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'Shame seeded my silence': why I decided to stop talking

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As a teenager, journalist and film-maker Harriet Shawcross stopped speaking for almost a year. In later years, her sexuality made her retreat again

One Sunday I came to sit with the dead. The room was almost untouched. Everything and nothing was the same. I was standing in my grandmother’s study. She had lived with us for 25 years, and died six months earlier. Her room had been cleaned and closed – the dark beetles of dried blood scrubbed from the fireplace where she fell and cracked her head. I had come to her room to sit with the silence.

I have always found something deeply compelling about keeping quiet. It began when my grandmother moved in with us, when I was a child. Or at the edge of being a child: 13. The move shifted the family dynamic. It was a time of great upheaval, and it was during this time that I lost the ability to speak. Or not to speak, precisely, but to speak in the ways that make us human. The ways that matter. I could answer direct questions. I could take part in school plays. But I stopped making conversation for nearly a year. When I was at school, I stopped telling jokes, or asking questions. I became a lurker – always almost invisible, on the edge of conversations.

It was shame that seeded my early silence. And shame that kept my sexuality quiet for so long

That this is I,
Not mine, which wakes
To where the present
Sun pours in the present, to the air perhaps
Of love and of
Conviction.

Related: Specific reasons to remember George Oppen

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Poem of the week: Where’s the Poker? by Christopher Smart

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This fable about errant servant Susan is much less concerned with pointing a moral than enjoying the comedy

Where’s the Poker?

The poker lost, poor Susan storm’d,
And all the rites of rage perform’d;
As scolding, crying, swearing, sweating,
Abusing, fidgetting, and fretting.
“Nothing but villany, and thieving;
Good heavens! what a world we live in!
If I don’t find it in the morning,
I’ll surely give my master warning.
He’d better far shut up his doors,
Than keep such good for nothing whores;
For wheresoe’er their trade they drive,
We vartuous bodies cannot thrive.”
Well may poor Susan grunt and groan;
Misfortunes never come alone,
But tread each other’s heels in throngs,
For the next day she lost the tongs;
The salt box, cullender, and pot
Soon shar’d the same untimely lot.
In vain she vails and wages spent
On new ones – for the new ones went.
There’d been (she swore) some dev’l or witch in,
To rob or plunder all the kitchen.
One night she to her chamber crept
(Where for a month she had not slept;
Her master being, to her seeming,
A better play fellow than dreaming).
Curse on the author of these wrongs,
In her own bed she found the tongs,
(Hang Thomas for an idle joker!)
And there (good lack!) she found the poker,
With the salt box, pepper box, and kettle,
With all the culinary metal. –
Be warn’d, ye fair, by Susan’s crosses:
Keep chaste and guard yourselves from losses;
For if young girls delight in kissing,
No wonder, that the poker’s missing.

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'We donte want to hurt anney one': Bonnie and Clyde's poetry revealed

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Family notebook appears to show that both of the notorious Depression-era outlaws turned their hand to verse

An old green notebook believed to contain poetry written by the notorious outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow has been put up for auction by Barrow’s nephew.

The pair, who went on a 21-month crime spree robbing banks, gas stations and restaurants at the height of the US’s Great Depression, were shot and killed in a police ambush in Louisiana in 1934. Barrow was 24, and Parker, who had teamed up with Barrow on his release from prison years earlier, was 23. The pair became even more famous when they were played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in the 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde.

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Poem of the week: The Opener by Keith Hutson

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An old-timer’s advice on choosing the best music-hall turn to open a bill is an endearing performance in itself

The Opener

Do not book a buffoon. People can’t cope,
still finding seats and folding coats, heavy
with home: they’ll barrack or shut down.

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Poem of the month: Look, I’m Not Good at Eating Chicken by Fatimah Asghar

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& yes, my family did raise me right. Yes
they stripped their bones & cracked them clean
open to suck. Would fight over cartilage & knuckle.
Sip the marrow’s nectar from urn. Yes, I watched.
Yes, I’ll teach my children the same. To savor
the sound of their teeth against bone pulling & pulling
always in search of more. But right now I’m eating alone
in a strange city with money in my pocket
no children waiting to be fed or taught. Meat on the bones,
skin in the trash. Joints a trap of bird & muscle
wanting to be chewed. Let me be young & disrespectful.
Let me leave my plate an unfinished slaughter.
Let me spend & eat until I, no one else, says I’m done.

