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Sunday Poem – Chrissie Gittins

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Sunday Poem – Chrissie Gittins

Going out for a run – procrastination.  Playing on addictive computer game involving hatching dragons from eggs in a completely pointless exercise – procrastination.  Ringing my mum for a chat – procrastination.  Ringing my twin sister for a chat – procrastination.  Checking Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – procrastination.  Sending stupid Snapchat video to Hilda Sheehan – procrastination.   Everything that isn’t my PhD feels like procrastinating at the minute, like a distraction.  I realise that thinking of life in general as a distraction is probably not healthy in the long term.

I need to run otherwise I think I will lose the plot.  I try to limit myself to computer game when I’ve done a good couple of hours work on the PhD.  I ring my mum and my sister whilst I’m out walking the dogs.  I spend less time on social media – mainly because of my addiction to aforementioned dragon hatching game.  I practice saying no in the mirror but still say yes too often.  This blog could really be called procrastination, I suppose, which is maybe why I have slowed down with it a little recently, why the posts are a bit more sporadic.  But I feel connected to a wider poetry community when I write it – and I still like hunting out poems to post here.

Today I have ran 10 miles, and read and re-read a fantastic manuscript by Hannah Hodgson, nne of my Dove Cottage Young Poets.  This manuscript is her first pamphlet collection and is about to be published very soon by Wayleave Press.  I’ve written a blurb for the back, and sent it to Mike Barlow, her publisher.  I’ve also answered as many emails as I could get through, and am hoping I haven’t missed any.  I’ve read and re-read the feedback on my 6000 word report, or RD2 as it’s commonly known at MMU on my PhD progress so far.  I’ve started to respond to some of their feedback, just in bullet points at the moment.  Next Monday I will have a ‘mock viva’ where I will discuss my PhD, and their feedback with the scrutineers.

My usual psychological process is to panic or get anxious about anything like this in the lead up to it.  I spend copious amounts of energy worrying,and usually, it all ends up ok.  So I’m trying to just ignore this part of me that works itself up into a frenzy.  Or maybe not ignore, but not let it run the show.

I did this recently with a thing I did with BBC Radio Cumbria.  I did an interview and a recording of my poem ‘Suffragette’ as part of the celebrations to mark 100 years since the Representation of the People Act, which gave the vote to some women and working class men.  I spent the next three days afterwards worrying I’d said something awful and made myself sound stupid.  When the interview was played and I eventually got the courage up to listen, I realised it sounded fine.  I was even quite proud of myself for doing it, again a new feeling for me! You can listen to the interview and recording here for the next 22 days: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05vm48h

So in the spirit of learning from previous experiences, I’m trying hard not to let my nerves or anxiety get the better of me.  Part of me is looking forward to discussing what I’m doing – my scrutineers are writers and poets I really admire, so I’m hoping it will genuinely be helpful and interesting, and thought provoking.  My stomach still does a flip flop when I think about it, but it feels under control.

I’ve had a busy couple of weeks since I last wrote.  Last night we had A Poem and a Pint.  Sadly, Joanne Limburg, our guest poet was taken ill at the last minute.  The wonderful John Foggin agreed to stand in at very late notice and made a 250 mile round trip to come and read.  It was a brilliant reading – John’s poetry was thought-provoking and moving and funny.  I was really pleased to see the audience loved him as much as I do and bought lots of his books – you can read his account of the evening over at his blog The Great Fogginzo’s Cobweb.  

The night before, Friday, I was reading at Lancaster Spotlight, which was a fundraising night to help them raise money to continue their good work whilst they apply for Arts Council funding.  They had a huge turnout and I got to read with another one of my Dove Cottage Young Poets, Matthew, who was then asked back to do a longer set at Spotlight later in the year.  I found this almost as exciting as the first time I read there, and was invited back to read.

On Tuesday of this week I got back from being away for about six nights.  I read in London on the Monday night at an event at the British Library for the Royal Society of Literature alongside the brilliant Malika Booker and Nick Makoha.  It was a really lovely night and I got to spend some time with a few friends that I hadn’t seen for a while.

I travelled down to London from Ty Newydd, where I’d been for five nights, running a residential course with my co-tutor Hilda Sheehan, who is also one of my closest friends.  Being with Hilda always fills me with joy and giddiness so it was great to spend time with her.  Our students were a fantastic group from a school in Manchester who were an absolute delight to teach.

I’m really looking forward to tomorrow because I get to spend three days with my other best friend David Tait! He is over visiting from China.  Tomorrow we will be hanging out in Bowness and Grasmere and going for a walk with the dogs, and talking all things poetry.  So no time really to get nervous about the viva.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Chrissie Gittins, who I met quite a few years ago at Stanza Poetry Festival.  Chrissie was kind enough to send me a copy of her pamphlet, Professor Heger’s Daughter, and I asked her if I could share the title poem here.

I found a great interview with Chrissie where she talks about writing this poem, which I thought was a really interesting description of the process, and the lengths we go to as poets here which is really worth a read.  She writes

I first read about Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Constantin Heger in the Saturday Guardian early in 2012. They were mentioned in an article by Lucasta Miller about a recently discovered fable which Charlotte had written. After her aunt died Charlotte returned home to Haworth from Brussels, where she’d been studying, and wrote a series of passionate letters to her teacher. Professor Heger tore them up on receipt and threw them in the wastepaper basket; the only reason they survive is because his wife rescued them, stuck and stitched them together, and kept them safely in her jewellery box. The letters are now part of the extensive collection of Brontë literary manuscripts held at the British Library.  

I think one of the many lovely things about this is the utter chance of it – that Chrissie read about the letters in the Guardian, presumably minding her own business reading the newspaper and not expecting a poem to pounce on her. Maybe this is what being a poet is – being ready for these chance encounters or meetings which might lead on to a poem or a pamphlet.

The poem is in the voice of one of Professor Heger’s daughters, and uses the arrival of Charlotte Bronte’s letters as its structure.  I love how each letter is tied to a particular month, and the physical descriptions of the letters – the pieces ‘like islands floating on the green chenille’ and ‘river tears’ and the ‘shadow words’.

I also really like how Chrissie has threaded some of the actual letters through the poem.  The poem is a poem of contrasts – the close description of the fragments of letters contrast with the wider view of the outside world with its ‘canopy of leaves’ and later the ‘leaves crusted with rust’.  There is a wonderful telescoping effect as the eye of the poem closes in and then widens out again.

The first time we hear the daughter speak is in the last but one stanza, when she asks the father “Did you love her? Did you ever love her?”.  I like how the subject, the ‘her’ is left a mystery.  She could be talking about her mother, his wife, or Charlotte Bronte, and this mystery isn’t resolved by the father’s action of throwing the letters into the fire.

You can buy Chrissie Gittin’s pamphlet Professor Heger’s Daughter from Paekakariki Press for £10.  This is a limited edition letterpress pamphlet – it really is a beautiful object.

She was was born in Lancashire and lives in Forest Hill in South London. She studied at Newcastle University and St Martin’s School of Art, and worked as an artist and a teacher before becoming a freelance poet/writer. She writes poetry, radio drama, short stories, and poetry for children.  Professor Heger’s Daughter was published in 2013 and she’s been busy since then, publishing a short story collection Between Here and Knitwear with Unthank Books in 2015 and a children’s poetry collection Adder, Bluebell, Lobster in 2016 with Otter-Barry Books.  You can find out more information about Chrissie over at her website http://www.chrissiegittins.co.uk/ 

Chrissie is also heading up north soon to give a poetry reading for adults at Settle Sessions in North Yorkshire on June 8th.  On June 9th – she’ll also be running a 1 hour poetry workshop for children followed by a short poetry reading – more information over at the website of Settle Sessions.
Thanks to Chrissie for letting me use her poem here.

Professor Heger’s Daughter – Chrissie Gittins 

The first came in July when the canopy of leaves
cooled the garden in the afternoon,
she laid the pieces on the table
like islands floating on the green chenille.
Taking paper strips she strapped the words together.
I shall see you again one day…it must happen since I long
00for it.
A coral blush rose in her cheeks.

