Wenlock poetry festival

I’ve just got back from a day trip to the Wenlock Poetry festival, and I can highly recommend it. From the selection of lovely venues to the line up of poets and events, everything was beautifully organised and managed.

For those who are not familiar with the festival, it has been running for about five years and takes place in Much Wenlock, a small and pretty town in Shropshire that lies between Shrewsbury and Brignorth, to the northeast of the Ironbridge Gorge.

I understand that the ‘Much’ was added to Wenlock to distinguish it from the nearby Little Wenlock, and that Wenlock probably comes from the Celtic name Wininicas, meaning ‘white area’ (in reference to the limestone of Wenlock Edge), plus the Old English loca, meaning ‘enclosed place’.

I arrived in the early afternoon and didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to look around the town before attending a wonderful reading by Alison Brackenbury and Chris Kinsey, followed by the excellent Jean Sprackland and Robin Robertson. In the evening I had the slightly surreal experience of being presented with second prize in the festival competition by the judge Don Patterson, and, with the other winners, reading (or rather reciting my poem since I have lost my glasses) before the day was rounded off with superb readings from Andrew Mcmillan and Don, who was in great form and extremely funny.  It was great to bump into friends and wander briefly through the town, and of course I was pleased that my poem had done well for itself. You can  click to read the competition poems here.

Depression awareness week

This newspaper article alerted me to the fact that this is depression awareness week,  so I felt it would be an appropriate time to do my bit and share my own experience of this illness.

I was in my early forties when an episode of debilitating stress -induced depression lead me to seek help. A colleague noticed I was frantically cleaning the office and said, with her typically northern directness, ‘Oh no, you’re not going nutty are you. My friend  did that frantic cleaning thing before she went nutty.’  I certainly didn’t feel ‘nutty’. Cleaning the keyboard enabled me to have some measure of control over my unfocused energy. I did, however,  feel like I was watching myself, an actor in a nightmare struggling to cope. At that time I was simultaneously detached and deeply engaged with my job, not wanting to let anyone down but feeling unable to handle the nature and quantity of my work. I was losing a grip on the numerous projects under my care.  Some weeks before I’d had my first ever migraine, getting double vision in the corridor and stopping a passing Dr who checked me out. Now I was starting to stutter, something that had never affected me before. My thought processes were disconnected and alternately syrup-slow or manic. Several times I had tried to flag up my difficulty in dealing with the amount of work I had with my manager, ironically a medical consultant. He believed that ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’, and although a brilliant man, I later realised he had no concept of the amount of work our clinical trials were generating.  I’d get a certain way into a task only to find I had no idea how to continue. For some time I felt I’d been running up an endless sand dune, sometimes making good progress but inevitably sliding back. I could explain further but ultimately, the exact circumstances are not important. Suffice it to say that it is recognised that stress overload can make humans ill. I don’t have a very clear recollection of the events that lead up to me being sent home by a caring colleague, but I know I went to see my GP who asked me to fill out a questionnaire  that indicated I was severely depressed.  Anyone who has filled in one of these forms will know that it is difficult to be objective and that it is frightening and perhaps shaming to confront the truth of the situation. There is the temptation to underplay the symptoms in an attempt to appear ‘normal’. Some might suffer from’imposter syndrome’,  and, for various reasons, be incapable of admitting that they are really unwell.  Many people who suffer depression will have become ill after denying that there is anything wrong. I suspect that those people of my generation will also be prone to the stigma surrounding mental un-wellness and so avoid admitting that they are unwell for as long as possible, thus worsening the situation for themselves.

Signed off as sick and desperately worried and guilty about my workload (I believed I was the only person in the world who could conduct the clinical drug trials I was running, and since I had no team to take over and the administration was incredibly complicated, in a way I was) I  initially refused the GP’ s suggestion of medication, frightened perhaps of what drugs might do to me in my fragile state.  I sought counselling from the organisation Mind, which was incredibly helpful, and, after realising that I had suffered on and off with very degrees of severity or most of my adult life, I began an undulating journey to recovery. Swimming helped. Cycling helped. Writing helped- a lot. There were many days when nothing helped. Time helped. Talking to a counselor helped. A change in work patterns and lifestyle helped. Walking across the fields helped. Talking to friends helped. Understanding my illness and knowing that others also suffered helped. Being able to identify symptoms and recognise their onset helped. Letting go of the shame at being ill with an invisible illness helped. No two people’s circumstances are the same, so there is no set prescription for depression. But I was fortunate to find a few ways back to strength and health.

