And now for the Atlantic….

Not content to take Tinker up the Bristol Channel last summer, I have now crossed the Atlantic. This time it was done by witchcraft and technology, and at the kind invitation of poet Robert Peake - American by birth, English by residency and soon to be published by Nine Arches Press.

Robert asked me to take part in his Transatlantic Readings sessions, reading and discussing online with American poet and photographer Randi Ward. Here’s the resulting hour-long programme, with my reading right at the beginning. Later there’s a discussion of nomadic poetry life, flint knapping and how to make an 80-stanza epic into a haiku. Sort of. Enjoy, and follow the series on Google+ to see the next interview.

(The video will start at the end of the interview. Pull the timer back to the beginning to get the benefit of my technological incompetence and my actual poetry).

Trying to master the thing

Japanese frog

The print that sparked off the poem

My new blog 52 and the Facebook group that sits alongside it are taking up a huge amount of my time, and I rejoice in it. The idea behind 52 is a simple one – write a poem a week, make it a good one and share work in progress with a huge group of like-minded folk on Facebook. It’s taken off more than I could have imagined, and has been a source of amazing new material and nascent friendships – a real writerly community. Thanks so much to all who have gotten involved, and who continue to offer each other support. You can join us at any time – have a look here for the prompt, which goes live every Thursday morning.

In the last week of each month we have a guest blogger. Our first was the wonderful poet, my friend David Morley, who asked us to inhabit a bird or animal. Now, I confess that I have written nothing new from this prompt – and won’t post old material in the 52 group, where we are turning up such a variety of new work. But I do have a poem which fits the subject, so I offer it here for the scrutiny of fellow 52-ers and anyone who might enjoy it. It came from an eighteenth-century Japanese print of a frog – and also from working sometimes with famous gardener (and frog-lover0 Sam Youd, who looked after the huge estate and gardens at Tatton Hall in Cheshire for many years.

Japanese Frog
For Sam Youd

A stranger has come
to the edge of my mouth-wet pond.
A man, dry as a bird.
I meet him at the bounds
of my silver parish
and examine him.
He looks at me so closely
I am hardly there.

We reach an understanding
and he smokes
while I consider my affairs.

We converse like this
for minutes at a time;
he with his pipe,
I with my private concerns.
He cannot know
what I return to now:
my minnow-slippery wife,
my appetite for silence.

[NB After I posted this, fellow 52-er and Bard of Exeter Simon Williams was moved to write on behalf of Mrs Frog - see his response below, with my thanks for redressing the gender balance.]

Japanese Frog’s Wife
After Jo Bell

he’s a stranger,
that frog, slippy as spawn.
We met, briefly
in the idiocy of summer
when everything’s quick.
He called so loud
I heard from the depths.

We reached an understanding;
the first few dozen
started wriggling.

Occasionally there’s a shadow
at the rim, mist rising.
I see him staring
like a clueless stickleback.
He’s well occupied
and his actions are little concern.
When he’s away
is the only quiet.

Happy New Resolution

Ahoy there, and Happy New Year. Looking for my new project 52? Oh, it’s gone out. Sorry, no it didn’t leave a message. 

Actually, it’s over here. Back on this blog I shall be posting about Me Me Me as usual – the party is at 52, where a whole community of poets is writing one poem a week in 2014. Drop in, drop out, but do drop by. The 52 project is up and running!

A Jury of My Peers


Either it was a token of approval from HM the Q, a validation by The Establishment, an opportunity to preen – or a sign of exclusion and alienation. For the majority of us who got the (yes) gilt-edged invitation to the Queen’s celebration of contemporary poetry, it was a source of one unanimous cry: WTF?

I went. Am I a hypocrite republican? Yes. Respect to those like Luke Wright who without histrionics, declined the invitation. But here’s a surprise: it was a real celebration of British poetry. The guest list was arbitrary, but clearly put together by people who know our world. Of course plenty of fine poets, small press publishers, festival organisers and activists were missing. Even that big old room wouldn’t take every fine poet in the UK, every valiant small press publisher, everyone who runs a festival, every activist. We could all name people who should be there and weren’t, but you’d be hard pushed to name anyone who was there and shouldn’t be. It was a fair sample of our poetry nation.

Lemn Sissay was there, a graduate of the Manchester care home system and bright comet of poetry world, full of love and energy. Rody Gorman spoke insistently in Gaelic to Prince Philip. John Agard, firebrand speaker and (oh joy!) token man on the performance bill, was there. Tiny Sally Evans, maven of the Scottish poetry scene, Romani poet David Morley; Michael Horovitz, veteran beat poet, was there alongside Geoffrey Hill, arcane Oxford Professor of Poetry. Joelle Taylor and Dreadlockalien, stars of the festival stage, were as vividly there as Forward winner Michael Symmons Roberts and TS Eliot shortlister Helen Mort. Young poets like Martha Sprackland: old poets like Anthony Thwaite. Movers and shakers like Niall O’Sullivan, Dean Atta. Festival organisers like Chloe Garner of Ledbury.

No-one was grand-standing. No-one tugged their forelock. And when John Agard stood to read his Alternative Anthem, and when Liz Lochhead read Bairnsang, the room shook with real laughter. The words took hold of the room and SANG. It was done with a wink, and a roar of joy in what poetry can do.

What poetry can do…. The Queen walked through the room. She was small and purple and oddly unremarkable. The source of celebration, the source of interest and pleasure, the power lay not with her but with the massed bodies who hold in their heads the best words we can make in English, in Gaelic, in Scots or Welsh. Behind her I saw a room full of people who have made it their life’s work to speak of love, and pain, and the difficulties of human relationships – of politics, and of friendship and laughter, and war.

Difficult people, troubled or crazy people, hurt and joyful people, but always spokespeople. Our work is to speak of life, and all the curious incidents in it. This was one of them.

A celebration like last night’s should come from someone representative of the people of Britain, not someone to whom we are even nominally subject. We deal in words, and that ‘nominally’ is a big and unconvincing word.

But I went into the palace proud, and I came out proud. It was the same sense of deep peace and bright laughter that I’d have at Bang Said the Gun or Bad Language in Manchester. Proud, then – not because of any passing recognition from That Family, but to be part of this family. This tribe, this gathered clan, this group of people who stand up for love, who tell it like they see it, who continue in spite of indifference or opposition to tell their truth. My kith. Thank you for having me.

Sailing By


National Poetry Day comes but once a year, and this year’s (on Thursday October 3rd) has the theme of WATER which, frankly, is a bit of a gift. As Canal Laureate, I’ve spent much of this year dashing about from one canalside location to another, writing about canals and encouraging others to do the same. In a short while we’ll be revealing four new canal-based filmpoems on the canal laureate blog; all four were made by Alastair Cook, and with poems from Liz Berry, Ian McMillan, Ian Duhig and myself I hope they, er, reflect four different angles on canal life. If you’re in London you can see them screened at the Southbank Centre in the afternoon of National Poetry Day – if not, we’ll let you know as soon as they are up on the Waterlines blog.

Of the many good things that this year has brought, the chance to work with this artist, film-maker and force for good has been one of the best. We have new projects planned for 2014. Some will involve canals, of course. In the meantime, Alastair surprised me with an unexpected bonus to the canal films – a film of my ‘signature tune’, the Shipwright’s Love Song. This poem is written for a male narrator, but until now I haven’t heard it read by one – here, in Alastair’s own voice and with a soundtrack from my own boat, is a new film of that poem.

Filmpoem 34/ The Shipwright’s Love Song from Alastair Cook on Vimeo.

A sunlit absence


Reader, I deal with poets a lot. Some radiate charisma, and that deep integrity that one is pleased to brush against once in a while – Galway Kinnell, Naomi Shihab Nye, Liz Lochhead, William Letford, Michael Donaghy. Some are great rollicking company with a glint in their eye – Martin Espada and our own poet laureate. Some are quietly, stubbornly true – Alison Brackenbury, Sharon Olds, Matt Merritt, David Morley.

