We are delighted to learn that Claire Dyer’s poem ‘Raw Material’ was the winner of the 2022 SWWJ poetry prize, announced on the 5th December at the society’s Christmas lunch event, where Claire was awarded the Elizabeth Longford Rose Bowl. A brilliant achievement!
The competition judge described ‘Raw Material’ as ‘A vivid expansive and aching poem with an unusual and striking command of language.’
Poetry is often inspired by art, and poems inspire art in turn. This series of posts celebrates this special connection in the words of artists and poets who have been published by Two Rivers Press.
When the call for poems was made by Two Rivers Press for their 2017 publication, Stanley Spencer Poems: An Anthology, edited by Jane Draycott, Carolyn Leder and Peter Robinson, my first stop was The Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham where I spent a wonderful day with Spencer’s work, making copious notes and letting the pictures imprint themselves on me.
What I particularly love about the craft of poetry is the emotional connections the imagination can make between the visual, the heard and individual memories, and when, during my research, I came across Spencer’s ‘Gardening, 1945’, which features a man and a girl, heads down, backs bent, digging up leeks, there was something about the texture of their hats, clothes and the basket the girl is holding that brought to mind Tate Modern’s 2010 installation of Ai Weiwei’s 100 million individually crafted and painted porcelain seeds. And this, in turn, instead of the actual specialists who worked in small-scale workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, took me to a roomful of angels painting the seeds.
My imagined angels were all-knowing, all-seeing, but unable to do anything to influence or change us – they were about the pure act of giving. And so, when my daughter, who had been my son, was transitioning*, I wanted for her the chance to choose her own identity and destiny without censure or judgement, and so I wrote this poem, addressed to her, about angels painting the porcelain seeds Spencer’s painting had reminded me of, and of my daughter’s right to fashion herself as many identities and destinies as she wishes, by running her fingers through the seeds, making billions of shifting pictures, all uniquely hers.
Claire Dyer, March 2022
Of Angels, Porcelain and Paint
Imagine a room, square windows
letting in the light. Imagine the light
is bright and yellow and falling
across rows of tables in slabs
the colour of butter. At the tables angels
are painting porcelain sunflower seeds –
the husks of sunflower seeds that is –
and, in the falling yellow light,
focus on a pigment each: pink, green,
russet, caramel, grey.
They take breaks at regular intervals,
stretch their necks and talk about the news –
somewhere a war is ending,
another about to start;
how can they survive all this?
And, on one particular, peculiar,
sun-drenched day Stanley comes,
and they give him their creations,
give him baskets brimming
with painted seeds for his collage
of two figures (daughter
and father) harvesting leeks.
He bends Kathleen to her task.
She can smell soap,
her father’s gardener’s skin
is surprisingly clean and,
if you listen carefully
you can hear a torrent of birdsong;
clouds are holding in the rain.
Imagine then you are walking
into the room with the square windows
and the light that’s bright and yellow
and falling, and Stanley says,
You can stir your fingers through the seeds
if you like, make billions of shifting pictures,
all uniquely yours.
In the water it is beautiful,
can swim against the tide,
and with it, be covert,
indiscernible, visible, leap
to twist; see its scales rainbowing,
its fin-flick, its dark, dark eyes.
Now see it in the shallows,
how its body shines with the sun on it.
See its power, length. Don’t
think about the stories of
it mating and spawning, the
incalculable distances it swims,
it in a net, and gasping. No,
remember it for itself, and its colours,
and you, leaning over the edge
of the boat, the bridge, quay,
riverbank, cupping your bare hands
around it, holding it steady for a while.
Claire Dyer teaches creative writing at Bracknell & Wokingham College, runs Fresh Eyes – an editorial and critiquing service – and curates Poets’ Café, Reading’s longest-running poetry platform on behalf of The Poetry Society’s Reading Stanza. Her poetry collections, Eleven Rooms (2013) and Interference Effects(2016) are published by Two Rivers Press, and she has another, Yield, forthcoming in February 2021. Quercus and The Dome Press have published her novels.
TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK – 3: CLAIRE DYER
Claire Dyer’s grandmother wanted her to be a BBC newsreader when she grew up. Clearly this did not come to pass. Born in Guildford, Claire has lived in Bedfordshire, Birmingham, South Wales and Berkshire (not necessarily in that order), has a BA in English & History from the University of Birmingham, an MA in Victorian Literature & Culture from the University of Reading and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London.
