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Sheenagh Pugh
We might slow the speed of darkness but it still comes anyway

He froze, waiting. The Wood across the stream seemed empty and silent, patters of rain dripping from its soaked branches. Then as if the light had changed, or something in his brain had adjusted, he saw them. Thin and spindly and elegant, their coats and dresses red and gold as the beech leaves, they leaned and lazed and laughed, that host of silver-haired, beautiful, sly creatures that ran and whispered through his dreams. Slants of wan sunlight lit their eyes, beady as starlings', their gaudy buttons and jewels, the ribbons on their coats. Their fingers were too long, their voices the buzz of bees. Some of them still had wings for arms, one a beak instead of a mouth.
Yep, the Shee are back. And the Wintercombe crowd: Piers, Maskelyne, Jake, Sarah, Wharton, Rebecca, not forgetting David and Venn, getting ever closer to being able to use the mirror as they want to. Halloween is approaching, the day of the dead, when the best chance will arise of getting Venn's dead wife back – but also the time when the Shee are at their most powerful.

But there are two new elements. For the first time, we go into the future to see the world Janus has made – or will make. This might have been predicted, but a total surprise was that we also go farther back in time than ever before and find out at last what the relevance to the story is of all those chapter epigraphs about Venn's adventure on Katra Simba.

At this stage of the tetralogy, the last thing I want to do is provide spoilers, so I must be careful what I quote or refer to. What I will warn against is expecting the kind of ending that ties everything up in neat bows, because it isn't what you will get. As befits a quartet of novels which has postulated that time doesn't really exist as such, or at least not in straight lines, the endings for the various characters are a lot more interesting and uncertain than that, and the novel's last three sentences, in particular, are very enigmatic. The title comes from a remark, late on the book, by a character I won't name: "We might slow the speed of darkness but it still comes anyway". This, I think, is the clue to the last sentence.

Now the quartet is complete, it can be seen what an ambitious, rich, sweeping piece of work it is. It makes far more demands of its readership than many adult books do, never mind YA ones, both in following its twisting plot and in absorbing and processing the complex and thought-provoking moral and intellectual questions it keeps throwing up. One of the main ones in this volume concerns what could only be called a good deed, which has dreadful results and arguably should never have been done. The whole series is also a fine example of Fisher's skill at world-building, to the point that very few will want to leave it simply because the pages have come to an end. I am already dreaming of a spin-off for Moll…
Sheenagh Pugh
06 January 2016 @ 12:02 pm
Arising out of a Facebook post by the poet Jo Bell, which linked to a list of poems to try on people who think they hate poetry. I didn't know any of them (US poems mainly, I think) but it did inspire me to try to list the ones I have had success with in this line when doing classes and workshops. I'm thinking especially of those who say they can't get on with contemporary poetry, by which they usually mean the kind that doesn't rhyme.

1, Napoleon, by Miroslav Holub

Holub is a good poet for folk who think they hate poetry, because he's very direct and non-mystifying. He was a doctor, and that vocabulary and subject matter often informs his work, as in Casualty

2. 170 Chinese Poems, translated by Arthur Waley

The "170" was a famous anthology in my youth and I've never actually met anyone who disliked it. Waley was particularly fond of the poet Bai Ju-yi (once known as Po Chu-i) from the 8th-9th century, who specialised in very simple, direct language (which if course wasn't near as simple as it looks). "Remembering Golden Bells" was a poem about the death of his daughter.

3. "Everything Changes" by Bert Brecht.

This is quite a good way to get non-poetry-readers to see what can be done by playing around with syntax, and how it really isn't that difficult or frightening.

4. "Eden Rock" by Charles Causley.

You might say Causley is the compromise for those who can't get on with free verse, since he never abandoned rhyme and music, but "Eden Rock" is half-rhyme, unobtrusive, form used in a twentieth-century way. It's also very powerful and most folk of a certain age can relate to it. There are others on his page in the Poetry Archive.
Sheenagh Pugh
As a glance at the acknowledgements makes clear, many of these poems were written as commissions, for residencies or projects, or in response to requests for poems on particular subjects; indeed the acks page includes a section of poems "published online, as part of activist and/or literary projects". Poems with a practical purpose, then, and the order of adjectives in "activist and/or literary" might suggest that "activist" is the more important to the writer.

So I started by picking out poems that hadn't been written for any of these reasons, on the assumption that these would tell me the most about the poet's own voice and preoccupations. In "Hitting the Road with Frida Kahlo", she conflates her own road accident with that of Kahlo. I must admit, it's a title that would normally make me groan, because Frida flaming Kahlo is, like bees, Alzheimers and childhood memories, a subject that crops up far too often in contemporary poems and is beginning to be an automatic turn-off. But this is an original, individual treatment that for once establishes a genuine, intrinsic connection between author and subject and justifies its use. It's also very vividly done:

          I clamber out, broken bones grating,
Scrunching like brown sugar, fall down
To lie on the icy road, beginning my new life

The title poem updates the elegy form with wit and sharpness to the online age: it can't be an accident that the ending

                            and if I could,
I'd unfriend Death for you, report him for abuse, the troll
Who poked you, who is "following" us all, block him for good

is so painfully reminiscent of Chaucer's three young drunks setting out with their proud boast "we wol sleen this false traytour Deeth".

I really didn't need this poem's footnote on "Rip", nor the ones to "Mrs Bennet's Burden" and "Scent for a Suffragette". On the other hand I couldn't half have done with explanatory notes to "Baking Scones for Eminem" and "God is a DJ" (haven't quite got around to googling Marshall, Slim and Armin van Buuren yet). I suppose what this shows is the problem with footnotes: our readers have different areas of knowledge and ignorance and these are, more and more, generationally determined. One good reason, I think, to put them all together at the back, where readers can ignore or consult them as they wish.

The section "Poems of Pathology, Anatomy and Dealing with Death" contains some of my favourites in the collection: perhaps the subject matter sorts well with her other incarnation as a crime writer. "Keepers", juxtaposing the voices of two technicians from the nineteenth and 21st centuries whose job is to create mementos of the dead for the living, is artful and compelling (here the note was again useful for generational reasons, since I knew exactly what the Victorian mortuary photographer was up to but had never heard of a "doll re-borner"). The two poems of "Deathbed Writing Workshop", which could easily have been sentimental, are instead powerful (and the word "debridement" on which they centre is wonderful, a gift to a writer).

I'm not entirely so keen on some of the activist poems, because they strike me as too tailored to the cause. "The Sex Life of Slugs", written for an online "against rape" project, explains too much of the faintly comic process the slugs are up to, and its final lines

Meanwhile, after dark, slugs stroll
The pavements, heedless of rape

left me thinking: well yes, but they do get trodden on and salted rather a lot, so on the whole I'd still sooner be a female human. The few purely humorous poems aren't really my cup of tea either, though to be fair, "Phone Sex" sounds as if it's meant to have a tune attached, while "Lowering the Teaune" might do more for me if I had ever listened to "The Archers" (I sometimes seem to be the only person in the country who hasn't).

Mostly, though, this is a varied and entertaining collection. The medical poems, especially, are effective - it is no surprise that she has often been successful in the Hippocrates Awards.
Sheenagh Pugh
"I'm super excited about this getting married idea, But there's a lot about me you don't know."
"There'd better be," he said warmly.
"So it makes sense for the tips of icebergs to fall in love, without knowing anything about the bottom parts?"

This notion of people as icebergs, most of which are beneath the surface, is central to the novel. We come in at the point where Veblen, a typist and translator in her thirties, has just become engaged to Paul, a move she suspects may have been an error. Both she and he have huge issues with their families: indeed every parent in the book is more or less hopeless at the job. Several of them, as we gradually discover, have themselves been poorly parented and are passing their consequent hang-ups on to the next generation: in this respect the novel is reminiscent of Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, though, as we shall see, it fights shy of his pessimistic conclusion.

Partly because of her sense of humour, McKenzie is excellent at writing about relationships without cloying sentiment or tiresome psychobabble. Her observation is acute and detailed:
…yet it was clear that your choice of mate would shape the rest of your life in ways you couldn't begin to know. One by one, things he didn't like would be jettisoned. First squirrels, then turkey meatballs, then corn, then - what next? Marriage could be a continuing exercise in disappearances.

Later, this same acute observation creates an almost unbearably moving scene when Paul, a medical researcher, is trying to get it through to the relatives of brain-damaged patients that the trial these patients are about to take part in, though it will improve knowledge of their condition, will not actually do anything to cure it. They have all been told this; they just don't want to believe it.
The people in the room began to talk, trading what they'd heard. As the volume rose, Paul shrank, his stomach bunched into a knot.
"People," he said. "This is how it is. People!"
Two young women with pale skin and knitted brows were whispering to each other, and one raised her hand.
"Our dad's here and we've read the papers," she said. "And we know that this trial is to test a device to be used within hours of brain injury. It's not designed to help people who have already suffered TBI, such as our dad and other members of this trial. Isn't that true?"
Paul said, "That was well put. Did everybody hear that?"
The room fell quiet, mown down. […]
A woman in a heavy, rust-coloured parka patched with duct tape raised her hand.
"We read the papers too. We understand all that. But for us it's better to try something than nothing. It's possible my husband could get some benefit out of this procedure, isn't it?"
More murmurs from the others. He heard someone say, "We thought so too."
He was bulging with anger at their wilful ignorance, stretching himself to hide it. He said, "I hope you'll all take the time to read the prospectus again and understand that in this trial we do not expect-" The faces, from every side of the room, were tense, wrung out. "We don't expect-" He felt the room closing in on him, every face trained on his. […] He couldn't breathe.
"We don't know what to expect until we've tried it," he blurted out suddenly, and the room lightened many degrees.

