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Poet of the Week – 19: Mairi MacInnes

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—19: MAIRI MACINNES

Mairi MacInnes (1925-2017) was born in Co. Durham and educated in Yorkshire and at Oxford. Towards the end of World War Two she swerved with the WRNs. Her first book of poetry, Splinters: Twenty-Six Poems (1953) was one of a series printed by The School of Art at the University of Reading. After marrying John McCormick, she lived in Berlin and the United States. As well as some nine collections of her poetry, she wrote two novels and Clearances, a memoir. She received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an Ingram-Merrill Fellowship. She received an Honorary Doctorate in recognition of her lifetime’s work from the University of York in 2014. Two Rivers Press published Amazing Memories of Childhood, Etc., her final collection, in 2016.

Mairi MacInnes writes:

I didn’t think of myself as a writer, no. I wanted to be a writer though. That is, to write well and all the time. I also wanted to be a girl rider in a circus, standing on a horse’s back as it cantered around the ring; but it turned out that to be a writer was better understood, and easier.

Yes, as time went on and I got better at it, it was natural to write in response to events. Writing was a way of dealing with them, even with confronting the opposition, with gestures in words, you might say. It is tempting not to care whether the writing has an effect or not.

I began with a clunking rhyme about the Dawn, illustrated with sun, rabbits, a deer, all in thick colour. The grown-ups were amazed. My brother, harsh critic, said it didn’t scan. From there I went on to a detective story, and so from poem to prose, poem to prose forever. I like writing both. The poetry, if it’s poetry, is subtler, and draws on different spheres, and doesn’t care so much to persuade, and if it works, is much more mysterious and one can be glad in it without self-congratulation.

Sometimes I’ve written draft after draft and got nowhere, to write the final one in my head during the night a long time afterwards. Or something simply writes itself, straight off. That is common. ‘The blood jet poetry’ doesn’t come with the morning post.

But it is the experience that matters, and the writing of the experience, not the author. Surely that is clear nowadays, when the reader is ready to throw the writer out of the window. That’s one answer. The other, from a completely different perspective, is that ‘we love other people’s lives: we need their focus.’ People, with all their oddities, are like us. Writers, therefore, are not only allowed to write what they want – they must. It is a duty they owe to the truth. One hopes the art is the proof of the truth.

People have mostly been kind. Goodness knows, we need our critics, and insight and careful analysis can only strengthen the will to write well. I could do with more criticism. I could also do with less. Hence, I tend to respond with disbelief.

[from ‘Mairi MacInnes in Conversation’ at 80]

~

Hugh Haughton has chosen two of his favourite poems and comments on them here in ‘MacInnes and the Place of Time’:

Mairi MacInnes’s poems work like long-exposure photographs. I love the grainy and ferociously grounded sense they give of specific places, viewed close-up but through the medium of time and the undimmed eyes of a survivor.

Invited to choose two poems from Amazing Memories, I have lit on a pair that dwell simultaneously in two places at once, or which are, as Seamus Heaney puts it, ‘bi-located.’

The first, ‘In York Minster’, dwells in the present on one of the most numinous historical buildings in England, but takes off from a memory of an earlier time in Spain (‘Remember how they said in Aranjuez / in dry Castile that the town trees were prodigies / because there were rivers underground / watering their roots?’) It goes on to reflect on the differences between the places, naming the different rivers in York and insisting the Minster is not a giant tree but ‘only stone, bare stone, magnesium / limestone, not wood.’ Having materially and nominally grounded the building (and the poem) in its actual place, however, the end conjures a magical convergence of the woods of Castile and the Yorkshire stone, viewing the cathedral’s mighty towers as like ‘stone oaks’ and the light ‘filtered as in a wood’ and people’s voices like ‘a rustle of birds in the undergrowth.’ At the close, the two places meet and marry, as she says: ‘I walk in the nave and remember Aranjuez.’

The second poem ‘Waking’ opens vertiginously by conjuring ‘A hole in the air off the isle of Lundy, / a hole in the head on the pillow this night.’ Thereafter it flips back and forward giddily between the dawn view from her bedroom in the present and memories of ‘a cauldron of black and white puffins aflash’ on the little island of Lundy, where she dwells on the birds ‘clumping together in rafts’ and going on to ‘nest on cliffs and in burrows.’ Again, the effect is to be in two places at once, and both aerial and deep-grounded, both with the birds in their nests, and the final shot of the young milkman ‘serving these houses like a messenger.’

In both poems, I find what MacInnes calls ‘Otherness’ and another of her poems describes as ‘other worlds that move / like ships at sea, faintly visible …’.

