A visit to the West Riding

A few days ago I had the great pleasure of giving a poetry reading in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.

It is about nine years since I first read a poem in public- one commissioned by my friend Pete for the naming ceremony of his twins.  I don’t think I was entirely audible on that occasion, and like to think that experience gleaned in the intervening years has improved my listener’s experience.

Although any public performance invariably involves a quickening of the pulse, I  feel I have relaxed into reading my work, and can now share my poems as I would wish- confidently, clearly, at the right pace, and unimpaired by the shaking hand, racing heart and dry mouth that can beset the novice (and sometimes) the more experienced reader.

Winston Plowes, who runs the Poetry Shindig, is an excellent host, and the audience were attentive and wonderfully appreciative. There were certain other vital elements in place including a very good microphone and a little reading light on a bendy stalk-  in short everything one could wish for. All this and a chance to meet up with poetry mates Keith Hutson and John Foggin, the latter the subject of my last post.

Arriving earlier in the day  I had time to walk to Heptonstall along
the steepening path that leads up the side of the valley.

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It was raining and quite dark under the trees. At one point I passed a birch that had pushed down the high grit-stone wall, its roots refusing to be contained.

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I’m sure you will know that  Ted Hughes lived in the neighbouring village of Mytholmroyd until his family moved to Mexbrough when he was seven, and that Sylvia Plath is buried in the churchyard at Heptonstall.

Hughes wrote vividly about his Mytholmroyd years in the fascinating anthology ‘Worlds: Seven Modern Poets (Penguin, 1974), Edited by Geoffory Summerfield,

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and Hughes ‘Birthday Letters’ (Faber, 1998) contains the poem ‘Stubbing Wharfe’ in which he describes, in less than flattering terms the pub in Hebden Bridge where he and Sylvia sat in ‘the gummy dark bar’ one winter night in the late nineteen fifties.  As John Foggin confirmed later that evening in the comfort of Nelsons Bar, Hebden Bridge was a far darker place back then.
In Hughes poem ‘The black humped bridge and its cobbles’ are ‘sweating black, under lamps of drizzling yellow’, and despite his obvious dislike and discomfort at being back inside the ‘shut-in/ Sodden dreariness of the whole valley’ he attempts to convince both Sylvia (and perhaps himself) that they might make a home here

‘ ‘These side-valleys,’ I whispered.
‘Are full of the most fantastic houses,
Elizabethan, marvellous, little kingdoms,
Going for next to nothing.’

Heptonstall

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Heptonstall has two churches. The earlier abandoned and ruined one is shown here.

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I wondered around the churchyard and found Sylvia Plath’s grave.
On that day, maybe because of the inclement weather,  there was no-one else there, and the grave, like most of those surrounding, was tidy and without anything unusual to distinguish it. I have heard that the name ‘Hughes’ has been removed several times over the years by those who vilified the poet in the aftermath of Plath’s suicide (although this has not happened for a long while,) and that people will often leave tokens on the grave. I was glad I was alone and pleased to see that the grave bore nothing more than some well placed small plants and a single healthy pink rose, beaded with rain.

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John Foggin- stocktaking

Tonight I am excited and honoured to share some thoughts and words from the poet John Foggin, who I regard as of Britain’s finest poets of landscape, a poet whose muscular and musical work has delighted, transported and educated and entranced me since I first his poem ‘Achnacloich’ in The North  some  years ago and thought ‘Who is this guy?’

It is a fantastic poem, the best I’d read for some time, and I wondered why I hadn’t seen anything else by this writer and why this poem wasn’t in that year’s Forward collection. A few years later and John’s work is unsurprisingly featured in the Forward Book of Poetry.

John has kindly agreed to showcase a few poems here, and in response to my request for him to talk about his writing we have the added bonus of his wonderful ‘stocktake’ .

I am deeply honoured that he has chosen to let me publish his previously unpublished poem ‘A weak force’. I have just finished laying out the poems and paragraphs for this post, and my face is still wet with tears, my breath still taken away. This devastating and beautiful  poem shows how John’s work has evolved and changed, enabling him to go deeper and further than most writers ever could.

I first met John (or rather observed his immaculately waist-coated bright-eyed and tanned personage) at a Poetry Business writing day in Sheffield five or six years ago.  During a read around of work written that morning he fluidly piled words upon words to describe the interior of a shed or garage or attic. I hope John will forgive me for not remembering the exact location he described, nor the name of the poem in question. I do know that I didn’t want the poem to end. It was evident that John knew his materials (both the language he wanted to use and the physical objects such as rope and tacks and tools) so well, and handled them with such precision that the list of objects sang and gathered in layers to build a sense of place, and, more miraculously, a sense of the person who had collected them. This description doesn’t really do justice to John’s skill, so I hope you will gain some idea of how his poems build from the poems that follow.

