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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                             Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

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

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

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


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


He is the sparrow, the Friday lord.

I hoped to be the watcher on the rooftop,

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

leaf-tip on His world-tree”

[ From: Tyndale in Darkness .

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

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

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

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

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

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


and back to Gloucestershire, and Tyndale remembering that


I heard the ploughboy whistling under Coombe Hill,

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

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


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

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

The powerlessness. This is the day He dies,

Jesus the Friday sparrow, the watcher on the cross

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

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

after God. I translated Genesis.

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

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

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

sula sgeir 3

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

if they knew that gulls and fulmars

would nest in the cloister of their ribs.

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

because their oceans were swanspaths, whaleroads.

because they wrote their maps in the wind,

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



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.



Identity theft and artful pronouns

identity theftPG

This all kicked off from a week’s writing residential in St Ives with Kim Moore and Steve Ely. The course was called ‘Thrown voices’; it had sessions with titles like  Shape-shifters and ventriloquists,  Deviant voices and the dramatic monologue,  and Holding your tongue. It set rabbits racing off in all directions; it set off a series of small explosions in my head. I’m still trying to take it in, and I doubt this post will be too coherent, but it may help me  to sort out some ideas, and possibly persuade you that identity theft could be for you. It’s not a new idea, by any means. It’s self-evidently the job of the dramatist. I remember one of my sixth-form students asking George Macbeth why he wrote dramatic monologues.

‘Because I can only imagine one person and invent one voice at a time,’ he said. ‘If I could do more than that I’d write plays.’

It’s also what Keats and T S Eliot found so crucial..the business of im-personality, Keats’ assertion that

The ‘poetical Character’ is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in an Iago as an Imogen .What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet. 

(I just realised that this is what happens when I start to write a post before I’ve got my ducks in a row…I grab for quotations in the hope they’ll give me a hook to hang my hat on. Well, here goes nothing…a bit more Keats…) What we’re after is getting beyond the purely personal, out of the self, into the thinginess of things:

Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason –
or, less metaphysically

if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.

It’s this belief that if you want to know the truth, especially the truth about yourself, you need to get out of yourself. I suppose that takes us into the company of those artful pronouns. I. You. And that problematically gendered business of He and She (no problems with the plural. Always handy in an essay). but because I’ve not been right well this last week, and I’m clouded with antibiotics, I’ll leave that till a bit later, and try to find a new place to kick off from.

A month or so ago, I scribbled some notes that I thought would structure this post. I reminded myself that I’d written more than once about how, in order to to find a way of writing about people, I needed to borrow masks and identities. Like those of the sculptures who inhabit my new pamphlet, ‘Outlaws and fallen angels’. I reminded myself of all the writers who showed me different ways of doing this.

Especially, I remembered Carol Ann Duffy’ The World’s Wife. The more I read it I saw how taking on a mask, a new persona, she could throw a clarifying light on her own inner life and her past. I love the way Little Red-Cap lets her side step autobiography into something truer and more universal that I can share, and the way The Kray Sisters let her play with the ambiguous and puzzling business of gender. Because what happens when you try on someone else’s life is that you suddenly recognise and acknowledge things you’ve denied (though you may have suspected) about your own.

Let me give you an example. I was playing at retellings of various myths. I’d always been enthralled by the tale of Daedalus and Icarus, but I’m not sure that I’d really thought it through. On the surface it seems to be a familiar trope..that of the over-confidence of youth. You forget why Daedalus would craft wings from a framework of wax and feathers in the first place. In case you don’t know, Daedalus and Icarus are imprisoned in a high tower because Daedalus was complicit in enabling Theseus to find a way through the labyrinth. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, suggests that Daedalus constructed the Labyrinth so cunningly that he himself could barely escape it after he built it. Daedalus built the labyrinth for King Minos, who needed it to imprison his wife’s son the Minotaur. The story is told that Poseidon had given a white bull to Minos so that he might use it as a sacrifice. Instead, Minos kept it for himself; and in revenge, Poseidon made his wife Pasiphaë lust for the bull with the help of Aphrodite. For Pasiphaë, as Greek mythologers interpreted it, Daedalus also built a wooden cow so she could mate with the bull. It’s a long trail of causes and effects that brings me to this point in my own poem:

pinioned in a parchment sky,
his mind a kite-string ravel,
he stares at distressing
white comets’ tails of feathers,
down at his dwindling son.

It’s a poem that brings me face to face with the business of guilt and responsiblity. One of my sons died like Icarus, in a fall from a great height. It was only by borrowing the mask of Daedalus that I came to be able to write my way to some understanding, and to share it. And I think the key word there is : Share. Some writers like Kim Moore, Wendy Pratt and Fiona Benson ….poets I’ve written about before……seem able to do this without recourse to maskwearing. I don’t have their control, their steel. The point is, shape shifting and identity theft are ways for me to write about rawly personal experiences. But they don’t always have to be so bleak, and this is what I rediscovered in St Ives. It’s great to be invited to play a role.

While I was thinking about this post, I made a list of the characters I’ve played, or would like to play. In one way or another,  they are my heroes.

There are the ones who are unjustly treated by history, by custom and by the gods: Eve, Pandora, Prometheus, Demeter, Hephaestus, Echo, Arachne, Joan of Arc. So many.

Then there are the ones who who endure, by their wit, or trickery, or, most of all, their capacity for love. Anthony Wilson has his life-saving poems. I have my life-saving heroes: Huck Finn, Riddley Walker, Little Dorritt, Esther Summerson, Quoyle of ‘The Shipping News’, Ivan Denisovitch, Winnie Verloc, Smike. I’m interested by how many of these I know through their own first-person voices.

And of course, there are the subversive and transgressive: MacMurphy, Mr Toad, Just William, Falstaff.

But what about the wicked and the downright diabolical? Mephistophilis, Lucifer, ‘King Lear’s Edmund, Richard the Third…the ones with the gleefully self-revelatory soliloquies. Or the as-yet-unvoiced. Myra Hindley, say, or Mary Bell or Harold Shipman. It’s interesting that dramatists like Marlowe and Shakepeare, and poets like Milton and Browning seem to enjoy inhabiting a villain, the ones who love the smell of napalm in the morning, ‘the blue-eyed bad boys on the bus’ in Lydia Macpherson’s splendid phrase. What do you find when you dress up as these? It’s what we were invited to do in St Ives. And why did I love it so much?

