Thursday, 16 December 2010


... by the Paxmanesque Jenn Ashworth

Monday, 13 December 2010


I was drawn to Taropoetics by Anna McKerrow (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2010) because of the description of "an ongoing pschyopoetic landscape". For a lover of dreams (and occasional tarot card reader) this idea appealed enormously. It'd be like reading the cards, drawing narratives and dreaming all in one.

I had come across Knives, Forks and Spoons Press earlier this year through Adrian Slatcher's Extracts from Levona. A strange, oddly compelling book. It's a small press that specialises in 'linguistically innovative poetry'. You could argue that all poetry should be liguistically innovative, but let's not.

What you wouldn't argue is how gymnastically innovative Anna McKerrow's landscape is. The Tarot works to cycles and so it's apt her book works to the cycle of a year - weekly readings form the basis of the text. She spent another year collating the weekly pieces to produce the poems in the book.

Not that the pieces feel constricted by rewrites, deadened and deanimated by cutting and tinkering. They pulse on the page. Each respond to five randomly chosen tarot cards, and each create a bauble of shadowy images, filched from streets, the natural world, the body, art, religion and mythology in a bubbling chemistry. Together they make a crazy make-believe laboratory, full of vapours and coloured liquids I was a little wary of at first.

It took me a while to adjust to this world, to learn its language to get over the culture shock of unfamiliarity. I'm a lover of narratives. And this book, a cross between Jane Graverol and Carrie Ann Baade, requires a double take, a step back, a step forward.

Then a slow sinking under, a relaxation of comprehension and an open mind brings a different consciouness, a change of light:

"heart sink/barb cruel/soft eye risk/shadow sword stack cut/glass words/cut like a cat/thick pane/even the strongest men/soft spooled/fur will rip/dire musicality..."

Sensuous, edgy and funny. The path these poems take is narrow and foggy, in the sense that I didn't really know where I was going at any given point in them. This makes for a destablised read, but also a vital one, my senses fully alert as to what may rear up.

Because of the Tarot element, there is also a sense of the imperative:

"...buried skull/space waits to be filled/jewel cries victory/through rubble/ignore naysayers/their mouths are stopped up w/rocks/exploded/rare sunset..."

- a commanding overview, the seer remaining hidden behind the images. Again this distance is unnerving, but it somehow it feels safe enough (once I've accepted the jamming and spacing of punctation that inhabits this lawless landscape). Safe, if I am safe, that is. Reading and rereading the unpredictable scape made me feel exposed to suggestion, imagery and connections I don't normally make within my own life experiences. Stumbling between play and dance, I get the feeling Anna wants us to open new pathways. It is one of the roles of the Tarot.

Anna has managed to balance between the spiritual and domestic, the unsettling and safe, so keeping me reading through her year. As a lover of narrative I did feel the absence of shape to the book, but this is not a collection interested in creating form, this is an expansive book, its form is bound by our Gregorian calendar, but even that isn't evident, there is no neat seasonal references as we pass through the year. The expansiveness is generous in its welcoming spirit, calling you to enter.

Go on ....

Tailormade Poems

A week ago myself and three poet friends sat behind a paper-decked table at Storey Gallery's Vintage Winter Fair and gave rise to Tailor-Made Poems: Whatever the occasion; whoever the recipient; we can write the poem...

We had a steady stream of customers throughout the day, wanting poems for their daughters, sisters-in-law, partners and wedding anniversaries. The deal? We asked them a ton of questions, elicited a bunch of information, went off to write it up into a poem, they got the chance to change a line or up to five words if they wanted before the poem was printed off onto a card with matching envelope ready for them to give to whoever. All for the bargain price of a pound a line. That day all our profits when to Amnesty - over fifty squid, so that was good feeling enough.

But I discovered two other great spin-offs from the experience:

1. The joy in 'letting go' a poem. We gave ourselves two hours to write the poem, so we couldn't get overly complicated, we had to keep to the brief, keep it tight and hold the essence of the giver's emotion in our care. All the poems we wrote we shared with another one of us for that objective overview before giving it back to the giver. All the poems did their jobs admirably.

2. The joy in giving poetry. When people returned for the poem, they were visibly moved and delighted by what they read - their words spun into a form; their emotion made manifest. It felt all the positive atributes of poetry were tangible in those few minutes. The weight of its value and power to connect.

We're planning more in the new year...

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Anna McKerrow on Host

Host has been treated a very contemplative review by the poet Anna McKerrow.

This is how she ends, but (and I guess I would say this) the rest of it is just as considered.

" ... These poems do not just host or reside; they make a connection, a highway of energy between the physical, the limits of the body and the indefinable other. The thing I like most about this collection is the so-much-more-than landscape they offer: more, they are a being-in-ness, being-of-ness, that I very much enjoy."

Thanks Anna

Thursday, 25 November 2010


Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the diversity of poets participating in the Watershed Crossing Borders project last Saturday, we produced some wildly different collaborative pieces concerning the landscape we were in, and the borders we had crossed to get there.

Mike Barlow and Helen Mort were explicit in their meeting, walking from east and west to climb a fell, enveloping weather and sea, snatches of people and voice as they approached. Their images and voices overlapping eerily. Their piece rolled forward and then unwound as they described the descent, reading backwards through their work.

Clare Shaw was paired with Ben Wilkinson. Strikingly different perspectives. They had written in response to each other and bounced between political and lyrical, from humour to philosophy. It was a spiky piece that grew in energy as the contrasts built.

Steve Waling and Sally Baker were another bonkers pairing (well done to Andrew McMillan for thinking so tangentially on this!) - of the surreal and the linear narrative encounters of inhabitant and visitor to a small town. Steve Waling particularly feels like an inspired discovery for me.

And then me and Joe Hakim, from Hull. I immediately liked the idea of the coast to coast meeting we made, like the folding of the country so its edges meet. We walked for a couple of hours (Joe bravely in his city shoes) up the fell behind Mytholmroyd, then along the most muddy of muddy bridleways and down across fields to the canal, talking about what nature means to us, what made it natural (not a lot was the conclusion), the language of an area, and the fleetingness of it all - how nothing is constant. Great stuff.

We wrote separately but all the shared thinking and exchanged ideas came out in the subsequent pieces, which slotted together beautifully - a clash of concrete argument and metaphoric philosophy. We played a bit further about how we could develop that riffing of thought in the delivery. So there was a prologue of s/wordplay before the main event. I was pleased anyway.

