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

63dc05ea8a93b5b3c9cd98b027a2d5b1--human-evolution-science-classroom

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?

51rK-I9rNrL._SX326_BO1204203200_

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/

 

On sequences. And a Gem Revisited: Steve Ely

sequence

To begin with, an apology, and an also an acknowledgement.

The apology first. On Friday night I was lucky enough to be the guest reader at the laconically-named Manky Poets,  in Chorlton. Great audience and quality open mic. A listening room. I would have done well to remind myself of what I wrote some time ago in a post about how to behave at an open mic. evening: thus

For readers. Reading

Rehearse. Rehearse your timings. Find out how long you have, and rehearse how many poems that is when they’re read aloud. Stick to it.

Well, I’d been told, and it was on the poster. Finish 9.30. Somehow I got it in my head it was 10.00. So, Copland Smith, I’m sorrier than I can say that you had to do the thing of holding up your arm and tapping your wristwatch, meaningfully. Mea maxima culpa. I hope I can come back some time. I’ll get the time right.

And the acknowledgement. I decided I wanted to write this post after reading one on Sequences by the indefatigable Roy Marshall   (here’s the link: https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/2017/03)/01/on-sequences/). As is his wont, Roy writes about the what and the how of the business -which is of more use to the prospective writer than my own tendency to to muse about the whys and wherefores. I’ve lifted a couple of chunks to illustrate:

First of all, a practical reason: “In my experience sequences can provide the writer with the feeling that they are rich in material; that they have ‘something in the bank’ and that even when not actively producing poems, there is a subject to return to an explore.”

I think the key notion here for me is the one that points to our need for a comfort blanket, the feeling that we have ‘something in the bank’ . Drawing on his own experience of putting his two collections together, Roy also reflects on the business of sequencing itself:

Once a number of poems have been written, the next challenge is to select poems and lay them out in the order that works best.  One absorbing aspect of assembling a sequence is deciding which poems to include and to work out the relationships between poems so they work together to their collective advantage.  While it is undoubtedly hard to write a batch of poems that maintain a consistently high quality, it is  important to try and recognise any weaker poems and remove them or risk weakening the impact of the whole sequence.

I like the reminder about the need to weed out poems that may fit thematically, but don’t stand on their own two feet. And also the reminder that you try to figure out the best order. I’d only add to that the idea that it can be like tweaking and fine-editing individual poems. You can often end up where you started, and reflect that that way madness lies. I know I’ve been open mouthed with admiration when poets describe how they lay hard copies of each sheet of a pamphlet or a collection out on the floor and move them around like chessmen. I can’t do it. I actually don’t know how I do it. Instinct. Something. But not a floor full of paper, which would bring on nightmare memories of double-checking 360 folders of English coursework for GCSE by setting them out on the floor at home. AAArgh.

I do know that one of my editors in particular has an amazing instinct/ear/eye/brain for spotting a glitch in the succession of poems. Ann Sansom (for it is she) shifted one poem in Much Possessed from near the beginning to the end. Where it belonged. I’d never have seen it. And she shifted one poem , about apples and the Fall of Man from 4th to 2nd, when it became apparent that it was in the voice of Lucifer (the voice of the first poem)…the thing is, when I wrote it, I didn’t know. When you put poems side by side, they begin to have conversations with each other and won’t do what they’re told. They take on an independent life. Which is as it should be.

