Sue Boyle & Safe Passage

Amazed, humbled and so privileged to have such a reading from a person of such courage and such warmth. If ‘Safe Passage’ were only to have one reader, I would wish it to have been Rebecca.

Rebecca Gethin

Sue Boyle is the new Featured Writer. Her latest book, Safe Passage, published by Oversteps Books is heart-achingly beautiful, from the shadowy, sparse lines of the cover (a wood engraving by Aldo Patocchi) to all the poems in the collection. She examines both safe and unsafe passages in this book that is filled with compassion and exquisite phrasing.  These poems seem to suggest we are all enacting ancient myths and also that we are all as important as gods and goddesses. Language is both lyrical and devastatingly precise. So many poems reach into the very quick of me. Here’s the opening of ‘the portraits at montacute’ –

From the long gallery they look down on us
two friends who had believed each other lost

or the ending of ‘at the hospital’-

We are deep voyagers to them
already on our way
to a distant world.
A nurse brings…

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Competition Notes

There are now ten separately themed Pages under the menu heading Judging in Torbay 2016, all designed to help you choose which of your poems to submit, and what it might be useful to think about when getting a poem ready for the post.There is also a Thumbnails page, at the top of the list, with links to help you navigate to pages which might interest you.

I will post more Notes between now and the day when the poems reach my desk. I intend them to be helpful and will definitely judge according to the principles and criteria they contain.

There is still time to write the poems which will win.

In Performance 16th June 2016

Judenplatz front for cardIt is an extraordinary and magical experience to hear just one of your poems performed by someone as if it were their own. Not, of course, as in plagiarism, but in the sense that any good singer will take complete possession of any song.  When a song comes truly alive, for its duration, the composer is really no longer of account.

Twice now  ‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’ has become the property of wonderful performers.  Cerys Matthews chose it for the finale of her With Great Pleasure programme in St Georges, Brandon Hill. And East Anglian singer songwriter Miranda Pender composed a marvellously expressive  arrangement which she premiered at the Royston Jazz Club in October 2015 whmiranda-hi-res1en I was lucky enough to be in the audience.  Miranda is a witty and utterly compelling performer whose own pieces on her CD Petrol Station Flowers are a delight.  My poem was very privileged to have made its way into her set.


Report from the Judenplatz

was extremely fortunate to be chosen for the 2014 Torbay Festival of Poetry, where it was given a full dramatic reading with a cast of excellent readers imaginatively directed by John Miles.  John won’t mind my saying that his directorial scope was slightly constrained by the circumstance of having to work without any theatrical resources not very long after breakfast in the Livermead Hotel seaview lounge.  John Miles is such a skilled director that we all forgot our surroundings for the duration of the play.  But how he and his talented cast would have loved the opportunities offered by Taunton’s fabulous Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre where another  company of west country actors performed Report from the Judenplatz as part of the Page to Performance Evening on Thursday night.

The production was a directorless collaboration between nine actors who were all experienced  performers. They worked together on stage so naturally that the words of the Nine Lamentations seemed to flow from them spontaneously, as if being imagined and spoken aloud for the first time. They seemed not just to inhabit the play, but to be creating it in front of our eyes.


The theatre space was cavernous, near black, with the focus of the lighting on the set of stark white blocks which the actors used to create in turn the ark, the Schönbrunn belvedere, the restaurants in the Rome ghotto, the Rachael Whiteread Holocaust Memorial in Vienna and lastly the boat of forgetting  on the River Styx. From the opening scene with its haunting unaccompanied song to the final whispers

Who will remember us? 

Who will write our song?

the energy of the performance never faltered, nor the mesmerising way the actors’ mastery of the stage space kept this production right on the edge of dance. 

I have asked the cast  to send me their professional biographies and reflections on the play so that I can start build a collective account of this magical event for the revised edition of the book.  ( Report from the Judenplatz is still available on Amazon for the time being, but all my author’s copies have now been sold.)   In the meantime, enormous thanks to the Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre for making this production possible, to Louise the Centre Director for her inspiring presence throughout the evening and to Graeme Ryan  for believing in my play and knowing how to start the alchemical process  to take it so amazingly from Page to Stage.. 

