Monday, December 30, 2013

Under the volcano

The thing about a title, the best, is that it will make its presence felt long after the book's read and the finer details of it are covered by the silt of other memories.
So, in Tenerife, what else would come to mind but Malcolm Lowry's brilliant exploration of alcoholism, self-destruction and the tropics, however inappropriate the book may be as a celebration of my mother's 80th birthday.
I first read it as a student and tried to re-read it a few years ago but didn't get far enough. I am determined to try again if only because the title wouldn't let me go in the week before the week before Christmas, when Teide (Tenerife's highest peak) was our birthday destination.
And mingled in with Lowry's title was Carson McCuller's The heart is a lonely hunter, a novel I'm still savouring in between others, in awe at her skill so young. Then there was Elizabeth Bowen's Death of the heart that I took with me on holiday, a halting period piece about how pain, loss and cruelty are generated almost seamlessly by dishonesty.
So going away to make sure Mum had a unforgettable 80th gave me a pause in the lead-up to Christmas because in Tenerife it was barely noticeable. I swam instead of going shopping, ate on a terrace inches from the Atlantic and where I watched the sun rise and the full moon burnish the ocean.
We discovered a black virgin Mary in Candelaria to Mrisi and Giya's delight, dreamed of the Sahara (so close).
The thing about winter sun is the other person it reminds you of who is gradually shut down from autumn onwards and propped up on a sofa in front of a fire.
To reach the volcano we drove through the rain belt, through a pine forest, winding up until we reached fog and finally broke through into a lunar landscape. Of course there were many breathtaking views, from the snow of Teide above us to the shadow of Gran Canaria on the horizon, or the lava fields that stretched away from the house, northwards, fishermen's shacks burrowed into them, nets draped over the sharp, charcoal-like formations.
And it was a break from writing, although I had started a series of poems called Island Years, inspired by a scientist's account of bird life in the Hebrides in the early 20th century and I managed an Island Years 7, which I may or may not lift out of the notebook. It's too early to tell.
Writing was the last thing on my mind after an almost constant round of proposals and emails in my attempt to find work, feedback for students on a Brighton course I'm tutoring and a winter slide into pessimism.
Mostly, though I was still mourning my friend Sue Eckstein, who died on 10 November. I met Sue in 1992 when we were both pregnant with our first children - me with Mrisi, Sue with Anna.
Sue, Alastair her husband, and I went to the pub after hilarious ante-natal classes at our GP's surgery and remained friends, to the extent that I feel my experience as a mother was inextricably linked to hers.
We moaned over drinks in the Springfield pub, we talked about writing and after Sue's first amputation we co-presented a paper on using humanities in medical education.
Sue had a rare bone cancer that led to a below the knee amputation and a second above the knee amputation, but then a tumour grew in her pelvis.
She was probably the bravest woman I knew. I admired her intellect, her writing, her compassion and her honesty. I loved her books and her plays.
So in the chill, under the volcano, I thought of Sue as well as the celebration of my mother's 80th. I have thought of her every day, probably, because she showed me how to live, she distilled what was important and she crossed the Atlantic as her farewell to the world.
I last saw her at the end of September when she was planning her final journeys with her brothers and then with Alastair, Anna and Seb, her son.
In Tenerife, I thought of her because the Atlantic crashed at the foot of the terrace and because she is the third of my old friends to die - Solomon whom I met as a student, Alan who was the reason for my brief stint as a bass player (our band supported the Jam at Guildford Civic Hall), and now Sue. Three people so critical to those three life stages walk that lunar plain below Teide, flicker in and out of
the breakers below sunny terraces and inhabit so many other landscapes, both strange and familiar. They walk into the new year with me, with everyone else they ever met and made an impression on.
And how grateful I am to them.

for Sue 

I wanted to halt the clock for you, make up
for the minutes it drops, to steady its hands,
slippery as walnut shells, over a liner leaving America
carrying you, Alastair, Anna, Seb and the sun, to light
your crossing.  
                                    Now evening's coming in,
the Downs slip towards the Marina and starlings dance
to their roosts in the ironwork. The minutes are settling
into layers sweet as filo steeped in honey - one minute lit up
and dim as Berlin used to be, one shaking its head slightly
as another slips across the road, into the verge.

The honey is yours, Sue, the ocean, the boat, the sun.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Skank, sket, drab, strum, scrubber

A feature in the Guardian on 26 November quoted a young man on sexual violence against girls and young women and the pressure put on them to give in to demands for sex: "[She thinks] these people are going to look after me and they care about me […] that female usually ends up getting a name … whore, sket, dirty girl, smig," said one 27-year-old male (Guardian 26 November 2013). 

The quote reminded me of two visual poems I created: the first, 'Words for Women', which appeared in Binders Full of Women and is now in Woman's Head As Jug. 

The second is 'Prostitute', published here for the first time. It uses fewer synonyms but places them between a comprehensive collection of women's first names. Many of these names, given at birth, mean light, grace, or love.

The Brighton launch of Woman's Head as Jug is tonight - November 28 - 7.30 for 8 pm at the Red Roaster cafe in Kemp Town:

Monday, November 25, 2013

Will you marry me?

Hidden among the inevitable care home jobs, personal trainers, distributing catalogues, home working and cold-calling, are the weird and wonderful gems: a 'lady woman to cook' (in a trailer) or presenter for a new TV show - 'Social Freaks'.
Yes, it's the world of Gumtree, and I was blissfully unaware of it until my daughter announced she was helping someone propose to his girlfriend after answering an ad.
Fearful, because that's the habit of motherhood, I suggested maybe I could help?
Her task was to meet a man in a hotel in Brighton, to lay out his proposal in fairy lights and set a CD player going  with romantic music on the bandstand moments before he arrived with his girlfriend.
All that, without being spotted, arrested for loitering, the lights going out, or worse.
As my mother pointed out - she's the short story writer whose plot antennae are finely tuned - what if the girlfriend had seen them meet earlier?
My worries bobbed along in the plot of a gory crime thriller with the proposal a lure. 
So yes, I did drive her down to the seafront and loitered myself. Actually I helped lay out his rather basic arrangement of lights on black bin bags and personally feel he could have stretched it a little more and added a 'y' and an 'o', as well as a question mark - after all it was a proposal.  
As Giya set up the CD player and her camera - because she'd volunteered to take a sneaky distance shot of him on his knees proposing - I guarded the message. 
I wouldn't have imagined quite so many passers by at that time of night, or so many dogs, who were the greatest risk of course, because any one of them might have decided to piss on his proposal.
It was sweet though, as I explained to total strangers about this plan that another total stranger had concocted with my daughter. Many of us shared an 'ah' moment and one couple who were completely taken with the idea actually strolled back later to see if they could spot him. 
Giya, meanwhile, was waiting for the text telling her to start the music and trying to keep tourists away - two were very determined to stake their claim, but were persuaded to leave when she explained her dilemma. 
The future husband, very kindly, had given Giya her £20 for the job upfront, so he was taking a risk too. But it went off smoothly, the girl cried, Giya caught the moment on screen and they walked away arm in arm. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Woman's eyes as telescope

