Sunday Poem – Peter Raynard

Sunday Poem – Peter Raynard

I’m writing this post today feeling more weary than usual.  I’ve had a fantastic week away as the course tutor at The Garsdale Retreat but I am completely exhausted now! The Garsdale Retreat is a new creative writing centre, set up by Hamish Wilson and Rebecca Nouchette.  I say new, but this is their second season of running courses there now.

It is a beautiful place, surrounded by hills and far enough away from the nearest village to feel wonderfully lonely, whilst only being a two minute walk away from Garsdale train station.  The unique feature about the courses (compared to other residentials) is the small group sizes – the maximum group size is eight, so participants get a lot more individual attention during both tutorials and workshops.  The food is absolutely beautiful as well – Rebecca does the cooking and pretty much everything was home made.  I don’t think I ate anything processed all week! Every afternoon she made a different cake for afternoon tea as well – I was in food heaven.  Below is a picture of my favourite – scones with jam and cream!


Tutors stay in a cottage next door.  It was one of those cute cottages you drive past and idly think about living in so I am glad I got to try one out! The first night was very cold because the snow was still hanging around on the hills, but it gradually got warmer throughout the week, and Rebecca and Hamish gave me a portable heater so I could make my bedroom toasty!


Workshops went on till 1pm and then in the afternoons I sat in front of my electric fire in the cottage, and did some writing or prepared for tutorials with the participants.  Two of the days I managed to get out for a run, but I have a slightly sore Achilles heel, probably from too many long hilly runs last week.

The participants were great as well – a real pleasure to teach, and full of ideas and conversation around and about poetry, which was lovely.

So I was in Garsdale Monday to Saturday morning, and then I got the train to Carlisle.  A woman sitting next to me was reading over my shoulder whilst I was working on a poem and asked me if I was a lawyer! She looked disappointed when I told her I was a poet.  It took me a while to realise the poem she was reading was an account of a story that someone told me about a date rape.  She obviously thought it was some sort of witness account or something and didn’t seem embarrassed about the fact she’d been reading over my shoulder without asking.  We got talking then all the way to Carlisle so the journey went very quickly.

I was taking part in an event called Woman Up! in Carlisle, a day of events exploring what it means to be a woman.  There was a variety of events on, including speakers from the Carlisle Refugee Action Group and writers from Wigton Writers group.  I read some of my poems from my collection about domestic violence and then some of my new work around sexism.

The responses from the audience were pretty amazing.  One woman was crying. What touched me the most though was a young girl in the question and answer session, who put her hand up and said

‘I’m going to university next year.  What advice would you give me to help me if I get into a situation I can’t get out of?’

It actually breaks my heart that young women are having to worry about this, to think about this, to negotiate this, to use their energy worrying about how they are simply going to keep safe, instead of putting their energy into learning and being creative.  And there are no easy answers.  Everything I thought of and said sounded so trite.  To speak out and tell someone.  To speak out and say no.  To not let things get bad – to trust your instincts.  To surround yourself with good people, who help you to feel good.  I’d be interested to hear what answers readers would give to young girls to help them deal with sexism and to help them avoid getting into damaging relationships.

I stayed in a hotel, and after being cold all week, I then nearly baked to death in the hotel room which seemed to have the heating up really high.  I got back to Barrow mid afternoon today.  The first thing I did when I got back was to walk the dogs, then I went for a run to test my foot – still a bit of pain there after a couple of miles, so I’m going to rest for another couple of days.

So that has been my week – full on and enjoyable, but also emotionally draining.  Today I’ve been steadily trying to catch up with all the emails I couldn’t cope with answering whilst I was on the course.  This week is a lot quieter, which is a huge relief.  I’m going to spend it catching up with some PhD work because the week after is manic with visits to London, Manchester and Poland.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by a fantastic poet called Peter Raynard.  I first came across Peter via his excellent blog ( which has featured the work of over 100 poets writing about working class lives.  This poem comes from his debut collection Precarious, published by Smokestack Books which you can order here.  He is a member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen and is currently completing a poetic coupling of The Communist Manifesto, to be published by Culture Matters in May 2018.

I’ve been reading a few poems from Precarious out aloud each night to my husband, and he is really enjoying the collection.  ‘Scholarship Boys’ is one of my favourites in the collection because it explores something that isn’t talked about – what happens when someone from the working class breaks the mould and gets a scholarship.

At MMU there is a poster advertising a scheme to support students who are the first in their family to go to university – there was nothing like this around when I went to university.  I remember thinking my flat mates were really posh because they bought hummus (I’d never heard of it!).

The poem sets out its stall straight away with that first line, with the first word, which is unexpected following on from the title.  I like the phrase ‘the likes of us’ in there at the end of the stanza.  It almost has a motto-like feel to it – how many times have people told me in tutorials or workshops about parents saying that something isn’t ‘for the likes of us’.

I was puzzling over that phrase ‘claw-crane selections’ for a while until I worked out that I think it is referencing the arcade machines with the claw that you use to try and pick up a soft toy.  What a brilliant metaphor! The idea of it being a game and the boys being the soft toys, inanimate, unable to control their own destiny, and someone playing games with their lives, picking them up and then letting them drop.  Actually, the whole class of boys is part of this arcade game.  The scholarship boys are the ones who are picked up and moved elsewhere, at least for a while.

The threading through of Latin words is really interesting as well here, illustrating that feeling of them being ‘dropped’ into a different world and the ‘pictured corridors’ gives the feeling of grandness, of long corridors stretching into the distance.  I had to look up all the Latin words here – spiritus vicis means spirit time according to Google, although I’m not convinced about that one as I thought it sounded like a school motto, and that doesn’t sound like a particularly inspirng school motto.  And amo, amat means I love/You love (again Google told me this, so apologies if it’s wrong)

There are lots of great phrases in here which seem simple until you start to unpack them.  The head teacher ‘wielding’ his cloak – the cloak is indicative of his status and he is ‘wielding’ it like a weapon. The phrase ‘Mouths swabbed for memories’ – that made me think that the school, or the teachers tried to make them change their accents.  This was something that happened to me – except mine was self-inflicted.  After finally getting into Leicester Schools Symphony Orchestra, I tried to change my accent because the other children took the mickey out of the way I spoke.

The idea that the boys, despite getting scholarships, were always bound for the factory and had just taken ‘the long way around’ is really heartbreaking.  I also like how we don’t know why they left early – the reasons are left unclear.

Thanks to Peter for letting me use his poem this week – do check out his blog, and if you have some spare cash, order his book.  It’s a fantastic, challenging and interesting exploration of class and masculinity and also touches on issues of mental health as well.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Scholarship Boys

Unlucky enough to pass our eleven plus
we were claw-crane selections
from our class dropped into a history
the likes of us had never read.

Inducted with pictured corridors
of Spiritus Vicis spouting opportunity
from the mothballed grammar
of the cloak-wielding Headmaster
and his fountain of Latin characters.

Amo, amas, a matter of opinion
was to know our place. Our mouths
were swabbed for memories.
We were to become
someone else’s nostalgia.

By the time we left early,
five of a seven-year stretch,
we stooped off to the factories
that laughed at us
for taking the long way around


Sunday Poem – Hilda Sheehan


This week has been a strange and rather full-on week.  Regular readers of this blog will remember that I was slightly panicking last week about my Progression Viva which was on Monday. The journey there was tiresome, annoying and cold.  My train broke down just outside Lancaster, and once it got going again, after half an hour it could only proceed at five miles an hour to Preston, which took rather a long time! I was planning to get to Manchester three hours early, so I could have a leisurely lunch and do a bit more silent panicking before the viva – however, I actually got there half an hour late.  Luckily the scrutineers agreed to wait for me.  By that time I was in such a bad mood it stopped me being too nervous, so it probably worked out well in the end.

It was actually really good to have a chance to talk through some of my ideas around my thesis with the scrutineers, who were really enthusiastic about my project.  Probably the biggest thing I’ve had to come to terms with in doing this PhD is believing that my ideas are interesting – I don’t know if anybody else has this, but because my ideas come out of my head, they don’t feel that interesting! But a PhD – or at least a creative PhD, or maybe even just MY creative Phd, has to be driven by ideas.

So I’m very happy to say I’ve passed, which means I can progress onwards with my PhD but I had a few revisions to make, including writing a paragraph or two about why I’m using lyric poetry as opposed to another type of poetry, some referencing errors and refining my aims from seven (excessive) down to four (manageable).  I resubmitted on Thursday, so that is done and dusted now.

