Monthly Archives: March 2012

National Poetry Competition: Commended Poets


Lindy Barbour was born in Kirkwall then moved to Tayport in Fife. She read English at Oxford, and teaches Counselling and Psychotherapy at the University of Edinburgh. She has two children, and lives in rural Lanarkshire, near the Pentland Hills.
White Basin
It came to the point that she was weak
past climbing stairs and in the mornings
had to wash using the kitchen sink.
I went down Castle Street to Wallace Hughes,
Electrical and Hardware, to buy a bowl. The dark shop
smelled as always of paraffin and bare boards.
The bowl was cheap; a simple hemisphere
of thin white plastic with a rolled rim,
as white and round as the full moon.
Each morning I held her upright as her white hands
swam like little fishes through the warm water. The garden
was still flowering strongly that November. I watched her
gaze at the roses through two layers of glass.
I kept the bowl and use it now for ordinary things,
handwashing and catching drips. It’s as beautiful
as the moon or as a marble basin of clear water
with fish swimming in moonlight in a dark garden.
Liz Berry was born in the Black Country. She received an Eric Gregory Award in 2009. Her pamphlet, The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls, was published by tall-lighthouse in 2010. She is a visiting writer at Kingston University and a 2011/12 Arvon/Jerwood Mentee.
Birmingham Roller
     We spent our lives down in the blackness … those birds
     brought us
up to the light.
     – Jim Showell
, Tumbling Pigeons and the Black Country
Wench, yowm the colour of ower town:
concrete, steel, oily rainbow of the cut.
Ower streets am in yer wings,
ower factory chimdeys plumes on yer chest,
yer heart’s the china ower owd girls dust
in their tranklement cabinets.
Bred to dazzlin in backyards by men
whose onds grew soft as feathers
just to touch you, cradle you from egg
through each jeth-defying tumble.
Little acrobat of the terraces,
we’m winged when we gaze at you
jimmucking the breeze, somersaulting through
the white breathed prayer of January
and rolling back up like a babby’s yo-yo
caught by the open donny of the clouds.
Black Country/ Standard
wench/ affectionate name for a female
yowm/ you are
cut/ canal
owd/ old
tranklement/ bits & bobs or ornaments
onds/ hands
jeth/ death
jimmucking/ shaking
babby/ little chld
donny/ hand
Antony Dunn has published three collections of poems, Pilots and Navigators (Oxford University Press, 1998), Flying Fish (Carcanet OxfordPoets, 2002) and Bugs (Carcanet OxfordPoets, 2009). He is working towards completion of a fourth.
In Vitro
We found a moment’s break between champagne
and seating-plan to bolt into the dark
and dusty mop-cupboard we’d clocked before
and though it had no lock you turned your back
then lifted up your dress and suffered me
to thumb your nicest pants aside and pop
the needle through your skin and push it in.
And this is what I’m thinking of up here:
the Best Man, dazzled, running out of speech,
rooting for the groom and bride, the fruiting
of their marriage bed. I cannot make you
out among the guests. You’ve been gone too long,
all undone in a too-bright cubicle.
Gentlemen and Ladies, raise your glasses.
If you are back and standing at the back,
your glass high, I can guess the tenderness
with which you lift the brittle thing and watch
its little bubbles making themselves out
of nothing, climbing the strings of themselves,
bursting infinitesimally and
becoming, nothing after nothing, air.
Rosalind Hudis is an emerging poet from Ceredigion. She has always written, but decided to go full-time in 2009, beginning an MA in Creative Writing at Trinity St David’s. Since then, she has had poems published and won the Wilfred Owen Bursary.
This is my daughter asleep in the morning,
one hand between the silvery poles
of her cot, that remind me of birch trees.
She’s going to theatre soon:
the surgeon will snap her ribs
to reach a heart which can’t wake
itself properly inside its blue forest.
She mustn’t eat. So when she stirs and calls
my arms down for the first feed, I turn
to the wall. She beats a fist,
the size of a large bee, into air.
Her feet swim faster as if racing
a blind snow flood,
and I am the snow. Later
it’s I who can’t reach
my child so far under,
her face a locked, white egg
in the thicket of tubes.
Helen Klein Ross, a former copywriter, has written hundreds of ads for household products. She lives in New York where she works on the Poetry Society of America’s campaign to restore Poetry in Motion to New York City’s subways. 
How to Furnish an American House
     How to furnish old American houses (Pellegrini & Cudahy, 1949)
Our first problem is how to hide
as much as possible. We want nothing
distressed. Snakes on walls create
a restless feeling. Red is rarely suitable
in large doses. After dark, a panelled room
seems to close in upon us, but it is not
an oppressive sort of enfolding. Housekeeping
can be somewhat simplified by small rugs.
Do not make the mistake of painting
old hinges black. Oil portraits are effective
but little damage is done by simple pastorals.
Rooms should be friendly without abandoning
reserve. Insincerity often manifests
in over-ornamentation. The most elusive
quality is what we call charm. It cannot
be planned for deliberately.
S.J. Litherland, born and bred in Warwickshire, became an honorary Northerner after moving to Durham City in 1965. She has published six collections of poetry, of which the most recent is The Absolute Bonus of Rain (Flambard Press, 2010).
Springtime of the Nations
A sympathiser advises a friend
The lilacs were in flower, heavy, drowsy,
boulevards suddenly pleasant. And
I suspect the sun was out. You must
understand there was nothing we could
do. In the square hung the conspirators,
dangling effigies—the partying over—
how they caroused our masters,
the hubbub was like the explosions
of military battle to deafened soldiers,
we the defeated drank deeply while
the victors were clinking glasses. All
we could hear was the chink, chink,
like raindrops in gutters, of their toasts,
and vowed never to let glass touch glass
again in Hungary. And so my friend—
I remove my drink from your pleasure
in my health—in due homage
to the twelve—the silence between us
heavy, ominous. In my hearing, glasses
will never chime. All through the night
they were pushing the boat out, the oars
of a thousand hurrahs dipped into water,
chink, chink, chink, chink, chink,
came the replies of the tiny waves.
It was terrible music to the demented.
The boulevards next day were ashen
with pollen. The twelve hung in the sun.
You must understand there was nothing
we could do but shun the moment,
to turn our backs on all that merriment.
Ian McEwan is a charity trustee, philosophy tutor and treasurer of Magma Poetry. Many magazines have published his poems and The Stammering Man was a winner in the Templar pamphlet competition 2010. Ian has four children and lives in Bedford.
Our Lady of the Pylons 
When she is re-designed, will we
still know she stands for us – that repeated
shape potato-printed, lino-cut, repeated
through the hills?
She gives herself away and away,
the aching weight of power hung
from each shoulder: her prayers hung
to each light switch. Grey paint
elides her figure to a burr
of cloud. She is waiting for the birds
to trust her. Lip-level with the birds,
their pointed banter all
the company she gets. Her shadow
laid on corn, on tar, on earth,
is levering the sun around the earth,
to explain the hollow landscape,
and her faint construction-lines
are the gateways to a sky. Hum for us
Our Lady of the Pylons, hum for us
or hum
Jon Stone is the co-creator of small press Sidekick Books and arts journal Fuselit. His pamphlet, Scarecrows, was published by Happenstance in 2010 and a debut full collection, School of Forgery, is due from Salt imminently.
Blue Poison Dart Frog
Little gas flame sparking in the mulch
Cog-tooth of a Scandanavian iris
Micro-totem to a god of shyness
Petrol bubble birthed from earthy belch
Tree kingfisher chink, shorn off mid-brawl
Driblet-beast from thirty fathoms down
Half-exploded teardrop of a clown
Alien seedling, sown amidst a squall
Blot made by a buggered cartridge pen
Bubblegum in Violet’s champion gob
Goblin bleach got worryingly smart
The genitalia of a very ill man
Lightning caught and boiled down to its nub
An arrowhead that’s softened to a heart
Read more about The National Poetry Competition.

Read more about The Poetry Society.

Allison McVety wins the Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition

Allison McVety has become the 35th winner of the Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition, with her multi-layered poem, ‘To the Lighthouse’.
The year I gave the book another go,
[the year my mother died], I learned
Everything big happens in parenthesis –
marriage, birth, the War, poetry. Is it the full
manuscript or just the bits in the middle
that count. Is it the woman at the window,
marking the hours, from cover to cover –
or these few lines …
               from ‘To the Lighthouse’, by Allison McVety
Read ‘To the Lighthouse’ on the Poetry Society’s website.
Allison said she found winning the competition “unfeasible and thrilling”. She said, “In the context of the poem, winning the National is like being the most unlikely candidate for head girl and suddenly, in assembly, hearing your name called out”.
The judges – Jackie Kay, John Glenday, and Colette Bryce – read 11,663 new poems from 4,498 poets to arrive at their decisions. All the entries were anonymous.
“We admired the way this poem achieves several things at once. It makes you remember that strange sensation of returning to a book to find it altered only to realise the book hasn’t changed: you have … In three stanzas, this poem captures not just the movement of time (that so obsessed Woolf) but also the passing of time in the poet’s life, the journey from the girl in her exams, to the motherless woman at the end. It is a tour de force. It takes huge leaps and yet is shimmering with small details.”
– Jackie Kay
Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch won second prize with her poem ‘Ponting’, inspired by the centenary of Captain Scott’s trip to the Antarctic, and third prize went to Zaffar Kunial for his poem ‘Hill Speak’, about his father’s native language.

© Image by Derek Adams

Allison McVety won the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet competition 2006 with The Night Trotsky Came to Stay (Smith/Doorstop, 2007), and her second collection, Miming Happiness, followed in 2010. For many years an engineer, technical trainer and ITIL service manager at Microsoft, Allison left to manage a digital forensics company. She now works part-time for Smith/Doorstop and is writing her third collection.
Peony Moon was lucky to have a brief chat with Allison.
Congratulations! What’s the best thing so far about winning the National?
Thank you, Michelle.

For most of us, winning the National is one of those career milestones that is both wished for and unachievable in equal measure. So the realisation that my poem had indeed won and would appear on the Poetry Society website, in Poetry Review and The Guardian was a perfect joy!
For ‘To the Lighthouse’ to have been under the eyes of a panel of judges whose own work I’ve read and admired and for it to be liked enough is like a dream. And, since I’ve had to keep the secret for a number of weeks, it’s been great to have the lovely team at The Poetry Society there to pinch me!
Back in the day, would that girl in the examination hall have been very surprised to hear that she would grow up into a poet?
Difficult question. Although I was writing poems at seventeen and would’ve liked a career in writing, my parents were keen on academic success. They saw a degree and a secure career as the only way for me to have a life that was markedly different from theirs. But don’t write this off as a sob story because they really did give me the wherewithal to have my cake and eat it!
As the winning poem is about an exam – what have you learned from writing poetry?
I’ve learned to look and see, listen and hear, much more acutely than I ever did. I know that may sound glib, a little obvious even, but if, as Andrew Motion says, a poem is one idea leaning against the next, then writers have to be receptive to the extraordinary that is everywhere in the ordinariness of their own lives – the good and the bad. After all, how else can we ‘Write it’?
And if I could tell my seventeen year old self anything, it would be that all the mistakes, all the things that seem end-of-the world huge at the time, are just the drafts that make life better. But then, would my seventeen year old self have listened to my advice? Probably not.

