Monthly Archives: November 2015

Sunday Poem – James Byrne


Diagnosis Inc. – James Byrne

You are two oranges shy of sangria
You chumpchange in a clackdish
You the flensed soldier, egg-runny on the inside
You frogging deadline after deadline
You caught in a Swiss chokehold
You feeding the duckboards of Venice
You the expert on television newswar
You at maximum voice
You at the squall above dead deerling
You the clarion-call of the id
You the barbaros of Juarez
You who want to wake up forever
You on page 65 in bubblegum PVC
You yelling at the meathook
You yet to make your wheelspin mark
You clapping at family stones
You who would rather be scalped standing
You as screw of the week
You eiderhanded as a spider
You in the stocks and wanting it more
You salted for planet jellyfish
You among the angels crisp as butcherpaper
You scissorless, cutting the line to ribbons
You the livid escarp
You the apostle of gutlove
You with a black and fraying candlestick
You hard to prove but terminally alluring
You an owl away from the topmost branch
You mad as a star
You who would shoot first

Today’s Sunday Poem is by James Byrne, who I met very briefly at Stanza in March this year, and then spent a lot of time with last weekend at the Winter Warmer Festival in Cork.  The poem comes from James’s second full length collection White Coins, published by Arc Publications, a fantastic publisher based in Hebden Bridge, publishing a small selection of English-speaking poets and a larger selection of translated poetry from all over the world.

James read this poem during his reading in Cork and that line ‘You mad as a star’ made me sit up.  I don’t know if anybody has this, hears a line of poetry that they know they will carry around with them forever,  Other examples? ‘I kill it because I can’ (from Jo Shapcott’s ‘Scorpion’) ‘I do not believe in silence’ (Clare Shaw’s poem of the same name) ‘Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me’ (Thomas Hardy) and ‘The woods decay, the woods decay and fall’ (Tennyson).  There are others but I don’t want to be here all night, and I want to talk about the rest of James’s poem.

I think the title is very interesting with the use of the word ‘diagnosis’.  The dictionary definition of this word is a) the identification of the nature of an illness or other problem by examination of the symptoms or b)  the distinctive characterization in precise terms of a genus, species, or phenomenon.

So, according to the title, we should believe that the poem is ‘diagnosing’ somebody – either what is wrong with them, or what exactly they are. To this end, it is a long list of descriptions which are detailed, colourful and full of imagery. At first I thought the poem was full of made up words – but when I google ‘chumpchange’ I find it is a ‘small and insignificant amount of money’ and a ‘clackdish’ is a ‘dish with a movable lid, formerly carried by beggars, who clacked the lid to attract notice’.  I liked the poem when I thought these words were made up but I like it even more now!

Each line is like a small box that you can unpack and extract more meaning from.  ‘You frogging deadline after deadline’ gave me an image of the ‘you’ managing to leap over or avoid deadlines, but then the next line ‘You caught in a Swiss chokehold’ gives the image of the ‘you’ being trapped or held down by somebody.  The poem is full of these contradictions, and in the slippery way that poems do, we are left with a sense of this person’s personality, but would never recognise them if we met them on the street.

James Byrne is a poet, editor, translator and Lecturer in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University.  Blood/Sugar was published by Arc Publications in 2009 and White Coins was published in 2015.  He is Editor of The Wolf, an internationally renowned poetry magazine.  He has c0-edited various anthologies, including Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century with Bloodaxe and Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets, published by Arc.  He is the International Editor for Arc Publications. Thanks to James for letting me publish this poem on the blog!

This week I’ve managed to have a couple of evenings where I’ve had nothing on which meant I could catch up with admin and emails.  I normally try and keep on top of emails as I go along, but after being ill a couple of weeks ago and then being away for over 7 days in the past month or so, it had become impossible.  So that has been one nice thing this week.

It hasn’t really been quiet though – I went to judge the Queen Katherine School Poetry Slam on Tuesday night – well I was one of the judges.  I was really excited by the talent and performances of the young poets.  When I was fifteen, I could barely walk into a room on my own and yet these young people are standing up and reading and reciting their poetry. They were so switched on and politically engaged in a way I found really surprising – these are teenagers who care passionately about gender equality, refugees, going to war – and the poems were really good – exploring these subjects in memorable ways.  The eventual winner of the slam was one of my young writers – hurrah! I should hasten to add that there was no possibility of me being able to vote and get my young writers through, even if I’d wanted to  – there were four other judges and ten randomly selected members of the audience.

On Friday I had a lovely session with the young writers where we talked about everyday feminism and how we ‘minimise’ outrageous and sexist things that are said to us as women.  They all had shocking stories of things that have already happened to them and I read them a poem that I’ve recently written about a rather creepy taxi driver who decided to inform me that ‘all artists are crazy in bed’.  They wrote some fantastic poems about their experiences – and I’m really pleased they are aware of these things already.