Although once the heady excitement of fresh creation died down (ie, the morning after) I'm not so convinced by what I wrote, but in a way that doesn't matter - they were fresh, living things that we all created that day and then gave to the audience in the evening. Like the natural world, isn't it inevitable they withered a little after picking?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Watershed Landscape and other writings to order

This Saturday I'm one of a team of Lancashire and Yorkshire writers (oddly it feels, I've been placed on the Lancs side; Dad will be turning in his grave) who are spending the day in Ted Hughes' boyhood home in cross-border collaborations to reflect, write and finally perform our responses to the very particular landscape of the Calder valley.

Naturally I'm nervous - improvising is never a piece of cake at the best of times and then to be riffing with a stranger - well, who knows what'll come up? But I'm also excited. For the same reasons.

Plus, the area is a second poetic home. It's where I first cut my teeth on the title of 'poet' - as Poet in Residence for Calderdale Libraries back in 2004. Part of which was to write a commission on reading. I spent a lot of time stomping about the hills and along the canal thinking about reading and books and looking at the steep slope sides there (upon which I still see claw marks).

I'm also interested in where I fit in the Lancs/Yorks geography. Born and living in Yorkshire until I was 18, but now living in Lancashire, and firmly attached to the NW ... Andrew McMillan (the lead poet on the project) has cast me Lancastrian. This doesn't sit so comfortably. In an odd way I feel more Yorkshire than I do English. And yet can't imagine moving back East.

And then there's that whole political sheenanigans with the upper reaches of Calderdale now technically Yorkshire but once Lancashire. How must they feel?

So I'm imaging some of the above and hopefully a lot more will shake out on Saturday. If you're interested in coming along to hear how, contact the Hebden Bridge Tourist Office.

This, in some respects, feels a breeze in comparison to what I'm up to on Saturday 4th December: being one of the Bespoke Poets in Residence at Storey Gallery's Christmas Market. Gulp. It was the Gallery's idea - sell poems as presents for people who have everything - poems about them.

The idea being we have a chat/consultation with the purchaser about the person in question and over the course of the day write a poem about them which we present later as a card. I have no idea how this will work out - if it'll be a string of arguments about what a poem is (rhyming and comic), if people refuse to pay for something they don't like, if I'll find inside me an endless source of responsive creativity, if people give us a wide berth ... But it'll be a new experience. And of course you're welcome. If only to buy a nice pair of earrings from another stall.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Quiet Houses

Some time ago I wrote about making a poetry film with poet/artist Maya Chowdhry. Which so entertained me it sent me on a small film-making road movie of my own, celebrating and visualising certain poems from Host.

The film, Nothing as Quiet as a House, is now available. Yours for the snip of £2 (&p+p). Just email me with your postal details.

As is the synchronicity of the world, the week the copies of the dvd arrived I was given a poem by Wallace Stevens. (I am still reeling from the shock of not being that familiar with his work) 'The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm' is a repetitive yet developing meditation. Its beauty lies in its linguistical simplicity and conceptual illumination - for me at least. It is nothing like my poem.

But it has stirred an interest in me to find more poems about quiet houses - to think about all the different resonances of quiet contained in walls. Any pointers welcome.

Friday, 5 November 2010

An Elastic Sky

An Elastic Sky Flax022

Flax022 has launched!

As usual, the process was a twisty turny one: a worried sense of not getting a clear picture of the overall theme, but working on instinct; followed by close editorial work with the writers that sent me cross-referencing each poem to another one in the anthology; running parallel to that was hearing how the commissioned films were panning out; and then the launch. Which was a wonderful combination of live readings, film, scones and a capacity audience.

So, the end result: An Elastic Sky is an expansive anthology. Its poems orbit moon, kitchen tables, oceans, attics and football pitches. Throughout they show a tenderness and quiet ruthlessness for honesty in our disquieting world. It showcases new work from Rebecca Irvine Bilkau, David Tait, Michael Crowley, Ron Scowcroft and Jim Turner

You can read An Elastic Sky, Flax022 from the Litfest website.

As I mentioned we commissioned films to accompany the digital anthology. For me one of the main benefit of digital publishing is the ability to make multimedia work from the text. So, once again Morph Films were asked to translate a poem from each author into a film. These are the results:

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Mark Strand on a Poem

"A poem is a place where the conditions of beyondness and withinness are made palpable, where to imagine is to feel what it is like to be. It allows us to have the life we are denied because we are too busy living. Even more paradoxically, a poem permits us to live in ourselves as if we were just out of reach of ourselves."

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Wasted on the Young?

I've finished Wolf Hall. Yey! Whoop! Relief.

It was a far longer investment than I expected at the outset. Back in June. And while I am now free to tuck into the pile of novels on the bedside table I have already broken off to read Stig of the Dump, Treasure Island and Wallace Stevens' Harmonium - all these with only 100 pages of Cromwell's activities to go, because I just needed some fresh air.

Not that I didn't enjoy Wolf Hall. It was an intense experience, a delight to hang out with Thomas Cromwell's intelligence, and the scheming of Henry's court. But it was a little like eating a very thick, ery long piece of flapjack, made with molasses. I could only very small chunks at a time, which made the flapjack stickier over time.

So in the past fornight I've gobbled one of the latest Nightjar Press pamphlets and three novels: A Cure for Solitude, Now in November and Whisper my Name. Giddy. All these came to me from various sources and high recommendations. And all so different from each other: an intense eco-gothic thriller (a new genre, I wonder?); a drug smuggling thriller set in Prague, that despite some clunky writing was unputdownable; a Pulitzer Prize winner set on a farm in the American Depression of the 30s - drought drought drought, with equally pared language: "the heat was like a hand in my face, day and night"; a Victorian drama/mystery marketed for young readers that had me eating out of the palm of its hand.

So on reflection of all these it would seem I've rediscovered my love of books for 'younger readers'. Their appeal, I think, lies in the basic skill of telling a fabulous story, straightforwardly. No tricks or narrative gimmicks that jump out at me and get me involved in the function of devices. I also think all these books have clear, strong characters, that stand above the plot, that I empathise with: either their youthful confident derring-do (of Jim Hawkins), their confusion at the world (the grubby Stig), or their rather innocent selfishness (of the Victorian Meriel). All of these traits I can relate to, grimly accept and smile about as an adult that I probably didn't even recognise I had as a teenager.

I'm hungry for more. Any suggestions?

Thursday, 21 October 2010

We buried the whale at night

That, believe it or not, is the prize-winning short story of the Arvon Foundation's six-word story competition.

"The winning story was simple, yet memorable and enigmatic in its detail. It immediately conjured up a strong and unusual picture and by implication a setting.” Karen McCarthy Woolf

Monday, 18 October 2010

Random Acts of Literature: Flax Day

It was always going to be a risky affair - although I don't think I fully appreciated the depth of uncertainty until the day itself.

