November 22, 2015
This rose knows nothing about Paris, Raqqa, global pain.
This rose is silent. It is a wordless song of colour and perfume.
This rose is not aware of climate change. It blooms when it is ready. Mid November – why not?
This rose grows on a rooftop in Battersea. When the garden is shut it continues its rose-existence. It does not miss me.
When I lean in to sniff its rain-fresh scent, does it sense me?
When I say hello, does it hear me?
Does it know it is a balm for my atheist soul?
November 6, 2015
It’s the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival this weekend. Anyone who is Anybody in the Poetry World will be there. Or most of the Somebodies, anyway. I imagine.
I’m not there. I’m not going. I have been to Aldeburgh – for the music festival, a couple of years ago. But the Poetry Festival clashes with my birthday, and oddly (or not) I don’t want to spend my birthday at a poetry festival. Therefore, I am not a Real Poet, as I have confessed before.
I find the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair stimulating in an overwhelming way. Not to mention the hit my wallet takes. So the idea of three whole days immersed in poetry events, readings, debates, all those names I should know, should have read, with no means of escape – well, frankly, the idea terrifies me. Perhaps I am more of a homebody than I realised. Perhaps I can only take my poetry in short, sharp doses. Maybe it’s willful. No doubt I am missing out and need to get over myself.
Instead, for my birthday, I’m planning a lie-in (I’m working again… I need a lie-in), brunch at a local café, and then a trip to the Small Publishers’ Fair at Conway Hall. I’ll need a drink and a debrief after that, I’m sure. On Sunday, it’s the Poetry Library Open Day and their provocatively titled live event The End of the Poem (which I had retitled in my head as The Death of the Poem). So it seems not everybody will be at Aldeburgh.
But for those of you who are – have a whale of a time! I look forward to reading your accounts. And thanks for going, so that I don’t have to.
October 13, 2015
It’s a cliché and it’s true – none of us are getting any younger. But facing up to the reality of ageing, in a society that prizes youthfulness and demeans or ignores old age, is not easy. So The Emma Press’s new Anthology of Age feels like a small but much needed poetic intervention, a quiet prodding at one of our last taboos. I’m very pleased to have a poem included in the anthology – a poem I wrote nearly 20 years ago, but hadn’t sent out for nearly as long, because I was uncomfortable with the subject matter. There are a number of uneasy poems in this anthology, some unflinching looks at the difficulties and indignities too many people face in old age. But there are also splashes of humour, acres of compassion and humanity, and what the editor Sarah Hesketh describes in her introduction as ‘an immense outpouring of solidarity and shared feeling about ageing.’
One of my favourite poems in the book is 8 a.m. by Alison Brackenbury – four generous and joyous lines. Julia Bird’s Lethe and the Nightingale, composed solely from the words in Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, manages to be both a tour de force and a tugger of heart strings. For humour, head to Outside the Pub, Hurricane Bawbag by Russell Jones; while On the Ferry by Sandra Horn is understatedly defiant. Every poem is telling in its own way, and the anthology contains many tough and poignant poems, such as My Camel by Emma-Jane Hughes, which I read, put down, read again, and it still won’t let me go.
The book itself is a handsome thing, sensitively illustrated by publisher Emma Wright. After several tries, this is my first poem to be accepted for an Emma Press anthology, and the experience has been something of a joy. Detailed emails keeping contributors informed of progress, proofs to check, a proper contract, and one of the best organised launch readings I’ve attended. Happily, I’ve now had a poem accepted for the forthcoming second edition of Mildly Erotic Verse, due out in January 2016. Just don’t tell my Mum.
October 3, 2015
On Thursday evening there was a reading to celebrate the Mixed Borders scheme run earlier this year by the Poetry School in association with the Open Garden Squares Weekend. I’ve written previously about the scheme which, for most poets, led to a mini residency in a London park or garden in mid June. Over the summer, I continued to try to set something up with the park I hoped to work with, but unfortunately in the end this hasn’t proved possible. Nevertheless, I’ve learnt a lot along the way and have written a bunch of new poems about dew, orchards, old trees and more. Watch out, poetry magazine editors!