I’m intrigued by that notion of an independent life. Somehow, poems will grow out of things that simpley will not leave you alone. I think of, say, Yvonne Reddick’s new pamphlet Translating Mountains which grows out of her father’s death in the Grey Corries, and her ancestor’s gem-hunting in the Alps. I think of Tom Cleary’s latest poems about his father’s trials in the Irish fight for independence, of Keith Hutson’s Troupers and his longstanding love affair with almost forgotten music hall and variety acts; of Kim Moore’s sequence on domestic violence in The art of falling, and her new poems about ‘All the men I never married‘…and of course, of Steve Ely (but more of that before long). Roy got me thinking of the way sequences appear or don’t appear in my own writing. Thinking about it I’m aware that I’ve created sequence about the death of my son, David; about my parents (my mother, especially) and grandparents; about a crofting community on Skye, about a village in Spain; about hospitals and about the Fall of Man. The thing is, I never set out to do any of it. Not like that. The poems got written over a period of years and then found each other’s company. I never set out to write ‘sequences’ about any of them, though theing is, once you’ve got, say half a dozen, you begin to wonder if there can be more. I have to say that in my case that’s the point at which I start to write bad poems.Because I’m forcing them in to being.

I’m also aware that quite accidentally I’ve written a lot of poems that feature birds. I know very little about birds. I can recognise them because my dad was a keen bird-watcher, and I suppose he taught me, but I’ve never set out to study or research them. And there has never been a reason to group the poems together simply because they have birds in them…probably because they’re not actually about birds at all.

I’ve set out, sometimes, quite deliberately to write sequences: one about a painter and his wife and his model and his paintings (think of Fiona Benson’s Van Gogh sequence in Bright Travellers)….I spent over a year reseaching and ended up with three poems. That should have taught me something, but I’ve since tried the same thing with Clearance sites on Skye, with Culloden, and (with a bit more success) the notions that famous statues may be able to speak…at least I had a proper purpose with that, one of experimenting with dramatic monologues, and trying out other people’s voices. In general, I’d judge them all relative failures, mainly, I think, because I was trying too hard.

They say you live and learn, but I’m currently battling away at an idea seeded at an open mic night…ostensibly a sequence about the Lofthouse mining disaster. It involves versions of God, Mrs Beeton, Mary Anning, flower pressing and the evolution of the planet. I suspect it will end in tears. And on the strength of one poem written in a workshop a poet I love and respect suggested I write a twelve poem sequence. I am already having nightmares about it.

So it’s a huge relief to turn to a poet who writes sequences with huge assurance, fed by phenomenal (as it seems to me) scholarship, research and absorption in contemporary political history, in the the world of birds, and in the heft and texture of Yorkshire dialect and its roots in medieval English. Welcome back, Steve Ely.

priory 5

When Steve was last a guest (August 2015)  I wrote quite a lot about landscape, about ‘knowing your place’. Particularly, I wrote about Englaland

Englaland isn’t edgeland. It’s right in the middle of England, the landscapes of farms and pit villages and power stations and their great white plumes of condensation, despoiled monasteries, forgotten castles, the remains of priories . It’s the landscape that D.H.Lawrence wrote about, and his loathing of the man-made England. Because pit villages are never pretty or picturesque in the way of, say, Pennine mill towns. But they are surrounded and inerpenetrated by an older farmed and forested England. Which is Steve Ely’s ground.

You can catch up on all that by following this link https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/08/30/knowing-your-place-a-polished-gem-8-steve-ely/

Time now to get up to date, with this poet who writes sequences..though, as we’ll shortly see, not just sequences. Since he was last here, his account of Ted Hughes’ Mexborough years has been published, as has his unnerving, chunky pamphlet Werewolf of which Sheenah Pugh writes:

“the poems in this collection which discuss individuals’ propensity to violence, how they control it and how it can be exploited by the state are extremely thought-provoking and memorable, and mostly not because of their often harrowing subject matter but because of the skill with which it is handled. The jackdaw approach to history, assimilating different peoples, events and eras, brings home, as nothing else could, our essential likeness to each other, and viewing our own thoughts, words and actions through the glass of the “other” is as instructive now as it was when Euripides used the prism of the Trojan War to condemn the Athenian invasion of Melos. I don’t think anyone could read “Inyengi” and not be, at least temporarily, more careful in their language, or “Spurn” and not wonder “could it happen here?”

