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Latest news and features from theguardian.com, the world's leading liberal voice

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  • 01/13/19--09:12: Jay Ramsay obituary
  • Jay Ramsay, who has died of cancer aged 60, was a psychotherapist and poet. The author of nearly 40 books, including nonfiction on alchemy and relationship psychology, and translations of classics of eastern philosophy, he was an influential presence on the alternative poetry scene. With the rich timbre of his voice and his impassioned opinions he was also an ambassador for transformative spiritual, political and psychological awareness.

    His own poetry collections included Kingdom of the Edge (1980-98) and Out of Time (1998-2008). He also co-edited, with Sylvia Paskin and Jeremy Silver, Angels of Fire: An Anthology of Radical Poetry (1986) and was the editor of Soul of the Earth: The Awen Anthology of Eco-spiritual Poetry (2011), as well as editing and writing reviews for the mind/body/spirit journals Kindred Spirit (1997-2004) and Caduceus (2002 onwards).

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    The writer discovers in this familiar but enigmatic creature an elusive emblem

    Why the swan

    Because the swan floats
    up close.

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    Poet’s ‘absolutely exhilarating’ first collection Three Poems takes £25,000 prize

    Poet Hannah Sullivan has won the prestigious and lucrative TS Eliot prize for her first collection Three Poems – just the third debut to land the award in its 25-year history, and a sign that the poetry world is hunting for a new generation of voices.

    Sullivan, a 39-year-old Londoner who won the £25,000 prize on Monday night, is the third first time poet to take the prize, with all three winning in the last five years: Vietnamese-American Ocean Vuong in 2017 and Chinese-British Sarah Howe in 2015. Before then, the prize had tended to be awarded to more established poets a few collections into their careers, among them Derek Walcott, Carol Ann Duffy, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.

    Related: Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan – review

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  • 01/14/19--09:34: Marcus Cumberlege obituary
  • My lifelong friend Marcus Cumberlege, who has died aged 80, was a prolific poet. He lived in Bruges, Belgium, for 46 years. Earlier he had had several poetry collections published in the UK. Another 20 collections were to follow in Bruges by the time his Selected Poems (1963-2009) was launched at the city hall in 2010.

    Born in Antibes, France, Marcus was the son of Nancy (nee Wooley), a Canadian, and Mike Cumberlege, later a decorated Royal Navy officer who worked for Special Operations in the Aegean. Mike was captured and eventually shot by the SS in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Germany, two months short of the allied victory in Europe. Marcus, aged nine, collected his father’s medals from King George in 1947. Mike’s ghost was to remain with Marcus all his life.

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    It has comforted the downtrodden, inspired Britain’s schoolchildren and even been sprayed as graffiti. Now, the book has shifted shape again – into music

    It felt like the folk music equivalent of Avengers Assemble. Last September, I found myself sitting at a wooden dining table in the Lake District with multiple superheroes of British folk. Karine Polwart, Kris Drever, Julie Fowlis, Beth Porter, Rachel Newton, Kerry Andrew, Jim Molyneux– could they really all exist in the same room together? Or would their convergence in a confined space cause a small black hole to open somewhere near the Keswick Tesco?

    Karine, trying to find the beginnings of a shape for the performance we were planning, pulled out a notebook and asked people to say what they could play or do. Remarkable answers were modestly given; most people there had three instruments minimum, plus voice; all were also songwriters and composers. Rachel and Julie were bilingual in Gaelic and English; Karine and Kris sang in Scots. It came round to me. “Um … grade-one recorder? Backing kazoo? Also, I once sat on my brother’s oboe and broke it in half.”

    The response is about more than a book –it’s about what Michael McCarthy chillingly calls ‘the great thinning’

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    Taking in history, essays and poetry as well as fiction, novelist Claire Adam recommends favourite reading about her island nation

    I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago and left, aged 18, to study at Brown University in the US. “Trinidad and To-bah-go!” people said when they learned where I was from. (I promptly corrected them: To-bay-go.) They knew of the country, although sometimes not its location, and I explained that we were a twin-island nation in the Caribbean, seven miles off the coast of Venezuela.

