staying the course

March 25, 2015

I thought about calling this post ‘I survived a poetry course’. But that would’ve been a tad melodramatic. I’ve just completed a six week poetry course on Monday evenings, based in the Marlene Dumas exhibition at Tate Modern and tutored by the amazing Pascale Petit. And I’ve surprised myself by really rather enjoying it.

I have never been much of a one for workshops and courses. The roots of this near-aversion run fairly deep, I think, back to my unhappy secondary schooling, and then abandoning a Bachelor of Arts degree after the first year. Me and formal education just don’t get on, I decided, and I’ve rather stretched the meaning of ‘formal’. Then there’s my Fear of the Group, which also goes a long way back, coupled with my ambivalence about defining myself as a poet. So I’ve tended to stumble along my own path, which is loosely what my poem The Hard Way is about.

But then, one of the things I thought about while I was weighing up whether to quit my day job and look for something more fulfilling, was that I needed to stretch myself, to try out some of those things that I’ve locked away in the not-me box. I’d heard glowing reports of Pascale’s Tate Modern courses from several people, and devoured her latest collection Fauverie. So when I saw she was running a course tying in with the Marlene Dumas show, and tantalisingly titled The Spirit of Things: Poetry of the Body, I signed up.

In some ways, it feels like this was a gentle introduction to the mysteries of the poetry course. It was a large group – 25 students, though I don’t think we ever had a full house – which could have felt overwhelming, but I’m sure I’d have felt more exposed and self-conscious in a smaller group. I recognised a couple of friendly faces, which helped, as did the venue. I know Tate Modern fairly well, love to visit, and here we were in the galleries after hours, without the crowds, and surrounded by some stunning and provocative art.

The sessions began with a couple of poems or texts that related in some way to Dumas’s themes of the body, love, sexuality and death, followed by a short discussion of people’s responses to the poem. We spent time looking at specific paintings, reflecting, and again sharing our thoughts when the group reconvened. There was no being put on the spot or pressured to contribute, and although I mostly listened and absorbed other people’s interesting and often insightful comments, I made a conscious effort to chip in when I felt confident in my observation.

Each session included time to write, Pascale sending us off to write a poem with a particular focus or approach and incorporating a prompt such as using a line from one of Marlene Dumas’s poem-texts. This was probably the hardest part for me, having to quell the inner censoring voice, forget about the fabulous poems I imagined everyone around me was crafting, and simply write. Without my usual mug of black coffee to hand. The point, of course, is to get started, and in that short intense period of writing new and surprising things may bubble up. We then had the intervening week to work on the poem, and perhaps share it at the next session.

As well as spending time in the Marlene Dumas exhibition, we had two sessions working with material by a younger South African artist Nicholas Hlobo and another looking at the incredibly detailed etchings of Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin. I found Hlobo’s work in particular very rich and subtle, and beautifully delicate.

The course overall was in fact much more than a gentle introduction. I’ve been exposed to poets I hadn’t come across before – C.K. Williams (where have I been?), also Nick Flynn, and Natalie Diaz, whose poem The Cure for Melancholy is to Take the Horn really dazzled me. I’ve thought about different approaches to writing about the body and in response to visual art. Prompted by Pascale’s suggested reading list, I reread Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds and felt again its visceral impact. I also dug out Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry from the bottom of a pile of unread books. It’s now on the top of a pile of unread books and I will read it. In one session Pascale gave us a list of eight different kinds of mental imagery, which I’ve already found very useful in stretching my poetic range. I’ve written one strongish poem, and have several embryonic ones to work on, and something that I think may turn into an odd little story.

At the end of the final session there was a celebratory reading, when we each got the chance to read a poem written on the course to our fellow students, watched over by Marlene Dumas’s luminous, larger-than-life close-up portraits. It was uplifting to hear such strong and varied work, and to feel the support and appreciation in the room. And this, undeniably, was one of the other benefits of attending the course – meeting other writers, poets, people journeying along their own literary path and willing to share their bumps, false starts and unexpected gems.