Some are assholes, and I shall name them gladly for anyone who buys me a pint.

I name-drop to make a point. We are lucky to have had Seamus Heaney at all, and so sad to lose him. His work is quiet, strong and right. At a time when Northern Irish poetry was expected to deliver a different message, he told his truth plainly and never swerved from it. He deserved the many honours he received – including, I happen to know, a national prize which he won and privately declined, saying that he had had enough honours and it should go to someone else.

But more than that – he was nice. I once had a short phone call from him about a request to use a poem of his in an education pack. ‘It’s Seamus Heaney here,‘ he said.  There was (as well there might be) a pause at my end. ‘From Dublin,’ he added apologetically to jog my memory. I know, I know who you are, I thought. I wanted to call him Sir. I wanted to honour him.

Everyone who had this kind of meet-and-greet contact with him has a story to tell; not because they want to hitch a ride on his fame, but because they were delighted by him. He was a giant who remembered how large the little people are.

We all want to be remembered for our poetry. We want to touch people, we want them to give us the Nobel Prize. But mostly we will not be remembered for our poetry – rather, we will be remembered if at all for how we lived, and how we did those things that poetry stands for; whether we had the courage to stand up when we should, and hold close to others who mattered. Poetry stands for friendship and small pleasures; poetry stands for protest and social pressure.

Poetry stands for love. Those whom we remember are the ones who said most clearly, that which we are trying every day to say. Ask Sappho. Ask Shakespeare. Ask Larkin. What will survive of us is love – and not, necessarily, our poetry. Let’s be kind; and vivid; and true, even when it’s hard.

It’s blackberry season. For me, it’s been an overwhelming week of discoveries and change – yes, another one. Bells are ringing in my head which may reverberate through my life for years to come. So – I will celebrate and honour Seamus Heaney tonight by sitting in my little canalside garden with my friend, poet Alan Buckley. We will eat blackberries, and talk, and read poetry, and drink wine in my little boat. If I can write these moments, so much the better.

As for Seamus Heaney and what he was like?

Well, read the poetry. He was like that.


Jellyfish, ladies and gentlemen, are NOT a thing which one wishes to see by the rudder of an English narrowboat. The narrowboat is a flat-bottomed, non-seaworthy thing and does not like to taste salt-water, which implies that it may be asked to face tides and vast expanses of water. But jellyfish there were in Portishead marina, and also a number of vast white boats, gin palaces whose marble facades made Tinker and I shiver with inverted snobbery. Next to us, our friend Electra sat, looking equally proletarian next to the yachts.


You don’t need to know exactly how or why I decided to head back north, after a few months in the SW. It involves sadness and sex and you probably need to be drunk to get the best out of it, as I do to tell it. Suffice it to say that in a moment of very great turmoil, a phone call came through. Why, I thought wearily, is Roger Fuller calling me from his famous little boatyard in Staffordshire?

“Do you still want that mooring in Stone?”

“Er…. Well, I did a year ago, Roger. I’m in Wiltshire now on the Kennet & Avon.”


“Right. Well, do you want the mooring?”



“Yes, Roger. Yes I do.”

“Right-oh. See you then, Jo.”

“It won’t be for a few months, mind you.”


903843_10151601937865396_913855742_oSo that was that. A mooring comes up in one of the loveliest and liveliest spots on the canal system; a sort of service station on the narrow canals, a hub that bank people don’t know about, but which canal folk know as a boat-friendly town. The Co-op will deliver to your boat here, and there is one of the oldest dry docks on the system. Just uphill is a little yard where famous working boats, the grubby queens of the waterway, are healed and relaunched. Here Roger collects signal boxes and old railway cars and unusual, ragged machinery, and brings it all back to wholeness with a mixture of love and welding.

Did I want the mooring? Reader, I would have married him. Instead I sent him a cheque for £400 and started looking at maps.

Now, there are two ways from Honeystreet in Wiltshire to Stone in Staffordshire. The first is to come back north the way that I headed south – via the K&A, the Thames, the Oxford Canal, the Coventry Canal and so forth. It meant retracing my steps. The other, of course, is to go to sea on the second-highest tidal range in the world, risking my home and everything in it.

