I write poems about places. and their effect on people. Some of what I write is about the natural world, and some is about the human landscape. Having grown up on the periphery of Stoke on Trent I had an interest in industrial landscapes. I’m interested in what Paul Farley and Michael Symmons-Roberts call “Edgelands”; in wilding and rewilding, climate change, archaeology and the anthropocene. In 1983, my parents bought me my first SLR camera and I went walking around the city taking photos of old buildings, shard-rucks and marl pits. Many of the places I photographed have now been bulldozed and replaced with endless retail parks – who can be doing all this shopping when so many skilled and well-paid jobs have been lost?
My overwhelming impression of the Potteries of my childhood is that everything was brown. There was so much brick, so many old kilns, condemned housing and cobbled back lanes. In 1968, the City had more derelict land than anywhere else in England.
I’m not sure I really understand the concept of psychogeography, as defined by Guy Debord:
“the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”
and I don’t feel much like a ‘flaneur’ either – it sounds too louche, too purposeless, and too enjoyable. But I know that the city I grew up in has had an influence on me and I look at everywhere I have lived since through the eyes of a ‘Stokie’. I think of the literal heaps of spoil we put up with and thought were normal, of the time I saw Longton Brook and its overhanging trees festooned with multi-coloured toilet paper after some sewage disaster, of the wasteland and unofficial playground at the end of our street which was known as ‘The Dump’ where the ruts of old railway sleepers were still visible on the ground from one of the branch lines Beeching ripped up. And I write about the suburbs – all the cheek-by-jowl living of the urban environment combined with the countryside’s nothing-to-do.
One of the great things (the only great thing?) to come out of the whole Brexit debacle is the rise of Citizen Journalism via the Byline Times network. Most regions of the UK are now covered by Byline Times, and I have started to write for North East Bylines since I washed up on the far side of the Irish Sea. My big idea was this – here are two countries which, despite their size disparity, have a lot in common in terms of geography, climate, language and culture. Until a hundred years ago they were in fact part of the same country, thanks to Britain’s appetite for colonisation, which led to some similarity in law and governance. Of course things have diverged with a century of Irish independence, but maybe we could regard Ireland as a sort of “control” – what the UK might be like if it hadn’t been seized by a coup of rabid populist multi-millionaires. So in my Alastair Cooke style “Letters from Malahide”, I’ve been doing some “compare and contrast” articles about the difference between the two countries. I’ve also added a few poems to the “Poetry Corner” feature. All my articles and poems can be found here.
I recommend you follow your local Bylines, which you can find here. Maybe you might also contribute to your regional discussion.
Two cousins, one male, one female. Two poets, whose literary lives are bound up together. Sally Evans’ novel begins at Morecambe Bay, where the totemic wild geese first appear, and shifts to Newcastle, then Edinburgh, with forays to Skye and Durness in the far north of Scotland. The story begins in earnest in the mid-1960s and is evocative of the poetry scene of the north-east of England; Basil Bunting, Hugh McDiarmid and Morden Tower all make cameo appearances. Poetry weaves through the lives of Eric and Maeve, but this is mostly Maeve’s story – of the inequality of women poets, of the constraints of motherhood, and of a long poem that is written, and deserves to be published.
Evans hails from the Lake District and is now a bookseller in Callander, Scotland. The history and geography of this novel are very familar to her. It makes me want to read more poetry of this time and place. I am going to search for my copy of Briggflatts.
This may be the best novel about poetry since AS Byatt’s Possession, and it’s much more believable. Both the storyline and the setting make it a remarkable book and a terrific read.
Wildgoose is published by Postbox Press, the literary imprint of Red Squirrel, where you can order your copy.
Some people decided, at the onset of Covid-19, that they would read Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Albert Camus’ La Peste. I did the opposite. I retreated into the gentle world of Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street and Isabel Dalhousie novels. I read not much else, poetry or prose, and I wrote next to nothing. However, eventually one poem emerged. Because I love watching online of videos of cute animals, I noticed all the stories about animal behaviour in lockdown. The poem I wrote about that became the title track of a little booklet mostly about animals, for a series of hand-made publications by Kazvina (Karen Little) in aid of the Broken Biscuits animal charity. Karen produced booklets for eight poets and I was very proud to be included. The other poems in The Animals in Lockdown include newts, nuthatches, yellowhammers, cats, and dragonflies.
Here’s the title poem.
