Octolunes, and a story about poetry.

The Octolune - a verse form I invented in December 2015 - is an eight-line poem addressed to or about the moon, in which the opening line is always "Moon," though this can be succeeded by punctuation such as question marks, etc. Eight lines felt a natural length when I wrote the earliest Octolunes, then my subsequent reading on the eight phases and "node points" convinced me to maintain this rule.  I feel the lunar theme is oft-lamented in poetry as a cliché - but this for me is all the more reason to revive it.

I have restricted myself here to the publication of a few of my own Octolunes.  However, I have published those received by others in chronological order of receipt below. Poems by the same author are grouped together, though the latest published will always appear the top of the list.  If you would like to send in your own Octolunes, please email to caterpillarpoetry@gmail.com  I will only publish the ones I like, but of course there is no reason you shouldn't send or publish yours elsewhere.  I invented the Octolune ... but I do not own it!

The first Octolune below will always be the one most recently sent.You can send as many as you like, and feel free to do so even after your Octolunes are published. Some poets have sent more than one Octolune, which are published in a batch, but as they are published in order of receipt, to maintain the seasonal feel of the page, some poets will therefore have several batches of poems or individual Octolunes.

I hope you enjoy these celebrations of all things lunar - many thanks to all who have sent in poems so far.

Simon Zonenblick, 21 / 12/ 15


November 2016

Moon Zen Mother Moon
Close enough to see
Her face-serenity
Far enough away
To wonder what she'd say
To comfort us below
Bewildered in her glow
Moon don't leave too soon


31st October 2016:

GENEVIEVE L WALSH (Halifax, England)

Moon, ready yourself,
for now is the hour of the wasters.
Those who waste the hours
assigned to shortcomings
with long games...
of Fuck, Marry, kill.
They who kill the headlamps, marry silence
and fuck to the sound your voice.

31st October 2016:

SIMON ZONENBLICK  (Sowerby Bridge, England) 

Moon of Hallows Eve,
snow skull,
Samhain's selene,
irradiating wiry racks
of thin, witch-finger trees,
lonely in snap-apple dawn,
icy flame,
kindling spirits.

Moon at Halloween,
shimmering apple
hanging from the blackened bough
of sky, scrying through autumn mists,
gutted mangle-wurzel, eyed
and sculpted with the new capacity
to feel,
face fears.

Moon, Polar pumpkin
frozen to a grin
of village-chilling invocation,
on this night, as moths
to candlelight
all the saints and sinners
to your soft drum of dream
will dance.

silver spectre
climbing, shining,
lights an ochre ocean
of autumnal trees,
casting palettes
of Hallowmass light
upon the deathly desert of the night.

Hecate's lantern,
metal mask,
silver apple bobbing
on the dark side of the sky
casting pearl-veined spiderwebs
on tombs and hidden haunts,
candle-lighting pain in sympathetic magic.

STEVE NASH   (Sowerby, England) 

Moon, your ghost stations
are not locked in London’s 
underbelly.  They are here, 
isolated along dour edges 
of peaks and mounds, 
the hum and rumble
of their phantom hulks 
echoing back across time.

September 2016:

ALAN WRIGLEY  (Sowerby Bridge, England)

Moon: monochrome omnipotence;
Luna: nocturnal luminance;
Selene: resplendent everlastingness;
Diana: diamantine radiance;
Orb: unobscured orbiter;
Satellite: stellarite tessellation;
Hecate: unchastened earthwatcher....
Metronomic cosmopolitan Moon.

March 2016:

MARC WOODWARD  (Devon, England) 

Moon says: "Slip my luminescence you will find other light.
You may thrill to the violence of songbird's wings in flight.

Still, see the flatness of the overrated midday sun
and how as afternoon progresses sharper vision comes.

Notice when the Earth's relief glides to higher contrast; know
that brighter, brasher, light can hide as much as it may show.

Then, when slow orbit swings us back together we will lie
in my courtly light while you sing me postcards from your eyes.

February 2016:


Moon Muser's Moon 

Do you consider what you see
Exploring notions

Just like me 
Your spotlight shines
On us below
But what you think
We'll never know


Moon Out of the Blue Moon
A phone call came 
Though none too soon
Freely given and received
The timeless sort
I sorely need
A fair exchange
A friend indeed.


ALISON LOCK  (Huddersfield, England)

Moon. You are the blues.
A halo of haze, an Alice band
out of orbit, inured to the stars,
to rock dust. A slow dance.

Moon. You are crimson.
A mirage, a madness of cows,
a magnet, a cold spoon
to the temple. A fandango.

January 2016



 Moon...mystical gardener

Planting messages of love
Commiserating with the stars

Winking and grinning high above

Some flowering seeds in passion sown

Take on a power purely grown

Protect and keep these hearts aflame

Immune from any worldly claim.


Moon - silver sliver smiling smugly

You watched him lie!!!
And kept your silence
You sly spy
Have you confessed your distant dreams
Then watched them smash to smithereens
Perhaps that's why it is your fate
Seduce and then illuminate!


Moon Lover's Moon

Hangin' in the sky

Like a lost balloon

Play me to the tune

Of a sad bassoon

Just like my man

You're gone too soon

Moon Heartbreak Moon.


December 2015

FREDA DAVIS (Ryburn Valley, England) Dec 2015

Moon a round cheese

Nibbled away

Sheared sharp

A curve of scimitar at dawn


Scything the sunset

D for destiny

Ballooning at midnight.

December 2015

ED REISS (Bradford, England)

Moon, before you were moon,
they say you spun and spun
like the earth round the sun
till orbits crossed, you struck
the earth a glancing blow
and melted. Shot into space,
became our moon, our
heart, hurt, counterpart.

Moon, true moon, moon
inside that rules your moods
and guides the tides, floods
your dreams: cast white light,
splash blacks and blues
on midnight pools
you cannot plumb, so deep
they are inside you.


SIMON ZONENBLICK: Octolune no. 1 (Moon of Winter Bones)

Moon of bones, oh winter moon

oh silver-spun heart

oh far-off dream-enkindled splintered moon

refracted in the Heavens' peachflame light

black Earth is bathed in your metallic splay,

your winkling crescent lip

bends to plant a deep zinc kiss

on aching sky.


December 2015


This story was originally written nearly seven years ago and apart from a few  minor changes the initial draft has been maintained.  As such, the story's topical references relate to the period at the close of the 2000-09 decade.  The portrayal of poetry in society, then, largely reflects my experiences up until that time, and at that stage I was yet to encounter much of the poetry "scene" beyond my home city of Leeds - though the story was never specifically set, in my mind, in any particular location.  My own experiences of poetry and its reception since, have ranged widely from positive to negative. However, the themes explored in this piece still, in my opinion, very much apply in a general sense.
Simon Zonenblick,
Sowerby Bridge, April 2016.


The library was dead that afternoon. Jo's colleague was sat almost comatose, scanning facebook on the counter computer, so she left him to it, and watched from the window as snowy clouds loomed over the bare, wickerwork trees.  Winter was setting in.
A drunk came in with his dog and needed help photocopying documents for a court appearance. Two pensioners came asking for Ordnance Survey Maps. An elderly man needed help booking a holiday on one of the computers. Jo did the whole job for him, feeling more like a travel agent than a library assistant, then tidied the leaflets, and replaced some books that had been returned. Then it was a case of pleasantly passing the remaining hours leafing through some of the books and helping the few more customers. Late in the afternoon, a middle-aged woman in a fleece and supermarket outfit approached the counter, and she went to attend.

"Can I help?"
"I was just wondering, wheres your poetry section, please?" The customer spoke with that sickly-sounding voice of those too stuffed with over-friendliness. 
"If you follow me," said Jo.

They walked to the librarys far end, where non-fiction was found.

"So what were you after, in particular?"
"Well, Im not sure really. Do you know anything about poetry?"
"Strangely enough, Im a poet myself."
"Oh, youre joking? Good I asked you then!" beamed the woman. Jo was begining to like her now. "Because, Ill tell you for one thing, I know absolutely nothing about poetry, but I tell you what - can you get me something right from the heart, something down to earth but right from the heart - like what I write."
"You write poetry?"
"Well, I dont know if I can call em poems, cause I dont know what counts as a poem - but I started recently and I just cant stop, they come flowing right out. And my tutor, he advised me to get hold of some proper poetry just to get more into the…" she searched for a term, but eventually gave up, "to get more into it, you know."

Jo looked blankly at the shelves. "Yes, I seewhy dont you have a browse, and-"
"Oh, Im right rubbish at books, me - you pick something out, eh? Go on, Ill trust you." Again the woman burst into laughter.
Jos fingers skimmed various volumes. For a moment she thought about shocking the woman with a book of American Beat poetry, or selecting Ashberry or Hart Crane or something similarly heavy-going. Then she felt guilty. Why should she expect a customer to share her knowledge, especially a self-confessed beginner? After all, she would be totally clueless herself if researching a subject such as Chemistry or the Paranormal. She considered something lighter, mainstream andwhat was the word reviewers always used…"accessible." Lets see Pam Eyres? Ian MacMillan? Then again, why not really put her to the test and offer the complete Shakespeare sonnets? She lifted out the book and showed it to the woman.

"Ooh, did he write poems? I thought he just did novels, him. Thats what they used to tell us at school, any way."
"Well, you could argue, in theory, that-"
"I dont think I could get my head around that stuff. No, I just want something simple - right from the heart, but simple."
I tell you what, why dont you make a start with this," offered Jo, bringing down The Oxford Anthology of English Verse. She knew that, if the customer was daunted by Shakespeare, this volume also might look intimidating, but at least it had a wide variety. And besides, who ever said the reader had to grasp the entirety of what was written? There was a lot of poetry she did not understand - and she knew it was the same for many other readers. It was part of the adventure, for her. "This has got the whole caboodle," she told the woman, "hundreds of poems from hundreds of poets, something for everyone. Better than taking a chance with a single author."

The woman was of that generation just old enough to instinctively regard a big, sober looking book as somehow more important than a slim one, and the words "Anthology," and "Oxford," added a kind of academic significance impossible to disrespect.

"Ill give it a try," she said. "Thank you, youve been ever so helpful."

Jo felt guilty as they walked back to the counter - how often were borrowers actually polite? Issuing the book, she looked up and smiled at the woman.

"So, why dont you bring in some of your poems - I could read them?"
"Ooh, would you? Oh, Id be so grateful. Ill pop em in next week."
Jo watched her walking out, slightly buoyed up. It was twenty-to. She scooped up the paperwork on the counter and replaced it in the folders, hooking her finger around the window key and starting the closing procedures.

On the bus the next morning, gentle sunshine tinting the sky in a buttercup glow, and beaming through the window like a soft, warm hug, Jo opened her post. The first envelope contained a bank statement. The second was a from a magazine.
Dear Miss Holt,
I found your poems interesting, but cannot accept for publication. You ask for advice. Obviously, the best advice is to keep writing, but I wonder also if you have considered joining a writers group?

The bus climbed up the rumpled, bumpy hills towards town, and - her suspense shattered and the real world closing in again - Jo wondered what today may have in store.

At the library, Jo greeted the first customers. She tidied the poetry section and displayed some volumes prominently. On the corridor changing the posters, she noticed a green A4 sheet, with a picture of a quill and sheet of paper.

