Since his debut – Thirst [Slow Dancer, 1999] – was nominated for The Forward Prize for Best 1st Collection, Matthew Caley has published four more collections – the last three from Bloodaxe – and read everywhere from Novi Sad, Serbia to The Globe Theatre, London; from Prague’s Alchemy to Wayne-Holloway Smith’s living room. He’s recently taught Contemporary Poetry /Creative Writing at The School of English, St Andrews University, The University of Winchester and The Poetry School. He has just given the StAnza International Poetry Festival Lecture 2020. His 6th collection is Trawlerman’s Turquoise [Bloodaxe, 2019].
Where do you live?
Crystal Palace, South London
What do you do?
Tell us what it’s like to be your age?
It’s strange as this questionnaire is forcing me to think about it and I rarely do. No idea why – when I was thirty and people accused me of being thirty I didn’t like the definition of it – I might lie upwards as much as downwards just to avoid definition or pre-conceived ideas. Maybe because I was hit by poetry/art very early on – and couldn’t really do anything else very well – I’ve just stuck doing those things – poetry, putting out books, readings, collaborating with artists, teaching art or poetry since the beginning – it’s a narrow seam and therefore my basic drives and actions and life remain pretty much the same and they don’t necessarily rely on physical fitness – though I feel Ok –- so it doesn’t feel so different.
Or I don’t notice the decline!
Plus, I don’t write directly from actual life and what happens to me. I write out of wordplay and structures and imagination. Some poets write their first book about childhood, their second about amorous relationships, their third about marriage, swiftly followed by decorating and divorce. My work messes with time and follows no chronology, it draws from life but tangentially, so there shouldn’t be much stress on age in it particularly.
I had a big party when I turned 50 and another when I turned 60 but they weren’t really about that. I discovered that a ‘big number party’ is the only way to see friends you haven’t seen for years. They’ll turn up for that. So it wasn’t really about me or my age but just a grand excuse to catch up. So I don’t view myself through the lens of any age. I’ve met people in their thirties who think they are old. It’s all relative. Of course, you can’t escape how others see you. Or noticing how certain people react because of your supposed age. I notice them noticing but I don’t care. So that solves that.
I would also think that whilst your stated aim to change the image of older folk is a great one, that you must also have to be careful to avoid—as any of these pro-these people or pro-that movements do—ghettoising yourselves. All persons are persons –just at different stages. I want to be around all ages of people -and luckily again – at the moment – I can be. This happens much more naturally in other countries than here I find. Children, teenagers, young adults, adults, older folks etc should be all mixed up in the same spaces. I don’t want to know only one strata. That’s stultifying. Advertising and social spacing can force people into their own age group. It’s good to mix it up. The media often stereotype older people so the image should be combatted but outside of the media folks need to mix it up themselves.
What do you have now that you didn’t have at 25?
More books! Two daughters. A flat. I know my insides and my outsides. I know where to stand in relation to the source in order to get a poem. I know it’s not my drive that does it. The arc of propulsion that drives the poems started before me somehow and I just keep in its slipstream and end up where it takes me. I’ve narrowed down what I do so it’s more focused. If I’ve gained any wisdom then I probably don’t notice it be because you can’t re-construct exactly how you were before. Learning and skills are invisible once you’ve mastered them. You have changed, but there’s no former you to compare with. On Magazine’s- [the post-punk group’s] -‘comeback’ LP Know Thyself their songwriter and lyricist Howard Devoto has a song ‘Dear Howard of Course’ which is a song to his younger self. But much of his younger self had been filmed or recorded and maybe he has a better memory than me. Much of the LP deals with ageing, though in a typically oblique way, there’s a song called Holy Dotage! But it’s a fired-up fast song. I would guess there are losses and gains but sometimes the losses are good and the gains not so good. I have a bad memory which means I don’t tend to dwell in the past much so I’m usually dealing with the present. The now is all we have so its best to deal exclusively with that or you end up in the ether.
What about sex?
I’ve always had great fun and luck in the amorous world. It’s hard to talk about it overtly – not because of prudism – though our current culture can be strangely prudish –but because our current moment could but not misread it.