Apart from the PhD excitement, I’ve been to a meeting for A Poem and a Pint – we are still waiting to hear back from our third attempt to apply for Arts Council funding.  In fact we should hear in the next few weeks.  I also did some mentoring on a manuscript of a rather excellent poet and we met up on Tuesday to discuss the suggestions I’d made.  On Wednesday, despite the freezing cold and a thin layer of snow in Barrow, I decided to go out and do a nine mile run – trying to build my mileage up now ready for the Coniston to Barrow event in May.

Thursday was a complete washout because of the storm.  I was supposed to get to Manchester, have two tutorials with two of my undergraduate students, go to a meeting about some teaching at university, then do an afternoon of teaching, and then hang around for a bit before going to read at Lit Up in Manchester.  I got to Lancaster and all the trains were cancelled, so I decided to cut my losses and go home.  Lit Up eventually ended up being cancelled, but it will hopefully be rearranged.

Friday’s meeting about an anthology of Cumbrian poetry I’m editing was also cancelled as the publisher/editor was snowed in and couldn’t get out of her house, and I decided to cancel Dove Cottage Young Poets rather than risk the weather, so instead of two really busy days I had two days of emptiness stretching before me.  It was so nice! I managed to fill them as I have so many jobs I haven’t caught up with – I managed to go for a ten mile run on Friday which I didn’t think I was going to have time for.  I’ve also finished planning the workshops for the residential course I’m running next week with hours to spare which is unusual for me.

A few exciting things that are happening – I’m going to be on Private Passions on Radio 3 soon and all my choices of music have a trumpet in, as you’d expect.  It’s also pre-recorded, so I’m hoping the producer will be able to make me sound intelligent and witty!  I’m going down to London in a couple of weeks to record it – it will be a flying visit though, as I have to get back to Manchester to do my teaching, and then straight from there to the airport to go to Gdansk Poetry Festival as part of Versopolis.  The rest of March and the first half of April is basically a bit manic, then everything slows down a little bit.

I’m also judging a poetry competition for a clothing company called Thought.  All you have to do is write a four line poem about nature and you could win £250! Details here of how to enter.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by one of my best friends, the lovely Hilda Sheehan.  I spent a week with Hilda recently running a residential, and she wrote this poem during that week, in response to a conversation about relationships with musicians.  I couldn’t possibly divulge who took part in the conversation, or what they divulged but this was the result.  You could replace Viola Man with the appropriate instrument for your life experiences, I’m sure!

This poem comes from an extended sequence of poems that all concern themselves with the life and times of two women, Francis and Martine.  You can find more Francis and Martine poems over at Hilda’s blog.

Francis and Martine are probably some of my favourite literary characters.  Hilda often describes them both as saying the things she can’t say or wants to say.  I like how Hilda does away with all the trappings of conventional speech marks and leaves the reader to work out who is speaking.  I also like the slightly convoluted and strange turns of phrase they often come out with, like a ‘disgraceful act of resistance’.  And anyone that has taught a musical instrument I’m sure will smile at the phrase ‘his engaging output of Ode to Joy.’  Ode to Joy is one of the five note tunes in its simplest forms and still haunts my sleep, along with Hot Cross Buns and Mary Had a Little Lamb after 13 years of teaching those tunes!

The whole poem pokes fun at love and obsession and relationships and distraction.  Is it only me who has Viola Man down as a bad ‘un?  And what is a frozen egg anyway?

I am going to break my own rules now and post a second Francis and Martine poem, also written during the residential.  Hilda and I discovered we have the same terrible habits of leaving socks all over the floor to develop into little sock nests, and both our husbands have similar opinions about our tardy ways.  I love this poem as well because it is bonkers.  I also love the way it leaps off into the world of Shakespeare and Desdemona and Othello at the end.  Hilda’s poems are never predictable.

And all those thoughts I’ve been having about mode of address, and who we are talking to in poetry, both indirectly and directly.  These poems are unusual because the speaker of the poem is in the poem, and is addressing another character in the poem.  They are entirely turned in on themselves, but rather than addressing an unseen other, a beloved, or a God, they are addressing themselves, leaving the audience to indirectly witness and overhear Francis and Martine trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t really make much sense at all.

Hilda also runs Swindon Poetry Festival which I would highly recommend – it runs from the 4th-8th October 2018.  Her published works include The Night My Sister Went To Hollywood, published by Cultured Llama, and pamphlets Francis and Martine and more recently, The God Baby, published by Dancing Girl Press.

It is now 1.20am – I decided, rather irresponsibly, to go to the cinema instead of writing this blog at a sensible hour.

I am away next week running a residential at The Garsdale Retreat and then on Sunday I’ll be reading at the Woman Up event in Carlisle at Tullie House – tickets available here

Viola Man – Hilda Sheehan

Martine, it’s a disgraceful act of resistance you display with the viola man.
But I love viola man and nothing you can do, or sing, will change my mind away from his engaging output of Ode to Joy. When he plays it I am in love all over again.
How about cake?
No, not enough ‘ode’.
How about pizza?
No, not enough ‘to’,
How about frozen eggs?
Yes, yes! This is it. Frozen eggs are the ultimate in Joy! I shall construct him a letter with absolute immediacy … it’s all over between me and viola man. Pass me a frozen egg.


For Kim Moore

If you were a pair of socks Martine, would you display yourself in dirty little piles about this room, sitting about with other dirty socks failing to reach the wash basket in such a demonstration of filthy deeds? How long would you hang about with such vagrant items, itching and holing around, the muck of you an irritant to those who love and care for your well-being, those who share your foul spaces, cluttered moments, inconsiderate escapades of slattery? If you were a pair of socks would this behaviour continue, or would you strumpet and slurf your dirty way to the wash basket with a face like Desdemona in her final moments, waiting for Othello to forgive her in that last leap to the basket, the denial of your love for other dirty socks. O Martine! I can not walk by. This makes men mad, it is the very error of the moon.

O Frances, a guiltless death I die.


Sunday Poem – Bryony Littlefair

Sunday Poem – Bryony Littlefair

I have somehow, after getting a bit worn down with it, managed to find my way back to enjoying blogging every Sunday again.  I found my way back to this place, as with most things, through poetry, through finding poems that I felt I had to tell other people about otherwise I might burst.  More on that later.

It has been a strange kind of week this week.  I’ve been frantically preparing for my mock viva which is tomorrow afternoon.  I have to give a ten minute presentation and then discuss my PhD and the 6000 word report I handed in.  I received feedback on my report and this is what I have the presentation has to be about – a response to the feedback.  So I’ve been thinking about that this week, turning it over in my mind.  I bought myself some small cards and have written prompts on and I’m hoping that will help me when I’m doing the presentation.

One of the main questions raised in the feedback was why use poetry, and lyric poetry in particular, to address the gap I’ve identified.  Lucky for me I’ve been reading Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric for the last month or so, as I feel I can answer that one.  As the gap I’ve identified is that poets don’t seem to be writing about sexism in a sustained way (as in over a whole collection, rather than the odd poem) then it makes sense to try and do this in poetry.  But why lyric poetry? Lyric poetry is always balanced between inner and outer experience, between the individual and the social, between the personal and the political.  I like how it is often in two minds. I’ve enjoyed reading about lyric poetry having a long history of being socially engaged – Jonathan Culler talks about its roots in epideictic discourse – which is public discourse about meaning and value.  And when anyone asks why poetry, I always return to Adrienne Rich and this beautiful quote from her essay ‘Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson’:

But there is a more ancient concept of the poet, which is that she is endowed to speak for those who do not have the gift of language, or to see for those who – for whatever reasons – are less conscious of what they are living through.

The last part of that sentence is central to my own work – the idea that poetry can make us look differently at the world.  This is exactly what listening to Claudia Rankine read from Citizen did for me and this is what happened to me when my friend David Tait sent me the manuscript of his new collection The AQI which contains a long central sequence exploring homophobia.  I became more conscious of the times we are living through, when homophobia and racism is rife, but some of us are lucky enough to not be directly affected by it.  Poetry can make us see the world differently, can make us more conscious of what we are living through.

David Tait has been on a brief visit to the UK for the past fortnight and we spent three days together hiking in the Lake District and eating cake – that was pretty much the extent of our activities. It was great to see him again – and I’m looking forward to his new collection, which will be coming out in May 2018.

