I’m feeling very sorry for myself today because I’ve had a sore throat and a headache for the last couple of days. Chris (the husband) had a cold and now has sinusitis and is in a bit of a state and I think I’ve definitely caught the cold. Mr C has been ill for the last four days or so and my throat and headache started on Friday so we are having a bit of a rubbish weekend. We are both trying to take it easy but we both hate taking it easy, so it doesn’t create a particularly relaxing environment!
I was in Holland from the 13th August and got back on the 18th August, last Tuesday. I was reading at a Poetry and Music event in Vlieland, a small island off the coast of Holland. I was invited over by Tsead Bruinja, a fantastic poet who writes in Friesan and Dutch. I met Tsead about four years ago at a poetry festival in Ireland, along with his wife Saskia Stehouwer and my lovely friend Jan Glas. We all got on really well, so I was very excited to be invited to read in Vlieland, because I would get to see them all again. I was also excited because it is an amazing thing, to travel because I am a poet. I still sometimes can’t believe it – when I think back to getting my first poem published in a magazine, that I’m now getting to go abroad and read my poetry. I know I’m very lucky, and even writing this makes me feel less down in the dumps about my cold.
So if you are going to travel and read poetry, Vlieland is definitely the place to go. When I got to Amsterdam, I met up with Tsead and Sas and then we had to take two trains and two buses to get to Harlingen. We had a quick walk around Harlingen and I was persuaded to try some fish from a stall. I wasn’t brave enough for the raw fish that Sas liked so I got some pieces of cod in batter which sounds very ordinary, but they tasted nothing like cod that we eat here. For a start, the batter wasn’t covered in grease – it appeared to be quite healthy, although I have no statistics to back this up.
We met Tsead and Sas’s friend Tamar at the dock and then got on the ferry. I had every intention of sitting on the top deck and looking at the view but by now it was midday on Thursday and I had slept for about an hour in my car at the airport so I went inside the boat and managed to find a sofa that I could lie down on and go to sleep for a few hours. I will be forever grateful to my early trips as a musician when I learnt to sleep on pretty much any form of transport. I remember once going with Dearham Brass Band to Germany on a coach and sleeping stretched out on the floor between the seats. I didn’t wake up until we got to the island.
Only residents are allowed to have vehicles on the island and most people hire bicycles to get around. It is really well organised, and you can pay a couple of euros to have your luggage dropped off at the tents, which we did. I’d been feeling quite smug at having a suitcase on wheels up to this point, as opposed to a huge hiking bag, but my smugness evaporated when I had to drag the stupid case across the sand to get to my tent.
I won’t give you a blow by blow account of the week, just selected highlights. I met some lovely people there – Bas Kwakman, who runs Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam. I put my foot in it at one point with Bas because I realised I hadn’t accepted his friend request on Facebook, due to my rule of not accepting requests unless I’ve met the person in real life or unless they send me a message telling me how wonderful I/my poetry/my hair/my shoes are. The crisis was averted after the request was accepted. Bas is a fellow hat wearer and lover of hats, or at least his own hat and had lots of interesting gossip about the terrible behaviour of famous poets at his festival.
Rindert was another of Tsead and Sas’s friends. He was also very lovely, although I did have to threaten him with a spider to stop him chasing me down the beach with a dead crab. Thank god Tamar told me about his phobia otherwise I’d probably have been covered in dead crustacean. If Rindert had known me better, he would have realised there is no way I would pick up a spider and insert it into somebody’s tent, not even for revenge purposes. I’m too frightened of them myself. Apart from chasing people with corpses, Rindert’s other talent is cooking – he made the most fantastic meals for everybody while we were there.
Tamar was lovely as well. I got to know her better as the week progressed and became more and more fond of her. She doesn’t write poetry, just likes coming to Vlieland to listen and hang out – one of those rare specimens, a true audience member! We are hopefully going to meet up in London in a couple of weeks time when I go down for the Forward Prize reading.
Tsead and Bas arranged for some of my poems to be translated into Dutch by Willem Groenewegan and my lovely friend Jan Glas came to the island to read the translations. It was so lovely to see Jan again – he is one of my favourite people – and always has been. I haven’t seen him for a couple of years, but it was soon like we’d never been apart. We spend most of our time together randomly hugging and clutching each other or laughing about something. Or sometimes bitching about something, but not that often.
I went swimming in the sea twice while I was on the island – we had about three days of what I consider pretty good weather (i.e it wasn’t raining) and two days where it was quite hot (well the sun was out). It is not usually like me to throw myself into a cold sea and I actually was planning just to paddle a bit, but then I looked at everyone else swimming and thought I would regret it if I didn’t, so I did. The water was cold at first but once you start swimming it feels amazing. I am resolved to swim more in the sea if I get the chance.
