Monthly Archives: March 2018

Sunday Poem – Jean Stevens

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Sunday Poem – Jean Stevens

The end of the week comes round again, and I’m never quite sure why it always feels like a surprise.  I’ve had quite a busy week – endless admin first of all, just the general, run-of-the-mill admin that you get as a freelance writer that sometimes turns into an admin avalanche and threatens to cover everything.

I also spent a large part of this week doing Kendal Poetry Festival jobs.  Pauline and I had a meeting on Monday with our website designer, Claire to discuss a slightly new look for this year’s website and logo.  One of the invisible jobs of organising a festival is writing the copy for websites and brochures.  This takes hours! It involves first of all contacting all the poets to ask for biographies, blurbs for any talks or workshops they are doing and a photo of themselves.  Easy, you might think.  Well, no, as even if the poets all send everything on time (which never happens) the things they send have to be proofread and put into our house style.  I write a short introduction to each event to go on the website.  This is quite hard as I’m trying to summarise people’s poetry  which is inherently difficult. Once I’d done all this, I sent it over to Pauline to be edited and proof-read, then she sent it back to me to have another look at the changes, and then it gets forwarded on to Claire.  Not very glamorous but one of the essential tasks that need doing before we can start selling tickets.

The next step, which is Pauline’s job, is to work with The Brewery Arts Centre, to get the correct ticket information put on their website.  I am very glad this is Pauline’s job, as I would rather write event descriptions than have to deal with people on the phone! This is one of the reasons we work well together I think, as we manage to share the work out so nobody has to do anything they really don’t want to do.

Pauline and I had another meeting on Friday, where we went through all the accommodation requirements for the Festival Poets.  We also went through our budget and made sure everything is still adding up, which again, doesn’t sound like much, but it took a long time.  Another rather unglamorous side of putting a festival on, but it will all be worth it in the end, and Pauline did keep the supply of tea going all afternoon.

My head has been all over the place this week – I had a meeting with the Soul Band to discuss our gig dates for the rest of the year on Tuesday night, and even though it was written in my diary I completely forgot about it.  I charged into the meeting just over half an hour late and in my pyjamas.  Whoops.  Luckily they are a forgiving bunch.

I was teaching my undergrads at MMU on Thursday.  It was quite intense this week as they are due to hand in their assignments.  I had two tutorials and then used the seminars to talk through the assignment briefs and give quick advice about editing their portfolios.  They have to hand in prose and poetry as well as a reflective essay.

After my Kendal Poetry Festival meeting on Friday, I then had to rush off to run a Dove Cottage Young Poets session, and then went straight home to go out for a meal with my friend J and her husband S.  I used to work with J when I was a music teacher.  We worked at a music centre on a Saturday together and we also taught in the same school and did classroom support for each other.  J is a violin teacher, and I learnt to play Twinkle Twinkle very badly on the violin whilst in her lessons.  It was lovely to see them again.  Chris (the husband) reminded me that I had a 7am train to catch the next morning, just before I started on my third beer, which was a very sensible move – I knew there was a reason why I married him!

On Saturday I made the 7am train and headed off to Manchester.  I’m working on a pilot project that MMU are running called the Writing and Talking Saturday Club.   It’s a chance for 13-16 year olds in Manchester to come and study at university for free and work with writers and creative tutors.  Saturday was a taster day, with drop in sessions of poetry on one table and character and plot development on another.  The project officially starts in April, so if you know any young people in Manchester who might be interested, follow the link and email Kaye Tew to register – it’s completely free to attend.

The taster day finished at 1pm and then I got the train back to Lancaster to go to the Lancaster Litfest poetry day .  My highlights were the lovely Kate Fox, who I think is generally fabulous, and Katharine Towers, whose work I’ve loved since hearing her read at Stanza Poetry Festival a couple of years ago and the Wayleave Press reading.  My co-director Pauline Yarwood read from her Wayleave Press pamphlet, as well as some new work, and the brilliant Hannah Hodgson, one of my Dove Cottage Young Poets read from her brand new pamphlet Dear Body.   The pamphlet isn’t officially available yet, I think it’s officially published in a few weeks – I’ll let you know when it comes out.

