Category Archives: poetry

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This week – a reading and a workshop – do come if you can!

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LAUNCH PARTY!

Wednesday 18th of May, 7pm – Smokestack Books Showcase

Poets Linda France and Paul Summers read from their new collections, The Knucklebone Floor and billy casper’s tears.

Linda France has published eight full collections, including RedThe Gentleness of the Very Tall, book of days (also published by Smokestack), You are Her and Reading the Flowers. She won the National Poetry Competition in 2013 and received a Cholmondley Award for her contribution to poetry in 2020. She curated the collective poems Murmuration (with Kate Sweeney) and Dawn Chorus (with Christo Wallers) as part of her Writing the Climate Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University.

Paul Summers was born in Northumberland. A founding editor of the magazines Billy Liar and Liar Republic, he has written extensively for TV, film, radio and the theatre. His books include Cunawabi, The Rat’s Mirror, The Last Bus, Vermeer’s Dark Parlour, Big Bella’s Dirty Café and Three Men on the Metro (with Andy Croft and Bill Herbert). His most recent books are union, primitive cartography and straya (all published by Smokestack) and arise! He lives in North Shields.

And on Thursday at the Great North Museum…

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Graphite and Rainbow

With my new book The Knucklebone Floor just out, I’ve been signing copies people have kindly bought. When they see me reaching for my pencil, many offer me a pen, as if I didn’t have one at hand, implying pencil is somehow inferior, regrettably contingent. It’s reminded me that a few years ago I was asked to write something about stationery. Here it is – in neither pen or pencil – I hope you might enjoy.

Happening upon this very short text again, I was glad also to be reminded of the excellent Lady Mary Montagu and The Toast of the Kit-Cat Club – poetic grandmother to The Knucklebone Floor: both biographies of bold women in verse, unauthorised, experimental. All, of course, written in the shadow of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – probably my favourite book of all time.

Graphite and Rainbow

1.

Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s…

Virginia Woolf knew the importance of stationery and the complicated conditions that must be fine-tuned to enable a woman to write.  When not sitting at her desk, she engineered an arrangement with a plywood board across an armchair, where she could sit comfortably and write and smoke.

…the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind…

2.

Postmarked June 2003, an airmail letter lands from Canada with my name and address on the pale blue envelope written in pencil.  I imagine silver feathers, wings of graphite, propellers.  The letter (a spidery hand, also in pencil) is about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.  The points are sharp, proxy for that brave soul who crossed the Alps in a basket, the first woman to travel beyond Christendom and write home of all the wonders she witnessed. 

3.

I become a convert to pencil, evangelical.  All my favourite ink pens dry up as I trawl the tiered stands of pencils in stationery shops, choosing my favourites (Staedtler HB, Papermate Non-Stop – good quality, nothing fancy, built-in erasers).  I start carrying a Swiss Army knife to sharpen them on the hoof.  Around this time, I give up smoking my beloved roll-ups and nimbly replace one ritual with another.  

4.

I’m reluctant to become dependent on certain conditions in order to be able to write but some things do help.  Familiarity.  Preparation.  Space.  Comfort.  Pleasure.

5.

Artists I collaborate with use pencil to sign their names on drawings and prints, adding a title here, an edition number there – grey less intrusive and distracting than black.  The silvery lead seems to hold some of their images’ lightness.  It lifts the words into an acknowledgement – a celebration even – of impermanence, always vulnerable to erasure, open to smudge or fade.  

6.

There is something wabi sabi about writing in pencil (a Japanese aesthetic that suggests immense care, work-always-in-progress, constantly flowing, as life does).  It recognises doubt, the tentative; freedom to change your mind; a belief in something before and after words on a page – the forever they so briefly interrupt.  Although just as human, intimate as a fingertip, it is the opposite of a tattoo, more forgiving than ink, less likely to be regretted.  Far from being noncommittal, pencil and writer become one, all their attention poured into the ongoing moment. 

7.

A pencil is child’s play, encouraging un-self-conscious abandon, a glorious antidote to unretractable digitalia.  A poet’s drafts are made for graphite, allowing a fluid evolution of scribble, crossings through, underlining and furious rubbing out.  We know not what comes next, or what follows after.  The whole swirling chaotic mess might slowly coalesce into some sort of order, almost geological – subtle shades of lead, gunmetal, ash settling into lines on the white page that, when you get it right, and know when to leave them alone, might, just might, shimmer with the colours of the rainbow.

