2 June 2013

Poem: Chy an Peber

Photo: SallyDouglas

I was reading this week about Slow Food UK's campaign to revive forgotten British foods - among them the Cornish saffron cake. Well, the saffron cake fills my childhood with its fragrant yellow yeastiness. My grandfather was an artisan baker, and for me as a small child the bakery was a place of enchantment and fear. I was terrified of the ovens, which were black and cavernous, and had something of Grimm about them, but I was equally entranced by the magical transformations that took place each night in this strangely unremarkable-looking house of wonders. And reading about the revival of the saffron cake - which to be honest has never been lost in Cornwall - I was reminded of a poem I wrote a while back. Saffron cake is definitely in there, but the main stars are the Cornish pasties.

I read this poem at my Grandfather's funeral.

Chy an Peber
(House of the Baker)

For my Grandfather, Lloyd George Trethewey

It’s your domain: an almost-creature,
a watchful dragon leaking light
through the interstices of night. Its yeasty breath
warms drowsers in dark houses,
reminding them of morning.

Inside, the heat-noise-light of
Milton’s Pandemonium.

A restless anchor roils and cleaves
elastic saffron sea,
shoals of currants tossed by endless waves.
In a vast vat a huge pale belly swells.
Deep-stitched quilts of fresh baked bread
already snuggle in their beds,
but in another place a groaning mouth rasps
pebbles of potatoes with its teeth.
A barrel of knives throws weeping dice
of onion, swede and naked spud.

You pour out the dusty roll of soft cream velvet.
Armed with a sharpened saucepan lid you frisbee
perfect circles, stack them into Pisan towers.

And now creation.  A miner’s lunch halfmooned by
those punched holes. Rope-edged.
Your fingers type a perfect crimp, neat rows
of baby toes on a foreshortened foot. Pale purses
in neat ranks, upon the tray’s parade.
You love their schoolgirl uniformity. Banish
some because their pleats aren’t neat.

And then into the dark cave’s heat, the dragon’s
lung. Its breath is savoury, meaty, with a taint
of adolescent sweat, the smell of ripening.

And finally they’re born, and borne aloft, slid into
cooling racks to settle and to breathe. Suntanned shells
with perfect fluted frills. Keen oysters eager for the feast.

Outside, night’s mouseness slips away.
Shops are lifting up the eyelids of their blinds.
The vans move off, as carefully as hearses.                                       


Sally Douglas 2008

7 May 2013

National Poetry Writing Month 2013 Evaluated

Photo: Sally Douglas

Well, NaPoWriMo's over. I lost the last few days because of a family crisis, but over the month I managed to produce twenty-five poems. Some were completely new, some were old drafts dragged out for finishing. But the great thing for me is, that I have twenty-five poems that wouldn't have existed otherwise. National Poetry Writing Month has got me writing again. It's broken the block - not just with my poetry but with other writing too.

I know the quality is varied, but there are some poems I am really quite pleased with. Shell, This Day, That Thing You've Carried For So Long, Looking Out, Music Lesson - these are poems I am glad I have written. With time, no doubt I shall see some flaws, but that doesn't matter. I can still change them!

I've also had a great time reading poems produced by other poets this month, some by people I already knew, some from the NaPoWriMo website, and some via Twitter. Thanks for sharing your work, people!

29 April 2013

Poem 25 - Red-tailed, Bumble

Red-tailed, Bumble

Red-tailed, bumble,
common carder,
cuckoo, mason,
tawny mining,
leaf-cutter, hoop-shaver,
humble, honey,

Red-tailed, bumble,
common carder,
cuckoo, mason,
tawny mining,
leaf-cutter, hoop-shaver,
humble, honey,

Red-tailed, bumble,
common carder,
cuckoo, mason,
tawny mining,
leaf-cutter, hoop-shaver,
humble, honey,

Red-tailed, bumble,
common carder,
cuckoo, mason,
tawny mining,
leaf-cutter, hoop-shaver,
humble, honey,

Red-tailed, bumble,
common carder,
cuckoo, mason,
tawny mining,
leaf-cutter, hoop-shaver,
humble, honey,


28 April 2013

Poem 24 - Another Riddle

Photo: Sally Douglas


I am a lock turned by infinite keys,
A knot that’s too tight and too fine to untease.
Unpick me too far and my threads turn to dust,
but I’ll let you inside me to make what you must.
I am the white space as well as the mark,
I am the place you can find in the dark
I am said, I am thought, I am harsh, I am kind.
I blow free from the page in the winds of your mind.

