Monday, October 23, 2006

So still today after the wind that's been shaking the windows. It's raining and I'm tied to the computer with a list of jobs to do. The house is quiet, despite half term. I did a reading at Guildford Book Festival last week, organised by one of my Open University students, Gareth. He showed a film he's made of people reading poems in the street - poems they were given. It's an amazing film because of how enthusiastically everyone responds to the challenge and because it focuses on the words rather than who's written them. The personalities we experience are those of the readers.

Today I received an anthology called The Book of Hopes and Dreams, published by Bluechrome. It's to raise funds for Spirit Aid, a charity providing medical aid to people in north east Afghanistan. More than 100 poets have contributed, including Margaret Atwood and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and many more big names. There's a tiny poem of mine in there too. Buy it to support the charity and for a snapshot of contemporary poetry. Another good anthology came out earlier this year from Oxfam, it's a CD, again with about 100 poets on, called Lifelines. It's available from Oxfam bookshops and funds also go to the charity. I have a poem on it from Fever Tree.

Next week, more workshops, then it's quiet for a time. Time for some writing, to try and shape my next book some more. Swim, too, but in the pool now. It's too cold for the sea.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

I've been judging a poetry competition. It's been hard because of the number of poems I've had to read and because of the insight it's given me into what people think poetry is.

It's like a mirror of contemporary culture, many very competently written pieces, polished and clearly thought about, but little that challenges me. Many writers have appropriated a style of language but ignored the fact a poem has to do something else. I blame the new formalists. There are many in the poetry world, the cliques who hold court in universities and conferences, at prize givings and festivals, who have set language as the key criterion, beyond meaning or substance.

I'm not suggesting that every poem should make a big statement. It's tempting to choose poems that seem to do that because of course there's big prize money here and we're a society obsessed with the concept of value for money (is that in the number of words or ideas?). I want poems to make me think and feel different, that create their own world and rules. There are not enough people who are willing to challenge the norm and the norm-setters.

So I think poetry's confused. It shows in the many poems that eloquently describe nothing. I want a poem to lift me, to stay with me, to jump into my mind on the train or in the morning when I wake up. I want it to be that nag at the back of my mind when I'm talking to someone, the reminder.

So, I've been reading Penelope Shuttle's latest book, Redgrove's Wife, which describes everything that's important. It's a magnificent book. Also Robin Robertson's Swithering, which is also totally engaging. These are reassuring. LIke Vicki Feaver's The book of blood.

I have been reading them in between reading competition entries, together with Neruda's Captain's Verses - the most astonishing book of love poetry there is. I've adored Neruda's work for years. Food and love. He can't be matched.

I have to make a final decision about the winners today.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Pessoa did nothing but write. He wrote all the time. All his different names, characters - so many. There wasn't tv to distract him. I bet Neruda wasn't distracted by tv, either. Or Plath. Emily Dickinson wasn't. I don't know when I had time for tv. It's not even as if it's living. Most of the papers become irrelevant if you don't watch tv. You don't understand the celebrities, the stories, the news angles.

There is no time in the evenings for tv. Maybe a DVD if I'm organised and haven't been out at work. Right now, when I have to work outside home, I have just about time to make supper and phone calls, check e mails, maybe put washing in the machine and wash up. Then the evening's gone. So I write in the mornings. I write my morning pages and then catch moments during the day. On the train, waiting for a meeting, between meetings, at lunch.

Then a poem will surprise me. And I'll know it because it fights its way out of prose, or I instinctively, unconsciously, shorten the lines as I'm writing, and then time starts to stretch and I don't want the moment to stop, like talking to someone you really like, like a good evening out, like a fantastic conversation that's taking you somewhere you've never been before. The poem feeling is a bit like lust in the early stages, tantalising, infinitely stretchable.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

I'm lucky. Sometimes I spend all day just talking to people about their writing, ways to kick start it, why do it. We sit together and write. This is part of a leadership programme. We write about people and places, play with ideas. That's all there is to write about. It's what we are. I've been remembering all sorts of people I thought I'd forgotten.

Writing with Fiona.
We try out similes and metaphors. Anxiety is like a rope bridge over a stream, handwritten letter marked Personal, the glass on the edge of a table. Anxiety is the pause at the top of a wild mouse, moment before the plunge, being unable to drive, anxiety is pale as veal.

Writing with Isabel.
My ancestor, the one who apparently drove a coach and horses into the sea - who told me about this? Was it Frances, my grandfather or my father? He's Cornish. The place of unhappiness for the Welsh. The place where an illusion is broken.
How do you drive horses off a cliff?
So it's night and he knows the cliff. He's paced it, done his research. There would be a track, maybe gates, some light - a nearly full moon, maybe. He's drunk beer, fed the horses well. Perhaps there's something he can feed them that makes them half-drunk too. He's reciting the old testament. A doctor, he's told his wife he's expected at the old man's house in the other village, the one with pneumonia.
He's cold, there's dew. What's in his mind? It isn't money. Delusions. This coach and horses is driven all the way down the lines of this family, the doctor at the reins, horses frothing by now, sweating, his black top hat shaking, his doctor's bag beside him on the seat containing scalpels, tweezers, bone saws and tranquilisers.

