A perfect spring afternoon.
A couple of weeks’ ago I was invited to do some poetry for the audience of a showing of Paterson at Hereford Courtyard. Ledbury Poetry Festival brought three of us to chat to film-goers and create on-the-spot poems on whatever the audience members wished, one-to-one. It was my first experience of instant writing on demand so I was nervous but not for long because I was working with Brenda Read-Brown and Phillippa Slinger. Everyone was so warmly enthusiastic; my customers seemed delighted – I even got a hug. Adrenaline and then poetry flowed. Afterwards, Paterson, a gentle study in poetry and love, was a joyful reminder that the smallest things in life can make a difference.
In a previous existence I was a biologist at Cambridge (UK) and then Stanford (USA). But I never felt confident in my biologist identity: I had imposter syndrome, except that it hadn’t been invented then. Now involved in creative things I feel a fraud (with more reason) but this allows me to admit that I didn’t know of John Berger till I read his obituaries this week. I then binge-watched Ways of Seeing after work one night: fascinating. A few of my art-professional Facebook contacts damn the programmes as patronising but, as a non-arts-trained person, I think they were aimed at people like me: interested, intelligent plebs. Ways of Seeing was not about classical art per se but classical art’s social anthropology.
I’ve been thinking about poetry’s anthropology for a while – in fact, ever since I argued about a review piece in the Observer by Don Paterson as I began writing where he said that only professional poets should be aired. Because how do professional poets come into existence? Only through elite university courses? And, more pertinently, how do we define professional? If we mean paid exclusively for their poetry alone then there would be very, very few (if any) in Britain today. Most “professional” poets make a living by teaching and/or reading/performing.
My first personal experience of literary elitism came when I was chatting to a poet (teacher day job) who told me he was considering publishing a new journal but the costs were prohibitive. I said, ‘What about ACE funding, like [local magazine]?’ At which point he launched into a tirade of abuse about [local magazine] ending with ‘so they’ll publish absolutely any rubbish!’ I gave him a moment to get his breath back before I smiled sweetly and said, ‘Ah, yes, they took one of my short stories.’
So when I meet a poetry magazine called Prole, Poetry and Prose it piques my interest. Its online submission guidelines include: Anything that sniffs of literary elitism is highly unlikely to make it through the editorial process. […] Obscure references and highly stylised structures and forms that exist only to aggrandise the writer and appeal to the coffee lounges of our older universities are not welcome. There is also, in the print issue, a mention of that contentious word, accessible along with engaging, entertaining and challenging.
I devoured it cover to cover in one vivid, exhausting session on a day off. I’ve had to go back a few times to take it in more fully. There’s a lot to take in. The first half is short stories, the second half poetry. In the middle are the winning stories in the Prolitzer Prize, judged by Angela Readman.
The stories range widely over place and time. There’s nostalgia but not some rose-tinted hankering for the old days: instead, a seeking to understand our now in terms of our past. As a protagonist says in Jenny Booth’s The Butterfly that Stamped, ‘Once people see you in a certain way, it’s that that tells your story for you, not what you want to say.’ Characters include a child murderer who is still a child herself; a sacked coal miner determined to be ‘a pimple on the face of the coal board’; a brain-damaged man trying to reconcile his previous self; an alcoholic sales manager hallucinating advice from Stalin; a cab driver dealing with a legacy of The Troubles; a Romany girl in Ireland between the worlds of travelling and staying. There are no neat romances, no neat resolutions for protagonists even while a story itself resolves. As Readman says, good stories have ‘the ability to take a reader somewhere else and keep us there until the end. […] The stories I loved included a strong sense of character, and a sense of place so vivid I could smell it.’
The poems are a tasty spread of voices, moods and ideas, too. Place and displacement are well-used, as in the stories. Cheryl Pearson’s Bianca Walks the Wine Bottles is a gem about unknown (to me) history (‘The flat of old Sauvignon. The sharp of new sweat’). Travellers’ lives and nostalgia feature in some of the poems, as in the stories – some of the recurring motifs for the anthology. Then there are the unique features, like Ann Drysdale’s Ben Gunn Weeps, or Sharon Black’s Complaint (‘We need more sperm in our poems – /[…] / fervent, juicy streams of co-creation.’). Yes, there is delicious humour in some of the poems: overt as in Rachael Clyne’s Fifty Shades of Beige; subtler in Marc Woodward’s In Hope of Pleasing St Peter (‘The carp were ignorant and agnostic / […] / Still, their barbelled mouths constantly moved / as if they’d hatched with the hope of prayer.’); dark in Sharon Larkin’s Travel Advisory about a faithless lover (‘I ask how many inches you’ve got, how deep / is it lying’).
Overall, for my taste, a few of the inclusions would have benefitted from a final edit and trim; less is more. A few phrases (and a couple of full poems) are Trying Too Hard in some way (politically/verbally; again entirely my taste). And, to nit-pick, a few bits of formatting have escaped from house style fetters (I read and re-read one poem trying to work out if the different dash formats were significant).
If Berger was suggesting we look not just at art but at its placing and purpose in our world, Prole is, for me, cocking its snook at any elitism but, at the same time, determinedly selecting good work (how to define “good” is, of course, another argument entirely). There’s a feeling that the whole is grounded in something bigger than its parts. A feeling of participation and witness even if its world is far short of perfect. “Accessible” in prole terms seems to mean you don’t need a classics degree to get any in jokes but it’s a far, far cry from ‘any old rubbish’ in the quality of its contents. It’s crafted and yet raw and vivid and authentic; I loved it.
