(Lord’s day). Up, and to church, and then home to dinner, where Betty Turner, Mercer, and Captain Deane, and after dinner to sing, Mr. Pelling coming. Then, they gone, Deane and I all the afternoon till night to talk of navy matters and ships with great pleasure, and so at night, he gone, I to supper, Pelling coming again and singing a while, then to bed. Much talk of the French setting out their fleete afresh; but I hear nothing that our King is alarmed at it, at all, but rather making his fleete less.
I turn captain
of a ship at night
gone again to bed
setting out afresh
in our armed fleet
"Love that converses with me in my mind,
he then began, so sweetly
that the sweetness sounds within me still."
~ Dante asks Casella to sing;
Purgatorio, Canto II, Lines 112-114 
on ivory sheepskin—
Botticelli has sketched
the scene of a hundred souls
arriving on a boat ferried by an angel
who tips them out as the vessel runs
aground. What's hell, or even this
purgatory, if it isn't brushed
with fire or tinted with the darkest
hues of suffering?
And these beings,
stripped of their usual garments
for swifter conveyance from our
more familiar world of trappings,
supposedly are singing.
A kind of choir, stumbling
into the pale light, asking for
unsure of what
they've been told—that waiting
is already a kind of salvation—
for it's hard to imagine
a sweetness withheld
or yet to come. And so,
when the shade of Cato
shouts in rebuke What is this negligence, what lingering is this? still, it's such
agony to peel away from the warm
nest of arms that so freshly
embraced them; from those
that beat their breasts or tore their hair
as their beloveds passed through
the watery veil, scattering
like flocks of birds.
At the office all the morning, at noon dined at home, and then my wife, and Deb., and I to the King’s playhouse, and saw “The Indian Queene,” but do not doat upon Nan Marshall’s acting therein, as the world talks of her excellence therein. Thence with my wife to buy some linnen, 13l. worth, for sheets, &c., at the new shop over against the New Exchange; come out of London since the fire, says his and other tradesmen’s retail trade is so great here, and better than it was in London, that they believe they shall not return, nor the city be ever so great for retail as heretofore. So home and to my business, and to bed.
All the morning doing business at the office. At noon, with my Fellow-Officers, to the Dolphin, at Sir G. Carteret’s charge, to dinner, he having some accounts examined this morning. All the afternoon we all at Sir W. Pen’s with him about the Victuallers’ accounts, and then in the evening to Charing Cross, and there took up my wife at her tailor’s, and so home and to walk in the garden, and then to sup and to bed.
sometimes I worry
that I haven't written down
a single recipe for my daughters
to remember me by. Maybe I'm
partially to blame, because
I'm the type who likes to cook
from memory or from the moment's
necessity—tweaking the measure
of vinegar to soy, garlic and bay
leaf to peppercorn, fish
sauce to coconut milk.
In his youth, during the war,
my father said they'd walk
the paddies after dark, looking
for snails and frogs; for what
called or moved or startled
against their feet in shallow
water. One body for another,
to boil for sustenance and pick
clean until the smallest bone,
until the shells are nothing
but dark coils of moonlight.
Echo of what once was saved,
currencies no one would
even think to steal.
There were times you made it hard
to come close, Mother: when a butter
knife hissed across the table and you
threatened to return me to
where you really came from.
Then there were those times you
pronounced your eldest granddaughter
unworthy, because you couldn't understand
how anxiety could keep someone who really wanted to from getting a degree.
There was the time you made me
walk behind instead of beside you
because I forgot the lines of music
that would have made
Perfection is a cruel mistress,
Mother: when even a single hair
fell into the stew or ragu,
you'd throw out
the entire dinner.
In your kitchen only
one could be queen, fit
to salt or sweeten, make
bitter or make rise; pronounce
a mouthful good enough.
To get there, I learned to hide
my tears, dice onions into count-
less piles; sizzle them with
aplomb in my own pan,
the heat all my own.
A personal selection of posts from the Poetry Blogging Network and beyond. Although I tend to quote my favorite bits, please do click through and read the whole posts. This week: rediscovery/reinvention, resisting accepted wisdom, promoting poetry in a world that doesn’t necessarily value it, fixing a leaky faucet, and other perennial challenges of being a poet.
