I’m writing my blog in the garden today. Our ‘half a hawthorn’ tree (the neighbour chops it in half because it hangs over our fence) is valiantly putting out blossom on our side of the garden, just in the lower branches, so I’m hoping it will survive the assault on its dignity for another year. This morning I woke up to the consequences of two dogs who were determined to eat sheep poo for the whole day yesterday – lets just say it took a good half hour to clean it all up and was not particularly pleasant! I feel slightly guilty about all of this as I clearly didn’t keep a close enough eye on them yesterday when I was out walking with a friend in the Lakes. I think we talked non-stop for about six hours, and clearly the dogs took advantage of our riveting conversation and cleared the fell of sheep poo so they could deposit it all over the kitchen floor. All I can say is THANK GOD the husband was here to help clear it up.
Since I last wrote, I did a reading at The Square Chapel in Halifax alongside Alison Brackenbury and Roy Marshall and some great open mic readers. I ran my Barrow Poetry Workshop last month – I think there were 10 people there from Barrow, Dalton, Ulverston, Kendal and Penrith, so all Cumbrian writers this time.
I signed up for some training a while ago at the university. MMU has some great opportunities for continuing professional development if you are teaching there, and I can study part time to get a PGCE in Higher Education if I want to. I went to the first training day on a 15 credit unit that would go towards a PGCE a week and a half ago. At the end I spoke to the unit leader and she has advised me to speak to the course leader to try and get some academic credit for my previous teaching experience and my PGCE in Secondary Education, so I’m meeting the course leader next week. This will hopefully give me a bit of a head start towards the qualification.
For the last week, I’ve been down in Ledbury as I’d been given a place on their Voice Coaching course. The night before I stayed at a friend’s house. The friend is a poet, and her husband is also a writer. We had a long late-night conversation about poetry and PhD’s, and confessionalism and lyricism and lots of other stuff. I felt like my head was buzzing with ideas, so much so that I could hardly get to sleep. My friend’s house is perfectly set up for being a writer. She has a beautiful office filled with books and an acre of land with some very cute and friendly sheep and two large dogs bounding about the place, and a friendly cat that came and sat with me last thing at night before it got bored and went out of my room. There are beautiful views over the countryside – and did I mention the books? It made me feel less guilty about my over-the-top book collection anyway. On Monday we went to see a beautiful old church and went for lunch and then they dropped me off at Hellens, where the voice-coaching course took place.
I must admit I was quite nervous and apprehensive about the course. Although the poets I’ve spoken to have all been very positive about it and said they found it really useful, quite a few of them said that it was ‘quite intense’. I know when I run writing workshops that when ever I set up a writing exercise about the voice or the body, it can quickly stray into some very personal and powerful material. I’m also slightly wary about ‘voice coaching’ – anything that might involve drama work is basically my worst nightmare. But I applied because I wanted to do something different and take myself out of my comfort zone and it certainly did that.
The tutor, Francoise had incredible energy and enthusiasm. She was also incredibly kind and generous and astute. It’s hard to sum up what the course was like because if I tell you about the parts of it that I can name – like the deep breathing, the using different parts of your voice, the stretching and bending, those parts don’t add up to what it was really like, or what it all really meant. I have never spent lots of time with my self – just breathing. I find it incredibly hard to do nothing. I have a mortal fear of being bored – but I wasn’t bored, not once. I learnt that when Francoise asked us to say something, to use our voice to make a sound, I was waiting until someone else spoke first. What was that all about? I learnt that I was constantly self-conscious, and thinking I know what people are thinking, when in fact, and obviously, I don’t. I learnt that I use SO MUCH energy trying to make people like me, and I don’t want to do it anymore. I obviously want people to like me, but I don’t want to waste all my energy on it – they either like me or they don’t. I learnt lots of techniques about performance and energy and breathing as well and there were lots of opportunities to read our poems out. We actually went and read at one of the Ledbury Salons on the second night and listened to the poet Gregory Leadbetter who came to do a reading and then we all got up and read two poems on the Open Mic.
Normally on residential weeks they seem to fly by, but at this one, it felt like time really slowed down. We were in workshops for the whole day every day, and it was both physically and emotionally intense, but it was also incredibly sustaining and thought-provoking. So when the applications open again, I would urge you to apply. It was a brilliant, life-changing experience. I think the only pre-requisite is that you have to have a pamphlet or a book out.
So it was a great week, and I met some really lovely poets, and got to know their work really well, which was brilliant. It was back to reality with a bump however – the train was late from Birmingham to Preston, which meant I missed my last train home to Barrow. The train company put me in a taxi from Preston and I eventually got back home at just before 2am on Friday morning.
On Friday I had to get up early to get to Kendal for a consultation at the tattoo studio – I’m getting a new tattoo next Friday and then in the afternoon it was Dove Cottage Young Poets. Then back home to catch up on as many emails as possible before collapsing in a heap. Which brings us to Saturday and the walk and the six hour chat and the dogs eating sheep poo which I won’t go into again.
