The Nurturing Power of Inspiring Women

I’m fully aware that I’ve had wonderfully supportive men in my professional and personal life as well, but at this particular point in my life, I am thirsting for that generous nurturing that can come from the women you aspire to become some day.

With thanks to L’Atelier Writers for the image.

I have been fortunate to have great female role models encourage and inspire me at just the right inflection points in my life. The meetings were brief and I doubt that any of them will remember me, but for me they were life-changing. Naomi Shihab Nye encouraged me to start writing poetry (again). Laura Kasischke and Kathleen Jamie engaged with my poetry and made me feel I had something to say after all. Sarah Savitt (then at Faber, now at Virago) loved the beginning of my novel and encouraged me to finish it prestissimo – sorry, Sarah, life intervened, but I WILL finish! Michele Roberts gave me feminist support and solidarity when my marriage was breaking down. Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books is just the most caring and passionate individual I’ve ever met in publishing, she envelopes you like a warm hug and is an absolute tonic when you are down. My triad of charmed and charming women writers who organise the most wholesome, funny and productive writing retreat in the world, L’Atelier Writers (namely, Michelle Bailat Jones, Laura McCune-Poplin and Sara Johnson Allen)… and the participants I met there, who have become my creative sisters.

The three most recent examples are Nicola Barker and Ali Smith, as well as my poetry mentor Rebecca Goss. Here are some of their thoughts that particularly stuck with me.

I admire Nicola Barker’s commitment to remaining ‘ferociously innocent’ (instead of jaded or cynical) and her ability to find joy and playfulness in writing. She is aware that her writing has been described as difficult, and that not a lot of people read her, but she believes that experimental writers are ‘bottom feeders, virtually unseen in the depths of the ocean, but somehow something percolates up towards the top.

Meanwhile, Ali Smith is aware that her ‘Brexit novel series’ will be out of date in just a couple of years, but she feels compelled to witness the times in something other than journalism, and hopes it will give us a snapshot of what it felt like to be at this particular point in history. She described writing these books as ‘being in the middle of a powerful storm, trying to capture the roar’.

Last but not least, it is such a privilege to work with a mentor for poetry. Someone who reads your work very closely, who asks you about your intention and really listens, doesn’t impose her point of view but tries to work with you to make your poem as good as it can possibly be. I came home last night after a busy and difficult day at work, tired from the commute, doubled up in pain from yet another over-abundant period, mentally exhausted with all the back to school prep. Rebecca was generous with her time, praise and thoughts and I left the session with little wings attached Hermes-like to my swollen ankles…

Favourite Poetry of 2017

Shameful to admit, but I have to do it: although I read a lot of poetry, I seldom review it on my blog. Why is that? Because I often read 1-2 poems here, 2-3 there, without a methodical approach. If I do read a whole collection by a single author or an anthology by multiple poets, I do it over a longer period of time (because I need to reread and think about it) and forget to add it to Goodreads. Besides, reviewing an entire collection is much harder than looking at a single poem. So many different themes, styles, details to consider!

So I apologise for being remiss about reviewing what is probably even more important to me than crime fiction and literature in translation. I intend to do a lot better in the coming year. Meanwhile, here are some poets I discovered or rediscovered this year, with a short quote which will hopefully intrigue you enough to want to explore them in more detail.

Rebecca Goss: Her Birth

Very moving collection of poems portraying the birth, short life, death and aftermath of the poet’s daughter Ella, who was born with a rare and incurable heart condition.

Assure me I will be ripe
and stretching, my belly full

but still have space
for her first days, last days.

Assure me I will keep her toes
accurate as maths, her smell

precise, her voice heard above the birds.
Assure me that I will not howl her name

during birth, that I will place
newborn fingers in my mouth,

taste only newness.
Then, I will consider another.

Polly Atkin: Basic Nest Architecture

Beautifully observed details of nature, parallels drawn to human life, and to those concepts of home, belonging, nesting, which have always preoccupied me.

The irrepressible Polly Atkin explaining something about her poetry at Ty Newydd this summer.

Untethering

I am not a tree, my roots
blanketed by rock, my roots tunnelled under
the weight of the lake bed, my roots knotted rock
in the puzzle of a dry stone wall. Unthink
that sinking. Unthink that tether. Take

this light – that sweet, that loving yellow,
the mist erasing the horizon as though
there is nothing beyond the lip of the valley,
its kiss – could anyone turn from it now?

Gillian Allnutt: Blackthorn

Feminist Christian poetry might seem like an unexpected combination, but wonderful in Allnutt’s capable hands.

My father came home from the burning of Belsen
with bits of it under his skin and the bowl of his heart in his hands
that would never be the same again, not ever his own again.
Because of that burning down.
And, in his pocket, proudly, the souvenir spoon.
Of light tin, slowly, the bowl of it has worn down.
Barely is it a spoon.
The best of my life has been stirring the Bisto in.
And was Jerusalem.
Because.
Of my father in me there has been no burning down.

Andrew McMillan: Physical

Both lustful and tender, a paean to physical love in all its vulnerability, simplicity and complexity.

I had forgotten that loving could feel so calming
telling you that your body was beautiful sighing out
the brittle disappointments from the bones
having no judgement of what the body
may want to be doing where the breath may fall

Raymond Antrobus: To Sweeten Bitter

My father had four children
and three sugars in his coffee
and every birthday he bought me
a dictionary which got thicker
and thicker and because his word
is not dead, I carry it like sugar

on a silver spoon
up the Mobay hills in Jamaica […]

I looked at my hand
holding this ivory knife
and thought about how hard it was
to accept my father
for who he was
and where he came from

how easy it is now to spill
sugar on the table before
it is poured into my cup.

Immanuel Mifsud (from a collection of Poems from Malta)

Go, my son, follow your open eyes.
Go seek that country you’ll never find.
Go unite shores, parted by vast expanses of water.
You’ll go on walking hurt, wounded by love,
and many will seduce you but none will love you […]

Because you’re nothing but a whiff of sad wind;
You only need to spread your arms out,
Open your eyes wide, take a breath… and fly.

Deryn Rees-Jones: Burying the Wren

These poems spoke to me a lot this year: about trying to escape the confines – and seduction – of grief, about finding joy in small things.

It was the only blessing that I asked you for,
of leaving me unnoticed –
like the earth might tree seeds or a rouged leaf
in its fall.

Instead, you give me nothing,
catch me inside your coat
to see if you can catch my breath,

steal me, my soul…

 

 

Poetry Café Poem-A-Thon

The Poetry Society’s newly refurbished Poetry Café in the heart of Covent Garden is reopening. I’d been there a couple of times in the past, when it was a bit run-down but nevertheless full of poetic passion and open mic sessions. It is much more streamlined, clean and bright now.

I attended an amazing Poem-A-Thon fundraiser on Saturday 22nd July to help with the final details of the refurbishment. More than sixty poets read or recited their poetry for a solid ten hours (ten minutes for each poet, audience could come and go as they pleased).

There were also tombola tickets for every entry (and I won some gorgeous posters of Poems on the Underground as well as a book of poetry by an American poet I had not heard of before, Nick Flynn). There were many poets I wanted to see, including Anthony Anaxagorou and Raymond Antrobus in the evening, but I could only stay for an hour and a half in the afternoon around the time that the poet I ‘sponsored’ was reading.

This was the very talented Rebecca Goss, whose poetry volume Her Birth is one of the most moving portrayals of the love and grief of parenthood, describing the loss of her infant daughter to a rare and incurable heart condition. She read much more cheerful poems on this occasion, and was every bit as enchanting as I expected her to be, but it’s those heartbreaking poems from her book that I remember above all:

Assure me I will be ripe
and stretching, my belly full

but still have space
for her first days, last days.

Assure me I will keep her toes
accurate as maths, her smell

precise, her voice heard above birds.
Assure me I will not howl her name

during birth, that I will place
newborn fingers in my mouth,

taste only newness.
Then, I will consider another.

However, I was lucky enough to also hear Marc Brightside’s poems about his difficult relationship with his father, some very funny and topical poems with a political slant from George Szirtes (I will be attending a poetry course with him in the not too distant future) and Rishi Dastidar, as well as a good mix of seriousness and humour from Kavita Jindal, Ruth Smith and Mohib Khurram (who writes in both Urdu and English). A great introduction to both famous and emerging poets, of many different backgrounds! I only wish I could have stayed longer but will certainly be back for other events.

You can still donate to this campaign if you wish, but what I would really recommend is to attend the open mic sessions on the first Thursday of each month at 3:00 p.m. if you possibly can.