Here’s looking at you: the male gaze

marilyn

Here’s a thing; it’s Sunday afternoon,  and Sunday’s a Rugby League day,  yet I’m here, because there’s something that’s been nagging and nagging, and if I don’t write about it I shall go on waking up in the night worrying at it. Sometimes I wish poetry didn’t have such a hold on me. Nevertheless.

Some time in the early 1970s I was trying to get to grips with sociolinguistics, and, especially, with the notion of gendered language. One of my colleagues at the College of Ed. where I was a lecturer played his students (and me) an audiotape of pairs of people talking on a train. What they were talking about was pretty much gender-neutral. Simplistically, not about fashion or football. The conversations sounded slightly odd, out of kilter but we couldn’t put our collective finger on why.

This is how it worked. The researchers made transcriptions of the taped conversations, which were those of pairs of women and pairs of men. They then had men reading the dialogues of the women, and vice versa. Simply, the idioms, the structures, the dynamic, the interactions didn’t fit. It seemed that the problem went much deeper than gendered lexis. I leave that for your consideration.

At the time, my view of the world had been radically challenged by two bombshell texts: John Berger’s Ways of seeing, and Dale Spender’s Man-made language. Interestingly and paradoxically, Berger’s presentation includes statements like

The invention of the camera changed the way men saw

and

all images are man made.

Which pretty well made Spender’s point.Lots of things have happened since then, but they continue to be just as important to me now as they were 40 years ago.

Why am I telling you this? I’m still buzzing from a week in St Ives with poetry inspirations and tutors Kim Moore and Helen Mort, and from the impact of the poems they brought into the workshops. Poems which simultaneously raised issues of the negative, of silence, of contradiction and of how women are written about and how women write about themselves. Let’s chuck into the mix the fact that Kim Moore suggested I watch a You Tube clip of a lecture on “the female gaze” by Jill Soloway. Here’s the link.You might want to watch it before you read on. http://youtube.com/watch?v=lhlxxW87S4c

Did that link work? welcome back, in any case.

What she says isn’t new, but in essence she says that the male gaze is characterised by being predatory, objectifying and commodifying, particularly when the gaze is turned on women. Think, say, of Durer who created an image of the ‘ideal woman’ by assembling it from bits of other images, like a kit. It’s tied up with ‘ownership’ and the power of defining the limits of another identity. This is essentially no different from Berger’s thesis, which in turn draws on earlier writers, though his conciseness is all his own:

“a woman…. is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself”

which, he argues is constructed from centuries of images of woman made essentially passive, looking back at the active and proprietorial observer.

Soloway asks what constitutes ‘the female gaze’ and make the obvious point that it’s not the simple reverse of the male gaze, substituting women observers for male observers, but maintaining the assymetric power relationship. Whether she manages to explain what the female gaze is, I’ll leave to you to decide. What I can’t leave in the air is when Soloway says, blithely enough, the male gaze is pretty well everything. Because if the male gaze is necessarily predatory and reifying  then the semantic and rhetorical books are well and truly cooked, and I might as well stop right now. It’s not that simple, because life never is. The core of it is pretty well indisputable; Western art and literature are dominated by men and their gaze well into the 19th C. Think about all the countless paintings of madonnas (by men) and then paintings of mothers and children by women. Check out Berthe Morrisot and you’ll see what I mean. Now we live in more relativist cultures, with all their contradictions and ambiguities. Have look at these female nudes. Two are contemporary. One is more than 20,000 years old. One is painted by a woman. One by a man. One we know nothing about. Where’s the male or female gaze? I don’t know, and I’m not out to win any arguments. I’m just asking myself questions.

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Let me ask some more. Let’s shift the ground to poetry…it is a poetry blog after all. Think about Browning’s My last duchess. There’s a poem about the predatory male gaze if ever there was one. But whose gaze is turned on the Duke, and whose on the the woman whose portrait the Duke is showing off. What is the poet assuming about the duchess? Or think about Philip Larkin’s The less deceived and how he imagines (gazes on) the little street girl abducted and taken into fulfilment’s desolate attic. At every turn I feel the ground slipping away from under my feet.

At this point, I’m going to go back to an earlier post, (December 204) in which I was equally uncertain of what I was arguing about or why. I started with a quotation from George Eliot…who had to assume a male persona to get published.

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity”

I went on to write about my response to work by Pascale Petit, Kim Moore, Fiona Benson and Wendy Pratt, and to wonder whether I could access their experience of the world via their poems. I wrote:

“I read these poems, and then I read what I’ve written in the last two years and I see what isn’t there, and I wonder if I have access to what’s missing. Just to explain why I chose that opening quotation from George Eliot; for the last 18 months or so I have grown gradually more deaf. It’s something that can be dealt with, and will be, but at the moment I hear the world through a soft sieve. I miss the point of conversations and questions if I’m not attending. It’s like listening to French. I recognise songs on the radio by the bass lines and drum patterns but I can’t hear the whole tune. And now these poets. It’s as though they’ve shown me emotional registers and harmonies that I can’t hear or feel for myself, as though, in George Eliot’s word I’m ‘well-wadded’. I’m writing rhetoric and well-observed landscapes, and anecdotes, but I’m not accessing the whole picture.”