I’ll dodge that question, apart from noting that having had a lurching gait for the 65 years until I had hip replacements, I find it very easy to slip into the role of Richard the Third, and am much less uncomfortable with being him, temporarily, than with being Daedalus confronted by the consequences of his own cleverness…..or the lapse of his imaginative reach.

It suddenly occurs to me ask what would have happened if Wordsworth had taken the trouble to write about Michael or The Leech-gatherer in the first person, and what he might have discovered about the men of the hard fells. And about his own assumptions. I’d like to know how Michael felt about the ceaseless round of toil, in a house where not even the kettle gets a rest, or just how close to being a noble savage the leech gatherer felt, up to his oxters in the mud of a cold tarn. It makes me speculate about two things. One is the way shapeshifting might make you challenge what you thought you knew about yourself in the world, and the other is to make you ask why you would want to try on this identity or that.

And here’s another thought. I re-read Steve Ely’s Oswald’s book of hours when I came back from St Ives, where I tried out some of his Old Testament characters. Who does he try on: John Nevison the Highwayman (and his Confessions); Wat Tyler; Johon Schepe; Robin Hood (our Robin Hood of Barnsdale and of the West Riding); Thomas Haukes at the day of his burning at the hands of Queen Mary’s men.Outlaws every one. Sometimes in the first person. Sometimes in the second. Never, I think, in the third. Go on. Buy the book and read them; ask: who is this Steve Ely who spends his days in the company of those beyond the law and beyond the Pale? If you haven’t the time for that (though if you’re reading this, you probably have) then have a go at Robin Robertson’s At Clachan Bridge and At Roane head from The wrecking light and ask yourself ‘who’s the ‘I’?  Who’s the ‘he’ ?

Get out your copy of The art of falling and ask yourself, when Kim Moore wrote How the stones fell who did she mean by ‘we’? Who did she feel herself in sympathy with, or complicit with? What is her kinship with the other or the others in this ‘we’, and why does it matter to her?

I’ll tell you what. I had no idea I’d end up here, but it brings us nicely to that business of artful, or artless pronouns. Because even if you take on or borrow an identity you’ll still need to choose whether you’ll write in the first or the second person. I find I quite like using ‘you’ when I really mean ‘me’ or ‘I’….the business of treating myself as someone I’ve just come across and might treat dispassionately. Or feel as though I do. It’s a shifting of responsibility, too, now I think about it. Or maybe a cheat and self-deception, especially when I’m feeling uncomfortable about the confessional nature of ‘I’. Or its self-importance.

I do know that of late I’ve been writing two versions of poems that seem to come a bit too close for comfort. One about one of my unjustly treated mythic characters, for instance. In the first person it sounded/felt sentimental and self-pitying. In the second person some of my readers said they were puzzled about who was addressing this ‘you’. One said ‘why don’t you use both? Make it into a dialogue’. I did, and it worked. I think. Once it’s been rejected by the competition it’s in for I’ll post it, and you can make up your own minds. But in the meantime, here’s a game you can play.

One of the characters I tried on in St Ives was Myra Hindley. I felt so bad about this I felt I should try on Keith Bennett’s mother, Winnie, by way of expiation. But I’m toying with the business of pronouns.  I’ve no intention of sending Myra Hindley off to magazines, so we can play around with her here. I wrote her in the first person. What happens if this gets changed into the second person? Have a go. Copy and paste it, turn it into second person. Tell me what difference it makes. Make sure you read it aloud.

They look at me and I know
what they think.
They think that I know
where the dead are buried.
And I tell you what
I dream
I dream of cottongrass
its million white heads
its tender flowers
streaming white
like the blood of Jesus
like the love and mercy of Jesus
white as forgiveness
in the wind from the west
and there are no bodies
if there ever were
bones sunk in the peat
the weeping black dams
they are gone in the whin
in the bracken
ground exceeding small
between millstones
and they think I know
where the bodies are buried
and I know I can look in this mirror of steel
and I do not know for a second
the woman who stares back at me


Right. I’m off to take the next dose of antibiotics. And then I’m off to Otley for an Open Mic. competition. This afternoon, Matthew, I shall mainly be  Richard the Third, of whom the good citzens of York wrote in the city records after Bosworth: Today was our good king Richard mostly grievously murdered and slain

Next week we’ll be having a guest, and the week after, too. So no more homework for a bit.

Just the one I set today.




Special Edition: for Kim Moore and for ‘The art of falling’



As tweeting politians know to their cost ( but without ever learning a lesson) you should be careful what you send out into cyberspace. I ended last week’s cobweb strand unwisely. I wrote: ‘ I don’t know what next week’s post will bring……but it won’t be as inspiring as this one.’   Well, I’d just spent a lot of hours over that week in the company of Gordon Hodgeon’s story and of his poems. What I hadn’t allowed for was that I’d spend five days of this week at a residential writing course run by Kim Moore and Carola Luther. I hadn’t allowed for the intensity of writing and writing and writing. I hadn’t allowed for the weather. I hadn’t allowed for the fact that I had no idea what Grange-over-Sands would be like. I’d got it into my head that walkable hills would rise up from the sea shore, and that each day I would clamber up something rough and steep, and clear my head. I thought saltmarsh was something I could learn to walk on. I was en-chanted by Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. I thought I could go anywhere, protected by the charms of language. I thought I would stride to Tir nan Og and back.


I know better, now. Instead, I was spellstruck by the poetry of metamorphoses, stories of transformation, and the magical symbioses of the soul and the body. And, of course, last Tuesday, a big cardboard box of fresh-minted copies of Kim Moore’s first collection arrived. The art of falling. We queued to buy our copies; we had been waiting for this for a long time. I’m not going to write a review…I guess there are plenty of these being written as I sit here, and by people better qualified than me; I think these reviews will be fulsome. If they are not, they will be wrong. What I will do is to say why I had waited, how much I’d looked forward to having a copy in my hands.

