Steve Ely's first collection, Oswald's Book of Hours
(Smokestack Books 2013) was shortlisted for the Forward first collection prize and I reviewed it on this blog
. His second, Englaland
, came out from Smokestack in 2015 – also reviewed here
Force eight from Lundy and the Irish Sea
in the dark moon of the solstice.
Alarmed awake at midnight, sleet slashing
across the window glass, blurring the street-lit world.
Packing the van in drenched Jack Pyke:
Lazerlight lamp-kit, slip-leads, dogs.
The long drive east to the ditch-cut flatlands.
Sleet strafing down. Wind howling in the hawthorns.
Shivering long-dogs, ears erect. The thousand foot
halogen beam. Green eyes in hedge-bottoms.
Transfixed conies. Dogs running down the beam.
Conies dangling in the Deben double V.
Back to the van. Bag the necked and bladdered conies.
Towel and box the dogs. Peel off the drenched Jack Pyke.
The cold drive home in the dark moon of the solstice,
sleet slurring the view through the wiping-windscreen,
blurring the headlamped world.
(From Oswald's Book of Hours)
: Your work is clearly very rooted in a particular landscape, and every point in that landscape's history seems equally present to you – there aren't many ways in which you remind me of Cavafy, but one resemblance I do see is how people like Oswald of Northumbria
the highwayman are still alive in your mental and emotional territory, just as Cavafy evidently wouldn't have been surprised to turn a corner in Alexandria and bump into Mark Antony or a priest from the Serapeion. How long has this sense of past-in-present been with you, and informing your work?STEVE
: The sense of past-in-present, as you put it, has been with me for as long as I can remember. As a kid I’d attempt to imagine the layerings of the past that had shaped the various aspects of the landscapes I roamed in — how the fields and woods became, the backstories of footpaths, copses, ponds and valleys. This tendency became more intense and urgent in my teens as reading began to inform and transform my experiences of place — and as my experiences of place began to similarly inform and transform my reading. That dialectic enabled the development of an imagined historical perspective that contextualised and sacralised that which had hitherto been quotidian — particular trees, meadows, views — or whole topographies. As this tendency developed, I came to see landscape as something akin to a living organism embodying a transgenerational integrity in which the past was inexorably alive in the present.
Two books were particularly important in this development. The first was Aaron Wilkinson’s A History of South Kirkby. (South Kirkby is the place I was brought up in. I’ve spend most of my life in the area.) I first read the book aged around fifteen and it sent me rambling around my local area (and into my local libraries as I followed up Wilkinson’s bibliography) with fresh eyes, triangulating landscape with past people and events and enabling me to connect my parish with a larger history (the Danelaw, the Norman Conquest, the Peasant’s Revolt, the Wars of the Roses, enclosure and the English & Industrial Revolutions).
Arthur Ruston & Denis Witney’s Hooton Pagnell: The Evolution of a Yorkshire Village (1934), also became important to my sense of the present in the past. The Hooton Pagnell estate was the main poaching/bird-nesting territories territory of my youth. I knew every hawthorn bush and rat-hole of that estate. I didn’t encounter Ruston and Witney until I was well into my twenties, but the millennial scope of the book provided an account of the landscape that allowed me to see my personal experiences in and around the village (and the neighbouring Frickley Estate) as part of a continuous parade of human activity from the Yorkshire Danes Swein and Arketil, to the planting of Frickley pit. I discovered, for example, that ‘Badger Balk’, (the widest of the three footpaths that joined Hooton’s Back Lane with the Iron Age route of Lound Lane) was so-called not simply because it was the haunt of meles meles, but because it was the only place within the parish where itinerant pedlars (‘Badgers’) had rights to graze their horses. But Badger Balk was much more than that. It was also part of a luminous and numinous personal landscape. Where it terminated at Four-Lane-Ends, the ivied elders were clotted with the ragged nests of spuggies, and foxes earthed under field stone dumped in the broad hedge-bottoms. Immediately beyond was Deep Dale, until recently an isolated valley too steep too plough, an oasis of orchids and harebells in an agrochemical waste. Richard Rolle
, the hermit of nearby Hampole and confessor to the nuns at its Cistercian Priory, had his ‘shack in the fields’ very near here — the place where lazerlight lamps strafe the midnight stubbles in search of loping Puss and where Robert Aske
’s forty thousand marched past bannered under Wounds, en-route to their great camp at Scawsby.
