Teenagers, friendship and a week at Lumb Bank

Last week, I spent five days at the beautiful Arvon Lumb Bank site and it was (unusually) basked in sunshine for my entire stay.  I was there to tutor seventeen students from a West Yorkshire grammar school, aged between eleven and fifteen years old. My co-tutor Anthony McGowan and I were the first to arrive.  We were given tea, cake and a guided tour. I soaked it all up – the house, the landscape, the air, the stillness.

Then it was time to meet our young writers.  Anthony and I walked to the main house, he opened the front door and that was when I heard it – the noise of seventeen young people, all talking excitedly at once.  It was quite a rush, to be greeted by their boom of chatter as we slowly appeared from behind the door to say hello.  There’s something very special about the Lumb Bank house.  You feel instantly at ease inside it.  The sitting room became a convivial hub, a place I would find the young writers after lunch, curled up on a sofa, not with phones in their hands, but notebooks.

I was soon struck by how gracious and generous these young people were.  They listened attentively to me during workshops, to Anthony, to their teachers and each other.  They supported each other’s ideas and didn’t split into factions, despite spanning several year groups. They talked, played and worked happily together.

There was something too, about watching teenage girls and how they behave. No Mean Girls here.  I’m trying to think of the right word: reassuring, pleasing, or maybe just nice, to see these girls curled up in ‘onsies’, plaiting each other’s hair.  Their ceaseless buzz of talking – so urgent and vibrant.  I have raised my two-step children from primary school through to adulthood, but the latter years of my life have seen me stuck in a baby loop. Spending time with a bunch of teenage girls became an affirming experience. I was reminded how tactile my step-daughter was with her two best friends growing up: the linking of arms, the holding of hands. I did it too, at that age, but that behaviour can get lost in adulthood. For the first time ever, I felt a slight grief for my teenage years.

Three days in to the course, I read them Julia Copus’ poemAn Easy PassageI heard Julia read in Liverpool and spoke to her about the poem afterwards, as I am particularly fond of it. The poem describes two teenage girls, trying to get back in to the house they have locked themselves out of.  One is standing on the ‘blond gravel’, the other is climbing through an open upstairs window, thinking she must not be nervous, but ‘keep her mind/on the friend with whom she is half in love’.  I waited in the book-signing queue to talk to Julia about that line. I am convinced, that for girls, their first intense female friendship, is as big as their first love. I hadn’t read a poem that so perfectly described this before.

The poet Amy Key is currently editing an anthology of poems titled Best Friends Forever, forthcoming with The Emma Press this November.  The anthology ‘aims to reflect the scale of intensity within female friendships’ and I think there is a very valid place for it.  In an interview with The Poetry School about why she wanted to collate such poems, Key explains ‘I want to do this because I’ve fallen cock-a-hoop for friends and I’ve fallen out of love with friends. I’ve been dumped and I’ve rediscovered friendships when they seemed lost to me. At times it’s felt I’ve been able to live because of the friendships I have. I find it exciting that there will be new friendships to come that won’t spell the end of my existing ones. My ambition for this book is that it will be something someone can use to help them tell their friend they love them.’

On the final day of the course at Lumb Bank, I sat in the ‘barn’ beside fellow tutor Anthony, reading through the sixty-five page anthology the students had put together – a compilation of the work they had written that week.  The sole boy on the trip, Martin (not remotely fazed at being so outnumbered) was doing a fine job as editor, administering final touches to the anthology.  A couple of girls were practicing ballet steps, laughing, pretending they didn’t actually enjoy a small audience. Some were singing to each other. Then, a girl called Cailtin sat at the piano and started to play, quite beautifully.

