Polly Atkin

shadow dispatches

Tag: Poetry

The Rabbits Are Us: thoughts on 2016

 

 

IV

our touching hearts slenderly comprehend
(clinging as fingers,loving one another
gradually into hands)and bend
into the huge disaster of the year:

like this most early single star which tugs

weakly at twilight,caught in thickening fear
our slightly fingering spirits starve and smother;
until autum abruptly wholly hugs

our dying silent minds,which hand in hand
at some window try to understand
the
(through pale miles of perishing air,haunted
with huddling infinite wishless melancholy,
suddenly looming)accurate undaunted

moon’s bright third tumbling slowly

eecummings

 

Perhaps we should have known, when the January opened with the death of David Bowie, swiftly followed by the death of Alan Rickman, that this year was going to test faith in heroes and in possibility. Like the dolphins fleeing the doomed Earth in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, they were the canaries in the collapsing mine of 2016.¹ In April they were joined by Prince, and people blamed the year itself, as though it were sentient, and angry with us for some unknown reason. As though we had messed it up.

I could say this accounts for the terrible presentiment I had before the Brexit vote, and again before the American presidential election, that the shared rhetoric of hate and division would triumph. I had a funny feeling in my toe: a feeling of blood creeping over the fields. The rabbits are us

I don’t normally write a yearly review. Who wants to know what I thought about the year? But this year is exceptional. Many people seem to be finding the events of 2016 hard to process. I process things by writing about them, so forgive me if my thoughts are half-formed or reaching without conclusion.

Viewers of the US sitcom Community will be familiar with the terms darkest timeline and gas leak year.

 

Both scenarios – for very different reasons (parallel world/chaos theory and the sacking of the series creator as showrunner for season 4) – result in people acting out of character in horrible, humiliating, destructive ways, and in events running out of control as a consequence.

 

 

2016 seems a convergence of both gasleak and darkest timeline. After the American election, I saw a number of memes referring to the darkest timeline, and to the time-travel narratives being evoked by Community. I saw tweets that blamed Barry Allen (currently messing up his own Earth in season three of The Flash) or called on Keira Cameron of Continuum to try and correct things (which never goes well, I should say). Many referenced the capitalist dystopia of Back to the Future II, not least because Biff was based on Trump.

The week that Trump took the White House, the salt in the wound for many was the death of Leonard Cohen. Two men who couldn’t seem more averse. Like many, I have felt this year that we are losing our wisest elders: those who can point to the crack the light will still come through, when all we find is darkness, and the death hour rounding it.

The year closed has closed with another spate of losses – George Michael, Richard Adams, Carrie Fisher, and then her mother, Debbie Reynolds. People who seem to have taught generations how to think, feel, believe in themselves, express themselves.

Perhaps the folly is hanging so much on so few. We need new heroes; new cultural leaders to show us a model of an inclusive, nurturing world, in which people of all backgrounds, abilities, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations can thrive.

In the aftermath of Trump’s unthinkable triumph, people seemed to turn to the literary world,  particularly to poetry, to show them another way.  Two days after Trump was elected, we had our annual poetry month at Grasmere Book Group, and read, amongst others, the poem that opens this post. The group had chosen ‘love poems’ as a theme, to contrast with last years’ ‘war poems’, but as I tried to pick a selection for us to read I was finding it hard to think about celebrating love. The group helped remind me that this is one of the few things we can all do in times of darkness and hate: love well.

Meanwhile in the Canadian Literary world another darkest timeline was erupting, one in which authors normally associated with voicing the margins grouped together to support a creative writing professor over the students who had made complaints about his conduct. 

The writers involved claim only to be calling for ‘due process’ for the accused, but their letter, and the associated website, failed to mention the right of the complainants to due process, or a fair hearing, or for their experiences not to being automatically discounted by their seniors in the literary community. I was dismayed to read the names of many writers I admire deeply on that list; relieved to find some people reassessing their position and removing their names as the weeks went by; appalled to see some adding their names to the list instead. For writers – people who make their living and their lives not just out of words, but out of nuance and context and close reading – this letter showed at best a lack of attention to detail. Its language, tone and omissions wilfully misunderstood power dynamics and how words contribute to rape culture. It also made me think more highly of the role of editors in Canlit, if so many great writers could not see their own omissions and errors. Most of all, I was disappointed then horrified to see Margaret Atwood backing herself further and further into an untenable defensive position, in which she needlessly brought up the notion that ‘women lie’. 

Other responses from Canlit stalwarts were heartening, and show the kind of careful reading and thinking we expect of great writers (Maggie Helwig, Michael Redhill and Laurence Hill’s responses stood out for me in the first wave). As the year closes, the controversy is still raging, and has most recently evolved into a public questioning of Boyden’s claims to indigeneity, after Galloway’s  own apparent indigenous heritage was pulled out by his supporters to count in his favour. Boyden’s self-presentation as indigenous has been long queried by indigenous writers and communities, but I doubt this would have kicked off now if it were not for his part in the Galloway debacle, and what it revealed about how little he seems to understand gender relations and power dynamics on (or off) campus.

This call for justice gone horribly wrong played out in eerie parallel with Trump’s calls for apologies from the cast of Hamilton the same week.

These are times we all need to stop and ask ourselves if we’ve become our evil alteregos. If this is the darkest and most terrible timeline, and if so, if we are the baddies.

More importantly, even if we think we’re on the side of the good, are we doing enough to help those around us? Are we doing enough to protect the vulnerable in our communities? A positive result of this Canlit meltdown might be a much needed reassessment of some aspects of the teaching of writing, and of what is or is not acceptable behaviour in the mentor-guru focussed system we have. This is not, obviously, just a Canadian problem: anywhere we follow this model of ‘apprenticeship’ there is room for abuse, and far too much of it happening. As a teacher myself I am keenly aware of this, and of what my role may or may not be in preparing my students for the writing world outside university.

Some things much closer to home this year have also made me mull over how power is accumulated in the literary world, and how often this means hurting or exploiting others. It shouldn’t do, of course. And needn’t. This should go without saying, but some people seem to need it said over and over again, because they’re not listening. They think what their behaviour is fine because poetry demands it, or everyone else is doing it, or the same thing was done to them. The best writers I know are also the most generous, the most thoughtful, the kindest. It can be hard to be one’s better self in a world that can so easily descend into bitchy competitiveness, but we owe it to ourselves and each other to try.

Whenever I think of embittered, jealous, power-hungry writers, I think of them as having gone to the dark side of the force. Star Wars was one of the key texts of my childhood. I must have watched the original trilogy hundreds of times before the age of ten. As with Watership Down, I could quote huge chunks even now (anyone who knows how bad my memory is, knows how much that means).We collected Star Wars figures and toys, and spent many happy hours staging spaceship crashes and battles at the top of the garden.

Poets are much like Jedis – few people believe in them. The system of mentorship between Jedis forms a helpful parallel to that same model in creative writing, and a way for thinking about how we handle it from either direction. Those times I have found myself wavering towards the dark side – starting to resent other writers for their successes or blaming their successes for my failures – it is Star Wars that has kept me honest.

2016 has gone beyond satire, beyond science-fiction. If only there were a way to redo or unwrite the wrongs done, the wrong-turns taken, the misrepresentations, false steps, and time-line changing bad decisions. As yet, we cannot repilot life.

In the meantime, we have to learn to live better with what we have. Grieve for what you have lost, but don’t let grief turn you away from life. Be good to one another, and not just those you are already invested in and identify with. May the force be with you.

 

 

  1. I won’t go through the full list of cultural heroes who have died this year. I mention in this post those who mean the most to me personally, and this is no slight on those I do not mention. More importantly, this has also been a year of massive humanitarian disasters, and widespread loss of life, particularly during the ‘refugee crisis’ and in Syria. There is something gross about focussing on so few, relatively privileged people over so many, but I suppose it is about impact: we grieve for those we think we know. Maybe this means we need to do more to know more; to care more.
  2. I wrote the main part of this post at the end of November, and had no idea at the time that this mention of Watership Down, which is so often in my thoughts, would become so poignant.

Words, pictures, music.

 

‘If I puked up some sonnets

would you call me a miracle?’

Neko Case, ‘Night Still Comes’

I’m trying to unravel something about how I feel, and what I think, about the relationship between poetry and song. About my relationships with poetry and song.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last month or so, but suddenly it seems everyone else is too, because Bob Dylan has just been granted the Nobel Prize for Literature. The prize committee praised him “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

This has initiated a lot of chatter about what is and isn’t poetry, and what that might have to do with music.

Why am I troubling over this now? Partly – mostly? – because I’ve been working on the final edits of my first collection. So many of the poems in it are linked in my mind with particular songs that I’ve made a playlist to go with it – a song for every poem. I like to make playlists for different occasions, with the rule that the songs have to already be in my library. I make them for visiting particular places, for particular seasons or journeys or events. Last year, for instance, I collected every song I owned which featured wolves, werewolves, shapeshifting or the moon, to play as I drove to a conference on Werewolves. The playlist was over three hours long. I began to notice wolves skulking in the background of songs I had never seen them in before. Songs help me think about what I think and feel about something, whether it’s a personal issue, or a creative or professional one. I have poems named after songs, and poems that couldn’t have been written without particular songs. Even choosing which poems might have to be jettisoned from the collection in editing, I thought of a particular song: a live version of Tori Amos’ ‘Honey’ I had on a bootlegged tape of The Bee-Sides. She introduces it by explaining how it was meant to be on Under the Pink, but got ‘kicked off in […] mastering’. ‘Honey’ was one of my favourites too. I worry about looking back and thinking ‘why did I let her get kicked off?’

It’s no coincidence that poets are always writing about music, and songwriters are always writing about literature. I could make a playlist of songs about writing and of songs which mention authors and of songs which mention fictional characters and have hours to listen to. We all – I think – know something of the long history of poetry and story as song, and how relatively recent any real notion of separation between them is.

But I need to work out what that means to me, not to the history of literature.

I have peculiarly vivid memories of watching the BBC schools programme Words and Pictures when I was three or four. I particularly liked Funny Bones, but I loved the general combination of images, rhyming and lyric storytelling, and song in the episodes. Both music and books were very present and important in our household, but Words and Pictures was an introduction to literacy outside the home, to a wider world of words and pictures and music working together that fed back into what I heard at home. Bearing in mind that I was speaking my own self-invented language at the time that I would sit and watch this show,¹ its presentation of literature as a lively, performed thing, and the relationship of the library hub to the outside and imagined spaces of the stories, was very formative. They even encouraged you to make your own words up.

As soon as I learnt to write I was writing poems, but I was also writing songs and tunes. Words and music were still and always wrapped around each other. I recently found some manuscript paper with a tune I wrote named ‘Tehanu’ after the fourth of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels. It’s not a very interesting piece of music of course, but that’s not what I’m trying to get to.

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That difficult stage before you can reach the pedals.

Growing up, our household’s taste in music was as eccentric and contradictory as my family members. It loved classic Hollywood musicals and Leonard Cohen, Glenn Miller and Queen, Ella Fitzgerald and Tanita Tikaram, The Kinks and T’Pau, James Taylor and Julie London, The Carpenters and Don McLean, Diana Ross and Simon and Garfunkel. I read my way through books of border ballads, the Oxford Children’s Poetry, The Child’s Garden of Verses, Revolting Rhymes, various anthologies of Great Poems, Spike Milligan, McGonagall and Verse and Worse, whilst my older brothers taught me to love Pearl Jam and Metallica and Bowie and Tori Amos and Extreme and Pink Floyd and Kate Bush and War of the Worlds and The Pet Shop Boys and Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians.

The summer of 1992 will be forever linked for me with Metallica’s Black Album, because of a tape my middle brother made of it which included the Guns n’Roses version of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, and The Soupdragons’ ‘Softly’. My best friend came on holiday with me and my parents that year, and the tape became the soundtrack to our travels, and muddled up in our minds with two novels we were obsessing over  – one about a vampire with a soul (The Silver Kiss) and one about someone who fed off other people’s youth (Personal Effects – I can’t trace this, but the main character was doing an Art Foundation which completely sold me on the idea, despite the fact she almost got sucked dry because she was just so cool). We listened to that tape until we knew every word, every chord, every beat. I began to grow my own collection of tapes based from songs I heard on the radio or saw on TV or that friends told me to listen to – Nirvana, PJ Harvey, 4 Non-BlondesTasmin Archer, The Cranberries, The Stone Roses, then Hole, Heather Nova, Radiohead, R.E.M, James, The Smiths … easing into the mid-nineties indie and Britpop years of Elastica, Echobelly, The Verve, The Cranberries, Pulp, The Wannadies, Blur and Oasis, Catatonia, Gene, Ash, Portishead, Mazzy Star, Ash, Supergrass, Massive Attack … more more more. All great storytellers in their different ways.

I didn’t really know then that contemporary poets existed, let alone that if I read a poem I liked, I could find a whole book by that same person, or that I might be able to hear them read aloud. As much as I loved poetry, I didn’t know of the world of poetry or how to access it. I did know how to access music. Music was my contemporary lyric. My poets were dead, my music was living. Sometimes the music even told me about poets. The Bluetones introduced me to Adrian Mitchell’s poem ‘Celia Celia’; The Verve to Blake’s ‘London’.

Music taught me about the world. It taught me about war and social injustice and global history and racism and feminism. It taught me how to negotiate being a girl and a woman in an often hostile environment. It taught me about joy and despair, and singing through them both.

So it’s no surprise that many of my teenage poems began as songs, or songs began as poems. Weird songs with weird lyrics. Poems which might have made more sense with music. By the time I was in lower sixth, I’d developed quite a collection of songs, and even started to record a few before I dislocated my knee and broke my elbow, putting me out of musical action, and setting me back at school. I never managed to go back and finish recording those songs, and I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had.

After that, I felt I didn’t have the stamina to pursue music, or much at all for that matter. I found more and more I was turning to poetry to try and make sense of what I was feeling, and the incomprehensibility of my recalcitrant undiagnosable body. When everything else seemed physically impossible, I could still write broken lines.

The last time I wrote a song was in 2009. I wrote a few that year. It refers to a number of traditional ballads, Alasdair Roberts’ Polly songs, and an Emily Dickinson poem. There’s nothing deliberate in the fact I haven’t written a song since, it’s just worked out that way. Where a song comes from is as mysterious to me as where a poem comes from. Both are more likely to arise under the right conditions and with practice though. I am very aware that I don’t play as much as I used to, or rather that I play less now that I ever have, and I wonder what that might mean, for my writing and more widely. I also think whether I feel like playing and singing is a kind of measure of health. Still, our tiny living room is dominated by my piano, which was my gift to myself when I moved out of London ten years ago. I had spent seven years dreaming about discovering an extra room in the house with a piano in it and perfect acoustics, and vowed never to live without one again. A house is not a home without a piano squashed uncomfortably into it.

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My piano. Not my cat.

In an overly lengthy way, what I’m trying to explain, is that (as for many poets) for me poetry and song aren’t just linked metaphorically, or historically, but very tangibly and practically.

I have used songs in my creative writing classes to make exactly this point, from variations on ‘The Silver Dagger’ (including Hey Rosetta’s lovely version of ‘Who is at my window weeping’  and Martha Tilston’s deceptively simple cover) to talk about the fluidity of ballad narratives, to using songs by Bonnie Tyler and Dar Williams to open discussion about gender awareness in childhood.

So why have I found myself feeling disappointed that Bob Dylan was granted the Nobel Prize for Literature, instead of elated, or vindicated? Am I a literary snob, or elitist, as some are accusing the nay-sayers of being? Quite possibly. I can’t shake a conviction that Dylan is just not a poet. I write this as lover of many of Dylan’s songs. I think many of his lyrics are brilliant. I know his songs have been incredibly important to many people, not just generally, socially, but specifically to some of the songwriters and writers I most admire, and who have been most important to me. I’m questioning my own bad feeling. My feeling that this is not the inclusive move it is meant to be.  I wonder if it has more to do with the men who have tried to convince me over the years that Dylan is a poet, than with Dylan himself. I wonder if it has to do with how riled I get by the continual comparisons between Dylan and Leonard Cohen, who is unequivocally a poet and a novelist as well as a songwriter  (and whose music I happen to have a much deeper and longer connection to). Is it that I think one of the best things about ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ is that it made Sam Cooke write ‘A Change is Gonna Come’? Is it that I sometimes prefer Dylan’s songs when other people sing them? I would listen to Joan Baez sing ‘Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ all day. Surely this should actually count for the quality of the writing, not against? It speaks of wider influence, of seismic change. Am I just being pedantic? Very possibly. Is it generational/formational? Many of the people I know, and have read about, who have been really delighted by the choice grew up with Dylan in a way I didn’t, either because they were teens in the 60s, or because Dylan was a part of their later household in a way he wasn’t in mine, as Simon Armitage has also found.

Partly I think what I’ve been reacting against is the reaction, as well as a sense that this radical choice is just not radical enough for 2016. The world already knows the work of Bob Dylan – what about highlighting the work of someone they’ve never heard of, or a kind of work they’ve never given a moment’s thought to? On a very basic practical level, there are many more opportunities for a musician of Dylan’s standing than for a poet. Is this important? Maybe. Does it come down to access to audience and livelihood? As others have said, I wouldn’t think twice about the aptness if it a culture prize, but there are more worthy (and necessary) candidates for such a prominent literature prize.

Then, don’t we always think this? Don’t we nearly always have a conviction, especially with the big prizes, that we could pick a far worthier winner ourselves? I’d be just as disappointed if Don DeLillo had won. The only difference would be that the writing world wouldn’t be having quite such a great enormous row about it.

Great songs create whole worlds in their narrow bounds just as great poems, stories and novels do. They live in and grow in your mind and memory. But music is a vital part of their world-building. A song is a complete text. I often say a poem on the page can be like a tune in manuscript, the white space and punctuation telling you how it sounds when you play it through the instrument of your voice, but this is only one story about poetry. It does speak of a difference between poetry and music though. A poem’s music has to be there in the words in the voice and the white space and the breath. A song needs actual music. Giving Dylan a literature prize under these terms seems almost to negate the complex communicative power of music itself. I have a particular soft-spot for lyrics that foreground the failure of words to express feelings or experiences. The shoop shoops and uh huh oh yeahs. One of the many moments that delight me in Neko Case’s last solo album is when she breaks down into ‘blah blah blah, blah blah blah, they talk about, oh oh’ in ‘Calling Cards’ Jenn Grant and Joel Plaskett (who feature heavily amognst my top played Canadians) are both excellent lyricists, but are also especially good at knowing when to employ the oh oh oh or la la la. As is Dylan, though. Maybe even making this separation argument is spurious, and nothing to do with the rationale behind the prize. Maybe it just becomes an easy way to justify either side of the debate.

I hate choosing between things I love. I can’t make lists of favourites, because they end up too long, and I worry about omitting something important.² I refused to choose between Blur and Oasis as a teenager, and could never choose between The Stones and The Beatles. I reject reductive binaries in every other area of my life and I reject them here too. I refuse to be cornered into pretending to choose between words and music. I want poetry and song. I want lots of them. I want them everywhere. I want the whole world to find it as impossible as I do to choose one over the other.  And this is why I’ve decided to be glad Dylan won the prize, if only for what else this might make possible in the future.

Neko Case for literature laureate! John K Sampson! Laura Veirs! Basia Bulat! Dar Williams! Florence Welch! Thea Gilmore! What about Beyonce? Maybe she and Warsan Shire could get a joint prize?

I’m picking from my own playlists here, but aren’t you?

I could list pretty much every songwriter in those playlists though, because in their different ways, they’re all extraordinary lyricists and storytellers.

I’ll finish as I started, with a quote about writing from a song:

‘You see I’ve got this theory/that it’s only punctuation/that separates the list from you to me/and you can have your little war/of full stops and erotemes/but the real power’s in parentheses’.

Thea Gilmore, ‘Punctuation’.

Of course, Thea’s singing about good and evil, not literature and music. But the point still stands.


  1. True. Unexplained. Probably explains a lot.
  2. I’m trying my best not to keep coming in an adding more songs and bands as I realise I’ve forgotten something vital but …

May

I’m really pleased to have three poems in the Spring 2016 edition of The Lonely Crowd, as well as an essay on the composition of the poems and recordings of them online.

There are several readings planned to showcase the issue – one has already taken place (unfortunately on the same night I was reading for Brewery Poets), but I should be reading at one later in the summer.

Composition Notes: Polly Atkin

Notes on ‘Sister Running’; ‘Strength in Winter’; ‘Perihelion’.

On the surface, the thing that most strongly links these three poems is that they have a lot of weather in them; a lot of sky. One of the things I most love about Grasmere is the sky: its ever-changing moods; the complexity of its little-lit darkness; the long summer light; the sharpness and excess of stars on a crisp night, when you can see the milky way. They are all also in some way about friendship, the ways we relate to our loved ones, and a sense of shared understanding. […]

I did the recordings whilst I was staying at the Watford Mercure for a three-week pain rehab programme run by The Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital at Stanmore. It’s the only course of it’s kind in the UK, and the only dedicated programme offered to people with EDS (if you’re fortunate enough to be referred, as I was). Not everyone who does the course has EDS, and it was originally designed with spinal patients in mind, but has been adapted as Stanmore has grown as a specialist centre for EDS. I wouldn’t recommend the Watford Mercure to anyone (although their ability to cock up every dinner for three weeks in new and amazing ways was spectacular in a way) but the rehab programme was definitely worth it.

As ever, I came home to an enormous impossible backlog of admin and marking, and I haven’t had a chance yet to properly process everything I learnt, or to reflect back on the three weeks. What I can say, is that I now feel I have more of the tools and knowledge I need to help myself in the future, and to avoid the downward spirals of injury and de-conditioning that have made me more ill in the past. Also, that looking after myself needs to be a priority, not an afterthought. May is EDS awareness month, and though I’ve been talking to a lot of people about my experiences, I thought it would be useful to write something too, even if it is brief.

I was very nervous before starting the course. Like most people with EDS, and indeed, many people with chronic conditions, I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with healthcare professionals. I try not to expect the worst, but it’s hard not to worry, especially when it is such a large chunk away from your usual life. I read a few accounts of the course on blogs and facebook groups to try and find out what to expect, as we weren’t given much information before hand, and they all seemed to say the same thing: the course is great if you’re willing to change the way you live, and awful if you’re not ready to think about that.

One of the best things about the course was the group of women I was with. We should have been in a group of eight, but one didn’t show, and the seventh sadly had to leave early because of complications. The six of us who were left bonded really well, which made the difference (as we often spoke of, mid dinner-disaster) between spending the weeks crying in our rooms, homesick and in pain, and crying with laughter together. I got the giggles so badly one day during our ‘water-based exercise session’ that I was crying into the over-treated water. We all remarked on how relieving it was to be around people who – whilst they might not understand the particularity of your personal pain – understood you were in pain, and could recognise when you were struggling, without you having to articulate it. I feel very lucky to have met them all.

The Watford Mercure is a remarkably ugly and poorly laid-out hotel: a post-war labyrinth of broken ceiling tiles and unnecessary steps. It is on a bypass road, and benefits from being completely unreachable by public transport. Our group in our various states of fatigue and pain felt very trapped there, with the disastrous food, the malfunctioning coffee-machines, and the world’s slowest stair-lift between our chair-using group member and the lobby. We joked about feeling like we were in Girl Interrupted. Although there was something about the whole thing that made me think of school too (not just the giggling and the crumbling building). It felt like a low security prison crossed with a summer camp for mutants with unhelpful powers. By the second week, we’d realised the only thing we could reach by foot was a McDonald’s  right next door, which could at least supply us with snacks and drinks. When I broke out one morning through the permanently propped-open fire exit, and stalked across the needle-strewn car-park, I found a horse tethered on the patch of grass between the hotel and the drive-thru.

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One of my fellow internees wrote a blog post about the programme a few weeks ago, which says pretty much what I wanted to say. The days were a mixture of groups activities and talks, and one-to-one physio and occupational therapy sessions. The PTs and OTs were humane, human, and helpful (on the whole). This shouldn’t be an unusual combination, but all of us had experienced otherwise in the past. As I’ve said before, this is one of the most important things to remember about people with an under-diagnosed condition like EDS – we have all been written-off, gas-lighted and insulted by medical professionals at some point in the past, if not continually, for decades. We’re the rescue-cats of patients. It’s no good telling us anecdotes about patients having different views of their treatment to their doctor, and expecting us to side with the doctor (no names mentioned!).

Apart from meeting the others, the physiotherapy was the most useful part of the course for me. We all went away with physio programmes tailored to our needs, and I certainly felt the difference immediately. It is up to us to keep working on what we have learnt. The most important thing the programme teaches, however, is around the tricky idea of acceptance. We were all there because we have chronic conditions that cause pain. We weren’t there to eliminate pain from our lives, or to reprogram our genes like neolutionists. We were there to learn to turn huge peaks and troughs of pain and activity into rolling hills  or gentle waves – to live more comfortably – not to ‘get better’. A lot of what we talked about was how we can change our lives to make them less disabling, and to remove factors from them which make us more ill than we need to be.

There is a lot more I could say about this in relation to trying to function in academia with chronic health issues, and the insidious ableism of Academe, in a week when many friends and colleagues are striking for better pay and working conditions. Instead, I need to get back to my marking, to pace it a bit better than usual, and try and not let it hurt me too much.

 

The Old Year is Dead

IMG_65722014 seems to have been a year of upheaval and uprising, of extreme highs and lows, tragedies and atrocities, of revelations great and terrible. Natural and/or man-made disasters dominated local and global news. Planes fell from the skies, flood-waters rose, diseases flourished, people around the world were killed for being who they were where they were (students; black men; female; indigenous women; transexual; disabled …). Governments and government agencies were revealed as complicit in crimes against their own people, as well as others. Those in power were revealed as abusing that power. It sometimes seems that each year brings an escalation of violence and intolerance. Does it end? Is this sense of escalation an illusion? Is this how it has always been and always will be? Does it come to a head and subside? Do we learn to live better, with the world, and each other?

My own year has been a peculiar mix of surprising successes, big changes and ongoing difficulties.

Looking at it in terms of what might be termed ‘worldly success’, this has been the best year I’ve ever had.

I started my first full-time academic job in September.
I was granted funding for a Knowledge Exchange project.
I had a great time judging the first Wordpool Poetry Competition, and was delighted to see the winning poem turned into an animation in the Blackpool illuminations.
I won the Wigtown Poetry Prize (with ‘A Short History of the Moon’), the Andrew Waterhouse Prize for Poetry in the Northern Writers’ Awards, third prize in the Poets and Players Competition (for ‘Causeway’), third prize in the Battered Moons Competition (for ‘Heron/Snow’), and was commended in the Hippocrates Prize (for ‘The Test’).
My pamphlet was shortlisted for the Lakeland Book of the Year.

At times this has seemed implausible to me. When I had to turn down appearing at the Battered Moons Awards event at the Swindon Poetry Festival, because it was on the same day as the Wigtown Festival Awards Event, which I had already agreed to be at, I really started to question how this had all arrived at once. I’ve been struggling so much for so long, in so many areas of my life, I didn’t really know how to stop struggling and bask in these moments.

Behind each of these public successes are the picked-over bones of countless private failures. This should go without saying, but it seems too easy to forget how much we don’t see of each others’ lives in this age of social media. There were dozens of jobs I didn’t get; schemes I was rejected for; poems nobody seems to have wanted. I’ve been thinking a lot about this this year, and what it means to really succeed on one’s own terms. Sometimes rejections arrive at the same time as acceptances, and you don’t know how to feel. Sometimes all the seeming successes in the world don’t appear to move you forward, and you can’t work out what is blocking your progression or how you could do anything differently. Sometimes it seems that just being you is what is blocking your progression. Sometimes you may convince yourself that there is One Thing that will change your stars. Eileen Pun and I call this the Monkey Island Hypothesis – that you can do all that is necessary in any order, but if you miss one vital component you will never get to the next level. It’s hard to escape that feeling that you’re falling behind, or under.

As I’ve written before, whenever I feel like that, I remind myself that the work itself is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter if – like some of the poems that have done well for me this year – no one else appreciates that work for years. There’s a kind of pact you make with the work you do.

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The last few years have been very hard for me, in various ways. I’ve had very little income, and what I have had has been very insecure. I have suffered a lot with poor health. I’ve been in constant pain. I’ve been perpetually exhausted, in a way which is hard to explain to a healthy person.

In April I finally discovered that the devastating abdominal pain I’d been living with since November 2012 was a mixture of inflammation of my rib cage, and a broken rib. Through my own persistence, and the persistence and support of my GP and local physiotherapist, I was diagnosed, in October, with Ehlers Danlos Sydrome (EDS). I was also diagnosed with Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS), which is secondary to the Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, and elements of Marfanoid body habitus. Life in my body, my peculiar body, is beginning to make sense in a way it never has before.

I had to travel down to London and pay to see an expert to get this diagnosis (which effects not only me, but my whole family, as EDS is hereditary). I’m now waiting to go to various clinics which should help me manage some of the symptoms. The diagnosis is both a tremendous relief (to know what it is, and what it is not; to know better how to help and what harms) and a peculiar burden (it is me, or I am it). I am still adjusting to knowing that I have to accept this difference, and its permanence, and all the consequences of that. ‘Normal’ is a lost concept. I will probably always be in some degree of pain. I will injure myself doing ‘ordinary’ things. I will always get more tired than an ‘ordinary’ person does from the same activities. I might never be able to stand still for more than a few moments without getting dizzy and numb and sick, as all the blood in my body sinks away from my head and my brain, and can’t pump itself back up through my too-elastic vessels. My main task for 2015 will be to learn to live with this, in and with my body, now we can see each other for what we are.

I am already learning not to feel guilty about prioritising the things I need to do to do the things I’ve agreed to do (sleep as much as possible; swim as often as possible; don’t be afraid of the judgement of others at the times these are all you can do). Some of you may be familiar with ‘Spoon Theory’. Most days for me at the moment, there is no spoon. I am concentrating on bringing some into being.

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So 2014 for me has been a year in which things have come to pass I hardly thought possible. People I’ve never met have read and enjoyed my poetry. People I greatly admire have read and rated my poetry. I have a steady income going forward for a reasonably steady period. Moreover, I have been given the key to unlocking central mysteries of my own life, and those of my family.

There’s a lot of things I feel I’ve been failing at though. I don’t see my friends enough. I don’t even contact my friends enough. I’m behind with all kinds of writing and behind with all kinds of reading. I don’t get to as many events as I’d like to, and I sleep through a lot of life. Most of the time, I’m barely keeping nose above surface.

I’m going into 2015 with some fear and trepidation (and a persistent chest infection), but also more genuine hope than I’ve been able to admit to for a long time. I’ll do what I can on my part – concentrate on what I believe matters most – and hope – keep hoping – that this concentration matters. I hope for the same for all of you. For your wishes and work to matter. For your wishes to work.

I wrote this poem, ‘Forecast’, on New Year’s Day 2013. In February last year it was engraved on a window of the Globe Inn in Dumfries, another fabulous event in my poetry year, that I have previously written about here. I knew when I wrote it something was shifting, but it took so long, so long to manifest as material change. This New Year’s Day, it hasn’t stopped raining, and all bodies in the house slept peacefully into the dark afternoon. Despite that, I think the forecast works as well today.

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Last night the barometer predicted CHANGE
the stormy tail of the year passing over.
Midnight threw up stars and a 2/3
moon, scattered as hailstones after.

New year’s day sailed in as a fringe
of spring on a sculling cloud, word
from an unseen sun, blue displacing
blank, as from a vacuum chamber.

One swift shower. One magpie etching
spirals in the lightening air. Now
its partner, binary tail declaring
the arrow’s twitch to Fair.

 

The Old Year is dead. Long live the New Year.

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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.