The Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry 2022: Straight-line mission

On 30th September 2021 a pair of hikers became the first people to walk the longest straight line in the UK without crossing a paved road, after spending four days crossing 78.55km (48.8 miles) from the Pass of Drumochter to Corgarff in north Scotland. Their route passed through the Cairngorms National Park, which is home to 25% of the UK’s most endangered species.

I’m a keen walker and love the challenge of a long hike through beautiful scenery. But I read about this ‘straight-line mission’ with a mixture of respect and horror. The 18th century garden designer William Kent famously said, ‘Nature abhors a straight line’, and I think that helps to explain why I found the whole concept of this walking challenge rather chilling. There are good reasons why footpaths rarely follow straight lines, something I’ve reflected on previously in my poem ‘Desire lines‘. When I discovered how many endangered species have a home in the Cairngorms National Park, I wondered how many nesting sites the walkers might have waded through, and worried about the impact on other ecologically valuable environments if straight-line missions become more popular.

I decided to explore all of this in a poem, and after trying various formats I elected to superimpose the reasons the walkers had given for completing this mission over the top of a list of the endangered species that inhabit the Cairngorms, presenting the walkers’ justification in bolder type and with justified edges to represent the way in which their mission had passed directly over the various creatures’ natural habitat. The fact that this piece of text is about the length and width of a ruler seems to fit the calculatedness of this mission.

In composing the background list poem, I was particularly struck by the beauty of the names of so many of these species, such as ‘shining guest ant’, ‘northern silver stiletto fly’, ‘Kentish glory’, and ‘aspen hoverfly’. There were many species here that I had never heard of, so I hoped that listing them in this poem would be a way of drawing attention to the need to preserve and protect them.

I am delighted to say that the resulting poem, ‘Straight-line mission’, was Highly Commended in this year’s Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry, and appears in the competition anthology here, on page 17.

It was lovely to be able to go to the prize giving ceremony in London on Monday, and to hear the winning poems read aloud. I have been haunted ever since by the final lines of the 2nd and 3rd placed poems. Liz Byrne’s ‘An owl the size of my smallest fingernail’ imagines the speaker holding a tiny owl in her palm and finishes:

‘He is mine. I can do what I want; so small,
no-one will ever miss him.’

Hilary Menos reflects on the speaker’s ambivalent relationship with her friend’s environmental activism, but memorably ends:

‘the only one of us prepared to give your real name,
the only one to own up to the mess we’d made.’

It was a privilege to hear these poems read aloud by their writers, and just so lovely to be able to attend an in-person poetry event again.

Heeling in at Lower Wood

The run-up to Christmas 2021 was a tricky time at school, as elsewhere. The Omicron variant of Covid was spreading rapidly, resulting in a lot of staff and student absence and creating an ominous sense of deja-vu, as questions were being raised about whether there might need to be another national lockdown to combat this new wave. On the Wednesday of the last week of term a sudden call-out came for teachers to go to Addenbrooke’s after school for Covid booster jabs, which was hugely welcome as it was proving difficult either to find drop-in appointments or to get onto the booking website at the time.

The following day, a little woozy after my booster, I found myself in Lower Wood, Weston Colville, amongst a team of volunteers helping to plant trees with The Wildlife Trust BCN. The woodland there is being restored, with a mixture of oak, willow, hazel, field maple and wild service trees, which were planted in a series of day-long sessions over the following few weeks.

It was a beautiful day, and we planted in sunlight for the most part, although the ground underfoot was thick clay so we slipped about, and our spades sometimes got stuck fast. We worked in pairs, and soon found a rhythm together: digging a hole; choosing a sapling; tucking the roots into the hole; slipping a tree guard over the top; and then hammering a wooden stake in to hold it fast.

I learned a new phrase that day: ‘Heeling in’ – the action of pressing the earth snug around the roots of a tree once you’ve slotted it into the ground. Perhaps the most satisfying moment of the day was when one of the Wildlife Trust rangers watched me doing this, several hours in, and said, ‘That’s good heeling in, that is’. In yet another troubling phase of the pandemic, on a day when I hadn’t quite known what I needed to feel better, I was suddenly aware that that was exactly what I needed: to be doing something practical in the open air, to be planting a living thing that should grow well beyond my lifespan, and to be told that I was doing this simple thing well.

We went back this last weekend, four months later, to see the bluebells in Lower Wood, which were spectacular. And it was wonderful to look down the tree guards and see the first leaves growing on the trees we planted.

Two days later, I heard that a poem I wrote, inspired by the experience of planting trees, had been highly commended by Gillian Clarke in The Rialto Nature and Place Poetry Competition 2022. It’s called ‘Heeling in at Lower Wood’, and I’m really looking forward to seeing it published in The Rialto later this year, alongside the winners.

