Crowdfunding with Anthony Wilson: in praise of anthologies

Anthony Wilson’s crowdfunder is something you can really get behind. You can be part of a venture to launch a new anthology of poems that really ought to get more attention. All the details you need are available by following this link

https://unbound.com/books/no-one-you-know

Not only that, but in support of crowdfunding their new anthology of poems, No One You Know, with Unbound, Sue Dymoke and Anthony are starting a series of blog posts about anthologies which have influenced us as readers and writers. The first one is about an anthology that inspired me. Again…just follow the link

Discovering Geoffrey Summerfield’s Worlds

Anthony also writes

We would be interested to know which anthologies got you, our readers, going.

So here goes with a reworking of a post I wrote a couple of years ago. Your favourite anthology might be something like The Rattle Bag. Mine are ones that initially kept my head above water as a young teacher, and then introduced me to a world of poetry. Here we go:

 

The Best of…………..

……..punk, bluebeat, blues, rhythm and soul, Bob Dylan, the 80’s, Motown, Stax, Atlantic, Leonard Cohen, ska, Reggae Greats, Miles Davis. A flavour of my record collection. I reckon 80% of it is compilations. Very few single albums that hold my attention all the way through. Albums without a dud track. Cohen’s ‘I’m your man’. Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ (although you could argue that it’s actually a compilation of great artists). ‘Who’s next’. Tom Russell:’The man from God knows where’. I’m pushed to think of many more, off-hand. And I’m a bit like that about poetry, though that’s been changing over the last three or four years. Anthologies. That’s been my thing. Maybe that’s why I frequently go blank at poetry events when friends talk with great familiarity about poets I’m not sure I’ve heard of, and feel a bit gauche when poet friends post photographs of new collections they’ve bought in a retail frenzy at this or that poetry festival. So this week’s cobweb strand is in praise of anthologies and anthologists…or, at least, one particular anthologist. OK. Close your books, tidy your pens, sit up straight, look this way, remember it’s your own time you’re wasting and now…..

….let me take you back to 1972, when the then Education Minister, one Margaret Thatcher of blessed memory, ordered a review of the teaching of English. It was the first of a long series of attempts (which grew more successful over the years) to take political control of the school curriculum, and of English in particular. What it produced was hardly what she hoped for. The report was ‘Language for life’ (popularly the Bullock Report)…a generally humane and informed document, which you might have expected of HMI. It’s taken SATS, league tables and OFSTED to put the kibosh on that kind of subversive lefty nonsense. What we have in its place is government ministers sounding off about how we should teach the history of the First World War, and what poetry should be force-fed to the children of Albion, and how. And now…..

anthology 3

….as the wheel turns inexorably full circle, let me take you back another twenty years when I passed my 11+ and went to Batley Grammar School and was presented with Book One of a series of five English course books written by a man who sold at least 70 million copies of his prolific output by the time he died in some comfort in the 1990s. You might not remember just how drab and battered English course books used to be, but just to be clear, that jazzed up ‘contemporary’ later stuff was just as stuffed with clause analysis, punctuation exercises, comprehension exercises, jumbled proverbs and all the rest of the nonsense. Oh, and each chapter would begin with a bit of text, an extract of prose and, maybe twice in any one book, a poem. The one I remember from Book One was something by Masefield. Followed by exercises that sqeezed every last ounce of syntactic, grammatical, and vocabulary juice out of it.

anthology 2

 

Of course, we were offered books of poetry which contained no exercises. But generations of desperate pencilled marginal notes. Palgrave’s Golden Treasuries, and the deeply dispiriting, but jauntily alliterative Paths to Parnassus: The poet’s pageant. I remember the second one from the  stock cupboards in my first teaching job. Exercises and heritage. Whose heritage was never in question. Probably not that of the lads I taught on my first teaching practice at Wharrier Street Secondary Modern School in Walker on Tyneside..alma mater to the great Eric Burdon, as it happens. So the question would arise. If you don’t want this stuff, what’ll take its place? All my secondary and university education in English Lit. stopped dead round about 1916. I was well up on prose fiction…northern realists like Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, John Braine, Keith Waterhouse, and I was totally sold on the short stories of Dylan Thomas. And I was shortly immersed in a golden age of children’s fiction. Alan Garner, Joan Aiken, Robert Westall, all of them. But I simply didn’t know enough poetry to offer an alternative to what seemed to be on offer.. The Bullock Report noted it was still a problem in 1972.

