Saturday, December 31, 2011

Between then and now

Dawn and the elm outside my window 
Almost catatonic from the Downton Abbey two series set, I donated a box of Milk Tray to my son, knowing he'd eat it in a sitting and save me.
This was after the first detox dream in which I am trying to pack shelfloads of dictionaries and encyclopaedias into two suitcases so I can catch a bus to the Eurostar. I miss it and cry. I am sensible enough to discard the make-your-own paper suitcase that I'd bought for emergencies.
Generally I am awake before dawn and amazed at how relaxed I feel again, post-lodger. It was a financial experiment and the results were conclusive - for the five out of seven days when I am mostly at home, I do not want to deal with a stranger's neuroses.
I heard someone on the radio exhort the value of reasons to be cheerful. Ian Dury made a song of them:

"A bit of grin and bear it, a bit of come and share it
You're welcome, we can spare it - yellow socks
Too short to be haughty, too nutty to be naughty
Going on 40 - no electric shocks" (Ian Dury, Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3, 1979)

Today's reasons to be cheerful: a Russian Christmas tonight with summer pudding made of vodka soaked raspberries, another year's MOT, walks with Roxy, Giya's wall of pics, Mrisi singing in the cellar, a notebook and pen, la Fontasse, Italian kale on the allotment, a line of parsley, the three Janes, Maude, Julie, Catherine, Hilary, new brogues (a present from my mother), Smokey Robinson, listening again to Joni Mitchell, as well as the elm and looking at cliffs with Giya in the rain. 

Dusk and the coast road from Brighton Marina wall

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The North comes south

l to r: Sarah Salway, Liz Bahs, Peter Sansom, Ann Sansom,
Lin Lundie, Michaela Ridgeway, Rebecca Farmer
The Poetry Business, publisher of iconic magazine The North, is celebrating its 25th anniversary and its two directors, Peter and Ann Sansom have been on the road for months.
Their tour included a weekend masterclass at Chesworth Arts Farm in Horsham to bring November to a brilliant conclusion.
Both are inspirational poets and workshop leaders. Peter's book Writing Poems (Bloodaxe) is a classic. Many of the UK's leading poets have been published in The North, often at the start of their careers. The Poetry Business pamphlets, too, offer a good representation of the state of British poetry.
What made the masterclass work so well? 10 willing participants, lots of writing, intelligent reading, logs, biscuits, coffee and tea, the quiet of Chesworth - stepping out of the everyday and seeing it differently.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Unknown artists

Detail of a painting by Kate Rook 
You find them in jumble sales, charity shops, car boot sales - paintings by unknown artists. You might buy one for its frame, for the cat's face staring back at you. I have a woman who reminds my mother of her awful aunt, another a line of cottages by the sea where I've always wanted to live. The cat's face is perfect but the robin sitting close by is way too small. The snow on this boy's wellies and coat only shows in a digital photo - in the print itself you'd need perfect eyesight to notice. Each of the childrens' faces in this large painting of a school and playground on a snowy day is individual. Intriquing, isn't it, that an artist can pay such attention, be so precise and be untraceable. What happened to Kate Rook?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Neighbourhood of knowledge

Lewes Road reminds me of Shakespeare's second best bed in its ranking as second most polluted road in Brighton.
Stuck for how to describe this jammed up, run down source of underage booze and fags, the council's opted for 'neighbourhood of knowledge'.
What student quarter (or increasingly, rich kids' playground)  means is off licences and takeaways, chalk invites on the pavement to Victoria's birthday, parties in conservatories, hammering on doors, public status updates at 4 am, no room on the morning bus, seagull-pecked bin bags.
When the big cars come cruising in September, it's the landlords checking their investments followed by mummy's 4x4. So many homes have been turned over to students round here Brighton and Hove council is starting to panic. Why? The dent in council council takings is showing. 
Instructions for how to make a student house
You buy a 3 bedroom house with living room. You divide the big bedroom and living room. Now you have 6 bedrooms. You convert the attic. Now you have 8 bedrooms. You put a conservatory in the garden - that makes a living room. You charge each student £400 a month and your income is £38,400 a year. You don't have to register as a house in multiple occupation. You don't pay council tax.
Instructions for how to move in
Get so drunk you can't remember your address. Stagger to the neighbour's. Threaten the girl inside, hammer on her door until the police turn up. Speak with a posh accent. You're rich and white - they won't arrest you.

Monday, October 17, 2011


Start of my walk with Roxy, a friend's Springer

Stanmer woods

Towards Stanmer village

Mrisi and Giya harvesting Bramleys

The harvest!

