Keith Douglas and Anne Stevenson

I recently guest edited a special issue of Stand that was in part dedicated to marking what would have been the Second World War poet Keith Douglas’s 100th year.

I felt both hugely privileged to edit the celebration, and it was wonderful to be able to commission and then enjoy the thoughtful and insightful reflections on Douglas’s life, work, archive, and legacy, as well as the startlingly good new poetry that was informed, inspired, and imbued with Douglas’s poetry and poetic outlook. Thank you to Desmond Graham, Jeffrey Wainwright, Owen Lowery, Sarah Prescott, Dana Alice Niamh and Suna Afshan. To read their brilliant work, and to get your hands on issue 18(4), no 228, which also contains a fantastic special feature on Chinese Poetry in translation, as well as new writing by Vahni Capildeo, Aoife Lyall, Graham Mort, Eleanore Schönmaier and many more, as well as reviews by Stella Pye, Belinda Stiles and Tony Roberts, then head to the Stand website

You can also listen to Dana Alice Niamh read her startlingly good piece, ‘How Easy It Is to Make a Ghost’ on her blog

In the meantime, here is a little extract from my editorial, in which I discuss my own relationship with the poetry and reputation of Keith Douglas, and how my sense of his writing and ethos has evolved over the ten years I’ve known and admired him.

Keith Douglas was born in Tunbridge Wells on 24 January 1920. He was killed in action in Normandy on 9 June 1944, three days after landing on D Day, aged only twenty-four. 2020 marks the centenary of his birth, and this special issue of Stand celebrates the work and legacy of a poet whose writing and approach to poetry shaped the perspective of the next generation of Stand poets and editors. 

There is a fine layer of dust covering many of the scenes in Keith Douglas’s mature work. It gets everywhere – over machinery, furniture, the shattered heads of the saints at Enfidaville Church, the ‘paper eye’ of an enemy soldier blown open and left to decay in Tunisia. It is both a real and emblematic reminder of his experience of warfare fighting in the African campaign, but it also captures the fierce intensity of Douglas’s gaze. He captures life and death as the light hits it. He is there to enact violence and to document each molecule of dust and debris as it settles:

Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust

of a man of flesh. This sorcery

I do’ (‘How to Kill’, CP, p.119) 

Yet this is no magician concealing his hand. Douglas does not keep secrets from his reader. This is a poetry that prides itself on a kind of nihilistic revelation. Keith Douglas sought to ‘exercise’ his ‘depleted fury’ (‘On a Return From Egypt’, CP, p. 132), but also to create a stark and forensic poetic that reflects ‘the careful absence of expectation (it is not quite the same as apathy) with which I view the world’(Letter to J.C.Hall, 10 Aug 1943, CP, p.127). 

No wonder then, that Jon Silkin so admired his poetry and approach to writing. Douglas’s belief – passionately argued in a letter to his friend as fellow poet J.C. Hall –  in the poem as something that must ‘write true things, significant things’ in the language of ‘significant speech’, sounds remarkably like Jon Silkin’s advocacy of the poem as a vital tool for communication – as a means to actively ‘look’ and ‘say’ what is wrong in society rather than just reflect and feel. Keith Douglas was championed within and beyond Stand by Silkin, Hill and Harrison, in their varied capacities as editors, critics, and poets. And in this issue, after the centenary of Douglas’s birth, we celebrate his writing and legacy again, with critical essays, archival research, and new poetic responses to the poet who understood all too well ‘how easy it is to make a ghost’. 

***

 I first discovered Douglas when I was a twenty-one year old PhD student at Leeds. At the time, I was primarily concerned with the legacy of war poetry on the work of Jon Silkin, Geoffrey Hill and Tony Harrison, and so read Douglas through the prism of their poetry, and a narrow idea of what war poetry was. I highlighted every reference to guns, violence and death. And in doing so I missed much of the nuance and beauty of Keith Douglas’s writing; the ‘constellations of feeling’ (‘D’, ‘The Bête Noire Fragments’) that drive both the nature and the intensity of his attention. 

