Tag Archive: Poetry


I’m honoured to have been invited to contribute to Rebecca Goss’s blog project, posting poems for Children’s Heart Week, which starts today.

My poem will be part of the Friday group.

Please click on any of the text below to be redirected to Rebecca’s blog, and read the moving poems she’s gathered.

Rebecca writes:

For Children’s Heart Week this year, May 12th – 18th, this blog will be become a blog of ‘Heart Poems’, by contemporary poets, some written especially for the week. Each day, I will post some Children’s Heart Federation information – alongside the poems. I’m trying to raise awareness of the charity and congenital heart disease – and share poems.

Do please check in and read, but also feel free to spread the word on social media:

Twitter: @gosspoems @CHFed #HeartPoems #ChildrensHeartWeek

Poetry & Medicine

I recently met with the Nevada Street Poets for ‘Part II’ of our science-object-inspired poetry workshop. Part I was with Don Paterson at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science back in January. Part II was in ‘Henry’s Club’ at the Wellcome Collection. We workshopped seven new pieces inspired by objects in the ‘Medicine Man‘ collection at the Wellcome. Pocket Horizon, a pamphlet of these poems with drawings by Cassie Herschel-Shorland and an introduction by Don Paterson, will be published this autumn by Valley Press.

Impressive: Humument-inspired medical artwork in a short amount of time!

Impressive: Humument-inspired medical artwork in a short amount of time!

This morning I ran a poetry & medicine workshop for Medical Humanities students at Imperial College London with Giskin Day. We broke the morning into three major parts: for the first part of the workshop, we took a fairly traditional approach to analysing and discussing a stunning pair of poems: ‘The Swing,’ by Don Paterson, and ‘On Clachan Bridge,’ by Robin Robertson. Though the two poems were not written with the intention of having similar themes, by putting them side-by-side, some powerful comparisons and contrasts emerge. We had a really good discussion, touching on theme, form, sound and structure.

We moved on to discuss a recent spread of poems by Hugo Williams. ‘From the Dialysis Ward’ was published in the 24 Jan issue of the London Review of Books, and offers a very interesting opportunity to consider structure, layout, order, and theme for a group of poems. In fact, the students had such good insights on this series of poems, they rather convinced me that I liked it, when I initially saw a lot of problems with it (despite choosing the piece for the workshop) – but like or dislike, there is a lot in there to talk about, particularly when one is discussing poetry and medicine around the theme of form.

Finally, we moved on to a really different style of art / poetry / wordplay / sculpture – A Humument is a unique book that I’ve written about before, and something I love sharing because I find it such fun (I will also confess to buying the book and the app, and recommend both). Students respond enthusiastically to this book, as it is an unusual piece, and not something they’ve often come across. We took a brilliantly written piece of creative non-fiction (the Diary piece by Gavin Francis, also from the 24 Jan LRB,) and ‘treated’ it, or ‘Humumentized it’. The group each had the opportunity to work and re-work a fine piece of writing on brain surgery, and the material offered up something new every time. I’d like to arrange a more formal art project using this idea and medically-related writing and materials. Possibly the best part of the exercise was the students’ integration of printouts from Gray’s Anatomy intermixed with the text, although it was a close call for best artwork with some talented freehand drawing.

To round off our busy morning, Giskin and I encouraged students to consider the call for contributions (talks or posters) for the 2013 Poetry & Medicine Symposium taking place this May at the Wellcome. The Symposium is not limited to academics (or to poets, for that matter,) so do have a look!

Pocket Horizon

The object in the photograph is tiny – the little kit beside it, unrelated, is a pocket set of drawing tools. The black surface reflects the gilded scrollwork of a larger object to the right, out of the frame. But the little black disc set on three legs is a pocket horizon, used, once upon a time, for navigation.

A proper pocket-sized history of the object will be included in a forthcoming poetry pamphlet, Pocket Horizon, with new poems, artwork, and an introduction by Don Paterson.

