Sunday, August 28, 2022

Is this the right time to retire from anger?

A good friend is known for asking questions, I have a reputation for being angry. My English teacher reported I was too emotional. I carried it into student politics, journalism (bleeding hearts correspondent) and trade union activism. I have spoken my mind and allowed a sense of justice to overcome my peace and define me. 
Is it really in Little Women, a book I've never read, that a character says, "I'm angry nearly every day of my life."? What does she mean? Writer and academic Emilie Pine dug into anger for Notes to Self. Martina Evans, a poet friend, reviewed it saying it's a book you want to give to everyone. 
My restless energies (often defined as 'difficult') came from Catholicism, relationships, work, the stress of freelancing. Demands of negotiating pay and working conditions endlessly, alone,  take their toll. Then menopause, swinging you from the brink of fury to floods of tears. And ageing's unmentioned indignities.
I build a house over myself
A house of scraps, sewn on an old treadle machine, 
making bricks stuffed with underwear. 
My house will do, one day, as a soft room 
where I can throw myself against the walls.
Sewing and growing - no power-relationships, quiet time. I retire from caring. I will not appear on picket lines. I will not rise to  invitations to be indignant. I will admire from a distance fighters for justice like the poets Warsan Shire and
Victoria Adukwei Bulley. Then, of course, the intelligence and reach of Angela Y Davis whose Freedom is a Constant Struggle, I began reading this week. 
In my break I'm interested to see what happens to the anger emerging from all quarters, interested to discover where I can place my need to talk about right and wrong and ask questions of those who've hidden (or ignored) the words. Interested to see how much longer anger remains taboo. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The songs angels and children sing

I am the song what the angels sing....each of the lines in this short poem written by one of my children many, many years ago, stands on its own as a flag of confidence and self-belief. I am so proud of it, and of the many others I've stuck in scrap books, retrieved from old hard drives, transferred from one laptop to another. These poems have the status of faded colour 35mm photos from camping holidays. 

I came across the poem after a generous friend, Jill Gardiner, the historian and poet, took me to Charleston Festival at the weekend.  The singing began. What I mean is the older I get, the more connections, resonances, chimes there are. Or is it that lockdown provided a detox and now I am more open to the many ways artists' work reflects my own life? 

The first bars of the angel song were Michael Morpurgo talking about his farm for city kids (my cousin set up one of the first city farms in Cardiff decades ago) and Brighton illustrator Emily Gravett who was just so honest about academic failure. 

More bars came as Sarfraz Manzoor and Yasmin Cordery Khan talked about white wives, mothers and the experiences of mixed race children. As they spoke, my son Mrisi was preparing for another gig at Brighton Festival, his music the vessel for his experience growing up with British and South African heritage. And my daughter sent me pictures on Whats App of her show in Germany: photos born in an interrogation of colonialism, heritage and cultural ownership. 

I was itching to ask questions, but they are perhaps better off unsaid so they can continue with their music, fizzing, building momentum, burrowing, sitting with those sky gods. And they took me back to this poem about identity, written when my adult children were so little and came along to help out at Saturday workshops for children. Which brings in On Poetry, just a month in the world. 

Monday, April 25, 2022

Jam tomorrow or jammy dodger?

I searched in the Thesaurus and found few synonyms of interest for the word 'retired'. I googled and found a lot of worthy organisations, charities and suggestions of illness, care, depression and so on. In the year of my official retirement, i.e. when I got my state pension, On Poetry has been published and it's doing a little of what I'd hoped for - it's entertaining some fellow poets and dispensing thoughts I've wanted to share. And as I read the paper free over breakfast thanks to Press Reader I am beginning to realise more women are starting to support one another again. 

I've never been to the Venice Biennale but was delighted to read that artistic director Cecilia Alemani had given over more space to women this year, to the extent that women artists outnumber men. Angela Rayner has been supported for highlighting misogyny in politics and in On Poetry I hope I'm helping balance the scales in UK poetry, where the canon has been, throughout most of my life, white and male. 

Many women have analysed why. I'm less interested in analysis nowadays (although I still recommend Tillie Olsen's Silences) more in change. So in On Poetry, 18 of the 21 poems featured for close reading are by women, one by a non-binary writer and two by men. My approach has been autobiographical and my last words were written in a rush of frustration with the lies of jam tomorrow. Alice says, 'It's terribly confusing..." although I disagree - jam tomorrow is a pretty simple yarn we should see though but we can't hear ourselves think. 

While the sun lasts, I'm up at the allotment, planting. As for retired, my laptop thesaurus provides these synonyms: retired people, pensioners, old-age pensioners, OAPs, senior citizens, old people, the elderly; North American seniors, retirees; rare retirers, pensionaries. The associations these synonyms lug with them are another proof of the 'jam tomorrow' deception. Jammy dodger, anyone? 

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Poet gardeners

Banners in the exhibition
celebrating the writing of 
Jamaica Kincaid

My recent escape to Utrecht followed several intense weeks. I neglected the allotment and put in my first early potatoes only hours before I left on Eurostar. Potatoes, flower seeds and bulbs were my priority. 

So when Giya and I were looking for things to do it was obvious I'd want to see the exhibition at the Centraal Museum, The Botanical Revolution, On the Necessity of Art and Gardening. And when we wandered around, how delighted I was to see a tribute to Jamaica Kincaid

In my own way, over the two or more years I've been finalising On Poetry for The Poetry Business, I've also attempted to prove the links between writing and gardening. 

Kincaid's been quoted as saying, "Gardening is like writing, I suppose; you don't really know what you are doing, but you don't really want to know."

In the week I was away and before I left, friends were telling me how their pre-ordered copies of On Poetry had arrived. I only saw mine last night when I got back. It was bigger than I expected, but it's two books in one. The poet gardeners inside include Olive Senior, Janet Sutherland, Sarah Maguire and Wang Xiaoni, but of course there are many, many more. 

And where better to daydream about gardening than in The Netherlands, whose old masters knew a thing or two about plants and pollinators. 

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Creation stories

Slow Dancer magazine
was edited by John Harvey,
the novelist and poet, 
who also produced my first
pamphlet Black Slingbacks

The old poetry magazines scattered around my house have been in hiding in lockdown for fear of the Amnesty donations bag. But as I dusted them off I realised they've earned their right to stay. They tell my story as a poet alongside that of many others. 

When I started sending work to magazines I relished the company I found myself in. I read new work, my horizons grew. In April, the Poetry Business is bringing out a book I've written on some of the poets that influenced me and work I've done in turn, helping others write. It's On Poetry: Reading and Writing Poems. 

In a nice circularity, the PB produces The North, one of the first magazines I was accepted by. I was an honorary northerner in magazines produced far from Surrey:  The North, The Wide Skirt, The Echo Room, and I was in the company of poets who have continued to create work that influences how we perceive the world. 

The first magazine
 to publish poems
I've written
Some of these small magazines and presses are long gone, others like The Poetry Business, Stand, Poetry London and The Rialto, are still giving new writers their first chances in print, providing an essential vote of confidence in the word on the page, their writer/editors deep in the business of supporting others. 

Outposts was one of the first small magazines I bought in 1976 - its cover features Brian Patten, Andrew Motion and Elizabeth Bartlett. Carol Rumens wrote about Bartlett in 2008 "she remained a noncombatant  in the prize-grabbing poetry culture that developed in the 1980s." Bartlett worked in the health service and she lived not far from Brighton most of her life. Her name on the cover stands out for several reasons, but for me, now, as proof of the importance of keeping going. 

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

The older woman (again)

Cornelis Ketel,
portrait of woman
aged 56

Shall we talk about age, then? Its challenges (incontinence, unreadable text, mumblers),  the advantages of retirement, why some of us are ashamed of the time we've spent on the planet instead of owning the idea of accumulated experience. 

Is the noun, elders, a way forward, instead of the adjective, elderly? And when an organisation represents itself with a wall of faces in an amorphous age range of late 20s to late 40s, is it time gently to point out the demographics of the northern hemisphere? 
Sojourner Truth

In the spirit of my 'words for women', versions 1 and 2, I have browsed the historical thesaurus to find words for old. There were the obvious, but I was struck by 'wintered', 'ripe', 'far', 'crusted', 'badgerly'. I liked the collective noun, an 'ancientry', and wondered about the lives contained in the word for old age, 'anecdotage'. 

Generally, an old woman is not well served by the English language but there was something in the word, 'pantywaist' from the historic thesaurus that I found beautifully clownlike and reminded me of Goya. I'd love to know how other languages treat the old. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Year of the goat (or sheep)

Born in a year of the goat (or sheep), I've looked after them off and on since I was 21 when I spent a summer on a Breton farm belonging to a travelling circus. Later that summer, in a valley near the Gorges du Tarn, I helped usher them into a barn as a storm drummed its way towards us. In spring 2019 I looked after a house in Mallorca with a resident flock of sheep and packs of goats. The sheep were gentle and skittish, the goats wild and fast. I am a wood goat. We like peace. 
Sheepcote valley, just up the hill from me, is a grazing spot for Sussex sheep. They add deep country dreams to this urban fringe, so often parked-on, set alight, dumped on and rutted by tyres. They clear brambles and invite conversation as they turn their heads to the path. Then they turn up in mosaics, on cards, badges, venerated for their stoicism, their place in the hills.