I also didn’t pay close enough attention to his early work – only briefly passing over poems like ‘Mummers’, written when Douglas was only fourteen — ‘See where the outdoor snows, wind-fluttered, through the arched window fall.’ — in which he displays an intensity of vision and a command of the imperative far beyond his years.

If I’d paid closer attention to Douglas in his own right then I would have noticed how extrospection — his coined notion of reporting his surroundings (however disturbing) in a deliberately abstracted and precise detail — was already already taking shape in this request to ‘see’ beyond the window. 

My admiration is a decade older now, long outliving Douglas’s short life. Now, I read the early poems for their sensitivity and feeling as much as their clarity; for the little boy with a mind like a weapon and a firm understanding that he was to poet as a verb. Poeting and warfare are not so different. Submitting to old rules, breaking them. There is a power struggle in these early pieces between Douglas and the language at his disposal. He was always determined to submit it to his will. He was a war poet already; an example, later argued by Jon Silkin and Geoffrey Hill, within the pages of Stand, of how a war poet need not be entirely defined by a particular event or rank, but rather by approach, and interest, and struggle. 

I can’t finish this post without mentioning Anne Stevenson, who sadly passed away in September of 2020, and who was my dream contributor to this issue. She was an (maybe the) inheritor of Douglas, and was a fiery example of extrospection and tenderness in action. In the spring/summer of 2020 we corresponded about Keith Douglas and the issue, as well as her own poetic legacy. She had hoped to be able to live long enough to read the issue (her words, not mine). Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be. My editorial is certainly dedicated to her, just as my poetry has always been informed by her own sharp and exacting writing.

Blackbird, so old, so young, so
Happy to be stricken with a song
You can never choose away from.

photo credit: The Guardian

Read Keith Douglas’s poetry. Read Anne Stevenson’s poetry. And marvel.

How to write a love poem

I have a new article out in The Conversation on how to write a love poem:

A good love poem can be deceptively tricky, and I’m always in awe when poets get it right. Whether it’s to express desire and longing, reflect on lost love, write movingly on enduring love, or simply celebrate loving yourself, poetry has a knack for capturing the quirks, eccentricities, humour, pains and everyday acts of romance and turning them both remarkable and recognisable. I’ve listed a few of my favourites in the article, particularly when it comes to finding a model to write your own poem, but there are hundreds that I wasn’t able to include.

Why not try out one of the prompts I suggest in the piece and compose your own. I’d love to see it.

A Lapwing in Poetry Magazine

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I’m pretty overjoyed to be starting 2020 with a long poem in Poetry, one of my favourite magazines, and a place I’ve been going to for treasure, new loves, teaching material and inspiration for as long as I’ve been reading and then writing poetry. My long poem, ‘Lapwing’, is published in full in the January 2020 issue, and is available to read online here.

‘Lapwing’ is one of the oddest poems I’ve written; odd because it seemed to break all the rules of drafting and editing that I recite to my students and myself. Most things I write go through countless drafts and versions. ‘Lapwing’, on the other hand, seemed to just fly into my ear full formed. The bird stayed for a week – long enough to write all twenty parts – and then just flew away one night without saying goodbye.

Let me know what you think.

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Open and Various

A few months ago I had the lovely and strange experience of being interviewed by the Lauren Miller, Features Editor at MIRonline. This week the piece came out, and however weird it was to feel ‘on the record’, it was even stranger to read about myself. Lauren has done a great job of making me sound smart and nice – thank you! – but I’m also happy that my passion for poetry (in all its forms) and teaching has made it onto the page.

Lauren and I talked a lot about instagram poetry, new writing, and some of the ugly debates that have taken place over the question of what is good or even legitimate poetry. This is something i’ve been thinking about a lot this year, both in my teaching, where many of my students have come to poetry via instagram and writers such as Rupi Kaur, and through my own reading. In a couple of weeks my review of Geoffrey Hill’s posthumous collection, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin will come out in Stand Magazine, and there too the issue of contemporary poetry and its merits was an issue up for debate.

As you’ll see from my interview with Lauren, I stand firmly on the side of multiplicity. Poetry and publishing should be deliberately broad and various.

Here’s what I think:

New is good. Old is good. Instagram is good. Twitter is good. Books are good. Spoken word is good. Installations are good.  Reading is good. Rhyme is good. Free verse is good. Traditional forms are good. Experimentation is good. Collaboration is good. Reviews are good. Debate is good. All of these things can also be bad. That’s the beauty and the risk of them.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in ‘A Defence of Poetry’ (1821) that poets are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. This conviction has influenced and stayed with many of the poets I most admire. But if this is indeed true, surely we’ve got enough on our plate without also constantly trying to legislate each other as well.

Click here to read the MIRonline piece in full

Newborn poems

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This morning I walked to the train station with a skip in my step. The sun was shining, my blow dry looked good, my toddler had recovered from her bout of chicken pox so was back at nursery, and I was back at work. All of these things made me happy.

But the real reason I was so bouncy on a cold Monday morning was that I had a new poem. Over the weekend, in between play dates, hoovering up broken crackers,  sponging up potty training accidents, and binge watching old episodes of Vera on ITV player, I sat down and began to give shape to an idea – or rather a voice – that’s been slowly growing in my head for the last few weeks.

As part of my bigger interest in pregnancy and birth through the ages, I’m currently gathering together examples of writers, artists and pioneers whose work, creativity, bodies, or even lives were profoundly affected or cut short due to their pregnancy and/or birth. I’ve been wanting to write about Mary Wollstonecraft for a while now, but have struggled to find the right way to explore the circumstances of her death, as well as the relationship that this inevitably has with her feminism, her writing, and her desire to minimise the power of the body. This painful and ‘gendered death’, as Vivien Jones puts it, is all the more painful because ‘it seems to defy so cruelly some of the most fundamental tenets of Wollstonecraft’s own feminism.’* And that tension, between the physical realities of her death of postpartum blood poisoning, and her wish to be seen as so much more than simply a female body, has made it hard to find the right words.

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So when the first draft did come, it felt like a victory. More than that though, I experienced that particular electric euphoria that can come with a first draft of a poem. Fittingly, it’s something akin to the euphoria of holding a newborn baby. You feel energised, alive, and amazed at what you’ve managed to create. With a newborn poem, you’re sure that this early draft is the best thing you’ve ever done. It’s perfect already, no more edits needed. This, you are sure, is going to be the making of you.

Come-and-Get-It

Luckily, I’ve been writing for long enough now to recognise the symptoms of this particular delusion. Painful workshops, cutting editorial comments, and the cold light of many new days have hardened me to the allure of a newborn poem. I know that it’s not perfect. Far from it. I may not be able to see its blemishes now, but I know that in a couple of days I’ll be able to view it with a more objective gaze. I’m almost scared of what I’ll find.

Time and experience have taught me how fundamentally important editing is. It has also shown me the difference a couple of days can make to any reading of your own work. As writers, we need both proximity and distance to our material in order to shape it. We also need to read the work of our contemporaries to recognise what a finished poem looks like, and to put us in our place when it comes to recognising our own strengths and shortcomings.

It’s nearly five now, and my blow-dry is flat, and I know that when I return to my Wollstonecraft draft I’ll probably hate it. However, just as I’m wary of the Newborn poem, I’m also kinder to myself in this dreaded come-down phase. When my toddler was only a few months old –  refusing to sleep, cranky, constantly glued to my boobs – one brilliant friend gave me the best piece of advice: ‘This too shall pass’. She was right. With each stage of having a baby there are new challenges, new highs, new lows.  Similarly, with any piece of writing – creative or academic, there are different stages to work through, different challenges and levels of energy, different moods and kinds of relationship between you and your creation. So although there is nothing quite like the rush of a newborn poem, I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s going to grow up to become.

