It is three years since the poet Matthew Sweeney died. I was fortunate of having a whole week with him at the wonderful Almassera Vella, Spain in 2006. I learned a great deal. The photo was taken in the garden by the infinity pool.
One of my favourite books about writing is Teach Yourself Writing Poetry. It was written by Matthew and his friend and poet John Hartley Williams. It is packed with exercises, and I love the book because in between the exercises there is dialogue, chat, discussion. I can hear their voices as they talk (I’m sure over a glass of wine). Wit and poignancy.
The Hermit was written on a workshop. We were given Sweeney’s poem The Shoplifter and asked to think about someone with an unusual occupation and what life would be like for them when they retired. Both the shoplifter and hermit now live by the sea. Sweeney’s shoplifter has ‘fronds of marijuana’ outside, has ‘learned the use of coins’ and has a use for all those books:
His books come in useful now as each time he has shinned
with an aerial up the chimney Viking wind has ripped it down.
The hermit had to be retired for health and safety reasons.
He was flown out of the desert, given a dictionary and glasses.
He is renting an old longhouse, leaves doors and windows open
so he can smell the cool air, but still he cannot sleep.
The postman was his first visitor. Mail lies piled up by the gate.
The grains of sand on the beach make him feel homesick even now.
By the light of a candle he may be able to look in the mirror, but not yet.
This month I am featuring poems by Martin Zarrop. We met some years ago through the Poetry School workshops and are also members of one of the Poetry Society’s Stanzas. I start by congratulating Martin: the 2021 Cinnamon Press Pamphlet competition got 450 submissions. The results came out a few days ago – Martin’s manuscript was in the top five!
Martin is a retired mathematician who wanted certainty but found life more interesting and fulfilling by not getting it. He started writing poetry in 2006 and has been published in various magazines and anthologies. He completed a MA in Creative Writing at Manchester University in 2011.
His pamphlet No Theory of Everything (2015) was one of the winners of the 2014 Cinnamon Press pamphlet competition and his first full collection Moving Pictures was published by Cinnamon in 2016. His pamphlet Making Waves on the life and science of Albert Einstein was published by V. Press in 2019. His second collection Is AnyoneThere? was published by High Window Press in March 2020.
The five poems are all from Is Anyone there? Where Martin’s poems refer to science, they do so in an accessible way, often poignant, often with humour. Like Martin, I first came to Manchester in the early 1980s – a place where now around 200 world languages are spoken. I hope you enjoy this selection.
The aliens are coming. I can see them flicker in the flames as I stare into the coal fire and my mother asks me if I’m happy. Has she been taken over by Martians? I must take care not to fall asleep.
And here I am covered in mud. The invisible predator can’t see me as I try to leave the exam room. Failure isn’t an option but the exit signs are hidden under ectoplasmic goo. The ice cream man ignores my screams.
It is bursting out of my chest cavity, this other me I don’t want to know. Why is my name missing from the credits? Perhaps I didn’t wait long enough for the Z’s. Out in the foyer, zombies are waiting for the next show.
First Impressions Manchester 1980
People talk to you here but not in English and the rain is cold on the grim streets that run for their lives past empty Victoriana, lost empires.
At night, the city strips to its bones, lies unwashed in the glow of fag ends, crushed and dying among claggy debris, northern mouths.
She must be in here somewhere. He turns another page and stares at shapes, the outline of a face and almost smiles. The hair’s not right, he says.
Under his thumb, images move, some not even close to human. This one looks like a centaur, this a lion. He knows how much he wants her but he struggles to join the dots.
Across the table, the astronomer, sympathetic despite the late hour, is accustomed to darker matters. Try this one, he grunts, and opens another star catalogue.
UK’s first double hand transplant awoke from a 12-hour operation with two new sets of fingers (Guardian 23.07.16)
It’s not like wearing leather gloves. This is for real, the weld of tissue, bone to severed stumps; white flesh imbibes the ruddiness of life, then shudders at an alien command –
a finger twitches. It displays no loyalty to donor meat, no tear or thought, no dumb relief not to be ash, no memory of goodbye waves, past loves held close.
The patient chews his nails, flexes each knuckle as if born to it, admires blotches, childhood scars from scraps he never fought, holds out his hands.
To My Nineties
You’d better get your skates on or at least your boots and get out there, old dribbler, before it’s too late.
I may not meet you in the hills struggling through Kinder peat. Thirteen miles, fifteen? No problem!
Or so I thought as hair thinned and Christmas followed Easter as if in a time machine that ate old friends for breakfast.
You stand patient near the finish line as I pull myself up for the final sprint. Nothing lasts forever, not hips, not brain cells. I need a project.
On Friday I had my second vaccination (Pfizer). I have felt ok, a bit tired and feverish. By way of a treat, a good childhood memory.
The “selling fur coats” took place in Amsterdam, in Maison de Bonneterie: a small chain of high-end fashion stores. The building in Amsterdam was designed by a well-known Dutch architect with an interior in the style of Louis XVI (the Sun King of France), an imposing staircase and a glass roof.
It closed in 2014, after 125 years of uninterrupted service to the elegant public. The Amsterdam store is a national listed building and now used as a location for events.