‘The teacher is often faced with the task of showing that poetry is not some inaccessible form of utterance, but that it speaks directly to children, as to anyone else, and has something to say which is relevant to their living here and now.

BUT

It is exceptionally difficult for the individual teacher to keep abreast of all the new poetry that is published. Indeed, except for those with a particular interest in it there is often a time lag, so that the teacher is not aware of much of the work produced in the last two decades. A good anthology will do a great deal to introduce teacher and pupil alike to new and unfamiliar material, but it should not be a substitute for the extensive reading of poetry by the teacher himself.’

I remember reading that bit about anthologies not being a substitute for extensive reading. I didn’t know whether I felt guilty or indignant. Because what I believed then, and still believe, is that the best anthologies offer the shared experience of an committed enthusiast’s extensive reading. It’s taken me a long time to get round to standing up for anthologies. But here goes.

anthology 7

For years, the BBC ran a schools’ radio series called Books Plays and Poems,  lovely landscape format booklets that accompanied the programmes and in the mid 60’s they were the first source I had of an eclectic mix of poetry that included contemporary work (including the lyrics of Penny Lane). They had photographs in them, too! Imagine. And then, in my fifth year of teaching along came Geoffrey Summerfield’s Voices [Penguin. 1970]. It was the first of a series of four anthologies, and pretty soon accompanied by four more Junior Voices.

 

And here’s the thing; they not only didn’t look remotely like school books, but they didn’t read like school books either. They were full of surprises, and, in the case of Junior Voices, they had stunning imagery in colour. They were books you could sit and browse, and every page brought a fresh surprise, if, like me and the rest of the teachers The Bullock Report talked about, you didn’t know much about poetry and poets and poems (unless they were on O and A Level syllabuses).

What’s more, none of them seemed to have designs on a reader, other than to share a boundless enthusiasm and apparently encyclopaedic knowledge. They were eclectic and exciting. They weren’t overtly thematically organised, so there was none of that invitation to compare and contrast we were all programmed into. It was all done by smart juxtapositions.Let me tell you who they introduced me to. Roethke, Elizabeth Jennings, e e cummings, John Clare, Basho, Stanley Cooke, Norman MacCaig, Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, Patricia Beer, Yevtushenko, Neruda. They sold me on Sylvia Plath’s ‘You’re’, and Ted Hughes’ Hawk roosting, and Auden’s Musee des beaux arts. There were medieval riddle poems, and playful stuff like ones from Alastair Reid’s Ounce, dice, trice. Haiku and and shape poems. Carlos Williams. Maybe it was Summerfield’s connection with NYU, but there were lots of American poets who I would otherwise never have come across. It was the inclusion of MacCaig’s I took my mind a walk that ended up with my reading his collected works, beginning to end. Years later. But that was the seed. Those anthologies opened my eyes and ears to world I had no idea existed.

And that wasn’t all. Hard on their heels, in 1974, came Geoffrey Summerfield’s Worlds

anthology X

And for me, as for Anthony Wilson, this one was truly a revelation.  ‘Worlds, says Anthony, ‘is one of the most important books in my life.’ I’ll second that. It will come as no surprise, I suppose, to discover that you can now only buy second- hand copies of these lovely books. Meanwhile, Coles Notes go from strength to strength, and supermarkets stock books of exercises to drill your children through their SATs and their phonics, and so the world turns,and the mills of Gove grind exceeding fine. Thank god for Geoffrey Summerfield and Michael Rosen and the rest, and whoever picks up their mantle in coming years

Now, it may well be that lots of you have parallel experiences. Anthony and Sue would be delighted to hear about them. But before I go, I want to say a word about about a different way of encountering an anthology. I’ve been going to Ann and Peter Sansom’s Poetry Business writing days for a good long time. In the process I realise they’ve assembled a very special anthology for me. Very often, a writing exercise will begin around, or from, a photocopied poem. I’ve religiously trimmed them down and stuck them in my workbooks so I know which poem triggered which draft or prose ramble. And now I have probably a couple of hundred, and in the process I’ve realised that these workshops have done for me now what Voices and Junior Voices and Worlds did, way back when. Without them I’d never have met Alison McVety, Thomas Lux, Billy Collins, Liz Berry, Martina Evans, Frank o’Hara, Tishani Doshi, Matthew Sweeney, Robert Van Dias, Claudi Jessop, Stewart Conn…and on and on it goes.

