Monday, December 17, 2012

Keeping going

A hillside in Mashau, Limpopo

Flicking through old pictures to make an album for my mother, who was 79 yesterday, I found one of James Berry, the wonderful Caribbean poet who used to live in Brighton. James also tutored on the first Arvon course I ever attended as a student and on the train back he gave me advice I've always remembered - writing is about stamina. Keep going, he said.

So that's what I've been doing today, against the odds, trying to find a way of writing a poem about sitting on a hillside in Venda listening to axes against trees. Writing seems to be a constant cycle of anxiety and elation, of frustration and a fleeting sense of achievement.

Perhaps the problem is, that I don't yet know what's driving the poem and poets I've been reading recently, Robin Robertson's The Wrecking Light and Anna Swir's Talking to my Body, are so clear, so focused and sure. I have enjoyed reading these books so much that I have to keep going back to them. Swir is a real find - I didn't know her work at all. She's so confident, her voice strong and original.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

We are all customers

Relax on the bus?
Shops, local authorities, doctors' surgeries, rail and bus companies and many more are increasingly displaying notices along the lines of: Our staff have the right to work without fear of abuse or rudeness, please treat everyone with courtesy and respect.

Companies spent thousands of pounds on drafting values statements, customer charters and trade unions dedicate time and resources to investigations into workplace violence. And rightly so.

But has this become an invidious way of suppressing a challenge to the status quo and complaints? Yesterday I witnessed a perfect example of how the tables can turn and how the power invested in that statement can be abused.

I'm waiting at a busy bus stop - there are probably 20 plus people, Christmas shoppers, teenagers on their way home, workers at the end of their shifts. The display shows four or five buses due and I've just missed mine, but there's another in 3 minutes. I have three bags of shopping, pick them up when I see the bus and watch as it goes past.

There's a lorry parked, so he can't drive fast. I run with my three bags alongside the closed door. He stops. I get on. The conversation goes like this: "Why didn't you stop?" "You didn't put out your hand." "I'm carrying three bags." "I'm not a mind-reader.""That's rude." "Get off my bus."

I sit down. I have a saver so don't have to buy a ticket. I'm sure he wouldn't have sold me one. This man is angry, who knows what about. Was it a bad day for him? Maybe. Perhaps he doesn't like my face, what I'm wearing. Perhaps he doesn't like me questioning his decision.

Whatever provoked him, he has now launched himself out of the cab, the engine still running, and shouts at me to get off. I stay put, but I can feel my heart.

By now other people at the stop are outside the doors wanting to get on. A group of teenage girls begins shouting at him. It escalates to swearing. One throws a cigarette in as he opens the doors. A woman gets on. He shuts the doors, opens them again, shuts them on a second woman. Drives off.

Clearly it bothered him. It bothered me. A week earlier, I'd tried to get a bus outside the train station. The rain was torrential. The bus was at the stop. I had a free hand - put it out. He drove off. I caught up with it at another stop, asked why. He didn't know when the lights were going to change so he couldn't let me on. Water was still dripping from my hair, down my face.

Five minutes or so into the journey, he stops the bus and turns to his passengers. He's addressing us now: "If you want me to stop, you must put out your hand."

I wonder what it is. He's early forties maybe, smart, clean shaved, cropped hair. I notice he has epaulettes on his white shirt. His trousers are snug, his shoes shine. Perhaps he'd rather be in charge of the empty one that drives up and down my street.

What I fear, when I stand on my doorstep later fumbling for the key is the unsaid.That it is me. My face. My hair. My clothes. Something about me. Old bitch, stupid cow....sentiments that cross the road, are suddenly in my face, follow in a car, are thrown at my back, hunker in passive aggressive politeness, in the deep sighs of someone with better things to do.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The long game

I joined the NUJ just before regional
journalists nationwide went on strike
in 1978 - we were off for weeks. 
Sheila and I agreed, on the train back to Brighton picking over our day, that there were worse things to be doing. We'd had a day of free cake and sandwiches, cups of tea and generally inspiring speakers. I'm a lifelong member of the National Union of Journalists and this event, organised by London Freelance Branch, was on new ways of making journalism pay.

In the spirit of my dear friend Jane, who has continually reinvented herself and kept up to date, I booked and whether or not work emerges, was glad I did just to be around a sense of innovation and energy, younger writers who are not yet cynical and tired. And I now have a use for those long dark winter nights knowing writers can take publishing into their own hands (seize the means of production!) and use technologies to regain control of our work. The day was a series of solutions to a writer's gripes and moans, actually.

There were many women, like me with grey hair, experience and more time now. I felt perhaps I could do something in this great shift away from a monolithic publishing industry. It struck me how many of us cross-subsidise. A photographer will pay for a trip to a war zone with commercial work. A writer will subsidise an investigative project writing corporate reports. What I've learned by this continual interplay of buying myself time is how different areas of my work influence one another.

