Category: Poetry

The Fallen and The Faithful

Two sample pages from There are Boats on the Orchard, by Maria C. McCarthy:

TABOTO 4 The fallen

TABOTO 9 The faithful

 

There are Boats on the Orchard is only available direct from Cultured Llama, £7.00 (click here to buy your copy).

Noticing the beauty in ordinariness: There are Boats on the Orchard

I am delighted to announce the publication of There are Boats on the Orchard. These poems began as a filler of time, after I had finished the final draft of my story collection As Long as it Takes. I was bereft, having lived with those characters for so many years, and spending time in my writing shed, staring out of the window, or walking the orchard that I could see outside. So I started writing about what I could see: the bunting I had made dripping in the rain, then drying; the arrival of boats, parked by the dead tree near our fence; a woodpecker in the snow, as I sat at my desk with a sleeping bag wrapped round me; local children trespassing, bouncing on a trampoline left out by the orchard owner after a family party.

I went away on a residential writing weekend with Lynne Rees, showed her some of the poems, and talked about my feelings of bereavement after As Long as it Takes was finished. Lynne was encouraging, and I kept going, observing and writing and walking the nearby orchards. Lynne is also an orchard walker, observer – in fact an orchard owner –  and I am delighted to read her review of There are Boats on the Orchardalongside her own thoughts on the changing face of orchards, and how humans deal with change.

And it’s the themes of ‘endings’ and being poorer for what’s lost that percolate McCarthy’s collection: disappearing cherry orchards, the loss of an inspiring view, the absence of seasonal visiting sheep, and the urbanisation of green fields accompanied by the inevitable decline in wildlife: rabbits, woodpeckers, kestrel. So the threads of resentment and sadness throughout many of the 25 poems are to be expected. In ‘Eden Village’, a housing estate built on a former cherry orchard, the children do not play in the natural paradise suggested by the title but “are in their rooms playing games.” In ‘Strange Fruits’ the hedgerows are littered with “Stella cans, a Co-operative bakery wrapper/”. 
 
But despite this tone and detail I do not leave this collection feeling bereft or hopeless and that may well be down to McCarthy’s lyrical language and syntax which, like the pheasants in the previously mentioned poem, are often “Joyous miracles.” 
 
In her previous urban home, “The quarter hours chimed with stolen light.” (from ‘Prologue’ p.1). Her home-made bunting survives, “Rain and shine, rain and shine;/ washed and dried, washed and dried.” (from ‘Drought’ p.11). And I’m particularly comforted by the poplars in the final poem, “Last” that “shush as they bend.” 
 
Because isn’t this how humanity moves forward with grace? By noticing the beauty in ordinariness? By accepting what cannot be changed? By bending but not breaking? And by celebrating and commemorating both past and present, its joys and griefs.

Read Lynne Rees’s review here.

I’d long wanted to work with an artist on these poems, and was delighted to find that Sara Fletcher, whom I knew as a friend of a friend, had wonderful skills in sketching. We walked the orchards together last autumn, which turned out to be our last year living in the house that backed onto the orchard. Sara’s drawings have made There are Boats on the Orchard a beautiful thing, as has Mark Holihan’s design work.

On the day that There are Boats on the Orchard was collected from the printer’s, news came through of plans to build houses on the orchard that I thought of as mine. I am glad not to be there to see this happen, but happy to have the poems and images in this pamphlet to chronicle the years of living next to the disappearing orchards of Kent.

You can only buy the pamphlet from Cultured Llama, for £7 plus p&p: There are Boats on the Orchard 

The Hungry Writer by Lynne Rees is also available from Cultured Llama.

There will be events to launch There are Boats on the Orchard some of them in orchards. See Events on the Cultured Llama website.

Walking, walking; writing, writing

On a cold Valentine’s evening, in a room above a pub where the old sash windows didn’t quite close, I heard Katherine Pierpoint and John Gallas read poetry. The week before, I went to the University of Kent to hear Katharine Norbury read from The Fish Ladder, her superb memoir, which was one of my favourite reads of 2015. What links all three, and got me thinking, is that travelling inspires their writing.

