Family affairs and other stories. With Laura Potts, and a Polished Gem: Rebecca Gethin

Putting together a post some weeks ago about ‘Sequences’ (thank you, Pascale Petit, Keith Hutson and Steve Ely) I said something on the lines that we could all write sequences about our own families, and that many of us do. I discover photos that were stuck in envelopes among my grandma’s effects in a desk I inherited. I know that her dad was a coachman, that she started work in a mill before she was 8, that her husband John had been a travelling asphalter ( among other things). I look  at these photos, and wonder if John is one of the gang of lads working on that pier, wherever it might be, or if my great-grandfather is in this group on the steps of what seems to be a grand house. We  tap in to the natural curiosity that drives TV programmes like ‘Who do you think you are?’ in which folk with varying degrees of celebrity discover, with what sometimes feels like theatrical distress, that folk they never knew were criminals, or were incarcerated in asylums, or were bigamists, or…well, you know the kind of thing. Programmes like this have no time for quotidian lives, ordinary lives, not liking to face up the the truth that there’s no such thing as ‘ordinary’, or recognising the truth of what Norman MacCaig spelled out

“how ordinary

extraordinary things are or

how extraordinary ordinary

things are, like the nature of the mind

and the process of observing.”

An ordinary day [1964]

 

We’ve got two guests today who demonstrate exactly what he was getting at. Laura Potts, first. I went to a reading at The Beehive Inn in Bradford a few months ago, when Laura, in introduction to one of her poems, said something about an unnerving discovery she made while exploring her NE roots. I asked her to write about it for the cobweb. And I’m delighted to say that she did.

Newcastle in the 1800's (10)

” I come from an unknown people.

Grandparents gone, siblingless parents, and none of my own. No cousins or uncles to speak of. That old, lost and probably long-dead aunt in the highlands or even entirely off this island ceased to be named years ago. It is a stranded existence to live in a city without ties at all. We were dropped here and everyone fled.

Stranded, maybe, but free too. I have never been bound by the figures and facts of family, or a history which is true and absolute. Doubt and endless hope have been the impetus behind my work. The sheer not knowing, and the search to find a past in which truth will always elude me, have formed the stimuli to write. That past can take a thousand forms and speak in countless tongues. Few photographs exist. It is a vacuum which promises endless creation, and I know nothing else that burns so brightly.

So how does the becoming begin? In this void, without the touchstone of truth (if such a thing even exists), from where does the narrative come? The process is threefold: observation, instinct and artefact.

Living between the same two people for my twenty-one years, I have come to see them as the only living gateways to my past. They think therefore they are much more than single sets of DNA, and for the last few years my end has been to study them intensely: from simple physicalities to interacting with the world around them, my parents are the opposite of ‘whole’ or ‘structured’ bodies. In sudden mood switches and changes of heart, in moments of pain or startling danger, and in their convergence/divergence from the different dogmas which move around them I find the fragments of many people. Even in the slightest idiosyncrasies and facial quirks I see the sparks of bygone lives. They may now embody two very different forms, but they live nonetheless.

Some may call this ‘people-watching’, and it is a process I find even more difficult to apply to myself. ‘Instinct’ is the rough word I give to self-appraisal and contemplation. Simply, this is the process of asking yourself how you might react in a given situation. When I have written of the past – of a dockland prostitute, of a grieving mother, of a cheated wife – I have taken long days to let the scene clot and grow in the subconscious mind before writing. Usually, this is a protracted period of pain and a series of feelings I have rarely felt before. I usually also find that this is where the structure of a piece might evolve: painful contemplation often produces a fragmented structure without regular rhyme or meter, for example. Often this is a time of pleasure-pain: as an intensely private person, long and lonely contemplation is more cathartic than anything else, but can also give the ‘thousand shocks’ of sadness.

And finally, much of writing is reading and I will always believe that the best writers are the best readers. Where else to find the life of art than in the living, breathing world outside? This is the ‘artefact’: the hours of reading and headached research that goes into each poem I write. This is never just art for art’s sake: my work has always been a historicist endeavour. Contemporaneous and secondary sources, from paintings and poems to historical and legal documents, are always at hand if you look long enough. True, I have few family photographs of my own. But that does not mean I cannot find those out there that do. There are endless resources right at your fingers: The British Library, The Oxford English Dictionary, The Carlyle Letters Online, Literary Manuscripts at The Brotherton Library (Leeds University), Vogue Archive, Project MUSE, The Times Digital Archive, Victorian Popular Culture, 19th Century British Newspapers… I could go on. But if (as unfortunate as the thought may be) I am going to take my place in Eliot’s ‘Great Tradition’, then I am going to do it knowing exactly what that Tradition is. And where I would like to be.

This should see me right.”

 

And so it should. It caught me off-balance, that flatly stated fact of felt dispossession. It caught my breath because I come from a big extended family full of cousins and aunts, who all, it seemed, told stories about the family. There were gaps and mistellings, and downright untruths. But, a lot of stories that somehow I belonged with. I had to read this more than once:

Grandparents gone, siblingless parents, and none of my own. No cousins or uncles to speak of. That old, lost and probably long-dead aunt in the highlands or even entirely off this island ceased to be named years ago. It is a stranded existence to live in a city without ties at all. We were dropped here and everyone fled.”

At the same time, I’m excited by Laura’s manifesto:

“But if (as unfortunate as the thought may be) I am going to take my place in Eliot’s ‘Great Tradition’, then I am going to do it knowing exactly what that Tradition is. And where I would like to be.”

What it’s made me think of is that argument thread on Facebook recently….the one about ‘writing what you know’. Laura reminds me that the best poetry comes out of writing from what you know into the unknown, the stuff you want to know, the stuff that helps you define your identity, the stuff that you don’t ‘know’ until you find what it is by writing it.

Which brings us to our guest poet for today. I’d ‘discovered’ Rebecca Gethin via Kim Moore’s wonderful blog The Sunday Poem’ and then finally met her this summer at the Lewes Poetry Festival, where she read from a new collection of poems All the Time in the World based on her discovery of a bundle of her mother’s letters, and from that, via her poems, the discovery of a mother she didn’t have enough time to know.  Rebecca Gethin’s mother died of cancer at the tragically early age of thirty-two, leaving two very young children. These poems are the poet’s response to the letters that her mother wrote when she was dying, which have only recently come to light. And here’s Rebecca to tell us about the process of that discovery.

All the Time in the World was written in one month while I was on a retreat at Hawthornden Castle.  If I hadn’t had that concentrated amount of time on my own to think and reflect and with no domesticities to do I’d never had written it.  I needed to enter into and stay attentive to that space in my head and heart.  The ordinary interruptions of life would have made this impossible.

Only two years before, I’d been given a small envelope of frail and flimsy letters written by my mother to her sister and her mother as she lay dying in hospital (60 years before).  A cousin found them in an attic. Before that I had never seen her handwriting so seeing her script gave me a massive shock in my heart.  It was as if her handwriting conveyed her voice to me.  The few scraps of letters answered a few questions and provoked more unanswerable questions.  I had actually put them away because it was all too much to take in.  But something made me pack them when I was leaving to go to Hawthornden as I did feel I wanted to write a poem or two about them and I was worried about running out of subject matter while I was there and this was to be my emergency fall-back kit.

As soon as I got there I read the letters many times and began to know them off by heart. I’d use her own phrases to start me off on a line of thinking which I’d write about.  There was no date order so I couldn’t be sure of chronology and I guessed that.  I deliberately cut out too much poetic technique as I wanted to stay as close to the experience as possible and not be distanced by metaphor, simile, rhyme.  One or two poems turned into a short sequence which morphed into more and yet more.  I wasn’t sure if any of them were any good and as I was determined to write at least one good one, I just kept going.  They were short on the whole, little flames of thought and feeling that came in response to her words. I wanted to bring her back to life for myself and leave out myself right out of it.  Over a period of time I began to think she was with me and, in fact, had been so all my life but I hadn’t noticed.  (I have no faith although she had bucketloads. )  I walked every afternoon and she came with me, just a comfortable presence. I remember wondering if I became her!

Along the way, I made discoveries, things like her doctor sister must have been asked to give her the bad news that she had a cancer which was terminal.  And I realised I remembered an incident she mentioned: my last visit to her in hospital although I didn’t know it was the last (so 2 year olds do remember things). They kept things from children in those days and I hadn’t a clue what was going on.  Strangely, I also remembered a perfectly ordinary bathtime and I wondered why. So that is also in the booklet but not strictly speaking part of the letters (okay, so I do sneak in now and then).

With growing excitement, I discovered I might have enough for a whole pamphlet so started shuffling papers around even though some of the poems seemed so incredibly small.  My confidence often left me however.  Even so, I decided on the order while I was in my bubble at Hawthornden where there was plenty of space to lay the poems out and I read them over and over again and found an inner logic. I thought that if I were writing a narrative I might well move the sections around to create suspense or mystery so I used what I had learned from novel writing. The title came from a phrase in a letter.

