Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge. Events 8 and 9: High Jump and Long Jump

It’s the final day of the Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge! Thank you for taking the time to join in with this week of stories, hidden histories and creative and sporting inspiration. I hope you’ve come away with some new drafts and ideas. I’ve certainly learned a great deal in the process of putting together these posts. When we first came up with the idea of a poetry ‘Olympiad’ I knew comparatively little about the 1921 event, or about the athletes who took part. It’s been a pleasure to discover more about their achievements and legacy.

Our final events are the jumps – high jump and long jump.

High jumpFrédérique Kussel
 France
1.40Hilda Hatt
 United Kingdom
shared GoldMadeleine Bracquemond
 France
1.35
Long jumpMary Lines
 United Kingdom
4.70Hilda Hatt
 United Kingdom
4.60Lucie Bréard
 France
4.52

These were strong events for the GB team. Hilda Hatt won joint gold with Frédérique Kussel in the high jump, and in the long jump Mary Lines took gold, with Hilda Hatt taking the silver.

Rare footage and photos from these events shows the very different technique used by these athletes from today’s long and high jumpers.

There was no mat for the high jump, so competitors had to land on their feet or else risk serious injury. Variations of the scissor kick were really the only option!

Hilda Hatt in the middle of a high jump
Hilda Hatt in motion

For the long jump, competitors did, thankfully, have a sandpit to land in!

Mary Lines in mid-flight
Hilda Hatt

Mary Lines excelled in this event – she won gold in the long jump in almost every international and national championship up until her retirement from competitive sport in 1924.

Lines was twenty-seven years old in the 1921 Olympiad, the oldest competitor on the GB team. She had never run a race before the games. In the next three years she would set world records and win championships in events ranging from 50 metres to 880 yards, as well as in the long jump and the hurdles. She worked as a waitress in London and attended evening gymnasium classes at the Polytechnic (a 1924 article in the Dundee Evening Telegraph later has her as working for a ‘well-know mineral water firm’ [18th Jan, 1924]). Her success is an example of the fact that, unlike many other sporting activities open to women at that time, athletics at the Poly provided opportunities to keen sportswomen from a variety of backgrounds.

Unlike Florence Birchenough, who continued to compete at an international level after her marriage and the birth of her son, Mary Lines’s engagement to a man named ‘Mr Smith’ signalled the end of her international athletics career. Lines, the ‘famous Streatham lady’ slowly starts to disappear from the lists of competitors, her records gradually matched and beaten by emerging athletes.

After the death of her husband in 1946, Mary Smith (Lines) continued to live in London until 1971, when she moved to Worthing to live with her two unmarried sisters. She was killed in a traffic accident in 1978 at the age of 85 – she was running to post her Christmas mail, and was hit by an oncoming van.

There is so much left to learn about Mary Lines. The new plinth in the foyer of the University of Westminster’s Regent Street building is only the beginning in what will be a much longer process of discovery and re-writing her name back into the history of the University and of UK sport.

Legacies and Impact

On April 2nd, 1921, the GB team arrived back at Victoria Station, London after three days travelling. Hot, tired, and dishevelled (apparently they didn’t think much of the French train systems) the athletes weren’t greeted by fanfare. They went back to their homes and back to their regular jobs as teachers, dressmakers, typists and waitresses at Lyon’s Corner House. They resumed their studies and competed alongside and against each other at the weekends for their respective London athletic teams.

But they did change the conversation around women’s sport, provoking heated debate in sporting circles and beyond about women’s physical capabilities, modern femininity and of women’s status as sportspeople and competitors on the world’s stage.

The Women’s Amateur Athletics Association (WAAA) was formed in early 1922 at the Regent Street Polytechnic, now Westminster, with many of the early committee members coming from the 1921 team. The WAA would change the nature of women’s track and field, regulating, organising and supporting women’s athletics for the next sixty years. The members of the WAA would also champion the cause of women’s sport in the face of sexism and dismay at the apparent loss of propriety brought about by these new physical excesses.

This article from the April 6th 1921 edition of the Evening Telegraph is a little hard to make out, but it expresses the concerns shared by many in athletics and wider society about the ‘physical and nervous strain’ placed on the fragile female constitution by ‘excessive’ levels of exertion. It is interesting to note how athletics is compared with women’s football. The many links between these two emerging sports is fascinating, particularly given the parallel degrees of discrimination both sets of sportspeople faced.

The nature and level of participation in women’s football and women’s athletics changed dramatically during the First World War, and in many ways demonstrated the shifting role of women in British society and the workplace during that time. After 1918, there were some who sought to reverse these changes, including those in the sporting establishment. While the IOC chose to ban women from taking part in Olympic track and field events – leading to the 1921 Olympiad – in December 1921 the FA banned women’s football on the grounds of ‘unsuitability’. This ban would not be lifted until 1971.

The Bystander, 13th April 1921.

Yet while some publications were wary of the rise of these ‘unnatural’ women, there were also clear signs of the shifting attitudes towards women in sport, as this patronising but ultimately celebratory piece in the Belfast Telegraph from 2nd April 1921 highlights:

Change was on its way, and the 1921 athletes were at the head of the sprint.

Poetry Challenge

For the final challenge in the Writing Between the Lines Poetry Olympiad we’re going to think about the many ways that histories and achievements can be erased and censored, and what we can do as writers to address and alter this silence.

One technique that I turn to a lot in my own work as a poet is to engage directly with archival material. That might mean ‘finding’ poems in the text of a historical document (such as a letter, a census record, or a newspaper article of the time) or directly responding to images and objects to create a written ‘artefact’. Either way, poetry is a powerful tool for historical excavation. It can shine a light on forgotten stories, it can allow silent voices to speak, and it can interrogate ‘official’ histories.

Here for instance, is my light-hearted attempt at taking on a historical document. Using censorship, I have attempted to change and interrogate the original text of the 1921 Evening Telegraph article:

Today’s challenge is to have a go at your own censorship poem. Here is the article I used:

Why not print it off and get busy with a black marker pen. Or else download it and start highlighting the text in black. Or if you don’t want to use this article, head over to a particularly awful national newspaper and choose an article to copy and paste into word and then erase into something new. If you want to save time, you could even copy and paste your chosen text into a ‘blackout generator’ and have a go there. Then share the results!

Finally…

I hope you have enjoyed these poetry challenges. It has been a pleasure to put them together. Happy writing, and get in touch if you’d like to learn more about the Writing Between the Lines project and the women of the 1921 Olympiad. I’m certainly going to be writing a lot more about them in the coming months!

Now get out your dancing wands! Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge. The exhibition

Today marks a brief intermission in my poetic exploration of the athletics events of the 1921 Olympiad. But don’t worry, after you’ve caught up on yesterday’s hurdles I’ll be back to annoy and delight you with facts and challenges tomorrow.

Today I want to simply lament and celebrate the fact that alongside competing in multiple events, the athletes of the 1921 Women’s Olympiad were also expected to perform pre-assigned European folk dances (in costume) and show off their ‘wand-waving’ in a public exhibition.

Depressingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, this exhibition received a disproportionate number of lines in the already narrow newspaper columns dedicated to the Olympiad.

In the April 6th edition of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, for instance, reporter Eustace White lists the activities that ‘Les Charmentes Girls’ performed.

They also gave a splendid display of physical exercises, which consisted of wand exercises, Indian clubs, free exercises, parallel bars, vaulting-horse, Dutch dance and Grecian tableaux.’

Newcastle Daily Chronicle, Wednesday 06 April 1921

White goes on to note the comparative slowness of Mary Lines’s winning times with her male peers, commenting that they could give her a ‘200yd’ head start and still win with ease. Charming indeed.

In the lead up and during the events of the Olympiad, there is very little in the British media about the athletes. However, the London Daily News and the Daily Mirror did publish pictures of the ‘graceful athletes’ rehearsing their Dutch and Greek dances.

The presentation of these women as a sort of exhibition in their own right was further cemented in the brief reporting of their departure. It is hard to imagine GB men getting a similar write-up in the Daily Mirror:

‘Laughing Amazons’. ‘Pretty Girl Athletes’. ‘Sturdy’. ‘Romping’. ‘Sweet seventeen – with pigtails’.

I’ll leave it at that.

