One of my big poetry achievements this year has been to finally have a poem published in Mslexia – something I’ve been trying to do for around a decade. And, as it happened, I ended up with poems in two consecutive isues! Funny how these things work out.

Here’s my poem, ‘Feathers’, which was submitted for the open callout on the theme of ‘journeys’.

Feathers

I don’t know what I’m trying to say
exactly – only that today, commuting the hangdog
length of the river path, I spied
for the first time this season

a flight of silver breaking from the broad
shoulders of the water:

the metal undercarriage
of an office chair, unheeding
of predators, basking in the knowledge of itself,
its wheels uplifted to the weak sun,
a cursive uncurling towards the sky.

I swear I heard it calling reassurance to its young
on the brambled bank, a sudden circular song.
I swear I heard their ruffled hope reply.

*

‘Feathers’ was first published in Mslexia, Issue 83: Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

With all the novel-related talk, it’s been a while since I shared a poem. Not since Easter, in fact. So, with summer (finally) here, I thought I’d share a swimming poem.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time revisiting places I used to go as a child – including several local swimming pools. On this occasion, I decided to spend about an hour swimming, determined to take a break from the desk life and get some exercise. Instead, I got the idea for the poem about fifteen minutes in, then spent the rest of the time holed up in a changing room cubicle, scribbling away. Oh well. I tried.

The poem is from Assembly Instructions (Southword, 2019).

1999

In the communal changing rooms where old women’s bodies
flapped and scattered droplets like pieces of crystal,
we contorted ourselves behind the bright flags of towels, wished
together for the other pool – the one with lockers and locked doors,

where the air was jungle-thick and cubicles close with damp –
where once I saw your chest raised like a ripple of water.
You whispered look, showed me the first kindling of hair,
and I had to ask does it hurt? so you said feel it – see? soft – like a bird – 

Though you meant only one bird, the sparrow in the old byre,
battering itself bloody against the glass, till your dad
caught it, said girls, said don’t be afraid, and kept it
quaking between his hands for us to stroke.

In the pool, my stomach is too bare, and a man
with ribs like a shelf of dusty Reader’s Digests watches me swim.

 

 

I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past few weeks working on poetry as part of my MacDowell Fellowship in New Hampshire. I’ve also been spending a lot of time sitting in the beautiful James Baldwin Library at MacDowell, looking out at the gorgeous views of meadows and forest beyond.

With both of those things in mind, I thought I’d share a poem.

‘In the yellow library where in 2004 I had my first kiss’ is a poem in my second chapbook, Assembly Instructions (Southword Press, 2019). It was written following a workshop I ran a year or so ago, at my old school: QEGS in Penrith, Cumbria. I was working with the school’s creative writing club, exploring poetry and its relationship to place. The workshop took place in the school library…

*

In the yellow library where in 2004 I had my first kiss

the students are writing poems. I say,
write in an animal. Include an insect –
make the poem crawl. End
with something that opens, give it space.
What colour is your poem? Blue, they say, or Green.
One says his poem contains a bird and birds
always make a poem purple.

What colour was that Friday afternoon
before the buses came? Some now-or-never
shade – when never was Monday and weekends
were an ocean –
and I remember his mouth was the pink
cavity of a conch, and the books were grey with dust
and undisturbed, though I swear behind their spines
they whispered. I swear they’re whispering now.

The boy’s tongue tasted of pennies and rich tea biscuits
and there was too much of it. Our kiss
was the colour of water.

I say, put water into your poems.
Like the sea?

Yes, I say, or a vase or tap
or gob of spit.

                        But Miss, they say,
that could be anything.

And I say, Yes. Exactly.

 

Six weeks ago marked the centenary of Armistice Day: 100 years since the official end of the First World War. The atmosphere was a strange mix of learned horror and official pomp and circumstance, with a disturbingly celebratory and victorious tone to some of the remembrance events. Six weeks on, I want to share my own poem about the centenary, which was broadcast on Radio Cumbria on 11th November 2018.

‘When there was peace’ was commissioned by BBC Radio Cumbria’s Up For Arts project, supported by Heritage Lottery Funding. It was recorded at Carlisle Cathedral.

Earlier this year, I was given the opportunity to work with a group of former miners from Whitehaven on an oral history project. This was part of Tables Turned, a three year participation project run by the National Trust and partners, which is all about bringing together community groups, young people, historians, curators and artists in projects that deepen understanding, build new partnerships and inspire creativity.

After meeting the miners and listening to them recount their experiences of working in the mines on Cumbria’s West Coast, I was commissioned by the National Trust to write a poem in response. The result is ‘We’re still here, with luck’, whose title comes from something one of the miners said right at the end of the meeting, as we were packing away all the chairs and biscuits and recording equipment. Quotes from the miners are threaded throughout the poem, which was then filmed by John Hamlett.

*

‘We’re still here, with luck’

 

                                       You can tell a miner from the scars,
                                       blue with coal dust, like free tattoos.

A miner wears his memory in his skin –
the mines and all the men who mined them,
screen lasses who sorted the coal

                             with good shoulders, shotputters’ shoulders.

Sitting in a circle in the church hall
in the room with custard creams and a serving hatch,

                                                     we teeter above a shaft
                             of stories, hanging like the cage at pit top
                             over a 1200ft drop. Outside,

boarded shut at the backs of houses and the edges
of fields, are beginnings of tunnels
like the town’s capillaries.

We bring them in,
till the adits are the mouths of the men

and the conversation goes back generations.
There’s a seam we keep following,
because these men remember the town
before they were born, can mine
stories and places passed hand to hand –

                                       black dust on Golden Sands

                                        and watter runnin’ in like hell

Some say the pier at Parton
was blasted by a storm, others
how Lowther pulled it down –
their tales like passageways that intersect
then channel on.

                                       No seam lies in a perfect plane.

In the deep, their memories
grow big and spacious as a ballroom, a new face
waiting for the goaf to drop:

                                       rippled, like being on a beach,

the fat clams of ironstone nodules, marcasite
like fish scales
where the rock
dances to the muscled band of the seam,
where the girders bend and break
and we wait.

           That waiting was the most profound sound you ever heard

like the stillness after the last reverberation
of a cathedral bell.

From their mouths come the names
compressed and precious as a litany, as coal:

                             Haig, William, Wellington, Lowca, Kells.

Last night I went to see the fantastic Andrew McMillan perform at Poem & a Pint. He read from his multi-award-winning (make that multi-multi-award-winning) collection, Physical, and then tantalised us with material from his upcoming collection, Playtime.

Playtime doesn’t come out till next year, but in the meantime, here’s on of the poems I performed at one of the open mic slots last night. As you may have guessed, it’s titled after a Joni Mitchell song. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize and features in my pamphlet, Breaking the Surface (Flipped Eye, 2017):

You’re in My Blood like Holy Wine

The nights we came home drunk and every night,
we sat side by side, toes curled over the cliff
of the bed in your Oxford bedsit, and talked

about nothing. I know this, because it struck me
how precisely we controlled our breath,
how intricate each flex and shiver of skin

for words that no one cared about. We talked
about next door, the radio constant
through the brickwork, clutching at stations

before moving on. Sometimes, our arms
brushed and for a second, I spiralled
like smoke. There were always cigarettes

and the faint smell of apples, your burgundy
sweater, and the bristled curve of your throat.
There were dark thumbprints in the bowls

of old wine glasses, stacks of plates
like unopened letters, crumbs
sharp as insects littering the rug –

and all the words I didn’t know how to say
were crows, flapping their frantic wings
against the inside of my mouth.

I swallowed, and they clawed my stomach
raw and sick. I’ve tried to drown them
in spirits, thick and toxic as the dark,

drown them till they tasted of nothing
but iron and burnt toast, and my body
was a smudge of wings on a pebble beach.

I’ve tried to speak. Once, I twisted my fingers
in the duvet, as if there would be ripples
that could reach you: your solid, immovable legs.

You shut the blinds, switched on the desk lamp
and Joni Mitchell – how I could drink a case of you
and I would still be on my feet – but before the end

you cut the track to watch the trailer
for the new James Bond. You said, I know
how you feel about me, and I believed you.

*

Remember the Church of the Assumption
of Our Lady in Mosta? Where the bomb
that plummeted through the roof in 1942

into the middle of a morning mass
without exploding was still on display,
and the little card proclaimed this a miracle

in several languages. Remember
how we watched it for almost twenty minutes,
how its silence filled the room

till we imagined we could hear it ticking:
a gunmetal heart; the weight of a hammer
raised above a head or bell

about to be struck; the stretched skin
of a drum anticipating thunder.
Or maybe it was just our own blood

beating against our ears like fists
against a door. Remember how I said, I wish
it would do something drastic, I wish it would explode?

October is the month of Halloween, so for this month’s prompt I’m suggesting a little bit of necromancy.

One of the things that always fascinates me about poetry (and about writing in general) is the way it is always a balance between the known and unknown, the explained and the imagined, the writing and the reading. How much is the writer telling us, and how much do we have to work out for ourselves? How much is recognisable and familiar, and how much is completely new to us? A piece of writing where we recognise nothing may be a great feat of imagination, but it requires too big an ask of the reader. On the flip side, a piece of writing where everything is so familiar that there’s nothing to surprise us may be easy to understand, but it does little to retain our interest. Writing, like so many forms of creativity, is about balance.

One way to achieve this balance is to take something recognisable and give it a new angle. Set a familiar story in a new location. Pick up a person we all know and drop them in a completely alien environment. Put Cinderella on a Blackpool hen party. Sleeping Beauty in a coma in a hospital ward. Hansel & Gretel in a refugee camp.

This is something Carol Ann Duffy does in a number of poems in The World’s Wife, giving stories and myths and historical figures a contemporary setting. In his newest collection, The Unaccompanied, Simon Armitage sets an episode from The Odyssey in Poundland.

So that’s my challenge for this month:

Take a figure from history, or a story, or a myth, and put them somewhere in today’s world.

How do they react to what’s around them? You could write the poem with your character confused by modern technological developments, as they probably would be if they’d been time-travelled across the years. Or you could keep the character the same, but put them in the modern world as though it’s their natural habitat. What new light does this process shed on the character? What new light does it shed on the modern setting?

Good luck, and happy writing.