Tacchi Morris stage

Report from the Judenplatz

taunton poster:pages versionDrama teachers from Heathfield School and The Space are preparing a new production of Report from the Judenplatz for the Page to Stage Evening at the Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre in Taunton on Thursday 16th June.  With actors Jerry Hardingham, Carla St. Louis, David Duthie, Aileen St. John, Matt Bryden, Carl Holmes, Peta Braisby, Steph Foster, Leigh Rockett, Jodi Crocker and Graeme Ryan, Report from the Judenplatz will be performed in the first half of the Page to Stage Evening – which will also feature the three winning submissions in  the Tacchi-Morris Centre’s annual competition for one-act plays.

Here is my preliminary poster for the blog.  ( Not to be confused with professional Tacchi-Morris publicity which you can access via the link in the paragraph above. )


Cafe Writing Day 9th April

Exploring Modernism:TWO

How were poets of the early twentieth century – who were not ‘war poets’ and did not themselves have first-hand experience of the Great War – to write for the generations in England, Europe and America whose countries were implicated in that slaughter and whose lives were shaped and dominated by that dreadful history?

Cathay TwoThe second of this year’s Cafe Writing Days looked at early poems by Ezra Pound – ‘The Coming of War: Actaeon’ and poems from Cathay in particular – and considered Pound’s decision to universalise the experience and tragedy of the war by taking us into the distant spaces of imagined Hellenic and Chinese cultures rather than dwelling on contemporary particulars. We used editor HM Tomlinson’s 1917 article, “On Leave”  in The Nation to pose the questions to which Pound’s pieces seemed to be replies. Tomlinson puts himself in the place of an officer returning from France:

‘Coming out of Victoria Station into London again, on leave from Flanders, must give as near the sensation of being thrust suddenly into life from the beyond and the dead as mortal man may expect to know…You really have come back from another world… These people will never know what you know.’ Imagining an officer returning to the pleasant suburbs, he asks: ‘What would happen, if he uncovered, in a sunny breakfast-room, the horror he knows?’

Ezra Pound’s engagement with early twentieth century ideas about the primacy – almost the self-sufficiency –  of the visual image shaped much of his poetry.  The other poems we explored in this Writing Day, by two of Pound’s contemporaries, DH Lawrence and Rainer Maria Rilke, were all intensely visual and intensely imagined on the page.  They also shared Pound’s preoccupation in ‘Actaeon’ and Cathay with what is universal rather than local and time-specific in experience. We spent time with Rilke and Lawrence as they reached beyond the human into a world of creatures innocent of the atrocities by which our species has laid such waste to the potential paradise of the world.

Dream womanRilke found the subjects for ‘The Flamingos’ and ‘The Panther’ in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris where the French artist Henri Rousseau also found the subject matter for his powerful last paintings, ‘The Snake Charmer’ and ‘The Dream’.  The Parisian zoo, with its cruel architecture of narrow concrete pits and its forest of iron bars, was a tragic environment for its non-human inhabitants – as desolate as the city itself was for Baudelaire’s maimed human beings.  We are an impoverished and blindly destructive species. But out of the bleak landscape of the real, an artist can choose to conjure a vision for a moment of how things might have been, and through his vision try to create and nurture the sympathies  we need to redeem ourselves.

for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

The 9th April ‘Anthology’ already contains homage responses by Mary Beddall, Nikki Kenna, Sara Butler, Dawn Gorman, Sarah Gregory, Caroline Heaton, Morag Kiziewicz, and Linda Saunders to Alice Oswald’s wonderful poem ‘Various Portents’. Mary Beddall, Dawn Gorman, Sarah Gregory, Ruth Sharman and Shirley Wright have all sent powerful poems prompted by Henri Rousseau’s paintings.  We are looking forward to receiving more!

All the remaining Cafe Writing Days in 2016 are now fully booked. Please get in touch if you would like to add your name to any of the waiting lists.

