The Orphaned Spaces

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For the past year, between writing poetry, I’ve been busy with another project – and it’s launching this week. The Orphaned Spaces is a rumination on life and loss through the prism of liminal spaces – derelict land, brownfield sites, edgelands – caught between moments of dilapidation and regeneration.

I’ve provided the words and a few photos for it, and Ella Johnston has created some beautiful illustrations, still-life nature photography, and pressed flower images. The project takes the form a paperback book (pictured in this post), but also a highly limited edition, made to order box set, with hand-stitched booklets, archival prints, wildflower seeds, a reliquary and more. It’s quite a thing!

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The project was only meant to be a brief interlude for us here at Dunlin Press, but it escalated. We spent a year visiting places that had fallen into dereliction – that had been ‘left behind’ – collecting images and information, and working out what these spaces mean to us. 

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And once you see the sites, they seem to appear everywhere. Suddenly, the perimeter of a car park or building site, a crumbling factory or depot, a canal wall, a railway siding, all become places of interest.

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We also talked to conservationists about the rare flora and fauna that thrives in these places, and about how best to manage their precarious ecologies. Ruderal species, pioneer plants, nature’s order of succession… unfolding in front of us, changing as the seasons turned…

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The words in the book take the form of a diary that runs over the course of a year. They were made from notes made in my journal at the time, in the field, as we explored or passed these ‘orphaned spaces’. They’re about the natural world, and about place, of course. But really they’re about time, and about how we cope with loss and with change. They’re about what we permit ourselves to ‘see’, and what we turn away from.

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Life springs from these deserted places. It persists, even when it seems as if it can’t.

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Fittingly, the magenta cover image of The Orphaned Spaces is of Rosebay willowherb – ‘fireweed’, exploding out of a black background. It is, of course, the plant that sprang from the craters of a bombed-out London after the Second World War to become a symbol of the city – and which has spread, like so many other species, via the conduits of rail and road, naturalising itself in areas of what’s sometimes called ‘waste ground’, all across the land.
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There’s more about the book and box set over at the Dunlin Press shop.

 

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Game of forms

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What I admire in some poets is that they know what they want from their writing. They produce work to the same high standard, sure of the form the poems will take and precise in their vocabulary every time. They seem to be able to do this at will. And this means you can throw subject matter at them and they can respond. Ask them to write about a dry stone wall, or a birthday, or some news event, and it will be done, and their voice will ring true.

What I admire in some other poets is their adaptability when set a challenge. They are given an opportunity to write for a journal or competition and they seem to know innately what must be done. They produce work that, though it shape-shifts in form and style, also responds to any given brief with a clarity of purpose, and the poet’s efforts are regularly recognised with publication, commendations and prizes. Writing for prizes is a skill distinct from, say, writing for a collection, and some poets absolutely nail it.

But there are also other types of poet. There are, for example, some for whom purpose and signature voice seems much more about enquiry – the journey, perhaps – than having a certain idea as to the outcome. It’s not that their voice doesn’t make itself known, or that their work is distractingly inconsistent, it’s just that you’re never quite sure where they’re headed next.

I was thinking about these distinctions while selecting some poems for an upcoming reading. I written a lot over the past year – and since the publication of Scarecrow. And in that time I’ve encountered some real dead ends as well as making some decent steps forward with what I want from my own work.

What am I getting at?

At first, post-Scarecrow, my new poems were rather slight on the page. Looking back, it was as if I could barely commit to new words at all. White space was left to illuminate the page. One-word lines, two-line stanzas… new thoughts only hinted at, elemental, stripped back to the point where they were barely there. I wrote a poem about a piece of furniture; another about a potato. Somewhere in all this was a need to get back to the very building blocks of writing, and the creative process itself.

Within a few months, however, something changed. Rain poured on an old cottage in the Calder Valley, and words came, too. Suddenly, lines were flowing across the page and forming long, dense stanzas, and columns of poetry filled my notebook. There was too much to say and it was all coming in torrents.

Formally, the work I was attending to last summer is very different to the poems I’m trying to hone at the moment. Am I being inconsistent? Have I somehow lost my voice, or never gained it? I’m not so sure. I think it’s all part of the same process – part of the ‘digging’ – and part of working out what it is I want to say next. What’s clear is that I’m not allied to any singular form, but I am certain that whatever form a poem eventually takes it should inform the meaning of the piece.

I’m reminded too that I’m not keen on poetry that seems more concerned with adhering to arbitrary formal rules than actually ‘saying’ anything of interest. So you can write a tight Petrarchan sonnet; you’re always delighted to see a sestina, and love some oulipo action… but why? What for? I honestly believe that writing poetry should be more than a game of forms, and formal rules are only one part of a poet’s toolkit.

And I’m meandering, rather like my recent work. And it’s almost time for dinner. And tomorrow I need to hack away at some words that link snow and the night sky, a ‘joke’ in a symphony, an office bin, cherry blossom, and ageing. And the ways to do this are to apply the tools of symmetry, elision, repetition, and deletion (thanks L Bernstein). And then we’ll see what form the poem has taken.

(P.S. All of this is subject to change.)

I am not here

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When we first moved to Wivenhoe, Essex, over six years ago now, my compass still pointed towards London. The railway was a thin chain, a line of landscape that linked our new home with our old home in the city. A combination of changing jobs, Network Rail’s interminable bus replacement services, and a general digging in to our new environment, has seen a shift made.

