Posted on Leave a comment

Poet of the Week – 1: Kate Behrens


Kate Behrens is the daughter of two painters, and a single twin. She saw herself as a painter initially, in part because poetry was her twin’s territory. Her father had several well-known poet friends, and visitors to the house included Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, Hugo Williams and Dom Moraes. A long time after Kate’s twin took her own life, in 1985, she began writing poetry and, under the persuasion of a poet-friend, sent a new poem off to that year’s Mslexia competition, where it was a runner-up. This was in 2010, and it marked the beginning of her life as a published poet.

Kate is a regular reader in open-mic events at Poets’ Café in Reading, where she came to the attention of John Froy, then the poetry editor for Two Rivers Press. Her most recent collection is Penumbra, published by Two Rivers Press in January 2019. It follows on from her first collection, The Beholder (2012), and Man with Bombe Alaska (2016). Other poems have appeared in Mslexia, Blackbox Manifold, Stand, The High Window, Reading Universityʼs Creative Arts Anthologies, Poetry Salzburg Review, Wild Court, Noon, The Arts of Peace (Two Rivers Press) and as Oxford Brookesʼ Poem of the Week. More poems are forthcoming in Stand and Axon: Creative Explorations.

Kate Behrens writes:

“An artist friend recently asked, ʽIʼm interested in why you risk being obscure in your poems.ʼ My first thought was thanks for your interest! Then: I am not either deliberately obscure or taking unusual risk. Itʼs a daring question − one I wouldnʼt mind asking certain lyric poets myself, if only because it might reveal some intimate details about their practice.

Attempting an answer to someone who wasn’t a poet was useful. I have edited that written response, but it went something like this: I can only really answer the question by describing how the poem guides me, rather than vice-versa. Words and/or images have usually arisen from a kind of small electrical charge, produced by a collision between inner and outer worlds, and meaning, ʽpay attention here, there is something happening that requires the maximum sensual receptivityʼ (poets become alert to false stimuli which can be quite barren and lead them astray).

That ʽchargeʼ might reveal the raw material, then elicit specific poetic devices that accumulate until first words and images have a sound-environment they can breathe in and a readable context from which to communicate. The first mysterious alert (rarer than I would like) often triggers a precise metaphor for some barely conscious but potent preoccupation or idea that needs expression, not unlike dream communications which can happen in simultaneous sensory ways. But at first the practice can feel like fitting bits into a complex design without being 100% sure of the purpose until the end-goal is suddenly illuminated: when in this mode, it is as if the poem knows the poet better than the other way round. Usually a last refining expands the final meaning(s) (ʽmeaningʼ in its broadest sense). Sometimes the inspiration is simpler, a surge of feeling aroused by some event.

My poems feel best to me when some elements can flicker between interpretations, which seems most true to life, although writing them is not an arbitrary search (when they work, everything is contained in that first stimulus). Finally I ask myself, is this poem one that others could relate to, even if they don’t altogether ʽunderstandʼ it? As well as experience, that can involve a degree of trust, both in the poem and in it finding the right reader. It must be just intelligible enough: to rob it of a certain kind of complexity can rob it of potential reach, but it must not be impenetrable to every kind of intelligence either. The degree of obscurity or transparency is intrinsic to each poem, not an objective. Much of the time I am honing it down.

Despite the subjectivity described here, the poem must not be solipsistic; that judgment can be a subtle one and is unavoidably subjective. Semantic ambiguity helps for this reason, but it needs to be an accurate ambiguity. And the poem must create an unequivocal realm: the reader can enter it or stay outside it, but I must be sure of it. That is an almost physical sensation, a feeling of rightness.”


Where our footpath kinks,
this logjam. Hijacked breaths
articulate steam ghosts…
clattering anxiety.

Strings are pulled.
They canʼt fall apart, must shorten.

Grey lips flinch, furl
up messages. Theyʼre safest
silencing stabs of discomfort.

We lean back, into brambles.
Threaded flesh sparks as it passes,
naked as newly peeled chestnut.

Then theyʼre distanced, cut-outs.
Uccello colours crown the escarpment ‒
reds, white, brown,
the black trees over disquieted fields.

[From Penumbra]


Creativity feeds in shadow,

Below the plumbline
of a thinking mind.

So you feel down for it.
Loneliness is all you find.

It climbs into your lap,
breathes out anomalies:

a chimera with humid bumpy skin.
This creature weighs a ton.

Creativityʼs weightless.
Its cradle is sure feeling

rocked by currents through negative spaces.


Read more about the Two Rivers Press Poet of the Week feature

Posted on Leave a comment

Steven Matthews in conversation with Naomi Wolf

This is a fascinating and wide ranging conversation between Steven Matthews and Naomi Wolf, about the importance of poetry in these times of climate crisis.

The meeting with Naomi Wolf came about in the wake of a previous recorded talk Steven had with her a few years ago, which had received interest in the US. The opportunity this time derived from recent poems that he has been working on, subsequent to the work that went into the On Magnetism book published by Two Rivers Press in 2017. These new poems arise partly from a residency in 2016 at Oxford Natural History Museum, but also from more recent commissions.

