Monthly Archives: March 2014

Sunday Poem – Rhian Edwards


Evening folks – I’m going to try and make this post fairly short because I’m not feeling too well again – I haven’t been completely right since I had flu a couple of weeks ago – and over the weekend I’ve had a sore throat, been feeling dizzy and having headaches – I went over to Grasmere today with a friend to an event with the winners of the New Writing North bursaries – it was a nice event but I came straight home and went to bed for a couple of hours.

Yesterday I got the early train to Sheffield for a Writing Day with the Poetry Business – it was a really wonderful day – lots of poets there that I know from all over – it was nice to catch up with people – there were about 25-30 people there.

I’ve started running this week as well – I went for my first session with a running club this Wednesday – Walney Wind Cheetahs – it was great fun – I managed to keep running for an hour so was very pleased with myself and in a wave of enthusiasm booked myself onto the Dalton 10k in a couple of months time.  And then told Clare Shaw that yes, I would be in her team for Total Warrior race.  Enthusiasm is a dangerous thing! I did do another 40 minute run on Friday but I haven’t been over the weekend, mainly because I’ve been feeling rough.  Hopefully I’ll be feeling better by Wednesday..

I’m going to post the poem up now and crawl into bed – today’s Sunday Poem is by Rhian Edwards who I first met a couple of years ago when I read for Inpress at the Southbank in London.  Rhian was reading as well and she was brilliant – she is very funny and has quirky turns of phrase, full of energy and that is before she reads any poems!  I met Rhian again at the XX Women’s Literature Festival in Cardiff a couple of weekends ago – I’ve had her book since the first time I met her and have been meaning to ask her for a poem for ages so it is nice to finally feature her poem.

The poem I’ve chosen is the first poem in her first collection ‘Clueless Dogs’ by Seren.  Rhian was the winner of the Wales Book of the Year 2013, the Roland Mathias Prize for Poetry 2013 and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2012.  If you would like to find out more about Rhian you can have a look at her website

If you would like to order her book, you can buy it from

I thought this was a good poem to have on Mother’s Day – illustrating that great institution of Parents’ Evening, probably dreaded equally by parents and teachers.  I love the wit in this poem and its cleverness but especially the ending which is surprising and funny.  I’m sorry I can’t form more coherent thoughts tonight – please feel free to comment though, especially if you enjoyed the poem!

Parents’ Evening – Rhian Edwards

We feel she may be cheating
at reading and spelling.
She has failed to grasp the planets
and the laws of science,
has proven violent in games
and fakes asthma for attention.

She is showing promise with the Odyssey,
has learned to darn starfish
and knitted a patch for the scarecrow.
She seems to enjoy measuring rain,
pretending her father is a Beatle
and insists upon your death
as the conclusion to all her stories.


Sunday Poem – Carrie Etter


It has been so long since I have written this blog in the daylight – the last couple of weeks have been speed typing at half an hour before midnight.

This week has been as busy as usual – on Monday I booked my flights for my trip to Ireland in May – I am reading at O’Bheal in Cork on the 26th May – before the reading I’ll also be running a workshop.  I managed to have a chat this week with the lovely Ita Dempsey who I stayed with in Fermoy when I went over last year for the festival and Ita has asked me to run a workshop for her poetry group the weekend before the O’Bheal reading.  So I’ll be heading over to Fermoy before the reading which will be good fun – so the reading at O’Bheal has now morphed into a bit of a jolly to Ireland which I am not complaining about in the slightest!  I’ll be in and around Cork and Fermoy from the 23rd May to 27th.

My friend Jill came to stay this week as well – Jill always kindly puts me up in London when ever I have readings down there so it was nice to have her come and visit.  She seemed to spend most of the visit with my dogs or the cat lying all over her on the sofa!  Jill’s visit also coincided with lots of poetry happenings this week in Cumbria – on Wednesday it was the Open Mic at Zefferelllis  – Zaffar Kunial was the Guest Poet – it was my first chance to hear Zaff read his poetry in a longer set so I’d been looking forward to this for a while.  Zaff didn’t disappoint – he is a great reader of his work and his poems definitely stay with you after you’ve heard them.

