Archive for February 2010




The Art of Poetry

I’ve quite literally been getting my fingers dirty this week preparing for my next poetry event. My nails are all covered in paint after putting words to wood to create some visual versions of my poems on Russian Dolls, CDs and other objects central to the poems inscribed on them.

I’m not an artist but I’m hoping to use these as part of a combined poetry and photography display at Droitwich Arts 4 All on Saturday, March 6, 2010 at the Norbury Theatre in Droitwich from noon to 4pm. The free event showcases a range of visual and performing arts groups and includes music, theatre, arts, displays, performances, information and workshops.

Over the weekend, I found out organisers have also put me down to do a reading at the event and a fellow Worcester and Droitwich poetry stanza member, Jenny Hope, will be launching, reading from and signing copies of her new poetry collection Petrolhead (Oversteps Books).

I’ll also be offering a preview of some of the poems in my collection Into the Yell, which is being published by Circaidy Gregory Press in July. This is now in its final pre-printing stages – final proofing and endorsements. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time, so I’m glad of the distraction of Arts 4 All to focus on and the relaxation of indulging my artistic side.

Add comment February 28, 2010

A Flaming Good Read for Poetry Lovers!

Petrolhead by Jenny Hope

Oversteps Books, www.overstepsbooks.com , pp 58, £8, January 2010, ISBN 978 1 906856 10 6

Right from Petrolhead’s opening poem ‘Blue’, this is a collection that is full of fire and warmth – from literal petrol flames and the metaphorical heat of passion to the style of writing itself.

As in ‘Blue’, the fascination of flames and sensual, sexual heat combine in the title poem ‘Petrolhead’  towards the end of the collection:

“…He no longer eats for pleasure,

everything’s just fuel. But still you wish it was your tongue

slipping down his throat, as you wonder what he tastes like.”

This poem exemplifies many of the characteristics of this collection as a whole – featuring one of the elements, sensual language, precise, interesting, evocative imagery and the use of personification.

Elsewhere, we are shown the wind as a starving dog (‘Wind’) and trees – that bridging of the elements of earth and air – provide rich poetic foliage across this collection. In ‘The Forest Seamstress’, mother nature is personified along with her daughter, a tree. This poem neatly brings the beauty of the forest to life through the familiar human trials and tribulations of both motherhood and growing-up:

“…She tells me to climb. She wants the stars. I shake my head.

My mouth is packed with velvet-warm earth.”

This close link between mankind and nature is maintained in reverse in ‘Self-Portrait as a Smooth-Skinned Beech’, where:

“…In my forties

I gave away my eyes, and in my seventies I allowed

the wind my voice having proved my actions

would suffice…”

The range of subject matter covered by this collection is considerable – from love, ageing and motherhood to hate as a pebble (‘Pebble Beach’), small cakes as ‘débutantes in stiff-edged frills” (‘High Tea’)  and books as lovers, viewed from the point of view of the reader’s mattress (‘Strange Bedfellows’). An acute eye for detail is combined with an ear for sound and the ability to both see things from an unusual yet accessible point of view and convey such observations in a light-hearted, fun, conversational way.

In ‘Cheque or Cash?’, this simple question, with the dilemma of decision it causes, is brought to life in the characterisation of the two:

“Cash would speak if you’d let it. It’s that bloke down the pub,

that seen-it-done-it chameleon;…”

Such delightfully fresh images and perspectives abound in this collection, from two dead lovers who “came to prefer the absence of skin/ which only hindered the act itself” (‘Bone Love’) and ‘The Man Who Married His Car’ (a highly sensual poem, full of word play) to the spider mother in ‘I watch my Mother climbing up walls’ :

“…She nooses the neck of the house

and knots its innards around her gut.”

We also meet a Lazarus in ‘Dead Man Sleeping’, little red riding hood in the contemporary-feel ‘Red Coat’ and, in ‘Mrs Medusa’s Mayhem’, it’s impossible not to chuckle, inwardly at least, at both the word play and the so-easy-to-relate-to portrait of Mr Medusa, the husband:

“With killer comments on my killer eels and driving Dodge Vipers;

making my snakes stand on end.”

