This has been a week full of terriers – literally. I’ve had my sister’s three terriers, Sox, Buffy and Eddie to stay. Added to my two Border Terriers Miles and Lola that makes five excitable dogs in the house. At first I was planning on walking them in two groups but pressures of time put paid to that and I just took them all out together in the end. Luckily they are all friendly with other dogs and have a good recall so I could just let them loose in the woods and fields across the road from my house.
This has been a good week for getting poetry and PhD work done, despite having five terriers and more visits from workmen to finally finish the kitchen off. I’ve got a lot more reading done and haven’t felt guilty at all about sitting around in my pyjamas! I think I’ve got my head around the fact that the reading I’m doing will eventually pull together to form a PhD. I also got the date for my ‘mock viva’ which will be towards the end of February. I thought I would be really nervous about it, but I’m actually looking forward to it, and the chance to discuss what I’m doing and what I’ve been working on. It’s a very strange feeling, to not be feeling anxious – maybe I really have turned a corner with the PhD.
I’ve also been to two poetry groups this week, Barrow Writers on Tuesday and Brewery Poets on Friday, which meant I’ve had to stop dithering and finally get two poems which have been sitting ‘cooking’ in my notebook typed up and ready for feedback. Thursday was my first day back at MMU this year teaching on a different undergraduate module this time, a Creative Writing unit. I really enjoyed the teaching and some of the students have already sent in poems they wrote during the session. Even when I’m teaching I can tell now that all the reading I’ve been doing is paying off – bits of knowledge are linking up to other bits of knowledge.
On Saturday Chris and I drove over to Hebden Bridge for a 75th birthday party for Tony Ward, the publisher of Arc. I met Tony at a festival in Ireland and we hit it off straight away – as I’m sure anyone who knows him will testify, Tony is great fun to hang out with. I also got to see the lovely Amanda Dalton as well who is also good fun to spend time with, probably too much as we got a bit hysterical at one point in the proceedings. We drove back home quite late at night, got back at 1am and then I was up at 7 to finish packing to go away for a week.
I had two poetry critiquing groups to go to this week – Barrow Writers on Tuesday and Brewery Poets on Friday, which meant I had to stop dithering and get two poems ready for feedback. On Thursday I did my first day of teaching at MMU on a undergraduate module called Language and Technique which is a creative writing module. I really enjoyed the teaching – we looked at Curse poems this week and then I set them an exercise to write their own. Some of the students have already sent me their poems that they started in the session. I’m teaching this unit alongside Helen Mort who has been her usual lovely self in getting me up to speed with everything. I can also tell that all of the reading I’m doing for the PhD, and all the reading I did for the Approaches to Poetry course last year is really paying off – it feels like my brain is knitting together over previous gaps of knowledge! There are obviously still plenty of gaps to be filled in of course, but that’s the great thing about reading isn’t it, there’s always more to do!
I’m writing this on the train from London down to St Ives, in Cornwall. I’m going on a writing retreat down there with some friends – Katie Hale, Holly Hopkins, Hilda Sheehan and Emily Hasler. I’m hoping to try and take stock of where I am with my next collection, write a few new poems, work on some drafts of poems that have been waiting to be typed up, and of course get some runs in along the coastal path. I can’t wait to not have to do any cooking! Last night I spent the night in London at the TS Eliot prize giving. I went a couple of years ago and loved it, but I’d kind of forgotten how exciting it is. I really like the format of the readings as well – I like that the prize is actually announced tomorrow, and that the Sunday night is just about the poetry and the poets.
I haven’t read many of the books on the shortlist – I’ve actually only read Michael Symmons Roberts and Tara Bergin’s all the way through and really enjoyed them both. Jacqueline Saphra’s reading was very moving – she was obviously delighted to be up there, and the warmth from the audience towards her and Nine Arches Press was really lovely. Ocean Vuong was giving out lavender to people as he was signing books – but I spent too long talking and missed my opportuity. Katie got some lavender but by the time we got home it had disintegrated and was just a twig in her bag! I really loved Robert Minhinnick’s poems that he read – out of the books I hadn’t read, that is the one I want to read first.
So now we are just south of Reading and speeding towards St Ives. It’s raining and grey and miserable but I am still on a bit of a poetry high from last night. The second January poem this month comes from another brilliant collection – Robert Wrigley’s new book Box. I saw Robert Wrigley read at Aldeburgh a few years ago and loved his poetry but was too shy to go and speak to him. I got permission to post one of his poems from his Bloodaxe collection The Church of Omnivorous Light on the blog which you can find here and we’ve stayed in touch via Facebook since then. We swapped books over Christmas and I was delighted to find Robert has a ‘My People’ poem as well, as the first poem in his collection.