Thursday’s reading came under the umbrella of International Alert’s Talking Peace Festival, with the theme ‘peace in our city’. It took place in the cinema space inside the House of Vans, a thoroughly urban art and skate venue housed in railway arches beneath Waterloo station. Nearly a dozen poets from the Mixed Borders project gathered in the bare brick vault, perching ourselves on tiered plywood benches, and taking turns to clamber down to the front and read a short selection of poems. The attentive audience included friends and associates, but not too many skateboarders, as far as I could tell. As incongruous as the surroundings seemed for showcasing poetry about gardens, it meant there were no distractions and the poems flowered and dazzled in their own right. The variety and inventiveness were wonderful to hear – contemplative poems, collaborative and stitched together poems, lyrical, quirky, beautifully observed, and laugh-aloud funny poems. What also came through so strongly was the attachment each poet had formed with their allotted garden and how the experience has enriched their poetry in ways that will continue to ripple out. Even though my experience has been a little different, I’ve tackled new subject matter and poetic approaches, and written poems that have surprised me. My involvement with the Mixed Borders project has also deepened my appreciation of London’s green spaces and how invaluable they are to so many people.
The Poetry School has also produced an online pamphlet featuring a number of poems by each poet. You can stroll through our garden here: http://campus.poetryschool.com/campus-pamphlets-mixed-borders/
Or download the pdf version here: http://campus.poetryschool.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Mixed-Borders-FINAL.pdf
September 27, 2015
Yesterday I went to the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair and came home with:
One free notebook – thank you, Poetry School!
Three business cards
Three anthologies, including the free, chunky, Free Verse Poetry Book Fair anthology
Nine free postcards
Ten pamphlets, including the full set of four Telltale Press pamphlets for a super-duper bargain price of £10.00
Assorted leaflets and flyers
One paper carrier bag with a broken handle
My head buzzing with conversations and possibilities
The word ‘budget’ devoid of meaning
When I spread out my spoils on the bed this morning I felt slightly queasy. I think that’s called a poetry hangover. Nothing that a little light reading won’t cure.
September 20, 2015
Yesterday morning I joined a small crowd on Vardens Road, SW11, for the unveiling of a Battersea Society plaque honouring Hilda Hewlett.
Hilda who? Only the first British woman to gain a pilot’s licence, back in 1911, aged 47. And an extremely enterprising woman, who opened a flying school in Weybridge with her French business partner, Gustave Blondeau, and later diversified into manufacturing aircraft. This is where the Battersea connection comes in. Hewlett and Blondeau set up aircraft production in premises on Vardens Road. They built monoplanes and biplanes, employing skilled locals in their workshop, until the outbreak of the First World War. Then, with increased demand, they moved production to larger premises in Bedfordshire.
At the plaque unveiling, Pauline Vahey, from the British Women Pilots’ Association, spoke about the continued importance of celebrating such pioneering role models as Hilda Hewlett, to encourage and inspire girls and young women to pursue careers in aviation and engineering – or simply to consider recreational flying as a possibility.
Hilda’s grand-daughter-in-law, Gail Hewlett, was also at the unveiling. She gave a brief and entertaining overview of this formidable woman’s life, and concluded by saying that if Hilda knew there was a plaque commemorating her she would be amazed – and secretly rather pleased. Gail’s book about Hilda, Old Bird. The Irrepressible Mrs Hewlett, looks to be a cracking read with some great photos. I’m going to have to track down a copy somehow.
August 28, 2015
I am an immigrant. Have you heard of this campaign? Have you seen the posters? What an urgent and vital voice it seems at the moment.
I am an immigrant too. I was born and grew up in Australia. I lived in Melbourne until my early twenties when I decided to move to London. My father was Scottish, which means I have dual Australian and British nationality. An accident of birth.
My story is not extraordinary. I wasn’t fleeing persecution or civil war. All I had to do was obtain my British passport and purchase a one-way ticket to London. My reasons for migrating weren’t economic, but personal and probably a bit mixed up. I arrived in London at a time of high unemployment. Ironically, one of my first jobs was working in an Unemployment Benefit Office. I remember the long queues on signing on days, and the antiquated ticker-tape computer, which was operated by a rather fierce woman, feeding the tape into the machine to send data to Reading. Happy days.
I am acutely aware of my privilege/luck/good fortune/luxury—to have the choice of two countries to reside in—both relatively stable and with all the first-world trappings we take for granted. I’ve been able to fashion my life broadly as I’ve wanted, and my struggles are mostly around writing and seeking some kind of creative fulfilment (whatever that might mean).