I think that’s why Steve Ely speaks so directly to me in his collections, Oswald’s Book of Hours and Englaland. He reminds me of the jolt I got when I first read E.P.Thompson’s The making of the English Working Class, and Hobbsbawm, and The common muse, and Roy Palmer’s The Rambling Soldier, of when I first listened to Charles’ Parker’s radio ballads…especially The ballad of John Axon ….. and Tony Parker’s Red Hill (the story of a mining community).

breakfast 001

OK. What he sent me when I asked him to come back to the cobweb needs not a scintilla of editing. Steve..off you go.

Since August 2015, I’ve:

  • Run
  • Been out with the dogs a lot and got into confrontations with any number of landowners, farmers and gamekeepers.
  • Been birding in South Uist
  • Found a kestrel’s nest with two young-uns and been caught up in a tornado on the same day.
  • Published my biography of Ted Hughes’s early years, Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire, with Palgrave McMillan.
  • Been involved in the organisation of the second Ted Hughes Poetry Festival in Mexborough.
  • Gotten myself a PhD – the guerilla-pastoral, anarcho-yeoman anarchism, Bakhtin, Gramsci, Kipling, Pound, Moretti and Kavanagh …
  • Started teaching creative writing at the University of Huddersfield.
  • Been appointed Director of the Ted Hughes Network at the University of Huddersfield.
  • Published a hefty (who knew pamphlets had to weigh less than 0.5 grams and be printed on point 4 font on a butterfly’s wings?) pamphlet, Werewolf, with the estimable Bob Horne’s Calder Valley Poetry.

In 2017, I’ll:

  • Run
  • Continue my guerilla-pastoral campaign against landowners, farmers and gamekeepers
  • Dig some holes
  • Get a third dog for my roster, probably a lurcher of some sort
  • Go birding in South Uist
  • Publish a book of poems called Incendium Amoris with Smokestack Books  (June)
  • Be involved with the third Ted Hughes Poetry Festival in Mexborough (main weekend 23rd –25th June)
  • Help facilitate the symposium, ‘Ted Hughes & Place’ at the University of Huddersfield, with my colleague James Underwood (June 15th –16th)
  • Be delighted and excited to welcome Dr Heather Clark to the University of Huddersfield as International Visiting Scholar in June. Heather’s biography of Sylvia Plath will be published in 2018 by Knopf.
  • Write some excerpts from a mythic autobiography
  • Grow a some dangerous plants on my occult allotment
  • Publish a book of poems called Bloody, Proud & Murderous Men, Adulterers and Enemies of God with High Window Press (December).

I’ll also be keeping it real – on the street and in the ’hood. (he adds)

IMG_2043

Unlike the pigeon, pursued onto my window by the sparrowhawk which filled my garden with feathers,there’s not the slightest suggestion that Steve will be brought up short by the unexpected.He’s sent me two poems to share. They are poems with birds in them. They may not be about birds.

How great is that darkenesse

Ring road glazed in lights.

Buffering macula, dampened panes;

muted YouTube central heating.

Cold coffee and donuts,

gastro-oesophageal reflux.

The heart’s a torn up map, voyaging

blind through doldrum darkness.

Through muffling glass

high greylags trumpet,

skeining wild and north.

I reckon that if you had to visualize the first circle of hell, you’d do worse than think of a ring-road or a motorway service station in the dark early hours. It’s a place for a dark night of the soul, being itself soulless in its unnatural light and much-breathed, centrally-heated air, its windows glazed with condensation. An edgeland place, neither here nor there, but between real places and lives. The sense of spiritual displacement is concentrated in that phrase ‘the heart’s a torn up map, voyaging blind’ and I love the accuracy of ‘doldrum darkness’…the doldrum of becalmed sailors in the middle of a great ocean. And then the poem expands, out and up and away with the ‘high greylags’, migrants moving along known instinctive routes to where they have to be, ‘skeining wild and north’. ‘Skeining’ is lovely, being at once a shape and a sound, a call. And a great word to end on: north, resonant with literature and history. No accident that Heaney chose it for the title of a collection

campsite-north-uist

The second poem shifts us north. If you follow Steve Ely on Twitter or facebook you’ll be familiar with the posts about bird life on Uist. Here’s a poem that explains the love of it all.

