Friday 30 November 2012


Regular readers of this blog may remember that I have gabbled on, at length, about this idea that poems are all, around us and that the poem begins not with the blank page but the idea. Well the above photograph is one such idea.

I captured this sad gaggle of billboards on Monday in Taunton. The heavy rain, and I suppose the direction from which it came, had caused the paper adverts to fall from their place. It is not the first time this has happened, back in April, the last time the allotment was flooded, I noticed as I walked to the train station the same phenomenon. Then I was thinking that it would be a good subject for a poem, but nothing really came to mind. However this week...


The point is reached.
Either it is the weight of the paper
Versus the friction of the paste,
Or the cumulative capillary power of the water.
It matters little which it was,
The outcome is as dramatic.
The posters curl and fall,
Like wet towels on a vacated hotel room floor,
It seems to be saying that Nature has had enough,
Of our advertising and our lies.

I am not sure that the poem works without the image, but I never envisaged it without the photograph. In my head as I used my phone to capture the scene I saw it as a whole. What do you think? I am too close to make it out, if I am honest. But I felt that it was a good coda to the latest floods.

Last Saturday in an apocalyptic frame of mind, well at least of poem, I came up with the following after reading a book review in The Guardian.


I suppose it is fitting that we europeans
arrived only a hundred years ago
just in time in fact to see it properly
before the heat we generated to develop
the means to take us there and all
the hot air we spoke about the place
started to shrink it down
rendered frozen water into our tears
here where the snow ran red
as amundson slaughtered half his dogs
just to ensure he reached the pole first as if it mattered
now we weigh up our chances of grabbing
the slowly revealed resources
once the ice sheets were beautiful

they will be again when we are gone

I am leaving you this week with a series of photographs that have no relevance to anything. Have a good week.

On Tuesday I shall be posting a rather special interview. Pete Frame, he of Rock Family Trees fame, and Zigzag, once said that you should never meet your heroes as they are never what you think they will be. but my guest on Tuesday is everything I have always thought he was and more...

Tuesday 27 November 2012


This week I am interviewing a poet whom I think is one of the most gifted I know Chrissy (or Chris)  Banks. She has been a member of Fire River Poets since the start, is a well known local poet, with a national presence. In the past Chris was selected for the Best Poem category by Smiths Knoll magazine in their Forward Prize. She is one of those accessible poets that easily chime with most people, so easily in fact that you may miss the high degree of skill that goes into making her work so accessible.  Don't just take my word for it check out her poetry site:

There is much to like in Chris' work, she is one of those poets who write with a musicality and from the first line offer you a complete world, a world that simply draws you in. She is also one of the most acute analysts of poetry I know. She is able to offer very sensitive and constructive feedback on work in a manner that respects the individual. OK, I confess I am a fan.

Her book Days of Fire and Flood is excellent. Here is a poem:


Hello. And welcome to our service helpline.
Demand is high at this specific time
and all our helpers currently engaged.
Your call’s important, so we’ll play for you
Vivaldi, while we hold you in a queue.

Demand  is high at this specific time
and all our clients currently enraged.
Your call’s important for our revenue.
We’ll play Vivaldi while ignoring you
and watch our profits make a steep incline.

All our staff are currently enslaved.
Your call’s a chore they’d rather not pursue.
They’ll play Vivaldi and leg it to the loo
while you are left to dangle on the line.
Demand is high and they’re on unpaid overtime.

Your call is still important, so we’ll cue
Vivaldi for the umpteenth time and coo
smooth, pre-recorded clichés down the line.
Demand is high, and we are doing fine
pretending that the customer’s assuaged.


Vivaldi’s endless seasons torture you.
Welcome to their service hindranceline.
Endure it only if you have the time
for operators constantly engaged.
Your call’s important, but you won’t get through.

© Chris Banks
Published in my anthology ‘Days of Fire and Flood’

How did you get started?

I started writing poems at a very early age, probably about 6 or 7. I learnt to read and write when I was quite young and, unusually perhaps, we also read a lot of poems at Primary School. I think the music and emotional intensity of poetry got inside me back then and has stayed with me as a powerful force ever since.

Taking a degree in Literature made me too conscious of the chasm between what I produced and the great contemporary poets I was reading then, many of them American, so I stopped writing poems for a while. Then in my early thirties, I started writing poetry seriously. I had three young children and I wanted to record something of my experience as a mother. Nobody very much was writing about children or motherhood back then – or if they were it wasn’t being published. I entered a poem about babies for a competition judged by Roger McGough and won first prize. That was a real boost. Then I started having poems accepted for publication in magazines. One poem I wrote back then, The Gift has been anthologised several times over.

Who influences you?

The list is long and varied. Current favourites are Chase Twichell, Tony Hoagland, Sharon Olds (Americans again); Jo Shapcott, Julia Copus, Paul Durcan, Don Paterson. Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage are always worth reading or listening to. Of my earlier influences the most important are Chaucer, Robert Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hardy, Robert Frost. Then early feminist writers such as Adrienne Rich and the great Sylvia Plath.

I am relieved that I no longer find myself writing ‘in the style of’ when I immerse myself in someone’s work, but I hope I incorporate elements of what affects me in their writing, by osmosis. I like to think that’s how it works. What kind of strange poet-creature would you imagine emerging from a mixture of the above names?! Anything like me?

I am also influenced by the observations of those in various writing groups I belong to and professional poets who have mentored me on courses or individually – their views and feedback are invaluable. If several people are saying ‘that line doesn’t sound right,’ you have to rethink it even though you may have been very pleased with it initially.

Where do the ideas come from?

Usually, a random event or experience, something I hear or read, causes some kind of emotional response in me that makes me curious. In writing about it, I am following an emotional note to discover the rest of the tune. Sometimes I get on the trail, but it peters out or takes me round in circles. It’s so hard! But compelling.

How do you go about constructing a poem?

I used to get a phrase or a line in my head and I’d take it dog-walking with me.  Literally. Walking is great for letting the mind off the leash to free associate.  After the poem had grown into some kind of shape in my head, I would then transcribe and rework it, both on paper and in my head on further walks. Now I no longer have a dog and the whole process has changed. I tend to write straight onto the laptop.

Is there anything you would have done differently?

Without an extra parallel life, probably not, much as I would have loved to give over more time to writing poems. By the time MAs in Poetry were springing up everywhere, I was committed to training and working as a Counsellor and Psychotherapist. I have a family. There’s only so much one ordinary woman can do.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

First and foremost, write for yourself, to find out what you didn’t know you knew or to express something for your own satisfaction or because you love language and rhythm.

Then, if the art of poetry is important to you, make sure you read. Get hold of some good contemporary poetry – anthologies such as Bloodaxe’s Staying Alive, Being Alive and Being Human are a great starting place for sampling different poets. Subscribe to a magazine such as the Rialto, Magma or Poetry London. Learn from what you read how to construct a poem, how the poems you most appreciate achieve their effects. Join the Poetry School and use their services. Join a poetry group where you can get objective feedback from a range of people. If you can afford it, take one of the Arvon Foundation’s courses.

And let’s not forget, write! Make an undisturbed space for yourself somewhere and get into a writing routine. Don’t be content with the first draft. Almost all poems can be improved. Publication, or an audience, may come in time, but don’t expect it to be easy. Be prepared to submit first to poetry magazines and online poetry sites and to read at open mics before even thinking of a collection or a full reading. Expect to get many rejections, but don’t let it stop you writing.

If you were a poem what poem would you be?

This is such an interesting question. It changes all the time, doesn’t it? I have been, for instance, Sharon Olds’s Looking at My Children Asleep, Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and others, but not now. One poem that has stayed with me, resonating and feeling close to me over many years is Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck. If you want to know more, read it. It’s a great poem and would find relevance, I imagine, for most poets as well as anyone who, like me, works as a therapist or is in psychotherapy or simply has an interest in the deeper layers of the mind. The poem is about deep sea diving and this serves as a metaphor for going down into the unconscious and finding ‘the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail.’

Whats in the pipeline?
Thanks to the amazing organisational skills of poet Sue Boyle, I was recently involved in a small way with quite an exciting project called Faces Bath, which was a collaboration between poets and portrait painters that culminated in a sound and visuals event at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute.