I was reminded of this last week when I read one of Clare Shaw’s remarkable poems from her annual foray into the world of NaPoRiMo. Here’s a bit of it (thanks for the permission, Clare)

I was told not to write about wombs

but mine writes itself
in capitals. It is prolific,
I cannot forget it.

It reminds me
of all its hard work,
how patient and kind

it has been;
what it gave me. It boasts
it is further inside me

than the maps would suggest.
It says has swallowed small men
and some creatures.

How once it was sea and sky,
and a star floated there,
and its world was endless.

 

I pick out one phrase that all my conflicted and muddled feelings spin on: it is further inside me / than the maps would suggest. It’s that internal understanding, that knowledge that seem beyond me. And at this point I’m going to pass the buck. Over the last few years I’ve written poems in the voices of so many women…which is to say, I’ve made the attempt. Myra Hindley, Keith Bennett’s mother Winnie, Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc’s mother, a cunning woman, one of the Three Graces, Ophelia and so on. And I’ve turned my gaze on other women without appropriating their imagined voices. My week in St Ives, and a week spent reading about ‘the male gaze’ and ‘the female gaze’ have left me uncertain of what I’ve been engaged in. What I’ll do is post of some of these poems, one at a time, and see what you make of them. Male gaze or not? And what tells us?

The first is new, though the subject is one that’s dear to me. A little Toulouse Lautrec drawing, on a bit of torn card (which reproductions crop out),tucked away in a corner of the Alte Pinakotech in Munich. You come upon it after huge galleries , like celestial butchers’ cold rooms, full of enormous Rubens nudes

lautrec

After the Rubens

Just your head, just your slumped shoulders.

They’ve tucked you away, low down

in a corner by the door, with the woman

tugging a stubborn goat over the chalk.

I guess you’ll settle for this, no one

staring, this small space to yourself,

no one to bother.  Do you mind

that all he had was chalks,

a torn off bit of pasteboard.

Do you mind that your hair’s come

unpinned and he’s noticed that,

and how grey is your skin, do you mind

that scribble of pistacchio smudged in

to make you hair catch fire.I don’t know

your name and for this I am sorry.

It’s just that you look so tired that I stare.

Do you mind.And if I don’t stare, if

I look away, where will we be then.

 

 

 

A serious business, and a polished gem :Jennifer Copley

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Two things have stuck in my mind as the hook(s) I’ll hang this week’s post on.

I remember Ian McMillan saying, in a short film he made with Martin Wiley, something to the effect that ‘funny’ poetry is regarded as less important than ‘serious poetry’. When he said this I think he actually pronounced it as Serious Poetry, and I believe I knew what he meant, even though I also knew that what we mean by ‘funny’ is a lot more complicated than it might seem on the surface.

I thought of this when I saw in a Facebook post an image of faces crafted from toilet roll tubes. My first reaction was to laugh out loud. My second reaction was to see them as sinister and unsettling. They’re like the faces you might find in Breughel, or maybe in Bosch, and perhaps in some of Lautrec’s more grotesque sketches, and Boz’s illustrations for Dickens. They hover somewhere between caricature and realism. Unsettling is the word I’ll settle on.

The other thing was that for some reason I chose to take ‘funny’ poems to read on the open mic. at The Puzzle Poets Live monthly do this week. I particularly chose some of Rory Motion’s poems as well as a couple of my own. Now, it may be that you have never heard of Rory Motion, but you should. I’ve written before about how I started to do open mic poetry in folk clubs. What goes down well in folkclubs is poems that rhyme, and poems that are funny, and, preferably, poems that do both. I built up a list of ones that went down well, by people who wrote the kind of poems I still can’t write myself.

I built up a big file of stuff that wouldn’t let me down. Poets like Matt Harvey and Les Barker. I used a lot of Marriott Edgar. And I came to respect what Pam Ayres did. She’s a crafty, clever writer despite her TV persona. I’m very fond of ‘Clive the fearless birdman‘. I learned a lot from watching Ian Macmillan’s live performances in libraries and other small venues…especially when he worked with Circus of Poets. And I think Roger McGough is frequently brilliant.

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But the one who I came to enjoy and respect most was Rory Motion. You can find out about him via this link.  http://www.rorymotion.com/

He honed his stage skills on the stand-up comedy circuit in the late 80’s and early 90’s, being described by Time Out as a “a post-Hippie comic”, which by way of cheerful response is how he described Time Out. Finding the increasingly gladiatorial nature of the stand-up world too limiting, he decided in 1992, following a successful national tour with Frank Skinner, to move to Bwlch y Cibau, a small village in Powys.