Since meeting Pavla and seeing my daughters born it all changed. Now it’s blood-ties and love. A different thing. But also I think discretion in relationships is a very underrated virtue – you make yourself vulnerable in amorous relationships and whoever or how many people are involved, what goes on is a beautiful, private thing. Those might seem strange in a world where people post videos of their genitals to each other quite merrily and overshare at every opportunity. This vies with the overall prudish culture to make a strange mix. I feel very grateful for all my past relationships, brief or more substantial, with some very strong, powerful, original, and beautiful characters. They all meant a good deal to me. But Pavla and I have been together for 20 years now and have two daughters. She’s a very strong character herself and an artist. Love and sex are both mutual and mutable things, their form changes virtually every day – if you drift with it. Being with one person isn’t so different from having a few lovers because everything changes all the time. If you keep alert they renew themselves.
Of course, there are many different types of relationships – not just the amorous world. I’m lucky again. I’ve got a wide range of friends – men and women of all ages and types. Because I’ve taught in art schools and poetry schools I regularly meet 18-23 year olds. I know quite a few young poets. I meet my daughters’ friends. So I have some ‘young’ friends and friends of all types. It’s just that I don’t see any of them very often because I’m too busy or always travelling about – though I have friends scattered everywhere so I see those when I travel – but with friendships – they usually hold up if they’re meant to.
How free do you feel?
‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’ as yer man said. No-one’s truly free under Capitalism or Communism. It’s just seeming degrees of it. Freedom is internal.
What are you proud of?
I find that word a bit iffy – it gets misused so much. There’s a danger it can become a kind of vacuous Facebook meme type word. An Award Ceremony word. Like the word ‘hero’ has become. But if there’s another word then I take great delight – I like the word ‘delight’ – in my daughters. Mina is  a musician-playing violin and viola, in all manner of orchestras and quartets and solo and Iris  is studying Animation in the Czech Republic which is a brave leap forward. They are delightful and I delight in them and who they’re becoming. And Pavla, of course, who has put so much into them.
What keeps you inspired?
I read that Leonard Cohen quote a while back – the one where he says, ‘If I knew where good songs came from I’d go there more often’. It’s a good line but I was dissatisfied with it – why can’t you climb back up the rope ladder to the source? I’ve spent 6 years working on that. It’s not ‘inspiration’ which I’ve found is a flimsy and insubstantial friend. It’s a mixture of internal ‘athletics of the mind’ – technique[s] and knowledge of timing. Then you can go there when you want and get the poem you want, when you want. I’m much closer to getting that. I’m not perfect at it yet but it’s getting much closer.
When are you happiest?
Most of the time. My default mode is pretty OK – most of the time. [That really annoys some people I notice.] So if I get happy then I’m really up. I’m happier being a ‘hired’ gun rather than full-time. I’m happy ‘on-the-road’ gigging. I’m happy to get back to my beauties. I‘m a cup more than half full and slightly above the brim person.
When in Chartier in Paris. Having coffee on a frozen balcony. Listening to The Punch Brothers or Fleet Foxes or Lankum or O’Hooley & Tiddow at a concert with all the girls. The Rabbit fair, Konice, Moravia. On the road. Everywhere. It’s portable, happiness.
And where does your creativity go?
I prefer the word ‘imagination’. Always into the poems, the books.
What’s your philosophy of living?
I try not to have one! Stand in the place where you live. Be in the minute you’re in. Reduce your worries to a minimum. Walk everywhere. Advice is the worst way of giving advice. Develop out of what you lack. [Baudrillardian. Barthian. A bit of Schopenhauer. Kristeva. ] You don’t need much. Know what you do need. Avoid elegy and nostalgia. Don’t carry a phone. Tell the time by laundrettes. Appreciate everyone, especially your enemies.
It’s another imaginative leap – until it isn’t I guess.
Are you still dreaming?
I rarely dream. The poetry replaces that, maybe. The world is enough.
From our inception in 2016, Advantages of Age has always had a proclivity for poetry. In 1936, William Butler Yeats, widely considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, described Edith Sitwell’s poetry – ‘Her language is a traditional language of literature — twisted, torn, complicated, choked here and there by strange resemblances, unnatural contacts, forced upon us by some violence beating in our blood, some primitive obsession that civilization can no longer exorcise’.
This week, I asked our six poets – myself, Caroline Cadenza, Wendy Klein, Beatrice Garland, Matthew Brown and Debra Watson – to introduce themselves and to tell us something about how getting older has affected their poetry. We will all be performing at the Poetry Café this Thursday, June 27th at 7pm.