I then drove like a madwoman straight from Kendal to get to Leeds where I was reading at WordClub at The Chemic Tavern.  Mark Connors was hosting and there were ten open mic slots, pre-chosen who were really entertaining.  There were lots of friendly faces in the crowd, poets that I met through David Tait and through performing at Poetry By Heart in Headingley over the years. It was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me as I lived just round the corner when I was a music student in Leeds. Helen Mort was the other reader and it was great to hear some of her new poems, as well as old favourites from her collection Division Street.

Clare Shaw offered to put me up for the night in Hebden Bridge, so I then drove to her house and met her two lovely pet rats, whose names I can’t remember.  I didn’t expect to like them, not being a particular fan of rodents, but they are very cute.  One of them has a little snuffle and she climbed onto my leg a few times, as if I was just there for her convenience, which in her world I was.

I went to see Tony and Angela at Arc Publications for a cup of tea and a biscuit after I left Clare’s, before making my way home.  I met Tony and Angela last week in Cork and we got on really well.  The problem is I could sit and talk to them all day and then I wouldn’t get anything done!

I went for a rather windy run today and then I’ve spent the whole day working on poems.  I haven’t written any new ones, but I have been editing and re-drafting and trying to push the poems that I’ve started a little bit further.  I feel like I’m getting back into my stride with writing now.  Tomorrow I’m running in the morning and conducting the junior band in the evening, but I’m hoping to get some more writing done in between those things.

My other project that I’ve been working on is putting on a series of monthly workshops in Barrow in Furness.  Barrow is very isolated, and I want to build up a bigger community of poets here.  I know there are a few poets like Kate Davis and Jennifer Copley who live in Barrow, but they are already very experienced writers.  I want to create a workshop for people that might not have written any poetry before.  I’ve got the next two workshop dates for January and February already booked, so if you know of anyone who might be interested in attending a writing workshop and is within travelling distance of Barrow, do send them my way! There is a group page for the workshops on Facebook – it’s called (rather inventively) Barrow Poetry Workshops.



Sunday Poem – Eileen Sheehan


some contradictions that beset the ex-wife’s brain – Eileen Sheehan

When I got your news I sent a message
saying, I hope you all have a great day out.
This was no lie, but in fairness, it was only
part of the truth.  I hope she drags you up and down
and up and down and up and down the beach
in the glaring sun, looking for the perfect spot
to lie in.  I hope this pisses you off.
I hope she looks fat and pale in her swimsuit.
I hope there is cellulite.  I hope that next door’s blanket
has three toddlers who kick sand all day and
squeal incessantly in high-pitched voices.  I hope they drop
dollops of melting ice pops on your legs
and globs of egg sandwiches.  I hope
there are wasps.  I hope her sons are moody and
grunt all day in adolescent monosyllables
no matter what you ask.  I hope a jellyfish
bites her on the arse.  I hope you catch sight of a woman
way up on the beach and for a second
you think she’s me.  I hope you spent at least
another hour and a half craning your neck
to find out.  I take back the jellyfish,
it seems too cruel and besides her pain
might rouse your pity and move you
to minister to the wound.  I hope
there is nothing like that.  I hope that after
an hour and a half straining your bad eyesight
up along the beach you see that same woman who clearly
isn’t me: looks nothing like me.  I hope
you are disappointed.  I hope you arrive home
irritable and cranky from too much sun.  I hope
you check your messages to see if I sent you one.
I did.  I hope you get it.  It says, not untruthfully,
I hope you all have a great day out. I hope you know
I was neither jealous nor missing you when I wrote it.
I hoped I could be good enough to send you
that one pure wish and nothing more.  I hope you understand
I am too duplicitous to have managed that.
In retrospect, I hope you realised before today
what a black heart you left behind you
when you left me here.  I hope you don’t think
I want you back.  I hope
I’m not taking a step too far
writing you this.  I hope you get the joke.

I know it’s not Sunday but I’ve been in Cork this weekend at the Winter Warmer Festival and I didn’t take my laptop.  I got a late flight back last night and there was absolutely no way I could stay up to write this so I thought I would do another Monday post instead.

This poem comes from Eileen Sheehan’s second collection Down the Sunlit Hall published by Doghouse, a publisher based in Ireland.  Sadly, Doghouse has closed down, after ten years of publishing but I’m really happy that Eileen has found a new home for her work, and her third collection ‘The Narrow Place of Souls’ (what a wonderful title!) will be coming out with Salmon Poetry.

