Well met; a Polished Gem: Christopher North

If you’ve followed the various strands of the cobweb for some time, you’ll have seen this photograph before. The limestone range that circles the villages of Sella and Relleu in Alicante, the village of Relleu itself, and, seen between the trees, the blue house. Almaserra, the old olive press that’s the home of today’s guest poet, Christopher North. I can say without any exaggeration that this place changed my life and made it clear to me that what I needed to do was to write poems. 

I can’t explain why it’s taken me so long to ask Christopher to be a guest, but I suppose the trigger was that this year he was one of the winners of the 2018 Poetry Business International Pamphlet Competition, a prize that he adds to the dozens he’s won over the last 20+ years. There’s a synergy here, because I’ve no doubt that the residential courses he runs at the old olive press are one of the two main reasons why I wrote poems that eventually won the same pamphlet prize in 2016. So be warned….this will not be an impartial review, but an enthusiastic ‘thank you’. 

I met Christopher at a coffee shop in Alicante Airport in 2013, where he told me that the guest tutor for the residential course I’d enrolled on was forced to cancel at short notice, and that I could have my money back and fly home, or take a punt and stay, and that he’d try to take over the tutoring duties for the week. I chose to stay, and it was one of the three best decisions I’ve ever made..we drove along the coast, and, just short of Benidorm, turned inland into a landscape I’d not imagined and which I’ve come to love. Big uncompromising limestone mountains, a blue reservoir, huge views. Places I learned to walk in and find the bones of a fox, among other things.

Christopher has quietly introduced me to a dried up 17thC dam, prehistoric cave paintings in a stifling remote valley, the best paella bar in Alicante, another which is a shrine to the Civil War and left wing revolution, a Stanza group in room decorated with crumbling late-renaissance frescoes, and, memorably a steep shale hill below a cliff where we went to find shards of Iberian pottery and where he ripped the arse out of his trousers. I wrote a sort of prose-poem for that

We’re climbing this hill

a shaly slope ,a broken spine of stone, the tilt of strata, all levels and layers , silicas, sandstones, 

blue, green, grey muds, coral flowers, when he says :  from here we have to bushwack

CUE:  

long shot from a winding canyon rim, mesquite, stallions, bitter dust,   rawhide quirts, and stetsons, cactus, creek and willow, mineshaft tailings, clapboard stables, saloon and whorehouse, Colt repeaters, pianola, mirrors, scrolled mahogany, sleeve bands, tight black bowler hats, tooled leather, spit, unshaven desperadoes, shifty mexicans and crooked sheriff, dark Apache , in his birdbone breastplate, three crow feathers pushed into his blueblack hair,  a wired up Commanche on a piebald horse, contempt like a scalp on the tip of a lance, the sage chief  of the Black Hills Sioux, with the eagle bonnet,  the softest buckskin fringe, plumes of smoke in the lodge by the oxbow’s quiet shadows, and thin dogs doing nothing in particular,  the hero carefully turned out, the  rancher’s daughters prim as prayerbooks , careless dancehall girls, their knees and tucked up skirts, their buttoned boots and ribbons, ah, so many ribbons, the double door that swings both ways, a silhouette, a shadow bringing conversations to a stuttering halt, like traffic, that exact moment that the piano stops midtune, a pause like a burial plot, just waiting on its allotment of words.

And from here, he says, we have to bushwack.

Whatever that is.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

This year is the first in six years that I haven’t been to one of the writing weeks that he and his wife Marisa host. It’s been like a year without Christmas. At the old olive press I’ve met so many writers and made lasting friendships. Tutors Mimi Khalvati, Jane Draycott, and Ann Sansom. Fellow residents Jane Kite, Shirley McClure, Wendy Klein, Carole Bromley, Fokkina Macdonald, Martin Reed, the photographer Ton Out, and, especially, Hilary Elfick and Gyula Friewald. Most of them have been guests on the cobweb, and you can find them easily enough. 

I’ve checked today, and established that of the poems I’ve written in workshops there 22 have been published, four have won prizes in competitions, and one, surreally, has been read to a bilingual audience in the frigid air-conditioned basement of El Corte Inglese in Murcia.

So there you are. The people, the friendships, the amazing places. I owe him so much, this urbane, companionable, erudite, entertaining man. Time to meet him and his poems. He’ll introduce himself better than I could .

