Sunday, December 23, 2007

Charlotte Lamb

The novelist Charlotte Lamb - and me, sporting a dazzling pair of cerise earrings - on holiday in France, early 80s

It would have been my mother's 70th birthday today. She died in October 2000. I've posted this photo and blogged about it on the memorial site I run for her over at

What would my mother, author of over 150 published novels, have said about my sloth in finishing my current book? She'd probably have thrown the local paper at me and told me to get a job as a waitress instead - her usual riposte whenever I discussed my writing with her.

Happy Birthday, Mum! Wherever you are ...

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas and a Very Happy New Year to all readers of Raw Light - of which there is a steadily growing number, so I thank you all for finding me and for returning so frequently. Your company makes the effort worthwhile.

I apologise for not having blogged up the revised draft of my own poem (see writing exercises below). It has been rewritten. And I have my notes in rough draft ready to accompany it. I'm looking at the damn thing right now. Unfortunately, the spirit may be willing but the flesh is all blogged-out. In other words, you will have to be patient a little longer.

For those following the writing exercises, I hope you all read some new poetry over the Christmas break - if you get one - and write something of your own in response to it.

I, meanwhile, have to compose a short Christmas message for a local newspaper in my capacity as this year's Warwick Poet Laureate. I feel like the Queen. Though with not so many pastel outfits in my wardrobe.

Have a great holiday, and do keep coming back to Raw Light in 2008!

Jane x

Friday, December 14, 2007

A Dark Place: some thoughts on the redrafting process

Structural Shifts
In the original draft of A Dark Place, Sorlil gives us 3 stanzas of 5 lines, and a concluding stanza of only 4. Some of the lines in the first half of the poem are quite short. This can feel unsettling if you tend to get obsessed with symmetry when writing, if you're always looking for the most pleasing 'shape' on the page.

I'm not saying that's how Sorlil operates, since I can't possibly know that, but her first draft does have a solid, boxy shape that feels very much on its way to being a final draft. And in her own comment below, she mentions structure as the key element in her revision choices. So why, assuming a quest for 'better' structure, does the poet choose to dissolve her original box shape in favour of looser two-line stanzas?

The first draft perhaps felt a little too close to note form, so she wanted to extend it without having to rewrite. When revising, we usually prefer to work with what's already there rather than write new material, mainly because of natural human laziness but also because revision uses a different set of skills to those we use when creating, and it's not always easy to swop sides, as it were, half way through.

Perhaps she also felt a certain structural gravitas was required to match and contain that seriousness. The five-liner of her first draft may have felt too uneven faced with those four-sided 'slabs' and 'rectangles', yet a four-liner would have presented other problems - such as what to do with the lost fifth line? and would the closed box structure of a four line stanza pull the poem shut instead of opening it up?

Having hit the right note in the two-line stanzas, she extends the line for greater weight, adding 'up' for the sound echo with 'poplars', and for the first few stanzas this new draft feels strong, decisive, uncompromising.

Break-Points & Buffers
Then we hit a snag. The well-known slogan Arbeit macht frei - 'Work shall set you free' - from the original draft has vanished. And this may be Sorlil's first mistake, as it lent an important air of bitterness to the poem, and also provided an important break-point between the inhuman look of the place and the introduction of live human beings - the guard, the poet-narrator herself, the daughter of a survivor, the generic 'you' who flinches at the end.

Structure begins to break down in the absence of that buffering line, which should have separated the two halves of the poem.

The ending feels rushed: 'And now a daughter of a survivor can't stop//talking'. This too-drastic stanza break needs to be rethought. It's not only rupturing the flow of the poem but its arbitrariness actually draws attention to the way the poet has gone about redrafting, rather like a trick that gives away the magician's secrets.

Of course, the endings of poems are notoriously difficult. I've written about them before on Raw Light, most notably here and here, so I won't spend too long on this. In the first draft, the simplicity of those two lines, 'You flinch when I say/I caught the bus from Dachau' works tremendously well within the context of that particular draft. But in this second draft, we're into a new structure where those lines don't fit anymore. So we get that last line in quotation marks - unnecessarily - and placed alone, cut off from the two-line stanza structure as though for additional emphasis. Which it can't carry off.

If this was my poem, I'd be inclined to shift earlier parts of the poem about in order to get back into a position where I could use those original last two lines more or less exactly as they appear in the first draft.

In particular, that unspecified 'you' - a useful poetic device, if somewhat over-used in contemporary poetry - opens the poem up at the close by inviting the reader to identify with it. Yet the second draft obscures 'you' by burying it hurriedly in the middle of a line - a line which is incidentally too long for the established rhythm, making the poem sound breathless and uncertain at that point instead of centred and ready to close.

Shifting the Focus of Revision with each Poem
The closer a poem gets to the real thing, to being fully alive and aware of itself, the less we need an overview of the poem's problems. By that stage, looking at word and line detail becomes the key issue during redrafting. It's particularly vital not to mess too much with structures if they worked just fine in the first draft, or only needed tweaking. Not that I think the shift to couplets was necessarily a mistake here. The poem feels more grave and measured now, less conversational.

But all decisions have a knock-on effect, and in this draft, further adjustments may need to be made in order to compensate for that change. It's also a possibility that the charm of the original draft lay to some extent in that conversational tone - the sight of those inhuman slabs versus the intimate voice of the poet in your head - and a push to regain that might be something for Sorlil to explore in a future draft.

Many thanks to Sorlil for handing over her two drafts to be manhandled in public by such a blunt and insensitive critic. Usual reminder to take everything with a large pinch of poet's salt; another person might say exactly the opposite, and who can be sure which approach is best except Sorlil herself?

A Dark Place: Sorlil's revised draft


A Dark Place

Gravelled highway manned by poplars.
In the far distance memorials rise up:

Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant.
So many children, a school excursion.

A sea of slabs, rectangles like plant beds
but instead outlines of barrack bunks.

The camp guide offers to take
my photo at the gate. It’s smaller than I

imagined. I think logistics:
how did they all fit?

I dreamt of the chimneys in black and white.
And now a daughter of a survivor can’t stop

talking, a town in Bavaria can’t stand
the connotations and you flinch when I say

“I caught the bus from Dachau”.

Poetry in Progress
Sorlil's comments on the revision process

"I've not changed a great deal, mostly just the format. I can't say I'm particularly happy with it, it feels rather bland and screams of being exactly what it is - an exercise poem!

Interesting exercise nonetheless. I tend to work more methodically even on first drafts and perhaps I need to practice 'loosening up' to allow the poem room to grow before constraining it with a critical eye."

You can read the first draft of this poem here.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sea Cave: some thoughts on the revision process

Firstly, many thanks to Julie for following this exercise and then bravely sending her two drafts in.


I gave a few reactions to Julie's first draft in the Comment box below the First Drafts post and, since she asked for some clues, suggested how she might go about revising it. So you might want to look at that too.

Working with First Drafts
As Julie points out, this is not so much a first draft as a collection of sensory responses to an idea or vision she had after reading my initial post.

So a workable first draft needs more than a collection of single notes to support it, otherwise it's likely to run into problems during the redrafting process.