I found out whilst I was away in Ledbury that I’ve been given some funding from MMU to go to the English:Shared Futures conference in Newcastle in July, which means I can stay for the three days and go to some of the other panels and events, as well as taking part in the Round Table discussion about creative writing as research alongside Emily Blewitt and Carolyn Jess-Cooke.
I haven’t mentioned running because I haven’t been doing any. I had knee pain when I did a 5k run last week and it still isn’t right so I rested while I was in Ledbury. I’m going to have a week of swimming next week and try and get into the physio if I can. This knee is costing me a fortune!
Today’s Sunday Poem is by Polly Atkin, who lives not far from me in Grasmere. I’ve known Polly for a while now and I’ve been looking forward to the publication of her first collection Basic Nest Architecture for a long time now. I really enjoyed reading the collection, particularly as I’ve heard a few of the poems over the years at readings or open mics, so it was like meeting old friends again.
Polly grew up in Nottingham then lived in East London for seven years before moving to Cumbria. Her second poetry pamphlet Shadow Dispatches won the Mslexia Pamphlet Prize and was published by Seren. Her doctoral research was in collaboration with The Wordsworth Trust, and the departments of Sociology, and English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University, where she then taught for several years. She currently teaches English Studies at the University of Strathclyde.
The collection is full of poems about landscape and animals, so it’s no surprise that an extract of the collection won the 2014 Andrew Waterhouse Prize in the Northern Writers Awards, given to a collection that engages with landscape. There are also poems about living with illness and a body that doesn’t do what it is supposed to do, and it is one of those poems that I asked Polly if I could feature here.
‘The Invisible’ is a fantastic poem. It comes towards the end of the collection and it explores ideas around a shadow self, named as ‘Croneshadow’ in the poem. ‘Croneshadow’ seems to have her own will – she ‘stumbles ahead of me’ and ‘Her mouth/twitches down at the creases’. Croneshadow is both the speaker, and her shadow. Croneshadow is the body that will not do what it is told. The speaker says ‘I try/to right her but she will not straighten’.
By the end of the poem, we are left with the haunting image of the speaker walking along, her breath melting ‘the frost on the empty road’ and the Croneshadow walking ahead. The feel of the poem is that the speaker will be left behind, and the Croneshadow will walk onward, into her life, leaving her behind.
At first I thought Croneshadow was quite an ominous, or frightening figure. She is made almost grotesque in the poem by the physical description of the way she walks, and the description of her face. However, the speaker obviously has sympathy for her, because she tries to straighten her. Two thirds of the way down the poem we learn
more of pain than your charts can trace
but you will not acknowledge her>>>>>>hear her.
I then started to wonder who the ‘you’ is that this poem is addressed to? Is this poem addressed to the medical profession, to doctors, hospital staff? There are only four uses of the pronoun ‘you’ in the poem. I tried changing them to ‘they’ but it doesn’t work – it makes the poem feel more distant. Is the ‘you’ people who are healthy, people who don’t understand? The use of pronouns in this poem is very interesting, because at one point it feels like the ‘I’ and the ‘she’ are merging into each other (‘Her edges are blurring./ My legs are unravelling’. But by the end of the poem, there is a definite distinction and separation between the two identities.
It feels like a poem that I will continue to puzzle over, and the other thing to say is that although I think it works really well on its own, the other poems in the book about the body add another dimension to this poem. The landscape/animal poems are wonderfully lyrical as well. In ‘Heron/Snow’ the first line is ‘You carry worlds in the cipher of your feathers;/sky and water woven together’. Another favorite poem was ‘Jack Daw’ which is up there with the best animal/bird description poems.
If you would like to order a copy of Polly’s collection, you can order it from the Seren website and get a 20% discount. If you’d like to find out more about Polly, you can visit her website which is https://pollyatkin.com/
The Invisible – Polly Atkin
‘The secret is to walk evading nothing’
???????????????????????– Alice Oswald
Croneshadow stumbles ahead of me>>>>>catching
erratic feet on the tarmac>>>>>ruched
as it is by roots>>>>>her left foot sticking
as if in mud>>>>>her stoop cranked up
by the pock-marked skin of the drystone wall
she is thrown on>>>>>the angle of light>>>>sickish
orange in the early night.>>>>Her mouth
twitches down at the creases>>>>>Bitchy
Resting Face>>>though you cannot see it
dark on dark.>>>>You could say she exists
in relief>>>>except there is none>>>not
for a structure like her>>>>misbuilt>>collapsing
inward with each jolt forward. I try
to right her but she will not straighten. The more
I struggle the more she looks broken. She knows
more of pain than your charts can trace
but you will not acknowledge her>>>>>>hear her. Her name
is a slur. Her body is carrion. It is
too late for this.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>My blood too sticky.
Her edges are blurring.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>My legs are unravelling.
Her gown of bones is clacking>>>>>>clacking.
Will we ever reach home?
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>I sink in my clothes
till my breath melts the frost on the empty road.
She pushes ahead of me>>>>carries on walking.
Carries on walking.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Carries on walking.