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A Year of Two Books

There hasn’t been much activity here lately because I’ve been so very busy elsewhere, online and IRL.  Not long back from co-leading a retreat in the Trossachs, by Loch Voil, at Dhanakosa – a perfect place to step out of the hurtle of the digital and into moment-by-moment presence, with spring unfolding before our eyes.  I love spending time up there and it was wonderful to be back after three years’ absence.  You can find out more about their retreat programme here, if you’re interested.

As well as work continuing on my Writing the Climate Residency and various groups meeting regularly, I have a new book to celebrate.  The Knucklebone Floor is the story of Allen Banks and Susan Davidson, the Victorian widow who helped shape the landscape there with her wilderness walks, a tarn, bridges and summerhouses.  This is the sequence of poems I wrote as part of my PhD Women on the Edge of Landscape and it’s very exciting to see it about to spring out into the world.  Many thanks to Andy Croft at Smokestack for suggesting he publish it. And much appreciation to Matilda Bevan for the section of her Study of a Stream gracing the cover.

The first reading from The Knucklebone Floor will take place at this year’s Newcastle Poetry Festival on Friday 6th May, at 2.30pm.  I’ll be joined by Anne Ryland and Dave Spittle, who’ll also be reading from their new collections (Unruled Journal and Rubbles).  The day before I’m chairing a panel on Climate at the Emergency-themed Symposium (NCLA in conjunction with the Poetry Book Society) – with Jason Allen-Paisant, Polly Atkin and Sylvia Legris, whose new books I’ve really enjoyed:  Thinking with Trees, Much With Body and Garden Physic, respectively.  There’ll be plenty to talk about.  You can see the Symposium and Festival programme here – lots of unmissable events,  and I’m really looking forward to the chance for us all to gather as a community again.

More Knucklebone Floor events follow this opening splash – at Hexham Library, with Matthew Kelly, launching his book The Women Who Saved the English Countryside, as part of Local History Month, on May 12th, 7pm.  Then at Inpress‘s pop-up shop in Ouseburn, Newcastle (8 Riverside Walk, between the Cluny and the Tyne Bar) on May 18th, 7pm, with Paul Summers (reading from his new book billy casper’s tears, also from Smokestack).  I’ll also be at Allendale’s Forge in July and Ripon Poetry Festival in September – more of those nearer the time.

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In the midst of all this fizz, I’m currently editing another book, to be published in the Autumn, when my Residency winds down, and launched at Durham Book Festival.  This one’s called Startling and is an attempt to capture some sense of the vulnerability many of us feel in the face of our climate and ecological emergencies.  As Margaret Atwood has said: it’s not Climate Change, it’s Everything Change.   

Spring speeds everything up, like a time-lapse film and here we all are trying our best to find our place among it all and a way through, helping each other where we can.  A deeply challenging, unpredictable time but I’m with Leonard Cohen, hoping that the cracks will let the light shine through.

…we are always in free fall.  It’s not like we will find some moral high ground where we are finally stable and can catch all those falling around us.  It’s more like we are all falling above the infinite groundlessness of life, and we learn to become stable in flight, and to support others to become free of the fear that arises from feeling unmoored.  The final resting place is not the ground at all but rather the freedom that arises from knowing there will never be a ground, and yet here we are, together, navigating the boundless space of life, not attached, yet intimate.

Roshi Joan Halifax

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I am because you are

Please Call Me By My True Names





Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —

even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving

to be a bud on a Spring branch,

to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,

learning to sing in my new nest,

to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,

to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,

to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death

of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing

on the surface of the river.

And I am the bird

that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily

in the clear water of a pond.

And I am the grass-snake

that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,

my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.

And I am the arms merchant,

selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,

refugee on a small boat,

who throws herself into the ocean

after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am the pirate,

my heart not yet capable

of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,

with plenty of power in my hands.

And I am the man who has to pay

his ‘debt of blood’ to my people

dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm

it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.

My pain is like a river of tears,

so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,

so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,

so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,

so I can wake up,

and so the door of my heart

can be left open,

the door of compassion.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The image is of the Earth Flag proposed by EarthFlag Foundation to symbolise global unity – one peace, one planet.

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Some Things You Might Like To Know About

Tonight we’re having our very first podcast discussion group Listening to the Climate. Everyone is very welcome to come along. We’ll be reading and discussing the poems in my podcast series In Our Element – a poet’s inquiry into climate change. The introduction in the first episode includes Jorie Graham’s Why and my sestina, Elementary. You can listen again to the podcasts here and also find transcripts of the poems and the conversations.

