Category Archives: writing

Happy Easter

1-1276781550UFzXDaffodils

They bring this hint of something startled in them –

the dreadful earliness of their petals

against dead earth, the extremity of their faces

suggesting a violent start –

dumb skulls opening, overnight, to vehemence.

Their lives are quicker than vision,

their voices evade us.  And as

water tightens its surface in vases

and sharpens its glass, slicing their sticks

in half, these funnels clatter on their bent necks,

like bells for the already dead.

 

Catriona O’Reilly

From The Nowhere Birds (Bloodaxe, 2001)

 

I’ve spent the past few weeks writing about what women poets are writing about when they write about flowers (snowdrops in particular) and now I look up, the daffodils are nearly over.  Never my favourite flower, I think Catriona O’Reilly has caught something interesting in them – that vehemence.  It seems to be the case that women poets (and possibly men too, but in a different way)  write about flowers either as a strategy for addressing an actual Other or approaching what they experience as Other inside themselves.  All flowers seem to lend themselves to reflections on death, they last so short a while.  A good place to consider impermanence.

My own wild daffodil poem from over ten years ago (part of a collaboration with the ceramicist Sue Dunne) was nudged into being by the death of Julia Darling.  It’s a different sort of grief when a friend dies – at least it was for me, tangled up with my own mortality, the sheer lostness of loss.  Those brave yellow flowers have some of Julia’s radiance about them.

 

FullSizeRender 2

After all that Easterish death maybe it’s good to think about all the Easterish rebirth…so here’s some daffodil-inspired handiwork and humour in an installation in Hull, UK City of Culture – 1700 flowers made out of nearly 150,000 lego pieces.  I wonder what sort of poem might these be a muse for?

capture23

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , ,

In the Reading Room 


Yesterday we went to the lovely Reading Room, a public library in Sofia City Garden that is celebrating its first birthday today.


They made a little video reading there and spelled my name in big wooden Cyrillic letters outside.


As well as a library, it’s also an information point, which helps with the funding.  Brainchild of the writer Alexander Shpatov – he told me they’re trying to figure out a way to create another one to house all the books they’ve acquired.  The fee for joining is the donation of one book.


Alexander has written a book of short stories called Live from Sofia, which I duly bought rather than borrowed and am looking forward to reading – bringing a little bit of Sofia home with me.

Tagged , , , , ,

Summer in Sofia


A day for wandering round the city, getting lost and trying to remember how the Cyrillic alphabet works.

Tagged

A Day for Capability

map

view

 

Turning the Landscape

 

Roads that brought us here –

blink them away

three hundred years

 

rain crackles the safe tent

inside, gentleness

 

layers of water, earth, white rock

nothing straight

all balancing

 

Brown charted the sweep of these contours

shifted nature

 

songs of dragonfly and jackdaw

spread over the lake

a rippled roof for fishes

 

plodging, rafting

petting, gutting

 

ornamental maple

next to copper beech

salt next to caramel

 

feet circled

satellites flung from a planet

 

tumbled scraps of moon

sheep graze

this divided land

 

the other side of the day

slowing down again

 

in the pink

foxgloves

shimmering question marks

 

a hand’s brush

two droplets fall

 

waterlilies

a touch of Monet

upon Rothley Low Lake

 

ground sinks away

a natural ha-ha

 

over the old railway

you’ve gone too far

turn back

 

history’s fraud –

the foggy fort – kindly meant

 

sounds of planes, birds

but rain (the demanding child)

will be heard

 

glimpse of modern barn

through a Brownian gap in trees

 

Beware

soft edges

take care

 

bonfire piled high

waiting.

 

 

 

A renga in celebration of Capability Brown

at Rothley Low Lake, Northumberland,

on 25th June 2016.

 

Participants:

 

Linda France

Sharon Higginson

Liz Kirsopp

Nick Owen

Jon Randall

Eileen Ridley

Anna Smith

Tony Smith

Christine Taylor

sheet

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Pennycress, Willowherb

IMG_0503Because it was a sunny day and I’d just missed my connection – watching powerless as my homebound train pulled out of the station without me (always painful, much worse than missing it by ten or even five minutes) – I walked on to the end of the platform where sun struck stone paving unimpeded by canopies or walls. A row of advertising boards, brash inducements to buy the latest ‘Number 1 Crime’ books, each with their own moody picture, intimating the gruesome and forensic, gradually petered out. I was happier looking at the stone underfoot, the grid of moulded rectangles harbouring sweet green creases of moss the further along I walked.