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Autumn is an executioner - a game involving tea and poems

For Autumn is an executioner and her hour is darkness. She is a warrior and her element is metal. Ou-Yang Hsiu (1007-1072)

The quote comes from a piece called Autumn translated by Arthur Waley. It's in an old collection More Translations from the Chinese that I bought from someone who was selling off his dead mother's books piecemeal years ago. I go back to it often, as I go back to Michael Longley's poems, because it reminds me that simplicity is a good goal. It reassures me that poets whose work survives talk to me because their language is simple, their thoughts universal.

This leads me to a poem of Longley's called Snow Water, the title poem to his 2004 collection from Cape. It's in the first person and a request for 'a gift of snow water' as a 60th birthday present. Longley delights in tea names - Silver Needles and Cloud Mist - and the stories they contain. But there's far more to this poem - its life below the surface is thrilling and testament to Longley's erudition and playfulness.

When I was doing research for Whittard re-branding work, I often had his poem in mind. Then I came across a painting by Wang Shih-shen 'Asking for Snow Water' from 1740. The story of the painting is told by Alfreda Murck in a Record of the Art Museum (Vol. 37, No. 2, 1978). I'm quoting it at length in order to show the game Longley is playing within his poem and with it too, but which many readers are probably unaware of. Effectively, Longley puts himself in a tradition, a conversation, a match between poets continuing through time. What is also so fascinating and relevant to the observations Murck makes and the content of the poems she quotes is the way Longley himself writes about friends both living and dead. How he places himself in many of his poems within a tradition and how he constantly refers to those he admires - classical writers as well as more recent poets.

Murck observes..."Eleven literati embellished the painting with reflective poems and comments. The intertwined lives of these men and the evolution of the document make a fascinating story. For whom was the painting intended? Who is the figure and what is being carried? What prompted the numerous inscriptions? The story unfolds through the inscriptions. In the first, the artist makes a plea to his friend Chiao Wu-tou for water melted from snow. We learn that it was for Chiao that Wang painted 'Asking for Snow Water', that the figure is a young servant carrying a crock of water to Wang, and that the mist clouding the thatched house is steam billowing from Wang's tea brazier…..

"...Of the many painters benefiting from the cultural florescence in Yangchou at the time some exceptional talents emerged to be called the Eight Eccentrics of Yangchou. Wang was addicted to tea and plum blossom. it was his addiction to tea that prompted him to paint 'Asking for Snow Water'....His first inscription, written in eleven lines of varying length below the scene, gently hints that a gift of water would be welcomed:

"If I were to get teeth-chilling water gathered by a mountain household,
My cloud-covered pot would echo all night with its icy soul!"

Murck continues: "He sent the poem to his friend, who sent it back with the gift of snow water. Wang replied:

"As Master Wu-tou has kindly sent snow water,
I have composed another poem in thanks for his elegant gift..."

Murck describes how poems were added to the scroll over the years by others:

"When I was in humble circumstances, I met one who became both my lasting friend and teacher,
Clasping the frozen snow to his breast, he had the bearing of a wild crane;
Who would have thought his pure spirit would go to the grave?....."

And another....

"By paper windows in a bright bamboo hut
A table spotless without dust;
There is a carefree brewer of tea,
And the man who sent snow on a clear cold day;
Their deep friendship is as pure as the water...."

Wang Shih-shen's Asking for Snow Water, Tributes to a Tea Drinker. Alfreda Murck. Vol. 37. No 2. Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University © 1978

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Don't commit adultery - a poem of the decade

Bruegel's Christ and the woman taken in adultery - I love its restraint
It's a weird list of places, contexts, partners. Once when I read it live a man told me afterwards (proudly) he'd done all but two. I read it to a vicar, bolt upright in the front row. Fortunately I didn't know he was there until afterwards. He'd been dragged along by his wife.

I've always liked list poems - Michael Longley's brilliant at them, as is George Mackay Brown. There's some brilliant ones by Fred Voss and a chilling one (A list of requirements for the end of the world) by Neil Rollinson. One of Carol Ann Duffy's most famous list poems is Prayer, using names from the shipping forecast and there's Moniza Alvi's beautiful poem, Indian Cooking that uses a list of spices.

Anyway, this poem is included in a Poems of the Decade anthology, published by Faber in October...and apparently ends the book. The poem's a pivot in Commandments - incredulous at people's ingenuity.