All my landscapes are transformed into quasi-sacred landscapes by a mythopoeic coalescence of experience, reading and imagination. The sacred landscape of Brierley Common, between South Kirkby, Brierley, Hemsworth, Grimethorpe and Great Houghton informs much of Englaland
. Richard Rolle’s Hampole underpins my current work-in-progress, Incendium Amoris
. Almost every day I walk my dogs down ‘the lines’ (the disused railway lines) near where I live in Upton. But I’m not just walking ‘the lines’. Almost every stride is resonant with historical, personal or other significance. The place where I cross the road to join the path is where, in 1973, nine-year-old Colin Bryant was killed by a car whilst playing ‘chicken’ on the highway. Across the road, behind the old station master’s house, a tawny owl nests in a magpie’s abandoned drey. A looted brick platform is all that remains of the station, formerly a halt on the Hull to Barnsley line which fell to Beeching’s axe in the railway-killing sixties.
Walking on, I pass the scrubby, sparrowhawk-patrolled woodland from which jays and little owls call and where, for one unbelievable weekend last May, a nightingale hymned in the dusk. It was in that wood, in 1981, that I stumbled across a turtle dove’s nest — the last nest I ever found of that species, now extinct in the North. A hundred yards further and the path spurs off to North Elmsall, where in the seventies a seal of Pope Honorius III was turned from the tilth and where the highwayman John Nevison would hold court in the White Hart, a now-vanished coaching inn on the Wakefield-London road. Past a patch of wild raspberry is the site of the short-lived Upton Colliery, opened in the thirties and closed by the sixties, now re-shaped into Upton Country Park, where cuckoos chase and call each spring. The fishing pond, margined in loosestrife, phragmites and flag, is fed by the spring known as Thunder Hole, which roars from the scrub below Luke Farmer’s memorial garden. Luke was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, aged 19. I used to go out with his Dad’s cousin. Along the cutting, where lads in Jack Pyke send ferrets into setts that travel deep into the fissured limestone, is the hamlet of Wrangbrook, until the sixties the site of an important railway junction where three now defunct rail-lines met. There kids converge to shake down conkers, last year I gathered a stone of blackberries, and sometime in the late fourteenth century, a paralytic got up and walked after praying to Saint Richard. Beyond is Skelbrooke, where John Little is graved interred in the Archangel’s graveyard, a few hundred yards below Robin Hood’s Well. This land lives and its dead cannot die. It’s as wrong to build a bypass or a Tesco on this land as it is to kill a tiger to grind into Chinese Viagra. SHEENAGH
: I can see why you say that, but could it not be said that while tigers are finite, land goes on for ever, and what you're proposing there is to freeze its ongoing history, of which you're so conscious in the poems, at one arbitrary point? Saxons recycled Roman walls, mediaeval farmers re-used once-sacred stones as barn floors. The sacredness and history of this particular land is obvious to you because you know it, but in all probability there's hardly a square yard of the country of which the same couldn't be said by someone who knew it well, and we can hardly ban building everywhere.... Since I spend much of my life regretting that I didn't become an archaeologist, my own inclination is to preserve everything, but doesn't that, in itself, go against the concept of landscape as a living organism, which is never done changing and developing?STEVE
: What I’m against is total or careless destruction for no good reason. As far as I can see there is never a good reason to build a Tesco or a bypass. My local authority put a new bypass (‘link- road’) near Upton a few years ago, using European money. The same local authority had rejected spending its own money on the same road twenty years previously because the cost of the road ‘was not justified by the usual standards of highway economics’. That is, it wasn’t necessary. The avowed reason for the road was to complete the A1-M1 link road (to open up land for development) and more specifically open up the former pit site of South Kirkby Colliery for development (even though it already had excellent road access). I protested against the plans and proposals both times. The road has bisected the largest swathe of open, undeveloped farmland in the local area, soaked the countryside in traffic roar, taken out some woodland, cut across the route of several footpaths and has brought anti-social behaviour into the countryside (joy-riding, destruction of paths, fields and hedges by off-roaders). On the plus side, HGVs can get from the A1 to the M1 three minutes faster than hitherto and the Colliery site now has a back door as well as a front door. As long as our political leaders are committed to growth (economic and population; the two come together, by definition), development never stops and the land is continually subject to creeping industrialisation and suburbanisation. (I recently saw a photograph of the land between South Elmsall and Upton (where I live) dating from about 1955. There was about a mile and a half of clear space — woodland, pasture, arable. Sixty years later, the gap is about three hundred yards). It’s not about opposing change and development, but learning to value what we have, becoming conscious of landscape, nature, and ‘heritage’, and subjecting development to local, democratic control. Ultimately, we need to reduce the population, end sprawl and restore the land. SHEENAGH
