Thursday, 16 October 2014

Brookfield students shine at the Poetry Promenade

I'm very pleased to be able to publish two new poems by Brookfield Community School students Madeline Wort and Emily Wagstaffe here on the blog. Madeline and Emily (pictured with me on the left) took part in some workshops I ran for Cape Farewell at Brookfield earlier this year, thinking about climate change issues and the natural world. Last Friday, they joined me in St Thomas' Cafe for the start of the Chatsworth Road Poetry Promenade and read their poems out. I hope you enjoy them as much as everyone in the cafe did!


by Emily Wagstaffe:

Listen to the tree’s story
As the wind whispers to the leaves
And the bark taps back to the woodpecker.

The branches criss cross and argue
About who goes where

As the leaves express themselves
In their colours

The roots search under the soil
For their voices

Then it falls silent
When it blends in to the
Black night

Twit two

by Madeline Wort:

You’re happy
I’m sad
You make me frown
All you ever do
Is put me down

You’re nasty
You’re cruel
You make me look like a fool
You think it makes you look cool

So why is your final aim
To make me cry
At night I stare at the sky

Wondering why.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Chatsworth Challenge: 10 cafes, 1 road, countless poems

Reading at Blu. Photo by John Pratt
Last weekend saw the end of Chesterfield's vibrant Chatsworth Road Festival and on Friday I took part in a one-off challenge: could I read poems in every café down Chatsworth Road from town to Brampton Manor? It was a bit like doing the Brampton Mile without beer.

We started early in the morning at St Thomas' Church café and ended up back there at 3pm, high on caffeine and short on voice. The journey in between included readings at Café Aroma, Blu, Maison Mes Amis, Meringue, Koo, Nonnas, Brampton Manor and, most dauntingly, Morrisons supermarket café. I admired the food Chesterfield's cafés have on offer (from authentic Italian dishes at Café Aroma to skyscraper cakes at Meringue), drank too many coffees and met some lovely people, many of whom weren't expecting a sonnet to go with their morning cuppa. Everyone stopped what they were doing and had the courtesy and patience to listen.

Special mention is reserved for Northern Tea Merchants, our second calling point on the journey. I've been visiting the place since I was a teenager and used to go in there with my dad, breathing in the rich scent of the ground beans, wondering about the journey the coffee had been on. We were made incredibly welcome there and I had a small surprise for them too - a short poem written specially for Northern Tea Merchants. This is about visiting the shop with my good friend Richard when we were younger and being surprised by something he bought.

Northern Tea Merchants

Me and Rich, hunting
the perfumed shelves
for things to fix the day.

He chose a tea flower -
jasmine, unremarkable,
a sphere bunched in his hand

but back at the flat
with our warm talk
and warm water

it softened, became
an open palm.
Even when the cups

were drained
we knew we wouldn’t
throw the dregs away.

Thank you to Shirley Niblock, Howard Borrell, Ali Betteridge and all the staff and customers in the cafes we visited - it was a great day out.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

National Poetry Day and beyond

National Poetry Day is always a special opportunity for everyone with an interest in the spoken and written word to join forces and celebrate what poems can do. This year it fell on October 2nd and I was lucky enough to be part of not just a day but a whole week of festivities. On Tuesday September 30th, I was in London, judging the Forward Prize for Poetry and it was a wonderful moment seeing winners Kei Miller and Liz Berry collect their prizes on stage at The South Bank. You can find out more about some of these events on this Guardian Books podcast. For National Poetry Day, Forward Arts were encouraging people to 'think of a poem', so myself and fellow judges Vahni Capildeo and Cerys Matthews joined the cause as you can see in this picture....

Back in Derbyshire on Thursday, participants at two library events (in Swadlincote and Shirebrook) were keen to remember poems they'd learned by heart and one woman at Swadlincote had even brought a supply of her own verses. I had an interesting morning and afternoon reading my own poems and talking about how I became a writer.And there was cake! The morning trip to Swadlincote library was my first ever trip to that corner of the county, but everyone made me feel so welcome I'm sure I'll be back.