It’s been a strange six months since I last blogged. Apologies if you’ve missed my ramblings here. (Alternatively, apologies if you were delighted by my absence, bad luck: I’m back.)
Ledbury Poetry Festival was, as always, wonderful. Look out for Hwaet, its 20th anniversary anthology. I loved stewarding and event-managing. Hereford Stanza produced a pamphlet and walk/reading In Plain Sight based on the ancient alleys of the town as part of the festival; my poems were inspired by Homend alleys Fox Lane (inevitably) and Common Ground.
My day job went more than a bit bonkers as my boss was absent injured for 4 months leaving me to fit 7 woman-work-days into a 5-day week and that was just for starters; it was a fun few months I hope never to reprise.
As all that was happening my term as Poet in Residence at Malvern’s eclectic little museum began in July. The local paper even took a nice photo of me. Not the best timing for my residency but injuries – and day jobs, with rare exceptions – do not respect creative plans. I shall be writing based on the residency until the end of June ’17. The museum is now closed for the winter but will reopen in March.
In September, sick of my flat-out day job slog, I burned the candle at both ends starting to rewrite my first novel so it is now adult, no longer YA. It has to be one or the other and it’s been darker and deeper with each rewrite/edit since inception as a children’s sci fi story.
As an aside I’m very lucky to have two local groups where I can trial extracts (my local circle and Worcester’s 42). Apart from the discipline of abridging a passage so it’s all relevant (lots of red lines through sub-plots, extraneous characters etc; timing a reading to fit) it’s really useful to see what works and what confuses or bemuses. As another aside I recommend reading aloud (in private) any story (or poem): glitches that the eye skips make the tongue stumble; repetitions are audible when not necessarily visible. And some lines are just embarrassing; my last MS print-out was littered with scribbles including “WTF?” at frequent intervals – a phrase I might well also apply to 2016 world events.
I was asked for a poem for an event organised by The Friends of Malvern Springs and Wells for their event Two Malverns and a Mulberry Tree, held during Malvern Civic Week.
Brief background: George Bernard Shaw, Malvern Festival’s playwright of the 1930s, planted a mulberry tree in the gardens by the theatre in 1936 in celebration of his eightieth birthday. The tree blew down in 2000 but a cutting had been taken to Malvern in Melbourne, Australia in 1959 and has become a magnificent tree. On learning this, a complex project arose to bring a cutting back to its original site here, at the same time reviving old ties of friendship between the two Malverns. Last night Di Foster, a historian from Malvern (now Stonnington), Melbourne gave a talk on their Malvern and, somewhere in the proceedings, I had five minutes to introduce and read a poem.
Mulberry trees were imported in Shakespeare’s time because King James hoped to create an English silk industry. Unfortunately, most trees were the “wrong kind” of mulberry: black mulberries, not the white mulberries favoured by silk worms.
Shaw rather resented Shakespeare’s continuing hold on the British psyche. Why should some long-dead chap outrank living playwrights in the Nation’s love? If Shakespeare could have a mulberry tree, so could Shaw.
Shaw was writing in politically turbulent times and we’re in politically turbulent times again now. My poem was written a few weeks ago but I was thinking about recent changes in our state education system; the exam-marking emphasis on “right” vs “wrong” answers with no room for any discussion of grey areas; no room for learning critical interpretation and thinking skills – skills we will need to lift us out of the holes we dig ourselves in to – or that other people drag us in to.
The poem is a Shakespearean sonnet (cheeky). “Eclose” is the precise biological term for a chrysalis splitting to release its butterfly or moth.
Common threads run through lives, through history.
Culture, memes, ideas weave through time
like silk worms’ strands wefted into tapestry
or prosaic language dancing into rhyme.
Some card, some spin, some dye their world in drab
or vivid hues foregrounding spring-born rills
or clouds or clods or falling leaves, those slabs
of granite quarried from the Malvern Hills.
As moths eclose, so unexpected yet
ordained, creativity is a seed
within each generation: nurture it
because it’s what our future hopes will need
to find answers in a world as yet unknown;
sure, wind their silk but let them fly, full grown.
What is the purpose of poetry? According to Poetry.org it’s “an art form in which human language is used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content.”
For most of us, most of the time, that means some kind of rarefied condensation of elegant linguistics. Just occasionally it means the opposite. Sometimes there’s a bait and switch (Adrian Mitchell’s “Celia, Celia”, for example). However it works, the reader should find a new experience of something.
On which note, a response to recent media nonsense:
A paean to respected journalist1 Katie Hopkins upon the election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London, May 2016.
London eagerly anticipates your appearance
naked, sausage wedged up yer bum.
We’ll hang our best bunting
or – better – bright cunting
(gay panties on strings just for fun).
Here’s to our great British banger,
boldly going where your brain-waves are sourced;
there’s a queue standing by with brown sauce.
1Donald Trump, 2015
Glorious Sunday morning spring sunshine and so I made the most of a chance to see the bluebells as they emerge here. I drove along the hills to the hamlet of Whiteleaved Oak, one of my favourite places tucked away under the hills.
Aside from mystical ley lines the locals have a good sense of humour, judging by the notice board.
I walked a good way up High Wood where wild daffodils (just past their best) and bluebells (just coming in to theirs) carpeted glades
but some of the paths were a bit boggy.
Then up Chase End Hill, where the flowers were also lovely (more bluebells and daffs with patches of wood anemone).
A willow had fallen in winter storms. And there was yet more mud on the way back down into Whiteleaved Oak.
Finally I scrambled up Raggedstone Hill, not having climbed there before.
It’s steep but the view made the effort worthwhile.