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A conversation with Michael Brown, poet.

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Michael is one of those poets who seems to think nothing of traveling the length of England, whether it be to watch his beloved Wimbledon football team or to read his work, and the last time I saw him we were both in Newcastle to read at the poetry festival there.

I first met Michael Brown in 2014, at the prize giving for the Ver poetry competition in St. Albans where we had the pleasure of reading poems selected by judge Clare Pollard. I next met Michael in London at the Free Verse book-fair, where I was reading a poem at the launch of the Happenstance anthology devoted to chocolate, ‘Blame Montezuma!’ and Michael was launching his Eyewear pamphlet, ‘Undersong.’

Michael’s poems have been widely published in magazines such as The North, The Rialto, New Walk and The Butcher’s Dog. His work has also been shortlisted and awarded prizes in numerous competitions. His pamphlet Undersong (2014) is available from Eyewear publishing. Michael lives in Middlesbrough and works as a teacher of English.

Hello Michael, thanks for being my guest. I wonder if you could tell us about when your interest in writing began?

Although I have written from teenage years and won Poetry competitions when 16-17, I didn’t really have focus or a critical peer group which was the thing I wanted. I felt that I was writing what I thought was poetry in a vacuum for a long time and it was not until I did the MA in Newcastle where I came across poets like Sean O Brien and Colette Bryce that I began to be more structured.

Really, it was the beautiful shock that other people actually cared about this stuff.  A kind of validation.  After the MA I started to write more and took two residential courses including one with Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy.  More than anything it was discovering a peer group actually existed that valued writing. Until I had experienced that for myself I was just dabbling and writing without a place to validate my poetry.

That’s great phrase- ‘a beautiful shock’ . I seem to remember you have a connection with London – that you grew up in the south. Do you feel like a ‘Northern poet’ after living and working in Middlesbrough? Also, I wonder if  you think geographical location has a strong identifiable influence on writing style and content?

Yes, I grew up in south London, SW19 , hence the football team!.  Quite a lot of my work is explicitly geographically located so I do think locating one’s writing can confer some authenticity or root the work:  It happened because it was there.

I don’t really identify with labels- Northern Poet etc-  although perhaps there is a London-centric perception that anything worth happening in poetry usually happens somewhere a lot less parochial than Middlesbrough.
This is borne out by such events as the TS Eliot Awards being scheduled on a Sunday when it is invariably difficult for many north of the capital to attend. Colette Bryce talked to me recently about these so called “hard luck towns” and perhaps this is a perception that some like to wear on their sleeve almost as a badge of honour. There’s a restlessness in my poetry – picking up a place and moving on elsewhere: I don’t want to be limited by my geographical location in terms of how or what I write. There is also a lot going on in Newcastle and Middlesbrough in terms of poetry.

You can see location reflected so much in a poet I admire, John Glenday, that it almost becomes inseperable from the words.  I suppose that I have evolved in a kind of rootless way.  I can see all the faults of the north-east but I don’t like southerners who operate with lazy stereotypes adopting a condescending attitude to poetry publishers such as Smokestack who are based here and continue to champion some wonderful writing – Leagunspell by Bob Beagrie, for example. I don’t feel a sense of allegiance or belonging.

When we were in Newcastle I was certainly struck by the fact that one or two of London based poets referred to locations in their neighborhoods and to other London based poets as if the audience were intimate with them.
It was almost as if they were unaware that casual reference to place names and the names of those in their poetry circle were not necessarily universally known and appreciated in the North East- which I thought was odd and perhaps showed a lack of appreciation of the world outside a certain tight-knit scene – although I’m a mid-lander these days, and I’m speaking for myself of course!

Would you be able to say something about your writing process? Also, have you attended many courses and/or workshops? Do you find them useful for generating new work?

I write with pen and paper and my experience is sometimes you have to force it. To make it happen even if you get two sustainable lines. What else are you going to do ?  I write and rewrite the whole thing out again and again until it’s got something I’m happier with and eventually I type it and play with lineation. Sometimes I stare at the blank page and try to feel what is happening in me.  I can stare without starting for many minutes or longer. Sometimes I read poetry to think about ideas. Or walk by the river. Staring at the sky or the river and seeing what comes up is a lot like staring at an empty page I think. Something will happen. Colette B stated her “survival rate” for drafted poems- I forget, but she said it was something like one in nine.

