Monthly Archives: January 2015

Putting life into Words

Skardu valley Skardu valley in the Himalayas I have been re-reading the interview in PN Review 221 in which Maitreyabandhu talks to Mimi Khalvati. It’s an amazing interview – very different from the obsequious or challenging interviews in many poetry magazines. He talks about how he has read her new book ‘The Weather Wheel’ , ‘…each poem seems to rub the words away in order to leave us with things in themselves, as if you work at the writing until the writing disappears.’ It would be wonderful to be able to write in that way. I have felt in a turmoil with my writing; the more I do the more I question what it is I am trying to do, and the more the ‘things in themselves’ can disappear in the process of using language to try and express them. My problem is not lack of subject, I don’t need workshops or courses really to give me a subject, although the discipline of producing writing for a given target to a specific time is helpful sometimes. My head is full of places and people; when I stop to dream or day dream or just to think, when I am reading a book or looking at pictures or a television programme these places and people rise up in my mind and demand to be anchored down, made explicit and accessible with metaphor, description. This response of Mimi to Maitreyabandhu seems to be relevant: ‘This is the challenge to the older poet – can we talk straight from the mouth, the heart the mind? I think naturalness of expression has something to do with it; getting out of the way of the poem; suppressing the lyrical ego, its mellifluous soporific music (which I’m prone to), its self satisfaction that draws attention to felicities; leaning on syntax rather than lexical high jinks which grab the attention too greedily:all the inside-out stratagems that make not only the writing , but the writing process, seem invisible so that one might wonder how is it done? how did they do that? I do aspire to this condition in which poetry seems a given, a gift, in service of something other than the poet, or even her language.’ I couldn’t sum it up better – in fact I didn’t really know what I was talking about until I read this.  ‘The Weather Wheel’ is about place and dislocation, about the observed and what that means. I’ve read it three times now and am only just beginning to get to grips with its layers of meaning that come out of a simplicity of observation which I aspire to. It’s time to stop thinking about other poets, their successes and how they achieve publication, prizes, recognition. Time to concentrate on the poem in itself. These dark mornings, when the fields stretch without an end and the frosty air meets the icy ground in a meld of distance and cold, the way the light comes in is never the same. Today it was very dark except for a single band of light that stretched from side to side – width horizons if there is such a thing. It was breath taking, I felt myself being drawn into it. I came in and fed the cat and went to my room and started reading the interview and the poems referred to, and others on the way that caught my eye. It’s as if all the angst surrounding writing – good enough? clever enough? where should it be sent? started to deflate. I am an older person. I want to convey what I know, what I have seen – the scrape of rock under foot, the heat of sun burning on the back, those women with their depth in their eyes; the simple ride down The Mall in Lahore, trees meeting overhead and shading the chocolate brown canal and the boys leaping in and out with huge splashes; the hoots and dust and donkeys and overall the sense of wonder and excitement and the way it all took me away from speculation and into the moment, time after time, person after person. Today I am going to work on Ha Noi my long poem – or now as I think of it, set of poems. That place that both enthralled and appalled me, where I found myself in a different space in head and heart. I can’t wait to get started.                                                                                                                           Faisalabad            Eritrea Teacher in Faisalabad with her class and classroom.                           Children in the Eritrean mountains greeting the train.



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…..into the deep, dark forest


‘And for a hundred years she dreamed while the forest grew around her. Each dream took a whole year, and acorns became oak trees while she dreamed’

This is the end chapter of Sara Maitland’s book ‘Gossip from the Forest:  The Tangled Roots of our Forests and Fairytales’. Granta Publications 2013’.  I picked this book up in a serendipitous look around the bookshop at the Needlemakers in Lewes, where The Frogmore Papers magazine is to be found. I have been reading it over the December disruptions to my normal quiet life and it has taken me  back into the land of fairy tale and deep into some of the ancient and not so ancient forests of the British Isles.

I was a fortunate child to have a next door neighbour who was a lover of woods.  Mrs Betty Turk appears in a  set of my poems about the war and was the person who took me deep into Springpark Woods when I was a small girl.  I only remember really the freedom of walking through leaves and leaf mould, the smell of bracken, the sticky stems and overwhelming smell of new bluebell.  I became familiar with them and went there on my bicycle and built camps in the bracken as I grew older. I wonder what else Mrs. Turk gave me? A fascination with the foreign and unexpected; her house with its silent refugees, the unknown language, music pouring out of the piano and violin, all this in a tiny pre-war suburban row of houses. 

Now I am remembering that there were also refugees across the road.  One day I was sent home from school, on the bus and alone, maybe five years old my father still away in the war I think. I was sitting on the doorstep – red tiles in a semi circle pattern that I recognised as the threshold in so many temples in Sri Lanka. Across the road an old man came out and took me into his house, I vaguely knew his grand daughter Mary – she had beautiful curls but she didn’t play with any  of us in the street. There was a strange ‘foreign’ smell in the house.  They sat me on a straight back, hard wooden chair in a crowded room and the old man kept watch out of the window for my mother and grandmother returning from shopping.  Now I wonder about them all.  We were all fatherless, parent-less, displaced.  My father away in the army and my mother and grandmother displaced to the suburbs from inner London and family, on their ‘way up’.

Now I wish I could ask questions about these people, surely someone knew them and their history, yet I wonder.  There was a sense of keeping yourself to yourself there too. Insecure people trying to find a way back into their lives.  I am writing about my father’s return, this unknown man entering the family of women.  It makes me very aware of being ‘orphaned’ – that there is no-one left to ask.

IMG_5160 Heligan was where I lived for many years before it became tourist material and cleaned up.  Still if you know where to look there is a sense of mystery and the old places where we used to walk, collect our wood, pick daffodils and make flutes frothe bamboo. I am standing  in the gateway of  Heligan Mill still lived in by Brenda who came  to live ‘in the woods’ over 50 years  ago.


So Mrs. Turk introduced me toIMG_5159the woods and I have loved woodland and forest ever since; sought them out to camp in or near, to walk in and to find a way into the unknown.  Sara Maitland tends not to give a lot of weight to the psychological woods and fairyland that many have explored and that attracts me very much.  When I was writing stories with children I found many of them went into ‘dark, dark woods’ or ‘deep into the forest’ and that there was change and transformation taking place there.  But I do love the way that Sara Maitland identifies fairy stories with particular ‘woody places’.  I have gathered together Zipes and Warner and other stories and am going to soak myself in fairyland for a while. I hope that deep within I will find that words spiral, gossip spools out, that the strange and the phantasmagoric constellate into new forms and poems.


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