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.