The ‘Play’ anthology of poems

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Bristol launch of ‘Play’, an anthology of 150 poems on the subject of having fun.

The anthology was compiled by poets Simon Williams and Susan Taylor to raise funds for a play area on Vire Island in Totnes, in memory of their three-year-old grandson, Reuben, who was killed in a car accident a year ago.

It was an emotional evening at the Golden Guinea, invoking feelings of joy, nostalgia and sorrow.

‘Play’ would make a wonderful Christmas gift, for yourself or someone you care for. You can buy your copy from Paper Dart Press or at tomorrow’s launch in Totnes, the details of which are below.

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Alison Brackenury at Silver Street Poetry

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Today we were delighted to welcome Alison Brackenbury as special guest reader to Siver Street Poetry and Spoken Word.

Alison read from her latest book ‘Aunt Margaret’s Pudding’, which mixes poems about her family and childhood with recipes from Alison’s grandmother’s oilskin notebook and a prose account of her grandmother’s life.

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The reading was as delicious as it sounds and was supplemented, as ever, by varied open mic offerings from those present.

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Alison was pleased to go home with an empty book bag, having broken all Silver Street records for the sale of books by a guest poet!

Silver Street Poetry and Spoken Word takes place on the first Friday of each month, at The Station, Silver Street, Bristol BS1 2AG. Our next get-together is on Friday 4th January 2019 at 12.30pm, and the entry charge is £3 or what you can afford. Do come along, bring one of your poems, bring one written by someone else, or simply bring your ears.

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Alice Oswald reading at the Bristol Poetry Institute

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We’re big fans of Alice Oswald’s poetry, so when we saw that she was delivering this year’s annual reading from the Bristol Poetry Institute, we leapt to get tickets.

Though it’s not just her poems we love; it’s the way she performs them too. The previous time we heard her read, at Bristol Watershed in May 2013, it was from ‘Memorial’ and ‘A Sleepwalk on the Severn’, Alice grabbed the audience by the collective scruff of its neck and addressed it with her work, which she read from memory. It was intense, dramatic and mesmerising; the best reading either of us had ever been to.

This time she read her long poem, Nobody, which is ostensibly about a bit-part player in the Odyssey: the poet who was charged with guarding Clytemnestra by Agamemnon, and subsequently marooned on a rocky island in the middle of the Mediterranean by the queen’s lover, Aegisthus. Really, though, it’s a paean to the ocean, and as Alice recited it by heart in the darkness of the Great Hall at Bristol University, we found ourselves rocked in its rhythms. Nothing disturbed the swell of the narrative, and when, after an hour, it ended and we could finally fidget, I found I could barely shift for the pain of having sat so still for so long, without really having noticed.

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The reading was followed by a very interesting question and answer session. Particularly fascinating was answer to the chicken-and-egg question of how much the poem is shaped by the effort of memorising it. Alice said her memory is her editor; if she can’t memorise a section, she is liable to expunge it as not working.

Arthritis notwithstanding, it was a fabulous reading in the truest sense. If you get a chance to go and hear Oswald, seize it. It’s an experience you’re unlikely to forget.

In praise of everyday traipsing

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In his novel Strandloper, Alan Garner tells the true story of William Buckley, a working-class farm labourer from Cheshire, who was convicted in 1803 on a trumped-up charge of trespass and transported to Australia. Upon arrival, William escapes from the settlement and is rescued from near-death by aborigines of the Beingalite people, with whom he lives for the next 30 years. At the end of the book, he is pardoned and returns to England, where he visits his former fiancée, Esther. Realising that their lives have diverged too far for them to have any future together, he bids her goodbye for a final time and ritually walks the landscapes of their home, as he once walked those of Australia. This restorative last chapter ends with William performing a spirit dance inside the church, uniting the patterns of his life and its two cultures.

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It sounds perverse, but as much as I enjoy walking in new places, it’s the familiar, traffic-clogged roads of north Bristol that are more of a stimulus to my creativity. Not that nothing wondrous ever happens in these edgelands: on Christmas day 2008, I was walking along the ring road past the Airbus playing fields, in the company of my eldest child, when we saw a parliament of hares – about twenty in a circle, with three looking out from the middle. That this was so rare and mysterious as to constitute a visitation still seems the case ten years on.

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Mostly, though, I plod past retail centres, bus stops, warehouses and suburban semis with my brain idling, much like the engines of the cars queuing alongside me. And it is in this mental state – not quite present in the moment, not quite switched off altogether – that the imagination sparks strange and useful connections.

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While I was writing my novel, Dart, this was when my characters would come to life and start talking to each other, apparently of their own accord. It usually happened while I was walking to my then place of work – one mile through a post-war council estate and alongside a stream throttled with rubbish, shopping trolleys and the occasional burnt-out car. An incongruous place for families waiting out the Black Death in their remote Dartmoor village to make their presence felt, you might think, but this didn’t deter them – in fact, they’d grow so vociferous that by the time I reached work, I had to race straight to the toilets to write it all down before one of my colleagues asked me to do something and I forgot it. I’m sure some of the staff must have thought I had a very weak bladder.

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These days I stick to poetry, but traipsing the everyday routes of my life still works its magic, whether it’s providing a hitherto unthought-of word or cadence, or an unexpected insight into what the poem wants to say. And occasionally – oh joy! – there’s the dropping of an almost fully-formed poem, or idea of the same, into my consciousness.

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So if you’re struggling to shift a bout of writer’s block, why not put your shoes on, switch your brain off and go for a wander down your street? You might walk your way into a whole new dreamscape.

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A review of ‘A Book of Hours’ by Lucy English

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‘The Book of Hours’ by Lucy English

It’s often noted how rare it is for a poet to straddle the gap between page and performance poetry successfully. Lucy English has managed to keep a foot firmly in both camps for many years, and with her new project The Book of Hours (Burning Eye books), she has added an extra genre, that of poetry film.

It’s an ingenious idea – a calendar of poems that re-imagine the illustrated psalter of mediaeval literature for a secular, 21st century readership/audience. Lucy is supported in this endeavour by her extensive knowledge of the both fields, coupled with a poetic voice that is especially well suited to the demands of poetry film.

For all that there are references to stained glass, doom paintings, sun dials and psalmicly panting sheep, the subject-matter of the poems is resolutely secular. Churches are places to be visited in a spirit of curiosity rather than devotion, saints are grey and made of lead, and no miracles happen at wells that are simply oozy patches in stony holes. Similarly, the lives encapsulated in the poems are not ones of monastic contemplation. The poems accommodate a sizeable cast of friends, ex-lovers, family members, former inhabitants of holiday cottages, personifications of the seasons, and animals, and include arrivals from, and departures for, destinations far beyond an anchorite’s cell.

And yet the sacred is here, in the poet’s tender attention to moments snagged in the memory, rendering them dream-like, and magnified by their lifting up as an offering to the reader. This is the poetry of non sequiturs, missed opportunity, small losses that loom large, the lives we don’t lead:

The shadow of our little car against the land

touched the winter grass but did not bend it

 

‘That’s the only mark we should make on earth’ he said.

You would expect poems that are also the grist for film to have a strong visual element, and this is the case. We are often told, for example, what the narrator of the poem is wearing; similarly, the month of June dons a rucksack, boots and a long green dress, and even the sky wears its best shirt, all pink patterned with aubergine, / silks and satins with a new tie of rainbow. This layering of detail, building in short statements, extends to the other senses, to the point where they spill into synaesthesia: I catch a sound in my hands./ The sparrow song. Sip sip sip.

For a full appreciation of the poems, I strongly recommend a visit to the website, where you can view all the accompanying films. There’s some beautiful work here. I particularly loved Helen Dewbery’s mesmeric film for the poem, Drive Through The Night, about the destination for which we’re all ultimately headed.