So as well as having a welcome visitor and preparing for my mock viva, I’ve also been desperately trying to catch up with emails and admin.  I seem to be getting a lot more freelance work coming through at the moment, which is lovely, and maybe an after effect of winning the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, but it has made this week a little bit manic as I try and keep up with it.

I’m also now fully on with my training for the Coniston to Barrow, taking place in May this year.   Last year I got injured and am determined not to do the same thing again.  I’m building up my milage, but really dialling back the speed.  I ran my longest run in a while today – 12 and a half miles but didn’t go charging off up the hills which is my usual style, and it seems to have worked, as I have no aches or pains so far.

Back to the Sunday Poem! My lovely editor, Amy Wack at Seren, sent me some of the new books that Seren have just published.  One of them was a pamphlet by a poet called Bryony Littlefair, who won the Mslexia competition in 2017 with her pamphlet Giraffe.  I really loved this pamphlet – it felt like a complete breath of fresh air, every poem entertained me.

I chose ‘Sunday mornings’ not because this blog goes out on a Sunday (no chance I’d ever get round to posting this in the morning anyway!) although it is nicely apt that it’s Sunday.  Returning to Jonathan Culler who writes that every poem about a bird conjures up other poems about birds.  I think this is true, to a lesser and greater extent.  I can’t read a poem about a fox without thinking of Ted Hughes ‘The Thought-Fox’.   Hughes’ poem stands as a kind of shadow poem behind other fox poems, casting a different length of shadow depending on how close they are to each other.

‘Sunday mornings’ bought into my head one of my favourite contemporary poem ‘Those Winter Sundays’ by Robert Hayden.  They are two completely different poems of course.  Hayden is writing about ‘the chronic angers of that house’ and the different ways humans show love, or don’t, amongst other things, whilst Bryony’s poem seems to be a poem of learning to be alone, learning loneliness or selfhood.  But I think the music of the poems, their intrinsic rhythms are very close to each other, especially at the beginning.  The lovely first line of Bryony’s poem: ‘The truth is I’m not sure what I did’ – the way it seems to start mid-conversation seems to mirror the mid-conversation stance of ‘Sundays too my father got up early’.   Both poems seem to be addressing us, the readers directly – Bryony’s all the way through, and Robert Hayden’s seems to turn its face towards us with that last heartbreaking question – ‘What did I know, what did I know,/of love’s austere and lonely offices?’  Although I suppose both poems could also be addressing the self rather than a reader.

I love the humour in Bryony’s poem as well – ‘I’d spin/on the office chair, or curl up on patches/of carpet, pretending to be dead’ and earlier in the poem ‘I didn’t/do any of those things, nor the homework/I’d invented to excuse my godlessness’.  All the way through the pamphlet, she uses fantastic metaphors and similes, and this poem is no exception – look at ‘Alone in the hefty silence, I felt loose/and endangered, like an undone shoelace/or an open rucksack.’ I think those are so well chosen – of course an open rucksack is endangered – it could allow things to fall from it, or allow a thief to take something.  A shoelace is endangered because it could be stepped on, it could case a fall.  Both objects are not doing what they are supposed to be doing.

It made me think back to being a teenager and how hard it was to be alone.  At some point, my mum and dad eventually trusted my sister and I enough to leave us at home, but I was never alone as I had three sisters.  Even when my older sisters were out, I was always with my twin sister – in fact we weren’t allowed to hang out with friends without each other, which maybe accounts for how terrible I am at being alone now.  I can manage it if I’m busy, but I find it really hard if I’ve got nothing to do.

A little bit about Bryony Littlefair – she studied English Literature and Philosophy at the University of York.  Her various jobs have ranged from cupcake baker to Editorial Assistant to dementia support worker.  She currently works at the Abbey Community Centre in Kilburn and focuses on work with older people.  She is also Project Coordinator for The Reader in Croydon.  Her poetry has previously appeared in Popshot, The Cadaverine, Clear Poetry and Ink, Sweat and Tears.  

You can buy her pamphlet Giraffe direct from the Seren website here– I can’t recommend it highly enough.  I read it straight through in one sitting and then started again.  There are some cracking poems in there – other favourites are the title poem ‘Giraffe’ and the very funny ‘Usually I’m a different person at this party’ which starts ‘Usually my tights don’t fall down like this, leaving an airy prism/just below the crotch’ and just gets better and better (Is Bryony Littlefair in fact following me around documenting my life I wondered to myself at this point).  I also really liked ‘Lido’ which starts ‘Seeing you at the lido was/like walking past a house I used to live in’ and I used ‘Visitations from future self’ in my Dove Cottage Young Poets workshop a week or so ago, where it received a stamp of approval.

Sunday mornings – Bryony Littlefair

The truth is I’m not sure what I did
those mornings they’d leave, my mother
always in a floral capped-sleeve shirt.
I wish I could say I graffitied the newsagent,
or met with a nicotine-fingered boyfriend,
or learned Bertrand Russell by heart. I didn’t
do any of those things, nor the homework
I’d invented to excuse my godlessness.
Alone in the hefty silence, I felt loose
and endangered, like an undone shoelace
or an open rucksack.  I’d pace from room
to room, hands tucked up my sleeves.
I’d play snatches on the piano, or make
elaborate little snacks – crackers piled
with quartered grapes and shavings of cheese.
I was like a blunt knife, failing to cut
and apportion the hours.  I’d spin
on the office chair, or curl up on patches
of carpet, pretending to be dead.
I might have put on a CD, shaken
my hips to Run DMC, a jerky
figure of eight.  I might have filmed myself dancing.
I’d be choosing another colour for my nails
when the key would turn in the lock:
my parents, whole and returned,
having sung their hallelujahs
and walked back through the cool light rain.

Sunday Poem – Chrissie Gittins

Sunday Poem – Chrissie Gittins

Going out for a run – procrastination.  Playing on addictive computer game involving hatching dragons from eggs in a completely pointless exercise – procrastination.  Ringing my mum for a chat – procrastination.  Ringing my twin sister for a chat – procrastination.  Checking Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – procrastination.  Sending stupid Snapchat video to Hilda Sheehan – procrastination.   Everything that isn’t my PhD feels like procrastinating at the minute, like a distraction.  I realise that thinking of life in general as a distraction is probably not healthy in the long term.

I need to run otherwise I think I will lose the plot.  I try to limit myself to computer game when I’ve done a good couple of hours work on the PhD.  I ring my mum and my sister whilst I’m out walking the dogs.  I spend less time on social media – mainly because of my addiction to aforementioned dragon hatching game.  I practice saying no in the mirror but still say yes too often.  This blog could really be called procrastination, I suppose, which is maybe why I have slowed down with it a little recently, why the posts are a bit more sporadic.  But I feel connected to a wider poetry community when I write it – and I still like hunting out poems to post here.

Today I have ran 10 miles, and read and re-read a fantastic manuscript by Hannah Hodgson, nne of my Dove Cottage Young Poets.  This manuscript is her first pamphlet collection and is about to be published very soon by Wayleave Press.  I’ve written a blurb for the back, and sent it to Mike Barlow, her publisher.  I’ve also answered as many emails as I could get through, and am hoping I haven’t missed any.  I’ve read and re-read the feedback on my 6000 word report, or RD2 as it’s commonly known at MMU on my PhD progress so far.  I’ve started to respond to some of their feedback, just in bullet points at the moment.  Next Monday I will have a ‘mock viva’ where I will discuss my PhD, and their feedback with the scrutineers.

My usual psychological process is to panic or get anxious about anything like this in the lead up to it.  I spend copious amounts of energy worrying,and usually, it all ends up ok.  So I’m trying to just ignore this part of me that works itself up into a frenzy.  Or maybe not ignore, but not let it run the show.

I did this recently with a thing I did with BBC Radio Cumbria.  I did an interview and a recording of my poem ‘Suffragette’ as part of the celebrations to mark 100 years since the Representation of the People Act, which gave the vote to some women and working class men.  I spent the next three days afterwards worrying I’d said something awful and made myself sound stupid.  When the interview was played and I eventually got the courage up to listen, I realised it sounded fine.  I was even quite proud of myself for doing it, again a new feeling for me! You can listen to the interview and recording here for the next 22 days:

So in the spirit of learning from previous experiences, I’m trying hard not to let my nerves or anxiety get the better of me.  Part of me is looking forward to discussing what I’m doing – my scrutineers are writers and poets I really admire, so I’m hoping it will genuinely be helpful and interesting, and thought provoking.  My stomach still does a flip flop when I think about it, but it feels under control.

