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Notes From Lumb

This month has had a northern theme, as I’ve been helping to guest-edit the fantastic North-East based magazine The Butcher’s Dog and teaching an Arvon course at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire. The weather was absolutely beautiful, and I felt very lucky to be there in such rare sunshine, walking along the lip of the valley to Sylvia’s grave, the air full of honeysuckle and heather and Himalayan balsam (although an atmospheric mist did roll in on the Friday…)

It was also lovely to sit out each evening before dinner, debriefing over a glass of pink wine with my co-tutor Nikesh Shukla. who has just edited THE book of 2016, The Good Immigrant a collection of essays so timely that he both heard it was a Radio 4 book of the week and was fending calls from breakfast TV whilst we were there. Nikesh is a force for good and was brilliant fun to teach with (and also brightened up the tutor’s house with his songs).

And it was a pleasure to hear Kayo Chingonyi read on the Wednesday – the students were enraptured, and he even managed to build a cliffhanger into his set (something I’ve never seen in a reading before). It was fascinating to sit up afterwards listening to Kayo and Nikesh debate grime, and I was left thinking his freshly signed Chatto debut may be the book of 2017…

Whilst many find teaching an Arvon intense it was a friendly, relaxed group, and for me a  five-day break from little ones meant it felt incredibly peaceful. I took in the view from my bedroom. I checked over proofs for a couple of my poems in October’s Poetry magazine and my next book Incarnation (both pretty exciting). I had a bath. I did a face mask. I lay in until 8.30 am… I also got some reading done and, unable to switch off from being a mother entirely, plundered Lumb’s wonderful picture book library. I was particularly struck by Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There, perhaps the creepiest ever written, where: ‘Goblins came. / They pushed their way in / and pulled baby out, /leaving another all made of ice.’ It gave me lurid dreams, but when you have two preschool children even nightmares can feel like a refreshing treat.

 

 

 

 

Butterfly Milk

imageBeing the parent of a nature-obsessed 3 year old means it’s hard not to think about climate change on a daily basis. Every time Gruff says he wants to dive when he grows up, I’m aware the Great Barrier Reef is suffering ‘complete Eco system collapse’; picturing those wan ghost corals. When we get to the end of his rainforest book, with its blue Morpho butterflies, tapirs, toucans, Jaguars, there is a picture of a chopped-down acre. ‘Can we build a new rainforest?’ he asks. ‘I think we can build a new one in our garden.’

We have been reading The Lorax by Dr Seuss a lot. We love Dr Seuss (can’t wait to go to this new exhibition at the Discovery Centre) and I think Green Eggs and Ham is in my top ten poems ever. The Lorax is nearly as good: nonsense verse that rings chillingly true. The description of the waste-land where ‘the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows’. The old Once-ler lurking in his Lerkim, his teeth ‘sounding grey.’ And then the boldness of letting the villain tell the story – how he arrived : ‘Way back in the days when the grass was still green / the pond was still wet / and the clouds were still clean’ and noticed the Truffula trees had the fragrance of ‘fresh butterfly milk’ (what a remarkable image that is. It makes him sound like a serial killer).

The Once-ler sets up a business turning the trees into rather amorphous things called Thneeds (‘which everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE needs’), remorselessly ‘biggering / and BIGGERING’ his factory until the final tree falls.

It’s almost entirely bleak, but there is a gleam of hope at the end, when he throws a boy the last seed of the Truffula Tree. (And it’s all I can do to read as my voice cracks).

Another poetic picture book about the environment, this one for adults, arrived in my postbox a few days ago: Finders Keepers, by Harry Man and Sophie Gainsley, published by Sidekick Books. Not about poison-dart frogs or Bar-Ba-Loots, but creatures of our own country that are endangered: High Brown Fritillary, Norfolk Hawker, River Lamprey, Great Crested Newt. It’s exquisitely illustrated and full of facts and wonders – even the notes at the back are full of gorgeous lines (the fritillary is described as ‘little bigger than a folded train ticket’ but reliant on the ‘gigantic trampling’ of wild ponies opening up plains in bracken). There is also a lovely website where you can read extracts and listen to pipstrelle bats.