A tiny pennycress grew out of nothing, no visible earth, valiant among the coming and going of trains with their strident livery and their harried passengers, noses in novels, fingertips stroking screens, ears plugged against the outside world – I knew this because I’d just been one of them.

At the very end the platform sloped gently down until it met grey-blue clinker. I could see some plants with red leaves growing among it, sturdy against the sharp stones. Deep-veined, prolific, possibly a willowherb. I ambled slowly down the ramp scanning for any other plant life that might be thriving in this apparently inhospitable setting. The toothed leaves of an unfamiliar thistle wrapped themselves around a discarded bolt, rusty and large enough to be missed.

I eased the rucksack off my shoulders and placed it on the ground at my feet; knelt to look more closely and touch the veined leaves I’d seen from a distance, fiery in the sunlight that warmed my face and shoulders after such a very long winter, cramped and flowerless.

I dug in the pocket of the rucksack for my camera to take a picture in the afternoon light, all the lovelier for coming unannounced, unexpected. I crouched down again to focus close enough to catch these low-to-the-ground, unostentatious plants.

IMG_0505

Come away from there, now, step away, step away.   Please return to the platform.

A loud voice, with worry in it, a man’s. I lifted my head to see a bearded young man in a lilac uniform carrying a walkie-talkie. He repeated his instructions as if it were a matter of life and death, staying at the top of the ramp some distance from me. Until proven innocent, clearly I was dangerous.

Come up now, come back to the platform.

Another man, shorter, navy blue jumper, stood beside the first, twitching slightly. If he’d had a gun, he’d have his finger on the trigger. I could tell how much it cost him to say nothing. The tremor in his shoulders gave him away.

I had a choice: to argue the toss and claim my freedom as a citizen, my fundamental right to look at plants in the sunshine while waiting for a train; or simply let it go and reassure them – for I could see they were anxious about something and were in dire need of reassurance – that I wasn’t a terrorist, or suicidal, or a flagrant destroyer of railway property.  Though what they were reading into my grey hair and best black coat was a puzzle to me, a disguise impenetrable even to myself.

I’m just taking some photographs.

Forced to confess, it sounded like a crime. To persuade them it was true, the only sin I was committing was photography, I lifted up my camera and the shorter man started bobbing from foot to foot. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had told me to drop it and raise my hands above my head. 15.34, a Wednesday and Central Station was suddenly an action thriller. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for these men, looking down at me, chests puffed out – so keen to do their duty, or be seen to do their duty, on high alert where there was nothing to be alert about. How exhausting it must be to wear a lilac uniform, carry a walkie-talkie and suspect middle-aged women of unspeakable crimes, a threat to the common good and trains running on time.

IMG_0506I made my way up the ramp slowly, with dignity I hoped: the only way I could express my deep disappointment at such misdirection of human energy, a senselessness that seemed to becoming more and more familiar, not just to me but everyone I speak to. Resistance burned at the core of me, political, existential. The willowherb remained unphotographed.  Had it come to this – that a person was no longer able to look at flowers growing in a railway station when the weather coaxed them in that direction? Would it have been different if I was a man writing down the number of a passing train?

The two men looked disappointed too.  Perhaps that I’d proved such easy meat and offered no further opportunity for their heroics. The drama had come and gone too quickly. I wanted them to be embarrassed but no one apologised to anyone else. Not I, nor the men, who turned on their heels and scurried back towards the main body of the station, disappearing in the coolness of the shade.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Dear March –

Dear March – Come in –

How glad I am –

I hoped for you before –

Put down your Hat –

You must have walked –

How out of Breath you are –

Dear March, how are you, and the Rest –

Did you leave Nature well –

Oh March, Come right upstairs with me –

I have so much to tell –

 

