Monthly Archives: March 2015

Sunday Poem – Goran Čolakhodžić


Evening all.  I’m writing this at my desk which I still haven’t polished and waxed, although all the tins and cloths are lined up along the windowsill.   Outside the one lonely tree which survived our kill-everything-in-the-overgrown-garden-and-start-again blitz when we moved in is bare branched and black against the sky – either we killed it by mistake or it hasn’t realised it’s spring yet.  It’s been a bit of a miserable day here with rain in the morning but it has slowly brightened up.  The husband and I went for a run this afternoon – I’m back down to running 7 kilometres after trying to increase it to 9 this week and failing miserably.  Well, not failing, I ran 9k but my tendon started to complain, so I’m reducing again and will have to build up even more slowly than I’d planned.

The 7 kilometres that we did do though was very hilly and about finished me off but we dodged the rain, and even the wind wasn’t so bad.  It is my own fault about my leg – I was only supposed to do 8k but I went out with the Walney Wind Cheetahs and did a bit longer than I was supposed to.  But I have learnt my lesson now – there is a reason why you are only supposed to increase the distance you run by 10% each week.

Apart from nearly injuring myself again, I’ve been frantically working to get the last of my planning done for the residential course I’m running which starts tomorrow!  I’m really excited about having the whole week to think and talk about poetry.  I’m excited about going in the swimming pool and about going running in a different place.  I’m excited to hear what people produce during the course – I know there are some fantastic writers who are signed up for the week.

This week I also made the decision that I’ll be going down to two days of teaching music from September which will give me more time to write and work as a freelance poet.   I do feel guilty about this – it has not been an easy decision.  I worry that I’m only working two days a week – how lazy is that?  I’m not of course because I’ll be picking up (hopefully) some writing work, as I’ve been doing for the last couple of years.  I’ve managed to make up the difference in my income so far with work as a poet, which is great.  I think the reason I feel guilty is that it doesn’t really feel like work – I enjoy it so much that I still can’t believe I’m getting paid for it.  I also worry that I’m letting the pupils down – I’ll have to stop working in some of my schools which I’ve been teaching in for 11 years and that is a hard thing to do. But each time I’ve reduced my teaching hours, good things have happened – not just for my writing, but also for my music teaching, which seems to become more energised when I’m not having to spend quite so much energy on it.

The other thing that has happened this week which has touched me deeply has been the realisation, over and over again about the amazing friends I have made through poetry.  I asked people this week what they thought about doing a PHD, did anyone have any advice – I was inundated with offers of help.  Two people sent me their proposals that they had put together to do a PHD.  One person who works in a university and supervises PHDs sent me detailed emails about the practicalities and more examples of proposals.

This is just one example though – I could list dozens and dozens of things that people have done for me as favours, to help me out, to promote my work.  Kate Johnson who works at Manchester Metropolitan University has been helping me out with an application this week.  Whilst she is on holiday in Hong Kong! I’ve only met her once, when I went over to do a talk for her to some post graduate students about employability after university a couple of weeks ago.  So here’s to poetry friends, who I’ve found to be one of the best kinds of friends you can get.

Talking about friends brings me nicely onto this week’s Sunday Poet, Goran Čolakhodžić who I met over in Croatia last weekend.  He is currently completing an MA in English and Romanian at the University of Zagreb.  I honestly went home very ashamed of my grasp of only one language – it was a humbling experience being around these poets who could speak two, three, four languages.  Goran translates contemporary poetry and prose from and into Romanian but his English is also excellent, as you will see when you read his poem, which he translated himself.  He sent me 20 or so poems by email while we were in Croatia and I opened them out of curiosity more than anything one morning before we all went off and about for the day and I was absolutely blown away by the standard of the poems.  I’m not even sure if he just translated them that weekend so I could read some or if he’d been working on the translations for a while.  Goran was at the festival because he had won one of the biggest prizes in Croatia for young poets – I guess it is the equivalent of our Eric Gregory Awards.  The prize was for the best unpublished volume of poetry written by an author under 30 and the collection with the working title In the End, the Garden will be published by the end of the year.

I can’t read Croatian so I can’t comment on their faithfulness to the originial, but as poems in English, they have a strangeness all of their own.  Hare is a good example of this.  At first glance it seems to be what it says on the tin, a poem about a hunt, but there is such detachment in this poem.  It reminds me a little of the famous Keith Douglas poem How to Kill with its description of one man killing another ‘The wires touch his face’.  In The Hunt the hares are ‘furry bags’ which fall ‘promptly down’.  The use of the word ‘promptly’ which is such a strange word to use in connection with something dying, as if they need to be in time for death again gives the poem a strange otherwordly feeling.  I also love the beginning of the poem, the hunting of the hares ‘abundantly and inaudibly’ – again, such an unusual way of describing this.  There is a great line break after the word ‘remained’ in line 5 and then the wonderful ‘clenched wounds’ which is juxtaposed with the description of their death as ‘ridiculous’.  Then there is this mysterious ending which at first I thought of as beautiful – that death did not win, it did not take over life.  But I think what the poem is really saying is not that death does not win, but that there will always be something else to die, there will always be more life, which is quite dark, but is actually an emotional truth. And what a way to say it – ‘they produced it constantly’.  Finally – we get to that beautiful last line – with its falling cadence.

