The Garsdale Retreat – Residential Poetry Course

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ian mcmillan

I’m really excited to be running a residential poetry course on behalf of The Garsdale Retreat,  a creative writing centre ‘set in the heart of the remote and beautiful setting of the Yorkshire Dales’.  The focus of the course is ‘Encounters and Collisions’ and the guest poet is the fabulous Ian McMillan.  The course will run from the 5th-10th March 2018 and prices range from £500-760.

If you’d like to book, or find out more, head over to the website where you will find details of the course, testimonials from previous attendees of The Garsdale Retreat, and some beautiful photographs of the house and the surrounding area: http://thegarsdaleretreat.co.uk/courses/encounters-and-collisions/

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Sunday Poem – Matthew Stewart

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Sunday Poem – Matthew Stewart

I’ve had a busy week this week and spent much of it feeling a bit rough with a horrible cold that I only shook off on Wednesday night. On Monday I met my supervisor for a discussion about the poems I’d been writing over the summer for the PhD and to my great relief he is pleased about the way my poems are progressing.  I’ve been experimenting with using form a lot more.  I’ve always wanted to write a specular, or mirror poem and I think I’ve finally managed it, but I’ve also written another poem using a fixed rhyme scheme which I enjoyed.  In both the specular and the poem with the fixed rhyme scheme, the form was actually embedded in the first draft without me noticing, and then when I carry on and develop it, it feels like a much more playful experience than writing in free verse.

I’ve been reading bell hooks again this week and thinking about a particular passage in ‘Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black’.  She writes that

Feminist consciousness-raising sessions were only the first stage in the process of radical transformation.  The next stage would have been the confrontation between women and men, the sharing of this new and radical speech: women speaking to men in a liberated voice.

The use of the word confrontation is interested here, because it’s such a loaded term, with connotations of hostility, arguments,fighting.   However a quick internet search on the etymology of the word is revealing – it means ‘to bring face to face’.  The negative connotations of the word ‘confront’ only came into place later, in the late 16th century, according to https://www.etymonline.com/word/confront

There is a lot to unpack in that short quote, but I like the idea that poetry could be part of a confrontation, part of a ‘new and radical speech, of women speaking to men in a liberated voice’.  This type of poetry might provoke discomfort, but with discomfort comes the possibility or the potential for change and transformation.

So that is part of what I’ve been thinking about – also about the need (is there a need?) for women to write about men, and masculinity, about how this isn’t simple.  In fact, whenever a woman writes about ‘men’ in a plural sense, it feels uncomfortable.  The last time I read, a man came up to me and said ‘you don’t look old enough to have known all of those men.’  Just one of the strange comments I’ve had from audience members when reading these poems which manage to be insulting through their inference to perceived sexual history.

So apart from all these PhD thoughts, I’ve been to one of the Monday night ‘Carol Ann Duffy and Friends’ reading series – the lovely Andrew McMillan as the guest poet and Keith Hutson as the MA student.  Keith took part in a play he’d written as part of the MA course, which was really interesting and made a change from the usual format of the evening, where two or three students read poems.  It was also a real treat to hear Andrew read from his forthcoming collection.  I’ve been really excited to see what Andrew would do next – his first collection was so bloody good, I was wondering how he would move on from it.  But the new poems are pretty amazing – he is still writing about masculinity and sexuality, but from a different angle – I guess more looking at how they emerge or come into being.  And from hearing them, the poems seemed more narrative, less fragmented than some of the poems in the first collection, more expansive somehow.  His second collection ‘Playtime’ will be published by Cape next summer I think – so that is something to look forward to!

Because of my horrible cold, I cancelled my Kendal Poetry Festival meeting, which was supposed to be on Tuesdayand we did as much as we could over the phone instead.  I dragged myself out to do the joint judging of the children’s poetry competition with Geraldine Green and Ron Creer for Dalton Lit Fest on Tuesday afternoon, and made sure I kept a safe distance away from Geraldine and Ron, so hopefully they didn’t catch my germs.  Afterwards I went straight back to bed for a couple of hours and then it was back out to a Soul Survivors gig.  We were playing at a wedding – and I disgraced myself by crying when the bride sang a song.  The singing was lovely, but it was seeing her dad cry that set me off.

On Wednesday I went to a course at Salford University – ‘Writing Critically About Creative Practice’ which was really interesting.  I’m hoping this is going to help with my ‘academic tone’ writing.  As part of the course we get two 50 minute sessions with a Royal Literary Fellow who will look at a short piece of our writing, and then another full days session in January.

The most exciting thing that happened to me this week was doing Park run on Saturday.  I managed to knock about 20 seconds off my PB, so I’m now done to 21.34 for 5k – never would have thought I would get down to that! But now I want to get closer to 21 minutes – and so it never ends…

This week’s Sunday Poem is the marvellous Matthew Stewart, who has just had his first full collection The Knives of Villalejo published by Eyewear.   Matthew lives between West Sussex and Extremadura. Following a comprehensive school education he took a degree in Modern Languages at St Peter’s College, Oxford.  He works in the Spanish wine trade and has published two pamphlets with HappenStance Press (Inventing Truth, 2011 and Tasting Notes, 2012).  He runs an excellent poetry blog Rogue Strands and has been published in Ambit, London Magazine and The Rialto. 

Matthew was kind enough to send me a copy of his pamphlet a while ago and I finally got around to reading it this week.  I’ve really enjoyed it – most of the poems are fairly short and succinct but they contain some beautiful lines.  Take for instance ‘Home Comforts’ where he writes ‘a kettle won’t seem to whistle/like the owner of a loose dog/calling it back, calling it home’ or in ‘El Castillo De Villalejo’ where he writes ‘Dark vines rise up against the sky/like the flailing arms of a man’.

Matthew has kindly said I can post a  poem called ‘Twenty Years Apart’, which was first published in The Next Review.  I thought it was an interesting piece as it seems to pick up on one of the themes that seem to be threaded throughout this collection, which is that of being an outsider, of someone looking in.

This sense, of not quite belonging, is established right from the first line, with that lovely alliterative line ‘With a synchronised swivelling of necks’.  This is a strange poem though.  The speaker says that the ‘they’ in the poem’welcome me in’ yet it doesn’t sound like a welcome, with the ‘swivelling of necks’ and the ‘coughed silence’ and what appear to be locals ‘wincing as I order’.

The outsider is always an outsider, where in Villalejo or Oxford. When the speaker in the poem urges the reader to ‘Ignore the smells, swap Spanish for English’  the reader starts to realise the speaker is an outsider where ever he goes.

The structure of this poem is interesting as well – with the binaries of Spanish/English and Villalejo/Oxford set up to mirror each other, which is also reflected in the mirroring of the first and second stanza with its short last line and then that lovely line which mirrors itself internally: ‘Muttered stories mirror muttered stories’.

In the first stanza you might be forgiven for thinking, when you read the fourth line ‘a soft hubbub resumes’ that the other people are in the background.  However, by the end of the poem,the reader realises that it is in fact, the speaker who is always in the background, looking in.

Thanks to Matthew for letting me post this poem and if you’d like to order The Knives of Villalejo you can do so from Eyewear here.

 

Twenty Years Apart – Matthew Stewart

With a synchronised swivelling of necks
and a coughed silence, they welcome me in,
wincing as I order.  Once I’ve sat down,
a soft hubbub resumes.

Ignore the smells, swap Spanish for English,
back streets of Villalejo for Oxford.
Muttered stories mirror muttered stories.
I’m still in the background.

