Happy Great White Christmas…

December 17, 2014

For the last year or so I’ve been following the progress of Lydia – the great white shark, that is. Tagged by researchers she’s reportedly travelled farther than any other monitored one, 25000 miles in two years. At a certain point is she looked like she was about to hit Cornwall; those tracking her believe she is either pregnant or looking to breed. Given this and the coincidence of our names I wrote the below sestina a few months back. For the latest on her travels see here:


A Shark Called Lydia

The other night I dreamt I was a shark.
As I lay in bed dead to the dark
spread between sheets
like a crime-scene
painted at the bottom of the sea
my head filled with water.

I have never liked the water
always had a terror of sharks
a particular horror so that every sea
is a bath full of fins filling the dark
every swimming pool a scene
from Jaws. The rain screams sheets

hammer head lashes and soaks the sheets
behind my eyes a forest of kelp thickens the water.
In a black mirror I am grey and white; picture the scene
a pearly ridge protrudes from my back; I am a shark
clear as my nose that has grown enormous in the dark
and round; pregnant as a pregnant-sea.

A new born pup flees from it’s mother into the sea
to escape being eaten immediately, no wrapped in sheets
and presented black eyes blinking against the dark
Get out of the water!
It’s a shark!
Here is the scene

with the murderous shark, the scene
with Medea drowning her children, smash of the sea.
Everyone always blames the mother.
But here in the night, a child is hanging from a twisted sheet.
A boy is still and staring from beneath the water.
A girl is pointing accusingly from the dark.

I have never liked the dark
always feared the scene
with the basket on the sea
the cries from the wicker carried on the water.
Nobody knows the heart of a shark
it’s impossible numbers, pages, sheets.

In the quiet dark of the bright night a silver scene opens on a sea;
a white shark walks upon the water waiving a flag blank as a sheet
at a child who stands, waiting, watching from a moon washed beach.


On November 15th I was invited to introduce Patience Agbabi as one of the closing authors to read at Literary Leicester, a week long festival of literature staged by the University of Leicester with an exceptional programme of authors ranging from Patience – to Will Self, Carrie Etter and Moniza Alvi. The piece I wrote and delivered on the night may also serve as something of a review and I’ve been asked by a few different people to put it up online; so here it is in a slightly expanded form…



I first encountered Patience Agbabi around 7 years ago through WORD! – as after moving from a series of more underground bars we arrived at The Y Theatre and invited her to read as one of our first major, headline acts. At the time she was touring her third collection, Bloodshot Monochrome. The audience crowded into the bar area (the night was very quickly moved into the main theatre) and everyone was blown away. Since then she’s continued to be a busy lady with a resume packed with venues, commissions, countries and books.

Born in London, Agbabi spent her teenage years in North Wales, before progressing to study English Language and Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford. She has toured her work across the world, travelling widely with the British Council and occupying the role of Canterbury’s Poet Laureate – perhaps significantly considering her latest work. The author of two books prior to Bloodshot Monochrome – Transformatrix and R.A.W – her forth, Telling Tales (Canongate,2014) is a retelling of Chaucer’s 14th century Medieval masterwork, ‘The Canterbury Tales’.

Many highly respected names in contemporary British Literature have been unreserved in their praise for this latest work.

“Wonderful” – says, Andrew Motion

“Inventive, innovative and ingenious – zooms right into the 21st Century.” – says, Jackie Kay.

“A brilliant, virtuosic take on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales…If Telling Tales is not one of the books of the year or in line for a major prize it will be proof that the world has grown very dull.” – George Szirtes.

“A Canterbury Tales for a multicultural Britain…Chaucer would have been proud.” – Helen Cooper.

But what do you do with Chaucer in a modern age? What do you do with this story of 24 pilgrims traveling from Southwark to Canterbury (at the time a common quest) each telling a tale to out do the other? The original work is written in an obsolete form of English that few people will understand without a good grasp of Middle English – and arguably an academic background. What’s more, Chaucer writes his tales against a 14th century Medieval backdrop that is not our own – and yet, of course, Chaucer’s major work is an undisputed work of genius. So, what do you do with it? How do you make it understandable for a modern audience?