A friend, a fellow poet who teaches, is overwhelmed with work as are many in full-time jobs. And yet whenever other friends gather round the kitchen table, all we can talk about is the absence of work, rising overdraft, invisibility.
Economics students, I read somewhere, are beginning to ask for lectures on alternatives to the model that is failing some of us so dramatically.
A wet morning in south Wales. I was visiting one of my oldest friends Helen (whom I've recently rediscovered in France) when she was living in a cabin in Tipi Valley.
My gorgeous first car, a Morris Traveller, didn't like the damp but Nigel, whose house I was lodging in at the time, always reassured me that it had the simplest engine. In fact he took the engine out once for me to replace the head gasket. The engine was so simple that there were two easy solutions when it wouldn't start - one was to bash the starter motor with a hammer. Nigel, a science teacher and subsequently writer of science textbooks, always had a knack of explaining how things worked. The hammer was his solution - why did it work? It disturbed the metal filings clogging up the motor.
The other solution related to spark plugs. I suspect modern engines don't have spark plugs, but there were four (I think) in the Morris Traveller engine. These were the problem in the damp. But they could be over-ridden by the starter handle.
So there I was with a car that wouldn't start, unable to ring the AA (it was a time before mobiles). I tried the starter handle. It worked. The engine made the right noise and I was off.
I trust that my memory's coughed up a working metaphor and there is a starter handle solution to the most serious lack of work I've experienced, or perhaps it's a hammer solution? I can't decide which describes the Writers' Masterclass, a series of small, six person workshops I'm planning (details on my workshop book blog).
What I do know is I'm going to have to turn and/or bash something.
In preparing for those two possibilities, I was going through old notebooks and rediscovered the list that accompanies my book title. It is optimistic, suggests possibilities, as does the continuing existence of Tipi Valley and the influence it exerted.
Woman's Head as Jug on Kindle:

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Making the most of sitting still and asking questions

It was New Zealand poet Elizabeth Smither who introduced me to Jane Kenyon's poetry. Elizabeth spoke passionately about Kenyon at the King's Lynn Poetry Festival a few years ago. So I found a Collected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2005) and last night, wrapped up in a duvet on the sofa, I was flicking through it again. What struck me was Kenyon's simplicity, her ability to make a poem when many others might have been left with an anecdote. 'The Sick Wife' and other last poems are clean as linen and as pleasurable to read as getting into a freshly made bed.
Flu has reminded me of the altered states I have neglected in the panic of trying to find work during these last few months. The habit of constant movement, of generating things to do. Why? Why worry so much?
The evidence from the world of fuller employment than mine doesn't show work off to its best. Layers of people saw Asda's tasteless halloween costumes and no-one put their jobs on the line to challenge a boss. Then there's phone hacking and daily ethical dilemmas in hundreds of thousands of jobs that crop up and are quashed.
Fear of losing a job, fear of being the person who makes a fuss, fear of challenge and what challenge means, fear of being unpopular, of being out of step with the rest, of being branded 'aggy', 'arsey', 'a pain'…without the habit of trade unions, without the habit of asking questions, fear spreads like a cold from a sneeze.
And as the questions drop away, the power of bosses consolidates, rises, opportunities for abuse multiply.
I was looking at a beautiful photo from my last trip to South Africa of a group of women sitting on a pile of logs - in the middle, in the pink headscarf is one of Risenga's grandmothers. To her right is a daughter and grand-daughter, to her left another grand-daughter together with several great grand-children. These women live in Nwamatatane, a village in Limpopo that's been stripped of trees. It's hot and dusty. When we arrived in the village they were sitting on the logs chatting. When we left they were doing the same. These are hard-working women who do everything necessary to stay alive and keep large families alive, but they still have time to sit and chat. I was impressed.
When I was in Mashau, people regularly made the trek up the hill to sit and chat - little boys, young men, local women. I was frustrated sometimes when it meant the number I was feeding went up. But when I could give into it, there was pleasure in working to exist: cooking, fetching wood and water, washing clothes. It was exhausting, I don't elevate it and I came back questioning art. But it reminded me of the balance that has changed in my 58 years in the world: once, in my life, there was a time I needed less and I thought more. I had more time to sit and daydream, read, listen to music, watch films, walk. That was a time when questions were celebrated, welcomed, when a question was not a challenge but an opportunity, when a question was not answered with a finger pointing at a notice asserting the right to work without threat.
In the fug of flu's daydreaming I have made the difficult journey back to idleness, however imperfectly, and as I recover my energy, I will be looking ahead to adding another manifesto to the cannon of doing nothing and asking more questions.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Jerusalem artichokes used to be called
famine food. The tall plants are like
sunflowers, the tubers are prolific.
Who are the allotment poets? In Brighton and Lewes we have two from the Shearsman list:  Janet Sutherland and Lee Harwood. Then there's Dave Swann who's a poet and fiction writer. Further afield, Nell Nelson is an allotmenteer, as is Sarah Hymas and Suffolk-based Michael Laskey is a dedicated veg grower. In fact, when I went along to the small press day in London last month, Nell was selling small pots of jam and we were making up a list of allotment poets as we chatted. It could be an anthology idea...

Because, obviously, the links between gardening and writing are clear. Seamus Heaney's spelled out at least one metaphor in 'Digging' , which came to mind yesterday. It's one of his most quoted poems because of its easy allusions - the poet digs with a pen, the poet's father dug with a spade.

I often think of this poem and another by Edward Thomas when I'm on the allotment. Thomas' first line (his poem has the same title) is: "Today I think/ only with scents - scents dead leaves yield...."

Heaney's first lines are: "Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun..."and it's not till  later he refers to the "cold smell of potato mould". I particularly like that phrase "snug as a gun" - it makes that line much more dangerous.

But that cold smell of potato mould is familiar to anyone who grows their own. Yesterday I was lifting some pink fir apple potatoes - so enormous, some of them were the size of sweet potatoes. The crop's fabulous, as impressive as the squashes and the runner beans, courgettes and apples. So the allotment has made a financial difference this year and having it has given me a renewed interest in kale and chard - those tough, almost indestructible greens that build up the blood.