No man can serve two masters

Walking that kelp-wrecked,

Hesperidean strand, notes

sanderling, turnstone, purple sand.

Shags hard and low across the surf swell,

crab boat’s outboard drone.  Hauled pots

and crates and nylon holdalls,

pagurus, AKs, shrink-wrapped keys,

the freedom of the golden isle

where phalaropes flirt

and red-throats flume and wail.

Norman MacCaig country, this…not geographically, but spiritually and linguistically..where shags fly ‘hard and low’ and small birds work busily on the low-tide wrack. It’s a moment to rest in.

I’ll know whether I’ve got it right this coming Tuesday night at Huddersfield University, when Steve is leading a writing workshop built around Ted Hughes’ Gaudete. He’ll certainly not leave me in doubt. Thank you anyway for being our guest, Steve Ely.

If you don’t own his books you can put that right. The detail of all of them, as well as of the other poets’ work I’ve mentioned at the beginning, follows. See you next week when we’ll be having a new guest. It’ll be great.

Steve’s books

Oswald’s Book of Hours   [2013 Smokestack Books] £7.95

Englaland                             [2015 Smokestack Books] £8.95

Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made In Mexborough [2015 Palgrave MacMillan ]

Werewolf                             [2016 Calder Valley Poetry ] £7.00

and others I’ve referred to:

Kim Moore The art of falling    [20125  Seren] £9.99

Yvonne Reddick  Translating mountains  [2017 Seren] £5.00

Keith Hutson Troupers [2016 Poetry Salzburg]

Roy Marshall The great animator [2017 Shoestring Press] £10.00

Tom Cleary  The third Miss Keane [2014] Happenstance] £4.00

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

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

bwf-2007-book-signing

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

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

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

chatterton

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

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

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

lots-of-books

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

publishing

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

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

img_1621

Two things happen. Well, they did for me.

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

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

img_1622

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

img_1623

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

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

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

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

tyndale-gospel-of-john

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                             Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

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

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

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

 

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

 

He is the sparrow, the Friday lord.

I hoped to be the watcher on the rooftop,

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

leaf-tip on His world-tree”

[ From: Tyndale in Darkness .

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

and back to Gloucestershire, and Tyndale remembering that

 

I heard the ploughboy whistling under Coombe Hill,

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

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

 

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

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

The powerlessness. This is the day He dies,

Jesus the Friday sparrow, the watcher on the cross

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

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

after God. I translated Genesis.

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

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

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

sula sgeir 3

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

if they knew that gulls and fulmars

would nest in the cloister of their ribs.

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

because their oceans were swanspaths, whaleroads.

because they wrote their maps in the wind,

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

sula

 

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

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

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

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

Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

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

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

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

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

 

 

Outlaws and Fallen Angels

IMG_1264 (2)

Shameless self-promotion to start 2016. Here’s a series of poems that buck the trend of the previous three pamphlets. All the poems in those, bar one or two, had been written between 2012 and 2014. Nearly all of them started life in writers’ workshops. ‘Outlaws and fallen angels’ is different because it took a very long time to come together, and because it took a lot of rewritings. Whether this is a good thing or not I couldn’t possibly say.

It sprung from a compulsion to find different voices, to get out of my default voice, and to explore different ways of thinking. It’s what playwrights do for a living. Amazingly they can inhabit a whole roomful of personas; they seem to know how their inventions and creations think and feel. I have no idea how they actually invent characters. It’s beyond me. But I had the idea that I might actually borrow characters. I didn’t think that up on my own. I borrowed it from Carol Ann Duffy’s wonderful The world’s wife. I borrowed from U.A.Fanthorpe’s George and the Dragon. I borrowed from With a poets eye: a Tate Gallery Anthology.