Eileen did a wonderful reading at the festival, which swung from being very moving to incredibly funny and back again.  I bought her book because I really enjoyed the poetry reading and I read it on the way back on the plane in one sitting.

I chose this poem because as many of you know, I love curse poems and I’m really happy I’ve found another one!  This one is a curse poem in disguise though, using ‘I hope’ as it’s repeating line.  I like the fact that ‘I hope’ taken on its own seems really positive but in this poem, it’s a way of wishing ill.

This poem also does what Eileen did in her reading, it fluctuates between being very funny and very moving.  I found all of the ‘hopes’ funny, but especially the line ‘I hope her sons are moody and/grunt all day in adolescent monosyllables/no matter what you ask’ and the idea of hoping that the ex-husband sees a woman that he thinks might be his ex-wife then spends the whole day craning his neck looking for her is a brilliant curse!

Then you get to the line ‘I hope you realised before today/what a black heart you left behind you/when you left me here.’ and I find that incredibly heartbreaking.  The poem moves on from simple revenge to real insight into the self.

I would really recommend checking out Eileen’s work.  There is a wonderful article about her on the Poetry International website, written by Paul Casey, the organiser of the Winter Warmer Festival.

So after the usual busy and manic two days of teaching last week, I left Barrow and headed to Hebden Bridge to read alongside the wonderful poet Peter Riley at The Bookcase.  It was the last night of a reading series that Sarah Corbett and Carola Luther have put together.  The rain was threatening to take over Hebden again, and I think this may have kept a few people away but it was still a decent sized audience.  I met up with Carola before the reading and it was lovely to catch up with her again.

I was staying in a lovely B and B with a fantastic view over Hebden but I didn’t really appreciate the luxury as I spent the whole night panicking about whether I would sleep through my alarm which was set for 4.45am.  I had to get to Manchester airport to get my flight at 9am to Cork and thought I’d better leave early because of the morning traffic.

I read that evening with two Irish poets, Dean Browne and Michelle Sullivan.  I was really nervous about reading first, but the audience were so friendly and responsive that once I got going I was fine.  I managed to sell ten books and six pamphlets over the weekend, taking my grand total of books that I’ve sold personally (rather than publishers’s total) to 211 this year.  Pamphlet total is now at 625.  I was quite pleased as my case had been really full dragging all the books over.  Sadly I replaced them all because I bought lots of books.

I spent most of Friday hanging out with Aneirin Karadog, a fabulous Welsh poet who managed to keep the audience’s attention with his fantastic performance, despite the poems being written in Welsh and Briton.  His introductions and explanations were very funny and he used a staff to beat out the rhythm of some of the poems.  On Saturday I found a kindred spirit in Tony Ward and Angela Jarman from Arc Publications and had great fun talking to them.  I also spent a large part of the weekend eating scones and various cakes with the lovely James Byrne, who was also reading at the festival.

A whole gang of poets from Fermoy came down to the festival on Saturday and it was lovely to see all of them again.  Probably my favourite poet at the festival, because he was a completely new discovery was a Latvian poet called Karlis Verdins, published by Arc.  He was a brilliant reader, very dry and funny.

The festival is definitely a poetry marathon – I saw ten poets read on Friday and another nine I think on Saturday, but I made lots of discoveries of poets that I hadn’t heard of before.  If you’re looking for a festival to attend next year that is friendly with a great atmosphere with a high quality programme, then I would recommend the Winter Warmer Festival.  There was a great mix of Irish and international poets, and everybody was commenting on the variety of the performers.

I am glad to be home though, at least until Friday anyway, when I head off to Word Club in Leeds to perform with the lovely Helen Mort.  I think there are a few tickets left for this as far as I’m aware and it would be great to see some of you there!


Residential Poetry Course in St Ives


Steve Ely and I have been working really hard this week to pull the timetable together for the residential poetry course that we’re running in St Ives next year, from the 15th to the 20th February.

Below you will find the timetable and a short description of the workshops that we have planned for the week.  You can also find this information by hovering over the ‘Residential Poetry Courses’ tab and clicking on the St Ives page or you can just follow this link here

The course takes place at Treloyhan Manor Hotel, which overlooks Carbis Bay and is situated on the edge of St Ives.  The price of £395 includes breakfast and a three course evening meal, accommodation and all workshops and tuition.

The course is suitable for beginners and more experienced writers.

Please get in touch if you have any questions about the course, but to book a place, please phone Treloyhan Manor Hotel on 01736796240

Draft Timetable (this may be subject to small changes!)
Thrown Voices – Monday 15th-Saturday 20th February 2016

Monday 15th February
5pm-6pm – Welcome and short writing workshop in the lounge

6.30pm – Evening Meal

8pmEvening Reading in the lounge
Bring a favourite poem to share with the group, written by somebody else.

