It’s the TS Eliot prize readings tonight, so maybe I’ll be writing this to nobody as lots of poets will be at the Royal Festival Hall as we speak, listening to the ten shortlisted poets. I went a couple of years ago, the year Sharon Olds won, and Jacob Polly was shortlisted. It was a great night, and I’d love to go again, another year, when I have more money and more time.
I haven’t read all of the shortlisted books yet either, which is very unusual for me, so I haven’t even got an informed opinion about who I think should win. So maybe it is strange to even mention it, except that it was on my mind as I sat down at my desk, alone and looking out into the dark, that out there, elsewhere, hundreds of people are gathering to hear and talk about poetry, and I am both part of it, and not part of it at all.
Last Tuesday I had a meeting about my PhD and then I sent my draft RD1 proposal to one of my supervisors, with feedback promised by the end of the week. I know I’ve complained on here before, but this term has been a bit of a nightmare. I haven’t been able to send a draft of my RD1 before this, because I spent about eight weeks in and out of hospital, or recovering from an operation. I finished most of my RD1 over Christmas, whilst most normal people were drinking and eating chocolate, but that was the first time I felt physically able to get really stuck into it. But I couldn’t send the RD1 to my supervisors then, as I didn’t think it was fair to be sending stuff whilst they were on holiday.
Luckily I’ve had some lovely poet-friends who offered to have a look over it for me, and that has been really, really helpful. However, once I sent the RD1 on Tuesday, I’ve spent the whole week having nightmares about it being awful. I had an actual nightmare where I got an email from my supervisor which said
‘I understand now why you took so long to send the RD1 through. Your sentence construction is not good enough for a PhD so we’ve swapped you onto an Access course.’
I woke up with actual night sweats from that one! Anyway, I got the feedback on Friday, and my RD1 isn’t terrible, and the feedback was very constructive, and I haven’t been thrown off the course. It still needs some work, but I think that is to be expected, and I think I can get it all done before my deadline, which is Thursday.
Apart from my anxiety levels going through the roof, lots of lovely stuff has happened this week as well. I’ve been getting back into running, and have been three times this week – all of the runs were over 10k. I’m training to run the Coniston 14 race in March, so I’m trying to get my fitness up, without going over the top and getting injured, so it’s a bit of a balancing act.
I’ve also been writing poetry this week! A couple of weeks ago I went to sit with my twin sister while she went and got a tattoo at Samsara Tattoo in Kendal. Here is a picture of it! She was there for six hours getting this done.
There were some other people there getting really interesting tattoos done as well. I won’t tell you about them as it’s in the poem, but my sister’s tattoo, which is in the style of a watercolour, got me thinking about tattoos. I have three, and they are the only things I’ve ever done in my life where I didn’t car what other people thought. I didn’t know I’d feel like this about them, but it was so liberating, especially as I spent a lot of time worrying about what people think of me. I also like the idea that a tattoo turns the body into a piece of art and I think tattoos made me feel an ownership of my body which I hadn’t really felt before. Anyway, I’ve hopefully put all this into the poem in a much better way than I have here. I’ve also booked to get my next tattoo – not till March though.
I’ve read a really interesting article this week as part of my RD1 work, recommended by my supervisor about Medusa and the female gaze. The article quotes John Berger from his book who says ‘Men do not simply look, their gaze carries with it the power of action and of possession’. It made me think about my poems I’ve been writing, all called ‘All The Men I Never Married’. Writing poems about ex-boyfriends and experiences of sexism, is kind of like turning the men involved into stone. Or maybe not into stone, but freezing them in time. They can’t defend themselves, or excuse themselves, or apologise. They can’t laugh about it with me or give their version of events. Or maybe they can, but the version of them that I have pinned to the page can’t. I’m slightly uncomfortable with turning into a poetic Medusa, and maybe it’s no coincidence that I’ve written a poem about being tattooed, where the subjects are also pinned in place, unable to move. Although in my tattoo poem, the artists are able to move and create art from nothing. And although the body can’t move, it does have a voice. Argh! At the minute, it feels like I have these thoughts going round in my head, and not quite enough time to peel the layers away and actually think about them, so instead you’re getting disjointed and vague musings.
Back to more practical matters – the first Barrow Poetry Workshop yesterday. I’ve got the dates booked in for the rest of 2017 now – check the ‘Readings and Workshops’ page for more details. 11 poets turned up on Saturday from all over the place – Alston, Preston, Lancaster, Kendal, Ulverston and Barrow. Running poetry workshops is one of my favourite parts of being a poet – it feels nothing like work, the people are lovely, and I get paid for it.
Next week I’m going to Manchester on Monday to the Royal Exchange to see the Carol Ann Duffy and Friends reading series – my friends Keith Hutson and Hilary Robinson are reading alongside Liz Lochhead. I always wanted to go to these readings, but could never go before because my Monday nights were always tied up with conducting my junior brass band – now I haven’t got that commitment I’m determined to go to them. I’ve also got to hand my RD1 in of course. By the time I write this blog next week that stress will hopefully be over!
Residential news – St Ives poetry course in February is now sold out, but there are places left still for the Grange-Over-Sands Residential in April. I don’t think Grange Over Sands has quite the pull of St Ives as a location – just the name St Ives has lovely connotations. It’s a shame though because the Grange Over Sands location is just as lovely, but in a different way. The course actually takes place in a small village called Kents Bank, which is a couple of miles out from Grange. There is a lovely walk along the promenade to Grange that people often do in the afternoons, and although I wouldn’t advise walking out on the mudflats, the views of Morecambe Bay are really stunning. There are only non-ensuite rooms left for Grange, which means they are a bit cheaper – only £396 for a Monday to Friday course – a bargain!
So today’s Sunday Poem is by John Foggin. I’ve just counted up and this is his fourth appearance on this blog – I think he has the record for the most appearances on here! He will keep winning competitions and publishing books and pamphlets though, and then they keep being excellent, which is why he keeps popping up.
John’s first full-length collection Much Possessed was published by Smith/Doorstop in 2016, and to be honest, I got confused and thought I’d already posted a poem from it as the Sunday Poem. Then I checked and realised I hadn’t – I’d done that thing of thinking about something at great length and then not actually doing it. It’s a fantastic collection, with a wide variety of subject matter, and there were loads of poems I could have chosen as my favourite. There’s ‘For the true naming of the world’ which is a beautiful poem which I think underneath is about writing, or at least being present in the world which starts ‘you need one who will recognise a fish/that has swallowed a star/that fell through the vaults of the air’. Or ‘Wren’ which starts ‘God thought of the smallest coin/he could make, and made the Wren/to fit, neat as a thumb in a thimble’ which reminds me of my utter conviction that ducklings look like pound coins, even though I know they don’t really. Or ‘Goldcrest’ – this bird is described as a ‘soft plump brooch’. Or ‘Colouring in’ which has the best ending to a poem I’ve read ‘On days like this warm day/the sky is a cat’s ear/and is listening me.’
However, the poem that I am going to post up in full is called ‘A Weak Force.’ I don’t remember where I first heard John read ( a workshop? a tutorial?) but I remember it made me cry. This is a difficult poem to write about because it is a difficult subject. tIt explores suicide, and the impact of suicide on those left behind. However, it is also a beautiful poem and as well as being about falling and leaving and death, it is also about love, and the nature of love. There is an urgency mixed with acceptance mixed with anger in this poem, which makes it utterly compelling. So I will do my best to explore why it’s always been one of my favourite poems of John’s. I know it’s an important poem for him too, so I hope I do it justice.