Having asked all the Flax writers way back in January, or sometime last millennia, what they fancied doing for the annual Flax picnic I sifted through the various replies and came up with what I thought responded to virtually everything people said (even the translation suggestion if you consider a response to Storey Gallery's current exhibition as 'translation' - I know I know, Ian, that wasn't exactly what you meant...)

And then I went back to the writers and asked who would like to take part in scattered readings around The Storey, followed by lunch, followed by a collaborative writing hour, followed by a performance of whatever they'd just written. To my surprise 13 out of the 60 odd writers said they'd love to. The 2010 Flax Day was born.

Random Acts of Literature was advertised and we had a 'greeter' at the main entrance to The Storey to let visitors know what was happening in the building for the hour the (now eleven) writers were doing their stuff:

There were not so many visitors between noon and 1pm, but those that were innocently eating lunch or visiting the gallery seemed to enjoy what they heard. Bursts of appaluse bounced up the satirwell and down corridors.

And the writers did a brilliant job of supporting each other in what was a daunting prospect of guerilla readings, and a real sense of solidarity grew throughout the hour - or at least from where I was standing (or scuttling, organising lunch). Which I hadn't bargained for, but was a great foundation for the next stage of the day - writing something to read together at 3pm.

Another big deal. But again. They rose to it. And some told me afterwards - somewhat surprised - that they even enjoyed it. They'd selected words to all work from, including, moths (continuing the theme of pets, pests and prey of the exhibition), shabby and errr errr... well, I wasn't there.

So at 3pm I collected them from the writing and we trooped up to Storey gallery, where the artists of the exhibition, Uncertainty in the City (apt title for the day) were holding a symposium. We were due to slot into their afternoon teabreak, but had a few minutes to wait for this, so some took advantage to listen to more of the exhibition.

They slotted like moths slotted. Frittered and flickered between the eleven voices that read their pieces overlapping, then individually, and finally flutteringly, overlapping again. Tremendously moving, strangely. Or perhaps I was knackered. But the audience clearly enjoyed the performance (which unbeknownst to us was webbed worldwide live so lordy only knows who else heard it and what they thought).

For me, while this final performance was the natural culmination of three hours hard work, what was the real joy of those three hours was seeing writers who have all been published by Flax (and therefore very very diverse writers) come together, enjoy each other's company and collaborate on a small improvised project that was particular to that day, that place and those people.

Thank you, Elizabeth Burns, Mark Carson, Annie Clarkson, Kate Davis, Brindley Hallam Dennis (sorry you managed to completely avoid the camera), Rosie Garland, Cath Nichols, Gill Nicholson, Claire Massey, Carla Scarano and Ian Seed for being so game and positive and up for it.

And thank you, Simon Baker, for taking all these great pics of the day. And Sandie and Jan for being such superstar help to ensure everything ran smoothly.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Lancs v Yorks

This is my second 'vrs' entitled post. Suggesting what about my current state of mind?

But let's look outwards:

The boundary between Yorkshire and Lancashire was the most apparent it has ever appeared to me on the M62 last Friday as I trundled over to Brighouse Library. I left Lancaster in bright sunshine, the radio talking of the 9000 pink-foot geese at Pilling (amongst which were 2 barancle geese apparently - some sure and steady observation on that), the Trough of Bowland sharp and green. M6, M61 blue blue skies making the motorway almost seem a pleasant place to be.

As the M62 rolled out before me, the Pennines proud either side,
the horizon changed.

In my rear mirror I could see the sun, the blue. Through my windscreen the green hills had been swallowed. Oncoming traffic glared full headlights. The white rose at the road side a little bleary in the muted landscape.

I entered a new land. Debatable as to whether it was God's own - depending which god ruled it, and your perspective on that god. But it, inevitably, had its effect on me. Athough not in diminishing my wonder at what I was driving through: glints of reservoirs were still visible through the low cloud, dim outlines of cars wheeled over the blurry horizon to my left. Everything seemed slower because of the rubbing of edges. Perhaps there was more caution around.

On reflection this change in mood - which remained as the mist for the two days I was in Calderdale (while Lancashire held on to the sun) suited my approach to the job in hand: a reading, a couple of critiquing feedback sessions/a writing workshop for the Calderdale Readers and Writers Festival.

Poetry, in all these manifestations, is a slow, often intangible process for me. I can't know the effect or impact of it either on me or others immediately. I can't entirely understand all of it (even what I've written) in any one moment. It does glint through blurriness at times. It's the glinting that mkakes me want to unpack it, reread, or rewrite it. But my thinking is so often muffled. It is a sense of something that requires development; perhaps I operate more in sensations rather than intellect, and poetry offers the chance to wed the two. For me, talking is the bright sure sunshine in a blue sky; where definite lines of shadows fall. Silence, the shrouded misty world of my interior, is far less certain.

Good to have the two. I think the three engagements in Brighouse and Halifax enabled me to share (although not so consciously) this with the people I met and worked with. Writing, like the driving over the Pennines, entering a new world of a new lumination, that cannot be shaped to any expectation, is best left to each individual to explore.

Good, too, to arrive home at 6pm on the Saturday to a fabulous sunset over the Bay where a low tide silked turquoise in the strangely sharp light.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

On the Eve of My Mini Tour ...

My mini library tour begins tomorrow and takes me through Brighouse, Accrington, Preston and Ansdell over the next few weeks - as part of Calderdale Festival and Lancashire's Family Festival. I'm looking forward to it. Although have what seem to be common reservations ...

Thanks for Jane for directing me to this.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Stop Press: John Denver is Alive!

Well, in that I went to a read-through of the script on Wednesday night. It's been months since I've looked at the script - having presented it to Suzy (the director) back in March, so I couldn't really remember details of it. Although once they started asking me questions about them, the characters' motivations and quirks started to flood back.

So I settled in to listening. And how surprised was I? I hadn't remembered the humour in it. Not a poking fun kind of humour but the comedy that arises from two strangers meeting, coming from very different backgrounds, living with a very different set of codes, not entirely 'getting' each other, but connecting through one person (yep, Mr Denver).

It was a great experience to feel so removed from my work, yet recognising my intent in there as I listened, feeling these characters are very much separate from me, that the actors brought their own backstories and foibles to their speech and mannerisms.