Tuesday 16th February
10am-1pm – Morning Workshop with Kim Moore

Shape Shifters and Ventriloquists
Shape shifting is the ability to physically transform into another being or form, while ventriloquism is the art or practice of speaking in such a manner that the voice does not appear to come from the speaker but from another source. Poets have always become shapeshifters and ventriloquists to find ways of telling stories that are both their own, and somebody else’s.   During this workshop, we will experiment with different ways of throwing our voices and how taking the shape of another can impact on our writing. Please bring an object that means something to you along to the workshop.  

2.30pm-4.30pm – Afternoon Workshop with Steve Ely
Deviant Voices & the Dramatic Monologue
The truism ‘we all love a good villain’  is embodied in the fact that many of the most compelling characters in literature – Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men – are often the most immoral, corrupt and criminal.  This workshop will explore the ways poets have given expression to such deviant voices and provide resources, stimuli and techniques that will enable participants to create a consistent and compelling voice for fictional or re-imagined villains in the dramatic monologue form.  The possibilities of developing such work into more extended forms – such as sequences or pamphlet-length pieces will be explored.

6.30pm – Evening Meal

8pm – Poetry Reading in the lounge by Steve Ely and Kim Moore

Wednesday 17th February
10am-1pm – Morning Workshop with Steve Ely
The Bible from Below
Each book of the Bible contains a whole ensemble of characters alongside the main protagonists.   Alongside Jesus in the Gospels we find important but largely silent characters such as Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ father Joseph and the nameless ‘woman taken in adultery’.  Similarly, in the books of Samuel, alongside Saul, David and Samuel himself, we encounter Hannah, Samuel’s mother, Agag, the Amalekite king and David’s first wife Michal, each of whom is denied significant utterance.  This workshop will explore a range of Biblical texts to investigate the role and significance of these intriguing characters and to explore ways in which we might poetically articulate their voices and points-of-view, re-writing the Biblical stories ‘from below’.

2.30pm – 4.30pm – Afternoon Workshop with Kim Moore
Holding Your Tongue
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the thing that kills a person who has been transformed into an animal, tree or bird, is not the transformation of the body, but the loss of speech. Ovid elevates the ability to communicate over and over again throughout his epic poem. There are many ways of being silenced of course but against this, putting pen to paper becomes an act of defiance. During this workshop we will be reading poems which push against an imperative for silence, exploring what it means to have a voice and writing about what happens when the ability to speak is taken away.

6.30pm Evening Meal

8pm – Poetry Reading with Mystery Guest Poet

Thursday 18th February
10am-1pm – Morning Workshop with Steve Ely and Kim Moore

People Watching in St Ives
During this workshop we will look at the different ways that poets write about people – from closely drawn observations to dramatic monologues. We will talk about the art of people watching before letting participants loose to wander the streets of St Ives. Participants will create their own dramatic monologues, drawing on observations and their imaginations to create their own characters.

2.30pm onwards – Free Afternoon – Tutorials available with Kim or Steve

6.30pm – Evening Meal

8pm – Poetry Quiz/Discussion in the Lounge

Friday 19th February
10am-1pm – Critiquing Workshop with Steve Ely and Kim Moore
Please bring 10 copies of a poem that you would like feedback on.  Photocopying is available at the hotel but there will be a charge.

2.30pm onwards – Free Afternoon

6.30pm – Evening Meal

8pm – Participants Poetry Reading in the Lounge

Saturday 20th February

Breakfast and departures


Sunday Poem – Choman Hardi


Researcher’s Blues – Choman Hardi

Every day I try to lose them in the streets,
leave them behind in a bend in the road and keep on
walking.  But they follow me everywhere, their voices
combining into a hum from which sentences rise and fall.
The woman I never interviewed cut the string of my sleep
at dawn, whispering: ‘I am not well’.  Why didn’t I listen
to her story? Why didn’t I realise that she was dying?
The one widowed at 26 told me, ‘Imagine twenty
years of loneliness.’  I remember her in the middle of
an embrace and start weeping.  The pleading voice
of the woman who was raped echoes in my head:
‘I only wanted bread for my son.’  I wish I had told her
that she is good, she is pure, not spoiled as she thinks she is.
Then I remember the old couple in their mud-brick house,
surrounded by goats and chickens.  I remember their tears
when they talk about their children, when they remember
a woman who had been rich and powerful in her own village
but in Nugra Salman ‘she was stinking, abandoned,
worm-stricken’.  What was the dead woman’s name?
Why didn’t I try to find her family? I keep walking away.
All I want is to walk without crying, without being
pitied by people who think that I have problems
with love, without the homeless man telling me that he is
sorry.  I want to disappear, be unnoticed, unpitied.
Sometime ago when I started, it was all clear.  I knew
what had to be done.  All I can do now is keep walking,
carrying this sorrow in my soul, all I can do is
pour with grief which has no beginning and no end.

The Sunday Poem this week is by Choman Hardi, a poet that I heard read at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival last weekend.  I cried all the way through Choman’s reading, which was a new experience for me.  Crying, I mean, not the poetry reading.  Choman read poems from a sequence called ‘Anfal’ which sits at the heart of her new collection ‘Considering the Women’, published by Bloodaxe.  The sequence draws on Choman’s post-doctoral research on women survivors of genocide in Kurdistan, telling the untold story of the survivors.  The horror that these poems document is terrible, and that made me cry first of all, but what kept me crying was the calm and poise and grace that Choman read the poems with.  She did not let her feelings show when she was reading the poems, and I’m guessing this is so that there is no distraction from the stories that she is trying to tell, although I don’t know this.

Researcher’s Blues tells us that of course this type of work and this type of writing has a massive effect on the write, and it must take a superhuman effort to read those poems so calmly and clearly.  The poem documents the literal haunting of the writer by the people she didn’t speak to, as well as the ones she did, and feelings of not doing enough and not listening enough.

I know that poetry like this brings up strong emotions in people about whether this is what poetry should be for and I will stick my head above the parapet and say yes, I think this is absolutely one of the things that poetry is for.  Not every poem has to be about violence or trauma or witness, but some poems must be. It has to be good poetry of course as well and this is – right from the compelling first line.  The line breaks are also working really hard in this poem. I like the line break in Line 2 after ‘on’ and the break after ‘listen’ in Line 6.

This poem is working hard as well, pulling together threads that have been explored in the sequence, and things that will be explored later on, the idea that knowledge is a dangerous thing, that you can end up knowing both more than you started, and less: ‘Sometime ago when I started, it was all clear.  I knew/what had to be done.’  I also think that the desire for the erasure of the self at the end of the poem ‘I want to disappear, be unnoticed, unpitied’ is really interesting, especially when read in the context of the first poem of the sequence ‘Preface: Researcher’s Speech’ which says ‘fill me up with your words’.  At the beginning of the sequence, the speaker of the poem is prepared to be a vessel for the stories of the survivors.  By the end, even this desire has gone.  The speaker wants to disappear completely.

I guess I wanted to put this poem up today because of everything that has happened in Paris this weekend, and everything that has happened in Egypt and Beirut and Syria and Iraq.  The media don’t cover the terrorism that is going on in these countries –  I felt ashamed that I didn’t know about the terrorism attack in Beirut.  This poem, and Choman’s book centres on the idea of telling the story of people that have no voice, so I thought it was apt this weekend, in memory of all of the voices that have been silenced in terrorist attacks and bombing campaigns, voices that we won’t hear tell their stories.

I’ve been pondering this poem for a couple of hours now, trying to write this blog post and I still don’t quite feel that I’ve pinned down everything I want to say about Choman’s poetry, but I strongly recommend the collection.  Choman was born in Sulaimani and lived in Iraq and Iran before seeking asylum in the UK in 1993.  She was awarded a scholarship from the Leverhulme Trust to carry out post-doctoral research about women survivors of genocide in Kurdistan-Iraq.  Her first English collection ‘Life for Us’ was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2004.  In 2014 she moved back to her home city to become an assistant professor in the department of English in the American University of Iraq.

I hope you enjoy the poem, and thanks to Choman for allowing me to post it here.

My week has been really difficult this week.  I remember last year that the Autumn term was really manic – I don’t know if anybody else finds this, but it seems to be busy both as a music teacher and as a poet.  Anyway, I can just about keep on top of it all as long as I’m feeling fit and healthy but my dizzy spell at Aldeburgh developed into a horrible cold this week so I’ve been doing everything I can to keep my head above water.

I got back from Aldeburgh at 5.30pm on Monday night and then had my junior band rehearsal followed by my soul band rehearsal.  On Tuesday I had teaching all day and then quintet rehearsal and another soul band rehearsal.  On Wednesday I taught all day and then packed and drove to Leicester because I was giving a lecture at Leicester University for the poet and novelist Jonathan Taylor’s undergraduate students.  I had a lovely chat with Jonathan in the canteen after the lecture, which served to remind me why I love poetry and poets.  I don’t know Jonathan very well, I think we’ve only met a handful of times, but twice now he has offered advice and encouragement – I was talking through ideas for a PhD and he came up with a list of books for me to look at.  It made me think – this is what doing a PhD would be like – sitting and talking about poetry, then being given a list of books to read.  It sounds like my dream!  Except if I was doing a PhD I would presumably have time to read the books.

Anyway, after that, I jumped in the car and crawled up the M6 through horrendous traffic to Keswick for the Cumbria Culture Awards.  As I got further north the horrible traffic died off  but I became convinced it was because it had all been washed away due to the torrential rain.  I ended up being late for the Cultural awards and although I’d  bought a posh dress and shoes with me, I ended up running into the venue and performing in my jeans, trainers and my mum’s cardigan.

One good thing about being up for Cumbria Life Writer of the Year and being against writers like Sarah Hall and James Rebanks was that I was a 100% sure that I wasn’t going to win, so I actually enjoyed the night.  It was really exciting to hear about all the amazing things that are happening in Cumbria.  The Barrow Shipyard Junior Band sadly didn’t win Musical Group of the Year either, but I think they did brilliantly to be shortlisted and it also didn’t feel horrible not to win because Cumbria Life had done a lovely film about each person or group in the shortlist so it felt like you were made a fuss of, even if you didn’t win.

By the time I got to Friday, my cold was awful and got worse as I ran my Young Writers group in the afternoon, and performed with the quintet at Brewery Poets.  The three guest poets were David Borrott, Kerry Darbishire and Barbara Hickson and they read really well, but to be honest, I felt like I was dying at this point ( I am nothing if not dramatic) and I was mainly focused on not having a massive tantrum because I felt so ill.

I woke up on Saturday feeling a little bit better, which was lucky really because I was running my first all day poetry workshop in Barrow.  The workshop was a real success – there were a few cancellations due to the bad weather, but ten poets turned up and they were a lovely group and wrote some fantastic stuff.  I’m hoping to book another workshop for January and then to hold them once a month after that.

On Saturday night I had a gig with the Soul Survivors and then today I’ve spent the day catching up with emails, so if you’ve been expecting a reply to an email for ages and you haven’t got one, please give me a nudge, as I think I’ve caught up with myself now.  This afternoon I drove to Maryport to announce the results of the Maryport Literature Festival poetry competition and to do a short reading.  It was a lovely event, but we finished early because of the bad weather.  On the way back, my headlights were actually underwater at one point driving through the flood at Holmrook, but the car kept going which was a relief as I don’t know what I would have done if I’d flooded the engine…

So that is my week.  Next week on Thursday I’m reading with Peter Riley at The Bookcase in Hebden Bridge – please see the ‘Readings and Workshops’ tab for more details.  On Friday I’m off to Cork to read at the Winter Warmer festival and Matthew Sweeney is heading to Ulverston to read at A Poem and a Pint, which I’m going to miss which I’m really sad about, although I’m obviously quite excited to be going to Cork.

At some point this week, there will be information going up about the workshops and timetable for the residential I’m running with Steve Ely in St Ives.  We have been putting the final touches to this and it is almost ready!

Sunday Poem – Damian Rogers


There’s No Such Thing as Blue Water – Damian Rogers

I’ve been thinking that montage is a mental technique
for accepting unity as a convulsive illusion.  I feel sick.
I hate it when my stories have holes, though I suspect
there’s where the truth leaks out. So go back to bed.
Maybe it’s laziness, maybe the delivery system is flawed.
If the gods are making a movie, I’ve spent years sneaking out
for smoke breaks between takes.  I do violence to myself.
I imagine the ones I love dead in their favourite chairs,
dead in distant car crashes.  Who are these girls who wear
lipstick to watch TV?  The woman I know go shut-in,
sleep in their clothes for days in a row.  A self-help author
revealed to me with great confidence that life is swinging
branch to branch in a fog.  And I thought, of course
he’s right, of course he’s wrong.  Let’s say we are always
at Point A.  From space, the ocean is only a mirror.

I’m writing this from a cottage in Aldeburgh, after attending the poetry festival for the third year in a row.  I’ve been at wall-to-wall poetry events from Friday night until this afternoon, but for those of you that weren’t lucky enough to be at a brilliant poetry festival, I am sending you this fantastic poem by the lovely Damian Rogers, who I met at an event in Grasmere a couple of months ago.

The poem comes from Damian’s poetry collection Dear Leader, published by Coach House Books.  Damian is from the Detroit area and now lives in Toronto, where she works as poetry editor of House of Anansi Press and as creative director of Poetry in Voice, a national recitation contest for Canadian high school students.  Her first book of poems, Paper Radio was nominated for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award.  You can find out more information about Damian on her blog and you can order her book here.