The late sowing of rocket has paid off. There's a healthy patch I can still pick from, but I've been less successful with the raddicio - I can't seem to get to grips with how you turn the vast purple and green leaves into a tight little red and white heart. Most of the picking's done now, although there are borlotti beans still on the beanstalks to plump and redden and the allotment's become a good place to store and dry wood for the fire at home.

So none of this is metaphorical. I'm in the Edward Thomas mindset when it comes to the relationship between me and digging. It keeps me sane, and according to the council's allotments survey, does the same for a lot of other people too.

Digging by Edward Thomas

Today I think
Only with scents - scents dead leaves yield,
And bracken, and wild carrots' seed,
And the square mustard field; 

Odours that rise
When the spade wounds the root of tree,
Rose, currant, raspberry, or goutweed,
Rhubard or celery;

The smoke's smell, too
Flowing from where a bonfire burns
The dead, the waste, the dangerous,
And all to sweetness turns. 

It is enough
To smell, to crumble the dark earth
While the robin sings over again
Sad songs of Autumn mirth.

Link to Digging by Seamus Heaney:

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Anxiety and charity shops

Directions in Le Panier, Marseille
When my daughter was a toddler I was on the underground at Green Park station, changing tubes. I was packing up the buggy, my son was standing next to me. I turned around and saw my daughter staggering towards the edge of the platform. She was close. I took her hand and brought her back to our pile of bags and wheels.

At times, in the early hours of the morning, that moment comes back to me. Fleur Adcock has a poem about anxieties clustered around the bed and she's right of course, they don't come singly. Anxiety is one of those states that is magnetic. It draws fears together and it draws other people into its magnetic field.

I resent anxiety because I've always been a worrier. I have lists of worries that I mentally tick off, but if that list is ever nearly empty, I take on friends' or strangers' worries.

Recently my anxiety's been on overload. Mostly this is to do with money - a very lowly paid contract, but regular work nonetheless, was cancelled at the last moment. Another piece of work came in, but it's short term and I feel the pressure to prove I can do it so much so that I have been unable to sleep.

Outside this morning, the sun's bright. The same black van is parked in the same place. The cat is sitting on a green cloth I bought from a fabric warehouse in Louis Trichart, a country town in Limpopo. When I immerse myself in things, in the long chopstick I keep in my pen jar to scratch my back with, the bamboo in my neighbour's house bending in the wind, the sound of a scooter straining up the hill, I can put anxiety in its place.

I did a google search on anxiety in writers and what came up was block, strategies for dealing with it, positive thinking. I was bored immediately. A search on the word alone scared me into a search on writers writing about writing. Alice Walker writes about meditation, Walter Mosely about the need to write every day and Annie Proulx writes about rummaging for secondhand books. As I read her, I was thinking 'yes, yes' and I promised myself I'd try what my mother's been urging me to do for years - short stories.

There is this hiatus at the moment. There are poems I didn't put in Woman's Head As Jug because they didn't fit and I don't think I'll dump them forever but they need their own place. There are two poem sequences I began but didn't finish before I sent off the manuscript. They need work. Surprisingly, one or two standalone poems have emerged in the last few weeks. They may not survive. But I am following in my mother's footsteps and appreciating the skill of the short story writer. I am rediscovering the talent of Maupassant, delighted by Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore.

Indeed this is how Lorrie Moore describes writing in The Paris Review: "...what it feels like is running as far as I can with a voice, a tuneful patch of a long, nagging idea. It is a daily struggle that doesn’t even always occur daily. From the time I first started writing, the trick for me has always been to construct a life in which writing could occur. I have never been blocked, never lost faith (or never lost it for longer than necessary, shall we say) never not had ideas and scraps sitting around in notebooks or on Post-its adhered to the desk edge, but I have always been slow and have never had a protracted run of free time. I have always had to hold down a paying job of some sort and now I’m the mother of a small child as well, and the ability to make a literary life while teaching and parenting (to say nothing of housework) is sometimes beyond me. I don’t feel completely outwitted by it but it is increasingly a struggle."

Struggle is a more active word than anxiety. I am suffering from struggle and struggles are keeping me awake at night. I will go out into the sun, down to St Vincent's and London Road where the charity shops are numerous. Maybe even take the car out to Emmaus.

"I gather what I can of the rough, tumbling crowd, the lone walkers and the voluble talkers, the high lonesome signers, the messages people write and leave for me to read..."

Annie Proulx, May 10 1999, New York Times

Writers on Writing: Archive of the New York Times Writers on Writing column, in which writers explore literary themes

The Paris Review, Lorrie Moore interview:

Thursday, October 03, 2013

The loafers

Before the reading LtoR: Penny Shuttle, me, Lorna Thorpe
Penny Shuttle, Lorna Thorpe and me read at Hall for Cornwall in Truro on Tuesday 1 October. The rain pelted down but the mikes were brilliant and later I had the chance to catch up with Sarah who I first met in Guildford in my 20s.

Lorna's poems crank up the energy, always, and I happened to be wearing loafers so she read her Top Rank poem, which I love.

Penny's always take me somewhere unexpected, even when I think I know where I am! Her poems are guaranteed to reach far down and remind me what matters.

Monday, September 30, 2013

All levelled out now

This is what too much drink can do 
There is a standing joke that when poets get together they swing between complaining and ranking themselves in league tables.

But put them at a festival with a brilliant host and pettiness falls away. There's nothing like warm autumn sunshine, the sight of the Ouse as it reaches the sea, good food and beer to banish bitterness and rivalries. And that's how it is at King's Lynn poetry festival.

There are poets with collections so hefty they'd keep the back door open, there are poets with a couple of books out, there are poets who are there because another new book has just been dispatched by the printer.

Poetry festivals don't bring in the millions that music does. Poetry festivals don't need a showground or a stately home, they don't attract hot dog sellers, chorizo and haloumi vans, doughnuts or mobile massages in a yurt. They're modest, well-kept secrets, where the craft of writing and writers are celebrated for their own sake.

Which is not to say poetry couldn't do with some cash. It certainly could. Kings Lynn Festival's essentially kept going by enthusiasts paying monthly subscriptions and a local firm of solicitors. As a participant, it feels like the works outing and that's a big draw because poets, frankly, can spend too much time alone.

