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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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Peter Robinson in Conversation

Peter Robinson, the poetry editor for Two Rivers Press, talks about our list

How many poetry books do you publish each year? How many has the press published in total?

We currently aim to publish one book per quarter, using the Poetry Book Society’s activities as our temporal template. Sometimes we’ll also add one of our illustrated classic poems volumes or an anthology to the list, so I would say that we tend to produce between four and six poetry publications per year. I really couldn’t say for sure how many poetry books we have published in total; but I’ve been editing the list since September 2010, which is nearly a decade, so I’ve probably been involved in the editing of between forty and fifty books. The press was founded in 1994, so I would think we must have produced perhaps a hundred books of poetry in all.

What kinds of poetry are you interested in?

I like poetry of a great many kinds and shapes and sizes, and have been curious about how and why different forms of poems work since I was a teenager. But in all my editing activity (I first edited a poetry magazine at the age of 23), I’ve tended to keep my personal tastes under control and made judgments that are in line with my understanding of the social and cultural situation in which I am operating. As you can see from the previous answer, Two Rivers Press had been going for sixteen years when I was asked to take over running the poetry list. So I inherited a stable of poets, including Adrian Blamires, a copy of whose The Effect of Coastal Processes (2005) I found in a bookshop in Liverpool one summer when visiting from Japan. I was very impressed by the poetry, the quality of the design, and the finish of the cover. So I did know about Two Rivers Press before coming to live in Reading, and attended a reading by some of our poets in the Henley River and Rowing Museum as a way of making myself known to them when in need of some congenial company in a town new to me. When I was asked to take over its poetry list, as I say, I inherited a backlist of poets, mostly living locally, one of whom, Jane Draycott, had gone on to be published first by Oxford and then Carcanet, while another, A. F. Harrold, has gone on to become a very successful author for children and young adults. These poets had developed, largely, from a local workshop and open-mike culture, and their writing was and is broadly-speaking characterised by verbal skills, craftsmanship, and sensibilities engaged with shareable experiences, qualities that I also admire.

How do you go about selecting which books to publish?

There is a standard policy for ‘cold calling’: we ask to see a sample of six poems, and if I like them enough, we ask to see the full collection, and if that promises to fit our list (in ways that are not only aesthetic, but also involve questions about the poets’ locations and our practical ability to work with them, that’s to say her or his readiness to help sell the books), then I take the volume to a committee meeting and ask the team to have it put into our forward plan. Books are also submitted by poets we have previously published, and on one or two occasions I have offered to publish books were I knew them to exist and also knew that, for one reason or another, their poets were having difficulty with the arduous business of finding a publisher in the present environment. In other cases, I have encountered the work of new poets at readings or through contacts in the poetry world and then helped to mentor the development of a collection, sometimes over a long period of time.

Are there particular recent poetry books that you are especially proud to have published?

Penumbra is Kate Behrens’ latest collection

Among the poets that I have brought to the press during my near decade working with the team, I am particularly proud to have published, among others, first books by the late David Attwooll, Kate Behrens, Sue Leigh, James Peake, and Tom Phillips, as well as the last book published in her lifetime by Mairi MacInnes. These are poets, in their different ways, who pursue styles that retain the qualities of attentive technique that are, I believe, the basis for valuable writing, and they also stretch their language to the evoking of experiences more distinctive and challenging, more difficult easily to share, than some of the work that the press had published heretofore. I am also glad to have initiated our publishing of translations with a collection of Ruth Speirs’ versions of Rilke, to which have now been added Jane Draycott’s selection from Henri Michaux’s poetry, and Lesley Saunders’ bilingual selection from Maria Teresa Horta’s Portuguese.

Looking ahead, what is your ambition for the Two Rivers Press poetry list in the next few years?

The main thing we are hoping to do, beginning in 2021, is to enlarge the list so that we publish two poetry books per quarter. Over the last few years the profile of the press has increased and we have on occasion been reviewed in national newspapers. Enlarging the list a little, I would hope we can continue this development, and build on the geographical base of the press in the Thames valley so as to have a better relationship with the independent publishing environment in the capital, and also to find a place not only as Reading’s own publisher, but as a publisher to something more like the part of the country shown on maps in the front of Thomas Hardy’s novels. I would like to increase the range of poetry that we are known to produce, to publish some volumes of collected poems, such as David Attwooll’s, which is currently in preparation, and would also like to add further books of translated poetry to the list, including from languages beyond those of our near neighbours in western Europe.

