Letter

 

The child in the turquoise bikini
clears the rocks like a goat, gripping
a fish in one hand, a knife in the other.

If I were her mother I’d shout
Be careful! Put that knife down! but
I am not her mother and now she’s disappeared.

I have found an octopus slopped quite daintily
over a stone. Does the goat-child intend
to return with her knife? It is a loose

eight-fingered fist with a sac and an eye
too glassy to blink. I do not know how to
be with it, whether to start peeling off

the soft pearly falls of jelly,
I’d almost prefer at this moment
to be an out-and-out

killer than not to know, the suckers
will stick like a bathmat,
I do not know if this is death, it looks

dead but some sort of interior shift is still going on.
It is important that we communicate.
How are things at home?

 

This poem was one of the final six in the 2008 Arvon Competition, judged by Andrew Motion.

Arvon interviewed me for its website:


1. What inspired you to write the shortlisted poem, Letter?

I started the poem after a writing week in Crete. Everything that sets the poem's scene is actual: the child, what she's doing, and how I felt about it. Also the octopus - I even have a photo of it. I had no idea of where the poem was going, though I thought it might go somewhere. I put it aside for some days.

octopus

2. What were you hoping to say through it? Why did you choose the form you did?

When I returned to the poem, it was clear that distress about the octopus was the way to go. Maybe the photo helped. Ruth Padel, our tutor, talked about the emotional journey a poem makes, and I was mindful of that.

The poem took off at that point, rushing headlong, with chaotic punctuation, towards its banal last line, "How are things at home?" and 
it was then that I stuck the title on the top. The 'interior shift' is the shift the poem undergoes, and in the penultimate line, "It is important that we communicate", the 'we' has an intentional double reference. I hope that the playing around with meaning in the last stanza makes the reader want to re-read, and discover another dimension.

Being a bit obsessive about how the thing looks on the page, I usually write in regular stanzas. This poem fell naturally into triplets, which happily admitted my enjambements in the right places.

 

3. What does Arvon mean to you?

Shortly after I took early retirement from teaching (English, Communications, & Creative Writing at North Devon FE College), I did an Arvon course at Totleigh Barton. Tutors were Hugo Williams and Sarah Maguire. Andrew Motion came one evening as Guest Poet. Everyone else there had published something except me. I felt very inferior. But challenged. Things have looked up since then. Thank you, Arvon.

 

4. Why did you start writing poetry?

My mother loved poetry, and read to me before I could read for myself, "A Child's Garden of Verses", and so on. I knew many off by heart, and unfortunately, had to recite them for visitors! Raised as I was with Presbyterian hymns (Don't knock them, many of them are great!) rhyme and rhythm come easily.

I have always scribbled for my own purposes. In my teaching, I always wanted to infect my students with enthusiasm for poetry, so maybe it was a case of putting my money where my mouth was. I was in my fifties when I started writing seriously.

Poetry liberates you into your other self, your writing self, the self that dares.

 

5. What sort of poetry or poets inspire you, do you have any topics/themes that you always return to in your work?

The big shining light throughout my adult life has been Seamus Heaney. He was a few years ahead of me at Queen's University, and was beginning to publish when I was a student there. I love the way he sounds the music of the vernacular, how he sees the miraculous in the everyday, how true he is, and how generous. His essays are a model of insight and instruction. 

Otherwise, there are too many to mention, but I could say Paul Muldoon for his cleverness and fun, Carol Ann Duffy for her use of language and wise humour, Yeats, Larkin, Emily Dickinson, the Oulipo poets for their quirky challenges and the surprises they throw out, Robert Burns for his humanity and lyricism, too many, not enough time.

 I want to get under the skin of things, events. I want to understand better.

I write out of my childhood in county Tyrone, holidays in Donegal, 
growing up in Belfast in the sixties. I have a body of work that could be (and has been) called 'women's poetry'. The natural world features strongly in my work, something I hadn't particularly noticed until a friend remarked on it. A recurring theme might be the meaning of 'home'. Since my father died, my writing has included reference to him, and to the loss of him. Two of these poems are in the Cruse anthology, edited by Linda France.

I enjoy absurdities. I have poems in two OFF THE WALL anthologies  (published by MIND) and several poems on lightenup-online.co.uk.

I write occasional reviews for Sam Smith's JOURNAL.