On another occasion I was to benefit from his support and encouragement as he commented, after I’d read  my own draft, that we were ‘in Heaney territory here’. This was the first time I’d ever had a poem compared to another poet’s work, and as far as I was concerned, Heaney was a pretty good place to start. John is now well known for his ‘cobweb’ (he dislikes, as we all do I suspect, the word ‘blog’)  a space he utilises to generously air his thoughts and to champion poets whose work he feels we should know about.

John has been published in lots of magazines, and has an impressive record of winning competitions including the Lumen Camden competition which lead to the publication of his wonderful Ward Wood pamphlet Larach,
a soulful, cerebral collection which you can purchase here.  

Ladies and gentlemen, John Foggin.

John's picture

About 12 years ago I finished an MA course in Creative Writing that I was ill-advised to have started. I don’t know what my motive was, but my heart wasn’t in it. I duly got my MA, but the writing didn’t start in any meaningful way until I started going to the Poetry Business Writing Days on a regular basis a couple of years later. Even then, between 2007 and 20012 I averaged about twelve new poems a year.

Something strange (or, rather, wonderful) happened in 2013; it was like a dam bursting. I’ve written ceaselessly since. 272 new poems. I cannot account for it, but I’m happy to count my blessings. And I can now look back and see a curious process and progress.

In one of the essays I wrote for my MA I see that even then I had an idea about where I wanted to be. I wrote that my imagination was:

‘visual ,excited by landscape, particularly the landscape of hills, fells, sky, sea and weather’. but that I wanted to be more: concerned with explorations of people in landscape, and the meaning of their histories.’

Basically, all my poems were like the photograph of the shore at Achnacloich. Empty of people. Which leads me to a shift, of sorts. Back then, even before I started on an MA, I went up to Skye for a week on my own TO WRITE. I would write about Clearance sites. I would read John Prebble. I would take poets with me. I would be serious about it.

Not much came of it except this one poem that eventually was accepted by ‘The North’. I didn’t know that was a big deal. I know better now. The backstory is that I was getting myself lost as usual up on the moor, following, and losing, deer tracks, and looking out towards Rhum, and back to the Cuillin, and realising that I couldn’t see any of it straight. It was all coming through the lens of Ted Hughes and his stags, and his stones and his horizons. And it was that frustration that I wrote about. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but when I came home to radio and newspapers, I discovered that had been the day that Ted Hughes had died, and I thought that made the poem worth keeping. Here it is.

                       Achnacloich: October 1998

As the heron creaked clear
of the wet alders by the brown burn,
taking a line from the curve of the fell
where the eagle had mantled
and flown lazy and sure to the far edge of things,
you were watching, old hawk, among the crofts,
the sheep staring mad-eyed
at your insurance man’s suit
shiny at cuff and collar, creased at knee,at elbow.
You watched and talked all that wet day,
your gritstone vowels, your cadences
open as the sky; falling for ever.

You were there on the shoreline,
rooting through the blueprint bones
of sheep, those scattered vertebrae,
this relic jawbone clamped on silence
among the stones, the hiddle of baling wire,
mired iron sheeting, rust.
Across the green and sopping parks
sheep huddled in the lithe of the long wall,
and beyond, on the bareblown hill
the deer were waiting for you and me;
alert and wary, then, pouring easy as light
up the tumbled slopes and out of sight,
in those gulleys gouged in the cold hills.

Heaven poured down on Rhum,
fans and blades of honey, silver-gilt.
As we walked and watched that day
in Achnacloich; old hawk, you saw
the pressed dry grass where the deer lie,
a single slot in a cup of peat;
the buttresses of turf, of heather, tangled whin,
and, always the horizons calling
until, far below and far away,
the wood was a struggle
a scattering foil of birch and bloodbead ash.

There we stood in the high place
where rock was kneeling, clean and dry and bright
and all the earth was a stage
for the performance of heaven.
The tumbling outcrops fell away;
away, away beyond the foundering islands,
beyond the damascened sea.

The stones, the light, the rain,
all fixed in the reflex of your hawk’s eye.
Wherever I walked in Achnacloich,
The Field of Stones, that day your words,
joined with earth and engraved in rock
were under my feet. That day.

    (Ted Hughes d. October 28 1998)

I realise now it more than just a bit of landscape painting, and that I was enjoying collaging lines of Hughes’ poems into my own, and I was actually writing about something personal. But I didn’t stay with it.

It was another 5 years before I started again, and I made a big effort to populate my poetry. I took my cue from The world’s wife and worked away at ventriloqual monologues spoken by fallen angels. I like some of them, but no-one else seems to. I wrote about John Waterhouse, the painter, and his wife, and his favourite model. More dramatic monologues that didn’t go anywhere very much. And then a long hiatus, though I started going regularly to The Poetry Business Writing Days, and they slowly worked their magic. Tentatively, I started to write about real people, but very self-consciously and awkwardly until 2013 when I was on a writing residential and I wrote this poem that changed everything.

