Black snow

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After the tragic events on New Zealand’s White Island, I hope this post, and the poem below, don’t come across as flippant.

I tend not to put much personal stuff on the blog – my rule is stick to the writing. However, in my early twenties I lived in Messina, Sicily, and then on a volcanic island off the coast of Milazzo, which is where the above photographs were taken. Legendary home of Hephaestos, it was a place where the sea boiled, where the rocks reared up like monsters, where there were pools of sulphurous mud you could bathe in to cure all sorts of ailments.  Wild and dramatic, yet oddly, I’ve never been able to capture much of it in my poetry. I also remember flying to Catania while Etna was erupting, looking out of the aeroplane’s window and seeing the lava running down the side of the volcano, then after a hair-raising landing, having to wade through ash (it really does fall like black snow) to get to the airport building. All this might seem adventurous and romantic, but the hard truth is that volcanos are incredibly unpredictable. Hearing about White Island made me feel very humble to have had such fabulous experiences and come away unscathed. My heart really does go out to the people who’s lives have been devastated by this terrible event.

And now, here’s the poem. I wrote it a few years ago, but it’s never been published, mainly I think, because I’ve never settled on a final version I was happy enough with. Even today I was tinkering with the order of the lines. I realise, though, that sometimes you have to let go of a poem, even if it’s not quite what you’d envisaged when you started writing it.



after August Kleinzahler

Black snow is falling in the Straits of Messina,
brittle as cinders, sooting the prow of the Georgione,
falling like burnt crumbs on the crow’s nests of tuna boats.

Ash is blocking the sun, drifting against doorways
in the suburbs of Pace and Contemplazione.
It settles on the windscreens of Fiat Unos, grits the runners
of the Hotel Sant’ Elia’s revolving door,
where businessmen drink grappa and meet women
who are not their wives.

On the Corso Cavour they’re pulling down blinds
and asking customers, politely, to remove their shoes.

Signor Ricciardi throws a shawl over his canaries
and on a thousand balconies women reel in their washing.

Behind the gates of Villa Gelsomino,
the Dobermans have given up barking.

The air tastes like stubbed out cigarettes.
In the hills above the city, the cacti are turning to stone.


One of those days that never quite wakes up …


Great to be in issue 72 of The Interpreter’s House, although it’s taken me a while to get around to reading it (the virtual book pile is easy to overlook).  However, I’m not trying to push my work here – instead, I urge you to read John-Paul Burns’ poem Re-reading, a line from which forms the title of this post. Sunday is often a day that never quite wakes up – not that there’s been much time for sitting around today as we’ve been trying to get some of the Christmas shopping done. However, there’s that vague torpor which, if you allow yourself to sink into it for a while, is when you notice what normally passes you by. Read Burns’ poem and you’ll see what I mean. A poet who can draw attention to ‘the sunflower/ and its sunflower-lessness’ deserves to be read.


And the Ginko Prize goes to Sue Riley!

My local poetry group, the Penistone Poets, are a small but dedicated band of writers. We used to meet once a week; lately it’s been a bit more sporadic, although we do hold a monthly open meeting as well. However, when one of the most dedicated members (and the one who has to travel furthest to get to the meetings) Sue Riley, scooped the £5,000 first prize in the Ginko poetry competition, you an imagine how excited we all were. The anthology containing her winning poem, A Polar Bear in Norilsk, can be downloaded for free here.

As their website explains, the Ginkgo Prize is a major international award for ecopoetry, funded by the Edward Goldsmith Foundation and organised by the Poetry School.
Every year, the competition awards £8,000 in prize money, provides writers’ residencies for the winners, and supports the development of ecopoetry through a programme of free workshops, and a series of incisive essays by leading ecological writers.
The award, initially called the Resurgence Prize, was first presented in 2015. It has been run by the Poetry School since 2017 and was relaunched as the Ginkgo Prize in 2018.

In the preface to the prize-winners’ anthology, Simon Armitage writes: ‘Over the course of my Laureateship I wanted one of my headline projects to be a prize that recognised the resurgence of nature and environmental writing currently taking place in poetry, highlighted by the Ginkgo Prize. The new wave of nature writing in non-fiction has been well documented, but not enough attention has been paid to the equivalent rise of ecological thought in contemporary poetry, with current fears about the impending climate crisis clearly provoking this essential writing. The Ginkgo Prize is one endeavour that has sought to address this imbalance and acknowledge the crucial work being done in this area, as the extraordinary poems in this anthology so deftly demonstrate.’

So, congratulations on your amazing success Sue, and thank you for being such an inspiration to the group. Here’s to many more prize-winning poems!




Worlds from the Word’s End

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I love it when you discover a new writer, one who really makes you think about what  writing can do. I seem to remember Jeanette Winterson saying in an interview somewhere, that most books are television these days. Well, Worlds from the Word’s End by Joanna Walsh certainly isn’t, unless you imagine it as a television being dropped on your head.
A fellow poet leant me this book last week and as I hadn’t got much reading time, I nearly put it to one side. I’m so glad I didn’t.
Worlds from the Word’s End is a collection of short stories that play with words and meaning, that push ideas further than you think they can go, that surprise you at every end and turn and force you out of your comfort zone. As a writer, one thing I really value is a piece of work, whether it’s a single poem or a whole book, that makes you want to pick up your pen and write. Joanna Walsh’s stories do exactly that. They spark ideas, partly, I suspect, because they have this exuberant sense of freedom about them, not only in terms of subject matter but also in terms of style.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a poet or a prose writer; you need to read in order to write. The thing is, what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. Thus, you stumble from one book to another without finding inspiration, even though the books you’re reading are highly recommended. Then something comes along, something you don’t expect much from, and it gives you a jolt. That’s what this book has done for me. I’m set to order another of Walsh’s books on the strength of having read Worlds from the Word’s End and I’m immensely grateful to my writer friend for giving me precisely the book I needed.