There have of course been other attempts to answer this question. Writers like Neville Coghill (The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer, The Folio Society, 1956) and Peter Ackroyd (A Retelling of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Penguin Classics, 2009) have chosen to retell it in modern English. Both are wonderful versions but not without issues in relation to this question; we can understand and relate to the language – but not what it describes. Nowadays we have no Knights, we have no Reeves or Yeomans and then there are even trickier issues…

Anti-semitism was a key feature of Medieval Life – just as one could now say that racism towards other groups is sadly a feature of contemporary life. Chaucer wrote at a time just after the Jews had been expelled from the Britain by King Edward 1st and were largely hated; and so we come to ‘The Prioress’ Tale’ – a tale of it’s time and like all of The Canterbury Tales – for the people. It features a 7 year old, innocent, devout Christian son of widow, who whist coming back from school, practicing a devotional Latin hymn – Alma Redemptoris Mater (Loving mother of our saviour) – finds himself in the Jewish quarter, or as Chaucer has it – in the ‘waspish nest of the accursed Jews’ [sic] by whom, he is brutally murdered – without provocation – for no reason we may assume other than the fact that he is Christian. When it comes to describing the Jewish character, the implication is clear.

To retell such a story would be to perpetuate anti-semitism, racism – and this for me is the crux of the matter. On a retelling enterprise such as this it is important to make a text understandable for the audience for whom you are writing – and at the same time to preserve something of the original – to some extent to be faithful – but how faithful can you be to something that in this particular, limited case – and I hasten to add it is not indicative of the rest of Chaucer’s tales – but how faithful can you be to something which in this case – is hopefully repellent to most modern people?

Agbabi manages it. In her version, ‘Sharps and Flats’ she retains the basic story of a young boy who is brutally murdered, whilst removing the racism. He is simply an innocent who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, set upon by people whom he is different to – a rival gang. In her hand it becomes a redemptive tale – told not in the third person of the Prioress but in the first person – as the boy, in death grown to man records a mix tape to his mother from heaven, in the company of Damilola Talyor (who was of course tragically murdered in Southwark) to tell her in text speak and idiomatic street – that he is ok. To quote the final five lines of the piece:

‘Got my chords cut but I’m singing like it’s Sunday
boys got shut up, an I know this, that one day
you’ll come to stay, so peace! Remember what the nuns say,
Love conquers all. I sign off,

Your loving son, J.’

She preserves the magic of Chaucer’s original, where the corpse of the boy sings out from it’s grave to accuse his murders – transforming it into something beautifully drawn, highly impactive and quite extraordinary.

For me, this is the playful story and tension of the collection’s title – Agbabi is telling tales – faithfully preserving Chaucers’ work in countless different ways – whilst she is also telling tales – making stuff up in the most creative way possible – being radical.

She accurately translates Chaucers’ clear picture of the Medieval world with it’s hierarchical structure and varied make up into, as Jeanette Winterson puts it:

“A pilgrimage of punks, badasses, broken hearts, beat poets, silver-tongued fixers, town criers, beauties [and] sinners…”

– a picture of multicultural Britain.

She preserves Chaucer’s playful order but changes the players; the Reeve is a dog…The Wife of Bath is the Wife of Bafa and a Nigerian business woman who is, she insists in one of my favourite lines:

‘…not a feminax’

She exchanges prologues for a glossary of bios – a meta-text that can be read alongside the tales but which independently has as much to say about multicultural Britain.

Agbabi draws on many of Chaucers’ forms but moves them around. For the Franklin’s and Reeve’s Tale, she uses the wonderfully nuanced Rhyme Royal of 7 line, iambic pentameter stanzas, written across a pattern of a,b,a,b,b,c,c – just as Chaucer used it across the Man of Law’s, Prioress’, Clerk’s and Second Nun’s Tale.

Elsewhere she is sometimes faithful to his couplets but then invents and inherits a raft of other forms. Her Man of Law is a 7-sonnet corona. Her Tale of Melibee is a palindrome. The ‘Reconstruction’ of her Physician’s Tale is a deconstruction jazz – or to quote the bio of it’s fictitious physician author:

‘…a part homage to the concrete poems of sculptor Carl Andre.’

