“If you didn’t exist…”

La Librería Dragona, Cusco

I have been in Cusco for a month now, and have started working full-time for a charity called LAFF (Latin American Foundation for the Future).

So far the only library I’ve found is a bookshop, La Dragona – recently opened by a former LAFF volunteer, Rocio Diaz – where you can also get a subscription to take out books. They also run lots of events, like a poetry and music event for International Women’s Day, and reading groups. La Biblioteca Municipal is just around the corner, but is having refurbishment work done at the moment.


I decided to stand somewhere between the two when handing out the poem ‘Rescate’ by Elvira Sastre from her book Baluarte (Valparaíso, 2014), and my translation, ‘Rescue’. Elvira is a poet and translator from Segovia, who also performs her poetry alongside musicians.

Strangely, being so close to the centre of Cusco, I didn’t see many tourists. There seemed to be lots of mothers with children on their way somewhere. I met Andy (a Peruvian with an English-sounding name) who works in a local coffee shop. He likes poetry but prefers writing it to reading it. But when I walked back past the shop I caught him reading this one intently!




Si no existieras tú,
si fueras, no sé,
un tirabuzón trenzado,
una dicotomía entre tu alma y tu cuerpo,
ganas que se quedan en ganas.
Si fueras, cómo decirlo,
alguien que se ajusta a los límites de los días,
una sospecha,
un intento.

Si no existieras tú,
si fueras otra cosa
con tu misma cara, voz y manos,
pero otra cosa,
en mi fin y en tu cabo,
te atravesaría entera,
te rompería las barreras,
te cruzaría de norte a sur pisando tu brújula
como el náufrago que traspasa los bosques para llegar al mar
y te habitaría con mis barcos
en la proa de tu esencia
sin ningún tipo de duda
ni tiempo
el rescate.





If you didn’t exist,
if you were, I don’t know,
a plaited curl,
a dichotomy between your soul and your body,
better than the remnants of wishes.
If you were, how to say it,
someone who fits within the limits of days,
a suspicion,
an intent.

If you didn’t exist,
if you were something else
with your same face, voice and hands,
but something else,
when my all is said and yours is done,
I would pierce right through you,
I would break your barriers,
I would cross you from north to south trampling on your compass
like the castaway who crosses forests to reach the sea,
and I would inhabit you with my boats
in the prow of your essence
without doubt
of the imminent

“Poesía es muy rico”

¡Feliz día del amor! 

For the last two weeks I have been travelling through the Central Andean Highlands of Peru. I managed to visit the library in Tarma – an impressive building on the central square with helpful staff and a big reading room to hide in on rainy days – and a much smaller one in Jauja – camouflaged on the high street and closed because the only librarian was on holiday. But I never managed to find one in Huancavelica, where I only stayed for 2 nights and it was too cold and rainy to persist in searching!

Biblioteca Municipal Adolfo Vienrich, Tarma
Biblioteca Municipal, Jauja


Biblioteca Municipal Luis Carranza, Ayacucho

Now I am in Ayacucho, a bigger city with a bit less rain and slightly lower altitude, where I am staying for a week and have had time to translate a poem and hand it out today. I was surprised to find that inside the library – on the side of a local market in a bustling neighbourhood – is a small and tranquil reading room, with light green walls and white desks. It is fronted by Juanito, who told me about Luis Carranza who founded the library in 1843, and found me two anthologies of Ayacuchan poetry to peruse. When I asked if he liked poetry he said: “por su puesta, poesía es muy rico” (of course, poetry is very rich).

In each of the anthologies there was only one woman poet, so I translated one poem by each of them. I decided to give out the poem ‘Maestra de escuela’ by Serafina Chuchón Huamaní – and my translation ‘School Teacher’ – because it’s Valentine’s day and it seemed fitting to give out a love poem to good teachers everywhere.




When I came back to show Juanito the poem he said “muy bien” and tucked it safely into his jacket pocket. While handing out the poem I received a lot of ¿por qué? and ¿para qué?‘s, but a lot of big smiles and gracias‘s as well. I met a man from Chile who asked if I had heard of Gabriela Mistral, and recited a Pablo Neruda poem to me. He said he had moved to Peru because he was looking for love, but walked off before telling me if he’d found it yet.