Now that’s over, there’s the usual business of crafting poems, trying to improve my own personal best. I would like to think I may have another collection in time, but I will have to start sending out to a few publishers if I want to make it happen! I seem to be dragging my heels on that one.

Also, I have finally got round to creating a website,  Please do visit it, read some of my poems and give me feedback.

Chrissy's website is worth checking out. What are you waiting for?

Friday 23 November 2012


One of our plots is on the left, after the shed, you can see the wood of the raised bed floating.

This week has been wet, very wet in fact, and the poor allotment has suffered a second flooding of the year. The problem apart from there being too much rain is that the wet summer has left the soil saturated and any further rain was bound to cause flooding.

 As you can see the flooding is even worse than last time. I tell you next year I am growing rice.

I was at my old university this week during the down pour and the best line I could come up with was:

Sheets of rain curtain down the drive

But I could not manage to link it up with any of the other things I had been writing. Such is poetry, it will go into the box of lines that I dip into now and again.

I have been writing a short story in the CO2 sequence, it has been weaving through a number of forms. I originally wanted it to be a set of official documents with the story weaving through them, it seems to be transforming into a third person narrative. I am unsure at the moment how many of the documents I’ve already completed will make it into the story. That is one of the joys of writing, don’t you think, the unexpected paths that you end up taking.

While waiting for the water to fall and hoping it does not reach the broad beans and peas which are just now spring above the soil (if you plant them in the autumn then you can harvest them before the black fly infest them, for all you keen gardeners out there), I wrote a poem for my old tutor.

Disturbed by the building work,
The ghost of my old professor
Skulks about the stacks,
Loiters by the books he ordered
-the few that remain,
Those authors he claimed to have known.
I just saw him,
As bored and fretful as if at a fresher’s fair.
I fucked up like he did;
For years he fought top corridor,
All for nothing, he cannot leave this place.
Management are having the last laugh.
I see him now, transparent in the fluorescent light.
I realise he will be here
Beyond the yellowing of the pages.

Magpies in the Quad

Magpies in the quad
bold as brass but more beautiful
they seem to welcome me back

some things never change

I’d be interested what you make of the first poem, let me know. 

Tuesday 20 November 2012


These guys are the real deal. There is nobody out there like them. They are electro-folk-stroytellers, and they tell me they have never been to a place where they were not invited back. I can believe this, I saw them recently and I was delighted by their mix of beats, music, Lancashire traditions and humanity.

I can honestly say that Harp and a Monkey ( ) fall into no easily definable, preconcieved term. Take the first song on their album A Soldiers Song. it starts with beats and the recorded voice of a soldier who had fought at Passchendaele, the song then unfolds over a number of verses, there is a deft use of repetition that gives the listener a hook and means the lyric repays careful listening. Essentially they have taken what could be a rather hackneyed idea and turned it into something rich and strange.

In one of their own recent blogs they describe themselves as "the bastard sons of The Oldham Tinkers locked in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop with only the British Film Institute back catalogue and a handfull of scratchy folk LPs from the early 70's for company." I think that says it all myself.

How did you start writing?

We have been writing for years now both individually and collectively and with a variety of different bands and people: some sublime, some ridiculous. We started writing as 'Harp and a Monkey' in 2008, although we have known each other for years and worked on different projects together before.

The idea for Harp and a Monkey came about by accident – we had got bored of writing the same type of songs so we decided to challenge ourselves for a bit of fun and all go out and buy an instrument we had never played before (Andy duly bought a banjo and melodica, Martin an accordion and glockenspiel and Simon a harp and viola) . We thought that it would simplify what we did and lead to some interesting results, and we think it worked. We also wanted to tell short stories rather than write more obvious contemporary song lyrics. That's how we came to be writing about volunteering for the First World War, cheated brides, mermaids in cages and the importance of making a good cup of tea.

How did the band get together?

Andy and Martin actually went to the same secondary school as each other in Middleton, north Manchester, but only started playing in bands together years later. Simon, who is from St Helens, had moved to Manchester and answered an add in the Manchester Evening News, about 15 years ago, for another project Martin was involved in. All three have been good friends for well over a decade now.

Who are your influences?

