Keith Armstrong’s The Month of the Asparagus

  
 
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, where he has worked as a community development worker, poet, librarian and publisher, Keith Armstrong now resides in the seaside town of Whitley Bay. He is coordinator of the Northern Voices creative writing and community publishing project and has organised several community arts festivals in the region and many literary events. He was also founder of Ostrich poetry magazine, Poetry North East, Tyneside Poets and the Strong Words and Durham Voices community publishing series.
 
He recently compiled and edited books on the Durham Miners’ Gala and on the former mining communities of County Durham, the market town of Hexham and the heritage of North Tyneside. He has been a self-employed writer since 1986 and he was awarded a doctorate in 2007 for his work on Newcastle writer Jack Common at the University of Durham where he received a BA Honours Degree in Sociology in 1995 and Masters Degree in 1998 for his studies on regional culture in the North East of England. His academic study of Jack Common was published by the University of Sunderland Press in 2009.
 
His poetry has been published in magazines such as New Statesman, Poetry Review, Dream Catcher, and Other Poetry, as well as in the collections The Jingling Geordie, Dreaming North, Pains of Class and Imagined Corners, on cassette, LP and CD, and on radio and television. He has performed his poetry on several occasions at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and at festivals in Aberdeen, Bradford, Cardiff, Cheltenham (twice at the Festival of Literature – with Liz Lochhead and with ‘Sounds North’), Durham, Newcastle upon Tyne, Greenwich, Lancaster, and throughout the land.
 
In his youth, he travelled to Paris to seek out the grave of poet Charles Baudelaire and he has been making cultural pilgrimages abroad ever since. He has toured to Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Poland, Iceland (including readings during the Cold War), Denmark, France, Germany (including readings at the Universities of Hamburg, Kiel, Oldenburg, Trier and Tuebingen), Hungary, Italy, Ireland, Spain, Sweden, Czech Republic, The Netherlands, Cuba, Jamaica and Kenya. 
 
 
 

  
 
The Month of the Asparagus (Ward Wood Publishing, 2011) spans some thirty years of writing and heartfelt commitment to the craft of poetry. It is a colourful journey from Armstrong’s roots to the far corners of the world. He has a strong feeling for ordinary folk in all their complexity and demonstrates this in his lyrical grasp and desire to sing wherever he may be in his incessant poetic touring. This is the work of a rampant internationalist who never loses that local touch, combined with a sensual flair.
 
 
 
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“In another part of the field, another field, let’s face it, sits Keith Armstrong’s rakish gaff. His poems are rooted in the Tyneside music hall tradition, closely behind which is the august balladry of the Borders. His is an unashamed bardic stance, actor rather than commentator. Throughout the collection, the authentic lyrical note of this northern poet is struck.”
 
– Michael Standen 
 
 
 
“This is a man who conquers, with his poems and charms, pubs as well as universities. He has always been an instigator and an actor in social and literary projects, an activist without whom the exchanges between the twin towns of Durham and Tübingen would be a much quieter affair. That he is a friend of many friends, able to open the most amazing doors for his guests, can be taken as read.”
 
– Uwe Kolbe
 
 
 
“There are those who tell the terrible truth in all its loveliness. Keith Armstrong is one of them, a fine poet who refuses to turn his back on the wretched of the Earth. He is one of the best and I hope his voice will be heard more and more widely.”
 
– Adrian Mitchell
 
 
 
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Maud Watson, Florist
 
 
bred in a market arch
a struggle
in a city’s armpit
 
that flower
in your time-rough hands
a beautiful girl in a slum alley
 
all that kindness in your face
 
and you’re right
 
the times are not what they were
this England’s not what it was
 
flowers shrink in that crumbling vase
dusk creeps in on a cart
 
and Maud the sun is choking
 
Maud this island’s sinking
 
and all that swollen sea is
 
the silent majority
 
waving
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Two Poems for Thomas Bewick,
Celebrated Engraver on Wood
 

Amen Corner

The starlings en masse
roost here now.
They blend with the dark trees
in the twilight
by Bewick’s shadowy workshop.
Under the cathedral spire
they shriek and gossip
in the chill;
chit-chat of more weather.
 