 

 

Sunday Poem – Kate Fox

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It has been a strange week for me – the #metoo hashtag on social media has made me sad and angry and hopeful in an exhausting cycle..  Amongst all of this, I’ve had to get on with doing stuff as well of course.  I had a meeting with my  PhD supervisors about the next stage of the PhD, the RD2 form.  I’d sent them some writing, which was far too personal to use, but I wanted to try and get straight in my head what I’m trying to do with the PhD.  I’ve got to make it much more ‘academic’, less personal etc etc.  I’ve had a go this week and have almost finished the ‘Abstract’ part of the RD2, in what I hope is a more academic voice.  It feels like putting on another head.  I wonder if everybody feels like this or if it’s just me.

I’ve also started reading feminst theorist bell hooks this week, and absolutely loving her work.  She writes about feminism, racism and class.  I could only find one of her books in the library, ‘talking back’, published in 1989 but it feels like it could have been published last week.  As those of you who have read my past few blogs will know, I’ve been thinking a lot about who I am addressing with my poetry, and also about responses to the poems I’m writing.  When I read the following, I felt elated, that someone had articulated what I’ve been struggling with for different reasons:

When I first began to talk publicly about my work, I would be disappointed when audiences were provoked and challenged but seemed to disapprove. Not only was my desire for approval naive (I have since come to understand that it is silly to think that one can challenge and also have approval), it was dangerous precisely because such a longing can undermine radical commitment, compelling a change in voice so as to gain regard

Reading this made me realise that feeling discomfort is not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, when I read bell hooks, I feel discomfort because I know, as a white woman, I’m not the main, intended audience of bell hooks.  That doesn’t mean, however, I can’t read her, and learn from her.  Maybe discomfort marks the potential for change, when the sense of self and where we fit in the world is shifted, however incrementally.

I went to see Lemn Sissay at the Brewery with a friend this week – what a great performer he is.  Watching him is basically a masterclass in how to hold the attention of an audience.  And the story of ‘Something Dark’, his play, is absolutely heartbreaking.

I also had a meeting with Pauline about Kendal Poetry Festival – we sat at Pauline’s kitchen table for another four hours.  We’ve heard back from all of our poets and we now have the full line up confirmed.  I’m so excited about this year’s poets.  We’re meeting again on Tuesday to try and finish the form off, and having the line up confirmed, subject to funding, will hopefully provide us with the motivation to finish the endless paperwork.

I also had an exciting meeting this week regarding a new anthology of Cumbrian poetry which I’ll be co-editing.  I can’t say much more than that at the moment, but watch this space, because there’ll be an official announcement soon.

There was a Dove Cottage Young Poets session on Friday and then Brewery Poets on Friday night.  I took a specular (mirror poem) that I’d written. I’ve always wanted to write one since reading Julia Copus’s ‘In the Back Seat of My Mother’s Car’.

Yesterday I ran Barrow Poetry Workshop – nine people from all over Cumbria and one new young poet who I was very pleased to see.  I met him a few years ago when I did the readings for the NCS summer school sessions in Ambleside, and then he appeared at the workshop, so that was a nice day, as well as the usual friendly faces being there of course.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Kate Fox.  Kate sent this to me a couple of weeks ago after reading my post around ‘mode of address‘ and who we are talking to as poets. I like the directness of this poem, and felt like, as a woman, it was talking to me.  Does that mean it can’t be read by men because it is talking about maternal lineage? I hope not – I hope the poem just shifts the ground underneath male readers by looking past them to the women standing next to them.

I also love the humour in this poem – ‘somehow your nan’s not distracted by the Yorkshire terrier/ and your mum’s not said anything mean about your hair’.  I think the humour makes sure that the poem does not become sentimental.  That phrase/motto ‘you can’t pick your family, but you can pick your friends’ is kind of buried in the poem in the middle ‘you’re waiting for someone/to snap the lens shutter so you can go back to people who suit you/your husband, your friends’.  I like that the poem acknowledges that there are different ways of living a feminist life,

These women who are not on an official record,
who didn’t chuck themselves under a horse,
but who managed to steer their own course
through the things they were told they couldn’t do,
shouldn’t do.

This idea of women who are not on an official record came up yesterday in the workshop – poet Katie Hale is researching her family history and came upon a census where the man’s name is written and the women listed as ‘female relative’ with their age.

Kate Fox has made a living as a stand-up poet for ten years.She has nearly finished her PhD about class, gender and Northern humour). She has appeared on Radio 4.  She is currently making #Lass War on the man-heavy Northern Powerhouse.

Her second Radio 4 comedy series aired this summer. In the shows she talked about why she doesn’t want: children, a big white wedding, to be middle class or have a Hollywood body! (First series on iPlayer here: The Price of Happiness). She is one of the 17 poets for the BBC/Hull 2017 Contains Strong Language Poetry Festival (Great film about her commission here: Women of Words film). Her books include Chronotopia, just out from Burning Eye Books (ORDER IT HERE! Chronotopia) and Fox Populi from Smokestack Books. She has been poet in residence for the Great North Run, Saturday Live on Radio 4 and the Glastonbury Festival.

Oh- also, she recently invented a new word for when humour and seriousness combine: Humitas. Check it out here: The Conversation article 

Thanks to Kate for letting me use her poem this week.  Kate came and read at the Lakes Alive festival a couple of weeks ago, along with Mark Pajak, and they were both brilliant, putting up with gale force winds, torrential rain and an outdoor reading to a small and soggy audience.  They handled everything that was thrown at them with grace, humour and energy and left me congratulating myself at my own genius for booking them.  If you hear of Kate performing anywhere near you – go and see her.  She is funny, but her poetry will make you think as well.  She’s a great performer, but as you can see below, her poems have depth and layers and work on the page as well.

Spinning a Yarn – Kate Fox 
9
Imagine
you’re holding a thread
which is held by your mother,
then her mother,
then her mother,
double, treble, quadruple twisted ties,
back, back in a long line that stretches further than you can see.
Maybe you’re all in a field.
Somehow it’s not chaos,
somehow your nan’s not distracted by the Yorkshire terrier
and your mum’s not said anything mean about your hair
though mostly every alternate woman in my chain
would get on better with each other
than the one right next to her.
Anyway, you’re holding the end,
the thread’s vibrating 
but it’s just this frozen moment,
as if you’re waiting for someone, 
to snap the lens shutter so you can go back to people who suit you,
your husband, your friends,
this is sort of an obligation, sort of a privilege,
this moment,
making the chain, of women you’ll still mostly never name,
as they stretch into the horizon’s edge
and you’re all worried it will rain,
but you’re hearing fragments of chatter.
Trekking from the city centre during the blitz
for just one good night’s sleep,
how that Auntie started a driving school,
the realisation that your brows all wrinkle in the same place
when you laugh because you’re nervous.
These women who are not on an official record,
who didn’t chuck themselves under a horse,
but who managed to steer their own course
through the things they were told they couldn’t do,
shouldn’t do. They made it work.
They weren’t allowed strategies, 
they couldn’t shuffle soldiers 
across maps, piece up and rearrange continents,
but they all had tactics, 
making the best of what they had,
the day-to-day resistances and choices,
and even though we can’t see their faces
or hear their voices,
you hold that thread that they’ve all spun,
and still the looms are clacking on,
the threads are criss-crossing with other chains,
from women written out of history,
with ones who shouted loudly.
The more twists a thread is given,
the stronger it becomes.
Black threads, white threads,
ones that got lost and trampled in the dirt for years, 
but at this moment it’s making a double helix
down your maternal line,
then springs back,
echoes of thunderous looms,
the shuttle’s clack,
you’re holding it, just this one thread
in the great weave of history.
Will you keep to the old pattern
or start a new one?
Lose the weft, keep the warp?
Find new materials,
a different yarn to spin? 
Can you drop that thread altogether,
take up ones from another kin?
These choices
which are not completely yours
and not completely not.
Take this moment
while you can
to throw a nod of recognition
to the thread holders down the line,
then it’s yours. Begin. 