The Lorax and Finders Keepers do what art needs to do, and leave us inspired instead of despairing. Ready to fight for dormice and clean clouds. Although the smallness of our gestures might seem futile, for the sake of the next generation we hang onto hope: pay attention, share poems, sow seeds.

 

I’ve just returned from a weekend in the North, introducing Cate to my family, where Gruff enjoyed the zoo and raspberry-picking and a maize maze. It was a lovely trip, though getting back was nightmarish in the heatwave with two under-5s to wrangle on my own – Gruff ashen with travel-sickness on the fully booked train; Cate screaming thirstily on a sun-soaked bus back from Euston…

Still, home now, with all the windows open, and the garden is in its glory. My sweet peas have surpassed themselves this year and smell delicious and I have managed to grow black-eyed Susans for the first time (they look like cartoons of flowers). It is humming with bees, and white butterflies flit past every couple of minutes.

Much of the month has been the same blend of gruelling and idyllic, which I suppose all new parents go through. There have been upsets and vaccinations and endless nights, but also lots of bright spots. Gruff drew his first recognisable pictures (mainly narwhals and jellyfish). Cate is smiling gooey-ly and trying to chatter. She’s also been good at sleeping peacefully in her pram – I pushed her around the Georgia O’Keefe exhibition and new Louise Bourgeois room at the expanded Tate Modern. We took a family trip to Mason & Company, the bar Richard has designed with his company Fleet Architects by the wildflower strewn canal in Hackney Wick, and ate amazing Italian American food by  Capish- steak sandwiches with bone marrow, courgette fries and meatballs for Gruff. (As a proud wife I should also link to this review in Wallpaper). My mum also babysat one night, and we went up Frank’s Bar for views of London and a negroni, and stumbled on an mirrored art/poetry installation by Sam Rivière and Sophie Collins.

image

Oh and there was Ledbury. Always a pleasure, with a great audience for our Ovid show in the theatre, and lots of friendly faces in the crowd including Jill Abram event managing. I took Cate with me though (a volunteer, Molly, bravely babysat during the show) so afterwards I had to miss the curry and return to our hotel with pasta salad and gin-in-a-tin.

At least I had the new Ledbury 20th anniversary anthology Hwaet!  to read as I got Cate to sleep, in which I’m pleased to have a poem. There’s some great work in there (Sarah Howe’s ‘On a line by Xu Lizhi’ is particularly amazing) alongside memories of the festival. I’d enjoyed bumping into Alan Lloyd earlier in the green room, and was startled to find his section in the introduction ends:

After-hours performances could be memorable: Jack Mapanje and Yang Lian crooning in dialects learnt at their mother’s knees, while the macho players in the salsa band didn’t know where to look as an innocent-looking Clare Pollard recited rude poems. It was fun.

It was a very long time ago and I recall a great evening, but had clean forgotten that last bit! (made my gin-in-a-tin seem that bit more melancholy though).

 

 

‘In propaganda as in love, anything is permissible which is successful.’  – Goebbels.

If the ‘Leave’ vote has made one thing clear, it’s that we need to ‘take back control’ of something: language. I have never seen such a sickening barrage of propaganda in my country before as over the last few months, and the ‘Remain’ camp has been guilty too. The very nature of a yes/no vote led to horrific, divisive, black-and-white bullshit on both sides. Much as I hate to bring up the Nazis again, Johnson, Gove and Farage did continually remind me of an essay I once wrote about language and evil. They seemed to adhere very closely to the advice of Hitler in Mein Kampf that: ‘the art of propaganda lies in understanding the emotional ideas of the great masses’ whose ‘intelligence is small’ so ‘effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.’

And the technique is most dangerous when combined with assertion, and the linguistic trick of phrasing opinion as fact – as Hitler observed: ‘It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle.  They are mere words and words can be moulded until they clothe ideas in disguise.’ Whilst showing Hitler’s utter contempt for reality, the telling phrase here is ‘in fact.’  The philosopher Hannah Arendt observed the disturbing phenomena that ‘To the extent to which unwelcome factual truths are tolerated’ in politics they are often ‘Consciously or unconsciously, transformed into opinions.’  Gove’s extraordinary statement ‘People in this country have had enough of experts’ deliberately treated facts as just more hot air. Directly complimenting this is the transformation of opinion into fact, and the combination of these two processes might be said to mislead thought – to draw it into an argument with Truth whilst Opinion, in his disguise, slips past unquestioned.

Take Farage’s rant against Cameron: ‘ I just think that with ludicrous statements such as it’s the patriotic thing to do to literally give away control of your nation, to sign us up to a foreign flag, a foreign anthem and before long a foreign army…it’s contemptible.’ This is Farage’s paranoid opinion – what he thinks Cameron must secretly want – but with the noun ‘statements’ he frames it as a fact, as if someone in the Remain camp has actually declared such a thing. The sense Farage is giving us facts is heightened by that weaselly intensifier ‘literally’. But no one claimed signing Britain up to a ‘foreign army’ would be patriotic. This was just Farage’s own bizarre fever-dream.

And the videos. Oh god, the Leave videos, with their hospitals full of injured foreigners, as if every Polish builder was continually hammering nails into his own hands. This one by Leave EU clearly states: ‘You will benefit from better care provided by our NHS thanks to the reallocation of funds from the EU budget.’ It frames it as a fact.

And Boris Johnson is still carrying on now with his utterly unfounded assertions – ‘people’s pensions are safe, the pound is stable, markets are stable.’ How is he allowed to state these things not only in the absence of evidence, but against it?

Hitler also felt that in order to stem doubt he needed to treat ‘Essentially different internal enemies’ as if they were a singular force, creating a bipolar system so total as to be almost absurdly funny – head propagandist Goebbels continually surpassed himself with all-embracing insults, there being nothing he hated more than the ‘Plutocratic-Jewish-Masonic-Marxist-Communist-System.’  The tabloids have had particular fun with this technique recently, with Richard Littlejohn railing against Remain as ‘the vested interests of Luvvie Land, big business, merchant banks and almost the entire political class’ whilst metropolitan-muslim-rapist-intelligensia-snobs seemed to emerge as what Farage termed a ‘fifth column’. Simultaneously, UKIP has indiscriminately vacuumed up positive connotations: ‘This is a victory for ordinary people, for good people, for decent people.’ The human cost is to erase the many perspectives of public life and leave only Us and Them.

Let’s not let Remain off too easily though. We have also played Them and Us, with Them being the old, provincial, thick, racist white people, whilst We are multicultural, tolerant, intelligent, youthful and #lovelikejo (‘I know, let’s declare London independent!!’). And it now seems Labour is in meltdown because Corbyn can’t do propaganda. Nuance, it seems, is for losers. How can he win if he won’t simplify and deceive?

But does this have to be the case? Couldn’t someone regulate political propaganda? Couldn’t those in power, at the very least, have to comply with something like advertising standards, and be unable to assert that migration will be reduced without providing supporting evidence of a realistic plan to do so? Couldn’t knowingly lying to the electorate be made a sackable offense?  And also – call them naïve – but many people assume that those things reported as fact in ‘newspapers’ are actual news. How about a rule that any apology for a failure of accuracy has to be printed in the same position in the same-size font as the lie?

Public language has become so poisoned with untruths that it is wrong to sneer at Leave voters who only now grasp the implications of their vote. I’m interested, I read widely, I have a first from Cambridge (I know, what an elitist bitch), but I could still barely work out of the actual pros and cons of such a complex decision.

How can we expect anyone to recognise the truth in this age of infinite lies?

As a culture, it seems we currently agree with Goebbels that in propaganda ‘anything is permissible.’ Until we change this, I fear that things will only get uglier.

 

 

A while since I’ve posted. My days have been busy with childish things. My daughter, Cate, is nearly six weeks old, and I have spent most of my hours since her birth nursing and rocking her, or being interrogated by her serious gaze, whilst there has been a stream of visitors: friends and family and midwives and postmen loaded with cards and flowers and pretty dresses and soft pale cuddly animals and advice and bottles of gin.

Then there is Gruff, who was three last week, and is warming to his sister (he calls her ‘babe babes’) but has also needed lots of attention. Between tears and poos and sleepless nights, we have taken him to the seaside for rockpooling, made popcorn, ridden rocket ships at the fair, set up a den in our garden, bought his first pets (fish he called ‘Bang’ and ‘Bong’), and watched real caterpillars weave chrysalides in a jar on our shelf. We also had a bug-themed picnic for his birthday, with snail-races as entertainment (which seemed a sort of metaphor for this summer – both thrilling and slightly dull; the sort of fun where everything takes everything takes forever.)

I had my first child-free night out this Sunday though, leaving a row of bottles of expressed milk in the fridge to go and see PJ Harvey at Field Day. Despite the weather forecast predicting lightning, the heavy skies held back and she was wonderful – slinking and hunching around the stage in a black feather coat like a cross between Richard III and a fallen angel. Some of her refrains are genius and have looped in my head ever since (‘They’re gonna put a Walmart here…’ or ‘What if i take my problem to the united nations?’). I was very happy to hear the fierce 50ft Queenie live, which I used to shriek along to as a teenager in need of catharsis. But it was also a dark, dark set about the nature of evil and our own complicity and guilt: Words that Maketh Murder. The Wheel. Working for the Man. Down by the Water (‘Oh help me jesus / Come through this storm / I had to lose her / To do her harm’.)

Let England Shake felt horribly appropriate in these ugly, Brexit times:

The West’s asleep. Let England shake,
weighted down with silent dead.
I fear our blood won’t rise again.
England’s dancing days are done.

Otherwise, the one adult pursuit I have had plenty of time for is reading, as I can do it whilst feeding Cate. I’ve read some brilliant books over the last month: Olivia Laing’s haunting The Lonely City, Denise Riley’s Say Something Back (which I was pleased to see on this year’s terrific Forward shortlist, along with one of my poems of the year, the blisteringly good i am very precious by Melissa Lee Houghton). I’ve also read lots of stuff online at 3 in the morning – half-lit nightmare articles about Trump and bleached Coral Reefs and Orlando, or important new writing by Alice Oswald and Brenda Shaughnessy and Zadie Smith.

I don’t have much work scheduled for this summer, but in this snatched blog-post (which I have written a few lines at a time over several days) I should probably share some links. I do have one reading – I’m pleased to say the Arts Council has agreed to support five more Ovid shows, and the first will be at the Ledbury Festival on Monday 4th of July. I’m also going to be guest editing the next issue of The Butcher’s Dog alongside Sophie F Baker and Amy Mackelden- it’s one of my favourite magazines, and has an anonymous submissions process which I think will make it really interesting, so send us your work.

Parenthood Redux

So I did my last day of teaching on the MA yesterday, and I’m wrapping up my last bits of work this week. Pretty soon there’s going to me nothing in my diary between me and my due date, and I’ll be flung, fully, back into the thick of motherhood. In preparation I’ve been reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, one of the most original, thoughtful, radical books about parenting I’ve encountered, which ends with a terrifyingly accurate description of childbirth (‘The pain cavern has a law, its law is black shudder’).

It seems appropriate timing that Bloodaxe have also just put up the blurb for my next book, Incarnation, the poems I’ve written in the three years since Gruff was born, along with the cover image, which I’m thrilled is by one of my favourite artists, Louise Bourgeois.

incarnation

I have an embroidered hanky by Bourgeois on the wall on my study which says: ‘I have been to hell and back, and let me tell you it was wonderful’. I will be keeping that in mind during labour…

Although I’m taking some maternity leave from in-person teaching until August, I should mention that I will be using my ‘keeping in touch days’ to reprise my online Poetry and Parenthood course for the Poetry School next term, starting on May 9th. If you’re interested in exploring the subject with me as I live through those milky, sleep-deprived first months, there are still places so do sign up! We will look at lullabies, nonsense, Sharon Olds, gender politics and more.

In the meantime, I love this poem ‘Save Your Flowers’ by Dorothea Lasky about her premature newborn, that seems to recognise both the joy and the fear and risk of a new life, with her ‘tiny vixen / Milking and milking, blue note on blue’.

Will blog again on the other side….

 

I have to admit, pregnancy has felt dull this time. I don’t care what anyone says, nine months is ages. And as my life is currently almost entirely made up of teaching and childcare, it turns out that once you take away the wine then I am always the responsible adult in the room, which is a pretty dreary position to be in.

Still, the last two weeks did bring a few cultural pleasures – Gruff still goes to nursery in the Easter holidays, so I found myself in the rare possession of a day off, and went to see Hilda af Klimt at the Serpentine. It was a gleaming day in Hyde Park, with shaggy grey herons and a woodpecker and the hellebores out and the scent of blossom, and the paintings – abstractions pre-dating Kandinsky which were neglected until recently – are spiritual and strange and almost tremble with pale spring light.

And then in the evening, I saw Anomalisa, written by Charlie Kaufman, who I think is a genius. I have a bit of an obsession with puppets at the moment, and it is in made in stop-motion animation, a form I have loved since I saw Jason and the Argonauts as a four-year-old. The high-concept is brilliant, and although it is very dark, it was also pure pleasure. I recommend Zadie Smith’s essay in the New York Review of Books, which has had me thinking about it all week.

This week I also made a trip to the theatre to see Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, which was a more mixed experience. In my early twenties when I was in the Royal Court’s young writer’s programme, Sarah Kane, who killed herself in 1999, was a huge influence. I read all her plays a hundred times and would have argued she was a genius too. I loved how theatrical they seemed – they weren’t just about three people arguing about an ‘issue’ in a white room. In Blasted a hotel in Leeds is suddenly blasted by a mortar bomb from a civil war far away; geographical space collapsing. In Phaedra’s Love Hippolytus’ genitals are thrown on a barbecue. Cleansed has stage directions like ‘a sunflower bursts through the floor’, or ‘the rats carry Carl’s feet away.’ And there was always the sense she really meant it – Kane wasn’t just gesturing towards good and evil, she believed in them. The sparse dialogue rattles along, sometimes funny, always raw and true: ‘I love you now. / I’m with you now. /  I’ll do my best, moment to moment, not to betray you. / Now. / That’s it. /No More. / Don’t make me lie to you.’

I’ve never seen a Kane play staged before though. I’d always heard directors loved her, especially in Europe, because she forces them to push themselves and find solutions. But watching Katy Mitchell’s Cleansed I almost started to wonder if Kane’s plays are a series of traps set up for directors to fall into. Cleansed is really short, for example – only forty-something pages of dialogue, with the characters often speaking in 3 or 4 word sentences – and you could read it in under half an hour, but the pressures of commercial theatre clearly lure directors into stretching it out with profound silences rather than tearing through it. This production was 1 hour 45 minutes long.

Also, the stage directions, which read as a series of sudden, wild, horrible, beautiful images, all sort of piled up on an actual stage, until before you knew it you were looking at a woman dressed as her brother next to some sunflowers and burning books and an abacus and some umbrellas and a stretcher and a rat, and it looked a bit of a pretentious muddle. The torture, rape and incestuous fucking, which have a kind of dream-logic in the text, felt treated too literally too, but I wonder now how I expected it to work outside of my head? Maybe any stage rendering was going to seem too literal.

Anyway, people walked out etc, but it didn’t feel very shocking after the first twenty minutes, and more alarmingly, I didn’t believe in either evil or love as real forces on the stage – everything got a bit numb and even (with the music-choices) sub-Tarantino. (I’m a Tarantino fan, but would have said Kane’s vision is completely different). I’d recommend reading her, but wonder now if I’ll ever see a production as good as the one in my brain….

Back to poetry though – the next dates in my diary are readings. I’m very pleased to be on the bill at the Proletarian Poetry reading at the South Bank Centre this Wednesday, alongside Mona Arshi, Rishi Dastidar, Fran Lock, Richard Skinner and Laila Sumpton. And then on the 22nd I will be at the Tea House Theatre for the Poetry School’s Summer Term Launch, to hear Catherine Smith, R. A. Villanueva and some of wonderful New North Writing mentees I have been working with this year: David Borrott, James Giddings, Jasmine Simms, Kathleen Bainbridge Moran and Tom Cleary. Hope to see some of you there before – gulp – May arrives, and all cultural pleasures that can’t be enjoyed on an Ipad whilst breastfeeding become difficult…

 

 

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