Mother found the second in October,
leaves were crusted then with rust.
She pulled the river tears together with feather stitch,
white cotton whiter than the page,
the thin paper showing Charlotte’s
shadow words behind.
my sisters are keeping well but my brother is always ill.

In January, when threads of silver birch were
stained with plum my mother found nine pieces
nestled next to last year’s invitations.
If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely
I shall be absolutely without hope –

Another in November, leaves rotting in the rain.
I lost my appetite and my sleep – I pine away.
This was the last.
I know what it is to love a man and not be loved.
But to see my mother’s eyes remember pain?

When my father lay on his deathbed,
his skin wax, his hands clammy and limp,
I flung the letters in his face.
“Did you love her? Did you ever love her?”
He screwed his strength enough to toss them
in the fire.

He found his peace in death.
I keep the letters locked beneath my bed
in a polished leather case.
It’s only in the spring I take pleasure in the trees,
I stroke the buds and stems and will the curling leaves
to unfurl into sunlight, to bring a fragrant ease.

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Sunday Poem: Naomi Jaffa

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Sunday Poem: Naomi Jaffa

It’s been a beautiful day here in the Lake District today. I’ve been out in the cold and the sunshine most of the day. At lunchtime I went for a 12 mile run with a group of friends and then a 3 mile dog walk when I got back. I’m now sat feeling a bit sorry for myself as I’ve now got a pain behind my knee, at the bottom of my hamstring. I didn’t think it was that bad, but it seems to have got worse over the course of the evening. I’m hoping I’ve just overdone it a bit today and with a few days rest it will be ok.

This week has been a mix of teaching, recordings, and writing poems. On Tuesday I did a short interview with a producer from BBC Radio Cumbria and read my poem ‘Suffragette’. The interview and the poem will be broadcast some time in the week of the anniversary of the Representation of the People Act. I get really anxious when I do anything that’s recorded. Not usually beforehand too much, but afterwards – things that I’ve said run round and round in my head, or things I didn’t say – don’t know if anybody else gets this. It doesn’t happen when I do readings though – maybe because a poetry reading is such an ephemeral thing – and anything I’ve said, whilst it can be repeated, it has also disappeared.

Thursday is my teaching day at MMU – I’m teaching on an undergraduate unit called Language and Technique this term – covering for Adam O’Riordan. I’m really enjoying the teaching so far – this week Helen Mort and I took our undergraduate students to Manchester Art Gallery to hopefully be inspired by some of the art.

On Friday I went to Yarm school to do a reading/talk about domestic violence, focusing on the sequence in my first collection. This is the first time I’ve done something like this, and I was a little out of my comfort zone – as usually I read the poems one after another, without any introductions. This has always been my way of preserving a kind of boundary around myself when I’m reading these poems. The students were absolutely lovely though – they asked lots of perceptive questions and seemed really engaged. The teacher who invited me to come had read my book and thought about the poetry and was really enthusiastic. I couldn’t get the statistic out of my head that 1 in 3 women will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives – it’s a sobering thought when you’re standing in front of a room of young people with their whole lives ahead of them. Statistically, there were probably young women and young men in that room who have already experienced it.

I’ve also had another good week on the PhD – I’ve got a meeting with my supervisor tomorrow so I had to edit and get ready some new poems to send through to him. I’m nervous about the meeting tomorrow as these are all really new poems that I’m still not completely sure of. I had two poems accepted in the New Statesman this week as well, although I’m not sure when they will be published. And I’ve carried on with reading Theory of the Lyric by Jonathan Culler, which I’m still finding interesting!

I’ve been reading about the ‘cooperative principal’ coined by the philosopher H.R. Grice. The cooperative principal means that when we are talking to someone we assume that they are saying something relevant. In literature the cooperative principal is ‘hyper-protected’. Culler says that readers ‘will often go a long way in accepting obscurity, disjunction or apparent irrelevance’.

Culler talks about the ‘lyric convention of significance’ i.e ‘the fact that something has been set down as a poem implies that it is important now, at the moment of lyric articulation’. This has interesting implications for my poems exploring sexism. By writing lyric poetry about experiences of sexism, I can elevate experiences of sexism into significance, just by writing lyric poetry, rather than say, a diary entry.

Another thing that Jonathan Culler is really good on is Greek poetry. If I had time (which I don’t) I would find it very easy to be sidetracked and go and find as many examples of fragments of Greek poetry I could get my hands on. My most recent favourite is by Theognis, addressed to someone called Cyrnus. This is translated by Andrew Miller and the first couple of lines are

I have given you wings with which you will fly, soaring easily
over the boundless seas and all the land

A bit like Shakespeare’s sonnets – Theognis promises Cyrnus immortalization before complaining at the end that he has been deceived and disappointed.

So, on to the first Sunday Poem of February! Many people will know Naomi Jaffa as the former Director of Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, where she worked tirelessly to bring poets from across the world together in one place for a magical weekend. I know this because I was one of those lucky poets in 2013 and I had such a good time. I hope we treat the poets who come to Kendal Poetry Festival as well as I was treated that weekend in Aldeburgh.

As well as running one of the best festivals for 22 years, Naomi is also a fabulous poet. I suspect her own creative work was put on the backburner for the many years she was running the festival, but I was really happy to see that last year she had a pamphlet published by The Garlic Press. The pamphlet is called Driver and comes highly recommended.

Naomi Jaffa grew up in London and Scarborough and read English at Oxford. She is the daughter of professional musicians and started out in classical music management before moving to East Anglia in 1991. After her 22 years working for Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and as Director of the Poetry Trust, she is now the co-founder of Poetry People, a new organisation set up to run the Suffolk Young Poets competition and other community projects. Her first pamphlet, The Last Hour of Sleep was published in 2004.

The poem I’ve chosen is called ‘Sign’ and I think it’s really beautiful. I also like poems that send me off on a tangent – this particular tangent was to find out more about the epigraph at the beginning of the poem. Minerva was the goddess of wisdom (I found out) so Hegel is saying here that wisdom can only be found when things are ending. I then got a bit distracted by the various ways this phrase could be translated, like ‘takes flight at dusk’ instead of ‘flies only at dusk’. I like the version Naomi uses best – as ‘takes flight’ has a connotation of running away which I don’t think is needed. I found ‘The owl of Minerva only flies at dusk’ – just reversing those two words made me shudder because the rhythm was bumpy and ugly – and then you realise how ‘flies only’ sounds like what it means, the words float off the page, whereas reversed, they kind of bump along. I also found a longer version which I think is as lovely as the one Naomi chose to use: ‘The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk’. I think the shorter one works better as an epigraph, but I’m glad the shorter one led me to the longer one.

On to the poem, which has an encounter with an owl, or more accurately two owls at its heart. It seems to start mid-conversation, as if we know more than we actually do, as if this is a conversation between friends. We don’t know why or what or who the speaker is leaving, and although by the end of the poem, there is an introduction of a ‘he’ who will be left behind, I think the poem is also exploring the act of leaving in a much wider sense. We don’t even know who the speaker makes it clear to that they are leaving – it could be themselves, or another person.

Nature is set against a man-made world throughout the poem. The ‘big white wedge/of a bird’ flies level with the car. The old airfield and the road sign and the chicken-factory lorry are set against the barn owl, ‘perched and scrawny’.

I also love the matter-of-fact tone ‘and anyway I’m late, there’s no time today for nature’ – the confidence of this line, which is then disrupted by nature, which can’t be controlled. The voice of the poem which says ‘there’s no time’ is silenced by the owl ‘level with the window, flying at my speed’ and this encounter, this interaction takes on significance, the significance of a sign, showing the speaker ‘for at least ten slow clear seconds the way forward’.

I have only just noticed (honestly!) after banging on about the ‘lyric convention of signficance’ that this poem has the word significant in it. The unconscious is truly a wonderful thing!

The introduction of the ‘he’ at the end was surprising and heartbreaking when the speaker says ‘only now/does he see and touch me’. The idea of not being seen until you are leaving is delicious in its cruelty. I also really like how Naomi circles back to the epigram that began the poem – ‘This isn’t history, but must be what Hegel meant’. So Hegel was saying not that things have to end, night has to fall for wisdom to be found, but that wisdom can be found when things are ending, at dusk, a time of neither one thing nor the other, not night or day or dark or light.