Writing is a long game shaped by experiment and persistence, by learning. How reassuring to read in the Observer yesterday, 77 year old Albie Sachs talk of his screenwriting mentor. His excitement at finishing the latest draft. I am excited by having time for the union. By the ebook I have on the go and what else it will lead to.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The gathering past

In the Hartington pub last night with Ludlow Jane and Deborah, Deborah mentioned the old mistakes pushing themselves forward, occupying space in her mind. Old mistakes, remembered with a wince, sometimes a cold sweat. It's no good pushing them out - they come back knocking on the door like the phone 'surveys' from remote call centres.

Old friends, though, are always welcome. They turn the past into a sunnier place. They come from a secure, known world where there were no student loans, less screens, where there was a lot still to experience. Yesterday, at Goldsmiths, two groups of students raised my spirits with their sense of the future. Both groups are doing life writing. It's emotional, sometimes painful. But they respect one another.

The train driver on the way home was a virtuoso performer, a delightful eccentric.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A sort of working week

This week, a workshop in academic writing for students at West Dean college in Chichester, former home of Edward James, the corridors once walked by Salvador Dali....his lips sofas are covered up against moths but the lobster telephone's on view, behind glass.

Then Goldsmiths where I'm doing half a day a week on life writing with undergraduate students.

A review for Warwick Review, sent off.

An NUJ training conference tomorrow on making the most of digital opportunities.

Some extra Open University marking for a tutor who's unwell. Checking the students' forum, my second online tutorial. Only one student's posted anything - three have sent apologies. Does that mean they won't be participating at all? Ever?

Admin, admin and more admin. An invoice. A cheque because the bank messed up a direct debit. Making dates for meetings. Research into residencies.

Trying to write but failing to write anything worth looking back on. Resisted ripping out the pages. Wondering how people write so beautifully and sparely. Wondering what drives people to write. What love means.

Walking in the fog this morning, Roxy disturbed two pheasants. That reminded me of the start of the West Dean workshop - a line of people on a slope opposite the house, a volley of gun shots. Another. Guns pointing in to the woods. Realising I need to get out more.

At last I have a card to get into Goldsmiths library where I teach one of the groups. Walking to the old town hall where my other group meets, I saw two speakers pointing out of the window of a flat onto the road, broadcasting a man's voice. Later I met Jacky Hyams, an old friend who I reconnected with after hearing her interviewed about writing a history of women Spitfire pilots. More emails today. Now out. Back into the fog.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Red Roaster

I'm pleased to be MCing at the Red Roaster tonight for PigHog. It's an Africa meets Ireland event featuring two poets with collections from Salmon, Paul Casey and Afric McGlinchey.

Casey lived for eight months on the streets of Dublin but is now housed. His first collection is Home more or less. Ian Duhig says: "Paul Casey is a truly international poet whose work is informed by languages from Irish and French to those of Africa, and his experiences of that continent enormously enrich this book. His creatively homeless imagination enables him to respond to his themes innovatively and with great formal variety; beyond that, a linguist's ear, his sharp mind and wide-open heart make 'home more or less' a collection that truly merits international attention."And this, from Thomas McCarthy: "In home more or less Casey has made the long journey from parched earth to writing under constant Irish rain. He has discovered that green colour so dangerous to wear, the colour of poems. Attended by the ghosts of Afrikaans, with African memories like the afterglow of stinging nettles, he has created an entire world out of a new myth-kitty of far-way and Irish material. In a poetry where the mountain Gods end their tears, he has created a new, sea-drenched climate for the soul."

McGlinchey's new collection's The Lucky Star of Hidden Things. She has a recommendation from Paul Durcan: "Afric McGlinchey belongs to an endangered species: she sees the world through the eyes of her soul."

According to Salmon, her collection "explores African memories and traces the nomadic path of her own upbringing. A number of the poems consider relationships, where, behind the imperative of love and passion, there lurks a pursing shadow of doubt. One can also sense an impulse for motion in many of the poems. These are the narratives of an outsider, where symbolic imagery hides as much as it reveals."

And although I can't claim to have ever lived in South Africa, I too have a batch to choose from that explore the place and family connections. Doors open 7.45 pm for poems and the best coffee in Kemptown.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Wilma Cruise - The Alice Diaries
Circa on Jellico, Johannesburg, July 2012
Austerity's not new to me. The most I earned was shortly before my first child was born more than 20 years ago. Yesterday, I accepted work at half my daily rate. I asked friends what they'd do - almost everyone said take it.

Austerity's rules are familiar to anyone over the age of 50, to most people on the planet.

