Hobnobbing with the Poetry Elite

Someone whose poetry isn’t lousy, is my wonderful poetry teacher, Liane Strauss. On Thursday I dragged the Husband to Daunt Books in Marylebone for the launch of Liane’s first full poetry collection. If you haven’t been to Daunt’s and you love bookshops, then definitely make the time to pop in. I could have stayed there for hours (and not just because of the free wine and cheese!) pottering around on the various floors, looking at all the truly interesting books they have to offer. I might go back there to do my Christmas shopping, though I suspect I’d end up buying more for myself than anyone else.
Liane read some of her poetry, something I’d never heard her do before. Her work is funny, wry, American – but in the best possible way. I highly recommend it.
Someone who seems much more qualified than I to talk about this is Ms Baroque, and I hope you’ll read her review here: The Love child of Dorothy Parker and John Donne.

So. My poetry’s in good hands…. when I finally stop playing around with NaNoWriMo and write some!

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Those who can’t.

Right, class, let’s get settled
you should all write down the date
underline it – and the title –
hurry up, now, Jake – you’re late.

Take those out your ears, now
there’s lots to do today.
We really should get started –
that phone can go away.

You all should have a worksheet.
Here, take one, pass them back.
Chloe, leave her hair alone.
Jon, keep that spare for Jack.

So, let’s read through that first bit
Who knows what Torah means?
Stop playing with the blinds, Christoph
and Joe, are those black jeans? 

No talking in the corner there.
Don’t make me ring your mum.
You’ll find the answer on your sheets –
Rae-Ann, spit out your gum.

Yes, Denise, what is it? 
You left your book at home.
Who packed your bag before you left?
Scott, leave Lorraine alone.

No you can’t go to the toilet, Steph –
we’ve only just begun
and i don’t believe you need to.
So. Torah? Anyone?

I include it here in all it’s unedited glory. I don’t love it – it’s not my usual style (although I’m not sure I’ve decided what that is quite yet), but it was fun to play around with rhymes for a change. What I loved about the criticism from the group this evening, was that everything they queried was something I’d thought about changing and then not – which must mean I’m on the right track with something.

George, don’t do that.

I’m working on a poem for my new poetry group, an intimidating bunch that meet in the National Theatre’s Olivier bar on a Friday night. This week, we’re looking at humour in poetry – Dorothy Parker and Michael Donaghy, so I thought I’d work on my own little piece. As it turns out, I’ve been much inspired by a couple of other teacher-poets. Notably, Joyce Grenfell (pictured) whose recording ‘George, don’t do that’ is one my Dad bought for my mother when she qualified as a primary school teacher in the nineties. I used to love listening to the cassette while I dried up the dinner plates.
Also, the first poem I learned off by heart:
“Please, Mrs Butler
This boy, Derek Drew,
keeps copying my work, Miss
What shall I do?…” (Allan Ahlberg)
It’s a fantastic book of poems, all about life in primary school which, I’m told, are as true now as they were when we were young.
Which is a far cry from the person in my poetry group who claims his son can recite the entire of Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “When the Hounds of Spring” and is only 8.

But he doesn’t go to a Comp.

(For those of you desperate to hear my attempt at teacher humour in a poem, I’ll try and get it up… if it’s ever finished.)

Little one with half my name

When you were born,
perhaps gripped in your tiny hands,
or tucked in the folds of your knees,
you brought the spring.
Maybe you breathed such warmth
with that first shout,
the earth relaxed its hardened shell
to let new life break through?
Or with a stretch,
your perfect limbs conducted
orchestras of augur birds
to chase away the cold.
For when you yawned, I saw
attending clouds change mood
and pillow-fill the sky for you.
And with a sigh from unspoiled lungs
the winds around fell silent, hushed.
And many winters melted from our hearts,
when you were born.

February 2010

Liane Strauss at the Poetry School

For my thirtieth birthday, my lovely husband bought me a ten week poetry course at the fabulous London Poetry School. Expecting a course where I would read other people’s poetry and learn about the great art through them, I was more than a little freaked out to find that I was expected to bring my own work to be read and critiqued. Eek!

It turned out to be a fantastic experience all round, with my first two attempts getting some very positive feedback, with comments like “You *have* to get that published!”. I respected the people in the group, who were not only great budding writers, but also incredible characters – all worthy of a novel written in their honour! Liane was a great teacher and a really inspirational person. But, of course, the inner monologue kicked in and, before the end of the course, having received no real criticism at all, I started to believe that the reason no one was telling me where my poems where going wrong was because they were just so, so awful that they were humouring me, the youngest in the group. So it was a real relief to take a poem in to the final session, a poem I felt wasn’t complete, wasn’t quite where I wanted it to be, and have people give me some really constructive criticism. The bigger relief, I think, was that it didn’t kill me, didn’t cause me to jack in this writing lark for good, didn’t leave me sobbing in a heap… In fact, I felt more empowered and positive about my writing than I ever have.

The photo above is a poem in the act of being drafted and redrafted. I’m going to hold off on reproducing it in its finished form, until I hear back from the publishers. (Not really, but I can dream).

Teenage Consumption

I thought I’d dig out some of my old notebooks and transfer the scribblings and attempts at poetry onto my lovely new machine. So, the wicker chest my parents gave me for my 21st, which has since been carted from every terrible rented flat and house, is opened, and immediately the smell of damp, rotting paper suggests I can’t do the transferring soon enough. I can’t bear to throw them all away, but the myriad notebooks and diaries (all of them incomplete) are beginning to lose their magic and become dishevelled, yellowed, decaying.
At some point, as a teenager, I decided to record all my poetry in one little notebook, a pretty little tome, covered in chinese silk. It is here that all the beliefs I might be holding (that my best writing years are behind me) are destroyed. If it weren’t bad enough that the majority of my work is bemoaning the loss of affections from a boy whose name I can barely remember [that’s a lie, he’s a friend of mine on facebook], the rest has clearly been written with a significant amount of help from a thesaurus. The callous sand? The lavish wind? The brooding sea, that suckles like a baby at your breast?
It was about this time (Spring 1995) that, along with a long unrequited crush on aforementioned boy, I was reading a great deal of Thomas Hardy. The Brontes, also, figured high on my reading list. And that must be where this twee little thing came from:

The Murderer to Her Childhood Love
I love you. You love me,
but we can never love each other.
Yet I know the pain you feel,
when you see me with another,
because i have felt it too.

But do not fret my darling, do not cry
for we will be together when we die. (April 1995)

Others, some written during my holiday in Italy (holidaying with friends in Italy as a teenage girl – and what do i write? Utter drivel) are even more cringe-worthy. And yet. Did I not decide here, to just write and not judge? To not edit, reread, delete? So. A new angle:
Teenage me was a real cutie. I want to reach back in time and give her a gigantic hug and tell her to pull herself together and love herself more. Which is the advice I’d give any of my students today.

You do not have to be good

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

It’s not one of mine. I couldn’t even start to decide which of my small attempts at verse was worthy of being first. So I thought I’d start with this one, by Mary Oliver, instead. This is a poem I came across recently that really spoke to me. Okay, so it’s not the most technically-proficient, and it gets a bad press here: http://articles.poetryx.com/27/. But I really love the idea of not getting hung up on being good. Hell, I’ve just spent six months and over a grand working that out in counselling! Just let your body do what makes it happy. You do not need to repent. The world is huge, you’re tiny… no one really cares what you do, it’s unlikely to be that important anyway.
It’s a great lesson to learn about writing too, and one which has lead me here. You don’t have to write works of art to be a writer… but you do have to write!!