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Patricia Lockwood: ‘I’m a show-off, a clown’


The poet and author, best known for her long poem Rape Joke, talks about her extraordinary memoir, Priestdaddy, and growing up in the midwest

If you had no idea who Patricia Lockwood was and encountered her at a hotel in Westminster, as I did last week, this is what you would have seen across the breakfast table: a slim, 34-year-old woman with close-cut dark hair like the painted bob of a wooden doll. Earrings – twin globes – pale as peeled lychees and nail varnish to match. A face born to be surprised, with saucer-wide eyes, responsive eyebrows, a curvy mouth. The voice: amused, high, slightly babyish. The accent: American midwestern, with the suggestion of a whine – somewhere between relish and incredulity – at the way life pans out. But nothing about her appearance could betray what her extraordinary, eccentric and entertaining memoir Priestdaddy or her outlandish poetry collection, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, reveals. And I already know as much about her parents as about Lockwood herself.

Her father – the Priestdaddy of the title – was on a nuclear submarine off the coast of Norway during the cold war and watching The Exorcist (he saw the film more than 70 times in 88 days) when he underwent an unlikely conversion to Catholicism and became, having found a loophole in sacerdotal law, a married priest. Lockwood’s mother (“the most quotable woman alive”) is unusual too, although less flamboyantly strange. Had her mother been able to join us, Lockwood ruminates, she would certainly have ordered iced tea and certainly immediately sent it back, protesting it tasted like “sewage”. “That would happen because it has happened at every single breakfast, lunch and/or dinner I’ve had out with my mother.” This certainty about oddball details is part of the Lockwood – Tricia to her friends – magic, although she wonders aloud, more than once, where her authority comes from. With no college education, she has risen out of slush piles and triumphed. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker and the London Review of Books and she has had rave write-ups in the New York Times.

The two antecedents in literature for my father are Toad of Toad Hall and Uncle Matthew from Nancy Mitford’s books

Mum was sitting in darkness with her laptop open, a haunted expression on her face: "I have just read Rape Joke"

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Ona Gritz: 'I had spent more than enough time hiding and pretending'


For years, the poet and author tried to keep her cerebral palsy secret, until motherhood and a new love taught her to make peace with her body and share her experience

There are ways to cover for the fact that you can’t run like the other kids, or skate, or climb fences, or ride your flowered banana seat bike without training wheels. My own strategy was to suggest alternatives, offering to bring out a board game, colouring books and crayons, or my brand new, unopened jigsaw puzzle with the picture of a farm scene on its box. If my friends countered by asking to play hopscotch, a game that would require each of us to stand first on one foot, which I could do fine, then on the other, which I couldn’t do at all, I’d act like the idea was too dull to consider. If they suggested we play cards, I’d say yes, but reluctantly, willing someone else to insist on shuffling since it takes two good hands to bend and riffle each half of the deck. More often I told them, truthfully, that I’d rather grab our dolls and play house or store or any other game of pretend.

Pretending, after all, was the thing I was best at. It was the magic that allowed me to inhabit any capable, agile, graceful body I chose.

The daily and very physical tasks of caring for a baby forced me to recognise my disability for what it actually was

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Making a mess of the iambic pentameter | Letters

A reader’s suggestion that ‘The mess we inherited from Labour’ is an iambic pentameter draws howls of protest

Harold Mozley (Letters, 29 April) is wrong. “The mess we inherited from Labour” is an iambic tetrameter, not pentameter = three iambic beats, not five, on three second syllables. “Strong and stable leadership in the national interest” has six trochees = six beats on six first syllables. “Corbyn: the courage of his convictions” has four trochees. Shakespeare used iambic pentameter and everything else he could find and not just for rhetorical effect either.
Chris Hardy

• “The mess we inherited from Labour” may have 10 syllables, but is far from being an iambic pentameter. In terms of its prosody it’s decidedly messy, with a single iamb followed by a couple of anapaests and a weak final syllable. “Strong and stable leadership” may have only six syllables, but its strength and stability lie in its trochaic vigour. This only goes to show that iambs, anapaests and trochees can all be employed in the promotion of half-truth, untruth and damned lies.
Jon Nixon
Kendal, Cumbria

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Poem of the week: Signals from the Simple Life by Lorna Goodison


In short, striking lines, the poet focuses on key moments when individuals are most intimately attuned to their community

Signals from the Simple Life

A red cloth
tight around
her brow
and he knows
she is being
cleansed now
by the tides
of the moon.

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'I was dehumanised': Lemn Sissay on hearing his harrowing abuse report live on stage


In a blistering one-off show, poet Lemn Sissay heard – for the first time – the record of his suffering as a child in care. He explains why the theatre was the safest place to relive his beatings and betrayal

I have never been in a theatre audience like this one – so loving, supportive, involved. Then again, there has probably never been a production quite like this. It is the ultimate verbatim theatre. What’s more, part of the verbatim is happening live, unscripted, in front of us.

