I have somehow, after getting a bit worn down with it, managed to find my way back to enjoying blogging every Sunday again. I found my way back to this place, as with most things, through poetry, through finding poems that I felt I had to tell other people about otherwise I might burst. More on that later.
It has been a strange kind of week this week. I’ve been frantically preparing for my mock viva which is tomorrow afternoon. I have to give a ten minute presentation and then discuss my PhD and the 6000 word report I handed in. I received feedback on my report and this is what I have the presentation has to be about – a response to the feedback. So I’ve been thinking about that this week, turning it over in my mind. I bought myself some small cards and have written prompts on and I’m hoping that will help me when I’m doing the presentation.
One of the main questions raised in the feedback was why use poetry, and lyric poetry in particular, to address the gap I’ve identified. Lucky for me I’ve been reading Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric for the last month or so, as I feel I can answer that one. As the gap I’ve identified is that poets don’t seem to be writing about sexism in a sustained way (as in over a whole collection, rather than the odd poem) then it makes sense to try and do this in poetry. But why lyric poetry? Lyric poetry is always balanced between inner and outer experience, between the individual and the social, between the personal and the political. I like how it is often in two minds. I’ve enjoyed reading about lyric poetry having a long history of being socially engaged – Jonathan Culler talks about its roots in epideictic discourse – which is public discourse about meaning and value. And when anyone asks why poetry, I always return to Adrienne Rich and this beautiful quote from her essay ‘Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson’:
But there is a more ancient concept of the poet, which is that she is endowed to speak for those who do not have the gift of language, or to see for those who – for whatever reasons – are less conscious of what they are living through.
The last part of that sentence is central to my own work – the idea that poetry can make us look differently at the world. This is exactly what listening to Claudia Rankine read from Citizen did for me and this is what happened to me when my friend David Tait sent me the manuscript of his new collection The AQI which contains a long central sequence exploring homophobia. I became more conscious of the times we are living through, when homophobia and racism is rife, but some of us are lucky enough to not be directly affected by it. Poetry can make us see the world differently, can make us more conscious of what we are living through.
David Tait has been on a brief visit to the UK for the past fortnight and we spent three days together hiking in the Lake District and eating cake – that was pretty much the extent of our activities. It was great to see him again – and I’m looking forward to his new collection, which will be coming out in May 2018.
So as well as having a welcome visitor and preparing for my mock viva, I’ve also been desperately trying to catch up with emails and admin. I seem to be getting a lot more freelance work coming through at the moment, which is lovely, and maybe an after effect of winning the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, but it has made this week a little bit manic as I try and keep up with it.
I’m also now fully on with my training for the Coniston to Barrow, taking place in May this year. Last year I got injured and am determined not to do the same thing again. I’m building up my milage, but really dialling back the speed. I ran my longest run in a while today – 12 and a half miles but didn’t go charging off up the hills which is my usual style, and it seems to have worked, as I have no aches or pains so far.
Back to the Sunday Poem! My lovely editor, Amy Wack at Seren, sent me some of the new books that Seren have just published. One of them was a pamphlet by a poet called Bryony Littlefair, who won the Mslexia competition in 2017 with her pamphlet Giraffe. I really loved this pamphlet – it felt like a complete breath of fresh air, every poem entertained me.
I chose ‘Sunday mornings’ not because this blog goes out on a Sunday (no chance I’d ever get round to posting this in the morning anyway!) although it is nicely apt that it’s Sunday. Returning to Jonathan Culler who writes that every poem about a bird conjures up other poems about birds. I think this is true, to a lesser and greater extent. I can’t read a poem about a fox without thinking of Ted Hughes ‘The Thought-Fox’. Hughes’ poem stands as a kind of shadow poem behind other fox poems, casting a different length of shadow depending on how close they are to each other.