When I returned home I tried to edit them but found that having left the bubble I couldn’t fiddle with any of them apart from a little punctuation here and there: it felt like sacrilege. I tried to check on my ordering but it was fixed already and wouldn’t be altered. Helena Nelson read them and gave me a huge amount of encouragement for which I am very grateful.  But the title suddenly didn’t seem usable as there were at least two other books with that title and it was, I thought, a bit of a cliché.  But nothing else fitted half so well….

I never submitted any of the poems to magazines as I felt it was all one long poem and they stood or fell on their own.  And I also knew they weren’t to be a section in a collection. All together and separate or nothing.

all the time in the world

So there they are. I was astonished when Cinnamon Press published them and with the title ‘All the Time in the World’ (none of the other books of that title were poetry) and have been even more so when people say how touched they have been by something about my mother. It’s almost as if I am not there. ”

You can read a fine review of All the time in the world by following this link. https://thebelatedwriter.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/all-the-time-in-the-world-by-rebecca-gethin/#comment-232

And then you can buy it. In the meantime, you can ponder on the notion of a writer wanting to leave herself ‘right out of it’. The more I think on that, the more I want to emulate it. But it’s time for poems.

Frugality   

 

She likes to be of use, so in her hospital bed,

my mother is darning socks with fine wool.

With the needle she draws the yarn over

and under her warp thread without causing

a pucker, checking the tension to mesh a flat disc

across the hole. Smooth as an obol.

By the time each is done, she’ll have touched

the yarn all along its length as it moved through her hand,

felt its spring and bounce.   But before she finishes

her supply (there’s still two ounces left)

she asks her mother to bring in more wool

of the same colour so she can keep mending

enough socks to last.

 

Just like her –

 

She could read a book

do crosswords

or paint her nails

but she prefers to work.

So, on the subject of mending socks,

she writes I’ve all the time in the world.

 

I wonder if we have to wait to reach an age age where we can really imagine our parents. I think this is even more poignant because the actual memories stop when this poet is two years old, and what she brings to the ‘invented’ memory is an actual tactile, spatial, kinetic memory of the deft handling of yarns and needles. You really can’t write what you don’t know. Not well, that is.  What I love is the way the first poem turns on a phrase that’s right and surprising simultaneously:  Smooth as an obol. It carries the weight of practised ritual and ceremony, and anchors the apparently simple detail of what it is to darn a sock. I love that reflection that

By the time each is done, she’ll have touched

the yarn all along its length as it moved through her hand,

so that the wool keeps a memory of the hand, and the hand of the wool, the loving connection that underlies the understatement of having enough socks to last. To last for whom? we need to be asking. What will remain of us is love. That’s what outlasts the socks, the wool, the woman in the bed. This, it seems to me, is what gives the second poem its heft as a coda, and makes its last line so moving, so resonant. It lives in the same world as Eliot’s ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins’ but makes them more real.

a-sprig-of-rowan

Two more poems now, the first from A sprig of rowan.

 

Apparition 

 

A wraith of the darkness drifted

down the twist of path ahead and hardly

was there time to believe it,

when it re-appeared

in a fluster of wings, tumbling

from between the trees and out

into the sunshine of open field –

nacreous, tinted with gold –

as if haunting the day

to hunt for the dusk it had lost.

 

It’s such a delicate-seeming poem, this, that if you only read it with your eyes, you might miss, at first, the the sheer frantic baffled energy of it, this bird, this owl (I suppose. It’s an apparition. It’s not named or identified),that belies it’s ‘wraith’ness, that twists and tumbles, flusters, haunts and hunts. I like the way the verbs get elided in the poem’s breathless moment, this thing that happens to fast and puzzlingly. And I like the way that the surprising word ‘nacreous’ sits naturally as does the ‘obol’ of the darning poem. I like the craft of it that doesn’t announce itself. But read it aloud, and try to figure out how fast or slow it needs to be. I like that. I like poems that make me look again at things… like birds that I imagine I know because they come into my garden, and because my dad was a birdwatcher. The thing that matters though is ‘this’ bird. ‘This’ moment. It’s in the same tradition as Hopkins’ Windhover. It’s what this last poem does

Blue

 

The colour of sky and sunlight

he acrobats

among the tree tops,

 

or with head on one side

he sometimes considers

the abracadabra

 

of the high twigs

where he splits open a seed

or spin-twizzles

 

a caterpillar

like a strand of spaghetti

and as he skitters

 

out of sight, you wonder

how his goblin wings

grew from the yolk of an egg.

 

 (published in The Broadsheet, 2016)

So that’s where we’ll leave you. Wondering. Thank you so much, Rebecca Gethin and thank you Laura Potts. I’ve had a great time writing this, this afternoon. I don’t invariably feel like that. I’ll leave more details about both at the end of the post, and then go and make something that’ll be good to eat at the end of a proper cold November Sunday. I’m not sure about the timetable for the next few weeks, but I’m pretty sure I can promise you a proper Advent sequence and also the celebration of a significant number. Thanks for your company.

 

Rebecca Gethin  won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award with her first novel, Liar Dice, which was published in 2011. Her first poetry collection, River is the Plural of Rain, was published by Oversteps Books in 2009 and was followed by a second collection, A Handful of Water, with Cinnamon Press in 2013. What the Horses Heard is her latest novel and was published in May 2014. Her two latest collections are A Sprig of Rowan  [Three Drops Press], and All the time in the world  [ published in Feb 2017 :Cinnamon Press]

 

 

Wakefield-based Laura Potts was recently chosen from thousands of applicants to become one of the BBC’s Verb New Voices for 2017. The award, which includes a £2,000 bursary, expert mentoring and development support, will enable her to create a collection of poems Sweet The Mourning Dew. The poems will explore the nature of grief and examine the experiences of ordinary people living with loss as a result of war.

She was twice named a Foyle Young Poet of the Year and in 2013 became an Arts Council Northern Voices poet and Lieder Poet at the University of Leeds.

She appeared at Wakefield Literature Festival with Linton Kwesi Johnson and on  BBC’s Contains Strong Language Festival in Hull in September  and at Ilkley Literature Festival, in October

She is currently interviewing people in the north of England as part of her research. She will then be selecting around six stories to work from and is looking forward to getting started on the new poems which will be broadcast on Radio 3. “Writing is what keeps me going,” she says. “It is the reason I wake up in the morning.”

And she’s 22. Think on that.

 

 

 

 

On writing sequences: with guests Keith Hutson, Steve Ely and Pascale Petit

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For the last 18 months I’ve been more or less bogged down, stalled, stymied – call it what you like. It started with a reading I heard at the Red Shed in Wakefield, a group performance by the Sandal Writers. It was a compilation, something on the lines of a radio ballad, about a pit disaster at Lofthouse Colliery near Wakefield in 1972. I can’t explain why it stuck, why it bothered me, why it generated random images and narratives. I just know that I wanted to/had to write about it. Which is when the the problem of The Sequence wandered into my head and won’t wander out.

I’m not even sure what I mean by ‘a sequence’ beyond the feeling that I want to write about a particular something and that one poem won’t do…and possibly not six or ten. How many poems does it have to be before it’s ‘a sequence’? When I published my first pamphlet it was simply a case of organising poems I’d written into some kind of order, with a suggestion of a beginning, a middle and an end. Subsequently I found I’d written sequences by accident, the unintended consequence of undeclared passion or obsession. My second pamphlet, Backtracks is a back to front narrative, Poems that tell the story of me, my parents and grandparents. Anyone can do that. It’s a given. There were other poems that became what I’d call ‘groups’..poems about one of my sons, about the Macpherson’s of Achnacloich, about the Norsemen and the NE Coast of England, about the Greek and Roman pantheons.

And then there were the problematic ones…the deliberately conceived sequences. For instance, when I was half-heartedly doing an MA in Creative Writing I determined to write a sequence about the Highland Clearances as they affected the Isle of Skye. I read a lot, and I went on a good many walks to clearance sites like Suishnish and Boreraig (including another kind of dereliction in the remains of an abandoned marble quarry). But the places didn’t fit my preconceived emotional narrative. I went looking for ghosts and found none. I wrote a handful of poems, but not the ‘sequence’ I thought was there, somewhere.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)

Then there was the late 19th C painter John Waterhouse…I’ve always liked that late-post-pre-Raphaelite sort of painting based on poems and myths and fables. I was fascinated by the fact that one face turns up in painting after painting. There’s no conclusive proof, but it’s supposed the model was a Miss Muriel Foster. I spent nearly two years reading all I could find about it all. I was intrigued by the idea of a triangular relationship between the artist, his model and his wife (who was also a painter). In the end I wrote four poems, and realised that it needed a novel and that either A S Byatt or Jill Dawson or Hilary Mantel should have written it. I think that what it comes down to is something Helen Mort said to me…something on the lines that you can MAKE a poem be, but it won’t be any good. Pretty much what Keats said about poetry needing to come as naturally as leaves to the tree’. And I guess that applies to ‘sequences’, too.