“Through the seventies and eighties I worked as surveyor doing structural surveys, mortgage valuations, court work and some house-building I was in private practice with an expanding firm – and though I read a good deal of poetry, (to keep reasonably sane), I wasn’t writing it. I did keep a journal and the odd phrase or observation suggests that there was a spark of creativity in my writing. I sold my business in 1988 and was thus contracted to a corporate. I no longer had the weight of responsibility I carried before (I had five partners and about 30 employees) so I was freed up somewhat. By a mischance I attended week long writing course in Provence run by John Fairfax, of Arvon fame, and the poet Sue Stewart, who I believe later held a creative writing fellowship at Stirling University. It was a week that changed my life. John Fairfax was particularly encouraging. 

A little later I went to a Literary festival in Devon followed by a Lumb Bank week (at John Fairfax’s suggestion) and from on then poetry became a major element in my life.  When retirement from ranging rods and valuation tables came over the horizon, I  had to honour an old promise to  my wife Marisa that we would move to her country of birth, Spain. I had long carried the idea of facilitating residential courses in poetry – and ten years mixed up with the London poetry scene, and eight years running my own poetry workshop, we looked for a place suitable for housing Arvon style residential courses. After a number of abortive negotiations we find a derelict industriel building on the lip of a ravine within the ‘casco’ of a mountain village. As soon as we saw the rear terrace with its panoramic view of terraced mountains and a 10thcentury castle, we knew we had found the right place. It was an old olive press with the machinery still there – albeit under mounds of rubble. In two years we rebuilt  the ‘Almassera’ always with the view of creating an ambience for creative courses. We had our first pilot week in 2002 .

After  ten years, in the nineties, mixed up with the London poetry scene, and eight years running my own poetry workshop, Metro-land Poets, I had the confidence and contacts to engage the poetry elite as tutors and host a huge number of aspirant poets and writers from England, Scotland, Ireland , Wales, France , Germany, Holland along with a dash of Americans. Running these courses has been an intense pleasure for us. I have attended most of the courses as a student, so had the in house perk of five or six course a year with the likes of Mark Doty, Michael Donaghy, Mimi Khalvati, Matthew Sweeney, Alfred Carn Penny Shuttle, Vicky Feaver, Ann Sansom, Tammy Yoseloff, Jo Shapcott., Christopher Reid, Graham Fawcett, James Harpur, Mario Petrucchi and others.  As a result my own poetry developed rapidly. We have also hosted retreats in our annexe in a village house.

Poetry grows in the doing of it, in causing it to become organically part of you and part of the day, every day. It is ancient, endless and essential – more so now than at any time, save possibly when the country is at war.” 

He chairs The UK Poetry Society‘ Stanza Alacant ’in Benissa, Spain which is now in its eleventh year. He is currently working on a monograph exploring his diary entries during the 25 years of the ‘Way With Words Literary Festival’ in  Dartington , Devon, England.

Christopher’s  first collection ‘A Mesh of Wires’published by Smith Doorstop was short-listed for the UK’s ‘Forward Prize’ in 1999. He has published two full collections since: ‘Explaining the Circumstances’(2010), ‘The Night Surveyor’(2014) and a joint , bilingual collection ‘Al Otro Lado del Aguilar’(2011) with Terry Gifford  – all with Oversteps Books. His pamphlet collection ‘Wolves Recently Sighted’Templar Poetry 2014 was launched in Matlock 2014 and his latest pamphlet collection ‘The Topiary of Passchendaele’was a winner in the Poetry Business competition 2018. Almassera Vellain Relleu, Alicante, Spain. (www.oldolivepress.com) He chairs The UK Poetry Society‘Stanza Alacant’in Benissa, Spain which is now in its eleventh year. He is currently working on a monograph exploring his diary entries during the 25 years of the ‘Way With Words Literary Festival’ in  Dartington , Devon, England.

And since that will have certainly whetted your appetites, it’s high time for the poems. Chris has sent me three and I like them a lot.

The Smudge of Andromeda

Counting the trillion or so stars of Andromeda

or persuading others to count the trillion or so

stars of Andromeda — and considering the 

apparent impossibility of counting

the trillion or so stars of Andromeda —

or maybe containing them in a dark room 

and closing the door — preferably a room

where despite the dark, and the curtained windows,

all the pictures on the walls are shrouded.

They will be going on and being present in the room

beside the trillion or so stars of Andromeda,

also going on and being present in the room

as outside in the evening sky and its first planets,

the wood will be breathing and the last

of the day’s swallows will be flicking through the air

seeking roosts in the darkening trees and roof spaces.

