Archive for Poetry

A short poem on rhetoric against illegal immigration, “Bacteria”.

Britain is pure, clean and uninfected –

At least, it must be

In time for elections.

It is a fact regrettably learned

That during a recession

Some humans become germs.

So flush them –

Let our vans rush through their streets

Like bleach.

To men who threaten women online, “Invisible Men”.

Dear invisible men,
Who tweet women endless threats of rape,
Who are you?
Are you married fathers of two?
Are you teens crowded round a friend’s phone in a canteen or KFC?
Are you pausing between texting your first love,
To set yourself up as an egg,
And post fresh hate?
Where are you as you type this?
Is your girlfriend asleep in your arms,
As you peer over her shoulder at your phone?
How did this become your sport?
You are not proud of what you do;
If you were, you would not care who knew.
This is strange:
You loudly announce pride in your prejudice
But your invisibility suggests your shame.
There is such an anger in you
That it cannot be cloaked with jokes.
I pity the mirror that has to reflect your misery,
Since it must see so much.
Because the women are everywhere now,
Aren’t they?
They weren’t just content in your beds,
Now they’re not just in your clubs,
Or in the eyes and hearts of other men;
The women are in your classrooms, boardrooms and DJ booths,
They are obstructing you, or ignoring you,
Not needing you to improve.
Swiftly, they are sweeping you from every stage,
And the only place you feel safe
Is in one-hundred and forty characters of rage.
I doubt that, as you type, you will ever pause
To think that, while you promise terror,
The greatest fear is yours.

New poem, “The Lord’s iPrayer”

We pray to our smartphones,

Bending necks towards our tech:

“Our Father, who art in Windows Seven,

Hallowed be Thy Name.

Forgive us our drunken text messages

As we forgive those exes

Who send drunken text messages against us.

Lead us not into offline conversation

But deliver us from hanging out with people.

Let us only chat through apps,

And let us speak not in tongues but tweets;

For thine is the kingdom,

The rapidly decreasing battery power,

And the glory:

Forever and ever,

iMen.”

My new poem, about football: “The best bruises”.

I played a game of football once.

It was on the furthest field from my college;

To get there,

You had to walk off the edge of the map of the town.

Of the eleven men on their team that day,

I only remember one:

A centre-back, his ankles thick as my neck,

Thighs twice as wide as mine,

His flesh the faintest shade,

Like two drops of blood in a pint of milk.

Squat and broad, topped off with a scalp bearing rusted grass,

He had a careful fury about him;

After each challenge,

He slowly, thoughtfully wiped his right boot on the grass,

A butcher cleaning his cleaver.

He carved at me many times,

But found little meat into which he could cut deep,

My legs being two shivering stalks of black bamboo.

Maybe I feared him,

But I was lured back always

By the promise of those fifteen yards between his heels and his goalkeeper,

The most exciting patch of land in sport.

Late in the game, which we were leading by now,

I finally found myself there,

Surging into the headwind, my ambition stronger,

Tearing beyond that last, fatigued slash of his limbs,

Then rolling the ball low, firm and decisive.

My team-mates gathered around me like brothers,

And their smiles meant as much as a father’s.

Later, I limped slowly home,

Proudly bearing the best bruises

I had ever earned.

On drones: “Monotony”

This is our monotony:
They bring the most hateful of rainfalls,
And don’t make apologies:
They send storms from the jaws of a drone
To slay those who’d take the USA off its throne –
So each day, we’re preparing for rain;
For these drops not of water
But rage;
Wait –
All you’ll hear is the hum as they’re closing
A teenaged male isn’t safe in the open –
So we’ve taught them to run,
Our daughters and sons –
Taught them something most terrible:
That here in Yemen, it is never wise
To gaze up and daydream into our own skies:
This is –
The only way, we are told;
That’s not so bad as it goes:
No:
Shattered bone,
Shattered hope,
Shattered homes,
We all raise our eyes at the drones –
And so:
In many decades, our youth will explain
Why, when about town, they still walk with necks craned

“Beckham”: a poem

With the news of David Beckham’s retirement, here’s my new poem, “Beckham”; I’m recording it for the BBC World Service, to be broadcast on the morning of Saturday 18 May.