Anthony Gormley's Terracotta Figures Return To Their Birthplace

And then there were the sculptures. I worked for a few years in a college in the grounds of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and every day I’d pass Elizabeth Frink’s ‘Seated man‘ and Michael Ayrton’s Minotaur. I got in the habit of passing the time of day with the seated man, and conceived the notion that these great sculptures contained the souls of the famously transgressive and of fallen angels. Bit by bit, mainly because I really wanted to experiment with ‘voices’, I wrote enough fallen angel poems to fill a pamphlet. They are all dramatic monologues. Queen Victoria speaks in the style of Emily Dickinson, The Angel of the North in Miltonic blank verse. A lot of the poems involve pastiche. I enjoyed that, and it became a book, but I still wonder if it’s the real deal. I know I like performing them, and I know that the idea of the narrative voice was the key that opened the door. But when it comes the seven men killed in the Lofthouse Disaster (six never recovered) the key is elusive. A few weeks ago I went on a writing week in which I hoped there’d be a tutor who might help me find that key. I was disappointed. Worse, I felt as though I’d had my legs kicked out from under…I almost persuaded myself that it was a foolish notion, and indeed, that I should possibly give up the whole writing business. I’m over that self-pitying stuff now, but what helped enormously was to bite a bullet and get the chutzpah to ask poets I admire if they’d share their experience. Particularly, I asked three poets who write recognizable and wonderful sequences…..especially I asked them this

I’ve been struggling with a writing project. I’ve got shedloads of material…I’ve been assembling that for well over a year. What I can’t manage at the moment is to find a place to stand and say: we start here. I’m convinced that could come about in a trice. A phrase, an idea for a holding form, a structure, a phrase, a refrain. It doesn’t matter how.

Now, I’m not asking for help with this, so you can say ‘phew’ and keep reading. What may clear my mind though is to write a blog post for the great fogginzo’s cobweb in which I explore the issues of writing ‘sequences’, for want of a better word.

I’m particularly interested in the fact that each of you have done substantial amounts of research into a reality that absorbs and excites and energises you. It may be a blind roadmaker, your forebears who you trace to the banks of the Tyne, Amazonia, medieval priests and criminals, or half-forgotten musical acts.

At some point you had to make a decision, or one was made for you. Where do I start? What’s the language, the structure, the voice of the teller….there comes a moment, as I found in writing about, say fallen angels, when you see a way through.

Would you be prepared to share some thoughts about the experience? A paragraph would do…or maybe it wouldn’t. It’ll make its own mind up, won’t it?

So, here they are, each one identifying a different way into, a way of shaping, what they urgently wanted to say. I’ve learned a remarkable amout from them, and I hope you will too.

Keith Hutson: On research and poetic form

routines

Here’s my response to your request. By all means share it with the others if you wish:

I’ve now written over 100 sonnets about music hall and variety performers, 30 of which have been published in a Poetry Salzburg pamphlet (Routines), more to be in a forthcoming Laureate’s Choice pamphlet, (Troupers). Quite a lot have been in journals and some have been placed etc in comps. And I’m going for 140 for a future full collection, Revival. So you could say I like sequences!

 

WHAT GOT ME STARTED? This is a subject that interests and excites me. That, for any sequence, is essential I think. You have to have a passion about your subject. You have to want to research it because you like getting lost in it, totally absorbed by it. I had an uncle who, when I was a kid, took me up and down the country to watch performers (comics mainly but other acts too) many in the twilight of their careers. I was too young to appreciate them, but something stuck – the theatre atmosphere, the audience reaction, the fascinating otherness of this world, the joy and suspense of it. As a young man with a love of comedy I became a Coronation Street scriptwriter and a gag writer for a lot of comedians – and from the wings I watched a lot of greats performing, holding an audience, sweating but not seeming to, staking so much of themselves on the night’s performance. This, to them, was life and death. I bloody loved it. So, as a poet with a desire to write a sustained body of work about one subject, this was right up my street.

 

WHERE TO BEGIN? The problem is, the wealth of material for any sequence can be overwhelming, it can cause paralysis. I focused on one person, Tommy Trinder, then intensified that focus further, to his catchphrase, You Lucky People. Then I thought, I’ll try to capture the essence of the man, his world, the people he entertained, but not as biog – biog can be boring. A poem should transcend its subject, shouldn’t it? But what form should this first poem take? Well, as I was essentially writing a love poem, and I wanted to keep it intense, concentrated, and to showcase a traditional performer, I thought ‘why not a fairly traditional, strict form sonnet for this first poem?’ People like Trinder performed routines. A sonnet is like a little routine. So I didn’t start writing to see where I ended up, I deliberately set out to write a sonnet. If you’re interested, here it is

 

You Lucky People

i.m. Tommy Trinder 1909-1989

 

One simple line and you could tread the boards

for years. Nobody cared it made no sense,

it was the look, the timing, not the words

that packed them in twice-nightly. And the chance

to mock some spot-lit nincompoop who seemed

more desperate than them – which made a change:

back then most buggers looked like they’d seen

better days. They hadn’t. So, in droves, we came

each season, scrubbed and buffed, to scoff, but dream

too: heavy-handed lives on hold, we’d bask

inside the twinkle of a grin, a glance;

industriously bellow out the laughs;

gaze up at more ridiculous routines

than ours. A softer kind of song and dance.

 

WHERE NEXT? I thought, right, I like the sonnet form for my artistes, so I’ll set myself the challenge of sticking to sonnets for, say, half a dozen more poems. But who to write about next? And do I stick to a combination of light comment about the performer with a broader social or personal comment? Yes, I thought, because I don’t want this to be a trip down memory lane by an anorak who wants to corner you and bore for England. I then read, and made notes, from several books, and also mined my memory for impressions of people I’d seen, heard about, worked with. I love research, it’s voluntary learning. I left school at sixteen and have been playing educational catch-up since, so I crave information, knowledge, and I want to lose myself in worlds. So, I knew I wanted to write sonnets, and I knew what about, and I didn’t care if anyone else liked them or not, I just wanted to do it. For me, strict form in poetry is a strait-jacket made by angels – it gives me the chance to be liberated by discipline, so I see the sonnet, terza rima, ballade, whatever, as my friends. But the doubt as to whether I could sustain the sonnet form again and again, and (though with variety) make them recognizable sonnets not just 14-line poems, both made me anxious and determined.

 

100 sonnets later, I’m still at it. It is a labour of love. It doesn’t feel like effort. So I’d say this about any sequence:

  1. Love your subject
  2. Keep it narrow and let it widen naturally.
  3. Don’t write biog (or not exclusively anyway)
  4. Don’t be frightened of humour (a lot of mine are funny and light)
  5. Don’t try to show off your knowledge, it puts people off.
  6. Research, research, research.
  7. Don’t care what people think about your poems, Know that what you’re doing has value because it has value to you.
  8. But you must entertain, in the broadest sense, or it becomes self-absorbed, and there’s too much of that in poetry – that’s why it’s a minority sport audience-wise.
  9. Why not try to stick to one form, at least to get you started? Push yourself.
  10. If you get bored with it, your readers will get bored too. Anyone can write a sequence, the ones that work do so because the poet cares about them and has the ability to convert that care into the right words.

 

Steve Ely : on voice and persona…who tells the story?

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Hi John

I organised my third book of poems, Incendium Amoris, around the figure of Richard Rolle, the 14th century hermit and mystic.  Rolle suited my purposes because he was associated with the Cistercian Priory of Hampole, which is located in my natal Barnsdale landscape, which remains an enduring obsession.  My previous two books had written public, political poetry out of that landscape.  I wanted my third book to reflect a more personal, autobiographical engagement.  Further, Rolle’s mystical writings are charged with an earthy carnality – his relationships, with God, women and the created order are often erotic in both the technical and popular senses of that word.  That suited me as well – my earliest concept of the book was that it was going to be about ‘shagging down the fields’.  I suppose I reinvented Richard to suit my purposes (and partially in my image) and used his life, writings and landscape to unify, inform and perhaps soften the guerilla-pastoral idiom that wouldn’t be suppressed and broke out anyway.

Mama-Amazonica-cover-with-PBS-Choice-192x300

 

Pascale Petit : On sequence and motif in Mama Amazonica 

 

My books grow organically, and Mama Amazonica grew very much like the Amazon rainforest it explores. But I can say that there was a single poem that set it all off, though I didn’t know it at the time, and this title poem ‘Mama Amazonica’ was slow and painful to write, laborious even. But there seemed to be an energy in it that was new, so I persisted, even though it felt like one of those experiments that will probably not work. I showed an early draft to my husband, who is my first reader, and he encouraged me, and suggested I could expand it. He was excited by it and this made me more confidant. At the heart of the poem, and indeed the whole book, is the central image of the poem, of a huge waterlily in a slow Amazonian backwater, the water still and sluggish, the drama unfolding of the lily’s sex life, which involves pollination by beetles. I compulsively watched every time-lapse video of this extraordinary process. The lily is my mother and she is in a psychiatric ward undergoing deep sleep therapy, remembering meeting my father.

 

To write the rest of the book – all 112 pages (and there were many more poems I discarded) – I would concentrate on the lily in that backwater, like a trance. I didn’t yet know why, but by the time I had written eight more poems I began to see that for once in my life I was writing about my mother tenderly. The poems express love, as well as terror of her and of what she suffered. It astonishes me that I have created a book in which I love my mother. I did not love her and she did not love me. This felt important, to have an artefact in which our relationship was transformed.

 

So I suppose what I’m saying is that the whole sequence grew out of one powerful feeling, trancelike, filmic, a moving image of a flower in time-lapse motion that is apart from ordinary life and ordinary time. I did not think the book through analytically or consciously even, just let the images grow, and the feelings that are also colours and sensations and pictures. Because the book records what happened to her when she met my father, the tragedy unfolds chronologically, and that’s roughly how the book is ordered, like a story told in pictures and sculptures.

 

I hope this helps? I suspect we all have different ways of compiling a sequential collection, but I try to do what what Rilke advises, to search within myself  to find my way, “Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write”.

 

Sometimes life gives you riches just for the asking. I feel a bit like one of those naive characters (usually girls…the male equivalents are often ‘fools’ or guizers) in folk tales  who set off into the forests and thickets and are given things of power that help them to survive and flourish. The possible keys to the kingdom. Form. Voice. Image/motif. I’m glad it’s three, if only for the sake of narrative convention.

I’ve looked back over some recent posts and find I’ve been teasing this strand out for some time. A reminder, then, of other ‘keys’ to sequences that I’ve considered. Kim Moore’s work in progress ‘All the men I never married’ tells you that the key could actually be a title! (and there’s her sequence at the heart of The Art of falling where the key is the mythic narratives of metamorphosis). Ruth Valentine and Christy Ducker show you that alpabetical order can be a key. Jane Kite uses the timeline of an imagined family as a key. The answer for you might be to find a narrator or to build a chronology. And how about objects. I’m attracted by the title of a book on my shelf as I look up: A history of the world in twelve maps. And also by Uncommon ground which is a list sequence of dialect names for landscape features..one page for each and an accompanying photo, organised geographically from the SW to the very far North.

Whatever, the basic problem will be that an interest became an enthusiam or an obsession, that involved research, that eventually needed to be given some sort of poetic shape. If I think a sequence is anything, I think it’s something that involved you in research. Or maybe not.

Thanks for reading all the way through. Thanks and ever thanks to Keith Hutson, Steve Ely and Pascale Petit for their time and amazing generosity. The least you can do is buy their books. If by a miracle you’ve not read their work before, a bibliography follows, and also links to Keith and to Steve in some earlier posts.

 

Pascale Petit’s Poetry

Icefall Climbing pamphlet (Smith Doorstop, 1994)

Heart of a Deer (Enitharmon, 1998)

Tying the Song Co-editor with Mimi Khalvati (Enitharmon, 2000)

The Zoo Father (Seren, 2001)

El Padre Zoológico/The Zoo Father (El Tucan, Mexico City, 2004)

The Huntress (Seren, 2005)

The Wounded Deer: Fourteen poems after Frida Kahlo pamphlet (Smith Doorstop, 2005)

The Treekeeper’s Tale (Seren, 2008)

What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo (Seren, UK, 2010, Black Lawrence Press, US, 2011)

Poetry from Art at Tate Modern editor, pamphlet (Tate Publications, 2010)

Fauverie (Seren, 2014)

Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe, 2017)

 

Steve Ely’s Poetry , Fiction, and Biography

Steve Ely has published four books of poetry,

Englaland (Smokestack Books, 2015)

Oswald’s Book of Hours (Smokestack Books, 2013).

Werewolf (Calder valley Poetry 2016)

Incendium Amoris (Smokestack 2017)

He’s also published a novel,

Ratmen (Blackheath Books, 2012),

and a biographical work,

Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made in Mexborough (Palgrave MacMillan, 2015).

 

Keith Hutson

 His poems, apart from those in his current pamphlet, have been published in just about every poetry magazine and journal you can think of..including, recently, The Manhattan Review

Two posts involving Steve Ely’s work (and, ironically enough, some thoughts about sequences. I’d forgotten that)

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2017/03/19/on-sequences-and-a-gem-revisited-steve-ely/

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/08/30/knowing-your-place-a-polished-gem-8-steve-ely/

 

and two involving Keith Hutson

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/02/28/stand-up-a-polished-gem-3-keith-hutson/

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2017/07/16/through-the-looking-glass-1-and-a-gem-revisited-keith-hutson/

 

On sequences. And a Gem Revisited: Steve Ely

sequence

To begin with, an apology, and an also an acknowledgement.

The apology first. On Friday night I was lucky enough to be the guest reader at the laconically-named Manky Poets,  in Chorlton. Great audience and quality open mic. A listening room. I would have done well to remind myself of what I wrote some time ago in a post about how to behave at an open mic. evening: thus

For readers. Reading

Rehearse. Rehearse your timings. Find out how long you have, and rehearse how many poems that is when they’re read aloud. Stick to it.

Well, I’d been told, and it was on the poster. Finish 9.30. Somehow I got it in my head it was 10.00. So, Copland Smith, I’m sorrier than I can say that you had to do the thing of holding up your arm and tapping your wristwatch, meaningfully. Mea maxima culpa. I hope I can come back some time. I’ll get the time right.

And the acknowledgement. I decided I wanted to write this post after reading one on Sequences by the indefatigable Roy Marshall   (here’s the link: https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/2017/03)/01/on-sequences/). As is his wont, Roy writes about the what and the how of the business -which is of more use to the prospective writer than my own tendency to to muse about the whys and wherefores. I’ve lifted a couple of chunks to illustrate:

First of all, a practical reason: “In my experience sequences can provide the writer with the feeling that they are rich in material; that they have ‘something in the bank’ and that even when not actively producing poems, there is a subject to return to an explore.”

I think the key notion here for me is the one that points to our need for a comfort blanket, the feeling that we have ‘something in the bank’ . Drawing on his own experience of putting his two collections together, Roy also reflects on the business of sequencing itself:

Once a number of poems have been written, the next challenge is to select poems and lay them out in the order that works best.  One absorbing aspect of assembling a sequence is deciding which poems to include and to work out the relationships between poems so they work together to their collective advantage.  While it is undoubtedly hard to write a batch of poems that maintain a consistently high quality, it is  important to try and recognise any weaker poems and remove them or risk weakening the impact of the whole sequence.

I like the reminder about the need to weed out poems that may fit thematically, but don’t stand on their own two feet. And also the reminder that you try to figure out the best order. I’d only add to that the idea that it can be like tweaking and fine-editing individual poems. You can often end up where you started, and reflect that that way madness lies. I know I’ve been open mouthed with admiration when poets describe how they lay hard copies of each sheet of a pamphlet or a collection out on the floor and move them around like chessmen. I can’t do it. I actually don’t know how I do it. Instinct. Something. But not a floor full of paper, which would bring on nightmare memories of double-checking 360 folders of English coursework for GCSE by setting them out on the floor at home. AAArgh.

I do know that one of my editors in particular has an amazing instinct/ear/eye/brain for spotting a glitch in the succession of poems. Ann Sansom (for it is she) shifted one poem in Much Possessed from near the beginning to the end. Where it belonged. I’d never have seen it. And she shifted one poem , about apples and the Fall of Man from 4th to 2nd, when it became apparent that it was in the voice of Lucifer (the voice of the first poem)…the thing is, when I wrote it, I didn’t know. When you put poems side by side, they begin to have conversations with each other and won’t do what they’re told. They take on an independent life. Which is as it should be.

I’m intrigued by that notion of an independent life. Somehow, poems will grow out of things that simpley will not leave you alone. I think of, say, Yvonne Reddick’s new pamphlet Translating Mountains which grows out of her father’s death in the Grey Corries, and her ancestor’s gem-hunting in the Alps. I think of Tom Cleary’s latest poems about his father’s trials in the Irish fight for independence, of Keith Hutson’s Troupers and his longstanding love affair with almost forgotten music hall and variety acts; of Kim Moore’s sequence on domestic violence in The art of falling, and her new poems about ‘All the men I never married‘…and of course, of Steve Ely (but more of that before long). Roy got me thinking of the way sequences appear or don’t appear in my own writing. Thinking about it I’m aware that I’ve created sequence about the death of my son, David; about my parents (my mother, especially) and grandparents; about a crofting community on Skye, about a village in Spain; about hospitals and about the Fall of Man. The thing is, I never set out to do any of it. Not like that. The poems got written over a period of years and then found each other’s company. I never set out to write ‘sequences’ about any of them, though theing is, once you’ve got, say half a dozen, you begin to wonder if there can be more. I have to say that in my case that’s the point at which I start to write bad poems.Because I’m forcing them in to being.

I’m also aware that quite accidentally I’ve written a lot of poems that feature birds. I know very little about birds. I can recognise them because my dad was a keen bird-watcher, and I suppose he taught me, but I’ve never set out to study or research them. And there has never been a reason to group the poems together simply because they have birds in them…probably because they’re not actually about birds at all.

