A serious business, and a polished gem :Jennifer Copley

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toilet roll crop

Two things have stuck in my mind as the hook(s) I’ll hang this week’s post on.

I remember Ian McMillan saying, in a short film he made with Martin Wiley, something to the effect that ‘funny’ poetry is regarded as less important than ‘serious poetry’. When he said this I think he actually pronounced it as Serious Poetry, and I believe I knew what he meant, even though I also knew that what we mean by ‘funny’ is a lot more complicated than it might seem on the surface.

I thought of this when I saw in a Facebook post an image of faces crafted from toilet roll tubes. My first reaction was to laugh out loud. My second reaction was to see them as sinister and unsettling. They’re like the faces you might find in Breughel, or maybe in Bosch, and perhaps in some of Lautrec’s more grotesque sketches, and Boz’s illustrations for Dickens. They hover somewhere between caricature and realism. Unsettling is the word I’ll settle on.

The other thing was that for some reason I chose to take ‘funny’ poems to read on the open mic. at The Puzzle Poets Live monthly do this week. I particularly chose some of Rory Motion’s poems as well as a couple of my own. Now, it may be that you have never heard of Rory Motion, but you should. I’ve written before about how I started to do open mic poetry in folk clubs. What goes down well in folkclubs is poems that rhyme, and poems that are funny, and, preferably, poems that do both. I built up a list of ones that went down well, by people who wrote the kind of poems I still can’t write myself.

I built up a big file of stuff that wouldn’t let me down. Poets like Matt Harvey and Les Barker. I used a lot of Marriott Edgar. And I came to respect what Pam Ayres did. She’s a crafty, clever writer despite her TV persona. I’m very fond of ‘Clive the fearless birdman‘. I learned a lot from watching Ian Macmillan’s live performances in libraries and other small venues…especially when he worked with Circus of Poets. And I think Roger McGough is frequently brilliant.

bubble compilation 1

But the one who I came to enjoy and respect most was Rory Motion. You can find out about him via this link.  http://www.rorymotion.com/

He honed his stage skills on the stand-up comedy circuit in the late 80’s and early 90’s, being described by Time Out as a “a post-Hippie comic”, which by way of cheerful response is how he described Time Out. Finding the increasingly gladiatorial nature of the stand-up world too limiting, he decided in 1992, following a successful national tour with Frank Skinner, to move to Bwlch y Cibau, a small village in Powys.

A regular contributor to national radio, he has appeared on comedy shows, the literature panel game ‘Booked’ with Roger McGough and Miles Kington, and written and presented his own programmes on Radios 4 and 5. In 2001, Rory and fellow poet Matt Harvey created a series of programmes called ‘One Night Stanza’ which, in a victory for poetry lovers everywhere, made the coveted 6:30 Radio 4 comedy slot. In the same year Cassells published Rory’s collection of poems, ‘Neither is the Horse’. It’s still available, and remarkable value at £7.50 for a pocket-sized hardback of 125 pp of poems.

 

 

 

 

He performed at every Glastonbury Festival from 1989 up until 2008. ( He also paints landscapes, interiors and text-pieces, and in 2007 exhibited at the Peter Pears gallery in Aldeburgh, in conjunction with a reading at the Aldeburgh poetry festival).
Rory is a huge fan of the late Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band (which tells you a good deal) and in 2013 and 2014 supported them at the York Duchess. In 2015, at the Ilkley Literature festival, Rory gave an entertaining, and apparently very successful, practical tutorial on the mysteries of solving cryptic crosswords.

Why he’s not better known, I cannot fathom. But if you hunt down his flash fictions like Mid Wales (a darkly brilliant precis of Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill) or Spear of destiny (which item is for sale at a carboot sale in Totnes) or poems like  Mrs Donkersley’s Chutney (an extravagant rhapsody enacted on a bus between Pocklington and York) you’ll encounter a poet of real craft and imaginative engagement with the rich oddity of the world. It’s simply not possible to pigeon-hole or categorise him, but if I think of the company he might keep it would be poets like John Cooper Clark, and, particularly, Ivor Cutler (who regularly entertained, puzzled and unsettled me when I heard him on the radio…the Home Service as it was…in the late 1950s). Surreal, surprising, artful and impeccably crafted work. Funny, serious, and, yes, unsettling.