[the German astronomer Simon Marius re-discovered the Andromeda nebulae in 1612 saying it shone like a candle through horn]

What has often struck me in writing workshops with Chris is the way he seems to effortlessly manage poetry (and conversation) that uses long, complex, beautifully constructed sentences without ever losing a rhythm that gives then a musical coherence. I suppose the other thing is an erudition, and encyclopaedic knowledge that ought to be chaotic but isn’t, an erudition that’s lightly worn and which provides a huge source of surprising reference that he combines with lyricism. Which is what this poem does.

You need to read it aloud more than once, realising that the first stanza isn’t actually a sentence but a proposition that’s like an extended title (a bit like the long chapter headings of 18th C novels). I love the way it combines the confusion of ‘a smudge’ with the focussing precision of what we’re being asked to consider…the repeated trillions of stars in a room where all the pictures are shrouded, where the stars are inside and outside in the sky, and the organic rhythmical processes of dusk, the breathing of trees, and the flight of birds coming home to roof. It’s dreamlike (with all the accurate precision of dreams), incantatory and magical.

The next poem is equally magical and slightly unreal, but firmly rooted in what is effectively a narrative, and anecdote. “Remember that night when….’

The Night Surveyor: Dartington Gardens

(For Ben Okri)

After the farewell party we grabbed a bottle

and, on your suggestion, headed into the gardens,

pitch dark, rustling leaves, I don’t know how many came.

Giggling, without a torch we found the Tiltyard,

above us Cassiopeia, a slumped Great Bear.

Now be our night surveyor you said.

I declared to the six (or were there seven?):

‘The Cypress is twenty metres from the twelfth Apostle;

the fountain, two chains, fifteen eleven

Starlit dunes of Devon fields gleamed above trees

as we crossed silvered lawns and I announced:

we are four hundred feet above the sea

then led them up endless steps, finding risers with gentle kicks.

There’s this place of seven echoessomeone whispered

someone counter-whispered: No there’s only six.

Full fathom five.. I shouted from the bastion. 

No please not that one surveyor  you murmured, 

O trees of dark coral made?  – ‘No try something else.

Some bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch…

No echo but a leaden voice climbed inside my ear.

Over Staverton, or Berry Pomeroy’s lowly thatch

hung Jupiter, no Venus, or was it Mars?

One shouted:  I embrace the universal me,

voice cracked and small beneath shades and stars.

Two melted into trees: We remaining passed round wine.

The town below lolled in sodium as if bathing

and you yawned Get us back surveyor, I think it’s time.

I counted steps. Shadows rose and fell in bands.

Feeling for damp and stone, plotting silhouettes 

and shadows, gradually we became a chain of hands.

I really like the filmic quality of this, a film by Peter Greenaway…the draughtsman’s contract. The story of the bunch of tipsy chums stumbling around in the dark under a huge starlit sky, stumbling over silvered lawns, declaiming of bits of Shakespeare, the absurdity of it that gradually comes to its senses, and back to earth as The town below lolled in sodium. I love the way the declaiming poet comes back to the role of the measuring and sensible surveyor and the group of friends who became a chain of hands. The whole thing is witty, elegantly constructed, and ultimately life-affirming, lyrical and loving.

I’ll take a risk with the last poem, the title poem of Christopher’s winning pamphlet, selected by David Constantine. I’ve picked an image of calculated regularities and dreadful repetition.

The Topiary of Passchendaele 

Clip the box precise,

       make corners a right angle

and thus contain the Cherry tree

       in a low wall of green.

Lower the cypressus 

       to see the horizon file of poplars

flickering in afternoon wind.

        Make it horizontal, check

with a spirit level,

        always control height — 

all needs daily attention

         before cheese, fine cheese

and beer, fine beer.

Order these gardens,

          contain the beds and herbs,

they must be shielded, neat.

          Allow no thistle or spurge, 

ground must be raked clean, pure —

           cleansing makes for calm.

Be exact in measurement,

           correct in the lie of paving,

check privet, manicure the arborvitae.

           It is imperative to be uniform.

It needs hourly attention

            before cheese, fine cheese

and beer, fine beer.

It’s a poem that makes me think of the kinds of calculation that lay behind the obscene economics of concentration camps, the apparent rationality of the mathematics of slaughter in WW1. It’s done with such precision, the clipped tones of a set of instructions about clipping, the obsessive fact of tidying:

                       Allow no thistle or spurge, 

ground must be raked clean, pure —            

                       cleansing makes for calm.