I hadn’t realised when I signed up for the course that this was to be the last in this format, six weekly sessions, that Pascale runs at the Tate, so I’m especially glad to have had this experience. And the next challenge? I’ll let you know once I’ve survived it.


underground reading

March 8, 2015

varied diet

varied diet

One of the few up sides of my enforced break from cycling was the extra reading time on the journey to and from work. I found poetry particularly suited to short bursts of reading, and also loved how individual poems could quickly plunge me into a completely different emotional and linguistic space to the squash and trudgery of commuting. I made very few notes, so this is simply a record (probably incomplete, not in chronological order) of what I read and the impressions each volume left on me.

Into the Woods by Anna Robinson (not pictured). I borrowed this from the Poetry Library, and found its effect quite hypnotic. The sequence has a fairytale quality – by which I mean the dark kind of fairytale of old: a hovering sense of menace; strangeness encroaching into the everyday; half-glimpsed things.

When God is a Traveller by Arundhathi Subramaniam. This was an impulse buy following the T.S. Eliot Prize readings at Royal Festival Hall. She was the standout performer for me, with wonderful presence and charm. Reading her poems, I could hear them in her voice in my head. There is a lot of wit, a worldliness, and much striking imagery. I liked the spacing and tempo of the poems, and the excitement of discovering what, for me, is a new voice.

I Knew the Bride by Hugo Williams (not pictured). Another post T.S. Eliot Prize readings purchase, to send to a friend in Holland who knew Williams years ago. I dipped in before entrusting the book to Royal Mail, and ended up reading the whole thing. Self-deprecating, very English, almost off-hand, yet threaded through with painful truths, both emotional and physical. I was glad that I could write to my friend that Williams has now had a kidney transplant and is apparently doing well.

The Misplaced House by Josephine Corcoran. I’d followed the gestation of Jospehine’s pamphlet via her blog, so was keen to read this. Unfortunately I couldn’t make the launch so ordered the pamphlet instead from Tall Lighthouse. I knew some of the poems, such as the powerful opening poem Stephen Lawrence isn’t on the National Curriculum, and her themes of family, loss and memory chime strongly with my own concerns. I really like the way the poems seem to talk to each other, too, as well as to the reader. And there’s a funny if rather disturbing poem where poet and pet rabbit exchange places.

Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Roads by Amy Acre. I confess I didn’t know Amy Acre’s work before tagging along to the launch with my London Undercurrents collaborator Joolz Sparkes. But in a spirit of adventure, I purchased the pamphlet, having enjoyed Amy’s performance at the launch. Her poetry does lean towards the performance end of the spectrum, but there’s plenty of energy and linguistic inventiveness on the page too. Some of the references I’m sure passed me by – different background, different generation – but I particularly liked The Ends of the Earth, which is a beautiful and tender mirror poem. Having watched the film Back to the Future for the first time the other night (I have a patchy relationship with cinema), I’m sure a few more references in this pamphlet would now fall into place on a second reading.

Myrtle by Ruth Wiggins. i remember being wowed by Ruth’s poem Pulmón de manzana when she read it at the launch of issue 19 of South Bank Poetry in November last year. That poem is included in her impressive Emma Press pamphlet, one gem amongst many fearfully good poems. These are rich and sensual poems, often astonishing, always assured. I’m still shocked that I could be lured into her poem False Widow given its (phobic) subject. That’s powerful writing.

Fauverie by Pascale Petit. I’m in danger of sounding like a literary floozie. Another launch, another book purchase. But this is not just another collection. The poems, many of which originate from dark and painful places, are full of fierce and wonderful imagery, and carry a great redemptive power. The book is alive with creatures both caged and wild, with vivid evocations of Paris – sights, sounds, smells and tastes – and at its centre is a transformative journey, with Petit fully in control of her material.

Formerly by Tamar Yoseloff & Vici MacDonald. Described as ‘a poetic journey through disappearing London’, this beautifully produced pamphlet features black and white photos by Vici MacDonald paired with ‘loose sonnets’ by Tamar Yoseloff. A not-so-impulse buy from last year’s Free Verse Poetry Book Fair. I like it as a thing-in-itself. I like the London angle, the collaborative aspect, and I’m rather afraid of form, so I was very interested to read these loose sonnets and feel their cumulative impact, the resonances between poems, and their overall elegiac effect.

If you’ve read to the end – thank you! You’ll have learnt that I’m a sucker for a launch event. I think I need to get out on my bicycle now.

not twiddling my thumbs

February 22, 2015

In my rebellious teenage years, if I expressed my desire to be a writer, the immediate ‘helpful’ suggestion was that I should  pursue a career in journalism. I knew strongly this was not what I wanted to do, nor did I want anything so conformist as a career. So I made a conscious decision to keep my paid employment quite separate from my creative life. And for a long time this has worked, sort of, for me, especially when I’ve been able to negotiate part time hours. I’ve held various roles in the Housing Association sector (not for profit – nice box to tick), ending up in IT as a Data Quality Analyst.

Increasingly, though, I came to feel that the disconnect between what I currently spend 28 hours per week doing in the office, and my real passion – my ‘outside’ writing life – is not healthy. Several months ago, a second-hand copy of How to Find Fulfilling Work turned up in our flat. Written by Roman Krznaric, it’s published by The School of Life. I set aside my sceptical hat, chose a notebook with a bird on the front, and scurried off to my secret café at lunchtimes to read Krznaric’s book and think about my exit strategy.

escape plans

escape plans

Then life intervened. I fractured my right thumb, and more life-changingly, I suffered a bereavement. Around the same time, I finally paid off my mortgage. In the new year I returned to The School of Life book and my notes, and stuck a galvanising Post-it note, in my still wobbly right-hand writing, above my computer at home.

Hillel exhorting Hilaire

Hillel exhorting Hilaire

Reading How to Find Fulfilling Work helped me clarify what will give me more meaning or fulfillment in my work – using my talents and reflecting my passions – as well as understanding why I’ve shied away from this in the past. And to recognise that I’m ready to take that leap now. One of the key messages is to ‘act now and reflect later’, and I’m in a fortunate position to be able to afford to take a very radical sabbatical. With no return date. So at the end of January I handed my notice in, and I finish work this coming Thursday. My plans are open, rather then vague. I’m looking forward to some time out, to write, and to explore possibilities. And if I have a minor panic and start to wonder if I should instead have stuck to analysing data, there’s some great anarchist graffiti on a nearby building to remind me I’ve made the right choice.

Live Free or Die, Queenstown Road

Live Free or Die, Queenstown Road

Hilaire – Reborn

February 16, 2015


I’m very pleased to have this poem published on The Stare’s Nest today. The poem is dedicated to Talha Ahsan, a British-born poet and translator with Asperger’s syndrome. In  2012, having already been held in detention without charge in the UK for 6 years, he was extradited to the US – without any prima facie evidence being provided to a British court – and held in solitary confinement in a supermax prison awaiting trial. I started writing to him in prison last year after I met his brother Hamja at a poetry event, where he read one of Talha’s extraordinary poems. Thankfully, Talha finally returned to the UK as a a free man last autumn, following a ‘time served’ sentence from the US judge, who in her judgement rejected much of the prosecution evidence and stated that Talha was not and never had been a threat. If you’re not familiar with his case, there is more here:

Originally posted on The Stare's Nest:


for Talha

‘I will experience what very few ever do in this world: life after death.’

Letter from Talha Ahsan, Northern Correctional Institution, Connecticut, 28 May 2014

To experience life after death

is to hold your face up to rain,

each drop soft-sharp, soul-piercing.

To breathe in air vibrant with fumes

and sweat and spice, the dancing particles

of adjacent lives.

To walk in unbounded space

along streets and lanes,

through parks, across commons.

To walk until your feet bleed

and your ears shimmer with every

newly-heard city sound.

To lie on a bench and feast

on London’s heavenly sky.

To sleep again on sheets

washed by maternal hands,

smoothed tight against nightmare.

In your own time tell

how it was

how it is

in your own words

in your own

good time.