The theme, therefore, was the Environmental Emergency, but more particularly the role that poetry might play in raising awareness of the situation, the loss of species, and the climatic alterations we are all suffering. The interview involves readings from recent work about that loss, its consequences – but also a discussion of the traditional roles that poetry has taken from Classical times in response to natural disaster. In the course of talk about a new translation of passages from Ovid by Steven Matthews, for instance, there is consideration of the ways that human transgression resulted in environmental cataclysm in the Metamorphoses. Poetry is both reporting on events, and forewarning about their consequences. Towards the end of the discussion in the interview, there is broader consideration of the origins of Steven’s poetry, of technique (in fact a running theme throughout), and of the urgency for poetry to be heard amidst the cacophonies of modern life.

Posted on Leave a comment

Two poems by Susan Utting

Two poems by Susan Utting, both inspired by workshops at Reading Museum, led by Adrian Blamires and Lesley Saunders, the first at the “Oscar Wilde As Critic” exhibition, and the second a workshop looking at medieval artworks in the Museum, in this case the Bayeux Tapestry.

The Value of Nothing

“Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer”

Oscar Wilde: The Critic as Artist


The girl who stares into space is on detention, again,

for insubordination.

For insubordination read

daydreaming, that other world reached quietly by

means of dust-mote moving staircases, by way of


For silences read dumb ignorance, read

indolence, read downright insolence; by means of helter-

skelter slides through city-dirt-encrusted windows, across

playground tarmac, over regulation iron railings, over

pavements, along gutters,

(for gutters read star-gazers’ resting places)

down alleyways and entries, down muddy lanes to tree places,

up tree trunks, through the scratch of branches, slap of rain-

bedraggled leaves, up-up-away and through to where they know

the value of the nothing in her head:

that painted place that zigzags,

coils and skitters her to other lands, to anywhere she fancies,

where they know the priceless,

fiery possibilities of indolence.



The Ladies of the Leek Embroidery Society Copy the Bayeux Tapestry


Miss Edith Wardle, Miss Frost of Derby, Mrs C Gwynne, Miss Gater


Our fingertips bear witness to our labour, our thimble

fingers wither, pale beneath their metal caps. Poor, dear

Elizabeth has grown quite thin, round-backed from stooping

for The Ride to Bosham, and Phoebe’s wrists grew stiff when

Harold Sailed the Sea – the tedium of all those waves,

stem-stitchery in scalloped flourish after flourish!


Miss Gillett of Garfield, Miss F Pattinson, Mrs Watson, Miss Parker


We envied Mary Edith, though it was a stretch, as she

worked her magic on the comet, that miracle in the sky

for which her long back pained her for weeks beyond

the final knot and bitten yarn. Emily’s huddled witnesses

stared up amazed at what she’d made. Day after long day

we embroidered on, couch stitch, stem stitch, myth and men,


Miss Turnock, Miss Bentley, Mrs Worthington, Mrs Charles Smith


horse and great ship, cock and raven, hawk and bow and arrow,

broidered canopy, broad shield, legend, history. We have sewn

ourselves into the woof and warp of cloth, thread by thread

picked up precisely till, spellbound by our own crafting,

our needlepoints have made a chain, a sisterhood that holds us

here: read our names, these are our stories. Read us here.


Miss Clowes, Miss Lunn, Miss Garside, Miss A Allen, Mrs Iliffe …

SUSAN UTTING was born in South London, moved twenty times in forty years, then settled, after a fashion, in Berkshire. Her collections of poetry include Half the Human Race, Striptease, Houses Without Walls and Fair’s Fair.

Posted on Leave a comment

Poetry in Aldeburgh

This Saturday 9th November, at 4pm, Claire Dyer, Lesley Saunders and Susan Utting will be performing in the Peter Pears Gallery: a conversation on gender, its complexity, perplexity, its poetry. You can book here.


PIA flyer 2019 (final) (1)



Posted on Leave a comment

Regeneration – a poem from Gill Learner

Paintings by Ray Atkins, Reading, 1970–1,
oil on board

From under the artist’s feet, always a chaos
of weeds: fresh lime, ochre, blood-brown.
JCBs sink grit-glossed teeth into chalky slopes,
orange and yolk-bright cranes angle extended necks.
The Holy Brook runs through it all: calm, indifferent.

A new road crushes Victorian terraces;
a retail precinct rises from the wreck of ancient shops.
Day after day, from a hidden vantage-point,
the artist observes, records. In impasto strokes,
today’s impressions cover yesterday’s images.

The swarming navvies, loud-voiced, hard-hatted,
muscles roiling under outdoor skin, cement-dust
blotting sweat, are guesswork: only machines
create these chaotic scenes. It’s easy to conjure
the smells – engine-oil and wounded earth.

The soundtrack must be rev. and roar, crash and clang.
But, as the painter swishes his brushes through
a can of turps, from his small transistor lush Mahler,
icy Sibelius, or the jagged harmonies of Bartok
whine and crackle over all.

Gill Learner

This poem is pinned on the website ‘Places of poetry’: