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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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C.3.3 becomes Sebastian Melmoth ~ a poem from Gill Learner

C.3.3 becomes Sebastian Melmoth
Voilà où mènent les mauvais chemins
~ Oscar Wilde after Balzac

Red grit of Reading has been sluiced away,
coarse garments burned. Slight tremors
in the hands will soon be calmed by foreign air.

The channel isn’t angry but surly,
cradling the boat from wave to wave
enough to stir up coffee, marmalade and toast.

On deck, where seagulls circle and complain,
he witnesses the pallid chalk sink low,
watches for the distant smudge of France.

Breakfast calmed, he goes below again,
folds his coat to pad the wooden seat, lights
a cigarette. Eyes closed, he slides

towards unconsciousness. He semi-dreams:
not yet the ballad of a wretched life, but smooth
young limbs, filet de boeuf, champagne.

Gill Learner has been published widely and won a few prizes. The Agister’s Experiment (2011) and Chill Factor (2016) are from Two Rivers Press, with Change due in 2021. More at www.poetrypf.co.uk.

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Regeneration – a poem from Gill Learner

Regeneration
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’:
https://www.placesofpoetry.org.uk

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The Arborealists: The Art of Trees

The Arborealists and Guests: The Art of Trees
14-24 June, daily 10am-6pm
The Turbine House Gallery, Gas Works Road (just by the Prudential Building).

We are delighted to contribute to this exhibition, organised and hosted by the Reading Tree Wardens, with a poetry reading on Sunday 23rd June at 2pm. Hear Susan Utting, Jean Watkins, Ian House and Gill Learner read poems – some of their own, some written by others – inspired by their love of trees. Wine and nibbles will be provided and our books available for sale. Open to all but places MUST be booked as the venue is small. Please book by emailing rtwn2011@gmail.com.

The Arborealists are a group of professional artists whose special topic is the tree and whose inaugural exhibition at The Royal Academy, Bristol, was nationally acclaimed.

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Gill Learner wins 100 words competition

100 words for 100 years

Hampshire Libraries ran a competition looking for poems, letters or short stories of exactly 100 words in length. It was won by Gill Learner, withTime Out’:

No-one knows which hospital, but family history had it on the Isle of Wight. A shaded-glass back door, rotting wooden steps, five of them, all nip-waisted crispness. One’s my aunt, Adelaide Marie, always known as ‘Bob’. Scarcely seventeen, inside the starched half-halo of her cap, she grins.

Home and beloved piano left behind in Chandler’s Ford, she joined the VADs. Ever the tomboy, she must have struggled to keep that floor-length apron clean, those stiff cuffs white. I imagine her singing softly as she scrubbed bedpans in the sluice, mopped between beds, smiled comfort. But she never spoke of it.

Poetry books from Gill Learner include The Agister’s Experiment and Chill Factor.