Sunday Poem – James Byrne

Diagnosis Inc. – James Byrne

You are two oranges shy of sangria
You chumpchange in a clackdish
You the flensed soldier, egg-runny on the inside
You frogging deadline after deadline
You caught in a Swiss chokehold
You feeding the duckboards of Venice
You the expert on television newswar
You at maximum voice
You at the squall above dead deerling
You the clarion-call of the id
You the barbaros of Juarez
You who want to wake up forever
You on page 65 in bubblegum PVC
You yelling at the meathook
You yet to make your wheelspin mark
You clapping at family stones
You who would rather be scalped standing
You as screw of the week
You eiderhanded as a spider
You in the stocks and wanting it more
You salted for planet jellyfish
You among the angels crisp as butcherpaper
You scissorless, cutting the line to ribbons
You the livid escarp
You the apostle of gutlove
You with a black and fraying candlestick
You hard to prove but terminally alluring
You an owl away from the topmost branch
You mad as a star
You who would shoot first

Today’s Sunday Poem is by James Byrne, who I met very briefly at Stanza in March this year, and then spent a lot of time with last weekend at the Winter Warmer Festival in Cork.  The poem comes from James’s second full length collection White Coins, published by Arc Publications, a fantastic publisher based in Hebden Bridge, publishing a small selection of English-speaking poets and a larger selection of translated poetry from all over the world.

James read this poem during his reading in Cork and that line ‘You mad as a star’ made me sit up.  I don’t know if anybody has this, hears a line of poetry that they know they will carry around with them forever,  Other examples? ‘I kill it because I can’ (from Jo Shapcott’s ‘Scorpion’) ‘I do not believe in silence’ (Clare Shaw’s poem of the same name) ‘Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me’ (Thomas Hardy) and ‘The woods decay, the woods decay and fall’ (Tennyson).  There are others but I don’t want to be here all night, and I want to talk about the rest of James’s poem.

I think the title is very interesting with the use of the word ‘diagnosis’.  The dictionary definition of this word is a) the identification of the nature of an illness or other problem by examination of the symptoms or b)  the distinctive characterization in precise terms of a genus, species, or phenomenon.

So, according to the title, we should believe that the poem is ‘diagnosing’ somebody – either what is wrong with them, or what exactly they are. To this end, it is a long list of descriptions which are detailed, colourful and full of imagery. At first I thought the poem was full of made up words – but when I google ‘chumpchange’ I find it is a ‘small and insignificant amount of money’ and a ‘clackdish’ is a ‘dish with a movable lid, formerly carried by beggars, who clacked the lid to attract notice’.  I liked the poem when I thought these words were made up but I like it even more now!

Each line is like a small box that you can unpack and extract more meaning from.  ‘You frogging deadline after deadline’ gave me an image of the ‘you’ managing to leap over or avoid deadlines, but then the next line ‘You caught in a Swiss chokehold’ gives the image of the ‘you’ being trapped or held down by somebody.  The poem is full of these contradictions, and in the slippery way that poems do, we are left with a sense of this person’s personality, but would never recognise them if we met them on the street.

James Byrne is a poet, editor, translator and Lecturer in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University.  Blood/Sugar was published by Arc Publications in 2009 and White Coins was published in 2015.  He is Editor of The Wolf, an internationally renowned poetry magazine.  He has c0-edited various anthologies, including Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century with Bloodaxe and Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets, published by Arc.  He is the International Editor for Arc Publications. Thanks to James for letting me publish this poem on the blog!

This week I’ve managed to have a couple of evenings where I’ve had nothing on which meant I could catch up with admin and emails.  I normally try and keep on top of emails as I go along, but after being ill a couple of weeks ago and then being away for over 7 days in the past month or so, it had become impossible.  So that has been one nice thing this week.