I'm in great company - Sussex is well represented, with Catherine Smith and Ros Barber also featured. Other locals too, I'd guess, but I haven't seen the book yet.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Two weeks since I left the low yellow house in France overlooking Europe's highest cliff and a 45 minute scramble to a turquoise sea. I didn't expect to get ill so fast. I felt I could face the winter after so much intense, welcome sun.
The time after a holiday is a re-orientation, back into whatever I might describe as normality. My normality has been fruit picking, jam making, catching up with friends and since being laid low, reading trashy novels. I read very little on holiday - a few pages of Ulysses that I'm revisiting after 35 years, half of John Fuller's compelling new book 'Who is Ozymandius and other Puzzles in Poetry?'
If I hadn't been ill, I would have totally detoxed from trash reading. People keep asking me about the disturbances. What a relief to be away from the chatter. I don't want to enter into the discussions anymore about politics. There is no honest discussion about modern life in the UK.
The distance is something I don't want to lose in my re-orientation. Distance is the way into autumn and winter.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Scrumping - stealing or not?

The elm outside my window
Picking wild blackberries and plums has been renamed 'scrumping' by the Brighton Permaculture Trust, a worthy new organisation that runs courses in things we've all forgotten, like scything.
The Trust gets teams of people together with shiny aluminium ladders and buckets to collect unpicked fruit. I encountered a gang of them recently, off to climb some mirabelle trees. 
I thought scrumping meant stealing fruit, specifically apples, so it seems an odd term to use for foraging.
Then if you look in the the urban dictionary its newest meaning is dry sex....which adds another perspective to scrabbling around abandoned allotments.
Some of the permaculture people's courses look interesting - I considered one on pruning old apple trees, another on mushroom hunting, but they aren't cheap. 
And there's something about new enthusiasm for old ways that makes my toes curl. Is is that truth has to be reinvented by each generation? Is it labrador style slobbery gushing that puts me off? Or the language? 
Take the first line of the information on Scything: "A two-day hands-on course held in a beautiful location..."
If people do not pay attention to language, it makes me suspicious of what else they might not be paying attention to. Like the Poetry Society, Arts Council and all the others too lazy to check what their announcements and reports reveal about them.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Morning carcasses

The cat left miniscule guts on the stairs for me, too
I found two of the night's carcasses this morning in Sheepcote Valley - one defiant, the other already submitting to brambles.
They remind me of enormous surreal sculptures I saw in a club in Brixton in the 1980s. Was it the Academy? Sculptures made of metal, insect like, precursors of the fantasy worlds created in clubland now.
When I brought the dog back to my neighbour there was a circus van parked outside her house. Cirque Kinetique....probably off to Latitude where my son's selling donuts this weekend...and my daughter's at the Avignon Festival for the first time - a festival I went to three years in a row with Jane Fordham. It was that experience that gave rise to the work we are now doing together. We met yesterday again to complete two more books. These are one-off pieces that are the result of shared thinking, research, ideas.
It is, in fact, a unique collaboration - we are not illustrating one another's work, we are drawing from the same well, shaping one another's work, allowing circumstances, materials, instinct to direct us. We are being confronted with the consequences of chance decisions, seemingly random links and yet both of us know that there is a seam running through we can trust. We have produced several books and are mapping the experience in a private blog.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

A brawl of poets or one love?

One love, one heart
Let's get together and feel all right
Hear the children crying - one love

Hear the children crying - one heart

From One Love by Bob Marley

Poets used to gather in a grand old mansion in Earls Court. It was a short stagger from the tube, close to the legendary Troubadour cafe and large enough to cater for the crush of a book launch with free wine. This was the home of the Poetry Society when I began writing - it was quirky, it had character.

I was there for a few launches. Eddie Linden was usually present, Matthew Sweeney, Lavinia Greenlaw and John Hartley Williams were regulars. I remember John Heathcote Williams reading from Sacred Elephant sometime in 1989.

There was a rift in the 1970s. Peter Barry's written a book about it (Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court, Cambridge, 2006). He writes: ‘An odd thing happened in British poetry in the 1970s, but the full story has never been told. A small group of “radical” or “experimental” poets took over the Poetry Society, one of the most conservative of British cultural institutions, and for a period of six years, from 1971 to 1977, its journal, Poetry Review, was the most startling magazine in the country.’

One of those radicals was Eric Mottram, another was performance poet Bob Cobbing. I saw Cobbing above a pub in Farringdon when the place was rough. He was performing with maverick saxophonist Lol Coxhill and I'll never forget it although I have totally forgotten the name of the pub and the year. Cobbing silenced a group of heckling lads by discussing sound poetry with them at the bar in the interval. They stayed for the second half and were silent.

I was a member of the Poetry Society for many years because to me it was as important to poetry as the Arvon Foundation where many of us learned our craft on a residential course or two and met lifelong friends.