McKenzie also has a very good ear for dialogue, particularly between Veblen and her sharply drawn mother, for whom daughter's place is in the wrong. In fact the book is sharp, well-written, often funny and generally enjoyable, and if the pace sometimes slows a bit too much early on, it certainly picks up by the end. But I do have one reservation. It seems almost every new American novel I have read in the past few years is determined to achieve a happy ending, even if events up to that point make nothing seem less probable. This was the problem I had with Bradley Somer's Fishbowl. To be fair, this is not as extreme a case; it is clear, for instance, that if Veblen and her mother have achieved a modus vivendi, it largely depends on their being separated by the Atlantic. But other long-standing relationship issues are still sorted out and tied up in over-neat and fairly incredible bows. I don't know if this is because the American market demands upbeat endings, but this one didn't seem to me to have evolved naturally from the book.
Sheenagh Pugh
03 December 2015 @ 06:49 pm
So at the start of the year I resolved to write two book reviews a month - with one caveat, I also do author interviews, which take more work, so I decided they would also count as review posts. That would mean 24 posts over the year.

Well, I made it. I did three posts in November, two reviews plus an interview, so the one December review makes up the 24. They can all be found by hitting the tags "book reviews" and "interviews with writers" in the sidebar on the left.

For those who like statistics, the 21 books reviewed included 3 anthologies, all poetry, and 18 single-authored books. Of these, 8 were prose and 10 poetry, while 11 were by women and 7 by men. Nearly all were contemporary or near-contemporary. I included a review of the short stories of Ismat Chughtai because I'd never come across her before and thought others might not have done. Elizabeth Melville isn't contemporary either, but the selection of her work by Jamie Reid Baxter was reasonably so, and I'd been hugely impressed by it at Stanza. Of the three author interviews, two were with women (Barbara Marsh and Catherine Fisher) and one with a man (Steve Ely).

Most of the authors aren't the mega-famous type, since they get lots of reviews anyway. I did review a Louise Glück, because the reviews I'd seen didn't, to my mind, quite get to grips with one aspect of it. There was no non-fiction, which is unusual for me. But the stress on poetry was deliberate: I began doing this because writers, particularly poets are always complaining that there isn't enough of a reviewing culture and it seemed reasonable to try to actually do something about it rather than just whinge. Since I chose most of the books, it figures that the reviews are mostly positive, though I hope still critically aware. If I don't like something about a book, I'll say so. I shall keep on reviewing next year, though I won't set targets, but will still hope to do one or two a month.
Sheenagh Pugh

This is a short anthology of poems, commissioned from the three poets, on the theme of ageing. I bought it both because I'd read and enjoyed the work of all three before and because it's a theme becoming somewhat relevant and fascinating to me. Indeed in the last two months I have read two individual collections, by Philip Gross and Tamar Yoseloff, centring on this very theme. Each poet's work in this collection is prefaced by a short note on how they worked, which is interesting though it left me slightly puzzled. Vicki Feaver says "The poems were written in solitude. But meeting with Douglas Dunn and Diana Hendry and sharing poems and ideas gave me the encouragement I thrive on". Diana Hendry, on the other hand, speaks of "meeting, talking about and workshopping poems", which suggests rather more collaboration. Her note also mentions that the topic they were given was, specifically, "Creative Ageing", and the editorial note indicates that the brief was to "challenge the orthodoxies surrounding ageing".

I can imagine why the commission may have harped on the positive, because one obvious pitfall of this theme is that it may produce something quite morbid and depressing. But pitfalls in poetry almost always come in pairs, and while avoiding this particular Charybdis, it is possible to veer into a Scylla of relentless chirpiness. I think this is why the Dunn poems, of which I'd been expecting the most, having long loved his work, partly disappointed me. The first poem, "Thursday", is just plain not very good. Lines like

If only I could tap my old exuberance,
High spirits that I plied in days of yore;
Then maybe I would find a kind deliverance
From the curse of being such a bloody bore

may be meant as amusing (I didn't find them so, but we old grouches are hard to amuse). But it sounds just like Clive James versifying, and Dunn is so much better than that. The next couple of poems are better, but keep coming up with slick one-liners like "one chirrup absent from the dawn chorus" and "So fall off a barstool swigging your hemlock" ("The Wash") that begin to sound like a desperate determination to make a joke of everything. In his prefatory note, he mentions that he re-read that unbearably poignant scene on ageing from Henry IV Part 2: "we have heard the chimes at midnight", but found no inspiration there. I suppose it wasn't jaunty enough.

Luckily the very next poem, "Wondrous Strange", shows Dunn back at his best, not trying to come up with easy answers to what is by nature elusive:

Now it can almost be heard. But not quite
Almost. Still on the far side of nearly,
It is the melody of a floating feather.

There are some memorable poems after this, notably "Curmudgeon", with a genuinely funny and observant one-liner, "he is a virtuoso concert pessimist", that leaves the rest standing, and "The Glove Compartment", which doesn't try to mitigate loss and mortality with flippancy and is starkly moving.

Most of the Dunn poems are set in the now of ageing; Vicki Feaver, quite often, comes at the theme through memory, looking back to a youth that has departed. She is

travelling forwards at time's pace
and backwards and forwards
at the mind's speeds ("Travelling").

There are several luminous remembered moments –pomegranate juice, dressing-up boxes – and a tendency to reinterpret, revalue in the light of age what is seen and experienced, like her reaction to the ageing, drying fruit in "Clementines". I think it's arguable that there are, in modern poetry, not just in this collection, too many "I remember" poems and that it's a theme which can become predictable, but it is very well done here. The most memorable poem, to me, was "The Blue Wave", in which she comes closest of the three to the "creative ageing" brief in celebrating a painter:

But in my head there's a painting
done in your nineties
when just to lift your arm

was an effort: a single brave
upwards sweep with a wide
distemper brush so loaded

with paint the canvas filled
with the glistening blue wall
of a wave before it falls.

One of those images that does in a moment the work of a paragraph.

Diana Hendry's selection is mighty unpredictable. We go from memories-of-childhood poems to coming-to-terms-with-the-present poems and (my favourites), ones which veer unexpectedly off at right-angles to reality, like that iconic oldie Cpl Jones going into the realms of fantasy. She takes risks, which means that not all of them will come off – I don't think "Meditation on an Old Bear" really rises above doggerel, and in "An Alternative Retirement" I find her praise of the Hatton Garden jewel thieves, or as she calls them "the glamorous gang riding off with the loot", plain annoying: a thug on a pension is still a thug, not a role model.

But other risks come off rather beautifully. "Autobiography" with its ballad rhythm has an air of Causley

And what d'you remember of fear, child?

Long grass, bare feet, imagined snakes.
Dark slid a lid across the day.

And "Beyond" is probably my favourite poem in the collection. Its syntax and lineation are freed-up, unconventional in a way no other poem in an otherwise completely conventionally-justified book is, and the thought-line is to match.

What is it about the need for it? The why
of flight        mountaineering        the gift of grace.        How dire

if ours was the only galaxy!

How happily the word sits in the mouth, satisfying
as a communion wafer.

This is the sound of the distant train
                               running through your dream--

be-yond be-yond be-yond be-yond.

I found this an uneven anthology, but its best poems, notably "Beyond", "The Blue Wave" and "The Glove Compartment" make it well worth the modest £7 cover price.
Sheenagh Pugh

With a Selected, it's fun to go back to early poems and see when various themes and techniques emerged. I hadn't read the poems from Sweetheart for some time, and had forgotten how reminiscence-based they were: like many first collections, they take much inspiration from parents, childhood memories, early love affairs. But already individual traits are emerging. The memories don't all come from one place: America, London, Scotland all figure. There's a keen interest in the mortality of things, the insides of animals and people, the way places change over time. In "Fleet" we see both this and another preoccupation that will become central: this is essentially an urban poet who is more moved and vitalised by cityscapes than rural scenes:

             I glide blissfully through my day,
all liquid, like a fish. I can't understand
what gives this extra lift to my step, as if I'm floating,
and the cars drifting through Clerkenwell Green
are barges carrying sailors home from sea.

But an undercurrent sinks me at Islington:
I sense the bones of the old prison, the plague-dead
dumped straight from their beds

There's also a hint, in "The Arnolfini Marriage", of the fascination with ekphrastic poetry and coming at a theme through different media, which would develop into sequences like "The City With Horns", centring on Jackson Pollock, and into her publishing venture Hercules Editions, which has brought out pamphlets by various poets in which words and images work together.

In later collections it becomes ever more evident that this is a displaced poet, one raised in one place (though even then a traveller), but now living elsewhere (and still travelling). I have a fondness for displaced poets, because their way of seeing places seems to me to be unlike any other. Their eye takes nothing for granted; nothing is overlooked for long acquaintance or accepted as commonplace. The delight and surprise pulsing through "The Nolans in Japan", where Tokyo is "a wind-up toy - flashing,/bright" is that of someone seeing it new, but in London too, where she has lived a long time, she is conscious not just of
the alleys wet with condensation
darkened streets

but also of

               the rivers running
just below the ground, the Wandle, the Walbrook

the Tyburn, the Fleet. (Christmas in London)

The other thing about these poets' way of seeing, especially seeing the past, is that a place is not just a place, but that place at a particular moment of time. In "The Atlantic at Asbury Park" a derelict fairground's heyday is briefly evoked and becomes emblematic for that time when everything still seems possible to adolescents, though the evidence of the adults around them suggests otherwise; in "London Particular", the speaker's London merges with the city her father knew decades before.