1. Buy secondhand at charity shops, car boots, jumble sales
2. Cut down on meat and fish (I'm vegetarian but agreed this with the kids)
3. Make your own bread, jam, cake, chutney
4. No ready meals, no takeaways, no meals out, other than at friends' houses
5. No drinks out, ditto
6. No theatre - unless it's free
7. No cinema - iPlayer or 4OD
8. No live music - unless it's free
9. Grow food, especially greens, salad, soft fruit
10. Mend, repair, maintain
11. Avoid big supermarkets and town centres, shop local, little and often.
12. Park the car
13. Time the heating - an hour a day. Put up winter curtains.
14. Make sandwiches for days out, take a flask
15. No newspapers, magazines, sweets

Making the list reminds me of wartime cookbooks I've accumulated and growing up in the early sixties, 15 years after the end of WW2. China was looked after, glasses preserved, shoes polished and tables waxed. My mother  cut my father's old shirts down for my youngest brother. She remembers making slippers out of an old coat.

I embark on my new work hoping austerity is a shared state of mind, that it will bring change. The relationship between those in full-time, secure work and those of us in casual, insecure work is at the heart of this. Can you come in earlier for a meeting? means a casual works for nothing when you're paid. When you knock a freelance rate down, remember your holiday and sick pay, other benefits. Austerity may be what we need. It may be positive.

Wilma Cruise, more of the Alice Diaries
at Circa on Jellicoe, Johannesburg, July 2012

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Perseverance into October

My desk was once a wash-stand. My mother rescued it and put a slab of wood on top. I've had it for years and its dual life couldn't be a better way of trying to understand my undecided state.

Hunting for work, looking for new paths, I feel like a scavenger kicking up undergrowth, going through bins.

Autumn's good at uncertainty. It feels right for reinvention, but despite trying out a wig, rediscovering winter skirts and scarves, moving piles of books, I still feel absence on my back.

I'm trying not to complain, although I had a cry on Sunday, knowing what I need is to put on my wellies and dig. But then from nowhere ambition crawls towards me, the desire to do something more, to take on a big project. And suddenly planting garlic, weeding, pulling up the failed plants feels too ordinary.

Why isn't daily life enough? Why do I need to intervene, interpret and communicate, to film and record, to dance and chatter on the page, to digitise and amplify? When I came back from South Africa after at least two weeks of daily cooking on wood, washing with water carried for 30 minutes from a communal tap, washing in a dribble from a water bag hung from the grass roof, I was thinking the same. What is the point of writing and art when every moment is occupied with surviving? But I wrote when I was there. I walked around galleries.

I can imagine people who gathered up the hill by my allotment in the causeway camp needing stories, using words for quiet, for reassurance, for devotion. And why else would you decorate a pot, draw on a wall, than to go into another part of yourself, the part that escapes into the lines?

So thanks to my mother (always) my desk brings me together again, transformed from a wash-stand, it turns doubt into a motivator, promising more in the washing up bowl, tin bath.

Yesterday I looked at the film clips I took in South Africa in Mashau, I heard the birds again, could almost smell the fire - there's wood that smells of incense, another that smells of piss - and I could see over the valley towards the hills. I'm transcribing journals I kept on each of my four visits. Scavenging but rediscovering, reflecting.

Monday, September 10, 2012

South Africa at three months

18 years ago on Thursday - my daughter was born on 13 September 1994
"Feeding Giya I hold the back of her head. A hard lump moves – it’s a golden Xmas beetle, so called because it comes into the house at this time of year to die. There’s a scorpion in a jam jar, outside weaver birds have built their nests in the trees like shells. It was 32 today, we’re in South Africa, arrived yesterday after a ridiculous journey. It was hot as hell on the plane, no vegetarian food. Mrisi throughout was brilliant – thank god for Aladdin." 
My daughter was just three months old when I first travelled to South Africa with her father and brother, himself just two and a half. We arrived on December 18 to introduce the two of them to the family in the year of the first elections with Mandela as president.
This summer, we returned - not quite 18 years to the day, but close enough for symbolism's sake. It was my 'coming of age' present to her and, like that gruelling first trip, it was hard at times to take in the country, its contrasts, arduous distances and often impenetrable habits.
For each of the four trips, three of them as a family and only the final one without my son, I kept a journal that I am hoping will provide the framework for a narrative about how this country's featured in our lives at a distance and the changes I've witnessed as an observer linked only because of an accidental meeting many years ago. My childrens' lives have developed in parallel with their father's country - so I've begun to look for where these contemporary histories meet and my journals are the jumping off point. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Neglected - John Baloyi's international legacy

Inside John Baloyi's studio, near Elim, Limpopo province
John Baloyi's crocodile in the Polokwane museum and art gallery was one of the first sculptures I saw by an artist from Limpopo province in the north of South Africa. Not entirely the first - I'd seen a small figure in pale wood by the charismatic sculptor Jackson Hlungwani who was once guided round the Edinburgh festival by my former partner. 

