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!

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

Sunday Poem – Mike Barlow

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Sunday Poem – Mike Barlow

I’ve had another week at home, with no gallivanting around the place, which has been nice, but I’m starting to get slightly itchy feet now.  I’m not very good at being in one place! I’ve spent most of the week continuing with my reading for my PhD and editing one of the poems which I showed to Michael Symmons Roberts at my last supervisory meeting before the summer.  Michael asked me why the poem was in the form it was in, and I didn’t have an answer, so I decided to work on the structure of the poem, and as I’ve been reading lots about rhyme, half rhyme and parallelism, so I decided to use some of the things I’ve read about.  Instead of being in a long column, it’s now in four line stanzas, and each group of four lines rhyme together.  I think it makes the poem feel more knitted together, more robust, but maybe also more obsessive, or circular.  The strange thing is I didn’t have to really write any new lines, I just rearranged what I already had – I knew that the original version had lots of internal rhymes and echoes, but I didn’t realise how much until I started this exercise!  I don’t think it’s quite finished yet, but again, it feels different to my usual style, so the next test is to send it out somewhere and see what happens to it.

I’ve had one of my newest poems accepted for The New Humanist this week  so I’m chuffed about that.  I have to constantly keep reminding myself that I’m doing ok, as my brain likes to trick me and tell me I’m not writing, I’m not writing enough, I’m not writing well enough etc etc etc.  I’m always saying I’m not writing and then I look through my folder and realise I have been writing, but somehow have just not noticed.  Maybe I need that level of delusion to function.

I went to Sheffield yesterday to the Poetry Business workshop.  It was really great to see lots of old friends there, and to sit and write for the whole day, even though I didn’t feel like I wrote anything that could remotely make it to poem status, I’m trying to follow my own advice and think of it like practice or a workout, necessary and with hopefully long term results.

I’ve just spoken to staff at Treloyhan Manor Hotel in St Ives – bookings have gone crazy for the course I’m running with Helen Mort there in April 2018 and I’m both surprised and delighted that it has already sold out! Surprised because I only put it up on the blog less than a week ago, delighted because it means that is one job ticked off the list, and I can just look forward to running the course now, and booking a fabulous guest poet.   They are going to keep a waiting list, as in previous years, we’ve had a few people drop out at the last minute, so if you are still keen to come, it would be worth putting your name down on the list.

There are still a few spaces for the Poetry Carousel which I’m running from the 8th-11th December 2017 with Hilda Sheehan, David Morley and Steve Ely – you can find more information here but to book your place, you need to ring the hotel direct on 01539532896.  If you’d like more information about the carousel and what it will involve, you can contact me via the contact page.

So that is pretty much all of my news.  Next Saturday I’m off to Benidorm on a running holiday with three friends from my running club.  I call it a running holiday, but we basically go running for half an hour in the morning and then we lounge around for the rest of the day.  But I’m looking forward to the chance to relax for a week in the sun.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Mike Barlow, a brilliant poet and friend of mine who lives in Lancaster.  Mike has published a number of full length collections and pamphlets.  His first full-length collection was Living on the Difference, published in 2004 by Smith/Doorstop.  This collection was shortlisted for the Jerwood Aldeburgh Prize for Best First Collection.  His next collection, Another Place, was published in 2007 by Salt, followed by a pamphlet, Amicable Numbers which was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice.  In 2012 he published his third full-length collection Charmed Lives with Smith/Doorstop.  He then went on to publish a series of pamphlets and started Wayleave Press in 2014, a small press publisher producing 6-8 pamphlets a year.

I re-read Mike’s 2014 pamphlet The Folded Moment the other day and really enjoyed it, so I asked Mike if I could feature a poem from the pamphlet here.  Mike says this pamphlet was a kind of test pamphlet for the press.  And apparently, there are no copies left of this pamphlet, so I have a rare piece of poetry history sat beside me on my desk! If you do like the poem though, Mike has just brought out a new pamphlet, again published by Wayleave called The Promise Boat which you can order from Wayleave for a mere £5.