And the cherry was hearing Chris Bannister sing the songs. I, as regular readers may remember, am not over-enamoured with JD's music, but Chris brings a stronger, perhaps rougher voice to the songs that moves me and - to coin a phrase Mr D might well use in a song - sends shivers down my spine. Which all serves to remind me that some of them are absolute classics. (And believe me, I can't quite comes to terms with having said that)

We're having an open session in December, playing more with the script and more actors so see what else can be drawn from it. The age of the characters are currently under scrutiny - one's in her fifties, the other in her sixties. One of theread-through actor's on Wednesday (24 years old) questioned how much she could bring to the role. She said she was fearful without having any experience to draw upon, she could provide only a stereotype. How is the company going to deal with this? When most of the actors in it are in their twqenties. Use them or invite older women to audition?

Personally, as I guess the audience will predominantly be older (a younger work-colleague, when I mentioned the read through, said to me, "he's a singer, isn't he?"), I'd encourage the use of older actors. Since we're looking at empathy between strangers. And one of the themes is death, dying and grief. Why shirk from that with younger faces? We get enough of them on the telly, in mags, ads for plastic surgery blah blah blah. It's the one inevitability and we're surrounded by images that hide it. I don't relish the prospect of being part of that. But (perhaps for the best) the choice is not down to me.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Audience v Sales

October is full of library readings for me - it actually started in Bury a few weeks ago, and picks up again proper in Brighouse next week and then three more as part of Lancashire's Family Festival. The 'Bedrock' sequence in the book goes down every well with Library groups - playing on a huge interest in family research, life writing and social history.

And of course I love the interest in the poems and their speakers, wrapping them in a larger narrative that turns the sequence into a more tangible saga that always provokes questions about loyalty, existing family members, family politics and myths; the line between imagination and truth. A conversation most people are ready to join in with.

The other thing that characterises these readings is the low book sales. Some of the readings are attached to workshops on family research and people are coming for that primarily, others are attended by people who clearly aren't in a rush to buy a poetry book.

I've been interested in the shift in my perspective about this. Pre-book I loved meeting people and hearing their stories. I spent many years working with people on their life stories and memoirs and earnt a deep pleasure in being that resource and encouragement. Post-book I'm lugging a bag of them with me to these readings hoping that I might shift a few. And so am disappointed when I don't. And yet nothing's changed, not really. People still engage with my work. They're still provoked to talk about their own stories. They still listen to each other's memories.

So my disappointment is turning on my own attitude: while book sales are important, of course; surely the most important thing is the audience - and the privilege of hearing how my work spins off into people's imaginations and thoughts is huge - the candid talk I become part of is humbling. This might not be something my publisher can insert into a column, but surely it is my main reason for writing?

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The above is the cracking end line to 'The Snow Man' by Wallace Stevens, which I read for the first time last week. It jumped off the page of the book and punched me between the eyes, or perhaps not punched so much as boinged in a tantalisingly obtuse but deliciously lyrical fashion between my eyes, ears and brain.

And I thought the final line rather apt in regard to yesterday's reading in Saltaire. So in an attempt to behold the nothing that wasn't there and the nothing that was, I'll recapture the afternoon:

Beginning with a reduced duo - from trio - of poets. The absence of the third reader, amounting to approximately twenty minutes less, would, we decided hang in the air, giving more breath to what was read.
And so drove for two hours through siling rain and wind across the Dales to Shipley from Lancaster.
There are two Saltaire Bookshops: one a big bright shiny space in the Salts Mill that appears as much bookshop as parquet skate rink. (A new Olympic sport?); the other a smaller carpeted affair, in the mould of traditional second hand bookshop, on a major roundabout. Guess which one we were due to read in.
Not easy, since neither had posters or leaflets declaring the 2 o'clock reading.
One also had no customers.
Aha! Yes. Absence. Nothing.
The (embarassed) bookseller bought a book off each of us so covering petrol costs: a nil nil balance sheet.

A friend suggested it would have been worse if we'd read to a huge audience who hated us. But that would have resulted in a negative rather than nothing so not relevant to this story.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

A Curious Shipwreck

Steve Spence's first collection, A Curious Shipwreck, came to my attention for two reasons: it's shortlisted for the Forward First Collection award (what's it got?) and its title (oh no has he preempted my next idea?).

So I read it.

What's it got? Mayhem. A rolling stream of pirate activity, punk memorabilia, funny remarks on economics, playful references to Alice in Wonderland, great language, a strange coherence, huge references, and brilliant titles.

"When pirates can be recognised
by their beards alone, it's a sure
sign that they've reached cult

Yet for all this there is also a flatness to the book. I couldn't find a shape to the sequence, or a distinction between poems. There is, by the end of the book, an overwhelming world I'd been drawn into but one with no holes or mountains. I guess this is part of the intention: the overall shape mirrors the individual poems - an intense layering of ideas that asks the reader to draw in their own connections, and for this I loved reading it but for this I also was left adrift. I do like the peaks and troughs of emotional variation, or right angles of perception, and was left without.

So has he preempted my next idea? No, thankfully. Although there is a part of me that would love to have written in this style. I love the drawing together of disparate texts, the gaps that made me stop up short and recircuit my brain. But while I love reading that, it is not how my brain works as a writer. I need some narrative, a story or connections of some kind. This style of disorder is tantalisingly difficult. For my brain at least. And as for subject matter, again no. His range is far wider than I could manage or am aiming for. Wider in that it brings economic theory, music, fantasty and myth together. The wideness I want to achieve in my next project is historical breadth, in the first instance, geographical in the second. Which isn't exactly true for the poem I'm currently working on.

Because of this meshing of history/geography I'm working on different forms I've not yet mastered: first off The Sestina: which involves the repetition of six words (as end words in a particular order) throughout the poem. Coo blimey. My first attempt was to go for chaos, for disorder and juxtaposition of elements (less historical and more domestic with a spread of geography). Which didn't work at all, as I found myself slipping towards cohesion and sense halfway through. Maybe the end words were wrong. Maybe I have to reconcile myself to narrative sense from the outset.

I've changed one of the repeating words. I've sat back and asked
Mr Puppet what he'd do in the situation (it may be for him after all). I've turned back to Treasure Island and remembered what it was I loved about the book (the voices/language in particular: "lively men, but careful" was one phrase I've repeating to anyone who has the misfortune to be in conversation with me for the past fortnight). I've put away the first appalling draft and gone back to large sheets of blank paper to rediscover what it was that brought me to the idea in the first place (oh the joy of random scribblings). I've promised myself not to tinker with small changes but view it as a whole. And now it needs to cook.

It will never be a pirate punk treatise, but I'm hoping it still has the potential to be endearing, askew and a tight contained world.

Friday, 10 September 2010


As part of An Elastic Sky Flax022 we're working with Morph Films to make some poetry films to stand alongside the anthology. Partly to build on the films we've made previously - Finding a Language, Vanishing Act - and partly to encourage the poets to consider their poems from a different perspective.

