On Thursday 17 October, I was among eight poets who took to the stage at The Harrison in London to perform our ‘Moon Poems from the Dark Side’ within the Bloomsbury Festival. Seven of us are part of a loose workshop group, numbering fifty poets, whose strapline is ‘hearing the less welcome.’ We began life as the Poetry Society Covent Garden Stanza, meeting at their offices in Betterton Street, and retain this affiliation.
As living creatures, we all need to be held within the understandings of other beings, and feel ourselves part of communities. Enabling this, for writers who (like me) work with difficult or different materials, was part of my intention when I invited our first members into the group.
We’ve now been going for two years, and our members’ work is being published in periodicals and pamphlets, winning competitions and being performed by us everywhere from San Francisco, Aldeburgh, Birmingham and Brighton to Norwich – to name but a few places.
We had a free, but sold out ‘Mass Publication Celebration’ to share six members’ pamphlets earlier this year at Burley Fisher. It featured readings from Natalie Linh Bolderston, Jeffery Sugarman, Natalie Whittaker, Karen Smith, Joanna Ingham and Edward Garvey Long. I also recorded the celebration within this blog, and you can read a poem from each of these poets and see photos of the event if you scroll back.
When Richard Scott offered our group the possibility of a slot within the prestigious, and inclusive, Bloomsbury Festival, it seemed an opportunity not to pass up on. We all got behind collective promotion, helped as before by member poet Isabelle Baafi’s outstanding and evocative poster. Jenny Mitchell joined us as a special guest to celebrate the launch of her collection, Her Lost Language, from Indigo Dreams.
Like our ‘Mass Publication Celebration’, ‘Moon Poems from the Dark Side’ also sold out. I therefore wanted to create a permanent record of the night. All of us who were there that October Thursday will always remember the warmth and dynamism which electrified the basement venue.
We hope this account, with photos and poems, will share something of its transformative force for those of you not able to join us, through lack of tickets, or distance. As I heard poet after poet perform their work, I was filled with a sense of the power, and creative daring, of what we are doing – making work whose shapes can assume the forms of silence and colour our dark spaces with light.
To achieve this, we are committed to working through words to change and enlarge awareness. We support each other in expressing, with safety and agency, materials that some people may feel uncomfortable with hearing. In these difficult times, when language is being used destructively and dishonestly, we believe that speaking up – and listening to each other – are key acts of creative citizenship and community.
Our first poet was Julie Irigaray, a Basque poet living in London. Julie’s work asks how national identity functions, why societies and countries fit together, and what it can mean to belong. She works through a language of concrete, vividly evoked, detail – often setting her poems in the Basque country, where she was born and grew up, whose mountainous landscapes and folklore and legends make visible deep themes within her work. Her poems have appeared internationally, in the US, UK, Ireland, Canada, Mexico and South Korea. She was selected as one of the 50 Best New British and Irish Poets 2018 (Eyewear Publishing), and won second prize in the 2018 Winchester Poetry Competition.
Tales of the Woodcock
A picture of me holding a woodcock my father had freshly shot
takes pride of place in our living room.
What a peculiar thing to let a three-year-old child
pose with a dead bird, and such a majestic one.
But I’m not repelled. I am familiar with
the woodcock’s umber and burnt sienna
plumage – I even know her Latin name is
Scolopax Rusticola, that her belly resembles
bandages. I have learned to find the pin feathers,
these delicate stripped tears used
by artists as brushes for miniatures.
I spread her wing as one unfolds a moth, trying
not to touch the powder which allows it flight.
I’m not thinking about why her head is dangling:
I just love to caress her coal skullcap. I grasp
the woodcock tightly – my father’s most precious
treasure. I don’t realise yet that he will neglect
his family to track her down every weekend.
I don’t resent her being our rival.
A snapshot of the mind: I’m no more than twelve
and my mother cooks woodcocks in boiling
duck fat to preserve them. She offers to prepare me
one for breakfast: I accept but feel embarrassed
as I know she is going to tell her friends
and all the family how good a girl from
the south west I am, eating woodcock at 9 a.m.:
‘Such a strong child, a hunter’s daughter.’
