A Poetry New Year Resolution

For my magic realism review blog I recently read and reviewed Larque On The Wing by Nancy Springer. In it a middle-aged woman is forced to confront her 10-year old self. The child reminds the woman of the early dreams and aspirations that she has abandoned. It made me think what that girl in the centre of the photo above would have thought of the adult me. That Zoe was confident in her ability as a poet with reason. By the time I was 13 I had been published and was getting noticed. I had no fear about what I wrote, no self doubts. I took the plaudits without embarrassment or question. When the Director of the Cheltenham Literature Festival told me that Philip Larkin, no less, had said I was the best young poet in Britain, I was pleased but not surprised. I didn’t realize what a big deal it was and made no effort to get that in writing. How many times have I regretted that since!

What happened? Well – life in many ways. My gift was too easy, too natural. It came and went without my being in control. I can go for years without writing a poem and trying to force it just doesn’t seem to work. I have intermittently written several major pieces of poetry in a flurry of white-hot words, sufficient to make a body of work, but there are long periods of non-production. These periods were filled with career, motherhood and all the other joyous demands on my attention. But shouldn’t I also be doing something about placing my poetry in the public domain?

Two years ago I had a serious and life-threatening health emergency. I had always thought that I had time to promote my work, but as I lay in the hospital bed hitched to a monitor it was pretty clear that that was a false assumption. I published one of my long poems for voices – Fool’s Paradise – as an ebook with Amazon and won the EPIC (Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition) award for best poetry book in 2013, but it isn’t getting to the readership I would like.

As a poet I am very aware that even the books of the most successful poets have limited print-runs, so effectively giving away my work doesn’t worry me.  But what must I do to reach out and make my audience aware of my presence? It means going public, of marketing, of pushing my work and that does not come easily. How I wish I had that young girl beside me, to give me the confidence and the necessary chutzpah I find I am so lacking now. Ironically it is not that I doubt the quality of what I have written, I have never lost that inner belief. It is the translation of that into some public action that is so difficult. So here is a New Year Resolution – I will get off my insecure butt and face this. I am not yet sure how, but I will do something.


What Magic Realism Means to Me

I am running a magic realism bloghop again this year. Some twenty blogs are signed up to take part and if last year’s bloghop is anything to go by, there will be some fascinating posts.

Over on the Magic Realism Books blog I have scheduled posts about magic realist fiction available free from the web, about useful magic realism resources and a review of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, which features on all the magic realism lists as one of the most important magic realist books ever written and is one of my all-time favourite books. Despite having written three posts for my other blog I want to write a more personal post here on my personal blog about what magic realism means to me.

Of course there is good and bad magic realism, magic realist books that last for ever in your mind and others that are easily forgotten. But as a general rule I find that the magic realist approach to portraying the world is one that I respond to and I recognize that it reflects my own experience. That is not to say that I have seen people ascend to heaven, been followed by crowds of butterflies when I fell in love or watched a relative turn into an item of furniture. But rather that I believe in allegory and metaphor, in imagery, in archetypes and in a heightened awareness that extends beyond “physical” reality.

For me, realism is overestimated. It excludes the profound. It does not allow my soul to soar. Nor does it take me to the depths beyond pain. I am and have always been a poet and a bit of a mystic. For a while, as a student, I neglected that side of my personality in favour of the rational and the academic. I stopped writing. It didn’t last. The subconscious has a way of hitting back and my health suffered. Unable to think straight because of the pain, my reason dropped away and I was left with only instinct and intuition to fall back on – magic one might say. The poetry came flooding back. Here is part of the concluding section of a long poem I wrote at that time:

With pain falls silence.
Words fail reason,
Take on the form of dance
On unseen feet to unseen rhythms.
The silence of snow
Falls crystalline, smoothing out edges,
Curving the landscape into circles –
Roundel and bergomask.
But these dancers do not beat sticks,
Wear bells on ankles, shout “Hoy”
Or bow, kiss fingers
And place hands on whale-boned waists.
This is an older dance.
Its steps are preconditioned
By greater things than reason.
We return to an earlier silence,
A silence that is in the centre
Of the hurricane.
We return to the wind
That has rung hollow in our bones
And gone unheeded
Like the calling of ghosts.


