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Tasting the Good Light

Inyo National Forest, California, July 2019

Midday heat slaps our faces and shoulders and we pant for breath, oxygen slipping away as we make our way up the White Mountains, searching for Methuselah. It’s only 10,000 feet, but in the heat, the sky so blue, the view spilling out further than we’ve ever seen, it feels like climbing into the heavens. I read on a placard that the red rocks at our feet used to be part of a seabed. Here we are then, strange, soft, grounded creatures, lifted up, sweaty, breathless, and burned, to where the angels sit.

Methuselah, the tree, isn’t 900 years old, like its biblical counterpart. Methuselah the tree is far, far older, estimated to be around 4,850 years old. We don’t know which of the ancient trees is Methuselah – it is kept anonymous, as protection from potential arsonists. We know the trees around us are old, though. The oldest living things we’ve ever seen, twisted and white-gold, bleached and bare. In the brightness of the midday sun, they shine. There is an uprooted trunk lying by the path. The placards tell us that when it finally fell, it was around 3,200 years old. 3,200 years ago, this seed split, shooting into life; 3200 years ago, myths were alive – the Trojan war raged; Rameses III ruled Egypt; a solar eclipse heralded Odysseus’ return; the Phoenicians developed the alphabet. 3200 years ago, ‘Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life.”’ 3,200 years later, my parents read Hannah’s name in an ancient book, pluck it out, gift it to me, and I place my hand on the trunk of tree that’s as old as myths. It is warm, and smooth to touch.

I have spent the past week at the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) Thirteenth Biennial Conference, ‘Paradise on Fire’, at the University of California, Davis. In November last year, California experienced the largest and deadliest fire in modern American history. The Camp Fire caused the deaths of 85 people, and the town of Paradise, in Butte County, was destroyed. The name of the conference had been coined prior to the Camp Fire as a general reference to climate change; in the wake of the fire it became something more – a real, tangible expression of the devastation climate change is causing. Consequently, the conference was haunted by fire; most panels referenced the loss, and there were special sessions dedicated to the wildfires and the firemen who tackled them. Alongside and underneath these overt expressions of grief, fear and loss, was a general sense of devastation, and a desperate awareness of the vast amount of political and social change needed even to begin to resolve things. 

Two days into the conference, in a low, wooden building, tucked into a pocket of plant-life in a quiet corner of the campus, I attend a panel session entitled ‘A Nature Poetry Reading for the Anthropocene: Grief and Hope’. Maya Khosla, biologist, poet, filmmaker, and current Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, moves her bag so as not to accidentally squash a small, brown spider, and reads from her collection, All the Fires of Wind and Light (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2019). Her voice is intense, and filled, unexpectedly, with joy. Khosla is a field-based biologist researching the relationship between fire and wildlife. In the introduction to her reading, she explains that naturally-occurring wildfires are not to be considered harmful – they are part of a natural cycle of growth and rebirth. It is the non-naturally-occurring wildfires (those sparked by guns, cigarettes, climate change) that are damaging and should be grieved. Khosla’s poems, while facing directly into the realities of climate change, loss, and human illness, are poems of hope. In ‘Now You Can Set Down Your Fears’, she writes,

A sweep of brightness raises the mountaintops from sleep.
As if on cue, a rush of breath answers the stuff of ages,
the essentials, lands and gurgling waters awakened
by silences rising once the flames have fallen.
Now you can set down your fears.
Read aloud in Khosla’s intense, joyous voice, that titular line resonates.

Throughout the collection, Khosla writes of life returning to burned landscapes, guided by ‘internal instructions’, ‘inner eyes drawing from the Pleistocene’, ‘the mule deer, the lions. / All along, they knew to arrive. To shift and settle into place, / in a vast machinery of rebirth – tasting the good light’. In Khosla’s poetry, ‘Faith alights / on the sooty drapes covering trees. The birds cling, flash. / Announce the sap, the squirming meats, the great bounty.’ In ‘Diablo Winds’, ‘just weeks after the flames […] the rise of suncup, / biscuitroot, toadflax and whispering bells […] petals upon ash, / songbirds upon branches of charcoal, / black bear upon berries of abundance, fresh juices / trickling down the corners of her mouth.’ Sitting in that small, hot room, watching that spider move, I was struck by the power of her poetry. As a creative PhD researcher working in environmental studies, I am sometimes caught up in doubt – how can my writing, my poems, possibly do anything at all? What, in fact, is the point? There is a demand for a PhD to have impact – something tangible. What difference can a poem make? Listening to Khosla perform, I am called to awareness – through love and celebration – through hope – rather than fear. 

