Desire paths, sheep and serenity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what she said

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11, Achnacloich

A flicker of white water  on the burn

below the alders where the heron roosts

A flirt of dunnock in the short grass

that sets the sheep trotting

Rain dragging its skirts

across the skerries in the ebb

Right on the rim of the moor

three hinds , watching

A curl of bluegrey turf smoke

from the red-roofed croft

I keep it like this.

The heron just crumpling

into the alders,

like a broken kite

the deer watching

between the moor and the sky

small birds lifting from the field

like the hem of a skirt in a breeze

the lamentations of sheep

the bright red tin roof of a crofter’s house

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two things happen. Well, they did for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elixir: a polished gem (4) Lindsey Holland

Crazy water 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lindsey 1

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

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

until the cockroaches’ speed seemed ridiculous

but not enough to beat him’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things She Learnt on Gomer Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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