Writing with Frank
Veve is a friend of the fire-eater. He's chubby and the most important thing about Veve is he has an old 2 CV. He's around the campus but I only really notice him when we are about to go off to Brittany for the summer to find work. The fire-eater, who I'd met through Helen and Denis, and I think Denis met him in a launderette, desperately needed work. But I wondered even then, if he was actually capable of it. He had a thing about rubber bands. Every time he saw one, he'd pick it up and then there'd be an elaborate explanation, paranoid story about the coincidences and meanings behind each sighting.
Veve's a chauffeur who drops us at the farm in Brittany and then takes the fire-eater off to another farm where they'll be working. I'm left alone with a guy who's due to cycle down south. Who lives there. And I'd give anything for that moment again.

Writing with Diane
Aunty Jean wears rubber gloves all the time. I'm in her kitchen and they're dripping washing up water, or she's talking over the fence with mum. She doesn't have children. I don't know how old she is. She's just rubber gloves to me. Her fingers not flesh but a yellow, textured, unbreathing coat. Her hands are always facing down, into the sink, pointing at the garden or the path. The garden that's next to ours, but ours has a cherry tree that gives boxes full of fruit, dark red and sweet, when the birds don't get it. Mum climbs the ladder, rigging black cotton between the branches. Or does she? This is the garden I sit in at lunchtime, home from school, refusing to drink milk. Mum's insisting. I won't go back to school until I drink it. I'm gagging on it. I loathe milk.

Writing with Erica
I am dunes near an estuary where water mixes, where there are uncertain currents. I change shape constantly and in hollows are the remains of fires where people gather at night to hear the sea, to talk, to love and admire the sky. I am the border between the beach and fields.

These are the things we write about. And more. I am rushing through notebooks, my lovely books from Sukie, lining up on my desk. Memory is fascinating. You can write your way back into these hiding places and unearth the most amazing detail. You are your own interrogator, your own private detective I suppose.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Thor is the name of the guy I speak to this morning on the helpline when I can't send e mail. Sky is the name of the guy who installs my wireless router. It's good to know these great forces are on hand to help with technology.

Last night and today must have made up for the absence of rain this summer, surely? It's been battering the glass and the sea last night was wild, the wind tunnelling up Waterloo Street when I dropped a friend off there, strong enough to wrench the car door open.

But I must buy stamps, bread and cheese, so I'll have to dodge the rain. My daughter says she prefers winter. She likes to curl up on the sofa with a book and a blanket and the fire roaring. Yes. It feels right now to have a change of season and pace. A different kind of light.

I woke up thinking about my old maroon velvet curtains. How I'd meant to dye them over the summer. I bought them about 20 years ago from a shop in Aldershot. They were secondhand and are very old, lead weights in the hems. Striped now, where the sun's bleached them. But fantastic for keeping out the draughts. I'll have to wait for a drying day, now, or a day that's cold enough to put on the heating.

I have a reading coming up at the Guildford Book Festival on October 19. I'm looking forward to trying out some new poems. To getting a feel for the shape and pace of the new book. A friend read through it the other day. She said it was a woman's book and optimistic. I hope so.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Captain Beefheart in Paris, Alexis Korner in Crondall folk club, Fela Kuti at Glastonbury, Ian McKellen in Windsor, Michael Longley in London, Sharon Olds at the Old Ship in Brighton, Jim Perrin at Ty Newydd in north Wales. These are performances I will remember for the whole of my life.

But I was talking to Jane about if you should ever tell someone what impact they'd had on you and what would they do with that? I don't entirely know why the people on this list made such an impact. Beefheart was strange of course. The venue was a massive warehouse. I was there alone. It might have been during my year in France between 1975 and 76. Alexis Korner was with my friend Helen and her boyfriend Reg. We drove there, probably, in his three wheel Reliant Robin. I remember his astonishing voice. He was doing a solo performance, it was a small club. It must have been sometime between 1968 and 1972. Fela's Glastonbury performance was the first and only time I went. He came on as the sun was setting, of course, it was that key slot. The sky was shot with red. Those Nigerian guitars just kept on going with their driving lines, the enormous band working together, the bottle neck guitar, the talking drums.

Ian McKellen was a young Hamlet. My mum took me as a birthday present. He was amazing. I'll always associate him with Hamlet. He was perfect. I even remember what I was wearing. A light brown Biba dress, empire line, with long tight sleeves that went into a V on the hands and hooked over my middle finger.

I went to London to see Michael Longley with Eva and Don. We were friends in Brighton. I met them through Matthew. Gorse Fires had just come out and it knocked me out. But it knocks me out even more now. I was most impressed, I think, apart from his reading - quiet, clear, uncluttered, confident, just like his work - by the fact that he'd not written for 10 years. This was an emergence from that silence.

Sharon Olds at the Old Ship was in the days when Brighton Festival knew the meaning of poetry. She read with CK Williams. But she stole the show. Don, Eva, I and Matthew were at the bar at half time. We couldn't find the words for what we were witnessing. She was astonishing. It was the first time she'd read in the UK, I think. She was first published here by John Harvey of Slow Dancer Press. Then she was taken up by Cape. The festival literature office was a guy called Adrian. He put on some stunning poets. Another year there was Derek Walcot, Miroslav Holub before he died....some fantastic events. All gone now.

Then Jim Perrin in Wales. It's maybe too early to work out the long term impact of his reading. Just that it was a fluke we heard him. About 16 of us in the library at Ty Newydd, the National Writing Centre for Wales. Our planned guest reader was ill. Jim stepped in and read work that was so engaging, precise, concerned and emotionally raw, I knew it was one of those astonishing moments when you can't quite believe how lucky you are. He's a poet, writing in prose. A genius. And it was a full moon. The gods are doing a good job when they send you moments like this.