The hayloft

Trying to avoid the Sunday night feeling, I’ve come upstairs early with a pile of books and The Observer. My last day at work seems a very long time ago. We were in Yorkshire for the Easter week, staying in an old, converted hayloft, waking to the sounds of birds and a very persistent chicken pecking the door for porridge oats. I could imagine it how it had been – the cramped cattle below and their warmth, sleeping in the dry hay above them at night. There were two old donkeys in the field that took so long to come for carrots it was easier to climb over the fence to meet them. An old Victorian railway line – the track ripped up – ran along on a steep ash bank. We climbed up and saw roe deer, thousands of rabbits, birds, fox and badger sets, plus old rusting farm machinery. The poachers were out some of the day and every evening. The ghosts of the tracks were covered in shotgun cartridges and it ruined the atmosphere and any chance of seeing animals once they started firing. There was a deep pond with a little jetty and no sounds of traffic in any direction. Sometimes you don’t realise you’ve relaxed until after the anxiety returns.

We went to Fountains Abbey, which sounded quite aristocratic and stately but was actually much more interesting. I was shocked by the size of it and the long, dark cloisters with a priest hole, or hermit hole and the river running through it. There were no deer visible in the deer park, even though we walked for miles to see them. Every reddish coloured sighting was yet another pheasant.

I thought I might write more away from home, but it takes so long to just unwind and be who you are (thanks to Em Strang for her inspiring email on this subject) that sometimes that is more important and the words can come later. I’ve written lots of notes. I’ve decided to stop showing people my first drafts, hoping to avoid having moments of shame (where I have to shut my eyes or shake my head to get rid of the thought of people seeing something so unpolished and raw).

There were some good charity shop books to be found while away and I enjoyed The Promise by Ann Weisgarber and am almost finished Lila by Marilynne Robinson. I finished Shirley Jackson’s biography and I did feel she had a premonition about her own death in the last few months. I found her a likable woman and would have loved to have a few cocktails with her in her colourful Bennington house. I’m amazed at how writing could really make you a very good living back them in a way that we can only dream of now.

I’ve been chosen to write a book review for Mslexia, which I’m looking forward to. I’ve been reading Sunshine by Melissa Lee-Houghton, which I’ve enjoyed but which sounds weary of life in many ways. I’ve also been reading some Emily Berry poetry. I’m doubting a lot of what I’ve written at the moment and am very reluctant to send anything out for publication. I did enjoy seeing my poems in The Fenland Reed this week and I thought the whole magazine was well worth reading.

I won’t say anything about politics (apart from this sentence) as my heart’s in my boots. We spent a night in Chester at the end of the holiday in an old coaching inn called The Pied Bull. I couldn’t sleep for anxieties about work and returning home and lay awake until it was light thinking of all the people who had passed through its doors on their journeys, all the ghosts and footsteps in the hallways and the sound of history creaking on its timbers. It put the world into perspective a bit. Then it was morning and time for a long M6 and A66 drive home and all that comes with being home: the good – the rabbits, your own bed, books and cooking, comfort –

and the challenging – work, access to the news, and a return to the world with all its unopened envelopes, doctors’ appointments to be made and the challenge of how to fit writing (not a quick or easy thing and a slippery fish) into it.

Monologues

I’ve been writing monologues this week, something I started working on at Lumb Bank. They’re not free enough yet, too structured and constrained by anxiety about my abilities. I read some Sharon Olds last night and then some Louise Gluck, two very different but equally appealing poets. Olds makes Gluck’s language seem simplified but that doesn’t diminish it. Both use the eliptical ‘I’. When I started writing in my early teens, every I was I – me. I’ve written myself out of that conundrum.

I enjoyed the latest edition of The Dark Horse. I enjoyed Kim Moore’s All the Men I Never Married: No 9 and David Morley’s Sycamore Bark for different reasons. I also loved the essay on Anne Sexton as teacher. I thought it brought her to life in the most vivid way.

I’ve totally revised and re-edited the majority of the poems I have since the Arvon course. There’s still a way to go, but the ‘finished 100’ are now reduced to about a ‘finished 40’. I hope I’m not chopping away good wood. We’ll see.

I had a poem accepted by Acumen last month and was delighted, but when I looked at the copy a lot needed working on. I submitted a very revised version. I hope they accept it in its new form.

I’ve been working hard at my day job. I’ve got a lot of new patients in the psychosis pathway. Some stories are too unbelievable to put into words and, in mental health services, you realise you are living amongst these stories every day in the community. Work’s been a good distraction this week as my daughter’s been in Morocco with my mum (they still are) and I’ve been worrying a fair bit. The rabbits are still happily in love in the back yard and a pair of jackdaws are coming regularly to the bird feeder now.

I’m going to North Yorkshire for the Easter week. I’m hoping to look at my whole selection of poems and organise them into some kind of order if I can. A collection rather than a random selection of writing spanning 15 years. I was sorry The Fenland Reed had to cancel the issue 4 launch in Ely as not enough poets could attend. It took me a while to sort out some leave from work so I couldn’t instantly say I was going either. It looks like a really good edition though and I hope my poems hold up in print.

It’s nice to be included in the emails from the Arvon group. I haven’t a lot to contribute as I’m at work so much of the time and generally discover them later at night. I’m so pleased I went on the course and hope that some of us do keep in touch.

We went to Buttermere again at the weekend and the sun shone! In Cumbria! We walked off the path and into the forest with its bogs and stumps covered with sphagnum moss. The pub gave me an idea for a monologue… a spirited daughter of an innkeeper speaks.

Arvon and After

I went to my first ever Arvon course last week. My head’s still scrambled. The tutors, Sarah Howe and David Morley were excellent, inspiring and encouraging. Jacob Polley, the guest reader, was a real bonus – down to earth and better for it. It’s been a long time since my imagination was fired in this way. I’d forgotten I could really think about poems and literature – far too caught up in the day to day. Life had taken over. But I was able to, and I was shocked that I still had it in me. Switching off is not something I can really do, but ‘real life’ seemed very far from Lumb Bank.

There was the usual farce when I arrived. I was early so I decided to have a glass of wine in The Old Gate in Hebden Bridge. The man in the taxi firm I was directed to by Tourist Information nodded very confidently when I told him the destination. As soon as I got in the taxi (which smelled of sick) he asked me if he could drop me ‘at the post office’ as this was the only place he knew in Heptonstall. I politely asked if he might be able to take me a little bit further up the road. He went about 50 yards past the post office, stopped and said ‘here then’. I gave up trying to explain the location, got out and was immediately accosted by an elderly couple asking me if a car with stickers with ‘politzi’ on it was mine and ‘was it legal?’!! I had no idea but I know the walk to Lumb Bank was very long and the wheels nearly fell off my suitcase.

On Wednesday I had a real crisis of confidence and foolishly asked a local man in the lane, with a bouncy Springer Spaniel, how I could ‘get down to the river’, thinking a local walk on my own might clear my head. He gave me very specific directions and I set off in my raincoat. I must have taken a wrong turn, or probably several, and ended up at the end of a steep path that had fallen away. As it was nearly tea time, I started panicking, knowing it was 20 minutes until I would be missed. I decided to climb up a steep, wet bank and found myself slipping back two steps for ever one I took. I held onto the stones of an old mossy wall and one of them went rolling down past my feet into the river. I came up into the wrong place: there were no gaps in the fence and I could see Lumb Bank far away up the hill. I crawled under barbed wire and then up through the fields. I was so grateful to be back in the safety of the house I thought it must be fate that I stay. I’m glad I did. I met some very interesting, warm and talented people. There were some stories shared that I’ll always remember. Funny ones and sad ones.

I felt a bit stunned to be home, with all its expectations – from childcare to bills and of course the ‘toad work’ as Larkin said. I know I need to make some changes and very quickly too.

Today we walked from St Bees to Fleswick Bay. Some of the old grafitti/calligraphy was still there on the cliffs – the earliest was from 1886. There were gemstones polished by the tide and I collected two pocketfuls of them. The smuggler’s cove was mainly under water at high tide, but we were able to lie on the pebbles for a few minues and watch drips fall from the cliffs. On the way back there was a stunned young sparrow on the road, probably clipped by a car. We picked it up to check for injuries. There were none. It was silent and very still – so different to all the birds from Lumb Bank, including the vocal dawn chorus, the birdsong we were played as part of the tutorials and the constant calls and answers from the trees. When we let the sparrow go, it found its wings again and settled in a bush, re-energised.

If any of the Lumb Bank poets are reading this, I really want to say thank you for all your support. I can’t believe I was able to read my poems on the last night and, were it not for the positive feedback, I would have stayed in my room. Probably drinking wine and hiding. Although I said earlier my mind’s ‘scrambled’, it’s also clearer. I know what I want to do and, in a way more importantly, what I no longer want to do.