On Saturday Live this week, (BBC Radio 4), there was a discussion about people who have done extraordinary things as fans. If you are an obsessed fan of something, if you have done extraordinary things in pursuit of your obsession, ring in, the presenters said. I didn’t hear too much more, because I was driving to a friend’s house at the time of broadcast, and I arrived soon after the start of the programme. This week, though, Hilary and I could have justified the phone call: we could have rung in as Uber Fans of poetry.
It has been a poetryful week. Poetry has been the starter, main course and pudding. Poetry has been the air I’ve breathed. Poetry, poetry and more poetry.
On Monday I met with three friends, Hilary, Penny and Polly, in Manchester Art Gallery to plan our next poetry retreat, our Bitching Week. Every year we hire a holiday cottage, plan poetry writing workshops, read, write and share poetry. We take it in turns to run workshops every morning, we do sightseeing every afternoon, write poetry in our spare moments, share poetry, ours and other poets’, in the evenings. Next year we are going to Anglesey in a cottage practically on the beach at Trearddur Bay. All booked and waiting for us early in May. Something to look forward to in the dark, cold winter.
On Tuesday I spent the day reading Selima Hill’s sequence ‘My Sister’s Sister’ in her collected works, Gloria. I was looking for evidence of the psychological presence of the mother: I’m pleased to say, in close reading it is even better than I thought. Mother is there in abundance if you look for her. I wonder if you can find anything you want to in poetry if you look hard enough. After all, it’s not just the poet’s creation you are reading; you are bringing your own experience, and your interpretation of that experience, to the reading of the poetry. What you bring to the reading colours the work you are reading so that poetry is a shared experience between poet and reader. I spent the best part of Tuesday reading Selima; the joy just keeps growing. She is wonderful.
On Wednesday, after I had finished the books at Amie’s restaurant, I went into Manchester. I was planning to meet two PhD friends for tea, cake and PhD chatting, but one of us was taken into hospital for emergency gall bladder surgery on Tuesday morning. I’m happy to report that she is home and mending as I write, so no doubt we’ll meet up soon. I decided to spend time in the MMU library, doing some necessary reading. My Director of Studies had recommended I read a recent poetry-based PhD thesis to get the music of that Acadamese into my head. I found it in the British Library’s online resource, downloaded it to my MacBook, brought it home to read in the comfort of my own study. Oh my, I don’t think I will ever be able to write with that level of authority and (say it) obscurity. This is my problem: I am a creative writer. I write poetry that is accessible, that the reader can identify with. I’m not Geoffrey Hill as a poet, I don’t want to confound, I want to communicate. It seems I have to learn to confound; at least in the critical aspect of the research. Well, thank goodness that aspect has been cut to twenty thousand words: if I try really hard I might be able to get close to fluent Acadamese in that space. It is the hardest thing, though.
While I was in the library, I first-drafted two poems for our next Spelks session on Friday of next week; not thrilled with them, but they are there to work up. At about 4 o’clock I met Hilary and her husband, David. We went for a meal together then went on to Waterstones on Deansgate for the launch of Keith Hutson’s debut pamphlet Routines, inspired by his favourite music-hall performers. He shared the stage with Helen Mort, Mark Pajak and Carole Bromley, so it was a wonderful night of poetry readings; and Carol Ann Duffy was in the audience: not many poets can say that of their debut launch. Keith is an MMU Creative Writng MA student: Carol Ann was there in her capacity as Professor of the Writing School. Anyway, I met another PhD research student, Andrew Forster, at the launch. We were briefly discussing progress in our work. He said he had found a book that needed reading: when he read it the author had taken twenty ways to say the same thing, each way more obscure than the last. So it’s not just me then. Obscurity is a thing prized by Academe. We have to confound or fail: is that the deal? Andrew said he hadn’t even started doing any writing yet, so I felt better again then: at least I’m practising my Acadamese, trying to become articulate and fluent.
On Wednesday night I had an anxiety dream. I am going to relate it in broad detail here: I am booked for a twenty minute reading slot following a meeting of PhD research students at MMU. I get to the lecture theatre where the reading is to take place. Billy Letford is Master of Ceremony for the reading. The preceding meeting has over-run, eating into my reading time. Billy gives me the nod and I start to read. I have prepared a dozen poems I want to read in the twenty minute (now fifteen minute) slot. I read one poem, no problem. At the start of reading the second poem, an advert comes over the tannoy, an annoying jingle that completely obliterates my poem. When the advert has finished, I start poem no. 2 again, and complete it in a nervous voice. I look in my folder for poem 3, but it is missing, replaced by some complicated piece of writing I don’t recognise or understand; the same for poem 4. I begin to panic, apologise to Billy, locate poem 5 and start to read it. ‘That’s it, time’s up,’ says Billy as I get to the end of the first line of poem 5. I am embarrassed, humiliated, angry. But worse: he comes up to me at the end, whispers in my ear ‘I won’t assess you on that reading.’ Which is tantamount to saying ‘that was crap’. Oh, Billy, haven’t you done enough damage, putting the idea of a verse drama into my head? Get off my case and leave me alone! And oh, the power of dreams. It unsettled me all day on Thursday.
And the point is that on Thursday I was booked for a twenty minute reading slot as guest reader for Black Cat poets in Denton. Hilary and I went together, she had an open mic slot. I had the folder of my poems, all marked up with post-it tags in the order I wanted to read them, just as in my dream. I had prepared a selection of poems on my mother-daughter theme, and a selection of poems from a sequence I wrote about malignant melanoma after my daughter Amie was diagnosed two years ago. When it was my turn to read I opened the file at the first poem and began to read. I felt nervous, as I always do when I read my poetry to an audience. I used to be a headteacher, talked to conferences without any nerves at all: it was a professional thing and I was confident in my subject knowledge. But reading poetry is a different ball-game: it’s personal, it’s sending bits of yourself out there to be chewed over, enjoyed or spat out by an audience. It is nerve wracking for me. So, the nerves showed on reading the first poem, but I got into my swing by poem two. Poem three and four were in the folder where they should be and I’m pleased to say the reading was nothing like my dream. It went well, I think; the audience were appreciative. Preparation is all: I had organised the poems into a good order, rounded it off with two poems about imaginary grandmothers, following a poem inspired by my own grandson’s temper tantrum, which I’ll post at the end of this blog.
Friday: snow. Huge flakes of snow, storybook stuff settling and sticking on the lane from our house. Bill dug us out, only to see the lane disappearing under another covering of snow. We had to cancel a visit to Amie’s first thing, and a trip into Uppermill, postponed both until the weather improved. We were due to go out for lunch with friends, our table booked for two o’clock. It didn’t look promising. At one o’clock we decided to chance our arms and Bill drove up to the Oldham Road to get us to the tram stop at Derker. Bad idea. Oldham Road hadn’t been gritted, cars were coming down off the motorway and sliding and slipping around on their way to Oldham. A Mercedes had stalled and blocked the driving lane completely. We eventually got around it, pulled into the lay-by about two minutes walk from home, abandoned the car in the lay-by and walked home again.
This boded ill, because I was due to be at the Portico Library in Manchester for the launch of the Beautiful Dragons anthology Not a Drop at 6.30 in the evening to read my poem inspired by the Ionian Sea, along with several other poets who had work in the anthology; including the friends I should have been meeting for lunch. Anyway, we had almost given up Manchester as a bad idea when the sun came out at about two o’clock; we had seen a snow plough/gritting lorry on Oldham Road as we walked back from the lay-by; so we decided to give it one last try. The good news is, we made it: too late for lunch, unfortunately, but Hilary and David caught the same tram into Manchester and we met up with Penny and Keith in Exchange Square. First stop, the gluhwein bar in St Anne’s Square where we chatted with a lovely group of people from Edinburgh via Stockport who took a photo of us while we drank our gluhwein, whose value is greater than diamonds; and costs nearly as much!
We made it to the reading at the Portico too, where we met up with other poet friends, including fellow Bitch, Polly. The readings were lovely, all poems inspired by the seas of the world in a gorgeously produced anthology. And Anna Percy, who also read at the launch, invited me to read at Stirred Poetry in Manchester in the spring, so all good. If you would like to see more, or even buy a copy to support this wonderful small press, you can do that here:
The snow had all but gone when we got home: just some sticking to the verges and in the lea of the wind. On Saturday Hilary and I went to Sheffield for a New Writing North event concerned with putting together a pamphlet of poems. The roads seemed to be clear so we decided to chance our arms on the A635 from Greenfield to Holmfirth, over the Saddleworth Moor. Not the best idea we’ve had all week, because it started to snow again en route and the road quickly became hazardous over the moor, especially at the highest point where Oldham meets Yorkshire. But Hilary drove like a goodun and we made it to Sheffield with time to grab a coffee before the start. It was a useful event, some good advice about submitting work to magazines, competitions etc; and submitting pamphlets and collections for publication. It included details of the new round of Northern Writers Awards, which is open for application from November 30th until February next year, details here:
So now you see the power behind the title: we are indeed Uber Fans who have struggled through blizzard and anxiety dream to indulge our obsession for poetry. It was all worth it. There’s nothing like a fix of poetry if you’re a poetry addict.
So here’s my poem for this week, inspired by a temper tantrum my grandson had when he was younger: one of those moments in life when you wish you could turn the clock back and do it differently. As poets, we can do that; so I did it for him, I pressed rewind on his life and undid the damage. (This poem was first published in ‘Obsessed With Pipework’ No. 62, Spring 2013.)
and the crack in the smoky glass repairs itself
into a perfect screen. The memory stick
flies backwards from the black hole, crosses the room,
touches down in your outstretched hand. Your shock
turns to red-faced temper, growls like an angry wolf.
You replace the memory stick on the desktop.
Your mum takes back everything she said
about leaving the console, going with her to the shops,
switches on the PlayStation, walks backwards from the room.
Your anger relaxes to something calmer, sweeter,
the controller finds its way back to your hand, you sit,
put your feet up, reset you face into perfect concentration,
play Call of Duty backwards for three hours,
walk backwards to the bathroom, retrieve a pee,
walk backwards to your bedroom, get into bed.