Tag Archives: Bloodaxe

Sunday Poem – Choman Hardi


Researcher’s Blues – Choman Hardi

Every day I try to lose them in the streets,
leave them behind in a bend in the road and keep on
walking.  But they follow me everywhere, their voices
combining into a hum from which sentences rise and fall.
The woman I never interviewed cut the string of my sleep
at dawn, whispering: ‘I am not well’.  Why didn’t I listen
to her story? Why didn’t I realise that she was dying?
The one widowed at 26 told me, ‘Imagine twenty
years of loneliness.’  I remember her in the middle of
an embrace and start weeping.  The pleading voice
of the woman who was raped echoes in my head:
‘I only wanted bread for my son.’  I wish I had told her
that she is good, she is pure, not spoiled as she thinks she is.
Then I remember the old couple in their mud-brick house,
surrounded by goats and chickens.  I remember their tears
when they talk about their children, when they remember
a woman who had been rich and powerful in her own village
but in Nugra Salman ‘she was stinking, abandoned,
worm-stricken’.  What was the dead woman’s name?
Why didn’t I try to find her family? I keep walking away.
All I want is to walk without crying, without being
pitied by people who think that I have problems
with love, without the homeless man telling me that he is
sorry.  I want to disappear, be unnoticed, unpitied.
Sometime ago when I started, it was all clear.  I knew
what had to be done.  All I can do now is keep walking,
carrying this sorrow in my soul, all I can do is
pour with grief which has no beginning and no end.

The Sunday Poem this week is by Choman Hardi, a poet that I heard read at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival last weekend.  I cried all the way through Choman’s reading, which was a new experience for me.  Crying, I mean, not the poetry reading.  Choman read poems from a sequence called ‘Anfal’ which sits at the heart of her new collection ‘Considering the Women’, published by Bloodaxe.  The sequence draws on Choman’s post-doctoral research on women survivors of genocide in Kurdistan, telling the untold story of the survivors.  The horror that these poems document is terrible, and that made me cry first of all, but what kept me crying was the calm and poise and grace that Choman read the poems with.  She did not let her feelings show when she was reading the poems, and I’m guessing this is so that there is no distraction from the stories that she is trying to tell, although I don’t know this.

Researcher’s Blues tells us that of course this type of work and this type of writing has a massive effect on the write, and it must take a superhuman effort to read those poems so calmly and clearly.  The poem documents the literal haunting of the writer by the people she didn’t speak to, as well as the ones she did, and feelings of not doing enough and not listening enough.

I know that poetry like this brings up strong emotions in people about whether this is what poetry should be for and I will stick my head above the parapet and say yes, I think this is absolutely one of the things that poetry is for.  Not every poem has to be about violence or trauma or witness, but some poems must be. It has to be good poetry of course as well and this is – right from the compelling first line.  The line breaks are also working really hard in this poem. I like the line break in Line 2 after ‘on’ and the break after ‘listen’ in Line 6.

This poem is working hard as well, pulling together threads that have been explored in the sequence, and things that will be explored later on, the idea that knowledge is a dangerous thing, that you can end up knowing both more than you started, and less: ‘Sometime ago when I started, it was all clear.  I knew/what had to be done.’  I also think that the desire for the erasure of the self at the end of the poem ‘I want to disappear, be unnoticed, unpitied’ is really interesting, especially when read in the context of the first poem of the sequence ‘Preface: Researcher’s Speech’ which says ‘fill me up with your words’.  At the beginning of the sequence, the speaker of the poem is prepared to be a vessel for the stories of the survivors.  By the end, even this desire has gone.  The speaker wants to disappear completely.

I guess I wanted to put this poem up today because of everything that has happened in Paris this weekend, and everything that has happened in Egypt and Beirut and Syria and Iraq.  The media don’t cover the terrorism that is going on in these countries –  I felt ashamed that I didn’t know about the terrorism attack in Beirut.  This poem, and Choman’s book centres on the idea of telling the story of people that have no voice, so I thought it was apt this weekend, in memory of all of the voices that have been silenced in terrorist attacks and bombing campaigns, voices that we won’t hear tell their stories.

