Featured Poet Maria Isakova Bennett

I’m delighted to feature a poem by Maria Isakova Bennett.
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I met Maria at the prize giving and launch of the anthology of the Ver open poetry competition. Maria won first prize with her poem ‘Adrift.’

My poem, ‘The Horses’ was highly commended by the adjudicator, Clare Pollard. This is the second year I have attended the event, having been lucky enough to have had a poem highly commended by Nick Drake last year.

The prize giving and reading takes place in the wonderful theatre in Verulamium  Park in St. Albans, a short walk from the flat where I used to live. I had several reasons for entering again this year. Firstly, I was blown away by the quality of entrants last year. Secondly I knew Clare Pollard would be reading. I’m a huge fan of Clare’s and have met her once or twice before so was looking forward to saying hello.  And thirdly, a proportion of the monies from this event go to a local charity, this year a shelter and support organization for homeless people in the area.

There were 865 entries and the quality of the winning and selected poems was once again outstanding. Clare gave an insight into the difficulty of selecting the 40 anthology poems. She explained, prior to giving a virtuoso reading of her own work in the second half, how ultimately, each time she reread the winning poems her sense of having made the right decisions got stronger.

Maria’s poem ‘Adrift’ packs a subtle and powerful emotional punch. It is highly empathetic and carries a compassion for its characters’ lives that seems  rooted in  experience.  You can click on the link above to read the poem. Maria has also been kind enough to provide the poem below.

Maria mostly lives in Liverpool close to the Irish sea where she makes art, stories, cakes and poetry – but mostly poetry. After filling diaries with unshared meanderings for over twenty years Maria studied Creative Writing with the Open University 2007-09, and at Lancaster University 2010-12 where she graduated with an MA. She has recently participated in Bill Greenwell’s online poetry clinics at Exeter University. Maria’s poems have been published in the UK, Ireland and the US. She also reviews for Orbis.

Maria’s first pamphlet is forthcoming later this year and will be published by Poetry Bus Press. Her work has been highly commended in the  Gregory O’ Donoghue International Poetry Competition and has been shortlisted in  and Cinnamon Press debut poetry collection.

The Paper Tree

I thrash from a sea bed to the surface, breathe,
backstroke through dreams. Last night –
Oxford. Jericho, cafes lit

in the afternoon. A panini, an Americano,
and I’m in every cafe where I talked with him
from here to Rosapenna.

The years flicker – notebook pages turn –
the story sleeps. I dig into my bag
for scissors, shred and quill paper. A tree rises

from the pages’ heart: its branches frayed.
The table is scattered with paper remnants –
the book won’t close:

I hug it to me, leave
and wander through crisp air. The tree
in my arms as my boots echo

I am with him again –
late at night in a cellar bar,
drinking till we fall.

First published in Prole

 

 

 

 

 

Hotel poetry

I’ve just listened to a radio programme presented by Paul Farley, which examined the link  between hotels and writing. It  prompted me to look up my own ‘hotel’ poem, one that was absent from both my pamphlet and my book. I’m not sure why- I  think my editor thought hotel themed poems were ten a penny.
The poem came from my experience of traveling for work. I took a couple of those ‘airport- hotel- airport’ trips and the supposed glamour of travel revealed itself to me for what it was.   A  version of this poem appeared in Iota 90.

In the Hilton Hotel

I left my heart in the Hilton Hotel,
a throb in a twist of night wound sheets.

Other trips had been marred by loss;
the credit-card in Prague, missed
when gin infused tonic at 20000 feet;

Dad’s slim gold watch, sunk into the dust
shed by 4000 guests
behind a bedside lamp.

And the ring on a soap-dish
when I handed back the key;
unintended gratuities, found in the wake

of hung-over departures,
kept by those on scant wages.
My wife noticed the pallor and torpor

as she greeted me. Later, when she laid
her ear to the vacant room of my chest,
the game was up for good.

 

Feedback. Some Thoughts.

 

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Jimi – Master of feedback.

My first experience of receiving feedback on a poem was in a workshop. The facilitator, a very fine poet and teacher, suggested that the word ‘thrum,’ which appeared in my poem, was ‘dodgy’. There was some sniggering in the group. Someone disagreed “Nothing wrong with ‘thrum’” they suggested. I was a little hurt. My confidence was shaken. After all, it had taken guts to share my work.  But several years later I found the poem in question. It was not the word ‘thrum’ that struck me but the overall tone or feel of the poem. It did not ring ‘true.’

Of course the events in a poem don’t actually have to have been experienced for a poem to work. But there has to be some ‘truth’ to the poem, some integrity that makes the poem believable on some level. My poem had been overdramatic and self important and the word ‘thrum’ seemed to me at this later date to epitomise the problem with the piece. In singling out this word the facilitator had been trying to tell me that the overall effect was disingenuous.  I should mention that the facilitator did like the last line of the poem, which was about a dorm full of sleeping soldiers, one of whom gave ‘a long low laugh/ that could only arise from love.’

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I remember these comments, positive and negative, so vividly, because I was a vulnerable soul holding up my fragile early work for examination. It was excruciating. In those days I was desperate to impress and easily upset or knocked off course. I was equally sensitive to praise and became smug and self-satisfied if positive comments were passed. I’m glad to say I am much more robust when it comes to feedback these days. And, through experience, I am better able to judge my work and better able to recognise valuable feedback when it is given and to ignore unqualified comment, by which I mean un-grounded, poorly explained feedback.

Mentor

I am interested in understanding how feedback works and what criteria make it work efficiently. I had invaluable experience of working with a mentor on my first pamphlet.  His most valuable contribution was in weeding out poems that weren’t up to scratch. At the time I was not very good at judging my own work and tended to think that just because a poem had been taken by a magazine it must be ‘good’. My mentor helped me realise this was not necessarily the case.  As we worked, (somewhat erratically and un-systematically as poets often will,) I was able to reject many of his comments and suggestions and to take others on board.

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When it came to getting the manuscript for my next book together I was fortunate in having a couple of well respected poet friends to look it over. Each provided suggestions, as well as criticisms and praise. Some of the criticisms initially annoyed me. I got over it; they were, after all, only opinions and were offered in the spirit of friendship and support.  The net effect of their help was a boost to my confidence.  This was because comments and suggestions were explained. I could clearly see the points being made and make up my mind as a result. And luckily for me, praise was part of the overall package.

I’ve sketched out a few ideas below related to this topic. Many may seem obvious,
particularly to trained educationalists and mentors, but my experiences of receiving feedback so far (in higher education, as well as less formally) have led me to believe that much of this is far from common practice.

1. Meeting to discuss work is often fruitful, but written feedback should also be given to allow time to consider and understand the feedback after the meeting.

2. Written feedback should be sufficiently detailed, stating what the reader considers to be working and why, and conversely what doesn’t and why not. There is little or no value in non-specific or vague feedback.

3.  Feedback should be clear and meaningful. Ambiguous or obscure comments are of no value and may even be frustrating or detrimental. Saying ‘I don’t like this’ is not the same as saying why. I appreciate it is not always easy to state exactly why something isn’t working but you should make every effort to do so. If, for example you say, ‘I don’t like this- it’s too heavy’- try to articulate what you mean by ‘too heavy’ and relate it to the content, structure, or whatever it is that specifically causes this response.

4. Clarity helps overcome resistance to criticism. If I don’t understand what you are saying my response is likely to be negative, confused and unproductive.

5. Feedback should be timely It goes without saying that no-one likes to wait too long for a response. If I can’t get back to someone quickly I will give them some idea of when I will and stick to it.

6. Feedback should be constructive no matter how good/ bad / indifferent the work. The idea is to maximise potential by identifying strengths and weaknesses. Highlighting areas for improvement and development need not be done in a negative or destructive way. Measured, thoughtful suggestions for alternative approaches take time and effort but will provide valuable in the long run.

7. Feedback should be honest- if not it will be worthless. Tricky, but see above. There is no point in avoiding pointing out what doesn’t work for you. Again, skill is required in communicating this type of feedback. It is always useful to point out that yours is only one opinion. Simply say why you like something and simply say why you do not.

8. Provide opportunities for the learner to respond and show they have understood or not understood the feedback. Identify helpful examples or sources related to the work. i.e, has someone else written in a similar style or on a similar subject.  Would looking at a piece of work help to inform the writer or to perhaps see something in a different light and enable a different approach?

8. Feed- forward Identify possible things to work on next. Again, try to make specific suggestions. Ask the mentee if they are interested in setting a couple of targets, either to do with reading or writing new work within a timeframe. Include a challenge .This relates to the above and has the effect of keeping the relationship going during a period when the parties are not in communication.

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Midsummer Festival and Antiphon

Sheffield’s all new Midsummer Poetry Festival is now in full swing and you can find details of events here.

The line-up features an exciting eclectic mix of poets, including a number of Poetry Business pamphlet winners  .

Highlights include readings from James Caruth, Rebecca Farmer, Holly Hopkins and Ben Wilkinson on 10th June, as well as readings from the likes of Helen Mort, Susannah Evans, David Tait, Angelina Ayres, Alison McVety , Chris Jones, Sally Goldsmith and Julie Mellor.

I’m happy to say I’ll be reading on Saturday 14th at Bank Street Arts (3:15pm -4:30pm,) with Nia Davies, John Harvey and A.B. Jackson.

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There are workshops, a symposium on putting together an anthology, and other events spaced regularly over the next few weeks, all either free or at refreshingly low prices. You can read a selection of work by poets at the festival in the new issue of the brilliant Antiphon, together with work from an international roster of poets and a selection of reviews.  You can read my own poem ‘Ammonite’ here, as well as a review of Ben Parker’s ‘The Escape Artists’ (tall-lighthouse.) here.

Spiritual Practice in Poetry

The primary purpose of this post  is to share a link with you.  It’s to an article (or rather a list)  by the poet DH Maitreyabandu called ’13 Ways of Making Poetry a Spiritual Practice’ and you can read it by clicking the link  to it at the bottom of this post.

Maitreyabandu has also written an article in Poetry Review (Volume 101:1 spring 2011) entitled ‘The Provenance Of Pleasure’ which I would equally recommend.