Writing Between the Lines: Poetry Event 6. The Hurdles

The wonderful thing about exploring an archive – any archive – is that you never quite know what you’re going to come across, or what direction that new lead might take you. As a researcher, you often begin with one intention or line of enquiry, but all it takes is one glance down a list of records, one spot of an inconsistency or passing reference, or one click of a digitalised subject list, and you find yourself exploring a whole new set of stories. It’s hard to explain that excitement, and occasionally the hunt itself can be more fun than the finished find. However, sometimes you really do come across some gems.

If you haven’t ever taken a look through Gallica – the digital library of the National Library of France – then I would highly recommend it. Today I spent far too long going through 1921 newspapers and searching for anything i could find about the Olympiad. It turns out there was quite a lot! It’ll be fascinating to compare these documents against those in the archive at Westminster.

Today’s poetry challenge is the hurdles, and I had planned to share the little we know about the competitors. France dominated the event, winning gold, silver and bronze, and so, unsurprisingly, it is not focussed on in the few British (tiny) news reports that were written about the Olympiad. However, via Gallica who hold digitalised records of some of the French media from the event, we can see the the Poly athletes and GB team in practice and in action. Here, for instance, are GBs Daisy Wright (left) and Hilda Hatt (right) practicing before the event. Wright’s leading leg is nice and high!

And here is Mary Lines caught in mid-flight, with the packed balconies of the Casino and the Monte Carlo scenery behind her.

These pictures are remarkable – they show the athletes in action, they show the crowds and dramatic backdrop, they even show the patchy grass on the pigeon shooting field. They bring the heats and the practices and the women themselves to life, and give us a sense of the grit, humour, and even form and gait of the athletes. I’ll leave the hurdlers to judge how they look.

But without wanting to fall headfirst into a clunky athletics metaphor, it wasn’t only wooden hurdles that these women had to scale. A brief look at a contemporary report of the time also demonstrates the unabashed sexism that Alice Milliat and the athletes encountered, not only from their male peers and the IOC, but also in the contemporary media.

Here’s an extract from the April 9th edition of the Menton and Monte Carlo News. reporting on the events of the Olympiad:

‘To think of there ever being such a thing as a female Olympic at all!’ Shades of Zeus indeed…

In another opinion piece from the April 2nd edition of the same newspaper, this is what the columnist had to say about the athletes:

excerpt from the Menton and Monte Carlo News, April 2nd 1921, via Gallica.

The focus in both pieces on the appearance, ‘flush’ and attractiveness of the athletes is distasteful to read, but it doesn’t feel all that far away from some of the media coverage of women’s sporting events and sportspeople now. There are still plenty of hurdles left to to clear..

The Poetry Challenge

Today’s poetry challenge is all about working with a refrain. Like evenly-spaced hurdles on the track, a refrain is a phrase or line repeated at intervals within a poem, especially at the end of a stanza.

In his poem, ‘In Paris with You’, for example, James Fenton takes his title and brings it back to conclude his subsequent stanzas.

Don't talk to me of love. I've had an earful
And I get tearful when I've downed a drink or two.
I'm one of your talking wounded.
I'm a hostage. I'm maroonded.
But I'm in Paris with you.

Yes I'm angry at the way I've been bamboozled
And resentful at the mess I've been through.
I admit I'm on the rebound
And I don't care where are we bound.
I'm in Paris with you.

While the mood within each stanza shifts up and down and the speaker sways between ironic complaint and wounded bitterness, the refrain brings the poem back each time to the intimacy and romance of the titular address. It creates a humour and affection that builds to the final stanza, so that in these final lines we find a bold, laughing declaration of desire.

Don't talk to me of love. Let's talk of Paris.
I'm in Paris with the slightest thing you do.
I'm in Paris with your eyes, your mouth,
I'm in Paris with... all points south.
Am I embarrassing you?
I'm in Paris with you.

In Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘They’ll say: she must be from another country’, we find another example of this poetic hurdle. In her brilliant exploration of what it means to exist in the vibrant spaces between countries, cultures, identities and languages, Dharker turns the words used to dismiss her into a declaration of independence and a celebration of individuality.

When I can’t comprehend
why they’re burning books
or slashing paintings,
when they can’t bear to look
at god’s own nakedness,
when they ban the film
and gut the seats to stop the play
and I ask why
they just smile and say,
‘She must be 
from another country.’

When I speak on the phone
and the vowel sounds are off
when the consonants are hard
and they should be soft,
they’ll catch on at once
they’ll pin it down
they’ll explain it right away
to their own satisfaction,
they’ll cluck their tongues
and say,
‘She must be
from another country.’


The poem ends on a triumphant note, as the speaker by takes back and reclaims the refrain. 
And I’ll be happy to say,
‘I never learned your customs.
I don’t remember your language
or know your ways.
I must be
from another country.’

With this defiance and celebration in mind, in today’s poetry challenge we are going to engage directly with the archives. Zoom in and choose a short phrase/extract from the Menton and Monte Carlo News reports above, or else take a bit of one of Pierre de Courbetin’s recorded statements on female athletics that I’ve discussed in the 800m challenge as your title and refrain, and use your poem to interrogate, ridicule or reflect on your chosen statement. Feel free to adapt your phrase slightly as you go through, but have it there as something to return to and overcome in each of your stanzas.

I think I’m going to take ‘To think of there ever being such a thing as a female Olympic at all!’ or else ‘the girls gave evidence of the physical strain’ as my hurdle.

Happy Writing!

Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge: Event 5: The Relay

Windswept! The relay team: Hilda Hatt, unknown – Hornsby? , Daisy Wright, Mary Lines

Today is all about passing the baton, both in terms of the legacies of 1921 and in our poetry challenge.

1921

Led by their star runner Mary Lines, the British team took home gold medals in both the 4 x 75 m and 4 x 200 m relays. Their B-team also won bronze in the 4 x 75 m.

Aside from the switch of Daisy Wright for a ‘Miss Bradley’ (first name currently unknown) in the 4 x 200 m, the team line up for both events was the same: Mary Lines, Hilda Hatt and Alice Cast. Both Lines and Cast were students at the Polytechnic and they, along with Hilda Hatt, all belonged to the Polytechnic Ladies Athletics Club. The photograph below, which is from a few years after the 1921 Olympiad, definitely contains a couple of the team: Hilda Hatt (middle, third from left) and Florence Birchenough (middle, fourth from left) – although there may be others in there (thanks to this excellent post by ‘Running Past’ for the identification of Hatt and Birchenough, as well for as the fascinating information on the Inauguaral WAAA championships).

I have already written a little about the brilliant Florence Birchenough in the Poetry Challenge Shot Put event. 1921 really was only the beginning in her long career in athletics and as a member of the WAAA. Yet alongside Birchenough, Hilda Hatt is another name that continues to crop up in the decade to come in, both national and international rankings and medal lists.

Hilda Hatt, 1922

In 1921 she won joint gold in the high jump, silver in the long jump (coming second to Mary Lines), bronze in the 60 m (after Mary Lines and Daisy Wright) and gold in the relays. But for Hatt – just as with Birchenough – 1921 was only the beginning. In future events, such as the 1922 Women’s World Games, her talents as a jumper shone through as she took on and matched the records set by figures like Mary Lines.

Passing the Baton

The relay is a good time to discuss another set of absences from the history of athletics. As some of my previous posts have explored, the athletes of 1921 – and others like them – were clearly discriminated against and even excluded from elite track and field events for decades on the grounds of their gender, their sexuality, their status as child bearers, and their supposed fragility and femininity. However, they still carried the privilege that came with their position as white women. As far as I can tell, the 1921 Olympiad was comprised entirely of white-European athletes.

On the UK team, it was not until 1930, at the third annual Women’s World Games (still organised by Alice Milliat) that an athlete of Caribbean heritage would represent GB in an international athletics competition. Ethel Edburga Clementina Scott, a sprinter and relay racer, would be part of the highly selective squad of 15, and would go on to win silver with her teammates in the relay.

UK team, 1930. Ethel Scott in third row.

Interestingly, she would also be the first athlete to match Mary Lines’s 60 m British record. On 30 August 1930, Scott set a personal best for the 60 m at a track meet in Mitcham, London. Her time of 7.8 seconds was 2 tenths of a second off the world record of 7.6 seconds and equalled Lines’s current British record.