I’ve had a busy couple of weeks since I last wrote.  Last night we had A Poem and a Pint.  Sadly, Joanne Limburg, our guest poet was taken ill at the last minute.  The wonderful John Foggin agreed to stand in at very late notice and made a 250 mile round trip to come and read.  It was a brilliant reading – John’s poetry was thought-provoking and moving and funny.  I was really pleased to see the audience loved him as much as I do and bought lots of his books – you can read his account of the evening over at his blog The Great Fogginzo’s Cobweb.  

The night before, Friday, I was reading at Lancaster Spotlight, which was a fundraising night to help them raise money to continue their good work whilst they apply for Arts Council funding.  They had a huge turnout and I got to read with another one of my Dove Cottage Young Poets, Matthew, who was then asked back to do a longer set at Spotlight later in the year.  I found this almost as exciting as the first time I read there, and was invited back to read.

On Tuesday of this week I got back from being away for about six nights.  I read in London on the Monday night at an event at the British Library for the Royal Society of Literature alongside the brilliant Malika Booker and Nick Makoha.  It was a really lovely night and I got to spend some time with a few friends that I hadn’t seen for a while.

I travelled down to London from Ty Newydd, where I’d been for five nights, running a residential course with my co-tutor Hilda Sheehan, who is also one of my closest friends.  Being with Hilda always fills me with joy and giddiness so it was great to spend time with her.  Our students were a fantastic group from a school in Manchester who were an absolute delight to teach.

I’m really looking forward to tomorrow because I get to spend three days with my other best friend David Tait! He is over visiting from China.  Tomorrow we will be hanging out in Bowness and Grasmere and going for a walk with the dogs, and talking all things poetry.  So no time really to get nervous about the viva.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Chrissie Gittins, who I met quite a few years ago at Stanza Poetry Festival.  Chrissie was kind enough to send me a copy of her pamphlet, Professor Heger’s Daughter, and I asked her if I could share the title poem here.

I found a great interview with Chrissie where she talks about writing this poem, which I thought was a really interesting description of the process, and the lengths we go to as poets here which is really worth a read.  She writes

I first read about Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Constantin Heger in the Saturday Guardian early in 2012. They were mentioned in an article by Lucasta Miller about a recently discovered fable which Charlotte had written. After her aunt died Charlotte returned home to Haworth from Brussels, where she’d been studying, and wrote a series of passionate letters to her teacher. Professor Heger tore them up on receipt and threw them in the wastepaper basket; the only reason they survive is because his wife rescued them, stuck and stitched them together, and kept them safely in her jewellery box. The letters are now part of the extensive collection of Brontë literary manuscripts held at the British Library.  

I think one of the many lovely things about this is the utter chance of it – that Chrissie read about the letters in the Guardian, presumably minding her own business reading the newspaper and not expecting a poem to pounce on her. Maybe this is what being a poet is – being ready for these chance encounters or meetings which might lead on to a poem or a pamphlet.

The poem is in the voice of one of Professor Heger’s daughters, and uses the arrival of Charlotte Bronte’s letters as its structure.  I love how each letter is tied to a particular month, and the physical descriptions of the letters – the pieces ‘like islands floating on the green chenille’ and ‘river tears’ and the ‘shadow words’.

I also really like how Chrissie has threaded some of the actual letters through the poem.  The poem is a poem of contrasts – the close description of the fragments of letters contrast with the wider view of the outside world with its ‘canopy of leaves’ and later the ‘leaves crusted with rust’.  There is a wonderful telescoping effect as the eye of the poem closes in and then widens out again.

The first time we hear the daughter speak is in the last but one stanza, when she asks the father “Did you love her? Did you ever love her?”.  I like how the subject, the ‘her’ is left a mystery.  She could be talking about her mother, his wife, or Charlotte Bronte, and this mystery isn’t resolved by the father’s action of throwing the letters into the fire.

You can buy Chrissie Gittin’s pamphlet Professor Heger’s Daughter from Paekakariki Press for £10.  This is a limited edition letterpress pamphlet – it really is a beautiful object.

She was was born in Lancashire and lives in Forest Hill in South London. She studied at Newcastle University and St Martin’s School of Art, and worked as an artist and a teacher before becoming a freelance poet/writer. She writes poetry, radio drama, short stories, and poetry for children.  Professor Heger’s Daughter was published in 2013 and she’s been busy since then, publishing a short story collection Between Here and Knitwear with Unthank Books in 2015 and a children’s poetry collection Adder, Bluebell, Lobster in 2016 with Otter-Barry Books.  You can find out more information about Chrissie over at her website 

Chrissie is also heading up north soon to give a poetry reading for adults at Settle Sessions in North Yorkshire on June 8th.  On June 9th – she’ll also be running a 1 hour poetry workshop for children followed by a short poetry reading – more information over at the website of Settle Sessions.
Thanks to Chrissie for letting me use her poem here.

Professor Heger’s Daughter – Chrissie Gittins 

The first came in July when the canopy of leaves
cooled the garden in the afternoon,
she laid the pieces on the table
like islands floating on the green chenille.
Taking paper strips she strapped the words together.
I shall see you again one day…it must happen since I long
00for it.
A coral blush rose in her cheeks.

Mother found the second in October,
leaves were crusted then with rust.
She pulled the river tears together with feather stitch,
white cotton whiter than the page,
the thin paper showing Charlotte’s
shadow words behind.
my sisters are keeping well but my brother is always ill.

In January, when threads of silver birch were
stained with plum my mother found nine pieces
nestled next to last year’s invitations.
If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely
I shall be absolutely without hope –

Another in November, leaves rotting in the rain.
I lost my appetite and my sleep – I pine away.
This was the last.
I know what it is to love a man and not be loved.
But to see my mother’s eyes remember pain?

When my father lay on his deathbed,
his skin wax, his hands clammy and limp,
I flung the letters in his face.
“Did you love her? Did you ever love her?”
He screwed his strength enough to toss them
in the fire.

He found his peace in death.
I keep the letters locked beneath my bed
in a polished leather case.
It’s only in the spring I take pleasure in the trees,
I stroke the buds and stems and will the curling leaves
to unfurl into sunlight, to bring a fragrant ease.

December 2018 Poetry Carousel


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Poetry Carousel
7th-10th December 2018
Tutors: Sean O’Brien, Fiona Sampson, Andrew McMillan and Kim Moore,

Abbot Hall Hotel, Kents Bank, Grange-Over-Sands, Cumbria
£390 to include breakfast, lunch and three-course evening meal.
Please contact hotel to book 015395 32896

The Poetry Carousel is a residential course with a difference – four very different workshops with four very different tutors, all crammed into one weekend. Each participant will be put into a group of between 8 and 10 to take part in a morning workshop with one of four tutors. Afternoons are free for reading and writing, and in the evening, there are poetry readings in the Great Hall at the hotel.

Read on to find out a little more about the amazing team of tutors I’ve assembled for the 2018 Poetry Carousel. The last two Carousels have sold out, and half of the places for this one have already gone, so if you’re interested, please get in touch with the hotel to book a place.

2018 Tutors

Fiona Sampson MBE is a prizewinning poet and writer. Published in thirty-seven languages, she has received international awards in the US, India, Macedonia and Bosnia. A Fellow and a former Council member of the Royal Society of Literature, she’s published twenty-seven books, received the Newdigate Prize, a Cholmondeley Award, Hawthornden Fellowship and numerous awards from the Arts Councils of England and Wales, and the Society of Authors and the Poetry Book Society, as well as twice been shortlisted for both T.S. Eliot and Forward Prizes. Her recent books include the poetry collection The Catch (Penguin Random House 2016) and a prose study of Limestone Country (2017), which was Guardian Book of the Year and a Telegraph and Evening Standard Pick of the Summer. Her new biography, In Search of Mary Shelley, published by Profile in 2018, is a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. She is the Professor of Poetry at University of Roehampton, where she directs the Poetry Centre.

Andrew McMillan was born in South Yorkshire in 1988; his debut collection physical was the first ever poetry collection to win The Guardian First Book Award. The collection also won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, a Somerset Maugham Award (2016), an Eric Gregory Award (2016) and a Northern Writers’ award (2014). It was shortlisted the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Costa Poetry Award, The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year 2016, the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, the Roehampton Poetry Prize and the Polari First Book Prize. It was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Autumn 2015. Most recently physical has been translated into Norwegian (Aschehoug, 2017) and French under the title Les Corps Des Hommes (Grasset, 2018). His second collection, playtime, will be published by Jonathan Cape in 2018. He is senior lecturer at the Manchester Writing School at MMU and lives in Manchester.

