Monday, 31 March 2014

Tuesday Poem - Sometimes a Wild God . . . Tom Hirons

Sometimes a wild god comes to the table.
He is awkward and does not know the ways
Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver.
His voice makes vinegar from wine.
When the wild god arrives at the door,
You will probably fear him.
He reminds you of something dark
That you might have dreamt,
Or the secret you do not wish to be shared.

He will not ring the doorbell;
Instead he scrapes with his fingers
Leaving blood on the paintwork,
Though primroses grow
In circles round his feet.

You do not want to let him in.
You are very busy.
It is late, or early, and besides…
You cannot look at him straight
Because he makes you want to cry.

The dog barks.
The wild god smiles,
Holds out his hand.
The dog licks his wounds
And leads him inside.

The wild god stands in your kitchen.
Ivy is taking over your sideboard;
Mistletoe has moved into the lampshades
And wrens have begun to sing
An old song in the mouth of your kettle.

‘I haven’t much,’ you say
And give him the worst of your food.
He sits at the table, bleeding.
He coughs up foxes.
There are otters in his eyes.

When your wife calls down,
You close the door and
Tell her it’s fine.
You will not let her see
The strange guest at your table.

The wild god asks for whiskey
And you pour a glass for him,
Then a glass for yourself.
Three snakes are beginning to nest
In your voice-box. You cough.

Oh, limitless space.
Oh, eternal mystery.
Oh, endless cycles of death and birth.
Oh, miracle of life.
Oh, the wondrous dance of it all.

You cough again,
Expectorate the snakes and
Water down the whiskey,
Wondering how you got so old
And where your passion went.

The wild god reaches into a bag
Made of moles and nightingale-skin.
He pulls out a two-reeded pipe,
Raises an eyebrow
And all the birds begin to sing.

The fox leaps into your eyes.
Otters rush from the darkness.
The snakes pour through your body.
Your dog howls and upstairs
Your wife both exults and weeps at once.

The wild god dances with your dog.
You dance with the sparrows.
A white stag pulls up a stool
And bellows hymns to enchantments.
A pelican leaps from chair to chair.

In the distance, warriors pour from their tombs.
Ancient gold grows like grass in the fields.
Everyone dreams the words to long-forgotten songs.
The hills echo and the grey stones ring
With laughter and madness and pain.

In the middle of the dance,
The house takes off from the ground.
Clouds climb through the windows;
Lightning pounds its fists on the table.
The moon leans in through the window.

The wild god points to your side.
You are bleeding heavily.
You have been bleeding for a long time,
Possibly since you were born.
There is a bear in the wound.

‘Why did you leave me to die?’
Asks the wild god and you say:
‘I was busy surviving.
The shops were all closed;
I didn’t know how. I’m sorry.’

Listen to them:

The fox in your neck and
The snakes in your arms and
The wren and the sparrow and the deer…
The great un-nameable beasts
In your liver and your kidneys and your heart…

There is a symphony of howling.
A cacophony of dissent.
The wild god nods his head and
You wake on the floor holding a knife,
A bottle and a handful of black fur.

Your dog is asleep on the table.
Your wife is stirring, far above.
Your cheeks are wet with tears;
Your mouth aches from laughter or shouting.
A black bear is sitting by the fire.

Sometimes a wild god comes to the table.
He is awkward and does not know the ways
Of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver.
His voice makes vinegar from wine
And brings the dead to life.

© Tom Hirons (Coyopa)
Small Lightnings 2012
Shared, with permission, from Tom Hirons' blog which you can find at

This poem is a lament for what we have lost and a celebration of the natural world we are part of.  I love it!  Tom Hirons' poetry is often associated with the Dark Mountain project, which he defines as 'a broad set of creative responses to the ongoing collapse of civilisation-as-we-know-it.'  His blog, Small Lightnings, is well worth a look. He lives on Dartmoor, England, with the artist Rima Staines.

And why not hop over to the Tuesday Poem hub to see what the other Tuesday Poets are posting? It's the 4th birthday of the Tuesday Poem group and we're celebrating by posting a collaboration, which is all about food . . . 

Saturday, 29 March 2014

A big wind in Trieste (and James Joyce!)