I wrote no poetry when I left London. I was touting a vaguely experimental novel, playing guitar and singing. Then, after a couple of years here, I started attending Poetry Wivenhoe‘s monthly evening of readings, at which a guest poet, local poet and open mic poets get up on stage for a couple of hours. After a few sessions, I started writing, and reading.

Last year, Scarecrow, a first collection of poetry, was published through me and Ella Johnston‘s own ‘small publishing concern’, Dunlin Press. I had some poems published in journals, too, and I read at poetry events across East Anglia, in London, and in Liverpool.

Wherever I thought I was when I arrived in Wivenhoe, I was not. Some of these thoughts made it into Scarecrow.

So where am I? I appear to have arrived amid a loose, but connected, sometimes neighbourly, sometimes geographically distanced, collective of supportive and curious minds – people who seek out, listen to, read, and most of all write poetry. Some of that poetry rhymes. Some of it doesn’t. Some of its meaning is straightforward and transparent. Some of it is oblique or opaque – a conundrum that doesn’t care whether it’s ever solved.

But what most of the poets I meet these days share, is the knowledge that what they do is outside of direct commercial concerns. It’s not usually seeking large audiences, or existing as some kind of a priori exercise in soliciting funding. That doesn’t mean it’s not good poetry. In fact I often feel the opposite. What it means is that it has other reasons for being. It is created because those who create it feel compelled to do so, compelled to describe – to interrogate, make ambiguous, reinterpret, reimagine – the world in which they live, perhaps for no other reason than they can.

Does poetry make you money? It’s a fair question. But why do you ask? It might help me if it did. But would it help you, too? There’s something about doing something that doesn’t offer financial return that really offends people.

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In December, I headed back from Cumbria/The Lake District to Essex via Liverpool, to give a reading at the launch of issue two of Coast to Coast to Coast, a handstitched journal of poetry edited and produced by Maria Isakova Bennett and Michael Brown, in which I had a poem, Ways.

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December is a busy time in the day-job for me, and I almost said no to going. In a week of travelling, Liverpool was an extra diversion. But there, at the Open Eye Gallery, were these people again. These poets, and an audience that had come to hear the poetry, reading and listening to the world being subtly reinvented, our understanding of the world being polished, muddied, sharpened, blunted.

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It’s strange now, thinking of that high tension line I had drawn between Essex and London six-and-a-bit years ago. So direct, so certain. And now what? Well, it’s January and I’m back in Wivenhoe again. And this is good. Except I am also not here. It’s like everything is starting to be everywhere. And this is good too.

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From ‘Plant’

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“The arms that thrust above the streets / bring visions of heaven…”

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“The arms that thrust above the streets /are the colour of blood…”

Elliptical Movements – Billy Mills review of Scarecrow

I’ve been rewarded this year by being introduced to the poetry of Billy Mills, whose recent The City Itself is one of those occasional collections that can make you question why you write the way you write. It simplifies the complex, and finds huge space for exploration in what is seemingly simple. It’s about place, and about the elemental and the supposedly insignificant, the particular and the universal, and the relations between them. It’s words, but it creates a soundscape – a rising and falling of the whispering air around us. It’s great, basically, and is part of a continuity of work Mills has been working on since the late 70s – a series of books that form one long book, or one long conversation/interrogation, at least.

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Poet Michael Begnal notes here of The City Itself, its “compact and intricate soundplay, occasional lyric flashes, documentary historical material, and even personal narrative in order to make an argument about the interplay between urban and natural spaces and human beings’ place in the network of things.”

Nicely put, and one of the reasons why I’m delighted that Mills has reviewed my recent debut collection of poems, Scarecrow, on his Elliptical Movements blog, alongside work from Peter Philpott, Sonja Benskin Mesher, John Phillips, Daragh Breen, and Anna Cathenka.

You can read the reviews here. It’s a blog worth subscribing to.

Two gigs

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I’ll be reading from my book Scarecrow, and debuting a couple of brand new poems, at two nights in the next week or so.

Thursday 25 May I’ll be doing two sets at Poetry Wivenhoe, in Essex, supporting Martin Figura and Helen Ivory – a home-town gig for me. Details here.

The following day, Friday 26 May I’ll be reading a short set at a Red Raw evening of various entertainments at Vout-o-Reenees in Aldgate, London. Details here.

Lots more to catch up on, but that’s it for now.

Have yourselves a great weekend. Hope to see some of you at one of these, or a future reading.

MWB x

 

Scarecrow on tour

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Scarecrow has been on a mini tour of the region since its launch – I’ve read in Wivenhoe a couple of times (at the Wivenhoe Bookshop launch and at Poetry Wivenhoe) and at Ipswich (as a guest of Suffolk Poetry Society) and at Bury St Edmunds (as the guest reader at Poetry Aloud).

Thanks to everyone who came and listened as the Scarecrow found its voice – it’s been a pleasure reading. Rather nicely each set has been quite different, drawing on various aspects of the collection. I must have read nearly half of the collection out over the few dates. And thanks to everyone who bought books, too. Not only does it make the author feel like it was worthwhile, but the funds go straight back into Dunlin Press and are set directly against the costs of the next book. You’re helping to keep indie publishing alive.

Anyway, thanks for the invites, and for the time. It’s been a good, good thing.

MWB