Please rush forth and buy a copy from The Garlic Press here and thanks to Naomi Jaffa for allowing me to use her poem this week.

Sign
The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. Hegel

At the start of the week I make it clear I’m leaving,
on one of those never-gets-light December mornings,
I drive across the old airfield and, almost pass
the Passing Place sign, notice the barn owl,
perched and scrawny, hunger beating daylight.
I want to reverse for a better look, but here’s
the chicken-factory lorry in the mirror looming up,
and anyway I’m late, there’s no time today for nature.
But turning right at the end of the single track road
here’s a second one, much larger – a big white wedge
of a bird, level with the window, flying at my speed,
willing the car to disturb some small creature,
wingbeats in time with my heart all the parallel length
of the ditch between field-hedge and verge.
Of course I decide this is significant, this night-hunter
waiting up so late for me to arrive, willing to show
for at least ten slow clear seconds the way forward.
This isn’t history, but must be what Hegel meant.
After twelve and a half years and in the week
I make my intentions plain, only now
does he see and touch me, talk about how much
he understands, can’t bear the loss of.

Garsdale Retreat – 5th-10th March 2018

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The next residential I’m running is at the Garsdale Retreat, from the 5th-10th March 2018. The theme of the course is Encounters and Collisions and how to use these in our own writing. We’ll be looking at encounters with animals, landscape, people, ghosts and everything in between! I’m really excited about the guest poet as well – Ian McMillan will be joining us mid-week to give a reading. There are three places left, and it would be great to get those last few spots filled, so please spread the word if you know anybody who might be interested. The cost is from £500-£760 for the week which includes tuition, accommodation and food.

You can find more information about how to book here;

http://thegarsdaleretreat.co.uk/courses/encounters-and-collisions/

January Poem 2 – Robert Wrigley

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This has been a week full of terriers – literally.  I’ve had my sister’s three terriers, Sox, Buffy and Eddie to stay.  Added to my two Border Terriers Miles and Lola that makes five excitable dogs in the house.  At first I was planning on walking them in two groups but pressures of time put paid to that and I just took them all out together in the end.  Luckily they are all friendly with other dogs and have a good recall so I could just let them loose in the woods and fields across the road from my house.  

This has been a good week for getting poetry and PhD work done, despite having five terriers and more visits from workmen to finally finish the kitchen off.  I’ve got a lot more reading done and haven’t felt guilty at all about sitting around in my pyjamas! I think I’ve got my head around the fact that the reading I’m doing will eventually pull together to form a PhD.  I also got the date for my ‘mock viva’ which will be towards the end of February. I thought I would be really nervous about it, but I’m actually looking forward to it, and the chance to discuss what I’m doing and what I’ve been working on.  It’s a very strange feeling, to not be feeling anxious – maybe I really have turned a corner with the PhD.  

I’ve also been to two poetry groups this week, Barrow Writers on Tuesday and Brewery Poets on Friday, which meant I’ve had to stop dithering and finally get two poems which have been sitting ‘cooking’ in my notebook typed up and ready for feedback.  Thursday was my first day back at MMU this year teaching on a different undergraduate module this time, a Creative Writing unit.  I really enjoyed the teaching and some of the students have already sent in poems they wrote during the session.  Even when  I’m teaching I can tell now that all the reading I’ve been doing is paying off – bits of knowledge are linking up to other bits of knowledge.

On Saturday Chris and I drove over to Hebden Bridge for a 75th birthday party for Tony Ward, the publisher of Arc.  I met Tony at a festival in Ireland and we hit it off straight away – as I’m sure anyone who knows him will testify, Tony is great fun to hang out with.  I also got to see the lovely Amanda Dalton as well who is also good fun to spend time with, probably too much as we got a bit hysterical at one point in the proceedings.  We drove back home quite late at night, got back at 1am and then I was up at 7 to finish packing to go away for a week. 

I had two poetry critiquing groups to go to this week – Barrow Writers on Tuesday and Brewery Poets on Friday, which meant I had to stop dithering and get two poems ready for feedback.  On Thursday I did my first day of teaching at MMU on a undergraduate module called Language and Technique which is a creative writing module.  I really enjoyed the teaching – we looked at Curse poems this week and then I set them an exercise to write their own. Some of the students have already sent me their poems that they started in the session.  I’m teaching this unit alongside Helen Mort who has been her usual lovely self in getting me up to speed with everything.  I can also tell that all of the reading I’m doing for the PhD, and all the reading I did for the Approaches to Poetry course last year is really paying off – it feels like my brain is knitting together over previous gaps of knowledge!  There are obviously still plenty of gaps to be filled in of course, but that’s the great thing about reading isn’t it, there’s always more to do!

I’m writing this on the train from London down to St Ives, in Cornwall.  I’m going on a writing retreat down there with some friends – Katie Hale, Holly Hopkins, Hilda Sheehan and Emily Hasler.  I’m hoping to try and take stock of where I am with my next collection, write a few new poems, work on some drafts of poems that have been waiting to be typed up, and of course get some runs in along the coastal path.  I can’t wait to not have to do any cooking!  Last night I spent the night in London at the TS Eliot prize giving.   I went a couple of years ago and loved it, but I’d kind of forgotten how exciting it is.  I really like the format of the readings as well – I like that the prize is actually announced tomorrow, and that the Sunday night is just about the poetry and the poets.  

I haven’t read many of the books on the shortlist – I’ve actually only read Michael Symmons Roberts and Tara Bergin’s all the way through and really enjoyed them both.  Jacqueline Saphra’s reading was very moving – she was obviously delighted to be up there, and the warmth from the audience towards her and Nine Arches Press was really lovely.  Ocean Vuong was giving out lavender to people as he was signing books – but I spent too long talking and missed my opportuity.  Katie got some lavender but by the time we got home it had disintegrated and was just a twig in her bag! I really loved Robert Minhinnick’s poems that he read – out of the books I hadn’t read, that is the one I want to read first. 

So now we are just south of Reading and speeding towards St Ives.  It’s raining and grey and miserable but I am still on a bit of a poetry high from last night.  The second January poem this month comes from another brilliant collection – Robert Wrigley’s new book Box.  I saw Robert Wrigley read at Aldeburgh a few years ago and loved his poetry but was too shy to go and speak to him.  I got permission to post one of his poems from his Bloodaxe collection The Church of Omnivorous Light on the blog which you can find here and we’ve stayed in touch via Facebook since then.  We swapped books over Christmas and I was delighted to find Robert has a ‘My People’ poem as well, as the first poem in his collection.  

Robert Wrigley is the author of ten collections of poetry, including,most recently, Anatomy of Melancholy and Other Poems (Penguin 2013), which won a 2014 Pacific Northwest Book Award.   His earlier books have been awarded the Kingsley Tufts Award, the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Award, and the Poets Prize.  A University Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho, he lives in the woods near Moscow, Idaho, with his wife, the writer Kim Barnes. 

Along with Christina Thatcher’s book which I talked about last week, Box is one of my favourite collections I’ve read for a while.  It’s full of animals and transformations and an engagement not just with the natural world and its inhabitants but also a love of reading and engagement with other writers.  One of my favourite poems is ‘Blessed are’ which observes ravens attending to the corpse of a deer, but then the poem follows what happens to the skull as the year progresses and ‘the snows bury it’ until spring when it becomes ‘a blessing for blowflies’ until the speaker retrieves the skull and hangs it up where it will be ‘filled with the thoughts of yellowjackets’.  Another one of my favourite poems is called ‘Brother to Jackdaws’ where the speaker transforms from a man wanting to be a jackdaw, to the speaker being a jackdaw.  