• From If They Come For Us, published by Corsair (£10.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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The best recent poetry – review roundup

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Kingdomland by Rachael Allen; Gen by Jonathan Edwards; Magical Negro by Morgan Parker; and Counting Backwards: Poems 1975-2017 by Helen Dunmore

Rachael Allen’s debut, Kingdomland (Faber, £10.99), will surprise those who first encountered her through the Faber New Poets series. Where those early poems were often droll and precisely contemporary, full of youth’s shoulder-shrugging ennui, this first book has an urgency and a quieter seriousness. “Watch the forest burn / with granular heat”, demands one dislocated voice; Kingdomland is a world of shadowy tragedies and travesties, whether a “monstrous double horse”, a “many bird roast” with “as many eyes as a spider”, or simply “pain, deep-seared”. Hurt and harm surface throughout Allen’s writing, intent on uncovering the grotesque beneath the everyday, even as it remains oddly distant and indistinct: “a stark bright woman” who “holds something small, ungrippable”. Disturbing, unnerving and aware, these poems linger through effective image-making, where a girl watches “a haunted old body, the one she’ll inhabit / that drags up and down the coast”.

Can a poet be popular and critically acclaimed? Jonathan Edwards’s 2014 debut My Family and Other Superheroes won the Costa poetry award and the Wales Book of the Year People’s Choice award, combining comedy and a surreal touch in reimagining the familiar to winsome effect. His poems are easy-going but subtly formal, clever but accessible, and his follow-up, Gen (Seren, £9.99), won’t disappoint. Here comes everyone: Harry Houdini on Newport Bridge, Coleridge chancing a lottery ticket, Tanya’s house party with “music / pouring from the chimney”. There is something of the late Michael Donaghy about Edwards’s simpatico voice, and like Donaghy he is at his best when he leads us astray. “Reader, if you take my hand / and step outside with me now”: the poet nudges, and we follow. Touching character portraits reiterate why Edwards has won plaudits, but the acerbic edge that pervades Gen also suggests a new direction.

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Out from the margins: meet the New Daughters of Africa writers

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More than 25 years after her groundbreaking Daughters of Africa anthology, Margaret Busby reflects on the next generation of black women writers around the world

Time was when the perception of published writers was that all the women were white and all the blacks were men (to borrow the title of a key 1980s black feminist book). At best, there was a handful of black female writers – Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou– who were acknowledged by the literary establishment. This was the climate in which, more than 25 years ago, I compiled and published Daughters of Africa. It was critically acclaimed, but more significant has been the inspiration that 1992 anthology gave to a fresh generation of writers who form the core of its sequel, New Daughters of Africa.

The critic Juanita Cox told me: “I received Daughters of Africa as a birthday gift from my father. Two things immediately struck me about the book. It was huge and it contained women like me. Even though I’d been brought up in Nigeria, I had had very little exposure to black literature. At school the only black characters I’d ever read about occupied the margins: figures like the Sedleys’ servant Sambo and the mixed-race heiress Miss Swartz in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Daughters of Africa introduced me to a huge number of writers I’d never previously been aware of. And on a more personal level it made me realise that I was somehow valid. The anthology was peopled not just by women of ‘pure’ African descent, but also women of mixed ancestry, and just like the women the book contained, I too could have a voice.”

Tradition, romance, sexuality, race and identity all are explored, in ways that are surpris­ing, angry and joyful

I do not remember when I wrote Audre but I did, and I remember that she answered immediately and sent me a copy of A Burst of Light with the inscription, “Sister Survivor – May these words be a bridge over that place where there are no words – or where they are so difficult as to sound like a scream!

It wasn’t until I met the force of the unflinching stories of our mothers and grandmothers and aunts and sisters written by black women that I was compelled to find an answer to the question: “what did it mean to be a black woman in my grandmother’s time?”

