Archive for August, 2013

Back to School

The August Bank Holiday always feels like the end of summer, and I’m getting that back-to-school feeling – especially as I’ll be heading to King’s College Cambridge this weekend, where I did my undergraduate degree, for the naming day of a friend’s daughter. It’s 16 years now since I arrived there from Bolton, with a case full of lycra mini-dresses more suited to Ritzy than a seat of learning founded by Henry VI. I think I survived most of my first year on chilli-chips from the ‘Van of Death‘ on Market Square (the ‘Van of Life’ was on the other side) and gin I ‘distilled’ in my room with a kit from Boots (you poured blue powder into water, basically), but I also discovered Susan Sontag, Nabokov, Jacobean tragedy and broadsheet papers; met my husband and had my first book signed by Bloodaxe. It was the most thrilling year of my life, and I’ll feel horribly nostalgic going back.

Meanwhile, my garden thuds with apples and I’ve been snagging myself on the blackberry bush trying to get the squelchiest berries. I even made piccalilli last week, filling the house with sour vinegar fumes (it’s a triumph, if I may say so myself).
I’m going to be back to work after my summer off with Gruff, which at the moment mainly means teaching. I’m doing an Arvon at Lumb Bank with Neil Rollinson in October – a time when the Calder Valley always looks particularly moody and beautiful – and mentoring the winners of this year’s New Poets Bursaries from the Northern Writers Awards. In a couple of weeks I’m also starting my three London classes – beginners and intermediate courses at the City Lit, and my intermediate course ‘What Makes a Poem‘ at the Poetry School. If you’d like an excuse to buy new stationary in September, at the time of writing there are still places on all of them, and The Poetry School just interviewed me for their blog, where I explain a bit more about what I teach.

Whilst I’m writing, I’ve also been meaning to mention how much I’m enjoying Modern Poetry in Translation under new editor Sasha Dugdale. It looks lovely, for one thing, with bible paper and a cleaner font. image
The autumn issue arrived this week with a cover in the colours of falling leaves, and has a feature on Romanian poets that (having hung out with the wonderful Doina Ioanid at Parnassus last year) I’ve found interesting – I love this Elegy by Mariana Marin, for example, where the nausea of grief makes ordinary sickness seem almost desirable. I often start my beginners group off with an exercise in Anaphora, and there are some really remarkable ‘list’ poems too: the Faroese poet Joanes Nielsen’s ‘My Breath is my Passport’ is a meditation on male sensuality (‘I come with a tempest out of a meat-sun / Whose hair contains the hidden powers of animals and people / I find solace between breasts with nipples big as hungry roses’), and I’m very struck by the futurist Khlebnikov’s ‘Garden of Animals’, where St Petersburg zoo becomes a kind of metaphor for Russia in 1909, ‘where a rhino’s red-white eyes carry the unquenchable rage of an overthrown king…where seagulls, with long beaks and eyes so ice-blue they seem bespectacled, look like international stockbrokers’. The issue feels an education in itself.

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“This is one moment / But know that another / shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.” TS Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral

I’m at my happiest travelling: even when it’s just a night in a chain hotel for a reading, I love wandering around somewhere different. It breaks the routine; makes me live in the minute. This week, exploring Kent, was full of pleasures: we went to Seasalter, to eat at The Sportsman (where I had the most amazing poached oysters with pickled cucumber and caviar; ray with cockles, and warm chocolate mousse with salted caramel). I loved the Curiosity exhibition at the Turner Gallery in Margate, inspired by 17th century cabinets of curiosities and featuring delicate, blown-glass sea anemones; Shackleton’s penguin; pictures made from split-hairs and the magician John Dee’s black scrying glass.

Then there was a trip to Canterbury Cathedral, with all its literary connections: Chaucer’s pilgrims (who like me, journeyed from Southwark); Eliot’s play; and most interestingly, the painting of St Eustace that inspired Russell Hoban’s dystopian novel Riddley Walker. It’s a wonderful picture you could stare at for hours, depicting his conversion to Christianity after seeing a tiny Jesus crucified on a stag’s antlers, and then the various ways, like Job, his faith was tested – his wife kidnapped by pirates; his sons by a wolf and lion. Having been at the folk festival, it was also interesting to see the pagan touches that had crept in around the edges of the grand Cathedral: Sheela-na-gigs flaunting their breasts; squinting peasants and Green Men in the roof of the cloisters.

Finally, there was a drive to Dungeness, a place I’ve always wanted to visit: a shingle spit so arid it’s classed as a desert, with a power-station whose energy warms the sea, and draws a churning mass of birds. It feels incredibly remote, but the bleakness is tempered by strange plants growing everywhere, regardless: orange poppies flaring amidst the pebbles. We went to see Prospect House, where the film director Derek Jarman made his famous garden, full of driftwood sculptures. On the wall was part of John Donne’s The Sun Rising – a plea not to be disturbed by the business of the world:

BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Home now, but whilst on the subject of holidays, two links for armchair travellers to writing I’ve really enjoyed recently – a wonderful piece about the landay form practised by the women of Afghanistan, and Sarah Howe’s fascinating blog-posts for Best American Poetry about her journeys around China.