And the other thing about poetry festivals - they're relatively rare. The big name novelists, the latest victim memoir or travel epic, the tell-all ghost-written biography have Hay, the big literary bonanza weekends, where even the most famous poets are in the shade. These weekends span the genres, ticket sales are determined by the literary supplements, TV fame, by celebrity.

Reputation matters at a poetry festival, not fame, because poets tend not to be famous. Louis de Bernieres was at Kings Lynn this year launching his first collection of poetry Imagining Alexandria and biographer Ann Thwaite whose work's been described as 'magnificent' was interviewing her husband, the poet Anthony Thwaite about a lifetime's work.

So poetry's a leveller and we rub along together because no-one knows if they'll ever write another line. And what's even better about a small festival is that if there are any self-important fools, they're so clearly out on a limb.

In a similar neck of the woods this year it's the 25th anniversary of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. It happens the weekend of 8-10 November, just after bonfire night, crisp and wintery. Among the big names are Grace Nichols and broadcaster-poet Ian McMillan. They are among 30 poets from the UK, US, Canada, Ireland, Macedonia, Poland and Russia.

Aldeburgh and Kings Lynn have their own personalities but they are important to poets. They are a platform for poetry and only poetry. That platform might not have the amplification of the main stage at WOMAD but the quality's indisputable. If some of these poets were in the music business they'd be filling Wembley.

And that's a good enough reason for me to pitch up to the next poetry festival as a punter before the secret gets out.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Brendan Cleary is leaving

So Brendan Cleary is leaving Brighton, and his occasional place at my kitchen table for mushrooms on toast and moans.

Brendan's been resident poet of the gyratory village for many years, hanging out and playing tunes at the Gladstone, organising secret readings in upstairs rooms of pubs - a famed tutor who's set many poets on their way and editor of the iconic Echo Room magazine, recently revived.

He's off to Ireland for the foreseeable future and many of us will miss him. Maybe he hasn't had his due here for his unique style of writing - short, intense, urban lyrics seasoned with a photographer's attention to detail.

Ask him anything you like about Ken Smith and he'll probably know it. Ask him about the Morden Tower in Newcastle in the 1980s. Ask him about stand-up, the blues, Motown or his stint on Radio One's Mark Radcliffe show which produced the Radioland poems in Sacriledge. Ask to see his burned and coffee stained notebook pages.

He's stayed outside academia and the poetry establishment but published consistently - two collections with Bloodaxe, Sacriledge (1998) and The Irish Card (1993), the many pamphlets that he's made an art form, and a long list of others from a variety of small presses cataloguing the experience of a single man in the city in our times.

Brendan Cleary. Photo: Pighog Press

He talks wryly about being a poet of the small press but they have insured his work's still available: Wrecking Ball Press, Tall Lighthouse and now Brighton-based Pighog.

It is possible to get a copy of The Irish Card on Amazon - a signed first edition, for next to nothing but watch out, other collections are creeping up in value: Tears in the Burger Store, published in 1985, is now selling for £28 and Weightless, published by Tall Lighthouse in 2006 is also demanding good sums.

Brendan's exit from Brighton coincides with the launch of his latest collection, Face, written in memory of his brother, Martin Cleary. So his launches, in Brighton, will be entrances and exits. He's reading at the Gladstone on Wednesday 25 September and the Red Roaster on Thursday 26 September. Catch him before he flies.


Going Down Slow - Tall Lighthouse 2010
Some Turbulent Weather - Tall Lighthouse 2008
Jackson 2004 - Pighog Press
Stranger in the House - Wrecking Ball Press in 2003
Crack -  Echo Room Press 1990


Trees on Bear Road 2008
London Hearts 1998
Sad Movies 1996
White Bread and ITV 1990
Transylvania 1992
Party's Upstairs, 1987
Late Night Bouts, 1987
Memos to Sensitive Eddie 1987
Expecting cameras, 1986

In Dark Times: An Anthology of Poetry from the Echo Room 1985-95

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A summer of visitors and not thinking

Junk funk musicians, Sotho Sounds
with Mrisi Makondo-Wills, Risenga Makondo,
Maude Casey, Giya Makondo-Wills and me at Womad
Visitors from south Africa, Lesotho and Ludlow have brought the world to me this summer, sending the cat into a spin of protest and culminating in three days of painting.

First off was Kathy, who kindly put me and the kids up on two separate occasions years ago in south Africa, showing them (among other things) how to make hedgehogs from a mango, taking us to visit some of Venda's traditional artists.

Kathy brought the buzz of Cape Town with her and a beautiful hardwood sculpture of a transgender angel by a young artist she's been supporting.

Then Sotho Sounds turned up from the mountains of Lesotho with their producer Risenga Makondo (my childrens' father, my ex), in Brighton to rehearse before three weeks in Edinburgh. They brought the sounds of the Maluti mountains, memories of the beauty of the Gates of Paradise pass and their vibrant acoustic music composed and played on instruments made from recycled wire and cans.

Finally, my dear friend Jane from Ludlow whom I share so many experiences with, brought Shropshire cheese, honey and space to reminisce, catch up and wander with her son to skate parks.

Visitors have spurred me to paint the kitchen floor - a task I've been planning for at least two years - and have started the process of refilling the now empty well that's so necessary for writing. They also take the pressure of that insidious feeling that I should be doing something else. The demands of the winter will be to find work. The challenges of the summer have been not to look too far ahead. Most importantly, not to think at all for a while.

In the Celtic calender, summer was over on 1 August and the season shifted into autumn. I've been picking since July but this month, the courgettes and squash plants have produced a glut worthy of the word harvest. But September is close and this year signals the start of yet more change - my son's final year at uni, my daughter's first year of a photography foundation course and two launches: my book and Mrisi's album, Englafrique.

September's always felt like the true new year and the equinox, balancing night and day, explains that feeling, along with years of buying school uniform, new clean shirts, socks, plimsoles and for the last two years, saying goodbye on a doorstep in Cricklewood or at Brighton station. It's not a month of thought, but of memory.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The title

The title of my new collection, Woman's Head as Jug, was a gift from Jane Fordham's notebook and for that reason it continues to intrique me. Jane doesn't really know why she noted it down and when I first heard it, I thought of the sculptor Noria Mabasa from South Africa, red earth and healing. 

It suggests an oinochoe (wine jug) maybe 2,000 years old from Greece, an even older jug from Egypt made to hold a mother's milk, jugs from Congo, toby jugs, it suggests women carrying water in gourds, buckets, bowls. It suggests a museum exhibit and ancient history at the same time as the weight of water and clay. 

People ask if it's about emptying yourself, being a provider. I don't have an answer. But the more I think about it, perhaps what attracts me the most is the idea of those two amazing states - full and empty. The need for both. 

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Universities - exploiting the casual economy

The university has a gleaming reputation. There are stellar names on its website, known on TV, some even in celebrity mags - pop stars, famous historians or inventors. 
The names might stop students looking too closely at its rankings, might be a justification of the £9,000 a year they will pay to be taught, but what happens after Fresher's Week?
This autumn, students currently sitting their A levels will find their cohort of teachers are in fact a hotch-potch of casual workers who may have been employed over the phone, by word of mouth, because they are friends of friends, who are given a code for the photocopier if they're lucky but nowhere to make a cup of tea. 
They will find people working five hours a week, some six, some four, who don't know each other, have probably never met, who have probably never met a member of academic staff and have no sense of being part of the noble institution as advertised.
They will find their teachers may not be paid for tutorials, or if they are, the tutorial time allowed is 10 minutes. Teachers may not be paid for marking, or if they are, the amount of time allocated is about 15 minutes. 
They will find a hierarchy within their university, with rich, highly paid professors and visiting celebrities at the top and hourly paid lecturers at the bottom, unacknowledged, rather like the Persian cleaner in Jan Arnald's brilliant TV series Arne Dahl.
If they are unlucky, they will encounter bitterness and resentment, laziness and incompetence. If they are lucky, they will encounter people who teach out of the love of a subject and commitment to young people (who may have children of the same age). 
When Micky Mouse and the Lone Ranger were casual compositors in Fleet Street they were moonlighting, but as Fleet Street was rebuilt as a new empire in the old Docklands, it became clear casual workers could do more than moonlight - they could replace the traditional workforce with its regulations, job security and unions. 
Of course there have always been rogue industries like hotels, restaurants, cleaning, agriculture with cash in hand employers who pay little attention to safety, unions or law. 
Traditionally, safe jobs were in government, the health service and academia where there was security of tenure - jobs for life.
Now in UK universities, the number of staff teaching on temporary contracts is continuing to rise - more than a third of academics are on them. On top of that, there are 80,000 hourly paid teachers/lecturers.
My daughter could be a candidate for the £9,000 a year university experience. She's very wisely decided to do a third (free) year in further education when she finishes her A levels. 
How will it shake out? Will students begin to ask how their money's being spent? I would.
Will standards be set for the quality of feedback on assignments, length of feedback, length of time allowed for tutorials, one to one time? They're long overdue.
A casual workforce exploits the hourly paid individual and exploits the student unless it is brilliantly managed, the pay is fair and the hours reflect the work that casual puts in.
But it is no model for the future unless compensation for being casual makes it worthwhile and reflects the amount the students are paying to keep the top tier in highly paid jobs with perks, status, a sense of belonging and offices with coffee machines. 

Monday, June 03, 2013

Creative education

Englafrique - Shrapnel's first album - release date
September 2013
Two years of writing, editing, revising the music and lyrics, at least 12 months devising four videos, then editing, hearing the same tunes, words and phrases over and over again.
Listening to Mrisi describe his work on Englafrique reminded me of friends describing the attention they give to a collection of poems, paintings, a design project.
The difference is that Mrisi is just 20 and he has already assimilated an enormous understanding of what a creative project demands.
He's picked up knowledge from friends, from trial and error, from knowing what he wants and he's found ways of achieving it, while sharpening the musical skills he needs too.
His grandmother, me, his dad, sister Giya and friends have heard the lyrics and music at many stages of development. Giya took the photo of Mrisi playing piano and his friend Tom Hines turned it into artwork for the album cover. His first Youtube video was filmed when he was playing with his dad's band, Bush Technologists, in South Africa. As Sly and the Family Stone sang, 'it's a family affair....'
But it's not just Englafrique that's focused my mind on creative education. This is a time of marking assignments and every year I ask how this kind of qualitative judgment can be most useful to a student.
It's also time to send my own six-year project into the much smaller world of poetry: Woman's Head as Jug comes out at the same time as Mrisi's album.
My collection is as collaborative as it is possible to get. Yes, solitude accounts for much of my time, but I couldn't do without workshop groups and the ideas lab of meetings with Jane Fordham - days with no preconceived notion of where either of us will end up, visually or with words.
Artistic collaboration is often misrepresented as ekphrasis - one artist interpreting another. But in reality it is closer to the best creative education, a kind of nursery school with sandpits, dressing up and playhouses.
I'd been thinking about all this last night when Giya was talking about her decision to do a year's photography course. She is one of those versatile people and could have set her mind on academia, acting or music. Her versatility confused her and me temporarily. She began taking pictures of Christmas houses when she was seven, steadily improving her cameras as she got older and admitted last night that when she was at secondary school she wanted to be a photographer but she didn't want to be poor so she chose academic options.
The moment of change happened when she realised she could combine everything she loved to do in photography. That insight goes to the heart of creative education. She got there on her own, she found her solution, as did Mrisi. We get by, we are sustained by absolute belief in risk and experiment that lives in the lion costume and the earliest crayon marks.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

End of career poetry residency

"In this poor body, composed of one hundred bones and nine openings, is something called spirit, a flimsy curtain swept this way and that by the slightest breeze. It is spirit, such as it is, which led me to poetry, at first little more than a pastime, then the full business of my life. There have been times when my spirit, so dejected, almost gave up the quest, other times when it was proud, triumphant. So it has been from the very start, never finding peace with itself, always doubting the worth of what it makes."
Basho was a trooper, he stayed with it, observing the changes in himself and the world and left his unique legacy. It seems important to remember the importance of stamina when there are so many things that drag the poor body away from poetry - weeding and planting, work and demanding visitors.
I have been looking for time to think, walk, experiment and fill pages of a notebook - a residency, basically. But I had trouble with my search terms - residencies for coming-up-to-sixty poets? What does it mean, this term 'mid-career'?
The risks of funding emerging writers and artists are low. Youth is enough justification, often. Although those of us who 'emerged' in our mid thirties start off disadvantaged...and there are many, particularly women, who can't produce anything till later in their lives. Then there are mid-career artists and writers, a polite term I presume for unheard of. Nothing yet that I've found for end of career people, still slogging away as Basho points out, sometimes in despair, always in doubt.
Which is why it's important to think about what poems, poets, visual artists, contribute to a collective state of mind, to thinking that is not determined by politics, policy etc etc. it is very hard to think in this way, not always successful.
The disappearance of bees has forced some kind of discussion about how much we need them. No, poets won't disappear, but an approach to thinking and writing is seriously threatened. This is why we should give poets a chance, give the old, strugglers a bit of a hand even if they haven't got a stack of prizes and awards, even if they don't have a single one to their name.
"The project of poetry, in a way, is to raise language to such a level that it can convey the precise nature of subjective experience....... When people are real to you, you can't fly a plane into the office building where they work, you can't bulldoze the refugee camp where they live, you can't cluster-bomb their homes and streets. We only do those things when we understand people as part of a category: infidel, insurgent, enemy." That's more like it....from a talk by the delightful American poet Mark Doty.
And Sigmund Freud, whose work I'm not nearly as interested in, nevertheless comes up trumps with a reflection on the importance of poetry. It's good to be reminded of who believes in poetry when there are so many charlatans seeking attention:  "Poets are masters of us ordinary men, in knowledge of the mind, because they drink at streams which we have not yet made accessible to science."