We’ve been waiting in silence. It’s just the three of us. Mother’s away in a city, selling fur coats. The radio crackles, but here comes father with blue beakers, hot chocolate, curled cream on top, and the bread he has baked on his day off.
Tomorrow he’ll be on the balcony playing the organ; we’ll be below. Today he is the son of a master baker. We’ll have the bread with butter and jam, red strawberries, shiny against the golden crust.
It is March, so here is an example of personification. It comes from a workshop: we were asked to choose a month and write about it, as though it was a person. Do you see March as a man too? Does his emotional state reflect typical March weather?
He is a man with a frown,
walking in a military
manner. He is the eldest
son of a Rossendale baker, who
married young and placed his hopes
on other people’s shoulders.
He studied accountancy at a redbrick
in the Midlands, ironed shirts himself,
lost his accent, met a nurse
in town one night, got drunk,
a lower second degree, a baby,
a small semi in the suburbs.
Last year he didn’t get a rise,
didn’t get promotion either.
He thinks about renewing insurance,
calculates the cost of divorce,
puts his hands in his pockets and
strides over the zebra crossing.
He often feels like going crazy, going
off with a woman half his age, living
in the south of France, but he walks
back to the empty house, hiding
under a large black umbrella,
cursing under his breath.
Tomorrow is the publication date of my second collection Nothing serious, nothingdangerous. The book is already on Amazon and has been available for pre-publication orders from Indigo Dreams Publishing.
The publishers have selected six accessible poems for the author page, and the author photo is by my nephew Ted Köhler who lives in the Netherlands and is beginning to build up a photography portfolio. The end of November is too close to the festive season for an official launch. That will be here in Manchester, at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on Tuesday 3 March.
The title was inspired by a Raymond Carver poem called My Boat. Raymond Carver is one of my all-time favourite poets. Someone I return to when I feel stale and in a negative frame of mind.
The poem Why are we in Vietnam? was written on a workshop at the wonderful Almassera Vella, Spain. We were to find any book in the library, open it at random and use a few lines as a starting point for a poem. Then we were to imagine finding a postcard inside the book. Where was the postcard from? What was written on the back? Who had sent it? I picked the paperback because of its intriguing title. It’s by Norman Mailer. I was surprised to find the lines and I imagined there would be an art card inside, a card I’d bought and forgotten about. It’s a reminder how working with “found” materials can easily trigger our creativity. The poem was commended in the 2016 Havant Open Poetry Competition.
Why are we in Vietnam?
It has held up the broken leg
of a single bed in the attic.
Everything is dusty now.
Who brought this Panther
paperback into my life?
Then the trail of the blood
took a bend, beat through dwarf alder.
The postcard isn’t of Cezanne’s gardener
seated upright in his chair,
or Venetian gondoliers.
Didn’t want to die in those woods,
Green lines, black dots,
small yellow triangles,
Miro’s insects and birds.
Neat black lines for the address,
the black box for a stamp.
To the left white space,
the white space of that Alaska.
At Ty Newydd on the Writing Retreat the other week I talked with one of the people about books that might be helpful for dealing with “blocks”. I mentioned Julia Cameron’s bestseller The Artist’s Way. They hadn’t heard of it.
The book was recommended to me by a good friend who was a musician/painter. It had helped him work through blocks about being an artist and he thought I might benefit too. The Artist’s Way was first published in 1992 and it is A Course in Discovering andRecovering your Creative Self.
The book is based on the creativity workshops Julia Cameron had been running. In the book she briefly introduces Spiritual Electricity: the Basic Principles, then outlines the Basic Tools. Each of the 12 chapters addresses a major block. You’re expected to work through a chapter each week, by completing various exercises. Most pages have one or two short quotes about creativity in the margins. I found many of these very uplifting and supportive.
I have just found the Contract which I signed on 30 June 1997. I had also highlighted a quote by Oscar Wilde: The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.
In sequence the chapters are Recovering a Sense of: Safety, Identity, Power, Integrity, Possibility, Abundance, Connection, Strength, Compassion, Self-Protection, Autonomy, Faith.
I found several of the exercises, tasks, questions extremely challenging and even very painful at times. Julia Cameron had warned me about the process in her initial chapter, that working through the course would be peaks-and-valleys, that I would experience anger, grief, defiance, want to give up the whole thing before I came to the creative U-turn from which there would be choppy growth.
She was correct! But I stuck with it and I have kept up with the Basic Tools since then:
1) Morning Pages – the main purpose is “to get to the other side” – of the critic, it’s a “brain drain”, just stream-of-consciousness dumping, angry, whiny stuff. Cameron suggests three pages in long-hand and she says “you shouldn’t even read them yourself for the first eight weeks”. After that period, it’s okay to read and see if there are things that could be used in your creative work.
2) The Artist Date – a block of time, perhaps two hours a week, set aside to nurture our inner artist. It doesn’t need to be expensive; it could be a solo walk on the beach, a visit to an art gallery, seeing an old movie. It’s the time commitment that is sacred. This is all about “Filling the Well, Stocking the Pond”.
If I was compiling that list of books that changed my life, The Artist’s Way would be on it.