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).

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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)

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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

Between the lines: drafts, workshops, and how to survive them

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A spot of deja vu this afternoon. It’s lovely to be back after a two week break, but I notice the last  post I wrote (about poetry residentials, just before going on one) starts with a moan about the weather AND the unpleasantness of watching my RL team Batley Bulldogs on a cold day with rain siling down. Guess what. I’m off to Mount Pleasant, the most ironically named ground in English rugby league, and it’s cold, horrible and tanking down. I may have to thaw out before I can finish this week’s post. Fingers crossed we get a win. (why do managers and players of football teams always say they wanted to get ‘a result’? A draw is a result. So is getting hammered by a team you should walk all over. Just a thought. Anyway, I’m off to get layered up. I’ll be back in a while. Behave, while I’m away.)

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Well. You’ve been very patient. It’s Monday afternoon.This is what it looked like yesterday. Detail from a brilliant photo posted by Paul Butterworth on the supporters’ facebook page. It was cold, it was wet and it was unrelentingly nailbitingly brutal. It’s taken me till now to get warm, and I was only watching. Right. Back to business.

I had great week in St Ives with writing tutors Kim Moore and David Tait, in the company of talented, committed folk who I already knew, like Meg Cox, Martin Zarrop, Rachel Davies and Hilary Robinson, and a whole bunch of folk who I met for the first time and taught me lots.

Because they are gifted teachers, Kim and David did three things that a good residential ought to do. 1:They are very clear about what the course is for, about what to expect, and, day by day, what’s coming next, and why. 2: They surprised me with poems I’d never seen before, and put them in a context that shifted the way I read them and wrote out of them. 3: They gave me tasks that disturbed and challenged me. 4: They gave me the security to handle it.

It was a week that did what a good residential should do: it took me out of my comfort zone, it made me look at stuff that I unconsciously try to avoid. It will eventually make me write differently, and, hopefully, better. And it also made me think very hard about workshopping my own poems and those of others…which will be the point of this delayed cobweb strand.

keyboard-3

Just to be clear; what do I mean by a workshop? In this context, it’s not one where you write new work from prompts or whatever. I mean workshops where you take a poem that’s unfinished or unsatisfying in some way, in the hope that someone will spot what’s going wrong and suggest a possible solution, or to discover that it’s unsatisfying because it’s actually not very good and probably not worth persisting with. The two I go to on a regular basis are the (theoretically) weekly meetings of The Albert Poets at The Sportsman’s pub in Huddersfield, and the ones in the afternoon sessions of the monthly Poetry Business Writing Days in Sheffield. They’re the ones where I feel simultaneously safe and challenged. I’ll try to explain why I think both of these conditions are essential as I go along.

Safety/security first. Groups like these work because they have very clear ground rules. On residentials where there’s a critiquing workshop, and where there are people who haven’t met before, its good to be told what they are.(They include making enough copies of your poem for everyone to have one) David Tait reminded me of the importance of this in St Ives, because he told us all very clearly, and I’m going to borrow what he said.

First: don’t bring a poem that you’re unwilling to change; a workshop isn’t a place to go to be told how much you’re loved. If you want applause, go to open mic.s and take your chance with the rest. Now, you might think this is obvious, but nothing is more uncomfortable than dealing with the ones who don’t get this basic premise.

Second. Everyone’s got a copy. You read your poem aloud. And then you keep quiet. You don’t explain why you wrote it, or its backstory..none of that. The poem has to stick up for itself. You don’t argue or interrupt. You listen as people say what they think. You may think what they say is stupid. (a few weeks ago, a newcomer to one group gave my poem nul points, saying that it was full of similes that have no place in poems any more…something of the sort). Grit your teeth. There should be a time span for this bit..depends on the size of the group. 5-10 minutes. At the end you should have the chance to respond. Not indignantly.