Better to keep such running drafts in your head rather than putting them down on paper before they are properly 'formed'. These proto-drafts can be played with mentally whilst doing something slightly mechanical like driving long distances, walking, doing the washing-up, or making love (only kidding!), where your subconscious can work behind the scenes on finding the best shape for them - a shape which will eventually become your first draft.

Second Draft Behaviour
The second draft of Julie's poem is an excellent example of what happens when revision pulls in on itself - probably due to this lack of structure in the initial draft - and sucks the movement out of the poem, or shifts it 'away from epic narrative', as Julie says in her accompanying note.

Quite rightly searching for a structure for this poem, since one didn't exist in her first draft, Julie has imposed a structure on the poem which doesn't fit her original vision. For this, she has chosen a default structure, if you like, based on the tight metrics of a two-beat rhyming couplet.

The original draft was free and loose, and displayed such traditional traits only in its dying moments; a last minute shift, by the way, which is classic first draft behaviour, rather like a lifelong atheist suddenly professing a belief in God on his or her deathbed - just in case!

If that happened in my own work, my first instinct would be to mistrust an impulse which led me to start rhyming and formalising a previously free piece of writing. Julie has done the opposite - not necessarily the wrong thing, in every case - and jettisoned the free writing to concentrate on the more formal part of her first draft, seen emerging in the last few lines.

My instinct here would be to unpick the stitches by returning to the initial draft and beginning a second 'second' draft, i.e. putting the first 'second' aside, and reserving the right to return to it later. This third draft would probably shift to the opposite extreme, looking to expand rather than contract the poem.

Again, many thanks to Julie for allowing me to use her poem as a pincushion. Whether you agree or disagree, please feel free to add your own observations below.

Remember, it's never a good idea to believe someone's advice if it goes against your own instincts as a writer. It can go against your pride, your ego, even your sense of identity, but never your instincts.

This post has been about under-writing as much as anything else; see David Morley's blog for some well-expressed thoughts on the opposite problem of over-writing.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Julie's Second Draft of 'Sea Cave'

(revised draft)

steel shadow
whispered whine
stooping darkness
hiss of sea air
dying light
lucid blindness
winding tight

livid silence
velvet claws
hells guano
gaping jaws
rippling water
pearly tide
Charon's ride


Julie's comments on the revision process

"I wrote the first draft Sea Cave almost immediately after having my imagination fired by Pont du Gard; based on the visual image and sense impressions of various sea caves or flooded underground mines I have been in. Wrote it straight off in fifteen minutes, plus a few minutes tweaking, trying to nail the impressions with words.

Second draft – Read your comments, thought about what you’d suggested rather than considering the poem itself, then came back to it after 48 hours.

Cleared out one of my static blogs, posted it, and used red to highlight what was going to be slashed, and blue where I worked in a new idea. Tried to hold the title in mind, but rework the image suggestions so the bats are suggested etc and moved it away from epic narrative. I haven’t had as much fun in years.

With thanks for your suggestions, Julie."

Saturday, December 08, 2007

First Drafts: 'On Dark Places'

You will find below the first drafts of workshop poems 'on dark places'.

If anyone else would like to follow this exercise (see earlier post, 15 minutes first draft, not incl. thinking time) please email me your poems by midnight, Wednesday 12th December.

Julie (see below) found it tricky, thinking about the project first without writing anything down. That's generally how I work, but I expect it won't suit everyone. I deliberately block out concrete 'lines' during this stage, though phrases which stick in my mind are allowed. It means I can freewheel through a large range of wobbly possibilities - without committing myself or losing momentum through note-making - until I find the image or idea that locks on and forces me, often compulsively, to paper.

A revised draft of my own poem will appear, with comments on the process, within the next week. Plus any other revised drafts sent to me.


Pont Du Gard

Stone hall for the shrunken,
black pit interior
fish-scaled in urine.
And the grim shadows of men
blocking the light.
Broad squares of sun-flash,
rectangular access
to blind air and buffet.
Swimmers below
pale fins burning in water.
We sank back into darkness
at the next space,
hands well-worn on stone
blackened with water,
the rough runnels of history.
Corrugated, filigree depths
where the heart struggles to rise.
Pinioned to single file,
we passed through the low-roofed
night haul of the Roman.
Troll-trod, dwarf dominion.
Afterwards, hot dust and olives,
a dazzle of strangers
met on the long road backwards.

Jane Holland


Sea Cave

sight dies
saturnine dark
hiss of sea air

blind blind
blind as bats the yawning jaws
hells droppings
dreams shrink to nighmares
boats extinguished
rolling ripples
styx to
empty places

darkness wrapping
winding sheet
by livid silence

echoes of miles and miles and miles

rocking bark
slushing tips
oil oil drippling
tallow wax

scorpion fringed
curling fingers
steel blackness
tea lights

chill vacuum
cut rock
blind senses
freezing slope

scraping bone
sinking voices
mole cladding
edging gripping ledging
tactile stripped

tongue is drying
light is crawling
gloom is rising
searing vision

Virtual Journey


A Dark Place

Gravel highway guarded by poplars.
In the far distance memorials rise
Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant.
A sea of slabs, rectangles like
plant beds. But barrack bunks instead.

Arbeit Macht Frei
The camp guide offers
to take my picture at the gate.
It’s smaller than I imagined.
How did they fit them all through?

I dreamt of the chimneys
in black and white. Daughter
of a survivor can’t stop talking
all the way through the chamber.

A town in Bavaria
can’t stand the connotations.
You flinch when I say
I caught the bus from Dachau.

Poetry In Progress


December. The month of the drowned god.

Milk-water seeps from the clay’s glands,

Clots the forest paths, thickens

Through the veins of the wood.

Late afternoon. Rooks creak

in the darkness, and westward

a tideline of sun is washed by black waves.

Greedy branches crane to cram night’s gullet

With his brief, red fruit.

Expulsion of the Blatant Beast


Friday, December 07, 2007

Poetry Writing Exercise No. 1: On Dark Places

In this, the first of my online writing exercises, I'm going to write a poem on the theme of 'dark places'.

Many poets seem obsessed with death and dark places. It's a common enough preoccupation, and who can blame us? We all know it has to end some day. And what comes after life has been a constant source of fascination for writers, artists and shamen since - I have no doubt - the dawn of civilisation. But, of course, death is not the only source of darkness in our lives. So it's a pretty broad concept.

There are no other rules about content, length, or form, though I am setting a time limit for this, so anyone wanting to join in can do so on an equal footing with everyone else. I shall write for 15 minutes - thinking time is not included in this, so don't start writing until you feel ready!

This exercise, however, comes in two parts. First, I shall write a poem. Then, I shall revise it. The second part is absolutely vital and shouldn't be treated as a formality.

I shall publish the first draft when my fifteen minutes writing time is up. With no revisions or personal comments. I'll then invite others to email their first drafts for publication alongside it. Once any poems sent in are also up on the site, I shall revise the poem within a seven day time limit, and publish the result here. Likewise with any revised poems from other people.

The seven days is to allow time for the poem to 'sink in', which is a vital factor in revision. I haven't set a time limit for the actual revision time, because it's not something which can be hurried. But the poem which emerges after revision will still only be a draft. (In fact, all poems are drafts, even those which have been published. There's something fluid about a poem, which means it can change shape even at a late stage in its development.)