I always thought that Wellington, New Zealand, was the windiest city in the world, but Trieste tops it by several knots.  The wind comes in off the Adriatic and swirls through the streets as if through canyons and blows hard across the wide piazzas.  People's hats go flying - table cloths lift and flap from cafe tables - and drifts of paper scraps and plastic cups eddy and dance in invisible air currents. Neil lost 10 euros while trying to pay the waitress in the water-side bar and a glass of wine blew over in a sudden gust.  There are hand-rails on the bridges for people to cling on to as they cross.

Trieste is a fabulous city.  On the waterfront the massive buildings tell the story of a wealthy trading nation - insurance, banking, ship registration, a Borsa and a chamber of commerce.  Most of them date from the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  Further back are the more modest houses of the ship owners and Captains in narrow streets with quiet piazzas where you can find buskers like this.

There's also a wonderful Roman theatre in the centre of the town.

On the top of the hill, more Roman ruins and a 1st century church.  We climbed to the top of the tower where the medieval bells still hang

and there are spectacular views out over the city to the borders of Slovenia.

I couldn't resist doing the thing everybody does with James Joyce, whose statue is on one of the bridges.  According to the inscription, he wrote to his wife that he had left his soul in Trieste. They are looking after it well - there are James Joyce bars, restaurants and  a Joycean city trail.

At the centre of several different cultures, Trieste also serves different faiths - there's a synagogue, an English church, a multitude of Catholic churches and an Orthodox church - San Spiridione.  This was very impressive on the outside, with its domes and gilded mosaics, but also utterly beautiful inside too.

It all made up for the big adventure of driving into Trieste earlier in the day and discovering that the Sat Nav data base wasn't up to date with the current one way system.  'Jane' tried to get me to drive up every street the wrong way and had a hissy fit when I couldn't obey instructions that would have had me either arrested or hospitalised!  'Turn left in 18 yards' was followed by  'turn right', finally, 'turn around when possible' and then she went blank.   Probably drove down every street in the city at least once before giving up and parking at the kerb to walk to the hotel.

Teatro Verdi
While Neil took some photographs I went to the Piazza Verdi to look at the Verdi theatre and discovered that they were doing La Traviata that very night.  Not only that - there were some of the cheapest seats still vacant in the upper levels.  Neil and I had a mad moment and bought two, had a very quick snack instead of the dinner we'd promised ourselves and climbed to the top floor.  We could just see (and hear), but it was worth it for the experience.

The soprano and the tenor singing Violetta and Alfredo were very young, with light, sweet voices and it was a very well designed production.

It was an unexpected treat.  Fell into bed late and exhausted after driving 350 miles (on Italian roads), a blood-pressure raising tour of the city by sat-nav, walking further miles round the streets and then surviving 3 hours of opera on hard seats.  Tomorrow - Istria! 

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Off to Trieste and Istria

My clothes never seem to be able to settle in the wardrobe long enough these days.  Just trying to cram them into a suitcase again because we're off to Trieste tomorrow morning early, in the car.  It's a fascinating city on the very north-eastern edge of Italy - literally at the border of four cultures - Italy, northern Europe, the East and the old Slavic empire.  The Austro Hungarians possessed it, and the Ottomans, and it's currently Italian.  Really looking forward to exploring it.
Waterfront - Trieste

And then it's off to Istria - now part of Croatia, but once ruled by the Venetians.  We're staying at a place called Rovinj, but aiming to explore a big chunk of the countryside (if the car gets that far!). This is all fact checking for a new book, but also a mini holiday.  Neil's just finished a sculpture and we have a few days free.  I don't know how much Wi-fi we'll get in rural Croatia but I'll try to post some pictures on the way.
Rovinj - centro storico

Monday, 24 March 2014

A Tale of Two Gardens

I'm now back in Italy, getting my breath back after a hectic 3 weeks in England.  One of the disadvantages of living in two places is trying to keep pace with two gardens. The English one is quickly running away with me - so much rain and warm weather just encourage the weeds that flock in from the river bank without so much as an invitation!  I spent my last week digging one of the flower beds, completely strangled by ground elder, buttercup and nettle, in the hope that if I could get them early, they might not be so difficult to eradicate. This is the before

and this is the after

by means of fork and bucket (and a large bottle of Radox bath soak) .....   I can't tell you how many buckets of weed I had to cart off to the compost heap.  But there are still two flower beds waiting for me when I next go back and by then the pests will probably have reappeared in the first. I fear it is a losing battle but I'm not giving in without a fight!

