Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

How on earth did that happen?


111O/3, with letterpress poem/print insert

I might have mentioned earlier this week that I have had four poems accepted for Obsessed with Pipework. These are not my first published poems – I’ve had some included in the Nottingham University student anthologies, a couple in the Nottingham Poetry Society‘s 70th anniversary anthology, and my poem Horseflies was published (at the editor’s request – thanks Eireann Lorsung!) in 111O/3. But this was my first actual letter that says, ‘Yes, we like your poems and we’d love to publish them.’ So exciting! And it does make me feel like a real poet.


My first non-anthology published poem.

I spent most of yesterday at Southwell Library Poetry Festival. As always, Sheelagh Gallagher and everyone at the library have done an amazing job, bringing some wonderful poets to this neck of the woods. Sadly I had too much work to be getting on with to go to the events during the day, but the evening was magic. More of that later.

At lunchtime I put on my (metaphorical) chauffeur’s cap to take Sheelagh to the Maggie’s Centre at Nottingham City Hospital – I should possibly have taken an amphibious vehicle, there was so much water on the road. I sat and worked while she gave a creative writing workshop, until the end of the workshop when she called me in to talk to the group about ‘being a poet’ and read a couple of my poems. It felt quite strange, a bit like I was an impostor*… but it was fun and they were lovely people who had written some interesting poems themselves.

[* NO! I am a real poet!]

We made it back to Southwell – just. Didn’t stop to look at Lowdham, which was completely closed off and flooded. I then spent a happy couple of hours with Cathy Grindrod and Frances Thimann eating cake (thanks, Frances!). Oh, and discussing the event proposals for the Nottingham Festival of Words. Some interesting ideas, lots and lots of talent… over fifty proposals submitted so far and a few late submissions still trickling in… it’s going to be a brilliant festival. The website is under construction, but you can subscribe to the mailing list on the front page – I recommend you do that if you want to be kept up to date with the news.

Lovely hour or so preparing for my reading chatting to some friends I haven’t seen for a while and incidentally identifying some more opportunities (some people call it networking, I call it fun). Then read four of my poems (along with Carol Rowntree Jones and Simon Kew), which was awesome. I love reading my poems aloud**. It’s even better with an audience! Not so sure about the radio mike though – not used to that sort of thing at all.

[** See! I really am a real poet!]

Valerie Laws

Valerie Laws with her horse skull…

The day was finished off perfectly by a couple of hours listening to Ophelia’s Sistas – billed as:

Prize-winning poets Char March and Valerie Laws are both fabulous and experienced performers and – as Ophelia’s Sistas – they make a formidable team. They take their audiences on an exploration of pathology, wild sex, dementia, lost pigeons, flirting at funerals, dogs in space, insanity, all in poetry which is deeply moving and very funny. […] a high-energy evening of performance fireworks, belly laughs, dirty laughs, and pathos – forging through darkness with wit, determination, and panache.

Char March

Char March (she didn’t wear the Viking headgear for the whole show)

And they didn’t disappoint. Funny, touching, profound, silly, raunchy… sometimes all at the same time. I recommend you catch either or both of them if you get a chance. Clever, interesting, generous women, and bloody good poets too.

As I walked back to my car (my heroic car which took me carfully(? boatfully?) through rain and rain and rain all day) I was accosted by a very strange woman who wanted to know whether the 100 bus stop which said the bus went to Lowdham was also the bus stop for Nottingham. I assured her it was, and as a reward was treated to her life story. It seemed to involve theatre (in a cellar?), a door somewhere in Southwell which just opened for her (which I think was a literal door), travel around the UK (possibly involving London), a son who studied philosophy, and lots and lots of incomplete sentences which ran on and on, punctuated by, ‘I do ramble, don’t I?’ and, ‘I don’t mean to keep you.’ Turned out she’d been to Ophelia’s Sistas – didn’t think much of it as the poetry didn’t rhyme, but appreciated the mentions of allotments and still-birth in the poems. She had very strong views about Char March’s frequent mentions of the fact that she’s a lesbian, but I’ve no idea what those views were! Bless her – I could have listened to her all night!

The sun was losing its grip on the sky as I drove home, without my usual audio-book. For once, I enjoyed the silence and time to reflect on what was a truly wonderful day.

(then I got home and did a couple of hours work…)

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Obsessed with Pipework

Powerful and strange, huh? Works for me!

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Tickets and stuff

Tickets and stuff

Four weeks ago, I entered an online prize draw to win complimentary tickets for two people to five events at the Hay Festival. I know someone has to win these things, and I keep entering on the off-chance… but I never really thought I’d win this one. Then the email came: “Congratulations, Phillippa…” and I nearly junked it as spam. Luckily, I didn’t.