All the poets have talked with the director James Harvey in the preproduction of their film to discuss images and where the emphasis lay in the selected poem, to hear James's take on the poem and throw their half-penny's worth into the mix.

One of the elements I love about film, is how its visual build offers a reinforcement or breaking of the established rhythm, which can create a wonderful tension that might have only been slightly evident in the original poem. Or, in the case of 'Cuckoo', a poem by Jim Turner, they're going for the fleshing out of the subtext of the poem. So, I'm imagining an odd juxtaposition of voice and visual in the final film.
morph films
So this picture should give you no clue whatsoever on the complete poem ...

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Flipping Knickers!

Ta Dah!

The next Flax anthology is shaping up very nicely - so much so that with the stunning cover image (thanks once again to Jonathan Bean) we've nailed that elusive title. Always one of the trickest elements of the production process once we have the writers and work in place. And invariably we go through some really bad ones - the penultimate suggestion for this anthology could have been a Bond film title I was told ... not entirely the tone we were looking for.

And so chocka with some familair names and less so - all providing strong and expansive work - we're delighted to be working with Rebecca Irvine Bilkau, David Tait, Michael Crowley, Ron Scowcroft and Jim Turner.

They'll be be launching the anthology, ahem - I mean, An Elastic Sky, Flax022 on Saturday 16th October, 5pm in the Storey Auditorium, complete with some films inspired by some of the poems.

It's going to be a goodie

On Brennan and Kinsey

Guest reviewing elsewhere on a blog about books (try saying that after a chilled Rioja)

Friday, 20 August 2010


I'm absorbed in my favourite period at Litfest over the next few weeks: anthologising and editing. We have finally made the choice of who will be in the anthology but not quite which of their poems.

My chief approach as editor is of cutting: both of the poems we select from original submissions, and of lines in those poems. I have a story about this, that when I heard made me feel quite benign in the scheme of things. Robert Crawford's latest book is called Full Volume. Because he had intended it to be a big fat volume of poems. His editor saw it differently. And now the volume comes from the potency of the poems' voice left in the book rather than their weight. Back to that old adage: less is more.

It is a tricky balance to strike - the poems are not mine, and nor do I want them to be. My intent as editor is to set a varied selection of work to rub up against each other, so illuminating the different voices that carry the reader through idiosyncratic landscapes and experiences. But I'd say a good editor enables the work to become more individual, more true to the writer's voice. Letting their light shine. And this means going back again and again to the poems themselves, and keeping myself out of them - asking how they stand alone, in sequence with each other and within the anthology as a whole. So it's a case of wood trees wood trees perspective. A merry dance in and out of the light.

And while I'm dancing (hopefully with the writers as fine partners) I'm also storing up images and ideas for the title and overall design of the piece. So far all our anthologies are pdfs and so allowed a lovely scape of images through the text, hopefully enhancing the onscreen reading experience, as well as exploring the underlying themes that hold the anthology together. The hardest decision is the title of the anthology and we normally have to go through a whole bunch of really bad ones before landing on the one that fits perfectly: in tone, image and poetry. Right now we have a sheaf of paper with a host of scribbled ideas - the bad ones that miraculously should transform into the all singing all dancing ONE in the next few days.

Wish them luck!

Monday, 16 August 2010

Brou Ha Ha

Sunday I was in Crosby for its annual Brou Ha Ha, organised by Southport Arts. A summertime park arts in the afternoon type event.

I only found out earlier in the week that the audience was expected to be 'milling'. I should have checked that one out sooner. A milling audience is not necessarily going to be drawn to a bunch of poems. Especially when that audience is predominantly children.

See how much they're enjoying Mr Clown and his balloon act. My anxiety increases. I remind myself that in the booking I'd said my work is suitable for 14+, and try to ignore the average age of the current audience as 6+. All the same scan the contents list at the front of my book in case I'd forgotten I'd written some Roald Dahlesque funnies. Nope. Just a lot of religious stuff from lay preachers. I scan my set list instead. There are some funny ones, some peculiarities and some more straight forward narratives. Have faith, have faith, I mantra.

I'm aided by the MC who, when introduced to me says (in comforting Australian accent), "You mean the Sarah Hymas?" I am startled and probably look it. He goes on - "I Wish You Love is incredible, and I've seen your book. Oh wow... Oh great. I'm so looking forward to this."

But he is way way above the average age. The sock puppets are a resounding success. As is the drumming workshop and then I'm introduced. The MC resumes his enthusiasm and gives me probably the best and most sincere intro I've ever had.

And the audience applauds. So I do my stuff: funnies, fantasies, stories, weird ones, rolling along, focusing on those people (mainly adults) who are listening - or at least looking - and there are a few. Someone's even videoing me. Or maybe they're just watching the recording they made of the sock puppets. A few more kids come forward to sit at the front of the grassy auditorium just as I launch into Cold-Molded Wood, probably my favourite poem for performance. Which I love to end on - a sprawling ocean-going narrative that stops short of Coleridge but epic in its own way.

And the audience applauds. Again. And I sell a book (to an adult) and am asked for my leaflets (by children). So am heartened. Perhaps my poems can transcend, perhaps the movement, and rising and falling of voice can pull all ages in. But on the way home can't help thinking it would have been just the occasion for Mr Puppet and his unwritten show. Next year ...

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Dog Days

I don't know when the dustpan and brush were invented (answers below, please), but definitely before hoovers there were dogs.
Before hot water bottles.

For those two reasons alone, disregarding their ability to keep watch, be trained, their conversational habits, smiley mouths and loyalty, dogs would make fantastic crew.

Given my preference of sailing as one of three I'd pick Snoopy and Mutley as skipper and first mate.

I'd navigate.

There'd be a fair bit of derring-do, but we'd ride it and survive, maybe even get a few laughs, and not be particularly preoccupied by bravery or risk-taking.

I don't consider myself particularly brave. If a risk seems too great, I won't take it. Bravery requires a swallowing of fear.

And this is what I was faced with on the Isle of Man: no Snoopy, no Mutley, no crew whatsoever. I wasn't about to solo sail up and around Scotland. Considering the other option: stay at Peel on the west coast for the two weeks -

There were still risks to weigh up:
Aggressive gulls on deserted beaches
Excessive fish and chip shops
Preponderance of folk music
Marina chat
Turning into a disused railway spotting anorak

Offset by the comforts:
No tides
Reliance on a good knot

Friday, 13 August 2010

Trevor Matthews

Sad news. Trevor Matthews, who Flax published in West Coast, North Hill, died last week.

His work was recommended to me by Mike Barlow and I immediately wanted to read more. As I did I decided he'd be a great contributor to the three poet book we were planning at the time.

As fellow poet Jane Routh says:

"As a writer he was gifted with something to say and the musical and linguistically ability to get it just right. He was overly modest about his own poetry, and I think you can hear this its quiet, poised and considered tone.

Thank goodness for the selection of his poems Flax published. Here is my warm-hearted and tender friend in 'My Empty Valentine'; here is his quiet wit and wry humour (‘September Harvest’); his careful observation, penetrating intelligence and sense of beauty. And here too, I see now, is a sense of premonition in poems about ageing and death.

'Lovely' is the title of a poem Trevor wrote recently (about meeting an aphasic); and that word becomes the implied answer to its last stanza:

And that is how it ends,
him gone, the river still speaking,
light leaving the fells,
the drift and shuffle of shadows,
and me wondering
if my language were taken
which one word might I hope to keep?

Trevor’s been a lovely friend with whom to share the pleasures of poetry. He read widely, delighting in language: we had many good talks about books. He recommendations were always apt."

Working with Trevor, as his editor, was a pleasure I won't forget. He was generous in his knowledge, open to debate about his writing and eager to support all we did to promote his work: recording Handing Down for Youtube and reading at the many events I arranged around the county. He was patient in the midst of my often over-enthusiasm and quietly adamant in the face of disagreement. Perhaps this was down to his long experience as a paediatrician. His passion for poetry, his and others, illuminated his work and I think his life.

If you would like to make a donation in memory of Trevor to his favourite charities: Water Aid and Smile Train.


The shelf held so many files, some of them labelled
Finance, or Gardening, or Income Tax
but the one that made me smile
was just called ‘Interesting Things’.

Afterwards I opened it, and there were
cuttings from newspapers, pictures,
little objects, stones, dried seed cases,
pages from guide books and obituaries,

things he would have looked into,
examined again, given the time;
at the end I found one, the black ink fresh
the last and lightest box of all

that read, ‘Still More Interesting Things’.

Trevor Matthews. 8 April 1934 - 3 August 2010

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Breaking News: Mr Puppet has Hair Transplant!

Yes, it's true.

Mr Puppet has ventured into the world of Robert Plant/Miss Haversham/Cher with his new hair-do.

When asked what the inspiration was, he said, "I was looking for an updated Stig of the Dump feel, a Robinson Crusoe with some glamour."

So, what's next for our unpredictable hero?

"Plastic shorts. Not Bruno-style, although I liked his braces ..."

We're on the edge of our seats ...

Friday, 2 July 2010

This Road We're On

Another launch!

This time, the latest Flax anthology - number twenty one, key to the door, and all that ... This Road We're On is our first anthology that has a connecting theme - relationships, specifically the pot-holed journey that is our search for companionship, love and acceptance.

It wasn't intentional, just the best stories that rose to the surface of submissions all happened to be concerned with them, so we organised them into an arc and hey presto! The supremely talented Carys Davies wrote the introduction, raising the point that we're continually interested in how relationships work, or don't work and the communications that occur within them.

These stories offer a spectrum of interpretations, although, sadly, none are particularly positive. Is this tragedy/conflit an essential element of fiction? Do we, as some of discussed on Wednesday night, not want to read about people happily living together? Is it true that "all happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion"?

Read the anthology and let me know ...

Annie Clarkson, one of the contributors had this to say about the launch itself

The cover photo is by Jonathan Bean and is of the old lancaster Regal cinema wall - the poster and the wall no longer there - to make way for a new Travelodge - make of that what you will. I absolutely love it. As ever, coming up with titles for the anthology was hard work, but once we'd landed on the notion of journey and then roads and then the slow rolling rhythm of This Road We're On, the designer, Anat Kaivanto, had little difficulty selecting this pic of Jonathan's. I love it - for the quality of image, for all its local associations, for its metaphorical resonance.

Monday, 28 June 2010

French House Party

While England were proving they're not a world class football team, I was wending my way along the Canal du Midi to work, every morning, peddling as elegantly as I could in the beautiful shade until I turned off the canal for the last five minutes towards Domaine St Raymond, HQ of The French House Party. Then I'd be in hard hitting sunshine, slightly delirious before facing the residents, my students, and our day of reading, writing and feasting ...

We had eight people this year - a mixed bunch as usual - ranging from 36 years old to 77. And naturally, considering the hugely diverse characters, they took a day to settle into their group dynamics and finding that they could get along just fine and dandily. I'm sure the fantastic food and local wines helped even the hardened independent to mellow into idle chat at the pool side.

And of course the writing workshop. Our beautiful classroom (yes, that's it to the left) meant we had the space to talk, stare into space, think, imagine and write. It's a beginners course, and I try to accomodate whatever people what to write, short stories, novels and memoirs - covering characterisation, creating atmosphere and plotting. Which generally works well, and opens people up to different ways into writing.

This was the third year I'd been there and the third year nobody was interested in poetry. And the third year I spent one morning bringing poetry to the table and while not asking them to write poems, at least asking them to read them and to consider what makes for the strength of language. By the end of the week, I had at least three converts to poetry writing and two more who wanted me to reccommend a good anthology. Ahh, the satisfaction.

And so, despite the 38' heat that meant I didn't get any of my work done in the afternoons (as usual I'd taken a bunch of paperwork, notes and books to work through), it was a productive week, meeting and getting to know people I'd never normally cross paths with, recalling schoolgirl French and eating the most fabulously ripe tomatoes.

This is what one of the participants made of it last year

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Word Soup - with or without cheese?

This is from the Word Soup first anniversary celebrations on Tuesday 22nd June

Extra Celebrations

While I'm busy sending the book out into the world, another book is being emblazoned around towns ... Word Soup, the Preston-based live literature night is one year old and has published an anthology to trumpet it.

And to trumpet that they've been illuminating buildings with poems from it. It being midsummer I was tucked up in my bed by the time they shone out (needing the dark to do it) but the kind people sent me these pics.

And then to trumpet the trumpet's trumpet they've got an evening of reading with a whole host of bods featured in the book tonight at The Continental Pub.

And what I'm especially excited about (not so much the taking part - I've had more than my fair share of readings recently, plus I've a six o'clock plane to Toulouse tomorrow for my luxury is-it-a-holiday-no-it's-work-week) is I'm reading with a bunch of fantastic Flax writers, who've I've worked with over the years. It'll be a thunderous round of back slapping and wide-grinning for the evening. And some great stories and poems too. Of course.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Launched to the North

A little like pictures of people dancing, photos of poetry readings aren't the most exciting, but I like this one cos it's got all four of us on stage. Naomi looking a little startled at what we're doing to her poem - the three on right of the stage are Mouthtrap riffing off and mashing up her poem as a cute segue from her reading to Mouthtrap's slot.

It was a subdued couple of numbers from us (probably because we'd had a bewildered reception on Sunday in Hebden Bridge), but beautifully paced and measured, lots of space and listening - by the audience as well as us. Lovely lovely. We were very pleased. As was I.

So that was the icing on an already fat, cream-slathered cake of an evening. A massive turn out (standing room only when Beth set the evening under way with two tunes) with people I'd not seen in years turning up, and people who hadn't seen each other in years catching up, and other people coming from all corners of the north to see people they'd never met. And everyone willing to participate in Steve Lewis's rendering of a couple of poems of mine, as requested. Bravo bravo for audience participation!

Between Beth and Steve was Naomi Foyle, who treated us to a short rendition of Grace of the Gamblers, a ballad of the pirate Grace O'Malley, as well as a bit of football (in a poem) and a trip around Sefton Park, lavishing us with the diversity of her new collection, The World Cup. Me too. Surrounded on stage by those who have been so important in my journey as poet and performer. Happy with my own selection that avoided all poems that might get me blubbering, although that didn't stop others ...

It was a gorgeously hot June evening, so the Maritime Museum's jetty was a brilliant outdoor space to spill out onto before and after the immaculately judged set. I couldn't have asked for it to be any different or better.

What support. What enthusiasm. What artistry. A great send off for the book. Bon Voyage! Good luck, you!

"It was such a lovely launch - I loved how all the different readers / performers fitted together... as important to you and your work and I LOVED Mouthtrap. I couldn't imagine what it was going to be like, but you all looked so happy and playful and pretty up there it made me smile. It sounded great and worked so well against Naomi's poem as well.
I want my book mouthtrapping now! I could have listened to you for loads and loads longer."

"We had a lovely time. Well-organised, and a showcase not only for poetic and musical skill and depth, but lots of warmth and charm."

"It'll look good to say on the CV to say that there were people queueing outside the door!"

"A great launch and lovely people."

Monday, 14 June 2010

Tuesday, 8 June 2010


So, with the mesmerising help of Linos Wengara Magaya and Los Bonobos, Host and The World Cup were sent on their merry way into the world.

Barely proof, but a photo from the end of the evening: I look slightly uncertain, possibly a little overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and success of the evening, while Naomi is clearly still buzzing from being both mc and reader.

The Iambic Arts Theatre was jammed with people I knew (from years ago when I lived in Brighton) and people I didn't. Jammed and buzzing. As much before with anticipation as after - with satiated relish? It was the sort of audience you dream of - superbly attentive during and very vocal in what they enjoyed afterwards. So I had some good conversations about sailing and monologues and what makes for quality in both.

Very odd now, four years in the making and it's done, bound and separate from me. Time to hear what other people make of it ...

Monday, 31 May 2010

Neither Up Nor Down

Not so much a film, but a treat from Mouthtrap's first outting back in March.

Friday, 28 May 2010

And Elsewhere

Michelle McGrane, tireless promoter of literature, has featured me on her wide-ranging blog, Peony Moon

Wednesday, 26 May 2010


And it's out of my hands. And not yet in them.

I never enjoy the proofing stage as an editor, the fine toothcombing and blurring of sense that comes from checking over and over again for rogue commas, consistancy with italics and lah dee blah. All very wonderful things in their own right, essential to meaning and tools for play. But when it comes to signing off copy, saying all is absolutely perfectly as it should be, then I forget the wonders and go to jitters.

Make that tenfold filibrations when the job is transferred to my own work. You've already been through the poems a zillion times for copy edits and tweaks in their lifetimes, so to then bring the cool eye of the proofer to them is like asking an ice cube to help a polar bear get home. Pass the gin.

But done. With the help of the fabulous designers at Waterloo and thorough friend Catherine who just happened to be staying in perfect timing to check over my checks. It's back to relishing the accomplishment and promising myself not to open the book when it arrives at the only page with a missing capital or a misspelt reference. Not that that would be possible of course because everything is absolutely perfectly just so. Chink chink

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

In Conversation with Pascale Petit

Another conversation. This time with the fascinating poet, Pascale Petit, who has spent the best part of the last ten years researching the life and paintings of Frida Kahlo.

Her collection, What The Water Gave Me, (Seren) is the result. And below I talked to her about the book and the process of writing it.

SH The poems of What The Water Gave Me are absorbing in their physicality, wrought and muscular in imagery and narrative, which suits the subject of Frida Kahlo and her paintings perfectly. I know you trained as a visual artist, so am interested to hear more of your thinking about the relatonship between visual art and poetry.

PP When I gave up making sculptures and installations to concentrate on poetry, I needed to bring the physicality of 3D work to a poem. I was used to creating my own world in the studio, working inside an installation to shape it. I did a lot of grinding with the grinderette, sanding and manipulating materials until they began to suspend disbelief, for me and hopefully for others. As an artist my concerns were often with the female figure and experience, and this has continued into my poetry. I was interested in the body and in pain as a subject for sculptures, and this is one of the main themes of this book. Writing poems about Frida Kahlo’s paintings allowed me to inhabit her world as an artist, to try to recreate the paintings about pain with words, as well as capture her vitality. I’d always used bright colours in my sculptures so enjoyed playing with her vibrant palette.

Her range is narrow, and I enjoyed that depth rather than breadth of subject matter. I like to explore one subject or set of images, to go deeper into them each time. It was a challenge to search for different words or permutations of words for her recurring images, especially the self-portraits and menagerie. I wonder if visual artists worry less about repeating subjects than poets? Take Bill Viola for example, there’s always water or fire in each video installation – he mines his obsessions and I relish that persistence.

SH And also how you balance between the physical and metaphysical strands that interweave the poems?

PP I’m glad you find metaphysical strands, because that ultimately is what I’m interested in, though expressed through the senses. Frida Kahlo was very well read and had beliefs about the interconnectedness of all living things, which I share. I wouldn’t be interested in a purely physical or empirical world, there has to be a spiritual dimension to it for me. But I didn’t set out to say anything in particular, just to imbue the poems with the ideas about the natural world that informed her paintings, to be true to her, and to convey her life force. My aim is to make my poems as alive as I can and she seemed to be a good subject to help me do that. I’ll never forget when I saw Self-Portrait with Monkey in the flesh (the dark green one Madonna owns), her eyes looked right into me as if she was still alive.

SH Frida Kahlo and her work have occupied a prominant position in the mythologising of artist and creation for many decades, how did you approach writing about such an iconic painter and her paintings?