In two minds, she nonetheless jotted down the details on a scrap of paper, stuffing it in her back pocket and heading to the office.  Entering, she saw Dan slumped in the chair at his desk. He brushed his hand over a copy of FHM, trying to disguise it and pretend he was sifting through papers, and with his spare hand, ran a pen across a page of five-bar-gates. Since he had taken over as manager from the retired Eileen, the manager's desk was increasingly submerged in growing mountains of paperwork.    "Did you see the memo about the group?" he asked, as she handed him her holiday card..
Jo shrugged. She never bothered reading memos. No-one did. Especially Dan.
"Its just up your street," he said, Jo shook her head slightly as she looked at him. He was unshaven. His hair was scruffier than usual, and although he had taken care to wear a smart shirt, it hung out of his jeans in a sloppy fashion. She had to admit, she quite liked him. 
"Sorry its short notice," nodding at her card to jog his memory. "If I can’t have it, I understand."
Ever since he became manager, holiday had gone up the spout, with everybody’s days off getting mixed up. Dan didn’t really understand the booking system, but tried to give the impression of muddling through.
"Next Thursday…I mean Friday. Mmm…shouldnt be a problem. Now, this memo." He fished out a piece of paper and handed it to her. "It came up at the team meeting, and I said I knew someone who might be interested." She re-read the memo, and looked blankly. "Meaning you," said Dan.
Christ, no, Jo wanted to say. "Oh, wellyes, Id be interested," she heard herself mutter. "What sort of age group?"
"Oh, you know, teenage drop-outs. Kids in trouble for bullying, that sort of thing." He changed his tone. "Vulnerable youngsters, you know. Its just that, with the new Education Partnership Agreement, this is the sort of thing that we could do with, and I thought with you being our resident poet ..? Have a think about it." Which meant, Our library is bottom of the league and Im desperate to win some brownie points so that when the next restructure comes they don't sling me on the dole.
"Yes, yes, Im sure it will be a good idea. You can count me in," said Jo.

On Friday, Jo's mum came to visit. They met at the station, and headed into town. As they sat in Caffe Nero, her mum was asking her how work was going 
 Oh, you know." Jo blew her coffee.   
"You seem a bit fed up, love. Your dad was saying hed not heard from you for a week or so."
"Ive just been busy. I emailed him last week."
"You know what hes like, still stuck in the Dark Ages. But youd be proud of me."
"Whys that, then?"
"I decided to get booked on one of those computer courses. Ill be emailing you next."
"Well, thats good. Where are you doing it?"
"Where you said I should. At the library." Jo did not look pleased. She tapped her finger half-heartedly to the jolly pop song playing through the speakers. "Aren't you impressed? Are things not going so well?" Her mum placed a hand on hers.
"Its okay. Its justdo you remember a while ago I tried to get that creative writing session set up? Just a once a week thing, something for the youngsters who wanted to do some writing, maybe learn some poetry - and bloody Dan just KOd it from the off?"
"I know these things are disappointing-"
"Health and Safety, Child Protection, staff shortages, all that bullsh - all that rubbish. Well now the authorities have decided they want a poetry group, and they want muggins here to run it."
"Oh - but thats good, isnt it?"
"Only its for specific kids. The problem kids."

Her mother stirred her coffee and tried to smile. "Its better than nothing, Jo love? And you always used to say you wanted to help vulnerable kids."
"I was thinking more of youngsters being bullied, rather than the ones doing the bullying," Jo snapped back. They sat silently for some moments. "But yes, as you say, its better than nothing."

By the time Jos mum caught the train, it was dark and a chill cut through the air. She was tired, but decided to call in Waterstones. The poetry shelves were a maze of temptation. She wished she could scoop a whole rows worth into a chest, or else be handed a thousand pound note (was there such a thing?) to take a dozen from each shelf. She leafed through The Wasteland - a book she had always previously neglected, and also looked at a book of Hebrew Verse. Then a vivid orange volume caught her eye. Jo Yalm - Collected Poems. It was so easy to pretend that the surname said Holt. She looked at the contents page, which listed titles such as Strike for your Rights! and Hang All Tories.

As a teenager, began the preface, I hated poetry. What did I want with fancy phrases and posh people? But as I grew older I realised that not only was I the product of a rotten and repressive Capitalist system which crushes the young, but also that I, and millions like me, had a burning desire to read, write, and FEEL poetry all around me.

Jo replaced the book and walked back across the floor, eventually picking out Lawrence Ferlinghettis Northwest Ecolog and went to the counter.
"Oh, man, what a dude," said the assistant, taking her payment.
"Do you like Ferlinghetti?"
Yeah, man, he was the man." Younger than her, the assistant had tried to style his hair in dreads, but the resultant tufts resembled more a bunch of weeds. His face was pimpled here and there with juicy red spots. The name-badge on his short read "Allan." "That dude was a proper poet, man," squeaked his pubescent voice.
"Wow," said Jo. "Ive never met anyone whos heard of him, let alone read him."
"Well..." yawned Allan, as his colleague dealt with the queuing customers, "I wouldn't exactly say I'd read him...in as many words. I don't really read.  Its more that I...I get his trip, man.  I feel where the dude is coming from. People dont receive this shit. I mean, schools just chuck Shakespeare at them, and other useless wank."
"Mmm...okay," said Jo, backing away, "Thanks. Bye."
"Yeah, maaaan..." drawled Allan, staring into space.

"We thought the meeting room would be perfect," said Dan. They walked to the room, blandly furnished with several plywood tables and plastic chairs. Like all rooms in the library, it was heated by pre-timed radiators, and swelteringly stuffy. The light flashed on as soon as you entered, regardless of the time, and could not be switched off, even though one wall was screened by a south facing window. A computer was left on in the corner - screen faintly buzzing, burning electricity. On the door was hung a notice: Help the environment - save energy!

"Its all yours," said Dan. " Youre the poet, Im sure youll get them on the right track."
"Im sure," said Jo.The youths slumped in a jumble of Burberry. Their pocked faces glowered at her. Some wore trousers either baggy or too short, with smart trainers and expensive jeans. Shiftlessly, they cussed and mumbled at each other.
"Now dont take any nonsense from them," said the black woman with the clipboard, "and dont go giving this nice lady any you know what, you lot."
"Eh - what have we done?" groaned a girl in a tracksuit, hair bunched untidily. "Weve only just come, we havent done owt-"
"I said watch it, Sheneice."
"Its proper out of order, this," the girl sulked. 
The woman turned to Jo and spoke more quietly. "These can be quite challenging young people - but what they need more than anything is encouragement. Im told good things about you. Im sure youll be great with young people." She turned again, and spoke more loudly, "Right, Jo, Ill leave the young people in your capable hands."

Their rein-holder gone, the youngsters mooched about the room.

"Okay, folks," Jo began, sitting down, "how about you tell me your names?" Stark silence replied. "Anyway, Im Jo."
"Yeah, we know," said a truculent boy, sucking gum. "Val said."
"And Ill be running this group once a week, for you to get used to writing and generally thinking about poetry-"
"Dont want to," said Sheneice. "Poetrys bollocks."
"Or any other kind of writing you want to do," Jo continued, not to be deterred. "So, does anyone have anything to say?" Again, blank silence. "Has anyone read poetry before?"
"Its shit," said someone.

"Why is it shit? Come on, why?"
The lad squirmed. "Because it is."
By now the kids were at least huddled around the desk. Jo looked him in the eye. "All right. So what do you like?" He shrugged vacantly.
"I dont know."
"You dont know?" A few sniggers made her feel she was winning round the majority. 
"Answer her, Kaiden," said another voice.
"Come on, Kaiden, what do you do with your mates to enjoy yourself?"
"I dont know."
"He sticks his cock up their bums - gay boy," said a fat lad in a grubby top.

"Well have none of that," warned Jo. "Now watch your mouth if you want to stay."
"I dont want to stay," said the youth, more loudly. "This is proper shit, this."

He made for the door and marched out of the library. Jo watched him go, and turned to the remainder.
"If anyone else wants to leave, leave now," she told them. A few bored faces gazed back. "Okay," she sighed, summoning motivation and taking a sip of tea, "does anyone else, anyone at all, know anything about poetry?"
"Yeah," piped Sheneice, at last. "Its shit."

"So howd it go?" asked Dan. 
"Not bad," said Jo.

She noticed that he had not shaved, again. He could not have been more than ten years older than her, and she had tried to prize his background out of him, with little success. Dan had been to University and studied English, but as far as she could tell had always worked in libraries, mainly as a manager, a role to which he was blatantly unsuited. He was trying to serve a customer and getting things mixed up on the screen.

"Ill do it," volunteered Jo. She issued the books and turned back to Dan, who hung back against the wall, embarrassed. "Im not sure how long theyll stick it," she admitted. "Two of them walked out today because they were bored."
"Yes, yes. But did you log the attendance numbers down? Include the woman who brought them and make sure Head Office get the figures, eh?"

As Dan disappeared in the office, a familiar figure shuffled in the library.
"Ooh, hello, love," she beamed. "I plucked up the courage and brought you some."
The woman shook the rainwater from the plastic envelope which she pulled from her coat pocket. Across the front, in bright red felt pen, was written POEMS BY YVONNE KITCHENER. "I hope youre not expecting any Jane Austen standards - but my tutor says theyre really picking up. Hes got us all sending poems to a posh publisher in London, some sort of charity book or something."
"Oh - thats good."
"I know, Im right excited. He says to send the one about my gran. Says its my best. Anyway, Ill let you see."
"Thanks, Ill read them." Jo folded the envelope under arm.

"Oh, Id be so grateful. Anyway, love, Ive these to drop back." She handed over two Catherine Cooksons and a dog-eared Jack Higgins.
"You've still got one outstanding," Jo told her, "shall I renew-"
"Oh yes, I nearly forgot!" exclaimed the woman, laughing like a hyena, and pulling from her bag the very anthology Jo had selected for her at the beginning of last week.
"And what did you make of it?"
"Oh, well," the woman looked uncomfortable, "it wasvery interesting."

At that, she headed for Adult Fiction, returning shortly with a new novel by Nora Roberts. 
That night, sitting in bed by the lamplight, she read Yvonne's poems. There were four poems in all. 
The first was called The Best Dog In The World, and told the story of a disabled Jack Russell who had been a family companion "through thick and thin."  

Next was a poem about the Royal Family. Still looking good after all these years, our blessed Queen, Yvonne enthused, now two strapping grandsons on the scene. Happily continuing their mothers deeds, graciously seeing to all our country's needs. Always helping, with a smile and a grin, sticking by us through thick and thin.

Then came a short poem about the authors husband:

Two bad hips and two World Wars

But you still go down on all fours

And do the plumbing, dig the weeds

And fulfil all a wifes needs.

Without you where would I begin?

You've stuck by me through thick and thin.

You might not be as handsome as Brad Pitt

And Im no Angelina Jolie,

But my heart is like a glove that fits

In yours only.

This was followed by the biro-scrawled poem Thank you Jesus! in which Yvonne celebrated "the love of God," which she claimed Has been with us through thick and thin. Various Biblical miracles were recounted, before the closing stanza:

Thank you Jesus! For all you've done

God's the father - you're the son!

In this world of sorrow and sin
You've stuck by us, through thick and thin!

By now Jo was all for giving up, but then noticed the tutors red tick on the last page, and his hand-written "Not bad." It was the poem she was considering sending to the publisher.

All through my childhood you lived up there

Deep within the cupboard bare.

The treasure trove in which all joy was in -

Jammy Dodgers, Custard Creams,

All the treasures of our dreams -

My grannys secret biscuit tin.
A source of pleasure through thick and thin -

Jo flicked off the lamp, and lay staring at the darkness for a long while before finally falling asleep.

Gibb Street was a quiet little enclosure at the back of a car park. During the day it served as a row of offices, book-ended by a locksmith and a shop selling office supplies. Jo checked the paper in her hand. Trafalgar Buildings, No. 47. Over the phone, Eileen had sounded approachable and perhaps intelligent. "Well be concentrating this week on nature poetry," shed said, and Jo had liked the fact she said "concentrating on," and not just "doing." Irene told her to feel free to bring some of her own writing along. But what if the other poets were so much more advanced? Stifling her nerves, Jo pressed the buzzer on the big glass door. A crackling voice responded.

"Ive come for the poetry group." A burst of crackles, followed by a green light on the door panel invited her indoors.

The group were meeting at the top of a metal staircase. The room was draughty, walls full of sheets of paper daubed in felt pen reading "Target Figures," or "Monthly Projections." Receipt books and a calculator lay on a battered old school desk, and the thinly carpet was wasting away. On one plywood table sat a pile of tatty brochures for sunny locations. Clearly it was the base of a low-budget holiday company.

In a circle of chairs in the centre were about a dozen middle-aged women and one old man, telling an anecdote about a fishing trip.