This week, I was in Chesterfield signing books at Waterstones: when I was a teenager writing poems, I could never have dreamed I'd even have a book on the shelves at Waterstones, let alone be signing copies of it one day. Thanks to all the staff there for making me feel so welcome. In the afternoon, I worked with Moorside Writers and others in Chesterfield library in a creative writing workshop based around objects people had brought with them - every one had an interesting story behind it.

The celebrations aren't quite over yet - this Friday (10th October) I'll be reading poems at different cafes along Chatsworth Road in Chesterfield, part of the Chatsworth Road Festival. I'll be taking my verses for a walk round Brampton between 9.30 am and 3pm, so if you're at a cafe en route you'll have a chance to hear some live literature while you enjoy your tea. Please come and say hello!

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Celebrating Shirebrook

The former Shirebrook Colliery,
a focus of the new film.
Yesterday saw a very special event at Shirebrook Academy as the sports hall played host to the Hallé Orchestra who raised the roof with a concert of classical pieces and music from films. They were joined by students from the Academy and the Miner's Welfare Brass Band to launch a new documentary, 'Shirebrook: A Living Heritage', made by Martyn Harris with an original score by Beatrice Schirmer. I've been working with students at Shirebrook Academy over the past couple of months, encouraging them to write poems about Shirebrook's past and future. The film featured a piece of my own, written specially for it, which you can read below. Congratulations to everyone who made yesterday such a wonderful event!

Shining Stream

At Shirebrook, dig
until your spade hits
long forgotten seams of coal,
all Lipton’s vanished architecture,
places where the headstocks used to stand.

Then deeper,
til you touch down
on the slats of a ghost loom,
or strike against the railway tracks
of 1895, worn smooth by back-and-forth.

And deeper,
down to clay tiles
left from Roman settlements,
the gaps where footprints first
learned how to shape themselves.

Keep on
until you’re stopped
by water, meet a Shining Stream:
the future passing underneath us,
running clear and quiet and bright.

Friday, 4 July 2014

A Derbyshire Cyclist's Song

We've all gone cycling crazy this weekend, and in honour of the Grand Depart passing very briefly through Derbyshire, here's a commissioned poem I wrote in the voice of a slightly worn-out Derbyshire cyclist. Happy biking, everyone!

A Derbyshire Cyclist’s Song

Cycling up our county’s tilted hills,
I slow the pedals, hover bird-like
until the forge of my own heartbeat stills.

I think of Tebbit’s famous “on yer bike”.
Did he mean movement equals fight?
I don’t know how to name this work,

these moments of uncomplicated flight:
pitted against limestone, the path going beserk,
running away from gravity.

Perhaps he meant keep on and lose yourself.
If you find meaning in activity
you’ve found the spoke of life itself…

Who cares. This is my slow labour of like.
I can’t stop now. I get back on my bike.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Someone who stops and says hello

On Friday, Alfreton Library hosted a fantastic Wellbeing day which was open to all but was attended by a lot of people who use the Home Library service and struggle to leave their houses much of the time. At Alfreton, they could try free aromatherapy hand massage, take part in a craft workshop and get information and support about everything from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to Books on Prescription. As the latter implies, the focus of the day was on how reading and writing can improve mental and physical health, so I went along to run a poetry workshop and book cafe in the library too.

A Brocken Spectre at Litton, Christmas 2013
The theme of my workshop was things that make you happy, so I shared some objects and memories that always make me smile (from a wooden carving of a sailor that belonged to my granddad to a pebble from the beach in Suffolk) and read out a poem of mine called 'Brocken Spectre' which describes some features of Derbyshire landscape that always lift my spirits. That led to a discussion of the time I saw a Brocken Spectre with my dad on Boxing Day this year, and prompted one woman to remember a day many years ago when she walked the edge of a rainbow in Scotland, above Pitlochry.

Memories bubbled to the surface fast, with people talking about holidays they'd been on, food they'd eaten and walks they'd take with their dogs. But I was overwhelmed by how many times everyone mentioned the Home Library service as something that made them happy, giving them contact with the outside world when they otherwise might feel quite isolated and cut off. "A book can take you out of yourself," said one member of the group, "even if it isn't a happy story, it makes you think differently about things." Soon, we were busy celebrating the small, everyday things that make life better. Someone who stops and says hello to you in the park. Someone who asks you how you are and listens while you answer, whether you're being honest or just putting on a brave face and saying "I'm fine".

We wrote a group poem (with different people coming up with different lines) but I hope it reflects some of the many things - large and small - that make these particular readers happy. We called it 'in and out' because everyone was particularly happy that they'd been able to get out for the day, so they wanted to mention that.

In and Out
a group poem written at Alfreton Library on June 13th, 2014

The memory of holding my first grandchild
with the chubby thighs and endless smile.
The time I walked the edge of a rainbow
with the Scottish hills spread out below.
A salad I ate on honeymoon in France,
or going up north for a Motown dance.
The birds outside and what they tell…

But it’s the little things I love as well –
breathing, the fact that you’re taking in life,
how pets take away your troubles and strife,
how a book can take you somewhere else,
the whole world held in a single shelf.
Or just someone who stops and says hello,
the way Spring makes the landscape glow.

The colours of Spring are loud and proud
and today we can all get in and out!

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

A dirty picture in a golden frame

You think you know a place until you talk to people who know it better. Last Tuesday, I was lucky enough to work with Anne Grange and patients at Newholme Hospital in Bakewell, gathering some of their reminiscences about favourite places. I started the sessions by reading some of my own poems about Derbyshire landscapes and then everyone shared memories of their own favourite spots around the county - I found out about Cromford bear pit, dancing bears at Belper, the curious shop at Castleton and heard more ghost stories than I could shiver at. It might only have been 2 o'clock in the afternoon, but it was still
Cromford bear pit
chilling to listen to people recounting tales of the Grey Lady at the old hospital.

The session also introduced me to a saying about Sheffield that I'd never heard before - apparently the industrial city used to be known as 'a dirty picture in a golden frame', steelworks and factories held in the palm of the Peak District. That saying formed the basis of a group poem which I'm sharing with you here with kind permission from Anne.

Anne will be working with everyone at Newholme Hospital to produce an anthology of poems later this year. It was a real privilege to share an afternoon with them.

A Dirty Picture in a Golden Frame

Summer holidays spent in Hathersage
Our milkman uncle used to take us around the village
Clopping in his cart – it was busy, even then,
With day-trippers from Sheffield – lots of cyclists.

Sheffield was a “dirty picture in a golden frame”
Now the forges and drop hammers are still
There are fish in the Don again at Attercliffe
And the “Dee Dars” have clean air to breathe

Now cyclists and walkers travel the old railways
Cinder paths from Monsal Head to Cromford
HS2 will speed through Belper; the greenery a blur
No time for Awkwright’s Mills; the Derwent’s flow

Lumsdale’s waterfall, tranquil ponds and woodlands
A space to stop and think: that it all started here
Spinning cotton, grinding corn, the wheels kept turning
Back-breaking work in the mills, now ivy-covered ruins.

“Yorkshire Born, Derbyshire Bred
Strong int’ arm, Wick in head”
It didn’t mean weak – but quick and strong
We needed to keep those mills and grindstones turning.

But now they’ve stopped and nature’s returned

And trees grow where the factories once stood.

Poetry inspired by Helen Mort’s visit to Newholme Hospital on 29/04/14
Stanton Day hospital

Theme:  “My favourite places”

Thursday, 27 March 2014

I Am Clay Cross

Over the last few weeks, Derbyshire has been keeping me as busy as Derbyshire should: a series of schools workshops, a cycling poem (watch this space!), two trips to Wirksworth to work with the wonderful Word Miners group and a session for young writers at Clay Cross library. Phew! One of my favourite things about writing poems with teenagers and children is that they always have as much to teach me about language as I do them. In Clay Cross, we wrote a group poem (passing folded papers round like a game of consequences) and I learned a lot about the town and what makes it special to everyone who lives there. With kind permission from the Super Scribers writers, I'm including a bit of the poem here. Many thanks to fantastic author Emma Pass for facilitating the workshop.

