Last summer I attended a five-day online Arvon course on Queer Poetry, led by Caroline Bird and Richard Scott. Although it was disappointing not to be able to attend in-person, I found the experience just as productive as previous residential Arvon courses I’ve been on, thanks to expert tutoring by Caroline and Richard.
One of the poems I wrote on the course is Late, which reflects on the experience of never quite feeling I was in the right place at the right time.
I was delighted that this poem was selected for issue 15 of Butcher’s Dog, one of my top poetry magazines. My experience of the selection and editorial process with this magazine is second to none. It’s no accident that so many poets tweet excitedly about even having made the Butcher’s Dog longlist.
It was a particular honour to appear in this issue alongside some of my poetry heroes, Marvin Thompson, Dean Atta and Robin Houghton, whose regular, thorough and selfless updates about magazine submissions and competitions show the poetry community at its finest.
On 6th June I attended the magazine launch via Zoom, and really enjoyed hearing so many varied and vibrant poems in the poets’ own voices.
Thank you so much to Jo Clement and Ian Humphreys for your superb editorship and hosting of the live launch.
I’ve wanted to write about Anne Lister for a long time, even before she was brought to the attention of the wider public by the popular BBC series Gentleman Jack. I felt an affinity with Anne, not only because of her relationships with women, but also because she was such a prolific diary-writer. I recognise in myself that same compulsion to get everything down on paper – and was amused to hear that, like me, Anne would sometimes refer back to old diaries to settle arguments!
In searching for a way in to writing a poem about Anne Lister, I was hugely indebted to the women who are, even now, painstakingly deciphering Anne’s spidery writing and fiendish codes to make the diaries accessible to a wider audience. Specifically, this website generously offers transcripts of many of Anne’s diary entries, and I became curious to read the very last entry that Anne wrote, before her untimely death from a fever at the age of 49, whilst travelling in Georgia with her partner Ann Walker.
There’s a gap of about six weeks between this diary entry and Anne’s death, and there’s no suggestion that at the time of writing it she had already fallen ill. This, of course, leaves the distinct possibility that she wrote more diary entries beyond this one. Perhaps her actual final volume was buried with her, and we will never know what the real last words were?
However, this is all we have to go on for now as a final diary entry, and I was really struck in reading it by the mixture of precisely-observed detail about the new places through which Anne and Ann are travelling, and by the very ordinariness of the final sentence: ‘Tea & coffee at 8.25’. Tea and coffee? Did they both drink both, one after the other? Much more likely, I think, that one liked tea and the other preferred coffee, and so they brewed up both in the wicker barn that was their shelter for the night. That sentence has both the precision and the lack of elaboration of a routine that has been repeated many times, with the confidence that this will be continued into the future. That this is, then, the very last sentence of the diary makes it deeply poignant, adding to the sense of a rich life cut off abruptly.
As well as providing the title, Anne’s last diary entry contributes some other phrases in the poem – those ‘wooded hills rising / to conical summits’, for example. And the entry begins with Anne complaining at having been woken in the small hours by ‘cats at my cheese’, a detail so delightful that I couldn’t resist including it.
One particular challenge in writing this poem is that Anne’s partner’s name was also Ann. This is a particular issue for some same-sex couples, and I’ve discovered that there’s a rather satisfying name for it: homonymy. Nevertheless, it makes life tricky for a poet who wants readers not to be confused. At least Anne and Ann’s names are spelled slightly differently, so I refer to ‘the other Ann’ in the first verse, and hope that the reader will recognise the shift to Anne (with an ‘e) Lister in the second. Of course, it’s harder for an audience to spot that difference when the poem is read aloud!
I’m delighted that Tea & coffee at 8.25 was accepted for publication in Issue 65 of The North, where it can be found on page 41, together with another poem of mine, When we hold hands. I’m so grateful to the editors, Peter and Ann Sansom, for publishing these poems.
I’d never heard of desire lines until I read this article by Amelia Tait in the Guardian in June. On reading it, I realised that there was a name – and a rather lovely one, too – for the paths I’d seen emerging on the meadow at the bottom of my garden during the lockdown.
Some of the paths over the meadow have been there for many years. But it was curious to see new ones being created. One, for example, runs parallel to a paved path, exactly two metres apart (see above image). Others crisscross the meadow seemingly more erratically – the result of the increased number of people choosing to take their daily ration of exercise in the most scenic spot they could easily reach from home.
My poem ‘Desire paths’ emerged in late June as a result of reading Amelia Tait’s article and then following the desire paths to get a feel for how they took the routes they now so clearly traced, without any conscious planning. I recently entered it into the Daily Telegraph lockdown poetry competition, and was delighted to be selected as one of the four runners-up. The Telegraph article is, unfortunately, behind a paywall, but here’s a screenshot of the poem:
* Since submitting the poem to the competition, my friend Clare Kelly, who teaches navigation,has alerted me to the fact that desire paths are also known as ‘desire lines’, and I prefer that as a title, so I’ve re-named it now, and am grateful to her for the tip.
I’ve always loved teaching Grace Nichols’ The Fat Black Woman’s Poems. The poems offer rich and diverse material for exploration, and are also great as stimuli for students’ own creative writing.