Ethel Scott

Ethel Scott was the first black woman to represent GB at an International Athletics Competition. She was a record -breaking athlete. She took on the sprint and relay baton from Mary Lines and the athletes of 1921. Indeed many of them would go on to be her teammates in future games. And yet her name does not appear enough in the history of UK sport. She should be a household name.

Thanks to this post on Ethel Scott for some of the key information for today’s post. Here’s a brief post about Ethel Scott in the Black Plaque Project.

Poetry Challenge

In the spirt of passing the baton, today’s poetry challenge is all about picking up a line from somewhere else – your favourite song, another poem, the opening line of a novel – and creatively running with it.

There are many ways of going about this. Perhaps the most well-known contemporary example of this is ‘The Golden Shovel’ form, coined by the American poet Terrance Hayes in his poem of the same name. Hayes takes ‘We Real Cool’ by the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and effectively spells out each word of the original in the final word of each line of his new piece. So…

We Real Cool 


               The Pool Players.
        Seven at the Golden Shovel.


            We real cool. We   
            Left school. We

            Lurk late. We
            Strike straight. We

            Sing sin. We   
            Thin gin. We

            Jazz June. We   
            Die soon.

Becomes..

The Golden Shovel

after Gwendolyn Brooks

I. 1981
 
When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
 
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
 
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
 
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk
 
of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we
 
watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight
 
Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing

This is just an extract of Hayes’s remarkable poem. I urge you to read the whole thing here. What he achieves in this complex piece is not an erasure of Brook’s vibrant original, but a tribute and an extension of it. ‘The Golden Shovel’ is a form of translation. It is also a carrying on the conversation, as the lines of the Pool Players in ‘We Real Cool’ are picked up and carried into the new century.

In many ways, this poetry project is trying to do exactly the same thing.

If you want to attempt your own version of The Golden Shovel technique with a line of your choosing then go for it!

However, as a shorter, alternative option, here’s another way you can run the poetry relay: take your line from your chosen poem, song, novel, short story etc. and make it the first line of your poem today. See where it leads you!

Click here to catch up on yesterday’s 800m event and learn about why women were not allowed to compete in many International long distance events for 30 years

Writing Between the Lines Poetry Challenge: Event 4. The 800m.

It’s event 4 of the Writing Between the Lines poetry challenge. How’s the cramp?

Today we’re going to think about the 800m – one of the most surprisingly controversial events in women’s track and field. Did you know that after the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, women were not able to compete in the 800m until 1960? It is astonishing to think that the consequences of one race would go on to block women’s access to any Olympic competition longer than 200m for the next 32 years. And yet it was completely mis-reported. As Roger Robinson sets out in his Runners World article on the race and its aftermath:

It’s one of those stories that gets told over and over. When the women’s 800 meters was included in the Olympic Games for the first time at Amsterdam in 1928, several runners collapsed at the finish. Shocked at the public spectacle of women in such distress, the all-male Olympic establishment cut the event.

Some eyewitness versions give even more dramatic accounts.

“Below us on the cinder path were 11 wretched women, 5 of whom dropped out before the finish, while 5 collapsed after reaching the tape,” wrote John Tunis of the New York Evening Post.

Other newspapers preached that women would be desexed and their reproductive capability impaired by such “terrible exhaustion.” England’s Daily Mail affirmed that women who raced longer than 200 meters would age prematurely.

Roger Robinson, “Eleven Wretched Women”

Except that none of this was true.

In fact, of the nine (not twelve) women who reached the final, all completed the race, with Lina (Karoline) Radke-Batschauer (Germany), Kinue Hitomi (Japan)and Inga Gentzel (Sweden) all coming in under the previous World Record (along with three others).

Lina Radke and Kinue Hitomi, 1928

After they crossed the finish line, the athletes lay on the floor or were bent double to catch their breath – so far, so normal. The idea that falling to the floor and breathing hard after a tough race might be reported as “terrible exhaustion” and proof that long distance running “should be taken off any future program” because “it is obviously beyond women’s powers of endurance, and can only be injurious to them” says a great deal about the environment that Alice Milliat and the athletes of 1921 were competing within.