Julie

According to the specialists you died six months ago
and I like sitting with you, proving there’s an afterlife
as we roll cigarettes, you perched like a wire bird
up on your kitchen top beside the angel
that I made for you before I knew you weren’t alive.
Your fridge’s crusted like a wreck, with magnets
and pictures of Bob Dylan, and you show me
that programme that Patti Smith had signed, for you,
not knowing you’d been applauding from the Underworld.
You make me laugh each time you tell the phone
it can get stuffed because it’s your mad mother
who will not believe that you’re not with us any more.
Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face,
then sink, then glow like cigarettes, like the ironworks
up the coast, or the small lights on the cobles
tied up and tilted on the mud; like the strange flares
from the stack high up on Boulby Cliff, where the shaft
goes down a whole dark mile of ammonites, and heads off
away beneath the weight of oil rigs, and sunken ships,
and shoals of cod, and all the grey North sea.

This poem, about someone I was very fond of, only happened because of the pressure of a fast writing task that ambushed me into knowing an emotion I didn’t know I felt. Thank you for that ‘write from a postcard’ task, Jane Draycott. I plucked up the courage to give a copy to Julie’s brother at her funeral. He liked it. He shared it with people, and I sent it off for the Plough Poetry Competition, where Andrew motion liked it and gave it the first prize. That’s what changed everything. It gave me permission to think I could write, along with the encouragement of Kim Moore (who put one of my poems on her Sunday Poem blog), and Gaia Holmes, who gave me a guest slot at the Puzzle Hall Poets. That was it. The dam broke.

Years of reading and teaching, and having a family and a history were stacked up, waiting to be dealt with and voiced. It took 70 years, but I finally got going. More fallen angels, poems for my parents and for my grandparents, and my children, and long-ago girlfriends, and finally, folktale and myth that became imaginatively real and relevant for the first time in my life. Daedalus let me write about the death of my son. Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Garfield and Blishen’s The god beneath the sea reminded me why I loved Prometheus and Hephaestus, and why I loathed most of the Greek Pantheon. Norman MacCaig taught me it was possible to write about gods and heroes with the ease of familiarity. Which is what lies behind this poem that I chose to put into my chapbook Larach (along with John Keats’ urn and Orpheus and the rest). It’s nice to feel comfortable enough to be angry in a poem.

True stories

Violent and vulgar as the Krays comes Zeus,
a white bull, miasmic with testosterone,
or a shower of gold, or a flurry of wings
and swansdown.
The whole pale mortal world
just asking for it.
A bit of blood and bruising.
No harm done.

No wonder Cronos had no stomach
for Olympus and its thuggish brood.

Roman Ovid knew blood clogs scabbards,
stiffens nets; the blue-white shine of bone;
the gristly wet noise of a boy
spitted on a hunting spear;

Years and reverence
bleached Greek myths white and silent,
censored severed hands and torn-out tongue;
the loud incontinent reek of death.

As if hyacinths, pale anenomes,
the silvery liquid song of nightingales
would atone, somehow.
Birds and flowers, and cold bright stars –
archers,hunters, bear and plough.

Surely simpler, and more godlike,
to prick holes in the fabric of the night,
let bits of heaven shine through.

I suspect all my pent-up frustrations about arrogant Old Etonians and their sense of entitlement, and their palpable contempt for the rest of us has fed into this. Whether it’s healthy or not, I don’t know. But I enjoyed writing it. I like doing it at open mic. events, too.

The last year has brought new breakthroughs that I’ve recognised in the moments where they happened. I’ve reached a point where I can write with what feels like real emotional/imaginative truth about the things that matter to me more than anything. It’s a long business, learning not to shy away from hard truths. Kim Moore has taught me that in her poems that deal with domestic violence in her lovely collection, The art of falling. And then, in March this year, in a residential she ran, she somehow ambushed me into writing a poem about my son’s suicide, direct, unmediated through games with myth and personae. It’s the poem I’ve waited all my life to write.

 A weak force

there’s sometimes a loss you can’t imagine;
the lives never lived by your children;
the one who simply stopped
in the time it takes
to fall to the ground
from the top of a tower block.

No time at all.

They say gravity is a weak force.
I say the moon will draw 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,
on the 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 sank like the sun.

Thanks for inviting me, Roy Marshall. It’s been good to take stock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time passes…

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Cave Prints
27/o7/15

Back from a trip to Picardy,
seated in my box-room office
and looking for a change
in more than weather,

I take down the linocut
of a hare among poppies,
a skull from Da Vinci’s notebook,
Clausen’s head of a fair

and serious girl, the abstract in oils
by someone  I knew in another life,
a Van Gough postcard  and a portrait
by Modigliani, but leave

the aboriginal flurry
of red and yellow hands
framed ten years back,
minute fingers and leafy palms

in autumnal colour
as fresh as if just lifted
from a tray of poster-paint,
gently pressed and held to paper.

Good news

I’m very pleased to have received news that my book, The Sun Bathers has been shortlisted for the Michael Murphy prize. You can read the full shortlist on the Poetry Society webpage here.