The art scene in Limpopo is tight knit. The year I saw Baloyi's crocodile, we visited Jackson at his home in Elim and in turn he took us to Baloyi's studio nearby. Sadly Baloyi wasn't in, but at the entrance was a spectacular giraffe chair - an Alice in Wonderland vision. So when I went back in July for the first time in six years, it was an obvious place to visit. The trip was my 18th birthday present to my daughter and there were many places and people who'd changed but both of us associated the north with its artists. On top of that, this was the area her father grew up in and Jackson had been a friend of his. 

So on a hot winter day we remembered Jackson (now dead) by setting off to find Baloyi's studio again, this time without his teacher. Jackson outlived Baloyi by four years and died in 2010. Baloyi died before his time in a car accident in 2006. You arrive at Baloyi's studio on a nightmarish dirt road, leaving Elim on the road to Giyani that dips into a fertile valley with steep rocky sides. There are new houses being built everywhere - a sure sign of change even in this traditionally poor rural area - old lorries belching fumes and a surprising number of 4x4s, BMWs and Mercedes  in school car parks. 

Then there's Baloyi's world - visionary, searching, challenging, affirming - the world of a man who stayed where he was and let the world find him.  

The studio is a warren of small rooms painted with figures and patterns, sculptures made from the long twisted branches that seem to be everywhere in this lush and wrecked countryside. There's a wall with circular windows made from car wheel hubs, small sculptures in corners, large gaping faces or bodies reaching upwards, animals. 

There's a drum with a tail and legs, another shaped into a crocodile. Each door way leads into another corridor, but there are wasps nests too and the grass roof of a round house built into the studio like a side chapel is falling in. You leave through an outside carving space and you're at the front of the house where walls glint with mirrors and grey tiles and the steps are mottled, polished yellow, black, ochre and green concrete. 

Here one of his widows is washing clothes on a low wall - the same woman who opened the metal gate to let us in, asking nothing, quietly showing us the entrance and acknowledging it was open.  Under a tree near the entrance is a collection of the Venda pots the region is famed for. 

And I couldn't help thinking of Charleston Farmhouse outside Lewes and the care it receives. I couldn't help thinking of the galleries we'd seen in Rosebank, Johannesburg - the Everard Read, the Goodman - so wealthy and plush. 

Who knows what's behind this decline. The woman who let us in seemed exhausted, defeated, unable to face the challenge of maintaining a studio of this kind that would properly honour Baloyi's work. But as we left we wondered where the curators and dealers had gone. How those in the art world who'd sought him out within the country and internationally could allow this astonishing place to deteriorate to such an extent.

There were tributes to Baloyi after he died in the Mail and Guardian and South African Art Times, among others. His work is on show worldwide but one of his last was Godzilla at the entrance to Johannesburg's Constitutional Court. The Sandton Convention Centre has his Defeated Soldier on permanent display.   So what's going on in South Africa, that this man's work (like Jackson's) is respected enough to honour the constitution, to be on show to the richest business peoplein the world (in Sandton), is now so scandalously neglected? Who knows what might already have disappeared from his studio? What damage the next torrential summer rain will do as it pours through the hole in the roof. The ANC has had its hands full since 1994, adhering to its promises post-apartheid. But there's wealth in the country and a healthy enough art scene, judging by the galleries in Johannesburg alone, to restore this unique working space and honour the legacy of John Baloyi. 


South African Art Times obituary:

Johannesburg News:

Monday, July 16, 2012

Rue, mother of herbs

John Everett Millais' Ophelia
Frustrated by this second disastrous summer in a row, I started moving herbs to create a currant and blueberry patch for next summer. A large rue plant was squashed between two bay trees and I decided to put it at the bottom of the allotment which is more shaded and overhung with sycamores. I like its grey-green leaves and bizarre bitter smell and it always reminds me of school, Hamlet and learning quotes.

Two days after transplanting it my forearms flared into blisters - my skin sunburnt from wrist to elbow. What I didn't know about rue, also known as witchbane, herb of grace, mother of the herbs, praised by Culpeper and historically used as an antidote to poison, is that it can photosensitise skin so it burns in the sun. I wear factor 50 as a matter of course since I'm pale anyway. Nearly a week later, my arms are still red and itchy although steroid cream and antihistamines have got rid of the blistering.

It's the most extreme reaction I've had but not unusual according to the Poison Garden website I discovered after talking to the brilliant pharmacist in Elm Grove when my arms were at their worst. He and his team stood in a semi circle around my arms speculating about sap and allergic reactions. An elderly man behind me reminisced about his time in the UK military police when he was used as a guinea pig for mustard gas - his skin looked like mine, apparently.

Later  I remembered moving the rue and googled it, discovering stories like mine where the reaction was delayed but set off by intense sun (amazingly, an hour or so last Wednesday).