I looked at the girls around me and thought about my three year old daughter at home. I realised how selfishly I’ve been thinking about her forthcoming teenage years.  I’ve only really been considering how they will affect me – her hormones, her emotions – at a time when I’ll be in my fifties.  When Caitlin finished playing the piano in the barn, I asked her to scribble down the title of the piece, as it will always remind me of that week.  She wrote I Giorni by Ludvico Einaudi.  Coming home I’ve discovered the title of the piece translates as The Days.  Post-Lumb Bank, I’m beginning to see my daughter’s teenage future very differently.  She will discover friendship. Now I think, lucky her, what days indeed, she has to come.

The past few months…

I’m looking at a small stack of letters on my desk. Lodged between pen-pot and the wall, they were all sent to me after the publication of Her Birth. They’re all written in response to the book and have moved me very much. Emails have come in too, and some very kind tweets. All sorts of people have been in touch: friends and strangers, women and men, ex-tutors from school and university and bereaved mothers – some who lost their children more recently, some who lost them a long time ago. A letter from a bereaved mother makes tough reading I can tell you, but I’m grateful for every brave word.  Since the book’s unexpected shortlisting for The Forward Prize, the story of my daughter’s death and my attempt at recovery has become more public than I expected it to. That felt very difficult at times. But because of The Forward Prize, Her Birth has been read by people who, perhaps, would not normally have ‘found’ it.

I would like to thank those who have been so positive about the book. I thought I’d written something that was simply very sad. I was sad when I was writing it and had no idea how it would be received once it became a tangible thing. I moved into my new home in Suffolk in July, on the day of The Forward Prize shortlist announcement. Since then, I have been interviewed on Woman’s Hour, I’ve written about the book for Michelle McGrane’s excellent contemporary poetry blog Peony Moon, I’ve been back to Liverpool to launch the book in a room of almost 100 people – all with an Ella connection. The book has been positively reviewed in The Guardian, Dove Grey Reader, The Booktrust and elsewhere. I have met and read with some terrific writers, including Denise Bundred at our ‘Poetry and Medicine’ event (an area I would like to explore more with Her Birth) and I was shortlisted for The East Anglian Book of the Year and won the Poetry category. You can read judge Michael Mackmin’s comments here. I know it’s all been ‘good’, but this is not a book I ever imagined writing. I would still rather have Ella here, but I do feel her short life, and the book, have led me to some incredible people.

Next year I will be taking part in Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s ‘Writing Motherhood’ project. I will be reading too, at various literary festivals and intend to read from Her Birth, but hopefully include new work, about very different things. I’m inspired by one of the letters sitting on my desk. In it, someone wrote of Her Birth ‘Surely the lesson is to go on making’. After Ella died, I made a book, a baby, a new home, my family made a new start. Now I need to make new poems.

Goodbye Liverpool

Image(The River Mersey)

I am moving house. I am in the process of opening boxes intending to sort through them, but find myself cross-legged on the floor, reading through old letters and cards, sifting through the treasures that accumulate in a life.  Next week, I will be closing the door on this house, for the last time. I will be leaving the city it stands in, twenty years after I first arrived as a wide-eyed, 18 year old student.  I am moving to Suffolk, where I grew up.  I’m pleased to be going back there. I’m excited about the new start for my family, but I’m emotional about leaving the unique, friendly, inspirational city that is Liverpool.

One of the many things I will miss is the river.  I’ve been lucky to live close to part of the river Mersey’s seventy mile stretch, for the past fourteen years. I’ve seen it almost every day during that time.  That’s the wonderful thing about Liverpool, you are never very far from water.  Growing up in the Suffolk countryside, I was used to flat, open spaces. The patchwork expanse of crops, with brilliant yellow squares of oil-seed rape. Liverpool was an enormous leap into the ‘urban’ for me, but I never felt I had moved to a claustrophobic place.  It was so easy to get to the river and see a long distance.  It granted you a feeling of release. The Mersey has a widest point of three miles. You can see the Welsh mountains.