It hasn’t really been quiet though – I went to judge the Queen Katherine School Poetry Slam on Tuesday night – well I was one of the judges.  I was really excited by the talent and performances of the young poets.  When I was fifteen, I could barely walk into a room on my own and yet these young people are standing up and reading and reciting their poetry. They were so switched on and politically engaged in a way I found really surprising – these are teenagers who care passionately about gender equality, refugees, going to war – and the poems were really good – exploring these subjects in memorable ways.  The eventual winner of the slam was one of my young writers – hurrah! I should hasten to add that there was no possibility of me being able to vote and get my young writers through, even if I’d wanted to  – there were four other judges and ten randomly selected members of the audience.

On Friday I had a lovely session with the young writers where we talked about everyday feminism and how we ‘minimise’ outrageous and sexist things that are said to us as women.  They all had shocking stories of things that have already happened to them and I read them a poem that I’ve recently written about a rather creepy taxi driver who decided to inform me that ‘all artists are crazy in bed’.  They wrote some fantastic poems about their experiences – and I’m really pleased they are aware of these things already.

I then drove like a madwoman straight from Kendal to get to Leeds where I was reading at WordClub at The Chemic Tavern.  Mark Connors was hosting and there were ten open mic slots, pre-chosen who were really entertaining.  There were lots of friendly faces in the crowd, poets that I met through David Tait and through performing at Poetry By Heart in Headingley over the years. It was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me as I lived just round the corner when I was a music student in Leeds. Helen Mort was the other reader and it was great to hear some of her new poems, as well as old favourites from her collection Division Street.

Clare Shaw offered to put me up for the night in Hebden Bridge, so I then drove to her house and met her two lovely pet rats, whose names I can’t remember.  I didn’t expect to like them, not being a particular fan of rodents, but they are very cute.  One of them has a little snuffle and she climbed onto my leg a few times, as if I was just there for her convenience, which in her world I was.

I went to see Tony and Angela at Arc Publications for a cup of tea and a biscuit after I left Clare’s, before making my way home.  I met Tony and Angela last week in Cork and we got on really well.  The problem is I could sit and talk to them all day and then I wouldn’t get anything done!

I went for a rather windy run today and then I’ve spent the whole day working on poems.  I haven’t written any new ones, but I have been editing and re-drafting and trying to push the poems that I’ve started a little bit further.  I feel like I’m getting back into my stride with writing now.  Tomorrow I’m running in the morning and conducting the junior band in the evening, but I’m hoping to get some more writing done in between those things.

My other project that I’ve been working on is putting on a series of monthly workshops in Barrow in Furness.  Barrow is very isolated, and I want to build up a bigger community of poets here.  I know there are a few poets like Kate Davis and Jennifer Copley who live in Barrow, but they are already very experienced writers.  I want to create a workshop for people that might not have written any poetry before.  I’ve got the next two workshop dates for January and February already booked, so if you know of anyone who might be interested in attending a writing workshop and is within travelling distance of Barrow, do send them my way! There is a group page for the workshops on Facebook – it’s called (rather inventively) Barrow Poetry Workshops.



2 comments on “Sunday Poem – James Byrne

  1. Hello Kim

    We met a few times recently, in Kendal and at the Mortal Man. I couldn’t make your recent Barrow workshop but would like to be kept informed of future events.

    I go to The Mortal Man every Thursday and we have had some discussions of late, about possibly hosting an event at the Mortal Man. Would you be interested in involving yourself somehow? Actually to start with you could offer your personal opinion as to what kind of event might serve the needs of the area, a competition, a ‘slam’ a performance poetry event? I’m sure you have ideas about all of these and I would like to know them.

    Kate at The Mortal man would like to develop her ‘Spoken Word’ evening and the website. Her Mortal man website presently has very little information to attract people, no pictures, no videos of recitations. If an event is planned there I will be trying to record audio/video (with peoples’ permission) so that her web can be developed a little.

    We could chat on the telephone or, if you plan to be in Kendal/Windermere/Troutbeck area at all during the coming weeks let me know and perhaps we can meet to cahta about these ideas.

    (I get a little tired imagining your pace … not the running….. the travelling 🙂 )


    1. Hi Sean – sorry I haven’t replied until now. Would you be able to email me about this – might be easier to discuss there rather than on public page – my email address is on the contact page here on the blog. Looking forward to hearing from you

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