Sally Douglas

In addition to being a riddle, this is possibly a manifesto of sorts. And the photo isn't a clue, but I think it fits.

I will post the answers to the riddles - eventually.

Poem 23 - A Riddle

Photo: Sally Douglas


I am a judge (but I do not judge).
Soft darkness pours from my empty eyes.
With a shrug I weep onto the ground:
divide (not decide) what’s to keep or despise.
I am the O that holds onto stones,
fragments of twig, and shards of bones.
I am the O pierced all over by light.
I am the O! that is in plain sight.

 Sally Douglas

Any ideas?

Incidentally, if you're interested I wrote a blog post about riddles and readers here.

27 April 2013

Poem 22 - Girl with a Letter

Photo: Sally Douglas

Girl with a Letter
(after Vermeer)

I close the window.
Draw the curtain
so the folds of red brocade
hang flat
against the day.
I held them both,
the flatness
and the folds.

The flatness of paper
and the folds
within its words,
the spilling of the fruit –

my folding of your letter
into something very small.

Sally Douglas

The first draft of this poem has been on my hard drive for a long time - since 2009, according to the date on the file.  I attended a very enjoyable Poetry School workshop, run by Lawrence Sail, which focused on poetry and paintings. This poem came from an exercise based on Vermeer's painting Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. I stashed the draft away, and didn't do anything with it until now, prompted by NaPoWriMo. So here it is.

Incidentally, if you haven't read any of Lawrence Sail's poetry, I would recommend it. You can find some of his poems here.

26 April 2013

Poem 21 - That Thing You've Carried for So Many Years

Photo: Sally Douglas

That Thing You’ve Carried for So Many Years  

Once, you could have planted it
in the rich kindness of loam
in earth which would have let it breathe

and then you could have gone away
lived some life
visited the garden just from time to time

and one day found green shoots
clean new shoots which would have cheered you
however frail they were.

But to bend down to the ground
was far too hard.

Sally Douglas

The picture was taken in Bugle, Cornwall.

24 April 2013

Poem 20 - More Fun with Oulipo Constraints

Photo: Sally Douglas

This Day's Constraint

Today is a death to sleep.
This set of hours is rest’s oblivion.
Day and dark want that fall’s fall,
ticking tiredly away 
Wednesday, respite’s murderer.
Tomorrow is the birth of wakening.
Today is a day to sleep.

I sit within indigo hills, in wing-singing wind,
below a slope of blade south-east.
On the ground beneath the sounds,
I am low in a sky of calling flight
all arching, flying, hymning over.
Oh, low moon-bowl of owl solos
below a sky of birdsong.

This poem is a result of a bit more playing with OULIPO constraints. The Oulipo Compendium (ed Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, Atlas Press, 2005), describes a way of submitting a line or a stanza of poetry to a series of variations, thereby creating a new piece of work. It sounds both straightforward, and weird. It is weird, but it's surprisingly difficult to do, and the constraints force a creativity with language which can have very satisfying and surprising results. The poem above took some lines from yesterday's poem (actually I combined some shorter lines to make longer ones for this purpose), and submitted them to the following constraints:

First Stanza

  1. First line in N+7
  2. First line as a lipogram in a
  3. First line as a univocalism in a
  4. First line with nouns eliminated
  5. First line with verbs eliminated
  6. First line treated antonymically
  7. First line in its original form

Second Stanza

  1. Second line as a univocalism in i
  2. Second line in N+7
  3. Second line with verbs eliminated
  4. Second line as a lipogram in e
  5. Second line with nouns eliminated
  6. Second line as a univocalism in o (Actually this should use the first line, but I made a mistake!)
  7. Second line in its original form
It's fun to do, and really stretches the brain! I can't claim that it produced a fabulous poem, but I think it's a brilliant exercise to get the language muscles flexing without having to face the terror of the blank page.  

And I hope I haven't made any glaring errors when applying the constraints.
Or possibly, I hostage I haven't made any glaring europeans when applying the containers...

