Thursday 18 July 2019

Tutoring for the Poetry School

Narrow Road, Deep North

This October I'll be running an online course for The Poetry School.

The following blog gives an in-depth overview of the themes and intentions behind the course and my impetus for wanting to run it.

In short, n/Northernness seems to be gaining gravitas in both cultural and political circles, so it seems timely to interrogate the many trajectories we might take when embracing (or, indeed, refuting) its manifestations and idiosyncrasies.  Tracing ideas of a/the n/North from every direction, I'll guide you, via writing exercises, close reading, feedback and conversation, to complete a short portfolio of poems which engage with your own northern land- and mindscapes.

If you've an interest in poetry and place and want to spend ten weeks (five fortnightly sessions) discussing and writing about 'the North', do sign up. Concessions and bursaries are available through the Poetry School, including a 30% discount to participants under 30.


Dates:October 2nd - December 11th
Fee: £105.00

Wednesday 8 May 2019

Rich Seams: Poetry Podcasts

L-R: John Challis, Andrew McMillan, Degna Stone, Jake Morris-Campbell

Last autumn, I was invited over to Durham Town Hall to participate in a live podcast discussion with marras John Challis and Degna Stone. Curated by Andrew McMillan and commissioned by New Writing North's chief executive, Claire Malcolm, the recording forms part of a series investigating poetry in the (hazily defined) top half of the country.

Episode two has now gone live and can be streamed, beamed and downloaded --->here<---

Do listen to the first episode (and subsequent editions) as there's already some fascinating overlaps, repetitions and thematic concerns beginning to emerge as Andrew delves into the denes, burrows through the burns and channels through the chares, unpacking, unshackling and uprooting what, if anything, might be meant when our poetry fasers are set to 'up'.

In other good news: I passed my Ph.D. viva a fortnight ago and am now working my way through some minor corrections. More on that sometime soon, hopefully...

As for the matter at hand, if you liked my musings on poetry from County Durham (+ bad stottie cake reference) and want to take part yourself in shaping this amorphous discussion of what it means to be a poet connected to the/a n/North, do keep your eyes peeled for news of an online Poetry School course I'll be running from September called 'Narrow Road, Deep North'.

Wednesday 13 February 2019

On Submitting my PhD

Yesterday I submitted my PhD – a practice-led doctoral thesis in Creative Writing – to Newcastle University. The result of three and a half years of work, I began the research project formally in September 2015, first plotting it in the winter of 2014.

The Poets’ Hyem is an exploration of what it means to generate poetic placemaking in England’s North-East. A critical exegesis analyses four postwar poets, making a case for International Regionalism as a hallmark of modern poetry written about the area since the mid-twentieth century. The second – and majority – component of the thesis, Errata Slip for a Northern Town, is the manuscript for my first full-length collection of poetry, which I hope to have published as a book in the near future.

I’m hopeful that at viva, in the spring, it will make a sufficiently original contribution to knowledge and not require major amendments. From my current vantage (which, I admit, may be coloured by the glow of having handed in), the thesis makes for a robust addition to discourses surrounding place and poetry, and has the potential to catalyse  further work — either by myself, in a post-doc capacity, or by other researchers interested in regionalism and writing belonging to Bernicia.

Submitting a PhD comes with a kaleidoscope of emotions. I feel relieved to have finally handed the thing in, for it to (temporarily) not be of concern, but I also feel pretty melancholic. This is probably compounded by the anti-climatic nature of actually submitting the documents: I took two soft-bound copies and a USB stick to a centralised drop-off point at the university and was given a receipt. Quite a clinical, formulaic transaction, really. No bells or whistles, no banners and balloons.

I sat for a while afterwards in the Town Mouse and had a few pints. Did I feel less burdened or more, having jettisoned this significant portion of my adult life? I don’t really know yet, to be honest. I do think that my work is intelligent, nuanced and of doctoral standard. I have faith in my poems: they read well as a cohesive whole. Insofar as I have contributed to discourse, I feel that my critical argument – what I am calling a polyparochial poetics – is in keeping with the zeitgeist. In short, I think the PhD will set me up well and has value beyond Newcastle University and the North-East of England.

But I’m also not na├»ve enough to think there won’t be rough patches ahead. Notwithstanding the elephant in the room (the ‘B’ word), a PhD is by no means a golden ticket to a career in academia. If being part of a DTP (Doctoral Training Partnership) has shown me anything, it’s that there are hundreds, thousands, of highly talented ECRs (Early Career Researchers) out there, all vying for a limited pool of fellowships, lectureships and post-doctoral positions.