As you will see if you follow the link, it is an illustrious list containing some brilliant poets and so I’m surprised and delighted to have made the shortlist.  I’m grateful to my publisher, John Lucas of Shoestring Press for entering the book for the bi-annual prize which is for a ‘distinctive first collection’. The prize was instigated by colleagues of the late Michael Murphy, who tragically died at the age of 43 of a brain tumour in 2009.
There’s more a little more information about Michael and the prize that bears his name here.

It has been a joy of receive congratulations from many poets through social media. In addition to this, any writers reading this will know how important it is to receive the occasional affirmation to help offset the nagging doubts and insecurities about their work.  Yesterday, I was fretting over the latest drafts of the next book . Today I’ll just let myself count my blessings and remember all the hard work that went into the last one. Thanks.

Why I write, continued.

Why I write, part five.

wave

Some reasons to write. Vanity. Maybe, a bit. Politics. They’re in there. Preservation of histories, mine, ours. Anger; unresolved, redirected, worked out. For the love of language, the malleability of it, the carpentry of poems. And love, sometimes, maybe, if I am brave enough.

Why I write, part six

A Mystery.

Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to do this. Writing should be fun. A privilege. What metaphor can I employ to tell you how dissatisfied I am with my latest poem?  How about a hydro-electric metaphor? I am dissatisfied with my failure to convert the wave containing idea and emotion into a form of electricity. When the poem, or the genus of the poem arrived, it felt powerful, smooth, inevitable, generous, gorgeous.
Where did that energy come from? Where is it now?

Why I write, part seven.

I’m in a metaphorical dance hall. There is a lot of potential distraction.
There is possibility in the air.  There is a poem here somewhere, waiting to dance. I’m shy, but I gather courage. The poem takes my hand at my first approach. This feels natural, although I’m slightly nervous and slightly high with excitement. We dance for a while. I have not trodden on its feet. I have not said or done anything to cause offence, to cause it to leave. I’m playing it cool. But not too cool. We will dance. We will practice. We will become complete.

Why I write, part eight.

There were nursery rhymes. There were all kinds of jazz records with voices and rhythms and wonderful lyrics. There was my sister’s pop and rock. There was a transistor radio. There was ‘If I Had a Hammer’. There were hymns. There was ‘Top of the Pops’.

Why I write, part nine.

Kerouac and wearing black.

I’m sixteen and I’ve met a guy at FE college who writes poems. I’ve written poems myself, to be read only by my girlfriend. This guy is serious. He has long hair and wears black, even in summer. He doesn’t try to get his poems published. We don’t care or know about any of that. It is enough to be poets and wear black boots even in summer and smoke. We are poets, even though I have only read a bit of Dylan Thomas and Ted Hughes and I only write a few (although I mean what I write and remember them still) and never show them to a soul.

Why I write, part ten

I think maybe I’ve got used to this rush that is like nothing else. Here it comes, the swell. I am riding the poem, I am on it, I am cutting through the tunnel of the wave forever

Why I write, part eleven

There is a block of stone in the middle of my afternoon. There is a poem inside. I must get my tools. I’ll go to get them slowly, or at a run, depending on how daunting the block is,  how sharp my tools are and where I’ve left them.

Why I write

Why I write, part one.

My exercise book comes back with ‘see me’ written in it. But it’s ok. This time there are lots of ticks in red pen and an ‘excellent’ at the end.
The teacher wants to tell me that I’ve written a really good story. Crucially, I already know it is a good story. When she asked me if this is all my own work, I am able to lie convincingly since I am convinced . I am able to lie convincingly because  although I know that my story has been heavily ‘based’ on the Puffin book I’ve read and loved, I know the story is still mine.  I have inhabited the story, and this, and my subversion and adoption of it, makes it all the more mine . I’m ten years old and I’ve been rushed along in the writing of it. I’ve felt older than I am, in control, and though I don’t know how to describe this feeling, I have been simultaneously lost and found. My teacher asks me to read my story aloud to the class. She records my reading on a cassette tape. She has overlooked my undulating pencilled handwriting, the phonetic spelling, the doubtful provenance, the backwards d’s and b’s. Thank you, Mrs Goodman.

Why I write, part two.

Almost forty years have passed. I’m typing this at speed, crouched over the keyboard, shouting downstairs to my son to turn the telly off, help himself to cereal if he’s still hungry after the tea I’ve made for us. I’ve been driven to this keyboard. The washing up is still to be done, tomorrows sandwiches are yet to be made. The desire to communicate has surfaced despite the fact that my wrists and forearms, shoulders and back, are sending messages of pain that I suspect are familiar to many writers, some of whom may not even out of their thirties. The pains are related to poor posture, repetitive strain, possibly carpel tunnel. I wake up with pain. It fluctuates. It is self inflicted. When I’m in a mood to communicate, as I am now, the pain is a chronic irrelevance. It shoots up my arms to let me know I am transgressing some limit; that late night stint at the keyboard or those days of intensive writing, unproductive, transcendent or somewhere in-between, have extracted a price.