Then there’s grime and there’s rap – and in The Merchant’s Tale a collage of northern soul song titles – and in the Clerk’s Tale an overlaid retelling of Sharon Olds’ ‘I Go Back to May 1937’ – or 1967, in this case.

Agbabi’s is a radically faithful retelling, for as the Wife of Bath or Bafa will tell you, there are many ways to be faithful. You can be faithful by being literal, or – by preserving the spirit and essence of something and putting it into a form that makes sense and works for you.

The result is a work overlaid with multiple interpretations and meanings. See it as a inventory of contemporary dialects every bit as rich as those discovered by Chaucer – a comment on the evolution of language as a living thing. It is both an overview of multicultural Britain – and a tour deforce of poetic forms; a way of connecting to the past whilst using it to understand the present – and needless to say, a great read. This is a work that for the richest understanding can be read alongside both its original inspiration and other retellings – but also stands alone as all of the above and more.


As an adjunct to the above, missing from here amongst other things is what came next – Patience’s 50 minute performance from the book, which was every bit as accomplished as the writing within it.

It would make for too long an entry to discuss this in detail but I would just say that once again here is a work to deeply question the wisdom of dividing page from stage – and to critique what remains for me a false distinction between the two. Good work is for both – as Chaucer, writing before the invention of the printing press surely knew. As the first work to be printed in the English language, Chaucer’s Tales were staged in towns and cities across the UK, both before and alongside being consumed by readers.

If you don’t yet have a copy of Agbabi’s Tales beg, borrow or ideally buy one. If you’ve yet to hear her read from it, do so – she’s very, very good. Listen to her perform and rediscover the forms – hear them out loud to appreciate their successfulness… go to them on the page to remember-discover-discover-remember… the cadences, the silences, the music – and the rising, chiming, pilgrim riding rhythms.

The Nicky Morgan Paradox.

November 12, 2014

A few months ago, in fact a few days before Nicky Morgan was shuffled into the role of Secretary of State for Education, she was invited to address a conference I attended on Arts in Health, speaking to a room full of artists, practitioners and health workers. She spoke about the importance of creativity to recovery, how people she was close to had turned to creative writing to support recovery from their mental health issues. She talked about how art in general was a vital aspect of treating a whole person and whole range of psychological disorders. She seemed sincere, but then I guess her sincerity depends on when she’s talking – and who’s she’s talking to – as only a few months later, addressing a room full of scientists, she describes the usefulness of the arts as a lie.

There are two possibilities: either, Nicky Morgan was herself lying when she spoke at the first of these engagements – or she’s forgotten that art, like any discipline does not exist in a vacuum; that it is written and painted and crafted and taught and shared and developed and evolved, by people, across generations. People and generations it seems she would like to choose differently. Art that she would then see diminish and disappear.

It is of course possible that Nicky Morgan has simply changed her mind and now no longer believes in the value of the arts – in supporting people, or indeed making life worth living. It wouldn’t be the first time she’s had a change of heart on a subject – switching from being opposed to gay marriage, to being in favour of it. If this is the case, I guess fair enough… but such rapid hairpin bends in opinion do not bode well for the hugely important portfolios of women, equalities and education – she now finds herself with responsibility for. Will like Miller and Gove, she just make it up (from expenses to policy) as she goes along?

For me this latest message from our government sums up everything that is sad, misguided and disturbing about the administration. It suggests, yet again, that the Tory view is one based on fear and negativity; that it is necessary to demonise the poor in order to explain the recession; that it is necessary to demonise the arts in order to complement the sciences – or explain why not enough young people choose to study them. Such messages are at best divisive and stupid and at worst, nasty – and surely evidencing of that historical characterisation of the party.

When we look back through history we remember the major scientific advances – the discovery of Penicillin, the first moon landing – and we remember the art…the Romanticism of the 18th century; the Abstraction and Expressionism of the 20th. When we look back, it is the art, at least as much as the science that characterises each decade – the Glam rock of the 70’s, the Punk of the 80’s, the Britpop of the 90’s – to look only at music.

