reading beneath the trees

On Friday, Chelsea Flower Shower was in full swing, and over the river in the much less frenetic environs of Battersea Park, I gave a poetry reading under the gum tree in Thrive’s main garden. This was part of Thrive’s week of Chelsea Fringe events, and an opportunity for me to share some of the new poems I’d written following my week’s residency in the Hut.

I could hardly have wished for better weather – sunny and warm-verging-on-hot – and the gum tree provided just enough shade for me to read my 15 minute set sans sunglasses. A couple of the poems were inspired by artworks that were on sale in the nearby Art Hut, curated by Mel Barry of Popsy Set. Others were prompted by images that had struck me as I wandered about the park, or from thinking about what a phrase such as ‘companion planting’ might mean. And, of course, I had to write a poem about that magnificent gum tree:

Far from home, like me.
Long acclimatised and

rooted in London soil…

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under the gum tree, Thrive main garden, 26 May 2017

Then, Tim from Thrive asked if I’d mind reading a few poems to a group of clients working in the Herb Garden. I’d brought extra poems, and I could hardly refuse the offer of a lift in one of the buggies used to travel between different parts of the park. The group I was to read to consisted mainly of people with learning disabilities, so in discussion with Tim I chose four poems, including one I’d written last year about the Herb Garden.

The group was gathered under the generous shade of a black walnut tree, working on potting up seedlings. When Tim introduced me and explained I was going to read a few poems, one of the clients exclaimed ‘Oh no!’ I promised it wouldn’t take too long or be too painful. As it turned out, everyone listened closely, applauded after each poem, and some asked for copies of the poems. It was a privilege to read in such beautiful surroundings, and to such an appreciative audience.

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under the black walnut tree, Thrive Herb Garden, 26 May 2017

a week in the Thrive Hut

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This hut, in Thrive’s main garden in Battersea Park, was my home for five days last week. Well, between around 10 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon. No sleeping over!

In the run up to Thrive’s Chelsea Fringe week of events at the end of May, invited  local artists have had the opportunity to use the Hut as a base for producing new work, which will then be on display during the festival week.  Mel Barry, who’s curating the Art Hut, asked if I would like to make use of the Hut ahead of my reading on Friday 26th May. A small space, away from day-to-day distractions, and a chance to gather material and hopefully write new poems. Yes please!

So, last Monday I headed over to the park with a few essentials: dictionary, thesaurus, scrap paper, notebook, pen and pencils, a few gardening themed books, ground coffee and a coffee plunger. Thankfully, I could use the kitchen and loo in Thrive’s office, and once I’d signed for the key to the Hut I could come and go as I pleased.

I wrote or made notes in the mornings, went for walks, chatted to some of the staff and volunteers, read extracts in The Writer in the Garden and random poems from Flora Poetica – sometimes out loud, on my own in the Hut. I welcomed a couple of visitors. I took photos on my phone, and resisted checking emails. Every day I had a tasty sandwich for lunch – thank you, Nick!

Mel mentioned that some of the artists whose work will be on show in the Hut have incorporated found objects or foraged material in their pieces. I thought this might be an interesting approach for me to try, so I jotted down scraps of conversation I heard as I was walking round the park as well as phrases and texts from signs and notices. I’ve written one poem which is a partial collage of words selected from two of the books I had with me – a variation on a challenge set for my next Stanza group meeting. Another is a mix of overheard snippets, found text and visual juxtapositions. More ideas are bubbling under.

At the end of the week, I packed up, tidied the Hut as best I could and returned the key. Then I met Mel and some of the local artists she works with, including a couple of talented teenagers, in a nearby hostelry, for an hour’s conversation about nature, art and poetry. Mel had brought some small art works to show me, and I shared a few poems with the group. All in all a stimulating week, and one which should yield more poems in the coming weeks.

I’ll be reading new and nearly-new garden-themed poems in Thrive’s main garden on Friday 26th May at 1pm. Come along, browse the art, eat cake and listen!

My thanks to Thrive for the use of the Hut, and to Mel at Popsy Set for facilitating this.

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The poet hard at work

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what I told the canvas

I tell myself I can’t draw, that I’ve got no visual sense. So what was I doing in an art workshop called Tell the Canvas on Saturday morning? Testing myself a little, and enjoying myself quite a lot.

This was a one hour drawing and collage session facilitated by Mel Barry, and held in Thrive Battersea’s main building as part of their open day. The workshop was a taster version of a session Mel has run for a number of different groups. Mel is curating the Locals Art Hut pop-up in partnership with Thrive for their Chelsea Fringe week of events in May, when I’ll also be giving a reading on Friday 26th May around 1p.m. So by way of warming up for my participation I thought I’d sign up for the workshop. One hour didn’t seem too daunting, and nor did the session feel rushed.

The broad theme of the workshop was to think about collective needs and imagine a positive change in any community – from local to global – with the aim of communicating that vision via a drawing or collage. Mel had asked me if I’d like to write a haiku in response to the theme, and this was posted on the wall along with quotes from artists Gerhard Richter and John Baldessari and some images to get us thinking.

A vision for our neighbourhood

pavement crack daisies
win prizes. we serenade
birds. sun burns through cloud.

It was a small group and relaxed atmosphere. Mel provided all materials including scrap paper, coloured pencils, pastels, paints and magazines and newspapers to plunder images from. We started with some quick warm up exercises and by the third I definitely felt freer in my approach to filling the page. I had fun trying out pastels and charcoal and not worrying about trying to make a perfect image. Then we were ready for the main task – composing a picture or collage that would convey a vision of a beneficial change to a community. No small task. We had half an hour and a piece of art board each. I started with a few images from magazines of nature in an urban setting, and built up a collage from there. A bit of green and red paint, some colouring in, a couple of phrases. A sense of achievement in making something that is broadly coherent (I think!).

collage

And there was time at the end for conversation about our ideas and how we’d found the process. Overall a positive experience. Deep down I know I have a visual sense (it’s there in my writing, after all) but the long-held belief that I don’t is hard to shake. Mel’s workshop is more than a start.

workshop table

If you’re interested in hosting your own workshop for a group of neighbours, friends, colleagues etc you can enquire with Mel about booking a 1 hour or two hour session at a location of your choice: buy@popsyset.com It could be for a private or public group, for a minimum of 10 and maximum of 20 participants. Ages 6+ up to any age. Workshop fee applies.

Mel will be running Tell the Canvas for under 10s on Saturday 20th May, 11am until midday, at the Locals Art Hut in Thrive’s main garden in Battersea Park. £5 each. All children must be accompanied/supervised by a parent/guardian for the hour.

nice bit of kit

Much as I love nature and spending time in parks and gardens, I also find heavy industry and construction work aesthetically interesting. Stimulating, even! So one of the highlights of my week was being invited to a viewing of the Tunnel Boring Machines at the Northern Line Extension’s Battersea site, before the TBMs were lowered into the ground to begin their 3.2 kilometre London-clay-eating journey towards Kennington. The Northern Line Extension will see a branch line from Kennington serve two new tube stations, Nine Elms (for the American Embassy) and Battersea Power Station.

A group of interested locals gathered in the site’s first floor Portacabin project office for a short presentation about the tunnelling process, before ascending to the viewing platform to gaze upon these two Things of Beauty. The TBMs have been named Amy and Helen, after Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia, and Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut in space. Local school children chose the names from a shortlist, and I think it’s great that two pioneering women have been honoured in this way.

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Helen (left) and Amy (right)

How can I explain my excitement? Yes, these are amazing feats of engineering, way beyond my understanding. I like some of the jargon and all those boggling facts. The TBMs will be tunneling at depths of up to 30 metres, and operating non stop with a crew of 35 working in shifts. The clay, apparently, is quite stiff, so will be injected with water and foam to make it more of a porridge consistency. This waste or ‘muck’ is channeled back out the tunnel, onto a conveyor belt that takes it to a barge, and from there to Tilbury to restore arable farmland. As the TBM progresses, carriages are added at the back, so staff continue to enter at the Battersea station box and muck goes out the same way. This is all happening down the road from me! And then look at them. They look like sophisticated space capsules, but also like something you’d find in a Kinder Surprise egg.

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750 tonne crane

A special crane was being assembled as we watched, which can lift up to 750 tonnes. The TBMs weigh 650 tonnes each. Once the TBMs have been lowered into place in the station box (this weekend if all goes well), the crane will be disassembled and removed.

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Station Box

We had a good view down into the station box, where Amy and Helen will begin their underground excavations. The idea that the tube would be extended to Battersea has been around for some time, certainly since 2008. I doubted it would happen. Then, there was talk that it would be completed by 2020, which seemed way off in the future. Now, it looks like it really is going to happen.

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Battersea Power Station development site

The scale of the surrounding development is astonishing. I’ve mentioned before how ambivalent I feel about the rate and extent of change, and the impact on the local community. I still feel this. But there is also part of me that is exhilarated by the activity, and fascinated by the beauty of those cranes and their ever-changing angles; the magnificence of the Power Station; and the contrasting colours and Lego-writ-large aspect of the construction site. Now, excuse me while I write an ode to Amy and Helen.

both ordinary and extraordinary

I went to a talk recently, organised by the Battersea Society, about an unlikely pair of spinster sisters, Ida and Louise Cook, who helped at least 29 Jewish people escape Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The invited speaker was Louise Carpenter. She’d researched the sisters for a potential biography but eventually realised there wasn’t enough verifiable material to justify a full length book. She did though write a long article for Granta about the sisters. Carpenter described the sisters as both ordinary and extraordinary, which helps explain why they and their story are so fascinating. What they did to help refugees flee persecution is also profoundly relevant today.

Born in Sunderland in the 1900s, the sisters lived most of their life in Battersea in the family home. According to Carpenter it was an almost Calvanistic household and their upbringing, while Christian, was ‛emotionally austere’. There was no music at home. The sisters had an incredibly close bond, and when Ida much later wrote a memoir it was almost entirely written in the first person plural – we. They followed their father into the civil service, working in clerical and typist roles.

Their first extraordinary moment seems to have been when, in their early 20s, they attended a lecture and heard an aria from Madam Butterfly. The world of music, and opera in particular, opened up to them. They saved up and bought a gramophone, bringing music into the family home as they collected opera records. They started attending live opera, queueing for hours for cheap seats, which was all they could afford on their small civil service salaries. Carpenter spoke of the sisters developing ‘celebrity crushes’ on certain opera stars. In 1924, they hatched a plan to travel to New York to hear a singer whose voice they loved perform. After two years’ scrimping and saving they had sufficient funds to book third class berths on a boat to New York, taking with them gowns and capes for the opera that they had sewn themselves. This adventure must have emboldened them, proving what they were capable of achieving if they put their minds to it. If they could travel to New York to attend the opera, why not the continent?

Jump forward to the 1930s and the Cook sisters were frequent visitors to European opera houses and welcomed into opera circles. Ida had started writing short pieces for a fashion magazine and subsequently found her literary calling as one of Mills & Boon’s most popular authors. Through opera friends, the sisters gradually realised the increasing danger faced by Jewish people under the Nazi regime. At this point Jews were allowed to leave Germany but without taking any money or possessions with them. They also faced obstacles trying to find a country that would accept them. Britain, like many countries, required sponsors and financial guarantees. Having helped the daughter of opera friends settle in Britain, the Cook sisters could not turn their backs on other cases that came to their attention. Their continental opera jaunts became a cover for smuggling out jewellery and other valuables that would provide financial security.

Carpenter recounted how the sisters would travel down to Croydon airport on a Friday evening (Louise taking leave for the Saturday; Ida had left the civil service as she was now earning much more from her romantic novels), fly to Cologne and then catch an overnight train to Frankfurt. They would spend the weekend meeting potential cases through an agent and collecting the valuables they were to smuggle out; as well as, of course, attending the opera in the evening. They arrived in dowdy clothing wearing no jewellery, and brought with them labels from British fashion houses to sew into the designer clothes and fur coats they returned to England in – travelling back by train and overnight ferry so as to leave by a different port and minimise the risk of arousing suspicion. Much of their spare time was taken up with organising sponsors and gathering small donations and subscriptions that together would cover one refugee’s financial guarantee. They ploughed most of Ida’s Mills & Boon earnings into their efforts to help individuals escape.