© Image by Keith Morris

Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch
‘s two collections are Rockclimbing in Silk (Seren, 2001) and Not in These Shoes (Picador, 2008), which was shortlisted for Wales book of the Year 2009. Her third collection, Banjo, celebrates the centenary of Captain Scott’s trip to the Anarctic, and will be published by Picador in June 2012.
In the end we turned him into a verb:
to pont meaning to pose in ice and snow
until frozen. On the voyage south he’d be
tilting plates in the darkroom, in one hand
the developing dish, in the other a basin
of vomit. One minute he’d arrange us
in groups for the cinematograph, then rush
to the ship’s side. Once Ponco roped up
his JA Prestwich over Terra Nova’s bow,
balanced on three planks. He lost the tip
of his tongue when it stuck to the camera
at thirty below. Corneas can freeze
to peep-sight. At one hundred degrees
of frost the film’s ribbon will split.
To pont would also mean pontificate. He’d insist
on reeling the film slowly to prevent
sparks. We’d rehearse the Pole Picture:
mount the camera on the theodolite tripod,
wind twine over the trigger and guide it
round a ski stick to get the direction right.
He’d instruct us on setting the shutter, how to
use a flash in the tent with quarter of an inch of powder
and F11. En route to the Pole I sent back
negatives with the support teams, a sheet
torn from my sledging log detailing exposure
data; how composed we were, how cold.


Zaffar Kunial has been writing poetry for years, and studied in London with Michael Donaghy. He is part of a writing group in Leeds that includes both the poet Ian Duhig and last year’s National Poetry Competition winner, Paul Adrian. He writes greeting cards, and wrote a rhyming children’s book for M&S. ‘Hill Speak’ is the first poem he has submitted anywhere for publication.
Hill Speak
There is no dictionary for my father’s language.
His dialect, for a start, is difficult to name.
Even this taxi driver, who talks it, lacks the knowledge.
Some say it’s Pahari – ‘hill speak’ –
others, Potwari, or Pahari-Potwari –
too earthy and scriptless to find a home in books.
This mountain speech is a low language. Ours. “No good.
You should learn speak Urdu.” I’m getting the runaround.
Whatever it is, this talk, going back, did once have a script:
Landa, in the reign of the Buddhists.
… So was Dad’s speech some kind of Dogri?
Is it Kashmiri? Mirpuri? The differences are lost on me.
I’m told it’s part way towards Punjabi,
but what that tongue would call tuvarda,
Dad would agree was tusaana
‘yours’ –
truly, though there are many dictionaries for the tongue I speak,
it’s the close-by things I’m lost to say;
things as pulsed and present as the back of this hand,
never mind stumbling towards some higher plane.
And, either way, even at the rare moment I get towards –
or, thank God, even getting to –
my point, I can’t put into words
where I’ve arrived.
The eight commended poets are:
Lindy Barbour for her poem ‘White Basin’
Liz Berry for her poem ‘Birmingham Roller’
Antony Dunn for his poem ‘In Vitro’
Rosalind Hudis for her poem ‘Photograph’
Helen Klein Ross for her poem ‘How to Furnish an American House’
SJ Litherland for her poem ‘Springtime of the Nations’
Ian McEwen for his poem ‘Our Lady of the Pylons’
Jon Stone for his poem ‘Blue Poison Dart Frog’
National Poetry Competition Judges

Jackie Kay MBE was born in 1961 in Edinburgh to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, and raised by adoptive parents. Her first poetry collection, The Adoption Papers, won the Scottish Arts Council Book Award and a Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award. She has written numerous collections of poetry as well as fiction, drama and memoir, and appears regularly on the radio. Maw Broon Monologues (2009) was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, and Red Dust Road (2010), a memoir about meeting her Nigerian birth father, was shortlisted for the 2011 PEN/Ackerley Prize. She was awarded an MBE in 2006.
John Glenday‘s poetry collections are The Apple Ghost (1989) and Undark (1995), both published by Peterloo Poets, and Grain (2010), published by Picador. He was awarded a Scottish Arts Council Book Prize for The Apple Ghost, and Undark and Grain both received Poetry Book Society Recommendations. In 2010 he was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Prize for Excellence in New Poetry, and for the Griffin Poetry Prize 2010 for Grain. He lives in Drumnadrochit, and works for NHS Highland as an addictions counsellor.
Colette Bryce A previous winner of the National Poetry Competition (2003), Colette Bryce has been North East Literary Fellow at the universities of Newcastle and Durham, and is currently poetry editor at Poetry London magazine. Her three collections, all published by Picador, are The Heel of Bernadette (2000), The Full Indian Rope Trick (2004), and Self-Portrait in the Dark (2008), which was short-listed for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award. Her pamphlet, The Observations of Aleksandr Svetlov, was published by Donut Press in 2007. She received the Cholmondeley Award in 2010.
Read more about The National Poetry Competition.

Read more about The Poetry Society.

Arja Salafranca, Communion with self

Arja Salafranca’s debut collection of short stories, The Thin Line, was published by Modjaji Books in 2010. Her first poetry collection, A life stripped of illusions, received the 1994 Sanlam Award for poetry, while a short story, ‘Couple on the Beach’, was a winner of the same award in 1999 for short fiction. Her second collection of poetry, The fire in which we burn, was published by Dye Hard Press in 2000. An anthology of prose and poetry, Glass Jars Among Trees, which she co-edited with Alan Finlay, was published by Jacana Media in 2003. Arja’s poetry is also collected in Isis X (Botsotso, 2005). She edited the anthology The Edge of Things: South African Short Fiction, published by Dye Hard Press in 2011. She is editor of the Life supplement in the Johannesburg-based The Sunday Independent and keeps a blog here

Communion with self
Diary excerpts from Volume 40
by Arja Salafranca
I’ve kept diaries since the age of eleven – I can’t explain what compulsion made me begin. A friend of my mother’s gave me a beautiful red corduroy book to write my poems in, which I did, but the itch was there. After a few pages of poems I started – it was January 31 1983, and my large childish handwriting set out the details of my life: only child of a divorced single mother living in Orange Grove with three Maltese poodles, attending Standard Four at HA Jack Primary. And then onward, to a bosom friend, Leora, to a trip to California to visit family, through the teen years, university, first years working as a crime and entertainment journalist. First relationships, going to live in London briefly, and then back home to Johannesburg.
The habit had begun, it’s one that’s simply unshakeable, even when I have tried to break myself out of it. No matter how busy I am I must return to the diary sometime in the week – it’s where I think, discover what I think, and make sense of the ebbs and flows in my life. I use it as a writer’s diary, making notes, examining the flaws in my characters, thinking about character and plot, finding my way through. At times I plunder it, taking passages and using them in other writing – journalism, essays or even fiction. I use it as a travel journal when I leave home. It’s also a space where I go if the world feels ashen and I need to discover why; I use it to note nights out with friends, to explore conversations and encounters that are meaningful and I use it to explore other relationships in my life as well. It’s something akin to a life’s work – I’m now on Volume 41. I take care with my writing, I use a fountain pen, I write in A4 covered/bound books, I like the almost silent glide of pen, the communion with self and the subsequent exploration and discovery of self.

Diary extract from October 2010

Sunday, October 23 2010
Marianne Faithfull’s ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’ and Elkie Brooks’ ‘Pearl’s a singer’ remain, still, among my favourite songs. I’ve loved ‘Ballad’ since I first heard it in my late teens or early twenties, or even before. Influence of my mother who had the tape cassette of Broken English, the album that contains the song. I heard ‘Pearl’s a singer’ on the radio sometime in my twenties and then tracked down the song and the lyrics after we returned from England. This was pre-YouTube days and pre-everything-on-the-net days too. At various times I have played both songs over and over, watching Faithfull and Brooks performing them on YouTube, getting my fix. Both songs talk of broken dreams, lost hope, promises that have turned sour. Pearl the singer singing of ‘the things she never got to do’. I’ve ached listening to these songs. Of Lucy Jordan at the age of thirty-seven realising ‘she’d never/ Ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair’. The ultimate suicide song, Lucy Jordan climbing onto the rooftop, ‘ … when all the laughter grew too loud/ And she bowed and curtsied to the man who reached and offered her his hand/ And he led her down to the long white car that waited past the crowd’.
I remember reading somewhere about the disputed nature of the meaning of the lyrics, but the ultimate sadness shines through, and I think that’s what so many fans of the song respond to when Faithfull launches into the song. At least, I do. I ache for the woman who has no choice but to reach for the man who offers her his hand, whose life has become mind-numbing, ‘a world turned to orange and the room went spinning round’. A life without hope, the lyrics have always resonated. In some ways it’s been my song – the always inevitable pull, the drift of hopelessness, it’s always been there. I recognised it first hearing the song decades ago, that hopelessness in me, which I’ve always fought against. Yet there, and present even at the age of ten when I tried to drown myself in the swimming pool at the complex called Sanlam Park. And then, years later, hearing ‘Pearl’s a singer’ and I felt the same ache and pull and sadness. Here was another lost and lonely soul, a failed artist, wanting to be Betty Grable but now sitting at a beer-stained table, ‘dreaming … all those dreams that never came true’. How achingly, awfully sad. Dreams should come true. And yet it happens all the time: dreams are lost along the way, discarded, sometimes it’s too difficult. People’s dreams don’t work out, for whatever reason, lack of talent, lack of opportunity, being too afraid to take a risk, or taking risks, still not getting there. And this song ‘Pearl’s a singer’ speaks to the longing of those who’ve tried. And it reaches deep into me too. As though somehow I knew how hard it would be.
Sunday, January 23 2011
I’m writing this with two cats sitting on my desk sharing my writing space – good thing I have a large desk. Leelah’s just finished licking Jamie’s back and neck, I snapped pictures of this love on my phone and I emailed them to myself. It’s dark out there, muggy still, which is why I have the overhead fan on. And this new extra-fine nib on my fountain pen gives me problems, the ink flow is sporadic, I press hard. Hurts the writing hand. And as I sit here, with my old-fashioned fountain pen nib, I wonder how many other people in Johannesburg, the world, are struggling with fountain pens … Why in the era of ballpoints, gel inks, a huge variety of fine liners and hi-techpoint V5 pilot pens with pure liquid ink, do we continue to use fountain pens? In my case I like the way they write cleanly, the thin nib producing needle-like strokes, and paradoxically I like the way it slows down my handwriting marginally, making me take care in forming mostly beautiful letters. The fineliners glide too quickly over these journal pages – I almost always feel letters slipping from me. And I don’t like ballpoints, they move too stiffly; and the liquid gels, the nibs are too thick for me – and for whatever reason I’m not alone. There’s an entire industry catering for us with our cartridges and delicate nibs, bottles of ink and beautiful journals. There’s some kind of hankering, some nostalgia, some sense of wanting to touch the written word which you can’t do when you’re inputting digitally.

Fordsburg, January 2011

I went on a late afternoon tour with Gillian and Stewart yesterday. It was run by Jo Buitendach, who runs PAST experiences, taking inner city tours to Braamfontein, art tours of Newtown, yoga in the city and more. Young, twenty-something, wearing dangly earrings in the shape of Johannesburg’s skyline. We met at the famous train – now a restaurant. A group of mainly curious whiteys, one black, two Indians, all of us local to judge from accents. We were warned to be careful of our bags, although told the area is safe. Still Gillian carried a backpack and I had my camera bag diagonally across me – old habits die hard in this city where we never walk. Taken first to Shaheen’s Sweets and Bakery, we swooned over the sweetmeats: rich concoctions of condensed milk, nuts or chocolate, and coconut. Fried chunks of meat on skewers piled over a stove, even samoosas in the window, golden skin pitted into bubbles. I tasted a potato and brinjal one, a delicious combination. Into a Hindu prayer shop, where Indian music seemed to dance in the background, there was incense for sale, face creams, camphor cream, pooja clothes, photos of Hindu deities, CDs of music – like being plunged into another world and that feeling grew, persisted delightfully as we walked through the streets. Walking, another activity we don’t do in Johannesburg and that too lent the tour an air of exoticism, the feeling that we were somewhere else, not quite in the city we know.

Shoes, the Fordsburg Market

Past the Majestic cinema, the 1960s lettering still on the brown facade. Fragments of information from Jo, part of the 1922 Miners’ Strike took place here. After going to the movies at the Majestic or going to the dance halls, people ended up at Solly’s, an institution in the area, a small, non-descript cafe/tearoom, shuttered yesterday afternoon although usually open, we were told. The area was classified for poor whites in the early years of the twentieth century, Indians moving in only later.