Reviews of ‘Other Women’s Kitchens’

I’m delighted to be able to share two early reviews of my poetry pamphlet, which was published by Seren Books in September. Many thanks to previous Mslexia Pamphlet Competition winner Sarah Wimbush for this review on the Butcher’s Dog blog:

https://www.butchersdogmagazine.co.uk/post/sarah-wimbush-reviews-alison-binney-s-debut-pamphlet-other-women-s-kitchens

And it’s lovely to discover the rich resource that is Judy Darley’s website, full of reviews, including this one, for which I’m hugely grateful:

Poetry review – Other Women’s Kitchens by Alison Binney

‘Other Women’s Kitchens’ – Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition Winner

I’m delighted to announce the publication of my debut pamphlet, ‘Other Women’s Kitchens’, by Seren. It’s available for purchase from the Seren Books website for £5 here. I’m hugely grateful to Seren poetry editor Amy Wack, firstly for selecting this pamphlet as the winner of the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition, and then for making the whole process of publication such a smooth and joyous one.

This pamphlet gathers together poems written over a four-year period exploring themes of coming out, falling in love and finding a sense of community. The beautiful cover art is by Kate Winter, who responded with great sensitivity both to the poems themselves, and to photos of my parents’ kitchen, in creating the paintings that grace the front and back covers.

I’m fascinated by kitchens – for me, very often the rooms where the most interesting and significant conversations happen. When searching for a title for this pamphlet, it struck me how many of the poems in it are located in kitchens, or in kitchen-like spaces, or make reference to food. There’s the makeshift kitchen in a wicker barn where Anne Lister and her partner Ann Walker brew tea and coffee on the last day recorded in Anne Lister’s diary. There are the married women who ‘came home hungry, smelling of lentils’, after their encounters in a supermarket car park. There’s ‘tea with the lady mayoress’ in a found poem sourced from an old edition of the Girl Guide Handbook. And then there’s the kitchen as the location of a first date – probably just the sort of kitchen, complete with ‘individual chocolate mousses’, that my younger, uncertain self would have been delighted to know was waiting for her in the not-too-distant future.

It’s very exciting to have my first pamphlet out in the world. I hope these poems find readers who will savour them.

These are tender yet fierce lyric poems about self-discovery and coming home to oneself against all odds. I was struck by the emotional truths at the core of Binney’s debut pamphlet, reminding me of vital queer memories ranging from coming out to stepping into Gay’s the Word for the first time.

Mary Jean Chan

FenSpeak

I’ve been going along to FenSpeak, a bimonthly poetry and storytelling event based in the Babylon Arts Gallery in Ely, for several years now. Each session features one or two guest poets, alongside plenty of open mic slots. The first time I went, I was struck by the friendliness and inclusivity of this event, and the particularly warm welcome given to newcomers. Thanks to the dedication and ingenuity of its co-hosts, Beth Hartley and Stewart Carswell, FenSpeak has not only survived the pandemic, but has evolved and flourished in its current Zoom form.

I’m a passionate hill-walker, so having been born and brought up in Norfolk, and having lived most of my adult life in Cambridge, it’s taken me quite a while to appreciate the beauty of the flat Fenland landscape. The poems shared at FenSpeak, as at any open mic, cover a huge and eclectic range of subjects, but it’s always a special treat when someone shares a poem that captures the distinctive qualities of this area, whether that’s the infamous vast skies, the birdlife or the rich peaty soil. These poems help to bind us together as shared inhabitants of this unique and peculiar landscape.

Last night’s guest poet, Jonathan Totman, is a former Fenland Poet Laureate, so there were plenty of evocative landscape and nature poems, alongside some beautiful and poignant poems about family relationships, past and present. I’m really looking forward to reading Jonathan’s first collection from Pindrop Press, Night Shift.

And the open mic offered up what Beth described perfectly as ‘a rich layer cake of a night’ – such a fine blend of humour, intimacy, longing, pain and vivid, sensory detail, shared by such a lovely bunch of people. It was one of those rare Zoom evenings when a genuine sense of community was evoked, even amongst people who had never gathered in person in exactly that combination before.

Stewart and Beth deserve huge credit for sustaining this sense of community and welcome so well during such a challenging period. So it’s wonderful that each of them has a pamphlet published this autumn, and that both will be the FenSpeak featured poets at the next event on 20th October. I’m looking forward to it already!

Beth Hartley’s pamphlet, What if Stars, is published by Allographic Press and can be purchased here.

Stewart Carswell’s pamphlet, Earthworks, is forthcoming from Indigo Dreams and will be available soon here.

Butcher’s Dog Issue 15

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.

Tea & coffee at 8.25

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.

Desire lines*

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.

‘Popshot’ Issue 30: The Protest Issue

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.

‘Brittle Star’ issue 46 podcast

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.