Sunday Poem – Rachael Clyne

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Today I’ve been to Blackpool to run a 10k race, my first race since Coniston 14 in March when I picked up an IT band injury, and my first 10k since October 2016 when I ran the Lancaster 10k, got a PB and was then rushed into hospital two days later because of a gall bladder attack.

Until last year, I’d never been in hospital before, and the worst illness I’ve had was probably tonsilitis, so to say I found it hard to be stuck in hospital, and then stuck at home and unable to walk far is an understatement.  Getting back to my first competitive 10k feels like finally putting that awful period of time behind me.

I managed to beat my previous PB of 45.02 and this time ran 44.41 which I was really chuffed about but have now already started thinking about whether I could get closer to 43 at the next 10k.  I was also third lady back which I was probably even more happy about, as I’ve never been in the top 3 before.

The most satisfying part of the race was charging straight through a long and rather deep puddle and drenching the two poor men who were picking their way carefully around the side of it.  But to be honest it was pretty tough and I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it at the time, although now I feel pretty happy.

I’ve also been to Durham Book Festival to read as part of an event called Rich Seams, hosted by Andrew McMillan.  This was a lovely event to be part of – I read with Degna Stone, Kim Moore, Malika Booker, Mark Pajak, Polly Atkin, Pippa Little, Ruby Robinson, Zaffar Kunial, Vidyan Ravinthiran and Seán Hewitt.  I’d left my car in Brough, parked on the street and then car-shared with Polly Atkin from there to Durham.  When we got back to Brough an angry resident came and shouted at me for leaving my car there, as apparently it was ‘private parking’.  There were no private parking notices that I could see, so I conclude she was one of those lucky people who have nothing else to complain about other than people parking outside her house.  The end of the exchange finished with the woman of Brough saying ‘Where do you come from…a town?’ as if this was the worst insult she could possibly think of.  So that was a bit of an annoying end to what was otherwise a really lovely day.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been doing quite a few readings and workshops – I’ve performed in Manchester at Bad Language, in Settle where I judged the poetry competition and then read with the incomparable Carola Luther, at Ilkley Literature Festival to launch the ‘One for the Road’ anthology alongside Peter Sansom and Stuart Maconie, Buzzwords in Cheltenham and at Borderlines Book Festival in Carlisle.

In between the readings and various workshops I’ve been working on my PhD of course.  I think I’ve got about half of the poems for the second collection so far which will make up the creative part of the PhD, and thanks to the kindness of Angela France, who sent me her completed PhD to have a read through, I feel like I’ve got more of a sense of what the whole thing will look like.  Thank goodness for the community of poets, who have saved, encouraged and inspired me more times than I can name.

On Monday I have a meeting with both of my supervisors (eek) and then the rest of the week, I’ll be getting on with PhD stuff, and soldiering on with funding applications for Kendal Poetry Festival.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Rachael Clyne, who has been patiently waiting for quite a while for her poem to be posted here. I read this poem after Rachael posted it on Facebook and loved it – it was then spotted by the brilliant Charles Johnson and published in Obsessed With Pipework in August.

It’s a short and pithy poem, full of wisdom which is worn lightly.  I love the title and the message behind it, which seems to me both simple and complex to understand.  I like the directness of the poem which starts right from that first line with ‘so you – yes you’.  The idea of accepting the self is one that is easy to articulate and hard to do.  I like how the poem uses and plays around with well-known phrases and ideas.  In line 2 we think of the phrase ‘warts and all’ but Rachael gives this a more positive and unusual spin with ‘warts and wings’.  The choice of the verb ‘using’ in line 9 struck me as unusual as well – not drinking, or swallowing or taking, but using, which gives us both the connotations of drinking something but also connotations of drug-taking, but also the idea of using something that is unhealthy in a tool-like manner.  I also love the last line – without it, I think the poem would have been lesser, less humane.  With it, it carries a real warmth and empathy for the human condition.

I met Rachael at Swindon Poetry Festival a couple of years ago and then she was a participant at the residential I ran last year at St Ives.  She is a psychotherapist and poet from Glastonbury.  Her collection Singing at the Bone Tree, is published by Indigo Dreams. Her work appears in various magazines, currently Tears in the Fence, Lighthouse, Shearsman. Her book Breaking the Spell – Keys to Recovering Self-esteem is available on amazon.

Thanks to Rachael for letting me post this poem.

You Will Never Be Anyone Else – Rachael Clyne

so you – yes you,
with your warts and wings
will just have to do.

Acceptance is your food
and shelter without which
you are brushwood

for any foul wind
that cares to blow.
Stop using the poison

bottle labelled ‘Drink me’
it’s not OK.
It’s that simple.

I didn’t say easy.

PhD Musings: The Imperfect Victim/Imperfect Perpetrator

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As the stories have come out and are coming out about Harvey Weinstein and more and more women are speaking out, I’ve spent a lot of my time feeling sick, with feelings of nerves and anxiety.  I haven’t quite been able to work out why – I felt like I was over-identifying with the victims – I’ve never met Harvey Weinstein of course, and I’m unlikely ever to meet him.  It’s taken a few days to admit to myself that I’ve  met men like him my whole life, have learnt to deal/not deal with them, ignore them, laugh along, keep out of their way, or endured them.

In an article by Stephanie Boland she talks about the concept of the ‘imperfect victim’

You can read the whole article here
http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/harvey-weinstein-comment

Stephanie Boland writes:

I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I was first groped. I only know it was on a minibus and that it was an older boy who rubbed the side of my breast by sticking his arm between my seat and the window. A group of them had teased me the whole journey — it was a camping trip and a long drive — and I’d played along. I’m good at playing along: good at mimicking the register of the banter, always quick with a comeback, able to suss out someone’s personality fast and get their mates laughing. Maybe you are, too. As I got off the bus, our chaperone asked if I was okay and I said yes, carsick, a little, and avoided the boy all weekend.

The concept of the imperfect victim is probably one that many women can identify with.  Throughout the course of my PhD, I’ve been looking back and examining my own life for experiences of sexism, but maybe a better way of describing them would be experiences of being the ‘imperfect victim’, and experiences of men who are ‘imperfect perpetrators’.  Men who are friends and continue to be so afterwards.  Men who are colleagues and continue to be so afterwards.  Men who are tutors, but just be sure to avoid them if they’ve had a drink.
//
One of the many reasons it can be difficult for women to speak out is our own ideas of what the p perfect victim is (dressed modestly, not drunk, not walking home late at night alone) and how we match up to it, but also of what the ‘perfect’ perpetrator should be like (a stranger, violent, and only extreme assault ‘counting’).
/
//
Over the next couple of days, I’ll be posting some poems around this theme.  The following poem is from a sequence I’m working on called ‘All The Men I Never Married’.
//
//
Things I didn’t know before writing this poem:
//
1) That something that happened to me when I was 17 had haunted me
2) That something almost happening can stay with you
3) That something happened
4) That my body did not let me down
5) That truth can be broken, and fragmented and this can make it more true
6) That I am both angry/not angry about it
//
One of the men in this poem, one of the boys  that this poem concerns sent me a Facebook friend request years later.  I accepted.  The act of doing this stirred up that near miss, that thing that almost but didn’t quite happen.  I wrote the poem. Afterwards,  I unfriended him without explanation.  The act of writing the poem helped me to realise what happened, what didn’t happen.
//
The idea of the ‘imperfect victim’ (drunk, at a party, wearing a skirt, going upstairs at a party, being alone, being alone with men, talking to men, being friends with a man) runs through this poem, as do ideas around imperfect perpetrators (a friend, a best friend, just having a laugh, boys will be boys, drunk).
//
What happens afterwards? After the near/almost/notquite incident? Or after the poem? What do women carry with them? What did I/do I carry with me? Writing about these incidents might be a way of finding out.  This poem is full of air, and space, and silence, and things not said, not thought. What happens to conceptions of assault and what it is when I put a poem around it?
//
This poem was published in the most recent issue of The Rialto, along with three more from the sequence ‘All The Men I Never Married’.    You can get a copy of the magazine from The Rialto website https://www.therialto.co.uk/pages/
rialto

