Monday, 3 August 2015

Voiced project

Hi there... I'm delighted to be one of five writers/songwriters to be given a writing residency at the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve this August and September.

The work is part of the phytology project, which brings artists and botanists together to explore the medicinal properties of plants common to derelict urban environments.
Thirty-two species of wild plants – usually regarded as weeds – have been sown on a site that was once meadow and pasture, and occupied by a medieval nursery and market gardens. Ranging from Black Mustard, Common Nettle and Feverwort, to Wild Garlic, Marsh Mallow and Sweet Woodruff, the plants have been selected for their continued use in phytotherapy and traditional medicine. Visitors to the Reserve are encouraged to learn how to safely identify, harvest and use the plants for medicinal and nutritional purposes.
Phytology aims to challenge ideas of use, value, resilience and the function of wildness within our urban ecosystem. If you read this blog, you probably know I love to poke around physically and mentally in the spaces and places where human and non-human intersect and mingle. I'm also fascinated by the wild in us and our increasingly tenuous connections with the earth and all its richness, including an ancient knowledge of nature. Sometimes London feels totally alien if there is not a single living thing in sight. But if you look hard, there always is something growing or thriving or surviving - a pigeon, a plant, even moss on walls. 
There is a real sense of history at the site - in 1839 the Bishop of London called it one of 'the most desolate parishes' and built a church, St Judes (named after the patron saint of lost causes) which could seat a congregation of 1,000. Little remains of it after it was bombed in the Second World War, but there are lumps of bricks and masonry littering the site, like glacial erratics..

Below are some pictures of this magical place from Saturday, when I got to walk around and soak it up and jot down a few notes. I'm not sure what I will be writing yet, but I am starting to read up on and think about plants and their properties and their rich folklore and language. I'm also interested in the idea of lost causes and usage, and the nature of weeds, and hypocrisy.
In Anglo Saxon times, weod (weed) was a name given to any small plant. I sometimes tell my children a weed is just our conception of a plant in the 'wrong' place. 

Rubble from St Jude's church

Writers' shed

Family fox hole

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Just a quickie..

Hello there, happy high summer all. 

I'm looking forward to reading at the launch of Magma 62, which is on the theme of violence, at the London Review Bookshop on July 31st. It is free but you are advised to book tickets here - 

The LRB shop looks like a wonderfully atmospheric place to read, amid shelves of books, with their distinctive smell and weight...and is sure to be a varied and interesting night with lots of different poetic voices.
One of my poems coming up in magma is a ballad inspired by these beautiful lines, and tone..

In other news, a unique project combining artists, botany, weeds and wildflowers is coming together and I am delighted to be involved in it. Looking forward to writing about it here very soon - watch this space.

Thanks for reading...

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Oswald and RA summer show

Hi there, I don't like to to leave my blog this long, but it's been a busy time recently. So thanks if you're reading and/or vaguely interested!

It's been an interesting week with two highlights I wanted to briefly write about.
Firstly, was a wonderful talk/lecture/reading by the poet Alice Oswald, inspired by Milton's Paradise Lost. She talked openly about the travails of writing to commission, especially in homage to an epic such as Paradise Lost, and how many of her ambitious ideas, and certainties, fell by the wayside.
In the end, she created a relatively short poem, Shadow, that she recanted for the first time to a hushed audience. It managed to capture both the cosmic space-scale and the tiny, quirky exactitudes that make up observed truth - and I don't like to paraphrase but here are two lines that I will now think of when I notice certain shadows -

'it's as if I've interrupted something
that was falling in a straight line from the eye of God'

The poem is printed by The Letter Press and it is inlaid with faint lines of Milton's epic and presented as beautiful folded up letter-poems in an A5 envelope. I am reliably informed they should be available for purchase through the Poetry Society website soon. But it's the words and music that matter (matter being the literal word) and if ever Oswald is reading again I would urge people to take the chance to hear her..
P.S this is probably only relevant to me but I liked the way she had ungroomed hair and no make-up and left her own reading seconds after uttering her last lines (in the pomp of Buckingham Palace no less) to catch her train while everyone else mingled afterwards drinking wine.

There is something profoundly vital about certain voices, and poets, and Oswald perhaps the most elemental of all I have heard read alive. She tends to recite from memory but it is more than that - she is almost oracular, a vehicle for the other, or elsewhere, to channel. She draws power from the wellspring of earth, from a great teeming taproot of existence which sometimes Ted Hughes seemed to do. It's as if she is one ear and listens. I don't know how to define it further..