The book reveals works in progress, shapeshifting sensibilities, a delicious mash-up of expectations

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Burgess Prize winner 2019: Jason Watkins on Daisy Campbell’s Pigspurt’s Daughter

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This year’s Observer/Anthony Burgess prize for arts journalism goes to Jason Watkins for his review of the writer and actor’s one-woman show about her celebrated late father Ken

• Joint runner-up: Kate Wyver’s reflections on the video game Sorry to Bother You
• Joint runner-up: Tara McEvoy on Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin

Jason Watkins is a special needs teacher and tutor for pupils out of education based in Otley, West Yorkshire. He previously worked in TV and as a film researcher. The judges praised his “lively, casually erudite style, in the best tradition of Anthony Burgess’s own work for the Observer”.

In naming his daughter after the Greek goddess of discord and misrule, maverick director/actor/playwright Ken Campbell gave her a lot to live up to. Pigspurt’s Daughter, a solo show by Daisy Eris Campbell to mark the 10th anniversary of her father’s death, is a window on a remarkable parent-child relationship bound by a love of logic-defying overstimulation and an aversion to anything routine or everyday.

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Tara McEvoy on Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin

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Burgess Prize runner-up 2019: Tara McEvoy’s analysis of a collection that explores the form’s boundaries earned her joint second place in this year’s Observer/Anthony Burgess prize
• The winning review: Jason Watkins on Daisy Campbell’s Pigspurt’s Daughter
• Joint runner-up: Kate Wyver’s reflections on the video game Sorry to Bother You

Tara McEvoy, 25, is a PhD student and editor of the Tangerine, a magazine of new writing. Her work has been published in Vogue, the Irish Times and the Wire. She lives in Belfast. Her piece “confidently navigates challenging material”, and, most importantly, sent the judges “back to the poems.”

James Baldwin described the predicament like this: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” Terrance Hayes’s latest collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, makes visible the outlines of the trap of history by pushing against the constraints of the 14-line sonnet form. The result is a book that speaks with urgency and authority, bearing witness to the absurdities and cruelties of the present moment.

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Enchanted forests: the women shaking up nature writing

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The worlds of conservation and nature writing are overwhelmingly white and male. But the Forestry Commission is taking steps to change all that

A chilly breeze blows through the wood and the old tree trunks creak as they are rubbed together by the wind. A grey squirrel twists around a grove of ancient yews, its claws scrabbling drily on the dark bark. A great tit’s seesawing song is the only note of spring. There is no sign, however, of the newest inhabitant of Leigh Woods.

Zakiya Mckenzie, one of the Forestry Commission’s new writers in residence, can’t find her way to this nature reserve just west of Bristol. Mckenzie, chosen from more than 1,000 applicants to write about woodland life for the commission’s centenary year, is extremely lost, somewhere on the wrong side of the city where she lives.

I’m not going to tell the kids to be quiet in the countryside just to make everyone else feel comfortable

The woods remind me I'm so tiny compared to everything else

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Poem of the week: Ivy Leaves by Patricia McCarthy

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Nature poetry reveals a much darker world than usual in a child’s guileless impressions of her abuser

Ivy Leaves

His hands were shaped into ivy leaves
that climbed up the tree, camouflage
for its inner rings, tickling the light.
Horse chestnut buds had given them
a stickiness which the rains could not
wash off. Touch them, he said.

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'I'm not a gay writer, I'm a monster': did James Purdy foresee Trump's America?

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At first he was feted. But then his novel about a handsome, Yale-educated serial rapist made him an outcast. Ten years after his death, has the scabrous author’s time finally come?

On 6 August 2015, the American author and playwright James Purdy left New York for the last time. Bound for Denmark, he travelled in a small flip-top leather case with a combination lock. This was inside the rucksack of Maria Cecilia Holt, Harvard doctor of theology, who was asked to produce the necessary papers while going through security at Boston Logan airport.

“I’d collected James’s ashes from his literary executor,” she explains. “It had been quite traumatic. So I presented security with the papers and the ashes and they said, ‘Ma’am, we’re sorry for your loss.’ I began to cry. I wanted to say, ‘It’s not my loss, it’s yours. America is losing a great writer. He’s leaving the US for ever – and no one even cares.’”

He said being published was like throwing a party and having all these wicked people come and vomit all over the house

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Joni Mitchell book, hand-drawn for friends in 1971, to be published

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Morning Glory on the Vine, which combines lyrics, poems and paintings by the revered singer-songwriter, was originally produced privately in 1971

A rare book of lyrics, poems and illustrations that Joni Mitchell created for her closest friends more than 40 years ago is to be commercially published for the first time this autumn.

