Sunday, 31 August 2014

Valley Press Friday Digest, #18 (Sunday edition)

Despite appearances, this blog is not just here as a source of one-way Valley Press propaganda - I do occasionally drop in some hints of the larger struggle, and of course you can tell how things are really going by reading between the lines. If the post appears on Friday (as billed), full of good news, that's because I've had a good and relatively easy week; if it appears on Saturday, with very little substance to it, it's been an overly busy and boring week. This post is going up on Sunday afternoon, and was, at one point, full of hand-wringing and woe-is-me rhetoric. It has been a difficult week.

That being said, there have been a couple of bits of good news - one I've agreed not to tell you about, and the other you have probably already heard: the arrival of the new Dead Snail Diaries from The Emma Press. She's done a spectacular job, as hoped; the physical object is a beautiful and intriguing bit of work, and definitely worth £8.50 of your money. Huge thanks are due to Emma and Rachel for their top-notch efforts on both art and text.

I took a few minutes on Friday, when the books arrived, to think how I had suddenly attained the status of 'legitimately published author' - to consider what a strange road it has been from writing the snail poems in 2009 to their appearance in this new volume, and try to imagine how pleased 2009-era Jamie would have been to see it.

I've not perhaps been able to appreciate it as much as I should, as the rest of the week has been such a horror - blighted with all sorts, including illness and a lack of phone signal/internet connection. This whole month has been one I'd like to erase from history, or perhaps go back to the 1st August and have another go at; I have, quite simply, achieved nothing. But it is unquestionably over now; tomorrow is September, and we've got the Poetry Book Fair to look forward to on the 6th. Onwards and upwards!

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Poets on their Pamphlets: Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi on her process, inspiration and poems

There's just a few days to go in our open call for poetry pamphlet submissions (deadline: 31st August – this Sunday!), so I've asked some of our existing pamphlet poets to share their pamphlet-related experiences on this blog. We've already posted an interview with Australian poet Kristen Roberts, where she talks about assembling her pamphlet submission to the Picks this time last year, and now we're going to hear about the beginnings of one of our first full-length pamphlets.

Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi
Ikhda, by Ikhda is the debut pamphlet of Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi, a very new Indonesian poet whose writing first came onto our radar when she submitted some poems to our Anthology of Mildly Erotic Verse. Her pamphlet is utterly charming, and we're delighted that it's had such great reviews. Sabotage Reviews observed 'Ikhda herself has conjured a fantastic tree of poetry, branching out and blooming on the strength of her conviction as a writer of innovation and sentiment', while the Cadaverine described it as 'a navigation of birth, love, sex and motherhood, and the ways that these cycles entwine and shape our relationships.' And now, here is Ikhda in her own words:
* * *

My background

I was born in Surabaya, Indonesia. I lived in Paris for two years and now I'm living in Naples until September, before moving to Nantes. It was my father, a dancer, who first told me that I had a poetic voice to share with other people. It all started when he found out that I kept skipping my dance classes to run to the bookstore and read anything there.

He wrote a short-childish poem for me to read at the bachelor party of my big sister (also a dancer) when I was five years old. I still remember the poem:

Thank God, I am not a duck, by my father 
Thank God
You have created me as a human
Not a duck
That goes anywhere by its kwak kwak kwak
Thank God
You have created me as a human
Who is able to talk, walk and laugh
I am not a duck
Who goes anywhere by its kwak kwak kwak
Following other ducks and kwak kwak kwak
Thank God I am not like a duck
Kwak Kwak Kwak and Kwak
I don't know what was on his mind, but it sounds like an encouragement for me? From that moment on I began to fall in love with poetry and now I always write what I want. I take examples of multiculturalism, wrap them in narrative poems, and share them with readers.

The poems

Ikhda, by Ikhda

My inspiration for writing comes from people on the streets, my son, good essays about society and culture, and whatever I feel and see.

For a long long time I kept my poems in my closet. I was afraid of judgement, misunderstanding, and what I could contribute to the world of poetry. It wasn't a problem of confidence, but more the question of essences – how to capture my world of perceptions, ideas, feelings. The world that I love.

It took six to eight months for me to write my full-length pamphlet, and alongside it came music, baby diapers, wine, seas and conversations. If someday you find my pamphlet and read my poems, whether you adore or dislike them I hope you liberate yourself from the conclusion. Poetry is a process, and the ideas in a poem can be destroyed by the reader's state of mind, set before they read. If you free yourself from that, the poems will free you more. Welcome to the world of poetry, the world that I love, the world that energizes me.

The title

Emma and I talked a lot about the title of my pamphlet, which Emma suggested. 'Ikhda, by Ikhdawas not the title that I proposed in my original submission, and I thought it might be too much. I mean, who the heck is Ikhda? I didn't feel ready to put my name in the title of my book, for readers in Great Britain and around the world. It was so controversial and funny. But finally I accepted the title because I thought, this is my book and we live in an era where voices are more important than speakers, so why not?

* * *

You can read more about Ikhda, by Ikhda and buy it for £6.50 (paperback) or £4.25 (ebook) on the Emma Press website. You can find Ikhda on Twitter @ikhdadegoul and contact her on ikhdaayu [at] gmail [dot] com - she would love to hear from readers, poets and critics!

We recently looked at 'Lys', a poem from Ikhda, by Ikhda, in Poem Club – read more here.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

POEM CLUB #10: 'A Love Poem: From Snail to Slug' by Jamie McGarry

Jamie McGarry
Things are getting busier and busier at the Emma Press as we gear up for the next few months of releases and events, so I think this will be the last of the (mostly) weekly Poem Clubs. I'd like to write some more pieces about the inner workings of the Emma Press and I don't want to crowd this blog, so Poem Club will become more of a semi-regular feature, brought out when you least expect it!

What could be more fitting for the last in this series of Poem Club than a poem by my fellow twenty-something self-employed publisher, Jamie McGarry? I acquired his book of snail poems, The Dead Snail Diaries, for the Emma Press quite soon after meeting Jamie last summer, so it's very exciting that it's finally out. As with previous editions of Poem Club, I'll post the poem below along with some of my own thoughts to start things off.

* * *

A Love Poem: From Snail to Slug

God made us brown so we’d be hard
to spot upon his fertile soil;
to hide from the birds (which he made as well),
to cower, dodge, to postpone hell.

But slug does not hide, or flinch back.
His coat? Uncompromising BLACK.
He turns defence into attack.
Oh slug – oh glorious slug.

God gave us shells to weigh us down.
Without them, we would HURTLE round,
so common sense suggests. Who’d beat us,
across a distance of ten metres?

But slug, dear slug, you have the grace
to not rub freedom in our face;
you slow your stride to match our pace.
Oh slug – oh glorious slug.

God made us quiet, thoughtful, wait.
He taught us manners, and restraint.
He taught us not to stay out late,
we’re model garden citizens.

But slug, he DEAFENS when he speaks!
He goes out seven nights a week!
Beer-swilling, hard-living, party beast.
Oh slug – oh glorious slug.

I’d sell my soul to be like him.
Vacate my shell, and dye my skin.
I’d go twice weekly to the gym,
if doing so would let me in

to doors in town that say ‘slugs only’.
But slug accepts no fake, no phony.
I’ll love, but I will never be
a slug – oh glorious slug.

— by Jamie McGarry, from The Dead Snail Diaries

* * *

Emma's thoughts. This is adorable, right? I think this is an incredibly charming poem, and I especially love all the rhymes. The rhyme scheme is irregular but relentless, with rhymes firing off all over the shop in an irresistibly fun way. My personal favourites are the virtuoso 'Who'd beat us/ten metres' in the third stanza and the climactic barrage of solid monosyllabic rhymes in the penultimate stanza – 'him/skin/gym/in'. The rhymes and rhythms don't feel forced, and just beg to be read aloud (you can hear Jamie reading it here). I think this is the kind of poem that could convince someone that poetry is for them, and is worth investigating further.

Your thoughts. We had a lovely long comment from Sarah Parkinson, which I'll quote in full: 'We have a children's book at home which is about the different animals God has made, and which contains very similar meter and rhyme to this poem. 'God made the busy working ants...' etc. This poem for me evokes some of that childlike perspective on the world around us, exploring something that is innate and yet that we sadly so often lose in adulthood. The snail's longing to be something other than itself is given a plaintive cast elicited by the almost sing-song readability of the poetry. I find the pathos in it - that the snail is not content with its own identity - is also highlighted by the structure, and emphasised effectively by the occasional half-rhyme and loss of rhythm. A very touching and thought-provoking poem.'

