Such a hectic week, full of things I wanted to share, so I’ll jot some of them down. Last weekend I attended a Poetry Translation Centre event, launching two Turkish pamphlets in the Arcola in Dalston. Bejan Matur’s translations were read by Jen Hadfield, and they both spoke beautifully about the process afterwards – Bejan talked about her shamanic leanings and declared: ‘In sun and darkness are words. Poets can hear them!’ I was particularly blown away by Karin Karakasli’s poems though, translated by Sarah Howe and Canan Marasligil. They are just my sort of thing, full of amazing leaps between very specific, personal images and politics – a poem about schoolgirls rolling up the waist of a ‘mouse grey’ uniform becomes about state oppression.  And its evocation of Istanbul is stunning:


I am in love with a tower

I am one of the fluorescent white seagulls

spinning like magnets

round its axis by night


This week I also did edits on my translations of Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf, ran the PTC class on Chinese poetry, and attended a marvellous Idler dinner, where my hosts were Tom Hodgkinson and Victoria Hull. In exchange for a short reading, I got to sit at a table with the geniuses John Lloyd and Rowley Leigh who both gave short talks, and was plied with wine and delicious food; seaweed butter, Labneh, broad beans, dukkah, bavette steak, grilled peaches… I’d highly recommend you book their next dinner (with Lavinia Greenlaw) for a convivial night out. Also, I’ve just agreed to be the Idler’s new poetry editor (light duties, I’m assured).

Then on Thursday I headed to Newcastle to the Northern Writers Awards. It was absolutely pissing with rain, which felt comfortingly appropriate. We went to a grand building at the University of Northumbria for a swanky occasion with real champagne, many speeches, and everyone sat round tables applauding like the Oscars. I was very pleased to present awards to Niall Campbell, Vidyan Ravinthiran and Rachael Allen. Also to meet the New North Poets I will be mentoring this year: Michael Brown, Jasmine Chatfield, Elizabeth Gibson, Maria Isakova-Bennett and Rosa Walling-Wefelmeyer. You’re going to be hearing a lot from me over the next twelve months about these exciting talents. Another delight was bumping into a New North Poet from a few years ago, Degna Stone, and receiving a copy of Butcher’s Dog 9. It’s as beautiful as ever and was good train reading for my return journey – poems by Will Harris and Rachel Long particularly.

On Sunday I braved rail replacement hell to get to Ledbury, aka poetry heaven. Luckily when I got there the sun was shining on the monochrome timbered houses and rainbow hanging-baskets, and two of my favourite poetry people Luke Wright and Jacqueline Saphra were in town to drink wine with and exchange gossip. Luke delivered a blisteringly good new show with poems from his collection The Toll, which by coincidence (they hadn’t met before) Jacqui recently reviewed for The Poetry School – it’s as good as she says. 

The next morning I ran a workshop about putting your manuscript together for Mslexia, and had lunch in hospitality before catching the train home (during which I gulped down Larchfield, by Polly Clark, which won the Mslexia Prize, about Auden and a young mother who is also a poet – a subject sometimes uncomfortably close to the bone. It’s a really clever, moving read about the horror of always being watched and your privacy being eroded – both when you become a mother and suddenly your domestic habits are everyone’s business and for Auden as he realises the same is true of his sexuality. Do read it.)

And I haven’t even got onto all the Life Stuff – the children’s party, the haircut, the reception meeting at the school Gruff’s going to be starting at this autumn. It was also the week of our big move, back from the flat we’ve generously been allowed to stay in near Tower Bridge during building works to our Peckham home. It’s been a little cramped, but a strange privilege to walk along the river every morning, sometimes seeing the bridge lift or swans bob past and people taking selfies. I made the most of my last days there with the kids, taking Gruff to climb on the big anchors and propellers he loves, then to the fountains by City Hall to splash around, whilst Cate paddled in the tiny corporate river. I also managed to enjoy the stunning new Dreamers Awake show at the Bermondsey White Cube, which includes some of my favourite artists: Louise Bourgeois, Leonorra Carrington, Lee Miller. Gruff kept saying things like ‘Why does that lady have teeth on her nipples?’ but seemed to enjoy it. This review by one of my favourite essayists Olivia Laing is worth a read.

