Extract from ‘Just You and the Page’ by Sue Gee

This post features an extract from the opening chapter of Just You and the Page by Sue Gee. Part biography, part memoir, she has interviewed twelve distinctly different writers about their craft. As she examines what has shaped them and their careers, several themes emerge: struggle, inspiration, dedication, and above all, resilience.

Just You and the Page: Encounters with Twelve Writers. Michael Wall, Penelope Lively, Hilary Davies, Anna Burns, Ruth Pavey, Afra, Marek Mayer, Roy Strong, Charles Palliser, Anthony Wood, Darragh Martin, Josie Barnard. Sue Gee.

Just You and the Page opens in 1971, with the dramatist Michael Wall hammering out his plays on a portable typewriter. It concludes in 2020, when the novelist and academic Josie Barnard is teaching students to compose novels on Instagram. Between them are Booker prize winners; a poet whose life was changed by a profound religious conversion; a translator for whom Pushkin has meant everything; a distinguished environmental journalist; a famous diarist; a nature writer who restored a wood, and a political activist who fled her country and is writing now in exile. The perfect gift for aspiring writers this Christmas.

At New Year in 1972 I answered an advertisement and moved from an attic room to a rambling great flat overlooking Highbury Fields, north London. I was living with six strangers, who became close friends: all of us young and idealistic, thinking of money as a necessity, not an end in itself.

It was a turning point in my life, an exceptionally vivid period, and I always knew that one day I would want to write about it. Just You and the Page began as a novel about that time and place but it didn’t work, and one person in particular refused to turn into a fictional character: he was too vividly himself. This was the dramatist Michael Wall, who became the subject of a long essay: this, I found, was a form that worked.

In the end, commissioned by Mick Felton, Seren’s publishing director, I wrote twelve essays, exploring the life and work of writer friends I’ve known for a long time. Some are famous. All, working within different genres, are distinctive. But it is Michael Wall, brilliant, idiosyncratic and very funny, who opens the book.

Sue Gee

Michael Wall outside The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 1989.
Michael Wall outside The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 1989.

The Dramatist: Michael Wall

‘When I write, I want to smash through something – lack of feeling, indifference, cruelty. I’m shocked by callousness or indifference.’

I

Someone is talking to himself in the bath. It seems that a soldier has returned from the front to find his wife in the arms of another man.

‘But what ees zis?’

Falsetto: ‘I vas going to write you a letter, darling.’

There follows much laughter, and splashing about, then the taps are turned on and the geyser roars. Eavesdropping on the long dark landing outside the bathroom door, I can’t hear what became of this doomed wartime couple, though I’m dying to know.

It is the spring of 1972. We are still in the age of the geyser, and the dreaded pilot light. We are deep in the age of Time Out, with its yards of small ads, and five of the seven of us now sharing a vast two-floor flat on Highbury Fields, north London, have each answered one. We’ve been through a long selection process, as Clare and Anna, old university friends, made their choices.

We each have an airy bedroom. I paint mine purple. With a lowly job in publishing, I’ve come from a tiny attic in a rambling, run-down place overlooking Hampstead Heath, even larger than the one in which I now find myself, sharing with six people I’m getting to know.

Clare – dark curly hair, appealing blue gaze – has a much more impressive job in publishing. It’s the age of Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape, and she’s copy-editing The Rachel Papers, a first novel by someone called Martin Amis. ‘He’s Kingsley’s son.’ She’s also proof-read Kingsley himself. ‘He won’t let you change a comma.’

Anna has a Pre-Raphaelite cloud of red hair and lovely skin; she’s teaching at Goldsmith’s College, right across the city. Cultural studies, though it wasn’t called that then.

Who else have she and Clare selected to live here?

Jackie is a potter, tiny, pale, with wistful-looking dark brown eyes. Improbably, she has married Jay, a tall, lanky American photographer, who yodels at the kitchen sink and at thirty is older by far than any of us.

Patrick is a post-graduate art student, treating his bedroom as a studio. Tall and loose-limbed, with long curly hair and a gorgeous smile, he spends hours listening to music with Mike: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Pink Floyd.