I started writing in my mid-50s so I was already old when I started. I wasn’t a teenage poet however I had been a journalist for years, and words ran with me like water. I found myself in the position career-wise where the opportunities to be a freelance journalist had become less and less. The democratisation of writing on the web and my age mitigated against the career I’d relished for the previous 25 years. It was a scary time. So I decided that re-invention was the best policy. In order to earn money, I started doing press and at the same time, I signed on to a Beginner’s Poetry Class at City Lit in London.
There was something about the succinctness of poems and the task in hand that attracted me, and it still does. And there is a parallel in that, with journalism. Condensing an experience that is long and complicated into something that bites with its intensity. Like pasta al dente. Not to overcook. That is my aim.
My first pamphlet Tantric Goddess was published on Eyewear in 2017 when I was 64. It was an exploration partly of the relationship that I started when I was 60. Hence the title which also has a tongue in its cheek. More recently, I did a project with my partner, Asanga where I sent him ten poems and he created ten watercolours as a response, this then became an exhibition and a book Wild Land.
Here is a poem from Tantric Goddess –
LOVE IS LIKE FINDING A SECRET BALLROOM IN MY HEAD
All those years I’d been doing crazy asanas,
the dancing was happening round the corner.
My Conscious Relationship teacher did a lecture
on Holding The Psychosexual Boundaries.
Destroy his letters in a fire ritual.
I’d always dived into Never-Neverland
with broken men, bits of rope and dirty dishes.
To me, the terms were incomprehensible,
I thought my writing should be on their walls.
Enlightenment came through painstaking logic,
a series of unyoga-like forays into household chores.
Like rebels in flagrante,
we move our old limbs slowly.
I haven’t mentioned the chandeliers.
Caroline Cadenza, 51, is an award-winning advertising copywriter, living and working in London. Not finding much scope to express the deep stirrings of her soul whilst writing cat food ads or car brochures, she often uses her daily commute to write poetry. She loves reading her work at Open Mic events and feeling it resonate with audiences.
She has just published Metaphorplay, which she describes as ‘a wildly poetic romance’ and is a collection of her erotic, naughtily edgy, witty poems. She has also illustrated them with her own inimitable pizzazz and colour.
Here’s what she says about her evolution as a poet –
In my 20s and 30s, my poetry was a microphone for my innermost voice as it sung of my spirit’s longings for wholeness and my passion’s yearnings to bust out of the prison of my shrinking-violet personality.
Throughout my fantastically freeing 40s, my art and poetry were increasingly an outlet for my mischief and wildness. But at some point, this ‘secret me’ was so thoroughly outed as the ‘real me’, that putting it back in its box became pointless.
Now at the tip-over from 40s into 50s, it seems that my former decades were merely fertilising the ground for the fruition and bursting forth I’m currently enjoying. This feels like the midsummer of my life – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually blossoming, blooming, ripening and epiphany-ing all over the place.
My poetry today remains an amplifier for my ever-more daring voice – defying convention, berating ex-lovers and shaming them for chasing ridiculously younger totty. But my main catharsis comes from fondly deriding myself and transmuting my tragedies – confessionly, into comedies. As ever, my poetry doesn’t just express my inner world, it reveals, translates, unscrambles and interprets it to me. The trembling voice of my awe and gratitude to be here at all, offers both poetic prayers of thanks and laments the loss of contemporaries who have already passed away. Through my poetry’s portal, my inner goddess roars her wrath and purrs her promises.
What’s next? Who knows? I love turning my poems into performances. So watch this YouTube space for more like this:
This is one of Caroline’s poems that we published at Advantages of Age. It epitomises her courage and naughtiness.
Fruits plucked in haste when ripe enough to eat
Are fresh and firm and tolerably sweet
But look again and higher up you’ll see
Maturer fruit still hanging on the tree.
Come connoisseur, this mellow one’s for you
Not tang and tart and biting back
Nor am I overdue
But come to my fruition – in my prime
Beyond delicious: my taste is sublime.
You’ll barely need to bite – just use your lips
I’ll yield my liquid treasure for kiss
My perfume beckons – lures you to come near
Good sir – you are the reason I am here.
I’m burdened with this ripeness, heavy with completeness
Never before nor ever more will I exude such sweetness
Nectar-seekers, lotus-eaters have not tasted such
Come pluck me now and glut yourself while I am soft and lush.
