“I like poetry in small doses!”

Stretford Library

I spent a windy Wednesday morning outside Stretford library handing out ‘Poem on Beyoncé’s Birthday’ from Morgan Parker‘s second collection There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Corsair, 2017). Another poem from this book, ‘So What’, was one of the first poems I gave out in Manchester almost a year ago.

I met one man who told me he liked poetry “in small doses” and another who asked me if I was promoting the poet (“yes I suppose but more like promoting the reading of poetry in general”) said it was “very civilised,” which I think he meant as a compliment!

I also met Jean, who said she likes poetry – especially Maya Angelou – but doesn’t read it that much these days. She told me she keeps a scrap book of poems she’s heard or found, that she is one day going to pass on to her son, who is a shadow puppeteer currently working on a shadow puppet performance with a local spoken word artist!

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Today is not actually Beyonce’s birthday, but one of the reasons I chose this poem was because I knew I was going to have some musicians on my show on ALL FM. Two students from the Royal Northern College of Music – soprano Vanessa Guinadi and (maybe) the only lutenist in Manchester, Sara Salloum – came in and played some Elizabethan tunes for me live in the studio.

Listen to Sara’s lute skills and Vanessa surprising me with her Beyoncé fan-knowledge:

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Poem on Beyoncé’s Birthday

Drinking cough syrup from a glass shaped
Like you body I wish was mine but as dark
As something in my mind telling me
I’m not woman enough for these days
Colored with reddish loathing
which feels, to me, more significant than sun
My existence keeps going
Ripple in other people’s mouths
Pools of privilege and worship
I want, I keep thinking
I am exclusively post-everything
Animals licking my chin, new leaves stretching
From a palm plant like a man’s greedy arms
Today your open eyes are two fresh buds
Anything could be waiting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When Rowan Met Annie

Somewhere along the Bridgewater Canal

Last year my friend sent me a little BBC clip of the Door-to-Door Poet saying ‘this looks right up your street’, and today I had him – otherwise known as Rowan McCabe  – on my show on ALL FM.

Currently knocking on the doors of Salford for a project about the Bridgewater Canal, I met up with him along the way and interviewed him on a bench. With the sound of birds and dogs and bikes whizzing past in the background, Rowan performed his opening gambit and one of the poems he’s written for a non-paying customer (his services are completely free). He also told me some of the stories he’s heard so far, including ice-skating to the pub and swimming rabbits…

Then we moved across to a pub where we met a Fentiman’s salesman named Pat who was equally disappointed about the pub being closed (it was 10:30AM). When we told him we were poets, he started talking about how we are all born, all die, and all we can do in the middle is do our best…

We talked about the poem ‘Torso of Air’ by Ocean Vuong, from Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Cape, 2017), which Rowan decided Pat would have loved.

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Torso of Air

Suppose you do change your life.
& the body is more than

a portion of night – sealed
with bruises. Suppose you woke

& found your shadow replaced
by a black wolf. The boy, beautiful

& gone. So you take the knife to the wall
instead. You carve & carve

until a coin of light appears
& you get to look in, at last,

on happiness. The eye
staring back from the other side –

waiting.

“Oh yea, that would be lovely!”

Stretford Library

This week I went back to Stretford and gave out the poem ‘Hyphen’ by Glyn Maxwell, from his first book Tale of the Mayor’s Son (Bloodaxe, 1990). I saw the same librarian (Zach) again who said he’d liked the last poem: “keep ’em coming – I’m always here!” I also gave poems to quite a few happy faces, including an old man in a bright yellow t-shirt: “I’ll ‘av a look at it, lovely”.

My guest on ALL FM was Morgan Williams, a recently retired baker, who had a lot of ideas about the poem. We reminisced about the 90s and the Noughties, and together we broke through the rational structure of the numbers to something much more mushy and real.

Hyphen

That the third digit
of the year I live in
will never be 7,
will never be 6,

occurs to me this
lengthening Friday,
makes me think of
tomorrow and someone –

The second digit
will be a dark 9
then a clear 0.
The first digit

has always been 1,
will always be 2,
makes me think of
tomorrow and someone

adding a year
to the end of a hyphen, then
breaking for lunch
in the brilliant sunshine.

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There are also a few radio shows that haven’t made it online until now because of technical difficulties!

