Jackie Kay's Blog

National Poetry Day 2006: Identity


02 November 2006
Last night I finished editing Julia Darling's weblog which will be broadcast on Radio Four next year. I felt very sad because it was like reliving life with Julia again, remembering all the different times. What is amazing about her and her log is that her spirit and personality shines through right till the end. She managed to keep herself in tact, even when very ill. A lot of people become understandably bitter, or so depressed that they lose themselves. But she kept herself and even her humour. Some of the log made me laugh out loud. As a girl Julia loved horses, and even wanted to be a horse. I thought she would have appreciated this wonderful poems about horses.

Circus pony

Each evening after school you met
like lovers. You angled offerings
through the tired wire fence.
She accepted as the air accepts.
Among the traffic fumes and concrete
pathways, her heavy eyes and warm
saluting breath became your fireside.

Every night you dreamed her
in the spotlight, all small girls
carried on her back, prettily
tramping the ring, high-kicking
over flames to gasps and applause
and for a finale leaping into darkness,
away from beatings and the crowds.

And when you ran away at last,
north to the gleaming Fens,
you took a husband and a newborn
to be safe. Routines followed. Years
escaped like lovers. Chosen
and not chosen became pathways.
Fences were your tightrope.

And when the circus came
you took your daughter to the fence
to see the ponies waiting - wanting
her to understand you stood
daily by a tired circus fence
calming the soft nose of a pony
patient, headstrong, poised to bolt.

Heidi Williamson

Off to Glasgow now to hear some poems I wrote made into songs by Gavin Bryars at The Tramway and presented by Theatre Cryptic and then back and off to Las Vegas. It's all a bit mad at the moment!

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moving blog

30 October 2006
I'm going to be moving this blog to the Guardian Unlimited site. Soon it will be over there. For a while, you'll be able to access the blog at both addresses, and then when it moves to the Guardian, there'll be an easy link. Lucky for me that moving blog isn't nearly so bad as moving home. Here's the address:http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/books. The Poetry Society are very happy that it is moving and continuing on. It's funny because I was only supposed to blog until National Poetry Day, but I have become quite attached to it! EEEK! So it will carry on for a bit anyway. It will still loosely be about identity and poetry though. The only real difference is that your responses will go straight onto the blog and everybody will be able to read them and you will be able to respond to each other too. I've been touched by the responses I've been getting asking me why I've not been blogging so much recently. Well it's all to do with being on the road. The on the road blog is not so easy to do.... This coming Saturday I'm off to do a reading in Las Vegas. I'll have to do one from there, especially if I win in the casino! I've never been to Vegas before. I'm very excited about it.
I've been away in York at YLAF (York Lesbian Arts Festival) which was a brilliant experience. One thousand lesbians at the York racecourse and all those books. It was my mum's birthday and she came too. At my reading at the end of the festival, Jane brought her a birthday cake in and one thousand lesbians sang happy birthday to her. On the phone to my dad later, she said, ' John I don't imagine I'm ever going to get to have a birthday like that again, one thousand lesbians sang me happy birthday John.' It was quite something.
I was thinking about how things change in the course of our lifetimes, and how comfortable we can be with our parents about our sexuality. I can't imagine having been that comfortable twenty years ago to take my mum with me to a big lesbian do. But now I feel very relaxed and easy with myself. Yet I still know people who find it very difficult being openly gay with their parents. I even know people who have had civil partnership marriages and not felt able to tell their parents. Some parents perhaps make it easier than others for us to be open in the first place.
Sometimes our lives have to have some secrets in them?
It was a great feeling anyway for both of us out there at the racecouse, and lovely to be with so many very differently dressed women and watch my mum's eyes out on stalks at some of the get-ups.
Last night I read in Manchester's Library Theatre to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the Spanish Civil War. That was another very moving experience. My mum was with me for that too. At the end, all of the performers - Billy Bragg, the Weavers, Maxine Peak and James Quinn and others all lined up on the stage to sing the International. I could see my mum in the audience singing away with her fist in the air. Songs and beliefs. Singing our pasts. Songs makes us connect right back through our protesting lives. My mum said it was like living her socialist life over again going through all those songs, Waltzing Matilda, There's a valley in Spain ... Ah the tears were flowing.
Last week in Newcastle, at the Proud Words festival, I really enjoyed these two poems about a mother and music by Robert Hamberger. Hope you do too. Cheerio. I'll be back soon.


My mother and Ella Fitzgerald sing
a duet. This memory out of nowhere.
She’s got time for the radio. It’s Sunday morning.
While she irons another sleeve or collar
her voice dips and lifts below Ella’s effortless
skylark. It’s Moonlight in Vermont: a place
she’s never seen, though she lulls each note with her guess
at beauty. Clarinet and strings, that grace
and longing behind their harmony. I play with panthers
and zebras across the carpet. What are these women
teaching me by their tune? Maybe stars
belong to lovers, even
if they never catch them. Maybe someone
stole their moonlight, so they sing for its return.


Published in The Smug Bridegroom (Five Leaves, www.fiveleaves.co.uk)


After work one night my mother felt so tired
she dozed on our settee, her head
resting in the lap of the married
man who visited, wined and dined her, made
her sweet and bitter for years in equal measure.
While Nina Simone sang The Other Woman,
that record they played for maudlin pleasure,
I watched him tie tiny knots in her hair one
by one as she dreamed. I didn’t stop him.
When she woke and fingered her hair
he and I laughed it off together: his whim,
her disappointment, while Nina swooned her
voice round French perfume and a lonesome queen
crying herself to sleep, spending her life alone.


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Raining cats and dogs

24 October 2006
I have been away and back, back and away again. I was reading to school librarians in Hatfield, Herts which I really enjoyed. One woman asked me if I would put a kitchen sink in a poem. I liked the idea of that, so I'm working on it. The Kitchen Sink Poem as opposed to The Kitchen Sink Drama! Then, on Saturday, I was in Newcastle reading for Proud Words Festival in the new Northern Stage theatre. Proud Words was set up many years ago by Julia Darling and friends. I first met Julia years ago, when I went to do my first reading for Proud Words. I remember vividly her coming to meet me at the station and putting me up in her house because I didn't like the hotel. It's good to be a prima donna now and again, or our great friendhip might not have started.
That weekend her dog went to the lesbian and gay dog fancy dress competition, which was great fun. Hilarious actually because the absent cats were represented on big boards with their photographs. It made me think about cats and dogs, like window people and aisle people. People are either dog people or cat people. Not that many are both, and those that are are probably bisexual too. (Just joking)
One of the things I like best about coming home after being on the road is walking my dog. I love how friendly other dog walkers are, friendlier even than people with babies. My son was saying to me the other day that our dog likes a particular walk. Imagine, he said, saying that to somebody that didn't have a dog, they'd think you were crazy.
On my lovely walk yesterday through Chorlton nature reserve, I overheard one dog walking woman say to the other. 'We're all crazy. That's a relief, when you realise we are all nuts.' And the other woman laughed like a maniac. I hurried along laughing myself, talking out loud to my dog!
But it's interesting how, despite all our own little peculiarities, we mostly don't think of ourselves as crazy or daft. We think all our little ways with our pets perfectly reasonable. That's why that film Personal Best is so hilarious. I used to live with two women who kept journals of their cats feelings and thought nothing of it. ('Tiger Lily not responding to affection today') They'd feed the cats a curious mixture of free range chicken and blended vegetables. They'd make piles of this stuff and freeze it in yoghurt pots. Whenever it ran out, the cats would be given Whiskas and they's go berserk with excitement, hurling themselves against the living room wall. One had a crumbling mouth and visited a homeopathic vet in Oxford. (This was when I lived in Stoke Newington.) I didn't like it when they went away and I had to put the remedy in the cat's crumbling mouth. All that seems wildly funny to me now. But to them, the cats were like their children.
I once lived with another woman that had a very clever blue burmese cat. It could open doors even when the door had to be pulled towards the cat. I was terrified of it.
Anyway, I'm a dog person, I think, so much so that I had an imaginary dog as a child. I'd pat the thin air and bang about in the kitchen opening imaginary tins of food.Barking! I thought my parents might eventually fear for my sanity and get me a real red setter. But it didn't work.
Home now for a few days which is lovely. The next trip will be to York to read at YLAF. Here's their website if anyone is interested. It is always great fun going to YLAF because the whole festival takes place at the York Racecourse. Literary thoroughbreds. www.ylaf.org.uk

Below is a lovely poem by Frankie Green, it is very nice to have responses to the blogs in the form of poems!

Going to Poetry

Is poetry that place you go to
on the train, in a window seat
your face against the glass, looking out
across the sea and land, and into
your own sharp eyes?

The place inside every other place
behind the map and over the border,
the long journey and the destination,
x, the final station.
The place where words go to dream.
The place inside everywhere else
a meeting space for the hard to place
easy to please,
where you please yourself.
A place inside your life
and the life inside you,
a place to live apace.

You are always going to poetry
and when you come back
there it is,
at home, poetry
the place we take each other to
at our best
where you show me your face
and the rest.

Frankie Green

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Little Green

18 October 2006
I've been fascinated reading all the stuff in the newspaper about Madonna's adoption of an African son. The thing that interests me most, beyond all the rights and the wrongs of it, is that people keep talking about charity. I don't think adopting somebody in order to do them a favour is a good reason for adopting; it could set up a lifetime's odd resentment and its concomitant gratitude. I always remember my wise mother saying to me, 'Never ever let anybody tell you that you should be grateful to us! We are the ones that are grateful.'
Doing good, or thinking you are doing good, even when you are doing a bit of good is a problem because the self consciousness of the patronage can instantly cancel out the do-goodyness. The ones that do the most good are almost always invisible. I'd rather be adopted by my mother than Madonna any day.
I remember reading years ago that Joni Mitchell gave up her daughter for adoption, and that when her daughter traced her, she was still bitter about being adopted. That too was fascinating. Christ. Imagine. You trace your birth mother and she turns out to be JONI MITCHELL and she's written you the most beautiful song, Little Green, which she wrote way back in 1967, after having been forced to give up her child for adoption.
I think if I had been tracing my original mother and found her to be Joni Mitchell, I wouldn't have been all that upset.
It's endlessly fascinating adoption; all the different lives people could have had, not just for the adopted person but for the adopted parents and the birth ones. It all seems such a curious mixture of fate, fact and fiction.
Lovely to get blog responses from as far away as Nigeria! How exciting!
I'm off to London tomorrow and then back and then off to Newcastle. My mum said to me tonight, she didn't envy my life because she likes her bed too much.
Ah, well. Me too. So off I go to it. Night night.

