Category Archives: Readings

That summer day – a poem

Dartington Hall, Devon

My friend and poet Kathleen Kummer will have her birthday soon. We have visited the Dartington Estate in Devon several times: to hear the then Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion read, to listen to music during the Music Summer School & Festival which was established in 1947. Alwyn Marriage of Oversteps Books invited me to read during the Ways with Words Literary Festival. It was wonderful seeing people out on the lawn, resting in deckchairs, or queuing up to get their book signed by famous authors.

Dartington Hall is a spectacular Grade I listed building. The gardens are grade II listed: a sculpture by Henry Moore, a yew tree that is 1500 years old and a row of sweet chestnut trees believed to be about 400 years old. The gardens are a delight in every season. Here is Kathleen’s poem about the gardens.

The Tiltyard, Dartington Hall Gardens

That summer day

That summer day at Dartington,
everything familiar, beautiful:
the corrugation of the bark
of ancient trees, the sun behind
the scarlet maple leaves, the swathes
of wildflowers in the glades, warm
to the touch the might buttocks
of Henry Moore’s reclining figure,
the bench, its oak smooth, silver,
following the stone wall’s curve,
on which we sat. Unexpected,
the robin landing next to us,
a fledgling, plump, who stayed ten, fifteen
minutes until his mother called him.
And, in the little wave of sadness
which washed over us, because
he looked so young, indivisible
as water is, this swell of happiness.

Horses of a different colour

Anthology, publ. Dempsey & Windle

It was a lovely surprise to get this anthology ahead of schedule, so I could read it before leaving for the Netherlands. Dempsey & Windle organise an annual competition, with options to enter single poems as well as a batch of 10 to win publication of a pamphlet. The anthology has poems by the winners of both categories, as well as the highly commended and longlisted poems. I was glad to have my tribute to a poet friend included. On Thursday 10 June in the evening there will be a reading on Zoom with a number of poets reading. Contact Dempsey & Windle for the link.


This poem by fellow poet Rod Whitworth has it first publication in the same anthology. Rod and I met several years ago on writing workshops. I admire its economy and delicacy. It’s not surprising it gained a 2nd prize.

Demobbed

Go on. Hold his hand. You’ll be all right.
I looked at the man in the new suit
they’d told me was my dad and I walked
at his side, hands in my pockets.

We stepped into the street, his right hand
steering Megan’s pram with ease and command
past Cropper’s with the pigeons, and I walked
at his side, hands in my pockets.

Down Platting Brew, round the curve
over the culverted brook and a hard shove
to the road to Daisy Nook, me walking
at his side, hands in my pockets.

Past the milk farm – Whitehead’s –
and the field with the pond and reeds,
the greying April snow. I walked,
my right hand warm in his left hand.

The day we switched off the machine,
I told him they’d arrested Pinochet,
though he was past cheering, and he lay,
his right hand cold in my left hand.

Fairy tale – a poem

photo credit: Enrique Meseguer, via Pixabay

On a writing workshop last weekend, I introduced Vasco Popa’s The Golden Apple: a round of stories, songs, spells, proverbs & riddles. I have been using some of the riddles and proverbs as writing prompts.

Vasco Popa (1922-1991) was Serbia’s greatest modern poet. Ted Hughes was an admirer of his work and wrote the introduction to his Collected Poems. Popa collected folk tales from many sources. He found a rich inspiration for his own poems in this “eternally living wellspring of folk poetry” which he combined with vivid imagery and a touch of the surreal.

Here are two riddles from The Golden Apple. The answers are at the end of the blog.

With an iron key
I open a green fortress
And drive out the black cattle

A horse with its pack goes into a house and comes out of it, but its tail never goes in.

Vasco Popa

Popa’s Collected Poems inspired my poem Fairy tale. It was first published in erbacce and then in my debut collection Another life (Oversteps Books Ltd, 2016).

Fairy tale

Someone needs to go to
a deep cupboard in a dark room
the others wait outside

The first one becomes
a grandmother with a stoop
then someone else steals
her white lace cap her smile
her soft voice
they go to lie still in a deep dark
bed in a cold room

Then someone else walks a long
way through the wood, across
the saddled serpent under a cold
sheet of dark clouds

That someone is dressed in crimson
already – it will save time
the old one will rescue the red girl
but they will not have enough
bricks to finish the job

after that someone else will get to be hungry
and someone will always be eaten

Answers to the riddles: Watermelon, Spoon.