I’ve been pondering this poem for a couple of hours now, trying to write this blog post and I still don’t quite feel that I’ve pinned down everything I want to say about Choman’s poetry, but I strongly recommend the collection.  Choman was born in Sulaimani and lived in Iraq and Iran before seeking asylum in the UK in 1993.  She was awarded a scholarship from the Leverhulme Trust to carry out post-doctoral research about women survivors of genocide in Kurdistan-Iraq.  Her first English collection ‘Life for Us’ was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2004.  In 2014 she moved back to her home city to become an assistant professor in the department of English in the American University of Iraq.

I hope you enjoy the poem, and thanks to Choman for allowing me to post it here.

My week has been really difficult this week.  I remember last year that the Autumn term was really manic – I don’t know if anybody else finds this, but it seems to be busy both as a music teacher and as a poet.  Anyway, I can just about keep on top of it all as long as I’m feeling fit and healthy but my dizzy spell at Aldeburgh developed into a horrible cold this week so I’ve been doing everything I can to keep my head above water.

I got back from Aldeburgh at 5.30pm on Monday night and then had my junior band rehearsal followed by my soul band rehearsal.  On Tuesday I had teaching all day and then quintet rehearsal and another soul band rehearsal.  On Wednesday I taught all day and then packed and drove to Leicester because I was giving a lecture at Leicester University for the poet and novelist Jonathan Taylor’s undergraduate students.  I had a lovely chat with Jonathan in the canteen after the lecture, which served to remind me why I love poetry and poets.  I don’t know Jonathan very well, I think we’ve only met a handful of times, but twice now he has offered advice and encouragement – I was talking through ideas for a PhD and he came up with a list of books for me to look at.  It made me think – this is what doing a PhD would be like – sitting and talking about poetry, then being given a list of books to read.  It sounds like my dream!  Except if I was doing a PhD I would presumably have time to read the books.

Anyway, after that, I jumped in the car and crawled up the M6 through horrendous traffic to Keswick for the Cumbria Culture Awards.  As I got further north the horrible traffic died off  but I became convinced it was because it had all been washed away due to the torrential rain.  I ended up being late for the Cultural awards and although I’d  bought a posh dress and shoes with me, I ended up running into the venue and performing in my jeans, trainers and my mum’s cardigan.

One good thing about being up for Cumbria Life Writer of the Year and being against writers like Sarah Hall and James Rebanks was that I was a 100% sure that I wasn’t going to win, so I actually enjoyed the night.  It was really exciting to hear about all the amazing things that are happening in Cumbria.  The Barrow Shipyard Junior Band sadly didn’t win Musical Group of the Year either, but I think they did brilliantly to be shortlisted and it also didn’t feel horrible not to win because Cumbria Life had done a lovely film about each person or group in the shortlist so it felt like you were made a fuss of, even if you didn’t win.

By the time I got to Friday, my cold was awful and got worse as I ran my Young Writers group in the afternoon, and performed with the quintet at Brewery Poets.  The three guest poets were David Borrott, Kerry Darbishire and Barbara Hickson and they read really well, but to be honest, I felt like I was dying at this point ( I am nothing if not dramatic) and I was mainly focused on not having a massive tantrum because I felt so ill.

I woke up on Saturday feeling a little bit better, which was lucky really because I was running my first all day poetry workshop in Barrow.  The workshop was a real success – there were a few cancellations due to the bad weather, but ten poets turned up and they were a lovely group and wrote some fantastic stuff.  I’m hoping to book another workshop for January and then to hold them once a month after that.

