Our poet for Fresh Featured July 2015 is another Sheffield superstar, Pete Green (but before I get accused of Yorkshire-based nepotism: we will be going much further afield with next month’s featured freshie). Pete is singer and guitarist for The Sweet Nothings, and one of the good guys. He sent some poems along for Fresh, and I decided they were amazing. I also wanted to interview someone who crosses the border between songwriting and poetry on a regular basis. Here’s what happened…
KG: So first of all, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for Fresh Featured. Many of us know you’re a talented singer and musician with your indie pop band The Sweet Nothings, but now we can see you’re also a great poet. When did you start writing poetry?
PG: That’s very kind of you indeed, Kate – thanks! Well, effectively I started last year. I dabbled a bit in my teens, and then pretty much gave up for a long time on reading as well as writing poetry, because I thought there was no place for the sort of poetry I believed in. For two decades I concentrated on music instead. 2014 was when I began to write poetry in any kind of sustained and purposeful way, so that’s my year zero. All three of the poems here are from the earliest months of this period, and ‘The Money Tree’ was the first of them all.
The Money Tree
Up the track from Grindleford, our boots
crack through zesty bracken, nettle, lichen,
thread between strewn millstones,
haphazard, weathered, pockmarked as
the moon, emerald-edged with mosses,
spilt like change fumbled from
the pocket of a careless century.
This is the Longshaw Estate, bought in
1928 by the people of Sheffield,
held in trust for the pleasure of all.
We talk about your nursery
in its final months of life
and how the library might be next.
Here’s the money tree.
In their fortieth month of life
your apricot-soft hands grip and spread
across the rasping surface of a stone,
strike small change between the gaping
fibres of rain-tendered timber,
smacking down the queen.
Wet chips of the stone scatter,
the stone soft after all.
Don’t tell me your wish.
PG: Some subjects seem naturally to lend themselves better to one form. Others work OK with both. My themes include coastlines and underachievement, and these seem bridge poetry and music. But if I want to write about my kids, it feels much more apt to do that in poetry than song. Great pop songs about being a dad? You can count them on the fingers of no hands. Conversely, much of my songwriting also reflects my green socialist politics, and that’s something I’m wary of directing into poetry. We look to poetry for nuance and shading, while the way we think about politics tends to be much more binary; black and white. ‘The Money Tree’ is the furthest I’ve taken it, and I’m not likely to push it further any time soon.
But if we’re looking at the differences in approach between writing poetry and writing lyrics, there are bigger ones than subject-matter. Music gives your words a framework. In poetry, of course, you need form to do that. Glyn Maxwell is very insightful on this in his book On Poetry – he points out that the poet works against a backdrop of silence (and that even the best lyrics absolutely fail to stand alone as poetry).
I could go on and on about this, though I’d better stop before I draw a venn diagram. In the end the poet is far freer than the songwriter. But the freedom is its own challenge.
KG: What moves you most to write?
PG: Sometimes, as with these three poems, it’s a moment in isolation, and the transience of things. There’s a Sweet Nothings song called ‘Say There’s a Place’ which suggests a parallel realm where everything is permanent – every falling leaf, extinct railway line, every note played by a disbanded pop group, all somehow logged in some impossible archive. That’s a bit of a preoccupation of mine, and it possibly explains the state of my cellar.
But increasingly I’m moved to write by a place in isolation. My newest poem is called ‘Love Song of Ingleton Road’. It depicts an imagined tryst, at dusk, on a road at the edge of Chesterfield. I started to notice this road every time I saw it from a train window, and became slightly obsessed with it – the way it seemed to strain outwards to the wider world yet never quite reach. Eventually it forced its way into my writing, with a couple of characters emerging, and there wasn’t much I could do to stop it.
Coastlines and islands are another marginal setting that recurs in my work (see my 2013 solo album The Glass Delusion). So I’m compelled by places at the edge – either geographically, or socially and economically. Partly because they’re unsung and underwritten – neglected by artists as well as planners – so they offer a space to create something original. But mostly perhaps because their marginality offers so much in the way of metaphor. My protagonists in Ingleton Road are haunted by a sense of the unfulfilled – in their relationship but also in their whole lives. There’s a sense that the world has somehow passed them by. I’m attracted to the unspoken human drama of all this. I feel a kind of sublime in it.
It’s paradoxical to talk of the sublime in a mundane place, but there it is. It’s also picked up in the fiction of Jon McGregor, which derives an intense, luminous quality from settings like a suburban street in the midlands. And I sensed this same provincial sublime in the V&A’s Recording Britain collection when it was shown at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery last year. It’s a collection of art commissioned at the start of the second world war, to record the sights of a Britain under threat from bombardment and potential invasion (and subsequently urban development). These were not obvious scenes – they’re overwhelmingly places of little renown. So there’s marginality as well as transience in it. And I found pictures like Kenneth Rowntree’s – depicting a pub in Ashopton, the Derbyshire village which was later flooded to create the Ladybower reservoir – very moving for that.
The Sheffield exhibition of Recording Britain amounted to something full of human drama but implicitly – without, I think, including a single human figure. The settings were drawn with palpable love and the stories left implied, the context in the margins, for the viewer to fill in the gaps. That’s my ambition too, artistically. I’m still working towards it, but in the end that’s what I’d like my poetry to do.
Francois & the Atlas
Mountains in a dusty room
above a Bramall Lane pub —
by six or seven
Dazed, half-deaf, half-cut,
we dispersed into rain-streaked
Derby streets, diminished,
lost without the
Deirdres to direct us
The generator failed but the
Hidden Cameras played on,
unperturbed, adored, deriving
power from our
You sent me an mp3 —
‘Girl in Sunglasses’ by The Diskettes,
said it reminds you of me:
the lightness in my step
lasted for weeks
KG: Do you have any favourite poets and/or poems?