This consciousness of time passing is always liable to foster a sense of darkness. In many of the London poems, her fascination with ruined buildings comes through; "Construction" is in fact more concerned with what has been demolished:

               The empty plot forgets
clothes strewn on vanished floors, spoons and frying pans;
in demolition the goal is ground,
we are out in the open.

The later poems in particular are getting quite death-haunted, as tends to happen when poets get older. This city-dweller is not usually much for flower poems; it seems grimly appropriate that when she does choose to write about one, it is either poisonous ("Sinister Little Flower") or the invasive, destructive "Knotweed":

               You will not budge

now you've found your calling: the felling
of our failing structures.

In the fine sequence "Fetch", where a woman indulges her fantasies of a different and more dangerous life, Yoseloff's taste for the sinister creates real, gripping tension and fear in the reader. This undercurrent of menace and decay exists in many of her poems, but so, alongside it, does the related carpe diem impulse of "City Winter", another hymn of displacement. Another thing I like about displaced poets is that they have no comfort zone; they are never entirely where they want to be and if there are any answers, they are always somewhere else:

               What you want

you won't find here. A train
leaves the city, its complicated tracks
weave past buildings still to be built,
girders lifting beyond the horizon,
its passengers bound for those lit rooms
flickering like grubby stars
on the outskirts.

This may make for restlessness in the poet, but it stimulates nothing so much as excitement and variety for the reader.
Sheenagh Pugh
10 November 2015 @ 12:24 pm
I've been thinking an awful lot about poetry anthologies lately, mainly because I've been reading an awful lot about poetry anthologies - I've heard, over the past year and especially the past few months, of umpteen coming out (even been invited to be in some). I thought at first it might be to do with the imminence of Christmas, since they make popular gifts, but I think it's more than that. The poet Jon Stone suggested on a Facebook thread that publishers found them more saleable than, for example, first collections by relative unknowns, and I think there's some truth in that, though I also think the very existence of Facebook is part of it - suddenly it has become a whole lot easier for an editor thinking of putting an anthology together to contact a large number of poets at once.

Anthologies of writing, prose as well as poetry, have always been an easy way in, a way to find writers you might not have known about and get a taste of their work so that you can then go on to read individual collections by those who please or interest you. In this respect they're very useful. Some, especially those on specific themes, have more permanent uses. They can show poets reacting differently over time to the same theme, like John Greening's "Accompanied Voices" about poetic reactions to musicians. Or they can show the reactions of different sectors of society - classes, genders - to the same event, like Tim Kendall's "Poetry of the First World War". Some showcase particular schools, which is handy for those who think in terms of schools, though to my mind the most interesting poets will never fit into one. An increasing number are "instant reaction" anthologies, got up in a hurry to promote some cause or protest at some wrong. These are by no means always poor: it depends on the editor's judgment and on how thoroughly, or hastily, the job is done, and "For Rhino in a Shrinking World", to take one example, is excellent. But I have read some I admired a lot less.

Ones that are purely time-based - Poetry of the Forties, Best of 2015 sort of titles - are, to my mind, only useful in the first sense, i.e. they give you a taste of many poets, allowing you then to choose the ones into whom you want to go more deeply. These anthologies are, if you like, the baby stage of reading poetry and I don't mean that as an insult, we all have to go through it. What worries me a little about the current plethora of anthologies is that I wonder if many readers are not getting beyond it at all, never delving deeper into one poet. I think this matters because, despite the critics' constant admonition that a poem should be able to "stand alone", one can actually often get a lot more out of seeing it in the context of a writer's other work. Motifs emerge and develop, as they do in music, becoming more haunting each time you encounter them. In a sense, when I read Louise Glück's latest, I am also re-reading The Wild Iris, Meadowlands, Averno and all the rest (and who wouldn't want to?). Poetry is genuinely more rewarding when one has more than a passing acquaintance with someone's work as a whole.

My other worry is in case more and more anthologies should lead to fewer and fewer first collections. Publishers only have a certain number of slots per year. I foresee many new poets who are well known in magazines and anthologies but who cannot for the life of them get a whole collection published. I don't actually want to read an anthology, note poets I should like to know more of, and then find there is no way of doing so, nothing behind the tempting facades, as if I'd stopped off in a promising tourist spot and found it a Potemkin village.
Sheenagh Pugh
06 November 2015 @ 11:32 am
no title

Catherine Fisher, who lives in Newport, writes both poems and YA fantasy novels. In poetry, she has won the Cardiff International Poetry Prize, while with her novels she has been shortlisted for many awards including the Smarties Books Prize and the Whitbread Prize for Children's Fiction. Her futuristic novel Incarceron was published to widespread praise in 2007, winning the Mythopoeic Society of America's Children's Fiction Award and selected by The Times as its Children's Book of the Year.

SHEENAGH: I think you've said before that you, like me, are one of those who can't write poetry and prose at the same time because the rhythms are so different; the poems just come out prosy. Do you consciously think yourself into a poetry or prose mood? When something starts to germinate in your mind, how soon do you know which form it's going to take? And what would you do if, say, you're in the middle of a novel and you suddenly get a really good impetus for something that just has to be a poem?

CATHERINE: It's hard to write both at once; sometimes it works. I don't really do anything consciously with writing- it's all just spur of the moment. If a line comes to mind which is quite obviously a line of verse- or even an image or idea, I try to jot it down and keep it to work on. Whether a vaguer idea will turn out prose or poetry sort of depends on the size of the thing- having written many novels I know now when it's going to be a big story, with lots of complications, rather than a more stripped-down subject for a poem or a series of poems.
    If I'm in the middle of a novel and I get an idea for a poem I usually just do it, or at least make notes about it. A novel takes about a year to write so if you wait you'll have lost it... which happens sometimes.

SHEENAGH: Your poetry is basically aimed at adults while your novels have been marketed to children and young adults. Granted, the divide between YA and "adult" books is a bit artificial, I read your YA fantasy novels with pleasure and I'm sure an intelligent child would like your poems, But have you ever been tempted to write "adult" novels, or poems specifically aimed at children?

CATHERINE: I think I just write the books for me now- I don't really think about the YA or adult thing, and as you say, the adult readership for YA is huge. The only thing that makes the books YA really is that the protagonists tend to be young people- having said that, most of the other characters are adults and they are just as important. In the current set, The Chronoptika books, Jake and Sarah are the nominal heroes, but then there's Venn, Wharton, David, Maskelyne, a whole host of adults who are almost equally important.
    Having said that, publishers have rather different ideas and don't like too many adult characters. They seem to feel that teens only like to read about other teens, which I think is untrue. After all, this is the time in life when the adult world is impinging, and teens want to learn about it. When I was that age there were no YA books really, so I went from Enid Blyton etc straight to Sherlock Holmes and plenty of sf. And that was good.
    So if I wrote an adult book it wouldn't be that different. Though of course there is the bitter truth that so called adult fiction is taken more seriously by critics and pays better. But also it is true that the YA market seems to be prospering, even in these tough times.

SHEENAGH: "I think I just write the books for me now- I don't really think about the YA or adult thing" - That's always been my impression; your books certainly never talk down to young readers. But I know that some of your UK titles have been altered in US editions, because US publishers haven't trusted their readers to understand the British titles (though why Crown of Acorns became Circle of Stones still baffles me; have US children really never seen acorns?) Have you ever encountered any other sort of intervention like this? I'm thinking not only of how you always credit readers with the brains to know or look up what's new to them, but also of times when you've tackled emotionally difficult material - killed off parents, allowed siblings to admit to serious resentment of each other, or allowed your young 18th and 19th-century girl protagonists to be at fairly explicit risk from men, though luckily they're pretty good at taking care of themselves. Has a publisher or editor ever tried to get you to simplify or tone anything down?

CATHERINE: The Crown of Acorns title change baffled me too. Circle of Stones is so bland! I don't really understand some of these changes. The funniest one was the change of The Oracle, a title which was considered too baffling for US kids and finally became The Oracle Prophecies. Of course. So much simpler.
    There are other interventions but they are fairly low-level- mostly questioning word usage, usually because a word can be unfamiliar or idiomatic or mean something else there. I don't think I've ever been asked to tone down content, or had complaints about what goes on in the books- at least not from publishers. Some US librarians have lists which rate you for content.. how much swearing, how much violence etc.
    But I think my books are fairly innocuous compared to the more realistic YA book. At least fantasy distances violence and danger. The stuff that happens in your own street is probably far more frightening, in real terms.

SHEENAGH: "As for poetry, I hope anyone can read it. " - we both know they can't, though. Or at least, they tell themselves they can't. Many adults, certainly, seem to have a mental block as soon as they see what someone described to me as "those little short lines" and to assume it won't be for them. I would hope that doesn't apply so much to children, but I haven't your experience with them. Do you see any way to overcome this reaction of fear, antipathy, whatever one calls it? Particularly if, as I suspect, it isn't natural to children but develops as they grow older.