 

 

 

Which brings me to today’s guest, and a long-delayed post that I’ve been wanting to write for weeks, ever since I was invited to read at A poem and a pint in Ulverston, and where     I heard her read two poems that simply stuck in my mind like burrs and would not let me go…..because they were funny, spare, beautifully written, and, well, unsettling.

Time to introduce Jennifer Copley who lives in Barrow-in-Furness with her cat, dog, husband and a vast quantity of Victorian furniture inherited from her grandmother. She enjoys polishing and often gets ideas for poems while rubbing up the sideboard. 

You may have come across her work via Kim Moore’s The Sunday Poem but because I think she’s one of those talented poets who tend to fly under the radar, you may not know that she’s published four pamphlets including Ice (Smith Doorstop 2002) and House by the Sea (2003) and three full-length collections Unsafe Monuments (2006), Beans in Snow (Smokestack 2009) and Sisters also by Smokestack in 2013.

Sisters sprang from a photograph of two unknown girls she saw on a post-mortem website. The poems in the first half of the book imagine the lives of these two motherless girls brought up in a strict Victorian household. The second half explores the nature of sisterhood, the predicaments that siblings face, in life and in death. A new pamphlet is due shortly from Happenstance on whose website you’ll find the endorsement many of us would give several limbs for:

U.A. Fanthorpe has described [Jennifer Copley’s] work as ‘urgent, visceral, written out of a fierce commitment to truth’ and Carol Rumens finds ‘a Chagall-like, magical-realist quality to Copley’s delicate shape-shifting’.

She has been published by The Rialto, The North, Stand and PN Review, also twice in the Forward Prize Anthology. She was 2nd in the Cardiff International  and 3rd in the Bridport Poetry Prizes and although she was shortlisted for the Strokestown Prize twice and flogged all the way to County Roscommon, she didn’t win any money. I’m also gratified to learn (via Google) that for the last few years her poems have been used in Poetry Unseen Revision Papers for GCSE students.

In other words, she’s a serious poet; the whole nine yards, the full monty. And she writes poems not unlike the images I started the post with, poems that make you smile, or laugh, and then quickly reassess what just happened. I’d like to say they’re edgy, but they’re more subtle than that. Frequently, they’ll be as tender, lyrical but always clear-eyed, as these images from

Ten Places Where I See My Mother

Mondays, in the kitchen, her arms all suds.

I peer through steam but she’s disappeared

…………

Later she’ll be upstairs, taking off her wet blue dress

…………..

In the dark she’s in different places:

the end of my bed, the space by the wardrobe,

……………….

Her footprints glow for ages after she’s gone.

……………

Sundays, I see her under the earth,

peacefully asleep, her mouth slightly open,

but she comes to when I start arranging flowers.

 

What I love about this the matter-of-fact tone, the way this mother will never die and sees nothing remarkable about it. It makes me think of the ‘normalities’ of folk-tale and the narrow boundaries between the mundane and the wonderful. Although Jennifer Copley has something to say about them, too.

They’re only fairy tales, say our mothers,
who serve us porridge that’s far too hot;
and who are they that we should trust them
when they prick their fingers,        (from ‘Fairy Tales’)

I love the way she brings the reader up short in this line: ‘who are they that we should trust them’, the way it wryly and sardonically subverts my expectations of ‘our mothers’. Subversive..that’s the word; and that’s what the last line of The robin does..it subverts.

The Robin

– was dead but no one knew who’d killed him.
–Snow in the wind, said the sparrow.
–Ice in the water butt, said the wren.
–Frost on the five-barred gate, said the blackbird.
–A poisoned snail, said the thrush.
–God, said the canary who had no respect.
–Then they all turned on each other, shrieking and accusing, although
no one had liked the robin since he’d bullied the goldfinch children to death.