All The Men I Never Married No.19

your dad handing out shots
////////////////bright green
/////////////////////////liquid sloshing
over the rim
//////////////onto my wrist
//////////////////////////steam on the windows
of the kitchen
////////////////and the living room
///////////////////////////////full of bodies
////////////////sitting in a circle
/////////////////////////////////your mother nowhere
get em down
/////////////you zulu warrior      
////////////////////////////get em down
you zulu chief chief chief
///////////////follows me
the singing
///////////////the dull thump of a bass
////////////////////////////////the staircase bending
and swaying
////////////////faraway bathroom
///////////////////////////////my hand on the bannister
to keep myself here
///////////////inside my body
///////////////////////////////inside this house
///////////////there’s darkness to my left
there you are///////////////////////////on a bed
//////////////in the dark
///////////////////////////////rolling a joint
////////////////////////////////////////////////hey babe you said
I liked/////////////////////that word on your lips
your friend
///////////////at the open window
//////////////////////////////letting smoke
slip out into the night
////////////////////////////////////////////////////it was good
to sit down
////////////////next to you
//////////////////////////////////////////////////////my bestfriend
first I was there
//////////////////////////////now I’m here
on the bed
////////////////on my back
//////////////////////////////////a naked woman
blu-tacked  and glossy///on the ceiling
/////////////////stares down at me from above
and the weight of you
/////////////////////////////////on top of me
and at first it’s funny
/////////////////as I try to get up
your knees////////////////////////////on my wrists
your hands///////////////////////////on my shoulders
that panic/////////////////////////////in my belly
I’ll remember it///////////////////as long as I live

your friend coming towards me
/////////////////////////////////his hand
on my breast
laughing///////////////////////////////both of you laughing

my knee    up   into your groin
////////you topple
/////////////////////like a small tree

and I’m up and out of the room
and into the night
where there are only stars
and the dark asks why
////////////////were you there in the dark
and the wind asks what
////////////////were you doing upstairs
and the moon asks why
////////////////were you wearing that skirt
but my body
////////////////my body asks nothing
just whispers
/////////////////////////////see
I did not let you down I did not
let you down I did not let you down

 

 

Sunday Poem – Claudine Toutongi

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Sunday Poem – Claudine Toutongi

 

It doesn’t seem very long since the last time I wrote, and the week has flashed by again.  I decided this week to blog about any interesting reading I do for my PhD for a number of reasons.  First of all, it will stop my overwhelming guilt whenever I spend the day reading and have nothing physical to show for it.  Secondly, I’m hoping it will help me clarify my own thoughts and opinions about what I’ve read. If you missed it, you can find this post here, and feel free to join in/add your thoughts. I’ve really enjoyed reading responses to the last post, and they’ve given me a lot to think about!

Apart from finishing reading the Vicky Bertram book, and starting to make my slow and painstaking way through some articles that my supervisor recommended for me to read, I’ve been doing a lot of running.  I’m up to 21 miles so far this week and today I’m going out on a ten mile run which will be the furthest I’ve ran since coming back from injury.

This week I had a five hour, non-stop meeting with Pauline Yarwood, my co-director at Kendal Poetry Festival.  It was non-stop because we forgot to stop to get a drink.  We got a bit over-excited with our discussion of possible poets for the festival.  We only have room for twelve poets so each one has to be fantastic, in their own inimitable way.  WE haven’t quite got our final list yet, but we are getting close.   This job is my (and I think Pauline’s as well)  favourite bit of the festival.  We also spent a lot of time on something a lot more boring – working out our expenses and budget.  Not my favourite bit of the festival – but it has to be done!

It was Poem and a Pint last night with the wonderful poet Miriam Nash.  I had mistakenly booked myself to do a gig with the Soul Survivors the same night, so I was only able to attend the first half of A Poem and a Pint.  I did hear all of Miriam’s first set though and thought she was brilliant.  I bought her collection and am looking forward to reading it – there was a strong thread about lighthouses, and lights and the sea and the dark running through the poems I heard her read last night.  There were some good open mics as well – Clare Proctor stood out for me, with her poem about penises being kept in jars (it’s a great poem – you had to be there), and also Gill Nicholson, whose first poem exploring grief and the inability of the dead to return (If Jesus could do it, why can’t you?) I think was the first line, made me cry.

Anyway, I listened to the first half open miccers, and then whizzed off to the Soul Survivors gig back in Barrow.  I have had a bit of an epiphany with my playing recently.  Basically, a couple of months ago I lost my trumpet mouthpiece, which is worth about £90.  I’ve had this mouthpiece for a long time, and a teacher advised that I buy this particular make and size probably 13 years ago, because I was doing a lot of classical trumpet playing.  In particular, myself and said teacher were performing the Vivaldi double trumpet concerto.

Anyway, I’ve always hated what I call ‘gadgets’ and an over reliance and obsession with different size mouthpieces and fancy bits of kit.  I’ve always been of the opinion that if you are a good player, it doesn’t really matter what you play, within reason.  How stupid I am! I spent a good three hours researching mouthpieces on the internet, FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER (bear in mind I’ve been playing since I was ten).  I spent another couple of hours on trumpet forums and lurked about reading responses from it must be said mainly male trumpet players as they discussed in-depth about different sizes of mouthpiece.

I realised that I’ve been playing on a large size mouthpiece to get a big classical sound and actually that might not be ideal for the type of playing I’m doing now (soul band stuff).  So I decided to buy a smaller mouthpiece – found a half price one on Ebay and ordered it.  Then after having the summer off playing, I’ve spent the last two weeks practising – building up from a five minute splutter as my face tried to remember how to play, to an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening every day, and ta-da! I can suddenly play for higher and longer than I’ve ever managed in my entire playing career.

The gig last night was so much easier – I actually enjoyed it instead of worrying about high notes and getting tired.  My tuning was even better – on the big mouthpiece, I used to go sharper and sharper as the night went on – last night, once I was in tune, I was in tune.  I’m so excited by the fact that playing was easier that I think I might just have to keep my practising up now.  This is my problem though – I get obsessed with things. I can’t just practise once a day – I have to do it twice a day, for longer and longer.  But I will have to keep control of it otherwise I will still be doing this PhD by the time I’m 65.