The first time I met Kim Moore was at a Saturday Writing Day in Sheffield and she read a draft that she’d assembled on the train ride that morning. It made my blood tingle, the way she read it, the words she read. It was inevitable and memorable, instantly. I could not get out of my mind the image of her, arrested by the sheep grazing the saltmarsh  seen from the train as it ‘stretches its limb across the estuary’, and the poet thinking

…that if the sheep aren’t rounded up


will they stand and let the tide come in, because

that’s what sheep do, they don’t save themselves…


In the discomfort of the train, and its loud insensitivities, and the sleeping man who dribbles on her shouder, there’s this one phrase : and still I love. That’s all it took. I was hooked. Even more so when I asked if I could have a copy, and the next day it arrived in in an email. How generous, I thought, is that!

The next time I met her was when she was guest poet at The Puzzle Hall Poets in Sowerby Bridge (if you wonder where that is, then you need to watch ‘Happy Valley’); one good deed deserves another, so I left a Rugby League derby early to go and hear her. There was hardly anyone there, and a couple in a window seat talked loudly throughout her reading. It reminded me of the gigs where I’ve seen one of my singer/songwriter heroes, Mary Gauthier playing to crass audiences for next to no reward. There’s a special kind of commitment, and Kim Moore has it.

I went to hear her again at the Albert Poets in Huddersfield, where they appreciate their poetry, and where they bought her pamphlet  If we could speak like wolves. But I couldn’t help doing the sums. You’d have to sell a lot of books to even come near covering your petrol or your train fare. How many poetry gigs pay for you to turn up, or even pass the hat? Who would dream of paying a poet even the minimum wage for every hour she spends, reading, writing, learning, making? I learned how generous she is, and also a sort of indominability. It happened again, about a year ago, when she drove from the Lake District to West Yorkshire and back, for a gig where none of the guests were bought a drink, and where no one seemed interested in buying a book. So, she may not be unique, but I think she’s special.

Since then, I’ve sent her poems to comment on, (which she does) and I follow her journeys through Facebook, and I religiously read The Sunday Poem. I love the generosity of her championship of other poems and poets, I am in awe of her reading, her absorption in the business of growing her craft. She is half my age, I think. She is older than that, and wiser. I have elected her my mentor. I suppose I should have asked, but she seems unphased by it.

Last year she sent me (among others) the manuscript of her collection to comment on. I’ll tell you what that was like. It was like winning the lottery. It was like the loveliest girl at a dance asking you to dance, not because she fancied you, but because she thought you could dance well enough. I read with more concentration than I’ve given anything in years. I read every poem aloud. I read  In that year. I read this:

‘And in that year I gave up on all the things

I was promised and gave myself to sadness.


And then that year lay down like a path

and I walked it, I walked it, I walk it.’


I’m told I cry too easily, but this time I was unashamed. It’s like one of the great songs. Like late Johnny Cash, like Cohen, like Dylan, beautifully spare, apparently effortless, simple and crafted. I knew she was good, but now I knew her poetry was special, up there in my private anthology with MacCaig, and Harrison, poems I could have by heart and say to myself.

[Stage direction: the writer goes downstairs; he discovers that the dhal is starting to stick, and needs a stir. He wilts spinach and adds it to the pot. He rolls a cig and wanders out into the garden. He puts away spades and rakes that have been left out all last week. He decides to put another coat of paint on the bit he replastered this morning, after the shelf fell off the wall last night. He keeps finding bit of broken china, so he hoovers the kitchen. He rolls another cig, and then comes upstairs and reads what he has written. He thinks it is a star-struck fan-letter. He decides to leave it as it is and then to sort of justify it]

Why do I like  The art of falling ‘ as much as I do? Let me take this extract from ‘How the stones fell.’


We were born from stones and we were destined to live

like stones, warming ourselves in the sun,


cracking when the temperature fell, we said there there was

something of the sea in us, but in this, like many other things

we lied, it was never water in our hearts, we carried stones

in our pockets, we carried them in our hands.


What holds me in Kim Moore’s poetry is her long sentences, where the phrases are exact and perfectly balanced, where the rhythm never puts a foot wrong. You have to read them, enact them, like a musical score. You have to breathe through them, sustain each image as it builds and builds the whole idea of the poem. The lexis is never ornate or decorative, but the overall feel is of textured richness. I tell myself  that these are poems written by gifted trumpet player, someone who knows breathing and pace, that it’s in her bones. I think it when I’ve seen her read. She stands as balanced and rooted as a trumpet player needs to be.

If that were all it was it would be interesting, but as I learned in her workshops this week, what matters in her poetry is  the mysterious dependence of soul and body. Her poetry has a physicality that is often fierce, and often tender, and aware of the tension between the two,  that we have to acknowledge to become fully alive. That’s what I take from the opening poem of the collection

And the soul

And the soul, if she is to know herself

must look into the soul and find

what kind of beast is hiding


…………………… if it be a wolf

throw back your head

and let it howl.


So, as I read over and over this collection of psalms and incantations, its enchantments and curses, its scaffolders, and unintentional swearers and casual racists, its abusive men and defiant survivors, its wolves and Weatherspoons, its mutabilities and transformation, I think I can be happy to sit for a minute in Hartley Street Spiritualist Church, and not only sing ‘ I believe in angels’ without any irony at all, but just for a while, actually believe in angels.

Last Tuesday I was watching Kim signing copies of her collection. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quite so happy.


The art of falling is published by Seren. Go and buy it. Better judges than me will tell you why, but don’t wait for the reviews. Go and buy it. Go on. I’ll let you out early. Oh, nearly forgot. Had a little stock-take, and noticed that the great fogginzo’s cobweb started to be spun in April 2014. I have just hit 52 posts (not counting reblogged posts) so I’m having two weeks off. I hope you’ll still be around when I come back. Thanks for following.








Bright star: remembering Gordon Hodgeon

Yesterday I heard that my friend Gordon Hodgeon had died in the early hours. He was one of the loveliest people I ever met. I wrote this appreciation of  him (and his poetry) over a year ago.


In 1982 I was invited to be a visiting tutor on a weekend residential  course, in Goathland, for Teesside teachers of English. Talented teachers working in their own time, because they were excited by the possibilities of what children could learn and do. It happened quite a lot in those days. One of my newly-acquired enthusiasms then was for developing writing through the retelling of myth and fable. The books that inspired me were Betty Rosen’s And none of it was nonsense, Alan Garner’s The stone book, and a remarkable piece of work by Penelope Farmer:  Beginnings. Spare prose outlines of creation myths from around the world.