I asked Robert if I could post ‘Ecology’ because I’ve been reading A LOT of academic writing this week around modes of address in lyric poetry.  Well, I’ve been reading a lot of Jonathan Culler and what he has to say about modes of address.  Sadly I can’t quote any of it as I am trapped at my table on the train and can’t get to my bag with my notebook in, but one of the things I remember is that he says that direct address to the audience or reader is actually relatively rare in lyric poetry, that usually the poet will be addressing someone or something else in the poem (a beloved or an animal or inanimate object) and the audience are only indirectly addressed.  There are obviously exceptions to this rule, but they are not as common.  He calls this ‘triangulated address’ which Ithink is a great term and I quite enjoy saying the word ‘triangulated’.   

So in one sense you could think of ‘Ecology’ as a rare example of a lyric poem that directly addresses the reader.  The imperative of ‘Study’ runs all the way through.  The things that we as reader or audience are being told to study are not the things one expects to study.  This is perhaps the study that a poet should make, with lines like ‘Study wind as well.  We will never know/what it desires beyond the elsewhere it is going’ and ‘Study the heart, which should not be seen/but heard’.  I love the word ‘study’ as well and how it encompasses explore, and examine, and look, and maybe even describe and watch and pay attention to.  

Of course the slippery thing about lyric poetry is its strange balance between public and private discourse, and to say that this poem is a direct address to the reader or audience, a forward facing imperative that instructs us to look, to be present in the world, ignores the fact that this poem is also turned in on itself.  It has two faces, one turned outward towards us, and one turned inward, towards the self.  It could equally be directed or addressed to the poet-self.  Maybe it is addressed to both.  

I plan to read this poem every morning in St Ives to get me in the mood for writing, for paying attention, for listening to the heart, ‘which should not be seen/but heard.’  

Thanks to Robert Wrigley for letting me use another of his poems on the blog. If you’d like to order Box you can do so here.

Ecology – Robert Wrigley

Study the muddy house, the salmon
gutting it out through glacial till.  
Study the heart, which should not be seen 
but heard.  Study the tree that is the child

and the ink that makes an octopus invisible.
Epistemologies of silence and blindness, 
suffering of common stones, the soul
with its hardened, scaly, ineveitable callus:

study them by coyote light, buffalo magnification.
Study the imperatives of rain and snow
at the whim and fancy of the wind.
Study wind as well.  We will never know 

what it desires beyond the elsewhere it is going. 
Study elsewhere, the geography of strange beds 
and topographies of lips, the glowing,
enormous, indefatigable possibilities of red. 

The sky, which is the mother of all rivers, 
must be studied, as must the river of all mothers, 
those oceans of spirit, the wells of unbelievers,
days like buckets full, arriving one after another

in the absence of an invisible engineer. 
Study the balusters and balustrades, wall studs
of sedimentary stone, the skin, the downiest hair.
Study spring grass, the planetary grave, the blood-fed

soil of the body farm, the pentagrammatic arm. 
Study the cuticle and free margin parentheses enclosing 
pink implications, the vast concupiscent charms
of the toes, the sleepy eye’s slow closing.

In such time as you are given, study the house 
within the house within the house you love in. 
Know of it such portion as you are allowed, 
and return to it to die, like a salmon. 

PhD Musings and January Poem 1 – Christina Thatcher

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First week of 2018 and I’ve been trying to get back into my routine which has been a bit doomed to failure because of visitors and a left over addiction to a computer game that I started playing over Christmas.

So, I’ve decided to try and keep featuring poems here – but the Sunday Poem will now just be renamed by month.  Some months you may get one poem a week, and other times you may not.  I’m also going to try and link in a bit more thinking around my PhD, although again, this might not happen every week.

I’ve spent a large portion of this week running – I even managed to be first woman back at Parkrun this week in a time of 22.20 – still 50 seconds behind my PB but I’m slowly getting back to fitness after having a bit of time off with a dodgy knee just before Christmas – brought on by not resting after completing a half marathon.  My knee is fine now but I haven’t quite got my full running mojo back.

I’ve also had a meeting about Kendal Poetry Festival with my co-director Pauline Yarwood and our website designer.  The programme is finalised and has been for quite a few months now, and I’m busy gathering in photos and biogs from the festival poets and then there is a hard slog ahead as we start to write the content for the website and programme.  I love getting the photos of the poets though – it’s one of the most exciting bits as it makes it all a lot more real!

I’ve managed to get a few solid days work on the PhD though this week, inbetween recovering from New Year.  I’ve typed up a few rough drafts of new poems and spent mornings reading Theory of the Lyric by Jonathan Culler.  I thought I should try and do some reading around what is lyric poetry.  I’m finding the book really interesting, if a little hard going, but I’ve been feeling irritated with the book since the introduction, when Culler sets out the poets he’s going to be looking at – ‘canonical lyrics’ from Sappho, Horace, Petrarch, Goethe, Leopardi, Baudelaire, Lorca, Williams and Ashberry.

Positives – it’s great that the range of poets is drawn from other languages apart from English.  He also presents the poems in the original language and then a translation.  But one female poet in the whole book!  In the introduction, his reasoning for this is “Though there are  many circumstances in which enlarging the canon or attending to hitherto marginalized texts is the right strategy, when reflecting on the nature of the lyric there is a compelling argument for focusing on a series of texts that would be hard to exclude from lyric and that have played a role in the constitution of that tradition”.

I’m not even halfway through yet, so maybe some other women poets will appear.  He has referred to Emily Dickinson a few times.  Reading this book made me relieved that I didn’t do a degree in English Literature.  When I started writing and reading poetry, the only poetry available was Carol Ann Duffy, so I had no idea that women had been pretty much excluded from the canon.  I didn’t even know what the canon was, so there was no voice in my head telling me I couldn’t/shouldn’t write because I was a woman.  But I think if I’d had to study English Literature at the age of 18, when I was as unsure of myself as most other 18 year olds, and the texts we were told to read were mostly men, and the text books we were told to read referred to mostly men, it would have taken a long time to shake that off.

Instead I was doing a music degree and learning a whole load of other stuff about women and music and brass playing and power and gender – but that’s a whole other story!

I should be careful however, not to criticise a book for doing something other than what I want it to do, but I do wish there were more references to women poets.  Having said that, there is some really interesting stuff in the book, and I don’t understand all of it to be honest, but some interesting snippets – he talks about J.L. Austin’s theory about ‘performative language’, which brings into being what it refers to, such as when we say ‘I promise to pay you tomorrow’.  When we say this, we bring into being the promise, rather than telling about the act of promising.  If poetry can bring into being ‘that to which they refer or accomplish that of which they speak’ then poetry can be one of the creative and world-changing modes of language’.    This is something I’m interested in when I’m performing poems around sexism – by talking about sexism in a space where sexism is usually ignored, or not talked about, by elevating the act of sexism to art, sometimes I accomplish sexism or bring it into being (from audience members).  Sometimes by noticing sexism and writing about it, I can accomplish the noticing of sexism by others.

He also talks about how critics and universities advocate approaching all lyric poems almost as if they are dramatic monologues with a ‘speaker’ who is not necessarily the poet, which I thought was interesting as well.  He quotes  Mark Payne who says that ‘the poem is a forum for direct truth claims about the world on the part of the poet’ whereas in fiction or narrative poetry ”the truth claims are to be evaluated only with respect to the fictional speaker and the world he or she inhabits.’  I love that phrase ‘direct truth claims about the world’ and the way the word ‘claims’ also holds inherent in it the possibility of lying…

Obviously there’s a lot more in this huge textbook and I’m picking out small bits that aren’t necessarily representative – you’ll have to read it if you’re interested!

Just before the Poem of the Week, I wanted to leave you with this lovely quote from Derrida, also found in the pages of Theory of the Lyric.  One of my young poets at the Dove Cottage Young Poets session wrote a beautiful poem about her relationship with poetry, and particularly with poetry learnt by heart.  It had lines of Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry and some other poets woven through it.  Just by chance, I’d just read this in the ‘Theory of the Lyric’.  Derrida – that a poem is not just that which asks to be learned by heart but ‘that which learns or teaches us the heart, which invents the heart’.

I’ll leave you with two poems by Christina Thatcher, from her book More than you werepublished by Parthian. as the Poems of the Week.