I chose ‘Toad Road’ as the Sunday Poem this week because as soon as I read the poem I had a jolt of recognition and memory.  A few years ago now I spent a week at Cove Park in Scotland on a writing retreat.  It was terrible weather, gale-force winds and rain, and coming back from the pub in a car full of poets and novelists, I got out to open the gates to get back into Cove Park.  My hands were freezing from touching the iron gates, but we didn’t get far down the road before someone (I can’t remember who – but I can remember the shape of them in the headlights) got out of the car to try to encourage the toads/frogs (not sure which) to hop off the road so we could continue to drive down.

In ‘Toad Road’ the weather isn’t quite as bad.  It is ‘late summer’ and by saying ‘rainfall after a hot spell’ the smell of rain hitting tarmac that has been hot all day is conjured up.  There’s some great images in this poem – I love the introduction of the toads, that they could be ‘leaves, blown twigs, or squirrel-torn bark’, and I love the sharp observation of ‘These shapes don’t move/in a way only something animate is able/not to move’.

This is a journey that has been carried out before and in stanza 3 there is a disturbing and shocking image of ‘skin-stars’, of what happened when they didn’t notice.  The interesting thing about this poem is that we don’t quite know where the speaker is situated in it.  The pronoun ‘We’ is used throughout, as if these two people are of exactly one mind.  ‘We slow down’ and ‘We know now’ and more interestingly ‘one of us gets out’ to guide the driver, but as readers, we don’t know whether the speaker is the driver or the one guiding.  It’s almost as if the point of view flicks between the two.

At the beginning of Stanza 4 we read ‘rain beats hair lank,/soaks shoulders, trickles down the collar’ which is so vivid it sounds like the speaker is feeling the rain, but then in the next line, the point of view shifts, and we could almost believe we are inside the driver’s head when we read ‘Wheels weave between gold hemispheric eyes,/sacks of warty skin.’

I love the reference to Jainism, which the BBC website tells me is

‘an ancient religion from India that teaches that the way to liberation and bliss is to live lives of harmlessness and renunciation. The essence of Jainism is concern for the welfare of every being in the universe and for the health of the universe itself.

I also like that the speaker(s) in the poem are ‘sprung’ with a small elation, rather than ‘filled’ which would be a much more ordinary verb, and ‘sprung’ seems to fit the movement of the rather sedentary toads, although they do an ‘awkward flop’ rather than a spring.

I hope you enjoyed the Sunday Poem this week – please do comment below if you did, I know the poets do read the comments and they are always pleased when people engage with their work!

Toad Road – Mike Barlow 

Night, late summer, rainfall after a hot spell.
We can count on it as we slow right down
to cross the cattle grid its sump-grinding
hump before dipped lights flood tarmac.

There’s a litter of what might be taken
for leaves, blown twigs, or squirrel-torn bark.
But we know now.  These shapes don’t move
in a way only something animate is able
not to move, a toad-still rain-basking.

There was a time we failed to notice.
Next morning found the track of a murky way
of flattened skin-stars.  So one of us gets out,
precedes the car (the way they used to walk
a flag in front of early automobiles)

semaphoring to the driver here, no  here,
now there, as rain beats hair lank,
soaks shoulders, trickles down the collar.
Wheels weave between gold hemispheric eyes,
sacks of warty skin.  A nudge with a foot

gets no response, though a hand’s touch
prompts an awkward flop to the long grass.
Safely home we’re sprung with a small elation
for having made a Jain’s way through.

Residential Poetry Course, St Ives

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I’m really excited to announce that I’ll be running my annual Residential Poetry Course down in St Ives in 2018 with the fabulous Helen Mort as my co-tutor.  The course will be running from 9th-14th April 2018, and I’ll be posting up details of the theme that we’ll be exploring during the week very soon, along with details of our guest poet, so watch this space.  I’ve also just spoken to the hotel and they’ve already sold a quarter of the places, so if you would like to come, please contact the hotel (details below).  If you’d like more details about the week, just get in touch.

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The Unsaid: Poetry and breathing space
9th-14th April 2018

Tutors: Kim Moore and Helen Mort 
Treloyhan Manor Hotel, Carbis Bay, Saint Ives TR26 2AL
£470
Includes breakfast, three course evening meals, accommodation, workshops and tutorials.
Please contact the hotel to book 01736 796240

What can poems say indirectly? What does the writer choose to leave out and why? Can silence be loud? How do successful poems use blank space? How do poets use repetition, interruption or distraction ? On this course, we’ll look at (and challenge) the power of ‘the unsaid’ in writing.  There will be plenty of workshops and time to write your own poems, as well as opportunities for feedback on your work from the group, and a one-to-one tutorial with one of the tutors.  There will also be readings from the tutors and a guest poet will perform mid-week.  The course fee includes workshops, accommodation, breakfast, three course evening meals and a cream tea each day.

Course Timetable
Monday
4pm-6pm Workshop      Kim/Helen
6.30 Evening Meal
8.30 (approx.) Poetry Reading.  Bring a favourite poem by somebody else to share with the group

Tuesday
10-1
Workshop – Kim
Free afternoon
6.30pm Evening Meal
8.30pm Poetry Reading by the tutors

Wednesday
10-1 Workshop – Helen
Free afternoon – options for tutorials with one tutor
6.30pm –
Evening Meal
8.30pm –
Poetry Reading with Guest Poet

Thursday
10-1 –
Workshop – Kim/Helen
Free afternoon –
options for tutorials with one tutor
5-6– Critiquing poems in groups of four
6.30pm – Evening Meal
8.30pm – Workshop –Helen/Kim

Friday
10-1 – Critiquing Workshop –
Kim/Helen
Free afternoon
6.30pm –
Evening Meal
8.30pm –
Reading by Course Participants

Saturday
Breakfast and finish. 

 

Helen Mort has published two collections with Chatto & Windus, Division Street (2013) and No Map Could Show Them (2016). She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School (MMU) and a former Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust. She also writes short stories, drama and fiction. In 2014, she won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize for best first collection.

Kim Moore’s first collection The Art of Falling was published by Seren in 2015.  A poem from this collection was shortlisted for the Forward Prize.   Her first pamphlet If We Could Speak Like Wolves was a winner in the 2012 Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition and went on to be shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award and named in The Independent as a Book of the Year.  She is one of five UK poets chosen to take part in Versopolis, a European funded project to bring the work of UK poets to an international audience. She is currently a PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University.

 

Sunday Poem – Kate Wakeling

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Sunday Poem – Kate Wakeling

I had beautiful clear-white pages in my diary this week.  It has been the first week in ages I’ve not been gallivanting around the place.  I spent a large portion of it doing my tax return, or more accurately, filling in my spreadsheet so that I can work out what to put in my tax return.  I usually wait till the last possible moment to do my return as I hate doing it so much.  However, this year I was motivated by the possibility of getting some money back, now I’m a student.  I’ve pretty much finished it, but it took me most of the week, and I’m just letting it all settle before I file it on Monday.

So that hasn’t been much fun – on the other hand, it is heartening to know that I can make a living from poetry and that my freelance income has steadily increased over the last five or so years of working as a poet, without having to go out and look for work.  I feel very lucky that my work doesn’t feel like work, and I suppose filling in the tax return does bring that home.

I have managed to fit some PhD reading in though.  I’ve worked through three chapters of a book called Reading Poetry: An Introduction by Tom Furniss and Michael Bath.

The first chapter asks the reader to think about different poems about poetry and to articulate the theory of poetry they are promoting.  In the chapter Keats ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ are used as different examples of theories about creativity or poetry.  Other poems that I like that they ask you to read are ‘The Author to her Book‘ by Anne Bradstreet and Archibald MacLeish ‘Ars Poetica‘.

It reminded me that when I first wrote my poem ‘The Master Engraver’, Ann Sansom said something about the poem being really about writing poetry.  I remember being doubtful at the time – I’d listened to a program about engraver Graham Short on Radio 4 in my car, when one of my schools cancelled the lesson because the children were on a trip.  I was sitting in my car, wasting time before driving to my next school and it felt like my heart moved when I heard Graham’s description of his work and when that happens I have to write a poem.

When I wrote the poem I just wanted to write a poem about Graham Short.  In this textbook I’ve been reading though, the authors talk quite a bit about the problem of the ‘author’s intention’, that when we read poetry, we assume that the purpose is to discover the poet’s intention when writing it.  They talk about T.S Eliot and the New Critics differing approach to this, and quoting from the textbook here they argue that ‘a poem should be read on its own terms rather than in terms of author’s statements about his or her intentions when writing it’.

They then go on to outline four problems with the notion of authorial intention – the problem of access, the possibility that poets might deliberately mislead readers about their intentions or forget what their intentions were, that there may be meanings they did not consciously intend or were aware of, and lastly why the author’s intentions should be privileged over what the text itself says.

I’m quoting or paraphrasing briefly Reading Poetry: An Introduction here. The third problem, that there may be meanings they did not consciously intend or were aware of is the one that interests me at the moment, in relation to my own poem.  When I read it back now, it feels like my own theory of poetics or theory of creativity, which I wasn’t aware I was writing.

When Graham Short talked about waiting, of working late at night, of being completely alone, of this complete commitment, of requiring both the body and the mind to be controlled and focused, of it being hard work without it feeling like work, it was something I found deeply moving.  I never really thought about why, until now, but Ann’s comment has always sat in the back of my head, waiting to be unpacked and thought about, like all comments from the best of our teachers.

Does it matter that I didn’t write the poem meaning it to be a statement about writing poetry? I don’t think so -I think if I’d set out to write about writing poetry, it probably would have been a terrible poem.  My ignorance is probably what saved it!

You can find ‘The Master Engraver; in my pamphlet If We Could Speak Like Wolves and my first collection The Art of Falling (available from Seren at a discount of 50% till midnight tonight) or over at The Ofi Press magazine, where it was first published.

My one poetry outing this week was to the annual Simon Armitage reading in Grasmere.  It was a great atmosphere, I think people were really happy to be at a contemporary poetry reading again at The Wordsworth Trust, and obviously Simon Armitage was brilliant.  So brilliant in fact that due to chatting, I got to the book stall too late to buy his latest collection which was annoying. One of my Dove Cottage Young Poets read as well, Heather Hughes and went down really well.  She didn’t seem fazed at all by the large audience, and Simon even told her that his favourite line of hers ‘She claims to have slipped’ might end up in a poem of his.  Simon was one of my tutors on the MA and this moment of generosity towards a young writer didn’t surprise me, but I did think it was really lovely and I know it meant a lot to Heather.

Today’s Sunday Poem is from a fantastic pamphlet called The Rainbow Faults by Kate Wakeling, which was published in 2016 by The Rialto.  Kate kindly sent me a copy of this pamphlet in March.  I usually skim-read or speed-read things through once, and then if I like them, I put them to one side to read through at a slower pace, so I have two piles of books – ones to read and then ones to read again, which I acknowledge is a complicated way of running things, but I’m a very impatient reader when I read things first of all, especially if I like them straight away, I want to get to the end so I can read them again at a more leisurely pace.  So that is why Kate’s pamphlet has been languishing on my ‘read-again-more-slowly’ pile.

The poem I’ve chosen is ‘Looking Glass’ which just resonated with me straight away.  It picks up on a lot of the things I’ve been reading about form and content in this large textbook I’m wading through, and the more I pick at this poem, the more I like it.

First of all, I love the clever use of verbs in this poem.  The woman ‘sees’ a skeleton.  She ‘sees the beggared skull’.  The skeleton ‘watches’ the woman, and ‘watches her glazed cheek.’  I know ‘sees’ and ‘watches’ are very close in meaning, but for me ‘sees’ is much more passive, whereas ‘watching’ implies action, I think it also implies a kind of knowing or judgement.  This fits with the next line when the woman ‘startles at her blank-boned future’ but the skeleton ‘Wonders at the fallow of her peachiness’.  The skeleton seems detached and in control, the woman is reacting, as if she is one step behind.  I suppose this also fits with the idea of the woman looking toward her future (the skeleton) whereas the skeleton is looking back.

The form of this poem fits brilliantly with the content as well.  The stanzas are a slanted reflection of each other as well.  It’s significant that the poet chose not to put them side by side on the page – they are disjointed.  This is a looking glass, but it is not reflecting reality.  A woman looks into a mirror and sees a skeleton.  A skeleton looks out and watches a woman.  Each line also reflects a later line in the poem, the same but different, an example of parallelism, not exact repetition, but repetition with difference.

The last two lines of this first stanza make me think this poem is about anorexia, which fits with the looking glass not reflecting reality – the wanting of ‘this scrubbed fossil self’, and the creepiness of the ‘sticky breath’ of a demon.  That disgust in the ‘sticky breath’ also fits with concerns of eating or not eating, as does some of the words used in the second stanza, the ‘fallow of her peachiness’ and her ‘glazed cheek’.  There are a few words associated with food here actually.

And the last two lines of the second stanza are just as disturbing.  The skeleton is ‘quick with fatigue at the slog of her pulse’ – so being alive is exhausting.  The last line I’m still puzzling and turning over in my mind.  The implication is that it is the skeleton who ‘looses thrilled surrender across vacant ribs.’  Again this makes me think about eating, or not eating, this emptiness of the ‘vacant ribs’.

If you’ve enjoyed this poem, you can buy a copy of Kate’s poem from The Rialto here

Kate Wakeling grew up in Yorkshire and Birmingham.  She studied music at Cambridge University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, and works as an ethnomusicologist at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance and as writer-in-residence with Aurora Orchestra.  Her poetry has appeared in magazines and anthologies including The Rialto, Magma, Oxford Poetry, The Best British Poetry 2014 (Salt) and The Forward Book of Poetry 2016.

 

Looking Glass – Kate Wakeling

Woman looks at mirror
Sees skeleton
Sees the beggared skull
Startles at her blank-boned future
Is dense with want for this scrubbed fossil self
Feels sticky breath of demon at her elbow

L

))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))
))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))Skeleton looks out of mirror
)))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))Watches woman
))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))Watches her glazed cheek
))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))Wonders at the fallow of her peachiness
))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))Is quick with fatique at the slog of her pulse
))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))Looses thrilled surrender across vacant ribs

Tŷ Newydd and That Report

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Tŷ Newydd and That Report

Last week, I saw via a post on Facebook that an Independent Review of Support for Publishing and Literature in Wales had been published.  Within those pages the Tŷ Newydd Creative Writing Centre had received damaging criticism, which is so at odds with my experience of Tŷ Newydd that I feel obliged to write this in support of Tŷ Newydd

You can find the report here

The paragraph below is taken directly from the report.

Tŷ Newydd seems to be mainly aimed at ‘retired hobbyists’ but it was unclear who Tŷ Newydd caters for and why it is receiving public subsidy. It was also unclear how many individuals, who have attended a course at Tŷ Newydd, have gone on to publish a book. This kind of residential literary course is viewed by many to be outdated in the current creative writing boom in the digital age . Tŷ Newydd offers little for professional writers or disadvantaged areas  [despite being located in a convergence area where GDP is low which should provide opportunities for it to do so]

Where do I start with this? It seems strange to me that in a comprehensive report, the writers didn’t bother to find out from Tŷ Newydd who they cater for – surely this question would have been answered with a simple conversation? I’ve since found out that nobody visited Tŷ Newydd, prior to publishing the report, which perhaps explains this.

I first went to Tŷ Newydd in 2007.  Back then I was 25 years old and working as a full time Peripatetic Brass Teacher for Cumbria Music Service.  Hardly a ‘retired hobbyist’ then, but I take umbrage with that rather offensive term anyway – do they want retired people to stay at home and not engage in creative activities, despite the widely recognised health benefits?

However, I was definitely a ‘hobbyist’ – I had not published anything anywhere or even thought about publishing.  I hadn’t read a poetry magazine, or even many poetry collections.  I had a career as a music teacher and I was performing on and off in orchestras and shows. I was also extremely unhappy. Teaching was (and is) a difficult and stressful job.  I’d always wanted to be a professional musician, but anxiety and low self-esteem were making any professional work I did get as a trumpet player extremely painful.  I joined a poetry group, Fourth Monday Poets and one of the poets there, Jennifer Copley, gave me a brochure for Tŷ Newydd and told me I’d enjoy it.  So I booked a week’s residential with Sarah Kennedy and Nigel Jenkins in the summer holidays of 2007.

I was also quite poor after years of being a student, and the staff at Tŷ Newydd let me pay for my course monthly which was a huge help.  That week at Tŷ Newydd completely changed my life.  I’ve written before about the impact of the tutors, Nigel and Sarah, and how their encouragement and enthusiasm and kindness made a huge difference to me.  But Tŷ Newydd is a magical place, it has the same magic that Lumb Bank has that I wrote about last week.  That magic is hard to explain, but there is something special about going to a place that is dedicated to writers and writing and being creative.

So when I first went to Tŷ Newydd I was a ‘hobbyist’.  I remained a hobbyist for another five years or so, except I was an obsessive hobbyist, and poetry became this huge and important thing in my life.  Over the years I carried on going to Tŷ Newydd on other residentials and each one was the catalyst for other events.  I went on the Masterclass with Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy.  After this week, I decided to take the plunge and apply for a place on the MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University which I was accepted on to.  I went on a course with Ian Duhig and Ruth Padel and wrote many of the poems which made it into my first collection, published in 2015.  I went on a residential with Alan Jenkins and Fiona Sampson, which again, was a life-changing week which pushed my poetry further and gave me the confidence to raise my ambitions for my own work.

So in answer to the sentence in the report that asks how many individuals went on to publish a book after attending Tŷ Newydd, well I’m one of them, and surely as the writers of this report, they could find out this information fairly easily? I could put a Facebook post up and find out.   But this question kind of misses the point of Tŷ Newyddand of residential courses for me.  They are not there to make sure that all participants publish a book.  Residential courses are physical and mental spaces where like-minded people can come and escape from the stress and pressures of their everyday lives and put themselves and their own creativity first, not with the aim of publishing something, maybe not with any purpose at all except to be creative.

I didn’t go to Tŷ Newydd to become a published poet.  I went because I loved poetry and I wanted to sit and read and write and talk about it for a week.  I went because I felt like I was suffocating in my life and I needed to do something different.  Other people go to improve their writing.  Other people go because they are lonely and it is a holiday.  Other people go because once a year they like to go and write poetry and then forget about it until the next year.   Other people go because they want the chance to study with a poet they’ve always admired.  Other people go because they desperately want to be published.  Who is to say which reason is more valid, and one of the things I love about residentials is that there is a whole mix of reasons of why people are there.  If there was just a whole cohort of people desperate to be published it would make for a rather miserable week.

I’ve also met some wonderful people on these courses – call it networking if that makes it more ‘measurable’ in terms of report writing, I prefer to call it friendship.  I met one of my best friends  on a residential, who was then my bridesmaid at my wedding years later.  I met some fantastic poets who I’ve worked with and read with since then.  Living in a geographically isolated area, this is another aspect of going on a residential that is really important to me.

Fast forward ten years, and I’ve been working as a professional poet for about the last five years, gradually reducing my music teaching and building up my freelance writing career.  I’ve performed at festivals in Croatia, Ireland, Holland and all over the UK.  I’ve ran workshops and residentials.  Two years ago I went back to Tŷ Newyddand tutored with the poet Clare Shaw on a schools course. Last year I went back as a guest poet on a course run by Jonathan Edwards and Patience Agbabi.  I’ve just got back from being a guest poet at Lumb Bank on a residential week with Peter and Ann Sansom as the tutors.  It felt pretty amazing to be sitting and giving a reading, knowing that my journey as a writer really started on a residential course.

As for the sentence in the report

This kind of residential literary course is viewed by many to be outdated in the current creative writing boom in the digital age

says who? Who are the many?  This sentence made me laugh out loud.  There is no evidence that I know of to support this.  I run my own residential courses now at hotels in the Lake District and Cornwall, and I never have trouble with filling the places.  This sentence shows again, a distinct lack of understanding about the atmosphere and magic of a creative writing course, which as brilliant as digital courses are (and I tutor on those as well) cannot be replicated online, no matter how good the course is.  And online courses are not trying to replicate residential courses anyway, nor should they try to – they are fulfilling a completely different need.  In my experience, again of tutoring on online courses and taking part in them, they are great for people who can’t put their lives down and go off for a week, so it is like comparing apples with oranges as the saying goes.

I would also like to say that there was a year when I couldn’t afford to go on a residential course I really wanted to go on. My husband had finished his full time job to start his own business and we were living on my salary alone.  I  wrote to Tŷ Newydd, explained my situation and they gave me a bursary for half the amount, and again let me pay the other half off monthly.  I wouldn’t class myself as a disadvantaged writer, but when I have struggled financially they have bent over backwards to ensure I could access the courses.

Lastly, I would like to say that over the years of becoming and working as a professional poet, Tŷ Newydd has been a sustaining and enriching force in my life.  I don’t think I’ve ever told them this.  I can imagine the staff are feeling pretty devastated by the report.  I wanted to write this blog post to let them know that they and the work they do has had a huge and immeasurable effect on my life.  Everything I’ve written about changing jobs, becoming a writer, everything that has happened to me since then are measurable things.  I’m now a full time PhD student and I get to read and write and think about poetry all day.  The immeasurable things – my mental health, my happiness, my feeling of finally realising what I wanted to do, the friendships I’ve made – I can’t quantify those things.

I haven’t got many photos of Tŷ Newydd (too busy at the time having fun to take photos) but I did find these ones.

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The group one is of the Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy masterclass.  I am hiding at the back. The next one I think is a course I went on with Jo Shapcott and Daljit Nagra where I was bullied into playing the trumpet in the evening.  This was 2010 – the rest are all of the CAD and Clarke course.  .

Sunday Poem – Pauline Yarwood

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Sunday Poem – Pauline Yarwood

This week I’ve spent a bit of time planning my summer holidays.  In  August, I’m off to Macedonia to read at the Struga Poetry Festival, as part of the Versopolis project.  I’ll be at the festival for nearly a week, and then my husband is meeting me in Skopje and we’re going on our own holiday.  We’re going to stay in Ohrid for one night and then drive down to northern Greece and walk 17 km up Mount Olympus,  stay in a refuge near the summit for one night, before walking back down the next day.

I’m also going to Benidorm at the beginning of the summer holidays, on what is turning into an annual holiday with some of the women I run with.  This will be my luxury, sit around the pool and generally laze about holiday.

On Monday, Pauline and I finished the obligatory report on Kendal Poetry Festival for the Arts Council.  It took us five hours, but we were determined that we wanted to get the thing handed in and finished, so we can start work on next year’s festival.  Filling in the after activity report is not one of the fun things about running a festival so I’m glad that over with.

On Tuesday I had my meeting with my supervisor about my first attempt at 5000 words.  I feel so much better about the PhD.  We had a really good conversation about what I’d written and where I needed to improve, and also a frank discussion about the nature of a creative PhD, and that a lot of the critical writing will need to be directed by my creative writing, and that this way of working is going to be a challenge.  My supervisor also said she felt really excited about my project though which was really encouraging.   My main job over the summer is to get some reading done of writing about poetry.  I thought I would ease into it gently and start with Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry as I’ve been wanting to read it for ages.   

I really enjoyed reading this book – perhaps the thing that has stayed with me the most, or given me the most to think about are his thoughts on stanza breaks.  He refers to W.B Yeats ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ to discuss what happens in the white space between stanzas.  He asks what happens in between the stanzas and then answers ‘A change of place, a passing of time.’  He also talks about comparing stanza breaks to scene changes in a film, saying that ‘Some stanza breaks are cuts, some are fades, some are dissolves’.

This has given me lots to think about in relation to my own work but I’ve already started to use some of this in the workshops I’ve ran this weekend with Dove Cottage Young Poets and my Barrow Poetry Workshop.

On Wednesday I drove over to Lumb Bank in Heptonstall.  I was the guest poet on Ann and Peter Sansom’s Arvon course.  I can’t tell you how excited I was to do this – I’ve never been to Lumb Bank before, and it really is a magical place.  The scenery is so beautiful and it was such nice weather, I basically dumped my bag in the cottage and went straight out for a run through the woods and then back along the fields.  I only did 2 miles as I’d been out on Tuesday night and done a 7 mile run and I didn’t want to overdo it.

Then I got back, had a shower and then went for dinner with Ann and Peter and the course participants, and Jill, the assistant centre director, and then did the reading after dinner, sold lots of books, had a cup of tea with some of the course participants and then collapsed into bed! It meant a lot to me to be invited to do this because my whole journey as a poet and a writer started on a residential course, not at Lumb Bank, but at Ty Newydd in Wales.  That first residential that I went on completely changed my life, so it feels pretty amazing to go and be a guest poet on one.

The next day I got up early and went for a run with one of the people booked on the course who I will call D, as I forgot to ask permission to mention him here.  It was a great run, through the woods again but this time crossing the river.  I needed to be back in half an hour, however we got a bit lost and whilst D was bounding up and down the hills to find the right path I was puffing and panting behind trying to keep up.  D was a lot fitter than I thought, which was lucky really as it meant he could scout ahead.  It was a bit like that scene in Lord of the Rings when Gimli the dwarf is puffing along and Legolas speeds on ahead.

I needed to be back in half an hour so I could get to Kendal for 10.30am because I had an appointment to get my tattoo finished.  I managed to get there on time with minutes to spare, and I don’t know if it was because I was exhausted from the run, but the pain was nowhere near as bad as the first session on the tattoo a couple of weeks ago.

This brings us up to date with this weekend which I spent running Dove Cottage Young Poets on Friday, Brewery Poets on Friday night and then running my Barrow Poetry Workshop all day Saturday.  Next week I have a fairly quiet week, so I’m hoping to get lots of reading done and some poetry writing.

So today’s Sunday Poem is by Pauline Yarwood, who as well as being the co-director of Kendal Poetry Festival, is also a very good poet in her own right.  Her first pamphlet Image Junkie has just been published by Wayleave Press and her official launch was a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a great pamphlet and available from Wayleave Press for the bargain price of £5.

Reading through the pamphlet again, I realised that although a lot of the poems are concerned with visual themes (unsurprising as Pauline is a potter) many of the poems also explore the problem of speaking out, not speaking at all, speaking too much, who gets to speak and who doesn’t.  In ‘The Left Wing Coffee Bar, Manchester’ the ‘ex-POW fathers/told us you understand nothing,/nothing’. There are lots of other examples of direct speech in the poems, such as in’La Flaneuse’, ‘Basking Shark’ and ‘The Hare’ and often people are talking too much or not talking enough. 

The poem I’ve chosen  for the Sunday Poem this week is called’Put-downs’.  The hurtful things people can say to other people is something that seems to be on my mind a lot recently.  Helen Mort has just written a great blog about the effect that unsolicited advice and comments can have, which you can read here where she writes back to a male writer who offered some unnecessarily cruel and personal unsolicited remarks.  In the blog, Helen says

I’m sorry for writing an essay back in response to a short email. But sometimes, a few words online can spill over into someone’s life and have quite a profound effect, so I thought it was worth trying to put that into words

This really struck me when I read this.  Maybe it’s something that we all forget too often, that what we say and do can have a profound effect on other people.  Pauline’s poem discusses the effect that words and comments by family members can have on the self, not only as a child but as an adult as well.

The familiar phrase of ‘You’re a sight for sore eyes’ becomes unfamiliar in the poem as the gran gets it ‘the wrong way round’.  There is something funny in this misuse of the phrase at first, and the descriptions of the speaker ‘scratched and bleeding from climbing trees’ or ‘once hiding in tall grass being shown how boys pee’ has real energy and life to it.

By the end of the poem, this humour is wiped out.  There is a sense of something left unsaid with the description of the gran as ‘A woman wrapped in loss’ but this untold story is quickly moved on with the introduction of another familiar phrase.  The last three lines of the poem I found completely chilling, and in particular the last two lines: ‘She could destroy you six different ways with this/depending on where she put the emphasis.’ These two lines send you back to the line before with the phrase ‘who do you think you are’.  I couldn’t help myself but try and put the emphasis in different ways.  When you do this, when you practice saying ‘Who do you think YOU are’ or ‘Who do you think you ARE’ or ‘Who DO you think you are’ it is almost like the Gran emerges and forms, in the white space around the poem.

Thanks to Pauline for letting me post this poem! Here’s to a week, no even better a life of no put-downs and kindness to wash over us all.

Put-downs 
Pauline Yarwood

My gran got it the wrong way round.
You’re a sight for sore eyes, she’d snap,
sharp, when I snuck in through the back door.
I’d be grubby from digging pits for dens
or scratched and bleeding from climbing trees,
red-faced from riding my bike a few feet
further than I was allowed to go,
then a sweaty race back hoping not to be seen,
and once hiding in tall grass being shown how boys pee.
It was years before I realised that being
a sight for sore eyes was a good thing,
a joy to behold.  But I was never that,
just a scruffy kid hoping for toast and marmite
and a bit of a welcome.  She could, I suppose,
have meant that me looking like something
the cat dragged in cheered her up, made her smile.
But that wasn’t my gran.  A woman wrapped in loss,
her other favourite phrase, which never leaves me,
was who do you think you are.
She could destroy you six different ways with this
depending on where she put the emphasis.