On one of the evenings, I got to read my own retelling of a Finnish fire myth. In the original, fire falls to earth through the inattention of one of the anonymous star maidens at the making of stars by the god, Ukko. The spark is finally captured by the hero Vainemoinen; he’s the one who gets the credit. But you never know where a retelling will take you. In my version, though I never intended it, the gift of fire becomes an act of rebellion by the star maiden, who pities the creatures of the earth in their blood-chilling winters. She becomes Promethean, a bright star, and the god Ukko just another divine and appalling tyrant.

I’d forgotten all about it till , the other morning, when I was waiting for a man to change two rear car tyres for ones that wouldn’t readily blow out on a motorway, and I was reading Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Landmarks’. There’s a chapter marvellously called The tunnel of stones and axes, and, just like that, I was reunited with Vainemoinen, and the Finnish Kalevala epic. The hero has been set to find the Lost-Words. For want of the names he cannot build his ship right. Without the thousand Lost-Words he cannot name the world to make it real.

‘Synonyms are of no use,’ writes Macfarlane. ‘ The power of each name is specific to its form.’

To understand this is to understand enchantment; we grow accustomed to the story of the enchanted castle, spellstruck, sleepstruck, drowning in thorn and briar, and to its cold, enchanted sarcophagus princess, white as marble. Macfarlane urges a truer meaning. To en-chant. To call into being. To summon by chanting, when only the true Lost-Words will do.

I thought of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The wizard of Earthsea and the hero Ged’s quest for true naming, and I thought of Gordon Hodgeon who was the driving force behind those Teesside English teachers’ courses

Somedays you simply have to accept that there’s a synergy in things, and life delights in it. Last week I opened an e.mail from a George Hodgeon inviting me to the launch of a new poetry collection by a man who I’ve known and admired for years and years. I supposed that George must be his brother. Anyway, this is it:

I wrote back to George Hodgeon, explaining that I wouldn’t be able to be at Gordon’s book launch….and then launched into a fulsome paean of praise, about how much I and so many others owe to Gordon, what a lovely man he is, and so on and so on. And I have to say it did feel a bit too much like a eulogy for comfort. The following day I got an email that reassured me that Gordon was more than capable of speaking for himself, and that it was, indeed, Gordon who had sent the email, and that it was Gordon who was writing this one. By way of explanation for the ‘George’ he attached this poem.

For George, Paternal Grandfather

You never reached your seventy third birthday,
I am struggling to reach mine, so let’s
get a few things straight. Through all my adult life
you’ve been a pain, kept slipping out
the shades, sliding your name into my affairs.
I have been George on conference lists and sticky labels,
on business letters, on hotel bills, once even on a poem.

Sometimes, so weary, I went with the flow,
so folk could go to the grave
thinking I bear your name. No chance of that.
Your only son, our father, wanted it grander,
landed me with that general’s name,
my brother with Lord Clive’s.
Not sure why. Dad read the News Chronicle.

But last Tuesday the ultimate put-down.
I was in hospital and gave my name and d.o.b.
to about fifteen nurses and my carer answered
the same questions to half a dozen doctors.
Then I got moved to my place for the night.
In comes a new nurse, greets me warmly:
“Hello George, I am Amanda, I’ll be looking after you
tonight.” How do you manage it?
Have you nothing better to spend your time on?

Given the state I’m in, quite soon
we might meet up. I warn you now,
just one more trick, I’ll alter every entry
in the eternal register, make sure that
all the angels and devils call you my name,
Gordon, your deserved reward.

But I’ll still love you, Grandad,
love how you have walked with me
all the way, more than sixty years
from Leigh Market to just now
when I stopped walking, stopped
being able to carry your basket.

You fed the children from that grid of streets
when their dads were on strike or had no work;
you lent money, thinking it would not come back,
it didn’t. You ran the Sunday School, you
made a gift to me of well-thumbed books,
Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, George Eliot.
You let me learn your sense of serious fun.
How you tormented the old ladies
reading their teacups, winking at me.

I am just as bad, laugh at my own jokes.
I never was as good at giving, never
as well-behaved, never as upright.
I should have been your namesake,
and now I see why you’ve been nudging,
dropping hints, not about names at all.
I let you down, still you raise me up,
George, Gordon, share this bittersweet,
this lifelong lovefeast cup.

First reading, you might skate over that matter-of-fact opening; it’s one of the things we say, not thinking. But what if you knew it were true. What if you were quadraplegic, breathing only with the aid of a ventilator; what if you struggled to speak and then, finally could not speak aloud; what if all your communication became a digital code of blinks at a Dynavox computer screen. Could you write that with the same wry stoicism, that wit? I’m pretty sure I couldn’t. Read this poem aloud, over and over. Its pace, its rhythm never lets you down. It’s totally without sentimentality, and brims with generosity of spirit. I love the ending, and how it en-chants heartsease.

I’ve always enjoyed Gordon Hodgeon’s poetry;  the first collections I had were ‘Behind the lines’ (which I’ve since lost; mea culpa, mate) and November photographs. Both  are full of the landscapes and townscapes of Cleveland where for many years he was, first,  LEA English Advisor, and later the Senior Advisor. These poems of the late 70s and early 80’s often occupy the same thematic and linguistic territory as the Ted Hughes of Remains of Elmet. Like these lines from ‘In the West Riding’

‘There is no fervency now,

nothing burning on the bought land,

God’s-yard, or in the dark house

pieced on the looms.

but there’s wordplay, too, in a poem like Nursery War. There are carefully crafted poems of artful rhyme schemes. Riches everywhere. I’ve always liked  one called Old woman, Skinningrove.

A strange place, Skinningrove  in the 60s; it always came as a surprise, as you came over the steep brow of  the main clifftop coast road from Middlesbrough to Whitby…there it was, that ironworks in the middle of nowhere, deep in a clough in the shaly coast, where the beck ran out into the North Sea. It was dying on its feet, that place. Gordon turns a more than documentary eye on the ‘old woman’. It’s a poem that Don McCullin might have photographed.

Old woman, Skinningrove

This was her wedding window.

Now the laced glass is gone

with salt wind, dirt in smoke,

turns round the sun.

Here she minded and mended

in one ironworks street

by a cold stained sea. A moth

in the folded blanket.