A Word in Your Ear

Alex Josephy

It is a great pleasure to introduce this month’s poet. Alex Josephy and I met last November. We both read at the ‘virtual’ Poetry in Aldeburgh festival, along with poets Sharon Black and Christopher North – all of us with a connection to Europe.

Alex lives in London and Italy. Her collection Naked Since Faversham was published by Pindrop Press in 2020. Other work includes White Roads, poems set in Italy, Paekakariki Press, 2018, and Other Blackbirds, Cinnamon Press, 2016. Her poems have won the McLellan and Battered Moons prizes, and have appeared in magazines and anthologies in the UK and Italy.

As part of the Poetry School Mixed Borders scheme, she has been poet-in-residence at Rainham Hall, Essex, and in Markham Square, London. Alex is a poetry mentor and writes reviews for publications such as Envoi and London Grip. Find out more on her website: http://www.alexjosephy.eu

I have chosen four poems from Naked Since Faversham which show the range of her work. I hope they speak to you, as they did to me.

Grasshopper, Castelvecchio

Stalled between diagonal slats,
you’re a dry hull, ridge-backed

as if whittled from a vine stem,
forelegs splayed to grip the ledge

you’ve chosen for shelter.
Hail made me close the shutters;

that’s when I noticed you, remote
in winter torpor. When I woke

you were still here, a cold wedge
interrupting the light.

Each time I pass I look for you,
imagine how the frost

deepens, fills your hollows;
hear no rasp of song, no longing

for green. Cavalletta, little horse,
I hope we’ll see the spring.

A Word in Your Ear

Cielo, the heaven
of unimportant things:
half an hour together

in the usual bar.
It’s a light still on
when the morning sky

starts to remember blue.
Cielo, just look
at the shape of it:

five strokes, a hasty dot,
slight enough
to skim a canvas

on a brush-tip, watery
peaks and arcs.
That fluent curve –

a sudden smile,
stand-offish verticals,
and then a hug.

A little bite of something
sweet and quick –
cielo, cielo, ce l’ho!

warbles the pastry cook.
His cielo is yeast
that swells the heart

of a brioche, opens
rooms of warm air
in a bread roll.

Going Up

At the door I pause to salute
the white plastic vessel. Press

the panel, cupping a palm
beneath. The blessing flows;

I wring my hands, fold them,
gather a fearful breath, hope

for the best. Together we can fight
infection. Shed what I’ve carried,

invisible on the wheezy bus. This is
a clean hand zone. Trace finger bone

to knuckle, heart line to life line.
Catch a whiff of spirit,

hurry through Reception,
head for the silver lift.

Therapy

Take thistledown, hold it in the bowl
of your palms. Feel it tingle
like Spumante.

No, it can’t mend your heart,
but it will float you to the surface
of your skin.

Each time you long for your child
across the ocean,
find a river

or a canal., worn stone steps
down to the towpath.
Accept

a kingfisher’s quick shot of blue,
a moorhen’s buoyancy;
how easily

they dive, come up somewhere
unexpected, sleeved
in a twist of air.

November – a poem

photo credit: redmupfe via Pixabay

Earlier this week I read for Todmorden Wednesday Writers. The Zoom event was well attended, with the open mic attracting poets from UK and abroad. I still want to abolish January – blogged about that before. The Todmorden poets liked this November poem. The pumpkin picture perfectly represents how I’m feeling right now – lockdown in November!

November

The month that offers only Halloween and All Souls’ Day.
That Danish hygge nonsense – an IKEA trick to sell
more scented candles, cocoa, woollen blankets
with a Nordic pattern. All those Scandinavian series –
Killing, The Bridge, different actors playing Wallander,
every instalment set in November.
Groundhog month. Lit-up pumpkins will never
warm the knuckles of your heart.
Every November day is an odyssey.
To be away twenty years and be recognised
only by a mangy old dog.
Check your bonfire for hedgehogs, remember
Battersea Dogs & Cats Home in your will.
Do away with Christmas.

Poetry in Aldeburgh

Moot Hall, Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Photo in public domain

I’m delighted to be reading at Poetry in Aldeburgh. The reading, called Between Places: Britain and Europe, will take place on Saturday 14 November, 12:00 – 13:00 London time. Also reading will be poets Sharon Black (France), Alex Josephy (Italy) and Christopher North (Spain).

The readings are free to attend. You just need to register at the Poetry in Aldeburgh website, to get a link to the Zoom event. The Festival runs from Friday to Sunday.

I will be reading new work, written in my caravan in the Netherlands during the last six months. When I selected the poems, I came across one which reminded me of “Poetry in the Plague Year”. Jim Bennett of the Poetry Kit set up this project. It’s an international project with contributions from many countries: https://www.poetrykit.org/plague.htm

My short poem, written on 29 March, is below.
 