On Thursday we walked the dogs down to the beach huts – one of my favourite dog walks – it is about a mile or so to get to the beach but the views are stunning and there are lots of beach huts – all different shapes, sizes and colours and I like to fantasize that one day I will have one as my writing hut! Apparently they hardly ever come up for sale though…

I also got my house valued as we have nearly finished the decorating now – just a carpet to put down and the back yard to tidy up.  Rather depressingly, but predictably, my house is worth the same as I paid for it eight years ago – I suppose it could be worse.  My lonely garret is starting to look a little impossible to reach – but we shall see!

On Friday I was the guest poet at an event in  Preston at The New Continental.  The event was organised by three local poets, Martin Domleo, Terry Quinn and Ron Scowcroft.  It was the first event of it’s kind and there was a good audience.  In the first set I read mainly from the pamphlet and I managed to sell six wolves.

In the second set I decided to read mainly from the new sequence I’ve been working on which I’ve mentioned on here before – it is about domestic violence and the impetus behind this sequence was a year long relationship that I had with someone ten years ago when I was 21.

Consequently, it was quite a nerve-wracking thing to stand up and say.  I felt it was important to give this introduction, that the poems come from personal experience (although they are not confessional, or autobiography, I don’t think) because I didn’t want people to think I was appropriating another person’s experience.  The introduction was the hardest thing to do – and then I just read the poems, one after the another, without the usual introductions (or scaffolding as I think of it) around each poem.  For me, although I was absolutely terrified reading them – it was also a liberating experience and I’m really glad I did it.

The reason I’m writing this today is that this week, I’ve been reading Carrie Etter’s new book ‘Imagined Sons’ and have been blown away by it – as soon as I finished I wrote to Carrie and asked her if I could have one of the poems from the book for the blog.  Carrie’s book is a series of poems which reflect on the experience of a birth mother who gave up her son when she was seventeen.  The poems in ‘Imagined Sons’ circle around and around this subject – looking at it from different angles and view points – I don’t think they are just a reflection, they are trying to make sense of something that is so painful that maybe it can’t be made sense of, something that happened in the past that has echoes which can be heard and probably will be heard throughout a whole life.

Now, experiencing domestic violence and giving up a child are obviously completely different subjects and experiences – but I suppose the idea of having an experience that haunts you, that you can’t make sense of, was the thing that made me instantly connect with the poems in Imagined Sons – and the technique of handling this material by standing back and looking from different view points and angles is something I’ve tried to do in my sequence too.

Carrie’s book is punctuated by ‘A Birthmother’s Catechism’ which is a question that is asked over and over again, and which receives different answers each time.  The question in the first catechism is ‘How did you let him go?’ which is in itself a heartbreaking question.  There are ten Catechisms and each one asks a different question over and over again.  In between the Catechisms are the Imagined Sons.

The son is imagined as a baker, a pilot, a delivery man, a business man, as a teenage goth.  The thing I loved about these poems was their bravery – in Imagined Sons 17: The Courthouse – the son arrives ‘in a cheap suit and handcuffs’.  The poems don’t shy away from imagining negative reincarnations of the son.  In ‘Imagined Sons 16: Narcissus’ the poem imagines the son as Narcissus and finishes ‘I know I’m here to drown us both’ and many of the poems are concerned with the damage that could be caused if the two were to meet.

Perhaps the most striking thing in the book though is how the mother and the son brush past each other in different reincarnations, in different places, over and over again in the poems – often not quite meeting at all.

The poems in the book, apart from the Catechisms are all prose poems – and are brilliant examples of the form.  A good prose poem ( I think) should feel inevitable – as if there is no other form that poem could wear and the Imagined Sons certainly live up to this.  I will stop gushing now – but it is a really beautiful book and if you are only going to buy one poetry book this month I would make it this one!

