Archive for May, 2014

I’ve been enjoying Professor Amanda Vickery’s BBC series ‘The Story of Women in Art‘ this week. It’s sobering to see how much important art by women is hung in dusty, unsung corners, or stored in vaults beneath Florence. It makes you see how reputations can have little to do with quality, and everything to do with other agendas.


This is a sculpture of Joseph with Potiphar’s wife by Properzia de’ Rossi, the Italian Renaissance sculptor Vickery brilliantly describes as having ‘damned herself into stone’, by showing too much knowledge of the muscles of the male body.

If you’ve been watching the show and are in London, I’d recommend a lovely exhibition by Annie Kevans called ‘Women in the History of Art’ as an accompaniment. Vickery talks about how few self-portraits of women artists hang in galleries, and these portraits of women such as Sofonisba Anguissola and Gwen John seem to redress the balance and make them visible again – they are oils on paper applied so delicately that they almost look like watercolours, and yet the women have confidence and grace. (I see Kevans has also done an exhibition called ‘Boys’, showing dictators like Mao, Franco and Idi Amin as tiny children, which looks equally brilliant).

I saw this as part of a little crawl round free exhibitions in the centre of town yesterday. So many of the big name shows have got crazily expensive (£18 for Matisse!) but Gruff and I like pottering around looking at pictures. We also went to see our friend Mishka Henner’s amazing show ‘Black Diamonds’ at the Carroll Fletcher, which has photos of oil fields and feedlots taken from above – they look like abstract art, and are a breathtaking display of the way large corporations are literally changing the face of the earth. And then over to the Photographer’s Gallery for the Deutsche Borse Prize and a fascinating exhibition of John Deakin’s photos of boozy Soho in the 1950s. There are plenty of poets there: Elizabeth Smart and George Barker, WS Merwin and Dylan Thomas, his face blankly boyish and ballooning with booze.

It’s Dylan Thomas ‘season’ on the BBC at the moment of course, marking the 100th anniversary of his birth. His reputation seemed to sink in recent years, but someone somewhere seems to have decided he’s Important again. I’m very pleased to be in a documentary about him by Owen Sheers – ‘Dylan Thomas: a Poet’s Guide’ – which will be on BBC4 on June 1st. It’s a very stylish documentary that looks at the poems themselves, and features other poets such as Jo Shapcott, Simon Armitage and Paul Muldoon. Dylan Thomas was a big influence on me as a teenager – all those big, juicy mouthfuls of sound and that angst about Life, Death and bodily fluids – and I’ve really enjoyed re-immersing myself in his work. If his excess has had some mark him down as embarrassing, it’s also what makes a handful of his poems truly great, and the rest at least delightfully daft.

Other poetry updates, while I’m here. I’ve reviewed debuts by Dai George, Amy Key, Malika Booker and Helen Tookey in the Summer Poetry London, and I’m pleased to announce I’ll be on the judging panel for the 2014 Manchester Poetry Prize , with its huge £10,000 prize  for a short portfolio of poems.  Also, for those of you who are still looking for a summer holiday, may I suggest an Arvon Starting to Write course in Devon this August? I’ll be teaching with Kei Miller and the guest is Warsan Shire.

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So, some big (for poetry) news in the last week. Firstly, I was startled to look on Facebook and see this obituary for Rosemary Tonks. For those of you who don’t know her work, Rosemary Tonks has always been very much a poet’s poet – the kind of writer who feels like your own secret; whose fans drop little references to her in their work, and circulate her poems in pirated PDFs. Born in 1928, her collections from the 1960s are everything you want poetry to be: profound, sophisticated, sexy, cool, full of Paris and cafés and adultery. She said ‘My subject is city life—with its sofas, hotel corridors, cinemas, underworlds, cardboard suitcases, self-willed buses, banknotes, soapy bathrooms, newspaper-filled parks; and its anguish, its enraged excitement, its great lonely joys.’ The voice of the poems is wonderfully confident, yet full of self-doubt. ‘To make love as well as that is ruinous’ she declares. Or: ‘I have the stolen love-behaviour’. Or: ‘My cafe nerves are breaking me/ with black, exhausting information.’ As a young female writer, I found remarkably few examples of bohemian women poets to look up to – it often felt like only male poets dived into life and experience. Once I’d discovered her work I was intoxicated.


And then I heard that in in the early 1970s, she gave it all up and disappeared. Our Rimbaud.

The obituary, written by Neil Astley, says she lived as Mrs Lightband in Bournemouth, having found solace in Christianity and destroyed or given away most of her possessions. It seems a sad story, in some lights, but there is a kind of purity to it as well.  Now we finally know what happened to Rosemary Tonks, we can see she carried on being remarkable and disobedient… If you haven’t read her before, start here with ‘Story of a Hotel Room’ and I sure you’ll soon be seeking out everything she ever wrote.

The other big poetry news (for me) is that the PBS have asked me to be on the judging panel for The Next Generation Poets 2014.  I love a list. The original New Generation list came out in 1994 when I was sixteen, and was pretty much my introduction to contemporary poetry as I attempted to read all twenty writers on it; whilst when the last list came out in 2004, I spent hundreds of hours in the pub arguing about who should or shouldn’t have been included.  So I’m extremely excited that this time I’ll get to argue FOR REAL with the rest of the panel – Paul Farley, Caroline Bird and Robert Crawford, with Ian McMillan chairing. It’s a chance to celebrate and share poets who deserve to be read more widely – a summer of serious reading awaits.



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On Yarl’s Wood

For the last couple of months, Yarl’s Wood has been in my thoughts. A statement by Zadie Smith in The Guardian first caught my attention. She described the detention centre for female refugees as a ‘a prison that looks like a sports centre, nestled in a business park.’ It’s a brilliant metaphor for everything wrong with contemporary Britain. And then I saw it was run by Serco, of all people – the kind of faceless, evil organisation you can’t quite believe hasn’t been invented by a satirical postmodern novelist.

File:Yarlswood IDC - geograph.org.uk - 78530.jpg

(photo by Oliver White)

Yarl’s Wood. It even sounds nasty, doesn’t it? Like it’s a creepy fairytale, where Yarl is a wizard with a gnarled heart and mean fingers. Anyway, I started reading around. I read about the campaign against it started by Meltem Avcil, who was taken there with her mother when she was only 13.  She describes a place where women can’t get changed because they’re watched 24-hours by male guards; a place of roll-calls, barbed wire and barely opening windows. I read of indefinite detentions; inadequate medical care; 71p a day spending money and a culture of abuse that has led to staff being sacked for sexual assault.  I read of pointless deaths and senseless deportations.

These are women who have come to us, asking for hospitality and mercy. Women who have been victims of violence or rape or prejudice; who often fled their home-countries in fear of their lives. And the more I read about Yarl’s Wood, the more it seemed like a horrible spoof – a mocking enactment of their fears of abuse and injustice. A parody of their hopes for security and a new home.

So I wrote this poem, ‘Yarl’s Wood’, which I was pleased to have in The Morning Star yesterday, and which works with this idea of these women’s words being twisted. (I know political poetry isn’t everyone’s thing, but when I want to do something, poetry is what I do.)

And I signed this petition, which I hope you’ll sign too if you haven’t already.

This is happening in our country after all – this is how we treat people who ask for our help.  Which is sick, right? It should make us all feel sick.

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