On losing a poet and a friend

Heather Trickey, author of Sorry About the Mess, died on 21 July, 2021, aged 50. It feels like yesterday.

It's customary for publishers to put out a notice of regret, some words of praise, when one of their poets dies. It is so hard to do, in this case. Heather had become a friend, and obituaries make death real.

Heather loved being alive. She lived with fierce intensity, whether she was crying, raging, howling with laughter, or splashing in the freezing waves off the Welsh coast. She had a gift for friendship, and for making people smile in dark times. As she slipped further and further into illness, her friends, new and old, drew closer. She gently placed her 'lovely shattered friends' into poems. 'Tell me about your heart,' she said to them as she danced down 'the long red carpet of the hall'.

Those phrases are her own, of course. They are drawn from Sorry About the Mess, just a little book, but it's alive, and it will last.

When a poem works, that's one of the magic things it does: it creates a tiny flicker of life. A bit of the poet is alive inside it for as long as the text is read, like the filament inside an old-fashioned light bulb. 

One of Heather's favourites was the ancient song 'Westron Wynde', a poem that's alive if ever one was. She loved 'the smalle rayne downe can rayne'. She loved the yearning in that poem, the aching loss.

And now Heather Trickey herself is lost. Heather who adored her family with every fibre of her being; who cherished her friends dearly; who loved language, and the traditions of poetry, with every last scrap of her keen intelligence. It was vital to her to articulate the truth with precision and care, whatever it cost. 

And here she is still, illuminating her own lines.

Pobble

After I leaked hot tears onto the radiotherapy bed
and the nurse said she would have liked to give me a hug
but couldn't, I swung by our local patch of water.

This is the Channel. And I am the Pobble,
recklessly dabbling my toes
having already removed my paper mask.

A friend once sat hereabouts and sang a song to the Severn.
Brown/blue, two things can be true. Right now it looks
like sparkling shit. This poem is not about Pobbles
and it will not win prizes.  

Recent Comments
Guest — Hazel
Direct, and confident, funny/sad.
Sunday, 12 September 2021 16:19
Guest — Frances
Oh how unutterably sad. Poetry, which is utterable, can sometimes help a bit. The Pobble poem is wonderful.
Sunday, 12 September 2021 19:40
Jill Thomson
So sorry to hear of Heather’s death, thank you for bringing her voice to many.
Monday, 13 September 2021 20:24
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The Prose (sic) and Cons of Zoom Workshops

BUTTERCUPS

Before Covid changed everything, I had run a good many poetry workshops live, and tutored for Arvon residential courses several times. I wasn't as experienced as some, but I'd done my stint. Enough to develop methods and preferences.

Nonetheless, learning to do these things on Zoom has been a new learning opportunity. It's mostly been a joy.

For example, I love the widened access. I like the way people can take part in a tutor-led writing session for a relatively low (or sometimes no) cost, from their own homes. So if they're unwell, or disabled, they can still come. And they can do it from different countries, different time zones — whatever.

I don't like that people without good broadband access and/or computer confidence are excluded. Shy folk and HSPs are also wary. So even though some are as comfortable in this new element as grasshoppers in grass, others are not.

This is something I 'get', not least because I participated as a student/learner/writer in several online workshops last year, enough to sample the highly varied way these things can be managed.

For me, being a poet is as much about reading poems as writing them. So my workshops are structured around a group of poems, and I like participants to see them on screen, not just hear me (or someone else) reading them aloud.

Of course, there are suggested writing tasks, too. I explain these out loud but I like to have the instructions typed up too, on pages that are screen-shared. Why? Because when I'm a participant (as opposed to the organiser), I easily get confused. Things distract me. I forget a) what the task is and b) how long we're supposed to have to do it — unless it's written down.

I like to read the discussion poems aloud to the group. I don't ask participants to take a turn at reading. That's because there are specific aspects I want to bring out.

My writing exercises (all of which are optional) are closely connected by a central theme or idea of some kind. The aim is to sow seeds, not harvest whole plants.

I do like a bit of readback/feedback, but not usually until the end of the workshop. And of course that's optional.

However, I like people to feel they have to work. Work hard and think hard, and have a bit of fun. That's what (to my mind) they've come for.

I like a bit of follow-up after the workshop, too, a chance for people to communicate something individually and privately. I usually send participants copies of the poems used in the workshop, and perhaps some links to follow up ideas.

Generally the Tricks of the Trade workshops have attracted people who look from their Zoom faces as though they're over 40; and many are well over 60 (like me): the magnet effect. I've run some on Saturdays, because that way people who work through the week can come. I haven't, so far as I know, attracted anybody under 24, though not because I didn't want to. Nor have I, so far as I know, attracted anybody who's hearing-impaired, though I do try to share text on screen for all tasks.

