Sunday, November 10, 2013

Poem for Remembrance Day: '6 June 1944'

I wrote this poem some years ago, though I have not republished it since its inclusion in the 2004 Arvon Poetry Competition prize-winners' anthology (it was commended in the competition that year).

It recalls the D-Day landings of the last world war - and in particular, the landings on Juno Beach, which were conducted by Canadian and British forces. While we British may grumble that Hollywood renderings tend to focus solely on the American contribution to the assault, the role of Canadian troops tends to be overlooked far more often than that of the British - so one motivation behind this poem was to redress that (however modestly). Nevertheless, the poem is intended to commemorate all of the Allied soldiers who took part.

One of the warships that undertook naval bombardment of the coastal defences ahead of the landings, the cruiser HMS Belfast, is moored in London, on the Thames, to this day - a floating museum.

Like so many of us, my own family was involved in the terrible struggle of that war: my grandfather, who served in the Royal Navy, was twice torpedoed - his ships sunk - but thankfully, survived. The stories that came down from those days are deeply impressed within me, together with grief for what they went through, and awe for what we owe them.

6 June 1944

We knew something was up
when they cancelled our leave.
I sneaked a letter out to Evelyn
before they stopped that too.
When they gave us beer
vouchers and French francs –
two hundred to the pound –
we were sure it was on.
We left hidden in a tide
of ships. We didn’t know
our own secret. Thousands
of us, and even God
was in the dark that night.
We crossed the tar-black sea
like a floating constellation
out of synch with the sky.
We lurched on the waves
like drunks, navy strength
rum warming our bellies,
adding its fire to ours.
Some never got their sea-legs
and coughed their breakfast
into the drink with a curse.
We heard the fleet open up
to knock seven shades
out of the enemy’s sleeping
defences. Some of the lads
smiled. I kept my head down.
We blurred out of the English
horizon, crept up on France
behind the breakers and I thought,
why Juno? Where did she
come into this? Why here?
Why now? Was this her doing?
And the bullets broke across
the boat, its bow opened,
a one-way ticket to the cross-
fire. A mine lifted two men
into the air and put them back
all wrong. A pit-prop
left to trip the tanks up
was booby-trapped and blew out
the sergeant like a candle.
I ran headlong up a road
made by my own roar.
The earth burst open
here and there and I could smell
the sea, cordite, a dew
of blood. I heard the wounded
boys cheer us on,
and I saw the grey hoods
of bunkers shooting glances
from the slits of their eyes,
and I stared them out, shot
and bombed and stared them out.
Slowly, we emptied ourselves,
soaked into the beaches,
washed between each blade of grass.


Tuesday, October 01, 2013

‘Water, water, everywhere’: National Poetry Day, 3 October 2013

‘“What is the use or function of poetry nowadays?” is a question not the less poignant for being defiantly asked by so many stupid people or apologetically answered by so many silly people’. So wrote Robert Graves, as far back as the 1940s. The question is, in fact, an ancient one, and of course it still has currency – just as it did for Graves. I like to think that Graves was pointing out that the defence of poetry is only ‘silly’ if done ‘apologetically’.

National Poetry Day, which this year falls on 3 October 2013, is a very public opportunity for poetry to stake its claim, as well as for readers and audiences to come to poetry.

We are living in curious times for the craft, when the popularity of poetry so evident at readings, festivals and performances does not appear to be translating into book sales. According to Nielsen BookScan, 2012 saw a 15.9% drop in sales of single-authored poetry collections, leaving the total UK market for poetry books worth only £6.7m that year. No poet is in it for the money, but publishers – to some extent at least – have to be, and they are of course a vital link in the literary culture. Moreover, a good poetry book deserves to be valued as much as a good novel, or good non-fiction. As Heminge and Condell put it, when presenting the Shakespeare First Folio to readers in 1623: ‘the fate of all Bookes depends upon your capacities: and not of your heads alone, but of your purses’. Even a ‘gift’ culture – sometimes held up as an alternative to the market economy of contemporary publishing – depends upon the acknowledgement of value. However we achieve that, National Poetry Day is one way of recognising the value of poetry collectively, socially, in celebratory fashion – and across the country, the keen pleasures that poetry brings will be self-evident.

The theme for this year’s National Poetry Day is ‘Water, water, everywhere’: a line taken from Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, where it is followed by that withering realisation, ‘Nor any drop to drink’ – capturing the terrible paradox of drought on board a ship at sea. Water is so essential to us, so ubiquitous in our habitat, that we might not notice it except through its absence – dehydration, thirst – and our visceral pleasure when that thirst is slaked. An absence of poetry may not kill you, quite – though this is debatable, given its fundamental relationship to articulate thought. An encounter with poetry, however, can certainly be as refreshing as and as vital as drinking the water that the body craves – the sense of being suddenly awash with life, as Coleridge’s Mariner felt, when the rain fell again: ‘Sure I had drunken in my dreams, / And still my body drank’. What’s more – with poetry – you might not realise how thirsty you were, until you have taken the drink.

So – seek out poetry this National Poetry Day – and let poetry seek you out. Perhaps join the Poetry Book Society, too – free to students – and/or the Poetry Society.

I will be attending a reading by the current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and Imtiaz Dharker, at Birmingham Literature Festival – an event sponsored by the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing. I am told that it sold out well in advance.
Poetry abides.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The New Library of Birmingham and the Library of the Future


3 September 2013 saw the opening of the largest public library in Europe: the new Library of Birmingham. It has received a good deal of media interest – and rightly so: it’s a splendid achievement. Its stylish interior is reminiscent of the old British Library Reading Room, and the building boasts not one but two roof terraces, both of which give superb views of the city, and provide enticing places to read on fine days. Have a look for yourself.
This week I was interviewed about the new building and its place in the history of Birmingham’s libraries for BBC Midlands Today, and here I set out a few thoughts prompted by that.
Birmingham’s new library is a triumph of long-term thinking over short-term cutbacks – and as such flies in the face of the withering mood that radiates from the present national administration. That in itself is something to be thankful for.
The poet Roy Fisher, who was born and raised in the city, once wrote ‘Birmingham’s what I think with’. Well, a library like this is what the city thinks with. It’s an investment by the people of Birmingham in the people of Birmingham: both a symbol of self-education – a demotic culture of self-improvement – and its most practical aid.
Alongside universities and museums, public libraries remain the guardians of our collective cultural inheritance – literary and otherwise – and hence a mark of civilisation itself. That is an ancient and on-going role.
Libraries, however, are no longer simply the storehouses and lenders of books. This does not mean the end of print and pages. Books retain significant advantages as a technology: they don’t need batteries – and they are tactile objects, with an experiential quiddity of their own. But in addition to that role, the library is now a meeting-place – a place where things happen, and that makes things happen – as well as a global junction of information, image, and literature, through the internet. In the digital age, it is often assumed that we are gradually doing away with the need to meet, or come together as a community. On the contrary: one unintended consequence of the digital age has been to confirm the value of physical presence – what we might call the theatre of space.
The new Library of Birmingham achieves that sense of theatre, and the possibilities of new contact – and rightly so, for a library should also be a pleasure-house. Whether its users are studying alone and quietly, or gathering for a crowded public event, a library is a realm of the mind, of the imagination, of possibility. Like a book, a picture, a film or a piece of music, the library itself is an organ of mental space. It was apt that Malala Yousafzai should have opened the new library: shot by the Taliban for her fearless defence of the right to education, she now lives in Birmingham, the city where she made her recovery. As both its defenders and its enemies know, the mental space that a library serves – the realm of possibility – is the realm of freedom, and of true democracy. Through the reading mind, a library is somewhere you can go to be free, for free.
For more reflections on the Library of Birmingham, see the excellent blog by my colleague at Birmingham City University, Dr Serena Trowbridge.
Finally: don’t forget that the superb Birmingham Literature Festival (3-12 October 2013) will be held in the new library itself. See you there.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

After Hawthornden...

I spent the month of June at Hawthornden Castle – once the home of the poet and scholar William Drummond, now owned by the literary patron Drue Heinz and run as a retreat for writers, through the Hawthornden Fellowship.
As the pictures I’ve included here show, it is an outstandingly beautiful place – an intriguing combination of fourteenth-century ruins and a seventeenth-century house, ravishingly situated on a sandstone outcrop overlooking the wooded gorge of the River North Esk.