Carrie Etter is an American expatriate who is a poet, fiction writer and critic with two previously published collections: ‘The Tethers’ (Seren, 2009) and ‘Divining for Starters’ (Shearsman, 2011).  She is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Bath Spa University.  Sixteen of the ‘Imagined Sons’ poems  first appeared in a pamphlet published by Oystercatcher in 2009 called ‘The Sons’ which was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice.

Carrie has her own website at where you can find out more about her.  If you would like to buy a copy of the book you can find it at

Imagined Sons is published by Seren and you can buy a copy from Seren at

I asked Carrie if I could post ‘Imagined Sons 36: The Bus’.  This poem was originally published in Long Poem Magazine.  In this poem, the son is both driver and passenger on the bus – I interpreted this to mean the Son is both the thing that shapes the mother’s life – the driver who decides in what direction her life (or the bus) is going to go, but also the passenger, the person who is not in control, whose life has been shaped by another person’s decision.  It is beautiful writing.  I hope you enjoy it.

You also get a bonus because you can read one of my favourite ‘Imagined Sons’ poems online at ‘The Iowa Review’ here, which imagines the son as an olive:

Imagined Sons 36: The Bus – Carrie Etter

When I get on the bus to go to work, the driver winks at me.
Winks! I take my ticket and choose a seat; there’s only one other
passenger, and he rides in the very back.  The wink has jostled me
into curiosity, and when it occurs to me that yes, the driver’s
features seem vaguely familiar, I realise that the other passenger is
coming closer.  I look over my shoulder and see him, dark-haired
with downcast eyes, advance a row.  When I look into the driver’s
rearview mirror, I am surprised to see reflected two casts of the
same face, not twins but somehow the same person twice over,
driven and driver, my son and my son, as the bus takes a turn
away from its route, past a field greener than any I have ever seen.

Sunday Poem – Nia Davies


This week I have been mainly recovering from my cold.  A few incredibly exciting things have happened this week, which I can’t really tell you about, so maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned them.  As well as being very exciting, I’ve also been completely confused about what to do about incredibly exciting things, in my usual manner of consternation, procrastination and general indecisiveness.  When I can say something however, you will all be the first to know.  Well maybe not the first.  I’ll probably tell the husband and my mum and dad first.  But after that – definitely you lot!

On Friday I went to run a session with the Kendal Young Writers group.  The girls had asked if we could do something about form, so I decided to take in Julia Copus’s poem ‘In the Backseat of My Mother’s Car’ which you can find here.

The poem is a specular – or a mirror poem – the lines in the first half of the poem are used in the second half, but in reverse order.  Julia has quite a few in her latest book as well.  I really like speculars, because it feels to me as if you can feel the language twisting and turning whilst you are reading, as if it suddenly becomes alive through being put into a different configuration.  I’ve also always wanted to write one and I vaguely thought I would have a go in the workshop alongside the group, which I often try to do anyway.

After I read the specular to the group they had a really strong reaction to it.  I think three of the four actually gave a kind of shriek or squeal of excitement.  They were completely taken by the poem – their enthusiasm and spontaneous reactions were so lovely to see and I felt like I couldn’t wait to have a go at writing one.  I think this is the best way to work with form – to show something in the form that will hopefully cause delight and make you want to try it out.  I don’t really write in traditional form – in fact, when we did a workshop on sonnets with this group a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a sonnet which I think is good enough to keep and now I’ve written a specular (I think – I need to type it up first and see if it holds together or whether it just dissolves into thin air when I try to pin it down)

After the workshop I met lovely poet Jennifer Copley and we went for a Chinese in Kendal – and much plotting for our residential course in April ensued.  As far as I know there are only a couple of places left on the course, so if you have been thinking about coming – please book soon!  Have a look at the ‘Residential Courses’ tab at the top of the page if you would like to see what we are getting up to.  There is also a swimming pool which we can use which is a lovely thing indeed.

Today I’ve been mostly painting the kitchen – I wangled my way to doing my favourite job again which is glossing the woodwork – most satisfying as I just gloss over all the marks and they disappear into lovely whiteness.  I’ve also just got back from poet Mark Carson’s house – we have had a meeting to discuss Poem and a Pint’s Arts Council bid for funding when ours runs out in June.

Next week I have a full poetry week –  my friend Jill Abram from London is coming to visit and when she arrives on Wednesday I will introduce her to the husband, the cat and the dogs, show her where she is sleeping and then we will be off to the Open Mic in Ambleside at Zefferellis, with guest poet Zaffar Kunial, the new poet in residence at the Wordsworth Trust.  You can find more information about the open mic here

On Thursday I will be off to work in the morning and at the minute Thursday is a poetry-free day, but on Friday I will be performing as the guest poet in Preston at the New Continental.  You can find more information about this event here

There are lots of other great poets performing as well so it should be a good night! I haven’t read very much in Preston either so I’m looking forward to it.

So the Sunday Poem this week is by Nia Davies who I met last week at the XX Women’s Literature Festival in Cardiff.  Nia was born in Sheffield and is a poet, novelist and cultural activist.  Her poems have been published in several magazines and anthologies and she is the new editor of Poetry Wales.  I’m reliably informed that now is a great time to send over your poems to Nia! She is on the hunt for new voices to the magazine…

You can find out some more information about Nia here or find out more  about Poetry Wales here

I’ve chosen today’s Sunday Poem from Nia’s first pamphlet, ‘Then Spree’, published by Salt.  Amy Wack told me about this poem, guessing I would be interested because it is about a brass instrument.  More unusually, it was about a brass instrument I hadn’t heard of – an Ophicleide  At Mark Carson’s house, earlier this evening, he went and found a picture of an Ophicleide in one of his many books, joking that it was almost as quick as looking it up on the internet.  However for your delectation and delight, and if you would like to see what one looks like have a look at the Wikipedia entry which has a lovely picture, but even more impressively a bit of poetry about the Ophicleide – the Wikipedia article rather unkindly calls this doggerel, but I actually quite like it – it is not attributed in the article

“The Ophicleide, like mortal sin
Was fostered by the serpent”

This is a reference to the Greek word ‘ophis’ meaning serpent and ‘kleis’ meaning keys.  I really do like those two lines.

I can’t help but feel sorry for the Ophicleide in this poem.  I mean to start with, to be eclipsed by a tuba and a euphonium is  a sorry state of affairs indeed! (Sorry any tuba or euphonium players.) I should also say that musicians have a long history of mocking other instruments, so being a trumpet player, the tuba and euphonium are fair game!  The second line of the poem made me smile as well – the ‘careful marketing plans’ – the idea of the tuba having a marketing plan – and when I read down the Wikipedia article it does refer to the tuba replacing the Ophicleide because of ‘careful marketing’ which is kind of a bizarre idea!

I like the half rhymes and echoes in this poem that hold it together – look at the ‘um’ sounds in the first stanza ‘euphonium’, ‘plans’ and ‘arms’ and then in the second stanza the sounds become much sharper –  ‘jointed’ and ‘obsolete’  and ‘hooked’ and ‘archives’.

This poem is an example of one of my favourite type of poems –  a research poem.  In a research poem, it is normally clear that the poet has been on a kind of journey to find out the information required to write the poem, that they have discovered or learnt something new in the process of writing it – I find both writing and reading this type of poem tremendously exciting.

Anyway, yet again, it is nearly midnight before the Sunday Poem is up and live and kicking, so I will sign off now.  I hope you enjoy the poem, and thanks to Nia for letting me use it.  You can buy Nia’s pamphlet from

An Autobiography of the Ophicleide – Nia Davies

Eclipsed by tuba and euphonium
and their careful marketing plans,
I was a half-baffled shoulder pipe.
A thorny funnel coiled over biscuit-dry
jumpers.  I had thunder-rushing arms.

When you parped me you had to lean out-jointed, asymmetrical.  I was already obsolete.
But some hung onto me, hooked
their brassy passion around my u-bend or
atticboxed me in their instrument archives.

I was forced early into retirement but for rare
nights when I was glossed with
breathy spit and I picketed to be kept live.
But my throb fell flat in the pond of other pipes,
their other useful selves ascending.