A regular contributor to national radio, he has appeared on comedy shows, the literature panel game ‘Booked’ with Roger McGough and Miles Kington, and written and presented his own programmes on Radios 4 and 5. In 2001, Rory and fellow poet Matt Harvey created a series of programmes called ‘One Night Stanza’ which, in a victory for poetry lovers everywhere, made the coveted 6:30 Radio 4 comedy slot. In the same year Cassells published Rory’s collection of poems, ‘Neither is the Horse’. It’s still available, and remarkable value at £7.50 for a pocket-sized hardback of 125 pp of poems.

 

 

 

 

He performed at every Glastonbury Festival from 1989 up until 2008. ( He also paints landscapes, interiors and text-pieces, and in 2007 exhibited at the Peter Pears gallery in Aldeburgh, in conjunction with a reading at the Aldeburgh poetry festival).
Rory is a huge fan of the late Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band (which tells you a good deal) and in 2013 and 2014 supported them at the York Duchess. In 2015, at the Ilkley Literature festival, Rory gave an entertaining, and apparently very successful, practical tutorial on the mysteries of solving cryptic crosswords.

Why he’s not better known, I cannot fathom. But if you hunt down his flash fictions like Mid Wales (a darkly brilliant precis of Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill) or Spear of destiny (which item is for sale at a carboot sale in Totnes) or poems like  Mrs Donkersley’s Chutney (an extravagant rhapsody enacted on a bus between Pocklington and York) you’ll encounter a poet of real craft and imaginative engagement with the rich oddity of the world. It’s simply not possible to pigeon-hole or categorise him, but if I think of the company he might keep it would be poets like John Cooper Clark, and, particularly, Ivor Cutler (who regularly entertained, puzzled and unsettled me when I heard him on the radio…the Home Service as it was…in the late 1950s). Surreal, surprising, artful and impeccably crafted work. Funny, serious, and, yes, unsettling.

 

 

 

Which brings me to today’s guest, and a long-delayed post that I’ve been wanting to write for weeks, ever since I was invited to read at A poem and a pint in Ulverston, and where     I heard her read two poems that simply stuck in my mind like burrs and would not let me go…..because they were funny, spare, beautifully written, and, well, unsettling.

Time to introduce Jennifer Copley who lives in Barrow-in-Furness with her cat, dog, husband and a vast quantity of Victorian furniture inherited from her grandmother. She enjoys polishing and often gets ideas for poems while rubbing up the sideboard. 

You may have come across her work via Kim Moore’s The Sunday Poem but because I think she’s one of those talented poets who tend to fly under the radar, you may not know that she’s published four pamphlets including Ice (Smith Doorstop 2002) and House by the Sea (2003) and three full-length collections Unsafe Monuments (2006), Beans in Snow (Smokestack 2009) and Sisters also by Smokestack in 2013.

Sisters sprang from a photograph of two unknown girls she saw on a post-mortem website. The poems in the first half of the book imagine the lives of these two motherless girls brought up in a strict Victorian household. The second half explores the nature of sisterhood, the predicaments that siblings face, in life and in death. A new pamphlet is due shortly from Happenstance on whose website you’ll find the endorsement many of us would give several limbs for:

U.A. Fanthorpe has described [Jennifer Copley’s] work as ‘urgent, visceral, written out of a fierce commitment to truth’ and Carol Rumens finds ‘a Chagall-like, magical-realist quality to Copley’s delicate shape-shifting’.

She has been published by The Rialto, The North, Stand and PN Review, also twice in the Forward Prize Anthology. She was 2nd in the Cardiff International  and 3rd in the Bridport Poetry Prizes and although she was shortlisted for the Strokestown Prize twice and flogged all the way to County Roscommon, she didn’t win any money. I’m also gratified to learn (via Google) that for the last few years her poems have been used in Poetry Unseen Revision Papers for GCSE students.

In other words, she’s a serious poet; the whole nine yards, the full monty. And she writes poems not unlike the images I started the post with, poems that make you smile, or laugh, and then quickly reassess what just happened. I’d like to say they’re edgy, but they’re more subtle than that. Frequently, they’ll be as tender, lyrical but always clear-eyed, as these images from

Ten Places Where I See My Mother

Mondays, in the kitchen, her arms all suds.

I peer through steam but she’s disappeared

…………

Later she’ll be upstairs, taking off her wet blue dress

…………..

In the dark she’s in different places:

the end of my bed, the space by the wardrobe,

……………….

Her footprints glow for ages after she’s gone.

……………

Sundays, I see her under the earth,

peacefully asleep, her mouth slightly open,

but she comes to when I start arranging flowers.

 

What I love about this the matter-of-fact tone, the way this mother will never die and sees nothing remarkable about it. It makes me think of the ‘normalities’ of folk-tale and the narrow boundaries between the mundane and the wonderful. Although Jennifer Copley has something to say about them, too.