The Animals in Lockdown
The mountain goats have noticed something’s wrong. Their anxious hooves trot into town tap-tapping on our tarmac. They’ve come to browse verges and hedges, keeping down
the wildness, which they know distresses us. In clearwater harbours, dolphins nose the prows of empty boats drifting at anchor. Songbirds note the silence in the air.
A fox sniffs for contagion, scenting only spring, he knows we’ve gone to earth. He has mixed feelings about this. The dogs who shepherd us on our permitted walks
leave smell-messages for each other, asking ‘Lads, what’s going on?’ And here at home, my cat tucks me into bed each night, checking that I’m safe. All through the night, she listens for my breathing.
Why did we move from the (now infamous) Barnard Castle, across the Irish Sea to Malahide, in North County Dublin? It’s always the same reason. Work. I didn’t have a job, and my husband was made redundant (Imagine! His expertise is in the sterile filling of injectable biotech products – e.g. vaccines – into vials ready for injection…) so we both job-hunted in the UK in 2019/20 and found nothing, which I think is an indicator of the damage Brexit is doing to the UK economy. Then a headhunter approached him about a job in Dublin, where there are LOTS of jobs in pharma / biotech manufacturing, so as of July 2020, here we are.
This happened just as I had got to the end of writing Following Teisa, my pamphlet-length poem about the River Tees. I thought the house move would scupper any attempts to have it published, but I have been lucky enough to attend Poetry Society Stanza meetings in Penrith, led by Kathleen Jones, who runs The Book Mill. She saw many sections of this poem develop over the last few months and has so kindly agreed to publish it as a book. We are at the exciting stage of formatting the text, commissioning some original artworks, and choosing a cover – of which more in later posts. I hope to be able to support the launch and publicity for this book in person, or on Zoom – the technological saviour of the last 18 months without which many of us would have been totally bereft.
In the process, two sections of the poem-that-is-ninety-miles-long have been fortunate. The first section: ‘Teeshead to Cow Green’ was first published in Reliquiae (Vol 8 No 1, Corbel Stone Press 2020). ‘The Tees Roll’ section was commended in the Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2020. These sections were both included in Not Past But Through – Poems About Rivers from Grey Hen Press 2021, edited by Joy Howard.
I’ve been quiet for a long time. When my head is full of what’s going on in the world, it’s hard to get into the frame of mind for a poem. I’ve tended to sit and brood, between marches, on what’s to become of us. I feel it is imperative for poets to speak about the state we’re in, but when I try to, it doesn’t necessarily make for my best poetry. It’s not emotion recollected in tranquility. However, other poets are doing better than I am. Bill Herbert and Andy Jackson have managed to collect a good crop of poems about Brexit, Austerity, Trump, and the Far Right in the latest chapter of New Boots and Pantisocracies where I was honoured to have a poem included.
It’s a year since my pamphlet came out and I’m grateful for two reviews from people who actually understand exactly what I tried to say. London Grip‘s James Roderick Burns gave a very kind review and Rennie Halstead in Sphinx talks about my interest in the outsider, here. I’ve still got a few copies of the book, by the way, if anyone wants one.
In many ways, poets are always outsiders. It’s easy to notice things when you are observing them rather than being involved. It’s easier to notice the uniqueness of places and people and attitudes when you come from a different place. I remember being forcibly struck by Glyn Maxwell’s poem, ‘Come to Where I’m From‘, for a witty and poignant evocation of a place that maybe few people feel is poetic (Maxwell comes from Welwyn Garden City).
I’m still writing about places; Teesdale, where I am living now, and lots of places from my past. Since moving north five years ago I’ve noticed the huge difference between the way that poets in the Thames Valley talk about their home towns and the way Teesside poets talk about theirs. I’m a bit obsessed, right now, with what makes England, and what makes the English. That’s just a reflection of the times we live in.
It’s very heartening for a poet to get some feedback on their work. Sometimes it feels like we are shouting at the wind. I’d like to thank London Grip and James Roderick Burns for a much appreciated review:
These are not sad poems, or despairing in any way. They simply note the small accretions of feeling with each new location (or perhaps dislocation) that takes place in the poet’s life – the north east, her Scottish roots, the Pennines, London. Images of rootedness lost, the struggle to identify with a new place or circumstance, and inevitable departure pile up page after page, lending the whole volume a rich, melancholy air.
Poet Sarah Watkinson, whose work I very much admire, has also said a few nice things (unprompted!) about the pamphlet on a poetry FB page. Thank you Sarah!