I started with one of my favourite painters..J.W.Waterhouse. His staple was adaptations of myth and legend, frequently via Tennyson and Keats. I am very fond of his Lady of Shalott (mind you, so were most of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) and even more so of his La belle dame sans merci. If you look at enough Waterhouse paintings, and there are lots and lots of them, you realise that the same face appears again and again. This one.

waterhouse_study_of_miss_muriel_foster

Four poems in the pamphlet try to tell the story of the artist, the model, and the artist’s wife. It took me nearly two years to write them. Maybe I should have written a novel about them. I wish Jill Dawson would.

The rest of the collection is about the sculptures that most engage me. I believe each of them imprisons a soul. I wondered what they would say if I listened hard enough. They took me by surprise; I had no idea they were who they said they were…especially Anthony Gormley’s.

Anyway, they’re out there, now, and I couldn’t be more happy for them.

I couldn’t be happier, too, with endorsements from two of my favourite poets: Kim Moore and Steve Ely. You can get the details of their collections on last Friday’s post. If you don’t own them yet, then you should put that right forthwith.

I’m relishing typing the next bit. I’ve never been able to quote what someone has written about my poems, and Ive no intention of resisting the opportunity. It’s just too much fun.

Kim says ‘This is poetry written with a keen and unflinching eye, that takes us on a whistle-stop tour of history and mythology via explorations of the lives and loves of artists and their work’.

Steve Ely writes: Intellectually, aesthetically, and politically engaged — the range of reference includes Cartesian philosophy, the Taliban, John Keats and Tony Harrison’.

How good is that!

Anyway. Thank you for bearing with me. If you want to buy Outlaws and fallen angels you can follow the link from the My books page. Me and my publisher, Bob Horne, have agreed that he’ll handle all the sales. So huge thanks to Bob. And thanks to all my readers who’ve followed the great fogginzo’s cobweb and made it worth the writing every week.

Next week we’ll be back to normal with a proper post and a proper guest poet. I’m already looking forward to it. Once I come back down to earth. Have a splendid 2016 xxxx

 

Not believing in silence [remastered]: A polished gem (5) Clare Shaw

Not believing in silence…..Directors cut, remastered. While I was writing this cobweb strand on Sunday, I managed to lose the last section; simply couldn’t recover it and its elegant rhetoric from cyber-oblivion. Could have been worse. There may be a virus going round. Kim Moore (she of the world-famous Sunday Poem poetry blog…. http://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com/ ) somehow managed to lose the entirety of her post. Or maybe we were both just a bit tired and in a rush. Anyway, this is my second and last re-edit, and it’s as close to the original may have been as I can remember. I hope it does my guest credit.

skylark-cragg-sun (2)

May is a hectic month. Suddenly the garden’s fat with flower and blossom and where did all that come from. And the weeks are suddenly packed with poets and poetry. Nothing happens for weeks and then everything comes at once. Like wisteria. Or buses. What it is, I’ve driven to Sheffield on three consecutive days, for readings and workshops, and I don’t do late nights, or I do but I don’t do them well. I’ve had a ridiculously long lie-in this morning, but though I don’t drink, I feel vaguely hungover. So today’s cobweb strand may be unsteadily spun and brittle. The images I chose for it may make no sense in the cold light of day. I sincerely hope otherwise. I’ve been planning it for weeks. Here’s why.

gunslinger 1

I first saw Clare Shaw read to a less than full house at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield about a year ago. Striking,beautiful, tall, with an athlete’s poise and grace, and in black, like a gunslinger. I was bowled over. I’d been roped in to compering duties at the last minute; as far as I remember I described her set as a rivetting combination of Patti Smith/Bukowski/ Dylan/ Morrisey and John Cooper Clark if they had that accent of the Lancashire Pennines where they rhyme ‘hair’ with ‘fur’. She reads with a rare intensity and poise. Gunslinger. Her poems have you unwaveringly in their sights. They’re urgent and full of love. I find it hard to separate the poems I hear at a reading, but this time one stuck in my brain. I wanted to hear it again and again.