I am writing this to post on the internet, that incredible interface between us which allows me to publish what I am writing almost as soon as I have thought it and also allows you to respond if you so wish. For this reason  I feel the need to add that I don’t need advice about desk ergonomics, anti-inflammatory drugs, Pilates, the benefits of core strength exercise or swimming. I know. I should look after myself. I know this in the same way a smoker knows that he or she should not smoke. Thank you for your concern, if, indeed,  you are concerned. And if you are suffering as I am, then please, see a doctor and  think about your writing posture.
But my point is this. Despite each key-strike causing pain, despite the fact I will receive no financial gain from this piece, I’m still writing it and what I want to know is, why?

Why I write, part three

It is 1980. I am going to a party. Yellow socks are in. People are snogging all-over the front room of someone’s house. The girl whose parents own the house are out. Her name is Susannah or Jane and I don’t really know her or how I got invited. I meet a girl. We start going out.  She is impressed when I give her some poems I’ve typed. Need I say more?

Why I write, part four

It is nearly two o’clock in the morning. I think this poem is finished. If I were in a frame of mind for analysis, I might find I have explained something of my own life to myself. I will hopefully have explained it in a way which might reflect someone else’s life. For now, in this moment, I have transformed the world. My past has collided with my present in mid-air and there has been a miraculous controlled landing. I am tired but elated. For now.

Tiffany Anne Tondut, featured poet,

I met Tiffany at the launch of Magma magazine, issue 61, and was struck by her poems (she read two) which seemed to have an authority and memorable originality. I felt there was an unusual vibrancy and freedom to her work ( ee cummings sprang to mind), which can only be a good thing.
After I complemented Tiffany and asked her if she would like to be featured here, she kindly supplied the following poems and this brief biography.  Having heard Tiffany read a few of her poems I was obviously aware of the technical skill, dexterity  and emotional resonance of her work, but  nevertheless, I was unprepared for the impact of ‘Canary Girls’, or the breath-taking power of  w’althemstow h’eights,  which I am very pleased to publish here.

After publication in Poetry News, Tiffany’s poems have appeared in Rising,
The Moth, Morning Star, The Rialto and elsewhere. She is interested in  ‘outlaw, lyrical, and dialect poetry.’ Much of her work is influenced by, and explores, modes of Lorca’s  ‘duende’.Tiffany is re-launching Silkworms Ink as co-poetry editor and her pamphlet beautiful bastards / beautiful bitches is, slowly, forthcoming.  You can find out more at www.tiffanyannetondut.com

floodlights

i promised to write about your black jeans
but then i read an almost made up poem
by charles bukowski. bukowski and his girl
wrote letters back and forth but that was way back
in the 70s when they didn’t have facebook.
i guess i could write you paper letters
between our electronic ones, then at least
we could touch the same sheets.
bukowski’s girl wrote poems about angels and god
in capital letters. the poems i type for you
are in lower case, but bold. i’ve hung out with famous
actors & artists, but unlike her, only some of them
were my lovers. the men i’m dating now you’re ok with,
you’re not jealous, because we haven’t met.
we got close three times but you cancelled twice
and i pulled out the last. i wish i hadn’t, but i’d physically
met a man that week, on the street, and you wrote:
i hope he treats you like the diamond that you are.
he didn’t, of course, and what i’ve found out, is men like him
don’t care about the poems inside the girl, just the girl
whose lips kiss their egos for a night. it makes me wonder
why men who touch me disappear, when you message me
every day with virtual love. one night, you left a voicemail
on my phone about a sandwich. hearing your drunk
yorkshire accent made me laugh with pain. i wanted
more. i know i’m not the best female poet on the scene
but all i care is maybe you think i am. and i love you
the way a woman loves a man she’s never met,
only cherishes his photos, his texts. i know i’d love you more
if i could see your black jeans discarded on the floor
of your brighton flat, the one with the balcony, and i’m
stroking your nude back saying “remember floodlights on our skin?”
but that hasn’t happened. perhaps it never will
and my poems will sadden. men will keep forgetting me
or worse, i’ll meet a nice enough guy and never write you again.
i don’t have a crying bench, near a bridge, over a river,
where i go every night and weep for who i haven’t touched,
but that doesn’t mean i don’t think of going there.
unlike bukowski, you haven’t heard about my suicide.
i only write of wanting to die. in 3 or 4 months
i hope i’ve met you. and i don’t care if you’re unfair to me.
i’ll be unfair to you.

w’althamstow h’eights

a were gypsy, loose as orse:
aughty, ungry, nobody’s flame;
are-bell eyes, slew as curse.

a thought e wouldn’t want me, bu e did.

e drove me oop t’heath fer windswept walks.
we parked, fidgeted, talked.
e said a smelt of life,
is valley girl.
a named im darkling –
pupils so black, stars culd sink.

a loved the damage in is grin
an the danger.
e loved me wild, bu culdn’t let me go.
oft-times e buckled, gripped, slipped –
called me philistine, o bitch.

a writhed.
e said a needed taming.
a reared.
e brought a riding crop.
a howled.
e broke me in.

a thought e cannot kill me. bu e did.