Almost everyone I ask associates rue with Ophelia dispensing flowers in her madness: 'there's rue for you; and here's some for me....' Sorrow and repentance - Shakespeare created a perfectly poised line for a plant that is such a powerful healer and simultaneously so dangerous to the skin.

Redon painted Ophelia and flowers too

Mary Anderson played Ophelia in 1884
The Royal Horticultural Society's website has a section on harmful plants :

Tuesday, July 03, 2012


Stormy sky on coastal path to Par, with crows and sheep

"Self-doubt remains an essential part of my make-up. But, as I think I've made clear, ultimately I see it as a strength and not a weakness."  Alastair Campbell on self-doubt for The Essay: The Case for Doubt

My view of Alastair Campbell was altered forever when I was on a ferry to France with my daughter and watched an interview with him on a French books programme. He's fluent in French and I was watching a person I'd never seen before on British TV. Then I read his essay - a call for the value of doubt among all the self-help and management advice on how to eradicate it. 

Right now, I equate self-doubt with the slugs and snails on my allotment. I don't know why, but I can't do much about either. Campbell has some great insights, mainly relating to depression. I know my doubt right now is inextricably linked to finishing a collection. The poems are in the word file, in an order that's changing at least twice a week. I've been adding little ones. I've put one or two back and will take some out again. The collection's still a little fluid. Three sections are clear and any changes I make to these will be relatively small. 

Then there's the fourth section where my doubt squats. I am trying to understand it. How do these new poems sit in relation to everything that's out there now and is due out? My doubt might be healthy, right, a way of scrutinising this section of the book until it slots into place. Yesterday I spent three hours trying to recreate the thought pattern that led to one of those poems! It felt like the fear of leaving the grill on I had on the way to a ferry once. Good friends put a ladder up to my flat to look into the kitchen. It was before mobiles. I rang them later from a call box. 

I did find the thought pattern and remembered what had brought the poem to life. Remembered why I wrote the 492 words in the poem and what each word represents. It was important, because it's a poem of repeated words and the numbers are crucial. So this self-doubt is just a question of checking the moorings, the locks, the keys, the dials and the knots linking these poems, perhaps?

Sunday, June 24, 2012


So one day I'm sitting in the sun at the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel, pausing between writing sprints at a very interesting (and challenging) conference and next I'm brought back down to earth by one of those flaky arts organisations with a big idea run by women who don't need to work. A week and a day before they want me to do a workshop they haven't sent a contract and I haven't spoken to a teacher at the school they want me to visit. I'd forgotten just how unprofessional and casual some of these people are who call themselves producers, as if it gives them status as a creator of anything other than frustration.

But it's good to be reminded of how mercurial freelancing is because I've had three years protection from some of the charletans, wannabes and incompetents that squat in the free-market economy of the arts.

The protection's come from the Royal Literary Fund which places a welcome shield over writers and offers us brief respite from a world that frankly is not a nice place to be, particularly when you've hit 57 and should be retiring to write the killer memoire.

Oh for the chance! Would I start with the woman I worked with who pretended to be a social worker to get an interview for a tabloid, or the rival news agency reporter who threatened me on the stairs of a county court when I was covering a story about Hells Angels? Or perhaps the head teacher who thought the school's cookery room would be okay for poetry workshops and then there was the line I overheard that made my blood run cold: 'Shall we put Jackie in the skate park?'

It's worth remembering as the months unfold ahead. But I'm optimistic I'll be able to dodge the charletans and work with professionals at organisations with integrity....

There are organisations setting standards like The Poetry Trust - so on top of what poetry's about, expert, intelligent,  The Poetry Society's education team, my compatriots in WordWorksbySea. And my publisher Arc, very in evidence at Poetry Parnassus this week with a team of international poets despite a flood at its Yorkshire HQ.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Jug woman and poets in the pit

Jug woman in British Museum 
Egyptian bust, British Museum

I'm now questioning if the poems I've been writing since 2006 are enough for a new collection. How do they fit together, what will they be called? The working title began as Sweats, changed to Words for Women and a good friend, whose opinion I value has suggested I could use the poem title, Woman's head as jug. It's in fact a title Jane Fordham came up with because it was a line in one of her notebooks that I ended up extending.

So the first round of consultation has begun. A friend has starred the poems she likes and it's reduced the working manuscript by just over half. As a consequence I've got rid of most of the sections that were making it easier for me to navigate through, but now I wonder if they were only shored up by bulk.

I now have to re-read and find new connections between the poems - a new underlying thread. Another friend said recently we should put collections away for a year and look at them again. I wonder if I have the courage to do that. Maybe eventually, that will be the case. With these new poems I have the same feeling as when once I went on holiday and was convinced I'd left the grill on. On that occasion, long ago, friends went round, borrowed a ladder (I was on the first floor) and peered into the kitchen window. All was fine.