Today I have been at the South Cumbria Music Festival to watch Barrow Shipyard Junior Band perform.  They came first out of five bands and the adjudicator also said they bought the winning audience with them as well.  I had to whistle when they finished playing the first piece so that they knew I was there!  My brilliant twin sister also came first in the ensemble section as part of the Cumbria Horn ensemble, so overall a very successful day, where I experienced lots of the joy of watching the band do well, without any of the hard work in the run up to it.

It sounds silly, as this is my second year of not being a music teacher, but it felt like it finally sunk in today.  Seeing the band doing so well under another conductor both made me very happy, and very nostalgic.  I suddenly realised what an amazing thing it is, to have created a brass band out of thin air, and for it to continue even after you leave.  My brass band conductor used to always say that nobody is bigger than the band, and that was what I said to the band when I told them I was leaving.  If the band has a heart and is a living breathing thing, then it carries on even when you leave, and this is both painful and wonderful at the same time.

It made me miss brass banding again as well – I’d love to join a band and play again, but where I would fit it in with everything else I’m doing I don’t know.  Maybe that will have to wait till after the PhD has finished.

This week I’ve been doing some work on the overall structure of my PhD, which is going to be quite experimental.  I don’t want to say too much about that at the moment, as I have no idea yet if it is going to work, but I’m quite excited about it.  I’ve also been thinking about the idea of the ‘female gaze’ which seems particularly important as I am writing about men and looking at men in my new collection.  The male gaze typically objectifies or fetishizes – I obviously don’t want to do that.  I’ve been re-reading John Berger’s Ways of Seeing which I think is a brilliant text – it doesn’t feel dated at all.  Some interesting quotes that I think may be relevant to my own work, although he is talking about art, I think a lot of what he says is useful in terms of poetry as well.  He says

We only see what we look at.  To look is an act of choice.

and later on,

The meaning of an image is changed according to what one sees immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it.

I think this will be important in my collection, which is different ways of looking at men, which also becomes different ways of looking at the self, which becomes different ways of looking at society.

Berger also says

We never look at just one thing, we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.  our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are.

This seems important as well – that by looking/writing about one thing or person, we are looking at the relation between ‘things and ourselves’.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Jean Stevens, who was one of the participants on the recent residential that I ran in Garsdale.  Jean had just had a collection published with Naked Eye.  It’s called Driving in the Dark and I would really recommend it.  I really enjoyed reading the whole thing.  I started reading it one afternoon and couldn’t put it down.

I’ve chosen the poem Snoring because I found it really moving.  I also thought it fitted in with some of the ideas around the female gaze which I’ve been thinking about, although the man being looked at is no longer there.  It is in fact his absence that is being looked at or examined.

The first section seems to describe the discovery by the speaker of a partner dying, woken by a sound ‘nothing like the usual snoring’.  I loved the snippet of dialogue here – the ‘Wake up you bugger’ and then the repetition of the ‘Wake up’ becomes more and more poignant, as both the reader and the speaker realise something is horribly wrong.

I like how those first two stanzas are in four lines, but as the realisation kicks in, the next two stanzas shrink to just three lines.   We get a sense of the relationship as well – the give and take of it with ‘This isn’t me messing about/saying a marriage can founder/on snores’.

As well as the stanzas shrinking, the punctuation also seems to break down by the fourth stanza, with the line breaks standing in instead for what could have been full stops.  But I think the lack of punctuation works well here for the big realisations that are happening at the end of this fourth stanza: ‘This is me saying forgive me’.

The second section starts off by repeating the last two lines of the first section, which gives them a new emphasis.  Then the poem goes off in a completely unexpected direction, and this is where I think the gaze of the poem is really interesting.  The partner’s body as well as the speakers body is conjured up in all its humanness and shortcomings.  This is a completely unapologetic and frank gaze – and there is something both shocking and moving in this frankness, in the detail of the ‘your sweating stains the bed’ and the matter-of-factness when the gaze turns on the self: ‘when the bags under my eyes/have bags themselves’.

The last stanza is where she brings the self and the partner together through again, a shocking, yet incredibly moving detail: ‘with my bare hands I’ll scrub/your skidmark underpants’.  John Berger has lots to say about the difference between ‘nakedness’ and ‘nudity’.  He says that

To be naked is to be oneself.  To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself.  A naked body has to be seen as an object to become a nude’

Of course he is talking about paintings here, but I think it holds true for poetry as well.  The partner and the speaker here are naked – inasmuch as their bodies are described in intimate detail, in a way which allows us as the readers to recognise them as themselves.  They stay as selves, rather than objects, because of the way Jean writes about the intimate ageing process of the body, the intimacies that two people share.

Jean was great fun to have on the residential – she always had a story to tell, having had this amazing life as a playwright and actor.  Her poems have appeared in London Magazine, Stand, The North, Mslexia, The Honest Ulsterman, Other Poetry, Smoke and The Bridport Prizewinners Anthology 2016, as well as being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4.  She is a past winner of the Yorkshire Post Poetry Prize and the Leeds Libraries Writing Prize and was recently shortlisted for the Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition and The Rialto Poetry Prize.  Her plays have been performed at Derby Playhouse, the Edinburgh Festival, Harrogate Theatre and West Yorkshire Playhouse.  Her stand-up comedy script won the Polo Prize at London’s Comedy Store.  As a professional actor she has credits for stage, film and television.  Her website is jeanstevenspoet.co.uk

You can order a copy of Driving in the Dark here  and find out more about Naked Eye publishing here. 

Snoring – Jean Stevens

(i)
I wake to the sound of snoring
nothing like the usual snoring
when I shout Wake up you bugger 
and attempt to turn you over.

No, I wake to a sound that grips
snore, rattle, gasp in its fist
deep and going deeper.  Wake up,
you must wake up.

This isn’t me messing about
saying a marriage can founder
on snores.  This is it.

This is me saying forgive me
this is me saying I love you
now when it’s far too late.

(ii)

This is me saying I love you
now when it’s far too late.

I mean, love’s ridiculous
when you’ve lost your hair,
your waistline, your hearing,
and your sweating stains the bed;

when the bags under my eyes
have bags themselves, and my
boobs are moving towards the floor.
But come back and I vow

with my bare hands I’ll scrub
your skidmark underpants
till I grow raddled and sore
immersed in water that scalds.

 

 

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Sunday Poem – Peter Raynard

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Sunday Poem – Peter Raynard

I’m writing this post today feeling more weary than usual.  I’ve had a fantastic week away as the course tutor at The Garsdale Retreat but I am completely exhausted now! The Garsdale Retreat is a new creative writing centre, set up by Hamish Wilson and Rebecca Nouchette.  I say new, but this is their second season of running courses there now.

It is a beautiful place, surrounded by hills and far enough away from the nearest village to feel wonderfully lonely, whilst only being a two minute walk away from Garsdale train station.  The unique feature about the courses (compared to other residentials) is the small group sizes – the maximum group size is eight, so participants get a lot more individual attention during both tutorials and workshops.  The food is absolutely beautiful as well – Rebecca does the cooking and pretty much everything was home made.  I don’t think I ate anything processed all week! Every afternoon she made a different cake for afternoon tea as well – I was in food heaven.  Below is a picture of my favourite – scones with jam and cream!

scones

Tutors stay in a cottage next door.  It was one of those cute cottages you drive past and idly think about living in so I am glad I got to try one out! The first night was very cold because the snow was still hanging around on the hills, but it gradually got warmer throughout the week, and Rebecca and Hamish gave me a portable heater so I could make my bedroom toasty!

cottage

Workshops went on till 1pm and then in the afternoons I sat in front of my electric fire in the cottage, and did some writing or prepared for tutorials with the participants.  Two of the days I managed to get out for a run, but I have a slightly sore Achilles heel, probably from too many long hilly runs last week.

The participants were great as well – a real pleasure to teach, and full of ideas and conversation around and about poetry, which was lovely.

So I was in Garsdale Monday to Saturday morning, and then I got the train to Carlisle.  A woman sitting next to me was reading over my shoulder whilst I was working on a poem and asked me if I was a lawyer! She looked disappointed when I told her I was a poet.  It took me a while to realise the poem she was reading was an account of a story that someone told me about a date rape.  She obviously thought it was some sort of witness account or something and didn’t seem embarrassed about the fact she’d been reading over my shoulder without asking.  We got talking then all the way to Carlisle so the journey went very quickly.