Third. What about the critiquers? Rules vary, but I like the format of the Poetry Business. When you respond to a poem you start with some thing(s) you like..two or three….and then things that puzzle you, or don’t seem to work. What you say needs to be helpful, potentially. And it needs to be about THIS POEM. And even if you love it, you need to say why. And if you want to suggest changes, PLEASE make them provisional. You have to believe that you don’t necessarily have the answers or solutions. Preface your comments with something on the lines of: what happens if ….what happens if you cut this line/if you shift these stanzas to the beginning/ if you make the title the first line. That kind of thing

Fourth. I nearly forgot this. It’s a rule I personally want to add. When you listen to someone read her poem, listen to what it’s saying. Think: what’s this about? Too often people jump in with a comment about details and techniques without giving any indication that they’ve listened to what the poem means. So say what you think the poem means. The poet thinks she knows but if you’ve heard something different then that’s important. It tells her that she hasn’t got the message/significance/meaning across to one reader at least, and she may need to think about why.

In other words, there’s a contract between the poet and the readers, and everyone has to trust everyone else. I tend to think this works best in groups of a certain size. For me, 5 or 6 is optimum, 10 is manageable, and bigger than that means that whoever is in the last three of the session will not actually be heard by anyone. Because it’s a tiring business. It really is.

Fifth: (actually, I’m not sure this part of the sequence BUT it’s coming here nonetheless).

It’s about one-to-one workshops. These are a feature of most, if not all, residentials. David Tait, again, is very clear about ground rules.Let’s assume this is not a session where you are asking how to get published, or how to sequence a pamphlet, or how to get readings, or how to become famous.

The first is that you will have a time allocation. Whatever it is, both you and the tutor must honour it. You will be punctual. The tutor will be punctillious. When you time is up, it’s up.

Secondly, you supply the tutor with two or three poems that you want advice about. You do not turn up with a manuscript, or ask the tutor to read a potential collection. You’re going to get twenty minutes. Deal with it.

Thirdly, you do everything you can to help the tutor to help you. Ask the tutor if s/he’d like you to highlight the bits that you think are not working. S/he may prefer to read the poems blind, but it does no harm to ask.

Fourthly, in any case you should go to your workshop/tutorial with your highlights ready. It might be the title, the last line, the pivot; it might be that you think there’s too much or too little; it might be that you can’t make it dance…but have an idea what you want to focus on.

Now, you might think this is obvious, commonsense, doesn’t need saying. But I’ve been in a blind-reading workshop (all the poems anonymised) where an extremely famous poet said that my contribution was a ‘crock of sh*te’. And to be fair, it wasn’t much good, but the point of a workshop’s being to make poems better vanished right there. It didn’t do much for the ambience either. Tutors can break the contract, but so can ‘students’…the ones who, despite everything, want to be told how to write a collection or get on the radio or whatever, who want to criticise the course, or just turn up for vaguely poetry-related therapy. The rules are crucial, and we have to trust that we all make them work.

So what’s it like, chucking your poem into the ring, like a prize-fighter’s hat. I thought I’d finish with a sort of case-study. Let’s start with the version of the poem I wanted to workshop because it wasn’t working.

Inside out

 

Men caught heaven,

made a place to hold it. Light fills it

like a cistern, to the brim.

 

Outside : cliff-face, course on course

of great stones shutting off the sky,

the earth breathing its last, pressed to death.

 

Inside: suspended gravity.

Mass without weight,

where everything takes flight…

 

cobweb banners of dead regiments –

small dry waterfalls,

the arrested drift of falling leaf…..

 

where stone grows like trees, like flowers,

spreads its arms, its fingers

that it clasps in prayer.

 

where light smells of incense, wax,

scented dust and God;

sounds like the oldest music

 

that murmurs and whispers;

a shout would vanish,

a pebble in a well.

 

Press a palm on the stone,

its cool grain, small snags

where a mason’s chisel slipped;

 

make yourself remember

this is simple stone –  quarried,

split, carted, hauled

 

by men with callouses,

fighting brute inertia,

bulk,weight,awkwardness,

 

who wove traceries in stone

and netted heaven

like a bright moth.

