Prior to Meaning



Yellow Penguins (Prague)

Prior to meaning is the title of a poem by Steve McCaffery. I bought his selected Verse and Worse earlier this year after seeing him read in Sheffield (he lives and teaches in Canada but was born in Sheffield). His poetry is experimental and challenging. I can’t claim to ‘understand’ it, just as I don’t quite understand the yellow penguins I photographed in Prague last year. However, like the penguins (they’re lit up at night by the way) McCaffery’s writing really does make you think. It’s an odd feeling, encountering his poems, a sort of knowing and not knowing at the same time.  The brain makes links, carries its various readings from word to word, phrase to phrase. You feel something is hinted at, start to congratulate yourself because you’ve got it, but before you are allowed to understand too much, or have your hunch confirmed, the work moves elsewhere and you have to start making other, new connections.

“I recall puzzling one member in an audience at a reading I did several years ago in London … with the phrase “disambiguated geese”. To his question “What does it mean?” I answered, “It doesn’t mean anything, but it allows you to think and in doing so you experience a fresh, perhaps novel juxtaposition of two common words.”  (McCafferey, 2010).

That phrase, ‘it allows you to think’ really interests me at the moment. I’ve always liked to know where I am with a poem (whether reading or writing one) but since I finished my last pamphlet Out of the Weather, I’ve had this nagging sense that my work’s too safe. There are two poems in the pamphlet that are more experimental than I usually write, but the rest are firmly lyrical. I haven’t really written over the summer, as is often the case with me. Now the nights are drawing in, poetry beckons. So, I’ve made a pact with myself to be a bit braver and not get too bound up in certainties (what the poem’s about, what it’s really about etc). Of course, I’m still at the ideas stage, and poetry, ultimately, isn’t about thinking but doing. However, it will be interesting to see where this experiment leads.  In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this extract from McCaffery’s Prior to Meaning.


(Lost listening to paint)

(a whiter Odalisque inside
encounter’s notation)

(the specific instances of angels or tugboats
in a struggle

so absent over surface is

the stream that’s there)

There. I told you it would make you think!

McCaffery, S., Verse and Worse. Selected and New Poems of Steve McCaffery 1989 – 2009 (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010)


Poems that slip and slide around meaning



Sculptures by David Cerny, Prague, photographed by J. Mellor

I recently had the good fortune to receive a favourable review in The Manchester Review, which said: ‘what Mellor actually seems to be doing is playing poetry at its own game, using the ability of the poem to slip and slide around meaning, seemingly under the writer’s control, but not’ (Ian Pople). It was interesting that Pople picked up on this, because it’s a direction I want to follow. However, there’s always a fear that in playing with the meaning and trying, for want of a better expression, to disrupt it, the poems will amount to nothing more than games with words. I’ve just started reading Steve McCaffery, after seeing him read at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield a couple of months ago. He’s a poet who consciously moves away from what we might call the expected meaning, to confront and confound the reader. It’s experimental literature, but for all the difficulties it presents, what I love about it is the risks it takes. Like the Babies sculptures by David Cerny above, you have to think a bit before you can even decide how to read them, but they’re so open to possibility. I’m off to the Poetry Business Writing Day tomorrow. I don’t expect to write anything experimental because it’s not that sort of workshop, but I’m taking a new poem to share in the afternoon which tries to ‘slip and slide’ around meaning a little. It will be interesting to hear what the other writer’s make of it!



Like a man who wishes to be buried with his horse


Horse statue by David Cerny, Prague. Photograph by J. Mellor.


The Honey Baron


The Honey Baron carries a jar of light in his pocket. He says, Look at this and tell me you don’t understand. He offers it as a cure for hay fever and says it was used to heal wounds on the battlefield at the time of the Iceni. The Honey Baron is a man who knows his history. He boasts, This jar bears my name and the substance it holds can withstand time. Open it 100 years from now and it will have lost none of its potency. He pronounces potency in a very solemn voice, like a man who wishes to be buried with his horse.

I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to share this photograph, which I took in Prague last Easter. Now the pamphlet is out, I’ve posted an extract from my poem The Honey Baron, to go with it. Of course, you have to buy the pamphlet to read the whole poem, although it first appeared in The Interpreter’s House earlier this year. The phrase, ‘a jar of light’ comes from reading Jacob Polley’s poem, A Jar of Honey, one of my favourite short poems.

Last night was the local launch of my pamphlet, Out of the Weather, and it was good to share the reading with so many local poets. Next week is the official launch, Tuesday 4th July at The Fat Cat in Alma Street, Sheffield. I’m reading with Suzannah Evans, starting at 7.30pm in the upstairs room. Free entry. All welcome. Hope to see some of you there.

Readings and reviews

cropped front cover

Just a quick bit of self-publicity this week. First, news of a couple of readings I’m doing:

Tuesday 27th June, Penistone launch of Out of the Weather at Café Crème, High Street, Penistone. 6.00pm for a 6.30 start.
Tuesday 4th July, Sheffield launch at The Fat Cat, Alma Street, Sheffield (upstairs room) 7.30pm.
Both events are free and everyone is welcome to attend.