    After graduating, when I went backpacking around Europe, I found that few people had heard of Trinidad at all: I took to pulling out a little fold-out map and pointing to the little dot by way of explanation. “The Caribbean!” people exclaimed. They knew about the beaches, the endless sunshine. But later their faces would cloud over – what on earth had possessed me to leave such a wonderful place?1 I did my best to explain, but I don’t think I succeeded. I’m not sure I even knew myself, back then, except that it had always been the goal. And it was that goal – to escape, to get somewhere better – that sparked the idea for my novel, Golden Child. During my five years of writing it, I was trying, among other things, to understand that relentless drive to get away from the country where I had grown up.

    Related: Golden Child by Claire Adam review – which son would you choose?

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    On this week’s show, Claire speaks to Hannah Sullivan, fresh from her win at the TS Eliot prize with Three Poems. Then Sian and Claire sit down to discuss why some books get a second life in paperback.

    Then Richard meets American soldier-turned-novelist Kevin Powers to discuss his second book, A Shout in the Ruins, which ties together two narratives: about a Virginian slave in the 1860s and a black nonagenarian travelling the segregated south in 1956.

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    The poet, known for her nature and wildlife-themed work, died at her home from lymphoma

    Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer prize-winning poet whose rapturous odes to nature and animal life brought her critical acclaim and popular affection, has died. She was 83. Bill Reichblum, Oliver’s literary executor, said she died on Thursday at her home in Hobe Sound, Florida. The cause of death was lymphoma.

    Author of more than 15 poetry and essay collections, Oliver wrote brief, direct pieces that sang of her worship of the outdoors and disdain for greed, despoilment and other human crimes. One of her favorite adjectives was “perfect”, and rarely did she apply it to people. Her muses were owls and butterflies, frogs and geese, the changes of the seasons, the sun and the stars.

    Related: In troubling times, it’s best to turn to your inner poet | Ruth Padel

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    With an adaptation of Noughts and Crosses set to tour the UK and her anthology of Muslim writing picked for Emma Watson’s book club, the prolific British writer is as busy as ever. Here she talks about race, class and motherhood

    Sabrina Mahfouz remembers the first time she felt “mixed race” in the eyes of the world. She was 14 and applying for Saturday jobs in London when an apparent problem with her identity was pointed out to her. Until then, she had felt happily British, and happily Egyptian, with Guyanese heritage thrown in.

    “People I went to see for jobs would show shock at the disparity between my face and the name on my CV. They’d say: “I expected you to be a lot more foreign.” It’s that moment, as a teenager, when you first realise the difference between all that you are and how the world sees you.”

    I wanted to be a spy – or anything else that was exciting and took me to different places

    I wanted to focus on these two characters and how oppressive systems can destroy and determine people's lives from a young age

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    The achievements of the winner of the gruelling Montane Spine Race are truly awe-inspiring

    Last week, Jasmin Paris won the Montane Spine Race, for which the word “gruelling” seems horribly inadequate. Like Diana Nyad swimming from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64 or Serena Williams winning her 23rd grand slam, there are some feats of human endurance that scramble the mind and running 268 miles along the Pennine Way is one of them.

    But these triumphs go beyond personal victories. They should lift our collective spirit, because sometimes people are incredible and how wonderful it is to be reminded of that.

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    The Egg, Bath
    Nick Makoha’s fragmented and vertiginous account of his treacherous journey to Britain is a story of our times

    On the left of the stage, a screen projects the Miltonic line: “No light, but rather darkness visible.” On the right, a mother and son board a minibus to begin a treacherous journey out of their Ugandan homeland in 1979, as the nation is torn apart by political turmoil in the dying days of Idi Amin’s regime.

    The boy is the play’s writer, the poet Nick Makoha, and this imaginative enactment of his escape out of Africa is a personal narrative about the loss of home, as well as a fractured story of a country as it descends into violent chaos.

    Touring the UK until 16 February

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    Record £12m sales last year were driven by younger readers, with experts saying hunger for nuance amid conflict and disaster were fuelling the boom

    A passion for politics, particularly among teenagers and young millennials, is fuelling a dramatic growth in the popularity of poetry, with sales of poetry books hitting an all-time high in 2018.

