On Goose Fair Night by Kathy Pimlott

When I was in my early teens, having gorged on football annuals, my dad’s Wisden collection, biographies of old cricketers and pap fiction by the likes of James Herbert, the first ‘proper’ books I read were the early, Nottingham-based novels and short stories of Alan Sillitoe: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Key to the Door; and, later, even the weird dystopia of Travels in Nihilon (in which national service in the armed forces is compulsory not for the young and fit, but, instead, for senior citizens, who, by virtue of their age, are judged to be expendable). From Sillitoe, I progressed to other Kitchen Sink-ers like John Braine before my brother happily got me to read On the Road and the rest of Kerouac’s oeuvre, and then I went on to read, naturally, the greatest Notts. writer, D.H. Lawrence, Malcolm Lowry, Kundera, Brian Moore, etc. (Sadly, the gender stereotyping of those days meant that I read few women writers until I went to university and very merrily worked my way through the goodies in the library.)

Anyhow, I instantly took a liking to Sillitoe’s pithy prose and pithier dialogue, wrought in a dialect sharply removed from my soft, southern Estuary-English attuned ears – his characters were always saying “allus” and such like. Here was a writer who dealt in the lives of those whom the Murdoch press and government ministers lamentably now label as ‘ordinary working people’, and who did so without gloss; even tackling – in his fine story ‘The Match’ – football and domestic violence.

For me, then, reading Kathy Pimlott’s well-produced Emma Press pamphlet from last year, Goose Fair Night, is a return of sorts to the pleasure I gained from ‘hearing’ Sillitoe’s rich Nottingham voice. Though Pimlott has been resident in the heart of London’s West End for many years, the majority of the pamphlet’s 22 poems take their cue from her upbringing in the East Midlands. The opening poem, ‘You Bring Out the Nottingham in Me’, from which the pamphlet’s title derives, nicely sets the tone. It can’t have been easy for Pimlott to decide which place-names, memories and other details to include in the poem and which to omit; yet the finished poem is a warm-hearted and funny paean to how the city’s annual Goose Fair used to be:     

My scent is Dangerous October, hot engine oil,
hot sugar, Mouse Town must. In electric dark
beyond the caravans, I take on all just

for the glory and floor them tenderly to rock ‘n’ roll,
chain and lever growl and lovely screams.

References to Ned Ludd, Lawrence and, of course, Brian Clough (‘With you I’m Clough-strut right’) round off a poem that, though set long ago, is full of life and pride. The pamphlet is threaded with six affectionate and excellent poems concerning Pimlott’s maternal grandmother, Enid. All six cover aspects of Enid’s character and life, including working in service, her childhood as the eldest of nine, courtship by and marriage to a ‘dapper six-foot blonde’ who ‘turned cocky, a strutting nasty drunk’, and her role as grandmotherly dispenser of sound, experience-based and occasionally idiosyncratic advice, veering from how to eat a lollipop to how to avoid abduction and worse. Enid’s common sense approach – depicted from the outset, in the first of the six, ‘Enid and the Peas’ (‘[. . . ] don’t prong them individually. / You use your knife to squash them to your fork’) – and her ability to retain and recount old memories are endearing. The spacing of these poems at intervals allows the reader, after the first of them, to encounter Enid as an old friend; a force of nature rendered skilfully and believably by Pimlott: 

                               The grown-ups will
be lively, drunk and playing Peggy Lee,
while upstairs, we’ll have the story

of your dash with a bowl on pig-killing day,
of how you fainted under the cane.
You tell me about bombed bodies
stacked in the swimming baths,

your mam’s red hair, long enough
to sit on, how the doctor made her
cut it off to cure her headaches.

(from ‘Enid and Me’)

The accretion of detail in Enid’s litany of memories adds up to far more than just poetry-as-life-writing because it presents in the spotlight a portrait of an unsung working-class woman; and in a time where more than a few poets seem compelled to devote much of their energy to writing fact- and post-fact-stuffed Wiki-poems about ‘celebs’, it’s refreshing to read clear, unembellished poetry about people whose lives are less commonly written about in anything other than patronising tones. In this poem, as elsewhere in the pamphlet, Pimlott’s deployment of verb tenses bestows a sense of timelessness: firstly, through the future tense, as if the scene is about to be played in accordance with habit, and then via the shift to the present tense.

In other poems, Pimlott tackles a delightful miscellany of themes: female lives and female friendship and solidarity in particular – both objectively (in ‘Soho Hens’, with its gorgeous observation of ‘They jostle like a silvery balloon / bouquet tethered to a jittery child’, and in ‘Apprentice Cutter’) and subjectively (in ‘Out with the Girls’, with its comical pathos of ‘No one sits next to us. // Perhaps they think we will unwrap / egg sandwiches’); the pleasures of a childhood holiday in Cornwall; a day out in Brighton; the mysteries of jam-making (‘A bluebottle, cruising the cavity, left off its hum to liquefy and lay / and in no time at all blind maggots / fell from the architrave into the sink’ – from ‘Preserving’); and much else.