PG: I love Louis MacNeice for his musicality, humanity and broad palette. He’d be thought of as one of the British Isles’ very best poets of the 20th century if the critical establishment had less of a big stick up its arse. It’s the outsiders I seem to warm to. Charlotte Mew… Patrick Kavanagh… John Clare – another victim and a great exponent of provincial sublime. (Shall we treat that as a thing? Let’s treat it as a thing.)
Among contemporary poets I’m exhilarated by Kathleen Jamie’s eye for tiny detail and what amounts to a dialogue between the human and the landscape. All the poets with Sheffield’s Longbarrow Press have impressed me but in his awesome West North East collection Matthew Clegg has done more than anyone to convince me that there is a place, after all, for the kind of poetry I want to read, and write. It’s also prompted me to check out Li Po and Tu Fu, which is blowing my tiny mind. And right now I’m reading Helen Mort’s Division Street. The sudden, clarifying quality of her work is startling like a big gulp of cold gin.
It’s hard to choose a single favourite poem but Thomas Hardy’s ‘During Wind and Rain’ would be up there. A family moving house with all their possessions in boxes on the lawn. Rather than turn the drama up to 11, Hardy leaves it all to be inferred and focuses on a raindrop plunging down a carved list of names. Genius. Matt Clegg again – with poems like ‘The Walking Cure’ and ‘Open to the Sky’: these both document our malaise and hint at a more magnificent (if not necessarily accessible) alternative, which is all I could ever want.
KG: Do you ever read your poetry in front of an audience? If yes, is it a very separate experience to playing in a band? If no, have you ever thought about doing readings?
PG: Playing live music for most of my life has been good preparation for performing in front of audiences. And I often play solo with no amplification at all, in small rooms above pubs, much like the homespun poetry events I find myself at. So it has the same feel in some ways. In other ways it’s very different, and much more challenging. Indiepop is a genre and a community where authenticity and good intentions are valued more highly than technical proficiency. You can make mistakes and still thrive. Poetry is less forgiving. You’re more exposed. But you’re closer to the audience. So it’s risky, but rewarding.
I’ve only performed poetry a little so far, but it’s been an absolute thrill. Reading at the launch of the Sorgenkind Press anthology, which includes my first published poem, was a great experience. I can’t wait to do more of it.
KG: A lot of people are steered away from poetry – usually by accident – by unimaginative, elitist, or otherwise unpleasant English teachers. Others were lucky enough to have teachers who could make poetry feel like what it is: a living art form. What was your experience of studying poetry (at any level, from primary school all the way up to university)?
PG: I had an awful teacher in primary school who made the class write poetry once a week. He gave us a subject, and we had to write a poem on it. We would be ruthlessly docked marks for any deviation from the format of three quatrains rhyming ABAB. To the kids, this session became a contemptible joke. If my teacher had had the vaguest idea about reflection on professional practice, he’d have realised that he was simply teaching people to hate poetry. But this was Grimsby in the 1980s: insularity and zero expectations. Why would it matter? We were all just going to work in fish finger factories.
Teaching is mostly better than that now. But the problem around poetry in the UK extends beyond the education system. It’s interwoven with the class system. The problem is the tiny, privileged audience most poets seem to write for: not just educated at least to bachelors level, but widely travelled, and widely enough read to grasp unexpanded geographical, historical and cultural references in an instant. Poets who write in this way are essentially doing the same thing as my primary school teacher, and teaching people to hate poetry.
If the first line of your poem really must refer to an Andalucian portrait artist from the 1880s, remember that most people won’t know what you’re on about. So do it in a way that draws in rather than shuts out. Give some context. Use an epigraph to do it, or a note, if that works best. This doesn’t make you some lowlife populist: it makes you a more effective poet and probably a better human being.
This is the final fortnight
of your freshman year,
the taught becoming teacher
to fill these lengthening days. Today
you show the kids some kicking,
poised on the poolside, though
not diving in. Your loose limbs
model the movements —
Like this, you repeat. Now you try.
Hands locked to the rail,
they emulate your motion,
all floundering legs,
flail like netted herring,
thrashing up the densest
tumult of bubbles. Turbid air
In a second or so the
water will bespatter your
fresh white Nikes,
daub a shock of precipitous
cold across your
apple-gold cheeks — but first,
first there is this moment
whose own buoyancy will
one day bear it back, unbidden,
to the surface to redden your
wedding-photo eyes; this moment
when the droplets, propelled
from the pool, having arced to an
apex, refract the open-ended
sunlight of this Saturday morning,
suspended in air, suspended
in time: diffuse
KG: And finally, we’re all writers and readers here, so do you have a favourite word? Let’s have it…
PG: Oooh, fun! Well, when I can’t sleep at night, or I want to pass the time while I’m waiting for a takeaway or something, I go through the alphabet in my head, choosing a mellifluous word beginning with each letter in turn. Anthracite, brachiopod, coruscating, desiderata, effervescent… In the end it turns out that my favourite word is daffodil because it’s completely different and equally pretty in English, French and German. Daffodil, jonquille, osterglocke.
I have a favourite phrase as well, which is ‘pint of tea’. I often go all the way to the café above the outdoor gear shop in Hathersage just to see it in the wild.
If you would like to appear in either Fresh, or our monthly poetry profile Fresh: Featured, you can find out how right here.