So too do the comments of Baron Pierre de Courbetin, the founder and president of the IOC, and a contemporary of Alice Milliat and the athletes:

An Olympiad with females would be impractical, uninteresting , unaesthetic and improper.’

Courbetin, 1922

Here’s another remark from Courbetin, which again provides a great deal of insight into just how bold and vital the 1921 Women’s Olympiad really was:

‘Whereas for men’s sport, the vast majority is there to watch the sport so that the lowest of the low in the crowd can be ignored, it will always be different for women’s sport . … There is nothing to learn by watching them; also, those who assemble in this goal do so for reasons having little to do with sport’.

 Pierre de Coubertin, Pédagogie Sportive, 1922.

With statements like this from the founder of the IOC, it’s easy to see why many of the achievements of the 1921 athletes and organisers have passed relatively unseen in the 100 years since. Even some of the historical reporting of the 1928 Olympics, which unintentionally portrays women’s track and field as a brand new phenomenon, misses out the fact that women had been successfully competing in middle and long distances, and breaking world records, for years. For instance in the 1921 Women’s Olympiad.

Not only has women’s sport been mis-reported. It has been erased too.

The 1921 800m

Before internationally renowned athletes were being excluded from their sport on the grounds of their supposed fragility, Mary Lines and France’s Lucie Bréard were battling it out for the 800m gold.

In the end, Bréard clinched it in 2.30,1, beating Mary Lines by two seconds. Suzanne Porte (France) got the bronze. Here she is celebrating her win. The fact that she was able to do this in what look like slip on loafers and a belt is even more impressive!

Bréard would go on to break the world record for the 1000m in subsequent Women’s World Games, whereas Mary Lines focussed more on the 250m, relay, and jumping events in her future games. But both’s involvement in the 1921 800m race – dressed in their various team uniforms of long shorts, tights, leather belts, plimsols, buckled shoes and berets, with added pearl earrings, chains and hair bows – offer the vivid and wonderful proof of a very different version of the ‘wretched women’ described by the New York Evening Post in 1928.

Poetry Challenge

Taking Courbetin’s notion of ‘impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and improper‘ women as initial inspiration, today’s challenge is all about the clothes we wear when we exercise.

I am fascinated by the team uniforms and footwear of the 1921 athletes – from long skirts to smock dresses, to tights and plimsols, to berets, headscarves and brogues with a slight heel – Monte Carlo has such a wonderful variety of active wear.

For today’s challenge, write a poem about your own active wear. Choose one key item – that might be trainers, sports bras, lycra shorts, jogging bottoms – and write a short history of the different iterations that you’ve owned.

For instance, if you were to choose trainers, you might start by describing the first pair you remember, and how you felt in them. Then you might move on to your teenage trainers, and how you wore them (did you draw on them? Did you change the laces?), before finishing with a more contemporary pair. Really focus on describing your chosen item of clothing in forensic detail. And access all of your senses – how did they look? what was their texture? how did they smell? What sound did they make as they hit the pavement?

If you’re looking for inspiration, here’s an excerpt from ‘Investigation of Past Shoes’ by Vahni Capildeo. This is one of my favourite poems, and a piece I always share with my creative writing students.

Capildeo shows how clothes can tell a story, and how our evolving relationship with a chosen item can speak volumes about so much more than simply the thing itself. The mode of ‘investigation’ – prose-ish, sub-headings, a sparsity of ‘I’, close forensic description – is also striking because of how moving it is. It’s a lovely example of how it is not necessary to spell out the emotional ‘point[s]’ of what you are writing. The reader can find and create them in the spaces between the images that the words create.

Investigation of Past Shoes

INSIDE THE GATEWAY: 1970S RED CLOGS WITH SIDE BUCKLE
 

The forever shoe,  which  points  homewards,  belongs to  my  mother.
When our house was  being built, she stepped onto the  driveway while
the tarmac was still wet, still setting. Ever since that step, the driveway,
which slants upwards,  bears an imprint of her 1971 footwear. Her foot-
print says,  Climb!  Come with me.  Whoever steps into that impression
becomes,  for a moment, the leggy wearer of a fire-red clog with a pirat-
ical silver buckle on the side.

