The company you keep, and a Polished Gem: Maggie Reed

maggie reed 3 

When I was doing a bit of back-reading for this post I was looking at an earlier one when the guest poet was Martin Reed. The reason for this will quickly become apparent. I introduced that post like this:

“When people ask ‘Why do you write?’ if the answer isn’t ‘Because I’ve got things to say and this is the way I do it…rather than music or painting or sculpture or essays or journalism or graffiti’ then something’s not quite right. If you’re having to make yourself write, then what’s all that about? I think that’s what Keats was getting at with this business of poetry needing come as birds to the tree. Poetry. Not poems or a poem, note. That’s usually going to be difficult, because words don’t just line up and snap to attention. We’re going to draft and redraft and get second opinions, and polish and refine, and we’ll never quite get it right, because if we did, there’d be no point in carrying on. We need to say what’s on our minds. We have to have something to write about, if you like. Ideally we need to be full as an egg and brimming and bursting with things to say. “ 

Julie Mellor has been approaching this idea, on and off for some time in her always-thought-provoking poetry blog. If you don’t follow it already, I highly recommend it. Here’s the link:                   https://juliemellorpoetsite.wordpress.com/

I’ve got a different problem at the moment. I’m busting with ideas I want to articulate, experiences I want to nail down and share, and simultaneously physically/mentally tired; I can’t seem to think clearly, or concentrate in the right way, and it seems the only thing to do is just to let it be. There’s no rational reason to believe that I can’t go away and find it all waiting when I come back. Maybe what’s needed is some peace and quiet inside my head.

Quietness. I think that’s the keyword when I come to think of the work of today’s guest, Maggie Reed . It’s a quality that attaches to another poet whose work I love…Jane Clarke. I’m a noisy, rackety sort of person, and I don’t do that sort of grounded serenity. That quietness. I wish I did, and I’m grateful for those who do. At which point, let’s meet Maggie Reed, originally from Cumbria who now lives in West Malvern where she writes poetry and short stories. She graduated from Lancaster University in 2015 with a merit in an MA in Creative Writing and in 2017 achieved a Post-Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes at the Metanoia Institute, London.

In 2016 Maggie had three poems published in the North magazine and won third prize in the Settle Sessions Poetry Competition. In 2017 she had another poem published in the North and self-published her first pamphlet ‘Life Lines’. In August 2018 another two poems are due to be published in the North. Previously, in 2011 she won a merit in the Nottingham Open Competition.

Before taking herself seriously with her creative writing in the year 2000, after attending an Adult Ed evening class, Maggie worked in Further Education in Cumbria, Lancashire and Central London, with a focus on teaching and supporting adults with learning difficulties and disabilities. Prior to teaching, she ran her own sign-writing business in the Lake District, painting signs for hotels, pubs, shops and cafes, whilst also working part-time in a factory packing dried food products, driving a van for Securicor parcel delivery as well as assisting in care homes for the elderly.

Maggie enjoys the beautiful British countryside and loves walking in the Lake District as well as discovering the wonderful landscape surrounding her new home in Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire and Gloucestershire. Much of her writing reflects her life experiences and the people and places that matter most to her.

She met and married her soulmate, Martin Reed last year, after meeting him at Whitby on one the Poetry Business writing residential courses – life right now couldn’t be better!”

So now you see why I was re-reading that post from a couple of years ago about Martin Reed. Essentially, this is a first: a guest poet who met, on a Poetry Business Writing Week in Whitby, another guest poet who I met on a Writing Week in Spain, tutored by Ann Sansom of…the Poetry Business. Which has a nice sort of synergy, and makes me very happy. As do the poems she’s sent me to share.

maggie reed 2

John Arnold

 

First week in my new job,

lesson observation still on my mind,

he came in the office to suss me out

with words like Silver Book, Ofsted.

 

You’re not one to rock the boat then.

He knew as soon as I smiled

he’d get at least one coffee from me.

He preferred the company of women,

 

wolves, some of them, circling on him

as he sniffed around the smoking room.