Along with the tickets came a Friends pass, which gave us access to the Friends tent and priority access to the events. And a beautiful slip of paper confirming I didn’t have to pay a penny.

Hay Festival

The Hay Festival site

The venue is lovely – 15 minutes walk outside Hay town centre, but there’s a shuttle bus for £1 a day if you’re feeling lazy. Lots of houses along the road had set up stalls for antiques, tea and cakes, funky clothes, jewellery… we didn’t get a chance to see them, too busy rushing backwards and forwards to events. Next time…

Literary bunting

They know how to do bunting in Hay!

So we (Kristin and I) arrived at 10.30 after sharing the driving from Nottingham, and went in search of breakfast. A strange tea shop obliged – it’s tiny, but has enough bunting and union-jack-ery inside to decorate Nottingham’s Council House. The chocolate cake was delicious though.

Got the bus to the site, collected tickets, spent an entrancing hour listening to Alain de Botton talking about the positive aspects of religion that atheists shouldn’t throw out with the rest of it. Hilarious to hear Richard Dawkins described as ‘mood music from Oxford’. I wrote pages and pages of notes, and have a lot to think about as a result. I think I’ll wait till the book’s out in paperback though, £18.99 is a bit steep.

Amazing Grating

Spotted this grating underfoot… had to take a photo… passersby thought I was weird. I guess they’d be right, at that.

Had a look around the site, found a shop selling notebooks with a map of Lundy on the cover. Didn’t buy one, but plan to make one as soon as I have a spare moment. Then into Hay for lunch, and lots of shopping. Of course. Missed a couple of the events we’d booked, but we didn’t pay for them, and one cannot go to Hay without visiting at least a few bookshops.

Brave New World

Brave New World… in Korean. There has to be some irony there…

I found a few gems, but didn’t get anywhere near my previous form – the other five or six times I’ve been to Hay I’ve invariably gone home with over 100 new books. This time I managed to keep it down to ten. My favourite is Brave New World in Korean, which cost me £2. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a Korean-English dictionary.

I also got a book on logo design, two pamphlets from Cambridge University Press on manuscript proofreading/layout and indexing (priced at 2/6, which prompted me to try and explain Old Money to Kristin, unsuccessfully), Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy, and every book by Alice Oswald that I didn’t already own… more on that shortly.

Sheep Poo Paper

Yes, it is really made from sheep poo. I fully anticipate my mother setting up in business before long…

At one point we walked past a shop window and, glancing in, I saw it was a bookbindery. Wow! So of course I went in, drooled over the beautiful notebooks on sale for far too much money, chatted to the bloke, then saw a display of very odd cards and bookmarks. Had to buy a card for my mum – who has a flock of sheep – not so sure now it was a good idea!

Back to the festival site for a talk on the UK and Europe, given by three Cambridge professors who were very full of themselves. Kristin (sensibly) power-napped, while I wrote a poem about one of the profs. The Q&A session was interesting, so it wasn’t a complete dead loss.

Alice Oswald

Alice Oswald

Then… Alice Oswald performing Memorial. The Old Bat has a new heroine. It’s a fantastic book-length poem, to start with. She calls it ‘an excavation of the Iliad’. It’s an elegy for the men who died in the Trojan war. The words name them, bring them to life, and kill them (brutally, in most cases). Then they paint images that somehow find reflections of man’s brutality in nature… and each image repeats, driving home the message and forcing you to think about it in light of itself, to think about the beginnings in light of the endings, to understand.

Oswald performed the poem, almost in its entirety, from memory. She stood for an hour, speaking the words in a calm but impassioned and relentless tone, no pauses or stumbles, telling us about these men. It was literally (and I use that word advisedly) spellbinding. I have never seen or heard anything like it.

And, fellow Nottingham poetry-lovers, she’s COMING TO NOTTINGHAM sometime soon-ish! I don’t know details yet, but she said Matt Welton has booked her to appear at Nottingham University. You Must Go.


I’m still buzzing!

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Something I haven’t had much time for lately is my own writing. I’ve been doing bits and pieces, and taking opportunities when available. At the beginning of May, for example, I went down to Chipping Campden with a friend for a one-day workshop run by Mario Petrucci. The title of the workshop was ’16 ways to write a poem’, and we did a lot of listening and a lot of writing.

The best thing for me about the day was getting my mind back into the poetry groove for a while. You know how it is, you spend hours and hours writing copy for websites or festival programmes, or proofreading other writers’ work, then it takes a significant effort to switch your head into a creative mode.

KeyringOne of Mario’s 16 ways was called ‘The Third Mind’. He asked us to write ten lines about an object – any object. I chose the keyring my mum gave me as a graduation present back in 1987 – a comment on my tendency then to lock myself out! These were the lines I wrote:

Goldish colour fading to silver.
A present from my mum.
Slightly corroded, pitted by time.
Holds my keys.
Gets tangled up in itself.
Makes a nice rattling sound.
Heavier than my keys.
Gucci logo (the old one).
Has interesting links in its chain.
Works by pulling (not turning) the bit that looks like a screw.

