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Sunday Poem – Polly Atkin

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Sunday Poem – Polly Atkin

I’m sat writing my blog in the garden today.  Our ‘half a hawthorn’ tree (the neighbour chops it in half because it hangs over our fence) is valiantly putting out blossom on our side of the garden, just in the lower branches, so I’m hoping it will survive the assault on its dignity for another year.  This morning I woke up to the consequences of two dogs who were determined to eat sheep poo for the whole day yesterday – lets just say it took a good half hour to clean it all up and was not particularly pleasant!  I feel slightly guilty about all of this as I clearly didn’t keep a close enough eye on them yesterday when I was out walking with a friend in the Lakes.  I think we talked non-stop for about six hours, and clearly the dogs took advantage of our riveting conversation and cleared the fell of sheep poo so they could deposit it all over the kitchen floor.  All I can say is THANK GOD the husband was here to help clear it up.

Since I last wrote, I did a reading at The Square Chapel in Halifax alongside Alison Brackenbury and Roy Marshall and some great open mic readers.  I ran my Barrow Poetry Workshop last month – I think there were 10 people there from Barrow, Dalton, Ulverston, Kendal and Penrith, so all Cumbrian writers this time.

I signed up for some training a while ago at the university.  MMU has some great opportunities for continuing professional development if you are teaching there, and I can study part time to get a PGCE in Higher Education if I want to.  I went to the first training day on a 15 credit unit that would go towards a PGCE a week and a half ago.  At the end I spoke to the unit leader and she has advised me to speak to the course leader to try and get some academic credit for my previous teaching experience and my PGCE in Secondary Education, so I’m meeting the course leader next week.  This will hopefully give me a bit of a head start towards the qualification.

For the last week, I’ve been down in Ledbury as I’d been given a place on their Voice Coaching course.  The night before I stayed at a friend’s house.  The friend is a poet, and her husband is also a writer.  We had a long late-night  conversation about poetry and PhD’s, and confessionalism and lyricism and lots of other stuff.  I felt like my head was buzzing with ideas, so much so that I could hardly get to sleep.  My friend’s house is perfectly set up for being a writer.  She has a beautiful office filled with books and an acre of land with some very cute and friendly sheep and two large dogs bounding about the place, and a friendly cat that came and sat with me last thing at night before it got bored and went out of my room.  There are beautiful views over the countryside – and did I mention the books? It made me feel less guilty about my over-the-top book collection anyway.  On Monday we went to see a beautiful old church and  went for lunch and then they dropped me off at Hellens, where the voice-coaching course took place.

I must admit I was quite nervous and apprehensive about the course.  Although the poets I’ve spoken to have all been very positive about it and said they found it really useful, quite a few of them said that it was ‘quite intense’.  I know when I run writing workshops that when ever I set up a writing exercise about the voice or the body, it can quickly stray into some very personal and powerful material.  I’m also slightly wary about ‘voice coaching’ – anything that might involve drama work is basically my worst nightmare.  But I applied because I wanted to do something different and take myself out of my comfort zone and it certainly did that.

The tutor, Francoise had incredible energy and enthusiasm.  She was also incredibly kind and generous and astute.  It’s hard to sum up what the course was like because if I tell you about the parts of it that I can name – like the deep breathing, the using different parts of your voice, the stretching and bending, those parts don’t add up to what it was really like, or what it all really meant.  I have never spent lots of time with my self – just breathing.  I find it incredibly hard to do nothing.  I have a mortal fear of being bored – but I wasn’t bored, not once.  I learnt that when Francoise asked us to say something, to use our voice to make a sound, I was waiting until someone else spoke first.  What was that all about?  I learnt that I was constantly self-conscious, and thinking I know what people are thinking, when in fact, and obviously, I don’t.  I learnt that I use SO MUCH energy trying to make people like me, and I don’t want to do it anymore.  I obviously want people to like me, but I don’t want to waste all my energy on it – they either like me or they don’t.  I learnt lots of techniques about performance and energy and breathing as well and there were lots of opportunities to read our poems out. We actually went and read at one of the Ledbury Salons on the second night and listened to the poet Gregory Leadbetter who came to do a reading and then we all got up and read two poems on the Open Mic.

Normally on residential weeks they seem to fly by, but at this one, it felt like time really slowed down.  We were in workshops for the whole day every day, and it was both physically and emotionally intense, but it was also incredibly sustaining and thought-provoking.  So when the applications open again, I would urge you to apply.  It was a brilliant, life-changing experience.  I think the only pre-requisite is that you have to have a pamphlet or a book out.

So it was a great week, and I met some really lovely poets, and got to know their work really well, which was brilliant.  It was back to reality with a bump however – the train was late from Birmingham to Preston, which meant I missed my last train home to Barrow.  The train company put me in a taxi from Preston and I eventually got back home at just before 2am on Friday morning.

On Friday I had to get up early to get to Kendal for a consultation at the tattoo studio – I’m getting a new tattoo next Friday and then in the afternoon it was Dove Cottage Young Poets.  Then back home to catch up on as many emails as possible before collapsing in a heap.  Which brings us to Saturday and the walk and the six hour chat and the dogs eating sheep poo which I won’t go into again.

I found out whilst I was away in Ledbury that I’ve been given some funding from MMU to go to the  English:Shared Futures conference in Newcastle in July, which means I can stay for the three days and go to some of the other panels and events, as well as taking part in the Round Table discussion about creative writing as research alongside Emily Blewitt and Carolyn Jess-Cooke.

I haven’t mentioned running because I haven’t been doing any.  I had knee pain when I did a 5k run last week and it still isn’t right so I rested while I was in Ledbury.  I’m going to have a week of swimming next week and try and get into the physio if I can.  This knee is costing me a fortune!

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Polly Atkin, who lives not far from me in Grasmere.  I’ve known Polly for a while now and I’ve been looking forward to the publication of her first collection Basic Nest Architecture for a long time now.  I really enjoyed reading the collection, particularly as I’ve heard a few of the poems over the years at readings or open mics, so it was like meeting old friends again.