Had a lad in a headlock this morning.

No one throws tools in my shed.

 

His shed, the engineering block:

metal vices, cold radiators, stacks of scaffolding.

Lunchtimes in the pub rather than

filling forms, meeting deadlines.

 

Kids loved him. He could teach them

to fix a car, jazz up a bike.

Tell them how to learn best,

on the job.

 

He sat in our staff room

flashing his white bushy eyebrows,

his failed career at BAE Systems

waving at him across Walney Channel.

 

I heard and read this for the first time as a draft in a critiquing workshop. Sometimes a poem just speaks direct to a specific experience.In my case it was having to do an Ofsted style inspection in a bleak technical college, observing the ‘teaching’ of a morose individual who despised his students, the job, and probably, himself. John Arnold lifts me above that, because of its humanity, its gentleness. I feel as though the narrator, and John Arnold with his failed career at BAE Systems / waving at him across Walney Channel, are both out of synch with where they find themselves  She should be lining up her lesson-observation checklist sheets; self-evidently, he shouldn’t have

Had a lad in a headlock this morning.

No one throws tools in my shed.

but there’s the mutual sympathy of outsiders who recognise each other in a cold and angular environment. And after all, kids loved him. And what survives of us is love. It’s poem that couldn’t have been easy to write, in the sense that it needs to persuade the reader to suspend a rational criticism of a teacher who assaults students, goes down the pub at lunchtime, and is a ‘failure’. But it does. Quietly.

When you listen to the next poem for the first time, you may think you’re in over-familiar territory. You may be inclined to think : nostalgia. But it has a trick up its sleeve.

 maggie reed 1

Visiting.

 

A red-brick vicarage in a northern coastal town

near the football club by St Andrew’s Church.

My father, taking me to Roker Park,

asked a policeman to stop the traffic

so we could cross the road.

 

I remember cold winters, hands over gas rings,

velvet curtains drawn, matching blue carpet,

draughts under the door.

Mrs. Donkin boiling sheets, wooden tongs,

struggles with the mangle, steam,

pegging them out in the back yard,

 

Do you remember holidays in Saltburn,

staying in Marlborough House

on Emerald Crescent, taking Peter,

our cat, how he never ran away?

Always smiling at the flowers

in the window, eating homemade

chocolate cake for tea;

riding my bike in the garden,

no, it must have been a tricycle,

I was only three.

 

I remember these things because you told me

from your chair in the nursing home,

eyes searching then holding my own.

 

I do remember these things, don’t I?

Or was it you?

Or was it me?

maggie reed 4

I like the way (as I read it) the poem invites me to assume the “I” of the narrator who tells me about the vicarage and the policeman, and the old woman doing the washing is the voice of the poet. If it was, then I guess this would just be a piece of nostalgia, which is as interesting to a listener as a stranger’s photograph album. But something happens very quietly in one line which retrospectively made me re-read and re-evaluate:

Do you remember holidays in Saltburn.

Just like that, the poem turns from a soliloquy to a dialogue. Who asks the question? Who’s being asked? Why?  I make an assumption that it’s a daughter (because it’s a woman poet; yup, that simplistic) and I know she’s visiting a parent (a mother, I assume, because in my experience, it usually is) in a care home. But the thing is, that I don’t know whose memory is unreliable, who rode the trike, who owned the cat. And at the end I don’t know whose memory is more unreliable. And I find it hugely moving. It’s quiet and unassertive and it won’t let me be..

One more poem. It reminds me of U A Fanthorpe and a kind of love called maintenance. A poem of love and undramatic happiness. Which is a condition we can all devoutly wish for.

February

 

It’s a day in February,

Monday, perhaps Tuesday,

it doesn’t matter.

Birds are on the feeders,

washing-up is still in the sink,

Radio Five Live on too loud.

 

I’m remembering images from that dream:

the crowd on the staircase

the sketch I made of pillows in sunlight,

how I ordered a sherry at the bar.