I’ve nought to lose and all to gain
For it shall be lamented
If my ripeness finds no mouth
Before I’m all fermented.
Widely published and winner of many prizes, Wendy Klein, 77, is a retired psychotherapist, born in New York and brought up in California. Since leaving the U.S. in 1964, she has lived in Sweden, France, Germany and England. Her writing has been influenced by early family upheaval resulting from her mother’s death, her nomadic years as a young single mother and subsequent travel. Despite dashing about between four daughters and fourteen grandchildren, she has published three collections: Cuba in the Blood (2009) and Anything in Turquoise (2013) from Cinnamon Press, and Mood Indigo (2016) from Oversteps Books.
She writes about herself – ‘I believe profoundly in the curative powers of dancing dogs and reading poetry out loud. I hope that someone will humanely destroy me if I cease to be able to enjoy these pleasures.’
Here’s what she says about age and being the poet she is – I am a bit of an imposter to Advantages of Age, because I really don’t see many advantages in terms of any part of my life. I read the brave, positive items you post with great interest and wonder! Certainly getting older has made me less confident about many aspects of my life, and writing is one of them. I am a glass-half-empty person who does her best to stay just ahead of the black dogs. Everything takes me longer, I am more disorganised, I forget titles I have changed, waste a lot of time looking for lost/mislaid items, electronic and paper.
I had a pretty good system up until we moved a few weeks ago, but I have just spent a whole morning not finding a reading I did in Chichester recently, which I want to repeat in London this Saturday, and I cannot find it. Will have to reprint, and I have no replacement cartridge to make my printer work. It is solvable, and I have a wonderful techie partner who bails me out. But… Performance-wise, I suffer more from nerves than I did when I was younger, stumble more, etc. Am pretty diffident about promoting my work, more etc. You get the picture.
I think I am definitely past my prime in terms of developing new ideas, experimentation, etc. I write what I write and know my limitations, which I guess could be described as an advantage. In general, I find the poetry world an awkward place to navigate, and I think I have retreated from the competitive corners of it I used to inhabit willingly. I still put on a pretty good show, but it doesn’t feel secure.
This is a wonderful poem that Advantages of Age published of hers! I love that it’s ‘the beast’ that she covets. I’m sure Yeats would approve.
WHAT THE WEAVER KNOWS
I’m not just any maiden lounging in the millefleurs,
there to bait the trap. On my canvas, invisible
to the innocent, fish knives gleam, wait to scale
your silver, crack open your heart. Listen;
there are rumours of drowning by metaphor:
the flicker of dance, the aspiration of flight,
the whale-bone squeeze that robs breath, moulds
flesh into enticement, promises nothing.
Embrace the rush of darkness, the drip and seep
of 4 AM when eyelids are peeled back, lashes bat
and flap, when the tick of the body is loudest
as light advances, twists, morphs, begins its birth trial:
crown of head, shoulders, the buttocks’ heart-cushion,
legs and feet, their twitch and kick built-in.
No I’m not just any maiden, there to bait the trap, a silly pawn
in some hunter’s game. It’s the beast I covet:
the arch of his back, his mane’s rough silk, the heave
of his white, white breast. Look out, for only the canniest
can break into the spiked circle, where I spell-spin;
a sucker for unicorns; not much of a lady.
Beatrice Garland, 81, has a day job as a National Health Service clinician and teacher, work which requires a lot of publication in its own right (under a different name), so there have been long gaps in her writing poetry since she began in 1989. But it has never stopped completely.
This is partly because she has always read – poetry from the sixteenth century right up to the 2019s, as a result of a first degree in Eng. Lit. – and partly because no job can satisfy every need, perhaps particularly not the need for something personal and self-examining. She spends a lot of the day listening to other people’s worlds. Writing poems offsets that: poetry is a way of talking about how each of us sees, is touched by, grasps, and responds to our own different worlds and the people in them.
She won the National Poetry Prize in 2001 with Undressing, has won several other prizes and has two collections out – Invention of Fireworks and The Drum.
Beatrice is one of the most dynamic women I know. Her poems are vivid and daring.
Here’s what she says about her writing and getting older –
I only started to write really once I was older – say, from 50 onwards. And over the last four or five years I’ve become more confident about performing/reading. But basically growing older for me has meant knowing my own mind, and not being afraid to speak it without becoming strident.
