The Yorkshire Terrier

Have you ever hated a dog?

Generally, dogs and I get on fine. But a few years ago there was a Yorkshire Terrier that tormented me. There was a street I had to walk down every day, and every day this wretched little dog would rush out of its garden, yapping and howling, always circling to get a bite at my heels. Being a right-thinking person, and constrained by civilisation, I tried not to kick it while dodging it.

But in my head it was quite a different story.

The Yorkshire Terrier

The pavement’s peaceful. No it’s not.
He’s burst out from his skulking spot.
He yaps and howls. He turns and wheels.
I know his target is my heels.

He got me once with needle teeth,
right through my socks, broke skin beneath.
So now I always dodge and hop.
Undignified. This has to stop.

I stoop and scoop the yapping runt,
draw back my foot and then I punt
the snarling scrap high over head.
It lands far off, it might be dead.

But that’s a dream. The morning comes.
He’s lurking with his slobbery gums.

I Bet I Can Make You Laugh

IMG_3675

So. This turned up in the post yesterday: I Bet I Can Make You Laugh, poems by Joshua Seigal and friends. Turns out I must be one of Joshua’s friends, as my poem Things Could Be Worse is in there (page 103, in case your looking). The book is available from 9th August from all good bookshops (as they used to say), and on-line from Bloomsbury.

I’m grateful to Joshua Seigal for including the poem in the anthology and I am, inevitably, slightly smug. (Just for today though: don’t worry, I’ll be back to normal writer’s despair tomorrow.)

Things Could Be Worse is part of a growing collection of (mainly) animal poems which needs to see the light of day at some point soon. But I have another children’s poetry book finished, ready and needing a publisher: The Night Elephant, a story told through poems.

Sophie is an eight-year old girl with a knack for mending things and a backpack full of tools. She is taken by her friend the Night Elephant to a jungle, where the animals are in trouble because the Old Thing has stolen the water from their drinking fountain. Sophie, together with the Night Elephant and seven enthusiastic monkeys, sets off to bring the water back. But the Old Thing is just as determined to keep the water.

The poems in ‘The Night Elephant’ use a range of forms: yes, there are rhyming couplets, but there are also haiku, shape poems, free verse and alliterative verse, as well as traditional forms such as sonnets, triolets and villanelles.

In my wonderful wife’s unbiased opinion The Night Elephant is ‘perfect’. Here’s the first poem. If you want to read more, get in touch, or petition your local publisher.

Here’s Sophie – Our Hero

Here’s Sophie. What is there to say?
She’s eight years old and loves to play
with boxes, bottles, tins and jars,
with bolts and bits from bikes and cars.
There’s nothing makes her quite as glad
as when she gets a box from dad
containing nameless bits of junk
which had been rusting in a trunk
discarded in a basement store
with ‘Danger’ written on the door.
She takes the box into the shed
then tips it up so she can spread
her metal treasures on the bench.
She works at them with brush and wrench
and scrubs off rust and oil and slime
until each piece is free from grime.
And when a bolt or bracket’s bright
she studies it with touch and sight
until she thinks she knows its name
or character (that’s much the same).
So then she knows the part it plays
within the metal art displays
that line all four walls of the shed
and even hang above her bed.

On weekdays, when she goes to school,
her backpack’s stuffed with every tool
she thinks she’ll need while she’s away:
two screw-drivers, one red, one grey,
a hammer, torch, a pair of pliers
(which has a notch for cutting wires),
a drill, a set of allen keys,
a brush, a special spray that frees
up rusting hinges, bolts and locks,
a little key for winding clocks.
The bag’s so full it cannot take
her school things, so she has to make
her mother carry them, while she
clanks with her tools, triumphantly.

(© Huw Evans 2018. No reproduction without permission – but you are free to link to this page.)

 

Launching Minor Monuments

Cover image of Minor Monuments
Minor Monuments – Huw Evans

So. I have written enough poems to gather as a collection; and I have published the collection as Minor Monuments. You can find all the details – including how to buy it – on its own page.

Every new creation needs a welcome, so there will be a launch event for Minor Monuments on 5th July 2018, 7 pm – 9 pm at The Holy Biscuit, 1 Clarence Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE2 1YH.

As well as readings from Minor Monuments there will be a video, as well as drinks and nibbles.

If you do intend to come – and please do – it would be helpful if you could RSVP so we have some idea of numbers.

Farewell, my web-footed friends

F1000028So. I started writing a poem about waiting. And in one of those curious moments of decision I went for rhyme royal, a seven-line stanza with an ababbcc rhyme scheme (supposedly ‘royal’  because James I of Scotland used it for his poem The Kingis Quair, but possibly more prosaically named for the French chant royal: less exciting and therefore probably right: thank you as ever, Wikipedia).