There's a standing joke among poets, guaranteed to fill an awkward moment - what is the collective noun for a group of us? The Poet Laureate once threw 'a paranoia' into the ring. I think 'a whine' is always appropriate. Few are complimentary. With all that's been going on at the Poetry Society, the resignations and the rumours, it appears 'a brawl of poets' might fit....or is it more of 'a bicker', or 'a distraction of poets'? It's certainly not a celebration or an exaltation right now.

When the Poetry Society moved from Earls Court into the centre of Covent Garden, Betterton Street, there was uproar. The space for readings, launches, gatherings was squeezed to a cramped, uncomfortable and mean little basement - a through route to the toilets - and a corridor for a cafe. I saw the offices recently and I wouldn't work in them. It's an organisation squatting uncomfortably in the centre of London without the means to benefit from a location that used to be impossibly trendy but is now very tired.

Poetry Review, the society's magazine, has an impossible task - to apparently represent the Poetry Society and at the same time pursue whatever editorial line the editor of the time feels is right. Anyone who thinks editors won't be controversial isn't living in the world. It's an editor's job to shake things up, to stamp their personality on a magazine...if you don't like it, you don't buy it. I think the sticking point is the question of whether it should be subsidised. I don't think so. Should the Poetry Society have a flagship magazine? I don't think so either. If Poetry Review was freed from constraint, it could survive or fail on its merits and an editor would be free to take appropriate decisions.

But when I look at the Poetry Society's website - that of our national representative and Arts Council funded organisation - I feel ashamed. It's as uninspired and lacklustre as the basement. I'm not a member anymore. I stopped my membership a few years ago when the 'benefit' of Poetry Review stopped being one.

Look at the website of the Academy of American Poets - its breadth, its professionalism, its value as a database and its worth. This website is well-researched, a resource for the public. It celebrates the differences between poets, it presents us as people who write differently about a range of subjects. You can search for a poem by keyword, by can find poems about teenagers, funerals etc etc. You can search for a poet and there's a biog and picture. There are classroom resources, there are historical and contemporary features on aspects of poetry.

What we have is a website that appears to be more interested in Twitter, Facebook and what the media (selectively) is writing about poetry, a featured poem that's not updated often enough and a cursory diary of what's going on in London. The Young Poets Network is a good initiative, but even that could be more ambitious. Separately, there's the Poetry Archive, a database of poets with astonishing omissions and inclusions and the British Council's contemporary writers database that apparently only features poets who've won prizes.

Where's the blockage? Has no-one seen the Academy of American Poets? Does no-one want to aspire to that level of professionalism and inclusivity? appears people are content to fight over turf on a small island and have neglected the need to communicate the diverse range of work being done, the importance of looking
 for innovation. There was mention of high profile poets. They don't need help! Spend time on the new Cobbings, the experimenters, the radicals, the neglected and ask why they are marginalised....

But where was the Poetry Society's campaign for publishers like Arc, Enitharmon, Anvil and others who lost Arts Council funding? No, weirdly there was barely a single threat of resignation.....

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Ovid describes the Lemuria, a May festival in Rome, when householders begged the ghosts to leave. Ancient civilisations understood the link between the seasons, our minds and bodies. It was a coincidence that I found a reprinted book by Jane Ellen Harrison 'Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion'. May was a bad month for me and many friends, packed with ghosts, and as I was reading I came across a phrase 'the natural melancholy of the spring'.

It was there like a gift, an insight waiting to be pounced on and the clouds of elderflower and cow parsley blossoms, swathes of poppies on the Downs, made sense too: sophorific scents, the colour.

Seven years ago this month, Sunday 27 June 2004, my brother Michael was killed in a plane crash. When there is not a chance to say goodbye, to make peace, I think we reconfigure these ghosts constantly and need to usher them out for a while until the day of the dead comes round again.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The scent of lilies

Lilies in the front room

Orchids in my bedroom
Justine carried over a maroon glass vase of lilies, I carried the orchids, freesia and roses. The house was suddenly tropical as if the temperature had been racked up and I was not in my own home at all, but a hotel. Justine and Fi got married the other day and were off for a week's holiday - how kind of them to bring me the flowers. So every room was renewed and the front room was locked in the perfume of lilies.

