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Poet of the Week – 15: Rosie Jackson

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—15: ROSIE JACKSON

Rosie Jackson lives in Somerset and works as a creative writing tutor. Her poetry collections to date are: What the Ground Holds (Poetry Salzburg, 2014), The Light Box (Cultured Llama, 2016), and Two Girls and a Beehive: Poems about Stanley Spencer and Hilda Carline Spencer (co-written with Graham Burchell, Two Rivers Press, 2020). She enjoys working collaboratively: she’s done projects with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; letter cutter Andrew Whittle has turned one of her poems into a copper sculpture in the grounds of a Dorchester hospital; and Hedgehog Press will soon publish Aloneness is a Many-Headed Bird, a pamphlet of poems she wrote in dialogue with Dawn Gorman.

Rosie has won or been placed in many competitions, including 3rd prize Hippocrates Open 2020, 1st prize Poetry Space 2019, 1st prize Wells 2018, 2nd prize Torbay 2018, 1st prize Stanley Spencer Poetry Competition 2017, 3rd prize Hippocrates Open 2017. Poems have appeared in Acumen, Ambit, Critical Survey, Domestic Cherry, Frogmore Papers, High Window, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, Scintilla, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House and anthologies.

She runs the Frome Stanza group, is a founding member of Knucklebone Poets Bath, and teaches poetry groups in various settings, including Ammerdown and Cortijo Romero, Spain. Her books of prose include Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion; Frieda Lawrence; The Eye of the Buddha (fiction); Mothers Who Leave; The Glass Mother: A Memoir (Unthank Books, 2016).

www.rosiejackson.org.uk

Rosie Jackson writes:

Although I’ve spent all my life studying and teaching literature (I did my degrees at Warwick and York, then lectured at the University of East Anglia), I only came to writing poetry myself relatively late, in the last ten years. Initially a prose writer, my creative writing began with a book of short stories then longer fiction, but, after seven years of hard work and two unpublished novels, I turned to poetry, and my success with my poems has surprised and delighted me. I just love metaphor and, perhaps because of my strong spiritual bent – I’ve spent a lot of time in India – I love seeing the world in a metaphysical way.

Visual arts are also a great passion of mine. In many ways, I’m a frustrated painter, which is probably why I write so many poems about art and artists – Hepworth, O’Keefe, de la Tour, Gauguin, Picasso, Masaccio, and now, of course, the Spencers – and about light and colour.

The last couple of years I’ve been working on poems about anchorites – religious women who opted to be enclosed for life – so the recent lockdown has felt to be almost an imaginative extension of that, and I’ve responded to it in poems which are on the wonderful website WRITE Where We Are NOW initiated by Carol Ann Duffy. I think poetry is at such an exciting juncture right now, so much happening, the reinvention of old forms and always someone new to discover. It took me too long, but at last I’ve found what I want to do when I grow up!

DINNER ON THE HOTEL LAWN

after Stanley Spencer’s ‘Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta: Dinner on the Hotel Lawn’ 1957

We must get the cutlery right, lay clean linen cloths,
tables he can’t overturn. We must hide love letters
behind our backs, though surely he knows everything:
how the earth will one day turn to pebbles,
the Thames to dishwater. We must remember
to thank him for the kind weather, daisies underfoot,
pelargoniums in pots, the miracle of white sliced bread,
tinned fruit and salmon. We must give one last spit
and polish to our spoons, then sit and shine
like marigolds waiting to be picked, our clothes
the colour of barley sugar. We must stretch our arms
as wide as a crucifix, undo our hearts,
pluck feathers from our heads that he might believe
he is once again in the company of angels.
And someone must paint a picture, capture the scene,
so on our death bed we may point to it, remind him,
‘This is the day you promised we would be with you in heaven.’

[from Two Girls and a Beehive]

IN THIS PERIOD OF STRANGE CALM

In this period of strange calm
I have become a distant witness
to other people’s suffering,
the way a woman in Ancient Greece,
say, whose hours are spent worrying
if yesterday’s dish of food will stretch
to another meal, or how many goats
are lost on Mount Pelion, is dumbfounded
to hear what is happening skies away
in Delphi, it being hard for one
with simple ideas about goodness
to understand the necessity of sacrifice
to appease gods who have, apparently,
reached their limit of enduring human folly,
and perhaps she too stands outside
under a full pink moon, sends thanks
to white-robed figures attending
the dead, tears off leaves of oregano,
sage, wild mint, raises her hands
in prayer towards the gods hiding
on Mount Olympus, says –
This is enough, now, surely this sacrifice
is enough, we can change our ways
then waits under the chestnut trees
for signs she has been heard.

