Category Archives: poetry

Pet Shop Noise

Lenny, the nearest we got to having a pet alpaca

I can’t remember how I ever came to think that keeping alpacas was a good idea. We imported a small herd of them into Ireland in 2003, convinced they would make us a fortune and they’d become pets, alongside the laying hens and lying cats.

Trust me, alpacas don’t make friends with humans.  They like other alpacas, of course. But they only ever tolerate humans, no matter how nice you are to them. Ours had a very cushy billet in the west of Ireland, and thankfully, they rarely spat at us.  The spitting thing is a way of keeping order amongst themselves and it’s nasty if you get in the way – half-digested grass which is green, slimy and very smelly. And if it gets on your clothes, it is practically impossible to remove the stain.

We brought our alpacas over from Worcestershire via Scotland and Northern Ireland on a night when the skies were lit up with the Aurora Borealis.  A memorable evening, which of course, I turned into a poem.

I have read the poem at a few functions recently, recalling that amazing evening when the sky was green and red and we thought that was the norm (we got that wrong as well, never seen the Northern Lights since).

We eventually found the alpacas new homes, but not before we’d collected a goodly amount of fleece from them over several years. I learnt to spin and discovered alpaca makes a lovely soft, hard-wearing yarn for knitting and crochet.

And to think, I used to be frightened of dogs…

I’ve been thinking a lot about pets, and how humans enjoy keeping companion animals. And I was considering what some people think of as pets, exotic creatures such as monkeys, or snakes, or iguanas.  Even alpacas.

My mate, Tully

My first choice of pet will always be a tabby cat (like my third birthday present), but any cat will do really (rescued, not bred to be sold), plus now my dog, who is a surprising friend to me, given that I spent many years being terrified of her kind.

And if nothing else, pets can serve as inspiration for poems.  Just for the craic, here’s a ditty I wrote ages ago about our white hamster, sadly a pet I never photographed.

Snowball, a Hamster
The cat has a mouse again
and it makes me consider
how many more fortunate,
furry creatures we have kept,
pets to nurture and cherish.
There have been many:
cats, rabbits, a dog,
more cats,
and Snowball, a white hamster
carefully named by a six-year-old
who instantly lost interest.
He used to live in my study
(the hamster, not the child),
well away from feline temptation.
I’d let him skip along my desk
as I tried to write my memoirs
(the child, as well as the hamster).
When the time came
and poor Snowball ailed,
we took him in a shoe box
to the vet’s evening surgery,
humane dispatch for a fiver,
ahead of a State funeral,
with flowers and speeches,
even a few tears.
The shovel, or a brick,
would have been cheaper
to put him out of his misery,
but none of us could do it
(even the six-year-old,
who was really seven by now).
I remember how in his prime
Snowball would run across
my keyboard leaving a trail,
black pellets of rodent incontinence,
which I would eventually scoop up
and turn into a poem.

 

 

Fur Coat and No Knickers?

One of the best things that ever happened to me was becoming a mother.

I can’t imagine what I would have found to do with my time without children to fill my every waking minute.  They still try do it, and they’re (allegedly) adults now. Although, these days I do sometimes manage to snatch a few hours free from them demanding what’s for dinner, or where are their socks/phone chargers/car keys (delete as appropriate).

It sounds like there are dozens of them. It only feels like that sometimes – they are just two, one of each, as they say. A son and a daughter, neither of whom has properly left home yet.

My own mother, pictured here with me many years ago (before my sister arrived on the scene), is now 93 years old.  She lives in a care home and is quite frail and  forgetful, which is sad because she used to be a very busy, capable, fit woman, who taught me loads.

She wrestled with barrage balloons at the tail end of the Second World War (as a member of the WRAF), succeeding as a feisty female in a male-dominated workplace. I have her to thank for my  brand of feminism, which has never let me accept failure just because I’m a woman.  At an early age I realised there were different rules for boys and girls, which just served to make me more determined to succeed. Women have to work harder in their careers to prove themselves – I was no exception, and was often bitter about such inequality. I like to think things won’t be so hard for the next generation.

My mother also taught me how to strive to become a domestic goddess, and I can still rustle up a Victoria Sponge, or sew a fine seam when the occasion arises.

These days, I have my mother to thank as a source of some of my more popular poetry.  She’s at the heart of my attempts to blend pathos with humour.

Here you go: Fur Coat and No Knickers (just in case it’s slipped past your attention so far).

Are We There Yet?

Chess, unfinished.