Polly grew up in Nottingham then lived in East London for seven years before moving to Cumbria.  Her second poetry pamphlet Shadow Dispatches won the Mslexia Pamphlet Prize and was published by Seren.  Her doctoral research was in collaboration with The Wordsworth Trust, and the departments of Sociology, and English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University, where she then taught for several years.  She currently teaches English Studies at the University of Strathclyde.

The collection is full of poems about landscape and animals, so it’s no surprise that an extract of the collection won the 2014 Andrew Waterhouse Prize in the Northern Writers Awards, given to a collection that engages with landscape.  There are also poems about living with illness and a body that doesn’t do what it is supposed to do, and it is one of those poems that I asked Polly if I could feature here.

‘The Invisible’ is a fantastic poem.  It comes towards the end of the collection and it explores ideas around a shadow self, named as ‘Croneshadow’ in the poem.  ‘Croneshadow’ seems to have her own will – she ‘stumbles ahead of me’ and ‘Her mouth/twitches down at the creases’.  Croneshadow is both the speaker, and her shadow.  Croneshadow is the body that will not do what it is told.  The speaker says ‘I try/to right her but she will not straighten’.

By the end of the poem, we are left with the haunting image of the speaker walking along, her breath melting ‘the frost on the empty road’ and the Croneshadow walking ahead.  The feel of the poem is that the speaker will be left behind, and the Croneshadow will walk onward, into her life, leaving her behind.

At first I thought Croneshadow was quite an ominous, or frightening figure.  She is made almost grotesque in the poem by the physical description of the way she walks, and the description of her face.  However, the speaker obviously has sympathy for her, because she tries to straighten her.  Two thirds of the way down the poem we learn

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>She knows
more of pain than your charts can trace
but you will not acknowledge her>>>>>>hear her.

I then started to wonder who the ‘you’ is that this poem is addressed to?  Is this poem addressed to the medical profession, to doctors, hospital staff? There are only four uses of the pronoun ‘you’ in the poem.  I tried changing them to ‘they’ but it doesn’t work – it makes the poem feel more distant.  Is the ‘you’ people who are healthy, people who don’t understand?  The use of pronouns in this poem is very interesting, because at one point it feels like the ‘I’ and the ‘she’ are merging into each other (‘Her edges are blurring./ My legs are unravelling’.  But by the end of the poem, there is a definite distinction and separation between the two identities.

It feels like a poem that I will continue to puzzle over, and the other thing to say is that although I think it works really well on its own, the other poems in the book about the body add another dimension to this poem.  The landscape/animal poems are wonderfully lyrical as well.  In ‘Heron/Snow’ the first line is ‘You carry worlds in the cipher of your feathers;/sky and water woven together’.  Another favorite poem was ‘Jack Daw’ which is up there with the best animal/bird description poems.

If you would like to order a copy of Polly’s collection, you can order it from the Seren website and get a 20% discount.  If you’d like to find out more about Polly, you can visit her website which is https://pollyatkin.com/

The Invisible – Polly Atkin

‘The secret is to walk evading nothing’
???????????????????????– Alice Oswald

Croneshadow stumbles ahead of me>>>>>catching
erratic feet on the tarmac>>>>>ruched
as it is by roots>>>>>her left foot sticking
as if in mud>>>>>her stoop cranked up
by the pock-marked skin of the drystone wall
she is thrown on>>>>>the angle of light>>>>sickish
orange in the early night.>>>>Her mouth
twitches down at the creases>>>>>Bitchy
Resting Face>>>though you cannot see it
dark on dark.>>>>You could say she exists
in relief>>>>except there is none>>>not
for a structure like her>>>>misbuilt>>collapsing
inward with each jolt forward.  I try
to right her but she will not straighten.  The more
I struggle the more she looks broken. She knows
more of pain than your charts can trace
but you will not acknowledge her>>>>>>hear her.  Her name
is a slur.  Her body is carrion.  It is
too late for this.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>My blood too sticky.
Her edges are blurring.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>My legs are unravelling.
Her gown of bones is clacking>>>>>>clacking.
Will we ever reach home?
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>I sink in my clothes
till my breath melts the frost on the empty road.
She pushes ahead of me>>>>carries on walking.
Carries on walking.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Carries on walking.

Sunday Poem – Ina Anderson

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Sunday Poem – Ina Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

quadrescue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Ina for letting me post her poem here.

Turning Back – Ina Anderson 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Poem – Jennifer Copley

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Sunday Poem – Jennifer Copley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joan Aleshire tells us that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Two Friends – Jennifer Copley

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

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

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

Sunday Poem – Geraldine Clarkson

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Sunday Poem – Geraldine Clarkson

Maybe you haven’t noticed, or maybe you have, that there has been a two week break in the blog posts again.  I always feel guilty when I don’t blog, and I get a lot of lovely comments and feedback from people who seem to enjoy reading it, and of course it’s nice to write to poets out of the blue and ask them if I can have a poem.  I know what it feels like as a poet if somebody writes to me and tells me they like my work, and my philosophy has always been that if I can spread that feeling around, without it costing me anything but time, then I’m happy to do it.

However, time has been in short supply in my life recently! Every year I have a period of time, usually a couple of months, where my life becomes completely manic, and I rush from one thing to the other, holding on to my sanity with my fingertips.  It used to be around the end of term and I would blame the end of year concerts.  Now I’m not a music teacher, so there are no end of term concerts, and it is with a heaviness and sense of guilt that I realise I have only myself to blame for taking too much on.