A friend asked me how I felt during my darkest days. I said I felt as if I was trapped at the bottom of a black well with sheer sides. Even this doesn’t really come close. It is very difficult to explain depression to those who haven’t experienced it. But I’ve tried. I suppose in talking about this subject the worry of stigmatization lingers, as do old fears of stirring up memories of dark times that might shadow the light of the present. But to those who are experiencing depression I want to say that after seeking help and entering a period of healing, I am well and not afraid to talk about my own experience. Here is a poem I wrote after getting a little better. I’ve never sent it out for publication but I’m publishing it here in the hope that it may help in a small way. It is not a poem of hope unless it is viewed in the context of the fact that this is where I have been, not where I am now.

Year of the Black Dog

Neither love earthly or divine
will chase this dog out.

Reach for any medicine
it will curdle in the mouth,

drip through skin,
turn to metal in the bowel.

Look for the strength
to grasp its neck.

The vibrato of a snarl
trembles in your chest

 

 

 

Social media animal

In 2009, I attended one of the first spoken word events I’d ever been to. It was in the basement of a bar that had a rather loud air-conditioning system. I’m pretty sure the poems I read that evening were not very good, but I believed in them at the time and it was a start. I remember mentioning to one of the other readers I met that evening that a poem of mine had been awarded third place in the Ledbury poetry competition. He looked as if I had announced that I was Lord Lucan. And he looked even more surprised when, having suggested we link up on Facebook, I told him I wasn’t on Facebook.

Seven years later I have Facebook and Twitter accounts and hundreds of contacts on each. I also have a website (a grand name for this blog!) but I believe this is a productive use of my time. As I mentioned in a recent interview with Rachel Carney, this site isn’t really about promotion – I doubt very much if it has helped me sell a single poetry book. It’s about sharing and exploring.

The Twitter and Facebook accounts are not necessarily negative additions to my life- it depends on how I use them. Both have provided me with access to lots of interesting information and been used for meaningful communication as well-being a means to view videos of cats doing interesting things. As my Italian grandma used to say about her daily glass of wine, it’s all a question of moderation.

Balance-Metaphor

There have undoubtedly been times when I’ve spent too much time on social media.

"In case I actually do something."

I am aware of research into how endorphins are released by ‘Likes’ and how browsing can become addiction. I’ve also seen the ugly way in which conversations between poets with opposing views can quickly spiral into unpleasant exchanges, and have learnt to stay well clear of commenting on unproductive arguments which will lead me to be updated on how the subsequent unpleasantness unfolds.

I’ve noticed that some people connected to poetry seem to be on networks constantly. I can’t help but wonder how they have time for anything else, never mind writing. Of course I probably wouldn’t know this if I hadn’t spent too much time there myself and I don’t wish to condemn anyone.

An example of a positive aspect of being on Twitter is that I came across the website Practical Criticism , whose editors include the poet Sarah Howe.  In a recent visit I read an interview with the Canadian poet Karen Solie which prompted me to start writing this post.  Here is Solie talking in a very balanced way about the choice to utilise social media.

‘I don’t have any social media accounts, or a website. Though someone is threatening to make me one. We’ll see. But it isn’t that I think disparagingly about these things. I recognize their value to conversation, their potential for social justice initiatives, and there are people using these platforms for good. I’m not personally inclined to engage with their promotional or publicity aspects – though again, I don’t think doing so is a bad thing, it’s a valuable tool – and I haven’t really encountered any pressure from my publishers to join. It’s more expected of novelists, I gather, because the financial stakes are higher.’

I’ll leave you with another quote from the interview. It’s well worth taking time to dip into the website, if you have time.

‘It’s okay to be a private person if you need to be one. There isn’t any one proper or preferred way to be a poet, to engage with your communities. We do need to consider where best to devote our energies toward positive, helpful work that contributes to the health of our communities, but there are a number of avenues.’

As far as I can go, for now (or half a spring).

I’ve written here before about the joys and challenges of translating poetry, and I’ve recently been having another attempt at a few pieces by Eugenio Montale.

I’m very pleased that one of my translations will be published in the spring edition of the excellent New Walk magazine, and others will appear in the on-line publication The High Window at some point, the editors having a strong interest in translation and in Montale in particular.

I am a novice at translation, and even Montale’s short poems are extremely rich in reference and offer several possible interpretations of the Italian. They present fascinating challenges, offering many possible directions. After working on some of his concise pieces
I’ve been looking at a slightly longer and more complex poems.