Lemn Sissay’s The Report, at the Royal Court in London, is just that: the reading of – and his reaction to – the psychologist’s report about the abuse he suffered over 18 years as a child in the care system. It is a one-off production. This is, by turns, theatre as shock treatment, theatre as therapy, theatre as protest and, perhaps ultimately, theatre as survival. We come away with a microscopically detailed portrait of the poet – and the system that did its best to destroy him.
Sissay, now 49, was born to an Ethiopian mother in Wigan. She was a young woman – a girl really – who had come to study in Britain and found herself pregnant. She was placed in a mother and baby unit and, at two months old, Sissay was put in care. His mother was asked to sign adoption papers and refused – she wanted her son back when she could manage better. Social services ignored her wishes, telling his long-term foster parents to treat this as adoption. Sissay was renamed Norman by his social worker, who happened to be called Norman.

Related: Lemn Sissay: ‘I would die if I didn’t live in the present’

At the end, everyone cheers. You sense they would rather just hug Sissay

Open all doors.
Open all senses.
Open all defences.
Ask, what were these closed for?

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Daljit Nagra: ‘I love playing rock albums to get my heartbeat racing’

The poet on why he writes on the go, the importance of rock music to the creative process and why he likes nothing more than ‘a few tiffs’ with a poem

No desk, or office as such, I tend to write my poems on the hoof. They are often written in a rush while on the underground along the stretch of Metroland from King's Cross to Uxbridge, in the bedroom at night or while in a cafe. I prefer this write-wherever-whenever approach because it connects me to my first joys of writing verse when I would write purely to communicate with something innate in me and without any vanity for praise and recognition. I would hate my writing to feel like a day job, something that can only be “properly” done at a desk.

The closest I have to an office is the kitchen-dining room table where I can look out on to the garden and watch chubby pigeons on the decking or squirrels on the fence in my family home in Harrow. If I ever have a spare day, I will walk my daughters to school and work until the end of the school day when I pick them up.

I never trust a poem until I’ve had at least a few tiffs with it

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Clive James: ‘I have put aside Shakespeare, to remind myself that others can write, too’


The best artists are a bit like children and the best critics are a bit like artists

Matthew Arnold once called them “the barren, optimistic sophistries”: the bright new beliefs that were going to improve the world. You can tell from his bleak tone that he didn’t think they would.

Quite a lot of them did, however, and Arnold himself benefited from the belief, then new, that travel by rail would broaden the mind even of someone with a classical education. For all we know, some of the most resonant phrases in his wonderful poem Dover Beach came into his mind at Crewe Junction. Sophocles makes an appearance, but has nothing particularly classical to say. Possibly a station master’s announcement drowned him out.

Related: Clive James: ‘I regret not calling my book Nail-Biting Slug-Fest On The Last Green’

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The Inky Digit of Defiance review – Tony Harrison turns 80


The arts are never far from politics in this collection of Harrison’s prose from the past half-century, edited by Edith Hall

Thirty years ago in Greece a friend drove the poet and dramatist Tony Harrison to a village called Askri. It was a dump. Nearby was a stinking “vast, untended, smouldering pile of rubbish and old lorry tyres”. In the village itself, a local Boeotian man made a gesture that clearly meant “Why the hell have you come?” They had come, Harrison explained, because Askri was the birthplace of the ancient Boeotian poet Hesiod. After further conversation, one of the locals said they should check out the Valley of the Muses.

To get there was hard going. Wearing sandals, the tourists were led up a steep track covered in thorns. Soon their feet were cut and bleeding, but they kept walking. Eventually they reached an overgrown amphitheatre. In this ancient “Mouseion” poetry festivals had been held in honour of the Muses. Standing right at the centre of this great circular theatre space, Harrison imagined what it would be like to read poetry there, and raised his eyes to where the very back row of the audience would have sat. As he did so, the poet’s hair stood on end. He realised that he was looking straight at Mount Helicon, the Muses’ sacred mountain, and that “the spectators on the ridge” would have been “none other than the Muses” themselves. For Harrison, this situation exemplified what poetry must do: have the courage to face up to the Muses directly, without apology or excuse.

Related: Tony Harrison: still open for business

No one interested in poetry and theatre can afford to ignore this book

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The Saturday poem: There are no boring people in this world

by Yevgeny Yevtushenko 1932-2017, translated by Boris Dralyuk

There are no boring people in this world.
Each fate is like the history of a planet.
And no two planets are alike at all.
Each is distinct – you simply can’t compare it.

If someone lived without attracting notice
and made a friend of their obscurity –
then their uniqueness was precisely this.
Their very plainness made them interesting.

