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Sheenagh Pugh

Clocks. Rivers. Skylights. Arches and arcs. Songs. The sea. Henry's poetry is becoming not just more and more musical but more fugue-like, forever picking up themes and motifs from earlier work that deepen and grow more haunting each time he does so. His first collection, decades back, was called Time Pieces, and ever since, the passing of time has sounded in his work; the stone his younger ghost-self kicks through a Sixties housing estate in this book is "four million today"; has been there since the estate was a primeval swamp. He is "kicking a time piece".

The names of former neighbours inhabit this long poem as the names of women inhabited his spellbinding long poem "Penllain" from The Brittle Sea and earlier poems, notably in The Milk Thief. To me, at least, the name-listing in "Kicking the Stone" does not have quite the same resonance as that; I think because these are neighbours and friends, while Catrin Sands, Brown Helen and the rest were family (anyone biographically minded who wants to know more about them may care to look at the interview Henry gave here). In fact the final section of "Kicking the Stone" rises quite suddenly to a new height of impassioned involvement:

O scuff of sunny dust,
preserve this woman's song
only the stone and I can hear
up the unfinished road.

Preserve this woman's song
that finds the sea in a stone
as we pass by, up the road,
up the unfinished song.

And I think this heightened intensity can only be because the "musical house" where this happens, where a soprano is rehearsing, has to be Henry's own childhood home (his mother was a professional singer).

Brown Helen and the others do in fact recur by name in two poems: "Wardrobe Time" and "Brown Helen on Harbour Beach", and both have not just a nostalgic but a slightly elegiac tone, as if he might be saying goodbye to them. I sort of hope not, because they have become familiar and loved ghosts to the reader as well as the poet, but work does move on. Family life has always been important in his poems, but in this collection the protagonist is distanced from his family; in the collection's first poem, "Usk", the eponymous river is both the distance and the link between the speaker, "upstream", and the "you" he addresses, in the "mess of streets" where the river turns to sludge (ie, Newport). And the "boys" whose childhood has featured in earlier collections are distanced not only in space but by time, the adulthood which brings independence and loosens parental ties.  In "Late Kick-Off"  the ghost-boys return in fancy:

They are coming back to me
taller than I imagined
and too old to warm inside my fleece.
It has been too long.
They must be cold by now.
I'll warm up the engine.

Those three short sentences at the end: a reminder that Henry has always been skilled at using the unromantic tools of sentence structure to create pace, tension, emotion.  He must also be one of the most skilled and unobtrusive rhymers currently working; his natural musicality lends itself to form, but it's a different and more verbal skill that makes the rhyme in "Blackrock: the Bedsit Years" read so unforced:

The lost years owned a rent-book
and sometimes fell behind.
Damp, second-hand,
they clung to what they took,
sang between cracked walls,
had plans, murdered mice,
came and went, imprecise
in their choice of doorbells.

"Davy Blackrock", a new character in his work, is a sort of modern avatar of the 18th-century harpist and composer Dafydd Owen, better known as Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock), who is remembered today for the tune that bears his name. There is a fair amount of humour in Davy, but also much darkness. The final poem of both this section and the collection is neither up- nor downbeat; it expresses inevitability, the way our past shapes us and the necessity of living with that:

However badly we played our love,
slipped out of key, this song.

It will not forget us, haunts us now,
plays us into the dusk, this song.

It seems appropriate, in such a music-haunted, crafted collection, that this final poem is called "Song" and is a ghazal. But the poem that strikes me as most like a keynote for this collection would probably be "Under the River", both for its musicality, the way it uses refrain and the alternating short and long sentences to drive its rhythms, and for the way he has always had of seeing inside and beyond things:

Under the river a deeper river runs.
It is simply a case of pressing your ear
your heart to the bank, about here,
then of listening to its quieter turns

to the voices of loved ones
you thought would never rise again,
holding you now, with an old refrain.
Under the river a deeper river runs.
Sheenagh Pugh

Elizabeth Melville (c1578-1640) was the earliest female Scottish poet to have her work appear in print. It is powerful, accomplished and shows great technical mastery. Yet the Oxford and Penguin Books of Scottish Verse ignore it; only in recent anthologies of women's verse has it appeared. Why so long a wait? A long-standing tendency for academics to underrate women's poetry is certainly part of it; so, perhaps, may be the fact that much of her poetry, until lately, was only available in manuscript form and thus less likely to attract the less thorough anthologist. It is also possible that being written in Scots has told against it; even Dunbar and Henryson are not as highly rated in the wider English-speaking world as they should be.

But when Jamie Reid Baxter, editor of this volume, spoke on Melville at St Andrews recently, he suggested another reason: her uncompromising subject matter. Her one theme is religion: she writes as a Presbyterian, conscious of sin, believing she can be saved not by her own merit, nor by any intermediary like a saint or a priest, but only by her direct relationship with God. It follows that when she does not sense his presence in her life, she experiences deep sensations of loss and grief, while the moments when she does have an intermittent sense of his grace are so intense as to be hard for a modern reader to share, unless indeed one reads them as one would a love-poem to a human being. Most religious poets – Herbert, Donne – sometimes sound like love-poets, but female religious poets like the Welsh hymn-writer Ann Griffiths are particularly apt to do so, and Melville certainly does:

thee alone
my onlie one
the first and eik the last. (Meditation on Psalm 42)

One of the most staggering things about Melville is her metrical virtuosity. In her sacred parody of Marlowe's "Come live with me and be my love", she fashions a corona by picking up words from the last line of one verse in the first of the next:

Come live with me and be my love
And all these pleasurs thou shalt prove
That in my word hath warned thee
O loath this life and live with me

This life is but a blast of breath
Nothing so sure as dreadful death
And since the time no man can know
Sett not thy love on things below

For things below will wear away
And beautie brave will soon decay
Look to that life that lasts for ever
And love the love that failes thee never

I never failed thee in thy need….

and she keeps this up for three more pages, never sounding in the least forced. In sonnets to Andrew Melville, she employs the fiendishly difficult rime batelée, where the end-rhyme of one line is picked up internally in the next:

Do not complain to suffer heir a space
A schour of grace unto thy saull sall raine
This world in vaine sall seik to spoill thy peace

She is adept at anagrams, alliterative constructions, writing words to complicated psalm and song tunes. Technically she is the equal of any poet of her time (or of many other times) and the superior of most. But she is not, ever, your dry-as-dust technician. Her meditations on her relationship with God are thought-provoking and by no means always expected or conventional:

Oh qhuat is man
Lord think I than
that thow began
thy great and wonderous works for him alone
thow did not spair
thy angells fair
but punisch'd sair
thair pride and banisch'd them out of thy throne
and put them clein away
out of thy sicht
preferring dust and clay
to angels bricht.

One would think, too, that even readers who do not share her religious beliefs could share both her sense of loneliness in the world and her exultation at the thought of heavenly justice:

Thou tramps proud tirrants down
under thy feit
and plucks from kings thair crown
quhen thou thinks meit
the humble men
exalts thou then
and lifts the lowlie hairt above the sky
The proud at last
thou dois down cast
and heirs the puir opprest quhen they do cry.

Thanks to Baxter's efforts, there is now an inscribed flagstone commemorating her as one of Scotland's great writers in Makars' Court, Edinburgh, with a quotation from her long poem "Ane Godlie Dreame":

"Though tyrants threat, though Lyons rage and rore
Defy them all, and feare not to win out".

It has taken too long for Melville's poetry to "win out" from obscurity, but now that we have it in an accessible volume, it's well worth getting to know.
Sheenagh Pugh
24 February 2015 @ 02:19 pm
Barbara Marsh is a poet and singer-songwriter who was born in Rhode Island and now lives and teaches in London. Her first collection, To the Boneyard, was published by Eyewear in 2013.


Six years old in the back of a blue station wagon:
Holiday Inn. Esso. Walk a Mile for a Camel.
Burma-Shave. Home of Yellowstone
Up front, maps full of words.

Curvy red and blue lines
led to cities – words first, then boulevards
and buildings. Later, I’d memorise white shapes
on green rectangles: Sleepy Hollow Road, Runnell Avenue,

Iroquois Point
. Sing them like nursery rhymes
as my feet went round on the pedals. You taught me
to search for the perfect word,
that Q was useless without U.

I remember white-dotted avenues
on the table, the domino pile on the edge,
your voice singing To the boneyard
you must go
, disembodied as any ghost.

Now you say That’s a good word. Then
repeat it. As if you’ve never heard it. Now
we drive down roads I don’t recognise.

SHEENAGH: I know you relocated a lot as a child, due to your father's navy job. How did you react to this? Some children react by not putting down such deep roots outside the family, consciously or unconsciously not getting as attached to places or friends as they otherwise might; some become hoarders of memories or get very good at maintaining relationships at a distance via letters or phone. And some become very acute, analytical observers, always comparing the now with the then, the here with elsewhere. Did this background make it easier for you to fit in when you changed countries and what impact would you say it's had on your writing?

BARBARA: That's a good question - I think I reacted well while it was happening - I knew I had no choice, so I accepted it, was the usual resilient kid - but it wasn't easy, having to settle in a new place and make new friends every couple of years. And then I often went to more than one school in those two years, if we'd arrived on the cusp - the last year in primary school, for example, so friends I'd made the previous school year I wouldn't then be in school with in the next place, if you see what I mean. I’d been in 10 schools by the time I was 14. I was definitely a bit of a hoarder - I'd save all kinds of things: matchbooks, restaurant napkins, tickets, birthday cards, the little plastic mermaids that hang on a cocktail glass (or monkeys or whatever – my dad knew I liked them and brought them home) - so many things had meaning; these were things I could hold on to, I guess, unlike the places we lived and the friends I'd left behind. I always felt insecure and clumsy (I was also always growing, always taller than everyone in my class, so I really was quite a klutz). In fact, the only times I felt secure were when I was writing or playing/performing music or acting. Normal social interactions were hard - I was so painfully self-conscious, with the insecurity complex that can travel with that. And terrified of people in authority, of men, of being myself, having my own opinions around them (I think 'Serial' touches on that a good deal). And although I always intended to stay in touch with the friends I'd left, it never happened - I'd be in touch for a short period and then stop. I don't know why - maybe I never trusted that any relationship could withstand the imposed distance. The people stayed in my memory, but I was unable to find any of them (or them to find me) for years until recently, through Facebook and Many of the people I thought I’d never lose touch with I have been unable to find.

I have the geography of some of the places I lived in my bones – I dream of the houses from Hawaii, Mississippi, Virginia, Florida. I have a physical ache for some places I’ve lived. When I got older, I never expected any intimate relationship to last – and I never felt settled anywhere. In fact, it wasn't until relatively recently that I felt settled at all – we moved house last October, and had lived there – the house in Hackney – for 8 and a half years, the longest I have ever lived anywhere since I was born. It was such a wrench to leave. I think I always feel like a bit of a foreigner anyway, everywhere – because I am one! But I felt that in the US as well (I’ve been in the UK for 30 years now, nearly all my adult life) – never felt settled, in my home, in myself... I think it's all linked back to moving so much as a kid, but I felt that I was different from other Americans – like I didn't really belong there. I feel more like I belong here; though I’m not sure why, I think I always have – even with the obvious differences (and may I just say how tired I am of hearing 'You haven't lost your accent!'?). Did it make it easier to fit in? I don't think so – it was really tough when I moved here; my mother had just died, my marriage (to the Brit I moved here with) was a disaster – I ended up in a psychiatric ward for seven weeks a year and a half later – though I think that had more to do with early childhood trauma than anything else. I realised I'd suffered from depression since I was really small – and that may well have to do with the extreme un/up/rooted-ness of my earliest life; who knows? I wrote a lot as a kid – poems and stories – I spent long periods inside myself, whether I was in or outside my house; I'd go for long, long walks with my dog, playing a big dramatic scenario for hours – all in my head. From the age of 12, I also spent days on the guitar, shut in my room, obsessed – so the writing and music became fused and I began writing songs when I was 13. I think the constant moving, constantly questioning myself and my worth had a huge impact on my writing – it was the only acceptable place to explore the themes of misplacement or displacement; I didn't happily talk about it because I didn't understand at the time that that's what I was exploring. Even now, I find the themes of rootlessness – and that feeling of being 'other' and the odd one out – barge into my poems all the time, but I don't realise that's what I'm exploring until someone points it out to me – but it's inescapable, I think! I also lost my mother when I was 25, and that further excluded me – or that's how it felt at the time. You can see how much I've explored my parents' deaths in the poems – there was so much unsaid: my mother, because she died so young; my father, because he could be a difficult man and found it hard to be emotionally open, and by the time I could talk to him as an adult, he was lost to dementia.

It's interesting that you say some people find they compare the now with the then, the here with elsewhere – I think I do that, too; that may be one of the reasons I don't feel settled, or grounded, a lot of the time. When I am absolutely in the moment – which happens most often in a gig, in the middle of a song, or when I'm doing a reading - I am in heaven, because there's no other place I'm supposed to be, and I am not outside myself, looking at what I'm doing or how I'm behaving (and wondering if that's all okay). I don’t usually remember specific details about it. At its best, it’s entirely non-judgmental and zen-like, but I become very much part of what I'm reading or singing, so quite exposed and vulnerable as a result – sometimes it can feel a little too close to the edge. I've succeeded so far in staying just within the boundary, but I stretch it, take risks that are a bit frightening. I think that's also satisfying because I was expected to behave in a particular way when I was small (to accept all the moving and be a good girl, act ladylike, all that - we were in a military family, and my dad, a high-ranking officer, could be very critical and a little scary; I felt I had to 'be' a certain way – but I was probably too sensitive and self-censoring) – and when I can approach such an emotionally out-there place, it's quite exhilarating.

I think I spend a lot of time observing and thinking, although I don't notice at the time – and then I find I'm writing about these characters who have just decided to walk in onto the page fully formed and I'm not sure where they've come from. I'm having a great time with that at the moment – there's a character who keeps coming into my journal, and I like him a lot. I think I may be getting off the point.

SHEENAGH: "And then I find I'm writing about these characters who have just decided to walk in onto the page fully formed and I'm not sure where they've come from"

Yes, in your collection there are quite a few personae who aren't you. But it can take a while to see that, because you use a lot of first person. Sometimes the "I" in your poems clearly is you, at least in part, indicated by biographical detail, parents etc, so if the reader isn't careful she can find herself assuming every "I" is the writer – and then suddenly it dawns: no, this "I" is an invention… I like that, because it keeps the reader awake. I have interviewed several poets who use first person a lot, and they have various answers to the question "does it worry you if people assume the "I" is always autobiographical?" What would yours be?

BARBARA: I’m so glad you like that. It sometimes worries me that I use first person so much. I’ve tried to change to third many times in particular poems, but sometimes they just won’t have it – and fellow poets, in my workshop, will sometimes say ‘Why isn’t this in first person? It wants to be in first person,’ so I change it back again. It may be that I am more of a first person poet, but I do worry about the self-absorbed image that may engender, despite the poems very often going away from the actual life experience…
However, the current character walking into my poems absolutely comes in third person, and I’m really enjoying that. In answer to the question, it doesn’t really worry me, although I do often tell audiences that it isn’t necessarily me, so they’re on their toes, just to question their assumptions; allow the possibility that my poems are not necessarily my life. Also gives me a little more space, that possibly-not-autobiography stance, which makes the poems that are a bit close to the bone slightly easier to read to an audience! I do tell my students never to assume that the ‘I’ is automatically the autobiographical voice of the poet. In a good number of the poems, although they start from my own experience, they move into their own, so I can’t claim them as fully autobiographical anyway, as they take on their own lives.

SHEENAGH: Going back to these characters who keep walking into your work, this sounds like how a novel or a play might develop. Do you think you might branch out into other genres this way?

BARBARA: I would love to branch out. I am writing some short stories now – though they are very short. But they’re definitely stories, and written from one character voice or another wandering into my journal. I also have a few monologues that have simply ‘occurred’ and I’d like to find homes for them. I’d very much like to write a longer piece – especially a play, I think – or maybe a novel, though that seems somehow more daunting. The desire is there – but how on earth can I fill so many pages? Long poems don’t even happen very often for me; "Opal" is my longest poem so far – it’s rare that I write a poem that goes beyond one page (although there are a few two-pagers). The trick would be to keep the idea going far enough to write the longer work. But it is certainly something I’d like to try.

SHEENAGH: You are both a poet and a songwriter. Paul Henry, whom I've interviewed before, is another such. His musician side shows through in his poems in the use of form; he writes a lot of half-rhyme and a lot of form poems, including rondeaux and sestinas. You don't use rhyme or form much; when you do it tends to be looser, like unrhymed sonnets, and though your poems are musical, the rhythms are those of free verse. Do you always know when something's going to turn out to be a poem or a song, and is the process of writing them very different? Do they cross-fertilise at all?

BARBARA: I know; it’s funny, isn’t it? I’ve always tended towards free verse in poetry, though musicality has been a part of me since I was about 3 or 4 – both parents were musical, my uncle was a jazz musician, my aunt a concert grade pianist; I was singing or humming Harry Belafonte’s Calypso, Beethoven’s piano sonatas and John Philip Sousa marches since well before I could read. The song lyrics are formal (although they can be pretty loose at times). In poems, I do sometimes use half-rhyme, although it may be less obvious than half – is there such a thing as quarter-rhyme? But I think it more often presents itself, rather than me being deliberate in the choice of rhyme (the deliberate internal and end para-rhymes and end half-rhymes in "Beck and call", for example). I’d like to write more formal poems – more sestinas ("Dry" is the only one so far) and a sonnet corona, for starters, but the other poems march in and I have such limited time these days to write so lack the concentrated time these forms would require. I’m trying to put together a project at the moment, which will need funding, and I’d be aiming at a section of the poems to have some kind of strict form. I think there’s a fair bit of internal rhyme and assonance in many of the current poems, but again, they are not necessarily planned as such. In revision, I tend to locate them and hitch the lines to the inherent rhythm, and consider the musicality that’s been set up, how to echo or enhance the word combinations (and ideas). There is often a loose pentameter to the lines, which sometimes assists me in making line-ending decisions.

SHEENAGH: "there’s a fair bit of internal rhyme and assonance in many of the current poems, but again, they are not necessarily planned as such. In revision, I tend to locate them and […] consider the musicality that’s been set up"

Ah, that answers a question I was going to ask! That would be how, for instance, the sound-patterns in the first verse of "Greyhound" came about: There are consonanatal or vowel repetitions like the K of ankles-clicks-cheek-truck and the long O of Wyoming-swollen-window-snow-road, but also more complicated and interlacing ones – the long E of "cheek" leads on to "sleep", but the P of "sleep" then leads to the echo with "stop"". This is what happens when one revises with sound in mind, right?

BARBARA: Oh dear! I think it may be more accidental than that, but it’s probably accurate. I often don’t have a conscious musical brain looking over the work; I think I work more intuitively than that when it comes to writing and revision, probably because music has been such a huge part of my world – I was singing, playing and writing songs from such an early age – poems, too, though they were (as I think I’ve already said) often more like song lyrics; in any case, the sounds of the words, the musicality and how the sounds fit together – these must have been the deciding factors. So that has spilled over into my revisions, most definitely. But often many of the sounds occur in the first draft, setting up patterns, most likely, that I take note of somewhere in my brain, to enable me to ‘revise with sound in mind’, as you say (the more I think of that, the more apt it is). Those sound patterns in "Greyhound", for example – I’ve just had a look at the earliest draft, and what happened is that, in revision, I took out lines to allow the sounds that were already working to take the lead and I did change words and lines to allow the musicality to come through. How much of this was actually on purpose and how much just trimming/editing/changing until it ‘felt right’, I’m not sure. I’m not sure how conscious that process was.

When I’m writing, do I know if it’s a poem or a song lyric? Generally, I’d say yes. The poems tend to be more of an experimental exploration, less formal, as you’ve noticed. They rarely know where they are going until they get there (and even then, it can be questionable). The song lyrics tend to be immediately more formal; usually – though not always – the line endings rhyme. They often come out in big chunks, sometimes with an accompanying melody, usually with a strong rhythm in mind. They do tell a story, most often, though the narrative often shifts during the writing. Actually, whether a song or a poem, I never know how it will end up.

The thing with poems and song lyrics, I think, is that poems contain their own music, whereas song lyrics need the external music to attach to in order to work fully. The words in songs have to be singable – they need the vowels to move the lines (forget words like mythological); in poems, the words have to speak well – sometimes they can do both. Poems tend to take more leaps; song lyrics can be a little more linear. Some songwriters’ lyrics can work as poems, but I think that’s the exception, rather than the rule. They can of course cross-fertilise (what a great way to put it) – and that’s a treat when it happens to pull them both together – it becomes a kind of song-with-spoken-word and is experimental and quite thrilling. And of course, sometimes, a lone line comes up and I think it’s part of a poem, and it wants to be part of a song instead or a stanza wants to be a song verse. Does that make sense?

SHEENAGH: Further to that, one wouldn't perhaps guess that a musician-poet would be so keen on prose poems! What led you to this form; are there any particular models that were important? And again, how do you decide when a poem wants to be in that quite specialised format?

BARBARA: Charles Simic’s poems opened my eyes fairly wide; I was introduced to his work by Chris Whitley, an American musician/singer/songwriter. I wish I could remember the specific poem – Chris had it framed; Simic had signed a torn-out page of poetry. This particular one was a lineated poem. Anyway, when I read it, all kinds of things began connecting in my head and I started writing very differently; it was a ‘light went on’ moment. I was just starting to write poetry seriously – by which time I mean the poems were not just non-rhyming verses for songs! – and I began seeing and taking the leaps in poems that I couldn’t/didn’t in songs. I bought Simic’s books and read them, not understanding some of them, not caring because I liked the way the words went together so much. The World Doesn’t End, Simic’s Pulitzer-winning collection of non-titled prose poems, knocked me out – I loved the surreality and absurdity of some of the poems and the clarity and specificity of his imagery. There’s one poem – this one not humorous, really bleak – that I use in my classes and it keeps renewing itself:

The old farmer in overalls hanging from a barn beam. The cows looking sideways. The old woman kneeling under his swaying feet in her Sunday black dress and touching the ground with her forehead like a Mohammedan. Outside the sky is full of sudsy clouds above an endless plowed field with no other landmarks in view.

The poem – its concrete images, its present continuous tense of the verbal phrases, the fact that there is only one full sentence in the poem (with is as the verb, when so much of the poem is about what isn’t) – would lose its drive, be less effective if it were lineated. This, for me, is essential for the prose poem – its defiance of form and the fact that it would be a lesser poem if it had set line endings.

I read prose poems quite a while before I began to write them. I think it was a workshop on prose poetry with Carrie Etter that opened the window on my own writing – "The straw" (eventually) came out of an exercise from the workshop and I began writing prose poems more frequently after that. In deciding on format, the prose poem works for me when the poem – which tends to look at one thing; it’s quite concentrated – insists on driving its way through, without consideration for line endings that would add or subtract anything to or from the poem. The imagery kind of has this insistence about it and doesn’t want the eye to linger on a word or image at the end of a line (save the analysis for later). I usually try to lineate prose poems at first, when I’m not sure where/how it wants to sit on the page, but stanza breaks/ line endings / subtext are never satisfying – the poem seems to have, as I mentioned, a kind of insistence – I’m not sure there’s another way to put that. It is happy enough to be put in a box (in fact, it really needs this kind of enclosing) but doesn’t want any definition within the box. That’s my take on it, anyway. I think.

SHEENAGH: Ah, workshops…. I struggle to understand the lofty dismissal of these in some quarters – "sounds like a workshop exercise" is enough to damn any poem for some people. If this just meant the scaffolding of a poem was too obvious, then maybe, but I suspect it actually harks back to a Romantic delusion that poems ought to spring fully formed from "inspiration". What part do workshops play in your writing process; how do you use them? Do they have a parallel in the music world?

BARBARA: Hmm – lucky people who have their poems spring up fully formed! (And SO many beginning poets/students think the poem that first appears on the page is actually the poem…) I love workshops, and workshop exercises. I see them as fantastic learning and writing tools. Very occasionally, I write from an entirely blank page, but not often. I used to go to workshops regularly. Now I teach a lot and I don’t have time (or money, strangely enough, though I am working more…) to attend extra writing workshops – plus, now I want to go to workshops that will really stretch me, and those are harder to find – and it’s difficult to attend with my current time commitments. What I do do, when I can, is to do a writing exercise along with the class – this has brought about a number of poems. I love the way a writing exercise allows raw material to pour out onto the page while I watch – usually it will surprise me; more often than not, it will lead to a poem if it hasn’t already begun. There are a some exercises I give my students that I still use on my own – the helpful thing about exercises is that they often tend to work on all levels, at least, that’s been my experience. I collect books by poets and writers about writing (I’m really enjoying Kim Addonizio’s books), to give me ideas for exercises and teaching and I often find them useful for my own writing. I go to a peer poetry workshop every week – we don’t do exercises, but we close-read published work and workshop our own poems; it keeps me motivated and moving my work on, even if I don’t bring a poem in. Most of us have been in the group for years. I think I’d really miss it if I didn’t have it.

In the music world, I’m not sure if there’s an equivalent. In The Dear Janes, I collaborated with another singer/songwriter/musician in London for twelve yeras, and we did a lot of batting ideas around, which was a really stimulating way to work. In New York, I was part of the folk music circuit, and we’d all listen to (and support – or seethe with envy over) our peer singer/songwriters. Sometimes we’d play and sing together; it was like a collective. I learned a lot about songwriting. Suzanne Vega was there at the time, and Jack Hardy, Frank Christian, Dave Van Ronk... so many musicians and really good writers. Shawn Colvin was around, too, though not such a regular as Vega. It was a real community, extremely helpful in learning the craft. It could also get quite snarky and competitive (similar to some poetry circuits). I guess I still collaborate – I’m lucky to live with an extraordinary musician (and a fantastic poem editor, though not a poet!) and we have a lot of respect and admiration for each other’s work.

SHEENAGH: I'm interested also in the models/motivation for what one might call your word-game poems - ones like "Definite article" and "Beck and call". The latter, in fact, does use a sort of formal device; a repeated consonant that seems to very much dictate the word choice and drive the narrative. What particular buzz does this kind of writing give you?

BARBARA: I think the buzz is in the energy of the unexpectedness of those poems – I remember, with "Definite article", listing and listing these things I thought my father must have been going through – he had Alzheimer’s – before his death. It was the energy that eventually carried it along, and the rhythm of that – those were the deciders in the editing – how the body just keeps going along, despite the loss of mental function and the heart pumps and the blood flows – until it doesn’t. For me, it’s an incredibly emotional poem, but the list form of the poem and the energy from that form push/es it forward and allows the thing itself to happen, so the thinking about what IS happening/the emotion of the piece gets put off until after the poem is read. That’s the result, for me – it wasn’t written with that in mind, that separation of thing and emotion, but that ended up being how the poem wanted to go, while echoing the steady loss of function of the body/brain. I hope this doesn’t sound pompous! I’ve never really thought about the why/how of the poem in such detail before.

With "Beck and call", it was Don Paterson who suggested – when I told him, during a week-long workshop in Spain, that I was a bit stuck – that I try para-rhymes, which he defined as the repetition of the first and last sounds of the chosen word (or syllable) – the words can be lengthened but the beginning and ending sounds have to be the same, the vowels within the word section varying; e.g. buck, beck, back, Buick, Bucky’s, Quebec, tobacco, humbucker, Rebecca, etc. I chose Beck, decided to use one in every line and the first line came, then another and another, and it was like a game (as was the sestina for me). It also has regular line-end half-rhymes, though these are not so obvious. That poem was hugely enjoyable to write – the narrative (and the poem) was discovered entirely through the rhyme – and the rhythm. That was one of the things I learned from Don – using rhyme can really carry or lead the writing of the whole thing. In the case of "Beck" and the sestina ("Dry"), lines were often a real surprise, driven by the para-rhyme or the end word – and I followed the poem, as opposed to reaching for lines to go into the poem. Coincidentally, in songwriting it’s, more often than not, been that way for me – sometimes I’ve used a rhyming dictionary (Sammy Cahn’s Songwriter’s Rhyming Dictionary is brilliant) and come across a word I liked and it’s changed the course of the verse – or the whole song.

SHEENAGH: One more question – where do you see your work going next?

BARBARA: Where do I see the poems going next? At the moment, there are about 30 or more with the same character - these are a real step away from To the Boneyard - and I'd like to continue to follow these and work on them and see where they take me. I'm hoping they'll be a longish pamphlet first - although there may be enough pages for a collection on its own soon - not sure about the wisdom of a collection with the same character throughout. (And of course, I need a publisher!) The poems are all in 3rd person and concern Mr Ferndean, a male middle-aged character, single, post-retirement (turns out he was a pharmacist). He's quite well educated, a bit awkward, easily embarrassed, animal lover - owner of a golden retriever, white-and-black cat and a parrot (who occaisionally drops sunflower kernels into the dog's ear when the dog is asleep, if his ear falls into a folded-back position); is smitten with a local woman who has no idea (and would probably be quite shocked) and bicycles around his small town. He's not all sun and light - he does have a temper as well. He also has a somewhat ornery, semi-foul-mouthed, outspoken friend who comes into a few of the poems. And his mother is 93 and getting a bit frail, so there are issues around that as well. I am very fond of him - it's a very different writing experience for me; he walked onto a page one day and hasn't really stopped, although he's slowed down a bit - he generally shows up during longer holiday periods when there's time to concentrate on new poems - sometimes during term-time, too, but there's less brain-space, so not as often. Does this sound completely crazy?

Beyond the Mr F poems, I'm considering looking at more formal sequences, though free verse poems keep popping up. For that, I'll need much more concentrated time, so it may be a slow start. And in terms of subject matter, I keep thinking I'm finished with the parent poems, but we'll see. My observations are, of course, shifting as I get older and I'm becoming more and more interested in two areas: examining my relationship to the natural world, primarily the ocean(s), but from a more ecopoetical stance, attempting to blur that line between observer and observed, to see how far I can push the subjective/objective points of view.

I'm also feeling the itch to visit and write about places I have links to but have little or no memory of - places I lived when I was very small and places that were instrumental in shaping my world view and the directions my life has taken - places I have never re-visited. I'd like to record the experience in a kind of once-removed stance, so it's not necessarily me as the narrator; I'm not sure - it's really early stages. I was born in Rhode Island, but we left when I was 10 months old and I've never been back. It's another link to the open water, RI being on the east coast. I'm really eager to explore the easternmost point in the US, where we lived after RI for 2 years - Lubec, Maine (pop.1,359 in 2010) - across a bridge to New Brunswick, full of amazing language and landscape - Quoddy Narrows, Passamaquoddy Bay, Moose Island, Campobello Island... At the moment it's minus 16 degrees Centigrade in Lubec, so very different from anything I've known since! And then there's Hawaii, where we lived twice, which I feel a real pull to explore; my family's life changed so very much during that time and my own development was, I think, fixed during those years. In fact, these places are, significantly, all on the water, so I may be looking at a project where I am and am not present at different times (as the subjective narrator), combining the ideas of stance.

I'm also warming to the idea of writing a play, or at least a full-length monologue. My background is in theatre as well as music, so the theoretical idea of a one-woman play has been swimming around my head for a while. God knows when - I need to loosen up some time and get some funding!


On the flight home together, he was quiet,
already absent, editing her out of the tales
he would relate to his wife.

That reckless summer, he could make no other choice
and she was blind beyond the holiday,
her life contained in its two weeks.

They'd found a beach, inaccessible by land,
made love against their rented boat, she
doubled over the bow. They dared anyone to discover them.

At night, shooting stars competed with the thickness of cicadas
and wet slaps against the docks
where fishermen beat the octopuses.

They drank Ouzo out of plastic cups, ate tomatoes and sardines.
She swam every Ionian cove they could find,
back and forth its entire width,

and again the next day, to make it more real.
Each bay disappeared
as soon as they mounted the hill to the road.

During supper at the taverna, she fed kalamari
to the feral cats under the table. She could feel
the prickle of fleas on her skin.

They shot whiskey in Harry's Bar, clambered up terraces
of olive groves, sailed into Fiscardo.
On their first holiday, the world was ancient.

Definite article

The pencil the paper the lines the forearm
the hand the fingers the knuckles the tendons
the bones the muscles the compulsion the lessons
the handwriting paper the graphite on off-white
the spaces the spaces between the letters
the words the lines between the pages
the synapses the oxygen the cut-off point
the freeze the fear the distraction the memory
the grief of others the lack of function
the lack of care the brain shutting down
the loss of the mind's eye the lapse of the tongue
the who the why the where the when
the loss of control of movement of cause
the loss of effect the dark the light
the flicker the shadow the eyelids the cheekbones
the fall of the chest the heartbeat the drift
the outbreath the stillness the stillness the

Pensacola Beach Bridge

I would cross it each new summer, a toll bridge
with a hill in the middle to let boats through,
the dolphin sign a carnival pointing the way.

I'd throw coins in the basket, hear the rattle and ding!
before the striped arm went up.
The old bridge sat alongside, its draw removed.
Fishermen lined its rails, gulls dived for scraps.

Everything eased, like my brown legs into sand.
Hard bodies, new drugs, I crossed over to them
with the songs on the radio – Take Me to the River,
What a Fool Believes, How Do I Survive.

Last September, a storm with a boy’s name
destroyed it. Photographs show great chunks gnashed away
en route to the remnants of Oriole Beach, Palafox Street.

The birds calling over Pensacola Sound don’t know
how the seasons rush, single days like the fish
they swoop down upon.

Perhaps there’s no bridge to anywhere we’ve been.
All those stars we see that no longer exist.
In the blaze of the September sun, the glints
on the still water under what remains.

Barbara Marsh's website is due an update soon, but meanwhile her Facebook page is here
To the Boneyard can be bought from Eyewear Publishing and there's a review here
Sheenagh Pugh
16 February 2015 @ 10:40 am
... to adapt a quote from Chaucer, between "censoring" something and "not providing a platform" for it, which is why this Guardian headline is inaccurate and mischief-making. The article complains of "a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed 'transphobic'". It cites the fact that Julie Bindel (whose views no one needs to "deem" transphobic, because her rabid hatred shines through them) "has been “no-platformed” by the National Union of Students for several years."

Well now, I have never been invited to the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, but that is hardly censorship, just them choosing what kind of speaker they want to host. If you object "yes, but that isn't a blanket ban, such as the NUS has put on Bindel", I will counter that I'm pretty sure there are indeed some writers who would be dismissed out of hand by many a festival, either because their quality is deemed too low or because they write in a genre or style that does not appeal to that festival's audience (not every audience can take the f-word every second sentence). That still isn't censorship.

In fact the things which are not censorship, but are often called so, is a long one. If I write a letter to a newspaper and they choose not to publish it, that is not censorship. If I delete a comment by someone else on my blog or Facebook page because I don't like the tone, that is not censorship. If a publisher turns down a writer's work, that is not censorship. I have seen them all called so, but in no case is the writer being told he can't publish his views; he is just being told to go and publish them elsewhere. If he publishes them on his own blog and the government closes it down, or via his own press and the copies are seized and burned, or sets up a meeting which is raided by the authorities, THAT is censorship (which may or may not be justified depending on whether or not he is inciting folk to violence or libelling someone).

If a lawful meeting is broken up by protesters, that too would be censorship, and also illegal. But what if it is merely howled down by them? Well, they have a right to express their views, too. In a democracy I would prefer they listened to their opponents and then argued with them, but we can't have it both ways: if one person has a right to express a view, another has a right to express his annoyance at it. And a venue that doesn't wish to see such scenes, or give a platform to particular views, has a right not to host them in the first place. I daresay the Women's Institute "no-platforms" a great many potential speakers who are not to their taste, and why should they not? One would hope a university would be generally receptive to debate, but again if they choose not to provide space for all and sundry to say what they please, that is not censorship.

What's odd about this debate is that never in human history has it been harder to "silence" someone in the way the signatories of this letter claim to have been silenced. Every Tom, Dick and Harry has a website and as long as they stay within the law they can put what they like on it. Google any of these signatories - Campbell, for example - and far from silence you will find them and their views ubiquitous. It seems, therefore, a trifle disingenuous, and over-wrought, to claim they have been silenced simply by being denied a particular platform.

But I'm not that surprised, because I recall the kerfuffle years ago among Ioan Gruffudd's online fans... For anyone whom it passed by, there was a tribute site, set up and run by his fans, which he funded. All was sweetness and light, until he got engaged, and catty remarks about his fiancee started appearing on its forums. He remonstrated about this, to no effect, and then did what he had warned he would do, and what any man would have done in the circumstances: he stopped financing the site. He didn't prevent anyone else doing so, nor try to get it taken down; he simply didn't see why he should personally facilitate and fund people who wanted to insult his future wife. Believe it or not, there were immediate cries of "censorship!" I thought at the time that the complainants were a set of nutcases whose unreasonableness could not possibly have a parallel in the world. But there you are, there's always another one...
Sheenagh Pugh

Frank Dullaghan's first collection, On the Back of the Wind, was much concerned with childhood memories and family relationships, which is arguably a theme particularly associated with the Irish poetic tradition from which he comes. At that time, the place where he now lives, Dubai, had not really begun to surface in his writing.

The Same Roads Back marks a definite shift. It does in fact begin with a section of family-memory poems, centred this time around himself and his mother, rather than the father who dominated his first book. Dullaghan always handles this material deftly, unsentimentally and often with a touch of humour (as in his confounding of the policeman in "Border Boy") which serves to individualise them. But because there isn't exactly a shortage of this kind of poem, it is a theme that creates few surprises for the reader. The more the impact, then, when, following this section, we suddenly come on a vein of wayward, surreal imagery in poems like "She Puts On The Dark", "The Fridge Inside Her", "Turning", "A Man Falling":

the pavement slowly
climbing towards his
speeding brain,
each grain of air lost
to him in passing.
As he dips under
the street lamp, his
shadow leaps from him,
its open arms ready
to receive him

And it's almost as if writing this kind of poem then permanently frees something up in him, because when we get on to the next group of poems, set in places like the Emirates, Egypt, Syria and Tripoli, the language and imagery are not just exact but memorable. In "Naming the Stars: Syria 2013" we see

the wall
ripped from a neighbour's house,

the wind reading his books

while in "The Heartache Café"

That old man in the corner is made of glass.
He is cracked from the heart to the head.
If he moves he will shatter, glitter
across the floor like ice.

I found the Arab Spring poems particularly memorable; after all, it isn't a subject many English-language poets have yet written about, let alone from so close to the scene. But it's also interesting to see, for the first time, poems emerging from his work as a financial lawyer (I wonder what it says about poets that it took the world financial crash to make this a subject that inspired him). Poems like "Winter Field" and "The Crash" are hugely unusual in their subject matter; almost no poets write about business, and it's maybe telling that their most memorable moments are the images from other lexical fields in which he expresses the financial crash:

Everyone wants to be paid
but we have no money.
They call me. What can I say?
I see the wedge cut out of the trunk
as I stand in the tree's shadow.
It is tilting towards me.
I hear its pain, can feel
the snap and rip of its fibres
before they explode.

In the collection's final poem, "The Wide Ocean of the Sky", family concerns and the financial crash merge as the poet addresses his wife:

After the violent storm, wreckage floats to the top.
We gather what we can of our financial flotsam,
back in Dubai, starting over: this rented apartment,

the two of us smoothing clean sheets across a bed.
What else do we need but the surprise of each other?
We know about wealth: it grows on the trees.

"Surprise" is a keynote of the language, imagery and themes of this collection. Later in the same poem, speaking of his and his wife's shared future, he says "What an adventure we shall make of it". Judging by what is here, the same may be true of his future writing.
Sheenagh Pugh
05 February 2015 @ 11:34 am
Once upon a time, while teaching on a creative writing course, I nearly did a student a serious injustice. Considering a folder of six pieces of work, I’d marked one low. It had seemed laboured, clichéd and a bit hectoring. Fortunately we always put plentiful comments on our marking to explain why it was as it was, so the student in question was able to realise what I'd missed, point it out and ask for a re-mark.

What I'd missed was, quite simply, that the piece was meant satirically. And you may say she shouldn't have needed to point that out, but she didn't, really. It wasn't brilliantly funny, but its intent should have got through to me. The reason it didn't, of course, was that like all my colleagues I had been marking scripts for hours at the time, my eyes and brain were tired and if A Modest Proposal had appeared in front of me, I might well have supposed Swift to be making a serious point. And no, I shouldn't have been marking while tired, but given the deadlines we were set, it was very hard not to.

This was before double-marking became general, which was supposed to stop this sort of thing happening. I'm not sure it would, though, not only because two people could easily enough be marking in a jaded condition, but also because, I suspect, humour is the easiest thing to miss, particularly in poetry. Not only is it very much a matter of personal taste, a lot of people, critical readers especially, don't seem ever to expect or welcome frivolity or levity in poems, nor to see how humour can be used to leaven a "serious" theme in poetry just as it can in prose. There are a few poets from whom we expect it, because they've developed a reputation for it, but very often they are denigrated, classed as "versifiers" even, by the same kind of people who think tragedy must inherently be more serious and important than comedy.

At least, though, readers recognise what these poets are trying to do. In a worse position, arguably, are poets who don't have this reputation but just want to use humour once in a while, as another tool in the box. If it's searing irony or satire, they'll probably be OK (though of course Defoe ended up in the pillory when The Shortest Way With Dissenters was taken in deadly earnest, and I have seen students assume the same of A Modest Proposal). But more gentle frivolity, oddly enough, can be far more dangerous, maybe not to the poet's personal safety, since pillories fell out of fashion, but certainly to the poet's critical reputation; he or she may be seen as insufficiently serious or committed. I don't know why there should be this notion that humour undermines serious intent; maybe nobody nowadays reads any Aristophanes. But certainly many poetry reviewers these days seem immune to it, and it isn't, I think just a matter of finding it badly handled (which humour often can be); it's rather that they are dismissive and mistrustful of it as a technique. I recall a number of reviews over the last few years that seem to be complaining of anything less than deadly seriousness and attention to "issues" in the poets concerned (I could give examples, but then I'd have to name individual poets and reviewers, which is known in these parts as "putting your heid in a bees' byke").

It's long been known that humour online is hard to communicate, since we have neither tone of voice nor body language to guide us, which is why some folk have suggested, both seriously and in jest, creating a new Irony Font or Irony Icons. But I think it can be equally dodgy between the covers of a book of poetry, simply because many are not expecting to meet it there. Maybe this is finally something back-cover blurbs are good for – nobody really reads or takes note of them except the lazier kind of reviewer who wants to be told what to think, but perhaps if they carried instructions like "Every word is not necessarily to be taken in dead earnest"?

There is also a quote from Ernest Hemingway: "A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl."
Sheenagh Pugh
door in moon

If you're reading this, you've probably already read the first two books in the Chronoptika series, The Obsidian Mirror and The Box of Red Brocade (see links for reviews). Briefly however, for anyone who's not caught up: there is a house called Wintercombe Abbey, in a wood populated by the beautiful but dangerously non-human Shee. The house contains an obsidian mirror, which is a time portal, and a number of ill-assorted persons, not all human and not all from the same time, who have conflicting designs on the mirror. Sarah, from the future, wants to destroy it, having seen what harm it will do there. Venn and Jake want to preserve and use it to rescue loved ones dead or trapped in the past. Maskelyne wants it for purposes unspecified but probably to do with power. Others in the house are uncommitted.

The first book was set in winter, the second in spring, and in the third we have arrived at Midsummer Eve. Those who've read them will recall also that the first, which was much concerned with Jake and his missing father, was haunted by quotes from, and references to, Hamlet, while the second, in which the corruption of power emerged more strongly, was similarly haunted by Macbeth. But behind both was another Shakespearean influence plainly lurking, that of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and in this volume it comes into its own.

Those who use the mirror are now getting more skilled at it, in particular Moll, the Victorian urchin whom Jake met in vol 1 and who makes a welcome reappearance here. And the fact that they can now do more of what they want means they have to think harder about whether they should. Several of the characters, in this volume, are troubled by conscience and conflicting duties, and those with dual natures, like Venn and Gideon, are faced with choices between them. In this the volume mirrors its Shakespearean inspiration: the Dream is all about choices and loyalties.

As usual, the action moves between different times and locations: the Abbey, the unfathomable Wood that itself contains worlds, and a very believable and exciting Paris at the time of the Terror. And as usual, I read it far too fast because it was so gripping: the lure of "what happens next" was as strong as ever. Now I'm going back to savour the actual writing, in particular the mesmerising evocation of the Shee and their Wood:

The Shee came down round him in clouds. He watched how some of them stayed butterflies and how others transformed, wholly or in part, to the pale tall people he had seen before, their clothes now brilliant scarlets and turquoises and oranges. With soft rustles and crackles their bodies unfolded. Abdomen and antennae became skin and smile.

Quite apart from being invested in the characters and what happens to them – Gideon, in some danger at the end of the volume, Wharton, looking more and more like the representative of human decency, the irrepressible Moll - the vividly described locations make this perhaps Fisher's most gripping project for some time. Only one to go now, and it's beginning to sound as if that one will have to travel, at least for part of the time, into the far future from which Sarah comes and which we haven't yet seen first-hand. Can't wait.
Sheenagh Pugh
I got this book for Christmas. I'd read a post about the author on FB and thought she sounded like my kind of short story writer (and I'm fussy; an awful lot of lauded C20 writers in that form do nothing for me, probably because I keep thinking "well s/he's all right but s/he isn't Chekhov"). Ismat Chughtai (b.1915) was from northern India, a member of the Progressive Writers Movement and her writing, which centres on family life generally seen from a female perspective, is observational, lyrical, angry, comic and pretty much never dull. She conveys a society on the one hand almost broken with corruption, unfairness, outdated customs and at the same time exuberant and multifarious. Weirdly the title story, one of her most famous because it led to a ridiculous obscenity charge, is the least impressive; she was young at the time and couldn't quite handle the unaware narrator. Much more memorable is "A Pair of Hands" in which the wife of a poor man (a sweeper of refuse, away in the army), gives birth to a son who, given the dates, can't possibly he his. The master and mistress of the rich household in which the couple are employed are baffled by the servants' reaction: the erring wife's mother-in-law, though she knows perfectly well that the child can't be her son's, is delighted with it and the husband, when he comes home, reacts the same way, as if he doesn't understand the truth. In the end the master (who is the narrator's father) tries to explain:

"But the boy is not yours, Ram Autar - it's that bastard Ram Rati's" Abba exclaimed in exasperation.
"So what is the difference, sir? Ram Rati is my cousin, his blood is the same as mine."
"You're a stupid fool!" Abba was losing patience.
"Sir, when the child grows up he will help out," Ram Autar tried to explain in a pleading tone. He will contribute his two hands, sir, and he will be my support in my old age". Ram Autar lowered his head with these words.

And who knows why, Abba's head, like Ram Autar's was also lowered, as if thousands of hands were bearing down on it... these hands were neither legitimate nor illegitimate, they were only hands, living hands that wash away the filth from the face of this planet, that carry the weight of its aging.

Ram Autar's attitude is coloured by poverty; with no security for the future except the work of his own hands, he can't afford to be too fussy about where a priceless asset like a healthy son came from. But he, who is thought to be dull-witted, has come closer to appreciating what really matters than his educated employer. In the same way, the young couple in "Sacred Duty" see past the prejudices of their parents and treat them with the disdain they deserve. Chughtai never minimises the problems in her society and the pain they cause, especially to women, and some of the stories end grimly but there is a tremendous life-force in her writing that often ends up triumphing over what would suppress it.
Sheenagh Pugh
13 January 2015 @ 09:09 am
So... what happened in the first place was that the fine poet David Harsent won the T S Eliot Prize yesterday. And another poet mentioned on Twitter that Harsent, if you please, used to write for The Bill, which I hadn't known! One thing led to another and said poet wondered on Twitter whether there was any "contemporary poetry fan fiction".

My first reaction was that, per se, this wouldn't happen because fan fiction centres on fictional characters and narratives, and contemporary poetry, mostly, doesn't; it tends to be ideas-focused. Poets themselves could be the focus of Real Person Fic (RPF) and there was, as I recall, a limited amount of Ted & Sylvia stuff, but that centred on their life, not their work - and there are any number of fics that use "Lady Lazarus" as a starting point for writing about fictional characters from other sources who had nothing to do with Plath or the poem, but that's standard practice. Older poets, like Byron, are obvious RPF/RPS candidates, see for instance "For Since Thy Lip Met Mine" by storiesfortravellers. I can imagine that some enterprising soul might have done a spin-off from Rossetti's Goblin Market, but that might just be my odd mind...

There is also, of course, fanfic poetry, and some of it, at least in the Tolkien world, is modelled on his style, which qualifies it as pastiche - and one must never forget the immortal Hamlet fic done in the style of Dr Seuss, Green Eggs and Hamlet.

But fan fiction based on characters from contemporary poetry, as opposed to based on poets, there is none, that I know of. I can't even think of any character in contemporary poetry who could generate it, partly because even if they existed they wouldn't be well enough known to communicate to an audience. The last "character", or more properly narrator, in poetry like that was Hughes's Crow, as far as I know; I can't think of one since.

Nice to know about Harsent's connection to one of fan fiction's most fruitful properties, though. And if anyone here does know of any other connections...
Sheenagh Pugh
29 December 2014 @ 10:55 am
This is the text of my email to various Cardiff councillors, copied to the Western Mail, about the proposed cuts to the city's library service. If anyone's interested, there's a petition at and the email addresses to contact are: (Western Mail), (leader of the council), (deputy) and (libraries portfolio)

Dear Councillors

I am aware that all councils are being starved of cash by central government and therefore cannot provide the level of public service they should and would wish to provide. I have considerable sympathy for the difficult decisions they have to make.

However, it was a wise man who observed that if you think educating people is expensive, you should see what ignorance costs. Giving up another two floors of the central library, losing a great deal of stock in the process, and closing seven branch libraries is no way to maintain Cardiff's status as a cultural capital. It isn't simply a matter of books, vital though those are. The computing facilities are also extremely important to those who cannot afford to be online at home, while the social benefits for older folk of coming together to read newspapers and magazines can actually be a saving in the long run, if it helps them continue in the community.

I am a Welsh writer, publishing with a Welsh house, and, insofar as I identify with any locality, it would be Cardiff, where I wrote most of my books. Though I no longer live in Cardiff, my son's family does (indeed my daughter-in-law is a librarian by training) and I myself lived in Canton for decades. The Carnegie library there was once set on fire by vandals and much stock was lost (by happy chance, Dante's Inferno escaped as I had it out on loan at the time). I published a poem about the incident, hoping the perpetrators would end up in hell, but I didn't realise, at the time, that the council itself might prove the more damaging vandal. As both a Welsh writer and a reader, I would ask you to reconsider whether such sweeping cuts are really unavoidable.
Sheenagh Pugh
21 December 2014 @ 02:17 pm
Metaphors do wear out sometimes, in the sense that the field from which the metaphor is drawn becomes unfamiliar, so that its meaning is no longer clear to those wishing to use it, and when that happens, the metaphor is liable to get changed. This makes sense, when it is changed to something that does carry meaning to the speaker. For instance, I used to know a nice old gentleman to whom old-fashioned bicycles were more familiar than geometry, which was why, when a conversation had strayed from the subject, he was apt to say "I think we've gone off on a tandem". This may, technically, have been incorrect, but it made just as much sense in the context as "gone off at a tangent" (as well as being vastly more original and entertaining). Ditto the fishermen's union spokesman, annoyed at new European quotas, who claimed his members were being treated as political prawns. A small insignificant fish, frequently the prey of larger species, would do just as well as a minor, frequently-sacrificed chess piece to make his point, and better, if he wasn't an habitual chess player.

What's harder to understand is when an idiom gets changed to something that couldn't possibly make any sense to anyone. "Toe the line", meaning to follow orders exactly, is clearly enough visualised in terms of schoolchildren or soldiers standing along a line marked on the floor. Possibly schools don't actually do this any more. But "tow the line", as we often see it written down by students these days, can only mean to haul a rope behind one, and it isn't easy to fathom how they get any relevant meaning out of that.

At least, though, there is a possible meaning. What on earth is in the minds of those who, wishing to say that something is up for debate, say "it's a mute point"? OK, they don't get "moot" because the Anglo-Saxon word for a meeting where you debate things is no longer familiar. But why would a debating point be silent? Then there's the impossible-to-visualise "off his own back" for "off his own bat". Again one can see how, in an era where cricket is less familiar, people might be missing the point that while it takes two players to score a run, it is only credited to the one whose bat it came off - hence, off his own bat: on his own initiative. But what on earth could "off his own back" possibly mean? Changing one idiom, the sense of which one no longer understands, to another that makes no better sense (or even any sense at all) does seem a bit baffling.
Sheenagh Pugh

Some time ago, I reviewed Sue Rose's chapbook Heart Archives, published by Hercules Editions. It was then a sequence of 14 sonnets, inspired by Boltanski’s Les Archives du Coeur, a long-term project to record heartbeats and store them on a Japanese island. The sonnets were each accompanied by a photo of something meaningful to Rose, taken with an iPhone, her own archival device - a multi-media project, then.

Now the sequence, expanded to 21 poems, has become part of a full-length collection, The Cost of Keys, Rose's second from Cinnamon. (Her first, From The Dark Room, was reviewed here.) Here the poems must stand alone, without the photographs, which they do perfectly well, though the reading experience is obviously different - less immediate, wore worked-for.

Heart Archives ends a collection which moves seamlessly through various themes and images. The "keys" of the title poem, which are door keys, morph in the next poem into piano keys, which in turn lead on to other musical instruments in the succeeding poems. Other leitmotifs develop and run through the book: water in various forms, photography, islands, above all, memories and archives. What is it, by the way, with keys in titles all of a sudden? Jean Sprackland's Sleeping Keys, Marianne Burton's She Inserts The Key, now this?

The description of that title-poem key:
Like a flag cast in iron, a stiff wind
caught in its holes and grooves

sets a tone for the collection: an exact, unexpected image that gives an immediate sensory impression. This happens again and again, making for a very visual, tactile read - the image of Murano glass "like bonbons, poisonous with sugar" not only comes alive off the page but, as an effective image should, slants our vision of the object. Another constant tactic is the merging of present with past and future, and this is very skilfully done indeed. At the beginning of "Guided Tour", we could be in the ruins of Pompeii or Herculaneum; by the second verse, doubt creeps in and by the third we know we are looking back from the far future at our own time or something very near it. Later we shall meet "Herculaneum" as a poem title, plus "Time Capsule", and both hint back at this poem. And in "Time Lapse", the year's exposure of a Toronto skyline recorded with a pinhole camera and
for eternity in the ether
while being erased
forever by the hot glare
of a scanner
transports us straight back to Herculaneum. By the end, we have a very strong sense of continuity, of the strands of blood, history, cultural imagery that bind our present to the past and will bind our future to our present.

The verbal skill throughout this collection, in fact, is impressive. She's also quite brave, using words like "palimpsest" and "cadences" that some critic will surely object to as "too poetic". Well, prove they don't work in the context, say I, and the only time I did think something could have been said in a fresher way was the "snowfield" bedsheet and "ice" heart of "Lacrimoso".

There is a lot of bearing witness in this collection, and many people who aren't alive any more. Yet I would not call it nostalgic; what is gone is not idealised and the poet's insistence on memory comes with the consciousness that nothing remembered can wholly die and that there is no need to "escape" to the past, because it is part of the present. The final poem of the chapbook "Heart Archives" is still the poem with which she chooses to sign off both that sequence and this collection: "D25072049", in which she recognises that our immortality lies in human memory:
The vessel for my remains
will be those who carry part of me
in their histories.
The down-to-earth tone there is typical: as in her first collection, this is a poet who can use deeply personal, emotive material and still avoid sentimentality or self-pity.
Sheenagh Pugh
06 December 2014 @ 10:09 am
I hate the List Season. Best books of the year, favourite books of the year, call it what you will: it takes up pages of newspapers that would otherwise be devoted to book reviews and it's boringly predictable. Novelists recommend their besties and are in turn recommended by them. Critics recommend whatever is abstruse, unreadable and will make them look incredibly clever, not forgetting along the way to marvel at why this choice has not proved more popular with the general reader, otherwise known as you crowd of ignoramuses who aren't as discerning as Mr Critic. Celebs from other fields name whatever has won an award or been much talked about and is therefore a safe choice. Poets are seldom asked to take part at all, but those few who are asked take immense care not to name, at all costs, any book of poetry in their choices.

There are, of course, honourable exceptions in all fields - even the poetry field, where the much-sniped-at Andrew Motion, as usual, has been recommending poetry in order to rectify to some small extent its general neglect by the newspapers. Whatever one thinks of his own poetry, few living poets have done more to advance the genre as a whole, both via his marvellous creation of the Poetry Archive and, in a smaller but still important way, by actually using lists like these in a productive way.
Sheenagh Pugh
01 December 2014 @ 02:52 pm
I like adopting personae in poems, partly because I intensely dislike the notion that lyric poems are (or should be) autobiographical and From The Heart. Poems, for me, are a way of being other, of entering a different viewpoint and consciousness, and that applies to reading as well as writing, for just as there is nothing more liberating for a writer than to inhabit another skin, so there is nothing more fascinating (and, often, revealing) than watching another author do so. Below is an example of an author, already working through the mask of translation, interposing a fictional persona as well, and I'm interested in wondering to what end.

James Elroy Flecker's "The Hammam Name" has a playfulness and wildly imaginative humour that have always appealed to me. Briefly, it concerns a young man who goes to the "hammam" or public bath (the word "name" in the title is, I think, the early 20th-century equivalent of "celebrity"). This lad is so impossibly beautiful (or is imagined to be so by the narrator) that not only human beings but inanimate objects fall in love with him on sight. Soap melts with love, a window shatters, bubbles burst like breaking hearts. The hammam's personnel are no more immune: witness the swooning shampooer's priceless line about the full moon.

The poem announces itself as being a translation "from a poem by a Turkish Lady", and this is where the business of persona comes in. It is indeed a translation, and a pretty faithful one both to the poem's events and its rollicking rhythms, by accounts I've seen (I'm no scholar of Turkish, but Flecker was). But this Turkish Lady is a fiction: the original author was in fact one Mehmet Emin Beligh of Larissa, an 18th-century male Ottoman poet.

On the face of it, there's one very obvious reason why Flecker might have wanted to put the poem in a female voice – in a male persona, it's extremely homoerotic, a thing of which Edwardian England might, at least overtly, have disapproved more than 18th-century Turkey did. But I'm not sure this wholly explains the Turkish Lady. After all, the reactions of the male bath-house personnel and customers are unequivocal and in no way played down. Just as educated English audiences were used to accepting, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or reluctance, the fact that Classical Greeks and Romans had more adventurous attitudes to sex than modern Christians, so they knew also that these things were managed differently out East. If Flecker wanted to distance himself from the poem's homoeroticism, all he needed to do was flag it up as a translation from its actual author.

What the Turkish Lady does, it seems to me, is add an extra layer of distance and fictionalising. In the first place, she isn't herself a witness to any of this: she can't be. The hammam was a single-sex environment: women were not necessarily barred, but they would not go at the same times as men. The Lady sees what happens in the first few lines: her young idol walking down the street toward the hammam. From then on, her own imagination and yearning attraction supplies the rest. She projects her feelings on to objects and people who, however hopeless their desire, are at least in contact with the boy in a way that she, in a segregated society, can never be. The soap may melt and the shampooer faint, but they do at least touch him, see him in a state of undress. Bitterness is born of beauty, she says, and the final three words about the frozen water have an emotional impact I don't think they would have in a male voice. Spoken by the man who wrote it, the poem is essentially funny and playful; the boy's inaccessibility more an amusing poetic conceit than anything else. In the voice of Flecker's invented Turkish Lady, it is still playful and imaginative, but the hunger behind it speaks more powerfully and the whole thing becomes more about fictionalising and reshaping.

The Hammam Name by James Elroy Flecker
From a poem by a Turkish Lady

Winsome Torment rose from slumber, rubbed his eyes, and went his way
Down the street towards the Hammam. Goodness gracious! people say,
What a handsome countenance! The sun has risen twice to-day!
And as for the Undressing Room it quivered in dismay.
With the glory of his presence see the window panes perspire,
And the water in the basin boils and bubbles with desire.

Now his lovely cap is treated like a lover: off it goes!
Next his belt the boy unbuckles; down it falls, and at his toes
All the growing heap of garments buds and blossoms like a rose.
Last of all his shirt came flying. Ah, I tremble to disclose
How the shell came off the almond, how the lily showed its face,
How I saw a silver mirror taken flashing from its case.

He was gazed upon so hotly that his body grew too hot,
So the bathman seized the adorers and expelled them on the spot;
Then the desperate shampooer his propriety forgot,
Stumbled when he brought the pattens, fumbled when he tied a knot,
And remarked when musky towels had obscured his idol's hips,
"See Love's Plenilune, Mashallah, in a partial eclipse!"

Desperate the loofah wriggled: soap was melted instantly:
All the bubble hearts were broken. Yes, for them as well as me,
Bitterness was born of beauty; as for the shampooer, he
Fainted, till a jug of water set the Captive Reason free.
Happy bath! The baths of heaven cannot wash their spotted moon:
You are doing well with this one. Not a spot upon him soon!

Now he leaves the luckless bath for fear of setting it alight;
Seizes on a yellow towel growing yellower in fright,
Polishes the pearly surface till it burns disastrous bright,
And a bathroom window shatters in amazement at the sight.
Like the fancies of a dreamer frail and soft his garments shine
As he robes a mirror body shapely as a poet's line.

Now upon his cup of coffee see the lips of Beauty bent:
And they perfume him with incense and they sprinkle him with scent,
Call him Bey and call him Pasha, and receive with deep content
The gratuities he gives them, smiling and indifferent.
Out he goes: the mirror strains to kiss her darling; out he goes!
Since the flame is out, the water can but freeze.
The water froze.
Sheenagh Pugh
30 November 2014 @ 10:57 am
My next reading will be at the StAnza poetry festival, St Andrews, in March 2015. I'll be at the launch on Wednesday 4th (Byre Theatre, level 2 foyer, Abbey St: free, at 18.30) and the next day, Thursday 5th, I have the great pleasure of reading with the renowned Anne Stevenson in the Five O'Clock Verses slot (Parliament Hall, South Street, 17.00, £5.75/£3.75). StAnza is a terrific festival; hope some of you can make it there.
Sheenagh Pugh
26 November 2014 @ 02:33 pm
Apparently one's nephews and nieces can be referred to, collectively, as one's niblings (by analogy with siblings but more endearing). I like this word. I don't know who invented it, or when, but it's always good when someone comes up with a word we didn't have and genuinely needed. Another such, I fear, is the unkind but forensically accurate Japanese neologism "bakkushan", a weird macaronic mix of English "back" and German "schön", meaning someone who looks gorgeous from behind but proves a fearful disappointment on turning round. That is very much a thing. So is someone who was once a parent but now is one no longer (and no, "bereaved parent" will not do; it needs a proper dedicated word, like widow or orphan, not just a definition).

Although I don't know a word for that in any language, one advantage of being a linguist is that you get to assemble a collection of these handy, ultra-specific words, which may not exist in your own tongue but do in others. When I hear people moaning because times have changed and they can no longer smoke indoors, drive half-drunk or catcall young women unchallenged, I think of them as "buivshi", the word Soviet Russia sometimes used to characterise people whose thought processes were stuck in pre-revolutionary times. It means "the former people", or "people of former times", and in that is reminiscent of our own "has-beens", but the meaning is different. Has-beens are people who were once noted, even famous, at what they did, but are now either out of style or past their best - an eighties pop star or an ageing boxer might be a has-been. Buivshi are people who belong in the past, who can't adapt to change. The closest in English might be "dinosaur", but apart from being a shade metaphorical, that connotes not just extinction but power, something that in its time was awesome, and doesn't quite convey the contempt in "buivshi".

Blumenkaffee, coffee so weak you can see the pattern of flowers on the inside of an old-fashioned china cup, is my favourite German contribution to this eccentric collection. Languages rich in compound words are especially good at coining new ones, but all languages have these words that are so particular and apposite, you can't think how your own tongue has done without them. They don't all catch on, or stay in the language. Blumenkaffee seems to have survived the demise of pretty cups with patterns inside, but the English "maffick", meaning to celebrate in the streets, came into use after the street celebrations of victory at Mafeking and soon died out again, though street celebrations did not. I hope niblings will survive.
Sheenagh Pugh
15 November 2014 @ 06:43 pm
Dear AQA

I've just been discussing online, with a student, the incredibly stupid and irrelevant question you set him or her on an "unseen poem", namely my "The Beautiful Lie", see below. You ask "What do you think the poet is saying about parenthood?"

Please read said poem and tell me where in it there is any mention of parenthood, or indeed any parents. It's about a young child discovering, for the first time, how to interpret the world differently, i.e. tell a lie, and how he realises this is the doorway to artistic creativity, the key to telling stories, painting pictures, making up characters. Due to this daft question you have set, the student has supposed that the lie at the centre of the poem must in fact be a Bad Thing and that the poem's "message" (I'm sure you think poems must have a message) is that parents should discourage lying. Admittedly the student has, in order to arrive at this interpretation, had to ignore all the positive vocabulary that builds up around the "lie" from the title on. But that's easily done; he or she has simply assumed that the celebration of the "beautiful lie" and all it leads to must be "ironic".

In the poem there's a grandmother, a grandson and an unnamed narrator who chooses not to reveal his or her relationship to the boy. This narrator spends the whole time undermining what he/she has already said: giving us "facts" and then admitting they may have been misremembered or simply invented. We shall never know, because that's what writers do. Much as I generally agree that the interpretation of a poem is a matter for reader as well as writer, you do need to back up said interpretation from the text, and if you can find me so much as a single phrase in the text that suggests the poem says anything at all about parenthood, I'll be mightily surprised. It's things like this that make me think it would be better if poetry were not taught (and certainly not tested) in schools at all, rather than by those who have no understanding of it.

The Beautiful Lie

He was about four, I think... it was so long ago.
In a garden; he'd done some damage
behind a bright screen of sweet-peas
- snapped a stalk, a stake, I don't recall,
but the grandmother came and saw, and asked him:
"Did you do that?"

Now, if she'd said why did you do that,
he'd never have denied it. She showed him
he had a choice. I could see, in his face,
the new sense, the possible. That word and deed
need not match, that you could say the world
different, to suit you.

When he said "No", I swear it was as moving
as the first time a baby's fist clenches
on a finger, as momentous as the first
taste of fruit. I could feel his eyes looking
through a new window, at a world whose form
and colour weren't fixed

but fluid, that poured like a snake, trembled
around the edges like northern lights, shape-shifted
at the spell of a voice. I could sense him filling
like a glass, hear the unreal sea in his ears.
This is how to make songs, create men, paint pictures,
tell a story

I think I made up the screen of sweet peas.
Maybe they were beans; maybe there was no screen,
it just felt as if there should be, somehow.
And he was my - no, I don't need to tell that.
I know I made up the screen. And I recall very well
what he had done.
Sheenagh Pugh
04 November 2014 @ 09:34 am
Let them enjoy their little day,
Their humble bliss receive.
Oh! do not lightly take away
The life thou canst not give!

Thomas Gisborne, in that verse, was exhorting his reader to avoid treading on a worm. Anyone who takes it on himself to abridge a human life had better have a bloody good reason, ie one very much better than profit, spite or possessiveness. I can just about see a justification, in a case where someone's life does far more harm than good in the world, particularly if it threatens the lives of others.

But Anne Cluysenaar was a witty, warm, cosmopolitan woman and a thought-provoking poet. I met her several times and always had fun in her company. If she'd died in the way of nature; well she was 78; one would boast, with Chaucer's young drunks, "we wol sleen this false traytour Deeth" and then realise ruefully that there's nothing to be done. But she was, apparently, murdered, and that makes me very angry. Do we get so much time here, that we can afford to lose any? She was still writing, she published a book this year and I don't suppose her friends and family were at all ready to lose her. I'd need a lot of convincing that she ever did more harm than good, or that whoever assumed this right was able to give the world anything as worthwhile as "Whatever we're made of, it wants to know/
how it came to be what it is." Here's the rest of that poem of hers:

Hunting the Higgs

No wonder they love a laugh, the physicists.
What ever they find or don't, it's OK.
Symmetries of the world just remnants
of those which, if perfect, would only have led to

no world at all – anti-matter, matter
would have cancelled each other out. Maybe.
Or maybe not, if the theory is at fault.
And if it is? More exciting still.

Whatever we're made of, it wants to know
how it came to be what it is. In us,
for a while at least, the stuff of stars
gets a glimpse of its own precarious life.

Like a single life, that will soon be gone.
Universes before, maybe, or after
our own, we won't ever get to explore.
They make up what is, though. And here we are!
Sheenagh Pugh
21 October 2014 @ 01:39 pm
I have a poem in a new anthology of poems inspired by popular culture, Double Bill, ed. Andy Jackson, pub. Red Squirrel Press. It has poems by a great many different poets, on subjects from Frank Sinatra to Bagpuss - mine, which is called "Oral English", is about Julian & Sandy from Round the Horne and was inspired by an anecdote of Barry Took's about a puzzled letter he once received from a Japanese gentleman who was trying to improve his colloquial English with the aid of The Bona Book of Julian and Sandy.  His letter went as follows: Ichigoro Yuchida to Barry Took: "Dear Sir, I am reading with an teacher, The Bona Book of Julian And Sandy. Mainly for the purposes of picking up slangs and very colloquial expressions. My English teacher is well trained in the job, and quite able in every way as a language teacher. Yet he still has some difficulty handling the queer and funny languages, brimming over the pages. I should be more than happy if you would kindly answer the following questions and let me know what they mean in plainer language. One, naff is it, page 25. Two, he's got the polari off hasn’t he. Three, but did you manage to drag yourself up on deck, page 27. I am sorry but I can't see what Mister Horne meant. Sincerely yours, Ichigoro Yuchida..." Took replied, with urbane courtesy, and a correspondence ensued.

You can buy Double Bill here or here. And here's the poem:
Oral English

Ichigoro Yuchida, keen to improve
his colloquial English, puzzles over

a text with his (equally baffled) teacher.
They can't seem to find dolly old eek

in the phrasebook.  And why, during a shipwreck,
should Mr Horne laugh when our heroes

drag themselves up on deck?  So many queries…
in the end, they think best to seek wisdom

from the writer, which is how they come,
courtesy of Mr Took, to knowledge

of some comic stereotypes, a secret language,
a national habit of wryness, a way of talking

as if one could make a joke of anything,
of code, of hiding from the law, of love.
Sheenagh Pugh
08 October 2014 @ 01:17 pm
Most Norwegian towns and cities are very tidy, and though that is also true in the English sense, I mean it mostly in the Welsh sense, ie respectable, well to do and with an indefinable sense of everything being right. Bergen, it's true, has a slightly raffish air, like the younger son of a prosperous family who's decided to play at bohemians for a few years before settling down to practise law. (Oslo, from my admittedly limited experience of it, is more like the daughter who went to the Sorbonne and came back thinking herself several cuts above all her relatives). Bergen is less sophisticated and more fun. If you're there in summer, don't miss visiting the former leper hospital, which is one hell of a story.

Going up the coast, Ålesund, like almost all the wooden towns in Norway, was forever burning down; in Ålesund's case it was destroyed in 1904. It was their good luck that Kaiser Bill, of all people, used to go yachting there (it still has a considerable marina and port area) and he put a lot of money into rebuilding it in the art nouveau style. Since there were no more fires of note, it's still very much in one style, and its palette is pastel, rather than the bright primary colours of many Norwegian towns. Ålesund is an older second cousin, pretty and elegant but inclined to hark back to whichever decade saw her heyday.

Trondheim used to burn down a lot too, until after one such conflagration in 1681, the then mayor thought "what a good idea it'd be if all our houses didn't burn down every few years" and hired a Luxemburger called Johan Caspar von Cicignon to make a city plan based on broad streets so that any fires could be contained. The result is that today's centre has a lot of old buildings, wide tree-lined boulevards and no real congestion. And the river Nid, and an austerely lovely cathedral. Trondheim is a beautiful maiden aunt of indeterminate age and independent means, with impeccable taste and manners but a very relaxed outlook on life. As may be obvious, I'm rather besotted by it.

Next up, just inside the Arctic Circle, comes Bodø, tidy, with an aviation museum and, at least to a visitor's eye, very dull. But its inhabitants love it, even taking pride in its frankly undistinguished architecture, so there must be more to it than meets a tourist's eye. (It does have the original maelstrom nearby). I think of it as the male cousin who's essentially friendly and decent, if a bit of a bore.

Tromsø is the big exception to the "Norwegian towns are tidy" rule, and I can only put this down to the big student population. It has many old buildings and some spectacular new ones, but a lot of its streets look run-down, the pavements are a danger to life and limb and the whole place has a frontier-town, unfinished air. It's definitely a student son, and not a bookish one either, more the kind who gets out of bed just in time to watch Bargain Hunt and never remembers when it's bin day.

Very unlike Hammerfest, which is further north but definitely tidy. North of Tromsø you are into the tract where the retreating German forces in WW2 carried out a shocking scorched-earth policy as the Red Army approached. Lothar Rendulic, the Austrian Nazi governor of North Norway, burned entire towns to the ground, with winter coming on; Hammerfest folk were reduced to living in caves. There's a Reconstruction Museum that details it all.  Hammerfest made a conscious decision to rebuild modern, not old-style, and did it well. From the sea, and from above, it is a white triangle among greenery, not unlike the fanciful mediaeval descriptions of Algiers as a diamond set among emeralds. Hammerfest is your bachelor uncle who lives in a penthouse, all glass and wood and the sort of minimalist design you pay a fortune for.

In Kirkenes, close to the Russian border, the people took shelter from Rendulic's burnings in the town's mines, from which they were literally brought back to light by the Red Army. There's a lot of Russian influence, with a Russian market every last Thursday of the month, and Russian street signs. The actual border is in a forest that looks like Narnia, and the Pasvik river valley is very pretty, but the town is plain, cheerful, no-nonsense industrial and maritime; they repair ships and are profiting from increased petroleum-drilling activity in the Barents Sea. Kirkenes is your uncle who's always on his travels, and turns up every so often with exotic presents and even more exotic stories which your mother wishes he wouldn't tell in mixed company.