Now I feel terribly guilty when I devour the woodcocks
my father shoots. I lock the crack of the beak
when I open it to catch the tongue, breaking the skull
to suck the brain, the succulent taste of what I enucleate.
Then I reflect on this pair of obsidian eyes, always glassy
– the most impenetrable I’ve ever seen. So I make a small
sacrifice by not asking my father to bring me others,
hoping my opposition is of principle, not a rejection of him.
Published in The Best New British and Irish Poets 2018 Anthology by Eyewear Publishing,
Next came SK Grout – also pictured at the start of this blog. She is a poet whose work conjures moonlight for me, because of the way it finds silvery, sliding forms to catch at the parts of our lives, and our selves, which are so powerful, but can be so resistant to expression. She grew up in Aotearoa/New Zealand, has lived in Germany and now splits her time as best she can between London and Auckland. SK Grout is the author of the micro chapbook “to be female is to be interrogated” (2018, the poetry annals) as well as the forthcoming “what love would smell like if it had a scent” (2019, dancing girl press). She is a Feedback Editor for Tinderbox Poetry Journal and a Poetry Editor at honey and lime literary & arts magazine.
Running from the sun
The interstate highway may be tedious
steady hum of the hired car
clacking of the road markings
artificial bleached light flashing overhead
like sham starbursts,
but when you’re running from the sun,
when your skin is the colour of
and your fingers wear rings of dust,
you take what you can get.
All day I have been drowning in smoke;
breath catching on cement lined lungs,
demi-sleeping through the stench of
two and half star highway hotels
riding a quest for curtain corners of gloom.
This is what happens after the fall.
Not an explosion of life,
but an exultation of the blues.
The quiet stretching eternity of interstate
after interstate, the low hum of late night
talk radio – debating immigration influx,
challenging the cosmos,
travelling around Tibet.
This is what happens when you dance with galaxies
gallop with deities.
The moon is wild
Appiah Sackey was our third poet of the night. His work has a brilliantly spring-loaded quality, using humour, and slant-visions, to make something you thought you knew become completely different, and dramatise the workings of an imagination which plays mischeviously and subversively between his childhood in Accra, and his adult years in London. Off the page, he is a London-based poet, life coach and teacher. Born in Ghana, he moved to the United Kingdom in 1984. He has published two pamphlets: The Dream Bearer and Other Poems (2008) and Pieces of the Light and Other Poems (2014). He says he is a poet of celebration – of the good, the bad and the ugly.
The moon is resting
just beyond my window sill
I could scoop it in one hand
and bring it into our room
no one would know
who stole the moon
we could play catchball with it
all through the long night
or direct its light to inspect
the shadows of our little games
Jenny Mitchell, who closed our first half, is an extraordinary poet and writer, who performs regularly in London. Her work engages deeply and feelingly with transatlantic enslavement and legacies of trauma. Widely published, she is joint winner of the Geoff Stevens’ Memorial Poetry Prize; a prize winner in the Ware and Segora poetry competitions; and has been highly commended/commended in several competitions. Her work has been broadcast on Radio 4 and BBC 2, and published in various magazines, including The Rialto, The New European, The Interpreter’s House and with Italian translations in Versodove. She has work forthcoming in Under the Radar.
Jenny Mitchell’s debut collection, Her Lost Language, is published by Indigo Dreams.
Song for a Former Slave
Her dress is made of music
humming through the hem,
high notes in the seams.
A rousing hymn adorns
with sheer lace.
The heart is stitched with loud amens,
the back a curving shape
She’s proud enough to hold
her own applause
tucked in a pleated waist.
The skirt sways freely
when she walks
to show there are no chains.
Her dress is made of music.