It is Mike who talks to himself in the bath. He talks to himself all the time: we can hear him trying out scenes in his room. Brought up on a council estate in Hereford, he left school at sixteen and is the only one of us without a job, living on toast and the dole, and announcing himself as a writer.

There are books on his shelves by writers I barely know, or have never heard of: Jean Genet, Richard Brautigan. On the table there’s a heap of manuscripts in ancient folders. There’s also a chess set, spirited away from his last job: a packer in a giftshop factory. On Sunday afternoons, he teaches me to play. He’s good, and chess means a lot to him.

Mike is of middle height, tow-haired, with little round specs and a moustache. There’s something of E.M. Forster about his appearance. His clothes are ordinary – jeans and old shirts and jumpers – but he has a wine-coloured velvet jacket for special occasions. Wearing this, with newly-washed hair, he’s adorable.

The first time we kiss, the morning after a party, I remark upon the moustache – and is that a bit of a denture? He tells me that he lost a number of teeth while hitch-hiking in Europe without a toothbrush. It’s not until much later that he reveals that he was born with a cleft palate and a hare-lip: the shaggy moustache conceals the scar; the denture hides the wounded, toothless palate.

I have forgotten the cat. The cat is lithe and black and adopts us from who knows where. It’s Mike who gives him his name: Spassky, after the Russian chess champion. It is Mike who puts him down on the electoral roll as a merchant seaman.

But he’s a serious person. ‘I can’t see the point of life without writing,’ he said once.

It’s Mike who will be the first of us to die.

This essay about those distant Highbury days is about him.

It’s about you, Mike, after all this time.

Excerpt taken from pages 15-17 of Just You and the Page.

Just You and the Page is available on the Seren website: £12.99.

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Guest Post – Polly Atkin: On Co-Tenancy 

In Much With Body I wanted to write into and around the relationship between us – as individuals, as humans – and the ecosystems we live in. I wanted explore to what Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara call the ‘contingency between environments and bodies’ that is central to disability poetics, with a focus on the particular environment I have made my home.[1] In many ways this is an extension of conversations begun in my previous collection, Basic Nest Architecture, which revolve around questions of belonging, of location and dislocation, of co-habitation, of what it is to live in a sick body in an ailing world. I’ve always found it difficult to separate myself from my environment, to draw a clear line or apprehend a solid barrier between me and the rest of the world, to be certain what is internal or external. This sense of permeability, coupled with a complicated sense of bodily risk, determines all of my encounters with the world, all of my movements through it.

Photo of a deer on a hillside.

I wanted to bring that sense of permeability into these poems – from those drawn from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Rydal Journals, that place rain and pain in parallel, both leaching in an out of the body – to the poems about the frogs and toads who come into our house every summer. We are none of us able to call ourself separate from one another.

Photo of a frog

There is a kind of eco-poetry, and a broader kind of nature writing, that wants to remove the human observer from the observation, to cut out the body of the writer from the writing. It sees the human as degrading the nonhuman, as distracting, diverting essential attention. I can’t help seeing this tendency in nature writing to blot out the body of the writer as coupled to the tendency Virginia Woolf writes about in her essay ‘On Being Ill’ to present the body as a clear pane of glass to see the world through. I am not a clear pane of glass. My noisy, interrupting body never lets me forget its presence. As Woolf writes, ‘all day, all night, the body intervenes’. To me the relationship between the intervening body and the other outside is the poem. To pretend otherwise is the distraction.

Photo of an owl amongst the branches of a tree.

I wanted to bring the intervention of the body into the foreground of these poems, whether they are centred on an encounter with a deer, or an owl that won’t be photographed, or a disappearing hospital, or the body’s internal machinations. I cannot write an owl, but I can write myself observing an owl, what observing it in my body gives me, what the co-presence of our bodies in the same space does, what it changes, what it enables. I wanted to write about co-habitation, about co-tenancy of a shared home, whether that is a woodland, society, or our bodies. Luckily for me, my co-tenants were obliging.

Polly Atkin

This cover shows a painting of a swimmer floating on her back in a blue green lake.

Much With Body is the startlingly original second collection by poet Polly Atkin. The beauty of the Lake District is both balm and mirror, refracting pain and also soothing it with distraction. Much of the landscape is lakescape, giving the book a watery feel, the author’s wild swimming being just one kind of immersion. There is also a distinct link with the past in a central section of found poems taken from transcripts of the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, from a period late in her life when she was often ill. In common with the works of the Wordsworths, these poems share a quality of the metaphysical sublime. Their reverence for the natural world is an uneasy awe, contingent upon knowledge of our fragility and mortality.

Polly Atkin’s latest collection Much With Body is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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[1] Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara, ‘Introduction’, in Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities Toward an Eco- Crip Theory, ed by Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2017), p.1.

Friday Poem – ‘6. That a man approached you in a nightclub’ by Kim Moore

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘6. That a man approached you in a nightclub’ by Kim Moore from her new collection All The Men I Never Married.

This cover shows a collage of small nature images to make up the pink body of a man again a black background.

All The Men I Never Married, Kim Moore’s eagerly awaited second collection, is pointedly feminist, challenging and keenly aware of the contradictions and complexities of desire. The 48 numbered poems take us through a gallery of exes and significant others where we encounter rage, pain, guilt, and love.

6.

That a man approached you in a nightclub.
That you were polite at first, then turned your back.
That he insisted on giving you his number.
That you put it in your pocket.
That you danced with your friend all night.
That he stood and watched.
That you were drinking tequila.
That you licked salt from the back of your hand.
That he was waiting outside.
That he grabbed your arm and spun you round.
That you snapped.
That you’ve always had a temper.
That you were not afraid.
That you swung your fist and clipped his jaw.
That he kicked you between the legs.
That he shouted I will end you.
That you fell to the pavement.
That he tried to kick you again.
That a bouncer came and held him back.
That he shouted I will end you, I will end you, I will end you. 
That the police were called.
That he vanished into the night.
That you were taken to the station.
That he turned up with his lawyer.
That he turned up with his father.
That you still hadn’t sobered up.
That he was smirking.
That it was fresher’s week.
That you were in pain.
That it was hard to explain about his number in your pocket. That now you were afraid.
That you were advised not to press charges.
That you hit him first.
That this all happened many years ago.
That you laugh about it now.
That you say well, I shouldn’t have hit him.
That I both agree and disagree with this statement.
That being our bodies in public is a dangerous thing.
That being in public is a dangerous thing.
That our bodies are dangerous things.

All The Men I Never Married is available on the Seren website: £9.99

Join us for the hybrid launch of All The Men I Never Married on Friday 15th October. The in person event at Castle Green Hotel in Kendal will be streamed live online. Register through Eventbrite here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/172062632967. Registration for in person tickets closes at 4pm today (8 Oct).

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Friday Poem – ‘Or With Open Window’ by Rosalind Hudis

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Or With Open Window’ by Rosalind Hudis from her most recent collection Restorations. Rosalind was recently shortlisted for the Gladstone’s Writers in Residence Award 2022. Judging will take place in October.

Restorations Rosalind Hudis. "If a poem is like a picture, these are history paintings, rich in human detail and many-layered in their brushwork" Matthew Francis

Inspired by the art restorer’s keen eye and by a vivid empathy for people and events, Restorations, is a journey through memory. Suffused with colour, inspired by thoughts of people and places, by artefacts and how the passage of time shifts perspectives and erodes surfaces, these poems are beautifully complex explorations, full of curiosity and the adventure of seeing and listening.

Or With Open Window
A Corner of the Artist’s Studio in Paris by Gwen John

If she could agree to be this room
or the other. Possibility pleats her.
Not there, her outline sealed,
but spreading, invisible, in two takes:
One corner, one window, netted
unnetted, above a table
that’s the still crossfire
where her looking springs out
from an open book or coils back
into a crease of wired flowers.
On a white chair her blue coat streams
labile, could let her slide
through each frame. Even this one
where the window is closed,
hard edges inside
a stockade of angles.
Or with Open Window:
the room’s misted; sharp
in the distance, she’s hung a tent
of reflections and sky.
Where she waits can be folded/
unfolded like her paused umbrella,
like triangled sunlight on the wall
that could pin her to its moment
or, warming outwards, paint her
into the visible.

