Sunday Poem – Heidi Williamson

trumpet bag

This is a photo of my triple gig bag, which is now 15 years old.  I bought this bag in my first year at music college.  Sometimes it did have three trumpets in, my Bb, my D/Eb trumpet and a cornet, but most of the time it had one trumpet and then various mutes and music and a metronome and a tuner and my purse and maybe a couple of changes of clothes, a spare pair of shoes, in case I stayed out at a friends or went to the pub straight after work.  When my dad fell thirty feet from a scaffold when I was about 21, one of my teachers came to fetch me from the lecture I was in, and I got straight on a train from Leeds to Leicester with this bag, which happened to have enough clothes to last me for a few days.

I haven’t used this gig bag for years – in fact I lent it to one of my pupils to test it out before he bought himself a triple gig bag, but this week I’ve been playing in a show for the first time in years and I remembered the bag, searched the house for it, remembered I’d lent it to someone, got it back and voila! Here it is, in all its glory.  I’ve been trotting round Barrow with it this week, filling it with clothes and music and my trumpet, just like the old days, except without the terrible hangovers and having to catch a bus with it.

Abbey Musical Society’s production this year was ‘White Christmas’ so I’ve been playing in that all week.  It has been good fun, but I’ve been exhausted! I’m usually not in bed before midnight, but this week I’ve been getting home at 10.30pm and going straight to sleep.  I can’t remember trumpet playing being that tiring!

I should introduce you all to my new carpet- inspired by John Foggin’s own stripey carpet on his stairs.

Despite feeling kanckered at the end of the show, I’ve felt pretty good for the rest of the week and have managed to get a long run in again this week – 12 miles on Thursday and today the husband and I went running up on the fells.  It was all going great until we ended up going down what I call a cliff.  The map and the husband insisted it was a path, but there was no path to be seen, just mud and gorse brushes and scree and it was so steep, we were basically climbing down, if we weren’t sliding down.  I pointed out that the husbands walks/runs often turn into these epic adventures but he is in denial.  I can write this safely as I know he doesn’t read my blog!

On Friday I had my next Read Regional event in South Elmsall Library in Wakefield.  The staff were lovely and I gave a reading to a book group there, and then drove back as quickly as I could to get back for the show in the evening.

The other thing that has preoccupied my time this week  is an application for something that I really want to do.  It has taken every spare minute I’ve had to put this together, and I’ve been obsessing about it all week.  I don’t want to say too much about it at the minute for various reasons.  It has been a bit stressful pulling this application together but the lovely thing is that it has made me realise how many amazing friends I have who have helped me with it, read through my application, written references for me,talked to me on the phone and stopped me panicking.  Another lovely thing is that through writing the application, I’ve had to really think about what I want to do next, and how I’m going to do it, and that is definitely a good thing for me, as I find it hard to admit to myself, let alone anybody else what I want.

Today’s Sunday Poem is by Heidi Williamson, who has featured on this blog before, in 2013, with a poem from her first collection, which you can find here.  I was slow on the uptake last time, as her first collection came out in 2011, but I didn’t feature a poem on here until 2013.  I don’t make the same mistake twice however, or not very often anyway.  This week’s Sunday Poem comes from Heidi’s new collection The Print Museum, which is officially published on the 24th March by Bloodaxe.  I managed to get my hands on an advance copy however and read it in one go in one of my early morning readings.  It is a fantastic book and I really would recommend it.

As many of you may know already, I’m currently running an online course for The Poetry School called ‘What Work Is’.  We’ve been looking over the last eight weeks at various poems about work and the poems in this book would have been perfect for many of the assignments. I’m running the course again as a face to face course in Manchester in the summer term, so I’ll definitely be using some of these poems then.

Heidi Williamson is the daughter of a printer, and this knowledge obviously comes through in the book – the poems ring true, and the collection is, of course about printing, the art and the industry of it, but it is also about work and the place it has in our lives, it is about family, about how things are learnt and passed down, how we communicate.  It is about the body.  There is a beautiful poem that I wish I’d written called ‘My Father’s Hands’.  It is about how things change.

I’ve chosen ‘Letterpress’ because I love the tone of it – I like the imperative, the no-nonsense feel of it.