Fordsburg, the wall near Feitas

We moved on to view artworks under the bridge linking Fordsburg with Feitas, now derelict, a husk of its former, brighter self. The JDA (Johannesburg Development Agency) has brought improvements to the area, the paving is new, and part of the improvements included asking former Feitas residents to paint their memories of the place under the bridge. One family contributed the design of the wallpaper in their home. There’s a drawing of a street scene, people jiving, a mural of faces, a policeman demanding a look at someone’s Pass Book.

Artwork depicting a policeman demanding a look at someone’s
Pass Book

Back through the small radius of streets that is the main shopping centre. Past an old-world tailor’s, a small, higgledy-piggledy general grocer/dry goods shop, pausing at the shuttered Maronite Catholic Church, which used to serve the Lebanese in the area, now shuttered. In 1913 there was an attempt to classify Lebanese as non-white, the Lebanese fought against that and won. Jo suggested that the church could be turned into a little museum, which seems an excellent idea. Past shops selling burqas, a mannequin of a young boy wearing a skullcap.

At the Fordsburg market

The sun starting to turn oblique, the smell of drains and sewerage and the occasional blast of music from cars. People turned to look at us: this obvious tour group, expensive cameras dangling, our wide-eyed full of wonder stares giving us away as tourists in our own city.

Cutting coconuts

Drinking coconut juice from a freshly-hacked coconut. The market next, tasting pickled and vinegared dried fruits, chicken tikka at the food hall, boiled peanuts, other Indian savouries. Brightly-coloured shoes and dresses for sale, all warranting a closer look, religious signs in Arabic, some from the Qur’an. And then supper at the rather mediocre Al-Mechran restaurant, the only culinary disappointment on the tour. The restaurant hot and sultry, the air damp, almost tropical. I felt again as though I was somewhere else, remembering Bali’s sultriness. After, leaving the restaurant, we went past beggars who had been given left-over food from the restaurant, asking us for a rand or two, eyes solemn in long faces, heads covered by skullcaps.

Drinking coconut juice

At half-past eight at night the area was pumping, as Jo had promised. Shops stay open late, Mint Road jammed with cars, people walking, eating, socialising, shopping. The market stays open till ten or eleven at night, barber shops, hairdressers and beauty salons open, shops selling clothes, the bakeries selling sweetmeats. Almost like a carnival for us: this glimpse into an ordinary Saturday night in Fordsburg. We are used to our sterile malls, the shops that close early, our quiet suburbs. Only Parkhurst and Greenside have any kind of nightlife – but centred around restaurants only, the shops aren’t open. We left wanting to return. The area pulsed, glittered, moved, the energy palpable. We left, awed, amazed, envious. It was like stumbling on a jewel, it was also, as Gillian put it, like travelling. Like finding yourself unexpectedly dropped into another world, a world you did not suspect existed in the city you inhabit. Like Europe or India – we felt like we were far away from Johannesburg.
Saturday, February 5 2011
I’m reading The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982 – both a dispiriting as well as an encouraging exercise. The prolific Oates. By age forty, in 1978, she had published so many novels, short stories, essays, poems, plays etc that she was already part of the Establishment and was invited into the American Academy of Letters. She held down a job teaching literature at university (although it doesn’t seem to be a 9-5 set of hours) and she had been blissfully married to Raymond Smith since age twenty-two. What luck. Luck yes, but also hard work – she was/is continually writing, revising, working hard at her talent, constantly being accused of being too prolific. But that’s the “price” you pay for all that graft. It’s astonishing. So, not only luck, because there’s an element of “luck” in anything, but also damn hard work.
And her so happy marriage. That is astonishing too. There’s luck – in meeting the man you know you will love, and getting married two months later and all those years later you are still so blissfully in love, still so enmeshed, still so happy in being part of a “we”, rather than an “I” – she took to it like a duck to water. In fact, reading up on her, her husband had died in 2008, and they had been married forty-eight years, I was astonished to hear that she remarried a Princeton psychology professor in 2009, a year after her late husband’s death! My god, it seems almost indecent, obscene, don’t you need more time to mourn? How do you go on so quickly? But you can’t judge someone else’s life and emotions and ways of being … I’ve taken decades to get over Michael, that’s not healthy. In fact Oates’s behaviour is far more healthy.

Journal of Joyce Carol Oates

Sunday, February 6 2011
My mind too pulsy, too racing, thinking of the diary section of Anna’s for Déjà Vu, one of my novellas, and how her version of events is going to be different to those just recounted in the previous section, playing with words, playing with time, looking at how things are different when told by others and also I think showing that the previous section is Anna’s imagination, not reality, but that it also is reality – and it’s fiction, and blurring fiction and non-fiction as Damon Galgut does in In a Strange Room, although I’m not intending to do what he did there, call his characters Damon, who are all him, but are also all rendered into fictional constructs by the act of deciding to do so.
The central female characters in my novellas all have names beginning with A: Anna, Alexia … and so will the others – they are all parts of me, born from me, splinters of me, I’m the mother ship, the creator, they are the splintered-parts of me that live in fiction. And if I go on to write the “Cat” novella not only do I need another name, beginning with A, but that will show all the possibilities of this “A” character who cannot live. But perhaps actually calling them Cat, Catherine, Catie, Caitlin, etc is a step forward – as they have moved beyond A, beyond the first letter of the alphabet. These people are living, all the branches of where they could have been and what they could have done – which the “A” character is too fearful to do, follow.
Saturday, February 12 2011
Jenny and I saw Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi is Dead at the Market Theatre. A revival of the famous play. I read it at Wits. The Laager Theatre was packed, a hot sweaty theatre, the aircon not coping with the suddenly ferocious heat we’re having. An absolutely brilliant evocation of apartheid, what it meant and how it emasculated people, deprived us of all our humanity, both oppressor and oppressed.
The play revolves around the illiterate Sizwe Bansi who receives a stamp in his passbook that he can’t read. He goes to his friend Styles, the photographer, who sees that the stamp is ordering Sizwe back to his own township, and he should’ve been there yesterday. When a man is found dead outside Styles suggests that Sizwe appropriate the man’s identity, a man with both a worker’s permit and permission to stay in Port Elizabeth. What to do? As uncomfortable as he is, Sizwe reluctantly takes on the man’s identity and passbook. Sizwe Bansi is truly dead. Horrifying that a system as brutal and dehumanising as apartheid could force such a choice on a person. It’s fiction, a play, but who’s to say that this situation didn’t occur during the apartheid years? For anyone wanting or needing a snapshot of what apartheid meant, this play provides a stark snapshot or introduction. And the use of wit and humour only serve to underscore the strength of the story told. It received a standing ovation that night and I’m sure other nights too. It’s simply one of the best plays I’ve seen in months.
Friday, March 11 2011
A feeling of ennui and boredom over me this week. The world ashen as though nothing really matters anymore. I don’t know what to do with this feeling. I am never bored, never at a loss. There’s always so much to do, things to write, nights out, and always books to read. I haven’t even wanted to write in here, as though the things I want to say are not worth saying. As though everything that has happened has already happened to me, and there will be nothing new, is nothing new. It will all be the same. Does this hopeless feeling stem from what I perceived as Tania’s words in therapy last week, of thinking I am not ready for intimacy? And if I’m not ready for that then I can never hope to welcome in another relationship? To place so much store on the words of a therapist – someone who supposedly knows you. Yet how much does she really know me after seeing me only an hour a week for just over a year, excluding the December breaks and missed appointments?

Dead Girls by Nancy Lee

Sunday, April 3 2011
Too tired now but to list the events. Exhausted yesterday, finished The Best American Travel Writing 2010, read Paul Auster’s short novel (novella) Travels in a Scriptorium, today started the wonderful short story collection by Nancy Lee, Dead Girls. Emailing today, working in here, making notes on stories, a step forward. But to have written fiction, now there’s success! At least the Easter long weekend is coming up. And now near ten, and I must try and be in bed by eleven to get to work at a normal time … so, list. Last Wednesday supper with Megan, the bruised friendship endures, is restored. Thursday, Craig Higginson’s book launch of The Landscape Painter at Kippies. Went with Gillian, met Hamilton Wende there, always good to chat; Friday supper with Gaby and some of her friends at Bellini’s. Saturday and Sunday at Utopia with Gillian, Sipho and Stewart. Arrived home on Sunday, Leonie (my mother) sleeping over here, cataract operation on the Monday and I had to take her in and drive her back. In between all this writing a review of The Best American Short Stories 2010 for Tania Hershman for The UK Short Review (UK-based website).
Wednesday I was home, but exhausted after early mornings, Leonie and her op. The creative writing circle was that night, but I had to bow out. Came home, fell asleep from six to seven-thirty. So dead. No way I could have gone. And then Thursday I had to get cracking writing two book reviews for Diane de Beer for The Star and the Pretoria News, wrote up Kerry Hammerton’s These are the Lies I Told You and Donvé Lee’s An Intimate War. Reviews. But writing makes me feel good, even if it’s non-fiction when I want to be doing fiction. But what matters and counts is to write, to feel I’ve achieved. And then The Edge of Things is published – short stories selected by me. I included one of my own, the polio story, ‘Iron Lung’. Looking at cover designs. Such satisfaction, again.

Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler

Sunday, May 1 2011
I’m reading Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita, published in 1996, an account of her seven months spent at the Antarctic. I was madly inspired to start reading books on the Antarctic after reading Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s novel The Big Bang Symphony. But of course the novelist’s continent is not the travel writer’s. And each writer interprets a place depending on who they are or where they are coming from. In fact I have read books on this continent before: Don Pinnock’s Blue Ice: Travels in Antarctica and Alexa Thomson’s account of being a cook there, Antarctica on a Plate: Misadventures of a Polar Chef. But it was Bledsoe’s novel that sent me soaring for something more. I even looked up jobs and requirements for going there. There’s a writer’s and artist’s programme you can apply to, something more in my line since I’m not a scientist, engineer, cook nor anything medical.
There are strict physical and dental examinations you have to pass. And if you choose to over-winter there’s a psychological exam to make sure you can survive the dark nights and the shuttered life. Sadly I don’t think I’d survive either winter or summer there, despite my fascination. Never mind the cold – you do get issued with extreme weather gear – I know I’d probably run screaming the first day. My problem with leaving a safe place, the enforced togetherness. No, at the moment the Antarctica’s not for me, and I just have to satisfy my curiosity by reading the books. I’m fascinated by the cold, clean continent, the fierce blue ice, the groups of people who choose to go there, and why, and a place where nothing degrades, as Wheeler states in her book.
Therapy continues, as I told Jake when I saw him for supper last week. And at times it’s hard to know whether I’m applying a plaster to a bleeding wound or if the changes are deeper and more permanent. I mentioned to Jake that Tania had saved me from breaking up a friendship, and that was worth its weight in gold. But are there other changes? It is so hard to say for sure. At one of the sessions when I again brought up the question of whether therapy is working, Tania said there had been a change in that I had returned to therapy in December after dramatically cancelling, and after the whole Megan incident, and that I had gone to meet Megan even though every part of me was screaming not to. Yes I suppose that was progress. I recognised that if I didn’t meet Megan it might have ruptured the friendship beyond repair. And she thinks it was great progress that I returned to therapy. I still haven’t told her my feelings towards Megan, I still can’t explore that with her as they know each other and I need to. I’m never going to be over it, beyond it, if I don’t discuss what Megan really means to me, as if I even know. Or can figure it out.
Sunday, May 22 2011
God, the sanctuary of the diary. The clean lined pages, my handwriting, the promise of talking to myself, of attempting to sort the confusion and welter of thoughts in my head. The promise of quiet, the handwriting is quiet. Letters to myself, that’s what the diary is, letters to now, mostly, but also of course, a letter to the future …
The week past – the whirlwind of the Franschoek Literary Festival. Supper with writers on Friday and Saturday nights. I was on a panel talking about South African English with linguist Rajend Mesthrie on Saturday; on Sunday on a panel chatting about writing with Edyth Bulbring as convenor, with Doreen Baingana, interesting to hear her chatting about the different covers for her short story collection Tropical Fish published by Oshun in 2005. Back home Sunday exhilarated. Stimulated. Such an amazing festival, although so much to take in.

