Tyrants, vampires – and a book

One of the lovely things about living through a pandemic is being able to participate in poetry courses and workshops you wouldn’t otherwise get to, because they’re in That London and you’re not. The Poetry School provided me with two great courses. The first — Fighting the Tyrant — ran from June to September, with six fortnightly assignments from US poet Leah Umansky. It was a very special experience, heightened I think by the lockdown. We read poems by Tracy K. Smith, Dante di Stefano, Nathan McClain, Patricia Smith, Cynthia Manick and many more. One of my favourites was this one from Marie Howe about Mary Magdalene, so long a heroine of mine. We wrote about all kinds of tyrants, political and personal; there were poems about Brexit and Trump and about experiences of domestic violence.

I’d signed up for the course to find a way to write about politics, but it released a whole range of new material, and new ways of thinking about myself in relation to the world, in relation to history. If you have time, watch this wonderful reading by Sarah Kay of Laura Lamb Brown Lavoie’s poem, ‘On This the 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Titanic, We Reconsider the Buoyancy of the Human Heart’.

Alternatively, you can read it here. If you don’t have time for either – really? – I’ll just share this quote: ‘There are enough ballrooms in you to dance with everyone you’ll ever love.’

The second course was a day workshop with Chrissy Williams, on Hallowe’en: ‘GRRR, ARRGH: Poems inspired by Buffy The Vampire Slayer’. If you love Buffy, you’ll understand. If you don’t, I probably can’t explain. I’d signed up thinking it would be a light-hearted day, perhaps writing about Spike, and it was, partly: we re-wrote Emily Dickinson’s ‘Hope is the thing with feathers‘, discovering a Californian idiom and releasing the Cordelia inside each of us. But we also wrote spells, thought about monsters, and tackled themes like feminism, mortality and sacrifice. It was a brilliant day. Chrissy may be running more pop-culture poetry workshops next year. Highly recommended.

And now I come to think of it, Buffy is a lot about fighting tyrants too.

And a book! I’m thrilled to announce that I’m one of the authors of the upcoming On This Day She, an offshoot of the Twitter account I run with Tania Hershman and Jo Bell. It contains 366 stories—one for every day— about women from history, from all across the globe, all time periods, all fields of interest, all walks of life. Some of the women you’ll have heard of, many, we suspect, will be new to you. We’re so excited to make these stories better known and to do our bit to put women back into history, one day at a time.

On This Day She will be published in February, but it’s available now for pre-order. If you buy it via this link, you can support our wonderful friends at The Poetry Pharmacy at the same time.

For the first time in a long while, there’s starting to be some good news in the wider world – Biden/Harris winning in the US; the possibility of a Covid-vaccine soon; the fact that Boris Johnson must be having a really horrible time with the Brexit mess he helped create. We might allow ourselves a bit more hope. Meanwhile, we continue to live each day: making things, getting outside, caring for and keeping in touch with those we love. Real change is still a way off. Hold fast. We can do this. And don’t forget: There are enough ballrooms in you.

Being at home


What the buggy in the hall taught me

Time is slower than you thought. Each day
is long, exhausting and full of possibility.

Thinking isn’t all that. The crunch
of a crisp packet is a happening.

Painting doesn’t pass the time, it stops
and lives time. It is as essential as toast.

Glitter is not mess. Nor is mud. Every
terraced house has a step to be stepped on.

There are often caterpillars to be found,
and sometimes ladybirds. Failing that, woodlice.

You can have the best conversations
with things that don’t answer back.

Two-thirds of the way up the stairs
is a perfectly valid place to read a book.

In the afternoon, if you’re too tired
to do anything else, you can always dance.

If you need to make a beach in the living-room
it will be possible; it’s ok to want a t-shirt

with a goldfish on. If it doesn’t exist, you
can make it. It takes as long as it takes.

(Ailsa Holland)


When I wrote my last post about pausing, little did I guess that the pause button was about to be pressed on the whole world.

As things got serious I realised I was feeling something I haven’t felt for a while and identified it as the anxiety from the first days/years of being a mother — that realisation that the world is full of danger; that the survival of loved ones is going to require hard work and vigilance — and even then is not guaranteed.

And I’ve found myself going back to a certain extent into ‘new mum mode’: not expecting too much from the day in terms of ‘achievement’, trying to live each moment as it arrives, seeing interruptions and unplanned demands as opportunities.

I really believe that experience of forced slowness was a key part for me of becoming a poet, something I’ve tried to express here. The pram in the hall can be the birth of art.

It’s weird having everyone at home again and I love it. (It’s incomparably easier this time of course because they do their own stuff much of the time and I do mine.) We’re painting again! And baking, gardening, dancing in the kitchen. There is a new fear but there is also more green in the garden every day and I hope there will soon be fresh poems.

