Memories of Shakespeare – an article for Wales Arts Review

23 04 2016


Crouched in the gloom at the side of the curtainless stage, the three bodies were silver-skinned and rag-wrapped; one woman was shaven-headed, one woman was, in fact, an elderly man, one woman was revealing more flesh than anyone in my pre-GCSE class (in their pre-internet schooling) had ever witnessed.  The three witches were immediately intimidating; to a group of boys who had never been to theatre before, they were formidable.

No pupil wanted to be shepherded by the stewards to the front of the theatre and none wanted to bookend the draughty first row. My first experience of Shakespeare was to sit directly under the glare of the three witches before Macbeth began at Mold’s Theatre Clwyd and, as the school bus had arrived thirty minutes early, my ordeal of eye-contact avoidance began early.

The witches lurked stage left throughout the play, haunting Macbeth from his periphery. They possessed during the interval and even remained to jinx the audience as we left; I am fairly sure that, while the rest of my class echoed bad Taggart impressions and sluggedNo-Frills Cola, one of the witches was stood in the aisle next to me on the coach, then followed me home in the rain.

My son repeats ‘shakes peer’ rhythmically in the café, like we have rehearsed it for the Americans who are noisily debating whether to stay and order. He colours the playwright’s face on a brochure, shading the pupils, rainbowing the lank hair. We tell him that Shakespeare spelled his name six different ways and try to show him, but he will not forsake the crayons and begins instead to write his own: the hooped ‘A’, a hangman’s ‘r’, a wide, flamboyant ‘t’, then, realising he is choked of space, doubles back, adds a ‘h’, ‘u’ turns and slots the ‘r’ between earlier letters.  ‘Shay kspere’, he says, ‘shhhhake speer’.

He sounds the name as we thread the narrow corridors of Shakespeare’s Birthplace.  The tiled floor of the living room is as cracked as the back of an old glove, the button-sized windows look out onto the courtyard where a seam of Chinese tourists are being led by an actor playing a lute. Over the empty beds, the empty fireplaces, the empty cribs, he says, ‘Shakesp ear’ and seems to inhabit the place.

In the garden, he is finally stilled. It is beginning to get cold and there is drizzle hiding in the late afternoon; the blossom cloaking the cherry trees is a reminder that it is still Easter. A lady in a cloaking, green dress covets his attention and earns it with her playful accents, ‘Double double, toil and trouble,’ she begins, casting her arms, stretching her fingers.

‘Double double,’ he mimics.

The actress plays all three parts and bewitches him. He is silent for so long on the winding walk back to the hotel that we know he is trying to make sense of it all, that he is trying to give voice to the changes happening to his thoughts, that he is rapt withal.

Memories of Shakespeare

Closing Down the Festival: Chester Literature Festival 2015

25 10 2015


And so the stages are undressing themselves;
the skirting sagging already around the plinth,
a chair, lonely as a mannequin in an empty shop,
presents goosepimpled poses to an absent audience.

The boiler idles like a car waiting to leave
while all the proud portraits above the panelling
look tiredly away. Curtains taller than pines
are leaning now, the windows eager to share

again the weddings, mayoral meetings, piano recitals.
Two festival posters shoulder the stagescreen still,
the illustrations promising a wintery Chester:
blown scarves, bobble hats, families playing in fallenleaves

of crisp punctuation, mittened dog walkers.
Central to this shifting season (plumred alders / mustard oaks),
the town hall is inflated in bubblegum-green,
its vast doors, clear as clouds, are open and endless.

Light leaks onto one poster, trickling in from a gap
in the blinds until a hot-air balloon, rising in blankpaper sky,
is illuminated – the wicker basket being inspired away
by inverted commas, briefly, for as the light lulls

the poster, the room, the building, the city
shuffle closer to the quiet of closed books.

Confessions to a Literary Agent

25 10 2015

She sits, silently shrinking into the hard leather seat,
palms joined, knees folded like a scolded child,
her body crossed by conflict.

There is a voice beyond the closed door,
persistent, protracted as candlelight;
then another, interrupting the guttered monologue.
A kindly intonation, leaning in
like someone at a lost car’s window,
a familiar accent pointing the way home.
Then the quiet apologies string together,
clinking like rosary beads, louder, nearer,
until the door opens and a faceless writer
falls out, back as bent as a broken book,
leaving the door ajar.

Though she enters the agent’s office
with a sheaf of papers swinging resolutely,
her tongue quickly kneels her down.
And both then know this pattern by rote
so the murmurs behind the screen
become a predictable Latin
while I note the following confession:

‘Our last meeting was fifty-two weeks ago,
I have despaired of my writing and know
I’ve broken the promise to write every day,
Neglected to read, forgotten to post
Entries to competitions (unless when drunk).
I’ve watched my blog become lazy and ‘like’
Posts without reading them. I’ve stolen
Similes, collected characters, I’ve sunk
To emulating ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’
And write about vampires my daughter’s age,
Now I borrow her books.  I even bought
My husband a kindle for his birthday.
I am sorry for these indiscretions –
The limitless sins of my non-profession.’

The agent swaps the sacrament for sacrifices,
‘Absolution will be your first publishing deal,’
she promises.  The writer can’t look at the words
as they chime, nor can she meet the eyes
of the next confessor outside on the pew.

That Talk: Glyn Maxwell and Simon Armitage at the Chester Literature Festival

24 10 2015

The hall is pleasantly packed and hums
with whispered voices like a weekday wine bar
or an autumnal garden near the village road.
The space echoes handsomely.

The compere stands outside, a robin
singing warm welcome, his wings wider
than the open doors. He shuffles from foot to foot,
checks his watch, nibbles a fingernail.

Across the room is a face I see and recall. Remember?
We talked on a commuters’ train to Crewe, before you
interviewed me for a place on a teaching course there.
Then shared the trainride back home, a decade ago.

The poets arrive, bless the congregation
with a shared prayer and then sit. The raised stage
quickly becomes a kitchen conversation and invisible smokes
of cigarette coax concealed wine glasses,

chandeliers soften to down lights,
coughs become the dog yawning and both men forget the crowd
that listens like an eavesdropper to their secrets,
complicit. Each hopes the other won’t reveal them.

The shout

20 10 2015

Birthplace (Glyn Maxwell)

She traced her forefinger beneath each line,
as slowly and deliberately as one learning to read,
stroking the skin of the page
so the words stood up like tiny hairs.

‘The task,’ I said, ‘is to make it louder
by hiding some of the poem in the dark.’
But she stared down at the marker pen
as though it was a bullet or a spent shell,
its damage pre-empted, permanent

and, instead, closed her eyes.  In her dark,
she shadowed out the sounds of classroom chairs
being clunk-stacked on the tables, the goodbye bell,
the ‘don’t run down the corridors.’
The poem and the pen and girl were gone
when I returned to the room after bus duty.

‘This poem is about silence, not shouting,’
she tells me the next morning, while the class,
cold and uncaring, slip from their slick coats
into echoing conversations.

Her markings have devoured the poem
so the silhouette that remains is skeletal;
bones she has spat are now shards,
the remaining ribs sharp and dangerous.
All the flat noise has been carved from the paper

and when I rub my finger over the scars made
by her scalpel, to gauge the gulleys there,
the wet marker pricks my fingerprint with ink,
and the sentiment sinks into me anew.

World Poetry Day and The Chester Literature Festival 2015

17 10 2015


Step 1: Find your favourite poems (the ones that you have gathered and nurtured and given and have given unto you)

Step 2: Photocopy them onto coloured paper, hand out the scissors, put some chopping/thrashing/paring music on

Step 3: Watch the carnage spread from the desks to the floor – imagine the cleaner’s face when she sees the devastation

Step 4: See young pupils handle old words with a freshness and fearlessness

Step 5: Acquiesce, permit them to leave with their poems and that snaking promise they’ll ‘finish them at home’

Step 6: Look at their proud faces, their proud poems, feel a little lighter about life

FullSizeRender (5)  (A ‘found poem’ based on Tony Harrison’s ‘Long Distance’)

FullSizeRender (6) FullSizeRender (7) (A ‘found poem’ using Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell poems)

FullSizeRender[1] (A ‘found poem’ using Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Seal’ and ‘Hippo’)

FullSizeRender (4) (A ‘blackout poem’ using Glyn Maxwell’s ‘The Birthplace)

FullSizeRender (3)FullSizeRender (2)

(Blackout Poetry’ using Luke Wright’s ‘Ballad of Fat Josh’)

Step 7: Take the new poems to their original creators, ask for kind words and signatures, return them to their new homes

Shijiazhuang Education Seminar – 2015

15 10 2015

IMG_1575 Having taught English in China in 2004, when the opportunity to return to Shijiazhuang to deliver a speech at a seminar centred on reading and scientific literacy was presented to me, I was eager to accept.  Then, however, came the practicality of preparing for the speech, preparing for the convoluted route via Hing Kong and preparing to deliver to a room of five hundred teachers.  Shijiazhuang had me immediately nostalgic; the population had grown as much as the skyline but the streets were still quick to smile familiar structures at me and to wink temperate skies.

I stuck to the scriptnotes I had contrived for the translators to follow, referred to Keira Knightly more than anyone has done in literacy lecture and generally bluffed my way through thirty minutes of a twenty minute session by parrying applause-less moments with terrible Chinese.

A success, sort of.  I thought. A former pupil of mine at the school sat beside me, balancing on the arm rest of the chair.

‘It was hard to believe your Chinese could get any worse.  It was also very, very long; luckily, I think you were stood on the microphone wire for most of the second half.’


Red Poets #21

5 10 2015

A slightly-mauled copy of Red Poets arrived today. Or, at least it arrived and was then mauled.
Always good to see yourself in heavily-chewed print.

Poet in Residence @ Chester Literature Festival 2015

26 09 2015

  the full events list can be found at:

Touch and Go: Dylan Thomas in Montgomery (15/16th November)

12 11 2014