Katherine Pierpoint talked about winning a Somerset Maugham Award, which had to be spent on travelling, then read some poems, and recounted some tales, from her trips to India and Egypt. John Gallas – well, he just keeps moving, and the poems he read ranged from New Zealand to The Alphabet of Ugly Animals, which he wrote after seeing an exhibition at the Turner Contemporary, Margate. He has also worked on a book of translated poems from around the world, The Song Atlas, and read one from Tanzania.

Katharine Norbury walked and walked from the sea to the source of water. Will Self, he’s another one: walking, walking; writing, writing. And I wondered if there was something missing from my experiences, from my writing, because I haven’t been very far at all.

My writing came from enforced inactivity. It started a year into my illness, at a time where I hardly left the house. Journeys were short, and the I was only able to be away from the house for an hour or two. This is still the case, sixteen years on. I haven’t spent a night away from home in a year. I nearly did – to go away to a wedding – but I crashed the day before, and knew I couldn’t make the journey.

Yesterday, I went on a short trip alone. A ten minute walk to the station, a train ride of less than half an hour, and a wander round Rochester, where I used to live. It’s familiar, yet changing. The shops change ownership, a cafe where I used to write every Sunday morning has changed names twice since I moved away, and has knocked through to the next shop. Even the railway station has moved a few hundred yards from the old one, which stands strangely empty as we roll towards the new one, the waiting rooms and shelters levelled, just a sign saying ‘Do Not Alight Here’.

The wild orchards near Newington

I am not alone often when I go out, but felt the need to undertake this bold expedition by myself. I notice things more when I am not in company. The wild orchards that border the track between Newington and Rainham; the passenger waiting on the platform in a thick puffa jacket, glasses tinted black on a bitterly cold day; a little girl in the next toilet stall with her mum, telling on Leah, who had ‘pulled all the tissue out and just thrown it on the floor, and that was a waste of tissue, wasn’t in Nanna?’ Nanna was in the next stall along from her. The small child in the Oxfam shop, who declared she was going to ‘inspect stuff’: ‘Hmm, this a very comfy chair’. How different the Cathedral looks from the platform of the new station, the perspex and metal shelters on the opposite platform obscuring the view. How cold the fingers of my right hand, texting my husband to ask him to pick me up at the station on the way home.

At the weekend, I’d heard Guy Garvey on the radio, at the BBC 6 Music festival, talking about living in New York for a year, and how being away had fed his songwriting. Again, the importance of travel to an artist. I listened to Guy Garvey’s solo album on my iPod on the way back from Rochester. I’d heard it a few times at home, whilst on my computer, my phone, reading, talking to my husband. I hadn’t really heard it at all. On the train, it was just me and Guy and the music, and staring out of the train window.

Perhaps it’s being alone that creates the experience, and travelling doesn’t need to be that far. My orchard poems, on Wandering Words, and new ones being written, started when I felt bereft after finishing my story collection. I wrote about what I could see from the window of my writing shed, as a filler-in thing, till the next writing project found me. They became that project. Like the shops and cafes of Rochester, the orchards are changing, disappearing. Here is a new poem – or perhaps two, about the boats that are docked on the orchard that backs on to our garden.

Dry Dock

A catamaran

upturned on trestles

a milk jug draining

ii

And now there are three

hour     minute     second     hands

stilled round the dead tree

 

Photo by Stephen Palmer

On a car ride from Faversham to home, I was shocked to see that most of an old cherry orchard had been chopped down; the second such orchard that has disappeared in the last two years. Last summer, we bought cherries from a stall in that orchard. A young woman was selling them, her toddler in a playpen under a tree, and a babe in arms, just ten days old. We asked what kind of cherries we bought each time – Napoleon Biggereau, Sunburst, Merton Glory. We bought some on the very last day the stall was open, on my way to an event where I read my poem ‘Know your cherries’. I used them as a prop, then shared them with my granddaughter. She accepted them silently, seriously, while the other poets read. The juice dripped down her chin.

Bring your own tent? Why I’m taking a break from the literary world

Three months ago, overwhelmed by many things, I resolved to take a break from public readings. I had got into a habit of saying yes to every invitation to read, perform and organise literary events, and felt obliged to go along and support others in their artistic endeavours. I had become jaded with it all, and while some invitations to read were beautifully hosted, the last straw was when I was invited to read at an outdoor event. I had kept the date free, which was on a bank holiday weekend. Given my health problems, a ten to twenty minute spot in the afternoon meant that I had to keep the whole day free, resting before and afterwards.