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Last week I had Moss Side based artist Ekua Bayunu on my show to talk about her residency at this year’s Pankhurst in the Park, and the poem ‘Seawater Stiffens Cloth’ by Jane Hirshfield.

Ekua – coincidentally a cloth expert! – found this poem uncomfortable, and not just the awkward grammar!

Seawater Stiffens Cloth

Seawater stiffens cloth long after it’s dried.
As pain after it’s ended stays in the body:
A woman moves her hands oddly
because her grandfather passed through
a place he never spoke of. Making
instead the old jokes with angled fingers.
Call one thing another’s name long enough,
it will answer. Call pain seawater, tree, it will answer.
Call it a tree whose shape of branches happened.
Call what branching happened a man
who job it was to break fingers or lose his own.
Call fingers angled like branches what peel and cut apples,
to give to a girl who eats them in silence, looking.
Call her afterward tree, call her seawater angled by silence.

 

“Something to read on my break!”

Stretford Library

Opposite a huge main road, and the all seeing eye of Stretford Mall, the library stands tall and full of good books. It seemed quiet when we arrived, but lots of people came out of the woodwork, going in and out of the library for different group sessions. When I mentioned what I was doing to librarians, they told me to: “knock yourself out, love!”

The poem I chose this week was ‘Death says’ by Jack Underwood, from his debut collection Happiness (faber, 2015). I was slightly self-conscious of the title but confident that the poem is not as morbid as it sounds.

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I was assisted by Joël, who was a bit shy at first – asking people if they want to poem as if he was asking them if they…maybe…want to go for a drink with him? But then he got into it, wandering off down the road to catch people, always beaming “have a nice day!” at them after they took one.

He gave one to a young woman in a spotty dress, who came up to me after and asked if I was part of the “poem spamming club?” I said yes and she laughed, then a few seconds she came back and asked why I was doing this. I said I give a poem out every week in the hope I might give one to someone who has never got into poetry and didn’t know where to start. And she nodded knowingly and said it was “really great!”

We met lots of people who didn’t have time to stop, but were still happy to get a poem for when they had a spare moment. One passing man said: “go on, gi’z a poem then, it might make me smile!” Another woman stopped and read it as she finished her cigarette: “I like it – I haven’t finished yet – I’m very late!” And one of the librarians came out and took one: “something to read on my break!”

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Then we did a few quick translations before heading to Levenshulme, where Joël was the guest on my sixteenth show on ALL FM 96.9. He talked about his recent art projects, including one where he recorded non-French speakers reading out poems in bad French to imitate how he it felt attempting to communicate when he first came to Manchester from Alcase two years ago.

We talked about the Jack Underwood poem, which we decided was more about life than death, and wondered how big a part Harry Potter had to play in it all? Unfortunately we are still facing technical difficulties as ALL FM so the show will not be available online until next week, but here is some fudge for you in the meantime.

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Death says
Death says the atoms of men have already spent infinity
as part of something else and all your human fudge
is the passing of a thread through the surface of a light.
If you are made of thinking, then being is a breath between the slats,
which is why I itch your collar when a fly taps the pane.
I am your address, and the hand that delivers you through.
I am the socket love must plug itself into.
I am the lie that runs along your ribs, the gap between the rock
and the wet place you will make there for yourself.
You will know my hand by the back of your own.
I am talking to you now with the voice you read with inwardly,
private as the name you say to the bottom of a tall felt hat.

“What you selling?”

Huddersfield Library & Art Gallery

I spent a sunny afternoon in Huddersfield browsing the second hand market, and handing out the poem ‘Buffering 15%’ by Sam Riviere, from his first collection 81 Austeries (Faber, 2012).

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I was assisted by Harley, who braved the sun while I cowered in the shade in front of a big ‘TO LET’ sign. The library, opposite a big shopping centre, was unfortunately closed for the afternoon for staff training so we didn’t get to see inside. But at least a few people who turned up left with something to read anyway!

The first person I met was waiting for his wife, and said the poem seemed “like a random selection of images,” and wanted to find out how they were connected. Another woman asked me what it was about, and when I said I didn’t really know she laughed and seemed excited to take it away and figure it out for herself. One man said he didn’t have time to read because he was working: “give me a poem when I’ve got a beer!”

