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.

The Village Explainer

Today has been exciting. I’ve been listening to Radio 4 for most of my life and today I got a few of my 15 minutes of fame, thanks to Ira Lightman, with whom I had the pleasure of reading poems in Durham earlier this year with the Quiet Compere tour.

Ira heard me ranting on Facebook about politics and economics, and the banking system, and commissioned me to write a poem for his programme “Pound on Pounds” which was an exploration of the Cantos of Ezra Pound (where Pound rails against “Usura”) and their relevance to today’s economic situation. So there was Ira, two eminent professors… and me. The programme is available for a little while on i-player. My only qualification for this gig was that around the turn of the millennium I did an MBA at London Business School, and they tried to teach me macro-economics, company finance, and something about how the stock markets and banks work. A little bit of it has stuck, but probably not enough.

So Ira asked for a poem that sort of explained why we have money, and banks, and what happened with the Credit Crunch. It’s not my usual style, I have to say, it’s a bit didactic and flippant and rhymey, but I’m putting it here for a couple of people who said they would like a copy.


Imagine I’ve a cow I just don’t need
and what I really want is a kitchen table
what are the chances that I will be able
to find a carpenter who wants a cow?
And, anyway, how could I make him feel
that he’s getting a good deal?

Let’s mint some silver coins, and some in gold –
we value these, though really they’re just cold
inedible and shiny. Split the transaction;
sell the cow at the livestock auction
take payment in some coins, and later, drop
these in the till at the furniture shop.

But now, I must deposit all my cash
elsewhere than in my pocket. Here’s a bank,
to issue me an I.O.U. on paper
promising to pay the bearer whatever.
But soon we find we can dispense with notes
and bank managers in suits and overcoats,

and let electronic data fly
server to server, so everything we buy
or sell, earn, owe, invest, inherit
flits instantly around as credit, debit
on trading screens. And who dares, wins!
And here is where the credit crunch begins.

Casino bankers, playing vast roulette
where securities are bundled, traded, bet
buy sub-prime mortgages without a clue
who’s funding them, give credit where none’s due
and suddenly the balance sheet is holed.
Flimsy as fivers, the banks could fold

and customers queue up to take their cash
until the notes run out. To stop the crash
the government steps in, and buys the banks
or we’d be back to barter. All this, thanks
to risk, reckless and unregulated
and a housing market, bloated and inflated.

The Bank of England, clearly in despair
conjures money up from empty air
to help the flat economy increase
but banks need more reserves, so won’t release
new loans – and all liquidity dries up.
O Lord, now let this bitter cup

pass from the bankers to the wretched fools
who trusted the financial system’s rules,
and paid their mortgages, however hard,
stumped up for their loans and credit cards
and only wish that they were able now
to swap their kitchen table for a cow.

Support the Early Day Motion

Diane Abbott MP has recently tabled an Early Day Motion to make it illegal to intimidate clients and staff outside abortion clinics. I had hoped this wouldn’t be necessary but it is. These people are trying to prevent reasonable access to legal healthcare. We know how this “pro-life” (funny it’s always unborn life they are in favour of, not the already-born kind) stuff turns out in the US and it is starting to happen here. In solidarity with all people who believe that women should have the power to control their own bodies, here is the link to the petition in support of the EDM. Please sign.

Change.org in support of the Early Day Motion

And here is a poem I wrote in the days when I was on the way to my MA classes, and used to regularly pass the pickets, busy intimidating people, outside one large London clinic. It’s a true story.

Litany on Bedford Square

It’s always been the same; men and old women
instructing young girls how to live,
running in fear of the power of oestrogen
budding and flourishing beyond their law.

Outside this door, the whole sad choir of them
chant in praise of the perfect mother,
gripping rosaries like ligatures;
blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

It’s mortal sin, if you believe in souls,
not cells and blastocysts; ‘products
of conception’. An hour’s mistake must last
a lifetime, no repentance can

absolve a woman of motherhood. I try
to talk to them. One hisses back;
Can’t you see we’re praying? So I sit down
inside the café, and Google this;

And when you pray, don’t be like hypocrites
who love to pray on the corners of streets
to be seen by others. Truly I say to you,
they already have their reward in full. *

I write it down, and ripping out the page
from my notebook, hand it over.
I walk past later, glad to see they’ve gone;
just a happy coincidence.

* Bible, Matthew 6:5

Style Is Eternal

Picture by Simon Armstrong (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It isn’t every Pennine market town of 7000 souls that comes with a full size French Chateau attached. Barnard Castle seems to be the only one. The Bowes Museum is a fully-fledged, international museum and art gallery with a wonderful permanent collection as well as a series of touring exhibitions. It’s big on costume and textiles, so it’s very fitting (pardon the pun) that it will be hosting an exhibition this summer called Yves St Laurent – Style is Eternal. This retrospective of one of the 20th Century’s most influential fashion designers is only coming to one museum in the UK – a massive coup for the Bowes. (Oh! the parking! It’s going to be impossible…)

Ever the opportunist, I thought it would be fun to run a poetry-writing workshop, with suitable writing prompts and a visit to the exhibition. I’ve booked a meeting room at the Bowes for the whole day (10.30 – 4pm) – Saturday August 22nd, and I have spaces for 14 poets to come and consider what fashion means in our own lives and how clothes have been used in poetry. We will have special guests Amy Key and Camellia Stafford with us – they have written extensively about fashion and identity, in their collections Luxe and Letters to the Sky – to talk about their work and influences.

The price of the workshop is £25, which includes entry to the YSL exhibition. The only other thing you need to pay for is food, which you can bring along, or find at the rather gorgeous museum cafe. So as things stand there are TWO tickets left. Contact me at judithlynn@hotmail.co.uk to book a place.

Redressing the Balance

In my last post I mentioned the VIDA count, and that I was trying to find experienced women reviewers who want to review for TLS. Suddenly twitter went crazy and I gained a couple of hundred new followers (@judi_sutherland) who, it seemed, were desperate to review for one of our most prestigious literary journals. I set up a facebook group for us to share ideas. Then I asked the Assistant Editor of the TLS, Michael Caines, if we could speak on the phone.

Here’s a precis of our conversation, held on 22nd April:

TLS generally draws on the academic community for reviewers in its different subject areas (brief perusal of the site reveals them to be: Arts & Commentary; Biography; Classics and Modern Languages; Fiction; History; Literature and Poetry; Philosophy and Religion; Politics and Social Studies; Science) and each area has its own editor. The male bias in reviewers tends to reflect the male bias in university departments; in Literature, there are proportionally more female academics and therefore the bias runs the other way. I asked if reflecting the bias was enough – should TLS not be helping to redress the balance and therefore maybe even assisting the careers of female academics? Maybe…

Do reviewers have to be academics? MC says no, not in every field. For fiction, in fact, a large number of reviewers are not academics. (Presumably others in the trade can be credible: novelists, editors, publishers, freelance writers, for example.). He said that in other fields it was hard to imagine how anyone other than an academic could review, and gave the example of books on religion. (I can understand they don’t want random opinions, but I suspect a bishop might meet their credibility criteria!)

In some ways, MC said, an ex academic could be the ideal candidate. And, it goes without saying that TLS want people who can get copy in on time, be clear and logical, and preferably “engaging”. Reading between the lines it may be that some of TLS’s academic reviews are a touch dry and dusty and don’t come across well to a lay readership.

Yes, TLS would like to see your CVs. Obviously to include qualifications, jobs, a list of previous publications, and some idea of your speciality, e.g. 20th Century Latin American magical realism, George Eliot, nuclear magnetic resonance… whatever. The TLS tends to have a large pool of reviewers which it can call on for specialist reviews.

The TLS will not accept unsolicited reviews. It likes to receive books directly from publishers and to send them out to reviewers itself as commissions. This ensures that there is a broadly complementary range of work available for particular issues, and also that the reviewer is not the best friend of the author in question, who is mentioned gratefully in the book’s acknowledgements.

So I think here’s what we can do:

  1. Make sure that publishers actually send more books by women authors off to TLS in the first place. If you’ve got a book coming out, ask your publisher to send it.
  2. Read TLS reviews in your general area to get a feel for the style.
  3. Get your CVs organised to send to TLS.
  4. Append a couple of reviews you’ve done in the most prestigious journals / newspapers you can muster. Even if they were reviews of books by men!
  5. Add a good covering letter emphasising that you are part of this VIDA count response.
  6. Ask your friends to join us and do the same.

Now. More than a month later and I’ve hardly had any CVs come in. So maybe the TLS is right, and women just don’t put themselves forward as reviewers. Dear readers, it’s down to you.