A few days before, I checked with the person who had invited me to read – the organising committee had changed the time of the reading to much later in the afternoon, without telling me, and two reading spots had become one. He then said I could bring my tent along in the morning, set it up, and sit there all afternoon alongside my books. I made it clear that I had been invited to do this reading and expected tent, table, chair and PA system to be made available to me, and that I would only be there for the reading. I was grumpy throughout the afternoon, and though I did deliver a reading (alongside another grumpy poet who had been similarly treated), I didn’t enjoy it and wondered why I had turned up at all.

Filling up journals is the way to go

Filling up journals is the way to go

So I stopped readings altogether, and also held back on submitting my writing to magazines and e-zines. After winning the Tom-Gallon Trust Award in the summer, I hadn’t been able to place a thing. Rejection after humbling rejection arrived. The high of publication and awards is short-lived, and only leaves me craving more, so I reminded myself of why I began writing. As a way of dealing with a life-changing and devastating illness. So I have gone back to writing as nurturing, sharing my words mostly with my journal, only attending writing events that add to my own wellbeing.

I am learning to not feel guilty about declining or ignoring invitations to others’ literary events. Facebook is a demon for this – I find it easier to ignore a notification telling me I have 15 event invitations rather than to pick through them, responding with apologies and explanations.

After a while comes the temptation to start it all again – in fact, I have had new ideas for adding more into my literary and organising life. This is old stuff for me: over-commitment, getting excited by new projects without regard to the consequences to my health. I have to remind myself that the break from it all is doing me good, whilst not being an absolutist. I am the child of an alcoholic – we tend to have an all or nothing approach. I have made a small submission for publication this month, and shall wait to see if it is accepted. I have also agreed to review a new poetry book, which is something I do rarely, and I am looking forward to doing that.

Although I have enough material now for a second collection of poetry, I am holding back on planning publication, and working instead on a collaboration with an artist. We have no funding for this, nor any goals or end in mind; we are just exchanging work-in-progress by snail mail and seeing what happens.

If you are interested in writing and wellbeing and live in the Canterbury area, there are poetry workshops with Vicky Field and journalling sessions with Canterbury laureate John Siddique starting in January with Wise Words. Read their latest newsletter here. Many events are free.

Read my article: Low energy high creativity – discovering writing through chronic illness, originally published in Writing in Education, 62, Spring 2014.

Orchards and the A2 – writing for Wandering Words

No entry - orchard in Teynham, by S Palmer

No entry – orchard in Teynham, by S Palmer

A couple of months ago, an email arrived in my inbox, asking if I would like to write something for a new website called Wandering Words. Wandering Words is an Ideas Test project, working in partnership with Rochester Literature Festival, to put the written word on the map in Swale & Medway.

One of twelve writers tasked with ‘site-specific writing’, my given subject was the A2, which I could respond to in any way I liked. The only provisos were that I should spend at least three days ‘on site’, should encourage the participation of the people of Medway and Swale, and I had about six weeks to complete the writing.

I live on the A2, on London Road, Teynham, and I had already been working on some poems about the orchards that surround us. I am fascinated that Richard Harrys, fruiterer to King Henry VIII, lived in Teynham, and established the ‘chief mother of all orchards in England’, in and around the village. Initial research revealed that the Faversham Fruit Belt, which Richard Harrys began, stretched from Rochester to Canterbury, following the route of the old Roman road. In fact the first cherry trees in England grew as the result of Roman legions spitting out cherry stones as they marched.

For several weeks in March and April I could be seen hanging around in orchards (wandering lonely as a cloud?) gathering material for writing, taking photos, waiting for the blessed blossom to come out (two and a half weeks late this year, I was told), and talking into a borrowed iPhone to make audio recordings.