I can hear you in the shower

and think of the books you’ve read

on Stalin, Scannell, Country Walks in Worcestershire.

 

This time five years ago I lay

curled on my mother’s bed,

remembered how she held me,

how she loved the scent of snowdrops.

seedfeeder-400

So thank you, Maggie Reed for the poems, for the quiet, and the smile you’ve put on my face.

I’m not sure about next week’s post. I have a guest waiting patiently in the wings, but on Friday I’m delighted to say I’ll be driving up to Kendall to read with my hero Kim Moore at the Brewery Poets; on Saturday, I have promises to keep, and though I’ll certainly be knackered, I mean to be at the Poetry Business in Sheffield for a day’s writing. And on Sunday I’m off to the prize-giving for the Red Shed poetry competition, and listening to all the winning poems as well as seeing Maria Isakova Bennett who judged it. So the Sunday post may be delayed.

In the meantime I’ll be trying to set up some launch events for my new pamphlet. Did I not mention that? Perhaps I can keep quiet sometimes. It’ll be out in June. I’ll tell you more about it later. Quietly. Well, fairly quietly.

 

Advice to a Traveller 723

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Milestones and landmarks (3)…with Kim Moore

drowned village 2

[Just to bring you up to date:

Today’s post will be the 275th since the cobweb was started in April 2014. I realised a short time ago, on the the basis that each post averages out at about 2000 words, sometime recently we passed the half million word mark. I reckon that’s worth celebrating, so I asked three poets to be guests again. I could have asked lots of people and namechecked many more…Hilary Elfick, Andy Blackford, and The Poetry Business in particular.

However, I wanted to say thank you for three landmark moments…

first solo guest poetry reading,

first invitation to be a guest blogger,

and

first time as guest poet on a poetry blog. Which, for me, was April 2013

So. Here we go.]

Like I say, there are so many people in the poetry world to whom I owe so much. Almost all of them have been guests on the cobweb, and some of them are extra special. However, I thought I’d stick to ‘milestones‘, and the final one of three is Kim Moore. She’s been a guest more times than anyone else, and she’s probably name checked more than anyone else (though it may be a very close-run thing with the Poetry Business).

I’ve been a fan of her poetry blog, The Sunday Poem for a long time, so when Kim invited me to send her a poem for her poetry blog it was a very big deal. I’d gone to a Puzzle Hall Poets Live night, in the days when Gaia Holmes was running it. Kim was the guest poet;I did one poem on the open mic and Kim took a punt on it.  Now, four years ago I’d had very few poems published, and I’d certainly produced no books or pamphlets. It’s moments like this that show just how important to your confidence it can be to have your writing validated by someone sharing it.

But that’s not all. Since then, Kim has been inspirational in all sorts of ways, not least via her residential courses. I’ve had two prize-winning poems come out of those. She’s taught me how to be rigorous with my own stuff ,how to read,  how to breathe through poems with long sentences (we both like those). She helped me to write honestly about the death of my son, and to find a language to frame it in. She gave me (and others) the example of her own courage in confronting personal trauma in her poetry, and also (for me) the way in which the myths of transformation can be a holding frame for our own stories. She has never stopped encouraging me to believe I can do it. Whatever ‘it’ is.

I’ve said thank you before. If you have the time, you can follow the link to something I wrote the year her first collection The Art of Falling came out https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/12/27/centenary-special-and-a-christmas-star-kim-moore/

When I read that collection I was convinced it would make a big splash. I couldn’t understand why it didn’t win every prize going. I felt personally affronted when it seemed to very quietly slip out of sight. But two years on, it’s suddenly got the recognition it deserves. Kim writes about this in a moment. So. On with the post.

I asked her for a poem from an earlier blog, and this is the one I chose. Whenever I read it, I think of the drowned villages that appear in times of drought. I like everything about it, its fully imagined landscape, that strange (but right) image of the man and woman whose hair flowed to their waists…and the bleakness of its vision, its pity for the human condition makes me weep.