[uncollected]

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Poet of the Week – 14: John Froy

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—14: JOHN FROY

John Froy was born in Leeds in 1953 and grew up in south-west England. After gaining a degree in Fine Art at Falmouth School of Art, he taught English as a Foreign Language in London and Costa Rica. Five months on a desert island resulted in On Cocos Island, a fictionalized account (unpublished) and the start of his writing career. He settled in Reading with his wife and daughter in 1986 and set up a decorating business. He juggled decorating with writing for many years: novels (The Driver, To Be Frank), an account of his mother’s death (Mum, So Far), and three volumes of memoir: Waterloo Road: A Childhood Memoir and Teacher, Squatter, City Farmer (self-published) and The Art School Dance (Two Rivers Press, 2010). He began writing poetry in 2001 and has published two collections: Eggshell: A Decorator’s Notes (2007) and Sandpaper & Seahorses (2018) both with Two Rivers Press. John ran Two Rivers Press from 2003 to 2009. He retired to write full time in 2018.

John Froy writes:

A seed blows in from somewhere – first thing in the morning, or out on a walk. Catching yourself unawares is part of writing a poem for me. It might come at times of emotion or stress – a birth, a death, a revolution – but also from the work-out of a good long walk. Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’ still applies. This seed – word, phrase, feeling, thought – I scribble down and keep. It may stay in the notebook for some time, as a link with the original impetus and as a spur. It will nag. Usually several more of these elements will spin in. Some will be kept, some discarded – most seeds don’t germinate – or they may go into another poem. It’s about dreams in a way, bits from the unconscious being caught as you wake up, or in the physical exertion of that walk. And let’s not be precious, material may come from anywhere: the book you’re reading, a concert, art exhibition, last night’s TV, a child’s remark at breakfast. There, you’ve got a little heap of words that are important to you and need to be looked at.

You start to build. This is going to be something new to you, unknown; you hardly know where you’re going. You might brainstorm these words all over the page, write them automatically, in a block. Which form will it take? They may suggest themselves: this is a sonnet, ballad, villanelle, prose poem, half-rhyme couplets; a few poems do still happily arrive ready-made. But most are work – the inspiration of popular imagination surely comes through work – and there are several forms any poem can take. The words from the heap go in, some are discarded, new ones added, and you have a first draft. There will be many drafts, the draft and graft of the poem. Not that this is unpleasant! Here lies the joy of it all really, the working over and over, honing until finished. Is it finished? Put it away for some time and see. It may be helpful to show the poem to someone, read it aloud, take it to a group (graciously accept their criticisms). Back to the graft, until you can do no more, until it no longer changes. Title? The all-important title might have come straight from the pile, chosen itself, or evolved with the poem, jumped out at the end. Now leave it alone. Probably a poem is never really finished. You change and so can it, but mercifully, in the case of the published poem, you can’t fiddle with it anymore (though Auden did). No, it is done. Move on. This is how I see it, more or less.

And what are they about? Well, they will be a reflection of me. I used to be drawn into the storehouse of my own history, my family and childhood memory, now I find I’m digging new ground: nature and the environment, climate change, the mess we’re making of everything. This matters. Auden, the tinkerer, whose poems were never finished, said nothing was ever changed by a poem. Maybe not directly, but its existence can be an instrument of change. Currently I want to make poems that embrace the environmental issues of our time.

SEAHORSE

One, dripping in my palm –
soft-boned hippocampus,
curl-tail, bug-eyed charmer.
We rescued her with cupped hands
far outside the bay in a Zodiac,
saw fighting seabirds drop their prize,
brought her back to the sea grass.

A million dry in boiling sun
for seaside souvenirs.
Millions more are crushed to powder
for Traditional Medicine Trades
where they’re a catch-all cure.