Probably the best solution is to keep writing as well as re-reading. I haven't written a themed book, that's for sure, but it feels as if it brings threads together. I said to Jane the other evening, when I went to see her cup and face paintings on show in a Trafalgar Street shop, that I need to approach the poems like a curator.

And it was a good idea yesterday to visit the British Museum. Somehow in the old statues, domestic finds and graves, I began to feel more confident that we're all bound by daily life. The scythes are still the same, the scrapers and earrings, the way we do our hair and the sandals we wear.

Energy's the thing and that was bursting out of the Cockpit Theatre off Edgware Road later, where I went to see Poet Jam with Giya - the final event of the theatre's Poets in the Pit week. Mrisi had a floor spot and was followed by a string of amazing young poets: Indigo Williams, Simon Mole, Zia Ahmed, Nadia Khomani, Pete the Temp and Jessie Durrant, all hosted by Stephanie Turner, a powerful, confident and talented young woman who's a SlamBASSADOR UK champion. Giya and I didn't get back to Brighton till after 1 this morning, but were both in awe of youth, inspiration, political direction and the performers' sheer integrity.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Insects and poetry

My cat ripped the curtain by my desk
so she could look out at the street 
Insects and the poetry of Etel Adnan have characterised the last two weeks and I can't even talk about work with the insects, but it was as intense as Adnan's poetry is difficult.

I have been guiding Maria Jastrzebska, a Brighton based Polish-English poet through a residency at Fabrica gallery, which is showing a film on Etel Adnan by the Ottolith Group during April and May.

I'm in a poetry group with Maria so I'm delighted she's doing this residency, since she shares so many concerns with Adnan, a lesbian Lebanese born poet now living in Paris after a long spell in the US.

The show opened on Friday and there was a talk by the Ottolith group as well as the usual gathering of Brighton people - volunteers and friends - associated with Fabrica. It was such a crush, in fact, that the hum of conversation seeped into the room where the talk was happening, dipping occasionally in response to a handclap or tap on a glass, then rising back to the level it had found, rather like the sea.

Which is the subject of the Ottolith group's commission and of Etel Adnan's most recent collection of short poems, Sea and Fog, that the Ottolith group's based its film on. She is filmed, mostly from the back, reading her work. It's 30 minutes of meditations that take their own courses, liberate your own thoughts and have made me think again about poetry that I've dismissed in the past as too cerebral.

I had to do a lot of research on Adnan to help Maria settle into the residency - which she has now done, brilliantly and is embarking on the challenge of asking the public three very resonant questions: What's the purpose of your visit? Where do you come from? Have you anything to declare? She's asking for answers on her blog: unquiet border.

As for Etel, who wasn't able to be at the opening, I'm going to explore her work - she's been writing for more than 60 years in English and French.

I left the opening with Jane, David and Maude, who had a bottle of Prosecco waiting in her fridge. We bought two more and later they tipped me out of the car, flapping my insect wings.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A sheaf of poems

In Stanmer woods
I've moved my desk, cleaned away the two piles of cat poo I discovered, replaced a bookshelf with a chair and filled the Dyson in one go. I've mended, been ruthless with drawers, emptied boxes of saved rubbish, lined up my inks. I've given the statue of a boy pulling a thorn out of his foot a better place to sit, I've sorted envelopes into three piles. I've put up a new curtain, washed the bedspread and transferred my earrings into a bowl. I've walked my neighbour's dog in wind and rain, weeded the raspberries.
So it's time, this morning, to look at the sheaf of poems I've been collecting since I finished Commandments in 2006. My first working title was Sweats, but I've changed it now to Words for Women.
The big task, starting properly today, is to decide if I have a good enough collection. I have two self-contained sections and two others - one clearer than the other. So it's that uncertain fourth that I need to scrutinise in particular. Then print, copy and send to friends for feedback.
Over Easter I've been reading Rumer Godden's autobiographies - A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep and A House With Four Rooms. Godden, famous for her novels Black Narcissus and Greengage Summer as well as her work with Jean Renoir on The River was an utterly focused writer. She sent her children to boarding school so she could write. But one of the points she makes that has been in my mind too, is to live on less to allow more time to write. She was single minded.
And it is too easy to be distracted - not by tidying and sorting which are part of the process, or the allotment and dog walking which are sanity channels. But I mean clothes, gadgets, socialising, anything that involves spending money, or phone calls from friends.
So the answerphone's on. I will not answer emails, texts, bbms or go on Facebook.
I'm in training for a summer of writing.
First leaves in the beech wood

