A pint for the ghost

Poet and Pen Pusher contributor Helen Mort on the individuality of poets, her prize-winning poem ‘Deer’ and her new pamphlet and show ‘a pint for the ghost’.

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to speak at an ‘empowering women’ event at a Cambridge College (for the sake of argument, let’s call it Oldham). The thought of inflicting my inane ramblings on a public audience makes me want to reach for my hip flask at the best of times. All the same, I braced myself, took a gulp of Ardbeg and said yes. I started to get a sinking feeling shortly afterwards when I saw the posters: a large picture of my face was emblazoned next to a list of all the ills suffered by women worldwide. It reminded me of a ‘WANTED’ notice.

A fortnight later, as I perched on a sofa in the dark hall, relieved to have survived my talk and poetry reading without being pelted with rotten fruit or homemade WMDs, a young anthropologist who was dominating the Q & A session afterwards did nothing to dispel this impression of anxiety. What relevance did my poems have to Andean villagers? What could they say to victims of genital mutilation? How could somebody who had been enslaved hope to understand them?

I found myself closing my eyes and thinking of Auden: ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’. Or rather, its relationship with the political is an ambiguous and fluid one. Throughout my speech on what it is to be a female writer, I’d argued that, though all poetry is necessarily informed by the poet’s experiences and background, great poetry aspires to a kind of anonymity as well as a kind of universality. The writer should always be secondary to the writing.

That’s the reason I’ve always been drawn towards the pleasing anonymity of competitions, and I was delighted to find out recently that my poem ‘Deer’ had won the Norwich Café Writers’ Prize, judged by George Szirtes

But perhaps there’s no such thing as a truly ‘anonymous’ poem. As we write, we give ourselves away constantly. The more we restrict ourselves, the more our individuality tends to force its way through. But there’s something appealing about submitting work without a name – I always used to enjoy it when The North printed a list of contributors in the back of the issue, but refrained from putting names next to poems.

There’s certainly something that makes me feel uncomfortable about being asked to speak as a ‘female poet’ (or a ‘young poet’ for that matter) rather than as somebody who happens to produce poetry. When I write, gender isn’t at the front of my mind, even if it comes through in the writing process. The poems I chose to read at my ill-fated talk were mostly from my new pamphlet ‘a pint for the ghost’, inspired by South Yorkshire myth and legend. As I recited them, I heard each word thud on the tasteful, wooden floor like a lead balloon. Their concerns are certainly not stereotypically ‘female’; it’s a collection full of smoky pubs, ex-miners and steelworkers, Friday night chip shops. In that sense, it doesn’t reclaim some notion of female identity in the way the organisers perhaps hoped I would. But who’s to say what the scope of our writing should be? Experience should be an enabling, not a limiting factor. A poem should be able to say something more universal to its audience, it doesn’t depend entirely on its context.

So I was pleased to retreat from the College (dishevelled, bored of the sound of my own voice, clutching a chocolate sponge and bottle of Chardonnay) and learn that ‘a pint for the ghost’ is the Poetry Book Society’s pamphlet choice for Spring 2010. ‘A Pint For The Ghost’ is also a show that will be touring next autumn (with a few early performances, including the wonderful London Word Festival in March 2010) and you can find out more about it by following my blog. I’d like to say a massive thank you to everyone who has supported the project so far, particularly to my hard-working editor, Les at tall-lighthouse, who has the patience of a saint and the coffee making skills of a barista.

I think these two recent pieces of good news are an omen. In fact, if I crane my neck slightly, I think hear my dad sending me a message through the oracle, like an ageing Lancashire fortune cookie: ‘Stick to t’ day job, lass. Don’t go talking crap in Colleges.’


by Helen Mort

The deer my mother swears to God we never saw,
the ones who stepped between the trees
on pound-coin coloured hooves,
I brought them up each teatime in the holidays

and they were brighter every time I did;
more supple than the otters that we waited for
at Ullapool, more graceful than the kingfisher
that darned the river south of Rannoch Moor.

Then five years on, in the same house, I rose
for water in the middle of the night and watched
my mother at the window, looking out
to where the forest lapped the garden’s edge.

From where she stood, I saw them stealing
through the pines, and they must have been closer
than before, because I have no memory
of those fish-bone ribs, that ragged fur

their eyes, like hers, that flickered back
towards whatever followed them.