I’m really glad I got the chance to read Goran’s work and feature one of his poems on here – but it makes me think how much poetry we are missing out on from other languages. I’m hoping to feature a few more poets that I met at the festival on here over the next few weeks and months – and do let me know what you think about the poem.  I think this is only the second time that Goran’s poetry has been published so I’m sure he would love to read what you think as well.

The Hunt – Goran Čolakhodžić

I hunted hares
abundantly and inaudibly:
the crosshair killed, there were no shots,
furry bags fell promptly down
on the parched grass in the dusk.  They remained
stiff, eyes open, with not a drop of blood
on their clenched wounds: in fact ridiculous,
innocuous in their death which had not
taken over life, and so was see-through.
I did not run out of bullets,
and neither did they of death: they produced it constantly
in ditches and on mounds.
Autumn is falling, it’ll be that.

Lov – Goran Čolakhodžić

Lovio sam zečeve
obilno i nečujno:
nišan je ubijao, nije bilo pucnja,
krznene su vreće padale bez odgode
na suhu travu sumraka. Ostajali su
kruti, otvorenih očiju, bez kapi krvi
na stegnutim ranama, zapravo smiješni,
neopasni u toj smrti koja nije
preotela život, pa je bila prozirna.
Meni nije nestajalo metaka,
a ni njima smrti: stalno su je producirali

po humcima i jarcima.

Spušta se jesen, bit će da je to.

Sunday Poem – Keith Lander


Evening all – so here is my first late blog post of 2015.  I started writing it last night but I kept falling asleep halfway through sentences, and then waking up and having to go back and delete things that made no sense at all so I decided to call it a night and do the post today, in the hope that I would be less tired.  I’m definitely less tired but I wouldn’t say that I’m leaping about with the joys of spring.
I got back from the Goran’s Spring Poetry Festival in Croatia at about 5pm last night but I left my hotel in Zagreb at 5am in the morning to get a ridiculously early flight.  At Zagreb airport I got a pain au chocolat which was my first in about five days – those of you who know me will know I’m addicted to these.  Luckily the plane was half empty and I had a whole row to myself so I stretched out and wen to sleep from Zagreb to Frankfurt as if I was still in my bed at the hotel. At Frankfurt I got a second breakfast – scrambled eggs, toast and bacon with a cup of tea and orange juice because I knew I wouldn’t have time for much else for the rest of the day. So I am putting lack of sleep as one of my excuses for the missing Sunday Poem yesterday.  There are a couple of other factors as well – formatting issues with a poem that a brilliant poem sent – I can’t seem to get indents to work so if anybody has any idea how to do it, please get in touch.  It doesn’t work if I copy and paste from a Word document.  Another poem I wanted to post up, I’m waiting for the publisher to get back in touch and issue a ‘permissions licence’ which I’m really hoping they don’t want money for.  However, I always try to have three or four poems waiting in a line so that this sort of thing doesn’t stop me so the lovely Keith Lander has been bumped up the queue today.

Going back to work after gallivanting around Croatia for the last five days has felt a bit like getting an ice-cold bucket of water thrown over my head and not just because of the weather!

Last Tuesday night it was all a bit stressful because at the last minute my flights were cancelled.  The organisers of the festival sorted everything out and booked me on a new flight, but that meant I couldn’t get the train as the flight was too early, so Chris had to drive me.  We left at 4.30am and I flew to Paris on a very crowded flight where a woman kept falling asleep on me.  From Paris to Zagreb there was a bit more room – one empty seat next to me.

I got into Zagreb at about 3 in the afternoon and after I checked into the hotel, I went out to get something to eat.  This was the first time I’ve been abroad on my own, and to be honest, I was quite nervous about going out on my own, which sounds a bit wimpy and pathetic but it is true, although I don’t know what I was nervous of.  Anyway, I found a really nice restaurant and ordered a huge amount of food because I was hungry that I didn’t manage to finish.

On Wednesday night it was the opening ceremony of the festival.  Every poet taking part read one poem each.  There were lots of poets from all over Europe – Iceland, Romania, The Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Albania and I’m sure some others that I’ve forgotten about. I was the only English poet taking part in the festival. All of the poets who weren’t Croatian had their poems translated into Croatian and projected on a screen behind them.  That first night, it was amazing to hear all the different languages – it was like listening to music and I was quite happy to sit there and let the words wash over me.

The next day, all of the poets taking part got on a coach and we went to Riejak which is a town on the coast.  To get there we had to drive over the mountains, so we went from a warm, blue sky spring day into snow at the sides of the roads and then back down into sunshine again.  The main reading for the Versopolis poets was on Thursday at midday in the theatre.  We all read for about 15 minutes each.

All of the poets taking part in the festival read at various stages and in various places – usually three or four poems, but sometimes just one or two.  It was about the second or maybe the third day that the most lovely thing started happening.  Without any discussion or agreement between each other that I heard, the poets started to read English translations of their work.  They didn’t read translations of every poem, but most people read at least one, which made me realise that we write poetry to connect with one another.  Which sounds either very grand or obvious – I can’t decide which, but I think it is a truth that I’ve only just realised, after seeing poets, whose first language isn’t English stand up and read their poetry.  I can’t imagine how scary that must be, to read your own poem in another language.

One of the poets said to me that I had an advantage when I was reading because I speak English and I can be understood where-ever I go.  I’d never even thought about it before until I went to Croatia.I was hugely aware of it during this trip – and I hope I’m explaining it properly when I say I felt lucky to be writing in English, that I had not appreciated this before, that I felt slightly ashamed about this.

I had lots of fun on the five days as well.  On Friday night, a group of festival poets went out to a bar and danced till 3am.  I’m most relieved that the Czech poet Jonáš Zbořil persuaded me that staying out any later was just getting carried away.

There were lots of other people that I spent time with and I did start naming them all, but I’m hoping to get some poems from them to feature here in the coming weeks, so I will save all my stories about them for then! In summary, it was a fantastic, fantastic experience and I’m really grateful for the opportunity.

I also managed two runs while I was away – one 7k down the harbour in Riejak and then one all the way up the castle and I am injury free, so I am so happy I could dance about.  This week the challenge is to get up to 8k without a return of the injury.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Keith Lander, who sent it to me when I was working on my sestina a couple of months ago.  This sestina is great fun and goes along at a fair old pace.   This poem has recently been published in the magazine Envoi. I read once (I think it was in a text book by Kim Addonzio that a good sestina has to be about something that you’re obsessed about and what could be more obsessing than the process of aging?  I also like how the different details about the ages of this man’s life in the poem slowly build up to make a vivid and detailed picture of it.

Keith Lander is a retired software engineer who has been writing poetry since the start of the noughties. He studied poetry for three years with the Open College of the Arts before obtaining an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2008. His work has appeared in a number of magazines including The North, Envoi, The Interpreter’s House, Prole and Obsessed with Pipework, as well as a few anthologies (most recently Heavenly Bodies). In 2011 and 2012 his entries to the National Poetry Competition reached the longlist.

Thanks to Keith for letting me use his poem

Sixty – Keith Lander

From skriking one to brattish ten,
through pubes and acne to fucking at twenty,
wife and kids and house by thirty,
holidays at Centre Parcs by forty,
daughters’ weddings and a flat at fifty,
then grandkids to babysit at sixty.

Count the coffee cups you’ve supped by sixty.
Measure the sugar in lumps of ten.
Think of the ulcer you nursed at fifty,
the bottle of scotch you quaffed at twenty.
Remember how life began at forty,
though the end arrived on the stroke of thirty.

Keep the blood flowing, be damned to thirty.
Unblocked by statins you’re good for sixty.
Grecian two thousand will camouflage forty,
but nowhere to hide for embarrassed ten.
Testosterone pressures the veins at twenty.
Little blue pills are needed by fifty.

With midlife crisis raging at fifty
you deceive yourself you are only thirty,
try to pull birds who are barely twenty,
with balding head that more befits sixty
instead of just watching the news at ten
and accepting you’re over the hump by forty.

Whatever they say about reaching forty
they say again on the road to fifty,
and you know in your heart that the ten
short years, which you drove up to thirty,
you’ll drive even faster on the way to sixty,
and you wish, how you wish, to be twenty

again, with a bird on a beach, twenty
thousand miles and a lifetime from forty.
But it’s not to be. The car’s parked at sixty.
You’ve the birthday balloon they gave you at fifty,
yet you don’t feel one day older than thirty—
in fact you’ve been acting as if you were ten!

The truth is at sixty you’ve forgotten ten
and at fifty you gave up dressing like twenty,
but thirty at forty was an outright lie.