"…and she says to me," he wheezilly recounted, "you can hang your flies over the sideand I says, dont let the missus hear you say that, you dirty mare." The ladies chuckled, and no-one saw Jo enter.

"Is thisthe Gibb Street Poetry Group?" she asked, walking up.

"Well, its a poetry group," jumped in the man, "and were on Gibb Street, so make of that what you will, lass." Again there was resounding laughter.

A kindly looking woman in a large floral blouse stepped up. "Are you the young lady I was speaking to?" she asked, peering over spectacles.

"I think so - Im Jo."
"Lovely to meet you. Its Eileen. Why dont you sit yourself down? Everyone, this is our new recruit."

She was met by an impenetrable front of forced smiles. Grey-haired faces creased half-heartedly. One woman curled her lip, and wiped the remnants of a cream cake from her chin. Another fiddled with the chain of her bi-focals. The man sat stone faced. Jo smiled.

"Now, what would you like to drink?" asked Eileen. "Theres orange juice or tea or coffee, and Im sure Len wouldnt mind being barman." The old man looked painfully reluctant.
"Oh, a tea would be nice.  Thanks."

Len rose arthritically, and walked the long way around the circle to a canister of hot water. As he poured, Eileen got the ball rolling.
"So, welcome back, everyone, and I hope youre all feeling nice and poetic. And as I hope you all remember, we decided wed be concentrating on nature poetry, didnt we?" Len held out the tea like a traffic warden issuing a fine. Jo took it guiltily. "So Im looking forward to hearing lots of nice poems about flowers and trees. And speaking of nature, I just thought Id say that Ron and I got back safe and well from Gran Canaria - and we had a lovely time." A wave of appreciative murmuring arose. Jos tea was weak and watery. She winced as she sipped it.
"Remind us which part you stayed in?" asked a shrill voiced woman in a twin-set.
"We were docked at Arguinuegin - I can never spit that out correctly - and we took the tour across the Maspalomas-"
"Ooh, did you take the Aeroclub tour?" asked a fat balding woman.
"We did, dear, and we had a lovely barbecue dinner at thatthat…" she clicked her fingers trying to remember the name…"well, a lovely barbecue on the beach."
"Oh, we loved that big shopping place," said a massive woman of about sixty five, in a sort of shell suit. "I had to drag Gerry away from the electrical stores."
"Course," said Len, slyly, "best part of t Gran Canaries are t golf courses."
"Typical bloke, eh?" quipped Eileen, to a round of laughing.
"When Jackie and I went, I spent five hours a day at that Las Palmeras golf course. Mind, that were only to get one shot in." The laughter which met this joke verged on hysterics. Jo looked at him. A mat of greying ginger hair. A beer gut filling out his checked shirt, scruffy jeans and a pair of thick, workmanlike boots. His booming presence began to hem her in.
"And speaking of Gran Canaria and all them lovely places," broke in Eileen above the laughing, "I couldnt refrain from letting you all take a peep at these." Out came a brochure of photographs, and Jo pretended to look interested. Approving comments, or boasts of having visited the places featured, followed every one. There were photos of Eileen and her husband drinking cocktails on a balcony; the husband posing before military statues; someone feeding bread to an emaciated looking donkey; several pictures of other brim-hatted tourists smiling widely and raising glasses.

Once the photographs had done the rounds, she turned to the gang full on.
"I think that gets us nicely warmed up for what weve got in store, and I wonder if anybodys brave enough to get us started. A pale, simpering woman, with an incongruous streak of orange sprayed through her hair, jostled by her neighbours and blushing, cleared her throat and pulled a wad of paper from her bag.
"Okay, okay," she said nervously, "but be gentle with me."
"Oh, come on, Liz," Teased Irene, "youre an old hand at this now."
The circle simmered with anticipation. Finally, as if only to break the silence, Liz commenced.
"Okay, thenhere goes. Now, this is just a little poem Ive only written recentlyits not quite finishedso, Im open to suggestions. II thought long and hard about what I could say about natureand I decided to say this. Its a poem about the woods near where we live. And its called The Woods.

"The woods are as dark as a dark night

While their canopy of trees do fill us with fright.
The woods are quiet and full of murk,

Inside them who knows who lurks?

What was that? A snapping branch!
Who is this? A screaming owl.

Listen to the branches crunch

And watch the strangers ghostly scowl -

Full of mud,

The dark and eerie woods."

Silent admiration met the reading. One or two people blew into the air like those who have just witnessed a frightening scene in a horror film. A couple of grunts implied comprehension, while Len took the liberty of clapping. Soon the room was showered in applause. In a blaze of relief, Jo felt herself loosening in her chair. Liz herself wiped her forehead. A grin draped its self across her threadbare features.

"I suppose I could have said "wood" instead of "woods," to make it rhyme, but I thought Id take a risk-"
"Oh, Liz, Liz," beamed Eileen, "what can I say? What can any of us say? That was the best poem youve read us so far, Liz - well done for reading it, and give yourself a great big pat on the back." 
You could really see the sights," said another member, "thats what I liked."
"Yes," said Eileen, "and that lovely little touch about the strangers eyes - you really built up the suspense there, Liz. Im sure we all agree that that was a very powerful, well written poem. Very appropriate for this time of year, when the woods are so very dark and spooky. What about you, Jo - as our newest, and dare I say it, youngest new member? What struck you about the poem?"

Jo stared at the carpet while the groups gaze homed in. 
"Wellwell...I liked the part about the snapping branch-"
"Oh, yes," Eileen agreed. "That was one of my favourites. Could you do us a favour, Liz, and read that part again?"
Liz fumbled with the paper, embarrassed, but also visibly desperate to re-acquaint herself with fame.
"ErmWhat was that? A snapping branch!’" she read, strongly enunciating each syllable.
"Perfect," glowed Eileen, "just perfect."
When the praises had died down, Len raised his bullish voice. "What I want to know, Liz, is why youve been wandering around the woods at night, and whether your husband knows about it."
A volcano of unfettered hysterics met this joke, and Len, not Liz, was once again the smiling centre of attention.
"All right, clever clogs," said Eileen, "and I bet we can all guess who the spooky stranger was, eh?" The group now laughed at Len, who rose to the occasion.

"Aye - I were looking for inspiration for my poem." Irene invited him to read it, so the old man coughed and brought a notebook from his pocket. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, what youre about to hear is a world exclusive. You heard it here first. Or rather, you will hear it here first. This is a poem I wrote when me and the wife were on us latest cruise, just arriving at the Algarve." He stole a glance at Jo, and told her as if it were a relevant footnote, "We go there at least three times a year, like - and plenty other places on top of that. Anyway, I were thinking it were strange that wed been to t Algarve so many thousands of times, like weve been on lots of cruises and expensive holidays thousands of times, but Id not done a single poem about the place. The Algarve, that is. Its like drinking ten pints every night and never getting angover. So I thought - what to do? Why not jot out a quick poem to rectify the situation? So - here goes. Its called The Algarve. And I hope you dont mind, but I feel its only right and proper I should stand, to deliver it proper, like."
The group, used to his theatricalities, responded with friendly jeers. Len stood without any of the exaggerated physical difficulty he had shown when fetching Jos drink. He placed himself in the circles centre.

"Right, here goes. The Algarve.

Me and the missus on a cruise -

Swimming suits and flipflop shoes.

Getting drunk aboard the boat

And watching the blue sea float,

Then eating lobster on the beach,

Sea as far as the eye can reach.

Staring with my binoculars

Towards the nudist beach,

Its really very popular,

Nude bathers far as eyes can reach,

But honest, love, I tell my wife,

I swear on my own life

You think Im looking at those pretty girls?

Im just looking at the birds."

Len delivered the punch line with aplomb, spacing out the words for maximum effect. However, it took the audience some moments to catch on, and for one long horrible passage of time, he stood before them almost going white. Soon, though, they got the joke, and the room again reverberated with guffaws.  He took his bow, reinvigorated and relieved. Jo clapped patiently.

"As usual, Len, youve given us something naughty but nice. Dare I ask if anyone wishes to comment?" asked Eileen, shaking her head good-humouredly. 
"It was very funny," said the pale woman.
"Yes, thats what I thought - very, very funny," echoed Liz.
"And very naughty, too," said Eileen, wagging a finger. "I bet we all know what kind of birds you were looking at with those binoculars."

Len was the hero, bathing in affectionate notoriety. Jo could tell by his swaggering joviality that he considered himself a ladys man.

"No wonder he were a builder," one chubby little woman cheekily observed, "I bet he were one of the ones giving wolf-whistles."
As they laughed, Len pleaded guilty. "But dont tell the missus," he said, palms outstretched.
"Dont worry, naughty boy, your secrets safe with us," Eileen winkingly assured him. But just to drag us away from all this depravity, why dont we invite our new member to give us a reading? Because I think shes very bravely plucked up the courage to bring along one of her own poems, havent you, love?"

"Well, why not give us a glimmer of how our young poets write about the natural world? And I promise you, well be gentle."Jo did not feel nervous, but already sensed the hostility from her fellow members as they sat back, arms folded and eyes blank. She slid out a pad. It was a poem she was not entirely happy with, and feared may be a little over-wordy, but what the Hell. "Okay. So, this was written in response to a visit to the Scottish highlands, which was part of a school trip taken quite a few years ago."
"Not that many years," chipped in Len, eager to note her junior status.
"Erm, and I simply called it, Ferns." She leant forwards, and tried to block the group out from her view.

Like cider-stained lettuce
ferns are rooted by the Firth.

Their bronzy glare would seem more suited
to a tropical ravine,

but dug into this wilderness of hills
their stoicism seems

endemic to these clan-land wilds.
This fire sweeps and slips and digs
beneath fence poles,

over boulders dipped in stream,
tributaries of copper lakes,

sliced Iron ore thin-veined,
it burns, a mass of tattered tongues,

their screed reverberates through soils
like whispers from the Cairngorm woods.

Thistle-thick, the fields inflame
with unexpected growth -

heather, dandelion, gorse,
blood-red laburnum dotted like rubies.
And stretched along the gorge,

emblazoned in the foothills like an endless
tartan rug,

and immovable."

The group hit back with barren silence. Even as she read, she could feel their frostiness, and started to clam up towards the end, rushing, and trailing dully in and out of lines. Now, she looked up almost shamefacedly.
"Itsits still un-developed," she offered, hating herself for this apology.
"Mmm…" began Irene, at last…"well I, for one, thought that was very interesting. Very, very interesting." Nobody took up the mantle. "I mean, I liked that bit about the thistles. Very, very interesting."
"Didnt you say the Highlands, at the start?" broke in Len, face arched in accusation.
"I, yes - it was written about a school trip to-"
"Well the Cairngorms arent in the Highlands. Thats the bit above the Highlands is that." There was a growl of agreement in the ranks. She felt herself being faced down by her predators. 

"Well, the poem isn't actually suggesting-"
"The wife and I took a guided shooting trip up there a few year back," he gruffly interrupted. "Oh, aye, stayed near that Ski Centre - took a few skiing trips while we were there as well. Seemed a shame not to, like. We go skiing at least three times a year, y'see."

"Yes," said woman who was like a posh rottweiller, "its surprising sometimes how skiing in England can be even better than skiing in Switzerland or Italy or Canada - we enjoy the slopes at Snowdonia."

Jo sat back, shutting out the raging banter as the ski-slopes of Europe were dissected and discussed. Everyone had taken a holiday near this one, stayed in a bigger chalet at that one, had a five course meal in the most expensive resorts before going to those ones.   It was Eileen once again who managed to cleave through the hubbub.

"Well, that certainly threw up a torrent of discussion - so a round of applause for our newest member, ladies and gents - or should that be, ladies and gent?"
"Is there a gentleman in here?" shot back Len, "I didnt see him."