So, significant groundwork has been laid, but what gets built on it remains to be seen. I will write again after the viva, hopefully in late April, but for the time being I’m going to let all of this compost through my brain and work out where it might take me next.

Thursday 11 October 2018

Durham Book Festival and Sunderland Literature Festival Events

Pleased to say I'm involved with two of the region's literature festivals this autumn. Kicking off with a live podcast on Saturday at Durham Town Hall, I'll be discussing Northern Poetry with friends and fellow poets, Degna Stone and John Challis. We'll be steered by Andrew McMillan (whose second collection, Playtime, I've just read and loved), the curator of the Rich Seams project whose umbrella the podcast sits beneath. The series began at the 2017 Durham Book Festival and is touring to other venues across the North, with Andrew wanting to cast new light on what it means to be a 'Northern Poet' today. Alongside reading from our own work, we'll discuss which voices might be absent or marginalised in this conversation; what it means to honour the various cultural and industrial seams of the North; and what its people and landscapes might have impressed on a poetics of northernness. I've known Degna and John through the poetry scene in Newcastle for years now (Degna was one of the founding co-editors of Butcher's Dog, a magazine we set up after meeting via New Writing North's poetry development programme, while John has been a friend from the old Trashed Organ days to his involvement now with the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts.) It should be a really rich and good-humoured discussion. It takes place this coming Saturday, 14th October, at the Burlison Gallery in Durham Town Hall, 12.30-1.30pm. Tickets are £3 and available here.

Secondly, next Wednesday, 17th October, I'm co-delivering a talk for the Sunderland Literature Festival on the life and work of William Martin. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my championing of Martin, but for those who aren't, why not come along to Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens between 3 and 4pm to hear me and Graham, William's son, talk about his poetry? Bill was born in New Silksworth, to the south-west of the city, and served in the RAF in India during the Second World War, where he would come to meld a Methodist-Socialist upbringing with Eastern spirituality. He later had a career in the audiology department of Sunderland Royal Hospital while pursuing life as an artist and poet and was noted for his bardic style and rich tapestry of long poem-sequences imbued in the working-class traditions of the Durham coalfield. He is not very well known in his home city, which is a shame as his poetry, to my mind, is some of the most important to have come out of the North-East in the twentieth century. We will celebrate his life in words, images and songs next week. Tickets operate on a suggested donation basis of £3 and there's further information here.

Right, back to the PhD, on which I intend to post a detailed update soon.

Wednesday 5 September 2018

Costafine Town

According to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, anemoia is ‘nostalgia for a time you’ve never known’. Explaining the word’s mysteriousness, the DOS invite us to ‘Imagine stepping through the frame into a sepia-tinted haze, where you could sit on the side of the road and watch the locals passing by. Who lived and died before any of us arrived here, who sleep in some of the same houses we do, who look up at the same moon, who breathe the same air, feel the same blood in their veins — and live in a completely different world’.

My sense of anemoia has been kindled recently by discovering a song by a folk-rock duo from my hometown, South Shields. Splinter – aka Bill Elliott and Bobby Purvis – were signed to George Harrison’s Dark Horse label and found chart success in the 1970s. This post will try to explain what I find so endearing about their song ‘Costafine Town’. I know instinctively that it’s about more than sentimental lyrics, hand claps and key changes, but I can’t quite describe what it is that has me hitting ‘repeat’. My thoughts here partially function as notes for a poem – an extended exercise in kneading the pre-poem, referred to in an earlier post – and should not be regarded as complete or perfect.

‘Costafine Town’, a three-minute ear-worm in the style of the The Likely Lads, recounts the narrator’s conflicted feelings upon returning to his hometown. Described as being ‘too long away’ and ‘lonely’, the catabasis that the song implies is not simply resolved by ‘coming home’. Indeed, he boldly declares: ‘I wish I’d never made up my mind to stray.’ Forming the crux point between belonging and estrangement, the verb ‘stray’ is crucial to the song’s fraught melancholy. Are our primary identities shells that we necessarily outgrow? If we accumulate sufficient cultural capital, and if our education and status propel us away from those primary identities (for example, as we invariably begin mixing with more middle-class people at university – itself a status marker begetting other value systems and priorities), might we fairly feel inclined to discard them when they are no longer as valuable to the host culture? This is one of the meandering thought patterns I mull over when listening to ‘Costafine Town’, further complicated by the knowledge that the identities previously referred to – ‘working-class’, explicitly dropped in the song – are not identities I could justly pin on myself; that the Shields I knew as a kid, growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, was already post-industrial. Shipyards and mines were a vestige before I began secondary school and for as long as I can remember I’ve been happy to be funnelled through education (to the point where, PhD submission pending, I’m at the most concentrated end of that funnel) while working part-time in the knowledge economy so as to not have to use my diminutive frame to lay bricks or ‘go offshore’. I am, to use David Goodhart’s terminology, a product of the ‘anywhere’-dominated pattern of Higher Education policy post-1992, but I’m also a ‘somewhere’ who retains a huge fondness for this town, even if I do frequently roll my eyes at it. Straying, then, could be useful in combating one-dimensional feelings, such as the acute longing I detect in the song.