I love the climbing roses that people train around doors and on fences. My mother's always had Alberic Barbier - it divided our house in Farnham from the neighbour, it scented the evenings but it dropped petals at a touch. When Justine brought the lilies, I had vases of tight buds that Vera gave me when I went round to help her trim her yellow rose. Like Alberic Barbier, Vera's climber has blossoms that are perfect as they open, then full-headed last a day. So these flowers, from florists and far away, have kept the ox-eye daisies on the allotment for a while longer. The roses are finished, some of the lilies, most of the freesia, but the orchid is still magnificent.
Mandela, roses, freesia in the kitchen

Sunday, May 08, 2011

A fox at the Handmade House and a Green victory

Chickens alert to the passing fox
I had my back to it, but Mum and Jane saw it flash past and the chickens flapped to the roof of their coop when a fox rushed through the garden of the Handmade House towards the sculpture trail.

We were having lunch after looking round, particularly at Jane's paintings (Jane Fordham) and Emma's jewellery (Emma Willcox). I've worn two of Emma's bracelets for years - never take them off in fact, and Jane's work is all over my house.

The Handmade House is on the outskirts of Ditchling, the village at the foot of the Downs made famous by Eric Gill. Last year I bought Mum a duck - she's mildly obsessed by them - and this year they're joined by crows, owls and a kingfisher. Jane's paintings on wood are intricate images of plates and cups, as well as two standing nudes and a line of intensely colourful individual fruits.

I'm not sure what open houses say about Brighton or the difficulties artists have promoting themselves. The approach is just like that in Venda, the north of South Africa, where artists sell what they can from their homes. It's a  feature of the Brighton Festival, anyway and this year the success of the Greens in the city - 23 seats on the council, the single largest party - has added another layer of significance. Brighton, as always, ahead of the country, has a chance to distinguish the city, hopefully using its phenomenally creative population to make a mark on the future.

The Handmade House. Beards Place Farm, 98 Lewes Road, Ditchling, BN6 8TZ 01273 845355 

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Larks, poets and census

This morning I walked Roxy, my neighbour's dog.  The racehorses were out exercising and there was an exaltation of skylarks. Sheepcote Valley's one of their main breeding sites. It was bitterly cold but that didn't put off a bird watcher, pointing his lens between the elders. I wandered over to him to chat about red kites. I knew they were in Wales and the borders and didn't know they were in Sussex. But I was intriqued by a large bird of prey perched on an allotment shed the other day. Its wings were unmistakably russet. He told me there'd been sightings, so I checked... it seems I'm one of many who've been lucky enough to see one.

Yesterday I was in London for a meeting about the Young Poets Network which is being set up by the Poetry Society. I met some inspiring writers and my son performed in the evening. We talked about what young writers need, how we can help them. There were some brilliant ideas and we recorded a collective poem about what we wished we'd known when we started to write.

I returned home to another letter from the census threatening me with prosecution. I filled in my form. I sent it off. Apparently the organisation co-ordinating Census 2011 (run by the Office for National Statistics) is so incompetent my form has been lost.

This morning after my walk, I emailed Glen Watson, the 2011 Census Director. I asked if he'd read Kafka and Orwell. I promised to visit him at his office in Titchfield and sit in reception until he apologised for threatening me with a £1,000 fine and criminal record. I received a reply by return and he says he believes me. Will his reply stand the Kafka test? We'll see.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My mother's peony dress

I think this is 1950s, possibly early 60s.
Original 1950s dress bought in Portsmouth 35 years ago
The peonies are early, just flowering. They  remind me every year of my mother's party dress. But I can never picture it exactly. In my mind, it's strapless, floor length, printed with hand-sized pink heads, exotic and extravagent. It was always in her wardrobe, the full skirt taking up all the space behind my father's suits.

Even during punk, fashion was stealing from the forties and fifties. Was it to do with the elegance that comes from need? The inventiveness of making do? 

Portsmouth, where I was a student, was a fantastic hunting ground. Poor, run down, it had as many charity shops as anyone could dream of. When I went back to Surrey to work, there were the jumbles in East Horsley that have almost mythical status in my memory. I jumbled in the afternoon to dress up on Saturday night.

A lot of my finds have gone, including ankle tight trousers I made from fabric printed with 50s scenes of Paris in a vague Bernard Buffet style. These two prints survived. They're not as loose around my waist but the blue one will see this summer again. 

