No longer spineless

Sorry about the missing blog last week – my computer was in hospital again. It developed Alzheimer’s Disease and kept forgetting where it had put things. It’s fine now,but a little message flashes up occasionally saying ‘what did I come in here for?’

Meanwhile, I have been delivered of a bouncing 65-page book – much better than a baby, as I can always pulp it if it doesn’t do well. At last I have a book with a proper spine to my name, and with my name on its spine. Navigation had two launches – at Ellesmere Port Boat Museum, and at Banks’ Mill, Derby. These were lovely evenings; pride from people who have supported me, gratitude from me, blubbing from my mum. Read it slowly, because it will take me years to write another one. It’s selling well – order it here (and only here) if you want one.

I’ve been in London on National Poetry Day business, at the fantastic Anderton Boat Lift to read a poem at an exhibition opening, and in Ledbury for meetings about this year’s Poetry Festival. Ledbury is the biggest poetry festival in the UK, and we have fantastic names on the bill for July. I stayed with Peter and Viv Arscott, whose door is constantly open to literary and creative types. Last time I stayed, I woke up to heavy breathing and movement in the room. Disappointingly, it turned out to be the family tortoise struggling under a discarded jumper. No tortoises this time, but a charming Lithuanian cellist in the kitchen.

Lots of readings coming up in March and April – have a look at What’s On to find out more. Meanwhile, commiserations to the current Cheshire Poet Laureate, W Terry Fox, who has had a car crash and has been in hospital for over a week. He is on the mend but still ‘running at half-throttle’ – all good wishes for his full recovery.

The name’s Bell – Tinkerbell…

Strange meetings and unlikely fancy dress parties this week. Most important (and least strange) was the meeting of the National Poetry Day steering committee. The luminaries of the British poetry scene are kindly allowing us the use of their brains from time to time, which will be an immense help in all our efforts.  

Back in the north west, events were a bit more surreal. A meeting with John Gorman, director, idea-generator and all-round splendid fellow, is always slightly off the wall. We were discussing a huge variety of possible projects and he had just given me a badge that said VOLLEYBALL when we were joined (in the coffee lounge of a renowned hotel) by a cockroach. Very Kafka.  And then my Tuesday evening event, Superheroes of Slam, saw me on stage with Spiderman and the Hulk. My own superhero identity – What Did I Come In Here For Woman? paled into insignificance. 

Less surrealism and more cake, during a foray in blustery sunshine with Joy Winkler to research poems for the Macclesfield Cultural Festival. We wandered around the town, showed each other unexpected corners and much-loved buildings, and it was a really refreshing approach to the town. Citizens – go forth and poke into the corners of a town you think you know; you will learn new things and find unexpected shops to boot! 

The week ended with a 007-themed fancy dress party. Reading the ‘fancy dress’ clause of the invitation only at the last moment, I hastily squeezed into the tuxedo I have from the occasion I was cast as a transvestite nightclub singer and murderer, for another party….. 

We are a podcast

It’s my bilges, you know. They fill up something dreadful at this time of the year. I’m accumulating water under the bedroom floor, with no real idea why. Boats and water are a terrible mix. I’m trying not to lie awake at night wondering if I’ll sink before breakfast time. 

In daylight hours, I’ve been researching English food and customs for our feast at Allseasons on April 23rd (that’s St George’s Day, for the hard of thinking). The idea is to make you smack your lips at the cultures and flavours that make up modern England without the sour taste of nationalism, as it were. The soundtrack already includes Vaughan Williams, the Clash and some bhangra, and I’m digging out eclectic poems and prose.  

Work is filling up evenings and weekends at the moment; but the work/life balance is okay, since the work seems to have a lot of life in it. On Wednesday I saw Tilting the Mirror – Jean Sprackland, Greta Stoddart and Ray Robinson in a ‘lightly staged poetry performance’…. I went for pleasure, but also to craftily check out another live literature show. Bunch of Fives we are planning our next show so we want to see what others are doing. It’s a growing field and we’re all learning what’s possible, what’s professional and what really works. 

Little Ted and I are still practising juggling – and I’ve even found a local juggler to help me out! I went to see the Peat Bog Faeries the other night at Buxton Opera House and found myself sitting next to one Dave Jellybean (not his given name, I suspect) who is not only a juggler but also turns out to be a cousin of Adam Evanson, chef and co-conspirator on the By George! English feast.  Small world etc etc. 

Finally dear readers, my podcast is properly live and accessible here after a long time on the Cheshire County Council page. Sign up if you want a free monthly sample of poetry from me and others. Meanwhile I’d better go and run around the frozen lanes of Macclesfield – or I won’t fit into my Wonder Woman outfit for next week’s Superheroes of Slam.

Juggling Commitments

God bless the librarians of Macclesfield. For Sense and Sensuality, an evening of readings on the five senses, they turned the room into a frenzy of pink, with objects to touch, taste and smell all around. One unhappy audience member left at half time – but she had roundly declared ‘I hate poetry’ even before I opened my mouth, so she had perhaps not chosen the ideal event to attend.  

The Bunch of Fives survivors are planning a new show for Spring 09. Over a fab meal at the Crown Inn in Goostrey, we threw ideas around; very fitting since the front-running concept may involve juggling, knife throwing, and a couple of elephants. Let’s see if we can get that past the Arts Council – ‘two elephants and reinforced trailer’…. So when friend Clare and expert-juggler-boyfriend Bym dropped by, we did some preliminary juggling work, using my childhood friend and teddy, Little Ted as the jugglee. He looks a bit unnerved but it will all be worthwhile. 

Work goes on for National Poetry Day. It’s not till October 9th, but no national campaign can be turned on like a light switch the day before it happens. We have venues to book, partners to work with, websites and projects to set up, a poet in residence to negotiate with, events to plan, an educational pack to commission and design, and marketing materials to prepare. The theme this year is Work – if you know any pieces by well-known poets on that theme, let me have’em! 

A meeting about the Macclesfield Cultural Festival may, to my great joy, result in me getting paid to go to the pub. Meanwhile I had a lovely evening at my brother’s place. The cunning blighter was born on 14th February and so is guaranteed a supply of cards in the post on Valentine’s Day. His smallest sprog, Lula, has overcome her shyness and now happily speaks to me – I’m known in their house as Aunty Boat. Which is odd because I’m very pro-boat. . .

Tea and Angels

This week, mere mortals, I have walked in the halls of power. National Poetry Day, with partners in a ‘cultural consortium,’ went to talk to the BBC and I was suddenly surrounded by the finest communicators in the country. All top secret – but I can tell you that the tea in the halls of power is very similar to the tea elsewhere. 

I do like to be beside the seaside, even in the dark. On Wednesday night I found myself in Southend, reading from Lifemarks with friend and co-conspirator Derek Adams. Bless’em, they bought our last eleven and we are now officially SOLD OUT – 300 copies in less than two months! 

The National Trust, which formerly employed me as an archaeologist, asked me back as poet in residence for a big conference. I could see my old colleagues thinking ‘Poet in residence? What’s this frilly nonsense?’ but as always, poetry proved its worth and brought people together, laughing and thinking, to concentrate on their corporate work with a bit more oomph.

On Saturday I chaired a session at the Writing Industries Conference at Loughborough. It reminded me how much good work is done by writers in prisons, hospitals, village halls and small, unglamorous places all over the UK. Great to hear Cathy Grindrod, Rosie Garner and Kevin Fegan speaking with real passion and commitment about helping vulnerable people to expose and express their deepest feelings. 

Speaking of being moved…. In London this week, enjoying a pre-train cup of tea at the Wellcome Collection (go immediately, it’s brilliant), I realised that the faintly familiar man at the next table was not someone I had once met at a party but Antony Gormley, the sculptor of the Angel of the North. I wanted to go and tell him how much his work moves me, but he was in the middle of a private chat with friends and I thought I’d look like a stalker. Should have done it anyway.

Dodo rissoles

Possessions, moi? Oh hardly anything, just a few small things in my carefree floating life, I’m not materialistic myself…. So I say, conveniently forgetting the masses of books, furniture and random nostalgic saucepans stowed in friends’ basements across the UK. This week, helping friends Hannah and Ian to move house, I remembered how much two normal people and their two normal children can accumulate in a shared lifetime. They’re not hoarders, but it still gives pause for thought. You know that box in the attic? If you don’t know what’s in it, throw it away….