Probably trumpet mouthpiece talk is as boring for non trumpet players as my running talk is for non runners, so I’d better stop there.  Next week I have quite a busy week – I’m giving a lecture on the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy tomorrow at Mancester Met University for a group of visiting Australian students (teenagers).  I’ve got meetings for Poem and a Pint, and for Kendal Poetry Festival.  I’m reading at Bad Language in Manchester as the guest poet on Wednesday, and Friday I’m going over to Settle to present prizes to the winners of the Settle Poetry Competition, and give a short reading of my own poetry as well, alongside the fabulous Carola Luther.   On Saturday I’m reading in Ilkley at Ilkley Literature Festival to launch the Poetry Business ‘One for the Road’ anthology, celebrating pubs in poetry and prose.  I’ll be reading alongside Stuart Maconie and Peter Sansom for that event.  Then I’m staying in Ilkley before catching the train down to Swindon to be reunited with Hilda Sheehan before heading over to be the guest poet at Buzzwords in Cheltenham on Sunday.  At some point on that Sunday, maybe on the train on the way down to Swindon, I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to do my blog!

I have such a good Sunday Poem for you this week! I read this poem – and wow.  It blew me away straight away.  Today’s Sunday Poem comes from Smoothie by Claudine Toutongi which has just been published by Carcanet.  I’m halfway through my second read of the collection and I’m really enjoying it.  It feels very different to the kind of poetry I write, but maybe that is why I like it so much.  It feels very fresh.  Mark Waldron talks on the back of the book about the ‘lightness of touch’, and a ‘kind of unafraid honesty’ which I think sums the book  up really well.

After reading the poem, I thought the ‘you’ in the poem was an ex-boyfriend, or at least someone that the speaker has had some kind of physical and emotional connection with, but it’s not entirely clear.  Maybe it was one of those connections filled with longing/yearning and not much else, the worst kind, I think as there is never any real life experiences to give any real-life disappointment.

And thinking back to my PhD musing post, and who poems are addressed to, and that idea of ‘slyness’ or ‘doubleness’ in a mode of address – I think this poem illustrates this perfectly.  On a surface level it is addressed to a ‘you’ who I unequivocally see as a man (maybe because of that first simile: “You’re there in front of me/looking like the longest,tallest/coolest glass of water.” but actually, I think the poem is one of those rare poems addressed to women as a collective – although maybe I’m just over-identifying with the content of the poem, and reading that as a call to women to remember the times when we’ve stood in front of someone we’ve fancied/loved/longed for and not been able to speak.

The foregrounding of female desire (“You might as well have/Drink me written on your collar”) is beautifully done (“the longest, tallest/ coolest glass of water”).  I also think it’s a wonderful example of the female gaze in poetry.  Although desire is at the centre of this poem, and the desire seems to go both ways (“every time/you touch my elbow things feel worse”) the object of desire is actually not an object.  He isn’t on display.  The only physical description of him is the ‘longest, tallest/coolest glass of water’.  After that, the physical descriptions are centred on the speaker.  It is her reaction to him (“My heart swims in my chest like a fairground/goldfish trapped in plastic) and their interaction together “the way/we don’t make room for others in our conversation” that are central to the poem.  Even the one physical description of the man looking like a glass of water, actually serves to remind us of the thirst of the speaker, her desire.  And the ‘Drink me’ on the collar echoes back to Alice in Wonderland, where Alice picks up a bottle with ‘Drink me’ on which transforms her.  I couldn’t remember at first whether the potion she drinks makes her smaller or larger – interestingly it makes her smaller – so she can fit through a tiny door and go on to have various adventures, which throws an interesting light on the poem – if the speaker gives in to her desire, will it will make her ‘smaller’ in some way?

Finally, I love the cleverness of the word ‘congrats’ being the ‘shrunken cousin’ of congratulations as well – this line made me smile when I read it because it felt so correct, like a truth you don’t know you know before a poem speaks it for you.

I met Claudine a few years ago on one of the residential courses that I ran but haven’t been in touch with her for a while, so I was really pleased when she messaged to say she had a collection coming out with Carcanet.

Claudine grew up in Warwickshire and studied English and French at Trinity College, Oxford.  After an MA at Goldsmiths, she trained as an actor at LAMDA and worked as a BBC RAdio Drama producer and English teacher.  As a dramatist, her plays Bit Part and Slipping have been produced by The Stephen Joseph Theatre.  She adapted Slipping for BBC Radio 4, after it was featured in an international reading series at New York’s Lark Play Development Centre.  Other work for BBC Radio includes Deliverers and The Inheritors.  She lives in Cambridge. You can find out more about Claudine by heading to her website https://claudinetoutoungi.weebly.com/

If you would like to buy Smoothiehead over to Carcanet, where it is available at the moment at a discount –  for the bargain price of £8.99.  I promise you, this is a collection that deserves to be read – it’s funny, inventive, sharp but with some punch-in-the-gut moments as well.

 

Reunion – Claudine Toutongi

You’re there in front of me
looking like the longest, tallest
coolest glass of water.  You might as well have
Drink me written on your collar.
My heart swims in my chest like a fairground
goldfish trapped in plastic and
whether it’s the fact we’re gulping coffee
after coffee from the buffet, or that every time
you touch my elbow things feel worse, or the way
we don’t make room for others in our conversation – I can’t
tell, but it seems to me your tongue sticks to the roof of
my mouth, though it doesn’t and I can’t pronounce the
words I need to say and even when my friend, your wife,
arrives it doesn’t come and so I say congrats.  Not
even the whole word just its shrunken cousin –
and your expression hovers right before your face
and doesn’t seem to want to land.

PhD Musings

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gendering poetry

I’m currently reading gendering poetry by Vicki Bertram as part of my reading for my PhD.  I’m absolutely loving this book – firstly because I can understand it – although it is academic, it’s very readable, and really interesting.  The blurb on the back of the book says that Vicki Bertram ‘considers the role of gender in the writing and the reading of poetry’.

In the first chapter ‘First Impressions’ she looks at six poets – three male and three female and discusses the first poem in the first collection of each poet.  She looks at Simon Armitage, Michael Donaghy, Neil Rollinson, Sujhata Bhatt, Fiona Pitt-Kethley and Kate Clanchy.  What I found interesting here was her discussion of who these poems were addressed to.

In the Donaghy poem she argues that his well known poem ‘Machines‘, although addressed to a ‘dearest’,  its use of an elaborate conceit between a racing bike and a piece of harpsichord music is firmly in the tradition of the Metaphysical poets – the male speaker addressing a silent lover (who in this tradition is female).  Bertram writes that the poem ‘also gestures to the metaphysical tradition in the way that his female addressee functions as an excuse for this opportunity of impressing male friends and patrons’, because the real intent of the poem is not to seduce the female lover, but to display ‘the author’s skill’.

She goes on to explore Simon Armitage’s ‘Snow Joke’ which she writes is part of a ‘pub discourse’ with its use of colloquial language and its tone of an urban myth.  Bertram writes that it is ‘reasonable to assume a male speaker addressing a male audience’.  I can see what she means, although I didn’t feel left out, or disconnected from the poem when I read it – but this is probably because I’ve spent a lot of time in pubs – working and drinking in them as a music student, and I’m aware that I don’t feel left out, by thinking back to what it was like to become ‘one of the lads’ – an essential survival strategy for a female brass player, which I could probably write a whole other post about!

There is apparently a term for this strategy when you do it as a reader – again, Bertram points out that the critic Judith Fetterley ‘coined the term ‘immasculation’ to describe the process whereby women readers steeped in androcentric literature develop the instinct to ‘think as men, to identify with a male point of view’.

The part of the chapter that really interests me was Bertram’s thoughts on how women poets write and address the reader.  She says

There are few modes of public discourse in which women can speak as women, and this is reflected in their poetry, where it is rare to find an explicit address to other women, a collective female discourse.

She gives what she calls a rare example – the poem ‘Marigolds‘ by Vicki Feaver.  It’s use of the collective pronouns ‘we’ and ‘our’ throughout bridge the gap between the present and the classical past.  Bertram writes that the poem ‘asks its readers to acquiesce in the implicit criticism of men’s foolish ignorance, conned (or attracted) by this fake version of meek, marriageable femininity.’  She then goes on to talk about the problems of this stance, and the issues around ‘collective female identification.’

It made me think about who my poems are addressed to, and who am I writing for.  My poem ‘My People’, which explores a working class identity, is not addressed to my people at all – it’s addressed to a literary audience, or the middle class, it’s attempting to show to someone who has no idea what it is like to grow up in that environment what it is like.  Of course the secondary addressees are the people who grew up there too.  One of the wow moments at Struga Poetry Evenings in Macedonia was reading that poem on the launch night, and having Charles Simic come up to me at breakfast the next morning, and say ‘Your people are my people too’.

If I think about the poems I’m working on now, it gets more complicated.  I’m working on a sequence called All The Men I Never Married which currently contains poems about or addressed to ex-boyfriends, but also random men that I have come into contact with in some way.  Many of these poems are addressed to a ‘you’, ostensibly the man in question, but I think actually, the true addressee of these poems are women.  I don’t mean that men are excluded from them – I hope they are not, but the reason I like the title is because it shifts men a little – although they are still the subject of the poems, they are not the sole subject, they are one among many.  And a male reader becomes by implication a man I never married as well, with all the connotations that brings with it.

Some of the poems in this sequence explore experiences of sexism directly and I know from performing these poems that women relate directly to them – that it is a powerful thing to have something that you’ve experienced and maybe not talked about, because it just isn’t worth it because it happens all the time reflected back at you and transformed into a poem.  Women come and tell me about their experiences from yesterday, last week, last year.  I’ve written before about the strangeness of men coming to tell me about their one experience of sexism in 1985 when they got their bottom pinched – and my theory that they are trying to understand, rather than silencing my story by putting theirs on top of it.  When I’m feeling bad-tempered, however, I do wonder!

So I don’t quite know whether this is true, whether the poems are addressed to women, or men, or both.  My instinct is that most of my poems are sly, and they address one person, whilst looking out of the corner of their eye for their true audience.  Maybe by implying a sexual history (which is still a taboo thing for women to do) I’m addressing men, being ‘one of the lads’, whilst really talking to women.  Maybe in the poems about sexism when I’m outwardly addressing women and sharing an experience I’m sure many will relate to, I’m really hoping men will overhear it and their reality will be changed in some way.  To go back to Bertram again, who quotes Richard Bradford who said that poetry is capable of ‘an unbalancing of perceptions of reality’.

I would be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on any or all of this! Please feel free to comment below.  I posted about this on Facebook and there have been some fascinating discussions on there – with one person pointing out that maybe poems by female poets addressed to one other woman are fairly common, but it is poems that are addressed to a female collective that are rarer, and more problematic.

I’m not saying by the way that women ‘should’ address other women at all – I hate the word ‘should’.  But I am wondering about what happens if we do, and what happens when we don’t, and whether we do or we don’t!

 

 

 

Sunday Poem – Linda Klakken

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My first Sunday Poem post in over a month and I’m already back into my bad habits – ie writing it just before midnight when I should really be asleep.  This morning I went for a six mile run with my running group, then came home, had lunch and then set off to Grasmere.  I performed alongside two of the young writers from my young writers group (Em Humble and Hannah Hodgson) today at the Roundabout Theatre in Grasmere to a small but perfectly formed audience.   They both read really well – I found myself getting a bit emotional watching them – thinking back to the first time they performed and how much more confident they are now.  I then drove over to see my sister in Egremont, and then drove back home which brings me to 11pm and writing blogs at unreasonable hours.

I said in my last post that I’d been writing quite a bit in the last week, but didn’t mention what a strange week it had been, probably because I was still in it.  I came back from Macedonia, but left my husband there as he was going on a cycling holiday and planning to end up in Hungary (don’t ask why – I have no idea).  So I’ve been at home on my own all week – and I realised it’s really rare that I’m at home on my own – normally it’s me that goes off somewhere to a poetry reading or festival, and even though I’m very independent and do a lot of stuff ‘on my own’, actually, I’m usually surrounded by people, so I’m never really on my own.

But this week I have been! I haven’t been completely isolated – I’ve seen quite a few friends through running or arranging to meet up for drinks.  But I deliberately tried not to fill my days up.  I definitely got more writing done. It felt like I was slowly falling into myself each day – that sounds strange but that is how it felt.  I decided I was going to write poetry every morning, whether that was writing new work or editing, and leave admin and answering emails until the evening, which really seemed to work.  I wrote some new poems, and got a submission ready and posted out to a magazine.

On Saturday I drove over to Manchester to the Poets and Players event to see Clare Shaw, Hilda Sheehan and Malika Booker.  What a fantastic reading that was.  My favourite line of the afternoon has to go to Hilda though: ‘Knickers are the prison of the vagina’.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Linda Klakken, from Norway.  Linda was one of the fantastic poets I met in Macedonia.  The poem is from her first collection, which translates as ‘Mother, wife, slave’ published by Flamme publishing house in 2010.

The title and then the theme of the poem reminded me of the brilliant Anne Sexton poem Her Kind  – it has the same kind of attitude behind it, I think.

Trying to pinpoint what it is I like about this poem, I realise it’s something to do with that repeating phrase ‘I was the kind of girl’ – the honesty and vulnerability of it, as the speaker tells us she was the kind of girl ‘who went out late at night/and never came home’.  So far, this feels like a teenage rebelliousness that maybe we are all familiar with to one extent or another.  But it is saved from predictability by ‘I pedalled downhill/with my eyes closed’ and ‘death was nothing but a bluebell in the heart’ which wins the prize for best line of poetry I’ve read this week.

I love the hopefulness, the optimism of this poem.  The fact that in Stanza 2, the body  can absorb ‘parties/parks/concerts/grass seeds/orgasms/rai’  That the body absorb all of these things and still be ok, and then the surprise of the next line ‘I was the kind of girl/ who always sat down/when things got tough’.  I like how this can be taken in one of two ways – either the  speaker sits down and gives up when things get tough, or another interpretation is that the speaker of the poem stays around, i.e ‘sat down’ when things got tough.

Probably the first interpretation is more likely, but it’s nice to play around with these things.  Another of my favourite bits in this poem is the ‘days full/of lilacs and rain’.  I like the openness that female sexuality and desire is approached with.  The speaker wakes up ‘in strange beds’ and then everything changes, when she meets someone who ‘hugged her heart’.  The ‘someone’ in question doesn’t appear in the rest of the poem – as if the camera has swung slightly to the right to catch someone retreating through a doorway, before it comes back again to the speaker, and the rest of the focus stays firmly on the speaker with those brilliant lines ‘we might all be that kind of girl/who just might leave/but stays/just might get together/cause we’re all alone’.

I don’t really feel like I’ve done this poem justice, because I’m pretty much falling asleep as I’m typing now, because I started doing this way too late,  but I hope you enjoy it.  I would love to read more of Linda’s work translated into English, so it is basically my mission now to nag her until she does this.