23 April 2013

Poem 19 - This Day

Photo: Sally Douglas

this day

was a day
to sleep
in the
under a sky
of birdsong

I have
my life

Sally Douglas

22 April 2013

Poems 17 and 18 - Blackout Poems

A Blackout Poem

Blackouts are another form of erasure poem, but in a blackout poem the poet selects words to be kept from a text and crosses out the rest. In this way one is left with a space that holds new meaning within the shape of the old. I was reminded of this method by a prompt tweeted yesterday by Jo Bell, who included a link to the Newspaper Blackout  website which has an amazing array of this type of poem. It's fun to do, but can become rather addictive...

Here's another. I've chopped up the columns to fit it in here, but they're in the original order. Michael Gove, in case any of my readers haven't heard of him, is the somewhat Gradgrindian UK politician in charge of education policy.

The Facts

21 April 2013

Poem 16 - The Voices

Photo: Sally Douglas


I am the leaves that grew from the tree
I am the river that grew from the rain
I am the mountain that grew from the rock
I am the waves which grew from the sea

I am the sea that poured through your hands
I am the tree that grew in your bones
I am the rain that washed your heart
I am the rock that splintered your lands

I am the land that is covered with sea
I am the bones that are carved from rain
I am the heart that is chipped from rock
I am the hands that shatter the tree

Sally Douglas

19 April 2013

Poem 15 - When

Photo: Sally Douglas


and when your hands are black from the stories
wash them with ink

and when your mouth is silent
wash it out with inoculations

and when the horizon is pared to a small impossibility
wash out your eyes with potato peelings

and if you think we are living in a tinderbox of legends
wash it out with flame

wash out the book with mime
wash out the sky with elevens
wash out the bones with milk
wash everything with something and

wash out the everlasting and  

Sally Douglas

This poem came from the NaPoWriMo website's prompt for Day 18: write a poem beginning and ending with the same word.

What's working quite well for me at the moment is taking an external prompt and then going back to my notebooks and seeing if it sparks with anything there. In this case I was drawn to something I had written late one night about washing in ink. This is what resulted.

The photo was taken in St Austell, Cornwall, UK, last week.

16 April 2013

Fourteen NaPoWriMo Poems

Well, I'm half way through the month, and I've managed 14 poems. Some are better than others, but they are 14 poems that wouldn't have got written otherwise. The exercise has shown me that I can break the block.

Of course there is a problem with putting these poems out in the public domain. I won't be able to submit them to magazines or competitions, as being on this blog will count as 'previously published'. Also, they are unpolished, a very scary thing for someone who is used to obsessive editing and rewriting over a long period. There are bound to be flaws which I would have noticed with more time to ripen.

But the benefits of this speed production have been immense. It has motivated me to work intensively towards a moment of release. a letting go of each piece, which means that I can go on to start the next. It has also meant that I have to produce something - no excuses - so I have been working very hard on looking for prompts and inspiration.

I'm not sure I shall manage the full thirty by the deadline - there have been and will be the odd days when I actually have no time at all - but I aim to get as close as possible, and to catch up if I can.

How are other people doing? It would be great to hear your experience!

Poem 14 - Looking Out

Photo: Sally Douglas

Looking Out

The moon is like an unwashed plate.
The stars creak in the sky’s tight skin.
I don’t remember coming in.

Morning girl’s still in the glass,
smiling like a broken window.
How slow the minutes pass.

Her eyes are big as sand and cold as worms.
They cast a searchlight beam.
Too bright to let me dream.

I want to see her smile, her sleek-slack smile,
watering the blackened railway tracks.
But only for a while.

Sally Douglas

Recently I've been looking through old notebooks and abandoned bits of writing on my hard drive. And I'm amazed by how much I've written that I'd completely forgotten. This poem has its roots in a bit of prose I wrote years ago as an exercise in surrealism. I thought I might be able to use some fragments in a poem, but I didn't really know where to go with it until I saw The Poetry School's prompt for today. This mentioned writing about what you don't remember rather than what you do. That notion of not remembering gave me the hook I needed, and the poem grew from there.

I've gone for a shifting rhyme scheme and uneasy rhythms to reflect the content of the poem.

And you might not believe it, but these are not the wildest images that were in that original piece of prose...