: You're very unafraid of words. That sounds an odd thing to say of a poet, but I've read so many reviewers, in particular, who seem downright terrified of any vocabulary vaguely out of the ordinary. Use an esoteric or archaic word and they'll complain of elitism; use modern slang and it's condemned as unsuitable or a "duff note", as if modern argot and poetry were somehow incompatible. One of the things I like best about your work is how you cheerfully expect your readers to cope with liturgical language, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, umpteen bird and plant names, lovely obscure words like xanthic for yellow, and you mix that in with army slang, business jargon, politician's soundbites….STEVE
: Words are my business, and as such, every word, in every language — past, present and future — belongs to me. I’ll use them as I see fit. Relatively early in my poetic second-coming I was expressly warned-off from using the word ‘cerulean’ by a well-meaning would-be mentor. My response was to write a poem (‘fancy THAT’, from my unpublished book, the compleat eater
) that deliberately and provocatively deployed the word. Since I began to write again in 2003, I’ve used a range of registers, vocabularies and languages — Yorkshire dialect, the cant of U.S. prison gangs, Calo (the Hispanic ‘creole’ of East Los Angeles) , and many more, including the examples you cite. In ‘The Song of the Yellowhammer’ (Englaland
) I also use two Romani words, ‘sunakai’ and ‘salno’, which both connote ‘yellow’. In the stanza of the same poem in which I use the word ‘xanthic’ there are five other evocations of ‘yellow’. I’m trying to make it golden.SHEENAGH
: Indeed yes. It felt to me as if what you were doing in Song of the Yellowhammer was trying to wrap the landscape in a sort of golden haze. In metaphorical terms that isn't a million miles from a sepia wash, and I did wonder if you ever worried about attracting the criticism George Mackay Brown sometimes encountered, namely that he over-idealised the past of his chosen landscape? Especially since, near the end, in the verse beginning "Cut the vines", you seem to hint, albeit less apocalyptically, at something akin to what he says in his essay on Rackwick: "I do not think Rackwick will remain empty for ever. It could happen that the atom-and-planet horror at the heart of our civilisation will scatter people again to the quiet beautiful fertile places of the world". Which alarmed me at the time, because he sounded as if he thought a nuclear holocaust would be a small price to pay for such an outcome... In your poem, the lines
To each man his allotment.
With plough-turned fieldstone
gentled hands will build
once more, and lift the lintels of long-tumbled halls
sounded more elegiac, like a dream of what had once been but you knew could never actually happen again (certainly not if the average digging and building skills of the population are anything like mine). Leastways, that was how I read that poem; was I right to, or were you seeing not just a desired but a possible future?STEVE
: The gold is the gold of the yellowhammer, a symbol for ‘the people in the land’, the real treasure, not the lucre zealously guarded by Fafnir or sought by Sigurdr. Also in my use of ‘goldenness imagery’ I intended to give luminosity to the landscape itself, which is the other treasure — and perhaps to knowingly evoke an imagined, past-and-perhaps-once-again, ‘golden age’. I think the juxtapositions with violent and quotidian elements and the poem’s engagement, argument and tension guards against any simpering to sepia. My own, more cowardly version of Mackay Brown’s sentiment is summarised later in the poem. ‘Too much blood, I can’t commit.’ I’m intuiting and assuming that the wrenching away from capitalism necessary for sustainable living, conservation, the full development of human potential and social justice will lead to upheaval and slaughter as the rich and powerful choose to scorch the Earth and immolate its peoples rather than concede their dominance. That fact that I ‘can’t commit’ makes my anarcho-yeoman utopianism a prophetic, not political vision. However, I do think yeoman-anarchism is a possible future (perhaps the only sustainable one). Those with the means to downsize, go off-grid and opt-out are approximating to a fragile, individualised and ultimately unsustainable version of it right now. On a wider, societal level, some form of revolution would be necessary. What kind and where it might come from I have no idea. But the alternative is the totalitarianism of plutocracy and the commoditisation of everything: death for the sake of profit.SHEENAGH
: How did your language become so rich and multi-layered, and have you ever had trouble getting it past editors?STEVE
: At one level, the reason why I deploy such a wide range of registers and lexicons is because I have a wide range of interests and obsessions — football, birding, hunting, nature, history, England, the Bible, religion, Catholicism, the occult, crime, the Fen, radical and revolutionary politics and so on — and the content, vocabulary and mode of expression characteristic to each area all find their way into my work. However, behind both Oswald’s Book of Hours
is a vision of England in which fifteen hundred years of history, culture and language exist simultaneously as an irreducible synoptic unity; my ‘interests and obsessions’ are filtered through this vision, producing the diversity of language, forms and range of reference that characterises both books. Ultimately, the heteroglossic mode of Oswald
is as much a product of ideology as accident or aesthetics.