I have had an exciting two weeks however – although it’s been busy, I’m not complaining.  I love everything I do – that is kind of the problem.  Since I last blogged I’ve done two Soul Survivor gigs and a rehearsal, covered a Year 2 poetry class at MMU, taught two sessions of my Poetry School face to face course and given two lots of feedback to my online students with the Poetry School, travelled to Swindon and delivered a full day workshop, travelled to Winchester and read at a night called Loose Muse, taught two sessions of Dove Cottage Young Poets, delivered a taster session at Kirbie Kendal School in Kendal to recruit more Dove Cottage Young Poets, travelled to the Words By The Water festival in Keswick to listen to Helen Farish and Adam O’Riordan read, took part in a Cumbrian poetry reading, sent emails round about residentials, worked on an application for an amazing opportunity, did some reading for my PhD, worked on a  few new poems and sent them to my supervisor, gathered biographies and photos from the poets coming to Kendal Poetry Festival, wrote content for Kendal Poetry Festival website, planned a feminist poetry event for the 8th April, and through all that I’ve been running, trying to keep my training up for the Coniston 14 race which is next Saturday.   It sounds like a lot when I list it like that.  And to be honest it felt like a lot as well.  In fact I feel a bit dizzy looking back at it all now.

So I’ve given myself a bit of a breather with the Sunday Poems, and I’m going to continue to do that – so they may be a little bit sporadic for a while.  I hope you will appreciate them just as much when they do come in.

One of the nicest things about being a freelance poet is the people you meet on your travels.  I met Hilda Sheehan a few years ago now when fate threw us together to share a room on a residential course.  She is one of the loveliest people I know and I had a brilliant time at her house last weekend.  I was down in Swindon to run a workshop, which gave me a good excuse to go and hang out with Hilda and some of her family.  It’s been ages since I laughed so much – a combination of Snapchat and binge watching terrible 80’s music videos and much more wine drinking than I usually indulge in.

After my weekend with the Sheehan clan I then went to Winchester to read at Loose Muse, run by Sue Wrinch.  Cue more drinking wine till late at night,and more amazing food.  I was so hungry when I arrived in Winchester and the lovely Sue had made a chicken pie, which basically means I am her friend for life.  The poetry reading was really good as well though.  People were very friendly and welcoming, a really good standard on the Open Mic, and two poets who have been on residentials with me, Hilary Hares and Patsy showed up, so it was really nice to see them again.  I also sold my last 8 copies of The Art of Falling and one If We Could Speak Like Wolves.  So another job today was to order some more copies of my book from Seren.

After that it was back home to my long suffering husband who hasn’t seen much of me for the last month, but thankfully remembered what I looked like and let me in the house.

One last thing before we get on to the poem – if you’re interested in coming along to a Poetry Reading and Open Mic, I’m hosting such a thing this Wednesday the 22nd March at Natterjacks in Ulverston, starting at 7.30pm.  Malcolm Carson and Ina Anderson will be launching their collections in the first half, and we’ll have an open mic session in the second half.  It’s completely free and if you want an Open Mic spot, just sign up on the night.  Get in touch if you need any more information, but I hope to see some of you there!

So this week’s Sunday Poem is by Geraldine Clarkson, who has patiently been waiting since last Sunday, when she should have appeared.

Geraldine Clarkson lives in Warwickshire though her roots are in the west of Ireland. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Poetry Review,Poetry London, Ambit, and Magma (she was Selected Poet in Magma 58); as well as in the Daily Mirror and The New European. They have also been broadcast on BBC Radio 3, as well as appearing at various times on cupcakes and handkerchiefs, on buses in Guernsey and in public toilets in the Shetland Isles! In 2016 her work was showcased in the inaugural volume of Primers from Nine Arches Press/The Poetry School, and she was commended in the National Poetry Competition.  Her chapbook, Declare (Shearsman Books, 2016), was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice, and her pamphlet, Dora Incites the Sea-Scribbler to Lament (smith|doorstop, 2016), is a Laureate’s Choice. Supported by Arts Council England, she has just completed the manuscript for her first full-length collection.

I got a copy of her smith/doorstop pamphlet a couple of weeks ago when I went over to Sheffield for a Poetry Business writing workshop.  It’s a great pamphlet, and has lots of wonderful poems in it, may of which have won or been shortlisted for various prizes.  The poem I’ve chosen for today though I loved as soon as I read it and it stayed as one of my favourites in the pamphlet.

I have a book called The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, which is a great book, full of exercises to stimulate writing.  I sometimes use it for workshops.  Anyway, there is a great quote there by Robert Hass from Twentieth Century Pleasures where he talks about the power of images:

Images haunt.  There is a whole mythology built on this fact: Cezanne painting till his eyes bled, Wordsworth wandering the Lake Country hills in an impassioned daze.  Blake describes it very well, and so did a colleague of Tu Fu who said to him, “It is like being alive twice.” Images are not quite ideas, they are stiller than that, with less implications outside themselves.  And they are not myth, they do not have that explanatory power; they are nearer to pure story.  Nor are they always metaphors; they do not say this is that, they say this is.

Robert Hass, Twentieth Century Pleasures

I love this quote, although I don’t feel like I’ve completely understood it, or thought about it enough.  But I like that sentence ‘Images are not quite ideas, they are stiller than that’.  I think in Geraldine’s poem this is apparent – the images that are conjured up when she hears a word have a stillness to them, even when they are about movement, like the dancing aunts in Stanza 2, it is movement that has been captured, like a photograph.

The images are always beautifully observed, we can see this in the first two lines.  The harebells are not just ‘wind-flattened’, they are ‘crouching’ which sends me back to the word ‘harebells’ and the animal that is inside this word which conjures up the image of a flower.

Of course, if the poem was made up only of these natural images, it would be a good poem, but by stanza 2 she moves on further, to conjure up this unnerving portrait of ‘Mary Keeley’ standing in her ‘black doorway’ and then on into stanza 3 with the dancing aunts and the father ‘unhinging the kitchen door’ for leg-room for the dancing.

The poem finishes how it started, with beautiful and accurately observed descriptions of nature.   I love the ’tilted cemetery/at the sea’s edge’ and ‘the persistence of rabbits’ is a line I wish I’d written!

I hope you enjoy the poem, and if you’d like to order the pamphlet that this poem came from, you can get Dora Incites the Sea-Scribbler to Lament from smith/doorstop for the mere sum of £5.  Thanks to Geraldine for being so patient, and for allowing me to finally publish this poem here.