I got your Letter, and the Birds –

The Maples never knew that you were coming –

I declare – how Red their Faces grew –

But March, forgive me –

And all those Hills you left for me to Hue –

There was no Purple suitable –

You took it all with you –

Who knocks? That April –

Lock the Door –

I will not be pursued –

He stayed away a Year to call

When I am occupied –

But trifles look so trivial

As soon as you have come

 

That blame is just as dear as Praise

And Praise as mere as Blame –

 

Emily Dickinson

IMG_0274

After two days thinking about Poetry, Creativity and Environment at last weekend’s symposium in the School of English at Leeds University, the idea that my mind keeps returning to is one suggested by Zoë Skoulding – ecological writing (and thinking) should always engage with the possibility of imagining something different, a radically altered viewpoint.

Her own practice enacts that process by taking ‘a deliberately skewed perspective’ to both time and place, walking in urban spaces and re-imagining them as if all the accretions of man-made city life were not there, acknowledging historical disjunctions and the impossibility of ‘accuracy’. She read from her wonderful sequence Teint, which charts the Biévre, one of Paris’s underground water courses.

FullSizeRender

Harriet Tarlo also spoke about her ‘writing outside’, the notion of fieldwork, both alone and in collaboration with artist Judith Tucker – their different disciplines coming together like Bunting’s ‘lines of sound drawn in the air’. Going out in a state of attentive awareness in search of ‘particulars’ and then undertaking a process of ‘condensation’ and ‘selection’, preferring to bypass ‘the lyrical I’ in any resulting text. It was good to hear Harriet quote her mentor in Durham, Ric Caddell: ‘To live here is not to escape’.

I was particularly happy to meet Madeleine Lee, a Leeds alumna like myself. She is a poet and an economist and recently Writer in Residence at Singapore Botanic Gardens, where I spent a fascinating and fruitful week en route to Sydney in 2013. She noticed that people were tending to sleepwalk through the gardens and wanted to draw attention to the environmental implications of their colonial history through poems about native ‘economic plants’ like rubber, nutmeg, clove and other spices, traditionally grown along Orchard Road, now the main shopping avenue. Through her writing she has become an ‘accidental advocate’ of green spaces, the remaining 5% of tropical rainforest on the island of Singapore.

IMG_0270

No one was particularly interested in either the didactic/rhetorical or the elegiac/mourning modes of writing about the natural world. Generally these poets are bearing witness to land, place, plants and creatures, dismantling assumptions, risking ambiguity and uncertainty, taking a modernist, experimental stance. A lucid, appreciative interpretation of Jorie Graham’s Prayer (by post-graduate researcher Julia Tanner) reflected the weighing up of moral and ethical predicaments with ‘something instinctive’ in order to transform and ‘re-singularise’ that ‘problematic’ ‘I’ everyone was tiptoeing around so nervously. Although it was heartening to see it for a change, I wondered if the mood and emphasis would have been different if the panel were all-male rather than all-female, or a mixture? Another poet with a strong Leeds connection, Jon Silkin (as you can see from the photo) was also with us in spirit – and in Emma Trott’s paper on his Flower Poems.

Yesterday I walked out of the School of English onto Clarendon Road after my classes, delighted to see the magnolia buds stretching to release their deep pinks and to hear a lone great tit playing the xylophone of its throat – notes going up, notes going down. Encountering poetry and creativity at its most vivid, spontaneous and inescapable out of doors.

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Lemon & Juniper

IMG_0237

Six lemons from Spain, unwaxed (but treated with Imazalil, Pyrimethanil, Orthophenylphenol, which I try to scrub off, like the world’s sins, under running water).

IMG_0235

Three tablespoons of juniper berries – that smell like old libraries, venerable and hushed, until I crush them (in a bag on the floor with the wooden rolling pin) and then the scent’s of gin – heady, territorial, a smidgeon of fox.

IMG_0239

I cut the lemons into pale half moons, spoked and floating in their own juice.  Half a jug of water and a good splash of actual gin (‘distilled in London to a secret recipe’) – and a quick nip for the cook, who has this January such a longing to slice and simmer and sweeten, to preserve – keep ‘five 300 ml jars’ of the world on my pantry shelf and give it away and spoon it onto toast till my mouth sparks with hearth and hillside, the moon cooked.