Yet on our doorstep, desperate people risk their lives to escape deeply desperate situations. There is an issue around language, here, and it matters at some level I think. In many of the reports I’ve read about Calais, and the boats sinking off the coast of Libya, and the abandoned lorry in Austria, the tragic victims are referred to as “migrants”. The word “refugee” seems to have gone missing. To my mind, the word “migrant” diminishes or disguises the extreme plight which such people are fleeing. A few other terms worth rehabilitating would be “humanity” and “compassion”.
We’re full of awe for nature’s epic migrations. Why do we find it so hard to acknowledge, let alone celebrate, similar tenacity and spirit in our own species?
August 8, 2015
Clothes can change your state of mind. Imagine you live in late Victorian times. You are in a state of extreme mental distress, and have been admitted to Bethlem Hospital. Perhaps you believe your soul has been lost, or all your organs have been removed, or some great harm is imminent. Early in your stay, you are dressed in strong clothing — a heavy dress, lined with felt, laced at the back, and with sleeves that enclose your hands in mittens. How does that make you feel? Safe and comforted? Cared for? Or restricted, controlled, imprisoned?
The current exhibition at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, held, is a series of photographs by Jane Fradgley, portraying some of the items of strong clothing from the Museum’s archive. Fradgley’s tender photographs capture the ambivalence of these garments, resulting in portraits — rather than clinical documentation — that are beautiful and haunting, or haunted. The mostly life-size photos hang in the new gallery space, and when I visited last week, I was struck by the calm and contemplative feel of the show, despite the troubling nature of the subject matter.
I got to know Jane last year, and we’d had a couple of long conversations about her held project, and some of the issues that strong clothing raises. I was fascinated to learn that very little is known about the history of the garments — who made them, the circumstances in which they’d been used, how much compulsion or consent was involved. With a background in fashion, Jane’s interest is also in the fabrics and the details, such as a frill around the neckline, which make these more than mere instruments of restraint. We discussed how the idea of being held encompasses both comfort — being hugged, for example — and enforced restraint. When Jane asked if I would consider writing a poem for her proposed book of photographs, I accepted what felt like a rather daunting challenge.
The resulting poem, Strong Medicine, had a long gestation. Jane emailed me copies of her images, the clothes floating against a white/cream or more often black background — disembodied, voiceless, yet speaking a mixture of delicacy and pain, something like a husk or shadow of accumulated anguish. Jane had lent me Presumed Curable, a book of photographs taken in the late 19th century of Bethlem Hospital patients, with brief accounts of the circumstances of their admission and eventual discharge — though some patients initially ‘presumed curable’ ended their days in the hospital. The acute distress of most patients is palpable even in the short accounts, with many expressing a feeling that their soul was lost or had died. When I came to write the poem, I was thinking about how many individual crises each item of strong clothing had contained — the specifics now vanished — and tried to bring out what might have been healing and hopeful in that experience.
My poem is included in the handsome booklet that accompanies the exhibition, along with reproductions of a number of photos and a short essay, all for only £2.00. A limited edition hand-bound book featuring 36 photos, my poem and other texts, is being launched at the gallery on 19th August. held, a thought-provoking and poignant exhibition, is on until 21st August.
July 27, 2015
If you’re in or near London, it would be great to see you at the South Bank Poetry issue 21 launch this Friday. The editors promise a bit of a ‘coming of age’ party!
Originally posted on London Undercurrents:
We’re dead chuffed to have two London Undercurrents poems included in the Summer Issue 21 of South Bank Poetry. And we’ll be reading, along with a number of other contributors, at the magazine’s launch this Friday 31st July at the Poetry Café, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BX, from 7:45 p.m.
SBP’s launch events are always lively and varied, so come along and immerse yourself in some fine London and urban poetry. Admission £6.50/£5.50 concs. includes a copy of Issue 21, hot off the press!
July 7, 2015
I am heliocentric.
I am drama after drama.
I am lemon, honey, olive groves.
I am roadside weeds
and fresh baked bread.
I am Homer, Sappho, Socrates.
I am both thalassa
a spartan Epicurean.
Call me an oxymoron if you will.
I am winding roads,
sheer drops, wild thyme.
I am rembetika
and November 17.
I am the little o of omicron
the heavy aspiration of chi
the iota of hope we all need.
I am όχι.