Sunday Poem – Alison Brackenbury


Evening all – I got back at about 8.30 from a brilliant weekend in Cardiff at the XX Women’s Writing Festival.  It didn’t get off to the best start as in my usual dramatic fashion, I felt so ill on Friday still when I got up to get the 6.30am train.  The only thing in fact that stopped me getting off the train at Lancaster and coming back was the thought of standing up and walking.

Anyway, it was a six hour journey and after about two hours I started to feel a bit better – so I stayed on the train.  At this point I was quite worried about reading on Saturday but I knew I was gradually getting better so I decided to risk it.

I was staying with Amy Wack (Editor at Seren) and her husband Kevin Brennan (Local MP).  They have a beautiful house with these amazing objects everywhere and lots of books.  In the room I was staying was a fantastic painting by their friend and a silver bird flying across the wall. Amy and Kevin were really kind to me – nothing was too much trouble.  They also have a very cute cat called Lizzie who I fell in love with.  They very generously put me up from Friday to Sunday because they were the cheapest rail tickets, which also meant that I got to go to the whole festival so that was nice.
One of the things I liked about this festival was that there were quite a few politicians there! Politicians are a novelty to me – in fact I realised that apart from Kevin, I hadn’t met one in real life before.  I was surprised to learn that they didn’t make me want to tear my hair out like Michael Gove does when he comes on the telly.  They were interesting, normal people.  It makes me realise how much public figures are made into cartoons by the media.   Or maybe Wales is just blessed with its politicians – they are being much more sensible about the badger issue I think… Anyway, there was an event where men were reading extracts from women’s writing that they admired and it was interesting to hear not only what the male writers picked (Philip Gross picked Elizabeth Bishop for example) but also to see what the politicians picked and their reasons for doing so.  I liked that the festival seemed to be bringing together two very disparate worlds – art and politics and letting them kind of stretch towards each other.

The other thing that I liked about this festival was that I learnt lots!  I think I am relatively ignorant about feminism and politics – I feel like I have come to it all so late and I’m catching up all the time – but there was a range of writers at the festival – the first event I went to was an event with Melissa Benn which I found so interesting I bought her book ‘What should we tell our daughters’ even though I don’t have a daughter and have no plans to have one!  But I do often despair at school when I am teaching  with how to respond when a girl or a boy trots out a generalisation that they are repeating like a parrot from some adult.  I’d better not give examples!

I met lots of lovely people as well – the fantastic Rhian Edwards, Suzie Wild, Carole Burns, Nia Davies (who is the new editor of Poetry Wales and is looking for submissions!) and the audience were very friendly and enthusiastic.

My book haul was quite excessive as usual- I bought Nia Davies’ pamphlet by Salt which is called ‘Then Spree’, ‘The Visitations’ by Kathryn Simmonds (already read this one on the train on the way home – it’s amazing.  You should buy it!), Cath Drake’s new pamphlet ‘Sleeping with Rivers’ (well actually, we swapped), ‘Witch’ by Damian Walford Davies (read this one on the way back too and really enjoyed it) and Melissa Benn’s ‘What should we tell our daughters’

I’m back home now and am beginning to flag so I will leave you with the Sunday Poem – I hope to feature some of the poets that I met at the festival on here in the coming weeks so there may be an influx of women writers coming up.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Alison Brackenbury who was born in Lincolnshire in 1953.  She has published seven previous collections with Carcanet, as well as a Selected Poems.  Her latest collection ‘Then’ is beautifully quiet poetry.  I mean that in a complimentary way – the poetry doesn’t really shout for attention but it does get your attention in other ways.  I heard Alison read from this book at Torbay Poetry Festival and then a month or so later at Aldeburgh.  I enjoyed her readings, but by that time I still hadn’t read the whole book, so I don’t think I had really realised how skillful her poetry is – which is a good thing I think.  Her poetry is highly formal I think – there are often rhyme schemes that hold the poem together and give it a logic, but the rhymes are never clunky – she handles the line of the poems so deftly.  In fact if I I had to pick one word to describe Alison’s poetry I think it would be ‘deft’.  I think I also admire it because it is so different to the poetry I write because of its patterns and form.  However, after reading this book a couple of times – I did go and write my first rhyming sonnet! So maybe it rubbed off in a good way.Alison’s poems are full of horses and birds and water and family.  I decided to pick ‘Lapwings’ for the Sunday Poem because I think it illustrates a lot of what I’ve been talking about – her skill with rhyme, the quiet insistence of her poetry and beautiful last lines that ring like bells at the end of the poem.