I’ve included some reviews from Walsh’s website below, and it’s also worth pointing out that the publisher is the Sheffield-based And Other Stories who are committed to publishing new and experimental writing: ‘We aim to push people’s reading limits and help them discover authors of adventurous and inspiring writing.’ They also run the Northern Book Prize which I can only dream of entering as my draft remains in the bottom drawer at the moment. They require the full manuscript by December for this year’s competition in case you’re interested.

Joanna Walsh is clever, funny and merciless. She abducts people from their apparently normal lives and confronts them with the fact that dystopia is not a place in the future but a room in their own house.’ Yuri Herrera

Terrifyingly perceptive, subversively hilarious – these stories are part Daniil Kharms, part-Lydia Davis – while also managing to be singularly Joanna Walsh; how her writing always manages to make everything else I read (and write) seem specious and frivolous.’ Sara Baume

Worlds from the Word’s End is an anti-mainstream collection. Joanna Walsh’s thick, blurred and claustrophobic worlds deal with deconstruction, estrangement, silence and the disappearance of common language. This is unconventional writing that is going to enchant unconventional readers.’ Dubravka Ugrešić




Where do poems come from?

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This morning, checking my emails, feeling guilty about not writing, feeling anxious about not having anything to write about, suddenly, starlings descended, all at once and on the same tree, the black elder, Sambuca Black Lace, its leaves thinned by the cold and the wind, its berries black and ripe and taut as eyes, and the starlings hit it with their bodies and pecked as though it were alive, a baited thing, and berries were grabbed and swallowed and berries fell on the stone flags where more starlings jostled and snatched and I’d been at such a loss to begin anything and using the emails as an excuse that when the starlings came I rushed for my camera with the intention of photographing them for my blog, though when I approached the patio doors I startled them and they grabbed their things and ran, but it was a moment of clarity, when time slows and you’re pulled into something which is not your life, as though you’ve left yourself, stepped out of the shoes that were holding you down and escaped for a moment, passing into a more heightened and receptive state where you can observe things, even though they are small and probably insignificant to others, but somehow you understand that they are of more value to you than events in your ‘real’ life, so you allow yourself to be there, in this new world, knowing it won’t last, that you’ll have to go back, but hopefully something will stay with you, a gleaming eye, a scattering of black berries, the intention to capture it, to set it down, perhaps make art from it, not just to record it but to process it. You’ll see the starlings as a marauding gang, a posse, a raiding party, except these are cliches so you’ll have to do some work to (re)imagine the things you’ve seen, to do it differently to all the other imaginers who have gone before you; you’ll have to push yourself out of safe mode and into territory that is wild and uncomfortable. The berries will be black sapphires or beads of jet from a broken Victorian necklace, and the birds are Quakers breaking their silence to stand up and talk about God and if you’re writing towards a poem it might eventually sidestep the berries and the starlings completely and be about the omelette you had for tea last night, but you will have created something and that in itself will be your reward.


Season of mists

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I’m not sure the above needs much explanation, except to say I’ve been trying to make quick notebook entries first thing in the morning, when I get back from walking the dog (and before I go to work). This one seemed to want to be a poem, but I didn’t have time. If it seems rather slight, it reflects my writing process at the moment: short and sporadic! Autumn mornings interest me though, that sense of transition, of crossing the border between seasons, of leaving the lighter longer days behind and embracing the dark.

Here are a few pictures I took in the garden this afternoon. As you can see, not everything is dying back. In fact, the sedums (bottom left) have only recently bloomed. I love the colours of the berries and the patterns of fallen leaves. I’m trying to get back into ‘poetic’ writing after finishing the first draft of my novel. I don’t feel comfortable if I’m not writing anything and I’ve missed poetry. The notebook entries are like a mini journal,  a way of freeing myself up, of getting words down on the page. It’s too early to say if they will become poems. I suspect they won’t. It’s really just about writing, about training myself to notice the small details again, to be in the world and to write it as I see and experience it.




Give yourself a gold star

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… or a silver one, or anything shiny as a way of marking your achievement. As you can see from the above picture, I keep a note of everything I send out. If I get an acceptance, I mark it with a foil star. Childish? Perhaps. But it works like a little affirmation that I’m doing the right thing, a way of acknowledging that something I’ve created has found its way out into the world.  I think I got the idea from reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, although I’ve been doing it for such a long time now I might be mistaken. Anyway, I know some poets use spreadsheets, but I like the hands on approach!
I’ve featured a notebook page from about 18 months ago when I had a real push on submissions. Lately, I’ve been so tied up with the novel I haven’t had any poems to send out. I miss that, polishing a poem, sending it out, the occasional acceptance that leaves you on a high for a while. Writing a novel is a very solitary activity – poetry is far more sociable (for me anyway, attending various workshops and readings etc).  I can’t wait to get back to all that.
Anyway, I’m giving myself a gold star this week, not for having anything accepted, but for completing the first draft of the book. Not that it’s finished in the true sense of the word – too many shifts in time and viewpoint. I know it will take a lot more work to give it a coherent structure, but the words are there, typed up, and I’ve done what I set out to do – complete the first draft. I feel like I could do with a block of time now, to dedicate to the editing, but that’s not likely to happen in the near future. So, I’ll have to just try to do what I can in the evenings and at weekends and see where that leads.
In the meantime, award yourself a gold star for following me on this creative journey. It’s great to be part of an online writing community. The blogs I read are a constant source of inspiration and I hope my posts inspire you in some small way.