Afterwards, we can discuss the revisions. Comments on first drafts will be allowed, because some feedback can be useful once the bare bones of a poem are in place. I don't think I'd ever want someone to see a poem at such an early stage otherwise, but this is an artificial exercise, designed to open up debate about methods of revision.

Look out for the first draft of my workshop poem this weekend, and if writing your own, you can email it to me by Word attachment at j.holland442 @ (Only be sure to write Poetry Workshop in the subject line, in case I delete it by accident!)

You can ask for your poem to be posted anonymously, under a pen-name, or as yourself. Links to your blog or website can be included. Deadline for first drafts to arrive will be midnight on Wednesday 12th December.

Theme: On Dark Places

Write for 15 minutes, then put first draft aside. Revise at length. The aim is to produce a more polished draft within 7 days.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Weird fiction, writing methods, and radio plays

The novelist China Miéville has just joined the Creative Writing faculty team at Warwick University and was reading from some work-in-progress tonight at Warwick Arts Centre.

I went along to hear him with my husband, who's a big CM fan and massively well-read in the fields of sci-fi, fantasy and weird fiction. Which is more than I am, unfortunately. I have my compulsive favourites from which I rarely deviate, like most people who read fiction of those kinds, but my general understanding of 'fantastic' fiction is nowhere near comprehensive. So it was good to have him along with me, to answer my occasional whispered questions and to fill me in on China's background and development as a writer.

Yet even though China Miéville isn't the kind of writer whose work I would normally read, I did find the extract from his current ms draft interesting and challenging, and the Q&A at the end particularly useful to me as a writer.

I asked about his basic writing methods during the Q&A. CM explained that he doesn't follow any set pattern or routine as a writer. During some novels, he may write 1000 words a day; with others, as much as 4-5000. And that daily word tally doesn't seem to have any discernible connection with quality. Often, he told us, the steaming 5000 word session has produced excellent writing, whilst the slower 1000 word effort has ended up being scrapped!

Apparently, his methods of revision are equally changeable from novel to novel. Some books have been revised only after finishing the first draft. With others, revisions have been necessary during the initial writing. With some of his earlier books he resisted the advice of editors; later on, he learnt to accept the editorial process and now feels it can be a good thing for writers.

He later revealed that he works with a flow-chart of the novel, preferring to plot his books down to the last detail. The chart is pinned up on the wall beside him as he writes, and if he deviates from the scheme in any way, he marks the deviation on the chart and re-jigs the whole schema to make sure he still knows how the book is going to end.

But the only certain thing he could say about the actual writing of a novel - for the benefit of those in the room who might be struggling with first novels in draft - was that every word you manage to write is one less that has to be written.

So it was a fascinating Q&A session, during which he also spoke at length about the increased focus on politics in children's writing in general, and the background to the writing of several of his novels. He also said that 'Iron Council' was his personal favourite amongst his books to date.

As I didn't take notes verbatim, I hope I haven't misrepresented China Miéville's views and comments here.

I took great heart from his description of varying writing methods, knowing how impossible it is for me to stick to any one way of writing anything. I've always considered it one of my great weaknesses as a writer, but if I can just keep pushing the words out, I suppose it doesn't need to be.

I also met someone who works in radio script development for the BBC, over drinks in the bar afterwards, and spoke to her briefly about a radio play of mine that has been languishing for several years on my - rather over-crowded! - back burner of ongoing projects. It would be good to work on that again, hard graft though it was; a particularly demanding medium, radio, coming close to poetry in its need for accuracy and a fearless grasp of the 'less is more' school of writing.

Plenty of work to keep me busy this winter, then. So much choice, so little time. But as China Miéville said, every word you write ...

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Writing Exercises: Should I/Shouldn't I?

Today, I spotted on a fellow blogger's blog - how's that for prose style? - some writing exercises, one exercise per blog entry, which he was first explaining and then attempting. Not an original idea - I've seen it elsewhere - but when the posts are kept short, it can make interesting bloggery.

I'm now considering whether I could/should adapt the idea for Raw Light, i.e. think up some workshop-style poetry writing ideas, then follow them myself, one by one, posting up the results. Not too many, perhaps. But enough to make a sequence of posts which could be linked for those following the exercises. I imagine such a thing would be anathema to some, but fun reading for others. Perhaps it will depend on how well I execute the exercises, i.e. whether the resulting poems are any damn good.

Thoughts, groans, responses?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Salt Autumn Party

I'm off down to London later today, for tonight's Salt Autumn Party at Foyles. This involves readings by a whole host of Salt poets who have new or newish books out, plus vino and nibbles for the rest of us.

I'm also hoping there may be a trip to the nearest pub afterwards, then I'll be back on the late train and home for about half past midnight.

Work for the train includes a sheaf of unpublished poems that need revisions and some Latin homework - a modern verse translation of a shortish passage from the Aeneid. I've finished the actual translation as a rough draft but I need to improve on the poetry itself, to avoid embarrassment in my evening class.

One of the big problems with my modern version of the Aeneid passage - she says, easily distracted from the main purpose of her blog entry - is that part-way through, it suddenly started to rhyme. And the effect was rather good in places. So I decided to rewrite the less mellifluous first half and 'fit in' some rhymes to smooth out the transition from blank to rhyming.


To make matters worse, some of the rhymes were not only full but distinctly Victorian in places. For instance, 'fell' - in the sense of grim/terrible - to rhyme with 'hell'.

So the whole thing needs more work. To put it mildly. Okay, it may only be a short piece for my Latin evening class, but I still want it to be good, damn it!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

On the True Endings of Poems

I sent my second poetry collection, Boudicca & Co., to the much-admired poet Geoffrey Hill a few weeks ago. In response he sent me a note - completely unlooked for, so doubly delightful to receive - making various comments on my poems, including a suggestion to lop off some ten or so lines from the end of one of my favourites.

Having tried this major surgery, curious to see the result, I realised he was right. It did work better without the 'official' ending. This led me to look at why that should be the case, and whether I could perform the same service for any other of my poems that might be over-written.

First though, I wanted to check something I was already uneasily suspicious of, namely that I was still suffering from the novice poet's heavy-handed 'this is the moral of my tale'-style ending. Like most poets, I'd like to think my endings are reasonably apposite and not too predictable. But scouring through them, I felt too few of them possessed any real gravitas, and I think it was the open-ended quality of Hill's suggested ending for my poem - not trying to wrap everything up in a neat lyrical parcel, but throwing a powerful line or two out to the wind instead - that gave that poem its new authority.

So, il miglior fabbro?

Perhaps, though it's important in these situations to trust your own instincts and not merely bow to criticism, however venerable the critic. No one can know your work or intentions better than yourself, after all.

Indeed, trust is at the heart of this issue. Hill's comment was a valuable insight into the nature of poetic trust - i.e. the poet trusting his or her instincts enough to leave the poem at what feels like a dangerously unfinished point, instead of hurrying straight in with nails and rope, anxious to tether the end of the poem to a fixed point.