    Statistics from UK book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan show that sales grew by just over 12% last year, for the second year in a row. In total, 1.3m volumes of poetry were sold in 2018, adding up to £12.3m in sales, a rise of £1.3m on 2017. Two-thirds of buyers were younger than 34 and 41% were aged 13 to 22, with teenage girls and young women identified as the biggest consumers last year.

    Related: Tony Walsh’s poem found words where there are no words | Jeanette Winterson

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    A drolly refashioned creation myth finds both God and Man short on inspiration, and the newly created Woman unconvinced

    The Calabash

    Having fashioned the first man out of sticks and mud,
    God looked at him and thought, ‘Not bad.’ But Man
    was of a different opinion.
    Equipped from the outset with the twin gifts
    of speech and dissatisfaction, Man said,
    ‘God, be honest, are you really happy
    with this bodge, this shoddy bricolage,
    this job at best half done?’ ‘What do you mean?’
    God asked. ‘I need a mate,’ Man told him,
    ‘and I need one fast.’ God was flustered;
    he’d run out of ideas already; so he replied,
    ‘If you’re so certain what you want,
    tell me how to make it.’ Glancing about,
    Man’s eye fell on a plump gourd hanging from a tree:
    a calabash. ‘That will do,’ he said.
    God nodded and set to work, adding
    legs, arms and a head to the lovely roundness,
    with other details that would make Woman a match
    for the stick-and-mud figure who stood by, watching.
    When he had finished, God rubbed his hands, delighted.
    But Man was less sure, remembering the pure shape
    that had first caught his fancy: both virginal and gravid,
    suspended improbably from that scruffy tree.
    ‘Take it or leave it,’ God said. Man remained
    undecided, and Woman, too, had her proliferating doubts.

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    Benson’s extraordinarily moving collection is a bold confrontation of violence against women

    Vertigo & Ghost is one of the darkest, bravest and most unsettling collections I have read in a while. Its first half turns to Greek mythology to explore violent crimes against women and casts Zeus as he-man, ace swimmer and serial rapist. Yet the opening poem, on the dawning of female sexuality, gives no clue of what is to follow. It describes girls gathering on a tennis court:

    and sex wasn’t here yet, but it was coming,
    and we were running towards it,
    its gorgeous euphoric mist;

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    An exhibition in Cambridge shows how poems have been taught to GCSE students down the decades – with pupils’ own textbook annotations included

    “This bum is the property of the Education department. Parents are asked to cooperate in seeing that the bum is kept clean and in good repair.”

    You can almost hear the gleeful sniggers with which an unknown pupil at Grange Academy in Ayr neatly and repeatedly replaced the word “book” with “bum” in a poetry textbook in the 1970s. The defaced book, Here Today, is one of dozens of anthologies used by GCSE students over the decades that have been collected by former teacher Julie Blake, some of which are now on display at Cambridge University library.

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    New figures show a dramatic growth in the popularity of poetry among millennials. A poet writes this original poem in response

    Poetry sales soar as political millennials search for clarity

    Clarity is

    a murky word despite itself, sitting
    on the topsoil of reasons I’m supposed
    to embrace this odd alchemy / this way
    of sharing thought / this beautifully bizarre
    approach to scattered words in some time strange
    shapes. I’m certain some feel different to me,
    certain many pick up poems and hope
    to see through them, but I have always searched
    for the opaque / always been dazzled by
    the haze of vagueness poetry seems to
    inspire. I’m scared like we all are – or all
    aren’t, which is perhaps even scarier –
    but a poem can be a kingdom in
    which blindfolded foresight makes perfect sense
    and the political and personal
    align like nowhere else. Perhaps it would
    be easy to label my attachment
    a modern phenomenon / attribute
    the groundswell of love towards volumes of
    verse to the uniqueness of my peers / claim
    the rise in buying and reading pages
    bound and bulbous with poems is a new
    response to recent chaos, but surely
    we poets know better. We know the world
    screams as loudly as it always has done,
    the young are the same as the young always
    are, poetry is a language we have
    spoken since we could speak, and most of us
    don’t ask poetry for clarity, but
    for an escape / for the chance to run far,
    far away from the unmistakable.

