Heart Poems: Children’s Heart Week

For Children’s Heart Week this year, May 12th – 18th, the wonderful poet Rebecca Goss has turned her blog into a place of ‘Heart Poems’. Each day she has published poems by contemporary poets, some written especially for the week, along with important information related to Children’s Heart Week and the Children’s Heart Federation.

There have been lots of wonderful poems on the blog all week, written by poets at all stages of their careers, and I’m honoured to have been asked to contribute to such an important project.

Please visit Rebecca’s blog to see all of the poems and find out more about Children’s Heart Week and the Children’s Heart Federation. Also, if you haven’t already read it, I strongly recommend that you get hold of a copy of ‘Her Birth’, Rebecca’s wonderful, Forward Prize nominated collection.



My Arvon Week: finding my ‘lyrical impulse’ at Totleigh Barton

My room was the top left window!

My room was the top left window!

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to get a bursary to attend an Arvon course down in Totleigh Barton, Devon. Here’s a little account of my week:

When the taxi turned the final corner after miles of almost deserted country lanes and the thatched roof and white walls of Totleigh Barton came into view, I nearly pinched myself. I needed to make sure that I really was about to spend almost a week reading and writing poetry in such a beautiful and secluded setting.

This was my first Arvon retreat (after years of window shopping through the brochure), and so I had very little idea about what to expect, both in terms of the specifics of the course – the enigmatically titled ‘Poetry: The Lyrical Impulse’, led by the wonderful Mimi Khalvati and David Harsent – or in the day-to-day life of Totleigh. What I got was five days jam packed full of all things poetry, in which I got to learn from two generous and talented tutors, meet and share ideas, stories, and poems with a group of lovely people, and have the time simply to write, read, and edit with no distractions or excuses.

We were incredibly well looked after. All of the team at Totleigh were wonderful, catering to our every whim and creating an environment that was warm, welcoming, and perfect for relaxing and writing. When we first arrived the group (aged from twenties to eighties, and mostly women except for two brave men and David Harsent) bonded over afternoon tea and scones, and then we all went over to the barn to meet our tutors and discuss the week ahead. Our ‘schedule’ was very exciting. Every day between 10am and 1pm (after a hearty breakfast) we would have a group workshop with either Mimi or David, followed by lunch and then individual writing time until dinner (cooked by teams of four), and then in the evening we would all go over to the barn to either listen to, perform, or else discuss poetry. As well as this we would each have a one-to-one tutorial with both tutors at some point in the week.

2014-05-02 13.01.53

I came away from the week with a fresh batch of poems to work on and a renewed enthusiasm for writing, but here are a few other things that I acquired along the way:

  • An expanded waistline. Oh the food. As much cheese, bread, and puddings as anyone could wish for, and a biscuit jar that just kept being refilled (although get there early to secure a chocolate digestive). Breakfast, lunch and dinner brought everyone together around the big dining table, and it was great fun to cook together in teams and enjoy seconds (and sometimes thirds) of the resulting delicious meals.
  • Lots of pictures of birds and rivers. Photos on a phone just don’t do justice to the beauty of Totleigh Barton and the surrounding countryside. I recommend making time either before or after morning workshops to venture out and explore … just make sure that you bring appropriate footwear!

  • Lots of new additions to my ‘to-read’ list. Bloodaxe poet Maitreyabandhu came to read from his new collection ‘The Crumb Road’ and wowed us all with his beautiful poems. Plus every workshop (or conversation for that matter) threw up new poems to search out. Thanks in particular to Mimi for highlighting the later work of James Wright, as well as other examples of the pure lyric.
  • New ways to write and think about poetry. This is a pretty important one! The daily workshops and tutorials with Mimi and David (gently) pushed everyone out of their poetic comfort-zone, and we were encouraged to approach the blank page in a new way. When we came to perform our poems at the end of the week it was clear to see how everyone had been inspired and improved by the experience, and the final night was a lovely, funny, and often moving showcase of everyone’s hard work. As a double act Mimi and David complimented each other perfectly (they had a bit of a ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine going on) and it was lovely to get to know them and learn about the ways that they approached reading, writing, and teaching poetry.
  • Finally, a burning desire to return to Totleigh Barton. This one is pretty self-explanatory, and judging by the mournful mood in the mini-bus back to the station, I’m pretty sure everyone there would agree with me!

Thank you to the Arvon team at Totleigh, Mimi Khalvati and David Harsent, and of course my fellow poets for a wonderful week.