 

 

References

*Vivien Jones, ‘The death of Mary Wollstonecraft’, British journal for eighteenth-century studies 20 (1997), p. 187.

 

Westminster here I am

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I’ve never been very good at sharing news … even the really really good kind.

I’m just over one month into a new role at the University of Westminster. I’m so pleased to be able to say that I’ve joined the team in the School of Humanities as a Lecturer in Creative Writing (poetry)

More soon, but in the meantime it’s fair to say I’m still over the moon and pinching myself. I can’t believe my good fortune to be doing the job I love alongside such fantastic colleagues and students, and in such an exciting institution.



 

In praise of the community book club

Sit down and make yourself comfortable in the pub backroom/living room/restaurant/church/village hall/community centre/field/library space. Take that first sip of your beer/wine/gin/water/squash/coffee/tea/lemonade. Awkwardly riffle through the pages of your book and look at your scribbled notes in the margins. Turn to the person next to you, smile, and say hi. That’s right, the community book club is about to begin.

I can’t think of a much better way to meet and talk with strangers than a community book club. You start the night like you’d start a first date –  a bit awkward, a bit nervous, a bit self conscious – except that rather than checking your phone every five seconds you check your book. Then it kicks off, and you work up the courage to speak, to say a little something about your favourite character, or your favourite chapter, or even simply why you hated the damn book so much, and then you’re off and there’s no stopping you.

By the end this is like the best date you’ve ever been. Conversation is flowing. You’re bouncing ideas back and forth, finding things in common, sharing laughs. You feel smart, articulate, and good about yourself. And you can’t wait for your next meeting. Here though, you’ve begun to make twenty new friends, rather than just the one.

Yes, I’m pushing the analogy too far, but the point I’m trying to make is how important a part of local community book clubs are and could be. I’m not just talking about the kind where a small group of close friends meet to discuss books – although they are GREAT too. I’m talking about the kind that bring strangers and neighbours and different communities and multiple generations together in a room. The sort that invite these people to sit down together and chat and find common ground and celebrate their shared curiosity and imagination. The kind where you come away feeling smarter than when you walked in. In a world that can sometimes feel big and lonely, and after a day when you’ve spoken to people more over email and text than face-to-face, sitting in a circle with a group of interesting strangers with a drink in one hand and a book in the other can feel marvellous.

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This week I was lucky enough to run a community book club. It was the first one in the little town where I live, and I was honoured to be asked by the organisers to choose the book, think up some questions, and then lead the session. We had hoped that maybe four or five people might show. It was the first one after all, and we were advertising through local posters and in the library rather than over social media. In the end, there was nearly twenty five of us, all crammed into the backroom of a local pub. I’d chosen ‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson as our first text. This is not an easy book by any means. It is a slow read, and demands reflection and consideration. It is not action packed. In fact, hardly anything happens. There are large sections dedicated to considering lighthearted issues like the doctrine of predestination, Calvinism, dying, and forgiveness. I LOVE ‘Gilead’. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and I come back to it again and again as an example of the kind of prose that breaks – or rather transcends – all the ‘rules’ of creative writing.  However, as the date for the book club drew closer, I worried that I might have scared some people away, or that everyone might struggle to find enough to say. I needn’t have worried. Although not everyone shared my love of the novel, every single person had something insightful to say. Members who had begun the evening quiet and withdrawn ended it in friendly debate, laughing, and on the edge of their seat waiting to respond to whatever point had just been made from across the room. Although it was a big number, it still felt intimate, and there was a chance for everyone to talk – whether in smaller groups or to the club as a whole. We were so into it that no one even thought about grabbing another drink. Great for us, not so great for the pub. In the end I had to cut the debate short for fear we’d be out too late on a work night. People left chatting, still talking about the book, with a visible spring in their step.