What makes very tiny children laugh is surprise (which may be frightening) followed by relief. Everyone who ever played ‘Boo!’ with child in a cot or a pram knows this. And Jenny Copley’s poems know this too. She herself says ‘I must tell stories. Stories about people (or animals) in improbable situations. I’m interested in how they react and how they resolve (or don’t) the things they face.’

So here we are with the two poems she sent me to share with you all, both, as it happens set in cellars of the kind you might finding Chris Van Allsberg’s wonderful book The mysteries of Harris Burdick. If you were looking for visual equivalents of the images that Jennifer Copley creates, you could do a lot worse than start there. Basement starts in a cellar in 1940, which sets up a set of expectations that’s immediately put in question by that flat but they feel safe here. 

Basement

1940, but they feel safe here,

between the ping-pong table

and the bottled fruit.

Light from a tiny barred window

spills down dust-motes.

There’s a birdcage

he always knocks his head on,

a cupboard that creaks.

 

Today it’s hot.

They remove more clothes than usual.

Her buttons roll into mouse-holes.

His braces, hurriedly unsnapped,

fly into a corner where they stay

for fifty years.

Upstairs, pans clatter.

Where’s Lizzy? Someone shouts

but with his tongue in her ear,

Lizzy doesn’t cotton on.

 

Not knowing the way war will turn,

all their arrangements,

love tokens,

sweat from their bodies,

moons from their fingers,

semen,

salt,

lie in scuffs on the floor.

I like the story-teller’s ‘they’ that demands you have to find out who ‘they’ are, between the deliberately comic ping-pong table and the bottled fruit, lit dimly by what comes through a window that’s ‘barred’. Which should make you think twice. Whoever they are, they come often because ‘there’s a birdcage / he always knocks his head on’. And yes, it’s comic, until it’s unsettling. Because they take off more clothes ‘than usual’ in a fumble of snapped-off buttons and unsnapped braces. A poem of desperate love in a time of war that’s not comic at all but as serious as salt and moons and semen. I love it.

 

cellar crop

The second poem, Cellar was the one that made me sit up and take notice at Ulverston. It has that quirkiness that makes me think of Ivor Cutler, and that disingenuous matter-of-fact quality that is so unsettlingly at odds with the story.

Cellar

Here’s where we live,

buried under ground,

our hats in our hands.

We came down in 1963

to fill up the scuttle

and the door slammed shut.

 

The light knocked off in 1984

so we live in the dark, bowed over

like the hulls of two old boats.

You say ‘tomato’ and I say ‘tom-ate-o’.

Apart from that we get on well enough.

 

Our children call down the coal hole

occasionally. They almost try the door

but their hearts aren’t in it.

After all, what would they say to us,

it’s been so long since we

kept a grip on things, on them.

 

Understated, memorable and unnerving.  I wish I could do work like that, so economically and apparently without effort. Thank you Jennifer Copley for the poems and waiting so patiently for me to write about them.

St Ives 2017 014

 

And now I’m going to check all my lists for the umpteenth time, and double-check my packing, because first thing tomorrow I’m off over to Greater Manchester to collect two poets and then we’re heading off to St Ives for a week of poetry reading and writing. There may not be a post next Sunday, but I reckon you can put up with that, and I’ll see you when I see you. Thank you for reading.

treloyhan-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

“how ordinary

extraordinary things are or

how extraordinary ordinary

things are, like the nature of the mind

and the process of observing.”

An ordinary day [1964]

 

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

Newcastle in the 1800's (10)

” I come from an unknown people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This should see me right.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

all the time in the world

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

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

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

Frugality   

 

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

my mother is darning socks with fine wool.

With the needle she draws the yarn over

and under her warp thread without causing

a pucker, checking the tension to mesh a flat disc

across the hole. Smooth as an obol.

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

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

felt its spring and bounce.   But before she finishes

her supply (there’s still two ounces left)

she asks her mother to bring in more wool

of the same colour so she can keep mending

enough socks to last.

