Friday, March 24, 2006

At the Lighthouse - a retrospective

The poem below, At the Lighthouse, was written about six years ago and is about the break-up of a long-term relationship which affected me very deeply. (It wasn't written until about six months after the event, of course, since it's always hard in the immediate aftermath of such things to get them clear enough in your head to make reasonable poetry with them.)

I'm not sure this is a particularly good poem though, but I do think it was a necessary thing for me to write, something which moved me on stylistically as well as emotionally. To explain that remark, I wrote a few more in this vein around that time - half-bitter, half-nostalgic, after-the-break-up retrospectives - then left them behind, hopefully for good. I've never been very good at 'personal' poetry. I prefer to look at larger themes in my poems, to at least touch on the bigger picture where possible, and this constant narrowing things down to personal specifics, to the mundane, seems to give my work a sort of cloyingly 'fashionable' self-awareness which I dislike.

Not that I like an utterly abstract approach either, the cold clear line of some postmodernist poetry, or the deliberate intricacies and complexities and lateral jump cuts of some avant-garde work. I suppose the poems I like best - of my own - tend to be a bit on the simple side. Overly simplistic, some might say. But not this poem, At the Lighthouse; this is more superficial than simple, I think, whilst not wishing to be too harsh on myself, this poem having been written at a time of great personal despair - hard to believe now, on the far side of it - when poems were wrung from me only with immense difficulty. And soon after, indeed, I stopped writing poetry altogether for several years.

For those who might be curious, the poem is set in the South of France, where we used to holiday together most summers. To be even more precise about the location, it's actually the lighthouse above Cap d'Antibes. To get there, you have to navigate these narrow winding dusty lanes, what the French call 'lacets' as I recall, meaning tight bends like shoelaces. And at night, this powerful beam of light sweeps the Cap, crowded with red-roofed private villas and swimming pools, and the glittering bay below. Marvellous when taking an evening swim, to lie back in the black water and wait for that beam to sweep across the Cap. I've actually managed to find a few daytime shots of the lighthouse and views of the bay online, which you can hopefully see by clicking here, if interested.

In spite of my reservations, there are little touches I like in this poem - the opening image of pine trees envisaged as 'bald old men', the atmospheric dust, the quasi-religious overtones long in advance of my own brush with organised boredom, the silver fish of the bay seen from a distance and at height, and lastly - my own twinge of nostalgia, probably only audible to myself - the cigarette, also described in another poem of this period, entitled 'It was cool inside the chapel', as 'your ubiquitous cigarette'. I was a chain-smoker too, don't get me wrong. But cigarettes - and booze, actually - were a major part of that relationship, over eight long destructive years, and since I'm now a smoke-free zone, the mere mention of a cigarette, in the right context, can flash me, both uncomfortably and with affectionate regret, back to that time ...

At the Lighthouse

Its cold steel eye swung
to dust our heads
below the scruffy creak of pines,
bald old men staring
at the black line
of the Mediterranean.
There was always dust there;
dust in our lungs
and in rope sandals.
We climbed the tilting path
to the lighthouse,
glanced in through the porthole
of the chapel.
From the viewing platform
at two francs a time
the bay was no longer
a silver fish
landed on its side.
You moved off into the dark,
the glowing target
of your cigarette
something to lock onto,
burning the retina.
I should have kept you
shadowy, elusive
as those fairy lights heaving
a half-moon bay.
But we had only months
before we fell apart,
swivelling the lens
to face our hinterland,
each trap at last
revealing what it was,
thick swimming dust
fused in the glare
of that cold steel eye.

This poem was first published in Poetry Review.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Listen with Holland

I've been a busy girl over the past week or so, and one of the things I've been doing is enabling people to listen to my poems online.

Along the way, I've discovered that it's quite a complicated process to load audio files onto websites and blogs, especially if you live in the UK instead of the United States - Blogger does a free down-the-phone Audioblogging service in the States, for instance, which you have to pay for in call charges if ringing from outside the USA - so this has not been easy.

