Monday, 29 September 2014

A letter to..

A letter to ... my pre-teen

Dear Son,
You are no longer at primary school - congratulations! You are old enough for secondary education now, and you carry your work around with you, like Shakespeare's 'creeping snail' with his 'shining morning face'.
You will learn to dowse the character of a group, to read the nature of each teacher and your relationship. 
You will learn how erratic buses are, and how to look like you know where you're going.
You will rest your head on the steamed glass windows and feel the weight of your books at your side.
You will be vulnerable. You will learn to keep your valuables safe.
You will ride the perpetual suburban commute. You will learn to stay dry in the rain.
You will lose: games, umbrellas, friendships, watches.
You will score: goals, answers, brownie points. Hopefully not drugs.
And you will learn to balance work with play - to sit at a desk while the sun is shining and work, but also to put your pen away and run outside.
You will make new friends, and keep the oldest ones close. You will learn to kiss.
You learn the value of kindness - innate and learned. You will learn to lie, to charm and to flatter. 
You will learn who you are, and who you are not, and how to tell them apart.

Your writing is spidery and etiolated. You collect words like a metal detector with pennies. You are nosy, you are kind. You love to play football. Your feet are beginning to smell. You bear a beautiful smile, and a mix of baby and adult teeth.
I want you to know I understand
Much love,
Me xx

Postscript - I will be right, and wrong about this, as it always seems to be!

Monday, 15 September 2014

Just some notes

I found a bat on the school run today, a little velvet purse in the road. I only saw it because I went off course to put something in the bin. It was lying, quite still, on the ground. When I picked it up, it cried out, but I could not hear a sound. I couldn't take a photo as I didn't have my phone. The memory of it won't leave me. I put it up high, on a fence post, away from the buses, and it crawled towards the trees. I think it was very young; it was terribly light and fine-boned but full of will. I was surprised how weird it was, this mammalian flying creature, almost constrained by its design when not air-borne.

I found a tiny bat on the pavement
it had a carnivores' mouth
cut like a shark's, nicked, at an angle,
a clear bead of viscous liquid
like honey at the entrance of its anus
small intelligent eyes

it moved by hunch
inside the cloak of itself
hunch and push, fine claws
on the edges of a kite
wings fine as calf leather
mole skin, back of a mouse
but spinier, a face I won't forget
fierce as it crawled, hunched and crawled
away from the traffic, from me
up into an elm

i worry for the bat, the youngest thing,
making its way,
should i have drip-fed it water?

Its mouth opened as I took it
let it crawl from my hands, let it be

Thursday, 11 September 2014

More poetry

I've been a fan of Roy Marshall's blog for a while - particularly enjoying the honest, refreshing way he writes about the poetry business and his personal experiences. Take this heartening piece on the submissions minefield, for example, which is both enlightening and encouraging -

I have a pile of rejection slips from various magazines, particularly Smiths Knoll,  in a folder, and I enjoy looking at them, now and then, and reading the perceptive comments the editors made. They were right; I think I sent poems too early, before they were fully realised, and I'm glad now they didn't take them. Even the best poets have been rejected several times, and I think it can be easy, as a young poet, to become disheartened if poems are returned. Perserverance, resilence, reading and honing your craft are all key.

Anyway, I was really pleased to meet Roy at the Poetry Book Fair last week and talk about such matters. I'm delighted to be a featured poet on his blog today, and you can read the post here - and find details of Roy's own work, including his latest collection, The Sun Bathers, which I look forward to reading.

Finally, the Next Generation Poets 2014 were announced today - billed as 20 exciting voices for the future, following from the last lot in 2004 which included names like Alice Oswald and Jean Sprackland.
It's brilliant to see so many women poets on the list - 12 out of 20 - or 60 per cent - and I was particularly pleased to see Rebecca Goss, Kate Tempest  and Jen Hadfield selected, poets whose work I love.  You can read more here -

Monday, 8 September 2014


I had some good poetry news this week, after learning I was one of ten finalists in a poem-on-a-beermat competition, on the theme of light.
The competition was run by the Bradford on Avon arts festival, and the ten poems are now out in the world on hundreds of beermats in pubs around Wiltshire. I wonder what the punters will make of them!
I'm always excited by any opportunity to take poetry out from the page and into the real world - on the sides of buses, in waiting rooms, or even dropped from the sky. Sadly, much new poetry is only read by practising poets, and that is a loss for the wider reading public who can be intimidated by the form.
I was pleased to be in the company of some beautiful poems, which work with the idea of light on many levels.
My poem (they had to be 12 lines max) was inspired by walks along the edges of the Thames at Greenwich, when the tide is out. There's a lovely fresh, riverish smell and the shoreline is always full of interesting, not very savoury things such as animal bones, odd sandals and egg sacs.

Below is a link to the competition website - you can read all the poems and judge's comments.
There's also a interesting blog post by the poet Josephine Corcoran which is worth a read.

And here, in an act of self-promotion, is what the judge, poet Martin Malone, said of mine:

‘Riverside’ – This poem was on my shortlist from very early on. It has real movement and a graceful development throughout, towards that last clinching stanza. The pacing and rhythm cleverly mimics the poems movement from the solidity of the seashore with its ephemeral detritus to the more fluid ebb-and-flow of the sea ‘stitched with light’. Marvellous.

Cheers Martin. Now, where did I put that beer?

Wednesday, 3 September 2014


Summer is almost over. The trees are turning and reddening, infinitesimally, and the swifts have long gone. I've missed doing this little blog and glad to be back.

