Category Archives: Poetry

A poem for Macmillan

This is the poem I was invited to write for the Macmillan carol concert held at Leeds Minster on 18 December 2013. I’ll leave it up here over the festive season. If you would like to donate to Macmillan, you can do so here.

Turning Point

In the rush and the push of shopping and preparation,
Just stop occasionally and think of what this celebration
Is really all about. And I don’t just mean religion,
Because the origin of marking solstice goes back
To Neolithic times – so this is not just something mythical.
In fact, it’s astronomical, both in significance and the
Way the planets dance around the sun.

This festival is not by chance; as the sun sets in the west
Around the twenty-first, our world is at its darkest point,
The earth’s trajectory about to be reversed.
Hectic festivities mark the sun’s decline,
Yet winter cold and murk can feel the worst of times.
Darkness can take many forms – it’s not just physical,
It can be political or fiscal, universal or personal;
It can be self-inflicted and predictable, or take us
Completely by surprise, hit us right between the eyes…
No-one can ever tell; darkness can be utter hell.

Yet there are universal rules that will apply:
First, we never know our darkest point until it’s passed,
Until at last we sense a corner has been turned
And some small ray of hope shines through the gloom.
Second, if our darkness makes us feel entombed
Then we together have to find that light,
No matter how we might conceive that it could be –
Because light can mean whatever sets us free.

So all those coloured bulbs outside –
Santas, reindeer, snowmen, even owls * –
Illuminating gloomy winter nights
Are also a symbolic light reminding us how
Melancholic times will end one day. So I say this:
Gaze on those bright lights – the reds, the greens, the blues,
Discern what it could be that they might mean for you.
This time of year, we celebrate; but many yearn
To see the spring – well, here’s the thing:
Remember, when those Christmas lights come down at last,
The world has turned – the darkest moment of the year
Has passed.

©  December 2013
* Owls feature on the City of Leeds coat of arms, and appear on several civic buildings.

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Farewell to Wickedness

It’s over. At an end. Wicked Words is no more; it has ceased to be, it is an ex-spoken word event – and other such Pythonesque clichés…

I’m not sure it’s quite sunk in yet. That was the phrase commonly heard from friends in Seven Arts around 10.30pm on Wednesday, 4 December 2013. Friends who I wouldn’t have met had it not been for Wicked Words; fellow poets I feel proud to call my friends.

Turn the clock back a little over two years. I was doing a Creative Writing course at Leeds University and my then tutor and now friend Cath Nichols suggested a good way of broadening poetic horizons was to seek out local open-mic events – maybe even take part! I sought them out, and realised that, actually, there weren’t that many in Leeds; one stood out in my online search results, though. Described as “Leeds’ longest-running spoken word event” held in Chapel Allerton on the first Wednesday of the month, it was, of course, Wicked Words.

Those who know me well will understand that venturing somewhere new, especially alone, is not easy for me to do, yet I found the courage to go along one particular Wednesday night in early 2011, I think it was. I found a table in the dark near the back of the room, spoke to no-one and scuttled away quickly at the end. Yet I left impressed. Impressed by a certain warmth pervading the evening that I hadn’t expected, by the charisma, humour and general leaping about by one Brendan McPartlan, organiser and compère; impressed by the poetry and the poets who read it, and by how everyone seemed to know each other. I realised I’d discovered something special and wanted to be part of it – the problem was that I felt like the child in the school playground who sees everyone else having fun, but doesn’t quite know how to go about asking to join in…

I was a ‘lurker’ at Wicked Words for longer than I care to admit. In the meantime I’d begun reading at open-mic nights over in Manchester and the North-West, encouraged by friends I’d made in that neck of the woods, so by the time I plucked up the courage to request a slot at Wicked Words I was at least no longer a performance virgin. Also, I’d got to know a few people on the Leeds poetry scene through writing workshops, who also went to Wicked Words – so I knew I wouldn’t be walking into a room full of strangers anymore.