That’s what a great anthology is. The shared experience of folk who know more than you and who fill you with enthusiasm to know more than you do. To want more of the best of the best of. If that was all very teacherly, I guess it’s what I do. Certainly what I did for 40 years. Hard to shake off.

Not sure who’ll be the guest next week. But he or she will be stellar. Promise.

 

The Best of…………..

……..punk, bluebeat, blues, rhythm and soul, Bob Dylan, the 80’s, Motown, Stax, Atlantic, Leonard Cohen, ska, Reggae Greats, Miles Davis. A flavour of my record collection. I reckon 80% of it is compilations. Very few single albums that hold my attention all the way through. Albums without a dud track. Cohen’s ‘I’m your man’. Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ (although you could argue that it’s actually a compilation of great artists). ‘Who’s next’. Tom Russell:’The man from God knows where’. I’m pushed to think of many more, off-hand. And I’m a bit like that about poetry, though that’s been changing over the last three or four years. Anthologies. That’s been my thing. Maybe that’s why I frequently go blank at poetry events when friends talk with great familiarity about poets I’m not sure I’ve heard of, and feel a bit gauche when poet friends post photographs of new collections they’ve bought in a retail frenzy at this or that poetry festival. So this week’s cobweb strand is in praise of anthologies and anthologists…or, at least, one particular anthologist. OK. Close your books, tidy your pens, sit up straight, look this way, remember it’s your own time you’re wasting and now…..

….let me take you back to 1972, when the then Education Minister, one Margaret Thatcher of blessed memory, ordered a review of the teaching of English. It was the first of a long series of attempts (which grew more successful over the years) to take political control of the school curriculum, and of English in particular. What it produced was hardly what she hoped for. The report was ‘Language for life’ (popularly the Bullock Report)…a generally humane and informed document, which you might have expected of HMI. It’s taken SATS, league tables and OFSTED to put the kibosh on that kind of subversive lefty nonsense. What we have in its place is government ministers sounding off about how we should teach the history of the First World War, and what poetry should be force-fed to the children of Albion, and how. And now…..

….as the wheel turns inexorably full circle, let me take you back another twenty years when I passed my 11+ and went to Batley Grammar School and was presented with Book One of a series of five English course books written by a man who sold at least 70 million copies of his prolific output by the time he died in some comfort in the 1990s. You might not remember just how drab and battered English course books used to be, but just to be clear, that jazzed up ‘contemporary’ later stuff was just as stuffed with clause analysis, punctuation exercises, comprehension exercises, jumbled proverbs and all the rest of the nonsense. Oh, and each chapter would begin with a bit of text, an extract of prose and, maybe twice in any one book, a poem. The one I remember from Book One was something by Masefield. Followed by exercises that sqeezed every last ounce of syntactic, grammatical, and vocabulary juice out of it.

voices 10voices 9

Of course, we were offered books of poetry which contained no exercises. But generations of desperate pencilled marginal notes.

palgrave The_Poets_Pageant_179

Palgrave’s Golden Treasuries, and the deeply dispiriting, but jauntily alliterative Paths to Parnassus: The poet’s pageant. I remember the second one from the  stock cupboards in my first teaching job. Exercises and heritage. Whose heritage was never in question. Probably not that of the lads I taught on my first teaching practice at Wharrier Street Secondary Modern School in Walker on Tyneside..alma mater to the great Eric Burdon, as it happens. So the question would arise. If you don’t want this stuff, what’ll take its place? All my secondary and university education in English Lit. stopped dead round about 1916. I was well up on prose fiction…northern realists like Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, John Braine, Keith Waterhouse, and I was totally sold on the short stories of Dylan Thomas. And I was shortly immersed in a golden age of children’s fiction. Alan Garner, Joan Aiken, Robert Westall, all of them. But I simply didn’t know enough poetry to offer an alternative to what seemed to be on offer.. The Bullock Report noted it was still a problem in 1972.

‘The teacher is often faced with the task of showing that poetry is not some inaccessible form of utterance, but that it speaks directly to children, as to anyone else, and has something to say which is relevant to their living here and now. It is simply that much of the work of this half century, and perhaps particularly the last two decades of it, has a voice to which a larger number of young people can more readily respond. Moreover, it is fresh to many teachers themselves and some feel able to read it to their pupils with the pleasure of a new discovery. BUT  It is exceptionally difficult for the individual teacher to keep abreast of all the new poetry that is published. Indeed, except for those with a particular interest in it there is often a time lag, so that the teacher is not aware of much of the work produced in the last two decades. A good anthology will do a great deal to introduce teacher and pupil alike to new and unfamiliar material, but it should not be a substitute for the extensive reading of poetry by the teacher himself.’

