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 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.
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.