Tag Archives: pamphlet

Sunday Poem – Steve Ely

Sunday Poem – Steve Ely

I’ve discovered this week that I’m not very good at being ill.  I have quite a few friends who live with chronic pain or illness and they always seem to be cheerful and full of good humour, and to just get on with things.  I was ill on Thursday with some kind of stomach bug.  It only lasted one day – by the time I woke up on Friday, I felt much better, just very weak from not eating the day before. On Thursday though, it felt like I would never get better, and that I was in fact, mortally ill.  I told you I’m not good at being ill.  I get very dramatic and imagine that I’m dying.  I also get bored very easily because I felt too ill to even sit up  and watch TV, I couldn’t concentrate on a book, and I couldn’t go to sleep.  Anyway, very luckily it didn’t last long.  I cancelled my workshop on Friday with my Young Writers Group and didn’t go to Brewery Poets in the evening and spent Friday trying to take it easy.

On Saturday I had my Barrow Poetry Workshop.  It was only a small group this month – for the last four months of the workshops, the groups have been getting steadily bigger, peaking at 20 last month.  This month there were only six! Lots of  the regulars on holiday or gallivanting off elsewhere.  Those six wrote some brilliant poems though, so it was well worth the effort of running the workshop.  We looked at poems by Judy Brown, Hubert Moore, John McCullough and and J O Morgan today.

We’ve got the plasterers in this week, much earlier than expected as the plasterer had a cancellation and rang up to see if he could fit us in earlier.  So  at the minute we have two rooms worth of furniture in the front room, and we’re living between the front room and the garden.   Everything in the kitchen is covered in a film of white dust and there are radio stations playing all day which I wouldn’t normally listen to.  I’m sure the plasterers think I am completely idle.  The first day they were here (Friday) I was recuperating in my hammock in the garden for a lot of the day, which felt particularly lazy as they were obviously working quite hard. Then Saturday I was sat around having breakfast and didn’t go to work until 10.30 – they’d already been working for nearly two hours by that point! Then again, I was sat up until midnight, working on an assignment for Carrie Etter’s online course which I’m taking at the minute.  I have to analyse sentence structure in a prose poem, which I’m finding really hard.  It is interesting, but hard, and it feels like I understand what a compound-complex sentence is, and then the knowledge slips away from me again.  This is probably basic knowledge that I should already know but it feels like my brain just isn’t wired up that way, to label these things.

The first half of the week I spent whizzing around doing my usual things.  I went to Bowland Bridge on Monday to spend the day with a group of friends on a writing retreat before heading off to do my junior band rehearsal.  I went for a run on Tuesday after work.  On Wednesday, I was teaching till 6.30 and then I drove to Ulverston to host an Open Mic at Natterjacks.  The friends I spent the day with at Bowland Bridge had been in touch to see if there were any poetry readings happening in Cumbria in the week they were here.  There were none, so I decided to organise an open mic for them.  Rob and Valerie at Natterjacks offered the venue for free and I advertised it with a minimum amount of effort via Facebook and emails, so I was really pleased when we got a good turnout and managed to fill the cafe.  I think there were about 18 people signed up on the open mic, but everybody was well behaved and stuck to their time slot.  Rob and Valerie’s son, Connor, who plays in my band, recited my ‘Trumpet Teacher’s Curse’ – he’d already won his category in a poetry recitation competition at the South Cumbria Music Festival but I couldn’t believe how many laughs he got – much more than when I read it!

Then Thursday morning I was stopped in my tracks.  Which is probably a good place to introduce today’s Sunday Poem, by Steve Ely.  I had the pleasure of working with Steve last year in St Ives on our residential and he was great to work with, very hard-working and conscientious with the feedback he gave to people on the course about their poetry, and he runs as well – what more could you want from a co-tutor?

Here is Steve’s poem, taken from a brand new pamphlet Werewolf, published by Calder Valley Poetry.

The Death Dealer of Kovno

Lithuania, land of heroes, 
Thou our Fatherland that art, 
From the glorious deeds of ages, 
Shall Thy children take hear. 
May Thy children ever follow 
Their heroic fathers 
In devotion to their country 
(The Lithuanian National Anthem)

Duffy we hated, for his stink and snivelling
and strawberry birthmark, and when Mr Dowland
named him as the pen thief, the football team
rose in incredulous outrage that one
so contemptible, so negligible, so low,
would dare to place his scrubber’s hands
on our Papermates, Schaeffers and Parkers.
I chinned him at his desk in front of the teacher
to the raucous approbation of my peers
who swarmed over tables to land righteous blows
of their own.  Dowland, who knew
exactly how we felt, bollocked us
back to fractions and told us such conduct
had no place in school, though come four
it was none of his business. When we got him
in the ginnel even the first years joined in.
Hey-fatty-bum-bum could neither fight nor run.
He hedgehogged to a foetal and curled tight
till we sickened of booting.  He screamed
like a babby and bled like a pig:
fat-bastard, pen-thieving, beetroot-face bummer.
His Mam kept him off, until the school bobby
knocked with a summons.  We were warned.
Sitting at his desk, he’d lost weight
but his wounds had healed.  When he whispered
‘Yes Sir’, to his name on the register,
Dowland looked up from his careful herringbone,
and pointing with his Papermate,
asked if he’d learned his lesson.