The laughter and clapping were more in response to his latest jest than Jos poem. - but at that moment her confidence in the poem had shrunk to something unrecognizable, and she wished that she had not brought it. In fact, she wished she had not come to the damn group in the first place. Looking at the clock, she saw with despair that over an hour still remained. Her weak tea swam sourly in the cup.
It was then that Eileen was cajoled into reading her own poem. First Liz, and then the woman in the shell-suit, entreated her, and with mock reluctance, Eileen pulled out a ring binder from her handbag, dislocating a page of print, and, just by raising her eyes at the, silenced the group.
"Ladies and gentleman, now for my own contribution. I had a long, hard think, but after hours of soul-searching, I struck upon an idea, and I hope youll all like it. Its simply called Nature, and is all about how all our lives are, touched by Nature and her majesties. And I hope nobodys going to offended, but Ive chosen to write some of this poem without rhyme." She spoke conspiratorially, and indeed there were several raised eyebrows at her admission. "I know some people dont believe that its a poem if it doesnt rhyme - but right now, I just want to tell you all about how the majesties of nature have touched and healed all our lives. And here it is. Nature.

"So quietly my foot brusheth against the grass blade

And cry of Heron pierceth air.
Silently I take thy arm
And the wilderness is everywhere.

The woods are full of flowers,
Pretty flowers, big flowers, little flowers,
Big colourful flowers, gentle flowers,

And somewhere I doth hear an owl cry.
One by one the tears doth fill my eyes.
But before the Heavens are filled with sorrow

I see a brighter tomorrow.
For where thy eyes look out across a mountain of birds and mice,
I see my lovely grandchildren, all looking so nice."

The group was absolutely rapturous in response. Everyone was complimentary. Liz said it made her own effort seem amateur, but Eileen assured her otherwise. The shell-suited woman pronounced the poem "accomplished," while her neighbour suggested it was just as good as any she had read by "that Ted Hughes bloke." The only person, apart from Jo, who looked uncomfortable was Len. Throughout the reading he had fidgeted and chewed his nails, and now - the group's admiring attention squarely beamed on their leader instead of him - he found himself shunted into the background, and looked miserable. Jo found this cheered her up, a little. With all due modesty, Eileen smiled bashfully, before proposing a well deserved tea break.
Jo, feeling slightly sick and heavy-eyed, feeling the accession of a headache, looked at the clock. Dread struck her. Fifty minutes still to go.


The next afternoon Jo worked late. Towards the close of play, a girl in biker pants and a tatty leather jacket ambled in, emptying a plastic bag of books. Jo discharged them as they came. A book of gluten-free recipes; a handbook of motorcycle maintenance; several books on social matters; a Penguin Poetry anthology.

"Ah - always nice to see some poetry," said Jo. The customer wrinkled her nose.

"Not my cup of tea. Only read it as part of a bullshit course component on Post-Colonial subjectivity in Twentieth Century English Literature."
"Oh. Are you studying English?"
"Inter-Cultural Community Media. That pile of shite's on the syllabus. Only, weve got to run a poetry initiative in conjunction with the local Probation service, and for one of my modules Im delivering a group discussion on poetry and its place in re-integrating ex-offenders. And I can tell you there is absolutely no place," she gestured dismissively at the book, "for this navel-gaving bollocks. I mean, what the fuck can a fourteen year old kid, politically and socio-economically marginalized by the education system, possibly find in a book full of bullshit about gods and rivers, that they can engage with on a street level? Sorry to swear in a library, but what the fuck?"
Jo did not know what to say. She looked back at the woman, who snorted in distaste, and headed out the door. 
"What indeed?" said Jo, tiredly placing the book on the trolley for the recently returned.

On the bus home, Jo read the latest copy of The New Poet, to which she had subscribed for some time, and which had once published a poem of hers. However, todays magazine came with a letter from the editor.

Dear Jo,
Many thanks for your latest submission. I can take none of the poems this time.  
She turned to the editorial.

Dear Poets,

As we approach the end of another year, it occurs to me, that although the last twelve months have proved yet again that the country is brimming with talent, the nations readers as a whole are still disinclined to poetry and are just not getting the message. I write this by my window, the birds are singing and the sun, for once, is out . However, as I glance at the newspaper, I am sorry to see yet more scenes of political and economic turmoil, military conflicts and continuing social ills. What hope, one wonders, for poetry, when public attention is so irrevocably bound up in these tragic events?

But that is where we, as poets, come in. Do not despair. The publishing scene may be monopolised by capitalist gold-diggers; the shelves in Waterstones may be full of well known names and middle class English poets who have nothing to say about todays society - but we can fix this - we, the poets, can take the bull by the horns and pioneer a new age, where poets are read, not just by ivory-towered snobs, but by societys most marginalized of all - the unemployed young. We can inspire the teenage delinquent, bored by the world and cast out as a troublemaker, we can reach out to the jaded adolescent who thinks that poetry is for stuck up toffs, we can energise the attentions of the young Muslim tarred-and-feathered as a potential terrorist just for standing up for his - or her - faith - and we can ensure that, by making poetry talk of the world, the world will talk of poetry!

Merry Christmas.
Jo read on as the bus swerved through residential areas, skirting the Ring Road and passing through a largely boarded up estate. Sad, battered flats stared listlessly upon slews of abandoned car parts, burned out bins, and broken glass.  In the magazine,  there were several poems she liked, but most came across more as failed songs. One was called "Bittersweet Goodbye," and was constructed like a suicide note. Almost every line was purloined from the lyrics of Kurt Cobain. Following the poems were a number of articles. First came the opinion pieces. One correspondent argued that for poetry to find its self the centre of attention, poets must first pay attention to social problems. These, he insisted, were drug addiction, tuition fees, and the lack of educational opportunities for ethnic minorities. What todays kids need, he wrote, is to have books that speak about their own experience. Following this was an essay about the state of publishing. The author, Managing Director of a large London publisher, explained that the man on the street reads Jeremy Clarkson because Jeremy Clarkson speaks about real life. Once poetry does that, watch the sales figures rise. He detailed a new move by his company to publish several anthologies of prisoners verse, as well as setting up an in-house publishing experiment in a string of bail hostels. Visions like these, he said, can help to bring poetry out of the margins and into the mainstream. Finally, there was a piece by the retired Headmaster of an exclusive public school, himself a published poet, called Poetry, Please! The teacher suggested a Modern Apprenticeship in poetry should be offered to all school-leavers - State, public and private - while youngsters guilty of violent crimes would have the option of exploring the reasons behind these problems by attending special poetry groups. The money to pay for these schemes should, argued the Head, be extracted from the profits of poetry publishers, even if that meant a deduction on sums paid to poets. What better payment could a poet have, he wrote, than to inspire the repressed and disillusioned youth who might otherwise be languishing in Britain's over-crowded jails? But, by poeticising the issues young people face, we would help find - and fund - solutions - and encourage a budding generation of young poets.

Next she read the ads. New poetry magazines invited submissions, but only from survivors of the mental health system, those from cross-cultural backgrounds or people writing about Post-Capitalist Inversions of the Economic Palindrome. She had absolutely no idea what this meant. Lastly came the book reviews. Several volumes were disparaged, the first on account of its intellectual psychobabble and pretentious language, the second for being too ambiguous and the third because one of its poems, an account of the authors violent marriage, was construed as racially offensive - even though the poet herself was a Asian Muslim woman. How can poetry become truly inclusive, asked the critic, a non-Muslim, British man, when it remains stuck inside this neo-Imperialistic narrowness of vision, laden with negative self-image and reinforced media stereotypes which marginalize Muslims and pander to the Daily Mail?  This "woman" might as well have called her book, A Manifesto by the BNP.

On the seat beside her was a tatty Big Issue. On the inside cover was an advert for a new publisher - The Gutter Press. They invited submissions of poetry and real-life-stories, but only from those who had been to "The University of Life," and promised to be "completely non-elitist and a breath of fresh air."  Outside the window of the bus, Jo noticed the pale winter sky was darkening with rain, and soon big fat blobs of it were streaking down the pane.

Jos father was the sort of man who had always looked about sixty five. Even though he was retired, he dressed habitually in a shirt and tie, and today was wearing a smart cricket blazer and polished shoes. In the modern coffee shop with its large bowl-like cups and sugar sachets, he looked, and evidently felt, something of an anachronism.

"So," he began, wincing slightly at the jazz music playing in the background, "the jobs going okay?"
"Okay," she answered, watching as he struggled with his coffee. His was a world of cream teas and church fetes, where the tea and coffee came in china cups and was sipped discreetly while watching local brass bands or games of cricket. 
"Good, good. You stick it out, Joanna, in a few years time you could be running for an Area Managers post."
"It isnt like I want to spend my-"
"Very good pension, the Council. And Librarians a very respectable profession.
"Im not actually a L-"
"All my years in the Civil Service taught me one thing, Joanna: always know which way your bread is buttered. Now just remember that. Youve a good career in line if you stick with the local authority."
"The thing is, dad, libraries arent exactly as they were, in your day maybe-"
"Oh, youve no need telling me," the father tutted, "Im in most days, and you cant tell now which are the staff and which are the customers." Jo thought of the small library in the village where she had been brought up, which was more like a Methodist Hall, and saw her father sitting reading The Times, joined at table by retired Brigadiers, no doubt chewing over the decline of moral standards. She thought of the polite, mild-mannered middle-aged women who staffed it, doing the crossword behind the counter, or pottering about the shelves dusting down the Jilly Coopers. Then her mind wound round to her own place of work, stuffed in the middle of a busy urban area, its windows graffitied and its entrance smeared in dog dirt and urine. What would her father make of the unruly kids, the drunks who came in looking for the rent office, the people sitting at computers playing loud music through headphones, or bantering with one another about sex and drugs?
"The jobs just a stop-gap, dad," she told him, "until I find what I want to do and can make something out of writing."
"Mmm - until you find what you want, I see." He completely disregarded - or did not understand - the second string of her argument, her aspiration to be a professional writer. Her father screwed his eyes at the music, and looked distastefully at two teenagers at the table next to theirs. The boy was wearing ripped jeans and a range of facial piercings, while his lady friend wore a t-shirt splashed in multi-coloured paint. Neither said or did anything offensive, yet the old man shook his head despondently, in a silent judgement.
"The thing is, dad, poetrys really hard to break into. Most of  the good magazines are going under, what with the recession. Getting published is tough, very tough."
"Why dont you join one of these groups?"
"Ive tried them-"
"Well, you cant have tried the right ones."
"Trust me, dad-"
"Yes, alright, you know best. But if it was me, if I was trying to be a poet-"
"Im not trying to be a poet, I am a-"
"Then Id be wanting to find like-minded people who could tell me where I was going wrong." He leaned forwards, hands bridged. "Take it from me - its not what you know, its who you know. Contacts are everything - get out there and get your name known." Jo felt doubly depressed, because not only were his words disheartening - but she knew they were correct.

Seeing her dad off at the station, Jo walked to the bookshop. The windows were decked in Christmas finery, with several book promotions shining out on luminous posters.
Browsing the shelves, several possibilities caught her eye. There was the ornately illustrated, glossy-coated Book of Animal Poetry, the Collected Walt Whitman, a compendium of poetry on the theme of spirituality, a volume of Tang poems with a beautiful Oriental scene on its silky softback cover, and the recently re-published collected works of Anne Sexton, whose work had formed the basis of her thesis. But as she was picking up the book, and remembering her essay and how much work she had put into it, Jo saw two other shoppers approach the books, one of them reaching for Shakespeares sonnets.

"Oh my God - I cant believe we have to read this shit," she said, aghast. Her associate, a fat young man with a spotty face and huge headphones clamped around his neck, shared her disbelief.
"I know - like, who reads it, anyway? Why are they making you study it?"
"Because theyre dumb," said the girl. "Hey, did you see Celeb Shack last night?"
"Oh, yeah - that was so sick. The bit where they got pissed in the garden - and what about that one who shagged her own nephew!"

Both the youngsters chortled at the memory, toddling off to pay for the book they did not want. Jo had lost track of her thoughts. She gazed absent-mindedly across the spectrum of author names and titles.

"Hey - twice in one week?"

 The man - or boy - stood next to her wore a loose, ill-fitting shirt, more of a tunic really, and looked as if he had been up all night.

"Ferlighetti, remember?"

