TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—13: GILL LEARNER
Gill Learner has been writing prose and poetry, on and (mostly) off, since her teens, when she was published in her school magazine and the Warwick County News. After her return to work, post child-rearing, she found little time, but the occasional poem came about as emotional response.
On retirement from teaching Printing Studies at Berkshire School of Art & Design, she returned to writing and her short prose was occasionally accepted by magazines. However, in 2001 she won a limerick competition in the Independent, prizes for which were two weeks on Skyros and, more significantly, membership of the Poetry Society. For years she’d enjoyed reading contemporary poems in newspapers and magazines but had never really thought about writing it; receiving regular doses of poetry kickstarted her muse.
Among her first acceptances was publication in the Poetry Society’s members’ Bulletin – she was so excited that she began choosing her desert island discs! There have been countless rejections since but three other acceptances for the Bulletin, one of which gained the Society’s Hamish Canham Award 2008. Among a handful of other successes have been the Buxton Prize (twice), the English Association’s Fellows’ Poetry Prize, and in 2010 she came second in the Keats–Shelley Prize, ‘pipped at the post’ by our current Poet Laureate, no less! Her poems have also appeared in several issues each of Acumen, Agenda, The Interpreter’s House, South, The North, The High Window, etc., as well as numerous anthologies.
Gill Learner has had two collections with Two Rivers Press: The Agister’s Experiment (2011) and Chill Factor (2016). She is currently working on a third, provisionally entitled Change, for publication in 2021. Gill enjoys reading to an audience and, slowly overcoming her dry-mouthed fear, has been a regular at Poets’ Café for almost twenty years.
Gill Learner writes:
My aim in writing is to express some of the thoughts that buzz in my head which would otherwise, like an unwritten ‘to do’ list, nag me towards insanity. But I feel very strongly that my poems should be understandable and relatable-to, on at least one level, by as many people as possible – ‘accessible’ is the usual word. However, while I’m aware that there are bound to be references which are entirely personal or outside general experience, it is gratifying when readers, especially reviewers, find insights or links that I hadn’t been conscious of.
The question most writers in any genre are often asked is ‘Where do your ideas come from?’. My answer is ‘Anywhere’. Of course, family members, past and present, have been an excellent source, but random other subjects lodge themselves in my mind, sometimes with urgency, more often lurking, waiting for words and phrases to accrete around them. Although I would never claim that my poems are jewels, the nearest analogy is to the grit in an oyster. There are also prompts from magazines or competitions with a particular theme. Sometimes a topic will produce no immediate response but become grit; occasionally, there’s an instant resonance. Either way, I let it lie while jotting down thoughts until I feel ready to begin patching them together.
After the sudden death in July 2018 of my husband of almost fifty-seven years, I couldn’t write for what seemed like ages. Then, within a few weeks, a competition call prompted a poem about a long-ago family holiday; I was hugely relieved that I hadn’t dried up completely. After that came a steady trickle of poems, some in memoriam, which will be central to my next collection, but I have recently made an effort to avoid gloom.
‘Which is the greater art, poetry or music?’ is the question at the heart of Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio. I hope I am never forced to choose between them as music has inspired a number of poems, particularly about Beethoven. But it is a huge frustration that a composer of, say, a symphony has so many voices to play with while I have only one. I would love to enter a composer’s mind to see how choices of instrument, rhythm and melody are made.
I have often said that a perfect day for me would be writing in the morning and gardening in the afternoon, so have found stimulus in the natural world, also in works of art, and various technologies.
During an interview for an Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre podcast, I was asked if I thought artists needed to engage with political and social matters. My response was that, ideally, poets’ work should reflect the world they live in. Inevitably then, social and environmental problems have triggered ideas.
The rigorous feedback from members of both Reading Stanza, and Thin Raft, the twice-monthly workshop I co-ordinate, is invaluable: any successes I’ve had have usually been thanks to them.
WHAT LOVE CAN DO
A woman dies. Her husband grieves,
commands the quarrying of stone, fine-grained
and whiter than the moon. Many hundred men
carve it into blocks, polish and build them
into a mound, domed and crowned
with an upturned crescent and a lotus bloom.
Craftsmen embed stones – garnet, opal,
amethyst – patterned into flowers and vines
and texts from the Quran. Here
her bones are locked into a marble tomb
to wait for Shah Jahan.
A woman dies; her husband grieves.
Had a doctor’s skill been near she would
have lived. But the bulk of a Gehlour hill
spun out the hours. So Dashrath takes hammer,
chisel, nails. For more than twenty years,
ignoring mockery, he snicks the rock
chipping at ancient layers of river silt.
At last, one hundred metres on,
at five times his height and wide enough
for a pair of carts to pass, he’s reached his goal –
the mountain’s carved in two.
[From Chill Factor, Two Rivers Press, 2016]
THE GENIUS FROM PISA
The scented smoke is dizzying, even in Duomo cool.
Padre Benito drones: Dominus vobiscum. A young man
drags his thoughts from the purple flowerings
on the cleric’s face – syphilis, for sure – responds
Et cum spirito tuo. Dare he, a mere student, advise
a dose of mercury? He yawns, shakes his head,
notices two altar lamps swaying in a draught.
The smaller swings higher and yet they are in time.
He presses fingers to his wrist, checks them against
his pulse, sits up with a jerk: what if there were
a clock that worked by pendulum …
At seventy-eight, forbidden by the Church
to leave his home, he sits in a patch of sun, relives
some high-lights of his life: works on harmonic oscillation;
improvements to the telescope; behaviour of the moons
of Jupiter, and his heresy – confirmation that the earth
moves round the sun. He remembers the Duomo lamps,
gropes for a pen, sighs. His son, Vincenzio soothes:
I’ll be your eyes: tell me what to draw. The old man
describes a cog-wheel and two curving pawls which will be
flicked up by a pendulum and also keep it on the move –
the workings of his clock.
[Published in Agenda Vol. 50, nos. 1–2]