For one of my workshops, Giles Turnbull agreed to come along not just as a poet, but as a poet who is blind, so that I could 'see' how it worked for him. I gave him the shared pages in advance, so he could preview with his screen-reader. We thought it worked pretty well. It was certainly great having him there as a participant.

I ask for some evaluation from my groupies each time. That evaluation has changed the way I do things. It's taught me stuff.

Like what?

I've learned that detailed advance communication is important. Clarity about content and timing is appreciated, with reminders near to the event.

Also people like to know at the workshop what's likely to happen, how and when. In business they call this 'managing expectations'. But I feel it is important. I've learned this the hard way when people told me they were disappointed by certain aspects.

Technical things can also go wrong. They sometimes go wrong with broadband connections. They go wrong with local gadgets (my Imac has more than once stopped processing audio-feed, for reasons unknown); luckily I have a laptop too so can always switch from one machine to another. Worse things happen at sea.

For me as organiser, online workshops are intense. I find they demand absolute concentration. In a virtual element, you can't pick up the usual cues.

But that doesn't mean cues aren't there: in the faces, in the gestures, in the chat box. Then suddenly it's the end and it all stops. Everyone has left the meeting. They all left it in precisely the same second. Weird.

I sit at my desk, surrounded by silent bits of paper. I put my head in my hands. The planet spins.


New Tricks of the Trade workshops:

Tuesday 6 July, 10.30–13.00

or

Saturday 17 July, 14.00–16.30

Theme: Serving a sentence (the role of sentence shapes and structures in poems)

Tutor: Helena Nelson

Numbers: Max. 10 participants.

 Cost: £30.00 (there's one free place in each session, so if strapped for cash, say).

Email me to reserve a place. If you don't have the email address already, please use the contact box.

These sessions will involve looking closely at other people's poems, as well as various writing exercises. Any readback is optional. There will be follow-up in the form of optional interaction on one of your own poems.

More detailed information to be shared nearer the time.

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MY LEAST FAVOURITE WORD IN A POEM

image4 Photocredit: Gerry Cambridge

It's very small. Unassuming, you might say. And can be found inside the word 'unassuming' and also inside 'assuming'.         

What a complicated way to reach the word itself! Namely: 'as'.

What has 'as' done to deserve my hostility?

Nothing much. It's not rational. Each of us develops different bees in different bonnets — as it were.

And I don't say I never use it (I just did). But I can't choose it without caution.

For me, the first issue is that although 'as' is so small, it has at least three or four meanings. (Merriam Webster has nine entries!) 

Each possible meaning has a different effect on the line. It can be hard sometimes to see which of them is intended.

The worst of the possible meanings of 'as' (in my book) is 'because'. When it means 'because', it sounds like a phrase book for someone learning to speak English.

For example, 'I ate every scrap of my dinner as I was ravenous'. 

Or 'As the bus was full, I caught the train.' 

'As' used in this way deadens a sentence. Nobody would ever say, 'I ate my dinner as I was hungry.' It's better to split the sentence into two, or use a dash: 'I wolfed my sandwich — I was ravenous.'

(I don't like the sound of 'as' either. The 's' sounds as 'z'. It reminds me of the word 'gristle', and gristle reminds me of cheap sausages.)

When 'as' means 'because', it functions as a connective, or conjunction. But even when 'as' connects two clauses, it can have more than one meaning, the other most likely possibility being 'while'.

'As I combed my hair, I thought of my mother', for example. Or: 'The surf glistened as the moon rose high above the waves.'

The third meaning is the one I least dislike. As fast as lightning. As white as milk. When used in a simile,'as' often pops up twice (once on each side of the adverb) and I don't mind this in the least. However, it means the number of usages quickly multiplies:

As the moon rose into the sky,
the boat slipped over the horizon
as fast as night. It was a slow boat,
a cold boat. As it had no sails,
so no sailors and no oars.
As it vanished, it left no sign.
As if it had never ever been.

'As' is so small — so unassuming — its repetitions slip past the most eagle-ish of eyes.

But it can damage sharpness of phrase. It can smudge clarity and precision.

I hate 'as'.

As I said earlier, it's not rational.

Recent Comments
Guest — Hazel Macmillan
'Stunning' it just grates. It is a lazy word, used too much for so many other descriptive words that fit.
Sunday, 06 June 2021 18:19
Guest — Giles
As Isaac Asimov said to his assistant, you better get off your ass and make me a cup of Assam as fast as an asteroid asking for di... Read More
Sunday, 06 June 2021 18:32
Jim Laing
To which his assistant replied, "you can make it yourself as i'm 'ov!
Monday, 07 June 2021 19:14
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  4 Comments

THE GOOD SIDE OF THE COVID YEAR

IMG_5531 Blue sky and clouds

I regularly talk to an old friend on the landline, a really old friend. He's 91 and lives alone. He doesn't have access to the internet. He says things now are worse than they were during the War. And he says it with feeling. Gloom pours down the phone line. I replace the receiver with a heavy heart.