When they say Connemara – Geraldine Clarkson

I hear harebells, wind-flattened,
crouching close to the common.
I hear the gorse-clung mountain
and moorland, bruised
with bottomless ink-lakes
A sequinned Atlantic, waving
to lost relatives in America.

When they mention Murvey
or Ballyconneely – or Calla –
toothless Mary Keeley
blinks at her black doorway,
holding out two tin cans
of buttermilk. I catch the whine
of P.J’s piano accordion

at dawn, my dead aunts calling
for Maggie in the Wood and
Shoe the Donkey and two
fine men to dance a half-set.
Mary Davis stoking up 40 verses
of The Cleggan Disaster.  My father
unhinging the kitchen door, for leg room.

When they speak of Ballyruby –
where the monks were –
or slip into the chat news of Erlough
or Dolan, or Horne, my eyes itch
with peat smoke, heather scratches my shins
and I’m barefoot in silt with marsh irises,
hen’s crubes and ragged robin.
I’m climbing again the tilted cemetery
at the sea’s edge, reclaimed by Dutch clover
and the persistence of rabbits.

When word comes from Gortin or Mannin
(and I’d thought they were all dead there),
or from Seal’s rock – setting the curlews
looping and scraping the sky –
I hear the empty rule of wind
on that thin mile
of white sand, the collapsing
surf, the whistle of silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday Poem – David Wilson

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Sunday Poem – David Wilson

I have been in hibernation mode this week.  After my marathon day of outdoor activity last week, I started to feel a little bit unwell on Sunday night.  I put it down to too much activity, but by Monday I felt like I had flu – I was going alternatively hot and cold, had a really awful headache, sore throat.  I basically took to the sofa from Monday to Wednesday and didn’t move – a wonderful luxury now I don’t have to drag myself into school feeling awful. Tuesday I still felt pretty rough, but Wednesday I was a lot better and it felt more like a normal cold that was on its way out.  So I’ve spent much of this week feeling sorry for myself and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I felt particularly sorry for myself that yet again, I was stuck on the sofa instead of being out running.  But as I could hardly stand up on Monday it was probably a good idea to stay indoors.  I have been this morning for a ten mile run – my first one all week.  It was hard work – I felt quite tired and my legs felt heavy, and then there was the cold and the wind of course – but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.  I’m glad I got out there now and did it.

On Thursday I had to go to Manchester for my teaching at MMU but I was nearly back up to normal by then.  I have been getting some writing done this week and working on some poems, despite feeling rough, so I’m pleased about that.  I’m steadily working my way through reading Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex – it is such an important text, and so many other feminist texts refer to it that I need to read it and have it as part of the background for the next lot of reading.  The problem is every time I read one thing, it leads to something else.  I think I could spend the three years of this PhD just reading without even getting to the writing part.

On Friday I spent the morning planning the workshop for my Dove Cottage Young Poets session, which was running in the afternoon, and my Barrow Poetry Workshop, which I was running the next day. I managed to get them both sorted out and printed out, then I went to Kendal for the young poets workshop and then off to Brewery Poets in the evening.

Barrow Poetry Workshop went really well yesterday – 13 poets from all over the place, Barrow, Dalton, Ulverston, Kendal, Preston, Lancaster, Shap.  I also managed to get the heating going properly this time as well – and people wrote some amazing stuff.  In the evening it was A Poem and a Pint with guest poet Rita Ann Higgins.  Rita had made a mammoth journey from Galway – bus, plane and train to get to Ulverston to read.  I bought her latest book Tongulish which I’m really looking forward to reading when I get some spare time.

I felt a bit sad – one of my ex-students, David Griffiths, who was Young Musician in Residence at Kendal Poetry Festival was the musician for the night, but Anthony Milledge, who was going to be his accompanist for the evening, died very suddenly last week.  I’ve known Anthony since I moved to the area and played with him a few times at church, when he composed a fiendishly difficult trumpet fanfare for the visit of a bishop a couple of years ago.  He was such a good musician – so good in fact, that we were unable to find a pianist who had the technical skills to play the pieces that he’d been practising with David.  So David just did some unaccompanied pieces – a very tough thing to do, but I think Anthony would have been proud of him.

Next week, I’m determined to get a bit more reading done for my PhD.  I’ve got more workshops to plan as well – I’m heading off to Birmingham on Friday to the Verve Poetry Festival and I need to plan the workshop that I’m running there on the Saturday, and plan my workshops for the St Ives residential which starts a week on Monday.  I also need to fit my running in – I cannot afford to take more than two hours to do the Coniston 14 in a few weeks time, otherwise I will have to stand on stage at Lancaster Litfest in my sweaty running gear because I haven’t had time for a shower.  So I’m gearing up for a full on week next week, and then the usual full on week of a residential course.

If you’re interested in residential courses, the St Ives course has sold out now, but I’m running three more this year – you can find information on the ‘Residential Courses‘ tab.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by a lovely poet and friend of mine, David Wilson.  I met David when we were both students on The Poetry Business Writing School course.  I was really pleased to hear that David had a pamphlet out last year with The Poetry Business.  The pamphlet is called Slope and many of the poems in it explore climbing and mountaineering. David lives in North Yorkshire and has been an active climber for many years.  As well as poetry, he has written a novel, Love and Nausea, published by Abacus, Little Brown in the 1990’s which was praised by The Times as a ‘tour de force’.  In 2015 he won the Poets and Players Competition, judged by Paul Muldoon with his poem Everest.  

It’s worth buying Slope for this poem alone, a tiny eight-liner where David manages to compare Everest to Elvis (I’ll let you buy the pamphlet to work out how he manages to pull that one off – but pull it off he does!).  The poem I’ve chosen for the Sunday Poem this week though has always been one of my favourites of David’s, maybe because of the bolt of recognition after reading the first line – no, my parents didn’t use that phrase either! I liked the line at the end of the first stanza as well.  I think my parents are similar to the parents in this poem – they do everything together as well, and find it quite strange that my husband and I have separate holidays, or are often off on our own somewhere.