Then I met Joseph, who was defensive at at first, demanding to know what I was selling or promoting. When I told him I just wanted to give him a poem to read and see if he liked it, he told me he’d had an accident a few years ago and couldn’t work, and has just decided to start a creative writing course at The Writer’s Bureau to occupy himself. He’s also about to buy his first laptop and has promised to follow my blog when he does!

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My guest on ALL FM this week was Olivia Havercroft – the founder of two zines, Can You Hear Me Now and Murmur, who is currently writing a pHd on the psychological history of the environment. We left no stone unturned when discussing this busy poem, and using her knowledge of scary monks and my expertise in being a ‘remorseless self-publicist’ I think we may have got somewhere!

Unfortunately I couldn’t upload the show to Mixcloud yesterday, so you will have to wait until next week to hear what we thought. This gives you time to try and work the poem out for yourselves, and of course to catch up on past episodes!

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Buffering 15%

you aren’t thinking clearly as you enter the bank
on the day leslie nielson dies
the coldest december ‘in living memory’
mark’s badge reads
‘have a good time all the time’
maybe you should think about getting a motto
maybe you should think about painting the fridge blue again
maybe then you’d feel less like the shape of a person
suggested by the fall of light on a bookcase
you find you’re thinking a lot about your friend the monk
who won’t share with you his secret
to be sure he is a very complex gentleman
but hardly deep even if he can burn leaves
with nothing but the power of his mind
he is a remorseless self-publicist
maybe that’s his secret
or his secret is he doesn’t have one
he claims to remember where he buried
a live beetle in a matchbox
but afflicted as you are with awful memories
you’re not sure you believe him
filling out the paying-in slip is difficult
maybe you should stop growing your fingernails
“shhh” he went this morning
pretending to be listening

“That is a definite YES!”

Heybridge Basin, Essex

This week I went to Essex visiting my nanny, Irene, so I persuaded her to help me hand out some poems after lunch. She was sceptical at first, but she read the poem and decided she liked it: “no windows or doors – it’s about the world”. There were lots of people passing by with ice creams enjoying the sunshine, so it was easy to give out all the poems. When I asked one old man if he wanted a poem he grabbed it with both hands and said “that is a definite YES!”

I gave out ‘The Last Postcard’ from Lavinia Greenlaw‘s Minsk (Faber, 2003). Lavinia spent some time living in Essex so it seemed fitting to give out this poem here. The poem is written ‘after‘ a painting by Russian painter Kasimir Malevich, and I think it is this one. I like the way the poem and the painting interact and compete with each other, each using the perks of their medium to fight for our attention.

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“thought kills me that I am not thought”

ALL FM 96.9

This week I had actress Gabrielle Woolner on my show to talk about her upcoming BIG LEAD in Alice Nutter’s Barnbow Canaries (31st May-2nd June). As well as being able to perform a wide range of facial expressions (see above), Gabrielle is also an expert on Shakespeare’s sonnets. I know absolutely nothing about these national treasures so I let her take over the show and pretty much explain to me line by line what is going on in Sonnet 44.


We also used her skills to compare this one by ‘Shakey-baby’ to Caroline Bird’s sonnet ‘A Surreal Joke’, the opening poem of In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet, 2017). I handed out the poem ‘Moment’ last year in Didsbury and got a great response.

Sonnet 44

If the dull substance of my flesh were thought,
Injurious distance should not stop my way;
For then despite of space I would be brought,
From limits far remote where thou dost stay.
No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the farthest earth removed from thee;
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be.
But ah! thought kills me that I am not thought,
To leap large lengths of miles when thou art gone,
But that so much of earth and water wrought
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan,
Receiving nought by elements so slow
But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.

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A Surreal Joke

One year is blank on my curriculum vitae.
I was in the desert, convalescing,
repairing my septum. I’d tried to die
expensively, dragging it out over
six months, locked in my university
bathroom with a rolled-up scrap of canto.
I forgot how to love my family.
At one point, my arms turned completely blue.

My assigned counsellor told me I used
poetry to hide from myself, unhook
the ballast from my life; a floating ruse
of surreal jokes. He stole my notebook.
I said, they’re not jokes. He said, maybe try
to write the simple truth? I said, why?