Still writing Teisa

My journeys along the River Tees are continuing, and I’m writing as I go. I guess I am about a third of the way along my poetry journey but I am doing a little bit here and a little bit there, as time allows. The landscape certainly is inspiring. Here’s a shot at Cow Green reservoir, near the source of the river. Cross Fell, the highest mountain in the Pennines, is in the background.

Cross Fell

And at the other end of the river, this is the old steelworks at Redcar, seen from Teesmouth. Such a mixture of rural and urban landscapes.

The Steelworks from Teesmouth

After the Terror Attacks

I believe there are good people still;
kinder, more patient than I could be, who ask
for nothing, but to go about their ordinary tasks
giving it their best shot, as you know they will.
Who, when a drunken evening hiccups to an end,
pretend to be ironic, hug each other, solemnly state
I love you mate. You’re my best friend.
The sort of people who don’t forget to feed
the birds, who plant the flowers beloved of bees,
who stoop to pat the mournful dogs who wait
outside the supermarket, asking them, who’s a
a good girl, a good boy? Yes, you are.
Who are more likely to weep while they are clearing weeds
from their smalltown gardens, than in a public place,
who smile at passers-by with open faces,
who put more than they can afford in the charity box
who pop in with cakes to visit neighbours.
Who draw the curtains in their children’s rooms,
switch on the nightlight, wish sweet dreams
and softly close the door. Who go downstairs
to watch the news and wonder what we’ve come to.
When it seems, on days like these, the poor old world
and all its folk are battered, beat, betrayed, do
what they have to; keep on keeping on,
and whether or not they have a god to pray to,
think to themselves; let the world be blessed,
and whisper quietly, beneath their breath.
Amen, let it be so, again; Amen.

More poetry for the petrified


It’s great to be teaching poetry again! I spoke to the people at the marvellous Witham Arts Centre in Barnard Castle and we’re going to be running some introductory poetry classes on Tuesday afternoons, starting on January 17th. I loved doing this in my previous location – everyone in the group seemed to get so much out of reading and writing poetry – so I am looking forward to working with some Teesdale people, to spread the poetry love and turn them into creative writers along the way.

So if anyone wants to join us, it would be great to see you there. Here are all the details of the new, ten-week Poetry for the Petrified course. After that… well, I’ve got some further ideas but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

Teisa Revisited

We’ve been in Teesdale for two years now. I’ve written quite a few poems about being uprooted from the place where I spent almost twenty years – poems about place, home and belonging. We’ve been working, decorating our house and dealing with a big garden; it feels like we haven’t had a lot of time to get to know our new surroundings.

Then a couple of weeks ago I found out that a really interesting symposium was going on, right in my new home town of Barnard Castle. Artists, Farmers and Philosophers was a discussion promoted by the wonderful Heart of Teesdale Landscape Partnership about landscape, how it is formed, recorded, enhanced and preserved by the people who use it and respond to it. I learned something about hill farming, land art, and aesthetics, which made me think about how, as an ‘offcomer’ I can get to know the landscape of my new home. (I’ve updated the photographs that form the header of this site with my photos of the local landscape, and I promise to add more.)

This made me think about Teesdale and the River Tees that shapes it. There’s a long tradition of writing about rivers, sometimes as an allegory of a human life or as the life of a civilisation, sometimes as an observational study. Alice Oswald’s 48-page poem ‘Dart’ played a huge part in my own interest in reading and writing poems. I love the way Oswald is equally lyrical about a milk-processing plant as she is on kayakers and wading birds. It also gives me some courage that Oswald was not a native of the area she captured in her poem. Then there’s this:


Nobody seems to know much about Anne Wilson, who, in 1798, self-published a 1600-line poem tracing the Tees from its source to its mouth. It was written, unsurprisingly, in heroic couplets; with many classical allusions, appeals to the muses, and a long, rambling Arthurian story that gets in the way somewhere just east of Barnard Castle. Since that time, a lot of water has passed under a lot of bridges. The Industrial Revolution has been and gone, Sir Walter Scott wrote ‘Rokeby Abbey’, John Cotman and J.W.M Turner sat on the banks of the Tees and painted. Lewis Carroll grew up on Croft-on-Tees. But many places that Wilson invoked are pretty much unchanged after 220 years.

I think I should have a go at writing an updated Tees journey. It will make sure I really get to know the place, to look at it and listen, and to walk as much as possible of the Teesdale Way, which goes all the way from the highest point on the Pennines to the South Gare breakwater in Redcar. I’ve already made a start.

Poetics and Politics

I’m still trying to process all the politics that has gone on since the Referendum. There seems to have been far too much news and most of it bad. Things have been happening so fast that it’s hard to keep up, and even harder to stop and think about what one’s reaction is. The death of Jo Cox MP, as she served her constituents in Batley and Spen, hit me pretty hard, as have all the other senseless shootings, and knifings, and the use of a truck as a weapon in Nice. So I wrote a poem that shows me thinking about why these gunmen, who seem both to be deeply troubled and radicalised, do what they do, and why the ever think it is going to do any good, or further whatever twisted cause they espouse. I found a home for my poem with Marie Lightman’s new anthology, Writers against Prejudice, which I am sure is going to feature some wonderful and thoughtful poems over the next few weeks. I’m delighted to have the honour of providing the inaugural poem in that anthology. Thank you, Marie!

Here’s a link to the poem. For Jo Cox.

Middlesbrough and York

Today, a video clip or two for you to enjoy. We had a launch for the Dark Matter 6 chapbook at the Python Gallery in Middlesbrough on 27th February, and there is a recording of me reading some of my poems here:

Judi at the Black Light Engine Room

Also on the same night, the great Jim Burns read a few poems although most of them weren’t in his half of the chapbook…  Huge thanks to P.A.Morbid for editing and printing the chapbooks and organising the launch. I’ve got a few of the chapbooks left if anybody wants one…

And shortly after that, I found that my poem ‘Lutyens on Jekyll’ was Highly Commended in the York Literature Festival poetry competition. Which was lovely and very cheering. Several of my friends were there among the commended and highly commended, and we had a great day in York at the award ceremony, listening to some stunning poems and generally hanging out together. Many thanks to Carole Bromley for organising and judging the competition. Here’s the lovely Newcastle poet, Jane Burn, who was also in the Highly Commended group. We got the same train down to York and stopped for tea and cake at Betty’s.

Jane in York

One week to go…

…until Dark Matter 6 is launched!

I’m sharing the chapbook with Jim Burns, who is a bit of a poetry legend and has his own Wikipedia page. There’s also a lot about him on line. For example:

Here from John Freeman

Here from Penniless Press

I know you will enjoy his poems and I hope you will enjoy mine.

Hoping to see as many of you as possible at the Python Gallery, Middlesbrough on Saturday 27th February.

Here's the proof.

Here’s the proof.

Dark Matter

Sheep. They are in the book.

These sheep. They are in the book.

It’s taken some time but I am proud to say I have a little chapbook coming out at the end of this month. My new poetic home in the North East, the Black Light Engine Room in Middlesbrough, curated, or do I mean stoked, by the inimitable Mr P.A. Morbid, is including me in its lovely little series of chapbooks called ‘Dark Matter’. Each tiny gem of a book has poetry by two poets and I am sharing Volume 6 with the legendary Jim Burns, which is exciting.

The poems I’ve sent to Morbs are all written since I moved ‘up north’ and to me at least seem like a largely coherent set. I’m looking forward to reading them at the launch on February 27th. More details later.

What if there is no Tranquility?

We are in those leftover days – between Christmas and New Year. A time for taking stock, reducing it, putting it in a tupperware box and storing it in the freezer – or at least that is what I generally do with the turkey bones.

I finished work on 18th December after a very busy few months in the office. I was so tired I would get suddenly lightheaded on the way round Sainsbury’s and wonder if there was something wrong with my health. Looking back on the year it is no wonder I got tired.

This was the year I got active in politics. We began by slithering along the icy January pavements, canvassing door-to-door for Labour at the General Election. I carried on running The Stare’s Nest for a few months after the election, but at the local branch AGM I took the job of Secretary to the Teesdale branch of the party, and I realised I’d got too busy to keep the editing work going; besides it seemed like the quality of poems submitted was diminishing and I suspected the project had run its course. And then a “casual vacancy” came up on Barnard Castle Town Council and I stood, and was elected, on December 10th, as a town council member. If I do that job properly it will take up even more of my time.

In August, I organised a poetry workshop day at the Bowes Museum. Fifteen poets wrote in response to the Yves St Laurent couture exhibition. I think I was the only poet who wrote nothing.

Add to that a house to clean, a garden to manage, an all the concomitant Stuff To Do – we’ve had a lot of decorating done over the last few months – and something had to give. Of course, it has been the writing. I’ve produced very few poems in the last few months, and have done no work on the Great Novel. I was worried that I couldn’t write any more.  But, happily for my creativity, though sadly for my Christmas preparations, I treated myself to a weekend in Grange Over Sands at Kim Moore’s lovely “Poetry Carousel” workshop, and a few poems did pop into my head, proving that with bit of downtime and a relaxing atmosphere, I can get back into the swing of it.

Sixteen days off work over Christmas and we have hosted two drinks parties and three sets of house guests, with all the cleaning, shopping and cooking that involves. Today (Day 11 of my “holiday”) I finished a giant basket-load of ironing and started washing the next overflowing laundry binful of clothes.

This can’t go on! I am going to have to make time to write or I will go mad. Wordsworth famously said that: ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility’.

Somehow, we have to make the time for that recollection, a time to empty our minds of chores and worries. I’m not sure how I am going to manage it yet, but I have to create my own tranquility.

The Good Old Cause

The Stare’s Nest has been fun to run but it was taking over my life so I decided to retire it, at least for a while. Other websites focussed on social justice and politics have recently popped up.

Bill Herbert and Andy Jackson’s New Boots and Pantisocracies is an excellent and wide ranging webzine that was only meant to continue for 100 days after the election – but as I found with the Nest, there’s so much to say, and they have kept it going with a new poem every day. There’s some great poetry from a wide range of poets on NB&P, and I am very proud to be the poet for Day 18, with a poem about the protests that happened in London immediately after the General Election; how the mainstream media hardly covered them but how social media is a powerful tool for letting us know what’s going on.

Marie Lightman has started a lovely website inspired by the refugee crisis. Writers for Calais Refugees is full of compassionate poems about war, suffering, humanity and exile. Filled with my usual hubris, I tried a poem that discusses the entire history of human migration from the Year Dot. The point was to illustrate how people have always been moving, since human history began, and we are all, in essence, migrants.

Thanks to Andy, Bill and Marie for including my poems in their wonderful poetry projects.

There’s been  a fair amount of discussion recently about political poetry. Why are so many poets left wing? Have there been any really right wing poets? Well, a lot of poets are quite poor, if that is their day job. A lot seem to work in the public sector; this generally means they are empathetic, and empathy and poetry seem to be closely linked. But can we postulate cause and effect?

I think we can. I believe that poetry, at its best, is the most direct way of communicating between two minds. A poet can make his or her reader see what they see, feel what they feel, experience what they experience. A poem is nearly a magic spell for conjuring up emotions. Anyone who reads enough poetry steps into another person’s mind and gains a sense of what it is like to be that person. Through poems I’ve lost a daughter, seen my father murdered, lived in fear of forced marriage and FGM, given birth, been treated for cancer, cared for a loved one with cancer, been shot at, been addicted to drugs, refused to mourn for a child killed by fire. Well, just a little bit. But it is hard to hate and to discriminate when you hear from poets such vivid first hand accounts of humanity at its best and worst. You tend to realise that we have more to unite us as human beings thanto divide us. Does poetry make you left wing? Well, not always. There’s also something of a zeitgeist thing; poets have sometimes glorified war, sneered at the working class, basked in public school privilege and shouldered the White Man’s burden (while grudgingly deciding that Gunga Din might actually have some good points after all) to full jingoistic effect.. Maybe we are more sophisticated these days, or more self-aware, but I do think there’s a cause and effect relationship. Poetry helps us walk a mile in another’s shoes, which builds our capacity for empathy, which makes us want to do something about the injustice in the world. And that’s a left-wing stance.