Thursday, 24 December 2009


All the blessings of the season to everyone, and a wonderful year to come.

Living Yule

I was there, when men squatted on haunches
to chip flint and weave webs of belief
from seasons and circles of death and growth.
The stink of boar-grease stiffening my braid
and blue whorls whispering under my skin
offered hope that darkness could end.

I put on homespun robes and tonsured my head
to walk the years when dogma stalked faith;
smoothing old ways and old faces to new shapes,
nudging builders to find safe spaces in stone arches.
Heedless of changed names for the turns of the year,
I watched the ploughman bury cakes for first cut,
crooned the song of seasons round to seed-time.

I’ve paced the years’ life and I am still here to die
ever again. Hide me beneath plastic and tinsel,
dress me in red, fatten my cheeks, disinfect my story;
the scent of old circles clings to the shade of man.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Books of the year

It's that time when newspapers, radio stations et al ask various talking heads to nominate their books of the year. There is a far better alternative for poets at Michelle McGrane's blog Peony Moon.

Michelle has asked poets to suggest their three favourite poetry books (published in 2009) and she has had such a great response that it is running to eight posts. It is a real delight and education to see what others are reading and enjoying, and such a treat to see small presses getting a fair proportion of recommendations. It's also disheartening, in a way, to see my wish-list grow to such a length that I'll never catch up with it.

It is terribly hard to choose just three and, for my own choices, I decided to choose very quickly. I knew that if I took more time I would never reach a decision but would vacillate between the many books I have bought, borrowed and enjoyed this year. I chose those books that came to mind as soon as the question was asked and those I have gone back to again and again to read poems that have stayed with me.

My choices:
The Clockwork Gift by Claire Crowther (Shearsman Books)
I love The Clockwork Gift for its fresh language and startling leaps of imagination. Claire's writing is controlled and crafted but her over-arching theme of grandmothers is approached from every angle possible as well as from angles I wouldn't have dreamt of. I am really thrilled for her to see it feature in so many poets' 'best three'; at times the poetry made me exclaim out loud in delight at its leaps and twists and turns.

Bundle o’Tinder by Rose Kelleher (Waywiser Press)
Bundle o’Tinder is a collection that could be labelled as formalist - but for me, that doesn't come close to describing it. Rose's skill in meter and rhyme is formidable, and leaves me in awe, but if anyone thinks that received form is restricting or formulaic, get this book and be astonished at what can be done. She has a light touch and and quirky sensibility as well as craft; her language is sinuous and delightful (in the true sense of the word), and she demonstrates a truly original imagination.

Chora New and Selected poems by Nigel McLoughlin (Templar Poetry)
I have to admit that I hesitated before naming this one: not because of any lack in the book itself but because Nigel was my course leader on my MA and is my PhD supervisor and I am aware that choosing his book could look like sycophancy. I only hesitated briefly though because I don't see any sense in not recommending a good book because of what some unseen reader might think - and I did choose to do the MA at Gloucestershire because I liked Nigel's work so liking this book isn't really surprising.
If I had to pick just one quality to describe Chora, it would be musicality; Nigel's use of sound is superb and often leaves me envious. He ranges across a variety of themes but his relationship to landscape and his delight in humanity (especially family) is ever present. The joy in language and its possibilities is always evident in the poems and the images memorable. There is a touch of magic - of the bog-dancer - throughout this book and it draws me back time and time again.

There are so many more books I could have chosen - but have no second thoughts about choosing, and recommending, any one of these three.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Graduation, Derwent and beyond

I graduated last Thursday so I now have an M.A. with distinction! This is not what I expected when I started the course: my previous formal education is quite scant and I don't have a first degree or even 'A' levels. I started the MA because I had been working at my poetry on my own for a few years and was getting a few journal publications but felt I was plateau-ing and wanted some input to shift up a gear. I was also attracted to this particular MA because it is Creative and Critical Writing and I felt the critical writing part might fill in some gaps for me in essay writing, reviewing etc. I wasn't sure how I would cope with the more academic parts but I do quite a bit of bid-writing, reports and so on at work so thought at least I could put something together that would read reasonably well even if it only scraped through.

