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WORDS, AND WAKING THEM UP

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'The little rabbits smiled sweetly in their sleep under the shower of grass; they did not awake because the lettuces had been so soporific.'    

Soporific.     

Precisely the right word.    

That's it, isn't it? The right one, in the right place.    

Soporific.                      

The fabulous and mysterious surprise of language, which in the ordinary way we use so lightly – merely for talking.

But when you find it fixed and free in a rhyme or simply placed without fuss exactly where it should go in the dark backward and abysm of time – well, the black bat night has flown, that's what, and ringed with the azure world he stands. 

The right word in the right place is the star to every wandering bark. 

There is wildness and wet, wildness and wet, and then suddenly it's long live the weeds and the wilderness yet. From wildness to wilderness, simply a syllable. But slipping 'wilderness' into the last line of 'Inversnaid', as if it were inevitable, oh my!

I am working on two new pamphlets. They have provoked this excitement and woken up the wonder of words. 

The two poets in question are especially good at putting the right word in the right place, and each time this happens, there's that little shock of recognition. It feels like a miracle.

Maybe this is how clichés get to be clichés. Somebody puts the right word in the right place and the world falls in love with it. So a heart of gold loses its original beautiful self and belongs to everybody. Then the level playing field flattens. At the end of the day, we're back to square one, which may or may not have something to do with hop-scotch.

A day job as a copy-writer has been an honorable trade for many poets and if I could write catch phrases for a living, why would I not? I throw you a phrase. You catch it and pass it on...

But there's more to it than that inside a poem. You linger on the precise and delicious word, yes – but it's precise and delicious because of where it is in the poem as a whole, which the sum of the parts is greater than. Another mystery: how a poem adds up to something that seems to make sense even if it doesn't.

Here are two tasters from the poets who have stirred me to dithyrambs.

Ramona Herdman's forthcoming pamphlet is called Bottle and actually it does contain 'a taster of pink fizz', but that's nothing to what else is in there.

For example, there's a ship in a bottle and its deck 'flexes under your feet'. Flexes. Besides, how did you get inside the bottle?

There's 'a stumble of ice cubes' and then ice 'ticking' in a glass. Ticking.

There's a 'quiver of whiskies'. Quiver.

It is a joyful job to be a poetry editor and linger over words. To set them onto a page one by one and marvel. And then to share them.

Lois Williams's forthcoming debut may be called Like Other Animals. It's a bargain. No, really. Read on. She wakes up words and sets them spinning.

There's a cashier, in Poundland, for example. She's 'stuck there, furious, reliable.' 'What if our bargains are / our only words in common?' Bargains.

At the town centre pond, there are 'goldfish / shimmering their semaphore'. Shimmering. Semaphore.

And at home, there's her father in the greenhouse 'dusting off soil, bits of vermiculite'. Vermiculite. I don't think I've ever said the word out loud till now. Vermiculite.

What a sensuous pleasure language is! What an amazing and humbling gift!



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THE SUMMER OF BLUE

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The poetry window has shut again.   

Some of the coincidences that occurred during the reading period were extremely strange.   

This always happens, but I forget.    

Who would expect, for example, to find more than one poem featuring a walrus?  

Also several poems about promises. The word 'promise' popped up all over the place (a lovely word, when you think about it).

Dusk, too. A lot of dusk. And silk.

As far as colour went, it was the summer of blue. Many shades of blue, more than one poem being entirely about blueness. Payne's Grey did once put a look in, but blue was overwhelmingly the colour of choice.

'Heft' is, as I think I have said before, definitely the new 'shard', and clouds find themselves shrouding the sun quite a bit. 

I am a little sensitive to shrouds at the moment, though I don't think I've ever actually seen one. 

Dead bodies are sometimes wrapped in sheets, but we don't (I don't) refer to these as shrouds. 

The only shrouds I can find on eBay are connected with gas nozzles. However, on Amazon I have tracked down a 'Premier Disposable Shroud with Plain Collar, White, Adult'. How extraordinary. Only ten left in stock.

There weren't as many envelopes as usual – 97 sets of poems, when there are usually at least 120. But I figure people have picked up the fact that things are difficult here at the moment. 

However, reading the poems was a pleasure. Real poems, of which there were many, are not written lightly, and they were not read lightly. I copied out three, so I could keep them and reflect. But images and phrases from others linger, as well as some of the lovely letters that came with the poems.

It is a privilege being trusted with people's poems. I remain convinced that writing them is a good thing, good for the spirit (if not the shroud). and some of that invariably rubs off on the reader.

The work of words is ancient and uplifting. How glad I am to be part of that fellowship. 


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HOW TO BAKE A POETRY PAMPHLET

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First, get the recipe from the author. 

It will look much like a Contents list, but with no indication of quantities or baking temperature.

But at least it's a place to start.

Here, for example, in Will Harris's debut, are the ingredients:

Object
Mother's Country
Halo 2
Self-Portrait in Front of a Small Mirror
Naming
Bee Glue
Justine
Identity
Yellow
With Cornflowers
From 'The Ark' I
Cured
From The Other Side of Shooter's Hill
From 'The Ark' II
Something
Allegory
Imagine a Forest

But what's the method? And will the ingredients work?

At least some of the contents promise a recognisable cake. First collections nearly always have something autobiographical that fits into the sense of 'self'. Because when you publish, it's a public statement – if not about who you are, at least about who you may be. It's personal, even if the poems aren't.

In Will Harris's Contents, you can see, fourth in the list, a self-portrait. Almost all poets have one, though not always explicitly titled. This one is in prose; part of the mixture. You can see 'Identity' too, and 'Mother's Country' which has to be a bit of heritage stuff. Most poetry cakes have some heritage.

And 'Naming' of course. Poetry gives things names, then sometimes takes them away again. I often think about Gill McEvoy's poem 'Difference'. It was in a pamphlet baked back in 2007, her first collection, Uncertain Days. The poet is in a plane, looking down at the grass at the edge of the runway – 'white clover in the grass, / a bee, a clump of yellow bedstraw, / a small brown butterfly'. All at once, the airport itself is 'a place where species are defined / by difference'. The poet wants 'to be out there', on her 'hands and knees, / naming things'.

Poets name things. At first for themselves; later (sometimes) for other people.

The name of the publication is part of that. All This Is Implied. Great name. Doesn't sound like anything I've baked (or consumed) before.

Having said which, when it comes to first collections, no two poetry cakes are ever the same. Each is radically different from the next. Sometimes difference is the defining ingredient.

'Will Harris'? Not much difference there. It's such an ordinary-sounding name. A white-caucasian-empire-building name. But he's not. A Victoria Sponge this is not.

All This Is Implied took a good while. The author is a thinker and a craftsman. He's been experimenting for years, putting things into words, trying them out, breaking them up, putting them back together again. And he's been working on prose style as well. He writes excellent prose (not all poets do). Blogging about one of the ingredients ('Justine'), he says: 'I think about writing as a way of addressing race, gender, history which might embrace mixedness and confusion ....'

Will Harris is a fellow of The Complete Works III. He self-defines as BAME (Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic). He doesn't 'play the race card' lightly. As he says himself in an essay on this subject, ' the race card is not something the non-white person can choose to play. It is what is done to you'. Do read that whole essay, and watch the YouTube film at the end. There is a context here.

So yes – this debut pamphlet does 'embrace mixedness and confusion', though the complete confection is anything but confused. Numbered among the ingredients are: games, humour, mischief, love, and form – even rhyme. It's not confused: it's fused.

The end product has come out pretty well, in fact. It's hot off the press. Want to try a slice? 


Cake in waiting
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