International Women’s Day

This morning the adverts in my inbox were ‘dedicated to women in honour of International Women’s Day’…

International Women’s Day

The tip of the stem’s cut flat,
dry as the end of a pencil,
petals the pink of document wallets,
square, no longer in bud,
the type that will brown
before it yawns wide open.
Handed to me by a blonde ponytail
striding across the road
and for a moment I thought
I was an object of spontaneous pity,
until I remembered a dry concrete campus
outside Chengdu, where students
once gave me a corporate red rose
to celebrate this day, and now
the tradition’s brought to London,
but this rose is flagging. Its leaves flop
despite the air saturated with drizzle
and I can’t warm my hands
because I’m holding a rose.
I think about cutting a route
past parliament so I can get rid of it
at Pankhurst’s black bronze feet,
or taking it home and waiting
for my boyfriend to ask who it’s from.
The rain is starting to pick up
and the Garden Museum does cheap tea
but perhaps they’ll think I’ve stolen it.
A plastic banner on the railings
says: Potato Day – Here Sunday.

 

This poem is included in Soon Every House Will Have One

Fall of the Wall of Hill: Assistant Editing The Rialto

The assistant editorship of The Rialto is helping me let poems take over my flat. I recently finished teaching a reading group for The Poetry School so my Wall Of Hill (entirety of Mercian Hymns photocopied and arranged on my bedroom wall so I could scribble notes) has come down. Things might have felt a bit empty had all available surfaces not then been filled with submissions to The Rialto along with associated envelopes, folders, headed papers and a small infestation of paperclips.
Wall of Hill
I have done mass poem reading before, mainly for competitions, so the slab-like stacks of submissions are not as overwhelming as they might otherwise be. I’ve learned to pace myself, the importance of cups of tea, and I’m used to managing the inevitable anxiety that I might miss something and the sometimes painful knowledge that someone poured themselves into the piece of paper you are holding. In this I am well prepared.

I know reading for a magazine is going to be different. A lot of the competition work I have done has been early-stage where anything approaching reasonable competence will go through to the next step. For the largest competitions this can be communal work, around a table or on office computers, with readers occasionally stopping to share a particularly brilliant line or to shout out a daring title. Meanwhile, reading for young people’s awards has often meant looking for a curl of potential, a mixed entry with real ambition being noteworthy, even if the author hasn’t yet learned to edit the less successful lines.

Moving to a magazine the biggest shift may be that in competitions the poems are vying against each other: as a judge I am looking for the best, as a sifter for the better than average. Poems can be held up against their neighbours and, while sometimes it is an extremely close call, there is always a fixed limit to the work. A magazine with rolling submissions isn’t like that, the question isn’t ‘is this better than the last poem’ because there is no finite limit to the poems – they will and do keep coming. The question is do I want to read it again? Is it something I want to share? Would other readers enjoy it too? The safety blanket of direct comparison is less applicable, the poem has to excite by itself.

I feel the responsibility has changed too. It’s not just about the people who are sending in their poems anymore, the focus must be on the readers. I imagine them looking over my shoulder and wonder what they would make of the poem I’m looking at. I’m not sure who my imagined reader is, are they cover-to-cover readers or do they dip? Does my imagined reader have a stack of poetry magazines in their bathroom or are they trying a single issue for the first time sat at a table in the Poetry Library? I can’t predict them, but I hope in the next few folders of submissions I’ll find some poems that will thrill and mesmerize me, that I can share with this unknown reader.

A Name To Conjure With: Reading ‘Mercian Hymns’

When I first started reading poetry as a teenager, poets seemed to come in three flavours. There were urbane cynics who lived in the fast lane or sulked in the suburbs. There were the everyday poets who were fond of anecdotes and who wandered into kitchens, started listing things and then tried to force an epiphany over the toaster. And there were the shamans, who were more real and authentic than you could ever be, because they lived in the country and sometimes watched animals die. Reading Mercian Hymns smashed all that.

Mercian Hymns sepiaMercian Hymns showed me that there could be a poetry that was very much here, in the England where I lived, but still connected to the world of myth we carry with us. History and myth didn’t only belong to poet-spirit-guides who lived on a moor and shouted back findings on what life was really about. Mercian Hymns presented this England, where history clutters up the place annoying town planners and attracting ice-cream vans in summer. The muddle of it all, the incongruity, there were no separate tin cans marked ‘human’ and ‘natural’, ‘past’ and ‘contemporary’. There were ‘Gasholders, russet among fields’ and a eighth century King was crowned again to the proliferation of tacky gift-mugs and a bonfire in the pub car-park, where:

 

… the chef stood there, a king in
his new risen hat, sealing his brisk largess with
‘any mustard?’

(III, The Crowning of Offa)

 

Here, I saw my childhood day-dreams (the ones fuelled by watching Prince Valiant cartoons and a fascination with castles) all unapologetically, sometimes viciously, grown-up. Lyrical images of love for one’s home were contrasted with an often chilling hero, and making sense of this contradiction is at the heart of the sequence. This is a book in which historical cruelty cannot be written off as belonging to the Bad Old Days because everything is happening in one all-encompassing anachronistic moment.

 

                                              … he drew upon grievances from the
people; attended to signatures and retributions;
forgave the death howls of his rival…

… He swayed in sunlight, in mild dreams. He tested the
little pears. He smeared catmint on his palm for
his cat Smut to lick.