In her memoir We Followed Our Stars (now republished as Safe Passage) Ida reflected:

Until you refuse to recognise defeat, you never learn how much an individual can do.

People sometimes said to us, “But what an extraordinary idea! What do you think private people can do? This is a matter for governments and international committees.”

We always replied, “We will go on until something completely stops us. Why not?”

That something was the outbreak of the Second World War. By then, they had helped at least 29 Jewish people flee Nazi Germany. They never felt fear, Carpenter said, going on to explain that she meant they felt no fear towards the people they were helping. Just as today people (even Presidents of so-called freedom loving countries) are fearful of those seeking refuge from the most desperate circumstances, in the 1930s Jewish refugees were often viewed with suspicion, resentment and outright hostility.

Yesterday, I was amazed to see a story about the Cook sisters featured on the BBC news website, originating from the Tyne and Wear region. On Friday, Holocaust Memorial Day, Sunderland Council unveiled a blue plaque commemorating Ida and Louise Cook at the entrance to their childhood home. Plans for a similar plaque outside their Battersea home have apparently fallen through. I’m happy though for Sunderland to share the story of two ordinary sisters who did some pretty extraordinary work. It’s a story that can’t be shared enough.

 

 

before dawn

pre-dawn

I woke before dawn and couldn’t get back to sleep. So I got up, made myself a cup of tea and sat on the window ledge in the studio with a blank sheet of paper and my pen. I wrote whatever came into my mind – which was mostly those things which were already in my mind and stopping me from falling back to sleep. This was my view, and I gazed at it for a while and felt quite peaceful. The bare tree looks like it’s strung with Christmas lights, but the glowing red and white spots are safety lights on cranes on the Battersea Power Station development site. It’s never truly dark here nor totally quiet. A bird sang. I could hear traffic on Battersea Park Road. A few more lights went on in the building opposite. There was a sense of the day beginning; a handful of people heading out into the still dark morning. Nearly time for my day to start too. Luckily, I had nothing too onerous to do today; no schedule but my own. So no need, then, to feel guilty about a second cup of tea, in bed, next to my sweetheart.

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Two of my poems appeared in print this week, a lovely boost as I’m in a bit of a writing lull at the moment.

One poem is published in Brittle Star issue 39. I really like the mix of poetry, short fiction and articles in Brittle Star, and the magazine is nicely compact and handsomely produced. The new issue was launched at the Barbican Library on Wednesday evening. We missed the start due to various tube disruptions, but enjoyed readings by Michael Farry (over from Ireland), Jayne Marshall (who’d flown in from Madrid and beguiled us with her story Wxndering), South Bank Poetry founder Peter Ebsworth, Oxford-based Rachel Thanassoulis, Sarah Marina (published for the first time but surely not the last) and Kaye Lee, who nearly made me cry with a poem based on her experience of working in a nursing home. My poem, Summer Hols, originated in a South Bank Poetry workshop earlier this year, led by Katherine Lockton. In fact, it’s the second poem to come out of her workshop that I’ve had published – the first, Apology, appeared in Orbis no. 176.

The other poem to make it into print this week, In the hairdresser’s chair, was commended in the Second Light Poetry Competition and subsequently published in ARTEMISpoetry issue 17. I’m really chuffed about this. The competition was judged by Alison Brackenbury, whose work I admire very much. ARTEMISpoetry is the substantial bi-annual journal from  Second Light Network, which promotes and supports women poets aged 40 and over. If you fit that wonderful bill (a woman, a poet, aged 40 or over) you should seriously consider joining the network.

Interestingly, In the hairdresser’s chair started life in the first poetry course I did back at the beginning of 2015, ‘Poetry of the Body’ tutored by Pascale Petit at Tate Modern. At the last session, Pascale brought along a true or non-reversing mirror. We each had a go sitting in front of the true mirror (seeing yourself as you appear to others) before writing a self-portrait poem focused on the face. Staring into that mirror was an extremely uncomfortable experience for me and tapped into some very deep emotions, so I’m glad I was able eventually to fashion a strong poem from it. Shifting the writing into the third person helped!

writing ‘not yet Eden’

not yet Eden is the title of the poem I wrote for Lucy Cash’s film A Song for Nine Elms. I explained how I got involved in Lucy’s film in my last blog post. Lucy had asked me if I could write something that was, loosely, from the roof garden’s point of view. I wanted to try, but I was conscious that, having just written a bunch of garden-themed poems for my Thrive residency, I needed to approach this poem in a different way.

I’d flirted with form a little with the Thrive poems, writing two acrostic poems. The second of these turned out to be a brute, so when I finally nailed it just in time for the Open Garden Squares Weekend, the satisfaction was tremendous.

I’m still averse (ahem) to strict rhyme/meter forms in my own writing, but I wondered whether some form or constraint might help me with this poem. I started making notes, thinking about the ideas Lucy and I had discussed – about resilience, and gesture, and the traces left in the garden by visitors, human and otherwise. And not any old garden – this would be a poem centred in, and arising from, the Doddington and Rollo Community Roof Garden.

A special place, with a long name. What if I wrote the poem using words containing only letters from the garden’s name? I listed out the individual letters – ten consonants, including y, and all the vowels. Not the tightest Oulipian restriction, but it got me started, jotting down words and putting together some short phrases. It forced more to be more inventive, now that certain useful or favourite words were unavailable. No h, so no the or then. No s, so no so and not many plurals. No quite or moist or how or when. And yet, I had fruit and ragged unity. I had feral cat commotion. I had gift and, of course, community. Food and rootle and microclimate. I had, after a week, a poem that I hope conveys something of the beauty and necessity of this garden, its not-quite-anarchic, not-yet-Eden quality, as it quietly gets on with ‘growing community & a garden’ in the heart of Battersea.

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beginnings of a poem

reflecting on A Song for Nine Elms

We had a busy Saturday in the Doddington & Rollo Community Roof Garden recently. A shared harvest lunch, followed by an inspiring and practical workshop, Growing Edible Plants in the City, led by Sue Sheehan of Incredible Edible. And then, in the community centre downstairs, the first screening of the film A Song for Nine Elms, made by artist Lucy Cash with involvement from the local community – including me. I wrote a poem for the project, and appear in the film reading the poem as I sit in the polytunnel in the roof garden.

I want to write here about my experience of working on this project and some thoughts about the film after that first screening. I’ll write a separate blog post about the actual process of writing the poem for the film.

I first heard about the project, under the title Nine Songs for Nine Elms, when Lucy Cash, and Anna Ramsay from UP Projects, visited the roof garden last winter to meet the Wednesday gardening group and tell us about the project. It’s funded by Berkeley Homes, one of the big developers in the Nine Elms area, with UP Projects curating the commission in partnership with Wandsworth Council and the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership’s Cultivate programme. I was immediately sceptical. I’m very ambivalent about much of the development happening on my doorstep, and its impact on the local community.

Lucy talked a bit about her ideas for the commission – to create a song cycle for Nine Elms, which would also be a film – and that she wanted to involve local people and incorporate their stories and memories of the area. I wasn’t forthcoming. I wanted to get on with gardening and, frankly, I felt distrustful. Who are these people? Why are they trespassing on my territory?

Over the following weeks, Lucy occasionally dropped by the garden, offering to help and also introducing us to the composer Fraya Thomsen who would be writing the music for the song cycle. Aside from my caution about the corporate funding, I couldn’t really grasp what the ‘end product’ of the project might look like. I remained guarded, though I warmed towards Lucy and Fraya, who showed a genuine appreciation of the roof garden and its place and role on the estate.

Then one cold Wednesday afternoon in spring, there were just two of us in the garden when Lucy and Fraya called by. We chatted and I opened up a bit about my reservations, which Lucy understood, and then I completely let my guard down and fessed up to being a writer. My fellow gardener Enid expressed similar sentiments, while revealing that her talents include acting and singing. Lucy wanted to work with both of us, and Enid is the narrator on the film, her mellow voice linking the different sections together. And here’s a story – Enid and I have lived in the same block for many years but only got to know each other last year through our involvement with the roof garden.