Cafe Writing Day 12th March

Exploring Modernism: ONE

The 2016 Cafe Writing Days series was prompted by requests from poets who wanted to spend the year exploring some of the formative writers and major texts of English poetry. The aim was to find a provisional pathway through the rich confusion of the terrain. I chose ‘modernism’ as the theme for the series, partly to limit the possible areas we might study and  partly because I thought it might help us concentrate on the relationship between poetries of past times and the poetries of our own, and in doing so encourage us develop our own practices in response to the challenges we would meet.

I knew the series would open doors. I knew that if we were lucky, some of those doors would be unexpected ones. I didn’t know that the first Writing Day group would be spending quite so much time with the voyeuristic images of Belgian semi-pornographic artist and printmaker, Charles Baudelaire’s  friend and illustrator, Felicien Rops.Rops Baudelaire

How did we get to such a startling place? ‘Be careful what you wish for’ is the cliché that comes to hand. You cannot explore ‘modernism’ very deeply – if at all – if you confine yourself to the polite pages of English poetry. English poets have often been quite voluble about their practices, but most of them have not been particularly brave. Starting our journey with the great exception to this, William Blake, it was impossible not to look next to America and to France, to  Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Baudelaire’s  Les Fleurs du Mal. Baudelaire – the flâneur, the poet of the modern city, obsessed with its horrors and above all with its decadent sexual underworlds – his vision is so alien to the polite English tradition that I thought the Rops’ image titled La Parodie Humaine might help us find our way.

The French poet is following a street walker, whose lovely young face is a detachable mask, behind which, but not hidden, we can see the truth of the death by syphilis which is who she really is . In the same year that Les Fleurs du Mal was published , appeared in England the Moxon Illustrated Tennyson with its sinuous and sulky  Lady of Shalott. Lady of ShalottThe comparison betwen the Rops and the Holman Hunt, as between Baudelaire’s Poem Une Martyre (which we read on the Writing Day in translation) and the Tennyson poem could happily prompt an entire Cafe Writing Day of its own.


Each Cafe Writing Day generates its own ‘anthology’ – poems written on the Day, or in response to the Day, and then circulated within the group. The Rops’ image provoked powerful and often difficult responses from several of the poets. What their poems had in common was their complete rejection of the moral ethos which made Baudelaire’s essentially  decorative treatment of his doomed men and women a genuine poetic possibility. TS Eliot claimed Baudelaire was the great poet of good and evil. Perhaps he was, in the sense that he deals with the subjects, but he seems so fascinated by the alluring poisons of decadence, debauchery and excess, and so disgusted by human disease, dysfunction and suffering, that it was hard to find the empathy with the human condition which would have given us a sense that Baudelaire was keeping company with the great English moralist whose poem had opened our Writing Day.

The 12th March ‘Anthology’ contains poems by Ruth Marden ( The Little Jockey ), Susan Jane Sims ( A Number of Things You Should Know ), Robin Thomas, John Waite, Trisha Waters and Shirley Wright ( The Last Green Field ).

You can find larger versions of these images on the Cafe Writing Days 2016 page which you can access through the menu bar. 


All the remaining Cafe Writing Days in 2016 are now fully booked.




Teignmouth Poetry Festival 2016

Teignmouth Pier March 2016

Watch this Space!

Some unspecified time ago, the  Poetry Teignmouth website promised to immerse you in the art of poetry … to bring more live poetry to Teignmouth …to entice potential poets to the table … to encourage, nurture and support poetic writing… to work towards organising a poetry festival in Teignmouth ….

of all these , please notice especially the words in the final promise

work towards!

I have just been lucky enough to spend a whole day at the Third Teignmouth Festival of Poetry.  How magically and triumphantly that promise – indeed all the website promises – have been fulfilled.  This poetically was a truly glorious day. The open mic session, in the excellent Ice Factory in the early afternoon,  was electrifyingly good with a marvellous variety of contributions, eloquently delivered by poets who were masters and mistresses of their craft. The included cake was also mouthwatering.