CATHERINE: I don't think young children have learned an antipathy to poetry. On the contrary they love it, but for them it is an oral art, like singing or stories. Joining in, chanting along, having fun with words.
    I think maybe children learn to fear poetry because somehow they pick up this idea that it is 'difficult', not straightforward, that it doesn't tell a story and hides its meaning in metaphors. So it becomes a puzzle to be solved.
    Having said that, of course poetry is difficult, because it's dense, compacted, packed tight. It's taken neat. Or, in another image which I'm playing with at the moment, a poem is like one of those pellets that owls regurgitate. You have to break it open and pick out all the bones and fur to find out what the poet has been digesting.
    Good teachers can make it loved, but many teachers find it difficult too, I suspect.
    I think the only way to keep that fresh response of the young is to read the stuff aloud, which transforms it. As a kid I chanted reams of poetry to myself because I loved the sounds, the rhythms, the rhyme. As well as the sharp, brilliant visual flashes you get.
    Teaching is hard and in these days there is little room for fun. But the child who 'gets' poetry will never lose their hunger for it..

SHEENAGH: Like many YA writers, you are deeply rooted in mythology: Welsh, Egyptian, Norse, among others. And this often goes hand in hand with the futuristic element: ancient archetypes and themes play out in a new guise for a new age. I've noticed that your dystopian futures, as in the Chronoptika books, tend to be materialistic, practical, cleansed of myth, which fortunately reasserts itself like Nature resisting the pitchfork. Again, is that conscious or just the way you naturally see the world? And do you think it would actually happen? (I'm recalling Terry Nation saying gloomily that he couldn't imagine a future that wasn't basically dystopian.)

CATHERINE: Myth is fascinating and eternal. One reason I enjoy it and use it a lot is that these are well tried and tested stories; there is something in them that goes deep, however often they are re-interpreted. And they do go well with the futuristic.
    I have done a few dystopias and yes they tend to be materialistic places, and the reason for that, I suppose is that it's my worst nightmare- places where stories and the past have been obliterated. But the stories always come back. In Incarceron, for example, the prisoners have a whole secret mythology of a prisoner called Sapphique, who once escaped, and will one day return. The really fun part for me is creating this backstory and playing with mythic tropes, writing whole sections of scripture and poetry about him or by him, while keeping the reader wondering if in fact he ever really existed.

SHEENAGH: Following on from that, one mythology I haven't particularly noticed surfacing in your work is Irish, and I know you have Irish ancestry. Any plans in that direction?

CATHERINE: Ah. I love the Irish stuff. It has a peculiar, raw savage feel. It's different to the Welsh stories which are softer - the myths of Cuchulain etc seem primal and unrefined. To start using them would be a challenge- and somehow dangerous, as if I would be handling powerful, unstable dynamite..
    So I have no plans just yet in fiction, but certain poems may happen, as a way into it.
    I don't think humanity will ever lose stories. At the moment we seem to have more of them than ever, and everything is always being reworked. Sometimes I don't like the results, but I like the obsessive need for it.

SHEENAGH: Your little poem pamphlet Folklore (Smith/Doorstop Books 2003) was very much about that, how folk motifs survive by being reworked in each generation. When you say "sometimes I don't like the results", are you thinking of anything in particular?

CATHERINE: Well, I'm being purist here. I love the idea that stories are being constantly reworked. But that means writers can- and do- take liberties with the characters and re-arrange them in new scenarios and different adventures. Which is fine, as long as there is some integrity with the originals. I suppose I'm thinking mostly of TV and film adaptions- things like the recent Jason, and Merlin, which I don't tend to watch because the modern idiom and 21st century responses of the characters irritate me. But then it's always been like that. I bet there was some crusty old scribe back in the 1100s complaining that Chretien de Troyes' new version of the grail story totally wrecked the original, and that things didn't really happen like that.
    The great thing about myths is there is no original and there is no really.
    This impinges a bit on fan fiction, but of course with that there is an original.

SHEENAGH: Talking of which, I know you've encouraged children in the past to write fan fiction based on your books, particularly when they wanted the story to continue and you wanted to go off and write something else! Did you ever read any of it, and if so, how did you react? I know there was a fair bit, and I'm guessing a lot of it revolved round Getting People Together who didn't explicitly come together in the books - young readers don't half want true love to triumph, whatever else happens...

CATHERINE: I gather there is quite a bit of fan fiction around, especially about the worlds of Incarceron and Sapphique but I have never gone looking for it and haven't read much. I have no objection to people writing it as long as it's clear it has nothing to do with me. As you say, I imagine it's mostly people playing with the characters' relationships and re-arranging them to their own liking, or inventing new adventures for them. I understand the desire to do that, if you are so in love with that world or those characters that you just want more and more of them, and the author is too busy (or disinclined) to provide it. Also it can be a way into writing, as copying paintings is for artists.
    But I think in the long run it leads to sterility, and writers have to be brave and take the step away and invent their own stories.
    By the way, earlier I said that with fan fiction there is an original, and that's true, in that say, the book of Incarceron exists. But looking at it in more detail, even that book is actually an assemblage, an artwork created out of thousands of bits of things- paintings, poems, books I've read, films, places I know, and many more tinier, intangible things. Only the way it's put together and expressed is truly mine.
So maybe, even with fiction, there is no ultimate original.
    Which doesn't stop me feeling possessive about the work and uneasy about what happens to it out there..

SHEENAGH: Talking of originals, both your poems and your novels sometimes use historical characters, but very differently. When, in your poems, you get into a past voice, like James Hartshill in The Unexplored Ocean, or the two adversaries in "Incident at Conwy", it seems you're trying to get as close as possible to the reality of being them. But with the historical characters in your novels, like John Dee, Maskelyne, John Wood of Bath, it seems the first thing you do is work free of the reality, changing names and at least lightly fictionalising the character. Why might that be?

CATHERINE: Actually these two examples are quite similar. James Hartshill, for instance, is invented. I wanted to write a set of poems about Cook's voyages and initially tried to use Cook's voice, but that method was full of potential pitfalls. His diaries exist, he was a real person. So I could easily be seen to get things wrong, be inaccurate, and would be constrained by his responses and the things he really did. It was easier to comment on Cook through Hartshill, who can be or say anything I want him to be. He starts off as very young and naive and grows disillusioned.
    So that is very similar to the way I use Jonathon Forest as a fictionalised version of John Wood. Wood was a wonderful man and full of crazy theories, but the demands of fiction meant that his life had to be re-arranged into the pattern I needed. So Forrest is Wood, but not quite.
    For example, Wood actually met a young woman called Sylvia and took her into his household, but she later committed suicide. In my story Crown of Acorns she does not do that.
    It's as if one is writing an alternative form of what happened, or trying to impose pattern, because real lives are so chaotic and random. I think that this is the need underlying most fiction.

SHEENAGH: Many of your YA protagonists, especially the girls, are quite spiky, combative characters. Is that a reaction against the sort of "heroines" you and I mostly had to put up with in the books of our childhood?

CATHERINE: Oh well, we've all cringed at the stereotypes. It is a reaction against them, but in fact I think YA readers- who tend to be mostly girls- now simply expect them. In my teen reading I had no trouble being the boy hero in my mind, but now readers don't have to do that. Things have changed, and that's good...

SHEENAGH: For some reason I've never quite figured out, I found the tree buried upside down in Darkhenge hugely sinister and unsettling! Where did you get the idea for that?

CATHERINE: It is immensely sinister, which is why I love it. It comes from Sea Henge, the neolithic timber circle found on a beach in Norfolk, I think, and which was the subject of a huge row between neopagans and archaeologists. In the centre of the circle was what turned out to be the remains of an upturned tree-trunk. Enigmatic. Unexplained. Just there.
    There is just something so intriguing about that. Such a sense of lost stories and rituals.
    Hence the book's themes of the Unworld, and the shamanic ladder into other dimensions. Incidentally if you are ever in the Fwrrwm in Caerleon they have a modern sculpture there of an upturned tree which is truly tremendous, and maybe a bit like how the original might have looked.

SHEENAGH: A huge row between neopagans and archaeologists sounds such a wonderful scenario, I want to read the book about it! I know you've been very involved with archaeology; its influence is obvious in many of your books. Is there anything else from that arena that you're thinking of writing about? (I bet we could show you some inspirational stuff in Shetland if you ever come up so far!)

CATHERINE: In Darkhenge I did try to convey both sides of that argument- whether to leave the remains in situ and let the sea destroy them, or take up the timbers and preserve them, even though it's the place they surround that's important. By the way, Seahenge by Francis Pryor is probably the book.)
    I love archaeology and especially the Neolithic, which has such fascinating mysteries. What we lack, of course are the stories those people told. And without them we will never understand them, however familiar we become with their material circumstances.
    Imagine trying to understand Christianity without knowing the story of Christ, or Norse myth without Odin, Thor and co...You'd have a vague idea, that's all. Not even any names.
    I'm not planning anything from that far back in the past at the moment though, as my next book is a contemporary one. But that's all top secret yet

SHEENAGH: We'll be waiting with interest…

Catherine's website is here


The White Ship

The white ship sails all night out of his dreams,
her fierce figurehead drinking the cold sea.
He leans and fingers her smooth, open lips.

Spindles of ice her frosted spars,
sails crumpling, sloughing and filling
with the salt breathing of the wind.

All day he sits, talks, works, and he forgets her,
till in a window or in someone's words
comes sea-glitter, a gull's rebuke,

and in the turning of his head he's back
among creaks and whispers, the rotating wheel
that no-one grasps, the cabin with its lamp

swinging on the outspread charts.
It's those charts he never can remember;
always as he gropes for them they've gone,

leaving a sense of infinite distance;
islands marked with strange calligraphy;
and names, names he almost knows,

that tantalise but just won't come,
so that in songs or a poem's skirl
he tries their echoes over on his tongue.