The round, dark, reflective object on the right is a pocket horizon in the Whipple Museum.

The round, dark, reflective object on the right is a pocket horizon in the Whipple Museum.

Pocket Horizon has grown out of a fantastic workshop with Don, who generously met with a group whom I’ve had the pleasure to be part of for the past four years.

The Nevada Street Poets – Mick Delap (River Turning Tidal,) Lorraine Mariner (Furniture,) Sarah Westcott, Malene Engelund, and Dominic McLaughlin – all accomplished poets, all widely published in magazines and anthologies, and some the founders of their own successful poetry ventures (Mick was a founder of Magma, and Malene co-edits the Days of Roses Anthologies) – joined me in writing poems about objects in the Whipple Museum. Our guest poet is Richard Barnett, better known as an historian (Medical London; Sick City; The Book of Gin,) and a talented poet in his own right (winner of the Promis Prize, & published in Templar anthologies, amongst others).

Together, the seven of us spent an afternoon with Don discussing our new poems, in an intensely focussed and very fruitful workshop last Friday.

Part two of the project will see us tackling objects in the Wellcome Collection in a similar manner over the next two months.

Valley Press will publish Pocket Horizon this year, and I’m delighted to say that Cassie Herschel-Shorland will be our resident artist, drawing images of each object to accompany the poems.

We’ll be planning launch events around the pamphlet, so stay tuned…

The Longest Nights

Sir Andrew Motion, and just how close we all were. Glad everyone was friendly!

Sir Andrew Motion, and just how close we all were. Glad everyone was friendly!

My goodness, this year is careening towards an end at breakneck speed. I’m hanging on. To be fair, I’ve spent this evening reading poetry in front of a log fire, eating popcorn, and knitting, so it isn’t all outrageous excitement.

Some of the things I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy:

Last week, I heard Andrew Motion read from his in-progress Selected Poems (for the US) at the Peirene Salon. Actually, I practically sat on him, because the room was insanely full. He was very good about it. Thank goodness there wasn’t a fire or we all would have died. I’m not very familiar with the recent Laureate’s work, so it was the perfect opportunity to hear a range of it – he has a lovely gentle voice, and I found myself closing my eyes to listen (and to allay the awkward nearness).

Reading from Where Rockets Burn Through.

Reading from Where Rockets Burn Through.

The poetry group of which I’m proud to comprise one-sixth, Nevada Street Poets, read for the first time together in public at Made In Greenwich, a wonderful little gallery that is hosting a series of readings into next year by local groups.

In related news, Lorraine Mariner, Sarah Westcott, Malene Engelund and I (all Nevada Street,) have had poems recently published in the gorgeous anthology Where Rockets Burn Through: Contemporary Science Fiction Poems from the UK. (Purely by chance, the other two poets in Nevada Street are also the men in our group – Mick Delap and Dominic McLaughlin.)

I had the opportunity to give a second poetry reading this week at the launch of the anthology, along with Sue Guiney and the delightful Simon Barraclough, who kindly gave me a copy of his book Los Alamos Mon Amour, because one of my poems (‘Celestial Navigation’) shares a title with one of his. (I pointed out, upon reading Los Alamos, that we share not one but two titles, also both having a poem called ‘Apologia’. Great minds, and all that.) I’m really looking forward to reading his Neptune Blue and the fabulously-entitled Bonjour Tetris!

IMG_3393

It was tasty, really. Chocolate and raspberry!

That’s two poetry readings and one book launch – and I went to another book launch this week, too, in one of my favourite spaces in London: The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret. The launch was for the Halloween-esque-ly named, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, and the launch came complete with a 3-piece band with an appropriately creaky, haunting tone, an oversized heart cake, and a cravat-wearing, charmingly enthusiastic author. I love London.