The Constant Mistress by Angela Lambert

Sunday, June 26 2011
Read Angela Lambert’s The Constant Mistress. This is the first chapter describing the main character Laura’s relationship with Kit, the man she cannot feel desire for:
“It is so easy to dismiss unrequited love. We watch coolly, wondering at the poor victim’s inability to see that there isn’t a hope. But in fact hope is all he does possess. In the name of hope, the unrequited lover sacrifices real life for fantasy, not knowing, or not caring, how ludicrous a figure he cuts. Hope blinds him to the indifference of the beloved.”
Utterly sad, utterly true. At one point in the novel a character says to Laura that everyone has a ‘man of your life’ and towards the final bit we discover who that has been for Laura, and the terrible guilty secret she’s been carrying around. A book, which for me, cut so close to the bone. Like looking into the mirror, it’s frightening and unwelcome, both of us unpartnered, childless, alone. We find ourselves single for a variety of reasons, but don’t most of us, men and women, yearn to connect with others, to be in love, to share? That is the success of life, a sign of having achieved, the single woman (and man) has failed in some important sense, we feel. The single state may be more acceptable than at any other time in history in the Western world, but we somehow still look down on it fundamentally.
And the morning when I finished the novel, again Megan was on my mind. And anger, regret, sadness, lingering hurt. Of course what I felt for her was unrequited love. The easiest – and hardest – thing would be for me to cut her out of my life. All I feel is hurt and anger when I see her, or think back on those days in December. But to cut her out entirely? It would be cleaner quicker, kinder to myself in the long run. And it’s not her fault that I feel these things for her. I’m not hurting her, I don’t think, but I am hurting myself. Sometimes it’s kinder to yourself not to spend time with someone who is and always will be just a friend, when so much of you needs, wants more …
I keep thinking of Jake, and in a lesser sense Steve, two men I’ve had relationships with, but we are, of course, now just friends. I ended it both times. Both have to now make do with simple friendships with me, that’s all. Both want more, both have to accept that it’s not coming. It doesn’t stop Jake from saying that he still finds me attractive; looking at me with that look in his eye; or Steve ‘jokingly’ saying, ‘I wish we could get married.’ It’s cruel: it’s cruel to the person on the receiving end, what can I say to them? And it’s cruel and awful for them to be on the other side, knowing me still, and knowing it’s impossible.

The Edge of Things, Dye Hard Press

Sunday, July 3 2011

Johannesburg launch of The Edge of Things at Love Books on Thursday night. A success even though I find it very hard to write about. Janet on the other end of email the night before, I was asking for her advice on the questions I was going to be asking. She’s read the book and reviewed it for Litnet. Left work early, wash hair. Took my drugs, beta blockers and Ativan and then calmed down. I’d also booked a table at Picabella’s for supper afterwards. Couldn’t believe how many people had RSVP’d.

Arja Salafranca and Gail Dendy
at the launch of The Edge of Things,
Love Books, Melville

I chaired the discussion with the writers from this city: Gillian Schutte, Hans Pienaar, Fred de Vries, Hamilton Wende, Jayne Bauling (lives in White River down for the launch), Bernard Levinson, Gail Dendy, Bernard Levinson; unfortunately David was Mahlamela was stuck in Limpopo. I chaired well, I was told, and so people commented on Facebook afterwards. Twenty-four of us for supper, hard to relax, jumping between people so I could talk to them all. Wanted so much to talk more to Kay hardly see her – she said it had been inspirational from a writing point of view. But whacked this weekend though. So drained. God, public speaking really takes it out of me. Yet it’s vital as a writer.

Kate Turkington and Arja at Tau Lodge, Madikwe

Sunday, July 17 2011


Off to Tau Lodge in the Madikwe with Kate. The highlight of the trip was sighting the mound of the elephant that had died of old age, or so the rangers surmised, four or five days previously. It lay in the veld not far from the lodge, its trunk already nibbled at, its insides exposed, spilling out, a mess of liver and other organs, the huge curve of ribcage exposed, flies buzzing imperceptibly. It was incredibly moving to see this great animal, exposed, lying dead, motionless. We are so used to seeing elephants monstrously alive, moving through the grass and bush, kings of the wild. To see one hacked by predators, a lumpen piece of meat now, rather than animal, was inexplicably humbling. Nearby two lions stretched into and blended into the bush. Two brothers, they had taken turns guarding the elephant, food for them, taking it in turns to drink at a nearby waterhole, one always guarding the metaphorical kill.

Madiwe Game Reserve

We went off to Tlou Dam, the sun setting, the trees in silhouette against the orange light, rhinos drinking, their shadows on the water. Birds and ducks skimming against the dam.

Tlou Dam, Tau, Madiwe Game Reserve

The next morning, back at the mound of elephant, a jackal nervously, quickly taking bites of the trunk, watching out for the somnolent lions. But that afternoon, we saw the most moving sight of all and one not often seen, although read about. A bull elephant had approached the carcass, and was mourning the dead elephant. The bull sniffed around the mound, trunk curling over the body, moving around it. My photos show the grief, tangible in the stance, it’s not hard to spot grief. The bull mock-charged one of the game drive vehicles that had got too close; and then spotted the lions, and chased them away, ears flapping, trumpeting distress and anger. We were all silenced by the sight as we bumped back along the tracks through the reserve.
Tuesday, August 9 2011
Life has rushed on. I’ve been to Cape Town for the Cape launch of The Edge of Things at the Book Lounge, stayed with Janine and Lyndall and discovered things about myself, had a hectic week, another hectic weekend, and here I am.
The launch went well; met Mervyn Sloman. Was in conversation with the Cape writers included in the book, Margie Orford, Jenna Mervis, Jennifer Lean, Tiah Beautement, Jeanne Hromnik, Liesl Jobson, Aryan Kaganof, Silke Heiss, Rosemund Handler and Karina Magdalena Szczurek. After, supper with Janine and Nerine Dorman and her husband in Roxy’s a funky place near the Book Lounge, newspaper cuttings hodge podged to the tables, old 50s movie posters on the walls. Finger supper. And then crashing out, stress of flying, the public speaking, as usual.

The Bell Tower, Castle of Good Hope

Met up with Janine on Friday and stayed with her and Lyndall at their new home in Bloubos the next two nights. We went to the castle on Saturday as I’d expressed interest in seeing it. I’d just written my story, ‘Jane and Lisa’, set on Málaga’s Alcazaba Moorish castle; and found myself once more inspired by a castle, by this grim, grey-walled, pentagonal, utilitarian castle fort. It could be the scene of some grim short story, something caught my imagination although I don’t know what will result. Looking at the torture chamber, the tiny prison cells, walls flaking with damp and neglect, a grim feeling. But somehow also inspiring and both Janine and Lyndall also enjoyed the visit.

Torture Chamber, Castle of Good Hope

Lunch at a Hout Bay hotel, calamari, sea in the near distance. Then walking along Sea Point promenade as the sun set, following the story of the girl and the dragonfly, a series of sculptures set up by a young Cape Town artist called  Marieke Prinsloo Rowe. Watching the sea roll in and out, the bleakly dark grey rocks lining the shore, recalling the photos taken of me as a child of five, newly arrived in this country. I played on a beach as the sun set, it looks like the same beach, I’m sure it was. There’s something so soothing and restorative about watching waves, the sea, birds calling and swooping, couples walking, sitting, watching the sun set, people jogging, dogs being exercised, people out, alive, using their city. It was magical.
By then I was aware that I loved the energy between Janine and Lyndall. They are a good fit, despite their differences, superficial or not. Lyndall so deftly calming Janine down when she got into a panic with her new car in the narrow streets around the Biscuit Mill; Lyndall calm, orderly, taking control, steering Janine out of it physically and metaphorically. Or Janine carrying a large bag with three notebooks while Lyndall has a small bag, saying ‘It’s all about simplicity’. And the two feminine energies inside their home – I liked it. I found myself wanting this energy more than the male-female coupling. And I also realised that a relationship, gay or straight, is not purely about the sex. It’s about the energy as well, about whom you want to share your life with, and about where your attraction lies. I liked the space, the energy; it’s as nebulous sounding as that. If I had any doubts before I couldn’t ignore them after spending the weekend with Janine and Lyndall. Yes, I have been attracted to men, I’ve had sex. But perhaps it wasn’t right because it wasn’t right.
Home. And work, and weekend, editing my story ‘Jane and Lisa’ to send to the Outcasts* anthology on Monday night after I was back, the deadline. No time to really revise the story finished the previous Tuesday. But I’ve been wondering all week if I have put too much emphasis on Lisa’s feelings, her experience of being rejected for a heterosexual ‘normal’ life, rather than why Jane is doing this (going back to the heterosexual life). I wanted previously to explore why Jane would do this (as Anne did in real life), but I only touched on this. Was it enough? I’m not sure and no one has read it besides Janine, I sent it to her on Tuesday and she said she couldn’t stop reading, that I knew how to get into the emotions of a character. That nagging feeling though, that the heart of the story is why Jane would do this. So hard to judge your own work. I did learn a tremendous amount about writing about lesbian desire. Describing how Lisa looks at Jane, what she sees, and finds attractive awakened me. I have so often had to repress that in myself. So we wait and see. Wish I had had more time to revise or rethink, but that’s what comes of busyness and procrastination.
* The story is due for publication in 2012 in the Outcasts anthology.
Wednesday, August 24 2011
Two and a half thousand words written of Triangle today; yesterday another two thousand. The novella is now 32 000 words. Ten thousand words ago I thought I had maybe another ten to go; and now here I am again, saying another ten thousand. At times I feel like it’s becoming a novel. But a novel is at least 60 000 words, and I don’t think I am only halfway through this. She’s now met Paul a second time, for coffee, left confused, anxious, guilty? Runs to her best friend Megan, crying on her shoulder (still remember Venise coming over that time last year, after my work saga). And in some way I’m trying to stop her, pull back, halt it; but at the same time there’s no stopping the trajectory of the story, putting on the brakes. It will go on, and Alexia will do what she must and needs to do. And part of me doesn’t want to go there, doesn’t want to see her cause all this mayhem and destruction. And I am, in a way, dreading writing it. But at the same time I am in the story. I have to carry on writing it; I have to get to the end. Not to mention the fact that finishing it is part of my MA requirement. (At the back of my mind I do worry about publishing it, a collection of novellas – who is going to want to publish it? But I shut that voice up: the point is to finish, to write, and to think about publication later.) And so, I’m back in it. I was worried about returning to Triangle because I had no idea how to carry on. Alexia having left Paul after her meeting in Pretoria: what then? Just write, the story, the solution will come, was the answer. I’m asking questions as Julia Cameron does, learning to listen to whatever you want to call it. And so, yes, the story did start telling itself. The characters’ lives continued. They did what they had to do. I had to trust them, the story. (I’m still not absolutely sure how many words it’s going to end up being, but that’s another matter – part of the journey.)

