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

rain-washed gritstone

rain-washed gritstone
early light
tipping the clouds

My blogging has become a bit sporadic over the last few weeks. Partly, I’ve not felt I’ve had much to say, but then I have to remind myself that by just sitting down to do the work, words flow.
So, it’s raining outside, heavy and persistent, though now and then the sun seems to be trying to come through. The small apple tree we planted a few years ago is full of rain-soaked blossom and the starlings are darting to and fro as if they’ve got plans. A pair of blackbirds keep tamping the grass and pulling up worms, no doubt taking it in turns to feed their young, although the nest of chicks I photographed for my last blog post succumbed to the attacks of a magpie.
I realise both haiku and lockdown have made me focus more on nature, and things close at hand. No bad thing really. There’s lots to see around here. Nature and the weather are constantly changing, so there’s always something new to discover. Lately, I’ve been trying to learn the names of wildflowers (I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never been able to identify more than a handful). What I’ve really enjoyed is finding out the variety of names for one single plant. Plant names can be quite local, and it’s fascinating to find alternative words for wild flowers you already know, almost like learning another language. One wild flower I’ve had fun with has been stitchwort (below).

Stitchwort, aka devil’s corn, bird’s tongue, lady’s lint, May grass, break-bones, addersmeat, moonflowers, poor man’s buttonhole … I could go on. I said above, it’s like another language; what I think I mean is, it’s another layer of language, one that can be placed over your existing knowledge – and new words yield new meanings, so needless to say, some of these names have found their way into the haiku I’ve been writing.
Alongside the writing, there’s been some reading too. I’ve been blown away by some of the haiku in paul m.’s ‘witness tree’, and reading Wally Swist’s ‘The Windbreak Pine’ has made me appreciate the longer line (many of his poems are 17 syllables, although not necessarily 5-7-5). Both books are from Snapshot Press. I’d like to say more about these collections, but work has been hectic (plugging gaps due to an outbreak of Covid that seems to be rumbling on despite many other areas having lowers cases). Time hasn’t been on my side – is it ever? What I would say though, is that I have never been disappointed by any books I’ve bought from Snapshot Press. and I have a few more still on my wish list!
This sort of brings me round to another thing that I’m starting to do, which is sell some of my poetry books. From time to time, I give books away, either to fellow writers, or to the local Oxfam bookshop in nearby Holmfirth. I don’t do this lightly, but space is always a premium and sometimes I realise I’m unlikely to keep returning to a particular book. Most of the books I own aren’t worth that much, but one or two might be considered collectible. So, I’m dipping my toe in the waters of e-bay, in the hope that some of these books will find the right home, so to speak. My mother has a saying that goes something along the lines of: ‘She knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. I’ve had a careful think about what I value, and currently, it’s haiku. Any money I raise will go towards the purchase of haiku books. And I’ve taken the plunge and joined The British Haiku Society too (not sure why it’s taken me so long, something about a formal organisation that I find slightly off-putting, but we’ll see). Anyway, that’s where I’m up to on this rather rain-soaked Saturday afternoon. I hope that wherever you are, you are reading, and writing, and loving what you do!





February

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.

Reflections …

Published by Snapshot Press 2014

In Matthew Paul’s post on the haiku of Thomas Powell last week, he made the point that ‘Haiku concerning reflections in water (especially ponds and puddles) were done to death in classical Japanese haiku let alone English-language haiku of the last half-century’. With this in mind, he says that’s it’s difficult to write a poem about reflections that is in any way original. As I’m very much feeling my way in this discipline, I appreciate Paul’s comments (click on the link above to read them in full). The poem he chose to illustrate the point that ‘reflection’ poems do sometimes still hit the mark, is the following:

peat-tinted river
the squirrel’s reflection
eating a mushroom

(taken from Clay Moon by Thomas Powel, Snapshot press). I think this is a beautiful example – that ‘peat-tinted river’ is such a strong opening, conjuring the setting and mirroring the rufous fur of the squirrel (yes, they’re rare, but in my mind’s eye I’m picturing a red squirrel).

To this, I’d like to add a haiku by another Snapshot Press author, Ron C. Moss. A poet friend of mine, Sue Riley (winner of the 2019 Ginko Prize) leant me The Bone Carver by Moss and I’ve loved it from start to finish. The ‘reflections’ poem I’m going to quote is this one:

highland lake
burnt button grass
on both sides of the moon

Firstly, I’m impressed that this ‘reflections’ poem doesn’t actually mention the word ‘reflection’. We see the image of the ‘highland lake’ as a mirror in which the moon appears without the writer having to hammer it home. The idea that we can see ‘both sides of the moon’ somehow suggests, to me at least, that not only can we imagine the reverse, the dark side if you like, but we also see a half moon rising above the water, with the other half reflected below. If so, this might also indicate the time of day – twilight.
The very specific type of grass, ‘button grass’ locates the poem in the southern hemisphere (Moss is a Tasmanian writer and artist, plus Wikipedia will tell you that button grass forms part of a unique habitat in Tasmania). The alliterative use of ‘burnt’ is precise in its evocation of place too (Wikipedia says ‘buttongrass is relatively flammable and the ecological community is adapted to regular burning’). So, within three lines the poet has managed to convey both the visual image of the moon on/ or reflected in, the lake, draw a comparison with the button grass’s spherical flowerer heads and the rising moon, and also imply a contrast between the heat of the bushfire with the quenching waters of the lake. In the author information, it says that Moss serves as a volunteer firefighter, but it’s not necessary to know this – the poem subtly conveys his knowledge and experience without needing to state it.
So, I want to say thank you to all those mentioned in this post. You created a web of connections that led to me focus on this poem and write down my thoughts on this chilly Sunday afternoon. Outside, the paths are slippery with wet ice and the dog is content to lie on his back near the radiator rather than go trekking across the fields. Nevertheless, I shall be going out shortly, well wrapped up, to experience the thaw, such as it is, and hopefully to take inspiration from it for a ‘reflections’ poem of my own.