I don’t think I do the staring at the page thing. Maybe I should. I’ll stare at a river all day though! I think it’s great and helpful when really good poets like Collette Bryce share details about their practice.

Workshops I have benefited from, but I prefer the intensity that comes with one to one talking about poems. Sometimes if a workshop is large people feel obliged to comment and take the ‘victim’ down a path that is not right for them or their poem.

You have to be strong and believe in your own work.  When they are mauling it with words, you need to separate the helpful, astute comment from the comments that are just so much air. The toughest thing is when an eminent published poet makes a criticism of your poem. What you have to remember is that they have not lived with it or felt it inside them. It’s come to them for the first time just now when you read it. They can be wrong, those guys.

For me, it’s about finding empathy with people you really trust and then weighing it all up judiciously.

I have done residential writing courses too but once again it’s important to remember that a couple of extrovert people can hijack a workshop through sheer force of personality. Sometimes the problem is that people feel a need to say something. Anything.

What you say about workshops and the potential to lead a poem down a particular path is really interesting. I think that’s why running really good workshops takes a combination of real skill with both poetry and people.   The facilitator, or whoever is running the thing, needs to subtly- or, if required, firmly-  steer things back towards constructive and respectful feedback. Constructive feedback and how to deliver it is something I’m really interested in.  I think the essence of workshop feedback is about offering things to think about and consider rather than dictating what ‘should’ be changed.  
  And your comment on the views of an ’eminent published poet’ rings true for me too. I might have stopped writing entirely after some feedback from one eminent poet in particular! Thankfully, I carried on regardless and several magazine editors and competition judges helped restore my faith by publishing the poems, many of them unchanged.

As someone who works in education and specifically in teaching English, I wondered if you are able to bring any of your ‘poet’ self to the classroom, i.e can you utilize your own experience as a creative writer to give your students insights? Does the existing curriculum allow any scope for creative writing?

I have done, Roy. Kids are very interested in the fact that I write. I actually think there is- sadly- not enough creativity in the curriculum, well, certainly not when you get to GCSE. You spend a lot of your time doing the exact opposite actually. Teaching them to perform prescriptive “skills” so the examiner can tick them off is mostly what I have to do. There is some scope for creative writing but within very narrow bounds. For example, the new GCSE involves the study of a fair number of “prescribed” poets but there is still a need to get children to see poems as more than obstacles to a qualification or a meaning. Many English teachers lack confidence in creative writing because they are scared of nurturing it. There is a desire for speed speed speed in the curriculum and I don’t think anywhere near enough time is given over to creative writing, and especially to writing poetry. I have taken kids to Poetry Live events which has enabled them to meet poets they study and this can be very engaging. I told Gillian Clarke about the hassle I had from my managers about doing this as it was considered to be detrimental to their learning if they missed normal school lessons and eventually I wasn’t allowed to take Year 11 for a full day out of school. This is what I am up against!  Gillian was rightly furious when she heard this.

I’m glad to hear you are able to bring your skills to bare but sorry to learn of the difficulties you’ve encountered.
I really hope things change in this important area of education. It’s really tragic the way things have gone in the UK of late. I speak as the parent of a child who has recently endured the tedium of SATS testing, something none of the teachers I spoke to seemed to be able to find any value in.    

 You’ve recently collaborated with poet Maria Isakova Bennet on gallery inspired poetry at the Walker and Lady Lever Galleries. I wonder if you’d like to say a little about how this came about and something about the process of working together and how it might differ from working on your own?

Yes, we have done some poetry readings at the Walker Gallery as part of Liverpool’s Light Night and also at the Lady Lever Gallery on the Wirral.  We also collaborated for Tate Liverpool’s recent project, The Imagined Museum and wrote/performed a longer joint  performance piece based on the conceptual artist Roman Opalka.