I was taking part in an event called Woman Up! in Carlisle, a day of events exploring what it means to be a woman.  There was a variety of events on, including speakers from the Carlisle Refugee Action Group and writers from Wigton Writers group.  I read some of my poems from my collection about domestic violence and then some of my new work around sexism.

The responses from the audience were pretty amazing.  One woman was crying. What touched me the most though was a young girl in the question and answer session, who put her hand up and said

‘I’m going to university next year.  What advice would you give me to help me if I get into a situation I can’t get out of?’

It actually breaks my heart that young women are having to worry about this, to think about this, to negotiate this, to use their energy worrying about how they are simply going to keep safe, instead of putting their energy into learning and being creative.  And there are no easy answers.  Everything I thought of and said sounded so trite.  To speak out and tell someone.  To speak out and say no.  To not let things get bad – to trust your instincts.  To surround yourself with good people, who help you to feel good.  I’d be interested to hear what answers readers would give to young girls to help them deal with sexism and to help them avoid getting into damaging relationships.

I stayed in a hotel, and after being cold all week, I then nearly baked to death in the hotel room which seemed to have the heating up really high.  I got back to Barrow mid afternoon today.  The first thing I did when I got back was to walk the dogs, then I went for a run to test my foot – still a bit of pain there after a couple of miles, so I’m going to rest for another couple of days.

So that has been my week – full on and enjoyable, but also emotionally draining.  Today I’ve been steadily trying to catch up with all the emails I couldn’t cope with answering whilst I was on the course.  This week is a lot quieter, which is a huge relief.  I’m going to spend it catching up with some PhD work because the week after is manic with visits to London, Manchester and Poland.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by a fantastic poet called Peter Raynard.  I first came across Peter via his excellent blog (www.proletarianpoetry.com) which has featured the work of over 100 poets writing about working class lives.  This poem comes from his debut collection Precarious, published by Smokestack Books which you can order here.  He is a member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen and is currently completing a poetic coupling of The Communist Manifesto, to be published by Culture Matters in May 2018.

I’ve been reading a few poems from Precarious out aloud each night to my husband, and he is really enjoying the collection.  ‘Scholarship Boys’ is one of my favourites in the collection because it explores something that isn’t talked about – what happens when someone from the working class breaks the mould and gets a scholarship.

At MMU there is a poster advertising a scheme to support students who are the first in their family to go to university – there was nothing like this around when I went to university.  I remember thinking my flat mates were really posh because they bought hummus (I’d never heard of it!).

The poem sets out its stall straight away with that first line, with the first word, which is unexpected following on from the title.  I like the phrase ‘the likes of us’ in there at the end of the stanza.  It almost has a motto-like feel to it – how many times have people told me in tutorials or workshops about parents saying that something isn’t ‘for the likes of us’.

I was puzzling over that phrase ‘claw-crane selections’ for a while until I worked out that I think it is referencing the arcade machines with the claw that you use to try and pick up a soft toy.  What a brilliant metaphor! The idea of it being a game and the boys being the soft toys, inanimate, unable to control their own destiny, and someone playing games with their lives, picking them up and then letting them drop.  Actually, the whole class of boys is part of this arcade game.  The scholarship boys are the ones who are picked up and moved elsewhere, at least for a while.

The threading through of Latin words is really interesting as well here, illustrating that feeling of them being ‘dropped’ into a different world and the ‘pictured corridors’ gives the feeling of grandness, of long corridors stretching into the distance.  I had to look up all the Latin words here – spiritus vicis means spirit time according to Google, although I’m not convinced about that one as I thought it sounded like a school motto, and that doesn’t sound like a particularly inspirng school motto.  And amo, amat means I love/You love (again Google told me this, so apologies if it’s wrong)

There are lots of great phrases in here which seem simple until you start to unpack them.  The head teacher ‘wielding’ his cloak – the cloak is indicative of his status and he is ‘wielding’ it like a weapon. The phrase ‘Mouths swabbed for memories’ – that made me think that the school, or the teachers tried to make them change their accents.  This was something that happened to me – except mine was self-inflicted.  After finally getting into Leicester Schools Symphony Orchestra, I tried to change my accent because the other children took the mickey out of the way I spoke.