Each night he journeys on the winter ship,
hands on the ropes, feeling the spray,
living in the cracks between his days.

And where he's sailing to he doesn't know,,
except that it's too late to turn back now;
that here are all the spaces of his art,

the craft he once thought he was master of,
driving him out across an endless sea,
alone under the stars; far from home.

(From Altered States, Seren 1999

Incident at Conwy

During the Wars of the Roses a Lancastrian officer was shot by a marksman stationed on the battlements of Conwy Castle. The river between them was at least half a mile wide. The feat was recorded by several chroniclers.

1. Llewelyn of Nannau

Oh man, you are foolish to wear that surcoat.
the gold and the blue outrage the dull afternoon.
You are a heraldic flicker among the leaves
tempting my pride.
I have not killed men in the stench and fury
of battle only, that I would baulk at this.
I am an archer. I send death winging,
sudden and cold over parapet and fosse;
the lightning that strikes nowhere twice.
I'm too far away to see your pain,
the blood that will sully that bright coat;
too far for the shriek from your lady's arbour.
Nor will imagination spoil my aim.
The taut string creaks against my fingers,
brushes my cheek softly, as I draw back.
My eye is steady down the shaven shaft.
You're a roebuck, a proud stag, a target.
Your words do not goad me, I can't hear what you say.
Your death will be skilfully given, and without rancour.
At least I am not too far from you for that.

2. Rhys ap Gruffudd Coch

The river is wide, and the leaves cover us.
we are safe enough, but they are certainly ready
- each tower and arrowslit is crowded with faces,
and notice the fool on the battlements with his bow.
This castle will drink an oblation of blood
before we break its stone teeth.

That archer has seen me; he lifts his bow.
Well the river will not bleed from his arrow.
Doubtless he would kill me if he could
and boast about it over the spilled wine;
a distant, stout, nameless man
who would never have seen my face.

Then he would thresh about in the straw at night,
seek solace from priests, drink away memory,
but the line would have been thrown between us,
the bright gift passed, that he could not take back.
Look, he draws. If he should strike me down
I will never be so far from him again.

More poems here

And here's an extract from Catherine's ongoing Chronoptika Quartet. This is from the first book in the quartet, The Obsidian Mirror. Gideon is a human boy who was stolen years ago by Summer, the queen of the Shee who live in the wood where "all times are now", and he longs to escape.

The Shee knelt and touched the footprints, sniffed them. Then it raised its hands to its ears. "What is that terrible whining cry?"
    Gideon was wondering that too. "Is it the world freezing up?"
    He had been with them so long, they had taught him to hear as they did. He could hear the cold night coming down, puddles on the gravelled track hardening infinitely slowly, the icy crystals lengthening and creaking to a pitted surface. He could hear the birds edging on their frozen roosts, the blown barbs of their feathers, the blinks of their beady black eyes. He could hear the frost crisp over the windowpanes of Wintercombe.
    But this whine was worse than all of that.
    "Sounds like a human machine," The Shee rose, disgusted.
    Gideon nodded. The creatures' aversion to metal still pleased him, even after all this time. It was their one weakness. The Shee listened, snow dusting its thin shoulders, its moonpale hair glimmering.
    "Summer will want us to investigate." Gideon turned.
    The Shee's eyes went sly. "Enter the Dwelling? Many have tried. Venn is too careful."
    "For you, he is. But I might be able to…"
    "Summer forbids it."
    It was a risk. They were treacherous beings – this one would betray him in an instant. So he said heavily, "You're right. And after all, tonight there's the Feast."
    The creature grinned, as he had known it would. "The Midwinter Feast! I'd forgotten. We must get back."
    Its quicksilver mind would be full instantly of the promise of the music, the terrible, tormenting, fascinating music of the Shee. The music that devoured lives and time and his own humanity, the music that enslaved him and haunted him and that he hungered for like a drug.
    "You go," he said. "I'll come later."
    "I have to bring you. She'll be furious." Its bird-eyes flickered. He saw the small pointed teeth behind its smile.
    "I'll follow you. I just want to see where these prints go."
    It hesitated, tormented. Then nodded. "Very well. But be quick!" It turned, and its patchwork of clothes ebbed colour, a magical camouflage, so that now it wore a suit of ermine and white velvet, the buttons on its coat silver crystals of ice. it stepped sideways, and was gone.
Sheenagh Pugh

Eustache Deschamps, in a 15th-century ballade, noted forensically the effect old age was having on his body and mind: not just his yellowing teeth and failing tastebuds but his impatience with youth and intolerance of change, and observed gloomily "Ce sont les signes de la mort".

Love Songs of Carbon is a whole collection on the theme of ageing; if it does not echo Deschamps' mordant gloom, that is because Gross, now in his sixties, has a writing voice rather like that of the late Edwin Morgan, dominated by intellectual curiosity and irrepressible playfulness, and therefore sounding far younger than his physical age. What terrifies and disgusts Deschamps intrigues Gross; you can sense him not recoiling from his subject matter, but wanting to poke into the whys and wherefores of it, as in "Mould Music", where it is not too much to say that he delights in the insidious beauty of decay:
the ghostly blue-grey

of the lustre on the plum skin
is developing its imprint

of the after-life.

As for playfulness, nothing ages a person faster than forgetting how to play, and in this respect Gross has always been careful in his work to avoid the trap of "growing up" or "acting his age". There is no word or idea with which he will not play, and here this principle extends from not-so-casual verbal games like substituting "drink about it" for "think about it" (in "A Briefer History of Time"), through the thought-provoking pun in "Theses Written on Mud":
That Thesis and Antithesis were a marriage made in Heaven, or in Hegel. Ask their only child, Syn

to the disturbing notion he plays with in "Mattins", that centuries of valuing the soul over the body might be mistaken; that the "rusty", stiff body shuffling toward the bathroom at three in the morning might be more cherished by its creator than by its owner. This poem about an ageing body positively (and ironically) glitters with the verbal subtleties of an agile mind, witness the multitude of meanings he gets into the single word "passing", and the wordplay in the body's moving "through the cloisters of itself/to its offices", where "offices" hints beyond "set times of prayer" to "house of office".

The word "play", in fact, dominates the collection; there are even poems called "Players" and "Ways to Play". "Towards a General Theory of String" is the pure play of a theorist, ricocheting between science and metaphor, and indeed Gross's intellectual curiosity extends into fields where many poets don't go. There is vocabulary, every so often, that will send most non-scientists to a reference book to learn something new – I'd had no idea, before this, that Brownian motion was a genuine scientific term, not just something Douglas Adams invented in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Of course, all this playfulness has a darker side; with such a theme it would be odd if it did not. "Senex" (not a reference to Betjeman's poem of that name; they are as unlike as they could be) is as forensic in its observation of ageing as Deschamps:
crisp, tetchy, liable to flare
- no time for smoulder, […]

bones honeycombed, half air,
lightness that could blow away

(and will)

And behind ageing is mortality: in the innocently-titled "A Walk Across A Field", a couple unsure of their footing on frozen grass are uncomfortably aware of how this is "like any pavement/for the very old". Back at their car, the narrator observes, in a phrase reminiscent of the Falklands war reporter's "I counted them all out and I counted them all back",
I count us in
- me, you.

This poem, and others like "A Love Song of Carbon", revolve around awareness that all human relationships and activities end the same way. Yet the collection's tone remains positive, insisting on seeing it as "a kind of victory […] To be/here. So very here. So very small" ("Storm Surge"). And the opening poem, "Paul Klee: the late style" ends with an exhortation:

the drum skin
beating till it rips

still beating (don't say beaten) even then.

Again this is a mite reminiscent of the defiant ending of Edwin Morgan's late collection, Cathures. He, however, was then in his eighties and consciously saying farewell. Philip Gross, happily, is but a lad in his early sixties and his 'satiable curtiosity should be delighting us for a long time yet.
Sheenagh Pugh
28 October 2015 @ 07:02 pm
It's been a problem ever since social networking online was invented. Writers, and still more, publishers, thought it was a heaven-sent way to advertise one's wares, and most publishers will urge their writers to use it to that end. Unfortunately there is a fine line between making people aware of what you do and making a total pest of yourself, and on networks like Facebook and Twitter (especially the former), people cross it every day. How Not To Promote One's Writing is dead easy: not only are there guides to it all over the internet, but we can see daily examples that, to anyone with an ounce of tact or style, beggar belief. Don't post reviews of your work on other people's timelines. Don't, when wishing them happy birthday, suggest in the next breath that they buy your book. Don't ask someone to add you as a friend and at once ask if they'd like to review your book. Don't add them, without asking, to groups that concern your work. Don't "invite" them online to events hundreds of miles from where they live, just because they're on your friends list. We could all go on....

But what would actually be more use is some guidance on what we can do by way of self-promotion, that will have the effect of making people want to know more, rather than less, about our work.

So here's my suggested method.

Facebook and Twitter are both good for making announcements. "I'm reading at Y on date Z". "Hey, I got into magazine X!"."My book got a good review at this link." All fine, as long as you say it once, not every day for a week, and as long as you also post about other stuff, preferably not all writing-related.