Credit: marcart via Pixabay

 
Poem
 
CORE i3, a blue laptop,
my lifeline to the world.
How to fill the time until sunset?
 
If he was here…no, he is
someone’s husband now.
The only snow, spiraea in the hedge.
 
All that’s well will end.
My friend Helen emailed
There’ll be a cremation, no ceremony
 

Ferry crossing

Fokkina_McDonnell_Poetry_Launch_3March2020_with_GKB_Painting (002)

The Departure, book and me (Photo: copyright Sophie J Brown)

 
Here I am with my second collection Nothing serious, nothing dangerous at the launch, held at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester on the 3rd of March. It was a wonderful occasion, made very special by Graham Kingsley Brown’s painting The Departure being there too.

His daughter Sophie Brown (herself a talented artist) designed this website. Visit www.grahamkingsleybrown.com and click on the Curator’s Diary for her account of the launch and to read what the meaning of the painting may be (entry 28 November 2019).

Below is the first poem of the book. This may well be the ferry from Harwich, UK to Hook of Holland, the Netherlands. A ferry crossing is a departure of a kind …

 

Ferry crossing

Two people sit at a table by an oblong picture window.
Sun lights up their hands which are curled round coffee cups.

The window is made of safety glass. There have been announcements:
location of lifebelts, life rafts, long and short blast of a horn.

While words are hidden at the obscure side of imagination,
other people are queuing for lunch or buying alcohol in the shop.

The folded hands are the back of playing cards, The Queen of Spades,                                    operas, novellas, the shortest of short stories.

It is not strange to see these cards turn into sea gulls.
A white ferry is a city where nothing is permanent.

Leaving Czechoslovakia, 1964

Image

 

I was invited to read at a European Language Day, held at the Instituto Cervantes here in Manchester. I selected poems that all had a European connection, including the poem below.  It was a joy to take part in the evening event. And I very much enjoyed watching and listening to Hungarian dancers in traditional costume, and a young woman singing melancholy songs from the Balkans and Romany songs.

The next morning I did a bit of clearing through photo albums and found a black-and white photo of that red Trabant! The young woman leaning on the driver’s door had only just passed her driving test and advertised for someone to go with her.  In the event her father drove us to Munich from Amsterdam, and after that we were on our own.  Her mother was Czech, so we met a lot of family out there.  The poem was included in Songs for the Unsung anthology, published by Grey Hen. It will be included in my second collection Nothing serious, nothing dangerous which will be published shortly by Indigo Dreams Publishing.

 

Leaving Czechoslovakia, 1964

When we reached the border
in her small red Trabant
our cases were lighter: the pleated dresses,
jeans we’d given to aunts and nieces;
our footsteps behind us on the mountain
where we walked with her family
up towards the border with Poland,
our plimsolls wet, our hair lank from drizzle;
sweet and savoury Knedlicky we’d eaten;
songs we’d sung, drunk on vodka,
already flown, small skittering birds;
the yellow Objizdka sign in Prague diverting us
into the path of a funeral, black plumed horses.
The border guards with their guns gather
around us as we try again to open the boot,
our stiff smiles telling us not to think
of the airmail letters for America
hidden under the back seat.

Rain, rain, rain …

 

rain

 

This poem by Lemm Sissay is a great example of “concrete” poetry: the physical shape of the poem fits with the subject matter. Rain is on a wall on Oxford Road, Manchester, between the Whitworth and Manchester University. It’s the partner of Hardy’s Well, the poem by Lemm Sissay that is on the wall of a pub. I blogged about that in July last year. The title of the piece is What a Waste!

The last few days it has been raining here in Manchester, though the sun comes out now and then. It made me think of the famous poem Rain by Don Paterson. You can find it on http://www.poetry.org the site of the Academy of American Poets. It’s mostly in four-line stanzas and has end-rhymes, and starts:

I love all films that start with rain:
rain, braiding a windowpane
or darkening a hung-out dress
or streaming down her upturned face;

The poem ends with a one-line stanza which is a very striking “turn”. Many poems have turns, most famously, of course, the sonnet form with its volta. Paterson has:

and none of this, none of this matters.

 
My rain poem is in my collection Another life. There are several turns in the poem, including in the final stanza.

The Lido, Clifton

It is dry this Monday morning.
I wonder what it’s like swimming here
when it rains. Just then the drizzle starts,
a gently pulsating rhythm.