Secondly, I received a very generous review of the new pamphlet from John Irving Clarke of Currock Press. The review appears both on John’s blog on the Currock Press website and on the Write Out Loud Write Out Loud website in case you want to check it out, but in the meantime here’s a taster:
‘I read this collection in one sitting, although there were plenty of pauses to let images and significances register. Then I read it again, acknowledging Robert Frost’s definition of poetry which “begins in delight and ends in wisdom”. Julie Mellor’s poems are delightful, they are imbued with wisdom and they are certainly thought-provoking. This is a collection I will continue to read and re-read.‘ John Irving Clarke.

It was lovely to receive this but I won’t let myself get too carried away. I always feel as though it’s what I’m writing at the moment that counts, rather than what’s already out there. In an effort to keep the momentum going, I went to Suzannah  Evan’s workshop at Weston Park Museum in Sheffield on Saturday. Suzie always provides some interesting and stimulating exercises and I came away with plenty of notes that might become poems if I’m lucky. I seem to be writing a lot about the mother/daughter relationship at the moment, which isn’t exactly ground breaking, so I’m hesitant to share any of that work yet. I’ve workshopped one or two, but I’m still feeling my way with them. Also, common sense tells me to sit on them for a while; I need that bit of distance before I can look at them with any sort of detachment!
I’m off to the Ted Hughes Festival next week. There are still tickets left I believe, so if you want an excellent programme of events (and excellent value too) have a look at the Ted Hughes Project website and treat yourself to some poetry in Mexborough.

Denaby Ings to Sprotbrough with Helen Mort for the Ted Hughes Project



Helen Mort

It’s been a busy and varied poetry weekend. I went to hear two very innovative poets, Karen Mac Cormack and Steve Mccaffery, read at the Independent Book Fair at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield last night. It’s good to hear that sort of poetry – not narrative driven, sort of ‘outside the box’, at least in comparison to the work I normally encounter. Then today it was the poetry walk from Denaby Ings Nature Reserve, lead by Helen Mort. Helen gave some fine readings along the way and there was a lovely sense of friendship and community spirit which has become a trademark of the Ted Hughes Project. Hats off to them for keeping everything cheap and accessible. The main events are still to come, so check out their website for details.
Of course, although there was lots of natural beauty on the reserve (bee orchids, agrimony, a whole bank of hemlock) what took my eye was this old tree root behind a wire fence near the site of the former pit at Cadeby. There was a stock of new mattresses in the yard, wrapped in polythene but surely not immune to the weather, and in the top corner, a pile of old discarded ones. I don’t know if there’s a poem in that, but I think curiosity, the desire to look beyond the fence, is part of what drives us to create. Having said that, I’ll own up to having written very little this week, so I’ll leave you with the image of the tree root and try to get one with some writing.






Sheffield graffiti – photo by W. Marsh

The reason we couldn’t get closer to this fabulous piece of work was because the site is now cordoned off with construction fencing, due to imminent demolition. This ‘regeneration’ is the cause of the independent book shop, Rare and Racy, closing this month. Pubs and book shops – maybe they’ll form part of some folk myth we’ll be talking about fondly in old age. And where do poems sit in this climate of closure? Readings go down well in pubs (and bookshops of course) but sales of poetry books are generally low. Poetry’s a niche market I think. There’s probably not much money in it for most writers and maybe that’s okay. It means, as an art form, it can set its own agenda. Mainstream often means bland. Poetry is exciting (mostly). Certainly, there’s been lots happening around here recently: I’ve been to two evenings of readings as part of the South Yorkshire Poetry Festival, a writing workshop at the Poetry Business in Sheffield, plus two local workshops, all in the last ten days.

Also, my new pamphlet arrived at the end of last week, earlier than anticipated. This was a lovely surprise, and made me feel extremely grateful for all the help I’ve been given in putting it together. So, here are some thank yous. There’s Peter and Ann Samson at the Poetry Business, where a good number of the poems were written. I owe pretty much everything to them as I probably wouldn’t be writing poetry at all if it wasn’t for their workshops. Then there’s Helen Mort and Kim Moore who took the time to read and comment on the pamphlet. They are both incredibly talented and hard working, and generous too. They made space for me, and for my work, in their busy schedules and that means a lot. They’re both part of this year’s Ted Hughes Festival, so if you want to see just how amazing they are, why not go along to Mexborough, where poetry is very much alive and kicking.


Out of the Weather

It’s been an exciting few weeks, checking the proofs, agonizing over tiny amendments (those mole hills that suddenly become mountains) but I’m happy to say that my new pamphlet, Out of the Weather, is finalized and will be available soon from Smith/Doorstop (more details to follow). In the meantime, I’ve been writing what seems to be turning into a sequence of poems on the mother/daughter relationship. Nothing publishable yet, but it’s early days.
I went to Suzannah Evans’ writing workshop at Weston Park Museum, Sheffield, yesterday. I mention this because more than one poem in my new pamphlet was written in Suzi’s workshops (she ran a series of workshops at the museum last year). She’s a brilliant tutor, as well as an outstanding poet. I know she’s phenomenally busy with the South Yorkshire poetry festival at the moment. In fact, I’m not really sure how she finds time for her own writing. Still, if you get hold of her pamphlet, Confusion Species, you’ll see that she really has that knack of making you see things anew.
I’m looking forward to attending a couple of the South Yorkshire poetry festival’s readings next week, and for the next post I have a few more thank yous up my sleeve, but for now I’ll leave you with the cover image of Out of the Weather, in the hope that it whets your appetite.

cropped front cover

Front cover of the new pamphlet, with an aquatint by John James Audubon