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Sunday Poem – Chrissie Gittins

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Sunday Poem – Chrissie Gittins

Going out for a run – procrastination.  Playing on addictive computer game involving hatching dragons from eggs in a completely pointless exercise – procrastination.  Ringing my mum for a chat – procrastination.  Ringing my twin sister for a chat – procrastination.  Checking Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – procrastination.  Sending stupid Snapchat video to Hilda Sheehan – procrastination.   Everything that isn’t my PhD feels like procrastinating at the minute, like a distraction.  I realise that thinking of life in general as a distraction is probably not healthy in the long term.

I need to run otherwise I think I will lose the plot.  I try to limit myself to computer game when I’ve done a good couple of hours work on the PhD.  I ring my mum and my sister whilst I’m out walking the dogs.  I spend less time on social media – mainly because of my addiction to aforementioned dragon hatching game.  I practice saying no in the mirror but still say yes too often.  This blog could really be called procrastination, I suppose, which is maybe why I have slowed down with it a little recently, why the posts are a bit more sporadic.  But I feel connected to a wider poetry community when I write it – and I still like hunting out poems to post here.

Today I have ran 10 miles, and read and re-read a fantastic manuscript by Hannah Hodgson, nne of my Dove Cottage Young Poets.  This manuscript is her first pamphlet collection and is about to be published very soon by Wayleave Press.  I’ve written a blurb for the back, and sent it to Mike Barlow, her publisher.  I’ve also answered as many emails as I could get through, and am hoping I haven’t missed any.  I’ve read and re-read the feedback on my 6000 word report, or RD2 as it’s commonly known at MMU on my PhD progress so far.  I’ve started to respond to some of their feedback, just in bullet points at the moment.  Next Monday I will have a ‘mock viva’ where I will discuss my PhD, and their feedback with the scrutineers.

My usual psychological process is to panic or get anxious about anything like this in the lead up to it.  I spend copious amounts of energy worrying,and usually, it all ends up ok.  So I’m trying to just ignore this part of me that works itself up into a frenzy.  Or maybe not ignore, but not let it run the show.

I did this recently with a thing I did with BBC Radio Cumbria.  I did an interview and a recording of my poem ‘Suffragette’ as part of the celebrations to mark 100 years since the Representation of the People Act, which gave the vote to some women and working class men.  I spent the next three days afterwards worrying I’d said something awful and made myself sound stupid.  When the interview was played and I eventually got the courage up to listen, I realised it sounded fine.  I was even quite proud of myself for doing it, again a new feeling for me! You can listen to the interview and recording here for the next 22 days: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05vm48h

So in the spirit of learning from previous experiences, I’m trying hard not to let my nerves or anxiety get the better of me.  Part of me is looking forward to discussing what I’m doing – my scrutineers are writers and poets I really admire, so I’m hoping it will genuinely be helpful and interesting, and thought provoking.  My stomach still does a flip flop when I think about it, but it feels under control.

I’ve had a busy couple of weeks since I last wrote.  Last night we had A Poem and a Pint.  Sadly, Joanne Limburg, our guest poet was taken ill at the last minute.  The wonderful John Foggin agreed to stand in at very late notice and made a 250 mile round trip to come and read.  It was a brilliant reading – John’s poetry was thought-provoking and moving and funny.  I was really pleased to see the audience loved him as much as I do and bought lots of his books – you can read his account of the evening over at his blog The Great Fogginzo’s Cobweb.  

The night before, Friday, I was reading at Lancaster Spotlight, which was a fundraising night to help them raise money to continue their good work whilst they apply for Arts Council funding.  They had a huge turnout and I got to read with another one of my Dove Cottage Young Poets, Matthew, who was then asked back to do a longer set at Spotlight later in the year.  I found this almost as exciting as the first time I read there, and was invited back to read.

On Tuesday of this week I got back from being away for about six nights.  I read in London on the Monday night at an event at the British Library for the Royal Society of Literature alongside the brilliant Malika Booker and Nick Makoha.  It was a really lovely night and I got to spend some time with a few friends that I hadn’t seen for a while.

I travelled down to London from Ty Newydd, where I’d been for five nights, running a residential course with my co-tutor Hilda Sheehan, who is also one of my closest friends.  Being with Hilda always fills me with joy and giddiness so it was great to spend time with her.  Our students were a fantastic group from a school in Manchester who were an absolute delight to teach.