I read the lines out with no explanation, then Mario gave them a title selected at random from a list of feelings we’d generated beforehand… for mine the title was ‘Friendship’. Try reading the lines again with that title in mind…

Amazing, isn’t it?

I love poetry, the exactness of each word, the way every single nuance feeds into every single line and makes it more than it is. I’m working on a poem at the moment which, on the face of it, makes no sense. But when you read it in light of the title the whole thing clicks into place somehow. And one of the joys of poetry is talking about it with other poets. On Friday I went to the first meeting of a new poetry critiquing group. I was so pleased when my poet friends, who hadn’t seen that poem before, instinctively understood what it was about and gave me some invaluable advice on how it could do its work better. I’m looking forward to finding a couple of hours to work on that poem, now I know what it needs.

Perhaps in another blog post I’ll be able to identify more clearly just what it is about poetry that has grabbed me and won’t let me go. I doubt it though. I just know it gives me great joy and a sense of being with words in a purer way than any other kind of writing or reading.

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Feeling Old

Simon, Mower of Lawns

#1 son: Simon, Mower of Lawns

#1 son turned 18 yesterday. This is a very scary thing to deal with – almost as bad as my little brother’s 30th birthday. My own age doesn’t bother me, I’m 44 in body and 21ish in spirit, but for some reason significant anniversaries of those younger than me make me stop and think.

18 years ago yesterday Norman Lamont pulled the UK out of the ERM, and the country almost went into financial meltdown. To me it was the day an anonymous doctor pulled a new life out of me into the world, which was mostly a horrible experience, but nothing will ever beat the overwhelming joy I felt when they put a squealing wriggling baby on my stomach. I tease him that he was born on Black Wednesday… #2 son was born on the day of the Oklahoma bombing – it’s probably a good thing I stopped having children after that.

So much has changed in my life since then. On September 16th 1992 I was married, working as a researcher for a small university spin-off company which had just employed a CEO who didn’t understand the value of research and development. I was 26 years old, but didn’t have much idea about the real world or what my place was in it. I’d only been out of university for a couple of years, and the work I was doing was pretty much the same as the stuff I’d been researching for my PhD in Computer Science.

And I had absolutely no idea what to do with a baby. They don’t have power-off switches or helpful error messages, and the instruction manuals seem to have been translated through several different languages on their way to English.

Blake, Destroyer of Trees

#2 son: Blake, Destroyer of Trees

Now… I’m divorced, a full-time student of Creative and Professional Writing at Nottingham University, a part-time marketing assistant for Five Leaves Publications, I know what I want my place in the world to be and I’m busily carving it out (more on that in my next post).

More importantly (most importantly), I’m the mother of two of the most incredible human beings on this planet. I wrote this poem for them… needless to say, when I read it to them they looked slightly confused, and very quickly started talking about something else after mumbling vague compliments.

Something of Nothing
for Simon and Blake

How can you make something of nothing?
Nothing is not
                       sugar, butter, eggs and flour.
It’s not bricks, not mortar,
not blocks of marble or iron chisels.
Not words. Especially
                                 not words.

How can you bake, build or sculpt?
How do you make thoughts
of nothing?

You and I are nothing, without substance.
We pass through each other
like ghosts, you cannot rest a comforting hand
on my shoulder, I cannot demand passion
from your lips.

Yet somehow
we made our sons of nothing
and oh,

they are something.

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Reading the News

Today has been less than maximally productive. I have, however, finished reading The City and the City by China Mieville, which is a storming good read. It’s based on the premise of two cities that coexist within the same physical space. The inhabitants are forbidden from interacting with each other, where the cities are ‘crosshatched’ people must ‘unsense’ anything that belongs in the foreign city, while at the same time avoiding any sort of contact. I have to admit the exploration of this premise grabbed me much more than the basic plot, which was a murder mystery, but Mieville’s beautiful and often startling use of language along with the complete weirdness of the setting carried me along quite nicely.

So. Poetry. Today’s exercise from Eireann was to write a poem inspired by a newspaper story. So off I went to search the Guardian website, like a good little bleeding-heart liberal, and could I find anything the least bit inspirational? No, of course I couldn’t. Camilla breaks her leg? Politicians are t***s? People prefer to drink bottled water? hmmm….

Off I went to The Sun website, and found this gem.

US mum sends adopted son back to Russia with note saying: I don’t want him anymore

It’s a desperately sad story, and I’ve no idea who’s to blame. The Sun, of course, vilifies the mother. Yes, she’s a single parent, so she’s obviously in the wrong. QED.

