August was going to be the big month of novel writing. I had such plans. This book has been percolating since 2017 and it feels important and pressing. Getting to it is not straightforward as I’ve discovered. All manner of things get in the way of having a long run at writing, from laundry to projects out in the world that just need attention. I feel as if I am almost getting to things that need to be done but not quite and that includes the novel.
There are about 40,000 words of novel in existence. there are chapters, notes, fragments and plans. There are lists, drawings, mind maps and associated novel paraphernalia. I am confident that there will be a novel.
It’s just gone 4.00 pm, the tide is low and it’s perfect weather for swimming but I know I won’t. Swimming is another thing to get to; it requires preparation, including 20 mins of wrestling with wet-suit and sea socks. It has been on my plan of what must be done every day this week – it is yet to happen.
However, the sea is calling and I will answer, even if it is only to go and observe it. That might be enough today. And who knows, tonight, when the sun goes down and the world goes quiet, I might find the words and write some of that novel.
On Friday 15th February myself and the Alan Barnes Octet premiered our brand new collaboration, A Requiem,a brand new suite of music and poetry, commissioned by Grimsby Jazz Projects and supported with funding from Arts Council, England.
Having worked on the poems from the autumn of 2017 to a final tweak the day before the premiere, I was full of nervous excitement and anticipation – especially as I had not heard a note of the music and truly had no idea what to expect.
It was wonderful to be reunited with the full band again. I had been looking forward to seeing everyone again and have so many happy memories of outstanding gigs on our previous Fish Tales tour. This is truly an all-star band and each musician brings his own particular signature, which becomes apparent during the solo sections.
As we got underway with the rehearsal it was soon clear to me that the music was extraordinary. Full of twists and turns with complex rhythms and nuances; the music felt like a journey through time and through the story of war across a century that I was also telling with the poems. The music was full of drama and intrigue and I found it incredibly moving and intense.
The rehearsal day was given an extra layer of excitement as Radio Humberside were broadcasting live from the Central Hall throughout the afternoon and several of us gave brief interviews in which we talked about the work and the project as a whole. Friends and colleagues also came in to give short interviews about the work they are doing in the cultural sector in the town and so the rehearsal had the feel of an event in its own right.
It was a long day and the work required considerable concentration from everyone. After only a short rest for tea, showtime approached and I really felt the nerves kick in. I now have a better understanding of my ‘gig-zone’ and my need to have some space to mentally and physically prepare for performance. It’s an odd place where in equal measure I do and do not want to perform, where nervous energy builds and I have to turn inwards in order to find the right mood for delivering outwards to an audience.
Before I started writing A Requiem I never thought that war would be a subject I would want to work with. I spent a great deal of my undergraduate degree studying the world wars and the literature of war of the twentieth century. But it was not an area I ever wrote about in my own creative writing so when this process began I was taken aback by how I was gripped by the subject and how urgent it felt for me to write and to read and to go back to some of the literature that had so absorbed me when I was younger.
And it was not just the literature of war and the nature of conflict and its impact that gripped me, it was also the processes and rituals of commemoration and the artistic expressions of remembrance that I wanted to explore. I heard in my head the words of the Libera Me of the Latin mass for the dead;
Libera me, Domine, de morte æterna, in die illa tremenda Quando cœli movendi sunt et terra Dum veneris iudicare saeculum per ignem.
I couldn’t quieten the words, words I had sung over years of on-off membership of various choirs. I had the sense that the words were telling me something and I had an obligation to listen.
Using the structure of the Requiem mass for the dead gave me a clear starting point and an over-arching theme to work with. Alan and Pat liked the concept and so we all worked towards the production of words and music that would culminate in a work to both honour the dead and call for peace. I didn’t want to write a religious piece and worked carefully to ensure that my words would acknowledge all the dead of the century past regardless of creed, colour, gender or nationality and see every victim of war as first and foremost, human.