I’ve set out, sometimes, quite deliberately to write sequences: one about a painter and his wife and his model and his paintings (think of Fiona Benson’s Van Gogh sequence in Bright Travellers)….I spent over a year reseaching and ended up with three poems. That should have taught me something, but I’ve since tried the same thing with Clearance sites on Skye, with Culloden, and (with a bit more success) the notions that famous statues may be able to speak…at least I had a proper purpose with that, one of experimenting with dramatic monologues, and trying out other people’s voices. In general, I’d judge them all relative failures, mainly, I think, because I was trying too hard.

They say you live and learn, but I’m currently battling away at an idea seeded at an open mic night…ostensibly a sequence about the Lofthouse mining disaster. It involves versions of God, Mrs Beeton, Mary Anning, flower pressing and the evolution of the planet. I suspect it will end in tears. And on the strength of one poem written in a workshop a poet I love and respect suggested I write a twelve poem sequence. I am already having nightmares about it.

So it’s a huge relief to turn to a poet who writes sequences with huge assurance, fed by phenomenal (as it seems to me) scholarship, research and absorption in contemporary political history, in the the world of birds, and in the heft and texture of Yorkshire dialect and its roots in medieval English. Welcome back, Steve Ely.

priory 5

When Steve was last a guest (August 2015)  I wrote quite a lot about landscape, about ‘knowing your place’. Particularly, I wrote about Englaland

Englaland isn’t edgeland. It’s right in the middle of England, the landscapes of farms and pit villages and power stations and their great white plumes of condensation, despoiled monasteries, forgotten castles, the remains of priories . It’s the landscape that D.H.Lawrence wrote about, and his loathing of the man-made England. Because pit villages are never pretty or picturesque in the way of, say, Pennine mill towns. But they are surrounded and inerpenetrated by an older farmed and forested England. Which is Steve Ely’s ground.

You can catch up on all that by following this link https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/08/30/knowing-your-place-a-polished-gem-8-steve-ely/

Time now to get up to date, with this poet who writes sequences..though, as we’ll shortly see, not just sequences. Since he was last here, his account of Ted Hughes’ Mexborough years has been published, as has his unnerving, chunky pamphlet Werewolf of which Sheenah Pugh writes:

“the poems in this collection which discuss individuals’ propensity to violence, how they control it and how it can be exploited by the state are extremely thought-provoking and memorable, and mostly not because of their often harrowing subject matter but because of the skill with which it is handled. The jackdaw approach to history, assimilating different peoples, events and eras, brings home, as nothing else could, our essential likeness to each other, and viewing our own thoughts, words and actions through the glass of the “other” is as instructive now as it was when Euripides used the prism of the Trojan War to condemn the Athenian invasion of Melos. I don’t think anyone could read “Inyengi” and not be, at least temporarily, more careful in their language, or “Spurn” and not wonder “could it happen here?”

I think that’s why Steve Ely speaks so directly to me in his collections, Oswald’s Book of Hours and Englaland. He reminds me of the jolt I got when I first read E.P.Thompson’s The making of the English Working Class, and Hobbsbawm, and The common muse, and Roy Palmer’s The Rambling Soldier, of when I first listened to Charles’ Parker’s radio ballads…especially The ballad of John Axon ….. and Tony Parker’s Red Hill (the story of a mining community).

breakfast 001

OK. What he sent me when I asked him to come back to the cobweb needs not a scintilla of editing. Steve..off you go.

Since August 2015, I’ve:

  • Run
  • Been out with the dogs a lot and got into confrontations with any number of landowners, farmers and gamekeepers.
  • Been birding in South Uist
  • Found a kestrel’s nest with two young-uns and been caught up in a tornado on the same day.
  • Published my biography of Ted Hughes’s early years, Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire, with Palgrave McMillan.
  • Been involved in the organisation of the second Ted Hughes Poetry Festival in Mexborough.
  • Gotten myself a PhD – the guerilla-pastoral, anarcho-yeoman anarchism, Bakhtin, Gramsci, Kipling, Pound, Moretti and Kavanagh …
  • Started teaching creative writing at the University of Huddersfield.
  • Been appointed Director of the Ted Hughes Network at the University of Huddersfield.
  • Published a hefty (who knew pamphlets had to weigh less than 0.5 grams and be printed on point 4 font on a butterfly’s wings?) pamphlet, Werewolf, with the estimable Bob Horne’s Calder Valley Poetry.

In 2017, I’ll:

  • Run
  • Continue my guerilla-pastoral campaign against landowners, farmers and gamekeepers
  • Dig some holes
  • Get a third dog for my roster, probably a lurcher of some sort
  • Go birding in South Uist
  • Publish a book of poems called Incendium Amoris with Smokestack Books  (June)
  • Be involved with the third Ted Hughes Poetry Festival in Mexborough (main weekend 23rd –25th June)
  • Help facilitate the symposium, ‘Ted Hughes & Place’ at the University of Huddersfield, with my colleague James Underwood (June 15th –16th)
  • Be delighted and excited to welcome Dr Heather Clark to the University of Huddersfield as International Visiting Scholar in June. Heather’s biography of Sylvia Plath will be published in 2018 by Knopf.
  • Write some excerpts from a mythic autobiography
  • Grow a some dangerous plants on my occult allotment
  • Publish a book of poems called Bloody, Proud & Murderous Men, Adulterers and Enemies of God with High Window Press (December).

I’ll also be keeping it real – on the street and in the ’hood. (he adds)

IMG_2043

Unlike the pigeon, pursued onto my window by the sparrowhawk which filled my garden with feathers,there’s not the slightest suggestion that Steve will be brought up short by the unexpected.He’s sent me two poems to share. They are poems with birds in them. They may not be about birds.

How great is that darkenesse

Ring road glazed in lights.

Buffering macula, dampened panes;

muted YouTube central heating.

Cold coffee and donuts,

gastro-oesophageal reflux.

The heart’s a torn up map, voyaging

blind through doldrum darkness.

Through muffling glass

high greylags trumpet,

skeining wild and north.

I reckon that if you had to visualize the first circle of hell, you’d do worse than think of a ring-road or a motorway service station in the dark early hours. It’s a place for a dark night of the soul, being itself soulless in its unnatural light and much-breathed, centrally-heated air, its windows glazed with condensation. An edgeland place, neither here nor there, but between real places and lives. The sense of spiritual displacement is concentrated in that phrase ‘the heart’s a torn up map, voyaging blind’ and I love the accuracy of ‘doldrum darkness’…the doldrum of becalmed sailors in the middle of a great ocean. And then the poem expands, out and up and away with the ‘high greylags’, migrants moving along known instinctive routes to where they have to be, ‘skeining wild and north’. ‘Skeining’ is lovely, being at once a shape and a sound, a call. And a great word to end on: north, resonant with literature and history. No accident that Heaney chose it for the title of a collection

campsite-north-uist

The second poem shifts us north. If you follow Steve Ely on Twitter or facebook you’ll be familiar with the posts about bird life on Uist. Here’s a poem that explains the love of it all.

No man can serve two masters

Walking that kelp-wrecked,

Hesperidean strand, notes

sanderling, turnstone, purple sand.

Shags hard and low across the surf swell,

crab boat’s outboard drone.  Hauled pots

and crates and nylon holdalls,

pagurus, AKs, shrink-wrapped keys,

the freedom of the golden isle

where phalaropes flirt

and red-throats flume and wail.

Norman MacCaig country, this…not geographically, but spiritually and linguistically..where shags fly ‘hard and low’ and small birds work busily on the low-tide wrack. It’s a moment to rest in.

I’ll know whether I’ve got it right this coming Tuesday night at Huddersfield University, when Steve is leading a writing workshop built around Ted Hughes’ Gaudete. He’ll certainly not leave me in doubt. Thank you anyway for being our guest, Steve Ely.

If you don’t own his books you can put that right. The detail of all of them, as well as of the other poets’ work I’ve mentioned at the beginning, follows. See you next week when we’ll be having a new guest. It’ll be great.

Steve’s books

Oswald’s Book of Hours   [2013 Smokestack Books] £7.95

Englaland                             [2015 Smokestack Books] £8.95

Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made In Mexborough [2015 Palgrave MacMillan ]

Werewolf                             [2016 Calder Valley Poetry ] £7.00

and others I’ve referred to:

Kim Moore The art of falling    [20125  Seren] £9.99

Yvonne Reddick  Translating mountains  [2017 Seren] £5.00

Keith Hutson Troupers [2016 Poetry Salzburg]

Roy Marshall The great animator [2017 Shoestring Press] £10.00

Tom Cleary  The third Miss Keane [2014] Happenstance] £4.00

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First pressings (1)..with thanks to small publishers, and to those who run poetry nights

First pressings (1)..with thanks to small publishers, and to those who run poetry nights

letter-press

It’s been a busy old week, apart from Christmas trees, and untangling Christmas lights, and remembering where they all go. IT’ll be time any moment now to get the boxes of clockwork wind-ups down from the shelf in the study and put them under the tree…the annual homage to Russell Hoban and The mouse and his child. If you want the story behind this, you can have a look at a post from last Christmas. Or the one before. Here’s the link.

https://johnfoggin.wordpress.com/2014/12/20/a-christmas-story/

Where was I? Ah, yes; a busy old week. Wednesday I was reading at the Loom Lounge in the great mill complex of Dean Clough in Halifax. This was for the Square Chapel monthly poetry event organised by Keith Hutson. I’ll come back to him in a minute.

Thursday I was up the Calder valley to where it gets dark and narrow in Todmorden…it was the final monthly reading at Kava Kultura which Anthony Costello set up three years ago, and which has hosted more fine poets than you can shake a stick at. A bitter-sweet night, then, for many of us, but lovely to sit in one of the nicest coffee houses you’re likely to encounter in the company of folk like Anne Caldwell, Peter Riley, Zaffar Kunial, Keith Hutson (again), Simon Zonenblick, Clare Shaw and Kim Moore (who was giving the last of the poetry lectures that are one of the unique features of Kava readings). Basically, at least half the audience were published and accomplished poets, and none of them were reading. Egos left at the door. Wonderful.

Saturday afternoon I was reading at Word Club at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds. This is run by the indefatigable Mark Connors. All the Otley poets were there. Matthew Hedley Stoppard was there. Four hours flew by. They really did. Were there highlights? For me it was the delight of meeting two new voices for the first time, each on the open mic.. One was Alicia Fernandez. First language, Spanish; she writes with a lovely clarity and an authentic voice. And she channeled Pablo Neruda and name-checked Robert Jordan (For whom the bell tolls). Wow. And then there was Ian Harker who not only writes with an assured touch, but who also created lines and images that lodge in your mind as you hear them. His poems sound light, anecdotal, but they are layered, rich and moving. Imagine a poem about hamsters named after former Leeds United stars which sets them in a much bigger and altogether problematic universe ‘out there’. And one poem about a scientist/poet friend of his that should win prizes as well as move you to tears.His first collection will be out in 2017 and I’m looking forward to singing its praises.

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So. The first bunch of thankyous. To Keith Hutson, to Anthony Costello, to Mark Connors, and to all the hardworking, generous folk who run poetry clubs and open mic.s, and give a platform to folk who hardly know yet whether they’re poets or not alongside the accomplished and much-published. And also to all the hardworking bloggers like Kim Moore, Josephine Corcoran, Robin Houghton, Ben Banyard and all the others who do a similar job of letting new poets be heard, and finding their voice. God bless you, everyone.

And now to the main business of the day. The small presses. The ones who publish so much of the poetry on my shelves. The poor bloody infantry of poetry publishing. The ones who do it for love, (the ones like Sarah Miles and Paper Swans), much like the wonderful folk who do a similar job with their poetry magazines (take a bow Brett Evans and Prole).

It may be invidious to leave anyone out, but if I put everyone in, there’d be no time for the post. So take the wish for the deed. Just believe me; I’m grateful.

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If you’ve not come across them yet, I’m going to introduce you to Caterpillar Poetry, (Simon Zonenblick) first, and Calder Valley Poetry (Bob Horne) who were generous with their time, and wrote honestly and expansively about the business of setting up and running a small poetry press. I’ll come clean and say that they are good friends of mine, that they have both been guest poets on the cobweb, and that none of that makes a scrap of difference when it comes to my admiration for what the do and have achieved.

(interjection at this point. I’ve just spent an hour or so editing what they sent me, and realised I’ve enough for two posts. I was going to cut and paste to give the illusion/effect of a three-way conversation. But I just made an editorial decision to let each editor to tell his own story uninterrupted, and to keep the post to a manageable length. So just for know, we’ll go with Simon’s story, and I’ll share Bob’s just before Christmas.)

Simon’s story

If you could kick off by describing what you’ve done so far, that would be nice. A story is always a nice beginning. Then tackle the following questions. If it’s OK, I’ll then create the illusion of a dialogue, as though we’re all sitting in a room, with cake and coffee. That sort of illusion.

Well, I had always entertained the idea of publishing volumes of poetry, both because I know how hard it is to find openings to get published, and because it struck me as an exciting thing to do.  I have aways had an interest in self-publishing, since I was a child.  Over the years I turned out various typed up booklets of poems and stories, and I loved reading about people like the Black Mountain Poets and Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Pocket Poets the whole DIY idea.  I love independent record labels and have always been inspired by the way things like Factory Records just kicked off from the back of a fag packet, without any resources, completely unaffected by the “rules.”  So, I just enjoy publishing and am actually surprised I haven’t done more of it!

My first Caterpillar Poetry publication was my own pamphlet, Little Creatures: Poems of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms, on 8th April 2013.

That autumn I published a further slim volume, Dream Sequence.

November 2015 saw my first publication of another poet’s book – Not All Bird Song by Nuala Fagan. This involved several months of working with Nuala on the selection and editing of the poems, with Bob Horne joining us and helping to deliver the boook; it was launched at The Blind Pig in Sowerby Bridge, with supporting readings by guest poets Victoria Gatehouse, Gaia Holmes, and John Foggin.

This summer, I was delighted to publish Knowing My Place by Bob Horne, which was launched at Brighouse Library. The poem selections took place over many one to one discussions in various coffee shops and at Bob’s home. In October this year we published Steve Nash’s The Calder Valley Codex, specially chosen for Halloween publication. Steve’s poems in the Codex are all on a folkloric and at times eerie theme.

The books I have produced at Caterpillar Poetry have all been so different – my own have been from the more offbeat spectrum of my writing style, Nuala’s centred on painful memories, snapshots of family life and responses to grief and loss, and underlaid with the emotional inheritance of Irish history.  Bob’s poems were deeply rooted in the Yorkshire identity, yet flung as far afield as New York,.  Steve’s collection is by turns mischevous and dark, with a very unusual cast of characters.

There seem to be hundreds of small poetry presses about, and I imagine they struggle to make a living, competing as they do for what is essentially a niche market. Which are the ones that you particularly like yourselves, and why?

Candlestick Press make very beautiful A5 booklets, with very tactile covers and distinctive, pastel-style colours. Their books are usually short anthologies on a theme. They also include beautiful bookmarks and similar items with their publications, usually decorated in the same distinctive style as the books. I think what Bob is doing with Calder Valley Poetry is fantastic, and very exciting. I have always been a big fan of Oversteps Books, Happenstance, Indigo Dreams and Indigo Pamphlets, Two Rivers Press and Cinnamon Press. But I am also an avid collector and frequently find pamphlets and collections by unknown authors printed by obscure publishers from the 70’s and 80’s, in second hand bookshops or at library book sales. So often, these publishers have seemingly bit the dust, and no research uncovers them. Perhaps that ought to be a cautionary tale, but it drives me more to want to be a part of this slightly mysterious world, and hopefully stay the course!

Something led you think: there’s room for another. What was the trigger that persuaded you to set up your own publishing venture?

To be honest I didn’t really give an awful lot of thought to the existing numbers of publishers, because when I had the idea of publishing it was with self-publishing in mind (I didn’t expect anyone would want me, a comparative unknown with no publishing pedigree, to have anything to do with their poetry!) I was only minimally aware of the world of poetry publication, locally or further afield, and although I sent, and still send, my work to other publishers, my general assumption in life has always been that if you want to achieve something you had better set out and try to sort it out yourself, so I hit upon the idea of starting a publishing initiative through a combination of ignorance and impatience.

How about the poets you’ve chosen? Did you have any particular criteria, or were you blessed by happy accidents?

I am always moved to approach poets purely on the basis of being genuinely moved by something they have written. When I’ve come across something locally, or heard someone at a reading, I have been known to pounce! Equally, I have been approached to publish other poets and those with whom I am currently working on collections have offered something sufficiently unique to grab my attention. I want Caterpillar Poetry to publish work that is of high quality but by poets who might not, at the time of publishing, be all that well known in the wider world – or, as with Steve Nash, by poets who are well known but who have unexpected sides to their poetry that might surprise some of their regular readers. Nuala Fagan I wanted to publish as I was astonished she had only had one book before, and I had felt frustrated for some time that her poetry did not receive the right kind or amount of exposure or appreciation. To be frank, I was simply stunned that she was going largely unpublished.

This is something I feel very proud of being able to offer: all poet-publisher relationships are different, and some poets may arrive with a fully fledged idea of which poems they want to publish and in what order, but Nuala essentially gave me a blank canvas to arrange the poems into the sort of order which I felt formed them into a thematic narrative. Once I had arranged a sequence the work began on exactly how the poems would appear. This is where Bob Horne came in, and I must say that the few weeks and months the three of us spent, editing and finalizing, and getting to know the poems intimately, underlined the reasons I enjoy the publishing process.

It also set the blueprint for my publishing of Bob Horne’s collection, which is to say that we set about analysing and editing those poems just as zealously. It was interesting how Bob as the author did not initially regard the collection as overly place-specific: with the objective angle that comes from being the reader rather than the writer, I immediately latched on to what I interpreted as a very regional, autobiographical quality rooted in West Yorkshire.

steve-nash

My most recent collection, The Calder Valley Codex was a chance to arrange a new collection by someone who, ever since I first discovered his poetry, had seemed like a rising star – already an award winner, a name on the live reading and performance circuit. Appearing at the same readings, and sharing many ideas about joint projects and publications, a collection seemed a natural move, and I was delighted to bring it about.

When Steve said he intended to compile a collection themed around Calder Valley folklore and ghost stories, I knew this was a great idea, and encouraged him all the way! The editing process for this book was probably the most intense of the three: with Nuala’s book I already knew a lot of the poems, and got to know all of them virtually word for word throughout the process, but the editing was three-way, and as a relative newcomer I was happy for Bob Horne to largely lead the way, his experience as a teacher providing him with certain skills in approaching a text, and similarly with his own book it was very much a case of being guided by Bob – my role being largely focused on the selection of individual poems and the choice of cover image; but with Steve, I played a more active part. We would read poems back to one another, send emails back and forth, and over a period of about six months basically re-shaped the collection into something dramatic, almost like a play in verse.

Tell us something about your design choices. Did you consciously decide you wanted a house style? Did you have any models that you wanted to borrow from?

I have yet to really define a specific look for Caterpillar Poetry, though to be fair this is less to do with laziness or haphazardness than the fact I have wanted each publication to be quite individual, and each has embodied very different themes in any case. So I have no models to borrow from; it is always a blank canvas.

Tell us something about the snags you encounter…how about how you set about the business of marketing, about getting the brand out there. It may be that it’s something you feel a bit at sea with. How do you get folk to review the stuff, for instance? How do you feel about the business of competitions for small publishers…stuff like the Michael Marks, for instance? Riff on this topic as you feel appropriate

All the snags I have encountered have related to the costs of publishing, the technological difficulties of reproducing a text into a format workable for printers, and the administrative tedium of arranging ISBN’s, barcodes and the like. The technical side can actually be quite good fun, and once I know what I’m doing or have assistance from the more experienced, then I really enjoy discussing plans with printers and seeing it go from A to B. But the administrative logistics are a nightmare. I am very happy for anyone to review Caterpillar Poetry books and love the idea of competitions and other schemes designed to shine a light on the activities of small publishers and what we have to offer.

What next? More in the pipeline?

Apart from about half a dozen micro-collections from myself, I am delighted to say that I’m working on some very exciting projects for 2017. One of these will be a chapbook or pamphlet by a well known poet and editor, whose work has been at the forefront of innovative poetry for over 30 years. Friends from the USA and the English Lake District have Caterpillar collections in the pipeline for 2017/18, and I have a pamphlet coming out to raise funds for Animal Aid – poems about grouse, with illustrations by Calder valley artists, which will be sold to support AA’s campaigns against grouse shooting. The following year I will publish an anthology on the same subject for the same cause, but the poems this time will include works by poets other than myself. I also have, still in the early stages, various prospective collaborations with artist Nicole Sky, who produced the cover art for The Calder Valley Codex.

steve-nash-2

Any advice for them as fancies doing it? If you could have done anything differently, what would you have done?

I would probably spend a lot more time pre-planning things like printing costs, trying to become more technologically self-sufficient, and attending to the administrative nitty-gritty such as pre-ordering ISBN’s and barcodes, much earlier. I say “probably,” but anyone who knows me will tell you I will “probably” fail to keep this resolution – I’m just too disorganized!

 Anything else I’ve forgotten that you’d like to add?

Publishing poetry is tremendous fun, well worth the technical and administrative headaches.  Its a well known fact that poetry is hard to sell, so to have a bash at making this happen, and furthering the reputation of a poet, to arrange promotions, launches and readings foor writers you admire, and to see their books on a library shelf, is all part of a fantastic privilege.

And on that positive note, let me say ‘thank you, Simon Zonenblick, all the folk I’ve read with this week, and this years, and all of you regualr readers’ xxxx

Bob Horne follows very shortly.

Desire paths, sheep and serenity

desire-path-1We just got back from the Isle of Skye…yes. You can sing the rest of the song if you like. We set off at 4.00am. My partner Flo drove 75% of the 430 miles. I could not be more grateful…and I’m still travel-dizzy. We’ve just unpacked everything. It’s astonishing that two small people can take so much stuff. About half of it is art materials (Flo does big landscapes, in situ), but I’ve no excuses. Why do I continue to pack absurd amounts of cookery stuff? No matter.  I wasn’t going to write a post this week, but it rained, desperately and greyly, one day, and so I thought I’d write a sort of journal, and post that. So here it is

“A couple of weeks ago I ended a cobweb strand with this

I started off by making handmade books, just for the fun of it. Then I got a printer- a chap who prints things, that is. Then I won a competition. Then I won another. I’m a lucky boy. My first collection’s coming out in November. I may even post pictures of it. Or, like Jane Clarke, go to sleep with it under my pillow. You’ll never be a rock ‘n roll star. That’s not what it’s about.  But whatever you do, just do it. You know you want to.

Before I kick off about how unbelievably happy I am that my first proper collection’s out next week, let me do two things.  I’ve always liked Kim Moore’s ‘Sunday Poem’, obviously because of the array of poets she’s introduced me to over the last three years, but also because of the way she uses it as a journal….a review of the previous week, which invariably involves many miles of travel, many kilometres of running, many poetry readings, occasional rueful accounts of flu, and even more rueful tales of home improvement. She doesn’t need an elaborately conceived hook to hang the post on. She just tells you what she’s been doing, and then introduces her guest poet. I’m envious. So envious, in fact, that I’m going to do the same myself. The journal bit, that is.

The other thing is to tell you how happy I am about two new pamphlets, which came out in the last couple of weeks. I’ll do that first. One’s by my good mate and mentor, Keith Hutson..

Keith is one of those people who inspires me to constantly strive to write better. He works prodigiously hard at his poetry, maintaining a daily routine of voracious reading and hard drafting. His commitment shows itself in the regularity of successful submissions. A former Coronation Street and comedy writer, he has been widely published in journals including The North, The Rialto, Stand, Magma, Agenda, and Poetry Salzburg Review. He has also had several competition successes, and is a Poetry Business Yorkshire Prize winner. And now he has his first pamphlet. For the last couple of years, Keith has been minutely researching the world of the musical hall and variety artist…it stems from an early love of variety theatre, and meeting the likes of Dick Emery and Les Dawson. He goes back into the 19thC to recover the work of nearly forgotten, and sometimes frankly bizarre, performers, like one whose whole act consisted of miming the frying of fish and chips. And he celebrates them all (more than sixty of them) in beautifully crafted, witty, bittersweet sonnets. The pamphlet is Routines, and it’s published by Poetry Salzburg: [ October 2016. 40 pp £5.00 (+ 1.00 p&p)] . It’s going to be a winner, a bestseller. Get yours while stocks last.

The other pamphlet is by my Poetry Business chum, Maria Taylor. (Both Keith and Maria have been guest poets on the cobweb, and will be again). I loved Maria’s last collection, Melanchrini, which I reviewed in The North. You can find some of the poems from it in a post of October 18, 2015, and share my enthusiasm. Maria announced the arrival of the new pamphlet in her own blog, Commonplace . Here’s the link   miskinataylor.blogspot.com/

This is what she said

 ‘After a few months of silence, it’s become absolutely necessary to update this blog as I have something to say. I am very happy to announce that I have a new pamphlet out with HappenStance and it’s called ‘Instructions for Making Me.‘ I wasn’t going to say anything official until I had the actual publication in my hands. Nell Nelson via Jane Commane at the Poetry Book Fair sped a few copies over in time for my first reading last night. Luckily the winged gods of Hermes did actually manage to deliver the rest of the pamphlets in time, which I found under a bush in my front garden…………………………………….

So there you go. (According to various readers), I am an exclamation mark. I am a glass of Rioja. I am Spring. This is ironic as a shop assistant t’other week said my choice of top was the ‘perfect colour for transitioning into autumn.’ You get different seasons catered for in this pamphlet. Why not have a look, please and thank you.’

So there you go. Two new pamphlets by two people who keep my batteries charged. Off you go, and buy them.

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Meanwhile, I’m writing this in a cottage …or a chalet or a cabin; I’m not sure which would be correct…down by the shore in Ord on the Isle of Skye. A mile or so of rough moorland behind the cluster of cabins brings you to where you can look back over Loch Eishort, and beyond that, Loch Slapin, to the moorland along which runs the road to Elgol. There’s a stony track that goes up and over the saddle of An Mam, and you can look down at one of the most breathtaking views on Skye. There’s Bla Bheinn to your right and straight ahead the whole of the Black Cuillin Ridge. The cliffs across Eishort run out at the headland of Suishnish. Sometimes the dark cleft in the scarp is white with a furious waterfall. And basically I can see pretty well all of this from the window I’m sitting at, a couple of hundred feet down from where I took this photo a couple of days ago.

I should be happy as Larry, but I’m fighting the frustration of looking at places I want to walk, and just at the moment, and possibly for good, can’t. I can’t face the discomfort of coming down that steep and stony track from An Mam. I long ago gave up any notion of going all the way up Bla Bheinn. I’d love to be on the track that runs on the shoreline below the cliffs and along to Suishnish. There’s a fantastic 12 mile circular walk that takes you from the old marble quarries by Kil Chriosd, over the hill and down into Boreraig and then along the rocky, muddy shore and up a line in the cliff to Suishnish. Two Clearance villages, a ruined mining operation, a cranky road put down in the 30’s in an attempt to repopulate the crofts, another marble quarry, and huge huge views.