Skoonheid, which means “beauty” in Afrikaans

Sunday, August 28 2011

I saw the movie Skoonheid, directed by Oliver Hermanus, on Friday night with Louise and Estelle. Gave Louise her birthday present – a copy of Re-claiming the L-Word as well as a packet of ‘dog’ cards like angel cards or other spiritual cards. She loved the cards and proceeded to ask us both to pick a card to see what it meant for us. Later she BBM’d thanking me for the ‘meaningful gifts’. So good to have read her correctly.
The movie was a shocker. I had been so looking forward to it and it didn’t disappoint. It’s the story of Francois van Heerden (played by Deon Lotz), a middle-aged married man. He lives with his wife in Bloemfontein where he owns a timber factory. At the wedding of one of his daughters, he notices twenty-two-year old Christian Roodt (Charles Keegan) up from Cape Town. He becomes infatuated with Christian and even invents a business trip to Cape Town for a few days so that he can be closer to Christian. Before that, the first of two shocking scenes. He drives off to meet other men on a farm where they are awkwardly introduced to each other, drinking beer, hardly talking. When one man brings in a Coloured teen, one guy angrily berates him, ‘Ons is nie moffies nie’. What follows is a group orgy: men giving each other blowjobs and having sex.
In Cape Town obsession and lust explode. Watching Christian from a distance. Going to a gay bar, hit on by other men where he rejects their advances. After all, he isn’t gay, is he? He gets horribly drunk and calls Christian to rescue him. A sense of menace and waiting throughout. They eat burgers in a restaurant and Francois tells Christian he wanted to be a pilot, has always held things together and chose family responsibilities instead. What follows is a climactic horrifying explosion at the heart of the movie.
Francois flies back to Bloemfontein where his wife picks him up from the airport. He answers her in his typical half-sentences. The final scene shows Francois ordering food at the Spur, sitting alone. He notices a young man sitting by the window who is joined by another young man and they kiss and laugh openly. Lovers. Francois’ bland expression turns into one of longing and regret. He’s watching what he will never have: an open, happy relationship with another man. Instead of the dried-up unsatisfying marriage he will remain in. The final scene shows him driving out of the parking lot, going round and round the circular ramp, screen slowly fading to black. It’s the only possible ending there could have been. Francois isn’t going to change.
The power of the film lies in Lotz’s superb acting and Hermanus’s directing. Lotz’s face is ordinary, seemingly blank. We’re waiting. We don’t know what we’re waiting for until that pivotal scene in Cape Town. A deeply powerful affecting film about Conservative Calvinistic Afrikaner manhood, about unrequited love, about not staying true to who you are, no matter whom or what that is. We sat speaking about the movie long afterwards, its meaning, its ramifications.
I left on a high, so enjoyed seeing them, connecting again, I feel as if in some way I was meant to meet Louise and Estelle.

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Destiny? … Destiny to the rescue in Triangle, my novella. I devoured Elif Shafak’s novel The Forty Rules of Love and then I had the answer as to why Alexia goes, again, for Paul. She believes he was the one, it was destiny, and they were meant to be together. A fortune teller once said that to me about Michael. Alexia felt dead when it was over. Life was never the same again. That’s why she’s seemingly throwing away her life, her marriage, her supposed happiness. That stubborn faith in destiny and fate. I’ve also never stopped believing that Michael and I were meant to be, but we couldn’t get past our personalities – and this is why Alexia pursues this ill-fated relationship. She has to know. No amount of logical reasoning from friends or in her head can sway her. Even if she’s wrong, she has to know. The fact that she has felt half alive all these years strengthens her argument, decision, resolve. She has never again bloomed as she did once, and so, in a way, she doesn’t have anything left to lose. She lost it before. And if she loses again she returns to the half life she’s lived up to now. She may be changed, yet again, by the experience, but perhaps, she still loses, or does she gain?
Read more of Arja’s writing at her blog.

Nuar Alsadir’s More Shadow Than Bird

© Image by Deborah Copaken Kogan

About Nuar Alsadir’s first book of poems, More Shadow Than Bird (Salt Publishing, 2012), David Baker of The Kenyon Review wrote, “These are distinctive, tight, sonic little mysteries. Dickinson abides here”. Nuar’s poems and essays have been published in numerous periodicals, including The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Grand Street, Slate, The Awl, The New York Times Magazine, Tin House, AGNI and Callaloo. She has received writing fellowships from Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, The Fine Arts Center in Provincetown, The Norman Mailer Center, and Ledig House International. She has been nominated for a 2011 Pushcart Prize.
Nuar received her B.A. from Amherst College, and both an M.A. in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in English Literature from NYU. She is currently on the faculty at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she teaches writing. In addition, she is training to become a psychoanalyst at The Institute of Psychoanalytic Training and Research and is in the Scholars Program at New York Psychoanalytic Institute and Society. She has a blog on the Psychology Today website, The Examined Life.

“The poems in More Shadow Than Bird are imagistic narratives of emotional situations that offer not the story of a life, but of the consciousness accompanying the life lived. The quirky perspective and musical surface of these poems makes them engaging – deceptively catchy, even – as a mysterious darkness tows from beneath to draw the reader deeper in. This consciousness, even as it operates on a more philosophical level, is embodied – not abstract or removed  – conveying a sense of rawness and honesty that is rare in non-representational work.”
“Nuar Alsadir’s More Shadow Than Bird abandons the self in order to create a haunting dialogue with the self. These poems converse from the inside out; they come alive in the back and forth of a mind attempting to understand what it means to be in relation to. The couplet is employed here to full effect as relationships, both to others and the world, are interrogated. If ever there was a fantasy of transcendence these poems begin after that in the exacting and ruthless moments of mourning and loss even as the “I” and the “you” continue to orbit each other. Alsadir’s debut collection is lawless and provocative and heartbreaking.”
– Claudia Rankine
“It is the tone of these poems that propels them forward, at once deeply intelligent and vulnerable. The sounds, the surfaces, are muscular and precise (like Plath), and yet subterranean fears leak onto every page. Alsadir’s alchemic interplay of sound and the subterranean creates a thrilling tension. As an American poet of Iraqi parents, she writes from a place of being not only outside the dominant culture, but threatened with annihilation. Fear comes to life in these pages, sits beside us, seemingly contained, seemingly at peace, lulling us, but always close.”
– Nick Flynn
They live inside walls—not like you
or the other rodents, but with wings
and fangs, a clicking almost flamenco.
And unlike you, they are not ashamed:
they share their darkness like a piece
of delight and when the circling begins
do not feel their minds invert.
You, crawlers, guard your flight,
may swim the air in dreams
but always rise for breath, belief.
The bats do not need applause.
If you clap, they will change direction.
The Riddle of the Shrink
It’s the distress of losing a ticket
or any other document granting passage.
When the phone disconnects
just as you were about to be let in
on a secret, you become the letter
that never receives a response, the ball
that rolls under the neighbor’s fence and stays.
The friend you have entrusted with your death
song, an editor, has changed the words.
Now it’s you, not your modifiers,
who will dangle, suspended between this world
and the next. The image of the future
is the memory of the dream in which
you’re standing before a kiosk, attempting
a transaction with a forgotten code.
The more you talk, the more you’re left alone.
At times, you’re curious whether or not
someone is in the room, but fear it would be
too revealing to check. At times, you strain
to hear another’s conversation while feigning
involvement in your own. When the subway doors
open and everyone rushes to take a seat,
you’re trying to get over to the right lane
in fast traffic. It’s like wearing tights
with a stretched-out waistband under a skirt,
or dreaming that the alarm is about to go off.
We are descending again in parallel—
I cannot say together—as in another dream
you rushed through the first door
without me. It was late. Your name
was an elevator door resisting its rail,
its screech my only attempt to reach you.
Was it hurt that filled the elevator
I entered with gurneys and gowned girls,
incubated hearts pumping for a home?
Floors flicker as they fall.
The girls’ chatter flaps shrill at light,
tangles in my hair and away
like spring, like spring—
          When the doors open
you will be on the other side, waiting,
mistaking my elation for rage.
Your mother’s in the kitchen and out
and in again. It’s all about them.
They’ve taken over like the dark cloud
hanging low over the back yard,
a fat aunt coming in for a hug.
Enough’s enough. The door opens:
new guests flow in as the old
back you up like mangroves.
Why get dressed up to stay in?
Pretend to befriend other children
because they have been dumped next to you?
Resistance, then fire, then to your room
without toys. Later, it’ll be the boys
to whom your friends will cater,
seem to love best. Such is the fate
of the steadfast: you’ll never be a guest.
Walking with Suzan
We hear a sound like a mammoth door
creaking open. She tells me it’s a woodpecker,
and I imagine that little nose opening worlds.
I think of hearing a poet read a few weeks ago;
sitting in the front row I wanted nothing more
than to touch his nose. I told this to my friends
at Pete’s Tavern after the reading and someone
called it sweet. Jeff would probably call it sublimation.
I started talking with Suzan about how difficult it is
to marry appearances with intentions and she wants
to walk around what looks like mint but could be
poison ivy. My mother used to grow mint
in our backyard; we called it by its Arabic name, nànà.
A few years ago, I learned the English word
for tukie is mulberries and ramane is pomegranate.
I have spent my life confusing words, mixing up
what I mean with what I say. The other day
when we were lying on my kitchen floor and I said
you should go, I could have said I’m scared
or help me believe. But there is so little to believe in
since what we see is not necessarily out there
and language hollows being into desire.
Even when I try to talk about what I want I start to lie.
There’s a lot to be said for walking around things.
Still, there are times when a skeptic tries,
a woodpecker banging itself into a tree.
Sing Fat
I will not write another love poem, I decide,
passing the Sing Fat Restaurant on 3rd and 12th.
Who but Whitman could do that, sing fat?
It’s like Williams dancing around naked
while everyone’s sleeping, or Vallejo
wanting to kiss affection on its two cheeks.
Yesterday, I was explaining to my fourth graders
why we say Native Americans, how it’s important
to call people by names they choose, and Sarah Bliss
told me she wants to be called Beautiful Girl.
My mother used to call me Little Boy
because that’s what I wanted to be; I’d watch
my brother melt the heads off his army men
and think, what power! Now I sit at a desk,
drawers filled with tape and Kleenex,
answer questions like why there is no willn’t
if there’s a wouldn’t and a couldn’t.
We talk about what colours we would be,
how happy endings are an adult conspiracy,
and how they don’t like another teacher
because she’s like paper. Last night I dreamt
I was pregnant, which is supposed to be a good omen,
but I sprinkled salt on my stomach and watched
the baby shrivel like a leech. If I could accept
what comes, I’d be dancing naked, bulging with life,
finding no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones.
from More Shadow Than Bird (Salt Publishing, 2012).
Order More Shadow Than Bird here, here or here.
Visit Nuar’s blog, The Examined Life, at Psychology Today.

Christopher James’s Farewell to the Earth

Christopher James won the National Poetry Competition 2008 for his poem ‘Farewell to the Earth’. He also took the Bridport Prize in 2002 and the Ledbury Poetry Prize in both 2003 and 2006. His previous collection, The Invention of Butterfly (Ragged Raven Press, 2006), was listed by The Independent as one of its top ten poetry books and he is described by Poetry Society’s Judith Palmer as ‘the UK’s brightest newcomer’.
Christopher is the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors. His poems have appeared in The Rialto, Smiths Knoll, London Magazine, Iota, Magma, The Spectator and other periodicals. He has read at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, the Ledbury Poetry Festival and twice at the Aldeburgh Festival, has hosted poetry workshops and has been commissioned by the Tate.
He was born in Scotland in 1975 and educated in Newcastle and UEA, where he graduated with an MA in Creative Writing. He now lives in Suffolk with his wife, guitar and three young children. 

