Monthly Archives: January 2018

January Poem 2 – Robert Wrigley

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This has been a week full of terriers – literally.  I’ve had my sister’s three terriers, Sox, Buffy and Eddie to stay.  Added to my two Border Terriers Miles and Lola that makes five excitable dogs in the house.  At first I was planning on walking them in two groups but pressures of time put paid to that and I just took them all out together in the end.  Luckily they are all friendly with other dogs and have a good recall so I could just let them loose in the woods and fields across the road from my house.  

This has been a good week for getting poetry and PhD work done, despite having five terriers and more visits from workmen to finally finish the kitchen off.  I’ve got a lot more reading done and haven’t felt guilty at all about sitting around in my pyjamas! I think I’ve got my head around the fact that the reading I’m doing will eventually pull together to form a PhD.  I also got the date for my ‘mock viva’ which will be towards the end of February. I thought I would be really nervous about it, but I’m actually looking forward to it, and the chance to discuss what I’m doing and what I’ve been working on.  It’s a very strange feeling, to not be feeling anxious – maybe I really have turned a corner with the PhD.  

I’ve also been to two poetry groups this week, Barrow Writers on Tuesday and Brewery Poets on Friday, which meant I’ve had to stop dithering and finally get two poems which have been sitting ‘cooking’ in my notebook typed up and ready for feedback.  Thursday was my first day back at MMU this year teaching on a different undergraduate module this time, a Creative Writing unit.  I really enjoyed the teaching and some of the students have already sent in poems they wrote during the session.  Even when  I’m teaching I can tell now that all the reading I’ve been doing is paying off – bits of knowledge are linking up to other bits of knowledge.

On Saturday Chris and I drove over to Hebden Bridge for a 75th birthday party for Tony Ward, the publisher of Arc.  I met Tony at a festival in Ireland and we hit it off straight away – as I’m sure anyone who knows him will testify, Tony is great fun to hang out with.  I also got to see the lovely Amanda Dalton as well who is also good fun to spend time with, probably too much as we got a bit hysterical at one point in the proceedings.  We drove back home quite late at night, got back at 1am and then I was up at 7 to finish packing to go away for a week. 

I had two poetry critiquing groups to go to this week – Barrow Writers on Tuesday and Brewery Poets on Friday, which meant I had to stop dithering and get two poems ready for feedback.  On Thursday I did my first day of teaching at MMU on a undergraduate module called Language and Technique which is a creative writing module.  I really enjoyed the teaching – we looked at Curse poems this week and then I set them an exercise to write their own. Some of the students have already sent me their poems that they started in the session.  I’m teaching this unit alongside Helen Mort who has been her usual lovely self in getting me up to speed with everything.  I can also tell that all of the reading I’m doing for the PhD, and all the reading I did for the Approaches to Poetry course last year is really paying off – it feels like my brain is knitting together over previous gaps of knowledge!  There are obviously still plenty of gaps to be filled in of course, but that’s the great thing about reading isn’t it, there’s always more to do!

I’m writing this on the train from London down to St Ives, in Cornwall.  I’m going on a writing retreat down there with some friends – Katie Hale, Holly Hopkins, Hilda Sheehan and Emily Hasler.  I’m hoping to try and take stock of where I am with my next collection, write a few new poems, work on some drafts of poems that have been waiting to be typed up, and of course get some runs in along the coastal path.  I can’t wait to not have to do any cooking!  Last night I spent the night in London at the TS Eliot prize giving.   I went a couple of years ago and loved it, but I’d kind of forgotten how exciting it is.  I really like the format of the readings as well – I like that the prize is actually announced tomorrow, and that the Sunday night is just about the poetry and the poets.  

I haven’t read many of the books on the shortlist – I’ve actually only read Michael Symmons Roberts and Tara Bergin’s all the way through and really enjoyed them both.  Jacqueline Saphra’s reading was very moving – she was obviously delighted to be up there, and the warmth from the audience towards her and Nine Arches Press was really lovely.  Ocean Vuong was giving out lavender to people as he was signing books – but I spent too long talking and missed my opportuity.  Katie got some lavender but by the time we got home it had disintegrated and was just a twig in her bag! I really loved Robert Minhinnick’s poems that he read – out of the books I hadn’t read, that is the one I want to read first. 

