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Poet of the Week – 7: Susan Utting


Susan Utting was born in South London, moved twenty times in forty years, then settled, after a fashion, in Berkshire. Notions of home, identity and where she comes from frequently feature in her writing, and are explored in her most recent work, along with the shifting lives of other women. After a patchy education (she failed the 11+) and a series of undemanding jobs, she was persuaded by an employer to apply to Reading University to read English. She gained a first-class degree, went on to study Creative Writing at Sussex University, which she then taught at Reading for more than 17 years.

Susan’s awards include an Arts Council Laureateship, a Poetry Business Prize, The Berkshire Poetry Prize, The Peterloo Prize, and a writing fellowship at Reading’s School of English and American Literature. Last year she was a winner in the Bristol International Short Story Competition. Her poems have been widely published, including in The Times, TLS, The Independent, Forward Book of Poetry, The Poetry Review and Poems on the Underground. Her work was selected by the London Poetry Library to be recorded for Poetry International at the South Bank Centre, where it was broadcast with various international poets’ work. Her latest Two Rivers Press collection, Half the Human Race, follows and includes selections from three earlier books: Striptease (Smith/Doorstop), Houses Without Walls and Fair’s Fair (Two Rivers Press).

Susan Utting writes:

Some time ago I was asked to say in no more than twenty words, where my poems came from. I said: ‘from an itch at the solar-plexus, a corner of my mind’s eye, or in through my ear like insistent music’. A lot has happened to me and my writing since then, but the answer still stands. A poem’s imminent generation is physical: an itch, a glimpse; and I have always had a love of the sounds of words, their musicality. As a pre-reading child I would repeat in my head like a chant a new word or phrase I liked the sound of cylinder, Hollander, colander kiosk for example, as quoted in my poem Catechism. When I began to learn the meanings of words, that a word could have more than one meaning, it felt like magic. I did live ‘in a place with beech in its name’ and the fact that that word (all this before I knew about spelling) could be a tree as well as a stony place by the sea at Brighton where my grandparents lived, was a revelation.

My poems have to sound good, out loud and in my head, and be rhythmical too. Rhythm is natural to me: it’s simply the way words emerge. I grew up with the rhythms of dance – my parents taught ballroom dancing. My mother was a talented all-round dancer – which I think may explain this.

I was delighted when the poet-reviewer Philip Gross wrote: ‘Utting unashamedly loves language…’ I do. I love the meanings and subtleties of language, the varieties of what words really mean, have come to mean, can mean and also mean – all those correlations and resonances. One of my most treasured reference books is a dictionary of etymology. I enjoy finding and making new connections between disparate words, ideas and narratives. E. M. Forster’s ‘only connect’ is a phrase frequently in my mind.

I have always striven for clarity in all my writing, but I think we can respond to a poem on an emotional level without necessarily understanding every word, every notion or image. If it engages us on first reading, intrigues or moves us in some way, we will read and re-read it, live with its language, imagery, rhythms and cadences. I believe that all poetry should be accessible, eventually.

Over the years my work has explored many areas of experience, many topics of fascination. When I first began performing my poetry I was described as a feminist poet. Though I would prefer the term ‘womanist’, I think engaging with, examining and showing the lives and situations of women has been a constant in my work. That became clear while putting together a New & Selected: ‘the lives of women, particularly those who are too often overlooked, unseen, hidden or silenced’. I want to make those all-important connections, to understand the lives of others while examining my own. I write poems in an effort to unpick the tangle of ideas and memories, of emotions and preoccupations in my head. Making patterns of words on a page is the best and most pleasurable way I know of doing it.


My skin is glass paper, a gravelly rub, the tips
of my fingers are match heads; my leg-bones
click-clack, syncopate to the floorboards, their
whiplash and skitter. Stairs are a tap-dance,
metal-tipped; there’s a hum I’d forgotten,
a knock I can’t place, music I don’t remember.

I swallow; there’s an echo, liquid as liquid,
then high at the back, the plumbing’s hi-hatting,
tom-tomming. And my voice! It’s a reedy song
– hush-hush it, girl, save it for later –
For now, plastic bags are maracas, tap water’s
Niagara, the plughole’s a Looney Toons glug.

Outside, I’m eavesdropping the world,
its chirrup and whoosh, its overhead roar,
its ten o’clock wail, tittle-tattle, its holler
and clank. A single magpie: its dirty croak
is a joy. I scratch an itch and my fingernails
thrill, I’m alight with the noise of myself.

At the flick of a switch I was wired.
Now I’ve fallen, coup de foudre, a sucker
– go on, say it, girl! out loud! – a lover
of sound, head-over-heels with cacophony.

[from Half the Human Race: New & Selected Poems]


Wear a headscarf, long wool skirt, solid boots.
Sit on a folding canvas stool in the precinct
where the people flow and spend; unfold
a blanket like a river over your knees.

Bear the fine rain, horizontal wind, smile,
drift, be here but elsewhere: stretch a blanket
like an ocean over your sleeping daughters,
your one son, hum the song that soothes,

keep the words you know by heart, inside,
synchronise your breath with theirs, soft,
softer still, tuck the blanket tighter, closer;
dare to daydream home.

[First published in Poetry & All that Jazz (2019)]

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Two poems by Susan Utting

Two poems by Susan Utting, both inspired by workshops at Reading Museum, led by Adrian Blamires and Lesley Saunders, the first at the “Oscar Wilde As Critic” exhibition, and the second a workshop looking at medieval artworks in the Museum, in this case the Bayeux Tapestry.

The Value of Nothing

“Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer”

Oscar Wilde: The Critic as Artist


The girl who stares into space is on detention, again,

for insubordination.

For insubordination read

daydreaming, that other world reached quietly by

means of dust-mote moving staircases, by way of


For silences read dumb ignorance, read

indolence, read downright insolence; by means of helter-

skelter slides through city-dirt-encrusted windows, across

playground tarmac, over regulation iron railings, over

pavements, along gutters,

(for gutters read star-gazers’ resting places)

down alleyways and entries, down muddy lanes to tree places,

up tree trunks, through the scratch of branches, slap of rain-

bedraggled leaves, up-up-away and through to where they know

the value of the nothing in her head:

that painted place that zigzags,

coils and skitters her to other lands, to anywhere she fancies,

where they know the priceless,

fiery possibilities of indolence.



The Ladies of the Leek Embroidery Society Copy the Bayeux Tapestry


Miss Edith Wardle, Miss Frost of Derby, Mrs C Gwynne, Miss Gater


Our fingertips bear witness to our labour, our thimble

fingers wither, pale beneath their metal caps. Poor, dear

Elizabeth has grown quite thin, round-backed from stooping

for The Ride to Bosham, and Phoebe’s wrists grew stiff when

Harold Sailed the Sea – the tedium of all those waves,

stem-stitchery in scalloped flourish after flourish!


Miss Gillett of Garfield, Miss F Pattinson, Mrs Watson, Miss Parker


We envied Mary Edith, though it was a stretch, as she

worked her magic on the comet, that miracle in the sky

for which her long back pained her for weeks beyond

the final knot and bitten yarn. Emily’s huddled witnesses

stared up amazed at what she’d made. Day after long day

we embroidered on, couch stitch, stem stitch, myth and men,


Miss Turnock, Miss Bentley, Mrs Worthington, Mrs Charles Smith


horse and great ship, cock and raven, hawk and bow and arrow,

broidered canopy, broad shield, legend, history. We have sewn

ourselves into the woof and warp of cloth, thread by thread

picked up precisely till, spellbound by our own crafting,

our needlepoints have made a chain, a sisterhood that holds us

here: read our names, these are our stories. Read us here.


Miss Clowes, Miss Lunn, Miss Garside, Miss A Allen, Mrs Iliffe …

SUSAN UTTING was born in South London, moved twenty times in forty years, then settled, after a fashion, in Berkshire. Her collections of poetry include Half the Human Race, Striptease, Houses Without Walls and Fair’s Fair.

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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

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.