What’s wrong with spring?

I’m sitting at my kitchen table looking out, through the apple blossom and the pergola that I keep thinking I’ll move because it gets in the way of the view, at the mist. That’s all I can see beyond the fence this evening. On a clear day there are green hills, and Dartmoor in the distance. I haven’t written a post here since February and have been feeling the urge, though I’m not sure what I’m going to say. (Perhaps it might be better not to say that, a little voice says.)

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May Day has already gone. Memories of May morning in Oxford: the inaudible anthem sung  at 5am from Magdalen tower (these days they amplify it), bathing (well, wiping) my face with dew from the college lawn, Morris men with bells jingling and concertinas squeezing for all they’re worth. Down here people are quite keen on Beltane, the Celtic festival, though I haven’t heard of any bonfires being lit and in any case today has been seriously wet. In Totnes some sort of ceremony is taking place tomorrow at the Leechwell (reputedly a healing spring). The violets and primroses are still in flower but near the end, and the bluebells are coming into their own. Wild garlic is everywhere, the little white spiky flowers just beginning to open.

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Not long ago I ran a workshop which brought together Focusing and writing. (If you want to know more about Focusing, try Focusing Resources.) I was looking for a theme for a piece of writing and didn’t want to ignore the spring, but it has been done before… What I came up with was ‘What’s wrong with spring?’ It sparked off some interesting poems, exploring the theme either personally or globally and ecologically. For me there was something about spring coming too soon, while I was still wrapped in winter; perhaps the seasons – such as they are – often surprise me like that. The snowdrops out already, then the daffodils, the fritillaries, the tulips, and now the cherry blossom half over and already dropping petals.

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It isn’t only the flowers. The poetry group 52 is almost over and the last prompt has been posted. I joined an online poem a day group halfway through April and that’s over too. I didn’t join 52 till May last year and in recent weeks I’ve fallen woefully behind. I’ve been ‘lurking’, in group parlance, more than I’ve been posting my own work or commenting on other people’s.I didn’t manage a poem a day on the other group either, though I’ve written some. My latest effort was about losing a bar of chocolate – which I did – but I can’t say it was one of my best. 52 was only meant to have lasted for a year (hence the title – a prompt a week) but it was so hugely successful that its life was extended. Some people have continued to write numerous poems a week, as I did for a while, and many have done well in competitions and/or had work published in prestigious magazines.

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This time last year I was just beginning to send poems out and get them published. The excitement of it stayed with me as the acceptances mounted up, outweighing the rejections. Then, like all good things, it came to an end. Towards the end of my round of submissions I had more rejections from magazines. Since then I’ve hardly sent out any more poems, though I have entered some single poem competitions and got as far as a longlist with one. I also keep entering pamphlet competitions, even though the standard is fearsomely high. On the novel front, I’ve been revising the novel I sent out before (once again with valuable input from my group) but haven’t finished it yet. The second one I started has been on hold for a long time but I hope I may go back to it.

I said to my group a little while ago that I seemed to be in the doldrums: not necessarily depressed – though I confess to feeling less chipper than I was – but becalmed and not entirely sure which way the wind will blow next. I keep saying I’m going to do another round of submissions but somehow it hasn’t happened yet. (It will, I tell myself every time I see that other members of 52 are getting work into magazines.) And I’m still not giving up on the novel and may look more seriously into other ways of getting it published, though self-publishing is not easy. A friend of mine who reads many self-published books has said that almost all of them would have been vastly better if they’d had the benefit of a proper editor. Other members of my writing group have had or are having their work published by reputable publishers, but I can safely say their books are exceptional.

Nevertheless I’m still hanging in there. I get discouraged and de-motivated for a while, I think other people’s work is far better than mine (which of course sometimes it is), but sooner or later I’m back in there and having another go. Somehow I don’t give up – at least not for good. If it’s worth doing… it’s worth doing.

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So where do we go from here?

I wrote the title of this post some time ago, meaning to come back to it, and now can’t quite remember what it was I was going to write about. Something, I think, about a different kind of blog post, or maybe a different kind of writing…

The question remains, though. At the start of the year, not long after my birthday, having put behind me – or thought I was putting behind me – the pain and difficulty of the last year, I found myself looking at the shape of this year. Already it’s been different: this time last year I was doped up on painkillers and hardly able to go out because of the excruciating pain in my back. This year getting out and about hasn’t been a problem: I’ve been to Dartington gardens, to the sea and up on the moor, as well as on a writing retreat in rural Gloucestershire. I’m not as miserable as I was then, either, and seem to be getting things done, writing proper ‘to do’ lists and enjoying crossing things off. I’ve edited a newsletter, entered some poems for competitions and begun to plan workshops that I hope will run – though with workshops there’s never a guarantee that people will book. One of them, on Focusing for writers, will definitely run in April, and will bring together the two spheres of writing and self-exploration – not that they have ever been entirely separate.