A few years ago I was inspired by The Fat Black Woman Composes a Black Poem to write my own poem exploring different aspects of gay identity through each of the colours of the rainbow flag. I love the way in which, in such a concise poem, Nichols creates a such a vivid sensory impression of the word ‘Black’, whilst conveying so much about black history and culture.
In my poem, The Gay Woman Composes a Rainbow Poem, I’ve adopted a similar rhythm and rhyme scheme to Nichols, to draw on that same sense of strength in identity that Nichols conveys. It was an enjoyable challenge to try, like Nichols, to reflect on my associations with each colour, without going for the most obvious ideas.
It’s taken a while for this poem to find a home, so I was delighted when it was accepted for the Protest issue of Popshot magazine. It’s an honour to appear in this publication, and owing, as this poem does, so much to Grace Nichols, it was a delight to see a beautifully illustrated quotation from The Fat Black Woman’s Poems just inside the front cover.
I’m fascinated by all the creative ways in which poetry is finding new homes in cracks during these famously strange times. It was great to have a poem in the latest issue of Brittle Star, and it was even more exciting to hear that, in lieu of a launch party, there would be a series of podcasts.
So, one rainy day in July, I found myself sitting at my desk under a blanket so as to muffle extraneous sounds, reading my poem The Chicken Question, ready to send off for the podcast. Here it is in episode 3, at around 23 minutes in. Do listen to the whole thing, for a really interesting discussion about writing during the pandemic, and then for five other writers from Issue 46 reading their wonderful work.
I love how poems sometimes spring from most unexpected places. Having to deal with unwanted rats and pantry moths at different points in the past led to me googling ‘Pest control’, which then led to me stumbling upon accounts of Chairman Mao’s ‘Four Pests’ campaign from the 1950s. In an attempt to eliminate pests which were perceived as being a threat to national prosperity, Chinese citizens were entreated to go to quite extreme lengths to kill them. In the case of sparrows, this involved whole communities banging anything they could get their hands on to frighten the birds into continually flying, to the point where they were so exhausted that they dropped, dead, from the sky, in such numbers that their corpses had to be shovelled up with spades.
But the impact of such mass extermination was catastrophic, leading to a plague of locusts which is thought to have contributed to the Great Famine which killed in excess of 45 million Chinese citizens.
That shocking story about the perils of disrupting the delicate balance of natural food chains became the inspiration for my poem How to conquer nature, which I’m delighted to see featured this week on The Poetry Village website as part of their Earth Shadow series, alongside a stunning image.
So many new possibilities are opening up at the moment, despite the restrictions. Last night, I was able to ‘Zoom’ into the live launch of Butcher’s Dog Issue 13, which I’d probably never have been able to get to in person as the magazine is based in the north east of England. The event was expertly and warmly hosted by editors Jo Clement and Aoife Lyall, with over 100 people attending. I so enjoyed hearing the poems read in the poets’ own voices, and I always love to hear people sharing the stories that inspired their poems.
The whole submissions and editorial process through which my poem, Coming out for Beginners, found a home in Issue 13 has been so friendly and efficient from start to finish, and the magazine itself is stunning, with a beautiful cover designed by Qi Fang Colbert. To buy a copy of Butcher’s Dog, or to take out a subscription, visit here.
I’m delighted to have a poem in the latest issue of Brittle Star, which landed on my doormat yesterday. In between rain showers, I made an audio recording of my poem, The Chicken Question, for the magazine launch, which will be released as a podcast soon. Although it’s disappointing not to be able to gather for the launch in person, hopefully the podcast will reach a wider audience, and I’m looking forward to hearing the other poems and short stories read by their creators.
A while ago I wrote a post for the What I’m teaching section of this website about writing poems on seeded paper with my National Writing Project Cambridge group. Well, having shared our poems at our February meeting, I planted mine in March. It felt like a hopeful and grounding thing to do at the beginning of the lockdown. For ages, nothing happened. But now, I’m happy to report that I have a pot of baby poems growing on my decking. I’m not sure what they will turn out to be, but I’m watering them faithfully and they’re certainly getting plenty of warmth and sunlight.
Meanwhile, I’m encouraged by signs of new poetry life elsewhere. For the first few weeks of the pandemic I felt unable to write anything more than notes; it seemed to take too much energy and headspace just to know what day of the week it was and to find pasta at the supermarket. But over the last few weeks I’ve managed to write several new poems, and I’ve had good news of poems having been accepted for publication in Under the Radar, The Poetry Village, Brittle Star, Butcher’s Dog and elsewhere. I’m very grateful to all the poetry editors and competition organisers who are working valiantly in difficult circumstances to tend and nurture the poetry community, at a time when there seems to be a growing appetite for poems in the wider world.
With so much awful news at the moment, I almost missed the announcement of the winners and shortlisted poems in the Plough Poetry Prize. I’m delighted to see my friend Claudine Toutoungi winning second prize with Numbers, which you can read, alongside the other prize-winning poems, here. And it was lovely to know that my poem The L word made the shortlist.