I remember reading that bit about anthologies not being a substitute for extensive reading. I didn’t know whether I felt guilty or indignant. Because what I believed then, and still believe, is that the best anthologies offer the shared experience of an committed enthusiast’s extensive reading. It’s taken me a long time to get round to standing up for anthologies. But here goes.

For years, the BBC ran a schools’ radio series called Books Plays and Poems,  lovely landscape format booklets that accompanied the programmes and in the mid 60’s they were the first source I had of an eclectic mix of poetry that included contemporary work (including the lyrics of Penny Lane). They had photographs in them, too! Imagine. And then, in my fifth year of teaching along came Geoffrey Summerfield’s Voices [Penguin. 1970]. It was the first of a series of four anthologies, and pretty soon accompanied by four more Junior Voices.

voices 2voices 3voices 4voices 5

And here’s the thing; they not only didn’t look remotely like school books, but they didn’t read like school books either. They were full of surprises, and, in the case of Junior Voices, they had stunning imagery in colour. They were books you could sit and browse, and every page brought a fresh surprise, if, like me and the rest of the teachers The Bullock Report talked about, you didn’t know much about poetry and poets and poems (unless they were on O and A Level syllabuses). What’s more, none of them seemed to have designs on a reader, other than to share a boundless enthusiasm and apparently encyclopaedic knowledge. They were eclectic and exciting. They weren’t overtly thematically organised, so there was none of that invitation to compare and contrast we were all programmed into. It was all done by smart juxtapositions.Let me tell you who they introduced me to. Roethke, Elizabeth Jennings, e e cummings, John Clare, Basho, Stanley Cooke, Norman MacCaig, Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, Patricia Beer, Yevtushenko, Neruda. They sold me on Sylvia Plath’s ‘You’re’, and Ted Hughes’ Hawk roosting, and Auden’s Musee des beaux arts. There were medieval riddle poems, and playful stuff like ones from Alastair Reid’s Ounce, dice, trice. Haiku and and shape poems. Carlos Williams. Maybe it was Summerfield’s connection with NYU, but there were lots of American poets who I would otherwise never have come across. It was the inclusion of MacCaig’s I took my mind a walk that ended up with my reading his collected works, beginning to end. Years later. But that was the seed. Those anthologies opened my eyes and ears to world I had no idea existed.

And that wasn’t all. Hard on their heels, in 1974, came this

voices 6

This one was truly a revelation. A carefully edited selection of each of the seven poets (and by then I was beginning to think I knew them) BUT accompanied in each case by a personal statement or essay by each poet AND a photographic essay on each poet by the wonderful Fay Godwin (and if you haven’t got her collaboration with Ted Hughes in Remains of Elmet then you can do no better than to rush out and buy it. It’s never too late). As I was doing a bit of googling, trawling for images for this post, I was delighted to stumble across a post by Anthony Wilson in September 2013. Anthony describes how he encountered Adrian Mitchell, and therefore one of his selection of Lifesaving poems, in this very anthology. ‘Worlds, says Anthony Wilson, ‘is one of the most important books in my life.’ I’ll second that. It will come as no surprise, I suppose, to discover that you can now only buy second- hand copies of these lovely books. Meanwhile, Coles Notes go from strength to strength, and supermarkets stock books of exercises to drill your children through their SATs and their phonics, and so the world turns,and the mills of Gove grind exceeding fine. Thank god for Geoffrey Summerfield and Michael Rosen and the rest, and whoever picks up their mantle in coming years

Now, it may well be that lots of you have parallel experiences. I’d be delighted to hear about them. But before I go, I want to say a word about about a different way of encountering an anthology. I’ve been going to Ann and Peter Sansom’s Poetry Business writing days for about five years. In the process I realise they’ve assembled a very special anthology for me. Very often, a writing exercise will begin around, or from, a photocopied poem. I’ve religiously trimmed them down and stuck them in my workbooks so I know which poem triggered which draft or prose ramble. And now I have probably a couple of hundred, and in the process I’ve realised that these workshops have done for me now what Voices and Junior Voices and Worlds did, way back when. Without them I’d never have met Alison McVety, Thomas Lux, Billy Collins, Liz Berry, Martina Evans, Frank o’Hara, Tishani Doshi, Matthew Sweeney, Robert Van Dias, Claudi Jessop, Stewart Conn…and on and on it goes.