Back in Italy, which has also had a warm, wet winter, the garden is weeks ahead of schedule.  The peony is already shaking out those huge top-heavy blooms

and the cherry tree is beginning to blossom

There are catkins on the edge of the woods - giant ones several inches long.

And, of course, flower beds to weed and plant.

This one now has lily bulbs and spider orchids buried under the soil, and a sprinkling of poppies, mallow, salvia and snap-dragon.  It will be interesting to see what survives the birds and the ants. Gardeners are always optimists!

No Tuesday Poem from me this week - it's just been too busy, but please hop over to the Tuesday Poem hub to see what the others are posting.  The  main poem this week is Tuatura from New Zealand poet Nola Borrell.  If you don't know what a Tuatura is or what they eat, then you need to find out! 

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Tuesday Poem: Excavating the Bones

We are excavating the bones
studying emotional geology,
reconstructing from nodes and fractures
an unfamiliar landscape we know
only from photographs, scraps of text,
torn pages from a life lived
beyond our knowledge.  We
finger the calcified digits,
a fragment of cloth, a brooch;
grave goods. But they are only
themselves, animated by our need
to articulate the skeleton,
colour in the blanks, bridge absences,
construct a narrative out of shards.

Copyright Kathleen Jones
Katherine Mansfield and the (Post) Colonial

My copy of Katherine Mansfield and the (Post) Colonial has just arrived on the doormat and it has some fascinating essays on Katherine Mansfield and particularly the new material which I was allowed, by her family, to use in order to write her biography. The family subsequently re-homed the manuscripts in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand so they are now available to the public.  Their collection contained many revelations about Katherine's writing life and some very poignant personal material which I was lucky enough to have first access to. It underlined just how much biographers have to rely on physical evidence - like archaeologists - and a missing fragment can crucially alter the picture you construct.

I wrote this sonnet at the Katherine Mansfield Conference at Ruzomberok in Slovakia - it's about biography, which is a sort of archaeology, and its limitations.  We can never really know.   There's also a lot of intuition involved - the phrase 'emotional geology' is the title of a wonderful novel by Linda Gillard and it really does describe the process of going down through the layers of personality from public to private in order to understand what motivated the subject fundamentally.

Why not pop over to the Tuesday Poem hub and see what the other Tuesday Poets are posting?  The hub poem this week is an off the wall post from Australian poet Zireaux.  It's called Bonsai by Cecily Barnes, who may or not be American, and which was previously published in Harper's Magazine. Enjoy!

Katherine Mansfield:  The Story-teller is available in hardback, paperback and as an e-book from all good bookshops and on  and

Monday, 17 March 2014

Katherine Mansfield in Japanese

I've been very curious to see what Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller would look like in Japanese and now I know.  I'm glad they've kept close to the original cover and the colour.  The book opens right to left and the text runs in columns up and down.

I can't read it, but it looks good.

Katherine Mansfield was fascinated by all things Japanese and had a Japanese doll that went everywhere with her.  And it seems the fascination was mutual - Katherine is very popular in Japan.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Norman Nicholson at Words by the Water

Words by the Water festival of books and ideas is always a lovely event.  It takes place in the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, with Derwentwater just a short stroll from the door, and this year the weather has been spectacular! Apart from the stunning scenery, there are lots of celebrities taking part - Michael Rosen (who was very, very funny), Princess Michael of Kent, Pat Barker, Melvyn Bragg, Blake Morrison and lots more.  But there's always room for more modest contributions.  Unlike many of the other big literature festivals Words by the Water invites independently published authors too.

On Sunday night they put on an event in the main theatre to celebrate Norman Nicholson's centenary.  I was invited to talk about the biography and poet Neil Curry, who edited Norman's collected poems for Faber, read some of the poetry before a showing of Melvyn Bragg's South Bank film.  The size of the event made me very nervous - would I remember what to say?  Would the powerpoint work?

We had a lovely audience, many of whom had known Norman, and they seemed to enjoy both the talk and the poetry reading. I was given some interesting anecdotes afterwards which  might go into the next edition of the book.  And lots of people bought the biography - there's nothing more comforting for an author than a queue at the signing table.  And nothing more depressing than sitting with pen poised to find that there are no people! Went home absolutely knackered, but very relieved.  

