I have quite a bunch of garden-themed poems now, thanks to my recent residencies with Thrive in Battersea Park, as well as my ongoing involvement with my local community garden. And it’s rewarding to see some of these poems emerging into the world, like seedlings planted months ago starting to bear fruit.
During Thrive’s week of events for Chelsea Fringe Festival back in May, a reporter from Age UK’s radio station The Wireless came along and interviewed some of the participants. You can listen to the broadcast here. There’s an interview with one of Thrive’s horticulturalists, which gives a really good flavour of the great work the organisation does. Mel Barry, who curates the Art Hut in Thrive’s main garden, describes some of the artwork on show and talks about creativity. And, around the 25 minute mark, there’s a short interview with me and I read one of the poems I wrote as part of my residency. (The reporter misheard my name so introduces me as Claire.)
Three more poems from my Thrive residency will be published in South Bank Poetry issue 27, and I’ll be reading them at the launch event this coming Friday 15th September. It’s at the newly refurbished Poetry Café. Doors open 7:15 for a 7:30 start. More details here. It promises to be a lively evening, so hope to see you there!
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…
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.
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.
Nick and I often discuss what we’re reading and I’ll usually mention when I’ve finished a book. Recently I realised that he’s been keeping a note of what we’ve read and the date each book was finished for several years (those innocent queries: When did you finish it? What’s the name of the publisher?). As I’m often fretting about whether I read enough and whether I’m reading widely enough, I thought it would be interesting to carry out a data analysis exercise based on all the books I’ve read this year. Stick with me! This will be fun!
Headline statistic: I’ve read (finished) 53 books this year. I don’t need a formula to work out that’s roughly one book a week. Or exactly one book a week if 2016 is regarded as a 53 week accounting year (as it is in some contexts, being a leap year). I better define ‘books’ I guess. It includes pamphlets and chapbooks (poetry and short stories) and one poetry map. Overall, I’m quite pleased with that grand total: 53.
Now, let’s break that total figure down a bit.
A good mix of fiction and poetry, but perhaps I need to broaden my reading out to include more non fiction. I’m a little surprised at this, but maybe I’ve read less research-type material this year.
Now, the biggie. How did I do on gender balance?
59% of books I read were by female authors, and 9% by a mix of female and male authors (e.g. anthologies). I’m pretty happy with this. Interestingly, when I look at a breakdown by category, on the poetry side the gender mix is closer than fiction, where I’ve read a lot more by female authors.
The next area to consider is how diverse my reading is in terms of ethnicity.
So, this is definitely an area I could improve on. When I break this down by category, I can see I’ve done a little better with poetry – 4 out of the 20 poetry books were by BAME authors, but on the fiction side only 3 of the 28 were. I’m missing out! Here’s my reading challenge for 2017 then: read more books by authors from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.
I also looked at how many of the books I’d read were translations, as this is another concern that’s been floating around – that we native English speakers read so little work in translation. Nine of the 53 books were translations – all of them fiction, making up around 32% of my fiction reading. That’s a lot better than the 7% of UK fiction sales that are translations according to a recent Guardian article. I’ll give myself a gold star for that – or une étoile d’or, since most were translations from French.
And the final fascinating statistic I’m going to hit you with is that 13% of the books I read in 2016 were library books. I could probably – certainly – increase that next year. I’m trying to borrow more books for a number of reasons – to save money, to save space, and not least to support libraries, which are amazing and vital resources.
Many thanks to Nick for diligently gathering the raw data that made this reading analysis possible. Here’s the analogue device in which he’s been recording the data:
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!
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.
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.
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!
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…
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.
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.
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:
tall mauve irises,
poodle-proud. one rainbow shade
in time-lapse garden.
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.
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.
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.