Restorations is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Friday Poem – ‘Karner Blue’ by Carrie Etter

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Karner Blue’ by Carrie Etter which appears in 100 Poems to Save the Earth and her collection The Weather in Normal.

100 Poems to Save the Earth. Edited by Zoë Brigley and Kristian Evans

Our climate is on the brink of catastrophic change. 100 Poems to Save the Earth invites us to fine-tune our senses, to listen to the world around us, pay attention to what we have been missing. The defining crisis of our time is revealed to be fundamentally a crisis of perception. For too long, the earth has been exploited. With its incisive Foreword, this landmark anthology is a call to action to fight the threat facing the only planet we have. 

These achingly beautiful poems… remind us how to refind ourselves amid the landscape we call home.”  – Sonya Huber

The Weather in Normal Carrie Etter "Etter's richly inventive phrasing keeps this compelling range of concerns vividly opening up with immediacy, urgency and sensitivity." - Cole Swensen

Carrie Etter is known for beautifully expressive and formally inventive verse. The Weather in Normal, her fourth collection, explores the changes to her hometown of Normal, Illinois following her parents’ deaths, the sale of the family home, and the effects of climate change on Illinois’ landscape and lives.

”It’s well-nigh impossible to convey with quotation how Etter’s use of language, form, restraint and space combine to such impressive effect.” – Stride magazine

Carrie Etter
KARNER BLUE
“a place called Karner, where in some pine barrens, on lupines,
a little blue butterfly I have described and named ought to be out.”
Vladimir Nabokov
Because it used to be more populous in Illinois.
Because its wingspan is an inch.
Because it requires blue lupine.
Because to become blue, it has to ingest the leaves of a blue plant.
Because its scientific name, Lycaeides melissa samuelis, is mellifluous.
Because the female is not only blue but blue and orange and silver
and black.
Because its beauty galvanizes collectors.
Because Nabokov named it.
Because its collection is criminal.
Because it lives in black oak savannahs and pine barrens.
Because it once produced landlocked seas.
Because it has declined ninety per cent in fifteen years.
Because it is.


100 Poems to Save the Earth
 is available on the Seren website: £12.99

The Weather in Normal is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Karaoke King – A Playlist by Dai George

To celebrate publication of his new collection Karaoke King, Dai George has created a playlist of songs which tie in with the collection. Read on to find out what he chose and why.

The cover of Karaoke King shows a drawing of a white, teenage boy wearing a white shirt with a yellow and brown vest with horizontal stripes. He has his head on one side and his glasses are wonky. He is wearing a crumpled yellow crown.

This confident second collection by Dai George addresses the contentious nature of the times. Always deeply thoughtful but also alternately ebullient, angry, curious, ashamed, the poet moves through urban and digital spaces feeling both uneasy and exhilarated. As with the Auden of the inter-war period, there is a feeling of history shifting, as a younger generation confronts its ethical obligations, its sense of complicity and disappointment. Ecological crisis hovers in the background, glimpsed in the ‘Fooled Evening’ of a world whose seasonal rhythms have fallen out of joint. Karaoke King also contains numerous reflections on popular culture, culminating in ‘A History of Jamaican Music’, a sequence at the heart of the volume speaking to urgent contemporary questions of ownership and privilege, pain and celebration. 

Karaoke King – A Playlist

The Lumineers – ‘Ho Hey’

The Platters – ‘The Glory of Love’

Teddy Pendergrass – ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’

McFadden and Whitehead – ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’

Frank Sinatra – ‘New York, New York’

Big Star – ‘Nightime’

David Bowie – ‘Station to Station’

Treorchy Male Voice Choir – ‘Myfanwy’

Lord Laro – ‘Jamaican Referendum Calypso’

The Ethiopians – ‘Train to Skaville’

The Skatalites – ‘Guns of Navarone’

The Uniques – ‘People Rocksteady’

Alton Ellis – ‘Rocksteady’

Derrick Harriott – ‘The Loser’

The Paragons – ‘On the Beach’

The Techniques – ‘Love Is Not a Gamble’