IN YORK MINSTER

Remember how they said in Aranjuez
in dry Castile that the town trees were prodigies
because there were rivers underground
watering the roots? No rivers run under York:
when they dug a cave under the Minster floor
to pour new footing for the crossing tower
lest it collapse, they found only a drain,
a runnel oozed out of the compressed clay,
runt of the brotherhood Ouse, Seven, Seph,
Riccal, Dove, Foss, Rye, Derwent, Hodge Beck,
that spread upon our plain and keep it green.
If in the crypt you sense that giant trees root here
you err. Above is only stone, bare stone, magnesium
limestone, not wood; and yet the mighty towers
leaf like stone oaks, the window tracery flowers,
the transepts are two boughs, the light on us
is filtered as in a wood, people’s voices
arrive with the rustle of birds in the undergrowth,
and I walk in the nave and remember Aranjuez.

WAKING

A hole in the air off the isle of Lundy,
a hole in a head on the pillow this night,
holes in the air, in the head, one in the other, containing
a cauldron of black and white puffins aflash,
aflash as they whirr and soar and plummet,
each like a well-flung bottle with trailing ribbon of feet
and a red and blue lozenge of a beak
in a white head that’s striped through the eye.

The last hour of night. The windows pale.
Quiet. The milkman hasn’t yet clanked up the path
nor the postman or newsboy come tramping,
the letterbox lid hasn’t yet clacked.
The geese haven’t flown over the gardens,
wings creaking like doors, giving each other advice.
True, the sky has winched a crack
of clear white line over the rooftops,
true that pigeons clatter up from the ash trees
(but now they clatter back).
A blackbird practises one phrase and then another.
Has someone spoken? No one.
Was that the telephone? No.

The puffins lift off from rocks by the sea,
from the floor of the bucket of mind
and the hole in the air off Lundy:
till, as they fling down the sky just this once
again and rashly mount to summit grass,
cramp strikes human legs, with sling-shot accuracy.
Some watcher on the cliffs has got me.
I slip from my bed and hobble the cold floor
(puffins falling through the enormous air),
and, yes, my legs come gradually free,
and words fly out once more
like puffins after winter storms spent on the great sea,
clumping together in rafts: in April
they break camp and whirr to the greening land
and nest on cliffs in burrows, and hatch their young;
and I that after all have no part in their kind
watch the milkman come, still a youngish man,
serving these houses like a messenger.

[from Amazing Memories of Childhood, Etc.]

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Poet of the Week – 18: Adrian Blamires

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—18: ADRIAN BLAMIRES

Adrian Blamires was born in Cornwall in 1964, near the Culdrose naval base where his father was stationed with the Fleet Air Arm. He spent his first ten years in various towns in the south of England before a move north to Lancashire. He now lives in Reading with his wife and son. His main career has been as an English teacher in sixth form colleges; he currently works at The Henley College. In 2017 he completed a PhD in Renaissance drama at the University of Reading, where he also taught on the English and Creative Writing programmes. He is the author of two collections of poetry, The Effect of Coastal Processes (2005) and The Pang Valley (2010), both from Two Rivers Press. Eliza’s Entertainments, a Tudor-themed pamphlet produced in collaboration with the artist, Robert Fitzmaurice, was published in 2015.

Adrian Blamires writes:

My mum recently discovered a poem I wrote when I was about ten years old, a rhyming squib on the school Sports Day. I have no recollection of it and haven’t yet been reacquainted with anything other than an unfortunate line about ‘girls’ behinds’ which amused my mum. This poem pre-dates by two or three years my earliest memory of actually writing a poem, a homework task I found excruciating, having nothing to say and no facility for saying it. In the end I decided, for no good reason, to describe a floating bubble. I wrote in free verse – I’d evidently been told that poems don’t have to rhyme – and produced several lines of ‘waft’ and ‘iridescence’ before ending with the word ‘POP!’ in capital letters. It prompted a succinct critique in red biro: 6/10. Sad.

I’m intrigued by my mother’s discovery because most of the poems I’ve written as an adult rhyme. I don’t have any ‘new formalist’ agenda, no sense that rhyme is integral to poetry; I simply struggle (still) to write in free verse. No spire without a scaffold. Out of the initiatory babble and doodle (Northrop Frye’s terms) it’s nearly always a rhyme which catches my ear, my eye, and about which a poem starts to take shape. It’s a choice of instrument, I guess – a period-instrument, perhaps, but one that I hope still lends itself to lyricism in the here and now.

Juvenilia might be on my mind because I’m starting to write poems again after several fallow years. Intensive farming leaches the land, of course, and I’ve been happy enough to wander uncultivated fields, admiring lady’s smock and milk-thistle, only occasionally visiting those marshy spots where old, failed poems despondently lie. But after this phase of mental rewilding, I’m learning anew the pleasure of planting, and even trying out different ways of doing things. Almost inevitably though, the first few shoots have leaves that rhyme.

INTRODUCTION TO VIRGIL

in memory of Gerry Nussbaum

As Gerry read from The Aeneid, Book VI,
His quick fingers hesitated over the braille
(The skiff yet to leave the margins of the Styx),
Having sensed a shift in the lecture theatre,
Always alert to a flaw, a faltering metre.
All eyes followed a paper plane’s slow trail.
Someone stifled a laugh. I still feel the smart,
Each time it descends, that poison-tipped dart.

There’s something more I summon from that hour,
As he continued with his passage – And this is how
It sounds in Latin – a conjuring of vatic power,
The changed voice, an ancient otherworldly boom,
A sonorous authority that held the room:
Virgil himself presenting a shield, a golden bough,
To the boy from Köln, eight years old, whose eyesight fades,
Passing through a throng of six million shades.

[From The Pang Valley]

OS EXPLORER DRESS

Her degree-show dress,
…….never-before-worn,
was based on a map
……….of where she was born.

Green-sewn woodlands,
…….streams of blue thread,
a permitted bridleway
……….in long-stitch red.

‘I was christened here
…….by the River Frome.’
A church with a spire
……….in the contoured combe.

[uncollected]

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Poet of the Week – 17: Kate Noakes

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—17: KATE NOAKES

Kate Noakes is a poet and non-fiction writer now living in London, previously resident in Caversham, Reading, for over thirty years. Her seventh and most recent collection is The Filthy Quiet (Parthian, 2019), which received enthusiastic reviews in Poetry Wales, Poetry London and from the Poetry Book Society. Alumna of Reading University, she reviews poetry for The North and cultural website, London Grip, amongst others, and acts as a trustee for London writer development organisation, Spread the Word. Real Hay-on-Wye, her personal take on that famous place, is forthcoming from Seren this year. She is widely published in magazines in the UK, Europe and beyond, and has been asked to read at festivals and reading series all over the country, most notably Poetry at Aldeburgh in 2019. Her content-rich website, which is archived by the National Library of Wales, is at www.boomslangpoetry.blogspot.com. Her poetic subjects vary from the environment, to contemporary culture, and autobiography.

Kate Noakes writes:

The Wall Menders was published by TRP over ten years ago. That doesn’t seem possible, but it is. The theme of this collection is the destruction of the planet, and hopeful suggestions for how to live harmoniously on it in the future. The volume is organised in two distinct sections: the worrisome and the positive. Distressingly, the topic has not gone away, in fact things have become a great deal worse, and my latest manuscript, entitled Goldhawk Road, and which I am busy editing, is threaded with rather bleaker poems on climate change, pollution, species loss and the like. It is hard to remain hopeful a decade later, but I try. My next poetry project concerns the lungs and breathing. I started work on this about a year ago, long before anyone had heard of Covid 19, but not before the BLM quote: ‘I can’t breathe’ came into common parlance as a protest slogan. This book focuses on my personal experience as a lifelong asthmatic and more recently a Covid sufferer (don’t worry, I’ve recovered, or at least I think I have). It’s not as depressing as it sounds, I promise.

The poem I have chosen from The Wall Menders is the title poem. The scenario is a former miner and his son building a drystone wall; the father being glad his son did not have to follow him down the pit. It is a father doing the speaking and not a mother as several critics have mis-interpreted it. That pesky ‘I’ in poems always causes trouble. I have not read this poem for years, until asked to write this piece. I am still rather pleased with its music and description.

THE WALL MENDERS

I see him now as a man:
my boy and I work together
making music of boulder and grit,
passing stones over this growing wall.

We fill the brief space between us
with small notes, flat, sharp,
coming closer in building a barrier
that forgets the contours of the fells.

I see him now in the air
and never-harming rain, a man spared
the heat of the pit. We make
our own small monuments.

We were here and we thought about
scored coping, lunkies for sheep,
made stiles and badger smoots
and paused for breath on the mossy clefts.

I might hear the gush of water
pumped from galleries and shafts,
whispers of re-hiring. But I’m too old
and spoiled by the open.

My boy lacks the skills of prop, board
and pick, spends his days
in this uplifting labour, his voice
quavering between whistle and hum.

[from The Wall Menders]

THE SICK SPRING

Thirteenth March, a Friday with which comes
a most lauded play, Stoppard’s last contract:
Vienna, and a family succumbs,
fortunes and losses in Leopoldstadt.