It’s strange to think that this time last year I had hardly begun to think of myself as a poet, even though I’d been writing poems, off and on, for many years. I was finishing Roselle Angwin’s Elements of Poetry course and just thinking about trying to get some of my poetry published. I hadn’t yet joined 52, which has been such a life-changing experience. Now, a year on, I’ve had poems published in magazines and a couple of anthologies, been longlisted in a couple of single poem competitions and, even better, shortlisted (in a rather long shortlist) in a pamphlet competition. And a poetry publisher is interested in considering a longer manuscript, though not till next year. In other words, I’ve now got some poetry credentials, which I never imagined myself getting. I can say I’m a poet these days without feeling so squeamish about it.

The writing retreat in Gloucestershire was with my lovely prose writers’ group, who got together at the end of the Bath Spa MA and have been meeting monthly ever since. Several of them are now published writers (two were already), one a best-seller, and their standard is formidably high. I felt inspired to do some more work on the novel that I sent to rather a lot of agents, and have been busy recasting it from first person to third, trying to get more distance from the main character. I don’t find editing and rewriting fiction easy – a poem is much easier to rework – but it feels good to be having another go. I’ve thought of myself as a fiction writer for so many years that it’s hard to give up on it, and I still love making up stories and characters. I’ve got another novel started and left on the back burner, and I may well return to that one soon. Whether my novel-writing will ever appear in print is of course another question, as is whether I could manage to be both a poet and a novelist – seemingly some people can and some can’t.

The wonderful 52 – from which I’ve lapsed rather in the past few weeks – is finishing at the end of April. After that I’m not sure where I’ll be going poetry-wise, though the poetry scene is so active here in the South West that there’ll be no shortage of festivals and workshops. And on the prose front I’m sure my Bath Spa group will continue. I’m very fortunate to feel so much a part of these different communities of writers, the quality of whose work inspires me to do the best I possibly can. This year will undoubtedly be different from last year; the ways in which it’s different still remain to be seen.

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Speaking personally

There seems to be a certain etiquette when it comes to blog posts: you speak personally, but not too personally. So I can happily talk about spilling soup over myself or even about coming out – which by its nature is in the public domain – but I’m more wary of talking about feelings of a personal kind. Not that I don’t, but usually I allude to them sideways, or else Adelina does. So she was happy to tell the world that I was suffering from Unrequited Love, but quite rightly kept the details to herself. I’m not about to spill all the beans now, but it’s possible that in the course of this post just a few may drop. If I weren’t so keen to get my poems published in magazines I’d probably do it by posting some more of those, but at the moment I can’t bear the thought of wasting their fragrance on the desert air (I do like a nice quote).

I’m not completely sure what I want to say right now, but it seems to be something about love: what it is and what it isn’t. I’ve been ‘in love’ several times in my life before, usually unhappily. I can’t help thinking of a poor mistaken bird flying into a glass window and hurting itself, and then doing the same thing again…  It hasn’t always been as destructive as that, but perhaps there has been something of the same refusal to take no for an answer. I want this, the emotional logic goes, so somehow I’ve got to make it happen. And surely the other person must want it really, or at least not not want it. Dangerous ground, I know, and what’s painful is the part of me that at the same time sees and feels the rejection, and knows that what I want is never going to happen. And, for various reasons, in the past it’s never been possible to talk about it properly.

What’s happened now has been different. I’ve still ended up not getting the girl, as it were, but I’ve seen something important: that ‘being in love’ with someone and desperately wanting and needing them (or wanting what I think they can give me, and wanting to foist my notion of love upon them) isn’t the same as being in love – in a wider, less constrained field of love – with that person, so that what matters most isn’t what I get from them but what’s best for both of us, whether that turns out to be ‘a relationship’ or not. Not having the relationship is still terribly sad, of course, and the wanting hasn’t been spirited away, but I seem to have understood, perhaps for the first time, more about what love actually is – which means that although I’ve been sad I haven’t been hurt in the way I’ve been before. I can see what the other person wants and doesn’t want, and perhaps why, and I can respect that with all my heart and with care for myself. And maybe because I’ve been able to come to it in a more open-hearted way – and because of the other person’s honesty and generosity – it has been possible to talk about it, and to speak my love without having it thrown back at me.

It took a long time to get there, though. I ‘fell in love’ initially at the end of the year before last. For the greater part of last year circumstances meant that I didn’t see the person, and I thought I probably never would again. I was faced with the pain of unrequited love at its rawest and most immediate. Many of my poetry friends have seen the poems that resulted, the misery and despair in them but also the wry humour that (thank goodness) never quite deserted me. Then, towards the end of last year, the person and I met again and struck up the beginnings of a friendship where we started to discover how much we had in common. Inevitably, though, I wanted more and, for reasons that were partly understandable, thought that more was being offered. Disappointment followed, but nevertheless I’ve ended up seeing the whole process as something of a blessing. My heart was touched more deeply than it has ever been before, and I feel I can start to let go of whatever it is that has driven me into these blind alleys, without doing away with the genuine love I’ve felt. At the beginning of this new year, nearly at my birthday now, I can see a space of new possibility.

The Sunday before last I went down to the sea. I found a secluded cove, with an interested-looking seal bobbing up from time to time, and offered to the waves all the misery and misguidedness of my past loves, as well as the ending of this one. The tide was coming in and the spray sloshed into my boots, so that I didn’t feel separate from the sea. I stayed there for just the right amount of time, between one group of people leaving and the next group arriving, and as I walked back through the fields to my car I felt the peace and lightness that a ritual performed at the right time can sometimes bring. Not that the sadness and longing have disappeared since then, but they’re not all that’s there. On the way back I stopped off at a pub called The Open Arms – a very ordinary little pub – and that too seemed like a blessing. Since that Sunday I’ve been lighting a candle which seems to symbolise both loss and new hope, and I’ve been wishing the other person well.

May all beings be well and happy. May all beings be held in love.

 

 

 

 

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What the Horses Heard by Rebecca Gethin

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 What the Horses Heard, by Rebecca Gethin, a fine poet who is also a novelist, was published earlier this year by Cinnamon Press. It seems timely to mention it now, on Remembrance Day.

It’s refreshing to find a novel about World War I whose main characters are outsiders in the war. The two protagonists of What the Horses Heard are Orion, a conscientious objector, and his sister Cass, who becomes a groom for Army horses and disguises herself as a man. Both of them have been deeply affected by the accidental shooting of their brother, and by his deep love for the natural world. We follow the progress of the two siblings throughout the war, Orion’s survival through humiliating imprisonment and Cass’s journey into the battlefields of France as she tries to stay with the horses she loves. Cass too is incarcerated, though in an asylum rather than a prison. The end of the war sees their sad homecoming and hints at what their lives may become after the events which have changed them and the world around them.

Interested as I was in the carefully researched and well depictions of the war itself, for me what comes over most strongly in the novel are the beautiful descriptions of their childhood relationship with nature and, following from this, Cass’s deep care for the horses she tends. It seems to me that the writer is perhaps at her most comfortable in these aspects of the book. The horses are as much characters as the human protagonists, and Cass’s relationship with them is stronger than that with the people around her, highlighting the difficulties she has in negotiating the human world of bureaucracy and male dominance. Both she and Orion are profoundly isolated and because of what they have been through do not fit easily into ‘normal’ society. However, their return to the childhood home allows them to reconnect with the moorland places that have always been home to them.

Despite the suffering and destruction that have taken place, What the Horses Heard is not a pessimistic novel. It offers some kind of hope that the characters can rebuild their lives and retains a deep love and trust for the sanity of the natural world. I would certainly recommend it as a sensitive, thoughtful and unusual take on the lives of those caught up in the First World War.

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South poem

Here is the poem of mine that is in South, issue 50.  www.southpoetry.org

Gadget

After she died we found it in the cupboard.
‘A gadget,’ we both said, hingeing the metal flaps
to see if we could discover what it was for.
It went into a box we took to the charity shop
along with the pastry wheel and sweetcorn forks.

They told me it was for baking potatoes.
‘Makes life easier’, she would have said, ‘my gadget,’
smiling with satisfaction, trying with all her motherness
to foist one on us as well, as though the best of life
were to only to be found in things that made it better.

In the empty flat I saw her sitting there,
eyes locked on to the television, remote control
easily to hand, tea infuser ready to endow the day
with labour-saving comfort. When we came to visit,
those familiar friends sat closer to her than family.

 

 

 

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How not to be a poet

I came up to London yesterday for the launch of South, a magazine that has published one of my poems. The first time I’d read in London – at the Poetry Cafe, no less, and I was nervous. All these proper poets who would have been published here, there and everywhere and have done more readings than I’ve had hot dinners. You know how it goes… So, dressed in my purple shirt and trousers and hoping I’d look smart enough, I got on the coach at Newton Abbot with my folder of poems in my bag and a substantial packed lunch.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried dealing with a flask of soup on a coach. On a train it’s not a problem. Although it rocks a bit, the movement of a train is relatively even and if you put something on a table it stays there. The same can’t be said of coaches. After I’d poured out the butternut squash, carrot, coconut and ginger soup – one of my best, though I say so myself – I left the cup on the table for a moment or two while I screwed up the flask. Yes, you can see it coming, can’t you? Although half of it was still left in the cup, I couldn’t believe just how much of the delicious orange puree had distributed itself over me, not to mention the table and the wall of the coach – both fortunately made of plastic, unlike my purple outfit. I did the best I could with a large hanky and my glasses-cleaning cloth, then resorted to pouring water over myself (the seat was plastic too) and trying to wipe off more. By that time it felt as though I’d had an ‘accident’ of a different sort, but at least I wasn’t looking quite so orange. When I’d done as much wiping as I could, I took myself off to the toilet and did the best I could there – being thrown about from side to side and with water spurting from the tap. I emerged looking more wet than anything else, but was conscious of tiny bits of carrot still nestling in the pile of my velvet trousers.

Once I’d cleaned up everything in sight – the wall, my coat, my bag – I sat back in my uncomfortable wetness and contemplated the sorry state of this would-be poet. With a bit of luck people wouldn’t notice the stains too much, but I’d said goodbye to looking – or feeling – professional. Ah well. I then took out my phone and found that two of the friends who had said they were coming to the launch couldn’t make it, for perfectly valid reasons. As the third one had already said he might not be able to get there I was starting to feel a little unsupported, which was more of a dampener in my damp state. Never mind. The important thing was to get there.

These days, living in rural Devon, I quite often find arriving in London a shock to the system. I soon get over it, but when I stepped out into the dark and wet of Buckingham Palace Road, dragging my little wheelie case, the rush hour felt like an assault. The people, the cars, the lights, the noise – and the insistent rain, which found its way into everything. Outside the Tube station there was such a crowd that the barriers were being shut and people were pushing to get through. As a Londoner I might once have waited it out, but I simply couldn’t bear it and instead managed to negotiate my way through the hoardings and building works to the bus stop. It seemed almost a miracle that before too long the right bus came along half-empty and took me more or less where I wanted to go.

Making my way towards Covent Garden I was soon a lot more damp and bedraggled. How could I possibly be a credible poet with wet hair? I rearranged my luggage and put up my umbrella – doubly inconvenient, with the wheelie case, for getting through the crowd – but by that time the damage was done. I thought I knew Covent Garden pretty well, but somehow Drury Lane seemed to have moved since I was last there or else morphed into Bow Street. After wet and fruitless wandering I asked outside the station – side-stepping the eager man with the rickshaw – and was directed to the Poetry Cafe by someone who expected a tip but resignedly said he’d do without one.

And so eventually, much the worse for wear, there I stood, umbrella and luggage dripping, in a cramped cafe where everybody except me seemed to know each other. (I’m sure you’ll recognise that feeling.) Downstairs was another room crammed with orange plastic chairs. The only place I could find to leave my luggage was a sofa at the back. When I came down again from the cafe I found two people had taken my place, leaving me to sit on another sofa which was so low I could hardly see what was going on or be seen by anyone else. Not only was I the unprofessional poet, I was now the invisible poet.

When I looked at the reading order I was relieved to see I was fairly near the beginning – I wouldn’t have to be nervous for too long, at least, and I could leave during the interval if I wanted. But then when the introductions started I realised none of my angst was necessary: the MC was welcoming and put people at ease, the poets who read before me were highly entertaining, I hastily revised my selection of poems and chose some lighter ones which seemed to go down well. In the interval I found that one friend of mine – a man well into his eighties – had actually made the effort to come to the reading and was looking for me. And of course the other poets weren’t smart and professional and awe-inspiring – they were just ordinary people who happened to write rather good poetry. The warmth and bonhomie of the occasion enveloped me and by the end I felt at home, just as I would have at a local poetry event. I had not only survived but enjoyed my London debut, and I didn’t have to worry about being a poet.

