Archive for February, 2016

A Very Important Date

Alice in Wonderland wasn’t actually one of my favourite books as a child – I’m not even sure I read an unabridged version until I was an adult – but in a curious way I feel it has always been part of the world of my imagination. All of us, after all, use phrases from it: grinning like a Cheshire cat, galumphing, chortling. I remember loving the Disney film – the earworm of ‘The Unbirthday Song’ and how people often sing-songed: ‘I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date’ – and a fancy dress day at my primary school where I was Alice with an apron and a tray of jam-tarts and my father (who was deputy head) was the Mad Hatter with a towering hat.

And then in my first year at secondary school I was Alice again in the school play, a double-bill of Wonderland and Looking-Glass. I stooped to a tiny door in the dusty school-hall, conversed with a caterpillar, had a crush on the March Hare, recited ‘The Jabberwocky’ to Humpty Dumpty and can still recall the fresh paint-smell of roses in the Queen’s croquet ground as she screeched ‘Off with their Heads!’ I was growing out the fringe I scraped back with a pale blue headband and felt myself to be, like Alice, both clever and confused; getting bigger and smaller. I had so many words to remember I made myself sick with the stress of it, especially after I apologised to the audience when another child missed a cue and was told off (coming out of character was an amateur’s error.) In those days I had a habit of fainting – exiting via my own rabbit hole – and on the week of the performances kept spinning out and being sent out of class to lie down.

They are extraordinary books. It is hard to think of any others that create such an entire and unique world, with its own peculiar dream-logic and no recourse to mythology or dragons or elves. The Wizard of Oz perhaps? Certain images or lines haunt me. I used to have a recurring nightmare about becoming too big for a house – an arm out of the window, a foot up the chimney. Or I cry: “I am real!” and Tweedledee remarks: “You won’t make yourself a bit realer by crying.”


(illustration by John Tenniel)

My new collection has a few poems inspired by children’s stories – Hamelin, Pinocchio, princesses and the Tiger who Came to Tea all make appearances – and I always felt I had to include Alice, so have been tinkering with a poem about her for a while. Which meant I was very pleased to discover that it was the 150th anniversary of the book, and that the wonderful team behind the Ekphrasis events – Abegail Morley, Catherine Smith and Emer Gillespie – were planning a reading and publication to accompany the British Library’s Alice exhibition. I will be there on the 4th and 5th of March alongside a very starry lineup – as well as the organisers and myself you can see Ian Duhig, Helen Mort, Amali Rodrigo, Sasha Dugdale, Robert Seatter, Luke Wright, Chris McCabe, Hollie McNish and Mona Arshi. Tickets are £20 but include a beautiful copy of the book which, having seen the proofs, I can confirm is full of delights – as a sneak preview here’s a poem by Heidi Williamson, a poet who seems as haunted by that Victorian child as I am, writing:

In the cold blue light
there’s a hole full of girl.

Read Full Post »

Rabia and Rabia

So Bloodaxe have confirmed my new collection Incarnation will come out in early 2017. I’m very pleased it’s official, as I have a last flurry of poems from it appearing over the next few months. I mentioned in my nativity post that the book uses a lot of religious imagery. After reworking folktales in Changeling, drawing on the equally strange and magical stories of my childhood assemblies – angels and arks, paradise and parables – felt a natural development. But during the time I was writing Incarnation I also travelled in India, Turkey and Jordan (where Gruff was conceived), and so spent time reading the Ramayana and Quran and thinking about other faiths.

Amongst the poems that touch on these, I’m especially pleased with versions of two remarkable female Islamic poets who deserve to be read more widely in English. I’ve reworked some fragments of poetry by Rabia al-Baṣrī, an 8th century mystic who went from being a slave to a respected teacher, and is considered the first Sufi to have set down the doctrine of Divine Love (which are forthcoming in Modern Poetry in Translation.)

And whilst googling ‘Rabia poet’ I also came across Rabia Balkhi, a poet from Afghanistan and one of the first to write in modern Persian. According to legend, when her brother discovered she was having an affair with his slave, he cut her jugular vein and imprisoned her in his bathroom, where she wrote her last poem on the walls in blood. It’s an extraordinary poem – for me about how dangerous the very idea of ‘love’ can be – and my version is published in the lovely new edition of Ambit that landed on my doormat last week.


(Still from 1965 Afghan film Rabia Balhki)

In other news, I’ve mainly been marking student manuscripts and reading Jonathan Bates’ Ted Hughes biography, but I should give a final shout-out for my only London performance of Ovid’s Heroines at the Rich Mix next week, on Sunday February 14th. Come for further elaboration on the concept of ‘love’ and its inherent dangers!

Read Full Post »