Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Tuesday Poem: For the Year's Midnight by Alice Oswald

Alice Oswald is a very interesting poet - when she gives a reading she recites all her poetry from memory without a prompt, and she has a particular style that comes from older traditions of oral poetry.  This poem - Tithonus: For the Year's Midnight - is a solstice poem specially commissioned and performed at the South Bank with music on the nykelharp by Griselda Sanderston.  It lasts exactly as long as the midsummer dawn, linking the two solstices, and telling the story of Tithonus who fell in love with Alba (dawn).  Alba begged Zeus to make him immortal so that they could be together for eternity, but she forgot to also ask for eternal youth.   This BBC radio version of the poem is introduced by the poet Paul Farley, who is one of my colleagues at Lancaster University.

This is the link:

Alice Oswald:  The Guardian

The Tuesday Poem is on holiday until January, but if you'd like to have a look at what they've been posting during 2014 please follow this link.  

Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Christmas Selfie

It wouldn't be Christmas without the obligatory selfie!  Neil and I have been going for a walk on Christmas day (whatever the weather!) and taking photos of ourselves for more than twenty years - propping cameras on walls and dashing back to pose without panting too obviously.  We have quite a few shots of the sky and blurred rocks, but also quite a collection of ourselves huddled in anoraks (Lake District weather is not clement in December) behind walls and on sodden hillsides - even one in a blizzard.

Neil and Kathy on Christmas day
This year I'm in Italy to spend Christmas with Neil.  Since I began work at Lancaster University in November, Neil has been forced to wash his own socks and cook his own meals, so the prospect of having someone to do it for him has been very welcome.  We don't go in for presents, but this year I got a collection of chocolates - so I think he's glad to see me!

We ate our Christmas lunch on a wild stretch of beach between Torre del Lago and Viareggio. Smoked salmon sandwiches, frittata, prosciutto and a bottle of prosecco.  And we sat and watched a grey and turbulent Mediterranean roll in towards us.  We had it all to ourselves.  Utter bliss.

Picnicking on a wild stretch of beach
Experts will note the John Lewis picnic backpack, (for professional picknickers) which was a Christmas present from daughter No 3 a few years ago.  There's even a cheese board and a wine cooler!

Wishing everyone the very best of whatever festival you celebrate at this time of year, and a very healthy and happy 2015.  

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Tuesday Poem: The Peace of Wild Things - Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

 ‘The Peace of Wild Things’, Wendell Berry

Katherine Mansfield once wrote 'the mind that I love must have wild places'.   I feel like that too - the need for solitude and the wild (both inside and outside). Christmas is a time when solitude can seem very hard to find! 

Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips's claims that  'cultivating a capacity for "fertile solitude" is essential for creative work' 

The poet Wendell Berry, in a series of essays called 'What are People for?'  talks about  'the ennobling effects of solitude . . . gained only by surrendering to nature's gentle gift for quieting the mind:

“We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness...  True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.'

If you'd like to read more - there are two marvellous blogs on the subject with more of Berry's work.  One is at 'How the Light Gets In' 
The other is 'Brain Pickings Weekly'  'Wendell Berry on Solitude' 

For more Tuesday Poems from around the world, please visit the Tuesday Poem Hub where this week's main post is Emily Bronte 'No Coward Soul is Mine' - a poet who really knew about solitude. 

Sunday, 21 December 2014

A Catherine Cookson Surprise

One of the nice things about writing biography is that a lot of the people you meet during your research keep in touch with you afterwards.  You suddenly have a circle of new friends and sometimes even become an honorary family member.  The Catherine Cookson biography was one of those.  I met some lovely people, particularly among Catherine's wider family.
Catherine Cookson with her beloved husband Tom 

Last week, as I was packing up to come to Italy for Christmas the telephone rang and it was one of Catherine's cousins from Australia who just happened to be staying in Cumbria for a couple of days and could she come and visit me with her husband?  It was a lovely surprise.  I flashed round with the duster and the hoover (does any writer have a tidy house?) put the kettle on and whizzed out to the Spar for some chocolate biscuits before they arrived.

The Australian Cookson Cousins, looking rather damp and cold on a bleak, Cumbrian winter's day.
It was a really interesting morning.  It turned out that both husband and wife were Catherine's cousins, through her husband Tom Cookson, and they shared stories of visits to Catherine's home when they were young and she was their much loved  'Aunt Kitty'.  I was able to give them copies of photographs and birth certificates and other family material you accumulate when you write someone's life story and it's all now on its way to Australia.

Such a nice surprise for a gloomy winter morning!  And it's spurred me on to revise my Cookson biography for re-publication after Random House withdrew their permission to quote from some of Catherine's novels and made it impossible to reprint the original.  When I get back to the UK after Christmas, I'm going to re-write the book without the quotes, but including all the new information that I have from family and friends. Watch this space!

