A brief note on tinkering…. and a Gem Revisited: Roy Cockcroft

whitby-poetry-business-2015-020

When I asked him to come again, something my returning guest wrote set me off musing on the way I (and others?) can’t leave a poem alone. Not even when it’s out there, with its spotty bundle and faithful cat, seeking its fortune. I’ve got all sorts of poems out for competitions or submitted to magazines, or already proofread and about to be published…and I keep re-reading them, tweaking line breaks, deleting whole lines and stanzas, changing line order. And then I forget to make a copy, and I save the changes, and I’ve no idea what the original was like, or whether it’s been improved, or should have been left very well alone. Which is why I was intrigued by Roy Cockcroft’s musings about a prizewinning poem of his, and about the changes he made or may have made…and which, very shortly, you can read. If you go to poetry readings around the East Riding, you may already know Roy and his work.  Or if you follow the cobweb you could well have met Roy before. On January 11th 2015, in fact. You might like to read that post, too. Here’s the shorter version.

Leeds 1961:   a boy sets himself the task of describing that universe, of painting a new mythology. after the interruptions of secondary education, university, and thirty-two years of teaching, he resumes the task, picking up his pen, writing poetry, daubing canvasses with paint, trying to remember where he left off.  During those 32 years I had the pleasure of teaching with him. For the full story, head back to January 2015 in the archive.

Subsequently,  this is what the Driffield Post Times wrote about him a few years ago.

‘Roy Cockcroft, from Langtoft, was awarded the Elmet Poetry Prize at a ceremony held in Mytholmroyd….on Friday. Roy.. was awarded a £300 first prize for his efforts……the competition was judged by Ted Hughes’ daughter, Frieda…and based on the theme of Remains’.

Which will now take us to Whitby by circuitous ways. And the winning poem.

 

sutcliffe

 

 

I wrote about the poem, Wet harvests:

No wonder it won. There are lines and phrases that make me catch my breath….the housewifely simple unspeakable wish of

‘mothers and wives who wanted their men back/to dry out under their own rafters’

and the wives and mothers

‘thinking the shroud into the wool’.

Stunning. I want to let Whitby stand for all the North-East coast that this poem renews as a working coast of fishermen, and their wives and children, and a coast of indifferent sea.”

 

So what about ‘tinkering’? I’ll leave the rest of this post pretty well to Roy…….who writes:

In 2008 I wrote this. Or something like this.

Wet Harvests

Here on the east coast,

When the sea had given up its claim

On their inheritance,

The mothers and wives wanted their men back,

To dry out under their own rafters.

And so, when a coble sank with all hands,

The cold waves would see to it,

Returning the dead to their own shores,

Leaving them out for inspection

On familiar sand.

 

And then, if the corpse was known,

A grave could be dug in the churchyard’s fathoms –

A small berth,

Sheltered from the wind,

Anchored safely in the swell of the mourning parish

By a slab of stone.

But when the tides objected,

Holding them back,

Letting the strict currents carry them miles

From their home,

Strangers would wash up on the beach,

Men without names –

Except, of course, that, under their pale skin,

All drowned mariners are spliced in the blood

With the shawled mother standing on the quay.

 

So, to sort Withernsea from Bridlington,

The women turned to worsteds and hefty needles,

Clacking post-codes into ganseys,

Thinking the shroud into the wool,

Teaching their own blend of rib and cable

To the black-fingered girls.

 

How their thick ply foiled the sea’s sick game.

Now the draggled fleece on the shingle

Had a name. Now the shore-crabs and the gulls

Might strip men to the bone,

But never pick the parish records

From their plains and purls.

Is a poem ever finished? The fact that, (as you may have noticed), I have recently made changes mostly to verse three would suggest not. Once changed, is it the same poem? Possibly not. Or is it now the poem it was always going to become? This particular poem has had many lives; isn’t this merely another? Am I the same author, the one who was there at its conception, or am I just a sympathetic but ruthless editor making judgements about another man’s poem?

Its conception? The chance discovery of a piece of local history in a wool shop in Whitby, printed on a brown paper bag. A gull on the roof of the Seaman’s Mission. A church bell. The  strength of wool when it pulls against itself in a mysterious sequence of knots. The question of identity; the contrasting anonymity of the sea. The way  knitting becomes a metaphor, a figure that stands for the way women have networked the coastline. A feeling of constraint in the first half to be followed by a sense of achievement in the second. All of these ideas emerge gradually until I finally discover what it was I was trying to say. That process, as you can see, is still going on.

Apparently Degas was notorious for this refusal to accept that a painting was ever finished, often removing them from the wall when he visited his buyers’ houses and taking them back to his studio where they would remain for months. I can identify with that on occasions.

To use an art metaphor let’s look at some of the earlier sketches of this poem. In 2006 the first verse looked like this

 

Here on the East Coast

The wives and mothers wanted their men back

To dry out under their own rafters

Once the sea had dropped its (bold) claim

On their inheritance

And so when a coble sank

Was it too much to ask of the (obdurate) waves

To return the (hapless) dead

To the shores of the towns that bred them

For burial in calm graves

Under slack soils     (2006)

 

Looking at this I can see how ‘inheritance’ needed to be adjacent to ‘wives and mothers’ or now ‘mothers and wives’. I also remember deciding to reduce the adjective count and let the verbs do the work.