Mark Doty:

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A poem for Rambert

On Monday I sat with hospital patients to ask my final set of questions about love - how do you carry the memory of love? Can you describe your parents' faces? 

The questions were my solution to the impossibility of running a poetry workshop on a ward. I sat and took notes as people who were able talked about family, partners and children. At the beginning of the project I read people poems but by the end felt that my questions might have the same effect. Ten hours isn't really enough to know what works and experiment with different approaches.

Each week on the train from Brighton and walking along the Fulham Road to the hospital - Chelsea and Westminster - I was conscious of the barrier: a patient in a bed, me coming in from outside. Add poetry into the equation and sometimes I felt like an alien, although the staff were all so young, at least I had age in common with the patients.

Now younger patients will take the poem and work with Rambert on choreography in response to these lines that have come from those 10 hours questioning what love means when you're confined to a bed in a ward, sometimes exhausted, sometimes frustrated by your own body.

Photo by Giya Makondo-Wills

I ask

What is your heart and what is it carrying?

            It's not about the heart,
            it's the whole body, you answered -

            a tree - almond or apple -
            and inside, the background music.

Are some people harder to love?

            My sister laughed behind my back.
            There was someone I trusted with a secret.
            In six months we tiptoed from fun
            to arguing. I told her I'd been on a date.
What journeys did you make and what did you find?

            I walked the backbone of Ireland -
            from Dublin to Cork - dogs barked from kennels,
            joggers overtook, pigs stood in my way.

                        And I crossed the Sahara for two days,
                        took a train to Nguru,
                        heard a general as he beat a young boy.

            I met her in London, 1954,
            a  year after the earthquake on Kefalonia
            killed her father and sister.

How do you carry the memory of love?

One sent her vegetables, all kinds of vegetables
others said in my daughter, my partner, my god

            one held the light on the water in Venice
            another Barbados, her grandmother's voice

one heard a mobile ringing
another, the roll call of all 14 siblings

            one felt rough tweed against her tired face
            another feared she got back less than she gave

one smiled - my mother, 92 and still dancing -
another hummed his dad's favourite song

            and the last said when he was young
            love was spelled lust.

Describe your mother's face, your father's

            First comes the shape of the mouth,
            curve of a jaw, then laughter lines,
            ears, smooth ovals of skin

            and only then, the eyes' colours -
            blue, brown, grey - until,
            as if under that gaze again

            they are led to the exact day
            of a soldier's haircut, his stutter
            and in the hallway, the draught

            of parents' softly spoken
            shorthand, her Norwegian,
            and for another, the affair, divorce

            until he has a photo of his father,
            a child, in his hands and she can admit:
            "In her dementia, my mother loves me at last."

And what are the tokens of love?

It happened so fast, the results, diagnosis
how much we needed to send him to Boston.

He's only seven. Hand to mouth, we went,
site to site, Facebook and Twitter

one told another, at work and at school,
in football crowds, post-office queues,

we grew like a flock of red-billed quelea
folding around him a soft cloak of feathers.  

Friday, May 17, 2013

Hippocrates symposium and Dorothy Molloy

I have been reading Dorothy Molloy's two collections from Faber, Hare Soup and Gethsemane Day to prepare for chairing a session at the Hippocrates Symposium tomorrow on poetry and medicine.

Somehow when Hare Soup appeared in 2004, I was distracted, absent, but what a delight to discover these two books. As I read, I am drawing up a list of friends I want to give these collections to. At one stage I had to stop myself reading aloud on the train, saying:"Listen to this."

The late Dorothy Molloy
pic: Faber&Faber

About Dorothy Molloy at Salmon Poetry:

Katy Evans Bush on Hare Soup:

2013 International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine:

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Menopause - all you never learned

Menopause - a no-go zone
All four of us in the meeting are at different stages of menopause. We are planning an event at Brighton and Sussex Medical School that Dr Sue Eckstein's suggested for the Ethics in Performance series.

I'll read from Sweats, the menopause series that makes up a section of Woman's Head as Jug and Julia Montgomery, consultant obstetrician, gynaecologist and research fellow will talk about the science.

Sweats came out of a collaboration with artist Jane Fordham over a few days a few years ago at the idyllic Chesworth Arts Farm in Horsham and developed momentum from the experiences of friends going through menopause and my own rather haphazard and non-scientific research into the weirder aspects of menopause and then Moniza Alvi suggested paring it down to the bone.

It's a hotchpot and there are bits I've left out. Julia was keen to mention the positives - fewer mood swings (no PMT), wisdom, energy, release, the absence of migraines...but there are scores of other symptoms.  I wonder if there could be a Sweats part 2.

Most poetry editors I sent Sweats poems to were too squeamish (are blood clots, smears, wrinkles, grey hair a step too far?) Women's problems?  Brave Michael Hulse at Warwick Review published some, though but perhaps it's no coincidence Michael's one of the Hippocrates Prize for Medicine and symposium organisers.

12 June, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, evening (time to be confirmed).

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Questions about love

Pencils and beautiful notepads in hand, performing arts officer Daisy Fancourt and I sanitised our hands and entered the ward.

The idea was that I'd run writing workshops at Chelsea and Westminster hospital on Fulham Road to generate a poem that in its turn inspired a dance.

I realised, as I dodged auxiliary nurses, physiotherapists and the tea trolley, that a workshop was impossible.

But what about the ideas I'd pulled apart and put back together during my retreat cat-sitting in Bath?

This pilot project has been set up by the hospital's arts unit with Rambert dance. Rambert's current show, Labyrinth of Love, is based on love poems by women from Sappho to Anne Carson. So I went with poems about love by women poets - Edna St Vincent Millay, Susan Wicks, Grace Nichols and many others praising mothers, snow monkeys and love itself.

