Something strange happened at Leicester University in 2017. Attenborough Tower became quiet. The pasternoster that had been hosting LiftLit, writing from MA students, broke down. Spare parts could not be sourced but had to be built from scratch so the decision was taken to remove it.

PaternosterA Paternoster lift is a chain of open compartments that constantly run in a steady loop allowing people to step on and off at will. Generally passengers are discouraged from travelling over the top or under the bottom of each loop, but, have you tried to tell students not to do something?

Corinne Fowler, Associate Professor for the university’s Centre of New Writing, put a call out for poems about the paternoster that had been in the Attenborough Tower. Poems were written by academic and professional services staff, alumni, students and poets. Some were collated in “Poetanoster”, a souvenir pamphlet published to coincide with an event in the Digital Reading Room at the David Wilson Library on the university campus. It took place on the university’s open day for both prospective students and alumni. I dare say that some of the audience were there for the novelty of the event, but left with a pamphlet.

Poetanoster poetry pamphletAfter an introduction based on the pamphlet’s introduction, Mike Simpson read his poem, “In memory of the Attenborough Tower Paternoster (1970-2017)”, which he explained was more of an email subject line than a title. The poem is a farewell with fondness.

Colin Hyde and Corinne Fowler co-wrote a play on the word “paternoster”. Corinne couldn’t be there on the day, but Colin was on hand to read “Things to do in a Paternoster” with suggestions including, “Poetanoster – write poems/ Pondernoster – plan seminars/ Porternoster – drink dark beer, also consult a porter/ Portillonoster – transport envy/ Imposternoster – lift posing as paternoster/ Poseanoster – Byronic comportment”.

Scott Freer’s “My Paternoster” takes inspiration from “The Waste Land” and looks over Leicester as he rides, “And HMP Leicester meets my eyes on the twelfth./ When I get to the top, I start all over again”.

Rod Duncan had in mind the Fall from Grace and how leaving home as a student could be seen that way. The paternoster “That clanking ride of no stops/ felt like a kind of trespassing/ but was, I suppose/ our smallest sin that year.”

Mike, Colin and Corinne all work or have worked at Leicester University and Scott and Rod were alumni. I have no connection, other than attending literary events and reading poems at a previous International Women’s Day event. There is a balance between genders in the pamphlet but I was the only women’s voice on the day. Therefore I didn’t feel greedy reading two poems, particularly as time permitted. My first, “Echoes of Journeys” finishes on the image that each paternoster journey has elements that are both unique and universal, just as the transition from teenager to adult does.

Passenger in paternosterMy second, “Wishing Not to be Stalled”, is more topical and finishes, “…I might be alone in this/ paternoster but it’s not the same aloneness/ as when I was threatened, dodged gropes,/ told, whilst wearing school uniform, I could earn/ extra in my lunch break in the red light district,/ when I was the only woman in a venue watching/ a band I had to review. #MeToo. I stand/ in this compartment, dare myself to go over the top/ and pray the momentum continues the revolution.”

The introduction states, “Poetanoster is a reminder of poetry’s power for the collective, for community, for everyday life. The paternoster broke just as MA students’ writing began to appear on the Attenborough Tower lift, an initiative called LiftLit. During International Women’s Day 2018, we placed poems all over campus. This leaflet joins these other initiatives in the hope that poetry might one day become a permanent feature of campus life: Leicester’s landmark literature.” I hope it does.



Leicester Writers’ Club hosts Carys Davies, short story writer and novelist from 7-9pm on Thursday 21 June 2018 at Phoenix Square 4 Midland Street Leicester LE1 1TG. £5 on the door for non-members. More details at Leicester Writers’ Club hosts Carys Davies.





Literary events in Leicestershire for June 2018

June’s a busy month in Leicestershire:

7 June 1pm Loughborough University Arts Festival Dr Kerry Featherstone in Conversation with Kate Rhodes

7 June 5.30-7pm Mahsuda Snaith and Rob Palk read from and talk about their first novels at Room 0.01 Clephan Building De Montfort University. Free entry.

9 June 10.30am Poetanoster, Digital Reading Room David Wilson Library Leicester University. Free entry and free souvenier pamphlet of poems inspired by the former paternoster lifts in the Attenborough Tower read at the event.