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Kate Tempest review – a fleeting, thrilling whirlwind of emotion


Brighton Dome
The poet/rapper/pop star packs a powerful musical punch as the indefinable chronicler of the age

Two years ago, Kate Tempest topped the bill at The Great Escape, Brighton’s jamboree of new music. She held spellbound a barnload of pop fans with an unaccompanied turn that defied the category of spoken word.

Now she returns as the guest director of Brighton festival, for which this show is the opening event. It’s hard to imagine which other performance poet might claim such a role at a world-class arts festival, let alone fill a concert hall this size. But then it’s hard to say in which genre Tempest belongs. The onetime rapper is recognisably a poet with a parallel career as a pop artist. Yet her singular talent means that, seeing her live, with or without a band, at no moment can you pin her down.

Related: Kate Tempest: Let Them Eat Chaos review – pop, poetry and politics collide

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Poem of the week: WCW by Lachlan Mackinnon


A tribute to a master of modernist poetry, this is also an unusually approachable poem in praise of ordinary human endurance


Saxifrage, said William Carlos Williams, was his flower
because it split stone. Yesterday, in a pot, a clump of it,
weedy red petals, stems robust as peasant legs.

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Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong review – violence, delicacy and timeless imagery

The poet’s debut reveals a master of juxtaposition willing to tell difficult stories with courage

Ocean Vuong was born on a rice farm outside Saigon, in 1988, and spent a year in a refugee camp in the Philippines before moving, aged two, to Hartford, Connecticut. He was mentored by the poet and novelist Ben Lerner and has said that without Lerner, he would never have believed it possible he could become a poet or that his talent could travel. Vuong’s mother, who works in a nail salon, was determined her son become the first literate member of their family. Among the most moving poems in this debut (feted in the US and already selling in unusual quantities here) is The Gift. “ABC” were the only letters his beloved mother knew: “But I can see the fourth letter:/a strand of black hair – unraveled/from the alphabet/&written/on her cheek.” Even then, Vuong was, it seems, able tenderly to decipher more than he had been told to learn.

About his father, who dominates this collection, the story is murkier. The second poem, Telemachus, is at once lyrical and horrific. It describes turning his father’s corpse over in the sea and seeing a gun wound in his back. It ends: “The face/not mine – but one I will wear/to kiss all my lovers good-night:/the way I seal my father’s lips/with my own & begin/the faithful work of drowning.” Disentangling traumatic memory from myth is no easy task. As one reads on, it becomes evident that the collection is not so much about drowning as about the precarious work of resurfacing.

I am not sure why a poem about 9/11 is named after a Rothko painting but the more I read it, the more I find to admire

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Tony Harrison at 80 - books podcast


Vanessa Redgrave, Blake Morrison and Melvyn Bragg are among the stars of page and stage who celebrate one of the UK’s most versatile – and angry – poets

In this week’s podcast we join a star-studded celebration, at the British Academy, of one of the UK’s most political and versatile poets, Tony Harrison, who is still firing rhyming broadsides as he enters his ninth decade. Melvyn Bragg talks to Harrison himself, while actors Vanessa Redgrave and Barry Rutter perform his work.

The playwright Lee Hall explains how his musical Billy Elliot would never have existed without Harrison’s demonstration – through plays such as The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus at the National Theatre – that the voice of the northern working class could hold centre stage, while Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, remembers the writer who lit his political fire as a schoolboy growing up in Harrison’s native Leeds.

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Dylan Thomas prize goes to Australian 'genius' Fiona McFarlane


Short story collection The High Places, which skips continents, eras and genre, takes £30,000 award

Fiona McFarlane has won the £30,000 International Dylan Thomas prize for her “deliciously unsettling” short story collection, The High Places.

Flitting across continents, eras, and genres, McFarlane’s 13 stories examine the spectrum of emotional life, with moments of uneasy anticipation, domestic contentment and ominous desperation. Praised as “deliciously unsettling” by the Observer, The High Places includes stories as varied as a scientist living on a small island with only a colossal squid called Mabel and the ghost of Charles Darwin for company, a middle aged couple going on a disastrous holiday with friends in Greece, and an Australian farmer who turns to Old Testament methods to relieve a debilitating drought.

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The Saturday poem: Concerning loss and theft

by Henry Normal

I’ve lost something valuable or had it stolen
So I’m forced to retrace my mundane actions
these tiny harbingers whose whispers
now mock with megaphones

The margin of error
I’ve recently allowed myself
widens from the gap at back of a settee
to the Grand Canyon

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Poem of the week: Sin Visits Me by Malika Booker


Ghost story and erotic dream swim together in this joyous, defiant assertion of free spirit

Sin Visits Me

They say a dead woman can’t run from her coffin.
How moonshine can orchestrate nuff wild thoughts!
It’s an hour past midnight and the road outside is quiet;
my thoughts are a twisting screwdriver; licks
of a dozen switches scorch my skin. Pomegranate flowers
line the road, each spread out from the other,
and their crumpled petals are the shocking red of death.
I am in the centre of this wreath. You chew chillies raw,
laugh, and spit the seeds, then tell me of the joys
of sitting on a big stone under Concord waterfall,
watching near-naked boys leap off the moss-green cliffs above.
Your voice is smooth liquor. Your whirring hands speak
another language. I hold a white china cup in my hand;
funny how the cracks don’t seem to show.
You in your saucy lace that binds your body like mace
covers nutmeg seeds; I am shocked by your vulgarity.
I tell you, crapaud don’t have no right in salt water.
You tell me you have a right to be everywhere.

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Silage by Bethany W Pope review – poetry as salvation

This harrowing collection drawn from a youth spent in an orphanage delights in language as a place of private escape

In modern poetry, let’s face it, not a lot happens, unless you are writing a novel in verse or updating The Iliad. Musing tends to be the order of the day. This collection is different. It begins with the narrator – very obviously the poet herself – seeing “a white / thread running across [her] MRI”: this is “the shape of the worst years of my life / thrown up on a screen in a doctor’s office; / I’d gone in to see if anything could / be done about my terrible snoring.” The rest of the poem (“Neurons”) continues with references to an old social worker, lost records, the remembered smell of wild onion blossoms, the memory of being locked in a cabinet under the stairs. What is going on here? The remaining 34 poems explain, as she dredges up a sequence of memories, what it was like to live in a state-run South Carolina orphanage between the ages of 12 and 15 in (I suspect, from internal evidence) the early to mid-1990s.

You do not expect to come from a poetry collection shattered, but I emerged almost a wreck. You can imagine that a spell in an orphanage isn’t going to be a walk in the park, but here we have something that is straight out of Charles Dickens: a threadbare, institutional poverty, of the spirit as well as of material goods. Such life as there is resides in violence, rape and theft. To our great relief as well as to hers, Pope learns to pick the locked door of the orphanage library, where she can steal books. These are mainly science fiction, although references to sword-carrying mice suggest a Narnia book or two there as well. She also learns – and teaches us – how to make a shiv from a toothbrush and a double-edged razor blade.

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British Museum by Daljit Nagra review – a questing, questioning third volume

The poet breaks new, more political ground in a significant departure of style

When Daljit Nagra’s mischievous and distinctive first book of poems won the Forward debut prize 10 years ago, it prompted a frenzy of interview requests and newspaper features. “Immigrant’s Son Wins Forward” hollered one tabloid, while broadsheets wondered at the animated new writer publishing his debut with the esteemed Faber and Faber. At best, this was indicative of a mainstream British culture eager to package the writer as multicultural or postcolonial; at worst, it was an example of the social divisions and cultural unease that still plague our political climate with increasingly disturbing ramifications.

Witty, sardonic and self-aware, Nagra was one step ahead. “Must I wear only masks that don’t sit for a Brit” his comic alter ego scoffs in one poem: “Did you make me for the gap in the market?” Look We Have Coming to Dover! (2007) was followed by Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! (2011), a second book that established Nagra as an astute cultural commentator, apt to combine knockabout comedy, literary allusion and a keen sense of political injustice to challenging effect. His poems are as likely to employ Punjabi-inflected English as they are to quote Wordsworth, conjuring memories of a British Asian childhood just as they energise the language in an update to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, where migrants “babble our lingoes, flecked by the chalk of Britannia!”

Related: Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy‑Machine!!! by Daljit Nagra – review

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Jeremy Mulford obituary


My friend Jeremy Mulford, who has died aged 79, was a poet, publisher and editor who founded Falling Wall Press in the early 1970s as a way of disseminating radical pamphlets on education and the women’s movement by authors such as Harold Rosen and Sheila Rowbotham.

As the venture thrived he also published books such as Worktown People, a collection of Humphrey Spender’s photographs from northern England, Eleanor Rathbone’s The Disinherited Family and the widely read Nella Last’s War, the second world war diaries of a housewife.

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Poem of the week: Wedding by Alice Oswald


Skilfully moving through changing similes, this outstanding modern sonnet pays tribute to the balancing act of love


From time to time our love is like a sail
and when the sail begins to alternate
from tack to tack, it’s like a swallowtail
and when the swallow flies it’s like a coat;
and if the coat is yours, it has a tear
like a wide mouth and when the mouth begins
to draw the wind, it’s like a trumpeter
and when the trumpet blows, it blows like millions …
and this, my love, when millions come and go
beyond the need of us, is like a trick;
and when the trick begins, it’s like a toe
tip-toeing on a rope, which is like luck;
and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.

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