The first stanza turned out to be about penguins, the way the male emperor penguins look after the eggs through the winter, clustering together to keep off the worst of the weather.

But then the other verse started to arrive. And they didn’t have anything to do with penguins. In fact the penguins were starting to stand out. Four verses in they were standing, staring at me.

I don’t like being stared at. So they had to go. But as I don’t like making penguins homeless I have re-housed them here.

The hundred-miling molecules of wind

hand out, in passing, slaps of air and snow;

their greetings for the penguin backs they find,

black barnacled in drear paternal row.

Their futures, feather-lodged, and set to grow,

Maintain their seasons, won’t be hastened on.

The wind observes, and just as quick, is gone.

Welcome to the Vault

snake-s-door-knocker-1202994Over the years I’ve written an awful lot of words. The words themselves have been fine: the problems have usually occurred with the selection and arrangement of the words.

I’ve end up with fragments of stories, novels and plays; poems I almost like and some I hate less than others. I keep coming across some of these as I sort through old papers and files. A few pieces are downright disgusting and will never appear anywhere, but there are others I quite like despite the flaws. It is this last group I am going to put into the Vault: they will be available but not promoted or pushed. Available for anyone who wants to creak the door open and take a look at mildly misshapen things.

That’s enough sales patter. I’ve opened the Vault and put something in. It’s a jeux d’esprit, a trifle, a middle-earth bauble. Whether you read it is entirely up to you.

Approach

approach
Approach – ©Andrew Barker 2012, reproduced with permission

So. Last night I was at the Holy Biscuit for their fifth birthday party and the launch of Now and Not Yet, a publication for advent (visit their site to find out more and to order a copy). The book has twenty-five entries – one for each day of December up to and including Christmas Day – most of which have a photograph and an accompanying piece of text which responds to or reflect on the image.

The entry for the first of December features Approach by Andrew Barker and this poem, which I was asked to write in response to the image.

Approach

I had not noticed the shadows before,
where there is no light there are no shadows.
Without the light. I had not realised
it was dark, that such a thing as light could be

I was surprised. To find I had a shape,
have edges. Definition. Shoulders.
And now, I see the rest, out there, is dark.
The light makes ‘there’ and splits it off from ‘here’.

I like the light. I do. I like the light.
I will stay here. Close, but not too close.
This shape I have. I’m not exactly proud.
I would rather have a different shape.

You could step closer, nearer to the light.
Be bolder, clearer: let yourself be bright.

 

Oh, my brave boys!

So. Bonfire night and off to the firework display at the Blue Flames (a well-known local display) to celebrate the thwarting of the terrorist plot to blow up parliament. Lots of people, chips and beer. Twenty minutes after time (a well-known feature of the display) the floodlights dim and the first fireworks head up into the sky.

They have a firework canon or something that sends an arc of explosions into the dark. But my favourites are the silver-gold twists that corkscrew boldly from the earth, each one trying to climb higher, trying to escape. And each one fading and failing. Oh, my brave boys! The whole of art and history is there.

Some twenty years ago I wrote a poem about fireworks, after watching from a bedroom window with one of my children. It is not the best poem ever (I suppose that goes for all except one poem), in this case the front end is clunky), but it expresses that same futile beauty I sensed again tonight.

Fireworks

To you, these are bangs, terrifying and loud.

You want the window shut;

a glass shield to let you watch the flames.

I want the window open, to allow the fullness

of sight, sound and smell.

These are more than fireworks.

Brief flares,

Blinking reminders of temporality,

Sweet exclamations of our mortal course.

Green-gold attendants of darkness

Which tell, when read correctly,

That everything will pass away.

Joy flames briefly

Dying down to darkness.

All will pass: spark, fire, stone.

99% perspiration

So. Here I am in a field (fortunately in a tent as well), reflecting on today’s writing workshop at Catalyst Festival. I wanted to do something on the necessary disciplines of editing and revising: we are still too tied to the romantic and spiritual ideal of inspiration. We spend a lot of time thinking about how the initial process of creation happens, when we push back against the void, whether white page or blank screen, to make something, but we spend less time thinking about what happens next, when that formless, unshaped thing needs to be licked into shape. (And licking into shape is a very appropriate image: remember that a bear cub, newborn, has no form until its mother, by repeated application of her tongue, creates limbs, torso and head.)

I wanted to give experience of critiquing, to start to build those editorial instincts that can be used to turn the ‘all right’ into the extra-ordinary. What better way to begin than by offering one of my own poems for study?