So now we are just south of Reading and speeding towards St Ives.  It’s raining and grey and miserable but I am still on a bit of a poetry high from last night.  The second January poem this month comes from another brilliant collection – Robert Wrigley’s new book Box.  I saw Robert Wrigley read at Aldeburgh a few years ago and loved his poetry but was too shy to go and speak to him.  I got permission to post one of his poems from his Bloodaxe collection The Church of Omnivorous Light on the blog which you can find here and we’ve stayed in touch via Facebook since then.  We swapped books over Christmas and I was delighted to find Robert has a ‘My People’ poem as well, as the first poem in his collection.  

Robert Wrigley is the author of ten collections of poetry, including,most recently, Anatomy of Melancholy and Other Poems (Penguin 2013), which won a 2014 Pacific Northwest Book Award.   His earlier books have been awarded the Kingsley Tufts Award, the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Award, and the Poets Prize.  A University Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho, he lives in the woods near Moscow, Idaho, with his wife, the writer Kim Barnes. 

Along with Christina Thatcher’s book which I talked about last week, Box is one of my favourite collections I’ve read for a while.  It’s full of animals and transformations and an engagement not just with the natural world and its inhabitants but also a love of reading and engagement with other writers.  One of my favourite poems is ‘Blessed are’ which observes ravens attending to the corpse of a deer, but then the poem follows what happens to the skull as the year progresses and ‘the snows bury it’ until spring when it becomes ‘a blessing for blowflies’ until the speaker retrieves the skull and hangs it up where it will be ‘filled with the thoughts of yellowjackets’.  Another one of my favourite poems is called ‘Brother to Jackdaws’ where the speaker transforms from a man wanting to be a jackdaw, to the speaker being a jackdaw.  

I asked Robert if I could post ‘Ecology’ because I’ve been reading A LOT of academic writing this week around modes of address in lyric poetry.  Well, I’ve been reading a lot of Jonathan Culler and what he has to say about modes of address.  Sadly I can’t quote any of it as I am trapped at my table on the train and can’t get to my bag with my notebook in, but one of the things I remember is that he says that direct address to the audience or reader is actually relatively rare in lyric poetry, that usually the poet will be addressing someone or something else in the poem (a beloved or an animal or inanimate object) and the audience are only indirectly addressed.  There are obviously exceptions to this rule, but they are not as common.  He calls this ‘triangulated address’ which Ithink is a great term and I quite enjoy saying the word ‘triangulated’.   

So in one sense you could think of ‘Ecology’ as a rare example of a lyric poem that directly addresses the reader.  The imperative of ‘Study’ runs all the way through.  The things that we as reader or audience are being told to study are not the things one expects to study.  This is perhaps the study that a poet should make, with lines like ‘Study wind as well.  We will never know/what it desires beyond the elsewhere it is going’ and ‘Study the heart, which should not be seen/but heard’.  I love the word ‘study’ as well and how it encompasses explore, and examine, and look, and maybe even describe and watch and pay attention to.  

Of course the slippery thing about lyric poetry is its strange balance between public and private discourse, and to say that this poem is a direct address to the reader or audience, a forward facing imperative that instructs us to look, to be present in the world, ignores the fact that this poem is also turned in on itself.  It has two faces, one turned outward towards us, and one turned inward, towards the self.  It could equally be directed or addressed to the poet-self.  Maybe it is addressed to both.  

I plan to read this poem every morning in St Ives to get me in the mood for writing, for paying attention, for listening to the heart, ‘which should not be seen/but heard.’  

Thanks to Robert Wrigley for letting me use another of his poems on the blog. If you’d like to order Box you can do so here.

Ecology – Robert Wrigley

Study the muddy house, the salmon
gutting it out through glacial till.  
Study the heart, which should not be seen 
but heard.  Study the tree that is the child

and the ink that makes an octopus invisible.
Epistemologies of silence and blindness, 
suffering of common stones, the soul
with its hardened, scaly, ineveitable callus:

study them by coyote light, buffalo magnification.
Study the imperatives of rain and snow
at the whim and fancy of the wind.
Study wind as well.  We will never know 

what it desires beyond the elsewhere it is going. 
Study elsewhere, the geography of strange beds 
and topographies of lips, the glowing,
enormous, indefatigable possibilities of red. 

The sky, which is the mother of all rivers, 
must be studied, as must the river of all mothers, 
those oceans of spirit, the wells of unbelievers,
days like buckets full, arriving one after another

in the absence of an invisible engineer. 
Study the balusters and balustrades, wall studs
of sedimentary stone, the skin, the downiest hair.
Study spring grass, the planetary grave, the blood-fed

soil of the body farm, the pentagrammatic arm. 
Study the cuticle and free margin parentheses enclosing 
pink implications, the vast concupiscent charms
of the toes, the sleepy eye’s slow closing.

