James Joyce

The poet in the tower


Every writer could use a good tower (or at the very least, a top-floor study). I think of Yeats’ Thoor Ballylee or Joyce’s Martello in Sandycove (the subject of a blog post over a year ago now). A tower gives you perspective, the ability to see the full landscape. This morning I looked out the window of my tower and found myself eye to eye with a gull (which was perched on the top of a telegraph pole). The gull was looking for breakfast, and I was looking for a poem; the gull flew off, but not before he’d made it into what I was writing.  

When I say ‘my tower’, I mean the South Lookout on the beach in Aldeburgh, which is on loan to me for the weekend. The tower is owned by the gallerist Caroline Wiseman, who invites writers and artists to use the space as a creative stimulus. The only proviso is that you must sleep here for at least one night. The ground floor area (which is a gallery space when not occupied by those creating the art) is rustic and spartan, as it should be, with a folding camp bed that I have placed near the open fire (there is electricity, and I’ve used one of the sockets for the bar fire, and the other three to charge my computer, Blackberry and iPad respectively – so much for ink and quill). There is no plumbing in the tower, but Caroline’s house is a few feet away (I remember hearing that Thoreau’s modest shack at Walden Pond was less than two miles from the family seat – writers do need creature comforts, even in the attempt to be closer to nature). Caroline’s instinct is right: there is something about waking up to the sound of the sea and the wind, knowing you are right on the beach, in the middle of the elements, that sets you off in a way that could not happen in one’s own bed.


I rolled up on Thursday to glorious early evening sunshine, but woke on Friday to bleak rain-soaked skies. Although the sun that greeted me on my arrival was lovely, the grey, leached East Anglian landscape (of Crabbe and Sebald) is the one I’ve grown to know. I started Friday at the very top of the tower, which is accessed from the outside of the building, up a narrow spiral staircase. The view, even rain-soaked, was fabulous, and I wrote my first poem of the day (after the meeting with the gull). But then the skies closed in, and the eerie became cold and oppressive (no heating up there!) so I moved to the middle level, which has just been officially christened the Laurens van der Post Room (opened by his daughter, Lucia) where the writer came to work every day for 30 years. That was my spot for most of the day, and where I wrote a further three poems.

This kind of concentrated experience has proven to be the sort of stimulus I would not have elsewhere. It normally takes me months to do what I’ve done in one day, just by being quiet and isolated in a little space with no distractions or disruptions, apart from watching for any activity on the beach, and charting the  constant movements of the sea.
On Saturday, I will put my poems up on the wall, along with some photos of the beach, and invite people to come into the Lookout to see what I’ve been up to. And Saturday evening, I’ve invited some fellow Suffolk poets along to read poems about the sea. It should be a wonderful evening, even if it rains.


A week in poetry (and a short tour of independent bookshops)

There have been times (usually when I’m in a bit of a slump) when I have asked myself why I continue to write poetry. Apart from the pleasure it gives me, I realise it will never bring me vast numbers of readers or great wealth. Auden was right: poetry makes nothing happen. It will not change the world (although it should, of course). It is often considered precious, esoteric, obscure. But there are times when poetry rewards me for my patience, my dogged determination. Last week I gave four readings (in Oxford, London, Galway and Dublin respectively) and taught three classes. I have to admit this is not typical – four readings in the space of six days must be a record for me. But I can’t think of a better way to have passed the time.  

In Oxford, six poets spent much of the weekend discussing each other’s poems. We are all working on new books or sequences, and so coming together and critiquing over a concentrated period is invaluable. We were fortunate to have Rhona McAdam with us, on an extended visit from Canada (see her pictures of our weekend on her blog, Iambic Cafe: http://reallygoodwriter.com/ ). The highlight was a group reading at the marvellous Albion Beatnik on Walton Street. The Albion Beatnik is reminiscent of the first bookshops I frequented in New York as a teenager – crammed to the rafters with books, with a fabulous poetry section including lots of work in translation and American imports (I bought a beautiful CB Editions bilingual selection of Francis Ponge). The audience was crammed in too, in every available corner, and the mulled wine was flowing; the large turn-out was due to the efforts of Jenny Lewis, our host for the weekend, and a much-loved tutor in creative writing for Oxford University (http://jennylewis.org.uk). What struck me about our reading was how diverse we were as a group – we have very different formal approaches and distinct concerns – but somehow that conspired to make a truly varied evening.

Back in London, and a very different venue and line-up for the Penned in the Margins Christmas party, hosted by Tom Chivers (http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/). Not a bookshop this time, but the flagship London branch of Aubin & Wills, the clothing store. Five of us read our poems amongst the lumberjack shirts and chunky sweaters (and all the time I was wondering what Auden would have made of it, or Eliot!). A little odd, but then again, why not? Why shouldn’t poetry be brought into places where you would least expect it? Isn’t that the problem, that poetry has been sidelined, marginalised? The thing about poetry is that it is portable, easily transmitted. So when you think of it that way, Aubin & Wills is perfect. The shop itself is all whitewashed wood, full of quirky furniture and posters advertising past readings (they’ve been hosting literary evenings in the store for some time). And fairly lights of course. Tom was a brilliant host, bringing together another diverse bill of poets. I like the energy of Tom’s evenings – he has a policy of putting on new voices along with more established writers, mixing performance poets with more page-based readers. And I won a snow dome in the Christmas quiz for knowing a line from that famous seasonal poem by Louis MacNeice!

And then it was off to Ireland. I arrived in Galway in time to have a stroll around town, and to visit Charlie Byrne’s bookshop, which is more ramshackle that the Albion Beatnik, with lots of rooms on different levels, like a book maze. It has, as you might expect, a great section of contemporary Irish poetry (I bought an anthology of the best Irish poems from 2010, edited by Matthew Sweeney – a series I haven’t seen for sale in England). Galway is one of those places where there is always music somewhere – on the street, or just audible through the open door of a bar. There was a Christmas market in Eyre Square; it felt as if it ought to be snowing, although there was just a light sprinkling of rain. I was reading for Kevin Higgins and Susan Millar duMars in their Over the Edge series (http://overtheedgeliteraryevents.blogspot.com/) . Kevin and Susan are terrific hosts; the last time I read for them it was in a packed little room upstairs at Sheridan’s Wine Bar, but this time we were in the spacious surrounds of the Galway City Library. As before, it was a lovely, enthusiastic audience, followed by a Christmas gathering at McGinns pub. I’m always struck when I’m in Galway by the concentration of poets and poetry-making (the wonderful Salmon Press is based there). It is a warm, welcoming city, even in the depths of December.

And finally, to Dublin. The last time I was in Dublin was about ten years ago, so the first thing I did when I got off the bus was to buy a map and get my bearings. I like Dublin because the city centre is easy to navigate on foot, and I soon found myself on Grafton Street. There was a busker attempting to hawk his collection of poetry; and groups of carollers in Santa hats singing Van Morrison and the Pogues. I made my way to the plush wood-panelled sanctuary of Hodges Figgis, that grand old Dublin institution, where I tried to limit myself to one book (airline weight restrictions are an excellent way to curb impulse poetry purchases): I bought a lovely Gallery Press edition, the Selected Poems of Seán Lysaght, a new poet to me, but recommended by Chris Meehan, one of my fellow Galway readers.

But the highlight of my trip, and possibly of my whole week, was the gathering I attended in the evening, organised by Yvonne Cullen (http://yvonnecullen.wordpress.com/). I was put in touch with Yvonne through Mark Granier, a fellow Salt poet and photographer based in Dublin, who I met when he came to launch his last collection, Fade Street, in London last year (http://markgranier.blogspot.com/). Yvonne hosts gatherings of musicians and poets in her home in Glasthule, and everyone brings food and drink, so it’s more like a party. What a civilised and wonderful way to hear poetry. There was some gorgeous music by Dermot McNevin, and Yvonne, Mark and I read poems. It was one of those evenings that was perfect in every way. And before we all disappeared into the night, Yvonne took me through Sandycove, past terraces of little Victorian villas, to the sea, with the lights of Dublin Bay behind us, to show me the Martello Tower where Joyce and Oliver St John Gogarty lived, and where Ulysses begins, Stephen Dedalus standing on the parapet, staring out at the snot-green sea, the scrotum-tightening sea … the great sweet mother.