Playing the acoustic

This all seems very haphazard today – a blurred photograph of a page from John Barlow’s ‘Waiting for the Seventh Wave’ and the desire to say, quickly and concisely, why I’ve not been blogging so much recently. I’ll start with the haiku. ‘Midday silence’ … something I rarely get Monday to Friday working in as a TA in a busy Infants’ school. Then there’s those fingerprints – the ghost of a past player, or proof that the guitar is regularly picked up and played? I like the ambiguity. And the reason I chose a guitar poem? Because that’s what has been taking up so much of my spare time lately.

Two years ago I bought a guitar, having never played an instrument before in my life. I’d had it in my mind for some time and kept telling myself I’d do it when I retired. As I say, that was two years ago and I’m still working! I think I came to realise that there’s no point waiting for the ‘right time’ because there never is a right time. So, I bought my guitar. Five minutes a day was all I could give it in those first few weeks – any more and my fingers were sore and aching. Gradually though, I started spending longer playing it. I had some lessons. Lockdowns came and went, interrupting the lessons but giving me more time to practise (I never resorted to online lessons – I prefer it to be in person). Lessons restarted and I realised that I’d practised both good habits and bad so a lot needed ironing out. Of course, the longer I spent on the guitar the more other hobbies fell by the wayside. Not the poetry though, not until this summer that is.
School summer holidays are a dream come true. 6 weeks paid leave; the pay for a teaching assistant is miserably low, but all the same, time verses money – there’s no contest. Anyway, this summer I went back to the music shop where I bought my first instrument, booked a private appointment for an hour and ended up staying three, and came home with the most gorgeous, deep-toned instrument that should keep me going for a few years to come. I realise that I’m becoming a guitar geek but I can live with that. I’ll never be a great player but I can live with that too because like most things I get involved with, it’s the ‘doing’ that I enjoy most. And I still enjoy ‘doing’ poetry, but when you give your time to one thing, something else has to give. So recently, the new guitar has been taking up most of my time. I’ve not abandoned haiku, but having prioritised my interests, the blog has suffered a bit. So, this post is just to say that I’m still here, and I’m still writing, but I’m also enjoying the sound of my new guitar (and in case you were wondering what has happened to the old one, it’s now in a different tuning so I have some new tunes and techniques to learn).
And I’m still enjoying reading whatever Snapshot Press publishes (John Barlow is not only an accomplished haiku poet but an influential figure in UK publishing). I can highly recommend his book (below) and I’ll leave you with the title poem:

evening surf …
sandpipers waiting
for the seventh wave

Snapshot Press 2006

Blithe Spirit

I’m thrilled to have some haiku in the current edition of Blithe Spirit, the British Haiku Society’s journal, and even more thrilled to find my good friend and fellow poet, Marion New, published in the same magazine. In fact, it was Marion who put me on to this journal (somehow I felt it might not be for me – how wrong I was).
During lockdown, our local poetry group didn’t really meet up, so my contact with other poets in my area hasn’t been as frequent as it normally would have been. Plus, I’ve sort of defected to the haiku camp – I don’t write much in other forms at the moment, or read them for that matter. Having said that, I don’t feel it’s narrowed my field of vision, quite the opposite. It’s led me to discover new magazines like the one above, and my other UK favourite, Presence. And then there are all those fantastic American journals, many of which are online or publish a selection from their current issue online. I’ve been lucky enough to have two poems published in these this year. It’s not the reason I write, but acceptance does help keep the momentum.
I wanted to showcase Marion’s poem, but as the journal has only just come out, I’ll hold fire on that one. Instead, here’s another poem that she had published in Blithe Spirit earlier this year. It’s a lovely example of what can be done in a poem by ‘not seeing’. The tree is bare, no leaves or berries. The winter sun provides both warmth and colour. The reader conjures the rest. So, I’ll leave you with her poem, an image of hope in what seemed, this year, to be a very long winter.

the rowan tree glows
without leaves or berries
winter sunrise

Reader’s request

We got back from our camping trip last week and I’ve been busy every since, not in a bad way, but busy all the same. My holiday read was The Essential Haiku – versions of Basho, Buson and Issa by Robert Hass (Bloodaxe Books 2013, f. pub. 1994). It’s a very readable book and Hass offers some clear and concise versions/ translations. Here’s one by Buson, picked at random:

Calligraphy of geese
against the sky –
the moon seals it.

