A Coffee Break

I have some moments to myself! The kids are at school for three blissful weeks before the Easter Holidays, so I finally have some time to write a blog with a coffee. 2021 lockdown has been really hard, with both a 4yo and 7yo now home-schooling, and a lot more expectation of them doing online classes and assignments than in the spring – it was hard to leave the house during the day, such was their schedule of assemblies, zoom meetings, and lessons on Teams (don’t even get me started on Teams). Also, rain. It was nothing but childcare and work, really, wall to wall, for both Richard and myself, and it was all I could do to pull together the spring issue of MPT on time. Still -it’s something to be proud of. It’s called Clean Hands: Focus on the Pandemic in Europe, and will launch in early April, with this cover by Elenia Beretta. I like to think me editing it whilst locked-down has added to its sense of being an eyewitness document of this moment, although it also means the editorial is super-depressing. Save the date for the digital launch, on April 22nd.

Otherwise, what have I been up to? I can’t think. I taught an Arvon at Home masterclass on writing pandemic poems which I really enjoyed (do check out their great events); I’ve been teaching an online course for the Poetry School. I attended the launch of Luke Wright’s gorgeous new book The Feel-Good Movie of the Year, and took part in one of the Idler’s excellent Thursday night drinks, with Salena Godden reading from her new novel Miss Death Misses Death. I read Dream House by Carmen Maria Machedo which is completely stunning, a memoir written like a poem.

Outside of literature, I have made various, increasingly complex cocktails, trying to master a new one each week, including the Aviation, Last Word, Vieux Carre, Sazerac, Mint Julep, Brown Derby, Papa Doble (Hemmingway’s favourite), Hurricane and Singapore Sling (the official Raffles recipe). I think that’s about it.

Well, obviously I’ve watched a lot of TV (who hasn’t?). I love The Boys on Amazon, which imagines a world in which superheroes work for a corporation, and are marketed and monetized. We watched the episode last week where All-American superhero, Homelander, fails to save a plane that’s being hijacked – it really took my breath away, probably the best TV I’ve watched since Succession in lockdown 1.

Anyway, just enjoying this moment of peace before the holidays. It’s bright outside; the peony buds are breaking through the soil. It’s time to sow seeds. It feels like there are some things to look forward to again (although even saying that might be a jinx). One thing that is happening, at least, is I’ll be judging the Foyles Young Poet of the Year Award this year with Yomi Ṣode – it’s such an important award, and judging it has long been on my poetic bucket list. If you know any young poets aged 11-17 do persuade them to enter! (it’s free, details here.) You can also read my blog on it how Sylvia Plath inspired me to start writing poems here, and hear me and Yomi talk about what we’re looking for on this video.

And Anna Szabo’s book Trust is coming out with Arc this Spring, which I’ve been co-translating with her for many years… more details soon.

Festive Entertainments

History just keeps happening, doesn’t it? It seems like even in these locked-down months the world is still changing so rapidly outside. We’re still reeling from this weekend’s news and our Christmas day with the family being cancelled. It’s bitterly disappointing, and I found myself tearful at the weekend; that sense of the growing darkness again… Aside from home-schooling, one of the things I’ve found hardest this year about having young children has been the responsibility for keeping their spirits up, however I might be feeling inside. Every week I have to explain some fresh restriction on their freedoms, some rule-change, some new bad news. But I know we’re still a lucky family: we have each-other; lots of nice food in the cupboards; a tree covered with homemade decorations; a jigsaw on the go; a Radio Times with all our shows circled.

This weekend Rich made us a tapas feast and a delicious ham; we sang carols on our doorstep with neighbours; walked in the cemetery with a flask of gluhwein; smashed a gingerbread house. Thanks to my autumn cocktail hobby I have a well-stocked booze cupboard too, and have added Dirty Martinis, Boulevardiers and Shirley Temples (for the kids) to my repertoire.

