Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Poetry in a closed world

I spent an interesting day last week doing some voluntary work for the prison arts charity the Koestler Trust. The trust receives more than 8,000 entries each year into its Koestler Awards, ranging from painting, drawing, and print-making to ceramics, textiles and all forms of writing. The best go on to be shown at the South Bank Centre in an annual exhibition which is well worth a visit if you are passing. I think it is on in the late summer/autumn.
So, a group of writers were there to carefully read through and provide written feedback on thousands of poetry entries which were diverse, moving, inventive, often inspiring and occasionally very good. In fact, the very good ones, that is to say, original poems with that indefinable spark, literally leapt off the page and into the mind.
Most were typed, some were handwritten, with accompanying illustrations (usually in felt tip) and there was a huge variety of form and content. Interestingly, there were no common themes as such but a powerful sense of humanity came through, particularly the sense of being alone, or not heard.
Writing about the family, about nature, animals, emotion, and plenty of politics. Not much, at all, about incarceration or redemption. ( I guess that says more about my expectations than the reality). And a lot of humour - several made people laugh out loud.
You could tell who was reading modern poetry, and who perhaps was not, and you could hear music and occasionally sense desperation in the words.
There was a sense, reading these poems, of being with the author as they bent over the blank page, pen in hand, in an institution. Some entries were from secure hospitals too. (We ourselves were using the tiny, 'safe' prison pens which don't have an inner ink tube.)
Everything I read that day had a quality to be admired. And it was a privilege to write feedback to each author; to feel that a small connection was made between the creator and the audience.
One day soon, most entrants in the poetry category will hopefully receive a sheet of hand-written feedback, praising their work and suggesting ways to improve it further, and perhaps it will encourage them to keep reading and writing and expressing themselves.
I expect prison life is often monotonous and dispiriting. What power books and art has, then, in that environment. Does each prison have a library? Do inmates get to visit them? I don't' know.
I found this quote by Stephen Shaw, prisons and probation ombudsman which pretty much sums up how important art is, not just for prisoners but for everyone:
"...all jails inevitably restrict the human spirit.
"The major exception to this rule is to be found in the arts and crafts rooms in prison education, or in the artefacts made by prisoners in their own cells. Art flourishes in prisons to a degree perhaps unknown in any other institution. It inspires thousands of prisoners, most of whom have shown neither inclination nor talent before entering custody."
I feel like we are all only a step away from the prison world - through naivity, mis-judgment, or bad luck. We all walk a fine line along the spine of the law, every day, through our actions, or inaction and circumstances.

Anyway, if any artists or writers are reading this and are interested, here are some mentoring opportunities available with the trust -


Monday, 11 May 2015


The swifts are back in Bexley, in flocks, and pairs, over the rumbling A2..
They may have been here for days, but I hadn't noticed them until today when I heard their distinctive falling screams and looked up in response. Such a beautiful aerial shape.

Thursday, 7 May 2015


Beautiful May, with its fresh new leaves and cow parsley. So many variations of green.
Magpies fossicking for chicks, wood pigeons making clumsy nests. Still potential but already April has flown, it's blossom gone...
The days are noticeably lighter and longer and all grows for more sun. My favourite month.

May Queen

Then may I be Queen again
slipping through the cow parsley,
dog behind my shadow-train,
children waiting, patiently,
and all the fruit in the land
to ripen, all the bees working,
life in my hands, warm and pliant, 
the music of my heart
defiant and now
                                  the umbels hang
their heads, push stars 
of whiteness every May;
they grow on over me, the dog,
our rustling passageway, 
close behind us, bright heads bowing.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Good things

Thought I'd do some quiet trumpet blowing ...

Firstly, I'm reading at the launch of South Bank Poetry 20 tomorrow at the Poetry Cafe. I'm really pleased to have a poem I wrote about London as the first in their commemorative issue. It's a great magazine and a prime example of a poetry endeavour that results from the hard work and vision of one or two passionate people. These 'little' magazines, reading series and publishers truly add to the lifeblood and richness of the UK's cultural life. Especially out of London, too.

Here's some details -


I was also chuffed to have a poem, Bats, chosen by the wonderful Liz Berry as highly commended in the Interpreter's House Poetry Competition. It'll be published in their next issue and I'm pleased the bats have found a home (roost).

Liz said in her judge's comments: "There are many wonderful poems about bats but this poem stayed with me for its rich and pleasing language, its lovely surprising imagery and its obvious craft. This was very nearly in the top three. Who could resist a poem which opens "Let us begin at slant-light..." ? Thanks, Liz.

Other news is I've got a new poem coming up in the next issue of Butcher's Dog which is another fantastic magazine. The last issue was full of good stuff from cover to cover and I'm sorry I can't get to the reading in Newcastle next month.

Finally, I was delighted to see this 'ere blog featured in the latest issue of the Poetry Society's Poetry News in an interesting article by the poet and blogger Robin Houghton on ... poetry and blogging. She interviewed five or six other bloggers, all more prominent than me, and it made for a thoughtful read in terms of the point of blogs and what makes them work. 

