Sunday Poem – Penny Sharman

I’ve had one of the best half terms ever -the weather has been great all week, and although I had a couple of things on during the week, I wasn’t rushing around at my usual frantic pace.

My Poetry School course started this week.  The course is called ‘What Work Is’ and I ran an online version for The Poetry School last year which sold out, so I’m now running it face-to-face in Manchester.  The online course had 12 students and was pretty full-on.  The course in Manchester has six, and in the first session it was great to have the opportunity to work with a smaller group, with time to hear everybody’s poems.  I’m really looking forward to next week – the first hour will be writing exercises to generate new work, and the second hour will be a chance for the participants to bring work that they started in Session 1 for feedback from the group.

It takes me two and a half hours to get to Manchester on the train, which is a huge commitment, compared to the online courses where I can sit in my pyjamas at home and teach the course, but my plan is to use the time on the train to read and write.  When I was doing the MA and I went to Manchester once a week on the train, I used to get loads done, probably because being on a train forces me to sit still, which I usually have great difficulty with.

The journey to Manchester was great but the journey back went less smoothly.  A large group of young blokes got on the train at Lancaster with one woman and proceeded to shout and play music loudly.  As soon as they got on, I closed my notebook and put everything away, because I didn’t want them to notice it and start commenting on it.  I put my headphones in and tried to ignore them, although I started to feel more and more irritated by their behaviour.

When the young female train guard came to check their tickets, they started shouting ‘Nectar’ at her – I didn’t know exactly what it meant, although I made an educated guess.  I felt even angrier then – this woman was just trying to do her job and she had a group of 10 men shouting stuff down the train at her.  However, I still sat there.  There was nobody else in the carriage, and I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by standing up and moving.  Then they started saying they were going to ‘teabag’ the girl and take a photo, and I couldn’t stand it any more.  I packed my stuff up, and decided I would move carriages, and I would also tell the train guard and ask her to keep an eye on the girl, who was at that moment, asleep or passed out from drinking.

As soon as I got up and walked past them all, as predicted, they started shouting ‘Nectar’ at me.  I turned round and asked them if it was really necessary to shout things at every woman that walked down the train.  For a couple of seconds, silence fell, and they looked completely stunned.  I turned around to carry on walking and one of them shouted ‘Nectar’ again.  Then I really lost my temper and used a few choice swear words.  When I marched off after this exchange, one of them shouted ‘Feminist!’ which would have made me burst out laughing, if I hadn’t been shaking so much.

I’m thinking a lot about my reactions to this sort of behaviour, because this is the sort of thing I’m hoping to explore in my PhD.  I’ve been thinking a lot about my reactions to it in the past, my coping mechanisms – which are usually to ignore it, or laugh along.  I don’t think I’ve ever confronted it in such a blatant way.  It felt terrifying, and exhilarating.  Apparently when the train guard went down to check on the girl, who seemed fine, the group of blokes were all very polite and subdued.  So maybe it did them good.  Maybe they will think twice about behaving like that in the future – who knows.

I believe in the inherent goodness of most people and I’m sure those blokes are perfectly nice people, when they’re not drunk.  I’m sure most of them wouldn’t want to intimidate, humiliate or embarrass a woman or anybody.  I’m also sure that they didn’t shout things at me or the train guard with this intent – I don’t think they even thought about it in those terms.  So I’m determined to speak up a little bit more often – when I think it is safe, or when I can’t hold my tongue for fear of doing myself an injury.

I have a lot to learn as well.  The first thing that jumped into my head was ‘Who are their mothers – and how did they get to this age thinking this was an acceptable way to behave?’  Why did that jump into my head, rather than ‘Who are their fathers?’ or ‘Who are their parents?’. Someone pointed this out to me and we had (I think) a good conversation about it – I was shocked that I’d said this without even thinking, and joined in with blaming women for the behaviour of men.

