Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Cleaning the kitchen floor and answering back

It's taken over 10 years but thanks to my work with the Open University I have access to online journals and I've re-discovered the review which inspired my poem 'Kitchen Floor' (from Woman's Head as Jug). I was reminded of the review (I never had a hard copy) when I went to talk to Martina Evans' Royal Literary Fund reading group a couple of weeks ago. It is always lovely to see Martina, a fabulous poet, and the group had looked at that poem in advance of my visit. 

Martina's most recent collection -
a brilliant read
Is it a feminist poem? I was asked. Not consciously, but it was written after I struggled to understand how another woman could write this: 

"Fever Tree is a perplexing choice of title when one suspects that the poet herself works up more of a sweat mopping the kitchen floor…..Wills has an impressive list of residencies and accolades to her credit. She also has her poems printed on paper napkins. What can one add to that?" Kate Keogan, PN Review (July-August 2004)

I've been doing quite a bit of reviewing myself recently, reading five titles for the forthcoming issue of The North and on the night of my visit to Martina's group, went to an event in which reviewing was also discussed. The debate didn't really get off the ground, but a fairly well connected critic (whose friends from the TLS were braying in public school voices behind me) suggested it was a good thing that certain brave young men were writing without fear about contemporary mainstream poets and were happily doing hatchet jobs.

Personally, I think space to promote poetry's rare enough without wasting it. The haters have sent me running away from Facebook and I suspect they're a lot to do with poetry's doldrums. 

So I won't review a book I can't find anything positive to say about. Or use the opportunity of a review to make a name for myself as I climb the greasy pole. Perhaps it's best to feel sorry for them, languishing in bitterness. Thanks for the poem, though, Kate. 

Tips for a review: 

Put a book in context
Attempt to understand what the poet is doing.
Where does it come in their writing history?
What are its strengths?
Read beyond the blurb.
Forget the blurb.
Read intelligently. 
Understand the title.
Resist cheap jibes.
Read in a spirit of generosity.
Don't review a book you hate. 

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Waiting for the time

Strange dreams recently and for some reason I woke up remembering this bird on the beach in Sicily this September - it was there all afternoon, moving only slightly when a dog went past, looking at the waves as if it was waiting for something. It seemed too late for it to be guarding eggs, but anyway, they'd have been washed away.

With a painful tooth abscess, pain killers and now powerful antibiotics, I suppose my dreams are bound to be affected.

But I'm also waiting for writing time, for poems, to get back to bigger prose projects. I'd like a solution, which some writers seem to have found, to time. Earning a living takes up a lot of it, even now. I am preparing resolutions for the coming solstice.

Since Aldeburgh, there's been a rather worrying message from the Poetry Trust suggesting a scaled down poetry festival next year. It's becoming a grim winter and I've stopped listening to Radio 4, stopped Facebook (as much as possible). In pain at 4 am this morning, I turned to Willa Cather's descriptions of a much simpler life. I was interested in her description of one character as being perpetually angry because of reading the newspapers. The hysteria right now is exhausting.

In this mood, I'd like to think the bird was just watching the sea. As I did that day when I wasn't watching the bird.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Horse racing with the Aldeburgh Eight

The Aldeburgh Eight 2015
The first note in the little square book I used to record this year's Aldeburgh Poetry Festival is typical of Peter Sansom. It's allegedly a quote by Douglas Dunn: "I wish I'd known then what I still don't know."

I was with Peter all weekend at Aldburgh and the days that followed listening to Valerie Rouzeau, Choman Hardi, Jane Duran, Tony Hoagland, Kei Miller, Holly McNish and many more, listening to debate, favourite poems and craft talk.

The weekend was followed by intensive workshopping with eight fine poets selected for the festival's new talent scheme: John Challis, Josephine Corcoran, Suzannah Evans, Seán Hewitt, Anita Pati, Kathy Pimlott, Andrew Rudd and Miranda Yates.

The Douglas Dunn quote in my book is followed by a note about a TV cop series. One of the first things we talked about was River. Peter's attempts to understand why women would suspend disbelief for River became a running theme as we stood around with a cup of tea or discussed what exercises we'd be doing.

After a week together, you become more than a group. We inhabited the beautiful Bruisyard Hall as if it was ours. I slept in a four poster, got fatter on Maggie's meals. We admired the pheasants, heard the shots and spotted barn owls hunting in the unnaturally warm days.

Bruisyard Hall in Suffolk, venue for the Aldeburgh
Eight residential course
Peter Sansom, with his wife Ann, devote their lives to nurturing new writing. They are The Poetry Business, with all its associated publications including The North, one of the UK's best magazines. They've launched many very successful poets including Moniza Alvi, Dalgit Nagra and Pascale Petit, not forgetting Simon Armitage.

Peter's gentle humour is often self-deprecating, rather like Michael Laskey, his fellow tutor on the Aldeburgh Eight since its conception.

It would have been impossible for me to undertake the week thinking I was stepping into Michael's shoes. The responsibility was enormous. The festival and this scheme have developed so organically that every element has almost gone beyond strategy and thought - things have been tried, borrowed from elsewhere, tested and altered until they work.

Fragility at Fabrica Gallery, Brighton, 2015
So I prepared myself by preparing far too much, by turning over poems and exercises in my mind and by muttering that famous final stanza of Yeats from the Circus Animals Desertion:

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Before the Aldeburgh Eight I'd had my fingers burned teaching a course in which a student's behaviour came alarmingly close to bullying and she had drawn another into her orbit. Luckily I got out unscathed but the person I was working for had no concept of support for his team of casually employed, hourly paid women.

Yesterday, when we'd waved the minibus off to Saxmundham station and another two off in the car, all with notebooks, laptops or iPads full of drafts, finished poems and more to come, books to read and writers to look up….Peter and I sat down with Naomi Jaffa (still helping out even though she's left!) and Dean Parkin to consider the week, how everyone (including us) was looked after, if there were hitches and how they could be resolved, what might have been done better, if there was fine-tuning still to do.

What the Poetry Trust does so well is show respect to writers.

And that is at the heart of its success.

It respects writers through programming the best poetry festival in the UK and not being influenced by fame, the 'academy' or passing trends. It respects writers by understanding how hard it is to earn a living, how important it is to be paid quickly. It respects writers through the festival's emphasis on close reading, on craft, on reading widely, on range.

It respects the lifetime commitment most of us have to reading and attempting to create poems. It respects the fact that writers have good and bad books because no-one can be brilliant all the time. It respects the need to fail and pick up the thread again.

This deep seam of respect is informed by the experience of working writers.

And respect spreads because it also translates into high expectations. I felt it during the week working with the Aldeburgh Eight as they paid close attention to each other, rose to the challenge of exercises that often demanded big leaps of faith, that demanded they write fast and move on to something new without pausing for breath, that expected them to read raw, unprocessed lines straight from their notebooks.