I love the description in the second stanza of the father ‘taking ten minutes to stand up/straight, always the military man’.  It’s only in the second stanza in fact, indicated by that little phrase ‘Near the end’ which begins this stanza, that we realise that the father is dying, and this makes that effort of getting out of bed and standing to speak to his wife very moving.

I always think it is hard to get dialogue in a poem, and especially a poem like this without it sounding cheesy, or maudlin, or too over the top.  Especially a poem called ‘I love you’.  But then the strength of the poem is that these three words, the title are completely missing from the poem, yet it is a poem about loving and how to give and receive love.  Or maybe not just about love, but about marriage, which is different.  The portrayal of a long marriage with ‘whispered rows’ in the first stanza is very honest. And I think that is what I like about the dialogue as well – it has the ring of authenticity, of honesty about it.  And to say ‘Thank you for loving me’ seems so much more meaningful than saying ‘I love you’.  I was thinking about why that is, and maybe ‘I love you’ is always about the self, the ‘I’ reaching out to another.  It demands a reply.  But to say ‘Thank you for loving me’ is to say, I’m grateful, and happy with what you’ve given me, and I don’t need anything else.  Hidden in that sentence is ‘Thank you for loving me’ even and despite of ‘whispered rows’.  l love the little turn of the poem at the end as well, when the mother is transformed by his words, or her voice is transformed to the ‘voice of a young girl’.

You might want to order Slope after reading this poem – if you do, you can order it at http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/shop/925/slope for a mere £5 and show your support to another fantastic independent publisher.

“I love you” – David Wilson

My parents didn’t use this phrase,
talked in terms of work to do, and weather
and how they were bringing us up;
despite whispered rows at night
stayed together, held in place by good form.
They were not much given to using ‘I’.

Near the end, my father asked a nurse
to bring my waiting mother
to the side-room of his suffering,
having taken ten minutes to stand up
straight, always the military man,
nearly losing his footing.

One has to be brave at a time like this,
he said, taking her hand,
Some journeys must be made alone. 
And then, Thank you for loving me.
A slight bow and turn, while she cried
in the voice of a young girl,
‘Oh my darling’.

Sunday Poem –

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Sunday Poem –

Another Sunday rolls round again – and I spent most of this one outdoors.  This morning I went for a 12 mile run with some friends.  I know for some people the idea of running 12 miles would be a form of torture, but I absolutely love it.  I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing on a day like today, which was cold, but with blue skies and snow at the top of the mountains in the distance.

I rashly promised the husband I would go for a walk with him in the afternoon so once I got back from my 12 mile run and 300 metres of climbing, we went out for lunch in Broughton and then off we went on our walk – 3 hours later and another 300 metres of climbing and I’m officially knackered.

Last night I had a gig with the Soul Survivors at The Nautical Club on Walney Island.  After having a rehearsal where I felt that my playing was not up to standard, I’ve been practising for the last couple of weeks, building up from 20 minutes a day to about 40 minutes a day.  And it paid off! I know, having been a music teacher for 13 years, that I shouldn’t be surprised when practising actually works, but there you go.  I managed to play my solo bits, and my lip held out right till the end of the night which was a relief.

I decided to have a lazy day yesterday so apart from soundcheck in the afternoon, I spent the whole day in my pyjamas watching TV – a rarity for me, but my week up to this point had been pretty full on.  On Monday I attended the first session of a course as part of my PhD personal development in Manchester, and decided to hang around so I could go to the protest march against Trump’s idiotic travel ban. I’ve never been to a protest before, so didn’t really know what to expect. There were thousands of people there, so many in fact, that we couldn’t hear what the speakers were saying.  I met poet Clare Shaw and her daughter Niamh, and poet Rachel Davies and her partner Bill.  We marched through Manchester, and there was lots of chanting, all very good-natured.

I spent the first half of the week watching a lot of news about Trump, and in the end I had to stop, as I was getting really upset about it all.  I did write a Trump poem though – well actually, it’s about Melania Trump and the video of her at the inauguration, when Trump turns round and says something to her, and her face completely changes.  We can’t know what Trump said to her, but I think anybody that’s been in a violent relationship might recognise the look on her face, and the video has haunted me.  So I wrote a poem about Donald and Melania Trump and abuse and complicity and victim blaming and perspective and identity. I started the poem at the Poetry Business workshop last Saturday, and then finished it off on Monday/Tuesday of last week.  It’s going to be in The Morning Star on Thursday, which I’m really pleased about.  I don’t usually publish poems so quickly, but I felt like I wanted to get it out there.

I’m still waiting to hear back about my RD1 but having it off my hands and out of my control seems to have uncorked my poetry as I’ve written three other drafts of poems this week as well.  These three are much rougher, and might not even be poems to be honest, but I’ve really enjoyed writing them.  I keep feeling guilty that I’m not getting on with any ‘work’ and then remembering that writing poems is work now and doing a little dance.

Thursday was university teaching day – a 2 hour seminar on Wordsworth and Coleridge.  My students are still lovely – I’m still loving the teaching, and feel like I’m learning loads through teaching.  Next week is Victorian poetry, which I’m really looking forward to, as Tennyson is one of my favourite poets.

On Friday I went to the Theatre-By-The-Lake in Keswick to attend the Cumbria Life Cultural Awards.  Kendal Poetry Festival had made the shortlist for Festival of the Year and Brewery Poets had been shortlisted for Artistic Collaboration of the Year.  The festival’s Young Poet in Residence from 2016, Hannah Hodgson, came as well, as well as the poet Jennifer Copley.  I’d been asked to do a five minute reading, so I read a poem in the voice of Furness Abbey, that I wrote for a BBC commission last year, a poem about leaving teaching, and one of my ‘All the Men I Never Married’ poems.  Sadly, neither the Festival nor Brewery Poets won their categories, but we had a nice night out, and it was inspiring to see all the amazing artistic work that is going on in Cumbria.  The highlight for me was seeing Jess Gillam play – she is an amazing young saxophonist who lives in Ulverston, who got through to the finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year last year I think.  Anyway I saw her play last year and thought she was brilliant – but this year she was really, really good.I didn’t get back home till 1.30am, hence the need for the lie-in on Saturday!