Whether it is the neat concise “used-up scent” description of weekday public transport in ‘The Man Who Married His Car’ and a road as “well-oiled tagliatelle” slicking down a valley (‘Tarmac’) or the use of more extended metaphors and personification, Hope’s striking imagery is marked by its accessibility and the way she manages to not just create a verbal/aural picture but capture atmosphere and emotion. (In his back cover endorsement, David Hart picks out the Imagist character of her poems.) But to say the imagery is accessible is not to say it is not also full of surprise, constantly transforming  what might be considered “A cut and paste day,/in a cut and paste life” (‘Equinox’) into poems with many layers of meaning for the reader to explore and enjoy.

The ‘I’ persona of ‘Equinox’ states:

“My mind’s a handbag,

faulty strapped,

with toothless zip.”

But the same cannot be said for the poetry in Petrolhead.  Like the Velvet Queen sunflowers in ‘My Neighbour’s Garden’, this is a collection with many faces for the reader to reveal.

Add comment February 25, 2010

Juggling Some Prickly Stuff!

What with the kids at home for half-term and numerous artistic projects on the go, it has been a distracting, disjointed week. I’ve even been juggling my reading – from revisting Brideshead Revisited ready for next week’s book group, to dipping into a book on Imagist poetry, an anthology of women poets and Voice Recognition (I particularly love Emily Berry’s work).

Another poet whose work I have particularly enjoyed recently is Katrina Naomi. So much so, that I’ve used her first full-length collection for the critical part of my creative writing MA application. It’s rather long for a blog but there is still so much I could have said and didn’t have space for in the required essay/review length. Anyway, here it is.

Getting to Grip with Some Prickly Questions

The Girl with the Cactus Handshake by Katrina Naomi

Templar Poetry, hardback, pp 84, £9.99, November 2009, ISBN 978 1 906285 28 9

This debut collection by prize-winning poet Katrina Naomi is full of the personality, colour, startling imagery and sometimes prickly observations that its title suggests.

Divided into three sections, part I entitled ‘The Natural/The City’ consists of 20 poems, part II The Sea/Margate has 13 poems and III Darker/Lighter has 16 poems and one unintentionally blank page. Of these poems, six (found across the three sections) are also in her previous 2008 Templar Poetry Pamphlet and Collection Competition-winning pamphlet ‘Lunch at the Elephant and Castle’.

As its title suggests, Part I juxtaposes and combines the natural world and cityscape from poem to poem and even within poems. Part II ranges from water of the womb and birth in ‘Waterbaby’ through adolescence in ‘Tunnel of Love’ to dealing with a lover’s death in ‘Overcoming Hydrophobia’. Although, painting and colour are common threads to the whole of this collection, part III’s darker/lighter refers to opposition and struggle as much as visual tones.

While Naomi makes full use of all of the senses, there is a strong visual element to most of her poems. (This is evident even from some of the titles: ‘On Sally Gall’s Wave Photography’, ‘Naturaleza Muerta’ – Spanish for ‘still life’ and ‘Dancing Girl’ – as the notes tell us Brassaï is famous for his photos of the 1930s’ Parisian underworld.) Bright colours and painting are evident right from the marsh marigolds of the opening ‘The Thames Never Breathes’ and ‘The New World’, where Ana can “paint the stars/by numbers”. But even in this first section (as later in the third section’s darker/lighter), colour does not come without its contrast. In the title poem ‘The Girl with the Cactus Handshake’, the pastoral is “paler than I’d have painted”. Then in ‘February’:

“And suddenly, we’re all artists –

a Brueghel of dark against the heavy white,”

Flowers are heavily scattered throughout the first section, often the source of much of the vibrant colour, as in ‘Fuchsias’:

“Drag queens, their babies

Shirley Basseyed in red-pink

fairy lights….”