I will be buying lots of books as a result of meeting their authors at the festival - Michael Rosen's Alphabetical - on the history of the alphabet, and also Katie Waldegrave who has written a new book about the children of Wordsworth and Coleridge - The Poets' Daughters

Monday, 10 March 2014

Poetry in Progress - Haida Mythology

I was asked to be part of the Poetry section of The Writing Process blog tour by Abegail Morley (The Poetry Shed) - she has a fascinating account of what she's currently working on, and so does Robin Houghton  (PoetGal) who was also reading at the Albion Bookshop on Thursday.

Bill Reid - Raven Steals the Light

1. What am I working on at the moment?

For the past two years I've been exploring the mythology of the Haida First Nation people of Canada who lived on the islands called the Haida Gwaii - renamed by Europeans as the Queen Charlotte Islands. I'm particularly interested in the Raven creation myths and have been writing several poems based on these (some published in the Entanglements Anthology of Eco-poetry).  An anthropologist called John Reed Swanton visited the islands at the beginning of the 20th century, learned their language and wrote down as much of their oral literature as he had time for, so there's a big (until recently neglected) archive of stories and poems. The poet Robert Bringhurst has done a great deal of work on these and I found his book 'A Story as Sharp as a Knife' a life-changing book.  It may sound stupid but it was the first time I'd really thought about the fact that our ideas of poetics - language, structure and form - come from Europe and the East, and that there are alternative literary traditions we could be working with.
Bill Reid

I find Haida artwork particularly beautiful and I'm fascinated by the way their stories are told in images within it. There are two particularly wonderful Haida artists - one of them is Bill Reid, born in 1920.
And the other is a man whose European name was Charles Edenshaw, who was born in 1839, before European immigrants destroyed Haida culture.

Charles Edenshaw
There has just been a huge exhibition of his work in Vancouver, which I was gutted not to have been able to see. I've had to be content with the catalogue, which is a thing of beauty in itself.  His daughter Florence Edenshaw Davidson has a fascinating autobiography called During my Time:  A Haida Woman.

A chest carved from Argillite by Charles Edenshaw
2. How does my work differ from others?

There aren't many poets working with mythology in this particular way.  It's not re-translating or re-interpreting exactly, but exploring the mythologies for the things they can tell us that are relevant to our lives now. People who successfully lived off the land and sea in quite extreme conditions without destroying their environments have a lot to say about the way we live. One day we may have to go back to subsistence living and we may need the knowledge that they had. It's also a personal resistance to the 'givens' of the consumerist society that we live in now.  There's a disconnection with the natural world we depend on and are part of.  It's not a resource to be plundered and exploited - it's a life-capsule.  Ancient cultures understood this.

Bill Reid - Octopus

3. Why am I writing about this?

Part of the answer is above.  I'm concerned about how human beings can survive in the future; concerned about the world we're destroying.  But it's also because the Haida mythology has a fascination for me that I can't quite explain. I love their art work and I love their stories - many of which have cultural significance that has been lost, so there is a mystery at the heart of the story.  One of the stories involves Raven paddling out to steal vaginas for the women of the island, but after several attempts (when the men in the canoe are overcome with 'sweetness' and unable to function) a creature called 'fungus man' is tied into the stern of the canoe to operate the paddle. So the women got their vaginas.   This beautifully carved plate shows fungus man wide-eyed at the rear of the canoe and raven at the front.

4. How does the writing process work?

I write quite a lot of prose as well as poetry and it's not easy to find enough time for both.  With the Raven poems I have to spend time researching and reading before I can write, so I try to allocate blocks of space.  I've just been to the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford, which has an interesting collection of Haida artefacts, so I'm going to be working on some more poems from that in the next few weeks.  I really need to go to Canada to visit the islands, but I'd need a travel grant of some kind for that and arts grants aren't easy to get at the moment.

Next week two fellow members of The Tuesday Poets group are going to be talking about their work in progress.

Andrew Bell,  writes poetry, short fiction, plays, screenplays and non-fiction. His work has been published and broadcast in New Zealand/Aotearoa, Australia, England, Israel and USA. His most recent publications are Aotearoa Sunrise, a short story collection, and Clawed Rains, a poetry collection. Andrew lives in Christchurch with his wife and two sons and loves to surf. He blogs at

Keith Westwater is a poet who also lives in New Zealand and has a recent collection called Tongues of Ash.  He's currently working as a training manager for the Earthquake Commission in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Wine in a Beatnik Bookshop - Breakfast at Hogwarts

On Thursday night I was in Oxford for the launch of issue #55 of The Interpreter's House, now under new management - editor Martin Malone.  It's a cracking collection with contributions from Martin Figura, Ian McMillan, Mario Petrucci, Terry Jones and a mass of others including yours truly.