There are caves beneath the castle – as there are all along the river – said to have been cut out by the Picts. Each month of the year (save July and August) the castle welcomes five or six writers – poets, novelists, short story writers, non-fiction authors, translators – and provides them with the space and time to write. Such retreats are far less common in the United Kingdom than they are in the United States, where writing retreats have been established more widely and for longer than here, so Hawthornden fills a special role, and the experience it provides – if all goes well, as it did for me – is invaluable.
The writers’ bedrooms are all named after various authors of the past: I stayed in ‘Boswell’. Each bedroom door is painted with the names of some of those who’ve stayed in that room – Ian Rankin and Peter Porter had stayed in ‘Boswell’, for example – but the castle has discontinued the practice of adding names now (because we are Too Many, probably).
There is a daily routine to nudge the Fellows into the necessary discipline: a self-service breakfast 8-9.30am, then (officially) silence throughout the castle until 6.30pm. Lunch is left outside your bedroom door in a small hamper: a flask of soup, a sandwich, a piece of fruit. In practice, and partly because (on the whole) the weather was so unusually good for Scotland, a few of us used to meet up for a picnic outside and a whispered conversation. Dinner was 7-8.30pm, followed (usually) by convivial discourse in the drawing room.
I went to Hawthornden with the simple intention of producing more poems – and hence with a whole range of beckoning ideas and loose plans for the writing that might follow. But for the first few days I found myself responding to my new environment – the sheer life-force coming from the woods and the river and the night air. (Bats, badgers, roe deer, mayflies, kestrels, woodpeckers, peregrine falcons...) As happens in such circumstances, this in fact resonated with my imaginative life, and the poetry to which I was tending with those vague plans and anticipations.
I soon settled into unforced patterns that shaped my days – generally reading after breakfast, on the hunt for something that was asking to be realised, circling and summoning what might happen – then drafting until lunch – then drafting again – and then heading out for a walk to explore the surrounding countryside between 4.30pm and 6.30pm. I covered a lot of ground during that month, both literally and figuratively. Occasionally I’d write or make notes or revise in the evenings, though most of the time between dinner and sleep was spent in conversation with some or all of my fellow Fellows.
Writing intensively, day after day, with a keen sense of something at stake both inwardly and in point of craft and technique, is bound to exert a strange pressure after a while – and evolve a mood characterised by the nature of the materials one is working on. In my case, this meant that I became somewhat too haunted by what was happening in the poems. There can be a fine line between the poetically-productive ‘trance’, as Goethe put it, and a burnt-out nervous system.
That may sound dramatic – but in practice it simply meant spotting when I needed to go for an energetic walk, and let my body sort things out. As well as exploring the gorge, walking to Wallace’s Cave, a ruined bothy in the castle grounds, or the Bronze Age settlement across the river, I also walked to the beguiling Rosslyn Chapel, and one day walked the ridge of the superb Pentland Hills with two co-explorers. Having Edinburgh and all its delights only forty-five minutes away by bus was also a boon.
Of course, the company of the other Fellows is a huge part of the experience at Hawthornden, and I was lucky with mine, making new friends, learning a good deal and having great fun. We read some of our work to each other, which was intimate and memorable. The guest books that the castle holds are a testament to the unique and yet similar experiences of previous Fellows – and a treasure-trove of human interest in themselves. Hamish, poet and director of the castle, Alasdair the cook, and Mary and Georgina the housekeepers, all looked after us impeccably and with great humour. And I have to mention how grateful I am to Mary’s partner Billy, of the Royal Scots Pipe Band, whose bagpipes I played.



Saturday, June 01, 2013

Hawthornden Fellowship

Well, the year has hurried on, and here I am about to begin my Hawthornden Fellowship, which falls in the month of June. I'm braced for intensity - and the poems that will come.

I'll write here about my stay upon my return home (though I might not give quite everything away...).

Saturday, May 25, 2013

ICCW Literary Events Review of the Year 2012-13

As some readers may know, I am the founding director of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing, which is based in the School of English at Birmingham City University. Last month saw the final event in the ICCW programme for the 2012-13. The summer will bring notice of the programme for 2013-14 – which I can already promise will be filled with good things.

This is a good moment, however, to look back on the ICCW’s first season.

The ICCW exists to cultivate the literary arts and the life of ideas, through its calendar of public events. Six events a year are run on-campus at Birmingham City University, and feed directly into our creative writing programmes there at both postgraduate and undergraduate level. Other events are based off-campus, usually (but not exclusively) at city centre venues in Birmingham.

The ICCW has a core group of contributors, known as Fellows of the ICCW, who participate in its aims and its programme, through readings, masterclasses, and in some cases, tutorial roles. Our Fellows are: Helen Cross, Caroline Jester, Ian Marchant, Patrick McGuinness, David Morley, and Sally Read. You can learn more about them, and the ICCW, by following the relevant links on this blog - where you can also sign up to the ICCW mailing list.

So – the 2012-13 programme looked like this:

17 October 2012: Poet, novelist and Fellow of the ICCW, Patrick McGuinness, on writing the prize-winning novel The Last Hundred Days – and its relationship to his poetry

14 November 2012: Literary agent Ben Mason, of Fox Mason, on working with agents, and the challenges of the twenty-first century literary marketplace

21 November 2012: Poet, critic and Fellow of the ICCW, David Morley, reading his work – including his forthcoming book, The Gypsy and the Poet – and discussing his practice as a poet

28 November 2012: Digital publishing company Autharium, on the opportunities of the digital marketplace

6 February 2013: Alan Mahar, novelist and former Chief Executive of Tindal Street Press, lecture on the past, present, and future of literary fiction

13 February 2013: Jonathan Davidson, poet and Director of Writing West Midlands, on sustaining a career as a writer

22 February 2013: The ICCW sponsors the Writers in Schools event, by Writing West Midlands and the National Association of Writers in Education

13 March 2013: Poets and publishers Jon Stone and Kirsten Irving, on running Fuselit, Sidekick Books, and reading from their own and others’ poetry

2 April 2013: The ICCW sponsors the inaugural John Donne Day at Polesworth Abbey

17 April 2013: The ICCW launch event, attended by over 120 people, at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, with readings from Fellows David Morley, Patrick McGuinness, Caroline Jester, me (on behalf of Sally Read), Helen Cross, and Ian Marchant. (Photos to appear here soon…)

24 April 2013: Novelist Jenn Ashworth, reading from her work - including her latest book, The Friday Gospels – and discussing her writing practice.

I think anyone would be delighted to have curated this programme, and I know I certainly am.

Watch this space for news of the 2013-14 programme, coming soon...

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Launch of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing: 6pm, Wednesday 17 April 2013, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

I'm delighted to be presenting a superb literary event for spring: don't miss it!

You are warmly invited to join us for an evening of readings by internationally-acclaimed authors, over a complimentary glass of wine, for the launch of Birmingham City's University's new Institute of Creative and Critical Writing. This is a free, public event, held at Birmingham's Ikon Gallery, on Wednesday, 17th April 2013, 6-9pm.

To celebrate the launch of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing, the evening will feature readings by its distinguished Fellows: novelist and scriptwriter Helen Cross, dramaturg and theatre practitioner Caroline Jester, author and broadcaster Ian Marchant, poet and novelist Patrick McGuinness, and poet and critic David Morley.

The event will be introduced by the poet, critic, and Director of the Institute, Gregory Leadbetter.

The evening will begin at 6pm with a complimentary wine reception.

This is a free event, but places are limited, so please book your attendance here:

The Institute of Creative and Critical Writing exists to cultivate the literary arts and the life of ideas through an exciting calendar of public events.

Join our mailing list here:

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

John Donne Day 2013: 2 April, Polesworth Abbey Church, from 2pm

john donne

I'm delighted to be part of John Donne Day 2013: an afternoon and evening of reading, writing, and walking in the company of John Donne’s poetry.
The event celebrates the 400th anniversary of Donne’s poem, ‘Good Friday 1613: Riding Westwards’.
It will be held at the Abbey Church, Polesworth Abbey, High Street, Polesworth, Warwickshire B78 1DU.
The programme of workshops, talks, walks, discussions begins at 2pm - including reading and discussion with Anthony Mellors and Tony Howe, a guided tour with Mal Dewhirst, and a Donne-inspired poetry workshop with me. From 7pm, there will be a performance of John Donne's work by Derek Littlewood, and newly commissioned poetry by Jane Commane, Mal Dewhirst, Jacqui Rowe, and me.
£9 afternoon and evening. £5 just afternoon or evening.
Twitter @johndonneday #johndonneday
A Made in the Midlands afternoon/evening of talks, walks, readings and performances.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Poem: 'Spring Equinox'

Something for the Spring Equinox. I wrote this poem at this time back in 2005, and it was published in my HappenStance collection, The Body in the Well (2007).

Spring Equinox
The moon edges out of its pocket,
a coin ready to fall away.
The ash at the end of the garden,
black branches lean as winter
is about to sow its silver.

Chopped wood kindles
and enters the air, rises like incense
to the darkness leaning in,
makes the moon-shine thicken
to the white of an egg as it’s poached.

Sat here, I’m cured like a herring
in the smoke-house. When at last I go
inside, closed against the cold,
I’ll have the pith of the slow-burned tree
beneath my skin. I’ll be rich
with the light that everywhere
has fallen, absent-minded, from the sky.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Becoming a Writer

Hard Writing Truths

'Why do writers write? Because they read, of course – not only books, but the world around them – and they cannot quite leave it at that.

All writers enquire into the origins of their way of life, at some point in their career – and most often the trail leads back to some encounter with words in youth or childhood, and an imaginative experience of transformative intensity. Something is read, in the word or the world, and the impulse to answer in a language of your own is woken. An impulse to describe, to make known, to perform, and to realise.'

These are the opening paragraphs of a new blog entry I have written, for a new blog: 'The Writer' - the blog of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing at Birmingham City University.

The Institute (like its blog) is there to cultivate and promote the literary arts and the life of ideas - bringing together writers, scholars, and readers through its calendar of public events.

Watch this space for details of a major launch event in Birmingham city centre this April, with a superb line-up (for clues on which, see the Institute's Fellowship)...Follow the link above to sign up to the Institute's events mailing list.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

'Knowing I loved my books...': Thoughts for World Book Day, 7 March 2013

Books are potent things. Samuel Taylor Coleridge told a story of the peculiar effect a volume of The Arabian Nights had upon him as a child, in the late 1770s: one tale, he writes,

made so deep an impression on me (I had read it in the evening while my mother was mending stockings) that I was haunted by spectres, whenever I was in the dark—and I distinctly remember the anxious & fearful eagerness, with which I used to watch the window, in which the books lay—& whenever the Sun lay upon them, I would seize it, carry it by the wall, & bask, & read.

The book, charged with the ore of his own imagination, had become an object of superstitious wonder for the future poet – and what a sense of release comes in that final line, when he has taken it up: he is basking not only in the sun, but in the radiance of his own reading. The book was a realm of freedom, as well as fascination – and a contentious one, too. No doubt with good intentions, Coleridge’s father ‘found out the effect, which these books had produced—and burnt them’.

It is no coincidence that with the coming of the digital age, there is (I’ve noticed) a renewed interest in books as objects: conferences on bibliophilia are increasingly common in academic circles.  The cover, the feel of the pages, the book’s heft in the hand – the effects these can conjure should not be underestimated. Let’s not forget that there is also romance in the e-reader: imagine the young Coleridge catching sight of that slim, screened object in black, holding its word-hoard.

Whether printed or digital, whether fictive or factual, books are portals to other worlds within our own, delivered in a uniquely intimate medium. They offer encounters with difference – a liberation from the limits of the reader’s present knowledge or present circumstances, which at the same time returns the reader to those circumstances in an altered state. Whatever their form or subject, books reveal that there is something else to see, to imagine, to question, to be. Books teach their readers that any world – including the one we walk around in, work in, worry in, laugh in, marvel in – is just one possible world.

The book has been a mutable object since its invention (itself a point impossible to pin down): marks on a bone, indentations in clay, glyphs on papyrus, knots on a quipu, runes on a bark-scroll, ink on a page, letters on a screen. The so-called digital revolution is nothing so new, in many ways. The idea of the book is the real treasure, though: one of humankind's greatest achievements. That is worth cherishing – and should not be taken for granted. Nothing is so sure as change itself. The trick is to direct that change in the way we would wish. As books themselves teach, the actual is the possible – and the possible is actual.
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Friday, January 25, 2013

National Storytelling Week, 26 January-2 February 2013

Good stories extend who we are. They educate our feelings, bring us pleasure, knowledge, and even wisdom. Despite this, in a world full of distractions and demands on our time and attention, stories might appear to be a luxury – something extra you might enjoy if you had the time. As the history of human society reveals, however – from camp fires to caf├ęs to parliaments – storytelling is what we think with.

We’re telling a story every time we say something ‘is’ (or ‘is not’). From childhood onwards, our minds construct our reality through narratives – be they the great myths and stories of religion, the theories of science and philosophy, or what happened in the playground at school. We make sense of the world through stories, told, retold, or overheard. Spun through this process, through our minds and our bodies, what we imagine is fundamental to our being.

A storyteller (who may or may not be a writer) is someone who has made it their business to be more than usually aware of the workings of this power, or faculty, and its tactile life in the fabric of words – in the presence we make with our speech and expression. Writers or not, oral storytelling is an art in which we all participate – with the difference between us not in kind, but in degree.

National Storytelling Week gives everyone a nudge to tune in to this power, the imagination at work in our language, the history we create every day. It is the power to touch – and change – one another, through the living bond of the human voice. It is, truly, an awesome power – one that we should respect, and use wisely.

Stories may be lost, as well as made – but storytelling will exist wherever there is language.
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