Tag Archives: Helena Nelson

Sunday Poem – Peter Jarvis


Evening all – if I have done this right, this will be published on Sunday at 5.30pm, while I am away in Crete.  The wonders of technology.  I’m actually writing this blog on Friday night just after midnight.  I’ve been away all week tutoring on a week-long residential course with Carola Luther.  We had 16 lovely, talented poets signed up for the course  and it has been a great, if intense week.

My lovely friend Lindsey Holland is staying at my house this week, looking after my dogs and she picked me up from Grange and gave me a lift back to Barrow.  I slept for about an hour and then since then I’ve been packing.  Our flight goes pretty early in the morning – we are having to leave at 2am so it seemed pointless to go to sleep and then wake up feeling terrible.

So this week’s Sunday Poem is appropriately set in another country.  Peter Jarvis was born into an early-settler family in Mashonaland, Zimbabwe and was educated there and in South Africa.  He did postgraduate studies in Scotland at St Andrews and later Stirling universities.  He worked in African education in Zimbabwe, then in Fife for 25 years.  In 2000 he returned to Botswana as part of a team of British Council teachers and enjoyed a thorough immersion in African village life.  There were two further postings in Namibia as adviser and teacher.

I first met Peter at the birthday party of a mutual friend, Antony Christie.  Back then, my pamphlet had just come out, and Peter’s was, I think in the pipeline with Happenstance.  I saw Peter again at Stanza this year, when he introduced the event that I read at with John Dennison and was really happy to finally see his finished pamphlet Nights of a Shining Moon which I read in one setting.

The poems are set in Africa and are beautifully written.  They have a calmness and sureness about them which I think you can see in the poem I’ve chosen.  I like this poem because of its story though, told in the voice of a Lesotho shepherd. I thought I’d post this today because we’ve been looking this week on the course about the different ways we can tell stories in poems, and this poem uses one of the oldest, and best tricks in the book, which is to write the story in the voice of a character.

Although this isn’t a long poem, the characters have real colour and presence.  I like the mother who runs and shouts at the owner, and the kindness of the owners wife.  I like the consequences of the kindness, that the dogs go hungry.  There is also that lovely line about learning to sleep with hunger, and teaching the stomach not to want food.  This poem is not just straightforward though.  It has an air of strangeness to it in that line ‘The lightning means the witches want to kill us’.  My favourite part of the poem though is the list of useful things.  I love that finding water and finding food is given the same importance as making music and taming animals.

If you would like to order Peter’s pamphlet, you can order it through Happenstance and make lovely Helena Nelson, his editor a very happy lady.  Thanks to Peter for letting me use his poem.

A Lesotho Shepherd – Peter Jarvis
(He speaks at his mountain cattle post)

When you are a shepherd
the owner of the animals
must give you gumboots and a kobo.
At the end of the year he pays you
a cow, or two or three sheep.

Once, when I was six, I lost
a sheep in rain.  They ran
and scattered.  Sheep are silly –
cows are not so difficult.
All night I searched.
I was sjamboked.
My mother brought me water
to wash in and she boiled
plants as medicine for my cuts.
She ran and shouted at the owner.

For the next sheep I lost as a boy
I was not allowed food.
The owner’s wife, sorry for me,
gave me the dogs’ food.
That night the dogs went hungry, not me.
But I am used to sleeping with hunger –
I can teach my stomach not to want food.
If you lose a sheep far away at the motebo
you can say a jackal took it.
Your shepherd friends may back you up.

Here at my motebo on the mountain
I leave behind village noises, village smells.
But shepherds fear thunderstorms.
The lightning means the witches want to kill us.

So I wear a rubber necklace.
I’ve learnt in a difficult school.
I know useful things:
where to find water
how to find food
how to make music
how to tame animals

kobo = blanket
sjambok = rawhide whip
motebo = cattle post

Sunday Poem – Andrew Elliott


This week poet Andrew McMillan tweeted “If people couldn’t TELL other people they were a poet but could only sit and write poetry, would they still want to be a poet?” This first of all made me laugh, but I think it touches on important things.  And then I read a wonderful post today from Helena Nelson about being a publisher, but more than that, about what it means to be a poet.  You can find the blog post here, and it really is worth reading
Helena Nelson is currently deep in the submissions window for Happenstance, which closes on Tuesday.  The blog above is Number 4 on this subject and you should read them all and preferably, I guess start with Number 1, but Number 4 made my heart soar today – in a strange way.

These two things – Andrew’s tweet and Helena’s blog are connected in my mind – although I haven’t quite worked out how yet.  Regular readers (or my friends) will know I put no thought really into these blog posts – I think as I write, in a similar way to when I write poems actually.

