“and it sounded like / the end of the world”

Glasgow Zine Library 

Today I attempted to hand out poems in the street for the first time since December last year. I have no excuse except that the weather has been really, really awful – it took a global pandemic to finally get me back out!

I have tried to compensate for the lack of library trips by making my own mini pamphlets. I was really surprised that the first one, I used to love London, sold out really quickly. So, as promised, I have used the money to make a new spring pamphlet, Palindrome, which is available to buy NOW (see below for more info).

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The title poem of this pamphlet is sort of about the end of the world, so it seems extra relevant right now. Because of this I decided to hand out one of my own poems for the first time ever!

At the end of last year I did a riso-printing induction at Glasgow Zine Library, led by Saffa Khan from Tender Hands Press. Since then I have been back many times to print covers for my pamphlets, as well as to go to lots of the community events they put on, and to browse the interesting zines people are making there.

Sadly they are closed right now (like most places) because of the threat of Coronavirus, but I still stood outside to hand out poems and show my support. Unsurprisingly, not many people took a poem. But the thought of all the social isolation has made me think a lot about the hundreds of other times I’ve handed out poems over the years, and how lucky I am to have been able to connect with so many people – complete strangers – in this way.

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Palindrome

She ate her breakfast backwards, crunch,
spitting toast back on the plate and scraping butter off.
She got into bed and slept, woke up,
and went to the pub. All her friends were there –
shouldn’t they be at work?
she couldn’t understand what anyone said
but acted like she could. A man with black hair
sat outside. He talked with his hands so was easier to hear
and he conjured cigarettes from ashtrays.
She went to the library and pretended to read
from back to front like Japanese,
went home and ate her breakfast, crunch,
got into bed, slept, woke up, picked up her phone
and it rang – MUM – she answered and it sounded like

the end of the world. She tried to ignore
reversing cars and dust and hair clinging
to her body. She closed her eyes and saw
a photo: of her mum, dad, brother, sister, her,
and an inflatable killer whale, in a swimming pool,
treading water. Children are time made solid,
her mother said, atomic clocks…
Atoms weren’t supposed to split up, so it was a shock
when they did. The children were all teenagers by then
and not very solid – her mother hung up
and she tried to hold on to the image. A black hair
from the floor landed on her shoulder and she brushed it
away. She tried to remember what happened the night before,
she only drank two pints of 1864.

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If YOU would like to buy my new pamphlet for just £6 (including UK postage), please send an email to: time41poem@gmail.com, with your address. Copies are very limited so it’s first come first served!

 

 

“Oh I’ve read poetry”

Gorbals Library – Glasgow

Today I gave out the poem ‘Playing House’ by Tessa Berring, which is featured in the new anthology, makar/unmakar: twelve contemporary poets in scotland (Tapsalteerie, 2019). I went to the Glasgow launch of the book last week, and was really impressed by all the readings. I chose this poem because I love how every line seems to change direction. Tessa has also just had her first collection, Bitten Hair, published by Blue Diode. When I met her at the reading, she offered me her copy for free but I (foolishly?) said I wanted to buy it to support a fellow poet. It is in the post!

As the man who asked me for a lighter said, it was “pure baltic” standing outside Gorbals Library today, so I didn’t think I’d be able to stay out long enough to give out all of the poems. He found a lighter in the end, and took a poem after originally refusing: “because you’ve got my respect”.

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My ears got very cold, but I managed to give out all the poems. I met Jim, who read the whole poem to me out loud, surprising himself with every line, and considering the meaning before going on to the next. When he got to the end said: “oh marvellous!” and asked me why I was giving out poems and if I’ve ever had hot spun sugar in my face (read the poem!). I said it was just something I did in my free time, in case someone wanted to get into poetry but didn’t know where to start. This set him off: “oh I’ve read poetry!” He then started to recite by heart the entire works of Robert Burns.

One man seemed apprehensive and refused a poem on the grounds that: “it’s giving away paper, you see?” I told him he could recycle it afterwards but he wasn’t convinced. Another said no before I’d even finished offering, but when I was unlocking my bike he came back up to me and said in a flurry: “I would like a poem. I’m really sorry for saying no, that was really rude. It all happened so fast. What’s this all about then?”

 

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Playing House

I’d like a golden apple, or a red one
or I’ll cry

(this room is tiny
when covered in snow)

did you hear about the woman

who bound her face
in hot spun sugar

as a protest against everything?

we could do things too
like breathing in, then out

oh my God, oh my God
you’d really love that, wouldn’t you?

