Rosie Jackson and Graham Burchell worked together on Two Girls and a Beehive, their wonderful collection of poems inspired by Stanley Spencer. Sadly, Graham died in May of this year. Rosie Jackson writes here about how she met Graham, how the collaboration came about, and his legacy.
I first met Graham at a reading I gave for Exeter’s Uncut Poets, 2016. I was promoting my collection The Light Box, which included a handful of poems about Stanley and Hilda Spencer, whose work and lives had long fascinated me. A few days later, Graham wrote to say how much he liked the poems, that he too had some Spencer poems, and would I like to collaborate on a collection. I didn’t hesitate. I enjoy the stimulus of dialogue and soon we were both submitting poems to the 2017 Cookham Festival Spencer Poetry Competition (whose excellent anthology of short-listed poems is also published by Two Rivers Press). I was fortunate to win 1st prize, which further boosted our enthusiasm and gave me the confidence to submit our final collection to Peter Robinson to consider.
Not that Graham and I wrote poems ‘to’ each other. It wasn’t a poetry dialogue in that sense. Rather we wrote pieces in response to paintings or aspects of the Spencer life story that most intrigued us. The poems were not done chronologically, nor in the sequence in which they now appear. We emailed each other with new poems, gave critical feedback, and a ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ or ‘maybe’ to inclusion. Of 60 poems in the final version of Two Girls and a Beehive, we wrote 30 each, and another 20 or so were excluded as not quite up to scratch. I had the utmost respect for and trust in Graham’s critical judgement. It was always considered, sensitive, spot-on. And throughout the whole process he sustained his deep commitment to the project. I felt our voices complemented each other really well, his poems moving towards the war paintings, social history, a wry view of Spencer the brilliant artist and fallible man; mine focussing on Hilda and issues of relationship, art, spiritual differences and gender politics.
Sadly the timing of our publication in April 2020 could hardly have been worse, coinciding as it did with the impact of both Covid and a progressive decline in Graham’s health. We had 30 live launch events planned – readings alongside power point presentations of the paintings – all of which had to be cancelled. And though we had a few successful Zoom promotions, and some fantastic responses and reviews, the book didn’t quite make the splash we felt it deserves.
By late 2020, Graham was subject to more and more medical tests to try and find a cure for his respiratory problems – he’d been diagnosed with COPD – and early this year, he shared with me and a few friends that no more could be done. He died in hospital on 21 May 2021, aged 70. But he dealt with it all with amazing resilience and humour. His last email to me from 11 May makes a wry comment about a short review we’d had, then adds, ‘Oh well, it’s better than a poke in the eye or someone standing on my oxygen tube.’
He leaves a wonderful legacy. Six books of poetry, 22 files of manuscripts (some of which will be published by Poetry Teignmouth), an excellent reputation as both poet and man – kind, warm, funny, patient, loyal, courteous, forbearing – and a huge network of friends and poets still stunned by his loss. His close friend Ian Royce Chamberlain stood in for Graham in some of the last Zoom Spencer readings he attended, and I’m happy to say Ian will also be reading with me at future events as we carry on promoting Two Girls and a Beehive. Spencer believed that life and death were one, and I too believe that though Graham has shed his body, his spirit caries on undaunted.
Rosie Jackson, July 2021
Graham John Burchell: 1950–2021