Tag Archives: PhD

Sunday Poem – Ina Anderson

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Sunday Poem – Ina Anderson

It’s been three weeks since my last blog.  I was under the delusion that it had only been two – time apparently flies when you’re not blogging.  Since my last blog, I’ve done a lot of swimming, which started as replacement activity for running, but I’m now quite enjoying it.  I used to be in a swimming club and swum competitively when I was younger.  When I started playing the cornet, band concerts started to interfere with swimming galas, so I gave up swimming completely.  I’m not sure what age – maybe I was about 13 when I stopped.  Since then, I could probably count on one hand the number of lengths of a pool I’ve actually swam.

As I wrote that, I realise this is a bit of a pattern with me.  I do something obsessively, sometimes for many years, and then when I stop, I stop completely, and it’s like it never happened.  Regular readers of this blog will know I also did this with trumpet playing when I stopped playing completely for about seven years.   However, I seem to be breaking this habit, as I’m now playing again with a soul band (The Soul Survivors) and we do between 1-2 gigs a month, and I’m now swimming twice a week.

I try and do 40 lengths of a 25 metre pool, alternating between breast stroke and front crawl.  I haven’t quite got the hang of doing more than one length of front crawl at a time without feeling like I’m going to drown.  I go with the husband early in the morning – we normally get into the pool by 8am and are done by 8.45am.  I’m convinced the swimming has helped with my IT band/knee injury.  I can feel every muscle stretching as I’m plodding up and down the pool.

In the last week I’ve managed four 4-5k runs at a very steady pace, but it is so good to be back in the outdoors, and with no knee pain! I was supposed to be running the Coniston to Barrow yesterday, but I decided not to in the end.  I think I could probably have walked it, but I know my injury would have flared up again, and then I would probably not be able to run for another five weeks which would have driven me up the wall.  This week, I’m going to try and limit myself to 6k runs, and just try and build up very slowly, and try not to trigger the injury again.

So instead of running the 21 miles between Coniston and Barrow I was in the support team for both the Coniston to Barrow and the Keswick to Barrow team.  Towards the end of the day I ended up dashing about between limping walkers in various states of injury. I had to get some trainers to a walker in my sisters team and I managed to blag a ride on the back of a quad bike to get to them as cars weren’t allowed on the road.  Here’s a shot of me posing on said quad bike.

quadrescue

Last weekend I headed off to Petersfield, or actually East Meon, near Petersfield to run a poetry residential for the South Downs Poetry Festival.  This is my third residential this year, and it actually felt very different as I was only responsible for the tutoring side of things rather than doing all the organising.  It felt much easier to have someone else taking care of that side of things! Hugh Dunkerley was the other tutor, who I hadn’t met before the weekend, but we got on great, which was a big relief! We all stayed in rooms in The Sustainability Centre, and Tim Dawes, the South Downs Poetry Festival Director, cooked for us all weekend, and put up with my raids into the kitchen to get more food.  For some reason I couldn’t stop eating that weekend, maybe it was something to do with the fact that I’d started running again.  There were some lovely participants on the course, and the last night where they all read was as good as any poetry reading I’ve paid to go to.

Other things I’ve been up to – I’ve finished my marking for the unit that I taught at Manchester Met this year, so that feels really good to get that over and done with.  I am doing some cover marking, so I have a meeting next week with the lecturer to go over the marking scheme and then I will have another 20 or so to do.  Pauline Yarwood and I have been getting on with stuff for Kendal Poetry Festival – there are quite a few new blog posts up about the various poets that are coming to the festival – please head over and sign up and then you won’t miss any updates.  At the minute, Hannah Hodgson, our Young Blogger-in-Residence is doing a series of 5 Minute Interviews with the Festival Poets.  So far she has interviewed Chrissy Williams, Kathryn Maris and Katrina Naomi and up next is Pauline and I on the process of putting a festival together – this post will be going live tomorrow.   If you feel like a poetry festival is missing from your life, please consider coming along to Kendal Poetry Festival, 16th-18th June.  Although we are a small festival, there is lots going on and some fabulous poets are reading and giving workshops and leading discussions.  There are also opportunities for you to read your own work at the two Open Mic sessions at the festival.  You can book tickets at The Brewery Arts Centre

I have two pieces of good news – firstly, as some of you may know, Clare Shaw and I have been writing poems back and forward to each other for the last couple of months.  We performed these poems together at the Feminist Poetry Jambouree, an event we put on together in Ulverston.   I’ve absolutely loved working with Clare on these poems, and I’m really pleased that The North  poetry magazine have agreed to publish all six of our poems, in the back and forth format in their next issue.

I’m also relieved that my RD1 has now been passed and signed off for my PhD.  Relieved is a bit of an understatement, as I’d got myself worked up into a bit of a frenzy about it.  I think I found out on Thursday that it had been signed off.   One of my friends thought this meant that I’d passed my PhD! Sadly not, but I have passed through the first doorway. I’m now going to be moved onto a more creative PhD (not sure when) and I’ve got a meeting in a couple of weeks with both my supervisors to discuss the next steps forward.  In the meantime, I’m going to carry on writing poems – if in doubt, write poetry, seems to be the best way forward.

So today’s Sunday Poem is by Ina Anderson.  I organised a launch for Ina to celebrate the publication of her first collection Journey Into Space a few months ago now.  It was lovely to hear Ina read at the launch, alongside Carlisle poet Malcolm Carson.  I’ve really enjoyed the collection – Ina knows how to tell a good story in her poetry, and she has had interesting and exciting experiences in her life to draw on.