As though there could be atonement in raking and minutely manicuring; as though we could take our beer and cheese with a clear conscience, conscious of a job well done.

I realise I can’t do justice to what Christopher North has done through his quietly passionate championship of poetry, to the windows he’s opened for so many writers over the years, to his own poetry.  But I can say thank you. So I will. Thank you.

2016: my favourite bits

2016: my favourite bits

minions-at-the-firworks

I started the year (or ended 2015) by playing with my best Christmas present…making scores of Minions out of card. I’m easily distracted. Even more easily distracted by photoshop, which lets me give you, and the Minions, a New Years Eve firework display.

I’ll end this year with a big thank you to everyone who’s made it a busy and happy year of poetry (the other stuff out there in the big world I’d rather briefly forget, just for a hour today. There’s nothing I can do about Brexit, about Trump, about the liars and cheats and egomaniacs hell-bent on destroying everything I, and, truly believe, you, hold dear. Grant us serenity to accept what we can’t change, and the courage to change what we can. Let us love each other better.)

Let me say thank you to all the people who recharge my batteries, and inspire me, and who inspire so many others. Particularly, to Kim Moore and Steve Ely for their residential course in St Ives in February. To Ann Sansom..again..for her course in Spain in June, and to Ann and Peter Sansom for the sheer exuberance of their end-of-the-year course in Whitby in December. To the Poetry Business Writing Days in Sheffield. To everyone who runs the open mic. poetry nights that give an audience to so many poets, and give confidence to those just starting out : Keith Hutson’s Word Play poetry nights at the Square Chapel in Halifax; everyone at the Puzzle Poets Live in Sowerby Bridge; Keely Willox at the Purple Room in Ilkley; Mark Connor’s Word Club at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds; South Street Arts Centre in Reading; Jimmy Andrex and John Clarke’s poetry nights at The Red Shed in Wakefield; The Albert Poets in Huddersfield. Thanks and ever thanks.

I’ve been very lucky this year. I had a pamphlet Outlaws and fallen angels published by Calder Valley Poetry in January. I was one of the winners of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition; because of that I’ve had my first full collection, Much Possessed, published by smith|doorstop. And my friend and former pupil, Andy Blackford and I will be having a collection published in 2017 as a result of winning 1st prize in the Sentinel Poetry Book Competition. None of it would have happened without the network of creative support from those residentials, open mic.s, and workshops. None of it. So thanks and ever thanks.

Huge thanks to all the indefatigable curators of poetry blogs who do so much to provide a platform, particularly for new and emerging poets. It’s invidious to pick out favourites, but that’s never stopped me. Thank you especially to Kim Moore and The Sunday Poem, to Josephine Corcoran for And other poems; to Roy Marshall and his thoughtful, helpful essays https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/; to Anthony Wilson for being the best of the best; and to Ben Banyard and the splendid Clear Poetry. Plus a special word of gratitude to Greg Freeman who travels the country in order to sustain Write Out Loud. What a labour of love that is. If you feel so inclined, they could do with a bit of financial help to support their day-to-day running. Every little helps. https://www.writeoutloud.net/

And, finally, thank you to all the poets who’ve been guests this year on the great fogginzo’s cobweb: Carole Bromley, Wendy Klein, Tom Weir, Mike di Placido, Vicky Gatehouse, Bob Horne, Di Slaney, Graínne Tobin, Stephanie Conn, Gaia Holmes, Jim Caruth, Yvie Holder, Mark Hinchcliffe, Andy Blackford, Julia Deakin. Tom Cleary, Roy Cockcroft, Anthony Costello, John Duffy, Stephanie Bowgett, Wendy Pratt, Laura Potts and Yvonne Reddick.

Two poets who I loved and who were featured during the year have died. Gordon Hodgeon and Shirley McClure. They made the world richer and we are poorer for their loss. Light a candle for them. You don’t have to be religious. Just light a candle.

Just to remind you of the riches they all shared during 2016, I’ll be posting a bunch of poems every day for the next few days. My favourites, the best of the year. Today, from January:

Wendy Klein : South from Bakersfield

Town after town, farther and farther apart; you’re looking
for differences, no matter how small, haunted and baffled
by their alikeness: the filling stations with their dirty rags, tied
to the handles of tin buckets that hold grey water to swill
the desert dust from your windscreen. You know you’ll leave
streaks and tracks–the definition of clean seems different here.