But they did because when poems work they are as stunning as Fragility, Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva's work with pig caul fat (pictured above), as a box of Discovery. When they work, it is because they are created as carefully as the nests that wrens or robins make in my allotment shed each year. Each one of the Aldeburgh Eight had that respect for craft and words, for the work that has to go in to make a poem.

The last note in my book comes from an exercise of Peter's yesterday morning and I'm writing about the chattiness of plumbers. Infinitely kind, endlessly generous with his ideas and knowledge of poetry and poets, Peter Sansom's own work is infinitely well wrought and exciting to hear and his poems really should be more widely read.

I'd hazard a bet that only Peter Sansom can turn a writing exercise based on a hippie-dippy card game associated with a fake Book of the Dead (found in Brighton incense-and-bells shop) into a poem about horse racing…..

He's also a poet who's unafraid to reveal his heart and that's true generosity. This is a trademark of his, along with gentle wisdom.

Read this recent poem, Sofa and here's another one, K563, from Anthony Wilson's blog.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The Swan Machine by Dean Parkin

If proof was needed of the relationship between reading and writing, it's in a new collection of poems by Dean Parkin, which dropped through my letterbox a few moments ago.

Flicking through, I just keep finding lines that pause me with that "ooh, yes" feeling a good poem gives.

The Swan Machine's published by The Rialto and is dedicated to the two people he's worked with for years to deliver the annual Aldeburgh Poetry Festival: Michael Laskey and Naomi Jaffa. What a triumvirate of readers, immersing themselves in contemporary writing to bring new poets to the festival every year,  steeped in the words poets scratch out as they try to make sense of modern life, death and everything humans do to one another. Naomi and Michael have stepped down already and this year is Dean's last one too.

It's apt that the launch of The Swan Machine will be the first event - 4.15, Friday, Peter Pears Gallery, Aldeburgh.

When we were chatting recently, he told me this book has been put together over about 20 years. I marvel at that patience. But surely that is also what adds to the depth and quality of poems which jump out, even on a first read. As well as a well-matured seam of humour.

A small poem: 'Old Enough to Be Your Daughter' ends with the lines: "Me / with shirts suddenly older than her." Then there's the barber's comment in the poem, Hernia: "Should I leave this white hair/ with the others?"

I love a poem that makes me smile and know this is going to be a satisfying, original book, full of compassion and humanity. The book's been financed by subscription - a brilliant idea on The Rialto's part. On the website, the subscription method's described like this:

Originally created as a subscription publication which has a long and honourable history going back to the Seventeenth Century, and it is thought to have been invented to avoid dependence upon fickle patrons. We’re using this method to publish Dean’s book. All subscribers’ names have been listed in the book. 

Praises from Thomas Lux, Helen Mort, Christopher Reid and Peter Sansom, and a launch at this year's Aldeburgh Festival…for once in the spotlight - Dean's poems.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Emily Dickinson and day of the dead

The students across the road have started celebrating and the dead won't mind.

Day of the dead - drawing by Jose Guadalupe Posada

Because I could not stop for Death by Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886)

Because I could not stop for Death – 
He kindly stopped for me –  
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –  
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility – 

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –  
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –  
We passed the Setting Sun – 

Or rather – He passed us – 
The Dews drew quivering and chill – 
For only Gossamer, my Gown – 
My Tippet – only Tulle – 

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground – 
The Roof was scarcely visible – 
The Cornice – in the Ground – 

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads 
Were toward Eternity – 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A hearty woman

A hearty woman for her years!
Image from the British Library's new copyright free
She started, "Given your size and your age…" she was saying something about my skirt.  By the end of the sentence I wouldn't have been able to repeat it, so it's impossible to quote it verbatim a few hours later. While I think it was meant to be a compliment, I was floored and that's rare.

I had to turn my back and laugh. Then I had to go outside and laugh. I am 60 and a size 12-14. No spring chicken, not skinny, but that phrase somehow seemed to amplify both.

I've been thinking about body image more than I would, as someone else I know has been repeatedly asking if I've lost weight and, also with kind intentions, pointed out that "now" I have a waist. It seems churlish to take these comments any other way, but it had me thinking, what the hell did she think of me before? Did I really have no waist? I thought a waist belonged to corsets and the 1950s. Wrong.

Before all this I woke up excited by the idea of building on an old poem I had printed up as a postcard (which allegedly found its way to the Woman's Hour noticeboard).

It's only a list of synonyms but perhaps its form makes what women are called a kind of game, lightens the intention. I could have done with a sniff at its humour later because although I was laughing, I was also hurt.

I looked at another I tried out at the same time - synonyms for prostitute. I thought I could make them into a sequence, although it is misleading to call either of them a poem. They are blocks of text. I don't know yet, I want to see what they could become. Maybe a collection of aprons or cat bowls.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Letters from Aberdeen

I have letters from my grandfather to my grandmother going back to 1917, although most of the bundle in my wooden box are from the 1970s. They describe friends' summer jobs, relationships, and a friend who was studying medicine asks me to bring back 200 Peter Stuyvesents. Later she consults the I-Ching for me.

They tail off in the eighties but I have letters from Marc in Connecticut and some in the 1990s from Amanda in Japan. When I scanned the corner of an envelope from her, I noticed the stamp commemorated International Letter Writing Week, 1996.

I may have others stashed away in odd places, but I'm sure many went in the bin or the fire. I've printed out emails, some from a good friend who died, but my inbox is largely 38 degrees urging me to sign another petition, reminders about meter reading, renewing my car insurance, and people selling stuff. The 'Social' tag on my gmail account invariably fools me. There are few personal, gripping and vivid messages.

My first poem based on a letter began with one I kept because I am ashamed I did nothing about it - it was an appeal for help I ignored. I went through the box and as I copied phrases into my notebook, looked at the handwriting, heard that person's voice, more came. The most prolific letter writer was a boyfriend who lived in Aberdeen while I was in Portsmouth.

They are so full of travel, daily life, fun that I could fall in love with him properly now. I failed to keep that relationship going - perhaps it was distance. Another regular writer was Amanda in Japan. I am sure I haven't kept all of hers, but he writes vividly about her travels and new life away from England.

Mum kept some letters and odd pages I wrote home from France when I was 17, then at 21. At 17 I was working one summer at a chateau teaching  English, cleaning, taking the kids to the swimming pool and helping with the paying guests. My memory of at least one guest is totally different to the reality I describe.

At 21, I was struck by my casual "see you in two months" with no suggestion there'd be any more from me. I describe an island I camped on in great detail.

The letters and occasional card have prompted me to wonder about people I've forgotten, or who I rarely think about. From there, into memory and an idea I read about in the Guardian, of "dancing when we write".

Magma 63 is publishing one of the letters poems, another appeared in The Rialto 83. The first was published in Mslexia in September 2014.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Can I have a euro?

Perhaps I made eye-contact inadvertently as I was looking at the pattern on the woman's dress and admiring it. I was wondering if it would be rude to take a photo. I was sitting just opposite her at a cafe in Palermo with Giya, near the Teatro Massimo (famous for much, including Godfather 3.)
Anyway, she jumped out of her chair and came over to us, hand outstretched, asking for money to eat. All I wanted to do was relax so I refused and immediately regretted my bad mood.
She dismissed us with a great wave of her arm and after trying a couple of other people, wandered up to the counter at the cafe where they gave her a bun. Outside again, she began berating two Indian men selling mobile phone cases and umbrellas.
So I took this photo sneakily, her in the background, Giya in the foreground. I edited Giya out - it wasn't a flattering angle - and I do like the woman's dress very much.
I wonder if there is such a thing as a stress free holiday? What with still not knowing if the car hire company's going to slap charges onto my Barclaycard, lethal Sicilian roads and not speaking Italian, at times I found it hard to switch off.  I know from experience it takes a week to wind down and then the holiday proper begins, so I was perhaps just getting started when it was time to come back. Even on the beach I was staring at the horizon wondering if that distant fishing boat or yacht could be carrying refugees.
The beach itself (in the reserve, Foce del fiume Platani) was a dream at first sight, a short walk from the house near Borgo Bonsignore, through eucalyptus and pine woods, where lizards rustle out of the undergrowth every few steps and marsh harriers cruise overhead.
There were rarely more than 12 people on the beach, which stretched for kilometres from Capo Bianco (Eraclea Minoa) to Secca Grande.
It was punctuated with shelters made of driftwood and bamboo, with tree trunks washed up in storms, polystyrene boxes and litter. One day I watched a bird which didn't move for hours. The reserve is the first stop for migrating birds from Africa.
The sun was baking. The sea several shades of turquoise. It should have been relaxing.
But one day Giya's friend was followed through the woods and the man wouldn't go away.
Another day a man took his trunks off just yards from us, disappeared into a shack and came out again to stand at the shore showing us his erect penis. Shortly afterwards a second appeared on the other side of the girls (I was in the water), having walked the length of the beach, plonked himself down a few feet away, took off his trunks, stood up and started masturbating.
If I could have summoned a sea demon at the time, I would have, but circumstance metamorphosed me into a vision he really did not want to see and hear. I wished I spoke Italian but did my best in English.
I was a raging English tourist shouting from the sea as I stomped out of the water and up the beach, my hands on my hips or gesticulating.
At the time I would have wished on that man, for his arrogance and abusiveness, all the violence the sea was able to summon, the violence, even, of The Godfather. He got the message and after some mandatory shoulder shrugging and outstretched arms suggesting he didn't know what all the fuss was about, he slunk away. It is very likely my voice was heard for miles around.
Nevertheless, for three days running we were plagued. The beach deserted, the men walking up and down until they spotted us. It became impossible to contemplate going there alone, but I did and the penny dropped when a man young enough to be my son suggested I might want to take my costume off and join him for a nude swim. I'm 60 I was thinking. I thought I was immune.
"English women, very lovely," he said.
English women much too polite, I thought, wishing I'd memorised the kinds of insults I learned as a teenager. During our polite conversation I discovered he'd travelled 45 miles to this beach because it was "so free".  Clearly the place had a fearsome reputation that I'd missed in my pre-holiday google research. It is in fact, unofficially at least, a nudist beach at one end and popular with gay men. The woman who owned the house eventually 'discovered' these facts. Neither of these are the problem, of course…what she never owned up to was that the beach had a reputation as a place to get quick, casual sex.
However, after three days we earned a kind of force field around us in the form of a very distinguished, grey haired man, wearing the largest gold chain and crucifix I've ever seen other than around the neck of a priest or a rock star, smoking a cigar and carrying nothing but his towel and a man bag. Moving polystyrene beyond the tideline, saying it was bad for the fish, he sat next to us and we all smiled, again, politely. We lied about where we were staying. And the next day he was there again, a protector, who spent most of his time in and out of the water, saying how lovely it was until I mentioned his phone had been ringing and he was off.
I hate the concept of being so defensive and rude on holiday that it's impossible to connect on any level.
In my stupidly liberal mind I turn over the issues of cultural difference etc. etc. But I kept coming back to the fact that the stereo masturbators would not have treated a Sicilian family in the way we were treated.
Or if they had, they would have felt the wrath of ages.
And the woman in the dress I admired did not approach anyone but tourists because I watched her as we sat outside the cafe in Palermo, just as I watched the hideous little mime artist who plagued everyone in the pizza restaurant the girls chose for our final night out.
The logical extension of this chain of thought of course is whether it is feasible, moral or defensible to be a tourist any more? As a tourist I have created the problems that I moan about.
So to switch off and relax becomes a pressure in itself. Instead all that matters is the new, a change of sensory experience.
And any form of travelling, no matter how superficial, does that. Here is some of my list: the decayed skeletons of the Capucin catacombs dressed in dusty suits and dirty lace, a black snake across my path, the swell and crash of waves all day and all night, cheese dotted with chilli, fresh peaches and aubergines, waiting for swifts in the evening as if they were new friends and the change in the crickets' song as it goes dark, cold water on my shoulders, dragonflies on the beach and thick, eucalyptus honey on bread in the morning.
The Valley of the Temples and the catacombs were the only major sightseeing we did apart from wandering around Palermo randomly. Oh, and the Sherbeth ice-cream festival where for 6 euro I had six ice-creams - two tubs and four cones: Madagascan chocolate from the best makers in Sicily (Cappello),  hazelnut, green pistachio (both Sicilian specialities), elderberry and lavender (superb combination, reminded me of home), a kind of butterscotch and the creamiest vanilla I've ever tasted.
In the hostel in Palermo's crumbling La Vucciria district, too, I heard Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon played at full volume for the first time in decades and remembered the gig at Earl's Court when it was released - slipping on a wet floor and the smell of aniseed (Pernod) that seeped into my jeans. I will never hear one without smelling the other.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Spiders are coming inside early

Summer fruit - the June raspberries and blackcurrants
Part of my aim for this summer was to finish a first draft of the Venda Sun. Another was to crack on with some more poems based on old letters written to me and by my grandfather to my grandmother during WW1.

The letter poems feel exciting and I have been waking up thinking about them. In odd moments when I'm gardening or cleaning, I think about the next one. They run parallel to the poems I've been writing about age (coincidentally, the postman's just delivered the latest copy of The North with some of those age poems in).

I remember reading in an interview with Paul Muldoon that it's a good idea to keep writing at a distance for as long as possible. Well the summer's done that for me. A summer of change, a house full most of the time (wonderful), the allotment and cleaning.

I used to write every day. I might go back to that, but my pile of notebooks has barely changed. I have spent a lot of time wondering how people manage to produce dozens of books, what productivity actually means. I don't have an answer. I am envious of people who are driven but perhaps have always been too much of a grasshopper. I want time to make things other than with words.

Anyway, The North - edited this time by Naomi Jaffa and Dean Parkin, marvels of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, Naomi now enjoying a much needed break from it. I've been nervous about these little, terse age poems, which remind me of the menopause ones, as if I hadn't quite finished with all that and of course, I haven't….thank god I am still alive and post-menopause facing the realities of being the woman with striped hair and a lined face.

Giya turns 21 on September 12 and that somehow marks a real turning point, more than being 60. Both her and Mrisi, then, will have passed that symbolic line into adulthood.

But other than all the change, there are constants like harvesting to do and trying to catch spiders to get them out of the window. Spider season's come early, autumn raspberries are just starting to ripen but they're taking their time because it's been so cold. They needed this recent sun but the heads are heavy with unripe fruit that may yet come to nothing if the temperatures drop again. The apples have done well. Even early in August, the Discoveries were fabulous.

Outside a shop in Steyning
My reading this summer - Agota Kristof, Charles Simic's translations of Vasko Popa, Sian Rees' biography of Lucie Aubrac, guidebooks on Sicily, short stories - Flannery O'Connor, Richard Wright, Elizabeth Jonsson, Jesse Stuart, Bessie Head and many more. Not so much poetry. Sometimes I need a break from it, but I'm looking forward to making my way through the 129 poems in The North by writers as varied as Sharon Olds, Thomas Lux, Linda France, Finuala Dowling, Alicia Stubbersfield, Stephen Knight, Helen Nelson and Paul Stephenson, to name just a few.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Cabbages heavy as bones

Summer's hit me with one of its drive-by colds. I was thinning out lettuces on Monday, parched and wondering about the craving for so much water. Then yesterday, a day of cleaning the house and I thought it might have been the dust. But no, by 5 pm I was well and truly ill.

Typically, the sun was out. I used to go down with tonsillitis twice a year - in spring and autumn when the weather changed. My immune system must be a lot better now - I was young then and burning the candle at both ends.

There is nothing worse than staring out of the window at the sun and feeling like you can hardly drag yourself off the sofa. But sitting up in bed this morning with breakfast, I went back to a collection of The best British short stories 2013 I found in a charity shop, edited by Nicholas Royle and was struck by Jackie Kay's Mrs Vadnie Marlene Sevlon, a subtle story about fantasy and its role in our lives.

What I admire about Jackie Kay's style is how natural it is, how vernacular. There's no barrier between the reader and writer, no sense of the writer trying too hard, playing tricks, being self-consciously literary.

Liz Lochhead once said to me how much she rated Kay's short stories and as I read more of them, I agree. I feel the same about her poems and in fact, she's the same when she reads her work. There is no artificial distance, no pushing away. It's the opposite, in fact, with Kay. She invites you into her world by being so natural, so reassuringly like an old friend.

Kay can do anything she sets her mind to, and this is the encouragement I need to finish the first draft of Venda Sun, the South African diaries. I'm on the last journey - 2012 - and a shopping trip to Louis Trichart when we fail miserably to find decaffeinated coffee but etched forever on my mind is the size of the cabbages in the back of a van on the road.

I look at the little heads on my plot, eaten by slugs and woodlice, struggling in the chalky, flinty soil that I didn't manure enough in the winter and I remember the cabbages in Limpopo, larger than a woman's head, ear to ear in patches of fertile red earth, dense and heavy as bones.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Herring gulls and housing benefit

The first enormous explosion from someone's fireworks at 11.30 last night lifted herring gulls off the rooftops and they screamed together in the darkness, circling and warning.

The high calls of their chicks, nestled between chimney pots, cut through the days and evenings. On my way down the hill from the allotment I see them on several rooftops, perched between the unused stacks, fluffed up and solitary, guarded by a parent. On the beach older chicks tag along after a parent or in the street, neck out, with the same complaint, "feed me."

Sometimes there's a massive commotion and the gulls circle protectively or aggressively. I've seen crows and gulls in great air displays. Pigeons stay well away from the gaggles around bin bags and with good reason. In Venice, herring gulls were introduced to keep the pigeon population down and from a vaporetto, Jane and I saw a gull with its beak stretched to bursting point as it appeared to be swallowing a pigeon whole.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee says, "the total herring gull population is now at its lowest level since monitoring began in 1969-70." Botulism from rubbish tips is one theory for their decline and fewer discards from fisheries. According to the RSPB there are only 140,000 breeding pairs in the UK - the herring gull is red listed.  JNCC adds, "Between 1969-70 and 1985-88, the UK herring gull population decreased by 48%. This decline continued between 1987 and 1990, with a subsequent recovery by 1994. A further drop in abundance is apparent after 2000…"

Giya was telling me yesterday how she was on the pier with her friend Polly and they'd seen a seagull steal a doughnut from a man who ranted about his loss: "disgusting and outrageous". Then there was the dog and David Cameron on BBC Radio Cornwall, suggesting a 'big conversation' about herring gulls. Mum and I once watched a man on a beach in Devon throw his bag of chips into the air in frustration and friends of Mrisi's lost their very expensive Brighton chips - no-one had warned them. Everyone has a story of a seagull mugging. But haven't we settled in their territory? And as my reading group asked when we were reading Margaret Atwood, can we imagine a sky without birds?

A herring gull can live for half our three score years and ten and is apparently doing well on Brighton and Hove's rooftops, living off our rubbish. The council says people are annoyed by its noise, but they're annoyed by wonderful, chattery, sociable starlings too, who are also threatened because there are less worms and leatherjackets for the young and all the old buildings are being repaired, so where can they nest? And if we're talking about air displays, the starlings are the business...

A neighbour complained to me in early spring about the dawn chorus waking her up. I look forward to March and the beginnings of it. I look forward to the allotment and the blackbird pair who follow me around, who sound warnings of cats, the female who yesterday flew so close I could feel the movement of air from her wings, the male flashing down to Rob's tayberries. They're still feeding young, so they're often on the ground where I've been weeding or watering.

The old gardening books all write about planting enough to share. I was talking about this with Rob yesterday after he called me over for a brew and we watched the blackbird on the berries.

Sometimes it's frustrating, this sharing. I had a reasonable crop of peas, but the squirrels knocked them down eventually. Some of the broad beans have been nibbled and sweetcorn's a waste of time - badgers know exactly when it's ready and they demolish the lot.

But I'm happy to leave the new currant bushes to the birds while they establish themselves. I'll net them next year. Today I'll take the net off the gooseberries because I've had the crop and the stragglers are open to whatever can bear their thorns. I'll do the same when I've finished picking the netted black and red currants.

