On sequences. And a Gem Revisited: Steve Ely

sequence

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

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

For readers. Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since August 2015, I’ve:

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

In 2017, I’ll:

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

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

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

How great is that darkenesse

Ring road glazed in lights.

Buffering macula, dampened panes;

muted YouTube central heating.

Cold coffee and donuts,

gastro-oesophageal reflux.

The heart’s a torn up map, voyaging

blind through doldrum darkness.

Through muffling glass

high greylags trumpet,

skeining wild and north.

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

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

No man can serve two masters

Walking that kelp-wrecked,

Hesperidean strand, notes

sanderling, turnstone, purple sand.

Shags hard and low across the surf swell,

crab boat’s outboard drone.  Hauled pots

and crates and nylon holdalls,

pagurus, AKs, shrink-wrapped keys,

the freedom of the golden isle

where phalaropes flirt

and red-throats flume and wail.

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

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

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

Steve’s books

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

Englaland                             [2015 Smokestack Books] £8.95

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

Werewolf                             [2016 Calder Valley Poetry ] £7.00

and others I’ve referred to:

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

Yvonne Reddick  Translating mountains  [2017 Seren] £5.00

Keith Hutson Troupers [2016 Poetry Salzburg]

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

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

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

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

bwf-2007-book-signing

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

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

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

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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.