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Racehorses exercising

Morning gallop Sheepcote valley
The racehorses were at the far end of the ridge on Sheepcote valley, above the coast road when I was halfway through my walk this morning. I crossed over from the clumpy grass, a lark above me, onto the golf course so I could watch as they passed.
This is another of the free pleasures of this place if you're up and out early enough. In the university holidays I need a routine and walking Roxy is my incentive to leave the house before hours at my desk. Walkers in the morning are brisk and there are fewer of us. In the afternoons people stroll, sit on benches and recently I've encountered a couple of men with the six of the biggest dogs, other than great danes, I think I've seen - most of them black, one chocolate brown, they're the size of shetland ponies. Roxy skirts around them nervously, keeping close to me until she's past them and then shoots off at speed up the path.
The earth is cracked, the puddles have dried up and this preview of summer feels too good to be true. But even when it's hot enough for bare arms, it still doesn't smell of or sound like summer.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Free pleasures

Crow Sheepcote Valley
The sheep are gone from Sheepcote Valley - they've been in occupation for a few weeks, but now it's bare apart from wool snagged on the brambles. Crows and magpies are ever present but the hawthorn's out and I saw my first violet hidden by a path weeks ago. The valley goes through two stark changes of colour once the hawthorn comes out - a swathe of cream when the cow parsley blossoms, blue when the creeping bellflower appears on the slope. 
Sheepcote valley doesn't look much but it stretches over 220 acres. It's a Site of Nature Conservation Interest and part of the South Downs National Park which protect it from development.
It's also famous as a breeding ground for skylarks. People used to eat larks - in fact lark-catching wasn't banned until 1931. Brighton and the Sussex Downs were hunting grounds for a 19th century trade that delivered as many as 40,000 larks a day to Leadenhall market in London.
The larks are one of the greatest free pleasures of a walk in Sheepcote Valley. The other is the view of the sea - grey, blue, black, silver and once I saw a chemical yellow hung on the horizon. But I'm as delighted by the racehorses exercising along the gallops on the ridge as I am by the larks and although I loathe the idea of birds in captivity, it's thrilling to see the bird man exercising an eagle or owl.
According to the friends of Sheepcote valley, all year round residents of this scrappy, untidy place are green woodpeckers, meadow pipits, stonechats, blackbirds and flocks of goldfinches and linnets with their jerky flight. Wagtails like the puddles and the hunting birds are kestrels and sparrowhawks.
Visiting birds - wheatears, black redstarts, common redstarts, spotted and pied flycatchers, whitethroats, willow warblers, dunnocks and greenfinches. Sheepcote is first landfall in April and May for swallows, house and sand martins and swifts after the Channel.
Summer's also a time for the travellers to pitch up off Wilson's Avenue at the top - they come in waves. And one year there were a couple of caravans of rabbit catchers with their noisy caged terriers. 
The official line on Sheepcote Valley's environmental significance is "interest almost entirely lies in its early successional stage wildlife – ‘arable weeds,’ which need disturbed ground (like venus’s looking glass), open chalk grassland (which the bee orchids and the famous swarms of creeping bellflower need), and ground nesting birds (skylarks and meadow pipits)."
It's an unlikely paradise, but when the elder flowers are out, there can't be a sweeter smelling place - and that won't be long now.

Skylarks with chicks by Pratts of Brighton from Historical Victorian Taxidermy

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cat company

The fuschia in my front garden has grown so tall that the top branches nearly reach my bedroom window so the cat sits on my desk when I'm working and tenses whenever a bluetit or sparrow lands. Next door's two big fluffy cats also sit in the upstairs bay and quite often nowadays there's a cat standoff. Tiger growls in that unearthly cat way and stretches her neck and the neighbour's cats put their front paws onto the window ledge and stare. When my blind's down, Tiger scratches at it until she can see the window, so my desk is now covered in cat hair since she's also moulting. The presence of cats next door since the beginning of the winter has stopped her hunting because she's so nervous about being invaded and is always being chased out of the garden. I found one of the two asleep on a groundsheet in the shed the other day but mostly it comes into our house so there's even more fur to hoover up. Tiger, or alternatively Queen of Cats, is consequently my constant companion. I feel like a large protector, but my daughter gets cross when I say that because that means a shift in allegiance from her to Tiger. Anyway, next door's cats, delightful as they may be, are now Bully Cats. We have not seen any more of the black and white one (Psycho Cat) that tried to hide by standing on its head behind a chest of drawers in my daughter's room. When I lived in Campbell Road, the cat next door was one of seven and was a terrible thief. One night it did an enormous number of runs in and out of my kitchen window with a bag of onions, three pairs of knickers, several socks and a tee shirt. When I went next door to collect them from the garden, its owner brought out a box of jewellery and told me it had once managed to bring a mop through her cat flap. As soon as waterpistols are in the shops again, I'll be buying a super soaker.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

What drafting takes

I've never been into crosswords but I am addicted to drafting. I am so addicted to it that at times I have taken so much out of a poem, nothing's left. I can spend all day destroying a poem like that until the lines I handwrote in a book, transferred to screen, revert to notes again. Poems often fail. If the thought is worthwhile it'll come back. Sometimes it's not formed enough to express.