11 June 6pm The Art of the Poem with Pam Thompson and Simon Perril Room 0.01 Clephan Building De Montfort University. Free entry.

12 June 1pm Poetry workshop at Loughborough University with Shruti Chauhan

12 June 6.30pm Carol Leeming and Richard Byrt Needle and Pin, The Rushes Loughborough. Open mic slots available – sign up on the night.

12 June 6.30pm Leicester Book Prize Readings at the Exchange Bar, Rutland Street, Leicester – part of the Leicester Writes Festival.

16 June 2pm South Leicestershire Poetry Stanza, Leicester Language Academy, New Walk, Leicester. Poetry workshop.

19 June 7.30pm Big Bookshop Bash, Kibworth Cricket Club New Ground. Quiz and supper hosted by the Bookshop as part of Feminist Book Fortnight.

20 June 12 noon De Montfort University hosts readings for Refugee Week in the DSU Atrium.

20 June 7pm Central Library, Bishop Street Leicester, LE1 6AA Leicester Writers’ Showcase features David Wilkinson launching his second science fiction novel set in the Anjelican series featuring Jaq Pilakin.

20 June 7-9pm Soundswrite Press and ArtBeat at Friends Meeting House, Queens Road, Leicester. The event is free and open to all women with an interest in reading and discussing poetry. You are welcome to bring along copies of poems to share or just turn up and enjoy.

21 June 7-9pm Carys Davies is at Leicester Writers’ Club, Phoenix Square, 4 Midland Street, Leicester, LE1 1TG. Talk, reading and question and answer sessions with award-winning short story writer now promoting her debut novel.

26 June 6.30pm The Hybrid Author – join The Writers’ Shed at the Exchange Bar, Rutland Street, Leicester for a discussion on hybrid publishing and how writers can benefit from both traditional and independent publishing. Part of the Leicester Writes festival.

28 June WORD! Attenborough Arts, Lancaster Street, Leicester moved from the first Tuesday of each month to the last Thursday clashing with both Leicester Writers’ Club and Soundswrite.

30 June from 10.30am Leicester Writes Short Story Festival at LCB Depot

In addition Soundswrite are looking for poetry submissions for their Take Three initiative. More details from Soundswrite Press.

Leicester Writers’ Showcase: Leicester and Leicestershire: City and County of Literature 13 December 2017

Michaela Butter (Attenborough Arts) chaired the panel and invited them to “Raise the roof on Leicester’s writers.”

Bobba Cass spoke about how poetry and rhymes had been important to him growing up in Seattle with an English father and American mother. He came to the UK via Nigeria, carrying those poems with him. He felt it important to honour the moment of discovering creativity. He spoke about how inspirational he felt some people in Leicester were which had inspired him to set up PInng…k!, now in its seventh year. He mentioned Carol Leeming, Word!, Lydia Towsey and Tim Sayers’ work at Bradgate Hospital, Michaela Butter, Corinne Fowler, Magnus who ran Galleri Gastur, Alison Dunne, Keith Allott, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Liz Grey, Marcus Joseph, Vijay Mistry (2Funky Arts), Rob Gee, Louise Katerega, Mellow Baku, Peter Buckley, Richard Byrt, Kishan Anand (Anerki) and Dave Donnau.

Emma Lee introduced Leicester Writers’ Club who meet every Thursday at Phoenix Square in Leicester’s cultural quarter. Leicester Writers’ Club’s core business is feedback on works in progress and sharing publishing and marketing tips. The latter becoming more important as publishers are expecting writers to do a lot more marketing – gone are the days of long lunches and publishers putting together marketing plans. The Club also offers advanced masterclasses, talks from industry speakers such as literary agents, social events and a writers’ retreat. Members are novelists, poets, short story writers, scriptwriters and spoken word artists who are widely published in the UK, Europe, North and South America, Africa and New Zealand. Members have been shortlisted for the Carnegie Prize and Philip K Dick awards and prize-winners in, e.g. Writing East Midlands Aurora and Leicester Writes competitions. Members have also judged short story and poetry competitions.