Hilaire grew up in Melbourne but moved to London half a lifetime ago. She has had…

View original 82 more words

February’s looking up

February 6, 2015

Poor old January. Too often a long dark month to get through. Now you’re behind us, and February’s here, the shortest month whose lengthening days speed us towards spring. So it snowed overnight on Monday, and the wind is Siberian, but there are snowdrops in the park, and buds on the magnolia trees.

This bright morning I walked down to Battersea High Street to check out Raynsford’s greengrocers, following a friend’s recommendation, and was not disappointed. Blood oranges, four for a pound. Blood oranges! Sunshine wrapped in citrus peel.

And this afternoon, for the first time since I fractured my right thumb, I ventured out on my bicycle. I’ve been itching to get cycling again, though my thumb’s not yet restored to full flexibility, and I’m still building up its strength. So this was a trial run, in the relative safety of Battersea Park. Four circuits, varying the pace, practising gear changes, making sure I could brake, battling headlong into that Siberian wind. How exhilarating it felt! But, being a cautious bod, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to tackle peak hour traffic, especially after dark. That will come. And beyond this, I’m hatching plans. Changes are afoot. February is definitely looking up.



a story about a novel

January 18, 2015

Once upon a time, I came across a collection of short stories titled Suck My Toes in a second-hand bookshop in Melbourne. I bought it, for the title, and the cover, which featured a pair of Blundstone boots, my favourite footwear for many years. I’d never heard of the author, Fiona McGregor, and if you’re UK-based, chances are you’ve never heard of her either. I read the collection of interlinked stories and loved it. I loved the writing, the sensibility, the characters who were often between places or lovers or their own sense of self. And although as far as my Australian identity is concerned I’m very much a Melbournite, and McGregor most certainly is a Sydney-sider, I responded strongly to her descriptions of that city, to the smells and sounds and weather woven through the stories, so that Sydney became one of the shifting, restless, flawed characters that I couldn’t help becoming fond of.

I loved the book so much I read it twice. Several years later the now defunct lit mag PROP asked me to write a piece about a favourite short story collection. I wrote about Suck My Toes and sent a copy of the article to McGregor’s publisher in Australia. At some point I bought her first novel, Au Pair, which was published before the short story collection. I have less vivid memories of reading this, though the subject matter – a young woman escaping overseas to forge her own identity – is close to my heart; and now that I’m a signed-up Francophile, the novel’s Parisian setting surely means it deserves a second reading. But the point of this story is that ever since I first encountered Fiona McGregor’s writing, hers is the name I look for whenever I’m in a bookshop in Melbourne. And usually I am disappointed.

Jump to a second-hand bookshop in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs one afternoon in early December. I’m in Melbourne on the briefest of visits and for the saddest of reasons, but as I half-heartedly scan the shelves I light upon Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor. Published in 2010 by Scribe, and with a glowing endorsement from Christos Tsiolkas on the cover; second-hand, a bit scuffed, but new to me. I hug it to myself. I buy it. I wait until I am back home in London and then one night in bed I start reading this big novel about 59 year-old Marie King, recently divorced, living in the family home on Sydney’s north shore and rapidly falling apart. A novel about family, loss, greed and self discovery, as Marie begins to transform herself through the ink and friendship of tattoo artist Rhys. The novel gets under my skin. I’m reading late into the night and I’m too involved to make notes, to jot down those glittering sentences that conjour up Sydney, the house, Marie’s beloved garden; the prolonged hot dry summer that is the backdrop to the novel, and one of the sub-themes – the environment, climate change, the marks we make on the world. There’s a good sprinkling of social satire throughout the novel as well, but also a sense that Marie and her adult children are grappling with some of the issues facing Australian society today. I can see why Tsiolkas is a fan. And I don’t want the novel to end even though I’m racing towards the last pages and I know there’s no happy ending. But the book lives on, in memory, as people do. And from the author note I learn that there is at least one more Fiona McGregor work for me to seek out.

The year is nearly out. Here are a few of my highlights of 2014.

Ravel Day on BBC Radio 3 Friday 7th March was dedicated to the music and life of Maurice Ravel. I marked the day on my calendar as soon as I heard about it. His 139th birthday, so not a traditional landmark anniversary. Nicely quirky. Like the man. On the day, we stayed in, Radio 3 on in the bedroom and living room, and streamed through the computer in the studio. I remember smiling a lot, feeling warm, charmed, uplifted. All the music he’d written played during the course of a single day – not prolific compared to many other composers, but what sparkling beauty and subtle variety. Interspersed with the music were contributions from Ravel experts and enthusiasts, and a delightful audio tour of Ravel’s small, eccentric house near Paris presented by Sara Mohr-Pietsch. There were pieces I know and love, such as Le Tombeau de Couperin, and discoveries such as the one act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges with a libretto by Colette. I can’t imagine ever tiring of listening to Ravel’s music.

Orpheus by Little Bulb Theatre at Battersea Arts Centre I’m not a big theatre-goer. But this was more than theatre. This was cabaret meets Hot Club jazz meets Greek tragedy on a rain-soaked Saturday night in May in the magnificent Grand Hall of Battersea Arts Centre. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice transplanted to 1930s Paris, with Django Reinhardt and his infectious music centre stage. A multi-layered and inventive musical drama performed by a prodigiously talented and energetic cast. They sang, they played, they acrobatted, they mimed, they acted as stage hands. And when the show was over, they took their instruments and passion and gave a free gig in the Scratch Bar. Tremendous.

#readwomen2014 Joanna Walsh‘s Twitter initiative/campaign/consciousness-raising hashtag has been inspiring and thought-provoking. An attempt to redress the imbalance between the number of books written by women compared to the number of books by women that are read and reviewed, it has influenced my fiction choices in particular this year, and got me going on a bit of a Virginia Woolf jag (To the Lighthouse and Jacob’s Room, as well as Frances Spalding’s Virginia Woolf – Art, Life and Vision and Alexandra Harris’s 2011 Woolf biography), which in turn has prompted me to delve into Katherine Mansfield‘s stories. Of course, this issue doesn’t disappear at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and I was excited to receive two novels by Marguerite Duras for Christmas, which I’ll be adding to my 2015 reading pile.

Discovering Rosemary Tonks At the end of October, we went to The Disappearing Poet at Kings Place, an event organised by the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation, exploring the poetry, lives and disappearances, a century apart, of Arthur Rimbaud and Rosemary Tonks. It was a stimulating evening, especially the contributions from very-much-present poets George Szirtes and Matthew Caley, but the real highlight was purchasing the new Bloodaxe publication of Tonks’s collected poems Bedouin of the London Evening. And then reading these flamboyant, rich and strange, brave, EXCITING poems. I love her arrogance, her swagger and contrary revelling in the rank, rotten and sordid. Poems steeped in the fogs and grime of London, and unafraid of the declamatory, the exclamation mark, that poetic gasp of O! Poems I want to carry about with me, dip into, reread, knowing they will continually surprise me.

London Undercurrents  This is the poetry project I’ve been working on with friend and fellow poet Joolz Sparkes for the last year and a half and a bit. It’s been my main writing focus for this period, and although we’ve individually tweeted about our collaboration, it’s only in the last few months that we’ve started to read some of the poems at open mics, as well as sending them out to magazines. We’ve had some very encouraging responses at readings, and were utterly thrilled to have four poems published in the latest South Bank Poetry magazine (issue 19). You can read more about our project on the blog we’ve set up here. In the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about and starting to research ideas for more poems voiced by south London women. Roll on 2015!

poem for my right-hand man

December 21, 2014

bless your hands

for double-bowing my laces
as tenderly as a parent
on their child’s first day at school

bless your hands
for finding their feet with hooks
and zips; the ins and outs
of the wrap dress

for honey on my crumpet
and moreish chilli pasta
bookending fractured day

for keys slotted home
and the right CD in the player—
Tilbury ivory-precise over Feldman

bless your hands
for abandoning roll-ups,
for the flare of a match
relayed to wick instead

for framing your thoughts
in fluent gestures
for marking my words in your little red book