Culture-wise Christmas is always full of great children’s content, and if you’ve read Fierce Bad Rabbits you’ll guess I’m looking forward to the documentary about Julia Donaldson, the drama about Beatrix Potter meeting Roald Dahl, and curling up with my kids to watch Zog and the Flying Doctors on Christmas Day. The National Theatre are also streaming their panto Dick Whittington for free from the 23rd which sounds fun. My bedtime reading to the children at the moment is very much in the cosy, nostalgia phase – I’ve just finished reading them my childhood copy of Winnie the Pooh and am mid-way through The Little Prince.

If I get time to read myself, I’m currently loving A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa – a book that mixes all my favourite things – lyrical non-fiction, literary biography, poetry and translation – in an original way that makes it one of my books of the year.

I’m finding it inspiring as my own new project, about clairvoyance and fear of the future – working title ‘Delphi’ – is also a strange hybrid thing at the moment that hasn’t quite found its form. I was very thrilled to receive a Society of Authors grant for it last week, which will hopefully mean I get to go to Delphi in 2021. As well as learning about Sibyls and Nostradamus, I’ve been playing around with the tarot (though it said nothing about Christmas), learning the I Ching (in a gorgeous translation by David Hinton) and following lots of astrologers on twitter who tell me Saturn’s move into Aquarius this week completes three years of relentless challenge and ushers in a new Air Era. Let’s hope so.

If you’re bored over Christmas and fancy writing yourself, do have a go at one of my Clare’s Poetry Circle workshops. I’ve finished ‘term’ now but they’re all still up, and I’ll continue to check the comments and hashtag if you want to post your poems up. The last one has a Christmas theme and is about rhyme. Thanks to everyone who has subscribed, shared and taken part. I’m not sure what I’ll do in New Year as it was a bit of an experiment – I don’t think I will carry on doing one every week, as it’s quite a lot of work, but as we’ll still be locked down (until Spring it seems) I might post up workshops less regularly. Let me know if there are any topics you’d particularly like me to cover…

Other links whilst I’m here: if you fancy a poetry podcast I was very happy to discover the Sugar & Dread podcast when I had a poem chosen by Jake Wild Hall and Amy Acre in episode 41 – it’s a great listen, also featuring Jake and Amy’s own poems and some interesting biscuit-based chat. Episode 42 is also a gem featuring Theresa Lola and Inua Ellams. The Push the Boat Out Festival have launched a mini-podcast series too, and one episode features me reading my festive poem, The Gift.

The Dead [Women] Poets issue of MPT is now out in the world, with extracts here online if you’d like a taster.

And one of the best essays I’ve read this year, Amy Key on my all-time favourite album, Joni Mitchell’s Blue.

Anyway, I write this on the solstice. Hope you manage to have a cosy week despite everything, and that the darkness is (fingers crossed) finally in retreat now.

Christmas Shopping

So I need to tell you that Playmobil has a Greek Myths range. With Mount Olympus! The Argo! Icarus! Athena!

Also, if you’re thinking of buying books for anyone you should check out the hashtag #signforourbookshops. Lots of fantastic authors and illustrators are taking part and the deal is, basically, you have to order a copy of a book from an indie bookshop (not Amazon) and DM them, and they’ll post you a signed bookplate (some talented people are even adding in doodles and illustrations). It’s a lovely way to personalise a Christmas gift and make it a bit more special – as well as supporting independent bookshops which are currently closed by lockdown.

Anyway – do contact me if you’d like one for Fierce Bad Rabbits. Given the timing of the paperback coming out I’ve sadly hardly signed a copy 😦 so have ordered some of these lovely Edward Lear plates (he features in the book), and am glad to personalise them with the recipient’s name or a personal message.

The book is very giftable for the parents / grandparents / teachers / book lovers in your life, and even ends with a chapter about Christmas and magic, featuring The Nutcracker, The Snowy Day, Raymond Briggs, and me watching Stick Man on Christmas Day on the sofa and trying not to spill my red wine…

Planning for Lockdown

So here we are again, planning for lockdown, only this time it’s Samhain, the beginning of the ‘darker half’ of the year, and with the US elections and then Brexit on the horizon its hard not to feel a rising horror.

