One of the most common metaphors poets and novelists use to describe their own art draws on the idea of performing magic: writers are magicians, they weave spells (see Margaret Atwood’s poem ‘Spelling’), they have extrasensory powers: Stephen King, for example, tells us that writing is ‘telepathy’. It’s not an altogether original idea they are espousing: Shakespeare was making this connection between books and sorcery in The Tempest, after all. But if we are looking for a dominant narrative in contemporary poetics that looks to explain the process of writing, of mesmerising the reader, we should look no further than this parallel that authors like to draw between themselves and illusionists. Here’s an extract from a recent article by the novelist Toby Litt that typifies what I’m talking about:
At worst, on a creative writing course, the tutor will be able to show you how to do some magic tricks; at best, they will teach you how to be a good magician; beyond that, though, is doing magic – and that you will have to learn for yourself. For what a tutor can’t show you is how to do things you shouldn’t be able to do.
‘What Makes Bad Writing Bad?’ The Guardian, 20 May 2016
Let’s start again from the top. Writers compare themselves to magicians. Magicians are tricksters, manipulators, deceivers, con artists. They are sworn to secrecy when it comes to the possibility of illuminating their craft: a mentalist who divulges his or her own strategies won’t last long as a member of the Magic Circle. A performer might argue that showing how the trick is executed ruins the spectacle inherent in such a performance: conjurers rely on the fact we, the audience, want to be left wondering. We actively choose to suspend our disbelief.
One writer who played up to this allure of secrecy was the poet Michael Donaghy. I used a quotation of his in a previous blog piece (‘The Lure’) where he offhandedly remarks that there’s no gain in explaining your own work: ‘You come across as either an awestruck fan of your own genius or a tedious explainer of jokes.’ Donaghy was being asked to write an introduction to his collection Conjure for the Poetry Book Society which – not to labour the title of the collection – flags up his own fascination with the craft and magic of materialising poems from thin air. ‘The poetry readings I attend are sometimes like in-house performances at the Magic Circle,’ he writes: ‘An audience of fellow professionals sits back taking notes or wondering where the performer bought his rabbit.’ Rather than ‘explain’ his poetry, what Donaghy does in the few words given to him is to unpack all the etymologies of the word ‘conjure’. ‘Conjuring’ is incantation – reading/writing poems for an attentive audience; ‘conjure derives from the Latin conjurare, to swear together’; it also means to ‘raise a spirit’; and finally he reflects on the ‘master conjurer’, his four year old son. It is a rather brilliant rhetorical trick in itself, distracting the reader’s focus away from the fact he doesn’t want to reveal any of his hard-won secrets, doesn’t really want to discuss his poems in print.
I don’t know whether Donaghy ever read Vicki Feaver’s attempts to speak to the abiding spirits that inhabit her own poetry in her reflective commentary ‘The Handless Maiden’. Where Donaghy is all sleight-of-hand, Feaver shows us something of the bare anatomy of her technique. Feaver published the piece in How Poets Work, a now out-of-print Seren compendium of essays. An abridged version of the work was reprinted in Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings (ed. Linda Anderson) so it’s still available to a wide audience. Feaver’s is one of the most illuminating, in-depth commentaries exploring the process of making poems I have read. Her approach is open, scrupulous, sincere. She writes of the pressures on women to conform to certain societal models of behaviour and, by extension, how it affects poets who want to write directly of their own experience. ‘I was also worried about the idea that art should come easily,’ she writes. ‘Keats said it, too, even more categorically: “If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” Because I’ve always had such a battle with poems, his words have struck in my mind, internalised as a rebuke that on the one hand makes me want to give up writing, and on the other to rage against them. After all, giving birth is natural – and how many babies are born easily?’ In one section of the essay, Feaver prints the initial rough jottings/list from her notebook for the poem ‘Ironing’ and explains, line by line, why the phrases (and their sentiments) aren’t the right ‘fit’ for the piece, falling by the wayside in subsequent drafts. Feaver reveals how her stagecraft is created through this focus on stripping away unnecessary or ill-defined details.
As much as I admire Donaghy’s schtick of smoke and mirrors, it’s Feaver’s example of explaining how she does the trick that I value more. This is partly due to her reflections on the difficulty, the ‘struggle’ of writing well, something I am all too aware of. In that strange, deja vu moment of reviewing old drafts (usually collated in an individual document for each poem), I’m still gently surprised by the variations, the re-writes I’ve gone through to nail down a line, a stanza, an entire piece of work. Perhaps I shouldn’t find this such an eye-opener: retrospection allows for the most far-seeing views of the landscapes we traverse, populate. In the most quotidian, un-magical terms I can think of, what usually ends up on display in the final draft of a poem is about 5% of the words I’ve sifted through during the process of composition. So on average a 200 word poem, the best room of the house, will abut a grand (but slightly derelict) pile of about 4000 more. Sure, there’s an element of repetition, of reiteration, that bumps the number count up, but this blueprint seems to hold true for me: 10000 words in = 500 words out.
I think one of the ways I’ve come to terms with these slow deliberations is not so much to see the process as a struggle but actually consider it as the fundamental action of being a writer. Put it one way: writing involves necessary failure. Put it another: writing involves experimentation – that propensity to play, have fun. I’ve also learnt to be more patient as I’ve gotten older: I know I draft more now than I did twenty years ago. It’s not a sign of increasing cack-handedness on my part but reveals, I think, an opposite bent: I take the trick apart, studying its mechanisms, its weight and shine, from multiple angles, learning fifteen variant ways of doing the puzzle as opposed to two or three.
If anyone is interested in writing about the act of writing I would direct them toward Feaver’s Ars Poetica. Apart from it being necessary reading for anyone interested in poetics, if we believe in taking the job of reflection seriously, her self-critique flags up a clear-headed approach we can utilise as writers. Indeed, it is my contention that this ability to self-analyse, to be able to ‘unpack’ the trick, to show ourselves as much as the audience how the pieces fit together, means that the next trick we attempt will be more negotiable, adaptable, comprehended. If we eliminate some of the enigmas surrounding composition (even to ourselves), we can learn the complexities of the performance and attempt to improve on it the next time around. If that makes the role of the writer sound a bit like the work of a mechanic dismantling and reassembling a car engine, I’m okay with that, up to a point. Better this than believing in the notion of the sorcerer poets who attach to their practice all manner of bullshit mysteries. That is just an act, after all.
This is the third in a series of essays by Chris Jones reflecting on the craft of writing; click here to read the first in the series. Further essays will be posted on the Longbarrow Blog throughout 2017.
Chris Jones’s second full-length collection Skin is out now from Longbarrow Press. Visit the Skin microsite for more details about the book, or click on the relevant PayPal option below to order:
In the act of falling forward, we instinctively recover: the tilting mass vaults the grounded limb, the head holds itself level, one foot corrects the other. In walking, we find equilibrium, a rhythm that keeps the mind in step with the body, the same rhythm that, at times, enables the ‘trance-like suspension of [the] normal habits of thought’ (Robert Graves). The centuries-old path that it prepares for poetry, trodden by ‘walking poets’ such as Bashõ and Wordsworth, is accessed by a kind of meditative movement, detached and immersed, rarefied and regular. One of the peculiarities of the contemporary urban environment, with its perceived obstacles to reflective states and untrammelled passage, is its capacity for making (and remaking) the conditions in which ‘moving with thought’ can occur. That these conditions exist in our towns and cities is largely accidental, and incidental to the decisions of urban planners and developers. They arise from the street’s flux and spate, its variable frequencies of jumble and drift, the unexpected visual, auditory and other stimuli that sustain and renew the ‘trance’ of ambulant reverie. With each step, the body rights itself, the mind adjusts its balance, there is contrast, the near and the peripheral, the familiar and the unfamiliar, there is juxtaposition and flow.
For nearly 10 years, I’ve been exploring these ideas with the poets of Longbarrow Press, through a series of public walks in predominantly urban landscapes. The first of these was devised by Matthew Clegg, who, seeking a creative alternative to the conventional ‘pub launch’, invited a small audience to accompany him on a four-hour meander through north Sheffield to mark the publication of his sequence Edgelands (2008). It was midsummer, yet the light levels were set to late autumn, the heat close to zero. Damp ground, dismal skies, soaking us from Owlerton to Oughtibridge. By the time we reached the Birley Stone, a medieval marker on an inland cliff, the Edgelands script had reverted to pulp. None of this mattered. The weather was an atmospheric filter for the poems, the acoustic changing at each reading stop, Clegg’s images and rhythms nuanced by dense air and dripping leaves. It also seemed to draw our small group closer together, moved by a sense of common endeavour, some of us sharing ideas and observations, others walking in companionable silence. We parted with new understandings, of the poems, the landscapes, and ourselves: as participants and contributors, crafting an experience through a collective act of heightened attention.
Since then, we’ve led more than a dozen walks in Sheffield (and further afield), including Moving with Thought (2012), a workshop disguised as an open-ended exploration of the varied terrain between Shalesmoor and Parkwood Springs. It was here that Clegg introduced the concept of ‘juxtaposition and flow’, as a means of reading and navigating the city – its cross-currents of sounds and scents, its clash of textual and pictorial signs – and as a compositional method, with many attendees incorporating their ‘found material’ (site safety directives, advertisements, graffiti) into poems asking questions of the built environment. Other walks have traced the lines laid down by water (notably Fay Musselwhite’s Contraflow series (2014-2016), in which she narrated the lives of the Rivelin, a former ‘working river’, from birth to post-industrial recovery) and history (the first of these, a six-hour winter hike led by Rob Hindle, reconstructed the route taken by the Luftwaffe on the first night of the Sheffield Blitz, the walk coinciding with its 70th anniversary). The path isn’t always linear, though. When Longbarrow Press was invited to propose an event for the 2017 South Yorkshire Poetry Festival, we saw an opportunity to refresh and refocus our approach, to start with a blank page, to improvise from scratch. For ‘Vanishing Point’, led by Angelina D’Roza and Pete Green, we began with a single physical feature – the Cholera Monument, a hillside memorial just east of Sheffield city centre – the end point of a journey for which we had no route map, no origin. What we did have was a working knowledge of the city’s intersections, its rivers and bridges, tram lines and termini, and their role in reframing our perspective: the sightlines shifting where the axes meet. In the weeks leading up to the walk, we reshuffled poems, sounded the locations where the readings might take place, and settled on a point of departure. In the last few days, we made further cuts to the script, shedding several poems and their stops, sensing a need to create more space for movement, reflection, and, implicitly, chance; the unplanned, unexpected moments that allow these events to breathe, the fleeting counterpoint of the street.
It’s just after 11am on Sunday 28 May. I’m standing on the west side of Lady’s Bridge, looking upstream, checking names and faces against the details on my list. Two people booked on the walk haven’t turned up. Two people who haven’t booked appear in their place. We take a call from someone who has surfaced in Kelham Island, half a mile north-west, and needs directions. ‘Follow the river’, we tell her. I welcome the audience, numbering 20 or so, and introduce Angelina and Pete. I sketch the route we’ll be taking, our gradual ascent of the city, offering a glimpse of our conceptual framework, the plots, planes and parallel lines of public infrastructure, a horizontal and vertical mesh. It’s enough. The audience will join the dots, make their own connections, find their own vanishing points. I close by remarking that we’re on the oldest bridge over the River Don, a survivor of the 1864 and 2007 floods, linking Waingate to the Wicker. As we’re about to set off, we’re joined by our lost companion, who’s raced the water from Kelham Island. We round a corner, file along Nursery Street, and step down to the river. Our venue for the first reading is a pocket park, a tilted ellipsis of grass and concrete that meets the bank in a small, tiered semicircle. Pete descends to the edge, his back to the water, and opens with a discussion of the area’s historical and modern juxtapositions, perhaps traceable to the bridging of the Don (which formerly divided the town’s wealthy and poor districts). Since the demolition of Castle Market, the contrast is even more striking; low-rise budget stores and pawnbrokers dwarfed by the crown court, the magistrates court and the police station, overlooked, in turn, by the glass towers of Irwin Mitchell and other law firms. Against this institutional backdrop – part of which is reflected in the water, red brick facades rippled by passing ducks – Pete reads the first of several extracts from his Sheffield Almanac, in which the layering of social class and the rebranding of the city in its ‘Year of Making’ are absorbed into a multifaceted, MacNeiceian meditation on the personal and political currents that determine where we end up. Angelina responds with three river-themed poems from her collection Envies the Birds, including ‘Ball Street Bridge’, a moonlit, sepia-toned ode to the ‘unshifting’ mallards that ‘perch the weir’, as seen from the vantage of the eponymous span, half a mile upstream. She also reads ‘Fairytale No. 13’, which subtly introduces the motifs of flight and falling that will recur and swell in the closing stages of the walk. After the third poem (a version of Montale’s ‘Cuttlefish Bones’), we rise from the riverbank, and double back to Lady’s Bridge. As we make our second crossing, one of our number talks of how, after two decades of walking the city, she is still discovering it. We thread along a thin, uriniferous corridor, the riverside passage to Blonk Street that lies parallel to Castlegate, terminating in the shadow of a sixteen-storey residential block. I point out the junction of the two roads, and, just below this, the junction of two rivers: the Sheaf, crawling out of a brick culvert, and the Don, swallowing its dark tributary. The confluence used to form part of the boundary of Sheffield Castle; the Sheaf, like the castle, has all but vanished from the landscape (the only other point at which it surfaces in the city centre is at Pond Hill, in a 100-foot gap between rail and road infrastructure).
We switch pavements at Blonk Street, the road bridging the river as it widens and turns, and we turn with it, into a feeder lane for a hotel car park, the Don spreading out below, sweeping north-east. At the halfway point, we halt, and consider the unpavemented road, yellow lines flush to the low stone wall. As Angelina prepares to read, we attempt and abandon a linear formation, then a ragged crescent; divided, after the first stanza of ‘Stone Walls and Snowgates’, by the passage of a silver Mazda. We regroup, sharp as a sickle, and Angelina starts over:
An angler wades in teetering like a goose
slips on loose silt
churned by the Don.
It’s an apposite choice, and not only for its theme and setting (the poem closes with a vision of ‘the ore-brown walls of Tommy Wards’, just around the next bend, the next weir): like ‘The Bench’, which follows it this morning, displacements and gaps are integral to its design, white space and ‘tinny crash’, autumnal and crisp. On this summer’s day, the gaps are tested by cars, bristling and slow, chafing the edge of the group. We don’t budge. The poems absorb the bustle. Not for the first time, I think of brittle readings in hushed rooms, the listeners not enrapt, but twitchy, the thread unpicked by the least interruption: latecomers, coughs, creaking chairs. Out here, the engine noise is part of the texture, and the river’s wash is part of the texture, and the voice focuses our attention: it does not exhaust it. One touch of nature / makes the whole world kin. A week before, I’d stood here with Pete, thinking and talking through the route, numbering the path. We gazed at the Don for a few minutes, remarking on the depthless waters, the flat islands of weed and sediment, and the strange vertical outcrops of brick, around four feet in height, making little breaks in the flow. I wondered if they might be remnants of industry, the last links to some long-gone works, but they seemed too fresh, too idiosyncratic. A few hours later, I returned, alone, and encountered their maker, in knee-high boots, wading out to the middle of the river. This was Dan of the Don, who, it turned out, has been visiting this stretch of water for a year or so, scavenging the shallows to make his free-standing sculptures. I listened as he chatted with passers-by on the north bank. A low-lying stone and brick circle, made in 2016, was reclaimed by the Don over the winter months, sinking back to the riverbed as the waters rose. The new works were part of an ongoing cycle of reclamation, a seasonal remaking. Later that evening, I share my discovery with Pete; a few days later, he sends me a new poem hymning the ‘relic stacks’, which he reads in sight of the sculptures. Dan isn’t here today, but we picture him as he calibrates
the precarious weight
of all we inherit,
expresses the lot in teetering
stanzas of brick.
As the group disperses, my eyes refocus, zooming in to a wall above the water, overlooking the north bank. I recall how, ten years ago, Chris Jones was commissioned to write a sequence of poems for this wall, marking the Don’s cultural renewal, signalling the start of a river path to Meadowhall. The poems were to be etched in sandstone, the commission funded as part of the newbuild development. The financial crises of 2008 halted the project indefinitely: the buildings were completed, but the poems were never installed. Chris read the haiku and tanka there anyway, as part of a city walk in late 2008, framed against blank, buff stone. The wall is now coated with graffiti. For a moment, I entertain a vision of the wall, and the building it supports, crumbling into the Don, to be reassembled by Dan before the current takes it apart. And I think of the intersecting lines of the last ten years’ walks, criss-crossing the long loop of Castlegate, Lady’s Bridge, the Wicker, the needle’s eye to our invisible thread.