* * *

The Dead Snail Diaries

What do you think of 'A Love Poem: From Snail to Slug'? Do you find it romantic? What's your favourite bit? Do you like the rhymes? Let me know in the comments section below. Don't be afraid of sounding stupid! Just let me know what you like about the poem or what it makes you feel. All comments will be held for moderation, so don't worry if it doesn't appear immediately after you send it.

<-- POEM CLUB #9: 'Bonfire' by Rachel Piercey

Friday, 22 August 2014

Valley Press Friday Digest, #17

I shall keep things short and to-the-point in this week's digest. The big news is of a new signing: in January 2015 Valley Press will publish All, the second collection of poetry by Canadian-born, Yorkshire-based poet Robert Powell. We've done some great work on both text and cover so far, and are approaching a final manuscript - the poems are phenomenal, of course, and you won't have to take my word for it as I will be sharing some of them on the blog in the coming months. You can see to your right how the cover currently looks - that's a cup full of sunflower seeds. I'm thinking of putting a picture of some fully-grown sunflowers on the back ... or is that too obvious?

Robert (pictured below) will be familiar to some of you as the director of Beam, the arts, architecture and education charity that run the Wakefield Literature Festival - surely one of the best festivals of its kind. They have recently announced their programme for this year and it is phenomenal, check that out (as a priority) here.

Talking of priorities: after months of clinging onto the cliff-edge of my inbox, I've finally let go - there are dozens of unread emails and letters, more arriving all the time, and I can't seem to fully catch up. Unless I'm also going mad, the oldest unreplied-to email (dated 1st August) is from the Lithuanian embassy, wanting to work with Valley Press - so if you too are waiting for a response, at least you're in good company.

In an effort to curb the flow, I spent a couple of hours this week starting an expanded Frequently Asked Questions page, which will hopefully grow over time and result in noticeably less email traffic. Quick-minded readers may comment: 'but if you'd spent those two hours actually replying to emails, the problem would have been solved!' - sure, temporarily, but what about the next time this happens? Plus, I was really in the mood to write some FAQ answers; I'm sure you know what that's like. See you next week.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Valley Press Friday Digest, #16 (Saturday edition)

Slightly delayed digest this week - I forget exactly why, so please insert your own excuse into the following gap: ___________________

Done? Thank you. I hope it was a good one, I know you're not easily convinced.

The big news this week was the arrival of Helen Burke's new book, which I've been going on about for ages, most notably in this post. It's not strictly out until October, but I'm printing early this time, both for promotional purposes and because Helen has a big reading tonight at Keats House, so it seemed silly not to get some copies printed. You can now pre-order the book (and read a generously-sized preview) on its homepage; I've decided to send out pre-orders in September, so you won't have too long to wait, should you wish to order through VP.  (Hint: you should.)

Here's the obligatory photo of the book as an object:

I spent much of this week looking for a Woman - the magazine, that is, though I did have some fun going into shops saying: 'Excuse me, do you have a woman?' 'Could you point me in the direction of a woman?' 'I need a woman', etc etc.  This was not just for humorous purposes (though that is always a worthy outcome); Sarah Holt was in the latest issue discussing her search for a publisher, an article which I found quite touching. I forget sometimes how difficult it can be for authors to find a publisher, and how much it means when they do. Publishing is a sacred thing; we must respect it and our responsibilities. (Such as, letting you know you can pick up a copy of Sarah's book here).

The larger article was about overcoming adversity and gaining success; 'We had the last laugh' was the title. Victoria Beckham had the first page to herself, and Sarah was joined in her section by Holly Willoughby, Matthew McConaughey and Carol Vorderman. Did you know Carol recently quit ITV1's Loose Women to pursue her dream of flying a plane solo around the world? You do now!

I don't know about the legality of reposting the article here, so what I'll do is close my eyes and start pressing buttons randomly on the keyboard - if something should happen, so be it. See you next week!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

POEM CLUB #9: 'Bonfire' by Rachel Piercey

Rachel Piercey
We had some nice comments for 'Night music' last week, so let's have another poem from an Emma Press Pick, our series of short, themed, illustrated pamphlets. This one is from our tentative first publication, The Flower and the Plough, which began my collaboration with Rachel Piercey. As with previous editions of Poem Club, I'll post the poem below along with some of my own thoughts to start things off.

* * *


I have felled
all the trees in my wood
to keep you going,

thrown old faithfuls
and flimsy, startled
saplings into your

hot ears and come-
to-bed mouth.
Then all that was left

was the pointy scent
of gum
and the bellow of an oak.

So I hacked off my hair
with barely
a second thought,

and both ears
were carelessly slung in,
then my thumbs

with their crucial
I’ve got my toes lined up

and my unaccountable hips
and my knees
are ready too,

so please
give me more
of your particular brand

of alchemy.
Because when you temper
scraps into treasure

I think it’s worth it,
and when you
spit out glass

though you only got sand
I think it’s worth it.
Because I could

spot you
a mile away
on any frightening night

and when I got there
you’d soften me.
Because I hope

that when I’m down
to just my heart in the open air
you’ll keep it warm.

— by Rachel Piercey, from The Flower and the Plough

* * *

Emma's thoughts. This poem has a very special place in Emma Press history, as it's the first poem by Rachel that I ever read. I had an instant, visceral reaction to it, and was amazed by how she had described exactly that insane leap of faith you can take in a passionate relationship. I love how the wild, raw imagery captures the exhilaration of going all in for a love affair. My favourite bit is 'when you / spit out glass // though you only got sand', because it expressed how a loved one can feel like both a miracle-worker and a miracle in themselves.

Your thoughts. Tom gave a great reading of the poem in the comments below, which I highly recommend reading in full. He was particularly struck by the violence of the poem and concluded: 'I know the fire could be read as creativity or something, but you know a bonfire the next morning is just damp ash. For me it's like the poem says the whole *point* of love is to destroy yourself; and maybe that's actually what we want; what we're trying to do.'

Kristen also had a great response, with a slightly different take to Tom on the escalation throughout the poem: 'This poem has a spectacular longing that I remember from early love affairs, giving it everything I had and then getting creative and trying to be new and interesting just to keep the fire going ('old faithfuls and flimsy') when in the other person was happy to let it die down. Rachel has captured it beautifully, and I can see why it's a favourite.'

In this penultimate week of Poem Club, I'm going to award a book to both Tom and Kristen!

* * *

The Flower and the Plough
What do you think of 'Bonfire'? Is that how falling in love feels to you? What do you think of the forest metaphor? Which is your favourite image? Let me know in the comments section below. All comments will be held for moderation, so don't worry if it doesn't appear immediately after you send it.

<-- POEM CLUB #8: 'Night music' by Kristen Roberts
--> POEM CLUB #10: 'A Love Poem: From Snail to Slug' by Jamie McGarry

Friday, 8 August 2014

Valley Press Friday Digest, #15

Absolutely nothing to report this week - mostly been doing freelance work. Here's a picture of some instructions for a watch that made me laugh... I can't promise it'll be the same for you. See you next week!

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Poets on their Pamphlets: an interview with Kristen Roberts

Kristen Roberts
We're in the final month of our call for poetry pamphlet submissions, so I've asked a few of the Emma Press pamphlet poets to write something about their experience of working on their pamphlets. First up is the lovely Kristen Roberts, an Australian poet based in Melbourne. We published The Held and the Lost, an Emma Press Pick (a short, illustrated pamphlet), back in February 2014.


Hello Kristen! Can I ask you to describe your pamphlet?

Hi! My pamphlet is a collection of poems about the happiness that we find in the sense of belonging, of just being with family and lovers, and then the sadness that swells around us when someone we love leaves or dies. I write what I think of as everyday poetry – sort of conversational, and less structured or formal in style – so the collection feels a bit like a written snapshot of everyday life. I think Emma captured its spirit beautifully with a calm, yet melancholic blue cover.

Why did you decide to submit it to The Emma Press?

I find the passion and creativity behind the Emma Press publications so appealing, while the size of the pamphlets makes them a perfect step for someone like me who does not have a large body of new work ready.

I first met Emma and Rachel via Skype when I had a poem published in The Emma Press Anthology of Mildly Erotic Verse, and found their enthusiasm was infectious. And Rachel’s pamphlet is just gorgeous, so I wanted one with my poems in it! I was so keen that when I saw the call for submissions I responded almost immediately, and now that I’ve seen the other pamphlets that were released this year I’m really glad I did it.