And I was delighted, when I was searching to identify the bird Mrisi and I saw on a walk last week at Ditchling Beacon - it was a yellowhammer - to find that it's the mascot of the number 79 bus, which takes you all the way up to this Iron Age hill fort. Which is something of an antidote to the despair I felt at Cameron's sudden interest in talking about seagulls rather than housing benefit for all our young people without trust funds and inheritances.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

I thought about writing a fan letter

From Forest Choir, a series of prints by Jane Fordham
and a poem I wrote in response.
Does anyone write fan letters anymore? In my worn school cardboard case with its rusted catches (the kind with a tartan-style lining) I have an autograph book. Among my aunt's things when she died was another autograph book. 

Autographs aren't quite the same as fan letters, but amount to something similar, an acknowledgment of respect perhaps, in writing. 

With an autograph, the admirer's asking for the idol's unique signature. With a fan letter, the admirer wants their name to be read. The autographs in my book are notes from friends or family - my friends' signatures are round, immature, under jokey verses. My aunt has one celebrity, it seems, a Disney illustrator whose signature is a picture of one of the seven dwarves. 

I wrote a fan letter not too many years ago to a writer I admired. I wrote an email to another asking for help with my writing. I'm not entirely sure what the link in my head right now means, but it's mixed up with Margaret Atwood and it's come to me since I finished Maddaddam, the last in her trilogy.

It's nearly midday and I haven't been able to concentrate on anything else other than a short interruption to mend Giya's jeans before she goes to work. But Maddaddam seems to me to mix up the physical act of writing with healing, with the web... 
Blackberry from the 6th-century
Vienna Dioscurides manuscript

The elder tree's one of the recurrent symbols in the trilogy, particularly after Pilar's death. Atwood focuses on the elder berry, a superfood that can be dried as a substitute for raisins and which is ranked even higher than blueberries; a berry I've made into tincture and cordial, jam (mixed with blackberries) and chutney. It's everywhere on the racecourse and in Sheepcote Valley but several years ago I transplanted two seedlings from my garden to the allotment to provide shade. One was in the wrong place and impossible to move, so I cut it down before it grew tall. 

The other, on the edge of the raspberry patch, has become the other half of an arch with a bay tree, and this year produced its first really good crop of blossom. I've taken some for elderflower cordial and am leaving the rest for berry cordial, if the birds don't get them first. 
Elder blossom
The symbolism of the elder is ancient but I suspect Atwood's interest in it comes also from her passion for birds. One year Sheepcote Valley was stripped of berries almost overnight. It was uncanny. There must have been a migrating flock, or perhaps other food was scarce. Most domestic birds eat elderberries, but it's also important for migrating birds like the lesser whitethroat, warbler and blackcap. It supports several moth caterpillars too. The Woodland Trust floats the theory that since the anglo saxon word for the tree, aeld, means fire, the hollow stems of the elder were used as bellows. Apparently stems were also used for flutes. I don't know enough to know if that's accurate, but I have assimilated the folk knowledge that elder's associated with death and the devil. However, the berries are antioxidant and anti-viral, supposedly very good for boosting the immune system, contain iron and vitamin C. Elder helps you sweat. 
Project Gutenberg

Google 'elder symbolism' and all sorts comes up. I did and inevitably the goddess tree appeared. This website calls the elder 'the queen of herbs' which is Pilar's role in the trilogy as a gardener and bee keeper. And it appeals on another level too, the elder being associated with witches, old women. Cutting down a tree (as I did) apparently unleashes a witch. I'm intrigued to know where she's living. In the windowless shed with the nests, maybe?

Ashbolt Farm, which sells elder products, says the tree was in every herb, monastery or farm garden because every part of it was important. Ancient wisdom (another website) says this about it: "Elder indicates the end in the beginning and the beginning in the end. Life in Death and Death in Life." So this is my fan letter to Atwood, as the blossom's coming to an end and the berries are setting. I never spoke with her when she read at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival the year I was also reading - I was too shy. 

But I'd like to tell her how much I've enjoyed the links she's made between Pilar and the elder, that I've been reading her trilogy as the tree's come into blossom, while making cordial and as the berries set.  I'm mulling over Pilar, Toby and Blackbeard and a suggestion, in that tentative record keeping, of old pharmacopeia. One of the books I carried with me from home in Farnham (one of my first independent buys) was Culpeper's herbal. One of the ways I lost myself as I began writing poems that ended up in WHAJ was to read about old cures online. I've lost a lot of those links somehow, but the title poem contains what's left of the reading. Atwood's trilogy, particularly this summer reassures me about growing, picking and drying as I attempt to get back into writing and move on. 

At Yale University Library there are some curious artefacts like
The Game of Medicinal Herbs (yes, a real board game).
At the British Library there are some fascinating digitised manuscripts.
Here's an interesting man, Thomas Hatsis and here's a link to Nicholas Culpeper who made herbalism accessible. 
Growing herbs. 

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Swarm collector

A good friend used to say he couldn't write in winter. It was too dark, too busy. He saved it all up for June when his teaching ended.

I have never analysed which time of year's most productive, but a skeleton's taking shape, sketched out by work I do for the Open University, my Royal Literary Fund reading group and a day's work (sometimes two) a week for a friend, which is providing an almost clear summer.

Late winter/early spring's been so busy I've been putting writing off, not even putting a notebook in my bag and I have a stack of cheap ones from Seawhites. I wrote in Venice in April. Nothing since then.

I often struggle to write. There's always a plateau after a new book comes out but that was 2013 and this is about more. Am I too easily distracted, as school reports, year on year, claimed. Is it possible to harness this?

I said jokingly to friends that I'd happily live on the allotment this summer. On the allotment I have no problem concentrating. Also, I've been reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake trilogy - am midway through Madaddam, the final novel - and I identify with the Gardeners. (It's hard to get out of Atwood's head, though, to cope with the day to day and not see doom in everyone and everything.)

Dystopias notwithstanding, I love the routine of spring and summer.

Planting the first lines of seed in the mini polytunnel.
The first rocket, the first lettuces, new potatoes.
The smell of elderflowers in the sun and tasting the first cordial.
Weeding to the honey scent of rocket flowers.
The stickiness of angelica flowers.
Keeping courgette plants alive.
The spread of squash.
Fresh artichokes. Raw peas. The first raspberries.
Calendula, ox eye daisies, foxgloves, borage, comfrey, poppies.
The blackbirds - foraging and singing.
Wren's wings against my face in the shed.
The wren's nest, its entrance lined with a feather.
Robins nesting twice in Rob's shed.
The blackbirds' warning calls that cats are around.

Summer's short and busy. Sometimes frustrating. Yesterday I transplanted two lots of lettuce seedlings. Today the rain's torrential and unlikely any of them will survive the slugs and snails that crawl out of the grass and from under planks.