The other thing I really enjoyed about the collection is that a lot of the poems are set in Barrow-in-Furness, where Ina lived until she was twelve, and where I live now.  I recognise a lot of the places she talks about, some of the pub names are still the same.  When she was twelve she moved to Kirkby-in-Furness, which is about a 20 minute drive from Barrow.  The biography at the back of her collection says

Her first work was in her father’s tobacconist shop, weighing out snuff that made her sneeze.  Soon she set off to London and joined the staff of the Town Planning Institute as an editorial assistant.  That experience stood her in good stead when she came to the United States, where she worked as a technical editor on several professional journals.  Tired of being a literary janitor, she took to teaching, spending over twenty years at the Community College of Vermont as a faculty member and student advisor, teaching writing, speaking and literature.  Ina’s poems have appeared in several publications, including Poem Town Randolph, Mountain Troubadour, Red Fox Poets and a recent anthology Perhaps It Was the Pie.

The poem I’ve chosen is ‘Turning Back’ which I think is representative of much of Ina’s work.  There is a strong narrative and story-telling arc that drives the poem forward.  The language is colloquial and straightforward, but the poem is full of telling details and images – the precision of the jumper ‘with a little striped front piece’.  I think it is an interesting poem because I feel mixed emotions when I read it – I feel sad for the boyfriend whose ‘grin was wide across his face’, and I also feel relieved that the 17 year old speaker didn’t run away to Gretna Green to get married!  The story is extraordinary – to just jump off the train without saying anything.  I must admit, when I heard Ina read this, I had to go and ask her if it was true, and what had happened next.  Which I won’t divulge here – I will leave you to read the poem and make your own minds up.

I also really love poems that are about significant moments in a life, and this poem is about one of those moments or memories that we carry around for ever, that when we look back, seem lit up, or illuminated, they have stayed with us for so long, when a life is suspended between going one way or another.  Most of the time we don’t know at the time that we are in that moment until it has passed and we’ve made the decision.  Most of the time we don’t realise until we look back, years later.  The magic of this poem, or part of the magic anyway, comes from the fact that the speaker realised that she was in a life-changing moment while it was happening, and then ‘opened the door/and jumped to the platform.’

If you would like to order Ina’s collection, you can order it from her publisher Antrim House Books here or from The Norwich Bookstore in Vermont.  I’m also reliably told that Suttons Bookshop in Ulverston has a few copies, which they can post out, which will probably be cheaper than ordering it from the USA if you’re based in the UK.  Their phone number is 01220 588858 – I couldn’t find a web address!

Thanks to Ina for letting me post her poem here.

Turning Back – Ina Anderson 

My jumper was blue
with a little striped front piece,
the first I knitted all myself.
My case was small
to hide that I had gone.
He wore his tweed suit
like he always did.
He’d got on at Barrow,
and he already had us seats.
No one else but me
got on at Kirkby station.
The carriage was crowded,
full of men laughing together,
all headed for the jobs
up at Dounreay.

He was so nervous and so happy.
His grin was wide across his face.
I knew he had a ring in his pocket.
The ride up there would be a long one,
all the length of the Cumberland coast,
cross the border, through
the lowlands then the highlands.
But first we’d stop at Gretna Green.

I don’t know when my doubt set in.
I knew I loved him,
loved his loving too.
But perhaps it was the look it would bring
to my dad’s sweet face,
and my mum, she’d feel such shame.
Perhaps I thought seventeen
was a bit young too.
Getting close to Whitehaven,
almost an hour on,
I said I’d go to the loo,
and I took my little bag
but not my case.

I took a while in there,
deciding, deciding,
hardest choice I’d ever made.
Just before the train
started out of Whitehaven station,
I opened the door
and jumped to the platform.
Off went the train
with him and my case inside.

I don’t know how long it took him
to see that I had gone.
By then I was across the lines
and hiding in the station.
In half an hour I was
on the next train back.

It was Mum that night
said I was a bit quiet.
It was years until
she and Dad knew.

Sunday Poem – Jennifer Copley

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Sunday Poem – Jennifer Copley

I hope you haven’t missed me too much in this three week break (how did three weeks just fly by?). I’ve been hibernating from blogging, and getting through my last ‘busy period’.  In the intervening three weeks, I’ve spent a week running a residential in Grange-Over-Sands, at Abbot Hall Hotel.   It was a lovely week, with the opportunity to work with some fantastic poets from all over the country.  I was a bit sad because one of my regular course goers, who has been on every residential since I started running them had to cancel because of an unexpected hospital stay.  I know from personal experience how completely frustrating it can be, so I hope she is better soon.  It wasn’t quite the same without her either – she is a great laugh, and usually has the whole table at dinner in fits of laughter.  So get well soon Bernice!

It was perfect running weather in Grange, but I’ve been having problems with my IT Band, giving me pain at the side of my knee since I did the 14 mile race round Coniston, so I managed to resist, and went swimming in the hotel pool instead.  It’s not the same as running, but I enjoyed it still.  I used to swim at a club when I was younger, I think I swam nearly every night for quite a few years so it bought a few memories back.  I’ve been keeping the swimming up as every time I try to run, my knee hurts again.  I did parkrun yesterday but I can still feel the niggle there, so I think I’m going to have another two weeks off to see if that sorts it out.  I just want to get it right ready for the summer, I don’t want to be stuck indoors unable to run!