Robert Wrigley is the author of ten collections of poetry, including,most recently, Anatomy of Melancholy and Other Poems (Penguin 2013), which won a 2014 Pacific Northwest Book Award. His earlier books have been awarded the Kingsley Tufts Award, the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Award, and the Poets Prize. A University Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho, he lives in the woods near Moscow, Idaho, with his wife, the writer Kim Barnes.
Along with Christina Thatcher’s book which I talked about last week, Box is one of my favourite collections I’ve read for a while. It’s full of animals and transformations and an engagement not just with the natural world and its inhabitants but also a love of reading and engagement with other writers. One of my favourite poems is ‘Blessed are’ which observes ravens attending to the corpse of a deer, but then the poem follows what happens to the skull as the year progresses and ‘the snows bury it’ until spring when it becomes ‘a blessing for blowflies’ until the speaker retrieves the skull and hangs it up where it will be ‘filled with the thoughts of yellowjackets’. Another one of my favourite poems is called ‘Brother to Jackdaws’ where the speaker transforms from a man wanting to be a jackdaw, to the speaker being a jackdaw.
I asked Robert if I could post ‘Ecology’ because I’ve been reading A LOT of academic writing this week around modes of address in lyric poetry. Well, I’ve been reading a lot of Jonathan Culler and what he has to say about modes of address. Sadly I can’t quote any of it as I am trapped at my table on the train and can’t get to my bag with my notebook in, but one of the things I remember is that he says that direct address to the audience or reader is actually relatively rare in lyric poetry, that usually the poet will be addressing someone or something else in the poem (a beloved or an animal or inanimate object) and the audience are only indirectly addressed. There are obviously exceptions to this rule, but they are not as common. He calls this ‘triangulated address’ which Ithink is a great term and I quite enjoy saying the word ‘triangulated’.
So in one sense you could think of ‘Ecology’ as a rare example of a lyric poem that directly addresses the reader. The imperative of ‘Study’ runs all the way through. The things that we as reader or audience are being told to study are not the things one expects to study. This is perhaps the study that a poet should make, with lines like ‘Study wind as well. We will never know/what it desires beyond the elsewhere it is going’ and ‘Study the heart, which should not be seen/but heard’. I love the word ‘study’ as well and how it encompasses explore, and examine, and look, and maybe even describe and watch and pay attention to.
Of course the slippery thing about lyric poetry is its strange balance between public and private discourse, and to say that this poem is a direct address to the reader or audience, a forward facing imperative that instructs us to look, to be present in the world, ignores the fact that this poem is also turned in on itself. It has two faces, one turned outward towards us, and one turned inward, towards the self. It could equally be directed or addressed to the poet-self. Maybe it is addressed to both.
I plan to read this poem every morning in St Ives to get me in the mood for writing, for paying attention, for listening to the heart, ‘which should not be seen/but heard.’
Thanks to Robert Wrigley for letting me use another of his poems on the blog. If you’d like to order Box you can do so here.
Ecology – Robert Wrigley
Study the muddy house, the salmon
gutting it out through glacial till.
Study the heart, which should not be seen
but heard. Study the tree that is the child
and the ink that makes an octopus invisible.
Epistemologies of silence and blindness,
suffering of common stones, the soul
with its hardened, scaly, ineveitable callus:
study them by coyote light, buffalo magnification.
Study the imperatives of rain and snow
at the whim and fancy of the wind.
Study wind as well. We will never know
what it desires beyond the elsewhere it is going.
Study elsewhere, the geography of strange beds
and topographies of lips, the glowing,
enormous, indefatigable possibilities of red.
The sky, which is the mother of all rivers,
must be studied, as must the river of all mothers,
those oceans of spirit, the wells of unbelievers,
days like buckets full, arriving one after another
in the absence of an invisible engineer.
Study the balusters and balustrades, wall studs
of sedimentary stone, the skin, the downiest hair.
Study spring grass, the planetary grave, the blood-fed
soil of the body farm, the pentagrammatic arm.
Study the cuticle and free margin parentheses enclosing
pink implications, the vast concupiscent charms
of the toes, the sleepy eye’s slow closing.
In such time as you are given, study the house
within the house within the house you love in.
Know of it such portion as you are allowed,
and return to it to die, like a salmon.