Sunday Poem – Kei Miller

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Evening all.  I’m writing this with aches and pains in muscles I didn’t even know I had after running the Lancaster half marathon today – my first half marathon.  I got a lift with three friends from the Walney Wind Cheetahs, the running group that I go to.  It was so nice not to have to think about parking or getting to the venue in time and just to stumble out of the house at 9am this morning, get in a car and be taken there! I was quite nervous about the half marathon because I haven’t had time to do as much training as I wanted to – the week before last I did my longest run ever of ten miles and I felt pretty good but really I should have been building up and doing some long distance runs for the last couple of months.  However for the last couple of months I’ve been at Ilkley of course and then last week running a residential poetry course, so no time to swan off to do a long run, so I’ve just been ticking over really, doing 5-6 mile runs when ever I can.

So although I knew I would finish (I would crawl rather than not finish) I guess what I was nervous about was being in pain.  My running buddy J got off to a flier and disappeared into the distance and I settled down to trying to keep a steady pace of around 5 minutes 20 a kilometre.  It was a strange experience running on my own – for a start it seemed like lots of people were passing me, even though they were breathing much heavier than me, I couldn’t make my legs go any faster.  Or maybe it takes a special kind of focus to willingly hurt yourself for that long – or maybe I just didn’t have enough confidence to know that I could push it a little bit more and still finish.

Anyway, so there I was, running on my own and my mind was taking this strange journey inwards.  I can barely remember any of the scenery that I ran past, although I do vaguely remember a cycle path and some water.  And I remember running down a road.  That’s it.  I can’t remember what I thought about for an hour and a half but I can remember very clearly my back stiffening up which has never happened when I’ve been running before.  It felt like I was sinking right into my body which wasn’t the best place to sink into, as everything was hurting.  How anybody does a marathon is absolutely beyond me.  90% of me has decided I’m NEVER doing a half marathon again and will stick to 10k but 10% of me is plotting how I can get below 1 hour and 50 minutes next time.  I managed 1 hour and 52 minutes 52 seconds today which I was pleased with.  Here is a photo to illustrate the pain I was in..

run

Enough about running – for the last week I’ve been running a residential poetry course down in St Ives at the Treloyhan Manor Hotel with the wonderful poet Clare Shaw as my co-tutor and fifteen participants.  It has been an absolutely amazing week.  I don’t think I’ve laughed quite so much in one week before or cried on the last day of the course because of the lovely feedback we got from the participants.  I’ve learnt so much from working with Clare who is so dynamic, energetic and has charisma in bucketfulls.  If you are looking for someone to do a reading or a workshop, you could not do any better than Clare.  She is great.  We were very lucky to have really talented writers on the course as well so it was a complete pleasure to work with them.

On the Tuesday, I read for 15 minutes from my sequence about domestic violence, which was really intense.  I guess I just need to keep doing this, and maybe it will get easier.  When I’m reading them, it’s great – I feel  in control and I know they’re good poems.  It’s afterwards when I seem to have a bit of a wobble – maybe it’s realising that nothing has changed just from reading the poems out.  Anyway, afterwards I went down to the beach with Clare and Keith Hutson, one of the participants on the course and ran about in the sea which seemed to help get some of the energy out that I’d been left with.

On the last night we had an impromptu kareoke session in the lounge and then went down to the beach at midnight – this time about six of us and went swimming.  I don’t normally do slightly crazy things like this and certainly not something that is going to leave me cold and wet – so I don’t know what got into me this week – maybe too much red wine.

So the residential has been great, but really busy.  I actually had a reading last Saturday night in London at The Poetry Cafe, which I really enjoyed.  I wish I’d written down all the names of the other readers – very remiss of me but the two other main readers were Jo Bell and Hilda Sheehan who were as lovely as expected.  I stayed at my friend Jill’s house on Saturday night and had to leg it for the train on the Sunday.  When I got on the train, I couldn’t find my train tickets to get from London to St Ives anywhere.  It is a 6 hour journey as well so I knew I couldn’t blag it.  I went to confess to the train conductor and showed him that I had the reference number in my filofax.  My opening gambit was ‘I’m not a criminal, I have a filofax!’.  This worked on the first guard but unfortunately he got off at some point leaving me to try and talk around another guard.  At first I thought I was done for, but what he really wanted to do was give me a little lecture.  My next plan was to empty my suitcase to look for them and start flinging my washing about the carriage in a desperate attempt to locate the tickets.  But I didn’t need to resort to this as the second guard let me off as well.  Very lucky I know.

And before that I read in Preston at the New Continental on Friday night with the lovely Judy Brown which was a great reading.  I really enjoyed hearing some of Judy’s new poems as well.

So it has been (again) a busy week.  On the last day of the course, Clare asked everybody to make a commitment to ourselves about our writing.   I decided I was going to dedicate 1 hour a week to my own writing and reading – that is, not reading in order to prepare for a workshop, just reading for my own pleasure.  And writing my own poems or editing them, rather than sending emails to chase up invoices or replying to emails about readings and workshops.  It made me realise that I felt really sad that I wasn’t even dedicating an hour to it every night – to something that is so important to me!  Anyway since I got back, I’ve done 3 hours work yesterday instead of 1 – which I spent working through the proofs for my collection.  And today I’ve done 2 hours instead of 1, working through the proofs and typing up and editing a new poem that I want to put into the collection.

It has felt great as well to do this.  Obviously it will be harder next week because I’m back at work but I’m determined to keep up with it – maybe I can have a system of ‘time in lieu’ for the days when I really can’t spend an hour doing it…

Keith Hutson, one of the participants on the course, told everybody about his ‘5 a day’ which I thought was a brilliant idea, which was to read 5 poems a day.  This doesn’t sound like much either, does it, but it made me realise that there are so many days when I don’t even do this.

So because of this commitment, I’ve managed to get the next version of proofs for my collection emailed over to Amy Wack at Seren, which is such a weight off my shoulders.  I just need to wait for them to come back now!

Today’s Sunday Poem is by one of my favourite poets, Kei Miller.  I don’t make any secret of the fact that Kei is one of my favourite poets and I often use his poems in workshops to get people writing.  The poem I’ve chosen ‘Prayer for the Unflummoxed Beaver’ is from his recent Forward Prize winning collection ‘The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion’.  This book is a really fabulous book, and if you haven’t read it yet, you really should.  You can order a copy from Carcanet at http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?product=9781847772671

All of Kei’s books are full of poems that celebrate things – this doesn’t mean that they are all happy and he doesn’t write about dark or troubling things, but more that he uses the praise song or prayer as a way in to write about whatever he wants to write about – for example, in the poem ‘When Considering the Long, Long Journey of 20,000 Rubber Ducks’ he asks us at the end to ‘hail’ the ducks that managed to escape from the cargo hold of a ship.  It becomes clear that as well as writing about the ducks, he is also writing about slavery.

In this poem ‘A Prayer for the Unflummoxed Beaver’ which I think is about death and how we approach it – in the great tradition of poems like ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ by Dylan Thomas – I think this poem is saying go gently, be unflummoxed.  What a wonderful word ‘unflummoxed’ is anyway.  But the ‘doorway’ into the poem is a prayer for a beaver, a poem praising the place the beaver lives in and the day it was seen.  I love the way Kei uses the repetition of ‘A prayer’ – the poem becomes an incantation.  I also like how he is not afraid to let the poem meander around which means the direction it takes is a real surprise for the reader.

Kei was born in Jamaica in 1978. He earned an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and a PhD in English Literature at the University of Glasgow.  He is now teaching at Royal Holloway in London.  He has published three collections of poetry -all of which are brilliant and all available from Carcanet ‘There is an Anger that Moves’ and ‘A Light Song of Light’ as well as fiction and essays.  He also has a really interesting blog which you can find here

Anyway, here is the poem.  I hope you enjoy it.

 

A Prayer for the Unflummoxed Beaver – Kei Miller

so unmoved by the boat’s slow approach – the boat
drifting across the flat green acre of water; a prayer
for these acres of water which, in the soft light, seem firm;
the squirrels, however, are never taken in;
a prayer for the squirrels and their unknowable
but perfect paths: see how they run across
the twisting highway of cedars but never crash;
a prayer for the cedars and their dead knees rising
from the water like tombstones; a prayer for the cedar balls
that break when you touch them and stain
your fingers yellow, that release from their tiny bellies
the smell of old churches, of something holy;
a prayer returned to the holy alligators – you owe them
that at least, for just last night when you thought
of Hana Andronikova you asked them to pray
with you, knowing that their prayers are potent;
at night the grass is full of their red eyes; a prayer
for the grass which the alligators divide
in the shape of a never-ending S; you lean over
to pull some into the boat; in Burma
this is called ka-na-paw, and can be cooked
with salt and oil; a prayer for the languages
we know this landscape by; for the French
as spoken by fat fisherman, the fat fisherman
who admit to the water – We are all dying.
You understand? Savez?
A prayer
for the dying that will come to all of us
but may it come soft as a boat drifting across the bayou.
May it find us as unrattled and as unflummoxed as the beaver.

For Hana Andronikova (1967-2011)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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7 responses »

  1. I can’t say just how pleased I am that you not only wrote that important sequence of poems, butthat you’ve finally bit the bullet and read them. I would have given a lot to have been there. I imagine it was electric. And you say something that is going to bother me, in a good way, about how writing poems that have to be written changes everything and changes nothing. It’ll keep coming back, reminding me that making new things makes you alive, and when they’re finished you feel flat, and nothing has been done or finished. Every artist I’ve ever read says the same. The nearest we get is an approximation to a resolution. That comes from a book about traching drama. I’m glad I didn’t invent it. But I know what it means. PS. I don’t miss running about in the sea. Mental.

    • Just wrote a reply to this and then it disappeared! But to say with a bit of distance, I don’t feel now that nothing’s changed, and I don’t feel quite so flat anymore. I also don’t feel a bit wild and like running into the sea. Which is good. I think that something has shifted for me inside, but I don’t know what but I think it’s good. Or maybe it’s the fatigue talking – I really need to go to bed. It didn’t help that we prolonged our journey back by getting lost not once, not twice, but three times on the A14/M11. Luckily we didn’t lose our tempers although maybe it would have been useful and got us back quicker if we hadn’t found everything so hysterical..

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