs
of Irish waves. ‘I wish we were kittiwakes

with nary a struggle but sea and shrimp’. At harbour
you waited by the gates. Discharging cargo
bought a couple of hours. You’d stray down vennels

to streets that dripped with whisky and tobacco,
the judder of engines, an airborne oil
that soaked through fabric, that licked his skin.

Isn’t that exact and lovely, the dance of refracted light off broken water, that ‘palpitating light/ of a porthole’ ? And what a surprising verb it is in that last line. ‘Licked’. So here we are. Thank you all you young ones who have something to say. I don’t care how old you think you are. And thank you Lindsey Holland for letting me share your poems. Thank you to anyone who may be reading this.

Now. Cold and wet or not, someone’s got to get out and shout for my beloved Batley Bulldogs, and I shall now, on this May Sunday swaddle myself in thermals and gloves and fleeces. Next week we’ll be having nothing but The Best (of……). see you then.

* Mineral well….this song ( Russell is accompanied by Katie Moffatt on this one)  is on the 17 track album The long way        around. [Hightone records]. Buy it. You won’t be disappointed. It’s got the wonderful Andrew Hardin doing amazing things on guitar. Listen especially for The angel of Lyon.

Writing workshops…opening doors and lighting candles as you go

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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]