Leicester Writers’ Club Is not insular. The Club itself has held events for Everybody’s Reading, Leicester Writes and takes a stall at States of Independence. Members have performed at most of Leicester’s spoken word nights including Shindig, Word!, Anerki; Novel Exchanges, Cultural Exchanges, The Journeys Festival and supported Refugee Week programmes. Members teach at Writing School East Midlands, lecture in Creative Writing at De Montfort University and two members have set up a writers’ development service to help writers achieve their goals, The Writers’ Shed.

Two Club members have supported Leicester Writers’ Showcase from its inception and all 12 events have featured at least one Club member.

Despite all this the Club and its members feel overlooked and invisible.

Farhana Shaikh of Dahlia Publishing, Leicester Writes and The Asian Writer, spoke of the incredible talent and humility in Leicester. She tries to harness a community where anyone can join in. Dahlia Publishing has provided opportunities, e.g. “Welcome to Leicester” poetry anthology and “Lost and Found: stories of home from Leicestershire writers” short story anthology. Writers should be celebrated a lot more. Leicester Writes monthly meet-up at Bru started in May 2013 and provides an informal space for moral support and to share news. Novel Exchanges, which meets quarterly, features established writers alongside local writers to create a nurturing environment. Leicester achieves a lot despite lack of funding and support. She created a writer’s residency at Bru to disrupt normal writing commissions which focus on history or cultural traditions to try to break down barriers to getting people involved.

The Leicester Writes Short Story competition was set up with support from BBC Radio Leicester and the Bristol Short Story prize. It had a Leicester launch and, of 102 entries, 50% were from within Leicestershire. Local talent stood up in comparison with national talent. Leicester can acknowledge that Leicester writers are talented. Initiatives like Leicester Writes Short Story Competition enables Leicester’s talent to see how it is doing and shows there is talent here. Leicester Writes Festival was set up to celebrate that talent and offer workshops for local writers. It also brought meet the publisher/pitch your novel events to Leicester by inviting London-based publishers and agents.

Dahlia Publishing champions regional and diverse voices. She concluded, “It’s a shame to feel invisible.”

Matthew Pegg of Mantle Lane Arts and Mantle Lane Press based in Coalville talked about how they had started as a group who organised festivals, went into schools, libraries and worked with community groups but felt they’d become too diverse and lacked identity. After Matthew had completed a Creative Writing MA at Nottingham Trent University so felt writing would be a good focus. Set up the Red Lighthouse project offering writer support and development, creative writing community projects and a small press publisher aimed at children’s and Young Adult writers. Created two writing for children events, Wolves and Apples including readings and masterclasses. The third Wolves and Apples event will be on 17 March 2018 with Celia Rees and Linda Newbery at Ramada Encore in Leicester aimed at beginners. Also looking to set up a training course for writers in participatory work, e.g. going into schools, libraries, etc. Started a songwriting project for people with dementia which will lead to a CD. Undertakes playwriting in schools with Curve and assistance from Rob Gee which will end in a showcase event at Curve. Mantle Lane Arts is also setting up a literary festival in Coalville with Joanne Harris as the main guest. Mantle Lane Press started with an oral history and branched out into small format books, a good size for poetry pamphlets and novellas, and anthologies. A third anthology and two further small format books are planned so far. The press was an interesting learning curve, especially on marketing. Non-fiction books are easier to market based on the topic. Fiction and poetry heavily rely on author involvement. Mantle Lane has supported the recent exhibition in Coalville about the first 50 volunteers who signed up to join the First World War and is undertaking a project with the National Trust based in the West Midlands.

Michaela Butter liked Bobba Cass’s idea of not being tied to the page, that the Leicester Writers’ Club were not insular, Leicester Writes’ creating space for anyone, disrupting models through commissions and inviting national organisations to come to Leicester, and Mantle Lane Arts reaching out to children.

