January, that hardest of months, is at an end and, though it is still cold and I have spent a fair amount of time picking myself and my trusty bike up off the ice and applying plasters (to myself and my bike), we begin to look towards the Spring!
And already, there is too much to do. As always, I am only one person, only one poet, but there is enough to keep one poet busy that can, hopefully, undo some of the world’s injustices and sow a tiny seed, even if the soil is dry and cold and hard. I have faith. Last week, I worked with the first of several schools I will be working with in conjunction with the National Literacy Trust. A school in South London, its students had visited Keats’ House in Hampstead, with all its tall, expensive houses and its kitchenware shops that cost a fortune. I had also been to Keats’ House the week before in preparation. I’d written a poem about the bone saw behind glass upstairs. The children, however, focused on the clock in Keats’ sitting room, looking over the old sofa on which Keats’ lay on as he was dying, though he did not actually die until he got to Rome. They were learning something new; personification, that simplest of compassions for the inanimate, to understand that even if something lacks sentience, it does not, in the words of Philip Gross ‘like being ignored’.
Over two hours, I worked with these youngsters to unpick poems they had written at Keats’ House, improve them and learn to perform them. Children are ever surprising. Yes, it was just an old clock they were writing about, but even a ten-year-old can tell you that an old clock mourns the loss of its dead master, hurts when its glass face is smashed, is indignant when wine is spilled on it, is frightened on a ship in the storm, is relieved to be remade again when it is washed up on the beaches of New Zealand, where it was taken briefly after Keats’ death. This mix of emotions was documented in the poems of the students, where the old clock now has more than a single face.
And of course, after their impressive writing bonanza, they wanted to ask questions.
“are you famous?” they asked me. I gave them the simple answer. No.
“what are you writing now?” It’s a secret.
“Are you published?” Ask me that question again in October!
And then, the loveliest of all. “How do you become a writer, and what advice would you give to somebody looking to be a writer themselves?”
She was one of the quieter ones, hair in beautiful braids, glasses, a deep little voice, and she watched me with those deep eyes as I told them all about the depression, the teaching, the struggle with anxiety, how poetry was a remedy, how she should write every day, how she should get her work out there, how stubbornness is more a mark of a poet than talent. When I’d finished, she said “thank you.” And the bell went.
As I was walking back to the station, I realised I was smiling. It took me a while to work out why and I realised it was because, for the first time this year, I saw a student who could turn her compassion into a firebrand, someone who understood the emotional complexity of a several-hundred-year-old clock and who might one day turn her words towards the complexity of people.
In my opinion, we are, all of us, in need of comfort at the moment—some more than others. We are, all of us, in need of strength, all of us need to feel powerful. The simplest of human connections is a rebellion against forces that want to barricade us inside our own psychological islands, build walls between us, shut the gates. But they have not reckoned yet with the poets, the artists, the activists—all those working now and all those yet to blossom. We are taking a breath, but when we roar, you will hear it.
So we must make pockets of happiness for ourselves. We must find them and hold them sacred. I found one such beautiful pocket at the Berkshire Music and Arts festival yesterday, where I performed three poems; one from my upcoming collection with Two Rivers Press (Octopus Medicine, out in October) and two from my bespoke collections that are on sale through etsy.com.
One of the poems I read was called ‘An Alien in the Back Garden’. Pretty much, it’s what it says on the tin: a little Martian flies to Earth to visit the humans and ask them what there is to do on their marvellous planet. As it talks to the humans over tea, the Martian realises that humans do not deserve this beautiful planet, they are wrecking it. It flies away and the humans realise that they will never see this amazing little being again, they have disappointed it forever. After I’d read it, several people came to me and told me they loved it, that it spoke to them on so many levels. It was wonderful to connect with people over this story, to know I was not the only lost soul who felt this way. And then we watched the wonderful awards ceremony of the young and older writers’ competition winners, all the way from little ones just starting school to those writing in their sixties, seventies, eighties and beyond…
A little girl read a poem about a Giant who meant no harm.
A teenager read a poem about poppies in a field.
There were specular poems, poems about paintings, poems about homework, poems about friendship. Human experience is varied and cavernous but it is something we all share.
And yes, the conversation turned to the news in the car on the way home. It was raining and dreary and the sun was already going down. Already, the fairy lights hanging off the eaves of the barn at the festival were growing dim in our memories. But we were there for the sake of other people, to share and to give. We were there to apologise to aliens, to give voices to old clocks, and the gifts must continue to travel.
I have three new collections available on Etsy.com now: They are:
THE VISITOR: A collection of seven visitations about human experience, prejudice, power and sustainability. (The Martian poem is in here!) You can get it here.
THE HONEST GENE: Was commissioned by Carnstone Partners Ltd for their Spark Salon on January 25th. It is a science fiction narrative verse about genetic engineering. Think Brave New World. You can get it here.
And KEYS TO THE MICROCOSM: A collection of seven alternative love poems for those whose Valentine’s days may not be the norm. This includes love across cultures, within gender, love of the land and love of the self among others. Perfect for the resolutely and beautifully single. You can get it here.
All collections are £6.00 and each is individually handmade by the poet (me). Poetry is a gift. It’s a gift to the writer, to the audience, to the reader, to the passer-by. Please help it spread as far as we can get it. If all those who are bullying, barricading, wall-building would sit down and read a poem for five minutes, perhaps when they got up again, their vision would be very, very different.