And of course my daughter now has her eye on the suitcase on top of my wardrobe. Her prom dress is a homage to the fifties in ironic Brighton style. And she's promised the sequinned sixties number I wore to the TS Eliot awards party that won a compliment from the delightful Mark Doty, just before the announcement that he'd won it that year.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Arc: poetry of the world

Tile in a clay poem made by children
Who'll find me the word for birch in the world's languages when I need it? A translator. A poet. 
Birch is paper and wine. Some trace the word to Sanskrit (bhurga a tree with bark used to write on). Coleridge called it Lady of the Woods. 
Arc Publications is one of the UK's leading presses for poetry in translation. Its Arts Council grant was cut last week. 
Arc's list brings us the poetry of the world, from places where the birch does and doesn't grow. 
Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti is one of them. He told the Guardian, "I learn from trees. Just as many fruits drop before they're ripe, when I write a poem I treat it with healthy cruelty, deleting images to take care of the right ones."
Barghouti has twelve poetry collections in Arabic. His Collected works was published in 1997 and his first major book in English translation, Midnight and Other Poems, was published by Arc in 2008.  
This is an extract from his long poem, Midnight. There is more on Arc's website.
"you stay wide awake, when all others go to sleep,

afraid that the stars will fall

without your hands to nail them

to the ceiling of the night.
The weary sun's rays settle sugar in grapes,

crimson in cherries,
honey in figs

and olive oil in jars.
War itself,

leaning on its cane,

strolls occasionally

down the corridor of peace." (Mourid Barghouti, Midnight, Arc 2008).
Here are some of the poets on Arc's list from countries above and below the equator, whose work is available because of the work translators and poets do together.... and as a consequence give us the world view a language contains within each line, character, space and full stop. 
Kunwar Narain, Amarjit Chandan, Meta Kusar, Doris Kareva, Regina Derieva, Ewa Lipska, Victor Rodriguez Nunez, Cathal O' Searcaigh, Tomaz Salamun, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Georg Trakl, Claude de Burine, Valerie Rouzeau, Cevat Capan, Kristina Ehin, Gabriel Ferrater, Mila Haugova, Soleiman Adel Guemar, Dorothea Rosa Herliany, Yannis Kondos, Sabine Lange, Inna Lisnianskaya, Bejan Matur, Larissa Miller, Miklos Radnoti, Tadeusz Rosewicz, Eli Tolaretxipl.....among the many others. 

Saturday, April 02, 2011

They don't like poets, those people at the Arts Council

Arc publishes poets from all over the world
and many in translation, as well as the inimitable
Ivor Cutler and artist Glen Baxter.
Someone got very angry the other day when I suggested that the Arts Council has become irrelevant. I was talking about how support for poetry and particularly poets has been systematically destroyed by that same body in recent years and wondering why. Last night, at Fabrica's new show, I learned that animation's suffered a similar attack. Is it that poetry has no expert champions anymore in the funding places? That poets who've done so well for themselves won't speak out when the form they work in is under attack?

I tried to contact my south east regional council members recently with a complaint. The Arts Council no longer allows members of the public to do this. If the Arts Council chooses not to forward an email to a member of the regional council, it won't. It filters the content of emails and decides if a question about the arts in your region is appropriate for a regional council member to read. If an administrator decides it's not, you have to make your enquiry through a relationship manager.

I was talking to the tax office recently about a couple of letters I received. One arrived a month after the posting date, the other two weeks. It's too confusing to even attempt to repeat the sequence of events or conversations. I was in quite a good mood, though, and eventually I laughed and asked the person on the phone if he'd ever read Kafka. His reply was beautiful: no comment.

And I think that is where we're at with the whole lot of them who take our money and redistribute it, including the Arts Council. Perhaps we need to just change our idea of what they claim to do. Not listen to what they say, but look at what they do.

They take money away from Arc Publications and Enitharmon, two independent poetry publishers (independent being the key word) and give money to Faber & Faber.

According to the Bookseller, "Faber has reported a record turnover of £17.5m for 2010." Sales were up 10% and the chief executive and publisher Stephen Page said: “We are delighted with last year’s performance. Sustaining our profit and growing sales while investing in our digital future and launching new businesses was an excellent achievement. The momentum of our publishing success has carried through to this year and we have just completed a very satisfactory first half.”

Arc needs people to speak up for it and draw attention to this kind of strangeness. Was this what the Arts Council was for? To fund big business and millionaires?

Monday, March 07, 2011

Textures of a Sunday morning

Sunday morning walk through Stanmer woods, down into the valley, through the village. Bluebells in waiting. Until then, these were some of the landmarks: a lopped tree, tractor path, mossy tyre, what wind does to plastic sheeting, the forge sign in Stanmer village.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Liberation literature and women's writing

What is my daughter's future?
What do we admire in the literature of liberation and who are its loudest champions? I hear intellectuals elevating it again and for good reason - liberation from the state, class, economic repression, the individual at the heart of it, a hero.

And where does women's writing sit in the literature of liberation? It links democracies and oligarchies as well as distancing itself in the language it uses, the metaphorical landscape it paints. Liberation movements always create new aesthetics.

