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Archive for August, 2016

Notes From Lumb

This month has had a northern theme, as I’ve been helping to guest-edit the fantastic North-East based magazine The Butcher’s Dog and teaching an Arvon course at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire. The weather was absolutely beautiful, and I felt very lucky to be there in such rare sunshine, walking along the lip of the valley to Sylvia’s grave, the air full of honeysuckle and heather and Himalayan balsam (although an atmospheric mist did roll in on the Friday…)

It was also lovely to sit out each evening before dinner, debriefing over a glass of pink wine with my co-tutor Nikesh Shukla. who has just edited THE book of 2016, The Good Immigrant a collection of essays so timely that he both heard it was a Radio 4 book of the week and was fending calls from breakfast TV whilst we were there. Nikesh is a force for good and was brilliant fun to teach with (and also brightened up the tutor’s house with his songs).

And it was a pleasure to hear Kayo Chingonyi read on the Wednesday – the students were enraptured, and he even managed to build a cliffhanger into his set (something I’ve never seen in a reading before). It was fascinating to sit up afterwards listening to Kayo and Nikesh debate grime, and I was left thinking his freshly signed Chatto debut may be the book of 2017…

Whilst many find teaching an Arvon intense it was a friendly, relaxed group, and for me a  five-day break from little ones meant it felt incredibly peaceful. I took in the view from my bedroom. I checked over proofs for a couple of my poems in October’s Poetry magazine and my next book Incarnation (both pretty exciting). I had a bath. I did a face mask. I lay in until 8.30 am… I also got some reading done and, unable to switch off from being a mother entirely, plundered Lumb’s wonderful picture book library. I was particularly struck by Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There, perhaps the creepiest ever written, where: ‘Goblins came. / They pushed their way in / and pulled baby out, /leaving another all made of ice.’ It gave me lurid dreams, but when you have two preschool children even nightmares can feel like a refreshing treat.

 

 

 

 

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Butterfly Milk

imageBeing the parent of a nature-obsessed 3 year old means it’s hard not to think about climate change on a daily basis. Every time Gruff says he wants to dive when he grows up, I’m aware the Great Barrier Reef is suffering ‘complete Eco system collapse’; picturing those wan ghost corals. When we get to the end of his rainforest book, with its blue Morpho butterflies, tapirs, toucans, Jaguars, there is a picture of a chopped-down acre. ‘Can we build a new rainforest?’ he asks. ‘I think we can build a new one in our garden.’

We have been reading The Lorax by Dr Seuss a lot. We love Dr Seuss (can’t wait to go to this new exhibition at the Discovery Centre) and I think Green Eggs and Ham is in my top ten poems ever. The Lorax is nearly as good: nonsense verse that rings chillingly true. The description of the waste-land where ‘the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows’. The old Once-ler lurking in his Lerkim, his teeth ‘sounding grey.’ And then the boldness of letting the villain tell the story – how he arrived : ‘Way back in the days when the grass was still green / the pond was still wet / and the clouds were still clean’ and noticed the Truffula trees had the fragrance of ‘fresh butterfly milk’ (what a remarkable image that is. It makes him sound like a serial killer).

The Once-ler sets up a business turning the trees into rather amorphous things called Thneeds (‘which everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE needs’), remorselessly ‘biggering / and BIGGERING’ his factory until the final tree falls.

It’s almost entirely bleak, but there is a gleam of hope at the end, when he throws a boy the last seed of the Truffula Tree. (And it’s all I can do to read as my voice cracks).

Another poetic picture book about the environment, this one for adults, arrived in my postbox a few days ago: Finders Keepers, by Harry Man and Sophie Gainsley, published by Sidekick Books. Not about poison-dart frogs or Bar-Ba-Loots, but creatures of our own country that are endangered: High Brown Fritillary, Norfolk Hawker, River Lamprey, Great Crested Newt. It’s exquisitely illustrated and full of facts and wonders – even the notes at the back are full of gorgeous lines (the fritillary is described as ‘little bigger than a folded train ticket’ but reliant on the ‘gigantic trampling’ of wild ponies opening up plains in bracken). There is also a lovely website where you can read extracts and listen to pipstrelle bats.

The Lorax and Finders Keepers do what art needs to do, and leave us inspired instead of despairing. Ready to fight for dormice and clean clouds. Although the smallness of our gestures might seem futile, for the sake of the next generation we hang onto hope: pay attention, share poems, sow seeds.

 

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