I need the serenity to put it all into perspective. The first time we came here, 30 years ago, I could make no sense of Skye. Too wet, too big, everything too far away. And we were timid. We made small forays along the shore, or went on short safe walks. Year on year we got bolder and began to learn how the land worked; not to mind the rocky boggy awkwardness of things. The firm that had built these cabins at Ord went out of business. We were offered, in the 1980s, first refusal on any of them. We could have bought the one I’m sitting in for £12000…fully furnished and fitted out. We could, if we’d had the money or second sight, or both. For a time they were unavailable to rent, and for years after, we shifted for our annual (sometimes bi-annual trips to Skye) to the next but one valley of Achnacloich.

We became friends with Effie and Norman who owned the bungalow we rented. It was Norman who told me ‘You can walk wherever you like over these hills..you can tell them Norman said so.’ There’s a huge difference between ‘can’ and ‘may’. Pretty well at the point where I was becoming happy to walk over these big moors on my own, and simply explore, my hips gave up the ghost. It was just too painful, and twenty-plus years after I was told to have them replaced, I did. It was like dying and going to heaven. Four months after my second hip replacement, I did the 12 mile circular walk through Boreraig and Suishnish, whizzed over the An Mam track, skipped to the Point of Sleat, and, the following year,belted up to Corrie Lagan out of Glen Brittle, invented a strenuous moorland circular and found two lochans I had no idea existed…… and, back home, floated up over Horse Head Moor above Buckden. Brilliant. Truly brilliant. Pain-free hill-walking. Inevitably I damaged both knees. Got them cleaned out. Had a revival.

And now it’s ankles. One in particular. Last year I thought maybe I’d broken something and wandered into A&E for an X-ray. Good news and bad news said the man. There’s nothing broken but you’ve got a condition that sounds worse than it is. What’s that? I asked. Catastrophic disintegration. And fair play to him. It sounds infinitely worse than it is. But essentially, there’s a lot of loose chippings floating around in there, and they do not like my walking on rough ground or down steep hills, of which there is an abundance on Skye. Which is where serenity kicks in, if you’re lucky, and I reckon I’m remarkably lucky. After all, I got to do all the stuff I thought I never would. And if I can’t do them now, well that’s the way it is. That’s what I tell myself.

Which brings us to sheep, and thus to desire paths. I don’t mean the tracks and paths that I earnestly desire to stride about on. It’s a term that’s turned up relatively recently in books about the poetry and semantics and psychology of landscape, and the shifting cultural assumptions about what landscapes signify. You’re entirely familiar with them…the paths made by folk in public places like housing estates, or around hospitals, or on grassy patches by shopping centres and car parks. The paths that ignore the paths the planners decreed, and opt for the most convenient route (usually the shortest distance). I think of them as diagonal paths because they cut corners. They’re made by the people who live there or regularly and routinely go there. They are paths that evidence local knowledge, familiarity. There’s an argument that ancient holloways are desire paths of a sort. I’m not convinced, but looking at the desire paths created by sheep (and deer) in wild moorlands and uplands, maybe the argument’s not so farfetched.

I have grown to be respectful of sheep. Norman Macpherson..who I mentioned earlier…was a shepherd all his life, from the time he left Skye at the age of 14 to work, first on the Lomond, and then on the Nevis ranges, before he came back to Skye to manage the Clan Donald estates, to meet and marry Effie, and to run his own flocks on the moors around Achnacloich. He did that till he died, as his father had done before him. Effie still maintains a couple of hundred sheep. Out of sentiment she says. It can’t be out of any hope of profit. If it’s not too dry, it’s too wet, and sheep are heir to a thousand natural shocks. As Ted Hughes was careful to record. And they can seem remarkably stupid around people. But Norman loved his sheep and talked about their intelligence. I’ve come to believe in it.

The walker’s guide books to Skye are apt to dismiss the Sleat Peninsula where we stay. ‘Nothing to interest the serious walker’ they’ll say, and move hurriedly on to the Red Cuillin.The first time I came I was inclined to agree. Miles and miles of apparently featureless drab, wet, brown moorland. Featureless till you start to wander about in it. For a start, it’s higher than you think, with scoured quartzite tops that gleam like snow in the sun. It’s gullied by small burns that are rapidly impassable in heavy and prolonged rain. There are odd transverse flat bottomed ‘hanging’ valleys. The underlying rock’s been heated , heaved, twisted, up ended, and where the softer strata’s been eroded, the valleys fill with peat and silt and reed and spaghnum, or they’re blocked at either end, so they fill with water. There are lochans in surprising places. There are sudden sharp scarp edges and surprisingly big drops. And always you can see the sea, the outer islands, Rhum floating on the horizon, the whole Cuillin range to the north. And, if you’re used, as I was, to places like Upper Wharfedale, you are quickly aware there are no footpaths, no fingerposts, no National Trust acorns, no tea shops, no gift shops, no car parks, and nobody but you, sheep, and, if you’re lucky, red deer.

As you learn to look, it all rapidly becomes not featureless at all. You rely on a rock outcrop to give you a rough line on where you’re going. You learn to avoid the bright green bits. And faced with a quarter of a mile of what looks like wet, boggy land that you can’t go round, you learn to see that sheep (and deer) being intelligent and helpful creatures, as well as creatures of habit, have made paths through the tussocky, reedy stuff. If the sun’s in your eyes, you can’t see them easily, but otherwise they’re clear, like the ones in the picture at the top of this post. I’ve learned to love sheep tracks, not only for showing me the way across flat wet stuff, but over becks and burns in deep cut gullies and ghylls. Look for the bruise in the bracken, or the shine of small stones, and sooner or later you’ll find that they’ll take you to the spot where it’s easiest to cross running water, and the way up the other side. And they’ll take you to sheltered spots, too. Stands of silver birch and rowan, with a bit of turf to sit on. Desire paths. That’s what sheep make.

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And that’s what I’ve followed on my wonky ankle, on the days when it wasn’t pissing down. Not far, but far enough to take photographs of lovely places. I’ve not gone far, but far enough to acknowledge that I’m not going to get to the top of that quartz hill top in the far distance. It’s only about half a mile off, but what you can’t see till you get higher up is that there’s  a great big gully between you and  it. The sheep have wandered down and up the other side. You can see their paths. But the ankle says no. On the other hand, if I hadn’t come up here on Wednesday I wouldn’t have come across four red deer who watched me for a bit, and then went. They don’t run. They levitate and flow and vanish into the hillside. Magic.

Magic, too, to watch a pod of six dolphins playing with the bow wave of a fishing boat coming into Eishort. And also having Effie round for afternoon tea and cake (no cheese, thank you). We’ve not seen her for over three years, one way or another, and  we caught up with news of her daughters who’ve moved back from the mainland to live in the same crofting valley, and build a new house, and….And I  tell her that she’s in some new poems and  that so is Norman. She doesn’t mind, she says. Gives that deprecating och.

So I’ve followed desire paths, and found the serenity. Which is nice. We’re off home tomorrow morning at some unearthly hour to to be home in time to pick up the cat. Then we’ll unpack, I’ll post this, look out of the window and wonder where the sea and the mountains went.

And next week is the start of a lot of poetry stuff. A book launch for Steve Nash up at Mytholmroyd on Monday….Helen Mort’s supporting. Yay.! Thursday we’ll be at The Red Shed in Wakefield, when the hugely talented Di Slaney will be guesting.And on Friday I’ll have in my hand a copy of my very first full collection.!!!!!!!!! The Poetry Business are having an evening for the winners of the Yorkshire Prize…individual poems picked out by Billy Collins from shortlisted entries in the Pamphlet Competition. And among them, I’m really chuffed to see friends like Charlotte Whetton and the amazing Mike di Placido. Plus I get to read with Stuart Pickford (Swimming with jellyfish). What a week….and more readings coming up. I’ll put them on Facebook.

Next week we’ll be back to normal. We’ll have a guest whose work I think is really exciting (as well as technically very very clever). In the meantime, you could be ordering the collection that I still have to hold in my hand. Much Possessed.  You could pre-order it. Just follow the link. http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/shop/933/much-possessed

And if you don’t want to, that’s OK. Follow your desire paths.  In the meantime, here’s a poem as a taster. See you next Sunday.

11, Achnacloich

A flicker of white water  on the burn

below the alders where the heron roosts

A flirt of dunnock in the short grass

that sets the sheep trotting

Rain dragging its skirts

across the skerries in the ebb

Right on the rim of the moor

three hinds , watching

A curl of bluegrey turf smoke

from the red-roofed croft

I keep it like this.

The heron just crumpling

into the alders,

like a broken kite

the deer watching

between the moor and the sky

small birds lifting from the field

like the hem of a skirt in a breeze

the lamentations of sheep

the bright red tin roof of a crofter’s house

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Postscript: when I got home I opened an email that told me I’ve won 2nd Prize in the Canterbury International Poetry Comp. How good is that!!! I told you I was lucky.