Tag Archives: poetry

Poems from the Duchess High School in Alnwick, Northumberland

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I’m always touched when teachers contact me to say they are using my poetry in their lessons, and I thought I’d share with you some work from pupils from the Duchess High School in Alnwick, Northumberland.  These pupils are lucky enough to be taught by the brilliant poet Catherine Ayres.  They were in Year 9 when Catherine sent this work to me – so I think they will be Year 10 now, and Catherine explains below how she introduced them to my poem In That Year, which you can find at the bottom of the post.
Catherine says:
In Year 9, the pupils at the Duchess High School in Alnwick, Northumberland do  half a term of poetry, which culminates in them producing their own poetry anthologies. It’s a fantastic amount of time (3 lessons per week for six weeks) and means that they can really explore different aspects of poetry and different poems. They love it.

1 lesson per week is taken up with analysing and exploring all sorts of different poetry, from Blake to world slam champions, and the other 2 lessons per week are used to explore poetry forms and write their own responses to the poems they’ve analysed and the poetry they’ve explored.

The first lesson of the term, I give them my favourite poems to look at. I don’t explain anything, I just read them (or we watch a video of performance) and then they read and discuss them in pairs and groups and start to explain in their own terms which poem they like from my choice.

One of their favourites was Kim’s poem ‘In That Year’, so we followed up the first lesson by looking in more detail at the poem, its startling imagery and its message. The kids’ work here is photocopied directly from their books – it wasn’t done for display or re-drafted, it’s their first raw response. I asked them to pick their favourite image, or the one they found most difficult, or the one that had stayed with them from their first reading. Then I asked them to draw what they saw when they read it and write a very brief explanation of how it made them feel about the speaker.

It was a very solemn and serious lesson. No one complained about having to draw (they usually do) and heads were bent to work for a good half an hour. Some of the kids I teach have difficult lives. Some of them never speak about those difficulties. Most of them have never read a contemporary poem.

This lesson was better than any PSHE lesson we could have done about relationships and abusive situations. And the boys were as active in the discussion as the girls. Every single teenager was alert to the poem. It was a special lesson for me and the thought of it has kept me going this year, through all the exhaustion of a demanding and sometimes difficult job. Here’s a selection of the drawings and explanations that really moved me.

 

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I found the interpretations of my poem really moving and I thought the students were very perceptive. I also found it interesting how they managed to create different narratives to go alongside the poem – and I love the drawings!

This blog post featuring these drawings and thoughts from the students is way overdue, but I hope you enjoy looking at them, and thanks again to the brilliant Catherine for bringing contemporary poetry into the classroom, and for using my poem as part of that.  Those students are very lucky to have you!

Here is the poem that Catherine shared with the students.

IN THAT YEAR 
KIM MOORE

And in that year my body was a pillar of smoke
and even his hands could not hold me.

And in that year my mind was an empty table
and he laid his thoughts down like dishes of plenty.

And in that year my heart was the old monument,
the folly, and no use could be found for it.

And in that year my tongue spoke the language
of insects and not even my father knew me.

And in that year I waited for the horses
but they only shifted their feet in the darkness.

And in that year I imagined a vain thing;
I believed that the world would come for me.

And in that year I gave up on all the things
I was promised and left myself to sadness.

And then that year lay down like a path
and I walked it, I walked it, I walk it.

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I’m really excited to announce that I’ll be co-tutoring with the amazing Amanda Dalton at next year’s Poetry Residential at Treloyhan Manor in St Ives.  This course always sells out fast, so if you’d like to come, ring the hotel below to secure your place.  Amanda was one of my favourite teachers when I was studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, so I’m really excited to be working with her in St Ives.

The course is running from the 8th-13th April 2019 and costs £550.  This includes breakfast, three course evening meal, scones with jam and cream in the afternoons, accommodation, workshops and a tutorial with either myself or Amanda during the week.

If you’d like to book, please give the hotel a ring on 01736 796240.

More information about Amanda (and me) below.

Tutors
Amanda Dalton
Amanda Dalton is a poet and playwright. Her poetry publications include How To Disappear and Stray (both Bloodaxe Books) and her writing for radio and theatre includes radical re-workings of the Medea myth (Wilson+Wilson Co /Sheffield Theatres) and of the silent movies Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (BBC Radio 3) incorporating poetry and sung lyrics. Recent BBC audio drama also includes an adaptation of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. She is an Associate Artist at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, a Royal Literary Fund Fellow based at the University of Manchester and a visiting lecturer in the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Kim Moore
Kim Moore’s first collection The Art of Falling was published by Seren in 2015 and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.  Her poem ‘In That Year’ was shortlisted for the Forward Prize.  She won a Northern Writers Award in 2014, the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize in 2011 and an Eric Gregory Award in 2010.  Her pamphlet If We Could Speak Like Wolves was one of the winners of the 2010 Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition.  She is currently a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University.

My People: Poetry from The British School, Warsaw

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In the summer of 2017 I was a guest poet at an Arvon course at Lumb Bank.  I met a poet called David Cox there, who emailed me in January to tell me that he would be using some of my poetry with his Year 7 pupils at The British School in Warsaw to get them writing their own poems.  I asked David to send me some of the responses from his pupils, and he sent them through in January of this year.

I loved them straight away, but PhD madness and everything else going on at the moment has meant I’m a bit late in posting these poems up, but I wanted to share them with you all and say thanks to David and his talented pupils, who if the school term in Warsaw runs the same as ours here, will be about to go into Year 8 after the summer holidays.

These poems are in conversation with my poem ‘My People’ which I’ll post at the end of this blog post.

David sent through this introduction to the poems:

My Year 7 students at The British School Warsaw have been working on producing a series of poems inspired by  Kim Moore.  The original poem with its humour and edginess has spurned their imaginations into looking for an answer to the following question: who are ‘my people’? One students said it allowed me to “express my family and country the way I saw it…it was really fun thinking about all the things that come to mind when I think of ‘My People'” We have seen the dangers of ‘casual racism’ around us and its worrying effects. To this end, we discussed how we can unwittingly become part of groups with less than altruistic pursuits. Their pastiche responses to ‘My People’, at times reflect the pride of a nation or an ethnic group. Watching clips from the miner’s strike, students heard the brazen words ‘scab’ bellowed out towards buses of employees passing the picket line to understand how one community was torn apart by a declining industry. Such experiences continue to elicit a range of emotionally charged responses. They considered democracy versus mob rule. They considered how instrumental such union organisations as Solidarność were in Poland at loosening the shackles of the communist regime. I hope you enjoy these poems.

 

Here’s the first poem David sent – my favourite part of this poems is that surprising simile at the end where the poet turns our expectations on their heads.  Usually, to be compared to a snake would be negative, but this poet chooses to focus on the positive aspects of snakes: they are ‘clever and fast’.