The Theory of Relativity is perhaps useful here: art and science, like space and time – are relative to each other, not mutually exclusive. Art and science should not – are not – in competition with other. Science can be creative. Art can be logical. People have their own ways of engaging with the world and their own priorities when it comes to defining the things that are important to them.

Nicky Morgan has tried to confuse her framing of science v art by reframing it as a feminist debate on gender equality – increasing the earning potential of women by persuading more to pick STEM subjects. She observes that men dominate the sciences rather than acknowledging that, though this may be true, men dominate all areas of public life. She assumes the best way for women to earn more is for them to compete in this one particular area dominated by men – rather than perhaps, using the skills garnered through the humanities to question why areas particularly dominated by men are better paid. To put it another way, she chooses this approach, rather than for policies to acknowledge the contribution made by women in less financially rewarding professions – for example teachers and nurses – and pay them more.

Nicky Morgan is entitled to her opinion…whatever it may be, at any given time. As both a woman and a person, I am entitled to mine. I will continue to practice as a poet and within the sectors of arts, health and education rather than hedge funding my bets in banking – or indeed, moving into the sciences as she encourages. I will do so because working as a poet and within the above sectors makes me happy – because I am more suited to this than I am to anything else – because I prioritise my happiness over how much I may earn – and because I believe the financial is not the only useful contribution one can make to society. I believe in art, and I believe in health, and I believe in society – and so I know, once again, who I won’t be voting for next Spring.




Here inside a stall, inside a room, upon a floor
inside a building built for recall and remembering,
here lie the lasts*;

the last lasts, ghosts of feet,
the chiseled casts of the final customers
to press their moves upon these streets
as though they’d lead forever,

each ankle, delicately turned upon a lathe of leith,
arches held, each individual sole
solicitously measured – the answer scored
upon it’s face beneath the place
where tongues might later flap.

Here lie the lasts, each one drilled with truth,
a secret morse of holes to breathe and see like eyes –
windows to the soul – said Leonardo, Law and Cicero
but also, Jimmy Choo.

Here lie the last lasts made by the last of his line,
Falkner (William) number five,
Market Harborough’s Shoe Made King,
Market Harborough’s shoe ma-king…

Pinocchio is transfixed – not wood to flesh –
but flesh to this: each miracle of bone and sinew-skin,
taught to dream in maple, pine and yew and beech.

Each wonderment of shadowed wood
built in layers of patterns cut and parts arranged,
beveled, pared and shaped,
leather soaked and stretched and nailed,
meticulously stitched and glued.

On a sunny day, inside this glass lined, lamp-lit
horse shoe shaped room – the last lasts line a wall
arrayed around an arsenal of resurrected tools.
My mother-in-law – who lingers by a shoe shine stool
describes a time when her Great Aunt Maude,
a kitchen-maid who never got to finish school
went into service in a manor-house
and met and married the boot-boy, who
spent his evenings elbow deep in wax and grease
buttoning and blacking other people’s
clogs and brogues – but later learned
this alchemy of boxes,
stacked and packed with tacks and screws,
brushes, bottles, red jeweled balls of glinting cord,
heel cap cuticles of steel, their crescent moons
and opened up a shop – him and Maude
inside their own first home (oh lucky few)
like ‘Hobson’s Choice‘ (the film) –
from 18 shillings once week
to sovereign pounds arranged in rows.

Back in the room
the last, lasts creak,
leaning from their shelves
to whisper to my mass made mules…
but there’s no talking shop, mine have seen too much
passed from hand to hand, none of which, fed enough
in distant factories, built on sweat and blood
– like Hobson’s Choice (where there is none)
and now are mute.

A long, long way from
Falkner heels,
from hand stitched uppers
sewn with seeds of
glittered care and cut
with blades
initialed with a name
and boots and shoes
that took two weeks to set
and couldn’t be repeated
ever or again.

A long, long way from
Market Harborough’s
long, long dead,
shoe made kings,
we do not fit
the head with crowns
we fit the feet –

here lie the lasts;
the last lasts, ghosts of feet
the chiseled casts of the final customers
to press their moves upon these streets
as though they’d walk, as though they’d lead, as though
they’d last – as though they’d quick step out forever

and progress marches on.