The idea that the boys, despite getting scholarships, were always bound for the factory and had just taken ‘the long way around’ is really heartbreaking.  I also like how we don’t know why they left early – the reasons are left unclear.

Thanks to Peter for letting me use his poem this week – do check out his blog, and if you have some spare cash, order his book.  It’s a fantastic, challenging and interesting exploration of class and masculinity and also touches on issues of mental health as well.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 

Scholarship Boys

Unlucky enough to pass our eleven plus
we were claw-crane selections
from our class dropped into a history
the likes of us had never read.

Inducted with pictured corridors
of Spiritus Vicis spouting opportunity
from the mothballed grammar
of the cloak-wielding Headmaster
and his fountain of Latin characters.

Amo, amas, a matter of opinion
was to know our place. Our mouths
were swabbed for memories.
We were to become
someone else’s nostalgia.

By the time we left early,
five of a seven-year stretch,
we stooped off to the factories
that laughed at us
for taking the long way around

Sunday Poem – Hilda Sheehan

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This week has been a strange and rather full-on week.  Regular readers of this blog will remember that I was slightly panicking last week about my Progression Viva which was on Monday. The journey there was tiresome, annoying and cold.  My train broke down just outside Lancaster, and once it got going again, after half an hour it could only proceed at five miles an hour to Preston, which took rather a long time! I was planning to get to Manchester three hours early, so I could have a leisurely lunch and do a bit more silent panicking before the viva – however, I actually got there half an hour late.  Luckily the scrutineers agreed to wait for me.  By that time I was in such a bad mood it stopped me being too nervous, so it probably worked out well in the end.

It was actually really good to have a chance to talk through some of my ideas around my thesis with the scrutineers, who were really enthusiastic about my project.  Probably the biggest thing I’ve had to come to terms with in doing this PhD is believing that my ideas are interesting – I don’t know if anybody else has this, but because my ideas come out of my head, they don’t feel that interesting! But a PhD – or at least a creative PhD, or maybe even just MY creative Phd, has to be driven by ideas.

So I’m very happy to say I’ve passed, which means I can progress onwards with my PhD but I had a few revisions to make, including writing a paragraph or two about why I’m using lyric poetry as opposed to another type of poetry, some referencing errors and refining my aims from seven (excessive) down to four (manageable).  I resubmitted on Thursday, so that is done and dusted now.

Apart from the PhD excitement, I’ve been to a meeting for A Poem and a Pint – we are still waiting to hear back from our third attempt to apply for Arts Council funding.  In fact we should hear in the next few weeks.  I also did some mentoring on a manuscript of a rather excellent poet and we met up on Tuesday to discuss the suggestions I’d made.  On Wednesday, despite the freezing cold and a thin layer of snow in Barrow, I decided to go out and do a nine mile run – trying to build my mileage up now ready for the Coniston to Barrow event in May.

Thursday was a complete washout because of the storm.  I was supposed to get to Manchester, have two tutorials with two of my undergraduate students, go to a meeting about some teaching at university, then do an afternoon of teaching, and then hang around for a bit before going to read at Lit Up in Manchester.  I got to Lancaster and all the trains were cancelled, so I decided to cut my losses and go home.  Lit Up eventually ended up being cancelled, but it will hopefully be rearranged.

Friday’s meeting about an anthology of Cumbrian poetry I’m editing was also cancelled as the publisher/editor was snowed in and couldn’t get out of her house, and I decided to cancel Dove Cottage Young Poets rather than risk the weather, so instead of two really busy days I had two days of emptiness stretching before me.  It was so nice! I managed to fill them as I have so many jobs I haven’t caught up with – I managed to go for a ten mile run on Friday which I didn’t think I was going to have time for.  I’ve also finished planning the workshops for the residential course I’m running next week with hours to spare which is unusual for me.

A few exciting things that are happening – I’m going to be on Private Passions on Radio 3 soon and all my choices of music have a trumpet in, as you’d expect.  It’s also pre-recorded, so I’m hoping the producer will be able to make me sound intelligent and witty!  I’m going down to London in a couple of weeks to record it – it will be a flying visit though, as I have to get back to Manchester to do my teaching, and then straight from there to the airport to go to Gdansk Poetry Festival as part of Versopolis.  The rest of March and the first half of April is basically a bit manic, then everything slows down a little bit.