I am treated to the stalls by a friend
of a friend, a nice man I do not know.
His cancelled cultural holiday ends
with a short email critique of the show.

I give him scenes, chronology, pictures,
timings avoiding history’s clichés;
how I stepped into busy Leicester Square –
with foreboding that hurried me away.

And how I scurried home to a semi-death:
headache, sore throat, cough, and struggling for breath.

[uncollected]

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Poet of the Week – 16: Jack Thacker

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—16: JACK THACKER

Jack Thacker was born in 1989 and grew up on a small farm in Herefordshire. His poems have appeared in numerous magazines, including PN Review, Stand, The Clearing and Caught by the River, as well as on BBC Radio 4. In 2016, he won the Charles Causley International Poetry Competition. He has been poet in residence at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading and is currently the ArtfulScribe writer in residence at Lighthouse, Poole. His debut gathering of poems, Handling, was published by Two Rivers Press in 2018.

Jack Thacker writes:

I only started reading and writing poetry seriously in my early twenties, and the two practices have continued to inform each other ever since. I recall being in the second year of an English degree at the University of York and feeling a bit lost. What had started out as pure pleasure, the study of literature, had begun to feel a bit like a chore. I wasn’t getting the grades I hoped for and was finding writing essays increasingly difficult. Looking back now, I was probably burnt out, but at the time it felt like I was suddenly overthinking things, when before I had been able to trust my instincts.

One evening, when I was sitting idly reading, a voice entered my head. It sounded as though it was being spoken from underground, as if emerging from a badger sett or a warren. I couldn’t make out the words, but the sound of the voice, the gravity of it, felt familiar. For quite a while I couldn’t remember when or where I had heard it before. Then, suddenly, it dawned on me. In the very first seminar I had attended at York we had looked at a poem by Ted Hughes, one of his best-known poems, ‘The Thought Fox’, and I had listened to a recording of Hughes himself reading that poem on The Poetry Archive website in preparation for the seminar. It was unmistakable: the voice I could hear was Hughes’s.

This all sounds very Hughesian, doesn’t it – a tamer retelling of his own burnt fox dream, that talismanic origin story of ‘The Thought Fox’ and the moment Hughes decided, for the sake of his poetry, to switch from English to Anthropology. I stuck with English, and soon got back on track, but subliminal or not, whether genuine or a product of hindsight, I look back on that moment as significant in terms of my own awakening as a poet.

As soon as I placed Hughes’s voice, I returned to the recording and listened to him reading other poems as well. The real revelation came with ‘February 17th’, written during a period Hughes spent farming in Devon. Having grown up on a farm myself, I immediately recognised the scenario described in the poem – its messiness and its rawness. I had a go at writing my own poems about my upbringing on a farm. The first few were clearly pastiches of Hughes and Seamus Heaney, but I soon began to find my own voice, as it were.

I’ve spent a whole decade now writing those kinds of poems. They were the poems I absolutely had to write. Now that I’ve written them, I’m looking forward to writing about other subjects under different influences. The natural world will always be a rich source of inspiration, but my life is very different now. I’m always listening out for both new and old voices in case they should enter my head.

FOOT AND MOUTH
Lindsay Anderson (1955)

A farm somewhere in England, sometime
in Autumn. This is Bury Farm,
its crops, livestock (soon to be buried).
It’s November now. How to read
the signs but not commit yourself –
leave that to officials. For this calf,
too late. The whole thing’s deadly efficient:
a touch / a tyre / a train / a footprint.

The poetry survives. It’s not in the voice
explaining protocol, it lies in the face
of a woman watching (shots off-screen),
shot of a herd, of a vet, of a gun,
shot of an empty field on a hill,
shot of a farmer shot of it all.

[from Handling]

‘I, Sheep’, a collaboration with filmmakers James Rattee and Teresa Murjas, from the Department of Film, Theatre and Television at the University of Reading, is a filmpoem created across two years, which interlaces poetry, film and performance to explore the relationship between intangible cultural heritage and sheep consciousness. It is part of the larger project at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading called The Museum of the Intangible funded by Arts Council England.

The premiere of ‘I, Sheep’ is on July 24th 2020.

HOW DO YOU GRIEVE?

I knew a sister who lost her lambs
inside her. It took her
too long to recover –

her face was never the same.
She lost her wool, she lost
in truth, her purpose.

Day after day, she just stood there.
She absorbed them. That’s how we grieve
when we grieve

for the weather,
for ourselves in winter,
for the ground in the endless wet.

We spend our lives in mourning.
We never forget.
Move on.

DOES THE SUNRISE STARTLE YOU?

Yes, every morning, every single one.
Nothing can prepare you for the arrival of the sun.

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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]