Maestra de escuela

Maestra, nombre universal
luces místicas, tornasol
te ancló el vendaval
tu presencia festival
para niños, felicidad.

Toda la humanidad
de los continentes
de todas las épocas
te ofrendan gratitud
por siempre “Maestra”.

Maestra, los niños sueñan
paz, tranquilidad del aula
paredes encontradas
de bullicios y alegrías
espejo que no traiciona.

Maestra infatigable
paciencia hecha canción
carisma hecha bendición
comprensión angelical
soporte sin igual.

Maestra, sublime en valores
siempre de pie
forjaste Jefes de Estado
con dedicación y esmero.

inculas patriotism a generaciones
el respeto mutuo
amor filial entre hermanos
y amor a los “padres”.

hoy luces cabellos blancos
signo de años vividos
junto al futuro hombre
descanso ¡Misión cumplida!




School Teacher

Teacher, universal name
mystical lights, shining
the gale anchored you
your festival presence
for children, happiness.

All of humanity
every continent
every era
we offer you gratitude
forever “Teacher”.

Teacher, the children dream
of peace, calm in the classroom
walls confused
by chaos and joy
mirror that never lies.

Untiring teacher
patience made song
charisma made blessing
angelic comprehension
support unequalled.

Teacher, sublimely secure
always on foot
you feign leadership
with dedication and care.

you instil patriotism in generations
the mutual respect
love between siblings
and love of parents.

today light white hairs
signal years well lived
beside the future generation
rest – mission complete!


“Before internet we used to read books”

Biblioteca Municipal Ricardo Palma, Miraflores – Lima

This week I gave out the poem ‘Secreto de Familia’ by Blanca Varela – and my translation ‘Family Secret’ – from her first collection Ese Puerto Existe (1959).

Born in Lima in 1926, Varela is a Peruvian national treasure. Here is a child reading out her poem ‘Fútbol’ (in spanish):

The poem I chose to give out, ‘Secreto de Familia’ (a bit darker than the football one…), was a difficult one to translate because, like the poem last week, it doesn’t have any punctuation. Varela also cleverly uses phrases that could be interpreted in different ways. The last line was especially difficult – I looked at what some other translators of the poem had done, but it didn’t seem right to me. In the end I decided to imagine what I would say if it was my poem.

I also learned some fun new words like ‘legaña’, which means rheum aka sleep/sleepy dust/eye-goo (I found a forum where people discuss what it is called in lots of different languages).


While handing out the poem I met Rocío, who was on her way back from a job interview as an english teacher. She told me all about falling in love with her English teacher when she was in her 20s (but then he had to go back to Scotland).

She had vaguely heard of Blanca Varela, and when I asked if she liked poetry she said: “yes, I love books. You know, before internet we used to read books”

Blanca Varela and Fernando de Szyszlo.
(Paris, 1949)


Secreto de Familia

soñé con un perro
con un perro desollado
cantaba su cuerpo su cuerpo rojo silbaba
pregunté al otro
al que apaga la luz al carnicero
qué ha sucedido
por qué estamos a oscuras

es un sueño estás sola
no hay otro
la luz no existe
tú eres el perro tú eres la flor que ladra
afila dulcemente tu lengua
tu dulce negra lengua de cuatro patas

la piel del hombre se quema con el sueño
arde desaparece la piel humana
sólo la roja pulpa del can es limpia
la verdadera luz habita su legaña
tú eres el perro
tú eres el desollado can de cada noche
sueño contigo misma y basta.


(Listen to Blanca Varela read out her own poem here)



Family Secret

I dreamed about a dog
a dog with no skin
its body was singing its red body whistling
I asked the other
the one who turns off the light the butcher
what’s happened
why are we in the dark

it is a dream you are alone
there is no other
the light doesn’t exist
you are the dog you are the barking flower
sweetly sharpen your tongue
your sweet black four-legged tongue

the man’s skin burns in the dream
the burnt human skin disappears
only the red pulp of the canine is clean
the real light lives in the sleep of its eyes
you are the dog
you are the skinned dog of every night
I dream the same as you and that’s enough.



“¿un regalo?”

