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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Preview: Scarecrow is coming

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I love a proper big art project – one that starts as isolated moments and then starts to coalesce, condense into some serious thinking, serious time and serious work. I’ve just completed one.
 
About four years ago I went to a Poetry Wivenhoe evening and was encouraged to go away and write something, and to read it during the next session. I hadn’t written any poetry since I was a teenager – just features for magazines, songs for bands and drafts of novels. Many people I knew put down poetry as twee or pretentious. I wasn’t sure why I wanted to engage with it again, but somehow I did.
 
Also, much modern poetry has become assimilated into the entertainment industry. Big contracts, tours, performance. Big soundbites, loose rhymes, dull platitudes etc. No ideas. The kind of stuff you hear on Radio 4. The old radical, intellectual and left-wing poets have been interred. Today’s avant-garde hardly gets a glance.
 
I set about writing Scarecrow as I headed to and from the day job of editor/journalist. It’s a mix of poems about London and here, Essex, and up north in Cumbria too (occasionally), and, mostly, about the spaces between them. And about time. Because everything is about time, really – and if it isn’t, it should be.
 
I don’t know if it’s radical, or even if its politics jump from the pages of the collection. I do know that it’s – finally – pretty much the book I wanted it to be: squared by modernity, folky round the edges, surreal in some detail. It tries not to falter. It tries not to disappear.
 
We’re launching (Dunlin Press is launching) Scarecrow at Wivenhoe Bookshop on Friday 17 March. I’ll read some of the poems and we can all have glass of wine – the Bookshop launches are always fun! Come along if you can.
 
But did I find out why I wanted to engage with poetry again? Well, yes.
 
Because sometimes we need more than journalism and internet opinion pieces. And sometimes we need more than the templated and bourgeois narrative structures of many novels. We need language to work harder; thought to work harder.
 
The world around us fractures and we need new ways of explaining it. Poetry can be a good start.

An early January edit

In January the ferry marsh is spare. Nearby there are godwits, little egrets, cormorants and, present in their sorrowful call, redshanks.

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It is dark at mid-afternoon, especially on the days when the sky starts charcoal and lightens to battleship grey – but no more.

At the writing desk the blinds are up and the silver birch is peeling; blue tits flit through it on their way to the woods. The train horns are reminder of the city; the concrete; the glass.

I have an old notebook with new writing – words, at least, nothing solid, though it is condensing, slowly. And I have a new diary pocked with ink-marks and scribbles.

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Before the noise of new writing, though, there is something else. Something coming. Something that has been here for a while. A book.

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MWB

100-Word Fiction: ‘Freedom Fruit’

They lift from the hedgerow
Light as cobweb and spun sugar
A shroud of lace for a season’s going
Displaced migrants, the bramble’s other
Temporary lover:

Jenny Long Legs rise in a cloud
In pestilent numbers this September
As hands shake the limbs of briar
For black berries and rose hips
On foraging trips.

Peace treads heavily across
These rutted trails; vaults fences,
Breaks the blades of grass,
Tramps where it needs in pursuit
Of freedom’s fruit

The insects scattered seek shelter
From flailing purpose, shoed away
From Tupperware treasure pluckings:
The world’s bounty in a field
In Essex county

100-Word Fiction: A Return (Sonnet)

Those years – did it ever really stick
In mind, this mire of brown estuarine mud?
A trick, forgot in ideals, thick
With thought: how? why? what? should?
There was no habitat here but the past:
The sweet chestnut and bluebells of a dream
A deluge of deliberations that never last
A ferry to a riverbank unseen.
And shrill, but strong, then it called –
A greenshank slits the sky across
And light comes tumbling, lives fall in
And settle. Being here now? No loss?
No rattling rail or kicking boots brought such luck
To have come here, and gained, and stuck

100-Word Fiction: ‘Towards a New Year’

There are people here, but not many. An old man sighs a joke as his grandchildren try to raise a kite into the still air. On the grey banks of mud a wiry bird stands still, too tired to prod for worms with its thin beak. Reeds have been blackened by the winter across the silent pools of the marsh. In the nearby woods, fragile, rusting leaves are broken from their branches by the merest gasp of air, their colour dulled in every moment that dusk creeps over the sodden ground. Birches have been felled and forgotten; ferns lifelessly splayed…