In her lively and perceptive introduction, Clare Pollard rightly highlights Pimlott’s “female working-class sensibility” and “the unremarkable, in-between places that she illuminates with her attention”, but what’s perhaps most impressive is that Pimlott seems to know instinctively how much information to impart and, crucially, how to impart it. As I alluded to earlier, Pimlott doesn’t ‘poeticize’ her poems and is wisely content to let her extraordinary stories and observations unfold in a concise, mostly judgement-free narrative voice. Likewise, Pimlott sticks to fairly safe forms – mostly stanzaic or block poems, with the odd unrhymed sonnet and an eight-couplet poem which indicates the influence of Mimi Khalvati. Pimlott only extends her range in the central poem, ‘All the Way Here’, a sequence of six tightly-crafted sketches of place, in both Nottingham and London; but it doesn’t really matter, as the pamphlet possesses a very pleasing unity, in which the poems, none of which is less than good, cohere to make a memorable and highly enjoyable debut. Here’s hoping a full collection will be hot on its heels.

Kathy Pimlott, Goose Fair Night, The Emma Press, 36pp., £6.50.

What I think about when I think about haiku

As issue number 57 of Presence hits the doormats of its subscribers in the UK and overseas, I’ve been thinking about my own relationship with haiku and how it’s changed in the last three years, for reasons which will become clear.

My first published haiku appeared, in the fledgling British Haiku Society’s pre-Blithe Spirit quarterly, way back in 1990, when I was still living in Portrush. It was three or four years later, after I’d moved back to London, that I ventured to some of the Society’s events, at Daiwa House, and met, among others, Annie Bachini, David Cobb, Katherine Gallagher, Tony Marcoff, Alan Summers and Diana Webb – all of whom were kind and helpful to me – and others. Thereafter, I attended most of the Society’s conferences – sometimes with barely a dozen of others – in some lovely places. In those years, I also became good friends with a number of haiku poets of my generation, particularly John Barlow, Martin Lucas and Matt Morden. From 2003 or so until 2008, I was part of the Society’s Committee, when Martin was President (a ridiculous title, which ought to have been abolished in favour of something less pretentious). Unfortunately, despite Martin’s valiant efforts to improve the way the Society operated, there were two individuals, one in particular, who were hell-bent on opposing virtually any suggestion, even the offer, from a member who was a professional web designer, to overhaul the Society’s then pitifully outmoded website for free. Sadly, Martin and I, and others, left both the Committee and the Society because of that thoughtless duo’s actions.

In the mid-Noughties or so, Martin roped me in as Reviews Editor for Presence, which he and David Steele had started in 1996. That involved me writing and commissioning  most of the reviews, though Martin himself usually contributed a few per issue too. For a good long while, I enjoyed writing reviews. I tried, and still try, to offer constructive criticism and to give the journal’s readers my views, without any of the sugar-coating that has traditionally passed for reviewing in other haiku journals. If only it were that easy. To be blunt, it’s a tiring role, because the overall standard of English-language haiku, tanka and haibun books in the UK and elsewhere has always been, and remains, disappointingly low. Haiku and tanka poets – though perhaps less so for haibuneers – seldom seem to take the trouble to learn their craft properly before touting a flimsy collection of not-very-good poems to a vanity publisher who is more than happy to publish it for the right money. And let’s be clear: the overwhelming majority of publishers who will publish single-author haiku, tanka and haibun collections are pay-to-publish merchants who, unless I’m seriously mistaken, take barely the slightest interest, if any, in editing the books which they put out. (I sometimes wonder if Snapshot is the only exception, although I’m pretty sure it isn’t.) I don’t blame the authors for wanting to get into print, but the publishers ought to tell them, as necessary, to wait a while and come back when they’ve honed their poems into a cohesive and higher-quality whole.

It’s completely understandable that such a situation has arisen, since the English-language haiku pond is small, that of tanka is smaller and that of haibun smaller still, thus commercial publishers specialising in these forms will never be commonplace. It’s fair to say, too, that unlike in the larger poetry world where there are so many highly gifted poets who have grafted at their craft over many years, the haiku, tanka and haibun ponds aren’t exactly crammed with poets whose output is regularly of a quality to be celebrated and therefore likely to bring about high sales figures. That’s not to say that there aren’t some excellent poets lurking in those ponds, so to speak; it’s the consistency that varies so much. Being such short forms, haiku and tanka lend themselves to being put ‘out there’ too soon, without the benefit of the writer’s reflection – I’ve been guilty of that myself many times – and the accessibility of social media has inevitably made matters worse. It doesn’t help either that the quality of criticism in the specialist journals is too often woefully lacking in well-reasoned argument and forensic detail, and frequently consists solely of bafflingly unjustified gushing which does nothing more than mislead the easily misled.