*“A last is a mechanical form that has a shape similar to that of a human foot. It is used by shoemakers in the manufacture and repair of shoes. Lasts typically come in pairs, and have been made from various materials, including hardwoods.” – [sic] Wikipedia.

Thanks to Sole2Sole for commissioning this piece.

Things A-Foot

June 17, 2014

Hello again – and apologies to regular visitors for this blog’s recent skulking under-cover status. Over the last few months many things have been in progress not least of all an exciting tour, Three the Hard Way – temporarily causing me to deflect to HERE. As you’ll see, should you follow the link, it’s all very exciting, involving me plus two other poets, Jean Binta Breeze and Alison Dunne. There are pictures of us gadding about from Corby to Clapham to Cornwall – and other places, not beginning with C, but none the less lovely for it.

Meanwhile, other things have been progressing, as they will. Things I’m particularly chuffed about include having a couple of poems picked by two publications/publishers, both of which I have of late (and for some time) been quite dizzy with fan-girl, stalker-ish, nerdy obsession about.

The first is the mighty Magma 59, coming out in July – and launching regionally, Upstairs at The Western on July 17th. Each edition of Magma is specifically themed and edited by a different person, a fact I first encountered back in Spring 2011 when I bought a brilliant, brilliant green covered version, themed around ‘Construction’ and edited by Julia Bird – a fabulously talented poet and dynamic literature promotor with two collections and numerous projects to her name. Magma 59 is themed around ‘Breaks’ and edited by equally talented, Alex Pryce and Roberta James. I have a surprisingly large number of poems on the theme of breaks (in no way suggestive of poor moral fibre) and shall be performing, Wool – the one selected, at the launch.

The second piece has been picked for a forthcoming Bloodaxe anthology, Raving Beauties – edited by Sue Jones-Davies, Dee Orr, Anna Carteret and Fan Viner. Raving Beauties will be the quartet’s forth collection of women’s themed work – and strutting out in 2015.

Speaking of strutting and things afoot leads nicely to another thing, namely a shoe themed poem I was recently commissioned to write by Sole2Soul – an Arts Council funded project, curated by University of Leicester. The brief was to write a piece in response to the William Falkner Shoe and Boot exhibition, installed at Harborough Museum. Late last month I took myself off to Market Harborough with some family in tow, visited the museum, took some pictures, made some notes, left the building, braved some rain, sheltered in a pub, sat in car,  watched ‘Hobson’s Choice’ (killer b/w classic, recommended by my mother-in-law, who now feels equally committed!) and wrote the above. I mean, the above poem I’m about to post, in a moment…

I also bought some very reasonably priced black, kitten heeled, sling-backs from the local British Heart Foundation, which should you visit the wonderful William Falkner Shoe and Boot exhibit and its surrounding stomping ground, I can highly recommend. The charity shop, not the sling backs, which are of course, no longer there.

Coming soon…What’s in the Box – a Christmas-ified version for, er..Christmas…

See here for more info – more tinsel than you can throw a tree at, etc…

What's in the Box

Good Prognosis

November 16, 2013

As the year ticks down, you are cordially invited to attend ‘Good Prognosis’ – a ground-breaking day of speakers, stalls, food, performance and art – celebrating the impact of culture on health and wellbeing, in Leicester, Leicestershire and beyond…

The event, curated by Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust (LPT), via I and Tim Sayers, my poet-ing, artist-ing, arts and wellbe-ing, colleague-in-arms – will be staged at Peepul Centre, Leicester – on November 20th, 2013. Click on the link below this post, for full details. The day is free to attend but places are limited, so booking essential.

Programmed speakers and delegates will feature key commissioners, decision makers and experts in their fields, including:

Peter Knott, Area Director of Arts Council England (Midlands); Peter Flack, Chair of Everybody’s Reading festival & Co-founder of Whatever it Takes and Jean Binta Breeze MBE, the world’s first female dub poet and Patron of many LPT projects – in addition to key leaders from the NHS – including Professor David Chiddick CBE, Chair of LPT and newly appointed CEO, Dr Peter Miller.