Meanwhile in the Midlands, I combined business with pleasure all over the place. There were meetings about an installation in Derby Hospital and a cunning plan for the Macclesfield Cultural Festival in July. I got various bookings to plug new book Navigation from March; there’s a possible week of residential workshops in Cornwall; and the diary is filling up with workshops, performances and readings.

All very gratifying; but for every booking, you have to factor in planning time. Our St George’s Day Feast on April 23rd will mean a long spell in the library, reading food lore and finding recipes for dodo rissoles and stuffed lark scrotum. After 18 years as an archaeologist, focusing rigidly on one topic of research at a time, it’s a joy to be allowed off on tangents.

National Poetry Day planning expands as the year goes on, peaking around July/ August. I was in Liverpool on Tuesday on NPD business, and it’s a fantastic city – tall and pale and busy, with seagulls everywhere to remind you that you’re just one tea clipper away from America. Back to the desk now to prepare for a poet-in-residence job on Tuesday in Derby with my old employers, the National Trust. Should be able to get a giggle out of them….

The final curtain…

….was a sort of floral affair as it happens. Bunch of Fives stood in front of it to deliver our final performance at Preston Brook on Friday night. On Tuesday, at Keele University, we had an audience of 97! So many of our audience members have said the magic words we most wanted to hear… ‘I’ve never been to anything like this before, but I’ll definitely come again.’ We’ve delivered live poetry to about 700 people across the NW and Midlands, and there is more to come in Spring 09. Watch this space.

It’s been a week of plotting and planning – more meetings in London with the National Poetry Day team, and a meeting with fellow former Cheshire Laureate John Lindley to discuss a project of his which could result in a little book. Best of all, a meeting with Adam Evanson, the brilliant chef from Allseasons cafe in Macc. We are putting together a St George’s Day event to celebrate English food, and it really sounds like a good one thanks to a rather brilliant menu from him and an appetising selection of readings from me. Look at my What’s On page to see more. We will only have 30 places and we reckon we’ve already sold 8 without advertising, so book soon if you want to come!

The cover of my book, Navigation, has been finalised. My lovely friend and graphic designer Ian of Fox Graphic Design did it for me and I am exceedingly chuffed. The poems are on their way to being printed, and it is all on course for a launch (insert pun here) at Ellesmere Port Boat Museum on March 6th. Suddenly I feel nervous.

We celebrated Burns Night a day early at Macc marina, and consequently we had on Friday the hangovers that the rest of the nation saved till Saturday. It was like Night of the Living Dead here on Friday morning. Tonight it’s cheese and wine… I’m only going for the cheese you understand….

Loved the fart poems

My life as Cheshire Poet Laureate, like that of George IV, ‘drew peacefully to a close’ last week. I was ceremonially defrocked at Neston Library, and passed on my cheesy Cheshire crown to the new bloke, Terry Fox. Unfortunately Terry had chosen to wear a shirt which exactly matched the library chairs, so when he sat down we couldn’t see him at all – but when he stood up he was brilliant, a really lively and engaging speaker. I think he’ll be great as the new CPL. 

In highbrow poetry circles, it’s fashionable to be snooty about regional laureateships, and about taking poetry to ‘ordinary’ people who like to be entertained, not preached at. There is an unspoken feeling that poetry should be difficult, that one should have to work at it to understand it, and that it’s a bit too good for the general public to be let in on. Dear friends, I say unto you, “Balls to that”. 

Certainly, we need to apply exacting standards to every county or regional laureateship. If your laureate is chosen by a well-meaning councillor who reads no poetry written after 1862, or by the readers of a local newspaper, you won’t get the best example of contemporary writing. So make sure your laureate is chosen by his/ her peers, as well as the council rep. But by all means, let us have laureates in all parts of the country. We need an army of capable, confident poets across the nation who have skills in public speaking, PR and event management to make poetry a lively and (whisper it) entertaining art form. Go forth, laureates, as ambassadors for contemporary poetry. Do not accept venue managers telling you that ‘we only get tiny audiences for poetry’ – use all your talents to build a larger audience. That audience is lurking out there, and it deserves good new work to think about and enjoy.

I know this because we had an audience of 50 (still not huge, but growing) for Bunch of Fives Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre last week and they loved it. ‘Intellectual Viagra’ – ‘very entertaining’ and in one mysterious case, ‘loved the fart poems’. On close examination we think it was ‘loved the fact poems were performed from memory’…..

Also last week – a meeting in London about National Poetry Day fundraising, a meeting in Ledbury about this summer’s festival programme which looks like being a great one.  And a meeting in Ness, at the splendid botanic garden on the Wirral where I hope to be doing some work later in the year. Best of all, I worked on the manuscript for my book Navigation (out on March 6th dear readers) and it is FINISHED! So I can send it off to the printers and start arguing about typos.

Techno-disasters last week saw me temporarily without phone OR computer, and it felt like being suddenly lobotomised. I no longer knew where I lived or who I was. My message, dear friends, is BACK UP and INSURE.

Three in a bed

It’s always nice to be woken up by two young men getting into bed with you. Admittedly Iggi (aged 6) and Leo (aged 2) are a little younger than I might wish, and were motivated only by the promise that they could have pancakes for breakfast ‘as soon as Jo gets up’, but it was still a pleasure. The boys (and bed) belong to friends Heather and Angus. I got up as instructed, and made myself a cup of tea with one spoonful of salt (unfamiliar kitchen…)

It’s been a typical Bell Jar working week: lots of projects in the air at once, and each one making a bit of progress. Our successful live poetry show Bunch of Fives is about to start up again after a gap of six weeks, so I’ve been promoting it via email, press releases and an interview on Radio Nottingham. We had an exhausting day-long rehearsal with our serene Zen-like director Kevin Dyer. I also met with the National Trust, for whom I am poet in residence at a conference next month, and even remembered to send in some invoices. Also confirmed a booking for Friday 18th January, to read at Neston with the new improved Cheshire Poet Laureate.

National Poetry Day remains a mainstay and a source of full-on challenges. We are trying very hard to find kindly donors and reliable long-term funding. Sustainability is a word which the Arts Council is trying to drum into artistic brains all over the cultural sector, and NPD is no exception. I’ve been arranging meetings in London and in Liverpool.

In the midst of all this, I had to find time for everyone’s worst working nightmare – the one where your hard disk turns to jelly and ALL your data – photographs, personal and professional material, iTunes folder with 2000 tunes and poems on it – is seemingly lost forever. I had, dear reader, backed up the most important stuff – and as I write it seems that a friendly hacker may be able to get the data back. But it did put the willies up me, as Kenneth Williams might have said. Let this be a lesson to you all…. stop reading this, go forth and back up!

Happy New… hic

Dear readers, I know how it looks. But really, there is no connection between The Case of the Missing Blog and my happy reunion with alcohol after a month of teetotalitarianism (foolishly pledged in the middle of the mulled wine season). Nor have I been lying in a dark room weeping helplessly at the loss of my Cheshire Poet Laureate crown, which has now passed on to another lucky person… I just forgot.

The New Year starts with resolutions (write 30 new poems, put a new show together, conquer the world with poetry, remember to write blog) ; and also with lots of activity. The boat engineer came and confirmed that my vast engine was not harmed by my stubborn polar expedition (see Shackleton of the Macc, below), though my propellor is probably the size of a lollipop after hacking through all that ice. My Cheshire Poet Laureate ‘minder’ came over to discuss the handover to the new chap; and we continue to take orders for Lifemarks, which is almost sold out now. I am also plotting and planning for a year of new events including a St George’s Day feast of poetry and English food, and a possible successor to our sell-out show Bunch of Fives.

This week, though, I have mostly been looking over the loose heap of efforts that will soon be my book Navigation, in the light of comments by the three critical friends who bravely read it over Christmas. No-one loves to be critiqued – it’s like taking all your clothes off and asking strangers to point out your wobbly bits. But half of British television now consists of exactly that… Critiquing is vital to improving your writing. Anyone who shies away from it, saying ‘my friends and family love it,’ and taking umbrage at more serious comment, deserves to be hoist by their own pentameter. So I girded my loins, sent out my MS to three poetic people, and two have returned comments already. Either they’ve been very gentle with me, or I have less work to do than I had feared. And of course, all my friends and family love it.

Recorded my new podcast this afternoon with Rob, the splendid sound technician who happily for me, moors on a nearby boat.  It may sound a bit rough as I’m struggling with my magnificent annual cough, which is of epic proportions better suited to Dolly Parton’s chest than to mine. Tune in soon for more… if I’m spared…

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