Christina Thatcher was shortlisted for the Bare Fiction Debut Poetry Collection Competition in 2015 and was a winner in the Terry Hetherington Award for Young Writers in 2016, Christina Thatcher’s poetry and short stories have featured in a number of publications including The London MagazinePlanet MagazineAcumen and The Interpreter’s House. Her first collection, More than you were, was published by Parthian Books in 2017.

Christina Thatcher grew up in America but has made a happy home in Wales with her husband, Rich, and cat, Miso. She is a part-time teacher and PhD student at Cardiff University where she studies how creative writing can impact the lives of people bereaved by addiction. Christina keeps busy off campus too as the Poetry Editor for The Cardiff Review and as a freelance workshop facilitator and festival coordinator.

It’s a strange coincidence that I read More than you were whilst thinking about the lyric tradition and what poetry is for and what it should do. The collection explores the death of David Thatcher, Christina’s father, and this footing in fact and reality is made explicit on the back cover of the book.  But if we go back to ‘direct truth claims about the world’ I guess the claims these poems are making are claims about trauma and violence and grief, and the repercussions of experiencing these things.

It was hard to choose just one poem – although they do work on their own, you can read this whole collection cover to cover in one go.  It is completely compelling.  There is a narrative which drives the poems forward through these tiny snapshot moments.

The idea of learning and teaching – what we learn by heart, what we learn from text books which exclude us, what we learn from reading poetry has ran through this blog.  In Christina’s collection, she has a sequence of short poems called Lesson, numbered 1 to 10.  I found these poems extremely moving – the lessons often have a double meaning, or an intended meaning and an unintended meaning.

In Lesson #1, the short lines fit well with the idea of things being cut off, being severed.  The brutality is created not only by the killing of the snake, but the witnessing of the killing of the snake, not only the witnessing, but the witnessing of the killing of the snake with the toy shovel, which is now forever changed from a toy shovel.  The character of the ‘she’ figure (presumably the mother) who is ‘quiet and strong’ is contrasted with her act, and not just the act, but the acknowledgement of the act.  Is the lesson that sometimes to protect family we do ‘unfair and gruesome things’ or is the lesson ‘the world is a place where unfair and gruesome things can happen’?  Maybe both.

Lesson #2 is given by a different figure, and follows on directly from a poem that referenced the father, so I assumed it was him.  The strangeness of that image, ‘like spiders on a pillow’ and the strangeness of the lesson, that ‘young girls/are only ever as good/as their skin’.    And the strangeness of it sounding like a proverb.   I’m sure many women have memories of people saying stuff like this – I remember my nanna’s neighbour once saying to me, whilst I was playing a board game with her daughter ‘Close your mouth, you don’t look attractive sitting with your mouth open’ and the shame of being caught ‘not looking attractive’ and the lesson that this was something I should be doing.

Thanks to Christina for letting me post these two fantastic poems on my blog, and do rush over to Parthian and buy her book from them.  You will be supporting an independent publisher and you’ll get to read a fantastic book.

Lesson #1 – Christina Thatcher

The day she severed
the head of a snake
with the toy shovel
I used in the garden
she turned to me
and said – quiet and strong –
that in order to protect
our family we must sometimes
do unfair and gruesome things.

Lesson #2 – Christina Thatcher

You told me
with one swift movement
like spiders on a pillow,
never to touch fire –
your fingers will blister,
you said, and young girls
are only ever as good
as their skin.

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.

 

 

Sunday Poem – Kate Fox

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It has been a strange week for me – the #metoo hashtag on social media has made me sad and angry and hopeful in an exhausting cycle..  Amongst all of this, I’ve had to get on with doing stuff as well of course.  I had a meeting with my  PhD supervisors about the next stage of the PhD, the RD2 form.  I’d sent them some writing, which was far too personal to use, but I wanted to try and get straight in my head what I’m trying to do with the PhD.  I’ve got to make it much more ‘academic’, less personal etc etc.  I’ve had a go this week and have almost finished the ‘Abstract’ part of the RD2, in what I hope is a more academic voice.  It feels like putting on another head.  I wonder if everybody feels like this or if it’s just me.

I’ve also started reading feminst theorist bell hooks this week, and absolutely loving her work.  She writes about feminism, racism and class.  I could only find one of her books in the library, ‘talking back’, published in 1989 but it feels like it could have been published last week.  As those of you who have read my past few blogs will know, I’ve been thinking a lot about who I am addressing with my poetry, and also about responses to the poems I’m writing.  When I read the following, I felt elated, that someone had articulated what I’ve been struggling with for different reasons:

When I first began to talk publicly about my work, I would be disappointed when audiences were provoked and challenged but seemed to disapprove. Not only was my desire for approval naive (I have since come to understand that it is silly to think that one can challenge and also have approval), it was dangerous precisely because such a longing can undermine radical commitment, compelling a change in voice so as to gain regard

Reading this made me realise that feeling discomfort is not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, when I read bell hooks, I feel discomfort because I know, as a white woman, I’m not the main, intended audience of bell hooks.  That doesn’t mean, however, I can’t read her, and learn from her.  Maybe discomfort marks the potential for change, when the sense of self and where we fit in the world is shifted, however incrementally.

I went to see Lemn Sissay at the Brewery with a friend this week – what a great performer he is.  Watching him is basically a masterclass in how to hold the attention of an audience.  And the story of ‘Something Dark’, his play, is absolutely heartbreaking.

I also had a meeting with Pauline about Kendal Poetry Festival – we sat at Pauline’s kitchen table for another four hours.  We’ve heard back from all of our poets and we now have the full line up confirmed.  I’m so excited about this year’s poets.  We’re meeting again on Tuesday to try and finish the form off, and having the line up confirmed, subject to funding, will hopefully provide us with the motivation to finish the endless paperwork.

I also had an exciting meeting this week regarding a new anthology of Cumbrian poetry which I’ll be co-editing.  I can’t say much more than that at the moment, but watch this space, because there’ll be an official announcement soon.

There was a Dove Cottage Young Poets session on Friday and then Brewery Poets on Friday night.  I took a specular (mirror poem) that I’d written. I’ve always wanted to write one since reading Julia Copus’s ‘In the Back Seat of My Mother’s Car’.

Yesterday I ran Barrow Poetry Workshop – nine people from all over Cumbria and one new young poet who I was very pleased to see.  I met him a few years ago when I did the readings for the NCS summer school sessions in Ambleside, and then he appeared at the workshop, so that was a nice day, as well as the usual friendly faces being there of course.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Kate Fox.  Kate sent this to me a couple of weeks ago after reading my post around ‘mode of address‘ and who we are talking to as poets. I like the directness of this poem, and felt like, as a woman, it was talking to me.  Does that mean it can’t be read by men because it is talking about maternal lineage? I hope not – I hope the poem just shifts the ground underneath male readers by looking past them to the women standing next to them.

I also love the humour in this poem – ‘somehow your nan’s not distracted by the Yorkshire terrier/ and your mum’s not said anything mean about your hair’.  I think the humour makes sure that the poem does not become sentimental.  That phrase/motto ‘you can’t pick your family, but you can pick your friends’ is kind of buried in the poem in the middle ‘you’re waiting for someone/to snap the lens shutter so you can go back to people who suit you/your husband, your friends’.  I like that the poem acknowledges that there are different ways of living a feminist life,

These women who are not on an official record,
who didn’t chuck themselves under a horse,
but who managed to steer their own course
through the things they were told they couldn’t do,
shouldn’t do.

This idea of women who are not on an official record came up yesterday in the workshop – poet Katie Hale is researching her family history and came upon a census where the man’s name is written and the women listed as ‘female relative’ with their age.

Kate Fox has made a living as a stand-up poet for ten years.She has nearly finished her PhD about class, gender and Northern humour). She has appeared on Radio 4.  She is currently making #Lass War on the man-heavy Northern Powerhouse.

Her second Radio 4 comedy series aired this summer. In the shows she talked about why she doesn’t want: children, a big white wedding, to be middle class or have a Hollywood body! (First series on iPlayer here: The Price of Happiness). She is one of the 17 poets for the BBC/Hull 2017 Contains Strong Language Poetry Festival (Great film about her commission here: Women of Words film). Her books include Chronotopia, just out from Burning Eye Books (ORDER IT HERE! Chronotopia) and Fox Populi from Smokestack Books. She has been poet in residence for the Great North Run, Saturday Live on Radio 4 and the Glastonbury Festival.