I hope someone is looking after the poor kid.


She gave me paper. One piece.
Here it is. It says something loud.
The jet engines are noisy too,
working so hard they have to scream.
I can’t hear the paper shouting.

New granny’s words hit me in the face
when they came out of her prune lips.
Like old mum’s words, just as strong
smelling of vodka. But new granny
and new mum didn’t hug anyone ever.

If speaking hurts, I shan’t speak.
They call me stubborn. But I am saving
my weapons. One day I may need them.

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Scissors, Paper, Poetry

I have made a poem! I never knew I could do that. I always wondered what poets meant when they talked about making poems… now I know.

Today’s exercise on Eireann’s website was to break and reconstruct one of Emily Dickinson’s poems. I took her at her word…

here’s the original:


I dwell in Possibility–
A fairer House than Prose–
More numerous of Windows–
Superior–for Doors–

Of Chambers as the Cedars–
Impregnable of Eye–
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky–

Of Visitors–the fairest–
For Occupation–This–
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise–
and here’s mine:

I wasn’t quite sure what to do with all the dashes, but I think they make a pretty border at the bottom.

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Simon's face


I thought you might enjoy looking at a photo of my injured son… it’s a salutary reminder of how robust yet delicate our loved ones are. I believe the jargon for what he did is ‘faceplant’, which is a beautifully poetic term…

Anyway. So. Has Batty Pip managed to come up with a pome today? Well… I’m going to give you not one poem but two! Aren’t you lucky?

Eireann’s exercise was fun – look at pictures of stars and write about the first image that comes into your head. My barely-hidden OCD snuck out and I started counting, so this poem had to be written:

Night Sky

Shhh. I’m counting.
                              Not Mars—red god
at the end of your warpath. I’ll fix Polaris
          Why would I want your dozen roses?
They can’t throw the energy of atoms
across light years.
                            Second: Sirius, doggedly
following its master. Then three, four, five
in Orion’s belt
                      which must have names.
I think number six is hidden. Can you see it
from the dark side of the moon?
No matter.
               Seven to eleven make Cassiopeia,
who knew her words and beauty excelled.

Her daughter, Andromeda
                                          is uncontained
she has birthed a galaxy.
                                 one hundred and twelve
six thousand, seven hundred and fifty-three
So many stars
                       I have lost count, but you
you can’t even see the sky.
I’m not sure about the title… we’ll see what it changes into over time.

The second poem I shall offer to you is one I wrote in the Nottingham Poetry Series workshop this evening, also run by Eireann (see, told you she’s incomparable!). I particularly liked this – we had to write down two nouns and swap them with each other, then write a poem joining the two. I got Guernica and Andrew Mathers. I don’t know Andrew, but he is now forever sitting alongside Picasso in my mind…

Art During Wartime

In some art gallery
Picasso sits and stares
at the destruction of Guernica.
He is invisible
but Andrew can hear his sighs
Andrew can smell his sweat

and feel the heat
from the burning buildings.
A shopkeeper screams
Andrew! Andrew Mathers!
Why are you watching us die?
We need more than another picture.

Andrew places his ass
next to Picasso’s
and sits and stares.

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This exercise was difficult…

imagine you’ve come home and someone has moved all your furniture

At first I had no thoughts. Then I had lots of thoughts but none of them were interesting. Then it was nearly tomorrow so I thought I should get on with it…

This Morning

A bible lay on that chair
next to a candle
half burnt
in a brass holder.

The book and the candle
are still there
as solid as your breath
but the chair is not.

A rose lay in that bed
next to you
glowing skin
in a cotton nightshirt.

The flower and the bed
still tight in slumber
and you
you are gone.

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OK, so I cheated

Eireann’s second poem-a-day exercise was a little harder than the first. Take public transport? ME? but I don’t DO public transport! Besides which, I’m busy this weekend, visiting a friend, staying up half the night playing stupid games and drinking v nice wine.

So I drew on my most recent experience of public transport. For reasons too complicated to go into I was without a car for a couple of days recently, so was forced to use buses. Which are mostly horrible. But the university hopper bus, which ferries students for free between University Park and Jubilee Campus isn’t too bad, so I still use it occasionally, just for fun. In fact, I used it last week, and overheard a phone conversation with the most amazing line…

unfortunately the other bit of the poem is purely wishful thinking…

Hopper Bus

I am the oldest person in this tin box

a tiny oriental woman falls
into my lap
leaps up
            sorry sorry
flits off chattering in french
to a skinny lad whose eyes
haven’t seen sleep
for a week

the girl behind me is very definite
absolutely no talcum powder on the chips
her boyfriend hides
behind a free newspaper
and a brittle laugh

I am the oldest person in this tin box
and still I don’t understand

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