Save The Date

Wedding Poem - Save The Date
The Poetry School recently shared my poem ‘Save The Date’ as an Instagram slide, in their countdown to this year’s National Poetry Day.

Seeing the slide has got me thinking about illustration and poetry. When the staff at the Poetry School described their project, I assumed they’d choose a design to reflect the marriage-poem or wedding-poem theme. Clichés like the couple emerging from church in a puff of confetti, or stiff wedding cake figurines. Tasteful black and white perhaps? But no, on reflection, the pageantry of the wedding service is not what this poem is about. It wouldn’t have worked.

I would never have guessed they’d home in on the one-word image ‘deckchairs’. It was good to be reminded that the bits we think are important in a poem when we write it, are not always what a reader will be struck by. To me, the dominant colour in this poem was white, as the white escaped balloon. If there were any additional colours they may have been the purple-black of a ripe blackberry or Tesco’s blue. But now, suddenly it’s sunny. It’s high summer again. The blackberries are just starting. Everything is gloriously yellow.


Save The Date

Don’t let it slip, a white escaped balloon
its thrashing tail tickling the breeze
as it sets off to fertilise the sun.

There’s time enough for blackberrying
or visiting a fast eroding aunt,
for deckchairs, appendectomies,
domestic labours, catching other people’s flu,
for meeting nephews, nieces, garden centres
Tescos, spaying cats and repainting the hall.

Please spend your day on us, for we intend
to split ourselves apart, to separate
each vein and string of sinew, every hair
from which we’ll plait a single stronger rope.

How to Edit Poems

I’m often asked how I edit. Some people want to know if poems land full-formed on the page and seem disappointed to find I redraft at all. Conversely a student recently asked me what is the maximum number of drafts a poet ought to write, afraid she might be breaking some kind of cap.

In order to bust some of these myths the Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network recently asked if I could explain the editing process. You can read the article here, complete with photographs which show how the scribbled first draft in my notebook eventually turned into the ‘Hilda and Caedmon’ poem below.

Hilda and Caedmon

It isn’t enough to turn snakes to stone,
miracles must be tidy, divinely mathematical.
So each spitting body she touched,
rolled itself up in a ram’s-horn curl.

When spring storms ploughed
new steps in the beach,
fishermen found the frozen snakes
and split them for the jewels in their bellies.

She could steer the bishops in synod
like the farmer’s wife who taught rabbits
to stand respectfully on Sundays.
She knew the price of wool.

Without her, he’d have been a shepherd
who once dreamt of a song and rolled it
round his mouth like a ear of pilfered wheat
stilling his jaw when the overseer walked by.

The Land-locked Shipping Forecast

David Howard - Bracknell
Photo of Bracknell by David Howard (creative commons)

The number of people who will have actually heard a shipping forecast before they first read Duffy’s ‘Prayer’ or Heaney’s ‘Shipping Forecast’ grows smaller.

Radio player and music streaming reduce the opportunities for slippage into unplanned programming and, to some ears, as the forecast becomes more associated with poetry than with late-night radio or the sea, it grows quaint. Yet the idea of a list of place names ripe with association is one I recognize. I have my own place-list scored into my brain by a thousand repetitions. It doesn’t have the chewy drama of the shipping forecast but, in its own understated way, it is full resonance for me. It’s the list chanted over the station tannoy in town where I grew up: Martin’s Heron, Bracknell, Wokingham, Winnersh, Winnersh Triangle, Earley and Reading.

I come from one of a hundred of similar places in the South East, commuter suburbs with the population of towns and the amenities of villages. It can feel almost embarrassing to admit to, like you’re not from anywhere that’s really a place, more a storage unit for other approved locations. So when I read poems that reveal or celebrate similar areas, I feel the poet is giving me a wink of recognition and it is exhilarating.

That is how I felt when I first read Glyn Maxwell’s ‘Home Town Mystery Cycle’. It’s a poem about a town’s annual celebration, in this case the summer performance of mystery plays, but the tone and details are strongly reminiscent of the ropey floats in my own home town ‘carnival’.

but I know the place well as the front of my hand
so I watch it in zigzag and still understand.

The dawn’s coming up over Handside Green
As Hell’s being harrowed by Christ in sunscreen,

Maxwell’s speaker describes the day with liveliness, gentle mockery and affection, much of it communicated in the poem’s rollicking rhythm, as he zig-zags down his own parade of place-names, ‘Applecroft Road’, Barleycroft lane’, ‘Old Drive’, ‘Handside Green’, ‘the corner of Manicotts’, ‘the scout hut on Gussens’, ‘Attimore Street’ and ‘Mandeville Rise’. ‘Home Town Mystery Cycle’ is, of course, about other things too (notably the speaker’s relationship with Christianity as cultural heritage rather than practiced religion) but it ends with an almost defiant, ‘but you asked where I come from and that’s where it is.’ A defense of the town as much as religious inheritance.