Also featuring:

Performances from the award-winning, Showcase Smoothie (www.showcasesmoothie.com) and brand new LookALady-Ukulele, recently featured on ITV Central News – See ‘Other Work’ on this site for more information.

Good Prognosis will celebrate the impact of arts and culture on health and wellbeing, think about the effect creativity can have on individuals and communities – and the way in which it can help effect lasting, positive change. There will be opportunities to network and build discussion towards future work.

It’s a good prognosis for Arts and Health – the future’s bright and we want to share it.

To book your free place please contact Maxine Coley, via: maxine.coley@leicspart.nhs.uk or ibrahim.dhorat@leicspart.nhs.uk
Good Prognosis – Invitation

Snail Sonnet

September 20, 2013

Turning (heh,heh) from the subject of zombies for a moment, here’s a re-posted sonnet about snails, read earlier this week, as part of set at Weaving Words (http://www.essentiallyeccentric.co.uk/weavingwords/) – a lovely night run by poet, Michelle Ferguson. In the course of the reading, conversation with an audience member drifted to the notion of zombie snails – and indeed, zombie gnomes. I am keen on snails (in a vegetarian way) and my mother used to collect gnomes. Zombie gnomes and zombie snails, the next natural step..

The following is written as a Shakespearian as opposed to Petrarchan sonnet, as I am of course addressing the British as opposed to Italian (Roman) gastropod.

Little Song
‘Snails were eaten by the Romans. They introduced many varieties into Britain, which eventually spread’ Snail City.

And when they came they came with Romans
in boats and crates, like papers curled,
but their shells were heavier than omens
and their ships set down with sighs unfurled.

And when they came they wanted to like it
but they didn’t like the weather or the food
and they couldn’t speak the language or make fit
what they had needed with the hostile mood.

Now each snail is a shell full of longing,
each garden a clearing of betrayal,
each ocean is a chasm of aching
for a snail that would drown if it tried to sail.

And this is their sadness, what all snails learn
their home’s on their back, but they can’t return.

Dear Zombie John

August 7, 2013

Dear Darling,

It has come to my attention
that despite our best intentions
our relationship of late
has changed.

It’s not that I don’t love you
It’s just it hard to hug you
when you no longer wash
or smell the same.

I don’t want to sound superficial
beauty is only skin deep
but biting is quite anti-social
Baby – you’re turning into a creep.

I can’t help but notice
that your teeth are falling out
I won’t mention the halitosis
but you’ve sewn the seeds of doubt

and I don’t want to mention the Z word
but something’s can’t be ignored
when I caught you eating the neighbour’s cat,
you were no longer the man I adored.

Your clothes are all hanging in tatters
and why can’t you just clip your nails
what other people think doesn’t matter
but you’re turning increasingly pale.

Dear Darling, you used to be a vegetarian
now you scorn my cauliflower bake.
Darling, you use to find me attractive
now you only want me for my brains.

Darling, I have to question your motives
when you follow me round the house,
it’s really quite unnerving,
this game of cat and mouse.

You’re backing me into a corner
and I don’t like the look in your eye,
your shuffle, that was once a saunter
makes something inside of me die.

It seems a harsh conclusion
but let’s have no confusion
Baby, I don’t want your loving bites

As I watch you drool
it does seem cruel
but it isn’t always possible to be nice.

Dear Darling, I know it’s the worst kind of break up
but things have definitely taken a turn
Dear Darling, my love, it’s the worst kind of ending
but all you seem to do now is moan.

It’s just no use.
It’s not me, it’s you.
I’ve guessed the truth after all.

I’m going to have to
cut off your head.
Because, I think
you’re already dead

Dear Darling.
It’s over.

Life is Worth Living

May 24, 2013

Because this morning I woke up in an orange room

with a warm body next to mine, an arm

flung across a sheet and the cat

levering itself up across the duvet,

claws for picks, gingerly, oh gingerly,

like Captain Scott, making his way

across the mountainous range

of the newly gifted feather topper;

with the soft mew of intention,

pinned against the tip

of his rose petal