 

Just like her –

 

She could read a book

do crosswords

or paint her nails

but she prefers to work.

So, on the subject of mending socks,

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

 

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

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

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

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

a-sprig-of-rowan

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

 

Apparition 

 

A wraith of the darkness drifted

down the twist of path ahead and hardly

was there time to believe it,

when it re-appeared

in a fluster of wings, tumbling

from between the trees and out

into the sunshine of open field –

nacreous, tinted with gold –

as if haunting the day

to hunt for the dusk it had lost.

 

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

Blue

 

The colour of sky and sunlight

he acrobats

among the tree tops,

 

or with head on one side

he sometimes considers

the abracadabra

 

of the high twigs

where he splits open a seed

or spin-twizzles

 

a caterpillar

like a strand of spaghetti

and as he skitters

 

out of sight, you wonder

how his goblin wings

grew from the yolk of an egg.

 

 (published in The Broadsheet, 2016)

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

And she’s 22. Think on that.

 

 

 

 

A gem revisited: Wendy Pratt

A gem revisited: Wendy Pratt

lapstrake

Well, there’s serendipity. I was looking for an image of a lapstraked boat  and up comes this one, on the shore of possibly my favourite place in the world. This is on the shore at Armadale, just by the pier where the Skye ferry from Mallaig docks. In the background, on the left, is the Gaelic college on its headland. And across the Sound is Knoydart, and beyond it, miles of roadless wilderness. Lovely.

lapstrake-1

Lapstrake. It sounds old and Norse. According to my dictionaries it only turned up in the 18thC…which is something of a surprise. It means the same thing as ‘clinker-built’, made of overlapping strips. This one at Armadale is what Viking boats looked like, utterly beautiful, perfectly designed. I heard the word first when today’s guest, Wendy Pratt, read at the Puzzle Hall Poets Live, and it resonated and stuck. It’s the title of her third collection (details at the end). I liked it so much that I had to put it in my poem ‘Bheinn na Caillich’. It’s a poem about the Norsemen and the boats that took them to Miklagard, to Greenland and Iceland, and the western seaboard of the Americas…the Vinland and beyond.

because nothing could gainsay

a well-caulked, lapstraked boat

with a flare at the bow that perfectly

fit a space the water would make for it:

their oceans were swanspaths and whaleroads

So here we go: a big thankyou to Wendy for a word that makes a line sing. I’m not the only one to sing her praises. Before I knew her, she’d been a guest on Kim Moore’s Sunday Poem blog, where Kim wrote:

“Today’s Sunday Poem is by Wendy Pratt, who I read with a couple of months ago in Leeds at the Poetry By Heart reading series in the Heart Cafe in Headingley.  Wendy read from her pamphlet ‘Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare’.  The title poem to this pamphlet is fantastic – I loved it as soon as I heard it.

nan-hardwicke-image

From the first line Wendy establishes the character of Nan with that colloquial, confiding ‘I will tell you how it was’, so it feels as if the poem is being whispered in the readers ear. I love how the balance of power is explored in this poem – you can see this in the line ‘so I could settle myself like a child within her’ – the hare is the place of safety and Nan is a child – but then later on ‘An odd feeling this,/to hold another’s soul in the mouth like an egg’ so by this line it seems that Nan is in charge again.  Another favourite line is the description of the mind of the hare ‘Her mind/was simple, full of open space and weather’.  I read that and thought, well yes, of course, what else could a hare’s mind be full of?  I would really recommend buying the pamphlet – it is a moving collection of poems exploring loss and transformation.”

It is indeed. I wrote about it in an earlier post, and also reviewed it with great enthusiasm.

