Sunday Poem – Ruby Robinson

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged – I’ve missed two Sundays in fact, due to being away from home and with limited internet, and even worse, no computer.  I couldn’t face trying to write a blog post on a phone so I decided to just give it a miss.  Having said that, I’m writing this at Stanza Poetry Festival, at my bed and breakfast, where although I have a computer, the internet keeps disappearing, so who knows if this blog post will ever be finished.

It feels like so much has happened since the last time I blogged, which I think was around the 12th February.  First of all I’ve had three full-on days at Stanza Poetry Festival, sharing a room with my friend Manon.  Manon and I met on the first residential poetry course that I ever went on, at Ty Newydd.  We worked out that this must have been about ten years ago now and we’ve been friends ever since.  We used to have a tradition of picking a poetry event to go to in a random part of the country, and then going out clubbing afterwards.  We haven’t done that for a while, but Saturday night, we did stay up till 2am with a few other poets, chatting in a whisky bar.

There have been lots of highlights at the festival and so many readings that I’ve enjoyed, but if I had to limit myself to two highlights it would be Katharine Towers and Vahni Capildeo.  I saw Katharine read on Sunday morning as I dragged myself to the venue at 11.30am on about five hours sleep and feeling very sorry for myself.  Katharine’s read from her new collection The Remedies.  It is beautifully lyric, quiet poetry, often very short but carefully observed and was the perfect hangover cure! It felt so different to what I’m writing at the moment – I feel like my own writing is getting longer and more narrative so it was great to see a different approach.  I’m looking forward to settling down with her collection and working my way through it.

Vahni Capildeo writes in a completely different way not just to the way I write, but I would say to the way everybody writes.  She is definitely ploughing her own furrow, and I can’t think of anybody else that is writing in a similar way to her at the moment.  A complete original, and although I admit I don’t understand all of her poetry, I don’t think understanding everything is entirely the point.  She gave a wonderful performance last night – very funny and at the same time managing to hold the audience spellbound for the whole 45 minutes/an hour.

During the festival, I also bumped into Gerry Cambridge, and got my subscriber and contributor copies of The Dark Horse.  I have two of my All The Men I Never Married sequence in there this time, which I’m very chuffed about.  I’ve now had two of these in Poetry Ireland Review, four in Poem and now two in The Dark Horse, so I feel like they’re slowly starting to make their way in the world.

So now to account for my near three-week absence.  My first missing weekend was spent at Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham.  I read there on the Friday evening, alongside Katrina Naomi and Mona Arshi, and then I ran a workshop on Saturday afternoon.  This was also a great festival, taking place in Waterstones in the city centre.  Many people have been commenting on social media on the diversity of the lineup at the festival, but as well as having this in its favour, there was a great atmosphere over the weekend.  I even managed to get out for a six mile run along the canal with the poet Matthew West.  Then on Sunday, I was reunited with David Tait, after not seeing him for nearly three years, met up with poet John Foggin, and we all headed off down to St Ives in John’s car, but with me driving.  David and I talked all the way down to St Ives, and John listened to a Terry Pratchett novel on his headphones and every now and then chortled away to himself.

David now lives in China, but was awarded a one month residency at The Wordsworth Trust, which he managed to coincide with coming to St Ives to be my co-tutor.  It was lovely to work with David again, and just to be able to catch up.

The hotel announced that they were going to make scones with jam and cream every afternoon for the course participants, which was rather exciting, as this was a ‘hidden extra’.  I’m hoping that this is a tradition that will continue next year.  I can report that I managed to eat a scone with jam and cream every day.  The course sold out – 16 people, and I think 12 of them had already been on a residential week with me before.  The wonderful poet Penelope Shuttle came to read as the guest poet – she is not only a fantastic poet, but is also a lovely person to talk to.

At the end of the course, John and I drove all the way back from St Ives to Birmingham, where I hopped on a train north, and we managed to talk all the way as well.   I got on the train at Birmingham and eventually got back home at about 8pm, completely shattered.

Just before I left for St Ives, I finally got the email to say that we’d been awarded full funding from the Arts Council towards Kendal Poetry Festival.  Pauline (my co-director of the festival) is currently on holiday in Australia, but I got a text through to her to tell her the good news and she promised me she was dancing round the room to celebrate.     