Once I’d taken the plunge I felt welcomed instantly; not only welcomed, but encouraged, supported – made to feel part of a kind of family. There was no turning back. I did a few open-mic slots, and then was flattered and privileged that, as a relative newcomer, Brendan first of all invited me to perform a support slot to the wonderful Tony Walsh, and then recently enquired if I’d like to take part in the final night’s celebration by joining his ‘Wicked Words All-Stars’ on stage; it was an honour to be asked.

The last-ever Wicked Words was something special – an affirmation of everything this night has meant to Leeds for the past ten years, a celebration of Brendan’s hard work, massive effort and sheer enthusiasm put in to make it so. Luke Wright headlined and so had the honour of being the final poet to be heard at Wicked Words, but I’m sure Luke won’t mind me saying that on this occasion the events of the first-half took precedence, and tonight Brendan McPartlan was the real star.

Particular mention must be made here of the unstinting efforts of Greg White in making sure Wicked Words and Brendan had the best possible send-off. I can’t begin to imagine how much time Greg has put in over the past three months or so compiling and producing the one-off anthology Past Wickedness as a farewell gift to Brendan, also the hours spent folding origami birds out of coloured paper – one given to each audience member – on which was printed Greg’s poem Undone, its poignant message reminding us that whatever follows, nothing will ever be quite the same as Wicked Words ever again. Thank you Greg – and I hope you find a good use for the bird-cage!

Brendan’s collaborative poem Words of Advice from my Grandfather was a joy to hear and to be a part of, along with Matthew Hedley Stoppard, Noel Whittall, Greg White, Jonathan Eyre, John Hepworth, Chris Stephenson, Tim Ellis, Sandra Burnett and Jane Kite. I hope that one positive consequence of Wicked Words’ demise is that, now freed from the role of compère, we’ll hear much more of Brendan’s sharp and witty poetry on the spoken-word circuit in Leeds and beyond.

So that’s it – the end of an era. I’ve no doubt that a phoenix will rise – Seven Arts is too good a venue to be lost to spoken-word events – but there will never be another Wicked Words. It’s hard to explain how much it’s meant for me; I’ve loved the poetry, made friends, new opportunities have opened up… but above all, even though a relative latecomer, through Wicked Words I’ve been made to feel welcomed into the Leeds poetry scene, and privileged to be part of something really special.

Thank you Wicked Words, and thank you especially Brendan.

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Some more seasonal poetry…

Smile

Universities and schools all back,
No slack in the system now;
Remember – no-one takes holidays
In November or December.
Roads are jammed, buses rammed
With bodies wrapped in scarves and boots,
Car horns hoot in frustration, drivers express
Vexation at delays. Journeys take twice
Their normal duration – and that’s not nice.
Still, the season of goodwill lies
Just around the bend – a time for friends
And frivolity; so forget the jams, think of
All the jollity to come. Remember – in the end
It’s all worthwhile, so on those cold dark mornings
Don’t wait to be told; turn to a stranger
And – without warning – simply…
SMILE.

© 2013

 

Seasoning at Work

So we’re in the season of huddles and fuddles,
Of team goodwill and Christmas cheer,
As cakes and mince pies add inches
To waists and thighs – yes, it’s that time of year.
Tinsel and baubles will soon appear,
As Secret Santa comes out of his closet
And bonhomie resounds around the place.
The songs of Slade and Wizzard – all that brigade –
Will invade our ears from now until the New Year’s here,
But don’t be too dismayed – it won’t last long,
And before you know it, the tinsel, pies, the songs
Will all be gone but – if you agree –
What say we keep the bonhomie?

© 2013

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Seasonal poetry

Thought it was time I posted some more poetry. This is a (rather pessimistic) seasonal offering…

The November Judgement

I sentence you
To four months’ hard labour
Imprisoned by gloom and darkness,
Surrounded by misty, cold grey days.