“One of my fictional heroes is Esther Summerson in ‘Bleak House’. Most of the students I’ve ‘taught’ on A level and on degree courses disliked her or dismissed her as wetly pious. I argued long and hard for her courage, her moral strength;  I always believed in her genuine humility rooted in a sense of her own worthlessness. It takes a lot for her to believe that she can truly be loved, as opposed to being relied on. I’m not sure if this is germane to this week’s cobweb strand. Who knows where we’ll end up. But, like Esther, ‘I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I am not very clever.’ She adds: ‘I always knew that’. I wish I could, hand on heart, say that. And let me clear up what I mean by clever here. I’m not talking about smart arse clever (I always knew that) or clever-clogs clever. What I have in mind is ‘knowing’; the knowledge of the heart and the imagination, and the knowledge of the physical self.. I first tried to clarify it in The other side of silence, a post on 28/12/2014. This what I wrote about poems by Fiona Benson:

 ‘There’s a physicality about these poems that’s unanswerable, and a synthesis of the solid worlds of absolutely imagined birds and wild creatures, of weathers and the leaching of soils and the decay of rocks with the intensely particular personal life of the poet that makes this collection so wonderful and distressing. She [Fiona Benson] reminds me of Wendy Pratt, not just because of the coincident experience, but their way of somehow living on level terms with it, and their way with words. Like this from ‘Nan Harwicke turns into a hare‘

I will tell you how it was. I slipped

into the hare like a nude foot

into a glorious slipper. Pushing her bones

to one side to make room for my shape

so I could settle myself like a child within her.

In the dark I groped for her freedom…..

There’s that physicality, that sensuality, again, and again infused by the unspeakable loss of a child that has to be spoken and spoken for.’

What I hung back from was that it’s not an accident that some of the poems that have moved me most of late are written by women. It’s not an accident, either, that I’ve been absorbed in stories of metamorphosis, particularly in retellings of Ovid. What has been consistent in this is the feeling that women have access to knowledge that men can’t have. The feeling that women are metamorphic and tidal, that they go through changes that a man can’t imagine, and that this makes them capable of different modes of imagining. It doesn’t mean that all of them can articulate it, or are necessarily consciously aware of it. But, when they are, the results are powerful and unnerving. When I re-read Ted Hughes’ retellings of Ovid, and even Robin Robertson [in ‘Swithering’] I think they are external. Powerful, but externally dramatised. I’m struggling to articulate it. What I find in, say, Fiona Benson, and in the passage from Wendy Pratt’s poem I just quoted is a kind of emotional fluidity and in Hughes and Robertson a sort of epic stiffness, like renaissance paintings.

Kim writes about poems exploring loss and transformation. Exactly. Wendy Pratt finds ways of writing about the unsayable, the desperation of the loss of a child, the agonising uncertainties of fertility/infertility, and the way that may draw you as a writer towards the analogies of myth. I understand that.

But it’s time Wendy took over. I asked her to revist a poem, to tell us what she’s been up to since her last appearance on the cobweb, and also to bring us a new poem. So here she is Big round of applause for Wendy Pratt.

ballet-shoes

“Here’s my revisited poem:

Danse Macabre

 

You wear your death like dance slippers,

taking them out of their coffin-box

at the barre, while you arabesque and plié,

allegro lightly round the room, touch the mirror,

turn, feel your feet bleed into the blocks,

assemble on your own edge, bitter

and full of remorse. The dance becomes a quick-step,

a flamenco, a stream of soft tap, a fox-trot.

The slippers lead. But you are no black swan.

Someone needs to stop you, pull you back, help,

step quicker.

 I’ve chosen to go back to this one because at the time that I was writing this I was very much proving to myself that I could work in fairly complex forms. This is a curtailed sonnet, though not the strictest form of one. It has 11 and a half lines, and an ABCABC DBBDB Which isn’t exactly correct according to the form examples that I have read about, but is exactly what I wanted to do with it. The idea was to start the poem off following the form and then start to disrupt it until the half line where the ‘sonnet’ falls off, uncompleted. I’d been working on Lapstrake, when I wrote Danse Macabre and had delved into some very complex forms throughout it, it was almost like I couldn’t stop solving puzzles. I haven’t been as fixated on form since then. I must have proved to myself that I could do it. Why did I need to prove it to myself? Because I didn’t feel like a ‘proper’ poet until I knew the rules well enough to break them, which is a total cliche, but a true one.  I’ve written a couple of sonnets and I often write Haiku as they’re like little photographs of moments, and I like that. But mostly I am writing free verse now. ”