I couldn't separate love from journeys. So when Daisy and I decided I'd work with individuals at their beds, I asked them for journey maps. Any journey would do. When they'd done it, I asked them to fill in the points on that journey they associated with love.

We didn't always get to the love part. Some people were tired, or needed medical attention. But relatives took part too. And I came away with maps of London streets and one that stretched from Cyprus, via Nigeria.

This week Daisy put together a schedule of appointments for me. I sat at peoples' bedsides and this time we talked about the meaning of love. I didn't read poems but I had a line by Jennie Joseph in my own head: "Why are we frightened of the word for love?" In hospital, it seems, the synonym of love is family.

Perhaps talking to a stranger at your bedside about sexual love, about old lovers, about first love is going a step too far (although one man mentioned his first love without prompting). But perhaps, when your health is in doubt the first thing on your mind is where you come from and all that springs from birth and then, maybe, the old questions about love aren't barbed and frantic, but heavier and warmer, like the air.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Supermarkets, slavery and public schools

These two women who live in the heart of Venda, the north of south Africa, rely on growing food and trading what they don't have with other women. The rural economy is based on subsistence, with a bit of cash thrown in from the state if you have a birth certificate for yourself and grandchildren.
But supermarkets are building wherever they can and suddenly informal roadside stalls and the markets are abandoned. Women have to find cash and make the journey to a shop for much more now than just maize.
So when Tesco announced its drop in profits, I cheered because Tesco has been an aggressive contributor to globalisation and because I saw what that meant in a small part of the world last summer in south Africa. It is like watching an English market town lose its centre all over again, but this time the stakes are higher because the people being affected are poor, they have no cars.
So companies that have spread outside Europe and the US would do the world a favour if they stopped, stopped grabbing land to build on, stopped being driven by shareholders and listened to the rural poor.
Patience Agbabi read an important poem last night at the launch of Poetry Review, edited by Moniza Alvi and Esther Morgan. The Doll's House is a poem she was commissioned to write for the Ilkley festival about Harewood House stately home. The house and Agbabi's poem were built entirely out of the sugar trade that was the reason for slavery.
Her poem is relevant for many reasons, but it makes many links by using the voice of a sugar artist. Global exploitation didn't stop when slavery was abolished, it continued in another guise. People are not transported on ships anymore but they are beaten, robbed and chained because of the profits that drive retailers, major brands and middlemen to keep feeding the mantra: consume, consume, consume.
Even the world's economists don't believe it works anymore - they're all talking about collaborative consumerism - but the retailers will squeeze as much as they can out of the earth and us before the secret's out because there's still money to be had.
Indeed, globalisation is also responsible for the pittance paid to agricultural workers in Venda on fruit farms (bananas, oranges, grapefruit, lemons, avocado), the macademia plantations, and the disgusting conditions they are forced to live in.
It's also responsible for the current threat from mining in Venda which will drain all the water from underground. In fact, for so many threats that are already changing a way of life that was built on centuries of trial and error....
And who do we make rich as we participate? Well, slave money is still in circulation and is probably the reason why the men I sat next to on the train last night on my way back from the launch were at public school. Sprawled across four seats, their voices boomed through the carriage with that familiar tone of entitlement. I attempted to read the Standard, attempted to concentrate on HE Bates and failed. I closed my eyes and listened.
Between reminiscing about fagging for so-and-so they delivered insights such as: 'these international students think they can buy a place anywhere'....'oh but you used to be able to buy a place at Oxford'....'no, I didn't have to, I had squash'....'he wasn't particularly bright. They had him teaching English, but sport was his thing...'
They reminded me of the businessman I was interviewing recently who without irony said he tolerated his wife spending a thousand dollars on a handbag because the brand made her happy.
The buzz words doing the rounds of business - corporate responsibility, circular economy, collaborative consuming. Some retailers are suggesting people will stop buying stuff.
Supermarkets, let's hope, have seen their day. Can we have our markets back now? Get those lorries off the roads? Bakeries, local butchers - like they have in the places where the rich have second homes.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Brighton festival fringe substitutes gin for poetry

It is bizarre indeed that the year Brighton festival has a poet, Michael Rosen, as its artistic director, his chosen art form is conspicuous in its absence.

Several years ago, the festival's attitude to poetry became clear when it changed 'Literature' to 'Books and debate' so it could squeeze events incompatible with the big money-making slots (dance, music, comedy) into an anything-goes slush category that covered journalists interviewing journalists, film and so on.

This year the Slush Pile features 28 events,  two of them poetry: Modern Poetry in Translation on Saturday 4 May, guaranteed to be brilliant because of the actual appearance of world-class poets Susan Wicks and Valerie Rouzeau and The Poetry Army, a dramatisation of Heathcote Williams' new work The Poetry Army. In terms of the appearance on stage of real poets, that's ONE poetry event.

What of the Fringe then? Surely that will take risks, if risk is what poetry has become synonymous with?

At least the Fringe calls it literature, but hijacked by Hendricks Gin, the category takes bizarre twists and turns - an applied social science annual public lecture is billed as 'spoken word', as is 'ask a philospher'. Hendricks' irritating sponsorship manifests itself as a 'carnival of knowledge'.

Like the main festival, it also contains two poetry events - one is a night of dead poets' nonsense (no risk of upsetting the applecart with live poets) and New Writing South makes a valiant attempt by combining poetry with Caribbean food and an open mic. Sound familiar?

So that's it. Two, of course, makes the pain easier to bear. No-one is being tokenistic with two. And the tags are entertaining. Other than 'spoken word', the reader of the Fringe brochure is directed to 'funny' or 'interactive' and unsurprisingly given the sponsor there are five 'tasting' events in literature.