Discussion from the floor talked about the cross-over between literary arts and other arts such as visual arts and music and recognising those talents in writers. Leicester was felt to be vibrant but lacked local support, e.g. it was easier to get a book reviewed in the Washington Post than in the Leicester Mercury. There was a mention of paying artists properly; there was a heavy reliance on voluntary work to organise events which meant performers weren’t always paid. Leicester has an eco-system of beginners to professionals. Farhana Shaikh talked about how she’d got funding to do a series of workshops in a local library because travel costs can deter people taking part in central events. Emma Lee said that if writers approached Leicester Writers’ Club and it was clear they didn’t have the experience to join, the Club pointed them in the direction of other, more relevant groups and Writing School East Midlands. Matthew Vaughan of Leicester Libraries talked about the libraries having an intern and one of the intern’s jobs would be to create a directory of writers’ organisations in Leicester/shire.

After an interval, during which a significant number of the audience left because it had begun snowing, the panel reconvened.

Henderson Mullin, CEO Writing East Midlands talked about WEM and its role as a catalytic organisation which worked to help writers help themselves. There were limitations due to funding and WEM having the equivalent of 3.5 full time staff. WEM offers writers one to one advice, mentoring, critical reads, Writing School East Midlands, writers’ conference and residencies. He briefly discussed the literary scenes in Norwich which highlights internationalism supported by UEA and its UNESCO City of Literature Status. Edinburgh is focused around its festival. Manchester is lively and recently won UNESCO City of Literature status. Birmingham’s scene was growing stronger, especially in Moseley. Nottingham was coalescing around its UNESCO City of Literature status. Derby had a book festival and was developing their spoken word scene through a couple of collaborative and motivated individuals. The common thread in all these successes was a sense of identity and strong theme. There were questions: did these initiatives benefit everybody, who gets prioritised, who controls  projects, how these effect diversity and multiplicity and whether literature can become part of the city’s culture, e.g. involve universities and local authorities?

James Urquhart Relationship Manager Arts Council England (ACE), talked about the richness and diversity of the scene in Leicester. ACE’s mission was achieving art for everyone and he was positive about the role of volunteers. He asked how writers can reach out to new audiences and felt raising the profile of writers relied on developing and sharing audiences and sharing and promoting each other. He cited the example of a project done by Maria Taylor where three “page poets” and three “stage poets” were invited to share a stage. He mentioned looking at creating partnerships and looking at non-arts organisations and potential funders, reaching out to Leicester’s twin cities and investigate touring and/or inviting festivals to Leicester. ACE were not there to tell artists what to do, it was down to artists to approach with ideas. He finished by asking, “Who are you invisible to?”

This last point provoked a discussion about organisations such as ACE reaching out to artists who might feel they couldn’t initiate contact either because they didn’t know what the organisations could do or felt jargon was a barrier. James Urquhart responded that, like WEM, he had a large area to cover and didn’t have the resources to do outreach as well. The point about funding bodies not being directional was mentioned. James was asked why ACE didn’t recognise stand-up comedy as an art, a question he couldn’t answer.

It was felt Leicester needed more confidence in what it was doing to create a joined-up picture and perhaps this event could create that forum. At this point the meeting was wound up – it was 9.30pm and the snow was getting worse.

There will be follow up meetings likely to take place in July and December 2018.


David Olusoga Literary Leicester 18 November 2017

David OlusogaDavid Olusoga has fond memories of Leicester after studying for his masters degree at the university, but, to start his talk, he went further back to studying history at school. He remembered history being chopped up and divided commonly into British History or European History, so history felt incomplete and Black history fell between the gaps. Both common divisions ignored non-white people. Yet history is full of non-white people and Britain’s history is interwoven with Africa. This is shown by relics in street and place names plus financial history. The history of slavery became a specialist subject so was dropped from mainstream syllabi and was given euphemisms like ‘West India trade’ or, the one I remember from school days, ‘the Spice Trade’. It is easy for historians and teachers of history to play down or skip over what was happening outside Britain.

Yet Black British History is often hidden in plain sight. For example, Nelson’s Column in London has four bas-reliefs near its base and one of them, by John Edward Carew is called ‘The Death of Nelson’ and features an African, one of 18 men enlisted from Africa. Of course the Victorians who build the column didn’t care for tokenism or political correctness. The man is there because he was there.

The current trend for tracing family trees, which David Olusoga supports because it keeps records open for access, has seen some discover that there were Africans or slave owners in their history too.

