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The reason for using epigraphs

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An epigraph is a short quotation which is placed between the poem and its title. I have heard people wonder aloud about why poets do this, and some people even think it is there to show off how erudite the poet is.

In fact, the reason most of them are there is because of the following reasons:

  1. A way to acknowledge an inspiration or influence
  2. A way of demonstrating openness about the origin of a particular line
  3. Showing the reader some of the thinking process behind the poem
  4. Sharing a pithy quotation which sums up the poem – or in some cases, the whole collection

I’d be interested to hear from other poets their reasons for using epigraphs too, so drop a comment if you can add to my list.

I want to share one of my own poems which has an epigraph, to demonstrate what I mean:

Pomegranate

For Jan Dean

Time, you thief, who love to get
sweets into your book
Leigh Hunt
Five pointed star, my pentacle,
how I would lift your jewels
from their case, one by one
on the pin’s point, before
I found a better way.

Now I bite into your leather
with greedy teeth, devouring
your ruby firmaments.
Time’s a thief and so am I,
seizing everything I can.

Time enough for picking out
your treasures one by one
when days begin to bleed
into each other like washed
watercolour sunsets.

Even Persephone could not resist
your glowing fairy-lights.
I garner your seeds for my journey,
on clean parchment draw
my magical five pointed star.

from Paper Patterns (Lapwing 2012)

I wrote this poem and then during the redrafting, realised I’d unconsciously echoed a line from the wonderful Leigh Hunt poem ‘Jenny Kissed Me’. I did not want to change my line, so I added the epigraph to show my debt to this poet from the past. The lines I chose not only acknowledge my debt but pithily summarise one of the themes of my poem, carpe diem.

Copies of Paper Patterns are available from me, or from the publisher’s website.

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The Title of Poet: praise word or description?

There has been discussion about what a poet is and whether one can confer the title on oneself. I was tentative for a long time about calling myself a poet. Many say a poet is someone who writes poems. But what makes something a poem? When I was a very young poet (13 or 14), I used to show my work to people and ask’ is this a poem?’ by which I meant ‘does it do what poems are meant to do, is it magic?’That is why I don’t believe in bad poems, if it’s bad, it’s not a poem. William Carlos Williams said ‘if it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem’.
By calling oneself a poet, if one simply means that one writes poems, I don’t have an issue with that. But the secondary definition is that a poet is a ‘person with great imagination and creativity’. I don’t feel I could say that about myself unless other people said it about me first.
Matt Simpson always said poet was a ‘praise’ word. There is a tradition behind this assertion. So I used to call myself a writer of poems, or just a writer – which is true enough because I do write other things, such as critique books for Greenwich Exchange, chapters of books aimed at undergraduates, GCSE textbooks. But these are by products of my teaching career. I have written poems since I was very young, but when I read Robert Graves’ The White Goddess’ at 15, I decided to dedicate myself to poetry. I read Auden’s essay ‘The Dyer’s Hand’ too, and from these texts gleaned that I needed to immerse myself in poetry and learn from the masters. I tried every form in Frances Stillman’s Poetry Manual. A poet needs to have the knowledge, to read, to learn from the best, and to keep on doing so.
I was almost 19 when I first met Matt Simpson. We gradually moved from mentor/ mentee roles into friends who commented on each other’s poems, a shift which evolved over a long period. I dedicated my first collection, Dandelions for Mother’s Day (Stride 1988) to him in recognition of my debt to him.
In 2009, he had a heart bypass operation. He was fully aware that he might not pull through and horrified me by describing it as ‘an awfully big adventure’. He had the operation on the Monday and it was a relief that it appeared to have gone well. I went to visit him in hospital on a beautiful June day. He hadn’t wanted me to go and see him in intensive care but I was so glad I did. It was to be the last time I ever saw him. This poem was written a few days later, after his death:

Hospital Visiting

I trace your steps
from hospital car park
in warm evening sun
impatient to see you.

A machine helps me find
a path to you through grey
shiny corridors, up stairs
and over bridges, through

protocols and passwords,
hand gels to sanctify me,
like holy water in church,
before I can touch you.

I have to ask where you are.
The medics have claimed you
though I’m allowed
to squiggle on to a high stool.

We think this is all temporary,
that soon we’ll have you home,
a new man. We’ve plans for you.
You say it’s kind of me to come.

As if I could stay away. You know
I love you. You introduce me
to your favourite nurse, the one
with the film star eyes. Tell her

‘This is my friend Ange, a poet too.’
Not a title to be claimed for oneself,
but you gave it freely, a last bequest
in your final days of life. *

Whether one subscribes to the notion of poet as a title conferred, as Matt did, or sees it purely as meaning someone who writes poems, what Matt said to me on that visit was a great gift, and I know he did it deliberately.

I read it as giving me that long-withheld title, out of love and respect, of passing the baton to me, of telling me to go forward with my poetry despite him not being there to critique and encourage me, as he always had done, his way of saying I was a fully-fledged poet, which indeed he had said in a review but not to my face.

And it is why I now feel able to call myself a poet.

