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An Interview with Frieda Hughes

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Photo: Frieda Hughes, 400 DAYS, Chichester Cathedral

We caught up with Frieda Hughes, one of this year’s Poetry Prize 2017 judges. Although this prize has now closed, Frieda will begin reading your entries in the coming weeks. In this interview, she gives poets advice on how to make  tells us why she loves judging poetry competitions

You’ve got an exhibition in Chichester Cathedral this summer, along with a new poetry collection, Out Of The Ashes, to be published in autumn by Bloodaxe Books. How do you find time to write between all your other projects?

Frieda Hughes: It’s difficult to fit all the work that I want to get done, into the time that it is possible to be awake! I inevitably have piles of filing and paperwork waiting for my attention among other things. But really, when I’m working on a book, or an exhibition, everything else has to fall away and I become very focussed. The exception was my project, 400 DAYS, which is a panel comprising 400 10inch by 14inch oil-on-canvas paintings, one for each of 400 consecutive days of my life, finishing on 31st December 2016, which is included in my Chichester exhibition, together with the paintings from my recent poetry collection Alternative Values.

For 400 days I lived and worked through each day as normal – and did a great deal of writing – then painted my ‘daily painting’ at night, as my visual diary of that day.  It was exhausting!

As someone who has judged many prizes, including both the Forward Prize and National Poetry Competition, what role do you think competitions have in the development of a poet?

I believe that poetry competitions bring poetry to the attention of a wider public, because anyone can enter, and they might encourage someone who hasn’t thought of poetry seriously, to focus their attention; the hope of a prize and recognition can be very appealing.  And for the lucky winners, the cash prizes are a welcome bonus, as well as having the satisfaction of seeing their work receive the critical validation it must surely deserve, outside publication in magazines and books.  Reading the poems for me, as a judge, is always an education because there are as many different points of view in poetry as there are poets; I find the journey through the observations, ideas and emotions of the contributors is a thought-provoking privilege and a pleasure.

Do you have any advice for poets who are in the process of entering poetry competitions?

Keep writing, and read every poem you write, out loud each time you work on it, and through every draft.  Reading out loud exposes the weaknesses in poetry – and prose – that our eyes and minds gloss over when we skim through it otherwise.  Letters and emails should also be read out loud!

Could you tell us three things you’re reading/watching/listening to/thinking about and what you think of whatever that may be?

I’m not watching anything because it means I have to sit still, and I’ve too much else I want to do (write, paint, play with dogs, ferrets and owls, ride motorbikes).  I’m reading my police handbook on being a better motorcyclist, prior to taking my advanced motorbike riding test with IAM (Institute of Advance Motorists).  I’m listening to AC/DC, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Queen, Nickleback, Mental as Anything, to get me through a backlog of intensely testing filing and paperwork, in between trying to finish writing a book about keeping owls.

And finally, what is your all-time favourite poem? Or if that’s too tricky, whose work do you admire the most?

There is no all-time favourite poem as such, because there are too many that I find irresistibly funny, or uplifting, or moving. But there are two poems that mean a great deal to me because they were written for me by my parents: one, by my father, Ted Hughes, is about me as a child: ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’,  and one by my mother, Sylvia Plath, is about me as a baby: You’re’.  If I were allowed to include one of my own, it would be ‘One Last Kiss’ from my recent collection Alternative Values, because it is about being conscious of love and not taking it for granted:

“If that one last kiss is still
The thing you’d long to give someone
Then give it now before they’re gone.
Give it daily; never be caught out
For never passing on
The one last kiss you’d give
Just because you didn’t know
That’s what it was.”                   Frieda Hughes, Alternative Values

Interview by Abi Lofthouse


Our annual Poetry Prize runs 1st May – 30th June. More information here.

Pigeons by Kate Bingham

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Flikr | Dan Phiffer

I

It’s just the same old air a person breathes,
roughly the same respiratory system,
steady compared with ours, the same idea
of hindrance (flesh the breath must travel through,

a bottleneck or valve evolved to please,
an oscillating muscle mechanism)
amplified and at a pitch so nearly
human I, also, love the coo

of doves and wood-pigeons – even these
poor greasy rats-with-wings stop me to listen,
courting in the gutter: throaty, queer,
the thrum of it so low I am confused

for a moment, look up through the sky’s blue glare
to see a small propeller plane not there.

