Lifesaving Poems Saved the Day

My month off seems like a far away country, yet it’s only been 12 days since I’ve been back at lifesavingwork.  Thank goodness my job involves reading poetry, and thank goodness for Anthony Wilson’s Lifesaving Poems series on his wonderful blog (soon to be made into a book by one of the UK’s leading poetry publishers, Bloodaxe).

Catching up on emails and phone calls after one month away takes up a lot of time, so I was grateful to be able to turn to Anthony’s blog to find poems for my read aloud, reading groups for people with memory loss conditions, and their carers.  The Lifesaving Poems saved the day.

Two of the poems I took in to read provoked much discussion and contemplation.  They were Mary Oliver’s ‘The Journey’, and UA Fanthorpe’s ‘Atlas‘.  As always, I was struck by how much a poem comes to life when it’s read aloud (several times, each time by a different person; and each time we seem to learn something new about the poem, or our own feelings) and discussed in a group.

In Mary Oliver’s poem, there was much debate about who “.. the voices around you / (kept) shouting / their bad advice../” belong to: is it other people in our lives, making their demands on us? or our own, internal voices? or the wind itself, which “..pried / with its stiff fingers / at the very foundations” ?  The final lines of the poem also got us talking: ” as you strode deeper and deeper / into the world, / determined to do / the only thing you could do – / determined to save / the only life you could save.”  Some of the group related strongly to these lines, saying that however hard you try to help someone else, you must look after yourself, even, sometimes, putting yourself first, in order to stay strong for others – in order to ‘stay alive’.  Other people felt strongly that it was wrong to think that you could only save yourself, that you must never give up, that you can always help others.

It was often moving to be among people who are, or who have been, for the most part, in long-term relationships, and who have endured difficult times, including living with serious illnesses.  At times, it felt that some group members were talking to each other through the discussion of the poem, and certainly the poem lent an opportunity to all of us to make our voices heard.

Oliver’s poem was a good choice to read in tandem with UA Fanthorpe’s ‘Atlas’ which begins “There is a kind of love called maintenance / Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;” and continues, later, “And maintenance is the sensible side of love,”.  This poem elicited talk about what ‘love’ is, especially in long relationships, especially at times when one partner falls ill, and all the mundane tasks of daily living fall to one person.  The two poems, read together, made us think about the generosity of giving time to make sure the, often boring but usually necessary, jobs get done, and how these gifts are often unacknowledged.


I’m in a privileged position to be able to read poems for a living, even though I’m not above moaning about the amount of admin I have to do (the downside of working for an organisation which continues to grow because of its huge success).   However, I forget about all the moaning when I’m reading poems with my groups.  I’m so looking forward to buying the Lifesaving Poems anthology when it’s published next year, but, in the meantime, do make the most of the poems on Anthony’s blog, especially if you feel you’re in need of some lifesaving.

You might also enjoy my post about reading Seamus Heaney’s ‘Clearances’ with people who have dementia.

The enduring appeal of a fountain pen.

Fountain pen

It used to be dark green but, sadly, the green eventually peeled away (actually, I peeled it away, in moments of absent-mindedness).  There have been times when I thought it missing forever, and I celebrated as heartily as the shepherd finding his lost sheep when it was found: in the dungeon that lies in the depths of our sofa; within the furthest reaches of a duvet cover (I’m a big fan of writing in bed); in the midst of moon-sized dustballs under my bed.  In fountain pen years, this one isn’t so old, perhaps only twenty years, but it’s seen off several desktops and laptops.   Its ink has filled roomfuls of pages, but the most beautiful mark it makes is the first touch of its nib at the top of a blank sheet.

For more tales of endurance, head over to this week’s photo challenge.