It's so unfair. I haven't suffered badly this year. My house is warm and light. There are plenty of lovely walks round here. I'm in good health. I live on a pension (no need to worry about my job). I'm half of a couple, so there's always someone else in the house to talk to, or moan about Boris.

Still, there are huge absences. Children. Grandchildren. Friends. And listening to BBC News is like adding weights to the lid of a cosy coffin. Best not to put the radio on. Best not to watch TV. Best to stay safe. Stay well. Hide until it all goes away.

But the public anxiety's like fog trying to get in the windows. What can we do to counteract the gloom?

I've got into the habit of counting my lockdown blessings, some of which are a bit weird (spoiler alert). 

Often I've found myself guiltily happy, since I've done better than many of my friends, some of whom are not just isolated, but also ill or depressed. One has died. I miss her.

Anyway here's my list. If you have positives of your own, please add them in the comments box. Help to offset the dark.

Good things from the year of C

I've learned to make butter by shaking double cream in a large jam jar. Now I do this regularly. And I went back to making cakes. GREAT cakes.

I found some mung beans at the back of the cupboard. They must have been (no pun intended) there for years and years. The good news is that if you soak them in water and leave them in the dark overnight, and then bring them into the light and wash them gently three times a day, they still SPROUT. So we've had quite a few Chinese stir-fries with home-grown bean-sprouts. Strangely satisfying.

After a bout of sciatica, I began to do breathing and stretching exercises every morning. Lovely. So good for me. And walking every single day, sometimes as many as three walks. I limited desk work to three hours. So now I'm fitter than I was. More energy too (though alas not for desk work). (Yes, the sciatica gradually went away. It was a message.)

I started listening to science podcasts while doing the stretching exercises. Marvellously educational.

Sat and read. Sat and read. Sat and read. Sometimes sat in the sun and read.

Decided to stop drinking my two glasses of wine a night, not least because it was starting to become three. Discovered Marks & Spencer's alcohol-free G&T, an oxymoron in a can. After this, all sorts of mocktails and juices. Discovered I'm much calmer without my alcohol fix, and apparently fewer migraines. Definitely better sleep.

With the help of the sewing scissors, I removed the wires from my bras. What have I been putting up with all these decades?

I have learned to jog, though only for short stretches. I have finally experienced that endorphin kick other people talk about. Yay! 

Masks are a pain, but they help prevent chapped lips. Most useful. Also going through the freezing cold vegetable aisle in Aldi is much warmer when wearing a mask.

Cleaned the whole house for the first time in years. Poor spiders. I have even cleaned the windows! We can see the trees properly. And I've finally cleared all the weeds off the concrete block paving in the back garden. It almost looks respectable.

I've begun to talk regularly to my cousin Wendy on the phone. We've never really known each other, though we were born only a year apart. But now we do.

I have walked through the trees every single day. I started in spring, then summer. Then the amazing autumn golds, swishing through the leaves. Now the bare winter woods. Already fresh green spikes of grass finding their way through. I didn't know I liked walking in the rain.

New breakfast: oatmeal porridge every morning (so much better than the kind made with oats).Learned to love maple syrup. Good on the oatmeal porridge with a little cream (though my other half will only eat salt).

Good grief — I haven't had a head cold in a whole year!

I have practised the ukulele in the conservatory with rain beating on the roof. My time keeping isn't very good. I bought a metronome. I practised the ukulele with two metronomes: the rain and the actual metronome.

In all our twenty-three years (or nearly) together, my other half and I have never spent so much continuous time together. By some miracle, we still get on well. We were sorely tested in November when some pipes burst, and the repairs dragged on for weeks and weeks (still not finished). Adversity can drive people apart; it can also bring them closer.

I used to see my two grandchildren every week. I took it for granted. Since March, I've seen them only four times in all. But each time has been the quintessence of joy.

Have only filled the car up with petrol three times since March. More money to spend on coffee, poetry, and presents to post to the grandchildren.

The sky has been more beautiful this year than I ever remember: crisp, and clean, and clear. No vapour trails. Just amazing cloud formations. A free show every single morning. Never the same twice.

We have lovely neighbours. 


Recent Comments
Guest — Fokkina McDonnell
Lovely to read. I always do a gratitude list at the year end I've started to learn Swedish on Duolingo - the little green owl is ... Read More
Wednesday, 30 December 2020 18:57
Guest — Stephanie Green
Dear Nell, What a cheering post. I'd been feeling a little down post-Xmas (Zoom chat not quite the same as actually meeting with ... Read More
Wednesday, 30 December 2020 20:04
Karen Wells
Every best wish for the New Year
Wednesday, 30 December 2020 20:54
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  13 Comments

NOT SEEING THE WOOD FOR THE TREES

FRANKWOOD Frank Wood's 2012 pamphlet collection

Frank Wood died recently at the age of 95. HappenStance published a pamphlet of his work in 2012.    

