Test tubes are remarkable objects, simple in design, robust enough to withstand acids and high temperatures and used every day all over the world. They are basic items of scientific equipment and yet they are also things of beauty. Over the centuries they have facilitated experiments leading to life-changing discoveries and as well as having a practical use, a certain alchemy takes place within them.
When I inherited a box of old test tubes I wanted to do something different with them. I felt torn between the scientist and the poet in me and then realised that there were similarities between the creation that can take place in a test tube and the creative process of producing a poem and I wanted the test tubes to somehow contain that alchemy of the poem. So I wrote a series of short poems about natural objects that also have a certain magic about them, how a feather facilitates flight for example or how wood shaving produced in the working of wood, once made a tree. Each test tube contains the scroll of a poem and an example of the object it relates to; a feather, a shell or a wood shaving. I also wrote an introductory poem In Which a Poet Considers Her Similarities to a Test Tube which is a playful introduction to the concept of this project. You can view the poem on my poems page.
I have been a stepmother for 30 years and a mother for 27 and this has inevitably found its way into my poems. People sometimes ask me what it’s been like to be a stepmother and how it differs from being a mother. The comparison I make is that it’s like wearing different shoes; as a mother I feel like I’m wearing my old walking boots; they’re comfortable, reliable, I feel in control and if there are mountains ahead, we’ll climb them together. As a stepmother I sometimes think it’s like putting on my party shoes, they feel a bit unfamiliar and edgy but also special and when the party goes well it’s exhilarating but they can also pinch and blister and sometimes you just want to take them off. Which stepmother hasn’t gone from being upbeat and positive to sobbing behind the bathroom door all within the space of a few hours?
For a long time, the experiences of being a stepmother were not discussed, we were consigned to the background, described as not being the ‘real’ mother and worse had to fight against the evil stepmother stereotype in fairy stories. The truth is that there are hundreds of thousands of stepmothers all over the country quietly making packed lunches, checking that homework has been done and remembering the P.E. kit; just trying to make it work on a day-to-day basis. Things have changed enormously since my early days of being a stepmother in the 1990’s and I was really impressed with a series of Radio 4 programmes recently by Katie Harrison called ‘You’re Not My Mum : The Stepmum’s Side https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0b5l9wc/episodes/downloads.
They were a refreshingly honest examination of being a stepmother today and brought back a lot of the situations and emotions I remembered.
Like a lot of writers, I write to try and make sense of things and the section at the end of my first poetry collection Auscultation contains a sequence of poems about my experiences as a stepmother. The first poem in the section Fairy tales and Step Monsters is an exploration of being a stepmother. The hesitation I felt about not doing it ‘right’, when now I realise I should have worried less and enjoyed it more.
I wish I’d held your hand more often.
it would have been easy.
I wish I’d worried less
and made a nest of my fingers
for it to curl inside,
it used to slip into mine anyway.
Then the sense of trying so hard to make everything work for everybody
me holding things together
while the glue dried.
and finally that feeling of being so closely connected to someone but there still being an almost invisible barrier because they’re not quite your own.
However hard I tried I could only see
you through a window, hear your voice
on the other side of a door,
touch your arm through your sleeve.
The full poem can be found on my poems page. The section goes on to describe the traumatic experience of going through a court case with my husband so he could get regular contact with his son. A situation where there were no winners and we were all left scarred. As I was writing, fairy tale themes and motifs wove their way into the poems, perhaps it was a way of counterbalancing the trauma of the emotions, perhaps it was the sense of surrealism I experienced at times.
It wasn’t thirteen fairies that sealed your fate
but a man in black robes, a king in his own little
castle and because those closest to you turned
on a spit of loss and hurt and jealousy.
The final poem in the section was written as a reconciliation. In the heightened emotions of a stepfamily situation the relationship between the birth mother and the stepmother can become fraught, but in the end;
The truth is, neither of us was evil,
we both laid a trail of breadcrumbs
for you back to our doors.
I would also like to make it clear that I write from my own perspective and how I experienced those heart wrenching few years; the joy of falling in love with a man who happened to have a little boy and then falling in love with that little boy too, who taught me so much and revealed a side I didn’t know I had. My stepson has his own poems to write and his mother and father theirs. We can only write most honestly about what we know and that is what I have done.
There are so many good poetry events around these days, like the launch of Sarah Mnatzagianan’s new pamphlet, Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter, this Sunday 20th March,(details available at Against the Grain Poetry Press) or Stav Poleg’s first collection, The City, on 6th April (go to Carcanet website to register). These are both on Zoom which has been fantastic in extending the reach of poetry events in the last couple of years and enabling the poetry world to stay connected but I have missed the excitement and camaraderie of attending actual physical events. These are now starting to reappear and I’m very much looking forward to one on Saturday 26th March; the Carlisle Poetry Symposium, at Tullie House. I’m extra excited because I’m running a workshop there from 11-12.30 and also doing a reading in the afternoon. The workshop will include writing exercises using poems and other objects as prompts and there’ll hopefully be time for a couple of poetry games. if you haven’t played ‘Poetry Countdown’ yet, you’re in for a treat! The afternoon will consist of readings from poets interspersed by open mic slots all coordinated by the wonderful Andrew Hopkins who started the symposiums a few years ago. There is also a pop up poetry bookshop, with books available from all the participating poets. The workshop will be suitable for everyone and you’ll hopefully end up with several drafts of new poems by the end. Tullie House is a lovely venue, so do come along and join me. To book your place for the workshop go to https://andyhopkinspoet.wordpress.com/workshops/
Here is a link to a couple of the poems from Auscultation
Roadblock, was Seren’s featured Friday poem at the end of June and is the story of an evening visit to an injured horse. Below that is a video of Miss Freak’s Whelping Forceps, a poem about the design of this specialist instrument and how men and women have different approaches and ultimately
in the feral hours where instinct loosens
itself from shadows, it’s Miss Freaks we reach for
It’s a collection of poems written over the last 8 or 9 years but I suppose really a record of 30 years experience as a veterinary surgeon, stepmother and mother.
Auscultation means listening and specifically, in medicine, listening to sounds that come from the body’s internal organs. I have spent 30 years listening to animals and their inner sounds but also the concerns of owners and the stories of how animals play a central role in many of their lives. I’ve heard stories of cruelty and horror but also of such love and empathy I have been moved to tears. The consulting room really is a privileged place and the role of a veterinary surgeon can feel like a balance between healer, confessor and counselor at times.
The language of animals; how to restrain, coax and understand them is a skill learnt over a lifetime and I am still learning. I am constantly in awe of animals, their ability to adapt to situations and interpret them, their stubbornness, playfulness and honesty and in the case of horses and farm animals, their sheer bulk and majesty too. There are also poems about euthanasia and ending an animal’s life, the part of the job that all vets dread. These are the animals that wake you in the dark hours and make you question what you do. It’s a sad fact that the veterinary profession has the highest rate of suicide of any of the professions and this is explored in a few of the poems.
Other poems in the book are about my childhood and my experiences of being a stepmother and mother and the rollercoaster ride that parenthood takes you on. Here, listening and being listened to are central themes too, how the voice of a child can be ignored and the damage that can do and how we interpret motherhood according to our own experiences. The last section in the book is about being a step mother, the joy and heartache that brought and how, in fairy stories, stepmothers are always portrayed as the evil ones. These poems are deeply personal and a record from my point of view and of course the situation for all blended families is different and highly nuanced.
There will be a launch reading on Zoom on 13th July. Do get in touch if you’d like to be sent an invitation.
What is the most important part of the poem? the title, the form, the rhyme scheme? The title certainly has to grab your attention, are we more likely to read a poem called A Martian Send a postcard Home ( Craig Raine) or Summer Sun for example? (apologies to anyone who has written a poem titled this..)
Once you’ve been grabbed by the title, you then read the first line and this is where the hard work of the poet begins because the first line has to hook you into reading the rest of the poem. If you’re not hooked you won’t read on and if you’re submitting poems to busy editors, the title and the first line is maybe all they’ll read, so it has a lot of work to do to make you have to stand out from the crowd.
So what are some fantastic first lines?
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – Emily Dickinson
‘Shit are we lost?’ – Debora Lidov, The Drama of the Gifted Hansel.
Wench, yowm the colour of ower town: – Liz Berry Birmingham Roller
Do not go gentle into that good night – Dylan Thomas
I took God with me to the sheep fair– Kerry Hardie, Sheep Fair Day
They’re all amazing in different ways, some jump straight into the action, some take you by the hand and lead you on, some express something in a way you’ve not thought of before and some set the tone or voice of the poem very firmly as in Liz Berry’s Black Country dialect.
Above all though, they press our curiosity button and make us want to read on.
It’s not the mistake you make, it’s how you deal with it that matters
This is a saying I used all the time at work and I found how people reacted to their mistakes was often a good judge of character. I preferred working with people who were open and honest; who, when they realised something had gone wrong, apologised for it and asked how they could do better in the future. rather than people who tried to deny or cover up their errors. It’s not easy when we’re embarrassed or ashamed but our reaction is a measure of who we are.
Recent events across the world involving people of power have shown their true character, even though we may have been pretty sure of it before. This is the poem that came out of events in recent weeks.
The photo? It’s a horse gag. Let us never be gagged.
The Measure of a Man
It’s not surrounding yourself with gimlet- eyed sycophants reclining on cushions in your own private echo chamber, it’s pulling out the barbs of critics from your skin, however hard they sting and seeing their truth; that is a measure of your humility.
It’s not indulging in the gluttony of the feast grabbing the tastiest titbits of wealth and supremacy, it’s in the modesty of taking only what you need and giving the rest to those without hope or privilege; that is a measure of your morality.
It’s not the self-delusion of seeing the world through the eyes of your own class or colour, it’s having the courage to walk unfamiliar streets and greeting those you meet openly and with enquiry; that is a measure of your understanding.
It’s not how you accept the responsibility of power put on it dazzling crown, wield its weighty sceptre, it’s how you step down from the throne and pass on those enticing burdens to waiting hands; that is a measure of your grace.
Do not go ungraciously history will remember you for it.
Great to be involved in this initiative from the Cambridge Writing Retreat. A poem every day in June. Honoured to be in the company of some amazing poets. Have a listen, post some feedback .Listen to the poem here
I’ve just realised that the poem we created in the poetry workshops last year is up on the Festival website! We had such a great time, the participants were enthusiastic and inspiring, all I really had to do was draw the whole thing together. I’m running the workshops again this year, they are open to all ages and suitable for people that write poems regularly or people that have never written one before. Rumours are, there’ll also be an open mic this year…
Do come and join me, you can just come to the poetry events or join in with some of the other amazing music, singing or dancing events. Folk week really is one of the most special weeks of the year, ‘a rainbow coloured riot of colour and sound’