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Coldness –
deep-rooted leeks
washed white

Basho

Spring is here, bright and biting. I’m writing this on a painful, much delayed train journey to Shropshire, where I’ll be mentoring for Arvon this week. I have just bought a truly vile chai latte (they seem to have accidentally given me a microwaved ice-cream), but luckily have my Kindle with me, and the brilliant essay ‘The Heart of Haiku’ by Jane Hirshfield, an introduction to Basho. It’s fascinating about his life in 17th century Japan, as a traveller, teacher and follower of Zen; living hand-to-mouth, subsisting on the gifts of students – a thatched hut, a banana tree, a gourd of rice. And his work seems a lesson in how to live in time instead of killing it, even on difficult journeys:

The roadside blooming
mallow:
eaten by my horse

too ill to eat
even a rice cake –
peach trees in flower.

For many years I didn’t really like haiku – didn’t get them, they seemed like so many damp squibs or half-thoughts. But I realise now I was just reading bad English ones, too concerned about squeezing a slightly pleased-with-itself image into a 5/7/5 syllable scheme. The best are luminous (and impossibly difficult to write – don’t expect any from me any time soon.)

Anyway, lots of reasons to enjoy the season this week – some close friends have just had babies, lambs are dotting the fields, and I’m looking forward to getting to know my mentees for the year in the new upgraded Hurst, as well as twitching in the hills around Clun where the hedgerows hop with small birds. And then at the weekend I’ll be in Grasmere, taking part in this free reading with winners of the Northern Writer’s Awards who I’ve been working with this year (rising stars Amy Ekins, Andrew Fentham, Kate Davis, Jenny Hockey and David Keyworth). Do come along if you’re local. I’ll be spending my first mother’s day as a mum away from Gruff, which is a bit weird – he is changing so quickly at the moment, learning to stand and point and trilling like a tiny bird himself. But his lovely granny is currently looking after him (thanks mum!) – here they are in the spring blossom.

blossom

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One of my favourite plays is Far Away by Caryl Churchill. The character Joan’s final monologue tells us of a nightmare future war where ‘everything’s been recruited’ – coffee, foxgloves, grass, gravity, bleach. ‘Who’s going to mobilise darkness and silence?’ She asks. ‘That’s what I wondered in the night. By the third day I could hardly walk but I got down to the river. There was a camp of Chilean soldiers upstream but they hadn’t seen me and fourteen black and white cows downstream having a drink so I knew I’d have to go straight across. But I didn’t know whose side the river was on.’

Recently I’ve been reminded of this dystopian vision every time I’ve been into Mothercare’s clothes department. The tigers, bears, lions and monkeys, for example, have clearly been recruited for the boys, whilst the rabbits, mice and cats are with the girls. Girls can count on all the pastels (except blue) plus purple and hot pink, whilst red and green are siding with the XY chromosome. In terms of territory, the boys most definitely get the sea, including whales, crabs, anchors, navy stripes and all who sail on it. They also get Space – astronauts and monsters fight the male corner. Oh and they get the past (dinosaurs) and the future (robots) and all modes of transport. Girls will be pleased to hear they have allies in flowers, birds and strawberries though. Yellow and elephants, like Switzerland, are neutral.

Seriously, what is happening here? How have we let things get this binary? I swear when I was growing up in the 80s it wasn’t this bad – I can’t remember ever wearing pink, and me and my sister read the Beano and Dandy and had Star Wars figures without anyone blinking. Lego was just Lego. This divvying up the whole of childhood has got worse recently, and it’s driven by money. When you have a son and your second child’s a girl, the corporations want you to think one thing only: ‘what a shame – now I’ll have to buy a whole new set of stuff.’ And now they’ve even got to Kinder Eggs. Or all the chocolate eggs – last Easter, when I hid cheap ones around our garden for my niece and nephew, my niece got teary, and I realised it was because the eggs I’d bought were red and blue. ‘They’re boy’s eggs’ she said. She knew whose side they were on.

I did sociology A level, and I still believe what it taught me makes sense. It’s just so clear to me that people are formed through nurture as much as nature. And I am absolutely baffled by all the otherwise highly intelligent parents who say:’Oh well, I didn’t encourage him/her with the train/pink thing, they just seem drawn to it – does make you think it’s genetic.’ I mean, you’re joking with me right? You don’t think their interest is maybe related to every advert and shop and treat and set of pyjamas they see, plus the T-Shirt slogans and toys of every kid they socialise with EVER reinforcing these stereotypes? You don’t think they might pick up on these less-than-subtle nudges? Instead you just accept that millennia of evolution have brought us to a point where girls like frills and boys like wheels, because it’s – what – some kind of survival mechanism? You complete mug.

I mean it’s not like these things are even a reflection of the real, adult world. Every other mummy in East Dulwich wears blue stripes, and footballers go on TV in pink shirts. It’s 2015, why are we bringing up our children in the 1950s?

As a poet I think words matter; the metaphors we use to represent ourselves matter. It’s not just innocent fun when boys are bright green and girls are lemon; boys are monkeys and girls are mice. This International Women’s Day the theme is ‘inspiring change’ and we need to start in our nurseries. It’s not that you should stop your kids playing with cars or dolls, but why are these girl or boy things? We’re fortunate, we don’t live in Saudi. Women drive. Men push buggies. Can we just be more aware, at least? Can we stop recruiting everything?

Two London Readings

This thursday I’ll be reading a poem at the launch party of The Emma Press Anthology of Motherhood and The Held and the Lost

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along with… Anna Kirk, Anna Kisby, Camellia Stafford, Carole Bromley, Deborah Alma, Eve Lacey, Flora de Falbe, Jacqueline Saphra, Katherine Lockton, Kathryn Maris, Lavinia Singer, Marena Lear, Megan Watkins, Rachel Long, Rachel Piercey, Richard O’Brien, Sara Boyes and Stephanie Arsoska.

7-11pm, free entry, Tea House Theatre, Vauxhall, London

Also, next week, there’s this at the Print Room

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Starts 7.30 and tickets are £10

Hope to see some of you – a real blog coming soon…

A busy month since I last posted. Firstly, some nice after-effects from my piece about poetry and motherhood.  Carolyn Jess-Cooke has accepted one of my poems for her forthcoming Writing Motherhood blog, and I’ve been asked to curate an event around the topic at Latitude. I’ve also really enjoyed chasing up some of the poets you recommended – I was glad to see Sinead Morrissey’s Parallax win the TS Eliot prize, having downloaded it on Alison Brackenbury’s recommendation and found the poems about her children really intelligent and clear-sighted.

I didn’t make the Eliot readings this year though as I was in Reykjavik, failing to see the Northern Lights but otherwise having a wonderful holiday.  It’s a tiny, suburban city, made of corrugated iron houses painted in a rainbow of colours, snow-capped mountains surrounding it.  We saw whaling ships and the remains of a viking settlement, ate preserved shark (pissy), and bathed in the milky waters of the blue lagoon in swirls of steam. I sped through the thirteenth century Njal’s Saga whilst I was there, which is brilliantly readable – a tale of honour and blood-vengeance full of hard-boiled wit and characters with the best names ever (Mord Fiddle, Harald Fine-Hair, Grim, Glum. )

I also journeyed back to Bolton this month to read at the Octagon, which was a really lovely event – great to be back there seeing old friends in the audience as well as an interested contingent from the University of Bolton’s Creative Writing Department. An added bonus was meeting Jon Glover, editor of the brilliant Stand and one of poetry’s great enthusiasts, who ended up gifting me a pile of poetry books to read, including some by poets whose names I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know.  Owen Lowery for example, published by the Northern House imprint of Carcanet, a former British Judo champion now tetraplegic following an accident, whose poems move deftly between high literature (poems after Celan) and Fabrice Muamba.

Then there was lots of teaching, some Palestinian translation, a show in Bedford, and the four box-files of writing that were couriered to my door from which to select the Arvon mentees. Not to mention Gruff started sitting and crawling!  After a school visit followed by a nightclass this Monday I did feel slightly sick with tiredness, but was perked up by seeing a really thoughtful review of Ovid’s Heroines by Abigail Parry in the new Poetry London.  And then yesterday I went to a mothers and babies screening of Inside Llewelyn Davis – about the 60s New York folk scene – which was depressing in its depiction of a struggling artist who never quite gets the break, but still just my sort of thing, and felt appropriate on the day the great Pete Seeger died. ‘Little Boxes’ is the first song of his I loved and I often sing it to Gruff – I love the way the sweet little tune is subverted by the vicious lyrics. So here it is – RIP :

New Year News

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Happy New Year everyone! Hope you enjoyed Christmas. I was very pleased with my presents, which included a wolf necklace, lots of gardening things (a grow-your-own wild mushroom kit, an insect ‘hotel’, some big pots), and The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, which is a very beautiful object and ideal for dipping into on these winter evenings. I’m particularly struck by some of the songs in women’s voices, such as the one pining for a sailor:

If I were a blackbird I’d whistle and sing
I’d follow the vessel my true love sailed in
and in the top rigging I’d there build my nest
and pillow my head on his lily-white breast

I also got a bonus present in the form of Ovid’s Heroines being included in The Guardian’s list of Readers’ Books of the Year, which seems a particularly nice list to be on.

Today 2014 is looking crisp and shiny. I’ve walked with the buggy up Telegraph Hill, and have been eating leftovers from our New Year’s feast (potted shrimps, runny cheese and apricots) and filling out my new diary. Just thought I’d update you with a few up-and-coming deadlines and dates. Firstly, for those who resolved to write more poems this year, there’s still time to sign up for my intermediate poetry course at the Poetry School on Wednesday evenings, and my two courses at the City Lit.  I can also announce that I’ll be judging the Vers Poets open competition this Spring (deadline April the 30th). And I’m very pleased to be one of the Arvon/Jerwood mentors this year, along with David Eldridge and Jenn Ashworth – if you attended an Arvon course in 2013 you have until January the 13th to apply for a mentorship.

I’m also doing a couple of readings outside London this month, which will make a nice change. I’m particularly happy to be doing a reading at the Bolton Octagon on the 21st of January, as I don’t think I’ve read in my hometown for a decade, and when I was growing up I used to go regularly to see shows there with my mum. And I’ll be performing from Ovid’s Heroines at The Place in Bedford on the 26th, which I’ve heard is a fantastic venue. So lots to look forward to – hope to see some of you soon and that 2014 brings good things.

Getting Merry

Term finishes this week, and for once I’ll be glad of a break – going out to teach after a day of childcare has become a bit unappealing as the dark has hunched in. The only work I’ll have for the next month is the very pleasant task of judging the South Bank Poetry Magazine competition- if you have any London poems the deadline is December the 4th, so there’s still time to enter.

I’m looking forward to the party season.  Last year I really coped very badly with not drinking. The rest of the nine months I just went out to the cinema or for nice lunches instead, but Christmas is all about sitting round a table with people for twelve hour stretches whilst they slowly get sozzled.  It felt as though they were all moving into some splendid golden place full of soft light, whilst I stood out in the cold with my face pressed to the window, like Heathcliff at Thrushcross Grange. This year there will be port, sherry, champagne, cheap imitation Baileys and my dad’s favourite Barolo to toast his memory on Christmas Day. Yesterday started the festivities – I put on my new party dress, painted my nails for the first time since spring (mint green), and met friends I hadn’t seen for ages for cocktails at Lounge Bohemia. I drank an amazing Gypsytini, with rosemary, prune and honey, and then a Full Canadian – whisky infused with maple syrup served over blueberry ice cubes with BACON SCRATCHINGS. I know, a cocktail with bacon.

And in case I’m sounding borderline alcoholic, I’m looking forward to other things too. For a decade I have been working my way through Dickens by reading one of his novels in front of the fire every Advent,  and this year have downloaded The Old Curiosity Shop to my kindle in readiness. And on Thursday I’m doing a festive reading for Faber in Bloomsbury, with Daljit Nagra, Wendy Cope, music and mincepies (there still seem to be tickets if you fancy it). Plus, you know, family, robins in the garden, Bill Murray in Scrooged, the possibility of snow etc. And I’m going to take a holiday from social media, so I’ll use this opportunity to wish you all a very merry time too.

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You would think that becoming a parent would be one of the great poetic subjects.  To contemplate the making of a human being is to grapple with meaning and mortality: you are forced to think about the spirit and the flesh.  There is pain and fear and risk and love and transformation and joy.  It is political, and makes you think about the arbitrariness of privilege and the future of the planet.  As a topic it seems to me to touch on, well, everything important really.  And yet, bizarrely, poetry about parenthood is still seen to be somehow minor, petty, ‘domestic’.  I have heard very well respected male poets observe that they don’t really care for ‘motherhood’ poems (try imagining them saying the same for love poems or war poems and see how odd it sounds).  I have also heard brilliant female poets apologizing for writing about their children (‘don’t worry, there’s only a couple in my next book’) as though it was some kind of self-indulgence.

A lot of female poets still seem chastened by the example of Kate Clanchy’s Newborn in 2004, marketed at new mums with a soft-focused cover, which attracted venom, particularly from male critics – as someone who wrote a column for the Guardian about her NCT classes, she was an easy target for accusations of middlebrow cosiness, although it is actually a finer collection than people remember (see her poem ‘Rejoice in the Lamb‘ for example: ‘At night, in your shift, fine hair upright, / you are my tiny Bedlamite, / admonishing the laughing crowd’).  But if Carol Ann’s Rapture had received criticism, people wouldn’t have been nervous about writing love poems for a whole decade afterwards.