A bit about Linda then – Linda was born in 1979 in  Ålesund, a small town on the westcoast of Norway. She is a writer and a journalist. She started her writing career in her mid twenties, when she got accepted at the prestigous writing school Skrivekunstakademiet in Bergen in 2003. After being published in a series of poetry anthologies, she wrote her first book, the non-fiction travel documentary The Last Beat Poet, as a hommage to Lawrence Ferlinghetti.In 2013, her first poetry collection was published at Flamme publishing house. Mother, wife, slave (Mamma, kone, slave) was considered one of the best books of 2013 by several newspapers and literature critics, and is described as ”poems about being a queer, proletarian mother of small children in a post-Millenial Norway.”
Her second book, Finish the book about your life (Skriv ferdig boka om livet ditt) was published in 2014. Her most recent poetry collection, Eight minutes (Åtte minutter) was publised in 2016. Apart from this, Klakken has received The Nordic Council of Minister’s scholarship for writers in 2005 and 2006 in Gothenburg. Her poetry has been part of numerous exhibitions, as for instance the Martin Tebus Collection in Trondheim Art Museum and in galleries in Oslo.
In August 2017 Linda Klakken published her children’s fiction book.It is called Stupid, stupid heart (Dumme, dumme hjarte).

 

THE KIND – Linda Klakken
(sånn)
Translated by Nils-Øivind Haagensen

I was the kind of girl
who went out late at night
and never came home
I pedaled downhill
with my eyes closed
and fought with girls
from other crews
death was nothing but a bluebell in my heart
and all that mattered in life
was what came next
and all that really mattered
was what never came
wanted to go
didn’t know where
wondered what lay in store for me
wondered why I was alone
and if I was doing something wrong

while the body absorbed
so many
parties
parks
concerts
grass seeds
orgasms
rain

I was the kind of girl
who always sat down
when things got tough
I sat on sidewalks
stairs
ledges
and side of beds

wide awake
dead tired
the garbage trucks woke me in the morning
the ambulances chased me home
days full
of lilacs and rain
and me thinking of anything but
my lectures
what was to become of me
for instance
and my friends
was so low
that they couldn’t get out of bed

of course we picture ourselves
hunched over French novels
hunched over text messages
hunched over stiff nipples
hunched over our change to see if
we can afford some smokes
hunched over ourselves

brilliant it was
but also very difficult
then someone appeared
and hugged
my heart
and all the while
I was dangling in mid-air
all the while I was wondering
where I belonged

I was the kind of girl
who danced without inhibition
who woke in strange beds
and called home
with nothing particular on my mind
I jumped bridges in summer
and swam in rivers with no fear

and come to think of it
we might all be that kind of girl
who just might leave
but stays
just might get together
cause we’re all alone
wondering why everything is wrong
when all we’re doing is right

My Summer of Poetry

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I can’t believe it’s been a whole month since I last blogged.  So much has happened in that month as well, it’s hard to know where to start. I’m hoping by Sunday to get back on track with posting a Sunday poem, but today’s blog will just be me, rattling on about my summer.

I’ve been back a week now, and I’ve spent the week recovering from the late nights, catching up with emails and various admin chores, and pretty much non stop writing, which has felt bloody amazing!

On August 22nd I flew to Macedonia, to take part in Struga Poetry Evenings, which involved getting a very early train to Manchester Airport.  Then I had to fly to Vienna, where I had a six hour stopover, so I decided to get the express train into the city to have a look around.  I’m glad I did this, although I didn’t have a huge amount of time.  I walked to the cathedral, had a look inside, then went and found a cafe, got something to eat, and then carried on walking round in a big loop before getting the train back to the airport.  in vienna

If you do have time to kill in Vienna, I would definitely recommend getting the train into the city – it was very quick, on time and it had wifi and charge points for phones!
I then got my flight to Skopje in Macedonia and landed quite late – just before midnight.  I had to get up early the next morning to get on the minibus to take us to Struga, a couple of hours drive away, where most of the festival would take place.

Struga is a lovely town, there is a river in the middle, with cafes and restaurants along the bank of the river on both sides.

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And of course it sits on the side of a lake, with a pebble beach and sun chairs and the clearest water I’ve ever seen in a lake.

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It wasn’t all sitting around on the beach though – I did a poetry reading of at least one or two poems nearly every day, in monasteries, on the side of the lake, in the hotel.  I read the poems in English and then they were read in Macedonian.  I was the only English poet at the festival – there were many other poets from all over the world.

For the last couple of months, I’ve been writing very slowly.  I’ve not really been blocked, because I have been writing, but I’ve just been writing at a very, very slow pace.  One day at the festival, I went down to the beach to join some of the other poets, and saw Maud Vanhauwaert, a poet from Belgium, sitting with a few of the other poets, writing in her notebook in the sunshine.  This sounds very strange I know, but I felt something come unstuck inside me, and I knew it was to do with writing, and being able to write.  I’ve told Maud since then not to tell me what she was writing – I’m hoping it was a poem, and not her to do list, and I wish I’d took a photo so I could look at it again, if I ever get blocked, or slowed down, or whatever the name is for the way I’ve been feeling.

Here is a picture of me and Maud on the last day of the festival – I am very soppy, and nearly started crying when I was seeing her off on the bus.

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There were some amazing, strong, independent, brave, funny and talented women at the festival.  I feel incredibly lucky that I got to meet them all.

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Left to right, Linda Klakken, Volya Hapeyeva, Maria Seisenbacher, Hilà Lahav and Attila Vegh almost missed the ferry back to Struga and still managed to look cool. 

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Left to right: Madeline Grive, who directs  Stockholm International Poetry Festival, Eleanor Livingstone, director of Stanza Poetry Festival, me and Tziona Shamay, director of Helicon Poetry Festival in Israel.  This photo was taken in the beautiful town of Ohrid.

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Regina Dyck, minus her bag of crackers which she carried everywhere.  The crackers saved us from starvation on many occasions during long poetry readings.  Regina also used said crackers to calm angry Dutch tourists.

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Krystyna Dąbrowska – brilliant poet from Poland with a great sense of humour.  Four of us hired a paddle boat and failed abjectly at steering said boat.  To get back to shore we basically did figure of eights until we got close enough to drag it back along the sand.  

Meeting all of these women, hearing their poetry, was definitely one of the highlights of the festival for me.  It was one of those weeks where you feel like your face is just going to ache permanently from laughing too much, and I met people I could talk to for hours and not get bored.  It was a really special week.

At the end of the festival, I went on my own holiday around northern Greece with my husband – we climbed Mount Olympus, spent a day sunbathing,went to the Meteora region to see the monasteries built on rocks, and generally had a brilliant time.  It was just what we needed as we haven’t been away together for a couple of years now.

I’ve been back from holiday about a week, and I’ve been writing non stop since then, which has made catching up with emails and admin difficult.  I don’t know if the poems are any good yet – it’s too soon but it feels like they could be.  Other than that, it has been lovely to see my running friends again.  I’ve even enjoyed running in the rain and gale force winds along the beach.

So that is pretty much all my news – I will hopefully be back on Sunday with a regular instalment of the Sunday Poem.

 

 

Sunday Poem – Mike Farren

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Sunday Poem – Mike Farren

I’ve been on holiday for the last week in Benidorm with three friends that I run with.  Our women’s running holiday is turning into an annual tradition.  It feels slightly false to call it a running holiday as 90% of the time we laze about by the pool.  However every morning at 7.15 am we put on our running kits and we’re out running by 7.30 am.  The staff in the hotel looked very bemused by us going out running each morning, and on the only day when there was actual clouds in the sky and a bit of a breeze, they looked completely confused that we were actually venturing outside.

I’m trying to remember what else we did apart from running and sitting by the pool, but it was one of those weeks that go by very quickly, even though nothing much is happening.  We did spend a morning going round the market in Benidorm, and we had a day out to Altea, which was beautiful.

