Archive for August, 2015



Just got back from a wonderful weekend at the Edinburgh Book Festival – after an early morning climb up Arthur’s Seat I caught sets from Catherine Smith (in the dark), Blake Morrison, Niall Campbell and the Homework crew, and managed to fit in a few pints with Tim Turnbull. I also got to take part in a fantastic Philip Larkin event – thank-you to Becky Fincham and Luke Wright of Bigmouth for inviting me. Here’s the poem I wrote for it, after Larkin’s ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’



Lines on a Young Woman’s Instagram Feed

Last night I came upon your feed quite late.
Was looking for distraction, to strip-mine
some dirty chicken wings, finish the wine
already tasting of its ache:
I killed time with your little squares of time.

What full full days! Each moment is a pose —
the chair that’s been distressed, the knowing cat,
kimchi or pork-ribs from some popup pit,
the jam-jar’s tilted, pouty rose,
graffiti in the toilet: IS THIS IT?

And then the pictures of your many friends —
their T-shirts, lipstick, cartons of craft beer
or coldbrew in the park, the rigid cheer
of bearded boys whose smiles intend
by seas and fairground skies you filter bluer.

All pretext for the focus of your art:
you on the bus, made-up. Your new tattoo.
You smoulder, wink and tip your head at you:
your lips hover slightly apart –
you wait for me to press a heart, I do.

I heart your stuck-out tongue, sucked cheeks, I like
your pastel nails, fun earrings, funny face.
No moment of you is allowed to waste,
but cropped until it’s almost like
you’re perfect and live in a perfect place.

A bubble-tea, pale light in a green tree,
an aeroplane, a stage from far away –
I envy you each saturated day.
I lose so very much of me:
myself is something squandered, poured away.

A single set of memories soon breaks
or burns – I scrabble round for ones I’ve lost –
whilst yours are here, immortal, prettiest,
and every shot your iPhone takes
you know that you are watched by something vast.

Attention’s being paid though you’re alone:
the prawn penne for one you carefully make
in your small flat redeems itself, my take-
away begrimes my curtained home
whilst yours is petalled, lit upon a plate.

I do not know you, beautiful. Don’t fear.
I witness you – the loveliness you need
and almost, from an angle, do achieve,
the flash that’s shining in your tear.
I’m pressing play and watching as you breathe.


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white horse

For the White Horse knew England
When there was none to know;
He saw the first oar break or bend,
He saw heaven fall and the world end,
O God, how long ago.
‘The Ballad of the White Horse’, G K Chesterton

This weekend I was at a hen party in Oxfordshire – ‘glamping’ with afternoon tea and a school sports day, which is not usually my sort of thing at all, but there was a lot of Aperol Spritz amongst the wildflowers, and delicious food and lovely company, and I surprised myself by scoring a rounder. The other great thing about the site is you could see the Uffington white horse in the distance, so on the Sunday after breakfast, my friend Anna and I decided we had to get up close and went for a walk. There were little villages with thatched roofs, and endless wheat fields, and roads lined with sloes. A kestrel peered at us from a tree.

And the white horse was wonderful. The place definitely feels like it has a strange energy. The valley, called the manger because the horse is meant to drink from it at night, was rippled by the retreat of ice-age permafrost. There’s a weirdly flat-topped hill where St George is supposed to have killed the dragon; a chalk scar marking the spot. And then the bronze-age horse itself, scrawny and utterly other, with its long pale body and primitive, beaked face, that has to be regularly scoured to stop it disappearing. There is a Chesterton ballad about King Alfred trying to fend of the Danes that begins and ends with the image of the horse –

And all the while on White Horse Hill
The horse lay long and wan,
The turf crawled and the fungus crept,
And the little sorrel, while all men slept,
Unwrought the work of man.

Next weekend I’m lucky enough to be going on another jaunt – catching the Friday night sleeper train to Edinburgh where I’m taking part in ‘Prolong the Talk: Re-imagining Philip Larkin’ at 3.15pm on Saturday. Luke Wright will be chairing, and Helen Mort, Tim Cockburn, Sam Riviere and A F Harrold and myself have been commissioned to write poems imagining how Larkin would react to modern life. I’ve updated ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’ for the Instagram era. There’s such a fantastic programme at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, so hoping to cram in lots of shows, beers and an early morning hike up Arthur’s seat before getting the train back on Sunday. See some of you there!

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A while since I last blogged, as it’s turned into a busy summer. First there was an Arvon to teach in Devon with the short-story writer Adam Marek. Totleigh Barton was at its peak of lush loveliness, scented with sweet peas and honeysuckle; a deer strolling past me as I tried to get mobile signal. Having so recently been teaching about Sylvia Plath at Court Green, it felt fitting to be just ten miles from there, thinking of her descriptions as I walked through the vegetable patch with its ‘creamy bean flowers with black eyes and leaves like bored hearts’ (‘The Bee Meeting’). I even got stung, appropriately.

Since then there’s been an event on ‘Making Poetry Work’, the Betsy Trotwood All-Dayer, and a couple of festivals – I did an Ovid Show at Latitude and a workshop for the Idler Academy at Port Eliot Festival, so there’s been lots of messing around in tents, trying to get Gruff to sleep in his pram during very loud gigs (Portishead and the Parma Violets were highlights) and drinking wine out of plastic cups.

There’s also been some mentoring sessions, a reading list to compile for this autumn’s Poetry School/University of Newcastle MA (applications still open!), and the arrival of a big box of translated poetry for the Popescu judging. And this morning I was rather randomly on Woman’s Hour, talking about the male muse. It was quite interesting that in both the teasers for the segment, it was suggested the concept was something to ‘scoff’ or ‘laugh’ at – I think it shows how deeply gender stereotypes are still embedded that the idea of a heterosexual woman being inspired by a man, gazing at him or celebrating his body still makes people so uncomfortable. I didn’t get to say half the things I would have liked to, particularly about the history of the muses (pictured above) being figured as women, and Robert Graves’ idea that a woman has to be her own muse (it’s interesting that Sappho was often called ‘the tenth muse’ despite being as actively ardent as any man, perhaps attempting to position her as a source of inspiration rather than that more threatening thing, genius itself.)  Still it’s good to get people thinking about the topic anyway… If you want to hear it’s on listen again about 29 minutes in (and my Male Muse article in Magma from years back is here).

I think I can relax for a few days now, anyway. This weekend it’s the folk festival in Broadstairs, so we’re heading to the coast for Hooden horses and sandcastles. And I coincidentally picked up a brilliant second-hand biography of Robert Graves by Miranda Seymour the other week which I can’t wait to get back to (he’s about to meet Laura Riding, perhaps his greatest muse and the embodiment of the ‘White Goddess’…)

PS: for those interested in my garden, we currently have lots of blackberries and golden plums but the ants appear to be farming blackfly on my green beans, which is kind of disgusting, and my hollyhocks and sunflowers are already bowing as if to signal summer’s end.

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