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – ‘Croaking Lizard’

The Congos – ‘Nicodemus’

Bob Marley & the Wailers – ‘No Woman, No Cry’

The Uniques – ‘My Conversation’

Gregory Isaacs – ‘Soon Forward’

Sister Nancy – ‘Only Woman DJ with Degree’

Yellowman – ‘Zungguzungguguzungguzeng’

Sizzla – ‘Babylon A Use Dem Brain’

Count Machuki – ‘More Scorcha’

The Heptones – ‘Party Time’

I-Wayne – ‘Living in Love’

The Maytals / Sister Nancy – ‘Bam Bam’

Charles Trenet – ‘La Mer’

Bruce Springsteen – ‘Thunder Road’

Dusty Springfield – ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’’

Bob Dylan – ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’

In another lifetime, I tried to be a music journalist. A teenage pop nerd, I grew up reading too many issues of Mojo and the NME, and built my identity in large part around the songs that gave me solace, joy, a sense of difference. One way or another the journalism thing didn’t happen, but my new collection of poems, Karaoke King, maybe represents an attempt to grapple with the legacy of that obsession.

Poetry, of course, can’t offer what journalism can: it can’t give you facts, analysis, coherent narrative, or if it tried to do that it would be very bad at it. What it can do, though – maybe – is capture how songs hit the mind. It can sift significance, and work towards some understanding of how an individual stands in relation to these musical artefacts that are at once fixed, specific, culturally determined, and yet endlessly transmissible from radio to radio, mouth to mouth, ear to ear. From the liturgical prayers I heard being sung at Canton Uniting, my childhood church, to the Neighbours theme tune, Karaoke King is full of songs overheard, half-remembered, reapproached, transposed – hauntings and visitations. I thought it would be fun, and maybe interesting, to put together a playlist for the collection, with a set of ‘sleeve notes’ fleshing out the story of how these songs came to be there.

Close up photograph of a vinyl record  playing on a turn table.
Photo by Jace & Afsoon on Unsplash

The first four tracks all come from ‘Poem on 27th Birthday’. Set in a hilltop bar in Italy, and written more or less in situ in September 2013, it was the first poem I finished after wrapping on my debut collection, The Claims Office. I tried to be more open and porous in writing than I’d allowed myself to be till that point, and for me that meant tuning into the ambient sounds, letting them bleed into a collage. The dominant tune is an earworm blaring from a nearby car stereo, a sweet-natured, folky track I recognised but couldn’t place – later I found out it was called ‘Ho Hey’ by the Lumineers. It’s the sort of song that Adolescent Me would have scorned, but in a charmed moment it came across, in the words of the poem, ‘as nothing less than the Glory of Love’, a nod to the great doo-wop song of that name by The Platters.

The other songs filter in from a compilation of ’70s funk and Philadelphia soul that the barman switched on to replace the slick elevator jazz that had been playing till then. So we have a singer I recognised, Teddy Pendergrass, singing a song I didn’t know in the moment but later tracked down as ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’ – one of his first solo singles, a four-to-the-floor disco ripper about breaking somebody’s heart – and this soon flows into ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’ by McFadden and Whitehead. Songs touching songs, overlapping, building resonances. I most certainly did love the addressee of the poem, so it’s the McFadden and Whitehead song that takes over, its message of empowerment modulating through the speaker into gratitude for love.

More earworms, next, with Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’, overheard on one of my many circuits of Clissold Park in Stoke Newington over recent years. The poem it’s taken from is called ‘The Park in the Afternoon’, which unsurprisingly is about parks in the afternoon, but also the neoliberal cult of productivity that turns people into a political problem if they have nothing to do at that time of day. I loved the weird euphoria of this song, with its glitzy promise of inclusion – I wanna be a part of it! – being reclaimed as an anthem of solidarity or defiance.