 

The copies circulated round the group weren’t highlighted in red, but just for convenience, they are here..they’re the bits I wasn’t sure about. I’d started from the simple idea that great Gothic cathedrals are bigger inside than out, that enchantment of stone to create the illusion of weightlessness. When I was writing, in my mind I was standing outside Durham Cathedral, outside York and Lincoln and Winchester and then walking inside into that rare light.

Now..you see what it does when I tell you that;  it’s special pleading before you can read what’s in front of you. I started to think that maybe the idea is a) blindingly obvious, b) the poem was just assertively arguing a case that didn’t need arguing, and c) that it probably wasn’t worth salvaging, but we could give it a chance. Intriguingly, some readers didn’t see that it was about cathedrals; maybe I was making too many assumptions. (I grew up with Bannister-Fletcher’s history of architecture). Anyway, it made me think.

As well as people in the group making oral suggestions, several will annotate their copy and give it to the writer afterwards. I think this is great, regardless of what they write.Here’s two to make a point:

inside-out-4inside-out-3jpg

What do I make of this? The left hand one reinforces my unease about the title. It means I need to do something about it…I trust this responder, as it happens. Ditto the suggestion about omitting two stanzas. Why? Because I’m not sure about the introduction of scent and sound into a poem that’s focussed on sight and touch. I really like the images, but I have to ask if they belong, if they earn their keep. What about the right hand one?  Well it’s curtly radical, isn’t it. It would be easy to take umbrage or shrug it off. But maybe I need to listen to the voice that’s saying: this poem is too long, there’s too much stuff going on. It needs some cuts. Possibly not these.

Meanwhile, as group members are making their annotations, I’m making mine.

inside-out-2

What’s happened is that I feel confirmed about the title. Lots of folk mentioned this. Ditto, the inside/outside opposition which tips the rhetoric of the poems in the wrong dirction. It’s clunky. Get shot. As I read the poem to the group I heard what was wrong with the the line about the leaves…I heard it before I got to it and changed it as I read. You think you’ve read your poem aloud, but it’s different reading it to listeners. I decide to get rid of the pebble in the well, much as I like it. It’s distracting. And so on. On the other hand, no one has found that those imperative verbs, press, make yourself, are a problem. Maybe I can keep them. A week later, I go back and edit. I don’t think this poem is up for submissions or competitions. It’s OK, but I suspect it didn’t want to be written as much as I thought I wanted to write it. On the other hand, I think it’s better than it was,thanks to that workshop. Here it is.See what you think.

Weightless

 

Men caught heaven,

made a place to hold it, a cistern,

full to the brim with light,

 

suspended gravity,

mass without weight,

where everything takes flight…

 

cobweb banners of dead regiments:

small dry waterfalls –

arrested drifts of falling leaf;

 

where stone grows like trees, like flowers,

spreads its arms, flexes fingers

that it clasps in prayer;

 

where light smells of incense, wax,

scented dust and God,

sounds like the oldest music.

 

Press a palm on the stone,

its cool grain, small snags

where a mason’s chisel slipped;

 

remember

this is simple stone –  quarried,

split, carted, hauled

 

by men with callouses,

fighting bulk,weight,

awkwardness;  men

 

who wove traceries in stone

and netted heaven

like a bright moth.

I’m sorry you had to wait till Monday. Thank you for turning up and thank you for listening. As a treat, next week we’re having a guest poet I’ve wanted ever since I started writing the cobweb. See you next Sunday (or Monday)

PS. If you’ve been persuaded by the last two posts, you could do a lot worse than have a think about this tasty-looking course coming up shortly. It could be just what you need:

Residential Poetry Course
April 10th – 14th 2017
Tutors: Kim Moore and Jennifer Copley
Abbot Hall Hotel, Kents Bank, Grange-Over-Sands, Cumbria
£396 To book please contact hotel  015395 32896

2016: my favourite bits

2016: my favourite bits

minions-at-the-firworks

I started the year (or ended 2015) by playing with my best Christmas present…making scores of Minions out of card. I’m easily distracted. Even more easily distracted by photoshop, which lets me give you, and the Minions, a New Years Eve firework display.