I am Clay Cross.
I see the spring creeping up on me.
I hear cheery greetings and traffic.
I smell the flowers opening up for spring.
I touch the edges of forgotten secret paths.
I wish we had a slower pace of life.
I will always be Clay Cross.

I am Clay Cross.
I see the houses in the distance.
I hear the birds sing. Blackbirds, robins, bluetits.
I smell steam and coal dust all around.
I touch street lamps blazing.
I wish I could see myself the way the birds see me.
I will always be Clay Cross.

I am Clay Cross.
I see the bustling people running into the shops.
I hear the clash clashing of Stephenson’s rocket.
I smell car fumes.
I touch the tops of houses, rough roof slates.
I wish I could tell people what this place means to me.
I will always be Clay Cross.

I am Clay Cross.
I see coal bins filled with flowers.
I hear trees whistling.
I smell the strange perfume of diesel.
I touch stone and brick and brass shop door handles.
I wish for woods full of bluebells.
I will always be Clay Cross.

Poem by Super Scribers writers, Clay Cross, March 2014.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

'We're passing to you': poetry, young writers and football

Radio 3 recently ran a series in which 5 contemporary poets were invited to write personal letters to a young poet, inspired by Rilke's classic correspondence. Over the past two weeks, my laureate role has given me the opportunity to work with young writers all across Derbyshire, from Eckington to Glossop, and it's been an inspiring process: I'd be more interested to read their letters of advice to me than vice versa!

Last week I went to Chesterfield's mighty Proact stadium to run a workshop for Year 6 students from New Whittington Primary. I was encouraging them to write about their favourite things and their favourite places in Chesterfield and was humbled by their enthusiastic response. Instead of listing possessions as their favourite things, most of the pupils chose to write about friends, family, pets or treasured photographs. When they were asked to describe parts of Chesterfield that mean something to them, the poems ranged from an ode to the Crooked Spire to a homage to KFC, with everything else in between. You can read the Chesterfield Post's write up of the day here and see a video of me reading my poem 'Talk of the Town' at the Proact. Lots of the Year 6s were Spireites fans and were excited about the possibility of Chesterfield going to Wembley...

Working with students from New Whittington Primary
Then this weekend I took a drive over Winnats Pass in dazzling sunshine to run some workshops for families at New Mills and Glossop libraries, in honour of National Libraries Day. The workshops were particularly well attended by children and we spent the day writing letters (some in the form of poems) to our favourite characters from books. I learned a lot from the budding young writers at Glossop, who told me about David Walliams' brilliant books for children, including 'Gangsta Granny', which had me in stitches after only a few pages.

Later this month I'll be working in Eckington, encouraging Year 6 students to respond to local history through poetry and to enter their work for the 'Eckington Echoes' poetry competition, open to anyone who lives in Eckington. If you'd like more information about the competition, please contact Alison Betteridge.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

An Open Book

This Saturday it's National Libraries Day, giving us a welcome excuse to celebrate our favourite books and mark the importance of having public spaces where we can access those books. With libraries across the country under threat, Derbyshire library users might be particularly aware of the nearby campaign to save Sheffield libraries, after it was revealed that 16 facilities may be shut across the city. A petition about the proposed cuts can be accessed here.

I have Chesterfield Library in my hometown to thank for my love of poetry - when I first got interested in creative writing as a teenager, I used to spend Saturday afternoons in there scanning the poetry shelves, looking for new things to read. Chesterfield library was the first place I really had access to contemporary poetry collections, work by people I'd not heard of before but instantly engaged with. I can vividly remember reading 'Roddy Lumsden is Dead' in there one rainy weekend and feeling like a new world of books had opened up to me. The idea that other young writers might not get the same opportunities one day is unthinkable.

Fortunately for Derbyshire folk, the future for libraries looks less bleak here than it does in Sheffield and this Saturday the county will be hosting events for National Libraries Day, including two workshops with your local laureate at Glossop and New Mills libraries. I'll be encouraging workshop participants to tell me about their favourite books and to use those books as a starting point for a new piece of writing (a letter to one of the book characters, perhaps, or a poem about the first time they read that book).

I have too many favourite books to mention. As you'd expect, many of those are poetry titles. But I've always loved novels too and one of the books I seem to get drawn back to time and again is Graham Swift's 'Waterland', a haunting portrait of the fens. I like it because, as well as telling a compelling story, it seems to capture the mood of fenland places in a way that nothing else does, a way I can't quite put my finger on. It reminds me of the impulse that makes me want to write poetry.

One of the pleasures of reading novels, of course, is finding out what's new. Last Tuesday I was in London for the announcement of the Costa Prize. It was won by a first book, 'The Shock of the Fall' by Nathan Filer, a debut about schizophrenia and grief. It follows the narrator Matthew's descent into schizophrenic illness following the death of his younger brother. Nathan Filer is only the fifth novelist to win the prestigious Costa Prize with a first book. If you want to read Nathan's award winning novel, I hope you can find it in your local library this Saturday....

Thursday, 23 January 2014

New year, new poem for Chesterfield

At the T.S. Eliot prize with my editor and former editor.
Photo © Adrian Pope
Happy new year to everyone in Derbyshire!

It's been an eventful and uncharacteristically glamorous start to 2014 for your local laureate. In early January, I travelled down to London to attend the T.S. Eliot awards after my first collection 'Division Street' was shortlisted for the prize. Reading at the Royal Festival Hall to a packed house was an honour and privilege, especially sharing the stage with poets I've admired for years, including Dannie Abse and Sinead Morrissey, whose collection 'Parallax' went on to win the main prize. You can hear me reading one of my own poems 'Scab' here. Above all, I was touched by how much support and encouragement I got from everyone back home throughout the shortlisting process and the ceremony. Standing behind the mic in London, I felt proud to be representing a small corner of the world in a very small way. Thank you for helping me up to the stage.

It's always exciting to go to the capital, but, quite honestly, it's even more exciting when the train sighs back into Sheffield station. And it's better yet when the drive home twists past Fox House, then Surprise View (still surprising after all these years), then the slow drop past Lawrencefield and Millstone and all the other places I climb and, last of all, the houses at Hathersage, huddling for warmth under another morning cloud inversion. I know I'm properly home when I see the chalk board outside the Little John pub, the cottages with old Christmas trees still left out back, savouring the January rain after weeks kept inside houses they never asked to be in. But when I stumble through the door of mine, I'm always disappointed to find that Charlie Whippet still hasn't learned to put the kettle on...

The coming months will be packed with schools visits (including working with local historians in Eckington) and readings, and I also hope to be back at more Chesterfield FC matches soon too, after penning my first poem for them at the end of 2013, with help from Ben Wilkinson, who knows far more about football than I can ever hope to. The poem is called 'Talk of the Town' and was published in the Boxing Day match programme, so I can now share it with you here on the blog too.

Talk of the Town

We’re in possession, we’ve got the ball,
Spireites passing back and forth.
This is our chance, or we could let it go:
we run with all that we don’t know,
the front row rising from their seats
and more than ground beneath our feet –

we’re in possession, we’ve got the ball,
we’ve got Queen’s Park and the wide town hall.
Black and white shop fronts, brickwork like fire,
we’ve got The Shambles, we’ve got the Spire.
Tudor-faced pubs where the night unreels,
we’ve got the stage at the Winding Wheel,

the market’s blue and white-striped lots.
No list can keep the things we’ve got:
town’s held here, proud on the terraces,
this cheering crowd of Spireite faces.
We’re in possession, we’re coming through.
Look out. Look back. We’re passing to you.
* * *

Happy new year and happy writing!