 

drowned village 1

How The Stones Fell

(after Ovid)

 

We learnt that we were born from stones, that the last

man and woman to survive the flood climbed from their raft

onto the shoulders of a  mountain and looked across the water

which had swallowed everything.

 

For days there had been a sea but no shore, now as the water

curled back its lip and let go of the tops of trees

the man and woman followed, walking down the slope,

their feet touching the edges of the water,

 

their arms full of the bones of the earth, their hair long

and flowing to their waists.  They cast stones behind them

and from the hand of the man a stone fell and grew into

another man and from the hand of the woman

 

a stone fell and grew into another woman and so we grew,

our eyes like flints and our mouths tasting of the earth.

We were born from stones and we were destined to live

like stones, warming ourselves in the sun,

 

cracking when the temperature fell, we said there was

something of the sea in us, but in this, like many other things

we lied, it was never water in our hearts, we carried stones

in our pockets, we carried them in our hands.

 

It’s a poem that matters, isn’t it? It’s a real poem. A real poem?  I stick with Clive James’ definition. A real poem is  ‘Well separated’ . You hear ‘the force of real poetry at first glance’ . It’s marked by its clarity, its avoidance of ‘the spectacular expression that outruns its substance.’ What an important idea that is ..just that one word ‘substance.’ How good it is to be reminded that a poem has to be about something real and concrete, because ‘everything depended, and still depends, on the quality of the moment…whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in.’ 

That explains to me why some poems simply nail ‘it’ for me. Poems that are memorable for themselves, that hold together, and surprise, and make themselves your friends for life. Like the poems that Gordon Hodgeon let me share with you. Like Jo Bell’s ‘The archaeologist of rivers’ and ‘Eve naming the birds’. Like Fiona  Benson’s Bright travellers. Robin Robertson’s ‘At Roane Head’.  But above all, and especially in these last three years, poem after poem by my inspiration, involuntary mentor, and special landmark/milestone guest, Kim Moore. And here she is to bring us up to date:

“The last time I appeared in the Cobweb was Christmas 2015 as a ‘Christmas Star’.  I can’t believe it was a full two years ago!  Back then, in 2015, I was still working as a peripatetic brass teacher for two days a week, which involved working in three schools and conducting three junior brass bands every week.   The rest of my gainful employment was spent as a freelance writer, running poetry workshops and reading at festivals. 

The biggest change since then is I’m no longer a brass teacher.  In September 2016  I was lucky enough to be awarded a Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarship to study for a PhD, which meant I could take a step away from music teaching and become a full-time student.  My PhD is a creative-critical PhD, which means that part of my thesis will be my second full-length collection. 

Brass teaching is the only job I’ve known – although as a student I had part-time jobs, brass teaching was the first job I had which became part of my identity.  It feels strange to not be a brass teacher anymore.  At the same time, I know it was the right time for me to move on.  It’s easy now to feel nostalgic about teaching, and if I go and see the junior band that I set up and built over those 13 years, I’m filled with longing to go back into my old life.  I almost enjoy that feeling of longing though – because it means I don’t remember the annoying aspects of the job. 

My PhD project is to write poetry which explores and represents experiences of sexism and I’m particularly interested in whether poetry can play a part in changing the way we talk about sexism, or even who talks about it.  A member of the audience at a reading came up to me a couple of weeks ago and said they  hadn’t even thought about the fact that they hadn’t read any women writers during their degree, until they’d heard me read poetry about sexism.  For me, this proves that poetry can be part of a conversation that will hopefully change the way we think and discuss sexism.  I know that writing poetry about my own experiences of sexism has changed the way I think about those experiences  – so poetry becomes a way of investigating, a way of knowing about not-knowing. 

The PhD has given me the time and space to think about the type of poet I want to be, and the type of poetry I want to write, and what I think poetry is for.  I don’t know all the answers to those questions yet, but I feel like I’m getting closer.  In 2015, I mentioned a sequence I was working on – ‘All The Men I Never Married’.  Who knew that this would grow into a fully-fledged PhD? Not me!