However, I found a way round those problems by thinking laterally. I recently got hold of an MP3 recorder and, whilst the sound quality is not brilliant, have now managed to record a handful of performance-friendly poems and load them onto a free Sound & Image website called Putfile.

So if you like the idea of hearing my poems rather than just seeing them in print, you can now check out the ones I've loaded so far by clicking

Be warned though, if you visit the site, that the volume is quite loud on some of the audio files, so do check it before the file starts playing - there's usually a short window of 5 - 10 secs while it loads during which you can lower the volume.

It's just poems being 'read out' at the moment - which is never ideal - but I have several gigs coming up over the next month or so, and will be taking along my trusty MP3 recorder to see what sort of quality of recording I can get from a live poetry reading in front of an audience.

Here's that link again:

Friday, March 17, 2006


Found this photograph, taken by Simon Norfolk in about 1996-7, amongst some old papers of mine from my snooker-playing days and decided to post it up too, since I've been blogging recently about snooker and my disreputable past. Odd how the sight of that cue - a beautiful Canon Whirlwind, which is now safely stowed away in an aluminium case and leaning in a corner of my house somewhere- makes me want to play again. My fingers twitch for the baize just looking at it. But that way madness lies ...

Such glorious earrings too. I wonder whatever happened to them?

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman

I had a hot flush today and decided to post up another old poem, give it a public airing. This time, to temper the rather avant-garde nature of my Umbra pieces - see archived posts for January 2006 - I've decided to post up the title poem of my first collection, 'The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman', which is a long poem about snooker and deals with how I started playing, the progression of my career in the game, and my eventual ban.

If you don't know the story, in 1995, I was banned for life from playing snooker by my local governing body - NOT the World Ladies Billiards and Snooker Association - for allegedly 'bringing the game into disrepute'. I was offered the chance to apologise for various comments I had made in the press about corrupt officials, in return for the ban being lifted.

I refused, and stopped playing competitively soon after that. At the time, I was ranked 24th in the world for women's snooker.

To accompany the poem, there's a photograph below of me practising for the 1992 Women's World Snooker Championships.

The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman

It starts here
as a table
in a small back room;

a busy pub, a sideways look,
the girls all cheering
when I drop the black,

a moment in between the kids,
a breath of silence slow
but true

across a table
in a small back room –
saying yes for once, not no.

Like Lazarus, I walk
from sleep, still stripping off
the winding sheet,

and take a cue from the rack
at the back of the club,
into the darkness

like a somnambulant.
Here hatred
breeds in corners at my step

and whispers fall
like evening
through these hanging lamps,

these gold-fringed shades.
The cloth is a lawn
to lay my head on, listening

to the beat of earth. They stare
from bar-stools, stalk me.
The men close ranks;

their shields reflect
like mirrors
as I clear the slate.

I am unwelcome here.
The door is there, they say,
and take the time to show me out.

But I am back again tomorrow,
sliding the new cue
like a blade from its sheath.

They cannot shut me out.
I have a right, a claim to stake
across this battlefield,

this bed of slate.
Their smiles are baited,
locked in place

until their silence is a war
that I seek out,
no choice of arms.

I play the men.
I lose.
And then I lose again.

I learn to stroke the ball away –
to catch the centre
when I can,

to find that timing
when the going’s sweet,
the baize is running like a race-horse

and the bets are down.
To take the risks
and never cheat.

I watch the best,
mesmerised as body
moves to wrist,

wrist falls to hand,
this silent discipline
of heart and mind.

I hammer home
each lesson
like a goldsmith,

working a delicate grip
into the hit,
the pendulum arm true

as a perfect right-angle
when the cue
goes through.

I start to win;
short sharp burst
of pure adrenalin.

I learn to dodge
those empty shafts of sunlight
in the club

when a woman
who walks alone
through rows

and rows of tables
dares to call them home.
Then others come.

