I overcame my PoFestPhobia and travelled up to Ledbury on Saturday for a brief taste of the largest poetry festival in the UK in this, its 20th year. And I have to report, it was a rather joyful experience!

First stop after we arrived late morning: the Walled Garden, where we caught the tail end of the Poetica Botanica reading, with contributors to Adam Horovitz’s project reading their ‘healing herbs’ poems to an audience seated on a semicircle of straw bales. We hooked up with my friend Joolz Sparkes, who was on Day Nine of the festival, and seemed relaxed and not in the least crazed after all that time in a poetry bubble.

After a spot of lunch, it was on to the Panelled Room in The Master’s House for 20 minutes with Matt Kirkham. We arrived at the almost packed out room just in time, and Nick and I found ourselves sitting front row centre, less than a yard from the lectern. This was the closest I came to a poetry panic, but I soon calmed down and enjoyed Matt’s reading, which included poems from his forthcoming Templar collection The Dumbo Octopus. Two poems that struck me strongly were The Whip and The Driver’s Mother, saying so much through the telling detail of one moment or image. Matt shared a poem by Ashraf Fayadh, as part of a joint initiative by the Ledbury Poetry Festival and English PEN to highlight ‘poets at risk around the world’. And he finished with a short extract from Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, written in 1938, but sounding chillingly contemporary.

Next up, a visit to the Emergency Poet and her ambulance parked on the High Street. While Joolz and someone-very-close-to-me went for a full consultation, I helped myself to a poetic pill to counter Existential Angst from the Cold Comfort Pharmacy, overseen by the charming and calming Nurse Verse.

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Cold Comfort Pharmacy

We booked into our B&B in time to see Serena Williams win the Wimbledon Singles Final – a record equalling 22nd Grand Slam title. The BBC coverage included a sequence with Serena reciting the poem that has apparently inspired her magnificent achievements: Still I rise by Maya Angelou. A great testament to the power of poetry.

A walk up into Dog Hill Wood for a beautiful view beyond Ledbury of the Herefordshire countryside; a tipple or two in the poets’ hangout, the Prince of Wales, where a weathered local silenced the bar with his impromptu and moving rendition of a folk song based on the myth of Odysseus and Penelope; chips eaten sitting on a bench outside the Market House while the world slowed down; then time to head over to the Comunity Hall for a Gala Evening of poetry and music, with Carol Ann Duffy and Friends.

The Gala Evening was compered by the ubiquitous and inimitable Jill Abram, one of the many volunteers at the the festival who keep the whole show running. In the first half, Carol Ann Duffy read  a selection of her poems interspersed with virtuoso horn and pipe playing by John Sampson and the occasional witty or acerbic aside from Carol Ann. After the interval LiTTLe MaCHiNe owned the stage, giving their all in a storming set that included versions of Byron’s We’ll go no more a roving and a progrocktastic take on Jabberwocky. They can mine a mournful vein too, as with Gillian Clark’s Overheard in County Sligo or Adlestrop by Edward Thomas. What better way, though, to end their encore than with the rousing rabble cry of John Rety’s A poet offers his wares?

The main event of the festival for me, though, was the following morning, back in the Panelled Room for  20 minutes with Joolz Sparkes: Me Old China. Joolz themed her set around celebrations and relationships,  and had written some of her poems on china plates, cups and saucers as a nod towards the Festival’s 20th anniversary – china being the traditional gift for this occasion. There were cup and saucer haiku, and a poem by Mahvash Sabet, currently imprisoned in Iran, read from a plate. Joolz talked about the feeling of being part of a community that the Festival engenders, before performing her Girls’ Night Out poem, which celebrates close female friendships. Barnacle is a short tender meditation on sticking things out. And reminding us to notice and cherish those things we take for granted, Joolz read her ode to the humble plastic bag. It was an assured and heartwarming performance. Brava, me old China!