Lyrically Minded…

Gift Horse

Gift Horse recording in Wales

Poet and Pen Pusher contributor Alex Fry considers the art of lyric writing, and what he’s learnt by writing lyrics for his band, Gift Horse

I was beginning to tentatively write lyrics with an old school friend Rob during a lull in one of his own projects. It started off as a bit of fun – belting out songs on his old Atari – but we both soon got completely lost in it. Having written prose and poetry for a while, I saw that this was a way into something I had admired from a distance. I had always had a strong feeling for music but had been the child who mimed recorder furtively at the back of the class; I couldn’t play a thing.
I have developed a working process over time: I tend to make a loop of a section I’m writing to and then just wait for some words to form in my mind. Often I don’t know what I’m going to write about until the first lines are on the page; sometimes a rough melody will take shape and something will emerge out of those sounds.
It took me a long time to accept that lyrics usually have to be simpler than poetry, and that some words just don’t sound right in a song. In earlier tracks I would write huge swathes, which looked more like prose, but by working with the other musicians I learnt to tailor the words more to the melody, also to pare it down conceptually and let the music do the talking. After a while I found that simplicity could be a strength.
Gaps in intelligibility between words and sentences can create new imagery and new meanings. In a way the things not said or the running together of disparate themes can compensate for the restriction of having to get something across in a very limited number of syllables. Music can also really electrify language that on the page seems fairly colourless – I still don’t fully understand how or why this works.
Our song ‘Lantern’ is a classic example. If you look at this early version it bears little resemblance to the final lyrics (thank God)…
First draught:

drop down over the Westway
October sun filtered in dirty glass and memory

slip through tree lined avenues of Lancaster gate
Every white house a invitation with no date

creep out to Hillingdon

Friday dark falling across each car

hopeful dark hiding each minds bright spark

i can’t get you off my mind
you have been so hard to find

huddled in a motorway cafe
drinking cheap coffee, looking at naked girls in a magazine

Lost and lonely at midnight
being lost never felt so right

Screaming over the foggy lanes
Oak and rubber singing in Welsh light

put the cold key in the cold lock
strike a match and reveal a life never lived but hot to the touch

i can’t get you off my mind
you have been so hard to find

Final version:

Drop down
Over the brow

October sun filtered in
Dirty glass and melody

Her breath lit up
In the haze of the squall

Her picture burned
At the back of the draw

Lost and lonely at midnight
Losing never felt so right

Lantern on the fourth floor
Tracing the wonder of it all
Lantern on the water
Blinking a secret call

Shuffle down
Her street, that house, her mouth

You hid it for her, the face

The Face Erased
Re-drawn again, and again

The Face Erased
Re-drawn again, and again

Lost and lonely at midnight
Losing never felt so right

Lantern on the fourth floor
Tracing the wonder of it all
Lantern on the water
Blinking a secret call
Lantern on the water
Revealed, then forever withdrawn

I think often what I do is to obscure the original sentiments in a sort of linguistic fogging of the glass. Often things I’ve been struggling to say will emerge after several versions. The chorus of ‘Lantern’ was written half an hour before it was recorded – there’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind!
Our singer Amy and I have an ongoing joke about what you can get away with lyrically. She takes issue with some of the more obscure material I have written. God knows I’ve made her sing some strange lines! Nevertheless it is interesting to see how far you can push it. In the song ‘Nothing I Guess’ there is a spoken section, which seemingly has very little relation to the rest of the words. However I think it works because it’s really integrated sonically with the music so it becomes more like a texture. There is also a sense of narrative but it’s ambiguous and that keeps me intrigued.
We began an album in February 2008, which we are just finishing. Having driven a truckload of equipment to a cottage in Wales, we spent ten days doing initial recordings of the amassed collection of songs. It was an amazing experience and I got to work with some great people. I think we all learnt a huge amount from it, but most of all we had a really good time. We have had some real highs over the last two years when things have gone well, but we’ve also had some huge rows and big doubts about our ability to finish the work. But now it’s almost done I think the result is far more interesting than we could have hoped for.
For me it all comes down to that amazing intersection between language and music. Music is a language that I’ve never fully understood, but speaks to me so strongly I feel compelled to pursue it, wherever it leads.