bless your hands most of all
for knitting themselves
seamlessly into mine

About a year ago, our local greengrocer closed temporarily for a radical refurbishment, including the addition of a flat over the shop. We resigned ourselves to several months of mildly-aggravating and bit-more-expensive fruit and vegetable shopping in the nearby supermarket, softened by the anticipation of when-Thurgoods-reopens, hoping it would be perhaps a little smarter but still a good and proper greengrocers. With the odd stray apostrophe. Scaffolding went up. A new storey went up. Months passed. Scaffolding came down. Metal shutters covered the shopfront. Estate agent sign appeared: Maisonette for sale. The maisonette sold. Every time we passed, the shutters were down. Only today, as I headed up Queenstown Road, I noticed a light, the shutters up, and this sad notice taped to the window:


Thurgoods – Notice of Closure


So, farewell, Dave and family. There is so much I will miss. Already miss. Loose bunches of fresh spinach, that came with their roots still intact, mud on the leaves and the occasional small stone. The brief appearance of blood oranges early in the year that told me spring was on its way. The cheap bunches of daffs or scented narcissi – 3 for £2 – too good a deal to resist. In late May, bundles of English asparagus, tender spears perfect for roasting or adding to risotto. Then Cyprus potatoes caked in red earth, and the excitement of sighting the first Brussel sprouts of the season. Brown paper bags for mushrooms. Choosing one or two onions, a handful of carrots, just the amount we needed and no excess packaging. And Dave with his friendly welcome, and always remarking that we brought our own bags. A bit of chat about the weather, or football – they were Fulham through and through – while Dave weighed and packed and son Joe or Mrs Thurgood (ashamed to admit I never learnt her first name) rang it all up on the cash register. Have we kept a receipt? And no more Brussel sprout Christmas card slipped into our bag beside the pots and sprouts and parsnips in chill December. The shop is empty, newly painted. I rather dread what its new incarnation will be. Patisserie? Charcuterie? Designer-boutique-whateverie?

the view from my window

November 2, 2014

This is the view from my studio* window. I love it.

Battersea View

Battersea View

That big blue gasometer has been part of my skyline for very nearly 25 years. I think it’s beautiful, in a rugged, industrial way. But the gasometer has been decommissioned. It’s being dismantled. You can guess what’s going to replace it – luxury apartment blocks with a smattering of so-called affordable housing, retail space, a ‘vibrant community’. Behind the gasometer you can see one of the chimneys of Battersea Power Station, another landmark close to my heart. In all the time I’ve lived here, the Power Station has stood empty, slowly, criminally crumbling. Now at last the site is being developed. The chimneys, no longer sound, are being painstakingly disassembled. New chimneys will be built using the same materials and methods to replicate the originals. I’m glad that Battersea Power Station is being preserved, restored in some measure. But I’m uneasy about its new function – a vast shopping/leisure/office complex – and even more uneasy about the surrounding explosion of luxury apartments. My neighbourhood is changing. A bespoke dog grooming service has opened just along the road. New 4 bed townhouses have gone up, a snip at just under two million pounds (you’ll get 50 quid change from that). I’ve always liked Battersea’s edge, its slightly shabby side, its radical history. I know I’m lucky to live where I do. I know too that this is part of London’s story – constant change, areas falling in and out fashion, in and out of prosperity. Suddenly this is happening on my doorstep. Those London plane trees just outside my window weren’t there when I moved in. They were planted several years later, once the covered car park that used to connect my block to the one opposite was demolished. Now I hear birdsong as well as traffic and planes flying into Heathrow. And I still can’t quite believe I’ve lived here for a quarter of a century, longer than I lived in my home town of Melbourne. I’ll post another photo of the gasometer below, in all its glory a few weeks ago during our prolonged Indian summer. I’m going to miss it. Though, if I look the other way out of my window, there’s a handsome red brick railway bridge and a tiled archway underneath, where youths loiter and dodgy deals are done, I imagine. I can’t see that view changing any time soon.

*By ‘studio’, I mean the room where I have two big desks and my computer. It’s a second bedroom used as a study. But, pretentiously, I like to refer to it as my studio. Gawd ‘elp me.


Battersea gasometer, October 3 2014

Battersea gasometer, October 3 2014


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