Sunday Poem: Naomi Jaffa

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Sunday Poem: Naomi Jaffa

It’s been a beautiful day here in the Lake District today. I’ve been out in the cold and the sunshine most of the day. At lunchtime I went for a 12 mile run with a group of friends and then a 3 mile dog walk when I got back. I’m now sat feeling a bit sorry for myself as I’ve now got a pain behind my knee, at the bottom of my hamstring. I didn’t think it was that bad, but it seems to have got worse over the course of the evening. I’m hoping I’ve just overdone it a bit today and with a few days rest it will be ok.

This week has been a mix of teaching, recordings, and writing poems. On Tuesday I did a short interview with a producer from BBC Radio Cumbria and read my poem ‘Suffragette’. The interview and the poem will be broadcast some time in the week of the anniversary of the Representation of the People Act. I get really anxious when I do anything that’s recorded. Not usually beforehand too much, but afterwards – things that I’ve said run round and round in my head, or things I didn’t say – don’t know if anybody else gets this. It doesn’t happen when I do readings though – maybe because a poetry reading is such an ephemeral thing – and anything I’ve said, whilst it can be repeated, it has also disappeared.

Thursday is my teaching day at MMU – I’m teaching on an undergraduate unit called Language and Technique this term – covering for Adam O’Riordan. I’m really enjoying the teaching so far – this week Helen Mort and I took our undergraduate students to Manchester Art Gallery to hopefully be inspired by some of the art.

On Friday I went to Yarm school to do a reading/talk about domestic violence, focusing on the sequence in my first collection. This is the first time I’ve done something like this, and I was a little out of my comfort zone – as usually I read the poems one after another, without any introductions. This has always been my way of preserving a kind of boundary around myself when I’m reading these poems. The students were absolutely lovely though – they asked lots of perceptive questions and seemed really engaged. The teacher who invited me to come had read my book and thought about the poetry and was really enthusiastic. I couldn’t get the statistic out of my head that 1 in 3 women will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives – it’s a sobering thought when you’re standing in front of a room of young people with their whole lives ahead of them. Statistically, there were probably young women and young men in that room who have already experienced it.

I’ve also had another good week on the PhD – I’ve got a meeting with my supervisor tomorrow so I had to edit and get ready some new poems to send through to him. I’m nervous about the meeting tomorrow as these are all really new poems that I’m still not completely sure of. I had two poems accepted in the New Statesman this week as well, although I’m not sure when they will be published. And I’ve carried on with reading Theory of the Lyric by Jonathan Culler, which I’m still finding interesting!

I’ve been reading about the ‘cooperative principal’ coined by the philosopher H.R. Grice. The cooperative principal means that when we are talking to someone we assume that they are saying something relevant. In literature the cooperative principal is ‘hyper-protected’. Culler says that readers ‘will often go a long way in accepting obscurity, disjunction or apparent irrelevance’.

Culler talks about the ‘lyric convention of significance’ i.e ‘the fact that something has been set down as a poem implies that it is important now, at the moment of lyric articulation’. This has interesting implications for my poems exploring sexism. By writing lyric poetry about experiences of sexism, I can elevate experiences of sexism into significance, just by writing lyric poetry, rather than say, a diary entry.

Another thing that Jonathan Culler is really good on is Greek poetry. If I had time (which I don’t) I would find it very easy to be sidetracked and go and find as many examples of fragments of Greek poetry I could get my hands on. My most recent favourite is by Theognis, addressed to someone called Cyrnus. This is translated by Andrew Miller and the first couple of lines are

I have given you wings with which you will fly, soaring easily
over the boundless seas and all the land

A bit like Shakespeare’s sonnets – Theognis promises Cyrnus immortalization before complaining at the end that he has been deceived and disappointed.

So, on to the first Sunday Poem of February! Many people will know Naomi Jaffa as the former Director of Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, where she worked tirelessly to bring poets from across the world together in one place for a magical weekend. I know this because I was one of those lucky poets in 2013 and I had such a good time. I hope we treat the poets who come to Kendal Poetry Festival as well as I was treated that weekend in Aldeburgh.

As well as running one of the best festivals for 22 years, Naomi is also a fabulous poet. I suspect her own creative work was put on the backburner for the many years she was running the festival, but I was really happy to see that last year she had a pamphlet published by The Garlic Press. The pamphlet is called Driver and comes highly recommended.