Sean O’Brien’s ninth poetry collection, Europa, is published in 2018 by Picador. His Collected Poems appeared in 2012. His work has received various awards including the T.S. Eliot, Forward and Roehampton Poetry prizes. In 2016 his second novel, Once Again Assembled Here, was published by Picador, and a chapbook of poetry and photographs, Hammersmith, by Hercules Editions. His second collection of short stories, Quartier Perdu, is due from Comma in 2018. He is a critic, translator, editor, playwright, novelist, broadcaster and experienced tutor and mentor. He lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, is Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Kim Moore’s first full-length collection The Art of Falling was published by Seren in 2015 and won the 2016 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. Her poem ‘In That Year’ from the collection was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Published Poem. She won a Northern Writers Award in 2014, an Eric Gregory Award in 2011 and the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize in 2010. Her pamphlet If We Could Speak Like Wolves was a winner in the 2012 Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition, and went on to be shortlisted for a Michael Marks Award and named in The Independent as a Book of the Year. Her work has been translated into several languages including Croatian, Macedonian, Dutch, Spanish and Polish. After working for 13 years as a trumpet teacher, she is now a PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University and is currently working on her second collection.

Sunday Poem: Naomi Jaffa

Sunday Poem: Naomi Jaffa

It’s been a beautiful day here in the Lake District today. I’ve been out in the cold and the sunshine most of the day. At lunchtime I went for a 12 mile run with a group of friends and then a 3 mile dog walk when I got back. I’m now sat feeling a bit sorry for myself as I’ve now got a pain behind my knee, at the bottom of my hamstring. I didn’t think it was that bad, but it seems to have got worse over the course of the evening. I’m hoping I’ve just overdone it a bit today and with a few days rest it will be ok.

This week has been a mix of teaching, recordings, and writing poems. On Tuesday I did a short interview with a producer from BBC Radio Cumbria and read my poem ‘Suffragette’. The interview and the poem will be broadcast some time in the week of the anniversary of the Representation of the People Act. I get really anxious when I do anything that’s recorded. Not usually beforehand too much, but afterwards – things that I’ve said run round and round in my head, or things I didn’t say – don’t know if anybody else gets this. It doesn’t happen when I do readings though – maybe because a poetry reading is such an ephemeral thing – and anything I’ve said, whilst it can be repeated, it has also disappeared.

Thursday is my teaching day at MMU – I’m teaching on an undergraduate unit called Language and Technique this term – covering for Adam O’Riordan. I’m really enjoying the teaching so far – this week Helen Mort and I took our undergraduate students to Manchester Art Gallery to hopefully be inspired by some of the art.

On Friday I went to Yarm school to do a reading/talk about domestic violence, focusing on the sequence in my first collection. This is the first time I’ve done something like this, and I was a little out of my comfort zone – as usually I read the poems one after another, without any introductions. This has always been my way of preserving a kind of boundary around myself when I’m reading these poems. The students were absolutely lovely though – they asked lots of perceptive questions and seemed really engaged. The teacher who invited me to come had read my book and thought about the poetry and was really enthusiastic. I couldn’t get the statistic out of my head that 1 in 3 women will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives – it’s a sobering thought when you’re standing in front of a room of young people with their whole lives ahead of them. Statistically, there were probably young women and young men in that room who have already experienced it.

I’ve also had another good week on the PhD – I’ve got a meeting with my supervisor tomorrow so I had to edit and get ready some new poems to send through to him. I’m nervous about the meeting tomorrow as these are all really new poems that I’m still not completely sure of. I had two poems accepted in the New Statesman this week as well, although I’m not sure when they will be published. And I’ve carried on with reading Theory of the Lyric by Jonathan Culler, which I’m still finding interesting!

I’ve been reading about the ‘cooperative principal’ coined by the philosopher H.R. Grice. The cooperative principal means that when we are talking to someone we assume that they are saying something relevant. In literature the cooperative principal is ‘hyper-protected’. Culler says that readers ‘will often go a long way in accepting obscurity, disjunction or apparent irrelevance’.

Culler talks about the ‘lyric convention of significance’ i.e ‘the fact that something has been set down as a poem implies that it is important now, at the moment of lyric articulation’. This has interesting implications for my poems exploring sexism. By writing lyric poetry about experiences of sexism, I can elevate experiences of sexism into significance, just by writing lyric poetry, rather than say, a diary entry.

Another thing that Jonathan Culler is really good on is Greek poetry. If I had time (which I don’t) I would find it very easy to be sidetracked and go and find as many examples of fragments of Greek poetry I could get my hands on. My most recent favourite is by Theognis, addressed to someone called Cyrnus. This is translated by Andrew Miller and the first couple of lines are

I have given you wings with which you will fly, soaring easily
over the boundless seas and all the land

A bit like Shakespeare’s sonnets – Theognis promises Cyrnus immortalization before complaining at the end that he has been deceived and disappointed.

So, on to the first Sunday Poem of February! Many people will know Naomi Jaffa as the former Director of Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, where she worked tirelessly to bring poets from across the world together in one place for a magical weekend. I know this because I was one of those lucky poets in 2013 and I had such a good time. I hope we treat the poets who come to Kendal Poetry Festival as well as I was treated that weekend in Aldeburgh.

As well as running one of the best festivals for 22 years, Naomi is also a fabulous poet. I suspect her own creative work was put on the backburner for the many years she was running the festival, but I was really happy to see that last year she had a pamphlet published by The Garlic Press. The pamphlet is called Driver and comes highly recommended.

Naomi Jaffa grew up in London and Scarborough and read English at Oxford. She is the daughter of professional musicians and started out in classical music management before moving to East Anglia in 1991. After her 22 years working for Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and as Director of the Poetry Trust, she is now the co-founder of Poetry People, a new organisation set up to run the Suffolk Young Poets competition and other community projects. Her first pamphlet, The Last Hour of Sleep was published in 2004.

The poem I’ve chosen is called ‘Sign’ and I think it’s really beautiful. I also like poems that send me off on a tangent – this particular tangent was to find out more about the epigraph at the beginning of the poem. Minerva was the goddess of wisdom (I found out) so Hegel is saying here that wisdom can only be found when things are ending. I then got a bit distracted by the various ways this phrase could be translated, like ‘takes flight at dusk’ instead of ‘flies only at dusk’. I like the version Naomi uses best – as ‘takes flight’ has a connotation of running away which I don’t think is needed. I found ‘The owl of Minerva only flies at dusk’ – just reversing those two words made me shudder because the rhythm was bumpy and ugly – and then you realise how ‘flies only’ sounds like what it means, the words float off the page, whereas reversed, they kind of bump along. I also found a longer version which I think is as lovely as the one Naomi chose to use: ‘The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk’. I think the shorter one works better as an epigraph, but I’m glad the shorter one led me to the longer one.

On to the poem, which has an encounter with an owl, or more accurately two owls at its heart. It seems to start mid-conversation, as if we know more than we actually do, as if this is a conversation between friends. We don’t know why or what or who the speaker is leaving, and although by the end of the poem, there is an introduction of a ‘he’ who will be left behind, I think the poem is also exploring the act of leaving in a much wider sense. We don’t even know who the speaker makes it clear to that they are leaving – it could be themselves, or another person.

Nature is set against a man-made world throughout the poem. The ‘big white wedge/of a bird’ flies level with the car. The old airfield and the road sign and the chicken-factory lorry are set against the barn owl, ‘perched and scrawny’.

I also love the matter-of-fact tone ‘and anyway I’m late, there’s no time today for nature’ – the confidence of this line, which is then disrupted by nature, which can’t be controlled. The voice of the poem which says ‘there’s no time’ is silenced by the owl ‘level with the window, flying at my speed’ and this encounter, this interaction takes on significance, the significance of a sign, showing the speaker ‘for at least ten slow clear seconds the way forward’.

I have only just noticed (honestly!) after banging on about the ‘lyric convention of signficance’ that this poem has the word significant in it. The unconscious is truly a wonderful thing!

The introduction of the ‘he’ at the end was surprising and heartbreaking when the speaker says ‘only now/does he see and touch me’. The idea of not being seen until you are leaving is delicious in its cruelty. I also really like how Naomi circles back to the epigram that began the poem – ‘This isn’t history, but must be what Hegel meant’. So Hegel was saying not that things have to end, night has to fall for wisdom to be found, but that wisdom can be found when things are ending, at dusk, a time of neither one thing nor the other, not night or day or dark or light.