Joviality will be tolerated
Only during organised association and recreation
That will mark the half-way point of your sentence;
After this, daylight will be strictly rationed
But brightness will be slowly increased,
And you may be allowed a little colour and warmth.

You should know there can be no leniency
Or remission, as, by the powers vested in me,
The sentence must run its full term;
It is The Law.
All are condemned to endure
The same dull monotony;
All must suffer equally.

This, though, is not an indeterminate sentence;
Each slow day will pass and in good time
You will be sprung from the murk,
Released, rehabilitated – hopefully
More appreciative
Of the light and warmth and freedom
That you took so much for granted
While you had it.
Take him down.

© 2013

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What’s in a name?

“If you ask me my name, take the time to spell it correctly. Take the time to learn to say it correctly, and I’ll do the same with yours.” ~   Icess Fernandez Rojas (Journalist), in response to Starbucks’ practice of writing its customer names on cups – and getting it wrong a lot of the time…

Names

My name is not the same as yours;
Yours is not the same as mine.
So when you ask my name, take time to
Find out how to say it as I like it to be said.
Take time to spell it as I like it to be spelled
And I’ll make sure I tell you how.

Take time and treat my name with some esteem;
Accept my name the way it seems,
Don’t stare at me looking all quizzical;
It’s a name, not something metaphysical.

If you’ve found that it sounds strange to you
Then please – don’t guess at what you’ve heard
Or write down something quite absurd –
A name that certainly isn’t mine,
Take time, and ask me how it’s spelled,
And if you can’t tell first time around
Then ask again, and listen to its sound;
Listen to me, and watch my lips,
Listen to how I carefully pronounce
The vowels, spell out consonants;
It’s important that we get names right,
So take time, all our names are personal;
They may be easy or exceptionally
Difficult to say or spell; some may seem unusual
To you, but every person’s name is precious.

Names should not be objects to be mocked
Or slighted because you can’t be arsed
To get it right; maybe you find it comical –
Reminds you crudely of parts anatomical –
Or conjures innuendo in your mind –
Because I mind, – it winds me up
Because my name belongs to me,
As much a part of my identity,
As how I look, the way I speak and
Where I’m from; names don’t make us freaks,
So don’t tell me my name sounds odd because – guess what?
I’ve had it all my life, so to me – it’s not!

And this is not about pretention or being politically correct,
I simply want to mention that names are things
That we should treat with much, much more respect.

© 2013

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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Writing Group

I’ve been messing with this poem for months. Every time I open it I seem to make changes, so I thought it time to go public with this draft. If you couldn’t guess, it’s after Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Written from experience? I couldn’t possibly say…

Maybe thirteen isn’t enough.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Writing Group

(after Wallace Stevens)

 

1.
A platform for demonstrating
Academic background
And hence, superior intellect.

2.
She wrings her hands and apologises
Profusely for sub-standard work
That no-one could ever possibly
Want to read.

3.
Repressed anger and
Suppressed inhibitions
Explode from the page;
Debris is scattered everywhere.

4.
Of course, I only speak well of everyone’s work;
That way I hope I’ll hear only
Good things
About my own.

5.
D-e-n-s-e
Diff-
-icult
CoMpLex;
Hidden depths of the poet’s mind
Remain
Well-hidden.

6.
He makes frequent, obscure
Literary references,
Subversively deriding
Those less well-read than himself.

7.
F**k!
C**t!
T**t!
Sideways glances of outrage and disgust,
Then silence;
No-one dare complain:
We’re all open-minded here…

8.
Arguments about punctuation
Punctuate the evening;
Get to the point.

9.
Nod and smile politely,
Accept feedback gracefully;
Say and change nothing.
Submit the same next time.

10.
The merest hint of criticism
Is defended furiously;
He passionately explains
The obvious points
Everyone has missed.

11.
Chat convivially and persistently
About anything
Other than writing.

12.
New members must be published to keep
Our high quality untainted.
Next item: dwindling membership…

13.
Group therapy that reaches
The parts counsellors
Have failed
To reach.

© 2013

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