On Saturday night I had a gig with the Soul Survivors and then today I’ve spent the day catching up with emails, so if you’ve been expecting a reply to an email for ages and you haven’t got one, please give me a nudge, as I think I’ve caught up with myself now.  This afternoon I drove to Maryport to announce the results of the Maryport Literature Festival poetry competition and to do a short reading.  It was a lovely event, but we finished early because of the bad weather.  On the way back, my headlights were actually underwater at one point driving through the flood at Holmrook, but the car kept going which was a relief as I don’t know what I would have done if I’d flooded the engine…

So that is my week.  Next week on Thursday I’m reading with Peter Riley at The Bookcase in Hebden Bridge – please see the ‘Readings and Workshops’ tab for more details.  On Friday I’m off to Cork to read at the Winter Warmer festival and Matthew Sweeney is heading to Ulverston to read at A Poem and a Pint, which I’m going to miss which I’m really sad about, although I’m obviously quite excited to be going to Cork.

At some point this week, there will be information going up about the workshops and timetable for the residential I’m running with Steve Ely in St Ives.  We have been putting the final touches to this and it is almost ready!

Sunday Poem – David Constantine


Hello everybody.  I’ve just got back from an amazing weekend at a residential course at Rydal Hall near Ambleside.  This course was the culmination of the Writing School – an 18 month intensive course I’ve been taking part in, run by the fabulous Ann and Peter Sansom of the Poetry Business. I’m pretty shattered – the whole weekend has been really intense and full of poetry – I’m not fed up of poetry though, my head is still buzzing with ideas and poems which is slightly worrying as by tomorrow I need to be back in music teacher mode – but it feels like I’ve been away for a week rather than just a weekend.

On Friday I drove up to Dove Cottage for a two hour editing session with the Kendal Young Writers group.  It was the first time they had edited their poems and I was really impressed with the way they reacted to suggestions and took them on board.

I then sped up to Rydal Hall in time for dinner with the Writing School.  One of the instructions was to prepare to read for eight minutes as another poet that we admired.  I thought that we would simply be reading say, four poems by said poet – but what little faith I displayed in my compatriots on the course!  Like a poet-monster with fourteen heads but one shared gigantic brain, they all decided that they would not (after dinner) simply read four poems by another poet – no, they would become that other poet!  So we had Alan Payne arriving not as Alan Payne but as Miroslav Holub on Friday night to start us off.  It was an interesting exercise to see which poets people chose.  The most impressive was Noel Williams on Saturday night who appeared as Selima Hill – not only did he pick great poems to read but he also told us about a letter Selima had written to him after he reviewed her book in The North – which led to a really interesting, and useful chat about reviewing – useful for me because I’m about to start a review for Under the Radar magazine.

On Saturday morning we had a fry up for breakfast and then the first writing workshop started from 10am.  Halfway through the morning we found plates of tray bakes and I developed an out of control addiction to the caramel shortbread.  These tray  bakes appeared with alarming regularity throughout the day and I didn’t want to just leave them there after all!

On Saturday afternoon we had a few hours off and I think most people went for a walk but I decided that I wasn’t going to leave hotel.  Instead I was going to slob around in my slippers and spend the afternoon reading – this seemed like a bit of a travesty when I was surrounded by such lovely country side, but I do have to walk every day with my dogs normally, so laying about the place was much more of a novelty for me…

Today we have done another writing and editing workshop, eaten more tray bakes, collected pack lunches and made our way up to Grasmere to do our end of course reading at Dove Cottage.  Everyone read for five minutes each and although I was worried I wouldn’t be able to concentrate for so long, I really enjoyed listening to everybody, hearing some poems that I’ve seen develop in the course, or heard for the first time during the workshop.  So it’s been a great weekend and I would definitely recommend the Writing School if you are reading this and looking for something to keep you focused on your writing.

So today’s Sunday Poem is David Constantine! How exciting is that.  David Constantine is the poet I decided to appear as on the course – I don’t know his work very well, but I bought his new collection ‘Elder’ after spotting it in the Durham Cathedral gift shop a week or so ago.  What made me buy it was the cover image, which is beautiful and the title of the first poem which is ‘How will they view us, the receiving angels?’.  The poem is just as beautiful.  Which says a little about the importance of the first poem in enticing a reader to buy a book. The four poems I chose to read to the other members of the course was ‘How will they view us, the receiving angels?’, ‘Bad dream’, ‘As though…because…’ and ‘Envoi’.