As a wordsmith, when do you ever know your work is done? By that I mean finished and complete with no more amendments and tweaks to be made.

It goes for most creative work – even cooking, you can keep going, adding more seasoning, stirring this way and that, changing the presentation as well as the content. Likewise with art in all its forms – another brush stroke here, an extra shave of the plane there, more this, less that. And so it goes with writing: more words, fewer, different order, wider vocabulary.

Recently, I ‘finished’ a major re-write of what I hope will eventually become a published poetry collection. I have sifted through my favourite poems and come up with about 75 that I think are now complete. That was after the Masterclass with Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke last month (which I’ve burbled on about at length elsewhere on this blog).

I’ve now done enough workshops, classes and creative writing group sessions to think I might have finally got it (whatever ‘it’ is). Anyway, I’m starting to hawk my collection around the various poetry publishers. Shouldn’t take too long – hardly any of them accept cold calls (aka open submissions).

Then what? I shouldn’t expect failure, but I did consider trying the WB Yeats route. His sisters printed and hand-bound the early editions of his first published poetry. But there’s something in me that eschews self-publishing – I need that third-party validation thingy all the time. And anyway, I don’t have enough artistic sisters to take on the hand-crafted publication of my work.

Back to never being finished. I have just heard that I have taken third prize in the Oliver Goldsmith Festival Poetry Prize, which is another rather nice accolade, although the poem, ‘Concentric Circles’, is one of those that never seems to be finished. Every time I look at it, I change something, although clearly I thought it complete enough to enter in a competition.

I’m also trying to find a suitable title for my soon-to-be-published (!) collection. Another moveable feast – it has a different title every time I think about it, not least because it’s hard to categorise.

I heard Don Paterson, the poetry editor of Picador, talking at Poetry Ireland in  Dublin last month, and was greatly encouraged by his attitude to themed collections. Mine doesn’t have a theme – I write about life as I know it, the world around me, my family and other animals, that sort of thing.

‘Concentric Circles’ is a poem about a bachelor farmer. Living in rural Ireland that subject pops up every now and then, as do the themes of memory loss, aging parents, adult children, the cruelty of nature, life, love,  and the general desperation involved in being human.

Dead hares, jilted lovers, superstitions, refugees, hurricanes, home-made wine, care home smells, punctuation, Irish Diaspora, fossils, the River Liffey, Christmas excesses, horseflies, filial ties,  ecologically-sound fruit salad, sibling rivalry, parental approval, summer barbecues, the displaced and dispossessed, magpies, artisan baked bread, fur coats, spitting alpacas – there’s a lot of stuff mentioned in my poems.

But not really a thread running through which I could use to sew them together into a themed collection.

And then there’s the title. The title? Oh heck! Forget the finishing – where on earth do I start?

PS I give you a picture of Chess, the unfinished cat (he has no tail) for want of any better illustration

May Day, May Day? Can’t Remember…

I nearly forgot to boast about my recent win at Strokestown Poetry Festival – I took first prize in the Roscommon Poets’ Prize, a competition in which I came third the previous two years. That was certainly a good start to May!

Of course I’m delighted. The poem is about memory, a theme that keeps coming up to bite me on the bum, to remind me what to write about when I’m stuck for ideas. You can read it here.

The competition was judged by a friend of mine, Sligo poet Jessamine O’Connor, who would know my style and usual themes (my elderly mother crops up a good deal, and fanciful broken love affairs). So after almost not entering at all because it felt kind of awkward, I went ahead anyway and wrote something new and different. It was one of those poems that arrived on the paper pretty well fully formed. No idea how that works, I’m just happy to go along with it.

And of course, I had no hint that I was even in the running (although I knew I’d been shortlisted, along with six others). Jessamine, of course, was very professional about it all and although she’d judged the competition blind, didn’t know mine was her favourite until a number matched my name. She sounded just as shocked as me in the end. And I discovered the reason she’d been avoiding me since Christmas was so she didn’t give the game away. Ha!

This year my friend Catherine Ryan from Castlerea came second (she won the first year) and Laurence Henson from Strokestown came third (he won last year). Turn and turn about! All three of us are Hermit Collective poets.

Strokestown Poetry Festival is Ireland’s longest running poetry festival and last year they had their Arts Council funding withdrawn. This time around the funding was back in place, and the festival seemed to be flourishing. It is all about competitions, and I attended the prizegivings for the Percy French comic verse, and the main international poetry competitions.  Paddy Bushe and Maura Dooley adjudicated the latter, and it was fascinating to hear their comments on the ten shortlisted poems.