David Olusoga asked the audience to consider the origins of the word ‘guinea’. The common association is with the 1000 and 2000 guinea stakes at Newmarket race course. At one point, business and services, such as legal, often used guineas on their price lists to confer a higher status on their goods and services. The guinea coin was produced from the Guinea coast and minted by the Royal African Company. The Royal African Company were also the largest slave trader, up to 150000 slaves, who were branded with ‘RAC’ or ‘DY’ on their chests. ‘DY’ was representative of James, Duke of York, whom New York is named after. The Royal African Company had a Royal Charter so could call on the British Royal Navy to protect its ships and fortresses. Without that context, guinea has just become a word or the name of a horse race.

Another example of how origins have been obscured is in the War of Jenkins’ Ear. In 1738 Britain was at war with Spain. The excuse for going to war with Spain took place in Cuba where the British ship Rebecca was intercepted by the Spanish ship La Isabela. The captain of the latter assumed British captain wasn’t taking the situation seriously enough so the Spaniard cut the British Captain’s ear off. Spaniards know the war as The Guerra del Asiento, a war over the treaty where Britain had a right to supply an unlimited number of slaves to Spanish colonies. But refering to this as the War of Jenkins’ Ear means the origins are obscured.

The UCL’s Legacy of Slave Ownership project has revealed that slavery contributed 9-10% to Britain’s ecomony at its height, roughly equivalent to the contribution made by the City of London today. The South Sea Bubble is often told as an economic story that overlooks the part that the slave trade played in the bursting of that bubble.

When growing up, David Olusoga felt he wasn’t being told his own history. Lessons focused on the Industrial Revolution and he was taken on visits to cotton mills, mines and factories but never told where the cotton came from. The roots of current management culture are actually in Caribbean plantations, not the cotton mills of Lancashire. His comment, “There’s a point at which omission begins to look a lot like a lie.”

In a recent You Gov poll, 59% thought the British Empire was something to be proud of. In the 1920s, 1 in 4 people were British subjects. Britain was the first superpower. Yet the British are good at overlooking the sources of what are consider national products. For example, tea: grown in India, taken with milk from Dutch cows and sugar from the Caribbean. There was much media fuss when it was claimed that chicken tikka masla had overtaken fish ‘n’ chips as the national dish. But Walter Raleigh introduced the potato from South America and battered fish is a recipe from Portuguese Jewish refugees.

With some laughter and a lot of applause, David Olusoga prepared to take questions. The first asked his thoughts on Germans making learning about the Holocaust compulsory. David Olusoga responded that Holocaust teachings overlooked the holocaust in Northern Africa but teaching history has always been political. His priority is not to have special classes on Black History but integrate Black History into mainstream classes. David Olusoga supports the Black Cultural Archives and hopes this will provide a model for others. However, the Black Cultural Archives have to suceed because, if it fails, it provides an excuse not to bother creating others.

He said he was surprised when others bristled at discovering there were blacks in Britain before slavery – the Romans had used North African slaves to build Hadrian’s Walls and paintings of Georgian country houses sometimes showed blacks. He couldn’t understand why this could be seen as a threat to national identity. But he suspected the answer lay in the way history was taught and that its current insular, islanded approach enabled people to ignore the bits they found uncomfortable.

The final question was about Banjo TV, his production company. David Olusoga explained that teenagers can spot hypocrisy a mile off and when he visited a school and quoted the statistic about British Blacks being less likely to set up their own businesses, he felt he ought to lead by example. At this point, he had to leave to catch a train.

David Olusoga entertained and informed without being accusatory or making people uncomfortable. He made an excellent case for expanding history to include where cotton came from, how sugar got to the UK and Britain’s economic history without omission.

Over Land Over Sea at the Poetry Cafe with Exiled Writers Ink

At the invitation of Exiled Writers Ink, “Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” was featured at the Poetry Cafe at The Poetry Place on Monday 1 August. There were readings from ten contributors scheduled with a possibility of an open mic, time permitting, afterwards. Jennifer Langer of Exiled Writers Ink introduced the evening by mentioning forthcoming Exiled Writers Ink events.