Viva La Vida – An Experiment with Sexism

Every year, VIDA – an association for women in the literary arts, publishes the VIDA count; a series of rather telling histograms that depict the split of male to female writers, and reviewers, featured by a number of literary magazines in the USA and elsewhere. Here in the UK, the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement are among those getting a listing, and the results are… interesting. Rather than re-write the commentary, here’s Soraya Chemaly from the Guardian describing the whole thing:

Surprise: men still greatly outnumber women in US and UK arts publications

Here, for example are the TLS’s figures, and over the five years VIDA has been running, there’s not much of a trend toward gender parity in either the number of women authors reviewed or the women reviewers published…

Times Literary Supplement

Yesterday, the assistant editor of the TLS,  – his name… is Michael Caines… (that’s the third time I’ve used that joke on line in the last 24 hours. I’ll stop now) engaged with, if that is the right word, the poet and editor of Sabotage Reviews, Claire Trevien, on twitter (@michaelscaines). Caines, as a defence against their poor numbers, quoted his colleague at TLS, Toby Lichtig, who says that: ‘change, when it comes to the question of the wider culture, is inevitably slow’. Inevitably? Only if the editors don’t care and are completely passive. Magazines have the choice, and indeed the duty, to reflect the society on which they comment. The TLS doesn’t seem to think it has to actually DO anything to correct its conscious or unconscious failure to take women in literature seriously.

Chemaly, in her Guardian article, says this:

…editors do not, for the most part, sit at their desks waiting for random submissions to come across the transom. They have free reign in terms of whom they solicit and it is exceedingly rare, and highly unlikely, that they rely on slush pile submissions to populate their pages. The issue of whom editors – also primarily men, feel more comfortable either soliciting work from or responding to is central to this persistent gender imbalance in storytelling. Even thoughtful men at literary magazines are not immune from implicit biases and in-group dynamics (the in-group being male) that studies uniformly show are involved in hiring, promotion, mentoring and retention.

However, last night on twitter, Caines appeared to have a more open attitude:

if you can write about English literature, contact me. I can’t commission – but I WILL consider – all. (Bigots may tell you otherwise.)

I replied that I had offered to review for TLS before and had no reply. Caines said:

Sorry, I didn’t see that. Not sarcastically, you mean? That would be good…’

So I contacted a woman writer who has a book coming out shortly, and asked if I could write a review for the TLS. (If she already had a reviewer lined up I wouldn’t want to confuse Mr Caines.) I’ve been told that people have sent unsolicited reviews to the slush pile before and got nowhere.  And it’s possible my review might not be good enough – although I am sure the writer I am reviewing will be.

I’m going to do it. I’m going to send Michael Caines a review. He could ignore me. But what if a whole lot of women who review books all sent him a review of a woman writer? What if they all sent them together? He couldn’t ignore all of us, could he?

Are you in?

Settling In


We’ve been living up here in the north for seven months now and are getting the feel of the place. The house has had new windows, new boiler, new bathroom, and the wonderful logburner illustrated above. I’ve got a full time job again which is busy but fun. I have to be careful that the poems don’t fizzle out due to lack of attention.

Last year I undertook the discipline of joining the marvellous Jo Bell‘s on line poetry community, Fifty Two. Write a poem a week, she exhorted us. Start now. Keep going. More than five hundred poets took up the challenge and joined in. I did it! – each week through 2014 I posted a poem on the related Facebook page and waited for comments. I watched dozens of other poets post their work and tried to leave helpful feedback. There were some amazing poems. There were some people who posted ten or more poems from each prompt. I generally managed one. When we started out, I was living on my own in Oxfordshire with no job, two cats, and a house to sell. By the time we finished I was living in Durham in a new house with my (old) husband and a full time job. Only the cats hadn’t changed.

Did I write anything good? Well, one early poem was published by the wonderful Nine Arches Press in their journal Under The Radar, which was most pleasing. Some of the others need a lot more work. So far this year I haven’t written any new poems, I’ve just submitted some of my 52 to possible new homes in the world.

Being part of 52 taught me that you don’t have to wait for some unreliable muse in order to write a poem that other people appreciate; that improbable subject matter such as songs, body parts and goats can provide something approximating inspiration; that the commonest good advice for a poet is “lose the last two lines”.

There was another benefit to taking part that the wise Ms Bell knew all along; we created a community. So when I started looking around my new abode for poets and poetry evenings, I had a ready made network of north-easterners to tap into. But more of them in a later post.

Thank you, Jo.


Cross Posted from The Stare’s Nest

The Stare’s Nest has been in operation for two months now and every day we have delivered at least one poem that fits our general theme: political and social engagement, reflections on what really matters, something hopeful from time to time to refocus us away from the dreadful news that fills our screens day after day. At the outset we said “Tell us how it is. Tell us how it could be” and poets have sent us their versions of the examined life, to prove to ourselves and others that poetry is relevant, that it engages with the real world and its concerns. We’ve had poems about Gaza and Northern Ireland, Greece, America, and Chile; poems about family, friends, neighbours and strangers, about war, trees, toilets, and shopping. All human life is here.

When I started up the Stare’s Nest I wasn’t sure if anyone would send us anything at all, but I worked on the principle “build it and they will come”, and so far they have. I’m grateful to some very experienced and well-published poets such as George Szirtes, Philip Gross, Carrie Etter, Jenny Lewis, Ian Duhig and Tamar Yosseloff (aha! the last two of those are coming up soon!), to some of the rising stars of British poetry, to members of Jo Bell’s excellent fiftytwopoetry group (of which I am proud to be a member); to poets I didn’t previously know from the USA; to poets I know personally from Reading, Oxford and London; to poets I’d never met but who found us via word of mouth, and to a few who have had their first ever published poem appear here. I’m also most grateful to our first two poets, Hilda Sheehan and Martin Malone, for the poems that kicked off the site, and to the inimitable Cathy Dreyer, who co-edits with me and who was utterly indispensable when I was in the middle of moving house and had no broadband for ten days.

What I am most proud of right now are the comments made by two poets whom I value immensely. Sarah Wedderburn is a friend from Roddy Lumsden’s classes at The Poetry School. She sent us the amazing “A Word on Killing” which was published on August 30th. The first stanza is so revealing:

I’ll only say this once. Then I’m going back to writing about home,

journeys, everyday events and minor breakages—even they send

fragments far and wide.

When she sent this deeply personal poem she told me:

“I have written this expressly for The Stare’s Nest, recognising that with this website you have provided a context where such a subject might have a place. I’m thrilled that she picked up her pen and wrote something so true because the Stare’s Nest was there for it to find a home.

We’ve also had great support from Fran Lock, whom I don’t know personally but whose poems I really admire. She has sent us an elegy for a good friend, written in her usual beautiful, intricate style, but that still manages to convey a raw emotion. It’s coming up soon. She said:

“I’m tentatively submitting the attached poem to The Stare’s Nest because it is the only place I’ve seen where (if anywhere) I think it might belong… I’m still not sure (from a poetry point of view) if it is ready to see the light of day, but I think if it is, The Stare’s Nest is the place I would like it to be. Your beautiful site has inspired me to set it down properly and find a place for it.”

This is what I wanted to achieve! As well as the funny poems, the angry and the polemical, a safe place for such delicate work that really comes from the heart.

Thank you all! Let’s keep going. Send your honey bees to fill the empty nest of the Stare!

Judi Sutherland

Happy Birthday, Tove Jansson

I love the Moomins. They are philosophers and archetypes. All human life is there, and acceptance for everybody in the little house in Moominvalley, even if you are The Lonely and the Rum. I wanted to run a Moomin poetry tribute blog for Tove Jansson’s centenary, but when I asked the Moomin Marketeers about it they said the “could not allow” people to write about Jansson’s characters on the internet. They have obviously never heard of fanfic. So in defiance of that blanket ban, I am publishing my Moomin poem, about that wandering hippie mystic, Snufkin, the only inhabitant of Moominvalley who does not hibernate but goes off in the winter on adventures of his own.

Snufkin in Winter

The snow cloaks Moominvalley
like a Groke’s wedding veil, already
you’ve had a bellyful of pine needles
but I can’t stomach it, can’t face

a hundred days and nights
of dreaming. So I gift hazelnuts
to the Ancestor Behind the Stove,
roll up my bedding and I’m gone,

through winterwoods to the grey shoreline,
a stowaway in the electric hold
of a tall ship crewed by Hattifatteners,
its prow jostled by ice floes

as we set sail for who knows where.
On the seventh morning, the sun
rises like blood over a seaport city
and I shoulder my pack at the harbour mole,

tread cobbled streets, watch Fillyjonks
in the souks and stews, consider
what the people want with so much
gold. I pitch my tent on a warm beach,

get high with wild-eyed, dusky Mymbles
who embroider secret names
on my sunstruck canvas. I tell them stories
of boreal forests, houses like ships,

Hobgoblins’ hats; of the high magic
that holds with four strong seasons.
Their laughter is shallow bells – I need
the north again. I hitch a ride

with a passing Booble, dodge
the serge-frocked Border Hemulens.
I’m back in the valley before you wake,
sitting on the verandah, where I take

out my mouth-organ, begin to play
All Small Beasts Should Have Bows
On Their Tails
. ‘Hello, Snufkin’, you say,

‘Cloudberry pancakes for breakfast?’

I follow you in. You never do ask
what I’ve been doing, where I’ve been.