“Dust to dust, that much we know. But it’s what happens in between that counts. In Christopher James’s mercurial second collection, Farewell to the Earth (Arc Publications, 2011), Seamus Heaney breaks down in a lane; John Lennon haunts the Great Wall of China while an archaeologist is exhumed sometime in the distant future. This is where the living and the dead intermingle like passengers waiting nervously for a flight.
Reaching from the Humber to the Thames; Cromer to Kathmandu, it’s a dizzying and unpredictable world tour that veers in and out of reality like a plane passing through a cloud. In the shadow of environmental disaster and the possibility of dragons, there are more mundane dramas to face too: house moves, family secrets, marriage proposals that do not go to plan, and children woken in the night by rain.
Farewell to the Earth begins and ends with ashes, but in between a Technicolor epic unfolds, throwing its glinting light on the everyday.”
“The title poem, a wryly affectionate reflection on the funeral of the father of a friend, won the National Poetry Competition in 2008 for Christopher James, who was born in Paisley in 1975, educated at the University of East Anglia, and works as head of corporate communications at the Scout Association in London. His references run wide – Ben Jonson, Thomas Hardy, Harold Pinter, Nick Drake and “Suzie Rotolo on the cover/ of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” – as he roams from Cromer to Kathmandu, writing about the hills of Matabeleland, dusk in Newington Green and, in Norfolk, “the spectres of marsh men and mill hands/ marching across the fields with their galoshes/ and pitchforks; come to reclaim their own”. He can be funny, feisty, but serious, too; “My soul/ I give to the stars, my eyes to the orphans./ I will leave behind nothing but yesterday”.
– Keith Richmond, Tribune 
The Retired Eunuch
Today I crashed my last wedding, hung up
my bells, kissed goodbye to my maracas.
From now, I will dance only for myself,
choose turquoise stones from the village bazaar
and walk between the grass and the green wheat.
I will wear a yellow turban and striped shirt
and, when I draw my pension, will put aside
enough for the silver stilettos I saw in the shop
in Chandigarh to be worn on the anniversary
of my mother’s death. At night I will wear
the white headdress shaped like a swan,
dream of the City Beautiful and Lucky Ali
with his denim shirt and Dean Martin eyes.
In spring when my skin is still as pale
as the palace of the ambassador, I will walk
the high paths, pick the yellow flower
and feel rain on my feet; I will not speak of the past.
In my last days, I will play at high volume
the big hits of Daler Mehndi, the Bhangra King,
learn the sarangi and, once every year, journey
to the shores of the Bay of Bengal. My soul
I give to the stars, my eyes to the orphans.
I will leave behind nothing but yesterday.
Detective Fiction
It was a strange day to begin with:
as I left the office I found a fifty dollar bill
gummed to the bottom of my shoe.
Good luck, you’d think, but it just didn’t feel right.
It was like a beautiful woman you didn’t know
blowing you a kiss across the room.
On the street a sheet of newsprint
was frozen to the sidewalk laminated in ice:
the headline read: Detective found dead.
I went down to the park, where I saw
Liwina, the poor sick Dutch girl in her bonnet
and long skirts, still skating on thin ice.
I had to clear my head and went
to the sanest place I could think of – the zoo,
where I shared a bag of nuts with a polar bear.
This was some mean December, I thought.
My hands were like spiders dropped
in the deep freeze.
I hailed a cab and went down to Forty Third
where I door-stepped an old friend of mine
who fixed me an espresso as thick as tar.
I explained about the fifty dollar bill, about Liwina
and this crazy bear who chewed up my cashews.
He nodded and poured me another.
Maybe there’s some connection, he said.
Blackmailers sometimes like to scare you first.
I looked down at my cup
then up at the crystal chandelier; we listened
to the cars as the windows frosted over with ice,
like eyes passing from life into death.
Backpacking Across Pangea
In its last throes, when the earth huddled back together
for warmth, a single crust floating in a soup bowl,
you could walk ten thousand miles and never reach the sea.
We packed The Rough Guide to Pangea, a work in seven parts,
a stack of t-shirts, and a compass that did nothing but spin.
We crossed the great land bridge that rose out of the Channel.
We stepped from Eurasia to Gondwana while they scanned
our retinas and rummaged through our DNA.
In the mountains of Oman, we met musicians
who plied us with Yak blood and sweet potatoes
while we listened to their songs of a separated world: the spindle
of central America; the anachronism of island nations.
In the old Aegean, the sole of my boot peeled off
like a transfer; within six steps the other did the same.
Our navigation implants made our heads ache.
This was many years ago, before the mantle
began to melt, when you could tread the earth in bare feet,
all of the world a golden outback.
In the hills of Matabeleland, the devil appeared to us
in the form of a toad, while an angel drove by
disguised as a tractor driver with a swollen hand.
It was possible we had skipped an injection or two.
When we awoke we found ourselves on a white headland
with a single red hut selling herring and Coca-Cola.
We returned on the Trans-Pangea Express – forty three days
without a stop. On the train a beautiful old woman smiled at us
with our golden hair and brown skin
while we drifted into sleep; we dreamt of the slow dance
of the continents joining hands in a ceilidh of lithospheric plates
parting and drifting back together.
We arrived on The Last Night of The Proms
and sang ‘Rule Pangea, Pangea Rules the Waves’.
As the waters rose, we waved our single flag of woe.
The Lakeland Poets High Jump Contest
From the air they resemble a flea circus
hopping a cedar branch wedged between two yews
on an island at the centre of Grasmere.
It is ridiculous to assume that they wrote all the time.
Wordworth’s stockings are pulled up past his knees
while he rocks gently back and forth, waiting
for good light and favourable wind conditions.
Coleridge attempts the Fosbery Flop,
although it is, of course, yet without a name.
His hair gleams with goose fat and perspiration.
Robert Southey favours the traditional scissor kick
and has the benefit of a considerable height advantage.
He does not know of Wordsworth’s midnight training.
They are not beyond dirty tricks: reciting Horace,
the Latin names of Cumbrian flowers
and brewers of local ales at critical moments.
Wordsworth wears a pair of ladies’ stockings
knotted tightly about his head to ward off the sun.
This carries on for much of the day. Some of the villagers
stop to watch from the far shore, going as far
as to remove their pipes and applaud the footwork.
Eventually, Dorothy Wordsworth is seen rowing
over with provisions: wine, handkerchiefs
of crushed ice and lemonade; she is not beyond
criticism, her arms folded, tilting her head to one side,
as if judging a stanza or weighing up a metaphor.
Not a word of this must get back to London.
The Chitrakar’s Allotment*
I will keep this my secret place
where sweet potatoes grow, the soil is rich as mead
and where I have planted, in hopefulness
the seed of the bitter gourd vegetable,
native of Orissa, where there is sunlight all day.
When I staked out the four seasons of my
allotment, they did not suspect that I
was a chitrakar, a gaming man
and an artist – but I will explain.
When the rain came down I retreated
to my summer house, a bus-shelter
with a red car door, drank tea and played jazz,
the great multi-reed men: Chico Freeman,
Charlie Mingus, and Sonny Sharrock.
It did not take them long to guess I was
no gardener. Inside I made brush-strokes
as delicate as the spokes of a snowflake;
outside slugs made slug hotels of my brassicas.
I chose the company of the allotment keepers,
silent men who stood with barrowfuls of squashes,
who only stepped up to my hazel fence
to speak of my roots and legumes.
In spring I worked as hard as the rest of them,
my lungi double knotted at my waist, my
bare heels bedded into the warm earth.
We drank lemonade and played sides of cricket,
batting unripe apples with overgrown carrots.
I did my work by candlelight,
my feet treading the mosaic of sea-softened grass
depicting Ganesha, the Elephant God.
I mixed chalk and oil, perfecting my pigments
before cutting a new brush, putting aside
my crop rotations and choosing the first
of twelve suits of the Ganjifa: trading spades
for the turquoise plumes of the elephant riders,
the pale faces of ministers and kings.
* The literal translation of the word chitrakar is imagemaker. The artists have traditionally painted playing cards or Ganjifa.
The Wonder-Smiths
Since you asked, it was Earwald,
the metal-smith who demanded, in the beer hall,
to know which of us was the greatest.
He held up his knuckles of rings
and laid down his challenge – to go to the place
of our fathers, and re-forge in our arts
the heavens, the sea, and the world itself.
But for him, we would not have rowed
out to the island, our oars sipping at the water
under a moon like a Saracen’s scabbard.
We stepped ashore like holy men
in bear skin, leather and gold stitching:
a metal-smith, a poet, and a musician
who played at the lyre two handed,
as if folding a woman in his arms.
That first night Hasagard conceived,
a melody like a darting fox, Earwald an amulet
of silver leaves as thin as moonlight and as for me:
word hoards like the whisperings of the ages.
When we could work no more, we lay back,
peered up into the bird-yard, and watched
the clouds break into hot coals and embers.
We roasted fish over a modest fire
and spoke of our womenfolk and children –
my daughter who ran as swift as a hare across a field.
The next day, Earwald fashioned a golden halo,
and held it, still warm, in the palm of his hand.
Hasagard brushed his fingers across the strings
of his lyre like an osprey crossing the moon.
That final night, we made beer-feast, let the fire
spit high into the sky, dancing like clumsy lovers.
But which of us was the greatest here?
I declared for myself, for when I put down
my pen, I made the other two disappear.
from Farewell to the Earth (Arc Publications, 2011).
Order Farewell to the Earth.
Read ‘Seamus Heaney’s BlackBerry’, ‘Noah’, ‘King Midas in the Golden Valley’ and ‘A Star Shell’.
Read more about Christopher at the Poetry International Web.


Chris Emery’s The Departure

© Image by Jen Hamilton-Emery

Chris Emery lives in Cromer with his wife and children. He is a director of Salt, an independent literary press. He has published two previous collections of poetry, a writer’s guide and edited editions of Emily Brontë, Keats and Rossetti. His work has been widely published in magazines and anthologised, most recently in Identity Parade: New British and Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2010).

“At the centre of Emery’s third collection are a series of narrative poems that reveal an astonishing range of personas, from the set of Mission Impossible, an extra from Gojira, porn stars, bombers and executioners — even Charles Bukowski turns up to take a leak. There are Pennine journeys, war zones, the Norfolk coast, the Suffolk coast, riots, bad hotel rooms and crazy conventions. Even the secret life of peas. Interspersed among all these are poems concerning the mysterious ‘M’.”
“The poems in The Departure possess (and are possessed by) such intent, detailed, living brilliance, it is like reading a series of captivating novels compressed to their musical essence.”
– David Morley
“Chris Emery’s poems are like highly compressed short stories that we enter at high speed. Once in, the place is full of vivid detail keeping our head turning. A good deal of the world is there with all its proper names, staring back at us as if it desired calm but knew things were on the move. Sometimes surreal, sometimes baroque, at other times darkly playful, the world is as in ‘Snails’: “Tonight we will pile them, pile everything of them/ into the whorl of a bucket and then we will fill it/ to the top with forest tears and let the silence do its work.””
– George Szirtes
“In his aptly-named new collection, Chris Emery shows he still has the talent to surprise us with a perfectly-managed change of direction and range, showing (in the words of one of his poems) a new “fantastic ordinary face”. A fresh accessibility is achieved with a richness of striking and imaginative language that will impress his existing readership, and reward the new one this book is certain to attract. There is plenty of humour here alongside genuine political commitment, a lot of real human feeling between its sharp satirical edges, kissing as well as broken teeth. Anybody interested in the contemporary poetry of these islands will have to read this book.”
– Ian Duhig
“There’s an immediacy and something familiar in the way the poems of Chris Emery’s new collection address the reader. They impel us to engage, to join the moment, the experience, the thought, and to consider what’s being prised open or experienced. The ease with which he develops irony and yet is freshly lyrical is almost reassuring. This is a very sophisticated and controlled poetry, language rich, but also surprisingly and at times gloriously tangential. What matters most is that it urges us to confide, to share – written because it has to come out, but also because we might like to listen. Emotions work with sensations and retain the intelligence that has so characterised Emery’s earlier writing. Who are we, where am I, how do we all relate to a wider world with its still and frantic moments? This book expands horizons, acerbic and poignant, constrained and ecstatic at once.”
– John Kinsella