When I read poems of resistance, listen to the songs, I hear that the real struggles start in the home, classroom, workplace. They begin with how people treat one another, how they listen (or don't) to one another. They begin with how each of us feels taking the kids to school, growing vegetables, wandering into a cafe, cleaning the kitchen floor.

A woman, though, wherever she lives in the world is more likely to be paid less than a man, less likely to receive respect for her work. She is more likely to be beaten at home for just being a women. She is excluded from meetings, from stages, from newspapers and magazines by the very intellectuals who debate liberation theory because her language does not fit and her metaphors disgust or discomfort them.

Some of the so-called revolutionaries - in awe of revolutionaries of the past and worldwide - are actively resisting the most basic rules of freedom: equality at home, at school, at work...wherever people are because they do not want to hand over power to women. It is a theme some of the African continent's most impressive writers have focused on for years: Nawal El Saadawi, Buchi Emecheta, Mariama Ba, Ama Ata Aidoo. Equality means the same numbers of women on those stages, in those pages....etc etc

"Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, because Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Men had nothing to do with Him," said Sojourner Truth in 1851.

A new anthology of liberation writing by women in African countries was published last month. Domestic violence is a dominant theme in many of the stories, poems and essays - a landbridge if ever there was one to the UK and the US.

Abena P. A. Busia writes the introductory poem, “If we don’t tell our stories who will speak out for us, when we claim our bodies for ourselves and weep no more... If we don’t tell our stories, hailstones will continue to fall on our heads.”

African Women Writing Resistance An Anthology of Contemporary Voices published by Fahamu Books and Pambazuka Press.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Faces of women poets

Phillis Wheatley

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
Gwendolyn Brooks
Christina Rossetti

Faces of women poets are on my mind. The artist Jane Fordham revisits women's faces constantly. She goes back to icons, medieval madonnas and the vibrant faces of ancient Egypt looking straight at you from the past. Her work captures the essence of that direct, outward stare.

When Ros Barber sent me a preview of the website we're devising for women poets currently writing in the UK, I felt a similar impact.

There is no comprehensive list of women poets currently writing in the UK. There are lists based on quality judgements and prizes - all very limited. There are lists of women that others have decided to showcase in anthologies. But nothing based on simple facts: living/writing in the UK, alive, female.

So we began collecting names. Firstly from personal knowledge and our bookshelves, then from an email to people we knew, hoping it would become viral. It has. Most responses have been delighted, generous and helpful.

So we are building our wall of women's faces and those direct gazes assertive, engaged, will transmit the poetry being written today.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The swans of Littlehampton slipway

A bucket of fresh water is kept on Littlehampton harbour slipway for a pair of swans and their cygnets.
I was hanging out of the Look and Sea Centre window, waiting to start a workshop for teachers on myths, when this one wandered over for a drink.
I should have called everyone to the window when they arrived, to list swan stories: Leda, The Children of Lir, the Norse swans that drink from the Well of Urd, the Finnish swan of Tuonela (the underworld), their association with the goddess Saraswati, the legend of Odette, the swan of riddle seven in the Exeter Book.....
Apart from looking at Ted Hughes' Crow, we didn't spend a lot of time on birds but we did focus on childhood and places associated with home that carry their own mythical quality - places we link with death, threat, escape and people we remember:  eccentrics, the exceptionally kind, the odd and the damaged.
Kevin Crossley Holland's translation of The Exeter Book of Riddles was published by Enitharmon in 2008, Michael Alexander's Old English Riddles from the Exeter Book by Anvil in 2007. Both of them are small poetry presses with fantastic lists.
Da Vinci, Gericault and Michelangelo all painted Leda and the Swan. Da Vinci's preparation drawing is amazing but there's another painting by Jan Asselijn, The Threatened Swan, that shows the physical power of this bird and reminds me of watching a swan with cygnets seeing off a rottweiler by the Wey once. You can hear riddle seven read in old English on YouTube:

Monday, February 07, 2011

Funeral horses

One afternoon nearly two years ago, I heard horses outside my window and saw four of them being taken out of their harnesses after a funeral and loaded into a horsebox.
It's taken this long to write about them in a way I felt came close to the memory. It's not that unusual to see horses outside. Lewes Road ended up being the spur. A week or so after I finished it I was on my way to walk Roxy and saw another pair being loaded up. The feather-topped bridles are hanging from a hinge near the ramp.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