In such time as you are given, study the house 
within the house within the house you love in. 
Know of it such portion as you are allowed, 
and return to it to die, like a salmon. 

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PhD Musings and January Poem 1 – Christina Thatcher

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First week of 2018 and I’ve been trying to get back into my routine which has been a bit doomed to failure because of visitors and a left over addiction to a computer game that I started playing over Christmas.

So, I’ve decided to try and keep featuring poems here – but the Sunday Poem will now just be renamed by month.  Some months you may get one poem a week, and other times you may not.  I’m also going to try and link in a bit more thinking around my PhD, although again, this might not happen every week.

I’ve spent a large portion of this week running – I even managed to be first woman back at Parkrun this week in a time of 22.20 – still 50 seconds behind my PB but I’m slowly getting back to fitness after having a bit of time off with a dodgy knee just before Christmas – brought on by not resting after completing a half marathon.  My knee is fine now but I haven’t quite got my full running mojo back.

I’ve also had a meeting about Kendal Poetry Festival with my co-director Pauline Yarwood and our website designer.  The programme is finalised and has been for quite a few months now, and I’m busy gathering in photos and biogs from the festival poets and then there is a hard slog ahead as we start to write the content for the website and programme.  I love getting the photos of the poets though – it’s one of the most exciting bits as it makes it all a lot more real!

I’ve managed to get a few solid days work on the PhD though this week, inbetween recovering from New Year.  I’ve typed up a few rough drafts of new poems and spent mornings reading Theory of the Lyric by Jonathan Culler.  I thought I should try and do some reading around what is lyric poetry.  I’m finding the book really interesting, if a little hard going, but I’ve been feeling irritated with the book since the introduction, when Culler sets out the poets he’s going to be looking at – ‘canonical lyrics’ from Sappho, Horace, Petrarch, Goethe, Leopardi, Baudelaire, Lorca, Williams and Ashberry.

Positives – it’s great that the range of poets is drawn from other languages apart from English.  He also presents the poems in the original language and then a translation.  But one female poet in the whole book!  In the introduction, his reasoning for this is “Though there are  many circumstances in which enlarging the canon or attending to hitherto marginalized texts is the right strategy, when reflecting on the nature of the lyric there is a compelling argument for focusing on a series of texts that would be hard to exclude from lyric and that have played a role in the constitution of that tradition”.

I’m not even halfway through yet, so maybe some other women poets will appear.  He has referred to Emily Dickinson a few times.  Reading this book made me relieved that I didn’t do a degree in English Literature.  When I started writing and reading poetry, the only poetry available was Carol Ann Duffy, so I had no idea that women had been pretty much excluded from the canon.  I didn’t even know what the canon was, so there was no voice in my head telling me I couldn’t/shouldn’t write because I was a woman.  But I think if I’d had to study English Literature at the age of 18, when I was as unsure of myself as most other 18 year olds, and the texts we were told to read were mostly men, and the text books we were told to read referred to mostly men, it would have taken a long time to shake that off.

Instead I was doing a music degree and learning a whole load of other stuff about women and music and brass playing and power and gender – but that’s a whole other story!

I should be careful however, not to criticise a book for doing something other than what I want it to do, but I do wish there were more references to women poets.  Having said that, there is some really interesting stuff in the book, and I don’t understand all of it to be honest, but some interesting snippets – he talks about J.L. Austin’s theory about ‘performative language’, which brings into being what it refers to, such as when we say ‘I promise to pay you tomorrow’.  When we say this, we bring into being the promise, rather than telling about the act of promising.  If poetry can bring into being ‘that to which they refer or accomplish that of which they speak’ then poetry can be one of the creative and world-changing modes of language’.    This is something I’m interested in when I’m performing poems around sexism – by talking about sexism in a space where sexism is usually ignored, or not talked about, by elevating the act of sexism to art, sometimes I accomplish sexism or bring it into being (from audience members).  Sometimes by noticing sexism and writing about it, I can accomplish the noticing of sexism by others.

He also talks about how critics and universities advocate approaching all lyric poems almost as if they are dramatic monologues with a ‘speaker’ who is not necessarily the poet, which I thought was interesting as well.  He quotes  Mark Payne who says that ‘the poem is a forum for direct truth claims about the world on the part of the poet’ whereas in fiction or narrative poetry ”the truth claims are to be evaluated only with respect to the fictional speaker and the world he or she inhabits.’  I love that phrase ‘direct truth claims about the world’ and the way the word ‘claims’ also holds inherent in it the possibility of lying…

Obviously there’s a lot more in this huge textbook and I’m picking out small bits that aren’t necessarily representative – you’ll have to read it if you’re interested!