Canary Girls
i.m ‘The Canary Girls’ of Munition Factories 1914-1918

No machine had ever felt the plumage of a girl.
No girl had ever flown inside the cabin of a crane
and worked it.

News broke swift – fields of houses emptied.
Whole factories beating deft with women’s wings.

Every flock had tools to ply:
some hammered, quick as beaks; others preened steel
or weighed and measured, nursing bombs
with a mother’s eye.

New girls hatched in night shifts –
faces bright as yolk from packing shells with TNT.

Feathers erupted – streaks of fire through skin.
Some girls burned, blew away.

After hearing Amy Winehouse on the radio this morning

 

 

Amy

Back To Black

Success, whatever it was, whatever
you thought it was, stuck its tongue
in your mouth, undressed you swiftly,
had its way, and left. The accolades
need not have led to emptiness,
left you smashed on arrogance,
a cocktail of insecurity and conceit;
nor soured your breath, lain down
on your voice the way an LA heat-haze
lays down to smother morning breeze;
nor pulled you into lights that left you
looking into black, the audience
out there somewhere, gazing back,
heads level with your feet.

26/05/15.

Another version – now an ‘unlucky’ or 13 line sonnet. Although I liked the idea of her feet being level with people’s heads, I think this is tighter and better.

Back To Black

Success, whatever it was, whatever
you thought it was, stuck its tongue
in your mouth, undressed you swiftly,
had its way, and left. The accolades
need not have led to emptiness,
you smashed on arrogance,
a cocktail of insecurity and conceit;
nor soured your breath, lain down
on your voice the way an LA heat-haze
lays down to smother morning breeze;
nor pulled you into lights that left you
looking into black, the faces
out there somewhere, gazing back.

Another version, 2 days later..

Back to Black

Success, whatever it was, whatever
you thought it was, stuck its tongue
in your mouth, undressed you swiftly,
had its way, and left. The accolades
need not have led you to emptiness,
smashed on arrogance, a cocktail
of insecurity and conceit;
nor soured your breath, lain down
on your voice the way an LA heat- haze
lays down to smother morning breeze;
nor pulled you into lights that left you
looking into black, an audience
out there somewhere, gazing back,
their heads level with your feet.

An Interview with Jane Commane, publisher, editor and poet

Jane in a hat

Hi Jane. Firstly, I’d like to congratulate you on the success of Nine Arches Press. You’ve managed to publish a steady stream of poetry collections as well as Under The Radar magazine, and Nine Arches also contributes to the poetry scene in the midlands and beyond with excellent events such as the regular Shindig! readings.  You’ve also been the first publisher in residence at a poetry festival, and Nine Arches is receiving some well deserved attention, winning a Sabotage award for most innovative publisher last year and recent high profile reviews in the Guardian and elsewhere.

 When did you first have the idea to set up an independent press and did you model Nine Arches on any other publishers? Did you seek advice from established presses when setting out?

I was working for another small publisher at the time. As that post finished, it just seemed like there was a lot of great, unpublished work out there, and a lot of talent that wasn’t really finding a platform. Under the Radar magazine emerged first, as a way of providing an outlet for some of that, and the publishing then grew pretty rapidly from that point in all kinds of directions.

UTR
Under the Radar

In those early days, I think Nine Arches drew lots of inspiration from various publishers, rather than any single one, though I have long admired Bloodaxe’s poetry books (The New Poetry was given to me as a teenager and turned me onto contemporary poetry), and enjoyed a lot of Faber, Carcanet and Arc poets at that time too. In part, it was about setting out to do something a bit different from what was already on offer and make our own place within things. I had this sort of idea that a publisher could be like my favourite independent record labels – a distinctive style and approach but with lots of individual voices on board.

I was incredibly lucky in that I didn’t have to look far for advice and support – in many instances it came to me. A few months after setting up the press in 2008, Nell Nelson at HappenStance sent me a lovely and very supportive note.   Others too were immensely kind and offered encouragement and support;  not least Simon Thirsk at Bloodaxe Books, who over several years has been a very generous source of a lot of sound and sensible advice, for which I am deeply grateful. Being part of Inpress also means that there is a sense of comradeship and friendly support between publishers – Tom Chivers at Penned in the Margins and Clive Burnie at Burning Eye Books also inspire me, and though what we all publish is quite different, we do enjoy catching up and sharing experiences and talking about publishing.

mELANCHRINI
Melanchrini, From Nine Arches 

Seven years in and I’m about to take the plunge this summer and become a full-time self-employed publisher, writer and editor. That’s both very exciting and just a little scary at times – but most of all I can’t wait to have more time to dedicate to Nine Arches, the books and to the poets I work with.

Congratulations on your self employment-  a well deserved reward for all your hard work and dedication!  I’m sure the readers of this piece will join me in wishing you continued success and all the best with this important work.  It’s also great to hear how supportive others in the poetry world have been.