We leave the river, and make the two-minute journey to the canal basin, the start of a four-mile navigation that runs parallel to the Don, before joining it at Tinsley. Five years earlier, Matthew Clegg led a different audience through the locks; the towpath isn’t part of today’s itinerary, but we glimpse its origins as it passes under road and rail. Our readings at Victoria Quays are split by the water, with Pete assigned a position on the north side, halfway between the Straddle Warehouse and the pedestrian swing bridge. The stone arches that frame the basin are a reminder of another lost terminus: Sheffield Victoria, formerly the main railway station, which, like the cargo port, was ideally placed to serve the city’s markets. Both the port and the station closed in the early 1970s. After a period of neglect, the site and many of the buildings were redeveloped for business and leisure, with the latter especially prominent on the broad north quay, a chain hotel’s familiar bulk rising above the arches, open-fronted cafés and bars softening the proposition. The regeneration and ‘repurposing’ of space is addressed in the third part of Sheffield Almanac, which Pete reads at the quayside, acknowledging the clashes and contradictions, the moments of vision and the short-sighted demolitions, the sense
That a growth and reinvention mostly
Built on shabby chic emporia, animation studios,
Coffee shops, won’t ever exorcise the ghostly
Whirr and scrape of lathes that inheres in the joists.
Crossing the swing bridge, we touch down on the south quay, the basin lined with narrowboats, asleep in their moorings. Slowing as we near the Straddle, we take note of the clump of offices to our left, a redoubt of corporate lawyers and tax advisers. It’s midday on a Sunday, but the windows show a handful of workers at their desks. Angelina sets up at the edge of the basin, and introduces ‘About the Human Voice’, a ruminative prose poem that opens a channel between slower, older forms of communication and the technologized present, revisiting themes of distance and memory, words and music, sound and its mediation. Communion, then confession, ‘in the corner of some backstreet cathedral, tealight bidding prayers blowing in the sanctified cross-breeze.’ As Angelina speaks, the air is coloured with struck bells, the sound blowing in from an unseen tower, east or west, hillside or town, none of us can place or name it. As she stops, it stops. We step out of the quays, drifting from cobbles to tarmac, and make our first ascent of the city.
A footbridge winds around the parkway, lifting us over the roundabout, drawing level with the middle storeys of Exchange Place, car parks, offices, hotels, and, further off, an older world, aslant in the gaps. We climb to Park Square, a green island floating above several lanes of traffic, junction and plateau. As we near the centre, the engine noise falls away, filtered by the trees. The path skews to a grass bank, where Angelina stands, a short distance, a slight elevation, the canted decks of Park Hill rising behind her, every panel coloured in, a chequered skyline. She reads ‘Fairytale No. 17’, one of several new poems we’ll hear today, testing the idea that the city is preserved in the act of leaving it, each erasure undone by an internal equilibrium of absence and recall: ‘Because I am no longer there, the market still stands…’ Park Hill is there, ‘the brutalist flats that have been bought and sold with a marriage proposal’, and it is not quite there, the story of it almost lost, an advertisement for itself. We rejoin the path, the incline, and scan a trackbed spanned by lateral wires: Park Square is an overground junction, too, the tramway splitting the island into sectors, west, south and east. As the three lines intersect and divide, so do we, darting between passing trams, blue route, yellow route, half the audience cut off. Once we’ve regathered, south of the tracks, we tune ourselves to Pete, adjusting our focus, trams rattling behind him, and a long, low thread tapering east: the overhead cables to Meadowhall, withering from sight, converging at some distant point. The poem is ‘To a Person Employed to Stand on the University Roundabout at the Evening Rush Hour Holding a Large Advertisement for Domino’s Pizza’, a vision of Sheffield, self-consuming and consumptive, that complements Angelina’s questioning of our ‘bought and sold’ futures and pasts, the elective, the involuntary: ‘We are one with you / and you with us: ingesting the city…’
We leave the island by the southern exit, crossing to a narrow footway at the edge of the tramway, curving as it uncouples from the junction, then, as the footway switches sides, straightening for the quarter-mile walk to the train station, South Street to our east, Sheaf Street to our west, one above, one below, each measuring the other. The unrehabilitated remainder of the Park Hill estate is softened, then screened, by tall trees, an incomplete pattern, the hill broken up. Beneath the footway, a short drop from a graffitied wall, we see the tracks spilling out from the railway bridge, meeting and parting, narrowing, spreading, seeking a platform. We are two abreast, overtaking, falling back, caught in overlapping dialogue. At the station bridge, we turn from the city, and take the metalled steps to South Street Park, an open, rounded green with terraced seating, a viewpoint cut into the hill. Whereas the last few stops were divided by infrastructure, the amphitheatre invites a single, central point of convergence: the audience in a semicircle, the poets at the circle’s origin, Pete, then Angelina, speaking of optimism, youth, shifting horizons. The height shelters the voice, cupped and crisp in the park’s disc, it softens the rail and road noise below. As we listen, we pick out landmarks, the town’s chock and jostle, its towers, cranes and spires, pins on a lateral plane.
Our path rucks, steepens, winding us in to Clay Wood Bank, a last road crossing, our final ascent, the terminal ground. Over 400 victims of the 1832 cholera epidemic are buried near this ancient woodland; a memorial, built in 1835, stands at the edge of the public gardens. We gather at the base of the stone marker, some of us squinting at its neo-Gothic pinnacle, others staring back at the city, drawing breath after the climb. I mention that I’m partly drawn to the monument for what it isn’t: it doesn’t commemorate military conflict, honour the crown or nobility, or elevate the wealthy. Financed by the Board of Health, it is, perhaps, a reminder of municipal failure, arising from poor sanitation in the town’s industrial quarters, close to the River Don. For Angelina, the Cholera Monument and the surrounding woodland are a place of imaginative refuge and flight, and the point from which her last, extended reading departs, taking in ‘Fairytale No. 9’, ‘Winter Beds’ ‘Marginalia’ and ‘Cuttlefish Bones’ (all from Envies the Birds), and three new poems of displacement, transit, borders, three letters home. She delivers these from the steps of the monument, facing west, ‘the city shrunk to a manageable size’, one prospect conjuring another, the distant monolith of the Hallamshire Hospital:
What I saw in this view,
in the off-white, sterile distance
those years I worked here, I don’t know.
At the edge of our hearing, birdsong, sent down from treetops either side of the memorial, feathering each poem. It continues as Pete beckons us for the final reading, which he gives a few feet from an information board, obliging us to turn from the monument, and look out to the city. It’s a suitably panoramic backdrop to the concluding part of Sheffield Almanac, its themes of disaster and renewal, community and hope, a remembered future ‘unfolding / Like a map veined dense with second chances / To find yourself’. As the Almanac nears its end, and the personal, political and topographical threads converge, two people wander into the frame, unseen by Pete, then another two, surveying the board, surveying the town, quietly, respectfully, and we follow their gaze, leaning forward, looking back at where we’ve come from.
Angelina D’Roza’s debut collection Envies the Birds is out now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book. Her recent contribution to the Longbarrow Blog, ‘About the Human Voice’, appears here.
Pete Green’s Sheffield Almanac is now available from Longbarrow Press; click here to order the pamphlet. A recent essay by Green addresses issues of civic identity and civic pride, and examines Sheffield’s status as a ‘City of Making’. Click here to read ‘Model City’.
Matthew Clegg and Brian Lewis lead a walk through RSPB Adwick Washland on Saturday 1 July (National Meadows Day) as part of the 2017 Ted Hughes Festival. Click here for more information and to book tickets.
A special thanks to all who attended the ‘Vanishing Point’ walk, and to those who contributed the photographs that accompany this essay.
Spring gathers on (an) England. Onto ground’s wintery etch, onto lettery tree-shapes. Spring’s green fibres flock to this twig island. Or is it a th rust? Does the tracery of Isis – veins & photosynthetic ghost – come from within? Or fall upon all us En glish to grip? Someone long ago … a version of me and a version of you … played Pooh sticks with An(gle)land-shaped twigs set … myths & histories afloat on a … glowing liquid. And watched them disappear beneath a bridge of our ageing, and reappear again in this later light. Old man me, and old woman you, old boy, old girl. That cross hung in our sky, that’s not Horus, that’s … purely a kestrel – he’s not fucking wind, no, he’s being feeling place. Yesterday I peeled off from my face such a faint skin and the whole faint skin of my body came away with it. So quickly May is here again. And. Again. And the nursing home that’s England’s dappled lanes has coagulated as a cloak for un-dwelled selves. Us. Perhaps. And. Look, and listen, as you cross the rumbling roads, to get to the quiet abandoned building in the woods of your life’s end … look and listen as some War-wick-shire poet’s body of words rips-&-mangles … yet the body’s bits cling to A/the blade of change. No. No En gland begins, begins all over again. Again over all be gins, beg ins Engl ands. No change of blade. No !