*This poem first appeared in my Salt Modern Voices pamphlet I Sing of Bricks and was united with the remaining poems from the 17 poem elegiac sequence I wrote for Matt, from my Rack Press pamphlet Catching On in my collection Paper Patterns (Lapwing 2012)

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StAnza 2014: The Lightfoot Letters

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We set off on Tuesday morning, with all the art work for the exhibition, ‘The Lightfoot Letters’, neatly stacked in the car. Wednesday morning was spent putting up the exhibition in the Preservation Trust Museum, assisted by the curator, Sam, who was a fantastic help. It took over four hours but we were very pleased with how it all looked. A lot of people came up to me during the week wanting to discuss the exhibition, which was lovely. It really was an amazing co-incidence that Maria Walker had purchased the letters long before she met me and we had both produced work on the family prior to starting to work together. As I said at the artists’ talk, in a sense both of us were collaborating with the letter writers as well as each other. Maria often used words from the letters as a title for a work, or included the words on the art. I referenced the letters a lot in the new poems I had written for the project, for example, in my poem about my grandmoher Ada Lightfoot, nee Woodward, whom I never met as she died in 1933, I synthesised details from her marvellous letters.

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We managed to hang these large versions of the letters, scanned and printed onto cloth, above the door lintel in the Preservation Trust, with sterling work from my husband scaling tall ladders to screw the battens in. One of my grandmother’s letters is on the right. The one on the left is from my grandfather, and includes the words about the hot pot supper he is attending: I will have to use a knife and fork but I would rather have a spoon’. He always liked his food, but was tall and slim all his life. Maria produced two stunning pieces inspired by his words; you can just see the spoons piece to the left of the doorway. 

Maria had not yet done any work on the theme of skating when we met, as one of her main research interests is women’s lives. But my dad wrote three letters to his older sister during this intense 3 month period when she was away from home, and in all of them he is obsessed with skating. I worked hard at a poem to do him justice, and Maria found it a good way in to produce several wonderful pieces about skating, culminating in the amazing hanging she made, which appears to be floating from a typewriter.

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Eleanor Livingstone, the Director of StAnza, suggested that my poem, ‘Father, Skating’ be displayed on a window in The Byre, as a trail to the exhbition. It’s the first time that the poem has not been in large vinyl letters in the actual exhibition, but there would not have been space in the actual upstairs room where everything else was shown, so this was an inspired idea. I am grateful to Anja Konig for noticing it as at that point I had not been up to the studio theatre, so I hadn’t actually spotted it. 

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It was gratifying to have pointed it out to Paul Muldoon as we were walking past it discussing his masterclass, though I did not of course mention the fact that I had submitted the poem to The New Yorker, with a disappointing result! It’s more important to me that people tell me they love this poem, and the main thing for me is that my dad skates on between the lines and is still 12 years old and carefree.

This was the first time the exhibition has been shown outside of Cheshire, and it is also the first time it has featured at a Poetry Festival. Maria and I will always be grateful to Eleanor for noticing the art and poetry collaboration in this way and inviting us. She is truly a director with a finger on the pulse of poetry. We would love it if other poetry festivals would take up the exhibition. We also offer an artists’ talk and workshops if required. And of course I love performing the poems in the sequence, which appear in my book Paper Patterns (Lapwing 2012) and the chapbook The Lightfoot Letters, which also includes the text of some of the letters themselves (Erbacce 2011). Maria and I still dream that a big publisher will one day be interested in publishing a book of the letters, poems and artwork. The letters themselves are amazing social history and there is still a lot in them to be mined.

 

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I Grew up with Doctor Who

Doctor Who first started in 1963. I was nine, and my dad said to me that a new programme was starting that I was going to like, and did I want to watch it with him. Mum wasn’t keen on Science Fiction but Dad loved it. So we’d watch it together while mum was cooking. (Dad used to do a lot of the cooking, but Mum was a great cook too.) Dad died in 1978 when I was 24. I rarely missed a Doctor Who episode, it was only when it got a bit silly towards the end that I gave up on it.

When it started again with Christopher Eccleston, I was very excited and we watched it as a family. My daughters love Doctor Who and so do their husbands, so it is still a family thing. I had an A level class who loved it as well and we’d often discuss it at the end of lessons, and in my writers club at school.

The new Doctor Who benefits from stylish special effects, unlike the first series which was done on a shoestring. All three doctors so far in the new version have brought something new to the role, and it’s also good to see ‘assistant’ becoming ‘companon’. I am exicted to see what Capaldi brings to the role. The Doctor needs to be capricious, mysterious, wise, energetic, brave, resourceful and if I am honest, a little bit sexy too.

Here is my Doctor Who poem, written for Split Screen (Red Squirrel), included in Paper Patterns (Lapwing) and in my selected Letting Go (Mother’s Milk Books).

Doctor Love

Jon Pertwee as The Third Doctor

 

 

Doctor, Doctor, when you first called I was nine.

I couldn’t come with you then, still hiding behind daddy,

sheltering in his shadow in front of our monochrome set

dreaming of Gallifrey, of diving into your kaleidoscope.

 

I was changing like you, renewing all my cells,

going through to my third incarnation:

a new version of myself with pointed breasts, long hair,

a waist. Not nylon slacks but Levi’s, lace and scent.

 

Doctor, Doctor, oh you dandy, velvet smoking jacket,

bow ties and leather gloves, you lounge lizard.

My mother warned me about men like you.

And yet you were the perfect gentleman, like daddy.

 

I watched as you outfaced Silurians, always polite

but not afraid to punch when words failed,

reverse the polarity and get the hell out of there.

I was getting out too: boys, A levels, university.

 

Doctor, Doctor, your world was colour like mine.

We watched you in black and white but knowing

others could see your green, burgundy and blue

as you strutted in galaxies, finding yourself, like me.

 

Daddy’s girl learned to argue, teenstruck and difficult.

I had no tardis to travel back to myself.  You

could have made everything alright again.

Where were you? Too busy on missions to call again.

 

Doctor, Doctor, you missed your chance with me.

 

 

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