If you would like to find out more information about Alison you can go to her blog which is in which she writes all kinds of interesting things – you can find more poems by Alison of course, but also wonderful critical essays and posts about other people’s poetry.  If you would like to order Alison’s book then have a look at the Carcanet website at

I hope you enjoy the poem

Lapwings – Alison Brackenbury

They were everywhere.  No.  Just God or smoke
is that.  They were the backdrop to the road,

my parent’s home, the heavy winter fields
from which they flashed and kindled and uprode

the air in dozens.  I ignored them all.
‘What are they?’ ‘Oh – peewits – ‘ Then a hare flowed,

bounded the furrows.  Marriage.  Child.  I roamed
round other farms.  I only knew them gone

when, out of a sad winter, one returned.
I heard the high mocked cry ‘Pee – wit’, so long

cut dead.  I watched it buckle from vast air
to lure hawks from its chicks.  That time had gone.

Gravely, the parents bobbed their strip of stubble.
How had I let this green and purple pass?

Fringed, plumed heads (full name, the crested plover)
fluttered.  So crowned cranes stalk Kenyan grass.

Then their one child, their anxious care, came running,
squeaked along each furrow, dauntless, daft.

Did I once know the story of their lives,
do they migrate from Spain? or coasts’ cold run?

And I forgot their massive arcs of wing.
When their raw cries swept over, my head spun

With all the brilliance of their black and white
As though you cracked the dark and found the sun.


Ranting is Never A Good Idea


So I have been in bed for the last two days with a flu/stomach bug type thing.  More accurately I have been lying on the sofa along with the two dogs and the cat, the remote controls, copious amounts of tissue, asprin – you get the general idea.

I have been well enough and bored enough to spend more time on the internet than I would normally – mainly flicking listlessly through Facebook/Twitter on my phone and have been watching CreativeWritingCoursesGate unfold with increasing amounts of irritation.

So the first thing that happened was that Hanif Kureishi, a novelist who I read and admired when I was a student at music college was quoted in The Telegraph as saying Creative Writing courses are a waste of time.  You can find the whole article here –

The article is quoting from a talk that Kureishi gave at the Independent Bath Literature Festival.  Ok – so it did annoy me to read this – and I briefly considered sticking up for creative writing courses on Facebook or Twitter.  Then I read this great response from poet Tim Clare on his blog and I thought it’s ok – that is such a brilliant post there is little more to be said. You can find Tim’s post here:

And I didn’t think about it again – but then today I’ve just read this lovely (I say that sarcastically) inaccurate portrayal of what a Creative Writing course is like and it made me so irritated I thought I would write a blog about it.  This article is by someone called Alex Rodin and is published in The Independent

The thing that most annoyed me was this quote by Rodin

“I don’t want to leave my world of real jobs and real people, the world of choosing to stay up way past bedtime just to squeeze out my one-thousand words.”

What planet does this man come from?? When I did my Creative Writing Course I can’t remember anybody who was swanning about in the ‘womb-like’ embrace of the university.  I was working full time as a brass teacher, driving to 20 + schools a week as well as teaching ten pupils at home privately.  There was someone who was working part time as a nurse in a home for the terminally ill.  There was someone who worked as many hours as he could get in Argos.  There was someone who worked as a landscape gardener.  We were all working our arses off to earn a living and we had decided to do a part-time MA.  Obviously we all had different reasons for doing it – and I also accept that there are differences, vast differences between poetry and novel writing MA’s.