The artwork, design and distinctive house style of Nine Arches books and Under the Radar magazine are impressive and reflect a strong sense of identity and commitment to design. Could you tell me a little about the images you use? Have you any formal training in photography, web design or other aspects of the visual arts?

The images we use mostly come from a brilliant young photographer called Eleanor Bennett – her images really struck me as distinct and eye-catching. We also occasionally use images from elsewhere, like Jo Bell’s cover which is by artist Heather Duncan.

kITH

I have some formal training – I did an Arts course at college, I loved making imaginary record sleeves and little fanzines when I was a teenager, and I’ve done the odd bit of training here and there, but mostly I have picked up these things as I’ve gone along – I taught myself to typeset and bought old software cheaply off eBay when I first set out to get things up and running.

I understand that you have, for the time being, moved away from pamphlet publishing in order to concentrate on full collections. I wondered if there were economic reasons for this shift or if there was another reason for this change in focus?

Mainly economic, partly instinct. I love pamphlets, don’t get me wrong – I am immensely fond of them and I think they are a vital part of the poetry ecosystem.

But it did feel Nine Arches had to make a move away from them if the press was to grow and if we were to ever stand a chance of selling the poetry book collections in larger numbers. Pamphlets are labours of love, and take a lot of time and care, almost as much as a full collection in many ways. Yet in the main they cannot be sold in most bookshops and their pricing isn’t viable for online retailers. I did want to build Nine Arches, and knew as popular as the pamphlets were, their audience would always be a little bit more limited – my hope has been to try and bring poetry to bigger audiences, and to do that I think that the shift to books only was a big but important step.

If you want a publishing house to grow in any way, you do have to be aware of ensuring you keep evolving what you do – having itchy feet is important, it makes you keep pushing on to try new things and improve what you do. Each year I hope the books have evolved a little bit more – I’ve just made a decision to upgrade our covers and production values this year on all future titles, which has been a big step, but also a commitment to readers, to poets and to our own future as a publisher. I want our books to be artefacts that readers treasure and return to.

Tony Williams

With regard to editing collections, I wonder if you could say a little about what you think makes a good editor?

Care, attentiveness; the ability to listen as well as challenge and gently support writers to make their poems the very best they can be.

I tend to edit collections in several stages – there is no point going at poems with the hedge shears and hacking at them – that way you lose the nuances. You want to tread with care and see what’s beneath the wilder fringes of a poem! And often, you are trying not lose too much of that essential wildness in the editing process. I also want to build a good editorial relationship with that poet – to better understand where they are coming from, what’s at the heart of their writing and what we need to fix and what we need to just tweak and refine. Every single poet and collection is different, and will need differing amounts and types of editorial input.

It’s about being respectful, but also being able to challenge and ask questions of poets – ‘what does this mean’, ‘why this word/phrase’ or ‘what are you trying to say here?’. We’ll talk these things through, and if a poet has a good enough reason for something, it’ll stay. There’s this mutual trust too – so I’ll take that leap of faith with them in cases where I can see and understand something matters and is important to leave in, even if that moment I’ve not quite grasped it myself. No editor is infallible or perfect, after all; you have to be willing to go with some things in poems, give them time to settle like sediment, trust the poet in what they’re doing.

Matt's Book

 Matt Merrit’s Elephant Tests
Read a review here.

 Would it be possible to broadly define a style, a particular type of work that Nine Arches are most likely to be interested in?

I usually do resist trying to be pigeonholed like this, and I don’t like to define what Nine Arches does too much, as I think it’s both limiting to our existing poets and to those who might read, buy or submit to us. I like to surprise and be surprised!

But if we are going to try to talk about what I’m looking for in a poetry collection, I am most interested in original and striking work that speaks with its own, distinct voice. Poets who aren’t trying to be like anyone else. And poets who keep trying to get better, evolve, do their thing differently or simply just grow as a writer and have a unique perspective on things to offer readers and audiences.

In many ways it is so much easier to tell you what I’m not looking for!

I wondered if your role as an editor has had any effect your own writing, and if so how?

Yes – mainly in that I don’t have very much time to write now I’m an editor! But joking aside, actually, most of the impact is far more positive on the whole. You can’t be precious about your own poems when you have to so objective about other peoples’ poems. So you do become a quicker, more decisive editor of your own work. Being an editor does allow you to develop a bit more detachment in the process of redrafting and refining the poems – and makes you less tolerant of darlings and suspected flim-flammery in your own poems. If I can’t convince myself of the need to keep something, or if I can take it away and, like a Jenga tower, the rest of the poem still stands, I know it’s right to edit it out.

With regard to your own poetry, can you sight any influences on your work? Are you working on a collection at the moment?

I have a number of influences; RS Thomas is one of my all-time favourite poets for that subtle precision, the sharpness and doubt. Louis MacNeice too. Allen Ginsberg was a fond teenage favourite, as was Plath, and both remain close to my heart. Alice Oswald’s Dart had quite a big  impact on me early on when I was trying to think about how to write about places and landscapes and structure my work.

Dart

I love the poems of Claire Crowther with their quirky and magpie-eye for a sharp, inventive turns of phrase. I have a great fondness for John Clare; there’s a connection for me with his work in terms of the political nature of English landscape.

I have long been interested in poets of the Second World War too, like Alun Lewis and Keith Douglas, and more recent war poets like Brian Turner.  I like work that is political and outspoken; I am drawn to Peter Reading’s terrifying/electrifying poems, and admire for very different reasons the Midlands elegies of Roy Fisher, and Joel Lane’s quicksilver lines. And a wide range of contemporary poets with exacting, strong and original voices – poets like Liz Berry, Daljit Nagra, Luke Kennard, Kei Miller, Imtiaz Dharker, Helen Mort and many others.  I try to read widely, and do also read a lot of pamphlet and small press collections.  I’m trying also to read more international poetry, and read more poetry in translation at the moment.

There’s quite a few non-poetry influences too – music being a big one, as well as film and art. Anything weird and stirring basically, so from Twin Peaks to Stanley Spencer’s incredible paintings. And place too – I find place, its history, landscapes and stories (particularly places marked by industry or social change) probably the number one influencer of my work. Place is always political and always has something to say for itself. I also love museums and history, and maps are bit of an obsession too, it has to be said. Give me an OS map and I’ll be happy all day.

Maps and Leg.

Maps and Legends available
at Nine Arches.

I’ve not so much been working on a collection but slowly drawing together a body of poems over a number of years which is now starting to resemble a collection of poems in some form I hope. I have regained a better sense of my writing in the last two years too – there was a time when my confidence in my own poetry took a bit of knock, and lost faith in my writing, but I’ve been going through a process of rediscovering my work in a way and that has felt rather exciting and incredibly liberating too.

Thank you so much for your time Jane. 

Magma 61 Launch

Last Friday I attended the launch of Magma 61 magazine at the Poetry Review bookshop in London’s Bloomsbury. I arrived early, as I always do when I can, and walked to the venue from Kings Cross St. Pancreas via the British Library with its Eduard Paolozzi sculpture in the piazza

P1020375

and the amazing, and at the time of writing still free, British Museum which
was hosting an exhibition on Greek sculpture.
P1020387

The streets around Shaftesbury Avenue, where I used to wonder the guitar shops some thirty years ago (do you know the song ‘Wild West End’ by Dire Straits?) looked quite different, and the air was full of Spanish and Italian voices in this most cosmopolitan of cities.

I’d previously attended launches of this excellent magazine, which has a theme and a guest editor for each issue, at the Troubadour, a venerable coffee shop and relic of a bohemian past that had seen performances by luminaries of the  British Jazz and Folk scene of the fifties and sixties including Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. Much as I had enjoyed the atmosphere at the previous venue, it was lovely to wander around the bright and fantastically well stocked Poetry Review Bookshop.  With time to spare, I popped into the nearby Oxfam Bookshop and managed to pick up a Faber copy of Seamus Heany’s 1991 collection, Seeing Things  for a bargain £2, as well as Don Patterson’s new ‘readers guide’ to the poems of Michael Donaghy ‘Smith’ for £6, which I’ve dipped into since and can highly recommend .

A good start to the evening. Returning to the London Review bookshop ,
I was pleased to see fellow Leicestershire poet Pam Thompson, as well as having a brief chat with headline reader Simon Barraclough whose new book ‘Sunspots’ (Penned in the Margins) has been recently published before the reading began.

P1020384

This edition of Magma is entitled  ‘The Streets’ and contains a marvellous range of work related in some way to this theme.  Magma is a brilliant magazine, featuring established writers (this issue contains a poem by Christopher Reid, among many other widely published poets) alongside those with somewhat shorter publishing records. If you have tried to get into this magazine before, do keep sending them your work. As I’ve said before persistence pays off when submitting to magazines, and with revolving editorship, a new theme for each issue and a wide variety of styles of work published , you may just have the poem the editors are looking for to complete the next issue.
Magma 61
The poems and poets were introduced by Jon Sayers, co-editor of this edition, who spoke of the great pleasure (and hard work) that had gone into the selection of the poems in this edition from over 2000 submissions that were sent in. It was a great evening with many stand-out readings. I particularly enjoyed work by Christine Webb, Pam Thompson, Tiffany Anne Tondut (whose poems I’m hoping to feature here in the near future)  and Linda Goulden.

Magma Launch

Also impressive was Gram Joel Davis who faultlessly recited his long poem ‘World Away’  without reference to the text. Simon Barraclough rounded off the evening in fine style with a selection of work old and new.

I was pleased that several people approached me to say they had enjoyed my own poem, ‘Google Street View’ which I introduced by recalling that some seventy years ago bombs had fallen across this city and that my Dad was one of the people sheltering underneath them.

Me at Magma 61  Launch

I had time to round off the evening with  a drink or two with poet and teacher Neil Elder before heading home.