This prose poem introduces ‘shall’, Mark Goodwin’s collaboration with film-maker Martyn Blundell:
Blundell’s ‘Convalescent Fade’ extends the dialogue with this now-demolished environment. Click here to view the film (with a written introduction by Mark Goodwin).
Mark Goodwin’s fourth poetry collection, Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), explores themes of climbing, walking and balancing. Click here to visit the Steps microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings.
Martyn Blundell is an artist and film-maker. Click here to view his other short films.
In a post-industrial age, the character and distinctiveness of England’s cities and regions is much diminished. Places whose identities were once informed by their key economic activity – textiles in Lancashire, say, or the railways in Derby and Crewe – scrabble around in the remains to build an updated sense of self which might reconcile their unique industrial history with their new reliance on employment in the far more generic settings of call centres and distribution hubs.
The degree to which cities retain a distinctive culture and feel can vary, though. Many Sheffielders believe theirs succeeds more than most. The automation of processes means steel production no longer provides much in the way of local employment – and globalisation means the wealth it generates mostly leaves the city without touching the sides – but steel continues to be made here. Most people living in Sheffield today have no link to the industry, but are sharply aware of its past significance. The ‘Steel City’ nickname is still used widely.
Sheffield also hosts a vibrant grassroots arts and crafts scene. Buildings where steel from local foundries was once worked into cutlery and tools now provide cheap, central sites for independent galleries and studios. To some extent the city’s economy has diversified into creative and digital industries. It has also received a boost from the arrival of a substantially expanded student population, many of whom arrive in Sheffield from other countries, China in particular.
Last year an initiative was declared jointly by the city’s council and universities with local groups representing business and culture, supported by Arts Council and lottery funding:
In 2016 Sheffield celebrates a Year of Making, an opportunity to foreground all forms of making in the city and region – from advanced manufacturing, specialist steels, forged products, cutting tools, flanges, bearings and blades to award winning theatre, international art and design, ground-breaking research and world class talent.
The Year of Making 2016 celebrates our past, present and future as a city of makers and promotes a world city with an international reputation for excellence and innovation.
It’s fair to say that ‘making’, in its various forms, comprises a significant aspect of whatever distinctive identity Sheffield might profess today. The passage quoted above demonstrates that in formulating a version of that identity, rather than erase or replace the heavy industry of yesterday, the Year of Making initiative consciously sought to accommodate steelmaking – in both its present and past forms – alongside cultural and academic ‘products’ such as theatre and research.
So central, in fact, is the idea of ‘making’ to this version of Sheffield that its narratives commonly redeploy the verb ‘to make’ as an intransitive rather than a transitive verb. A transitive verb has an object: I’m singing a song, you’re making a fork. An intransitive verb has none: I’m singing, you’re making. In this version of Sheffield verb matters more than noun. The act of manufacturing is more significant than the (grammatical or manufactured) object. What you’re making has become less important than the fact that you’re making it.
Perhaps it’s a kind of cultural fetishisation to impute greater value to a manufacturing process than to its product.
Among other intentions, my poem Sheffield Almanac invites the reader to reflect on some of the assumptions that underlie the ‘City of Makers’ narrative.
One assumption is that it is economically useful. Comparison with other cities might suggest otherwise. A 2016 study compares Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield by the percentage of jobs in manufacturing and in high value services, and by average wages and tax yield per job. Of those five major northern cities, Sheffield has the greatest proportion of jobs in manufacturing and the smallest in high value services. Of those five major northern cities Sheffield also has the lowest average weekly wage, and the smallest tax yield per job.
So, how does this explain Sheffield being left behind? Well, a big manufacturing sector is not a great thing for the economy of a developed world city. Technology means that factories don’t generate the jobs they once did; competitive pressure from factories all over the world mean that many of the jobs which do exist are unlikely to be particularly well-paid… The most economically successful cities tend to have smaller manufacturing bases, but much larger knowledge-based service industries. On that measure, Manchester and Leeds are clearly way out ahead.
The ‘making’ narrative, though, as we’ve seen, incorporates more than just the traditional manufacturing sector taken into account by the CityMetric analysis. It may be that the agenda to present ‘making’ as a whole, comprising the processes of the factory alongside cultural, creative and academic activity, succeeds in creating a ‘brand’ which makes Sheffield a more attractive place to visit or set up a business.
Or perhaps what we might lose in GDP from Sheffield’s obdurate adherence to a ‘making’ economy, we might gain in other, less tangible benefits. It feels good to be part of a city with an identity. I enjoy the fact that my adopted home has an industrial heritage that it’s proud of. And lots of galleries, festivals of zines and documentary film, and DIY gigs in repurposed steel workshops. And it makes a lot of very good ale. I like being able to walk through the city and see where all these things go on. If I moved to Leeds or Manchester, there’d be considerably more jobs I could apply for, but I’m not sure I’d find a civic identity I could buy into quite so readily (and we can be certain I wouldn’t if I moved to the south).
You can view this version of Sheffield by visiting the city’s Millennium Galleries (a venue managed by Museums Sheffield, one of the partners in the Year of Making project). Among the superbly curated exhibition rooms, one celebrates the history of the cutlery industry and the small-scale artisan steelmaking that goes on today. Another has recently highlighted various other local products, from propeller blades to craft beer. A beautifully produced Year of Making film depicts the processes in a Sheffield potato crisp factory and its contented employees.
The gallery’s shop sells an excellent range of locally produced art and craft items, stationery, books, toys, shoulder bags, greetings cards, preserves, and pretty things for the house. It also sells bottles of Henderson’s Relish.
Henderson’s Relish is a bit like Worcestershire sauce (you’re not supposed to say that, but it is). It’s made in Sheffield, and you see it everywhere you go in Sheffield. But it’s not widely available outside the city. This exclusivity has elevated the product from a condiment to an icon of civic pride – or a metonym for Sheffield’s distinctiveness.
There are Henderson’s recipe books, T-shirts, badges and art prints. ‘Limited edition’ bottles are sometimes produced, replacing the standard design with the colours of the two local professional football clubs. The University of Sheffield recently announced that it will generously preserve a disused former Henderson’s factory, which sits among many of its other buildings, by turning it into a pub.
Perhaps it’s another kind of fetishisation to value the cultural significance of a condiment above what it tastes like on your pie and peas.
Some of the art and craft items on sale around the city depict local landmarks. These have included the Park Hill estate – a famous brutalist block of former council housing, whose ongoing redevelopment by Urban Splash is regularly denounced as an act of gentrification. They have included the cooling towers of the former Blackburn Meadows power station alongside the M1, which were demolished in 2008 despite a campaign to retain them as some kind of monument or venue for arts and culture.
Sometimes the makers will create art using elements of Sheffield dialect and accent. On the wall of a pub near my home there’s a periodic table of Sheffield dialect. This is not a wealthy part of town, nor is it deprived, and the pub is populated largely by people who either already have a degree or are in the process of acquiring one. It’s not a place where I’ve ever heard people say thee and tha, or reyt mardy, except in a knowing, affected way.
As we walk past the periodic table of Sheffield dialect we look at it and smile. We have taken the speech patterns of Sheffield’s working class as a raw material from which to manufacture a pleasing cultural commodity for middle-class consumption. We’ve done it with fondness and the best of intentions. But that’s what we’ve done.
I wonder sometimes whether the tendency to frame Henderson’s on your wall rather than splash it on your dinner plate isn’t found disproportionately more among white-collar incomers to the city and less among working-class native Sheffielders. I wonder whether we respond with more zeal than is necessary to ‘iconic’ condiments and council estates because we are anxious for acceptance in our adopted home. I wonder whether the version of the city that’s predicated on the new ‘making’ narrative isn’t fundamentally a sort of middle-class meta-Sheffield.
That might be overstating it. It’s not just the better-off who are proud of Sheffield or who believe it’s different from (and better than) other places. Violent disorder occurred in many English towns and cities under both the Thatcher and Cameron governments; both times, Sheffield was the only large settlement unaffected by rioting. One explanation put forward was civic pride. I don’t know how grounded that is in reality, but I do remember one hashtag trending locally during those nights of unrest in August 2011: #SteelCityNotStealCity.
If Sheffield differs from the rest of England in its social divisions, though, it does so only because they are sharper here than elsewhere. Broadly speaking, areas in the city’s south and west are healthier, wealthier and more educated than areas in its north and east. The various related indices of deprivation and quality of life follow the pattern: infrastructure, property values, life expectancy, and the incidence of crime and road traffic accidents.
