Exploring Janet Sutherland’s poetry

There are perhaps only a couple-of-dozen poets I find myself returning to time and again. In the last year, however, Janet Sutherland has become one of them.

Janet Sutherland Home Farm jpeg

I own her four collections from Shearsman Books, which are, in order of publication,  Burning the Heartwood, Hangman’s AcreBone Monkey, and Home Farm. Each of these books contains an embarrassment of riches, and the more I look into them, the less able I feel to convey just how much I admire this work. But in the spirit of not letting perfect be the enemy of the good, I’ll have a go here. I know it’s a spoiler, but the short version of this blog post is: do yourself a favour and simply read Janet Sutherland’s books now.

Certain themes and images recur throughout the collections. In the first of them, Burning the Heartwood, poems that refer to a Wiltshire farm background in poems like ‘an image of skin‘ are already in place. While in her second collection Hangman’s Acre we meet her character Bone Monkey, who gives its name to her third collection, Bone Monkey. This was the first of her books I read, having been told to do so by my pal Charlotte Gann. Many of the poems this collection contains are about this dark, Loki-like trickster, somehow bestial, but all too human:

Bone monkey knows himself a god
although his raddled arms, his ruined balls
and buttocks seem to say he’s less than that.

(As a God, from Bone Monkey)

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I love the freedom the adoption of a dubious and unreliable character provides. In Janet Sutherland’s hands he becomes a violent, legendary figure.

Bone Monkey swaggers through a plain of thorns
crowned with insignia of warlike deeds–
emblems stolen from the wolves
are fixed securely to his skull with cords

(Emblems from Wolves, from Bone Monkey)

It was in the Bone Monkey collection that I first became enchanted by Janet Sutherland’s lightness of touch with images.

I think of memory
like three swans that sweep
over the river’s surface

ghosts
of the aerial
and of the deep

or like the rivers’ flow
tidal and complex
at an estuary.

(His exposition on the art of memory, Bone Monkey)

The poet has no axe to grind and never seeks our pity. Instead there is alchemy. Personal experiences accrue a near mythical force, in imagery that is dewy fresh and deftly condensed. Images return hauntingly in her work, such as her repeated association of  association of snakes with water…

little adders fall
out of pitch-forked hay

into the stooks
floating the swollen river

(Memory, from Burning the Heartwood)  

This river’s a snake that opens its mouth
and sings, looping and undulating, leaving
a sloughed skin oxbow by its side.

(At Cuckmere, from Home Farm)

Culminating in the wonderful weirdness of these eels.

                                                                 …At night
white water grinds over and over through this sieve,
and in that loneliness the eels come quietly, one by one,
driven by longing for a spawning place at sea. Slither
an eye across the peep show floor. The risen dark
pools where eels still hide trapped in a storage well,
somersaulting, tumbling and unbalancing.

(The Eel House, from Home Farm)

Home Farm, published this year, contains perhaps Janet Sutherland’s most autobiographical work. Here her childhood exists in several dimensions: in the awareness of the history of the land, of villagers who lived there before, of family history, in the names of fields and beasts and flowers, and in the suggestions of fleeting human experience, and the tragedy of lost memory. And the result is… Well, just wonderful.

For some reason, she makes me want to use the word ‘ontology’ for her poetry has a complex kind of ‘being’ that has, for me, proper heft and its own strange life. At her best, Janet Sutherland has the power to make her fabulously-realised world exist in the imagination as a place one wants to continually return to.  I can admire lots of poetry, but there are few collections I genuinely love as much as these.

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Magnificent Grace, by Skelton Yawngrave

If you happen to know a child of 9-12 who likes reading, and want a tale set in the run up to Halloween and Guy Fawkes night… then I have a full length story (a.k.a. my kindle experiment) for them. It’s creepy, funny, magical and dystopian and is about trying to bring together a divided populace.

Grace is a heroine for a troubled age. The story was complete before I came to know about Greta Thunberg. Grace would love Greta.

It can be found here on Amazon. It’s on kindle at the moment — at a snip — turning into a paperback soon now looks likely.

The cover painting is by the splendid young artist Ellie Francesca Watson. Ellie happens to be the daughter of Carl, one of my oldest and best pals, which makes it doubly nice for both of us. Also I would like to thank Charlotte Norman who edited the manuscript and helped me recognise, and then eliminate, some bad habits in my prose style. What I learned from her was enormously useful, and I have carried these learnings into my short horror fictions.