That is a really difficult question because there are so many and they are so varied. For example, Martin might say electronica, folk and classical, Andy dub and Americana, and Simon avant garde pop and rock. It really is that broad. For Harp and a Monkey, however, we wanted it to sound very traditional and very modern at the same time. We also wanted it to sound British. So, while there are elements of all of the above, we hope it is the rather unusual blend that makes what we do a bit unique. We have been described by so many people in so many different ways that it has become a bit of a sport for us, but our favourites is probably Steve Lamacq's description of us on his Radio 2 show as “electro-folk-storytellers”.

Why Harp & a Monkey?

The harp part speaks for itself and the monkey line comes from the simple rule of life that “anything goes better with the addition of a monkey”. Having said that, Simon rightly claims he is 'the harp' and Andy the band's 'cheeky monkey', which leaves Martin as 'and a...'. He isn't too happy about that! In practical terms, it does help having a name like this, simply because nobody else does: so, when you type it into an internet search engine it is us that comes up. We have all played in bands before where there has been another act (in Scandinavia, Japan or somewhere else more glamorous than your own place of existence) with the same name. That can all become rather confusing and problematic.

If you were doing it again what would you do differently?

I am not sure if we would do anything differently. It might have been nice if we had thought of doing something like this earlier, but music is like any other craft: you need to work on it, hone it and master it. I don't think that we could have written songs like this if we hadn't been that bit older and had the same life and artistic experiences that we have had. So, no regrets, as they say.

Any advice for people starting out?

We spent a lot of time defining a sound and working on songs before going out and playing them, which was a very important thing to do. Too many bands or solo artists throw a few songs together and head out to what they hope will be an adoring audience. It doesn't work like that. You need to think about what you are trying to say and achieve, listen to lots of material by other artists and be honest with yourself about how your own work matches up. You can also then try and target the right audiences to play to.

At the end of the day, it is also about hard graft. We have spent the past four years playing constantly wherever people will have us. Sometimes we have played to hundreds, but most of the time it has been to handfuls. That doesn't matter. We work on the principle that if three people are there and we are good, those three will tell their mates and next time there will be six – and so on. Also, it doesn't matter how many people are in an audience, you only need to impress that one person who may be in a position to help.

What's in the pipeline?

A second album hopefully in the Spring plus a lot more gigs. We are planning to expand our reach in 2013 beyond our comfort zones of Lancashire, Merseyside, Yorkshire and Derbyshire. At least one big festival is on the cards for the south in the summer and there are likely to be showcases in London before that. Who knows, maybe it will stop magazines like fRoots describing us as “northern separatists”. Having said that, we would also like to get much further north, as we seem to have a growing audience in places like Scotland. Maybe we will also try and learn some new instruments? Or maybe we should try and get better on the ones we are pretending to be proficient on at the moment!

If you were a colour what colour would you be and why?

Bloody hell. Where did that come from? We would probably be something classic and muted: the kind of colour (think darker hue) that ages well, is never in fashion and therefore never out. Garish and showy is definitely not our thing.

Friday 16 November 2012


I’ve just got a new pair of reading glasses, slightly stronger prescription, different frames and it set me to thinking. Firstly I knew that my family would go “don’t like the frames” as they always do. It occurred to me that having new spectacles involves two different changes, the positive change for me is that I can see more clearly, being long sighted, small print has gotten more difficult as I have aged so a plus for me. For those looking at me I have changed, the glasses either suit or don’t suit. One event two changes.

This photo has nothing to do with anything in the post, i just like it.

This set me to thinking about an old exercise I had recently encountered again, the Johari Window. It was developed by two Americans in 1955, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingram-hence the Jo-Hari moniker.  The aim is to help people to better understand their relationship with themselves and others. Luft and Ingram developed the exercise when working with people with mental health issues.
The lower left hand window is information that you keep hidden. Things you know that others do not. Information about your life you do not want to share with others.
The lower right hand window is the unknown area, the part of you that no one knows.

Borrowed from Tita's Playground (
Basically there are four panes to the window. The upper left hand pane is what everyone may know about you: how old you are; the colour of your hair; your job; your interests, facts that are out in the open.

The upper right hand window is things that others know about you that you don’t; for example how those new glasses just don’t suit you. How when telling a story you always say “He turned around to me and he said...” How you wave your hands around when you talk. Those things an observer might notice that you do not.