PP The first poem I wrote, ten years ago, was ‘Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (I)’, and the same day I also wrote ‘Remembrance of an Open Wound’. I thought that writing about the paintings of these titles might be a way for me to write about trauma and sex. I had just finished writing The Zoo Father, my second collection, which is about the legacy of child abuse. Kahlo suffered a near-fatal street accident when she was a teenager, when a bus handrail pierced her abdomen and exited her vagina. This accident, which was a kind of rape, left her disabled and unable to have children. I identified with this but thought I could explore the subject through the imagery of the accident, without having to be confessional.

SH At what stage did you realise the poems would make up an entire collection?

PP I’d written fourteen and published them in a pamphlet The Wounded Deer in 2005, and thought that was it. Then in 2006 I started looking at her paintings again. I’d been to Mexico a few times and seen Without Hope in the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Mexico City. I wrote a poem in response to that and then wrote my first ‘What the Water Gave Me’ poem – a little one about her daughter being the bathwater. There are six about the title painting now, but that little poem seemed to open things up again, make them fluid. I wanted to write more about the bathwater – it’s a strange painting which I can look at for hours, its subject seems to be the imagination, with all those scenes from her life and paintings floating around her legs like daydreams. She used to leave dinner parties to lie in her bath to soothe her back, so I also think of it as a painting about trauma and healing. It’s also very interesting because it’s a self-portrait without her face, we only see her legs and feet, but sense the head where we are, where the viewer is, looking down on them. Her body is fragmented and in a way her ego is out of the frame, which is a kind of release. I wrote about that release (brought about by paint) in my fifth ‘What the Water Gave Me (V)’ poem.

SH You say these do not intend to be a verse biography, although the poems sparkle with the inclusion of many details of her life. How much did the biographical details help or hinder the writing of the poems?

PP In my author’s note I say that it’s not a comprehensive verse biography, but it is biographical through the paintings. I used the frame of her life as the structure of the book, from pre-birth to death, and the poems are roughly chronological in order. They chart her polio as a child, the street accident, her marriage to Diego Rivera, her miscarriages, his infidelities, her self-portraits, portraits of animals and other people, her still lives, her divorce and remarriage to Diego, the increasing pain she suffered from her injuries, her many surgeries and treatments, then her death.

My main focus was the accident and its aftermath and how she used art to withstand and transform pain as she underwent surgeries and treatments for her chronic conditions. This is what engrossed me. Lots of details of her life are missing in my collection as there was no point in my dutifully including everything; that wasn’t what I was after. So I was never hindered by those. The biography was a structure to give the book a story and a plot. I loved reading all the books that have been written about her.

SH Within the theme of the book, and the close refernce to the paintins, the poems are hugely varied in style and tone. What poetry did you read when you were writing these poems?

PP Over the ten years I read very widely. I travelled a lot, including to Mexico, Nepal, Kazakhstan, China and Israel. I read a lot of work in translation, particularly by Alfonsina Storni, Amir Or, Zhai Yongming, Yang Lian, Ferenc Juhász, Paul Celan. I think the styles and tones must be varied because of the long time it took to write the book, but also because I brought different moods to it. I wanted to portray her despair and her electric joie-de-vivre. I also read a great deal of natural history and nonfiction books. The Three Halves of Ino Moxo: Teachings of the Wizard of the Upper Amazon by César Calvo is a key book, with fascinating notions about the original fertile power of language. I like his idea about a word being a well which contains oceans, about words being chants or spells.

SH As a reader, reading the collection is a rich jungle-like experience, with a humidity of unfamiliar plants and creatures soaking my consciousness, at times this was almost suffocating, at others expansive and liberating. How did you experience it as the writer?

PP It was liberating. I love jungles, luxuriance, finding the names of new plants and fruits. I did have to research Mexican food and fruit, and how to pronounce them! Last week I saw some pitahayas in my local international supermarket, they called them dragon fruit – their Chinese name, I was pleased to see that they do look like leafy wombs as I described them in a poem.

SH Thank you, Pascale, for the expansive insight into the book, and for the huge reading list I now have!

Good luck for the launch of Thursday June 17 - at the Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury. If you'd like to go, please contact Victoria Humphreys.

There will also be launch readings at the Hay Festival on 2 June, Lancaster Litfest on 23 June, Ledbury Festival on 3 July, Birmingham Book Festival on 7 October, Manchester Literature Festival and Sheffield Off the Shelf Festival (both) on 19 October, and the Durham Book Festival on 23/24 October. Most events will be illustrated.

Saturday, 1 May 2010


I've been spending a fair bit of time here recently. The Maritime Museum in Lancaster. An elegant old building that used to be the Customs House, down on the quay, back in the day (eighteenth/nineteenth centuries) that Lancaster was a busy port.

I've been rifling and reading through information on the shipbuilding industry that thrived here, mainly due to the sugar, slave and mahogany trade Lancaster thrived on in the eighteenth century. My interest is a little more parochial. The development of the town, the quayside and the imports that were used to build the ships - mainly from Russia, the Baltic and Scandanavia. Early in the eighteenth century, ships sailed round to Archangel from Lancaster, mainly for hides.

So, using this unhelpfully small map as an aid, that means sailing right round from the west of England, round the top of Norway through the arctic circle into the blue sealoch just to the right of centre top of this map. Which, in winter, iced over. Archangel. Despite the weather, seas and, no doubt, whales, it was a safer destination than the Baltic - with its enemy fleets. 3500 km (approx) away. Weeks away.

I've also been reading about how they built ships, what they used, who was involved, the mercantile life that grew up around it, the city life, the recorded weather and more. All absolutely fascinating. Which of course I'm hoping will grow into something else.

I'm jotting ideas as I go, but feel it's best to immerse myself in the information, to let the knowledge and information bed down into my bones before I attempt to dessiminate it into anything. I also don't want to rush because I want to create something quite different to the sequence of family poems that emerged from my last piece of serious research.

So, I am currently swinging between high excitement and stimulation and frozen uncertainity. Which is exactly the experience of the swing my dad half hammered into our garden when we were kids - for some reason (age no doubt - it was one he'd found somewhere) it wasn't entirely balanced so would wobble while we swung giving the extra sense of imminent falling just at the high point of about turn.

I'm trying not to let this concern me too much, and just absorb all I find I'm interested in, let it take me in unforeseen directions and bubble quietly while I'm in the dark storeroom and while I'm wandering about elsewhere. It feels very priviledged to be doing this without an expected outcome and in a way I want to enjoy that for as long as possible. It's a bit like taking an extrordinarily long train journey and just staring out of the window in that delicious state of limbo that requires no decision making on what next because there's nothing to do until you get there.