Of course, one poem can’t represent the whole book, but I don’t want this post to be a review, so I’ll move on to my main point, which is that it’s been wonderful to be able to borrow this from the local library. As the ticket on the front cover says, ‘Borrowing from your library is the greener alternative to buying and you’ll be amazed by the selection.’ I’ve been trying to thin out the amount of books on my shelves over the last few months and the last thing I want to do is fill them up again, so for me, borrowing is a good way of saving space. It’s also a great way of trying a book without the commitment of purchasing it. With this in mind, I’ve also borrowed Travels with a Writing Brush by Meredith McKinney (Penguin 2019).

I’ve only read part of this so far, but it shows how the writings of Basho emerged from a long tradition of writing about journeys (I hesitate to use the term ‘travel writing’ because that implies something slightly different). What I like about this book are the short introductions at the start of each section, which give an excellent context to the writings.

In terms of my own writing, I’ve found some inspiration in the Hass versions and if time allows, I’ll go back to his book and reread some of the poems. The books are on loan until the end of this week, so I’m relying on being able to renew them. I suppose this is the slight drawback to borrowing, although the plus side is that it does give you a gentle push to read them within a time frame, rather than putting them on book pile (as I’m prone to do) and then taking months to get round to them.

I’d just like to add that I was quite surprised to find these books in stock, particularly Travels with a Writing Brush. Looking at the date stamp, it’s only been taken out by one other person in the last 18 months. Obviously the pandemic might have had something to do with that, but libraries need borrowers, so please do what you can to support them.

Night Coach by Marco Fraticelli

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Marco Fraticelli’s Night Coach (Guernica Editions, 1983) this week. The book was published in 1983, so I’m playing catch up (as I am with haiku publications in general) but after reading Drifting, I wanted to get to know Fraticelli’s work a bit more. And reading Drifting beforehand really enriched my reading experience of this collection. Night Coach contains some beautiful haiku. Many are love poems, some tender, some erotic, and the illustrations by Marlene L’Abbe are spare and powerful, perfectly complementing the text. For me, one of the best pairings of haiku and image is this one below:

There’s also a sense of loss countering this passionate affair, as in:

Funeral sermon
In my wedding suit …
Falling asleep

The irony of wearing the wedding suit to a sad occasion is heightened by ‘falling asleep’, an admission of fallibility that makes the situation both poignant and humorous. In fact, rereading the poem I start to create a backstory, asking myself why is he tired? Is it the relationship/ affair that is tiring him out or is it grief? Maybe it’s just boredom, in which case what was his relationship with the deceased? I like poems that open out in my mind and this, without being in any way ambiguous.

The inspiration for the later collection, Drifting, came from Fraticelli’s discovery of some letters in an abandoned house, and there’s a sense of walking through some of those empty rooms in one or two poems in Night Coach. For example:

A religious calendar
In the dead man’s room
And maps pinned to the walls

There’s just enough here to hint at a narrative, while leaving space for the reader to construct their own. A small number of the Night Coach poems do appear in Drifting, for example:

Moonlight on ice
The farmer carries heavy rocks
In his dreams

I’m tempted to say that the word ‘heavy’ might be superfluous here, but it does add emphasis – there’s a sense of burden, of exhaustion, of getting nowhere, and that cold ‘moonlight on ice’ lights up the scene, as though we’re watching the man’s struggle. Well, that’s how I see it anyway! I m glad I’m better acquainted with Fraticelli’s work now and I hope you feel the same.

And finally – I had a few problems uploading photos to the blog today – not the first time the ’tiled gallery’ function has got stuck. I found the old version so much easier to use!