Both theses articles were published some time ago and if you follow the Magma blog and/or have access to Poetry Review then you may have read them before, but I think they are worth revisiting.

woman meditating on rock

I recognised the content of the Magma piece as relevant to my own relationship with poetry, exploring as it does both potential positive and negative ways of thinking and feeling about writing poetry- these words seem inadequate in this context- perhaps I should say ‘living’ poetry – including the concept of ‘success’ and dissatisfaction.

I found it useful to remind myself of central aspects of my practice, those that I wish to cultivate and maintain, and also to recognise those which are not helpful.  If this all sounds rather serious, well, it is. But seriousness in any relationship doesn’t have to result in the exclusion of fun or playfulness. I know that I will not always be mindful of what is important, or to live my best intensions.

The important thing is recognise and aspire to a truer and purer relationship with poetry, and to embrace and practice ways in which this might happen.  13 ways of working on this are suggested here.

 

Poetry at The Kitchen Garden Cafe`

Jacqui Rowe, poet and publisher (with poet Meredith Andrea) of the marvellous Flarestack Pamphlets has invited me to read at the Kitchen Garden café on Tuesday.
You can read an interview with Meredith and Jacqui on Abigail Morley’s blog.

James Sheard’s collection ‘Scattering Eva’ (Cape, 2005) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for best first collection. His poems appear in the  anthology
‘Identity Parade’ (Bloodaxe, 2010.)

I’m really looking forward to hearing James read, and to the numerous floor spots.

Looking over what I’ve selected to take I realised that I have ten ‘old’ poems (that is poems from last year’s ‘The Sun Bathers’)  and eleven ‘new’ poems. This seems like a good balance, and I’m pleased I have so much new material.
I’ll have to check again that all these poems fit into a twenty-minute slot- I’m  obsessed with not over-running my allocated time-  and I’ll be reading through the set a few more times before Tuesday to make sure I’ve got my brief intro and links sorted out.

I look forward to seeing you there if you can make it. Here are the details.

POETRY BITES 7.30 pm 27th MAY, Kitchen Garden Cafe, York Road, Kings Heath, Birmingham B14 7SA (entry through Fletcher’s, a few yards up the road). To book a floor spot contact jacquirowe@hotmail.co.uk or arrive before 7.15 pm on the night. £5 (£4 concs) inc readers.

 

Poems from nowhere and what to do while you wait for them.

I was very pleased that a new sequence of poems about my time as a nurse arrived the other evening. It was one of those occasions when I began to write without really knowing where the writing was going. These are the poems I love best; the ones that seem to know something I don’t and to spend this knowledge as they unfold, leaving me empty at the end. I am grateful for the gift of them and know that this happens only rarely. I sometimes forget that this happens and don’t think I’ll ever write a poem again.

Until next time a poem arrives in this way, I’ll intermittently practice and play with words. Some poems come from the edge of consciousness – the focus you bring when you begin to write means you are barely aware of writing them.

Poems also get written when I try to more consciously make them, and this will sometimes be ‘successful.’  By writing and reading I will hopefully keep alert to sound and immersed in language, a place where I am a humble guest.

This morning I had this idea for generating new ideas/images or even a whole poem. I made a list of questions and answered them. You can make up your own mixture of fact and fiction, abstract and concrete, scientific and mythical, or take a piece of text and corrupt it.

 

Light and Colour

Q. If light of a certain frequency encounters atoms of the same frequency the light is absorbed. What might this be a metaphor for?
A. Love at first sight.

Q  More and more fire engines are being painted yellow-green. Why?
A. The human eye is most sensitive to yellow-green. Think Roger Federer.

Q. Why is the sky blue daddy?
A. Because molecules in the air scatter high-frequency light.

Q. Why are sunsets red?
A. Only low frequencies are not scattered on the long path through the atmosphere.

Q. Shine red light on a rose. What happens?
A. Red petals reflect red. They think of themselves as hot but are not. Green leaves get hot but think they are cool.

Q. Was Robin Hood a Red-head?
A. No-one knows yet.

Q. Why are the interiors of optical instruments painted black?
A. To look and feel cool as deep space.

Q. In a dress shop that has fluorescent lighting, a customer insists on taking a garment into the daylight at the doorway. Is she being reasonable?
A. Yes, outside there is a full range of colours to be reflected. The customer is always right.

Q.  On a photographic print, your dearest friend is seen wearing a red sweater. What colour is the sweater on the negative?
A. She never wears red, but if she did it would be the opposite of red; cyan, I think.

Q. How is a laser beam like an invisible dog?
A.  You can only see a laser beam when it scatters fog, chalk dust, or mist particles in air as an invisible dog might scatter sheep in the dream of a farmer.

Q. What causes the beautiful colours sometimes seen in the burning of various materials in a fireplace?
A. I’m sorry, what was the question? I was lost in a flaming magazine.

Q. Why are iron spectral lines found in the solar spectrum?
A. Because the sun is made of iron.

Q. Which colour sinks to the bottom of the sea?
A. White Shark Bones and the memories of waves.