There has to be space for the reader to sweep in behind you, I suppose, bearing in mind that the reader is a vital part of that triangle: poet, poem, reader. (An unread poem is like a dead limb on a tree - it exists in real time, a part of the whole, but has neither life nor purpose.) So the open ending is a dynamic one for the poem. By contrast, a closed, box-like ending - summing up the poem's purpose or adopting some coy moralising stance - rejects the poem's potential by too sharply defining and limiting the reader's interpretation.

Okay, so we can agree that messages are for Western Union. But can we trust the reader to work it out on their own? And can we trust ourselves to write so brilliantly that we no longer need to qualify everything in the final throes?

It's far easier in a sequence of inter-connected poems, I've found, to experiment with this 'open' style ending. Poems in a sequence tend to lean on each other for authority, significance and lyrical echoes. The stand-alone poem is a rather different beast, tradition alone - perhaps going all the way back to Petrarch in the Middle Ages - dictating that we provide a sound-bite ending to the modern lyric, something to help the reader get the point of those clever metaphors, similes and other dazzling tropes you may have employed.

So if you throw the latter kind of poem open at the end, letting cold air rush into all those unexplained silences, will the poem still work? And will it still qualify as a lyric?

I think it must change the nature of a lyric poem to chop it off at the foot, to leave the moral or purpose behind the poem dangling. This probably connects to its origins in the sonnet form, a marvellous box of delights, seemingly always tied off neatly at the end with its own declaration of intent or shot at literary immortality, e.g.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
(Sonnet 18, W.S.)

But the changes in formal direction over the past 150-odd years - poetry gradually spiralling out into a plethora of forms and contradictory definitions - must suggest something about a fundamental change in our perception of what poetry is and why we need it (if, indeed, we need it at all). So perhaps Hill is right and it really is time to relax our grip on the telling last line, the moral of the tale, the conclusion to the riddle. To let the poem hang out there, exposed to the elements and - no doubt - the ridicule of critics.

Again, it's dangerous to take too much on trust, especially in terms of your own writing, where instinct and sound experience should take precedence over the opinion of others, but it's equally dangerous not to at least listen to the oracle when it speaks, and consider all the various possibilities before responding.

Sometimes you find even the most unlikely signpost is pointing you in roughly the direction you intended to take anyway.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Surprised and Chastened

Yes, hard to believe of yours truly, but I was both surprised and chastened tonight, attending a local writers' 'fayre' - a sort of sprawling Meet the Author affair - in Warwick Library. I was asked to come along in early October, during the Warwick Words Festival, and just blithely assumed that it would be a bunch of odd-bods and eccentrics, self-publishing their poems, or biographies of their - even more eccentric - grandfathers, or pamphlets on the history of local churches etc.

So you can imagine how silly I felt, one of only two poets in a room of successful novelists and other writers, sitting there with my two slim volumes, surrounded on all sides by talented and prolific writers. Right opposite my table was the fun and bubbly children's writer, Meg Harper, and beside her Justin Richards, a prolific writer for children, particularly well-known to my husband as a writer of Doctor Who novels and other associated titles. A few tables down there was Rosie Goodwin, with her highly popular novels, and a prestigiously brilliant salesman of his children's fantasy novels, the irrepressible Mark Robson.

There were many others, too numerous to mention, but they included a cluster of sci-fi authors, historians, a brand-new children's poet - whose name I will add when I discover where on earth I've put her book! - and the newly published Jill Fraser, with a substantial novel about life in a former vicarage, 'More Tea, Less Vicar', a fascinating writer with whom I chatted for some half an hour. It was a great evening, truly enjoyable, and a real eye-opener - I simply had no idea how many superb writers we have living here in the Warwickshire area.

So I came home tonight with renewed 'prose' energy, aware that I absolutely must finish putting together my third poetry collection for next summer, but also that I owe it to myself to finish that novel too - still on the back burner, after several years now. It's odd how dispiriting it can feel to have work systematically rejected, but also wonderful how quickly the creative juices can begin flowing again when you get to meet and chat in person with other writers, some of them at the same stage as you, others further ahead, and a few just starting out on that lengthy and often cruel journey to publication.

Onward and upward.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Still Playing Catch-Up

Okay, here it is - this week's TO DO list:
  • Prepare books etc. for the reading/book selling gig I'm doing this Wednesday evening at Warwick Library - roughly 7pm, if you're in the area.
  • Revise 'on screen' the large sheaf of poems I've been editing by hand in cafes and in bed since the start of last week. I find it hard to actually edit on screen, but still like to see the work as it might appear printed, so prefer to work by hand on hard copies of my poems and then type up the revisions to study the finished product. Sometimes the revisions work and sometimes they don't, which is when the whole process begins again.
  • Keep working at my latest poem - now roughly two pages long, scribbled in pencil in my favourite black moleskin notebook, with much feverish crossing-out and many alternate versions circled or pointed to with arrows.
  • Continue 'translating' the various extracts from Homer's Iliad in my Greek anthology - with the help of copious notes for the weak linguist, of course. Having spent the better part of the last two years studying Classical Greek, it would be a shame not to keep working at my Greek now the course has finished - even if only for a few desultory hours a week.
  • Update my Warwick Laureate blog: it's been several weeks since my last confession and I don't want people to think I've died!
  • Make a definite date in my iCal to touch base with my fantasy novel again, now about a third of the way through. It seems to be a recurring pattern that I work on it for about three months of the year - one month in the summer, and two months in the winter, usually around the Christmas holidays. I'm not sure why that is, except possibly that a novel always feels like it needs a longer 'run' than writing poetry, and those times of the year are more conducive to being set aside for long-term projects like that. If I had an agent begging for the book, of course, I would throw everything else aside and finish it. Instead my immediate priority has to be poetry, even though it doesn't pay as well as a novel, because I know I can place my poetry and it won't just get sent from publisher to publisher for the next few years. I've written three unpublished novels over the past ten years, and there are few things more depressing for a writer than having lovingly written and polished something that never sees a book shelf.
  • Write up some notes I've made on a friend's poems and send them to him, before he also thinks I've died!
  • Prepare a blog entry on my trip to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. It's been several weeks since I came back from the east coast, weighed down with new books of poetry and criticism, and I still haven't blogged about my adventures there. Bad Jane.
  • Finish the chocolate truffles left over from my birthday on Saturday. That has to be my favourite job on the list - definitely one to do today!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Anglo-Saxon Reconstruction Village at West Stow

Back in the summer, after a violent altercation with some over-zealous home school blog-ring folks, I set my home school blog to Private. That means only my family - and any interested friends - can catch up with what we've been doing recently on the home education front. However, the drawback of that decision is that people searching for photos and other information on various of my blog entries - such as the following one on the Anglo-Saxon Village at West Stow - are no longer able to access the information.

So, since I'm steeped in poetry revisions and not yet ready to blog about Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, I'm reposting it here for the world to see. Apologies for those who only want to read about writing on this blog, but normal service should be resumed once I've finished tinkering with the latest draft of my third collection.


Last month we took a two-day trip from the Midlands across Cambridgeshire into Norfolk and Suffolk. One of the best places we visited in this brief trip was the Anglo-Saxon Reconstruction Village at West Stow. This is a small portion of an Anglo-Saxon village reconstructed on an original site where many artefacts have already been found. The work was supervised and carried out by archaeologists and other experts using traditional methods and trying to get the reconstructed 'village' as close as possible to how they think the Anglo-Saxons might have lived.