Casa de la Literatura Peruana – Lima

Today I gave out the poem ‘Devenir del río’, from María Belén Milla’s Amplitud del mito (ALASTOR EDITORES, 2018), alongside my translation ‘Future of the river’. I bought the book at Librería Inestable in Miraflores, after asking for a “moderna poeta limeñia” (modern female Liman poet), and I am very pleased with it.

amplitud del mito

The Casa de Literature used to be a train station, and now it’s a very grand building with a tiny library inside. It also has a museum and an outdoor study space next to the railway line where you can, occasionally, see trains going past as you work.




I gave a poem to one of the security guards, who said he liked poetry a lot and recited one from memory. He asked me “¿quien financia esto?” (who finances this?) I told him I do: “es divertido” (it’s fun!) I said, but he didn’t look convinced – “¿sí?”

One man looked very happy when I gave him a poem: “¡un regalo!” (a gift!), and when a woman came back a few minutes after taking one asking if I wanted any money for it, I echoed the man, saying it was just “un regalo”.

I also met Anna María, who spoke very fast and asked if the poem was “como un canción” (like a song)? She told me all about her son who is the same age as me, who waited a few meters away looking impatient.

A woman asked if she could take a photo of me with her daughter, and I got one of them in return.



Devenir del río

Tú milagroso
y cierto como el día
de tu cabeza amarilla se arrojan los patios
las sábanas los cipreses mojados cada uno de nuestros perros
la música sin nombre que habla del sol de los carros
que existen en la primavera como llamativas
cajas de fierro y estrellas
y luego me arrojo yo
porque todo el mundo sabe
que la cima es un lugar perfecto
y nada habita en lo perfecto nada
pero apenas desparece tu cabeza amarilla
y ya creces como cíclope o talismán
y provocas el movimiento de los animales
del rio que rota con tu pulso
tú como el único planeta huérfano y visible
mi obelisco mi barca
inclinado anunciando vuelo
llevándome como un insecto lleva su alimento
y quizás yo sea ruta sea campanario
sístoles doradas que escapan de mí
como caballos y palabras
o este poema que no entiendes
pero que es bello
te juro
es bello.




Future of the river

You miraculous
and certain as day
patios throw themselves from your yellow head
the sheets the cypresses soaking every one of our dogs
unnamed music that speaks of the sun from the cars
that exist in spring like booming
boxes of iron and stars
and later I throw myself
because everyone knows
that the top is a perfect place
and nothing lives in it perfect nothing
but your yellow head just disappears
and you rise like a cyclops or talisman
and provoke movement from the animals
of the river that rotates with your pulse
you     like the only planet orphaned and visible
my obelisk my rowing boat
inclined announcing flight
carrying me away like an insect carries its food
and maybe I am route I am bell tower
golden contractions that escape from me
like horses and words
or this poem that you don’t understand
but that is beautiful
I swear to you
it is beautiful.






¡Tiempo para un poema!

Biblioteca Municipal Carlos Tinning – Magdalena del Mar, Lima

Happy new year everyone! As you may have noticed, I am in Peru. I’m staying in Magdalena del Mar, a really great area full of markets and restaurants and parks, and a five minute walk from the pacific ocean.



Today I gave out two Quechuan poems which I have translated into English using some Spanish translations I found in a book called Literature Quechua Classica, by Francisco Carrillo Espejo (EDITORIAL HORIZONTE, 1986). The translations were done by Edmundo Bendezú, and the book credits the original texts to Guamán Poma de Ayala.

The introduction suggests that Quechuan poetry was often connected with music, singing and dancing. It describes all the different types of Quechuan poetry, for example ‘Quilla Mama’ is probably a Wawaki – an offering to the moon – and ‘La Cancion de la Sombra’ could be a Huayñu – a poem that uses music and dance to interpret nature.

I handed out the poems outside Carlos Tinning Municipal Library. I haven’t actually been inside the library because it’s closed for the summer holidays and is instead running lots of workshops for children and adults.

I met Jaasiel, a twelve year old (nearly 13) girl who was walking her dog around the park next to the library. She said it was a “muy bien idea” (very good idea) to hand out poems, and that she writes poems too, mostly about nature. She stood with me while I gave out all the poems, and when I commented that not a single person had refused a poem, which was unusual based on my experience in England, she seemed shocked: why would someone say no to something that was free?