This spring,  I am going to be teaching a new online course for the Poetry School, A Life on the Edge: Writing the Hinterlands and Homelands. I am looking forward to exploring poems inspired by the love/hate feelings we have for the not-quite centre places in which we often live. We will be balancing on the domestic volcano’s edge with Kay Ryan, and reading Fiona Dowling as she favourably compares her struggles at home with the more flashy adventurers ‘hanging from a rope about to die’. We will be honing our observation skills to find our own new poems in the woodwork of where we live and to sketch the people we meet.

Whether you find the suburbs and commuterlands to be places of quiet comfort, or they fill you with an explosive rage to escape, we want to hear your poems about the mantra of places that is inescapably part of you.

The Rialto 82 – Out Now!

Rialto-82-cover-web-600-300x425I’ve been helping edit The Rialto over the past couple of months and now my first edition has arrived in the papery flesh!

Lots of exciting new poems by Zayneb Allak, Luke Allen, Nicky Arscott, Elizabeth Barrett, Jan Bay-Petersen, Veronica Beeham, Alison Brackenbury, Michael Brown, Armel Dagorn, Emma Danes, Peter Daniels, Ann Derbyshire, Nichola Deane, Edward Doegar, Claire Dyer, Charlotte Eichlier, Suzannah Evans, Sarah Fletcher, John Gladwell, Juliet Humphrey, Keith Hutson, Meirion Jordan, Neetha Kunaratnam, John McAuliffe, Kate Miller, zoe Mitchell, Kathleen Bainbridge Moran, Bibhu Padhi, Mark Pajak, Cate Parish, Abigail Parry, Brian Patten, Stuart Pickford, Jacqueline Saphra, Sophie Schuenemann, Peter Scupham, Steve Spence, Jon Stone, George Szirtes, Judith Taylor, Tiffany Anne Tondut, Bogusia Wardein, Sarah Watkinson, James Womack, Miranda Yates.

Plus an interview I did with Claire Pollard, whose gives us her thoughts on writing and the UK poetry landscape.

Head to The Rialto website for your copy! 

Advice on biographical notes or “Start lying about your age now”

As I write this, the latest edition of The Rialto is at the proofing stage and the last of the biographical notes are slipping in by the skin of their teeth. It feels a bit strange, having spent months getting to know poems, to now have a task focused on poets.

In most cases the bio note is everything (external to the poem) that I know about these poets, so they were read with particular curiosity. It seems a little unfair to give bio notes such scrutiny when I know how often poets are unsure what to say in them. How can anyone sum themselves up in a couple of sentences?

It raises the question of what makes a good bio note. Personally, I have only ever received one piece of guidance on the subject. When I was starting to write poetry as an adult, I was fortunate enough to meet a well-known female poet whom I greatly admired. I asked what advice she would have for a poet starting out. I thought perhaps she would know of a daily regime that would hone my metrical skills until fully formed sonnets would drop out of my head. Or perhaps from her great height she could see the course of 21st century poetry laid before her and give me directions. Instead, her advice regarded bio notes and was surprisingly simple: ‘Start lying about your age now.’ Her reasoning being that opportunities are squared towards the ‘young’ and that men can string out being ‘young’ in poetry until their mid-40s while women had until 30 at best. I didn’t take her advice and have remained honest if reticent, but since then whenever I’ve seen biographical notes starting ‘XXXX was born in 19XX’ it has always made me pause.

Maybe the best approach is to think about what the biographical note is actually for. Usually when I am reading the bios in a magazine, it is either because I’m having a quick skim to see who is there or because I enjoyed a particular poem and I want to find out if the poet has more poems I can read. If it is a tool for finding more poetry then a workman-like list of publications remains extremely useful. The formula of poets listing magazines before they have a publication, and publications afterwards, does do the job. Meanwhile, including prizes reassures the reader that the poet they’ve just read wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

There is a school of thought that the bio note should be more advertising hook than information board. With pressure to add something completely unrelated to poetry that makes you stand out. I do enjoy it when a note feels like it gives a glimpse of the poet’s life, even though I’m aware that with so little space and so much conjecture these fragments are as likely to mislead as they are to paint an accurate portrait. I have read notes in the past that went a bit overboard, ‘So-and-so lives in an exotic location where they have an exciting job and are having a much more fun than you’ can make the heart sink. Are you applying for a job as a professor? No? Then don’t send an academic CV in miniature. The trick, as ever, is to think of your reader.

Remember that biographical notes have a tendency to breed. I once wrote a bio for a schools project in which I focused on my work with children, only to find that event organizers copied and pasted it without permission for about a year afterwards. The result was that no matter the context, in pub or anthology, my poetry was recommended purely on the basis of my experience working with children.

Finally, when in doubt – keep it short.

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.