If you’re interested in the discussion group (which I envisage as a sort of book group for the ears), you can register for a free place via Eventbrite. Look forward to seeing those of you who can make it at 6 – 7.30pm (Tuesday 8th February 2022). We’ll be meeting on the second Tuesday of each month at the same time, talking about each subsequent episode and the poems therein. I also hope people might point us all in the direction of climate and ecology related podcasts they’ve found interesting or helpful.

Our monthly Writing Hour will continue – on the last Tuesday of each month, between 1 and 2pm. All are welcome for a dedicated session of shared writing time. These seem to have become inspiring touchstones for a lot of people – in this country and all over the world. The next one coming up is on Tuesday 22nd February 1 – 2 pm.

Tomorrow night at 7pm (Wednesday 9th February) you have a chance to join the online launch of Candlestick Press’s new pamphletsTen Poems about History and Ten Poems about Roses. The event will be hosted by the Lit & Phil and readers include Sean O’Brien, David Constantine, Catriona O’Reilly, Kathy Towers, Tamar Yoseloff and myself. There’s also an open mike slot. You can find more details and book your free place here.

Next week I’ll be reading some poems at the Sonic Valentine gathering at the Queen’s Hall in Hexham 12 – 1.30 pm (Monday 14th February). Expect gongs, Tibetan singing bowls, music and poetry. A drop-in sound lounge for the healing of the world. See you there!

I’m a little late posting these various news items – lots of things suddenly emerging after the quiet dark of winter. Already nearly two hours more daylight since the Winter Solstice. And more to come.

May your sap gently rise.

L

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COP 26: Unfinished Business

Glasgow Climate Clock – COP26 https://climateclock.world

GLASGOW

A Poem

Unfinished

Are we racing to the brink of an abyss, or are we just gathering speed for a take-off to a wonderful future?  The crystal ball is clouded, the human condition baffles all the more because it is both unprecedented and bizarre, almost beyond understanding.

E.O. Wilson (1929 – 2021)

Train to Glasgow Central delayed

due to an object caught in overhead electric wires

–  ‘object’ or person

inconvenience or tragedy

MIND THE GAP

sun plummets through a filleted glass roof

where do I start

where end

Hope Street

use caution: walking directions may not always reflect real-world conditions

she tells me she borrowed her sister’s jacket 

stitched on the back in white and black

WHEN INJUSTICE BECOMES LAW

RESISTANCE BECOMES DUTY

we plant prayers on lollysticks 

sow seeds of calendula  

I follow the ‘Coat of Hopes’ women walking through the city 

the piper in his swishy kilt leading the grey-suited out-of-tune world leaders

two old men in the chip shop facing the wall to pray

more police than I’ve ever seen

whole squadrons encased in black rubber

join the raggle taggle carnival

but hi-vis           spiked metal

you can’t come in here

and so we are divided, ruled

go slowly all the way round the outside

where all the little solar-powered suns shine:

END THE OIL AGE

SALVAGE PARADISE

NOW WE MUST LIVE IN

THE GRACE OF THE SUN

Tom Goldtooth – he’s heard it all before

wants humanity to learn earth 

is sacred

keep fossil fuels in the ground

Potus and PoW, Boris and Bezos 

flown in by private jet

Africa and Bolivia dropped off the agenda

the bravado of first pledges condenses

evaporates

mist

inside and outside

we should         we must

who says we will

today 

not in three decades

how will the next ten years succeed

when the last sixty years has failed

a praxis

place-based wisdom

I’m a Glaswegian and I’m proud of my city

rhetoric alliterates

decolonise, democratise, detoxify, decentralise, diversify 

not the cost of workers but the value of workers

not building a wall but making a brick

it’s the kids’ placards that make me hurt

protect our planet

save our oceans

I don’t want to live on a spaceship

crossing the flyover

untethered

what if I jumped

the French woman in beautiful boots

meeting her son for lunch

all our beautiful sons

their rackety futures

their unborn children

the things we most fear (and therefore deny)

the things we most need (and therefore deny)

what if we started listening to our dreams

to our children’s dreams

and I said to myself

what a wonderful world

– join in he says

everyone join in

trying to make business with the Amazon

without taking into account the rights of the Amazon

so much greenwash

if I could plant a tree 

for every time I hear someone utter that word

drummers march us into battle

the snare in my solar plexus

makes me want to cry

and laugh and cry and dance

if you’re happy it’s easy to be happy

if you’re sad it’s harder

sings Liam the worldwide Welshman

without words I don’t know who I am

or what I’m for

every day this is not to be forgotten

every day honour the Palauan minister:

either we drown in words

or we drown

bottleneck, hoodwink

the truth neither interesting nor appealing

everyone looks at their phones

while she’s talking

most people ignore climate change talk

because most climate change talk

ignores most people

8 FOOT LONG LOCH NESS DEBT MONSTER ARRESTED

#freenessie

how to live on $5.50 a day

while we only pay one-fifteenth of what we owe

LOSS & DAMAGE

a game of dominoes

not everyone can play

join the dots

stakes too high

rules impenetrable

outside Buchanan Galleries

the lone ranger and his megaphone

either the time we took hold of the reins

or the time we let the horses run wild

tearfully, truthfully, tenderly

a young lad on the bus

can’t stop talking

scavenged by chemicals

later outside Greggs

with one of their paper cups

begging

police bussed in from the Met, Essex, Devon, Norfolk, Wales

line up for team photos

buy postcards to send home

go back each night to their Premier Inns

I carry a card

in case I’m arrested 

Human Rights Act 1998

in line with Cadder v HM Advocate Criminal Procedure 

(Legal Assistance, Detention and Appeals) (Scotland) Act 2010)

DO NOT ENGAGE

Remain silent

over 100,000 souls

a two mile long river

I hear

your here‘s different

she’s talking about my hair

time

achilles heels

all wounds

MIND THE GAP

government by PR         by press conference

hypocrisy          hypothesis

                 diversionary tactics      carbon capture, hydrogen

HS2

Cambo, Cumbria, Mozambique

bitter wisps

of autumn

all human

KEEP 1.5 ALIVE

rhymes lodge inside us

blocking our airways

inside out briefing every morning

outside in briefing every evening

Jess sings us a love song for the apocalypse

someone pretending to be a policeman clambers into my dreams

I wake up paralysed, ache all over

why are your words so pedestrian

because they are made out of walking

from the Kelvin to the Clyde

walking

this is what it feels like embarking on a task and not knowing what to do

painting the world pictures by which we live

word pictures

thinned to slogans 

I! I! a terrible thing

run from it if you can

there is no one

we are everyone

now and tomorrow

tomorrow’s tomorrow

start with your body – then your home – 

then the land around you

your community – the world

make a spiral

we say these things to remind us

losing our so-called freedom

not knowing if we succeed or fail

who will tell you what is right

how to have no regrets

let your breath be a refuge

plant a garden

hold language dear

farm the city 

a forest of sentient beings

say this to remind yourself

(is remembering too a kind of hoarding

when do you decide to leave everything behind)

MIND THE GAP

the train’s too full

a reduced service

how long will it take

who knows where 

beyond recognition

we will find ourselves

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Try Something Different

Be ground, be crumbled,

so wild flowers will spring up where you are.

You’ve been stony for too many years.

Try something different.

Surrender.

Rumi

Our world goes to pieces, we have to rebuild our world. We investigate and worry and analyse and forget that the new comes about through exuberance and not through a defined deficiency. We have to find our strengths and not our weakness. Out of the chaos of collapse we can save the lasting: we still have our ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, the absolute of our inner voice – we still know beauty, freedom, happiness…unexplained and unquestioned.

Anni Albers

One Aspect of Art Work (1944)

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The Song of Our Species

‘I think as an ecologist. But I feel as a member of a great family – one that includes the elephant and the wheat stalk as well as the schoolteacher and the industrialist. This is not a mental condition, but a spiritual condition. Poetry is a product of our history, and our history is inseparable from the natural world. Now, of course, in the hives and dungeons of the cities, poetry cannot console, it carries no weight, for the pact between the natural world and the individual has been broken. There is no more working for harvest – only hunting, for profit. Lives are no longer exercises in pleasure and valor, but only the means to the amassment of worldly goods. If poetry is ever to become meaningful to such persons, they must take the first step – away from their materially bound and self-interested lives, toward the trees, and the waterfall. It is not poetry’s fault that it has so small an audience, so little effect upon the frightened, money-loving world. Poetry, after all, is not a miracle. It is an effort to formalize (ritualize) individual moments and the transcending effects of these moments into a music that all can use. It is the song of our species.’

Mary Oliver

A few wintry verses from this past year’s renga

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Gwen carries her own placard

I don’t want to live

on a spaceship

            what you give the forest

            the forest gives you back

I plant eight buddleia

hoping for a summer

astonished by butterflies

            defrosting the freezer

            is today’s weather

all the little suns

on my glasses

are rain

            more a question

            of when not if

our culture 

written in snow

and the planet’s on fire

            everything racing 

            wily coyote legs

a raw stillness

in the house

Arwen’s blessing

            on the short day’s back

            the long night

trailer load of logs –

alder, Matt says,

burns hot

            this will end

            this will carry on

[Quotations from Eugenio Montale, Laurie Anderson, Moshe Feldenkrais, Octavia Butler, Henrik Blind.]