In the later afternoon, at the Teign Heritage Centre, Jennie Osborne introduced the packed audience to the three very fine poems which had been awarded prizes in the Keats’ Footsteps section of the competition. Competition judge Martyn Crucefix then took us delicately and persuasively through the process which had led to his chosen shortlist of ten.  Many of the successful competition poets were in the room to share their poems so as well as the insights into the judging, we were treated to a session of sumptuous poetry.  Again, as in the open mic, the variety of the poems on the Teignmouth shortlist was astonishing .  The range of subject matter, the poise of the presentations and the technical accomplishment were a joy.

Poetry Teignmouth will be publishing the six winning poems soon. Please use this link as a pathway to the excellent final six. There are, of course, always good reasons why poems emerge as the final prizewinners , but in the case of this competition, it must have been unusually hard for the judges to make their choice.

Only one day in Teignmouth…all the website promises already fulfilled to overflowing… and to complete the day, a dazzling evening of performances in the Teign Heritage Centre from Rebecca Tantony, Ian Beech, Robert Garnham and Festival Organiser Ian Royce Chamberlain.

This is a gem of a poetry festival in a truly delightful place.  I think someone should amend the Poetry Teignmouth website now.  A Poetry Festival can hardly be “worked towards” when it has so thoroughly and beautifully












Safe Passage with the Fire River Poets

Written over the four years following the publication of Too Late for the Love Hotel, the poems in Safe Passage were not imagined as part of the collection in which, last summer, they so happily found themselves. For each poem that reached the book, there was at least one waiting in the wings, unchosen, clamouring, finally uncalled.  Composing the collection was rather like making up a jigsaw from twice the number of pieces that were required.  The final picture was therefore more provisional and tentative than it was complete.

The guest reading slot at the Fire River Poets‘ evenings in Taunton is arranged in two halves, interleaved with the open mic sessions, one half either side of the convivial interval.  I wanted not to repeat the mood of the first half – whatever that would be – but to give Fire River Poets a programme that rose to the opportunity offered by being allowed in one evening to suggest two contrasting pathways through my book.

Preparing for this Taunton guest reading, I seem to have discovered at last what Safe Passage is about.

Uccelli di passo  ( birds of passage ) is the title of the Aldo Patocchi woodcut I chose for the cover design.

Flying to the Light

A wooden surface carved and chiselled away to discover light within the dark plane of the inked-up printing block – this became my personal metaphor for my book on Thursday night. It was important that the cover image was a woodcut rather than a pen drawing : this would have laid dark thoughts/ black moments on a clean white field and made quite a different statement about the lives who passage through my book. My more fortunate characters find ways to discover light in a rather sombre, often alarming world.  Light has to be worked for/ is threatened with extinction/ is found in surprising places/ is all the more dazzling against the background of the dark.

L’amore, la morte, how close they are ….

I ended my first half-reading with ‘Waterlilies at Schönbrunn’, the poem from Report from the Judenplatz twice chosen by Matt Holland for his reading at the cenotaph on Swindon’s Holocaust Memorial Day.  The image of the crowded waterlily leaves ‘imploring light from the indifferent sun’ was the closest that poem dared approach the unbearable truths about what happened to the Jewish citizens abandoned by the gentile populations of the european cities to which they belonged. Imploring light ….hoping for illumination…. imagining a brighter world….the denial of light ….the awareness of the tantalising proximity of light … working towards light …losing the light …that hunger linked so many of the poems in Safe Passage –  I wondered whether it was peculiarly an ex-picture dealer’s way of interpreting the world.

A dealer in pictures is what I am, a poet said…

The light in the Safe Passage poems doesn’t seem to be a metaphor for an otherwordly state of grace. Light is simply standing in for / the visual equivalent of its near namesake, life. The incalculable blessing. The incalculable good. Planning my Fire River reading, I realised that in its quirky, metropolitan, troubled, yearning, rather old-fashioned, unambitious way Safe Passage is a passionately hopeful and optimistic little book.  If you look again at the cover, you can see that darkness does indeed seem to be gathering about the buildings, but the birds are flying, together, out of the dark passage in the left hand sky  and towards the light. 