There’s a half-grown boy to fill up your tank if you’re able
to rouse him, and if he likes you, he’ll wipe your windscreen
with fresh paper towels and he’ll grin, display a front tooth
missing, lost in a brawl at night on a rickety porch, over
a mousy girl who could be his best friend’s sister. Now
you’re ready to drive a hundred desert miles or more
to the next one, its twin, you guess, as you pass
the Baptist church, its pink neon cross blinking.

Carole Bromley : Touch

There wasn’t a lot of it in our house.
We learned to live without

though I do remember one time
when my friend, Rosemary, died

and, on the same day, my boyfriend
told someone to tell me we were through

which was a shame since he
was one of the first people

in my whole life to touch me
and I loved it. That night my father

asked me to come down from my room
and watch the news with them.

Three and a half inches of snow
had fallen that day in Alamo.

I lay on the sofa while dad stroked my hair
like an awkward teenager

and, a quarter of a million miles away,
the Russians made the first soft landing on the moon.

from February:

Tom Weir :  Day Trippin’ for Thomas

‘I’d ride horses if they’d let me’— Will Oldham

We talked all morning about the horse
that, if we’re honest, none of us actually knew existed

but it seemed worth it just to get you into the car,
to stop shouting. We mentioned it so often

you began to repeat it from your child-seat
like a mantra, and you’ll never know the relief,

having arrived and not been able to see a stable,
having stalled you with an ice-cream which you wore

like a glove as it melted over your hand,
of finding the woman who showed us where

the horse rides took place, where you waited
so quietly in line, where I stood and watched

as you approached the man with a five pound note
scrunched up in your tiny hand. You spent

the rest of the day repeating the words too little
like a radio breaking bad news every hour on the hour.

We took you down to the lake and watched
you throw stones at the water, watched clouds fall apart

and mend as rowing boats left the harbour and you
sat still, refusing to join another queue.

from March.

Mike di Placido:    Not Quite Birdsong

A butcher where I worked once
was a whistler – you know the type:
aggressive, soulless. I’d stand around
being useless somewhere planning his death.

Days at his block and bacon slicer
rending the air, making his shrill statement.
Clocking on to clocking off –
Colonel Bogey or The Sheik of Araby.

And you could tell he worked at it –
thought he was good. I’d think
of his family, how they coped.
Thought about sympathy cards.

And the other butchers? Surely
he was pushing his luck
next to all those knives and meat-hooks.
Not forgetting, of course, the mincer.

Vick Gatehouse:  Burning mouth syndrome

The doctor says it’s nothing serious, something
she’ll just have to live with, a malfunction
of the nerves perhaps, not uncommon in women of her age
and she leaves with a script for a mild antidepressant,
a leaflet counselling moderation in alcohol, tobacco
and spicy foods and when she returns, he says it again
after taking a look at lips, teeth and tongue –
‘nothing to see’ and he says it with a smile when she can feel
the bees humming in her blood, the tips of their wings
chafing artery walls and she knows without being told
they’re house bees, the ones who feed, clean
and ventilate the hive, pack nectar into the comb
without really tasting it, the ones who wait for mid-life
to take their first orientation flights and she can really
feel the smart of them, the bees in her blood, unfurling
their proboscises to touch the corolla of her heart,
so many years spent licking out hives, all the burn of it
here on her tongue and they’re starting to forage now,
to suck sweetness into their honey stomachs, and the doctor
he’ll keep telling her it’s nothing when they’re rising
like stings, the words she’s kept in.

[Runner-up, Mslexia Poetry Comp, 2015 (published Mslexia 2015)]

from April

Shirley McClure:  Engagement

Nurse dresses the wound,

we talk hormones, oestrogen,

how the levels will drop

like water in a summer pool

that yields only a dry ring,

a glaze of salt.

She says I can swim in salt
water, now that the wound
is healing; she says to ring
if there’s a problem. Oestrogen
used to be my friend. The pool
is out of bounds, but I can drop

down into the waves, swim till I drop,

crawl out covered in salt.

Sea water gathers in a pool

at my feet, and even the wound

shines. Sunbathers beam oestrogen,

and I stand, hopeless in a ring

of bare-breasted women. Can’t ring

any nurse about this. Can’t drop

out of the world because of oestrogen.

I change in our room, taste salt.

My sun-dress won’t cover the wound,

I pull on an old t-shirt, curl up by the pool.

You find me at the pool.

Still not used to your ring –

the ring came before the wound,

before the floor dropped

out of the world, before salt

baths and the war against oestrogen.

– Was it the oestrogen                                            

you fell for, or the reflecting  pool,                

or my image conserved in salt?                         

Would you rather I gave back the ring,                

would you rather we dropped                               

the whole plan? I wound

you with questions, wound with oestrogen,

the drops I have left, run from the pool,

your ring glued to my finger with salt.

Tomorrow, poems and poets from May, June and July.

May 2017 be all you hope for, and nothing of what you fear.

Desire paths, sheep and serenity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what she said

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

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

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

desire-path-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11, Achnacloich

A flicker of white water  on the burn

below the alders where the heron roosts

A flirt of dunnock in the short grass

that sets the sheep trotting

Rain dragging its skirts

across the skerries in the ebb

Right on the rim of the moor

three hinds , watching

A curl of bluegrey turf smoke

from the red-roofed croft

I keep it like this.

The heron just crumpling

into the alders,

like a broken kite

the deer watching

between the moor and the sky

small birds lifting from the field

like the hem of a skirt in a breeze

the lamentations of sheep

the bright red tin roof of a crofter’s house

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

Our Islands’ Stories and a Polished Gem: Stephanie Conn

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Maybe this is where it all started, the business of islands and their stories, and, eventually, by circuitous routes to the revisionist histories of writers like E.P.Thompson, Hobbsbaum, John Prebble; books like The long march of everyman; Charles Parker’s Radio ballads, and poets like Tony Harrison, and then all the way back to broadsheet ballads and the skewed histories of folksong.

But it started here, at the age of 8, when I saved and saved the prince’s ransom of 8s6d, and bought my copy of H E Marshall’s history of England (and subsequently, Scotland’s Story). The book ends with The Great War of which Marshall writes :I shall not write much at all. And doesn’t. The Victorian Age is occupied by the Crimean War, the sieges of Delhi and Lucknow, Lord Franklin, the Boer war, the settlement of Australia and new Zealand. Of the Industrial Revolution that created the streets I grew up in there is not a whisper.

This worried me not at all, because I lost interest round about the tale of Flora Macdonald and George the First…when kings stopped looking and behaving like this.

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or like this

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Our island’s story was the story of kings who were glamorous and bellicose, who burned cakes, and who made fields of cloths of gold and beat the Spanish and the French and went to their deaths on the scaffold with becoming dignity and gravitas. Above all, they were colourful and dramatic, and you could spend hours copying the colour plates that were the real joy of Marshall’s book. Who’d want to copy a picture of a man in a suit? For all that, the idea that islands and stories were indissolubly wedded was formed here, and reinforced forever by Robinson Crusoe, and The Swiss family Robinson and Treasure island.

Keen-eyed followers of the cobweb will have spotted straight away that this is the third post in a row (indeed, in 9 days)  ‘about’ islands, or an island. These things happen.Last week’s guest, Gaia Holmes’ poems were set in the Orkneys, and a couple of days before that, three of my own about Skye. It wasn’t love at first sight with Skye, where I went for the first time about 30 years ago. In fact, I thought I didn’t like it. It took too long to get there. Everything seemed to be brown unwalkable moorland and rain, and any shop was miles and miles away. But something must have stuck. Maybe it was the one clear October day when we drove along the stretch of road from Ord to Achnacloich and there was the amazing panorama of the whole of the Cuillin with snow on the tops, and a sea as blue as flowers.

Whatever. Somehow I was lost. We kept going back, and I learned, by walking, more and more of the south of the island. How to learn to use deer and sheep tracks. How to see the weather before it reached you, how to walk in boggy land. How to deeply distrust all Scots walkers’ guide book for their terse understatements, the way they say things like: the footpath peters out after a mile or so but the way ahead is never in doubt. Leaving you lost in a corrie 2000 feet up.

I started to collect the literature and poetry of small islands, the histories of dispossession and uprooting; writers like Kathleen Jamie, Robert Macfarlane and Adam Nicholson. Also, painters of wild shorelines like Len Tabner and the wonderful Norman Ackroyd.

I started to learn the stories of abandoned settlements, and of individual ruined crofts, say, at Inverdalavil, or Boreraig, or Suishnish, or Leitr Fura. How some were cleared by forced eviction, and some by sheer poverty and emigrations, or by the need to live where the children could go to school. I started to read about it, and eventually learned that I was romanticising it all – no less than the National Trust/ Clan Donald guides at Dunvegan Castle with their kilts and tartan and Flora Macdonald – and knew less than nothing. I went looking for ghosts among the stones, when what I needed to do was to ask questions and listen to the people who actually lived there. I learned that when I was telling my friend Effie how we’d walked to Dalavil, how we’d sheltered from a storm in a ruin of a croft near the shore.