I’m also judging a poetry competition for a clothing company called Thought.  All you have to do is write a four line poem about nature and you could win £250! Details here of how to enter.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by one of my best friends, the lovely Hilda Sheehan.  I spent a week with Hilda recently running a residential, and she wrote this poem during that week, in response to a conversation about relationships with musicians.  I couldn’t possibly divulge who took part in the conversation, or what they divulged but this was the result.  You could replace Viola Man with the appropriate instrument for your life experiences, I’m sure!

This poem comes from an extended sequence of poems that all concern themselves with the life and times of two women, Francis and Martine.  You can find more Francis and Martine poems over at Hilda’s blog.

Francis and Martine are probably some of my favourite literary characters.  Hilda often describes them both as saying the things she can’t say or wants to say.  I like how Hilda does away with all the trappings of conventional speech marks and leaves the reader to work out who is speaking.  I also like the slightly convoluted and strange turns of phrase they often come out with, like a ‘disgraceful act of resistance’.  And anyone that has taught a musical instrument I’m sure will smile at the phrase ‘his engaging output of Ode to Joy.’  Ode to Joy is one of the five note tunes in its simplest forms and still haunts my sleep, along with Hot Cross Buns and Mary Had a Little Lamb after 13 years of teaching those tunes!

The whole poem pokes fun at love and obsession and relationships and distraction.  Is it only me who has Viola Man down as a bad ‘un?  And what is a frozen egg anyway?

I am going to break my own rules now and post a second Francis and Martine poem, also written during the residential.  Hilda and I discovered we have the same terrible habits of leaving socks all over the floor to develop into little sock nests, and both our husbands have similar opinions about our tardy ways.  I love this poem as well because it is bonkers.  I also love the way it leaps off into the world of Shakespeare and Desdemona and Othello at the end.  Hilda’s poems are never predictable.

And all those thoughts I’ve been having about mode of address, and who we are talking to in poetry, both indirectly and directly.  These poems are unusual because the speaker of the poem is in the poem, and is addressing another character in the poem.  They are entirely turned in on themselves, but rather than addressing an unseen other, a beloved, or a God, they are addressing themselves, leaving the audience to indirectly witness and overhear Francis and Martine trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t really make much sense at all.

Hilda also runs Swindon Poetry Festival which I would highly recommend – it runs from the 4th-8th October 2018.  Her published works include The Night My Sister Went To Hollywood, published by Cultured Llama, and pamphlets Francis and Martine and more recently, The God Baby, published by Dancing Girl Press.

It is now 1.20am – I decided, rather irresponsibly, to go to the cinema instead of writing this blog at a sensible hour.

I am away next week running a residential at The Garsdale Retreat and then on Sunday I’ll be reading at the Woman Up event in Carlisle at Tullie House – tickets available here

Viola Man – Hilda Sheehan

Martine, it’s a disgraceful act of resistance you display with the viola man.
But I love viola man and nothing you can do, or sing, will change my mind away from his engaging output of Ode to Joy. When he plays it I am in love all over again.
How about cake?
No, not enough ‘ode’.
How about pizza?
No, not enough ‘to’,
How about frozen eggs?
Yes, yes! This is it. Frozen eggs are the ultimate in Joy! I shall construct him a letter with absolute immediacy … it’s all over between me and viola man. Pass me a frozen egg.

Socks

For Kim Moore

If you were a pair of socks Martine, would you display yourself in dirty little piles about this room, sitting about with other dirty socks failing to reach the wash basket in such a demonstration of filthy deeds? How long would you hang about with such vagrant items, itching and holing around, the muck of you an irritant to those who love and care for your well-being, those who share your foul spaces, cluttered moments, inconsiderate escapades of slattery? If you were a pair of socks would this behaviour continue, or would you strumpet and slurf your dirty way to the wash basket with a face like Desdemona in her final moments, waiting for Othello to forgive her in that last leap to the basket, the denial of your love for other dirty socks. O Martine! I can not walk by. This makes men mad, it is the very error of the moon.

O Frances, a guiltless death I die.

#slatternsunite