Thomas, I think that
you could speak to birds,
knew them as you drew their words
in woodblocks.
You coaxed them from their very eggs,
uncaged them –
let them sing on the page.
 
 
 
Return to Cherryburn
 
 
Drawing
clear of the city
you carved your name
in dog barks
and bird cries.
Your infant eyes
kept seeing
the devils in bushes
and the gods
in thrushes.
 
You loved
to scratch a living.
 
Avoiding the faces
of strange places
you dreamed of always
being a boy,
a bird or a fish,
awash in the light
of a dark wood:
 
a cherry burn.
 
Footprints home
 
to remember.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Tales of Spittal
 
 
This small space
for tall tales,
the leprous tongues of centuries,
hospitalised gossips,
words drifting out of ward windows
on a dripping wet afternoon.
Church reduced to a hung silence,
closed hearts
ready for a drink.
 
And there’s this man
like a tea leaf in the corners
of the Blenheim or the Red Lion or The Albion.
He’s gagging for a chat about the old days,
it’s on the lips of driftwood
swirling in the blown down days.
 
Tug the fruit machine,
wallop down a pie-eyed dream.
The ghosts of Victorian ladies
hiss along the promenade
as we are hit in the face
with sepia breezes.
They come from North Sea places
and from Kelso,
Selkirk and Hawick;
they ripple the surface of the sea
and the leaves in the border forests.
 
Take the ancient waters,
sips of iron and sulphur,
bathe yourself in history and grime.
Pellets of sleet,
hail a watery charabanc drive,
run a hot bath
down the prom prom prom.
And let the keen and callous wind
whip up the skirts of the Tweedside girls
so you can dance for your lives.
 
We are the Spittal folk,
the old Pierrots,
our songs are shattered
on ancient rocks.
Our children skip through the clutter of news.
 
Bless them,
bless young hearts.
Splash in Bishop’s Water,
in fishing places,
songs of herring and of salmon.
 
Spittal Rovers
sing again.
Leap for breath
in the ways of spring.
 
 
 
*
 
 
 
Keep an Eye on the Martini Tower for Me
 
 
Keep an eye on the Martini Tower for me
while I struggle with my life.
I still miss the smell of fish
and the smoke of the Huis de Beurs.
I will be back, with another song,
for Mister Wilcox’s Liberation Tour.
I will be ready for that Pancake Ship
and the drunken stools of O’Ceallaigh’s.
 
Keep an eye on the Martini Tower for me
while I work out which view to see.
I will be shouting in a twin-town
and killing my name with romance.
I will be smashing through politicians
and drowning in red lights.
I will be rehearsing poems,
forgetting how real life hurts.
 
Keep an eye on the Martini Tower for me,
I’m tearing up coasts to meet you.
You’ll see my ghost in Schipol,
with a pint of strong blood in a glass.
I’m on my way back to Groningen,
with the smack of three kisses on me,
to shake the warm hand of a city poet,
to piss in the face of a heckler.
 
Keep an eye on the Martini Tower for me,
I was happy in the Land of Cockaigne.
I could see clowns on a dismal day
and blondes in a sea of black.
I met a Grey Man with a girl of nineteen
and I asked him to show me the way.
I saw an old hand hack the guts from a beast
and sucked a cigar to be kind.
 
Keep an eye on the Martini Tower for me,
don’t let her fly away.
I need her to hold my life together,
I crave her to show me the way.
I want her to lean my fragile bones against,
I need history to guide my feet.
I have left a careworn scarf with you,
keep it warm for when I come back.
 
 
 
 
from The Month of the Asparagus (Ward Wood Publishing, 2011).
 
Order The Month of Asparagus.
 
Visit Keith’s blog.
 
 
 
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3 thoughts on “Keith Armstrong’s The Month of the Asparagus

  1. Michelle Post author

    Adele, I love Michael Standen’s “In another part of the field, another field, let’s face it, sits Keith Armstrong’s rakish gaff.”

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