That’s what a great anthology is. The shared experience of folk who know more than you and who fill you with enthusiasm to know more than you do. To want more of the best of the best of.

OK. If that was all very teacherly, I guess it’s what I do. Certainly what I did for 40 years. Hard to shake off. I promise the next cobweb strand will be much less about me and infinitely more about a poet who stops me dead in my tracks. No. I’m not telling you who it is.

And finally, and without a shred of shame or irony, I’m going to advertise not an anthology, but a collection. My collection. I posted this at the wrong time, I realise, bang in the middle of Black Thursday, so I’ll run it past you one more time.

larach cover for cobweb 001

I’m really delighted to say that I’ve had to bespeak a reprint of Larach. Thanks to everyone who’s already bought a copy. Now, here’s the deal. Having Larach published in the first place was my prize for winning the 2014 Lumen Camden Poetry Competition with the poem about Emily Wilding Davison ‘Camera Obscura’. (If you follow the cobweb strands you’ll know that I posted it a couple of weeks ago as a reminder of what the right to vote cost so many courageous, selfless individuals). The judge was Sir Andrew Motion who is a patron of the charity. This year’s judge is George Szirtes. It’s a great competition, no question. If you entered this year, then good luck…results must be out soon.

The purpose of this annual competition is to raise funds to support a winter night shelter for rough sleepers. One of my sons was once, for a short time, a rough sleeper. It’s a charity near to my heart. It was the reason I entered the competition in the first place, knowing that my entry fee would go to help the charity’s work. There is no profit from the winners of this competition.

If you already bought the book you paid £3.00….I always thought that it could raise more, so here’s the deal. WardWood agreed to reprint the book at a price to me of £3.00 a copy. I’ve had the book repriced at £5.00. For every copy I sell £1.00 will go to the charity. I’ll use the balance to cover post and packing for orders I take via the cobweb site. Just check out the details about ordering copies by clicking on My Books at the top of the page. And anything left over after that can go towards funding any future reprint (Fingers crossed)

I hope you’ll all be happy about this arrangement. If you are then I’d take it more than kindly if you reblogged this post, or Shared it in Facebook and/or Twitter. And let me know what you think about it all via the Comments box below. I really do want to feel as though I’m doing the right thing all round.

(un)discovered gems Number 6 : Tom Cleary (and some thoughts on unfair advantages)

cow poetry

This has always been one of my favourite Gary Larsson cartoons, and pretty well describes what I thought poetry readings were like, till I actually started going to them fairly regularly in the last two or three years. I guess I imagined an aura of quiet piety and the scent of Earl Grey, punctuated by thoughtful Mmms and occasional hesitant polite applause. It’s been nice to be disabused. So this week’s cobweb’s about readings and readers, and prompted by the fact that on Friday next I’ll be off to Camden for the launch of my chapbook, ‘Larach’ [WardWood Publishing]. I’ll tell you all about it next Sunday, or maybe the week after, because next Sunday I’ll be off to Whitby for the Poetry Business residential, and the company of 17 other hardworking writers, and the inspirational Sansoms.

Right now, I’m going to reflect on two readings last week, and what makes a reading special. I wrote in an earlier post that the first time I ever went to a reading it was nearly 30 years ago, and it was Tony Harrison. What I found utterly compelling then was not only the poetry, but the reader, the focussed intensity of Harrison’s delivery, the unwaveringness of it. That and the tension between the sometimes esoteric range of reference and the inflections of a Leeds accent that came through the overlays of grammar school and university. There’s always a sense of controlled danger in Tony Harrison’s voice, I think. It’s never tentative. It’s partly why I found ‘The nuptial torches‘ so terrifying, and why the tenderness is so powerful, the desperate pity for Isabella, who prays ‘ O let the King be gentle and not loom/like Torquemada in the torture room’, gripped as she is, this young girl, by the horror of the auto da fe, of the burnings.

Utterly different was the second reading I went to. This was an accident. A wet night in Stratford in the 70s, mooching about with my colleague Tom Baker a couple of days into a residential course for our BEd English students, and wondering what to do with ourselves. Which is why we came to be reading a notice board outside the Shakespeare Institute, and finding a handwritten note that said Seamus Heaney would be reading in about twenty minutes time, in the upstairs room of a pub in the next street, and that we would be let in for a charge of 25p. So we went. I remember that he had a fiddler with him and that they read and played alternately. I remember that I bought Heaney a pint of Guiness. But most of all, I remember the voice, the one that tells me how to hear every poem of his that I ever read thereafter. And realising that poetry was an unfair business, and there were poets born with a headstart, with gift of a certain kind of dialect or accent, absolved of the curse of RP.