Right ... trumpet blowing over. Thanks for reading and happy April.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

O my America..my new-found-land

We have just returned from a wonderful visit to the West Coast of America. It is such an expansive, huge land compared to our small island. In one day alone, we travelled across varied topography from snowy mountains to flat, baked Wild West territory and a belt of incongruous countryside that reminded me of Devon with rolling green hills and lush grass.
Highlights - pelicans flying over the glittering Pacific with their saggy beak bags, streams falling through the mountain forests,  blue crested jaybirds and groves of Giant Sequoia trees thousands of years old.
Someone once said 'a culture is measured by what it preserves.' The 21st century has, I think, spoilt the tranquility of the Yosemite Valley with access for cars and buses. What tranquility there once was in the river basin has gone. It was not hard to imagine the native people working the earth and fishing and washing in the river. But across this huge glacial scrape of land, there was a belt of tarmac and a stream of traffic. Something was lost. We walked for a mile or two and wilderness was regained. Giant granite rock forms of a towering scale and distant circling hawks.
And of course, we used the road to reach this special place in our car, relied upon it even, so perhaps opening up access is equally as important as preservation and the two are not entirely opposed.

It was different in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. These beautiful beings with their spongy, russet barks were peaceful. There was something serene and wise in the atmosphere around them. Something of CS Lewis' tales.
We felt honoured to be walking among their trunks, the only people there, leaving our apple cores for the deer. Some of the trees had wonderful names  -  Bachelor and the Three Graces, the Fallen Monarch, Grizzly Giant, and this was where I felt inspired to write a 'poem'.
What can I say about these trees in my inarticulate, jet-lagged state? Their longevity and heft was so non-human it was awesome in the original sense of word, in the way mountains can be.
Their roots were like a brain, spread wide. The bark smelt of life passing, of seasons. Their immensity was comforting. They were beyond us but utterly present.
Later, my daughter Bridy and I talked to a native American and he showed us how they wove baskets and traps from willow and used pine-nuts to make jewellery. It was a very privileged glimpse into a different world.

Our children show the scale

Bachelor and Three Graces

Yosemite from the road

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Golden Girl


Almost April ... and it's hailing. Magnolia buds waiting to be ignited by the sun, bird song loud and beautiful in the woods. Lighter, later evenings. I am not a winter person..

I have been making a concerted push on the poetry front recently (in terms of sending stuff out) and was pleased to have a poem on The Stares' Nest blog.

The site bills itself as 'poems for a hopeful world' and is loosely affiliated to the left with a general theme of political issues, social justice and equality. Impressively, the editor manages to post a new poem every day, and they are varied and interesting.
Mine was written five-ish years ago after being inspired by this Marc Quinn sculpture of one of the female icons of our time - Kate Moss. Face of a million projections, both filmic and psychological. I like the strength and defiance of the pose.

The sculpture is called Siren and is cast in pure gold.

Quinn told the British Museum at the time (2008) - 'The mask of Tutankhamun is one of the first artworks ever I remember seeing – it was in the early 1970s in the British Museum show, and that was one of the inspirations of this work as well. Like that mask, Siren is an image that glows and gives out love and light but remains completely implacable and silent. I think of both of them as sculptures of a cultural superego.'

Here's my poem after Marc Quinn- ( I would probably sort out the line breaks a bit and tidy it up but it is what it is, imperfect).  I don't normally write Ekphrastic stuff so quite unusual for me.


In other news, I was pleased to find out Andrew Motion has chosen a poem of mine to be displayed on some buses in Guernsey this summer. Nice to think it will be making its way round the island, a place where its author has always wanted to go (and hopefully will one day).

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Ladybird Leaders

I have a collection of these beautiful red and white Ladybird books which ranges from 'apes and monkeys' to 'man in the air'. They were written in the early 1970s, are all beautifully illustrated and have a clarity of expression that manages to be both serious/profound and gentle at the same time.
They were a joy to read to our children as well.

Somehow they imbue the material world with the mystery it still holds..
There is also a sense of wonder that I remember from learning to read,  and the keen sense that each new word learnt was a new territory of understanding. I remember learning about an amoeba and being so thrilled it existed. I also remember believing every fact I read, and taking them in, almost like sweets.

'Look around you.
'Look at all the living things that you can see every day.
Remember that all animals and plants are living.
Try to find out more about them.'

From Living Things.

Anyway, I found this draft from ages ago, back in 2007 when I was starting to write, which was inspired by this series.

It's called Living Things

You are alive. You know that
because you move and feed
and breathe and grow.

The limpet and dandelion are alive.
They breathe and grow.
But can you see them move?

Plants do move.
They move their leaves
so they are in the light.

Metals have never been alive.
Most rocks are never alive
But they moved into the light.

You may not think
You are very much like a goldfish or a horse
and you don't eat the same food as a sparrow.

But you all breathe and feed
You will all follow
Your parents into the light.

Some things were once alive.
A chair is made of wood,
the wood was part of a living tree.

Some people were once alive.
A man is made from cells.
The cells were part of another man.

There are millions of kids
of living things on earth.
You will never be able to see them all.