"Ah - oh, yes." It was Allan, the assistant she had paid for the Ferlinghetti.

"What was it like?"
"It was good - it was great. I really like him."

"Join the club," said the assistant, resting the pile of books that he was shelving on a table, and glancing round to make sure that his manager did not see him slacking off. "Better than most of the stuff being written nowadays.  So much poetry is so crap. Especially mine."
"Oh - so youre a poet?"

"Yeah. Well, I think of as more, like, invisible graphic imagery, or something like that. You know."
"Ohsowhat do you write?"

"Well," he yawned long and loud, "I guess you could say its like a Ferlinghetti-esque mindfuck meets post-Beat, hobo-heavy hip hop vibe. Kind of Doorsy, Velvety Hendrix shit with a good measure of socio-eco-anarcho commentary chucked in. You?"
"Ohoh, well much the same, actually." They laughed, awkwardly. "Im not sure how Id describe what I write. My own favourite poets tend to be-"
"Hey, why dont you come and hang down at the Slam some time? Theres always new stuff, and a mic-jams optional."
"II might," said Jo. At this, the assistant craftily plucked a leaflet from his trouser pocket.
"Here you go - come down sometime, its a good gig. Some of us are putting together some chap books, and weve got a website now. Could get your poems in print."
The leaflet featured a neon-coloured Buddha, reclining on a pile of books, sucking on an implausibly large roll-up. Like puffs of smoke, various words were blown out of the joint and into the ether: "Poems," "lyrics," "verse," and "poetry publishing." Across the top, in a haze of smoke, was printed VERSE FOR WEAR POETRY NIGHT. At the bottom was a rectangle of red print: Get Yo Ass to the Premiere Poetry Group in Town - Jontis winebar, Duke Street, 7PM Thursdays. 

The next day Jo was back at work. As she pinned posters on the corridor wall, two took her eye. The first was a flyer for a poetry group, but it stipulated that those joining must have spent time in care. Peer Powa Poemz - The Real Deal. She struck it up next to an advert for a local house clearing company. The second was a competition, Beyond the Bars, which offered prisoners the chance of capturing their experiences in verse. Do you know someone in prison? it asked, Or maybe you want to write poems for prisoners? Nows your chance!
It was poetry session day. Dan was in the office, buried beneath his files.
"What time is the group in?" she asked, tentatively.

"Already here," he grunted. "Got word from Val that things are going really well."
"You know - the social workery woman - the one who brought the kids in last time. Well, according to her its a great success. Weve seven attendees and six more possibles. Dont forget to count them all - possibles count as "expressed an interest" so that ups the figs."

"Ill remember."
 Jo walked nervously towards the meeting room, and opened the door. A wall of noise came roaring back. Two girls tugged at war for a mobile phone; several boys knocked lumps out of each other. Amid the clutter and chaos, the broad shouldered Val looked stoically on. She beamed at Jo.
"Here you are, theyre all yours."
With Val gone, Jo sat at the table, and decided to block out the ones acting up.
 "Okay - so Im hoping youve all brought some writing in, like we discussed last week." A hubbub was their answer. "Has anyone had any thoughts about what poetry means to them - like we said..?"
"It means bollocks to me," came a call from the ranks. 

"Why is that - hey, put that computer down-"
"Its shit, anyway, it isnt even a PS3," argued one of them.  
"Here, its him, not me-" the black lad let it drop with a thud on the desk, to a round of raucous laughter. "It were Kaiden - little bastard." He dug his fist into the other boys stomach. The victim all but coiled up on the floor, lashing out with his foot to topple his assailant.
"Knock him out, Darion," cried Sheneice. The group massed round the sparring pair. Darion dragged the smaller boy up and shoved him to the wall.  "Fight! Fight! A nigger and a white!" The black girls chanted. The two white girls threw their weight behind Darion, with none offering support to the beleaguered Kaiden. Most did not seem to know which side to back, but bounced about like hyped up toddlers, each one emitting squeals of aggression. Darions fat gold chain swung wildly across his chest, his hooded coat hanging half off his back. "Little wanker, Coulthard, Ill fucking brand you-" Jo stepped between them and held him off."All right, thats enough-"
"Who you got your hands on, white bitch?" sneered Darion. The girls chorused in excitement.
"Calm down, Darion, and go outside and take five minutes-"
"My name aint no Darion, you stupid white whore," he spat, turning on her as Kaiden slunk through the door.
"Yes it is, knobhead," said Sheneice.  
"My name aint Darion, bitch - its Destroya - and I like to cut up white meat." Jo marched for the door, not looking back.  
"She wont touch you," jeered one of the girls, "cos they know theyll get sued to shit if they lay a finger on you."
Jo was on her way to the office. Dan looked up as she entered.
"Whats up - havent they showed?"
"Yep, they showed up, Dan - and theyre a bloody nightmare. Im sorry, but Im not paid to put up with this. And they cant be controlled. I want them out."
"You mean youve left them in there?"
"Dan, they were scrapping like dogs - then one of them actually threatened me-"
"You dont mean theyre in there unsupervised?"
"He actually threatened me with racist language - Ill fill out an Incident Report form, and Id like-"
"Get someone in there with them, would you?"
"But he actually threatened...oh, okay," she sighed, "all right."
 Jo returned to the room, where the group had settled down - because, she supposed, Kaiden and Darion were gone.  
"Okay, why dont wewhy dont we write about what happened?" she suggested. With a bit of prompting, a few of the youths began noting down their versions of events. But most left the pads provided empty, and even during relative calm, tempers ran nigh and attention spans were low. Sheneice was the principal antagonist. She had to contradict and argue with every word Jo said, and to her peers she was equal parts bodyguard and bully. Everyone looked up to her. Jo decided to exploit this fact.
"So, what do you want to do when you leave school, Sheneice?" The girl shrugged sullenly.  "Dont know."
"Well, what sort of things are you interested in?"
"Dont know."
Jo took a deep breath. "Okayso what things dont you like?"
"How should I know - why you asking me? Whats with picking on me, eh? Why dont you ask that lot?"
"Sheneice, I was just saying-"
"I know what you was saying - youre targeting me because Im black." A wave of belligerence stirred among the crew. "Isnt she proper targeting me? Racist, bitch-"
"Right - that is it." Jo stood up and veered towards Sheneice. She snatched up the piece of paper that the girl was scribbling on.

"What you got my paper for? Thats straight theft is that."  

Jo ran her eyes across the scrawl. A number of racist terms were scribbled down. Then in bold letters, Sheneice had written, Sick of teacher bitches getting smart - silly white tart. Dont like poems, dont like Art.
 "Well?" she asked, bristling. "You told us to write poems." Her eyes probed forwards like cobras preparing to pounce on stricken prey.
"I did. Yes, I did.  I told you to write poems. Okay, forget it."

The session spooled to an end. Hardly anyone had written anything, but when Val arrived to chaperone the adolescents back to school - or wherever they had elected to be taken to - she seemed impressed with the results. As the youths spilled out towards the mini bus, Jo showed her Sheneices piece of paper. Val looked up, gleaming. "Thats amazing," she said.
"AmazingI was thinking more, downright abusive. Im sorry, Val, but I just wont take this sort of-"
"Youve got to understand that these young people face challenging issues," said Val, keeping her voice down,  "Believe me, this might look like abuse to you, but considering this young person was breaking into warehouses and having sex with grown men just a few weeks ago, this piece of paper shows shes made an enormous breakthrough on her personal journey - and youre a part of that. If youd said to me that after just two sessions, that young person would be writing poems, Id have thought I was hearing things. But this is the proof." She held the paper like a golden ticket. Jo watched them disappear into the bus, and as they turned out of the street. So - she was supposed to feel flattered that she had been the target of racist abuse? Dan approached
"Sorry you had an incident earlier," he said. "I thought perhaps youd like to be accompanied in future."
"Dan, Im not sure I want to do any more, even with you-" "So I thought Id ask Sheila to help out next week."
He turned back towards the office.

That evening Jo sat in the flat and tried to read poetry. But she could not focus, or feel calm.  The anger at what had happened throbbed through her.  After a while the words on the pages just seemed to blur and commingle, unintelligible.  Depressed, she folded up her book, turned out her light, and tried to sleep.

Not only did the sessions last, the group increased the frequency of visits. The very next week, on Monday, they came again. The first half hour went okay. This time, only boys were there. Despite his previous stint as victim, under the thumb of the absent Darion, Coulthard was the nastiest. His narrow eyes simmered from a pale pocked face, etched like slits in a dead body. Jo asked the lads to write about their future.
"Imagine what you want to do when you leave school," she said, and they started jotting down ideas. When the time came to inspect, she saw that Coulthard had simply produced a list of words.

X Box
Big house
Big car
Fit lasses   

"Dont show no-one," he begged. The others squabbled among themselves. Jo noticed it was time for lunch. On cue, the blousy Sheila came to take over.  
When Jo returned, the room was in a rumpus. The biggest boy stood in a corner and held Coulthard, with his head locked in his arm. Both were laughing, but the eldest thumped the trapped head with repeated blows, as two others chased around the table, upturning books and tripping another up. To be fair, one boy was sat down, but instead of working he was prodding buttons on a games console, dodging paperclips blown at him through a straw of rolled up paper, discharged by a boy who crouched beneath the desk. Sheila, smiled simperingly. She all but dived for the door as Jo came in.
"Well, bye, children," she said, cowed, just as a book was flung across the room towards her head.
"Now get yourselves settled down," instructed Jo, raising her voice and letting her paperwork fall to the desk with a slap. "You - sit down. And you - over there and get it picked up - now." Her commanding tone inspired obedience. Sheepishly, the layabouts cleared up. Their rowdiness was tempered for a while, but by the time Val arrived Jo was glad to see the back of them.  As per usual, they had left the room in an utter tip, with litter and discarded paper everywhere. And as per usual, it was left to the library staff - or else the long-suffering cleaners - to tidy up.

By seven, town was filling up. The bars were lit by neon lights, taxis pulling up at every junction as their boozy customers trampled out. Duke Street was at the back of the market. Jo had been to one of the bars to see some bands, some years back, when she first came to study at the city. Jontis was new. Its windows were silhouetted with depictions of jazz trumpeters and blues singers. Inside, she recognised the melody of a jazzy piano tune, hovering in the background. The bar was busy, but hardly bursting, and she was able to quickly order a drink and find a table. Above her on the oak panelled wall hung a poster - a large version of the flyer that the shop assistant had given her. As if by design, the very young man appeared, bending round the pillar beside her, clinking her glass with his beer bottle.

"Hey, glad you made it."
"Oh, hi - here I am. So, wheres the poetry?"
"Upstairs. Why dont you come on up?"
He was wearing baggy jeans and red Dr. Martens, a Simpsons T-shirt and a baseball cap - which he seemed to have got away with in defiance of the clubs prohibition. 
Jo was dismayed to find that the upstairs he referred to did not, in fact, mean an enclosed, quiet room detached from the throng, but only the balcony above the bars main fray. A semi-stage, composed of rostra and a lectern, was bundled up at the far end, several microphones dotted along one end. Like a soldier poised behind sandbags, a squat man in leathers, earphones and cables hanging from his head, was perched behind an enormous complexity of speakers and machines. He kept shouting over to another man, who wound the wires of an amplifier, or giving thumbs-ups to indicate that the sound had reached required volume. Distorted reverberations screeched through the amps. Several people stood around drinking, chatting. Downstairs, the music had changed, and now heavy rock was pounding out. "We get some really good shit going down here," he assured her. "Last week, Pillbox Paul came and read - you must have heard of him?" She shook her head.
At last, the sound man seemed to have it sorted. For a short while no-one stood upon the stage, but then a fat man with a long beard, wearing pantaloons and sandals, heaved himself up to the central microphone, a pint of beer in his hand.
"Hello, hello - all right, you orrible lot, here we are again." Boos and cheers reeled off. In front of Jo, the guests stood hunched together. They were an odd assortment - punks, hippies, shirts, the odd pensioner. The man directly in front had a shaved head, and a swastika badge on his shoulder, reading Final Solution: Kill all Police. "Okay, ladies and gents," the bearded man continued, "welcome along to another Verse for Wear extraordinaire. Weve got plenty of high-charged poetry to shove down your lug-holes, not least a special appearance from Spiky Sue." At the mention of this name, a boisterous roar went up from the swelling crowd. "But without further ado, Id like to welcome our first reader for tonight - the very talented, and if recent form is anything to go by, probably the very pissed, Stan "The Man" Barrow."
To combustions of applause, Jo watched a spindly man of about thirty-five, in a T-shirt at least twice too large, ascend the rostra, taking a gulp of lager and stumbling over the wire as he approached the lectern. He smiled a dazed smile, scanning two droopy eyes across the crowd, and ruffling a few sheets of paper as he leant forwards on the slanted wood frame. Still the air thronged with grinding guitars, but his wavering voice swam just in earshot above it.
 "Hey, peoplewhats up..?" He began to laugh, a whimpering, snivelling wobble of a laugh, taking another swig and placing the pint glass on the lectern alongside his papers. Despite his attempts at sounding casual, his voice carried a distinctly middle-class undertone, and he sounded like a drunken University lecturer. "Woahlast time I was here they had to drag me out kicking and screamingout of the toiletsman, I was so spewing my guts…" As the hoarse laughter and coarse cheers grew louder, Jo began to wonder if this were indeed a poetry evening, or a comedy stand. "Yeahthats what them vodka snakebites do for youso Im kinda banking on Scott, Jenny, Gus and Daggy to keep me off the poison tonight-"
"Wuss," cried a big man in the middle of the crowd, waving an inflatable banana.
"Yeah, all right, Stignot in your leaguethough when it comes to hammering it, no-one's in Stig's league. Anyway, I got thinking about the demon drink, and I wanted to read something about a recent experience of intoxication - which is a rare thing in my predominantly sober existence." Boorish heckles arose. "Yeah, all right, all right - well what are you supposed to do in pubs, since the bastards banned smoking? What I say is - repeal the Fascist, Nazi smoking ban!" At this, a cannonade of cheers and rumbustous laughter ignited. People raised their fists, yelled in agreement, drinks were spilled, people knocked into one another, boots were stamped onto the floor. "Okay, people - here we go." Barrow seemed to grow. He had them now in the palm of his hand. "This is my poem. And its called Over Indulgence.
 "Over Indulgence," he began, grinding out the syllables,
"In the absence of nicotine nights and cigarette days,
In the great vast void of earthly bondage known as the Nine-to-five,
Crushed by a Government bent on crushing Civil Liberties
Like spit hanging from the mouths of hungover drunks
We grope for sustenance -
Give us today our daily Smirnoff
And forgive us our drunk-dialling and texting
As we forgive those pissheads who text us at three in the morning.
Deliver us from jobs
But pay off our student loans,
Forever and ever -
Piss it up!"

The audience rolled with laughter. Beside her, the bookseller was swaying from side to side, caught between clapping and sifting through his notes: he was due up next.
By the time his name was announced, the combined cacophonies of the music and applause prevented Jo from hearing it. She realised that she had, in fact, never learnt his surname. Up he climbed, a pygmy in his scruffy clothes, throwing a V sign to the crowd. Drinking from a bottle of Becks, he hardly waited for the revelry to subside before launching into his opening piece.
"Yes, people, you got me - this joint is going out to the unemployed, and its called Why Should We?
Why Should We - when we see the bus queues
Full of suits
Trotting along like pigs to the slaughter,
Why should we join their ranks?
Why should we play the Governments game
And strangle ourselves on the rope of work?
Why not sit at home instead, and plot the revolution?
We are the true free freedom fighters,
And we say, loud and clear,
Why should we?"
His poem was met with more acclaim, as he wiped his brow and took a sip of beer. 
"Yeah, so what, so I know Im one of the ranks, working my arse off to keep the government going," he conceded, "but, you know it, my ass is outta there as soon as the revolution comes. Anyway, this is my second poem, and its called Ferlinghetti Girl." Jo felt herself stiffen as he said those words. With a rising sickness in her stomach, she saw that his bloodshot eyes were pinned on her as she watched him, somehow losing her grasp of all the people round about her. Even the throbbing rock music seemed to slide into silence, as the boy stood gawkily on stage, peering out from his box-head, opening his mouth.
"Ferlinghetti Girl. 
You stepped into the chasm of my workplace Hell,
Ensconced in a dysfunctional dynamism encrypted within

The Hellish fundamentalism of this retro-repression of Capitalist Hell -

Like a Rider on the Storm, you lit my fire,

As the pearly gates of my own ensconced Hell took my tongue

And ensconced me deep within the bosom of an elongated menagerie
Of madness. 

In a purple haze of poetry

My wires were crossed, my crosses were noughts

And the image of you melted deep within a million thoughts

Of love. My heart is in a swirl

For you, oh, Ferlinghetti girl."

The audience clapped and hooted as he rounded off, but Jo looped down the spiralling staircase, as fast as she could without actually breaking to a sprint, and headed for the door. A bouncer tipped his head to her as she stepped into the night, the ringing tones of the music and the audiences chants still pulsating in her head. 
The street was drizzly and dark. Clusters of drinkers bumbled up and down. Cars careered by. The traffic lights said "Go" and she stepped across the road towards the bus station. Almost as soon as she arrived, her bus drew up, and after she had paid the fare Jo sat down, frazzled, on the back seat, falling into a dull doze.

Over the weekend, Jo counted up the rejection slips she had recently received. They far outweighed the few acceptances. Framed on her wall, between an Indian batik and a Miro print, was a copy of her first letter of acceptance, the poem its self, and a Photostat of the first - and only - cheque she had been paid for writing.  She looked through her Writers Handbook and matched the entries. Most of the magazines she regularly chose - and read - were over-subscribed or too expensive. Three of her favourites had closed down lately, and a further four were temporarily shut to submissions. She looked at other, less known names, but found their conditions too restrictive: Writers of colour onlypoetry mag for under 25spoetry by the over 65s...expatsthe disabled, the this, the that, the other. . She looked at some of the details.

Scowl Poetry - cutting edge poetry for the socially minded. Particularly interested in poems which highlight the issues facing ex-offenders.

Red Letter Day. Socialist Poetry Paper.

Left-Lit Lounge: Poetry and prose for prols, Trots, and survivors of the social services system.

In the end, Jo just returned to the shelves and sat down to read another book she had borrowed from the library. Between the Lines - Poets Interviewed. Many of the poets had worked in youth work or prison education - in fact, several had begun writing poetry due to the degrees they studied for while prisoners themselves. One poet concluded his interview by saying, "Basically, the most important thing for me is to communicate that poetry doesnt have to mean Milton, Shakespeare or any other bullshit like that. I write for the shit-kicking dude like me, whos got his message but no way of saying it. Slapping the arse of education and giving it a shake-up: thats what I call poetry!

On Sunday Jo had arranged to meet her friend in town. Sally was a pal from college, they had stayed in touch despite moving around the country for different courses and jobs. 

Wetherspoons was noisy but more affordable than the absurdly priced coffee shops. "So, hows work?"

Jo shrugged. "I love working in a library but I hate having to fill in forms, and sadly that's becoming more and more a part of the job - you?"
"I love being a teacher, but I have to grapple with adolescent chavs and get them to read books."
"Well, so do I, sort of." She took a sip of thyme tea. "Whats your secret?"
"Well," said Sally, rolling a spliff to be smoked once they had left the pub's confines, "the trick is to make it accessible. You know, Shakespeare as gangsta rap, Wordsworth without the fancy words. Most of the kids in my class are into burgling houses, so you can see Ive got to be really out there with my approach." "Sally, arent these the kind of kids you used to hate?" "Yeah, but you know, youve got to engage. So I just snip things up and present them in a more accessible form. Because, when you break it down, Macbeth - which is what Im teaching Year Nines this term - is basically Big Brother." "Except its set in Scotland," joked Jo, and they laughed.

Jo sat back and drank her tea. As Sally went on talking, she let her eyes wander onto the notice boards. There were advertisements for holiday caravans, musical instruments for sale, a lonely hearts ad, and, catching here eye, a small poster in the style of a book. Local Voices - Poetry FM.

The estate was crumbling. A row of empty shops stood along the main road, like an ugly scar across a haggard face. The shutters of each shop front were full of spray paint. Jo made out the face of a sad looking elderly woman, gazing listlessly from the window of a half-boarded block of flats. For a second she thought it was her grandma, who had lived in a flat on an estate like this herself. As a child she had spent her happiest hours there, but Jo remembered how her grandma would complain of the mounting problems caused by gangs, or rowing, boozy neighbours, or of increasing burglaries in the area. Jo's mum had made her the offer of staying at their place - quite remarkably, given the ill-feeling which had often simmered between the older woman and her daughter-in-law - but she had not wished to cause a fuss, and had remained on the estate until her death three years ago. Jo remembered her weary, beaten attitude, and saw it reflected in the expression of tired anger and downtrodden despair scrawled into the face of the woman in the window. She felt a burning sense of injustice at the thought of all the many people stuck with trying to survive on such a run-down, bleak estate - many of them decent, caring, hard working individuals - and a familiar anxiety about her own, similar situation: struggling to get by, earning a relative pittence, essentially subsisting in a bedsit, while the one thing she yearned for - recognition for her poetry - always drifted out of view.

Across a weedy car park, a large, bulky pub, red brick and tatty-curtained, was lit from within by dim tap-room lights, surrounded by young Asian lads, tracksuit bottoms stuffed into socks, hands steeped in trousers, costly jackets and mobiles, who patrolled the grounds like a moving moat. One of them held a tethered pitbull. Jo felt their eyes fixed on her as she passed, a wall of suspicion and flaming hate. One flung a lewd remark, and she quickened pace. Behind the pub was the stairwell to the flats, amid a cluttered yard of unused garages and communal bins.

Climbing several flights of stairs, Jo was relieved when she reached the intercom. It was next to 15b, as the leaflet said. She pressed the buzzer. From below, barking dogs and a bumping car stereo drilled through the evening. Eventually, a crackle broke out at the receiver.
"Yes, hello - Ive come about the poetry, we spoke on the phone." There was a shrill buzz, and in several seconds, a young man appeared at the doorway.
"Hi - are you Jo?"

"I am."
"And youve come about the poetry?"
"I have."
"I think we spoke on the phone."
"We did."

They walked through a musty hallway, past a kitchen where unwashed cutlery and plates were racked up before a boarded window, into a small, stuffy office - the floors were boards, with a few rugs and scraps of carpet stapled down. In the corner was a fridge, and a moth-eared settee, and sprawled upon it were three teenage boys, fidgeting and nipping each other while a man in combats and military boots, face punctured in silver studs, addressed them. But he did not look at the boys - preferring, instead, to aim his words over his shoulder as he sorted paperwork on a dusty desk. That way, he did not have to notice their disengagement.
"So, basically, what were saying is - anything goes, chaps. You turn up, bring your poems, and well play what we can over-dub in the background-"

"Rod - this is Jo."

Rod turned to face her. He clasped her hand in a vice-like grip. The girl who introduced her took a seat at the table.
"Ive come about contributing some poetry."
"Shes been published," said the girl.

"Yeah ... so have twenty million others," slurred Rod. The other girl stood to leave, and before long it was just the three of them. The schoolboys still squabbled on the couch, but Rod simply switched up the volume on a tinny transistor so as to drown their voices. Braying heavy metal thumped through the room. Rod clicked his knuckles, and sat back, sliding his papers across the desk as if to feign total disregard for all they represented.