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Maria Taylor from her new HappenStance pamphlet  Instructions for Making Me.  I’ve always liked Maria’s work, and have been meaning to get a copy of her new pamphlet for a while, but hadn’t got myself organised, so I was chuffed to be able to get one from her in person at the Poetry Business Writing Day last Saturday.

Maria Taylor lives in Leicestershire.  Her first full collection Melanchrini was published by Nine Arches Press in 2012 and was shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize.  A Greek-Cypriot by birth, she has been Reviews Editor for Under the Radar magazine since 2015 and blogs at Commonplace.

If you haven’t bought any HappenStance pamphlets before, head over to the website now.  Order Maria’s obviously, but take a potshot on a poet you haven’t heard of.  I can promise you, you won’t be disappointed.  I’ve never bought a HappenStance pamphlet and regretted it, and this one was no exception.

The pamphlet is full of surprises – surrealism probably isn’t quite the right word, but the world is definitely portrayed at an angle in these poems.  There were lots of favourites -I liked Poem In Which I Lick Motherhood which is as good as it sounds and The Horse which unpacks that old cliche and annoying bit of advice of ‘getting back on the horse’ after an upset or disappointment.  And Maria is the only poet to my knowledge who has a poem about Daniel Craig and not only does she have a poem about Daniel Craig it is a good poem! There are lots of funny moments in this pamphlet,but as you will see from the poem I’ve chosen, it isn’t all fun.

The Invisible Man is a strange and slightly disturbing poem.  Is it only me who finds the whole concept of an invisible friend really creepy?  The image of the daughter pushing an invisible man ‘on a swing/under the apple tree’ is a little bit disturbing.  Then Maria develops this further – the voice of the poem, admits to knowing the invisible man – to having a relationship of sorts with him.  This relationship is not like any normal relationship though – she says ‘I carried him in my book bag’ and ‘He fooled me at kiss-chase’.  The darkest part of the poem is in stanza 3, nearly the centre of the poem where she says ‘Now he’s back.  He wants my girl.’  The use of the word ‘girl’ and the possessiveness of ‘my’ makes us aware of the vulnerability of the daughter, and also of the power of the invisible man.  The description of him continues to develop the sinister feel of him – his arms could wrap around them ‘like twine’ and his ‘long toes’ skim the leaves – definitely an unsavoury character! The use of the word ‘we’ is interesting as well in the last stanza – it highlights and develops the complicity of the mother in the creation and sustaining of the invisible man, or the story of him.

I hope you enjoy the poem – and if you do enjoy it, you can buy Maria’s pamphlet Instructions for Making Me from the Happenstance website here for the mere sum of £5.  Thanks to Maria for letting me share this poem here.

The Invisible Man – Maria Taylor

My daughter pushes
the invisible man on a swing
under the apple tree.

I’ve known him for years.
I recognise him by the dust motes.
I asked him out.  He stood me up.

I carried him in my book bag.
He fooled me at kiss-chase.
Now he’s back.  He wants my girl.

We think of him as very tall,
so thin and stretchy he could wind
his arms around us like twine.

We sing to him as we push
an empty seat back and forth.
His long toes skim the leaves.

Sunday Poem – Matt Bryden

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This has been a strange week – each day I’ve woken up to stories about more of Trump’s executive orders, and this morning, before I went out for my run, I watched videos of the protests at American airports against his ban on refugees/muslims entering the country with tears in my eyes.  There was one in particular which showed a woman who had finally been released after being detained, and the crowd cheered as she appeared.   There is a protest against Trump tomorrow in Manchester.  I’m going to be in Manchester for the afternoon as I’m booked on a training course to do with my PhD so I’ve decided to go along to the protest.  I’m kind of ashamed to say it will be my first time at a protest but everybody has to start somewhere, and at the minute it feels like my heart breaks a little bit when I read another news story about the attacks on women and refugees and anybody else Trump disagrees with.  The picture of him signing an order about abortion and women’s bodies and funding, surrounded by men, made me feel a bit sick.  Friends have said to me that what Trump says doesn’t affect me here, so why am I getting upset about it?  It sometimes feels like a difficult thing to explain, but it is actually really clear.

Yesterday I turned on the news and there were three white men discussing Trump and the latest developments.  I went to a literary event this week that was high quality and entertaining, but there were three white men again speaking at this event.  When they talked about their literary influences they were all men (apart from one woman who was mentioned as opposed to 8-10 men).  The literary event, the news and Trump are part of a wider continuum that means that women and people of colour are silenced.  Or more accurately, they’re not silenced, they’re not even present to be silenced.  Of course, these are small problems compared to being detained at an airport and not allowed in a country, but they are part of a wider scale, and part of the problem.  The small injustices sow the ground for the bigger and more serious attacks, and they demonstrate at best a lack of thought by the white men who are given platforms to speak.

So in short, I’m going to the protest to do something instead of just complaining about it on here, and to spend some time with my friends who feel the same way.

I also had a conversation with some of my running buddies (men) who were saying that they thought people were making too much fuss about Trump holding Teresa May’s hand.  I went over and grabbed one of their hands while we were walking along and they looked uncomfortable, and I said, now imagine you are in a business meeting – of course it’s creepy and awful and just unprofessional! I don’t know if they agreed with me after my little demonstration.

So apart from Trump, my week has been filled with more running again.   I think I’m pretty much back up to full fitness now, although on Tuesday I had a rehearsal with the soul band and was getting a pain in my stomach when I played in the higher register.  I’m hoping this is just my muscles being a bit weak and the fact that I haven’t played the trumpet for a while.  I’ve decided to do some practice this week – 20 minutes on Wednesday, 30 minutes on Friday and about 40 minutes today.  Wednesday was the worst because it sounded awful.  Today I really enjoyed practising and could hear the improvement already.  However, I don’t have the time to start getting obsessed with the trumpet again, so will have to be careful and limit the time I spend doing it.