So that's the 'Wood' in my title.   

We won't be seeing Frank again, though his voice — unapologetically plain-spoken — can still be heard in his poems. And always will be, for as long as such poems are heard.

But the 'trees' are also the poetries. Today, with dozens of poem-texts whirling round the globe every second, there are great forests of poetries, in which one could get lost for all time. Yes, I know that's a horribly mixed metaphor. Forests don't whirl round the globe, unless you think of Wordsworth's Lucy 'Whirled round in earth's diurnal course / With rocks and stones and trees' (I always felt for Lucy).

My point is that the writing trajectory of a poet like Frank might be seen as 'unimportant'. Poetry was a lifelong interest for him, but he didn't start writing it until he was well into his forties. He didn't win the National Poetry Competition. He didn't publish to popular acclaim. He had a modest circle of appreciative readers (and fellow writers).

Frank did succeed in placing poems here and there in the small press over several decades. He co-edited a small magazine for a while, played an active role in Suffolk Poetry Society, had modest wins in competitions, and there was a pamphlet: Racing the Stable Clock. He was a practising poet who kept practising.

His poetry 'career' might look like not much, as these things go. It was more than it seems.

He always sent me poems during the HappenStance reading windows, and latterly I encouraged him to send them whenever he wanted to — which was still about twice a year. It was rare to get a batch in which there wasn't at least one I thought outstanding in some way. He was a wit, with strong opinions. Often, he made me smile. But sometimes his poems opened out into sadness, and I would stare out of the window and think, and think some more.

I believe the writing of poems brought him joy. It wasn't about getting famous, or building a reputation as a 'player'. He found poems joyous things to make, worthwhile creations, like well-made chairs. They made him happy.

I won't forget him. Right to the end of his long life, he was writing self-critically and with acuity.

I'm appending one of the poems from Stable Clock below. It's short. And yet (to me) there's a whole world below the surface. The father who wrote the sermons was the same father who was gassed in the First World War, the same father who once 'killed a German face to face' and who, when it came to questions about that war, 'would never talk about it'. But his son wrote about him, a lifetime later.


Writing the Sermon


My father was known for his sermons.
He used to grade them according
to the number of pipes he smoked.

Three pipes spelt hell
for next day's congregation —
and that was only the notes.

As his neighbor, who kept hens, said,
When you go out to feed them,you don't
have to give them the whole bucketful.




Recent Comments
Josephine Corcoran Horsfall
Thank you so much for this post and the poem. I love the humour - the aside of "and that was only the notes." Yes, texture and co... Read More
Tuesday, 27 October 2020 16:25
Guest — Teika Marija Smits
What a moving piece of writing, Nell. I feel as though you've given us an insightful glance into the personality of a man who love... Read More
Monday, 16 November 2020 09:43
Jim Laing
I've been meaning to say that I bought Frank's pamphlet after reading this and I've really enjoyed reading it. I didn't know of Fr... Read More
Wednesday, 30 December 2020 21:55
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FIFTEEN BOLD ASSERTIONS ABOUT POETRY

PHPN7673 Lino print by Gillian Rose

1.   There is no universally accepted definition of what a poem is.   

2.   There is no agreement on what a poem is not.   

3.   Prosody is the study of versification.   

4.   'Versody' is not a word.

5.   Versification is the art of making verses.

6.   A stanza is a verse paragraph. Sometimes it is called a 'verse'. 

7.   A verse is made of verse, and most verse comprises verses.

8.   The canon is not a weapon, and does not have balls, although it sometimes feels as though it is, and does.

9.   Alfred Austin succeeded Alfred Lord Tennyson as poet laureate in 1896. He wrote a verse autobiography, The Door of Humility,
      which nobody alive has read.

10.  The ink used in 99.99% of poetry publications is black.

11.  A list poem is usually formatted vertically and left-justified i.e. it does not list.

12.  If a list poem is entered into the National Poetry Competition, it could be said to have entered the lists.

13.  Writer's block is even in Wikipedia. But this is not a problem. A computer can write poems for you. Here is my latest.

14.  More poets are alive than dead. They thrive.

15.  More poems are dead than alive.

Lino print by Gillian Rose
Recent Comments
Guest — John Peacock
Wrong about no.9
Sunday, 26 July 2020 12:02
Helena Nelson
How, John. I am so impressed! Have you REALLY read it, and all the way through? Maybe I should change the bold assertion to 'that ... Read More
Sunday, 26 July 2020 12:30
Eleanor Livingstone
More poets are alive than dead .... Eh, interesting idea. Might the last 100 years have produced more poets than all of history pr... Read More
Sunday, 26 July 2020 13:05
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  14 Comments