Once I began to look for it, hope was everywhere. Plenary speaker Nnedi Okorafor, author of (among others) Who Fears Death, Lagoon, and more recently, several issues of Marvel’s Black Panther, is asked how she stays optimistic in today’s world. She answers with a laugh. ‘If you don’t have any optimism,’ she says, ‘you don’t have any hope, and if you don’t have any hope, you’re not going to get anywhere.’ Laughter, for Okorafor, is how we stay alive. I am reminded of Robert Macfarlane, speaking at the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature Lecture earlier this year, and his discussion of living in a world ‘post-hope’, his plea to resist this malaise. Hope, for Macfarlane, is an act of resistance: our responsibility, and a defence against climate change and environmental degradation. In an interview with Rob Hopkins, Macfarlane says that ‘Action is a fabulous remedy. Language is action. Language is a world-making, world-shaping force. […] The discourse we use shapes, of course, everything that we encounter in the world and the ways we frame the world to ourselves. The metaphors we use deliver us hope.’[1] This is what I am struck by when Kholsa is reading, and this, I believe, is the point.

In Cherry Valley, site of the 2013 Rim Fire, tiny fir trees are growing; they reach up to my elbow and are a bright, grass green.

In Yosemite, a bear, lumbering and golden, forages at the base of a blossoming tree. 

Baby chipmunks the size of mice skitter over fallen branches in a grove of redwoods, rolling themselves in the duff.

The California hills are rolling golden, and I understand that they are not dry and dead and brown – they are just summering over, waiting. 

Up here with young, old, Methuselah, surrounded by white rocks, red stones, it suddenly doesn’t seem impossible that the planet will survive all this. Maybe we won’t – but the earth, with its magical, mystical, ‘machinery of rebirth’ will just keep going on, regardless.

Hannah Cooper-Smithson, NTU MA Creative Writing student 2015-17, and current M4C doctoral candidate


[1] Rob Hopkins, ‘Robert Macfarlane: “the metaphors we use deliver us hope, or they foreclose possibility”’ (2018) <https://www.robhopkins.net/2018/06/04/the-metaphors-we-use-deliver-us-hope-or-they-foreclose-possibility/> [accessed 18 July 2019]

Twilight Realm

NTU EMERITUS PROFESSOR GREGORY WOODS ON THE BLURBS FOR BOOKS OF GAY LITERATURE

Before the internet, before gay people on TV, before gay people in the movies, there were only gay people in real life. Oh, and there were books. I was a very young gay person with a yearning for other gay persons, but with apparent access only to books. I was a bookish young gay person. I haunted second-hand bookshops rather than clubs and cottages, of which I knew nothing. I became a keen decoder of cover illustrations and back-cover blurbs.

See the source image
The Heart in Exile (1953): ‘the strange half-world of the homosexual’.

Here is a ‘found poem’ made of quotations from the blurbs of paperback fiction, mainly from the 1950s and 1960s. These books, most of which I still possess, were my bookish young gay person’s introduction to gay life. Now that I am a bookish old gay person, I remember I was able to read between the lines for affirmative messages. But all that negativity, too, is still deeply inscribed in my DNA.

Summer in Sodom
Summer in Sodom (1964): ‘the borderline world of normal and abnormal love’

The novels were often far more upbeat than their covers would admit, but publishers clearly felt they had to pretend to be disgusted by their own merchandise. They made it look as if gay literature was for disapproving straight readers rather than bookish gay persons like me. Or you.

Mercifully, things have changed for the better. Bookish or not, young or not, gay or otherwise sexually dissenting, you are far more likely, now, to find the blurbs you need, to find the books you need to read. Twilight is just a time of day.