We are going to bed. From where
I am lying, hands behind my head,
I watch your progress with interest
for you are a fine-looking man, good hair
and yes, still slim. When you remove
your shirt, stretching to take it off
without undoing the buttons, I see your ribs
and catch a drift of something feral,
warm, from the efforts of the day
and it makes my pulse quicken. But first
I must tell you something important:
you must never ever ever again
leave your socks on till last.
Matthew Brown, 54, is a freelance journalist and writer. His poems have appeared in a number of publications, including Magma, Other Poetry and South Bank Poetry. He grew up in Durham and lives in East London.
Matt is brilliant at forensically dissecting experiences, particularly around nature. His poems are have a quiet but flaming sensitivity to them.
Here’s s poem of his that was in a group pamphlet, Sounds of the Front Bell.
Weigh it first in the palm of your left, belly up.
Then flop flank down on the block, tail fanned out
against marble or oak. Note the gold scales,
the red-eye dots. See the gills collapse,
the arsehole’s dark O. Touch your blade tip here,
clip a nick, press till the slit grows. Grip.
Use a rag if you must, then slice through chest
to throat – a fine line where pale flesh thins.
Stop before the slack jaw’s wishbone. Make it clean.
Fishwives, it’s said, could cut through fifty a minute, their blunt fingers stunk to old age.
Slide yours between the flaps to catch
the guts, a moist purseful of soft mechanics.
This is what there is: a tube for in and out made slime. Snip the gullet, tug
the slick innards till membrane peels from bone. Adjust your hold, thumb
back muscle, let the knife-point pierce
the spinal column. Ooze as black as claret dregs.
Most goes with a running tap; some spots
need an edge, a fingernail. With luck, what’s found
between the ribs is pink. Leave the head,
let eyes pearl in the pan, skin butter-crisp with sting of lemon and dill. What’s left
is skeleton: skull, vertebrae, fin; tail, a tattered flag on a grounded ship. Fold the waste
in old news, seal the lid from night’s predators.
Debra Watson, 53, is the co-founder and director of The Crimson Word, a poetry collective for shows and events exploring multi-sensory, immersive poetry. She is also a regular performer at The Poetry Brothel London and with The Bloody Poets. She has recently published her first chapbook Laments and Incantations.
Debra is a sensual poet whose words wrap around you and wrestle you to the floor. She delights with her provocative tongue.
Here’s what she says about her work and evolution as a poet –
I stopped writing poetry when I came to the UK in 1997 and started again in 2011. I found a batch of poems that I wrote between 1993 and 1997 and to be honest, the themes and the writing styles are not madly different. I think, if anything, I have developed more craft in the writing. It was wonderful working with poet and editor Katie Haworth on my chapbook. The reasons the poems look more ‘professional’ is that Katie brought some ‘grammar rules’ to the work. She has a fine eye for teasing out the style of the poet and creating formatting rules. She is a tough editor and I had to fight my corner. I am quite stubborn, so often my first reaction to changes is ‘no’ – but then I would look again, and I would see that Katie had actually made a really genius and elegant suggestion. If anything, getting older has made me more willing to open up my work to collaborations.
What has made the most impact on my writing is performing live with The Poetry Brothel London. When I first started I asked Gabriel Moreno if I had to learn my lines. He suggested that I did, but left it to me to decide. The first few performances, I read from a book both for the opening performances and for the private, 1-2-1 readings. However, The Poetry Brothel always has photographers roaming about, and I didn’t like the way the photos looked. So I started learning the poems out of vanity. It was very freeing.
It is very much like that point in rehearsing a play when the director calls for ‘books down’ and suddenly, you can concentrate more intently on your body and your internal relationship to the words than you can if reading from the page. I find this difficult to describe, but in some way it has affected the musicality of the writing.
Performing ‘book down’ has then become really useful when performing intimate poetry either with The Poetry Brothel or with The Crimson Word, the poetry performance company I started with Winter James. Being book free has made it possible to get really close to the clients and to experiment with performing multi-sensory poems.
The poet Amy-Nielson Smith was the first person I knew who was doing this in her private readings, using blindfolds and smell sensations. I was reluctant at first – but after a few months at the Poetry Brothel – seeing how much the clients loved it when other poets blindfolded them, I started doing it too. Now it is a central part of my intimate performances and has made me super aware of the use of multi-sensory word triggers within the long form poems.