II

They show no interest in a box of chicken
left at the foot of the sickly mountain ash
on Zoffany Street, not even plain white rice
can tempt them, this is not a time to eat

this is the only time to be a pigeon –
his splayed fan-tail, her flirtatious dash,
more like a leap than flight, a flash of thigh
off the tarmac he will strut and sweep

as if to make her under-feathers thicken
fit for two bright little eggs to hatch –
oh let’s take off together somewhere nice
and peck ice-cream and walk our sticky feet

over rooftops, hum in harmony
our favourite love song down people’s chimneys.

III

Because I’ll never know which bird it is,
I have to love – or be able to love – them all
for standing on our terracotta chimney
when I needed something good to hear,

a freak acoustic swooping her or his
rendition of the feral pigeon call
pitched over trees and terraces in ecstasy
down and out through the fireplace, loud and clear

and making me smile as all the great depressives
smile finding they simply can’t recall
the last time anything made them feel so happy,
three floors up but sounding in my ear

a simple five-note song of bird that wants
this almost lost spontaneous response.


Kate Bingham is the author of two novels, several screenplays and three collections of poetry. Quicksand Beach was short-listed for the Forward Prize, Best Collection, in 2006, and in 2010 ‘On Highgate Hill’ was short-listed for the Forward Prize, Best Single Poem. Her third collection is Infragreen (‘full of sensuous, imaginative and beautifully accomplished work’, Poetry Review), from Seren, and her most recent work can be found in ‘Five Poems’, a leaflet available from Clutag Press. Find out more at katebingham.com.

Poetry and the Public by Paul Gittins

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The prestigious T.S. Eliot Award in January that kicked off the poetry establishment’s crowded calendar of poetry competitions served to highlight the ever widening gap between the poetry featured in the competitions and the poetry reading public.  Any doubt on this matter can be dispelled by figures from The Bookseller.  They show that the small publishers who specialize in publishing  the experimental poetry that is so prevalent in the competitions actually make up a comparatively small part of poetry sales and that it is the traditional titles that drive the market.

The reasons for this estrangement are obvious.  With so many competitions throughout the year – the Aldeburgh First Collection Award, Costa Poetry Award, T.S.Eliot Award, Faber New Poets, Forward Prize, Ted Hughes Award, Dylan Thomas Prize, to name just a few of them – it is no wonder that the pressure mounts on the judges to find yet another ‘breathtaking, bracing, boundary-bending, genre-defying debut’ and not surprising if the entrants reciprocate in kind.  This attitude, one might say requirement, was well illustrated last year by the chair of the Forward Poetry Prizes, Malika Booker, who declared that the shortlist displayed ‘a breaking down of barriers within and around poetry.’  Her comment was echoed by Ruth Padel, chair of the recent T.S.Eliot Award, who stated that the small publishers are ‘radically altering the landscape of contemporary poetry.’

It is not too imaginative at this point to make a sporting analogy.  If the goal-posts in football are being constantly moved or removed altogether, it begs the question as to how the game is to be judged or even refereed and would certainly encourage indiscriminate commentary.  The same is  true of poetry.  As a result of the open playing field for composition encouraged by the judges, a whole profession of journalistic interpreters is deemed necessary to explain the meaning of much of the poetry in the written poetry competitions.  But having to rely on someone to explain the meaning of a piece does not necessarily make anything clearer.  An article in The Guardian last year on the poem ‘Too Solid Flesh’ in Vahni Capildeo’s winning entry (‘Measures of Expatriation’) in the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection, explained the appearance of the skeletal ghost of an Arawak woman as ‘contextualized within an interrogation of corporeality.’ Sometimes, the compositions selected for prizes would challenge even the ingenuity of an interpreter, as in the opening lines of Tiphanie Yanique’s  ‘Last Yanique Nation’ from her Collection ‘Wife’  (winner of the same Forward Prize for Best First Collection): ‘The pit in my womb where the doctor lover/ says is my self, is not a nation/ My soul is called Che, as in Guevara,/ but my body has not died for the nation/ I told my enemy I loved her, as/ I love my nation Guevara,/ was no coward which means he tended towards/ fool I want to be a fool in love and thus/ a fool for this nation ….’