They’re only fairy tales, say our mothers,
who serve us porridge that’s far too hot;
and who are they that we should trust them
when they prick their fingers,        (from ‘Fairy Tales’)

I love the way she brings the reader up short in this line: ‘who are they that we should trust them’, the way it wryly and sardonically subverts my expectations of ‘our mothers’. Subversive..that’s the word; and that’s what the last line of The robin does..it subverts.

The Robin

– was dead but no one knew who’d killed him.
–Snow in the wind, said the sparrow.
–Ice in the water butt, said the wren.
–Frost on the five-barred gate, said the blackbird.
–A poisoned snail, said the thrush.
–God, said the canary who had no respect.
–Then they all turned on each other, shrieking and accusing, although
no one had liked the robin since he’d bullied the goldfinch children to death.

What makes very tiny children laugh is surprise (which may be frightening) followed by relief. Everyone who ever played ‘Boo!’ with child in a cot or a pram knows this. And Jenny Copley’s poems know this too. She herself says ‘I must tell stories. Stories about people (or animals) in improbable situations. I’m interested in how they react and how they resolve (or don’t) the things they face.’

So here we are with the two poems she sent me to share with you all, both, as it happens set in cellars of the kind you might finding Chris Van Allsberg’s wonderful book The mysteries of Harris Burdick. If you were looking for visual equivalents of the images that Jennifer Copley creates, you could do a lot worse than start there. Basement starts in a cellar in 1940, which sets up a set of expectations that’s immediately put in question by that flat but they feel safe here. 

Basement

1940, but they feel safe here,

between the ping-pong table

and the bottled fruit.

Light from a tiny barred window

spills down dust-motes.

There’s a birdcage

he always knocks his head on,

a cupboard that creaks.

 

Today it’s hot.

They remove more clothes than usual.

Her buttons roll into mouse-holes.

His braces, hurriedly unsnapped,

fly into a corner where they stay

for fifty years.

Upstairs, pans clatter.

Where’s Lizzy? Someone shouts

but with his tongue in her ear,

Lizzy doesn’t cotton on.

 

Not knowing the way war will turn,

all their arrangements,

love tokens,

sweat from their bodies,

moons from their fingers,

semen,

salt,

lie in scuffs on the floor.

I like the story-teller’s ‘they’ that demands you have to find out who ‘they’ are, between the deliberately comic ping-pong table and the bottled fruit, lit dimly by what comes through a window that’s ‘barred’. Which should make you think twice. Whoever they are, they come often because ‘there’s a birdcage / he always knocks his head on’. And yes, it’s comic, until it’s unsettling. Because they take off more clothes ‘than usual’ in a fumble of snapped-off buttons and unsnapped braces. A poem of desperate love in a time of war that’s not comic at all but as serious as salt and moons and semen. I love it.

 

cellar crop

The second poem, Cellar was the one that made me sit up and take notice at Ulverston. It has that quirkiness that makes me think of Ivor Cutler, and that disingenuous matter-of-fact quality that is so unsettlingly at odds with the story.

Cellar

Here’s where we live,

buried under ground,

our hats in our hands.

We came down in 1963

to fill up the scuttle

and the door slammed shut.

 

The light knocked off in 1984

so we live in the dark, bowed over

like the hulls of two old boats.

You say ‘tomato’ and I say ‘tom-ate-o’.

Apart from that we get on well enough.

 

Our children call down the coal hole

occasionally. They almost try the door

but their hearts aren’t in it.

After all, what would they say to us,

it’s been so long since we

kept a grip on things, on them.

 

Understated, memorable and unnerving.  I wish I could do work like that, so economically and apparently without effort. Thank you Jennifer Copley for the poems and waiting so patiently for me to write about them.

St Ives 2017 014

 

And now I’m going to check all my lists for the umpteenth time, and double-check my packing, because first thing tomorrow I’m off over to Greater Manchester to collect two poets and then we’re heading off to St Ives for a week of poetry reading and writing. There may not be a post next Sunday, but I reckon you can put up with that, and I’ll see you when I see you. Thank you for reading.

treloyhan-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where all the ladders start (2)

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Just back from five days at a writing retreat at Garsdale Head, about eight miles up the valley from Hawes.

It felt strange, last Monday, to be driving past the Ribblehead viaduct, all the moors streaked with snow that lies longer in the lea of the gritstone walls that march straight up big hills, for no purpose other than enclosure, the marking of boundary and ownership. Deeper drifted snow in hollows and ghylls; curling snow cornices on the edges of landslip. I drove past the turn to Dentdale, and realised with a kind of lurch that years ago, on my first hiking holiday, I’d walked from Dent youth hostel straight over the moor top to Oughtershaw and Langstrothdale, down into Buckden and then to Kettlewell. The lurch came from seeing how big the moors are, how far. I didn’t know better then. I just did it without thinking. Last Monday, I knew I’d never do anything like it again. I’d be too timid, too anxious, and in any case my legs wouldn’t let me. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, that sense of inability, and if you let it in, it makes you feel as though there are lots of other things you can’t do any more. Like writing anything you’d want to read again.

