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Parklife

Two days a week I currently look after the children – and at the moment, as it’s summer, this means parks.

We are lucky to have a huge number of parks nearby to choose from in South London. There are the smaller playparks: Little Park, Fox Park, Moody Park, Goose Green and Green Log Park (some names our own – the last christened for a mouldy log). Then there is Telegraph Hill, for views of the Shard and Gherkin, a giant slide and One O’Clock Club (once we also saw a toad). Peckham Rye has the labyrinth of the Sexby Garden, perfect for hide-and-seek amongst roses and verbena; the pond where we feed coots and sometimes see turtles; the annual arrival of the fair and circus on the expanse of common (I think three poems in my last book at set there, as I’d write in my head whilst pushing Gruff around: ‘At Peckham Rye’ , ‘Beholden’ and ‘The Fair is Coming’).  Burgess Park has a walled garden full of irises and an ice-cream van; Brockwell has water-fountains to play in and a miniature railway that runs on summer weekends.

Our favourite of all though, I think, is Crystal Palace, the perfect free day out with little ones. There is a city farm that has a pony, zebra finches, and an exotics room with a chameleon, turtles and snake skins to measure yourself against (Gruff is the height of a king snake). There is a proper maze, which I can vouch it is perfectly possible to get lost in. There is a playpark with a huge sand pit full of ‘dinosaur eggs’ and ‘dinosaur bones’ where the children can do some light archeology. And then there is the main event – the dinosaurs themselves.

I have been reading Travis Elborough’s marvellous book A Walk in the Park: the Life and Times of a People’s Institution – it has been a perfect accompaniment to these weeks of picnics. It’s full of amazing facts about all of London’s parks, and particularly Crystal Palace and the ways in which after the exhibition closed it tried to lure people in with a full-scale mock Egyptian court, cat-and-dog shows, a tightrope walk by the Great Blondin and some of the first ‘carpet’ bedding (the elaborate formal planting of greenhoused flowers like yellow and crimson nasturtiums.) They also had Waterhouse Hawkins sculpt the dinosaurs which are still there today. He described his role as a chance to: ‘call up from the abyss of time and from the depths of the earth, those vast forms and gigantic beasts which the Almighty Creator designed with fitness to inhabit and precede us in possession of this part of the earth called Great Britain.’ Actually, given he rejected the theory of evolution, they’ve aged quite badly and look a bit paunchy, but Gruff enjoys pretending he’s Andy from CBeebies’ Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures, spotting a glimpse of Iguanadon through the monkey-puzzle trees.

On friday we also spotted a heron, which always makes my day.

Talking of Andy from CBeebies, we actually saw him perform with his band the Odd Socks at Port Eliot Festival the other week – given the mud I had to get my pram through, pretty much the only live music I heard. Still, the children had a fun weekend and it was great to read Incarnation in the Idler tent and sell a few copies. Next I will be appearing with the Idlers at the Shambala Festival on the 27th August, with events on how to make a living as a poet, and a panel on whether it’s possible to live a Bohemian life in today’s world.

Now, though, to make myself a pot of coffee and decide on the shortlist for the Live Canon Poetry competition – some very strong entries to choose between…

 

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The Dream Job

Translation has been lucky for me. Ever since the British Council trip to Hungary where I first discovered that I loved translating – and that, in fact, as someone who isn’t a linguist I was allowed to translate – it has brought so many good things into my life: adventures; friends; a whole, thrilling world of poetry beyond what I thought I knew. And this month has brought more luck. I was really pleased to hear we have won a 2017 PEN Translates Award for Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf’s The Sea-Migrations. The Poetry Translation Centre workshops I help lead also featured in an episode of Helen Mort’s brilliant new radio series Mother Tongue.

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And then my big, exciting news – I’m thrilled and honoured beyond words, really, to say I am going to be the new editor for Modern Poetry in Translation. It is the job of my dreams. I mean, it is my favourite magazine – beautiful, political, diverse, essential. Ted Hughes co-founded it for goodness sakes!! With Daniel Weissbort, he sought to create ‘an airport for incoming translations’. John Berger has said of it: ‘MPT is the Fifth International, anyone who wants to change the world and see it changed should join.’

I will be learning as much as I can from Sasha as she puts together her final issue this autumn, and putting out my first issue in the Spring. I hope you will join me on this journey! Pleased beyond measure.

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Such a hectic week, full of things I wanted to share, so I’ll jot some of them down. Last weekend I attended a Poetry Translation Centre event, launching two Turkish pamphlets in the Arcola in Dalston. Bejan Matur’s translations were read by Jen Hadfield, and they both spoke beautifully about the process afterwards – Bejan talked about her shamanic leanings and declared: ‘In sun and darkness are words. Poets can hear them!’ I was particularly blown away by Karin Karakasli’s poems though, translated by Sarah Howe and Canan Marasligil. They are just my sort of thing, full of amazing leaps between very specific, personal images and politics – a poem about schoolgirls rolling up the waist of a ‘mouse grey’ uniform becomes about state oppression.  And its evocation of Istanbul is stunning:

 

I am in love with a tower

I am one of the fluorescent white seagulls

spinning like magnets

round its axis by night

 

This week I also did edits on my translations of Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf, ran the PTC class on Chinese poetry, and attended a marvellous Idler dinner, where my hosts were Tom Hodgkinson and Victoria Hull. In exchange for a short reading, I got to sit at a table with the geniuses John Lloyd and Rowley Leigh who both gave short talks, and was plied with wine and delicious food; seaweed butter, Labneh, broad beans, dukkah, bavette steak, grilled peaches… I’d highly recommend you book their next dinner (with Lavinia Greenlaw) for a convivial night out. Also, I’ve just agreed to be the Idler’s new poetry editor (light duties, I’m assured).

Then on Thursday I headed to Newcastle to the Northern Writers Awards. It was absolutely pissing with rain, which felt comfortingly appropriate. We went to a grand building at the University of Northumbria for a swanky occasion with real champagne, many speeches, and everyone sat round tables applauding like the Oscars. I was very pleased to present awards to Niall Campbell, Vidyan Ravinthiran and Rachael Allen. Also to meet the New North Poets I will be mentoring this year: Michael Brown, Jasmine Chatfield, Elizabeth Gibson, Maria Isakova-Bennett and Rosa Walling-Wefelmeyer. You’re going to be hearing a lot from me over the next twelve months about these exciting talents. Another delight was bumping into a New North Poet from a few years ago, Degna Stone, and receiving a copy of Butcher’s Dog 9. It’s as beautiful as ever and was good train reading for my return journey – poems by Will Harris and Rachel Long particularly.

On Sunday I braved rail replacement hell to get to Ledbury, aka poetry heaven. Luckily when I got there the sun was shining on the monochrome timbered houses and rainbow hanging-baskets, and two of my favourite poetry people Luke Wright and Jacqueline Saphra were in town to drink wine with and exchange gossip. Luke delivered a blisteringly good new show with poems from his collection The Toll, which by coincidence (they hadn’t met before) Jacqui recently reviewed for The Poetry School – it’s as good as she says. 

The next morning I ran a workshop about putting your manuscript together for Mslexia, and had lunch in hospitality before catching the train home (during which I gulped down Larchfield, by Polly Clark, which won the Mslexia Prize, about Auden and a young mother who is also a poet – a subject sometimes uncomfortably close to the bone. It’s a really clever, moving read about the horror of always being watched and your privacy being eroded – both when you become a mother and suddenly your domestic habits are everyone’s business and for Auden as he realises the same is true of his sexuality. Do read it.)

And I haven’t even got onto all the Life Stuff – the children’s party, the haircut, the reception meeting at the school Gruff’s going to be starting at this autumn. It was also the week of our big move, back from the flat we’ve generously been allowed to stay in near Tower Bridge during building works to our Peckham home. It’s been a little cramped, but a strange privilege to walk along the river every morning, sometimes seeing the bridge lift or swans bob past and people taking selfies. I made the most of my last days there with the kids, taking Gruff to climb on the big anchors and propellers he loves, then to the fountains by City Hall to splash around, whilst Cate paddled in the tiny corporate river. I also managed to enjoy the stunning new Dreamers Awake show at the Bermondsey White Cube, which includes some of my favourite artists: Louise Bourgeois, Leonorra Carrington, Lee Miller. Gruff kept saying things like ‘Why does that lady have teeth on her nipples?’ but seemed to enjoy it. This review by one of my favourite essayists Olivia Laing is worth a read.

And then packing everything up, moving it back across London and arriving at a house still covered in scaffold and without curtains and with so much to do. But I’m glad to be home. Our new room where the loft used to be is lovely and light with a big window over the garden and a new bathroom. I’m lucky to be able to live in such a beautiful space my husband has designed, whilst Cate sleeps for the first time in her own nursery downstairs.