Life does sometimes engineer the reprieve of her Illyrian nightingales.

I have to thank the Fire River Poets for allowing me to spend such a pleasant evening in their talented and receptive company. But I also have to thank them for making me think properly about my little book.  I suspect every future reading from Safe Passage will be shaped in some way by the March Thursday evening I shared with them.

So I will end this post with the lines that mean so much to me, for very personal reasons, from ‘New Things’, one of the poems there wasn’t time to read….

Look at our lagoon, signori.
Luce sull’acqua. The light of heaven.
The dancing of the water.


Safe Passage is available from Oversteps BooksFlying to the Light

Conversations about a Honey-Coloured Girl

What a privilege it is to take part in this online discussion of the honey-coloured girl and her strange ‘chorus’ of older observers in the leisure centre in Bath. Today has been particularly rich in absorbing, intelligent enquiries – far too rich for me to reply to all of them in one evening, even if I could find the helpful answers they all deserve. Thank you so much EMILY and PHILOMENA and EVELYN and ABI and JOSIE and REMY and LOLITA – and DAVID, too, not for asking a question this time, but for letting me know why you like Dr Seuss and that reading Keats aloud did help you overcome some of your resistance to  this fascinating and tragic young poet’s work.

If I could give one answer to today’s readers, it would be to tell all of you how delighted I am is that every one of you , in your own way,  understands my work so well.  The questions you all ask are exactly the responses that this poem wanted to provoke. Why is this young woman required to devote all this detailed and expensive attention to her body?  what has taught her to see herself in this way?  for whose benefit is she honing herself so assiduously?  why are the older women so attentive to her and so fearful on her behalf? are they partly responsible for shaping the world around the honey-coloured girl, or are they also victims of a culture which requires women to make objects of themselves?  are we, the readers, simply celebrating beauty as we watch this poem unfold, or are we voyeurs of a spectacle we ought not to watch?  and why is Remy so right to be asking how different this poem would be if a male character were the centre of attention rather than a young girl?

What today’s comments are proving is that a poem, if it works properly, is not a COMPLETED STATEMENT made by a poet instructing a reader how to think, but the written half of an OPEN-ENDED CONVERSATION between a poet and a reader, where very often ( perhaps always?) the most interesting and important questions are not the ones raised by the poet but the follow-up questions the poem brings into being in the reader’s head. What is so wonderful about this conversation about the honey-coloured girl ( for the poet ) is that, thanks to the new technology, she has the unusual privilege and joy of being able to listen to what her readers have to say.







A Coincidence of Two Mexicos at The Swan

How daunting it might have been to find that I was sharing my first ever extended reading of work-in-progress Letters from Mexico with the brilliant Connie Voisine, Associate Professor of English at New Mexico State University,  for whom Mexico is not a poetically imagined unvisited space ( as it is for me ) but an intimately familiar place.  And how beautifully generous of Connie Voisine not to daunt me about this!

Words & Ears last night was its usual vibrant, congenial self with a wonderfully attentive audience of accomplished open mic poets, all so different, all in their turn so worth the attentive listening. The Coach House at The Swan Hotel in Bradford-on-Avon is an excellent poetry space,  compered with such relaxing grace by Dawn Gorman that the evening appears simply to run itself.   ( It doesn’t. Nothing takes more skill than the organising of an apparently effortless happening. )

Connie had come to read from her third collection, Calle Florista. I was riven with anxieties  of course, before I arrived in Bradford for this reading. Which nine of the twenty four sonnets in Letters from Mexico would tell the story best; whether to include the bit I like so much ( for all the wrong reasons ) about the humming sloths; whether I would get away with knowing so little about Victorian microscopes; whether it was true that in Mexico the moonstones came from mines  – the usual things. It was such a joy to sit and listen to Connie’s sparse, vivid, enthralling poems and forget all that.

Calle Florista