Dear Poetry As Fuck,
So, we recorded this Eight Poems That, If You Had To Be Trapped In Some Way For a Prolonged Period of Time With Little Hope Of Rescue previously on my last night in Edinburgh in spring 2017, and it was a grand meandering conversation, the most I remember of which was a very entertaining sideswipe into Jim Carrey being birthed by that fake rhino in Pet Ventura 2, and then the hosts’ cat jumped on your laptop just as we were finishing up, and everything was lost, and I don’t think I’ve seen a man look so disconsolate and disbelieving. And then I had to go and buy some pizzas for my lovely host family so we couldn’t even try again.
Two and a bit years later, I’m sitting at my desk in Montreal looking over the balcony and the ruelle (the back alley) on a Sunday afternoon in late April. It’s cold still, and there is no green on the trees, but there’s sun and crispness. There’s also now my little grey cat, who is leaping in and out the open window, and from whom I am protecting all this carefully. I looked over my original list from 2017, and it was widely ranging and diverse, perhaps too much so – from Seamus Heaney to Kei Millar to Hannah Silva. I hadn’t had the first book out, ranging and unfocussed as a first book might be, cramming all the writing I’d ever done into it. I think I might be tighter and more strategic, even ruthless about what I spend my time reading now. I’m looking for the voices and the language that are feeding the move to the next book (due – maybe next year. Let’s see. It’ll come when it’s ready and thought-out and finished, and no sooner), and the ways to centre myself here, in Canada, very far from home, and still getting used to making one. All the poetry mothers. So.
Caroline Bird – Road Signs (Watering Can, Carcanet, 2009)
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‘Then you showed your baby blood
and baby said ‘Salty,’
and you said, ‘Don’t drink that’
and baby said ‘Muddy man’
and baby said ‘Bloody leaves’
and baby said ‘The ocean is a green man with salty blood.’
and you recognised your baby’s madness.’
Jonathan [Lamy, mon chum] and I both teach regular workshops over here (Quebec), in different places and languages, and we’ve gotten into a habit of discussing what we’re teaching and sharing resources. We’ve got very different reading behind us, academically speaking: I’m all la-di-da oul Oxford English Lit canon, starting with Beowulf and ending with George Eliot, and then some twentieth-century Scottish and Northern Irish stuff thrown in, and he started in the 1960s, in French/French-Canadian. So it’s fun to share.
He’d started a recent new term with exercises around ‘La terre est bleue comme un orange‘, from Paul Eluard and the Surrealist tradition, and we were breaking it down into why that was such a good starter for people in workshops to think about poems and metaphors, and making the abstract concrete, and the intangible tangible, and unexpected imagery and juxtaposition, and all that good stuff. I went off to find some Surrealist poetry in English (because a lot of the more-well known stuff is in French and generally, seemingly, not too easy to translate well) and ideally written by a woman, and had this buzz in my head about the structure of the Eluard, and where I’d heard it before. Oh, the magnificent Caroline Bird! Self-confessed living English female Surrealist poet – hurrah!
I’ve heard her perform this poem multiple times (we had a wee tour together in 2017 for our books which was a staggering learning experience for me, watching how she crafts and questions and challenges herself. She is also an excellent drinking-and-wailing-to-songs-in-hotel-rooms-partner) and it’s one of the most joyful, clever, beautiful explorations of learning how to explore the world with poetry and imagery and words and juxtaposition, and also this tender, loving, glorious tribute to her mum, and the guidance and encouragement with which a mother opens the world up to a child (if they do it right). I fall in love with the poem every time I read it. I’ve also been reading it aloud to the workshops, to demonstrate how you can take that one blue Earth orange and craft it into a complete poetic work, and for which Caroline gets absolutely no royalties (I’m sorry about that, pal, and please hit me up if copyright law ever catches up with usage of poems and due payments in workshops), but I very much hope she’s getting a few international book sales. She’s definitely getting some new fans.
Miriam Gamble – The Squirrels Are Dead (2010); Pirate Music (2014); What Planet (forthcoming – 2019), Bloodaxe.
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‘Fuck knows what it’s all about but if you really want to drink Cartojal a beaded bag ought to be purchased for our wits given how everybody here’s like their inner head fell off.’
(Feria de Malaga, Commission for the British Council ‘Crossing Borders’ https://litshowcase.org/content/feria-de-malaga/)
It’s been an unexpected giggle that Derry Girls is very big in English-speaking Quebec. It’s made my job a lot easier in terms of explaining where I’m from. They thought I was Scottish for a while, because of the whole coming over from Edinburgh thing, and also because I owe so much to Scotland for the poetry and the career and all that, but actually, when you get down to it, I’ve always been Northern Irish, first, foremost, and will be to the end of my days. It took going a wee bit further away to get clarity on that, perhaps.