Having formerly been the Clerk of the Worshipful Company of Management Consultants in the City of London, and worked for an HR research forum in Mayfair, she now teaches creative writing at Bracknell & Wokingham College, runs Fresh Eyes – an editorial and critiquing service – and curates Poets’ Café, Reading’s longest-running poetry platform on behalf of The Poetry Society’s Reading Stanza. She is also a regular Radio Reads contributor on BBC Radio Berkshire.
“Being a poet and novelist, I am often asked which I prefer, writing poetry or prose. My answer is always the same: I enjoy them both equally because, to me, they are two sides of the same coin. Both involve scene setting, characterisation, storytelling, word choice; both condense the human condition in an attempt to capture and explain it.
Obviously there is more scope in a novel to tease out the themes that preoccupy me, whilst in poetry the key is to distil these themes and let the specific speak for the universal. In both disciplines, however, the need to engage the reader is a driving force. I therefore put the reader in the centre of my line of sight in my novels and when compiling my poetry collections in the hope of providing them with a narrative experience.
Eleven Rooms, my first collection with Two Rivers Press was published in 2013 and was the summation of ten years of writing poetry, in which I hope I found a voice and a way into the subject that intrigued me at the time, namely the delicate balance between permanence and impermanence. The poems in this book therefore concern themselves with those things we believe can be permanent: love, life, buildings, the memories of experiences lived or imagined but which are, by their very nature, transient.
My second collection, Interference Effects, published by Two Rivers Press in 2016, takes these preoccupations one step further and, whilst dealing with many of the same themes, concentrates on how, by looking at lived or imagined experience through a variety of lenses, their meanings and significances alter. Much of the book was written during my MA at Royal Holloway under the tutelage of Andrew Motion and Jo Shapcott, and my studies into the poet who dominated my time there, Elizabeth Bishop. In Bishop’s precise bravura, her attention to ‘no detail too small’ (‘Sandpiper’) and her technical astuteness, I found a route into corralling my own work. My admiration for her instilled a new discipline in me when approaching the topics that continued to absorb me. The title is taken from the effect of light on a butterfly’s wing, some of the poems reference the Morpho butterfly, which fascinated Bishop, and all the poems contain a reference to the colour blue in some oblique, or not so oblique, way.
If these two books act as markers on my poetic journey, my third collection, Yield, due for publication in 2021 represents a much more personal odyssey. Compiled over the five year period during which my younger child has been transitioning from boy to girl, the poems in this book tell the story from a mother’s viewpoint. Predicated by the three definitions of the word, yield: to give forth by a natural process; to give up, as in defeat, surrender or submit, and to supply or produce something positive, the poems are mostly (I hope) a letter of love to my child as well as a manifesto for inclusivity and personal determination. The poetry I enjoy most is generous, open hearted and well crafted. I hope the poems in my three books go some way to living up to this.”
THE MEMORY CAKE
When I was seven my mother baked a memory cake.
First into the bowl was the ribbed white blanket from her hospital bed.
Next, her final journey home.
Then she blended my forget-me-not dress and its smocking and pockets
with the snip-snackle-crack of the windbreak that day on the sands,
and how she said Here comes the cavalry at the end of films,
and I’d see horses tossing their heads, desert dust rising in clouds.
Next she added story times, the ice-cream van’s jingle-twang,
sunshine that fell slow on my back
the morning we got up early to check if the fledglings had flown.
I watched her beat the mix, fold in her smile,
her hands moving all the while like mine and, when it was done
she left it to cool on the counter top, said Make sure you eat it slowly, crumb by crumb as, outside the window, some rain began to fall.
[from Interference Effects, 2016]
CALL AND RESPONSE
Then there was the time
when the grief was tremendous
and she stopped in a Devon lane,
left the car and stood instead
at a gate looking out onto the glittering
fields – the late summer fields –
at the inexplicable ruins
of farms – ancient walls beginning
and ending without reason –
some distant sheep,
and listened to nothing more than
the pulse in her ears,
the rolling wind, a kestrel’s call,
its mate’s answering cry.