  1. A story of a forbidden relationship.
  2. An adult novel of a love between two men that defied society’s strongest taboo.
  3. A man’s struggle against the dark powers of moral disintegration.
  4. A frank novel of life and loves in a strange twilight world.
  5. The strange, twisted love that developed between them.
  6. A disturbingly frank novel of homosexuality in London.
  7. Evil influences and perverted desires.
  8. An adult novel that unmasks the stark reality of the twilight world.
  9. This difficult, painful theme.
  10. A novel of unusual interest.
  11. The loving and tragic relationship.
  12. A brilliant, tenderly written story of forbidden love.
  13. A group of well-meaning neurotics and perverts.
  14. The hidden depths of an abnormal relationship.
  15. He strove for other ways to satisfy his desires.
  16. A daring novel of two handsome young men and their strange passion for each other!
  17. The story of a passionate relationship between two men and its tragic and terrible consequences.
  18. It’s not so much his success that people hate, it’s just that he’s different. And they can’t forgive him that.
  19. It avoids any suggestion of melodrama or sensationalism.
  20. They’re a queer lot.
  21. Never before has a novel laid bare with such raw honesty the borderline world of normal and abnormal love!
  22. The fire of deviation smoldered within him.
  23. An unforgettable—deeply moral—adult novel that asks the question: Can two men of intelligence and integrity live as respected members of a society that would destroy them if their strange love were exposed?
  24. It is a near nightmare world.
  25. Can love here become a saving force, or is it condemned to be possessive and demonic?
  26. He knew that he had sinned in thought.
  27. His pitiful pursuit of the object of his abnormal affection and its inevitable and pathetic climax.
  28. Success in this quarter leads to revulsion and guilt.
  29. Diving deep into the waters of perversity.
  30. A frank novel of today’s most controversial subject.
  31. Society cannot understand their strange attraction.
  32. Never before has a novel treated the contentious subject of homosexuality with such honesty and insight.
  33. Their relationship is climaxed by a scene of unbelievable brutality.
  34. Set against the strange background of erotic, forbidden acts performed on moonlit beaches.
  35. The strange half-world of the homosexual.
  36. It is a serious and moving novel, with a compelling theme.
  37. It is a novel that will provoke controversy for a long time to come.
  38. A starkly realistic adult novel of men who satisfy their desire in the shadows.
  39. A powerful, revealing novel of the pressures and conflicts of abnormal love—with a shock ending no reader will ever forget!
  40. The secret life of a teenage idol. Millions of fans treasured his memory but only half a dozen knew the sordid truth.
  41. The twilight realm of sexual inversion is the scene of action.
  42. Three men and a strange and beautiful relationship that grows up between them.
  43. The murky, lucrative underworld of the professional homosexual.
  44. Confused by his socialist principles and his homosexual inclinations.
  45. A man incapable of returning her affection.
  46. The whole homosexual world into which the boy is plunged.
  47. It is also, implicitly, as powerful a denunciation of perversion in all its forms as has ever been made.
  48. The strange compulsive attractions of the twilight world of sex tempted until he surrendered.
  49. How long could he be faithful to his beautiful wife when he craved a different kind of love?
  50. The flaming heart rips the veil of secrecy from a strange marriage torn apart by abnormal desires.

Gregory Woods, NTU Emeritus Professor of Gay & Lesbian Studies and poet

This piece was first published in Nicci Robinson & Victoria Villaseñor (eds), Desire, Love, Identity: from the Nottinghamshire LGBTQ Community (Nottingham: Global Words Press, 2019), pp.125-128.

This Graveyard on the Brink of Beeston Hill

NTU MIDLANDS4CITIES DOCTORAL STUDENT TUESDAY SHANNON GOACHER ON A POETRY PILGRIMAGE: HEADING NORTH FOR TONY HARRISON’S v.

It’s a grey day in June 2019, 34 years since Tony Harrison’s v. was first published. Few poems manage to capture a landscape in the way that Harrison does in v., be it geographical or political; Channel 4’s 1987 broadcast, featuring Harrison reading the poem interspersed with clips of political and emotive film (including footage of Hitler, the Second World War, the Miner’s Strikes of 1984-5 and Margaret Thatcher) met with much controversy, and was even debated in The House of Commons. Today it’s considered a seminal piece, defining an era.

On this dour, though thankfully dry, day, I’m headed north to Leeds to visit the graveyard that inspired that poem, chauffeured by my supervisor, Rory Waterman. We make good time and get there relatively easily, despite a satnav instruction to ‘perform a U-turn’ which, upon following, is repeated.

The first thing I notice about the graveyard is its view back over Leeds, the Bauhaus-style buildings of Leeds University cutting into the skyline, the places where Harrison ‘learned Latin, and learned Greek’, contrasted against the lush greenery beyond.

Harrison blog 1
‘V POEM’ is attributed to 1987 – the year of the television broadcast, not the poem’s print publication.