What I didn't expect was just how much I would love every minute of it. I am so glad that I did part-time; full-time would have been over much too quickly for me. So, because I have been enjoying myself too much to stop, I have started a PhD and if anyone is looking at MA courses I can heartily recommend University of Gloucestershire (course leader is Nigel McLoughlin).

After I'd done the formal cap-and-gown graduation thing, I also had to go to the prize giving as I had won the Bible Society (heh!) post-graduate creative writing prize. This was for poetry or prose rewriting of a bible story and - while we were assured it didn't have to be pro-bible - I didn't expect mine to be favoured. I always loathed the Abraham and Isaac story (man almost cuts his son's throat to prove his faith) and this was my take on it:

Sarah talks to the Social Worker

If I’d known what he was thinking
I’d never have let him go.
Some Father-Son time, he said.
A bit of quality time, me and my son
and the mountain
, he said.

No, I didn’t throw him out
straight away; I didn’t know
what happened. Isaac was quiet,
started bed-wetting.
I thought it was bullying at school,
maybe, or worry about tests.

When the nightmares started,
I couldn’t understand what he meant.
I wondered if thugs had moved
into the area, worried about knives
and gangs.

Once I understood,
his father’s bags were packed
and on the doorstep before
he got home from work.

He’s got a nerve to complain
about supervised visits.
He isn’t the one left holding
a screaming child
whose nights are sharp
with the raised knife, the gleam
in his father’s eye, the blood
of that poor lamb.

It seems odd to me, a self-confessed heathen, to get a bible society prize, but I was delighted to get the cheque that came with it as it allowed me to go to Derwent Poetry Festival without worrying about the cost.

I had planned to go to Derwent anyway, and was reading there, but the extra cash meant I could stay somewhere nice (where Byron once stayed and scratched a poem on a windowpane). I drove up the day after graduation and was happy to see Pat Winslow read on the first evening as well as seeing the Templar pamphlet presentations.
The next day was full of poetry. The setting at Matlock Bath is lovely and I wished I'd had more time off booked to stay there a bit longer so I could walk and explore the area. The venue, in a restored cotton mill (now a shopping centre and museum) was quirky and just right. I really enjoyed all the pamphlet competition winners' readings: Paul Maddern, David Morley, Nuala Ní Chonchúir and Dawn Wood and came home with all the pamphlets to read. Each one of them is a worthy winner; I had only heard David Morley read before and was so pleased to be introduced to the work of the other three. As well as these, other highlights for me were Jane Wier's reading from Walking the Block and the evening reading from Nigel McLoughlin and Maggie O’Dwyer . I have heard Nigel before, of course, but always enjoy his readings - his latest book, Chora is amongst my current favourites. I didn't know Maggie O'Dwyer's work though, and was delighted to discover it (and another pamphlet added to the pile by my bed).

I was very sorry that I couldn't stay for the Sunday readings as there were poets there I would really like to have heard such as Angela Cleland and Katrina Naomi but I had to get back before the kennels closed at lunchtime to collect the golden boy.

Tuesday was another poetry day as I was reading as guest at Jacqui Rowe's 'Poetry Bites': the venue was lovely and very full with an audience who were warm and attentive (and I sold a couple of books). I usually enjoy driving at night but the storms on the motorway coming home were pretty bad and I had to battle the wind to keep the car in a straight line.

So, a full, tiring, but thoroughly wonderful few days. I'm back to the day-job now but the saturation in poetry helped my dry spell and I wrote a poem I'm quite pleased with after the weekend. I have written other things recently, but this is the first for a while where it has felt right instead of laboured and awkward.

I really must try and update this more often....


Sunday, 1 November 2009

Eye, eye, I

Your eye is no eye but an exit wound

This line is from 'Phantom', Don Paterson's elegy for Michael Donaghy in his new collection 'Rain'

It is occupying my thoughts a great deal and hearing the line, in thought, rather than reading it on the page inevitably foregrounds the connection between eye and I, which sets off further layers of meaning to turn over and prod at.