If you can, though, make even these posts not all about you, so that people other than you, your best friend and your doting mamma have an incentive to read them. It's a matter of phrasing. Try "Delighted to be reading at Y on date Z with those fine poets A and B" (tagged if you can). And "Folks might like to try magazine X; I just got a friendly reply from them" (if you can add "a timely reply", your friends will be not only interested but amazed). The third one properly goes "Many thanks to CD for his generous review at [link]". There's a degree of normal politeness in this, but it also works for you, in that it widens the circle of interest (A, B and CD will all also have their fans).

Have a writing blog, and post non-ephemeral stuff about writing on there first, linking from Facebook and Twitter. But make the blog about writing, not just your writing. Talk about general questions, ways of working, current debates in writing. Review other people's books and mention their successes. If you must think in terms of "what's in it for me", well, there's always the chance that if you review Jack's book, he may return the favour. But that isn't really the payback. What you are aiming for is to make your blog interesting to writers and readers in general, so that when you do choose to post about your own work, you will have an audience predisposed to listen.

And even posts about your own work can be given a more general application. Most writers are fascinated by others' ways of working, so post about your methods. A poem or an extract from a novel will have some audience, but a post about "why I chose to write this in the second person" or "the problems I had with the sestina form and why I persisted" will, I reckon, have more. Try to make blogposts fairly regularly, maybe between two and four a month, so that folk don't forget you're there. In the blogroll on the left are good examples of how to do it: Emma Darwin, Jo Prescott, Emma Lee, just for a start. Read and comment on other blogs; keep up with what's going on in the forum.

Keep the blog for writing-related posts, but on social media, talk about everything under the sun as well as writing. What you are trying to avoid is people seeing your name in the newsfeed and thinking "oh dear, Fred's boring on about his work again".

Think of yourself as part of a community, and your job online as promoting and growing that community - if you like, it's about increasing the diameter of the pie, rather than fighting for a bigger slice of what there currently is.

That's what occurs to me offhand, anyway.
Sheenagh Pugh
06 October 2015 @ 11:16 am
A friend of mine lately had occasion to write a negative review of a poetry collection. The review is here: for the record, the quotes in it made me suspect that, though I shared some of the criticisms, I would probably have liked the book better than the reviewer did. Which means, in my view, that the review did its job; it indicated to me, the prospective reader (for whose benefit, let us not forget, reviews are written) what sort of poetry it was and how I was likely to react to it. I have before now bought a book on the basis of an unfavourable review, if it gave enough in the way of quotes and examples to make me think it was likely to be more to my taste than it had been to the reviewer's.

What the review was not was in any way personal or ad hominem, nor was it the result of careless reading, as apparently the publisher has suggested. The reason I think I'd have liked the book better is not that I think my reading would find anything the reviewer's had missed, but rather that we have different priorities - to oversimplify somewhat, the reviewer misses a human element in the collection (the "ghostly inhabitants" of the houses); I could probably do without it, though not having read the book, I can't say for sure. It is not a careless reading; it is one possible reading, by a reviewer who is herself a poet and of whom it certainly can't be said, as this publisher has, that her "reading skills are not up to the job".

It isn't unknown for poor readers, and even surprisingly unintelligent people, to write reviews for reputable publications. I cherish a memory of one, not of any book of mine, where the reviewer spent some time explaining a verse form she clearly thought the poet had invented: it was a sestina. If I'd been the author under discussion, I might have thought it worthwhile to contact the editor privately and point out that s/he was employing someone who needed to do a lot more reading and study before publishing reviews. It is also legitimate to correct actual errors of fact (one thinks of the reviewer who, not mindful of the dictum "I is a lie", assumed that a poem about IVF was autobiographical and that the poet's child had in fact been conceived that way: not so).

Other than that, the only dignified stance a poet can take on reviews is to ignore them. Even thanking someone for a good review is a bit problematic, especially if you know them, because it makes it sound as if they were doing you a personal favour, when in fact they were doing their job impartially. Yes, they may well miss things you think they should have spotted, or interpret something otherwise than you'd like. But that is arguably just as much your fault: you are the one trying to communicate your intent to reasonably intelligent folk (and if they aren't that, then you wouldn't really want your work to please them anyway).

Most of Bethany's principles on reviewing in her blog article are also mine. Unlike her, though, I do review work by poets who happen to be my friends or ex-students. I've been around a lot longer and would be hard put to it to avoid every poet I've ever had contact with. It doesn't stop me saying what I think about them, as I do about anything I review. Since I don't do it for money any more, I can afford not to bother with work that is emphatically not to my liking, so my reviews are more likely to be positive than not, but I hope they are balanced - when I do rave about something, it's because I am genuinely that keen on it. Even so, I have had the odd tight-lipped comment from a publisher on a "balanced review", where said publisher clearly wasn't using "balanced" as a compliment but rather as a synonym for "niggardly". It hasn't changed my estimation of the book in question - interesting but uneven - any more than a subsequent review which took a far more enthusiastic line has changed it. Again this was a matter of priorities and different readings: the constant repetition of a particular poem-structure struck me as tedious, him as powerful. That's my privilege, and his.

In that case two different reviews came up with two different readings, which is the ideal situation. The more plentiful reviews are, the more this happens and the less one reading can skew the reader's views in advance. This is one reason I have been trying, all year, to do at least two reviews, preferably of new work, a month. Poets are always moaning about a lack of reviews: very few of them try to do much about it on each other's behalf. But my advice would be: if you don't like the quality of reviewing, do some yourself.
Sheenagh Pugh
It isn't altogether a coincidence that I should have read two novels with animal narrators within a few months, because I like animal narrators. The fact that one (Three Bags Full) was by a Leonie Swann while this one, The Sage of Waterloo, is by a Leona Francombe, is complete coincidence, though at first I went googling to see if they might be the same person. They aren't.

I say narrators: in fact Three Bags Full has an outside narrative voice, though it doesn't see through human eyes. Its main protagonists are sheep and we see through their eyes throughout, but there is no actual first-person narration. In The Sage of Waterloo, we do have a first person narrator, the rabbit William, who lives at Hougoumont near the site of the Battle of Waterloo. He is one of a long line of Hougoumont rabbits, who are assumed to have a folk memory of the events that have taken place there. His grandmother Old Lavender, a sort of rabbit repository of folk wisdom, remarks "Landscapes where great passion has been spilled resonate. Not loudly. But loud enough for most wild creatures to detect. Once set in motion, the vibrations continue forever."

This is a plausible and interesting idea enough; wild animals can detect an oncoming earthquake, after all, and most battlefields have some resonance even for humans. But for me, the novel's narration does not work consistently, because William and his friends are not consistently rabbit-like. If an animal protagonist is not to turn into a furry human, it is essential for it to think and react in accord with its nature, which, for me, the sheep of Three Bags Full did all the time. William does sometimes sound like a rabbit – in his instinctive fear of open spaces, his way of "reading the air", his identification of the moon as some sort of divinity. But at other times he sounds too human, particularly when his author is using him to pass on historical information about Waterloo. For the purposes of the novel, I can go along with the notion that his grandmother, by listening intently to the conversation of visiting tourists, has picked up and passed on to him a lot of knowledge about the battle and its era. What I can't credit is that either she or he would be quite so interested in the history and nature of another species. Grandmother's condemnations of war: "Humans learn to do this to each other. Therefore one day they must unlearn it, before it's too late and all of them succumb to the same madness" just don't ring true. Nor do some of William's comparisons – "like a nun's cap"? I can credit that he might have seen a nun and even know what one was, but not that something so irrelevant to his own daily experience would occur to him as a comparison.

There are really two books here: William leading his rabbit life, which can be quite affecting, and an imaginative re-creation of Waterloo and its aftermath, which can also be interesting when it doesn't sound too much like a history lesson. But they don't really mesh.
Sheenagh Pugh
This is a very readable, humorous, engaging novel – just don't judge it by its first and last chapters, In Which, to borrow the format of the chapter headings, Our Author Is A Little Too Pleased With His Own Narrative Techniques.

I was attracted by the lure of a character called Ian the Goldfish, whose journey in search of freedom forms part of the book. This is so, and Ian is indeed a welcome if intermittent visitor to these pages, but he's an observer rather than a character, and fairly peripheral to the action. He's really there as a metaphor: his "fishbowl" (or goldfish bowl as the UK would know it) is an image for the apartment block which really is at the centre of things. Nearly all the characters either live in or visit the block, and it is the connecting link between their stories. This is actually quite an old-fashioned technique: the use of a building or something similar as a hook to hang stories on was popular in films and novels of the 40s and 50s, (and in fact the narrative voice of Fishbowl occasionally reminds me of a 1951 novel by the once hugely popular, now largely forgotten, Norman Collins, Children of the Archbishop, in which a London bus is used in the same way). The first chapter of Fishbowl announces this intent, unfortunately at some length; it takes four pages to say, basically, "this story is set in an apartment block".

When, however, he's done expatiating on his theme of "a box that contains life and everything else", things pick up almost as fast as Ian descends 27 floors. Somers' people are well drawn and easy to become involved with, and his use of the out-of-order elevator as a plot device is masterly, especially when combined with how he switches between stories so that we are sometimes ahead of the characters – we are awaiting breathlessly the meeting of two unsuspecting women on a staircase for a considerable time before it happens. The short chapters are not only very easily readable, they also suit the episodic nature of the action and maintain the pace. There's no doubt that we end up wanting to know what becomes of the under-appreciated janitor Jimenez, the obsessive-compulsive Claire, the vulnerable but resourceful Herman and many others, not forgetting Ian.