Our boy went off to secondary school today. He looked small and a crumpled in the uniform of a man. Blazer with shoulders but not the bones to fill it, yet. Two bags across his body. A lunch to sustain. He let me kiss his soft cheek, smooth as the underside of a forearm, still lined with fat beneath the skin. He walked off, among the older people, to the side of a building, into an open door. I could not go with him. I could not help him find the room. I could only watch as he receded, and turn back to my daughter, waiting. 

Now I miss him. Ten years ago, he was one. He was everything to me, and my life was stacked in steppes around his day. Now I am alone, smoothing his sheets and picking up pyjamas. I miss him but I let him go, to make his own mistakes, to find the right classrooms, to learn the art of lunchtime queues and making himself right and real. But how I miss my little boy, my heart, my blood song, my truest love.


I can't wait to get him home and give him a hug. It's just the same feeling I had when I went back to work in 2003, when he was four months old. It was only part-time but there was this visceral tug that could only be assuaged by his actual physical presence, warm and heavy in my arms.  I still have this need to smell him, to come close and breathe in his own particular smell. I still sometimes breathe him in, while he is sleeping.
I wrote a poem about this feeling - it was the first poem I ever published - and I still remember the jolt of joy when I opened the letter telling me it was going to be published in Poetry News. That was back in 2006. Wow..

Here is is, anyway  

Sarah Westcott 
First Days

I left you at the nursery,
pink-eyed with fisted hands.
You blinked at other baby's wails,
lips curled on the cusp of a scream.
They lay you in a velour chair,
bobbed fleecy shapes across your face.
I rode towards a leaden Thames.
The office glared from yellow eyes.
I forgot to log-on, lost my pass.
Under the new suit my breasts wept milk.
When I got you home and kissed your neck
we were both already someone else.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Double the Stars

Hello there. I've read some excellent books this summer, and here are the first of a few reviews.

Double the Stars, by Kelley Swain. Cinnamon Press. 2014

Double the Stars is based on the life and times of the first female astronomer, born in 1750.  This is a beautifully-written book that dances with the spirit of discovery.

Double the Stars is an illuminating historical fiction that charts the life of the 'Comet Sweeper' Caroline Herschel. 
Deft and detailed, it is both a love story and an exploration of relationships - between siblings, stars and countries. Swain conjures the burgeoning 18th Century scientific community with impressive accuracy and intimacy. Reader, you are there in the carriage jolting through the shires, and there as you gaze through the eye of a giant telescope at as-yet unnamed stars.
Never poetic with a capital P, you can tell Swain is also a poet through her assured use of metaphor and often beautiful chapter endings, that pause, and breathe, like the end of a poem.


Double the Stars focuses on Miss Caroline Lucretia Herschel, the sister of astronomer Sir William Herschel  whom she worked alongside during their long and illustrious careers.  Caroline was a formidable scientist - and a principled woman - who won respect for her work charting and mapping stars, but also her fair-minded character.
She discovered several comets, one of which bears her name. Despite ill-health and restrictive maternal and societal expectations she rose to prominence. Her femininity is an adjunct to her success, and in some senses sacrificied. Without spoiling the plot, Swain explores ideas of work and life balance that women are still grappling with today.

Caroline Herschel, c. 1800

Double the Stars is a finely-wrought exploration of love and desire, drawing in sexual politics, sibling relationships and the nature of patronage - both by royalty and male family figures.
The metaphor of a double star is well wrought in her relationship with her beloved brother William - always in orbit to his sun but casting her own clear shadow - 

As William explains to Caroline:

'Many of the stars we see are not one, but two. With great enough magnification, we can see that what appears to be a single star is frequently coupled with a smaller, fainter star. One of the pair burns brighter, Lina, so without looking closely, a person might not know the other star existed at all. But it is my guess that one cannot exist without the other.'  (p.68)

Swain describes Caroline's painstaking work correcting The Star Catalogue, compiled by the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed. There is something touching about being granted access to the mind of the woman undertaking such profound work at the edges of knowledge -

"She had begun the project only at William's encouragement, but as she worked on into the depths of autumn, she began to feel that each star deserved to be accounted for. Each burned with its own light; each held its own place in the firmament. Each was one point in an asterism or constellation of greater or lesser import, and Caroline did her best to ensure no star was overlooked.

..."That one should go unnoticed after the light had travelled for thousands of years, as William claimed, struck Caroline as an awful tragedy. The star may have died out long before she was born, long before the Greeks began naming the first planets. The fossil light, falling in faint rays, through the tubes of William's telescopes, finally reaching her eye, absolutely had to be marked in the Catalogue."

Double the Stars closes, movingly, with an apposite, celebratory song to the 40-foot telescope - 'Hymn of the Forty Feet Reflector at Slough...'. 

Swain has written a important book that, like her subject, demands and deserves wide recognition. It is unique, and a pleasure to spend time with - much like, I imagine, Caroline's company herself.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

So much blood shed in recent days, across the world, and for centuries before. So often the innocents who are killed and maimed. So often the arguments lost or trampled or too complex to make sense.
I find this poem by the great Russian writer Marina Tsvetaeva says much in few words.
Thanks to the Poetry Chaikhana for introducing me to it.
And here is a link to the poet Anthony Wilson's blog, and another poem by Thomas Lux that captures the futility and universality of war as a facet of human nature.

Peaceful summer all x

I know the truth
By Marina Tsvetaeva
(1892 - 1941)
English version by Elaine Feinstein

I know the truth -- give up all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.
Look -- it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.