Some friends who are writers in Liverpool, tell me they live and work here because of the river. Being by water is an essential part of their creative life.   Reading through proofs of my next collection recently, I realised that water and the river play an important part in the book. Babies swim like dolphins searching for perfect hearts, a lantern is lit to float across that ‘fluvial division’, grief takes hold on the river’s promenade. The Suffolk coast features in the book too.  Husband and wife wade in to the North Sea, carrying their young, excited child.  Good news is announced there.  Ashes are scattered there.  A new stretch of water waits for me now.

In Memory of John Ernest Goss 1920 – 2011

‘I want to be cremated and my ashes thrown in the air. Straight from the flames to the winds, and let that be that.’
- the closing lines of Akenfield, by Ronald Blythe.

As you wobble the length of our hall, hand fiercely tight
in mine, your great-grandfather is letting go.

His seven stones of bone barely dent the bed. His lips kept wet
by a nurse’s sponge, his hand held warm by his son.

I consider the efforts of your respective breaths –
his faint, yours eager – as you pad small steps,

adopt a penguin’s gait. Between you, a gap of ninety years,
storing its wars and discoveries, far reaching

as the moon he lived beneath. In the little arable kingdom
he chose for home, he married, raised a boy in sunken lanes;

stayed rooted in its loamy soils, grew as ancient as its woods.
You pick up pace and race towards the mirror. If there was time,

this news of your early steps would be recorded, folded,
delivered overnight. Hand-written word from his kin, he loved

the language of lives elsewhere. He has a wish to star the air
on a stretch of Suffolk coast and we will take him, in the throng

of family he has sprung. For now, I watch you in the glass,
behind us see the hall, the pram, how far we’ve come.

little arable kingdom – Blythe’s description of East Anglia

Highly Commended in the Crabbe Memorial Poetry Competition (Suffolk Poetry Society), 2012. Taken from Her Birth, by Rebecca Goss, Carcanet/Northern House (July 2013).

The Jupiter Project

Last year, my friend and writer Chris Routledge asked if I wanted to work with him on a poetry/photography collaboration. It’s been great to work on something very different. I loved browsing his images and waiting for that ‘hit’  - the moment I saw something that I knew I could turn into a poem. Sometimes I gave Chris poems, to see if he could ‘illustrate’ them with a photographic image. The whole thing has been really enjoyable.  We thought World Poetry Day would be a good day to launch. It’s called The Jupiter Project. Take a look.

Motherhood, poetry and loss

‘I think my poems are full of words that I’m afraid to say’ – Pam Rehm*

In the weeks following my baby daughter’s death, there were days I could not speak. One particular day, my husband and I went for a drive, in silence.  Not the silence we had sometimes known before: both of us sulking, after a petty row.  This was a dumbstruck silence.  We were dumbstruck by what had happened to us.  It had taken courage from my husband that morning to pull me from our bed, get me upright and out of the house.  Still I couldn’t speak.  My mind however, swirled.  It wouldn’t rest and five years later there would be a book of poems.

That book is being published this year, in August, the month that stores the anniversary of her death.  It is finally going to be a tangible thing and of course, I’m pleased. I have a great publisher, a fine editor and feedback so far has been kind.  But all of that has come at such a cost.  The book would not exist if my daughter was still alive.

Writing the poems has given me a certain amount of control over my grief.  I have been able to express, share, reveal things – often difficult things – that I would have struggled to “say”.  By that I mean, say to people around me, in conversation.  If asked questions about my daughter, I give brief answers, because I’m terrified of upsetting people.  I avoid situations where I might be asked how many children I have, or general ‘baby talk’.  I feel I am the ‘bad news’ in the room – the death of a child is just too awful to explain.  So I keep quiet, but it doesn’t feel right.  Writing the poems has liberated me from that self-censorship.

I was once asked ‘Why didn’t you just write a memoir?’  Well, I’m a poet and there is a place in poetry for this type of autobiographical collection.  Look at Christopher Reid, Tim Liardet, Jill Bialoksy, Julia Copus, Penelope Shuttle – the list for ‘loss’ is endless.  Poems offer up a huge amount of information in a small, intimate space.  That’s what I love about them.  They are also an invitation to look very closely at something and that’s what I want to do with this book.  I’m asking people to look closely at the details of child loss.  I promised myself I would write this collection.  As a mother I long for my daughter, as a poet I am inspired by her.  It took me four years to write.  It’s a manuscript of only 6,438 words. But if I hadn’t written those words down, I’m not sure I would have ever said them.

 Her Birth by Rebecca Goss, Carcanet/Northern House, July 2013.  Shortlisted for The 2013 Forward Prize for Best Collection. You can read ‘Lost’ from the collection here.  And my interview in The Observer about the book here.

 

*From:The Grand Permission: new writings on poetics and motherhood, ed. Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman, Wesleyan University Press, 2003).

Still my biggest influence….

It was given to me by a university lecturer.  Retrieved from the back of a filing cabinet and handed over with the flattering belief I’d return it safely.  I held its velvety cover in my hands, slimmer than a novel, fatter than a pamphlet, the buff front cover yellowing at the edges.  What I read inside left me heady and amazed.

Phillips does not call them stories or poems, she calls them pieces.  Each piece is a page, each page a snapshot of small town American life.  The familial household threads the pieces together, as relatives try to make sense of each other.   In kitchens, personal histories unravel as oven doors open and ‘heat falls into the room like a pealing of bells’.

Phillips takes us deep into young female psyches.  She exposes their parochial trappings and we watch as they emerge to swerve or soar.  A stripper grooms her protégé cousin saying she’s ‘white an dewy an tickin’ like a time bomb an now’s the time to learn.’ Teenagers descend cinema steps, mouths ‘swollen and ripe’ from their squirms in the Friday night dark.  Once outside, the girls ‘tossed their heads and shivered like ponies’.  It’s not quite poetry, it’s not quite prose, but each startling narrative fizzes with sensual detail.  Phillips takes a magnifying glass to this domestic landscape and finds it raw with longing.

I was nineteen when I first read Sweethearts, susceptible to the yearning in its pages certainly.  Now, almost twenty years later, it still electrifies me, with its crackle of sex and desire.  It made the biggest impact on my own writing and continues to influence me today.  I did return it to my lecturer.  After a long search, the internet bore me a copy of my own.  I’m ashamed to admit I wouldn’t give it to someone I barely knew.  I keep it like an heirloom, a piece of treasure on my bookshelves, so I’m telling you about it instead.  Seek it out.

‘Sweethearts’, by Jayne Anne Phillips, Wingbow/Truck Press (USA), 1976,

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sweethearts-Jayne-Anne-Phillips/dp/0916562050

 

 

Perfect Places

October saw the launch of Perfect Places, a Time-To-Read initiative aiming to encourage poetry reading and borrowing in libraries.

I was delighted to be one of the twelve poets from the North West selected to take part.   We each submitted a poem, set in the North West.   The poems were illustrated and made into posters, postcards and then shared in libraries, community centres, surgeries and so on.   My poem, taken from my forthcoming collection, is titled ‘A Child Dies in Liverpool’.  I am aware how bleak that sounds, but was heartened by the selection panel’s decision to accept it.  We do turn to poetry at times of distress, I certainly do.  Poetry addresses sad and difficult topics.   The poster version of my poem is displayed at The Alder Centre, at Liverpool Alder Hey Hospital, where help and support is provided for bereaved families.  A poster is also at the Head Office of Child Bereavement UK and in the offices of Dying Matters.  I am grateful to the support of all these organisations.

As part of the project each poet gave readings at libraries.  I had two very enjoyable afternoons at Blackburn library and Bebington library.  Both libraries had full and interesting calendars when it came to hosting a range of literary events. I met some incredibly nice people through this project – and remain inspired by the enthusiasm, passion and commitment shown by librarians.

To see the poster, read the poem and listen to me reading it click here.