Uncategorized

John Foggin’s ‘Much Possessed’

much-possesed
Sometimes I’m lucky enough to  buy a book of poems that is so compelling that, time allowing, I’ll have to read the whole collection in one go. This sort of collection transports me into another world (or worlds) so completely that everything else has to be put on hold.  Books like this tend to confirm our essential ‘aloneness’ while making the world seem a less lonely place.
Here is John Berger writing about poems in his book ‘and our faces, my heart, brief as photos’ 

‘Poems…bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that language is acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.’

John Foggin’s new collection is a book full of such poems. I wanted to share my enthusiasm for the book and so I recently contacted a magazine editor friend of mine to ask if I could review it. I was somewhat relived when I found the book had already been sent for review. Why? Because I don’t really want to write an analysis of something I am still marvelling at. I just want to enjoy it!  Also, this is a complex and lengthy collection and it would be very hard to do it justice in a 500 word piece. So instead I’ll write a few words here.

At 81 pages ‘Much Possessed’ travels far and wide, geographically, historically, spiritually, emotionally. It draws on biblical stories and figures to take on and re-imagine some of the great myths and stories from feminist and humanist perspectives, through eyes that have evidently seen much but are still lit up by the unfathomable mystery and joy of living in all its difficulty and wonder. Like D.H Lawrence’s incredible poem ‘Snake’, Foggin’s ‘Whether it cared or not’ and ‘A Dry Place’ are breath-taking challenges to theological dogma that are driven by a compassionate need to question what has been handed down.

This book is packed with poems of love, hope, celebration and endurance. It is articulate and illuminating, full of warmth, tenderness and toughness, exploration, courage, humility and humanity. Did I mention the craft involved? Well, can you imagine me being so enthused if it wasn’t a superbly crafted book of poetry? I’ve been carrying a copy around with me for a while now to ward off the darkness, both very real and of my own making. ‘Much Possessed’  is a superb achievement.

 

Uncategorized

Sundries

Sundry- from the old English for syndig- distinct, separate; related to ‘sunder’ .

I’ve just been up to the Newcastle, neighbour to Sunderland, for the fabulous poetry festival. The festival included the launch of the new issue of the Butchers Dog poetry magazine, and I was fortunate to have been invited to read my contribution. I’d been to the northeast of England once before, to visit a friend some thirty years ago, and needed little excuse to return.

P1030239

I love the geography and architecture of Newcastle and the surrounding country, and find the people to be extremely friendly. If you haven’t bought the Butcher’s Dog, I recommend you check it out. It’s a beautifully produced magazine packed with an eclectic range of fine contemporary poetry.

Angel by Phil Pounder

Angel of the North, photo by Phil Pounder  

Another brilliant, albeit much older British poetry magazine, The Rialto, has arrived, and continues to surprise, provoke and delight with its selection of poems and discussion.  It is well worth checking out the blog for a considered response to a letter from a reader who responded to the editors request that they be challenged on their selections.

Rialto-85-cover-1
The Rialto, issue 85

My poem in this edition, ‘Geese’, benefited from a suggestion from the editors that the ending wasn’t quite right. Without overtly suggesting a change, they subtly, gracefully and succinctly explained why they felt this, and thereby sent me and my poem to a new and improved conclusion. I am grateful for their astute reading and careful comment.

Elsewhere, the wonderful poet John Foggin is one of the winners of this years Poetry Business pamphlet competition, judged by Billy Collins. I am delighted for John, who is a fine and prolific poet as well as a generous friend and supporter of many other writers. You can read some of John’s work here. I can’t wait for the launch of his pamphlet.

Social media occasionally leads me to gems. I found this in an interview with the poet Li-Young.

‘ The more we practice it, the more we discover how thinking in poetry is actually the closest thing we have to enlightenment. Poetic consciousness is the deepest, fullest form of consciousness there is. The longer we practice it, like a yoga, the more we uncover about ourselves, our identity as children of the cosmos, or of God. Whatever you want to call it….we can practice art not only as a way to make money, not only as a way to compete, not only as a way to aggrandize the ego, but as a way, really, of self-knowledge.

It seems to me the more we practice it, the more art gives us. That’s abundance. It’s infinitely abundant. You never stop discovering. You never stop.’

Also this month, I was pleased to be presented with second prize in the inaugural Aurora East Midlands International Poetry competition.
It was great to visit nearby Nottingham and be part of the award ceremony. All the facts in the poem, and there are many more fascinating aspects to these birds, are taken from research into crow behaviour. Any ‘crow’ poem will, I imagine, owe a debt to and fall under the shadow of Ted Hughes incredible poems in his collection ‘Crow.’ Here is my homage to Hughes and to these fascinating birds.

From the Book of Crow Etiquette

for John Foggin

To avoid association with a crow’s death
feign a limp or otherwise disguise your gait
when passing a crow funeral. In order to escape
a scolding, don’t contest a crow’s right
to your roof or disrupt its visceral business
among fledglings and eggs. Crows have memories
like wet tar, can recognize the white-stitched ribbon
of a fruitful carrion road, the location of a yard
from which a stone was thrown. Tame crows
give pet names to their keepers; make of this
what you will. Crows that are damaged or ill
are often assisted by others, or else
done in. Decades may pass before a widowed crow
casts the cross of her shadow
on a long abandoned farmyard. A murder might mob
the one-time owner of a slingshot, now
a grandfather in the park. Crows bring gifts
to those who feed them, to children with no prejudice
or fear of crows. You might not need
a stash of broken necklaces, Airfix kit
of sparrow bones, lens cap rinsed in a birdbath,
nor a half heart locket, inscribed with ‘Best’.
You may not wish for ‘friends’ to priest a garden fence
or wall, who call before your alarm sounds
and pick at your open dream.       

Uncategorized

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.

498

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.

499

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,

7 mod

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

501

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

502

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.

508

 

Uncategorized

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uncategorized

In the middle

Living, as I do, near the centre of England (draw two axis lines through a map of the country and I’ll be sitting writing this where the two lines intersect) allows me to roam to the north, east, south and west, work and life commitments permitting, with relative ease.  Our house is a hundred miles from London and a hundred miles from Leeds.

It has occurred to me that I should try and get myself booked for more readings.  In an effort to get out more (I really should) I’ve approached one or two people who run spoken word events, including Staffordshire poet laureate Gary Longden, who runs Poetry Alight in Lichfield where I’m pleased to say I’ll be next Tuesday evening.

I decided to be more proactive in asking to read, since,  although I’m fortunate enough to have received requests for poems from magazine editors recently, I have seldom been invited and could probably sit here in the middle of England waiting forever to be asked.

Notable exceptions have included invitations to support Pete and Ann Sansom at Word! In Leicester in 2014, and to read at the Midsummer poetry festival in Sheffield with A.B Jackson and Nia Davies last year.

My two favourite invitations have come from Poets and Players at the fabulous John Ryland’s Library in Manchester, where I read a few weeks ago, and from Keith Hutson, editor, with Rebecca Bird, of online magazine Hinterland.

Keith, who runs Wordplay at the Square Chapel in Halifax, is a modest and kind man as well as a superb poet (I’ll be featuring three of his poems here next week, one of which is in the current issue of The Rialto) and his invitation included the option of staying at his smallholding near Halifax, which I gladly accepted.

Keith’s cottage nestles near the top of the valley, the fields on both sides and above and below slanting at forty degree angles. Keith and his partner Fiona keep a flock of sheep whose sole purpose is to keep the grass short on the steep slopes. Behind the cottage, past the odd Millstone grit boulder, Keith has planted fruit trees, whose fruit, when in season, the lucky sheep pluck and munch straight from the branch.

I took the opportunity of stopping at Yorkshire Sculpture Park on the way up to Halifax. There is too much to say about this wonderful (free to visit) park here, but if you haven’t been, do go. The highlight for me was this Henry Moore. Here is one of a series of photographs I took, but I think that the emotional and/or spiritual impact of this sculpture set in the landscape can only be experienced by visiting.

P1020185

The Square Chapel is a beautiful Grade II listed Georgian Chapel, the oldest of its kind in the country having been built in 1772. It was saved from demolition in 1918 by a small group of volunteers (I can only imagine some planners where intent on sweeping away the old in order to build something more ‘modern’ at the time) and is in the process of renovation and development which will include an extension linking it to the magnificent Piece Hall.

square-chapel

Keith’s other guest poets included James Caruth, winner of the Poetry Business completion, and Lucy Burnett who’s Leaf Graffiti was published by Carcanet in 2013 who both read brilliantly.

The audience was friendly and attentive, the open mike included a cracking Yorkshire dialect poem from Andy Smith, and it was good to have a chat with everyone and to be given a short tour of the chapel. I also received a pint of locally brewed stout on the house! It was a great pleasure to see John Foggin, wearer of fine waistcoats and leather jackets, who I met some years ago in Sheffield, and to hear him read a very moving and beautifully made poem about cutting his father in law’s hair.

P1020231
I awoke the next morning to the falling snow, (not an unusual site in this part of the world in March but a treat for me,) and after borrowing a pair of wellies and going out with Keith to feed the flock, headed back, sad to be leaving the north, but pleased, once more, to be close enough to spend time with some warm, generous and welcoming people and to briefly experience some of its geographical, historical and cultural riches.