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middle age

17 October 2006
I am still sorting out my study. It seems to be taking for ages, partly because I am not here enough, and partly because I keep stopping to read things and falling upon old books gladly like old friends. I realised that it is not just old photographs of yourself that make you know how you've aged, it's old books. It is such a long time ago now since I first read for instance Memo for Spring by Liz Lochhead, which I've just refound, or I is a long memoried woman by Grace Nichols, or For Colored Girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange. I have grown older with my books, and it's a funny feeling putting them back on the shelves, as if they too know me. Auden said, you read the book and the book reads you. I think that's quite true; I actually feel almost known by my books, and it feels an emotional business getting them all out and putting them away, old notes falling out of them like locks of hair.
Once I felt I had all the time in the world to read, a reading life really stretching ahead of me; and now, one sure sign of starting to feel older, is that the reading time is starting to close in!
Today I said to my son that I'm going to be forty five when we are in San Francisco and he made a very high noise, nnnnaaaaahhhh, and said, well you are definitely middle aged now then mum, face it. But I don't feel middle aged. Sixty surely is the new middle age?
I wonder who does feel properly middle aged? Who even feels old? Even people who are seventy and eighty can't quite believe in their own age -they are still young in their heads.
I am starting to find that my memory isn't working exactly how it used to. I used to pride myself in having a very good memory and now I'm running up and down the stairs the whole time for things that I specially went up to get and then forget. Strung out, rattling. Maybe that's the early menopause. The brain starts to go very soft, like it does when you are pregnant. Spongy almost.
A large part of who we are seems to be who we remember we are, but then because that is constantly shifting and changing with some memories raging into sharp focus and others pleasantly blurring out, our idea of ourselves is constantly fluid. Memory fascinates us, our own memories of our past selves. Yesterday's selves and the day before and the one before that. We love falling upon people gladly that remember things about us as children. We laugh manically remembering ourselves and shaking our heads at our own outrageousness.
Thank you for the sleep poems. Now you can send memory poems. Today I am posting for the first time a poem from a blog reader. She said that this poem was inspired by a dream. Memory is a kind of dream. It's funny too how we can have sharp memories of long-ago dreams. I wrote one of my stories in my new book Wish I was Here, My Daughter the Fox, about a dream that I had eighteen odd years ago.
Time is starting to do strange things. There comes a point when you actually sit up and notice it. Perhaps that is middle age. When you realise that it is not infinite that it won't just be going on and on regardless. Perhaps my son is right. Face it mum, he says with all the confident, slightly sadistic pleasure of the young. When you are young like that, you don't even truly consider ever being old. Not really. It seems silly. You can feel above it, nonchalant.
And with that little middle-aged rant, I will take myself up to my bed. It is late and there is a lovely chirping voice on Late Junction, that sounds young and old at the same time. Lots of lovely trilling aaaaah uhhh oooh ahhhs.


Ran is a man with a cauldron.

His herbs are strong and

his language travels in boats.

He says, she don’t know what,

but it fishes her mind.

His herbs are strong and she, the tourist,

will go home goddessed.

Ran has no children to remember goodnight

and Ran can make tick.

She’s nothing young, age comes

and her hair needs the roots touched,

but when she trawls her case

towards her front door in her

silly-me shoes,

eyes will squeeze her waist.

When she lands herself in bed,

the very softness will make her squeak.

But she won’t sleep.

She’ll suck her tongue

wondering what she’s become,

why the drumming, now?

why the firelight, here?

why the chanting:

Ran can, Ran can, Ran can?


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16 October 2006
I am back home tonight, thank goodness. I went to Norwich and had a great time there with the Cafe Writers who have been going for a long time. There was a big audience and a great atmosphere. In the toilet before the reading, I overheard one woman saying to another, 'Oh do you think we are doing the right thing - a poetry reading?. And then the other reply, 'Well we've got the tickets now, so we may as well go.' Which made me laugh. I stayed in the toilet until I heard the door open because I didn't want to embarrass them. A lot of people who come to poetry readings are actually first-timers. I wonder what makes them decide to come for the first time, and if, having come once they might come again. A nice man at the end of that reading told me he'd never been to one before but he'd have gladly paid twice the money for it. Which balanced with the toilet experience. I wonder how many people have overheard things in toilets that they shouldn't have heard. It's very funny. Like being a spy.
The next day a taxi came to drive me all the way to Cheltenham which took four hours. The taxi driver asked me if I wrote my own books and when I said yes, he said, you must have a lot of patience. How do you mean, I said. He said, well just to sit still and think up an idea and then write it. I'm a fidget me, he said, with a broad Gloucestershire accent. Anyway, I've been thinking about patience ever since. I think he's right. I think writers do have to be patient, to bide time and wait. To accept there are times, fallow times, when nothing comes; and that the fallow times are just as important as the harvest ones. But then, you can never be quite sure, perhaps so called writer's block is just an excuse to go shopping?
We could breakthe world down into two simple groups - never mind , rich, poor, black white, men women, gay straight - maybe the difference is between patient people and impatient people. The ones who don't mind a queue and the ones that queue jump.
Sometimes an idea for a poem or a story happens years before it comes to life. Like one of those pots that you can slow cook things on.
And in relationships too, the people that stick with each other for years, through the lows and downs, are they more patient than the ones that get suddenly restless and have an affair? Or are we all actually both, capable of great patience and great impatience? Being a mum probably makes you patient in a different way altogether; you might even discover patience you never thought you had.
I got to Cheltenham and did a reading with Johh Agard which was great. I'm posting one of his poems soon. Then, last night, feeling exhausted and impatient with the travelling life, I took to my hotel room and watched PRIME SUSPECT instead of hanging out with other writers. I suddenly felt very impatient to see her again, and loved her sad little alcoholic dance. Did you see it? Helen Mirren is devastating, wonderful.
Today, I got up very early to come back to Manchester to film a poem of mine at a racing track with a young black runner playing me as a young girl. I felt very patient watching her run! Me running years ago seemed more than a few laps round the red track away. But the lovely red track brought it all back.
I was trying to learn my own poem off by heart on the train coming back, and getting very impatient with myself, because I'm suddenly not as good at that as I was even five years ago.
Actually I discovered, quite by accident, a wonderful cure for insomnia. Try and learn one of your own new poems completely off by heart when you are very tired. The concentration it requires (or the dullness of the poem, who knows which?) is bound to send you off to sleep.
So I arrived at the racetrack slow in every way, but the little sleep on the train was quite quite lovely. If sleep is dreamy, then sleep is patient. If it is nightmarish and busy, then it is impatient. It is quite clear I need to sleep now. When you get very very tired, you actually lose all real sense of your self. Send sleep poems or heart poems now. I'll post some more poems from Matthew Sweeney and John Agard and Grace Nichols very soon.
Thanks for all the responses. My favourite so far was one that said that although National Poetry Day is over, like Christmas Day, the blog continuing feels like the January Sales! Ha! I liked that, being a big spender.

