Sunday, October 16, 2016


Dorothea Lange,(1895 - 1965)
Oklahoma Refugees from the Dust Bowl, 
Looking for Work on the Cotton Fields, 
Now Encamped Near Bakersfield, California
November 1935
Sixty poets reading non-stop for 10 hours makes a Poemathon.

It's an idea which successfully raised thousands of pounds in Sheffield and London in 2015 and on December 11, a group of us in Brighton are doing the same.

The Brighton Poemathon will take place at Komedia in Brighton, starting at midday and ending at 10 pm.

We're raising funds for displaced people - migrants, refugees. It started when I put out a call on social media for poets who wanted to do something locally. And how it's snowballed - such interest, such enthusiasm and generosity.

Mark Doty, a wonderful American poet I read with years ago at a TS Eliot prize reading said this in a seminar on why poetry matters: "it has never been more important in human history that we learn to listen to the voices of others".

He goes on to say: "Poetry’s work is to make people real to us through the agency of the voice."

This is, I hope, what the Poemathon will also achieve on Sunday, December 11, Komedia, Brighton.

Tide of Voices, Why Poetry Matters Now, Mark Doty for Academy of American Poets, 2010.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Ambivalent autumn

In Amsterdam
I've had an ambivalent relationship with writing over the last few months, producing individual poems that contribute to a couple of strands of thought and ideas and revisiting the memoir Venda Sun.

The big achievement, if that's the right word, at the end of this summer was seeing The Workshop Handbook into the world, with the help of Arc Publications.

Now I want to get back to my own writing and it is a question of re-forming the habit. This summer I have put it off. The allotment and launching myself into Airbnb have been a priority - Airbnb because I need the income, the allotment because it gives me the concentration and quiet I have needed.

I've missed a long summer break, the chance to be somewhere new. Three days in Amsterdam was tantalising for what I might have seen.

Autumn is ambivalent. Brilliant, golden sunshine and fabulous light balanced by fresh, nippy evenings. I am rootling around for scarves, need to pull winter clothes out from under the bed and hang up my coats again. A small pile of summer dresses sits on a trunk near my bed because I can't quite bring myself to put them away for another year. Distractions of the present.

Bar Old Wembley made me chuckle. My grandfather's house was in Wembley. It smelled of coal fires and upstairs, in the attic, of chalk. That was where he made the casts of people's mouths, for dentures.
He ate an orange a day and when I took Giya back to Cardiff the other weekend, in her house was a glass fronted, built in cabinet exactly like the one in my grandfather's house. Just below it was where the phone sat. I am sure I remember him having a three figure number when I was very young. And no party line!

In that glass cabinet were the special glasses, including four tawny gold tumblers. I have no idea how they came to me, perhaps my aunt kept hold of them. There are three now. When I look at them I am also looking out of that small back room into the garden of the house (long demolished) in East Lane, Wembley towards the tall fence and behind it the tennis courts. In the long garden were raspberry canes and to the right of the back door, an outside loo. My grandfather once built a working light plane in his garage and sometimes flew a fine, paper covered model glider over the lawn.

And despite his appalling views on race and immigration, I remember him telling me the story of a man who couldn't afford to pay for his teeth to be fixed, so my grandfather did the work and was paid with a small marble statue which sits on my bookshelf, to my left.

It's a young man picking something out of his foot. He makes me think of a flyer, Mindfulness on Lewes Road, tied to a tree at the bottom of my street, the weight of the past.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The workshop handbook for writers

I never did a PhD but the Workshop Handbook for Writers is my equivalent. It's taken a few years to make sense of the work I've done with such a wide range of people. It's taken a few years to actually publish.

It covers some of the busiest years of my working life, when I had school age children, when I was the main earner. It covers some major poetry residencies in the Surrey Hills, with Unilever and with Fabrica Gallery in Brighton.

Credit to Giya Makondo Wills for some of the photos I've included, to Arc Publications and Ben Styles in particular for persuading me to publish it as a book and not a giveaway PDF!

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Expeditions and other colonial habits