“So, what have I been doing since? Well, Lapstrake was published and did very well, I’m still very proud of it, and I have a second full collection with a new publisher that I am waiting to hear about. I also finally finished my Selkie pamphlet which I have been writing for about three years now; that is now at the polishing stage, ready to go out to competitions and publishers. I am working on another full sized collection about infertility and body image, which sounds dark and heavy, but is actually proving to be a celebration, and acceptance of the physical. My husband and I have recently decided to not have any more IVF after five rounds, so that is a bit of a catalyst for re-examining how I feel about myself. The poems in the collection are an examination and questioning of ownership, particularly in regards to pregnancy and fertility. I think most women will recognise the themes. I’m also now at Hull University, doing a practice-led poetry PhD. It’s based around the use of language, how poetry works, what poetry IS, using the sea as a model. The whole thing is sea based, and the concept of aquariums as containers similar to how we contain with words is key to it. I had my first PhD poem published recently, which eased my imposter syndrome somewhat.

At the beginning of this year I decided that my new year’s resolution was to take my work seriously. I guess I wanted to take myself seriously too, but it feels weird to say that, I’m not sure why. I have changed my writing practice accordingly. I now say that I am a writer and small business owner, rather than a small business owner who also writes. I am heading towards the end of the year feeling like I have accomplished this, to a certain degree. I am now applying for residencies, awards, positions, teaching and workshopping work, and just like when I first started submitting my poems and I used to cringe at the idea (me? Sending poems out? People will laugh!) I felt the same about applying for work. I still end up doing quite a lot of free stuff, but I am much better at saying no.

I just heard that I won second place in a competition with a poem I am proud of. I’m proud because the other two competitions I won, last year, were with poems about my daughter, who died in 2010. I have a lot of poems about her, and I still write about her. But I’d started to feel that I was only writing about her, and those were the poems that people wanted to see, and I felt defined by the loss. I made a pact with myself to write about other stuff and found myself writing other stuff. I worried I wasn’t good enough, but this poem, The Sound of Geese, it is like confirmation that I can do this.”

rainy-day

Anyway, my new (ish) poem. Not unpublished, it first appeared in The Dawn Treader and is in the new collection.

Pluviophile

 

When it comes; thick and soft

as the pelt of an animal,

I am grounded, brought down

to calm in the smell of damp earth.

We wait like the wet starlings,

under tree cover, their song-work

undone in the shallow hiss

of leaves and rain. I am paused,

smelling the green of the grass,

the hung heads of daffodils,

watching the plough furrows

fill with water. A dog barks

somewhere, on one of the farms,

the spaniel lifts his wet head, waits

as I wait, we are communed,

marooned, standing peacefully,

watching the water make mud

out of soil, movement out of stillness.

a-rainy-day-on-welcombe-mouth-beach-by-david-gibbeson

I love the texture of this, the apparent plainness of words enriched by the wet sibilant sounds of falling rain, the deftness of the rythm and line breaks, the healing quiet of it all. Should you ask about the final image…well, it’s because Wendy posts many images of her beachwalk landscapes, the shore at Filey, the slumped boulder clay cliffs, the patterning of waveshaped sand.

It’s been a treat having her. If you haven’t already bought her books then the details follow. Next week we have a poet whose first pamphlet will be launched at the Albert Poets next Thursday, and we’ve got plans for the cobweb to move to new and elegant premises. It all depends of the IT savvy/magic of my son Michael, but if all goes well there’ll be a new book of mine that can be yours by the wonder of Paypal. Fingers crossed, and thankyou again, Wendy Pratt for being our guest and doing so much work for me xx

Nan Hardwicke turns in to a hare :  (with a preface by Alison Brackenbury)  Prolebooks  [2011.] £4.50

Museum Pieces (with a foreword by Abegail Morley)       Prolebooks  [2013] £6.50

Lapstrake (Flarestack Poets) £5.50