This baby
This baby is a hurricane –
it’s the thunder of an underground train.
You can hear it coming from miles away.
You can feel it in the walls, the floor.

It’s the roar beneath the city street;
the earthquake that wakes you,
shaking beds, breaking plates.
This baby dislodges slates –

felled a steeple in Dudley.
This baby could kill.

This baby is news, big news.
This baby makes you huge.
Makes you Africa and Russia,
proud. A high hot-air balloon fat-filled with fire.
You could explode with it.
Stand clear! This woman could blow any minute.
*
This quick blood-bloom of certain cell
could grow to anything –
snowflakes forming like a wildflower,
a sly-eyed gull; a dinosaur;

a deep bellyful of weed.
This baby is a fallen seed.
The thin grass blade that ruptures the road.
It could open you up –

your stomach, the shape of a book not yet written;
the curve of the first word
of the book you wake speaking,
always forgotten.

It’s like that, this baby –
the light of a star that no-one can see
travelling ten thousand light years
to catch you unaware

knelt as you are in the slow Autumn rain,
heaving with dreams
and your body a poem
on the theme of ‘This Baby’.

Think of a name.

[from Straight Ahead]

Hard to say how much I enjoyed inexpertly typing this poem, feeling it reveal itself letter by letter, typos and corrections and all, hearing the craft of it that I’d missed in the rush of hearing it read. The universality and particularity of THIS baby, the surprise of the rhymes, the lovely juxtapositions of gulls and wildflowers, the immanence of THIS baby. I love, too, the way it makes me think of Sylvia Plath’s ‘high-riser /my little loaf’ ….but THIS baby’s ‘proud’ way beyond the proud of flesh or a risen loaf, a small insidious force that will grow to an earthquake, ‘the thin grass that ruptures the road.’ Everything is exact and crafted and thunderous with energy. It had me in its sights, alright. I wanted to read more. So I did.

Landscapes, first, although that might not be the first thing that you’d attend to. I’ve been a great fan of ‘Edgelands‘ for a good while, but it occurs to me that its rich observations are those of edgeland tourists, whereas many of Clare Shaw’s poems (like those of Steve Ely’s ‘Englaland‘) are those of one of its inhabitants. I’m thinking of the inbetween landscapes of council estates on the edge of Pennine moors, between the dirty glamour of the Lancashire plain and its cities, and the high sour cottongrass and peat and gritstone, and the small towns of the Calder valley, the Ribble valley, the mix of rundown mills, steep slopes, small farms.

pennine roads

They’re evoked to locate and realise a particular childhood in a hot summer when

‘………Miss Snell walked in circles

and the girl with Downs from off the estate

came up with her mother.

In our back yard, Action Men fell and died’

[‘The year Dad left.’  in Straight ahead]

Just let the resonance of the title work on you; just consider the careful particularities of the detail of that stanza. See how just one ‘extra’ word can tune you in to the dialect and the accent you should hear it in : ‘ the girl with Downs from off the estate’. And I want to highlight the way another landscape places the desperate tensions of love affairs. Everything happens somewhere, but these somewheres seem to me absolutely true and right. Like this from ‘About the arguments we had last year

‘It would have been so easily ended

back then,

the three hour arguments

that left us shaking,

the urgent late night drive,

two other cars on the road,

between here and North Yorkshire,

the yellow-green hedgrows,

the sudden open page

of an owl lifting’

and another haunting memory with its haunting half-rhymes, from the title poem ‘Straight ahead’

‘I can still see her

how she pulls up the car at night on the moor

just to hear

those big white windmills slicing the air’

I love the way the physical facts of these landscapes, their textures and scents and creatures, inform urgent poems of motherhood, its visceral tug.. I keep re-reading ‘Ewe’ from Head on– this animal who ‘is losing it, losing it. The lamb-leap and skip -all her fastness, / back from the day when touch came / pink, milk dripping’ , this ewe with her ‘hedge-heavy fleece’  because that’s how they are, those grubby gritstone sheep. And again and again I’ll read ‘Ewe in several parts’  whose first line has you and won’t let go. The heartclench of ‘I lost my baby. / I left her outside for a moment…’  The sheep have taken her, this child of a Pennine Persephone. There’s a poem of Fiona Benson’s that has this same heartstopping moment, but in a harvest field. The sheep moors are closer to the storytelling forests of folk tale, where children are innocent and nature is quite amoral. This baby

must have liked it

her hands tangled deep in the sheep’s deep wool

where the moss and the small twigs snag.