by the canal

coffee by the canal
the time it takes
for goslings to swim past

Just had a lovely weekend break camping in Hebden Bridge. Beautiful sunny days – despite sun cream and hat I still managed to get sunburn! The nights were chilly of course, but we had plenty of blankets. We don’t use a campsite but pitch in a farmer’s field with use of the outside loo and tap. Very basic but all the better for it. Eggs for breakfast from the farm (laid by white star hens) then boots on and out for a walk.
We did a few good routes this time, taking in Hardcastle Crags and, across the valley, Stoodley Pike. Coffee by the canal was a great way to relax in between, and the Fox and Goose, a community owned pub just out of the centre, was as friendly and welcoming as it always is. Due to lockdown we haven’t visited Hebden as frequently as we would have liked this year, but it was good to be back and spending time in some of our favourite places. Despite many changes, it’s a town that, for us, never loses its charm.
I took the recent edition of Blithe Spirit with me and read most of that, in between walking and scribbling. The haiku (above) was actually inspired by a pair of Canada geese chaperoning 11 goslings down the canal. Of course, by the time I’d rooted about in the rucksack for the camera, the moment had passed. Capturing the ‘haiku moment’ is hard enough, but pairing the poem and the photograph is even trickier. Admitting to this to myself resulted in the haiku below, and I think the poem is stronger for it.

photographing the well
failing to capture
the sound of water

Clearly, one way of being more spontaneous would be to use a mobile phone, but I don’t – I realise this is increasingly unusual. I don’t know many people who don’t use a mobile and when I say that I don’t, people are surprised. There’s no doubt that as an artistic tool they can yield some fantastic results (I’m thinking of Dave Bonta’s Woodrat blog where there’s a real sense of depth and thoughtfulness and the words often take you outside the photograph). What I notice and admire about Dave’s work is that strong sense of connectedness with his subject matter. The photographs are always unusual, and then there’s that extra surprise that he manages to get in the haiku, which moves the whole thing up another level. I’d also add that Dave’s level of productivity is enviable – daily posts of such high quality. Inspirational!

twisted branches

twisted branches
the blackbird retreats
into his song

Having faffed around for the best part of an hour, trying fonts of various colours (including a stunning marigold to match the blackbird’s beak) I finally decided that the photo was good enough and should stand alone. After all, I’d already stalked this blackbird around the garden for quite a while in order to get as close as I could, and time never seems to be on my side!
The final version of the haiku came a few days after the photograph, and after an email conversation with poet Sue Riley, whose advice and support I value greatly. If there’s one thing I’ve missed during lockdown it’s those face-to-face conversations we have about poems that occur outside workshop situations, conversations that might not even be about poetry but that feed into it all the same.
So, thanks Sue, for helping me come to some sort of conclusion on the poem (Sue’s Ginko prize-winning poem is to be featured in an anthology about climate change published by Valley Press in May).

edge of day

Hard to believe that this photo was only taken last Friday- this afternoon it’s been about 15 degrees warmer. Interestingly, the word ‘edge’ seems to have been cropping up quite a bit in my haiku recently. On the surface, I think it’s to do with the walks I take, which often follow field boundaries marked by dry stone walls. Millstone grit is a feature of the landscape here, and the walls are a couple of hundred years old at least. The stone is mapped with lichen of various colours: yellow, green, white, and after hard weather the iron deposits oxidise and the stone becomes rust-coloured.
But, back to the word ‘edge’. Perhaps it’s signalling where my work is right now, sort of on the fringes, between making and doing. Somehow haiku demand more ‘doing’, more living. Nothing seems to surface unless I’ve been out walking, crossing the fields while it’s still quiet, listening, thinking. I walk everyday. The end of last week was hard because there was a bitter East wind. The start of that week was even harder because I was still self-isolating. But my period of self-confinement was short. Some people have been isolating for the best part of a year. I can’t imagine how that must feel, what it must do to a person. I found myself constantly going to the spare room window to look out over the fields, almost as if I needed to check they were still there. I didn’t write much either. Okay, I was working online, so I didn’t have a huge amount of spare time, but I usually manage to write and work, so I can only put it down to the restrictions of being locked in. I’m very grateful I wasn’t ill (despite the much-publicised inaccuracies of lateral flow tests, the two I did that week were negative). Still, self-isolation has made me more aware of the freedoms I have, and how lucky I am to live in a place where it’s easy to wander, and lose yourself in the landscape.
Now the days are lengthening and the birds are singing. The forecast is for mild weather all week. If it rains, I’ve promised myself I won’t complain. I’ll take it in my stride and be thankful just for the simple fact that I’m able to go out.


Taken from The Haiku Calendar 2021, available from Snapshot Press.

For the last six years I’ve worked as a teaching assistant in a primary school. Last week, one of the children in our class tested positive. So, suddenly we’re all at home, working online. It’s been a strange week, one where time has slowed right down, where I’ve felt a deep longing to be outside, cold as it is, with the wind scouring my cheeks and the dog at my side, uncertain about whether he really wants to be out in the harsh weather or inside, curled up in his bed by the radiator.
Today it’s my birthday and I still can’t go out. I’m watching the wind blow tiny flakes of snow across the garden, watching how it whips round on itself, changing direction. Earlier, I put extra food out for the garden birds and then watched as the jackdaws sailed in from nowhere, borne on this bitter East wind, hardly flapping their wings at all, just cruising in to take what they wanted. Not that I begrudge them. In fact, I quite like to see them: stooping, ponderous, unhurried.
My mother likes to remind me that when I was born the snowfall was heavy and treacherous. I was a home birth (who wasn’t in those days?) and the midwife was young, on one of her first jobs. Afterwards, my mother haemorrhaged. There was no phone. The doctor had to be called on in person. Dad set off through the snow to fetch him, while, as the story goes, I was wrapped in newspaper and placed at the bottom of the bed (all the towels had been used up trying to soak up blood). It was touch and go for my mother, although the bleeding did eventually stop. It’s hard to imagine how the poor midwife must have felt at the start of her career.
Later, when I was thirteen, I remember going to Barnsley with my Mum, and a woman came up to us in the street and introduced herself. It was the midwife. All those years had passed and yet she recognised my mother straight away, no doubt because of the trauma both women had endured.
The story of my birth has been told so many times in our family that it has gathered a lot of detail, such as the snow had drifted against the door so Dad has to dig his way out, that the doctor was in bed, that the doctor was drunk, that the doctor told Dad to get Mum in the car and take her to hospital (the car of course, was snowed in) that the towels were a wedding present, that the newspaper I was wrapped in was the Daily Express, or maybe the Barnsley Chronicle, that Dad was in his overalls because he’d just got in from his late shift drawing furnaces at the wire mill. I could go on.
It turned out my mother was anaemic. And there’s no doubt that it was a life and death situation. That’s why the midwife never forgot it (I can clearly recall the expression on her face when she spoke to my mother in the street thirteen years later). As for the details?
Well, it’s like making a snowman, you start with a small mound of snow and roll it over so it gathers more snow, and you keep rolling it until it’s so big you can’t push it any further. With a bit of luck, someone comes along to give it an extra roll and it gets even bigger. So it is with stories. Truth gathers fiction. That’s why I chose John Stevenson’s haiku for this post. It lends itself to many readings. I’ve told my own story here, because that’s how this haiku resonated with me, though it will be different for every reader. Some people will read it as a comment on the unpredictable nature of the weather at this time of year. Others will see it as an admission of the difficulty of pinning down the seasons, in this case spring, to a calendar date (when does a season really start or finish?). Others still will see it as a comment on writing itself, more specifically the writing of haiku and the need (perhaps) to be authentic to experience. And there’s that line break, ending on ‘not’, suggesting that the season’s story, or perhaps our own, does not exist, though we nevertheless try to construct a narrative that describes it. I keep returning to this poem and finding new ways to look at it, but I won’t say anymore – I’ll leave it for you to ponder. It’s only the start of February, not too late to treat yourself to The Haiku Calendar from the wonderful Snapshot Press.

holding my breath

holding my breath
the dragonfly’s
stilled wings

I’ve not been particularly poetic, or productive, this week. Tired from work, tired from the cold weather, maybe tired of the gloom that surrounds us mid-pandemic. But January’s like that sometimes. I keep telling myself spring is just around the corner. The days are lengthening a little, and I hear the birds singing when I go out with the dog. I’ve done the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend – 2 male blackbirds, a pair of collared doves and a scattering of house sparrows. I was hoping for more variety as we often have goldfinches and blue tits, and now and again the trauma of a sparrow hawk. Anyway, I had to be content with what I saw.
The colouring/ collage above is from a mindfulness colouring book someone bought me for Christmas. I had more time over the Christmas holiday, and rather than just colour, I also used collage techniques to fill some of the pages (see below). Anyway, the dragonfly page lent itself to a haiku. I’m going to qualify this by saying it’s not the way I think haiku should be written. They need to come from experience, rather from a given image, but as I said, I’ve not written much this week, so I’m going to allow myself this one!
By the way, the book is Animal Kingdom by Millie Marotta (Batsford 2014) if you fancy giving it a go.