I went running on my own twice on the island as well. The first time I ran 5k out towards the dunes. It was so beautiful I kept going for a bit longer than I should have. It was warm, but quite windy when I was running out. When I turned around, there was no wind at all, and I started to get really hot. It felt like the sun was reflecting off the road, and I’d stupidly come out without a water bottle. I started to panic, imagining myself collapsing at the side of the road, dehydrated and delirious and having to crawl back as there wasn’t even a car to give me a lift. Lots of Dutch people kept sailing past me on bikes, smiling kindly and serenely as I willed one of them to offer me some of their water or at least take pity on me and give me a croggy.
Anyway, after 9k I got back into the camp and went to the very first shower block and drank lots of water and splashed water all over my head and then hobbled back to the tent. Lesson learnt – don’t go out without a water bottle!
The next day Tamar, Jan and I went on a bike ride – you can go all the way around the island on cycle paths – about 18km. Although cycling is not my favourite thing – I have a bony bum and consequently am usually in pain within five minutes of sitting on a bike, I felt fairly confident I could keep up with Tamar and Jan – now I am a super fit runner! But no – seemingly with no effort at all, I got further and further behind. Part of this was to do with the fact that I slowed down every time somebody went past me on the cycle path, not trusting in my own skill at keeping in a straight line, but it was mostly to do with the fact that my thighs were burning. Whether this was from the run yesterday or just because I’m not used to cycling I have no idea. I came to the conclusion that Tamar and Jan were in fact cycling geniuses and they had just hidden this fact from me.
The day after that I had a rest from all physical activity but the day after that I went for a 5k run by myself again and had a go at a circular route, which was very daring for me, as I live in mortal fear of getting lost.
I nearly forgot to tell you about this huge insect that I found in my tent on the first night. I went to bed a bit earlier than everyone else and left them in the pub. When I got into my tent and switched the light on there was a huge beast on the wall of the tent. It was beetle shaped with what looked like a barbed tail and it was as long as my thumb. I was cursing it for a couple of minutes. If I walked back to the pub and asked Tsead to get it out for me, it could vanish by the time I got back and then I’d have to sleep with it possibly marauding around the tent. If only Chris was here I wailed (quietly) to myself. I have never, never, never removed an insect from a house. I’m honestly terrified of them. Being left with no choice though I grabbed a loose poem and my hat and after a couple of goes, knocked the Tent Beast into my hat and flung the hat and Beast out into the night and zipped the tent up. After a short victory dance where I felt very proud of myself, I then realised it was due to rain that night, and my hat was out, unprotected and alone against the elements. So I unzipped the tent, shone my phone into the hat, checked that the beast had made off into the night and brought the hat back in.
Stupidly I didn’t take a photo of the creature, but Sas looked it up and we think it was most likely that it was a Devil’s Coachhorse Beetle. The Dutch had to put up with me going on and on about my heroics all week so it was probably lucky for them that I didn’t get a photo of it.
The reading on the Sunday night was a really nice event. Although I couldn’t understand the poetry as it was in Dutch, I find it very easy to sit back and just let it wash over me. Sas had been working on a translation of one of her poems into English – it was a beautiful poem and it made me want to read more of her poems in English.
I read three of the poems from my sequence about domestic violence and afterwards a woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and said that it had also happened to her, that she had never told anybody about it, that she had never cried about it until now. Every time I read from these poems, a woman comes up to me and says the same thing, but I was really moved by this occasion, by the woman saying she’d never cried about it. It nearly made me cry.
I am slightly embarrassed to admit that over the last couple of weeks I’ve been worrying a bit about prizes and shortlists. My close friends will know this already because I’ve spoken to them about it. It is exposing to have a full collection published, much more so than a pamphlet. I remember thinking when the book came out that I didn’t care about shortlists or prizes, I was just so happy to have a book. Of course that euphoria wears off pretty quickly and I started to worry about my book not getting on any shortlists and vanishing into oblivion. I am nothing if not dramatic.
But that moment with the woman in the audience, whose name I don’t know put shortlists and prizes into perspective. To connect with another human being, maybe to express something they have felt unable to express themselves is one of the things that poetry is for, and it is easy to forget that when you are worrying about prizes and recognition, but that moment gave me a bit of a wake up call. Don’t get me wrong, it would be lovely to be on a shortlist, but every time I feel myself getting a little envious I’m going to think of that woman who came and spoke to me.