It’s something I think of particularly whenever I hear an Irish poet reading. Frank Ormesby was one. James Caruth is another. They are voices made for poetry, in the way I think that voices like Garrison Keillor’s and Bill Bryson are made for prose storytelling. It’s difficult to describe the quality I’m thinking of. It’s not the fact of a tenor or a baritone voice. It’s the business of rhythm and of softened consonants and the space that’s given to vowels that does it for me. (Harrison’s consonants are nailed down, if you see what I mean. They don’t compromise. They put an edge on the words). I’m thinking of the way the lines come in a series of waves, often the rise and fall of three or four syllables, almost regular but never metronomic, like small seashore waves. A bit like the patterns of Anglo Saxon poetry, but more spacious. The result is always unassertive, unemphatic, and it has both authority and authenticity. Like I say, it’s an unfair advantage. I could listen to them reading catalogues and bus timetables.

Which brings me, circuitously, to (un)discovered gem Number 6: Tom Cleary. The first time I heard him at an open mic I was riveted. That voice. The quiet unassertiveness. The rhythm. The Heaney thing. The Jim Caruth thing. I was too entranced by the rhythm to properly take on the poems, although there were clear strong resonant images in there, and a strong feel of the narrative of a natural storyteller. The next time, another open mic, the phrases and their authority, started to stick, especially the opening lines. Like these:

‘Matty lived for a whole year

in a hardwood and glass shed on the lawn’

or

She had her eighth baby, little Jude,

when all the students had gone home for Christmas’

or

‘Her first husband fell into a machine at work.

She missed the touch of his rough hands’

Now listen to those lines in a soft Irish voice, and imagine the merest hint of a rising inflection on the last words of the lines, and you’ll get the idea. So understand my pleasure, after performing woefully through a headcold and a bronchial cough at Poetry by Heart in Leeds (which deseves much better…it’s a lovely venue), I drove up to Hebden Bridge the next night to listen to Tom read, along with the absurdly talented Gaia Holmes, at the launch of his debut collection ‘The third Miss Keane’. You can find all about it and its publishers, Happenstance, at the end of this post. But before that, I’ll tell you a bit about Tom, and then leave you with one of the poems from the collection. He gave me carte blanche to choose. I hope he thinks I chose well.

Born in Co. Tipperary, he did a degree in English and Irish at University College, Dublin. He taught English for 30 years, in London, in Manchester, in Leeds. After he took early retirement, he did a degree in Spanish and Russian at Bradford, and then lived for three years in Spain, teaching English. Now he lives in Hebden Bridge where a canal and a river and a railwayline are squeezed into a narrow steep-sided valley, along with an unseemly number of poets. Like me, he started to write seriously when he was around 70, and got a leg-up when he won the Writers Forum/Happenstance Competition in 2011. And here’s the poem I chose. I’ll let it speak for itself.

Goose

I saw her first at the bridge where we went

for the dancing. Her legs leapt to the frenzy of the fiddles.

They all wanted her but she chose me.

Come with me for the goose, she said.

 

Her father’s face was swollen with burst veins,

his nose a welk. He winked at me

over the whisky glass. He squeezed my hand.

His mother raked out grates and swept floors, he said.

She shouted at him to get out. He wrinkled his nose,

tipped his head to one side, and sidled off.

 

His mother lay all day on a chaise longue.

She wore a black patch on one eye, and offered me

a hand like twigs to kiss. Her sister squinted at me

round the door. Get in here, Sis.

Don’t think I can’t see you. A fall and a tumble

and footsteps rushing upstairs. Her brother scowled,

his oily hair swept back.

 

Here in our house she leads me blindfold

through ravines of corridors, and hollow caverns of rooms.

I stumble on footstools. Wardrobes embrace me

like portly dancing partners. In my room,

the apple brushes my lips, caresses my gums

but eludes my teeth. I sit on the iron bedstead

while she strokes my hair. I hear the key turn in the lock.

 

Don’t forget for a moment to listen to how that has to sound, that rhythm I tried to describe. Tell it to yourself, as you realise you may have thought you were into a straightforward narrative of rural Ireland and then find yourself morphed into a folk or fairy tale; something odd, sinister. That’s what Tom Cleary does. It sounds as it sounds, but nothing will be as it seems.