Thanks are also due to my chum Tracey Middleton who, tired of my whining early this year, put a rocket up my derrière to get this done.

Being married to a headteacher is a wonderful boon too, and Lorraine’s patience, encouragement and knowledgeable guidance has been invaluable. Our friends in education Rosie Taylor and Dawn Daniel have given me essential feedback and the opportunity to go into schools and try it out on real life children.

Several years ago, my mum painted pictures of some of the characters, and this was extremely useful in focusing my ideas.

I decided to publish this story under a pseudonym. It has had an unexpected psychological boon. I struggle to promote myself, but I adore Skelton Yawngrave, however, who is a character in the book as well as its author, and I would do anything to help him.

So this is my kindle experiment. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Posted in a writer's life, Art, Blowing my own trumpet, Book Launch, Children's fiction, Fiction, Prose | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Supernatural Tales 41, Autumn 2019

As a horror and weird fiction newbie, I’m delighted to have my first story The Inheritor in Supernatural Tales, edited tirelessly by David Longhorn. My tale is set in Guernsey, and draws on my childhood experiences of living in my Grandparent’s haunted 16th century granite cottage.

The story concerns the return of an exile, a burial and a the return to a haunted house (see above). You’ll be pleased to learn it all ends horrifically. I preface The Inheritor with a quote by Victor Hugo, who lived on the island.

‘Houses resemble those who dwell in them, and can, as it were, die…  These weird looking abodes are not rare in the Channel Islands; all agricultural and seafaring classes have a strong faith in the active agency of Satan.’

Victor Hugo, The Toilers of the Sea

The table of contents has some heavy hitting horror and weird fiction writers. Chuffed to be among them.

  • That the Sea Shall Be Calm by David Surface
  • Pertrichor by Sam Dawson
  • Old Habits by Stephen Cashmore
  • The Sea Man by James Machin
  • Sorrow is the Mother of the World by Jeremy Schiliewe
  • The Inheritor by Peter Kenny
  • No Passage Landward by Steve Duffy.

You can buy your copy of Supernatural Tales here.

Posted in Fiction, Guernsey, Guernsey Literature, Prose, Short Stories | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Dream Home

Very happy to have a new dark tale in the Autumn 2019 94th edition of the literary magazine The Frogmore Papers, edited by Jeremy Page. There are two other stories in this edition: A Citadel by Natalya Lowndes, and A Few Brief Words by Andrew Blair. I found both had a lovely balance of humour and pathos. A Citadel is an evocative portrait of the narrator’s Uncle Julius a lonely, hard-drinking British ex-pat in Moscow. A Few Brief Words, takes the form of a speech given at a funeral for a curmudgeonly writer who idolised Arthur Miller.

My own story The Dream Home is about insomnia, and is based on a technique I used in the past to fall asleep. The idea is when you go to bed, to imagine your perfect house. Night after night I would do this, adding to the house I was building in my imagination, and then I would nod off. In this story, there is naturally something lurking in the dream home. Like others of my recent stories, I set it in a place I have lived in. When I first moved to Brighton over fourteen years ago now, I lived in a Twitten called Camden Terrace very close to the railway station. I often lay awake listening to the rough sleepers gathered in the underpass of Trafalgar Street, and could hear them shouting and sometimes singing.

This issue of The Frogmore Press as ever has some fine poetry in it. Two poems have leapt out at me right away. One by my pal Stephen Bone, called Curry which is spicy in every sense, and another by Laura Chalar called The Nineties Revisited. This simply written poem about a lost time and lost love that got me right away. Here are its closing lines…

“Bring back

your gorgeous life and mine–never
to be merged, I’m afraid (too late for that),

but for the humbler treats of coffee
and a talk. You may of course choose to

remain silent, but I’ve always been curious–
how on earth could you fail to gauge

the depth of that love? Come back, will you? Can you?
We’re so young. A bright century is about to come in.”

Posted in a writer's life, Blowing my own trumpet, Horror, Poetry, Prose | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Glen Capra

Glen Capra, photo by Adrian Turner

Like many of his friends, I was distressed to learn of Glen Capra’s death on 29th August in Greece. I was one of a group who regularly went for beers in The Evening Star with Glen when he made one of his regular visits back to Brighton after he had settled in Kavala.