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As I’m writing this I’m in Kent again, where we’ve come for the Broadstairs folk week. I first came to it four years ago when I was writing Changeling, and was obsessed by ballads and folklore – it was so nice to see the traditions brought to life instead of just in the pages of anthologies: dancers with blackened faces or feathered headdresses; the Hooden horses snapping darkly; tiny pubs crammed with beer-drinkers and men with fiddles and accordions. It always coincides with the Perseid shower, with shooting stars smearing the sky over the chalk cliffs. Our favourite place to listen to music is the Wrotham Arms, where they have afternoon sessions where anyone can join in. People stand and start singing unaccompanied: aching tunes and strange old lyrics that I find inspiring. The first time I heard the ‘Herring Song,‘ which I used as the basis for my poem ‘Broadstairs’, was here:

What’ll we do with the Herring’s tail?
We’ll make it a ship with a beautiful sail
And all sorts of things
Herring’s tails, ships with sails
Herring’s fins, needles and pins
Herring’s backs, laddies and jacks
Herring’s bellies, lassies and nellies
Herring’s heads, loaves of bread
Herring’s eyes, puddings and pies
And all sorts of things

This time there was a wonderful rendition of ‘John Barleycorn’, who is harrowed and martyred to make our ale.

In my search for lullabies for Gruff I’ve also learnt a new one this week, related to two of the Child ballads, which I’ve been rocking him to sleep to in the spirit of the occasion. It’s called ‘The Riddle Song.’ It has taught me a new word – ‘pipping’ means in the egg.

I gave my love a cherry without a stone
I gave my love a chicken without a bone
I gave my love a ring that had no end
I gave my love a baby with no crying

How can there be a cherry that has no stone?
How can there be a chicken that has no bone?
How can there be a ring that has no end?
How can there be a baby with no crying?

A cherry when it’s blooming it has no stone
A chicken when it’s pipping, it has no bone
A ring while it’s rolling, it has no end
A baby when it’s sleeping, has no crying.

It’s a song that was carried over to America to the Appalachian Mountains and if you’d like to learn it for your own baby, the loveliest version I’ve found on YouTube is by the great Sam Cooke

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In my Garden

Young people should probably look away now, as this is essentially a post about my garden. In my early twenties I joined the team of the extremely cool magazine The Idler, and was dismayed when, over the next few years, the editor Tom Hodgkinson lost interest in the London cultural scene, moved to Devon and started commissioning articles about allotments, beekeeping and permaculture. It seemed so middle-aged, all that nesting, but I’ve finally succumbed (and would now highly recommend Tom’s book about his smallholding, Brave Old World).

When we moved to Peckham last autumn our garden was overgrown with brambles – we didn’t even know there were beds and a path. But now we have planted autumn-cherry and golden-plum trees, our lawn is mown and we have a little veg-patch with green and borlotti beans, and courgettes (Richard has been frying the flowers in batter, stuffed with anchovies, lemon zest and cheese). I’ve have had various disappointments with Poundland seeds and shriveling rhubarb crowns, and our mothers have had to help out (pregnancy and a small baby both getting in the way of weeding) but some things have still flourished: lavender; mint; elderflower; love-in-a-mist; the buddleia, which crowds with bees and butterflies (I even saw a rare Jersey Tiger Moth folded on a bloom this week, like a Japanese mask). An old bush surprised us with yellow roses streaked with crimson, like raspberry ripple ice-cream, and we’ve managed to resurrect a wilting Delphinium from Aldi. A lot of the flowers have poetic resonances too: I can’t look at the sunflowers against the wall without thinking of Ginsberg’s ‘Sunflower Sutra’, or my marigolds without Vicki Feaver’s lines in my head – their ‘hot orange fringes / the smell of arousal’ – or my single lipstick-pink hollyhock without recalling August Kleinzahler’s description of them in ‘Hollyhocks in Fog’ as: ‘solitary as widows or disgraced metaphysicians’. (Sarah Maguire’s anthology Flora Poetica is a perfect read with the grass between your toes.)

I have been sitting in it a lot this month. The most amazing thing about having a garden is you have your own bit of sky to look at: the plough glinting through the light-pollution at night; the expanse of nursery-blue in the day. We’ve had barbecues nearly every weekend, and during the week I’ve been feeding Gruff under the apple tree’s dapple; reading as the sun ticks across the sky through what Marvell’s poem ‘The Garden’ calls its ‘fragrant zodiac’; prodding caterpillars and watching swifts dive. And yesterday, ordering bulbs and seeds on my Ipad, suckered in by the wonderful names: Eye of the Tiger Irises; Queen of the Night Tulips. I’ve almost written several poems, but none of my thoughts seem quite interesting enough – my main state is a kind of stupid, animal happiness – and a little part of me still thinks I’m too young to be writing poems about gardens, so I’ve made a coffee and am watching a storm gather over the fence while I write this instead.

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