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    Gate theatre, London
    Jade Anouka and Jonjo O’Neill give first-rate performances reading the letters between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

    Sarah Ruhl’s dramatisation of the letters exchanged between two great poets, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, was first seen at Yale Rep in 2012 and is not without precedent.

    What is unusual about Ellen McDougall’s staging is that two different actors perform the show each night without rehearsal, in an attempt to depict “life as it is lived”. Even though I question the principle, Jade Anouka and Jonjo O’Neill did a fine job on press night, and the piece offers a rich testimony to the possibilities of romantic friendship – one that endured from 1947 to 1977.

    Related: Violet review – Fun Home duo's road trip gets lost in music

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    He mentored Warhol, partied with Dalí and showed John and Yoko the perfect espresso. In this interview given shortly before his death, the film-making legend looked back on his amazing life

    Jonas Mekas tells me he’s 27 years old. Strictly speaking, he’s 95, but the avant garde film-maker, poet, critic and philosopher decided 68 years ago that he was sticking at 27. “After 27, people begin to become old, according to Melville,” he says. “They look back and repeat. After 27, you begin to think, ‘Is this the right way to do it?’ You think twice. Before that, you say, ‘Fuck you, I don’t care. I just do it.’”

    Is he still in his “Fuck you” period? “Yes I am. When I came to New York I was 27. I was very angry about what I had lost before 27. I always blamed the ‘civilisation’ that threw me out of my home.” Mekas still has a thick European accent. He grew up in a small village in northern Lithuania called Semeniškiai – he calls it a paradise “where nothing happened then suddenly everything happened”.

    He tells Susan Sontag she should stick to writing and accuses Agnès Varda of making an ‘escapist’ film

    Related: Jonas Mekas: the man who inspired Andy Warhol to make films

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    The Emergency Poet, Deborah Alma, plans to dispense literary first aid from a shop in Bishop’s Castle

    Following in the hallowed footsteps of Milton, who wrote in 1671 that “apt words have power to swage / The tumours of a troubled mind / And are as balm to festered wounds”, the poet Deborah Alma is preparing to open the UK’s first poetry pharmacy. Here, instead of sleeping pills and multivitamins, customers will be offered prescriptions of Derek Walcott and Elizabeth Bishop.

    Alma, who as the “Emergency Poet” has prescribed poems as cures from the back of a 1970s ambulance for the last six years, is now setting up a permanent outlet in a shop at Bishop’s Castle in Shropshire. An old Edwardian ironmonger’s, it still has the original fixtures and fittings, and, together with her partner, the TS Eliot prize-shortlisted poet James Sheard, Alma is preparing to turn it into a haven “to help ease a variety of maladies with the soothing therapy of Poetry”.

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    James Naughtie’s picks include bashed pillows, sharp stars and sexy spacemen. What are your favourites?

    In a week that feels ripe for celebrating the reach of poetry– and just in time for Burns Night – the Scottish Poetry Library has asked James Naughtie to choose his “best of the best” Scottish poems of the past 15 years.

    Moving from, as Naughtie puts it, “Edwin Morgan in his last years talking about love” to “Kathleen Jamie catching a sense of national belonging in a few short lines”, it is a soul-quenching selection. There is humour and beauty in Claire Askew’s I Am the Moon, and You Are the Man on Me: “Tonight, I am white and full. / My surface is all curves / and craters,” she opens, later writing, deliciously: “Your compass does not work here, / but you are sexy / in your spaceman suit.” Liz Lochhead’s In the Mid-Midwinter, written after John Donne’s A Nocturnal on St Lucy’s Day, feels ever so apt for these bleak days of January: “There’s nothing very much to speak of anything to speak of / in the sky except a gey dreich greyness / rain-laden over Glasgow,” she writes. But “the light comes back / the light always comes back.” Lochhead’s description of the winter moon, “fat in the frosty sky among the sharpest stars”, is irresistible.

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