The Poetry Village: How to conquer nature

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.

‘Butcher’s Dog’ Issue 13 launch

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.

‘Brittle Star’ Issue 46

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.

Growing poems

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.

12 Days of Christmas on Ink, Sweat and Tears

For the last few years I’ve loved following the Ink, Sweat and Tears ’12 Days of Christmas’ feature, which runs this year from 22nd December to 2nd January. It’s fascinating to see different people’s perspectives on this time of year. I was delighted to have my poem Christmas Eve in Dad’s Kitchen featured on 24th December, alongside beautiful, poignant poems by Kathryn Alderman and Carole Bromley.

Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition

2001 was my final year as an English teacher at Richmond School in North Yorkshire, the school where I’d very happily spent the first four years of my teaching career. The highlight of my time there came that spring, when I took a group of sixth form students for a week’s writing course run by the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank.

Our tutors that week were the late Julia Darling and Jackie Kay. Both were inspirational tutors: funny, patient, wise, generous with their time and feedback, and full of both playful and subtle exercises to get us all exploring new territory with our writing. It’s no overstatement to say that the week was life-changing for those students, several of whom had come to it from challenging personal circumstances.

It was life-changing for me, too, in that I got to write alongside my students – something I’d not done since I was at school. And I found that I loved it! At that stage I felt that I’d discovered something I was passionate to develop – but family illness and bereavement, relocating to Cambridge, and stepping up to a demanding new job all got in the way, and over the next year or two my writing ground to a halt.

So, fast-forwarding 18 years, for the last three of which I’ve created more space in my life for writing, it was especially exciting to have had a poem selected by Jackie Kay on the shortlist for the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, and to be invited to read it at the awards evening on 28th November. Shortlisted poets don’t always get invited to the winners’ readings, so I was really delighted to have been included in the invitation, and it was a lovely event. We were treated to a reading from Jackie, who always reads with such musicality, with an ear for silence as well as intonation, and then it was wonderful to hear the range and power of the winning and shortlisted poems, some read in person and some played as video or audio clips.

The evening finished, as all good evenings do, with tea and cake.

Guernsey Poems on the Move

At the end of half term I made a quest to Guernsey to see if I could track down two of my poems, which were being displayed on buses as a result of having been selected in the 2019 Poems on the Move competition, judged by Maura Dooley.

Having been given the registration numbers of the buses to look out for, I hoped that all I’d need to do would be to find out which routes they were on and hop on a bus or two to find them. However, it was really disappointing to arrive at the bus information desk, only to find that the two buses in question were both at the depot for servicing, with no possibility of our being allowed to go there to see them.

Sunday morning walk to Icart Point

However, this left us with a whole weekend to explore the beautiful island, and we discovered some stunning cliff-top walks. At least I can picture where my poems have found a home, and I have these photos of the poems in situ, taken by CT Plus Guernsey, the local bus company.

I was really hoping to have the opportunity of seeing bus passengers reading the poems; I’m so curious to know what people might make of them. So if anyone reading this post has seen them on the Guernsey buses, I’d love to know! Please drop me a line on Twitter or via the ‘Comments’ section on this website.

At the airport with Sharon Black’s first-prize-winning poem

The Bridport Prize: Highly Commended

I feel so lucky to have had my poem ‘The way you knew’ Highly Commended in this year’s Bridport Prize, judged by Hollie McNish. It was lovely to meet the other poets over lunch at the Bridport Arts Centre, including 2nd prize winner Jim McElroy, who introduced me to a new word, ‘Hoor’, skilfully deployed as a noun, adjective and verb throughout his stunning poem. The winner, Fathima Zahra, had the entire room hanging on every word of her beautiful, poignant Things I wish I could trade my headscarf for. It was a real privilege to hear all the winners reading their poems, and also to meet Hollie McNish, who has inspired so many of my students to explore poetry for themselves.

The way you knew I fell for when reading it aloud. I felt the rhythms, repetitions and internal rhymes slipped so subtly between pauses came forth more confidently when leashed from the tongue, whilst images such as ‘the way you knew as you chewed how big the next bubble would be’ and ‘even before he began drinking ink’ ensured it would not slip into generalisation.

Hollie McNish, from the Poetry Judge’s Report, Bridport Prize Anthology 2019
With Bridport Prize poetry judge Hollie McNish (Image courtesy of Rachel Brown)

‘The Result is What You See Today’: Poems about Running

It’s exciting to have a poem published in this new anthology from Smith/Doorstop, edited by Paul Deaton, Kim Moore and Ben Wilkinson. It’s fascinating to see how many poets have taken inspiration from running – as well as to read in the biographies how many different reasons people have for doing it. There are poems here about every possible aspect of running, from memories of cross country races at school to Parkruns. The neighbour-poem to mine, People Who Go Running by Joe Caldwell, will make an instant connection with any reader who has a runner in their life: ‘If you live with them, they’ll forget to make dinner / as they’re busy signing up for half marathons / in Clowne and Stamford.’

I wrote my poem, Night Run, last October when the nights were drawing in and I was just starting to have to steel myself to run in the dark again. I hate the prospect of running in the dark, especially after a long day at work, but have never yet regretted a night run once I’ve managed to get myself out of the house. The poem tries to capture that movement from reluctance to exhilaration, which I hope is something that other runners might identify with.