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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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Spring Things Pt.2

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?

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.

5-4-3-2-1 Blast Off!!

Last week I launched my new book Incarnation at Daunt’s Cheapside alongside the wonderful Antony Dunn’s Take This One to Bed. It almost went terribly wrong, given there was a same day clash with both the launch of Cold Fire, a Bowie-inspired pamphlet edited by John Canfield and Alex Bell at the Brixton Ritzy (what kind of fool tries to compete with Bowie??) and also the arrival of Storm Doris, which meant both my mum and Antony himself had fraught journeys from the North, strewn with electrical cables and threatened replacement buses, and only arrived the moment the launch began.

In the end though it was a lovely, memorable night. We drank lots of wine, sold lots of books and caught up with lots of friends who had braved the elements. Most of all, it was very special to be in the same room as Antony Dunn, Polly Clark, Owen Sheers and Matthew Hollis for the first time in many years – we went on the ‘First Lines’ tour together in 2001, and toured Hungary and Croatia with the British Council soon afterwards, and I think those trips were the most fun I’ve had in my whole poetry career. Hanging out with them all again was just brilliant.

If you missed this launch, I do have another coming up as part of the Essex Book Festival next week – Wednesday the 8th of March at 7.30 at the Art Exchange, University of Essex. I’m currently a Royal Literary Fellow there so it will be really nice to read to colleagues and students and I hope some other poetry fans too (the space has a photography exhibition on at the moment by Richard Billingham, if you need a further lure.) If you can’t make it but would like a copy, it looks like the best bargain online at the moment is £7.65 at Hive, which also supports high-streets and local bookshops.

The day after my book came out, I took its muse, Gruff, to the Science Museum, along with my mum and his baby sister Cate (who is now known as ‘Bleebs’ because Gruff has declared this her ‘alien name’).  He’s very into space at the moment – we’re constantly having to pretend the basket-swing in the playpark is a UFO and duck to avoid asteroid storms, and last week we looked at the mind-blowing images of TRAPPIST-1 together: seven planets circling the ultra-cool dwarf star that is their outsized, peachy sun. So I really enjoyed showing him a Japanese robot, a rocket called ‘Black Arrow’, astronauts’ outfits, space food and an actual piece of darkly glittering moon.

Having children projects your mind into the future. As ever, Gruff is giving me ideas: quantum physics, black holes, space colonies, sci-fi. With Incarnation finally launched perhaps I can feel the dust particles of the next collection starting to swirl and form…

On Poets and Adverts

I think the world would be a better place if there was no advertising. I happen to think that the advertising industry has become a powerful and negative force in our society. It has destroyed our news, for example, funding free until people are unwilling to pay, then flocking to Facebook and Google; making real journalism unaffordable and causing our current hellish descent into fake clickbait. It has eroded the ability of writers and musicians to make a living. It has permeated every public space: our buses, our hospitals, our parks, until there is barely anywhere we are not positioned as consumers. It stalks our every (online) move. It sells gender stereotypes and racial stereotypes and heteronormativity. It sells selfishness and greed and vanity. It sells eating disorders and bleached coral reefs, child labour and pointless plastic, obesity and disappointment. And advertising is clever. Because it takes youth culture and avant garde art and wild music and grassroots politics and literature and any real creativity that might threaten the current system and it tames them. It strips them of subversion then sells them back to us.

There’s been a lot of talk on social media about poets doing adverts. I only noticed really when I saw this poem by Luke Wright on Youtube criticising them. My immediate thought was that it’s a great poem, there are some lines that really made me laugh. (‘So what if Iggy sells insurance and Lydon sells us butter? / I preferred their early work, the greedy motherfuckers’) I also thought it was quite brave – he makes a living as a poet and has the profile to get approached for these things, so he is burning a few bridges here, drawing a line.

However, most people I saw online seemed to be annoyed with him. Like he touched some kind of nerve. Apparently adverts are good profile for poetry. And naturally poets need the money. Apparently, no one has a right to criticise. Fay Roberts defends those ‘feeling stung and belittled by the unsought judgement’. Sophie McKeand argues: ‘The world is becoming more and more judgmental and intolerant and it’s depressing to see that, at times, poets are leading the charge on this instead of focussing on things that really matter.’

Well I suppose it depends what you think matters.

I disagree with this assumption that  ‘judging’ is inherently wrong, as though critical engagement is for meanies. Agreed, we all make compromises and we don’t know the poets’ financial situations. Lots of poets have day-jobs – they might run hedge-funds or work for Google and this is none of my business. But once you write a poem and perform publically then judgement is not ‘unsought’, even if you’re doing it for a large cheque. You’re putting it out there for people to judge, and not just your line-breaks either – your opinions, your motivations, your feelings. That’s what makes being a writer scary. It’s exposing.