 

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This next poem has some lovely phrases and images – I love the sentence ‘people who would kiss the bread if it fell’ and wondered if this was a story or saying that is well known in Poland?

 

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This poem is a tough look at how people can become obsessed with money, and become selfish – and again, a great last line – ‘Now they have become selfish like little toddlers’.

 

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A completely opposite opinion with this next poem! I like the line ‘people who care for others, even strangers’ in this poem.  Would definitely like to meet these people!

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I really like this one – again with a killer last line ‘My people are like small bees serving the queen bee’.  I also like the line in the middle ‘In the time of the Romans my people would probably be writing on scrolls or feeding grapes to the king’.

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I like that this poem explores positive and negative aspects.  These are people that don’t tolerate racism, but people that also what it is to be poor. I also like the two short snappy sentences that finish it off: ‘My people are like wolves.  They stick together’.

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I think this poem works really well at painting a portrait of a group of people.  I’m not sure if the last line in the first sentence is ‘up’ or ‘you’ – both would work really well, but I think I’d like it to be ‘I come from the people who don’t want to meet you’.  There are some wonderfully strange details in here as well, like the line about the people being ‘underweight and too strict’ immediately following the detail about the fights at the football match.  And another great ending – witches and fire breathing dragons!

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What a great first line this poem has, and the second line is just as good – people who ‘come from every corner of the world’.  I also love the last two sentences of this poem – the rhyme of ‘everywhere’ and ‘air’ makes it feel like the poem is a box, and the poet has just closed the lid, nice and tight.

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So that was the last poem!  Thanks to David Cox and his pupils once again – I’m very flattered that they’ve been using my poem for inspiration, or to start a poetic conversation about what it means to have a people.  I got the feeling that some of the poems might have been talking about people in terms of a close knit family, and some were talking about people in terms of a community or even a country, on a larger scale.

Here are my people below.

My People – Kim Moore

I come from people who swear without realising they’re swearing.
I come from scaffolders and plasterers and shoemakers and carers,
the type of carers paid pence per minute to visit an old lady’s house.
Some of my people have been inside a prison.  Sometimes I tilt
towards them and see myself reflected back.  If they were from
Yorkshire, which they’re not, but if they were, they would have been
the ones on the pickets shouting scab and throwing bricks at policemen.
I come from a line of women who get married twice.  I come from
a line of women who bring up children and men who go to work.
If I knew who my people were, in the time before women
were allowed to work, they were probably the women who were
working anyway.  If I knew who my people were before women
got the vote, they would not have cared about the vote.  There are
many arguments among my people.  Nobody likes everybody.
In the time of slavery my people would have had them if they
were the type of people who could afford them, which they
probably weren’t.  In the time of casual racism, some of my people
would and will join in.  Some of my people know everybody
who lives on their street.  They are the type of people who will argue
with the teacher if their child has detention.  The women
of my people are wolves and we talk to the moon in our sleep.

Kendal Poetry Festival

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If you’d like a poetry fix and are missing the Sunday Poem, you can head over to Kendal Poetry Festival and check out our ‘News’ tab.  We’ve got three Five Minute Interviews up so far with poets that are appearing at the festival.

Hannah Hodgson, our Young Blogger in Residence has interviewed Claudine Toutoungi (read her interview here,) Liz Berry (read her interview here) and Wayne Holloway-Smith (read his interview here)

Kendal Poetry Festival takes place from the 6th – 9th September at the Castle Green Hotel in Kendal.  We have an amazing programme of events lined up and I hope to see some of you there!

June News and a poem by Martin Kratz

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June News and a poem by Martin Kratz

I’m writing today’s blog post from my back garden in blazing sunshine.  I keep thinking longingly of my hammock but I don’t think I’ll be getting it out of the shed.  The problem with a hammock is that it’s impossible to do anything in it other than relax.  It’s even hard to read in a hammock because the book has to be held above you – and I’ve still got far too much on to be able to justify lounging about doing nothing.

It has been a really busy month for me since I last wrote.  One of the projects I’ve been working on is a commission by The Sage in Gateshead to write some poems about what it means to be northern.  This is a huge project of which I’m only a small part of – there are two other poets that have also been commissioned to write some poems – Degna Stone and Andrew McMillan, and then four or five amazing musicians.  I’ve been over to Newcastle again to be interviewed for a Sky Arts documentary about the project, although i doubt very much my ramblings will end up being used and to have a short rehearsal with the musicians.  This was really interesting as I’d sent a recording of myself reading one of my poems over and they’d managed to compose music to go with it which chugged along in perfect time – who knew I was reading poems in a steady tempo of about 100 beats a minute?  And it wasn’t even a poem in a particular form or rhythm – what people would call a ‘free verse’ poem.  So we rehearsed that and I felt briefly like a bit of a rock star.

It’s not all been work though – I had a weekend holiday to Scotland with the husband at the beginning of June which was really lovely.  We stayed in a nice B & B and the weather was really hot.  I don’t think I’ve ever been in Scotland when it hasn’t rained so this was a novelty! We got a ferry down Loch Katrine and then decided to run the 13 miles back.  It was very hot and we took our time but it was still really hard work.  I felt fine but in the middle of the night woke up and was sick everywhere – I don’t know if I got too hot, or too dehydrated or just pushed it too much on the run but it wasn’t much fun.   We were supposed to be going up a mountain the next day, but as we’d both had about three hours sleep due to me being ill, and I was a bit shaky still we decided to amend our plans and we went to New Lanark instead and had a look around the old mills before coming home.

I also found time to see the Rolling Stones in Manchester! I went with my dad, my twin sister and my brother in law.  My sister and I succumbed to the over-priced T-shirts and even bought matching ones, which is kind of funny when I think of how much we hated wearing the same thing when we were younger – now I quite enjoy it! Here we are before the concert.  The Stones were amazing – I felt I had to dance non-stop seeing as Mick Jagger is over twice my age and was skipping up and down the stage without a care in the world.

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I’ve also had a few poetry readings this month – in Kendal at Brewery Poets with John Foggin, in Bradford at Beehive Poets  with Nick Toczek and in Hawkshead at a cat cafe called KITTchen with various open mic-ers and managed to sell a few books along the way.

I’ve had a busy time PhD wise as well.  I had my Annual Review at the beginning of June and it all went well.  Even I can see my critical writing has come on a lot since last year’s review.  I even submitted some of my PhD work to the Ivan Juritz prize and got longlisted – sadly I didn’t get any further than the long list but I’m going to have another go next year, when hopefully my thinking (and writing) will be that much further on.

I also gave a paper at a poetry art symposium called ‘I See You Seeing Me – Engaging the Female Gaze in Visual Art and Poetry.  organised by Kathryn Maris to raise funds for Poetry London.  I got really anxious in the run up to the day writing my paper with the usual imposter syndrome stuff and then when I got to London was freaking out when I realised I’d forgotten to bring any ‘smart’ shoes with me and would have to give my paper in my trainers which in my panic the night before, seemed like the worst thing to happen in the world.  However it all turned out fine, and as someone on Twitter pointed out, as I was giving a paper about The Female Gaze, I really just needed to turn up and not worry about how I ‘looked’.  Kathryn Maris was so lovely when I turned up as well a bit flustered that I felt much better.