I’m still continuing with my freelance work as a writer around the PhD.  Luckily for me, I have a mortal fear of being bored, and I like working till late at night – usually till midnight, so I manage to fit in everything I want to do.  I am part of Versopolis, a European-funded poetry project which helps promote the work of ‘young’ poets in Europe – this year I got to read at the amazing Struga Poetry Festival in Macedonia as part of this project.  I run Dove Cottage Young Poets**, a fortnightly writing group for teenagers, which is one of my favourite things I get to do as a writer.  My friend Pauline Yarwood and I set up Kendal Poetry Festival in 2015 and we’ve had two successful sold-out festivals, and are planning our third, which will be running 7th-9th September 2018.  My favourite part of my work as a freelance writer is running residentials.  A residential poetry course changed my life, and I believe they can be powerful and exciting.  This will sound cheesy, but the participants who come on my courses feel like part of my poetry family now.  Many of them return year after year, and it is a real privilege to work with them as writers over the years.

Perhaps the most exciting thing that has happened to me happened very recently – my book, published in 2015, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.  Maybe I’m destined to win prizes with the name Geoffrey in the title? The judges were Gillian Clarke, Katharine Towers and Tom Gatty, and Gillian said such nice things about my collection in her speech that she made my mum and dad cry.  It was particularly nice to win this prize because I knew nothing about it until I’d already won it, so no nail-biting shortlists, just a lovely surprise that I wasn’t expecting.

**I should have said something earlier about Kim’s generosity, and about how hard she works, and about her concern for those young poets, too. Hannah Hodgson is one of them, and she’s been a guest poet on the cobweb. Not only a poet, then, but an inspirational teacher too.

I’m going to finish with three poems I chose from the many she sent me. The first one I loved the first time I heard her read it at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds. It’s got the long sentences that she effortlessly breathes through, that never lose their balance, and possibly my favourite image, the moment that draws me in, that memorises itself

 

 we lay twice a week

in each other’s beds like two unlit candles.

 

 

 All the Men I Never Married
No 1.
(after Andrew McMillan)

 

There was the boy who I met on the park

who tasted of humbugs and wore

a mustard yellow jumper, and the kickboxer

with beautiful long brown hair that he tied

with a band at the nape of his neck, and the one

who had a constant ear infection so I sat always

on his left, and the guy who worked in an office

and could only afford to fill up his car with £2

worth of petrol and the trumpet player I loved

from the moment I saw him, dancing

to the Rolling Stones. The guy who smoked weed

and got more and more paranoid, whose fingers

flickered and danced when he talked, the one

whose eyes were two pieces of winter sky,

a music producer, long-legged and full of opinions

and more trumpet players, one who was too short

and not him, and one who was too thin and not him,

are you judging me yet, are you surprised?

Let me tell you of the ones I never kissed,

or who never kissed me, the trombonist

I went drinking with, how we lay twice a week

in each other’s beds like two unlit candles.

We were not for each other and in this we were wise,

we were only moving through the world together

for a time. There was a double bassist who stood

behind me and angled the body of his bass into mine

and shadowed my hands on its neck and all I could feel

was heat from his skin and the lightest breath

and even this might have been imagined.

I want to say to them now though all we are to each other

is ghosts, once you were all that I thought of.

When I whisper your names, it isn’t a curse or a spell or a blessing.

I’m not mourning your passing or calling you here.

This is something harder, like walking alone in the dusk

and the leaves, this is the naming of trees,

this is a series of flames, this is watching you all disappear.

 

Previously published in The Dark Horse

 

The next one reminds me of an exercise that Kim set…I think it might use a Clare Shaw poem as a starting point….but the focus is on those sins of omission that plague us sometimes before we wake up properly. The memory of a wrong that passes without our intervention, because we’re afraid to do what we think is right.

street row

 

 

   All the Men I Never Married
No. 15

 

Remember that night we’d been out drinking

and on the way home heard raised voices,

 

saw a couple across the road, arguing, leaning

towards each other and then he slapped her,

 

once, across the face then turned and walked away.