I can relate to Atwood's Toby, talking to her bees, her belief in the power of honey and herbs. A couple of weeks ago I had to stop digging compost from one of the more twiggy piles because I disturbed a colony of earth-nesting bees.

Another allotment bee loves raspberry leaves. It flattens itself against the leaf and I think it cuts into it. The tiny bees love borage. Bumble bees apparently live in clumps of grass.

Recently I received an amazing email from the allotment department. The subject line was "Bee swarms on allotment plots".

This summer we have received a significant increase in the number of reports of bee swarms on allotment plots. If you have a swarm on your plot the first thing you will need to do is to identify the type of insect involved….Honeybees: Beekeepers are happy to collect Honeybee swarms but the volunteer Swarm Collector may ask for expenses/donations to cover their fuel….Bumblebees & Solitary bees: Bumblebees & Solitary bees should be left where they are and are harmless if left in peace. Swarm collectors will not collect them and pest control will not destroy them.

Swarm collector. Mmmm. The bees loved the angelica and are all over the comfrey and I was drawn to that phrase. It excited me so much that I had to read the email to a friend.

There was a swarm on a house in the street a couple of weekends ago and it prompted my neighbour to tell me I had mason bees in my house. She took me upstairs to show me where they were getting in. She watched them from her bathroom. And I was reminded of seeing the mason bees in Much Wenlock, hunting for a space in a stone wall on my way to the poetry venue.

I guess, I'd tell anyone anxious about not writing, that it doesn't matter. Live, read, dig and look.

And I have been enjoying reading, particularly Charles Simic's translation of Vasko Popa. I've enjoyed Popa for years, ever since I found his white stone pebble sequence.

Over 38 years he wrote 8 collections of poetry. There's so much else about Popa that I feel drawn to: a tantalising reference to him setting up a library of postcards (which I've struggled to find anything about), curses in his anthology of folk tales.

There's a sample of his last poems on the Anvil Press page and more of them here.

So in the struggle to write, Popa is some consolation: his trust in the old, the dreamlike, the dirt on the hands, the everyday, folk wisdom….and the phrase that Ted Hughes used about his work, "purged of rhetoric" like the natural world, like the allotment, where all that matters is the quality of the soil and the weather.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Clearing the mind

I set off ridiculously early for Aldeburgh the other weekend because I had a reading at the Pumphouse at 4 pm and the M25 is so unpredictable. It was clear almost all the way so with at least three hours to spare I had time to wander around a car boot sale, where I bought chilli plants, a flask and strawberries, as well as an old gardening encyclopaedia.
I at my lunch sitting on the grass by my car, which reminded me of childhood and picnics on the way to Cornwall by the sides of roads or on the edges of fields.
Then I wandered into Aldeburgh, parked at the reading venue and walked around the place where I spent a month more than 10 years ago, as a poet in residence.
It was a beautiful day, windy, sunny and the town was packed with tourists. It was also an open house weekend and on a little track going into the reeds, I thought I'd found a path away from the town towards the sea.
This is what I came across. How it reminded me of Surrey.
There was another sign in the same black felt tip capitals telling me it wasn't a footpath and to check my map.
So I turned around and walked along the seafront, then back through the town taking photos of roses in people's gardens and on walls.
I also noticed an exhibition in the Peter Pears gallery, which always has poetry related work during the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival.
The fish caught my eye but when I tottered up the stairs and saw the work I found it really moving.
John Craske's embroidery of the rescue of thousands of soldiers from the beaches of Normandy during WW2 is unfinished but magnificent. His pieces aren't finely stitched, but that's not the point. They were also done as therapy. What they do have is an amazing sense of the sea's life, of its movement, of danger. Craske was a friend of Sylvia Townsend Warner and the writer Julia Blackburn has just published a book about him.
The reading in Aldeburgh, with Tiffany Atkinson, was like a holiday: a weekend away, the sun, a beautiful cottage for the night, beer and a wander around Halesworth afterwards with new Poetry Trust director Ellen McAteer. She writes an interesting blog with a feature on protest art. Well worth looking at.
So since then I've been trying to clear out my mind to write. It's been too cluttered, like my house, and full of worries about damp, dust, cracks in walls, cobwebs, peeling paint, cracked window glass and at the forefront of my mind, the cat's habit of using the space outside Giya's room as a toilet - which I thought I'd put an end to by strewing lavender on the carpet.
So she switched to the kitchen and although she is still using the litter tray for wee, she now poos in the same spot just by the table.
She used to go outside until new neighbours brought a big fluffy cat that insisted on sleeping on our sofa and terrorised her.
Now she ventures outside if I'm in the garden, but otherwise is much too nervous and the consequences are daily deposits in the kitchen. I tried a new tray full of sand. She did a shit next to it.
I have made a cat repellant spray with eucalyptus and lemon and today she goes to the vet for her annual check up and cat flu booster jab so I'm going to pump them for advice, given what that 10 minutes generally costs.
Mind clearing's easy. The allotment has my body and soul for as long as I want.
But I still have to earn money. And I want to write again after months of feeling drained by teaching on a course in Brighton, when one student's appalling behaviour convinced me it wasn't worth the risk or the energy.
So I quit. I have two teaching commitments left - the Open University and a residential course for the Poetry Trust as part of the Aldeburgh Festival, The Aldeburgh Eight. Ellen took me to see the place where we'll be working: Bruisyard Hall a magnificent place in Suffolk that we eventually came to the day after my reading via various single track side roads.
The Aldeburgh Eight is incomparable to most workshops I've done in the past. Closest perhaps to the pleasure of a week's residential course at Ty Newydd or for the Arvon Foundation, but with even fewer participants. I'll be tutoring with Peter Sansom, who I admire enormously as a poet and publisher. I also know he knows how to run workshops and scrutinise poems.
Clearing out enough space for writing means appreciating the good work, like the Aldeburgh Eight, and being brave enough to stop the time-consuming, fiddly, draining one-off workshops - a single day or two hour slot - which now I struggle to see the point of. Too often, they're tagged onto events to tick a community involvement box, to satisfy funders, to expand an audience. Too often workshops represent the worst kind of tokenism - shamming involvement in the arts for a particular group for the time the workshop lasts and then snatching it away, just as their expectations are raised. I don't want to be part of that cruel game anymore.
But the Royal Literary Fund reading group carries on and copywriting work for a friend. Hopefully the OU course will also recruit enough students.
And breakfast yesterday with Brendan Cleary revived my enthusiasm for the summer's poems after reading his new work.

The Aldeburgh Eight
A piece on John Craske in The Guardian

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Archives, migrants and the poor

From Postcards, 2010 by Nika Autor
Museum of Contemporary Art, Ljubliana,
These are stills taken from an experimental film called Postcards, which I saw in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ljubliana.

