Here’s looking at you: the male gaze

marilyn

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

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

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

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

The invention of the camera changed the way men saw

and

all images are man made.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nude

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was told not to write about wombs

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

lautrec

After the Rubens

Just your head, just your slumped shoulders.

They’ve tucked you away, low down

in a corner by the door, with the woman

tugging a stubborn goat over the chalk.

I guess you’ll settle for this, no one

staring, this small space to yourself,

no one to bother.  Do you mind

that all he had was chalks,

a torn off bit of pasteboard.

Do you mind that your hair’s come

unpinned and he’s noticed that,

and how grey is your skin, do you mind

that scribble of pistacchio smudged in

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

your name and for this I am sorry.

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

Do you mind.And if I don’t stare, if

I look away, where will we be then.

 

 

 

Reasons to be cheerful

About 11.00am this morning I realise I’ve had nothing to eat since my breakfast porridge on Saturday. I have a headache and I am ridiculously happy. Let me tell you why.
dury
Summer, Buddy Holly, the working folly
Good golly, Miss Molly and boats
Hammersmith Palais, the Bolshoi Ballet
Jump back in the alley and nanny goats
Eighteen wheeler Scammells, Dominica camels
All other mammals plus equal votes
Seeing Piccadilly, Fanny Smith and Willie
Being rather silly and porridge oats………………

August 1979 saw the worst disaster in the 100-year history of ocean yacht racing, as a freak storm hit the Fastnet race leaving 15 crew members dead.Starting in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, the 605-mile Fastnet race is one of amateur yachting’s greatest challenges. Competing boats set sail from Cowes, travel along south coast of England, up across the Irish Sea to the Fastnet Rock (the most south-westerly point in Ireland), then sail back across the Irish Sea to Plymouth.

The 1979 race began on August 11 in fine weather, with 303 yachts – carrying 2,500 crew members from all over the world – taking part. But two days later, over a period of 20 hours, they were facing a terrifying, deadly storm, as violent, force 10 winds whipped up 50ft waves in the Irish Sea. More than a third of the yachts were knocked over until their masts were parallel to the water, and a quarter capsized completely.

…………………………………………………………

Meanwhile, my family and me were on our annual camping holiday in Osmington Mills in Dorset. Force 8-10 gales blowing for three days solid. The tent got blown down twice, poles bent, no-one sleeping because of the noise of the wind. The campsite was stripped bare as tents were simply ripped or blown away. We stuck it out, mainly because I’d paid for two weeks in advance. What it was like at sea is unimaginable. In the middle of this, coming and going on the radio was Ian Dury’s ‘Reasons to be cheerful. Part 3’ to which we sang along through gritted teeth. I put it down to having been in the Scouts (who, as we know, smile and whistle through all difficulties).

I think of this when I’m going through the doldrums, as I have been of late. Because sooner or later, there’s yet another reason to be cheerful. Like going in for my quarterly check-up for my prostate cancer and being told that the new injections are doing the trick, my p.s.a. is down to 4.6 (apparently this is a Good Thing, so I don’t ask what it means) and almost certainly I’ll not be needing chemo or radiotherapy. Not for some time, anyway. And I’m told that sudden attacks of tiredness, headaches and mild baseless anxiety is simply a side effect of big doses of oestrogen. I begin to understand more about the female condition. Or imagine I do. Reasons to be cheerful, indeed.

Good things come for unasked and unexpected. Friday night, about 10.30, I’m idly checking my emails and messages, and there’s a post from Kim Moore telling me that their guest poet for a poem and a pint has been struck down by the ‘flu, and can I stand in at short notice. Can I do it tomorrow, in Ulverston. I’m knackered; it’s a 250 mile round trip. Can I do it? Of course I can. First of all I’m flattered; this is my involuntary mentor and inspiration asking;they’ll pay me. And there’ll be an audience. I don’t know about you, but I realised a long time ago that of all the joys of being alive, the buzz of performance is right up there with the best.

I need to do two 20 minute slots. Imagine! It’s like winning the pools. Gold dust. I need to knock out a gig list. I need to practise it. I need to find out where Ulverston is. I need to get the diesel topped up, to check the tyres. By 3.00pm on Saturday I’m already tired. There’s a traffic jam in Mirfield. It takes me 45 minutes to get to the M62. It should take 10. I discover the windscreen washers aren’t working. I notice the diesel pre-ignition light is still on. I will agonise about this all the way there and back. What can it mean? The delightful satnav lady tries to persuade me to leave the M6 at a junction earlier than I think right. I override her, which means she tells me too often that she needs to recalculate the route. By this time it’s getting dark, time’s passing, I haven’t time to stop to get something to eat (I probably did, but panic is an interesting thing) and when I get to Ulverston I find there is a one-way system that the nice satnav lady is unaware of. At 7.10pm I find a car park and the venue…the Coronation Hall……and I realise I have been seeing it on and off for at least 10 minutes. I am sweaty, tired and anxious. The journey that should take two hours ten minutes (says the AA) has taken three and a half.

