Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Golden Girl

Hello

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.


http://thestaresnest.com/2015/03/18/sarah-westcott-golden-girl/


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.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Woodpigeon

I've been going through all the old poems in my computer (there must be hundreds!) that have never seen the light of day but have a small *something* about them worth salvaging. They are by no means complete and are definitely flawed creatures but I'd quite like them to be released so I thought I'd put a few here over the coming weeks.
Here is one which I wrote in 2011. I remember watching this very fat mauve woodpigeon that would waddle around our small city garden, and feeling slightly repulsed by what it had become. Our 'fault' as much as the bird's.
Thanks for reading

Woodpigeon



dolloped on the creosote
fills its crop with scraps.

Oh survivor, soft-wadded 
angel of leylandii and barbecue cubes, 

snifter of breaded gougons, 
cup cake cases, Mother’s Pride. 

Did you live in the forests,
high in elm, Holm Oak, 

before you landed here?
Your epaulettes of white

suggest you fought for many years,
leaving the shy jay, 

nervous woodpecker to struggle.
You waddle the circumference

of your plot, pause to drop packets
of excrement, piped

like the Little Gems
you peck up after children’s parties,

regurgitate, shuddering, 
into your young.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The 'burbs

We live on the edge of London, where the streets and fields merge into suburban Kent, and we are ringed by great arteries of traffic.  I can see the Dartford Crossing from my bedroom window, blocks of lorries edging over its curve. There are always planes above, heading into London, but they are not jets. There is always the low rumble of traffic, apart from on Christmas Day. Most of the time I tune the engines out.
The stars are very bright here, on a clear night. The air never smells entirely clean.
There is an unexpected, wonderful population of stag beetles and many handsome foxes. The soil roughens, turns chalky and flinty a few miles away towards the spine of the North Downs.
 If we drive 15 minutes we are in hopping country and oast houses mark the landscape. Another 15 minutes the other way and we are in the urban city. The Weald of Kent is not far away and seems verdant and beautiful.
I like it here well enough but there is the sense that the county is heavily populated, even in the remoter parts. Sometimes I yearn for the sea, and the moor where I grew up. Particularly the expanse and space and the fresh, ozonic smell. Here the man-made is everywhere, as far as I can see, and smell and hear. We didn't evolve in environments like this and sometimes I feel like everything we consume (in every sense) is one step removed from real nature. Even our broccolli comes shrink-wrapped or barcoded, even our dogs run on concrete.
Perhaps we should have an allotment but I am lazy and busy and maybe we will one day. We used to have hens that foraged for worms and woodlice all day and their thick-shelled yolks were bright yellow.

**

A February afternoon, lighter, lighter, sun around the world's corner.
A magpie is plucking twigs to wedge in the crown of blackthorn and the walnut tree is resolutely bald.
Grass lies low, the road cutting through the land down to the busy coastline.
Nubs of bud push from the edge of branches and green spears spike the dreaming earth.
The pears slowly rot.
I should be digging goodness back into the earth but instead I stay clean, one step removed from our earth.
Beyond the house there are small fields, with horses in jackets,  and the endless river crossing, its freight.
Beyond the tidal estuary, the North Sea holds its tides, swells and falls.
I know there are seals in Norfolk, see their gray dapple, cigars rolling on the rocks, smell the spray.
There are Eider duck up the coast, and terns and mounds of thrift and wide blooms of lichen.
I turn my mind to this and lose the traffic, the great brunt of perishable goods, plastic games.

**

There's a beautiful white egret that lives here, on the river banks. It startles and folds up like a white parasol with long, exotic feet. Once I dreamt of it with blood all down its white bib.  Here is a (not particularly clear) picture of it fishing and long may it live on the river fry.














Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Some ramblings


It is seventy years since the prisoners of Auschwitz were liberated by the Russian army. Of the 1.3 million held in the camp, some 7,000 were left alive. A quarter of the total murdered were children. 

The capacity for evil in humanity is an ever-present danger. It is part of our collective make-up, and we must never forget this when we talk of racial intolerance and bigotry. I detest what UKIP stand for and I believe its sentiments are on the same spectrum as the worse reaches of Facism.  But free speech and democracy are fundamental tenets of a civilised society and if UKIP thrive come the General Election in May, then thrive they will.

Against all this is a well-spring of goodness -  the capacity for what must be called love in humanity wins through despite the atrocities. It does.

*

I’m not a religious person, really. I enjoy entering the space of churches, and, like most people, I often feel a special, hallowed atmosphere within their walls; also graveyards, sometimes, or ruins. I love the words of the Bible, the archetypal stories, and the music. 
And yet..I have always prayed, since I was seven or eight. I remember praying for my family before we set off on a long journey. I prayed for everyone I knew, to be safe and protected. I can sometimes sense a wholeness in certain landscapes - mountains, moor and sea. But I use religious words lightly, like miracle, or angel. 

I've been reading some Walt Whitman recently and his boundless poems set me thinking about science and spirituality. Take these lines -

'Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling,
'I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling.'

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.

Science, our ‘truth-teller’, our enlightener, is confined, ultimately, to human parameters, to the space between each ear.
And of course we use science for good and for ill - to find cures for Ebola or to build gas chambers. 
But we use it too, to reach other more spiritual places. I know the science of the solar system. We know about our ideas of the Big Bang and how the universe began. But as Whitman says, that knowledge does not hinder those feelings of immensity, or awe, when we look up into the stars.