She stood there for a while and then she followed,

 

down Rawlinson Street as the lights from passing cars

fell on her, then swept on by.  We didn’t call out

 

or phone the police.  We didn’t speak, not to her

or him or to each other.   When we got home

 

we didn’t talk about the woman in the denim skirt,

holding her white shoes by the straps.  I wasn’t

 

close enough to see her feet, yet I remember them,

the blackened soles from walking on the pavement,

 

the sore on the heel where the strap had rubbed

and raised a patch of red.  We did not speak of her

 

and so we made her disappear, limping into the night,

trying to keep up with that man, who knew she’d follow

 

so did not turn around, hands thrust into his jeans,

front door key hot between his fingers.

 

Previously published in Poetry Ireland Review

 

Finally, an absolute stunner, a showstopper. A poem that should make you rethink what you feel about Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian urn’ and its ‘still unravished bride of quietness’. How easily that ‘unravished’ can slide past your attention. It makes me think especially of Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne” that’s so astonishingly made, so flawless, that you forget what it’s about, what’s happening. I chose this to say thank you for the gift of Ovid, and the tales of metamorphosis and transformation, and for the way Kim’s poems that confront the business of domestic abuse and its trauma made me see the Greek myths differently, and made them help me to see my own life more clearly.

ApolloDaphneFeature

 When I Open

When I open my ribs a dragon flies out
and when I open my mouth a sheep trots out
and when I open my eyes silverfish crawl out
and make for a place that’s not mine.

When I open my fists two skylarks fly out
and when I open my legs a horse gallops out
and when I open my heart a wolf slinks out
and watches from beneath the trees.

When I open my arms a hare jumps out
and when I show you my wrists a shadow
cries out and when I fall to my knees
a tiger slips out and will not answer to me.

Now that the tree that grew in my chest
has pulled up its roots and left, now that I’m open
and the sky has come in and left me with nothing
but space, now that I’m ready to lie like a cross

and wait for the ghost of him to float clear away,
will my wild things come back, will the horse
of my legs and the dragon of my ribs,
and the gentle sheep which lived in my throat

like a breath of mist and the silverfish
of my eyes and the skylarks of my hands
and the wolf of my heart, will they all come back
and live here again, now that he’s left,

now I’ve said the word whisper it rape
now I’ve said the word whisper it shame
will my true ones, my wild, my truth,
will my wild come back to me again?

 

Previously published in The North

daphne

 

What a way to end the year. Here’s a prayer and a candle lit for 2018. May your wild come back to you again. Although , in Kim’s case, I think that it possibly has.

 

If you haven’t already bought her books, then now’s the time.

If we could speak like wolves:  [smith|doorstop 2012]

(available via the Poetry Business)

The art of falling   [Seren 2015]

 

Milestones and landmarks (1)…. with Gaia Holmes

IMG_0978

Today’s post will be the 270th since the cobweb was started in April 2014. I realised a short time ago, on the the basis that each post averages out at about 2000 words, sometime recently we passed the half million word mark. I reckon that’s worth celebrating, so I’ve asked three poets to be guests again. I could have asked lots of people and namechecked many more…Hilary Elfick, Andy Blackford, and The Poetry Business in particular.

However, I wanted to say thank you for three landmark moments…first solo guest poetry reading, first invitation to be a guest blogger, and first time as guest poet on a poetry blog. So. Here we go.

Ladies and gentlemen, the altogether wonderful Gaia Holmes!!!!!

Gaia has been very important to me. One of the people who validate what you’re doing. They may not know they’ve done it, or think that what they did do was no big deal. As a teacher, I’m often thrown when I encounter folk I taught years ago, and who say that I did X or Y or Z that changed their lives. Every teacher has had this experience, and very often don’t have any memory of what it was they did. They were just doing their job. Anyway, to cut a long story short, Gaia gave me my very first single billing guest poetry reading at The Puzzle Hall Inn. This was before I’d had anything published, but it was one of those occasions which made me feel I should do something about it, if only to have something to sell at poetry readings.