When I read this poem for the first time, I had a jolt of recognition when I got to the line ‘I do violence to myself./I imagine the ones I love dead in their favourite chairs/dead in distant car crashes.’  I do this all the time! I imagine worst case scenarios to the point where I will wince with the imagine pain and have to shake myself out of it.  What a relief to know I’m not alone!

More accurately though, the first jolt of recognition was at the line ‘I hate it when my stories have holes, though I suspect/there’s where the truth leaks out.’ That seems true of poetry, that the truth leaks out through what is not said, through the holes in the poems.

The poem seems both sure of itself and unsure of itself.  It is a strange mix of definite statements ‘I feel sick’, ‘So go back to bed’ but there are also lots of words which show that in fact, there is nothing simple or clear or definitive: ‘I’ve been thinking’ ‘I suspect’, ‘Maybe’.  The poem does have its own inherent wisdom with observations like ‘A self-help author/revealed to me with great confidence that life is swinging/from branch to branch in a fog.  And I thought, of course/he’s right, of course, he’s wrong.’

That statement seems to be at the heart of the poem – the idea that things can be both one thing, and another.  I also think that the question ‘Who are these girls who wear/lipstick to watch TV? The women I know go shut-in, sleep in their clothes for days in a row.’  I think the shift from the ‘girls’ – who are not real – (who does wear lipstick to watch TV?) to the women, who are real, albeit ‘shut-in’ is a really clever one.

I’ve had an amazing weekend.  The highlights of the festival for me was the readings tonight by Choman Hardi and Tony Hoagland.  Choman’s book ‘Considering the Women’ was launched at the festival and she read from a sequence in the book which explores the genocide in Kurdistan.  The poems were heartbreaking and moving and it is one of only a few occasions when poetry has moved me to tears, not only for those poems but also for the poems she read later about the breakdown of her marriage, which were full of such sadness and yearning and longing and regret.  They were really beautiful.

The other thing that impressed me about Choman this weekend was the way she conducted herself during the various discussions and lectures that she took part in.  In the Blind Criticism session, she was only an audience member, yet she said the most pertinent comment of the session, referring to Allison McVety’s poem ‘White Jean’s, she said something like ‘When women wear clothes it is seen as an expression of their sexuality, when men wear clothes it is seen as an expression of their identiy’ which I thought was so interesting and full of possibilities to explore.

Choman was the first poet to read in the last reading of the festival and Tony Hoagland did the closing reading.  I love his use of irony and the clever observations in his poems and I love the way he seems to be trying to write about the soul – what it is and how to define it.  I’m now planning on basically buying everything else he has ever written – that is how good it was! And to think I’d not heard of him, or Choman before the festival.  That is why I love Aldeburgh – I go there thinking I’m excited to hear Kei Miller and Helen Mort and John Burnside (and it was exciting) but then the poets that make me feel like something in my life has just shifted, are poets I’ve never come across before.

There is lots more to tell you but I’m running out of my 1000 words and I’m writing this with a headache.  On Saturday night, I rather embarrassingly started to get really hot as John Burnside was reading.  I was quite near a door but still it was very obvious when I left, but I had to get out, because I thought I was going to be sick or pass out.  I usually pass out when I get too hot.  Once I’d cooled myself down by splashing water on my face, I was ok, apart from a really bad headache, which I’ve now got tonight as well.

So I’m going to sign off now.  Aldeburgh was amazing.  I’m getting up early tomorrow for the drive back to Cumbria.  I have to be back in the evening for junior band rehearsal and soul band rehearsal.  Hope you enjoy the poem, and thanks to Damian Rogers for allowing me to use it on this blog.  .

Sunday Poem – Matthew Siegel

Sunday Poem – Matthew Siegel

For Bryan, 13, who sleeps through Li-young Lee
By Matthew Siegel

Normally I would snap my fingers
behind your ear but it’s summer
and I understand why you are sick
of poems.  Normally, I would wake you
with my teacher voice and ask
is there a problem, Bryan?
But instead I watch you, head down
on the cool desk, your back rising,
falling with each breath, as if
you were my son on vacation,
tired of temples.   The classroom is dark
and warm like the inside of a flower.
The projector hums like your mother.
Love the questions themselves, I said
to you earlier, and you looked up at me
in that way children look up at adults.
I want to tell you I too know
what it means to eat lunch alone
at a big table watching girls laugh,
sip cold blue slush through thick straws,
what it means to watch soup steam rise,
to breathe it in, look for figures
in the noodles, how it feels to force-feed
the last few golden mango chunks at desert.
Bryan, I am not going to tell you
how lovely you are asleep on your desk,
how one day, maybe you might turn into a man
who looks at a boy sleeping in his classroom
and instead of chastising him
wants to touch his hair.