In a sense we are all miracles. I think how difficult it is for the millions of sperm to get up past the cervix, across the womb and up the fallopian tube, how the egg only lives for hours, how just a few hundred sperm make it to her looming form and of those, just one, the strongest, luckiest, penetrates 
How in a sense all of us walking about now, on the streets and fields, sitting in traffic, how all of us are born against huge odds, we are all miracles of chance. 
Everyone is a mixture of impulse and action and everyone makes mistakes and good choices.
Sometimes it helps me to think of every person as a spiritual being, and it makes me feel closer and softer to humanity. I have recently begun to feel connected to my ancestors. They are not just dead and gone. They are still here, living through us both genetically and through the landscape.
 As Don Paterson said, writing in the Guardian a few weeks ago, we are all just ghosts, living and dead.

“...we make the dumb mistake of thinking ourselves nouns, but we are really verbs.
You might think you are a “thing” - and we certainly mourn each other’s shocking disappearance as if we are real things, which aren’t supposed to just vanish.
But look around the room: almost everything in it will survive you. We’re really ghosts - from early childhood, we have perfect knowledge of our own deaths - and we certainly must look like ghosts to the room as we come and go.”

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Rejection

The children have gone back to school and today is my first proper day to get back to writing after the melee of Christmas. What a luxury! I spent a few hours doing housework, cleaning the dishwasher (talk about procrastination!) and shilly-shallying about, half dressed for a run, before finally forcing myself outside. I only did three miles but almost immediately felt enlivened, and more positive, and more myself.
I know I am like this - I know that forcing the old body into a run and making myself write makes me happy, despite the short-term discomfort every time. But it is still hard to keep motivated. With this in mind, I thought I'd write a little about rejection.

*

I've just had a rejection, actually. I applied for the Guest Editorship post of Butcher's Dog magazine, and really wanted to be given the role. It's a great magazine, and it would be an illuminating window of experience. I'm bored with my paying job as a journalist and I'd like to move sideways eventually..But, no... not to be, this time. I allowed myself to feel that sort of sharp tang of disappointment for an hour or two, then moved on to fresh ideas. There are so many opportunities out there.
It was the same with the Aldeburgh Eight which I applied for last year. I really, really wanted to have that time and space and affirmation to write. I got to a certain point in the selection process, but not far enough (and that is a little encouraging). I am already thinking about applying this year. And I will!
I suppose that might come across as annoyingly upbeat, but that is how I am..I think otherwise I would stop enjoying poetry for itself.
Here is a page from last year's diary which shows a pretty standard run of rejections for me -



I've heard that some poets use colour-coded spreadsheets or electronic database of their submissions, but I am more of an ad-hoc pen and paper person. Whatever works for the writer. What is important is to keep stuff 'out there', being read and to keep writing.
As you can see, the page above runs from January to April and shows a string of rejections. But I also try to see the positive - a 'reject but encouraging' from one magazine, a 'long list' from another. Poetry is so subjective, and personal, and having one poem rejected certainly does not mean it will not be published elsewhere. I sometimes think of my poems as birds when I send them out, and will them to fly to a new home (yes I know it sounds whimsical). There is still a frisson of excitement when it comes to printing them out, and slipping them into the post box in a crisp brown envelope and noting it all in my diary.

*

For years, I tried to get a poem into the now sadly-defunct Smith's Knoll. I loved this magazine, its thick, creamy pages and the quality of its work.. Behold the string of rejection slips below! And yet, now I know the poems I sent were not ready. The editors were right not to choose them, and six, seven years later, I am, actually, grateful for their judgment.




I keep these rejection slips in a folder and sometimes look at them. They're not so much a record of failure as a part of my history,  testament to a sort of resilience and drive to improve.  It is still much the same now, rejection-wise,  and I started sending poems out back in 2007. One day I hope to write a poem good enough to appear in The Rialto. I'll keep on keeping on. And just occasionally, an editor might get in touch and ask me to send some work to their magazine. It's as if all those rejections were necessary to get to that point.

These are the rejection 'rules' I write by - maybe they might be useful to others.

- Don't give up - even the most talented writers get work turned away (I know this for a fact)

-Always have something 'out there'. Poems must be read to be alive.

- Don't send poems too soon (guilty of this)

 - But make sure you send them eventually

- Getting published in the 'best' magazines is not what it's all about. It's got to be in the writing and shaping and surprising

- Don't stop writing. Allow yourself to write, and give yourself time.

*

Roy Marshall writes beautifully and amusingly about the business of being a poet here - it's well worth a read.

https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/2015/01/03/becoming-a-poet/





Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Hares

Hello, hello.. As the year comes to a close, I have an inviting pile of reading mounting up, including Keiran Goddard's For the Chorus, Alison Brackenbury's Then and the anthologies Her Wings of Glass and The Best British Poetry 2014. But one pamphlet I have managed to read, and read again, is Wendy Pratt's Nan Hardwicke Turns into A Hare, published by Prole Books.

Cover illustration copyright the author





This is compelling, powerful and unsettling writing that moves between a lyrical exploration of loss  and a witching woman, Nan Hardwicke, with her shape-shifting lives.
Wendy's title poem, Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare is one of those poems that gets into your bones -
with exquisite lines such as: 'I slipped / into the hare like a nude foot / into a glorious slipper. Pushing her bones / to one side to make room for my shape / so I could settle myself like a child within her.'
Who is the host and who is the carrier? Who is carrying whom?

It's one of those perfect poems that is somehow right in itself, like a perfect melody, or composition.
I've been working on a couple of hare poems but in Wendy's the hare-ishness is just there, alive and beating. 
The whole small book (of just 14 poems) explores transformation and grief, and the idea of self within self, the hunter and the hunted. I am so glad I discovered it and urge you to buy a copy. I hope that isn't too gushy, but they are special poems.

And now ... hey, New Year is almost here. I hope anyone reading this has a joyful, bright and healthy 2015 and raise a toast to good times ahead.

I put this little quote from TS Eliot's Four Quartets in my diary at the start of 2014  - 

'For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.'

May all the quietened voices sing strong..