The first thing to say is that the first line is a jolt. It is a bold statement and claim to start with, but then the rest of the poem backs this statement up – opening it up and exploring it. There is no self-pity here – right from this first stanza, it is the loss of the ‘lives never lived by your children’ which is mourned, not the loss of the speaker in the poem who is left behind. The third line of the poem with the use of the word ‘stopped’ is an interesting distancing technique – we associate clocks with stopping, not people, but I think this is needed to keep emotion in control, because of the next lines, which tell us what happened, about a fall ‘from the top of a tower block.’ The content of this poem is incredibly moving, but the control and technique that is shown support it – the line break after stopped makes the empty space that follows it echo into the next line.
There are lots of different changes in tone in this poem as well. The first two stanzas sound very sure of themselves, as if they are setting out thoughts and ideas that have been gone over again and again. I think the tone changes in the fourth stanza which starts ‘In the no time’. From here, we’re not quite in the real world. We’re in the world of falling, in a kind of in-between world with the ‘you’ who ‘learned the art of not falling’. The viewpoint of the poem widens out, and the reader is also ‘falling and not falling’ as the speaker describes Leeds spread out underneath and we read that the ‘motorway tail lights trailed ribbons of red’.
In the next stanza, there is again, a change of tone. With the repetition of the word ‘Because’ there is something almost childlike introduced here into the speaker’s voice, and we see the ‘you’ as a child, a child who ‘always shut your eyes/you closed them tight as cockleshells’. I’m trying to work out why this section of the poem moves me, and I think it’s because the person comes to life. The focus shifts from their death to their life, to the person they were. Of course the line ‘I remember how you laughed when I swore/I would catch you’ is a bitter-sweet memory, because, of course, the ‘you’ cannot be caught.
My favourite image in the poem is the final one – the idea of the ‘you’ who ‘sank like the sun.’ Even when we can’t see the sun, it hasn’t disappeared, it is still there. That last list in the final stanza ‘over the canal/the river the sour moors the cottongrass/the mills of the plain’ brings home the idea that everything is a reminder.
The poem is right of course – you can’t imagine that loss, unless you’ve experienced it. But it is possible to be moved by it.
For those of you who don’t know John already, he writes a great blog called the great fogginzo’s cobweb. He has been a teacher, lecturer and LEA English/Drama Adviser. He lives in West Yorkshire where he jointly organises Puzzle Poets Live in Calderdale. His work has appeared in The North, The New Writer, Prole and The Interpreter’s House, amongst others.
His poems have won first prizes in competitions including The Plough (2013, 2014) and The McLellan (2015). He has published four pamphlets: Running out of space, Backtracks, Larach (with Ward Wood Publishing 2014), Outlaws and fallen Angels (Calder Valley Press 2016). His latest success is winning the Sentinel Pamphlet Competition with a co-authored pamphlet, written with an ex-student, Andrew Blackford. This will be published sometime in 2017, and you can read more about it on John’s blog here.
If you’d like to order John’s collection, you can buy Much Possessed directly from his publisher’s website, Smith/Doorstop.
A Weak Force – John Foggin
there’s sometimes a loss you can’t imagine;
the lives never lived by your children, or
by the one who simply stopped
in the time it takes
to fall to the ground
from the top of a tower block.
They say gravity is a weak force.
I say the moon will tug a trillion tons
of salt sea from its shore.
I say a mountain range will pull a snowmelt
puddle out of shape.
I say gravity can draw a boy
through a window
and into the air.
There is loss no one can imagine.
In the no time between
falling and not falling
you learned the art of not falling;
beneath you burned
the lights of Sheepscar, Harehills,
Briggate, Vicar Lane;
lights shone in the glass arcades,
on the tiles, on the gantries of tall cranes;
motorway tail lights trailed ribbons of red,
and you were far beyond falling.
Because you shut your eyes
because you always shut your eyes
you closed them tight as cockleshells
because when you did that the world
would go away the world
would not see you.
I remember how you ran like a dream.
I remember how you laughed when I swore
I would catch you.
Then you flared you went out
you flared like a moth and you blew
away over the lights over the canal
the river the sour moors the cottongrass
the mills of the plain
and over the sea and over the sea
and the bright west
and you sank like the sun.