There was an anthology published this year. I’d recommend it – it has work from all the poets associated with the weekend, plus the shortlisted international competition entries (but  sadly, not any from the Roscommon shortlist). But worth a look if you can get your hands on a copy.

You could have picked one up from me as I manned the bookstall for an exhausting hour on the Saturday afternoon. Such a chore having to sit in the distinguished old dining room in Strokestown Park House, log fire blazing, dozens of poetry books scattered across the table, but I like to do my bit.

Of course, I’m just getting into character for some time in the future when my own collection of poetry gets put on sale there…

I Started Early – Didn’t Take My Dog (or Visit the Sea)

If you happened to be listening to yesterday afternoon’s  Drive Time programme on RTE Radio One, you  might have heard a segment about Poetry Day Ireland (April 27th 2017), about a whole day of poetry, in all sorts of places throughout Ireland. (Listen here, starting about 1:58 in).

The over-excited voice commenting about getting up at 5.30am in County Roscommon in order to get to Dublin in/on time – well, that was ME! I was interviewed about my favourite poet/poems, and of course I had to mention my devotion to Seamus Heaney (forgot to mention Emily!).  I also gave a shout out to Jane Clarke, who was the reason I was there at Poetry Ireland in Parnell Square East.

I’d heard that Jane would be giving a talk at a seminar, and I was curious to hear if she’d reveal her modus operandi  – I wasn’t disappointed. All the ‘Mind Your Own Business!’ speakers had fascinating insider information to share, and I learnt a lot. I now have a better idea from Paul Perry as to why my grant applications are never successful; Jane Clarke gave some clues as to the publicity lead time for a poetry collection (absolutely ages); Don Paterson, Poetry Editor at Picador, was refreshing in his views about tightly themed first collections (avoid, they’re usually contrived and boring. Phew!); Alexander Technique practitioner Tomás Hardiman made me aware of how heavy my head is; and Poetry Ireland’s Communications Manager Muireann Sheahan made me realise how I should be more into Social Media (oh dear).  All information that was well worth getting up early for. And I even missed an opportunity to read with the Hermits in Strokestown so I could be there…

Before I got to Poetry Ireland, I’d spent a restful hour in the sanctuary that is the Irish Writers’ Centre, just around the corner.  I’m a member there, so I thought, why not?

Before that, I’d been shopping. For books, of course. Poetry books.

I’d entered the Books Upstairs Poetry Competition and was curious to see who’d won. Not me, sadly, but what a lovely shop:  loadsa books, literary magazines and a coffee shop with window seats – oh joy!

And I’d got my Confirmation money to spend. No, no I mean my Christmas money. Or was it my Birthday dosh?  Ah, sod it, I might as well come clean (the chancellor of the family exchequer doesn’t read this blog anyway):  I spent a whole week’s grocery money on books, OK?

What a thrill! I bought Emily Dickinson’s complete works in one volume (and it later opened straight to ‘Hope is the feathered thing…’).  I also bought Africk McGlinchey’s ‘Ghost of the Fisher Cat’,  Mike McCormack’s ‘Solar Bones’ (which is said to be something of a poetic novel),  ‘Ballistics’ by Billy Collins, ‘The Travels of Sorrow’ by Dermot Healy, and ‘Mountains for Breakfast’ by Geraldine Mitchell (which I hope to hear more of at Stroketown  Poetry Festival this coming weekend). I also bought a copy of The Moth magazine, wondering if it has changed much since I gave up being a subscriber a while ago (the jury’s out on that one).

I had to lug my cache everywhere for the rest of the day, but hefting great weights is supposed to be a boost for fitness.  I now have one arm longer than the other, but hey!

And now I’m hoping I haven’t missed the opportunity to see the recent film about Emily Dickinson, ‘A Quiet Passion’, with ‘Sex and the City’ star Cynthia Nixon in the title role. Read the review  that made me want to see it here.

Losing The Windmills Of My Mind

Views over the garden to the sea

I’ve waited for the dust to settle before writing the final instalment of my what-I-did-on-my-writing-course essay. I figured the gushing was a bit OTT and I needed to come back down to earth a bit.

Or not.

So. Tŷ Newydd (no, I still can’t pronounce it properly, despite being married to a Welshman and having lived in the country for a brief time during my formative years).