I’ll end this year with a big thank you to everyone who’s made it a busy and happy year of poetry (the other stuff out there in the big world I’d rather briefly forget, just for a hour today. There’s nothing I can do about Brexit, about Trump, about the liars and cheats and egomaniacs hell-bent on destroying everything I, and, truly believe, you, hold dear. Grant us serenity to accept what we can’t change, and the courage to change what we can. Let us love each other better.)

Let me say thank you to all the people who recharge my batteries, and inspire me, and who inspire so many others. Particularly, to Kim Moore and Steve Ely for their residential course in St Ives in February. To Ann Sansom..again..for her course in Spain in June, and to Ann and Peter Sansom for the sheer exuberance of their end-of-the-year course in Whitby in December. To the Poetry Business Writing Days in Sheffield. To everyone who runs the open mic. poetry nights that give an audience to so many poets, and give confidence to those just starting out : Keith Hutson’s Word Play poetry nights at the Square Chapel in Halifax; everyone at the Puzzle Poets Live in Sowerby Bridge; Keely Willox at the Purple Room in Ilkley; Mark Connor’s Word Club at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds; South Street Arts Centre in Reading; Jimmy Andrex and John Clarke’s poetry nights at The Red Shed in Wakefield; The Albert Poets in Huddersfield. Thanks and ever thanks.

I’ve been very lucky this year. I had a pamphlet Outlaws and fallen angels published by Calder Valley Poetry in January. I was one of the winners of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition; because of that I’ve had my first full collection, Much Possessed, published by smith|doorstop. And my friend and former pupil, Andy Blackford and I will be having a collection published in 2017 as a result of winning 1st prize in the Sentinel Poetry Book Competition. None of it would have happened without the network of creative support from those residentials, open mic.s, and workshops. None of it. So thanks and ever thanks.

Huge thanks to all the indefatigable curators of poetry blogs who do so much to provide a platform, particularly for new and emerging poets. It’s invidious to pick out favourites, but that’s never stopped me. Thank you especially to Kim Moore and The Sunday Poem, to Josephine Corcoran for And other poems; to Roy Marshall and his thoughtful, helpful essays https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/; to Anthony Wilson for being the best of the best; and to Ben Banyard and the splendid Clear Poetry. Plus a special word of gratitude to Greg Freeman who travels the country in order to sustain Write Out Loud. What a labour of love that is. If you feel so inclined, they could do with a bit of financial help to support their day-to-day running. Every little helps. https://www.writeoutloud.net/

And, finally, thank you to all the poets who’ve been guests this year on the great fogginzo’s cobweb: Carole Bromley, Wendy Klein, Tom Weir, Mike di Placido, Vicky Gatehouse, Bob Horne, Di Slaney, Graínne Tobin, Stephanie Conn, Gaia Holmes, Jim Caruth, Yvie Holder, Mark Hinchcliffe, Andy Blackford, Julia Deakin. Tom Cleary, Roy Cockcroft, Anthony Costello, John Duffy, Stephanie Bowgett, Wendy Pratt, Laura Potts and Yvonne Reddick.

Two poets who I loved and who were featured during the year have died. Gordon Hodgeon and Shirley McClure. They made the world richer and we are poorer for their loss. Light a candle for them. You don’t have to be religious. Just light a candle.

Just to remind you of the riches they all shared during 2016, I’ll be posting a bunch of poems every day for the next few days. My favourites, the best of the year. Today, from January:

Wendy Klein : South from Bakersfield

Town after town, farther and farther apart; you’re looking
for differences, no matter how small, haunted and baffled
by their alikeness: the filling stations with their dirty rags, tied
to the handles of tin buckets that hold grey water to swill
the desert dust from your windscreen. You know you’ll leave
streaks and tracks–the definition of clean seems different here.

There’s a half-grown boy to fill up your tank if you’re able
to rouse him, and if he likes you, he’ll wipe your windscreen
with fresh paper towels and he’ll grin, display a front tooth
missing, lost in a brawl at night on a rickety porch, over
a mousy girl who could be his best friend’s sister. Now
you’re ready to drive a hundred desert miles or more
to the next one, its twin, you guess, as you pass
the Baptist church, its pink neon cross blinking.

Carole Bromley : Touch

There wasn’t a lot of it in our house.
We learned to live without

though I do remember one time
when my friend, Rosemary, died

and, on the same day, my boyfriend
told someone to tell me we were through

which was a shame since he
was one of the first people

in my whole life to touch me
and I loved it. That night my father

asked me to come down from my room
and watch the news with them.

Three and a half inches of snow
had fallen that day in Alamo.

I lay on the sofa while dad stroked my hair
like an awkward teenager

and, a quarter of a million miles away,
the Russians made the first soft landing on the moon.

from February:

Tom Weir :  Day Trippin’ for Thomas

‘I’d ride horses if they’d let me’— Will Oldham

We talked all morning about the horse
that, if we’re honest, none of us actually knew existed

but it seemed worth it just to get you into the car,
to stop shouting. We mentioned it so often

you began to repeat it from your child-seat
like a mantra, and you’ll never know the relief,

having arrived and not been able to see a stable,
having stalled you with an ice-cream which you wore

like a glove as it melted over your hand,
of finding the woman who showed us where

the horse rides took place, where you waited
so quietly in line, where I stood and watched

as you approached the man with a five pound note
scrunched up in your tiny hand. You spent

the rest of the day repeating the words too little
like a radio breaking bad news every hour on the hour.

We took you down to the lake and watched
you throw stones at the water, watched clouds fall apart

and mend as rowing boats left the harbour and you
sat still, refusing to join another queue.

from March.

Mike di Placido:    Not Quite Birdsong

A butcher where I worked once
was a whistler – you know the type:
aggressive, soulless. I’d stand around
being useless somewhere planning his death.

Days at his block and bacon slicer
rending the air, making his shrill statement.
Clocking on to clocking off –
Colonel Bogey or The Sheik of Araby.

And you could tell he worked at it –
thought he was good. I’d think
of his family, how they coped.
Thought about sympathy cards.

And the other butchers? Surely
he was pushing his luck
next to all those knives and meat-hooks.
Not forgetting, of course, the mincer.

Vick Gatehouse:  Burning mouth syndrome

The doctor says it’s nothing serious, something
she’ll just have to live with, a malfunction
of the nerves perhaps, not uncommon in women of her age
and she leaves with a script for a mild antidepressant,
a leaflet counselling moderation in alcohol, tobacco
and spicy foods and when she returns, he says it again
after taking a look at lips, teeth and tongue –
‘nothing to see’ and he says it with a smile when she can feel
the bees humming in her blood, the tips of their wings
chafing artery walls and she knows without being told
they’re house bees, the ones who feed, clean
and ventilate the hive, pack nectar into the comb
without really tasting it, the ones who wait for mid-life
to take their first orientation flights and she can really
feel the smart of them, the bees in her blood, unfurling
their proboscises to touch the corolla of her heart,
so many years spent licking out hives, all the burn of it
here on her tongue and they’re starting to forage now,
to suck sweetness into their honey stomachs, and the doctor
he’ll keep telling her it’s nothing when they’re rising
like stings, the words she’s kept in.

[Runner-up, Mslexia Poetry Comp, 2015 (published Mslexia 2015)]

from April

Shirley McClure:  Engagement

Nurse dresses the wound,

we talk hormones, oestrogen,

how the levels will drop

like water in a summer pool

that yields only a dry ring,

a glaze of salt.

She says I can swim in salt
water, now that the wound
is healing; she says to ring
if there’s a problem. Oestrogen
used to be my friend. The pool
is out of bounds, but I can drop

down into the waves, swim till I drop,

crawl out covered in salt.

Sea water gathers in a pool

at my feet, and even the wound

shines. Sunbathers beam oestrogen,

and I stand, hopeless in a ring

of bare-breasted women. Can’t ring

any nurse about this. Can’t drop

out of the world because of oestrogen.

I change in our room, taste salt.

My sun-dress won’t cover the wound,

I pull on an old t-shirt, curl up by the pool.

You find me at the pool.

Still not used to your ring –

the ring came before the wound,

before the floor dropped

out of the world, before salt

baths and the war against oestrogen.

– Was it the oestrogen                                            

you fell for, or the reflecting  pool,                

or my image conserved in salt?                         

Would you rather I gave back the ring,                

would you rather we dropped                               

the whole plan? I wound

you with questions, wound with oestrogen,

the drops I have left, run from the pool,

your ring glued to my finger with salt.

Tomorrow, poems and poets from May, June and July.

May 2017 be all you hope for, and nothing of what you fear.

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.

3-birds

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.

800px-uppercaldervalley

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.

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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.

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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.

So you wanna be a rock ‘n roll star: some thoughts on ‘being published’

To put it all in context. In the last year or so, I’ve reviewed – or blogged about – collections that I love. Kim Moore’s The art of falling. Christy Ducker’s Skipper. Fiona Benson’s Bright travellers. Jane Clarke’s The River. Work by Shirley McClure, Maria Taylor, Hilary Elfick, Tom Cleary, Bob Horne, Steve Ely, Clare Shaw., Wendy Pratt…loads of them. I’ve been asked to read manuscripts of draft collections and wished they were mine. For the last three days (with the invaIuable help of Sandra Blackford) I’ve been collating a new collection of poems by me and my friend Andy Blackford, fiddling about and agonising over sequence and continuity and beginnings and endings. I just signed a contract for a first collection of my own poems…of which more in another post. And I’m involved in a frustrating email exchange about the cover design. How did I get here? Because I never set out to get here. Let me tell you how.

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We can all dream. Write poems. Get them accepted by The Rialto, Magma, Poetry Review...all of them.Find a publisher. Bloodaxe would be nice. Get great reviews, prizes. Sit in Waterstones and sign copies while the queue stretches out of the door and along the street. We can dream, and so we should; our reach should exceed our grasp, or what’s a heaven for?  But.

Some time ago I was riffing on the various cries of pain I hear on Facebook. We’re a fragile lot, us poets, I wrote.  You find yourself, for reasons you can’t fathom, writing, or trying to write, poems; meeting other bewildered and enthusiastic folk in the same pickle. And every now and again hearing (or reading on Facebook) the complaint that someone is ‘blocked’ or ‘stuck’ or has ‘hit a blank period’. You become addicted to Anthony Wilson’s blog, and his dialogues with The Book. The self-doubt, the angst…and the casual indifference of the mephistophilean Book. You understand every bit of it. But.

You go on writing, and maybe you get some poems accepted by magazines. And for a bit you feel sort of content. And then folk start asking: have you got a collection out yet? And you look at the growing files of poems you’re more or less pleased with. Your ouevre. And that ‘what shall I write about?’ morphs into ‘when will I be published?’. More specifically, ‘I want a collection’. Which morphs into ‘When will I be famous?’. And then poet-envy. Then doubt. Despair. Oblivion.

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It doesn’t have to be like that. This won’t be one of those helpfully informative ‘how to’ posts. I leave that to folk who are better at it than me ..lovely folk like Roy Marshall (https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/). Specifically, the post you want is at the end of this link https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/putting-a-poetry-pamphlet-together/ .  And  other lovely folk like Josephine Corcoran (https://josephinecorcoran.org/), for instance. Everyone’s route to a collection is different. ( I nearly wrote ‘journey’ and caught myself just in time). This was mine.

I had one abortive attempt at taking the business seriously a few years ago, when I did a part-time Creative Writing MA. To be honest, I really did it because I was semi-retired, and struggling to cope with free time. I thought that committing to a course would put some discipline into my life. It didn’t, but that’s another story. On the other hand, I was struck by the diffuse ambition of my (much younger) fellow students. None of them asked questions about how to make their work better. But they constantly asked about how you set about getting published. I didn’t get it. I genuinely thought it was hard enough to actually learn something about the craft of writing, and to actually write some poems. In the end I didn’t do much of either, and I got an MA, and that was that for some time.