Saba-Bufera-400-x-595

La primavera hitleriana (The Hitler Spring)  was written, or at least begun in 1938 , but no published until 1946.  It is a very powerful and overtly political piece which references Dante Alighieri and Clizia, a character who appears in the fourth book of  Ovid’s  “Metamorphoses”, a young nymph hopelessly in love with the god Apollo, who turns into a sunflower.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The poem begins with a ‘thick white cloud of mad moths’ – or ‘crazy moths’ – you can read a translation by Jonathan Galassi here  – a different version to that published in his 2012 Collected-  and you can find the original Italian here)  that appeared over Florence on May 9th, 1938, the day of a meeting between Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

 The first two stanzas, although layered with many potential interpretations, are relatively straightforward to decipher, but in the third stanza the poem becomes even more intricate and layered as it incorporates references to the Old Testament as well as the aforementioned Greek myth.  

 I’ve decided to leave my translation for the moment and show you how far I’ve got. I need a lot more time in order to research the language and references further, but I was relatively pleased with my efforts thus far and as ever, am fascinated by aspects of translation such as word choice and interpretation. Beneath my half- completed version Montale’s poem is a piece I wrote following my recent efforts. It tries to express some of my feelings in regard to this work, in particular my realisation that my knowledge is currently limited.

The moment I touch your poem
I’m corrupted and corrupting.
Should your moths arrive as blizzard

or snowfall, are they corrosive
or benign? Even in a drive to animate,
I embellish, reduce, hallucinate.

How do I re-design a membrane
so osmotic, replace a windowpane
handblown; how dare I enter corridors

bustled by Dante, dictators, the Greek deities,
to stand and speak in babbling streams
of myth and mercury?

Maestro, I lean from your shoulders
to daub this crude fresco.

Montale.

Eugenio Montale.

The undulations of the poet

A friend recently wrote to compliment me on a poem of mine he’d seen in a magazine. It is always lovely to receive positive responses to work,  either from people I know or from those I have yet to meet.

The rest of my friend’s e-mail explained that, with regard to his own work (he is a fine and highly productive poet)  he was feeling rather low since there was no prospect of publication of his pamphlet on the horizon.  My friend’s predicament is not unusual. There are many poets, some of whom have in fact achieved a great deal of ‘success’  who feel lost and ignored. It is easy to dismiss this as indulgence, but people who make art of any kind are susceptible to dips in self-esteem brought about by perceived invisibility or worse, ‘failure’.

Aspects of what might be termed modern ‘competition culture’ might contribute to feelings of inadequacy.  If a poem entered in a competition did not make the short-list and the poet had high hopes (and who would part with an entrance fee unless they felt their work stood a chance of winning) their internal response might range from thinking the judges were fools to concluding that the poem was rubbish and they should give up.

Alternatively, they might read the judges report and see that of the five hundred and twenty-two entries, over seventy were considered to be excellent. They might read how the adjudicator struggled to long list the poems, never mind picking the winner. They might remind themselves that another judge, on another day, might have awarded their poem the prize. Or they might eschew competitions  entirely, although, as I’ve said elsewhere, some of the same odds and conditions apply when submitting work to the editor of a poetry magazine.

And there is the issue of the relative nature of ‘success’ and the fact that feelings of elation following publication or prize-giving wear off, and probably diminish in proportion to their occurrence. An extreme example might be the case of the accoladed and jaded poet who suggested that where a commendation was once cause for celebration, it now felt like a disappointment.

A publication in a good magazine is a wonderful thing, but hardly a life changing event. Even the summit, the holy grail that is publication of a pamphlet or book ( undoubtedly a culmination of great effort and a defining event for the writer)  may not lead to reviews (favourable or otherwise), readings, applause or sales.

Despite learning and knowing how the odds are stacked when it comes to getting your work noticed, and perhaps even while experiencing the high of writing well, it is almost inevitable that poets will experience dog days.

sad dog
It is difficult to gain a sense of perspective.

nicolas-poussin-the-inspiration-of-the-poet
Who are you writing for. Yourself (or selves?) Everyone? No-one? All of the above?  And why?

If learning about poetry and what it means has become part of who you are; if you keep getting drawn back to try to find out what it can do; if attention and dedication to poetry has become almost intrusive in your life;  if you are open to possibilities,

Scarlet Macaw and pigeons roosting.

 

heaven or hell- bent on poetry, then poetry will reward you.