There was a full turn-out, and readers included Merryn Williams, Mavis Howard, Laura Burns, Sharon Black, fellow Cumbrian Helen Fletcher, Michael Henry and Robin Houghton.  A wide range of poetry and poets.

The Albion Beatnik Bookshop in Walton St is one of those Serendipity places where you're likely to find the most unusual and surprising books on almost any subject.  And it does great poetry readings - with wine!

We stayed overnight in Keble College, courtesy of University Rooms - a site that allows you to book vacant student rooms at a very reasonable price (B&B starts at £30).   Keble is one of the 'modern' colleges, founded in the 19th century with strong links to the Oxford Movement - Edward Pusey, Cardinal Newman and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The Chapel is very imposing ( a Frenchman is supposed to have remarked 'It is very beautiful, but it is a railway station, n'est ce pas?).  Breakfast was like dining at Hogwarts!!

Keble is right next to the fantastic Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford where I spent a manic couple of hours looking at Haida artifacts before boarding the train to come back 'up north' for the opening party of the Words by the Water Festival in Keswick, where I'm 'doing' Norman Nicholson at 7.30pm on Sunday night. Er ... Tomorrow....? Time to write the talk then ........

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The Wordsworth Bookshop - a great independent!

What would we do without independent bookshops?  Most of them are wonderful - crammed with books you won't find anywhere else, with comfortable nooks and crannies you can browse in and even coffee and cakes to consume while you read the stock. Many of them also run excellent author events, and I always look forward to these, because the owners are usually passionate about books.

Last night the Wordsworth Bookshop in Penrith asked me to do a talk on Norman Nicholson and The Sun's Companion with some poetry thrown in.  There was wine and cupcakes in the interval - all in front of glowing log fire. Some author events in bookshops are very impersonal, but this was a very warm welcome from Andrea and Jon.  A lovely, friendly audience to talk to and I came away with the most beautiful bunch of flowers, having sold some books.  Thank you!

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Sun's Companion on Create Space

A box of books was waiting for me when I got back to England a few days ago - 25 copies of The Sun's Companion which we've just printed with Create Space.  We thought about doing a paperback copy of the novel for quite a while before we made the decision.  For previous paperbacks we've used big Trade printers such as Biddles (in Norfolk) and CPI Antony Rowe.  They do a very professional job but they're expensive and you have to order copies up front which sit in boxes in your store room looking at you despondently while they're waiting for someone to order them.  So we decided to go for print-on-demand and to try Create Space since there are - literally - no costs for publication.

I was rather worried about the quality of the finished product, but so many other authors are using Create Space I reassured myself that it would be ok.  And it is.  The books are lovely - beautifully printed and put together.  We chose to  typeset the novel ourselves rather than simply upload a Word doc, and this caused my partner Neil a few headaches.  He did it in InDesign which allowed him to choose the exact look of it and put in fancy title pages.  Then he exported it to PDF and we uploaded the file to Amazon.  It took about 5 goes before we got it right.  Once they've accepted the file you can either download proofs and print them out yourself (no charge for this) or order page proofs from Amazon for a small charge.  We just printed out the file and found that quite satisfactory.  This is what the title page looks like inside, with the Book Mill logo at the top.

In future we'd probably go for a slightly different format, a matt cover and cream paper, but for The Sun's Companion we needed this particular format in order to avoid a book with too many pages.  The more pages you have the more expensive the book is for purchasers. The format you choose on Create Space dictates what kind of paper and cover is available.  Overall we're really pleased with the result, which is now on sale in the Amazon store on both sides of the Atlantic at a very reasonable price for a novel of 460 pages - £9.99  in the UK or $13.85 in the USA.  And it didn't cost us anything to have it printed.  The copies I've ordered are mostly to give away or for review purposes. Local bookshops are asking if they can stock it, so I'll be ordering more copies from Amazon to sell here. Author copies are quite reasonably priced too, even with added carriage costs.

Printing with Create Space has been a very good experience and we'll certainly be doing it again.

The Sun's Companion

The Sun's Companion