It came about through what I was saying earlier about establishing a peer group that you trust in order to move work forward. The fact that you like and respect each other’s work helps.  In collaboration you can critically appraise each other’s work and styles bounce off each other so sometimes a work can be become more than the sum of its parts. It was good in the respect that Maria’s writing had a different tone to my parts and they complemented each other well. We were also, as far as I know, the only collaborative work shortlisted by Cinnamon early this year so it’s an interesting area.

Congratulations. It sounds like a really positive move and has got me thinking that I’d like to do something similar one day.

Michael, are you working on a full collection? How’s it going? 

Yes and no !  I was shortlisted for the Bare Fiction full Collection Award last year by Andrew Mcmillan  so it’s true that I have what amounts to a first collection. But I don’t want to get obsessed with that idea. I like the smaller feel of a pamphlet actually so I might place some of the best poems in that form in the future.  Everyone’s always working towards a collection or something, aren’t they ?   It can distract sometimes.  In retrospect, I am quite ok with not being published by BF as I think the work is stronger now.  I want to write better and better and I don’t want to publish for the sake of publishing. I am going to sit on the poems for now and let them be.

Sounds like a good plan. Thanks for your time Michael.
And thanks for supplying these two previously unpublished poems.

 

Penny Farthing

In the unreconstructed bar there are fathers,
mothballed men in work, out of it.
In the unreconstructed bar we peer in
to the fug of time where ghosts sit
slumped with half-drunk pints. Go to them.
Though no-one knows their names but yet
roughly England, late-afternoon, 1968.
Nothing’s changed. Everything did.
The karaoke, just shy of lip sync, once again,
waits for us to criss-cross the sticky floor,
a crackhead off-loads phones somewhere outside.
One knock-off coin might still start a frame, a fight.
For half an hour the past might be this close by —
to find in a glass, a mirror or the stare of a man
with hostile eyes who wants our lives.

 

 

Austerity

The people here are rattled and ill.
Take in how our pale skins are no laughing matter.
Neither are we especially well-dressed.

See how we bow our heads to free minutes and texts
and hardly catch your eye. Still it’s true,
these people, who rarely laugh,

sometimes do. You only have to look
right past Greggs, for example, to this small dog
of indeterminate breed, tied up

by its leash of rope to a metal chair.
Stirred by the sudden clock of livid sun,
pell-mell it runs half-freed, and for all its worth,

that anchored weight a brief jangle
in the people’s lives.
These actions cannot be undone.

 

 

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Helen Fletcher, featured poet,

Helen

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Helen Fletcher in a pub garden in Sussex, England.  Somehow our conversation turned to  anthropomorphism in poetry and whether animals can feel similar emotions to humans. Having an interest and some knowledge in this area, Helen has kindly recommended a couple of texts on the subject for me to read up. Co-incidentally,  I caught a discussion on anthropomorphism and many other things, (including the similarity of human cells to mushroom cells,  the social learning of dolphins, the secret life of seashells and Andrew Motion on seahorses) on the BBC radio 4 programme Start the week on Monday. You can listen to the programme here.    

Back to our featured poet. Helen is working on her first collection and most recently read with Telltale Press in Lewes. She studied English at Trinity College Cambridge and returned to Cumbria in 2005 having worked away in Kenya and London. She comes from a family of medics and has twin baby girls. Her poetry has been published in Brittle Star, The Frogmore Papers, In Daily Adelaide News, The Interpreter’s House, The Journal, Pennine Platform, Snakeskin, South Bank Poetry, Southlight and Third Way. Last year, she read at the Caldbeck Arts Festival in the Lake District. She has more poems online here and has just set up on Twitter – HelenFletcherPoetry @longgivingset

Birthday 

Lift me out of the crypt and touch me.
Carry me down the street
to the steps of the town hall
and sit down with your sister.
Then I’ll hear the things you’re up to.
Resting on your legs I’ll listen –
to nothing special, just the usual.
You were always that bit stronger.
And the afternoon will fly by,
with the songs of other families.
Someone’s boys will get ice-creams
and you’ll pat me like a baby.
Wrapped in the new shroud you’ve bought me,
tied in nicely.