” Ah yes. Well, Lachlan that was my uncle.

He was born in there. Yon house. Says Effie.

Oh, but it was years ago.”

 

And that put me in my place. In more ways than one. Islands, abandonment, the misappropriations of history. The business of putting the record straight.

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That’s the stuff of today’s cobweb strand. And one more thing. Our last two guest poets (as opposed to gems revisited) have been Irish poets. From the North. Which brings us to today and a poet from Northern Ireland who writes about islands that once were populated and now are not. So, without further ado, it’s my delight and pleasure to introduce Stephanie Conn. Actually, she’ll introduce herself:

“Well, here I am approaching forty and embracing that old favourite Life begins…!

Thirty-nine has been good to me. I launched my debut collection, ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ with Doire Press in March 2016 and in an unexpected turn of events, having been selected by Billy Collins (what a thrill!) as one of the winners of the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition, three months later I launched my pamphlet, ‘Copeland’s Daughter’.

Now that I’ve told you my age, I can admit to being born in 1976, in the market town of Newtownards in Northern Ireland. After school I attended Stranmillis Teacher Training College, Belfast and studied English Literature as my main subject. Following graduation I started my teaching career in 1999.

My twenties were spent teaching, developing the literacy programme Passport to Poetry,facilitating creative writing workshops in schools and being mum to two daughters. In my early thirties I began writing more regularly. I tried carving out writing time, joined a writers’ group and began submitting poems to journals and magazines. I received encouragement and decided to apply to the Masters Programme at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast. Between 2010 and 2013, I completed a part-time MA in Creative Writing under the tuition of Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Leontia Flynn and Sinead Morrissey.

During this period, my poems were being published more regularly and I submitted work to poetry competitions. In 2012, I was shortlisted for the Patrick Kavanagh Award and highly commended in the Doire Press Poetry Chapbook and Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet competitions. It was extremely encouraging to learn that the work was connecting with others. The following year I was selected for Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Series.

I was hooked but by the time I completed my MA, I was back teaching four days a week and due to return to a full-time position in the next academic year. My writing was going to have to take a back seat for a while – or so I thought. I became ill, was unable to teach and spent the following year having assessments, tests and scans in a bid to determine what was causing my symptoms. I was eventually diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. Medication helped but the life I had known was gone and I felt stripped of my identity. There were so many things I could no longer do but I could still write and now I had the chance to commit fully to it.

I started working on new poems and began to arrange a full manuscript. I then submitted ‘The Woman on the Other Side’ to Doire Press and was thrilled when they accepted the collection. In 2015, as well as being highly commended in the Gregory O’Donoghue Poetry Competition and coming third in the Dromineer Poetry Competition, I won the Yeovil Poetry Prize, the Funeral Services NI Poetry Prize and the inaugural Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing.

By the time Doire Press had decided to publish ‘The Woman on the Other Side’, I was already busy with new work. I received an Artists Career Enhancement Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to research and begin writing my second collection, inspired by my ancestors who lived on a small island in the Irish Sea. I submitted a selection of these new poems to the Poetry Business competition.

The last few months have been spent giving readings and facilitating workshops, and I’m looking forward to taking part in a few local literary festivals, before heading to the other side of the world for the Tasmania Poetry Festival in the autumn.

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There’s a c.v. to make you sit up!  I met Stephanie for the first time in Grasmere a month or so ago, at the Worsworth Trust… the prize-giving ceremony for the Poetry Business Pamphlet competition winners. She read from her pamphlet Copeland’s daughter, and blew me away. The Copelands are a small group of islands of the coast of Northern Ireland, and the poems tell tell the story of her ancestors who lived and farmed and fished there, until they were forced to leave, like so many who have struggled on poor land and in hard weathers, like the ones forced from Mingulay, from the Blasketts, the Shiants, St Kilda. So many. But you can see how these poems ticked so many boxes for me. And she reads with a passion, and a clarity. I was sold from the very first poem: The first lighthouse…Cross Island 1714.   A lighthouse in ‘these twenty acres’ that ‘never did attract the sun’

‘three storeys of island-quarried stone, picked

and carried on the convicts’ backs.

They built the wall two metres thick’

Billy Collins wrote of this poem: “The First Lighthouse” should be read in every classroom. I know what he means. It has the same kind of heft that I love in Christy Ducker’s work…coincidentally, in Skipper,  the core of which is a sequence about poems about small islands , The Farnes, and the story of their lighthouse, and of Grace Darling.