She must have liked it

the way she likes dogs,

her hands to its mouth and stamping

like she does when she’s pleased’.

There’s always texture and physicality in Clare Shaw’s poems. It strikes me, because I’m told often enough that my own poems are almost always visual, that there’s touch and not just touch in these poems. They’re sometimes olfactory (is that the word?). There’s the damp reek of a place where a girl is abused: ‘In the film she is in a subway. / The viewer imagines the smell: / concrete and dirt; sour fruit‘… unnervingly, textures have scent; the grit, the soft brown fruit. Grass may smell yellow. Surface can be dangerous, unkind. ‘the angry sand / the shattered glass of pine and bracken’ at a seaside campsite. Sweat in a hot tent  has a ‘stale leather smell’. A drunken girlfriend after a night on the lash ‘smelt of compost heap, hot weather’. The narrator nurses a hangover on a train ; ‘the woman in front / smells sweet of fruit, /a red smell you could climb into / and never get out; a great, wet / nest of a smell’ .

Felt and physical, Clare Shaw’s poems. And you see we’ve shifted landscapes and into a more disturbing, damaged world, and one that’s central, along with the theme of motherhood (or, if you prefer it, the business of being a mother) to both of her collections. Clare Shaw champions the damaged and abused, particularly abused and damaged girls, with a rare fierce love and urgency, and her poems speak for them quite unforgettably. I don’t want to go on about the details of her life. Her poems are her way of telling her story and that’ll do for me.

As a way of introducing the next bit, here’s an extract from an interview Clare did and the source of which I’ve unforgiveably lost. So when she tells me off after she’s read this, I’ll acknowledge the source.

‘I revel in the texture and echo of words; I love their dance. There’s something about the physicality of the spoken word that delights me. For me it feels like the meeting place of human and landscape; a sort of landscape of mouth and air and page. I enjoy the physicality of my own language; and I’m drawn to poems that foreground the dance and swoop of conversation, as well as the music of form and rhythm; alongside meaning and content.

*

There’s nothing more political or urgent than how we give shape to our feelings, our experiences; and how we understand and respond to each other’s struggles and sufferings. Psychiatry gives a language of medicine and illness to distress; it tells us that we suffer because our brain chemistries are disrupted. The impact of social causes – like poverty, injustice, social exclusion – are sidelined or completely disregarded. There is no definitive evidence for the biological basis of mental illness. That poverty, isolation, abuse and violence cause distress is an irrefutable fact. I’m wedded to the task of helping people to give their experiences and feelings a more meaningful shape than illness or disorder; I think art, literature and poetry offer us more powerful possibilities.’

So they do, and so she does. There’s so much I could tell you about in the two collections, but I’ll let two poems stand for the others. They are ‘This isn’t’ (from Head On) and ‘Poem about Dee Dee’ (from Straight Ahead).

 (Here’s where I try to recall what I wrote about four hours ago, and which for some reasons was not saved. Fingers crossed)

The first poem acheives its power from its unexpected perspective.This is the aftermath of physical and sexual abuse; a cold and impersonal forensic abuse, and there is more than one victim.

‘This isn’t

what mothers are meant to do.

They’re not meant to stand in the corner

of a white room

while their daughters are led, bewildered

to a white couch covered in paper.’