And then packing everything up, moving it back across London and arriving at a house still covered in scaffold and without curtains and with so much to do. But I’m glad to be home. Our new room where the loft used to be is lovely and light with a big window over the garden and a new bathroom. I’m lucky to be able to live in such a beautiful space my husband has designed, whilst Cate sleeps for the first time in her own nursery downstairs.



Sifnos Blue

Last week, after flying to Athens (and sheltering from Zeus’s thunderbolts at the Acropolis), we caught the ferry to the island of Sifnos to spend a week in a villa with friends. It was lovely. Homemade greek coffee, watermelon, yoghurt, honey and spinach pies for breakfast. Sheltered beaches where we’d pause from splashing about with the kids for seafood lunches by the shore. Fish flickering around your ankles, and a real live octopus pulsing in the waters by a pier. Gruff had two little boys to run around with: firing water-pistols, making dens, building sandcastles and investigating the lizard in the bathroom. The adults got to sit up late in the terrace eating slow-cooked lamb or beetroot and feta salad, playing card games and drinking raki. One night a small owl perched on the telephone line and watched us, like Athena’s owl.


I usually blog about my own holiday reading, but keeping Cate out of trouble meant I only managed one book this year and I’d partly read a borrowed copy already whilst teaching an Arvon – Maggie Nelson’s radiant Bluets. Still, I enjoyed absorbing it properly in such a blue place, where every shutter or shop sign or banister is blue against white, and the sky was blue and the sea was like sun pouring through aquamarine glass. My favourite of her propositions is 157: ‘As one optics journal puts it, “The color of any planetary atmosphere viewed against the black of space and illuminated by a sunlike star will be blue.” In which case blue is something of an ecstatic accident produced by void and fire.’

The book I feel impelled to recommend from this holiday though is the Usbourne Illustrated Stories from the Greek Myths. I bought it for the boy’s’ bedtime stories and was worried it was a bit old for them, but it’s pitched just right and is totally enthralling – every night the adults took it in turns to read again and again the stories of Hercules’s twelve tasks, Pegasus flying towards the Chimera, Odyseuss tricking the Cyclops, and Theseus with his magic string defeating the Minotaur. I even ended up reading all the stories again last night in the airport at 11pm, waiting for our heavily-delayed flight to show up.

Back in the UK now anyway, and looking forward to a busy poetry week, including an Idler Dinner with John Lloyd and Rowley Leigh, the Northern Writers Awards and a workshop for Mslexia at Ledbury. First though, an early night with no raki.


The Shrinks

It is funny how we habituate ourselves to things. Last week it was Cate’s christening and we had a lovely day. We dressed her in a frothy family gown for the service. She was given keepsakes: a Moomin moneybox, a jewellery box with a dancing flower-fairy, silver necklaces from her godparents. My in-laws had made a buffet in their beautiful garden, with salmon and salads, lemon and chocolate-cherry tarts. Prosecco flowed. And the next day, Cate took her first hesitant steps across the kitchen floor and promptly applauded herself.

Now, of course, I barely look up from my iphone when she walks. A week, and it’s become an ordinary miracle.

We get used to other things too. On Saturday night I was babysitting in our temporary flat near London Bridge and went to bed early. It was humid and our windows were open. I was woken by my sister trying to call my phone. I switched it off on impulse (I was sharing a room with a sleeping baby who’d taken hours to lull asleep) and then realised I could hear helicopters very close by; sirens going off. I checked twitter. I checked Facebook. I saw friends marking themselves safe and knew it was another terrorist attack. A van. Knives. Breaking news. Broken heart emojis.

In some ways it’s a survival skill, how we normalise things. We manage to process them. We can’t live in perpetual wonder or terror. But at other times it’s a trap. I’m thinking of the wonderful Adam Curtis documentary Hypernormalisation. I’m thinking of the anti-Trump rallying cry: this is not normal.