Don’t take my picture, lad,

I’m too far gone for that.

She sees the end of it all,

knowing what was, is not.

Her man and babies gone,

the days that drove her tough

leave stones for air to finger,

fray the fineries off.

I love the spareness of this, its stripped down precision, its unobtrusive rhymed formalities, and, above all, its tenderness. Uz can be loving as well as funny. And the later poems grow ever more layered, complex, challenging, without ever losing that tender clarity. If irreverence is more your thing, you’ll not be disappointed. Try Accomodation from Winter Breaks (2006). You get to an age where visits to the Crem. become uncomfortably regular, but not all of us handle it with such aplomb as in the extract from:


Now I am envying (you as well?) the sod

who’s made it to the safety of the casket

and wishing it was me in there instead,

the Roller, silk sheets, chicken in the basket.

No Vacancies and not Abide with me

the tapes’s repeating on the life machine.

Don’t hang about, piss off, and get your tea,

you’re at death’s door, though, keep your knickers clean.

I sometimes forget how often he’s made me laugh. Especially now. Some of the poems from  ‘Still Life’ (2012) are close to heartbreaking; poems like ‘Leaving: for Julia’ which records his situation when he and his wife were wheelchair-bound, in separate nursing ‘homes’, having sold the family home, visiting each other, tended by nurses, hoisted into minibuses, hardly knowing what to say:

Leaving   (for Julia)


And now there are new owners,

making the house their own.

Peter from next door telling me this,

first project, a room for their one-year old.

I think they will clear the garden

for the child’s first steps,

for balls to roll and bounce.

Under the grass, weak as worm castings,

our weary archaeology, the bones of buried animals,

one pheasant hit on the Sunday morning run

to the swimming pool; one rabbit banned from your school,

which would not dig its way out again.

Also, the procession of cats stalking through childhoods.

So next your turn to visit me,

our daughter driving, your carer by your side.

We did some talking this time, but dear me,

your anxious mind began its litany

of questions: is it time to go now?

And repetitions, till we set you free

to make your safe way home,

yet it was not your home.

Here, in the early hours

I often wake, hear the comfort,

your regular breath beside me.

But this is a single bed

and the breath I hear is the ventilator

filling and emptying my lungs.

And, ah, the resonances of that one word: home. The archaeology of a family house, overlain by new and other lives. I would find that unbearable. But Gordon writes it, en-chants it, unwaveringly, just as he contemplates the end of things, conflating and eliding the dark sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins with adverts for , say, a DFS sofa sale. This is ‘Closing down’….or, at least, parts of it, the prayer of an ardent atheist.

Closing down

The world is full of half-price sofas,

the universe getting that way, Cliffs of fall,

each hue of leather, fabric of your choice.

Between these mindless mountains, little me

in my wheelchair, doing my little wheelies,

reverse and forward, left and right,

thick pile carpet snags me.


I know, I know,

at the closing down of the sun, everything must go.

All of us caught, packed into bags, boxes,

white fish, cheap fireworks, shipped to another planet,

sprayed out like crummy birds-eyes, fingers,

squirting like Catherine wheels,

slithering like mice-droppings,

like the souls of our most loyal customers

through ever colder galaxies.

But not yet I pray you,

my land of lost contents, my lifetime bargains,

hide me in the shadow of your wings,

the detachable dry-clean shrouds, let me be,

my pale skin, my scored face, my limp limbs, my cracked wheels,

let me have one more turn of the sun, one last chance,

never to be repeated.

That’s the universe I’ll vote for. No entropy in the world of Gordon Hodgeon’s poetry. I remember the lesson learned by Ged in A wizard of Earthsea. That magic is the business of true-naming, and that until you can say your own true-name, you cannot say yourself. You en-chant yourself and the world into being. If that’s not the business of poetry then I don’t know what is. All his working life, Gordon championed the cause of creativity in Education, and the cause of a richer living through poetry, through his work as a teacher and advisor, through NATE, through publishing with Smokestack Books, and Mudfog Books. Five years ago a series of unsuccessful operations left him confined to bed and wheelchair, unable to move his arms and legs, unable to breathe without the help of a ventilator, unable to pick up a pen, and finally unable to speak except through a sequence of blinks at a machine.

Last year I sent him a pamphlet I’d produced…poems about my parents and grandparents. Shortly after, he wrote back. There were too many adjectives, he said; he wanted to know more about my grandma. There you go. Firm but fair. Thirty years ago he cast an eye over a poem I’d written: ‘Our David’s Pictures’ He suggested one simple reversal, and Bingo! The poem worked. For years, at critical moments, he’s unobtrusively put me right professionally and personally. I owe him a lot. There are other people who knew him so much better than I who will tell you about his life. I know I’ll  not come close to doing justice to the variety and range and textures of his writing, and I’ll leave it to one of his short poems (I think it’s from that lost copy of Behind the Lines …. which means I’m relying on memory)…….anyway, to this poem which sums up all the inexhaustibilities he’s written about for over 50 years.

Jack Robinson,

Jack Robinson; he’s the one;

before you can say him, the poem’s done.

Thank you, Gordon/George Hodgeon: Bright Star.

‘Still life’ (£7.95) can be ordered direct from Smokestack Books, and so can

Talking to the Dead’ (£4.95)…find them on

If you like everything under one cover, then you can get close to it by buying the handsome, chunky Selected Poems. ‘Old workings’ [mudfog 2013.] £8.95 .

old workings2 002

the other side of silence

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

Working in various warehouses I always liked a tidy-up, a bit of stocktaking, giving a bit of shape and order to the accumulated muddle and inconvenience of things. Or, at least, the illusion of order and meaning. And even though I always think that the Sunday Supplement and TV reviews of the the year that’s about to end smack of lazy journalism, and easy programming, I realise that this is exactly what I’m heading into. Starting with a poem that’s now over a year old, and which seems like someone else’s. As they do.

When all’s said and done

after the eulogy

after the hymns no longer sung

with gusto or familiarity

after the

awkward pause

and remembering the casket

isn’t going to move

after the queue

to find the door

after the flare of lighters

the sucked-in smoke

the conversations half in bits

after all that

there’s the buffet and the drinks

the loosening of ties

the unacknowledged complicity

of being alive while someone else is not.