I think this worry about ‘looking the part’ is a symptom of wider anxiety around class – whenever I move through these spaces there is part of me that feels I don’t belong there.  I feel ‘working class’ when I am in spaces/places that are not working class.  The times when being ‘working class’ rubs up against the surface of my life are always the times when I am in a space that has been traditionally shut off to people like me.

The first time I was aware of it was when I joined the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra when I was 17 – this was after 9 years of playing in brass bands and never thinking about it or even being aware of it.  And ‘joining an orchestra’ doesn’t sound very working class does it? But this was after receiving nine years of free lessons at school, and a free instrument from the brass band, and I joined the orchestra with my teacher’s second hand trumpet, which I’m sure had bits of gaffa tape holding various bits of it together.  I then got a job selling double glazing over the phone (horror of horrors) and saved up £1800 to buy myself a new trumpet.

Anyway, the symposium was great – my highlight were Katharine Engel who gave the keynote speech.  She wrote an amazing book called ‘Unmastered: A Book on Desire Most Difficult To Tell’ which is brilliant.  Her talk covered pornography, female desire, the difference (or not) between the body and the mind – it was really fascinating.  I also really enjoyed Ruth Padel’s thoughts on ekhphrasis and managed to get a copy of her new collection ‘Emerald’ which I haven’t read the whole of yet, but am enjoying so far.

I’ve also just found out that a slightly extended version of my paper is going to be published in Agenda magazine which I’m very happy about.  So most of my PhD time this month has gone into writing my paper, and then working on it to make it suitable for publication in Agenda.  It doesn’t sound like that much when I write it out like that but it has taken hours and hours!

I am also looking forward to the rest of 2018 which will be filled with me being extremely judgemental about poetry (wait for it)

I’m judging the Primers Volume Four Mentoring and Publication Scheme along with Jane Commane from Nine Arches Press – an amazing opportunity to have your pamphlet published by The Poetry School and Nine Arches as well as receive mentoring from yours truly. I’ll also be judging the National Poetry Competition alongside Kei Miller and Mark Waldron which I’m really excited about.

My other big news is that I was on Private Passions on Radio 3 yesterday being interviewed by Michael Berkeley.  I did the interview a couple of months ago and it was one of the nicest and least stressful experiences I’ve had on the radio! You can listen to the interview and my amazing and trumpet-filled choices of music here  https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b7dqmy

I think that is all my news for now – phew.  A month’s worth takes a while to type up! Underneath all of that is Kendal Poetry Festival of course – still humming along with only 3 Festival Passes left now.

I will leave you with a poem from one of my favourite people Martin Kratz.  Martin’s first pamphlet A Skeleton’s Progress has just been published by Poetry Salzburg.  As well as being an excellent poet, Martin has also kept me sane throughout my PhD, offering advice and also being terribly English and pretending not to see when I have had the odd crying fit in my favourite cafe (Eighth Day in Manchester if you’re wondering)

Every poem in the pamphlet starts ‘Skeleton Man’ – the speaker of the poem is always talking to him, but really the speaker is addressing us, the audience and reader, telling us things through the conduit of Skeleton Man.  I’ve chosen this poem because I think it’s a great example of how Martin manages to ask big questions about the world but the poems wear those big questions really lightly.

Skeleton Man has various adventures throughout the pamphlet, including being elected to be prime minister and shot into space in a rocket before appearing again in another poem, as if nothing has happened to him.  He swims with sharks, goes into a pub and inexplicably hangs worms all over himself.  Lots of these poems are funny, but they’re also very moving as well.  There is something vulnerable or innocent in the character of Skeleton Man, but he also seems to possess more wisdom than the rest of us somehow.

If you would like to order A Skeleton’s Progress you can buy it from Poetry Salzburg here: http://www.poetrysalzburg.com/skeleton.htm for the measly sum of £6.50 plus postage and packing.  Thanks to Martin for letting me use his poem!

Skeleton Feelings 
Martin Kratz

Skeleton Man,
00000Where do feelings come from?
Here you are
00000Where you think no one watches
Reaching down under your ribcage
00000And back up past false
Ribs towards true.  To make a fist
00000Where a heart should be.

Skeleton Man, this muscle
00000Click-clacks when it should b-boom;
Grinds when it should m-murmur.
00000This is no centre for your pain, but
Take it away and I say
00000Something real remains.  Hand on heart.

When you expose a problem you pose a problem

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The title of this blog comes from the book Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed. I made the mistake this week of posting in a public group about my disappointment that the local paper, the Evening Mail, failed in its report on the recent Keswick to Barrow 40 mile run/walk event to name the top three women finishers, despite naming the top three men. To be honest, I didn’t think I was saying anything particularly controversial – just pointing something out that could be addressed by adding one line of text to an article. I didn’t, and still don’t feel that anything negative could possibly come out of including women’s names.

You can cause unhappiness by noticing something. And if you can cause unhappiness by noticing something, you realise that the world you are in is not the world you thought you were in.

I caused a whole world of unhappiness by noticing this. Lots of people – men and women objected to the suggestion that the efforts of the top three women should have been acknowledged. Over and over again people told me that talking about naming women distracted attention from the fact that it was a charity event (doesn’t seem to harm the London Marathon), that the top three finishers just happened to be men (and they always will be unless we get an Olympic athlete rocking up to Barrow who just happens to be female).

Eventually, I had to turn off the comments on my post, and turn off the notifications.

We make things bigger by refusing to make things smaller

One friend posted a seperate post in support – that post was still going three days later and coming up to nearly 40 comments now with people telling her how wrong she is.  My twin sister is enjoying arguing with these people – my beautiful brave twin sister who would not stand and listen and say nothing, even though I told her not to get involved.

I’m too upset to look back at any of the posts now. Does how it felt to me matter? If I use words like bullying, like ganging up, is that an unfair accusation or is that my lived experience? I’m unsure now. If you are one person speaking up about something, and nobody else agrees, then maybe it will always feel like you’re being ganged up on. But thinking back now, without looking back at the post (because I can’t) one man offering his services as a lawyer to sue the paper was a way of getting me to shut up, a way of trying to humiliate me, a way of saying what you are pointing out does not matter. Men (and women) sharing pictures of their daughters saying ‘X did the walk for charity, not to get their name in the paper’ was designed to imply that I was merely interested in glory, and not in the more noble cause of raising money for charity, despite the fact that it wasn’t, was never about my name.  And this is another shaming technique.  Men and women asking why couldn’t I just be happy to be part of a great event – and look how happy we all are just to be here.  And this is another shaming technique

Happiness as a form of emotional labor can be condensed in the formula: making others happy by appearing happy.