They walk in,
taking the dust-covers
from the baize

with an awkward hand,
learning the touch of the cloth,
the deep furrow

left by a still hand,
fingers spread like a starfish.
First we are two,

then three, then four.
I pull them in from businesses,
supermarket queues,

from raising kids, from streets,
from empty doorways,
darkened rooms.

we are stronger.
We take a name for ourselves

and make it ring.
We play
each competition

in the spirit of the game –
a name engraved
in silver on a cup.

Retribution comes
not from games on baize
but changing truths

to fit the end, till nothing’s
what it seems. And in their lies
I recognise revenge.

I’ll not give them what they want ¬–
a public apology.
This ban is straight and true.

What started as a sideways look
will run for life,
for disrepute.

First published in SNOOKER SCENE and subsequently THE BRIEF HISTORY OF A DISREPUTABLE WOMAN (Bloodaxe 1997). For more on my first poetry collection, click here.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The CHARADE project, Birmingham

One fascinating project I'm involved with at the moment is CHARADE, a project commissioned jointly by the BBC and Arts Council England from international artist Simon Pope and managed by Capital Arts Project in Birmingham. It forms part of 'Private View', a programme to demonstrate "outstanding innovation and vision from visual artists experimenting with live techniques in the public realm" and involves participants in public performance, video diaries, MP3 recordings of their work, plus opportunities to meet other volunteers and share insights.

Basically, you each pick a piece of popular culture - our most cherished books, films, plays, music, TV and radio programmes - and 'become' that item by interiorising it. After participating in workshops and online communities and using other resources to aid the process of memorisation and identification, CHARADE volunteers will then perform their chosen piece in Birmingham city centre at the end of April, wandering about together in the open air in "a conscious re-creation of the final scenes of Truffaut's adaptation of Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451."

"Charade mirrors the key premise of Fahrenheit 451, that rather than providing stable conditions for the storage and retrieval of knowledge, our computer networks become troubled, precarious; the fear of data-corruption forces us to go beyond our electronic systems and we focus back towards the body, the possibility and ability of our memories."

My chosen item is King Lear. An ambitious choice, perhaps, especially since one of the other participants has picked a short definition from the Oxford English Dictionary as her chosen item! But I'm only memorising a few scenes which are of special interest to me.

One of them is Act II, Scene ii, a scene in which the disguised Kent - unjustly banished by Lear earlier in the play yet still doggedly loyal to his old master - encounters Oswald, the cowardly and sychophantic steward of Lear's treacherous daughter, Gonerill. They argue, Kent attempts to fight Oswald, and ends up being put in the stocks by the Duke of Cornwall as a trouble-maker.

This short scene appeals to me on several levels. Firstly, I admire Kent's integrity and the blunt but clear-sighted way he deals with even the most complex emotional situations. 'Let me still remain/ the true blank of thine eye,' he begs the king just before being sent into exile, and later continues to serve Lear in disguise. Secondly, the glorious riot of language in this scene appeals to my love of words. In this scene, Kent famously berates the bewildered Oswald in a long series of breathlessly imaginative insults - a cascade of Shakespearean invective - 'Thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter!' being one of my personal favourites.

I'm still deciding which other scene from King Lear to memorise. I think a choice of two would be a good idea at this stage, perhaps deciding on the final one nearer the 28th April, which is our performance date for CHARADE. I think there's still time to register as a participant if you would like to get involved. You can email the producers at or call 08709 316 834.

[If browsing this post as an individual page, the main RAW LIGHT site can be found here.]

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

International Women's Day reading

This was the line-up at Tuesday night's poetry reading at the Herbert Gallery in Coventry, celebrating International Women's Day. From right to left: Kim Trusty, Jane Holland, Pascale Petit, Zoe Brigley, Helen Ivory and Esther Morgan. And I'd just like to say that's water in those glasses on the table. Mainly water.

Kim Trusty is a well-known international performance poet, now living in Birmingham; she read a mixture of old and new pieces in her inimitable style, poems of personal and social commentary, and managed to pack a real punch in the ten minute slot each poet had been alloted.