Beautiful poems about place, displacement and identity, soundly but unobtrusively crafted, working together in a way collections rarely do, to create a 4D picture of what’s it’s like to be British. I particularly liked ‘Underworld’ for its picture of ghosts and ‘piston-draught’ in the London Undergound, and ‘Epigenetics’, with its brilliant last line. And ‘Deposition’. The voice is extremely engaging, and personal without egotism. Bravo!
I have two exciting opportunities to read from the pamphlet coming up:
The Witham Arts Centre, Horsemarket, Barnard Castle, on Thursday 27th September at 6pm. My home crowd! Please come along – it’s FREE!
Poetry Swindon Festival, reading with Rachael Clyne and Sarah L. Dixon + Open Mic
Thursday 4th October, Tent Palace of the Delicious Air 13.30 – 15.30.
I’m delighted that a pamphlet that has so much about the North and the South in it, will be heard in both of those places.
My poem “Back to the Six Bells” is based on two things: first of all, my second date with the man who is now my husband, in August 1990. (In case you wondered, our first date was the Brighton Beer festival, where he ate chips with mushy peas in the hope it would impress a northern lass.) We went walking in Sussex, and ended our walk at the Six Bells in Chiddingly, a quintessential English pub. It was a Bank Holiday weekend and as well as a fleet of bikers, there were Morris Dancers, warm beer, and a cricket pitch with a match in progress. The second thing was a dream I had in which England was presented as a quilt (I was glad to find there are artists that do make cartographic quilts, such as Alicia Merrett for example) and I pointed to that part of Sussex and said we should live there. To that extent it was a dream about going back to a beginning, maybe even a time before England went wrong, and that is reflected in the poem.
Back to the Six Bells
Sometimes I dream of England as a quilt that I run my fingers over, feeling the hum of motorways like the ribs of flat-felled seams, the velour of fields, and sequinned towns that catch beneath my fingernails. I feel the textured border separating Sussex and Kent, felted with hop bines and apple trees. We’re going to live… here, I say, among pantiles where the stately homes hold plant sales and vintage cars thread meadowsweet lanes, near the place where you and I first went walking. You, in a cowfield in a red T shirt. You, at the pub where cricketers and morris men wove through a village soft with sunshine. When we still had all of England spread out in front of us.
I workshopped this poem with my usual workshop group. A well-known poet, whom I really respect, told me that I couldn’t write about England in those terms any more, because the far-right now own that version of Englishness. When I was putting together my poems for The Ship-Owner’s House, I told this to my editor, the wonderful Jackie Litherland, who agreed with me that we cannot allow the far-right to define Englishness. We have to reclaim our culture in a number of ways, and poetry must be one of them. This thought is going to feature in my work for some time to come.
There have been so many poetry events in the last couple of weeks. On Thursday 26th April I read in York, at the lovely wood-panelled York Explore library, with Harry Gallager and Cherie Taylor-Battiste. It was great to catch up briefly with Carole Bromley. On Friday 27th I read from Deborah Alma’s #MeToo Anthology at Gill Lambert and Mark Connors’ Word Club in Leeds, where I also said hi to Zelda Chappell and met Lesley Quayle for the first time in real life. Those two events are why I couldn’t spend more time at the T-Junction festival, where the pamphlet was officially launched, at MIMA in Middlesbrough. The bits of the the festival I did get to were inspiring. Then yesterday, in tropical Hexham, I was delighted to read with the Vane Women as part of the Hexham Book Festival. I was dreading a hot, stuffy reading, but was delighted to find we were reading in a cellar bar; The Vault, on Hallgate. Although the venue was packed, it stayed cool, and allowed us to make jokes about Underground Poetry. The photo above is of the amazing Gillian Allnutt, reading as a guest of the Vane Women.
Now I’ve got all that excitement over with, I really have to think about writing some more poems. But first I think I should read some of the pile of poetry books on my bedside table.
The book exists in the real world. I collected a couple of boxes last Friday, and yesterday was the official publication day. Not only that, but you can BUY A COPY via the Vane Women Press website, which is here…!
I hope you enjoy it. Please tell me if you do – or if you don’t!
I should perhaps say something about the title poem. When we moved to Barnard Castle, we bought a big brick-built house on top of a hill on the edge of the town. It’s very windy and cold here sometimes, but the views over the back of Arkengarthdale are HUGE!
I did a bit of research into the history of the house, and found it was built by a local architect in 1916 for his own family, but by the 1930s belonged to a family called the Woodliffe Simpsons. Robert Woodliffe Simpson had made his money as a ship owner in Hartlepool. I wondered what he was doing living this far inland, then I came up with the idea that the house was a bit like a ship, riding the wild moors.