I’m really looking forward to tomorrow because I get to spend three days with my other best friend David Tait! He is over visiting from China.  Tomorrow we will be hanging out in Bowness and Grasmere and going for a walk with the dogs, and talking all things poetry.  So no time really to get nervous about the viva.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Chrissie Gittins, who I met quite a few years ago at Stanza Poetry Festival.  Chrissie was kind enough to send me a copy of her pamphlet, Professor Heger’s Daughter, and I asked her if I could share the title poem here.

I found a great interview with Chrissie where she talks about writing this poem, which I thought was a really interesting description of the process, and the lengths we go to as poets here which is really worth a read.  She writes

I first read about Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Constantin Heger in the Saturday Guardian early in 2012. They were mentioned in an article by Lucasta Miller about a recently discovered fable which Charlotte had written. After her aunt died Charlotte returned home to Haworth from Brussels, where she’d been studying, and wrote a series of passionate letters to her teacher. Professor Heger tore them up on receipt and threw them in the wastepaper basket; the only reason they survive is because his wife rescued them, stuck and stitched them together, and kept them safely in her jewellery box. The letters are now part of the extensive collection of Brontë literary manuscripts held at the British Library.  

I think one of the many lovely things about this is the utter chance of it – that Chrissie read about the letters in the Guardian, presumably minding her own business reading the newspaper and not expecting a poem to pounce on her. Maybe this is what being a poet is – being ready for these chance encounters or meetings which might lead on to a poem or a pamphlet.

The poem is in the voice of one of Professor Heger’s daughters, and uses the arrival of Charlotte Bronte’s letters as its structure.  I love how each letter is tied to a particular month, and the physical descriptions of the letters – the pieces ‘like islands floating on the green chenille’ and ‘river tears’ and the ‘shadow words’.

I also really like how Chrissie has threaded some of the actual letters through the poem.  The poem is a poem of contrasts – the close description of the fragments of letters contrast with the wider view of the outside world with its ‘canopy of leaves’ and later the ‘leaves crusted with rust’.  There is a wonderful telescoping effect as the eye of the poem closes in and then widens out again.

The first time we hear the daughter speak is in the last but one stanza, when she asks the father “Did you love her? Did you ever love her?”.  I like how the subject, the ‘her’ is left a mystery.  She could be talking about her mother, his wife, or Charlotte Bronte, and this mystery isn’t resolved by the father’s action of throwing the letters into the fire.

You can buy Chrissie Gittin’s pamphlet Professor Heger’s Daughter from Paekakariki Press for £10.  This is a limited edition letterpress pamphlet – it really is a beautiful object.

She was was born in Lancashire and lives in Forest Hill in South London. She studied at Newcastle University and St Martin’s School of Art, and worked as an artist and a teacher before becoming a freelance poet/writer. She writes poetry, radio drama, short stories, and poetry for children.  Professor Heger’s Daughter was published in 2013 and she’s been busy since then, publishing a short story collection Between Here and Knitwear with Unthank Books in 2015 and a children’s poetry collection Adder, Bluebell, Lobster in 2016 with Otter-Barry Books.  You can find out more information about Chrissie over at her website http://www.chrissiegittins.co.uk/ 

Chrissie is also heading up north soon to give a poetry reading for adults at Settle Sessions in North Yorkshire on June 8th.  On June 9th – she’ll also be running a 1 hour poetry workshop for children followed by a short poetry reading – more information over at the website of Settle Sessions.
Thanks to Chrissie for letting me use her poem here.

Professor Heger’s Daughter – Chrissie Gittins 

The first came in July when the canopy of leaves
cooled the garden in the afternoon,
she laid the pieces on the table
like islands floating on the green chenille.
Taking paper strips she strapped the words together.
I shall see you again one day…it must happen since I long
00for it.
A coral blush rose in her cheeks.

Mother found the second in October,
leaves were crusted then with rust.
She pulled the river tears together with feather stitch,
white cotton whiter than the page,
the thin paper showing Charlotte’s
shadow words behind.
my sisters are keeping well but my brother is always ill.

In January, when threads of silver birch were
stained with plum my mother found nine pieces
nestled next to last year’s invitations.
If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely
I shall be absolutely without hope –

Another in November, leaves rotting in the rain.
I lost my appetite and my sleep – I pine away.
This was the last.
I know what it is to love a man and not be loved.
But to see my mother’s eyes remember pain?

When my father lay on his deathbed,
his skin wax, his hands clammy and limp,
I flung the letters in his face.
“Did you love her? Did you ever love her?”
He screwed his strength enough to toss them
in the fire.

He found his peace in death.
I keep the letters locked beneath my bed
in a polished leather case.
It’s only in the spring I take pleasure in the trees,
I stroke the buds and stems and will the curling leaves
to unfurl into sunlight, to bring a fragrant ease.

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