Why am I telling you this? Because five minutes later, Kim Moore greets me fulsomely, someone buys me a coffee, I meet Kim’s husband, Chris; someone takes my books and looks after the selling of them, and I sit down in a handsome room full of extremely nice people, and I listen to five splendid poets. One is Kim who reads ‘Men I never married No. 25′ and sends shivers down my spine. And Jennifer Copley reads poems that are wry, precise, sightly off-kilter, funny, dark and memorable. I am already very happy.

I get to read two sets to a full room. In between there is music from Demix. They do John Prine’s Speed of the sound of loneliness , which I’ve loved for years. I sell a goodly lot of books. I am buzzing. I could go on all night. I could take up Kim and Chris’s offer of a bed for the night, but I’m so wired on adrenaline I decide to drive home and sleep in my own bed. I do this in just over two hours, running on fumes and perfectly content(apart from that pre-ignition warning light).

Here’s the thing. This is a one-off. So I’m thinking of gigging poets who do it for living. I think about Pascale Petit and all the others like her, on what seem to be endless train journeys. I think about the ones who drive long distances, regularly, just (just!) to read to rooms of indeterminate and unpredictable size and warmth. I think about the ones travelling from centre to centre, to tutor workshops. I taught just one last year; I was knackered.

Today I’m tired and happy. But I’ve had two huge bacon and tomato baps with a lot of grease. Tomorrow I don’t have to go anywhere. All next week, in fact. Reasons to be cheerful. Thank you, lord for adrenaline. And thank you for all the travelling, gigging poets and tutors who do it again and again and again.

From me, a special thank you to the organisers of a poem and a pint in Ulverston.

Let me persuade you to enter their Poetry Competition, to be judged by another of my inspirations, the poet and wild-swimmer, Clare Shaw. It’s competitions like this that fund great poetry nights. I can’t find a link via google as yet, so I’ll make do by scanning in the details from the competition flyer.

a poem and a pint competition

Next week, another reason to be cheerful…a new guest poet. See you then.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

“how ordinary

extraordinary things are or

how extraordinary ordinary

things are, like the nature of the mind

and the process of observing.”

An ordinary day [1964]

 

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

Newcastle in the 1800's (10)

” I come from an unknown people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This should see me right.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

all the time in the world

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

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

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

Frugality   

 

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

my mother is darning socks with fine wool.

With the needle she draws the yarn over

and under her warp thread without causing

a pucker, checking the tension to mesh a flat disc

across the hole. Smooth as an obol.

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

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

felt its spring and bounce.   But before she finishes

her supply (there’s still two ounces left)

she asks her mother to bring in more wool

of the same colour so she can keep mending

enough socks to last.

 

Just like her –

 

She could read a book

do crosswords

or paint her nails

but she prefers to work.

So, on the subject of mending socks,

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

 

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

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

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

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

a-sprig-of-rowan

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

 

Apparition 

 

A wraith of the darkness drifted

down the twist of path ahead and hardly

was there time to believe it,

when it re-appeared

in a fluster of wings, tumbling

from between the trees and out

into the sunshine of open field –

nacreous, tinted with gold –

as if haunting the day

to hunt for the dusk it had lost.

 

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

Blue

 

The colour of sky and sunlight

he acrobats

among the tree tops,

 

or with head on one side

he sometimes considers

the abracadabra

 

of the high twigs

where he splits open a seed

or spin-twizzles

 

a caterpillar

like a strand of spaghetti

and as he skitters

 

out of sight, you wonder

how his goblin wings

grew from the yolk of an egg.

 

 (published in The Broadsheet, 2016)

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

And she’s 22. Think on that.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)

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

Anthony Gormley's Terracotta Figures Return To Their Birthplace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith Hutson: On research and poetic form

routines

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

You Lucky People

i.m. Tommy Trinder 1909-1989

 

One simple line and you could tread the boards

for years. Nobody cared it made no sense,

it was the look, the timing, not the words

that packed them in twice-nightly. And the chance

to mock some spot-lit nincompoop who seemed

more desperate than them – which made a change:

back then most buggers looked like they’d seen

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

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

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

inside the twinkle of a grin, a glance;

industriously bellow out the laughs;

gaze up at more ridiculous routines

than ours. A softer kind of song and dance.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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Hi John

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

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

 

Pascale Petit : On sequence and motif in Mama Amazonica 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Pascale Petit’s Poetry

Icefall Climbing pamphlet (Smith Doorstop, 1994)

Heart of a Deer (Enitharmon, 1998)

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

The Zoo Father (Seren, 2001)

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

The Huntress (Seren, 2005)

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

The Treekeeper’s Tale (Seren, 2008)

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

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

Fauverie (Seren, 2014)

Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe, 2017)

 

Steve Ely’s Poetry , Fiction, and Biography

Steve Ely has published four books of poetry,

Englaland (Smokestack Books, 2015)

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

Werewolf (Calder valley Poetry 2016)

Incendium Amoris (Smokestack 2017)

He’s also published a novel,

Ratmen (Blackheath Books, 2012),

and a biographical work,

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

 

Keith Hutson

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

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

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

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

 

and two involving Keith Hutson

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

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