The kids absolutely loved their trip. We bought some handcrafted kids' swords and bows and arrows in the shop, for messing about with afterwards in nearby Thetford forest, plus some books on runes and Old English. Here are some photos from our day at the centre:

The village consists of five or six buildings in a loose cluster: individual huts for living and sleeping in, such as the one pictured above, a larger meeting house, and several crafts buildings such as a hut for spinning and weaving wool on looms, a hut for firing pots and woodworking, for grinding corn, and also some covered or open areas where animals could be kept.

The kids enjoyed pretending to cook around this open hearth. People used to think there would be a hole in the thatch, rather like a chimney, for smoke to escape, but this is now considered unlikely. I presume smoke would simply have drifted up and slowly out through the thatched roof. Those Saxon huts must have been very smoky places on a windless day!

The huts are mainly constructed of wood, with the typical thatched roof you can see in the picture. Some are different styles, constructed as experiments to see which style of housing would be most practical and provide the most likely explanations for some difficult questions the archaeologists wanted to answer.

One of their main problems was the existence of a mysterious pit excavated underneath each original Anglo-Saxon hut on the site. Various explanations for its use were considered, but in the end, the archaeologists have decided to remain open to ideas on that score, as it's hard to prove definitively what the pit was used for.

Here's a lovely atmospheric shot of M. lurking behind a hanging pot on one of the raised 'sleeping' areas. As you can see, it's very dark inside these little huts, especially with the fire unlit and the door pulled to.

The roof beams were probably used for hanging dried food on (for smoking, perhaps, over the fire) and also for general storage of equipment, such as nets, household goods and cooking utensils.

Still, I'm sure that with the fire crackling nicely on those long dark evenings, and an enclosed bed of rushes and perhaps even furs to retire to after the last chores had been done, and perhaps a little poetry had been listened to, an Anglo-Saxon hut would have felt like quite a cosy place, even in our British winters.

The wool-crafting, woodworking, corn grinding and pot-firing workshops would have been built apart from the living quarters, as they are now at West Stow. There were also areas set aside for corn and other crops to be grown and for animals to graze, with probably a small pig-sty of some description on the site. Chickens would have had the run of the place, and some of the more vulnerable animals may possibly have spent the worst of the winter indoors with the villagers!

The Anglo-Saxons used a Runic Alphabet for some of their writing, particularly when commemorating something important or when writing on a sacred object.

This is a Rune on the doorpost of one of the reconstructed houses. It represents the letter 'h', as you should be able to guess, and would have been engraved on stone monuments, weapons and armour. This runic writing system is called the furthorc, after the first few letters, just as our alphabet comes from the first two letters of the Greek writing system, alpha and beta (α & β).

It was a fantastic day out and, if you're a history hound, I can thoroughly recommend the trip. Take boots for the mud on wet days though, and a picnic if it's fine weather! There is a cafe there but eating al fresco under the trees, surrounded by new oaks, is a lovely experience after visiting the Saxon village. And if you go into the nearby forest areas, be prepared for some Blair Witch Project scenes in the woods afterwards. That's a wooden broadsword my son is wielding there, by the way!

Find some more text and pictures about the West Stow Anglo-Saxon Reconstruction Village at 'Experimental Archaeology'.

And, since this particular post is now attracting so many visitors every month, here's another link, this time to the Friends of West Stow Village: more photographs, opening times, and other useful information.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, thick fog and a Breton lay

I got back from the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival rather later than I would have liked last night, not wanting to beat the old banger into the ground, so nudging her gently the hundred and fifty-odd miles back from the Suffolk coast to Warwickshire.

Fog clamped in on me for the last half-hour, making the journey even slower; down to 30 miles an hour on the motorway on some stretches, so thick it was like driving inside a cloud. Which I suppose is exactly what I was doing. It brought back memories of long anxious trips over the 'mountain' in my Isle of Man days, the heights of Snaefell being prone to thick dangerous fog patches, particularly at this time of year.

My husband blamed the fireworks for last night's pea-souper. But I couldn't help wondering how much damage such minor activities as fireworks can really cause, having seen numerous industrial towers continuously belching out smoke in the flatlands of Suffolk and further into the Midlands on my way home.

For the next day or so, I need to sit down, mull over what I saw and heard at Aldeburgh, and then write up some sort of meaningful account for Raw Light.

Meanwhile, here's a link to The Expulsion of the Blatant Beast, one of my favourite - though highly eccentric - blogs on poetry, spirituality, and Celtic & other languages, featuring a delightful Breton lay available both as written words and sung, via YouTube.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Call of the Running Tide

I'll be heading off cross-country to the annual Aldeburgh Poetry Festival this weekend to listen to a number of talented poets reading their work, talking on panels or leading workshops. This will be my first ever trip into the wilds of Suffolk and I'm not quite sure what to expect. But I imagine it will be both useful and exciting. Particularly since I haven't yet managed to book a room anywhere (prices being a bit too steep for my limited budget) so I'm not sure either where I'll be sleeping! But that edge of uncertainty only lends charm to my little expedition and won't put me off going.

Most importantly perhaps, Aldeburgh is a small town nestled away on the Suffolk coastline, and it's been too long since I last saw the sea. Not quite the dramatic Greek cry of 'Thalassa!' as described by Xenophon ('θαλασσα, θαλασσα' - 'the sea! the sea!') but a rather more domestic longing for the briny waves, as John Masefield wrote here in 'Sea Fever':

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a clear call and a wild call that may not be denied

All those years cast-away on the Isle of Man does make living at the dead-centre of England a little disconcerting at times. Much as my heart is bound to this green and pleasant land, I do love her rough and salty edges best.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Two Thoughts Before Supper

Just briefly, as I am required to slice and fry a large pan of mushrooms in a few moments, here are two things I wanted to add to this blog.

Firstly, I've been researching Geoffrey Hill online today and found an excellent academic website - with comprehensive bibliography, events, archives, essays, links and much more - which features a triptych of poets: Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, and Charles Tomlinson, plus other delights. Find it here.

Also, I received in the post a copy of Linda Cash's brand-new poetry pamphlet, Test Paper, from Templar Poetry.

I was approached to endorse this work some months ago and was happy to do so. Linda Cash is a talented new poet with charm and some memorable phrases: 'you can't unbruise the peach', for instance. Like most new poets, there's still plenty of work to do, but what's been produced so far is promising.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Wyatt, Geoffrey Hill, and other acts of coitus with the English language

I struggled out of bed this morning for the last day of the Warwick University conference on Poetry & Philosopy, but it was well worth the struggle. Not only did I meet some very interesting people from different places on the globe, I also listened to three papers on poetry and philosophy, two on Geoffrey Hill (see yesterday's blog entry) and one on a personal favourite of mine amongst English poets, darling Thomas Wyatt (1503 -1542).

I thoroughly enjoyed all these papers, but the most fascinating thing about the first two was probably that the poet under scrutiny, Geoffrey Hill, was himself not only present during their presentation but actually spoke at the end - not in rebuttal of their views, I should add, but as a brisk summation of his poetic aims and philosophies.