"So - what poems you got?" He was about fifty years old, but tried to look much younger. Beneath his string vest, grey hair was noticeable. On his wrist he had the tattoo of a gun.
"Well, Ive collected two volumes worth of nature poetry, and written a number of haiku and tanka. I tend to focus on historical and environmental-"
"An eco-warrior?" said Rod. The girl beside him, who wore an anorak and drainpipe trousers, sniggered.
"Hes a bit of a sceptic is Rod," she said.
"Not a sceptic," he replied, "I just happen to think there are more pressing matters at stake than fluffy bunnies and saving the planet. Like the rising numbers of unemployed teenagers. The alienation of young British Muslims. And the way poetry is hidden and guarded jealously by the cliques who own it."
"I wouldnt say its as simple as that," Jo ventured, "I mean, literature is out there, if people want-"

"Out where?" Rod countered. He pointed to the landscape of high-rises spread beyond the window, the vandalized road bridge and the empty shopping precinct. "Out there? Youre kidding. Where is the literature? Youre into the environment? So write about that environment - and well see if we can get you on the airwaves. Because Im sure youve something to offer us." Jo knew what he meant, and had he not bulldozed her confidence with this opening assault, she might have told him about the book length groups of poems she had written about the deprivation in some of the areas she had lived and worked in, the stories she had been working on for several years about her experiences growing up, the challenges she and her mother had faced after dad had left, her struggles to finance her way through University, or survive on her library assistant's pay. But she said none of these things. In fact, Jo didn't really feel like talking at all now, and wished she had not come. The girl, more sympathetically, leant towards her and spoke softly. "Basically, were a community station focused on local voices. I think what Rods trying to say is that if-"
"What Rods trying to say is, lets hear it. Seriously, if youve got words for us, spit em out."

Jo felt cornered, and began to hotten up. She wanted to make her apologies, tell them no offence, but no, she did not have anything relevant. But, in spite of herself she pulled from her satchel a poem still in the hand-written stages, and which related to environmental matters. The lads took no notice, but Rod visibly stiffened as Jo read it. The young woman sat attentively. Additionally, two others walked into the room while the reading was in progress. One was a large black man on crutches. The second, older, was vastly overweight and heavily perspiring. He looked at the world through thick smudged glasses and had to all but hoist himself onto a chair.
"Right…" mused Rod. "Veryvery interesting. Very earthy. As I say, I think there are lots of pressing Human problems myself, and I'm looking forward to my beef steak tonight, but Im sure our Vegan friend enjoyed that."
Jo looked at the raincoated girl and smiled. So, there was something shared between them. "As I say," Rod resumed, "well see if we can slot you in. In the meantime," he turned to the gents who had joined them in the interim, "two of our regulars can show us what its all about - eh, fellas?" The men grunted. Rod nodded to the black man. "Harv - any progress?"
"Well, well, you knowyou know how it is, R," he stammered out in broken Cockney, "Im just working on thethe shape of it allto get the feel of how my experiences have affected my world viewjust to get the right picture…"
"Harveys got issues," explained Rod, his voice kindlier and slow. "Hes been working with us on just fitting all those defining points into boxes, so we can address each one separately. Hopefully hell be publishing a volume in the New year - we already have the bursary from the Arts Council."

Jo tried to look impressed. 
"And you, Bob?" asked the girl. The perspiring man cleared his throat.
"Well, Ive wrote it all down, and Ive brung it with me." He held up a sopping Netto carrier bag. "I were hoping to read it, like. Its got all me feelings in, like you said." The smell of tobacco and cheap alcohol was strong on his breath and clothes.
"Excellent stuff, Bob," cheered Rod. "This is Bob - now Bobs been working with us for some time, havent you, Bob, on addressing various issues."
"Its part of me care plan," the portly man explained, "twice a week Ive come down, and theyve been teaching me how to do poems."

"More like youve been teaching us," said Rod. "And by the sounds of things, youve come prepared tonight - so why not let us hear it?"
"Wellall right." Bob looked a mixture of confidence and nerves. He fumbled as he pulled the paper out of his bag, and had to spend some moments straightening the sheet in his hand. While he got ready, Rod took the opportunity of preparing Jo for the experience.
"Now, youre about to hear a poet reading his work, which some people can find quite uncomfortable. You see, poetry takes many forms - and in Bobs case, it hits home on some very disturbing issues. Bob, do you mind if I give Jo a bit of background?" Bob shook his head, obediently. He obviously knew the drill. "Well, Bob is what we at Local Voices like to think of as one of lifes survivors. Hes not had it easy."
"I were an alcoholic."
"Bob has had to face mental health issues, you see, and as a result of this, transitioned to being an alcohol user," he said the phrase in a way that suggested it was preferable than the crude "alcoholic."  He looked at Jo solemnly. "Now, I don't have a problem with that, but basically Bob did find there were certain issues around this which needed dealing with. He became substance-dependent for many years, and had a lot of issues around that, but hes found that poetry has helped him bring positive changes into his life and help him battle various issues in a cathartic way - havent you, Bob?"
"Its…its helped me to... to..."
"To address your issues," Rod reminded him.
"Yes! Its my way of expressing myself," said Bob. "A lot of people dont understand how poetry works - you might not understand - but Im living proof that having mental health issues and alcohol depdep…" he struggled for the word, and then gave up - "being an alcoholic, doesnt mean youre not normal."
"Bobs going to read for us now, then," said Rod, "and I appreciate that some people may find the difficult issues hell be discussing quite difficult to deal with. If you do find it uncomfortable, feel free to take five and leave for a minute. You dont have a problem with that, Bob, do you?"
Looking slightly confused, Bob shook his head.

Rod flipped off the radio, and all were silent as the alcoholic took his post. He rose slowly, and stood by the window, holding the poem before him like a bill of rights. 
"All righthere it is. Now, this is a poem about the issues what Ive faced. And how just because youve got mental health issues and drink issues, it doesnt mean you cant write poems. Because, I used to think that poems was only for clever people - until I met Rod and all the people at Local Voices. And so this is what Ive wrote.
 "Just Because.

Just because I sometimes have to ask myself my own name,

Just because I cant quite sleep at night,

Just because Ijust becausesorry about this…" he shuffled anxiously among his papers, delving into the bag and bringing out one, and then another, swearing under his breath and screwing up his eyes. The boys began to bubble up with laughter. Jo sat tight as a statue.

"I've got it, I've got it!" Bob suddenly announced.  "Shall I go from t'start?"

"Wherever you're comfortable from, Bob," said the girl, trying to soothe him into confidence. 

"Erm...so...just because..." he was speaking quickly, voice shaking and unsteady.  Jo began to feel really sorry for him now, wishing she was anywhere but where she was - and at the same time becoming increasingly angry at the situation.  Like a father at a junior football match, the fat-faced Rod sat forwards, teeth gritted. His pet project was now on show, and everything was going wrong.  Everyone was squirming in embarrassment. Meanwhile, the poor figure at the centre of this stupid spectacle was squeezing out his every ounce of courage into the performance of his ludicrous routine, like a pathetic chained monkey.  Breathing heavily and stuttering the words, Bob slowly readjusted.

"So...just because...

 Just becausejust because I need a drink or two

Just because Im in the dole queue,

Just because I hear the voices

Which make me feel life is worthless

And just because I sometimes cut myself

And feel worthless,

Just because I hear the voices

Which make me feel life is worthless

And just because I sometimes cut myself

And feel worthless,

Just because I lay awake at night and ask myself
Where did it all go wrong? Why go on living?
Just because I sometimes piss my pants because Im pissed-"

The lads could restrain their laughter no longer. One stern look from Rod was enough to send them skulking out, but by this time Bobs nerve was shot to shreds. Jo felt sure that he would hardly have hesitated to crack open a can if possible. One last time he steadied himself and spoke the syllables in a juddering monotone. 
"Just because Ive had many mountains to climb,
Doesnt mean I cant put it all down here,
Just like all them posh poets,
And face my demons.
I can write poems, because,
Just because."   
Like an ejaculation, the crescendo of relief that the ordeal was now over sent joy through every one of them. Rod stood and applauded, the girl, also clapping eagerly, shook her head and smiled, as one might at a feat of astonishing gymnastics. Even the taciturn black man could not help but smile proudly, clasping Bobs hand and patting him manfully on the back. "I told you you could do it- I'm proud of you, bruv!"
During the ensuing congratulations, Jo stood sharply and turned to the exit, determined not to endure it any longer. She grabbed her bag, not even looking at Rod, who was in any case engaged in celebration with the other men. The three of them fairly hummed with ribald joviality. 
"Im sorry, IIve really got to go - my bus."
The rooms squalid stuffiness, its mouldy air, the scraps of bread and ash sullying the floor, the noisy men, everything was like a stifling prison. The girl looked guilty, or apologetic.

"I liked your poem," she said by way of a condolence. "If you wanted to try it, this might be your cup of tea," and she handed Jo a bit of paper, with a psychadelic logo splashed upon it.

"Cheers, Ill..Ill give it a go. Maybe."
Without another word, Jo was headed down the stairwell and back into the estate. As she walked beneath the flyover towards the bus-stop, she felt December wind bite into her neck and waist, zipped up her coat, pulled her scarf tighter, and blew into frosty air. A gang of children hung about on the banking opposite: throwing stones at passing cars. The bus groaned up. Jo sat upstairs, looking down over the stale estates. She buried her head in the window pane, trying to fall into a drowsy sleep for the half hour or so it would take to pull up at the end of her street. But she could not relax. Every disappointment of the last few weeks re-imposed its self upon her mind. Like boring television repeats, every failed venture, each abandoned idea - the groups, submissions, futile attempts at maintaining fading student friendships - played slow and groggily before her. She thought of the harmless Yvonne and her poems about her husband and dead grandmother; the inoffensive Irene and her group of elderly, self-flattering tourists, with their cruises and their golf and their naughty jokes. She thought of how easy it all was for them, with she, the poet, on the sidelines - "their skill in finding what they need," wrote Larkin, and hadnt they just found it? All of them, hadnt they just?

Jo felt her hand brush against the scrap of paper in her pocket. She took it out, and read it.
At last Jo was drifting into sleep. But then the bus jolted and woke her. From the window she saw her terraced house flat, and disembarked. She kept the paper in her pocket.

"So the upshot is, Dan, I cant do it any more. Im sorry, but things have gone too far. This," she wafted the paper in front of him again, "has gone too far. Look, Im sorry, but they dont pay me enough to take this sh-" she corrected herself, "this kind of abuse."

Ill make sure that gets to Julie at Head Office, and well have a full report-"

"And then sod all will get done. Im sorry, I didnt mean to snap."

"I know, I know," he sighed, holding up his hands, as he sat back at the desk. "Its crap, isnt it, I know. You put all your energies into providing a poetry group and the powers-that-be dont give you the support."
"No, Dan, you dont follow me." She was quite exasperated now. "They, the kids themselves, dont want it. Theyre not interested in poetry, Dan, and why should they be? You know? Its not everyones cup of tea, so why should they have it rammed down their-"
"This group is an ideal opportunity for targeting under-represented-"
"Dan - I can’t do it. Im sorry."

She stood and walked to the office door, turning back to face him just as she reached it. He said,

"Its a shame, with you being a poet and all that."
"But thats exactly it - oh, why in Gods name cant anyone see it? For Christs sake - poetry is not a commodity, it's an art! It isnt like learning the alphabet or tying your shoes. No-one has to do it. No-one even has to like it, when it comes to that. No-one has to enjoy sculpture, or ballet dancing, or darts - why poetry? Why should poetry be wheeled out like a wet nurse every time theres a problem needs fixing, someone whos failing their exams, a delinquent who likes to beat the shit out of other kids - why should poetry be singled out, draw the short straw - "Okay, youve got problems, youve got issues, I know - bingo! Write a poem about it and everything will be suddenly all right." But it wont be all right, Dan - nothing will be all right, the problems will still be festering away, eating people up - their lives wont really be any better, nothing will be solved, its just that a few wankers with Social Sciences degrees can earn a wage and read their newspapers and keep trucking on because the people theyre paid to help are nicely shoved along the conveyor belt.  Nobody is actually being helped - not in the long run.  The vulnerable, the struggling, the victims of society - they're being strung along and used, and we've built an entire industry out of it.  An ivory tower where platitudes are spouted by hand-wringing do-gooders. An empire of lecturers and editors, indulging the apparently under-represented and getting grants to do it, creating an entire new mainstream and pushing anything genuinely subversive or original further out into the shadows, trampled over by the mediocre and the mild. Instead of dealing with the massive problems eating away at society, we throw a few rhymes at them. We bung seriously ill people onto badly conceived writing groups in the place of counselling. We shun policing or education in favour of mealy-mouthed platitudes and Arts Council grants. We stuff our bookshops full of ineffectual crap, celebrate the bland, or else cow-tow to the supposedly cutting edge, which is usually just slangy tripe, not even angst, just tripe. I’m not interested in what’s acceptable to the Daily Mail readers, or what's popular in youth detention centres. I’m not interested in providing a rope for anybody under the disguise of art. For Gods sake - poetry is a craft, it is a task of work and a skill every bit as specialised as botany or millinery or deep-sea diving - and I hate, I hate the way its being prostituted!"