The Canadian musician put together Morning Glory on the Vine in 1971, the year her album Blue topped charts around the world. Collecting lyrics, poems and more than 30 of her paintings, just 100 copies were hand-produced in Los Angeles for her friends. “Existing copies of this labour of love have rarely been seen in the past half-century,” according to the singer’s website.

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Martin Woodcock obituary

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Artist admired for the illustrations that grace the pages of the monumental The Birds of Africa, first published in the early 1980s

Amid the economic uncertainty of the mid 1970s not many people gave up a job in the City of London. But in 1974, Martin Woodcock did just that, swapping life as a stockbroker to become a freelance bird artist.

He never looked back. Martin, who has died aged 84, spent the rest of his distinguished career travelling through Asia and Africa to observe, draw and paint some of the world’s most elusive birds. His masterwork, which kept him busy for almost three decades, was the monumental, multivolume The Birds of Africa, for which he painted more than 200 colour plates.

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Gabriela Mistral | Letters

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Letters: She won the Nobel prize 26 years before Pablo Neruda, writes Heather Mayall, and was the reason for his love of literature

It was good to see mention of a Latin American Nobel prize winner in your editorial (There will be two Nobel prizes for literature this year. That is one too many, 9 March) but, on the day after International Women’s Day, so much better if it had been Gabriela Mistral rather than Pablo Neruda.

She was the first Latin American to ever be awarded a Nobel prize, and it was “for her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world”. This was in 1945, 26 years before Neruda’s award in 1971.

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'It was like a miracle': Eight writers surprised with $165,000 awards

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Winners of Windham-Campbell prizes, intended to free authors from money worries, only learn they were in contention after they have won

The Irish writer Danielle McLaughlin was on a trip with her family to mark her 50th birthday when the phone rang and she discovered she’d won one of this year’s Windham-Campbell prizes, announced on Wednesday evening. The $165,000 (£125,000) award came at a good time, McLaughlin revealed.

“It was like a miracle,” she said, “arriving at a time when I was experiencing a bit of a wobble, psychologically, in my writing life. In a sense, it was like an answer to a question I had started asking myself.”

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WS Merwin, Pulitzer-winning former US poet laureate, dies at 91

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Writer who protested against environmental destruction and the Vietnam war died at home in Hawaii

WS Merwin, a prolific and versatile poetry master who evolved through a wide range of styles as he celebrated nature, condemned war and industrialism and reached for the elusive past, died Friday. He was 91.

A Pulitzer prize winner and former US poet laureate, Merwin completed more than 20 books, from early works inspired by myths and legends to fiery protests against environmental destruction and the conflict in Vietnam to late meditations on age and time.

Related: Poem of the week: After the Dragonflies by WS Merwin

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you

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John Cooper Clarke: ‘Only eat at the table. And don't watch TV while eating’

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The poet and performer on his dad’s sandwiches, the iniquity of snacking and disappointing Dutch food

When I was a kid, for a while my mother worked afternoons at the high-class confectioners round the corner. It was also a tobacco shop. The two went hand in glove. Quality candies, ice-creams, walking canes and baccy products. Mum would bring home lots of sweets which had been on sale too long but were still perfectly OK, and she’d say, “Take your pick.” That was a bit of a perk.

The first time I saw a green pepper, it was outrageous. There were quite lot of Jewish people in Salford and some were Sephardi and they ate Greco-Middle-Eastern food. I remember my mum saying, “Ohh, you can’t eat green and red peppers – they’ll blow the top of your head off.” So for a long time I thought they were chillies the size of fists.

Related: John Cooper Clarke interview: 'Poetry is not something you have to retire from'

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Poem of the week: Hey Jude by Matthew Sweeney

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A wayward grandfather’s advice, this is a joyful freewheel through life’s possibilities

Hey Jude
(for little Jude)

When you sing your song
you can make it an angry one,
and do it so loud the punks climb out
of their graves to applaud.
Give them your autograph.

Related: Matthew Sweeney obituary

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Anna Burns and Sally Rooney on Rathbones Folio prize longlist