Gaia’s been a guest twice before…why not check out what I wrote about her? here are the links

 

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/09/14/magic-toyshops-a-polished-gem-9-gaia-holmes/

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2016/07/17/alchemies-and-islands-and-a-gem-revisited-gaia-holmes/

 

Right. Good to have you back. Now here’s my Milestone Thankyou to Gaia Holmes. I’ll start with a poem she shared with us previously, and then let her bring us up to date.

 

Whenever I read Gaia Holmes’ poems, or hear her read, I’m put in mind of the world and work of Peter Blake. To nail my colours to the mast, this image of Alice is how I’d picture Gaia’s narrative voice.

QUEEN peter blake

Not quite other-worldly, but knowing things I have no immediate access to, and aware that the world is strange and lovely and that it can make us vulnerable. It’s a voice that makes me think of the doughty, unworldly, resourceful, compassionate clear-eyed heroines of folk tales. The ones who have no expectation of the kindness of  stepmothers and stepfathers and spiteful siblings, who are stoic about their work among the ashes, who undertake unnerving journeys through forests to the hen’s leg houses of cruel aunts, who understand that everything you are given is a gift to be used for the betterment of the world….all that.

As soon as I open up her her poems and read, rather than rely on this memory, then before long I’ll be chilled and close to tears. There’s a lot of ice; there’s even an Ice Hotel. There’s the cold of loneliness and love gone wrong, and broken things that might be hearts or dreams that make you think twice about walking in bare feet. There’s the orphan voice of a narrator who sees things that no-one seems to notice her seeing. Like this.

The Allure Of Frost
Boxing day.
No fire in the grate and unopened presents
stacked around the base of the tree and fairy lights muted,
switched off, and the brandy that swells the fruit starting to eat
the cake in its tin and all the mirrors doused with tea towels
and your raw-eyed mother keening into a pillow in her bedroom
and too many men in black whispering and nodding
and I don’t know what the rosary is and whether to curtsey
to the priests when I hand them their tea
and the phrase ‘fruits of thy womb’ seem too ripe and too rich
for this and, Mary mother of God, I don’t know
how to cross myself and fear I’m invoking the devil
and the scent of death’s so thick
that it’s tainted the water and it’s heavy in the curtains
making them bend the rail
and your lips taste of the oils that grease your dead sister
and when I kiss you, you push me away and I want to spit
and weep and slap the corpse where she lies in her coffin
all done-up with hair grips and lipstick,
her sunken cheeks plumped out with wads of cotton wool
and the rictus of sin softened
by the crust of Rimmel Natural Beige powdering her face
and it’s so hot in here
that the cheese is sweating and the butter is liquid.
The chocolate coins are dripping from the tree.
Your Aunt’s un-bitten sandwiches
are curling upwards on her plate
and the lilies are wilting and stinking in their vases
and the cat stands quivering and retching
against the cold crack beneath the back door.
Outside the frost, not knowing any difference,
continues to sparkle. And I’d like to go out there.
I’d like to stand in it until my feet turn blue.

I think this poem has everything in it that I think of as ‘Gaia’s poems’. The piling on and on of sensory detail, the Alice in Wonderland, or folktale, sense that the logic of things is wrong, the wistfulness, the vulnerablity, and the pluck of a girl who will stand in a sparkling frost till her feet turn blue and the world becomes real again. Lovely.

 

And now your update and two new poems. Over to Gaia.