I was busy for the next couple of months with my residency at Thrive in Battersea Park, but I met up with Lucy and Fraya a couple of times to discuss how the project was evolving and what my input might be. We agreed that I would aim to write a poem from the point of view of the garden (approximately!). By early July, I had a poem, and we spent an afternoon filming in the garden. I was rather nervous but tried to focus on reading the poem well and not rushing. After three takes, Lucy was happy, and we moved on to the most fun part for me. One of Lucy’s ideas for the film was to include shots of people posing as Charlotte Despard in different locations – standing with the left arm bent and resting on the hip, and the right arm raised and fist clenched, echoing the striking photo of Charlotte Despard, in her nineties, addressing an anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square. I donned the long black skirt Lucy had brought along, clambered onto a low brick structure and struck the pose. How fierce I felt!

Cut now to the Doddington & Rollo Community Centre and the premiere of A Song for Nine Elms. The nerves were back – would I die of embarrassment? – but also excitement and curiosity. Other locals who’d participated, including children from one of the primary schools, and volunteers and friends of the garden, were also in the audience. The film did not disappoint. It’s a beautiful, lyrical piece, with the garden at its centre. It honours the history of the area, starting with its pre-industrial era, when an orchard flourished on the site  now occupied by New Covent Garden Market; embraces Battersea’s radical heritage, perhaps best exemplified by Charlotte Despard (who I’ve written a London Undercurrents poem about); and reflects some of the concerns felt by local residents about the rapid changes taking place in the area – as well as our sense of connection to this place. One of the songs features Battersea’s motto ‘Not for me, not for you, but for us’, and the film ends with a quiet manifesto sung by local children. I’m so glad now that I got involved. And thankfully, I didn’t die of embarrassment.

The film is showing at StudioRCA Riverlight on Nine Elms Lane from 2nd to 9th November between 12 noon and 5pm. If you’re in the area, do drop in. More details here.

overdue debut

Last Saturday I braved the downpour and headed up to Kings Cross for a special evening at SLAM – the launch of four Green Bottle Press pamphlets. I’ll declare my bias at the outset.*  I was there for one poet – Claire Booker – and this post is mostly about her pamphlet Later there will be Postcards. Overall, it was a lovely event in a great venue. Green Bottle Press publisher Jennifer Grigg introduced the evening and read three poems from Radish Legs, Duck Feet by Sayuri Ayers, who lives across the pond, so wasn’t able to make the launch. The two other pamphlets launched that evening were Life Room by Ivonne Piper, reading in front of an audience for the very first time; and Teaching a Bird to Sing by Tracey Rhys, tough and touching poems arising from her son’s diagnosis of autism. Four very different voices, from an adventurous new press.

But back to the star attraction of the evening, as far as I was concerned. I’ve known Claire for several years, having met her at Loose Muse when I first got back into writing and performing poetry. Claire’s poetry is often wickedly funny but she can equally write biting satirical poems (not easy to carry off, but Claire manages it with flair) and subtly powerful poems of loss and anguish. Claire is also a generous supporter of other poets, and encouraged me to join the Clapham Stanza group, the Original Poets, which I’ve found very beneficial. So it was great to see lots of support for Claire at the launch – my London Undercurrents buddy Joolz Sparkes, Agnes Meadows from Loose Muse, some Clapham Stanza stalwarts, and faces from Beyond Words, which Claire also regularly attends. After the readings, there was a rush to buy her pamphlet and we formed a disorderly queue at Claire’s table to get our copies signed.

This week I’ve been reading her pamphlet and finding new layers and resonances in poems I thought I already knew, as well as savouring poems that are new to me. Though many of the poems deal with aspects of grief or a loss of some kind – parents, a fading or changed love, childhood – they are never maudlin. Claire’s interest in visual art feeds into her poetry, and her poems are rich in telling  details and striking colour and imagery. Dreams provide surreal and dark material, as evidenced by the opening poem The Night Mare. There are no ‘filler’ poems here; this is a substantial pamphlet, the work of a mature poet, who knows when to wield her wit and when to let the gaps – the unsaid – say it all. A long overdue debut. Congratulations, Claire!

*I think this is known as ‘Full Disclosure’, which sounds like the title of a Claire Booker poem.