‘Night Time’ by Big Star is one of the darker songs on this playlist, a theme tune for a run of poems in the first section of Karaoke King which map a hard time in my life – a dark night of the soul. The song itself is quoted in a poem called ‘Rock vs Pop’, an elegy to Roddy Lumsden. Roddy and I bonded originally over music, meeting on an internet forum called Black Cat Bone where debates like ‘Rock vs Pop’ could become seriously heated. Big Star were the sort of group that exposed how hollow that dichotomy is, and I know Roddy was a big fan of their legendary, troubled third album, Sister Lovers. It’s another song about wanting to be a part of it – At night time I go out and see the people – only this time there’s no Sinatra-esque bravado: the irony of that desire is painfully apparent the moment you hear Alex Chilton’s fragile, haunted vocal.

Photograph of boxes of vinyl records stacked in a shop.
Photo by Alano Oliveira on Unsplash

David Bowie’s ‘Station to Station’ is more literally about a long night of the soul – a long and disoriented journey. The poem I wrote about it for Alex Bell and John Canfield’s ‘Bowieoke’ night (and subsequent anthology Cold Fire) tries to capture the sense of blackout and damage on that record, but also to deconstruct the iconography of the Thin White Duke, his persona of the time. Whiteness is of course a part of that formulation, and it’s one of the tacit themes of this book that white pop music culture must grapple honestly with its numerous, often unspoken debts to Black musicians and Black musical idioms.

The place in the book where I’ve tried to confront this legacy, as openly as possible, is ‘A History of Jamaican Music’. The reggae songs on this playlist all offer up quotations and allusions from that sequence, and taken together I think they make for a great, roughly chronological listen. I’ve written about the genesis of this sequence before, so don’t want to belabour the point. All I’ll say here is that, just as these musical selections offer one, partial journey through the rich heritage of reggae, so too do the poems, from my own, very subjective perspective. I wanted to reflect honestly on my relationship to a music and a culture that is too often enjoyed in a passive or exploitative way by British people. These are indeed songs of joy – and songs that can, and should, be enjoyed widely, I believe – but also struggle and complexity; songs, moreover, that could never wholly belong to me, or anyone in my position.

Before we get to them, though, we pass through a song from a culture that is indisputably my own. ‘Myfanwy’ is beautiful, of course, and probably familiar to many people. The title poem of the collection remixes it as a death fugue, a mouldering totem for a certain dubious, romantic myth of Welshness – so I’m glad to pay tribute to it here as God, or the Treorchy Male Voice Choir, intended it. Reading that poem, the eagle-eyed might spot a few references to Twin Town, a film I still love despite its ridiculous, shallow, very unromantic vision of Welshness. (The title of the collection itself, Karaoke King, is a moniker given to the film’s hapless Elvis wannabe, Dai Rhys.) The film’s final scene of a sea burial serenaded by a suited and booted male voice choir crooning ‘Myfanwy’ sums up much of what is funny and pathetic about those old myths and their modern revivals. Maybe one day we’ll be able to hear ‘Myfanwy’ differently again, stripped of all the pageantry.

Photo of a colourful Bob Dylan mural on the side of a building in New York.
Photo by Weston MacKinnon on Unsplash

There’s a wistful turn to the final few songs on the playlist. Charles Trenet’s ‘La Mer’ wafts in like the last day of summer or the first of autumn, a mood I wanted to channel for a poem called  ‘September’s Child’. That in-between, nostalgic cusp state more or less represents the situation with my hair right now. ‘Poem in which my hairline recedes’ is the vessel for those (rather trivial) anxieties, and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’ is the sonic foil – another yearning cusp song, only this time one that stands on the brink of impossible self-realisation and success.

After that, yet more ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’’ from Dusty Springfield, one of my favourite singers. From my teens I’ve always been drawn to classic girl group pop and its soft-soul, adult-oriented offshoots – Dusty, Dionne Warwick, the songs of Bacharach and David, Goffin and King. I saw in this music a model for my own hopelessness in love: solace and fellow feeling in a woman’s voice, when it was women that I yearned for. The poem ‘Obsolete Heartbreak Suite’ is a type of farewell to all that, and an attempt to reckon with the gendered dynamics of the art form, with its unequal distribution of male and female creative labour. I still love all those Brill Building songs but the drama and intensity is second-hand now, thankfully.

Finally, we come to ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ by Bob Dylan. After listening to the glorious official version from Highway 61 Revisited, do seek out the alternate takes that are collected on The Cutting Edge, a box set covering Dylan’s time in the studio during the famous ‘Thin Wild Mercury’ years of 1965-66. It’s the sound of those false starts and early drafts that I wanted to capture in ‘The Mercury Mine’ – Dylan’s painstaking, instinctive graft as he toys with a phrase until he gets it right, rearranging speech parts, nudging them into better arrangements. It’s something of a cliché to talk about ‘pop perfection’, and I’ve loved enough brilliant, three-minute pocket symphonies to understand what people might mean by it. But I think a space for poetry opens up whenever we encounter pop imperfection – hesitance, provisionality, the formation of ideas. That’s one way into it, anyway. Another might be to follow what happens when we encounter perfect music amid the mess and imperfection of our lives.

Dai George

Listen to the playlist in full on Spotify.

Karaoke King by Dai George is available now. As this week is #IndependentBookshopWeek, why not buy through bookshop.org?

Friday Poem – ‘The Reed Flute and I’ by Abeer Ameer

This week our Friday Poem is ‘The Reed Flute and I’ by Abeer Ameer from her debut collection Inhale/Exile. Abeer recently featured on an episode of the Babble podcast which can be listened to here.

Abeer Ameer writes of her forebears in her first collection, Inhale/Exile. Dedicated to the “holders of these stories”, the book begins with a poem about a storyteller on a rooftop in Najaf, Iraq, follows tales of courage and survival, and ends with a woman cooking food for neighbours on the anniversary of her son’s death.

 “…these poems remind us that even in the darkest times, there is light, and there is love.” – Katherine Stansfield

Inhale/Exile is available on the Seren website: £9.99

Watch Abeer read ‘The Reed Flute and I’ on our Youtube channel.

Friday Poems – ‘Penny’ and ‘Glasffrwd’ from TROEON : TURNINGS

This week we have two Friday Poems from TROEON : TURNINGS, the new bilingual collaboration between poets Philip Gross and Cyril Jones and artist Valerie Coffin Price. ‘Penny’ by Philip Gross and ‘Glasffrwd’ by Cyril Jones.

To turn, to dig, to plough, to upset, to translate… Bend, lap, journey, time… The Welsh word troeon unfolds meaning after meaning. In TROEON : TURNINGS, two poets confident in their own traditions meet in the hinterland between translation and collaboration – Cyril Jones from the disciplines of Welsh cynghanedd, Philip Gross from the restless variety of English verse.

TROEON : TURNINGS is available on the Seren website £12.99

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Friday Poem – ‘Black Jaguar at Midnight’ by Pascale Petit

Our Friday Poem this week is ‘Black Jaguar at Midnight’ by Pascale Petit from her 2014 collection Fauverie.

Shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2014, this volume has childhood trauma and a dying father at its heart, and the poems skillfully transform painful experiences into expressions of grief. Fauverie redeems the darker forces of human nature while celebrating the ferocity and grace of endangered species: at its heart is the title’s name-sake: the big-cat house in the Jardin des Plantes zoo. Paris, too, takes centre stage – a city savage as the Amazon, haunted by Aramis the black jaguar and a menagerie of wild animals.

Fauverie is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Friday Poem – ‘Nativity’ by Jane Simmons

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Nativity’ by Jane Simmons which is the winner of the 2020 Seren Christmas Poetry Competition.

Judge Amy Wack said, “It was tight this year, any one of the shortlisted poems might have pipped it. In the end, I went for the one which just moved me the most. I love how ‘Nativity’ evokes both birth and death, the biblical story and recent events; it is very apposite in this pandemic year, 2020. We hold our breaths with the poet, who is suspended at the bedside of an ill loved-one.” Read Jane’s winning poem below.

After leaving the teaching profession, Jane Simmons completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She is now studying for a PhD at the University of Leicester. Her poems have been published in The Blue Nib magazine and the anthology View from the Steep (Pimento Press). She won the GS Fraser Prize for Poetry in 2019 and 2020.

The countdown to Christmas is well and truly on here at Seren. Browse new titles on our website or discover some of our festive favourites.

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