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view from Dog Hill Wood

 

 

 

busy in a good way

July 8, 2016

There’s not been much let up since my Thrive residency came to an end. On Sunday 26th June I travelled far north (for a south London gal) to perform at Finchley Literary Festival‘s closing event, the Poetry and Music Palooza hosted by Anna Meryt. The locals were friendly and it was a fun and uplifting evening, despite the drizzle and recent events. Here’s a YouTube clip of my reading. Thanks to Anna for inviting me to read, and to David Gardiner for filming the event.

Then on Wednesday 29th June I took part in my first Stanza Bonanza at the Poetry Café. Billed as a ‘war of words’ between the Clapham and Reading Stanza groups, I was a little nervous, as I’m not keen on poetry as a combative activity. Thankfully, it was all very good-natured, and I volunteered to read first for Clapham so I was able to relax then and enjoy the rest of the evening. The winner? Poetry, of course! And, well, half the Reading team seemed to have connections to south London, so really…

StanzaBonanza

Clapham versus Reading

After a bit of a London Undercurrents lull (Joolz and I have both had a lot going on) we’re pleased to have two poems published in the 10th issue of Lunar Poetry magazine. The launch reading was on Tuesday in Peckham and as Joolz was away, I read for both of us.

I’ve also got two poems in issue 13 of morphrog, which has just gone live. Hurrah!

The community roof garden is keeping me busy in a very rewarding way. It’s not just the produce, but the strawberries and raspberries taste fantastic and we’ve had some delicious beetroot. There’s also been a football tournament taking place in France, you may have noticed. And on Monday I was filmed reading a poem in a polytunnel. But more about that another time.

berries

Battersea berries!

 

 

So, I’ve done it. I can update my writing CV to say I was Poet in Residence at Thrive Battersea for the Open Garden Squares Weekend 2016. It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience — both the run up to the weekend, spending time in the Herb Garden and the Old English Garden, sitting, thinking, observing, making notes; and the weekend itself, just gone, as I shared the poems I’ve written with visitors to the two gardens.

In the Herb Garden, I hung haiku from the branches of a black walnut tree. I also tied a few laminated poems to benches in both gardens for people to happen across. Rather than schedule readings for set times, I decided to offer individual readings as people dropped by, which I thought would suit these peaceful and slightly hidden-away pockets of Battersea Park. This meant that, apart from friends who’d come specifically to support me, I had to approach people and ask them if they’d like me to read them a poem. Wonderfully, most people I asked were receptive, and this led to some lovely conversations about poetry, gardens and personal memories of the park. Several people mentioned they also write poetry, and a couple of them read a poem of their own to me in return. I also had a bunch of poem postcards printed, with a short acrostic poem about Thrive, so people had something tangible to take away from my residency.

With thanks to Thrive, The Poetry School and London Parks and Gardens Trust for this great opportunity. And a big thank you to everyone who showed an interest and listened!
Photos kindly taken by Nick Rogers.

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May I read you a poem? Herb Garden, 18th June 2016

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haiku tree, Herb Garden, 19th June 2016

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inspiration for my ‘vampire squirrel’ poem, Herb Garden, 18th June 2016

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keen listener, or vampire in disguise? Old English Garden, 18th June 2016

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reading to Thrive gardeners and volunteers, Old English Garden, 19th June 2016

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receptive audience, Old English Garden, 19th June 2016

It’s hard to imagine a more picturesque setting for a poetry reading than the Old English Garden in Battersea Park. Here, on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, I read some of my garden themed poems as part of Thrive‘s Chelsea Fringe Festival week of events.

The weather was kind to me, with warm sunshine breaking through on both days. I had a small but attentive audience on each occasion, including some of Thrive’s hardworking gardeners and volunteers. The poems I read broadly reflect my own ongoing journey into gardening, and it was lovely to share some of the poems I’ve written over the last few weeks as I’ve spent time in the gardens Thrive manages.