I think that diffuse draining of confidence leaked into the workshop tasks, which all seemed to become reflective, introspective, all about ‘I’ and ‘me’. You lug a lot of baggage into workshops. Or at least I do. Often it’s useful baggage, stuff you’ve just read or done, that lets you come at the moment obliquely. A simple example would be the way you can approach your own inner life via the narratives of myth or folk tale, via ventriloquism, hiding inside another imagined self or persona. This last week has been about finding no hiding place, and being unsure of the way language can let you speak truly about the unadorned experience. I think that’s at least part of what Yeats meant about the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. I firmly believe that it was just what I needed. Whether I liked it or not was neither here nor there. When I’m asked what I expect from a writing workshop I say, blithely, that I want to be shifted out of my comfort zone. I wasn’t disappointed. Thank you, Kim Moore.

I wanted to say all that before sharing one of those poems that seem to come without worry or effort, because sometimes I forget to say thanks for their turning up. Of course, they don’t come out of nowhere. It’s nice to acknowledge a debt to those who make a place to start. Here’s a task that came at the very end of a Poetry Business writing day. Task 7. One of Ann Sansom’s six line specials, with four or five minutes and no more to finish your morning on a high.

for true naming

How does it work? The instruction is to write a succession of lines, and each of the lines must contain one of the prompt words or ideas. A hero, a time word, some sort of headgear, something to do with a church, a free choice line and the name of a county. Any of those could be a trigger, but it happened that I’d been reading, and rereading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. I’d earmarked several things. One was his writing about the Finnish Kalavela, and the hero Vainamoinen who the legend credits with winning the gift of fire for mankind. The other wonderful core idea is that of the naming of places, and of landscapes, that the world is en-chanted into being by knowing and saying its True Names.

What else comes along, what baggage? For me, the quest of Ged in Ursula le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. The end of Ged’s quest is to understand that he can only know his true self by naming it with his true name. Names are the core of magic. The journeys of the innocent heroes and heroines of folk tale are important too….journeys through dark forest, over mountain passes, on the edges of dark seas. Elemental places, much like the snow-streaked dark moors or the coast of Northumbria; Dunstanburgh and the Farnes where the mythic is just about to break in like hail. And there it is, a workshop prompt that lights a fuse for a fire you’ve been building without really thinking why. Without Macfarlane, that line ‘for the true naming of the world’ wouldn’t have jumped on the page to introduce a list of everything you might need. I should write a praise-song for lists and listing, and their seductive forward-pushing rhythms. Here’s the finished version.

For the true naming of the world

 

For the true naming of the world

you need one who will recognise a fish

that has swallowed a star

that fell through the vaults of the air;

one who wears a helmet or bears a sword

forged in the heart of mountains,

from metals whose names no man ever knew,

to bear a name that can not be forgot,

a name to fit in a verse to be sung at a feast;

 

you need one to be sent on a quest

through silent forests, stony wastes,

to a bony church and a hillside that opens

to a way that he’ll walk through all the ages,

to come dumb and dazzled to the seashore

under huge lucid skies, into the wind,

to build monasteries, to illuminate gospels;

to speak to otters, spear the sea like a gannet,

to be one with wind and with seals.

 

Then stones and flowers might come

to know themselves. Day’s-eye, comfrey,

coltsfoot, mallow, vetch, stonecrop, feverfew.

Hornblende, granite, wolfram, flint and gneiss;

valleys might come know their depths,

and becks and burns to know the purposes of rain,

and the ways of the clough and the gorge

under blood moons, hare moons, the moon

when horns are broken. Then.

 

Almost everything in this is borrowed. I’m pretty sure the ‘hillside that opens’ is from William Mayne’s Earthfasts, set in Arkengathdale. I imagined the kind of hillside that loomed over the house I stayed in last week. This oneIMG_2612

the lucid skies are the astonishing skies of the Northumberland coast; the founder of monasteries is Cuthbert, the gospels are from Lindisfarne; Cuthbert spoke with otters and seals, but the imagining of it is from Robert Westall’s The Wind Eye. The naming of flowers is from Macfarlane, and the Native American names for the moons of different seasons are from Dee Brown.

Sometimes it’s even less complicated. Sometimes you seem to be given something that comes pretty well fully-formed. In this case a sort of retelling of a parable from Bede. More Northumbria, but in my mind, it happens in Whitby. It seemed to have its own urgent rhythm.In the meantime

and the finished version, which just seemed to know its own linebreaks

In the meantime

 

because that’s how it is, the sparrow

flying into the meadhall, bewildered

by smoke-reek, gusts of beer-breath,

out of the wild dark and into the half-

light of embers, sweat, the steam

of fermenting rushes, and maybe

a harp and an epic that means nothing

in a language it doesn’t know, this sparrow,

frantic to be out there, and maybe

it perches on a tarry roof beam, catches

a wingtip, comes up against thatch

like a moth on a curtain, and it beats

its wings, it beats its wings, it tastes

a wind with the scent of rain, the thin

smell of snow, of stars, and somehow

it’s out into the turbulence of everywhere,

and who knows what happens next.