Just before the Poem of the Week, I wanted to leave you with this lovely quote from Derrida, also found in the pages of Theory of the Lyric.  One of my young poets at the Dove Cottage Young Poets session wrote a beautiful poem about her relationship with poetry, and particularly with poetry learnt by heart.  It had lines of Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry and some other poets woven through it.  Just by chance, I’d just read this in the ‘Theory of the Lyric’.  Derrida – that a poem is not just that which asks to be learned by heart but ‘that which learns or teaches us the heart, which invents the heart’.

I’ll leave you with two poems by Christina Thatcher, from her book More than you werepublished by Parthian. as the Poems of the Week.

Christina Thatcher was shortlisted for the Bare Fiction Debut Poetry Collection Competition in 2015 and was a winner in the Terry Hetherington Award for Young Writers in 2016, Christina Thatcher’s poetry and short stories have featured in a number of publications including The London MagazinePlanet MagazineAcumen and The Interpreter’s House. Her first collection, More than you were, was published by Parthian Books in 2017.

Christina Thatcher grew up in America but has made a happy home in Wales with her husband, Rich, and cat, Miso. She is a part-time teacher and PhD student at Cardiff University where she studies how creative writing can impact the lives of people bereaved by addiction. Christina keeps busy off campus too as the Poetry Editor for The Cardiff Review and as a freelance workshop facilitator and festival coordinator.

It’s a strange coincidence that I read More than you were whilst thinking about the lyric tradition and what poetry is for and what it should do. The collection explores the death of David Thatcher, Christina’s father, and this footing in fact and reality is made explicit on the back cover of the book.  But if we go back to ‘direct truth claims about the world’ I guess the claims these poems are making are claims about trauma and violence and grief, and the repercussions of experiencing these things.

It was hard to choose just one poem – although they do work on their own, you can read this whole collection cover to cover in one go.  It is completely compelling.  There is a narrative which drives the poems forward through these tiny snapshot moments.

The idea of learning and teaching – what we learn by heart, what we learn from text books which exclude us, what we learn from reading poetry has ran through this blog.  In Christina’s collection, she has a sequence of short poems called Lesson, numbered 1 to 10.  I found these poems extremely moving – the lessons often have a double meaning, or an intended meaning and an unintended meaning.

In Lesson #1, the short lines fit well with the idea of things being cut off, being severed.  The brutality is created not only by the killing of the snake, but the witnessing of the killing of the snake, not only the witnessing, but the witnessing of the killing of the snake with the toy shovel, which is now forever changed from a toy shovel.  The character of the ‘she’ figure (presumably the mother) who is ‘quiet and strong’ is contrasted with her act, and not just the act, but the acknowledgement of the act.  Is the lesson that sometimes to protect family we do ‘unfair and gruesome things’ or is the lesson ‘the world is a place where unfair and gruesome things can happen’?  Maybe both.

Lesson #2 is given by a different figure, and follows on directly from a poem that referenced the father, so I assumed it was him.  The strangeness of that image, ‘like spiders on a pillow’ and the strangeness of the lesson, that ‘young girls/are only ever as good/as their skin’.    And the strangeness of it sounding like a proverb.   I’m sure many women have memories of people saying stuff like this – I remember my nanna’s neighbour once saying to me, whilst I was playing a board game with her daughter ‘Close your mouth, you don’t look attractive sitting with your mouth open’ and the shame of being caught ‘not looking attractive’ and the lesson that this was something I should be doing.

Thanks to Christina for letting me post these two fantastic poems on my blog, and do rush over to Parthian and buy her book from them.  You will be supporting an independent publisher and you’ll get to read a fantastic book.

Lesson #1 – Christina Thatcher

The day she severed
the head of a snake
with the toy shovel
I used in the garden
she turned to me
and said – quiet and strong –
that in order to protect
our family we must sometimes
do unfair and gruesome things.

Lesson #2 – Christina Thatcher

You told me
with one swift movement
like spiders on a pillow,
never to touch fire –
your fingers will blister,
you said, and young girls
are only ever as good
as their skin.

Goodbye 2017 Hello 2018

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I’m a little late for the 2017 roundup, but when have I ever let that stop me?

This is what my 2017 looked like:

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The pink is poetry workshops and teaching –  a mix of Dove Cottage Young Poets sessions, residentials, workshops at festivals or workshops in schools.  The green is for poetry readings.  The orange squares at the top of the chart, just about in view in the first couple of months are university teaching sessions.  The yellow is for holidays – a running holiday in Benidorm in August and a long weekend at Stanza Poetry Festival in March.  Rather confusingly, I’ve also used orange for university courses and CPD stuff as well – I’ve no idea why, but I suspect I just ran out of colours.  The blue is for trumpet gigs – primarily with the Soul Survivors.