Of Stephanie’s writing Collins says  :

Precise description rendered in physical language lifts these poems off the page and into the sensory ken of the reader.

Well. Yes! And there we are, language that places the reader in this place of punitive hard graft, unrelenting weathers and unyielding material.

And a place, as you see from the photograph, capable of great beauty, which Stephanie celebrates in this lovely collection. She sent me two poems that will give you a taste for it. Promise.

Winter

 

We are cut off from the mainland again;

a pile of unopened letters sits in Donaghadee;

there is flour and salt and treacle in the grocer’s,

bags of coal and paraffin to fill the empty tins,

but the boat keeps close to the harbour wall.

 

Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.

 

Still, the bread is baked and the butter churned,

the blocken cured and the rabbits trapped,

mussels are plucked from the island pools

and pickled in jars on larder shelves.

The firewood and driftwood is stacked.

 

Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.

 

Inside the lamps are lit and curtains pulled,

while out at sea, the wind and waves confront

each other in torrents of eddies and pools

and the gulls circling above the spume

could be vultures in the thick sea-mist.

 

Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.

 

But we know what the darkness brings;

it drags us from sleep into nightmare, lost in fog

we’ll be struck by ship after floundering ship;

forced into the driving rain, where muffled voices call

from their wreck. We’ll run to the shore to save all we can.

 

Tide in, tide out and the beam of light,

and a distant moon – waxing and waning.

 

In a place such as this, we are used to the ghosts,

but not to their dying; never to the bodies of young men

washed up on the shore, with their puffed up faces

and gaping sockets where the eyes should be; or the tiny crab

emerging from a silenced mouth to scurry, ever sideways.

 

What I really like about this is the side-by-side-ness of the routine management of household comforts, the self-sufficiencies when the boat can’t come from the mainland, the security of a storm bound house….and the way the ghosts of the drowned will find their way in, one way or another. For me, the poem turns on one plain observation that make me re-evaluate everything I’ve just read.

In a place such as this, we are used to the ghosts,

but not to their dying

It has such resonance. I understand those kinds of ghost, how we are rooted in our pasts and histories. That’s the first poem of the pamphlet, and this one is the last.

August 25th

 

A good day for starting out, or so it seemed

to the Royal Society who sent Cook sailing

 

off into the Atlantic, round Cape Horn, journeying

westwards to Tahiti to record the Transit of Venus.

 

And Webb agreed; diving off Admiralty Pier,

smeared in porpoise oil, to swim the Channel;

 

keeping his stroke steady, despite the jellyfish stings,

the churning currents off Cap Gris Nez, to Calais.

 

A bride’s dress rests below the collar bone,

covers pale skin, tightens at the waist.

 

The gladioli stems are wrapped in green satin

to draw out the glint of peridot at her neck.

 

A gold band placed on her steady finger

is loose enough to pass over the knuckle.

 

She will search out the star-maiden in the sky,

follow a small black disc across the moon’s face.

 

Gallileo offers up his newly ground lenses.

The lawmakers ascend the city belltowers,

 

lift the telescope to their eyes to see the sails

of distant ships, distinct and impossibly close.

 

Voyager 2 draws as close as it has ever been

to Saturn’s rings of ice-particles and dust,

 

ammonia crystals create a pale yellow glow

in the dark space where sixty-two moons orbit.

 

Her great-grandchild wears crushed silk,

exposing sun-blushed skin, thin wrists.

 

The gaping heads of lilac poppies

lie against her trussed up breasts.

 

There is an exchange of white-gold rings.

Her body is cloaked in sweat and trembling.

 

The black sky shines with a thousand 

stars that burned out years ago.   

 

As you read through the pamphlet (and you really must), you live through the   day-to-day histories of Stephanie’s people, the generations who worked the Copelands, apparently contained in a small tight world. But all the sea and sky are beyond, and this poem explodes outwards into a barely charted universe that offers no answers or direction. The bride is a voyager. I think it’s stunning .

So thank you, Stephanie Conn, for being our guest today. Go well and be well. Tasmania! Half a world away. Read them this last poem. I think that would be fitting.

Next week brings no islands, and indeed, no Irish poets. But we’ll be revisiting one of my very first guests, and I’m really looking forward to it. In the meantime, get your chequebooks out, or head to the Paypal icon. You really have to buy these two books.

books and prices

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing workshops…opening doors and lighting candles as you go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Poetry Business pamphlets are published by Smith/Doorstop.

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

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

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

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