On Leaving Wale Obelisk
           for Jen
Did we shuck our suits that leaf-dense noon,
leaving serious careers in lemon light?
The high clouds, early swallows, the day moon
weakened, nothing farmed, nothing tight
above the summer marriage of grasses,
and all that luscious time receding in
the corporate years’ climbing excesses,
just a vacancy before the children?
We made our love pledge there. It leaves you
in chromatic episodes like this,
doesn’t it? Not quite nostalgia, but who
could have imagined ageing like this?
We had climbed up to lie on the piled hay,
the tow-coloured earth all nice and neat
and with everything to come our way,
lovers of the smashed-up wheat.
Duke Bluebeard
Each morning he coughs up entire corridors
of detainees.
The saturated ceilings bulge, the ball lights wobble
in each beige apartment.
This morning, he wanders out warning
the twelfth storey rays.
Knocking on doors,
tapping the struts and laths,
testing the slop on the floors with a block-toed foot:
he never wears galoshes. He is
connecting the impressive lips of the world.
He readies himself for the day’s accountancy.
When Judith comes to clean the tower
she is permanently bent into the letter R,
ripping up piles of scarlet tulle,
picking up bran-coloured skirts, fans, court shoes, masks.
She hates his beard and throbbing basso profondo.
She calls him a fat goat. He tugs his beard and asks
her to open any door, this way or that. She’s had it with him.
She keeps her head down.
He shrugs his shoulders and walks off boasting to the dead.
There’s always tomorrow.
More floors. More doors. More ticking frames.
This world will never tire of locking up its women.
‘The Girl from Ipanema’ floats out
from the Sole Bay Inn as we take note
of the ash-grey granite
of the two-up two-down opposite.
It has a charcoal push bike
leaning on the door’s black velour.
The grocer’s swells with fruit;
the brewery sports its brands
with a tame gold veneer.
The lighthouse pokes its tibia
into the sloe-blue night,
fathoming out the sea’s soft rushes.
We hear the darker pebbles
with their foam hems, faintly clacking
their blind buds together.
All these comings and goings
where the beach’s groynes order
the waves’ chemical procession.
Our landlady’s pensive as a courtesan.
She reads the papers in the empty lounge.
Her mornings ‘re scooped out between regulars.
Her red jowls mark out
the egg and tomatoes of each sallow breakfast.
All for the taking. The perfect scallops
of roof tiles on beach huts, painted like teeth.
The slow sedans in this temporary commune.
Now starlings in pyrotechnic, half-baked flight
swoop to eaves sharpened with gorgeous,
apostolic light. So much to claim,
as the sea’s womb bursts and adopts
one column of light
from an aching corn-yellow moon.
We’re spruced up, mediators in an evening
swollen free from cities, chalking up meaning
below the swashes of power lines.
Remember this weather. Summers silted up
like the vanguard of some redemption.
Just pan left and take a wide angle
as the score changes and we change reels.
Now that swollen moon drops and kicks up
a class finale. The brass dampened, throbbing,
as the strings come swooping in with
Fred and Ginger, dancing the perfect closing steps.
The New Play at The Astoria
I’m watching the Baltic light decline by slow degrees.
Stage left, a gold pagoda, behind it a starry lake reduced
in the sumptuous evening. Now, the leads, in masks, isolate
their rich emotions inside the crowd, working.
Our interest lies with the bodies of the women, though,
who, while impressively restricted, are imagining their gloves.
There is a charmingly repetitive soundtrack off stage.
Beside this, the weathered temple script leads off
to tiny birds. Underneath, things develop.
At first the implications of each soft movement
seems wondrously vague, but soon the changes in our scarlet
backdrop seem peculiarly prescient, and we are enabled
to see a remote undressed yearning grove. We can’t stand it.
We begin itching. Some of us are fevered enough to break loose.
The protagonists are undeterred and begin slowly waving back.
Each of us is placed into a separate fog. This is how it begins.
M1 3LA
Up the pissy steps we find nostalgia’s vein-blue glamour
sweeping under chandeliers and a dominating
stairwell, cloistered bridges and gantries
and dark batik where hoteliers in sulking combat sit.
Maybe they’re fed up faking it with crimplene
for mauve itinerant weddings, or watching
the unhitched come past name-boarded rooms
straight from the sales circuit to some daft do
on sill linings or Mitsubishi extractor fans –
all scooting in from Bromle and Burnley
on £20k contracts with options for export.
The car park is all sun-roofed Mondeos.
The cladded bars are putty coloured and flooded
with Sky Sports where youth’s peeling edge embarks
on suited years of margins, on the way to a dad’s
divorce or dividends, drizzle and Droylsden’s
best kept secret, moored to all those structured terms.
We sidle up among the winding men intent on
feeding this necrosis of signage and pull up
a pew to spot a few lame souls reading
the monthlies in Edwardian kitsch. So
gone up in the world and yet gone off. The tide
has turned, the boats have sailed and all of us
are stranded in this little local absence, making from it
what we can, not filled with laughs or money, carried
over six pints of Boddies and a go at the vids
before the bells call time and Sugsy coughs up
on the cards and Darren shuts up shop on his Chinese
bonded plastics tale; he’s almost bagged it now.
Our lives are made between such repetition,
like the Manchester-Hollywood boudoir thing,
where ideas still die among the lazy girls
and rooms of cheap cutlery. Bed time now.
The salad bars are gaping still in stolidly lit suites.
Six flights up we separate into our cares like fish,
along the corridors’ empty lungs in our exit
from home. We hit the fungus-shaped bed
in yeasty air and muzak, the telly freeze-framed
on a grinning line of chefs, shot in some
spittoon-shaped atrium in Gatley.
How many of us strip before the atrocity of the mirror?
Unpeeling selves like a bridge into some white error
of arse and thighs, the tide mark of pubic hair greying now.
The air con whistles and shifts its haunches. The toilet groans.
Sleepless at three, we draw back jacquard curtains
on the soaking brick Elysium, all eyes up
for what refocuses on icy city panes, those body smears
catching vacant light like a Vaseline ghost and in
those whorls we see the mad swifts’ shrieking circuits
echoed over torpid crowds and feel, or half sense,
each torso lifting in the livid air, towards a trace-setting
where hopes perpetually pour.

Dear crows, I don’t mind
that there’s nothing left to chew
in the wild banter.
Our days were mushroom
fat, loyal and dark. We knew
every rotten truth.
In those blood thin years
we came to see the mirror
inside our losses.
So the wheat fields breathe
and our car fills with evening’s
taupe, miles of it, crushed.
from The Departure (Salt Publishing, 2012).

Order The Departure.
Visit Chris’s website.
Read ‘Ten Facts about Chris Emery’.
Visit Salt Publishing’s website.
Visit Salt Publishing’s blog.
Launch details

Launch of Chris Emery’s The Departure, with Sophie Collins and Peter Daniels

Date: 19 April 2012
Time: 18h30 to 20h30
Venue:  The Book Hive, 53 London Street, Norwich, NR2 1HL
Tel: 01603 219268

Milorad Krystanovich’s Moses’ Footprints

Milorad Krystanovich was born in 1950 in Dalmatia, then part of the former Yugoslavia. He studied literature at Split University before becoming a teacher. After conflict engulfed the region, Milorad was sent to safety with relations in the UK in 1992. He learnt English and later joined The Cannon Poets, becoming a founder member of Writers Without Borders and an active and well-respected figure within Birmingham’s poetry and writing community.
Hailed by Jonathan Morley in 2007 as “Birmingham’s finest émigré poet”, Milorad’s  published work includes three volumes published by Writers Without Borders. Heaventree Press published the bilingual Four Horizons/Četiri Vidika (2005) and, in English, The Yasen Tree (2007). His penultimate volume, Improvising Memory, was published by Nine Arches Press in 2010. Milorad also taught Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian at the Brasshouse Language Centre in Birmingham and wrote numerous plays and novels for children and young people. Milorad Krystanovich was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2009 and died in September 2011.

“In the shadows of war, loss and longing, a poet seeking his homeland finds his memories and dreams of its distinctive beauty refracted through a second language.  These subtle, elusive and potent poems build bridges of imagery and language between the past and present, the lost and found.”
“Here is a rich legacy bypassing Milorad’s difficult final years. The poems seem driven, necessary; Croatia and its language call him back, his distinctively developed English finds image after pertinent image. The book is a bounty of metaphor as he is led by Moses and by delight and necessity of observation and discovery; the natural world seems to come to him to be named. I wonder if the frequent ‘you’ is himself or an other – or heightened to an Other – or these variously. I understand from this book that if we do not see, hear, experience in our own truthful way and make poems with the openness of these poems, then in some crucial sense many of the human world’s possibilities cease to exist.”
David Hart
“I can’t stop reading these poems. This is work of atmosphere and tone first, narrative second, but it’s a narrative that combines deep melancholy with a hard-won sense of joy in the slightest shaft of light, and the thought it provokes. At times it’s like trying to recall a receding dream or encountering an oracle with an urgent, impossible message for you alone. It’s difficult for me to separate the poems from Milorad’s generosity, gentleness and intense imagination, and in a sense that doesn’t matter as these are so clearly poems by a man who found beauty, saw mystery and took dignity even in confinement.”
– Luke Kennard
Find the Title and its Address
Poetry streams down the river –
reflected in water the sun
floats upstream to you,
crossing the bridge which breathes in
its safety.
The air cannot harm you
until dusk, until night.
When you fall asleep
you have nowhere to go
apart from your need
to release your dream – the flowers
ascending through their colour.
Always in the middle between
you and the beauty you seek
the mirror handles the transparency of beyond –
stranded in the form only you can stand –
the vase on the inner window-sill,
the juvenile snow on the outer.
You put yourself into the music
as time slips through your fingers.
The piano is exposed to the cone
of light more than to the snowflakes falling
on the roof of the house you’re playing in:
there is no audience apart from the flowers.
On today’s element of February air
you release nothing but two tears of joy
and watch how the ripples quickly extend
the glimmer from your eyes. Light settles
like the reality of what could be winched up
from your memory well, rising curled
within the motion against the substantial force,
reshaping itself in the slowness of a bucket.
Whilst thirst gratifies the garden borders
where the awakening beats for another repetition,
you face different directions of rejuvenated love
and return to the depths of the flower petals.
The Pond, a Garden Catalyst
The remnants of a huge, old canvas are
pinned to the window-frame
to be a curtain within today;
the leaves more still than the pond,
their colour exhibited on the ground display.
My sorrows have no other place to grow
but where they are:
the drops on my sunglasses neither reflect
sunshine from the table in the restaurant terrace
nor the eyes of the passers-by.
The south breeze settles in the ivy branches
overgrown across the outer wall;
it is only the rhythm of stillness in opposition.
I need just one gust to hear a candle flame
blowing through the perception of space.
It is more difficult to appear than to disappear:
the niche cannot become a mirror
nor can the air help me to carry my own weight,
to pass through myself before I read the distance –
another empty hug.
Even if I begin to sing birdsong just as it is
I cannot reach the blackbird on a jasmine branch;
taken by the night
the colour of the feathers coud be
gathered from the footpath.
Caressed by the veil of my breath
the shadow of a viewfinder seeks
freedom from the midday shade;
in the line of others, even the beauty of the park
flows to the bridge of uncertainty.
A lantern, lit with a simple touch
is the limited option of my window.
My pond is not abandoned but left alone:
water cannot navigate the clouds
nor can dusk fade them.
At the hideaway where the leaves do not fall
but turn to sawdust,
I could consult the sky,
giving me air but not sunlight:
this enigma from within.
The space between the glass and the canvas is
foreshortened within the picture-frame:
I stare not at the wall but at the painting –
where water is the origin of silence,
rooted in the surface of my pond.
Find the Title and its Address II
You need a bridge to cross over
a stream
to gaze at the reflection
that the water
conjures of being passable:
a marble grasp on your reason
can detonate the blue
empty of clouds,
full of sifting colours funnelled to noon
through your closed eyes, under the seam.
You and the river-bank opposite
are apart from each other,
staring at the horizon –
the sheet of metallic distance
sounds like thunder:
a stone cradled in your palm
has the power
of the shadow weight;
of leaving and not returning to the air –
the element independent of gravity.
Places are always somewhere else,
never in the traces marked with footprints:
a compass cannot help in the search
for a shaft of light from a kitchen,
a shaft without leaving,
without take off, without landing,
only the sound of tap-water dripping
into a sink, the sound which echoes
like a bird, in fear, flying backwards.
Even an entire destination can be reached
by the firm cone of your torchlight
as the flock of your breath touches
its airy nest without peace, without security:
there is no foundation stone for the centre of a family,
only gravel under your feet as if you enter
the season of elsewhere, a common verb
lasting longer than its infinitive, prayer –
a defensive weapon against yourself
as you silence a silence
or dust
in the stone of a doorstep.
By the wall, the lantern gives
the only light which belongs
to the house in the dark
while you walk beside the fence, the hedge:
it’s easy to pass by the lantern’s glow
but the evening halts your pace:
the street lights fail to mediate
between your shadow and that of the house.
There is no passer-by to decipher
the murmur from the garden fountain,
you cannot see the ritual of stars
gathered beyond the accumulative sky:
what could the night miss, if you stay
where you are, in the danger of itself?
Find the address before rainwater settles
like vapour in your upturned hat.
from Moses’ Footprints (Nine Arches Press, 2012).
Order Moses’ Footprints.
Visit the blog set up by Milorad’s friends here.
Visit the Nine Arches Press blog.