I’m waiting to hear back about my revised RD1 now as well, but I’ve carried on with my reading.  I bought a book called After Confessionalism: Poetry as Autobiography which is a collection of essays by American poets about confessional and lyric poetry.  I started to wonder whether my poems about experiences of sexism are actually confessional poetry.  The thing about these poems is that they have to be true.  They have to be a ‘lived experience of sexism’.  If I made them up, or appropriated someone else’s experience of sexism as my own, I think the reader would rightly feel manipulated, or annoyed.  Their power needs to come from the fact that they are an individual experience, but that they reach out into a wider social context, that they are recognisable by other women.  I felt uncomfortable and worried about having the confessional label applied to my poetry, and then started to wonder why that was.  I think it gets used as a dismissive/disparaging term still.  Like most labels, it’s not actually very helpful, and I’m halfway through this book of essays and haven’t found a definition of ‘confessional poetry’ that I agree with yet.

Joan Aleshire, in an essay included in the book called ‘Staying News: A Defense of the Lyric’ writes that

“In the confessional poem, as I’d like to define it, the poet, overwhelmed or intoxicated by the facts of his or her life, lets the facts take over.  To say that a poem is confessional is to signal a breakdown in judgement and craft. Confession shares with the lyric a degree of self-revelation but carries implications that the lyric resists.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines confession as the declaration or disclosure of something that one has allowed to remain secret as being prejudicial, humiliating, or inconvenient to oneself; the disclosure of private feeling; a plea of guilty, an admission of what one has been charged with,; a formal confession made in order to receive absolution.  I see the confessional poem as a plea for special treatment, a poem where the poet’s stance is one of particularity apart from common experience.  Confession in art, as in life, can be self-serving – an attempt to shift the burden of knowledge from speaker-transgressor to listener.”

First of all, I don’t think this definition works when applied to the original poets like Lowell, Plath, Berryman etc that the term was coined for, although later on in the essay, Aleshire looks in detail at some of Lowell’s work to illustrate her point.  I just don’t buy that bit about being ‘overwhelmed or intoxicated by the facts of his or her life’.    I don’t buy the ‘breakdown in judgement and craft’.  Surely that’s just a bad poem, not a confessional one?

The term ‘confessional poetry’ was coined by the critic Mack Rosenthal in 1959 in a review of Robert Lowell’s collection ‘Life Studies’.  He defined confessional poetry as ‘poetry that goes beyond customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment.’

Both of these definitions are problematic.  The original definition of confessionalism assumes that there is a generic boundary of reticence/embarrassment that we all share, which is obviously untrue – although I guess that we are still bound by convention in some ways, there are some things that there is general agreement shouldn’t be talked about, but since 1959, this boundary, this border has shifted massively.

Going back to my own work, I’m not sure my poetry fits this 1959 definition.  It kind of does – it is uncomfortable to point out sexism still or to talk about it.  It’s often the ‘elephant in the room’ that doesn’t get acknowledged, but whether it crosses the boundary of ‘personal embarrassment’ – I’m not sure.  Doesn’t every poem cross the boundary of reticence to be heard?

So back to Joan Aleshire.  I’m not ashamed to say that sometimes I’ve been overwhelmed when writing a poem.  Sometimes I’m writing so fast in my notebook it feels like I’m riding a wave.  However, this is only in the moment of first getting the ideas down.  Once I start editing, it is a very cold, hard and calculating process.  The part about the ‘facts taking over’ is interesting.  Because of what I’m writing about, a lived experience of sexism, there has to be a contract between myself and the reader, that what I’m writing is true.  Otherwise the whole thing becomes pointless.  At this point in my reading, I’m distracted by looking up ideas of truth in poetry, and the idea of there being only versions of the truth anyway, but I won’t go into that here.  The rest of the definition, which centers on the premise of ‘confession’ kind of fits but doesn’t.  The poems are not an admission of guilt, although I have felt ashamed when I’ve examined my own reaction/collusion with sexism.  I don’t want to receive absolution though, or give it.  I want to hold transactions that I have made in the society we live in up to the light to see exactly what is going on.  Finally, the idea of shifting the ‘burden of knowledge’.  This doesn’t work for me either – as often when I start writing these poems, I’m writing about a memory that I’ve carried for a long time, without even knowing why I’ve carried it for so long.  I’m writing to find something out.

So maybe I’m not writing confessional poetry, or maybe the term is undefinable.  Maybe it never worked in the first place.  So what am I writing? I like Joan Aleshire’s definition of lyric poetry much better.  She says

the true lyric poem – can, through vision, craft, and objectivity toward the material, give a sense of commonality with unparalleled intimacy.

Joan Aleshire tells us that

T.S. Eliot in “The Three Voices of Poetry” defines the lyric as “the voice of the poet speaking to himself, oppressed by a burden that he must bring to relief.”

These definitions feel much more comfortable to me.  I love the idea of intimacy juxtaposed with commonality, a reaching outward.  If the poems about experiences of sexism are working, if they are living breathing things then this is what they will do.

The good thing about this book is that the essay writers often disagree or outright contradict each other.

I’ve really enjoyed reading this book, and I’ve not reached the last chapter yet, which focuses on women’s poetry, which I know will be interesting, because I think the term ‘confessional’ is applied to women poets much more frequently than to men.  What I’m not sure about is whether what I’m doing now, is actually what ‘doing a PhD’ is.  Is reading the book on the train and making notes ‘doing a PhD’.  Is writing my thoughts out on this blog, which has helped make them a lot clearer ‘doing a PhD?’  Why hasn’t someone written a handbook about creative writing PhD’s which would have a chapter that defines what ‘doing a PhD’ actually is? If this is ‘doing a PhD’ then I’m bloody loving it.  If it’s not, then I’m a bit screwed, because I’ve spent the whole week doing something else entirely.

