When I was sixteen, my grammar school headteacher told me I’d end up in the gutter. The reason? I was seen talking to a secondary modern school boy on the Saturday before; the sin being that he wasn’t the right kind of boy, didn’t go to the right school, was beyond the pale. His comment has stayed with me all my life. It had a positive effect when I became a teacher myself: it taught me very well how NOT to treat children. Words should not be weapons. But it had an equal and opposite effect too: because words sometimes are weapons and they have an infinite power to wound. I have carried that comment all my life. It had a profound effect on the way I saw my worth for a long time; that lack of confidence still pokes me in the ribs sometimes even now, more than half a century later.
So, imagine my delight and euphoria this week after my annual review meeting with Michael Symmons Roberts. I was determined not to be nervous before I went; but as I walked down Oxford Road toward the All Saints campus, I could feel the bats in the abdominal belfry beginning to flutter. I hadn’t seen the report from my Director of Studies before the meeting, and it has been a challenging year, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Actually, it was a very positive report, acknowledging the challenge, but very supportive of how far I’ve come in the year and what I’ve achieved. The entire meeting was a positive buzz: I don’t think Michael knows how to be any other way than positive. He said as part of my ‘original contribution to knowledge’ I should be sending my poems to ‘quality’ poetry journals. Referring to the first paragraph of this blog, I’ve never had the confidence in my poetry to be that ambitious. I’ve been published in several journals, been a prizewinner in several competitions, even first prize winner in some; but I’ve never dared aspire to the likes of Rialto or Magma. Dare I do it? Well, I’ve set that as a target for the year. I read somewhere this week that if you can do it, you shouldn’t do it. It was an aspirational remark, I think, which I interpreted as ‘if it doesn’t represent a challenge, it’s not valuable’. So, I’m going to get into a ‘quality’ poetry journal at least once this year, or die in the effort!
I left Michael’s office with a spring in my step: I think I even skipped along the landing toward the lifts. I met Bill for lunch after the meeting; I was still buzzing. I must have been: I ordered caraway flavoured Polish rye bread toast, with roast tomatoes and humus. When it arrived there were five pieces of toast. Five! I’m happy to report I ate them all.
So; the rest of my week: on Sunday I spent some time analysing Poets&Players evaluation questionnaires to get that job up to date. We are at the stage of preparing our annual Arts Council England bid for next year’s funding and the evaluations provide valuable feedback on the job we are doing. The feedback is mostly very positive and supportive: most of the developmental comments are beyond our brief, for instance the relative comfort of the chairs. We also write to all our poets and ask for a paragraph about their experience of reading for us. That is always very gratifying, because we look after our readers, they are important to us. So their feedback is always super-positive and very supportive. All grist to the mill, and hopefully we’ll be able to mount our wonderful programme of (free to the audience) events in 2017-18. Fingers crossed for our ACE funding bid to be successful.
Tuesday was a day of PhD work, the kind I enjoy most. I was printing off and re-reading my portfolio of poems to have them all together for the review meeting. I was amazed to find I have sixty; and another ten that can be adapted for the theme. Of course they almost all need some reworking (some more than others), but it’s nice to know they’re there as a body of work. I made sure my PhD progress folder was all up to date and ready for the meeting. It was a satisfying morning; it showed me how far I’ve moved forward in the year. I hoped Antony, my DoS, recognised that. From the report he submitted, he clearly did, bless him.
Saturday was another day full of PhD. I decided I needed to get a real handle on some of the top poetry journals. I’m a Poetry Society member, so I always receive The Poetry Review and I always enjoy reading it. But on Saturday I really read it; I read it deeply to get a handle on the kind of work they accept. This was all research for the creative element of my PhD, of course. And I depressed myself all over again–I refer you again to paragraph one of this blog post. I question whether my poetry is of that standard. It’s going to need some work, for sure. But remember, if it can be done, don’t bother doing it. If it’s not a challenge, it’s not worth the effort. I have become complacent about my poetry, really, not pushed myself enough for a long time. This will be a challenge; and I’m up for giving it a go. I subscribed to Rialto, Magma and The North. I will submit to these journals in the course of the year and see what happens. This is the year of stepping up; watch this space.
After a jolly good and enjoyable read, I took the red pen to my poetry collection; it’s the moulding of a piece of writing into the best piece of writing it can be which is an enjoyable part of being a poet. The creation, the making and reworking to achieve something good. The seeing it from a higher plane is demanding. I have already seen how the poems can leave more ‘room for the reader’. I’m going to enjoy this. I wish I’d discovered poetry while I was young enough to make a career of it: no-one told me! I was retired before I learned of poetry’s scope. I lost too many years!
I’m going to leave you with a poem I rediscovered for The Other reading in Didsbury last week. After I submitted it to Michael Connelly for the reading, I spent several embarrassed hours wondering why I did that: why did I send that bizarre poem, of all the poems I have on file. I think it was because it’s a bit bizarre and I know Michael’s taste in poetry. In the event, he introduced it as his favourite poem of the set I sent him. He said it ‘reminded him of Carol Ann Duffy but in a good way’. I’m telling you this because it is a reflection on how difficult I find it to judge my own work: I suspect I’m not alone in this. I wrote it at a Poetry Business writing day years ago and filed it away and forgot it. It is humorous but in a dark way: In a past life, I have been the clown’s wife, supportive to the level of self-annihilation. So this is a poem to some extent about an earlier version of me; it addresses infidelity, revenge, self awareness. Enjoy.
The Clown’s Wife
During the honeymoon she was happy
to lay his clothes out for him: jacket wide enough
for two families to live in, trousers designed
for a bigger man, bright braces for keeping up
appearances. On their first anniversary they cut up
bucketsful of confetti together so he could make a bride
of any woman with a front row seat. Eventually,
he trusted her to put the water in his buttonhole,
pick his nose, polish his horn, bake custard tarts.
She washed his car, fuelled his vanity, inflated his ego.
She became The Incredible Disappearing Woman,
decided to try stepping into his shoes, each one
a flipping barge. She set sail on a sea of sabotage,
mixed up pots with his face in, swapped their labels
with the vanishing cream. He was last seen
disappearing into the Big Top. That was the day
she finally gave him the chop.