Chinese Legend

    Where is the way?
He points to the sky.
   Where is the sky?
He points to his heart.

Published In Daily Adelaide News

 

Evening Song

Don’t wake up, my sleeping Jesus,
sleep upon the rocking sea.
God upon a pillow sleeping,
sweet dreams, love, of Galilee?

I can see a storm approaching,
you’ve been working hard all day,
get some rest behind the netting,
now is not the time to pray.

I am only ever tempor-
arily composed, she sighed.
He is gorgeous when he’s sleeping.
I am weeping at his side.

Published  in Southlight

 

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Featured Poet, Peter Kenny

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing Peter Kenny read his some of his poems, as well as, in an intriguing and fabulous twist, a recitation from memory of a poem by someone who shares Peter’s name.  The poem, a waking nightmare piece about confronting a doppelganger, was written by a poet Peter described as a ‘younger and better looking’ Peter Kenny.
This reading of another poet’s work struck me as a generous gesture seeing as Peter has enough fine poems of his own to draw upon.

One of many memorable phrases that stayed with me was the ‘Rose-choked’ garden from the poem ‘Minotaur’ which Peter introduced as being about a stepfather. I was struck by the fact that roses are so often used to represent beauty and that the juxtaposition of the assonant ‘choked’ was a concise and extremely powerful way of conveying how beautiful surroundings  do not always reflect the state of mind of the inhabitant.

Peter has kindly agreed to let me feature this poem as well as two others from his recent Telltale Press pamphlet, The Nightwork , a pamphlet  which the poet and reviewer Charlotte Gann suggests ‘ invites the reader into its own world of atmospheres. There is real anguish here, held securely in poems of reflective subtlety.’

the-nightwork-cover-reveal

Peter has kindly supplied this biographical note-

Having had my work published in the 80s and early 90s I walked away from the whole scene for about 15 years or so, a change that I see in retrospect was precipitated by the death of Timothy Gallagher, a close friend who I used to do poetry readings and stage plays with. Instead I somehow got a job as an advertising copywriter and sold my soul to the Devil. I still wrote plays, prose and edited a long-defunct e-zine called AnotherSun. In 2010 the wheel turned. Poems about Guernsey (where I lived as a child) were published in a two person collection A Guernsey Double (2010) with Richard Fleming. I also started collaborating with the composer Matthew Pollard resulting in Brighton Festival Fringe performances, and the CD Clameur (2012).  Two plays, Wrong, and Betty the Spacegirl were performed in Brighton’s Marlborough Theatre in 2011.

In 2013 I started turning up at Poetry Stanza meetings in Brighton where I met Robin Houghton, who was forming Telltale Press, which published my pamphlet The Nightwork late in 2014.’

Ladies and gentlemen, Peter Kenny

A sparrow at 30,000 ft.

 Cattle class, in clear air turbulence,
this shuddering is perfectly normal.
Through the window of this bucking jumbo,
I see the horizon thicken into indigo.
There is something horrific about this,
something about death in the way
night accelerates to meet us.

Life, I recall, is a sparrow
that darts through the fire-lit mead hall.
On bending wings we swoop
through the last slanting of the light.

While the steward is dreaming in the galley
I lurch from the musty box
of the toilet at the back,
take my place again
among the ghost-faced sleepers.

There is nothing to fear,
for we share the same journey
and the crew seems certain
we’ll get there.

(First published in Rogue Scholars)

Minotaur

Forehead gored by migraine;
pain has sharpened my senses.
I hear mosquitoes in the garden,
there are clouds of them conspiring:
one for every promise.

You promised me this garden
somewhere private; somewhere lovely,
now it’s empty – bar some black dog
whose hairs I find everywhere.
And still I sense it panting
among the sculptures, fin de siècle,
made by someone very clever.

Rose-choked, the garden walls break
over the cracked slabs. I tread petals,
I make the divine slime of rose heads
the ecru of ex-white petal falls.