Bristol had the oldest open-air lido
in the country. Refurbished Grade II
it sits between the backs of offices.

The water is warm, kept at this
steady temperature. Floating on my back
I see the movement of clouds.

The following year my friend
would abandon me once I became ill,
but here we are drawing small ripples
in the water, each of us in our own lane.

Annoying Utterances

Christopher North has said: To me the ten most annoying utterances from the lectern at a poetry reading are:
1. Have I got time to squeeze in a short one?
2. Now let me see if I can find it…
3. Now if I can just get this thing to work…
4. This is one I wrote on the way here…
5. We were asked to write a villanelle…
6. I know it’s here somewhere…yes. Oh no erm let me see…
7. How long have I got?
8. It’s a load of rubbish but I read it anyway.
9. So all you need to know is that a ‘squawk bogger’ is a New Zealand newt, and that ‘ramping in the dolditts’ is an expression used by Romany folk from the Upper Silesia referring to their annual bean throwing festival, and that Durnstadt-terminum is a Village in Bavaria where they make clay pipes – well you’ll see what I mean when I…
10. (Already 15 minutes over allotted time) – ‘…and here’s one that I have to read. It came about after my son’s first session in Rehab – he’s out now and all seems Ok, Hooray! Hooray! And it’s an important poem for me because it was like a coming to terms emotionally with …blah blah blah.
(in an interview with William Oxley in Summer 2014, published in Acumen, September 2014)

I can tick all of these of on my list of readings that I have attended!

CN

Christopher, who owns the Old Olive Press (Almàssera Vella) in Relleu, Spain is a published and prize-winning poet. His first pamphlet A Mesh of Wires (Smith/Doorstop) was shortlisted for the 1999 Forward Prize. Oversteps Books Ltd published two collections Explaining the Circumstances (2010), The Night Surveyor (2014) as well as a joint bilingual collection with Terry Gifford: Al Otro Lado del Aguilar (2011). His pamphlet Wolves Recently Sighted was published by Templar in 2014.

blue house back view

The Old Olive Press (Almassera Vella)

It does add a special quality to being on a writing week at the Old Olive Press when your host is himself a poet. We were delighted to learn that Christopher is one of the four winners of the annual Poetry Business pamphlet competition. His collection The Topiary of Passchendaele will be launched at the Wordsworth Trust on 22 September this year. The title poem has just been awarded the 3rd prize in the 2018 Poetry on the Lake competition. With Christopher’s permission I’m publishing three poems of the new book below:

Last Word

In 1997 it was calculated that that there are fifty languages on the planet with only one speaker still alive. By 2015 there were just eight.

Lost in distant steppes
of somewhere to the East

there is a bank of evening primrose
beside a mud road with

a centre strip of mayweed,
hardheads smelling of pineapple.

The man at the window
has no word for pineapples.

He has a word for the ‘Via Lactea’,
that nightly glows above his roof.

It is similar to his word
for the blur caused by a stone or rain

hitting a puddle of clear water.
He had a word for evening primrose

but has forgotten it;
now they are nothing more

than his word for ‘flowers’.
The flowers have no words.

They only know their mechanisms:
their stretching upwards

their brief flare
and then a falling back to earth.

Sometimes a jet roars across the sky
leaving a tracer line that fades slowly.

He has never had a word for that.

 

From an Armchair

Beyond the range of the King’s photographer
the forest of the meteorite
and its star of blasted pines;

beyond the islands of the Gulag
and the road of bones through endless forest
where winter is norm, lives pass unrecorded,

epics unfold their progress in silence,
towns work through unknown narratives —
all outside the great conversation;

beneath sky-scapes lashed with stars
and the unfolding green of borealis;
through Sakha, Yakutsk and ice crushed bridges

lies Omyakon between frozen mountains,
where they say in winter words freeze
as they leave your mouth to fall forgotten in the snow.

They make a tundra littered with gossip,
cries of love, argument and greeting,
speeches and shouts petrified in depths of ice

until one midday when larch are greening
and golden root makes a brief smile at the low sun,
words fall into air as if from a door flung open

to fill the town like birdsong and running water

 

(From an idea of John Catanach – originally a story from Colin Thubron)

 

Trestles

Wise is knowing how much
you don’t know, have no conception of.

Unravel ignorance. Cover a trestle
with all those things not known.

The trestle groans, add another,
then more, fill a hall, then an annexe,

spread into the street,
become a neighbourhood,

grow to a city, a region,
a country with unmarked frontiers.

Maintain in a corner, dimly lit,
a timid altar of things you think you know.