Oh- also, she recently invented a new word for when humour and seriousness combine: Humitas. Check it out here: The Conversation article 

Thanks to Kate for letting me use her poem this week.  Kate came and read at the Lakes Alive festival a couple of weeks ago, along with Mark Pajak, and they were both brilliant, putting up with gale force winds, torrential rain and an outdoor reading to a small and soggy audience.  They handled everything that was thrown at them with grace, humour and energy and left me congratulating myself at my own genius for booking them.  If you hear of Kate performing anywhere near you – go and see her.  She is funny, but her poetry will make you think as well.  She’s a great performer, but as you can see below, her poems have depth and layers and work on the page as well.

Spinning a Yarn – Kate Fox 
9
Imagine
you’re holding a thread
which is held by your mother,
then her mother,
then her mother,
double, treble, quadruple twisted ties,
back, back in a long line that stretches further than you can see.
Maybe you’re all in a field.
Somehow it’s not chaos,
somehow your nan’s not distracted by the Yorkshire terrier
and your mum’s not said anything mean about your hair
though mostly every alternate woman in my chain
would get on better with each other
than the one right next to her.
Anyway, you’re holding the end,
the thread’s vibrating 
but it’s just this frozen moment,
as if you’re waiting for someone, 
to snap the lens shutter so you can go back to people who suit you,
your husband, your friends,
this is sort of an obligation, sort of a privilege,
this moment,
making the chain, of women you’ll still mostly never name,
as they stretch into the horizon’s edge
and you’re all worried it will rain,
but you’re hearing fragments of chatter.
Trekking from the city centre during the blitz
for just one good night’s sleep,
how that Auntie started a driving school,
the realisation that your brows all wrinkle in the same place
when you laugh because you’re nervous.
These women who are not on an official record,
who didn’t chuck themselves under a horse,
but who managed to steer their own course
through the things they were told they couldn’t do,
shouldn’t do. They made it work.
They weren’t allowed strategies, 
they couldn’t shuffle soldiers 
across maps, piece up and rearrange continents,
but they all had tactics, 
making the best of what they had,
the day-to-day resistances and choices,
and even though we can’t see their faces
or hear their voices,
you hold that thread that they’ve all spun,
and still the looms are clacking on,
the threads are criss-crossing with other chains,
from women written out of history,
with ones who shouted loudly.
The more twists a thread is given,
the stronger it becomes.
Black threads, white threads,
ones that got lost and trampled in the dirt for years, 
but at this moment it’s making a double helix
down your maternal line,
then springs back,
echoes of thunderous looms,
the shuttle’s clack,
you’re holding it, just this one thread
in the great weave of history.
Will you keep to the old pattern
or start a new one?
Lose the weft, keep the warp?
Find new materials,
a different yarn to spin? 
Can you drop that thread altogether,
take up ones from another kin?
These choices
which are not completely yours
and not completely not.
Take this moment
while you can
to throw a nod of recognition
to the thread holders down the line,
then it’s yours. Begin. 

Sunday Poem – Rachael Clyne

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Today I’ve been to Blackpool to run a 10k race, my first race since Coniston 14 in March when I picked up an IT band injury, and my first 10k since October 2016 when I ran the Lancaster 10k, got a PB and was then rushed into hospital two days later because of a gall bladder attack.

Until last year, I’d never been in hospital before, and the worst illness I’ve had was probably tonsilitis, so to say I found it hard to be stuck in hospital, and then stuck at home and unable to walk far is an understatement.  Getting back to my first competitive 10k feels like finally putting that awful period of time behind me.

I managed to beat my previous PB of 45.02 and this time ran 44.41 which I was really chuffed about but have now already started thinking about whether I could get closer to 43 at the next 10k.  I was also third lady back which I was probably even more happy about, as I’ve never been in the top 3 before.

The most satisfying part of the race was charging straight through a long and rather deep puddle and drenching the two poor men who were picking their way carefully around the side of it.  But to be honest it was pretty tough and I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it at the time, although now I feel pretty happy.

I’ve also been to Durham Book Festival to read as part of an event called Rich Seams, hosted by Andrew McMillan.  This was a lovely event to be part of – I read with Degna Stone, Kim Moore, Malika Booker, Mark Pajak, Polly Atkin, Pippa Little, Ruby Robinson, Zaffar Kunial, Vidyan Ravinthiran and Seán Hewitt.  I’d left my car in Brough, parked on the street and then car-shared with Polly Atkin from there to Durham.  When we got back to Brough an angry resident came and shouted at me for leaving my car there, as apparently it was ‘private parking’.  There were no private parking notices that I could see, so I conclude she was one of those lucky people who have nothing else to complain about other than people parking outside her house.  The end of the exchange finished with the woman of Brough saying ‘Where do you come from…a town?’ as if this was the worst insult she could possibly think of.  So that was a bit of an annoying end to what was otherwise a really lovely day.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been doing quite a few readings and workshops – I’ve performed in Manchester at Bad Language, in Settle where I judged the poetry competition and then read with the incomparable Carola Luther, at Ilkley Literature Festival to launch the ‘One for the Road’ anthology alongside Peter Sansom and Stuart Maconie, Buzzwords in Cheltenham and at Borderlines Book Festival in Carlisle.

In between the readings and various workshops I’ve been working on my PhD of course.  I think I’ve got about half of the poems for the second collection so far which will make up the creative part of the PhD, and thanks to the kindness of Angela France, who sent me her completed PhD to have a read through, I feel like I’ve got more of a sense of what the whole thing will look like.  Thank goodness for the community of poets, who have saved, encouraged and inspired me more times than I can name.

On Monday I have a meeting with both of my supervisors (eek) and then the rest of the week, I’ll be getting on with PhD stuff, and soldiering on with funding applications for Kendal Poetry Festival.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Rachael Clyne, who has been patiently waiting for quite a while for her poem to be posted here. I read this poem after Rachael posted it on Facebook and loved it – it was then spotted by the brilliant Charles Johnson and published in Obsessed With Pipework in August.

It’s a short and pithy poem, full of wisdom which is worn lightly.  I love the title and the message behind it, which seems to me both simple and complex to understand.  I like the directness of the poem which starts right from that first line with ‘so you – yes you’.  The idea of accepting the self is one that is easy to articulate and hard to do.  I like how the poem uses and plays around with well-known phrases and ideas.  In line 2 we think of the phrase ‘warts and all’ but Rachael gives this a more positive and unusual spin with ‘warts and wings’.  The choice of the verb ‘using’ in line 9 struck me as unusual as well – not drinking, or swallowing or taking, but using, which gives us both the connotations of drinking something but also connotations of drug-taking, but also the idea of using something that is unhealthy in a tool-like manner.  I also love the last line – without it, I think the poem would have been lesser, less humane.  With it, it carries a real warmth and empathy for the human condition.

I met Rachael at Swindon Poetry Festival a couple of years ago and then she was a participant at the residential I ran last year at St Ives.  She is a psychotherapist and poet from Glastonbury.  Her collection Singing at the Bone Tree, is published by Indigo Dreams. Her work appears in various magazines, currently Tears in the Fence, Lighthouse, Shearsman. Her book Breaking the Spell – Keys to Recovering Self-esteem is available on amazon.

Thanks to Rachael for letting me post this poem.

You Will Never Be Anyone Else – Rachael Clyne

so you – yes you,
with your warts and wings
will just have to do.

Acceptance is your food
and shelter without which
you are brushwood

for any foul wind
that cares to blow.
Stop using the poison

bottle labelled ‘Drink me’
it’s not OK.
It’s that simple.

I didn’t say easy.

Sunday Poem – Claudine Toutongi

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Sunday Poem – Claudine Toutongi

 

It doesn’t seem very long since the last time I wrote, and the week has flashed by again.  I decided this week to blog about any interesting reading I do for my PhD for a number of reasons.  First of all, it will stop my overwhelming guilt whenever I spend the day reading and have nothing physical to show for it.  Secondly, I’m hoping it will help me clarify my own thoughts and opinions about what I’ve read. If you missed it, you can find this post here, and feel free to join in/add your thoughts. I’ve really enjoyed reading responses to the last post, and they’ve given me a lot to think about!