You’ll be wanting to know more,and I hope, wanting to buy the book. Here’s the link you need.

http://www.happenstancepress.org/

Tomorrow I’m off to the Puzzle Hall Poets to listen to Steve Ely, and to compere the open mic. I may see you next week. I’ll certainly see you the week after. Thank you for being here. Don’t forget to put the chairs straight.

 

 

 

Painting over the cracks…a sort of half-term break

painting 2

Writing workshops three weekends in a row, Ann and Peter Sansom (twice) and Kim Moore in between. Shedloads of brilliant exercises, more ideas than I can shake a stick at. But have you noticed this (these?) bugs that are going around? Liz Venn at the Poetry Business yesterday put it as succinctly as you’d expect. Schools and colleges and universities are stewing petri dishes. I like that. I don’t teach any more, but half the writers I know do, and I’m rattling with Beechams pills..not quite just-in-case. I spent four days last week painting the bathroom. It’s a space of infinite planes and angles. It has lots of cupboard doors that demand masking tape and at least two brushes. It is not finished. It could be done by Tuesday. In which case, we can crack on with the landing, the bit of the kitchen that needs replastering thanks to a broken slate (and, by the way, if you’re shopping around for house insurance, take it from me that Privilege is not the firm you want. Not only will they refuse to pay up; they will also fail to answer any letters for months, and possibly forever.)….and then there’s the sitting room and two bedrooms. Five year cycle. I bet the Sistine Chapel job went quicker. All this is leading up to a weak apology for the fact that you’ll not get a value-for-money cobweb this week. On the other hand, you can have a poem that came out of a workshop earlier in the year. It involves a recurrent dream/fantasy that I have no explanation for. I hope there isn’t one.  here we go:

Stripped down

Sometimes you’ve had enough of doors,

their soft grain, the molasses of half-melted scumble,

split mouldings, the sting and reek of Nitromors,

and you think of walls,

how paper is more soothing,

suited to solitude, to pensiveness.

 

Layer after layer, peeling back the years,

the anaglypta coming off in satisfying chunks,

the thinner ones with pale blue stripes,

the stippled lining paper that only comes

away in grudging little bits,

the shiny one, with blowsy pinkish roses

on a midnight ground, the arsenic green

that someone once distempered

and smells like Infant Schools,

and under all of that

last layer peeling off the stripping knife,

an eye. It stares back.

Then it blinks.

It’s just as far inside the wall

as my eye is in front, this eye

in my house of mirrors.

As it became.

 

Next week a proper post with a proper cobweb guest, another undiscovered gem. I think I’ll go and have a hot drink. See you next Sunday, fingers crossed.

The ‘S’ word…..an apochryphal prohibition [ being a defence of Peter Sansom ]

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I was but recently in Alicante, scrambling up an unfeasibly dusty, thorny, stony hot hill to the foot of a cliff where, we were assured, we would find fragments of pottery, the 2000 year old detritus of an original Iberian settlement. And so we did. Lots and lots of broken pots. The view was amazing, too…….hundreds of miles of Roman and Moorish terracing contouring each and every hill, off into the distance.2014-09-03 12.58.48

Imagery, history, narrative, sculpture….and poetry. Ah….poetry and broken pots. That brings us to the troubled world of apochryphal quotations. No one actually said  ‘Come up and see me some time’. No one ever said, in a film, ‘Play it again, Sam’. But because everyone thinks that someone said it, then it’s as though someone actually did. History is what people believe…nothing to be done about it, any more than you could eliminate the belief, in parts of Wales, that Churchill ordered English troops to open fire on the striking miners of Tonypandy.

And so, it will always be true (though factually incorrect) that Peter Sansom, one half of the beating heart of the wonder that is The Poetry Business, categorically states (in a book that most people who ‘quote’ from it have never read), that no self-respecting poet should ever, ever, ever use the word ‘shard’ in any kind of poem ever. I suspect that he is occasionally embarassed, if not actually irked, by this. Anyway, standing, hot, awkward, sweating and bleeding, on a pile of broken Iberian earthenware it struck me that this should be confronted. How, I wondered, might it have appeared in a florid piece of Romantic rhetoric. As it turns out, such a thing actually exists. The original is difficult to read from a photograph. This is a transcript.

A Relique.

 From Mare Nostrum’s Anatolian shore,

Ten leagues distant, ‘midst arid, jagged

Mountains, eagle-haunted airie heights,

There stands a tow’ring cliffof golden stone.

