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‘I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best’ Leonard Cohen sings of Janis Joplin in ‘Chelsea Hotel’. Well tonight I don’t want to suggest that of Leonard Cohen either. I’m not a superfan who owns every album. I’m not grieving. There are sadder things in this world right now than a fulfilled, beloved man dying at 82. But it’s Friday, the children are asleep, and I’m in on my own clicking on ‘So Long, Marianne’ and drinking a glass of red wine to one of the very greatest lyricists of all time.

My dad used to like singing Leonard Cohen songs – he said they were some of the few popular tunes in his vocal range – and he often recounted how when he was dating my mum and they had to live in different towns he would sing her ‘Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’ (‘your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm…’).

One of my top ten albums is the deliciously sleazy I’m Your Man with Lorca’s ‘Take this Waltz’ and ‘Everybody Knows’ (‘Everybody Knows the fight was fixed. the poor stay poor and the rich stay rich.’) One of my top ten concerts ever was Cohen at Benicassim, bounding onto the stage full of joy.

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(image of Cohen at Benicassim by Baggio)

Jeff Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ was pretty much the anthem of my adolescence, and Chelsea Hotel, well, it’s a top ten song, maybe even top five. It breaks my heart every single time I hear it. ‘You were talking so brave and so sweet’. I think I’m pretty much gone from there.

And he was a real poet. I mean, I love Dylan, but Dylan lyrics without the music don’t sound like poems to my ear. Cohen’s are poems. Look at ‘Suzanne’:

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then he gets you on her wavelength and she lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover

Listen to the cascade of soft, feminine rhymes there. Listen to the caesuras breaking the lines like waves breaking. Look at that image of tea and oranges: comforting yet exotic, fragrant, precise.

I’ll remember you well Leonard Cohen. That’s all.

Spooktacular

So we had a very fun ghoulish gathering in the end. Gruff helped me make lanterns, slime jelly and eyeball canapés; ‘Ghostbusters’ rang out from Spotify, and there was some great fancy dress (see our haunting family portrait below. Cate is a skeleton; Rich is the pumpkin-headed dancer meme)

The weather also held out for us to have fireworks and a bonfire in the garden (as well as a keg of ale and a makeshift bar where I sloshed together some sloe gin Negronis. Or Negroanis, for those who enjoy a terrible Halloween pun). And friends generously brought creepy offerings such as a skull draped with cold meats, ‘devil’s mess’, monster flowers and a Hilary Clinton mask.

Also this weekend an interview about Incarnation and new poem called ‘The Reef’ both went up on the excellent Poetry Spotlight website if you fancy a click.

 

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.

 

Publications

-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.

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Events

-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.

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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).