For instance, Hill told us how, at the tender age of nine, he had won as a school prize a copy of Palgrave's Golden Treasury, and had promptly fallen in love with poetry and the English language. In roughly that context, he said of his own poetry: 'All my poems are love poems ... either about particular women or about language ... All my poems are acts of coitus with the English language.'

He went on to deny the common view that his work is obscure whilst simultaneously championing the right - or perhaps even duty - of poets not to give in to demands for facile or clichéd writing, claiming that 'It's tyrants who require simple language.' His closing image - that of Thatcher and Blair being made to parade the streets in nothing but pink bathing-suits, presumably as a punishment for the continuing debasement of the English language under their regimes - was pure burlesque.

Then came the paper on Thomas Wyatt, entitled 'Wyatt's Wagers: The Quyete of Mynde & the Failures of Technique', which was a discussion of how Wyatt tried to adopt Plutarch's technique for achieving 'a quiet mind' or equanimity in the face of 'ill chance' - especially in love, perhaps - but failed. At least, that's how I interpreted the paper's basic premise.

The paper was given by Eirik Steinhoff, from the University of Chicago, who built his case around various translations of Plutarch's work by Wyatt, and probably the best-known bitter-sweet Wyatt original, 'They flee from me', which I can't resist reproducing below (with contemporary spelling) for those who don't know it.

I managed to catch Eirik afterwards and ask a few questions of my own - such as why he hadn't featured some of the Petrarchan sonnets translated by Wyatt which seem to me to exemplify that failure to achieve 'quyete of mynde' - for instance the sharp political tension behind his famous sonnet (possibly written for Anne Boleyn) which begins 'Whoso list to hunt'.

Also whether the rather negative-sounding Platonic personification of Love in the Symposium had informed poems such as 'They flee from me', and maybe even provided a prototype for Elizabethan love poetry and its descendants, including the contemporary short lyric poem we all know and attempt not to write.

Enough about that, though. Here's darling Wyatt himself on the subject of love:

They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,
With naked foot stalking in my chamber:
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild, and do not remember,
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be Fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special
In thin array, after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small,
Therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, 'Dear heart, how like you this ?'

It was no dream, for I lay broad awaking:
But all is turned through my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking,
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use new fangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served:
I would fain know what she hath deserved?

Thomas Wyatt (1503 - 1542)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Geoffrey Hill at the Warwick Conference on Poetry & Philosophy

I went to a poetry reading last night at Warwick University, which is currently hosting a splendid Poetry & Philosophy Conference, to hear poets Jorie Graham (US), Robert Bringhurst (Canada) and Geoffrey Hill (GB).

I'm afraid I found it impossible to appreciate the first two poets, whose work passed me by. I am familiar with American poetry - even published some US poets in Blade during the nineties - but have never found much to admire in it, beyond some of Ashbery's wilder flights of fancy and Frank O'Hara's bitter lemons in imaginary trees. So you can imagine my boredom as I struggled to look interested and alert during their lengthy and often overly-complicated poems.

Bless 'em, but they do write long, these Americans and Canadians (the former rather more so than the latter). It's often one unrelenting note and it's held for some five or ten minutes, as though more must always be better. Which of course it isn't. Especially in poetry, home of the pithy and aphoristic, par excellence. Perhaps they didn't get the memo.

Yes, I know how terribly famous and important Graham and Bringhurst are. But there's no point in my pretending to understand or appreciate them, for all that. Luckily for me, no one's going to chop my head off for failing to 'see' the Emperor's New Clothes.

Robert Bringhurst reads in a comical dramatic monotone, growling his vowels into the floorboards until they're almost indecipherable. Though he was deliberately funny in places, which was a relief - that should be noted. I liked him as a person but found his work - well, most of it went over my head, and was probably intended to.

It particularly amused me that he disdains the need for titles, only using them because convention demands it. Poem 1 or 2 as a title is not unusual in transatlantic poetry, of course, following the example of Frank O'Hara & Co., but it's damned hard to refer accurately to an untitled poem. I also imagine that reading a collection of untitled poems must be like living in a house where all the doors are permanently left open.

Bringhurst's only redeeming feature, as regards my own interest in his work, is his taste for linguistics, and his interest in preserving the language and orally passed-down stories of the Navajo. But none of the poems he read seemed to communicate that to me with any effectiveness, sadly.

Jorie Graham, on the other hand, failed to interest me for other reasons. She intones her poems like a somnambulant reading from a shopping list. Her delivery seems utterly emotionless and without change of tone or register. Yet her high seriousness as a poet is beyond doubt.

She talked, both before and after her reading, at great length and with passion on the subject of how she writes poetry and what special techniques she uses in poems and why. One phrase, for instance, was like a 'cantilever' along the 'axis' of the poem. She thinks deeply about such things as politics and poetry as communication, she would like us to know.

As if to emphasise this point, the first poem she read was entitled 'Guantanamo Bay'. She described this poem beforehand as 'an exploded haiku'. It then seemed to go on for some four or five minutes. Clearly, she used too much semtex.

But then at last, ah joy. Some poetry I could sit up straight for and understand. The senior English poet Geoffrey Hill came to the podium - with the aid of a walking stick - and read with both a formidable energy and a political urgency that kept the room silent throughout.

Geoffrey Hill is now in his mid-seventies. He answered questions about his poetry after the reading with great mental acuity and an abrasiveness that sat well against Jorie Graham's homely anecdotes about reading poetry around the US after the tragedy of 9-11.

I found his poems hard, but never boring. I identified with them even when I didn't entirely understand them. I was left wanting to read them myself in private so that I could rectify that.

I particularly approved of how Geoffrey Hill anchors his apparently 'obscure' poetry in the stuff of everyday life - his family history, memories of home, landscapes, observed character, English history (poems about the English civil war, in particular, as well as his perhaps best-known sequence, 'Mercian Hymns'). The edges of his poems are hard and well-wrought, and they speak of his personality rather than any special technique which is too much on the surface.

I think perhaps that's where I found myself unable to listen to the other two poets with any attachment, not being able to fathom what I interpreted as a lack of personal engagement with their own poems. That is, they were engaged with them, but in a cerebral way, not a personal intimate way, and so I felt at a distance from them, and emotionally unengaged. I suppose that also explains why I felt politically unengaged.

Yet, during the Q&A session afterwards, Geoffrey Hill claimed not to write personal poems, or at least not to write poems that attempt to communicate anything. Frankly, I think that's a front of some kind. A defence. His poems do strive to communicate, even when written in code and hedged about with prickles - perhaps especially then. They communicate a vulnerability, I think, which is there to be understood if you are on the same wavelength. They also celebrate humanity, without that fact needing to be flagged up.

He did back down on that point later, following Jorie Graham's 'helpful' interruption about poems used in the aftermath of 9-11. But I would have liked to hear more about Geoffrey Hill's ideas on poetry and communication, especially as he had been about to expand on a quotation from Walt Whitman on that subject.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Fashionable Poems

In a spin-off from talks on the Poets on Fire forum recently, I wanted to write something briefly here about fashions in poetry. I mean mainstream poetry in general (since I have precious little experience of other sorts) where fashions often seem to dictate the entire tone of a collection or a magazine.