Beckham.
He went from a football man
To a global brand;
From Manchester United,
To, maybe, a knighthood;
To get there, he did two things; first he ran, and he ran, and he ran;
And secondly, he made a weapon of his right foot.
If you were a target on which its red dot was placed
Then not until you’d marched back seventy yards
Were you safe.
Madrid, LA, Paris, Milan: his career sounded like a catwalk;
He had charm and the national armband,
Was one of the few men that women might cat-call.
His style was
James Bond meets sarong.
As if they were blond curtains,
He brushed aside his harsh critics;
You could trust him to bring home cups
Or free-kicks in last minutes.

Paul Scholes: a tribute

In his first few years at United,

He wasn’t seen as the danger.

It was just Beckham, Keane, Giggs –

And some ginger.

Sometimes, he seemed to bring his shyness

Onto the field of play,

Waiting politely for everyone to enter the box

Before he did:

After you, after you,

Letting his other team-mates approach,

Then sending ahead the ball, and, last of all,

Silently slipping in at the far post:

Head down, always down, in an aggressive burst,

Like a fervent worshipper arriving late for church.

I don’t know how he managed

To stay so long out of the media’s sight.

Perhaps because his shots travelled faster than the speed of hype.

Perhaps it was his playing style, elegant and minimal,

Often seeing even two-touch as too much.

Whatever his ploy, it was several seasons till I heard his voice,

Since those quietly great have others to speak for their legend:

People like Zidane, who considered him an equal.

He was a man of erratic passion,

Followed by fiery confetti

Throughout his career, conjuring plumes of red and yellow

From topmost pockets:

But those sins are forgiven

For all the rhythm he brought to endless games,

Over which on YouTube we can cast our endless gaze.

Paul Scholes: twenty-odd medals, all told:

He came, he saw;

He scored goals.

“Zooming In, Zooming Out”: a conversation with Shannon Hardwick, poet

humming

Shannon Hardwick is a fantastic poet whose acquaintance I was lucky to make several years ago. Hailing from Texas, drawing her influences from science, music and a keen study of the world around her, her work exudes a rare grace and optimism. On the eve of the publication by Mouthfeel Press of Hummingbird Mind, her second chapbook, I caught up with her for a conversation about poetry, the prairie, Tchaikovsky and more.

Shannon, how have your experiences influenced you as a writer?

I grew up in an interesting household. My parents were not happily married. I grew up with four siblings…but I was the second oldest, so even though I grew up in a big family I always felt like kind of a loner. I rode horses, and so I spent most of my time away from the home and at the barn.
I remember this one memory when my parents had just separated and my mom was busy, she couldn’t take me to the barn. And I felt trapped in my home, so I called my father, which was kind of a desperate measure because I didn’t usually call him; and I asked him if he could take me to the barn. And he couldn’t do that, and he said, ‘why can’t your mom take you? Why do you have to go at this hour?’ I think it was probably eight o’clock in the evening. And I just said, ‘I want to see my best friend.’ ”
So horses were a really big deal to me – I spent a long time with her, not around other people – and so writing was a way of communicating my thoughts and feelings at a time that was very confusing. Every major event of my life I remember always running to pen and paper, to figure out how I was feeling. A lot of times I wrote to God. Maybe I felt like that was my friend in the sky as a child.

You still write to the sky, don’t you, if that makes sense?

Yeah, I know, to the bigger picture, the bigger thing out there, the Universe…yes, I still very much write to that.

I’ve been reading your work for a few years now, and each time you manage to marry imagery and narrative better and better . What I really liked about Manaquest [Shannon’s first chapbook] is that you sank completely into a different world. It reminded me of the old Coyote stories, the Tricksters and so on. I’ve always seen a bit of the prairie or the wilderness in your work, if that’s fair.

That makes sense. As I’ve gotten older, people point that out to me a lot. I grew up in West Texas in the middle of nowhere, where we were five hours from the biggest town. So it’s just plains and prairies and tumbleweeds and cows. Flatland. So yes, I think that influences my work a lot.

It’s funny reading work influenced by the geography; you read work by, say, Cormac McCarthy, and the prose feels very windswept. And reading your stuff as well, you can sense the geography which it has inspired. That’s a great strength of yours. There’s a lot of space in your work; there’s a lot of air, even in the way you use the punctuation. The words definitely breathe. Without that the imagery would be quite dense and, I think, overwhelming…But despite that space, there’s also a sense of optimism. Do you think that’s a fair comment?