 

 

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Sifnos Blue

Last week, after flying to Athens (and sheltering from Zeus’s thunderbolts at the Acropolis), we caught the ferry to the island of Sifnos to spend a week in a villa with friends. It was lovely. Homemade greek coffee, watermelon, yoghurt, honey and spinach pies for breakfast. Sheltered beaches where we’d pause from splashing about with the kids for seafood lunches by the shore. Fish flickering around your ankles, and a real live octopus pulsing in the waters by a pier. Gruff had two little boys to run around with: firing water-pistols, making dens, building sandcastles and investigating the lizard in the bathroom. The adults got to sit up late in the terrace eating slow-cooked lamb or beetroot and feta salad, playing card games and drinking raki. One night a small owl perched on the telephone line and watched us, like Athena’s owl.

 

I usually blog about my own holiday reading, but keeping Cate out of trouble meant I only managed one book this year and I’d partly read a borrowed copy already whilst teaching an Arvon – Maggie Nelson’s radiant Bluets. Still, I enjoyed absorbing it properly in such a blue place, where every shutter or shop sign or banister is blue against white, and the sky was blue and the sea was like sun pouring through aquamarine glass. My favourite of her propositions is 157: ‘As one optics journal puts it, “The color of any planetary atmosphere viewed against the black of space and illuminated by a sunlike star will be blue.” In which case blue is something of an ecstatic accident produced by void and fire.’

The book I feel impelled to recommend from this holiday though is the Usbourne Illustrated Stories from the Greek Myths. I bought it for the boy’s’ bedtime stories and was worried it was a bit old for them, but it’s pitched just right and is totally enthralling – every night the adults took it in turns to read again and again the stories of Hercules’s twelve tasks, Pegasus flying towards the Chimera, Odyseuss tricking the Cyclops, and Theseus with his magic string defeating the Minotaur. I even ended up reading all the stories again last night in the airport at 11pm, waiting for our heavily-delayed flight to show up.

Back in the UK now anyway, and looking forward to a busy poetry week, including an Idler Dinner with John Lloyd and Rowley Leigh, the Northern Writers Awards and a workshop for Mslexia at Ledbury. First though, an early night with no raki.

 

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The Shrinks

It is funny how we habituate ourselves to things. Last week it was Cate’s christening and we had a lovely day. We dressed her in a frothy family gown for the service. She was given keepsakes: a Moomin moneybox, a jewellery box with a dancing flower-fairy, silver necklaces from her godparents. My in-laws had made a buffet in their beautiful garden, with salmon and salads, lemon and chocolate-cherry tarts. Prosecco flowed. And the next day, Cate took her first hesitant steps across the kitchen floor and promptly applauded herself.

Now, of course, I barely look up from my iphone when she walks. A week, and it’s become an ordinary miracle.

We get used to other things too. On Saturday night I was babysitting in our temporary flat near London Bridge and went to bed early. It was humid and our windows were open. I was woken by my sister trying to call my phone. I switched it off on impulse (I was sharing a room with a sleeping baby who’d taken hours to lull asleep) and then realised I could hear helicopters very close by; sirens going off. I checked twitter. I checked Facebook. I saw friends marking themselves safe and knew it was another terrorist attack. A van. Knives. Breaking news. Broken heart emojis.

In some ways it’s a survival skill, how we normalise things. We manage to process them. We can’t live in perpetual wonder or terror. But at other times it’s a trap. I’m thinking of the wonderful Adam Curtis documentary Hypernormalisation. I’m thinking of the anti-Trump rallying cry: this is not normal.

I’m reading Roald Dahl’s The Twits to my son at the moment. He got it for his 4th birthday and he loves it. Yesterday we read the bit where Mr Twit tricks Mrs Twit. Every night he adds a tiny bit of wood to the bottom of walking stick and a tiny bit to the bottom of each leg of her chair. Because it happens so incrementally, she doesn’t notice. And then, after a while, when they’re up to Mrs Twit’s shoulders, he tells her ‘you’ve got the Shrinks!’ Mrs Twit dribbles with fear and turns white. ‘It’s a terrible disease,’ Mr Twit adds. ‘The worst in the world.’

England thinks it has the shrinks at the moment. The papers have convinced us. Slowly, bit by bit, they’ve built a mountain of lies to dwarf us. Telling us we can’t afford to help the disabled, care for the elderly, pay for further education, provide a safety net when people lose their jobs, police our streets adequately. We can’t afford that local A and E, the pay rises for nurses, the textbooks for schools, the libraries, the Sure Start centres, job security, sick pay, legal aid, local museums, swimming pools, meals on wheels, housing, food for children who haven’t eaten all day, human rights. Until England has started to believe these things are impossible, and we don’t deserve them anyway. We’re so vulnerable and scared and small, and if we don’t do what they say maybe we’ll shrink even more. Maybe we’ll disappear.