For quite a while now, I haven’t felt like the days are poems, and then suddenly, I did feel that of course the days are poems again. I hope that feeling stays. Part of the way I got it to happen is by just repeating it even though at first I didn’t believe it. “The day is a poem.” “Every day is a poem.” Maybe the days listened; maybe I listened.
It is possible to turn, turn in that very slight and graceful way, so that you’re presented edgeways to the world, and infinitely narrow, so that for practical purposes you disappear. Then you step sideways, along that plane: and you’re gone. Not in this world anymore. Then you have a little time to think. You can still hear the footsteps of busy, anxious, unseen people, but they can’t see you or even imagine you. Have you forgotten this? I think you have. That’s one of the real problems.
Funny how the emotional and spiritual center is called “the heart”. It’s apt. It’s the core of your being, as the physical muscle is the engine of your body. A “heart attack” may be a signal that you need to readjust a lot of things in life, not just your arteries.
First thing it did was knock me out of my achievement addiction. (It’s a real thing — go here for a definition.) And that brought me to what I like to call “the pace of poetry”. I’ve been someone who rushes through the day. I didn’t think of it as rushing — nor did I think about mindfulness — but I was missing a lot.
When a poet is dreaming a new poem, that mental state slows to a mindful drift. We notice the environment, widen attention and fuzz it slightly. Unfocus the sharp-edged analytical observation in a sweep of taking it all in, from tiny to vast. We begin to notice correspondences between the two.
As above, so below. The great mimics the microscopic. They mirror each other, back and forth, and that makes for metaphors. Which makes up a large part of modern poetry. I stepped back, went into fuzzy noticing mode. My heart felt better. My pulse slowed and I dream-drifted.
If you’re a maker, don’t let others warp what you make to fit into the Procrustean box of the era. You can’t help being of your era–that marks your work regardless. But you can make the thing you want to make by your own lights. There’s a cost to that, but it is a cost worth paying.
For years, when people asked me if I had pets or children, I would joke, “Oh please, I can’t even keep a houseplant alive.”
And I believed that story I told about myself. I believed that it was a hard thing to do, to keep a plant alive, and I believed that I was not capable.
But it turns out, I have a green thumb, or at least a greenish thumb. I’ve met people with amazing abilities to nourish plants and grow things out of the most non-nourishing soil. I’m not sure that my skills are up to that level.
But I’m not sure that they aren’t–both in terms of plants and in terms of many other possibilities.
I am a small wooden boat, and time is my anchor. I have pennies in a bucket, lots of them. From the shore, the sound of the music of Bach Being played on a cello. Pablo Casals, in his eighties, was asked why he still practiced. “I think I am making progress,” he said.
My first task was to write something for the funeral. It felt like too much, in those moments, in the days between Monday afternoon and Friday, days in which I was back and forth to Rockford. Days in which I showed up at work one evening and tried to distract myself with hosting a collage workshop that I had to abandon midway. Too much to expect me to be able to breathe let alone write. And yet, on Thursday. I sat down in the studio and wrote a single page of prose, which I then read during the memorial service dutifully (after downing several airplane size bottles of booze I’d tucked in my purse). I folded the piece of paper it was on, in the aftermath, until it was a ragged little cube and threw it away once I was back safely in my apartment. Every once in a while, I’ll be looking for something on my studio laptop, a big clunky machine that is super slow, and I’ll stumble across the file name “mom.doc”. I treat it gently, like a bomb, and never open it.
Maybe I’ll never be able to read it again. But I felt I released something when I wrote it, and cried real good for the first time that week. Cried hard and long–maybe like I would never stop. What was surprising perhaps was that poetry, with all its art and artifice, failed me. In that moment, the most real, genuine thing I could write was prose. Though true, sometimes even my prose is poetic–attenuated to rhythm and sound and flow. But poetry is so much assemblage and effect. So much craft, and I felt this needed to be more genuine–less literary. That previous summer, a cousin (not a poet) had read a poem at my aunt’s funeral and, because I’m apparently a terrible person, I noted the end rhyme and the forced meter–the platitudes and cliches one would of course fall into for a funeral poem–one that apparently my aunt–in her typical go-getter fashion, had approved in the weeks before her death. Basically what a non-poet would think poetry looks and sounds like. Years before, my mother’s best friend had lost her mother and asked to have the minister read something from the fever almanac. I offered a couple suggestions, but none of the poems therein seemed at all right as a memorial. I don’t remember which they chose. There’s a certain kind of poetry–think Mary Oliver–that lends itself to memorials–I am not that poet.
Still, what is the use of poetry? I would be no better at writing verse for a wedding or any other occasion. No good writing anything inspirational–especially since most of my writing is either lyric or narrative and kind of dark in general. I have my humor moments, but sometimes it hits and sometimes it fails. When my poem “house of strays” was included in the American Academy of Poets Poem-a-Day: 365 Poems For Every Occasion, I’d joked about exactly which occasion that poem encompassed. I decided it was the perfect poem for ending a shitty relationship after staying in it way past its expiration date (which was, after all, the impulse behind writing it.) I have in my head to write a book of humorous occasion poems for not at all important occasions..it may yet happen.
“So, what are you going to do now that you’re retired?”
“Do you think you’ll write now?”
“Are you looking for jobs?”
“How are you going to spend your time?”
I threw out non-committal answers I need to better hone: shrugs, “not sures,” “not burning to write anything,” “going to see how it goes.” I need to work on these responses because they don’t seem to stop these questions I’ve been fielding for weeks, which is what I’d like them to do. Finally, after the third or fourth time one cousin asked me some version of the “what are you going to do?” question, I tried a new response:
“I’m going to just be.”
Uncomfortable (for me) silence, that I rushed to fill with inanity. “I’m going to reach a higher spiritual plane,” I added, clearly self-mocking. (We are not a clan who says such things seriously.)
More silence. Finally, my cousin’s wife said, “No, but seriously: What are you going to do? You have to do something.”
And I felt something rise in me. Something hot and bothered and frustrated.
“Why?” I asked. “What if I don’t?” What I was thinking–and might have said some version of, but I’m not sure, because I was feeling all kinds of flustered–was: Do I have to do to have worth? Do I have to do for my life to have meaning? Do I have to do to be a good person?
I have also been thinking this week about gratitude. I’m beginning to realize that used wrongly, the concept of gratitude can be both a self-trap and a method of controlling people.Gratitude has become a corporate buzzword and a publishing boon for shallow self-help books that proliferate in what I call the Bliss Ninny section of chain bookstores. I think it’s cruel to ask people to remember to be grateful when they are in the middle of dealing with, for example, a prolonged pandemic or a medical or financial crisis. Contrary to popular opinion, gratitude itself is not a spiritual practice and trying to force it onto yourself or other people is to negate and distract from what is not okay in your life or the lives of others. It can be a way to avoid action, to tell yourself that you don’t need or deserve more, or that you should ignore your dissatisfaction and ennui because you “have more than others” or “it could always be worse.” I especially dislike the proliferation of “gratitude journals” and calendars and painted rocks and wall hangings that are everywhere now. There is a moral scolding underlying the whole phenomenon and it smells to me of a thought-stopping exercise. We don’t have to “practice” gratitude. It lives within us as a natural part of our being. Like forgiveness, you can’t force it into being by thinking about it or meditating on it or journaling about it. To quote the commercial, “That’s not how any of this works.”
I hereby resolve to be a little less grateful and a little more self-centered, a little less agreeable and a little more difficult, a little less forgiving and a little more judgemental. We will see what it brings to my life.
Sheep aside, I started to wonder what is it about lockdown that seems to have turned people on to haiku, not just the poet laureate, but lots of other people, writers and otherwise. Perhaps at first sight, haiku are small and manageable – anyone can have a go (and why shouldn’t they?). The tools are minimal – pen and paper. And of course there was more free time for a lot of us, especially during the first lockdown. There’s also that hard-to-define, spiritual element about haiku which seems to offer something life-enhancing. I’m reading a book about James Hackett at the moment. Apparently, he considered himself ‘a life worshipper, not an apostle of poetry or art’. Maybe this is what haiku demands, that we foreground living.
Q: How were those first titles received? What did you learn through the process of book-making, and becoming both published author and publisher?
A: Within the small press community, the books were really well received. They were affordable, alternative, collectable, a welcome change from mainstream publishing. For those very same reasons, people outside of the small press literary community didn’t know what to make of these chapbooks. I was often told, “but, that’s not a real book”. It didn’t fit into their concept of what books were supposed to look or feel like, these were not the kinds of books they were used to seeing at their local Coles bookstore. I would say, “but they are real books, they even have an ISBN and everything”, at that point they would shut up because they had no idea what that meant.
I quickly learned that my love of writing and making books was completely separate from distribution. It was easy – well relatively easy – to write and be a small press publisher, but when it came to getting books to the “masses”, that was another story. It seems that only poets read poetry. It was nearly impossible to get the books reviewed outside of a few small press magazines.
Q: Did taking control of production shift the ways in which you saw your own work?
A: Not so much the way I saw my work, rather the opportunities I saw. If SPGA and other small press publishers were willing to take risks, my writing could find a place outside the mainstream. I have always written against the confines of the audience, I never think about what will appeal to the reader or the publisher when writing. I go off on all kinds of tangents, I have fun, I write first and foremost for myself. Maybe that’s selfish or arrogant, I don’t know, I just know that I have to be as honest and authentic as possible.
When encountering yet another post on social media from a poetry journal who’ve been inundated with over a thousand poems in their latest submissions window, my first reaction is inevitably to reflect on the long-standing feeling that everyone seems to want to be published in magazines that they don’t support via subscriptions or even one-off purchases. Of course, the most common and (to a certain extent) justified kick-back is cost: it’s impossible for poets to buy copies of all the journals where they submit.
However, on this occasion, my thought processes went a step further: the majority of the most outstanding poets in the U.K. are barely shifting 200 copies of their well-reviewed collections. In many cases, these books were published by excellent outfits that boast decent distribution networks. In other words, if we look beyond the thorny question of the circulation of poetry journals, what about the absurdly low sales of collections and pamphlets?
And a final doubt: leaving aside the colossal elephant in the room ( i.e. how to find readers who aren’t poets), do poets themselves read enough poetry, especially work that’s outside the comfort zone of what their workshop leaders show them or what’s shared by their friends on social media…?
I hope this list might be helpful to teachers, although I think putting poetry into thematic categories involves some sleight-of-hand. Poems transcend labels like “ecopoetry” and “about religion,” if they’re good. Yet academic study, at least as constituted here and now, depends on categories, due to the sheer necessity of narrowing down some fraction of the literary universe into non-insane portion sizes for courses. Curricula typically divide material by the author’s country of origin, century of publication, literary school, gender, sexuality, race, religion, or other identity category; genre and theme play in, too. None of these categories is “natural.” We’re just used to them. Further, no reading list is fully coherent; every one generates borderline cases. I’d be interested to hear if you think I got any of these categories wrong for these particular poems.
I’m focusing here on the portion of the issue I edited, but I proofread the entire publication (even while on leave, because I love the magazine). I can testify that there’s terrific work all through it. The comics Rachel Cruz curated about survival are very powerful; check out the special translation section on Arabic poetry; BIPOC Editorial Fellow DW McKinney presents nonfiction about home and belonging (Sara Marchant’s “Haunted,” for example, is a memorably weird ghost story). Please check out the regular fiction and nonfiction, too. Beth Staples and her partner-in-crime Morgan Davis choose riveting pieces full of strong feeling that are also often experimental in structure and voice.
Every issue is a huge collective effort brought to wonderful fruition, and it means a lot when other people read it. When any issue of any magazine delights you, let the editors know! Or share it on social media, or do whatever you do to celebrate art you like. The world needs more of that.
I had developed the idea of a fairy-tale-like setting for the film and Katie’s music was perfect for that. I had read and re-read the lines to the point that I woke up with them in my mind. I did what I usually do, that is to sit in my car in a carpark, the space giving me a different perspective. I looked for the significant lines and visualised the poem, thinking how I could frame it. I broke the poem down to find where the space was, keeping the line breaks but moving the stanza breaks (and then on the timeline I cut the audio track at the points where I had made these breaks). This was an important step but by the final version it was pretty much as it was before.
I headed to an orchard to film but when I got there the footpath had been closed due to bad weather. By chance I came across a nearby woodland where I set up the tripod in several places and panned the camera (I made it appear to be by moonlight in post editing).
I had to return when it was windier to get movement in the top branches of the tall trees. I later discovered that the area was ‘Friary Wood’ which was once a monastic settlement of an order founded in France. That seemed so apt! On the way home from the woods, I came across a stagnant pond – a poem that asks a question might need something reflective (without being too much of a cliché), I thought!
I wanted a human element in the wood and Chaucer Cameron provided this aspect by being filmed against a green screen and moving a little to the soundtrack being played. I also subtly merged the text of Au Clair de la Lune onto the woodland floor towards the end.
At one stage I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I felt I had made two films – one for the poem and another for the music – neither of which were satisfactory alone, and I could not find a way of bringing them together. At that point I copied and pasted to a new timeline, mixed things up a little and worked more freely until I was happy with the result. (There’s a point in most of my poetry films where I think it best to give up – my inner critic doesn’t know about the other timeline thing!)
There have been some interesting launches and other events in the last few weeks. I suppose all those books that were out last year are playing launch catchup. Kudos to all the poetry book and magazine publishers that have kept things going, despite the fact that most books are sold at readings, so sales must have taken a severe hit.
These are some of the events I’ve managed to get to:
The next night was the launch of Robert Hamberger‘s long-awaited book A Length of Road – a prose/memoir/poetry hybrid which has been many years in the making, based on Robert’s punishing four-day 80-mile walk in the footsteps of John Clare and a meditation on both their experiences. Rob is another of those lovely, supportive and humble poets as well as being a beautiful writer. Another love-in of a launch!
Happy mid-July! It’s been so busy I’ve barely had time to catch my breath! Last week was my 27th wedding anniversary. Then we had Glenn’s 50th birthday party, I did a 15 year anniversary Zoom reading with Soul food Books, I’m doing another Zoom reading with The Poetry Salon tomorrow (Sunday) and then a Speculative Poetry Class with the Poetry Salon next Sunday. I’ve been working on finding great examples of speculative poetry in all its diversity. It’s good practice for me doing teaching and readings again after a year and a half of pandemic-induced non-activity. Speculative poetry and thinking about how best to talk about speculative poetry, what kind of exercises to use, etc. It’s made me start to think about the future, about maybe setting up a writing residency/conference/publishing seminars. I may be disabled but I still want to share what I know with others. This pandemic proved to me that I love interacting with other writers and I missed it more than I thought I would.
During the pandemic, I was privileged enough to find myself with an incredible amount of time on my hands. I don’t have any children and now that I was stuck at home, I began brainstorming ways I could fill my days. I started to wonder: how can I engage with poetry authentically if I cannot see poets in person? What does it mean to foster a poetic community over the internet?
Asking these questions and pondering their answers is how I came up with the concept for my podcast, Poetry Aloud. On Poetry Aloud, I feature one contemporary poet and their work. I email back and forth with the poet to ask them what is their favorite poem they have written and why. Then I pick one of my favorite poems from their work and read both on air, with my own thoughts and discussion following each poem. I close out the podcast by reading one of my own poems.
When I first started this project, I had no idea how much it would resonate with both myself and others. There is a power to reading poems out loud, especially those written by others. It gives them a texture, a flavor that lingers on the tongue and breathes a whole new dimension into them. Before I record my podcast, I choose which poem I’m going to read from the featured poet’s collection. Then I highlight or circle the images that speak to me and write a couple of words in the margins about the overall feelings or themes the poems communicate to me. With no other preamble, I record. Often while recording I find myself lost in the poet’s words, ideas and connections forming after reading the poem aloud that didn’t exist while reading it within my own mind. This is by design; I do not read the poems aloud until I am recording so that the listener can receive my genuine reaction to the poem itself.
NB: Autocorrect tried to change this to cockatoos, and I’m here for it. That could be a great first line for a poem…
*makes note on the back of an envelope*
Actually, I wrote a poem this week. It felt weird, I think it’s the first time in about a month or more that this has happened. Not exactly writer’s block or a drought, but I’m glad to have committed pen to paper (and it was an actual pen on some actual paper – I’m old fashioned like that for early drafts. However, this isn’t going to turn into one of those posts about writing methods. There are far too many of those about. The answer to the question of How do you write is IT DOESN’T MATTER AS LONG AS YOU DO. […]
I am cockahoop because I’ve finally managed to change the leaking tap in our kitchen. It doesn’t sound like much, but I’d see it as far more important than the act of writing a poem. Maybe I can go full Adrian Mole and get a poem out of it, but I wouldn’t want to, er, faucet…
In other water-based poetry news (and I’m pretty sure that’s a section that should be on most news sites), I’ve finally worked out why I keep getting the urge to sing Julian Cope’s ‘I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud’ every morning.
It’s taken me nearly three months to realise that it’s because our new shower (another leaking thing replaced, but not by me – that’s way above my pay grade/ abilities) makes the same noise as the first 4 seconds of this song, and so my brain has been filling in the blanks whenever I have a shower. And then as soon as I remember the title I start thinking about daffodils. No idea why though…(Insert smiley face emoji)
My first full poetry collection, Driftwood by Starlight, was published a few days before David and I headed off to Cornwall, the setting for a number of the poems in the book.
The photograph above shows me on the foreshore at Cadgwith, a small cove on The Lizard peninsula that holds a special place in my heart. I have known and loved this area virtually all my life.
Cadgwith appears on the front cover of my book, thanks to the wonderful night-time photography of Laurence Hartwell of Through the Gaps (thank you, Laurence). What you may, or may not, have noticed is that, serendipitously, there is a boat behind my left shoulder in the photograph above called ‘Starlight’. You can click on the photo to enlarge it.
My love affair with Cadgwith came about as a result of a poem by Lionel Johnson, which entranced my father, and made him keen to discover the cove for himself back in the 1960s. I quote part of Johnson’s poem in the book.
A couple of weeks ago, I escaped from the routines of my everyday life and disappeared into the woods for four days. As the video above explains, the intention of the trip was to shape a small writing retreat for myself. I packed up some pens, notebooks, my laptop, and printouts of a poetry project (along with some books and art and mediation supplies).
The goals of the retreat were low-key:
1. Disconnect from social media, the internet, and other distractions that fill my time with mental clutter.
2. Rest, relax, and rejuvenate through reading, walking among the trees, and meditation.
3. Write or create things, if I feel so inclined.
Going in, I wanted to put zero pressure on myself to meet any specific word counts. My time was completely open for me to utilize as I pleased. Ideally, I would write and create a few things (maybe finish some more poems) — but if I ended up doing nothing more than kicking back reading books (such as Sarah Kay’s gorgeous No Matter the Wreckage), then that would be okay, too.
Ultimately, this retreat turned out to be exactly what I needed in that moment. The mixture of work and ease was a blessing — and I achieved more than I thought I would be able to achieve.
By which, I mean to say, I completed a poetry project.
Up, and Creed and Colonell Atkins come to me about sending coals to Tangier: and upon that most of the morning. Thence Creed and I to Alderman Backewell’s about Tangier business of money, and thence I by water (calling and drinking, but not baisado, at Michell’s) to Westminster, but it being holyday did no business, only to Martin’s, and there yo did hazer la cosa con her; and so home again by water, and busy till dinner, and then with wife, Mercer, Deb., and W. Hewer to the Duke of York’s playhouse, and there saw “The Impertinents,” a pretty good play; and so by water to Spring Garden, and there supped, and so home, not very merry, only when we come home, Mercer and I sat and sung in the garden a good while, and so to bed.