Or I listen to the radio,
snorting with uncontrollable laughter,
or I read my leisurely books
near the ornamental fishpond,
the copper-coloured fishpond,

the one I can never look in.

(First published in Other Poetry)

Cicada 

Another Greek island,
gravestones
dignified with thyme,
dried flowers, photos.
Cicadas are everywhere.
Plato, I remember,
said they were the souls of poets.
Then I spot one:
its vivid wings retracted
into its cacophonous carapace.
A squat little Cavafy, perhaps,
a drab little Blake,
or someone unknown,
an author in a long-burnt library
shrilling on an island,
from a cypress tree.

(First published in The Frogmore Papers)


 

 

Featured poet, Uncategorized

Featured poet- Emily Blewitt

I’ve often written here about the opportunities poetry readings and festivals afford for meeting people and making new friends. This year I arrived for my one-day visit to the Aldeburgh Festival and soon bumped into my friends Maria Taylor and Kim Moore. Also in this company of poets were Holly Hopkins and the very smiley Emily Blewitt.

It has been my great pleasure to feature several guest poets on this site over the past couple of years, all of them in their twenties.  I read a couple of Emily’s poems on-line and liked them, and I wondered if she would be interested in sharing some of her work, so I contacted her after the festival.  I’m delighted that Emily responded with the following poems and a short piece I had requested in which she talks a little about herself and her influences.

Ladies and gentlemen, Emily Blewitt.

2014 was a big year for me.  It was a year of firsts: my first poetry residential course (with Kim Moore and Jennifer Copley at Grange-Over-Sands), my first poetry festival (Aldeburgh), my first transatlantic flight (to New York, on holiday) and my first blog post.  I started kickboxing fitness classes at my local gym and wrote a poem about it, which got me in Poetry Wales.  I wrote some poems about recovering from depression and by so doing recovered my voice, which had been lost for a little while amid experiencing the same depression.  I became bolder, irreverent, sexier and louder.  Off the page, I began reading at open mic nights and was invited to be a guest poet at Cardiff’s ‘Made in Roath’ festival.  I got engaged; I embarrassed my fiancé at open mic nights by pointing him out after I’d read a poem about him.  Past his blushes, he didn’t really mind.

I also spent some time discovering poets who were new to me and rereading books that had been waiting patiently on my bookshelf.  Current favourite collections include Kim Moore’s If We Could Speak Like Wolves, Jonathan Edwards’s My Family and Other Superheroes, Bronwyn Lea’s The Deep North and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Lucky Fish.  And there’d be something amiss if I didn’t mention the poets who first touched me and made me want to write poetry – Kate Clanchy, Kathleen Jamie and Sharon Olds. I think you can probably see their influence on my early poems, which are very much concerned with sound and domestic life.

It’s now 2015, and here’s a selection of poetry that I’ve chosen to show where I am now.  These are exciting times. Here’s to the next twelve months.

 

When in Recovery

Get out of bed. Feed the cat.
Add a level teaspoon of sugar to builder’s tea and stir clockwise.
Resist the urge to stick your knife in the toaster.
Be reckless enough to descend hills at a decent pace
but pick your mountains wisely. Get out of breath.
Focus on words, wasting them.  Take citalopram –
four syllables, once a day, behind the tongue.
Understand that there are days you watch yourself
as though you are a balloon held aloft your body
by a slip of string you fear will break.
Grow your hair.  Buy exotic oils at discount stores
and comb them through. Think in colour.  Sit in the salon and explain
no blue is blue enough now.  Try red – pillar-box, satanic red.
Enjoy the sharp press of the needle, its single tear of blood
when you pierce your nostril.  Put a diamond in it so it winks.
Find your meridian by placing your index and middle fingers together
and tapping a tattoo on the top of your head.
Accept that sun-worship is good, the Vitamin D produces serotonin
and sensation. When you cry, howl at the moon.
Wear your rituals lightly.  At the end of each day, step out of them
as though they’re expensive silk lingerie.

Originally published by Carolyn Jess-Cooke in ‘Voicing Shadows, Singing Light’

 

Resolution

I will make myself Morticia Addams.
I will grow my hair to my waist, wear

floor-length black velvet.
I will smoke.