Alice Hiller: I opened our second half by explaining that, for anyone who shares my history of having been sexually abused in childhood, the moon is an ambiguous light source. It can bring light to dark places, but it can also make visible things that are difficult to see. For my set, I shared five poems, which charted my experience from when the abuse began when I was eight, through a pivotal moonlit night in December 1976 which finally led to me refusing my abuser. I ended with three poems tracing the moonlit paths of adolescence which began to lead me towards freedom and healing. ‘circular’ remembers a shocked, terrified night in an icy bedroom in a Wiltshire village late in 1972 .
the ball is me caught
in lank winter grass
slick as the hair
between the legs
in the bedroom
which the round moon
then looks away
Emma Jeremy followed on from me with poems that also respond to difficult times when growing up. Her work builds semi-surreal worlds which feel deeply truthful, and profoundly revealing. They have a capacity for contained danger, created by using language, and imagery to go places in our minds which many fear to address. Emma is from Bristol, and her poems have been included in publications such as Poetry London, Poems in Which, The North and Magma. Emma’s pamphlet Safety Behaviour came out in summer 2019 and deals with themes of anxiety and panic, and the strategies we use to keep ourselves feeling safe.
The thoughts, I’ve been told, to put somewhere else.
So I put them on the roof. I put them in a box
and post them. I put them in shoes I never wear.
I split them up from each other and put each one inside
a stranger’s pocket, to be taken home and washed so
the thoughts drown in several different washing machines.
I put them on the wing of an aeroplane. Inside a hollow
bit of wall. I tie them to balloons and they fly off.
I put them in the ocean and they swim away. I hold
them over a candle and they evaporate. I hide,
no, bake them, inside an enormous, delicious cake,
seven tiers high, and I give a piece of it to everyone.
Our penultimate poet of the evening was poet, musician, and songwriter Angus Strachan. Angus creates work which is constantly pushing at the boundaries of form and language to find ways of expressing and addressing places, and states, that many draw back from, with a degree of musicality that calls to the ear. Angus is also a playwright who has had plays on in several countries around the world. He won the James Joyce Suspended Sentence Award; and had poems and short stories published in a variety of online and printed magazines/newspapers in the UK, Ireland, USA and Australia. This succint poem has just been printed in Vahni Capildeo’s brilliantly rich Ecopoetics issue of The Stand magazine, in which I was also lucky enough to have a poem.
Closing our evening of moon poems, we had the magnificent, questing Kostya Tsolákis. His set carried us from wilded woodland on Hampstead Heath to the thick vine that grows at his family’s stone house in Northern Greece – and continued his key work of making spaces to hold the textures of LGBTQ+ lives and loves. A star on the live scene, for his experimental, raw-edged, risk-taking performances, Kostya is a London-based poet and journalist whose poems address the personal and political in equal measure, queering the centre stage. His work has appeared in Magma, Wasafiri, Under the Radar, perverse and Strix, among others. He founded and co-edits harana poetry with Romalyn Ante, an online magazine for poets writing in English as a second or parallel language, which I’m lucky to be the reviews editor for. Our third issue is out now. Visit harana poetry 3 here.
I catch my father
admiring them on the boys
who live in our block, boys
who bellow at each other
on the basketball court, boys
who fill their cars with petrol,
who work in tight blue jeans
at the taverna in the park.
My schoolmates carry theirs
with pride. True bone rising
from stiff-gelled heads
and yet I know my neck
could not stand the weight.
Vitamins and vats of milk
can’t make mine grow.
Still small as thumbs,
even coating them in honey
mixed with blood
will not work.
I watch the boys
muck around in the schoolyard,
how they always seem to compare
scars, to size each other up. I watch
how a playful little slap
in the face escalates into
combat, into rutting, twisting
violence, pulled-up shirts
exposing lean, winter-pale
bodies and antlers
Special thanks to Natalie Linh Bolderston who took the performance photos at The Harrison, to all our brilliant audience who filled the evening with life and energy, and listened with such passion to our poems.
Thank you also to The Harrison for being so warmly welcoming, and to The Bloomsbury Festival for giving us a the opportunity to perform out ‘Moon Poems from the Dark Side.’