Glen was a considerate and sensitive man, who was passionate about his relationships, music, art and life. This makes the fact that he took his own life extremely hard to take. Close friends, especially Richard Gibson, were in frequent touch with him before he died. He had been depressed and disoriented after his short marriage had abruptly ended. His death was a shock for everyone, and texts I’d had from him a few days earlier showed no sign of what was to come.

I watched Glen perform on many occasions in the UK and in Greece. He was a sensitive accompanist and wonderful pianist with a particular passion for Rachmaninov.

A little over nine years ago, Glen and I met through our mutual friend the composer Matthew Pollard. Matt and I were collaborating on a project that was to become This Concert Will Fall In Love With You — later recorded with additional material as the CD Clameur and Glen was Matt’s first choice to play piano. Matt and Glen had were old friends, performing together in the Tacet Ensemble and The Rainbow Chorus for example. Matt also wrote three linked compositions called Three Portraits for Poet and Piano, which Glen and I performed in its premiere in 2012.

Clameur written my Matthew Pollard and Peter Kenny featuring Glen Capra on piano.

For me it was the start of a friendship that would endure until now. Glen was a thoroughly good bloke, who was hugely liked by a great many people. I will miss him.

Below is a YouTube video of Minotaur, one of the Three Portraits for Poet and Piano by Matt Pollard with Glen on piano and me doing the words.

Featuring Glen Capra on piano, Minotaur by Matthew Pollard and Peter Kenny

Posted in Clameur, Matthew Pollard, Music, This Concert Will Fall In Love With You | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

What You Look For

Edvard Munch, The Scream, detail of lithograph, 1895. The Munch Museum.

My short story What You Look For has just been published in Horla.

The story is loosely based on a house I shared as a student in Leamington Spa — with what I hope is a horrific twist. I did once see what I think of as a ghost, which appeared as I describe in this story, although the figure I saw was a woman.

After I finished this story I realise what I may have written was really an allegory for the onset of the panic attacks which started in my early twenties. I experienced debilitating attacks for at least ten years. I had what I thought of as ‘seasons in Hell’, where for stretches of two or three months I might experience as many as five or six attacks in a day.

In my early thirties I finally got help from a systemic therapist in Richmond, Surrey. She had a crumbling spine, and was in agony and spent the sessions lying on her couch. I felt a bit sheepish. She had a real problem. I was just a panicky mess. However, and somewhat miraculously, she fixed me in one session.

‘What makes it stop?’ she asked.

In all the years of attacks on planes, tubes, walking down the road, in the comfort of my own rooms, I had never asked myself this question. I was an expert at what started the terrible plunge into panic, but not on what ended it.

By focusing on what I felt like at the end of a panic attack, I was able to fast forward through the attack, and reach the end unscathed. While I have had the occasional moment of panic since that first consultation, it has never dominated my life again.

I went once more to her, and she told me never to come back again. She died a few months later. To my shame I can’t remember her name, but she gave me the single best piece of advice I was ever given.

I hope you enjoy the story.

Posted in a writer's life, Autobiographical, Blowing my own trumpet, Horror, Prose | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Home thoughts from abroad

So at last found a bit of time to update this blog, as you can see from the photo, taken by my brother, of me tapping away on a terrace in Sicily. I am here taking a break with family. I love Sicily, and the terrace is quick with lizards, and has geckos crawling about on the walls in the evenings. So good to escape the political madness plaguing the UK for a while.

Naturally, there is always time for a quick humblebrag… A poem of mine The House of Hidden Hope, on the poetry village website. This was based on my grandmother who hid things in the fabric of the 16th century granite cottage she lived in Guernsey. She was a practical person who built cupboards, but also secreted things away in case of burglary and so on. This meant wedging objects into the fabric of the house, rather in the way spells were done in older buildings.

I am also continuing with my horror craze, and have two short stories about to be published this autumn, one, The Inheritor, will appear in Supernatural Tales, and is based on Guernsey, in a spooky house also modelled on the one my Grandmother lived in, the other is a nightmarish take on insomnia, called The Dream Home, which will appear in The Frogmore Papers this autumn. I am finding horror stories a rich seam, and have written several over the last few months. I am loving it.

Posted in a writer's life, Horror, Poetry | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments