‘… This book – which grew from the seed of the pamphlet – asks: what are we to do with the darkness? The things, and people, often left silent and invisible.‘
By some strange twist, I found myself at the British Library a week ago, taking part in an event organised to celebrate poetry pamphlets on the eve of the tenth Michael Marks Awards. Five of us had been invited to share reflections, and poems; I was very glad to have been included…
“My poetry pamphlet (The Long Woman, Pighog Press) was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award six years ago – in 2012. This was a huge help. The pamphlet was a stepping stone to a full collection, and the book very much a continuation of work started there: it was encouraging to get that cheer along the way.
I decided I’d reflect a little on that, alongside some poems and thoughts about visibility and invisibility. But first, a short quote from DJ Enright – because it made me smile:
‘The poet is to give a reading from his new book… the dutiful publisher carries a dozen copies of the poet’s new book to sell at the reading… Now it is over, and the publisher gathers up the unsold books, counting them glumly… he trudges home, weary and puzzled – How can thirteen copies be left over from a dozen?’
Why do we write the things?
Perhaps, considering many of us – most of us – can safely assume we’ll return home with more books than we left the house with, could writing poetry be a way of being safely ie invisibly visible?
Certainly, when I first started writing the poems that became The Long Woman, it was like a portal had opened in my skirting board for all the experiences and anxieties I’d never known how to process so had filed away, invisible and silent in my ‘normal’ life.
Here’s a short poem in two voices – the one who can, and the one who can’t, speak out and be visible:
Thank you so much for your invitation
I stand by my bed in the dark
I am very sorry but I have decided
I crouch by my bed in the dark
This is not a decision I have made lightly
I’m near the curtained window, crouched
I hope very much you don’t feel
I’m by the curtained window, trembling
All I really want you to know is how
I shake by my bed in the dark
That’s a person who, I think, is clearly hiding. But there are lots of ways of being invisible. Here’s a completely different one:
I love this time of year, time of day:
the light, pale-egg and misty; platform
almost empty. Malcolm says we’ll wander,
find somewhere nice for lunch. We always do:
Italian spaghetti, a carafe
of red wine. I’ll have to watch my frock.
I love all the bustle of Soho,
like another planet. The awards
don’t start till 6. And, do you know, I don’t
even mind meeting the Queen, the mood
I’m in. Plus I put the milk bottles out
already, and extra food for Saturn.
Malcolm’s eyes are the colour of clear sky.
I’m sure to make the 11.03.
I was delighted when the poems I was writing were gathered together in a pamphlet – The Long Woman, published by Pighog. I loved the cover image (though they told me later this was arrived at inadvertently, photographing something like the shadows on a barbecue…).
Of course, I was thrilled when the pamphlet was noticed by that year’s Michael Marks judges. It was a lovely surprise. (I’d hardly thought of poetry prizes – it was a good time! I didn’t abide on Twitter; didn’t know about the ‘circus’.)
I failed to materialise for the awards evening – another reason I was grateful to be asked back now (and, maybe, another reason I was).
I enjoyed hearing a hero of mine, Tracey Thorn, on Desert Island Discs a few weeks ago, speaking about singing in a wardrobe: how she wanted a voice but not to be seen.
I declined the invitation, giving my reasons – I am very sorry I have decided; this is not a decision I have made lightly. But I was glad, truly – almost as if ‘someone somewhere may have seen me’:
All day I pad on bare cracked feet
nowhere, jug heavy,
in and out the kitchen door.
I’m with the kids: feed them
chicken, potato, ice cream;
hear the six-year-old say thank you.
But I can’t talk to any of the women who come:
I bear them orange mugs of tea, sit;
I am sealed.
someone somewhere may have seen me once;
now he’s thin as my dreams.
And my poor kids roll round their mattresses
in nothing but boxers and twisted sheets.
just as heads the size of moons
sink into crushed pillows,
the sky blinks
and I’m gaping from my high window:
for miles and miles, I see the dark trees gather;
one moment fractures blue,
and then the rain comes.
One two three, drops big as bullets
(Andy downstairs pantomimes
he’s been wounded)
and suddenly every mouth turns upwards
and mine is the biggest
and the first
to drink and drink and drink.
Encouraged, I pressed on – writing these poems; building, as I thought of it, an alternative-version world from the inside out. One that had always been apparent to me, but sat just inside the visible world.
Another letter-poem. Again I think it’s about invisibility. About vulnerability not being seen, despite the apparent baldness of the scrutiny. It’s laid out like a letter on the page, so here’s how it looks in the book:
Eventually the pile of poems grew to a book: Noir (another cover I love!), published by HappenStance in 2016.
It got a number of reviews I really enjoyed reading, and a strange kind of echoing silence – which I also found, in itself, interesting.
The book is crammed with characters with visibility issues, most of whom are me.
One last poem: I enjoyed hearing the book’s publisher, Helena Nelson, talk about this one at a pop-up in Aldeburgh this autumn. (I even liked the pop-up aspect – blink and you miss it.)
There’s plenty visible in this poem: all that surface cluttered with domestic detail; so cluttered, in fact, we may miss what’s been left outside the frame:
Once he’s done she makes him up a nice bed
for the night. Takes sheets and blankets, neatly
folded, from the linen cupboard outside
her bedroom and carries them down the stairs.
While he enjoys a final cigarette
and scotch in the small walled garden, she smoothes
the sheets out on the put-you-up mattress,
then tucks them tight in hospital corners.
Early next morning she cooks him breakfast:
tea, orange juice with bits in, soft boiled egg,
two slices of white toast and marmalade,
sweet black filter coffee boiled on the hob.
She walks him to the station, allowing
plenty of time for him to buy a bar
of chocolate and a newspaper, and still
be comfortably on the 9.23.
It’s only after his late train pulls out,
and a passing friend, concerned, touches her
back gently, that she bends double on
the pavement outside the station, and cries out.
I love poetry pamphlets. I review many of them for HappenStance’s reviews site, Sphinx; I know they come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and voices. Maybe, for some of us, they’re an opportunity to peep over the parapet – and to be glimpsed.
Thank you for including mine in this evening’s celebration of them.”