My one reservation about book clubs is that they can meander. Although you start with good intentions, without a structure to your conversation you end up running out of things to say quite quickly, and the conversation turns to work, tv, partners, and kids. For this reason I ran the book club quite like I would an undergraduate seminar (although no one got told off if they hadn’t finished the reading!). I wanted to get past the initial ‘I liked it because…’ and encourage people to really pick apart the plot, style, characters, and major themes. People might argue that this means it wasn’t a book club, but I’d defend the use of pre-set ‘things to think about’ and a book club leader. A good seminar is one of the absolute best things about studying literature at university. You leave feeling inspired, galvanised, smart, and impressed with yourself and your fellow students, Everyone should get to feel that. And everyone should get the chance to realise that they can have an intelligent, sustained, and satisfyingly challenging conversation with a group of strangers about any book. Sometimes it just really helps to have someone (and to could be anyone, take turns amongst your friends) guiding the conversation and inviting members to expand and develop their initial ideas.

So here’s an invitation to set up a community book club. Get in touch with a library to supply some books. Choose something that you think is smart and beautiful and challenging. Put up some posters. Find a free venue (church halls and pubs are great for this), think up some questions and go! Or if you don’t fancy doing all of that get me to come along. I’ll happily be there.

For our next book club meeting I’ve chosen ‘The Essex Serpent’. Now I just need to start prepping…

 

 

‘Haworth, 1855’: HG, Charlotte Brontë and winning the 2018 YorkMix Poetry Prize

When I was pregnant with my daughter Emmeline I was sick. I mean REALLY sick. I was one of the estimated 1 in 100 women who suffer from what’s known as Hyperemesis Gravidarum during pregnancy. It’s severe morning sickness, but that doesn’t quite do justice to how incapacitating, horrible, and for some, life threatening, it can be. And even better, I had it in varying degrees for the duration of those nine months, which made them feel interminable.

At the time I was working as a Teaching Fellow in English Literature at Leeds, but there was no way I could even get up and get to work, let alone read and lecture and teach. My colleagues were fantastic, and I was so lucky to have such a supportive department/faculty/HR team that understood and empathised, but still, it was devastating to have to leave a job I loved so much, and to feel my that (early) career was being put on hold nine months earlier than planned. As someone who needs to read and write, it was also so hard to not be able to even look at a book cover without throwing up. And when I wasn’t vomiting, I was so drugged up with anti-sickness medication that I could hardly talk. My partner was absolutely amazing throughout, but it can’t have been that fun coming home to a green zombie every night. I was so lucky though, to be surrounded by friends, family, colleagues, doctors, and midwives who understood this illness, and who were able to help, and to have access to medication that kept things at bay enough to prevent severe dehydration and save me and my unborn child.

When I was about six months pregnant, and my cocktail of drugs was fine tuned enough to allow me one or two days a week of respite(ish), I started to try and write again, and specifically, to write about what it was like to have HG and those strange, dreamlike months, but I found it really hard to find the words. Then, while doing some background reading around ‘Jane Eyre’, I came across the story of Charlotte Brontë’s death and learnt that it was highly likely that this fantastic author – one of my favourites – had died due to HG. Although her cause of death was recorded as tuberculosis, many biographers have since speculated that it was actually dehydration and malnourishment that led to Charlotte Bronte’s death at the age of 38, when she was four months pregnant. Where I had benefitted from modern medicine, Charlotte had not.

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After that, it was her story and not my own that I wanted to tell, especially after reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s account of her final days:

‘Martha tenderly waited on her mistress, and from time to time tried to cheer her with the thought of the baby that was coming. “I dare say I shall be glad sometime,” she would say; “but I am so ill – so weary” Then she took to her bed, too weak to sit up … Long days and longer nights went by; still the same relentless nausea and faintness.’

The Life of Charlotte Brontë, 1857

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That line – ‘I dare say I’ll be glad sometime’ – captures the hope bound up in pregnancy, even in the midst of severe illness and the loss of identity that comes with it. To know that for Charlotte, as for so many women who didn’t – and don’t – have access to medication and free healthcare – this time would never come makes it all the more poignant.