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Tuesday Poem: Being here, by Vincent O'Sullivan, New Zealand Poet Laureate

Tuesday Poem: Being here, by Vincent O'Sullivan, New Zealand Poe...:

It has to be a thin world surely if you ask for

an emblem at every turn, if you cannot see bees

arcing and mining the soft decaying galaxies

of the laden apricot tree without wanting

symbols – which of course are manifold – symbols

of so much else? What’s amiss with simply the huddle

and glut of bees, with those fuzzed globes

by the hundred and the clipped out sky

beyond them and the leaves that are black

if you angle the sun directly behind them,

being themselves, for themselves? I hold out

my palms like the opened pages of a book

and you pile apricots on them stacked three

deep, we ask just who can we give them to

round here who hasn’t had their whack of apricots

as it is? And I let my hands tilt and the plastic

bag that you hold rustles and plumps with their

rush, I hold one back and bite into it and its

taste is the taste of the colour exactly, and this

hour precisely, and memory I expect is storing

for an afternoon far removed from here

when the warm furred almost weightlessness

of the fruit I hold might very well be a symbol

of what’s lost and we keep wanting, which after

all is to crave the real, the branches cutting

across the sun, your standing there while I tell you,

‘Come on, you have to try one!’, and you do,

and the clamour of bees goes on above us, ‘This

will do’, both of us saying, ‘like this, being here!’

From Further Convictions Pending: Poems 1998–2008 by Vincent O’Sullivan. Posted with permission.

Helen McKinley has posted this on the Tuesday Poem website and I wanted to share it because it's so good. The second half of the blog is an interview with Vincent Sullivan - very well worth reading.  This is one of my favourite quotes.

'Some very good poets, like Robert Graves, insist that the least a poem should do is to make good prose sense. Others think quite the contrary – Wallace Stevens’ remark, for example, that ‘poetry should resist the intelligence almost successfully.’ The overarching fact of poetry is that it offers a swathe of possibilities, from total clarity to the most elusive symbolism. There’s no obligation to admire every kind of poetry, and there’ll always be enough of what we do care for us not to fret about what we don’t.'

If you'd like to read the whole interview you can do so here. . . . .

Monday, 8 December 2014

Tuesday Poem: The Moth Magazine - review

There are so many little poetry magazines, it's impossible to subscribe to them all.  I tend to pick and choose - buying one issue to see if I like it before I order a year's worth. Then next year I subscribe to another.  I've tried Magma, Poetry London, Poetry Review, Domestic Cherry, The Interpreter's House,  Rialto, and currently I'm trying out The Moth.

The Moth has beautiful covers
The Moth originates in Ireland, edited by Rebecca O'Connor and Will Govan, and it looks beautiful as well as containing a wide range of writing from all over the world.  The current issue contains an interview with Billy Collins, fiction by Sharon Boyle and some interesting poetry.  'The fish I would like to meet' by Catherine Ayres, vied for best title with 'The War Reporter Paul Watson's Obsession with Combat Sex' by Dan O'Brien and 'Ghazal of the Tonsured-in-Denial' by Killian O'Donnell.  The Moth website is showcasing one poem from the magazine - 'After Eavesdropping at the Temple' by Mike Casetta - (though not one of my favourites from this issue)

I pressed my ear against the wall
I heard a candle flame

sing a torch song to the sun
Burning in love

I beseech you
to let this burning

be how I reach you.
A gung ho moth yelled,

before flying headlong

into the fire.
I cringed when I heard it sizzle.

I flinched when another moth shouted,

& ran amuck in the belfry.
Cherubic laughter rang out

& kneaded manna
out of apparently nothing

as apparently nothing
needed kneading.

I started to speak in tongues
but so far I am able to bite each one.

The poetry is never boring, or middle of the road, or pompous, or precious, but it is clever and full of surprises. The quality of both the poetry and fiction is very high.  The magazine looks as good as it reads - whoever illustrates it is doing a fabulous job.  I also liked the fact that there's no long roll call of contributors showing off in the back.  Just their names.  The work speaks for itself.   It's a magazine I'd love to find mine in.  Submission criteria here. 

The Tuesday Poets are a group of 28 poets posting poetry from around the world every Tuesday. To find out what the rest of them are up to, please click on this link. 

Friday, 5 December 2014

Secretly Scribbling

My mother’s younger sister, Aunt Joyce, died recently and on Monday I went to her funeral - a beautiful Humanist ceremony conducted in the hall just over the road from her home and attended by all her friends and family.  Afterwards we all had tea in her favourite tea-room.  It was as good as funerals get, but also rather sad because she was the last of my mother’s generation.  There’s no one left now to answer all those ‘do you remember?’ questions; no one to tell us who that strange woman in the hat was at the back of that photograph in 1935; no one to explain what happened to the uncle no one talked about.  And we, the next generation of family elders, were very conscious of our new roles as keepers of the family story, sharing memories and – sometimes – secrets.
Joyce and her older sister Ella - the blonde and the brunette
My mother had the reputation of being the bookworm of the family – addicted to books, she kept a record of her reading for almost 60 years, loving both poetry and prose. She never tried to write anything herself – not even a line of poetry, though she could recite reams of Shakespeare and Tennyson.  Mum’s younger sister liked to read, but wasn’t known for being ‘bookish’. So it was quite a surprise when, after her death, her son found an exercise book among her things called ‘Poems and Thoughts’.  Inside were all the poems she’d written over the years, secretly scribbling.

My mother's notebooks
One of them was a poem about my mother – the older sister she envied for her dark curly hair and her academic ability.  Joyce was blonde in a family of dark Anglo-Italians and never settled at school.  There was also a moving poem about nursing a husband (who hadn’t always treated her well) through Alzheimer’s.  They are very good poems – one of them read out at her funeral. How sad that she couldn’t share them during her life-time.

Poetry is a safety valve - something we turn to for emotional release. How many people scribble secretly?

PS - I was intrigued to discover that Aunt Joyce had read my novel The Sun's Companion - which included childhood memories of my grandmother and some of her friends - and she had recognised everyone. Not quite as fictional as I'd intended then!