I have been to funerals this year, and learn I am grateful for being alive. There’s been a lot to be grateful for this year, especially things done for the very first time.

Like this wordpress poetry cobweb, which has kept me on my toes and anxious and sort-of-productive for about thirty five consecutive Sundays. It has made me reflect, and think and read and research. It has made me read other blogs much more attentively. So thank you Kim Moore and Anthony Wilson and Josephine Corcoran for teaching me so much. It has let me repay debts and keep promises. It let me try my hand at reviewing a poet’s work (thank you, Julia Deakin for putting the notion in my head), and it has made me much more aware of writers who come lateish to writing, as I have. It has let me choose poems by Bob Horne, Liz Venn, Yvie Holder, Andy Blackford, Simon Zonenblick and Tom Cleary. It has let me posture and theorise without interruption (much like being a lecturer again, I suppose). I have used it unashamedly as a platform for my own poems, and no one has told me to stop. Yet. So, thank you, WordPress for letting me make the great fogginzo’s cobweb.

Like winning competitions, one of which let me pay for the printing of my first pamphlet: Running out of Space, and one that gave me the prize of being properly published by a proper publisher. So, for Larach, thank you Camden/Lumen, and Sir Andrew Motion, and Adele Ward and WardWood Publishing. And also for my very first book launch.

Like submitting poems to various magazines and online sites, and finding out that having more rejections than acceptances is good for you. So thank you to the ones like Magma that are generous in their rejections, and for the care of the ones who take you on board, like  Brett Evans at Prole, and the Sansoms at The North, and Martin Malone at The interpreter’s house.

Like being the compere at The Puzzle Hall Poets (at the Puzzle Hall Inn in Sowerby Bridge), and being handed a microphone. Which panders to my enjoyment of performing, but more usefully makes me attend closely to all the poets on the open mic. so I can say something that shows their poems have been listened to; it means I have to take notes, and I end up with something like a commonplace book of lines that stood out. I look forward to the first Monday of each month; I enjoy putting the publicity together for Facebook. I really like working with Bob Horne and Freda Davies, deciding who to invite to do guest slots. I like all the friends I’ve made. So thankyou, Puzzle Hall Poets, and thankyou Gaia Holmes for inviting me to guest there in the first place. Which leads me to another first…..being a guest on Gaia’s Phoenix Radio show : Themes for dreamers, which she co-hosts with William Thirsk Gaskell. Last Sunday I got to read my poems and talk about them and choose records to play. I can’t recommend the experience too highly.

Like being invited to join an editorial panel for the OWF Press anthology The garden, and having the experience of trying to choose about 65 poems from well over 200 submissions. Humbling, that. But it’s a cracking collection and a worthy follow up to the successful Wheels anthology from the same press. (I’ll put the details at the end of the post). Equally humbling was getting a review accepted by The North…never done one before, and terrified of upsetting four poets who I like. As it happens I didn’t. But I’d no idea how stressful it was going to be. Much rather let someone review mine.

What else? Last but not least, a poem-week-year has finally come to an end. This was the idea of Andy Blackford, whose poems appeared in the cobweb earlier this year. We’d met again after a gap of of about 40 years; Andy reckoned that since Bunuel and an artist friend used to meet to exchange and critique a piece of art on a given day each week, there was no reason why we shouldn’t. And there wasn’t. We now have to decide what to do about the 104 poems we’ve written. Got a title. Gap year.


So, you might well ask, after all that…………….. the silence and the stupidity and the funerals? What’s all that about? And Paula Rego? Come on!

I think it all comes down to Kim Moore’s Sunday Poem last week. Pascale Petit  was her chosen poet, and Pascale Petit, for me, is the poetry equivalent of Paula Rego. She has that urgency, that passion, that edge. It’s a feeling that both know pain very well, and are up to all its wiles. Or else their art does;  I don’t know. I’m not putting this very well. I can’t find the words. They are both unflinching, aren’t they? Take these lines from the poem that Kim Moore chose: How to handfeed sparrows.-

‘Let the sun burn the top of your head

as if it’s a candle, a whole day

for it to ignite. And when

a sparrow lands keep stock-still

even thought the flame is lit

and your scalp is melting


they are hungry, and you

have only one hour of that wick

in the centre of your being.

Let it burn down to the soles of your feet.

There’s something purgatorial and Catholic about the burning, the candle, the sparrows, and something so intensely felt and personal it makes me shiver. It makes me think: I never feel in that way, to that degree. Or maybe I’m thinking after the event, because Kim  happened to write in passing that she’d been reading Fiona Benson’s first collection, Bright travellers, and on a whim I downloaded it to my Kindle, read it through that night. It stopped me dead in my tracks. And again the next morning in a doctor’s waiting room, waiting for a routine taking of blood. Two extracts to show you what staggered me. The first is the whole of ‘Prayer’

I saw you like a hare, stripped and jugged

in your own blood, your tail a rudder

steering you through burgundy and juniper,

your eyes gummed shut. Tadpole,

stripling, elver, don’t let the dragtides

pull you under, but root in, bed down,

tucked behind my pelvic bone,

rocked in the emptying stoup of my womb.

It has the particular power, I think, that excited me in Ted Hughes when I first read him..but without the sort-of macho-bravado. This is textured and tender and strong. It’s beyond me. I went and reread Slyvia Plath’s ‘You’re’ and knew this was a different, stranger, more wonderful thing entirely. And so is the raw open-eyedness of ‘Repairs’ , a midwife’s stitches

It must be the gas

that has me see her

holding pins

between her tightened lips

as she works

with both hands

round the wound

to stitch me back in.

Just listen to this, and its precision of sound, the consonantal snag of that ‘stitch’. Do you see why I might think again of Paula Rego….maybe one image in particular?Paula Rego.2 jpg

There’s a physicality about these poems that’s unanswerable, and a synthesis of the solid worlds of absolutely imagined birds and wild creatures, of weathers and the leaching of soils and the decay of rocks with the intensely particular personal lifeof the poet that makes this collection so wonderful and distressing. She reminds me of Wendy Pratt, not just because of the coincident experience, but their way of somehow living on level terms with it, and their way with words. Like this from ‘Nan Harwicke turns into a hare’

I will tell you how it was. I slipped

into the hare like a nude foot

into a glorious slipper. Pushing her bones

to one side to make room for my shape

so I could settle myself like a child within her.