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Old English Garden, Battersea Park, 29 May 2016

It’s only three weeks now until the Open Garden Squares Weekend on 18th and 19th of June. By then I hope to have a decent crop of new poems. For now, here’s a recent haiku, plucked from the Thrive Herb Garden:

IMG_2372

tall mauve irises,
poodle-proud. one rainbow shade
in time-lapse garden.

For the second year in a row, the Poetry School has teamed up with Open Garden Squares Weekend to offer mini residencies in London parks and gardens to emerging poets. Last year, my residency never quite got off the ground, so I’m delighted that this year I’ve been matched up with Thrive in Battersea Park.

I already have a connection with Thrive, as they partnered with the Doddington & Rollo Community Roof Garden to provide a horticultural therapist for the weekly gardening club we set up last year.  Thrive is a social enterprise that uses horticulture to improve the lives of people living with disabilities. In Battersea Park, Thrive manages four gardens, including the Herb Garden and Old English Garden, which will be the main focuses for the Open Garden Squares Weekend.

Thrive is also running a number of events during the week 23rd to 29th May as part of Chelsea Fringe Festival. I’ll  be spending time in all four Thrive gardens that week, observing and gathering material for new poems. I’m also pencilled in to give a short poetry reading at 3pm in the Old English Garden on both Saturday 28th and Sunday 29th May. It’s a beautiful setting and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for good weather.

The Open Garden Squares Weekend is 18th and 19th June, when gardens are at their peak, according to my Thrive horticulturalist. And for some reason I’m thinking about biennial plants, which put on leaves and store food in their first year, and wait until the second year to send up a flower stem and bloom. Roll on June.

Thriving Crop

birdwatching in Battersea

March 26, 2016

The plane trees outside my window are still bare. But they are visited regularly by a pair of birds I think I have successfully identified as magpies. I’ve checked both my Michelin I-Spy Birds book and Hamlyn nature guides’ Birds. The latter describes the magpie’s call as a hard, rapid rattling ‘sha-sha-sha-shak’. I’ve heard this sound off and on, in between the trains, planes and refuse collections, and wondered what creature or machine was making it.

Now I’ve matched up the sound with the two handsome black and white birds that glide in, alight on a thin branch, hop around, sometimes seem to stare back at me, and then gracefully take wing and flit off elsewhere. Long tail feathers. Black that is shot through with petrol blue and emerald. Yes, these appear to be European magpies. Australian magpies are different, you see. It’s only taken me twenty odd years to realise that.

Bird books

novice urban twitcher’s essential reading

Recently, I’ve noticed one or other bird fly in, rummage about among the leafless branches, and then fly off with a long twig in its beak. After a fleeting stopover on the roof of the nearby Chinese noodle restaurant, our fearless magpie reaches its destination in the high branches of a mature plane tree whose roots are breaking up the brick paving outside my block. It didn’t take me too long – certainly less than twenty years – to twig that this pair of magpies is building a nest. I’m very excited for them. This is one housing development n Battersea that I have no objection to.

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The Nest, Battersea

Poetry can take you to many places. On Wednesday night we travelled to all these cities without leaving the discomfort of the Poetry Café’s infamous orange plastic chairs. I was one of four invited readers at South Bank Poetry magazine’s First Wednesday event, along with Norbert Hirschhorn, Peter Raynard and Amy McAllister. The time allotted to each featured poet is generous – twenty minutes in total, split between the two halves of the evening.

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First Wednesday, Poetry Café, 2nd March 2016

I began my first set with one of my few Melbourne poems, remembering the Seaview Ballroom where I saw bands such as The Birthday Party, The Scientists and The Go-Betweens. Unhappy days but life-changing music. Then two poems that came out of the six months I lived in West Berlin (as it was) way back when. A necessary bleakness. Cheers, the first poem I had published in South Bank Poetry, hopefully lifted the mood. I felt myself to be a Londoner when I realised I was saying ‘cheers’ unselfconsciously, in that ‘thanks’ and ‘see you’ kind of way. After a few poems from Triptych Poets, I finished my first half set with a poem about the job I quit just over a year ago. No regrets!