Letterpress – Heidi Williamson

>>>> A print is properly a dent on the page.
>>>>The whole history of letterpress
>>>>is the abolition of that dent.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Eric Gill

Your first challenge is how to read
upside down and left to right.
When you’ve mastered this, compose
your chosen letters on the stick.
Don’t fret at impenetrable text:
your fingers are pure muscle memory,
their movements to and from the case
will let you know what’s out of place.
Employ your shooting stick and mallet
to add leading strips and knurled
furniture to make a page.  Lock it
tight to form a chase.  Then place
your caged lead in its letterpress bed.
Next, the ink: essentially as Caxton used.
It quakes gelatinously.  You want it even,
but know its greasy mass responds
to its surroundings.  On certain days,
you need to roll it out repeatedly.
There’s peace in doing this,
though deadlines may be ticking.
You need it tacky and malleable.
Now, make ready.  This takes time,
as the type is worn: certain letters
take a beating.  Twists of paper, tissue…
use anything to build an even surface.
Prove until you have the perfect print.
Check for literals, the spread of ink,
then set it going, hell for leather.
Mind out the flying fingers flinging
paper in and out.  You mustn’t rest.
The ink will lesson, the type will stress.
You’re alert for tiny variations
creeping in.  A certain tolerance,
then you have to intervene.
Stop everything.  Begin again.
Remember, it’s impossible to render
the same way twice.  But you’re no
wet-behind-the-ears apprentice,
running off for stripy ink and a long
weight.  By the time the run is done,
you’ll be covered in ink and sweat,
cuts, bruises, burns and scars.
Your ears will sing with pain,
your lungs retain microscopic
remnants of paper, metal, chemicals.
Your back will creak, your knuckles
crack, your eyes will strain
from too much looking.
Remember too, that it takes time,
after.  To diss the type back
in its case, clean down machines,
yourself, your space. Unmaking
takes almost as long as creating.
Each element of every day
will take your mind, your body
and enduring soul to complete.
And if you do your job just so,
they’ll be no sign of you at all
in any sleekly finished sheet.

I love the physicality of this poem – the physical details keep piling one on top of another.  I wouldn’t have thought, until reading this poem that printing was a particularly physical job, but this shows how much I know – ‘By the time the run is done/you’ll be covered in ink and sweat,/cuts, bruises, burns and scars’.  What a great way of describing tinnitis as well – ‘Your ears will sing with pain’.

After my week spent waking my trumpet brain up again, and slowly remembering all the things I used to be able to do, reading the line near the beginning of the poem about the ‘muscle memory’ of fingers made me smile.

I also really like all the language in this poem that comes from the world of printing – the shooting stick, the mallet, the chase.  Heidi has a useful glossary in the back of the book – a shooting stick is a ‘Tool of metal or wood used to tighten the wooden quoins that secure the forme’.  A ‘chase’ is a ‘Frame holding type and furniture together while they’re printed’.  I don’t think you need to know what these things are though to enjoy the poem.  I didn’t realise there was a glossary at the back, the first time I read through the poems, so I just let the words I didn’t understand just wash over me.

I did take myself off to Wikipedia to discover that the Caxton referred to in the poem is William Caxton, credited with printing the first book in English after visiting Cologne and seeing the German printing industry.  The fact that the poem tells us that ink is ‘essentially the same as Caxton used’ is really interesting, as Caxton printed his first book in 1473.

I love the details in this poem as well ‘certain letters/take a beating’ and I can almost hear the letterpress in the line ‘then set it going, hell for leather’. And I love the wisdom of ‘Unmaking/takes almost as long as creating’.  Sometimes I feel like that if I have had a day of writing.  It feels like I’ve been swimming along underwater, and then coming back up to the normal world, and having to go shopping, or wash up or speak to somebody feels like a wrench. Maybe it is not the same, but there is something in that line, which fits with what you do when you create something, to get yourself back in a fit state to be in the world.

You can order Heidi Williamson’s new collection ‘The Print Museum’ from Bloodaxe from the 24th March onwards.  Her first, ‘Electric Shadow’ (Bloodaxe, 2011) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Poetry. She works as a mentor, tutor, and writing coach for organisations including Writers’ Centre Norwich and The Poetry


1 comment on “Sunday Poem – Heidi Williamson

  1. Man! Carpet inspiration. There’s a new role. For the record, it was my partner Flo who hunted down the carpet for our stairs after seeing it on a shop staircase in Islington. Kim, it looks lovely ….I’ll tell Flo. xxxxxx

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