The problem is not so much with poems about motherhood as with the perception of mothers in general.  The contemporary media divides them into yummy or slummy – and sees both as slightly revolting.  The female poets who have been allowed to write about motherhood are those who write about the shadow side – IVF, miscarriage, stillbirth, the death of children.  Or the failure to be adequate mothers – Plath telling her nursing baby ‘the pain you wake to is not yours’; Anne Sexton in ‘The Double Image’ admitting ‘and this was my worst guilt; you could not cure / nor soothe it.  I made you to find me.’  These are important topics, of course, and important poems, but there is a sense that writing from the perspective of an ordinarily lucky, happy mother is somehow icky – the equivalent of showing baby photos or bragging about your kids’ IQ.  That mothers are smug and motherhood a kind of superficial narcissim, where you lose sense of anything important beyond your darling son (or DS, in mumsnet speak).

Mothers are somehow, like cyclists, one of the last groups it’s socially ok to hate.  In the papers recently, I’ve read a couple of articles attacking women with buggies for having the nerve to inconvenience other users of cafes/pavements, as though we should all just stay indoors. Even Suzanne Moore (a mother herself, and usually a columnist I love) seemed to be attacking us in a recent article.  ‘But now I see that many folk where I live are actually the first people ever to have babies in the whole of human history!’ she sneers.  ‘So no little fold up pushchairs; instead they have buggy cars… then it’s baby yoga…’ Oh god yes, there’s nothing so repellent as women (who are pressurised to take leave rather than the fathers by society, legislation and the NHS showing videos that define being breastfed as a basic ‘human right’) filling the long, milky hours with their babies by going for walks with buggies that can handle a bit of mud or gravel, and taking them to community classes. Or, hang on, is that actually totally inoffensive?  I have a large buggy because I was too broke to buy one myself and was given it by my sister-in-law. Now every time I go out I can’t help thinking people might be looking at me and seeing it as some grotesque extension of my ego.

I have been writing a few tentative poems about motherhood recently, but I can’t shake this feeling that female poets have to be careful; that a single wrong note can make people hate them.  Look, they’ll say, Clare Pollard’s acting like she’s the first person to ever have a baby in the whole of human history!

Anyway, whilst feeding Gruff I have been clicking around poetry websites, doing my best to find other poems about being a mum: to seek out women who have written well about it before. That means Sharon Olds, who has written one of the few famous poems about childbirth, ‘The Language of Brag’, but I’ve also been finding less well-known poems.  Sally Read’s ‘Gestation’ is one of the best I’ve read about the strangeness of pregnancy.  I’ve been impressed by Marilyn Hacker’s ‘Iva’s Pantoum‘ and Rita Dove’s ‘After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed’ (how few poems address parenthood’s strange mixture of repetition and revelation…)  Then there is the brutal child’s-eye view of the mother in the Hungarian poet Anna Szabo’s ‘She Leaves Me’.

After her reading at the Poetry Library’s 60th party, I also discovered that the American poet Brenda Shaughnessy’s collection Our Andromeda is about being a mother and downloaded the ebook.  It’s staggeringly good, mainly because deals with the language and politics of mothering so intelligently – no one could accuse Shaughnessy’s work of being the product of ‘baby brain’.  They are poems about mortality and responsibility and religion and being thrown, as a feminist, against the limits and instincts of your own animal body.  In ‘Liquid Flesh’, about a night feed, she tells us:

I know I am his mother, but I can’t
quite click on the word’s essential aspects,
can’t denude the flora

or disrobe the kind of housecoat
“mother” always is. Something
cunty, something used.

Perhaps a shift is coming.  I see the Emma Press are taking submissions for a new anthology on motherhood and Carolyn Jess-Cooke is plotting a Writing Motherhood project – and hopefully these will be marketed at everyone rather than just ‘new mums’.  It’s not, obviously, that I think mothers are better writers than other women, or that the theme is more important than others, but surely the creation of a human being is at least equally as weighty and universal a topic as a love affair or a landscape?  And whilst we’re at it, maybe we should rethink what we as a culture condemn as sentimental – why is it fine for middle-aged male poets to go misty-eyed about their commuter train, but not for a woman to write about cuddles?

I note, by the way, that men don’t apologise for their parenthood poems in the same way women do – Don Paterson’s ‘Waking with Russell’ or Michael Donaghy’s ‘Haunts’ were greeted with uncomplicated acclaim.  And rightly, but where are the recent female equivalents?  Do let me know any other poems about being a mother you can recommend, especially ones which ‘denude the flora’ of ‘mother’ and question the discourse around it.  Because everyone was born, right?  Why is birth and the raising of children only of interest to some sloppily-imagined ‘buggy brigade’?

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