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Sunday Poem – Matthew Stewart

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Sunday Poem – Matthew Stewart

I’ve had a busy week this week and spent much of it feeling a bit rough with a horrible cold that I only shook off on Wednesday night. On Monday I met my supervisor for a discussion about the poems I’d been writing over the summer for the PhD and to my great relief he is pleased about the way my poems are progressing.  I’ve been experimenting with using form a lot more.  I’ve always wanted to write a specular, or mirror poem and I think I’ve finally managed it, but I’ve also written another poem using a fixed rhyme scheme which I enjoyed.  In both the specular and the poem with the fixed rhyme scheme, the form was actually embedded in the first draft without me noticing, and then when I carry on and develop it, it feels like a much more playful experience than writing in free verse.

I’ve been reading bell hooks again this week and thinking about a particular passage in ‘Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black’.  She writes that

Feminist consciousness-raising sessions were only the first stage in the process of radical transformation.  The next stage would have been the confrontation between women and men, the sharing of this new and radical speech: women speaking to men in a liberated voice.

The use of the word confrontation is interested here, because it’s such a loaded term, with connotations of hostility, arguments,fighting.   However a quick internet search on the etymology of the word is revealing – it means ‘to bring face to face’.  The negative connotations of the word ‘confront’ only came into place later, in the late 16th century, according to https://www.etymonline.com/word/confront

There is a lot to unpack in that short quote, but I like the idea that poetry could be part of a confrontation, part of a ‘new and radical speech, of women speaking to men in a liberated voice’.  This type of poetry might provoke discomfort, but with discomfort comes the possibility or the potential for change and transformation.

So that is part of what I’ve been thinking about – also about the need (is there a need?) for women to write about men, and masculinity, about how this isn’t simple.  In fact, whenever a woman writes about ‘men’ in a plural sense, it feels uncomfortable.  The last time I read, a man came up to me and said ‘you don’t look old enough to have known all of those men.’  Just one of the strange comments I’ve had from audience members when reading these poems which manage to be insulting through their inference to perceived sexual history.

So apart from all these PhD thoughts, I’ve been to one of the Monday night ‘Carol Ann Duffy and Friends’ reading series – the lovely Andrew McMillan as the guest poet and Keith Hutson as the MA student.  Keith took part in a play he’d written as part of the MA course, which was really interesting and made a change from the usual format of the evening, where two or three students read poems.  It was also a real treat to hear Andrew read from his forthcoming collection.  I’ve been really excited to see what Andrew would do next – his first collection was so bloody good, I was wondering how he would move on from it.  But the new poems are pretty amazing – he is still writing about masculinity and sexuality, but from a different angle – I guess more looking at how they emerge or come into being.  And from hearing them, the poems seemed more narrative, less fragmented than some of the poems in the first collection, more expansive somehow.  His second collection ‘Playtime’ will be published by Cape next summer I think – so that is something to look forward to!

Because of my horrible cold, I cancelled my Kendal Poetry Festival meeting, which was supposed to be on Tuesdayand we did as much as we could over the phone instead.  I dragged myself out to do the joint judging of the children’s poetry competition with Geraldine Green and Ron Creer for Dalton Lit Fest on Tuesday afternoon, and made sure I kept a safe distance away from Geraldine and Ron, so hopefully they didn’t catch my germs.  Afterwards I went straight back to bed for a couple of hours and then it was back out to a Soul Survivors gig.  We were playing at a wedding – and I disgraced myself by crying when the bride sang a song.  The singing was lovely, but it was seeing her dad cry that set me off.

On Wednesday I went to a course at Salford University – ‘Writing Critically About Creative Practice’ which was really interesting.  I’m hoping this is going to help with my ‘academic tone’ writing.  As part of the course we get two 50 minute sessions with a Royal Literary Fellow who will look at a short piece of our writing, and then another full days session in January.

The most exciting thing that happened to me this week was doing Park run on Saturday.  I managed to knock about 20 seconds off my PB, so I’m now done to 21.34 for 5k – never would have thought I would get down to that! But now I want to get closer to 21 minutes – and so it never ends…

This week’s Sunday Poem is the marvellous Matthew Stewart, who has just had his first full collection The Knives of Villalejo published by Eyewear.   Matthew lives between West Sussex and Extremadura. Following a comprehensive school education he took a degree in Modern Languages at St Peter’s College, Oxford.  He works in the Spanish wine trade and has published two pamphlets with HappenStance Press (Inventing Truth, 2011 and Tasting Notes, 2012).  He runs an excellent poetry blog Rogue Strands and has been published in Ambit, London Magazine and The Rialto. 

Matthew was kind enough to send me a copy of his pamphlet a while ago and I finally got around to reading it this week.  I’ve really enjoyed it – most of the poems are fairly short and succinct but they contain some beautiful lines.  Take for instance ‘Home Comforts’ where he writes ‘a kettle won’t seem to whistle/like the owner of a loose dog/calling it back, calling it home’ or in ‘El Castillo De Villalejo’ where he writes ‘Dark vines rise up against the sky/like the flailing arms of a man’.

Matthew has kindly said I can post a  poem called ‘Twenty Years Apart’, which was first published in The Next Review.  I thought it was an interesting piece as it seems to pick up on one of the themes that seem to be threaded throughout this collection, which is that of being an outsider, of someone looking in.

This sense, of not quite belonging, is established right from the first line, with that lovely alliterative line ‘With a synchronised swivelling of necks’.  This is a strange poem though.  The speaker says that the ‘they’ in the poem’welcome me in’ yet it doesn’t sound like a welcome, with the ‘swivelling of necks’ and the ‘coughed silence’ and what appear to be locals ‘wincing as I order’.

The outsider is always an outsider, where in Villalejo or Oxford. When the speaker in the poem urges the reader to ‘Ignore the smells, swap Spanish for English’  the reader starts to realise the speaker is an outsider where ever he goes.

The structure of this poem is interesting as well – with the binaries of Spanish/English and Villalejo/Oxford set up to mirror each other, which is also reflected in the mirroring of the first and second stanza with its short last line and then that lovely line which mirrors itself internally: ‘Muttered stories mirror muttered stories’.

In the first stanza you might be forgiven for thinking, when you read the fourth line ‘a soft hubbub resumes’ that the other people are in the background.  However, by the end of the poem,the reader realises that it is in fact, the speaker who is always in the background, looking in.

Thanks to Matthew for letting me post this poem and if you’d like to order The Knives of Villalejo you can do so from Eyewear here.

 

Twenty Years Apart – Matthew Stewart

With a synchronised swivelling of necks
and a coughed silence, they welcome me in,
wincing as I order.  Once I’ve sat down,
a soft hubbub resumes.

Ignore the smells, swap Spanish for English,
back streets of Villalejo for Oxford.
Muttered stories mirror muttered stories.
I’m still in the background.

 

 

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Sunday Poem – Penny Boxall

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I’m writing this from a motorway services station at midnight on Wednesday night.  It is a very strange place to be.  There are two men who are sitting in front of the slot machines – they’ve been there for the last half hour.  They probably think I’m just as strange though, sitting here with a laptop cursing at it because it won’t connect to the internet.  A family has just walked in who are using the baby feeding station to warm up a pizza which seems strange, but then it’s that or paying a ridiculous amount of money for a cake or a limp sandwich.

It is my sworn oath this year that no Sunday shall pass without a Sunday Poem being unleashed onto the world.  Unfortunately for my sworn oath, I only remembered at about 4pm today that I would be in Holland on Sunday, at a campsite, maybe in the middle of a poetry festival, and it would be an absolute pain to try and find a computer and an internet connection.  So I am trying the whole scheduling a blog-post to publish in advance.

But what a strange thing to write this on Wednesday when only half the week has happened! By the time you all read this, I will have been in Holland for four days and I’m hopefully having a great time.  Although I might be a little sad because my lovely friend Jan Glas will be leaving on Sunday to go home.  But I will be happy because it will mean only two days till I see Mr C, the husband.

Anyway, of necessity, today’s post is going to be short.  My flight is at 5.55am on Thursday morning from Manchester, and tonight (Wednesday) I had another reading to sixth form students who are on a trip and staying at the university campus in Ambleside.  The reading went ok – this week only a third of them stayed for my bit of the poetry reading and I was slightly thrown when I saw another one of my ex-pupils who used to play in the band. After the reading finished, I went for a Chinese in Ambleside and then drove here – it wasn’t worth me going back to Barrow as I’d just have to set off again, but once I’ve finished this I’m going to try and get a couple of hours sleep in the car.

I’m really excited about this trip.  The poetry festival is in Vlieland which is a very small island off the coast of Holland.  There are not many cars there apparently, but lots of cycle paths, which means lots of paths to go running on and nothing much else to do apart from read and write and hang out with people – sounds like my ideal weekend!

This week I’ve had my friend Lindsey Holland come to stay and we’ve had a really nice time.  We decided to have a poetry day on Monday and spent the whole day in our pyjamas, writing and reading.  I managed to get two submissions sent off for the first time in god knows how long.  I had to finally admit to myself that I have in fact been hoarding poems, not sending them out and thinking they were all rubbish.  Precisely what I tell other people not to do.  So twelve are now out in the world seeking their fortune.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Penny Boxall, who I met when she was an intern at The Wordsworth Trust, but more recently at a Canada Poetry Day, organised by Polly Atkin.  I really enjoyed Penny’s reading and bought her book ‘Ship of the Line’ published by Eyewear Publishing.  I’ve read the book today while I was eating my Chinese and I really enjoyed it.  The poems, on the whole, are very outward looking, taking their inspiration from objects and interesting stories, so when you arrive at a poem that is in a more personal vein, like ‘The Advantage’, describing a tennis match between a father and daughter, it provides a great contrast.

There is a huge range of subject matter in the collection.  One of my favourite poems was the very first one ‘Taxidermy Outpost’, full of striking images and finishing ‘here is a chipmunk/paddling a canoe/ his little fist/just like yours’.  I also liked ‘Common Use’, ‘The Old Magic’ and ‘Halfway Up an Elephant’ in particular – but I read the book start to finish and was never bored.  It’s actually another of my favourite first collections I’ve read this year, along with Jane Clarke’s ‘The River’.

I’d have loved to have posted ‘The Old Magic’ but as I still haven’t worked out how to do indented lines on WordPress, I’ve decided to go with another wonderful poem – ‘Williams, Who Lived’, which is just a great example of the interesting stories you can find in the collection.  The notes in the back of the collection tell me that ‘Three men – each named Hugh Williams – were the sole survivors of three separate shipwrecks in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.’

I’m not going to say too much about this poem, it being nearly 1am now, but I do want to draw your attention to the lovely use of the verb ‘hauled’ in the first line – it could have been pulled, or dragged, but hauled is so much better.  The line breaks all the way through the poem are really deftly handled but my favourite line break (yes I do have them) has to be in the penultimate stanza, in the third line, when Penny breaks after ‘did’, so we get ‘did/or did not like onions’.  I also really like the fourth stanza with ‘Williams married Susan, married/Mary, married Anne’ – another good line break at married! I like the repetition of ‘and died – and died’ in this stanza and the headstones which ‘read the same, like yesterday’s paper’.

The poem is also a good example of what I talked about before, the way that Penny draws inspiration from stories and objects outside herself, rather than looking inward.

Penny was born in 1987 but already has an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing from UEA.  Her work was commissioned in 2012 for the WEYA festival on the theme of ‘Treatise’.  She won the 2010 Frederik van Eaden poetry competition and has been shortlisted for an Eric Gregory Award.  You can order Penny’s book from her publisher here.  Penny also wrote a brilliant and thoughtful review for The Compass magazine recently for our inaugral issue which you can find here.

Thanks to Penny for allowing me to use her poem.

Williams, Who Lived  – Penny Boxall

When this man was hauled from the foam
and, shaking, asked his name, the news spread fast.
They skimmed him back to shore –
a talisman, breaking the waves like eggs.

Hugh Williams had lived before.  The name
confounded shipwrecks, made men float
through salted depths towards the aching
light.  Williams was a lonely but a living sort.

It seemed the surest way to last gulp air not water,
to die dry, was to be him; or if not him
another of his kind.  The parish registrars
scrawled Williams upon Williams as though they kept

forgetting.  Williams married Susan, married
Mary, married Anne; and when he died,
(and died – and died -) the headstones
read the same, like yesterday’s paper.

Williams stayed at home and picked rocks
from the binary of ploughed earth.
Or travelled, wrote a book, did
or did not like onions; wet the bed.

And when he went to sea – as captain,
passenger, stowaway – he kept himself
to himself; threw his name around him,
vein-strung, tenuous as a caul.