In the second half I performed some fairly new poems, including a few horticulturally themed ones, and enjoyed giving these poems an airing.

I first met Peter Raynard at a South Bank Poetry launch a couple of years ago and remember being impressed by his confident performance, and surprised to learn that he’d only started writing poetry relatively recently. He’s since set up Proletarian Poetry, an online anthology of poetry of working class lives, and his own poetry has gone from strength to strength. He provided the Coventry connection, with several hard-hitting poems set in his home town. There’s a visceral quality to many of Peter’s poems, but also great wit.

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Peter Raynard

Amy McAllister described herself as a ‘cavewoman’ as she doesn’t do Facebook or other social media, though she had a very funny poem about why she’s not on Facebook. Her background is in slam poetry and her poems – mostly, but not exclusively, about boys – are fast-paced, bursting with wordplay, and often take the poem’s central idea to an extreme. She’s also lived in Berlin and her reference in one poem to a kebab-strewn pavement definitely resonated across the years for me. An energetic performer, she’s capable too of those poignant ‘aah’ moments no poetry reading should be without.

Norbert Hirschhorn brought us the smells, sounds, tastes and heartache of Beirut, where he lives some of the time. His are beautiful and generous poems, full of humanity and sensual detail. These are poems I will be seeking out, to read and savour again on the page.

All in all, a cosmopolitan and well travelled night.

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Norbert Hirschhorn

baths, bananas, bluebells

February 13, 2016

If you ever doubted the variety of erotic expression, take a peek inside The Emma Press’s Mildly Erotic Verse anthology. The expanded second edition was launched on Wednesday night upstairs at the Betsey Trotwood. Outside, it was pretty nippy. Inside, the gaggle of poets and poetry lovers was soon casting aside coats and basking in the warm red glow of poetry that purred, tickled, surprised and, in the best way, left us wanting more.

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sparing my blushes

I’m thrilled—dare I say chuffed to buggery?—to have a poem included in the new edition, and it was a pleasure to read at the launch. Mine’s the poem that features bananas. It seemed to go down well, so to speak.

Some of my highlights from the launch included Mary Gilonne’s Avventura with its great opening line, Sophia Blackwell’s luscious The Globemakers, the wickedly funny My Love, the Shetland Trowie by Stephanie Green, Angela Kirby, Di Slaney, Natalie Shaw and Isobel Dixon. Now I’m enjoying rereading these and discovering more delights. My absolute favourite so far is Contagion by Victoria Kennefick, which manages to be both supremely icky and tremendously lustful at the same time.

Mildly erotic verse with GSOH—what an aphrodisiac!

 

 

rhythm and balance

February 3, 2016

or balance and rhythm. Two key elements in any good piece of writing. And thinking about time, how I use it, how to structure it, I realise this is what I’m aiming for: rhythm and balance. I’m resistant to timetables. The word ‘routine’ gives me the horrors. But balance and rhythm — yes, these feel like useful concepts; words I’m comfortable with, that I’m happy to latch onto.

So, in pursuit of rhythm and balance, I’ve come up with a few none-too-original maxims and techniques.

writing first
I made this my mantra when I took a sabbatical several years ago, and I’ve come back to it. It means not looking at emails first thing. It means get up, have a shower, get dressed, make breakfast to eat at my desk and start scratching words onto a blank page. Or pick up that story or poem where I left off yesterday and keep writing. Don’t allow the world in yet. Two, three mugs of coffee. Write.

coffee break reading
A perpetual angst — the piles of unread books and magazines. But now I have my trendy ceramic pour over filter cone, the process of making a coffee takes around five minutes. It has its own rhythm. While I’m doing the rinse-bloom-pour over performance, I’ve time to read a poem or two, an article or a review. I’m nearly on track to finish the winter edition of Mslexia before the spring issue arrives.

part week planner
I developed this when Nick and I had overlapping work patterns. And our week still divides somehow into two parts: Saturday to Monday; Tuesday to Friday. Another rhythm. I write the days in French because — alors, pourquoi pas? The ‘ongoing’ section gets carried over to the next part week planner. We tick things off. We add things in. The part week planner does not replace lists — oh no, we have numerous lists! I think its main benefits are the at-a-glance view of the next few days, and the reflective moments as I draw up the next part week planner.