Wistful even from a 1974 vantage, why, listening to ‘Costafine Town’ forty-four years after its release, as a thirty-year-old man, do I sense a doubly-potent nostalgia? And is that feeling, perhaps borne of a knowledge that the band were singing about the place I’m from, albeit a few decades earlier, problematic when thinking and writing both creatively and critically about my own relationship to the region today?

Costorphine Town shown in western South Shields

First, it’s worth mentioning that the lyrics don’t actually pinpoint us to South Shields. While the title does locate an area of the town that can still be found (on Google Maps at least: see image above), it is in fact a corruption of Costorphine Town, referring to a strip of land around Holborn and Tyne Dock, gradually erased due to wartime bombardment and deindustrialisation. In reality, the lyrics of the song do little to evoke more than general Northern decay. Note the key signifiers: ‘working class’, ‘pub’, ‘hole’, ‘glass’. This could be Salford, Middlesbrough, Workington... So, Splinter, singing in 1974, were already conjuring a nostalgia for a prior time. This residual longing stems, I would argue, not from a specifically Tyneside-focused anomie, but by a subtle use of synecdoche. When we hear ‘open pub doors | Where the working class goes at night’ we think of our pub, or perhaps two or three regular haunts within close proximity. For me, this would be the Dolly Peel, Trimmer’s Arms and the Rose and Crown in west Shields. I have had a drink in one of those pubs in the last year, yet the song impels me to want to go out on Friday night, ‘whistling loud’ after my ‘4.30 shift has gone’, in ‘dirty old clothes’ drinking Scotch with my marras ’til kick-oot.

This is the simple effectiveness of the song: listeners in Benwell or Bootle will have different reference points to affix. The mood is already established, you just provide the setting. When contrasted to Ronnie Lambert’s well-known ‘Coming Home Newcastle’, a sugar-coated lament for what the poet Tim Pickard calls the ‘North-East’s greatest growth industry’,  a ‘drift south as there wasn’t any work of any kind in Newcastle [in 1973]’, a returning Geordie everyman squares the advantages of his economic migration (‘a few quick bob’) against the home comforts of ‘Brown Ale’ (‘ye can keep ye London wine’) and his mother ‘saying ‘hinny howay’’. I think ‘Costafine Town’ is a better song, but then I immediately wonder if that’s because I’m from Shields, not Newcastle further up the Tyne, and am projecting my own feelings onto the ambiance created by the music and the ‘timeless’ message conveyed by the lyrics: the wanderer returned. A peer on Twitter, himself originating in Sunderland, pointed out that, were the lyrics about Northampton, I might not harbour the same attachment. I think this is a very fair point, but still the song nags at me, begging to be written about. Or, better still, to be used as a leaping-off point. Where – or more pertinently, what – is Costafine Town now?

How might the tone of ‘Costafine Town’, a jaunty piece of pop-rock enmeshed in a time I never knew, be stripped down, sandblasted and reconfigured as meaningful comment on my present circumstances and the wider socio-economic and cultural situation of Britain in 2018? Right now, I’m not entirely certain, though I have a good inkling that it all hinges on that vagabond, ‘stray’. Terry Pratchett asks the following, which I think is relevant: ‘Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you’ve come from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.’

I intend for these thoughts to develop into a poem for the thesis. For a while now I’ve been using the working title Errata Slip for a Northern Town, but the literary quality of the conceit seems a little... worked. I think the narrative of ‘Costafine Town’, especially its inherent ambivalence (the contradiction in making up your mind to stray seems ripe for creative exploration), distils the melancholy I feel for South Shields in a nuanced way. Yes, it’s problematic to wish to reside in a sepia realm, but dipping in to it can be handy, especially if what you can bring back is a transformed perception of a present reality.