It was this line that formed the basis of my poem ‘Haworth, 1855’, and my attempt to articulate both the experience that Bronte would not have had the chance, or the ability, to record, and my own sense of what those months felt like, trapped in a body that no longer belongs to you.

The poem took a long time to write, and then I didn’t do anything with it for a while. Finally, on a whim, I entered it into the 2018 YorkMix/York Literature Festival Poetry Prize, not expecting anything to come of it. I was therefore so surprised and excited to find out that Andrew McMillan, this year’s judge, had picked ‘Haworth, 1855’  as the winning poem.

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It was great to go up to York and meet the other shortlisted, highly commended, and placed poets, and to listen to all the poems as we cruised along the river Ouse with the sun setting behind us. The quality was so high, and it was just a great evening. YorkMix have just published all the poems here, including ‘Haworth, 1855’, as well as a little write up of this story and a photo of me grinning from ear to ear.

I would love to hear what you think of the poem, and to hear how it matches up to your own experience. But I would also love to hear other stories of Hyperemesis Gravidarum. I don’t know how women many across the world, and across the centuries, have died of HG, and how many continue to die or lose or have to terminate pregnancies because of it. So far, the only other account I’ve come across (apart from Kate Middleton’s story, which I know I need to try and write about at some point!) is the brief mention of Megetia of Carthage in De miraculis sancta Stephani (thanks to the wonderful Perceptions of Pregnancy blog).

I’m looking for more though, as I’m working on a sequence of difficult pregnancies to build on Charlotte and Megetia. If you know of any other historical cases – speculated or confirmed – please get in touch and let me know about them.

Sleepless Reading

In the first few months after E’s birth I found it almost impossible to write. Life was full of profound (and funny, mundane, horrible, stressful, bewildering, ecstatic, beautiful) moments that seemed made for poetry, but I was too tired, hungry, busy, or frazzled to capture any of them. Although I was worried that I’d never feel like writing again, I was incredibly lucky to have some seasoned poet parents on hand to reassure me that things would calm down eventually. Happily, they were right.  But in the meantime, I just read as much as I could, using every feed, every little nap, and every sleepless night to make up for the ten months that I’d been starved of words.

Here are just a few of the books that I read and loved in those first few months. Some write beautifully about pregnancy, childbirth, and children, while others address climate change and environmental disaster, addiction and recovery, war, race and racism, class, gender and sexuality, loss and grief, love, and selfhood. Some are fiction, while others are poetry collections, essays, and prose. Some are new, while others are established classics. Some I’ve read before, and others are brand new discoveries. All are fantastic in their own way.

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Karen McCarthy Woolf, Seasonal Disturbances

Kate Atkinson, Life After Life

Amy Liptrot, The Outrun

Margo Jefferson, Negroland

Sinéad Morrissey, Through the Square Window

Holly McNish, Nobody Told Me

Jon Silkin, Out of Battle

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Kayo Chingonyi, Kumukanda

Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

Julia Copus, The World’s Two Smallest Humans

Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Clare Pollard, Incarnation

Sarah Moss, Signs for Lost Children

Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

Tiphanie Yannique, Wife

Karen McCarthy Woolf, An Aviary of Small Birds

Michael Hamburger, The Truth of Poetry

Ted Hughes, Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose

Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Denise Riley, Say Something Back

Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins

Sarah Moss, Bodies of Light

This post should really be called ‘rest read when the baby rests’. When E was born every midwife, health visitor, family member, and seasoned parent gave this (very good) advice. I’m afraid I didn’t follow it. But I think reading also has fantastic restorative properties. For one thing it has the power to keep you sane, adult, and imaginative in those crazy first few months. It gives you something else to talk about in amongst the chat about nap routines and colic.

What other books should be on this list? Let me know the books that keep you company through sleepless nights – baby induced or otherwise.

Hannah x