Happy Easter Weekend! I’ve been doing some gardening – potting courgette seedlings and sowing nasturtiums. The bluebells are out, and the first roses about to open. Gruff has been sitting on the lawn grazing on daisies. We’ve had a nice break – a couple of days by the seaside with buckets and spades, then a trip North to see my family – he enjoyed meat and potato pie with beetroot and mushy peas, and trying to snatch at wings in a butterfly house.

Poetry-wise, it’s been a good month. Last Thursday I went to the relaunch of The Poetry Review, to celebrate its new editorship and look, with readings from Martha Sprackland, Greta Stodart and Steve Ely. It was great to catch up with lots of friends I hadn’t seen for ages, not least Tim Wells, who has a new blog as part of a project called ‘Stand Up and Spit‘ about the history of Ranting Poetry – do have a look if you’re interested in spoken word at all, it’s full of brilliant old flyers, photos and footage..


There were also free cocktails – Hendricks gin were making them, and there was a superlative martini from the 1890s with orange bitters called a ‘Poet’s Dream’ that went down rather too well. This photo shows Tim and I at the after-party, which is useful because I don’t really remember being there.

I also got the great news that the Arts Council is going to support my one-woman show of Ovid’s Heroines next year – I’m working with the fabulous Jaybird, who will also be touring a show of Daljit Nagra’s Ramayana. There’ll be a director, lighting, a set… It’s very exciting (and a bit scary now it’s actually happening). Do check out the Jaybird website if you’re interested in bringing the show to your venue or festival.

That’s all for now – except next week I’m ‘Poetry Butcher‘ at the Southbank centre, and a reminder that the Vers Poetry Competition which I’m judging closes on April 30th. Off to microwave up some leftover lamb and roast potatoes for my lunch…

Coldness –
deep-rooted leeks
washed white


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
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.



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


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


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


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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