On another, very different note I went to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy yesterday. I am very proud of my mother who is part of a collective of five print-makers, named Pine Feroda (I don't know why) - and they have a print at the exhibition. You can find out more about them here - and it was wonderful to recognise my mum's 'hand' in the beautiful galleries, in much the same way you might recognise a poet's voice.

I took some photos of art that inspired me. I love the scratchy edge-of-whimsy of Tracey Emin - it just appeals to my sensibility, I guess. I also enjoyed very much some of the sculpture (see pics below) which captured the heft of this bull head's corporeality, and the gothic qualities of a bird shape. And again the almost-prissiness of embroidery/cross-stitch detailing anatomy. I think the pieces I responded to best were the ones that crossed or transgressed categories.. for example a jerkin woven from a woman's own hair. You could see the little globed hair follicles woven through it like moth eggs..

A wonderful show. I couldn't take in the rooms of paintings by the end as my brain was full but again highly recommended. Here are some pictures of some inspiring things. I also felt inspired (and to some extent tenderness) towards the range of human inventiveness and resourcefulness. How each piece was the product of hours of thought and emotion and craft, and all wonderful multiplicity of humans will always make things in order to say something..

Me, (with bump)  in front of Pine Feroda's 'Looking South' - the rather luminous sea-rock-scape

Emin  - Bird and Fox

Not sure how I feel about this - pity?

Monday, 1 June 2015


I've been reading some inspiring new books recently. They help me along with my own writing endeavours and enrich me as a reader, and human. I can't imagine a life without reading...and how diminished it would be.

Kim Moore's The Art of Falling (Seren) was just a joy - a tough, tender book packed with a variety of forms and emotional clout.
The middle section, How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping, is particularly strong. Moore writes of domestic violence and the perils of attachment and entrapment. Every poem in this section takes an oblique, surprising and often redemptive note.
This was a collection I dipped into with glee because the poems give so much to the reader in imagery, music and a generosity of spirit. They are emotionally open, yet also musical and peppered with surprising metaphors ('my heart was a field').
Moore sometimes writes quite long, almost breathless phrases using repetition of clauses that are woven through the text. A Psalm for the Scaffolders, for example, contains the phrase 'a psalm for' 11 times.  (Incidentally, she is a brass teacher and I wonder if the experience of playing long sections of musical notation is reflected in this form)?
Because she is such a deft poet, these clauses are expertly crafted into the body of the poem, making them even stronger pieces of work. Scaffolded if you like with a sort of invisible wiry strength.
This is one of those rare books that I feel I could give to any non-poetry reader with the aim of converting them to poetry's undeniable charms.


Jacqueline Gabbitas' book Small Grass (Stonewood Press) is another collection that does something extraordinary with language. This small and ambitious book takes on the voice of grass in many guises, and is both timeless and particular. As grass is.
The poems wear their biology lightly - there are rhizomes and algae and ice core samples, but they are also quite clearly art in themselves.
This exquisite short poem, Grass eavesdrops at a church window, is worth quoting in its entirety - it just expresses that sense of starchy humming you can almost hear in bright sun when plants are photosynthesising..

'If man would put his ear to this glass
he'd hear my voice - my colossal reed

singing to my stems, my roots, amassing
my flower-heads, broadcasting seeds.'

Another strength is the author's subtle engagement with environmental peril, without becoming didactic. She writes beautifully in the delicate, shifting space between human and nature.


Another author who writes within this territory is Helen McDonald, author of H is for Hawk, a memoir, I suppose, of her time training a goshawk in the time after her father's death. It weaves the story of fellow authorT.H White with personal experience and quite learned academic reference and is sharply self-aware and reflexive with a quality of attention that mirrors the extraordinary hawk eye. I'm planning to write more about it at length later. The descriptions of Mabel, her goshawk, are so fresh and exact -

'...the more I sit with her, the more I marvel at how reptilian she is. The lucency of her pale, round eyes. The waxy yellow skin around her Bakelite-black beak. The way she snakes her small head from side to side to focus on distant objects. Half the time she seems alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and glass. But then I see ineffably birdlike things about her, familiar qualities that turn her into something loving and close. She scratches her fluffy chin with one awkward, taloned foot; sneezes when bits of errant down get up her nose. And when I look again, she seems neither bird nor reptile, but a creature shaped by millions of years of evolution for a life she's not yet lived.'

Did you know that the stiff, tiny feather spikes around a hawk's beak and eye are called crines? They have evolved to catch blood so it dries and flakes away. I suppose that is why vulture faces are almost bald..
H is for Hawk is English nature-writing at its very finest. Truly special and worth your time.

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.