Monday 25 June 2018

Marratide 2018

Something of a short placeholder post until later. By which I mean: until the PhD is finished. Probably.

Walked the Marratide pilgrimage, in memory of William Martin, for the third time this Saturday gone. Strange to do it on a Saturday, having done so on Sundays in 2017 and 2016. Noticeably more traffic. Thoroughfares of Durham City chocker with early evening drinkers, easing themselves in for a night on the tiles.

At The Copt Hill, near Houghton-le-Spring, 2018

I’ll say more about the walk later. For a proper summary of the 2016 walk, see this post, which I wrote at the time. A few brief points of observation or musings:

  • ·        Not having Graham, Bill’s son, with us on the walk was regrettable, though due to recentl ill health, he was wise to remain at home. Graham did send us off in good spirits, however, with Easthope coffee and biscuits. I hope you’re able to join us again next time, marra!
  • ·         We missed the Seven Sisters, an impressive Iron Age round barrow on top of which sit a circle of trees, framing a section of the walk which overlooks Hetton. Again, it was a shame to’ve missed these trees (image below) where last year we scattered some of Bill’s ashes. That said, the three times I’ve done the walk now there have been minor differences to the route for one reason or another.
Seven Sisters (in 2017)

  • ·         Also around Hetton, before the Bogs, it was a shame to see the beginnings of a new housing development. At risk of sounding ultra-conservative about this, sight of the foundations did catalyse much discussion around land use, social housing and planning laws, which seem either absolutely static or over-zealous, and are so often stacked against those who most need to be homed. No doubt Bill would have been keen to press for more social housing, albeit in a way that didn’t further erode the precious greenbelt and beautiful open spaces of these landscapes.

Beginnings of a housing development in Hetton. Note the wildflowers.

  • ·         Pubs. The Blacksmith’s Arms in Low Pittington remains closed, though a squad of handy-looking blokes with power tools informed us of its imminent re-opening, in August. However, if The Copt Hill, 4 miles up the road, is used as a local barometer, the new Blacksmiths faces an uphill battle. The Copt Hill is the traditional first stopping point on the route, but it looks, feels and smells every inch a hostelry on death’s door. It will be sad if it shuts, but I won’t at all be surprised if we’re not parking up there for a mediocre beer next year. Near the end of the route, we stopped – for the first time ever in the history of these pilgrimages, according to Peter Armstrong – at The Gilesgate Moor Hotel on the Dragonville Industrial Estate. An animated game of dominoes was taking place as we supped lager and gathered our thoughts for the final furlong. The day was concluded with crisps and ale in The Victoria, surely Durham’s finest boozer.
  • ·         The end-point. Two times out of three now our passage to Cuthbert’s shrine has been foiled, this year because of the choral evensong. So, once again, we paid our respects to the Venerable and visited the Galilee Chapel instead.

I’m speaking at an event called Living Otherwise at the Thought Foundation in Birtley on Wednesday about Bill’s life and work. Framed around the pilgrimage, I’ll discuss Bill’s concept of the Marradharma as an important way of framing international-regional dialogue between poetics and politics.

After that, I’m head down into the PhD, aiming to have a full first draft complete by autumn, with full submission coming – hopefully – in the new year.

Thursday 19 April 2018

James Kirkup Centenary Event (Also Featuring Francis Scarfe)

Kirkup (L) and Scarfe (R)

Yesterday, a small group of people gathered at The Word: National Centre for theWritten Word in South Shields to commemorate the centenary of the poet James Kirkup, and also to celebrate the poet Francis Scarfe. Born just seven years apart – Scarfe in 1911, on Stanhope Road, Kirkup in 1918, on Robertson Street – they were near contemporaries of each other whose lives, right from birth, would run parallel, though it’s not certain they ever met.

The event yesterday was a chance to remember the town’s most well-known interwar years poets and to consider their legacy on modern and contemporary poetry on the south side of the Big River (that’s the Tyne) as well as further afield.