 

So there we are. Every time you think you have nothing to say, or it all seems too hard and miserable, say a little prayer for the ones you were given free, like a blessing.

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[Both poems come from Much possessed .  smith|doorstop 2016.

Available  via The Poetry Business, or from me direct. See  My books  at the top of the page]

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?

51rK-I9rNrL._SX326_BO1204203200_

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/

 

Now what? Or: What next?

degas 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

degas 4

The whole of the moon

 

1.

They give themselves airs, poets,

make large claims on the world,

like starving men

who stake little flags in cairns

in wildernessess of snow and cold.

 

You don’t get painters doing that,

the ones for whom it’s enough

to sit still, to look and look and look

till they almost believe they know

how the moment works,

 

the art where you see all of it

at once, at the same moment

as everything else  inside the frame,

right to the very edges

where the moment stops.

 

A poet wonders how would it be

if the picture went on round

the corner, if you could see

where Breughel’s hunters came from,

and who or what was following.

 

Poets  tell you what matters

is the moment, but really

they’re hooked on narrative,

the why, the who, the what and when,

the dumb ghosts in the machine.

degas 5

 2.

painters give you everything at once,

you stand in the space where they were,

they gift you their eyes, don’t stand

behind you to explain or point.

 

Poets are always at your shoulder,

touching your elbow, you can’t

shut them out. You go at their pace,

top to bottom, left to right.

 

A painter sees the sea, the cliffs,

the clouds, the boy scaring crows,

the ploughman turning clods,

the ship, a splash. Doesn’t write

a title underneath. A poet tells you

what the painter meant.

 

Through the scrim and scaffolding

of words you will never see

again  the world he saw.

 

3.

A painter can stop the moment

of a girl lit from a window,

pouring milk from a jug. The milk

makes no sound, a stilled liquid purl.

degas 6

4.

Intent and still as a cat, a painter

sees a woman ironing, the turn

of her shoulder, the planes

of greenish light, the way flesh

isn’t white at all, how, like snow

it borrows colour, blue and violet.

 

You look through the eyes of the cat

and see with a start that it’s true,

the way a torso shifts to press

down on an iron, how a finger

moves a strand of errant hair,

how red is the inside of a yawn.

 

He watches how a dancer watches

herself in a long mirror. He doesn’t

say she loves herself in her froth

of muslin, her satin shoes. He doesn’t

say how tired is the ironing woman,

how hot, or bored, how long the day.

 

He lends you his eyes and quietly

goes, leaves you to make of it

what you will.

degas 2

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

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

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

 

NaPoWriMo: it ain’t what you do…or maybe it really is

matt_bush_red_bull_free_solo

What set me off today was a post in Carrie’s NaPoWriMo

what do you do with that trembly feelingwhen you think you have written a really good poem, or perhaps it’s not ……[Hazell Hammond] 

I wrote back (pompously enough)

when you feel it, when it excites you, when it’s like someone else wrote it through you……then trust it. Leave it for a couple of days. Then go back. If it still does it, it’s the biz.

The fact is, sometimes you just know. There’s a poem in my collection that did that for me. What it does for anyone else is not my business, but I know I love performing it at poetry readings, the rhythm of it. I wrote the first version of it at Saturday workshop in Sheffield, nearly two years ago. The first task. 10.30am. Here’s your opening phrase. Off you go. Don’t think about it, don’t edit it, don’t stop. Here’s a slightly unfocussed scan from my notebook.

in the meantime notes

And now, here’s the final version, from the collection

In the meantime

 

because that’s how it is, the sparrow

flying into the meadhall, bewildered

by smoke-reek, gusts of beer-breath,

out of the wild dark and into the half-

light of embers, sweat, the steam

of fermenting rushes, and maybe

a harp and an epic that means nothing

in a language it doesn’t know, this sparrow,

frantic to be out there, and maybe

it perches on a tarry roof beam, catches

a wingtip, comes up against thatch

like a moth on a curtain, and it beats

its wings, it beats its wings, it tastes

a wind with the scent of rain, the thin

smell of snow, of stars, and somehow

it’s out into the turbulence of everywhere,

and who knows what happens next.

When I typed this on a screen for the first time, the line breaks seemed to fall naturally, it seemed to want a roughly eight-syllabled line, and the four stressed syllables of Anglo-Saxon verse. It wanted to be a single sentence. It wanted to be urgent. I think there are three small edits to a piece that took about three minutes to write. Some days it’s like that. Most, it isn’t. The thing is, you have no idea what prompt will kickstart something you really want to say. If it does, it won’t come out of nowhere. I must have been to Whitby, or been reading something about Caedmon, or the Farnes..I don’t know. But I know that in two years of compulsory Early English courses at University, the story of Caedmon was the only thing I ever read that came close to moving me.

whitby Poetry Business 2015 028

This will be my last post on the cobweb for NaPoWriMo. It’s been great to be involved. What I’d like to do is to say why I’ve written about 40 poem-shaped drafts since I started, and why I haven’t actually used many of the carefully crafted prompts that Carrire Etter has provided for her huge and hugely enthusiastic group. Mainly, it’s because I took the opportunity to go through the backlog of notes I’ve made in workshops, to look at the ones I’ve not done anything with, and to ask if, perhaps, any of then have legs. It turns out that they had, and I’m gradually removing the post-its and bits of paper that marked where they were. What I haven’t been able to do, apart from finding out what might be done with a pantoum (I’d never heard of it till now) is to follow prompts which focus on a particular form, whether it’s a sestina, a triolet, a terza rima, a rondo redoublé, or whatever.