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13 October 2006
I don't know why October and May seem to be the most busy months for the poet, but they are and this October has been quite frantic. Tomorrow, I'm off to Norwich to do a reading and a workshop and the day after off to Cheltenham. Then there's still York, Leeds, Manchester, London, Glasgow and Las Vegas (seriously!) to go and then it will be November... phew! In Las Vegas I can gamble away all the money I've earnt in October because I'm being put up in a hotel that is a casino, apparently all the hotels are casinos there, so don't know how I will resist. I will have my very sensible son with me though, so that might help, except that he is brilliant with cards and roulette.
Anyway up very early tomorrow, so just saying hello.
I'm wondering what being busy had to do with identity. Maybe those of us that keep ourselves ridiculously absurdly busy do so to hide from other things? Maybe if you can just be busy busy busy, that's all there is for you to say to yourself about yourself... who knows?! I'm just trying to coax myself into being a person that is brave enough to say NO more often.
Though when I get to the place that I'm going to I'm usually very glad I did say yes.
But, beyond the gladness, I do admire people that just sit back and watch the train going by out of the window and people that don't have a diary and people that don't have a clue what they are doing next Wednesday or Saturday. I think that people that do know a lot of their dates ages in advance (like myself) are potentially deeply disturbed and should get a life and not a diary. What do you think? It would be lovely to be bold enough to throw the mobile phone into a pond and the diary into the sea and not have one's life so ruled by dates and promises. People that can be truly spontaneous and suddenly decide to do something because it pleases them, those people I really admire. What makes one person more able to be spontaneous and another terrified of being so?
WHen I was checking in at the airport the other day, it suddenly occurred to me that you might be able to tell the difference between window people and aisle people. The woman said you actually can, and that aisle people are broader, older and much more anxious travellers. So I suddenly said WINDOW. Done with aisle. That's it. The aisle is past tense. But what really makes a person a window or an aisle and are window people more spontaneous and aisle people ruled by their diaries?
These are just some of the questions in the red wind this coming warm October... Maybe you could send some poems?

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Will they still love me will they still want me when I'm sixty four

12 October 2006
Am just home tonight from Beverley which is a lovely wee place, great shops, had a glut of a time spending my fee on clothes and books today in the lovely square. It was a nice night last night with shining kind faces, it made me think that giving readings is a bit like having a big lover, a massive one who smiles and makes you feel good and says lovely things to you.
I like doing readings still . I feel myself when I'm doing them. Though I do know that poets can get tired of the whole reading thing. Phillip Larkin called them 'pretending to be me.' In a funny way though, I feel more 'me' when I'm doing them than in other aspects of my life. There's something straightforward about the relationship between the listener and the audience that I like, just as there is something to be said about the relationship between writer and reader. I don't necessarily mean the readers you meet, I mean the reader you also form in your head as you are writing.
But I was thinking today, that I'm lucky and fairly fit and can still get on and off the trains no bother, and what that will be like when I'm sixty four or seventy five. I know that Norman MacCaig and Edwin Morgan and many other poets continued doing 'gigs' long past the so-called normal retirement age. When you are a writer, you never need to think about retiring in the way that people with job-jobs have to. Often they are laid off just because they've hit sixty or sixty five when they are still bursting with energy and have lots of things they still want to learn and teach. But for a writer you can go on as long as your blank page will receive you, as long as you have ideas that you want to communicate... and something about that is oddly comforting. (Perhaps appalling - depending on your perspective!) I like thinking that when I'm an old woman I will still write, hopefully (if the frontal lobes haven't been nobbled by the effect of all the alcohol downed on the road) and will still have things I might want to write about.
When you are suddenly forced to give up your work, and along with it, a large part of your identity, that must be really hard. I remember my mum adjusted to being retired, then five years later, my dad did and initially drove her mad around the house. She said each person has to adjust to it in their own way. I know that many of their friends dropped down dead very soon after retiring as if the body couldn't cope with suddenly having to become somebody else. For a lot of us, our work defines us; and yet also for some of us, our work tells us nothing about us that is personal at all. I think that the people that are perhaps happiest are the ones who find some expression of themselves in their work, whatever that is.
I was on the train the other day coming back from Newcastle and I was sitting in the dining car, having decided to treat myself as far as York to a starter and half a bottle of wine. I ended up sitting next to two men who were working on an amazing solar powered building. They said what we do is quite hippyish, you wouldn't think so to look at us. (They both looked like good looking young business men.) Anyway one of them turned out to have a dream of writing a book for his son and the other person at the table, an English teacher offered to help him with his apostrophes. It made me think about what it is like when you have one job but hanker to do something else entirely. Perhaps that's why people who take up completely different interests in retirement are very happy. Literally - a new lease in life. Whatever it is - a Spanish Class, a Tango class, gardening, Art History.
My parents now seem to be as busy during their retirement as they were working. I now know when not to ring - which is practically all the time! Bloody Hell, they get out more than me - to the GFT (GLasgow Film Theatre) to see all the new foreign films, to RASMAD, to listen to lunchtime classical concerts, to ORAN MOR for A play a pie and a pint. Christ. I envy them. Then there are all the wee runs over the Fintry Hills and to the Campsie Glens. Retirement doesn't need to be losing yourself after all. It can be finding a whole new self. But for the writer - will it be? No, because the writer will probably keep on doing the same old same old, more poems and more gigs. Goodness I started out quite positive about this and have ended up thinking that I need to take up something surprising past sixty... like what? Hang gliding?
I am very cheered by all the responses I have been getting to this blog. When I first started it, I didn't know if anyone would read it. And now , though I don't yet feel like a seasoned blogger, I don't have any immediate wish to retire from it. Just yet.

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11 October 2006
I'm off to Beverley in half an hour to read at the Literature Festival tonight. There's the most beautiful music on Radio three right now. I've been thinking about the radio a lot recently, the radio and identity! When I was wee my dad listened fanatically to Radio 3 and he still is a Radio 3 man. He had his ear pressed to it down at the bottom of the room while we watched telly at the top. We'd watch Doctor Who and the two budgies would get let out of their cage for that to sit on top of my head and whistle the theme tune . Yuri Gregarin - the blue budgie - was a better whistler than Paddy, the yellow one!
Now, I'm like my dad, I take the radio with me from room to room . Although unlike him in that I switch between stations and have to catch certain favourite programmes - Woman's Hour on Radio 4, the early Music Show on Radio 3, Humphrey Lyttelton on Radio 2 Monday night, and my favourite of all Russell Davies on Radio 2 on Sunday afternoon. If I miss him, my Sunday is not the same. Last week he had on somebody I hadn't heard of who sang a fantastic song called I'm too white to sing the blues, blues. I like listening to him and cooking the Sunday roast. Then there's Desert Island Discs, With Great Pleasure, Poetry Please, Start the Week, Midweek....
When I lived in America, the thing I missed most was the Radio here. We have to have the best radio in the world. Oh and I missed the newspapers. Ditto.
I can honestly say that listening to the radio has got me through everything - grief, break ups, heartbreak...The radio keeps better company than the television; if you can't sleep you can be comforted by Janice Long's husky voice from midnight till three in the morning!
I've been thinking about music and identity, and how each one of us could probably tell a life story through which song meant what when.
Or which piece of music. There are certain songs that you can't even stand listening to because they remind you too much...
I wonder though if I love music and listening to the radio so much because I grew up with my dad doing that, and it seemed such a wonderful private world of his, the world of listening and loving the music. I wonder how much of our tastes are to do with the way we are brought up and how much inherited. That old nature/nurture thing.
My mum used to say to me 'We're on the wavelength so we are.' because we would go to speak the same word, or constantly guess what the other was feeling without words. Tuned in, to our own little radio.
I'd say Nurture then, I think. What would you say?
Here's a poem for today by FRED D'AGUIAR:

All my life I've worked one groove
I'm a man with nothing to prove.
All my life my shoulder at one seam
I'm a man who has the same dream.
Proof that black and white is the same
Same rulebook for all in the game.

I wake in the small hours in a cold sweat
Worried that we're not there yet.
I stay awake my eyes locked on one spot
Going over and over the black man's lot.
How we give so much and have little to show
For it and how we have a long way to go.

Tons cleaved from that seam by my labor
For someone else to enjoy and savor,
The one dream burning bright inside
Keeps someone else warm who decides
How I sleep and wake all on my behalf
While I dream that I'll get the last laugh.

I get a headache and enjoy insomnia
I occupy the higher ground - solemn area,
Righteous turf, and empty pockets
Turned out, eyeballs emptied from eye sockets.
Here comes the ghost of a hungry man
I'm stone cold don't shake my hand.


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09 October 2006
The other day, when I was reading to one hundred and fifty seven year old children at Seven Stories in Newcastle, I asked the children if they knew what being adopted meant. Their answers were so fascinatingly different. One small girl put up her hand and said in a very clear voice 'It means you are lost.' A brown haired boy put up his hand and said, 'It means your parents didn't want you.' A wee girl with glasses said, 'It means you've been evacuated.' Another said,'It means that you have to go to the orphanage.' And another, 'It means you were left on the Church step.' And another, 'It means you have two sets of parents, ones that want you and ones that don't.' It was so interesting that I just kept asking more and more of them, and what do you think it means, and the eager, hands- stretched- right- up- in the air answers kept coming.
It made me think about childhood, and how when you are a child, you have very definite ideas about what things mean. I read a poem about Dracula later and asked the children if they knew anything about Dracula's likes and dislikes, and one very serious boy said 'Dracula likes to make people unhappy.' Which really made me laugh. And it reminded me of a time when I'd done a children's reading in Northern Ireland and a small boy had said, 'Dracula likes to bite ladies' necks.'
Anyway nobody had anything really positive to say about adoption except an adult, Sian Williams, who had organised the reading. She said, 'It means
your parents have chosen you and you are loved very much.' Ahhhh.
I often meet people who are adopted who revert back to their original name or people who feel as if they have two lives, and once they trace birth parents, feel more comfortable with them. And then I often meet adopted people who have no interest in tracing what so ever. I wonder if the difference is just to do with the varying experiences of being adopted, or if it is genetic. My own experience has been so positive that I wouldn't want not to have been adopted.
I like the frankness of children though. I wonder what happens to us when we get past the age of ten!

I read this poem at the Drill Hall the other week, where there was an evening of song and recitals to celebrate the Sixtieth Anniversary of Woman's Hour.
I was thinking about things that we do for our whole life, and of how we often define ourselves through what we do, our work or our hobbies or both.
I imagine the woman in this poem of mine to be about eighty by now.
It's still very nice getting all your responses, so I think I will keep up with the blogging for a bit longer.
I can imagine it could get seriously addictive, and that in the future there might be such things as
Blog- Withdrawal Support Groups for people that have been frentically blogging even in the middle of the night....


I knit to keep death away
For hame will dae me.
On a day like this the fine mist
Is a dropped stitch across the sky.

I knit to hold a good yarn
For stories bide with me
On a night like this, by the peat fire;
I like a story with a herringbone twist.

But a yarn aye slips through your fingers.
And my small heart has shrunk with years.
I couldn’t measure the gravits, the gloves, the mittens,
The jerseys, the cuffs, the hose, the caps,

The cowls, the cravats, the cardigans,
The hems and facings over the years.
Beyond the sea wall, the waves unfurl.
I knitted through the wee stitched hours.

I knitted till my eyes filled with tears,
Till the dark sky filled with colour.
Every spare moment. Time was a ball of wool.
I knitted to keep my croft; knitted to save my life.

When my man was out at sea; I knitted the fishbone.
Three to the door, three to the fire.
The more I could knit; the more we could eat.
I knitted to mend my broken heart

When the sea took my man away, and by day
I knitted to keep the memories at bay.
I knitted my borders by the light of the fire
When the full moon in the sky was a fresh ball of yarn.

I knitted to begin again: Lay on, sweerie geng.
Takkin my makkin everywhere I gang.
Een and een. Twin pins. My good head.
A whole life of casting on, casting off

Like the North sea. I watch wave after wave,
plain and purl, casting on, casting off.
I watch the ferries coming back, going away.
Time is a loop stitch. I knit to keep death away.

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sorting it out

08 October 2006
I am up very late sorting out my new study, which is like moving house all over again. Odd to come across old love letters from more than one old lover; and odd to discover double copies of many books - Elizabeth Bishop's Selected Letters, Simon Armitage's Dead Sea Poems, Middlemarch... And to have to think again about which books I really must give away. Funny too to come across books again, like old friends, that I haven't read for years; I keep falling upon them gladly and wishing I had more than one pair of eyes. Our books, for those of us who love reading, follow us around our lives, through our various homes and our various break ups ( though we might obsessively worry that some are definitely missing and that That copy of The Mortgaged Heart is mine !) But anyway the books remain loyal and they are hard to part with . God I still have my old school history books, even though I'm not likely to re read any day soon The Coming of The French Revolution.
It's hard to imagine though my life being the same life without the books I've read and loved. We are what we read, more than we are what we eat! I think the point of life is to read, as much as it is to write. Like opposite ends of the same coin. What books go with what people. The amount of people that will say things like I'm a sci fi person. Or I only like non fiction. Or I hate contemporary poetry.. Or I don't get Jane Eyre. It's interesting how many people are fascinated by their own choices, and how many link those to their personality, their identity. 'I'm a murder mystery person me.'
As I've been putting the old books on the new shelves, I've been thinking about how they've changed me and how books change our identity, reflect us back, help us to get to know ourselves better. And how the books that we read, change over the course of our lifetimes. My dad who is now in his eighties has suddenly discovered a passion for reading biographies. 'Christ, I wish I'd got intae them before.' he says.
I remember reading The Bluest Eye in Brixton in 1981 when Brixton was burning and becoming devoted to Toni Morrison from then on in. I remember the first time I came across Audre Lorde's poems, The Black Unicorn. I remember when I first read Sylvia Plath and laughing out loud at 'What a thrill, my thumb instead of an onion' ... I always remember where I was for the books that I truly love. What beach. What train. What house. It's such a joy to find books that you love and to keep on finding them again and again. They have been with you, through thick and thin, they have comforted you, changed you, encouraged you... excited you. Without them, you probably wouldn't be the same person. I remember reading on the cover of The Woman's Room, 'this book will change your life,' and feeling irritated at the presumption. But it did. It marked the beginning of something.
It seems appropriate, since I am up late into the wee small hours, to post this wonderful poem by Nick Laird about insomnia. It reminds me that even insomnia has its uses!
the evening forecast for the region

The weatherman for Boston ponders whether, I’d bet not,
the snowstorm coming north will come to town tonight.

I swim around in bed. My head’s attempting to begin
its routine shift down through the old transmission

to let me make the slope and slip the gearstick into neutral at the crown
before freewheeling down the ocean road descent into the ghost town,

there, the coastal one, with a stone pier bare as skin, familiar
seafront houses hunched and boarded-over for the winter,

and beside the tattered nets a rowing boat lies upturned on the beach.
Aside from a mongrel, inside, asleep at someone’s slippered feet,

everything faces the sea. But the plumbing’s sighs are almost human.
Airlocks collect and slide from duct to duct so the radiators whine.
The hiding places grow further hidden. A priesthole’s given over
to a spider’s architecture. A well tries on a grassy manhole cover,

threaded, dangerous as fingers. An ivied sycamore in the forest at Drum Manor,
resonant and upright and empty as an organ pipe, where for a panicked hour

a boy will not be found. I arch one foot to scratch the other.
I would shed myself to segue into sleep. I would enter

but the opening is of a new off-Broadway Hamlet. The gulf is war.
This hiatus, my father’s hernia. The cleft’s a treble on the score

of Scott Joplin’s Entertainer. This respite is a care home,
the recess a playground. This division I slither into is a complicated sum:

thirteen over seven. I give in. I turn the television on.
The weatherman for Boston is discussing how, Thank Heaven,

the snowstorm missed, and turned, and headed out to sea.
Is it particularly human, this, to lie awake? To touch the papery

encircling bark but watch through a knot, and wait?
Everyone on earth is sleeping. I am the keel-scrape

beneath their tidal breathing which is shifting down through tempo
to the waveform of the sea. The gathered even draw and lift of air.

Further east a blizzard of homogenous decisions breathes above
the folding and unfolding pane and counterpane of waves

as if the white so loves the world it tries to make a map of it,
exact and blank to start again, but the sea will not stay under it.

The ricepaper wafers are melting. Millions of babynails cling
to the wind lifting hoarsely off the Atlantic. The whole thing

is mesmeric. For hours the snow will fall like rhythm.

To A Fault

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Swings and roundabouts

06 October 2006
I'm back in Manchester now. I spent the day in the Southbank International school reading poetry and listening to poetry by the students. It's a lovely school, a huge house really, more like a home than a school. Jacqueline du Pre used to live in the top floor. I kept imagining I could hear her haunting strings.
So, National Poetry Day, like Christmas is over for another year. Although unlike Christmas, National Poetry day goes on all year. The day is just an excuse really to focus our attentions on the things that happen all of the time.
I was thinking on the train back today about poets and depression, and about how much our mental state affects our identity, our image of ourselves. I might have been thinking about this because of the strange kind of down feeling you can get after the up feeling of the gig, being with lots of people you know and getting over excited, and drinking too much. Then coming back home to be much quieter, cook dinner watch telly... Maybe that life of extreme company and then extreme solitude is a bit bi-polar in itself. The writer needs to be alone, but also need to be oot and aboot when doing the readings. A poet friend of mine, Sapphire, once said she likes being a writer but hates doing all the 'author shit.' Ha! I like doing the readings though I don't like staying in all the different beds. And the whole business of being on the road then home then on the road, is strange and odd at times, like a massive motorway length mood swing.
I've never had serious depression the way that some friends describe it where you don't want to get out of bed, or where you want to turn your face to the wall, or where you feel as if something has descended upon you, heavy and grey and when it goes, inexplicably one sudden day, you feel something lift. But I think that probably more poets are prone to depression than average, judging from the amount of poems written about it, and from the amount of poets who have committed suicide. Stephen Fry in his brilliant and fascinating documentary recently about being bi-polar said he wouldn't choose now not to be because that's where his creative self comes from. How many creative people are self destructive, or how much does being creative stop people from being self destructive? And once you have been depressed or hospitalised does that always stay as part of your identity, one that, like being an alcoholic, never goes. It interests me that alcoholics who have given up the bottle are still encouraged to introduce themselves as alcoholics. Or recovering alcoholics. Defining yourself by what you once did to yourself, that never leaves you.
People are often less sympathetic to mental illness than they are to physical ones. I wonder why this is. Maybe because people think that the mind can be more easily controlled.
Not that long ago, I read with Clare Shaw, who has just been published by Bloodaxe and writes rawly and brilliantly about her experience of being in a mental hospital. One of her poems from her new book is here.
There's also, below a poem by Vicki Feaver, who for my money should have won the Forward. I think her Book of Blood is one of the best books of poems to be published this year.
Although this blog was supposed to be up to National Poetry day, I can keep it going for as long as I want. And I think I will for a bit longer anyway, until I run out of things to say about identity.
I got amazing responses from people about the gap year mum blog, thank you!
Here's the poems. More poems soon. Off to watch the telly now and be a couch potato. I hate that expression couch potato. I don't know who thought it up. It's horrible!


I was born to a mother in mourning.

The mood in our house was black
as soft tar at the edges of pavements
I stirred with a stick.

Red was my favourite colour:
scarlet, vermilion, ruby.

At school, I painted a red girl in a red wood.

'Trees are green,' the teacher said.
So I painted them green,
and she said, 'Red and green clash.'

But I wanted them to clash.
I wanted cymbals, trumpets,
all the noises of rowdy colour
to drown the silence of black.

I got my mother to make me a scarlet dress.
(I didn't care that Grandma said
it made me look like a tart).

I stole a lipstick -
the sizzling vermilion
that made boys and old men look.

I squeezed into ruby high heels
that on hot days filled with blood.

I drank tumblers of pink gin
and told my sister (sent to spy on me)
it was Cherryade.

I dreamed in red: scarlet, vermilion, ruby.

And now I dream in black.

Vicki Feaver
The Book of Blood (Jonathan Cape)

Poem about Dee Dee


Dee Dee is out on the hospital roof.
From here, Liverpool is a story
she can read from beginning to end.

If you’ve never driven too fast
into a bend in the road,
felt the slow slide of your stomach

into a corner of itself;
if you’ve never leaned back
at the top of a rock,

felt the knot of the rope
like a waking snake
squirm loose in your hand;

if you’ve never walked home to a lover,
your tongue like a blade in your throat
to tell her it’s over;

if you’ve never known
the milk-white explosion
of a moment that could last forever;

then you have no idea how she felt.


Just one short sprint of thirty feet
to the low grey wall
and the city laid out like a map of itself.

Close your eyes
and its Sports Day.
You can smell the new-cut field.

There’s a crowd of everyone, bright
as if they’d been dipped in the river.
Everyone there you’d want to be there

and the sound of the cheer
is your big day out; it’s the prom
and the beer; the kiss under the Tower;

it’s a Midnight Mass of drunken song
and you’re pounding the pitch
to the finishing line

to be first to the faces waiting there;
the waiting arms,
the waiting air.


Two guards and three nurses
bring her down.

It’s evening, lock-up
and you’re drinking your tea
watching the hours
drain in the grey outside.

You see the streaks of concrete
on her face
and you remember the weight
of a grown man balled

through the fist
of his knees in your back.
You remember the taste,
like molten rust.

You remember your arms
pushed to the back of your neck;
how your shoulders were a flame
that scorched your chest

until all it could hold
was a necklace of tiny, red gasps.

You remember when
all that you were
was a scream
that no-one could hear.


The day room is a late-night
fish tank of sound
and yellow shadow.
The hum, bang, clatter of the ward.

Dormitories simmer with sleep.
I am wide-eyed with two weeks awake.
Her eyes
are methadone-heavy.

We watch TV in the small hours,
eating Frosties dry from the box.
We know all the tunes to Ceefax,
baiting the glaze-eyed agency staff

with high-risk jokes.
“How about a day out?
It’s been three months since I crossed a road
and I’m beginning to loose the knack”.

Dee Dee and me are having a laugh
dreaming plans for O.T. –
rock climbing schemes
for the deeply depressed.

A barebacked parachute jump.
A Blackpool trip. Imagine
riding the Big One
with your seatbelt undone.

Dee Dee laughs.
Feels the wind in her hair,
the world spinning its pages
beneath her.

God, we laughed
in there
you could die laughing

Clare Shaw
From “Straight Ahead”, Bloodaxe Books, 2006

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Wee blog

05 October 2006

Yesterday I blogged three times , a record amount of blogging, but the blogs disappeared. The funny thing about that it, that if a blog goes, it goes. It's a thing for the moment, really. No point trying to retrieve a lost blog.
Although Andrew is looking for them; we don't know where they have vanished to; where do the lost blogs go?
Well Happy National Poetry Day! Today I went to the Globe theatre for the Foyle's Young Poets of the Year Award 2006 which was very inspiring. The awards were presented by Kate Clanchy who gave a great speech about poetry. Now I'm up the stairs at the Poetry Society about to go and do a wee reading in the cafe. I've been struck by how many people have actually said Happy National Poetry Day to each other today! What fun!
Yesterday I went to Seven Stories Children's Book Centre in Newcastle which was also very inspiring. I read poems to 150 children. Will write about them soon.
This is a wee blog to test that it is still working. Be back soon.

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Months and Days

02 October 2006
This morning I went to Manchester's Imperial War Museum to do a reading (or what they called a key note speech) for Black History month. It's now in its twentieth year, Black History month. It's inspiring to see how many people get involved with it every year, black and white, and how good it is sometimes to have a focus in a month or a day (like National Poetry Day) to draw attention to things that go on all year. It's also important to remember black people who have been an inspiration to other black people in this country, who have layed a bright little path for others to follow. People like Mary Seacole get mentioned every year, but it is always exciting to find new people. It's interesting to think of how being black and British as a concept and an experience has changed over the years, and to notice the growing confidence of black people in this country.There were children there today who were all reading their poems about identity too, children from all sorts of different backgrounds.
This afternoon I'm off to Ilkley Literature festival (everyone always sings the song as soon as they hear the word) and then tomorrow off to Newcastle to read at the Seven Stories children's Centre. So I will blog from the road. On the road blog, hit the road blog. I'm still feeling like a beginner blogger. I'm sure there are bloggers out there that are totally at home with the form!
The other day I mentioned that there would be poems from Simon Armitage and Moniza Alvi. Here they are.
Thank you too for all your responses! Keep them coming!


There’s no reply. I am too late.
But every son carries a key

on a string, noosed around his neck.
I’ll let myself in and I’ll wait.

So did you just leave? Because here
on the arm of the chair there’s heat –

the warm hob left by a hot drink…
No, just the sun, the fingerprint

of our nearest star, reaching this far.
I’ll sit down for a while and weep;

under my eyelids, northern lights
and solar flares shimmer and rage.

SIMON ARMITAGE (from his new book Tyrannosaurus Versus the Corduroy Kid)


God, or someone, had parted the sea, and who were we
to say we weren’t going to walk through it?

The cliff-like corridor, its glassy walls. We didn’t dare
speak in case the great lift doors of the earth would close

and drown us – feared to touch the translucent sides,
shells and seaweed fixed to a screen.

Fish stared, large as cabins, small as fingernails:
the knife-like, the black funereal, the bridal-tailed.

We moved as one, as surely as if we’d sponsored
each other. And those of us at war with ourselves,

our different parts were fused together.
We were twinned with our own undulating faces.

Who could know how our dire and honourable world
would re-establish itself?

The sky was below us and the sand above us.
Bitter as chocolate, the east wind blew all night.

MONIZA ALVI (new poem)

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mind the gap

01 October 2006
My son is on his GAP year this year, which in a way is a GAP year for me too since it delays him leaving home properly. At the moment, the GAP year hasn't started properly: he's home, working, saving up money to finance it. I am not actually looking forward to him leaving home at all. It's such a strange business getting used to your child growing up when you still don't feel completely grown up yourself. I wonder if we ever do! Half of me would like to turn up in Latin America where he plans to go in the new year. I thought that would be a hilarious story. GAP year and mum comes too! How weird would that be!GAP years are a bit like pregnancies, they prepare you for the massive changes. For all the things you'll want back after he's gone, wet towels on the floor, empty fridge... I can't imagine what my life will be like exactly when he leaves home. Being a mother is such a firm part of my identity, yet it is always in constant flux, because he is. My son is now six foot two. The other day he said, 'Mum if I stand at my full height and give you a hug, I feel like I'm consoling a small child.' Thanks very much, I said. But it is funny how it all starts to shift once they can earn their own money and drive your car. I get into my car now after he has driven it and have to pull the seat forward and turn off the loud rap that comes on the minute I start the engine. It's like I'm driving his car.
I met a nine year old boy the other day who said that when he was going to have his GAP year he was going to work in the corner shop!
It's funny thinking back to our dreams of what we thought we would do when we were seventeen, whether we'd have children, and what jobs we would get and where we would live and comparing those dreams to our own reality. Now, when I come home from being on the road, he's often out working, which also prepares me to eventually coming back to an empty house. Thank goodness for the dog!When people talk about going home, they often aren't talking about the house at all. They are talking about returning home to family or loved ones, like that old adage home is where the heart is. I've been thinking a lot about how much of our identity is shaped by whether or not we live with people or live alone, and for people who live completely alone, how much they have to reinforce their own sense of themselves.
I wonder what a GAP year for mothers would actually consist of. It's impossible to think of really because being a mother is a constant. Actually, if you are lucky, there are no gaps. No hems or facings - just a seemless, changing, colourful cloth.
I remember once years ago being with my mum and my gran in Majorca. My mum was in her sixties then and my gran in her eighties. My gran pointed to her drooping breasts and declared, 'See they, she did that to me!' And my mum said, 'Oh Mum!' My gran didn't put the change in her body down to old age. No. It was the fault of her sixty year old daughter!
I'm trying to imagine what I'll be like as a mother at sixty and what it will be like having a son in his thirties, but I can't get there really. Because you do live in the present tense when you are a mother and only really get as far as the end of one GAP year to the next. Friends who are mothers, and have already had their children flee the nest describe it in very different ways. Some say it is like a grief. Others that it is a relief. And others offer up the sad consolation prize, 'They never really leave home. They'll still come back to get their washing done.' Others say, being a good mother is helping them to leave home. My son does all his own washing already though, so he'll have to come back just to see me!
I wonder how many mothers and fathers feel like they are good mothers and fathers or if they had a shot at it to do it again how much they'd change. I have a wonderful dad, but I remember being really touched when he said if he was a father again he'd be much less bad tempered. I don't remember him as being bad tempered at all.
Perhaps being a parent is the one thing we are constantly self-critical about, the one thing we can never get completely right. I never knew guilt properly until I became a mother and had in my head such an ideal picture of a mother, actually quite a silly, stereotypical one, a mother who baked cakes and sewed! Ridiculous, I know. But then, there's always a huge GAP between what kind of mother or father we think we should be and what kind we actually are!
Another idea for National poetry day would be to write a poem for or about your mother or father, or your son or daughter, and give it to them, or send some here.

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