Yesterday I went to the Poetry Business Writing Day in Sheffield and really enjoyed myself.  I haven’t been to these workshops for so long that I’d forgotten how inspiring they are.  There must have been at least 30 people sat around writing poem after poem from Ann and Peter’s prompts.  I got to see lots of friends I haven’t seen for ages and I wrote on the train all the way home.  I don’t know if any of it is any good though – I haven’t dared to look yet.

After handing in my RD1 last week I went a bit off the boil with the PhD work and decided to give myself a few days off academic reading.  However, this has given me time to do some writing which I’ve really enjoyed.  I don’t know if any of the poems will be any good, but I’m happy that I’m writing.  And as my friend and colleage at MMU Martin Kratz pointed out when I guiltily confessed to writing poems instead of PhDing ‘writing poems is part of the PhD’.  Doh, of course it is! How exciting is that.  I still can’t get my head around it.

I’ve also been working with one of the Dove Cottage Young Poets Hannah Hodgson, editing some of her poems.  I’ve absolutely loved doing this as Hannah is keen, talented and enthusiastic.  I’ve even made Hannah her own special folder on my pen drive to keep the stuff we’ve been working on together.  There were lots of poets who were kind to me when I was first starting out writing and who encouraged me and gave me advice – if I can do half of what those poets did for me for Hannah then I will be happy.

Today’s Sunday Poem is a bit different to the usual Sunday Poem.  It’s by Matt Bryden.  I think I met Matt for the first time when he came on a writing retreat that I’d organised with some friends – I think he came along with the poet David Borrott.  I’m saying I think because I can only vaguely remember.  The Sunday Poem is taken from a project that Matt has been working on called the Poetry Map.

Now before I continue, I should warn you that clicking on the Poetry Map link may cause you to lose a couple of hours as you poke about on the website.  There is a lot of content there, and it’s a really fascinating site. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.  I’ll leave Matt to tell you more about it in his own words below.

About the Poetry Map – Matt Bryden

I first made a prototype of the Poetry Map while at Goldsmiths in 2013. To my amazement, it quickly racked up over 6,000 hits, principally in Canada and China for some reason. This persuaded me that I should develop the idea, but it was not until I was put in touch with web designer Jon Munson II that I could do anything about it. The finished Poetry Map contains 67 poems divided into four themed ‘paths.’ Each poem is located on the map at the place of either its composition or setting. Clicking on a link takes you to the next poem in the sequence.

 

I’ve long been interested in illustrators of poetry such as Reg Lloyd (who worked on Ted Hughes’s What is the Truth?) and why such partnerships are so rarely successful. I think it is because poems need room to breathe. While compiling the map, usual selection criteria did not apply. When I tried to replace one path with a stronger sequence of poems for example, I found that the more fully-realized, perhaps deeper or ‘better’ poems did not work on the screen at all. They seemed flat and not conducive to skipping through to the next poem. So we returned to Plan A. All of the poems have a strong connection to the place they were composed.

 

I’m happy to say that this free online resource has already been used by a university in California and a primary school in Taunton (which worries me a little, as its themes are occasionally quite adult). It was designed as an online experience, and I have been able to add nuances that hard copy cannot always provide – audio recordings, links to hand-written drafts, newspaper clippings and even a transliteration into phonemic script –accessed through clicking on a series of ‘magic tickets.’ However, I did not want to distract too much from the poems, so these are not allowed to dominate. Other features such as the Random option replicate what it is like to flick through a book and settle on a poem indiscriminately. I like the idea that someone might stumble upon this map and find themselves drawn into a rabbit hole, whether they are regular readers of poetry or not.

 

 

 

I’ve chosen a poem as the Sunday Poem from Path Four on the website.  This sequence of poems is called ‘Singles’.  Although the poem I’ve chosen works well on its own, I think reading the other poems on the Path really add to it.

The first couplet is a surprise and delight after the tone set by the word ‘contention’ which made me think that the poem was going to be more formal in its subject matter.  I also agree with the argument of this poem as I have soup every day, so yes, the best kinds of people eat soup.  I love the description of the Argentininan – it is very well drawn – the ‘delicate hands’ and the ‘fine hair’. I like that we don’t know who Lucie is – is she the Argentinian, or another unseen figure? Each one of the poems in this path has close and detailed observation of people and life going on at its heart.  I haven’t read all the poems on all the paths – but I would really recommend putting aside a couple of hours and immersing yourself in the website.

Matt has published two collections. His first pamphlet Night Porter  was published by Templar in 2010 after winning the Templar Pamphlet Competition.  This was followed by a full collection Boxing the Compass, also published by Templar.

His work is widely published in the UK, while his translations of the work of Taiwanese poet Ami have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation and (in collaboration with Ingrid Fan) The Desire to Sing after Sunset.

Matt Bryden has an MA in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmiths College.

You can find out more about Matt Bryden from his website here and you can find the Poetry Map here

It’s My Contention – Matt Bryden

for Lucie

that the best kinds
of people eat soup.

Whether at tables
on the South Bank

lifting spoonfuls
from a cardboard cup –

like this slight Argentinian
with delicate hands,

fine hair and a jacket
which attempts

to lend her figure bulk –
or in a pub, asking

the soup of the day, taking
the time to let it cool,

eating at your own pace.

Sunday Poem – John Foggin

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Sunday Poem  – John Foggin

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.

15541609_1279314905425298_8201604401307089933_nThere 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.

 

Sunday Poem – Catherine Ayres

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Sunday Poem – Catherine Ayres

A late-night instalment of the blog as I’ve spent the whole day walking round the Kentmere Horseshoe in the mist and rain with two friends and the husband.  I decided last weekend, after an enjoyable hiking session up Seatallan with blue skies and views for miles that I wanted to do all of the Wainwright walks.  It seemed like a good idea at the time, when I was sat in the pub, eating a burger and chips and quaffing lager (followed by tea of course).   The husband took my vaguely expressed wish very seriously, and suggested the route today which would include eight Wainwright hills.