It soon becomes clear that many of the inhabitants of this block are, for one reason or another, lonely: the social isolation that can be generated in a community that consists of boxes within a box is well conveyed. Ian never finds any real meeting-point with his snail companion Troy; they are too different, but some of the people in the bigger fishbowl are luckier. In fact, for my taste there are a few too many happy endings neatly tied up with bows – people are miraculously presented with cures for mental conditions, new jobs and families to replace those they have lost and some of these don't convince me (Herman's for one, because the authorities would not, I think allow it). And in the last chapter the author again becomes a rather irritating presence, summing things up, telling us what may have happened after the book ends (surely the reader's privilege to speculate on?) and veering into cosy cliché with statements like "everything happens for a reason". For all the contemporary setting, he strikes me as quite a conventionally omniscient authorial voice, what Thackeray called a puppet-master. I doubt that, at the moment, he would let any of his characters surprise him, and he'll probably be a better writer when he does.

Nevertheless, I like this book. The man can tell a story and he has, for the most part, an engaging style. Because there are so many stories and outcomes, I'm finding it hard to quote without spoilers, so here is Ian on his descent, glancing in at the passing windows of the tower block and reflecting on his own fishbowl. This is not a spoiler, because if you think there can be but one end to a goldfish who falls 27 floors, you are wrong.

Ian thinks of his fishbowl, now empty save for the algae, the pink plastic castle and Troy, slipping across the glass with his interminable munching. Ian thinks of what a lonely thing Troy's shell would be without the chewy organic mass of Troy to inhabit it. Ian won't miss the sound of Troy eating. He won't miss the constant slurping and sucking noises, the ripping noise Troy makes day and night as he sucks the algae from the walls. He won't miss that chiefly because his fishbowl is no longer even a memory for him.

Ian is distracted from his thoughts by something he spies through the dust-streaked glass of the balcony sliding door to the apartment he passes on the fifteenth floor. In the fraction of a second it takes, his mind captures a still life of the goings-on inside.
Sheenagh Pugh
26 September 2015 @ 09:01 am
I've loved this picture ever since I first stood in front of it in Munich with my mouth hanging open. It's only just occurred to me to figure out why, and it has nowt to do with the quality of the brushwork or composition or whatnot, because I know as much about all that as your average hippo does, and certainly less than a painting elephant in Thailand.

I think the reason has some relevance to preferences in poetry: it's to do with narrative. I did figure out long ago that I need a picture to have a narrative element, and preferably one involving living creatures. I used to put my indifference to Gainsborough portraits down to the fact that the subjects were all toffs, and to my suspicion that he himself was indifferent to them, and couldn't wait to collect the dosh and be off to paint something he liked better. But now I think it's that they have no narrative. They are just sitting there being painted: I can't imagine them having a life outside the painting.

Not all portraiture is devoid of narrative. Hockney's double portraits tend to crackle with unresolved tension between the subjects, as in the Celia & Ossie Clark portrait where their emotional distance, expressed through their body language, is such that you can't help thinking each is mentally composing a letter to a divorce lawyer. So one can construct some sort of a narrative - how did they get to this pass, what happens next, most importantly, who'll get custody of the cat?

In his "Peter Getting Out Of Nick's Pool", Hockney constructs a different kind of narrative simply by having a young man, whose back is to us, looking out of the picture, beyond the frame. Not only the eye but the mind is drawn there, wondering what is happening beyond our view, and how the unseen face is reacting to it. Caspar David Friedrich is a great one for depicting people with their faces turned away, so that we must imagine the most important part of them, where the emotions show.

But not all narrative pictures stick in my mind. For that, they need one more quality: the potential to be variously interpreted. "And when did you last see your father?" is packed with narrative, but there's only one possible interpretation of what is happening and what's going to happen next. The same goes for all those Victorian paintings with helpful titles like Arriving at the Inn, Waiting for News, Farewell to the Soldier... I like them, sure; they do at least have a narrative, unlike some Mondrian geometrical design or Pollock squirt from which I can't construct a story to save my life. But the story is too clearly told and has too few alternatives to it.

This is what I love about "Riding Couple". When I was young, I constructed an elopement narrative from it; they're waiting for a ferry to cross the river away from her outraged parents, thinks I. Now older, I can see that the horse's high, elaborate step speaks against it. That's the sort of highly trained animal you take for an evening outing with your accredited sweetheart, not the sort you escape on. And yet... being loth to lose my elopement fantasy altogether, I can suppose the ground is boggy near the river and the horse, clearly a fastidious creature, is high-stepping to avoid the miry bits. Is that town, that looks as if it might be on an island in the river, a refuge or somewhere to escape from? It looks a beguiling place, but who knows?The thing lends itself to all manner of stories, not just one, and that's what keeps drawing me back.

The point is, I rather think the same applies to poems. I want them to tell me a story, but I don't want it spelled out and tied up in a bow. I want to be a co-creator and to be able to fill in blanks myself. And I want, in the end, for there to be several possible stories, not just the one.
Sheenagh Pugh
To begin with the feature most likely to deter the reader: this novel is written in a form of simplified Old English and yes, it takes a few pages to get into, but you get used to it (it is soon clear, for instance, that "sc" is our "sh", so that scip is ship). It's a bit of a wasted opportunity, in that he mostly doesn't use the tension between this dialect and our own to create a shimmering layer of puns and allusions, as Russell Hoban did in Riddley Walker. But if you can read Riddley Walker, you can read this.

Ignore the title, the back-cover blurb and the quotes from reviewers, at least two of whom must have been reading with their eyes shut. They could have you thinking this is a book "about", as opposed to merely set in, the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, and that it's a Kingsleyesque tale of Noble Saxons and Nasty Normans. Thanks be, it is far more complicated, mainly because it is in fact the tale of our Saxon protagonist-narrator Buccmaster, who is far nastier than any Norman on the premises.

I must tread carefully to avoid spoilers here, because Buccmaster is not only an unreliable narrator but an unaware one. He has buried parts of his past deep in his mind, and re-invented others, so that the self-image he projects and believes in is nothing like his real personality, which emerges gradually. If you happen to have read Maria McCann's fine English Civil War novel, As Meat Loves Salt, you will recall her protagonist-narrator Jacob Cullen; Buccmaster is not unlike him.

His political credo, while intimately connected with his personal hang-ups, is less complicated. He is an extreme individualist, a libertarian who resents interference in his affairs by any king or civic authority; had he lived in our own time he would certainly have agreed with Thatcher that there was no such thing as society, only individuals and families. He may hate William, but he had no more time for Harold Godwinson; to this Lincolnshire fenman, "Harold of Wessex" was nearly as much of a foreigner as William of Normandy. He refuses Harold's call to arms, on the ground that he would fight only to protect his own house and family. In fact he can't accept any authority whatever, and the buried reason for that is much as you would expect. He also lives in the past, almost literally; he hankers for the return of a set of gods who by then had been distant memories in Saxon England for some centuries, and again this is connected with his damaged family relationships.

A couple of flaws to note: the pace, generally excellent, flags midway, admittedly when the characters are at a stand, wondering what to do next, but novelists can convey that without actually boring the reader. And there is a totally irrelevant minor character, Aelfgifu, whose thread is heart-sinkingly predictable, in no way adds to our knowledge of the protagonist and I suspect was included for all the wrong reasons.

Kingsnorth has written the story of a deeply troubled man, played out against the background of the Conquest. This is why his following historical note baffles me. It stresses the background: the Norman atrocities, the heroic resistance, the way the invasion changed society for centuries (and, by implication, entirely for the worse; at least he mentions no benefits). But why, then, has he chosen as his Saxon protagonist a man not just dislikeable and damaged but more of a danger to anyone in his vicinity than even the invaders? Duke William was certainly a bastard, in every sense of the word, but at least he was a sane bastard. By the end of this novel, one is inclining to the view that anyone who is Buccmaster's enemy must have something to be said for them. Also, since we know his word cannot be trusted, we may wonder how much to believe about the evil the Normans have done. Nor was his condition caused by the invasion; he was destroying his own life long before the fleet hove in sight. A bad man can fight for a good cause, but novelists don't usually choose him as the cause's spokesman. One would think the author was perhaps trying to convey that there is no wrong and right side in war, but that is not what the historical note implies.

The author's intention is thus a puzzle, but this has no bearing on the novel's artistic and narrative merits. It is in fact a gripping tale; its narration is fascinating and skilfully handled, and its physical background vividly brought alive. In this extract Buccmaster recalls being on a mere in the fens with his grandfather:

under the boat under the water and not so deop was the stocc of a great blaec treow torn to its root lic a tooth in the mouth of an eald wif. a great treow it was wid and blaec as the fyrs aesc blaec as the deorcness beyond the hall on a niht when the mona sleeps and as i was locan I seen another and another and I colde see that under this mere was a great holt a great eald holt of treows bigger than any I had seen efer….

It can also be very moving, as any account of a way of life coming to an end can be. Even when we know what kind of man Buccmaster is, his memory of the last happy day in his life, in a village celebrating May, cannot help but strike a chord:

oh I can sae these words and try to tell what it was lic there but naht can gif to thu what was in my heorte as I seen all of this cuman in to place […] oh it was the last daeg of the world.
Sheenagh Pugh

Declaration of interest: I have a poem in this, but it's just the one and it seems a bit OTT not to review a whole anthology on that account.