To keep that continuous thread of ‘mother’ ‘women’ and ‘girl’ I appear to have cut out a whole section of verse three –

 

And all the sisters and all the sweethearts

Who have the sea-salt flowing in their tears

And bigger tides rising in their own breast

Than ever ripped keel and deck apart

Or shook the arrogance of piers   (2006)

 

I seem to remember trying to retain those lines and get rid of the unfortunate metrical carnage, but deciding instead that it added little to the poem. And so it went. ‘deck’ was meant to anticipate the cluster of hard ‘k’ sounds in the next few lines that simulate the clicking of needles, but I must have decided there were enough of them to make the point.

Is the poem finished now? Well, since you ask, I’m thinking that we could do without ‘safely’ in line 15.

But perhaps, finally, the time has come to let it rest.

roy-1

 

That was then, Where are we now? As a writer I am still fascinated by the same ideas as I was then; the way the past emerges in the present; finding the heroic in the domestic; the landscapes in my head;  but now that I do more painting than writing, it is becoming clear that the two art forms are affecting each other; my painting is abstract to the point where the marks I make on the canvas can be called visual metaphors and I’m more conscious of rhythm and ambiguity in my compositions than I used to be ; by the same token my writing is now I believe more stripped of explication than ever before, while in my landscape poems colours bleed into the other senses in a kind of synaesthesia. Here are two examples.

Thaw 

The sheep have made thin, brown paths

In the melting snow –

White porcelain fragments

badly repaired

To make a hill.

 

Last week they were plunging through drifts,

Digging

To get at the grass,

Sheltering in hollows,

Always looking towards the gate.

 

Once, with snow still falling,

The farmer brought hay –

Three bales of it steaming in the dark of his truck –

Wrestled them out of its gaping back

And knifed them open,

Spilling their warm guts

Across the field’s slab.

Standing by the trough,

He clubbed the ice, till it caved in,

Scooping the biggest lumps

From the water with his bare hands,

Before driving off.

 

The sheep have abandoned

One patch of thawed ground

For another. Rooks angle their long, grey beaks

Into the turf.

Ice floats in the ditch like a dead seal.

A robin claims what’s left

Of the ruined hedgerows with his red shout.

Catkins,

Already there in the hazel,

Before the cold arrived,

Have just remembered

What their soft, green quivering was all about.

roy-3

 

 Ninety-three

 

No one knows exactly where the river ends

And the sea begins,

But there are signs

that things have changed –

 

After the comfortable dialects

Of dapple and glide,

The river finds new voices –

Herons shuffling around

On smeared branches, coughing

Or going hysterical,

Dredging their vowels

From sluice-gates –

And there’s the slow grinding of rock

In the bed’s unstoppable machinery

And the guarded whisperings of sedge.

 

And features change –

Boats hang skewed on cable,

Or stretched out,

Exposing their keels on a wet slab;

Fences of reed split water

Into shallow lakes;

Banks are uncertain;

Every day the tide invents a new channel;

And later, when the fog clears,

We notice the wading of submerged roots,

A twist of wire fishing for its own reflection,

Low branches watching for hours

Before they stab.

 

And now the river has a new name.

And new colours –

Traces of black –

A suspicion of red –

Browns, purples and yellows leaking from ancient storms.

 

Levelling out, the greasy current slows,

Dithering in blocked drains,

Smelling of salt and ammonia,

Going backwards,

Muttering to itself,

Revisiting the same places.

 I was prompted  to include this last example by Yvie Holder’s recent contribution to John’s blog , Alzheimer’s being a subject to which I regularly return. The poem also brings us back to where we started – the sea. I’ll resist the temptation to deconstruct my poem; there is of course a tradition of critical theory which says it is not my job anyway, that it is for critics to provide the context for such analysis. I am reminded of the words of a fellow artist who dreaded the thought of critics picking over his work, even though some of them ‘couldn’t paint a fence’; he said it was like fearing psychoanalysis, coming to terms with the notion that someone else knows more about the workings of your mind than you do. In a way I agree; you can hear the critical voice as soon as you see the poem in print – Is this ‘the deep sea swell’ of Phlebas the Phoenician, ‘a fortnight dead,’ or is this Lowell’s drowned sailor who ‘clutched  the drag-net … his matted head and marble feet…’ ? On the other hand I claim the right (and will possibly exercise that right) to come back to these poems and finish them at some point in the future. Or I may just leave them as they are. 

Roy Cockcroft  August 3rd 2016.

It’s an absolute joy to have a guest who does all the work, does the painting, and leaves me a post I can keep coming back to, turning over the business of making, drafting, tinkering. Thanks Roy!  Another Gem Revisited next week. Come early to be sure of a seat.