‘Elder’ is divided into six sections.  I’ve only read it through once, so I’m not going to offer more than a few thoughts on it.  First of all, I love the way Constantine uses titles – he often has the first line of the poem as a title, which I know some people don’t like, but I really like it.  It does vaguely remind me of Emily Dickinson…the poem ‘For a while after a death…’ starts ‘For a while after a death I live more kindly’ and the poem ‘The makings of his breathing…’ starts ‘The makings of his breathing are still there’.  In these examples I think the title is part of an irresistible arcing phrase that is completed and developed by the first line.

The book is also very formally patterned – I really liked the way Constantine uses rhyme – you can see this in the poem that I’ve chosen which I think shows how subtle he is with it.  The other thing that I really enjoyed in the collection was the poems which were derived from Ovid – I think this is because I’ve been reading Ovid recently and I think I got more from the poems because it felt like I was meeting some old friends in the characters that he writes about.

I’ve chosen ‘Bad Dream’ because I admire the structure of the poem with its rhyming couplets.  Although I don’t normally like poems about dreams (or films or books where everything turns out to be a dream) in this case I think this technique works for it.  What is more this is a bad dream – maybe a recurring dream? In fact it feels more like a premonition.  I also really like the division of self which occurs in the poem – the exploration of this is handled really deftly – it could so easily become a confusion of you’s and I’s but it doesn’t because of the sure footedness of the poet – in fact these are two of the lines that I like best

‘And there you were, not you, nearest the wall
And there was I, not I, nearest the fall’

I think that is fantastic and exciting  – and this

‘I, less and less myself, halted with the almost you’

It is a masterclass in how to use punctuation to get across the meaning that you want.  The ending to this poem is fantastic as well – and explores the importance of naming – that names give power.  At the end of the poem the name of the other person has found her like a ‘swallow’ while the I of the poem can only try to hold his with cold hands and fail – the I of the poem, nameless disappears.

I would like to say a big thanks to Neil Astley of Bloodaxe.  I don’t have David Constantine’s contact details, so I contacted Neil directly to ask if I could have this poem.  I’m a bit behind with my Sunday Poem requests and only asked Neil tonight but superstar that he is, he got back to me within fifteen minutes.  You can’t ask for more than that really!

If you would like to order David Constantine’s book you can go to the Bloodaxe website to order the latest collection ‘Elder’  http://www.bloodaxebooks.com/personpage.asp?author=David+Constantine.   You can also find a biography of David here as well.

Hope you enjoy the poem!

Bad dream – David Constantine

There was a path, the familiar path, the one
I’ve very often not yet ventured on
Around a mountainside, cut level, a sheer
Fall right, a sheer wall left, a ledge a pair
Might amble hand in hand on round the contour
And there you were, not you, nearest the wall
And there was I, not I, nearest the fall
And you were your age, but the hair was wrong
I looked like me but many years too young
And on a bend where the path swung out of view
I, less and less myself, halted with the almost you,
And on the brink, for fun or she dared him to,
He balanced his arms dead level and stood there
On his left foot and over the empty air
Raised level his right and so he stood
Lean steady spirit level of my blood
Over emptiness.  You laughed, the pair of you
And laughing hand in hand passed out of view.
On hands and knees, the ledge very narrow now,
I shouted after us, your name, my own.
Yours fled my lips to claim you, like a swallow.
Mine fell between my cold hands, like a stone.

Sunday Poem – Heidi Williamson


This week has been filled with work and lots of poetry.  On Wednesday I was the guest poet at Zeffirellis in Ambleside.  This was organised by Andrew Forster of the Wordsworth Trust.  There was a really good turn out, lots of open mics and the combination of being able to eat pizza whilst listening to poetry turned out to be very popular, and not nearly as antisocial as it sounds.  I didn’t notice any loud chomping noises whilst I was reading anyway!

Unfortunately the garage said my car would need a £1000 to get it going again, so it has gone to the great car graveyard in the sky – more commonly known as the scrappers.  I am still quite hacked off about it, as I still owe money on the car but trying not to think about it.