On my way back I met Flavio, who’s had his kiosk on Avenida Brazil for five years: ¿esta poesía? (is this poetry?). When I asked if he liked poetry he nodded and said cheekily: “puedo leer” (I can read).

Quilla Mama

Reina madre luna:

el agua que creas
el líquido que das.
¡Ayayay qué llanto!’
¡Ayayay cómo corre!
Tu criatura tierna
como las yerbas,
por alimento te llora,
por agua te llora.


La Cancion de la Sombra

Sombra secreta,
secreta sombra,
sombra que oculta.
¿Dónde está?
Aquí está la flor del rosal.
¿Dónde está?
Aquí está la flor amarilla
y roja del chihuanhuay
¿Dónde está?
Aquí está el lirio
¡ay! del amancay.




Moon Mother

The moon mother reigns:
the water you create
the liquid you give.
Look how it cries!
Look how it runs!
Your creature – soothing
as herbs,
it cries to you for food,
it cries to you for water.


The Shadow Song

Shadow secret,

secret shadow,
shadow that hides.
Where is it?
Here it falls on a rosebush.
Where is it?
Here it’s a yellow flower
now the red of the fire lilies –
Where is it?
Here it is, the iris –
Ah! the amancay.





Last show on ALL FM

I’ve had lots and lots of fun doing my weekly shows but unfortunately I have to start working full time because I’m saving up to go to South America! Last week sound artist Eye Suriyanon was the 33rd and last guest on my show for ALL FM.




She showed me some traditional Thai dance moves, taught me all about the poet Sunthorn Phu, and read some of his poems in the original Thai.

We also talked about the poem ‘Echo’ by Raymond Antrobus, from his brand new book The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins, 2018). The poem led us into conversations about vibrations, loneliness and autobiography.

Read the poem in full and hear Raymond reading it out here.

“Knock knock?”

ALL FM 96.9

This week on my show I had writer and performer Julie Burrows in to tutor me on untrustworthy slugs. We listened to a questionable Craig David song and lost ourselves in the ellipsis of Hera Lindsay Bird‘s ‘The Dad Joke is Over’.

The Dad Joke is Over

sometimes…..when a great civilisation is too prosperous for too long
when a great civilisation marked by rapid periods of economic growth
and decline
expands beyond its own conceptual limits
& ventures into the uncharted space beyond what is……funny

sometimes, when there exists too much of a good thing
the market is oversaturated with cringing
years of puns have blighted the emotional landscape
a great empire can fall
& laughter grow up from the ruins

sometimes there are dad jokes, and they can’t take the heat
wandering from set-up to set-up, in their glistening barbecue aprons
their punchlines wither and dissolve, in the shimmering wetlands of
contemporary stand-up
like snowflakes upon the grill, leaving only……….questions
like how many women does it take to change a joke format???
knock knock

& nobody answers
but the black wind of fate

The time of the dad joke is over, and things are getting……..al fresco
their punchlines converted into anecdotes, and refurbished with a Tuscan feature wall
It’s the time of the mother joke & you wake to find a deer carcus in the garden
nothing on the wind……………………………………………by Elizabeth Arden

Sometimes you wake up…..in the cold light of a new era
with the unerring certainty that your life’s work is just for……sham
like…….what do you get when you cross a joke and a poem?
or if a punchline falls in the forest and, and no one is around to hear it
………………………………..is it time to stop telling jokes in the forest?

I like to commit the sympathetic error of meaning all my jokes
but still………….I do not think that poetry should be saved
it should be like an attic in sunlight, with the bats scrubbed out
like…..you can buy this book & then set fire to it…….for free

The time of the mother joke is upon us and you look exactly like Scarlett Johansson
you never looked like Scarlett Johansson before but here….in the time of the mom joke you do

you walk deeper and deeper into the setup, with your……vague celebrity impressionism
you can sense a punchline, and it’s getting closer……………………………..