I will hang gilded mirrors, watch myself
pass without reflection.

I will slowly descend great staircases, intricately laced
with antique cobwebs.

I will hold brief but meaningful conversations
with the spiders.

My house will be ruined;
my underwear immaculate.

The bed in which I wrap my tongue
around my husband’s French

will be cast iron, four-postered,
shrouded in silk.

Published in Cheval 7 (Parthian, 2014).

  

When I Think of Bald Men

I think of vultures, the misunderstood deep-cleaners
of the Sahara, immune to disease.  The ones who orderly gather
in committees, who are proud of their collective nouns:
a venue, kettle, or volt of vultures putting together

the agenda before arranging sandwiches for delegates
and mince pies at Christmas; vultures photocopying Any Other Business
in Confidential purple; vultures washing-up and picking clean
leftovers in the staffroom, at the buffet table; a wake of vultures

that dance, dad-style in lines, or bob their heads to a kill in time
to the music.  Vultures that shout And all’s weeeellll! at 3am
after the Office Christmas Party; vultures that tidy up the mess
in the Ladies made by a gaggle of geese, parliament of owls, an exultation

of larks, brood of chickens, tiding of magpies, a murder of crows…
Vultures with their trouser legs rolled up, showing milk-bottle legs
vultures with laughter lines and wrinkled backs-of-necks;
vultures that are nicknamed Bearded Vulture,

Slender-Billed Vulture, Red-Headed Vulture, White-Rumped Vulture
by their vulture friends.  Every office has some –
you know the men I mean.  The ones that are reluctant
to fly; the ones that hiss when threatened.

 

(Previously Unpublished)

 

 

Homecoming

You are man, now.
Stand upright as this house
you were born in, your arms
these green oak beams
which hold us, as you take me

through the finish:
the fine brushed grain
of my smooth round belly,
a perfect curve
so rare in carpentry.

Yet I am undone, too –
frayed as this half-finished shawl
I am knitting, my hands
scrabbling for spools,
unravelling thread –

how you were carried
the Welsh way,
slung high on the hip.
Your cheek to my breast,
crumpled as cloth.

 

First published in Nu2: Memorable Firsts (Parthian, 2012).

 

 

My Colours

First, on my right forearm, a peacock in jade and gold
so when I flick my wrist its feathers unfold
and fan out like the winning hand at cards;

On my left breast, in oyster-grey,
beats the anatomical diagram of a heart;

A tiger’s fierce orange and black stripes stalk my back
to hide the scars, while in plain sight
between my shoulder blades two white wings take off;

On my collarbone a cicada sings
in yellow glory to crimson catkins;

On my right breast, Blodeuwedd, the owl girl with amber eyes
becomes lilac, lavender, foxgloves, daisies,
and above my womb the moon waits in all her phases;

Coiled around my inner thigh a snake hisses, bottle-green,
while at my hips, macaws kiss;

On my right foot, a greyhound sprints straight off the blocks;
At my left heel curls a brown hare and an orange fox;

A mandala in Indian sand circles my elbow;
On my ring finger glitters a diamond in rose gold;

I am strawberry blonde and oriental raven,
an ephemera of red kites wheeling through stormy skies;

Love, when I show you my colours
I am a riot, a cacophony, a bird of paradise, a polka

on mosaic tiles, a gilded kingfisher diving blue.

Previously Unpublished

 

Biography:

Emily Blewitt was born in Carmarthen in 1986. She has published poetry in various print-based and online anthologies, including Poetry Wales, Furies, Cheval, Nu2: Memorable Firsts, Brittle Star, Pomegranate and Cadaverine.  Emily won the 2010 Cadaverine/Unity Day Competition, and was selected as a Honno ‘Poet of the Month’.  She was Highly Commended in the 2014 Terry Hetherington Award and will be a guest poet at Seren/Literature Wales’ First Thursday of the Month event in February.  She is studying for a PhD in English Literature at Cardiff University.  She blogs at emilyblewitt.wordpress.com.