Please rush forth and buy a copy from The Garlic Press here and thanks to Naomi Jaffa for allowing me to use her poem this week.

The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. Hegel

At the start of the week I make it clear I’m leaving,
on one of those never-gets-light December mornings,
I drive across the old airfield and, almost pass
the Passing Place sign, notice the barn owl,
perched and scrawny, hunger beating daylight.
I want to reverse for a better look, but here’s
the chicken-factory lorry in the mirror looming up,
and anyway I’m late, there’s no time today for nature.
But turning right at the end of the single track road
here’s a second one, much larger – a big white wedge
of a bird, level with the window, flying at my speed,
willing the car to disturb some small creature,
wingbeats in time with my heart all the parallel length
of the ditch between field-hedge and verge.
Of course I decide this is significant, this night-hunter
waiting up so late for me to arrive, willing to show
for at least ten slow clear seconds the way forward.
This isn’t history, but must be what Hegel meant.
After twelve and a half years and in the week
I make my intentions plain, only now
does he see and touch me, talk about how much
he understands, can’t bear the loss of.

January Poem 3 – Sue Vickerman

January Poem 3 – Sue Vickerman


After trying to get myself to slow down a little with the Sunday Poems, and take the pressure off a bit, I find myself circling round to them again.  The problem is I keep reading too many good poems.

I have had an interesting couple of weeks since I last blogged.  I spent a week in St Ives with some friends on a writing retreat at the hotel where I run my residential courses.  It was bliss to be there and not be responsible for anyone else’s happiness apart from my own!

I had breakfast each day with my friends at 8.30am.  Then I wrote, or more accurately edited poems I’d already started from about 9.30am till 12.  Then I went out for a run – I think I only had one non-running day that week.  At 2pm the hotel served scones with jam and cream and then I wrote in my room again from about 3.30 till 6pm.  I felt like a monk, albeit in a very luxurious room.  At 6.30 we always met for dinner, and then shared a poem and gave/received feedback on it.


I realised it’s probably the most time I’ve ever spent alone without sinking into a dramatic melancholia.  I also realised it was good for my writing to have this time where I didn’t have to worry about anything or anyone else.  This, I told myself, is why Wordsworth had a wife and a sister running around after him – he was basically running his own hotel from home! The luxury of not having to cook, or walk the dogs or do anything except sit in my pyjamas and write.  And run of course – miles of coastal path – a bit waterlogged this time of year, so I mainly stuck to the very hilly country roads.

Anyway, back to real life this week, except I think I’ve left half of myself down in St Ives.  There is something magical and beautiful about it.  I can’t wait to go back in April, when I’ll be running a residential there with Helen Mort.  I’ve only ever been down there in January or February, so I’m hoping for some warm weather!

So real life this week consisted of a series of travel disasters on Wednesday and Thursday.  On Wednesday I went to Salford to go on a course for my PhD called ‘Writing Critically about Creative Practice’.  I wore a different coat because it was raining, so I left my railcard behind.  Which meant I had to pay £48 for a new rail ticket.  Then the trains were delayed and I was almost late for my course.  I’d arranged to stay at my friends Air B & B place in Hebden Bridge overnight, as I had to be back in Manchester the next morning.  I got to Manchester Victoria and due to rushing and thinking I was going to miss the Hebden Bridge train, I jumped on the wrong train and didn’t realise until we pulled into Bolton half an hour later.  Sigh.  I jumped back on the train to Manchester Victoria, eventually arriving in Hebden at about the same time as I would have arrived in Barrow in Furness if I’d just gone home.  It was one of those days where I just shouldn’t have got out of bed.

The next day I did my undergraduate teaching at MMU which went fine, and then went out for a meal afterwards with the PhD students.  I miss out on a lot of the socialising because I live so far away, but I really wanted to make an effort for this meal.  I decided to leave at 8.15pm to get the last but one train back to Barrow.  When I got to the station, the train had broken down and I had to wait half an hour for the next one.  This meant I missed my connection at Preston to get the last train home, so I was stuck in Preston for an hour and twenty minutes! The lesson here is just stay and have fun and get the last train home, and if anything goes wrong with that, at least the train company has to put you in a taxi!

So a week of mini travel disasters, but I suppose it could have been worse.  As my twin sister comfortingly said when I rang to tell her about it: “Well at least you haven’t shit yourself!”.  Well yes, there was that.

Leaving half of myself in St Ives has meant I’ve found it really hard to knuckle down and catch up with the various admin chores that a week gallivanting around and writing poetry has left me with.  I think I’m just about caught up now but it has been a struggle to make myself sit and do it.  I keep floating off and editing poems, or writing poems.  It has been a very strange feeling, as usually it is the other way around – I sit down to write a poem and float off to write an email.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Sue Vickerman, who is one of the members of Brewery Poets, a monthly critiquing group that I go to.  Sue’s writings have appeared in The Guardian and the Times Educational supplement and her novel Special Needs is in public libraries.  She has been the recipient of three Arts Council awards for her poetry and fiction.

Just before Christmas, Sue had a pamphlet Adventus published by Naked Eye Publishing.  Sue sent me a copy of the pamphlet a while ago, but I’ve only recently sat down to read it – such is my tardiness, and the height of my to-read pile.  The blurb on the back of the book says that ‘These twenty-five poems are perennials but may serve as daily readings starting from 1st December.

I thought I would share the one for the 2nd of December, called The ends.  I think this poem perfectly describes one type of ending of a relationship, an ending that is dragged out, an relationship that when you look back, you realise had many endings.  I felt like I was balanced between smiling ruefully or squirming uncomfortably in recognition with the poem.

Each stanza details one type of ending – the first ‘on the way to the therapist’, the second ‘when I got practical’, the third ‘telling our parents at Christmas’, the fourth/fifth/sixth ‘the silences, her resentment, our separate beds’, the seventh ‘I got my own place’ and the eighth ‘she move on with me’ and finally the verbal ‘look, it’s the end, Annabel’.

I love the conversational tone in this poem, as if we are overhearing the speaker telling the story of ‘The ends’ to a friend.  It almost feels like we could be the friend, as if we are the ones addressed, the ones taken into the speaker’s confidence.  There is a working out here of course as well – the speaker is trying to work out the truth of what happened, what really happened, with the question, with the reasoning out of events, with the use of parenthesis to elaborate.  I think the use of the long sentence from the last line of the third stanza really adds to this feeling of a conversation, a train of thought being worked out, and then finally finishing with that lovely half rhyme of Annabel/amicable to finish off.

The ends – Sue Vickerman

The first end happened
on the way to the therapist
when we said in the car
what we were going there to say

But it didn’t end there.  Was the end when I got practical  –
where should I move to? Since
I couldn’t by myself afford this house’s rental –
but she stalled, seemed not quite ready yet

or was the real end telling our parents at Christmas that
although our gifts were from us both
and the gifts we were receiving were to us both
We were no longer together

though technically still under the same roof,
though still the best of friends although it had ended
(though we didn’t go into details,
the silences, her resentment, our separate beds)

and the new year started but she didn’t move on
so I moved on, I got my own place and
moved on but for god’s sake she moved on with me
because she seemed not quite ready yet

so there we were, separated but rubbing together
in my tiny place, it was uncomfortable and I wanted it to end,
when is it going to end, look it’s the end Annabel,
and by the end it was not amicable.


Garsdale Retreat – 5th-10th March 2018


ian mcmillan

The next residential I’m running is at the Garsdale Retreat, from the 5th-10th March 2018. The theme of the course is Encounters and Collisions and how to use these in our own writing. We’ll be looking at encounters with animals, landscape, people, ghosts and everything in between! I’m really excited about the guest poet as well – Ian McMillan will be joining us mid-week to give a reading. There are three places left, and it would be great to get those last few spots filled, so please spread the word if you know anybody who might be interested. The cost is from £500-£760 for the week which includes tuition, accommodation and food.

You can find more information about how to book here;

January Poem 2 – Robert Wrigley


This has been a week full of terriers – literally.  I’ve had my sister’s three terriers, Sox, Buffy and Eddie to stay.  Added to my two Border Terriers Miles and Lola that makes five excitable dogs in the house.  At first I was planning on walking them in two groups but pressures of time put paid to that and I just took them all out together in the end.  Luckily they are all friendly with other dogs and have a good recall so I could just let them loose in the woods and fields across the road from my house.  

This has been a good week for getting poetry and PhD work done, despite having five terriers and more visits from workmen to finally finish the kitchen off.  I’ve got a lot more reading done and haven’t felt guilty at all about sitting around in my pyjamas! I think I’ve got my head around the fact that the reading I’m doing will eventually pull together to form a PhD.  I also got the date for my ‘mock viva’ which will be towards the end of February. I thought I would be really nervous about it, but I’m actually looking forward to it, and the chance to discuss what I’m doing and what I’ve been working on.  It’s a very strange feeling, to not be feeling anxious – maybe I really have turned a corner with the PhD.  

I’ve also been to two poetry groups this week, Barrow Writers on Tuesday and Brewery Poets on Friday, which meant I’ve had to stop dithering and finally get two poems which have been sitting ‘cooking’ in my notebook typed up and ready for feedback.  Thursday was my first day back at MMU this year teaching on a different undergraduate module this time, a Creative Writing unit.  I really enjoyed the teaching and some of the students have already sent in poems they wrote during the session.  Even when  I’m teaching I can tell now that all the reading I’ve been doing is paying off – bits of knowledge are linking up to other bits of knowledge.

On Saturday Chris and I drove over to Hebden Bridge for a 75th birthday party for Tony Ward, the publisher of Arc.  I met Tony at a festival in Ireland and we hit it off straight away – as I’m sure anyone who knows him will testify, Tony is great fun to hang out with.  I also got to see the lovely Amanda Dalton as well who is also good fun to spend time with, probably too much as we got a bit hysterical at one point in the proceedings.  We drove back home quite late at night, got back at 1am and then I was up at 7 to finish packing to go away for a week. 

I had two poetry critiquing groups to go to this week – Barrow Writers on Tuesday and Brewery Poets on Friday, which meant I had to stop dithering and get two poems ready for feedback.  On Thursday I did my first day of teaching at MMU on a undergraduate module called Language and Technique which is a creative writing module.  I really enjoyed the teaching – we looked at Curse poems this week and then I set them an exercise to write their own. Some of the students have already sent me their poems that they started in the session.  I’m teaching this unit alongside Helen Mort who has been her usual lovely self in getting me up to speed with everything.  I can also tell that all of the reading I’m doing for the PhD, and all the reading I did for the Approaches to Poetry course last year is really paying off – it feels like my brain is knitting together over previous gaps of knowledge!  There are obviously still plenty of gaps to be filled in of course, but that’s the great thing about reading isn’t it, there’s always more to do!

I’m writing this on the train from London down to St Ives, in Cornwall.  I’m going on a writing retreat down there with some friends – Katie Hale, Holly Hopkins, Hilda Sheehan and Emily Hasler.  I’m hoping to try and take stock of where I am with my next collection, write a few new poems, work on some drafts of poems that have been waiting to be typed up, and of course get some runs in along the coastal path.  I can’t wait to not have to do any cooking!  Last night I spent the night in London at the TS Eliot prize giving.   I went a couple of years ago and loved it, but I’d kind of forgotten how exciting it is.  I really like the format of the readings as well – I like that the prize is actually announced tomorrow, and that the Sunday night is just about the poetry and the poets.  

I haven’t read many of the books on the shortlist – I’ve actually only read Michael Symmons Roberts and Tara Bergin’s all the way through and really enjoyed them both.  Jacqueline Saphra’s reading was very moving – she was obviously delighted to be up there, and the warmth from the audience towards her and Nine Arches Press was really lovely.  Ocean Vuong was giving out lavender to people as he was signing books – but I spent too long talking and missed my opportuity.  Katie got some lavender but by the time we got home it had disintegrated and was just a twig in her bag! I really loved Robert Minhinnick’s poems that he read – out of the books I hadn’t read, that is the one I want to read first. 

So now we are just south of Reading and speeding towards St Ives.  It’s raining and grey and miserable but I am still on a bit of a poetry high from last night.  The second January poem this month comes from another brilliant collection – Robert Wrigley’s new book Box.  I saw Robert Wrigley read at Aldeburgh a few years ago and loved his poetry but was too shy to go and speak to him.  I got permission to post one of his poems from his Bloodaxe collection The Church of Omnivorous Light on the blog which you can find here and we’ve stayed in touch via Facebook since then.  We swapped books over Christmas and I was delighted to find Robert has a ‘My People’ poem as well, as the first poem in his collection.  

Robert Wrigley is the author of ten collections of poetry, including,most recently, Anatomy of Melancholy and Other Poems (Penguin 2013), which won a 2014 Pacific Northwest Book Award.   His earlier books have been awarded the Kingsley Tufts Award, the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Award, and the Poets Prize.  A University Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho, he lives in the woods near Moscow, Idaho, with his wife, the writer Kim Barnes. 

Along with Christina Thatcher’s book which I talked about last week, Box is one of my favourite collections I’ve read for a while.  It’s full of animals and transformations and an engagement not just with the natural world and its inhabitants but also a love of reading and engagement with other writers.  One of my favourite poems is ‘Blessed are’ which observes ravens attending to the corpse of a deer, but then the poem follows what happens to the skull as the year progresses and ‘the snows bury it’ until spring when it becomes ‘a blessing for blowflies’ until the speaker retrieves the skull and hangs it up where it will be ‘filled with the thoughts of yellowjackets’.  Another one of my favourite poems is called ‘Brother to Jackdaws’ where the speaker transforms from a man wanting to be a jackdaw, to the speaker being a jackdaw.  

I asked Robert if I could post ‘Ecology’ because I’ve been reading A LOT of academic writing this week around modes of address in lyric poetry.  Well, I’ve been reading a lot of Jonathan Culler and what he has to say about modes of address.  Sadly I can’t quote any of it as I am trapped at my table on the train and can’t get to my bag with my notebook in, but one of the things I remember is that he says that direct address to the audience or reader is actually relatively rare in lyric poetry, that usually the poet will be addressing someone or something else in the poem (a beloved or an animal or inanimate object) and the audience are only indirectly addressed.  There are obviously exceptions to this rule, but they are not as common.  He calls this ‘triangulated address’ which Ithink is a great term and I quite enjoy saying the word ‘triangulated’.   

So in one sense you could think of ‘Ecology’ as a rare example of a lyric poem that directly addresses the reader.  The imperative of ‘Study’ runs all the way through.  The things that we as reader or audience are being told to study are not the things one expects to study.  This is perhaps the study that a poet should make, with lines like ‘Study wind as well.  We will never know/what it desires beyond the elsewhere it is going’ and ‘Study the heart, which should not be seen/but heard’.  I love the word ‘study’ as well and how it encompasses explore, and examine, and look, and maybe even describe and watch and pay attention to.  

Of course the slippery thing about lyric poetry is its strange balance between public and private discourse, and to say that this poem is a direct address to the reader or audience, a forward facing imperative that instructs us to look, to be present in the world, ignores the fact that this poem is also turned in on itself.  It has two faces, one turned outward towards us, and one turned inward, towards the self.  It could equally be directed or addressed to the poet-self.  Maybe it is addressed to both.  

I plan to read this poem every morning in St Ives to get me in the mood for writing, for paying attention, for listening to the heart, ‘which should not be seen/but heard.’  

Thanks to Robert Wrigley for letting me use another of his poems on the blog. If you’d like to order Box you can do so here.

Ecology – Robert Wrigley

Study the muddy house, the salmon
gutting it out through glacial till.  
Study the heart, which should not be seen 
but heard.  Study the tree that is the child

and the ink that makes an octopus invisible.
Epistemologies of silence and blindness, 
suffering of common stones, the soul
with its hardened, scaly, ineveitable callus:

study them by coyote light, buffalo magnification.
Study the imperatives of rain and snow
at the whim and fancy of the wind.
Study wind as well.  We will never know 

what it desires beyond the elsewhere it is going. 
Study elsewhere, the geography of strange beds 
and topographies of lips, the glowing,
enormous, indefatigable possibilities of red. 

The sky, which is the mother of all rivers, 
must be studied, as must the river of all mothers, 
those oceans of spirit, the wells of unbelievers,
days like buckets full, arriving one after another

in the absence of an invisible engineer. 
Study the balusters and balustrades, wall studs
of sedimentary stone, the skin, the downiest hair.
Study spring grass, the planetary grave, the blood-fed

soil of the body farm, the pentagrammatic arm. 
Study the cuticle and free margin parentheses enclosing 
pink implications, the vast concupiscent charms
of the toes, the sleepy eye’s slow closing.

In such time as you are given, study the house 
within the house within the house you love in. 
Know of it such portion as you are allowed, 
and return to it to die, like a salmon. 