 

“No thank you sorry thank you”

Gallery of Modern Art Library – Glasgow

I gave out the poem ‘in the style of richard scott’ – from Richard Scott‘s Soho (Faber & Faber, 2018) – outside GOMA Library.  I was originally going to give out the first poem in the collection, ‘Public Library, 1998’, because the speaker writes ‘COCK’ in the margin of a library book, which is great. But I chose this one because I like the way it talks about liking to read poetry in an everyday non-grand sort of way.

Because it’s in the basement of a modern art gallery, I expected the library to be very sleek and angular, but it’s just like a normal local library – lots of crime novels and autobiographies, harsh lighting and garish sofas. I loved it!

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Outside, I stood next to the statue of the Duke of Wellington, which Glaswegians famously love to decorate with a cone-hat. It is always interesting (and sometimes disheartening) when I hand out poems in city centres, because more people ignore me and less people take a poem. It makes sense: people think its another flyer or petition or god-leaflet, and have got so used to pretending those people don’t exist that they don’t even blink. Other people are very friendly and apologetic: “no thank you sorry thank you!”

But it makes it even more special when someone says yes, and their face lights up when they realise what it actually is that I’m giving them. Like the lady who responded to my question “do you like poetry?” with “not really!” but still took a poem and said she would give it a try when she gets back home to Oban (she was off to catch a bus) “when I can finally sit down and relax”.

Afterwards I had a look around the art gallery to warm up, and saw this painting by one of my favourites, Beryl Cook, of a woman by the river Clyde.

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in the style of richard scott

my moon is a man
he’s watched me get naked in parks cemeteries by the canal etc
the other stars belt spade massive crab
are pretty meaningless and dead anyway

there’s no more music in poetry
than in my boyfriend’s whispered voice
both make my heart pump
belly spasm

I don’t forgive you bullies exes
the man who punched me the one who touched me
but I love my dad
even though he did and said shit shit things

I am free now still
it hurts every day so I read
mark and walt and arthur and constance and gregory and thom and my boy paul
write poem after poem about

“Are you cold?”

Govanhill Library – Glasgow

On this very cold but sunny day in Glasgow, I gave out the poem ‘beaches (14)’ from Rebecca Perry‘s glorious new pamphlet, beaches (Offord Road Books, 2019). It was hard to choose which to give out, but I decided on this lemony one to give the people of Govanhill some vitamin C!

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In the library they were offering free copies of a book called Blether (a Scottish slang word meaning ‘to have a chat’) – a collection of true stories submitted by the Scottish public, to celebrate Book Week Scotland.

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The Library had just got new photocopier which no one knew how to use yet, so a nice librarian named Ewan let me use the one behind the desk. Later he came out and took a poem off me: “I recognise this!”

It was a busier spot than last week for handing out poems, and it took no time at all to give them all out to friendly passers by. One woman asked me for directions, and one man asked if I was warm enough. I also met a woman who was taking her rubbish out (the communal bins are next to the library) who said she didn’t think she’d read any poetry since school: “I remember doing that one about the daffodils over and over…” 

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beaches (14)

lemon juice
in your cuticle cuts
is not punishment
for anything
it is serendipity
it is one star crossing another
in a flat sky
essentially
it is god

lemon juice
lifts almost any dish
roll it on the worktop
be thankful
squeeze

speaking as a person
with almost no experience
pain can be
a gift

 

“Only the ones that capture us”

Langside Library – Glasgow

For my first time handing out poems in Glasgow, I chose ‘Or Passing the Time with Some Rhyme’ from Claudia Rankine‘s third collection, Plot (Grove Press, 2001). I like it because it’s one of those poems that sticks in your mind even if you don’t really know what’s going on. And everyone loves a bit of rhyme!

Langside is my new local library, so it seemed like a good place to start. It is a big, busy library with a funky carpet and a hearty poetry section. When I was preparing the poems I sat near a weekly writing group who were quietly talking about all the unknown, unpublished women writers of history.

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Most passers by politely took a poem, and many seemed pleasantly surprised. One man read it while waiting to cross the road, and I hoped he wouldn’t walk across while still reading. But he got all the way to the end then came back to ask me about it. When I asked if he likes poetry, he said: “only the ones that capture us”.

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Or Passing the Time with Some Rhyme

Too much within—close the garage, reset
the alarm, let the eye in the world coo.
The River Ouse flows on no matter what
or who gets caught as its debris. She sits
in Le Café for once not distracted
by boo, its bark. She sits rudely sunglassed,
blue silk cascading off her tumultuous
tummy. Honey, are you happy? You there,
indiscriminate, in your loosened dress
skirting sidewalks. You there, flirting across
each shop window though a pastel broach moos
powdered jade, asking, Are you happily—
oh bovine, oh babe—are you happily
charmed? For this world, oh this whorl is a woo.

 

“So it’s just her in the garden?”