The lower left hand window is information that you keep hidden. Things you know that others do not. Information about your life you do not want to share with others.

The lower right hand window is the unknown area, the part of you that no one knows. 

In the exercise you choose how much you want to share and as you and the other people interact there is a greater intimacy. It’s can help people to see how others perceive them and to learn how to safely disclose. One person I used to work with uses it annually when he is training new youth workers. It allows them to experience how the people they work with feel when they share information.

Anyway I have been wondering today whether this model could be effectively used to describe characters? Ok so you as the author, know all there is to know about your character, open, blind and hidden. But the characters discovery of their blind area and how they disclose and learn about the unknown area may give their character arc. What do you think?

I am going to see if I can use this window on the characters in a short story I am writing at the moment. Watch this space.

Anyway on to poetry. I have been struggling with this poem for a while now, essentially it is a political poem, generated by my anger at the financial mess we are all in courtesy of the greed of bankers and governments too scared to regulate them. But enough.

They announce we must sell the carriage clock,
The one that has sat on the mantelpiece,
Our grandparents bought a lifetime ago.
They tell us there is no choice, it has to go.
Our garden too, they say must pay.
All care and nurture must turn a profit.
They have set to altering the climate of the heart,
The heart hardens, the weather is wilder.
What will be left tomorrow?

I went through many rewrites to get here. The poem became shorter as I cut away the political rhetoric. What do you think?
I am going to end with a youtube video of The Hollies, a 1960’s beat group from Manchester, famous for having Graham Nash in their midst before he decamped to California and fame with Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Have a good week.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

BROOKE SHARKEY: the interview.

This September I attended a small festival in the woods near Lewes, only 200 people, it was friendly, intimate and packed with quality music. One of the highlights for me was listening to Brooke Sharkey sing her own songs, with a voice that just drew you in, warm, sensuous and amazing. Her band were excellent too, the guitar player, who told me afterwards that this was only the second gig they'd done together was very gifted, his lines really supported Brooke's voice and lyrics (sorry I can't remember your name!). Don't just take my word for it, listen to Brooke here (

In was so impressed I bought her ep on the spot. Brooke Sharkey is a serious talent and a gifted performer. I had to ask her for an interview and she graciously accepted. Grace is a good word to describe Brooke, recently the Observer wrote: Brooke Sharkey has an incredible voice, control and grace. (

Brooke is from London but spent her teenage years in France. Her father, when she returned, suggested she go out and busk, and she did. You can hear what a skilled guitar player she is on the videos below, she has as they say in jazz parlance: chops. I am impressed with the ease she moves from Chanson to acoustic folk to swirling gypsy jazz, and it works as a whole.

How did you get started?

I moved back to England when I was 16 and my dad bought me a guitar. I was already into songwriting at that point, the Guitar  was a great tool. I was playing pub gigs with him around Norfolk and Busking at lunch breaks for some pocket money. When I finished 6th form, everyone seems to be going to some uni or other, and I nearly got roped into it all. My dad suggested I carry on busking and so I did. Activity breeds more activity and I've been rolling on ever since. writing, singing, playing

What inspires you? 
.A good song. A good person. Hard work. A nice place.

Who are your influences?

Llasa de Sela, John Prine, Joanna Newsom, Edith Piaf, The Moulettes, Adam Beattie and the Consultants, Louisa Jones, Feist, Billie Holiday , Madeleine Peyroux, Nick Mulvey, Tom Waits, Dirty three, and a good few more..

Which comes first lyric or tune?

Melody most of all. Sometimes the other way round but not so often.

What advice would you give to someone starting off?

Be true to yourself. Keep focused but don't forget to enjoy yourself. Be disappointed but use it to strengthen you. Entrust people but don't entirely rely on them. Its obvious this one but I wished people reminded me of it all the time ' things come in waves, good and bad, inspiration, failures, happiness..'

What would you have done differently?

Absolutely nothing :)

Whats in the pipeline?

More gigs, more music and maybe an EP but shhhhh..

If you were a colour what colour would you be and why?

I'd be like one of those stones which changes depending on their moods. Today I'm light green and I don't really know why.