On 25th June, 1941, the day after invading Nazis had driven out the Soviet occupiers, Lithuanians nationalists herded fifty Jews onto the forecourt of the Lietukis garage in Kovno.  In front of a cheering crowd, the Jews were marched at gunpoint to the centre of the forecourt, where they were beaten to death with an iron crowbar by Algirda Antana Pavalkis, a Lithuanian national in his late teens or early twenties.  After killing the last Jew, the Death Dealer of Kovno posed for photographs amongst the corpses before fetching an accordian and leading the crowd in a rendition of the Lithuanian National Anthem.  A 1950 photograph of Pavalkis seemed to indicate that he was working as a doctor in the USSR.

Phew.  So this poem, and indeed the pamphlet that it is taken from, is pretty dark, although I wouldn’t say unremittingly so.  It explores a world of male violence and I think this poem certainly sets out the ideas for violence being a spectrum or a continuum.  The violence that is meted out by both the children and the teacher, is compared to the deadly violence carried out against the Jews in the epigraph that follows.  There are copious notes at the back of the pamphlet, and the notes for this poem say that this is a ‘fictionalised version of an incident that took place in my middle school in 1978’ leaving the reader to wonder which bits are fictionalised and which are true.

Leaving aside questions of truth, and the uncomfortable feeling I’m left with when reading this poem as I remember incidences from my own childhood when I was complicit to violence or cruelty against others, or the victim of it, and going back to the poem, it is a masterclass in creating a believable voice.

The fact that Duffy was hated for his ‘strawberry birthmark’ – a completely arbitrary thing fits with my memories of all the things that children get bullied for.  I love the way he uses ‘hedgehogged’ as an action and the line ‘bollocked us/back to fractions’ – the teacher tells them off and makes them do fractions, but also the double meaning, of these boys being only fractions, only partly human.  That idea of them not being ‘human’ also happens, I think, because there is only one use of the personal pronoun ‘I’.  The rest of the time, the poem uses ‘we’ and ‘us’, as if the football team moves with one thought.

This is a brilliantly executed poem, and technically, I don’t think it puts a foot wrong.  It’s interesting to consider it without the title or the epigraphs that precede and follow it.  It’s still a strong poem, which explores childhood brutality and brutality wielded by someone in a position of power, but with the epigraphs, it opens it up to a wider consideration of violence in society and how it starts, and is allowed to take place.

If you’d like to read more of Steve’s work, you can email Bob Horne at Calder Valley Poetry at caldervalleypoetry@yahoo.com.  Calder Valley Poetry is a relatively new publisher, already producing beautiful pamphlets.  I’ve still got a pamphlet that Bob sent by Peter Riley that he has published recently, which I’m looking forward to reading.

Steve Ely is a poet from the West Riding of Yorkshire. His book of poems, Oswald’s Book of Hours, is published by Smokestack and was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2013 and the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry in 2014. Englaland, his second book of poems, was published in April, 2015, also by Smokestack. His novel, Ratmen, is published by Blackheath Books. Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made In Mexborough, a biographical work about Hughes’s neglected Mexborough period, was  published by Palgrave MacMillan in July 2015.  If you’d like to find out more about Steve, you can go to his website at http://www.steveely.co.uk/


The Day After the Michael Marks Award


So it is the day after the night before – and I’m back in Barrow again after my fifth trip away in just over a month.  Yesterday was the Michael Marks Awards – I bought a dress- which as my friends will testify, is very unusual for me – I don’t normally do dresses – I feel very self-conscious in them,  so I just avoid them normally.  But I figured I might never be shortlisted for the Michael Marks again so I should make an effort.  So there was that – and then I couldn’t face getting changed in the loos at Euston so I decided to just wear the dratted dress down there.

I had the most wonderful train journey from Barrow to London.  I didn’t meet anybody I knew – which sounds very miserable, but I really just wanted to read.  I didn’t, this time meet anybody that I struck up a conversation with – again, sometimes this can be nice but I wasn’t in the mood.  I normally sit at a table so I can spread my books out but instead I sat in a normal seat and it felt much more cave like and protected from the rest of the world.  I read some of the new Robert Wrigley collection, published by Bloodaxe.  I’m only a third of the way through but I’m really enjoying it – here is a quote from a Robert Wrigley poem called ‘Cigarettes’ which I wrote down in my notebook as one of those lines I wish I’d written…

‘The first woman who ever let me
touch her, a girl really, only seventeen,
kissed me so deeply I fell out of myself
and became her’

I think this image is so beautiful and it carries something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, about the people we meet and who we have intimacy with – how we carry them around with us – for better or worse.