Are there more?
There are, remote, in hiding.
They dance in the sea grass
at dawn, she lays in his pouch,
this rarest thing of the male
carrying fertile ova to birth
and probably their downfall.

[from Sandpaper & Seahorses]

COMMENT FROM A COATIMUNDI

All this, we believe, was made for us
as has been written for millennia.
‘Not so,’ says a coatimundi, rootling
along the forest trail, ‘I am older,
and there are others. It isn’t all for you.
We watch her go about her business,
tail up, unperturbed, while cataclysm
and pestilence tumble on our world.
Will we at last own to a step too far?
‘It was an animal market, I heard.’
And how helpless we are, have been
since the first cave. We are to blame
not you, dear gruntly creature.

[uncollected]

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Poet of the Week – 13: Gill Learner

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]

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Poet of the Week – 12: Ian House

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—12: IAN HOUSE

Ian House was born in Reading during the Second World War. A child of the 1944 Education Act and the grammar school, he read Philosophy, Politics and (a vanishingly small amount of) Economics at St John’s College, Oxford, and then taught English in schools in Derbyshire, Somerset and Yorkshire, experiences which led him to conclude that a Quaker school, with its commitments to peace and equality, would be a place in which staff and students might get on in a sensible way. When the opportunity for a job at Leighton Park came up, he returned with misgivings to Reading. During twenty-four years at the school, he enjoyed a sabbatical term at St John’s College, Cambridge, which revived his brain and doubtless impaired his liver, and an exchange-year teaching in Philadelphia.

On taking early retirement he taught English in adult language schools in Moscow, Budapest and Prague and, on returning to England, began writing poetry. His three collections, all with Two Rivers Press, are Cutting the Quick (2005), Nothing’s Lost (2014) and Just a Moment (2020).

Ian House writes:

Although ‘Spinning Yarn’, Part II of my new collection, is implicitly about the making of poems, there is nothing I desire less than to investigate in prose the reason I write poems. The less I know, I suspect, the better. I observe my ‘practice’, with interest, from the outside. An experience or observation makes me feel, for some unknown reason, that there’s a poem there. I wander around for a day or two, doing the thises and thats of living, unconsciously incubating. Possibly I’m writing the poem to find out why I’m writing it. Certainly, I have no idea, when I start, where it’s going. If I do have an idea, the poem will be stillborn. I write a lot very fast, crossing out and revising, crossing out and revising … then I start over with a few rescued lines and write a lot, very fast, crossing out and revising; I do this three or four times, aware mainly of the physical pleasure of transmission from brain down arm and hand through pen to page. When I sense there’s something that feels like a poem awaiting birth, I put it onto the computer, and tinker with it for an intermittent two or three days and let it totter off. After about seven years I’d be capable of re-reading it without a sense of paternity to see if it has any merit.

At the front of the binder in which I keep the hard copies of my poems there are two sheets of paper. The first says simply, ‘Be Real. Be Surreal. NOT What do I think about it? BUT How does it feel?’ Useful advices I always bore in mind when I started writing seriously in 2001. The second sheet contains several quotations about the sun, the source of all light and sustenance. They include Chaucer’s charming and profound, ‘Up roos the sonne, and up roos Emelye’; Lowell’s beautiful prayer, ‘Pray for the grace of accuracy/ Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination/ stealing like the tide across a map/ to his girl solid with yearning’; crowning all, Whitman’s understanding of the relation of the poet to the sun, ‘Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me/ If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.’ Little wonder that I see the two poems based on Paul Nash’s paintings of sunflowers as central to my new collection. Sally Castle’s sunflower on the cover does indeed burn.

If, on a good day, the sun fuels my poems, Wallace Stevens is their guiding star. The Man with the Blue Guitar makes the high and necessary claim that ‘Poetry/ Exceeding music must take the place/ Of empty heaven and its hymns’. Yet Stevens can ground a poem in the simplest of situations, noticing how ‘The mother ties the hair-ribbons of the child/ And she has peace’ or taking in old age ‘one last look at the ducks’ in the local park. His poems ‘were of a remembered time/ Or something seen that he liked’. And so are many of mine.

One of Stevens’s miracles is that he doesn’t so much describe a situation as create it, charm it into being as in ‘The Poems of Our Climate’:

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow …

Would that I could get anywhere near that intensity without straining. Or write poems that invite or compel the deep attentiveness of which he writes so movingly in ‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’: ‘The reader became the book; and summer night/ Was like the conscious being of the book.’ Or write a poem of which it could truly be said that it is ‘the cry of its occasion, /Part of the res itself and not about it.’

As well as his example, Stevens has given us handy tips always in my mind: ‘It Must Be Abstract’ (distilling something from the concretes); ‘It Must Change’ (be responsive to the flux of living); ‘It Must Give Pleasure’ (as an artefact in words, not sounding, unless for special effect, like the ‘skreaking and skittering’ of grackles). The poems in the Paul Nash sequence, meditating on the poetic imagination, bear similar titles. All that said, my poems are nothing like Stevens’s anymore than I’m like the mackerel that fed me for lunch today.

IT MUST BURN

~Paul Nash, Solstice of the Sunflower, 1945

blazing yellows and oranges
intenser than all imagining
fierce as a fusion reactor
self-unsparing self-consuming
the sunflower hurtles downhill
freewheeling fertiliser of crops
cutting a swathe
through grass and standing corn
like a top whipped on by the sun
outpouring of nature’s juices
ah sunflower outrunning time
headlong career, suspended
at this moment for ever
leaps the frame and continues

[from Just a Moment]

THE TEARS OF THE WORLD

Unrestrained the shrieks of children
at fleeting abandonments, minor betrayals,
the vastness and urgency
of scraped knees and small losses.

In silent rooms, during polite conversations,
imagine the thickness
of the calluses we have accreted. Listen
to the wind that rattles the shutters.

[Uncollected]

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Poet of the Week – 11: Sue Leigh

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—11: SUE LEIGH

Sue Leigh lives in the Windrush valley in Oxfordshire. She teaches at Rewley House, Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education, and reviews regularly for PN Review. Her first collection of poems, Chosen Hill, was published by Two Rivers Press in 2018. It was described in the TLS as ‘an intelligent and considered collection that pays homage to the act of paying attention’. She has a letterpress pamphlet called Chalk forthcoming from Evergreen Press, which will include the uncollected poem ‘Flora’.

Sue Leigh writes:

I don’t know how poems happen. I love the mystery that surrounds their making. I learn continually about patience and listening, they seem to be at the heart of it.

There are fallow periods which are as important as writing itself. It has taken me a while to understand this.

And there is solitude, this is necessary. Interruption would break the line of thought, craft, feeling – it would be like waking the dreamer from the dream.

I am fortunate to live in a quiet place surrounded by fields. I feel silence all around me – broken at this time of year by the singing of birds.

I spend much time walking. This is often where poems begin. (It has something to do with rhythm, I think.) Outside, there is a sense of lightness, the mind quietens, you can listen. You look at the sky, you inhabit weather. You move through the living world – a world of plants, creatures. You feel part of it.

I write in a notebook every day. I started this practice some years ago and I can’t imagine ever not doing this. Sometimes the notes may be the beginnings of a poem.

I find myself trying, trying again to lay hold of experience, to catch something of that original brightness. But in the dance with language something new emerges and it often catches me unawares. A poem becomes an act of discovery, a small research project into one’s relationship with the world.

I was thinking the other day about why poetry matters, and it seems to me that in these times we are more in need of poetry than ever. Poetry connects us with our deepest selves, but it also connects us with each other. Rather like looking at a painting, reading a poem may enable us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. We understand a little more about our humanity. And that must be a good thing.

NAN SHEPHERD IN THE CAIRNGORMS

To be with the mountain
as if to know one place
might be enough
for a lifetime
to be with it
without intention

then to set it down
to name juniper, heather, deer
precise too about uncertainty
the mind cannot hold it all –
the water in the loch
feels cold, clear

[from Chosen Hill]

FLORA

I cannot make anything
more lovely than these names

eyebright
also called bird’s eye, rock rue

meadow cranesbill
blue buttons, gipsy, grace of God

salad burnet

travellers’ joy

lady’s slipper or Virgin’s shoe
(might there be one left)

Venus’s looking glass

early purple orchid
known too as Gethsemane

pasque flower

and the purple rampion,
does it grow still on Silbury Hill

[first published in Oxford Magazine]

Chosen Hill book cover