I’m reading Roald Dahl’s The Twits to my son at the moment. He got it for his 4th birthday and he loves it. Yesterday we read the bit where Mr Twit tricks Mrs Twit. Every night he adds a tiny bit of wood to the bottom of walking stick and a tiny bit to the bottom of each leg of her chair. Because it happens so incrementally, she doesn’t notice. And then, after a while, when they’re up to Mrs Twit’s shoulders, he tells her ‘you’ve got the Shrinks!’ Mrs Twit dribbles with fear and turns white. ‘It’s a terrible disease,’ Mr Twit adds. ‘The worst in the world.’

England thinks it has the shrinks at the moment. The papers have convinced us. Slowly, bit by bit, they’ve built a mountain of lies to dwarf us. Telling us we can’t afford to help the disabled, care for the elderly, pay for further education, provide a safety net when people lose their jobs, police our streets adequately. We can’t afford that local A and E, the pay rises for nurses, the textbooks for schools, the libraries, the Sure Start centres, job security, sick pay, legal aid, local museums, swimming pools, meals on wheels, housing, food for children who haven’t eaten all day, human rights. Until England has started to believe these things are impossible, and we don’t deserve them anyway. We’re so vulnerable and scared and small, and if we don’t do what they say maybe we’ll shrink even more. Maybe we’ll disappear.

Listen, it’s a trick. A trick that works because slowly we get used to our diminished state. We cope as best we can. We carry on. We tell ourselves it’s fantasy to imagine it being any other way. But it doesn’t have to be like this: every cut the Conservative government has made has been an ideological choice. The people of this country don’t have to stand back and watch it being starved, divided, dismantled, fracked and sold off.

You haven’t shrunk, believe me. Think of your family, your friends, our children. Think of London Bridge and Manchester and all the bravery and kindness. Vote tomorrow, and in the polling booth make sure you stand up to your full height.

Spring Things Pt.2

Apologies for another hasty blog – this still isn’t a proper post – but there are a couple of things I promised to flag up this month and time is slipping away. I’ve mainly been frantically trying to finish my translations of Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf for her Bloodaxe collection (I’m trying to alliterate a 21-verse poem in S today), and last week we also chatted to Helen Mort about the poems for a forthcoming Radio 4 documentary about translation, which sounds like it’s going to be fascinating.

I did manage to fit in a couple of readings this month though – it was a pleasure to be part of Somewhere in Particular’s event about Brexit and Belonging, and I also had an absolutely fantastic time reading for Neu Reekie in a church in Leith. I got there and they offered me the pulpit, which seemed like a fairly ideal place to read out of Incarnation!  There was an enormous crowd, and such a varied, exciting lineup feat.: Bill Drummond shining people’s shoes, Callum Easter singing a beautiful strobe-lit set, funny animations, Corbyn, nasty women, and a bid to be MP of Hull. There’s a great review in the Scotsman here (‘In particular, the poet and spoken word artist Clare Pollard’s set was masterful, as dryly amusing as it was tender and occasionally shocking in exploring the meaning of parenthood…’)

And if you missed it, I’ve been invited by the wonderful Jenny Lindsay to do another Edinburgh set on Friday the 19th at Flint and Pitch. It’s at the Bongo Club at 7pm and costs £6. Claire Askew will also be reading – who I’ve wanted to see for ages – along with lots of other delights. Please come, I’m up for a big night!

thumbnail_may revue collage

I also promised I’d tell you about my new online course for the Idler Academy. It’s a six lesson course about stealing from classic poetry, with a session on basics, followed by nonsense, ballads, sonnets, dramatic monologues and taking your poetry further, and there is a forum for sharing your work. It would be a great gift. I absolutely loved filming it – I think the Idler have done a gorgeous job, and autocue was AMAZING. I could totally engage with the audience whilst sounding incredibly clever, without any anxiety about forgetting important points. Honestly, after an afternoon of filming I was thinking I need autocue for at least 50% of my life. Also, I should be a guest presenter on Have I Got News For You.

There’s a trailer and more info here. It costs £60, or for £95 you can join the Idler Academy and access all their online courses. They have some marvellous stuff like How to Write a Song with Chris Difford from Squeeze…

I think that’s all for now. Hoping to swing by the Free Verse Poetry Magazine Fair this saturday, so maybe see some of you there?

Spring Things

It’s Spring! And everything’s been very busy.  My last week of term I ran an all-day workshop with artist Becky Jelly at the Royal Academy on their After the Fall exhibition, and also filmed a new onlinecourse for The Idler Academy (details to follow. I discovered I love autocue.) I’ve been putting together my shortlists for the Northern Writer’s awards. And now I’m immersed in Easter holidays with the kids. Baby-animal feeding, sandcastle building, face painting, canopy walks, galleries, Lego Batman and the Smurfs. I’m completely exhausted already, although I did love the snakeshead fritilleries at Kew, and Monkton Nature Reserve with its chalk cliffs and fairy trail; spotting tiny houses in the woods amongst the primroses and bluebells.

Some things. I had my poem ‘On Peckham Rye’ in The Guardian, which I was thrilled about.

Incarnation also had its first review by the poet Heidi Williamson.

Event-wise, we’re booking for the next season of the Poetry Translation Centre workshops . This season has been really enjoyable, and  if you want a taste of what we’re doing why not read these poems we translated by the Cuban poet Legna Rodriguez Iglesias last month, which were particular favourites of mine – surely you can’t resist the title ‘The Man Who Looked After Suicidal Penguins on the Abandoned Beaches of the World’?

I’ve also got a couple of gigs coming up in Scotland, the first of which is at Neu Reekie’s ‘Where are we now?’ event on April the 28th. It promises to ask where artists stand as dark divisive forces stir the UK…

And I’ll be continuing to explore the UK’s current situation on the 29th of April by chairing the debate at the Somewhere in Particular/Rich Mix event ‘No Place like Home: Poetry, Identity and Belonging in Brexit Britain’ . It’s a fundraiser for Refugee Action and the lineup is amazing, so do come and join the conversation.

First though, chocolate eggs.

5-4-3-2-1 Blast Off!!

Last week I launched my new book Incarnation at Daunt’s Cheapside alongside the wonderful Antony Dunn’s Take This One to Bed. It almost went terribly wrong, given there was a same day clash with both the launch of Cold Fire, a Bowie-inspired pamphlet edited by John Canfield and Alex Bell at the Brixton Ritzy (what kind of fool tries to compete with Bowie??) and also the arrival of Storm Doris, which meant both my mum and Antony himself had fraught journeys from the North, strewn with electrical cables and threatened replacement buses, and only arrived the moment the launch began.

In the end though it was a lovely, memorable night. We drank lots of wine, sold lots of books and caught up with lots of friends who had braved the elements. Most of all, it was very special to be in the same room as Antony Dunn, Polly Clark, Owen Sheers and Matthew Hollis for the first time in many years – we went on the ‘First Lines’ tour together in 2001, and toured Hungary and Croatia with the British Council soon afterwards, and I think those trips were the most fun I’ve had in my whole poetry career. Hanging out with them all again was just brilliant.

If you missed this launch, I do have another coming up as part of the Essex Book Festival next week – Wednesday the 8th of March at 7.30 at the Art Exchange, University of Essex. I’m currently a Royal Literary Fellow there so it will be really nice to read to colleagues and students and I hope some other poetry fans too (the space has a photography exhibition on at the moment by Richard Billingham, if you need a further lure.) If you can’t make it but would like a copy, it looks like the best bargain online at the moment is £7.65 at Hive, which also supports high-streets and local bookshops.

The day after my book came out, I took its muse, Gruff, to the Science Museum, along with my mum and his baby sister Cate (who is now known as ‘Bleebs’ because Gruff has declared this her ‘alien name’).  He’s very into space at the moment – we’re constantly having to pretend the basket-swing in the playpark is a UFO and duck to avoid asteroid storms, and last week we looked at the mind-blowing images of TRAPPIST-1 together: seven planets circling the ultra-cool dwarf star that is their outsized, peachy sun. So I really enjoyed showing him a Japanese robot, a rocket called ‘Black Arrow’, astronauts’ outfits, space food and an actual piece of darkly glittering moon.