There are ways to be a woman, and complaining about a system is not one of them. Complaining about injustice is not one of them. And having an opinion on social media and being a woman is a dangerous thing. It can end with having to turn your phone off because the constant comments are making you feel ill and anxious. I know that everything gets magnified on social media, that people say things they wouldn’t say to someone in person.

My friend N. pointed out to me that it was only thirty or so years ago that the first woman Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston marathon and was verbally and physically attacked because it was thought that women weren’t capable of running a marathon.

She pointed out that sport and the world of sport (and the pursuit of hbbies/interests/passions) have always been created for and dominated by men. I think about my hobbies/my interests – when I was younger, I played in brass bands.  One of the top bands in the country, Brighouse and Rastrick, finally appointed a female cornet player for the first time in their 130 year old history in 2011.  The brass band I grew up in had plenty of women in it and I would never say that brass bands don’t welcome women now (although I would say in my experience you have to be twice as good as the men to be thought of as half as good) but the world of brass banding (and running – my other hobby) was never set up for women, although women move through these worlds now, because of their tenacity and insistence.  And no, we are not told that we cannot join, we cannot run, not in so many words, but the fact that women’s achievement is ignored is one way of making our way through these worlds feel like wading through quicksand.

And what does it matter anyway? There are bigger things to worry about in the world. But how can we talk about rape when we can’t even agree that women should receive the same acknowledgement in a sporting event? How can we talk about domestic violence and helping victims when we can’t stand up for our friends online? How can we talk about sexism when we can’t even agree what it is?

This blog post has sat in my draft folder for over a week now.  At first I thought I wouldn’t post it at all.  Then I started  looking through Twitter today, following the #hometovote tweets from women travelling from across the world back to Ireland to vote to repeal the eighth amendment.  There is something beautiful in these women (and men) coming back home with welcoming parties at the airports – the reverse of the journey many women have to make to have an abortion abroad.  So this is one of the bigger things – bigger than speaking out about a stupid newspaper article – but you know and I know that everything is linked.  Women having autonomy and choice over what happens to their bodies is linked inextricably with women’s bodies being ignored, written out of history.  The silencing of women’s achievement is linked inextricably with the silencing of women’s voices.

I return again and again to Sara Ahmed, who sometimes feels like a lifeline. All of the quotes above are taken from her book Living a Feminist Life.  She talks about ‘Feminist Survival Kits’. This poem, from one of my dearest friends, and a woman who continually inspires me would be in my survival kit, because this week I’ve finally realised that I don’t believe in silence either.  And no, I won’t shut up.  And no, I won’t stop noticing.

To buy Head On, the collection of poetry that this poem comes from, head over to the Bloodaxe website http://www.bloodaxebooks.com/ecs/product/head-on-1046.  Clare also has a third collection Flood, coming very soon.

 

I Don’t Believe in Silence – Clare Shaw

Because, tonight –
however I try – I cannot get downstairs
without waking my daughter
I do not believe in silence.

Because of the Worboys enquiry,
because of the one hundred-plus women he raped –
because of the policeman defending the findings
unable to utter the word –
‘this (herrrm) crime, this (ahem)
assault, this category (cough)
of offence’ –
I do not believe in silence

because of the stairs and the banister’s crack;
the sound of the lock
and my hand on the door – the fifty-tone creak –
the magnificent echo of light-switch and click –
I do not believe in silence.

Because of Neda – and everyone’s sister –
and the man who said ‘Don’t be afraid’;
for the sake of my daughter, because of the burka,
because of the patter of rain;
because of two hundred thousand years of human history,
thirty-seven of them my own –
I do not believe in silence

for the sake of my arms, the wrists especially.
With respect to my legs
and my belly and chest
and the comfort long due to my throat

because of nightclubs at one a.m
and shouts in the street and feet in pursuit
and shops that don’t shut;
because of sirens and the dealers downstairs;
because of Levi and Akhmatova;
because of the itch of the blue-lipped prisoner;
the itch and the scratch of my pen;

I believe in the word.
I believe in the scrabble of claws
on uncarpeted floors.
I believe in my daughter’s complaints.
I believe in the violin, the E-string,
the see-sawing bow; the cello
straining its throat.

I believe in the heart and its beat
and its beep and the dance of the trace
on the screen, I believe in the volume
of colour turned up, and my blood
which was always too loud.

Because of the nights, and the sweats,
and the same rowdy thoughts;
because of that one afternoon
when I nailed my own voice to the air
and because there was nobody listening
and through it all
bird song
and the sound of cars passing –

I do not believe in silence.

Because, tonight –
however I try – I cannot

April/May news and the Occasional Poem

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I can’t believe it’s been so many weeks since I last blogged! Arrgh…where does the time go etc etc?

I’m currently sat on a train but unusually for me it is not the train from Barrow to Manchester across the bay.  Today I’m going to Newcastle which means the slow train along the west coast of Cumbria – one of the most beautiful and bleakest train journeys in the UK I think.  We’ve just pulled into Seascale and on the beach are various dogs running around in a state of excitement, apart from one rather sedate St Bernard, walking calmly along next to his owner who had one hand on his back as the train pulled up then pulled away.

The photo is the view from just outside Barrow from the train.

I’ve got a couple of hours until I get to Carlisle and then I change there for the last bit of the journey. I’m going to Newcastle to meet up with other artists who are working on a project called ‘The Backbone Of Our Land’ which will be a performance piece about what it means to be northern.  I have been worrying and worrying away at this for weeks without coming up with anything, but I’m hoping inspiration will strike during the train journey.

As soon as I start to talk or think about the North I find myself sliding into cliches and it is hard to pin down what it is that I loved about the north from the moment I set foot in Leeds in 2000 and felt like I’d found somewhere I could feel at home.  Maybe it’s something to do with unpretentiousness – but that is a huge abstract word and I can’t use that in a poem without questioning its purpose there.  The people seemed friendlier and more open, more down to earth – but again, here I am slipping into stereotypes and abstractions.  Tomorrow is a R & D day with the other artists so I hope being around other creative people will jolt something poetic into existence.

So I have lots of news to share with you all because it has been so long since I blogged. First and rather excitingly, the news is now public that I will be judging the Primers Volume Four pamphlet competition.  I really like this competition because the prize includes editorial support and development from Jane Commane and mentoring with yours truly, so it is very much an ongoing support for writers who are chosen.  There are also up to 25 free entries available for low income writers which I think is fantastic news, and I hope is the sign of things starting to change with the problem of working class writers being shut out of publication opportunities.

The Primers pamphlet competition is run in association with the Poetry School and Nine Arches Press – both wonderful organisations and you can find more information about the entry terms and conditions here.  So my July/August is going to be filled with reading poems – which is pretty standard actually, but exciting to be looking for three potential mentees to work with on a longer term basis.