Last time I became too obsessed with politics I think, I was watching The Guardian live-feed about four hours a day, as though I had some moral responsibility to pay enough attention and know what was unfolding in every corner of the globe at every minute. I don’t think I can do that again. It feels indulgent, when I know how many are suffering and will suffer over the next few months, but I’m trying to plan some strategies to distract myself.

Hobbies are good. Last time Rich baked sourdough and I got into doing my daily French on Duolingo, and spent a lot of time pottering around the garden. This autumn I’ve decided I will try to do daily yoga videos – I’ve bought a mat for £6 from Decathlon – and make lots of cocktails. With my birthday money I bought bourbon and Luxardo cherries and I’ve been making Old Fashioneds and Amaretto Sours (this recipe is amazing) and last night I watched Stanley Tucci make margaritas and panic bought ingredients online.

I’m also hoping messing around making my Clare’s Poetry Circle videos will help – Rich bought me a tripod for my birthday so hopefully they’ll get more professional (although today’s is rather marred by neighbours drilling at the end!). I’ve just put up this week’s workshop on the poetic ‘I’. Is the ‘I’ of your poems really you? How far do you stick to what honestly happened or ‘Fake it up with the truth’? (Anne Sexton). If you want poetry to be one of your lockdown hobbies, please do check out my site – I’m putting up a free mini-workshop with a prompt every week and have had some brilliant responses so far. You can share your poems at #clarespoetrycircle on Instagram or twitter or under my youtube videos. Tell anyone you know who might welcome the distraction!

Another way to prepare for lockdown is Christmas shopping of course, I love buying things for my loved ones, it seems a very pleasurable escape at the moment. A subscription to Modern Poetry in Translation is obviously a bargain at £23 for three gorgeous issues. This morning I also discovered the new website Bookshop.org – you MUST use it instead of Amazon. You can order via the page of your favourite bookshop – in my case Review Bookshop in Peckham – and they get paid a percentage of your order. I just ordered both Draw with Rob books for my children’s pillowcases…

I’ve also been able to set up my own little page where you can buy Fierce Bad Rabbits (a very thoughtful Christmas present for the parent, grandparent or booklover in your life if I do say so myself) along with some of the books I explore in it, and I’ve curated lists of poets I mention in Clare’s Poetry Circle and favourite translated books there too, and will be adding more lists this month. (Disclosure: If you buy books through my page, I will earn a small commission from Bookshop.org.)

Other ideas to pass the long nights: watching more theatre and events online (I feel like I’ve kind of exhausted TV at the moment). Last week we launched the autumn issue of MPT – Origins of the Fire Emoji: Focus on Dead [Women] Poets, a collaboration with the Dead [Womens] Poets Society, with a ‘digital seance’ so you can watch that here.

I’m still poetry editor of The Idler, and they’ve been putting on some thoroughly enjoyable ‘A Drink with the Idler’ online events – I’m planning on watching this one with Stewart Lee whilst ironing tonight. And having failed to get tickets in time last year to watch it at the Vaudeville Theatre, I’m very much looking forward to watching Emilia next week, about another Dead [Woman] Poet, Emilia Bassano. It’s supposed to be absolutely phenomenal and they’re doing pay-what-you-can.

Okay, I haven’t thought about politics for ten minutes so I guess that’s a result.

Clare’s Poetry Circle

Just to let you all know, I’m starting a new poetry project. Every monday morning, at 11am UK time, I’m going to be uploading a mini-workshop and a new poetry exercise to my youtube channel. During the first lockdown I was very grateful to makers of how-to videos I watched with my kids like Draw with Rob and #Communityclaytime, and I know a lot of people have enjoyed the routine of regular online workouts, singing classes or yoga sessions. My mum and her friend Sheena, under restrictions in the North at the moment, have started writing a poem every week and sharing them over facetime, and it occurred to me – as we’re staring at months of rolling lockdowns – that it would be great for someone to do a free, regular poetry class on youtube.