Well, what else is left to say? I had a BRILLIANT time. The place is lovely, the actual building as well as the surroundings. The accommodation was exactly fit for purpose. The tutors were generous and skilled in sharing their love of the form.

Collating the anthology,  L-R Alice, Sally, Louise and Oenone
Chef Tony with Maggie, the Tŷ Newydd cat

I learned a lot about poetry and enjoyed the workshops and the banter. I still haven’t got over the thrill of having my poems critiqued by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke (did I mention they are the UK’s Poet Laureate and the National Poet of Wales respectively?). I met some very interesting fellow poetry writers, and ate some seriously delicious, home-cooked vegan food.

Even the sun shone on the final day as we raced around the gardens on an Easter Egg Hunt set by Carol Ann. There was an egg and spoon race, then a hopping game, but I settled on being a spectator at that point.

Gillian Clarke

We all had poems published in ‘Song House’ an anthology I will treasure – not least because my words are now in the same publication as those of our highly respected tutors.

I learned to look out for abstract nouns and unnecessary adverbs, to look at the form of a poem on the page, and to weave texture with language to produce mystery rather than obscurity. I also learned to work with rhythm and metre, to kill my precious darlings (no matter how loved they are, if they don’t fit, they have to go) – and to avoid daft nonsense in the style of ‘The Windmills of My Mind’.

 

In the Library

The final evening was spent in the Library reading our work to each other (and to David, Gillian’s husband who also shared a poem with us).

Since then, I’ve re-visited most of my poems and realised how they can be improved; that should keep me quiet for a while.

I am trying to think of what were the week’s negatives, because things that sound too good to be true often are. Except in this case.

True, I found the narrow bed a bit tricky (spoiled brat that I am), and the Welsh water had a nasty taste if it wasn’t flavoured with Earl Grey or coffee. How awful, eh? It’s a wonder I coped.

Oh, and I left my phone there. On charge, blissfully forgotten until I was well on the way home.

What? A whole week without a phone? Yep, but that’s another story.

Dammit, I Couldn’t Marry a Tree

Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy reading her poem for Tracey Emin ‘Stone Love’

The time of my life is now drawing to a close. Well, not literally, I hope, just poetically speaking.

I’m on the last day of a Masterclass with Carol Ann Duffy (the UK Poet Laureate) and Gillian Clarke (Welsh National Poet) at Tŷ Newydd, the National Writers’ Centre of Wales.

I’ve never before been on a residential writing course, though I’ve experienced the good, the bad and the ugly in workshops, seminars and classes, the you-too-can-spend-a-fortune-and-become-in-a-day-a-best-selling-author/poet/playwright/wordsmith (delete as appropriate).

This experience has been in a different league to anything I’ve ever done before. This has been intellectually challenging and stimulating, in the company of a lovely group of capable women poets ranging in age from 21 to someway past retirement. One of my initial fears was that I’d be the oldest here, surrounded by bright young things, and I’d be left wondering how I’d managed to let the poetry ship sail by without me. I’m still thinking that, but it seems I’m not the only one, and there’s hope for me yet, no matter how long of tooth I am.

The poetry writing exercises have been eye-wateringly challenging.  Group DiscussionsThis morning’s session began with Carol Ann reading a poem on, and then leading a discussion about, Tracey Emin’s marriage to a stone (Google it – fascinating!). It ended with us writing a poem ‘I married a….’ with each of us offered a random object to tie the knot with. I got a tree, but I couldn’t get past all the puns involved in branching out and leaving, so I failed miserably (although I may revisit that idea some time in the future).

Last night, after another delicious dinner (did I mention how GORGEOUS the food is here?) we took turns to read out anonymous poems, and tried to guess which one of us had done the writing. I got three guesses right – I even recognised my own contribution. There were some jaw-droppingly brilliant poems read out – one of them (not mine, sadly) was immediately identified by Gillian and Carol Ann as a ‘competition poem’, the sort that goes straight to the top of the judge’s pile.

I am humbled to be in such talented company; I’ve had a ball, but my brain is scrambled now, and I need to find a quiet corner to mull over what I’ve learned, find the time to put all that good advice into practice.

Maggie, the chef's cat
Maggie, the Ty Newydd cat

It’s not quite finished yet – there’s a little anthology getting printed this afternoon, with contributions from all participants, plus Carol Ann and Gillian.

And tonight, we get to read our favourite, self-penned poems in front of the Poet Laureate and the National Poet of Wales in the Tŷ Newydd Library. We get five minutes each to make our mark.

No pressure then…