I also read five novels on holiday – some of them came from recommendations from people on Twitter and some are just ones I’ve come across from reading articles.  The first one was South of Forgiveness by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger.  Stylistically this book was my least favourite to read but as a true story it is a fascinating read.  Thordis and Tom are co-authors of the book, although the majority of the book is written by Thordis, diary entries from Tom are included as well.  Tom was Thordis’ first boyfriend, and raped her when she was 16.  She got in touch with him years later by email to confront him, and eventually they decide to speak face to face.  The book is really about that journey, and it is not a comfortable read.  It is much easier to think of rapists as being evil, faceless strangers, but the truth is that many women know their attackers.   I found the book interesting because it asks questions about why men like Tom behave in that way – questions about entitlement and power, questions about the impact of trauma, and how to move on from trauma and violence.

I then read Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor.  This was recommended by Helen Mort, and I knew nothing about it when I downloaded it on my Kindle.  After being firstly quite suspicious of the style, I completely fell in love with this novel, and I think it is one that will stay with me for a long time.  I don’t know if it is the correct terminology to call it an experimental novel – and that label, I think has negative connotations, but it did feel quite radical and different to me.   It explores the impact on a community of the disappearance of a young girl – but the novel is made up of observations of that community.  And by community I don’t just mean the humans that made up the town, but the wildlife and the plants and the animals and the river.  There would be a couple of sentences about the school caretaker and then a couple of sentences about the foxcubs in the woods, and the leaves on the trees.  At first it was strange and distracting, but once I got used to it, it felt like it was this wonderful level field where everything was as important as everything else.

After that I read Who Runs the World? by Virginia Bergin.  This came from reading an article about good dystopian novels, and although I enjoyed it, I think it’s a Young Adult novel (or felt like it to me).  It’s set in a world where boys don’t exist and women run the world.  I finished this in one day – great story, but I felt a bit old for the tone and it’s audience, and it didn’t quite feel believable for me.

My favourite was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  This post-apocalyptic novel felt completely believable – a deadly virus wipes out most of the human race. The novel has flashbacks and jumps around in time and I think I’d definitely read this again as I know I’d get even more out of it the second time around.  I also liked this novel because despite the collapse of civilisation, one of the characters travelled around with a group of musicians and actors, putting on concerts and plays for the isolated settlements remaining.   I like that art and music and literature and drama survived.

The last novel, which I started on holiday and finished today was The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey.  Another post-apocalypse novel – and again, a great story, told from start to finish, no jumping around, no flashbacks and easy to read.  So I didn’t read any poetry at all on holiday – I find it impossible to read poetry while lounging on a sun bed.  Also my running friends have no interest in poetry whatsoever so there would have been nobody to talk to about any poetry that I read, so I normally just avoid it altogether.  I only really read novels whilst I’m on holiday, as basically I have no self control and don’t get anything done once I start a novel.  For example, today I was supposed to be catching up with all the emails that have been piling up.  Instead, I had to finish The Girl With All The Gifts and then it was the last night of the athletics, and lo and behold I’m writing my blog at 10.30pm at night and I haven’t answered any emails.  Whoops.

I’m only home for nine days and then I’m off again to Macedonia to take part in the Struga Poetry Evenings as part of the Versopolis project, so no more novels for me this week – tomorrow morning I’m going to get up early, answer my emails and get organised.  I’m hoping I can get a bit of PhD reading done this week as well so I can go off guilt-free to Macedonia.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Mike Farren, who I met for the first time when I was Poet in Residence at Ilkley Literature Festival a couple of years ago.  Mike came along to a workshop and wrote a fantastic poem.  I hope he won’t mind me saying this, but he seemed very unconfident and not really aware of what a good writer he was.  Anyway, fast forward to 2017 and he has his first pamphlet out with Templar after winning the Templar Quarterly Portfolio Pamphlet Awards   with his pamphlet Pierrot and his Mother.    

Mike was born in Bradford and works as an editor in academic publishing.  His poems have appeared in various journals and anthologies, including The Interpreter’s House, Prole, Ink Sweat and Tears, and Valley Press’s Anthology of Yorkshire Poetry.  He lives in Shipley, where he is one of the hosts of the Rhubarb open mic night.

Mike kindly sent me a copy of this pamphlet a while ago, and I’ve really enjoyed reading it.  When I was re-reading it again today, I thought it would be appropriate to share his poem ‘York Street Furniture, 1981’, which is one of those rare things, a poem about work, and especially appropriate to share it today as all I’ve done is go on about my holidays!

I love the way the relationship between Colin and the speaker is set up in this first line.  We immediately know that Colin is the one with the knowledge, the experience.  He knows where to smoke, and he’s also the one who decides when to have a break.  The speaker in this first stanza is a passive follower or observer who obviously admires Colin and his ‘long, buff jacket’.  Despite this, there is obviously a mis-connection between the two.  Buried in line two of the second stanza there is the line ‘We talk, but say nothing’ – they have nothing in common, no shared ground.  The speaker is kicked out of the toilet while the foreman goes in, maybe to smoke himself. The difference of the speaker is underlined throughout the poem, but especially in Stanza 2 when we read ‘The fifty quid/a week is college beer money for me -/for him, it’s life-long beer money, perhaps.’  That word ‘perhaps on the end of the line shows that the speaker doesn’t actually know if this is true, and I think this acknowledgement makes the poem much stronger.

The  colloquial tone, or register of the poem is established and maintained as well, through the use of the word ‘gasping’ and ‘bog’, and later on with the word ‘quid’ and ‘wagging’, as well as the foreman with his ‘What the fuck?’.

I also like how the first line of the second stanza ‘I don’t, but then he doesn’t even ask’ is slightly ambiguous.  I assume that the reference is ‘I don’t smoke’ but it could also mean ‘I don’t have a break’, although we soon realise the speaker is standing around with Colin while he smokes.

The poem reminded me of my first day working behind the bar at Leeds College of Music.  There was a small kitchen behind the bar, and at the end of the shift, I was packing away food that hadn’t been used, and thought the manager told me to ‘sling’ the jacket potatoes that had been part-cooked.  I chucked about 30 of them in the bin.  He’d actually said ‘cling’.  He used a few choice swear words as well, just as colourful as the ones in Mike Farren’s poem.

I think the naivety of the speaker – thinking he can stand with the smokers, although he doesn’t smoke, his lack of size or strength ‘Can’t even span/my arms across’ and the self-knowledge of ‘We talk, but say nothing’

This poem has a great circularity to it – we start off at the beginning with breathing in Colin’s smoke and finish with breathing the ‘reasty, hot machine-oil air’.  I love poems that capture moments like this – I’m not quite sure why.  Maybe because if someone didn’t write a poem about them, these stories of being a worker won’t ever be told, and I think they should be, because they’re not just about work of course.  This poem is about work and what work is, but it’s also about being young, and about social class, about ambition and realisations.

If you’d like to buy Mike’s pamphlet, you can get it by going to the Templar Poetry website for the modest sum of £6.  Thanks to Mike for letting me use his poem here, and hope you enjoy it!

York Street Furniture, 1981 – Mike Farren

Colin says he’s got to have a break:
he’s gasping, and the bog’s the only place
they let them smoke.  He takes the Players pack
out of the pocket of his long, buff jacket.

I don’t, but then he doesn’t even ask.
We talk, but say nothing.  The fifty quid
a week is college beer money for me –
for him, it’s life-long beer money, perhaps.

And when the tab’s half-done, the foreman slams
in, takes one look, says, “What the fuck?” and kicks
me out, for wagging off when I don’t smoke.
I’m back to loading king-sized mattresses

myself.  I try just one.  Can’t even span
my arms across, so I stand and sniff
the reasty, hot machine-oil air, sweetened
by seasoned timber, as it turns to sawdust.