“This house has been far out at sea all night” (Ted Hughes).
Storm Dennis is raging outside my window as I write this, reminding me of the Ted Hughes poem ‘Wind’, “…the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O4TqgxiXsXI and I’m thinking of friends in the flood plains along the Calder Valley, Ribbledale, Cumbria, York. They’ve not recovered from Ciara yet, and now Dennis is kicking his heels.
This week I’ve been a domestic goddess, cooking and cleaning like a 1950s housewife. Housework is usually low on my list of priorities, so when I decide to do it, I attack it like a goodun. I can bear not to do it, but I can’t bear to half do it. So most of my week has looked away from poetry and towards the domestic. The ironing’s all done, the freezer’s full of chilli, bolognaise sauce, soups. The study is immaculate. I found it all strangely relaxing.
I let my gaze fall on poetry a bit though, when I booked festival passes for Kendal Poetry Festival for Hilary Robinson and me. This festival is organised by Kim Moore and Clare Shaw: always good to have a poetry festival with rhyming Directors. Check out the wonderful line-up of poets for 2020: https://www.kendalpoetryfestival.co.uk I’m really looking forward to this one. I know from past experience what a lovely, friendly festival it is; and it’s mostly contained in one venue, the Castle Green Hotel, so no rushing from one event to another, like some festivals we’ve been to. I’ve started to look for accommodation: Hilary, we need to meet for coffee, to confer on holiday lets. I’m not good in a tent.
On Saturday—yesterday—I went to the Poetry Business Writing Day at the Manchester Art Gallery. Peter and Ann Sansom hold monthly writing days in Sheffield and Manchester. Check out the Poetry Business here: https://poetrybusiness.co.uk/whats-on/workshops/ You’ll see from the website that the new Laureate, Simon Armitage, has said of Ann and Peter, “In my view, the UK’s most astute and effective tutors”; the Guardian considers them “The best writing tutors in the world”; and The Poetry Trust: “…incomparably experienced and inspirational tutors with a brilliant repertoire of exercises”. I can’t argue with any of this. I’ve been going to Poetry Business workshops for years and I’ve never repeated a prompt. It was lovely to meet up with other poetry friends, and to meet some new ones.
I feel a bit of a bozo though. In November I asked Peter if he’d write a blurb for the jacket of my forthcoming pamphlet, Everyday I Promise Myself. Bless him, he agreed and replied to my email with a request that I let him know when the launch is so that he can come along and throw fruit. The humour is so typical of Peter that I immediately responded to that comment without reading to the end of the email. I still had twelve months to the launch so I wasn’t expecting a rapid response to my request. When I saw him yesterday he asked if I’d liked the blurb. I said I hadn’t seen it yet. He’d thought it was odd that I hadn’t thanked him for it and resent the original email. If I’d read to the bottom, I would have thanked him profusely: there was the blurb in black and white, sitting in my inbox all these months. Durrh! It’s a lovely blurb as well, but you’ll have to buy my pamphlet to read it. So thank you Peter, and forgive my bozoness, even though I doubt if you’ll read this—but I thanked him hugely yesterday after I did read his comment at last. I owe him a huge cream cake.
Anyway, back to the writing day. We met at 10.30 in Studio 1 at the Gallery. Numbers were down slightly: some poets with distances to travel had cried off in anticipation of Storm Dennis. Crossing the Pennines is always a challenge in harsh weather. But there were still a dozen poets there. We wrote from the prompt of published poems: my favourites were ‘Learning to Spell’ by Kathryn Simmonds and ‘Snow’ by Jacob Polley. I think I drafted half-decent poems from these prompts. Of course, my poems bear little relation to the originals, and that’s the point: the prompts are jumping-off places, triggers for a place to start. I’ll include the draft I wrote from the Simmonds prompt at the end of this blog.
We also had to find an artwork in the gallery and write from that as a prompt. I chose ‘A Family Seated Around A Kitchen Fire’ by the Dutch painter Quiringh van Brekelenkam, c1650. I was drawn to it by the huge parsnip the woman is peeling: it reaches from her lap almost to her shoulder. You can see a copy of the painting here: https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/a-family-seated-round-a-kitchen-fire-206268 Is that a cat in the chair, hiding under blankets, looking menacing? Since I finished my PhD, I’ve found it hard to sit and concentrate on poetry, so it was good to do just that yesterday; and I feel I have three or four drafts worth working on. The next Manchester Writing Day is on March 14th. I’ll be there, will you?
Here’s the poem I wrote to the Simmonds prompt. It was to write a poem about someone who taught you something. I chose to move away from school and look to life. I wrote about my old Aunt Mary, who was a fount of wise sayings. When I was a teacher I used to use some of these sayings with the children. Name-calling? My Old Aunt Mary used to say ‘Call me anything you like as long as you don’t call me late for dinner.’ Workmen in the street? My Old Aunt Mary used to say ‘I love hard work, I could watch it all day.’ She had so many sayings that the children got to know Aunt Mary almost as well as I knew her myself. So this is the poem about a woman who taught me lots, including how to knit, and how to repair your knitting when it went wrong. She used her fingertips to feel her way in the world.
My Old Aunt Mary
At just the right moment, one of her wise sayings
pops into my head—
some’s willin’ to work
and some’s willin’ to let ‘em
and I’m a child again in that huge iron bath,
Aunt Mary kneeling on the bath mat,
sponge soaped and ready.
I’m not keen to show those bits of my body
that hide discretely under liberty bodices,
in knickers, as Aunt Mary, blind since childhood,
I’ll wash up as far as possible
and down as far as possible—
you can wash possible yourself