I’ve gone and lent my Miriam Gamble books to someone over here who’s taking a tour of Northern Ireland in the summer, and I can’t put my hand on the poem that I want to, but this’ll work in the interim. Miriam is both a dragon and a terrier, and a friend, and one of the most ferocious, ragingly clever, kind women that I know, and when I miss the Northern Irish way to push words all over the place, and I do, particularly over here, because they tend to hold the English language back into themselves, reserved and cautious and measured, powerful in its own way, but I miss our nonsense, just batting words about for the joy of it, spilling them about because we can, so when I’m feeling restless and achey for it, I can grab one of Mim’s books (Sarah, I need them back) and I lean back into it and let all her fury and glare carry me along. She’s unsentimental and clear-eyed and looks at things very much askew (as she says yourself), and she notices the small wee things, and worries away them, dragging them out with her teeth and squatting down to examine them, head cocked and lips pulled back. Did I mention I love her? The old Northern Irish canon of the big old men (Heaney and Mahon and the like) can budge over now for the women coming through – the unholy trinity of Miriam Gamble, Sinead Morrissey, Leontia Flynn. Buy their books. Miriam’s got a new one coming out very soon.
Annharte – Cuntajunta (indigena awry, New Star Books, 2017)
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Cunt do it alone cunt topped up cuntalina flow up spine cunt drip drop that cunt let go smooth cunt silk hair leave it to the cuntman is a man obsessed by cuntology cuntrary to cunteraphobic afraid to say the word listen
Annharte is Anishinabe (Little Saskatchewan First Nation, Manitoba), now based in Winnipeg, and is a poet, activist, cultural critic, author, and performance artist/storyteller. She’s in her 70s now, describes herself as self-taught, although she did go back to education in the 1970s and studied at the University of Winnipeg. I saw her read at the Atwater Poetry Project in Montreal in September 2018, and I was terrified and delighted in equal measure. She’s a community worker in women’s centres, and she’s been through abuse and trauma, and she’s caustic and funny as hell, drawing on Indigenous storytelling and her own survival. I’m talking about her here in a way that I’m not even wholly comfortable with – away and read her in her own words. She needs no one to explain her but herself.
Sylvia Plath – The Applicant (Ariel, 1962)
First, are you our sort of a person?’
Speaking of furious. Oh My Plath. Everyone’s Plath. No one’s Plath but her own. I have the Faber & Faber Collected Poems, with inscriptions inside from Sophie Orr and Ann Gilmour, for my 18th birthday in Belfast in 2000. It’s navy blue, battered as all hell, the cover held on with tape, and the insides highlighted with neon yellow, pink, and green – I chose her for one of my Finals extended essays in 2003, so there was a lot of excitable cross-referencing. What a luxury to spend six months with Sylvia. I read her at 17, I read her in my late 20s, and I’m reading her again, now, at 37. I’m seven years older than she was when she killed herself. I visited her grave, tucked away, scratched, full of pens, high on the hillside in Heptonstall when I was touring in 2017, the day after a gig in Hebden Bridge.
The BBC recordings are the best. All that clipped, vicious fury. I look at her now and think, Christ, the determination you had to write those poems, to wrench them out of you and mould them and throw at the world at 30 years old. There is so much to learn from reading and re-reading you. I hope she would have loved how much of an icon she has become. She wanted it, and she deserved it. I look forward to always reading Sylvia.
Wislawa Szymborska – Brueghel’s Two Monkeys (Calling Out To Yeti, 1957)
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‘but when it’s clear I don’t know what to say
he prompts me a gentle
clinking of his chain’
I had this stuck on the kitchen cupboard door of my Drumdryan Street flat in Edinburgh for ages, just above the kettle. The edges would peel off from the steam now and then, but I found myself staring at it most morning, barefoot on the floorboards, and waiting for a cup of tea. I come to Szymborska for calm. There are brutal things described in her poems, and she observes them with dispassionate wit. Which isn’t to say that she’s distant – she’s there, in the poems, quiet and clear-eyed and clever, and never cynical. There’s a reflection on history and mankind’s movements through history that feels very European, although it is rare that she names concrete places, and very much placed in the second half of the twentieth century. She’s part of that tradition, and I suspect helped to voice most of that self-reflection and examination (I like Brodsky for the same reasons, although he goes on a bit more). I reach for her, here in Quebec, this skewed mix of North America and Europe, full of the traditions of immigrants coming in after the Second World War, and I feel connected.