Last time I fixated on a line of poetry this way, it was John Burnside's No-one invents an absence (From the book 'Gift Songs'); it is slippery to think about and the more I thought about it, the more amorphous it became. It sqautted in my hind brain like a toad in a cellar for about 4 months and I couldn't think about anything else but it did generate a series of poems.

But I need time to think; I am in the middle of a round of funding bid writing at work and that tends to get in the way of poetry as it takes language in a different direction. When work is demanding in other ways - for instance working with a very challenging group of young people - it doesn't get in the way of poetry even though it is absorbing and draining. But bid-writing, I suppose because it is writing rather than verbal, seems to suck up my words like a black hole. I could do with taking some time off but have leave booked for other things (Derwent Poetry Festival, reading at Poetry Bites, graduation day for my MA). I also have interviews to get done for Iota, papers I need to write for conferences and journals, and work to do towards a new litfest I'm involved in next spring.

Your eye is no eye but an exit wound is demanding my focus and attention and I know from experience that I need to listen so I will have to book some evenings: not take work home, unplug the phone and hope for no family crises or demands.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Busy poetry times

Time slips away far too quickly; weeks and months just slide by when I'm not looking. There have been busy poetry times though, which is always good. Last week was Cheltenham Literature Festival and it somehow snuck up on me because I was horrifically busy at work so I didn't get any tickets before it started;I also couldn't spare the time to take any time off to go to daytime events. This isn't a big deal though,as what I most like to get to is the free 'poetry cafe' in the afternoons and I got to all five of them.

So - Monday was Sonia Hendy-Isaac and Polly Clark; Tuesday was Claire Pollard and Joe Dunthorne promoting the 'Voice Recognition' anthology; Wednesday was to have been Nigel McLoughlin and Imtiaz Dharker but Imtiaz Dharker had to pull out and I was delighted to be asked to substitute. I read in the Poetry Cafe last year and enjoy it: the audience are attentive and serious about poetry and it's always nice to get the book into the festival bookshop. As it was a 'bonus' reading, I gave my corona - Lïr - its first public outing. It went well, I think, and I appreciated the chance to try it out.
Thursday was George Szirtes and Roddy Lumsden (who was substituting for an unwell Peter Porter) and Friday was Don Paterson and Owen Sheers. I bought a number of books, some of which I haven't had time to open yet but am loving Paterson's 'Rain' and Szirtes's 'The Burning of the Books'

This week I've been up to Liverpool to read at The Dead Good Poets Society. I stayed with Colin Watts and his wife in their lovely home and enjoyed reading to a small (but attentive and perfectly formed) audience. I've never been to Liverpool before so had a tourist morning before I drove home and was glad to have seen the Liver Birds and Albert dock.

My reading and thinking continues as I try to solidify my PhD direction. I am deep into Arthur Koestler's' The Act of Creation and finding connections with all sorts of other things I've read as well as finding the first stirrings of poem sparks from it (glory be!)

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Seasonal clichés

These early autumn mornings are stunning. The bite in the air at 6.30am is very welcome after the humidity of summer and the air is clearer - my morning walks feel like soaring. Damsons, crab-apples, blackberries, hips and haws bejewel the hedges: there is something deeply satisfying about picking fruit at this time of year. As I pick my apples and pack the blemish-free ones for store, my inner hunter-gatherer is content.

And yet, and yet.. it is impossible to avoid thoughts of mortality as another year turns. The ageing nettles straggle and bow over the path, the rattling seed-heads cling to the brown stems of the cow-parsley and the first yellowing fallen leaves scatter on every path, cluster in the grass verges. The years turn all too quickly and this year, especially, having lost dear ones I am aware that I have fewer years to live than I have already lived. I'm greedy and want much, much more.

I'm unconvinced there is a poem left to write about autumn and mortality - it's been done too well, too many times. Yet clichés are clichés for a reason; in this case because the connections are inescapable.

The years turn and turn, and so do we.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Benign neglect

Nothing is happening... and yet there is a faint tickle in my hind brain. Is it a poem? I don't know yet but it tastes like a poem - or more accurately, it is only yet like the fleeting taste that passes across my tongue when a memory is triggered. The sort of fleeting taste that is like the sudden hint of long-roasted dinner brought to mouth by a certain quality of dull winter light on a Sunday afternoon.