The second major influence has been working very closely with the violinist Henni Saarela. Henni is a hero. So much of the impact of the work has come through developing work with her. I have worked with musicians a lot since I started performing publicly in the 1980s.
I used to write far more political stuff till the late 80s, early 90s and worked at first with a traditional drummer and then a cellist. I have always written erotica and performed at a lot of arts events in my youth. At my book launch in May, Henni and I were joined by PicturePoems and Gabi Garbutt for some of the poems from the collection.
There are a lot of poets who are musicians and we tend to talk a bit about the difference between writing music and writing poems. Sappho, of course, was a musician, so the two have been linked in a bardic way through many cultures. We keep intending to record. I’d love that to be a collaboration with other musicians. The Spanish poetess, Belen Berlin, played ukulele on the first performance of ‘Dammit Johnny’ with the collective ‘The Bloody Poets’ and it was amazing. Henni plays that part now and sometimes other instruments too.
At the last Poetry Brothel, Henni and I were joined by Gabriel Moreno on guitar for ‘Barcelona’ and it was sensational. The title of my chapbook is called ‘Laments and Incantations’ and some of the writing has choruses/ refrains that reflect this influence of working with musicians. I’ve worked with a few different musicians on different instruments, but never all at the same time. I guess that might be next.
The last few months I have been dealing with chronic pain and have not had much mental clarity or energy to write. The last thing I wrote which I performed with FemmeDemomium at The Uncensored Festival is a prose poem called ‘Bad Feminist’.
It is a huge departure for me in terms of style. The piece before that was a bespoke performance piece called ‘Baba Yaga’. Although thematically it fitted into my fascination with retelling fairytales – stylistically, it was writing to fit in with a performance developed by poet Naomi Wood – playing the young Baba Yaga who gets the calling to visit the Baba Yaga.
I wrote for and performed the more cantankerous version of Baba Yaga. I also re-wrote ‘The Beauty and The Beast’ for a performance of ‘Venus in Furs’ which we did with The Crimson Word. It was hugely satisfying as it was delivered to be read as a pervy bed-time story and it was enacted by our house submissive playing ‘Beauty’ and an audience member playing ‘The Beast’. The fairy-tale turns the roles on their heads.
I am also busy writing for a new collection called ‘The Empire of Fluff’ which includes poems about colonialism, capitalism and environmental degradation. I don’t really know – my writing feels all over the place at the moment. Lacking discipline in so far as I am responding in very different and diverse ways to themes – so it is more difficult seeing an organic collection grow as I did with ‘Laments and Incantations’.
Here’s a poem that we published in AofA –
I immerse myself in you
Wanting you same
as I always did
When we were young
and the violet Jacaranda
fell carelessly in
around our feet
though we were still
Both busy reaping
the sky of stars,
I fell into you,
and light in passing
we’d be doing
into our 60s
that the delights and sensations of spring
could last for endless nights.
I touch you now
beneath my mouth
open to receive me
and though we are both older
when I kiss you
I feel a subcutaneous youth,
surfacing from deep within
and my thighs
My longing is both endless and urgent
Your body lends itself to me
and I can be as selfish as I choose
in choosing you
The feel of you evokes
so much light in me
that my fingertips
burst with sunshine
Tonight the smile will not
leave my eyes
or my soul
stop from spinning
and I cannot be damned for the
laughter you make well from me
or the way my body remembers
As if we had not spent mere hours together
in this life
but lifetimes with every hour.
TICKETS FOR PIZZAZZ, SIX POETS OVER 50 TAKING PLACE AT THE POETRY CAFÉ DOWNSTAIRS AT 7PM, JUNE 27TH 2019, CAN BE BOUGHT HERE –
A problematical bed to fill was how she put it, which left a lot of scope to wonder how the problem came about and when. In her faded Greenham Common T-shirt and cut-offs, she looked too jaunty for sudden widowhood; too down-at-heel to be on the pull, though her breasts were nicely presented. She didn’t seem the sort to offer her bed to a canine companion, and I guessed her to be a cat-hater or even a member of ‘Abstinence Actually’. Dry shade she whispered to the young attendant, and the ghost of Mellors seemed to hover at her shoulder, to hint at maidenhair ferns, though a gamekeeper was probably the last thing she wanted in her garden, dry shade or not. Then she disappeared down a row of euphorbias, left me to conjure her maverick world; the delicate stepping over of a wine and poem drunk woman, her late night dance, how in the morning she might hurry to ‘sent items’ to check her indiscretions.