And what about the beginning of this poem by Robert Wrigley, simply called ‘Parents’ which starts ‘Old two-hearted sadness, old blight/in the bones,’

Two-hearted sadness.   I think that is so moving.  Anyway, so I was loving my Robert Wrigley which made me write something – I’m currently getting sidetracked by a sequence I’m working on called ‘How I Abandoned My Body to His Keeping’ about a relationship – I would maybe describe the poems as being haunted by violence – because I don’t want to deal with the violence directly necessarily, but I want it to be always in the background.  Which makes the poems pretty dark.  So anyway, I wrote another poem to go into this sequence which gives me ten so far.  I don’t know how many it is going to be – I’m just going with it at the minute.

So after I’d written this poem I felt so, so happy.  Which is strange because this sequence, or the writing of it has been quite painful sometimes.  But I think this poem is good – it says something that needs to be said, and it says it, I think, in a way, that will make other people have a jolt of recognition.  Maybe.  Bearing in mind I haven’t looked at it again since yesterday, so it could all very easily fall apart.  But I felt really happy and excited.  In fact I met the husband off the train and the first thing I did in the cafe at the station was recite the poem to him – poor guy.

Anyway, then we went to the British Library.  There were nice waiters and waitresses carrying round silver trays with quail eggs on and cheese and olives and little sausages.  I met the ultra cool Neil Rollinson and lovely Chrissie Williams of the bear poem which featured here a couple of weeks ago.  I met Kim Lasky – the other Poetry Business poet shortlised who is a nice lady.  I met Ben Wilkinson – shortlisted as well from Tall Lighthouse.  I didn’t meet David Clarke before the event – but I had a nice chat with Alan Jenkins from the TLS who tutored on a residential I was on about four years ago – and who has been so encouraging and supportive of my work – and brutally honest as well when it was rubbish..it was great to see him again…and lovely editors Peter and Ann Sansom were there – and Fiona Sampson who had just come from the palace and Andrew Forster – so lots of people who I really like!

We had a really nice meal which I ate too much of, and was then worried about getting up on the stage – or being able to move at all.  Peter and Ann entertained my half of the table and were making everyone laugh throughout the meal.  I skipped pudding and had a cup of tea.  The publisher’s award was won by Flarestack Poets and then each poet read for five minutes from their pamphlet.

I was the most nervous I’ve been for a reading – I have no idea why – maybe because shorter sets I find harder – there is no time to build up a relationship with the audience I suppose and because there were lots of poets that I admire in the audience – luckily I didn’t see Daljit Nagra till after I had read…Lady Marks – who sponsors the award, came up and told me she ‘loves my british sense of humour’.  So how about that!

David Clarke won the pamphlet award so Flarestack did a double!  Now I get to the crux of my post – or what has prompted me to blog – which is a mix of the upset caused by the reception at Buckingham Palace put on by the Queen to celebrate British Poetry and my own feelings after I didn’t win.  I’ve been silently lurking in the background watching the uproar about which poets got invited and which didn’t with a morbid fascination that I can only liken to the feeling I get when I’m watching Jeremy Kyle.  I couldn’t really understand why anyone would care whether they got invited to the Palace or not.  If I had been invited I would have gone, although I have no feelings one way or the other about the Royals.

But after the award ceremony – I went through a gamut of unworthy feelings – disappointment, envy – and felt ashamed of feeling these things – after all, I was only one of six, and I don’t think my book was any better than anyone else’s – in fact, if I am brutally honest, my money would have been on Neil Rollinson’s compelling pamphlet ‘Talking to the Dead’ – I felt that his years and years of experience of writing really showed in the consistency of quality in his pamphlet – but anyway, I felt quite ashamed of myself for being disappointed and not just bloody grateful to be there, so then I understood a little of what the poet Todd Swift was maybe feeling about the palace invitation or lack thereof.

And then I woke up this morning, still in a strange mood – almost a bad mood but not quite and walked from Fiona Sampson’s flat, where I stayed with the husband through the streets of West London to the tube -about a mile I think at 5a.m in the morning and it was really quiet and cold and peaceful and I started to gradually feel like I was coming back to myself again, which is not bitter/disappointed at the success of others, but happy for them and taking inspiration from it.

I guess the difference is I recognised those feelings as transitory and knew I would come out of it.  By 7.30am, once I got on the train at Euston, I felt like myself.  I posted congratulations to David and Flarestack and I meant every word.  I’m looking forward to reading David’s pamphlet again and hopefully mugging him for a Sunday poem, so you can enjoy his work if you haven’t already.  I was warmed by the lovely messages that my friends posted on Facebook.  I remembered that feeling of happiness when I’d been writing on the way up and tried to capture it again on the way back.

So I guess what I’m saying in a very round about, long winded way, that prize ceremonies and champagne are quite cool, but they can lure you away from what is important, which is that moment of happiness when you are writing and it is going well.  And I think most poets I know, would admit to those ‘unworthy’ feelings at some point or another – I think it is up to us then as human beings to squash them and jump up and down on them and ignore them and whatever you do – don’t act on them – because ultimately, it is not about writing.  It is not about poetry.  Would I have discovered this if I had won?  Probably not, because I’d be too busy running round the house still celebrating…