This is a BEGINNERS class, I’ll just be going through basics week-by-week like line-breaks and metaphors – it’s not about becoming a professional poet, but for people who are locked down, shielding, under-employed, isolated or just bored of 2020 and want to have a go at a new hobby, express themselves and get inspired. I hope some of you will join me – do subscribe to my channel, share your poems at #clarespoetrycircle and also tell anyone you know who might get some pleasure out of it. (I’m not on facebook so if you could spread the word there would be great). Hopefully we can create a sense of community and have some fun over what is going to be a tough autumn…

Cassandra in Mycenae

It’s National Poetry Day, but as it’s also 2020 I have none of the usual excitements lined up: no school to visit; nowhere to drink beer with poetry friends. I thought I’d mark the day by posting a poem though, on this year’s theme of ‘vision’. This is an old poem from Changeling, but it’s one that means a lot to me and I think about often. These last few years I’m sure I’m not the only one to have identified with Cassandra – cursed to perpetually warn of approaching tides of surveillance capitalism, fascism and climate chaos to people who don’t want to listen. And I hardly blame them: ‘Darkness is sweeter than vision’.

Cassandra in Mycenae

So Agamemnon tugs a spluttering flap
in his daughter’s throat,
and home is a trap.

In malignant Greek sun the Scops owl hoots,
and a wife will axe
at her husband’s guts,

slop a slick maze in dust, children plot, things fall,
squalls of blood
flood the land…

And you don’t believe me, of course –
the alternative’s worse.
So go on, cover your ears –

you know what? I’m glad you don’t hear.
It’s gobbledegook, I’m a freak,
I lie I say this is only the start,

that emperors will make death sport,
people cast the first stone,
men invent thumbscrews, the Rack,

a chair you can dunk women in,
‘Honour’ killings and Pogroms,
Original Sin.

You find this depressing?
Dismiss me,
but the future will happen the same:

an Iroquois babe boil
with bubbling smallpox,
a whip flay a back to a sugarcane field,

a signwriter scribe: Arbeit macht frei,
faces melt in Japan,
child soldiers carry Kalashnikovs, coke-cans.

O every night Eric and Dylan
enter the school cafeteria –
towers fall – hysteria –

Yo lo vi. Yo esto también.
The Long March crawls
through my nightsweats, my mares,

then the Berlin Wall,
the gulags where men chew a maggot-laced horse,
lynchings, napalm, the S21,

Zodiac, Dahmer, the Wests,
the atomic bomb –
icebergs slouch into the sea…

The Snake licked my ears
and they spat in my mouth
when they gave me this curse,

and the earth is cursed,
so you’re right to naysay.
Go on, raise an eyebrow, shrug it away –

buy raspberries in March,
the villa in Pompeii.
In my head it’s rolling news,

and after a while being perfectly useless,
your face has to dry.
Your heart goes onto standby.

For all stories end with death,
those that don’t are the teller looking away,
and I don’t get that luxury.

See, now evening’s come:
turtles cover their eggs on the beach,
mountain-top beacons burn.

The amethyst tapestry’s spread on the floor,
Agamemnon’s hand’s on the door –
don’t watch! Don’t listen!

Darkness is sweeter than vision.
Bury your face in a rose, pour some wine, feel the in
and the out of your breath.

Ignore me, please. Ignore me and Death.

Runaway Bunnies

It has been a busy summer, considering I’ve mainly been at home. Cate’s back in nursery two days a week but my son hasn’t been at school since mid-March. I’ve spent a lot of my time overthinking elaborate schemes to entertain and educate him: this week we’ve been boating and blackberrying, are studying Japan as our country of the week (eating sushi, writing haiku, doing kawaii draw-a-longs on youtube), and are running an elaborate world cup of animals on twitter (#Gruffscreaturecup if you’re interested – we’re heading for an Octopus vs. Otter final).

In my working hours, there has been lots going on at Modern Poetry in Translation – our new Czech issue is out; we’re running a fundraiser for a collaboration with the brilliant Dead [Women] Poets team (very cool totes and badges still available); I chaired a digital Spanish ‘duel’ at Ledbury Poetry Festival, with Juana Adcock and Martha Sprackland both translating a poem by Venezuelan poet Gladys Mendía (the digital pamphlet is here), and we currently have the Korean translator So J. Lee as writer-in-residence – their workshop on Lee Jenny’s poem ‘SPACE BOY WEARING SKIRT’ is live if you would like to have a go.

In my own work, it was a very nice surprise to be listed as one of 10 writers shaping the UK’s future (!) in a National Centre for Writing and British Council promotion.

The paperback of Fierce Bad Rabbits is also out today with Penguin! It’s kind of amazing to actually see that little penguin in the corner of one of my books. If you haven’t read it yet do consider buying a copy from your local bookshop or ordering from Hive. And thankyou so much to everyone who has reviewed it, it really does make a difference. It’s nice to have so many quotes from the press on the paperback (‘Stunning. Packed with revelations. Pollard writes with a joy that is luminous. Essential reading for anyone with a child, or whoever was a child’ – Marianne Levy in i, is my personal favourite), but it has also been lovely over the last year to read the reviews on Goodreads or Amazon and feel the book has made a connection with people, which is all you really want as a writer.

Here’s a rabbit by Clement Hurd (from his collaboration with Margaret Wise Brown on the stunning The Runaway Bunny) to celebrate my own (paperback) Fierce Bad Rabbits now flying out into the world…



Digital Distractions

So I haven’t blogged for a long while, I know, but home-schooling whilst trying to work has left me without much (any) writing time. Instagram is about the closest I get nowadays. Having said that, like most people, I have been enjoying various digital distractions. I sadly haven’t managed to watch a National Theatre production online yet, but my children have been loving online art classes like #DrawwithRob and Jim Parkyn’s #communityclaytime, and when I haven’t been glued to Duolingo or the Guardian Coronavirus Live Feed, I’ve been excited by the digital possibilities for poetry, attending readings on Zoom and seeing all sorts of interesting classes and projects happening.

At Modern Poetry in Translation, we’ve now launched our Japan focus, Dream Colours.


In case you’re looking for digital distraction too, we have two things going on this month I thought I’d draw your attention to. Firstly, tomorrow at 7pm we’re having an online JAPAN ISSUE LAUNCH on youtube – I’ll be chairing and Polly Barton, Jeffrey Angles and Sayaka Osaki will be joining me (the latter from Japan in the middle of the night!).

We also have this fabulous, spring-themed, blossomy haiku translation workshop online, set by Alan Cummings. It’s free, and the perfect way to try your hand at translation (no language necessary). We’re also suggesting people try and translate into other mediums – could you translate one of these haiku into an animation, piece of music, photo, Tik Tok, emojis, a sketch? It would be a great activity for kids too (hint hint)

And whilst I’m here, I was very honoured to be included in my favourite feature on the Poetry Society’s website – their poetry mixtapes – as part of Amy Acre’s Lucky 13 Mixtape, alongside legends like Miroslav Holub and Jericho Brown. Do check it out (and the whole archive of poetry mixtapes) if you need some lockdown reading.

The Gift

20191205_poetree-2897-2048x1332Children perform ‘The Gift’ at this year’s Trafalgar Square Christmas tree lighting up ceremony. Photo: Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society.

It is hard to feel hope at the moment. But of course, hopelessness is exactly what the wealthy and powerful – the fossil fuel industry, Silicon Valley, the oligarchs, the white supremacists, the right-wing press, etc – want us to feel. They want us pliable, grateful, anxious, mean. Those who dream of frictionless markets do not like resistance. Hope is a glitch in their system.

This year I was given the honour of writing a poem for the Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree, along with London schoolchildren, as part of the Poetry Society’s Look North More Often programme. It’s one of the most famous Christmas Trees in the world – an annual gift from Norway – and the poem is on a banner at the bottom of the tree and was read at the lighting up ceremony. I chose the theme of Hope, because I felt I needed it, and my children need it. I was thinking, I suppose, of Rebecca Solnit writing:

Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.

Anyway, after I accepted the commission the election was declared, and now it feels we need hope even more deeply. And then so many people complained about the shape of the 90-year old tree it became international news. But let’s not listen to the ugly, calculated din of faux-furious opinion.

It was very moving to work with the schoolchildren’s words. They wrote such astounding images, comparing darkness to ‘a broken home’ and ‘an injured look’. They imagined hope gorgeously too: as a parrot, a sunflower, a cheetah, a cake with sprinkles, a young girl… This is our poem, ‘The Gift’.

