Archive for October, 2013


It’s the best fortnight of the year! Well, for me anyway, as my birthday, Halloween and Bonfire Night – clearly the coolest of all annual celebrations – come within a few days of each other. My birthday week was full of treats, including trips to Frieze art fair and a Peruvian restaurant, the Anna Calvi album and new boots. Tomorrow night it’s the Poetry Library’s 60th birthday reading which I’m really looking forward to as it features three poets I love but have never seen read – Warsan Shire, Jen Hadfield and Brenda Shaughnessy (I believe there are still tickets).

And then this weekend I’m throwing a birthday/Guy Fawkes/Halloween party for a few friends and their children. On the Halloween front, I’ve brought Gruff a spooky costume, and once the children are in bed am planning to try out the Ouija Board I bought this summer at a car-boot sale. Am very intrigued to see if anything actually happens (there was a good article about the psychology behind ouija boards in The Guardian last week).

Then I’ve also bought a selection of rockets from Lidl, we’re piling up firewood in the garden and I’m cooking proper bonfire night food.  Londoners seem happy to settle for hotdogs and baked potatoes, but as a Boltonian I am of course talking about black peas, otherwise known as carlin peas, cooked mushy and served with lots of malt vinegar (I struggled to find them, and had to get them online in the end).  There will also be a dense gingerbread called Parkin, and treacle toffee wrapped in greaseproof squares, made to the same faded, magazine recipe my mum used to use:


(obviously, I don’t have a small Swiss roll tin, but otherwise it sounds achievable).

My parents made my childhood very magical with all their annual traditions and rituals, so looking forward to my own son seeing his first fireworks. Hope you enjoy these dark nights too.

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Dead Poets

I’ve always had a thing for graveyards – the way they are often wild, peaceful spaces within cities; the whole Goth aesthetic of wonky angels; the old names and implied stories on every stone.  There’s nothing I like better than a pilgrimage to a literary grave too: the sense of somehow being in that writer’s presence.  There are some fantastic literary burial places in London – most recently Gruff and I went to see Marlowe’s in Deptford, in a churchyard with giant stone skulls on its gate, and I love Bunhill Fields where Blake and Defoe are buried, and Highgate cemetery where Dante Gabriel Rossetti dug up Lizzie Siddal’s grave to get his poems back. My favourite is probably behind the little known St Pancras Old Church, worth a visit if you’re between trains at King’s Cross,  where there’s a tree surrounded by densely packed headstones, moved there by the young Thomas Hardy to make way for the railway (the most Victorian story I’ve ever heard.) Mary Wollestonecraft is also buried there, and her daughter Mary used the tomb as an excuse for meetings with Percy Bysshe Shelley, during which they planned their elopement.

This week at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire I made my usual pilgrimage along the footpath to Plath’s grave, although I think perhaps hers is the saddest literary burial spot I know of – she seems so alone up there, among strangers in a place that was never really home.


My co-tutor on the course, Neil Rollinson, had just set a found poetry exercise for the students, and I ‘found’ poems everywhere – perhaps most apt was the sign on a gate that declared:

Hell Hole Rocks

This path is NOT a public right of way

Previously I’ve seen all sorts of weird tributes left by fans: a bottle of black nail polish; a stone painted with the legend ‘I hate men’. This time there were only coins and plastic flowers, and a bizarre letter wrapped in plastic. After declaring ‘I have to leave something of myself’ it instead finished with a muddled piece of text about death being a radical transformation, unaccredited and explained by the note: ‘I have amended the quote I found in order to reflect my own truth’. Which sums a certain kind of Plath fan up rather nicely…

In other poetic news, returning home this weekend I found an anthology waiting for me: 1914: Poetry Remembers, edited by Carol Ann Duffy


It is another kind of memorial: poppy red, and filled with both familiar and unfamiliar WW1 poems alongside new poetic responses to them.  Being asked to write about war was a difficult brief. Most of the contemporary  poets, including myself, have been lucky enough never to have to fight or witness war in our country: it would be easy to regurgitate platitudes about peace, or wallow in unearned sentiment.  Having just had Gruff when I got the commission, I chose to respond to Margaret Postgate Cole’s ‘Afterwards’ with a poem about mothers and sons, and have been very interested so far in seeing how other poets found an angle on the material.

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Notes from the North


This weekend I led workshops for those who had won Northern Writers Awards, at Highgreen Arts. Getting there was an epic journey in itself – first the train to Newcastle, passing the Angel of the North; rattling over the Tyne. Then a minibus for an hour and a half over sloping fields into Northumberland, the landscape of Basil Bunting’s saints and Vikings: grass roughened by clumps of heather and copper ferns and drystone walls, ponies and sheep parting to scamper off as we approached. The Croatian taxi-driver confessed to me how sinister he found it, heading deep into such remote countryside, as mist began to pool and thicken. But when we got there Highgreen was a lovely, homey manor house. There was a fire and fish-pie in the oven. I ran a deep bubble-bath and re-read Briggflatts.

Bloodaxe (named after the Northumberland warrior king Eric Bloodaxe, in tribute to Bunting) has an office in one of the house’s converted barns, and it was interesting to visit it after years of just writing the address on envelopes. Neil Astley generously gave me a stack of new books (including Karen Solie’s stunning selected, The Living Option, which I’ve already nearly finished) and gave the students a talk on the current state of publishing. Otherwise, there were the grounds to explore, their trees bright with pink apples; there was sticky toffee pudding and red wine; and there were hours spent talking about poets and poems. One student, Andrew, leant me his copy of Ted Hughes’ Selected Translations so I could read a poem by the Hungarian Ferenc Juhasz, ‘The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets’. It’s about the relationship between a mother and her son, and has stuck in my mind all week. The book turned out to be full of other delights too – not least an extract from Orghast, Hughes’ attempt to create a new universal ur-language out of sounds. As someone interested in Nonsense poetry*, I’ve always been intrigued by this attempt to take nonsense deadly seriously, but had never seen any of the text before – to satisfy your curiosity I copied out this extract:

Prometheus: NE KHARETHAS
Chorus: TSHUYO
Prometheus: GA-VE

So there you go. Lots of CAPITALS. And is it me or does TSHUYO sound a bit like Ted Hughes? Anyway, as I’m writing this I’m at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire, about to teach an Arvon, so will have a chance to imbibe a bit more of Ted’s spirit…


*By the way, this Sunday, when I’m back in London, I’m talking about Nonsense poetry with Murray Lachlan Young (who has written his own nonsense verse) at the Hendricks Carnival of Knowledge. Tickets are £12 but include a delicious gin-based cocktail.

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