For whatever reason, I just can’t do it. Maybe I mean that I don’t want to, in case I ‘fail’. Whatever that means. I’m going to use a reworked version of a post from January 2015 later on to explore it a bit further. But if you’re pushed for time, I’ll borrow a very simple justification that Clare Shaw used in one of her incredibly generous NaPoWriMo posts some  days ago.

NaPoWriMo Day 13.
Ghazals! they’re ace in the right hands, but I don’t have those hands. I made two attempts to write one and it’s too late and I’m to tired to keep on trying; so about 11.30pm I returned to a poem I started writing in response to a poem by John Foggin about a broken pot. Mine’s about a broken pot too.

On the other hand, when she’s aked to write a letter to someone, this happens

Letter to my mother

It’s been a long time,
there’s so much to catch up on.
I have a nine-year old daughter.
You’d like my partner.
I’m doing well in the ways
that count. As for the news – we’ll fall out
before we get started
and it’s late
and the light’s getting too faint
for writing. Just tell me about yourself,

things that matter:
how many skips of a stone
you could make on the water,
the roses, the nameless trees.
Let’s leave all the bad stuff to one side.
Tell me about mass, the tide of the voices,
how words were a river –
tell me what it was like to be seized by a river.
Tell me about your God
and when were you most yourself

in your garden; tell me about your lawn
and how did it feel when the stones
fell out from your walls, when the path faded;
when your world softened
and lost its edges; when you were broken
and couldn’t be mended;
when the words got stuck
in your throat. When people were ghosts
and you wouldn’t wear glasses; when you got lost;
when world was all losses.

Now tell me birdsong and flowers.
Tell me the importance of very good manners.
Do you remember the Lakes? Do you visit?
Do you recall how high the grass grew
and how it was sweet
at the roots? Can you taste it?
It’s late. Can you open your eyes,
can you speak, can you tell me
before the light goes out
completely?

I fancy this was written in one great sweep, no pauses, no stopping and worrying. The first 30 lines are all one sentence…well, almost. That line with the ghosts. I could see that you might have a semi-colon after ‘throat’, and I can see that maybe it did, and then got changed, to segue into the final stanza which is all short sentences, question after question; it’s in a panic, that last stanza , I think…. in a desperate rush to say everything before the last chance is gone, like trying to save all your precious things before the flood takes them …and it knows it’s going to fail, that the light’s going to go out, and that there never was enough time, and if there was, we never saw it was there. So, when Hazell Hammond asks about that trembly feeling when you think you have written a really really good poem then I can say I not only know what it feels like, but I can see when it’s happened to someone else. And for me, it’s nearly always because they’ve taken a risk with their own emotions, not edited them or dressed them up.

So, this post was in its earlier incarnation, prompted by Jenny Joseph’s Warning and was interesting itself in irresponsibility, unselfconsciousness, and risktaking. I’ve always been attracted by the notion of embracing irresponsiblity and eccentricity, but fight shy of their corollaries of physical and emotional and spiritual risk. I’m attracted to  those writers who take those kinds of risks in poetry, and I declare a preference for poems and poets that are courageous and unflinching.

For various reasons, I’m advised against eating processed meats, so sausages are out, and I’ve never been keen on wearing purple or rattling sticks along railings. Extravert behaviour has always come fairly easily, but  real risk-taking is something I’ve basically tried to keep at arms’ length, and without that, I see no way towards achieving the edge that I respond to so readily in other people’s poems.

I’m going to see if I can articulate this better . It may be that I have to come at it obliquely and crabwise. Fingers crossed, then. First of all, let’s declare that when I rock up at various writers’ workshops I invariably react negatively to exercises in ‘form’. My writing mind responds well to pressure and strictures about time, and cues about, say, how many lines I’m allowed, and even about the imposition of keywords to plant in each line. But that’s about it. What I can’t do is sit down and plan to squeeze an idea or a feeling into a terza rima, or a sestina or a sonnet. I can’t see the point of it. I’m not saying there isn’t one, but I find it quite hard enough to find out what I think I’m thinking or feeling, and what it might mean, without things being edited out by form or rhyme.