We clearly aren’t the first to make this journey for these purposes, and a wrought iron sculpture shows pivotal historic moments from the graveyard’s history , with ‘V POEM’ on the timeline. Despite directions to the grave we’re looking for, the Harrison family plot isn’t easy to find. The poem had warned us this might be the case: ‘you’ll have to search quite hard’ for it, he writes. We split up, and I find a Byron about thirty yards away (though not ‘three graves on’, as Harrison put it in the poem) and Rory spots ‘Wordsworth, organ builder’ – accurately described in the poem as ‘opposite’ – before turning around to find the Harrison family vault.

Harrison blog 2
The poet’s father and mother – ‘Not Florence and not Flo but always Florrie’ (‘Marked with D.’) – are among others in his family who have been buried in Holbeck Cemetery, Leeds.

And now we aren’t sure what to do. We stand for a moment, reading the inscriptions and both thinking that we can’t just look at it and leave. So, we find a patch of grass that doesn’t seem to be atop anyone’s final resting spot, sit down and watch Tony Harrison’s Channel 4 reading. It’s an odd but comforting experience, and it feels like the right thing to do. At the end, we recall that Harrison does, in fact, invite us to visit, to check on his family plot, to take away the discarded beer cans, and to see whether the ‘UNITED’ spray-painted on the headstone has been left in place. It hasn’t. All the graves have been scrubbed clean of graffiti, though they do all still lean due to subsidence from the worked-out seams below – some, in fact, are completely toppled, while the graves beneath others are beginning to cave in.

Before we head back, we jump the graveyard wall to have a wander down the streets of back-to-back terraces Harrison knew as a boy, and look out at the view of Elland Road, where Leeds United ‘disappoint their fans week after week’ – now obscured from the hill-top graveyard, at least at this time of year, by a line of trees. A corner shop, the proprietor of which is a Patel, is open for business (though this is ‘K. Patel’, not ‘M. Patel’, as in the poem); children home from school ride bikes in the street rather than booting a ball at a tree; a bedraggled stray cat lounges on the roof of a car, making the most of the sun that has finally appeared, close to where scaffolding climbs one of the terrace ends. It feels as though not much has changed since Harrison’s 1984 return visit. In some ways, it hasn’t.

At the end of the day we stop at a service station just outside Leeds, in need of a caffeine top-up. It’s humid and the sun has come out properly, so we sit outside and chat about the poem, the graveyard, my research, while a few yards away a man in a grey t-shirt smokes. When we head to leave, he stops us, and asks if either of our surnames is Harrison. His is, but he ‘ain’t related to no poet’. He looks a lot like a younger Tony, though, and we go, wondering whether it is wrong to feel we might have just met the alter-ego from the poem.

Tuesday Shannon Goacher, NTU MA Creative Writing student 2016-17, and current M4C doctoral candidate

Two Weeks as a TLS Intern

MA CREATIVE WRITING STUDENT AMELIA GUTTERIDGE ON HER PLACEMENT WITH THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT

Walking into News UK headquarters – a flashy, glassy building next to The Shard, with security guards flanking the entrance – was a hugely intimidating moment. The TLS office itself is impressive in an entirely different way; every desk, table and flat surface is overflowing with books and newspapers. It looks precisely as you would want the offices of a leading literary newspaper to look. There was the table of books that had just come in, the shelves of books hoping to be looked at, the shelves of rejects – and all of this is before you get to the editor’s desk.

See the source imageMy time at the TLS, which I was awarded through the Creative Writing MA at NTU and undertook in September 2018, was an incredible learning experience; for two weeks I had a front row seat to the workings of one of the world’s best literary newspapers, and I was able to contribute to the paper in numerous ways. I rotated the books around the office, typed up corrections for articles, sent proofs to writers and sat in on podcast recordings and editorial meetings. I composed Tweets to be sent from the TLS’s Twitter accounts, and made contributions to the interactive map of writer’s homes in the UK that lives on the TLS website. My opinions were encouraged and listened to.

I also saw how quickly big decisions are made – for a person with a tendency to dawdle and procrastinate, this was hugely instructive. It broadened my understanding of the industry immeasurably, and I made invaluable connections.

The internship led directly to my first piece of published literary criticism. Having interned at the paper, I knew there was a certain standard I would have to meet in my work. I have now written two pieces for the TLS – a review of a gothic novel, and a short “poem of the week” piece. Not only have I been able to see my name in esteemed print, it is the first time in my life I have received payment in exchange for writing.

Amelia Gutteridge, MA Creative Writing 2017-19