I made a couple of trips up and down the A2 with a photographer friend, Stephen Palmer, looking for orchards – both commercial and old, abandoned ones. It was the latter that interested me most, our best find being a disused orchard near Newington, which people pass by every day without even seeing. I documented a favourite walk, starting and ending on the A2, going up Cellar Hill, taking public footpaths along by orchards and down Nouds Lane. It’s amazing what new things you can notice, even on familiar walks.

I interviewed several people – a cherry farmer who I met at a farmer’s market; Pam Talbot, who used to pick cherries with her family in the 1960s and ’70s; an older neighbour, about his life travelling up and down the A2 for work, his memories of the road, the countryside and his working life.

The result is a sequence of poems, some nature and journalistic writing, photos and audio interviews, which appear on the website www.wanderingwords.org.uk

Teynham to Sheppey as the crow flies, from the author's attic, by S Palmer

Teynham to Sheppey as the crow flies, from the author’s attic, by S Palmer

I wondered at the end of it all, whether I had written an elegy for a disappearing world. The old orchards are going, replaced with short rootstock. New cherry trees are even grown under polytunnels with irrigation systems at their roots. More efficient, less back-breaking to pick from, but what have we lost? To quote from my final piece, ‘Walking anti-clockwise’: “The sight of orchard ladders in tall trees dripping with fruit will disappear from the Kent countryside. The orchards that Pam Talbot picked from in the 1960s have already gone. ‘I remember,’ she told me, ‘right at the top, you could see the cathedral.’ A clear view from Faversham to Canterbury, seen from the top of a cherry tree.”

 

Here are a few words from the funders: ‘Wandering Words is developed, managed and funded by Ideas Test, working in partnership with Rochester Literature Festival. We hope to inspire others to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and share their work too. Blogs, poetry, journalism, graphic novels – all are welcome – we want to create a digital library of written reflections on the area.’ Contribute your own Wandering Words at www.wanderingwords.org.uk

 

 

Famous first words

“You got a lotta nerve/ To say you are my friend” – doesn’t this set the scene for what is to come in the acid lyrics of Bob Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street’?  Forget famous last words, what about famous first words: “Let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together” (Paul Simon); “I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour/ but heaven knows I’m miserable now” (Morrissey/ The Smiths), “You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht” (Carly Simon); even the Spice Girls gave us the unforgettable:

Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want

“The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat”; “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky”; “Matilda told such Dreadful Lies/ it made one Gasp and Stretch ones Eyes” – the first lines of poems I learned by heart as a child (by Edward Lear, John Masefield and Hilaire Belloc). “Call me Ishmael”, the unforgettable opening line of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” opens Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: both sentences have become as famous as the books themselves. In fact many people who have not read the novels will know these first sentences.

Julian Cope from The Guardian 10/1/15

What started this train of thought was a quote by the musician Julian Cope in The Guardian (10/1/2015):

I grew up mostly with poetry books and my mother’s fascination for an index of first lines. She thought every great poem must reveal itself in the first line and I’ve written every rock’n’roll song with that in mind. When my first hit came out [with The Teardrop Explodes], the first line was “Bless my cotton socks I’m in the news” – it was written with my mother in mind. I want to go to my grave with a colossal index of first lines.

For writers, the first line of a poem, song, story, novel or article may be the last thing they decide upon. It often is for me; I can think of only one poem where the first line of the first draft remained the same: “A drought is declared and it rains for a week”. Usually I draft and redraft and look at the strength of the first and last lines much later on. The last line is the strongest statement; the first line the second strongest. If you don’t engage the reader/listener from the start, you’ve lost them.

Some years ago, I sent a piece to BBC Radio 4’s Home Truths, and for a short time I became a columnist for the programme. This was my first experience of being professionally edited, and it came as a shock. The producer told me that the first page and half of what I had sent needed to be cut; that she had found the first line of what was to be broadcast on the second page. With a few editing suggestions, this line became: “I had him plastered on my teenage bedroom wall; hair flying and shirt ripped open.”  It was a good lesson for editing my own work; the first things that you write are often just warming up before getting to the good stuff. They might be good words in their own right, but belong elsewhere in the piece. The line you are looking for may not be in the first draft at all, but it may well be halfway down the second page or even at the end.

The same caveats apply for first line suggestions from other people as for any editing suggestions: is it what you want or what the editor or workshop member would have written if it were their work? I am not part of a workshopping group for writers at present, and have had mixed experiences in former groups. Some negative suggestions absolutely floored me, almost made me give up on poems and stories I was working on. You need to have a strong belief in your work, be open to suggestions and also be prepared to reject those suggestions. But that’s a whole other blog post.

Opening lines are important for public readings and talks. All too often, I have heard a poet or singer at an open mic apologise for how rubbish their poem or song is, or over-explain the roots of it or what it means. If you’re too shy to do anything but read your own poem, then just do that – introduce it by its title, then hit the audience with the first line.

Not just for January: creative resolutions, commitments, manifestos and planning tools

New year’s resolutions: unrealistic promises to yourself made to be broken, or a way to kickstart your plans for the year? I gave up on them a few years ago. The dark days of January are no time for donning the hair shirt of deprivation. But I do use planning tools, and make commitments to my creative life throughout the year.

A list of writing commitments is pinned to the noticeboard next to my desk. I don’t update these very often, but they do serve as a reminder of such things as:

I shall not share my writing too soon

I shall write what I want to, not what others ask of me

I shall help others with their writing, but not so I don’t have the energy for my own work

I shall write every day

The last of these is no longer relevant for me, as it was tied to Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way telling me to do this, and I no longer follow her advice. See my previous post on this. I have encouraged others to write commitments to their creative life, and have often adopted others’ commitments when they have been shared in group exercises. One person’s, to read one book at a time, helped me to get through the growing pile of books started and abandoned in favour of another book. I just did this for a summer, but seem to have slipped back into my old ways. But that’s OK: it’s a commitment I can pick up at another time if the book pile begins to feel more like homework than pleasure.

Some people use manifestos for their work. A definition, taken from the website SoulPancake:

Manifesto: a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives.

Go to the link to read others’ writing manifestos, and add your own: SoulPancake

In addition to my commitments, I mind map writing plans and pin them to my noticeboard. I have old ones going back several years pinned behind the current one, and it’s good to sometimes look back and see what I have achieved. I refer to the current one if I feel stuck for what to work on, and it might remind me, for instance, that I have tagged draft poems in old notebooks that need to go on to the computer (I always draft by hand). The seemingly dull act of typing out the poems gets the creative juices flowing and working on screen allows me to cut and paste, change line breaks and fiddle around to my heart’s content.

DIY Pathway to PubI also use mind maps for working with others, for instance in planning towards publication of the latest Cultured Llama book, Do It Yourself: a History of Music in Medway by Stephen H Morris. Mind maps are a great way to take notes and then share them with others (some say that mind maps are personal and can’t be understood by others). Here’s one that I prepared earlier.

For those that prefer a ready-made planner, there is a great one on the Urban Writers blog. They will also send you prompts and challenges, as well as details of their urban and rural writing retreats,  if you sign up to their mailing list.

As someone with limited energy, I subscribe to Sustainably Creative. Michael Nobbs, an artist, blogger and tea drinker, also has a chronic illness, and offers a daily podcast, ‘One Thing a Day’, on how to move your creative life forward using small steps. He often invites members to join in online sessions, and offers tools to work without becoming exhausted. One tip I have picked up from Michael is working with a timer (mine is a mechanical one, topped by a gingerbread man). Though, I do tend to ignore the timer when it rings, it does remind me that I may be pushing myself too far. I have reset the timer twice in order to continue writing this post! So I shall bring it to a close before I get exhausted.

I am adding to my writing commitments this January: I shall spend more time on my own writing than editing others’ writing. Let’s see how that goes.

 

I may be Second Hand Rose but I’m no bag lady – from jumble sales to charity shops

I used to go to jumble sales with my mum, queuing up early for the best bargains, tussling with the expert jumblers, my trained eye honing in on colours and fabrics from the piled-high tables, pulling out, selecting and rejecting for size and repairable damage (missing buttons: OK; broken zips: no; I’d never get round to replacing them).

When I was 17, I had a thing about smock tops. I got some great ones from jumbles and charity shops. This was at the height of punk, and although the young people of Epsom weren’t all going round in bondage trousers, black sacks and safety pins, many had got rid of the tops I liked, I was able to get bagsfull of the things for pennies. My mums’ friends used to spot them for me, too, and most understood my taste in style, size and fabrics. My Nan didn’t get it, passing on a bag of secondhand clothes, mainly nylon and crimplene. I thanked her politely, then binned them.

Jumble sale treasures of mirrorcloth, embroidery, cotton, cheesecloth … I rarely bought a new top, a new jumper, and the only winter coat I bought new, for years and years, was a black duffle from Millett’s, where I also got my Levi jeans (they were relatively cheaper than they are today).

I’ve been a fan of charity shops for as long as I can remember, too. As well as clothing, I bought records and music-related stuff. A giant poster of Black Sabbath for 10p, which was blu-tacked to the ceiling above my bed until it scared the bejesus out of me by slowly unsticking and falling on my face in the middle of the night. A copy of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles for 40p, which I recently discovered is a rare, Mono, first-pressing.

Maria and sister Eileen at Maria's 18th birthday party

Maria and sister Eileen at Maria’s 18th birthday party

For my 18th birthday, the only gift I asked for was a lumberjack shirt. From Millett’s, of course. I wore it to my 18th party, and wore it to death thereafter. I probably held on to that shirt till it frayed at the collar, till the fabric went into holes. I’ve dreamt of that shirt; I’ve written about it:

I dream of a shop filled with all the clothes I’ve ever worn

The shopkeeper offers the shirt

I wore on my eighteenth birthday –

the only gift I asked for –

blue and black, like a lumberjack’s,

frayed threads, faded check,

detached collar and yoke

now healed. ‘Try it on,’ he tempts,

sleeve across breast, hand on heart.

It no more fits than the jeans

I wore with it – red-tagged,

stitched patch – the felt-penned plimsolls

lying gape-mouthed on the floor,

or the skins of outgrown friends

hung on a rack by the door.

(From strange fruits by Maria C McCarthy)

After I left home and went to Thames Poly in South East London, I searched out the jumbles of Plumstead. I even went bespoke, with  a friend asking me to find him a suit jacket.  My student grant was never overspent, not with my foraging ways.

The advent of boot fairs made jumble sale pickings less choice as people realised they could get good money for their clothes instead of giving them away. This has now extended to ebay and the like, with old clothes now rebranded as ‘vintage’.

My clothes-buying habits haven’t altered much, except that I haven’t been to a jumble sale in many years. My last jumble purchase was a cream cotton cardigan with wooden buttons. I paid 40p for it about 10 years ago, and it’s still a summer favourite. For me, a week without a foray of the charity shops is a week not lived. Last year’s winter coat was long, waterproof and hooded – perfect for the flood-ridden season. It cost me £8, and I priced it online as £120 if bought new. This year, I found a nearly new grey wool coat with a black velvet collar for £3 in my favourite thrift shop, which sadly closed last week due to the owner’s retirement.

I don’t like women’s magazines; I occasionally flick through one at the hairdresser’s and it always makes me feel inadequate, when most of the time I feel OK about myself. I look at the fashion pages of The Guardian Weekend magazine with astonishment. Miserable-looking models in clothes at ridiculous prices. One week, in their All Ages fashion feature, an older woman was pictured in an outfit that looked like she’d taken a random selection of clothing out of someone else’s wardrobe, whilst blindfolded, and put it all on at once. They had turned an elegant woman into an expensive facsimile of a bag lady.

I do buy new, though usually at the sales:

Sales

I purchase the stories concealed in dead

women’s vests, carry my own screwed

up bags in which to stow my purchases.

Yet, once in a while, a sale, the feel

of new cloth, cotton soft and brushed,

or silk tagged with 70% off, beyond

my grasp at top price, But, yes, it fits,

the price is right, and a blouse is wrapped

round a square of tissue, folded with skill,

slipped into a quality paper carrier

along with a hanger with special grooves

that stop silk falling from its grip.

I relish the sum of full price

minus discount; money saved,

not spent.

I go for quality when buying new – no Primark for me – and when buying secondhand I draw the line at shoes and underwear: no dead women’s vests for me; I won’t walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

There isn’t a word or phrase to describe my fashion sense, unless it’s ‘anti-fashion’ or maybe I’m more like Second Hand Rose.

 

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