I’ve often suspected that the relative unorthodoxy of my work has alienated the more provincial (Kavanagh’s usage) editors but I don’t really know this for sure. My editor at Smokestack Books, Andy Croft, has said that ‘only Smokestack’ would have published Oswald’s Book of Hours
, and he might be right. SHEENAGH
: "Since I began to write again in 2003" – yes, I gathered from your website that you'd taken a break from writing and then come back to it. What made that happen, and if you actually stopped writing altogether, how else did you express the thoughts and concerns that feel so urgent in your recent work?STEVE
: I stopped writing when I went to University in 1988. I’d been writing poetry for five or six years and had reached a decent standard and had begun to think of myself as a ‘good’ poet. I think the energy I’d hitherto been putting into writing simply went into my studies. I also became very active in the Green Party about that time, so that might also have played a role in sucking up my time. In 1992 I left the Greens, joined the Socialist Workers Party — and became a secondary school teacher. My creativity was channelled into pedagogy and selling papers on the street. In the mid-1990s I began to read a lot of true crime and crime fiction. I made two abortive attempts to write thrillers. But in the period 1988-2003 I didn’t write any poetry at all — and barely read any. I left the SWP in 1996 and became politically quiescent. I’ve remained so to this day. (I don’t count simply ‘having opinions’, even on social media (or in poems), as being politically engaged — you’ve got to join, campaign, organise, commit, sacrifice.) I don’t think I expressed myself at all creatively during that period. Maybe that’s why I’ve been so prolific since starting up again. I’ve got years of stored-up unconscious to download.SHEENAGH
: Glad to hear it! Your poems don't shy away from politics or indeed polemic. I know you feel the past is always in the present anyway, but do you use historical parallels to get some distance from the subject, to approach it from an angle rather than head-on?STEVE
: Not consciously, although I do affirm the past to critique the present. I’ve just written a Corpus Christi play, The Coronation of the Virgin
. The play addresses modern themes: it’s an affirmation and exploration of the irrational in the context of the ‘New Atheism’s’ scorched earth kulturkampf against ‘religion’. However, it’s set in first century A.D. Palestine and written in an approximation to an early sixteenth century style — alliterative blank verse — which I suppose is a political choice in itself.
Having said that, I rarely set out to write a ‘political poem’; however, because my poetry is engaged (that is it proceeds from vision and position) there is often a political (or at least public) dimension to it. My poem ‘Spearhafoc’, for example, began as an attempt to evoke the spirit of the sparrowhawk (in response to a particularly striking photograph of the bird), but as it stands is largely a defiant affirmation of a specific kind of working-class outlawry; I didn’t intend that. It’s just that the network of associations sparked off by ‘sparrowhawk’ include the Book of St. Albans, A Kestrel for a Knave, Kes, trespass, poaching, egg collecting, eyass ‘scrumping’ and the violence and confrontations which are inevitably associated with and follow from those things. In some sections of Englaland
’s ‘Mongrel Blood Imperium’, I consciously adopted a less ‘poetic’, more direct and contemporary voice in order to present arguments, expose the faltering in my process and to convey uncertainty and bewilderment (and also to give some relief from the intensity and pace that otherwise characterised that 200 page poem. Overall, I think the decision was the right one. However, the shift to a more direct register, motivated by political as much as aesthetic considerations, came at the cost of music and a dilution of the linguistic resource. A more oblique approach gives greater space in which the imagination can roam and provides a greater range of resources to appropriate. SHEENAGH
: You use a lot of different forms – offhand I can think of ballads, unrhymed sonnets, alliterative verse, prose-poems in various formats. How does a poem, or a sequence of poems, find its ideal form, the one that feels right to you?STEVE
: I generally plan what I’m going to do, taking into account theme, content, language, intention, etc. Oswald’s Book of Hours
was modelled on the structure of a mediaeval Book of Hours
, which generally open with a Calendar (of Holy Days, etc), proceed via a formalised sequence of prayers and Psalms and conclude with ‘Memorials to the Saints’. Having settled on this general structure, I then proceeded on a utilitarian, practical basis (one of my major aims was simply to prevent the book becoming too long), hence the large number of short, sonnet-like poems — deciding to write a sonnet is my way of telling myself to keep it brief. My unpublished collection, the compleat eater
was conceived of partially as a provocative comment on form — it’s written in unpunctuated and justified columns of lower case text and defines itself as poetry via rhythm, compression and lexis. ‘The Song of the Yellowhammer’ is an improvised form, its nine line stanzas, with the last line being much longer than the rest, is being a stylisation of the traditional rendering of the nine-syllable song of the yellowhammer — ‘a little bit of bread and no cheeeeeese’.