‘Sunday mornings’ bought into my head one of my favourite contemporary poem ‘Those Winter Sundays’ by Robert Hayden. They are two completely different poems of course. Hayden is writing about ‘the chronic angers of that house’ and the different ways humans show love, or don’t, amongst other things, whilst Bryony’s poem seems to be a poem of learning to be alone, learning loneliness or selfhood. But I think the music of the poems, their intrinsic rhythms are very close to each other, especially at the beginning. The lovely first line of Bryony’s poem: ‘The truth is I’m not sure what I did’ – the way it seems to start mid-conversation seems to mirror the mid-conversation stance of ‘Sundays too my father got up early’. Both poems seem to be addressing us, the readers directly – Bryony’s all the way through, and Robert Hayden’s seems to turn its face towards us with that last heartbreaking question – ‘What did I know, what did I know,/of love’s austere and lonely offices?’ Although I suppose both poems could also be addressing the self rather than a reader.
I love the humour in Bryony’s poem as well – ‘I’d spin/on the office chair, or curl up on patches/of carpet, pretending to be dead’ and earlier in the poem ‘I didn’t/do any of those things, nor the homework/I’d invented to excuse my godlessness’. All the way through the pamphlet, she uses fantastic metaphors and similes, and this poem is no exception – look at ‘Alone in the hefty silence, I felt loose/and endangered, like an undone shoelace/or an open rucksack.’ I think those are so well chosen – of course an open rucksack is endangered – it could allow things to fall from it, or allow a thief to take something. A shoelace is endangered because it could be stepped on, it could case a fall. Both objects are not doing what they are supposed to be doing.
It made me think back to being a teenager and how hard it was to be alone. At some point, my mum and dad eventually trusted my sister and I enough to leave us at home, but I was never alone as I had three sisters. Even when my older sisters were out, I was always with my twin sister – in fact we weren’t allowed to hang out with friends without each other, which maybe accounts for how terrible I am at being alone now. I can manage it if I’m busy, but I find it really hard if I’ve got nothing to do.
A little bit about Bryony Littlefair – she studied English Literature and Philosophy at the University of York. Her various jobs have ranged from cupcake baker to Editorial Assistant to dementia support worker. She currently works at the Abbey Community Centre in Kilburn and focuses on work with older people. She is also Project Coordinator for The Reader in Croydon. Her poetry has previously appeared in Popshot, The Cadaverine, Clear Poetry and Ink, Sweat and Tears.
You can buy her pamphlet Giraffe direct from the Seren website here– I can’t recommend it highly enough. I read it straight through in one sitting and then started again. There are some cracking poems in there – other favourites are the title poem ‘Giraffe’ and the very funny ‘Usually I’m a different person at this party’ which starts ‘Usually my tights don’t fall down like this, leaving an airy prism/just below the crotch’ and just gets better and better (Is Bryony Littlefair in fact following me around documenting my life I wondered to myself at this point). I also really liked ‘Lido’ which starts ‘Seeing you at the lido was/like walking past a house I used to live in’ and I used ‘Visitations from future self’ in my Dove Cottage Young Poets workshop a week or so ago, where it received a stamp of approval.
Sunday mornings – Bryony Littlefair
The truth is I’m not sure what I did
those mornings they’d leave, my mother
always in a floral capped-sleeve shirt.
I wish I could say I graffitied the newsagent,
or met with a nicotine-fingered boyfriend,
or learned Bertrand Russell by heart. I didn’t
do any of those things, nor the homework
I’d invented to excuse my godlessness.
Alone in the hefty silence, I felt loose
and endangered, like an undone shoelace
or an open rucksack. I’d pace from room
to room, hands tucked up my sleeves.
I’d play snatches on the piano, or make
elaborate little snacks – crackers piled
with quartered grapes and shavings of cheese.
I was like a blunt knife, failing to cut
and apportion the hours. I’d spin
on the office chair, or curl up on patches
of carpet, pretending to be dead.
I might have put on a CD, shaken
my hips to Run DMC, a jerky
figure of eight. I might have filmed myself dancing.
I’d be choosing another colour for my nails
when the key would turn in the lock:
my parents, whole and returned,
having sung their hallelujahs
and walked back through the cool light rain.