This means my thought process isn’t always particularly well thought out – but the poet I’ve chosen to feature for this Sunday fits nicely between this tweet and Helena’s blog, both of which, I think are trying to pin down what writing poetry is, or should be about.

Andrew Elliott is an elusive poet – I couldn’t track him down online to ask him directly whether I could use one of his poems for my Sunday Poem, so I got in touch with his publisher Charles Boyle of CB Editions, who incidentally, also keeps a very interesting blog at http://sonofabook.blogspot.co.uk/

Charles very graciously said I could use Andrew’s poem from his book ‘Mortality Rate’.  I ordered this book because I have developed a bit of a crush on CB Edition poetry books.  I have bought four this year – Dan O’Brien’s ‘War Reporter’ and two by Dennis Nurske – ‘Voices Over Water’ and ‘A Night in Brooklyn’ and of course this one by Andrew Elliott – which came to my attention because it was part of the Inpress Christmas Sale.  So at the minute I have a 100% hit rate with really enjoying this publishers’ books – CB Editions has a brilliant hit rate of winning the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize as well by the way…

It turns out Andrew Elliott doesn’t really engage with social media or the internet – there are not even any pictures of him, which explains why I couldn’t track him down.  It’s a good way not to get poetry stalkers I suppose.  Not that I am one of course.

But I respect him for this privacy – although I couldn’t do it – I enjoy being around poets too much – I like going to readings – I like talking about poetry – I even like Facebook and Twitter most of the time apart from when people moan about stuff that actually has nothing to do with the act of writing – or when people over share not fond of that – but I’m going off the point – I respect Charles Boyle even more – for publishing a poet whose work he loved, probably knowing that it would be difficult to sell copies because he wasn’t active on social media.  Then again – I still managed to buy the book!  So the moral of this tale is to go to CB Editions website – don’t bother with Amazon.  Order any of their poetry books – or even their fiction actually (although I haven’t tried any of those) http://www.cbeditions.com/

But first of all you need to read this poem by Andrew Elliott – which I think is representative of the rest of the book – the poems are full of these long twisting sentences which turn back on themselves.  I would finish reading each poem and then give myself a shake and have to go back again to the beginning – which is a good sign isn’t it?

I love the long lines of this poem – and the mystery of it – when the man exclaims that the holes in the poem ‘inexplicably move’ him – I feel the same way about this poem – except it is not inexplicable – it is that last verse that touches me.  It also reminds me of the Elizabeth Bishop poem ‘Monument’ which you can find here http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-monument/

Not in the syntax of course, or the rhythm, but in that close and unflinching attention to detail – the same kind of poetic gaze that cannot be distracted – and they both have those exclamations in them which are like little bursts of emotion…and the lightbulb ‘like the soul of a man so twisted’ – isn’t that great?  I do like poems that have the word soul in generally – especially as it is one of those ‘taboo’ words that you get told not to use – not quite in the same league as ‘shard’ but coming close – this makes me want to use it more though –

If you would like to read the rest of ‘Mortality Rate’ by Andrew Elliott pop over to CB Editions and make an independent publisher very happy for the new year!

Ps – I haven’t said anything about Christmas because I can’t be bothered.  It happened.  It was windy.  There you go!  Have a great New Year’s Eve if I’m not back before then!

Installation – Andrew Elliott

In a plywood partition that stops six inches short of the ceiling
a number of holes have been bored as if in preparation for plumbing.
Each two inches in diameter, they appear to be awaiting delivery
of a consignment of urinals from China, stainless steel ones no doubt.

Let’s count how many there are…There are nine, if I’m not mistaken,
and in almost every case such pride has been taken in the work –
perhaps the bit was tungsten-tipped? – that it’s only the hole in the middle
where – due to excessive vibration? – the cheap plywood has ragged

and left a fringe of splinters which should be easy enough to make good with the help of a Stanley knife and some sandpaper, were the fitter
to feel the need though that is to make the assumption that the urinals
will arrive when they’re supposed to, the job not abandoned,

the fitter not to be told and so turn up with all his gear to find exactly
as we’ve done a plywood partition down the middle of a room
whose walls are tiled white to the top and which, having had no windows
to begin with, is supplied with light by a long-life bulb which hangs

from the ceiling on our side like the soul of a man so twisted
that he might have had something to do with the holes, been either
the man who had bored them or the man who had had them bored for him –
though when I say our I mean only the side that we’re on; we could as easily

be standing on the dark side and, standing there, find it more interesting,
the effect of the light being let in through the holes, the sense of
encroachment on the ceiling where the partition stops short, as I’ve said…
But then again partition? It tolls a bell to which another bell answers.

The holes! They inexplicably move me. I feel a great need to worship them.
I want to get down on my hands and knees.  I want to crawl towards them.
I want to put my mouth to each one of them, in particular that horribly
ragged one.  I want to whisper such things as I’ve never told anyone.