Curious sightseer

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It’s been such glorious weather lately that I’ve been tending the garden, rather than tending to my poems.
I had a heartening rejection from an online magazine a couple of days ago, suggesting that I cut the last two lines of one of the poems I’d sent and then resubmit it. Of course the editor was right. When I reread the poem I knew it straight away. It was very decent of her to take the time to comment though, and I appreciated it because although I often cut first and last lines on a final draft, I needed this reminder to keep me on my toes. It’s not just the rampant clematis montana that needs cutting back (now it’s stopped flowering I shall be getting the secateurs out) it’s those superfluous last lines.
It’s a different process with the redacted poems. I’ve found you have to be very careful what you take out because once it’s been erased with the marker pen, it’s gone forever. I haven’t done many of these lately. The ‘Frank’ poem, above, is one I made earlier, but our recent trip to Whitby is still fresh in my mind so I thought it was appropriate.
So, until next week, be a curious sightseer and find inspiration in the unlikely places  most folks overlook.


The Sick Bag Song


I was camping in Whitby for a few days over half term and The Sick Bag Song was my holiday read. It’s a fragmentary road trip, part prose, part poem. The Sunday Times described it as ‘About as rock’n’roll as you can get …’ but despite being a music fan, I read it because Cave gives some great insights into creativity and how writing happens. For example, he tells a story about a visit to Bryan Ferry’s house where he falls asleep by the swimming pool.

‘I awoke to find Bryan Ferry in his bathers, standing in the swimming pool. He was white and handsome and very still.

I haven’t written a song in three years
, he said.

Why? What’s wrong with you? I said.

He gestured, with an uncertain hand, all about him.

There is nothing to write about, he said.

That night I sat at my desk writing in a frenzy – page after page – song after song …’

(Nick Cave, The Sick Bag Song, Cannongate, 2015)

I don’t know how true this story is, but it’s interesting to me on so many levels – the idea that success can lead to a loss of creative drive and energy, that sometimes you don’t feel like anything around you is interesting enough to write about (especially if what surrounds you is luxury) etc. But it also interests me that Cave says he fed off that experience like a vampire, that somehow seeing Ferry blocked unleashed a torrent of writing in himself. Surely that’s fear of failure? But it’s being channelled into something productive.
I’m not lucky enough to own the limited edition copy of this book (mine’s just the paperback) but the book designers, Pentagram, include this picture on their website.


As soon as I saw it I was overjoyed – just look at all those crossings out! And it really is scribbled on a sick bag. Isn’t that just the sort of inspiration you need when you’re going through a fallow patch (and I think I am).
So the message is this: you can write anywhere. Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. Take action. Pick up your pen and write something. Anything. If it’s no good you can cross it out later. Maybe you’ll cross it out and then reinstate it. You might read it at an open mic. You might be lucky enough to publish it. One thing’s for sure, you’ll have done something with your time, made your mark, been human and fallible and glorious. What more can you ask for?

And yes, I’m now off to write in my notebook and it will start with the sky, which is so heavy it’s pressing on my shoulders, promising rain, rain, rain.




Great to get back from camping in Whitby yesterday to find ARTEMIS poetry magazine has arrived. I had a poem accepted in the magazine a short while ago and I admit to not being over-familiar with this publication. So, now I’m exploring it! It’s a really varied magazine, with reviews, essays, articles, poems and artwork, all by women. It’s great to see Shelly Roche-Jacques’ collection, Risk the Pier, getting a good review. I heard her read from it last year and loved the way she takes on the voice of the characters (she’s an excellent performer of her work). And I’ve enjoyed Gillian Allnutt’s poem with accompanying notes, especially the following:

When I decided, tonight, to send the poem to ARTEMISpoetry, I was able to finish it – by taking out three lines I’d had trouble with; ruthlessly and without any doubt.’ (Gillian Allnutt, ARTEMISpoetry, issue 20, May 18)

Earlier this evening, I was trying to get a couple of poems ready for our local Penistone Poets workshop tomorrow night. It’s an informal gathering over tea and cake to critique each others’ work, but although it’s informal, I really didn’t feel I had any poems that were good enough. Also, having been away has left me short on time. Still, something about the pressure of having to get the work ready (I’m back at the day job tomorrow) has made me ruthless and I’ve taken a few lines out, particularly one last line that hopefully allows the poem to now have a new and more subtle ending. We’ll see what the group says tomorrow, but reading Allnutt’s comment gave me heart. Sometimes it’s not about the words you put down on the page but the ones you remove. In a previous post I talked about the perils of over-editing. It’s a fine line, I think, between pruning a poem and hacking it to death. The sort of editing Allnutt’s talking about is swift and decisive. It needs to be done quickly, so setting a time limit is good. And workshops are helpful, as long as the time limit is adhered to. There’s no point spending ages pulling a poem apart, just make one or two suggestions that might strengthen it and move on. That’s what we’ll be doing tomorrow and I can’t wait to hear the poems.


It’s when you begin lie to yourself


It’s when you begin to lie to yourself in a poem in order to simply make a poem, that you fail. That is why I do not rework poems but let them go at first sitting, because if I have lied originally there’s no use driving the spikes home, and if I haven’t lied, well hell, there’s nothing to worry about.
Charles Bukowski, On Writing (ed. Abel Debritto, Canongate, 2016)

I’m so prone to re-working and over-editing my poems that about three years ago I started making sure I kept the first draft, and often that has turned out to be the best version.
I had a poem accepted in Brittle Star this week and they asked, as magazines often do, for an electronic copy. I trawled document after document until I finally found the poem, many versions of it in fact, but the one they’d accepted was the first version.
Although I remembered writing the poem (at a Poetry Business Writing Day) what really sticks in my mind is the redrafting I subjected that poem to, a process I think of now as smoothing the life out of it. After all, it was done with such care and good intent.
I’m writing this now as if I’m free of the habit. I’m not. I still spend hours tweaking a poem or worse, battering it into submission. The end result is invariably a bad poem, but when this madness is upon me I convince myself I’m working, and therefore I’m doing something good. This is the lie that Bukowski is talking about, the illusion that you are creating something that might stand as a poem because you’ve made it look like your idea of what a poem should be. I still fall prey to this sort of editing.
To be fair, I rarely write anything solid enough to be ‘let go at first sitting’, but it’s good to be reminded that there are probably some okay poems tucked away, it’s just that they’re the versions scribbled in notebooks, not the ones typed into a word document that have undergone more edits than you can shake a stick at.

It’s all ogre now


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Unexpected graffiti on the Carlton Marsh poetry walk last week.


I love it when poetry turns up in unexpected places. Last Thursday four terrific Smith/ Doorstop poets read at the Theatre Deli in Sheffield, a disused building that has been temporarily turned into an arts space. It works really well for poetry. After all, how many poetry readings have tiered seating, theatre lighting and great sound? It really was a performance-enhancing space. Keith Hutson read first, followed by John Fennelly, then after the break, Natalie Burdett and Hera Lindsey Bird. I think the younger members of the audience (and there were quite a few) had come to hear Hera Lindsey Bird. Having said that, many people had come along because the poets were all Laureate’s Choice poets, which of course carries a fair bit of kudos, and rightly so.


Discussing the event with a friend of mine on the way home, I found myself ranking the poets in order of which I liked best. Then I felt slightly ashamed. It wasn’t a competition. And besides, who was I to judge? Also, tastes change over time, especially mine. I often dismiss a poem as not being quite ‘my thing’, then come back to it and think it’s amazing. Conversely, I can get excited about a poem and then suddenly fall out with it.
Reading poetry leads you all over the place. However, I’ve found that sometimes I have to go back to poems I feel safe with before I strike out into new territory again. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve felt I’ve needed to understand, on the most basic level, the words on the page. I’ve struggled concentrate on work that plays around with language. This is ironic as I’ve spent the last five months in a determined effort to be more experimental! Maybe it’s just a lull or maybe I’ve come to the end of a particular phase. Either way, the other night I found myself writing about some escaped sheep. I’m not even sure it was a poem, more of a journal entry, but there you go. It’s 8.30 in the evening and the sun is setting over Royd Moor. The wind turbines are keeping exact time with the Two Lone Swordsmen track on our CD player. Poetry is a great thing to have in your life and I feel lucky to be part of a community of readers and writers that value it. Fortunately, there are enough poems out there to satisfy me, no matter what mood I happen to be in.



Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah

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This afternoon I went on a walk round Carlton Marsh for the launch of Steve Ely’s new pamphlet, Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah: The Song of the Willow Tit. The event, organised by The Ted Hughes Project, had a very friendly atmosphere which I have to say has become their trademark, because it’s hard to attend a Ted Hughes Project event and feel left out. The organisers always go to great lengths to make sure everyone is included and I always come away having learnt a few things from talking to complete strangers.


As for the pamphlet, it’s beautifully produced and finely illustrated, and the quality of the poetry is superb. With his focus on the willow tit, Ely’s poetry explores place and identity, the illusive nature of memory, and our place in the world today in the era now dubbed the anthropocene. Energetic and erudite, with an astounding range of vocabulary and reference, these aren’t simply ‘well-observed’ poems; they engage with their ornithological subject through history and memoir, pop culture and politics. The foreword tells us that the willow tit is one of our fastest declining species. ‘Paradoxically, the post-industrial sites of the North – former colliery and industrial sites, disused railway lines and canals – often provide very good willow tit habitat. The Dearne Valley area of Barnsley, Rotherham & Doncaster is a stronghold for the species …’ It’s this spiral of decline in the North, and the Capitalist machine that underpins it, which informs these poems (this is not to say the poems are without hope or that they deny the possibility of regeneration).
The two hour guided walk included a free copy of the limited-edition pamphlet and cost just £5. That says everything about the ethos of The Ted Hughes Project and the people who make it happen. So, get yourself on their mailing list (if you aren’t already) in time for their festival in September.






A challenge to the sky

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I was going to have a week off the blog this week, but I can only take so much sun, so I’ve retreated indoors to post a redacted poem. I haven’t done any ‘real’ writing for a while now, which worries me slightly. In fact, I vowed to abstain from redacting texts and put my marker pens to the back of the drawer. However, I was in the local charity shop on Saturday and found two classic texts for 25p each. I won’t tell you the titles yet, because part of the fun of redacting a text is trying not to let the original text colour the poem – you want to make it new.
I only realised recently that Pound took his slogan Make It New from his reading of Chinese texts – it was apparently an inscription on the washbasin of the first king of the Shang dynasty (if you want to know more, see Michael North’s enlightening piece for Guernica magazine). Anyway, I digress. This morning, in the Oxfam bookshop in Holmfirth, I scooped up Veronica Forrest-Thompson’s Collected Poems and Veronica Forrest-Thompson and Language Poetry by Alison Mark. These aren’t for redacting – they’re too precious for that. What a find! Of course, my reading pile is now teetering again. Still, may the sun continue to blaze down on charity shops and all the magnificent bargains they hold.