 

latecomers and undiscovered gems (Number one) : Yvie Holder

Just over a year ago, Kim Moore chose one of my poems for her Sunday Poem slot. Now, if you’re used to having your poems in magazines, and to being invited to read at poetry venues, this may seem no big deal. But it changed the way I thought about myself….and not just as a writer. Since then, I’ve been writing flat-out. I’ve been lucky. I’ve won three poetry cpmpetitions. I’ve been handed a cheque by Michael Morpurgo. I’ve had poems accepted by magazines. Someone said I was a gem. It sometimes doesn’t take much to give you that sense of self-belief, but it’s beyond price.

I should also say that I’ve not been very good at keeping in touch with people. I work closely with them. I love them. Then I get a new job and I move on. I’ve never been one for going back, because I’m afraid of how it will have changed. It’s another country, and they do things differently there. But then you cross paths with the past, and it can be wonderful. Recently, I’ve rediscovered friendships with folk I’ve not seen for decades. They all write, and they all write poems. So I’ve decided to invite each of them to let me put a couple of their poems on ‘the great fogginzo’. That will ensure they all win competitions and get collections published. Oh yes it will.

And my first guest is Yvie Holder, from York, who I would have met for the first time in more than twenty years…..if only she’d been able to be at the York Literature Festival Poetry Competition presentations earlier this year, though Maria Taylor was there, so that was nice. All three of us had Commended poems, chosen by Carole Bromley, the indefatigible editor of the YorkMix poetry blog. Without Yorkmix, I wouldn’t have known that Yvie wrote poetry. Now I do.

I first met her in 1980 (I think) when I interviewed her for a post in what she calls ‘my’ English dept at Boston Spa Comprehensive School. I think I probably did think of it as ‘mine’……to my abiding shame. I still think it was the best school and the best English Dept I’ve known, and as an English Adviser, I saw a lot. Now, I am a noisy person. Noisy, rather than loud. I like to tell myself. So when Yvie came for interview, via the York PGCE course, (and the influential anthologist, Geoffrey Summerfield), what appealed to me was that she was quiet, centred, and clear-eyed. She had both feet firmly planted. She was a great teacher.

I only realised in a long retrospect what a talented bunch I had to work with. Malcolm Barnes had been published alongside Roger McGough and self-published some stunning pamphlets. Roy Cockcroft later won the Elmet Prize with a beauty of a poem about the fishermen of the East coat, and the knitted  codes of their woollen jerseys. Julia Deakin, who was appointed pretty much at the same time as Yvie, (and also via the York PGCE) has won more competitions than I’ve had hot dinners, including the Poetry Business Pamphlet Comp, and the Yorkshire Open, and has two collections under her belt, with another on the way. I’m reviewing the first two in a couple of weeks. Reserve your seats now. Bring a chum.

Now I find Yvie is a poet, too. She describes herself like this:

My writing reflects on childhood, identity, people on the margins, love and loss, with an upbeat element drawn from family, community and professional life. I’m a writer of mixed UK/Caribbean heritage, with over twenty-five years work on equality and diversity; my experience has included school-teaching and governing, trades union work, race equality, tutoring for mental health, supports for elders, and managing a University Equality office.

My writing has been highly commended in the Yorkshire Open (2008), commended in the York Literature Festival Poetry Competition (2014), shortlisted for Pier pressure’s short story competition and the Peepal tree Press anthology : Closure. It has appeared online at YorkMix, in a local newspaper, been requested for a wedding, at community occasions, and in a memoir/lecture for Black History Month.

Yvie was reading last week at a gig for Amnesty, so, knowing her, this is understated. I really like the two poems she’s chosen for me. They have a precision and a quiet clarity (I don’t do quiet/succinct). I love the strike that ‘knocks old men speechless/when air ignites’ and the quirky, unnerving invention of ‘Cracked’ which reminds me of the way Guillermo del Toro scares me in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. But make your own minds up. Here they are.

Strike

It smacks and thumps

the mother in her bed;

 

penetrates

a newborn’s downy skull;

 

induces shrieks

from children’s mouths; knocks

 

old men speechless

when air ignites

 

and imprecisely

snuffs out, deletes.

 

yet when it chimes

over city squares, how

 

it can impress;

catch the dawn-white

 

on a swan’s wing;

help a rose take root;

 

discover by chance

how friendship sparks;

 

begin to celebrate,

play, sing.

 

Cracked

 

Don’t step on the cracks. You might

slip. Lie flat across pavements,

 

peer in, one-eyed: you’ll see us,

broken, like crumbs, packed into

 

an ill-fitting darkness, lost,

straining up to the greylight.

 

Some of us once spanned the sky

between the dawn and dusk, lolled

 

in the space between telegraph

wires, between words; wove love-talk

 

around hushed voices, formed air

between leaves and breezes;

 

we dappled green through branches,

we rode the blue among stars.

 

Fault lines opened, or, we slipped.

How to return to you up there,

 

you, the sure-footed who

never need to lok down? Will

 

we stay forever between

cracks, trying to recall

 

the idea of firm ground

and how broad the daylight is?

 

I fully intended to rattle on about memory and imagination, but I hate an anticlimax. So that’s for next week. Thanks for the poems, Yvie.

Say ‘thankyou, Ms Holder’. Put your chairs away quietly, and show her how good we all are. See you next week.