Alice Notley – ‘I Think Fiercely’ (Certain Magical Acts, 2016, Penguin).
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‘If only I could dream from the beginning! I have
love, and I’m afraid to die. I don’t have love,
and I’m not afraid to die. I just want to sit here
forever with thoughts drifting through, trying not to
make my life finite. But I’m beating on a drum. For you.’
I bought this book, my first Alice Notley , in Drawn & Quarterly best bookshop in North America (never mind Montreal) in May 2017. According to a note at the front of the book, I was in there with Rachel Amey, who was over for the Blue Metropolis festival at the time. It was cold in Montreal that day, and I remember us stomping down Boulevard St Laurent, talking about feminism and poetry and Scotland, before heading out to my flat with Jonathan in Hochelaga. Rachel brought me a massive jar of Marmite, which I had requested, and which had caused some bewilderment at customs. I was still trying to negotiate being in Montreal at the time, working on my book and knowing that I was heading back to Ireland and Scotland to tour it, and trying not to look too far beyond that, because I couldn’t, really, not to dwell on what it all meant, or how finite or final it was to be. The cost only became apparent later. Certain Magical Acts lived in my bag for months, between Canada, Scotland and Ireland, and I could only read it in small chunks. If you read Notley, it’s this tumbling, exhausting, exhilarating spun of consciousness and poetry that feels like a dream that you’re running through. The book is highly political (written in and around the 2016 US elections) but so slippery and so galloping that your own thoughts start to careen with it. I love it, and it scares me, and I’ll go back to it again when I’m feeling braver.
(Fun fact: I ended up on a train seat beside Alice Notley on the way back from Versefest in Ottawa in 2018, and I was too tonguestruck to tell her how much I admired her – the book in my bag the whole time – and when I finally stuttered to her how much I loved it, she told me that she had thought I had no idea that she was actually a poet.)
Shannon Webb Campbell – ‘A Hyperactive Text’ (I Am A Body Of Land, 2019, Book*hug)
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‘I am power in the hands of the readers. I am a post romantic lyric poet. I am meaning versus intention. I am post etymology. I am animal vulnerability. I am a collision of colonialism and war.’
Shannon is a mixed-Indigenous (Mi’kmaq) settler poet, writer, and critic, originally from Newfoundland. She looks so much like one of my friends from back in Northern Ireland that I started off by being awkwardly over-familiar with her, but we bonded over Atlantic coasts and adapting to being so far inland. This book is actually a re-issue from the original 2018 edition, which was pulled after a controversy over Indigenous protocols, and who gets to tell which story. Shannon worked with her elder Lee Maracle to re-write and re-issue the book, having to confront what she had previously written, and to work so hard to bring the book back in another form. I can’t speak to the protocols, or what had been written before (not my story), but the book itself – along with Lee Maracle’s introduction – is a powerful, humble (and humbling) exploration of the responsibility of poetry and Shannon’s examination of her own identity (or identities). It’s full of hard-won integrity, coupled with poetry that vibrates like a taut pulled string. Extraordinary power. The politics of colonialism, of Indigenous rights, of the rights to story are all heavily debated at the moment in Canada, in ways that I find fascinating and disturbing in equal measure. It’s a huge learning curve.
Honorary mention – my French isn’t strong enough yet to say that I’m getting everything from French poetry so I’ve a whole stack of books from new pals over here that I’m too scared to open. But I did read Aimee Verrets’ ‘Monstres Marin’ (2019, del Busso) in one sitting and I’m still so excited and moved by it. It’s all full of salt and whales and monsters and bodies and women, so the language wasn’t too far off. But it’s a dark and beautiful work. The French-language poetry in Quebec is one of the reasons I moved: I want to get in and under that play of language and imagism and interiority and seriousness and protest. Give me another few years…
Rachel McCrum was born in 1982 and grew up in Donaghadee, Northern Ireland. She lived in Edinburgh, Scotland from 2010 to 2016, where she previously published two pamphlets with Stewed Rhubarb Press: The Glassblower Dances (2012, winner of the Callum MacDonald Award) and Do Not Alight Here Again (2015, also a solo Fringe show). She was the Broad of cult spoken word cabaret Rally & Broad, the inaugural BBC Scotland Poet-In-Residence, and a recipient of an RLS Fellowship in 2016. She has performed and taught across the UK, Ireland, Greece, South Africa, Haiti and Canada. She currently lives in Montreal, Quebec, where she is Director of Les Cabarets Batards.