It was great to see a large audience: the venue was filled. Rather than have a lengthy introduction about “Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge,” I introduced the first reading contributor, Jasmine Heydari. Jasmine was bought up in Sweden and we were fortunate she happened to be in London. She is Iranian and her poems are inspired by her experiences of the Iran-Iraq war and she often writes from a child’s perspective, as her poem “The First Time” which is narrated by a child who has just learnt the letter “w” at school and ends, “and as the windows performed their dance and walls crumbled, I dreamt of a world where war was just a word scribbled underneath wooden desks and wished for another first time.”

Trevor Wright was next to read, starting with his “Over Land Over Sea” contribution, “Yalla,” which starts,

“Shadowed by fissured rock,
fingers funnelling cooling sand,
the pull of the moon carving
the rhythm I need to pierce
the gloom, smell the horizon,
taste futures.”

Trevor had travelled down from Nottingham. Our next poet had travelled across from the West Country. Tania Hershman who has two short story collections from Tangent Press and her poetry pamphlet, “Nothing Here is Wild, Everything is Open.” She started with Joanne Limburg’s poem “So Many Set Out” and read a poem from her new pamphlet as well as both her poems from “Over Land Over Sea,” “Relativity” and “The Observer Paradox” where a man with a box of knives has been trying to bargain with restaurant staff while diners may or may not have seen him, it ends

.                         When he gets home,
boxes intact, will the fact that you
saw him make any difference
at all? What’s a poem to a person

with a room full of boxes
and boxes of unsold
and unwanted knives?”

Martin Johns had travelled to the Poetry Cafe from Northampton. He read three poems plus his contribution to “Over Land Over Sea,” “Consignment,”

“He’s cold, cold as the desert night, but met
by the warmth of a soft voice.

He hears only softness,
tastes sandwiches that respect his faith.
As his erstwhile liberator recognises

himself, all men and women
in the black mirror of those wide eyes
before they arrive to take him away.”

Caroline Rooney, Professor of African and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Kent, gave the last reading before the interval. Her poems often explore the way refugees can lose their voices by, e.g. documentary makers, who try to frame another’s story through their own prejudices rather than letting their subject speak with their own words. “People like to make films about me” ends

“Or why not ask me about the sweetened black tea and goat’s cheese?
Or ask me about the moped I left behind.
I thank you for your offer to write a poem about me.
I hope you’ll excuse the little I’ve sent on.
As for me? I’d like to direct a movie, to bring you
The bringing of where I am from.
You’ll see. It won’t be the same as the words about me.”

After the break, Daniel O’Donnell-Smith continued with a tribute to Elee, a friend who’d sadly passed away earlier in the day. His poem “and the sea did give up those dead in it” (quote from “Revelation 20:13”) explores the break down in language that occurs after trauma, both first hand or second hand where those who try to help vicariously live the lives of those they seek to help. It’s based around the phrase, “I enjoy great privilege those around me suffer immeasurably.”

Next was Barbara Saunders, a grandchild of Russian refugees who now teaches English to children of refugees. Her poem, “A Memorable Journey” takes a child’s viewpoint and is based on George McKay Brown’s “The Horse Fair” and starts with a group of children being instructed to write about an exciting or memorable journey and ends,

“I held on by my nails
men climbed out of the sea
someone shouted at me
are you dead or alive

the moon was gone
and my brother was gone
I was dead but they
picked me out of the sea
now I am in this country

Fantastic effort! Thank you so much for sharing.”

Hubert Moore has published eight collections of poetry and has been a writing mentor for Freedom from Torture. One of his poems for “Over Land Over Sea” looks at preparing donated clothes for wear by charity recipents. He also loves birds and their lack of respect for borders. His second “Over Land Over Sea” poem “Pedestrians” looks at “men on the long hard shoulder/ between Junctions 5 and 6,/ between entry / and almost certain removal” and ends

“There is no stopping
on their motorway.
Wait till the overhead sees,
announces its kindly truisms:

Ambrose Musiyiwa at the Poetry CafeAt least there are birds. Malka Al-Haddad had wanted to travel down but wasn’t able to on the day so I read her poem “Children of War” before announcing our final reader, Ambrose Musiyiwa. Ambrose read from his poem “The Man who Ran Through the Tunnel” and a selection of micropoems from “The Gospel According to Bobba”. We rounded off the “Over Land Over Sea” part of the evening with a joint reading from Carmina Masoliver’s “The Sinking Ship.” Her poem is presented in two columns so we read in two voices with one voice for each column, one voice belongs to a refugee setting out with hope, the second to an observer questioning where refugees come from.