How did you choose which poems to include in your original submission?

I had some favourite poems, some published and others shiny and new, that I knew I had to send in. I’m not always brilliant at identifying my strongest work; sometimes it’s the unexpected pieces that treat me well, so I pulled together a range of poems that wove into a common theme with my favourites (I seldom actually write with a theme in mind, so it was interesting to see how much of my work fit within this idea of love and loss). When I had a group that I thought worked, I picked out the ones that I thought best showcased my voice and style.

When did you write the poems?

Some of the poems are a couple of years old – a few had been published already, and others were sitting in a file on my computer waiting for the right opportunity. There were others I’d been working on in the year leading up to the submissions window, giving them the occasional stir and leaving them to simmer, and there were a few that I’d only written very recently (they were still raw in the middle!).

How did you come up with the title?

Hmm… it’s terrible of me, but I don’t actually remember! I do remember liking that ‘the Held’ referred to both those I hold, and those who feel held, and that ‘the Lost’ could refer both to those feeling lost and those who have been lost. It was only a working title in the beginning, but I think it grew on us all.

What did it mean to you to have your first pamphlet published?

Gosh, it was the most fabulous opportunity, and a lovely validation that I should keep up this writing thing. I’ve been writing for years in the spaces between my young children’s needs, stealing snatches of time while they slept or played in the garden, and while I’ve had single poems published in journals and anthologies, nothing feels better than having a gorgeous little volume of poetry with my name on the cover. It’s my turn, and it made all the hard work worth it.

What kind of a reaction have your friends and family had to The Held and the Lost?

I’ve had a fantastic response! My family and friends were incredibly supportive and proud, and all bought a copy without me even having to hint. Some of my favourite reactions have been from those who don’t ordinarily read poetry. I think some were surprised to find themselves enjoying the experience - they’d find certain poems that resonated with them, and then they’d come and discuss them with me! I’ve loved it.

What advice would you give to people preparing their pamphlet proposals for this round of submissions?

Go for it! Give yourself your best chance by showing off your range and voice, pull together the poems that illustrate a cohesive idea, and be brave.

* * *

'Night music', a poem from The Held and the Lost, was recently up for discussion in Poem Club – read more here.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

POEM CLUB #8: 'Night music' by Kristen Roberts

Kristen Roberts
There's just a month left in our call for poetry pamphlet submissions, so this week's Poem Club poem is by someone we encountered wholly through our first open call for submissions, back when we were on the scrounge for mildly erotic verse. Melbourne poet Kirsten Roberts first came onto our radar with her gorgeous poem 'Cool change at midnight', and when she submitted her pamphlet proposal for The Held and the Lost we were smitten. The poem featured below is the first poem in the collection, and it's one which sets the tone and resonates throughout the whole book. As with previous editions of Poem Club, I'll post the poem below along with some of my own thoughts to start things off.

* * *

Night music

After the party we lie beneath open windows
and listen as insects play night music. 
Each note glimmers like a tiny white light in the darkness, 
incandescent against the solid noise of the semi-trailers
that groan up the highway’s climb and whine down.

In the kitchen, a flock of wine-stained glasses 
has settled at the sink 
and bottles stand, awkward as pelicans, among them. 
The floorboards relax into our silence 
like fingers releasing the night,
like the house exhaling a long-held sigh.

There is laughter soaking the walls, 
smiles and exclamations still glowing amber on the deck, 
waiting for morning’s breath to reignite them.
We’ll gather them when we wake
and carry them home in our pocket seams like sand, 
each memory a tiny constellation
to be discovered on our ordinary days. 

— by Kristen Roberts, from The Held and the Lost

* * *

Emma's thoughts. I could dive right into this poem and stay there! Kristen captures that spaced-out, floaty feeling you get after a really good party, when peace descends, your ears are still ringing and the house is a mess. This isn't a perfect moment, but it's as perfect as it gets in the very real, defiantly mundane world Kristen often writes about. The poem is stuffed with details of gentle, unstoppable movement – the ebbing away of heat and the passing of time – so overall it feels like a celebration of the small joys of mortality.

Your thoughts. I think it's safe to say this poem was a hit! Everyone seemed to enjoy Kristen's post-party snapshot, and we had some lovely responses. MonochromeThief commented: 'I love how all aspects of the poem's world are animated: the corporeal and the mundane.' She responded with her own images: 'The radiating warmth of smiles & laughter "still glowing amber" remind me of hot stone underfoot in summer, long after the sun has sunk below the horizon.'

