My poems in the Agenda T S Eliot issue

I really am very proud to have two poems in Agenda’s special T S Eliot issue this month.  Thank you Patricia McCarthy for including them!

Agenda Feb2018 (1)

‘In Yellowhammer Weather’ was written at The Hurst, near Clun, a couple of years ago while on a week’s walking and writing retreat led by David Morley.  We explored Clun’s tiny, idiosyncratic museum, in which I found an (early 20th century?) photograph of local farmer Frank Collins ‘on his favourite horse, Polliwig’.  Walking later along the banks of the Clun river, and hearing the chatter of the yellowhammer in a hedge, the rhythms of the poem began to come together in my head.

Agenda Feb2018 (3)

‘How We Rode After Haytiming’ is a memory from my childhood in Cumbria, when I rode with the next door farmer’s grandchildren on a raggle-taggle of grass-fed ponies.  After the hay had been cut in June, six acres of inviting stubble lured us down to race the ponies across Long Field.  The poem was first written several years ago, and then it hung around because I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

Agenda Feb2018 (2)

 

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A blog for ‘The Dark Farms’

Some years ago, I became fascinated with the Galloway Forest.  It’s a remote, depopulated region in south west Scotland, hundreds of square miles with scarcely a road across it, and a diminishing number of working farms on its inhospitable hills and moors.  It’s become a place famed now for its dark skies, and it’s visited by astronomers and those curious to see a sky without neon.  I’ve very belatedly set up a blog to record my explorations and the poems that came out of them.  Click here to have a look.

I grew up in rural Cumbria, among small family farms, and so recognised that what I saw in 2011 in the Galloway Forest was disappearance.  The disappearance of the hills under the conifer forests which were mass planted there in the 1950s and 60s, and the disappearance of small farms, some overwhelmed by the new conifer forests, and many more slowly abandoned as hill farming has become so uneconomic that only the oldest are still farming, often without the assets to retire.

So I went looking for the ghosts of stables, and cart-sheds, and sheep rees (the Galloway word for a sheepfold).  I went looking for the ghosts of placenames and farm names.   I found places where the severe weather has reduced cottages to a threshold stone and a hearth stone.  Cottages overtaken now by birches and brambles.  I found a rural museum with a black leather bull mask and a necklace of horse’s teeth.  A farmhouse with its windows bricked up – truly a Dark Farm.

I took the photographs at the time, on days of being savaged by midges, falling into peat clefts, wading upland burns where the O.S. map still marks the place as a ford, long since washed away.  The poems were published in 2012 in pamphlet form by Roncadora Press, enhanced by Hugh Bryden’s rich artwork.

Celebration Day for Impressions of the Past

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At last this wonderful project has come to its end.  To celebrate the months of workshops, walks and community, we held a celebration party at Poles Coppice, the site of the Oak Palisade and the Poetry Bench.

Around 55 people turned out to share food, fun, stare over at the Iron Age ramparts on Earl’s Hill, find the clay roundels they’d designed, and the words they wrote.  We read a few poems, and crowded round the installations.

Over 150 people contributed to ‘Impressions of the Past’ – thank you to each and every one, and special thanks from Ruth and me to Huw, Mike, Betul, Bob Gibson, Jim Sadler, Nigel McDonald and Joe Penfold.

Publication news

I’m very thrilled to have a poem in both these beautiful new anthologies – #2 from Vanguard Editions, and the fourth ‘Birdbook’ from Sidekick Books, which focuses on Saltwater and Shore.

A Tramp of Poets for Arvon

I’m just back from a gift of a week, staying at The Hurst for the inaugural Poetry with Walking Retreat, led by David Morley.

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Sixteen pairs of walking boots littered the hall, and it was very interesting, going for group walks and yet being alert to the possibilities for poetry.  It worked, slightly to my surprise.  (I’d planned to disappear on my own now and then if it didn’t).  But the group was lovely, and rapidly bonded to become a very supportive and creative community.  Helped on by the truly marvellous food…

I’d met David at various events, but hadn’t experienced the high tide of energy, irrepressible curiosity and sheer knowledge before.  He did a lot more than he needed to, including providing one to one sessions for us (mine was exciting and challenging and fruitful).  He filled the workshop room with books and handouts and bits of bone and feather, took us out with a bat detector and a great device that you can point at a tree to hear birdsong several times louder than life.  He trained us all how to call owls.  He made us see asemic writing in the woods.  Here’s some:

The steady rhythm of walking is good, I think, for writing.  I scribbled constantly and illegibly in my scruffy small notebook as we put in the miles through coppice, hillside and river paths in the mornings, and then wrote all afternoon.  There is something magical about The Hurst – a mellow, thinking house.  Steve Ely was our guest poet, rolling up in an ex Forestry Commission van with a lamping light on top.  He was great.

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Early in the week David provided us all with a photocopy of Clun dialect words and meanings, and loosed us on the village with the resulting short dialect poems.  I have to say I enjoyed this a lot.  Not great art, but great fun.  I hid mine in a shop. And it was such fun to walk with poets – they look around themselves so much.  They are so nosy.

Twelve Poems about Chickens – Candlestick Press

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I’m so delighted to have a poem from my pamphlet, ‘The Henkeeper’s Almanac’ picked up by Candlestick Press, for their beautiful new book ‘Twelve Poems about Chickens’.   Here are poems which celebrate the quirks and curiosities of chickens.  Sentiments range from Sir Charles Sedley’s 17th century complaint at an early wakening:

Thou Cursed Cock, with thy perpetual Noise,
May’st thou be Capon made, and lose thy Voice

to a meditation by Kay Ryan on a chick breaking out of the egg:

It can’t afford doubt.  Who can?
Doubt uses albumen 
at twice the rate of work.

‘Those dabbing hens I ferociously love’ – how I do love Norman McCaig’s poem ‘Cock before dawn’.

The West and the East are measured from me…
It’s time I crowed.  The sun will be waiting.

I’ve had cockerels with just this megalomaniac streak, rigid on a wallhead in the morning, crowing insanely at all they can see.

I contributed a little poem about a black Araucana hen I used to keep in Scotland, drinking from the pond in a blowy March.

Her feathers blow backwards
but she hops out
onto a stone and sips
pondwater.  Frogspawn
ripples in the gusts.
She tips up her head.
Her bright comb’s
a first flower.

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March Araucana

From Uley to Owlpen

Owlpen Tuesday (23)I’m working on a set of poems that have developed after a week spent in Uley and Owlpen.  I found well-worn tracks and holloways, the ruins of a medieval cloth industry built on wool, hills topped by Neolithic barrows, topped again by Iron Age hillforts, and once again by a smallpox isolation hospital, once again lost.  There’s still poverty.  There’s still wealth.  Here’s a faint flavour of place.

Owlpen Tuesday (22)

we stop for breath and the wood
breathes leaves
on the steeps
below Uley Bury

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Owlpen Tuesday (20)

in the dark lane
you look both ways

it wends low in the land
& nights, the badgers
own this road

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Owlpen Tuesday (13)

smallpox under
the sycamore avenue
on the islanded hill

such old, old trees

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Owlpen Tuesday (15)

so many things
vanish
without trace

one is pulling up its roots,
has started walking

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Owlpen Thursday (5)

this is how beech leaves
take the light down with them –
make use of water
to sink it into soil

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In which I have a poem on Radio 4

I’m on Radio 4!  This is truly thrilling for me!

Something Understood candle

I was very lucky, alongside excellent poet Elisabeth Charis, to be part of a Writing West Midlands-brokered commission to write a poem for Radio 4’s ethical and religious discussion programme Something Understood.

The programme’s theme was ‘Bread’, and it went out on Sunday 23 August, and if you’re so minded you can listen to it for the next 29 days (and counting).  The link is here, and you can hear me reading my poem Bread Generations about 6 minutes in.

Here’s the poem.

Bread Generations

The grandmothers said, it’s an art like fire
They said this
is the very nature
of leaven.

Snare in a white bowl
your kitchen’s tiny alchemy
of airborne spores.
Observe them strengthen
through a pale brown week of bubbles,
then raise like a thin,
elastic ghost,
yeast’s reek.

For unleavened bread
has no past.

The grandmothers said, keep some starter
back in your dish
to be fed like a kitten
and watched
like a fire.

They said, think ahead, provide
for the ones that follow.

Call them in.
Break bread
together.
Re-make
a bakers’ rising.

How we returned the wheelbarrow #LittleMuseumofLudlow

All good things must come to an end: Kate Morgan-Clare and I packed up the last of The Little Museum of Ludlow yesterday, returning lent objects to their owners, and gathering into the fabulous wheelbarrow (I love that wheelbarrow, unacquisitively) a selection of our found objects to return them to the town…

Dismantling Little Museum of Ludlow7And then we pushed it back across Ludlow, from Ludlow Library, along Tower Street, across the Bull Ring, up King Street, and back to the derelict garden where the wheelbarrow has rested for decades.  In the hot sun, kneeling on weeds turned crackly with drought, Kate slowly placed the objects we’d brought at the foot of a crumbling old wall.

I wrote a poem.
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Returning the Wheelbarrow Behind the Gate

You will crashsqueak on dry earth.  Lurch
this weedy, sudden garden to the space
the barrow had.
Put down your burden.  Breathe.
Kneel in dry leaves.
Be slow.

Place a bone to an ivy root.
Lay
a paper flower pinkly by the wall.
Thread a tattered feather
past a root-loop.
A labelled rip of rubber spun
off a tyre on Old Street leans
on a twig not native to this place.
Slip
a luckless scratchcard
to a knuckle bone sucked dry by dogs.
Hear rook-caw.
Rain
reverent confetti.  Rain its petals
on the footings
of this limey, head-high wall.
Let ring
a rolling quarter-chime of church bells.

Labels dangle.  Stir.  Feather
quivers in a swell of air.
Wheelbarrow Tag No. 9891
has gone
to rest among the nettles.

Dismantling Little Museum of Ludlow12

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