Other things that have happened this week – lots of sitting in the garden in the sunshine.  I’ve spent at least two full days editing poems, and trying to get some ready to submit to a magazine.  I was trying to work out why this was so difficult – when I was just starting out, I was really good and efficient at getting poems ready and sending them.  I’ve worked out that back then, I sent all the poems I’d written out because I trusted that if an editor liked one they were good enough to be read. Now,I don’t think I trust magazine editors with this.  I want to make sure everything I send out, I’m happy with.  In other words, I don’t just want an editor to think it is a good poem.  I need to know it is a good poem.

So the editing has been fun, if frustrating.  I’ve also read quite a few poetry books this week – the highlight has to be a book by Carmin Buga, published by Arc, which I won’t say too much about, as I’ll be writing a review about it very soon.  I’ve been doing a bit of writing – whether the poems will come to anything yet, is too soon to say, but I’ve felt like I’ve been getting on with it.

I’ve also been running quite a bit – but I’ve really struggled in the heat.  Some people seem to be unaffected by the heat when they are running – they might find it uncomfortable, but they can run as fast as they usually can.  I’m completely wiped out by it – I did the Morecombe 10k today and finished in just over 49 minutes – way over my personal best of 46 minutes.  I wasn’t too disappointed though – I knew I would find it difficult in the heat, and I was part of the winning team for the Ladies Prize, so that was quite nice.

Here is today’s Sunday Poem by Penny Sharman.


Above the bed – Penny Sharman

I remember the young boy,
how he was able to levitate.
He said it was like holding on
to a balloon, airless, weightless,
as he floated up like a cobra
being played by flutes.
He rose to the ceiling
and hovered with thoughts
of being free from his body,
from his lungs that struggled
with breath. He could see himself
lying on the bed but the moon
and stars were calling him home.
I remember the young boy
telling how he let go of the
strings and fell to earth, how
it was only the hard walls
of his room that kept him
from flying, from flying away.

Penny was part of the group of friends that I went to visit a couple of weeks back when they were having a holiday in The Lake District, and she’s also been on the Poetry Carousel last year.

I was attracted to this poem straight away, because of the subject matter.  I used to do this as well! I also developed an extension to this game, where I would stare at the ceiling so hard and imagine the whole room turning upside down, so the ceiling became the floor, and the hanging light bulb would become a beautiful free standing lamp post.

I always like poems that explore the division between the self and the body, and I think this poem does that really well.  It not only explores the division, but also the thing that binds the body and the self together – I love the description of levitating being like ‘holding on to a balloon’

We don’t learn why the boy ‘struggles to breathe’. Is this a symptom of an illness which would explain why he wants to levitate from his body in the first place? I don’t mind not knowing.  I also like the description in the last verse, and that it is the ‘hard walls/of his room’ that keep him from flying away – not the speaker, or family, but something unarguably solid.

It is a very mysterious and surreal poem, which again, is probably why I liked it. Thanks to Penny Sharman for letting me use it!

Penny Sharman is currently completing an MA at Edge Hill University, and has recently had four poems published in Obsessed with Pipework.


2 comments on “Sunday Poem – Penny Sharman

  1. Well done for challenging the behaviour on the train – I think people often see behaviour in public space which they would like to challenge but it takes courage to actually do so. I enjoyed Penny’s poem. However, just a point about the language you use in response to it. The boy in the poem could, perhaps, be autistic and those of us who either are autistic ourselves or care for someone with an autistic spectrum condition prefer not to think in terms of ‘something wrong’ but something just ‘different’. There is also a move away from the language of ‘medical condition’, though I’m less bothered by that myself. I like the way that we can’t label the boy in Penny’s poem. In this it becomes universal and we can all float. There is a sense, perhaps, in which it continues the tradition of poems such as Walter de la Mare’s ‘Sea Boy’. Thank you for sharing 🙂

    1. Hi Elizabeth. Thanks for the feedback. I’m really glad you enjoyed Penny’s poem. I’ve had a reread and can see what you mean. I have changed the post now – I would never want to say someone with autism or anything else had ‘something wrong’ with them – this was referring to the trouble with breathing detailed in the poem but I can see I phrased it carelessly. Thanks again Kimx

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