Poems taste like iron; they taste like blood smells. The taste comes first; later there is a sense of the sound by which I don't mean meter or the shapes of words but just a sense of how a line rises and falls, quickens and slows. After these I can start to look for the words that fit.

But for now, there is just a tickle and a hint of taste and it's skittish: if I examine it, it may vanish. Is this superstition? Maybe, I don't know. It is like a nervous kitten that might approach and sniff at your hand if you don't look at it or make any sudden movements. I have to acknowledge it though, and leave it some sort of still space for it to thrive; I have to know that it's there and not crowd it out with writing I have to do for work or thinking about a paper that needs writing.

The vet I go to favours what he calls 'benign neglect' in some situations: he means to wait, watch, and don't interfere - let an illness run its course unless intervention is clearly needed. It occurs to me that benign neglect is what I have to do at this stage.

Part of me is also fascinated by the way this happens and I want to track the process if I can do so without interfering in it. Yet it is true that observing causes change by the presence of the observer.

Kittens and vets, tastes and smells; these seem odd ways to write about process and maybe unbearably twee - yet theoretical language about creative process feels too cold and mechanical. In reality, I don't have the language to talk about this part of the process because it is a wordless genesis; this seems very odd, that what may result in a thing made of language should start for me without words.

In the meantime, it may be a poem... trust the process, trust the process

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Dry spell

The book release and completing my dissertation has left me poem-dry. I am in that I don't have another poem in me frame of mind, which I loathe. The dissertation isn't due in for another three weeks and I finished it at the end of July but I keep on fiddling with it - titivating the layout and changing odd words. I think it's displacement activity; once I hand it in, I'll have to get myself in gear and start writing again - somehow.

I know it will come back, it always does. Usually, poems return slowly with just a hint or a taste of one long before any words come back. In the meantime though, I have a sense of mentally flailing around, looking for anything that might trigger the start of the process.

I can do the exercises, keep on writing something, responding to online challenges and themes - but actually, I suspect my best work has usually come from quiet periods. Maybe all that is needed is to be open to the possibility of a poem forming, maybe I need a fallow period after working flat out for a couple of years.

It's easier said than done to accept it though...

Saturday, 8 August 2009

dreaming of reading

I had a very odd dream last night.
I was reading - at a festival I think; I was reading the poem 'First things' and was about three-quarters through when someone in the audience stood up and finished it. They were reading it from the book. This was someone I knew, though not well, and I didn't think (in the dream) that he read it very well.

I found my reaction odd in the dream; I wasn't annoyed that someone had interrupted and taken over that way - I was partly pleased he liked the poem enough to want to do that, and partly sad that he didn't read it better.

On reflection, I wonder if this is to do with some stuff I have been thinking about to do with audience and my process; I often feel a poem isn't finished until it meets an audience. I know that reading a poem to an audience (however small) is different to reading it out loud to myself. The awareness of another consciousness engaging with the poem allows me to step into a different relationship with it, gives me a new perspective on it.

More to think about...

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Tell the bees

There is an old tradition that, when there is a death in the house, you have to tell the bees - whisper the news into the beehive, or they will take offence and leave.

In May a very close, very dear friend died suddenly, without illness or warning. I couldn't, and can't, write about her directly but for several days following her death, some bees presented me with a metaphor on my morning walks.

Tell the Bees

Something has plundered the bees' nest.
At the wall's foot, lichened brick
used to meld into a tangle of moss and ivy:
a ragged tear bleeds earth over the path.
Bees tread circles on the spilled soil,
wings quivering, shifting soil from place
to place and back again.

Each day I pass, I see them working;
fragments of moss, scatters of dry grass,
pulled in to cover the wound.

The sun has faded bare earth,
shrivelled exposed roots;
ivy leans over the edge of the hole,
blending into the dusty green
of the bees' repairs.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

This is it

I finally caved and started a blog. I have only found time to work out how to do this because I've finished the MA dissertation early and I am very doubtful that I'll find the time and/or inclination to keep it up, but we'll see. It may be useful when I start the PhD as a way to work through things I'm reading and thinking about.
For now though, it's just an experiment.