Having children projects your mind into the future. As ever, Gruff is giving me ideas: quantum physics, black holes, space colonies, sci-fi. With Incarnation finally launched perhaps I can feel the dust particles of the next collection starting to swirl and form…

On Poets and Adverts

I think the world would be a better place if there was no advertising. I happen to think that the advertising industry has become a powerful and negative force in our society. It has destroyed our news, for example, funding free until people are unwilling to pay, then flocking to Facebook and Google; making real journalism unaffordable and causing our current hellish descent into fake clickbait. It has eroded the ability of writers and musicians to make a living. It has permeated every public space: our buses, our hospitals, our parks, until there is barely anywhere we are not positioned as consumers. It stalks our every (online) move. It sells gender stereotypes and racial stereotypes and heteronormativity. It sells selfishness and greed and vanity. It sells eating disorders and bleached coral reefs, child labour and pointless plastic, obesity and disappointment. And advertising is clever. Because it takes youth culture and avant garde art and wild music and grassroots politics and literature and any real creativity that might threaten the current system and it tames them. It strips them of subversion then sells them back to us.

There’s been a lot of talk on social media about poets doing adverts. I only noticed really when I saw this poem by Luke Wright on Youtube criticising them. My immediate thought was that it’s a great poem, there are some lines that really made me laugh. (‘So what if Iggy sells insurance and Lydon sells us butter? / I preferred their early work, the greedy motherfuckers’) I also thought it was quite brave – he makes a living as a poet and has the profile to get approached for these things, so he is burning a few bridges here, drawing a line.

However, most people I saw online seemed to be annoyed with him. Like he touched some kind of nerve. Apparently adverts are good profile for poetry. And naturally poets need the money. Apparently, no one has a right to criticise. Fay Roberts defends those ‘feeling stung and belittled by the unsought judgement’. Sophie McKeand argues: ‘The world is becoming more and more judgmental and intolerant and it’s depressing to see that, at times, poets are leading the charge on this instead of focussing on things that really matter.’

Well I suppose it depends what you think matters.

I disagree with this assumption that  ‘judging’ is inherently wrong, as though critical engagement is for meanies. Agreed, we all make compromises and we don’t know the poets’ financial situations. Lots of poets have day-jobs – they might run hedge-funds or work for Google and this is none of my business. But once you write a poem and perform publically then judgement is not ‘unsought’, even if you’re doing it for a large cheque. You’re putting it out there for people to judge, and not just your line-breaks either – your opinions, your motivations, your feelings. That’s what makes being a writer scary. It’s exposing.

I think the adverts under discussion contain some pretty poor poems. To be clear, I’m not condemning the poets generally, just these specific poems. George the Poet’s rhymes are used to suggest that individuality (which ‘doesn’t come off a production line’) can be purchased in the form of an expensive, environmentally unsound jeep off a production line, and urge the viewer to do various things which sound kinda cool but are totally empty (‘Defy your alibi’.) The Nationwide ads are strung together from soft-focus cliches (churning stomaches and melting hearts, knees-up and cuppas, dad dancing and hero’s welcomes) and reinforce, in the juxtaposition of poem and product, certain messages: that a building society lending money is doing you a ‘kindness’, or that house ownership is a necessary part of creating a family home.

So I don’t see these adverts and think ‘well at least they used real poets’. I don’t see anything better in them than any other jingle. And I think we’re allowed to question whether presenting these words to people as poetry actually does poetry any good.

In a statement Jim Thornton, VCCP deputy executive creative director of the Nationwide adverts, said: “Each of these poets brings a raw honesty to the words they have written, the subjects they’ve chosen and the way in which they are performed. It’s rare and refreshing to see such authenticity in a world of advertising artifice. Sometimes, advertising is at its most effective when the hand of the client and agency can be least detected.”

I find that last line faintly chilling. And do you see what he’s buying there? Honesty and authenticity. If that’s what he’s buying, then that’s what you’ve sold.