(A version of this blog post will be appearing on the ‘my Arvon week section of the Arvon blog: http://www.arvon.org/blog/category/my-arvon-week/ )

Poem of Today (09/05/2014)

Today’s poem is ‘On Not Being Milton’ by Tony Harrison – A wonderful Meredithian modification of the sonnet (16 lines instead of 14, after George Meredith’s ‘Modern Love’) that begins Harrison’s second full collection ‘The School of Eloquence’ (1978). Here’s how it starts:

On Not Being Milton

Tony Harrison

for Sergio Vieira & Armando Guebuza (Frelimo)

 ‘Read and committed to the flames, I call 

these sixteen lines that go back to my roots
my Cahier d’un retour au pays natal
my growing black enough to fit my boots’


Today the Leeds Humanities Research Institute played host to scholars from Aalborg, Lund, Aarhus, York, and Leeds. Brought together in order to think about the notion of ‘Transnational Memory and Traumatic Histories’, the one-day conference saw papers addressing subjects as diverse as Franco-Iranian women’s writing, the Istanbul Pogroms, Algerian War narratives and post-memory literature, the poetry of William Wordsworth, Ulysses syndrome, multidirectionality and the Spanish Civil War, and Polish melodrama. The keynote address, given by professor Maxim Silverman, addressed the notion of palimpsestic memory, and indeed it felt as if each of the panels held interesting traces of the others in their return to notions of multidirectionality, transnationalism, and the constant need to interrogate and re-assess the ethics and transmission of historical trauma.


My paper, entitled ‘Leeds is Nigeria and Newcastle is Auschwitz: a Post-Holocaust Cartography in the Poetry of Tony Harrison’ looked at Harrison’s first two full collections. Rather than try and explain everything that I tried to get through, here’s the abstract:

‘Born in Beeston in 1937 and educated at the University of Leeds, the poet, translator, and dramatist Tony Harrison has based many of his poems in and around the North of England. Traditionally championed as a resolutely working class poet, Harrison’s writing often focuses on the public and private lives of his family and Leeds neighbours – a focus epitomised by his aptly named first full collection ‘The Loiners’ (1970) and his second collection ‘The School of Eloquence’ (1978). However, whilst the gaze of the poet seemingly focusses upon the post-War Leeds cityscape, this paper will argue that far from being simply concerned with class inequality and issues of local heritage, the two collections are in fact profoundly shaped by the poet’s keen awareness of both the Holocaust and England’s Colonial legacy. Drawing upon the Harrison’s prose and poetry, I will explore how ‘The Loiners’ and ‘The School of Eloquence’ together map a new, transnational landscape of violence and barbarity upon the streets of Leeds. Connected by their shared dark histories, Europe, Central Africa, and the North of England are compressed together within the tight form and often taboo subject matter of the poems, as Harrison breaks down the geographical, imaginative, and ethical boundaries that might have otherwise kept these diverse landscapes apart.’

Quite heavy stuff! But also a fantastic topic to work on, not just because I got to engage with the work of some wonderful writers – Michael Rothberg, Paul Gilroy, Walter Benjamin, Susan Gubar, Aimé Césaire, and Hannah Arendt to name just a few – but also because I got to re-immerse myself in the wonderful poetry and prose of Tony Harrison.


I had a bit of a major headstart, as my latest chapter is a much larger exploration of this very subject, but I’ve had a bit of a break (to attend an Arvon course, but more on that another time), plus when you work for so long on a few poems you tend to lose sight of what it was that attracted you to them in the first place. Writing a conference paper is such a different experience from writing a chapter, and it allows you to look at old poems in new ways. Coming back to ‘Allotments’, ‘Newcastle is Peru’, and ‘On Not Being Milton’ with fresh eyes and a need for brevity and accessibility, it was great to think about how these poems have the power to jump off the page, regardless of whether the reader/listener is new to poetry, or else a seasoned veteran.


Turning to the Poem of Today – ‘On Not Being Milton’ – what continues to impress with each new reading is the sheer volume of literary, geographical, and historical allusions contained within such a short and engaging piece. In particular, Harrison’s engagement with Césaire, negritude, roots, and the notion of ‘growing black enough to fit my boots’ throws the apparent subject matter and landscape of the poem into flux. Suddenly, the poem becomes as much about the power of poetry to shock, to break down geographical, historical, and ethical boundaries as it is about the poet’s return to his own ‘native land’ of Leeds.


As an example of Harrison’s tentative yet nonetheless persistent post-Holocaust humanism, the sonnet captures the equal darkness and light that shapes his often deliberately ‘awkward’ poetic: Darkness in the sense that Harrison is separated from John Milton not just by choice, but also by the historical ruptures of both the Holocaust and Britain’s colonial legacy. Yet light and celebration in the fact that poetry might reclaim this rupture, offering a positive disruption and transgression of outdated and inhibitive geographical, historical, and imaginative borders.


Anyway, the paper is done, the day was great, and so is Tony Harrison! Thanks to the organisers, the other speakers, the audience (particularly my lovely Literature dept. buddies who came along to support), and finally Nick for his humanism without guarantees.