Dan was totally taken aback.  Cleary, he had not been expecting that.
"I see," he answered, flustered, and slumped into a chair.   It was a dark morning. The office, as usual, was a tip. He sat still in his coat, and was waiting for a cup of black coffee to cool. Jo stood at the door, arms now folded, like a barrier between the manager and his escape. Dan sighed, and tried to look sympathetic, though the truth was, he had not really understood much of what Jo said. To him, poetry was a grand, high-minded affair, the stuff of heavy books and intellectuals. It was a subject, found on the shelves at Dewey Mark 821, and the books were taken by students and bohemian types, or else retired people who habitually amassed travel guides and books on line drawing. Off the top off his head, he didnt think, even during school, that he had actually ever read a poem.
"I just thoughtyou might like it - what with you being a poet yourself." He sounded bemused.
"Oh, thats precisely the point, Dan." She sat opposite him at the desk. She spoke more quietly and restrained, and he took the opportunity of chancing a sip of his drink.
"I am a poet.  And I really appreciate you considering me - honestly, I do.  But the fact I write poetry doesn't automatically qualify me to teach it, or to be a social worker. Nor does it mean I have a God-given right, or duty, to push others down my path. No-one gets hung up about dysfunctional families or chaotic kids being made to learn calligraphy, or study Languages."
"Well, I guess poetrys just kind of easier."
"It is, when its de-mystified and sterilised, when its meaninglessness and devoid of real ideas or chalenges or evocations, served up in cold slabs like processed junk food. Look, if people actually want to read poetry, then let them. Let anyone read it, write it, take it to bed with them, learn it by rote - whatever. If it changes lives and inspires the vulnerable or the disposessed, or gives people without confidence something to live for and believe in - then brilliant! But to put that obligation on the poets - or society - or to turn poetry into a kind of streamlined therapy technique or stale substitute for a social life, or as a painfully weak platform for expressing political beliefs, makes a mockery of it. It doesn't empower anybody.  Half measures and slack excuses for poetry don't change anything.  Its all a quick fix. A temporary placebo.  A flimsy bandage and a means of socially conscious and inexperienced graduates to fill out their CV's.  A joke.  So, as for this," she held out the form on which she had documented the unpleasant incidents at the poetry session, "Im sorry, Dan, but its a sham, a joke, and I want no part of it. Youll have to find someone else."
He shrugged like a schoolboy after a ticking off. A part of him felt revived: most workplace conversations revolved around holiday requests or complaints about the rota. He couldn't remember the last time he had been spoken to about books or literature. Since entering management, library life had grown so dull, so monotonous. He spent his days crunching numbers and attending pointless meetings where grey-haired drones wittered on about trivial statistics, boring even themselves. Persuading himself that he endorsed their hollow projects, views and visions, he knew inwardly that he was wasting his life. But now - even though he still hadn't fully grasped Jo’s argument, he was somehow sure that it was right: she spoke with spirit, and used words and phrases that he only heard on discussion programmes about politics and culture, and other things he habitually flicked over. But now, he felt he wanted to understand. He felt...enlivened. Provoked. Awakened. Interested. He felt...what was the word they used on courses? Engaged! But, although there were a myriad replies he wished he had the guts to give, when it came to it Dan simply smiled gently, and shrugged. "Okay, okaysure. It was just an idea. Thanks anyway."

Jo left the office feeling guilty. She had ranted at Dan, she felt - and judging by the looks of him that was the last thing his fragile nerves needed. She felt totally fed up, and faced the onset of the day with trepidation. But waiting for her at the counter were no gangs of foul-mouthed teens, or drunk old men. A familiar face in a shawl and buttoned up coat stood tittering like a schoolgirl with a secret.

"Ooh, there you are - Ive news for you. Ive news for you!"

"Yvonne. Nice to see you." Jo was caught off guard, still angry. "I didnt bring your poems back, Im sorry. Ill fetch them in tomorrow-"
"No matter, no matter, thats what I came to see you about." Yvonne leant over the desk, cosily. "Ive good news for you. Guess whos a happy bunny since we last met?" Jo looked non-plussed.
"I dont follow you, Yvonne?"
She pointed at herself.
"Ive done it. I have Ive done it. Me. Yvonne Kitchiner. A published poet!"

"Oh - Im very pleased for you, Yvonne." It was like a kick to the stomach. Jo did not know whether to laugh or scream.
"My tutor, he were so impressed with what Id done, and that publisher I told you about, that charity one, well the book's due out after Christmas, and my poem's going in! And guess what, theyre paying me!" She was a blur of joy. Jo tried to look busy sorting out some stock, but Yvonne would not go away. "I'm a proper poet now, "she tittered, excitedly, "and soon, the whole world will know all about my granny and her biscuit tin!"

Hey, glad you could make it."
The girl was dressed in more or less the same drab garb she had worn at the radio studio, but seemed to walk with a spring in her step. The leisure centre was a broken down old building, whose sports services had not been used for years and which lacked a swimming pool, on the edge of the main road, in an area of similarly grim squalor as the studio, yet her greeter seemed brighter in her whole demeanour. Obviously, this was her own project, and without the presence of the overbearing Rod, the whole affair seemed more optimistic. There were even a few cheap Christmas decorations hung about the hallway. Jo noticed that the girl wore a name badge: "Flea."
"So, if you can just sign in here." She handed Jo a register. "Essentially, what we at Uprising Stars are doing is trying to gauge the issues of importance at local level, and disseminate that through a medium of poetic performance and expression."
"Im not really a performance poet-"
"Were a multi-disciplinary Arts inclusion network offering cultural and educational resources for vulnerable and socially marginalized young people, specializing in inclusive client-centred focus mechanisms. We tend to congregate through here, in the main hall." Jo was shown into a spacious but draughty hall. Clumps of youths stood shuffling about, hands in pockets. A fracas had erupted in one group, where a well-built Asian boy in a basketball top was slapping another lad around the ear, barking abuse.
"Thats Azram," Flea explained. "Hes kind of like my star pupil." At the mention of his name, Azram looked up, and Flea threw him a thumb-up. "Aye up, Az." Her middle-class accent had momentarily coarsened as she tried affecting the same style of speech as the youngster. "I say my, because basically I homed in on Az at need-identification level, and weve worked together on a lot of issues now. He comes from a big family and he just got lost somewhere along the way, but with successful intervention at that peer-paradigm stage, we were able to target his specific needs, and poetry has just been such an incredible platform for him to work through his issues with." Now, Azram had turned on another boy, knocking lumps out of him as the gang spun into commotion.

At the rooms far end, at a metal desk, a plump man with a bald head sat back, as if weighing up the collective.
"Thats Louse," Flea explained. She led the way to the desk. Louse was a crumple of a man - shaggy beard matted here and there with cigarette ash, Wellington boots encrusted with mud, most teeth missing and a scrubby lumberjacks coat. He stank of tobacco.
"Hey there, Flea, keep the faith," he choked, as the two pressed their fists together.
"This is Jo, our new recruit."
Jo was spared the obligation of shaking hands with Louse on account of two further entries into the hall. This pair, a man and woman both in their mid twenties, could not have been more different: clean-cut, shimmering in high street smartness, they wore expressions of self-belief. Both were greeted like long lost relations. By the speed at which events were then put into order, Jo surmised that these must be the people wielding the power.
"Arts Council," Flea explained, as they all bunched together at the central tables.
Flea gave a brief introduction, and told everyone how Paul and Becky were here to explore the local talent, and establish the contenders for an upcoming anthology.
"And there will even be the chance of appearing on an ITV documentary, Street Words," said Becky.

The readings began. There were rants about racism, an impassioned plea to for prisons to be closed, and a diatribe from one poet against student loans, which he decried as worse thananything that had ever been imposed by Adolf Hitler, to great applause. Jo sat listlessly, watching as Louse and Flea rubbed their hands together, or winked supportively at the poets, or raised their fists in celebration. The two Arts Council delegates looked on impressed, once or twice exchanging observations such as "powerful," "unorthodox," or "deep."
Jo checked her watch. Quarter-to. Time to make an exit, she decided. She looked at the doorway, and calculated quickly the time it would take to slip from here to the bus stop at the market. She should be home, all told, in less than half an hour. A bathsome teaa book
"And finally, I want to introduce a young man who writes on various levels about lots of individual issues - Azram Hussain." The teenager limbered up, pulling from his pocket not paper but a phone. "Azrams a performance poet," said Flea, "and hes been working with Uprising Stars now for about six months. Weve already compiled his first collection, and hes looking for multi-media opportunities to widen access to his work." 
"I read them off my phone," he said, jutting out the words like right hooks. "Shall I start?" Flea nodded. The other kids quietened, respect mingling with fear. Azram looked up to face the audience, and began.

"This is a poemits about society and shitits my latest - no-ones heard it yet." The faces of those present, from the urchins to the group leaders, and even the two delegates, shone with expectation. Azram pressed the buttons on his phone, momentarily checking a message. Then he spoke up once again. "So this poemthis poem is called Fuck That Shit." Polite but instinctive laughter rose. The delegates shared looks of nervous amusement. Louse and Flea smiled in moral support. Azram began in an aggressive tone.

"Oi, muthafuckaz, it be going down like this - fuck that shit!

Niggaz be telling you - fuck that shit.

Niggaz representin- fuck that shit!"

There were smiles, rumbles of enjoyment, as he pressed on:

"Disrespectin' da brotherhood? Fuck that shit,

Fuckin' wid da niggahood? Fuck that shit,

Racist police? Fuck that shit,

Education system? Fuck that shit." 

By now, the audience were hooked, and were uttering appreciative cries. Azram raised his fist and upped the volume. He was on a roll now.

"Courts and Judges? Fuck that shit.

White muthafuckaz? Fuck that shit.

Offending Islam?  Fuck that shit.

Fuck that shit, fuck that shit," he stepped back slightly to deliver one last, full-throated bellow -

"All the enemis of Gs on da street - go fuck that shit!"

The audience flared into paroxysms of exhilaration. They were like the delighted crowd of a pop concert. Azrams contemporaries clapped him on the back, dug him in the ribs, hooted and stamped on the ground, beat their fists against the table, repeating the poems predominant line. Louse sat back and chuckled like a proud father. 

"So brave," said Flea, above the din.
"Wow," said Becky, "Ive got to admit, that was pretty raw - but all in all, an amazing juxtaposing of social consciousness with a driven undertone of irony. Surely the most visceral and authentic critique we've heard of current government policy and social attitudes for a long time."
"And his way of expounding on stereotypical pigeon-holing, and interplaying the various dynamics of different social issues," put in Paul, "was totally off the scale. Nice on, Azram

"No, wait - wait," puffed Azram, keying into his phone and standing up again, "theres one last bit…" The room held its breath as he held the phone in front of him, reading his lines from the screen. 
"Poetry?" He called out, pausing for suspense... "Poetry?  Fuck dat sheey-aiit!"
Slowly but surely, as the room almost rocked with laughter and applause, Jo found that she, too, was laughing - laughing until her insides ached, until tears began rolling down her cheeks, until her voice was sore and she could laugh no more. She felt herself being hugged by Flea, and responded affectionately, as if they were at a festival or sports stadium and had just witnessed a triumph - the warmth of conviviality, the intoxication of unblemished happiness, the sense of complete and utter absurdity, burned in her bones. She swayed from side to side, rubbing her eyes, and wondered if she had laughed quite so much in years.

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