Poems about pictures are ekphrasis, but according to its definition, this can't be used for poems about music; in fact I don't know that there is a name for them. Nevertheless, they clearly have a lot in common with ekphrastic poems, in that they try to express in one art form the effect produced by another. At least, some do. As the interesting introduction points out, some engage with the music, others with the composer's life, others still with the relevance of the music to the writer's own life (poets do have a tendency to look at the world and make it all about them).

I listened to a lot of classical music when younger, then drifted away from it and haven't really listened to any for decades, which means that the more recent composers who serve as inspiration here, I have neither heard, nor, in some cases, heard of. I don't think this disqualifies me from reviewing the book, because a poem must work as a poem, not merely as a homage, and something should still come through to a non-expert. It does mean that those poems which engage with some aspect of the composer's life are liable to make a more immediate impact on me. "Buxtehude's Daughter" (Alistair Elliot), patiently waiting for one of her organist father's assistants to secure the reversion of his job by marrying her, was an old friend from biographies of Handel; he didn't marry her, but another organist did. This poem, narrated in the lady's voice, is not really about music, but about someone on its fringes who might have become bitter but was actually rather good at making the best of things. Elliot brings her alive by catching a very down-to-earth, unremarkable but engaging voice:

When Handel came, he found me elderly.
He was eighteen and I was twenty-eight -
The sad arithmetic of too soon, too late…
I wonder if he ever thinks of me
At night, in London. He liked my soup that day.
Strange to know someone famous far away.

Since I've a passion for biography and history, it may be inevitable that the narrative and anecdotal poems, which don't really need to be about composers as such, appeal to me most. There is a danger, of course, that such poems become too purely narrative, too "this happened and then that", as, for me, is the case with Mick Imlah's "Scottish Play" (which is more about Kathleen Ferrier than Gluck). But many find the universal in the particular. John Greening's own wry little poem "Field", about a composer who apparently had the ill-luck to invent the nocturne only to be eclipsed in the form by Chopin, is something any artist, in any field, could relate to. With those poems that are less about the composer than about his effect on, or parallel with, the poet's own life, success depends, again, on how far they transcend the personal. Lotte Kramer's "Fugue", with a killer ending I won't spoil by quoting, is "personal" yet also universal, a grim and brilliant reminder that being able to appreciate Great Music does not necessarily make one a better person.

Indeed one danger of this kind of poem, and it happens also in ekphrastic poems, is that of undue reverence toward the subject. I hear it in Ronald Duncan's "Lament for Ben" and occasionally elsewhere. Alistair Elliot and Oliver Reynolds are particularly welcome for their avoidance of it, as is the knockabout humour of Heath-Stubbs's Audenesque ballad on Salieri. And James Reeves's "Knew the Master", alone in the anthology, articulates the way reverence for "the classics", in any art form, can stifle new work by denying it an audience.

It's impossible to do full justice, in a review, to an anthology with 180-odd pages of poems. One observation: quoting numbers in a poem does not often make for memorable lines, even if they do have the letter K in front of them – better to put it in an epigraph, as Anne Stevenson does. Stand-out poems for me included Andrew Motion's "Rhapsody"; I'd never heard of Butterworth but who could resist the idea of a man filmed morris-dancing in 1913, a recording still accessible on YouTube though the man himself died three years later on the Somme?

One very interesting thing Greening notes in his introduction: there were very few poems about composers written before the twentieth century. I would guess it's the same with ekphrastic poems, and would love to know why, suddenly, artists started writing about other artists in this way. It goes further than figuring the poet as composer, too. For Douglas Dunn, the music of Bach "restates the rhythms of a loch" and becomes itself a landscape ("Loch Music"). Charles Tomlinson reinvents Bach as a bee-keeper "topping up the cells/with the honey of C major" ("If Bach had been a Beekeeper"), while Tony Roberts, in "Barkbröd", has his narrator seeing Sibelius through the medium of cheese… Jo Shapcott, in her poem about a Schoenberg orchestration of a Bach piece, pertinently asks "Where does it come from, this passion/for layers?" Where indeed, and why now: why is the present day so obsessed with "seeing" one thing through the medium of another? It's a fascinating question, raised by an unexpectedly eclectic anthology; it may be on one subject but the poems couldn't be more varied.
Sheenagh Pugh
19 August 2015 @ 08:51 am
"Maybe a poet could come along who could solve all our problems, but I haven't seen him yet."

Excellent interview with James Dickey in the Paris Review, which specialises in doing good interviews with writers. Dickey was at that point talking about writers being urged to make public pronouncements, and pointing out that if they were experts on politics, economics or anything else, they probably wouldn't be sitting around writing poems very much. But his words reminded me of something slightly different, a tendency in criticism best represented by some poet-critic years back, who frequently complained that the poetry he was reviewing raised questions and then refused to suggest answers - in his phrase, it "threw its hands up".

I've never understood this notion that (a) there must be an answer to every question, whether practical or existential, and (b) that if there is, it's any part of a poet's or fiction writer's job to find it. If there's one thing I loathe, it's the kind of writing that wants to tie things up with the pretty bow of an "answer". To practical questions of politics or economics there may be answers, and it's for politicians and economists to find them. If there are any such convenient answers to questions of life, the universe and everything, one would rather expect philosophers to have found them by now, and if they haven't, it seems mighty unlikely that a 40-line poem can do it. If it tries, as often as not it achieves the kind of superficial glibness you expect rather of a Facebook post.

What, for instance, is the "answer" to the agonising fact that has been the theme of so many poems: that we're all going to die and be forgotten? There isn't one, at least not unless you accept "we're all going to a better place" and it is notable that even Parson Herrick, who in his day job should have believed that implicitly, doesn't really seem to have been satisfied with it, at least if we judge by "To the Virgins, to make much of Time". That doesn't mean poets shouldn't write about it.

In fact, it seems to me that one purpose of poetry is precisely to raise questions, not in order to answer them but in order to make others think about them. Another reason I dislike the idea of poems trying to provide answers is that it reduces the reader to the status of a spectator, whereas I think writing should be a participant sport. The likelihood is, in fact, that when it comes to ways of dealing with the world, there are as many partial or possible "answers" as there are individuals. It is not the poet's business to point the reader toward one or another; it is enough to be aware, and make others aware, of the existence of questions.
Sheenagh Pugh
This unmissable book is a murder mystery, in which the detectives happen to be a flock of Irish sheep (I knew I was going to like it from the moment I read the list of "Dramatis Oves"). And no, it isn't aimed at children or young adults, nor, though it has richly comic elements, is it purely comedy. We are very much in the sheep viewpoint, in that there is no scene at which sheep are not present, though, being humans, we sometimes see what we are watching differently from them. Not better, just differently. It is because we see through their eyes that we know, long before any of the humans, that two characters are related – the sheep can at once tell that they have the same smell. And though, obviously, these aren't your average sheep, they don't think like woolly humans either:

"If it's a hole in his memory we ought to stop it up with more memories," said Cordelia. "You stop up a hole in the earth with more earth."
"But you don't stop up a rat-hole with more rats," said Cloud.
"You could," Cordelia insisted, "if they were very fat rats."

They use their own experience of the world, and of humans (and some, like the Hebridean ram Othello, have more than others) to try to make sense of the sudden death of their shepherd George and the peculiar behaviour of the surviving inhabitants of Glennkill (the macaronic pun on kill and cil, the Gaelic for church, is no accident). They also pool their varying talents. Chief detective Miss Maple, who didn't get her name for the reason you think, is intensely curious and intelligent; Othello knows more about people than most; Mopple, a merino with an insatiable appetite, also has a good memory. And then there's the enigmatic Melmoth….

Part of the appeal of this book is that the sheep, though their individual characters are every bit as well-defined and engaging as any human's, never quite stop being sheep. The landscape of smells in the barn:

The heat had hunted old smells out of all the corners. A young mouse who had died under the wooden planks last summer. George sweating as he forked hay through the hatch in the roof and down on them, a fragrant shower. A screw that had fallen out of his radio and still smelled the way it used to, of metal and music.

And at the same time they are more than sheep, or maybe sheep's mental processes just are more than we know anyway; who can say for sure that this mental soliloquy isn't going on inside Melmoth's head as he returns from who knows where?

On the other side of the dolmen youth grazed, his own youth, with strong limbs and a sense of joy in its belly, but stupid, so stupid you could almost feel sorry for it in its happiness. On the other side of the dolmen was the meadow that couldn't exist, the Way Back. He had looked for it all over the world, under smooth stones, on the far side of the wind, in the eyes of night-birds, in pools of quiet water. […] Now the Way Back had curled up, like a woodlouse, into a single step to be taken.

These characters become very real to us, so that, watching the humans along with Melmoth, we share George's puzzlement (and contempt) when he and butcher Ham stumble upon a dead man's body which the butcher cannot bring himself to touch:

"That's different. Completely different. My God, George, this is a body."
George shrugged. "Did you think you worked with some kind of fruit in your job?"

Reviews of murder mysteries ought not to contain spoilers, so I'll add only that this isn't much like any other novel I have read recently and that I would be very sorry not to have been pointed in its direction. It's a re-reader for sure.
Sheenagh Pugh
04 August 2015 @ 05:40 pm
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.

Matins: Annunciation

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)

SHEENAGH: 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 and Nevison 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 and Englaland 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 & Englaland 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: Englaland 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 and Englaland — 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

Objective One

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.

(From Englaland)

John Ball

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)

The Song of the Yellowhammer from Englaland can be found here.

Smokestack Books, Steve Ely's publisher

Steve Ely's website