It's harder to put lines in so this is the task that can occupy me for days on end. Substituting words, changing the verbs, wondering if the intention is clear. And that is also where a workshop group comes in. I belong to two - one in Brighton organised by the extensively published Anglo-Polish poet, Maria Jastrzębska whose work is featured on Poetry International web. The other group meets in London and doesn't have a particular organiser, but I was invited by the highly respected poet and translator Moniza Alvi whom I met years ago when we were both students on an Arvon course at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire.

I went to the London group yesterday and came back with a page full of comments on a poem that's been troubling me for weeks. The first drafts didn't end well so it sat in my notebook and in a folder in different versions. I kept tinkering until eventually I realised it had no heart. I found two other poems I'd written around the same time - spokes coming from a similiar subject. One provided heart - just one line survived but it was enough to kick start my drafting again - another provided an ending.

It has a pretty regular rhythm, it wanted to move. New lines came when I was walking. And it is a poem about walking, so that made sense.

So I'll read it tonight at the Red Roaster - the first of a series organised by Michaela Ridgeway for PigHog press. I'm reading with Katy Evans-Bush, a Salt poet, editor of Horizon Review and writer of the blog, Baroque in Hackney which is keenly followed.

It's a patchwork poem and I'm not sure if I could calculate how much time it's taken up but this one must account for weeks of solid work.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Looking back at Geoffrey Hill

Portrait in Brighton by Hiro 1990
Portrait in Montparnasse 1966

During three days asleep with flu I hibernated with a hoard of remembered places and people, then woke up to my birthday - 57. My age - late fifties - now matches the decade I began to experience the world. There are people I'll never see again and others who may be dead. Rules I've ignored are drawing attention to themselves. I've begun re-reading books I first read 40 years ago.

Then Geoffrey Hill stepped unexpectedly into my nostalgic biopic - his comments about Carol Ann Duffy reminded me of an incident at school.

It must have been around 1970. I was carrying three books - The Mersey Sound featuring Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri, Penguin Modern Poets 8 with Edwin Brock, Geoffrey Hill and Stevie Smith and an anthology, Georgian Poetry, first published in 1962. I bumped into my English teacher. She took them out of my hands and then her comment shook me. It was vehement. Personal. I couldn't like all of them. The Liverpool poets were in direct opposition to Geoffrey Hill. And I felt stupid. Confused. Because I liked Hill, I liked Patten, Henry and McGough. I liked Thomas (Dylan), Plath, Hughes as well as Cecil Day Lewis. And I felt like she was telling me off.

Hendrix was still alive (he died a few months later) shaking things up and life was good. I was 15, reading new poems, old poems, trying them out and listening to Joni Mitchell as well as James Brown, Alice Cooper as well as sweet Cat Stevens, John Mayall and finger in the ear folk songs.

I didn't get whatever was behind her attack. I still don't. Or perhaps it was that the 60s had chucked choices at the 70s that were just too threatening. That year, 1970, was just 25 years on from the end of World War Two and its hideous legacy.

Writers, musicians, artists were busting out of unbearable restrictions. For that reason alone, Hill's comments are alarming. Today's poetry partisans aren't heroes, they're protecting their turf. Too many of them are men, white, middle class and they are telling us off, just as my teacher did, with no good reason at all.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Portraits and poverty

Frans Hals Gypsy woman
Research into portraits for my ongoing collaboration with Jane Fordham resonated strongly this morning when I was reading 'The Art of the Portrait' by Norbert Schneider. In a section on the 17th century painter Frans Hals' and his work, The Governors of the Old Men's Almshouse at Haarlem, Schneider notes:

'...the ruling strata began to view persons who were suffering hardship, or who were socially marginalised, as lazy and unwilling to work. The upper classes, whose economic interests, based on the principle of wealth accumulation, had led to the widening of the gulf between rich and poor in the first place, thus tended to see the resultant misery as deriving from a congenital ignobility of character in members of the lower classes....'

As I am reading, Radio 4 is reporting record sales of Rolls Royce cars, Aston Martins and Jaguars in the UK while another news item is suggesting the poor are having larger families in order to obtain more benefits.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

The workshop book for writers

The workshop book for writers begins on my new blog
After more than 20 years of running workshops I'm digging out exercise books, files and rooting around on the top of the wardrobe to write a workshop book for writers. I'm going to share the best and worst experiences in schools, the community, business, reflect on what works and why, share exercises. Look at the sidebar for a link.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The crow, seal pup and Russian doll

In my bag on New Year's Day, these treats, tokens, talismans came home with me.
Quiz prize seal pup

Crow eating holly by Jane Fordham

Russian gingerbread doll, handpainted
with food colouring by Jane Fordham