New butcher and grocer on Lewes Road

If I could have chosen a mentor I'd have gone for Walt Whitman, printer's devil, poet and just as Alan Ginsberg imagined him in the supermarket, I'd take him for a wander along Lewes Road.
I think Whitman would enjoy the renaissance of this polluted spar out of the city, lethal for cyclists especially in winter rush-hour rain.
At the junction of my hill a new butcher's is opening. The big white tiles are on the walls, the sign - meat and poultry - is on the front. A few doors along, a new multicultural grocer (their description) advertising halal meat, fruit and veg. There's a new internet cafe too.
Lewes Road seemed doomed when Tesco forced the closure of the community garden but then pulled out, leaving developers to a digger and impenetrable fence decorated with signs like 'children don't play here'.
But some of its renaissance must be down to a brilliant Turkish grocer that opened a few years ago, perhaps in the wake of Taj's success in town. Its olives, haloumi and bread are incomparable.
And new shops are opening around it with names to dream on: Wizard of Ink, Charisma, Fellas. As cash is squeezed, maybe we're going back to shopping locally and daily?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Signs and augurs

The year's worst week had passed by the time I saw this depressed van outside Worthing station. The far wall on a street corner shows the sun was out - all day, in fact. But during that trough that we name melancholy, misery, gloom, despondencydespair, desolation, doldrums, SAD, slumpdeclinedownturn, blues, hollow, standstill, dent, cavitydip, pit, hole, trough, crater, basin and bowl, one Sunday, the sun came out.  Brighton rushed to the seafront to double the effect - sun reflected off chalk and sea at Rottingdean so we were in a light tunnel.
I made lists during those days of what I could do to feel better, wrote letters, sent packages I'd had on my desk for days. And standing in the London Road post office, all that was left when the Co-op closed, I wondered what it reminded me of. It was pre-revolution Romania.
This is the view to the right as you queue. The next most constructive use of the Co-op was DreamThinkSpeak's installation last May where the poverty of consumerism was spliced with brilliance of the Cherry Orchard.
 I took the depressed van on my phone from a distance.  The linguistic brilliance isn't obvious because the business strapline is missing. It's an ironing service.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bards of Brighton

Elm and sunrise, January 2011,  from my window
Before John O'Donoghue wrote his magnificent Mind Book of the Year, Sectioned, he put together  The Beach Generation - word sketches of some of Brighton's resident poets.
Listing writers associated with a place is a minefield - so many passing through, so many perhaps in hiding, so many ignored. John's was a great idea but no-one has yet written the full story of Brighton's poetry and its poets. It could start in many places....
I've always thought of Bernadette Cremin as the Bard of London Road and its procession of the dispossessed.
Brendan Cleary has to be the Bard of the Gladstone and Bear Road, mourning lost lovers and charting a city's hallucinations.
In the absence of invitations to be a respectable visiting professor I've declared myself Bard of Lewes Road's funeral parlours, booze shops and hairdressers.
I'd vote Rob Hamberger and John McCullough Bards of the seafront and Kemp Town, Maria Jastrebska, Helen Oswald and Dave Swann, Bards of the exiled and allotments, Janet Sutherland and Lee Harwood, Bards of the places we'd sometimes rather be.
Ros Barber will always be the Bard of Embassy Court and Catherine Smith the Bard exploring what you half-see from the corner of your eye.
Catherine has nominated Tom Cunliffe Bard of Brighton Beach Huts and Rachel Rooney Bard of Preston Park and the Rotunda Cafe (one of my fave cafes in the city, actually...)
When I grew up in Farnham, the art school was the place we aspired to, although I was proud of William Cobbett for his sometimes harsh treatment of Surrey in Rural Rides. When I worked in Guildford I associated it with pop stars hiding in the villages, although it was home to Lewis Carroll and Aldous Huxley lived in neighbouring Godalming.
Brighton's associations are documented in diverse places but no-one's ever put cash up for comprehensive research on writers in Brighton.
A city should be proud of its writers and nurture them. Myriad's doing a great job of publishing novelists Sue Eckstein, Ed Siegle and Robert Dickinson  - and Waterloo's supporting local poets like Naomi Foyle, John McCullough, Maria Jastrebska, Dave Swann. John Davies keeps PigHog alive and is branching out into videos of writers reading their work. But where's the city's writers' centre, the old Sussex Arts Club, where there were events, a bar, a sense of mutual respect and support?
A South Coast sleaze tour of Brighton mafia would be a worthwhile endeavour too.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011


In 2011, I want the grey parrot back in my apple tree but I read in the Argus it's already been adopted. I want to buy a block of Savon de Marseille in the same market as last year - yes, in Marseille. I want my broad beans to survive mice. I want to grow celeriac successfully.