Last Saturday, if you are Barrovian, you were probably either walking the Keswick to Barrow, the Coniston to Barrow, or standing drinking beer at the finish line, waiting for someone you knew to come in.   I decided to run the 21 miles between Coniston and Barrow a while ago in a moment of madness and I am very pleased to tell you I survived and managed to complete the course in 3 hours and 12 minutes which I was pretty chuffed with, considering some of those 21 miles go over Kirby Moor and the rest could kindly be described as ‘undulating’.  I’m not sure where overall I came as the results aren’t out till Thursday so I will let you all know whether you’re interested or not!

I thought I would have a great sleep after running that far, but the muscles in my legs were so sore that I kept waking myself up in the middle of the night, and eventually gave it all up for a bad job and got up at 6am.  I am pretty much recovered now and walking almost normally, and I’ve even bought my trainers to Newcastle in the hope that I’ll be able to get out for a short run around the city once I’ve checked in to my hotel.

Plans for Kendal Poetry Festival have been progressing and the full lineup for the programme is now live and up on the website.  You can book tickets for the Brewery Arts Centre – and they are selling really well.  We have less than half of our Festival Passes left, which is the cheapest way to see all of the readings and discussions at the festival, and workshop tickets are also looking low – so if you have been thinking of coming, do book soon!

We are also offering three bursary places for writers who identify as disabled, or low income writers – please check out our latest blog on our ‘Opening Doors’ project to find out more, and do pass this information on to anyone who you think might be interested.  It is a relatively simple application process but do get in touch via the festival website if you have any questions about it.  One of these places is funded by the generosity of the wonderful poet Christine Webb, so thank you again to her.

Getting the programme up and presentable on the website is a HUGE amount of work – Pauline Yarwood and I have been working so hard on the festival stuff.  We had a few days respite and then got on with the next job – editing the information on the website down so that we can fit it all onto a hard copy brochure.  We are still in the joyful throes of this and due to meet our brochure designer in the next few weeks.

I’ve also been rehearsing with Soul Survivors – we had a gig last Saturday and have another one coming up in June, reading in Manchester with Clare Shaw at an event organised to raise money for Greenpeace by the wonderful Ann Heathcote and going to the pamphlet launch of one of my fabulous Dove Cottage Young Poets Hannah Hodgson. Hannah did a brilliant reading and speech, complete with powerpoint slides – it reminded me of a Ted Talk – she was so professional.  The same couldn’t be said of me however, as I nearly cried in my introduction to Hannah and then nearly cried at the end…

The pamphlet is called Dear Body and it’s published by the fantastic Wayleave Press, run and edited by Mike Barlow.  The whole pamphlet will make you think differently about the body and ability and disability and all the things that can be taken for granted if you are able-bodied.

So although the Sunday Poem has temporarily ground to a halt, I thought that the Occasional Poem might be more fun, as I can post them as and when I feel like it.  It feels rebellious not to be blogging on a Sunday – this is about as rebellious as I get you see – blogging on a Tuesday!

I’m really happy that Hannah has agreed to let me publish the title poem of the pamphlet on the blog today.  I haven’t checked with Hannah, but I’m sure I remember her writing this poem in response to the C.P.Cavafy poem ‘Body, Remember‘.  I think you can hear the echo of that Cavafy poem in any poem that addresses itself directly to the body – but whereas Cavafy’s poem is full of longing and a desire to remember  ‘those desires glowing openly/in eyes that looked at you’, Hannah’s poem is an admonishment to the body, in an almost parental voice, asking it to ‘look over the job description/for a body./Read it over -/ let’s start again tomorrow.’

Even though this is a poem filled with exasperation and disappointment at the body for not doing what it is supposed to do, there isn’t a shred of self pity here – there is even a kind of wonderful  black humour in the first and last stanzas, while the middle of the poem is wonderfully tender: ‘I never learned/how to calm the heart’.

Hannah has been published in literary magazines AcumenUnder the Radarand Poetry Salzburg Review. She has won several young poets competitions and been poet in residence at Lakes Alive and Kendal Poetry festivals. She has a YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/c/HannahHodgson) where she talks about her illnesses and reviews books and poetry collections. She has just been selected as one of the young writers for the next instalment of The Writing Squad.  

You can also find Hannah’s blog here     where you can buy a copy of her pamphlet and make her very happy!  Thanks to Hannah for letting me share this poem and I hope you enjoy reading it

Dear Body – Hannah Hodgson 

I’d be handing you
a redundancy notice
if the end of you
didn’t mean
the end of me.

My brain is filled
with corrupted code –
error alarms
screeching
in my organs.

I never learned
how to calm the heart
how to stop it battering
my chest, acting out
like a child.

I never learned
the nursery rhyme
to quieten it down.
I need to learn how
to parent these organs.

Go home,
look over the job description
for a body.
Read it over –
let’s start again tomorrow.

 

 

Sunday Poem – Peter Raynard

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Sunday Poem – Peter Raynard

I’m writing this post today feeling more weary than usual.  I’ve had a fantastic week away as the course tutor at The Garsdale Retreat but I am completely exhausted now! The Garsdale Retreat is a new creative writing centre, set up by Hamish Wilson and Rebecca Nouchette.  I say new, but this is their second season of running courses there now.

It is a beautiful place, surrounded by hills and far enough away from the nearest village to feel wonderfully lonely, whilst only being a two minute walk away from Garsdale train station.  The unique feature about the courses (compared to other residentials) is the small group sizes – the maximum group size is eight, so participants get a lot more individual attention during both tutorials and workshops.  The food is absolutely beautiful as well – Rebecca does the cooking and pretty much everything was home made.  I don’t think I ate anything processed all week! Every afternoon she made a different cake for afternoon tea as well – I was in food heaven.  Below is a picture of my favourite – scones with jam and cream!

scones

Tutors stay in a cottage next door.  It was one of those cute cottages you drive past and idly think about living in so I am glad I got to try one out! The first night was very cold because the snow was still hanging around on the hills, but it gradually got warmer throughout the week, and Rebecca and Hamish gave me a portable heater so I could make my bedroom toasty!

cottage

Workshops went on till 1pm and then in the afternoons I sat in front of my electric fire in the cottage, and did some writing or prepared for tutorials with the participants.  Two of the days I managed to get out for a run, but I have a slightly sore Achilles heel, probably from too many long hilly runs last week.

The participants were great as well – a real pleasure to teach, and full of ideas and conversation around and about poetry, which was lovely.

So I was in Garsdale Monday to Saturday morning, and then I got the train to Carlisle.  A woman sitting next to me was reading over my shoulder whilst I was working on a poem and asked me if I was a lawyer! She looked disappointed when I told her I was a poet.  It took me a while to realise the poem she was reading was an account of a story that someone told me about a date rape.  She obviously thought it was some sort of witness account or something and didn’t seem embarrassed about the fact she’d been reading over my shoulder without asking.  We got talking then all the way to Carlisle so the journey went very quickly.

I was taking part in an event called Woman Up! in Carlisle, a day of events exploring what it means to be a woman.  There was a variety of events on, including speakers from the Carlisle Refugee Action Group and writers from Wigton Writers group.  I read some of my poems from my collection about domestic violence and then some of my new work around sexism.

The responses from the audience were pretty amazing.  One woman was crying. What touched me the most though was a young girl in the question and answer session, who put her hand up and said

‘I’m going to university next year.  What advice would you give me to help me if I get into a situation I can’t get out of?’

It actually breaks my heart that young women are having to worry about this, to think about this, to negotiate this, to use their energy worrying about how they are simply going to keep safe, instead of putting their energy into learning and being creative.  And there are no easy answers.  Everything I thought of and said sounded so trite.  To speak out and tell someone.  To speak out and say no.  To not let things get bad – to trust your instincts.  To surround yourself with good people, who help you to feel good.  I’d be interested to hear what answers readers would give to young girls to help them deal with sexism and to help them avoid getting into damaging relationships.

I stayed in a hotel, and after being cold all week, I then nearly baked to death in the hotel room which seemed to have the heating up really high.  I got back to Barrow mid afternoon today.  The first thing I did when I got back was to walk the dogs, then I went for a run to test my foot – still a bit of pain there after a couple of miles, so I’m going to rest for another couple of days.

So that has been my week – full on and enjoyable, but also emotionally draining.  Today I’ve been steadily trying to catch up with all the emails I couldn’t cope with answering whilst I was on the course.  This week is a lot quieter, which is a huge relief.  I’m going to spend it catching up with some PhD work because the week after is manic with visits to London, Manchester and Poland.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by a fantastic poet called Peter Raynard.  I first came across Peter via his excellent blog (www.proletarianpoetry.com) which has featured the work of over 100 poets writing about working class lives.  This poem comes from his debut collection Precarious, published by Smokestack Books which you can order here.  He is a member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen and is currently completing a poetic coupling of The Communist Manifesto, to be published by Culture Matters in May 2018.

I’ve been reading a few poems from Precarious out aloud each night to my husband, and he is really enjoying the collection.  ‘Scholarship Boys’ is one of my favourites in the collection because it explores something that isn’t talked about – what happens when someone from the working class breaks the mould and gets a scholarship.

At MMU there is a poster advertising a scheme to support students who are the first in their family to go to university – there was nothing like this around when I went to university.  I remember thinking my flat mates were really posh because they bought hummus (I’d never heard of it!).

The poem sets out its stall straight away with that first line, with the first word, which is unexpected following on from the title.  I like the phrase ‘the likes of us’ in there at the end of the stanza.  It almost has a motto-like feel to it – how many times have people told me in tutorials or workshops about parents saying that something isn’t ‘for the likes of us’.

I was puzzling over that phrase ‘claw-crane selections’ for a while until I worked out that I think it is referencing the arcade machines with the claw that you use to try and pick up a soft toy.  What a brilliant metaphor! The idea of it being a game and the boys being the soft toys, inanimate, unable to control their own destiny, and someone playing games with their lives, picking them up and then letting them drop.  Actually, the whole class of boys is part of this arcade game.  The scholarship boys are the ones who are picked up and moved elsewhere, at least for a while.

The threading through of Latin words is really interesting as well here, illustrating that feeling of them being ‘dropped’ into a different world and the ‘pictured corridors’ gives the feeling of grandness, of long corridors stretching into the distance.  I had to look up all the Latin words here – spiritus vicis means spirit time according to Google, although I’m not convinced about that one as I thought it sounded like a school motto, and that doesn’t sound like a particularly inspirng school motto.  And amo, amat means I love/You love (again Google told me this, so apologies if it’s wrong)

There are lots of great phrases in here which seem simple until you start to unpack them.  The head teacher ‘wielding’ his cloak – the cloak is indicative of his status and he is ‘wielding’ it like a weapon. The phrase ‘Mouths swabbed for memories’ – that made me think that the school, or the teachers tried to make them change their accents.  This was something that happened to me – except mine was self-inflicted.  After finally getting into Leicester Schools Symphony Orchestra, I tried to change my accent because the other children took the mickey out of the way I spoke.

The idea that the boys, despite getting scholarships, were always bound for the factory and had just taken ‘the long way around’ is really heartbreaking.  I also like how we don’t know why they left early – the reasons are left unclear.

Thanks to Peter for letting me use his poem this week – do check out his blog, and if you have some spare cash, order his book.  It’s a fantastic, challenging and interesting exploration of class and masculinity and also touches on issues of mental health as well.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 

Scholarship Boys

Unlucky enough to pass our eleven plus
we were claw-crane selections
from our class dropped into a history
the likes of us had never read.

Inducted with pictured corridors
of Spiritus Vicis spouting opportunity
from the mothballed grammar
of the cloak-wielding Headmaster
and his fountain of Latin characters.

Amo, amas, a matter of opinion
was to know our place. Our mouths
were swabbed for memories.
We were to become
someone else’s nostalgia.

By the time we left early,
five of a seven-year stretch,
we stooped off to the factories
that laughed at us
for taking the long way around

Sunday Poem – Hilda Sheehan

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This week has been a strange and rather full-on week.  Regular readers of this blog will remember that I was slightly panicking last week about my Progression Viva which was on Monday. The journey there was tiresome, annoying and cold.  My train broke down just outside Lancaster, and once it got going again, after half an hour it could only proceed at five miles an hour to Preston, which took rather a long time! I was planning to get to Manchester three hours early, so I could have a leisurely lunch and do a bit more silent panicking before the viva – however, I actually got there half an hour late.  Luckily the scrutineers agreed to wait for me.  By that time I was in such a bad mood it stopped me being too nervous, so it probably worked out well in the end.

It was actually really good to have a chance to talk through some of my ideas around my thesis with the scrutineers, who were really enthusiastic about my project.  Probably the biggest thing I’ve had to come to terms with in doing this PhD is believing that my ideas are interesting – I don’t know if anybody else has this, but because my ideas come out of my head, they don’t feel that interesting! But a PhD – or at least a creative PhD, or maybe even just MY creative Phd, has to be driven by ideas.

So I’m very happy to say I’ve passed, which means I can progress onwards with my PhD but I had a few revisions to make, including writing a paragraph or two about why I’m using lyric poetry as opposed to another type of poetry, some referencing errors and refining my aims from seven (excessive) down to four (manageable).  I resubmitted on Thursday, so that is done and dusted now.

Apart from the PhD excitement, I’ve been to a meeting for A Poem and a Pint – we are still waiting to hear back from our third attempt to apply for Arts Council funding.  In fact we should hear in the next few weeks.  I also did some mentoring on a manuscript of a rather excellent poet and we met up on Tuesday to discuss the suggestions I’d made.  On Wednesday, despite the freezing cold and a thin layer of snow in Barrow, I decided to go out and do a nine mile run – trying to build my mileage up now ready for the Coniston to Barrow event in May.