But before any alarm bells ring – and as hopefully the beautifully vivid, unusual description above suggests – this is neither the poetry nor the flowers of say Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’. In fact, Naomi’s poetic description has more in common with Alice Oswald’s collection ‘Weeds and Wild Flowers’ (Faber and Faber, 2009). Both poets share an eye for acute observation relayed to the reader through interesting, detailed depiction and Naomi also makes use of some anthropomorphism and characterisation, but not to the same extent as Oswald. Naomi has her own poetic style and her description itself presents us flowers as we have never seen them before; not in Wordsworth, not in Oswald. Often too, as well as inviting us to view them in a new and different way, she chooses one that leaves us with a twist or sting in the tail:

“ladyboys who wait for the sting,

their nine legs trembling.” (‘Fuchsias’)

Similarly in ‘Iris’, where Naomi’s depiction of the flower ends with a biblical allusion to God’s creation of the world couched in a strikingly unusual image that makes one reread the whole poem in an entirely different light:

“Iris gives its all

for six days. On the seventh,

it burns like plastic.”

Flowers or no flowers, this is a collection full of startling imagery and dramatic endings that are as arresting as those used by another Templar poet, Judy Brown, in her pamphlet ‘Pillars of Salt’. (Interestingly, Brown is one of those thanked in Naomi’s acknowledgements, as are Maura Dooley, Roddy Lumsden and Todd Swift, amongst others.) ‘Gladioli’, for example, is full of images that pick out the extraordinariness of the seemingly ordinary. Here the flower’s upper buds are a “sly wink, a dog’s/ penis, a lipstick among the folds”. In ‘The Farmer’s Boy’, we’re shown “a crop of cores like skulls”, while in ‘39er’ a conker is:

“a clockwork orange eye, winking copper,

a pale fontanelle…”

Of course, Naomi makes full use of the other senses too. ‘The Science of a Street’ opens with wind playing on scaffolding pipes, crescendoing into a poem that captures the full dramatic ‘music’ of this busy scene, while ‘Gladioli’s opening “A shriek of red” masterfully engages the senses of both sound and sight in just four words.

As the section titles of the first and second parts imply, a sense of place (geographical or psychological) features strongly in Naomi’s poems here. Indeed, it is evident even in many of the poem titles, like ‘Bar Girl, Havana, 1954’, ‘La Frontera’, ‘At Streatham Hill Station’, ‘Margate’… But with a sense of place also comes displacement.

“…The place has changed

places in my body.

I long for salt.” (‘Margate’)

There is the juxtaposition of real and imagined worlds in ‘Flight’ and a newborn baby’s shock of finding itself in this dry world where there is:

“Nothing else I recognised. I wanted a sea urchin

to rattle, a cuttlefish to ease my jaws.” (‘Waterbaby’)

This brings us not just to the time-old opposition of land versus sea/water – found in poems such as ‘Hope & Anchor’ and ‘Overcoming Hydrophobia’ – but air versus sea in ‘The Longing of Cranes’. Here cargo is held “mid-air in the wrong kind of blue,” while the windlass of the tallest ship is:

“dredging up the moon,

keelhauling the clouds.”

The pull in part II between new and old locations/lives (a struggle again, if of a different kind to the more violent ones found in part III) is evident in the poem immediately following ‘The Longing of Cranes’.  In ‘Margate’ – Naomi’s home town though she now lives in south London – ‘I’ is a crab that doesn’t want to follow the river (Thames) to the sea. But it longs for salt and while its right side tugs towards the mud, it still shifts eastwards (as the shape of the poem as well as content suggest, ‘I’ is continually tugged backwards and forwards trying to resist the current). In the poem’s final lines, we have:  “Eight legs scrabbling/for home.”

Identity/belonging, or the search for it, is a common theme to the second section in particular, though also found elsewhere in the collection, such as ‘Blood Atlas’ in part III. It is often mapped geographically through the surrounding landscape. ‘Margate’ tells us the place has changed places inside. In ‘Poem for a Blind Daughter’ (epigraphed and noted as after Kate Clanchy’s ‘Poem for a Man with no Sense of Smell’ from ‘Slattern’ Picador, 2001), parents map out the genetics of their daughter’s appearance, using the smell of bladder wrack, the splash then silence of a stone, the taste of a peat-laden spring, the feel of fine sand… In this neatly constructed poem, each stanza in turn deals with one of the daughter’s physical features describing it in terms of one particular sense – smell, sound, taste, then touch. As the poem culminates with a stanza of sight, this is again firmly located in place:

“…a tall, white building,

high above the ocean,

where one day, you will own the brightest eye.”