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Wulf’s Journey

The following poem came out of a workshop with Robin Thomas, Lesley Saunders and Adrian Blamires, with theme of Reading Abbey.

Wulf’s  journey

Wulf maketh preparation for his journey

then he made up his mind

to visit the Abbey, leaving

his own dear Besse to twist

the flax and gather the bones.

First he made his way

to the water’s edge, thick as it was

with vetches, lillies and herbs

and there summoned

Blood-eye, the blind

terms agreed with the bote maker

boat maker who lived there

among the glittering frogs

and tail-less adders

‘Maken me an bote’ Wulf said

‘of herb and wasp nests

fastened with eye of fish

and Royal pitch’.

‘Master I will,’ he said,

straightening himself

like a wrought sword, like

a glottal tree.

‘What must I render?’

said Wulf, ‘three golden pins,

two stones from the shore, a dace

and nine withers.’

Night after night laboured

Blood-eye in his earth-sodden

byre to make and to finish

the boat

and by the day of the waif

its shape could be seen.

it glowed like a fleeing eel.

Then did Wulf seek out

and with Edgemon, sword-maker

Edgemon, the deft, deaf

maker of blades

in his dark cavern

under the yearning cliffs.

‘A blade shall ye maken for me’,

‘so I will, master, for you, for

payment of prayer for my father

and his, a noggin of pith and

a basin of scrawl.’

‘Those you shall have’, said Wulf,

on proof of its strength

and lightness of hold’.

he setteth forth on the streyme

Then went forth Wulf, in his boat

on the stream, leaving all

he had known, trusting his boat

to convey him with safety.

Thus was his journey: 

first, he encountered the

divers adversities

watery wolves.  These

he dispatched with his

new-finished blade, then

did he find the teeth in the river,

their insidious grin, the dark

of their threats, but prayer

made them shudder and sink,

But grimmest of all were the serpents

which swam, under the waves,

in their silvery sheen, but these

he ignored, trusting the will of his boat.

his journey continueth

And so he continued, by night

and by day, past monsters

and witches and tygers

and men in their fearsome

accouters, their accurate

spears in their hands, under

weather of lead or scorched

by the sun as if through a lens.

Now, as the boat

rounds a curve in the stream,

a vision of majesty

a vision of majesty, great

to behold

but which words cannot win

into verse.  There,

he reacheth his destination

Wulf ended his journey.

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Sue Leigh and her approach to poetry

Sue Leigh is a poet and writer who lives and works in the valley of the River Windrush in Oxfordshire. Her collection Chosen Hill is published by Two Rivers Press. Sue reflects here on what poetry means for her.

Chosen Hill book cover

How and why did you become a poet?

I loved poetry as a child, I knew somehow it was important.  It was the sound of it I liked, its strangeness.  I started writing as a teenager – just a few poems.  It didn’t occur to me at the time that they might be for anyone else.   Writing felt private, real and liberating.

I continued to read poetry as I raised a family and worked in publishing – it sustained me at some deep level.  But I wrote nothing during those years.  Later, a space opened up and I found I had the solitude and quiet I needed to write.  Since then poetry has become the touchstone of my life.

What are your interests?

I write about the deep past – what we might learn from it, what of ourselves we leave behind.  I want to look at the past in today’s light.  From my window I can see a small Norman church (built on the site of a Roman villa) and what is left of a deserted medieval village, and beyond, the river that flows on.  The past is so close.

I find myself returning to questions of how we might live, how we might respond creatively to being alive.  I am interested in the lives and work of other artists – how they express the subtleties and complexities of experience. 

I write about the natural world from a place of reverence but also concern.  

I cannot say where poems come from except from noticing, paying attention, a kind of intense listening.  It is difficult to talk about process.  In the end there are the poems and they must speak for themselves.  And it is of course all provisional.  There are times of writing, there are fallow periods.   

Which writers have influenced you?

I have been inspired by many writers but John Clare and Edward Thomas have been important – poets whose vision is often connected to an English landscape with a sense of the local and particular. 

I also read what might be called ‘nature writing’ (although I am not entirely happy with the term) by writers such as Nan Shepherd and Annie Dillard.

What is the future of poetry?  Does poetry matter?

Poetry won’t stop the worst things happening but poetry can help, by naming things and by focusing on the particular.  Language can so easily become debased but poetry uses words charged with their utmost meaning.  Poetry is inherently truthful.

Poetry also renews and deepens the imagination and that is as essential to public life as it is to private life.  Imagination is close to compassion and that surely is the greatest virtue of all.