OUTSIDE THE TEMPLE: GOLD AND SILVER SANDALS

The  sandals  which  will  make  a  female of me belong to many women.
The   front  of  the  temple  entrance  hides itself behind shoe-racks. Vis-
itors   enter  barefooted,  leaving   behind  the  dung,  dried frogs, spilled
petrol  and  ketchup  traces  of  the  streets.  Hundreds  of  pairs  of  gold
and  silver  sandals wait  here  for  the  women  who will re-emerge from
the  vigil  with  the  taste of  basil  leaf and sugar in  their deep-breathing
mouths  and  carpet  fibres between  their  toes ...

Happy writing!

To catch up on yesterday’s event:

250m

Writing Between The Lines Poetry Challenge: Event 3 – 250m

Usually run over a curving track, the 250m demands that its runners think about their turn as well as their speed. Taking the bend requires that you adjust your style, re-balance and then regain the momentum. And don’t forget to stay in your lane!

The 250m race was won by Mary Lines, the star of the English team and the Regent Street Polytechnic. Lines would go on to achieve three 1st prizes and one 2nd  at the 1921 Games. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes her as “[t]he first star of British women’s athletics between the wars”.

Mary Lines

That this ‘star’ would fade from the official narrative and history of UK sport, and would never appear alongside the names of The Polytechnic Harriers and male cricket stars engraved on the Studd Trophy and mounted on the wall of Westminster’s 309 Regent Street, is the reason that Writing Between the Lines first came into being. Her story demands to be (re)written.

As for adding her name to those celebrated already, Guy Osborn has been busy taking care of that:

He’s an extract from his own blog, Dispatches from the Frontline of Law and Popular Culture:

Our foyer is a beautiful space but there is a further specific absence. If you look carefully in the room there are three plinths, on two on the ‘Gallery’ side you will see busts, of Hogg and Studd, very important figures in our history …

Above the entrance to the cinema on the other side there is a third plinth, but this has been empty for years Drawing on the concept of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square we mark the centenary of the 1921 successes of our Polytechnic women at the Womens’ Olympiad by recognising Mary Lines, on behalf of all Polytechnic women, on the third plinth in the Regent Street foyer. This will be lit on 21 March 2021 to mark the centenary of the departure from Victoria station and remain lit for the period of the competition and until the centenary of their return.

Guy Osborn

The Poetry Challenge: Celebration

My first instinct for the 250m challenge was a sonnet. Both are still relatively short, but involve a vital turn (or volta) that demands a different sort of balance. However, while I was planning this out, I thought instead about Mary Lines and the (previously) empty third plinth, and what a privilege it is to be able to use research and writing to help to shed new light on this previously under-appreciated athlete.

So in honour of Mary Lines and the third plinth, today’s poetry challenge is all about celebrating someone who doesn’t receive the credit they deserve…but feel free to do this challenge as a sonnet too!

Inspiration

In his gorgeous poem ‘Unsung’, Kei Miller ‘sings’ the quiet, everyday praises of his father:

There should be a song for the man who does not sing

himself – who has lifted a woman from her bed to a wheelchair

each morning, and from a wheelchair to her bed each night;

a song for the man recognized by all the pharmacists, because

each day he has joined a line, inched forward with a prescription

for his ailing wife; there should be a song for this man

who has not sung himself ...
Kei Miller reads ‘Unsung’

The poem offers up the actions of love and care as a way of showing the reader more about the ‘man who does not sing himself’ than any list of qualities could.

For your own poem, choose someone you admire – sporting, historical or relative – and celebrate them!

Tip: Try and focus on representative actions rather than attributes. If you look at the extract from ‘Unsung’, you’ll notice that Miller never directly tells us of his father’s patience, kindness and love. Instead, he shows us by listing his daily tasks. If you’re struggling, make a list of the things that you admire about your chosen subject, and then ‘translate’ each of these into a single event or action.

Happy writing.

To catch up on previous poetry challenges and learn more about the project…

Day One: 60m sprint

Day Two: Shot Put

About the Westminster archives and the project to celebrate the athletes of 1921

About the Writing Between the Lines creative project

Or get in touch on here if you’d like to find out more.

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.

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

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…