However, although I am and will always be a planner, I’m increasingly giving myself flexibility within the broad outline of any given plan. My work-in-progress Incendium Amoris
is planned and structured and has movement and direction. However, within the broad intention, I’m giving myself considerable heuristic freedom in executing the various poems. I haven’t always done this; I haven’t always thought it necessary to. Oswald’s Book of Hours
for example, was planned poem-by-poem, in great detail. I stuck to the plan throughout, with very few departures. ‘Werewolf’, my just-completed pamphlet-length sequence, was similarly very tightly planned and has a quite intricate organisational structure. However, the general trend in my work is for looser planning and greater spontaneity. Having said that, I’m increasingly interested in identifying forms that might complement my ‘English idiom’ and to that end I’ve begun to explore and experiment. I’m becoming particularly interested in ballad forms, odes, sprung rhythm, the Arabic qasida
(I’ve just written an alliterative poem based on an Old English charm in a qasida-derived form) and in techniques (parallelism, repetition, lexical economy) used in the various English Bibles. SHEENAGH
: Yes, while Oswald's Book of Hours
actually was laid out like a mediaeval book of devotions, Englaland was
far looser and longer, and I know its published form wasn't, for space reasons, quite what you had planned, but what sort of a shape did you see it as being?STEVE
was conceived of (in 2009, when I started writing it) as the thing it became, a wide-ranging epic that affirms, uncovers, critiques and transforms ideas of England and Englishness. The intention was to create a number of pamphlet-length sequences or long poems that could stand alone, but that would also be in thematic and other relation to each other, mutually commenting on, reinforcing and illuminating and thus creating a unity in which the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts. Englaland
was planned and structured quite carefully from the beginning, although it did develop. Oswald’s Book of Hours
, for example was originally planned to be a section of Englaland
, but it grew too long for the piece. ‘Big Billy’ was originally the centre-piece of a five poem alliterative sequence (‘Feast’) about the Good Friday fair at Brierley Common, but it grew to dominate the other poems (in terms of length) so much that I discarded the others. ‘The Song of the Yellowhammer’ was a relatively late addition to the plan and ‘The Ballad of Scouse McLaughlin’ had to be sacrificed at the proof stage due to reasons of space — which grieved me no end, because all the component parts of the book are integral. If there is ever a reprint, I’d like to reincorporate ‘Scouse’, although that will probably add another fifteen or twenty pages to the book.SHEENAGH
: Both your collections have been very male worlds. In Oswald's Book of Hours
, the only females I recall being spoken of with affection or respect were the Virgin Mary and various lurchers, and in fact there were several references to women that could be seen as casually misogynist, which was fair enough since they were in the voice of Nevison, who could hardly speak like a New Man. There was one in Englaland
that bothered me a bit more, because though it was in a ballad about Nevison, it was in a narrator's voice: "he robbed the rich, man and bitch". If that had been, say, "cur and bitch", it'd be just the natural resentment of the poor against the rich. But it uses a neutral word for the male victim and a loaded, pejorative one for the female. What's the rationale there? And do you see your poetry continuing to be so male-dominated?STEVE
: Quite a few people have commented on the male world of these two books and gently implied that there may be misogyny at work. I’ve just had a quick trawl through Oswald’s Book of Hours
and noted (in addition to Our Lady and the various female lurchers and long dogs) ‘affectionate or respectful’ references to Mary Tudor & Elizabeth Barton (‘Obsecro te’ & ‘O intemerata’), the un-named Flemish girl in ‘Beati, quorum remissae’, my daughter in the first poem of ‘Hours of the Dead’, Mary Magdalen in the poem of that name in ‘Memorials of the Saints’ and Margaret of Kirkeby in ‘Richard Rolle’. A similar trawl through Englaland
reveals ‘affectionate or respectful’ references to ‘a girl’ in poem ‘X’ of ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’; ‘domestics and milkmaids’ in poem ‘XXI’; there are ‘affectionate’ if not ‘respectful’ references to women (and men) in ‘Eight Miles Out’; Lady Julia Warde-Aldam turns up in ‘Reverend John Harnett Jennings'; there are incidental but ‘respectful’ references to women in ‘The Field Church, Frickley’; ‘the booze-loosened lasses’ of ‘Big Billy’ are portrayed ‘affectionately’ and, I think ‘respectfully’; ‘Krakumal’ is Ragnar’s death-bed paean to his wife, Aslaug (Kraka); several women are mentioned in ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ and ‘Mrs Duffy’ gets a poem to herself. So maybe there are more ‘positive’ or at least ‘neutral’ references to women than you think.
The specific reference you make to possible casual misogyny (in ‘A Lytle Gest of John Nevison’), in which the narrator uses the term ‘bitch’ in lieu of ‘woman’, may actually be compounded by his subsequent reference to the innkeeper’s adulterous wife as a ‘whore’. However, the narrator of ‘A Lytle Gest of John Nevison’ is a working-class raconteur of a certain type, an outlaw and provocateur himself , hymning his hero’s deviance in a deliberately scandalous way, variously praising his hero’s fecklessness, his penchant for armed robbery and running protection rackets, his contempt for the rich, his treachery, womanising and reckless cunning. The poem ends with the narrator himself threatening the audience. The narrator’s possible misogyny is part of a range of disreputable attitudes he owns.
Of course, at a more basic level, I needed a rhyme for ‘rich’ and ‘bitch’ fitted the bill. I’m not sure my narrator would’ve used ‘cur’, though; ‘cur’ is not really in the vernacular as a synonym for ‘man’ the same way that ‘bitch’ (however much you might deplore it) is for ‘woman’. A few years ago I got into a similar minor controversy with some fellow writers over the use of racist terms by one of my narrators and some of my characters in my unpublished (the various poems were published in magazines and journals) book, JerUSAlem
. One of the major themes of JerUSAlem
is race and racism in the context of the ‘American Dream’ and concepts of the USA as ‘promised land’. Some of my characters and narrators were racists of various stripes and this was reflected in their language. I don’t see that giving scandalous utterances to scandalous voices is a problem.
However, to return to your fundamental point, both collections are undoubtedly very male worlds. Why is my world a male world? I suppose the content and themes of Oswald
— warfare, fighting, hunting, poaching, outlawry, revolution and so on — are bound to import a male bias. Plus, I am a man. I suppose I write about manly things. Looking at my most recent work: Bloody, proud and murderous men, adulterers and enemies of God is ‘very male’; given that its subject is violence, war, terrorism and genocide, it was always likely to be. Incendium Amoris
is essentially ‘about love’, and as such is more balanced, genderwise. Enganche
is about football. Ten poems in, it’s a very male world indeed. It’s just the way it is. I would never consciously attempt to compensate. I don’t write to be representative. I write because I’m obsessive-compulsive.SHEENAGH
: "I don’t see that giving scandalous utterances to scandalous voices is a problem." No indeed, and I wish to heaven that more readers would see the difference between narrative and character voice. As Chaucer says,
whoso will tell a tale after a man,
he moot reherce, as ny as ever he can,
everich word, if it be in his charge,
al speak he never so rudeliche and at large
Having said that, of course the sly old soul knew very well that it was he, the author, who chose his narrators and their tones and attitudes. I suppose it's the tone of some of your narrators' comments on women, rather than what they actually say, that sticks in the mind. Admittedly there's room for different interpretations: for instance "big-bosomed" could be glossed as "maternal" or "nurturing" rather than "belongs on Page 3", while "booze-loosened lasses" maybe sounds affectionate in a male ear but contemptuous in a female one? But what I'm really getting at is the clear, unconditional love that shows in the voices of your male narrators when they talk of their dogs, and which I don't hear elsewhere. It reminds me of when R S Thomas, in his autobiography, speaks of goldcrests: "I dote on them, the pretty little things". This comes as a terrific surprise, because he never says anything half so affectionate about his own wife and son (whose conception is explained in the sentence "The vicar's wife had expressed a desire for a child"). I don't suppose that means he didn't have feelings for them but he seems to have saved all his own expressiveness for the goldcrests. Hey, maybe I've been coming at this from the wrong angle; is it that your male narrators, too, feel less embarrassed expressing sentiments for animals?STEVE
: ‘Big-bosomed’ alludes to the comment Richard Rolle made to Margaret of Kirkeby during one of their conversations — that she had ‘gret papys’. She was a nun, he her spiritual advisor and confessor, which set certain boundaries. However, within that context, their relationship was loving and passionate and reading-between-the-lines, charged with sexual tension. ‘Booze-loosened lasses’ needs to be understood in the context of the drunken, tongue-in-cheek, sexual banter envisaged. Think hen party-meets-stag do at the races. ‘Lads laughing and lathered, lurching and leering’ at the ‘flirty, fresh faced fillies’ who ‘bar-barge’ Big Billy, ‘pouting promises for paid on porter’ — which may or may not be honoured. Maybe it’s a class thing; or maybe