I chose a recent piece which is still in its early stages, here it is:

Acacia Baileyana
or Under it all a seed

Disorder is reduced
To a more rational register
Noise flares
Shift to silence
Branches burst
The marks and symptoms of disease
are disinfected as they run
Tongues of satisfaction
offer the warmed sky simplified matter
then subside to harder contènt
After bitter resistance
unruly colour
settles down to grey

What would they make of it?

First, the basic question of ‘what is it about?’ A surprise for me there: turns out I must have had my obscurity dial set to high when I gave this a title, as only one out of the nine people round the table said ‘fire’. Acacia Baileyana is an Australian tree, the seed of which only germinates after it has been heated by a forest fire. It turns out not many people know that.

Once I gave the hints they started to make sense of it a little more, and I received useful comments: the first two lines might fit better at the end, the marks and symptoms of disease need to be clarified, the pairing of long and short lines could be tightened. All good stuff, which I will ponder.

But the best thing is that those nine people have spent time analysing someone else’s work, and are beginning to develop some of the skills needed to analyse their own.

Three minutes’ thought

Phrenology diagramSo. One of the offspring is complaining about A-level physics being hard. Which it is. Unsympathetically, I was reminded of A E Housman’s jibe at some nineteenth century classical scholars:

Three minutes’ thought would suffice to find this out, but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.

But for all Housman was having a go at someone, there is a truth in there: thought is irksome. Elsewhere in the house someone is struggling at an assignment in their MBA. And I have spent two hours writing poetry and have got maybe twelve lines, at least half of which I will change and the other half I may discard. That was irksome.

I wasted ten minutes on the internet researching bee pollination (researching, that makes it sound impressive: I typed bee pollination into google and got a wikipedia page with a table) because thought is irksome and poetry takes thought.

In fact, thought is so irksome I am going to pot up my tomato seedlings rather than do it any longer.

What am I doing when I write poetry?

So. At times, things serendipitously drift together, like a twigs on a stream floating into a transient raft. This week, definitions of poet were eddying past each other.

“But look there!” she resumed. “Do you see a boat with one man in it—a green and white boat?”
“Yes; quite well.”
“That’s a poet.”
“I thought you said it was a bo-at.”
“Stupid pet! Don’t you know what a poet is?”
“Why, a thing to sail on the water in.”
“Well, perhaps you’re not so far wrong. Some poets do carry people over the sea. But I have no business to talk so much. The man is a poet.”
“The boat is a boat,” said Diamond.
“Can’t you spell?” asked North Wind.
“Not very well.”
“So I see. A poet is not a bo-at, as you call it. A poet is a man who is glad of something, and tries to make other people glad of it too.”
“Ah! now I know. Like the man in the sweety-shop.”
“Not very. But I see it is no use. I wasn’t sent to tell you, and so I can’t tell you.”

That’s George MacDonald At the Back of the North Wind (chapter 5). Noting, but leaving aside, the masculinity of the definition, I wonder if ‘being glad of something’ is a reason many people would own up to for writing poetry? I think in MacDonald’s case it probably was true: he spent his adult llfe trying to convince people God was out to get them, but in the best way possible.

Then, nudging up against MacDonald is Charles Reznikoff:

What Reznikoff liked about courtroom testimony, he said, was that what matters is the facts of the case, what the witness saw and heard, not the witness’s feelings about, or interpretations of, those facts. It was his ideal for poetry. He often cited some lines from the Sung Dynasty poet Wei T’ai (which he found in A.C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang): ‘Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.’ His aim in Testimony was to create a ‘mood or feeling’ by the ‘selection’ and ‘arrangement’ of the facts, as well as by the ‘rhythm of the words’.
(Eliot Weinberger. The Poet at the Automat. London Review of Books. Vol. 37 No. 2. 22 January 2015. pages 15-16. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n02/eliot-weinberger/poet-at-the-automat but full text for subscribers only.)

First, that is quite a chain: I am quoting Weinberger, quoting Reznikoff, quoting Graham, quoting Wei T’ai. Secondly, I’m not surprised: Wei T’ai was on to something. Talking about or writing down your feelings is odd: it’s a mad person on a train who insists you have to know everything about them. But expressing something which builds in them a sense of your anger (at a very specific object), or your joy (at a very specific thing), that is worth doing. R G Collingwood writes of conveying the emotional charge rather than a feeling: it is the same thing.

It is also (and here I have turned a corner and taken myself by surprise) part of what MacDonald was getting at (it is, at times, difficult to be entirely clear about what MacDonald is getting at): you don’t make other people glad by telling them to be glad, there needs to be a thing to convey that gladness.

So. That’s what I’m doing when I’m writing poetry. I might not be a very good poet, but, as Chesterton wrote (somewhere in The Napoleon of Notting Hill):

Just as a bad man is still a man, so a bad poet is still a poet.