The work proved challenging to perform on Friday night. It is emotionally charged, powerful and in places bleak and dark. The subject matter is solemn and serious and I felt that solemnity around me as I delivered my words amidst powerful, strong and stirring music. However, one of the central motifs of the work is light, lux aeterna. The light always returns, however dark it has been.
I am now looking forward to recording the work and publishing the poems. I am also excited about touring A Requiem later this year and taking it to audiences across the country.
I can smell autumn coming in and the damp mornings, busy garden spiders and darkening evenings all testify that the season is changing.
After a turbulent and painful summer here’s hoping that the autumn brings some peace, calm and gentleness for all souls on this great blue planet.
Among the things I am looking forward to is the return of the choir with a fresh start and an independent future which I am pleased to be guiding alongside the supremely talented Jo Townell. The choir has become a central focal point of my life and weekly routine. It is a place of joy and light and sustains me as much as it sustains its members.
I am thrilled that the Fish Tale tourbegins again in October with dates around the country. Being on the road with such consummate musicians and my great friend and jazz champion Gill Wilde is exciting and fun and I am chomping at the bit to get out there.
There are several beautiful, creative projects in the pipeline including two forthcoming La Luna publications and some poetry events and opportunities. I am always grateful that I have so many creative outlets. There have been some very dark days of late and the light that gets in always comes from places of creative energy.
Autumn is a good time to reflect and look for a bit of peace and quiet, if not externally then internally. The equinox on the 21st and the returning darkness open a space for that to happen and I will be taking advantage of this time for just that. We all need that quiet and for the noise of life to abate.
Yesterday saw the launch of the La Luna Young Voices poetry project at Franklin College. This project provides an exciting opportunity for young writers to develop their writing craft both for performance and for publication. Later this year La Luna will be publishing an anthology of writing from the young people involved in this project.
Special guest poet Antony Dunn came to Franklin College to deliver a workshop for the young people. Antony is a gifted and inspiring teacher and it was such a pleasure to see the students engage in some challenging exercises, and to hear the work they produced which was full of wit and inventiveness. Antony encouraged the students to work to develop their thinking and to run with their thoughts to see how far they could take them. This led to them being able to fully realise their ideas on the page.
Following the workshop we adjourned to the Franklin garden for tea and poetry with an appreciative audience. Antony is a seasoned reader and is compelling to hear. He introduces poems without paraphrasing them and gives profound insight into the poetic imagination that is the heart of his work.
Alongside Antony, the young people read their work, several of them for the first time. In fact for one student it was the first time she had allowed anyone to see her work. Her courage astonished and moved me.
Every one of those young people who read in the garden yesterday gave voice to something unique and beautiful about themselves. The honesty, openness and authenticity of their work was powerful. It felt like a great honour to be there, hearing their words and knowing that La Luna has the time, the money and the expertise to help these young writers to grow over the course of this project.
The project continues later this week when Nick Triplow and I will be getting down to the business of submissions, editing and handing work over for that all important critical feedback. I am looking forward to seeing the work on the page and to working with Nick, the students and their wonderful teacher Carolyn Doyley over the next few weeks. I think the outcome will be a truly magical book.
Thanks and credit must also be given to Brooke Downing, photography student at Franklin whose photographs not only capture the participants but also the spirit of the day.
It’s a big week at Moon Towers, the imaginary house inside my head where I spend a lot more time writing and a lot less time ‘doing’ in the world. Moon Towers is an enormous, rambling old place with an orchard and a rose garden in what was once a ballroom. There’s a pile of old dogs sleeping on couches in a conservatory that is west facing so as to welcome the sunset each day. There is always a sandwich, always a coffee and never any laundry or washing up to do.
And we’re back in the real world for a moment. The real world this week actually is a manifestation of the fruit of the time spent in Moon Towers. This week sees the beginning of the tour with Alan Barnes, Pat McCarthy and the fabulous Fish Tales orchestra. We begin on Thursday 6th July at Kardomah 94 in Hull. I’ve been rehearsing and buying frocks.
Also this week I launch the first part of my ACE funded poetry project and am thrilled to be working with Antony Dunn, Nick Triplow and the young writers at Franklin College. This part of the project will culminate in a La Luna anthology of new writing from the young people later this year.
As if that wasn’t enough, A Fish Tale for Juniors goes to print tomorrow, just in time for the children’s singing festival next week. I get to dress up as Saga, the Norse Goddess associated with poetry and history for the festival. Appropriate for a storyteller I think.
Last but not least, Pat McCarthy and I will be getting our heads together and launching a new and exciting mini project featuring jazz and poetry.
Sometimes I think I don’t do enough, that I’m not busy or productive enough. I fall prey to feeling guilty about the time I spend on the roof at Moon Towers, counting stars and dreams and singing to the old dogs downstairs.
But it’s all worthwhile and beyond exciting when a week like this rolls in; when your doves come home from the mysterious places they’ve been in flight and settle in their cote under a twilight blue sky with the scent of old roses drifting in on the breeze.
I’m delighted to be able to announce that my submission to the Arts Council was successful and a grant has been awarded for a wonderful project, The Poetry of Person and Power.
The grant will enable me to work with young people at Franklin College in Grimsby, producing an anthology of their work. Through the production process the students will be working with established poets, Helen Mort and Antony Dunn and editor, writer and project director Nick Triplow, who has extensive experience of producing outstanding publications.
The grant also covers a commission for Vivienne May and Maria Garner, two artists working together on an ambitious project, Calling To The Moon in which they are exploring a range of media including painting and poetry to produce a book and exhibition. Vivienne and Maria will be offering workshops for the community and details of those are to follow.
Finally the grant is enabling me to produce my next collection and to work on my own practice as a poet with editorial support from Nick Triplow. My project is still under wraps as I am immersed in the world of A Fish Tale for now but suffice to say that I am planning something innovative and exciting. I am so grateful that I have this opportunity and time ahead of me to devote to my work. It’s very exciting and there will be much more to follow.
The process of writing this collection began in the distant early spring of 2016 when Gill Wilde, promoter and director at Grimsby Jazz asked if I’d like to collaborate on a jazz and poetry project with Alan Barnes and Pat McCarthy in which we would use the heritage of fishing in Grimsby as inspiration. I was thrilled to be asked, not just because of my Grimsby origins and the fact that people here are 90% sea water and 10% east wind but because the story is a compelling and multi-faceted one. Furthermore, the opportunity to work with musicians of such outstanding calibre was not something I was going to miss.
Gill arranged a visit to the Grimsby Fishing Heritage Centre and a tour of The Ross Tiger, the trawler that stands in dock as a lasting testimonial to the astonishing fleet that made Grimsby one of the most significant fishing ports in the world at its heyday. It’s always made me sad how through my lifetime I have seen the docks decay and fall into disuse and disrepair. There is a wealth of history and heritage here that has been allowed to fall into nothing.
The tour of the centre and the trawler were impactful and I set about writing and produced the first draft of the poems very quickly. I like to write collections in this way as I can capture a mood and feeling and the work is always more cogent when it comes as a flurry. Refining, editing and revising is where the real work is done and that took longer and was exciting as the poems developed their form and shape.
The story of fishing in Grimsby is a bleak one. It was built on a corrupt system of apprenticing boys from orphanages and workhouses and exploiting their labour. It was dangerous and uncertain and loss of life was an occupational hazard. However, I didn’t want the poems to just be bleak and unrelenting – like the work itself. I sought ways of telling stories about fishing that had elements of awe, wonder and magic about them. This led me to explore superstition and myth and to some wonderful and mysterious findings. Two of the poems, Witches in Eggshells and The Fisherman and the Seal Woman are centred on myths and the influence it had on our seafaring community. I also looked to nature and the power of the elements. I was particularly unnerved by the power of the barfrost, the black frost that could sink ships rapidly. The poem Barfrost is an attempt at capturing the fear and danger it represented.
Once the poems were written I was able to wait, with considerable anticipation, to hear Pat and Alan’s music. I knew it would be brilliant and I knew the ensemble of musicians performing it would bring the whole work to life in a visceral way.
On May 18th, 2016, Gill and I were sitting in the Old Clee Club as the musicians warmed up and Alan gave his directions. I was trembling with excitement and when the first notes of the suite sounded, Gill and I yelped and leapt up. The air in the club danced and I was overwhelmed. What a sound. Alan’s arrangements were full of detail and movement. I could feel the sea as the music rose and swelled and then ebbed back.
During the premier performance that evening I was carried with the rhythms and tones of the octet and as I performed the poems I felt them fit the music, I felt my voice working to carry the mood and nuance of the suite. It was an astonishing experience and the rapturous response of the audience was as moving as it was surprising. As a poet I am used to reading to quiet and polite audiences, and I enjoy that, but this was something else entirely. It was the same at the Cleethorpes Jazz Festival and the euphoria I felt swept me away.
And so, what a thrill to be taking A Fish Tale on a national tour this year. We start in July in Hull and Grimsby and then take a leisurely national excursion with it until mid November. All dates plus information regarding tickets are here on the website with links to venues.
The book A Fish Tale is available to buy for £6.50 (including postage and packing) via the secure Paypal link (leave your address in the notes): paypal.me/msjosiemoon
Blackbird heralds dawn as light breaks. Where his gentle wing abides spring enters in as a protest and his song sings of hope.
I had the pleasure of being invited to talk about poetry on Radio Humberside this week as part of the BBC’s shout out for short poems to be considered for inclusion in a City of Culture poetry installation later this year. Anyone can participate; simply write a poem of no more than four lines that says something about where you live. Write it on a postcard and drop it in one of the posting boxes either at the Radio Humberside office or at one of the libraries.
The poem I contributed, Ode To Joy, is at the beginning of this column. I had been listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the magnificent fourth movement with the Ode to Joy and thinking about its significance as one of the most enduringly popular and moving classical compositions of all time.
In 1942 the Nazis attempted to appropriate the Ninth and the Ode to Joy’s unequivocal message of unity and brotherhood in a performance for Hitler’s birthday. This naturally tainted the piece for some time, but it was reclaimed in 1951 when it was conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Bayreuth music festival. Subsequently it was adopted as the anthem of the European Union in 1971 and has been performed at significant moments in history since. For instance, Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of the Ninth when the Berlin Wall came down. The Ode to Joy continues to resist appropriation and be a resolutely optimistic work that truly celebrates universal values of love, unity and cooperation.
Inspired by Freidrich Schiller’s poem written in 1785 Beethoven takes the essence of the poem as inspiration for his symphony. It is a beautiful eulogy to the power of joy and of divine love. I was struck by the line in Schiller’s poem in which he references the sanctuary of heaven ‘where your gentle wing abides’ and its borrowed plumage well serves my own poem.
The song of the blackbird was my inspiration, as well as this wonderful moment in time, the spring equinox, when dark finally gives way to light and the days lengthen towards the summer. Listening to the blackbird singing in the early morning and hearing the pure notes of life affirming delight in its song, I am as uplifted as I am when I hear the Ninth Symphony. Both contain music that speaks directly to the soul and connect the oneness of the self to the embrace of the universe. In my poem I wanted to bring together Beethoven, Schiller, the blackbird and the idea that human connection, unity and shared optimism still matter. However dark the days might seem and however hard and cruel the world can appear to be, there is still a way to transcend darkness and to find solace and hope in the sublime; whether that is in the sublime beauty of Beethoven or in the morning song of the blackbird in your garden.
(First published in The Cleethorpes Chronicle, Thursday 23rd March 2017)