I didn’t do my MA to get published, or win a competition.  I didn’t even do it to write a collection, although the end product of the course was to write a portfolio of poems which would amount to a collection.  I did it to have one evening a week where I could think about nothing but poetry, where I could talk to other people who loved poetry as much as I did, so I could widen my reading, so I could learn about poetry.  I did it to get feedback on my work and to learn to give feedback in return.  I knew nothing about feminism or politics before starting the MA – but through the tutors and my peers I feel like I widened my horizons.  I was starting to become disillusioned with teaching – having that one evening a week brought about a massive change for me – I started to enjoy teaching again.  I stopped putting my hopes and aspirations on my pupils and then being disappointed when they didn’t practice and started listening to their hopes and aspirations, probably because I was getting on a train for two and a half hours every week and thinking about my own.  My point is doing a creative writing course shouldn’t be about getting published.  It should be about expanding your mind, about learning to think for yourself and to question things.  It should be about reading – why is it being touted in these various articles that students on MA courses don’t read – why are they all saying go and read for ten years instead of doing an MA course?  Why can’t you do both? I used to go into the Manchester Met library every week and take home four books to read on the two and a half hour train journey back.  I know not all MA courses are wonderful and I’m not saying the Manchester Met one is perfect.  But I met some fantastic poets on it – one of whom is my best friend David Tait.  I can’t put a price on that friendship – the swapping of poems over the last five years, the blunt but invaluable feedback, the endless conversations about poetry whilst tramping over some fell in the rain – maybe that sounds like you have to do an MA to find a friend! But I don’t mean this at all – I mean that the MA was a doorway into finding all these things – some of which I didn’t even know I was looking for until I found them…


Sunday Poem – David Constantine


Hello everybody.  I’ve just got back from an amazing weekend at a residential course at Rydal Hall near Ambleside.  This course was the culmination of the Writing School – an 18 month intensive course I’ve been taking part in, run by the fabulous Ann and Peter Sansom of the Poetry Business. I’m pretty shattered – the whole weekend has been really intense and full of poetry – I’m not fed up of poetry though, my head is still buzzing with ideas and poems which is slightly worrying as by tomorrow I need to be back in music teacher mode – but it feels like I’ve been away for a week rather than just a weekend.

On Friday I drove up to Dove Cottage for a two hour editing session with the Kendal Young Writers group.  It was the first time they had edited their poems and I was really impressed with the way they reacted to suggestions and took them on board.

I then sped up to Rydal Hall in time for dinner with the Writing School.  One of the instructions was to prepare to read for eight minutes as another poet that we admired.  I thought that we would simply be reading say, four poems by said poet – but what little faith I displayed in my compatriots on the course!  Like a poet-monster with fourteen heads but one shared gigantic brain, they all decided that they would not (after dinner) simply read four poems by another poet – no, they would become that other poet!  So we had Alan Payne arriving not as Alan Payne but as Miroslav Holub on Friday night to start us off.  It was an interesting exercise to see which poets people chose.  The most impressive was Noel Williams on Saturday night who appeared as Selima Hill – not only did he pick great poems to read but he also told us about a letter Selima had written to him after he reviewed her book in The North – which led to a really interesting, and useful chat about reviewing – useful for me because I’m about to start a review for Under the Radar magazine.

On Saturday morning we had a fry up for breakfast and then the first writing workshop started from 10am.  Halfway through the morning we found plates of tray bakes and I developed an out of control addiction to the caramel shortbread.  These tray  bakes appeared with alarming regularity throughout the day and I didn’t want to just leave them there after all!

On Saturday afternoon we had a few hours off and I think most people went for a walk but I decided that I wasn’t going to leave hotel.  Instead I was going to slob around in my slippers and spend the afternoon reading – this seemed like a bit of a travesty when I was surrounded by such lovely country side, but I do have to walk every day with my dogs normally, so laying about the place was much more of a novelty for me…

Today we have done another writing and editing workshop, eaten more tray bakes, collected pack lunches and made our way up to Grasmere to do our end of course reading at Dove Cottage.  Everyone read for five minutes each and although I was worried I wouldn’t be able to concentrate for so long, I really enjoyed listening to everybody, hearing some poems that I’ve seen develop in the course, or heard for the first time during the workshop.  So it’s been a great weekend and I would definitely recommend the Writing School if you are reading this and looking for something to keep you focused on your writing.