Naomi Jaffa grew up in London and Scarborough and read English at Oxford. She is the daughter of professional musicians and started out in classical music management before moving to East Anglia in 1991. After her 22 years working for Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and as Director of the Poetry Trust, she is now the co-founder of Poetry People, a new organisation set up to run the Suffolk Young Poets competition and other community projects. Her first pamphlet, The Last Hour of Sleep was published in 2004.

The poem I’ve chosen is called ‘Sign’ and I think it’s really beautiful. I also like poems that send me off on a tangent – this particular tangent was to find out more about the epigraph at the beginning of the poem. Minerva was the goddess of wisdom (I found out) so Hegel is saying here that wisdom can only be found when things are ending. I then got a bit distracted by the various ways this phrase could be translated, like ‘takes flight at dusk’ instead of ‘flies only at dusk’. I like the version Naomi uses best – as ‘takes flight’ has a connotation of running away which I don’t think is needed. I found ‘The owl of Minerva only flies at dusk’ – just reversing those two words made me shudder because the rhythm was bumpy and ugly – and then you realise how ‘flies only’ sounds like what it means, the words float off the page, whereas reversed, they kind of bump along. I also found a longer version which I think is as lovely as the one Naomi chose to use: ‘The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk’. I think the shorter one works better as an epigraph, but I’m glad the shorter one led me to the longer one.

On to the poem, which has an encounter with an owl, or more accurately two owls at its heart. It seems to start mid-conversation, as if we know more than we actually do, as if this is a conversation between friends. We don’t know why or what or who the speaker is leaving, and although by the end of the poem, there is an introduction of a ‘he’ who will be left behind, I think the poem is also exploring the act of leaving in a much wider sense. We don’t even know who the speaker makes it clear to that they are leaving – it could be themselves, or another person.

Nature is set against a man-made world throughout the poem. The ‘big white wedge/of a bird’ flies level with the car. The old airfield and the road sign and the chicken-factory lorry are set against the barn owl, ‘perched and scrawny’.

I also love the matter-of-fact tone ‘and anyway I’m late, there’s no time today for nature’ – the confidence of this line, which is then disrupted by nature, which can’t be controlled. The voice of the poem which says ‘there’s no time’ is silenced by the owl ‘level with the window, flying at my speed’ and this encounter, this interaction takes on significance, the significance of a sign, showing the speaker ‘for at least ten slow clear seconds the way forward’.

I have only just noticed (honestly!) after banging on about the ‘lyric convention of signficance’ that this poem has the word significant in it. The unconscious is truly a wonderful thing!

The introduction of the ‘he’ at the end was surprising and heartbreaking when the speaker says ‘only now/does he see and touch me’. The idea of not being seen until you are leaving is delicious in its cruelty. I also really like how Naomi circles back to the epigram that began the poem – ‘This isn’t history, but must be what Hegel meant’. So Hegel was saying not that things have to end, night has to fall for wisdom to be found, but that wisdom can be found when things are ending, at dusk, a time of neither one thing nor the other, not night or day or dark or light.

Please rush forth and buy a copy from The Garlic Press here and thanks to Naomi Jaffa for allowing me to use her poem this week.

Sign
The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. Hegel

At the start of the week I make it clear I’m leaving,
on one of those never-gets-light December mornings,
I drive across the old airfield and, almost pass
the Passing Place sign, notice the barn owl,
perched and scrawny, hunger beating daylight.
I want to reverse for a better look, but here’s
the chicken-factory lorry in the mirror looming up,
and anyway I’m late, there’s no time today for nature.
But turning right at the end of the single track road
here’s a second one, much larger – a big white wedge
of a bird, level with the window, flying at my speed,
willing the car to disturb some small creature,
wingbeats in time with my heart all the parallel length
of the ditch between field-hedge and verge.
Of course I decide this is significant, this night-hunter
waiting up so late for me to arrive, willing to show
for at least ten slow clear seconds the way forward.
This isn’t history, but must be what Hegel meant.
After twelve and a half years and in the week
I make my intentions plain, only now
does he see and touch me, talk about how much
he understands, can’t bear the loss of.

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