It looks a little full sitting here now, but I can also see lovely white spaces between all of the colours, and now I can look back from the vantage of 2018 and having handed in my 6000 words and 30 poems which made up my RD2 report for my PhD, I can think fondly of days when I sat in my pyjamas all day with a pile of books spread around me in a circle, spending the whole day reading and writing and thinking.

2017 has definitely been the year when I have struggled and wrestled with my PhD, as if it is some huge and ungainly rock I’ve been trying to move around.   It’s only recently it has finally clicked that the PhD is actually more like a container that holds water, and that the container could be lots of different shapes.  It just needs to hold water.  Or something like that.  I have said ‘struggled’ and ‘wrestled’.  Behind those two words crouch anxiety, sleeplessness, self-doubt, insecurity, dread.  I’m nothing if not dramatic.  But also curled up behind those two words are hours of reading, and thinking, and observing and absorbing, and conversations with friends and colleagues that have been stimulating and thought-provoking.

Of course, I’ve been getting on with other stuff apart from the PhD.  I co-directed the second Kendal Poetry Festival with my friend Pauline Yarwood.  We found out very recently that we’ve got arts council funding to run a third Kendal Poetry Festival, which will take place from 7th-9th September 2018.  Watch this space for news about the line up and the tickets! The other two brilliant things that happened this year was the invitation to read at Struga Poetry Festival in F.R.Y.O.Macedonia and the poets I met there – in particular the women I met there.  And lastly, and most recently was my book actually winning the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and the lovely weekend I spent with my family and husband in London when I went to collect it.

There have been pretty rubbish parts of 2017 as well.  Someone I’m very close to has been badly hurt, and I couldn’t do anything to stop it.  I’ve spent a large part of the year recovering from a running injury which has been frustrating.  I spent the first part of the year recovering from a gall bladder operation.  But on the whole, while the rest of the world seems to be going slightly mad (Trump, Brexit etc etc) I’ve been ok.

I’m feeling hopeful about 2018.  I have some exciting things coming up – in early January I’m off on a writing retreat with some friends.  I’m really looking forward to having a whole week to concentrate on writing poems.  I’m also looking forward to not having to cook or clean up after myself, and the chance to eat scones every afternoon.  I’m running four residential courses next year- details here   of one of the courses at the Garsdale Retreat that still has spaces.  I’m teaching again as an associate lecturer this term at MMU again, on a different module this time, a Creative Writing module alongside Helen Mort, which I’m really looking forward to.

I don’t really like resolutions, and mine are quite nebulous and hard to measure anyway.   I want to start enjoying my PhD more and spend less time worrying about it and feeling anxious.  I can’t really measure that, except in how I feel about it.  I want to stop feeling guilty about sitting in my pyjamas all day and reading.  When I did this last year (in 2017) I felt guilty that I wasn’t ‘really doing’ a PhD.  However, all the reading really paid off when it came to the RD2, so in 2018, I’m determined to enjoy sitting around and reading, and not feel bad about it.

 

I’ve read quite a few roundups from friends who blog and have really enjoyed seeing their take on the last year.   Quite a few of the blogging poets have blogged about their successes/failures or rejections/acceptances or moving towards doing this more – two that spring to mind are Katie Hale (you can find her blog here) and Josephine Corcoran.  I’ll be following their blogs in 2018 with interest – as this was one of the compulsions that drove me to start blogging as well

I feel strangely out of step with this move, because my instinct, particularly in the last few months has been to step back from sharing my life on here so much.  In the last half of this year, I’ve been very irregular with the Sunday Poems.  Then again, also in the last month I had a huge spate of blogging activity which was very personal in the form of the 16 Days of Action, so maybe my instinct to pull back a little was more a gathering my resources for the 16 days.

I’d like to thank all of the poets who have allowed me to use their poems on the blog this year, and you, the people who are reading this blog.  And thank you to those of you who I’ve met at readings and workshops and courses, who have come up and told me you read the blog, and that you enjoy it.

I’m not sure yet what I want to do with this blog going forward in 2018.  I’ve been in this state of flux for a couple of months.  It will probably involve in some form or another, PhD musings, brilliant poetry books that I think you should read, and Sunday Poems.  I don’t quite know myself how it’s going to pan out, so again, watch this space, and I hope to meet/speak/hang out with you all somewhere in poetryworld in 2018.