So today’s Sunday Poem is David Constantine! How exciting is that.  David Constantine is the poet I decided to appear as on the course – I don’t know his work very well, but I bought his new collection ‘Elder’ after spotting it in the Durham Cathedral gift shop a week or so ago.  What made me buy it was the cover image, which is beautiful and the title of the first poem which is ‘How will they view us, the receiving angels?’.  The poem is just as beautiful.  Which says a little about the importance of the first poem in enticing a reader to buy a book. The four poems I chose to read to the other members of the course was ‘How will they view us, the receiving angels?’, ‘Bad dream’, ‘As though…because…’ and ‘Envoi’.

‘Elder’ is divided into six sections.  I’ve only read it through once, so I’m not going to offer more than a few thoughts on it.  First of all, I love the way Constantine uses titles – he often has the first line of the poem as a title, which I know some people don’t like, but I really like it.  It does vaguely remind me of Emily Dickinson…the poem ‘For a while after a death…’ starts ‘For a while after a death I live more kindly’ and the poem ‘The makings of his breathing…’ starts ‘The makings of his breathing are still there’.  In these examples I think the title is part of an irresistible arcing phrase that is completed and developed by the first line.

The book is also very formally patterned – I really liked the way Constantine uses rhyme – you can see this in the poem that I’ve chosen which I think shows how subtle he is with it.  The other thing that I really enjoyed in the collection was the poems which were derived from Ovid – I think this is because I’ve been reading Ovid recently and I think I got more from the poems because it felt like I was meeting some old friends in the characters that he writes about.

I’ve chosen ‘Bad Dream’ because I admire the structure of the poem with its rhyming couplets.  Although I don’t normally like poems about dreams (or films or books where everything turns out to be a dream) in this case I think this technique works for it.  What is more this is a bad dream – maybe a recurring dream? In fact it feels more like a premonition.  I also really like the division of self which occurs in the poem – the exploration of this is handled really deftly – it could so easily become a confusion of you’s and I’s but it doesn’t because of the sure footedness of the poet – in fact these are two of the lines that I like best

‘And there you were, not you, nearest the wall
And there was I, not I, nearest the fall’

I think that is fantastic and exciting  – and this

‘I, less and less myself, halted with the almost you’

It is a masterclass in how to use punctuation to get across the meaning that you want.  The ending to this poem is fantastic as well – and explores the importance of naming – that names give power.  At the end of the poem the name of the other person has found her like a ‘swallow’ while the I of the poem can only try to hold his with cold hands and fail – the I of the poem, nameless disappears.

I would like to say a big thanks to Neil Astley of Bloodaxe.  I don’t have David Constantine’s contact details, so I contacted Neil directly to ask if I could have this poem.  I’m a bit behind with my Sunday Poem requests and only asked Neil tonight but superstar that he is, he got back to me within fifteen minutes.  You can’t ask for more than that really!

If you would like to order David Constantine’s book you can go to the Bloodaxe website to order the latest collection ‘Elder’   You can also find a biography of David here as well.

Hope you enjoy the poem!

Bad dream – David Constantine

There was a path, the familiar path, the one
I’ve very often not yet ventured on
Around a mountainside, cut level, a sheer
Fall right, a sheer wall left, a ledge a pair
Might amble hand in hand on round the contour
And there you were, not you, nearest the wall
And there was I, not I, nearest the fall
And you were your age, but the hair was wrong
I looked like me but many years too young
And on a bend where the path swung out of view
I, less and less myself, halted with the almost you,
And on the brink, for fun or she dared him to,
He balanced his arms dead level and stood there
On his left foot and over the empty air
Raised level his right and so he stood
Lean steady spirit level of my blood
Over emptiness.  You laughed, the pair of you
And laughing hand in hand passed out of view.
On hands and knees, the ledge very narrow now,
I shouted after us, your name, my own.
Yours fled my lips to claim you, like a swallow.
Mine fell between my cold hands, like a stone.