When I was young, my mother couldn’t afford brand-name jokes
All we had to laugh at was…………the unceasing bitterness of life
Even now, I am compelled to laugh in the face of heartbreak
but when a witticism is made…………………………………………..

The mother joke is here, and the punchline is
………………………………………………………………….there is no punchline
it’s gone beyond the format of a joke, and is in your blood
everything is wrong, but you can’t stop laughing
ancient punishments repeating themselves
like nunchucks on a nursery frieze

The mother joke is here, and there is no punchline
this is a poem, not a joke, and the only way out is death
You stare and stare at your vast superfluity of life
it stretches out beyond itself, like too many razors on a kite tail




LAST WEEK my guest was the poet Keisha Thompson, whose solo show ‘Man on the Moon’ is coming to Contact Theatre from 16-20th October.

Keisha performed poems from her new book Lunar, which is being launched on 25th October at 2022 (the club!). We talked about mathematical fibs, her artistic relationship with her editor, afrofuturism and the poem ‘dinosaurs in the hood’ by Danez Smith.


“It feels like homework…”

Lady Pedal Festival, Alexandra Park

This year I did an all day drop-in haiku workshop at the festival, and persuaded lots of first timers to have a go at counting syllables!





As a poetic form, I find haikus the least threatening for beginners. This is because they are short (only three lines) and tightly structured (there are supposed to be 5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second, and 5 again in the last) which works quite well as a distraction from worries about what to write. Once you’ve got a first line with 5 syllables, you just roll with it!

Another poet came up to me during they day and told me it was impossible to write a ‘pure’ haiku, because they only really work in Japanese. But I didn’t let this put me off!

I asked one girl if she wanted to write but her dad put her off by saying “it feels too much like homework”. Here are some of the haikus people came up with during the day, including one I wrote for that cheeky dad…

Lady Pedal Haikus

cycling and flying same thing
you can touch the sky or feel love
if you’re lucky magic happens


When can I cycle
again, after I have my


Bikes creative people love yeah!
that’s this moment under the marquee yeah!
join us!


creek crank sizzle eek
my bottom bracket wants love
but I don’t give it.


I love two men
one cycles but I
I try, I cry, I fail


My bicycle is
dusty and deprived.
Need to sort it out.


“It feels like homework”
a man says to his child. But
homework can be fun!


Freedom open sky fresh with a pear
Oh dear I went into a ditch


If you want to hear more about Lady Pedal and what they do, listen to my interview with the creator herself…

The Woman in the Revolving Door

ALL FM 96.9

This week I talked to Adele Harris about the poem ‘The Woman in the Revolving Door’ by G.S. Sharat Chandra. Adele is about to start a social work degree after an eight year gap from education, which involved her working as a beauty therapist and walking the entire length of New Zealand.

I found this poem in an old issue of POETRY magazine from 1973, and couldn’t resist the title. We summoned up all of our disney cartoon references to try and crack the code ‘for the dialogue of doors’…



Read the new issue of Lager Magazine here, including one of my own translations!




‘Something really dramatic has happened’

Spotlight on Asylum Festival

When I visited Karen Whiteread’s studio in Wood Green, London, mother and daughter team Karen and Amber were busily preparing for the Spotlight on Asylum Festival – writing press releases for events and photographing angels for the auction. Now the festival is up and running, with the first event coming up this Saturday, and the auction in full swing.


Pram Depot is a charity that recycles baby clothes and equipment for women who have no recourse to public funds, and the festival is a way of raising awareness about the needs of these people, who are mostly asylum seekers. The studio is full to the brim of teddies, blankets, prams, and everything a new mother could want.

I talk to Karen about what inspired her to create this helpful art installation, and to Amber about why she came all the way back from Paris to help out.

For the auction, the team asked 150 artists – including some very big names – to respond in any way to the theme of ‘angels’ on an A5 board. They received pieces from Anthony Gormley, Tracey Emin, Mark Wallinger and Rachel Whiteread, as well as poems from Mark Waldron and…me.

Amber and Karen were in agreement that Mark’s poem summed up the theme of the project very well, but they agreed to disagree about what mine was all about. For my collage-poem I used words taken from newspaper articles, including one about Thurrock Services on the M6, to express myself.




The auction closes 20th November 2018. Start the bidding!