It's by Nika Autor (b 1982) who used footage from the national archive about migrants in the early years of the 21st century.

She wanted to show how "images of shapeless and nameless people reestablish a discourse that victimises or criminalises these people."

It was one of two pieces that have remained with me since I was in Slovenia for a poetry festival last September. The other was Pictures of the Mediterranean Between North Africa and Sicily 2014 by Uroš Potočnik (b 1974), a triptych.

From Postcards, 2010 by Nika Autor
Museum of Contemporary Art, Ljubliana, Slovenia
Whatever words you use to target the poor or exiled, whatever new ideas crafty politicians come up with, you can be sure it's already been thought.

I stumbled across a book title, which is now on my reading list: Pauperland, A History of Poverty by Jeremy Seabrook. His title refers to a map of poverty by the founder of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).

Bentham's upbringing is remarkably close to that of contemporary politicians: born into a wealthy Tory family, went to Westminster school, Queen's College Oxford, later called to the bar. With that background, of course he was entitled to share his ideas.

Stranded on the island of green and red that now represents most of Brighton (although Kemp Town went blue) with the blue of the sea on one horizon and the blue of the bucolic shires behind us, it is becoming difficult to keep the worst visions of the future at bay.

Why? Because I remember joking with Mandy and Nigel that Thatcher would next try and privatise social work. I am not a political scientist or historian, but browsing Bentham's ideas of poverty, I felt a chill of recognition.

There was the guy I saw wearing a bizarrely worded vest in Asda one day, apparently a 'community volunteer' according to customer services.

"Soldiers wear uniforms, why not paupers? - those who save the country, why not those who are saved by it?……" - this is from Bentham's TRACTS ON POOR LAWS AND PAUPER MANAGEMENT.

"The luxuries seen in many instances to be enjoyed by beggars, are a sort of insult to the hard-working child of industry…" - this is Bentham (same source) and straight out of the Daily Mail.

From Postcards, 2010 by Nika Autor
Museum of Contemporary Art, Ljubliana, Slovenia
The election result will keep us talking in our exotic exile and I predict more poems, more films, more music and more gatherings in the streets.

We'll need to be inventive to identify and name the sources of the bizarre and 'new' ideas this administration is going to be pumping out.

Seabrook's voice is a soundtrack to Autor's found images: "the new poverty has nothing to offer in its own stead; only the sharp, opportunistic wisdom of getting by, surviving; living, as they say, one day at a time. The poor are victims of capitalism’s realm of freedom…"

The third in a triptych, Pictures of the Mediterranean, 2014
by Uros Potocnik
Museum of Contemporary Art, Ljubliana, Sloveni

He has this to say about the previous administration's efforts to punish the poor: "Bentham's cheeseparing scheme for the poor inspired generations of administrators: he would make hats brimless so as not to waste material; bedcovers would be fastened by clips to save on superfluous fabric. What an inspiration to the tax on those in social housing with a spare room, even if it holds necessary aids that enable disabled people to participate in society."

Nika Autor:
Uroš Potočnik:
Jeremy Seabrook:

Monday, May 04, 2015

Connections between people

Peace in Bath, April 2013
It was around this time, two years ago, when I saw N for the last time. We met in Bath at the end of a few days when I'd been cat sitting and wandering around the riverbank and parks.
Alison warned me her beautiful cat would always be half wild, so I was there to put food in a bowl and admire him as he appeared from one of his many hiding places.
N came to stay at the end of the week. We'd seen each other off and on for about eight years, sometimes with a gap of a year, this last time with a gap of two. Our meetings were very occasional.
He's dead now. That was our last meeting.
The strangest thing was he knew the man who gave me my first job. There was no reason in the world why these two people should be connected
but they'd become great friends.
I remembered this connection last night when talking about films at Jane and David's and WG Sebald's idea of the rip in time. I was recommending Patience by Grant Gee which I've just watched.
Karen, who came to a creative writing class I ran was surprised I'd mentioned WB Sebald and Orhan Pamuk in the same breath. Watch this, she said, and sent me a copy of Patience, the film based on the walk Sebald takes in his classic book The Rings of Saturn.
We were talking about Patience and Sebald last night, about memory, about coincidence and degrees of separation.
N was a great psychogeographer and I often think of him when I'm walking, particularly in fog. It was a cold April, like this year's and it was a goodbye, although we didn't know it.
I felt like I'd met him during a rip in time, when a crossed line as I rang home was like an old god appearing and telling the truth.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The vanished flowers

Winter squash seedlings
The day before I was leaving for the Wenlock Poetry Festival I was up at the allotment watering the seedlings and hoping it wasn't going to be a sizzling weekend because I'd taken the risk that they'd survive with a long soaking.
The cucumbers are taking a long time to germinate and might be a bad batch, the squash are looking good though, and I am going to have to risk putting the runner beans in today because like an adolescent, they're getting lanky.
Lettuce and runner bean seedlings

As VG Lee's Facebook posts illustrate, the allotment community is one of the best reasons for spending time with seedlings, other than growing food.
Just before Venice, Dave Swann and Angie were wandering by with a wheelbarrow to collect manure from stables up the road. Fellow local poets Janet Sutherland and Lee Harwood both have allotments and the founder of Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Michael Laskey's a keen grower of veg.
It's hardly surprising that poets of the past wrote about gardens - they ate from them or were healed by them. Long before Emily Dickinson was published she sent poems to friends in bunches of flowers. She, too, was a real gardener and had learned her craft since she was a child.
Killing time yesterday before the RLF reading group I run (we read an essay on peacocks by Flannery O'Connor and poems by Dickinson and Alison Brackenbury), I was browsing a permaculture magazine and fantasising as I often do about a place in the sun with land where I could have goats and grow aubergines.
But every time I think about moving away I'm drawn back to the allotment - the apple tree and fruit bushes I've planted, the compost and manure I've dug in for the soil, the herb garden, the sheds, the great generous clumps of rhubarb and hedge of blackberries, the four plots of raspberries that go into the freezer, or jam, or raspberry vodka, the winter soups, basket of onions…..even the jerusalem artichokes.
Spring pickings - purple sprouting broccoli, chard, sorrel
and rocket
This is the original urban gardening, a wartime solution to food shortages. My allotment, on Tenantry Down, is a short walk up the hill from my house. Further up the hill, on the ridge by the phone masts are more, on the edge of the racecourse are the Whitehawk allotments. There are 37 sites across Brighton and Hove.
I tell Mrisi and Giya - learn how to grow stuff, you might need to know one day. I think of that cow swapped for a bean and I think of Cardiff City Farm, set up by my cousin years ago and now closed but with other city farms, a forerunner of this great need.
The cost of food, availability of food, mental health, diet, exercise, thinking, quality of life - all these things...
The sixties represent a radicalism I still honour - the courage of voter registration campaigns in the deep south of the USA, great movements for change, anti-war demonstrations, the drive to live differently, a dislike and mistrust of consumerism, whole foods and self-sufficiency.
Many of those baby boomers still practice those principles. Many of the second wave of baby boomers, born in the 1950s are too. And some of the children of the baby boomers are brilliant, creative people as a result of their alternative upbringing.
Knowing how to grow food, how to stay alive, is the collective wisdom of the world's women.
I sometimes wonder what would make me give up poetry. It would be the allotment. Only this. But one feeds the other, so there's no risk - as long as I do one, the other will be safe, like Tagore's "memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before." (see Poetry Foundation)
Between the elder and bay
looking down at the plum
Brighton and Hove Allotment Federation:
Urban farming:
Vertical farming:

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The three Janes

There are three Janes: Guildford Jane was the first, then Ludlow Jane, then Portslade Jane.
In the space of a week, I've seen them all.
I met Guildford Jane at my first job on the Surrey Daily Advertiser. She was on the village desk with Ann Dent. I was a newcomer, dispatched almost straight away to the Godalming office where I'd stay for what seemed like too long when all the parties were happening in Guildford. I found my way around Surrey's sunken roads and through the Hog's Back fog on my moped, sometimes mistaken for a boy. One morning Guildford Jane turned up at the door of the house where I was lodging with Mandy and Nigel. I'd been at her party the night before. She was with Rebecca, also on the Surrey Ad and an old school friend. Both looked unhappy.
That good looking man I'd been with was Jane's boyfriend. I naively never imagined that he could have been anyone's boyfriend. We became friends. She's still in touch with him too. He has many children.
In a week, Jane's off to a new job. She chucked journalism for cooking on boats and is off to Oban.
I met Ludlow Jane at a party somewhere in Godalming and we re-met again when I moved to Brighton. On my first night in my new flat, I wandered up to Hanover from Campbell Road. The rain was torrential. Ellen and Jane were waiting with wine. Jane and I, both single, hit Brighton's clubs together. We somehow carried a cast iron fireplace into my front room, we bemoaned being single, we had children.
This weekend, Jane and I listened to poetry together in Much Wenlock and on Sunday walked in the woods near Ludlow with her dogs.
Portslade Jane and I went to the Avignon Festival with Fabrica Gallery years ago and that was the start of our collaboration and friendship that often involves many steepings of tea, eating and vinho verde. I'll see Jane today at a reading group in the gallery after the life class she runs.
A young woman at the poetry festival asked, after my reading, what I thought the future was like for young poets. I answered but afterwards wished I'd said that each generation finds its own solutions and keeps on doing that.
Do we mistake poetry for a being with its own mind? Poems come from the life I share with my friends, my family. Big questions about the art seem so far away from why those cucumber seeds haven't germinated and what I talk about with the three Janes.
Make friends, I wish I'd said. But she knows that.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Can a poet publicise her own work?

It's an issue I still struggle with, the question of being a publicist for my books as well as a writer. It seems some writers are brilliant at it but many of us find it excruciating. It's not that I have a problem with marketing - it's an art like many others - but I am naturally shy and have never been good at networking.
I can't list the number of opportunities I've had, but end up in the corner, talking to the other person in the room who feels as out of place as I do.
Ridiculous, really, that I can define myself as shy when I've earned a living as a journalist for so long. But now I understand that career choice - journalism gives me a reason to approach people, to ask questions, to engage. It is perfect for a shy person.
Publicising my books, though, is another matter.
I have worked with brilliant marketing people in business and witnessed how selling shampoo or fabric conditioner works.
It's a long and expensive process. There are focus groups, endless layers of experiment in which attitudes, word combinations and images are put to the test to see which of them is most appealing. Eventually the marketing team has a sense of how to sell a new product or revitalise an old one.
But the product isn't made by the marketing team. It's made by scientists and innovators. The marketing team is presented with a creative task, one that is deliberately detached from the actual creation of the thing they are trying to sell to the public. The scientists might be asked for a steer, what can and can't be claimed, what they want from their inventions, but they are not expected to sell.
This distinction shows how the concept of a writer promoting her own books is flawed. It doesn't matter why we write or what we are writing, although some books are easier to sell than others.
In its March newsletter, The Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) suggests writers should be collaborating with publicists rather than seeing their role as separate.
"In an exceptionally crowded market, your book is likely to be born only to blush unseen unless you are prepared to publicise it yourself, or make every effort to help your publicist to do so," writes Carole Sanderson. 
If it's that difficult for prose, what position are poets left in?
Poetry is a crowded market, if you choose to use those terms - and some might find them inappropriate. But Facebook groans under the weight of angry threads about prizes and competitions, who's been left out, who's ignored, who is getting much more than their 15 minutes of fame, tucked in between videos of cats and happy cows. 
A friend told me recently that poetry anthologies are the favourite reading of life prisoners. That was new to me. In a world of shrinking attention spans, surely poetry can settle in the mindspace of people who are unable to find the time for a novel?
There are initiatives, but they are disparate. We have a collection of websites promoting poets - their selection process is difficult to fathom. 
We have a healthy range of independent publishers all bringing out new books, which may sell if they are shortlisted for a prize, but otherwise often go unread. Why aren't they collaborating more?
We have a few high profile marketing campaigns aimed at selecting the country's top poets, which succeed in selling a few more books for certain publishers and do nothing much for the majority because they concentrate on individuals and seen as indicators of quality, not the rather unfocused promotions they really are. 
Why aren't these initiatives consolidated? How is it that the Academy of American Poets, The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine in the US seems to be able to present a holistic overview of what's happening in north America and to a degree, the rest of the world, in a way that doesn't happen in England at least?
And while I try nowadays to think more positively, to brush aside the doubts that beset every writer and recognise them as a necessary part of the process, I feel that poetry and poets in the UK deserve a better deal. 
All of us, prize winners and not, deserve to be treated as part of a community that is involved in creative endeavour. Creative endeavour is hard, won't ever make me rich and is likely to keep me below the poverty level, in fact. It demands my attention and is taking a long time to show results. I have long fallow periods, when the doubts are overwhelming, and the odd stretch of activity when perhaps I feel I might be getting somewhere. During both those extremes, I want to pay attention to what I am doing, not to selling it. 
And I don't think that's unreasonable. 
Perhaps we can situate poetry within the sustainability sector? I am writing about sustainability at the moment and it makes me feel so good. Each year, this job comes up and I relish discovering companies who are doing something so new. As I put their profiles together, it sometimes feels like poetry. 
So perhaps there are similarities between the sustainability movement and poetry?
Is there a publicist out there who can take this on? Who can gather the poets, unruly as we are, into some kind of community that is expanding the pathways of the mind and crunching metaphors that are offering new ways of seeing the 21st century and its terrible challenges?