Looking for Persephone in Hartlepool

You’ve heard this one, right? Once upon a time, there was a goddess called Demeter. Her power ripened corn, and brought the fruit to sweetness. But when her only daughter was abducted and taken to Hades, she went mad with grief. She wandered the world, searching for Persephone, and the world descended into perpetual winter.

Poets write based on Greek myths a lot. I have a poem in Under The Radar magazine issue 23 based on the Demeter/Persephone myth, and I thought I’d tell you how I came to write it – by doing to myself just what I did with Rose Condo in my last blog.

On a bitterly cold day in January 2015, I created a ‘Demeter body’. I asked myself –

DP1What if she wandered all the way to 2019?

What if she searched as far as Hartlepool?

What would she look like?

How would she move?

I imagined a muttering, distraught homeless woman, ingrained with grime, constantly scanning the gutter-edges of towns for a trace of her daughter, neck hunched forward, arms compulsively reaching out, quivering with painful hope at every child.

I got into character and went on a very long walk through the frozen streets. “Listen with your feet, the shadows are all ice”


I hunched myself, crunched my neck, and limped through some of the most neglected parts of Hartlepool Headland, down the walkway where “the old coal rail / is tarmacked and sequinned with broken fifths of scotch” and into town.

I walked through housing estates I’d never visited before. “Black dog on Vincent Street, slaver on its jowls”

I was astonished by the screams coming from playtime at the local schools. “Rosy little children / breathing out steam like rotting compost”


I even pushed through a damaged fence to search in the scrub near the railway, because by then the body was telling me that Demeter absolutely needed to check everywhere. Every dirty corner where the lost and trashed accumulate.

I lived, trusted and followed Demeter’s body for about four hours. When I came home, I was aching and exhausted, but I had a poem that seemed to have discovered a new voice.


The photographs featured here are composite images created from shots I took on my phone during my walk. They are my attempt to find a visual equivalent for the emotional atmosphere of the poem.

Subversion with a Heart

IMG_0395In recent months, parts of my home town have suddenly sprouted technicolour crochet placards, hearts and flowers, much to my delight. Many have exhorted me to ‘Love Where You Live’. One has begged me ‘Please Do Not Feed The Seagulls’. But it was when I saw the instruction ‘Be Kind To Each Other’ that I knew I must find these mysterious yarn bombers and talk to them for the show. What does kindness look like to a ninja knitter?

It turns out their kindness is of the practical variety. Small actions taken consistently, thoughtfulness, neighbourliness, an awareness that what you do in the public realm affects everyone around you. There Is No Such Thing As The Dog Poo Fairy. They are not ones to get too sentimental, or overstate the case for compassion in their own friendships, but is undeniably there, expressed in concrete terms – helping with interior decoration, cooking meals, and of course their collective creativity.

IMG_0394Now, I am sworn to secrecy about the group’s identity, they are fully anonymous (although they will talk back to you if you message their Facebook page). They met at a local neighbourhood planning meeting, all of them having been active in local governance and/or community projects for many years. These are the people who will get down to the nitty-gritty of local improvements – what the signage should look like, where the speed limit should be reduced, who parks where and what to do with that bin. They care enough to bother with interminable meetings, inevitable in-fighting and the hell that is committees.

But they were also disillusioned and disheartened by it all. Bureaucracy is frustrating at the best of times, and nothing was getting done. They wanted to take direct action, to show love for their town, brighten things up for their community, and spread a message of kindness. So now, if you are lucky, you may spy them in the dead of night, hats pulled down low, collars turned up high, toting their stepladder and staple gun. They are not teenagers, they are mums and grandmums, and bloody fabulous with it.

Heroism and Heartbreak – the residency continues!

Don’t tell anyone, but I get very, very nervous about delivering workshops to school children. Who knows what they might do?! Unripe humans! But it was my sacred duty as poet-in-residence at the Hartlepool WW1 archive project to spend a morning on a boat, sorry ship, on a ship, with 25 Year Five children, on a ship, writing about the ship that we were on. This ship.

PS Wingfield Castle
PS Wingfield Castle

Luckily, mostly what these unripe humans did was to get very excited by the joys of writing poetry, especially when they find out they have the powers of Amazing Adjectives and Super Similes! (Favourite extended simile of the day – “as red as a devil, sitting on lava, eating a bloody heart, in an Arsenal strip”)

We collectively made a poem describing the ship by describing its many parts, textures, surfaces. It worked. I smoothed out the edges. It’s now online on the archive website here – give it a read? You can find some more of mine up there too.

Behind the scenes at a workshop

IMG_0148Last Wednesday I gave a workshop to the writers’ group at Hartlepool Library, as part of my role as poet-in-residence at the Heroism & Heartbreak WW1 project, (latest poem now available here) which was a lot of fun to plan and research. So I thought I’d tell you what I did, in case it’s useful for anyone.

I knew that the group were split between poetry and prose writers, with some of the prosers habitually reluctant to try verse (which can seem daunting even to those of us who are poets by temperament). So I thought I’d trick them all by doing a session on prose poetry!!! Mwahahaha!!! This entailed me researching what the hell prose poetry is, which I did by reading stuff online and an anthology about The Great American Prose Poem (thank you Degna Stone for the loan). About four hours of this, on and off, on trains, et cetera, and I had selected four prose poems that I thought were accessible, memorable, full of interesting formal devices, and related to themes of war. The poems I chose were The 12 O’Clock News by Elizabeth Bishop, Monument by Mary Ruefle, No Sorry by Catherine Bowman and The Most Beautiful Word by Linh Dinh.

The workshop featured an intro to prose poetry, where I went off on a bit of a passionate rant about how they are fired by a similar impulse towards documenting the subjective experience of modernity as also powers many early twentieth-century visual movements like Dada, Cubism, Vorticism, and how the fragmentation and re-configuration of form, and therefore meaning, is common to all of them, and I may have totally made all that up…

Then we played a game I made up called ‘The Prose-Poetry Venn Test’, where I had made a load of cards saying things like ‘humour’, ‘formal rhyme structures’, and ‘true stories’ and everyone had to decide if they were features exclusive to prose, to poetry OR…..wait for it….could be used by both! In this way we laid the foundations for a world where poetry and prose were almost entirely overlapped.

After that, we read the four poems out loud and discussed them, which was GREAT, love a bit of controversy! At this point I was massively over-running my lesson plan, and everyone’s brains were dribbling out of their ears, so we had some tea and came back for two short free-writing exercises. In the first one, I read out Carl Sandburg’s WW1 poem ‘Iron‘, but line by line, with each line acting as a prompt for 45 seconds of free-write, which rolled on line by line to a full time of about 10 minutes. Then we immediately did 5 minutes free write in response to a variety of prompt questions inspired by my looking through the online archive. Then we had another 8 minutes to edit one or both of our source writes into a prose poem, which I assigned the arbitrary ‘rule’ of a 100-word limit.

I pushed them hard, really hard, but the final pieces when we shared back were uniformly excellent. As usual, I just have to remember that what I tend to plan for a 2-hour session is invariably 3 hours-worth of activity….

Heroism and Heartbreak

I’m very, very pleased to say that I am officially poet-in-residence (NAY! for I shall capitalise it in my joy! Poet-In-Residence!) at the wonderful online community archive for Hartlepool.

I am featured in the very specific WW1 section, which is excellent because it lets me continue on with writing and research I started last year for the Heugh Battery Bombardment project led by poet Martin Malone. My first poem is now live – called ‘Unspeakable’, it’s inspired by a conversation I had with a contributor to the archive at an open day held at Hartlepool Library in May. You can read it here!

The next open day is at Headland Library at 10am – 1pm on Saturday 10th July, so anyone with maritime links to Hartlepool, especially Merchant Navy, should drop in and chat to Gary and the team. And to me, you never know, I might put your story in a poem…

Poems from the ‘yuff

Heugh Battery gun emplacement, Headland, Hartlepool. For years I’ve been pronouncing it ‘Huff’, but I’m not from round here. It’s ‘the ‘Yuff’, and it’s where the first deaths on British soil took place in WW1 – at 8.10am on Wednesday 16 December 1914, when the town was bombarded from the sea. Over 100 people died, did you know that? Then the German ships went and knocked seven bells out of Whitby and Scarborough.


I’ve been part of a monthly writing group since January, bent to the task of researching and responding to the personal histories of those involved. We’ve put together this anthology, and we’re launching it with a reading at Hartlepool CFE at 5pm on Thursday 11 December. You’re most welcome to come along, and maybe buy a book – they’re most reasonably priced, and there are four poems in there from me. Here’s the titles, to create intrigue…

Night In The Barracks

The Margarets Go Digging Sea Coal

Etta Harris, Junior Mistress, Finds the Kingdom Of Heaven

Playing Soldiers