Friday Poem – On Wounded Heads

English: Celyn y môr (Eryngium maritimum) Sea ...
English: Celyn y môr (Eryngium maritimum) Sea Holly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Coming home between dewfall,
when time became conspicuous
and my forehead flowed in rivers
savagely staining my shirt,
I met a priest walking in the fields.
He carried sea-holly in his hand,
I could see its twisted purple
in a crown of thorns.
He told me “Kings only rule
that bear their crowns on wounded heads.”
Said he was making a hat for St Peter’s Day.
I offered him briony
knowing no other flower.
I offered him elder
though the scent reeled me.
I offered him dock
to calm his wounds.
And three times he denied me.
Over the fields, on the tower head,
the metal cockerel clanged
and shattered the sunlight.
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Friday Poem – Punch I

In the beginning
when God rested from his labours
Adam took a knife and cut down a young elm.
This was his first act of destruction
and Adam smiled at the sap in it
and saw that it was good.
And Adam took again the knife
and carved in his own image 
a wife beater and a layabout,
a preserver of sausages
and a counter of bodies.
And as Adam sat outside 
the closed gates of Eden
just for the hell of it
he gave his creation
a stick to beat the Devil with.

Poems for multiple voices

When Carolyn Howard Johnson reviewed my poetry book Fool’s Paradise as “Very experimental. Wholly original” I was surprised. Of course I don’t think of what I write as particularly original, what I write feels normal.  So Caroline’s review made me think, after all Caroline is a multi award-winning poet.

As I have said in previous post I was blessed with being taught by an inspiring creative English teacher – Elizabeth Webster – who introduced me to the work of some wonderful and great poets. In particular she introduced me to the work of the British poets of the early to mid twentieth century – T S Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Louis MacNeice. And surprise, surprise the works she first introduced me to were all verse plays: Murder in the Cathedral by T S Eliot, Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas and The Dark Tower by Louis MacNeice. 

Those early readings were etched into my memory and, I suspect, my poetic DNA. Every year at this time on the cusp of winter I find myself repeating the lines from the opening chorus of Murder in the Cathedral:
Since golden October declined into sombre November
And the apples were gathered and stored, and the land became brown sharp points of death in a waste of water and mud

What is more under her direction I acted in a number of verse plays – including Under Milk Wood and plays by another British verse play writer Christopher Fry. Plays like Under Milk Wood and Louis MacNeice’s Dark Tower were written to be performed on radio, the BBC was a major sponsor of verse drama. But the roots of poetic dramas are deep in the beginnings of theatre. When I was twelve or thirteen I performed in a production of Alcestis by Euripides, first performed in the 5th century BC. I can still remember some of the lines:Daughter of Pelias fare thee well. May joy be thine in the sunless houses.

Just listen to the cadences in that one line. And of course there was Shakespeare. I was playing Caliban in The Tempest at the age of twelve, loving the poetry in the play (Caliban has the isle is full of voices speech) and realizing how verse can by woven into drama. Later I was to play Viola in Twelfth Night – another character with some great poetry. 

The poetry group at the Arts Centre, which Elizabeth ran and of which I was a member, gave regular readings and in one of these we performed MacNeice’s The Dark Tower and in another extracts of Blood Wedding by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. The poetry group with its emphasis on reading aloud taught me the importance of poetry as performance. Some of the best poems, even when not written to be read by different voices, are dramatic. And some, such as Eliot’s Four Quartets, although not written as plays nevertheless have different voices woven into them. My long poem called Poem for Voices, is the same.

You can see why writing poetry for different voices is so natural to me.  I don’t always write for voices, many of my poems are to be spoken by one voice. But writing for voices allows me to explore textures, emotions and forms in a unique way. This approach, which was once so prevalent, is now so unusual that Carolyn comments on it. Have I developed it further? I don’t know. It’s just how I write sometimes. But then it does seem to me that if people claim their work is original and experimental it almost certainly isn’t. 


Friday Poem – The Demon

The Demon

My demon is in the garden.
Nonchalant in the noon-day sun
he bites burs from his fur
and snaps at fleas.
Not quite a fox
he grins at me in the window.
All the time by the fence
the cat watches, waits,
pretends not to care.

My demon came out of the brambles
by the skeleton of the bomb shelter;
under the ash trees
he waits for me.

The autumn sun slopes
over the roof tops;
the light collects in pools.
Over the compost heap
through the flies
my demon goes,
without a backwards look.
He knows I must follow his trails