I was up next and read one poem called 'Sleep' from my first collection 'The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman', published by Bloodaxe, followed by a selection of more recently written poems and three pieces from a long sequence of poems about the life and death of Boudicca, a work I am still developing.

Pascale Petit, one of the Next Generation Poets, read last in the first half of the event. Both her first collection from Seren, 'The Zoo Father', and her latest book 'The Huntress' were shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. Her poems are powerful and visceral, dealing with her problematic relationship with both parents. Gifted with a highly individual voice, Pascale plans to focus on developing her career as a poet now she has left Poetry London, which she edited from 1989-2005.

In the second half, Welsh poet Zoe Brigley took us into new territory, bravely using music to underscore some of her poetry, with the help of an accompanying musician and her own drumming. Zoe teaches at Warwick University and you can read her interesting teaching blog with useful poetry links here.

Helen Ivory is a Bloodaxe poet. Although published when she was still quite young, her first collection 'The Double Life of Clocks' won critical acclaim, and her newly published second collection, 'The Dog in the Sky' seems to have followed in its footsteps. She entertained the audience with technically accomplished poems of personal experience, filled with wry anecdotal humour. You can read more about her here.

In the unenviable position of having to read last, Esther Morgan nevertheless demonstrated why her poetry has brought her considerable attention. She has two full-length collections out with Bloodaxe, her first 'Beyond Calling Distances' and now 'The Silence Living in Houses'. This last book is themed around ghosts and absences and possesses a strong a sense of history; the poems she chose to read had a strong narrative drive, well-written and intriguing. You can find out more about Esther Morgan on the Bloodaxe website here.

This was a superb Coventry event held right in the city centre, and organised with the collaboration of various parties including the Heaventree Press and the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. The venue was packed out, in spite of the bad weather, and I hope there will be more Coventry events like this in the future.

If you're interested in live poetry events like this, click here to visit my other site listing poetry in performance and readings across the UK, Poets On Fire.

Monday, March 06, 2006

in memoriam Martin Blyth

'Once it was dubbed the new rock’n’roll, complete with youngish New Generation Poets who were going to put it right back in the spotlight. Now it’s being called the new Prozac, following research into its power to improve mental health and wean patients off mind-altering drugs. Then Daisy Goodwin, queen of the coffee-table anthology, caused a stir by suggesting that it was dying, and would become as quaint as Morris dancing.

There is a common thread to most of these comparisons. They seek to depict poetry in terms of something quite ephemeral. Poetry is much older than Prozac or rock’n’roll. It has survived for at least 4,000 years as an art form in its own right, and on its own terms.'

That's the final entry the late Martin Blyth posted up on his own instructive and eclectic poetry website.

An experienced poet and writer, part of the team for the poetry magazine SOUTH, perceptive journalist, fount of wisdom, family man and good-natured all-rounder, Martin died on the 23rd February. Although we had been in contact on and off by snail-mail and email for some years, I only met Martin for the first time at last year's Torbay Festival. I think I still owe him a drink. He will be sadly missed.

Examples of Martin's poetry can also be found on

Saturday, March 04, 2006


It's always nice to do a 'proper' reading in your local area, especially in a town where you often perform at open mic events or in other informal situations, so it's a real pleasure to be reading in Coventry this week alongside Pascale Petit, Esther Morgan, Helen Ivory etc - see below for the full list - in an ambitious 'Women Poets Showcase' put together by the up-and-coming Heaventree Press, based in Coventry, who publish poetry collections and the poetry/arts magazine Avocado.

Tuesday 7th March

Featuring readings by several noted female poets, to celebrate
International Women's Day.

Reading at the event:
Esther Morgan, Jane Holland, Pascale Petit, Helen Ivory, Zoe Brigley, Kim Trusty, Jenny Ousbey.

7 - 9pm
Herbert Art Gallery and Museum,
Jordans Well, Coventry City Centre.
Refreshments provided.