As with other large cities, areas of severe poverty developed in the 1970s and 1980s after job losses in a key industry. But Sheffield’s unique landscape has also played a role in its social division.
The topography of the Lower Don Valley was particularly suitable for industrial development, and 19th century housing to accommodate the workforce was located in the area. In contrast, the higher ground to the west was settled by the factory owners – upwind of the pollution from the factories. In the twentieth century this polarisation was exacerbated by the concentration of council housing to the east. Sheffield is one of the most polarised cities in Britain, with the more affluent neighbourhoods to the west and the poorer to the east. The National Park to the west of the city precluded the development of dormitory suburbs as are found near many other cities: there was little middle class flight to leafier places.
Perhaps the gains made from the city’s new-look ‘making’ economy don’t share out evenly. Perhaps both the economic and cultural benefits accrue disproportionately to a comparatively privileged sector of the city’s population.
Either way, there is more than one version of Sheffield. The version you’ll see in Fulwood is radically different from the version you’ll see in Upperthorpe, and the version you’ll see in Crookes varies dramatically from the one you’ll encounter in Tinsley (where, despite already lethally bad air quality, a new Ikea is being built, not far from the site of those demolished cooling towers).
Not all these versions of Sheffield are equally visible. And their co-existence is not without tensions. In the 2016 referendum, while Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle voted to remain in the European Union, Sheffield narrowly voted to leave. As we saw during the riots, overlooked communities express frustration through self-destructive behaviour. But this doesn’t always mean smashing shopfronts and torching cars.
It’s not that working-class voices are never heard. At Weston Park Museum a film about Park Hill features former residents sharing their memories. But none seem to diverge from the view that Park Hill was an excellent place to live (and implicitly, perhaps, that the revamp is worth the cost). As with the happy workers in the crisp factory film, working-class voices are heard – but only as incorporated into the de facto official version of Sheffield.
None of this, of course, is to imply that initiatives like the Year of Making shouldn’t happen or that the intentions behind them are anything other than noble. We’re lucky to have Sheffield Museums: the job they do is outstanding, and all the more so given the huge funding cuts they’ve suffered.
Nor do I seek to suggest that I’m not complicit in any processes of appropriation or commodification, if that’s what they are. When a designer created beautiful Park Hill-themed artwork for my band’s first single, I gave my enthusiastic approval. When a petition was got up to save the cooling towers, I signed it, while sitting comfortably at home on the other side of Sheffield. A poem is not a manifesto. I’m not here to say Something Must Be Done; still less, that I’ll do it, or that I even know what. My purposes here, and in the Sheffield Almanac, are simply observation and an invitation to reflect.
And even in pursuing those limited aims I could have it all wrong. Once the Henderson’s Arms pub has opened on campus, and you’re in there having a drink, listen out for the accents around the room. If you hear any actual working-class people, tell me right away. I’ll come over, acknowledge my mistakes, and buy you a two-thirds of artisan cappuccino porter.
Pete Green’s Sheffield Almanac is out now from Longbarrow Press. You can order the pamphlet by clicking on the relevant PayPal button below:
North of the railway line that links the East Leeds suburb of Crossgates to the commuter village of Garforth, a ripple of flags and fixtures, spotless signs, developers’ colours, staked in rolls of turf: the joined-up housing, tipping from the west, leaking into the low-rise, light industrial district of Barnbow. To each gap, each leftover lot, a phased release, an orderly settlement. New homes, new streets, a woman’s name in every lane and avenue, Ethel Jackson, Amelia Stewart, Olive Yeates, neat lawns and driveways, there are no roads east of Maggie Barker. Screened from The Limes, parallel to the railway, a thin, grey park: in the park, a grey shed, its vaulted frame stretching to one-third of a mile, the bulk receding, then vanishing.
It was said of the factory at Barnbow that the parts would go in at one end and come out the other as tanks. Between 1983 and 1990, the Challenger 1 was built here, then, from 1993, the Challenger 2, after the site was acquired by Vickers Defence Systems in 1986, who designed and constructed a new plant for its production. For nearly fifty years before its privatisation and sale to Vickers, the Barnbow complex was operated as a Royal Ordnance Factory, one of a number of state-owned ROFs established as part of the late 1930s rearmament programme. ROF Leeds wasn’t the first munitions factory in Barnbow, though; the government had built one at the outset of the first world war. Officially known as National Filling Factory No. 1, it absorbed 313 acres of the Gascoigne estate, an area criss-crossed by defunct coal pits, the main site lying north and east of the railway sidings that, decades later, would make way for ROF Leeds. Within a few months of becoming operational, Barnbow’s output had increased to 6000 shells per day, making it the most productive British shell factory of the war. This was achieved with a 24-hour, three-shift system and, by October 1916, a workforce of 16,000, 93% of whom were women and girls. Conditions at Barnbow were difficult and dangerous, especially for those who handled explosives, the workers sheathed in smocks and caps, their skin yellowing from exposure to cordite. At 10pm on 5 December 1916, several hundred women had just started their shift, including 170 working in one of the fusing rooms. At 10.27pm, an explosion levelled the room, leaving 35 women dead, and many more injured and maimed. The details of the accident were withheld from the public until 1924, when the land was returned to Colonel Gascoigne, who sought, and received, compensation for the requisitioning of his estate. By now, most of the filling factory had been demolished; a new, short-lived colliery was constructed, reusing some of the factory buildings, and several parcels of land, described as ‘waste’, were later put up for auction by the colonel. Over time, the railway spurs, the filling sheds, and the pit workings were dismantled or abandoned, spikes and shafts now dents and hollows, rough ground softening to the gaze, plantation and grass, arable lots, the works effaced by landscape.
The word landscape arrived in England with the Anglo-Saxons (as landscipe or landscaef), and, in its earliest sense, referred to a system of manmade spaces, or the ‘shaping’ of land to which people belonged. From the late sixteenth century, it is increasingly identified with the usage borrowed from Dutch painters, landschap, a term descriptive of ‘natural’ scenery, and suggestive of framed pastorals. The idea of the picturesque begins to inform the making of the landscape itself, and is a significant factor in the rise of the ‘English garden’ a hundred years later; planned idylls, commissioned by wealthy patrons, laid out in the grounds of private estates. While the excesses of the Romantic period have largely fallen away – the grottos, rotundas and mock ruins that proliferated in eighteenth-century parks and gardens – our attachment to an idealised, ‘painterly’ view persists. The eye is drawn to a simple arrangement of lake, grove, and gentle slope. It is nature, it is ‘naturalistic’, and the labour that made and maintains it is absent or discreet. We overlook (or, perhaps, applaud) the settled artifice: without it, there is no ‘view’. Conversely, the working landscape – in its industrialised, technologized, contemporary form – is seldom recognised as landscape, but, rather, as a disturbance of soil, a distortion of perspective, each visible modification and intervention an act against landscape. Environmental objections to new ‘works’ are often linked to aesthetic concerns; occasionally, the latter predominate, as can be observed in public opposition to the siting of pylons and wind turbines (with an emphasis on visual impact apparent in many campaigns). Sightlines are interrupted by wires and blades. The ‘idyll’, if it exists, is endangered by infrastructure projects. And yet, for all our discord and unease, the working landscape belongs to us, and we to it; its history is part of our history. The narrative of a single site, its changes of use, is recounted through generations, passing into folk memory, local lore. What happens to these sites, and their stories, when the labour and the landscape have exhausted each other?
Karl Hurst’s photographs of the former collieries of South Yorkshire (and other parts of the county shaped by its heavy industry) explore this state of ambivalence: the undeclared thesis of the project is that the terrain itself is caught between renunciation, remembering, and renewal. The images in the series (collectively titled Recovered Landscapes) are presented without locational or situational information, or, indeed, any details that might help us to understand what kind of work took place on these sites before they were deindustrialised (and, to all appearances, depopulated). This is, I think, intentional, the suspension of context an echo of the process that Hurst is documenting: the decoupling of the coalfields from the communities that the collieries made viable. Whether fenced or unguarded, disused or reclaimed, we are to infer that these places no longer belong to the people. A recent essay by Hurst offers some clues to his thinking; he visits the site of the former coking plant at Orgreave, 100 acres of which has been redeveloped as a technology park, and a further 300 acres designated as ‘the Waverley Community’, a mixed residential / commercial estate with lakeside views (and an annual ‘service charge’ of £150 per household). He searches the area, its signage and maps, for some ‘official acknowledgement’ of the Battle of Orgreave, a decisive moment in the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, and, arguably, the event with which the name of the parish is most closely identified. He finds nothing, no murals or monuments, and concludes that the development is a deliberate act of cultural erasure, of which the renaming, or rebranding, from Orgreave to Waverley is the most troubling symptom. The name is the legacy; without it, the link to the landscape is broken.
Displacement, estrangement, and the weakening of the bonds of work, class, and community have been prominent themes in Hurst’s work for some years, and comprise the burden of his poem cycle The Frome Primer (2007). The title, suggestive of geographical specificity, is a riddle, a bluff; while the project was initially sketched as ‘a view of the south from the north’, there is nothing of southern England in these poems. Like the images of Recovered Landscapes, the poems are untitled, the locations unidentified. Here, too, the effect is a loss of particularity, a sense of attachments (to people, places) worn thin, wearing out. The ‘older world’ to which the speaker (or speakers) belonged has declined, and is being dismantled, the surviving fragments (‘the backs of weavers’ houses’, ‘the abandoned giant works’) suddenly out of place. The lineage of skilled manual work, of which he is part, is tapering and fraying, its blunt lessons (‘it’s no good knocking / even the straightest nail / into a crooked wall / with a crooked hammer’) now passing, obliquely, into parable or fable. This world, its work, cannot be handed down. The world that replaces it is defined by precarity, ‘scavenging’, the austere resourcefulness of its new arrivals, sustaining themselves by ‘tak[ing] hems up / and rak[ing] coiled leaves out / of drains’, or ‘smoking […] black tobacco / and sourcing the cheapest cuts’. This precarity and rupture is not unique to the ‘surrendered’ city, as the seventh poem makes plain. It is one of only two poems in The Frome Primer to depart from the first person, and the only poem in which the focus shifts to the land itself (a ‘working landscape’ in South Lincolnshire, the cycle’s sole concession to topographical orientation). The flat farmland is evoked in unusually lyrical terms:
In the blue bean rows near Boston
Chou Li bends to a black stork.
Low mists veil the fields, Chou Li
straightening to the horizon, caught
in transparency. Imagine Emperor Huizong
at work here, hinting at willow with delicate
calligraphy and rendering a quiet nobility
from the work, white persimmon
hanging in the cool morning.
Glance again now after this clarity,
like grief, grey fluke blooms on the beans,
the itinerant labour gang, in transit, dispersed.
In times of scarcity and uncertainty, our relationship to landscape, as a resource, is often reframed, impelled by the makeshift and the fugitive. Fay Musselwhite’s sequence ‘Adventures in Procurement’ (in her 2016 collection Contraflow) opens with ‘Firewood’, in which the darkened edges of an unnamed ‘southern city’ are scouted and foraged by a small, shadowy group, raiding newbuild sprawl and rebuilt townhouses for scrap wood, rummaging through skips for discarded pallets and planks, gathering ‘armfuls’ of timber to feed their squat’s hearth. This is work that subsists on the byproducts of work, sustaining itself through the surplus and waste of land and labour. The poem and the sequence are set against the backdrop of England in the late 1980s, a period in which industrial relations were deteriorating, and home ownership was increasing. ‘Firewood’ contrasts distant reports from the ‘battlegrounds’ and ‘barricades’ further north – the news aflame with ‘licks and lashes [that] make light of a community exposed’ – with eyewitness accounts of neighbourhood gentrification:
[…] streets colonised by stair shifters, roof raisers,
bay window chasers, home owners performing
their open house surgery, bedrooms waiting
in polythene wings.
The land is divided, carved up by legislators, developers and speculators, the era’s combustible politics and economic imbalances leaving parts of it a no-man’s-land. Stepping into this breach are the protagonists of ‘Adventures in Procurement’: predatory slum landlords, small-time traders, itinerant musicians and crafters, each of them testing the market for its gaps, its weaknesses, exhausting the seams and cracks, then moving on. The line between legal revenue and illicit trade is repeatedly – perhaps deliberately – blurred in ‘Smokeless Zone’ and ‘Wearing the Trousers’, the ‘pulse of merchandise’ racing from ‘storefront harbour’ to ‘laid-up trailers’, before slowing at the ‘spy-holes’ of flats frequented by dealers and users, in which we find the eponymous anti-heroes of the last poems in the sequence, ‘Tales from Min’s’ and ‘Leon’; their territory shrinking to a handful of cornered rooms, raided and wrecked, in turn, by police and gangland enforcers. It’s a strain of precarity – debt and disquiet – that drags the individual ever inward, obliging a withdrawal from the street, from its contested ‘turf’, from the land itself. The recollected misadventures of ‘Leon’ are framed by two vignettes in which he appears to have escaped – or has been extracted from – the ‘splintered wreckage’ of his old life. We find him in the woods, stirring broth over an open fire, adjusting to the rhythms of a self-sufficient ‘forest settlement’, the nearest road vibrating ‘at the edge of sound’. Here, too, he is outside of the formal economy, rethinking and remaking the relationship between hand and tool, recognising it in ‘each tenderness / of muscle’, grateful for the ‘echo of toil that melds him to the land’.
This idea – that labour engenders a uniquely intimate bond with one’s environment – is realised, freely and fully, in ‘Memoir of a Working River’, the 18-page centrepiece of Contraflow. The poem reimagines the industrial growth, decline and eventual restoration of the Rivelin Valley, a woodland vale in north-west Sheffield, and the fast-flowing river that carved it out, made it fit for work, and gave it its name. Its human and nonhuman elements – the mills, forges and dams that harness the water, the men who maintain the riverside industries, the valley’s ecology – are absorbed into a single, fluid narrative, the story of an ‘old man’, half-river, half-human, tracking the Rivelin’s physical and historical journey from its moorland source to the city’s edge, slipping between mortal and riverine states along the way, each shift marking a change of fortune. The landscape is undone and remade, the young river’s slow, persistent scratch first giving it form and direction; as it matures, the water is ‘yoked’ to the wheels that drive the expanding industries, contributing to the city’s prosperity, and, in turn, depleting the health of the valley and the men who work there; then, as ‘retreating trade’ gives way to returning trees, the old man ‘detoxes’, his ‘scarring’ and ‘choking’ relieved by dredging and conservation, the residues of work – ‘slathered wheel-gape, spindle, stray grindstone’ – preserved and assimilated to the river path, the valley now a site of heritage and leisure. Perhaps the most salient aspect of the poem is its vision of embodied labour, the levelling of human and natural resources, the worker and the water put to the same wheel and, as a consequence, being consumed alike, losing their discrete identities, their ‘nature’, their unlikeness. Iron particulates flake from the grindstones, catching in throats, weakening lungs: downstream from a ‘spark-shed’, the old man encounters a grinder, ‘doubled over racked in rasp-spasms’, who
tells how he offers blunt steel to grit
till it’s flayed by resistance to its leanest edge
how each day he enters the valley
more of it enters him.
In the 1970s, the UK became the world’s first post-industrial society. The transition from an economy defined by the primary and secondary sectors (agriculture, mining, manufacturing) to one increasingly reliant on the emerging tertiary (or ‘service’) sector was reflected in the changing appearance of the country’s landscape, with fewer people employed on the land or in heavy industry, and more offices, distribution centres and retail parks appearing at the edges of towns and cities. The new sector’s complex variables (both economic and cultural) meant that a flexible labour market was essential, and employment agencies became instrumental in placing people in this new space, and in new (and often short-lived) roles. For some, this offered a path out of difficult, dangerous (and now declining) work, with opportunities for career development. For others, the path seemed to lead nowhere. Matthew Clegg’s Lost Between Stations (2000, revised 2011) chronicles ten years of displacement and indirection at the end of the millennium, ‘a period of dead-end jobs, intermittent unemployment, and employment training schemes’. Structured as ‘a poem in 7 fragments’, we first encounter its speaker in a call centre in metropolitan Leeds, ‘all at sea’ in an open-plan office, floundering in telemarketing. With each ‘fragment’, we drift further from the centre – the supposed promise and purpose of the city’s business district – and into the social and geographical margins: the graffitied estates of Hyde Park and Burley, the gleaming villages (or exurbs) of Scholes and Barwick. One of the motors of this picaresque narrative is the influence of Homer and Derek Walcott; Clegg draws on the energy and imagery of The Odyssey and Omeros to navigate the systems and circuits of the built environment, a landlocked voyage in which ‘the kerb is a jetty / And the ship a bus, stopping and starting, / Twisting and turning across this city.’ The ‘matrix of buses and trains’ is not so much a means of proceeding to a (known) destination as a device for chance exploration and encounters, disrupting routine and expectation, allowing ‘the drift / Of conversations’ and ‘coincidence’ to nudge the traveller ‘at every change’. This is how the city’s landscapes enter the poem, glimpsed in the gaps between low-status, casual jobs, between ‘the University’s ghetto / Of loans and potential’ and the run-down ‘precincts and tower blocks’ of the outer suburbs, and between the ‘stations’ of class and community. It’s the moments of dislocation that reconnect the speaker to his surroundings: a night walk along the Kirkstall Road, where a retired mariner revives his consciousness with stories and songs from the other side of the world; a summer staffing the itinerant portal of an ice-cream van, the prospect shifting from pitch to pitch; and two confrontations with the police, one damaging, the other disquieting. In each episode, the problem of work is shadowed by the problem of worklessness. The latter predicament informs Clegg’s sequence Edgelands (2008), which shifts the focus to the varied terrain of north-west Sheffield, and slows the movement to walking pace. Whether by compulsion or choice, the protagonist finds himself making circuits of his locale, its rivers and woods, car parks and public parks, industrial estates and residential estates, his observations coloured by a recent, and painful, separation. We are to infer that ‘the far edges’ to which ‘something is pushing him’ are not only cultural and geographical, but also psychological and financial; his straitened circumstances are reflected in the neglect and impoverishment of much of the terrain that he walks, its roads ‘cruelly scarred with welts / and divots’, the verges littered with hubcaps, windshields, cans and bottles. The texture of the working landscape seems brittle with age, the ground exhausted and inert, the human traces fading out:
These desolate gravel roads
connecting landfills, factories,
are bleached white by midsummer.
Bin bags under sun-kilned mud
clench, obdurate as fossils.
South of the railway line that links the East Leeds suburb of Crossgates to the commuter village of Garforth, a patchwork of irregular fields, uneven pasture interrupted by sparse hedges, stands of trees, rough tracks, the shaved square of Crossgates Cricket Club marking the railway’s intersection with Austhorpe Lane. Rumoured to be the site of coal mining in the 19th century, much of the area is now ‘scraggy grazing land’, the setting of Matthew Clegg’s poem ‘Because I Was Nobody’, in which the teenage speaker finds respite from ‘job club’ and the pressures of life on the estate. To the north-east, five hundred yards above the railway line, the former National Filling Factory No. 1, its ‘foundations, earthworks, and demolished and buried remains’ designated as a scheduled monument in 2016, one hundred years after the explosion at Barnbow. To the north, the former Vickers tank factory – inactive since 1999, and, since then, intermittently used as a storage depot for retail goods and cars – now approved for demolition, the extraction of a 150,000 tonne seam of coal beneath the site a precondition for any subsequent redevelopment. To the north-west, the new Limes estate, most of its houses detached from their neighbours, the blank streets in memory, a handful of munitions workers, named twice over, Ethel Jackson, Amelia Stewart, Olive Yeates, Maggie Barker.
Karl Hurst’s photographs of the South Yorkshire coalfields can be viewed as part of Hurst’s Flickr photoset. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (writing as Andrew Hirst) are available here.
Click here for details of Fay Musselwhite’s debut collection Contraflow.
Matthew Clegg’s publications include Lost Between Stations, West North East and The Navigators. The short film for his poem ‘Because I was Nobody’, filmed on location in East Leeds, can be viewed below:
The third West North East audio podcast, recorded on location in Crossgates, East Leeds on one afternoon in May 2014, focuses on the poems ‘Because I was Nobody’, ‘Blood and Ice Cream’ and ‘The Last Workday Before Christmas’, each of which marks a specific location in the suburb: a cow field, the car park of the former Vickers tank factory, and platform 2 of the railway station.
One of the hardest things we ask creative writing students to do is comment on their own poetry or prose in a ‘critical’ reflective commentary. Students are asked to explain a work’s genesis by outlining the process of drafting, by showing how they have used various writing techniques, and by illuminating those literary (or wider) influences shaping the text. I liken this project to wrestling with an octopus because of the multiple strands that have to be negotiated and pinned down in order for the author to speak clearly about the process of composition.
One of the issues underlining such an action is that most writers, however accomplished they are as stylists, struggle to write about process in a clear, rigorous, example-specific way. You will find many books out there that give writers a platform to write about their own art, but they often do this in the most generalised, tentative, jokey or obscurantist fashion. Here are three quotations, picked at random from a collection of mini-essays grouped together as Don’t Ask me What I Mean: Poets in their own Words (edited by Clare Brown and Don Paterson):
When I look back on my earlier collections of poems, I can see now certain obsessions, preoccupations, experiments and styles. My poetry has changed, I think, but the change has been almost wholly unconscious (Elizabeth Jennings).
It’s embarrassing to discuss your own poems in print. You come across as either an awestruck fan of your own genius or a tedious explainer of jokes (Michael Donaghy).
The opening poem, entitled ‘The Shore’, describes an epiphanic experience of the ‘Void’, or Emptiness, which occurred to me while carrying out archaeological fieldwork one freezing day on the Humber foreshore (Peter Didsbury).
These kind of approaches are not at all uncommon: you read lots of (1) vague reflections on poetic development (Jennings, by the way, does not elaborate in any further detail on this statement regarding her growth as a writer. I know she talks about ‘unconscious’ processes, but surely we have some cognitive understanding of what we are doing as writers); (2) deliberate attempts not to discuss individual poems in a holistic or critical fashion; or (3) explanations of poems that rely on the most basic of glosses – interpretations that tell you what the poems are about (I can try to work that out for myself) rather than offering insights into the craft of writing itself. Admittedly, the poets are not being asked to be that clinical in regards to examining their own work: they have only 500-1000 words to discuss their prize-winning collections. The poets don’t have to provide an instruction manual on how their work was made, but at the same time you will discover very little about individual technique (‘how and why I write like this’) in the book. Indeed, one of the ironies of writers reflecting on their own practices is how limited the analysis of craft is, of finding words to externalise this inward-looking game. You may argue that this kind of ‘autopsy’ isn’t really the job of a writer, but significantly, from a viewpoint of reflecting on the skills of writing, there’s little relevant guidance for my students here.
A few years ago I was invited by the artist Paul Evans to collaborate on a project for Derby Museum and Art Gallery. The project took the form of a ‘creative intervention’ in the 1001 Objects Gallery. Paul fashioned the paintings and drawings for a bespoke desk-bureau that reflected on some of the artefacts in the space. I wrote poems to accompany the pictures framed in the artist’s desk and also produced pieces that were stencilled on glass cases around the gallery.
Because there was so much visual data in the gallery, I decided to write concise, discrete works – the poems were small objects in themselves like many of the things on display. Also, I wanted the audience to puzzle over the connections between a poem and an object: the two weren’t always aligned in the gallery space. To help me think about the tone or voice of the work, I had in mind Anglo-Saxon riddle poems (particularly where an object speaks for itself) when devising a number of the pieces.
One of the items we decided to ‘narrate’ (paint/write about) was a large seashell lure used by Polynesian fisherman. The finished poem comprises this couplet:
A clam scooped out by morning sun:
a charm to draw a fish out of the ocean.
You can see from the early drafts I’m feeling toward a way of both representing and defamiliarising the shell:
A tine to snag a fish from out the sea
A tooth to snap a fish from out of ocean
A tooth to bite a fish out of the sea
Originally, this was to be the first line of the poem, but I soon realised I would have to create a more direct statement that named the shell in the first line followed by a more playful, teasing image in that concluding line. The reader needed a clearer pathway into the poem than a metaphor-embellished line could offer.
I then moved on to shaping the couplet. This was my first complete draft:
A clam that’s full of morning sun:
this charm to draw a fish out of the ocean.
You can see the problem with that first line is that the sun’s action on the clam is passive: it’s ‘full of morning sun’ like a glass or vessel filled with water. The final version adopts the more active verb: ‘scooped out’, which befits a workaday object being harnessed to catch fish. The second line is nearly there: I’ve introduced ‘charm’ here because it plays on the notion of something that lures, is charming, charms. Going back to those earliest drafts, I can see now that one of the reasons why ‘tine’ and ‘tooth’ had to be jettisoned if the poem was going to develop was that both words don’t offer any aural connections (in terms of vowels and consonants) with the word ‘clam’. The logical step for a clam that is a lure is for it to be associated with ‘charm’. I wrote a brief guide to each of the poems in a catalogue co-written with Paul that picked up on this idea:
I think in this poem [‘Lure’] I tried to present different ideas of symmetry and reflection. So firstly you have two lines ‘mirroring’ each other on the page. You also have echoes in ‘a clam’ and ‘a charm’, ‘scooped out’ and ‘fish out’, and in that final rhyme of ‘sun’ and ‘ocean’. The closeness of the two lines visually and aurally was important as it added to the ‘allure’ of the poem.
I could have added that further near-rhyme of ‘morn[ing]’ and ‘draw’ to extend that notion of conjoined words over the two lines. When using potentially attention-seeking end-rhymes, I have this paradoxical urge to hide them or, perhaps more accurately, I try to make them seamless within the fabric of the poem. There’s nothing more off-putting than obtrusive end-rhymes (unless you are actively trying to achieve this effect); the reader is too busy listening out for those rhymes or trying to second-guess what they might be, rather than holding the whole of the poem, the full palette of its word-music, in their ear. One of the ways you can shoe-in end-rhymes is by banking up the near-rhymes and internal rhymes around them in the couplet. So ‘clam/charm’ and ‘morn/draw’ are introducing your ear to the possibilities of correspondence: ‘sun’ and ‘ocean’ heighten and extend this awareness in that final beat of each line. That the ‘sun’ is carried and echoed in ‘ocean’ is a bonus that you would take anytime that it comes up.
Listen to Paul Evans and Chris Jones discuss their collaboration on ‘The Spirit is a Bone’ at Derby Museum and Art Gallery, 25 May 2013:
This is the second in a series of essays by Chris Jones reflecting on the craft of writing; click here to read the first in the series. Further essays will be posted on the Longbarrow Blog throughout 2017.
Artist Paul Evans has collaborated with a number of Longbarrow Press poets in recent years; click here to view the paintings, drawings and poems for the Seven Wonders project. His main website can be found here.
Chris Jones’s second full-length collection Skin is out now from Longbarrow Press. Visit the Skin microsite for more details about the book, or click on the relevant PayPal option below to order:
Alexander Graham Bell once said of the telephone, some day, every town will have one. I have three, my UK number, a local one, and a work phone, and I have never needed my phone more or wanted it less. I could’ve given up my UK number. Should have, probably. A chance to weed out all the numbers I never call, that never call me. I guess I’m not ready to disconnect. But it makes me forget sometimes that I am here, and not there, where you are. In An Affair To Remember, Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr visit his grandmother who lives in a gorgeous little house cut out of the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean. Almost entirely isolated, it is where I imagine living one day. I would be completely there and need to be nowhere else. I won’t need or want a telephone (except sometimes).
In The Guardian recently, there was an article about a man who broke into a church to pray: “Here the silence creeps into me, a bit like the cold […] And into that silence I bring all that is not OK with me.” Silence and time. August Kleinzahler said technology, as well as being fabulous, has limited our need (and so maybe our capacity) for thinking, memory, association, that it has created “a culture of distraction”. Sometimes, when I listen to music, it’s because I don’t want to be left alone with what is not OK with me, with thinking and memory. If I’m to get any sleep, I want the distraction. Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours is a good bet. His version of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” is not as painfully beautiful as Nina Simone’s. She has a way of singing and playing piano as though those two elements are only barely holding together, like Virginia Woolf’s spider’s web, and you pay attention, fearing that there’s too much felt for such fragility to endure. You can’t listen to this for any other reason than for its own sake. If you want to sleep, Frank is lovely. And there’s nothing wrong with lovely. Of course, I’m up at 4am comparing these two tracks … because technology.
I like your observation about distance. Distance in time often appears to create a clarity that wasn’t available in the present. The theory goes that our conscious mind, in the moment, is making sense of our actions, rather than determining them. Creating a story of self and the illusion of decision-making. Have you seen the episode of House where a guy’s had his corpus callosum severed, so his right brain hemisphere and left can’t communicate? The guy can’t read the instruction “Stand up” because it’s on the left side, controlled by the right brain, but his language centre is in the left brain. So instead of reading it, he actually stands up. He doesn’t know why, but when asked, he says it’s because he’s cold and wants to fetch a jumper. His brain has told him a story to make sense of his action.
We rely on memory to make sense of the present. You can’t piece together a broken statue head, if it isn’t laid down in your memory what a head looks like. To some extent, what we see is what we’ve seen before.
What we gain from distance, perhaps, temporal and spatial, is the ability to construct a narrative out of the whole mess of crap.
Silence and time and lighting candles. I do this. The Guardian writer talks about sitting with God, but I’m there with myself. On the pew I remember sitting on as a child. In the church where I took my first communion. Or as often, along the creek in Castleton, with the little window selling Bradwell’s rum & raisin. I’m not sure I like rum & raisin, but it sounds dangerous. I think I’d always choose it. And if I don’t believe in a continuous soul, I’m grateful for the illusion. For the story that lets me make sense of myself.
Stood facing the cavern’s black mouth with the last blue rays snagged on limestone, I look up at the crevice-nests, feathers flickering in the wind. I stand a long time, till the light that offered something like courage is snuffed, the moment gone with the fleeing birds.
Melastoma. Purple flowers
if you eat the fruit
turns your tongue black
melas from the Greek for black
stoma the Greek
for mouth. Melastoma.
That’s what it’s like to confess. Have you ever made something up just to say to the priest, walked him through some black-lit story of covet and names in vain? And how long has it been since your last confession? Right there, in the corner of some backstreet cathedral, tealight bidding prayers blowing in the sanctified cross-breeze. There between the Virgin and a copy of Cafod Weekly. But all that forgiveness. Facing the cavern’s black mouth, I flake halfway through the Our Fathers to keep from being absolved.
On what would have been Chopin’s sixtieth birthday, all the major philharmonic orchestras, from the Royal Society to the Musikverein in Vienna, programmed an evening of music, so that each would play the “Minute Waltz” at precisely 7pm GMT. Alexander Graham Bell was in the London audience. In order to play some of Chopin’s most intricate pieces, two pianos were required on stage. As the first pianist warmed up, Bell noticed the second piano vibrate. Struck by the beauty of the two pianos vibrating across space, and less literally, but with equal grace, across Europe, Bell wondered about the human voice, how wonderful it would be …
Almost a century later, the composer and pianist Raymond Scott hoped of a time when there would be no need for musicians, only the composer, sitting on stage, able to think his creation directly into the minds of the listeners, untouched, and therefore, unspoilt, by the mediation of players (Not “a people person”, Kleinzahler says). To have what you wanted to say heard and understood, as you meant it to be heard and understood. That’s the dream. Unless it isn’t. What if we only had Hoagy Carmichael on stage thinking out his perfect, only, unmediated version of “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)”?
In one of my favourite Kleinzahler poems, “A History of Western Music: Chapter 4”, Father Castel develops his “Clavecin Pour Les Yeux”:
and twenty years later, on the 21st of December, 1755, the day of Saint Thomas, patron saint of the Incredulous and Harpsichords, this learned Jesuit, who had out an invitation to fifty persons of rank, some from abroad, lighted not less than one hundred candles […] the Father demonstrated, in a mere half hour of playing, the marvel of his creation: that when C is heard, blue will be seen; when red is seen, E will be heard. And that the chiaroscuro will answer to the grave D
In the second part of the poem “Clavecin Pour Le Voyage”, Migrenne, “not content with the Father’s ‘pretty divagations’”, aspired “to sit down at his instrument and illuminate the entire map of the world”:
Clouds he would color myrrh, sometimes crimson, or for variety an agate or pigeon neck. Smoke, sails, and flags were always blue bice, and castles red-lead. Of trees, some he made grass green, others burnt umber. Rome was pale rose and ocher […] Brazil was pink and blue and red, like parrots. Meadows straw color. The sea a pale celadon.
It’s a visual representation of sound, a temporal invocation of place. Migrenne uses music as Kleinzahler uses words, placing “a prism over this world, in order to color it with his playing, visiting any one place only so long as the reverberation of a single plucked string.” And the listener and the reader are there in this imagined space, mediated by the musician/poet, and by their own longing to be elsewhere.
Yes, I read that St Augustine confessed to stealing pears. His regret was that he’d stolen them without appreciating them, their taste and beauty. That he took them because he could. At least WCW ate the plums. Did you know in China, the word for pear is the same as the word for separation? That for this reason, you should never split a pear with your lover? I confess to spinning a lie. About Chopin and his inspiring A.G. Bell. The truth’s rarely as simple as the stories we tell.
I fly home Friday. Feels weird.
Angelina D’Roza’s debut collection Envies the Birds is out now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book.