Take care and stay safe.


Winter | | Pause

p1030967-1Happy New Year! I hope you had a good last evening of 2019. I spent it with my husband and son, watching the wonderful Into The Woods – which always makes me ask, again: what do I wish? what would I pay for it? – and then writing a poem about a tree. Jools Holland and his marvellously mad mix of Hootenanny musicians accompanied us through the last hour.

And now the new resolutions are supposed to kick in: the discipline after indulgence, the activity after laziness. But my resolution this year is not to do more, but to pause more. I’ve been inspired in this by reading Robert Poynton’s Do/Pause, which I found in a serendipitous moment of doing nothing in an art gallery shop. Poynton makes the reader think about how pausing can add meaning and contemplation to life, can enable us to think, can make our choices more considered and our conversations – with others and with ourselves – more meaningful.

‘Experimenting with pause gives you a way to play around with the rhythms of your life. It gives you a way to give shape and texture to your experience, weakening the sensation that your life is driven by external forces over which you have no influence. Choosing where you put your pauses makes an enormous difference to what your life feels like and what you can do as a result.’

The state of the world in general and British politics in particular have often made me feel helpless and powerless in the last few years, made me want to hide away, to stop the world and get off. But of course that’s not possible. There is work to do and there are people to love and live with and look after.

So I’m not having a break (which sounds so destructive), I’m not stopping anything, I’m simply pressing pause – on watching the news, on following Facebook, on Twitter. I’m putting pauses into my working day. I hope to create whole days of pause where I can sit and read, and think. I plan to spend some of my pauses in hawthorn woods.

Winter seems a particularly good time to start a new pausing habit. In our technologically-driven centrally-heated lives, the difference between the seasons is evened out. For the medievals, winter was harsh but also a welcome time, where not so much work was required. In the ‘Labours of the Months’ in Books of Hours, the activity for January is feasting, for February it’s ‘sitting by the fire’: opportunities for conversation and contemplation.

I’ll still be working hard, mind. But I’ll be allowing myself all the pauses I can. Partly to recharge my energies, partly to work out what I should be doing next, what I wish, what I’m prepared to give for that. And also to enjoy the silence and what comes out of it.

Maybe the world doesn’t, we don’t
need changing in the way
that we would do it,
so we stand on a windy summit
in the last few minutes of the year
naming the view
and thinking of snow.




On waking up poetry


I saw someone the other day who made me think about blogs and I remembered that I’d also, briefly, written a blog. Does that happen to anyone else? Remembering something you used to do and it being a surprise, like was that really me?

The person who made me remember was the lovely Anthony Wilson (and if you don’t read his blog you should, it’s here – read the archived stuff too) who was this year’s judge for the Manchester Cathedral Poetry Prize, which I was lucky enough to win, with my slightly sweary ‘Mary Magdalene in the Desert’. (Copies of the pamphlet with all the prize-winners and highly-commendeds can be ordered here.)

The prize-giving on Sunday was a lovely event, with some very welcome sun streaming in through the stained-glass windows, and lots of great poetry, not only from the competition winners but also from Andrew Rudd, Cathedral Poet in Residence, and from Anthony Wilson too. For quite a few of us it was the most magnificent space we’d ever read in.

So maybe it was a little bit because I’d won (I’ve never won a poetry competition before) – but it was also the space, and the calm, and the light, and listening to everyone’s words, how we’re all trying to express something, make it real for us, put it into a form in which we can share it – whatever it was, I felt like a part of me woke up.

Because it’s not just my blog that’s been dormant. I haven’t been writing much poetry this year, although I’ve submitted some stuff, and had a few things published by some journals I was thrilled to appear in (Bare Fiction, The Rialto). I’ve been writing other things – more of that on another day – but words haven’t been coming to me, demanding to be made into a shape, a soundscape. I haven’t really felt like a poet.

But since Sunday I’ve written the first drafts of three poems.

The wonderful Mimi Khalvati once said to me (and I’m paraphrasing) that the part of us that writes poetry is not necessarily the part of us that’s uppermost in our day-to-day lives. Every time I remember her saying that (there’s that forgetting again) the truth of it strikes me.

I’ve thought quite a lot about which bit of me it is that writes – is it my younger self trying to say all the things she didn’t say then? or my middle-aged self trying to express the rage I feel now? I can’t put my finger on it, but I know what it isn’t – it isn’t functional me, who tries to look after everyone, be an activist, change the world.

It’s a part of me that feels small and sufficient, who sits in the quiet and waits for words, not to persuade with, but to play with. She’s happy, cheeky, scared, sad. If she needed a name I think I might call her the poetry imp. I’ve missed her. I’m so glad she’s awake.