My Dad showed me how to be human


smaller picture sent from Italy, September 1944; main picture taken April 1992

This week’s photo challenge, ‘Humanity‘,  is a chance to tell you about my Dad, Basil Patrick Dominic Corcoran (1923 – 1992), who showed me how to be a human, who left school at 14 to be a butcher’s delivery boy, who fell off the too-big delivery bike, who mixed up the paper-wrapped meat parcels, who delivered the wrong sausages and chops to the wrong houses, who got shouted at, who chucked the heavy bike into the river to show them, who got the sack, who worked as a gas fitter, who served in WWII, who fell in love with my mother, who sent her his smiling picture from Italy in 1944 signed “lots of love Basilio xxx”, who educated himself by reading books and The Guardian newspaper, and listening to the BBC World Service, who knew Latin from going to Mass, who was a champion boxer in his army regiment, who developed some kind of polio-like illness in the 1950s which left him paralysed, who lay flat on his back unable to move in Walton Hospital in Liverpool for six months, and then woke up finding he could wriggle his toes, who walked with sticks until he needed a wheelchair, who was a dangerous driver in his electric wheelchair, who smoked and drank too much, who I never heard speak badly of anyone, who had nine children, who taught me to always think of the other person’s point of view, who spoke up when something was wrong, unfair, or unjust, who developed Parkinson’s Disease in later life, who laughed at the absurdity of his tremor, who spilled whisky and cigarette ash everywhere, who liked Toblerone chocolate, who poured whisky into his morning coffee in his spill-proof beaker, who became blind in one eye and lost most of his vision in the other, who still insisted on driving his electric wheelchair, who laughed at people jumping out of his way, who was good at jokes, who had an infectious laugh, who had a leg amputated and then asked “How many limbs do I have left?”, who said to me when I told him I had a headache “I’m so lucky, all my life, I’ve never had a headache. What’s it like?”, who was irresponsible, who was hopeless with money, who ran up debts that he expected his children to sort out, who gradually lost the ability to speak, and said “Of all the things I’ve lost in my life, what I miss most is my voice.”, who liked to sit in the sunshine and listen to the radio or audio books, who died two months after this photo was taken, who is someone I think of every day.

Saturday at Winchester Poetry Festival 2014

michael longley 2

Michael Longley reading at Winchester Poetry Festival 2014

I absolutely loved my day at Winchester Poetry Festival on Saturday, 13th September.  I snapped photos and tweeted, encouraged by the organisers’ requests to audiences to help spread the word about this inaugural festival.  But, as Michael Longley said before his stunning reading to a packed auditorium on Saturday evening, “I knew this was going to be a good festival but, in fact, it is a great festival,” and I’m already looking forward to a return visit next year, and definitely for more than one day.  Winchester Poetry Festival has spread its words, with jam on.

While there, I was lucky enough to meet up with writer Isabel Rogers, who has become a friend through social media, and she has written an entertaining and entirely accurate blogpost about Michael Longley’s brilliant reading which I urge you to read here.  Isabel’s article  captures the seemingly effortless way that Michael Longley caught the collective breath of the appreciative audience, and I know what Isabel means when she says she’s fallen in love.  The readings by David Constantine and Julia Copus were also superb; I was especially captivated by Constantine’s sequence ‘In Memoriam 8571 Private J.W. Gleave’, an account of his grandmother’s lifelong incomprehension of her husband’s death in the trenches.


Modern Poetry in Translation magazine and  Institut français du Royaume-Uni sponsored a World Poetry event at the festival which was extremely well-attended at 10.30 on Saturday morning.

This event was hosted by poet and MPT editor, Sasha Dugdale (second from the left in the above photo), launching the Autumn issue of the magazine which is partly dedicated to the poetry and song of WWI.  French poet, novelist, and critic, Jacques Réda, read from his work, and was in conversation with his translator, poet and human rights campaigner, Jennie Feldman. Postcards featuring one of his poems in translation, ‘The Fête’, were distributed at the reading:

This was followed by poet, essayist, and translator, Amarjit Chandan, reading and discussing wartime Punjabi folksongs, telling of women’s love for their husbands, lovers, sons, and brothers.  The songs, Chandan explained, were not jingoistic at all but pleaded with the menfolk not to leave to go to war.  In translating, reading, and publishing these verses (they will be included in the forthcoming issue of MPT), Chandan is lending ears to voices which would otherwise be silent.  He commented that in India and Pakistan there is almost no mention of WWI and no commemoration ceremonies in spite of the huge numbers of Punjabi men who died in the conflict.  These folksongs, and their revival by Amarjit Chandan, acknowledge, at least in part, the human loss endured.

Patience Agbabi

Patience Agbabi reading at Winchester Poetry Festival 2014

The next event, after a cappuccino pit-stop in the Festival café, was a chance to watch Patience Agbabi read, recite and perform from Telling Tales, her retelling of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  As Patience herself said, this is poetry with a different vibe, a different energy; call it rap, spoken word, performance poetry or, don’t obsess with labels and enjoy immersing yourself in the words.  Here is a link to Patience performing her version of The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.

new voices

l-r Olivia McCannon, Liz Berry, Jacqueline Saphra on stage at Winchester Poetry Festival 2014

Next up, at Winchester, were readings by three poets, Jacqueline Saphra, Olivia McCannon and Liz Berry.  This was genius programming, the three writers providing the audience with contrasting styles, delivery, and subject matter.  I was in awe of the strong, confident, captivating performances of all three women.  I’m already familiar with, and a fan of,  Jacqueline’s and Liz’s work, but Olivia was new to me and she is definitely a poet I will be seeking out.  Having only just finished reading Black Country, Liz Berry’s debut full collection, I really loved hearing her read from her book in her unmistakable Black Country accent.

What Winchester Poetry Festival brought home to me, more than anything, was how much I gained from hearing poets read their own work.  Introductions and anecdotes all added so much to my appreciation of the poetry.  It was just wonderful to hear poems read aloud in the poets’ own voices, especially poems I was only familiar with from the flat page, as beautiful as that page is.   Equally, re-reading poems on the page that I’ve now heard read aloud has added rich music to those poems, music I can still hear playing 24 hours later.  I hope it never stops!

The holiday’s over…

back to the usualI’m back to work tomorrow and I’m feeling low that my month off has come to an end.  I’m pleased that I’ve managed to work on my pamphlet and now have 18 poems which are as ready as they’ll ever be to send to the printers – although I haven’t had a lot of contact with tall-lighthouse, my publisher, which is making me nervous and there will probably be more tweaking to do once I’m sent print-ready proofs of  the poems.  I’ve got stuck in to my notebooks and found that I have at least 20 other poems, some of them already published, which are finished or nearly finished.  I need to organise sending them off to magazines and competitions and decide if I want to try to put together another pamphlet or go for a full collection – that’s probably something I still need to work towards.

We’ve enjoyed some good family time over the last few weeks as Andrew has been able to work from home for a change. There are a few good things to look forward to: I haven’t quite signed up but I’m seriously considering doing a six-week ‘correspondence course’ with Glyn Maxwell, working with Live Canon, an ensemble performing poetry.  There will be the opportunity to work on poetry for performance and to hear the company record my work.  I just have to commit to the time involved and make sure that I’m not taking on too much.  The last thing I want to do is pay for a course that I don’t really have time to take.

Then, there are two poetry festivals coming up which I’m looking forward to: the first is Winchester Poetry Festival which takes place next weekend, 12th – 14th September.  In particular, on Saturday, I’m hoping to get to see readings by Modern Poetry in Translation; Patience Agbabi; Liz Berry, Olivia McCannon and Jacqueline Saphra; Edna Longley; and the main reading in the evening which is by David Constantine, Julia Copus and Michael Longley.  As usual, I’m leaving everything to the last minute but I hope I’ll be able to acquire tickets for all of that.

Last, and by no means least, Swindon Poetry Festival is coming up and I’ve booked to be a Swindon resident for four days, 2nd – 5th October.  Really looking forward to readings and workshops with Don Share, Maurice Riordan, Kathryn Maris, Cliff Yates, Jackie Wills, Robert Peake, Allison McVety and even more!

I started off this post by feeling quite glum but the thought of all this poetry has properly cheered me up.  Wishing you all a cheerful and productive week, especially if your holiday season has also recently come to an end.


The biggest adventure of all

MarriageAdventure‘, the theme of this week’s Photo Challenge, made me think about some of the quite exciting (but tame compared to most people’s) adventures I’ve had in my life: travelling alone across Europe in my late teens; working in Paris and Monaco for three years as a children’s Nanny in my early twenties; living and working in London in the middle of the 1980s economic boom;  meeting some mildly famous and sometimes very interesting people;  returning to full-time education at the age of 30; giving birth to my two children – every day is an adventure with them!  Then, I’ve had a few writing adventures: a play produced on the London stage; a play and a short story broadcast on BBC radio; a few competition wins; stories and poems published in magazines and anthologies – all these have been adventures in their own way, involving risk-taking, self-exposure; taking on board rejection and criticism – and praise.  But, actually, none of this compares to the biggest adventure of all, which was to decide to share my life with the guy in the picture, my husband, Andrew.  We’ve been together since March 17th 1994 and married since June 1997.   I’d be lying if I told you that every day was swashbuckling and breath-taking and filled with the kind of action that would keep you up late wanting to know what happens next.  Our story is hardly a page-turner (although we’ve had our moments) but, twenty years later, here we are, still surprising each other, still making each other laugh (and cry, on occasion, who said we were perfect?)

There has been no skydiving, river rafting (does canoeing count? swimming in the sea? boogy-boarding? a bit of wild swimming in rivers and lakes?) or mountain climbing (unless you count miles and miles of trekking through muddy fields and lanes, some of them with quite an incline *lame joke klaxon*).  Does going on a family cycling trip count?  how about standing at the side of a muddy, windswept field watching our son play rugby? how about watching him play drums? or our daughter in one of her dance shows?  Not exactly heart-stopping stuff.  Except that my heart does still miss a beat, sometimes, because, you know what? I don’t need to be travelling at the speed of light, or parachuting, hang-gliding or deep-sea diving to be having an adventure.  My adventure is the life I’m living now with the man right next to me.  Cue the epic music!  More adventures to discover here

Poems on a Beermat Prizegiving

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A brilliant evening at The Swan Hotel in Bradford-on-Avon last night for the award-giving and readings of the ten poems chosen to be printed on beermats for the Poems-on-a-Beermat-Competition.  The ten winning poems, which can be read here, are:

  •  Rock Plain Boxing Club by Tammy Adams
  •  How She Wrote Your Name by Russ Berry
  •  A Pint of Light by John Glenday
  •  Night Sky by Rosie Jackson
  •  Night Swimming by Roy Marshall
  •  Spell by Ruth Roberts Owen
  •  Sunlight by Rick Rycroft
  •  Adam by Lesley Saunders
  •  Pale by Susan Utting
  •  Riverside by Sarah Westcott


It was fantastic to hear the poems read aloud in the cellar bar of The Swan to an attentive and friendly audience.  Competition Judge, Martin Malone, and organiser, Dawn Gorman, commented on the extremely high standard of poems this year and everyone was delighted that the number of entries (392) was almost four times as many as last year.

You can probably tell from the poem titles that writers approached the subject of ‘Light’ (the competition theme) in a multitude of ways and that  made the event all the more enjoyable and interesting.  It was also fabulous to hear Martin read from his own work, especially new poems to do with WWI which form part of his current PhD project at Sheffield.

In the end it was Lesley Saunder’s Creation poem, ‘Adam’, which was awarded First Prize, with John Glenday’s beautiful poem about his father, ‘A Pint of Light’, given Second Prize, and Roy Marshall’s densely atmospheric ‘Night Swimming’ was Third.

The beermats are now in place in ten different pubs in Bradford-on-Avon for the duration of the Arts Festival which is in full flow. Visitors are encouraged to take part in a poetry trail, as each pub is ‘hosting’ a different poem.  One of the prizewinning poets, and the daughter of publicans, Susan Utting, said, after reading her poem, how proud she was to be a part of a pub crawl!

It was a splendid evening.   Huge congratulations to all the winning poets whose poems can be read here, and there are brilliant photographs of the evening here.