Sunday Poem – Josep Lluís Aguiló


Evening all.  I’m writing this in daylight for once.  This week I’m determined not to be doing this at midnight, hovering between being asleep and awake while I’m typing.  In my new house I can hear birds singing away outside, real birds, not just the seagulls which  patrolled my old street who had a nasty habit of divebombing you in the months when their chicks were hiding under the parked cars.  We do get seagulls here, but they tend to congregate around a house down a long lane because the woman who lives there feeds them.

The beginning of last week seemed to pass by in a blur of tiredness.  I was really suffering from poetry festival hangover, which should be a recognised condition and has nothing to do with alcohol (or maybe not very much to do with alcohol) and everything to do with the kind of mental fatigue you get when you have spent three days concentrating and listening and talking about poetry and then you are thrown with little ceremony (apart from the five hour train journey) back into your real, normal, every day life, which involves going to work, which involves thirty trumpets and valve oil and stuck mouthpieces and exam preparation and once again, poetry is squeezed into the edges of each day, or sometimes, if I’m honest, squeezed so much it just *poof* disappears from my life for that day.

You find poetry in the strangest places though.  This week the husband and I went to a funeral of Andy, one of his closest friends from childhood who died aged 45.  It seemed such a terrible waste of a life, which I know is a cliche but it hit me so hard at the funeral.  I’ve been to three funerals in the last year or so and although each one was sad in a different way, this one was the worst.  I felt like there was a band tightening around the front of my head – I thought I was getting a migraine, which I’ve never had before, but I remember thinking, this must be what it feels like.

I hope none of Andy’s friends or family would mind me saying on here that Andy struggled with alcohol all his life – and when I say struggle, I mean it.  Sometimes it had hold of him and nearly dragged him under – other times he seemed to be winning but he was fighting it even ten years ago, when I first met him.  It has been a struggle for me to watch this over the years so god knows what it has been like for his family and his friends, like my husband who knew him before all of it started.

We have been really down today, thinking about what we could have done differently, whether we could have done more to help.  I suppose there is always more you can do and that is the problem.  We are left behind thinking of all the times we didn’t help because it was inconvenient, because it got in the way of what you were doing, because you were too busy.

Andy was a wanderer – someone said at the funeral everywhere was a home from home for him, which was true.  He would come in for a cup of tea and sometimes he would stay for two minutes, sometimes he would stay for two hours.  Then he would decide it was time to go and he would set off, to the next house, the next set of friends to pay a visit.  I would often bump into him while I was walking the dogs and he would walk them with me.  He never ran out of things to say, or stories to tell.  ‘Here’ he would say, touching your arm to get your attention, but the word ‘here’ would sound ‘he-are’ in his accent.

I wanted to go up to his daughter at the funeral and tell her how proud Andy was of her.  I don’t think I ever saw him without him mentioning her name, telling me what she’d been up to at school, showing me a text message she’d sent him.  If she told him she loved him by text he would show anyone who would listen – it meant everything to him.  I’m sure there were times he let her down because of his illness, but I hope she knows how much he loved her.  I didn’t go up to her  – I don’t know why.  I thought about it, and then turned to speak to somebody and when I turned around the moment had passed.  I keep thinking now I should have.

Chris says that when he first came back to England after living in Australia for a while, in the days before mobile phones were invented, Andy met every train coming from down south with a cup of tea in his hand, in case Chris was on it.  He was always generous and would lend somebody his last fiver and leave himself short.

But back to finding poetry in the strangest places – I know it is not that unusual to hear poetry at a funeral but the funeral was full of poems – two famous ones that are probably often read at funerals, but also Andy’s stepdad had written one for Andy and so had one of his friends which I found incredibly touching – it is  well documented about people turning to poetry in times of grief, but I’d never seen it in action before.

So Friday was pretty traumatic really – I stupidly hadn’t cancelled what I was doing for the rest of the day – I think I thought, I’ve been to three funerals, I’ve read eulogies at two of them, I can handle it.  So I didn’t cancel my young writers workshop and was in a bit of a state by the time I got there.  However there is nothing like having to get on with things to make you get on with things.

Other than that this week, I managed to write up a poem to take to Brewery Poets on Friday evening and I’ve been spending my spare time planning for the residential.  Although it is still a couple of weeks away, I have limited time now.  I’m flying to Croatia on Wednesday to take part in the Goran’s Spring Poetry Festival.

I’ve been chosen to take part in the Versopolis project, which you can find out more information about by going to the website.  Versopolis is a European poetry platform that creates new opportunities for emerging European poets and is supported by the European Commission’s Creative Europe programme.  What this means in practice is that there is the possibility I’ll be invited to read at up to two European poetry festivals per year.  For each festival I read at, some of my poems will be translated into that language and made into a pamphlet.

On the website, the 55 poets from various countries all have a profile page with a biography and poems, so it is basically like a free international anthology.  I spent an hour or two on there last night reading through some of the poems – it is a really interesting website.  Mine can be found here. The other UK poets who are taking part are Harry Man, Liz Berry, Eleanor Rees, Adam Horovitz and Meiron Jordon.