If to its rocky foot, with faltering steps,

The dauntless traveller would ascend

By goat path tortuous, through brittle Thorn,

And bitter Dust, as ’twere of Dead Sea Fruit,

Then bloodied, dwarfed beneathe that Precipice dire,

Under his feet appear, among the Root

Of Juniper and Ericacae dessicate,

Fragments of the ancient Potter’s art….

Broken amphorae, rough bowls and goblets

That, for two Millenia, lay spurned

By hoof of goat, scorched by Tropic suns,

Blown at every Winde’s caprice, unheeded

Even as great Empires rose in Pride, then fell.

O! Shattered Reliques of an ancient Race!

And say, how should the Traveller, besmeared

With toil, and foul with cloying dust and blood,

Apostrophize a single piece of all this multitude?

 

The Replie

Two thousand years it’s lain in dust

on a thorny hill, this broken pot,

waiting patiently for the mot juste

from all the lexicon of crock that poets have got…………………

not fragment, splinter, scrap or shiver,

remnant or chunk or flake or sliver.

Dismiss false prohibitions laid upon the bard.

Some times only one word will do the trick

So, take up your pen, and write it:   SHARD

relics 001

So there you are. No such thing as never in poetry. Thank you for everything you taught us all, Peter Sansom, recognising false nostrums being among the foremost.

Next week will be about the horrors of the empty page. Make sure you sharpen your pencils. Oh, and go out now to buy  Peter Sansom: Selected Poems [Carcanet]…..available in kindle and paperback. Buy both.

 

 

 

Writing workshops…opening doors and lighting candles as you go

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

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

clayton

Here’s one of my inspirations … missed him in that last post. Sorry Ian. Ian’s a broadcaster, writer, storyteller extraordinaire. He’s edited photgraphic essays on the days of winter Rugby League. He’s written hilariously about the music that’s been the soundtrack to his life; he’s written heartbreakingly about the death of his daughter, Billie*. He’s championed the cause of giving a voice to working-class communities in the mining villages of West Yorkshire. For years he ran a writer’s workshop at the sadly now-defunct Yorkshire Art Circus in Castleford, and that’s where I met him when I signed up for six month’s worth of Thursday morning workshops. The core of the group were women from Castleford, Normanton, Sharlston, Featherstone…towns whose pits and whose heart were ripped out in the 80’s. I didn’t learn much about writing poetry. Most of the folk were focussed on writing autobiography and family history. And, perhaps, even more than that, on telling stories. What I did learn was how to keep a note book. I wrote non-stop during each morning’s session, recording as much as I could of what people said, and what I thought about them and about their stories. I learned to write without thinking about how it looked or how it sounded, fast and impressionistically. I filled a big fat A4 notebook. I salvaged a couple of poems from it all, but the trick of letting words on to the page without worrying was the gift I was given…that and some brilliant stories. Without that experience, I doubt I could have got as much as I have from the following five years. Which takes us nicely to:peterann1

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

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

There are two other things I value the Poetry Business writing days for. If the morning sessions surprise you into writing poems you didn’t know you had in you, then the afternoon sessions teach you about reading and editing. It’s hard, concentrated work, reading and listening to maybe ten other poets’ work, and getting focussed feedback on your own work. You learn that what you thought was probably pretty damn fine is, after all, provisional, and that you have to knuckle down to make it work for a reader. You learn that criticism is provisional too..a question of comments on the lines of ‘why not try this and see what happens’ and ‘do you really need this or that line/image/adjective’. You discover that readers find subtexts and layers you never anticipated. From Ann, in particular, you learn how reversing the order of a couple of lines, or, even more startling, making tiny adjustments to punctuation, can make a poem sing. Just to show we’re up to date, I was in Sheffield today, at a PB writing day, and apart from seven new sets of might-be-poems, and afternoon workshop poems of rare quality, I copied out yet another Ann Sansom bon mot. There was one poem that had a line in which poppies were growing at the edges of fields. She homed in on that one word. She said: you can come back to this; it’s one of those words: like drawing pins, that you use to stick the line together, till you can come back and fix it properly. I love that. It’s no good being a writer if you don’t learn to be a reader. So that’s one good thing. The other is to find that you’ve been admitted to a community of writers. Which takes us to:almaserra )ct 2013 051

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

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

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

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

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

The Poetry Business pamphlets are published by Smith/Doorstop.

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

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

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

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