Of course, journal editors also play their part: the fact is that it’s much, much, much too easy for a new/ish writer to get their haiku or tanka accepted by most journal editors. Part of the reason for that may be that most editors are easy-going folk who want to encourage novice poets, rather than deter them, especially if, as is invariably the case,  they’re subscribers; moreover, with a bit of determination the basic skills of haiku and tanka aren’t exactly difficult to acquire. I should probably temper that last statement with a wise one of Martin’s: “Haiku isn’t as easy as just looking; and it isn’t as easy as it looks” (I can’t remember where he wrote that).

The ubiquity of social media hasn’t helped either, in that new and more experienced  haiku and tanka poets often receive undue, unqualified praise on Facebook, Twitter, etc., which, however well-intentioned such encouragement may be, serves to reinforce an entirely inappropriate sense of exalted ability on the poets’ part if it isn’t offset by a grounding dose of realism.

I suspect my problem is that the more I’ve become part of the ‘mainstream’ – as if haiku is somehow deviant! – poetry world, the more I’ve subconsciously distanced myself from haiku. For starters, the editorial standards are, on the whole, much higher in longer-form poetry journals than in haiku ones and the former mostly accept poems only when they are good enough, and because they have something interesting and/or different about them. By contrast, an awful lot of published haiku, as Martin so eloquently pointed out,  follow the same old wearying formula, which means that comparatively few truly sparkle. Naturally the possibility of being dazzlingly original within three lines or fewer (or four in Stephen Gill’s case) is de facto much less than in longer-form poetry; nevertheless, if you suspect your haiku isn’t saying something refreshing, please do us all a favour and don’t let it loose upon the world until you’ve polished it into something worthwhile. Think very carefully about your verb choices, the use of articles, adjectives and poetic devices like alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme and much else. Now and then, a really fine haiku may drop out of nowhere fully formed, but in nearly all instances you will have to treat your first draft as just the starting-point. Anyone who thinks that Allen Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” dictum guarantees greatness every single time is deluded.

But enough of ranting. Why do I bother to continue my involvement with haiku, I hear you ask. Well, my engagement with Presence is first and foremost an emotional one. It’s three years now since Martin disappeared. and regulars readers of the journal, many of whom were also deeply affected by the news of Martin’s death, will be aware of how much he’s missed, not only as a friend and highly talented, intelligent and funny man, but because of how Presence was moulded in his brilliantly creative image. At Martin’s funeral, Ian Storr and I decided, with the blessing of Martin’s family, to keep Presence going and I like to think we, plus Stuart Quine and now Alison Williams, have brought to our eight co-edited issues the same spirit of community that Martin had engendered over the years. Despite my current haiku ennui, and even though Martin himself talked several times about ceasing Presence, I can’t bring myself to stop being a member of the team. Just before Martin died, he and I had floated the idea of holding an event to celebrate the then upcoming fiftieth issue – I felt very strongly that getting to that landmark was a major achievement, considering the journal’s lack of subsidy and that most small poetry magazines fold after a few issues. So somehow, given that Martin didn’t live to see #50 published, I feel like I shouldn’t relinquish my part in making Presence tick, or the reviewing role at least, even if it makes me sound like a cracked record. So unless anything radical happens anytime soon, I’ll carry on carrying on in my own stubborn way, however painful that is for all concerned!

Having had two of my own collections published, almost 10 years apart, and with a third ‘in the can’, I like to think I’ve written a fair selection of haiku which will endure. Right now, though, I’m happily stuck in longer-form poetry ‘mind’, which I find is more cerebrally creative and less instinctive than ‘haiku mind’, so I’ve written only a couple of haiku so far this year. That doesn’t mean I’ve gone off haiku forever; it just means that I’m giving it a little bit of distance – I may not love it in the way I once did, but I’m still close friends with it! As soon as submissions for Presence 58 start arriving in a fortnight’s time, I daresay I’ll be back to my normal self.

On the Poetry Business Writing School and the Eyewear anthology launch

In less than two weeks’ time, I’ll be joining my fellow participants on the Poetry Business Writing School, led by Ann and Peter Sansom. I’m really thrilled to have been selected to take part. It’s for poets working towards their second collection. We’ve been paired up to give each other emailed feedback on poems in progress – and that’s already been a very fruitful exercise – before we all meet in person. I know from attending Poetry Business workshops that Ann and Peter, who are wonderful poets themselves of course, are brilliant at getting poets to write well and at offering insightful and helpful constructive feedback. With the added input from some excellent poets, it should make for a fabulous 18 months’-worth of writing, reading, discussion and what-not.

Meanwhile, this Sunday, I’ll be one of the readers at the launch of Eyewear Publishing’s Best New British and Irish Poets anthology for 2017, edited by Luke Kennard. I’m chuffed to be in the anthology for the second year running. This year, my poem is ‘Duckwalking in West Berlin’, featuring events which happened 30 years ago. Details of the launch are here. With the great Todd Swift as MC and Luke himself among the featured readers, I’m sure it will be a fantastic afternoon.