Last night was my friend Cassie’s birthday party (happy birthday, Cassie!) and I was delighted to catch up with her brother, William Herschel-Shorland, and meet his wife, Sarah, and be inspired by their enthusiasm for my progress on the novel about their ancestor, Caroline Herschel, which was incredibly encouraging – not least because I was able to share the exciting news that Cinnamon Press recently accepted my manuscript of Double the Stars for their mentorship scheme, and so I’ll be working with the Press in the coming year to edit the novel! I’m really looking forward to the new things I’ll learn from the mentoring.

Meanwhile, I’m cracking on with The Naked Muse, and spent Friday in the British Library reading about painting technique and pigments, especially fugitive colours – I think I’m going to use ‘Fugitive Colours’ as a title for my next book…

Whaleship Charles W. Morgan at the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, where I spent many summers, and graduated from the Munson Institute for Maritime Studies in 2007.

Exactly one week ago, I received an email from Cinnamon Press offering publication on my second collection of poetry, Atlantic. The book is on the list to be published in May 2014.

I’m absolutely delighted by the news. I’m indebted to my Greenwich-based ‘Nevada Street Poets,’ the group of writers I’ve been sharing wine and critiques with over the past…goodness, I think it’s almost four years now. The six of us are poets Mick Delap, Lorraine Mariner, Sarah Westcott, Malene Engelund, and Dominic McLaughlin. They’ve become close friends and confidantes, and they are what every poet dreams of: trustworthy critics who will challenge and encourage. Most of the poems in Atlantic have been through the wringer with Nevada Street (named after the street where we first held our workshops,) and I’m certain that our meetings, plus an added filter of invaluable critiques from friend, poet and writer Richard Barnett, helped me send a convincing manuscript to Cinnamon Press.

If you’re familiar with my blog, you’ll know that my first book of poetry, Darwin’s Microscope, was published in 2009 by Flambard Press, and re-printed in 2010. You’ll know how wonderfully supportive Flambard was for me as a new poet, and how, despite their interest in my other work, I had to seek a new home for my poetry when the Arts Council cruelly cut Flambard along with other small presses last year. After 20 years of successful publishing, Flambard had to close. I’ll be forever grateful to Peter, Margaret, and Will at Flambard for including me in their list, and for giving a freshly-planted New Englander the credibility to establish herself in the UK poetry scene.

Atlantic explores the ebb and flow of contrasts. Shifting between Old England and New England, death and life, grief and lust, it reflects the eddies of emotion I’ve experienced over the past few years, working to establish myself in London while spending a great deal of time in Rhode Island, helping my grandparents at the end of their lives. Atlantic considers my heritage, questions of travel, and questions of home. I’m most pleased that it will be published by an international press: Cinnamon Press.

The Junket

I’m delighted to announce my first publication of 2012: a collaboration with the talented Badaude, aka Joanna Walsh.

Cambridge-based literary journal ‘The Junket‘ asked Badaude if she would be interested in making a contribution to their quarterly, and she invited me on a fascinating back-and-forth production which ended up as a calendar-like sestina with mono-print illustrations, all based on themes from the French Republican Calendar.

Read it here.

Scroll down for the full sestina, and click the ‘previous’ and ‘next’ buttons to see the mono-prints.

Badaude and I took turns sending each other pieces every other day, so I would write four lines and send them to her, and she would design a mono print in response, and then my next four lines would try to incorporate her response, as well as my day from the FRC (which is printed below the day’s piece). It was fascinating: I’ve never done, or written, anything like it.

Rythme quotidien.

My day-to-day life in Les Adrets has found a rhythm. (Of course there is some humour in the fact that the rhythm is going to be disrupted throughout much of December with friends and family visiting, but it will be a happy disruption.)

My alarm chirps (crickets!) at 7:10am. I get out of bed by 7:30 or 8am: hemmed in by a cat on either side, I often reach for my iPhone and check my email while still half-asleep. Once the cats know I’m awake, it’s all over: Gaston, who is 19 years old and pretty deaf, yowls (LOUDLY) for his breakfast. Felix is a tiny cat with a very small, sweet, kittenish mew which hides a bit of a devil inside. He’s a hunter and can bite, but he’s overwhelmingly sweet when he wants attention. There is no choice but to allow him to sit directly on your chest, stomach or lap (depending on whether you’re sitting or lying down) and he will settle onto you with the most immediate and ungraceful snores.