Hope is our present, for now at least.

The Gift

By Clare Pollard, with thoughts and images dreamt up by London schoolchildren

I walk through Winter’s city,
my footsteps stain the snow.
The darkness shuts like curtains.
It’s later than I know.

Dark is a heart that’s breaking,
Dark is a dream you lose.
Dark is a pounding headache
that makes the world a maze

and then a speck of something,
I see a candle-flame –
a tiny seed that flickers.
I hear Hope say my name.

The seed becomes a golden flower
of pouring light, a gift.
I need you to believe, Hope says.
It’s you makes me exist.

I feel bright feathers lifting.
I hear a tiger’s roar.
I’ve taken many forms, Hope says –
changing is what I’m for.

At Christmas-time I settle
into the shape of tree –
alive, sharp, resin rising.
Hope shines and darkness flees

and I can see a future
as clocks chime their late hour
for Hope will be our present,
and Hope will give us power.

The Smeds and the Smoos

the-smeds-and-the-smoos-16x9It absolutely baffles me that a new picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler – whose previous collaborations have sold many millions of copies and become part of our nursery culture – can be published, and yet there are no substantial reviews of it anywhere in the mainstream media. It’s like not reviewing Frozen II. This is particularly bizarre in the case of their new work, The Smeds and the Smoos, which was explicitly trailed as ‘a Remain book’, and is dedicated ‘To all the children of Europe.’ Donaldson and Scheffler clearly agree that, as I try to argue in Fierce Bad Rabbits, all stories are political.  Yet millions of children will be bought a copy of The Smeds and the Smoos this autumn by adults who haven’t taken a moment to analyse what it says. (Having said that, I do enjoy the thought of those who voted Leave being forced by their children to read this over and over.)

It is, as expected, a lovely and brilliant book. It’s basic premise is a Romeo and Juliet in space, where a red Smed and a blue Smoo fall in love, which ends – not in tragedy – but with a purple baby. Scheffler seems to be enjoying the freedom alien landscapes allow him, and there are some memorable details: lurid orchid-like flowers; a planet knee-deep in neon slime; another fecund with roses; birds with eyes on stalks; a wonky ‘squoon’ instead of a moon. Edward Lear is obviously a deep influence on Donaldson and she has previously written a sequel to ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’, but whereas that tipped more towards (intentional) pastiche, here she uses Lear-esque nonsense to gorgeous, joyful effect, with the Smoo, Bill, living on a ‘humplety hill’ and then meeting our Smed, Janet, in the ‘Wurpular Wood’ to nibble the ‘jellyful fruit’ of the ‘jerberrycoot’.

It’s interesting to think about the story’s moral though. It begins with a border between the Smeds and the Smoos, made up of red and blue pebbles, and with deep seated prejudices (‘Never never play with the Smoos. / They sleep in holes. They wear strange shoes.‘) In the end, simply by being thrown together and getting to know each-other everyone ends up getting along. If it’s a story of Europe then, it’s closest to the story of the founding of the EU – a moment of increased freedom of movement across borders; freedom to fall in love or make a home; a new culture of sharing.

However, Smeds and Smoos are also reds and blues – very political charged colours. It’s hard not to see in them left and right; remain and leave. And it’s very interesting that in the book it is the grandparents who show the most prejudice (it is the grandmother who says ‘Never, never marry a Smed.’) Donaldson and Scheffler seem to be saying something about the generational aspect of Brexit. However, on this level of course, the argument that sharing space with people with different views to yourself will lead to understanding starts to fall down. I think we all know that families split between Leave and Remain do not tend to come over to each-other’s viewpoints when forced to spend time together at Christmas, so believing that Bill and Janet’s grandparents start to get on because they’re cooped up together in a rocket is a stretch.

‘Dream of the Smeds and dream of the Smoos’, the last line of the book informs us, with a picture of reds and blues happily singing and dancing together, but the vision of international friendship and harmony it portrays feels sadly alien. We did take down borders, but closeness bred resentment. Now we’re putting them back up. The book’s optimism seems to belong light years ago.