PhD Musings and January Poem 1 – Christina Thatcher



First week of 2018 and I’ve been trying to get back into my routine which has been a bit doomed to failure because of visitors and a left over addiction to a computer game that I started playing over Christmas.

So, I’ve decided to try and keep featuring poems here – but the Sunday Poem will now just be renamed by month.  Some months you may get one poem a week, and other times you may not.  I’m also going to try and link in a bit more thinking around my PhD, although again, this might not happen every week.

I’ve spent a large portion of this week running – I even managed to be first woman back at Parkrun this week in a time of 22.20 – still 50 seconds behind my PB but I’m slowly getting back to fitness after having a bit of time off with a dodgy knee just before Christmas – brought on by not resting after completing a half marathon.  My knee is fine now but I haven’t quite got my full running mojo back.

I’ve also had a meeting about Kendal Poetry Festival with my co-director Pauline Yarwood and our website designer.  The programme is finalised and has been for quite a few months now, and I’m busy gathering in photos and biogs from the festival poets and then there is a hard slog ahead as we start to write the content for the website and programme.  I love getting the photos of the poets though – it’s one of the most exciting bits as it makes it all a lot more real!

I’ve managed to get a few solid days work on the PhD though this week, inbetween recovering from New Year.  I’ve typed up a few rough drafts of new poems and spent mornings reading Theory of the Lyric by Jonathan Culler.  I thought I should try and do some reading around what is lyric poetry.  I’m finding the book really interesting, if a little hard going, but I’ve been feeling irritated with the book since the introduction, when Culler sets out the poets he’s going to be looking at – ‘canonical lyrics’ from Sappho, Horace, Petrarch, Goethe, Leopardi, Baudelaire, Lorca, Williams and Ashberry.

Positives – it’s great that the range of poets is drawn from other languages apart from English.  He also presents the poems in the original language and then a translation.  But one female poet in the whole book!  In the introduction, his reasoning for this is “Though there are  many circumstances in which enlarging the canon or attending to hitherto marginalized texts is the right strategy, when reflecting on the nature of the lyric there is a compelling argument for focusing on a series of texts that would be hard to exclude from lyric and that have played a role in the constitution of that tradition”.

I’m not even halfway through yet, so maybe some other women poets will appear.  He has referred to Emily Dickinson a few times.  Reading this book made me relieved that I didn’t do a degree in English Literature.  When I started writing and reading poetry, the only poetry available was Carol Ann Duffy, so I had no idea that women had been pretty much excluded from the canon.  I didn’t even know what the canon was, so there was no voice in my head telling me I couldn’t/shouldn’t write because I was a woman.  But I think if I’d had to study English Literature at the age of 18, when I was as unsure of myself as most other 18 year olds, and the texts we were told to read were mostly men, and the text books we were told to read referred to mostly men, it would have taken a long time to shake that off.

Instead I was doing a music degree and learning a whole load of other stuff about women and music and brass playing and power and gender – but that’s a whole other story!

I should be careful however, not to criticise a book for doing something other than what I want it to do, but I do wish there were more references to women poets.  Having said that, there is some really interesting stuff in the book, and I don’t understand all of it to be honest, but some interesting snippets – he talks about J.L. Austin’s theory about ‘performative language’, which brings into being what it refers to, such as when we say ‘I promise to pay you tomorrow’.  When we say this, we bring into being the promise, rather than telling about the act of promising.  If poetry can bring into being ‘that to which they refer or accomplish that of which they speak’ then poetry can be one of the creative and world-changing modes of language’.    This is something I’m interested in when I’m performing poems around sexism – by talking about sexism in a space where sexism is usually ignored, or not talked about, by elevating the act of sexism to art, sometimes I accomplish sexism or bring it into being (from audience members).  Sometimes by noticing sexism and writing about it, I can accomplish the noticing of sexism by others.

He also talks about how critics and universities advocate approaching all lyric poems almost as if they are dramatic monologues with a ‘speaker’ who is not necessarily the poet, which I thought was interesting as well.  He quotes  Mark Payne who says that ‘the poem is a forum for direct truth claims about the world on the part of the poet’ whereas in fiction or narrative poetry ”the truth claims are to be evaluated only with respect to the fictional speaker and the world he or she inhabits.’  I love that phrase ‘direct truth claims about the world’ and the way the word ‘claims’ also holds inherent in it the possibility of lying…

Obviously there’s a lot more in this huge textbook and I’m picking out small bits that aren’t necessarily representative – you’ll have to read it if you’re interested!

Just before the Poem of the Week, I wanted to leave you with this lovely quote from Derrida, also found in the pages of Theory of the Lyric.  One of my young poets at the Dove Cottage Young Poets session wrote a beautiful poem about her relationship with poetry, and particularly with poetry learnt by heart.  It had lines of Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry and some other poets woven through it.  Just by chance, I’d just read this in the ‘Theory of the Lyric’.  Derrida – that a poem is not just that which asks to be learned by heart but ‘that which learns or teaches us the heart, which invents the heart’.

I’ll leave you with two poems by Christina Thatcher, from her book More than you werepublished by Parthian. as the Poems of the Week.

Christina Thatcher was shortlisted for the Bare Fiction Debut Poetry Collection Competition in 2015 and was a winner in the Terry Hetherington Award for Young Writers in 2016, Christina Thatcher’s poetry and short stories have featured in a number of publications including The London MagazinePlanet MagazineAcumen and The Interpreter’s House. Her first collection, More than you were, was published by Parthian Books in 2017.

Christina Thatcher grew up in America but has made a happy home in Wales with her husband, Rich, and cat, Miso. She is a part-time teacher and PhD student at Cardiff University where she studies how creative writing can impact the lives of people bereaved by addiction. Christina keeps busy off campus too as the Poetry Editor for The Cardiff Review and as a freelance workshop facilitator and festival coordinator.

It’s a strange coincidence that I read More than you were whilst thinking about the lyric tradition and what poetry is for and what it should do. The collection explores the death of David Thatcher, Christina’s father, and this footing in fact and reality is made explicit on the back cover of the book.  But if we go back to ‘direct truth claims about the world’ I guess the claims these poems are making are claims about trauma and violence and grief, and the repercussions of experiencing these things.

It was hard to choose just one poem – although they do work on their own, you can read this whole collection cover to cover in one go.  It is completely compelling.  There is a narrative which drives the poems forward through these tiny snapshot moments.

The idea of learning and teaching – what we learn by heart, what we learn from text books which exclude us, what we learn from reading poetry has ran through this blog.  In Christina’s collection, she has a sequence of short poems called Lesson, numbered 1 to 10.  I found these poems extremely moving – the lessons often have a double meaning, or an intended meaning and an unintended meaning.

In Lesson #1, the short lines fit well with the idea of things being cut off, being severed.  The brutality is created not only by the killing of the snake, but the witnessing of the killing of the snake, not only the witnessing, but the witnessing of the killing of the snake with the toy shovel, which is now forever changed from a toy shovel.  The character of the ‘she’ figure (presumably the mother) who is ‘quiet and strong’ is contrasted with her act, and not just the act, but the acknowledgement of the act.  Is the lesson that sometimes to protect family we do ‘unfair and gruesome things’ or is the lesson ‘the world is a place where unfair and gruesome things can happen’?  Maybe both.

Lesson #2 is given by a different figure, and follows on directly from a poem that referenced the father, so I assumed it was him.  The strangeness of that image, ‘like spiders on a pillow’ and the strangeness of the lesson, that ‘young girls/are only ever as good/as their skin’.    And the strangeness of it sounding like a proverb.   I’m sure many women have memories of people saying stuff like this – I remember my nanna’s neighbour once saying to me, whilst I was playing a board game with her daughter ‘Close your mouth, you don’t look attractive sitting with your mouth open’ and the shame of being caught ‘not looking attractive’ and the lesson that this was something I should be doing.

Thanks to Christina for letting me post these two fantastic poems on my blog, and do rush over to Parthian and buy her book from them.  You will be supporting an independent publisher and you’ll get to read a fantastic book.

Lesson #1 – Christina Thatcher

The day she severed
the head of a snake
with the toy shovel
I used in the garden
she turned to me
and said – quiet and strong –
that in order to protect
our family we must sometimes
do unfair and gruesome things.

Lesson #2 – Christina Thatcher

You told me
with one swift movement
like spiders on a pillow,
never to touch fire –
your fingers will blister,
you said, and young girls
are only ever as good
as their skin.