Wood Green Library – London

Today I gave out the poem ‘Matins’ from the book The Wild Iris (Harper Collins, 1992) by Louise Glück. My mum told me matins is the French word for the morning song of birds. I liked the idea of handing out a poem about nature in a place that is called Wood Green but is actually a big high street and shopping centre, with not much green nor woods around.

It’s a big, busy library, as well as having a bank and other shops in the same building, so there were lots of people around. Unfortunately there were lots of street fundraisers nearby trying to talk to people as they went past, but I stood as far away from them as possible.

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One man in a high vis stopped and read the poem out quickly next to me: “so, it’s just her in the garden?” I shrugged my shoulders, and asked if he liked poetry: “yea, sometimes it makes a change from lengthy novels.” Another woman took a break from feeding pigeons to ask what I was doing. When I said I hadn’t written the poem, she said: “so you just like the poem and thought you’d give it out to people…that’s a nice thing to do!”

I also met Mustafah, who comes to the library to read the newspapers. When I asked if he liked poetry he said: “I can’t really say whether I do or I don’t.” Then he asked if it rhymed, because “sometimes it has more character if it rhymes”. I said it doesn’t rhyme, but it still sounds nice, and asked if he wanted to read it out loud to see what I mean. He read the whole poem out loud next to me, really slowly, and said it had “something about it.” 

I  recommend the book wholeheartedly, and love this poem in particular for that same “something” that Mustafah couldn’t put his finger on. Maybe it’s that gripping first line, or the unashamed attempts at trying to see what you’re doing as ‘symbolic’ – or maybe it’s just her in the garden.

 

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Matins

You want to know how I spend my time?
I walk the front lawn, pretending
to be weeding. You ought to know
I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling
clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact
I’m looking for courage, for some evidence
my life will change, though
it takes forever, checking
each clump for the symbolic
leaf, and soon the summer is ending, already
the leaves turning, always the sick trees
going first, the dying turning
brilliant yellow, while a few dark birds perform
their curfew of music. You want to see my hands?
As empty now as the first note.
Or was the point always
to continue without a sign?

“Sorry!”

Latin American Market – Seven Sisters, London

I meant to hand out this poem – ‘La extranjera’ by Gabriela Mistral and my translation ‘The foreigner’ – in Chile, but it never seemed like the right time. I found the poem in The Biblioteca Regional Gabriela Mistral in La Serena, and later visited Montegrande, the tiny village where she grew up and is now buried.

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Mistral is hugely famous in Chile. She was the first Latin American author to win a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, and her face is even on the 5,000 Chilean peso bank note. So maybe it made more sense to hand the poem and my translation out in the UK, where less people have heard of her, and what better place to do so than my local Latin American market in Tottenham?

The market is just opposite Seven Sisters tube. It is very easy to miss because it is hidden behind shops and doesn’t draw attention to itself, but it’s a great place for a café con leche and I will definitely be spending more time there to keep on practising my Spanish!

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I had forgotten how different handing out poems in England is compared to South America: here, a lot more people say no. And in London, especially, people don’t have time to stop and chat. My favourite response was the man who held up his hands and said “sorry!” as if he really had no choice but to refuse a poem. But it was a good idea to stand near this market, where I could catch people on their way out and offer them the poem in Spanish, which I think they appreciated. I was happy to see two men, who had just met up outside the tube, looking at the poem and translations together and talking about them as they walked down the high street.

 

La extranjera

    a Francis de Miomandre

Habla con dejo de sus mares bárbaros,
con no sé qué algas y no sé qué arenas;
reza oración a dios sin bulto y peso,
envejecida como si muriera.
En huerto nuestro que nos hizo extraño,
ha puesto cactus y zarpadas hierbas.
Alienta del resuello del desierto
y ha amado con pasión de que blanquea,
que nunca cuenta y que si nos contase
sería como el mapa de otra estrella.
Vivirá entre nosotros ochenta años,
pero siempre será como si llega,
hablando lengua que jadea y gime
y que le entienden sólo bestezuelas.
Y va a morirse en medio de nosotros,
en una noche en la que más padezca,
con sólo su destino por almohada,
de una muerte callada y extranjera.

 

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The foreigner

    for Francis de Miomandre

She speaks with an accent of her rough seas
with some sort of seaweed and some sort of sand;
she prays to a god without size or weight,
so old she’s almost dead.
That garden of ours has become strange to us,
she filled it with cactuses and clawing grass.
She breathes with desert wind
and has loved with whitened passion
but she never tells and if she did tell
it would be like the map of another star.
She could live among us for eighty years
but it would always feel like she just arrived,
speaking a tongue that pants and groans
and is only heard by animals.
And she will die among us too
one night at the height of her misery,
with only her destination for a pillow,
a death silent and foreign.