Apart from finishing reading the Vicky Bertram book, and starting to make my slow and painstaking way through some articles that my supervisor recommended for me to read, I’ve been doing a lot of running.  I’m up to 21 miles so far this week and today I’m going out on a ten mile run which will be the furthest I’ve ran since coming back from injury.

This week I had a five hour, non-stop meeting with Pauline Yarwood, my co-director at Kendal Poetry Festival.  It was non-stop because we forgot to stop to get a drink.  We got a bit over-excited with our discussion of possible poets for the festival.  We only have room for twelve poets so each one has to be fantastic, in their own inimitable way.  WE haven’t quite got our final list yet, but we are getting close.   This job is my (and I think Pauline’s as well)  favourite bit of the festival.  We also spent a lot of time on something a lot more boring – working out our expenses and budget.  Not my favourite bit of the festival – but it has to be done!

It was Poem and a Pint last night with the wonderful poet Miriam Nash.  I had mistakenly booked myself to do a gig with the Soul Survivors the same night, so I was only able to attend the first half of A Poem and a Pint.  I did hear all of Miriam’s first set though and thought she was brilliant.  I bought her collection and am looking forward to reading it – there was a strong thread about lighthouses, and lights and the sea and the dark running through the poems I heard her read last night.  There were some good open mics as well – Clare Proctor stood out for me, with her poem about penises being kept in jars (it’s a great poem – you had to be there), and also Gill Nicholson, whose first poem exploring grief and the inability of the dead to return (If Jesus could do it, why can’t you?) I think was the first line, made me cry.

Anyway, I listened to the first half open miccers, and then whizzed off to the Soul Survivors gig back in Barrow.  I have had a bit of an epiphany with my playing recently.  Basically, a couple of months ago I lost my trumpet mouthpiece, which is worth about £90.  I’ve had this mouthpiece for a long time, and a teacher advised that I buy this particular make and size probably 13 years ago, because I was doing a lot of classical trumpet playing.  In particular, myself and said teacher were performing the Vivaldi double trumpet concerto.

Anyway, I’ve always hated what I call ‘gadgets’ and an over reliance and obsession with different size mouthpieces and fancy bits of kit.  I’ve always been of the opinion that if you are a good player, it doesn’t really matter what you play, within reason.  How stupid I am! I spent a good three hours researching mouthpieces on the internet, FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER (bear in mind I’ve been playing since I was ten).  I spent another couple of hours on trumpet forums and lurked about reading responses from it must be said mainly male trumpet players as they discussed in-depth about different sizes of mouthpiece.

I realised that I’ve been playing on a large size mouthpiece to get a big classical sound and actually that might not be ideal for the type of playing I’m doing now (soul band stuff).  So I decided to buy a smaller mouthpiece – found a half price one on Ebay and ordered it.  Then after having the summer off playing, I’ve spent the last two weeks practising – building up from a five minute splutter as my face tried to remember how to play, to an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening every day, and ta-da! I can suddenly play for higher and longer than I’ve ever managed in my entire playing career.

The gig last night was so much easier – I actually enjoyed it instead of worrying about high notes and getting tired.  My tuning was even better – on the big mouthpiece, I used to go sharper and sharper as the night went on – last night, once I was in tune, I was in tune.  I’m so excited by the fact that playing was easier that I think I might just have to keep my practising up now.  This is my problem though – I get obsessed with things. I can’t just practise once a day – I have to do it twice a day, for longer and longer.  But I will have to keep control of it otherwise I will still be doing this PhD by the time I’m 65.

Probably trumpet mouthpiece talk is as boring for non trumpet players as my running talk is for non runners, so I’d better stop there.  Next week I have quite a busy week – I’m giving a lecture on the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy tomorrow at Mancester Met University for a group of visiting Australian students (teenagers).  I’ve got meetings for Poem and a Pint, and for Kendal Poetry Festival.  I’m reading at Bad Language in Manchester as the guest poet on Wednesday, and Friday I’m going over to Settle to present prizes to the winners of the Settle Poetry Competition, and give a short reading of my own poetry as well, alongside the fabulous Carola Luther.   On Saturday I’m reading in Ilkley at Ilkley Literature Festival to launch the Poetry Business ‘One for the Road’ anthology, celebrating pubs in poetry and prose.  I’ll be reading alongside Stuart Maconie and Peter Sansom for that event.  Then I’m staying in Ilkley before catching the train down to Swindon to be reunited with Hilda Sheehan before heading over to be the guest poet at Buzzwords in Cheltenham on Sunday.  At some point on that Sunday, maybe on the train on the way down to Swindon, I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to do my blog!

I have such a good Sunday Poem for you this week! I read this poem – and wow.  It blew me away straight away.  Today’s Sunday Poem comes from Smoothie by Claudine Toutongi which has just been published by Carcanet.  I’m halfway through my second read of the collection and I’m really enjoying it.  It feels very different to the kind of poetry I write, but maybe that is why I like it so much.  It feels very fresh.  Mark Waldron talks on the back of the book about the ‘lightness of touch’, and a ‘kind of unafraid honesty’ which I think sums the book  up really well.

After reading the poem, I thought the ‘you’ in the poem was an ex-boyfriend, or at least someone that the speaker has had some kind of physical and emotional connection with, but it’s not entirely clear.  Maybe it was one of those connections filled with longing/yearning and not much else, the worst kind, I think as there is never any real life experiences to give any real-life disappointment.

And thinking back to my PhD musing post, and who poems are addressed to, and that idea of ‘slyness’ or ‘doubleness’ in a mode of address – I think this poem illustrates this perfectly.  On a surface level it is addressed to a ‘you’ who I unequivocally see as a man (maybe because of that first simile: “You’re there in front of me/looking like the longest,tallest/coolest glass of water.” but actually, I think the poem is one of those rare poems addressed to women as a collective – although maybe I’m just over-identifying with the content of the poem, and reading that as a call to women to remember the times when we’ve stood in front of someone we’ve fancied/loved/longed for and not been able to speak.

The foregrounding of female desire (“You might as well have/Drink me written on your collar”) is beautifully done (“the longest, tallest/ coolest glass of water”).  I also think it’s a wonderful example of the female gaze in poetry.  Although desire is at the centre of this poem, and the desire seems to go both ways (“every time/you touch my elbow things feel worse”) the object of desire is actually not an object.  He isn’t on display.  The only physical description of him is the ‘longest, tallest/coolest glass of water’.  After that, the physical descriptions are centred on the speaker.  It is her reaction to him (“My heart swims in my chest like a fairground/goldfish trapped in plastic) and their interaction together “the way/we don’t make room for others in our conversation” that are central to the poem.  Even the one physical description of the man looking like a glass of water, actually serves to remind us of the thirst of the speaker, her desire.  And the ‘Drink me’ on the collar echoes back to Alice in Wonderland, where Alice picks up a bottle with ‘Drink me’ on which transforms her.  I couldn’t remember at first whether the potion she drinks makes her smaller or larger – interestingly it makes her smaller – so she can fit through a tiny door and go on to have various adventures, which throws an interesting light on the poem – if the speaker gives in to her desire, will it will make her ‘smaller’ in some way?

Finally, I love the cleverness of the word ‘congrats’ being the ‘shrunken cousin’ of congratulations as well – this line made me smile when I read it because it felt so correct, like a truth you don’t know you know before a poem speaks it for you.

I met Claudine a few years ago on one of the residential courses that I ran but haven’t been in touch with her for a while, so I was really pleased when she messaged to say she had a collection coming out with Carcanet.