Meanwhile, me and hubby are ‘sharing’ his car which has led me to the discovery that I don’t like sharing, and I’m not good at it so we are looking round for a very cheap car.  There is no massive rush at the minute,as we are just about managing to share one.

Yesterday was Polly Atkin’s launch of her pamphlet -she was the winner of the inaugral Mslexia pamphlet competition, and her pamphlet ‘Shadow Dispatches’ is published by Seren.  It’s very blue and pretty and I really enjoyed the reading.  The reading was at Grasmere at the Wordsworth Trust.  Polly is a really good reader of her work, and her poems are packed full of imagery.  I think one of her strengths, from a first read through of it is the wonderful similes and metaphors she uses.  I would definitely recommend it.  I got a lift with Mark Carson and we whizzed off pretty sharpish afterwards so we would have time to eat and get sorted out before Poem and A Pint in the evening.

Poem and A Pint was great!  If you missed Billy Letford you should be kicking yourself- although not too hard, as he is reading at the Wordsworth Trust in June, so you could go and see him read there.  He recites all his poems from memory, no introductions and it feels as if the poem is holding the audience still – then he stops and the spell is broken and we all breathe again before the next one.  A masterclass in how to give a good reading – I would love to perform more like that – although if I just copied it would be ridiculous – but I have got lots of ideas of how to improve my own performance.

And today I am very proud of myself.  I lost the argument with the hubby as to who has the car – he was going hiking in the Lakes so his need was greater – so I actually used a bus to get to Ulverston.  I don’t know why but I have had an irrational dislike of buses – I think it’s from having to catch them every day in Birmingham when I was teaching there.  And once in Birmingham, I’m sure I saw a flea leap from the person’s leg who was sitting next to me on to my leg.  Now rationally, it was probably some other high-jumping insect, as I probably wouldn’t have been able to see a flea but I can’t help being convinced it was a flea.

So, this morning a nice bus driver stopped even though I was standing at the wrong bus stop and let me on the bus to Ulverston and it was absolutely fine.  No fleas – in fact hardly any passengers.

I was going to a Poem and A Pint committee memeber’s house who was looking after Billy Letford -we’d been invited for tea and cake.  That was very nice, and I got back again on the bus, no excitement, no traumas.

I think I also don’t quite believe that the buses adhere to timetables – and I hate waiting.  But I’ve decided these are irrational thoughts, not based on experience of Barrow buses, so I’m going to have to give them more of  a go I think.

Today’s Sunday poem is by Heidi Williamson. Her first collection ‘Electric Shadow’ is published by Bloodaxe and was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. It was also shortlisted in 2012 for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Poetry.

I read ‘Electric Shadow’ only recently, although it came out in 2011 and I really enjoyed the book.  It is easy to see why it has garnered so much interest- she uses unusual angles to write about big themes like in the poem ‘At the hands-on science centre’ when she recounts a couple standing between parrallel mirrors – really this poem, I think, is about relationships and power and absence, but she approaches this through the doorway of a science centre – which is unusual I think.

So when I spotted Heidi on Twitter I asked her if I could have a poem from the book.  As in most cases when I have permission to pick any poem from the book, it was hard to settle on one.  I decided to pick the strangest one in the collection because it was my favorite.

You can order ‘Electric Shadow’ from Bloodaxe here http://www.bloodaxebooks.com/personpage.asp?author=Heidi+Williamson and you can find out more about Heidi Williamson here: http://www.heidiwilliamsonpoet.com

So here is the poem:

If Then Else – Heidi Williamson

your lover asks you to bite his tongue,
do it
Else you are alone and bloodless

you cannot find yourself, Then
find another
Else you are alive and loveless

you breathe numbness, Then
rejoice quietly
Else you are woken

you age, Then
Else you age lifelessly

you die, Then
Else you age lifelessly

you die, Then
Else you die thoughtlessly

you wish to eat apples and oranges, Then
Else no distinctions can be made

If Then Else: A logic statement in high-level programming that defines the data to be compared and the actions to be taken as a result.  There can only be one of two outcomes.  There is no scope for ambiguity.