It’s the end of the half term holiday tonight – school goes back tomorrow.  Although officially Monday is one of my writing days, I’m anticipating spending some time printing out music for the various junior bands that I run.  It’s impossible to keep the two worlds of poetry and teaching seperate.  If I don’t want the children to miss out, I have to do some things on my days off.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Matthew Siegel, who I met very briefly at the Forward prize giving a couple of weeks ago.  The poem is from Blood Work which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.  I like this poem because it manages not only to bridge the gap between poetry and teaching because of its subject matter, it also documents that tenderness and compassion which teachers can show, which as teachers, we all hope to be able to show when it is needed.

I love the honesty of this poem with the recounting of ‘Normally I would snap my fingers/behind your ear’ and ‘Normally, I would wake you/with my teacher voice’.  I kind of cringe a little bit when I read that – the ‘teacher voice’ because I hear myself speaking with a ‘teacher voice’ – trotting out the lines my teachers said to me.  A teacher voice is necessary of course – you need it otherwise you would run out of energy before the morning was done, but I think it is also a shield between you and the children and that is a shame.

This week I spent a couple of days in London visiting my lovely friend Holly Hopkins who I haven’t seen for a while.  I also was a guest poet on Kathryn Maris’s Advanced Poetry Course, run by The Poetry School. As part of the session, some of the participants brought a poem to be critiqued, and Kathryn talked a bit about the movement of a poem, its energy, where it is going, and how poems that don’t work are sometimes static or lack movement.  (I’m paraphrasiing here – and I’m sure Kathryn can put it better – but you’ll have to sign up for one of her fantastic courses to hear it from the horse’s mouth, as it were). When I was reading Matthew’s poem again, it struck me that it has real movement and energy.  It moves from ‘Normally’ etc to ‘But instead’ to ‘I want to tell you’ and then ‘I am not going to tell you’.  If the poem was an animal, it would be shifting its weight gently around before strolling off into the distance.

It is easy as a teacher to be offended that somebody has fallen asleep in your class – is it because you are boring?  Maybe, but it can also be because it feels like a safe space, and they trust you.  This is the feeling I get here, even though the poem says very early on ‘I understand why you are sick/of poems’.  But later on we read ‘The classroom is dark/and warm like the inside of a flower./The projector hums like your mother’.  This tells me that the classroom is somewhere this child feels safe in.

Matthew’s first collection Blood Work is published by CB Editions and you can order it directly from his publisher here.  Matthew Siegel was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, California.  He teaches literature and creative writing at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  Thanks to Matthew for allowing me to publish his poem!

Some of you may have noticed that my blog posts have been getting a little shorter.  I’ve been trying really hard to keep them under 1000  (not including the poem) – before that they were sometimes twice or three times as long and a friend recently pointed out that meant I was writing the equivalent of a novel a year.  No wonder it was starting to feel like hard work!  But a 1000 feels manageable.

This week, apart from spending a few days in London, I’ve spent Friday and Saturday taking it quite easy.  I felt really tired and just not in the mood to do anything.  When ever I feel like this, I go back to reading and I’ve got through quite a few poetry collections in the last couple of days.  Today I ran the Lancaster Half Marathon and did it in a time of 1 hr 45 minutes and 47 seconds.  I was really chuffed with this because my time last year was 1 hour 52 minutes and 23 seconds, so I’ve knocked just over six minutes off my time.  Last year I’d only been running six months, and it was my first half marathon.  This year, I decided to try and run, on average, 5 minutes for every kilometre, which worked out well – it gave me something to focus on throughout the race.

Other news – I am the Podcast Poet on The Verb this week – you can download the podcast here for the next two weeks.  I’m ten minutes from the end.  When I first listened to this, I am not exaggerating when I say I started sweating horribly because I was so embarrassed at hearing my own voice, and imagining that it was terrible  I have since had some sense talked into me and I’m prepared to admit that I may have a slightly skewered sense of reality about it.

Issue 2 of The Compass is live as we speak.  I’m the Reviews Editor for The Compass, which means I have to find reviewers and then edit the reviews that they write.  The content of each issue of the magazine is released gradually over a two week period – so half of Issue 2 is already up there.  You can find reviews of David Morley and Jan Owen, written by Sarah Hymas and a review written by Maria Taylor of Jack Underwood, Andrew McMillan and Matthew Siegel.  There are two reviews still to be published – one by John Foggin and one by Roy Marshall and a lot more poetry.

When I write to you next week I will be in Aldeburgh –  on what is becoming an annual visit to Aldeburgh Poetry Festival – in fact I might have to write the blog post before I leave as I’m not sure if I will be able to get on the internet.  So there should be a blog post.  But there might not be.  You’ll have to wait and see…