Rhythm is the thing  I need to think with . All my first and early drafts are in flat-out prose that attaches to a particular rhythm…which will in turn attach to the feel of a line length that I can fine tune later. In fact, while I’m having a ‘wearing purple’ day, I want poems where the form follows the drive of meaning and feeling. I like the playfulness, the wit, the rhetoric, the memorisabilty of rhyme in other people’s poems, but much of the time, they get in the way of what I want to say or feel. I’m always pleased to add to the bag of tricks and techniques, but almost always they’re the ones that help me to cut out what’s inessential, that make what’s left feel surprising and inevitable. I want holding forms, but there are beautifully crafted poems out there full of beautifully crafted observations and reflections and images that seem to sit there just to be admired. Like Faberge eggs. Exquisite and pointless bits of showing off. Don’t ask me for examples. I have few enough friends as it is. I’m just inviting you to see where I am before I go on about where I want to be.

Another ‘wearing purple’ thought. My Facebook pages are full of poetry and things about poetry. And there are so many people posting about how many collections have been bought and devoured. There are so many of you out there, reading so many poems. And here’s the thing. I don’t. I can go for days and weeks with one or two poems that affect me. Art galleries have the same effect. I can take in maybe four images (if it’s a good show) and then I want no more. After that the rest will simply blur into unmeaning. Two or three examples. There was a Stanley Spencer retrospective at the Tate Liverpool some years ago. Wonderful images everywhere. But it was as much as I could do to sit in front of ‘The resurrection at Cookham’. Enough there to fill my mind for years. Same with Peter Blake. Fantastic canvasses, but just one of his Ruralist self-portraits had enough ideas to last the week.

lautrec

The Alte Pinakothek in Munich has a Rubens room that’s like walking through a celestial butchers’ cold room, but, tucked in a corner of a 19thC room, is a little Lautrec oil sketch. It’s on a piece of torn card. It’s of a bone-tired,  redhaired prostitute. The intensity of his imaginative engagement and unflinching raw honesty and tenderness is worth a room full of  gilt-framed blowsy renaissance treasures. That picture is like the poems I want to write. But trying to say what I mean is turning out to be like trying to describe vertigo. If you’ve ever frozen up at the top of a ladder, or on a rockface, or on seacliff path you know exactly what I mean. And if you haven’t, you don’t. Ah well. By the way, let’s be clear. I’m not for a second suggesting that there’s too much poetry around. Just that there’s too much for me to take in, and quite enough that moves me and excites me to be troubled about the rest.

There’s another thing I must say before I forget . What CAN’T workshops and exercises and boxes of tricks do  (well, for me, at least)? They may make you you more inventive, but they won’t make you more awake to what’s going on around you. If I’m not feeling, imagining the world, minute by minute, whatever will I be writing about? How do I grow more curious about, and more involved in, living and all its complexities. I know there’s a reflexiveness about being absorbed in creative works and being able to be absorbed in living, and being honest about it. But. Kim Moore gave me the keyword to hang on to. Value judgements about poetry are neither here nor there. ‘Good’ is irrelevant. What matters is whether it’s true or not. Don’t ask me to explain that. It’s like vertigo. But you know viscerally as well as intellectually when things are true or not. Don’t you? I don’t want to wear purple. I want to take the risks in engaging with the world ‘out there’  that end up with ‘true’.

And another thing (there’s no shape to this any more. Sorry). Curiosity. That ability to ask. What if? Why? About anything and everything. That would free me up, get the kinks and stiffness out of the way I write, I think. Couple of examples. I was at a workshop at the Orangery in Wakefield a couple of years ago, and strugglingling to concentrate, because I’d given up the chance of going to see Batley Bulldogs play Featherstone in a Championship play-off in order to go to the workshop. That’s commitment, that is. But two things made me sit up, and stuck like burrs. Kim Moore said both of them. The first thing was about an exercise in which we’d been invited to concentrate on a painting we knew, and to work with it. Kim said : have you ever wondered what it would be like to follow the painting round the edges to where it carries on. Something like that. The other was when she mused about geese being herded to market. Why would they walk when they can fly? she asked. Something like that. Both ideas still bother me. But I love and envy the idea of being able to think outside the frame, outside the obvious logic. The other example was in an email from Gaia Holmes. She said that maybe if you named all the bones in the body you’d call something up.  Wow! Just let that reverberate in your mind. Wonderful. I must learn to be free to imagine like that.

Düne_dead_gull_on_seashore

So, where are we. I think I’ll stop after a couple more short thoughts. My Facebook pages are full of other writers’  resolutions to write a poem every day in April…it’s struck chords around the web, has that. But there’s a corollary. Let’s say you can manage an hour or two a day. What will go on in all the other hours?  Because that’s where the work will come from.

Say you take your photograph of a drowned bird on shingly beach, and the wind blowing in from the Outer Islands. What does it mean to you? What do you mean to it? What does it mean? Why does it matter? Because if doesn’t, why did you take a photograph?

Here’s my NaPoWriMo wish for you. That things will matter more. And here’s one for me. For the awful daring of a moment’s surrender. Preferably, lots of them.

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