13613144_1729970957252816_1320774807572407494_o

“Gosh, is it a year since I appeared on the cobweb?! Phew! Yes, looking back at that post I see my poems were a chilly little bunch- full of winter, death, hospitals and shivering islands. I think I’ve written most of that time out of my system, for now at least…though most of my poems are slow walkers and tend to come to me two or three years after the experience…since that blog post some nice things have happened in my writing life…I spent the whole of January reading and writing within the cosy walls of Hawthornden Castle near Edinburgh. I was there with 5 other writers and all we were expected to do, all day, every day, was to write. It was like being a child again. We were fed, coddled and given a whole rich month without our usual responsibilities. Whilst I was there I wrote loads of new poems and sequenced and edited poems for my 3rd full-length poetry collection which will be published some time in 2018. I also learned that my poem ‘Guests’ had won 1st prize in the Bare Fiction Poetry Competition and this was a great boost which added fuel to my pen. After returning from the castle with the manuscript of my 3rd collection ready, at last, to be sent out into the world I focused on a collaborative project with fellow poet, Winston Plowes which culminated in a joint poetry collection called Tales from the Tachograph, published by Calder Valley Poetry. The poems in this collection all deal with the realms of roads, service stations and motorways. I haven’t written much lately but I’m not panicking about this as I used to do. I am using the time to read about colour, to immerse myself in the wonderful art of Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Andrea Kowch, Catrin Welz-Stein, and I am learning how to draw flamingos as I think that someday it might be a useful skill to have. I am filling my notebook with them.”

And now, the poems. She sent me loads. I’ve chosen two.

 

 

 

In transit

 

How heavily they lift

their paper coffee cups.

How heavily they sigh

and plough spilt sugar off the table

with the sides of their hands.

How heavily, like arthritic camels,

they turn away from each other,

pretend to study

the barista bashing coffee grounds

into the stainless steel bin,

observe the man walking his dog

between the service station trees,

stare at rain or a moon

that isn’t there.

 

How hungrily they gobble down

these distractions, this transient space

where women, wet-necked with perfume,

and men, carrying neat bunches

of forecourt flowers,

prepare to drive home.

 

How tenaciously they cling

to the in-between,

wanting to stuff their mouths

and their pockets full of it,

wanting to soften their worlds with it,

because when they have walked

the distance from café to car,

when they have shut the doors,

sealed themselves into the miles,

there will be static,

there will be him and her

focussing on the rear-view mirror,

watching other people driving home

to warm houses that smell of bread

and oregano,

where red wine breathes

on the kitchen table

and touch is not a shock,

 

there will be him and her

craving the glow of those better lives

as they go back to the cold things

they cannot talk about,

the clean, unloved rooms

they sit apart in,

the draughts and silences

they breed,

the brittle cheese

and boiled potatoes

frosting in a fridge

that always ices over.

(From Tales from the Tachograph (Calder Valley Press, 2017).)

hopper

Hope

Though it seems so dark

and the ceiling of the world’s a wound

and so many hours have been bruised,

and so many lives have been broken,

there are stars up there tonight

and we must name them,

we must love them,

we must whistle them down like dogs

in faith of their shine

and they will be loyal.

They will show us where their bones are.

They will teach us

their soft, bright tricks of devotion.

 

And even on the blackest nights,

when hope and protest

are knotted in our throats,

when our smiles have been tarred

and buckled with the weight and stain

of shadows,

we have to remember they are there,

those glittering sky-hooked prayers,

prickling and humming,

embedded in that thick and lovely blue,

guarding us from spite,

keeping the moon from slipping,

herding the pale lamb-like dawns

into our sleeping houses

where they flow

through all our rooms

fluent and loving as milk.

 

Cold Dawn

 

Thanks for being my first milestone guest today, Gaia. Thank you for the poems.

 

 

Gaia Holmes’ poetry ….you know christmas as upon us.

Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed  [Comma press 2006]  via Amazon: anything from £15 – £65

Lifting the piano with one hand      [Comma Press 2013]  £7.99

Tales from the Tachograph   (co-authored with Winston Plowes)                                                                    [Calder Valley Press, 2017).

 

Crowdfunding with Anthony Wilson: in praise of anthologies

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

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

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

Discovering Geoffrey Summerfield’s Worlds

Anthony also writes

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

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

 

The Best of…………..

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

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

anthology 3

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

anthology 2

 

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

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

BUT

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

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

anthology 7

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

 

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

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

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

anthology X

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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.

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Two things happen. Well, they did for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best of…………..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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