Wendy Klein is one of the poets who is performing on June 27th at the Poetry Cafe as part of Pizzazz, the Advantages of Age poetry evening. Book your ticket here.
There’s something about starting a new pursuit and passion when you’re older. It’s stimulating in a different way. I began writing poetry when I was 55 ten years ago. Partly, because it was non-commercial. I knew I’d never earn any money from it – so it could be purely words and me. Unlike the world of freelance journalism that I’d inhabited for the previous 25 years, which was getting more and more like a hamster wheel.
I sought a certain sort of freedom of literary expression for its own sake. And I found it at City Lit and City University in evening classes with all sorts of contemporary poets from Roddy Lumsden to Annie Freud to John Stammers. The latter had an invitation-only group, which I eventually was able to join and Wednesday afternoons became the highlight of my week. They still are.
Last year, I published my first pamphlet Tantric Goddess at the age of 64 on Eyewear. There was a flurry of readings including a Tantra evening at Book and Kitchen – this wonderful little independent bookshop in W11, which has now sadly shut down – with friend and writer, Monique Roffey. I read from my pamphlet and Mon read from her recent erotic novel The Tryst, then we did a Q & A afterward on tantra workshops. We loved it, there was such an easy, intimate flow to the evening.
A year later, I felt like I needed to get out of the almost comfort – despite the ruthless taking apart of each other’s poems – zone of The Group and float my poetry evolution elsewhere. I had just discovered – how had I not known – that Ty Newydd, the National Writing Centre for Wales is actually three miles away from my partner’s farmhouse. I saw they had a masterclass – surely mistress class by now – with the former national poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, at 81, a grande dame of the art and Robert Minhinnick, another revered Welsh poet and eco-activist. We had to send off poems and be invited. Phew, I got in. Apparently, they chose 16 out of 30 applicants.
The week before I was feeling a little anxious. How would my London/Yorkshire attitude go down? I also knew I wanted to be committed to this course. No staying up late with other poets, I was going to be devoted to the workshop itself.
I drove into the village of Llanystumdwy, along the river Dwyfor and found the long driveway to Ty Newydd. It is a grand old house – where the former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George had lived – and painted in white and blue with a long, narrow library designed by marvelous architect and eccentric Clough Williams-Ellis, the man responsible for the wonderland of ‘fallen buildings’ that is Portmeirion down the road.
My room, well, our room – I’d yet to meet my roommate – was right at the top of the house. Oh, yes, the long-forgotten joys of the single bed. Eventually Thirza – I learned later that this was a self-appropriated name – turned up and so began our week of negotiating this space. Actually, she was very well-behaved, although definitely a late night poet. On the last night, she outdid herself and didn’t get to bed until 3:30am.
I managed to resist. I told you I was going to be a good girl. At last. Thirza, who is older than me, obviously wasn’t rebellious enough in her youth and middling years! She was lovely, by the way, kind, supportive and didn’t complain about my snoring.
The first night was meeting each other and eating delicious food, a good portent for the week. We also got to interview each other in the library and then introduce the group to our partner. An exercise in listening and remembering. And absolutely no run of the mill – where do you come from type questions – for Thirza. She recounted her love of gardening, Italian and her strange obsession with the dishwasher.
The next morning –the workshop ran from Monday afternoon to Saturday morning, which seemed short but turned out to be intense – we started for real. With Robert. Who is an elegiac poet of distinction but in person quite dramatic and direct. And funny. Oh, I have to say there was only one other person on the course from London. This was heaven in so many ways. There were poets from up north and many from Wales. There was that song with us all the time.
Robert had brought an envelope of abstract nouns that he’d prepared earlier. We got one each, looked it and started writing with his prompts. Unlocking the muse suggestions. What does this word taste like? Where is it? What does it feel like? I got jealousy – a shameful feeling with which I am very familiar. We wrote for 15 minutes and then read out to each other what we’d written. The first public declarations. The others had to guess what our word was. Well, they got that mine wasn’t pleasant. One of my lines was – ‘You are a twisted priest’. Robert liked that. Other abstract nouns were dread, fear, joy, wonder, mystery and we began to form an impression of each other as poets.