IMG_0240.jpg

Forty minutes and the kitchen’s nothing if not lemony.  All my thoughts are yellow and I am singing ghazals, rinsing jars fit for a king, adding the sugar – a whole bag made from beets farmed in Bury St Edmunds.  It’s bubbling now (think cauldron), slurping and shapeshifting, a life of its own.  My kitchen smells like a factory, a distillery, as if it belongs entirely to the silver pot on the stove.

photo

And then a stillness, as the amber concoction cools before I pour it, stickily, into the jars.  Licking the spoon, my tongue tingles with citrus and another latitude entirely.  We have travelled far – but all that labour and summoning and only three scant jars.

 

Thanks to Yotam Ottolenghi for this and all his wonderful recipes.

 

 

Tagged , , , , ,

Other People’s Books

image

Other people’s books on the subjects one is writing about oneself are annoying sometimes, because if one has read them one must avoid saying the same things, and if one has not read them and say the same things readers think one has copied, and when one’s own book comes first, the books that come after it have either copied from it or not copied from it, and when they have copied they get the credit, as readers have forgotten who wrote it first, and when they have not copied they seem to be despising it and to be saying the opposite. It would be better if only one writer at a time wrote on each subject, but this cannot be, and when the subject is a country it would be unfair, as people rely on writing to get them about abroad and let them take money to spend there.

image

At the present time, a great many writers are interested in seeing Turkey, and on account of this many of them are writing books about it, and this has to be put up with. Aunt Dot’s Turkey book, which I was illustrating and in which I was putting bits, would not be like anyone else’s really, as it would be mostly about the misfortunes of Moslem women…But my bits would be about the scenery and churches and castles and ruins and towns, and these had already been so well done lately that I should have to be very careful. The trouble with countries is that, once people begin travelling in them, and people have always been travelling in Turkey, they are apt to get over-written, as Greece has, and all the better countries in Europe, such as Italy and France and Spain. England has not been over-written, at least not by foreigners, on account of it’s not being very attractive, what with the weather and the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel and the North Sea and the industrial towns and not having many antique ruins, but above all the weather, for no one from abroad can stand this for long, and actually we can’t stand it for long ourselves, but we have to.

From ‘The Towers of Trebizond’ by Rose Macaulay (1956)

Tagged , , ,

Poetry Cures


poetry cure 2

Back in 1995 when I fell off a horse called Pandora and broke my back, I spent a long time in hospital and then recovering at home. Julia Darling, no stranger to illness and hospitals herself, wrote me a poem about the art of convalescence, later illustrated by Birtley Aris. It’s one of my favourite mementoes of our long friendship.

convalescence

Poetry is one of the best medicines – for all manner of predicaments – especially when all else fails.  Ten years after Julia’s death, there are currently lots of opportunities to celebrate her life and remember her fantastic energy and unique contribution to writing in the North East, and beyond.

poetry cure

On Friday evening (29th May), there will be a reading at the Great North Museum to commemorate The Poetry Cure, an anthology of health-related poems Julia edited with Cynthia Fuller.  The wonderful image on the cover is a painting by one of Julia’s collaborators,  Emma Holliday.  Some new poems have been commissioned in the spirit of that book and a selection of Julia’s own work will also be read.  The event’s sold out but it’s being live streamed (6 – 8pm BST).  You can find the link here.

Various other exciting events are taking place and updates are available at a beautiful new website, designed specially for the occasion.


May we all be well.  May there be poems.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Gathering

photo 2

Just back from a busy weekend in Middlesbrough at the first T*Junction International Poetry Festival, where I read and spent time with poets from France (John Berger via Skype), London, Syria, Cuba, Serbia, Macedonia, Sussex, Finland, Estonia, Palestine, Nigeria and Teesside…No wonder I feel rather tired.

photo 3

The atmosphere was vibrant and unpredictable, a reflection of the rich diversity of poetic voices.  I felt as if I was in the eye of a storm – so many different experiences translated into something like harmony, our collective commitment to the word.  I came home with a case full of new books to see me through the autumn.

Many thanks to all the good folk of Teesside who gave us such a hearty welcome and created this nourishing and distinctive festival.  Here’s to many more…

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , ,