John Clare

The current exhibition at CCA features one of my poems ‘John Clare sees the early crops, 2018’, which is an erasure of the Clare poem ‘The Flood’. You can read it here. Clare is witnessing and describing the seasonal flooding in winter from the vantage point of a bridge. The violence of the movement of the partially-frozen water is such that it shakes the bridge as it passes through, and strips the ‘new ploughed lands’ of its topsoil, creating ‘white foam brown crested’ waves.

Reading the poem makes me feel like I’ve been thrown in the sea. Although I have never seen anything quite like it in my corner of the Fens, I can picture it through Clare’s words. It was part of the seasonal experience of the Fens, and is to a certain degree in some places, brought home to me by the walk at Sutton Gault, in the video above. This is a walk we took in winter, when the flood plains stretched away endlessly, and we walked out on a ridge in the midst of it.

This Clare poem brought into focus the conflict I sense about what the Fens most authentic manifestation is. We connect with, and describe landscape, through familiar topographical markers: this field, that row of hedges, these beasts that graze here. The distinction between land and water is the most basic differentiation we can describe. And yet the boundary between these two elements is constantly negotiated in this part of the country. It isn’t just the wetlands, and the seasonal flooding. It’s the way in which, after rain, groundwater breaks the surface of a ploughed field, as if it wants to take the land back underwater. Or the way the ground is constantly being eroded by the floods but more frequently, the wind. The body that lay before John Clare is now peeled back to reveal its inner organs, like those early modern anatomy illustrations, in which the corpse demurely holds open its flap of skin to display what is beneath.

I think I might be getting carried away.

To go back to the Clare poem, one of the ways I see the landscape I am seeing, is through his eyes. I can feel like I am trying to see all the different expressions of the landscape before my eyes; flooded, dry, prehistoric. Clare was doing a bit of this himself as he evoked the Fens of his childhood, or the Fens before enclosures. Imagining a different version of the Fens is at the heart of persuading us to the value of, say, the Great Fen project. It is tempting to describe an historical moment as encapsulating the true nature of the Fens. In my poem, I wanted to bring John Clare to see the modern Fens, to witness, in particular, the Fens-as-ocean which is the early crops protected by rippling sheets of white plastic. I hope you can get a sense of it in the below video.

That is one of the reasons why, in my erasure, I couldn’t black out Clare’s words entirely. His articulation of the Fens is still there. The other reason is just that I love the poem. I hope I have an opportunity to read ‘The Flood’ on Thursday night.



Exhibition at Cambridge Contemporary Art

Yesterday was an exciting day for us, as we brought my poems to CCA to be hung! The exhibition opens on Saturday, and it looks AMAZING. Here is a sneak peak!

Iona and I are both so pleased, and so glad to be in great company with the other exhibiting artists, who work in oils, ceramic and steam-bent trugs!

If you have the opportunity to drop in, it runs from Saturday 3rd to 25th March, on Trinity Street in Cambridge. I’d love your feedback, so feel free to get in contact. The gallery is hosting a reading 6-7pm on 15th March, which I am really looking forward to. It will be an opportunity to hear the poems, some fen music created by Dom Howard for the event, incorporating a Fen soundscape, to hear more about the process of collaboration, to meet Iona and I, and a glass of wine. It is FREE but you need to sign up on the website. THERE IS TALK OF FEN THEMED CANAPÉS. So it’s basically an immersive experience of the Fens.

Another way to gain an immersive experience of the Fens is to go for a walk. Iona, Meg the dog and I did just that this morning. It was magical, bleak, and, when the wind blew on us, like swimming in ice.

I’ll be writing more over the next few days about what it’s been like to collaborate with Iona, and what I’ve learned through the process. But for now I’m just going to bask in the pleasure of having been able to realise this amazing opportunity with an artist I greatly admire.


I have been thinking a lot about this word ever since I came across it researching fen-words. John Clare uses it in several poems of the sound of the wind in birds’ wings, but I think of it in more general terms for the sound of the wind in the Fens, in the tops or through the rushes. I first came across it on this site, which is the most incredible treasure trove of Fen ‘land-words’. The site isn’t updated any more, but it has been a touchstone for me when I am looking at the fen landscape and writing my own poetry.

It’s a word I was thinking about on my most recent walk with Iona and Meg, this time to Wicken Fen, exploring Bakers And Adventurers Fen.

It was so cold our fingers could not have worked to sketch or write or type, and I went home and spent the next few days in bed with flu. When the wind blew it was bitter; one of those special gifts of Fen wind! The sound in the rushes and reeds was worth it though.

Iona and I were discussing how our different preoccupations draw us to different things in the landscape. She, for example, had not specially noticed the noise of the wind, and I don’t tend to see people! Iona is drawn to the detail on the horizon and the human interest, whereas I look at the ground. Birders look at the Fens in a different way. Hadn’t realised all the editing I do, and it’s good to try a different focus.

We are preparing for an exhibition in March 2018 at Cambridge Contemporary Art: Iona’s exhibition really but it should reflect our collaboration and conversation over the last several months, and I hope to do a reading. By then we will have been out together in the Fens in every season. I am beginning to see the precise times of year more clearly in Iona’s extraordinary work.

I’m also looking forward to the John Clare Society Festival in Helpston on 13-15th July 2018. I’ve been invited along to present the school poetry competition prize and I am looking forward to meeting other Clare enthusiasts.

Light and dark

imageThis is my current view.  If you look closely, you might be able to make out my feet.  It’s actually not totally black, just dusky, and shaded by black-out blinds and thick curtains.  The sound I can hear is the fan, but below that is a white noise cd of moving water, called ‘babbling brook’.

This set-up is oriented to the needs of my baby daughter, not quite four months old, but it has become my favourite head space of the day.  In winter it was much darker, and at a certain time of day she just yearned to be in that dark space, with nothing but my body, and milk, and the water noise to help her into a longer sleep.  It became my space for reading or writing poetry, and I cling to it even on these lighter nights.

There are no ideal conditions for writing poetry but ever since my baby gave me this gift of inertia and darkness I have noticed how writers have often sought out these bits of the day.   Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion asks her father for the hours before dawn to write. (You might want to use the dark of the cinema to write if you go to see that film, it is looong, or it feels long). Similarly, Sylvia Plath allegedly wrote between 4-6am before her babies woke.  I literally cannot imagine getting myself up in the middle of the night to write poetry or indeed for anything that isn’t a child who is crying but that’s what makes SP an actual writer. And didn’t Keats write at dawn, naked, before his window? Good for him. He didn’t have to worry about babies at all.

Even if you don’t have a baby, or a paid job, or social media, or even 5 whole serieses of Orange is the New Black to binge watch, it seems that the absence of the light of the day helps you find the handle to that door in your mind that you need to go through to be with your non-thoughts; those friends of your lived experience which flare up as poetry. Sometimes.

In that room I am trying to find if my lit life can speak to me.

Sometimes it does.

It reminds me of the Yehuda Amichai poem, translated by Chana Bloch The Precision of Pain.


One of my hopes for this year as Fenland Poet Laureate is to collaborate with a fenland artist whose work I love, the esteemed Fine Art Printmaker Iona Howard. From the moment I saw her work I was given a new way to articulate my feelings about the place I was living in. Those massive, stark, uncompromising, beautiful landscapes have haunted me ever since.  I recall the (problematic) distinction that Edmund Burke drew between the beautiful and the sublime.

I was delighted when I discovered that Iona was inspired by the same fenland landscape as I am, that is, the one closest to us. It’s the space in which she walks her dog and I (used to!) run. It makes me wonder; what is it about a familiar landscape that calls our attention?  Is it knowing a place through different seasons? Is it the repetition that allows us to lose ourselves in thought? Is the rhythm of movement an anchor which holds the ship of the mind in place long enough to notice? Can you become overfamiliar with a place?

Iona and I have started seeking out new places together.  We’ve been walking in Kingfishers Bridge nature reserve and seeing what that corner of the Fen has to offer. So far I can’t say I’ve had an epiphany but I did get a powerful electric shock!  Here are some images Iona took on the ‘mountain’.

Continue reading “Ekphrastic”


I’ve been following #NaPoWriMo this month and it’s brought me a lot of joy.  Although I will only come out with a small handful of poems, rather than 30, I will have bankrupted myself on books by authors introduced to me by the interview series.  Every word of the Kay Ryan, former US Poet Laureate interview was hilarious and illuminating.  Like her assertion, when she was asked if she liked giving readings, that she liked reading her poems, but did not like listening to other people reading theirs.  Or that, famed as she is for writing ‘short, skinny’ poems she once wrote a ‘two hundred line poem, just for myself.  It was pure shit.’  This struck me too:

Thinking takes place in language, and it’s hard to say whether the language is creating the thinking or the thinking is creating the language.  If I don’t write in poetry, in the profoundest way, I have no way to think.

Ocean Vuong  was another great find.  He has some really interesting thoughts about the way text speak has shaped language, and about the closeness of the ampersand to the real sense of ‘and’, especially in poetic language.  another memorable interview was that with  Li-Young Lee, who describes the three selves he wakes up with each morning; the self which apprehends the world as entirely ‘saturated with meaning and presence’, the self which can’t deal with that level of meaning and resists it, and the self which is trying to hear the poem that comes out of those conditions.  I love that.

The prompt on Day 24 was to write an ekphrastic poem, based on a medieval manuscript illustration.  I found this an interesting challenge, thinking as I have been about Ely Cathedral and the wool-churches and angel ceilings of the Fens.  So here is my poem, perhaps I will give it more attention some day. It’s based on a medieval Psalter found in St John’s College library here.  And then the poet for Day 26, Melissa Range, has written an entire book about the process of monastic bookmaking Scriptorium, so that’s another one for the Amazon basket.

I am starting to think about a collaborating I am planning with an artist, so it was interesting to attempt an ekphrastic poem.  But that’s a post for another time.