(X, Offa’s Laws)

 

I learned a lot from Mercian Hymns. It revealed to me ways of writing honestly about home and history which neither preached nor diminished its importance. It showed me, masterfully, how a character could be two completely different things at the same time, (not an extended metaphor but actually two things) and while I’ve done a lot more reading since I first came across this book, I still haven’t found another poet that manages this so brilliantly. I want to read Mercian Hymns with you because I’m still finding new things in it and because these thirty tiny poems, some of them just a couple of lines long, bend the world around them in a way only the greatest poetry can.

I’m leading the Poetry School reading course on Mercian Hymns this Autumn. It’s an online course costing £15 for the term. 

Bedford Square 7 Launch Party!

Bedford SquareBedford Square 7 is out now, with poetry and fiction from Royal Holloway Creative Writing MA students. There will be a launch reading and party to celebrate on Thursday 27th March at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, Acton St, London. The evening kicks off at 6pm with readings from 6.30pm, everyone is welcome!

Bedford Square 7 features poems by: Charlotte Attkinson, Claire Dryer, Holly Hopkins, Jan Heritage, Lucy Mercer, Susan Sheridan and Tara Siddel.

It also features fiction by Adrian Hornsby, Alexandra Cannon, Amelie Skoda, Anne Bayley, Arike Oke, Belinda Buckley, Kate Williams, Meade Carey, Miriam Tareen, Ray Wood, Ross Mallin, Sandra Walmsley, and Yosola Olorunshola.

You can buy copies from Ward Wood Publishing.

List Of Great Poems Not In This Book

IMG_1446

I recently found a 1931 edition of The Week-End Book (first published by Nonesuch Press in 1924). It refers to itself as a poetry anthology. Indeed the first 165 pages are a section entitled ‘Great Poems‘. This is followed by much smaller sections of:

Hate Poems
State poems (poems patriotic enough even for Gove.)
Zoo poems (poems based on animals.)
Songs (complete with sheet music.)
Games (‘Human Polo: The biggest men are ponies, and the girls or lighter weights mount them pick-a-back… Flat Racing: Ponies similarly mounted race thirty yards on hands and knees; after which apply iodine to the kneecaps.’)
Travels with Donkey (which seems to mean camping tips, such as how to improvise a cup from ‘paper 7 to 9 inches square’ which you remembered despite forgetting your cup.)
Bird Song At Morning
Starshine at Night (with diagrams.)
Architecture
On Food and Drink
The Law And How You Break It
First Aid In Divers Crises (sic.)
List Of Great Poems Not In This Book
Manuscript Pages (with prompts nudging you to fill them with your own poems, songs, games, recipes, and prescriptions.)
A Checkers Board, Nine Mens Morris Board and Rulers (printed as endpapers.)

Yes an anthology can be a binding together of anything, but as mentioned the book does refer to itself as a ‘poetry anthology’. It reads like a poetry anthology that has accidentally been bound together with the facts and games section of a Rupert Bear annual. I enjoy the brazen attitude that says we can fit everything you need for your great weekend in one book, and most of it is going to be poetry.

However, what really caught my eye was the ‘List of Great Poems Which Are Contained In Many Memories And Anthologies And Are Therefore Omitted From This Book’. I’m sure there are those who would argue the phrase ‘Great’ (a friend once told me, ‘You don’t need to read anthologies, you don’t need someone else to tell you what’s good.’) But setting that can of worms to one side, I like that while the editor has decided to not fill his pages with the obvious, he’s also not going to assume it’s so obvious that there won’t be people grateful for the list. It seems a happy medium, and turns the ‘List Of Great Poems Not In This Book’ into a spotters guide. I may not have read all poems that have been printed in this book, but I have definitely looked down the list of those that are not, mainly to see if I agree.

Perhaps I am being nostalgic, maybe if a contemporary anthology did this I would find it patronizing or cliquey to see a list of poems I’m expected to know, and perhaps it is only the opportunity to sample changing tastes that makes the list interesting now. However it might be fun, at the end of the next themed anthology of new work, to see, not a list of ‘poems you should know’, but a list of ‘poems that were our starting point, poems our work grew from.’

Room of Thieves Launch

Room of Thieves Angela ClelandAngela Cleland is launching her new book Room of Thieves. The blurb promises to take us from the “bemonstered waters of Loch Morar to the London commuter belt” which suggest we’ll be getting more of the eerie folkloric touches which were so seductive in her last collection.

Come join us for an evening of celebration, poetry and wine at:
Benugo Bar & Kitchen, BFI Southbank, London SE1 8XT
on Thursday 7th November at 7.30

Angela will be reading from her new collection while Rebecca Parry and I will be contributing short warm up sets.

Workshops at the Poetry School This Autumn

The Poetry School Autumn ProgrammeI’ll be leading workshops at the Poetry School as part of the Tutor Academy this autumn. This is a ten week course in which five poets each teach two sessions. As a participant you get to sample a poetry tutor variety pack and, because we’re new to the Poetry School, the course is half price!

The workshops will be on Thursdays, starting 19th September. The tutors and workshop titles are:

Holly Hopkins – The Good List
Luke Heeley – The Poem’s Inventory
Sarah Howe – Dream Poems
James Brookes – Vanity
Wayne Holloway Smith – Make it Wonky

Find out more and book on the Poetry School Website.