I had my first proper poetry tutorial as part of my PhD with Michael Symmons Roberts last Tuesday.  We looked at two poems and Michael straight away homed in on one area in each poem where I knew there was something that wasn’t quite right, but I didn’t know how to fix it – and nobody else had seemed to notice, so I just decided to ignore it.  So not only was it a brilliant tutorial because it made me realise I need to start listening to that voice in my head when it says ‘hmm are you sure about that’ but it was also a masterclass in how to edit a poem.  I came out really happy and excited about the prospect of the next three years and feeling like I’m really going to learn something about editing poetry that I can use in my own teaching, but that I’m also going to be challenging myself as a poet, which is a great place to be in.

This week, I’ve also started teaching my face-to-face poetry school course ‘Brief Encounters’ in Manchester.   There are ten people booked on this time, and it’s on a Thursday, which means I finish my university teaching and then have time to go to my favourite Thai restaurant, before heading down to teach the course.  I’m also currently teaching a feedback course for the Poetry School as an online course which I’m really enjoying.

I also found out one of my poems made the longlist of the National Poetry Competition, which was – I was going to say exciting, but I don’t think that’s the right word.  Maybe comforting is better – comforting that a new poem, written post-book, got as far as it did is good news.  I’ve also been nominated to apply for the Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellowship – which is a year’s worth of mentoring and a £15,000 bursary.  250 arts specialists were asked to nominate people to apply for this fellowship – sadly, I’m not eligible to apply, as I’m a full time student.  Still, it felt really lovely to be even in the running for it, and maybe my time will come round another year.

So on to the Sunday poem, by the fabulous Ruby Robinson, who I hoped to see read at Verve, but sadly I had to set off for St Ives before her reading.  I bought her book instead to compensate myself for missing out, as I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to get hold of it.  In fact, I’ve been waiting for her book to come out since I saw her poem ‘My Mother’ in an issue of Poetry Review a couple of years ago.

The poem I’ve chosen ‘Past’ kind of took my breath away when I first read it. I love the way it seems to start mid-sentence or mid-conversation, but I also like that the poem seems to be directly addressing the reader, as if we are part of that confession, as if we are the one being spoken to.  The form of the poem is great as well – and securely fastened to the content of the poem, set out a bit like a chess board, which gives some great line breaks (‘shooting up/with the other pawns/beside a black-lacquered castle’.

The idea of unpacking a cliché or worn out phrase is something that is often done in poetry, but I think it’s extremely hard to do it well.  The way this poem unpacks the familiar phrase of ‘a chequered past’ works really well as it swings from a visual image of a chess board and its chequered squares to the past like a ‘huge cloak’ or a ‘deep/hole you fall into sometimes’.

I also like the way the poem makes its own argument with complete conviction and uncertainty, all at the same time.  It felt like one of those poems that the poet had to write to work out what they thought, a poem that surprises you by the time you reach the end of writing it.  It’s one of those poems, or truths, that I wish I’d written or worked out, the way we carry our past with us, and the way it affects both the present and the future, that the past can be both ‘squares of light’ and ‘squares of something like a deep/hole you fall into sometimes’.

The poem comes from Ruby’s first collection Every Little Sound, published by Pavilion Poetry/Liverpool University Press. Ruby was born in Manchester and lives in Sheffield.  She studied English Literature at the University of East Anglia and has an MA from Sheffield Hallam University, where she also won the Ictus Prize for Poetry.  Her poems have appeared in The Poetry Review, Poetry (Chicago) and elsewhere.   Every Little Sound was shortlisted for the 2016 T.S Eliot Prize and the 2016 Forward Prize for Best First Collection.  If you’d like to order Ruby’s collection you can find it at

Hope you enjoy the poem, and thanks to Ruby for letting me post it here.

Past – Ruby Robinson

When I said chequered
I didn’t mean Alice in Wonderland
wandering on a massive chess board
mounting plastic horses, shooting up
///////////////with the other pawns
///////////////beside the black-lacquered castle.
///////////////I didn’t mean bars and grates
///////////////snatches of sunlight and third rate
exam papers or clouds of time
like an accidental watermark on the
‘story of my life’
I didn’t mean guilt or anything
////////////////to be guilty about.  I didn’t mean
////////////////an unhinged head, secrets and dark eyes
////////////////black eyes, shoplifting, addiction, assault
////////////////or any other crime.  I don’t know why I said it –
and landed behind me like a huge cloak,
squares of light and squares
of something like a deep
/////////////////hole you fall into sometimes
/////////////////on a dark night
/////////////////on your way back from the shop
////////////////or some bright miraculous party.

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