I think the adverts under discussion contain some pretty poor poems. To be clear, I’m not condemning the poets generally, just these specific poems. George the Poet’s rhymes are used to suggest that individuality (which ‘doesn’t come off a production line’) can be purchased in the form of an expensive, environmentally unsound jeep off a production line, and urge the viewer to do various things which sound kinda cool but are totally empty (‘Defy your alibi’.) The Nationwide ads are strung together from soft-focus cliches (churning stomaches and melting hearts, knees-up and cuppas, dad dancing and hero’s welcomes) and reinforce, in the juxtaposition of poem and product, certain messages: that a building society lending money is doing you a ‘kindness’, or that house ownership is a necessary part of creating a family home.

So I don’t see these adverts and think ‘well at least they used real poets’. I don’t see anything better in them than any other jingle. And I think we’re allowed to question whether presenting these words to people as poetry actually does poetry any good.

In a statement Jim Thornton, VCCP deputy executive creative director of the Nationwide adverts, said: “Each of these poets brings a raw honesty to the words they have written, the subjects they’ve chosen and the way in which they are performed. It’s rare and refreshing to see such authenticity in a world of advertising artifice. Sometimes, advertising is at its most effective when the hand of the client and agency can be least detected.”

I find that last line faintly chilling. And do you see what he’s buying there? Honesty and authenticity. If that’s what he’s buying, then that’s what you’ve sold.

 

Click Here For Free Poetry

Free poetry! There’s almost too much of it these days. How am I going to convince people to pay £9.95 when my book comes out in two weeks when you can read the new issues of Prac Crit and Poetry and Poems in Which and an ebook by Martha Sprackland about sharks all completely free??? Still, as a hard-up reader I can’t pretend I don’t appreciate it. And if all these talented people are giving away such amazing poems for nothing, the least we can do is celebrate the fact and make sure free doesn’t mean undervalued.

Which brings me to the super-talented group of New North Poets I mentored last year for NWN and the Poetry School.  Kathleen Bainbridge Moran, David Borrott, Jared Carnie, Tom Cleary, James Giddings and Jasmine Simms are very much writers to watch, and have just published this beautiful FREE e-book called, rather wonderfully, All That’s Ever Happened.

Yours for a bargain zero pence. Please click, enjoy and share.

The Mist

monet-fog

The last month has been blurred at the edges. Mist veiling the trees through my kitchen window. The heron stood stock still in it’s milk at Telegraph Hill Park. Mist obscuring the skyline when I wait for the Overground; the lights of towers smudgy. Fields and fields of pale mist on my early morning train up to the University of Essex. I feel like I’m in Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, and ‘the mist’ is some kind of metaphor for our ignorance and confusion; the alternative facts of our newsfeeds.

When I’ve not been refreshing Twitter with an expression of horrified disbelief, 2017 has been quite nice for me so far. I enjoyed catching up with poetry people at the T.S. Eliot awards. Then Richard turned 40 and we had a big party with friends and dancing and drunkenness.

And of course, there are all the days with the children – the deep dark of 5am wakeups, Cate’s first tastes of fish finger and eggy bread, rivers of snot, row row your boat. Gruff has become a fan of Scooby Doo, so trying to get to anywhere at speed now involves me chasing him down the street howling like a ghost whilst he cries: ‘zoinks’. We made trips to the Elfin Oak in Kensington Gardens to see the little people carved into it (apparently called Brownie, Dinkie, Rumplelocks and Hereandthere); the aquarium; horse-riding; a puppet show about a baby penguin; a pirate-themed birthday party. We cut out lanterns for the Year of the Rooster and ate dumplings at our friend’s house. Killed long hours playing hospitals and sweet-shops and laying siege to a Playmobil castle.

Workwise, January meant marking. I have reviews in the latest Poetry Review and Poetry London, and an interview up about translating. A box of advance copies of my new book, Incarnation arrived, which will be out next month (details to follow…) I’m also judging the poetry for this year’s Northern Writers Awards and the deadline is TOMORROW (come on Northerners!! There’s still time!!) I’ll be selecting the people I’ll be mentoring over a year, with a mixture of one-to-ones, workshops and professional development, and if you’re more established there are Awards for Poetry too to help develop work in progress.

So lots to celebrate. But still, like most people, I find nothing quite feels normal. Gruff keeps saying uncanny sounding things like: ‘will we be people forever?’ or ‘I don’t want the world to end’ (although they’re probably just misquotes from a Pixar movie). I worry for my American friends, my European friends in the UK, my Somali friends.

Waiting for this awful, eerie whiteness to lift.