In the dark I groped for her freedom…..

There’s that physicality, that sensuality, again, and again infused by the unspeakable loss of a child that has to be spoken and spoken for. That controlled  intensity that has the lines shivering with energy. Just one more now. Kim Moore, this time,one who has dealt with abusive assault, or has come to deal with it. ‘If we could speak like wolves’.

(Hares, rabbits, sheep, wolves, hunters and hunted, and the ones who run under the moon. I may be witched. Anyway, this from Kim) :

if I could rub my scent along your shins to make

you mine, if a mistake could be followed

by instant retribution and end with you

rolling over to expose the stubble and grace

of your throat, if it could be forgotten

the monent the wind changed, if my eyes

could sharpen to yellow……………………..

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

I think that next week I might go on thinking about this, and about learning a new language, or a bigger one. So there we are. One year finishing, and whole new bunch of stuff to be fighting through. Hope your coming year will be exciting and happy in equal measure.

Wendy Pratt ; Nan Hardwicke turns into a hare [Prolebooks. 2011] £4.50

Fiona Benson; Bright travellers                                  [Cape poetry 2014] £10.00

Kim Moore;  If we could speak like wolves              [Smith/doorstop 2012] £5.00


The garden : poems that will grow on you             [Otley Word feast Press 2014] £8.00

Nine days wonders and season songs


Nine days ago I was in Camden for the launch of my chapbook ‘Larach’ … can see what it looks like if you click on My Books at the top of the page; if you want to buy it, I’ll be delighted. Of course, if you do, you should probably buy Josephine Corcoran’s new pamphlet, and Liz Berry’s Black Country and pre order Kim Moore’s Art of falling, and, well, it’s Xmas. You get the picture…..but, anyway, Camden High Street was all Friday night bustle and junk and tattooists (I was much taken by the the chaps standing at intervals with boards that advertised tattoos, piercings. And tatto removal. It didn’t strike me as a smart sales pitch) and many young people all full of life and purpose; and it was cold. Proper cold. Winter cold. It was like being twenty again, out in a frosty city, all scarves and duffel coats, and up for it. Whatever that was.

And then I got to read at the Trinity Reform Church venue. And meet my editor, Adele Ward, and the Camden/Lumen organiser Ruth O’Callaghan for the very first time. And to see my book for the first time. It is truly lovely. Thank you, WardWood Publishing. All sorts of friends turned up, one I hadn’t seen for about 50 years. He was in the very first class and form group I had in my first teaching job in 1965. Thank you for coming, Steve Lewis. Andy Blackford, also from Middlesbrough High School and one of this year’s (un)discovered gems. Sally and best friend’s daughters. Anthony Costello from Todmorden’s Kava poetry venue. Greg from ‘Write out loud’ (thanks for the write-up, Greg. Brilliant!). And then there were the Commended poets. That’s when it gets humbling. I couldn’t, can’t, see why my poem should have won and why theirs didn’t. Light a candle for all the commendeds and highly commendeds, the nearly-but-not-quites. If you’re reading this, thank you for your poems and your readings. Then I drove to Northampton with my lovely friends, Dave and Heather, and the next day drove home, and packed notebooks and boots and pens and the next day drove to Whitby with poetry friends Keith Hutson (who I hope will be an (un)discovered gem ere long) and Maggie How…and the Poetry Business world-famous writing workshop.

It’s the second year running for me to marvel at the endless inventiveness of the wonderful Sansoms, and at their sheer stamina. I get knackered by the end of a single Saturday in Sheffield. Whitby is five Poetry business writing days end-on, with extra poetry readings every night. Sixteen talented writers, totally focussed day after day.And of course, Whitby. Whitby in December. Wind off the sea. Another episode of extended deja vu. Remember the 50’s and 60’s? When did you last wake up and find your fingers were cold? Like being twenty again, or even younger. Amazing sunrises, and home-made biscuits of rare beauty, in this residential centre that used to be a girls’ boarding school attached to St Hilda’s priory. Sneaton Castle. You should try it. Because you couldn’t make it, the rest of this cobweb strand will be a ‘wish you’d been there’ packet of postcards…and a very fast piece of writing out of a single workshop task.

Notations of a wander round Whitby.


careful hikers close the footpath gate and snib the catch

right by the five-barred gate where someone’s daubed

in tin-end paint : trespasers will be shot

2014-12-08 10.46.24


trees all lean inland

away from viking wind

its knives and hard words



laminate town, levels and layers

climbing out of the fisherman’s river

like the wash from a big dropped stone



ginnels, snickets, steep narrow cobbled ways;

a place of roofs and corrugations, terracotta,

pantiled screes, oxblood, orange, leafdrift

2014-12-10 17.55.17



a stone stair via dolorosa , penitential,

cruel and unusual punishment, this ascent for the blameless

seaside donkeys, and steelwork sinners out for the day

2014-12-10 17.55.41


headland gravestones, pitted with salt and years,

congregate and crowd, incline towards the church

and all the dead in the way of the wind from the sea

2014-12-10 17.57.47


one single sculpted stone fends off the whole north sea;

it throws an arm around the round river at the tide’s mouth.

It says. Hush. Shh. Sh



I don’t know if I’ll manage a post next Sunday. Just in case, a happy christmas, and thankyou for staying with me through all these Sundays since early this year. May  next year bring you everything you’d wish for yourselves. xx

the bigger picture


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

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

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

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

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

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


Two cultures, and an (un)discovered gem: Liz Venn


Three big influences when I was growing up..or growing older. Richard Hoggart’ s Uses of literacy; Raymond Williams’ Culture and society and The long revolution; and C P Snow’s lecture on The two cultures. It’s a curious triumvirate. The son of a Welsh railway worker, a working class lad from Hunslet, and then C P Snow, riddled with class insecurity, a scientific career civil servant, Private Secretary in the Wilson government, a man with a PhD on spectroscopy, and successful writer of turgid novels that, unaccountably, I read avidly at the age of 17. What they had in common, apart from the fact that they were never quite seen as ‘one of us’ by the great and good of academe, was a deep and heartfelt concern about the fragmentations of ‘culture’. The fact that Snow and Hoggart in particular set up a rhetoric about dichotomies didn’t help the cause, but they were, at the time, enormously influential. Snow had an immediate impact on sixth form education, in as much he he threw a strong light on the grammar schools division of their 6th forms into Arts and Science Sixths ( he was, I think, also indirectly responsible for the appearance of the Use of English exam I sat in 1961, and which I ended up teaching a few years later). This division led to earlier ones. I dropped all science subjects at the age of 13. The choice in my school was between History/ Geography, and Chemistry/Physics ….there we were. O level courses sorted. It seems unthinkable…and Snow was right. It was absurd that,culturally, a knowledge of Literature and Art and Music (with capitals, so you know what sort we’re talking about) had cachet. F R Leavis regarded Snow as little more than a PR man for engineers. It seemed OK in polite society, as Snow pointed out, to be effectively innumerate, and ignorant of how the world was physically put together. Maybe it’s something to do with the snobberies that are the truly unpleasant thing in English culture and society. But it’s an old division. Dickens saw the damage done to education when it chooses between Mr Gradgrinds ‘Facts Facts Facts’ and the fancy of Mr Sleary’s horseriding. Maybe it goes back to Descartes; maybe it’s even older, even though we may no longer believe in angels or think science is witchcraft.

So what’s this to do with a chatty poetry blog on a Sunday afternoon? You didn’t sign up for this, did you? It’s just that at one time art and science and music and maths and literature weren’t compartmentalised. Maybe the Industrial revolution, and the mechanisation of print and imagery have something crucial to do with it. And maybe that’s for another day. But painters like Joseph Wright were fascinated by science and its attendant technologies. Milton thought it obvious that Adam and the Angel would pass the time discussing the structure of the cosmos. Da Vinci was fascinated by the structures of everything, the way water fell, how a tree grows, the technologies of destruction, the wonders of human anatomy.

My art teacher in the 6th form was more concerned that I dabbled with Taschism and Cubism, so I didn’t get to know much about the Renaissance. But I did get Metaphysical poetry as a set book for English A level, so I got Andrew Marvell, and coy mistresses, and above all, John Donne and those ‘stiffe twinne compasses’. For the first time in my life I thought I could see how and why a metaphor worked, and fell in love with that fusion of sex and wit and science and passion and religion, and all that cleverness. Well maybe it’s predictable, that appeal to a smartass grammar school adolescent. But I’m still glad of it, and still happy to find poetry that embraces politics and passion and technology…and, well, knowledge. I like poems that think it’s OK if the reader sometimes has to look things up. You can see why I like Tony Harrison…when I read his early stuff I thought I’d met a real-life Metaphysical poet. I got the same buzz when I first saw Bronowsky’s  Ascent of Man, which I can watch again again (thankyou BBC DVD) but less of a buzz from the patrician Kenneth Clark’ Civilisation. Though I still watch both. Technology, eh?

And, if you’re still with me, this is why, when I met her at a Poetry Business writing day, I was much taken by one of Liz Venn’s poems, and why  I want to share my enthusiasm. I would have loved to have posted The bone man and the way it easily wove a knowledge of bones and antomy into a poem full of a sense of wonder; but it’s out with a magazine at the moment. I shall look out for its acceptance with some eagerness. I said at the top the page that she’s an (un)discovered gem.  This is to cover my embarrassment…I discovered her in much the same way as Europeans discovered America, as though the Oglala Sioux and Commanche and Seminoles and all the Nations had not previously noticed they were already living there. Liz is actually the House Poet for the Carol Ann Duffy and Friends series of poetry readings at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. She did a distance learning writing course tutored by the immensely-talented Bill Greenwell; she did a creative writing MA at MMU. In the same year as Kim Moore, and at the same time as David Tait. It’s a small world, and I still don’t know much about it. Mea culpa. She’s been published in the splendid CAST** anthology: The Poetry Business Book of new and Contemporary Poets. She’s been published in lots of quality magazines..The North, Iota, Magma, Smiths Knoll. She won the 2014 Poets and Players prize. So all of you who knew this can smile quietly….keep up, Foggin. Keep up. She also teaches creative writing for science communication, to undergraduate life scientists, and I think her easy synthesis of scientific knowledge and poetry is what I responded to. She can write matter-of-factly, and with a great sense of fun (as she does in The women I’ve worked with) and a nice ruefulness about her dad who’s out shopping for grout and wishing I’d found a man to do these things for me, but I’m going to choose just one poem today, and tell you to check out the magazines, to buy your copy of CAST**, and to visit her website:

I’m assuming that I’ve made you want to. And think on; next week I might be asking questions. Just in case, here’s the poem.

And though I’m not the believing type

I’d believe in the iron souls of trains,

a hollow soul for carrying things

with a spark blown through its fingers.

I’d believe in the souls of drystone walls,

that rise up in rough hands and hold themselves.

That wear the wind on one side, moss on the other

and stand fornothing, except to turn sheep back.

I believe in the fragile souls of light-bulbs,

metallic and easily broken, or dig

to find the ugly clay soil of the North.

I’d believe in souls like chocolate buttons,

that start to melt as you hold them,

in souls that aren’t actually souls,

but chemistry, in the way that carbon breaks

and heals itself through all its different faces,

from the slippery memory of pencil lead,

to the beautiful laboratory of leaves.

There are great images, here. I like the blown spark, and I particularly like the walls that (ambiguously) stand for nothing. But what’s memorable for me is that ‘beautiful laboratory of leaves’ and that conceit of carbon, metamorphosing itself into the souls of everything. So there you are. I’m delighted to have (un)discovered Liz Venn’s poems. Just one thing before I go. Distrust those who spell Culture with a Capital, and equally, Literature, Art, Poetry and Music. They’re trying to keep it for themselves, behind their upper-case fences. Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart got me starting to see that (and, later, John Berger). When was the last time you saw science, and mathematics, and physics and chemistry and biology in capitals (except on an exam paper or a university prospectus)? C P Snow got me to think about that.

Next week, we’re coming from Spain. I want you to meet a Hungarian sculptor who writes poems in English. I was lying about the questions.

**CAST: The Poetry Business Book of New Contemporary Poets ed Simon Armitage, Joanna Gavins, Ann Sansom, Peter Sansom [Smith/doorstop. 2014] £10

Writing workshops…opening doors and lighting candles as you go

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Poetry Business pamphlets are published by Smith/Doorstop.

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

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

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

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