Monthly Archives: March 2018

Sunday Poem – Peter Raynard

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!


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!


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 ( 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


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.


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.