What Survives of Us, Kathleen Jones on the legacy of diaries and letters

What Survives of Us
by Kathleen Jones

It hasn’t always been respectable for women to write for publication. The 17th century poet Anne Finch put it perfectly:
“Alas! a woman that attempts the pen
Such a presumptuous creature is esteemed
The fault can by no virtue be redeemed.”

But women could write in a domestic context – diaries and letters, telling the stories of their lives as they did so, in an incredibly intimate way that wouldn’t have been possible if they’d been writing for public consumption. Most of this writing was ephemeral – letters thrown away by the recipients once read; diaries burnt by families after the death of the author. What survives depends on the wisdom of those who come afterwards – and sometimes on pure accident. Whole pages were removed from Queen Victoria’s diaries by one of her daughters, who deemed the content improper. Letters between William Wordsworth and his wife were found in the attic of a house during the process of demolition, and rescued from the builder’s bonfire by an antiquarian bookseller who just happened to be walking past.   
Almost all my biographies have been inspired by a fascination with journals and letters. At seventeen, desperate to become a writer, but not knowing how, I stumbled on Katherine Mansfield’s journals in a second hand book shop, and immediately fell in love with this other young woman’s struggle to become a writer, her homesickness for the country she’d abandoned, her chaotic personal relationships and the heart-wrenching efforts she made to come to terms with a fatal illness at the age of 29. The journals led me to her short stories and to her ascerbic, funny, intimate letters.  Eventually my addiction led me to write a biography, Katherine Mansfield: The Story-teller.
It’s in these intimate, private papers that the real story of a life is told. Fortunately the Bloomsbury group were compulsive communicators. They all kept diaries and wrote frequent letters full of gossip, lit crit and innuendo. In writing about each other they gave the biographer the gift of a multi-faceted view of each person – you can see everyone from several different angles. Virginia Woolf’s view of Katherine Mansfield was that she was unreliable, rather vulgar (not one-of-us) but a writer to be afraid of. Bertrand Russell thought she was immensely clever ‘her conversation is better than her books’, Aldous Huxley portrayed her as a manipulative shape-shifter who changed her personality to fit the company. The painter Dorothy Brett complained that an angry Katherine could ‘cut the heart out of you like a knife’ with her words, but that Katherine was one of the people she loved most. Katherine’s lifetime companion, Ida Baker, was ordered to burn all the letters that Katherine had sent her, and Katherine watched from an upstairs window to see that the sentence was carried out. It was to Ida that she had confided the most personal details of her life, illegitimate babies, love affairs, mistaken marriages,  the events that an older, more private Katherine wanted to keep secret. The loss of those letters is one of the great regrets of the biographer.
The ones that do survive reveal a vulnerable young woman, desperate to cope with illness and difficult relationships, a loving friend, but also bossy, neurotic and occasionally cruel. Most interesting are Katherine’s letters to the man she chose as a soul-mate, the damaged, emotionally unstable, John Middleton Murry. Katherine pulls no punches as their relationship staggers from crisis to crisis. She needs, and demands,  to be loved passionately and – as her TB advances –  cared for with thoughtful dedication, but Middleton Murry can do neither.  His attempts to do so make poignant reading in his own journals and letters.
Katherine Mansfield’s private papers – the journals and letters never intended for publication – contain some of her finest writing including this meditation on death and the beauty of the world she is about to leave, written in France after a doctor’s visit.
‘And yet one has these “glimpses” before which all that one has ever written (what has one written?) all (yes, all) that one has ever read, pales ….  The waves, as I drove home this afternoon – and the high foam, how it was suspended in the air before it fell …. What is it that happens in that moment of suspension?  It is timeless.  In that moment (what do I mean?) The whole life of the soul is contained.  One is flung up – out of life – one is “held” – and then, down, bright, broken, glittering on to the rocks, tossed back – part of the ebb and flow.’ 

It was also journals and letters that hooked me into writing A Passionate Sisterhood, an account of the lives of the women of the Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey families – the English Lake District’s poetic triumvirate. I went to the Wordsworth Trust at Dove Cottage to research a piece on Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy for a radio programme and found boxes and boxes of letters and diaries – many of which were unpublished – not just Dorothy’s, but also relating to the poet’s wife Mary Wordsworth and their daughter Dora. Research found many more letters and journals in American archives relating to the Coleridge family. Put together, they told a different story to the much publicised ‘LakePoets’ idyll’. The women wrote about walking miles in the rain to collect a letter, standing in cold kitchens cooking spartan meals, wrestling with wet washing in muddy, windy gardens, the agonies of toothache, the deaths of children, the failure of love. 
The personal, familial details overlooked in the literary biographies of their brothers and husbands gave a domestic context for the poets’ work that I felt was important, but it also revealed that their wives, sisters and daughters had often been gifted writers in their own right. Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals and letters have long been given literary recognition, but what of the journals of Mary Wordsworth? And her contributions to William’s poetry? Who knew that their daughter Dora had been a published author and talented artist? Coleridge’s daughter Sara wrote several books of her own,  spent many years editing her father’s work, and also engaged in literary journalism to support her family after her husband died prematurely.  She wrote an unfinished autobiography, and left behind a collection of wonderful letters.
The women’s voices came off the page very strongly, and I wanted those voices to be heard. Sara Coleridge’s letters and autobiographical fragments are elegant, scholarly, as beautifully crafted as her published work. Dora Wordsworth is more impulsive and passionate, alive to sensuous impressions and feelings. Her love letters to a young writer called Maria Jane Jewsbury are quite remarkable for their frank expression of emotion. Her account of travels in Portugal is witty and full of beautiful images, though her parents tried to persuade her not to publish it. From Dora’s mother we have a glimpse of the processes of composition in the Wordsworth household and William’s tendency to self-dramatise – a characteristic he shared with his sister Dorothy. Mary’s wry humour is apparent in her journal of a visit to Europe with her husband, who, she remarks dryly, is lying in bed ‘hurting himself with a sonnet’.

Worries are often expressed about what biographers are going to do in the future without letters and diaries. But emails, blogs and online journals (providing the technology to read them survives) are so prolific that I think future biographers might well be drowned in information. Also, from DVD and MP3 files, they will be able to see their subjects move and hear them speak, something I would have loved to have experienced. Coleridge on You Tube? Mansfield’s blog on the Bloomsbury goings on at Garsington? What I wouldn’t give!
Kathleen Jones is a biographer and poet. Her published biographies include A Glorious Fame (Bloomsbury), Learning not to be First – Christina Rossetti (OUP), A Passionate Sisterhood (Virago), Catherine Cookson (Times Warner), Margaret Forster: An Introduction (Northern Lights) and Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller (Penguin/Edinburgh University Press). Kathleen lived for ten years in the Middle East working in broadcasting, and now lives in the Lake District, where she teaches creative writing for the Open University and is Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lancaster University.
Read poems from Kathleen’s recent collection, Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21 (Templar Poetry, 2011).
Visit Kathleen’s website.
Visit Kathleen’s blog.

Francis Bacon’s Of Gardens

“And because the breath of flowers is far sweeter in the air (where it comes and goes like the warbling of music) than in the hand, therefore nothing is more fit for that delight, than to know what be the flowers and plants that do best perfume the air. Roses, damask and red, are fast flowers of their smells; so that you may walk by a whole row of them, and find nothing of their sweetness; yea though it be in a morning’s dew. Bays likewise yield no smell as they grow. Rosemary little; nor sweet marjoram. That which above all others yields the sweetest smell in the air is the violet, specially the white double violet, which comes twice a year; about the middle of April, and about Bartholomew-tide. Next to that is the musk-rose. Then the strawberry leaves dying, which yield a most excellent cordial smell. Then the flower of the vines; it is a little dust, like the dust of a bent, which grows upon the cluster in the first coming forth. Then sweet-briar. Then wallflowers, which are very delightful to be set under a parlor or lower chamber window. Then pinks and gilliflowers, especially the matted pink and clove gilliflower. Then the flowers of the lime tree. Then the honeysuckles, so they be somewhat afar off. Of bean-flowers I speak not, because they are field flowers. But those which perfume the air most delightfully, not passed by as the rest, but being trodden upon and crushed, are three; that is, burnet, wild-thyme, and watermints. Therefore you are to set whole alleys of them, to have the pleasure when you walk or tread.”
– Francis Bacon, from ‘Of Gardens’, 1625

Penning Perfumes (An Olfactory Adventure)

Les Senteurs, Marble Arch, London


Charlotte Newman, Tori Truslow and Tiffany Anne Tondut

Penning Perfumes
Claire Trévien
Penning Perfumes is a creative collaboration between perfumers and poets organised by Odette Toilette and myself. It will culminate in an evening of readings and sniffing at the Book Club (100 Leonard Street, London, EC2A 4RH) on 12 June and in the publication of a gorgeous poetry pamphlet. As part of a series of encounters between poets and perfumers in the lead up to the event, we brought a cluster of poets to specialist perfumery Les Senteurs’s Marble Arch branch on 5 March. The poets were Nia Davies, Emily Hasler, Amy Key, Charlotte Newman, Tiffany Ann Tondut, Tori Truslow, James Webster and Tim Wells.
This was a brilliant opportunity for the poets to experience a ‘blind’ test of various perfumes from the Editions du Parfum Frédéric Malle: What did they remind them of? What colours did they conjure? What time period did they evoke? Answers varied from: the powder room of a thirties’ music-hall dancer, to the inside of an incense-heavy catholic church, to the halls of a hospital with the packaging reality occasionally jarring with what the scent evoked.
Guided by Les Senteurs’s Nick Gilbert, the poets then had an opportunity to discover the full range of scents at the perfumery.  ‘Do you have a perfume that smells of gin?’ I asked him. With barely a second’s hesitation, Nick reached for Angéliques sous la pluie (also by Frédéric Malle), a gorgeous woody ephemeral scent. To the sea-air challenge, he found us Bois Naufragé (Parfumerie Générale), a salty fig scent that beautifully captured the Breton seaside to me. In the name of experimentation, poets even tasted Parfumerie Générale’s peppery perfume (Coze) after it had been sprayed to their skin.
At the end of the session, the poets received a mystery flask containing a scent. They do not know anything about its name, its ingredients or even its colour. Their challenge is to write a poem in a month in response to it. Hopefully, as a result of their session at Les Senteurs this will have been made easier.
We will also be pairing some poets (Lavinia Greenlaw, Emily Hasler, Lindsey Holland, Amy Key, Valerie Laws and David Morley) with perfumers on one-on-one collaborative exchanges, from which a new raw scent, inspired by one of the poet’s poems, will hopefully emerge. We hope to showcase the new scent alongside a reading of the poem that inspired it at the event. These meetings will be recorded and written up on our tumblr so you can keep track of our progress!

Visit Les Senteurs website.

Amy Key