Sunset, Thursday 1 December.

The first thing I do is open the house. I love this ritual. All of the houses here have wooden shutters, for doors and windows, which are very effective in keeping out the nighttime cold, and are also tres jolie. Verity’s shutters are a pretty blue-green colour against the pinky-peach of the stucco house. Every morning I open all of the shutters and let the light in.

I’m a big fan of rooibos tea and have brought some with me (need to re-stock soon, though) and I’ll have a cup of tea (with milk – English style!) two pieces of toasted michette with sunflower-spread and local lavender honey, and a glass of fruit juice. I check emails, do admin, and then settle down to write.

I’ve had the pleasure of an invitation from my friend, the illustrator/writer Badaude, to collaborate on a piece for Cambridge-based literary journal The Junket. It’s quite a time-bound (and exciting!) project: I’ll say more about it once it’s up. But I’ve been working on that in the mornings.

The big project I brought with me is the anatomical waxworks-inspired verse play. And, as I’d hoped, I’m writing. A lot. As much as I adore London, I do allow myself to get distracted by all of the fabulous opportunities going on there. While this hasn’t been bad for my experience and exposure in the writing world, I feel like hiding away right now and writing a full piece is exactly what I need. The novel I’ve been working on for the past few years needs a breather and this retreat has meant I’ve been writing four or five poems on a productive day, two or three if I’m otherwise engaged. I haven’t been this productive with poetry since 2006-7, my final year of uni, when I wrote the manuscript of Shadows in Chalk, which went on to become Darwin’s Microscope.

In the morning, I write, maintaining a mild buzz and level of intense focus with a great deal of green tea.

I’ll break for lunch and watch the BBC World News. In the afternoon, I may wander to the village for a little walk and a visit to the boulangerie (which almost certainly negates any positive affects of the walk). I tend to buy ‘une michette’ which will last me for two or three days: toast in the mornings and fresh bread with dinner. I’ll buy treats once in awhile, but I’m trying to save those for when I have guests and I know we will all have treats. That said, this afternoon I bought a brownie each for myself and Ilona. We’d just gone for a lovely walk and the brownies just looked irresistible – and Ilona had brought me some lovely homemade mini-croissonts stuffed with figs.

Sunset, Thursday 1 December.

After lunch, if it’s a Wednesday, I’ve been going on little hikes around Mont Viniagre with Gabrielle, Jean, and their friends. Yesterday I went with Francoise, her husband Jean, and their friends (the husband in that couple is Jean-Pierre – seriously, all of the men are named Jean or some variant thereof).

On Fridays, in the morning (10-12-ish) I’ve been going to the swimming pool in Frejus with Gabrielle and some other friends of theirs (including another Jean). (Alas, Gabrielle just phoned me to say she has a little cold and won’t be making it to the swimming pool this Friday (now today,) which is a shame.)

On Sundays, I go to church from 10-11.

Ilona and I seem to have struck up a date for a walk once a week. We went this afternoon and it was just lovely, even though the poor girl is recovering from a cold. We also seem fantastically bad at actually setting a precise time for the walk, but it’s worked out twice and I’m sure we’ll manage again. Last week we went on Friday, and this week we went on Thursday.

The rest of the time, I’m reading, writing, blogging, and sending emails – mostly planning our next event for the Whipple Museum. It’s simple, peaceful, and exactly what I intended to do. I’m reading Ulysses and will be quite pleased if I can finish it before I have to leave. I’m loving it but I can’t imagine being required to read it in school – I would never have managed it at the age of 16 or even 20, and I was always a top lit student.

This afternoon, after I said bon soir to Ilona and walked back to the house, I got to enjoy a spectacular sunset. By 5:15pm it was over, only a silvery-grey light remaining in the darkening sky. I shut the house, closing the shutters, and poured myself an aperitif of lemoncello.