Thursday was a complete washout because of the storm.  I was supposed to get to Manchester, have two tutorials with two of my undergraduate students, go to a meeting about some teaching at university, then do an afternoon of teaching, and then hang around for a bit before going to read at Lit Up in Manchester.  I got to Lancaster and all the trains were cancelled, so I decided to cut my losses and go home.  Lit Up eventually ended up being cancelled, but it will hopefully be rearranged.

Friday’s meeting about an anthology of Cumbrian poetry I’m editing was also cancelled as the publisher/editor was snowed in and couldn’t get out of her house, and I decided to cancel Dove Cottage Young Poets rather than risk the weather, so instead of two really busy days I had two days of emptiness stretching before me.  It was so nice! I managed to fill them as I have so many jobs I haven’t caught up with – I managed to go for a ten mile run on Friday which I didn’t think I was going to have time for.  I’ve also finished planning the workshops for the residential course I’m running next week with hours to spare which is unusual for me.

A few exciting things that are happening – I’m going to be on Private Passions on Radio 3 soon and all my choices of music have a trumpet in, as you’d expect.  It’s also pre-recorded, so I’m hoping the producer will be able to make me sound intelligent and witty!  I’m going down to London in a couple of weeks to record it – it will be a flying visit though, as I have to get back to Manchester to do my teaching, and then straight from there to the airport to go to Gdansk Poetry Festival as part of Versopolis.  The rest of March and the first half of April is basically a bit manic, then everything slows down a little bit.

I’m also judging a poetry competition for a clothing company called Thought.  All you have to do is write a four line poem about nature and you could win £250! Details here of how to enter.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by one of my best friends, the lovely Hilda Sheehan.  I spent a week with Hilda recently running a residential, and she wrote this poem during that week, in response to a conversation about relationships with musicians.  I couldn’t possibly divulge who took part in the conversation, or what they divulged but this was the result.  You could replace Viola Man with the appropriate instrument for your life experiences, I’m sure!

This poem comes from an extended sequence of poems that all concern themselves with the life and times of two women, Francis and Martine.  You can find more Francis and Martine poems over at Hilda’s blog.

Francis and Martine are probably some of my favourite literary characters.  Hilda often describes them both as saying the things she can’t say or wants to say.  I like how Hilda does away with all the trappings of conventional speech marks and leaves the reader to work out who is speaking.  I also like the slightly convoluted and strange turns of phrase they often come out with, like a ‘disgraceful act of resistance’.  And anyone that has taught a musical instrument I’m sure will smile at the phrase ‘his engaging output of Ode to Joy.’  Ode to Joy is one of the five note tunes in its simplest forms and still haunts my sleep, along with Hot Cross Buns and Mary Had a Little Lamb after 13 years of teaching those tunes!

The whole poem pokes fun at love and obsession and relationships and distraction.  Is it only me who has Viola Man down as a bad ‘un?  And what is a frozen egg anyway?

I am going to break my own rules now and post a second Francis and Martine poem, also written during the residential.  Hilda and I discovered we have the same terrible habits of leaving socks all over the floor to develop into little sock nests, and both our husbands have similar opinions about our tardy ways.  I love this poem as well because it is bonkers.  I also love the way it leaps off into the world of Shakespeare and Desdemona and Othello at the end.  Hilda’s poems are never predictable.

And all those thoughts I’ve been having about mode of address, and who we are talking to in poetry, both indirectly and directly.  These poems are unusual because the speaker of the poem is in the poem, and is addressing another character in the poem.  They are entirely turned in on themselves, but rather than addressing an unseen other, a beloved, or a God, they are addressing themselves, leaving the audience to indirectly witness and overhear Francis and Martine trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t really make much sense at all.

Hilda also runs Swindon Poetry Festival which I would highly recommend – it runs from the 4th-8th October 2018.  Her published works include The Night My Sister Went To Hollywood, published by Cultured Llama, and pamphlets Francis and Martine and more recently, The God Baby, published by Dancing Girl Press.

It is now 1.20am – I decided, rather irresponsibly, to go to the cinema instead of writing this blog at a sensible hour.

I am away next week running a residential at The Garsdale Retreat and then on Sunday I’ll be reading at the Woman Up event in Carlisle at Tullie House – tickets available here

Viola Man – Hilda Sheehan

Martine, it’s a disgraceful act of resistance you display with the viola man.
But I love viola man and nothing you can do, or sing, will change my mind away from his engaging output of Ode to Joy. When he plays it I am in love all over again.
How about cake?
No, not enough ‘ode’.
How about pizza?
No, not enough ‘to’,
How about frozen eggs?
Yes, yes! This is it. Frozen eggs are the ultimate in Joy! I shall construct him a letter with absolute immediacy … it’s all over between me and viola man. Pass me a frozen egg.

Socks

For Kim Moore

If you were a pair of socks Martine, would you display yourself in dirty little piles about this room, sitting about with other dirty socks failing to reach the wash basket in such a demonstration of filthy deeds? How long would you hang about with such vagrant items, itching and holing around, the muck of you an irritant to those who love and care for your well-being, those who share your foul spaces, cluttered moments, inconsiderate escapades of slattery? If you were a pair of socks would this behaviour continue, or would you strumpet and slurf your dirty way to the wash basket with a face like Desdemona in her final moments, waiting for Othello to forgive her in that last leap to the basket, the denial of your love for other dirty socks. O Martine! I can not walk by. This makes men mad, it is the very error of the moon.

O Frances, a guiltless death I die.

#slatternsunite

Sunday Poem – Bryony Littlefair

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Sunday Poem – Bryony Littlefair

I have somehow, after getting a bit worn down with it, managed to find my way back to enjoying blogging every Sunday again.  I found my way back to this place, as with most things, through poetry, through finding poems that I felt I had to tell other people about otherwise I might burst.  More on that later.

It has been a strange kind of week this week.  I’ve been frantically preparing for my mock viva which is tomorrow afternoon.  I have to give a ten minute presentation and then discuss my PhD and the 6000 word report I handed in.  I received feedback on my report and this is what I have the presentation has to be about – a response to the feedback.  So I’ve been thinking about that this week, turning it over in my mind.  I bought myself some small cards and have written prompts on and I’m hoping that will help me when I’m doing the presentation.

One of the main questions raised in the feedback was why use poetry, and lyric poetry in particular, to address the gap I’ve identified.  Lucky for me I’ve been reading Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric for the last month or so, as I feel I can answer that one.  As the gap I’ve identified is that poets don’t seem to be writing about sexism in a sustained way (as in over a whole collection, rather than the odd poem) then it makes sense to try and do this in poetry.  But why lyric poetry? Lyric poetry is always balanced between inner and outer experience, between the individual and the social, between the personal and the political.  I like how it is often in two minds. I’ve enjoyed reading about lyric poetry having a long history of being socially engaged – Jonathan Culler talks about its roots in epideictic discourse – which is public discourse about meaning and value.  And when anyone asks why poetry, I always return to Adrienne Rich and this beautiful quote from her essay ‘Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson’:

But there is a more ancient concept of the poet, which is that she is endowed to speak for those who do not have the gift of language, or to see for those who – for whatever reasons – are less conscious of what they are living through.

The last part of that sentence is central to my own work – the idea that poetry can make us look differently at the world.  This is exactly what listening to Claudia Rankine read from Citizen did for me and this is what happened to me when my friend David Tait sent me the manuscript of his new collection The AQI which contains a long central sequence exploring homophobia.  I became more conscious of the times we are living through, when homophobia and racism is rife, but some of us are lucky enough to not be directly affected by it.  Poetry can make us see the world differently, can make us more conscious of what we are living through.

David Tait has been on a brief visit to the UK for the past fortnight and we spent three days together hiking in the Lake District and eating cake – that was pretty much the extent of our activities. It was great to see him again – and I’m looking forward to his new collection, which will be coming out in May 2018.

So as well as having a welcome visitor and preparing for my mock viva, I’ve also been desperately trying to catch up with emails and admin.  I seem to be getting a lot more freelance work coming through at the moment, which is lovely, and maybe an after effect of winning the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, but it has made this week a little bit manic as I try and keep up with it.

I’m also now fully on with my training for the Coniston to Barrow, taking place in May this year.   Last year I got injured and am determined not to do the same thing again.  I’m building up my milage, but really dialling back the speed.  I ran my longest run in a while today – 12 and a half miles but didn’t go charging off up the hills which is my usual style, and it seems to have worked, as I have no aches or pains so far.

Back to the Sunday Poem! My lovely editor, Amy Wack at Seren, sent me some of the new books that Seren have just published.  One of them was a pamphlet by a poet called Bryony Littlefair, who won the Mslexia competition in 2017 with her pamphlet Giraffe.  I really loved this pamphlet – it felt like a complete breath of fresh air, every poem entertained me.

I chose ‘Sunday mornings’ not because this blog goes out on a Sunday (no chance I’d ever get round to posting this in the morning anyway!) although it is nicely apt that it’s Sunday.  Returning to Jonathan Culler who writes that every poem about a bird conjures up other poems about birds.  I think this is true, to a lesser and greater extent.  I can’t read a poem about a fox without thinking of Ted Hughes ‘The Thought-Fox’.   Hughes’ poem stands as a kind of shadow poem behind other fox poems, casting a different length of shadow depending on how close they are to each other.

‘Sunday mornings’ bought into my head one of my favourite contemporary poem ‘Those Winter Sundays’ by Robert Hayden.  They are two completely different poems of course.  Hayden is writing about ‘the chronic angers of that house’ and the different ways humans show love, or don’t, amongst other things, whilst Bryony’s poem seems to be a poem of learning to be alone, learning loneliness or selfhood.  But I think the music of the poems, their intrinsic rhythms are very close to each other, especially at the beginning.  The lovely first line of Bryony’s poem: ‘The truth is I’m not sure what I did’ – the way it seems to start mid-conversation seems to mirror the mid-conversation stance of ‘Sundays too my father got up early’.   Both poems seem to be addressing us, the readers directly – Bryony’s all the way through, and Robert Hayden’s seems to turn its face towards us with that last heartbreaking question – ‘What did I know, what did I know,/of love’s austere and lonely offices?’  Although I suppose both poems could also be addressing the self rather than a reader.

I love the humour in Bryony’s poem as well – ‘I’d spin/on the office chair, or curl up on patches/of carpet, pretending to be dead’ and earlier in the poem ‘I didn’t/do any of those things, nor the homework/I’d invented to excuse my godlessness’.  All the way through the pamphlet, she uses fantastic metaphors and similes, and this poem is no exception – look at ‘Alone in the hefty silence, I felt loose/and endangered, like an undone shoelace/or an open rucksack.’ I think those are so well chosen – of course an open rucksack is endangered – it could allow things to fall from it, or allow a thief to take something.  A shoelace is endangered because it could be stepped on, it could case a fall.  Both objects are not doing what they are supposed to be doing.

It made me think back to being a teenager and how hard it was to be alone.  At some point, my mum and dad eventually trusted my sister and I enough to leave us at home, but I was never alone as I had three sisters.  Even when my older sisters were out, I was always with my twin sister – in fact we weren’t allowed to hang out with friends without each other, which maybe accounts for how terrible I am at being alone now.  I can manage it if I’m busy, but I find it really hard if I’ve got nothing to do.

A little bit about Bryony Littlefair – she studied English Literature and Philosophy at the University of York.  Her various jobs have ranged from cupcake baker to Editorial Assistant to dementia support worker.  She currently works at the Abbey Community Centre in Kilburn and focuses on work with older people.  She is also Project Coordinator for The Reader in Croydon.  Her poetry has previously appeared in Popshot, The Cadaverine, Clear Poetry and Ink, Sweat and Tears.  

You can buy her pamphlet Giraffe direct from the Seren website here– I can’t recommend it highly enough.  I read it straight through in one sitting and then started again.  There are some cracking poems in there – other favourites are the title poem ‘Giraffe’ and the very funny ‘Usually I’m a different person at this party’ which starts ‘Usually my tights don’t fall down like this, leaving an airy prism/just below the crotch’ and just gets better and better (Is Bryony Littlefair in fact following me around documenting my life I wondered to myself at this point).  I also really liked ‘Lido’ which starts ‘Seeing you at the lido was/like walking past a house I used to live in’ and I used ‘Visitations from future self’ in my Dove Cottage Young Poets workshop a week or so ago, where it received a stamp of approval.

Sunday mornings – Bryony Littlefair

The truth is I’m not sure what I did
those mornings they’d leave, my mother
always in a floral capped-sleeve shirt.
I wish I could say I graffitied the newsagent,
or met with a nicotine-fingered boyfriend,
or learned Bertrand Russell by heart. I didn’t
do any of those things, nor the homework
I’d invented to excuse my godlessness.
Alone in the hefty silence, I felt loose
and endangered, like an undone shoelace
or an open rucksack.  I’d pace from room
to room, hands tucked up my sleeves.
I’d play snatches on the piano, or make
elaborate little snacks – crackers piled
with quartered grapes and shavings of cheese.
I was like a blunt knife, failing to cut
and apportion the hours.  I’d spin
on the office chair, or curl up on patches
of carpet, pretending to be dead.
I might have put on a CD, shaken
my hips to Run DMC, a jerky
figure of eight.  I might have filmed myself dancing.
I’d be choosing another colour for my nails
when the key would turn in the lock:
my parents, whole and returned,
having sung their hallelujahs
and walked back through the cool light rain.