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YOU ARE HER(E)

Next week on Thursday 4th November I’ll be joining fellow-Northumbrian poets Katrina Porteous and Anne Ryland for an online reading dedicated to the spirit of place. It’s a free event, hosted by Northumberland Libraries, 7 – 8 pm – everyone is welcome and you can register here.

Episodes 5 & 6 of In Our Element are available now – Air and Wood. Do listen in and if you like what you hear, please spread the word. Apparently that’s how podcasts tend to find their audience – through word of mouth. We made the series to air in the run-up to COP26 but the scope of all our conversations extends well beyond whatever happens in Glasgow over the coming weeks.

The Air and Wood episodes include poetry from Colette Bryce and Pascale Petit and a tour of a wind farm with wind engineer Anabel Gammidge and a spot of wood-bathing with woodland conservationist Sian Atkinson. That was my favourite part of making these podcasts – when we were able to record outdoors and actually be in the elements we were talking about.

As we move through the fire of Samhain into the dark months before the shortest day, take good care and send your thoughts to all those gathering in Glasgow intent on calling a halt to climate recklessness and working towards regeneration and justice. Like ecologist Timothy Morton, we might be aware of ‘pessimism of the intellect’, but we can act from ‘optimism of the will’.

May all beings be well.

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On Fire!

Episode 4 – Fire of In Our Element – a poet’s inquiry into climate change is now available. This one includes a wonderful poem called ‘The Gate’ from the Welsh language poet Menna Elfyn about a shockingly recent mining disaster and the memories and associations it evoked for her. I really enjoyed my conversation with Menna, a longtime activist and force to be reckoned with.

We also hear from local folk band the Brothers Gillespie. They came up to my place one Sunday this summer to play and sing in my garden – attracting the vocal attention and admiration of the field full of cows. ‘Tina’s Song’ tells the story of Tina Rothery, co-founder of the Nanas, a campaigning group of concerned grandmothers protesting against fracking in Preston New Road, Lancashire several years ago. She was taken to court and fined £55,000 by mining firm Cuadrilla for simply taking part in a peaceful protest and finally found not culpable and released with no charge.

On November 21st The Brothers Gillespie and I will be back together for an event called Earthwords for Hexham Book Festival’s outreach programme. They’ll be singing some more of their beautiful songs rooted in the Northumbrian landscape and I’ll be reading some recent poems, inspired by a new relationship with my local patch during last year’s lockdown – work in progress from my Writing the Climate residency. You can find more details and book a ticket here.

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It’s been very exciting to see these podcasts rippling out after such a long period in production, broadcast by Resonance FM and several other community radio stations and also available on most podcast platforms. Each episode takes an element as a starting point to explore the complexity and challenges of this critical time: Earth, Water, Fire and Air; with, from the Chinese tradition, Wood and Metal; as well as Space and Consciousness, elements that feature in some Buddhist practices.  Investigating these help all the contributors – activists, engineers, conservationists, academics, thinkers, poets and musicians from around the world – find common ground to deal with difficult subjects arising from the Climate Crisis.

We’ve already heard from organic gardener and compost expert Andrew Davenport in the Earth Episode, alongside US poet Jorie Graham and Canadian Climate Justice professor Deborah McGregor. And in the Water episode Nancy Campbell, Charmaine Papertalk Green and Suzanne Dhaliwal. All the contributors pop back in later episodes with more to add on some other element. I’ll say more about the contributors to Air, Wood, Metal, Space and Consciousness – and our final episode Regeneration – later. This is still all quite fresh and certainly a very new medium for me so I’m still assimilating and figuring out what this many-headed creature is that I’ve made, working with the talented audio producer Philippa Geering of Sonderbug Productions in York.

As protest or praise, music is almost another element in itself, with contributions not just from the Brothers Gillespie but also from Joshua Green, with his specially commissioned signature song and a gorgeous setting of my cuckoo poem (look out for it in Episode 9 – Consciousness), as well as Una and Freya, two small girls who added their own big voices to the Fridays for the Future School Climate Strike in September 2019.

Talking with all these thoughtful and engaged people left me with a sense of faith in humanity’s capacity to transform our current suffering into a more sustainable future. It’s important to remember there is great power in what we make together – active hope – whether that’s an engineering system, a protest against so-called development or a song or a poem dedicated to a bird or a tree – or even a United Nations summit.

Do listen in – and let me know in the comments below what you think, what these poems, thoughts and music stir in you.

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