This is as lovely as it sounds, but if you’re envious, then I’d like to add the grounding reality of dealing with these two cats (anyone who has pets will appreciate this, though if you have a weak stomach, stop reading here).

In the past two days I have cleaned up:

One’I-missed-the-litterbox’ poo (Gaston is 19 so you really can’t blame him).

Two very big, wet-hairball-pukes.

Three ‘I-didn’t-miss-the-litterbox’ poos.

And the crowning event:

Felix can get in and out of the house via the garage (there’s some kind of crawlspace). He tends to go out through the front door after dinner and then he’ll come back in via the garage a few hours later. Last night, I was in bed reading, with Gaston curled up beside me. My bedroom door was cracked open because I knew Felix would come in eventually. I heard some crashing (he’s not the most graceful cat,) and then an urgent mewling. It wasn’t his usual ‘hello, give me attention,’ mew, and he didn’t come into the room. I thought, oh no, that’s the ‘I’ve caught something / I’ve brought you a present’ mew – when they sound like their mouth is full, because it is full. I put on my sandals and peeked out into the hallway. Nothing. Felix was there, looking innocent. (Ha. Right.) I went back to bed. A few minutes later I heard garbled crunching sounds. Bracing myself, I put my sandals on again (not interested in stepping in whatever it was,) and found Felix, in the bathroom. With a mouse. He’d eaten the head off. There was blood smeared all over the bathroom tiles. This morning I found more blood spattered up the side of the bath. I picked him up, saying, ‘go on, grab it!’ (Most cat’s won’t let go of their prey when they’re in the middle of eating it.) He didn’t pick it up but mewed in protest. All the while I was thinking THIS IS SO GROSS. So I grabbed some loo roll and plucked up the decapitated mouse by it’s tail, scooped Felix up in my other hand, and deposited them both outside. He happily followed the mouse. I scrubbed the bathroom floor with Ajax (and the bathtub, this morning). I’m so glad the house is tiled.

Poetry and Medicine can cover a huge range of themes. At the 2011 Symposium on Poetry & Medicine at the University of Warwick, speakers gave talks ranging from syphilis in the plays of Shakespeare to helping underprivileged kids in Auckland NZ express themselves through poetry. Many talks considered the use of poetry as therapy, whether for patients, nurses, or doctors, by escaping the pressure of a difficult situation or facing it head-on.

The Hippocrates Prize readings were fascinating, and I highly recommend the 2011 anthology for anyone interested in the expression of illness, well-being, healing, and death, through the genre of poetry. Medicine and poetry can be about grief or recovery, being a patient, knowing a patient, or patiently waiting to be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. It can be about depression, yoga, sex, memory, or the loss of memory through dementia. It can be about personal, individual memory, or communal memory, such as facing HIV in Africa. It can be about sexuality, issues of gender, and ideas of liberation.

Poetry and Medicine can also be about the history of medicine, which is where I stepped in to talk about my latest poetry project, Venus Heart. Inspired by the anatomical wax models in the Museo La Specola in Florence, Venus Heart is going to draw composite characters from real historical figures in the wax workshop, as well as draw inspiration from classics such as Frankenstein and the Pygmalion myth. The photo here is a small selection of books I have at home which I’m using to research the poetry project. I’ve been delighting in a mountain of books at the Wellcome Library as well.

Congratulations to the Hippocrates Prize-winners for their well-deserved accolades, and congratulations to the Committee of the Symposium for running such a hospitable and interesting event!

Chestita Baba Marta

Happy first of March, or, more literally, Happy Grandmother March! Baba Marta is a Bulgarian tradition welcoming the coming Spring. You’ll find, in Bulgaria, everyone wearing little bracelets of red and white yarn braided together, and those bracelets get draped in bushes and on trees for luck, which I imagine results in very colourful bird nests!

Speaking of Spring, Tupelo Press is running a competition which I recommend to those of you interested in writing poetry. Even if you don’t enter the competition, the guidelines are an excellent writing prompt. I immediately wrote a new poem upon reading the details for their ‘Fragments from Sappho’ competition. Happy writing!

Below is the writing prompt, and you can find the details of the competition here.

Each submitted poem must take as its title or first line one of the following fragments from Sappho (drawn from the book If Not, Winter, Fragments of Sappho, trans. Anne Carson, Knopf, 2002.)

the one with violets in her lap (fragment 21)
if not, winter (fragment 22)
no more than the bird with piercing voice (fragment 30)
but all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty (fragment 31)
you burn me (fragment 38)
but I to you of a white goat (fragment 40)
the doorkeeper’s feet are seven armlengths long (fragment 110)
just now goldsandaled Dawn (fragment 123)
sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in (fragment 130)
gold anklebone cups (fragment 192)

Here are some further contributions from workshop participants…

From Immy, aged 10, the youngest participant in our Creative Writing Workshop.

Immy bravely serenaded us with a lovely song about the ship-shaped sundial, and then impressed us further by reading us a story, ‘The Globe of Puzzles,’ about the jigsaw-puzzle globe. Her contributions are below.

Thank you, Immy!

  

The Sundial Song

I’ve felt the summer sun

Felt the leaves a falling

Seen the world in winter

Seen the darkest night

I’ve been everywhere on the earth but not in Heaven

 

 

The Globe of Puzzles

by Immy age 10

A boy called Joe who was 8 years old walked down an abandoned mine tunnel.  He walked down the tunnel and found a dead end; he saw on a rock shelf a globe that was made of lots of pieces to put together.  He was amazed by the varied colours and the great countries that covered the earth, so he put it together and a voice said in his head how to live forever…….

 

 

From a few of our (adult) participants:

Alex wrote about the ship-shaped sundial as well. I especially love how Alex read about the history of the sundial on the website and worked that into the poem, whilst also taking an imaginative leap from that information into the unknown:

  

Samuel’s sixteenth ship sundial

The man took the ship in the palm of his hand

A beam of light fell on the brassy shape

Telling the time, spelling the state of the day.

Almost 450 year ago Samuel Fox took up his

Instruments, finely sharp and carefully kept

And engraved his initials SF on his sixteenth ship sundial

Ordered by a doctor in Plymouth who wished

He’d gone to sea as a boy.

Who lived in a tall house on the Hoe looking south

Who liked to use arithmetic to sharpen his wits

Who walked with a limp,

Who coughed on damp days.

He would need spectacles to see the fine lines

That Samuel engraved in his workshop in Greenwich

Watched by his apprentice Tom.

The doctor would keep his sundial in a velvet bag

Drawn up by a silken cord. Kept in the third drawer down

On the left of his desk looking out over the water.

Each of Samuel’s ship sundials was slightly different

This one – a chubby shape, with a stocky mast –

Would sail through centuries, lost in a sea of

Where next, what next?

Snug in its high and dry, safe and sound place.

 

 

Here is a piece from Simon, who wrote about the puzzle globe (and also gave excellently evocative readings of this and our gold coin example):

  

The world puzzle

The world was split: brutally, along lines of latitude and radii that ran through the Earth’s core. It lay, set out, upon the table, a dissected planet. The divisions ran sharply across continents and oceans,  cuts of a geometrical sphere that ignored geography and tore over the structures of the Earth’s surface. 

Somehow, gradually, the detail began to creep inside. Line-tendrils from the surface began to snake into the interior, crawling across the blank surfaces of the raw partitions.  Slowly, with muted colours resembling those of lichen, the confusions of the surface crept into the Earth’s interior. A great elephant appeared at the Earth’s core. From America, a vast tree grew into the interior, and on it sat a Native American, talking to a monkey. Last of all, the writing appeared, fitting between the spidery pictures and explaining them. The barren Earth was filled with vegetation, people, and descriptions; the puzzle had solved itself.

 

 

Thank you everyone for your contributions! Most impressive!

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