This interpretive requirement for so much of the baffling poetry put forward for competitions is also actively encouraged by many of the poets themselves.  Amongst the poets on the T.S. Eliot Award shortlist, Ian Duhig makes no bones about the abstruseness of much of his poetry, asserting in an interview on Writers Aloud in March 2016 that if anyone is having a problem understanding his work or references, they should make the effort to look them up for themselves. Rachel Boast adds her own version of complexity when seeing poetry ‘as a way of training ourselves to be able to access what we don’t know we know, through language.’ While Bernard O’Donaghue is even more dogmatic, stating that ‘Poetry has to be the product of thought and stand up to cross-examination.’ But should poetry be like a crossword puzzle, requiring the services of lexicon and interpreter?

It is perhaps not surprising that many people, especially younger people, are more attracted to poetry festivals, where rap and performance poetry are seen as more entertaining.  But entertainment and popularity are not necessarily yardsticks of quality in spite of Simon Armitage’s recommendation of the performance artist, Kate Tempest, in his first lecture as the Oxford Professor of Poetry in October 2015.  In a bizarre comment to justify his opinion, he cited one of her poems ‘On Clapham Pond at Dawn’ in which the word ‘you’ is used as a line ending nine times in just twenty-four lines, together with similar sounding line endings such as ‘new, true, through, view, do.’  Anticipating the obvious criticism that this does not exactly give credit to her rhyming skills, he went on to say that ‘the visual printed manifestations of the work fail to convey that winning combination of verbal dynamism and disarming innocence.’  But poetry should surely stand up in its own right on the page.

In contrast to the high profile nature of the written poetry competitions and the razzmatazz of the performance poetry productions, a less publicized but arguably more influential project in the long term is now in its fifth year.  The Poetry Archive’s  Poetry by Heart contests  involved nearly four hundred secondary schools last year across the country in a series of poetry recitation contests. No interpreters are needed here as it is the  pupils who choose from a prescribed list of one poem pre-1914 and one post-1914.  There are no pecuniary awards.  Prizes are trophies and book presents.  So successful has the project been that it is now branching out to include primary schools.  In this way, pupils are taught a far more balanced approach to the appreciation of poetry that encourages a love and respect for five hundred years of literary tradition as well as an interest in contemporary poetry.  One has to contrast this approach with the frenzied encouragement of experimentation that is so characteristic of the written poetry competitions and which only serves to alienate the reading public.  No doubt, the organizers have their sponsors in mind (especially the Arts Council England) and want to appear innovative and exciting.  But at what cost to poetry?


By Paul Gittins

Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry

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Freud is dangerous territory for poets. He did more than just make his mark on the literature of the twentieth century: he cross-hatched it. Psychoanalysis might have been discredited as a way of understanding the mind, but it still permeates the world of words. Freud’s hold on literature is so extensive that even the phrase describing the author’s fear of repeating what has come before them – ‘the anxiety of influence’ – invokes the Oedipus complex. Freud is so last century, because the last century is saturated with him. Few poets today dare to get near him, unless he’s packaged in allusion and irony. Not so, Emily Berry. Freud’s words – ‘the loss of a mother must be something very strange…’ – form the epigraph of her anthology so that his influence bleeds into each and every of the poems that make up ‘Stranger, Baby.’

She charges at Freud head-on in an affront that sidesteps the risk of cliché, instead abounding in individuality. Freud’s words slip into 35 poems that meditate on grief, lack, and despair – a meditation that, as we hear again and again, can never be answered. ‘Stranger/ Baby’ is unlike other anthologies: it does not attempt to universalise or synthesise loss, but obsessively recapitulates it, runs at it from different directions, all the while knowing that it cannot be tamed. If the collection does not ask questions – or, at least, does not expect answers – it simply screams instead. The poems are beset with the background of a female voice – a voice that we end up suspecting to be autobiographical – that ‘screams and screams without any self-control.’ In the play-poem ‘Tragedy for One Voice’, the screaming becomes the stage directions that form a perennial white noise behind the entire anthology.