It's hard to pinpoint what I mean by a 'fashionable' poem. Reading an individual collection, you can feel you're in the presence of a real poem, but then maybe you spot another one close-by that's uncannily similar in style or even content, and you start feeling uncomfortable. I wish I could remember Joe Dunthorne's hilarious performance poem - using a whiteboard presentation - which details the various elements of 'fashionable' poems. Highly tongue-in-cheek, but too close to the truth to be dismissed as a joke.

We all know the particular tricks you can use to make sure your poem sounds like a poem: a sententious title, references to age-old 'poetic' themes or objects (I think Dunthorne suggests water or the sea, or maybe even the stars, as ideal for this purpose), and a neat aphoristic ending - usually two or possibly three lines - in which you explain the moral of the poem, and end on a memorable image. And all this in fewer than 40 lines, in order to qualify for entry to most poetry competitions.

If you can turn 'em out like that, time and again, you're practically guaranteed publication in most small poetry magazines. Higher up the career ladder, these techniques are still in place but have become more sophisticated, disguised as knowing eloquence.

These basic techniques stem, I suspect, from the late mediaeval short lyric as made famous in this country by the likes of Petrarch via Thomas Wyatt, those beautiful love songs of the Tudor poets, with the lyrical line stretching right into this new century. But what was once fresh and exciting is now in danger of sounding jaded in all but the most skilled and experienced hands.

Yet still we cling on to the old ways. There was a brief flurry of activity a few years back, with suggestions of a return to popularity for the epic form. The modern age favours the sound-bite, however, not the epic. I myself love epic narrative poetry, but even so I tend to prefer it broken up in some way into more easily digestible segments: the poem sequence, for instance.

Of course, I'm not immune to these problems of acceptable 'fashions' choking our poetry at birth. I too find pleasure in the short telling lyric. And have suffered for it, feeling lost at times, unsure whether a poem has really come from me or from some sort of vast poem-bank in the contemporary psyche.

The awareness of an accepted and fashionable way to write poetry may make things easier for beginning poets, but once you start looking for your own 'theme', those same methods act as an obstruction to your thought processes. And when that happens, you have to start 'unlearning' those traditional techniques and questioning every choice you make, none of which is conducive to writing freely and with passion.

To some poets, of course, such techniques are the life-blood of their work. And done well, they can be hugely effective. But I'm getting bored with them in my own poems. What next, though? Where do you go after you leave fashion behind? To the dole-queue or somewhere more interesting and - hopefully - worthwhile?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

New Warwick Laureate Blog

This is just to let you know I've launched yet another blog onto the poetry blogosphere - this time to cover my activities and official duties as Poet Laureate for Warwick.

I'll put the link into my sidebar list soon, but for now, here's a link to that brand-new blog, along with this hilarious photo of myself looking all laurel-wreathed, beflowered and glowing at the recent launch of the Warwick Words Festival:

If you run a blog or any other site which might find this Poet Laureate business interesting, I'd very grateful if you could link to the new site from your own. See if we can't notch up a few hundred visitors!

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Act of Making

There's been some ping-ponging discussion online in recent days about 'the act of making', thanks to a post on poet George Szirtes' blog where he's been responding to a controversial essay serialised in Poetry Review. The essay in question is by poet and Picador editor Don Paterson and is called 'The Lyric Principle'. Basically, it discusses how poetry is written, not so much in practical terms as in terms of our initial inspiration and the deep well-springs of the craft.

One of George's main objections - and I hope I'm not misrepresenting him here - is that he feels Don's attitude towards the craft to be too 'mysterious' and more like that of a high priest at times than a practising poet. I know exactly what he means by that, but at the same time, I don't see that it's such a bad thing to import a little more spiritualism and mystery into poetry in an age where poetry is being constantly sold to workshoppers as little more than a hobby or some sort of do-it-yourself therapeutic aid.

George Szirtes' excellent and discursive writing blog can be found here, along with links to other fascinating responses by bloggers and forumers to both his comments and the original essay by Don Paterson.

Thanks to Angela France for bringing this to my attention, by the way, via the Poets On Fire forum where she has been inviting others to comment on this too. You can view that topic as a non-member, but you do have to be a member of the forum to comment on it. (However, it only takes a few minutes to apply to join. Theoretically!)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Salt Blog, with a link to one of my new poems

My publishers, Salt, now have their own special blog for all matters saline. My recent appointment to the Warwick Laureateship made the Salt Confidential blog the other day, so if you're interested in the latest updates on independent poetry publishing, why not leap over there and check out some of their blog entries?

The link to that particular Salt Confidential entry is here and is especially interesting because it features one of the poems which won me the Laureateship, 'Troika', which also happens to be the opening poem in my 'Camper Van Blues' sequence.

My third collection is due out from Salt next summer.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Environmental Action Blog Day: Flood at Boscastle

Last week I signed up to the Blog Action Day campaign, where registered bloggers post something about the environment today, October 15th. Being busy as usual, I didn't feel able to work up some lengthy discussion about how I feel about the environment. But I am able to post up this poem, which came out of an environmental disaster that took place a few years ago, the devastating and wholly unexpected floods at Boscastle, Cornwall.

As a former resident of Boscastle - we moved the summer before the flood - whose teenage daughters both worked in the Spinning Wheel Restaurant, which was absolutely gutted and destroyed by the flood-waters, I was naturally keen to put something down on paper about the disaster. The poem below, 'Flood at Boscastle', is what emerged, and was published last year in the Poetry Society magazine, Poetry Review.

The small town of Boscastle is awash - if you'll pardon the expression - with shops connected to New Age spirituality, divination and witchcraft, possibly because of a long-standing connection between the village and the occult, and not least because of the presence of the world-famous Museum of Witchcraft, situated in the town along the river bank itself. So it seems a little ironic, in the light of these factors, that nobody saw this disaster coming!

My poem does not knock New Age spirituality per se, but it does, I feel, point out that some matters can still be adequately dealt with by using what some might refer to as 'natural magic', also known as common or folk lore, rather than all the expensive and overly-sophisticated paraphernalia associated with the modern craft.


Ten steps down, through Sargasso weeds
green as the felt walls
of a fish tank, is a door
through which only haruspices may pass, bearded
and with credit cards,
to buy sacred books
and strange instruments for scrying
so they might peer inside
the living heart
and say which house survives,
which doesn’t.

Portal invulnerable, they cry,
to the left-hand of the rising river,
thy charmed walls shall not be blowholes
for the unclenched well of the waters,
no spiraculum mirabile
breathing mud into the underworld.

Later, stripped to the waist, men dig
blackened books
from the whale ribs of a cottage,
then stamp up through mud
to the Cobweb
for a finger or two of whisky,
predicting more rain
on the print of a wetted thumb.

First published in Poetry Review

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Writing Poetry: Addiction or Affliction?

I just came across this recent article in the Independent on Sunday, where Sean O'Brien, winner of this year's Forward Prize for Best New Collection, apparently warns new writers that poetry is an 'affliction' and 'no way to make a living'.