I’m a sly old soul myself. I think is easier for many people (not just men) to profess unconditional love to those utterly dependent and inarticulate (animals, babies) because those objects can’t muddy the emotional waters by articulating a reciprocal love (or rejection, even) — which is by definition a demand, a contract, a constraint. I suppose loving animals is in some respects an expression of solipsism or narcissism. Loving animals could also be an expression of alienation — maybe my working class narrators love their dogs because they come alive when working them in a way they simply can’t in their constrained quotidian — work, responsibility, debt, domesticity. The running dog is an emblem of freedom and escape — and a means of catharsis. Alternatively, perhaps I’m just sick of poems about ‘feelings’.SHEENAGH
: And while we're on the subject, do you have any theories as to why so many male poets are also birders? I can think of half a dozen male poets I know or know of, who are keen birdwatchers, and not a single female poet. If it weren't for that gender difference, one could formulate some high-flown (ha!) theory about flying being the ultimate escapism and poetry being another form of it, but it won't work for one sex only.STEVE
: It’s true — David Morley, Gregory Leadbetter, and Gerry Cambridge come to mind straight away. Pat explanation of why many men are birdwatchers and many male birdwatchers are poets: the alleged male hunting instinct sublimated to ‘capturing’ and ‘possession’ via the technical skills of identification, knowledge of habitat, etc fieldcraft, identification and classification. Birding poets effect a secondary sublimation: as opposed to being twitched, listed or sketched in the Alwych, the birds are written about, or otherwise incorporated in poems. I don’t list (except on my annual spring trip to Uist), but I frequently boast that 46 species of bird are named in Oswald’s Book of Hours. It’s the Hughes thing from Poetry in the Making
— writing a poem is like ‘capturing animals’. Having said all that, I cheerfully concede that it might well be trite rubbish. Bird-watching and writing poetry is what you do when you escape for the world, even to engage with it. They’re both expressions of alienation and exile, a prophetic separation; Elijah in the wilderness being fed by ravens, in refuge from persecution, earthquake and fire, finding his still, small voice.SHEENAGH
: What do you plan to do next? There was a playlet in Englaland
, plus a sort of mini-epic in alliterative verse; are you drawn to do more in those genres?STEVE
: I’ve just about finished two books of poetry. Bloody, proud and murderous men, adulterers and enemies of God
explores the human capacity for extremism and violence. The aforementioned ‘Werewolf’ and The Ballad of Scouse McLaughlin’ have found homes in this book, along with my narrative sonnet-sequence ‘True Crime’ and my Poetry Society commission ‘How Dear is Life’. I've mentioned Incendium Amoris
is a collection of poems arising from the life, writings and landscapes of the fourteenth century mystic Richard Rolle, my Corpus Christi play, The Coronation of the Virgin
explores issues of rationality/irrationality and is a subtle and insightful contribution to the otherwise crass sloganeering of the ‘Religion vs Science’ debate. I’ve started work on a collection (see above) ‘about football’, provisionally entitled Enganche
. I’ve got ideas for tracts, pamphlets and plays set in the revolutionary tumults of the seventeenth and fourteenth centuries and I have two abandoned novels I’d like to revive. SHEENAGH
: I utterly love the idea of tracts and pamphlets! If I could have lived in a former age (not that I would want to, and nor would George Mackay Brown if he'd had to cook on an open fire instead of grumbling about the decadence of stoves) I would choose the Commonwealth times when there was such an explosion of printed material, when the Welsh tailor Arise Evans could become a noted author of religious books and women could preach. What era do you think would have suited you best, and what would have been your fate in it?STEVE
: I love the ferment of the English revolution and its literary expression — Winstanley, Coppe, Tyranipocrit Uncovered, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, the Levellers, Ranters and Diggers, although my favourite poem of that period is the fierce music of the fifty-nine signatures listed on Charles Stewart’s death warrant. Me and Alice Oswald. It’s a pity literacy in our language wasn’t sufficiently developed in 1381 to leave more evidence about the Peasant’s Revolt, although, ‘whan Adam delved and Eve spanne, who then was the gentilman?’, is fine poetry and as clear a piece of class analysis as you could wish for. Some of John Ball
’s communications have survived, including the following, which I incorporated in my poem ‘John Ball’, (from Oswald’s Book of Hours
Johan the Mullere hath ygrounde smal, smal, smal.
The Kynges sone of hevene schal pay for al.
Be war or ye be wo; Knoweth your freend
fro your foo. Haveth ynow, and seith ‘Hoo!’
There were no Lords in Eden’s commune. But if I had to choose a period to transport myself to it would have been the period immediately post 1066. I’d have joined what the historian Peter Rex has called ‘The English Resistance’ against Guillaume the Bastard’s genocidal asset-stripping of England and the North in particular. I would have chopped a few Frenchmen before being disembowelled and hung from a gibbet by my thumbs. Stoves aren’t decadent. They’re necessary. Stove PLC is the problem. It denies stoves at all to those who can’t pay and puts the Amazon through a wood chipper to build super-deluxe diamond-encrusted platinum stoves for Bill Gates and Roman Abramovich.More poems and links
The Song of the Yellowhammer
Through the mists of an April dawn
a crowd flowed along Manvers Way, so many,
I had not thought the dole had undone so many,
sending them herded from the fuming valleys
of Dearne and Dove and Don and Rother,
into the bus bays and car parks of Ventura,
ASOS and Next PC, where they pour
from Nissans, Vauxhalls and private hire minicabs,
lighting cigarettes, adjusting iPhones,
pressing mobiles to their ears, striding out
in polished patent, pinstripes breaking
on the buckled instep, tailored skirts
and long coats flaring on the breeze.
Sixty thousand work here, in logistics,
call-centres, light industry and retail,
along the roundabouted blacktop
from Birdwell to Barnsdale, the EU funded
M1 to A1 link road. Objective One,
bringing light to parochial darkness,
access, investment, enterprise, jobs;
until sterling collapses, Kolkata undercuts
and the market-zeitgeist lurches,
retrenching capital in gold and gilts
and the provincia flips once more
to wrecking-ball brownfield-bombsite,
the full monty of dole and dereliction,
where brassed-off, hand-to-mouth yokels
are abandoned to dearth and absurdity,
their eh-ba-gum tutu dreams.
Once there were woods and open fields,
fens in the flatland, villages on the hill.
Bullheads in the millstream, polecats
in the warren; red kite, raven, white-tailed eagle,
over the wolf-prowled heath. Danelaw sokeland,
assarted from wildwood, torp in the langthwaite clays;
the Anglecynn muster at Ringstone Hill,
where three wapentakes meet; Oswald's grange
by the holy well – belltower, gatehouse,
carucates for geld. Here, beyond Whitwell
and the five boroughs, beyond Mercia's
clement mid-lands, we will beat the bounds
at rogationtide from Bamburgh, Danum,
Durham and York; the dragon-prowed river,
the waycross on the roman road, hoar apple tree,
whit's gospel thorn, the tumulus at Askern Hill;
these are the roots that clutch, these the sprouting corpses,
these are the fragments I shore against my ruins.
Wycliffe's words and Langland's gave the Englisc
back their tongue. Manor french and church latin
cut-off in the throat, battening behind
the buttresses of keeps and cathedrals,
parsing and declining. Johon Schepe
proclaims his hedgerow gospel, singing
from the furze like a yellowhammer:
Johan the Mullere hath ygrounde smal, smal, smal.
The Kynges sone of hevene schal pay for al.
Be war or ye be wo; Knoweth your freend
fro your foo. Haveth ynow, and seith ‘Hoo!’
There were no lords in Eden's commune
Scythes sharpened on whetstones, gente non sancta.
War will follow the Word.
(From Oswald's Book of Hours)
can be found here.Smokestack Books
, Steve Ely's publisherSteve Ely's website