Autumnal Update

I’ve been so busy it’s tipping towards fraught (and Cate woke me at 5 this morning), so not much of a blog-post this time, but keep meaning to share a few links.



-My big news (for me) of this month has been that I have two poems, ‘Pinocchios‘ and ‘Leviathan‘, in the October issue of Poetry. Under Don Share’s editorship it’s probably my favourite poetry magazine in the world, and getting in there feels like a massive tick on my ‘Do Before you Die’ list. If you’re looking at the site, I must also implore you to read Carolyn Forché’s poem about refugees, ‘The Boatman’ – just stunning. And I’m part of the ‘Reading List’ feature on their blog.

-I’m very also pleased to be in this provocative new political anthology, New Boots and Pantisocracies, ed. W.N.Herbert and Andy Jackson (Smokestack), with a gorgeous ‘Pawnedland’ cover from the multi-talented Tim Turnbull.



-I’ve been on the road with Ovid again, with performances at Bridlington and Ilkley Literature Festivals. It was a pleasure to tour misty Yorkshire and see my friend the poet Antony Dunn (who has a rather lovely looking new book out this week, Take this One to Bed, with Valley Press), as well as spend a night with friends in Hebden Bridge (where I discovered an excellent gin bar in the train station).  I now have ONE gig left, in Nottingham – Thursday 10th November, 6.30pm at The Old Chemistry Theatre. Tickets are available here.

-For Londoners grieving that they missed it though, I will be performing some of the Ovid monologues alongside Patience Agbabi’s reworkings of Chaucer from her book Telling Tales at the Hampstead Arts Festival on November the 13th (very much looking forward to this).

-I’ve also been immersed in a translation of a new poem by Caasha Lul Mohamad Yusuf for Somali week, ‘Calaf’ – it’s an big, brave, moving poem about men and women that I’m very excited about. I’ll be debuting my attempt to capture it tomorrow at Oxford House and we’ll also be reading in Bristol on Friday, alongside W.N.Herbert who has been working on new translations of Mahamed Mahamud Yasiin “Dheeg”, and the revered novelist Nuruddin Farah who wrote From a Crooked Rib, an important novel about a girl escaping an arranged marriage which I read many years ago, and found deeply affecting. Details of the events are here at the Poetry Translation Centre website.

-Also, if you live in London and are at all interested in translation do come to some of the FREE translation workshops I’ll be facilitating for the Poetry Translation Centre over the next 7 weeks. No linguistic ability necessary, but the chance to work on literals by really wonderful translators who will give you an insight into other cultures (poetries we look at will include Cuban, Chinese, Dari, Pashto and more…) They’ll be at 6.30pm on Tuesdays and you just need to reserve a place on eventbrite – you’re welcome to come along for just one or three or all. See more about the poets we’ll be looking at and more details here (scroll down)


And… deep breath. Will go now as I’m on RLF time (I’m pleased to be back at the University of Essex as a literary fellow) and I think a student’s about to knock. Also, I’ve a lesson on Milton and Geoffrey Hill to prep for the Poetry School MA, and Gruff wants me to think up some ‘Spooktacular’ snacks for our Halloween party. Think I might go as one of the living dead.

I’ve been holidaying in the South of France for two weeks with my family, eating palourdes and salad nicoise and violet ice-cream; seeing Matisse’s chapel, Picasso’s pottery and Miro’s sculpture garden; and visiting places like Antibes that I associate with my favourite novelists, Graham Greene and Scott Fitzgerald. Rich and I took turns to sit with Cate in shade whilst the other built sandcastles and paddled in the sea with Gruff, and whilst I was with her I reread Tender is the Night, about the charming, tragic Divers and their circle on the Riviera, the atmosphere of which Fitzgerald conjures faultlessly (the ‘deferential palms’; the ‘bright tan prayer rug’ of a beach; the sea ‘green as green milk, blue as laundry water’; the ‘bottle of wine while a faint wind rocked the pine needles and the sensuous heat of early afternoon made blinding freckles on the checkered luncheon cloth’…)

We flew into Nice because we spent a couple of evenings with friends who have a beautiful new house in Vence, and threw a truly glamorous Cote D’Azur party. It was hard not to recall darker things though, walking along the Promenade des Anglais, even in blinding sunlight. Toys were piled high in tribute to children who died; armed police scanned the beaches. Our luck was thrown into relief. Tiny glowing jellyfish called mauve stingers dragged through the translucent waters.

Yesterday I flew back and went straight out to the Forward readings. Sadly two weeks of relentless rosé drinking meant I was too exhausted to mingle and sloped off afterwards, but it was lovely to see Roddy Lumsden, who has been missed in London lately, and it was a terrific reading. It was definitely the year of the long poem, with standout performances for me being Harry Giles’ funny, ferocious attack on our culture’s values, Melissa Lee Houghton’s intense ‘I am very precious’ and Sasha Dugdale’s radiant winning poem ‘Joy’. A lot of love in the room for Vahni Capildeo too when she won – I haven’t read the book yet, and ADORE Denise Riley so was hoping that might win, but I was surrounded by whooping Capildeo fans who clearly knew better and must order it straight away…

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.


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.