I often seem to be writing this blog in physical discomfort – it seems to be a habit I’ve gotten in to on Sundays.  My feet are killing and my legs are aching, and climbing up the stairs is a slow and arduous process tonight! The walk today was about 25 kilometres, with 4000 feet of ascent.  We actually did nine Wainwright peaks, as the husband decided he would just ‘take in’ another one.  I should add he only told us about this decision when we were halfway up the extra hill and it was too late to turn back.  It was a lovely walk though, despite there being no views at all as there was so much mist and fog.

I’ve spent the whole of this week cracking on with my marking for my university teaching.  Having avoided doing any marking for the best part of 13 years, I feel like I’m paying my dues now.  I’m not sure if it is just because it is something new, but I’ve actually really enjoyed marking the essays.  To be fair, I only had about 35 to do, and maybe if I’d had many more it would have felt a bit more like hard work.

When I’ve not been marking, I’ve been working on the blasted RD1 form.  I sent it to a few friends who gave me some good feedback on it, and yesterday I sat down and read through their suggestions.  I’ve been regularly getting overwhelmed with the RD1 and yesterday was no exception.  However, once I’d worked out that I needed to just slow down, calm down, and work through each suggestion one at a time, I think I made progress – enough progress in fact that I could justify spending today out on the fells.

Pauline Yarwood and I had our final marathon session last Tuesday to finish off our Arts Council bid for Kendal Poetry Festival.  We managed to get it sent off and now we are waiting with slightly frayed nerves to hear if we will get the funding we need.  We did get some amazing news today though – Kendal Poetry Festival is a finalist in the Cumbria Life Cultural Awards for ‘Festival of the Year’.  The award ceremony and the results will be announced February 3rd at The Theatre By The Lake in Keswick.  I’m really pleased that the festival has been selected as a finalist – I don’t know what the likelihood of winning is, but it will be a nice night out anyway.

I’ve also been working on preparations for the residential courses I’m running in the next couple of months.  The February residential with David Tait as my co-tutor down in St Ives is now sold out, but there are still places available on the April Residential in Grange-Over-Sands.  The original price for the week was £448, but as there are now only non en-suite rooms left, this has been reduced down to £396.  There are only three double rooms left, a few twins and a few singles, so if you’d like to come and want a double room, I would urge you to book as soon as possible.  You can ring the hotel on 015395 32896 and pay a small deposit to secure your room, so you don’t have to worry about paying the whole amount now.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Catherine Ayres and comes from her first collection Amazon, published by Indigo Dreams Publishing.  Catherine sent me her first collection a few months ago and it has been sitting on my ever-growing pile of books to read.  I sat down with it at the beginning of this week and read it cover to cover.  I found the whole collection very moving.  The book explores the experience of surviving breast cancer – but it is much more than this.  She writes movingly about the body, and what is left when the body is altered.  She writes about relationships and loneliness and emptiness – but this isn’t to say that the book is depressing because it isn’t.  There are moments of sadness and grief, but there is a lightness of touch to many of the poems in the collection.

One of my favourites was ‘How to get rid of elephants’ which unpacks and explores the cliche of ‘an elephant in the room’ as something not said.  This is a poem that is both heavy with sadness, yet light because of its emotional honesty and clear-eyed way of looking at things.  The elephant in the room, the things that are unsaid turn out to be

‘You Will Never See Me Naked Again
I Want To Disappear
We Still Haven’t Talked About What Happened’

There is something frightening in the directness of stating these things, and yet incredibly liberating.

The poem I’ve chosen to talk about is ‘Silence’.  It’s hard to pick out poems from this collection because although they stand on their own, I also think the poems gain momentum from being read one after the other.  However, it was this poem that made me stop reading for a minute and take a breath.

The first line is very shocking.  When I read this the first time, and this is a bit of a weird leap I know, but it reminded me of working in a men’s prison, and one of the men telling me that when I shook his hand it was the first time he’d been touched by another human being in weeks.  I know this has nothing to do with the poem in content, but that sadness about touch, or that yearning towards it is maybe what made it come into my mind.

The third stanza with the scar as a cage is beautifully expressed.  It gives both the image of the scar as the bars on a cage, but also the scar as a cage, as something that is trapping the spirit of a person inside.

The use of the question in the fourth stanza is very moving.  Here the scar has moved from a cage to a closed mouth.  Again, I find that image so striking.  If the scar is a closed mouth, then the woman must speak through the scar.  Even if she manages to speak, it will be muted.

As so often in this collection, there is some light in the poem towards the end.  The woman in the poem ‘unpicks in silence’ and the image of the rain coming at the end is a welcome noise in this poem which has been full of silence, not just the speaker, but also the lover in stanza 2 who ‘said nothing’.

There is also something very interesting going on with this poem in its shift in tone towards the end.  It starts in the first person with ‘my breast’ and ‘My lover’ until that question, which is for me the pivot and the emotional centre of the poem.  How is this achieved, when it is at this point that the poem shifts perspective? I think it is precisely because that ‘I’ voice, that first person speaker is lost in this stanza, she is silenced.  In Stanza 3 she is in the cage, and in Stanza 4, the authorial voice, or a voice from outside has taken over to tell the story.

If you would like to order Amazon you can do so from Indigo Dreams Publishing.  Catherine Ayres is a teacher who lives and works in Northumberland. In 2015 she came third in the Hippocrates Poetry Competition and in 2016 she won the Elbow Room Poetry Prize with ‘Silence’. Her debut collection, ‘Amazon’, was published by Indigo Dreams Publishing in December 2016.

Here is her wonderful poem ‘Silence’ – hope you enjoy it.

Silence – Catherine Ayres

The last man to touch my breast held a knife.

My lover said nothing;
his eyes told me to wear a vest

Sometimes I spread my hand over the scar
to feel its cage

How does a woman speak
with a closed mouth on her chest?

She unpicks in silence

until the rain comes
like burst stitches on the glass

Sunday Poem – Helen Mort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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