That this is a carefully crafted collection can be seen not just within the individual poems but in the smooth and natural flow from poem to poem within and across all three sections. In part I, we skip from the “ladyboys” and “tutus of headless/dancers” of ‘Fuchsias’ into watching Ana dance in ‘The New World’ as “quetzals lift her step,/lizards pull her to the ground.” Both the first and second sections end with storms, while the ‘Storm in Wirksworth Churchyard’ propels us from land into the water of the second section with its final line: “A tolling way, way out at sea.”

As early as the first section of the collection, Naomi touches upon gender issues. In the title poem, she describes how her hands “squeeze under spines”. But no one wants a cactus handshake so:

“…I thrust

into the blue-baked sky, hair-like thorns

spike from my nails, a fresh cactus sprouts.

Men don’t make pastorals like this.” (‘The Girl with the Cactus Handshake’)

This theme of women’s struggle, of their power, or lack of power, features more strongly in the third section, where the first poem ‘The Wives’ opens with a wife “Laid in a corner of the lounge, legs/apart”. Her teeth smile but perhaps not her eyes, described only as “wide” and “She is held down with rocks.” Other wives in the collection – “A wife in every room,/mildewed..” – have lost their breasts, arms, faces and yet:

“…Their powerful

mouths on the verge of saying

something. Lost in perpetual ecstasy.”

The wives or the powerful things they might have said, or indeed both, are lost and while “perpetual ecstasy” might sound a pleasant place to be lost, this is surely only an appearance put on for men or how men choose to see it, given that these wives are kept in shrines not as real people or even goddesses but as Sheila-na-gigs.

Similarly, Part III’s ‘Dancing Girl’ and ‘B Movie’ (where the light-hearted, conversational tone heightens the poem’s ultimate poignancy) centre on how women are viewed through film, photography and on stage for men. Though not demoted to victims, the exploited model/dancer sounds world-weary and the mistress is in a constant one-sided, losing, struggle with her lover’s wife.

The prose poem ‘For A’ (no name, given the faceless anonymity of women/victims in the court system) still focuses on a woman but also widens the theme from gender-focused struggle to wider political and more violent power struggles: “One of the soldiers used his rifle./This is happening, still.” Even the seeming peacefulness of a beautiful garden is anything but in ‘Pinochet’s Garden’, which opens with “Punctured gasps” (of bog cotton). The dictator calibrates which plants are the last to droop, finds “comfort in the red wounds of roses” and his soil is “rich. Bone meal rich.”

Falling is also a key theme in this final section. It is the threat and sense of fragility left ‘After Nan Fell Carrying a Lead Crystal Vase’ where ‘I’ is touches her rubber washing-up gloves in the vain hope: “they’ll offer/some protection from the knife in the bowl,/the glass I’ve let fall”. It is the premeditated, hard let down in ‘Games’ where she ironically: “falls/over a soft bed,” to grab and throw a bottle, then gag herself. (The following blank unnumbered page 54 though unintentionally blank could also be seen as symbolic of the falling into space found in many part III poems.)

In ‘How’ and the final poem ‘Kennington, Southbound, 11.10pm’ the sense of negative descent is combined with being on the edge, undecided, unfinished, about to/wanting to fall but not yet fallen. It seems entirely fitting that, following immediately after Pinochet’s Garden, ‘How’ should feature a long list of how questions, crescendoing into this ultimate:

“But I never asked what I really wanted to know:

How would it feel to step off the turret of Dover Castle?”

This idea is taken a step further – from jump to push – and comes in different circumstances in ‘Kennington, Southbound, 11.10pm’. Here, a woman who is waiting for her train senses a man behind her about to push. Neatly told first from her point of view, then his, this is the first time we really get a distinct male voice, albeit not a particularly nice one. In fact, this man only reinforces the male viewpoint of women as sexual objects, for the taking:

“She was on heat, I could smell it.

She was pretending

to hold her skirt down…

…If only the bitch would smile”.

The distinctiveness of these two voices is even more dramatic when Naomi performs the piece and this approach gives us a poem (again symbolic of a gender struggle) that is as much on the edge, and sets us the readers as much on the edge, as its protagonists. Will she remain on the platform edge or will she fall? Is she forced to be a victim by men or does she choose to be one, by not doing anything about it? We are left with her able to narrate the incident clearly and making no attempt to move away from the certain push she anticipates: “I folded a triangle on the page./Waited.” Meanwhile, he too is left in a sense of limbo as he has: “closed my eyes,/waited for the whoosh of wind”.

Even in the earlier ‘Kiss’, there is a sense of futility linked to waiting, as:

“We are white, we are cold,

but we kiss.

This embrace does not move us,

we are still to do it…”

But though the ending is bleak – “We have nothing to say to each other,/so we kiss” – there is an irony to this statement, given that Naomi’s poetry says so much that is worth hearing. Many of Naomi’s poems too are full of a stronger kind of love, be it vibrant and joyfully alive in poems like ‘The New World’, ‘Bothy at Claerddu’ and ‘Poem for a Blind Daughter’ or painful as in ‘Overcoming Hydrophobia’.

The coherent flow and structure of the collection as a whole is mirrored in Naomi’s careful control and craft of language and syntax on an individual poem basis. In the title poem ‘The Girl with the Cactus Handshake’, there is no relaxation in the first sentence as it ranges over five lines, containing numerous clauses, describing how: “there’s no relaxation in this scene”.  Similarly, in ‘The Science of a Street’, the first sentence ranges over four stanzas (12 lines) as Naomi builds up a whole sound picture of the street culminating dramatically in: “and at what velocity before the car is slowed?” The poem’s pace is then brought to an abrupt stop, like the car, with the question mark followed by the short: “It’s all about resistance.”

Preferring free verse over formal metre, Naomi makes full use of the potential this offers. In ‘Storm in Wirksworth Churchyard’, indentations and line length are used to create a jagged ‘wind-blown shape’ effect, mirroring the storm. Meanwhile, in ‘Margate’, the pattern of staggered indented lines creates a more gentle, regular, tugging current effect.

Elsewhere, the single-word sentence “Unburdened’ enacts itself amongst the enjambment and long lines of ‘Overcoming Hydrophobia’. Here, couplet stanzas also symbolically mirror a woman’s denial of her lover’s death. The poem only breaks free from this pattern when she comes to acknowledge, if not accept, his death in the final one-line stanza: “…swallowed a draft of him, felt his fists balling inside”. This technique is all the more neat because the poem is all about symbolism as the ‘I’ of the poem herself links her lover inseparably with the water that killed him, avoiding all that is wet, not washing, only doing dry arts and writing in pencil not inks. Her ability to acknowledge his death comes with returning to the sea.

Such techniques are all the more successful in their subtlety. In ‘The Farmer’s Boy’, the action of the child’s tree-climbing is inherent in the enjambment between stanzas. The second stanza also ends as he “feels tall, leans out, catches”. It is not until the first word of the next stanza that we are given what he catches: ‘himself’.

Words enact themselves more noticeably in ‘Diary’ where “words hurry/ intoeachother”. Just one comma and one dash punctuate this poem, suggesting a merging of days as age or illness progresses for the diary writer: “as the days and her body/lost out”. It also mirrors ‘I’s uninterrupted reading on and on of the diary as she does nothing else except read it.

Elsewhere, Naomi uses word play and sound to create a natural link into metaphor as violet/violent takes us into the image of a flower as “a bunch rioting in my hand” (‘Iris’).  An adolescent girl’s journey into the adult of world of sex in ‘Tunnel of Love’ depicts her uncertainty and inexperience using harsh ‘k’ ‘t’  ‘p’ and ‘d’ sounds that stumble and jolt us as: “I tottered in, heels/skittering on the pink plastic” and “we juddered through the darkness”. The attempt to appear sophisticated on the surface is inherent in the liquid sounds and sibilants of ‘heels’ and ‘plastic’. Similarly, the smoothness of the subject of her crush is evident in the liquid sounds and sibilants of the description: “with balletic ease in his narrow jeans,/like a sexy bus conductor”. The edge is still there in the sounds (‘b’, ‘c’, ‘d’), of course, because he is not really so suave and knowledgeable himself but putting on a bravado that slips in many places: “his sneer,/chipped tooth and chiselled hair’. Then, in the final lines, hard ‘k’s are mixed with sibilants, plosive ‘p’s and a pattern of interspersed short and long vowels to actually create the sound of their sexual tension: “its tip/sparking the way to the electric cars”. This is not just a sparkling way to end this particular fantastic poem, it is typical of The Girl with the Cactus Handshake as a whole. The word ‘electric’ sums up this poem’s tension and the flow and momentum of the whole collection, as it prickles and sparks with the energy and power of poetry at its best.

Add comment February 21, 2010

For the Love of Poetry

It’s been a love-ly weekend in more ways than one. The inevitable – but still enjoyable – romantic valentine’s gestures of actually saying more than two words to each other (only kidding, though with work and the two boys to keep us busy it sometimes doesn’t feel far off that)!

I’ve also made a good start on two new poems. One dedicated to a friend’s husband – not as dodgy as that may sound and more inspired by him than about him! And another inspired by Adrian Mitchell’s ‘Ten Ways to Avoid Lending Your Wheelbarrow to Anybody’ ( http://stars-sliding.blogspot.com/2008/08/i-like-adrian-mitchell-and-have-several.html ). The inspiration is largely thanks to a fantastic new open mic event (combining poetry and acoustic music) Worcester Arts Workshop (in Worcester) on Friday night, where we met up with my friend and her husband and where Mitchell’s poem was brilliantly read/performed.

Oh, yes, and valentine’s day – despite my earlier joke, we celebrated as always with too much chocolate and an exchange of poems, all the more treasured as my husband is not a keen poetry writer or reader. This was followed by a trip out to the cinema to see Astro Boy and do lunch (more chocolate!) with all three of my boys. Of course, I don’t expect sleep much tonight now – nothing to do with love, just the effects of excess chocolate since I completely cut caffeine from my everyday diet! 😉

Add comment February 14, 2010

Visually Challenged – but Spec-tacular Vision!

No, before anyone asks, this is not a blog about opticians . There’s nothing new about the fact that I’d be blinder than a blindfolded bat in a black cave if it weren’t for the twin magnifying portholes permanently propped on my nose! But I couldn’t resist the chance for word play as my annual diabetic retinopathy scan today has left me with less focus than usual (they use drops to dilate the eyes and the effect takes a few hours to wear off) and written off (apologies for the ironic pun!) most of my working, writing day. The lack of clear sight also put pay to my favourite playtime activity – reading.

However, it has given me a chance to enjoy some unusually gentle physical exercise; walking (as you can’t drive with the drops in) and some mental exercise; planning out my ‘vision’ for the next couple of weeks. It’s also the perfect excuse to indulge in my under-indulged past-time of shopping. I’ve been feeling like I need a new pair of jeans for a couple of months now and when I say feeling it, I really do mean feeling it – my legs have been so freezing I’ve been wearing two pairs of trousers. Of course, I realise that finding a pair of jeans that does actually keep the legs warm may be an oxymoron… 😉

Add comment February 8, 2010

Ploughing On With Some Reading!

I’ve been treating myself to some relaxation and reading time this week after stocking up on new poetry books at the weekend.

I’ve really been enjoying The Poem and the Journey 60 Poems for the Journey of Life by Ruth Padel – which I’m hoping is a good omen for my MA application! I’ve also just started reading Christopher Reid’s Costa winning A Scattering – my first impressions being that it promises some powerful, moving poetry.

The week also got off to a good start for me yesterday when I found out two of my poems Blinded and Unsubmerged had been shortlisted in the open category of the Plough Poetry Prize. I also had two (The Coldest Winter for More Than a Decade and The Bridesmaids of Port-au-Prince, written and submitted before the earthquake in Haiti) on the second longlist for the short poem category. All four are going in my collection Into The Yell, which I’m getting more and more excited about all the time!
In fact, I’d probably be yelling about it, if it wasn’t for the fact that my throat is starting to feel like there’s a rake in it. The joys of human virus-traps – sorry children! 😉

2 comments February 2, 2010

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