There was just enough time for three open mic readings. The first reader explored the contrast between the normality of wearing a headscarf in her own country with it taking on an almost political significance in the county she lives in now where reactions to her headscarf have been different. The second reader had a love song to his former country. The third reader, a nine-year-old, had a poem which explored reasons for homeless and why we shouldn’t just walk on by.

A big thank you to Exiled Writers Ink for inviting us.

Over Land Over Sea at the Poetry Cafe

Over Land Over Sea

“The Venus Papers” Lydia Towsey book launch

Lydia Towsey The Venus PapersAttenborough Centre, Leicester University, Lancaster Road Leicester 29 September 2015.

Lydia Towsey is already well-known in Leicester as a spoken word artist, coordinator for Word!, Leicester’s spoken word evening, for being one of Three The Hard Way, lead of workshops in the NHS and tutor for Writing East Midlands. So it seemed an anomaly that a first collection seemed to be a long time coming. “The Venus Papers” falls into two sections, her poetry sequence “The Venus Papers”, looking at modern life through the eyes of a 15th century goddess who moves from innocence to experience, and the non-Venus poems which explore similar themes, looking at families, relationships and friendships with a wry wit and compassion. In picking poems to read at her launch, Lydia was spoilt for choice.

Jonathan Taylor, novelist, poetic, publisher and lecturer at Leicester University’s Centre for Creative Writing, introduced Lydia Towsey’s work emphasising how her poems’ musicality lifts them during performance and their written lyricism means they work as page poems too.

Lydia started with “October” which includes “The air is cool with the stench of roses;/ I hold his hand – hosanna, incanto” and ends “summer is dead/ Long live the autumn,” thus beginning on a celebratory note. The night had a lot of firsts, first book, first baby (Lydia’s daughter is two months old), her first reading as a mother.

“The Don’t Look Dance” was accompanied by Dave Dhonau on cello, kept in the background but gradually building a sense of menace, as if reaching for a flamenco but never quite yielding to the final flounce and stamped foot. The accompaniment was very effective in the repetition in the final stanza. The poem’s about how the narrator’s mother would stand in front of the TV hiding pictures of bad news by holding her skirt out “as a crinoline shield”,

“She’d hide us from all of the hurting.
She’d cover the wounds of the world.
She’d fill that small room with her caring
but I never understood.

My mother would do the don’t look dance
the don’t look dance the don’t look dance
My mother would do the don’t look dance
the don’t look dance the don’t look dance
My mother would do the don’t look dance
but now I can’t look away”

During “Alice” Dave tapped on his cello, effectively turning it into a djembe. Alice is from Rwanda and teaches the narrator how to dance “like a cow” in recognition of a country where “dowries are paid/ and families are fed/ on cows” but no one talks of genocide. There is always a risk that a musical accompaniment will drown out or detract from the spoken word but Dave and Lydia have worked together before and the music was like the best film scores: unobtrusive and used to enhance the mood of what it was accompanying. The poems’ rhythms and musicality were driving the music rather than the other way around. Lydia’s delivery captured the mood of the poems, without defaulting to a poetic voice, and conveyed familiar work so that it was open and accessible to an audience hearing it for the first time.

A slide guitar accompanied “Venus at Customs” giving a melancholy throb of inevitability to the attitude of interrogators’ repeated staccato questions about her country of origin, whether she has a valid reason for leaving and for coming and if she believes her life is in danger or if she is at risk of harm. When she emerges from questioning, she finds herself rapidly adjusting to contemporary life and not all of it friendly, “Things people say about Venus in the Tabloids” ends “Go back to where you came from./ Nice tits.” When “Venus Walks into a Bar” – still as naked as she was when emerging from her shell – she’s accused of killing business as a desperate barman pleads, “If you’re going to do it,/ least you could do/ is wear sequins.” This is accompanied by a pizzicato cello, strutting like a would-be seducer.