Claudine grew up in Warwickshire and studied English and French at Trinity College, Oxford.  After an MA at Goldsmiths, she trained as an actor at LAMDA and worked as a BBC RAdio Drama producer and English teacher.  As a dramatist, her plays Bit Part and Slipping have been produced by The Stephen Joseph Theatre.  She adapted Slipping for BBC Radio 4, after it was featured in an international reading series at New York’s Lark Play Development Centre.  Other work for BBC Radio includes Deliverers and The Inheritors.  She lives in Cambridge. You can find out more about Claudine by heading to her website https://claudinetoutoungi.weebly.com/

If you would like to buy Smoothiehead over to Carcanet, where it is available at the moment at a discount –  for the bargain price of £8.99.  I promise you, this is a collection that deserves to be read – it’s funny, inventive, sharp but with some punch-in-the-gut moments as well.

 

Reunion – Claudine Toutongi

You’re there in front of me
looking like the longest, tallest
coolest glass of water.  You might as well have
Drink me written on your collar.
My heart swims in my chest like a fairground
goldfish trapped in plastic and
whether it’s the fact we’re gulping coffee
after coffee from the buffet, or that every time
you touch my elbow things feel worse, or the way
we don’t make room for others in our conversation – I can’t
tell, but it seems to me your tongue sticks to the roof of
my mouth, though it doesn’t and I can’t pronounce the
words I need to say and even when my friend, your wife,
arrives it doesn’t come and so I say congrats.  Not
even the whole word just its shrunken cousin –
and your expression hovers right before your face
and doesn’t seem to want to land.

Sunday Poem – Linda Klakken

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My first Sunday Poem post in over a month and I’m already back into my bad habits – ie writing it just before midnight when I should really be asleep.  This morning I went for a six mile run with my running group, then came home, had lunch and then set off to Grasmere.  I performed alongside two of the young writers from my young writers group (Em Humble and Hannah Hodgson) today at the Roundabout Theatre in Grasmere to a small but perfectly formed audience.   They both read really well – I found myself getting a bit emotional watching them – thinking back to the first time they performed and how much more confident they are now.  I then drove over to see my sister in Egremont, and then drove back home which brings me to 11pm and writing blogs at unreasonable hours.

I said in my last post that I’d been writing quite a bit in the last week, but didn’t mention what a strange week it had been, probably because I was still in it.  I came back from Macedonia, but left my husband there as he was going on a cycling holiday and planning to end up in Hungary (don’t ask why – I have no idea).  So I’ve been at home on my own all week – and I realised it’s really rare that I’m at home on my own – normally it’s me that goes off somewhere to a poetry reading or festival, and even though I’m very independent and do a lot of stuff ‘on my own’, actually, I’m usually surrounded by people, so I’m never really on my own.

But this week I have been! I haven’t been completely isolated – I’ve seen quite a few friends through running or arranging to meet up for drinks.  But I deliberately tried not to fill my days up.  I definitely got more writing done. It felt like I was slowly falling into myself each day – that sounds strange but that is how it felt.  I decided I was going to write poetry every morning, whether that was writing new work or editing, and leave admin and answering emails until the evening, which really seemed to work.  I wrote some new poems, and got a submission ready and posted out to a magazine.

On Saturday I drove over to Manchester to the Poets and Players event to see Clare Shaw, Hilda Sheehan and Malika Booker.  What a fantastic reading that was.  My favourite line of the afternoon has to go to Hilda though: ‘Knickers are the prison of the vagina’.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Linda Klakken, from Norway.  Linda was one of the fantastic poets I met in Macedonia.  The poem is from her first collection, which translates as ‘Mother, wife, slave’ published by Flamme publishing house in 2010.

The title and then the theme of the poem reminded me of the brilliant Anne Sexton poem Her Kind  – it has the same kind of attitude behind it, I think.

Trying to pinpoint what it is I like about this poem, I realise it’s something to do with that repeating phrase ‘I was the kind of girl’ – the honesty and vulnerability of it, as the speaker tells us she was the kind of girl ‘who went out late at night/and never came home’.  So far, this feels like a teenage rebelliousness that maybe we are all familiar with to one extent or another.  But it is saved from predictability by ‘I pedalled downhill/with my eyes closed’ and ‘death was nothing but a bluebell in the heart’ which wins the prize for best line of poetry I’ve read this week.

I love the hopefulness, the optimism of this poem.  The fact that in Stanza 2, the body  can absorb ‘parties/parks/concerts/grass seeds/orgasms/rai’  That the body absorb all of these things and still be ok, and then the surprise of the next line ‘I was the kind of girl/ who always sat down/when things got tough’.  I like how this can be taken in one of two ways – either the  speaker sits down and gives up when things get tough, or another interpretation is that the speaker of the poem stays around, i.e ‘sat down’ when things got tough.

Probably the first interpretation is more likely, but it’s nice to play around with these things.  Another of my favourite bits in this poem is the ‘days full/of lilacs and rain’.  I like the openness that female sexuality and desire is approached with.  The speaker wakes up ‘in strange beds’ and then everything changes, when she meets someone who ‘hugged her heart’.  The ‘someone’ in question doesn’t appear in the rest of the poem – as if the camera has swung slightly to the right to catch someone retreating through a doorway, before it comes back again to the speaker, and the rest of the focus stays firmly on the speaker with those brilliant lines ‘we might all be that kind of girl/who just might leave/but stays/just might get together/cause we’re all alone’.

I don’t really feel like I’ve done this poem justice, because I’m pretty much falling asleep as I’m typing now, because I started doing this way too late,  but I hope you enjoy it.  I would love to read more of Linda’s work translated into English, so it is basically my mission now to nag her until she does this.

A bit about Linda then – Linda was born in 1979 in  Ålesund, a small town on the westcoast of Norway. She is a writer and a journalist. She started her writing career in her mid twenties, when she got accepted at the prestigous writing school Skrivekunstakademiet in Bergen in 2003. After being published in a series of poetry anthologies, she wrote her first book, the non-fiction travel documentary The Last Beat Poet, as a hommage to Lawrence Ferlinghetti.In 2013, her first poetry collection was published at Flamme publishing house. Mother, wife, slave (Mamma, kone, slave) was considered one of the best books of 2013 by several newspapers and literature critics, and is described as ”poems about being a queer, proletarian mother of small children in a post-Millenial Norway.”
Her second book, Finish the book about your life (Skriv ferdig boka om livet ditt) was published in 2014. Her most recent poetry collection, Eight minutes (Åtte minutter) was publised in 2016. Apart from this, Klakken has received The Nordic Council of Minister’s scholarship for writers in 2005 and 2006 in Gothenburg. Her poetry has been part of numerous exhibitions, as for instance the Martin Tebus Collection in Trondheim Art Museum and in galleries in Oslo.
In August 2017 Linda Klakken published her children’s fiction book.It is called Stupid, stupid heart (Dumme, dumme hjarte).

 

THE KIND – Linda Klakken
(sånn)
Translated by Nils-Øivind Haagensen

I was the kind of girl
who went out late at night
and never came home
I pedaled downhill
with my eyes closed
and fought with girls
from other crews
death was nothing but a bluebell in my heart
and all that mattered in life
was what came next
and all that really mattered
was what never came
wanted to go
didn’t know where
wondered what lay in store for me
wondered why I was alone
and if I was doing something wrong

while the body absorbed
so many
parties
parks
concerts
grass seeds
orgasms
rain

I was the kind of girl
who always sat down
when things got tough
I sat on sidewalks
stairs
ledges
and side of beds

wide awake
dead tired
the garbage trucks woke me in the morning
the ambulances chased me home
days full
of lilacs and rain
and me thinking of anything but
my lectures
what was to become of me
for instance
and my friends
was so low
that they couldn’t get out of bed

of course we picture ourselves
hunched over French novels
hunched over text messages
hunched over stiff nipples
hunched over our change to see if
we can afford some smokes
hunched over ourselves

brilliant it was
but also very difficult
then someone appeared
and hugged
my heart
and all the while
I was dangling in mid-air
all the while I was wondering
where I belonged

I was the kind of girl
who danced without inhibition
who woke in strange beds
and called home
with nothing particular on my mind
I jumped bridges in summer
and swam in rivers with no fear

and come to think of it
we might all be that kind of girl
who just might leave
but stays
just might get together
cause we’re all alone
wondering why everything is wrong
when all we’re doing is right