It’s unflinching and it’s fiercely tender. It’s heart-breaking, the belittlement of the one who knows her role is to protect, but who is made to ‘stand in the corner’ ( and just think on the rightness of that line-break). It’s clear-eyed, and dry eyed, and utterly committed. ‘Bewildered’ is a wonderful choice of word. It has the full force of its old roots. This child is be-wildered, led astray and lost. Mothers, says the poet, without sentimentality or condescension, ‘should be at home / with bags full of knitting ; / a kiss.’ There should be the comfort and consolation of pattern, and softness and warmth and wool, and the blessing of a kiss; not this antiseptic cold white nakedness.

The second poem is really a sequence of four poems that start in a psychiatric unit where

‘Dee Dee is out on the hospital roof.

From here, Liverpool is a story

she can read from beginning to end.’

I have suffered from vertigo. I don’t think anyone has come as close as Clare does to describing it:

‘the slow slide of of your stomach

into a corner of itself……

the milk – white explosion

of a moment that could last forever’

There’s that dreadful temptation of falling, ‘and the sound of the cheer is your big day out’.  But two guards and three nurses ungently bring her down. Later, in the crazy blue light,  Dee Dee and a narrator who has had no sleep for weeks:

‘watch TV in the small hours,

………

We know all the tunes to Ceefax,

baiting the glaze-eyed agency staff

with high-risk jokes…..

Dee Dee and me are having a laugh

dreaming plans for O.T. —

rock-climbing schemes

for the deeply depressed.

A barebacked parachute jump.’

You may be institutionalised, restrained with your cheek pushed into the grit of a concrete roof, your arms forced up your back, a knee between your shoulders, and your breath  ‘a necklace of tiny red gasps’ ;and then how will you fight back? How will you reclaim your sanity? Through the black humour of the beleaguered, of the trenches. One flew over the cuckoo’s nest. Survivors’ dark jokes. ‘In there / you could die laughing’. Unsparing and caring. And I flinch. This is what it can take to stay alive. This is the poetry of resilience. I don’t know anyone else who does it so well, with such care and craft and love.

She tells why, too; it’s not comfortable to be told. Poetry shouldn’t be comfortable, should it. It’s

‘because that one afternoon

when I nailed my own voice to the air

and because there was no-one listening

and through it all

birdsong

and the sound of cars passing

I do not believe in silence.’

I’m just going to say thank you to Clare for sending me one new poem, which she says, reprises an earlier one. It came very close to me did this poem. It made me cry. And then it stood me up and brushed me down and sent me on my way. Like mothers do. Here it is.

Not baby, nor boy.

Love cheered you back
but could not save you.
That was a hard thing to learn.

I don’t know when
you re-learned to walk;
when the words you had lost

returned. But I know from the start,
there was something about you –
hope had you marked –

and if I could paint,
then I might stand a chance
at your eyes.

Who needs monkey bars,
or playing the drums
two-handed?

One hand has guided the other.
Your body has been its own brother;
boy with a face like the shore, oh

the question mark of your arm!
I guess time will tell
whether obstacles make a boy

fall. Or leap higher.
Oh boy full of wonder.
Oh head full of thunder.

You’ve a right to your anger –
but you’ve more of a right
to those eyes.

Like she’s written earlier. ‘What I’m really saying is – / our ability to care for each other, / to stand with each other, / it’s all we have / in the end‘. And so it is.

Night-View-of-Halifax

 

One thing before we go. As of now, I believe, Clare Shaw is a Fellow of the Royal Literary Society. This means she is charged to help university students to think and write clearly; to rid them of circumlocution, pedantry and verbosity; to enrich their lexis and streamline their syntax; to see and say plainly. Lucky students, I say.

You’ll be wanting to buy her collections. Please make a note of them before you go. I don’t do handouts. See you next week. Without breaking down in the middle. Fingers crossed.

Straight ahead: [Bloodaxe 2006] £7.95

Head on             : [Bloodaxe 2012] £8.95

If you have any cash left, you could do much worse than buy

Englaland : Steve Ely [Smokestack 2015] £8.95

Edgelands : Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts [Jonathan Cape 2011]