 

 

 

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Poems

Here are some poems that I’ve had published recently. (‘I’ve had published recently’ – how cool does that sound?) Most of them were written for the online poetry group 52, which continues to be utterly brilliant – see the earlier post ‘Out of the Comfort Zone’. I hope you’ll take the time to check out the publications they appear in – there’s lots of brilliant poetry in all of them.

Atonement
 Before you came what we knew were olive trees,
mules scuffling through dust, sweet smoke
of cooking and tobacco, old men polishing
memories generations long. The church bell clanged
the regularity of our life; the language of our land
had not been wrested from us.

You were the refugees, returning to the home
you mourned each year with brine and bitter herbs,
digging through stones, watering your new life
as it grew into our soil. At the beginning it almost seemed
we could have lived together. Semite was not a word
you applied only to yourselves.

Our land became your right. We gagged on smoke
from burning fields, watched our olives fall
ungathered from the trees as our compliant mules
bore us away from the houses you had stolen.
Church bells hung mute; the old men’s stories
were uprooted from the land. The language we heard
was like ours but not ours.

Now you have caged us in like animals, denying us
even the right to anger. Only you claim persecution,
the gaping crater of wrongs too terrible to imagine
always in your vision, blinding you to the sight
of your own cruelties. All that you’ve taken from us
you wear for your own adornment, thinking we can’t see
the stains of blood and ashes.

Published in The Stare’s Nest, www.thestaresnest.com

Faded
I think of you always dressed in black
your darkened hair at odds
with your pale blue eyes.

Now I don’t know what your colours are
only that once I saw you
wearing a red scarf

looking more real than the winter
that misted around you,
not looking at me.

Published in Nutshells and Nuggets, www.nutshellsandnuggets.tumblr.com

Galileo
I remember how my daughter learnt to sew; the way the seams
got twisted out of true or a bias-cut inset wouldn’t lie at ease;
how she’d bring home a goldfinch captured in a cage, keep it there
beating against its house arrest until I let it free.

Nature is all my work. When I found out the earth is made
to travel round the sun, I had to say it. That was my nature.
The truth I knew hung straight in my body as a plumb-line.
It did not compromise the God I know, who is never a liar.

Unlike me. They made me swear their truth, a sad affair
of fusty books and hand-me-down ideas, was what was true.
Their God, small enough to fit inside their lists of calumny,
knows only what they know. No-one is outside their power.

They let me have my work. Confined here I am no more unhappy
than my daughter in her convent. My clipped wings do not reach
even to the bars of my cage. Nature has not been forbidden me,
only the one truth I have sold to them in return for nothing.

One day it will not be hidden. Their God, no longer bent out of shape,
will let us reveal all that we dare to know. For now I do what I can,
an old man whose crooked back can never straighten again.
Silenced though I have been I still repeat: eppur si muove.

Published in Snakeskin, www.snakeskinpoetry.wordpress.com

Pink
I never liked pink –
roses and marshmallow
and bows for girls’ hair.

I always liked yellow –
sun and lemons
and the number seven.

If I’d lived back then
I might have been given
a pink triangle and a yellow star.

Published in Nutshells and Nuggets, nutshellsandnuggets.tumblr.com/

Illusion
That first moment
your face was the only one alive
in a room of muted people.

When we sang
your voice was a bright thread
in the muddle-coloured mass.

When you stood near
I felt your body without touch
knew you inside me like myself.

Then came the wanting
the torturous yes, no, perhaps,
the audacity of imagination

till finally I saw
imagination was all it was.
I took away your kindness
and wrapped it round the hurt.

Published in the Agenda online supplement, www.agendapoetry.co.uk

What men do
He had a beard, a fat one. I don’t remember his name,
only his Arab accent seeping through French like oil.
He talked a lot, took my hand, seemed to have charm.

He led me from lighted streets down to the river.
On the bank: heaps of rubbish, unsavoury smells,
perhaps a rat, a flat patch of grass and earth.

He held my hand; I was all right. Then came
the slippery invasion of a kiss. I pushed him back,
he heaved towards me, shoved my shoulders

till I was lying on dirty grass. What happened
then was not happening to me. It hardly hurt: a doll
doesn’t know how to feel. Quite soon he stopped.

I shouldn’t have let him do what they said all men
were waiting to do. All women should have ways
of stopping them. Smeared with mud and shame

I put the fragments of my body back together,
smelt night, rank water; saw him wipe his beard,
turn away to re-imprison himself inside his fly.

Published in Prole, www.prolebooks.co.uk

 

 

 

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