15 April 2013

Poem 13 - Ghazal

Photo: Sally Douglas


Wind spatters stars against the sky.
Like my words hurled against the outstretched sky.

Questions curve the light of breaking day
Under the bell of the outstretched sky.

Like stones thrown at a window pane
Birds burst into the outstretched sky.

In the morning fields dawn pools in furrows
Pouring down from the outstretched sky.

I hold a cold stone in my outstretched palm.
And offer it up to the outstretched sky.

The day swoops down and steals the stone
And my burden is borne by the outstretched sky.

Sally Douglas

The idea of trying my hand at a ghazal came from reading a very good book on the practice of therapeutic writing: Writing Works: A resource handbook for therapeutic writing workshops and activities, edited by Gillie Bolton, Victoria Field and Kate Thompson (Jessica Kingsley, 2006). I'd been thinking about writing therapies because I've been following Sali Mustafic's blog which links her therapy practice with the NaPoWriMo poems she is writing, and was flicking through this book when I came across the section by Jane Tozer on how the ghazal broke her writer's block.

The ghazal is a form of Arabic, Persian and Urdu origin. It comprises of 5 - 15 couplets. Each couplet must act as an independent poem as well as being part of the whole, and each must finish with the radif, the refrain which is set up in the first couplet. There is never an enjambment between the couplets. In the original form, the final couplet usually plays upon the poet's name, but Western versions have often dropped this characteristic. There's more about the ghazal here.

I found it strange at first, trying to fit my head into the form, but once I had tuned into the pacing of it, the way the radif works both as a line cast out and as an anchor, I found the ghazal a very satisfying form to explore.  I'm sure I shall be returning to it.

14 April 2013

Poem 12 - An Erasure Poem


women worked
         the work
and agriculture squatted

as she
    the watching
               experiences of person
all fully her



 who noticed
                  had developed

             among the must

mysteries                          relationships

like say

the moon
understanding time

Sally Douglas

This was inspired by a poem by my friend Elly on her great poetry blog.  I chose a page at random from a book on my 'to be read'  pile, photocopied a page without looking at it, and struck through all but every sixth word. I then wrote out those unerased words in order, and tried to use space and typology to move them into a kind of meaning. I allowed myself to lose a few of the words that I felt detracted, but I kept the order the same as the original. It was a bit of fun, and it's the kind of exercise that helps free up one's brain from its sometimes crippling need to be in control!

I'm afraid it does rather have a feel of the early 1970s to it, but I shall leave it to the reader to move into the spaces and take charge of the meaning...

Oh, and I'm a couple of poems behind now with my NaPoWriMo target, but I'm aiming to be caught up by the end of the week... I hope.


11 April 2013

Poem 11 - The Architecture of Circle

Photo: Sally Douglas

The Architecture of Circle

When things are made rounded
like theatres and lighthouses
like bathyspheres
like brand-new schools 
where corridors lead you
in most gentle persuasion
like stadia
and Martello towers
like your hand
cupping what you want to keep –

what happens to the spaces that are left?

You and I, we live
in the warm incurvings.
Those peeled-off places
outside the wall
we do not know.
But can you feel them?
The nettles
the ground-down stubs
the choking air?
The space untessellated?

Sally Douglas

Day 10 - Three Swans and Inside Your Head

Photo: Sally Douglas

The Three Swans

Inside my head
there is a black-eyed swan
with bones of steel.
Its feathered palms
beat words
from the air.

Inside the steel-boned glass-eyed swan
there is a paper swan:
made by a prisoner in a tower
from his very last page.

Folded inside
the paper swan’s sharp angles
are all the words
of all the birds
in all the world –
and a perfect tiny drawing
of a swan.
 Sally Douglas

Today's poem is a bit of a cheat, as it's not new. The real poem for Day 10 will have to now be Day 11's.

This poem is part of my as yet embryonic collection of poems for children. I started writing poems for children when I was running a poetry club for Years 3,4, and 5. I was creating all these exercises and workshops for them, and of course, giving them a test run first. This poem came from a workshop I called 'Inside Your Head'.

We started by reading Miroslav Holub's poem 'A Boy's Head', and then went onto an extract from Luke Kennard's 'Wolf on the Couch' (The Migraine Hotel, Salt, 2009). The children were amazed by the surreality of Kennard's description of what was in his speaker's head: an owl, which 'appears to be made up of a network of tiny cities'.

‘And all the people in these tiny cities,’ says the wolf, ‘do they run for buses when the owl is wet? The men with their black umbrellas, the women with their Nancy Mitford novels held over their coconut-scented heads, the light in the city like an old grey ice cream?’

‘You’d need a microscope to see that,’ I mutter.
The children then followed these guidelines to create their own poems: 

Now, think:

What are the things inside your head? Animals? Objects? Impossible things? Dreams? Wishes? Fears? Worlds?

Brainstorm on the board the types of things people might have inside their heads.

Now have two minutes writing your own list of things that might be in your head.

Choose the ones you want to write about – perhaps two or three, or perhaps all of them – and start writing your poem.

Possible starters:

Inside my head…

I looked inside my head…

I spy behind my eyes…

‘What is in your head?’ asked the …..
And I have to say, some of the poems they produced were very good!

Any educators out there are welcome to use or adapt this exercise for their own use.

9 April 2013

Poem 9 - Shell

Photo: Sally Douglas


I have defended these stories for so long.
But now like the shells of long dead snails
they break between my fingertips.

With a whisper of old convolutions
they break under my touch
and are stolen by the wind.
Leaving nothing but a glaze that almost
remembers the ease of gliding.

Sally Douglas

Poem 8 - Find What You Need, What You Lost

Photo: Sally Douglas

Find What You Need, Who You Lost

Face direction of travel
Ring bell for attention
Do not walk under barrier
Check your records
Don’t turn away

Safeguard elderly persons
Hold young children firmly
Hold handrail and stand clear of edges
Put on your normal face

Swipe your bonus card
Hold upright
Pull out safety pin
Squeeze levers
Trust the plastic

Ensure children wear socks
Remove all valuables
Lock your vehicle
Wait for the raggedy man
Don’t blink

Use the help button or go to the operations office
Push door when buzzer sounds
Take extra care when wearing soft soled shoes
Remember the only water in the forest
Shop spring

Pick up a free copy
Help yourself to samples
Download the app
Wear a fez

Answer your phone
Reverse the polarity
Act like you’ve never
done that before

Sally Douglas

This poem is a found poem. My two nieces (aged 9 and 11) and I went hunting for signs with instructions on them and used them for this poem. Then we added a few lines from a different source. Can't tell you what - spoilers!

Thanks to Emily and Hannah for the help, and I hope you like the result.

7 April 2013

Poem 7 - An Oulipo Effort

Photo: Sally Douglas


You are not open to recreation the deadbeat.
The window-dresser wants to turn
the straitjacket on, but you are loaded
with the day’s dust-up,
so each flywheel dies.
You did not open to recreation the deadbeat,
but you are open anyway,
and on you lifespans
the brew of bonds,
the giggles of households, limps,
the curled hairpiece of woodcutters
and the shorn hairpiece of brags,
powdered bridgeheads and skirmish –
carried here to splay you flautist and helpless

the deadbeat so heavy on your faction.

Sally Douglas

There once was a poem which did not please the poet because it was too slick and inauthentic. So the poet fed it, title and all, into a machine, an N+7 machine. And the poet liked it a lot more after that.

The N+7 (or S+7 in the original French) is one of the methods used by the Oulipo movement. These writers used chance and constraints to trigger ideas. And when it works, the poetry of chance can be so satisfying!

Thanks to Jo Bell for the link to the machine, which saved me doing the job manually.

6 April 2013

Poem 6 - Music Lesson

Photo:Sally Douglas

Music Lesson

The child is sitting on a chair
in a hall
in a sea of brown lino

She holds her brown bag
tight to her tight chest
as the clock ticks and ticks and never tocks
and the lodgers walk through the long hall
and up the stairs
and never come down.

She swings her legs tick tick
kick kick
so they stay awake
She swings her legs
one two one two
and one and two and three and four and
major scales crawl
under the door and
up the stairs
and down the stairs
and back under the door

and the small brass clock
under its small glass dome
which she cannot see
because it is
on top of the piano
on the other side of the door
counts on.

Sally Douglas

The poem about time (Poem 4 - Seven Glances at Time) reminded me of some notes I had made a while back about a childhood memory, so I dug them out. This is the poem.