But. I’d got a taste for it, even if I didn’t acknowledge it. It was Poetry Business Writing Days that set my feet right. You learn from the company you keep; I was taken along for the first time by Julia Deakin, to whom I shall be eternally grateful. I sat in rooms with people who seemed to write as though writing, and getting it right, was enough. I was comfortable in their company. Eventually, though, the conversation would turn to magazines and pamphlets and collections, and I realised after all that just writing better wasn’t enough. What was the point, if no one was reading your stuff? But.

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Why would they would be reading yours? Who would notice? How will they find it in the multiverse of books and bookshelves and libraries  and bookshps? I remember saying to Ann Sansom that I couldn’t see why folk would pester publishers. Or why poetry publishers put themselves through it. There’s no money in it for anyone, that’s for sure. Or you might get published by someone who it turns out isn’t that bothered about the most important thing in your life.

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Something that’s stuck in my mind since then is an anecdote that Simon Armitage put in his account of walking the SW Coast Path and reading at various venues along the way. (Walking away. Faber). He’s staying overnight at what was the home of Peterloo Poets…who, inter alia, were the publishers of U.A.Fanthorpe. At some point, they simply went out of business. And left behind thousands and thousands of unsold copies, gradually falling prey to dust and damp. There you go. No one’s going to see your stuff on those crowded shelves, and eventually you’ll be remaindered or pulped. It’s a profoundly depressing thought. But.

You send stuff out, you enter competitions, you do open mics. You realise (well I did) that even if someone offers to publish you, it could be over a year before anything happens. And maybe you think you haven’t the patience for it. That’s what I felt like, but at the same time there’s something deeply unsatisfying about a whole bunch of poems that sit there in their Wordfiles, that have no physical heft. As it happened, still struggling to cope with semi-retirement, I enrolled in a bookbinding course at the Tech in Leeds. Learned very simple techniques, learned kettlestitching, all about endpapers, about boards, and even about embossing. Decided that for my assessment projects, I’d make books of my own poems. So I did.

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Two things happen. Well, they did for me.

The first is that when you go through the business of choosing and sequencing your poems, you realise that you didn’t really know your own work. You knew it, if you knew it at all, as this poem or that poem. And then it hits you that there are themes and preoccupations you were barely aware of. It’s fascinating and possibly unnerving. I’m reminded that last week, Roy Marshall (see above) was guest poet at The Puzzle Hall Poets and said, in passing, that he was surprised how many birds there were in his poems…especially since, unlike Steve Ely, say, he knows next to nothing about birds. That chimed with me. I’ve just assembled a collection and realised that I write a lot of poems with birds in. And a lot with God .. or gods…in.It’s an odd thing for a card-carrying atheist to discover that he may be in the wrong club after all.

The second is that when you have your homemade book in your hands, you’re the only one who knows it’s homemade. You can head off to an open mic. and read from it. At which point you realise the snag. There’s only one copy. Someone asks: where can we get that?(if you’re lucky) and there it is. A seed’s been sown. So what do you do if you want multiple copies? The answer is ridiculously simple. You make a template. You page set your poems. You design a cover and think of a smart title, and you type that seductive line: Poems by Me. You find a nice printer, show him the layout…just take in your memory stick…sort out a price and you pay for a properly printed batch of poems. If you’re active on Facebook and you go to open mic.s and you have lots of poetry chums (and I’ll bet the farm you have) you’ll have no problem selling 50 or more. That’s what I did. I did one, and that went well, so I did another. I used any ‘profit’ to pay for a reprint, and each of mine have gone through three reprints. I’m still selling the odd copy via the My Books link at the top of the page.