Claudia Harkavy was similarly charmed, commenting 'I love this too – agree completely with, and can't outsay your wanting to dive in and stay there.' For her, the poem evoked 'the absorption of good times – their sounds, their twinkling in us - into ourselves, and our habitats which can throb with these memories when such times are scarce.'

Courtney Landers, our victor from last week's Poem Club, shared some great insights, commenting: 'I love the Australian-ness of this poem. I can hear the crickets, smell the still-warm bitumen and feel the cool breeze coming in through the windows.' She added: 'It's a happy poem because the high is still there from the party, but a sad poem because the party is over, and now 'real life' must be begun again.'

And the winner of this week's 'Most Thoughtful Commenter' prize is... Courtney Landers!

* * *

The Held and the Lost
What do you think of 'Night music'? Do you recognise the feelings described? Is this is a happy poem? What do you think of the ending? This Poem Club is now closed, but you can still let me know what you think in the comments section below. Don't be afraid of sounding stupid! All comments will be held for moderation, so don't worry if it doesn't appear immediately after you send it.

<-- POEM CLUB #7: 'Raspberries' by Andrew Wynn Owen
--> POEM CLUB #9: 'Bonfire' by Rachel Piercey

Friday, 1 August 2014

Valley Press Friday Digest, #14

Hello again, readers. It's time for another of my 'weekly digests', and I'd like to follow the format of last week's post exactly, if it's all the same to you - announce a 2015 book, share a couple of minor bits of news, and finish with another poem from Helen Burke's new collection (probably the last one I'll share - I want to leave some mystery to it!)

Photo by Marcos Avlonitis
  • In March 2015 Valley Press will publish Seahouses, the first collection of poetry by noted medical historian Richard Barnett, pictured to your right. Think you've heard that name somewhere before? Richard contributed two poems to our Pocket Horizon anthology, so he's the second PH 'alumnus' to graduate to own-book status (after Kelley Swain) - and perhaps not the last. You may also have heard of his book The Sick Rose: Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration, published this year to rave reviews (including by Will Self in The Guardian, who said the writing was 'superbly erudite and lucid' - I'm still pondering whether I can use that comment on the Seahouses back cover!) When Richard sent me his manuscript, my expectations were pretty high, and he exceeded them by miles - it's exceptionally good. I'll just give you one line for now, as a tease: 'tomorrow we will keep bees for all the wrong reasons'.

  • If you want to read an even lengthier blog post by me today (and why wouldn't you?), the Young Poets Network have posted an interview I did for them in May. I must stress that the questions are all from different people, which is why they're so random - several people have commented to me that the interviewer has quite an odd approach, thus necessitating a patient explanation by me of exactly what the deal was there.

  • A short, fair review of John Wedgwood Clarke's In Between appeared this week, by Greg Freeman on Write Out Loud - you can read that here. He calls it 'modest but enjoyable', which may not make it onto the cover for the reprint, but is quite a nice thing to say.

  • Sarah Holt was interviewed this week for Woman magazine, about the experience of writing and launching Love and Eskimo Snow. The interview is set to appear in the August 12th issue, so make sure you grab one - as I certainly won't be scanning it and posting here (wink wink).

  • And so to end, another poem from Helen Burke's forthcoming collection Here's Looking at You Kid, which I've just finished typesetting - hoping to go to print next week. My head is full of these poems at the moment, which is why I keep posting them... in the hope that they will take residence in your brains too. This is perhaps the funniest one (there's some serious stuff too - but you don't want that on a Friday night!)

French Cat in French Window

So. I am a French cat in a French window and you
are just passing by – you take my photograph –
why wouldn’t you? – because I am beautiful.
I am beautiful – and you are English – that’s how the cookie crumbles – yes, life can be unfair. Life can be a dog.
I am licking my arse – and I am still beautiful – don’t try
it yourself. I can’t be responsible for hospital bills.
I am a French cat in a French window – you are on your
way to – how you say it – Yorkshire?
I am on my way to Montmartre to buy a little sardine
on a bed of couscous – perhaps a little wine, if the year
she seems a good one. You look very pale – as if
your whole world, she is not coloured in and has no
way of turning the other cheek – and looking up at the moon
and singing in the night. At midnight.
That is when the French cat comes to life.
I myself run a little café in the Bois de Boulogne. I even
let a few English sit at the tables there. But, at this moment
I am cleaning my bottom – with the care of an artiste –
and you take my photograph.
I feel a little sorry for you – but even so, as you click your camera
I will turn my arse right around to face you.
This is – how you call it? –
the French Resistance.