Naturally, she’s determined to try a career and “Venus gets a job as a glamour model” explores her suitability. She finds she’s encouraged to get a tan and go platinum but the photographer “passes her the card/ of his favourite surgeon.” She also commits the predictable and falls in love with her artist in “Love Poem to Botticelli,” layered with soft strumming from the guitar which continued during “Incanto” which asks “What if you could cast a spell?” and gave the reading a wistful finale. Perhaps it’s a risk not finishing on a big flourish but here “Incanto” was a wise choice, leaving the audience thinking about the poems they’d just heard and taking their impressions away as they walked around the exhibition of Scott Bridgwood’s paintings which had inspired some of the poems in “The Venus Papers”.

“The Venus Papers” by Lydia Towsey is available from Burning Eye.

Sylvia Plath The Spoken Word (British Library) CD Review

The Spoken Word poetry by Sylvia Plath

The British Library’s “The Spoken Word” series of CDs feature poets reading their own work from the BBC sound archives and have finally got round to Sylvia Plath (according to the list in the CD, the only other women to feature are Stevie Smith and Edith Sitwell).  She made 17 radio broadcasts between 20 November 1960 and 10 January 1963, although only 7 survive.

The CD opens with an interview recorded with Ted Hughes, “Two of a Kind” where both were invited to speak about writing poetry and living with another poet.  As you’d expect, Ted Hughes is rather reticent and Sylvia Plath more generous with her answers, although the questions are fairly inane and the interview doesn’t reveal anything people aware of both poets’ biographies don’t already know.  At the point of the interview both poets are living in a small flat in London with a small child, Frieda, and effectively living off savings and small amounts of income from writing.  Sylvia mentions that Ted can write even with the distractions of other people in a room whereas she needs solitude otherwise she’s too tempted to join in the conversation.  There are hesitations and interruptions as there always are in a live interview where the subject is not given the questions in advance.

There are poems too, including “Leaving Early” and “Candles” recorded in October 1960, “Mushrooms” recorded in January 1961 along with Ted Hughes reading his “The Pike”, “The Disquieting Muses”, “Spinster”, “Parliament Hill Fields”, “The Stones” recorded June 1961, “The Surgeon at 2 am” recorded in August 1962 and “Berck-Plage” recorded in October 1962, with Sylvia’s brief introductions.  At first Sylvia sounds wary and her pronunciation is cautious.  So it’s not surprising that where she sounds most at ease in on “Tulips” which was read in front of a live audience rather than in a studio.  But the later tracks show her becoming accustomed to reading in a studio and more at ease with presenting the poem as a live recording.  Sylvia did read her poems to herself whilst drafting and editing but there’s a huge difference between murmuring to yourself in a study and reading a poem for broadcast. 

That’s not to say she was precious about her readings.  There’s also a brief interview where she was asked why she stayed in England.  She starts with Milton’s tree at Cambridge, wandering round London and see double decker buses and scenes recognisable from Dickens.  But goes on to her first experience of English sea: the muddy grey mizzle of Whitby poles apart from growing up on Cape Cod.

Sylvia was hampered by being tone deaf: she would have struggled to hear her own tones as she read so would find it hard if not impossible to judge how the recording sounded to others and whether she’d got the emotional tone right.  This would have added to the self-consciousness of the earlier recordings.  Tone deafness is a bit of a misnomer in that problem lies with an inability to interpret the tone when listening to someone speak.  Seeing someone face to face allows you to see facial expression and body language so you can compensation for what you can’t hear.  But when you only have the voice and you can’t interpret whether that voice is happy, sad, irritated, angry, bored, although speed and volume of the voice may hint at the mood of speaker, you’re generally left with just the words.  Problem is, most people are sloppy with words because they rely on tone to get their message across.  Sylvia would have had a more acute ear for rhythm and sound patternings in works whilst simultaneously being disadvantaged by not being able to interpret the tone the words were said with.  It would be more difficult for her to assess how her own recordings sounded.

The CD is rounded off with her review of an anthology, “Contemporary American Poetry”.  It’s a shame some of her recordings have been lost but wonderful to hear her read some of her own poems.  I could practically feel those tulips burn through their wrapping as she read.  Warmly recommended.