Well, it’s a no-brainer isn’t it?

IMG_2905So, we will go up the Severn estuary – me and my dauntless friend Suzanne, with her boat Electra, who is up for the adventure with much less reason to do it and with only six months’ boating experience behind her, and whose company in recent weeks has been such a joy. We will spend a night under the stars in Bristol, moored outside the Arnolfini Centre amongst party-goers and sailors – then travel under Brunel’s great suspension bridge and dauntlessly bob across the mouth of the Avon to Portishead. And there we will wait for a tide, to push us like a croupier’s rake up the Severn estuary into Sharpness, the port for Gloucester and the inland waterways.

Well, this is all very heroic. It’s about going forward, and exploring new water, and I am Woman Hear Me Roar. Marvellous. Suzanne and her crew member Dru are award-winningly remarkable women, and Electra is a sturdy little soul with an engine much smaller than Tinker’s, but just as brave. Sing HO for the jolly boatpersons.

Still. Jellyfish.

IMG_2921So, here we are in Portishead harbour. The jellyfish are awfully quiet. We are waiting for a tide. A TIDE, for God’s sake. It is five o’clock in the morning. Suzanne and Dru, always awake at sparrowfart, are merrily eating toast and discussing marmalade manufacture. My crew – one hairy poet, one hairy-arsed sailor – are putting lifejackets on, LIFEJACKETS for God’s sake, and the day is turning pink, and Tinker and Electra are slowly pirouetting like trained elephants, making their way into the huge river lock which separates us from the epic currents of the Bristol Channel. The river pilot hops aboard and takes the helm, tests the VHF channel which will keep Tinker and Electra in touch.

The gates open, like the gates that released the Christians to the lion pit. I exaggerate: not much. We’re a bit nervous, us. We nudge out into the bright sunrise, the five-mile wide estuary in front of us. We know that when we reach the end of the tide wall, we’re out and IN IT…. And then, we’re in it. We feel the Severn take hold of them – Tinker first, Electra hot on her heels, and both rocking back and forth a little, as they never do on the canals.

I look at the skipper. “Get the kettle on,” he says.

20130710_073648So I do. And that’s the hard part over with. The rest is a rollicking, glorious sunlit ride, with the water cresting gently at the bow, the Severn throwing shapes, the great Severn bridges bright against the sky with their suspension wires looking like enormous egg-slicers. Nobody falls in. Nobody gets wet. My geraniums remain undisturbed on the roof. I had expected sea-monsters and krakens; instead, it’s mostly tea and biscuits.

Tinker loves it – grabbing hold of the deep water and giving the engine a good stretch at last. Every now and then we check in with Electra – IMG_2952following in our wake, picking her way elegantly through the whirlpools and currents that we can see but cannot read, and which the river pilot takes us through in a series of inexplicable zig-zags and turns. One great silver shape leaps out of the water and curves back in, giving itself to the millions of tons of Severn silt. A salmon, says the pilot. Bollocks, I think. I know a mermaid when I see one.

Three hours later, we scoot neatly around the sea-wall at Sharpness and into a lock the size of a canal basin. A swing bridge opens for us, sticking slightly in the heat. It is nine o’clock in the morning, and we slide onto the glassy waters of the Gloucester and Sharpness canal, feeling like Odysseus. Oddly, no-one is lining the canal 9253381221_28ab684a58_bbanks. There is not a brass band to be seen, nor a crowd of small children with flags and bunting. In fact, it’s not much of a journey in the grand scheme of things, dear reader. But we make our own adventures; for this one, and the company I was lucky to have during it, I was properly grateful.

This has been a long blog entry and I’ll tell you the next instalment soon enough; this is simply to say thank you to all those friends who followed our progress and wished us well – not just for the physical journey but the emotional one that made it necessary – and to Alan and Tony who crewed for me, and to Suzanne and Dru for allowing my adventure to be part of theirs, or vice versa.


Tune in soon to see if we survived the next bit.

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