Listen, it’s a trick. A trick that works because slowly we get used to our diminished state. We cope as best we can. We carry on. We tell ourselves it’s fantasy to imagine it being any other way. But it doesn’t have to be like this: every cut the Conservative government has made has been an ideological choice. The people of this country don’t have to stand back and watch it being starved, divided, dismantled, fracked and sold off.

You haven’t shrunk, believe me. Think of your family, your friends, our children. Think of London Bridge and Manchester and all the bravery and kindness. Vote tomorrow, and in the polling booth make sure you stand up to your full height.

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Apologies for another hasty blog – this still isn’t a proper post – but there are a couple of things I promised to flag up this month and time is slipping away. I’ve mainly been frantically trying to finish my translations of Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf for her Bloodaxe collection (I’m trying to alliterate a 21-verse poem in S today), and last week we also chatted to Helen Mort about the poems for a forthcoming Radio 4 documentary about translation, which sounds like it’s going to be fascinating.

I did manage to fit in a couple of readings this month though – it was a pleasure to be part of Somewhere in Particular’s event about Brexit and Belonging, and I also had an absolutely fantastic time reading for Neu Reekie in a church in Leith. I got there and they offered me the pulpit, which seemed like a fairly ideal place to read out of Incarnation!  There was an enormous crowd, and such a varied, exciting lineup feat.: Bill Drummond shining people’s shoes, Callum Easter singing a beautiful strobe-lit set, funny animations, Corbyn, nasty women, and a bid to be MP of Hull. There’s a great review in the Scotsman here (‘In particular, the poet and spoken word artist Clare Pollard’s set was masterful, as dryly amusing as it was tender and occasionally shocking in exploring the meaning of parenthood…’)

And if you missed it, I’ve been invited by the wonderful Jenny Lindsay to do another Edinburgh set on Friday the 19th at Flint and Pitch. It’s at the Bongo Club at 7pm and costs £6. Claire Askew will also be reading – who I’ve wanted to see for ages – along with lots of other delights. Please come, I’m up for a big night!

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I also promised I’d tell you about my new online course for the Idler Academy. It’s a six lesson course about stealing from classic poetry, with a session on basics, followed by nonsense, ballads, sonnets, dramatic monologues and taking your poetry further, and there is a forum for sharing your work. It would be a great gift. I absolutely loved filming it – I think the Idler have done a gorgeous job, and autocue was AMAZING. I could totally engage with the audience whilst sounding incredibly clever, without any anxiety about forgetting important points. Honestly, after an afternoon of filming I was thinking I need autocue for at least 50% of my life. Also, I should be a guest presenter on Have I Got News For You.

There’s a trailer and more info here. It costs £60, or for £95 you can join the Idler Academy and access all their online courses. They have some marvellous stuff like How to Write a Song with Chris Difford from Squeeze…

I think that’s all for now. Hoping to swing by the Free Verse Poetry Magazine Fair this saturday, so maybe see some of you there?

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Spring Things

It’s Spring! And everything’s been very busy.  My last week of term I ran an all-day workshop with artist Becky Jelly at the Royal Academy on their After the Fall exhibition, and also filmed a new onlinecourse for The Idler Academy (details to follow. I discovered I love autocue.) I’ve been putting together my shortlists for the Northern Writer’s awards. And now I’m immersed in Easter holidays with the kids. Baby-animal feeding, sandcastle building, face painting, canopy walks, galleries, Lego Batman and the Smurfs. I’m completely exhausted already, although I did love the snakeshead fritilleries at Kew, and Monkton Nature Reserve with its chalk cliffs and fairy trail; spotting tiny houses in the woods amongst the primroses and bluebells.

Some things. I had my poem ‘On Peckham Rye’ in The Guardian, which I was thrilled about.

Incarnation also had its first review by the poet Heidi Williamson.

Event-wise, we’re booking for the next season of the Poetry Translation Centre workshops . This season has been really enjoyable, and  if you want a taste of what we’re doing why not read these poems we translated by the Cuban poet Legna Rodriguez Iglesias last month, which were particular favourites of mine – surely you can’t resist the title ‘The Man Who Looked After Suicidal Penguins on the Abandoned Beaches of the World’?

I’ve also got a couple of gigs coming up in Scotland, the first of which is at Neu Reekie’s ‘Where are we now?’ event on April the 28th. It promises to ask where artists stand as dark divisive forces stir the UK…

And I’ll be continuing to explore the UK’s current situation on the 29th of April by chairing the debate at the Somewhere in Particular/Rich Mix event ‘No Place like Home: Poetry, Identity and Belonging in Brexit Britain’ . It’s a fundraiser for Refugee Action and the lineup is amazing, so do come and join the conversation.

First though, chocolate eggs.

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