This reward will not come in the form of prizes, publication, ‘likes’ on social media or polite applause, although all of these may help you sustain yourself in your struggle to believe. When the real reward comes there won’t be cherubs bearing laurels or a physical manifestation of the muse; there won’t be an attendant audience of red-cheeked acolytes. They’ll be a poem. A poem and you.

Sequencing the new book

For a few months I’ve been thinking of the order of poems in my next book. I’ve lived with several versions of the contents page, and yesterday I laid all the poems on the floor again, something I did with both my pamphlet and last book.

P1030065

Sequencing a poetry collection is not a scientific activity. I’m not a mathematician so I don’t know how many possible combinations of sixty poems it is possible to have, but suspect it is a lot. I’ve written about some aspects of putting a poetry pamphlet together before.

If the idea is to locate stylistic, thematic and emotional echoes and resonances between pieces, then there are so many permutations.

Grouping poems that ostensibly have similar subjects is one way to go, but may not be as simple as it seems. For example, one might think of putting together a set of poems about relationships, or set that all have a bird or birds in them.

The difficulty with this approach is that although a poem may reference birds, it might be primarily concerned with concepts of trust and fidelity. So it could easily go in a section with other ‘relationship’ poems. But the poem about a relationship might actually be more concerned with mortality, so maybe that should go next to the poem about bereavement. But the ‘bereavement’ poem is also about rebirth, so that might go next to the ‘birth’ poem, which also has ‘spring’ in it, and that poem is currently unable to decide if it wants to go in the ‘family’ section or the ‘ecological’ section.

Perhaps poems are, or perhaps should be, like this; those tidy or untidy little boxes each needing to refract and blend experience and memory, to break down artificial divisions such as ‘now’ and ‘then’, ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘us’ and ‘them’.

There’s a very useful piece by Jeffery Levine on sequencing a poietry manuscript here. This is a quote from it

‘ Where do you see common images developing? In what directions do your various threads lead? What seem to be your concerns as a poet during this period of creativity, and how do they seem to want to group. What sorts of discoveries are your poems making? The process of inclusion and ordering is organic, calculated, thoughtful, instinctual, unconscious, and a somewhat Zen. You need time to permit all of those matters and anti-matters to work upon you, and upon your poems.’

I like this description a lot, particularly acknowledgement of the ‘calculated’ and thoughtful’  aspects of ordering a collection beside the ‘instinctual’ and ‘unconscious’.

I settled, or thought I’d settled, on the order of the book some time ago. But a friend suggested I move a sequence of  about ten ‘nurse’ poems, about my time working in coronary care, towards the centre of the book. This seemed to balance things better (I can’t really explain why- maybe because the poems reference hearts a lot, and the sequence is now nearer to the physical heart of the book.) The order of the poems around it has completely changed and probably will change again as I see new ways in which they might connect, flow and ‘speak’ of and to each other.

As far as selection goes, I’ve recently been quite ruthless, deciding to leave out six or seven pieces, among them a few that were published in good poetry magazines. When I had a brief conversation with a poet friend about the manuscript I heard myself say “There are one or two weak ones.” A day or so later I thought ‘Why on earth would you keep poems in if you know they are weak?’ Like a poor team player, a weak poem or two can let the other poems down and disrupt the book’s chances of being as good as it might be.

Foxes

For a while I was almost making excuses to include one or two poems I was uncertain of, justifying their presence on the basis of some technical merit or the fact that I had put a lot of effort into them, working and re-working them a few hundred times.
One poem seemed to have been written by someone else. I don’t mean this in a good way – rather that it made me uneasy. It is, I think, a powerful poem about an acute episode of depression. But stylistically and thematically it doesn’t sit well with the other work and would stand out in the wrong sort of way.

Stone
Another poem, about a bee using its sense of smell to detect if a flower has already had its pollen taken, has tried and tried to get into the book like a bee revisiting a flower. So far, no joy for that one.

bee

I think I have realised the poems in the book should justify their presence to me; that their reason for inclusion should be self-evident and that if I need to argue their case too hard I should leave them out. This is all part of the normal process of assembling a poetry collection. I’m happy for now, having broadly decided what I’d like to include.

P1030063

I might have to wait and ponder a while longer before the order becomes clear. As Agnes Martin, the expressionist painter says here

‘If you live by perception, as all artists must, then you sometimes have to wait a long time for your mind to tell you the next step to take’

Things are shaping up. Soon it will be time to find out what my editor thinks. They’ll be a little more work after that. Then we’ll discuss my ideas for the cover art. Then be time to let go.