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Not all small printing firms will do perfect binding …forget the chapbook. A pamphlet, though is perfectly realistic. Stapled. Have a look at the pamphlets you’ve collected here and there. Size varies, but don’t go smaller than 12 X 18.5 cm, whatever you do. (A5 is nice.14.5 X 21 cm)  And learn from the best. Design a dust jacket. If you want to see just what a difference a dustjacket makes, look no further than the Poetry Business pamphlet competition winners. Hide the staples…which just look amateurish. It really is that simple. One other thing. If you want to persuade a bookseller to take some copies, you need to get an ISBN. You can find all sorts of isbn. suppliers on line. Just make sure you get get one that comes with a bar code. Bookshops need the barcode, usually. And note that unit costs are cheaper if you buy  more than one. Because you may develop a taste for it. You want to be published? Just do it. And feel that surge of pure joy when you collect your box of fresh-printed  pamphlets, and you just want to have that smell of new paper and ink in your life for ever. Two of my happiest memories are seeing the big smiles on the faces of Kim Moore and of Jane Clarke when their brand new collections came out. Is there a downside? Depends how you judge the market. Accept pretty well that whatever your plans, you’ll be torn between a book that goes out of print and a box of as-yet-unsold stuff. Like this.

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There are other ways of doing it and you choose one that you think suits you. I enter a lot of competitions, and the prize for some of them is to have a pamphlet or a chapbook published. That’s how I come to have copies of Larach to sell. Quite a lot at the moment, because the publisher let me have all his remaining copies at a generous discount. I suppose it’s officially out of print, now. But if you go to My Books, I’ll sell you one. I’ll sell you lots. At the moment I’ve another (jointly authored) pamphlet collection on a shortlist. We’ll see what happens with that. Whatever happens, we’ve had the pleasure of squencing, and editing and discovering things we didn’t know about our poetry.

Other choices? Well there’s the sheer hard slog route. Kim Moore, for instance, has indefatigably submitted to journals and magazines for years and built up a portfolio of published work (as well as winning the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition) that she could take to a publisher and have published as a collection. The art of Falling [Seren 2015] is, as I never tire of saying, a stunner. Or my mate Keith Hutson, who maintains a rigorous routine of writing every morning, of submitting and submitting (about 60 poems published in major journals over the last two/three years), and is rewarded with the breakthrough of being asked to put together a pamphlet. It’s out now. Routines [Poetry Salzburg 2016]. And that’s a stunner, too. Or if you work at your open mics and submissions, you gradually become aware of small poetry publishing firms. We’ve got two in Calderdale: Caterpillar Poetry and  Calder Valley Poetry. And in Wakefield, The Currock Press. Find what’s around you. Make friends with them. Email them. Talk to them. But here’s the thing. Don’t sit around mithering about wanting to be published. If you really want it, you’ll do it.

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

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

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

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

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

And then, many years later (in my case) you find yourself, for reasons you can’t fathom, writing, or trying to write, poems; meeting other bewildered and enthusiastic folk in the same pickle. And every now and again hearing (or reading on Facebook) the complaint that someone is ‘blocked’ or ‘stuck’ or has ‘hit a blank period’. It’s the voice from childhood, all over again. Please, Miss. I don’t know what to write. I’ll stick my neck out. Here’s the answer. It’s because, for one reason or another, you have nothing to say. Not for ever. But just now. It’s because nothing is exciting or puzzling you.

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

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

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

                             Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

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

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

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

 

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

 

He is the sparrow, the Friday lord.

I hoped to be the watcher on the rooftop,

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

leaf-tip on His world-tree”

[ From: Tyndale in Darkness .

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

and back to Gloucestershire, and Tyndale remembering that

 

I heard the ploughboy whistling under Coombe Hill,

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

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

 

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

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

The powerlessness. This is the day He dies,

Jesus the Friday sparrow, the watcher on the cross

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

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

after God. I translated Genesis.

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

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

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

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

if they knew that gulls and fulmars

would nest in the cloister of their ribs.

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

because their oceans were swanspaths, whaleroads.

because they wrote their maps in the wind,

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

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

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

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

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

Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

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

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

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

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