It was fun. The afternoon was with both tutors and eight of us brought along poems without our names on them. We handed them out and critiqued them publicly. And then wrote little advisory or appreciative notes on them. The first one was called Goldfinches and very accomplished – about the First World War and vividly expressed. I’d put one in called Identity, which was about race, my son and partly about Grenfell. Funnily enough, it hadn’t gone down well with my group in London but it did go down well in this group. I got a lot of positive feedback and some questions. One was about my usage of bastard mango, ie was it gratuitous or actually the name of a mango. It was, I’m glad to say, the actual name of a mango. I found it very useful although the shape of the table meant that we couldn’t really have flowing conversations. And 16 turned out to be a challenging number of people for optimum inclusion.
Later on, we divided into much smaller groups of four to look at each other’s poems. Ones that we’d brought with us. My group retired to that fabulous library with the view over to Cardigan Bay and we were serious about our endeavor.
Incidentally, ‘serious’ is one of Gillian’s favourite words and now at the ripe old of 65, I can finally appreciate it. And sink into it.
We were Alison Lock – a poet and short story writer from Huddersfield, Julia Usman – a poet from Swaledale who travels to Dubai a lot to visit her husband, and Trish Reith – a poet who lives in Biggar, Scotland. It was delightful to find four women who liked talking about poems and poetry as much as I do. There were occasions when we almost had a chat but Trish kept us in line. Poetry, first.
The reason we liked our fours – the others in the group agreed – was that we could share equally. We spent an hour each day with our four poems. Someone would read one, the others would comment, then the poet in question would respond to the comments. We all found it incredibly instructive. And we discussed questions like – how do we bring political events into poetry. Make them personal in some way, I think we agreed.
Later in the week, we dubbed ourselves The Crones. Part of AoA’s vision is to reclaim words like crone and old, in order to make us feel more relaxed about ageing and less in the eternal pursuit of youth. I could immediately see a Crone Tour on the cards.
And it was Halloween while we were there. In fact, Trish had a poem called Mission Time, which was about the original pagan festival, Samhain. And it just so happened that the Crones were the cooking crew that night ie we chopped vegetables for the Lobscouse, a tasty stew that I’d never heard of but apparently fed to sailors in Northern Europe for years – so we performed Mission Time as Crone-witches. It seemed to go down a storm. As did the Lobscouse and the wine.
There were readings in the library in the evenings – initially Gillian and Robert. Gillian read a few from her vast selection, while Robert tried a new long poem about his mother on us. He’s written about his mother before – she’s diagnosed as schizophrenic – but not a suite of poems like this, they will be set to music, they was a triumph. On Wednesday, we were treated to the poems and personal stories of Kim Moore whose collection The Art of Falling has won prizes and many plaudits, there’s a moving 17 poem sequence in it where she describes an abusive relationship she was in. ‘And in that year, my body was a pillar of smoke’. From Barrow, she’s got a new collection that features poems about sexism as she’s also doing a PHD on the subject. She read a couple of poems from this new collection All The Men I Never Married – they are lyrical, incisive, brave.
The week unfolded and I found I enjoyed the workshop mornings where Gillian or Robert would offer poem prompts – like think of an object which has a memory, where is it etc. Mine was the kitchen sink in my childhood home in Yorkshire and turned into a poem where I remember my father washing me in this very sink. It was, I said, a look back in sweetness to that time, rather than when I was a bit older and life with him was a lot more difficult. There was something about the challenge of this deadline that I relished. And their lyrical nudges. Gillian would say – make sure it includes a hallelujah line. Robert would say – make sure it’s powerful. And then there was the important advice – don’t have a summing up line at the end. I liked it when Gillian suggested we look up and over our shoulder for that last line.
On the final day, we were to assemble – Jude Brigley, Anne Phillips and Rufus Mufasa were the fine editorial team – an anthology of our work, the Secrets of Cwtch Dan Star (the cupboard under the stairs) inspired by Rufus’ intoxicating poem that combines Welsh and English.
That evening, we all did a five minute reading in the library. My roommate and I were the hosts with the hopefully entertaining and serious introductions. It was our pleasure to acknowledge this work and these poets. We had a ball. Of course, I wore one of my minor feather headdresses…