Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Tuesday Poem: The Great Dying by Kathleen Jones

One of my Haida Gwaii poems is being featured on the Tuesday Poem website today, chosen by NZ poet Helen McKinlay.

Tuesday Poem: The Great Dying by Kathleen Jones: For those whose bones lie only an inch under the grass I have only words. Below the skin of moss or turf they lie where they were...

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Readers Galore!

It's easy when you spend so much time writing, to neglect the most important person - the reader! What are we without them?  On Friday of this week it was the first meeting of a new project I've been asked to run, aimed directly at readers.  It's called Reading Round and is the brainchild of the Royal Literary Fund. They're giving writers the chance to set up reading groups designed to look at short texts - stories, poetry, essays and memoirs - with a 'writer's eye' view to help people get more out of their reading.

I had lots of enquiries to the adverts I placed in the local papers and the posters I'd put up, but only a percentage of those interested could come on that particular day and time.  Friday isn't a good day, but it was the only slot left vacant on the library calendar. But when the first morning came, as I set out the coffee mugs and the cake and biscuits, ten people turned up to find out what it was all about. Reading Round is different, because you get read to, just like Radio 4's story slot, and then you get to share your own responses to the story. There's no 'homework' as in a traditional book group - the sessions are self-contained.

I decided to surprise the group with an anonymous short story that features a female character who seems to be terminally ill.  Most people thought that it had been written by a woman, the depiction was so good, but the author is the Australian writer David Malouf, whose work I rate among the best in the world. The story was 'Towards Midnight' from his collection Every Move You Make.

There was a lot of lively discussion and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Several confessed that they'd never looked at short stories before and were quite surprised by how much they got out of it. I had two more enquiries after I got home, so hopefully this is going to be an ongoing reading group. For me, it was a great delight to be able to share writing that really excited me and find that other people liked it too. In the weeks ahead I'm looking forward to sharing all sorts of things - maybe even some of Virginia Woolf's essays.  She knew how important the reader is to the writer, though I'm not sure she thought through the title of this one!

My sessions run on Friday mornings in Penrith Library from 10.30am to 12.30.  If you're looking for a Reading Round group near you, then take a look on the Royal Literary Fund website and contact them to find out. 

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Tuesday Poem: Check out 'A Letter to Jim Harrison' from NZ poet Lindsay Pope

What with having to upgrade my computer to Windows 10 (I am reasonably unscathed!) and the demands of the Work In Progress, an encounter with a couple of thugs and the Police (all sub judice so can't comment) and a hospital encounter for someone close to me (he's out now), poetry, blogs and most other things have been pushed to the margins. But this week's poem on the Tuesday Poem website is too good not to share a link.  I love its laconic, understated, easy surface - like a quiet pool that conceals hidden currents and depths.  It's by Lindsay Pope, a leading NZ poet, and called 'A Letter to Jim Harrison', who is a US poet of note. A conversation between two poets on very different continents.

It may be of no surprise to you that the day
your book arrived the waxeyes at my feeder
were noisier, more nervous and more abundant
than usual. On the global face, I live on the
lower cheek of the world where the tears fall
and turn to ice. So you might not know these
little birds. They may have hitched a ride on
some seafaring boat and decided to stay. Or
perhaps they caught the tail of some cross-
Tasman wind.

Your book flew in and has roosted in my head.
I have lost contact with my former Anglican
god and pray several hours most days in my

The plants are forgiving and do not object too
much to the muck I spread around, or
even when I rest to blow cigarette smoke about
their ears. The best time to talk with them is
when the light changes in the evening. The
warm soil seems to reassure as the chill of night
begins to settle on their leaves.

This land has no snakes, which makes us a
nation fearful of them. I am learning to live
with my own.

Thanks for your poems. I like digging into their
soil. It is like harvesting new potatoes. Each
time you unearth a shaw you do not know
what the reward will be.

As I write, the waxeyes are drinking. The wind
has turned to the south, so I’ll head down the
garden path to pick a supper of beans.

©  Lindsay Pope

The poem is posted by this week's editor, Mary McCallum and she has some really interesting things to say about it - and about the poet.  To read the whole poem and her comments please follow this link. 

Friday, 18 September 2015

A Farewell to Summer

The mere ghost of summer that we've had here in the north of England is already fading.  One sure sign of approaching autumn was the spider I found in the washing up stacked on the draining board this morning.

And then, on the edge of the garden path, I spotted a baby shrew, frozen to the ground by the mewing call of a peregrine overhead.  He stayed stone still even when I was inches away - more afraid of the raptor than of me.

The trees on the edge of the river have a faint yellow tinge, but aren't noticeably turning yet, so perhaps there is still some fine weather to come, though my garden grass is littered with windfall apples.

But in this beautiful, peaceful place there's also an air of unreality and foreboding. Every day on the TV or internet I watch tens of thousands of refugees, risking their lives to leave war-torn home-lands, people with children, the elderly, people in wheelchairs or on crutches, clutching carrier bags with the few belongings they now possess, children holding teddy bears, some barefoot, all desperate.  And I watch them met with barbed wire fences, riot police and closed borders and wonder what has happened to the human race. Huge areas of the Middle East and northern Africa are war zones incompatible with ordinary human existence. This enormous Exodus has only just begun and it will change the way we all live. My privileged, comfortable lifestyle feels increasingly immoral and unsustainable.

Mother and baby on the Hungarian border
The local community I live in is relatively small - about 4,000 people.  But it provided a safe haven for Bosnian refugees in the recent Balkan wars.  They were welcomed, housed, fed, and entertained until, eventually, their homeland was safe enough to return to.  My community would do the same for the Syrians, or the Libyans or the Iraqis, if we were allowed to, for as long as it takes to bring peace to the countries they are fleeing. I have a big house, and there's only me rattling around in it.  I'd gladly provide space for a family and a lot of my friends feel the same. These people don't want our benefits or our jobs - they certainly don't want our climate! They just want to care for their children in peace and, above all, they want to go home.

Meanwhile, I've got my head buried in my work-in-progress, writing about another holocaust - the wiping out of around 90% of the indigenous population of British Columbia, by the British colonial administration - found guilty in a recent government report of 'genocide by policy and ideology'. Sadly, times don't seem to have changed much.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Tuesday Poem: How to be a Poet - Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)


Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.


Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.


Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

Copyright Wendell Berry
Source - Poetry Foundation
Published in Poetry: January 2001

I love Wendell Berry's work and this poem is one of my favourites.  The lines that really speak to me are 'Accept what comes from silence' and 'Any readers/who like your poems/doubt their judgement'! The last two lines are so important: 'make a poem that does not disturb/the silence from which it came'.  If you would like to listen to the poet reading the poem, this is the link to SoundCloud. As for being a poet, oh, if only it was as simple as following a set of instructions!

The Tuesday Poets are an international group who try to post a poem every Tuesday and take it in turns to edit the main website.  If you'd like to see what the others are posting this week, please follow this link. 

Monday, 7 September 2015

Tuesday Poem: Refugee Blues - W.H. Auden

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you'll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can't do that, my dear, old passports can't do that.

The consul  banged the table and said,
"If you've got no passport you're officially dead":
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
"If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread":
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, "They must die":
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren't German Jews, my dear, but they weren't German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren't the human race, my dear, they weren't the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

WH Auden

If you'd like to hear it sung as a blues, please click on this link, or click on the video.  Blues music by Ted Slowik

Thanks to Andy Willoughby for putting this up on his FB page - I didn’t realise that Auden had written anything like this.  He wrote it in the 1930s, but not much seems to have changed, sadly.

The Tuesday Poets are an international group who try to post a poem every Tuesday and take it in turns to edit the main hub.  If you'd like to see what the others are posting today, please click on this link to take a look. 

Friday, 4 September 2015

The Bodacious Book Club

I've having a week's holiday in Italy to try to get a shot of sunlight before the UK winter closes in on the non-existent northern summer we've just had. By a wonderful coincidence, a local book club was reading one of my books - The Centauress - and they asked me to come along and talk about it at the home of one of the members in the village of Montecarlo, near Lucca. However, this wasn't like any book club I've ever been to.  OK, there was wine - but a swimming pool with a view to long for?

and a wonderful Italian meal on the terrace?

The central character in the novel is based on a real person who died several years ago - a charismatic, complicated individual who fascinated me.  Meeting her changed my life and that of my partner Neil. Because of her, we now live partly in Italy.

Two other people at the book group discussion had known the same person so there was lively discussion about the difficulties of basing fictional characters on real people and whether the fictional portrait conveyed a more powerful sense of that person than could be achieved by straight biography.

The evening ended with a clothes swish - where we all stripped off and tried on each other's redundant clothes, and left looking totally different. You don't get that at my local library!

But there was also sadness as a backdrop to the evening.  Everyone in Italy is familiar, on a daily basis, with images of drowned adults and children washing up on the southern coast as boatloads of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa come to grief in the Mediterranean sea.  It makes our privileged lifestyle seem a guilty indulgence and the wine tastes very bitter.

Today I'm blogging over at Authors Electric on writing for children on contemporary issues. If you'd like to take a look at 'Writing to help children save the world', which features the work of children's author and illustrator Michael Foreman, please click on the link.