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.

HappenStance Wrapper-Rhyme Challenge

Helena Nelson at Happenstance Press recently launched the International Wrapper-Rhyme Challenge. The idea is simple: write a rhyming poem about a food or beverage on the wrapper itself. All the entries are to be exhibited at StAnza, Scotland’s poetry festival, in 2020. It’s great to find a poetry competition that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I really enjoyed the playfulness of writing on a box of my favourite peanut Nakd bars. I found it really made me read the wording on the packaging carefully as I used it for inspiration for my poem. I’ll look forward to seeing the final exhibition next year. (Closing date for entries, if you’re interested, is 25th December 2019.)

Guernsey Poems on the Move

I was delighted to have had two poems selected in the Guernsey Poems on the Move competition by judge Maura Dooley. It was lovely to be able to go to the winners’ ceremony on 1st May, and to hear all of the other chosen poems. The unique thing about this competition is that the winning poems are displayed on Guernsey buses for a year. Although the fleet of buses had just changed when I visited, so our poems had not yet been displayed there, it was exciting to see my poems on the backs of seats on the Aurigny plane. I’m planning a visit back in October to try to track my poems down – not an easy task given that Guernsey has quite a few different bus routes!

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