Berry’s images are stark and polarised, the forces of fire and water competing throughout the collection. The speaker repeatedly fashions her image as water, the sea, or the curl of a wave, as is made explicit in ‘Tidal Wave Speaks’. The motif breathes life into the oft-repeated poetic exploration of the ineffability of emotions. In Berry’s poetry, it is clear that words fail to heal – the collection attempts to use self-expression as a kind of ‘talking cure’, but the speaker is left realising that this as impossible as an attempt to take hold of the ocean. Time and again, she makes a statement, only to remake and restate: ‘That is what I did./ Laid it all out like tidal wave./ Thought you could in fact/ lay out a tidal wave.’ What emerges is her sense that the process of confronting and turning into poetry her feelings is the experience of coming face to face with an unconstrained force of innumerable power.

Berry’s attempt to turn negative energy into positive through poetry is stated with the grim humour of the title, ‘Now all my poems are about death I feel as though I’m really living.’ The speaker mocks her own attempt to ‘lay it all out’ through poetry – to observe her own grief by putting it into words – by presenting a gauche image in parallel, of photographing herself in the cemetery. Predictably, she finds that the attempt rids her action of authenticity – ‘I pose and yet I cannot pose’ – just as an articulation of grief fails to capture its true face: ‘I wrote this down, regretted it.’ An angry undertone emerges, equating healing with self-effacement; ‘Once’ presents ‘embracing’ grief as welcoming ‘my own/ diminishment’. A desire to be healed emanates from the collection, but it is paired with the realisation that such healing relies on eroding the self. Therapy is spoken about bitterly as a faceless attempt to polish one’s feelings.

Berry’s speaker conveys the gulf between poetic intention and creation. Poetry is stripped of its mystery as the process of creation is described with almost staged self-awareness. What is left is sometimes seen as hollow – the line ‘This is the rain, the October rain’ is unpicked instantaneously by its speaker with ‘I wrote that when it was still October/ It must have been raining.’ There are points where Berry herself shies away from the immediacy and starkness of her topic, asking ‘Can you distort my voice when I say this?’ – ‘So people don’t know it’s me.’ At times the realisation that poetry is not big enough to contain the sea of the speaker’s grief is bleak; at others, the resulting chaos is shown to be what invests the poems with such power. As the Tidal Wave itself says ‘Tidal Wave don’t sing… Tidal Wave crash.’

Indeed, this is powerful poetry. But it is also clever, modern, and playful. Berry refuses to withhold any of her poetic artillery; she experiments with form boldly, an experiment that might fail in the hands of a weaker writer. The poems modulate between different rhythms and styles, delighting in the elasticity of poetry. Some mischievously challenge the criticism of ‘prose-like’ poetry, others are laconic in their staccato lines; one converts the speaker’s conflicting feelings into dichotomous voices in a play. Sometimes, as in ‘Song’, Berry looks to other poets for answers. Here she responds to Luna Miguel, referring to Miguel’s tattoo of a mermaid representing her mother to inhabit tentatively her own mother’s psyche, paradoxically giving herself up to death and believing that it will save her. ‘Aura’ is a poem that revels in its own form, a visible chasm between the speaker and her mother that is bridged, movingly, in one line.

The destructive power of absence is quick, fierce, and brutal in these poems. Sitting in her mother’s cemetery, the speaker asks questions of her mother, breaking her own rule that only the ‘idealistic’ expect answers of their questions. She is forced to answer herself, and that lack becomes palpable when ‘Your silence reaches out from inside me and meets itself on the outside.’ The blank space left by the speaker’s mother creeps inside of her, linking the visible, external lack of a mother with the resulting emptiness inside in a destructive circle that ironically mimics the closed circle of mother and child. Berry’s second anthology, ‘Stranger, baby’ generates a high voltage; its energy feels dangerous for both writer and reader, and no one who reads it will deny the sparks that fly off it.

By Charanpreet Khaira 


Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry, Faber, £10.99

Falling Awake by Alice Oswald

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‘The whole challenge of poetry’, Alice Oswald once wrote, ‘is to keep language open, so that what we don’t yet know can pass through it’. Her new collection, Falling Awake, is proof of this: full of poems that are somehow both spare and spacious, it is held together by her vision that language ought to be continuously re-made – and always revelatory.