Apart from PhD work, I’ve also managed to finish a review that was overdue for Under the Radar magazine of two fantastic books by Emily Berry and Sabrina Mahfouz, played second trumpet in a duet piece for one of my remaining trumpet student’s GCSE performance, worked with Pauline Yarwood to finalise proofs for Kendal Poetry Festival brochures, had a filling (completely traumatising) and organised with Clare Shaw a ‘Feminist Poetry Jambouree’.  What an amazing night that was.  We stopped counting the audience at about 70.  It was such a great thing to be part of, and lots of the audience were new to poetry as well, and had come because it was a feminist event, or because it was political.  I’m sure themed poetry readings are the way forward! We also raised £200 to be split between The Birchall Trust (a local charity that works with survivors of sexual abuse) and Let Go (a charity that works with victims of domestic violence).

My exciting piece of news is that I’ve been invited to read at Struga Poetry Evenings, a poetry festival in Macedonia in August, as part of the Versopolis project that I’m currently part of.  Versopolis is a funded project to help emerging poets reach a wider, more international audience.  Through Versopolis, I went to Croatia at the Goran’s Spring Festival in 2015 and had a brilliant time, so I’m really looking forward to Macedonia.  I’ll be at the festival for a week, and then the husband is going to meet me there on the last day of the festival (he is doing some epic and ridiculous bike ride to get there) and then we’re going to have a holiday together.  As long as he doesn’t expect me to get on the pushbike!

In December, I’m running my ‘Poetry Carousel‘ residential course again for the third year running.  As far as I know, nobody else is doing anything like this in the UK.  The basic premise is instead of the usual two poetry tutors on a residential, the lucky participants on the Poetry Carousel will get four – myself, David Morley, Hilda Sheehan and Steve Ely.  You will be in a group of no more than eight, and your group of eight will get a two hour workshop with each tutor.   There will be a maximum of 32 people booked on the course, but the workshop groups will be small and intimate.  In the evening, we all come together for readings from the tutors and guest poets, and it feels more like a festival than a residential.  It’s taking place at Abbot Hall Hotel from the 8th-11th December 2017 and costs £360 for the weekend.  This includes all of your meals (breakfast, lunch and three course evening meal) plus accommodation and workshops.  If you are interested, please give the hotel a ring to book your room on 015395 32896.  The best rooms always go first, so if you like a bit of luxury, please book early!

Today’s Sunday Poem is by my good friend Jennifer Copley, who I tutored with last week on the residential course.  We shared a lodge together for the first time and it was a bit like living with a small bird.  Jenny trilled her way round the lodge, singing snatches of Methodist hymns and other tunes.    Jenny’s new pamphlet was published just in time for the residential course.  It’s called ‘Some Couples’ and does what it says on the tin, exploring the world of coupledom in Jenny’s usual surreal style.  It is a HappenStance pamphlet, so you know it’s going to be good! You can order it direct from them HERE, and make a hardworking, independent publisher very happy.

I love this poem for it’s childlike, wide-eyed tone at the beginning.  Jenny’s poems always have their own inner logic, and I love how the reader goes with the idea of a mouse having a favourite corner, but then she pushes it further and convinces us that the corner has an opinion and worries of its own, and then even further still, with the introduction of the idea that the corner has a mother.  The poem doesn’t give us all the answers however – what would a corner’s mother look like? For me, the whole poem lights up in the third stanza, with that direct interjection from the author.  The use of the word ‘little’ works really hard for such an innocuous word to illustrate the fondness of the author for the corner.  And then finally there is that lovely image of the mouse returning to finish off.

The Two Friends – Jennifer Copley

A small mouse sits in a corner of a field.
It’s his favourite corner
where he feels safe.
The corner is happy to have him.

Sometimes the mouse has to go away.
The corner worries he won’t come back,
that he’ll find a better corner elsewhere.
A long time ago the corner’s mother did just that.
The corner had only a few cold-hearted stones to turn to.

Don’t worry, little corner! I am the writer of this poem
and I can reveal the mouse will always return
though his fur be more and more bedraggled
going through all those hedges, brambles and nettles.

Sunday Poem – Helen Mort

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helenI’ve not been to one school christmas concert this year.  I’ve not played one christmas carol, or conducted a christmas carol.  This is my first end-of-term where I am not a music teacher.  It obviously feels very different – this year, my end-of-term has come to an undramatic end, quietly fizzing out on its own.  Last week at university, only a few students showed up for their last class of the year – and it was a very quiet, relaxed session.  The end-of-term I’m used to consists of last-minute rehearsals for performances and crisis management as instruments fall apart, children don’t turn up or they turn up but forget their instruments.  End of term as a music teacher felt like life speeding up to twice the speed it normally goes while everybody else was slowing down and watching Disney to pass the afternoons.
This year has obviously been different.  When I look back at the madness that used to be my end of term, I do feel a wave of nostalgia, maybe even longing, but only for a moment or two, thank goodness.

This week I’ve been working a lot on my RD1 form – although I have nothing to show for it, as it has mainly consisted of reading.  I’ve been reading ‘Feminism and Poetry’ by Jan Montefiore.  There is a really interesting but quite complicated section on Imaginary Identity and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.  Jan Montefiore writes ‘in traditional love poems in which a masculine poet idealises a figure (generally though not invariably that of a woman’ into a mirroring muse who reflects back to him his own ideal image.  This is a narcissistic form of representation, which denies true identity to its object in ways closely responding to those analysed by the French psychoanalyist Luce Irigaray as characteristic of masculine discourse in general’.

I’m currently writing a series of poems which I’ve called ‘All the Men I Never Married’.  Every poem has a man that I’ve encountered in some way – some are ex-boyfriends, some are friends, some are strangers.  I keep thinking about this idea of a woman being used to reflect back an image, and wondering how this translates in the poetry that I’m writing.  If I am looking back at my life or memory, or looking out at the world through the prism of men, is this a feminist thing to do? Is that what I’m doing? I don’t think I’m using men as a mirror to reflect back my own ‘ideal image.’  But maybe I’m using them as a microscope, or a telescope, or maybe even a map, to find my way around the self.  Maybe that is as bad as using them as a mirror! If I wrote a poem with a man as a mirror, what would it look like? Maybe I should try.  Except I need to get on with the RD1 form, so I will have to put this line of thought on hold for a moment, but I think I can insert Lacan and Montefiore and Irigaray into my RD1, which might be the theory that I need to hold the whole precarious thing upright.

This week has been very varied – there is a wonderful, tiny hall down the road from me – the Ormsgill and Hawcoat Memorial Hall, which is owned by the ‘village’ of Hawcoat.  I’ve always wondered what it was like inside, and my husband has managed to track down the key holder, and I went to see it this week.  I’ve decided to hire it for my 2017 Barrow Poetry Workshops.  It has its own kitchen and I can walk to it from my house, which is very convenient.

I also went to see Pauline Yarwood this week and we spent a long time working on the Arts Council grant to put on another Kendal Poetry Festival in 2017.  I’m sure filling in the Arts Council application form is like giving birth.  I can’t remember it being this painful last year, but it must have been.  Did the birth of the festival erase all the memory of drudgery and despair from my mind? It must have done.

After I finished teaching at university this week, I drove to Todmorden to take part in the last ever Kava.  This is a series of readings and lectures run by the ever-energetic and enthusiastic Anthony Costello.  The format of the evening is a lecture by a poet on anything to do with poetry and then a poetry reading by another poet.  I read at Kava a while ago and had such a bad cough and cold that my friend Keith Hutson had to jump up and speak for me.  I was relieved that I was in better shape this time round.

The scary (and wonderful) thing about giving the lecture at Kava is that Anthony prints it out in a little booklet.  This means that the lecture requires much more careful thought than if you were merely reading it out without any written evidence.

 

I really enjoyed the event – it was lovely to see so many people who I count as friends.  I think this particular area of Yorkshire is brimming over with poetry talent.  I’d also like to thank Anthony if he is reading this – he has done a brilliant job putting these events on – I know how hard it is to organise events, and what a thankless task it is sometimes.

Having said I really enjoyed the event, it also gave me a lot to think about and puzzle over.  After telling the audience I was going to talk about my PhD topic, which is writing poetry about everyday sexism, I hadn’t got to the bottom of the page before a man interrupted to tell me that he didn’t think sexism or racism existed.  Anthony handled this really well, and asked the man to wait for questions at the end – so I continued onwards. When he raised his hand to make this point again, I responded by saying that I thought it was important to have names for things that happen that the act of naming is really important.

One thing I noticed in the break was that lots of men came up to tell me their own experiences of sexism.   At the time it just felt like a series of fairly normal conversations.  The next morning I woke up feeling – a bit stunned is probably the best description.  I felt annoyed by the ‘sexism doesn’t exist’ man, but at least I knew why with that.  There was also something funny about being interrupted by a man, when I’d been asked to give a lecture.  Annoying, but yes, I can see the funny, slightly ridiculous side as well.

But I also felt unsettled by the amount of men who had come to tell me about their experiences of sexism – and this was harder to reconcile, and is harder to reconcile because some of the men who told me about their experiences of sexism are my friends, and I love them dearly.  Why did I wake up feeling unsettled?  I’m still not completely clear, but I think it has something to do with how we listen to others.

If a woman talks about oppression that happens on an everyday and continual basis, and the first thing you say in response to this is that sexism doesn’t exist, that is a blatant attempt to silence, to sabotage.  If a woman talks about oppression that happens on an everyday and continual basis, and the first thing you say in response to this is to recount your own singular experience of sexism, which happened about forty years ago, that is not silencing, or sabotaging.  But it isn’t listening either.  Maybe it is more like muting.

Having said that, I genuinely believe the men who talked to me about their experiences of sexism were trying to reach out, to connect, to empathise or sympathise.  Maybe there is no perfect reaction when we are talking about oppression and discrimination.  But imagine how strange it would be if a person who was black or ethnic minority talked about their experiences of racism, and then I went up to them to tell them about my own random and singular experience of racism as a white person.

In fact, even as I write this, I realise I’ve done a version of this!  My friend was telling me about homophobia that he experienced, and I told him about going into a gay club with a friend, and hearing the bouncer refer to me disparagingly as a ‘breeder’.  Now, why did I do that?  My intention was good – I think I wanted to tell him I understood discrimination on the grounds of your sexual preference.  But here’s the thing as I see it now, thinking back. I didn’t understand discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference, because it was something I have experienced only once, in that moment.  It was something I could walk away from.  It happened when I was about 18 – I’ve remembered it all these years so it obviously had an impact – I remember thinking how unfair it was, and how shocked I was by it.  But I couldn’t claim to experience it in the same way that my friend had experienced it for most of his life.

Thinking about this gives me a little bit more of an insight into the motivations of the men who came up to tell me their own stories.  And it’s taken me to the age of 36, and writing this blog, to puzzle out why I shouldn’t have slapped my story of discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference right on top of my friend’s story about the many forms of homophobia he had experienced.  It was so long ago, I can’t even remember which friend it was now, which is a shame, because I’d like to apologise.

Anyway, I hope that all of this doesn’t sound like I didn’t enjoy Kava because I did.  I really enjoyed it, and the chance to see lots of my friends that I haven’t seen for a while.  The whole night, as you’ve just read has made me question my own assumptions and prejudices and thinking.  It’s made me realise that the PhD is going to be challenging and exciting and difficult and frightening.  Which is probably a good heads up at this point.

I started the lecture at Kava by saying my thoughts on the whole subject are still very new, and evolving.  As part of the lecture, I included one of Helen Mort’s poems ‘Difficult Women’.  I heard Helen read this poem at the 2016 Kendal Poetry Festival, and I loved it then.  I included it in the lecture as an example of the problematic way that women are talked about.

I love the way that the poem mixes up the factual language about other things and inserts the word ‘woman’ in there like the line ‘If a difficult woman hits you at 30 miles per hour/you have a 50 percent chance of survival.’   I’m guessing the word ‘woman’ should really be the word ‘car’.  And later on, in stanza 2 ‘In London it’s said that you’re never more than 6 feet/from a difficult woman.’  I think that is usually said about rats.  I’ve already told Helen that I think she should have some ‘I am a difficult woman’ t-shirts made.  I’d definitely wear one.

The sad thing about this poem of course, is that the women in it are not really being difficult at all.  The voice of the poem makes out they are being difficult – ‘crowding’ the bus stop, ‘refusing to budge’ or worse ‘driving cars’.  But the reality that the voice tries to create is only a version of reality.  In truth – the Difficult Women in the poem are just living.  They are waiting for the bus stop, they are walking, running, cycling or driving cars.  They are pictured in newspapers, or serving coffee.  They are moving into your road – pretty normal things really.

Maybe the poem is also commenting on the difficulty of defining women – the women portrayed in the poem are very different versions of what it means to be a woman.

The end of the poem is also very unsettling.  Who is the poem addressing, and who is the voice of the poem? Is it an ironic, cool voice of a woman addressing women – the last line leads me to think so.  Although the last line doesn’t say ‘Are you afraid you may be a difficult woman yourself?’ It says ‘Are you afraid you may be difficult yourself?’.  Does this imply that men can also be difficult, that being difficult is a state to aspire to? I’m left with that feeling- that it would be a compliment to be difficult.  Or the speaker of the poem could be a man, the type of man who wrote the article on AskMen.com in the first place.

Most of you will already know Helen’s work, I’m sure, but just in case you don’t, the poem comes from her latest collection No Map Could Show Them published by Chatto in 2016.   Helen was born in Sheffield and her first collection Division Street was shortlisted for the Costa Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize.  In 2014 she won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize.  She writes an interesting and thought-provoking blog called Freefall.  She also has her own website where you can find more information about Helen.

I think this is a fantastic poem – it has layers and layers that I’m sure I’ve only begun to unpick.  It has haunted me since I first heard Helen read it, so I’m really pleased that she has allowed me to feature it on the blog this week, and to let me use it in the lecture at Kava.

Difficult Women by Helen Mort
“God knows there are difficult women out there. Women who are – at times – shallow, bitchy, selfish, dishonest and, of course, crazy.” – AskMen: Why Men Date Difficult Women

Difficult women don’t care what time it is, they’re
crowding the bus stop with their difficult bodies,
refusing to budge for the light, or in the parks,
dragging their difficulty behind them like a fat dog.
Some of them are running, cycling, or worse,
driving cars. If a difficult woman hits you at 30 miles per hour
you have a 50 percent chance of survival. At home
difficult women are more like walls than windows
but if you lean on one, you fall straight through
and sometimes at night they show your face.

Difficult women don’t know they’re born.
Difficult women don’t know the meaning of the word.
There could be one folded into your newspaper,
holding her breasts like oranges. There might be
one carrying your coffee, or moving to your road.
In London, it’s said you’re never more than 6 feet
from a difficult woman. Have you or a colleague
had a difficult woman in the last 6 months?
If so, you may be entitled to compensation.
Do you have difficulty with our questions?
Are you afraid you may be difficult yourself?

 

 

 

My two week absence

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My two week absence

Afternoon all – this is just a short blog post to reassure anybody that is wondering that I am still alive after my two week absence from blogging. I don’t need to know if you didn’t notice – you can keep that to yourself!

Normal service will resume next Sunday with a new poem from Billy Letford’s forthcoming collection.  How exciting is that?? But until then, you will have to content yourself with the stories of my travels which are about to unfold.

I’ve just got back from Ledbury Poetry Festival – I was reading as part of the Versopolis European poetry reading, alongside poets from England, Norway, France, Wales, Croatia and Germany.  The photo attached to this post was taken after our reading – just Daljit Nagra is missing as he had to dash off home.  It was a wonderful reading to be part of and I feel very lucky to have been chosen by Ledbury Poetry Festival to be one of the UK poets involved, especially given recent events – Versopolis is funded with EU cash, and the project gives young ’emerging’ poets the opportunity to go abroad to European festivals.  Here’s hoping that the project continues to grow and develop, as it has been a wonderful thing to be part of.

I also ran a workshop at the festival, and took part in a reading to launch Hwaet!, an anthology published by Bloodaxe to celebrate 20 years of Ledbury Poetry Festival.  I’m really excited to be in a Bloodaxe anthology – have never been in one before, and with a poem about scaffolding, that most noble of occupations!

Ledbury is unique in its huge network of volunteers and supporters drawn from the town. My host was a lovely lady, J who was also hosting two interns at the festival.  J whizzed me up and down to the town all weekend, stopped me falling down the stairs one morning and has got me addicted to plain croissants with jam, instead of my usual chocolate croissant.

There were two many highlights to list them all, but perhaps the one that stuck most in my mind was the reading and discussion with Mark Doty and Andrew McMillan.  Instead of a normal reading where each poet takes it in turns, one read a poem and then the other responded, on the theme of Desire.  Andrew was very open about the influence that Mark Doty has had on his own writing, and I wondered if this format of reading poems in response to each other would work with other pairs of poets.  This was also the only reading where I cried – Mark Doty read a particular poem about his partner, who was dying, reaching out a hand to his dog, and I just started crying.  I’ve read that poem before to myself, and never cried before, it was something about being in that room and hearing it in his voice, and the honesty with which both poets spoke.

By the time I got to Ledbury I was feeling a bit like a zombie.  I’d had a five hour train journey to get there, and the woman sitting next to me was not feeling well and ended up throwing up all over the train, narrowly missing my suitcase.  The train was packed and there was nowhere to get away from the vomit.  I spent the next couple of hours panicking I was going to catch a sick germ and puke up in the middle of my reading.  So far, I can report I am healthy.

I was feeling like a zombie because the weekend before Ledbury, we had the Kendal Poetry Festival! It was a great weekend – all of the events were sold out, and there was a lovely atmosphere.  It was pretty exhausting though, and straight afterwards I had some visitors from Ireland who had been attending the festival.  The husband and I borrowed my twin sister’s camper van so our guests could have a bedroom each, and so we could have a living room to sit in.

We all went to Dove Cottage on Monday for a day trip out.  Tuesday and Wednesday I was back at work, probably in a bit of a daze, and as I told my Year 3 class on Tuesday morning, without brushing my hair as I couldn’t find the hairbrush in the camper van! The kids didn’t seem to mind.  On Wednesday my Irish friends went back to Ireland and I spent Wednesday night after I finished teaching at 7pm, in a mild state of panic, planning two workshops that I was due to run the next day.

The first was for a meeting of English teachers in Penrith and the second was the next session of my Poetry School course in Manchester.  I ended up going to bed at about 1am, but with everything planned and printed out.  So my Thursday consisted of the morning in Penrith, a drive down the motorway to Manchester, met up with an old friend for coffee and then my Poetry School course in Manchester.  I then drove back home, and planned and printed out my workshop for Ledbury at about midnight.

I set off for Ledbury early Friday morning. It has been really full-on, but very enjoyable.  In amongst all that, I’ve had two bits of good news.  I’ve had two of my ‘All the Men I Never Married Poems’ accepted for publication in Poetry Ireland Review, so I’m really pleased about that.  So that is six of them that have been, or will be published now! My other bit of good news is that starting in September I’ll be doing some teaching for a couple of terms at Manchester Metropolitan University as well as starting my PhD there.

I’m really excited, and nervous about both the PhD and the teaching, but I’ve been doing this for long enough now to know that this feeling of excitement and nerves usually means good things. This Wednesday I’m off to the award ceremony for the Lakeland Book of the Year – my book has been shortlisted, and although I’m not expecting my rather slim volume of poetry to win, I thought I would go and enjoy the afternoon anyway.

 

 

Sunday Poem – John McCullough

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Sunday Poem – John McCullough

I’m writing this in the garden this week, in dazzling sunshine, so if there are more spelling mistakes than usual, you will have to excuse them – I am slightly blinded by the light.  I’ve also had some visitors this week – I’m looking after two of my sisters terriers, so there are four terriers currently running around the house.

My main news this week is I’ve been awarded full funding for 3 years from Manchester Metropolitan University to do a PhD in Poetry.  The PhD is full-time and when I went for the interview, I’d already made the decision that if I got it, I would hand my notice in as a brass teacher.   So, although I’ve known for about 2 weeks, I’ve spent those 2 weeks handing my notice in at Cumbria Music Service, telling my schools and the staff that I work with, and then finally, telling the 300 odd children that I teach.

It might sound strange, but it feels like this is the first time in my life I’ve committed to just one thing.  I think this is why I keep myself busy, I like to have lots of things on the go – teaching trumpet, conducting bands, playing in bands, writing poetry, reading at festival, running workshops, because then if any of them go wrong for whatever reason, something else that I do will catch me and be my safety net.

When I was 21 I auditioned to to a post-graduate degree at various music colleges.  I didn’t get in – I wasn’t ready, having spent my years at Leeds College of Music playing transcriptions of Chet Baker solos instead of the orchestral excerpts I should have been learning.  An amazing trumpet player, John Holland who was the Principal Trumpet of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (as well as teaching at Birmingham Conservatoire) said he would take me on privately and get me ready to audition the year after for a post-grad.

When you are 21 a year seems like a lifetime, and although I went to John for lessons for a year, and although at the time I thought I had committed my whole heart to it, looking back now I think I was deluding myself.  I decided I would do a PGCE in Birmingham at the same time, as a safety net, so I would always have something to fall back on.  As anybody knows who has done a PGCE, they are really hard work, and very time consuming.  When I look back now, it kind of breaks my heart.  I was 21 and should have believed I could do anything,but I bottled it, and did the sensible thing.

I did my PGCE in Secondary Music, specialising in Instrumental Tuition and I enjoyed it.  I only practised maybe one or two hours a day instead of the three or four I should have been doing.  At the end of the year, I didn’t audition to do a post-grad, although there was nothing I wanted to do more.  I decided to get a job as a full-time brass teacher instead, telling myself I could go back and do a post-grad, once I’d earned some money.

That isn’t the full story, of course.  There were other things going on as well.  I was in an abusive relationship while I was in Birmingham, and maybe it is not surprising that I didn’t have the self-belief or confidence to audition to do what I wanted to do.  Looking back, I can’t believe I finished the PGCE under those circumstances.  I wanted to teach as well, of course.  I enjoyed teaching, and even if I’d got onto a post-grad course, I probably would have taught eventually, most musicians do.  My point is, I bottled out of trying.

When I was between 16 and 18 I had a lovely brass teacher called Paul Bennett.  He had long hair that he tied in a pony tail and he was always rushing around between schools and gigs.  He gave me my first paid gig playing 2nd Trumpet in Singing in the Rain when I was 17, and then I’d regularly play 2nd trumpet with him in shows.  His life seemed very glamorous and I remember thinking I’d like to do that.  I’d like to rush around teaching and going through the drive through at McDonalds because there was no time to eat anything else (yes, McDonalds did seem glamorous to me age 17)

So I left the abusive relationship behind, far behind and moved up to Barrow and began teaching brass full time.  I don’t know why I’m writing all of this, except it all fits somehow, with finally committing myself and not leaving myself a safety net.  Maybe I wouldn’t have started writing if I’d done that when I was 21, and I know things happen for a reason, but if I could go back to my 21 year old self, I would tell her – what would I tell her? Maybe not to plan for the future so much.  To chill out a little bit, and just do what you enjoy at the time.  To not be afraid of what you really want to do.

I’ve loved the 13 years I’ve spent teaching.  I am a completely different person to the 22 year old who moved up here, alone and not knowing anybody.  I want to say that I was damaged and traumatised when I came here, after that relationship, which sounds melodramatic.  I was damaged and traumatised, and an expert at hiding it.

Somewhere in all of what I’ve just written, is the reason why I am finally leaving my teaching job, after gradually reducing my hours for years, after trying to juggle music and poetry. I haven’t worked it out myself yet, and it is not just about time, or feeling guilty that I’m not giving enough.  It’s something about finally, irrevocably admitting what I really want to do, and going for it, without a safety net, or a Plan B to fall back on.

 

 

I’m sure I’ll be writing a lot more about this in the future – and about my PhD.  My working title at the minute is Poetry and Everyday Sexism.  I’m interested in writing poems about annoying small acts of everyday sexism, and what happens if we elevate this into poetry.  I went in and did a voluntary workshop in a men’s prison this week and had an amazing afternoon – thought-provoking, challenging, and moving.  I’d love to go in again as part of my PhD and work with the prisoners on ideas about masculinity, which I think would work really well with the poems I’ve started writing about sexism and interrogating my own reaction to it.

So the Sunday Poem today is by John McCullough.  I came upon this book by chance, when I was in London a couple of weeks ago, and having a look in the Waterstones (or is it Foyles?) on the South Bank.  The poetry section there is quite impressive and I bought John’s latest book, on the basis of the beautiful production values of Penned in the Margins (the publisher) and the first two poems, which I read there and then in the bookshop.

This is what bookshops should be for – to make new discoveries like this.  The first poem in John’s book is simply titled ! and explores the exclamation mark.  It is clever, and moving and original, but I kind of fell in love with this poem when I read it.  Wordpress is evil to format when there are spaces in the poem, so the fact that I’m going to try tells you how much I love this poem!

Flittermouse – John McCullough

That old English word for bat returns
******to me at sundown, beneath a screeching cloud.
Shapes zigzag while the moon watches, thirsts.
******I think of you with Samuel Johnson’s dictionary
beside a shelf, your long fingers splayed
******across the spine.  Unable to swallow
one entry, you squealed and burst the library’s
******hush, then froze, astounded by the echo.

You fled town three weeks later, disappeared
******without a text or email.  Flittermouse,
what happened? In which rooms do you track
******down words like insects now, combing books
and specialist websites, open-eared,
******as you wait for your own strange voice?

Maybe I love this poem because one of my favourite emotional states to read about in poetry or to try and capture in my own writing – a kind of mixture of longing, or regret, but not quite either of those things.  Not even yearning.  A word for the moment when life could have gone one way but went another.

I love the word ‘Flittermouse’ although I’d never heard it before reading this poem.  I also like that I felt like I knew something important and true about the ‘you’ of the poem, without knowing their name, or anything that would normally be considered important.  We know that the ‘you’ has ‘long fingers splayed’ and in excitement will squeal.  I wonder now if this poem is really all about knowing, or not knowing a person.  By the end of the poem, we read that the you is surprised by their ‘own strange voice’.

John McCullough’s first collection of poems The Frost Fairs was published by Salt in 2012 and won the Polari First Book Prize.  It was Book of the Year for The Independent and The Poetry School and a summer read for The Observer.  He teaches creative writing at the Open University and New Writing South, and lives in Hove, East Sussex.  This poem is taken from his second collection Spacecraft which is published by Penned in the Margins, and you can buy a copy here at http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/index.php/2016/04/spacecraft/and support a fabulous independent press at the same time.

Thanks to John for letting me use his poem this week.