Perhaps I should repeat that. FIVE TASTING EVENTS.  Featuring cocktails, not poets. No forget poetry....this year Brighton festival shoves poetry aside in favour of gin.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Woman's Head as Jug

Cover painting The Five Sisters
of Suduireaut by Jane Fordham
It was slightly unexpected. In my mind, Woman's Head as Jug was never going to be finished. It stretched out in front of me, way into the long hot summer of 2013, the hottest on record, through long days on the allotment and evenings on the beach. I anticipated it becoming a great companion, a place to put surprises.
But it's going to be published in September and it sits alongside some wonderful writers on Arc's forthcoming titles list: Michael Hulse, CK Stead, Birhan Keskin, Krystyna Milobedska, Cheran and Ivana Milankova - poets from New Zealand, Poland, Turkey, Serbia and Sri Lanka.
It's a real honour to be part of Arc's list and to be part of Arc, in fact, kept going by the sheer energy of Tony Ward and Angela Jarman and now boosted by the presence of poets Sarah Hymas, who's marketing the books and John Wedgwood Clarke, UK and Ireland editor. John Kinsella, another fine poet from Australia, is international editor and Jean Boase Bier is series editor of the impressive poetry in translation series: Visible Poets.
So in the last couple of weeks I've been looking at page proofs, berating myself for not doing enough networking because I really have very few contacts to pass on to Sarah and becoming anxious about handing it over, finally, letting it go.
The book began several years ago when Jane Fordham asked me for my opinion on the order of a series of her monoprints for an exhibition in France. I was so overwhelmed by them that I asked if I could have copies to write from. For months we swapped lines and eventually shuffled everything until I had the poem, Forest Choir.
And in the meantime, on the subject of letting go, in the time the book's taken to write, one child has left home for university and another finishes college this summer. The book marks big change.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Handwriting and thought

For years I've been aware of the different way my mind works when I'm handwriting and typing, particularly on a computer keyboard (rather than a manual typewriter). 
There's a different connection between my hand and brain, when I'm holding something. Well, that's what I thought it was about. As if the rounder, more organic action of writing, the different pressure I put the pen under, the way it feels on the page, even its taste and texture, the smell of ink, might have something to do with this. 
So I tell anyone who'll listen - use paper, a pen or pencil when you want to come up with ideas. A keyboard's brilliant for transferring them, for editing, but the best ideas come in lead or ink.
We know actually, often the best ideas come when we're not writing at all - walking, swimming, jogging. 
But back to handwriting. I've always kept an eye out for comments on this.
So who should come up with the best explanation to date? Ted Hughes, in an interview with the Paris Review of Poetry. 
He explains that for 30 years he was a WH Smith children's writing competition judge, sorting through 60,000 entries at a time. This is what he said: 
"Usually the entries are a page, two pages, three pages. That’s been the norm. Just a poem or a bit of prose, a little longer. But in the early 1980s we suddenly began to get seventy- and eighty-page works. These were usually space fiction, always very inventive and always extraordinarily fluent—a definite impression of a command of words and prose, but without exception strangely boring."
They asked questions and discovered those children were using word processors. 
Hughes continues with the brilliant explanation I've been looking for: " the actual tools for getting words onto the page become more flexible and externalized, the writer can get down almost every thought or every extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated. There’s always a bit too much there, and it’s too thin. Whereas when writing by hand you meet the terrible resistance of what happened your first year at it when you couldn’t write at all . . . when you were making attempts, pretending to form letters. These ancient feelings are there, wanting to be expressed. When you sit with your pen, every year of your life is right there, wired into the communication between your brain and your writing hand. There is a natural characteristic resistance that produces a certain kind of result analogous to your actual handwriting. As you force your expression against that built-in resistance, things become automatically more compressed, more summary and, perhaps, psychologically denser. I suppose if you use a word processor and deliberately prune everything back, alert to the tendencies, it should be possible to get the best of both worlds."

Ted Hughes quotes are from this source: 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Sylvia Plath died 11 February 1963

Today is the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath's death. Her publisher Faber chose to mark the occasion with a brassy cover of a woman powdering her face on Plath's re-released novel, The Bell Jar. I lent out my teenage copy of that novel too many times and it never returned, but really the most essential reading for any literate girl in the 1960s was her poetry.

Perhaps it is inconvenient that one of the 20th century's most famous women writers is a poet - a stance reflected in the comment posted on Faber's website about the redesign where Hannah Griffiths, Paperbacks Publisher writes: "We think there is a reader for this novel who will enjoy its brilliance without knowing anything about Plath’s other work."

I remember seeing the old version of The Bell Jar once in the Tesco superstore in Shoreham. I used to wander up there to kill time while my daughter was having a saxophone lesson, especially in the winter. I wondered how long the books buyer lasted and if it was a decision that came out of brilliant subversion, youthful idealism or ignorance.

In 1990 I finished a two year part-time MA at Birkbeck College in London. My MA dissertation was on The Poetry of Sylvia Plath with special reference to the influence of Dylan Thomas. Now I am almost embarrassed by the title but it's clear. The whole MA was an excuse to read; time to look closer and focus on poetry. I had always admired Thomas and Plath's work was almost as much a part of my growing up as the bottle green of school uniform and the number 19 bus.

The dissertation allowed time to dig deep into her work and analyse how she used language. Plath shared a birthday with Thomas and his influence is everywhere in her early poems and themes. Her poem 'Bucolics' shows Plath using ellipsis, noun-adjective compounds and inverted syntax:

"By blackthorn thicket, flower spray
They pitched their coats, come to green bed..."

compare this to a line from Thomas' 'Poem on His Birthday':

"By full tilt river and switchback sea..."
a style any Thomas fan recognises immediately.

"The overtly Thomas-influenced poems stand among Plath's early attempts to find a voice. They are like premonitions - her fascination with the fabric of language, pursuit of the image, but above all, perhaps the idea of the poetic; the deepest, most extreme motivation and this early work she is gathering her forces, setting out the tools, seeking images among the complexities of syntax and rhetoric....."I wrote.

The rhethorical devices Plath borrowed from Thomas - who retrieved many of them from the Bible and Welsh preachers -  include ellipsis, neologisms, punning, made up words, apostrophe, anaphora, hendiadys. George T Write identified Thomas as the only poet to use hendiadys since Milton. He uses it to introduce complex ideas in a short phrase:

"On a breakneck of rocks
Tangled with chirrup and fruit..." (Author's Prologue)

Plath opens an early poem, The Queen's Complaint, with the same technique: "In ruck and quibble of courtfolk...."

Plath explained how she'd read Thomas for the subtlety of his sound. She used the techniques Thomas learned from the pulpit to free a unique voice expressing the new religion of self. And George T Write's hendiadys is not longer so rare. In fact it's spread like knotweed and while Thomas may be mostly to blame, Plath is just as likely to be the source as well.

It is hard to understand why the Guardian chose to examine Plath's legacy by asking women writers what they thought of The Bell Jar. Even Sharon Olds says: "I stayed away from her poems, out of a sort of dread of her fate...."

Only poet Lavinia Greenlaw points to Plath's skill. "We imitate her without having a clue about the technical genius that makes her work such a force."

We do know about Plath's technical genius, it's just not highlighted when she's discussed. What comes up is her life, her death and her journals. But her poetry is her big literary legacy and technique mattered to her.