The most striking poems in this volume are brief and tightly-formed, resembling woodcuts in their ability to record strokes of light and shade. Rarely longer than a page, they employ quick, untrammelled lines to sketch the contours of a scene –

——————I heard a cough
——————as if a thief was there
——————outside my sleep
——————a sharp intake of air

————————————(from ‘Fox’)

The simplicity, however, is deceptive. These carefully-knit pieces position themselves as heirs to a long alliterative aural tradition, and rely on the inner music of each line (as heard in ‘as if a thief‘, or ‘sharp intake of air‘) to echo in the mind. Some draw directly on the onomatopoetic potential of both familiar and invented words to illuminate moments which would have been imperceptible to the eye, but not the ear. One such poem, ‘Sz’, places a finger on the ‘first faint breeze of unrest / no louder than the sound of the ear unzipping’. Oswald’s confident grasp of the English language’s dynamic range allows her to employ with considerable finesse such resonant instruments which almost certainly would have rung hollow in the hands of a lesser craftswoman.

Other poems ‘keep language open’ by wresting form into service of both the narrative and melodic line. ‘Village’ presents fragments of a longer poem previously featured in ‘Under Glass’, a performance by the Clod Ensemble; structured entirely in quatrains, it speaks directly to the reader in vivid portraits of a hamlet’s inhabitants (‘that’s him in the rain now / somebody with a tread like that / very chilblain slow with a lump on his toe…’), propelling itself forwards on the momentum of each stanza. ‘Dunt’, which won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2007, is another long poem whose form resembles its subject matter. Beginning in a trickle (‘try again / a Roman water nymph made of bone / very endangered now / in a largely unintelligible monotone’), it builds into a majestic river of language –

——————and they say oh they say
——————it would flood through five valleys
——————there’d be cows and milking stools
——————washed over the garden walls
——————and when it froze you could skate for five miles          yes go on

It’s impossible not to hear in these lines echoes of Dart and A Sleepwalk on the Severn, which previously established Oswald as an expert navigator of both custom and invention.

While Oswald’s stylistics lend themselves to evoking signs of life, death and decay are as much a part of her observations. In ‘Cold Streak’, Oswald writes: ‘I notice the fatigue of flowers / weighed down by light / I notice the lark has a needle / pulled through its throat’. Half-rhyme and stepped meter combine with the startling images here to remind us that the world uncovered in these poems is no straightforward rural idyll. Pieces like ‘Flies’, ‘Body’, and ‘Severed Head Floating Downriver’ focus even more directly on scenes of life’s cycles. Oswald drives home such reminders of transience with clues of the finitude of language itself. ‘Slowed-down Blackbird’, for example, centres on the scene of ‘three people in the snow / getting rid of themselves / breath by breath’ – evoking the ache of a long walk in winter – in which even the trees are ‘exhausted / tapping at the sky’. Overhead, the watchful blackbird (a foil for the poet, perhaps?) is at a loss for words:

——————trying over and over its broken line
——————trying over and over its broken line

Crucially, Oswald’s mortal landscape is also an inhabited one. On the periphery, ‘walkers float / on the wings of their macs’, while the foreground – where ‘three rivers spring to their tasks / in … indecent hills’ – is peopled by geographical elements with very human qualities (‘A Drink From Cranmere Pool’). Standing in as nature’s divining-wand (to borrow Heaney’s memorable image), Oswald herself is ever there, her attentive ‘I’ always alive to its impact on the surroundings. As she writes in ‘Shadow’, ‘if I stand / if I move one hand / I hear the hiss of flowers closing their eyelids’. We get a rare glimpse of her in third-person in ‘You Must Never Sleep Under A Magnolia’ (a mother’s voice: ‘Alice, you should / never sleep under / so much pure pale’), but such distancing turns of speech are uncommon overall. More often, we are drawn into an immersive, intensely-observed landscape where Oswald dwells and her (human and non-human) interlocutors.

The book finishes with the text of one long, performance poem (‘Tithonus’), linked with a brief, concluding piece (‘And So He Goes On’), both of which exploit – and exalt in – the qualities of Oswald’s poetry described above. With its sonorous lilt (and in Cape’s elegant presentation), ‘Tithonus’ moves persuasively between page and stage, stalking a liminal space analogous to that which its title character occupies between night and dawn. It takes a rare and formidable poet to conjure a sonic landscape which most of her readers have only heard in their sleep – and summon, at the same time, Hamlet’s ghost, Grendel, and other creatures of the half-dark. Oswald steps bravely to the task, and with an insistent care for the sounds we have become deaf to, writes to convince us that there is still a language for the shock of being alive.

By Theophilus Kwek



Falling Awake, 
Alice Oswald, Cape Poetry, 2016, £10