Yes, I think that’s fair…I think that might come from some sort of spirituality in my work. Maybe, I don’t know. [Laughs]

The Hummingbird Mind – why the title?

I wrote most of [those poems] when I was a student at Sarah Lawrence College [a liberal arts college in New York]. Some of those I wrote when I visited home in Texas, but I think I was a little overwhelmed in New York and it was definitely a new landscape.

Maybe it was the disconnect of living in New York, I’m not sure, but one day I was at the library at Sarah Lawrence and I was researching schizophrenia, thought disorders, and I came across this woman’s blog. And she mentioned this disconnection of thought, and she called it ‘Hummingbird Mind’. And I loved that. So that’s how I came up with the title: of thoughts jumping from here to there.

It’s a beautiful image. And it’s funny because although it seems a particularly singular condition, I think it’s actually one that we’re living in now. In this era of urbanisation, a lot of us have ‘hummingbird minds’. Even looking out the window, we’re all dashing about. And there’s a sense of speed for the sake of speed sometimes, and not thinking where it’s taking us.

Oh, definitely. And just today’s culture of being connected to the Internet. If you go out anywhere and look at young people, they’re not even connecting with their surroundings, they’re just looking at their phones, which in itself is a whole other world. We’re just looking at the Internet and living these weird double lives, or triple lives.

It’s very weird having to define yourself with reference to the Internet. Now, for many people, being online is almost the default option.

Right.

But your work is a real departure from the world of the Internet, which is why I like it. It’s very contemplative and reflective. There was one poem of yours I was reading, where I loved this line: “There are nights when I discover universes packed in a suitcase”. What inspired that particular image?

I do a lot of work with memory learning. With the image of a suitcase, you’re travelling physically, but also back in your mind.

I had the vision there of Men In Black, where they have universes inside marbles.

Right! [Laughs]

There was also your Tchaikovsky poem earlier, which seemed to be about having to proceed despite what was overwhelming. What did that piece mean to you?

Well, right before I moved to New York I started getting into classical music and studying composers’ lives. And what really moved me was that Tchaikovsky didn’t even start writing or composing music until he was, I think, forty? His mother had died, and he was probably unhealthily connected to his mother. And she died, and he became an alcoholic. And at one point he even threw himself down the stairs, in a suicidal attempt, and that moment [in reading about that] I felt this overwhelming sadness, that everything in your whole world was out of control. And yet out of that, as a way to maybe contain or control that emotion, he created beautiful music. And not until he was 40. And I just thought that was fascinating, and that’s where that poem came from.

It’s a beautiful piece; and there are lessons there for all of us more broadly, I think, that it is never too late to create. So much of life, as that shows, is just hanging in there; because Tchaikovsky now, even for a casual listener to classical music like me, is such a frame of reference. There’s a powerful sense of resilience.

Right.

Let’s go into other themes in your poetry, beyond that surface level of optimism. What are the key things that you think characterise, that drive your work?

Zooming in, and zooming out. Quantum mechanics; the very large, and the very small. The self, but also getting out of the self, and connecting with the Universe. How to explain this?…Well, one time I was kind of a troublemaker as a teen and I got sent away to this programme – I think in the UK they had a show about it, it’s called ‘Brat Camp’? [laughs]

Yes, hahaha!

I went to that same Brat Camp – I think, the one in Utah – and I was out there and every night before we went to bed I would lay down on my sleeping bag, and basically you would see shooting stars, you would see thousands of them before you went to sleep. And I got this feeling of feeling so connected to something so large, yet at the same time feeling so small. So at once feeling insignificant, and at the same time feeling connected to all that is significant. And I like to explore our feeling of disconnect – of feeling small and insignificant and yet feeling connected to everything and everyone, of that largeness and that smallness.

You can pre-order a copy of Hummingbird Mind for $8.00 here. You can read more of Shannon’s poetry and thoughts on her blog, which you can find by clicking on this link.

On being black: “Black Is”

I don’t write about race all that often; I rarely write about anything when I feel that I have nothing new or different to add.  I wrote this piece a while back, and then a good friend, Bridget Minamore, got in touch to say that she really liked it and that I should bring it out again.  I have only performed it twice but I’m looking to change that.  In the meantime, I’ve provided the text along with a free download below.  Here, then, are my short thoughts on media portrayals of being “black”, whatever that means.

 

“Black Is”

What is black?

 

Black is rap;

Black is jazz,

Tap;

Black is Hackney as a habitat;

Black is

“No backchat to your mum, she’s a battleaxe”…

Barack is the new black;

The old black,

Back when they sold black,

Was trapped in the shadow of the gallows…

Black is a straitjacket;

Black is a lower-than-average paypacket;

Black is not gay!

No!

Black is Man!

Black is a brag, a swagger;

Black is baggy jeans, an urban teen with a dagger;

Black is –

Twice as long a wait getting through Customs;

Black is “I don’t know what it is about those boys on the corner, but I don’t think I trust them”;

Black is millions of Billie Jeans –

Single mums with sons whose dads were gone before their delivery;

Black is laughter and anger,

Richard Pryor and gangland pistol fire,

Black is hardcore, Darfur –

Black is a victim…

Black is a street-corner yelling evangelical Christian;

Black is a true story more compelling than fiction –

 

Black is black-and-white, always the extremes, it seems;

Either President or menacing,

Either thief or first-class degree in medicine…

But my black is grey –

Most, if not all warts on display;

My black doesn’t worship God, but his friends are saints;

My black is not on the Pele, Othello, Mandela level of melanin;

But every day, it’s a little more genuine.

 

Poetry’s premature obituary

This weekend, I was surprised to learn from an opinion piece in The Independent that “poetry is dying”. I was even more surprised to discover, in the following line, that “[actually], it’s pretty dead already for all intents and purposes.”

The bearer of this sad news was a Mr. Nathan Thompson, who like me is a poet. Baffled by his diagnosis – as were many others, who have produced swift and forensic replies here, here, here, here, here and here – I took a further look through his words for evidence of his claim.  It seemed that a cause of poetry’s death was the “poetry slam”, where rival poets recite their verse in turn in front of an audience and a panel of judges. I was bemused, then, to find from a fellow writer that Mr. Thompson earns some of his living by teaching people to compete in poetry slams.  If poetry is indeed dead, then it is Mr. Thompson who has been paid to administer the killing blow.

Fortunately, the rumours of poetry’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Poetry is not dead to Cerys Matthews or Janice Long, both of whom regularly invite poets to give readings on their BBC Radio shows. Poetry is not dead to the international fanbase of Scroobius Pip. Poetry is not dead to, say, the Birmingham crowds who regularly go to see Jodi Ann Bickley in action at her own night, Speak Up; it is not dead to the thousands wowed on YouTube by Polarbear’s performance of “Jessica”, or to those moved by Dean Atta’s delivery of “I Am Nobody’s Nigger.”  It is not dead to those who attended George The Poet’s recent show at the Royal Albert Hall, or to those who stroll down to the National to see Inua Ellams perform the latest of his one-man plays.

Poetry’s enduring role, I believe, is to capture moments and emotions with a rare and beautiful brevity.   “A Want”, by Joshua Idehen, was the most powerful dissection of the roots of the UK riots that I have read.  Warsan Shire’s “Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth” is as sublimely composed a collection of poems as I have seen. Each of these poets, and dozens more I have not named here, are just as accomplished on the page as they are on the stage.  This divide between poets who perform their work and those who do not is, I believe, a false one.  Whether written or spoken, poetry is either well-crafted, or it is not.

“Like sipping a fine wine”, writes Mr. Thompson, “reading poetry cannot be rushed…It runs bang against the grain of our quick-fix culture. It is already a lost discipline.” He is right to remind poets that they should learn their trade.  At the same time, he should also note that perhaps the outstanding performance poet of her generation, Kate Tempest, is also one of the most deferential to the poets who preceded her.  As she herself has noted, “before you write, you gotta read/So I read Shakespeare, Blake, Beckett and Sophocles”.  She is an example of the excellence that can be achieved through diligent study of the art-form.

Moreover, whilst poetry is a discipline that reveres its elders like few others, it is striking that some of the greatest talent that I have witnessed in recent years has emerged at the Roundhouse Poetry Slam, for competitors between the ages of 16 and 25.  There, at an event very different from that caricatured in Mr. Thompson’s article, I have watched poets deliver work of a maturity that those twice their age would struggle to attain.  Were Mr. Thompson to wander along to watch the contestants one evening, he would quickly see that the world of verse is in very safe pens.  That he chose to declare poetry dead, without at first checking any one of numerous places for its healthy pulse, is therefore a matter of great regret.