We started by showing a short film, ‘I Love Our Town’, shot in 1972 by James Kirkup’s long-term friend, Dorothy Fleet. Made on one of Kirkup’s rare visits back to the North-East, the film is both a brilliant introduction to some of the recurring themes in Kirkup’s work and a precious glimpse into life in the town 45 years ago. Dorothy recalls plucking the courage to speak to James, who was giving a poetry reading further up the river in Newcastle’s Hancock Museum a while before the film was made. After their meeting, Kirkup suggested that Dorothy write a radio play based on extracts from his first autobiography, A Child of the Tyne. Newly-married, Dorothy admits that the project simply didn’t get done. In its place appeared the script for a cine-film: a 13-minute movie which shows Kirkup dandying around sites in South Shields, with cut-aways of street kids, feral cats and riverside traffic adding additional ambiance to Kirkup’s narrative, where he both reminisces about his childhood in the town and muses on some of its idiosyncrasies in verse. Kirkup once described South Shields as ‘the most surrealistic in Britain’, both, I suspect, as a nod to his love of the Surrealists (many of Kirkup’s poems, in the way that they conjure bizarre, metaphysical landscapes, often incongruously, are very much akin to de Chirico’s Surrealist images) and his love-hate relationship with a town whose ‘limitations’ he would tire of.

Bloodaxe, 2017

Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books, Sheila Wakefield of Red Squirrel Press, Tom Kelly and myself then each read poems from Kirkup and Scarfe’s back catalogue – all of the recited poems generously represented in Bloodaxe’s recently-published Land of Three Rivers: the Poetry of North-East England. What came across, as we jumped from Kirkup to Scarfe and back to Kirkup again, was the subtle differences in tone and voice and the way that, when brought together, two poets ostensibly writing about the same subjects can come at things in distinct ways.

During his putting together of Land of Three Rivers, Neil Astley remarked that a previously-unseen poem of Scarfe’s, ‘Tyne Dock Revisited’, had been discovered by the poet’s son, now living in Spain. Illuminating and adding to his well-known ‘Tyne Dock’ poem, which recalls the ‘shaggy mining town’ where he grew up, ‘Tyne Dock Revisited’ (published in Lo3R with earlier, undated manuscript lines) evokes the industrial atmosphere of Shields with precision and poignancy: ‘The foghorn through the briny night/The blue fog churning through the night’ (alternate line). Scarfe and Kirkup both wrote poems about the town’s knocker-up, the man tasked with rising labourers from slumber at the crack of dawn, with Astley speculating that it is entirely possible both poets were unknowingly writing about the very same man. Tom Kelly and Neil Astley further alternated between the two poets, with readings from Scarfe’s ‘The grotto’ and Kirkup’s ‘Marsden Rock’ giving a good sense of the otherworldliness of Marsden Bay, a place that has been close to my heart since I was a child.

Red Squirrel Press, 2008

Sheila Wakefield, born in County Durham, read Kirkup poems set in landscapes she knows intimately. Shorter poems about Ferryhill and Chester-le-Street (recounted as Haiku, a form Kirkup would come to adore) were set against the lyric ‘Durham Seen From The Train’, which contains the beautiful line ‘The heart imagines what the eye no longer sees.’

As well as reading original draft materials from my new sequence based on Shields Sketches, the book of illustrations by George McVay with poems selected to match by Kirkup which I first discovered while clearing out my great-grandmother’s flat in East Boldon seven years ago, I read two Kirkup poems that were geographically apt: ‘The Town Where I Was Born’, where, travelling on a ferry to North Shields, Kirkup witnesses the Tyne as the Styx; and ‘The Old Clothes Stall, South Shields Market’, a moment of empathy set against the Winter of Discontent (1978-79), where he imagines an afterlife for the ‘collier’s clogs [and] seaman’s denims’, once worn by now-‘out-of-work puppets’. Both poems are set yards from The Word, so it was especially pleasing to be able to bring to life their settings within the town’s fantastic new library, the original one on Ocean Road harbouring the many books so cherished by the adolescent Kirkup, providing the inspiration that both he and Scarfe would later kindle, going on to be revered as poets and translators in Japan and France respectively. As somebody involved in both the writing of my own collection of poems inspired by South Tyneside and as a critic interested in pre-existing work from the area, this event was both a pleasure to be involved with and an inspiration. As Scarfe’s fantastic poem ‘Miners’ has it, ‘the warmth of whose heart lights a fire in each hearth and home’ will certainly continue to glow for me as I read more about both poets and add to my own collection.

If you would like to see Dorothy’s fantastic film, there is an opportunity to do so at 10am on Monday 23rd April at The Customs House. Marking exactly 100 years since Kirkup’s birth, the event will hopefully not be an end-point, but more a continuation of a series of markers to acknowledge the extraordinary talent and vision of a man who may have left these shores physically, but always remained in touch, through poems, letters and, just occasionally, scrambles back down to the shore.

Hub Editions, 2002