One of my neighbours asked me the other day to design an invitation to a magical mystery tour for her husband's 50th birthday. She wanted a picnic basket, some sandwiches and a flask.
I found line drawings of a man in a panama hat, an advert for ginger ale, an old fashioned picnic basket and a walker wandering into woods, plus a quote from Albert Einstein celebrating mystery. She also wanted me to write a letter for her to an estate agent that had been too over-enthusiastic in trying to get her to switch sole agency.
I remember the old men in Thohoyandou, Venda, with their typewriters outside stalls in the sprawling market where we bought mopani worms and dried ants. Along from the typewriters were the women with treadle sewing machines.
I wondered if I could put a typewriter outside my house - I've been keeping an eye out for one that works, regretting giving mine away, one after another.
And everything is sparking memories at the moment - perhaps it's anxiety, prospect of a stark autumn and winter without one of the jobs I thought I'd have.
So yesterday was a mixed day. We sat in my neighbour's garden going over the letter and fine-tuning it, then I came back home to take up the accounts again - I'm ahead this year because I have to send in a paper form. I found the image that could advertise my services as a letter writer.
And then I found some old adverts and this is where the stuffed birds come in - reminding me of the days of poetry and wine in Ptuj, Slovenia two years ago - Versoteque - a festival that must be one of the best in Europe for its friendliness (on a par with King's Lynn).
It was there I spent time with Astrid Alben, a fine poet, and where I was taken for a local more than once, which made me wonder again about my unknown grandmother, whose features I've inherited.
Browsing bookshops in Ljubliana, I found a report on a colonial expedition to Mexico which lists every bird the expeditionaries killed to stuff and lay in trays in European museums. Billions are not even on show.
There are many horrors in the world at the moment and a bird's death is probably not rated high, but I've always felt a connection between industrial scale killing of animals and decline in empathy.
Which brings me back to the other day on the allotment, sitting under the plum tree (its sparse harvest eaten by squirrels this year) with Rob and listening to a robin. Its song was different, sounded more complex, sounded like a bird neither of us had heard before.  I realised my pleasures have changed - I like sitting and listening, being on the allotment alone and not having to obey. I feel I should ask the birds' permission to enter the allotment early in the morning, when I choose to stay later in the evening. Those times feel like theirs.
There's a scene in a Jackie Chan film (I think it's Jackie Chan) in which a monk berates someone for killing a fly. It's not extreme, it's really not. When I worry I'm becoming sentimental, I remember this sensibility has been practised for centuries. It's just that in a life-time of work it gets pushed aside.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

My first taste of cous cous, 1975

I first ate cous cous in a basement room on the university campus in Caen, Normandy in 1975. I don't remember how I met the guy who lived there and cooked for me, I could never recall his face.  I could be sitting next to him anywhere and not know he was that young man.

He cooked the cous cous on a single electric ring we had in our rooms. Why do I have an image of looking down from the cobbled square, from a point towards the edge of the square, not far from the looming lecture blocks where I went for a course on cinema and never returned?

He belongs to the time of Michel, Patrice, the fire-eater and travelling circus. But he's in a basement with a bowl of buttery, crumbly grain, a sweet spicy sauce of potatoes, carrots and lamb with chick peas and red peppers.

It's a taste I'd go back to years later with Mark who had a thing about harissa, who made cous cous properly and who I bought a North African cookbook for, which I kept when we split up even though it was useless to me, a vegetarian by then.

The young man in that basement is fixed in the colours of a dim electric light - kind, generous, now utterly unknown to me, and I often think about him.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

How the garden feels after a difficult one to one session

It wasn't counselling, it was a one to one consultation with an expert about work. It wrang insecurities from the most blissful day, it exposed every rock pool of self-doubt.

So in a couple of hours before dusk, I managed to heavily prune two weigela (which I will cut down today), decided to hack out a winter honeysuckle, dragged kilometres of bindweed out of flower beds and made a plan to lop the jasmine covered sycamore. I want light in.

I chose to prioritise time over money and work a four day week. I chose to write poetry, which is generous with personal reward but mean with external affirmation. I chose not to have a career. And just as I often wake in the morning nowadays wondering if this will be the day the chickens come home to roost (all those bad choices translated into medical conditions), the consultation was a day of reckoning.

So why would you want to do that? Why not be happy with the way things are? Be 22 again and play. Feel alive. Don't wait for the space, make the space you need. 

It's taken a while for the penny to drop. To realise just how full the world of writing is of people who come to it late from successful careers, where they've learned how to be successful. They aren't afraid of wanting it all and aren't afraid of what they must do to achieve it. They aren't afraid of success and strategy.

Does success matter? In itself, no, but some kind of external validation does, certainly when you've been at it for years. I fear it is too late for me. I fear that this is what the session I went to was about. I fear the garden will feel my fear. How can I be positive? Write.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Ladies of the arts

I went into the Pound Shop on London Road for a pad of lined paper. I'd been for a walk with Jane and we passed a shabby black painted temporary building on the beach near Concorde 2. We were curious about it, what it was for, and a man standing outside mending the doorway told us it contained an 'immersive experience' about time.

As we were leaving he said we could email him and he'd give us tickets (they were selling for £18, pretty steep given the experience only lasted an hour). 'You are obviously ladies of the arts,' he said.

I thought I'd stop off in a cafe and do a bit of writing to cement the status he'd conferred, but I didn't have a notebook. Then I saw a novel by someone I know in the books section. The pound shop's not a destination for books, but it's always worth checking the shelves for the remaindered gem. Hers was one I'd been meaning to read. And that led me to The Investigation by Jung-Myung Lee.

All that MacMillan says about this Korean writer is that he "has sold hundreds of thousands of books in his native Korea. One, Deep Rooted Tree, was made into a popular TV series."

It's brilliant. As immersive experiences go, I have to thank the man at the black chipboard shack on the seafront, because if I wasn't so determined to explore why I was so put out by that title, Ladies of the Arts, I wouldn't have found the novel. It mixes poetry and prose in the most inventive way and now I want to know more about this writer but I can find almost nothing, although I have discovered the name of the poet the novel centres on - Yun Dong-Ju who died in 1945 two years after being arrested as a 'thought criminal'.

It's a book about how we are shaped - how a moment listening to a woman playing piano can influence your whole life. It is about writing, words and violence. And I'm so far only half way through.

Jung Myung-Lee was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015. Is it his choice to limit the biographical information on this fascinating book? Translator is Chi-Young Kim.