Equinoctial

 It’s just that time of year when we push ourselves ahead, we push ourselves ahead.

(Dar Williams, ‘The End of the Summer’)

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Autumn equinox will be reached in the early hours of Tuesday 23rd September. 2.29 am GMT. A good point from which to reconsider both the season past, and the season arriving.

I’m travelling up to Glasgow every week now for my new lectureship at the University of Strathclyde, and I’m full of that peculiar mixture of excitement and sadness a new term in a new place always seems to bring.

The next major event in my poetry calendar is the Wordpool Poetry Prize Awards Ceremony on National Poetry Day (Thursday October 2nd) as part of a day of poetry events Wordpool are hosting. After the winners and commended poems are announced, and we hear the poems, a coach will take everyone round to the site of the poetry illumination, and the winner will switch it on. An animated film of the winning poem is being made, along with the illumination, and I can’t wait to see what the artists have created. I’m pretty excited. Dr. Who has touched that switch, in two different regenerations. As David Tennant noted when he switched the illuminations on in ’07, ‘Red Rum once did this with his hoof’. It’s not often poets get a chance to stand alongside timelords and race horses in any listing, so this will be rather special.

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Not ideas about the thing.

I’ve had a strange and wonderful few weeks, so strange and wonderful I hardly know what to write about it.

Last month I found out I’d won New Writing North’s Andrew Waterhouse Prize – a development prize awarded in the memory of the poet Andrew Waterhouse, for a selection of poems which ‘reflect a strong sense of place or the natural environment.’ I can’t overstate how much this means to me, both in terms of recognition and financial support. I still can’t quite believe it’s real.

The awards were announced at a dinner event at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle on May 17th, made extra special by the fact I knew five of the other six winning poets already – Andrew Forster, Andrew McMillan, Kim Moore, Phoebe Power, and Ben Wilkinson – through connections with the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere and Lancaster University. The sixth, Julian Turner, turned out to have been a frequent visitor to Grasmere when Paul Farley was in residence at the Wordsworth Trust.  Ben – who I had met only a few weeks beforehand, when he was launching his Smith/Doorstep Poetry Business Prize-winning pamphlet For Real at the Wordsworth Trust – brought previous Wordsworth Trust poet-in-residence Helen Mort as his guest. My partner and I had driven over with current Wordsworth Trust poet-in-residence Zaffar Kunial, who won a Northern Writer’s Award last year. Maybe hope really does rise up under Grasmere.

I was also delighted to recognise the winner of the Cuckoo Young Writer’s Prize, Jasmine Simms, and highly commended Ila Colley, from the shortlist of the Lancaster Writing Awards this year. Everyone seemed to be deeply impressed by Jasmine’s poems (read on a video message as she was busy revising for an A Level the next morning) and I only wish we could have heard more from the winning writers.

A good year for the poets of the North-West, it seems, in a prize that until last year only took entries from the North-East.

On Saturday 21st, I went down to Manchester to attend the Poets and Players awards reading. My poem ‘Causeway’ had been placed second by judge Vona Groake – another very welcome boost both to bank account and confidence. It was great to hear from the other winners, and from Vona, plus some amazing improv music from Corey Mwamba and David Kane. The winning and commended poems, with judge’s reports, are up on the website, including Kim Moore’s ‘How Wolves Change Rivers’. The event, including Vona’s reading, was filmed, and can be watched on the Poets and Players Youtube Channel. The Lancaster University Creative Writing MA Showcase was on that evening at the Gregson Centre, and I managed to catch some of my excellent ex-students doing their stuff before chasing the last of the long light evening home. I came away with a copy of the great MA anthology Lightsink, and issue 6 of Cake, to keep me busy.

The day before, I’d found out Shadow Dispatches has been shortlisted for the Lakeland Book of Year.

Just before all of this, I’d found out I’ve got a three year Lectureship in English and Creative Writing at Strathclyde, starting in September, and a Knowledge Exchange fellowship to cover a research trip to Canada in August. Those two bits of amazing news even came on the same day.

This week things have got back to normal, with a rejection from a literary development programme. I think it’s important to talk more openly about the things we don’t succeed with, the prizes we don’t win, the jobs we don’t get. I’ve been thinking about this a lot this year, after reading something by an accomplished poetry tutor which suggested they considered their students to be ‘failing’ in some way if they weren’t winning prizes with their work. This made me so sad – for the students, for the tutor, and for the poetry world. Is this really what things have come to? Is that really how we judge a poet’s worth – not on the work itself, but on the prestige of the prizes it bags?

Back in April, Jessica Maliphant, an old friend from my undergrad days, wrote a post on facebook about the #100daysofhappiness phenomenon, calling instead for #100daysofreality – for showing one another the full spectrum of daily disasters and little earthquakes that even the best bits of our lives are really made of. Her argument was that things like #100daysofhappiness – all those instagrammed meals and holiday shots – create a false performance of our lives as a string of perfected moments, and encourage us to place ourselves in competition with our peers, even our close friends, in some spurious contest to win the most likes for the best life. So a hundred days of happiness actually equates to a hundred days of judging oneself against a fictionalised version of our friends’ and acquaintances’ lives. More often than not, we will find ourself lacking, even as someone else is judging themselves against our lives and feeling the same. She has now co-authored a blog post exploring these tensions – ‘Sharenting: Raising a Footprint’ – with another old friend, Dr. Sarah Martindale, who is now a researcher in the area of Digital Economies.

In some ways I think these questions are even more pertinent for our professional lives. Does the humble-brag default mode of social media encourage us all to judge ourselves not against our own potential, but those partial glimpses of our peers’ successes?  I’d also been drawn to Uschi Gatward’s Mslexia Blog, in which she is keeping a public record of all her submissions, rejections and successes this year. I’m not brave enough to do that in public, though I’ve been doing it in private for years. Sometimes it’s demoralising flicking through page after page of struck through submissions, but I made a pact with a friend a long time ago to see every rejection as part of a movement forward. It’s hard to convince yourself of that sometimes. Just before all this good news came, I had spent a night in tears of frustration over missing out on a great opportunity. You can’t be successful with everything. I suspect most, if not all, of us go through phases in which it seems like we’re successful with nothing. The only thing that helps me, when I feel like that, is to concentrate on the one thing that I think really matters – the work itself. This might be a kind of magical thinking, but I still believe that if you keep developing, keep pushing yourself to make the best work you can, the work will make it’s own success. It might not look like an infinity pool, but it will be as real as anything you know.

Over the summer, I’ll be judging Blackpool Wordpool‘s first poetry competition. I’m reading at the festival on July 4th to launch the competition, the theme of which will be ‘Light’. The prize winning poem will be made into an illumination and turned on on National Poetry Day in October. Please do send in your luminous words. I’ll be reading every entry, and reading them alert to how much difference winning something can make to a writer, at any stage of their writing life.

 

 

And the mountains, the mountains are dancing.

After a few hibernatory months, Spring demands action.

Here are details of three events I’m taking part in during April in Lancashire and Cumbria:

On April 10th 2014 I’ll be reading at April Poets, along with Yvonne Reddick, Mark Carson, and Ron Baker, with music from Jonathan Tansley.

On April 26th 2014 I’ll be reading at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal as part of the Quiet Compere tour of the North. Other readers on this night are Kim Moore, Sarah Miller, Geraldine Green, Josephine Dickinson, Susan Deer Cloud, Mark Mace Smith, Nick Pemberton, and Marvin Cheeseman. Ann Wilson will guest host, supporting organiser and Quiet Compere, Sarah L Dixon. It starts at 7.45, and tickets are £5/£2 concessions.

On April 30th I’ll be one of many poets (20 definitely in, last count!) taking part in the launch of Heavenly Bodies, an anthology of stellar poems, one for each of the constellations. 7.30 at the Judges Lodgings, China Street, Lancaster. Free entry.

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On Transparency and Self-Reflection

This week I went back up to Dumfries to see my window poem, which has just been installed in the upper landing of the Globe Inn, next to the Burns Room with its historical etchings.

'Forecast' at the Globe Inn, Dumfries

I love the way the text is mediated by the transparency and reflective qualities of the glass.

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Next door, Hugh Bryden showed us Burns’ original etchings (and those of some followers) in the thick, antique glass.

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Burns seems to have had quite a penchant for writing on glass of all kinds. He was given a diamond stylus by James Cunninghamme, the Earl of Glencairn, and used it to make his mark on windows across Scotland, and several glasses. Some of these etchings got him in trouble at the time, either for their content, or for the vandalistic nature of the act.

In Dumfries’ Burns’ House Museum, his signature in an upstairs window is encased by a brass plaque, presumably to stop tourists from adding their own monikers, as they have on the adjoining panes.

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(I call this ‘Self Portrait in Burns’ Signature’)

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I’m putting a diamond stylus on my Birthday and Christmas lists but not expecting much.

Windows for Burns.

Full of melancholy, the Wordsworth party recite Burns’ poetry over his grave in what feels to them a fitting ceremony of remembrance. The party are struck by the view of their native mountains from Burns Country, and the recital (Burns works), the landscape, the physical presence of the corpse, and the feeling of neighbourliness become interlinked in Wordsworth’s mind.

Dorothy writes: ‘These lines recurred to William’s Memory, and we talked of Burns, and of the prospect he must have had, perhaps from his own door, of Skiddaw and his companions […] we might have been personally known to each other, and he have looked upon those objects with more pleasure for our sakes.’
(‘Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland’, August 18th, 1803).

Extract from ”A kind of Second Life’: Narrating the Wordsworthian Grave’ a paper I gave at the Wordsworth Summer Conference, 2013.

This is the third year that contemporary poems have been displayed on the windows of the Globe Inn, and Coach and Horses Inn, in Dumfries, around Burns’ Night. The Burns Windows Project was conceived by Dumfrieshire artist-poet Hugh Bryden of Roncadora Press, and scholar Dave Borthwick (who works on Contemporary Poetry, Scottish Literature and Ecocriticism), as a way to both commemorate and reinvigorate Burns’ own etchings on the windows of the Globe. The aim was to show poetry and Burns’ heritage were both alive and well in Dumfries and beyond.

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Last year, I was asked to write a review of the project for The British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies website. From the review, you might get an idea of how many of my passions intersect with this project – a scholarly concern with literary tourism and how literary places become significant sites, muddled up with interest in placing contemporary poetry in the community; placing contemporary poetry in sites of historical literary significance; poetry as inscription/artefact/art.

What might not be clear is my personal attachment to Dumfries. My beloved maternal grandfather, Nicky Muir, was born in Dumfries, and was deeply proud of the Burns’ connection. He grew up on the street leading to Burns’ grave.  When he married my grandmother, Peggy, they made their home in Eastriggs, where I spent many happy visits. My visit to Dumfries to see the Burns’ windows last year was the first time I had spent a day there since my Grandmother died. It was a good way to revisit.

Dorothy Wordsworth was not impressed with Dumfries in 1803. As a growing commercial town it seemed particularly unfitting:

We could think of little else but poor Burns, and his moving about on that unpoetic ground. […] there is no thought surviving in connexion with Burns’s daily life that is not heart-depressing.

Eastriggs and Dumfries both appear, albeit un-named, in my first pamphlet ‘bone song’, in ‘Green Apples’, a poem which marked ten years passing since my Grandmother’s death in the Dumfries Infirmary:

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These are the things I remember from that summer:
the cloying scent of the Tendre Poison I was given for my birthday,
bought on the ferry, duty-free, before we drove to Tuscany,

before the stammered phone-call brought the two of us back early,
not home, but in-between somewhere, my mother’s childhood country,
where we filled the house with living but it already echoed, empty,

where I slept like a wolf in granny’s bed and ate granny-smith apples.
These are the things I remember: the cold blue sky of a Scottish summer
the greyness of the streets, a thick pink quilt, a checked orange dress,

green hospital walls and green apples like the green hills of Tuscany
like the hospital grounds, my perfume bottle, green like the emerald city,
and her face, her face so strange, white like the white apple flesh.

Before Christmas, I found out that my poem ‘Forecast’, displayed as part of last year’s Burns Windows Project, had been chosen to be this year’s permanent addition to the Globe. It’s a very strange thing to think of my words being etched onto glass and installed in such a site of literary significance. Even stranger to wonder what my grandparents would’ve made of it. Maybe it’s particularly fitting that one of Burns’ own verses was praising the charms of a long-dead Polly.

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Burns’ verses to Lovely Polly Stewart on the windows of the Globe Inn

So today, I been sitting on my side of the mountains in Wordsworth Country, and thinking of Burns, Dumfries, and my own Dumfrieshire antecedents (Blacklocks and Muirs, mostly stone masons and farm-workers). I’ve been thinking particularly about neighbourliness, poetry, place and belonging, and where and how these things intersect.

If you can get to Dumfries to see the poems displayed, do. There is something magic about the poems flickering in the pub windows; the words read through the reflections. If you can’t, why not order Roncadora’s beautiful hand-stitched pamphlet of last year’s window poems?