Another two weeks has rolled by and I gave myself another pass last weekend, as I was on a much-needed holiday in Malaga with three friends from my running club. After a busy few months of teaching and poetry related stuff, it was a relief to go away for a week and not have anyone to talk to about poetry. For once, I didn’t even take any poetry books to read! I did however take my Kindle and downloaded a few novels to read.
I also took a textbook with me that I bought in preparation for my PhD. My PhD is provisionally called ‘Poetry and Everyday Sexism’. I want to write poems about small, everyday, ‘insignificant’ sexist behaviour and explore what happens when these ‘minor’ incidents are turned into poetry.
However, I don’t feel like I’ve got enough background knowledge about the history of feminism – it is a bit like coming to a party that has been in full swing, where everybody knows each other. I wanted to get an overview of the main developments in feminism before I rock up to university in September, so I bought this textbook called ‘In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society’ by Marlene LeGates, and although I put off starting it until the last couple of days, because I thought it would be dry and dull, once I began, I really enjoyed it. It does read a little like a novel – there have been whole chapters that I couldn’t put down until I’d got to the end.
I didn’t realise that the book actually starts in the early Christian era, and discusses notable women like Hildegard who found an alternative way of living to the normality of marriage and childbirth. The first chapter is called ‘From Jesus to Joan of Arc’ and I found this chapter so moving – unexpectedly so, because I didn’t expect to feel a strong connection with women who lived hundreds of years ago, who had ‘visions’ and were one of a few women who were allowed to speak publicly.
In the book a Puritan called Elizabeth White describes herself as outwardly ‘somewhat more Mild’ than other women but inwardly ‘like a Wolf chained up’. Charlotte Woodward, a 19th century American working woman said there was no community ‘in which the souls of some women were not beating their wings in rebellion.’ Maybe it was being on a holiday with a group of women for the first time ever, and noticing the way the conversation shifts and changes and circles in a different way to the way it does in a mixed group, and the topics of conversation as well, but I found the whole experience of reading those first few chapters, with these women with their souls ‘beating their wings in rebellion’ in so many different ways strangely moving, in a way that was troubling. I guess I didn’t expect to feel such a connection with the women that the book describes.
The night before I flew to Malaga, I was invited to be the guest reader at a course at Ty Newydd. The tutors were the lovely Patience Agbabi and Jonathan Edwards. They made me feel really welcome, and the group they were working with were very kind. If you’ve ever been to Ty Newydd and took part in a writing course, you will know what a special place it is. It is the place where my life completely changed direction – I can still remember the moment.
I went on a residential course there probably eight or nine years ago, with Nigel Jenkins and Sarah Kennedy as the tutors. Nigel Jenkins said to me to think of writing like practicing the trumpet – do it every day and read every day. I was miserable – I’d stopped playing the trumpet because I was putting so much pressure on myself, and to realise that writing was something I could get better at, it wasn’t like a door opening, it was every door that I’d ever pulled shut myself in my own mind, swinging open.
I went to quite a few courses at Ty Newydd in the years that followed. I went on the Masterclass with Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke next and then the year after, I went on a course with Jo Shapcott and Daljit Nagra. The year after that I went on a course with Ian Duhig and Ruth Padel. I wrote a lot of the poems in my pamphlet and my book on residential courses.
I drove over with Chris and showed him round the house, and that was lovely as well, because we were together the first time I went there. I wonder now if it had been disconcerting back then for me to drive away to Wales as one person, and to return as another. I showed him the library, where Alan Jenkins recited The Wasteland as dusk fell and the bats flew back and forth across the garden, and the path down to the beach.
It sounds cheesy and over the top, but it was a huge honour to be asked to read in a place that has meant so much to me in my journey as a writer. After the reading, Chris and I slept for about three hours, and then we got up at 1.30am and drove to the airport where I met up with my friends and got on the flight to go to Malaga.
It seems fitting that this week’s Sunday Poem should be by Elisabeth Sennit Clough, who was a participant on last year’s first Poetry Carousel. On Tuesday, I’m off to run the second Poetry Carousel with tutors Clare Shaw, Tsead Bruinja and William Letford. We have 24 participants booked on the course, so there are still a few last minute spaces left, if you are the type of person to book things very last minute! Our guest poets, who will be reading for us on the Wednesday night of the course are Helen Farish and Helen Fletcher, and you can read more about them over at the Poetry Carousel page.
Elisabeth has just had her first pamphlet ‘Glass’ published after winning a competition run by Paper Swans Press. I asked her if I could use the first poem in the pamphlet as the Sunday Poem this week. It’s a beautiful poem, full of mystery – who is the man in the first line? Is he the ‘new husband who appears in the last but one verse? The poem also sets out one of the main themes of the collection which concerns itself with both how we are seen, by others but also ourselves. Does the ‘collapse’ of the peacock tell us that narcissism is dangerous? The hundred-eyed bird is blind to the approach of the new husband, who cuts an ominous figure, creeping up with a bag. He actually sounds more dangerous because of the description of presumably the mother’s face ‘reflected in the patio door’. It is not just the peacock that doesn’t see however. In stanza 2 we read ‘We watched it each day for weeks, but failed/to notice it jab the wire and free itself’.
There are lots of poems in the pamphlet just as good. If you’d like to buy a copy, and support a small press, you can order one from the Paper Swans website.
Elisabeth Sennit Clough was born in Ely and grew up in a village near Cambridge, but spent much of her adult life living and working abroad. She holds a PhD, MA and BA and is just completing her second MA (in Creative Writing: Poetry at MMU). Her work has been widely published in magazines and anthologies, and has won prizes in several competitions. She is a current Arvon/Jerwood mentee and hosts a local Stanza Group. You can read more about her at her website.
I hope you enjoy the Sunday Poem this week.
After my father died, a man bought my mother
a peacock. She named it the rarest of gifts
this blue-green bird that fluttered its tail o
of eyes, kohled their rims in black fen soil.
We watched it each day for weeks, but failed
to notice it jab the wire and free itself.
The first sighting came from a boy
on his paper-round: its song, a call
to summer from a November morning.
With nets and sacks, we were a crazy act of hope
and hopelessness, as we found a feather
but no bird: Rarest of Gifts was lost,
until a new sighting came from a bungalow
estate. The peacock had been drawn to a glint
of patio glass. Seeing its own reflection,
it battered beak, wings and claw until collapse.
And as my mother’s new husband crept behind
with a bag, I saw her thin face reflected
in the patio door, watching the capture
of a hundred-eyed bird, blind to his tactic:
slow, slow, grab.