Whilst not entirely disagreeing with Sean O'Brien, I have to admit that this attitude reminds me of my mother - herself a best-selling novelist worldwide - who used to warn me away from a career in writing, helpfully pointing out waitressing or shelf-stacking jobs in the local paper instead. 'Less precarious an existence,' she would say, and she was absolutely right, of course.

Writing, for the vast majority of practitioners, is an extremely precarious existence. You have no money to speak of, no friends because you're always banging away at a keyboard, no spouse because you aren't much of a marriage prospect or else they've left you for someone more attentive, no kids (or kids who view your work with loathing because it seems more important to you than they are), and - which is perhaps worst of all - the constant soul-grinding awareness that none of it is going to matter, that the work you leave behind will be forgotten sooner than you are. Sadly though, none of this makes any difference when some people choose whether or not to be - or continue to be - a poet.

For some writers, the prospect or reality of poverty, divorce, loneliness, the contempt of others, children who claim you were 'never there for them', all of the terrible accompanying conditions of the average poet's life, pale into insignifance when faced with a blank sheet of paper. For those, writing poetry will always be more of an addiction than an affliction. Those who are dilettantes can always escape, change their minds, get out while they still can. For the rest, escape has never been an option.

Of course, there must be poets out there who keep their spouses and children, earn a reasonable wage or are supported by someone else, and stay happy. Smile if that sounds like your life.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

My Year Ahead

I can still remember, back in the mid-late nineties, when I first started to write poetry 'seriously', how surreal and yet wonderful it was to open a newspaper and find a picture of myself staring back. First they were interested because of my snooker career, then it was about my early successes as a poet. But after a few years in the public eye, as my writing steadied and my life became less exciting and turbulent, media interest began to flag.

Now I've been appointed Warwick Poet Laureate and the local newspapers are back again in force, calling round to take my picture - alas, sporting a rather thicker waistline than in the nineties! - and asking the usual flurry of questions: what sort of poems do I write? what am I planning to do with my Laureate year? how does an ex-snooker player break into the poetry business?

It's hard to answer the first question. I write the poems that come into my head. They tend, I suppose, to deal with the mythic in some way. Rural poems, yes. But urban ones too (after all, though I've spent most of my life living in the wilds, I'm now settled in a town). And when it comes to writing about family and personal relationships, those things appear in my poems when necessary and not otherwise. I do love my husband and five children, but I'm a little too headstrong and eccentric to be truly domesticated. Which always makes for a good excuse when the dinner is burnt ...

What am I planning to do with 2007-08, the year of my Warwick Laureateship? This is a far more interesting question and one I've already been mulling over. There are some official meetings to be attended and arts people to consult before I can be more specific about the future, but basically, there are plans afoot to make this year a truly memorable one for poetry in and around Warwick.

To give you a little more detail on that, I'll be starting a special Laureate Blog at some point in the near future, to keep the online poetry presence strong in Warwick. Then there are some special readings and workshops to be arranged, perhaps some trips into schools at some point, the odd radio interview, and maybe a poetry 'drop' of the kind instigated by Helen Yendall, the previous Laureate. I'd also like to draw the poetry world's attention to the excellent Warwick Words Festival - more on that later.

And on a personal note, since my own interests and obsessions as a poet do gravitate towards English folklore and heritage, and Warwickshire is a rich and splendid county as far as such things are concerned, local folklore and history will undoubtedly inform my own writing. So there may even be a sequence of Laureate-related poems emerging from this year's work, perhaps to be published in a special collection, if that seems like the right thing to do at the end of the year.

And that last question, about my disreputable past as a snooker player and how it translates into being a poet? Well, as in so many things in life, you just have to keep your eye on the ball and follow through ...

Monday, October 08, 2007

Ancient Greek Examination this week

Yes, the time has come to put away my Ancient Greek books and face the dreaded examination. It's on Wednesday morning and will be three hours long. It's my second Greek exam, being the finale of my second year of Greek with the Open University, and this year consists of prepared passages from Plato's Symposium (for comprehension and essays), an unseen translation, and the most appalling thing anyone doing this subject could ever imagine: a dastardly Ancient Greek grammar section, which should take about 45 minutes to complete.

You'll forgive me, then, if this post is a little short, but I have only a day and a half left for revision, and still haven't covered the Middle and Passive, nor have I even so much as glanced at noun declensions.

Silent scream!

N.B. For those interested in such things, here's a link to my rather irregular blog on studying Ancient Greek.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Warwick Poet Laureate!

Tonight I was crowned - literally, with a laurel wreath! - Poet Laureate for Warwick, at the launch ceremony for the 2007 Warwick Words Festival. Much wine was consumed and a few poems were recited to a crowd of Warwick Festival Friends and local dignitaries. The two runners-up were Catherine Whittaker from Claverdon and Lucy Aphramor from Kenilworth, both of whom were there at the launch to read their poems.

To celebrate such a momentous evening, I had this 'official' photograph taken, and may even, at some point in the future, swop it for the rather sardonic one currently presiding over this blog. Though since I strongly prefer sardonic to matronly, that may never happen.

One of my duties as Warwick Poet Laureate - it's an annual post - will be to 'blog' about my activities as the year progresses. I've yet to decide whether that would happen here on Raw Light or whether a separate Laureate blog is in order. Knowing my love of 'new' blogs, I imagine it will be the latter, but I'll have to consult on that - and a suitable title for the blog! - with my new colleagues at Warwick Words before anything is finalised.

Warwick Words Festival 2007 has now started in earnest and will be running over this weekend, with places still available at a few readings and workshops etc. There are also some open mic sessions and a Slam!

For full details and to book, visit

Happy National Poetry Day 2007, and congratulations to Sean O'Brien, Daljit Nagra and Alice Oswald for their well-deserved wins in the Forward Prizes - just announced!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Deciphering the Rejection Letter

I feel like having some light-hearted fun this weekend, after a week of tremendously hard slog leading up to my Ancient Greek exam on the 10th October, so here's a humorous poem I wrote a couple of years ago, in response to that most depressing of missives to come through a poet's letter box - a rejection!

The rejection came on a postcard from a poetry magazine editor with dubious handwriting and was almost completely indecipherable. My husband and my teenage daughter both had a go at deciding what it said, then I had my turn, rather more satirically, and once our sides had stopped aching with laughter, I wrote the following little poem in response.

Even more amusingly, this poem was later published by the magazine editor in question - a good sport!

Deciphering the Rejection Letter

Doc Ian
Thankly for these homely carrot honeyful pies.
In rally arry I woolit quit loot ay in -
oh fell I’ve hit a too lorry.
Plare de sil rue!
Very wisest, Feng Shui.

Door Jam
Thoroughly for these only correct bountiful yams.
I’m roulley army I woubbit quilt fot any is -
al fch I’ve hid a too loony.
Plane di ail muc!
Very wormey, Frere Lecteur.

Dour Jim
Thankway for these oily concrete lentiful pores.
I’m really angry a rabbit quiet fat again -
if such I’ll hole a too lazy.
Please don’t send more!
Very worst, In Horror.

Dear Jane
Thank you for these lovely concise? beautiful poems.
I’m really sorry I couldn’t quite fit any in -
and feel I’ve held on too long.
Please do send more!
Very warmest, The Editor.

This poem appeared in 'Boudicca & Co' (Salt, 2006).