I also feel in a good place with my writing at the minute, as in I’m doing lots of it. I don’t know if it’s any good or not, but I am at least finding it easy to sit down and do it. It feels like I’m back to the way I used to write before I started editing the collection and I’m really enjoying it. I even sent two submissions off to two magazines last week for the first time in ages. I got an invitation a couple of days ago to read in Amsterdam at the beginning of October as well, at the ‘Reading the World’ festival which I’m really excited about and looking forward to and then November I’m off to Cork to read there, so I’ve got lots to look forward to.
This week’s Sunday Poem is by a fabulous poet called Mary Noonan, who I first met in Ireland, the same time I met Tsead, Sas and Jan. She’s also been to Vlieland a couple of years ago I think and loved it as much as I did. I met her again in Fermoy last month when I was reading at the Elbow Lane Inn. She read some beautiful and moving poems about her father, who has dementia. I will never forget sitting in Elbow Lane a year ago and hearing her father sing – he had a beautiful voice. When Mary read the poem that I’ve chosen as the Sunday Poem, it made me cry a little. Both my nanna and Chris’s mum, my mother in law had dementia so in that respect it is easy to identify with it. Mary was kind enough to send me her limited edition pamphlet ‘Father’ which has just come out with Bonnefant Press.
The pamphlet only has six poems in, all exploring the experience of her father having dementia. I’ve chosen ‘No More Goodbyes’ to feature here today. Even if you’ve not had experience of caring for someone with dementia, these poems are so beautiful. They are about relationships and language, and how far language can take us, and where it fails.
In ‘No More Goodbyes’ there is a real gentleness of tone and I was trying to pinpoint how Mary achieves this right from the outset. The title throws you off I think, because it is almost a cliche until you read the poem and realise that she doesn’t mean there are no more goodbyes because of death, there are no more goodbyes because language is failing. It also has echoes for me of the Annie Lennox song ‘No More I Love You’s’. I’ve just looked up that song and the next line is ‘The language is leaving me’ – maybe that is why it is chiming in my head, because this poem is really about language leaving. There is no death in the poem, apart from the death of language, that the word goodbye doesn’t work anymore. Maybe the gentleness is achieved with starting with ‘We’. The loss of language in one affects the other. Neither can say goodbye. The father lives in a ‘world of compartments’ and the idea of the dead moving freely between their world and ours is such a striking image. I love the way she says ‘the farewell word’ instead of using goodbye again and the originality of that thought, of trying to imagine what it must feel like for the father to have visitors that arrive ‘without/announcement or appointment’. The last thing I wanted to say about the poem was to draw attention to the line breaks. I’ve had a few interesting conversations about line breaks at writing groups recently. It is one of the things I love examining in poetry and Mary has made some interesting choices in this poem, which I really like. The first line break is fairly conventional but then in line 2 she breaks between ‘each’ and ‘other’. The reader thinks for a split second the second line is complete because you’ve been led to think that by the first line. Then you realise the gap between ‘each’ and ‘other’ fits with the subject of the poem, and it sets up the little disjoints later on that are created when she finishes on small words like ‘and’ and ‘be’ and ‘of. The poem ebbs and flows ‘Now I must slip in and/’out of the compartments of your/world, where the dead move freely’ – I think they are fantastic line breaks – completely unexpected but they work. The last one I want to waffle on about is Line 13 ‘appearing before you courtesy of/a complex of sliding panels and’. Imagine if she’d broken the line ‘appearing before you courtesy/of a complex of sliding panels’. It doesn’t work, it sounds clunky that way. That is why line breaks matter. (This is what my interesting discussion about line breaks was about).
Anyway, I should tell you a little about Mary Noonan. She lives in Cork, where she lectures in French literature at University College Cork. Her poems have appeared in numerous magazines including The Dark Horse, Poetry Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry London, The Spectator, PN Review (forthcoming), New Hibernia Review and The Threepenny Review. She won the Listowel Poetry Collection Prize in 2010. Her first collection – The Fado House (Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2012) was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize and the Strong/Shine Award. In 2014 she was awarded an Arts Council of Ireland Literature Bursary.
No More Goodbyes – Mary Noonan
We can no longer say goodbye,
no more take our leave of each
other. Now I must slip in and
out of the compartments of your
world, where the dead move freely
in the antechambers, where to go
through a door is to be erased
forever and long-dead fathers
are always just a staircase away.
I will pace now in the salle des pas
perdus, losing my way, entering
by one door, exiting by another,
appearing before you courtesy of
a complex of sliding panels and
vanishing again without saying
the farewell word, vaporising
into the great waiting hall where
all doors lead. What do you make
of these random comings and goings,
your visitors always arriving without
announcement or appointment,
and leaving by the same slippery
method? How does it feel to be
the still centre of these revolving
portals, you, the empty waiting-room
where only ghosts stop, on their way
to Heaven knows where?