Sarah Hesketh on Dementia and Ageing

Sarah Hesketh
Sarah Hesketh is currently editing an anthology of poems about ageing and age for The Emma Press. She is passionate about the project, and in this blog she explains some of the background to the anthology. Submissions to The Emma Press Anthology of Ageing and Age close on Sunday 31st July 2014 – read all the guidelines here.

* * *

In 2009 a colleague of mine at the Free Word Centre lent me a book. ‘You have to read this,’ she said. ‘I met with the editor the other day. He’s looking for people to help edit his next book.’ The book hadn’t been commercially produced. It had a strange black and white striped cover and it was printed on thick, creamy paper. There was no author or blurb on the cover. Just a title which read:

Ancient Mysteries
Stories from the Trebus Project

I started reading it on the bus on the way home from work. After about forty pages I had to stop. I was getting through it too fast. I didn’t want it to be over so soon. This was my first encounter with the Trebus Project and the work of David Clegg. David had spent over five years working with people with dementia, piecing their life stories together from hundreds of fragmentary phrases. Ancient Mysteries was a collection of these life stories as told by the elderly people who had lived them. Some of it was fantastic. Some of it was mundane. In each monologue the personality of each speaker came through so vividly. Here were people who had lived, and despite society’s dismissal of them as not just old, but often some kind of crazy, they had a huge amount to say.

I volunteered to edit one of the pieces in David’s next book Tell Mrs Mill her husband is still dead. Then in 2013, David sent me details of a vacancy for an artist in residence post with Age Concern. Where the heart is was a multi-disciplinary project which would see artists from different art forms placed in dementia care settings and then produce work based on the experiences they had.

As my friends could all tell you, I could bore you for hours about the people I met, the things I saw, the times I needed to have a large glass of white wine and a bit of a cry when I got off the train at the end of a day in placement. I won’t. If you’re that interested, I kept a blog about the whole experience. But one of the most important things, I realised, was just how little we think about getting old and what might happen to us, or the people we care for, when we get to old age. Either we fear age, or we try to pretend it simply won’t happen. When I looked around for poetry on the topic, I found Larkin’s Old Fools, or Jenny Joseph’s old lady in purple, but not much else that tried to capture the difficult combination of the pain and the pleasures of old age. Yes, some of the people I worked with on Where the heart is drooled, but they also told some great jokes; one old lady was really angry all the time – ‘that’s not the dementia, she’s been like that all her life’, her daughter-in-law commented. As the residency progressed, I found myself less concerned with trying to capture some sepia snapshot of who these people had been, and much more interested in who they were now – what things made them laugh? How did they feel about the other residents in the home? What did they think of their (often terrible looking) lunch?

When I saw that the Emma Press was producing anthologies on the themes of fatherhood and motherhood, an anthology about age and ageing seemed like a perfect fit. When I pitched the idea to Emma, I said I wanted to find poems that would respect the complexity of old age. They might be celebratory or they might be very sad poems – the best ones would probably be a bit of both. I had a feeling that the theme might have a very wide appeal; that here was a topic that doesn’t normally get much attention, even though, if we’re lucky enough to get that far, we’ll all feel the stiffness in our joints one day, or find ourselves just losing an hour, thinking about someone from very long ago. As it is, even I’ve been surprised by the volume of submissions we’ve received already, and I’m also really moved by how personal so many of these poems seem to be. I’m really excited to get started on the editing process. This is hopefully just the very beginning of the conversation. If just one more person picks up the phone to their grandma more often, as a result of hearing about the anthology, then I think I’ll consider half my job done.

* * *
Sarah Hesketh is a poet and freelance project manager, whose first full collection, Napoleon’s Travelling Bookshelf, was published by Penned in the Margins in 2009. In 2013 she was a poet in residence with Age Concern and a book of poems resulting from the residency, The Hard Word Box, will be published in autumn 2014.