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my non-patented part week planner

he naps, I read
I haven’t quite cracked this one yet. Nick has definitely cracked the first part. An afternoon nap has been part of the rhythm of his (non-work) days for many years. I feel woozy and headachy if I lie down during the day. On the other hand I do often experience an afternoon slump — nothing to do with the three or four coffees I’ve drunk in the morning, of course. So I thought sitting quietly and reading for an hour or so after lunch might help balance out the seesawing mood, as well as gradually whittling down one of the piles of unread books. I’ve managed it a few times and it is pleasurable and satisfying to read, for example, a short poetry pamphlet in one sitting. Those emails can wait. Yes, really, they can wait.

 

January poetry jamboree

January 16, 2016

Poets, it seems, don’t hibernate. The first couple of weeks of 2016 have been jam-packed with poetry events and I’ve managed to squeeze in a few, despite a visit from the sinusitis fairy.

My personal poetry fest kicked off before the new year, with two poems published in Ol’ Chanty online. The issue also includes new poems and translations by Louise Landes Levi, an amazing poet, musician and life-force. Editor Richard Livermore’s essay What is poetry about? is well worth a read too, especially if references to Deleuze, Sartre and set-theory excite you. That works for me!

Then Joolz Sparkes and I got a lovely new year boost with two poems from our London Undercurrents project accepted for the third issue of Severine literary journal – coming soon! That set us up nicely for a brace of London Undercurrents readings, firstly at Beyond Words on Tuesday 5th, and then on Wednesday 13th at the ever-wonderful Loose Muse. Both events were well attended with appreciative audiences. Nothing like a bit of positive feedback to stave off the January blues!

In between performing at those two readings, I sat back and enjoyed a couple of others. On Thursday 7th January, Telltale Press hosted a free reading at the Poetry Café. I liked the format – two Telltale poets, Siegfried Baber and Peter Kenny, plus two guest poets, Kitty Coles and Jack Underwood. It was a great mix of voices and styles, and as I already had the full set of Telltale pamphlets – purchased in a spending flurry at last year’s Free Verse Poetry Book Fair – turned out to be an inexpensive night out. I would have bought Jack Underwood’s Faber collection Happiness but by the time I approached him he’d sold all the copies he’d brought along. Instead, he signed a Telltale postcard for me and I promised I’ll buy his book.

And last Sunday, I had a fourth row seat (thanks to Jill Abram’s excellent forward planning) for the T S Eliot Prize Readings at the Royal Festival Hall. I hadn’t read any of the shortlisted collections, so I went with an open mind, ready to be wowed. The readings which impressed me most were:
Mark Doty – humane, demotic, poignant and wise
Sarah Howe – a powerful and poised reading from memory
Selima Hill (read by Karen McCarthy Woolf) – short ambiguous poems suffused with pain and humour
Rebecca Perry – fresh, unusual, her own self
Claudia Rankine – mesmerising

By the end of the readings, though, the sinusitis fairy, which had been hovering nearby, had definitely taken up residence inside my head, so I made my excuses and hurried home. Thankfully, I was able to dislodge her before Joolz and I were due to read at Loose Muse.

There’s no let-up next week, as I plan to attend the Lumen Poetry reading on Tuesday 19th featuring poets from Malika’s Kitchen and then a poetry workshop on Saturday. Yes, a workshop. Me. Maybe I’ve caught poetry fever.

 

 

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