One of my favourite readings at Stanza last week was one I went to because the lovely poet Allison McVety was reading and I wanted to show my support and to hear the wonderful ‘Lighthouses’ poem which has featured on this blog here.  I wasn’t disappointed because she read it beautifully.  However, the other poet I hadn’t heard of, but I always like hearing translated poetry so I remember vaguely being confident that it would at least be interesting.

Josep Lluís Aguilós charmed the audience with his apologies for his (very good) spoken English, and his obvious connection and admiration for his translator, Anna Crowe.  It was one of my favourite readings of the festival, maybe because it is exciting to discover a new poet to admire.  You can find Josep’s work in an anthology produced by Arc Publications called ‘Six Catalan Poets’.  So far I’ve only had time to read Josep’s work in the anthology, but I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the poems.

I could have chosen any one of Josep’s poems, but I’ve decided to go for The Devil’s Bridges.  I really enjoyed this poem, which has the air of a yarn being spun or a tall tale.  I like the lovely touch of bringing in the ‘I’ in the fourth stanza:

‘I wonder what he does with his collection/of shadows and beasts’

which almost made me feel sorry for the devil, sitting surrounded by shadows and cats who are probably ignoring him.  When I googled Devils Bridges Wikipedia tells me that Devils Bridges are found all over Europe, and are so called because they represented a significant technological achievement for them to be completed.  The devil in this poem however, is a character to feel sorry for, always outwitted, never learning from his mistakes.   There is a lot of humour in the poem as well – the swindlers with their ‘shocking hobbies’ of putting ships into bottles and painting watercolours.

In the introduction to the selection of Josep’s work, it says that his poems are often peopled with fairytales and myths and in the short selection in the anthology, there is a poem about The Flying Dutchman and the Minotaur.

Josep Lluís Aguiló (born Manacor, Mallorca, 1967), poet and businessman, works as a marketing and advertising director. In 1986 he published his first collection of poems, Cants d’Arjau (Songs from the Helm), which he wrote when he was between sixteen and eighteen years of age. After an interval of eighteen years, he published two further collections, La biblioteca secreta (The Secret Library) and L’estación de les ombres (Season of Shadows), both in 2004. His collection Monstres (Monsters, 2005) was awarded the Premi Ciutat de Palma Joan Alcocer Poetry Prize in 2005 and, in 2006, the National Critics’ Prize for the best book of poems written in Catalan, while it also received a special mention from the jury of the Critics’ Prizes for Catalan Writers. In 2007, the Manacor School of Mallorcan Language gave him its Recognition of Merits Award for his work in writing Catalan poetry and helping to make it better known. The University of the Balearic Islands has published his collection Antologia Personal (Personal Anthology). In 2008, Josep Lluís Aguiló was the winner of the literary competition Jocs Florals de Barcelona with his work Llunari (Calendar). His writings have appeared in several anthologies and have been translated into a number of languages.

I hope you enjoy the poem and thanks to Josep for allowing me to post it this week.

The Devil’s Bridges – Josep Lluís Aguilós

The devil builds bridges and afterwards
demands payment for them.  Those who carried out the work,
invariably more wide-awake, always outwit him.

He always demands that he should carry off
the first or the last to cross the bridge.
If he has asked to be given the last one
then the final one to cross says to him, “grab this,”
pointing, cunningly, at his shadow.

If he has demanded the first, they let an animal cross over to him.
Often it’s a cat or a cock, a dog
is too much part of the family to be given away
to anyone, however much of a devil it might be.

He never learns, I wonder what he does with his collection
of shadows and beasts.  Probably nothing.

The devil, no doubt, enjoys building bridges.
Swindlers have shocking hobbies:
putting ships into bottles, painting watercolours,
writing chronicles of wrongs done,
hunting.  When one gets bored he comes and builds a bridge
and considers speaking about himself to generations
who will boast of how their ancestry
knew nothing of hydraulic works
but a lot about swindling devils.

Poetry By Heart Challenge


Evening all – it has taken me a while but I’ve finally worked out how to upload a video to Youtube.  I’ve been wanting to do this to keep the pressure up for my Poetry By Heart challenge – inspired by Ben Wilkinson, I’m learning one poem a month.  You can find January’s poem here where I’m reciting The Voice by Thomas Hardy and February’s challenge is here – I decided to learn I Go Back To May 1937 by Sharon Olds.

I found Sharon Olds relatively easy to memorise which suprised me – I thought it would be more difficult – it’s quite long, it doesn’t rhyme.  But I think it was easy because it has such a strong narrative holding it together, and the first time I read it, I felt like I’d just been punched in the gut.  I think my unconscious already knew this poem by heart.

Last weekend at Stanza I recited The Voice to a poet friend, while we were walking through St Andrews in the dark with the wind working itself up to gale force and I recited the Sharon Olds poem to another friend in the morning on the way to the book store and they are both firmly in place.

This month I’ve decided to try and learn three Yeats poems because they are quite short – and I’m getting my confidence up now.  It feels amazing to have a little store of poems I can repeat to myself if I get bored – thanks to Ben Wilkinson for throwing down the gauntlet and encouraging me to to have a go.

Sunday Poem – Jennifer Copley


I got back from Stanza at 10.30pm – about an hour ago and am severely regretting not writing this blog over the weekend.  I even dragged my laptop all the way to St Andrews but it did not come out of its case once.  I’ve had a really good weekend but I’m absolutely knackered.  On Wednesday night I got to St Andrews at about 9.30pm which was strangely disorientating – to arrive in the dark I mean.  I’d been teaching till 3pm and then caught the train after work so all I wanted to do was go to bed, but my stomach wouldn’t let me.  I didn’t feel quite confident enough to go in search of somewhere to eat at night in a strange place and I was longing to get back to my room and just sit in bed in the lovely dressing gown that the B and B provided.

I was staying at the Glenderran Guest House and it was a really lovely place to stay – I’ve heard people say in the past that they’ve struggled to find somewhere to stay in St Andrews – I’d really recommend the B and B – the breakfast was really nice and Ray and Maggie, who own the B and B were very friendly and welcoming.

Anyway, on the Wednesday night I walked down to the nearest supermarket and got a banana, a bag of crisps and an Easter egg and then sat in bed and scoffed them all with a cup of tea.  The next morning I went for a run down the beach by myself – 7k this time – I thought I could get away with putting on a bit of distance as I was running on lovely soft sand.  My tendon was complaining a little bit but not too much.

On Thursday I did a school session at Madras College in St Andrews which was good fun and then later that afternoon I did my reading with John Dennison.  It seemed to go down quite well.  It was nice to get my ‘bits’ over and done with as well and be able to spend the rest of the weekend doing whatever I wanted.

I’m quite tired so I won’t go through all the things that happened this weekend but when I think back to my highlights they are a strange mix of things.

The most obvious one – the highlight in terms of reading terms was hearing Carolyn Forche who I’m ashamed to say I’d not heard of before, or at least I thought I hadn’t heard of her, until she read her famous ‘The Colonel’ poem, which I have read because I think it has been anthologised before.  She cast a complete spell for the whole of her 45 minute reading.  Unless a poet is amazing, I can get a bit fidgety, but it was only after she had finished and I got up to move and immediately sat back down again because I had pins and needles that I realised I hadn’t moved a muscle the whole time.

Her reading and performance were as good as my other favourites – which in case you’re interested are in no particular order – Clare Shaw, Kei Miller and Billy Letford.

These next favourite things might sound a bit strange and the people I’m talking about may be a bit concerned to find themselves on my favourites list, but I’m thinking about things that I will carry away with me and it will have to be the conversations I’ve had with three lovely blokes – Gerry Cambridge who edits The Dark Horse, Rob Mackenzie, the reviews editor for Magma and Ilya Kaminsky who also gave an amazing reading and talk during the festival.  I met Gerry on the Saturday at the Book Fair and I immediately felt like I’d known him for ages, so much so that later on I got a bit confused, and thought maybe I did know him and had just forgotten.  I even checked and asked him if we’d met before but no, apparently not!  I only had the chance to have a longer conversation with Rob today but he is a great laugh and I think we have the same sense of humour.  Again, I felt like I’d known him for ages – I suppose I have, in an online sense through social media.  And lovely Ilya, I had met before at Poetry Parnassus, but it was nice to get to know him a bit more.  I’ll never forget going to the bookshop with Ilya, which was like having a crash course in 20th century poetry.  He is partly to blame for my ridiculously large (and we’re talking two bags full) of poetry books that I lugged back from St Andrews.  One of my other favourite bits of the festival is going for 5k run with Helen Mort along the beach – it was nice and slow, which was good for me and we talked all the way down and all the way back.  It was also lovely to have the chance to spend time with Paul Stephenson and Antony Christie this weekend as well.  These things might not, on the outside, seem to have much to do with poetry, but to me they do.  I think a good festival is made up of the bits between the readings, the conversations in the bar, the runs along the beach are just as important as the poetry.  There were lots more people that I met who were lovely as well – Nigel Thompson, Kat Langton, – too many to list.

There is lots more I could say about the festival, but I’m going to stop there because I’m tired and I want to go to bed!   But Fiona Moore is the blogger in residence and is doing a great job writing about her time at the festival over at her blog  if you want to find out more about what has been going on at Stanza.

Here is Jennifer Copley with ‘When a Voice Moved Across the Water’ which is a trademark Jennifer Copley poem.  It presents the reader with an unlikely situation, then proceeds to fill in the details in such a way that the surreal becomes completely logical and believable.  The biblical tone of the title is carried on by the use of the language in the poem, with the little nod to the ‘blind leading the blind’, but she is also playing with myth with the mermaids and Icarus, who flies into the poem at the end.  Myth, fairytales and biblical langauge are often mixed up in Jenny’s poems, so you start to forget where the boundaries are.

Jenny doesn’t need an introduction, but I will give her one anyway!  Jenny has numerous books published: Ice, a pamphlet by Smith/Doorstop, House by the Sea and Unsafe Monuments by Arrowhead, Beans in Snow by Smokestack, Living Daylights by Happenstance, Mr Trickfeather by Like This Press and most recently Sisters by Smokestack.  If you would like to find out more about Jenny’s work, have a look at her website



all the drowned, knowing it was their time,
kicked up from the ocean floor through mermaids
and shoals of fish, till they reached forgotten air.
Gathering themselves into groups
they struck out for dry land:
the blind towed by the un-blind, the limbless
clinging with their teeth to the ones in front,
bones being pushed ahead by bones.
It was dawn when they reached the shore,
shook salt from their hair, made fires,
dried those who could not help themselves.
And I saw my cousin and my aunt,
and I saw Icarus, heat steaming from his feathers,
and I saw my lover, still young, flicking water from her lashes
but I turned away so she would not find me.

Sunday Poem – Mir Mahfuz Ali


Evening all – it has been a hectic week as usual here in the cultural hot spot that is Barrow in Furness.  Working backwards, I’ve been away all weekend as an extra staff member on a residential trip for 30 secondary school pupils from a local school.  It was a slightly strange weekend as I didn’t know any of the children.  It turned out in the end that I had taught two of them in the past, and although they don’t play a brass instrument now, it was gratifying to know that I hadn’t turned them off music completely, they had just changed to playing different instruments.

On the Friday night some of the children decided to play Knock Door Run – I managed to sleep through it but the escapades apparently went on till 2am.  On Saturday the children were in workshops all day.  I wolfed down a very quick dinner in the evening and then escaped to Ulverston for A Poem and a Pint with the always fabulous Kei Miller, who I think I’ve seen read about six times now and I’m still nowhere near fed up of hearing him.

It was the committee’s turn to read on the Open Mic with the added treat of hearing Caroline Gilfillin, who has just moved to Ulverston and who has been co-opted into the Poem and a Pint committee.  I read one old poem – my cursing-all-the-children-that-have-annoyed-me poem, that being the mood I was in, and a new poem that I’ve been working on.  I also  managed to sell two pamphlets – hurrah!

I won’t give a fuller account because there will be a proper review going up onThe Poem and a Pint website, along with a link where you can see photos of all the readers and maybe some of the audience as well.

After the event finished I then had to get back to Coniston.  I sat in the lounge and had a cup of tea with the other staff, who were verging on slight hysterics by this time (non-stop nose bleed, possible broken toe, suspected sprained ankle – three different children) and went to bed at about midnight and this time, the children having worked hard all day they all went to sleep without any shinanigans

I left Coniston just after 3pm this afternoon full of ideas about running my own residential for my junior band.  I’d like to either run a rehearsal weekend to get them ready for conquering South Cumbria Music Festival next year or to run a Chamber Music Weekend where they are all put into small groups and learn to play in a small ensemble.  The plan would be to raise enough money so that the band could pay for everybody to attend, or at the least just ask for a small contribution from parents.

I went away when I was about 13 or 14 with Unity Brass Band to Shell Island in Wales.  One girl in the band went into the baby swing and got stuck in it and couldn’t get out.  My dad randomly had his toolkit in the back of the car and had to take the swing apart to get her out of it.  The whole band was camping out together on a public campsite.  I remember that we had a rehearsal in the middle of the campsite – I remember being slightly embarrassed but not really minding.  All the other campers came out of their tents to see what was going on.

Our conductor, Rob Boulter used to tell the story about poor Cheryl getting stuck in the swing at every single concert that the junior band did, and make her stand up each time.  I was about to write ‘Oh, for a story like that to tell about someone in MY junior band’ but then I thought no, if that happened to me as a teacher, it would be a complete nightmare and really stressful!  But I don’t remember any of the adults being stressed – everybody just thought it was funny…

So I got back today at about 4.30 and after getting something to eat booked a holiday to Crete with the husband.  I’m really looking forward to it, although I feel slightly guilty because I don’t think I’m going to be at home very much in the next month!

On Wednesday next week I’m off to Stanza.  I’m reading with John Dennison on Thursday at 2.30.  The programme at Stanza looks really exciting, and I’m hoping, hoping I can just get some tickets when I get there because I have not been organised enough to book any in advance.  You can have a look at the whole programme here and if you’d like to come along to my reading, tickets can be brought here.

I’m at Stanza for the whole weekend – in a moment of extravagance I decided that I would stay for the whole weekend.  Then I’m back for a week and then I’m off to Croatia the following Wednesday until the Sunday.  Then I’m back for a week and then it’s the residential in Grange and then it’s Crete.  The dogs may forget what I look like…

This week I’ve been writing an article for New Walk magazine and reading two books that I’ll be writing a review of for Under the Radar magazine.    I won’t say anything else about that because I don’t want to make my review pointless, but the books were so beautifully presented, all wrapped up in cellophane that I’ve already decided I love them and the poets would have to do something awful to make me change my mind.  Which hasn’t happened so far.  I’ve been doing a little bit of writing as well – I feel like I’m finally getting back into a habit of writing after a long spell of not doing it.

The summer programme for The Poetry School is now out.  I’m running an online course – The Act of Transformation.  Again I won’t say anything else about this, because Will at The Poetry School has asked me to write a blog about the course so I don’t want to pre-empt this.  If you, or anyone you know may be interested, do sign up, and please don’t let the fee put you off.  The Poetry School do have a bursary system in place.

The only other writing things that have been happening is back and forth emails to Croatia – as part of the Versopolis project, I will have a pamphlet of my poems translated into Croatian which is very exciting.  I’ve also had two offers of readings at festivals – one is not confirmed because the funding isn’t in place and one is top secret because the festival like to announce their line up themselves.  I think that’s it for writing news.

Running wise I have had to go right back to basics, starting like I did last April, running for eight minutes and walking for 2 minutes.  I did that 3 times on Monday and Tuesday and 4 times on Thursday and Friday and then today I managed 34 minutes without stopping, all on grass or sand.  Next job is to try it out on the road.  It is very annoying having to be patient, but I really don’t want to be injured when the good weather’s here.

So that brings us to today’s Sunday Poem which by Mir Mahfuz Ali.  This poem comes his first collection ‘Midnight, Dhaka’, published and available from Seren.  Like his fellow Seren poet Pascale Petit, who has featured on this blog in recent times, Mir Mahfuz Ali uses the animal world to express or explore trauma to the body.  On the back cover, the blurb says that Mir Mahfuz Ali is ‘reknowned for his extraordinary voice, a rich, throaty whisper brought about by a Bangladeshi policeman trying to silence the singing of anthems during an anti-war demonstration.

When you have this bit of information it makes the poem very immediate and shocking.  The  use of the words ‘teenage head’.  I think maybe one of the most shocking things in this poem is that the narrator doesn’t seem to change.  He is just trapped in the hospital bed, but the lizard does change.  He goes from being a simple lizard, to meditating, to finally providing a lesson in life ‘.

I really liked the line breaks in this poem as well  – to me they all felt perfectly in the right place and we get such a strong picture of the scene from all the detail.  There are many disturbing features – the ‘bloodless lizard’ the ‘cracked sound’ and the image of the lizard struggling for air.  The wonderfully vivid and brutal lines

Keep the foam clear so my voice doesn’t burst
through my trachea hole

like shrapnel in a pomegranate.

give such a weight.  Perhaps even more disturbing that that though, is the last couple of lines with the lizard as it escapes through the speaker’s throat.

I first came across Mir Mahfuz Ali in Poetry Review and loved his work.  I’ve been waiting patiently for his collection to come out since I read that first poem.  He was born in what is now Bangladesh and grew up in the early 1970’s when the region was struck first by a cyclone, then by civil war.  He has had  lots of different jobs  – model, tandoori chef, dance and acting.   He won the 2013 Geoffrey Dearmer Prize, given by the Poetry Society to the best poem in the magazine over that year who has not published a full collection.

I hope you enjoy the poem!

A Lizard by My Hospital Bed – Mir Mahfuz Ali

The mouth of silence trickles forward a bloodless lizard.
I take off my oxygen mask and allow

his cracked sound to crawl into my teenage head.
Like me he puffs for air.  I wheeze.  He pants.

He does not break his meditation as the hours pass,
my eyes still on him when he jumps on a thinking fly

with a fine open-air gesture.  An education by lizard:
focus, don’t rely on impulse.

Keep the foam clear so my voice doesn’t burst
through my trachea hole

like shrapnel in a pomegranate.
My eyes flick a question, city kerosene thuds

echoing in my head.  My friend says nothing.
Goes one step back, two steps forward.

How can I let him go?  I grab the fellow by his tail,
but he still escapes through the gap in my throat.