Lockdown began – the first lockdown – and I was in the wrong place for any writing. Or if I was in the right place, the books and resources I needed weren’t there, the libraries and archives were closed, and I had to put my main project aside. And I didn’t feel much like writing. Death and disease could be anywhere: on the food we bought, on any surface we touched, in the air we breathed. Mostly we stayed indoors, enjoyed each other’s company, did our best to follow the rules. Quite often I gazed out of the window. I also scavenged through website for news, information and views. And at the same time we had fun, celebrated the luck that had brought us, unexpectedly together, and made the most we could of every day.
Sometimes I picked up my notebook and wrote. My notes were barely legible and my thoughts jumbled but it didn’t seem to matter. “I’m not writing a poem,” I said to myself. “I can’t produce anything in lockdown. I’m just practising – keeping my hand in – so that when all this ends I won’t have forgotten altogether about writing.”
I edited old work as well, sent out stories and poems. Occasionally I wrote something new. And then, as lockdown eased, then tightened, then began again, I started looking back through my notebooks for anything that might be usable. “Not,” I thought, “another lockdown poem. There will be plenty of those.”
But somehow I found myself among the old scrawled, unedited notes, trying to make – not sense exactly but a sequence. There were already different voices emerging and, as I looked, more voices arrived – often coming from people locked in their own narrow perspective and unable to reach a wider view. Some of these voices disturbed me but I went on, writing them down, then editing.
Finally I put the fragments and longer poems into a sequence – there seemed to be twenty of them – and sent them to my friend Pippa Hennessey, asking for feedback. “I’m not publishing them,” I told her, “but I want to get them right.”
Pippa offered the thoughtful feedback I knew she could – so I read it, thought about it, then put the poems aside. After all, I wasn’t publishing them. But they still demanded work. At one point – I can’t remember when it was – I went to the local newsagent and printed out the poems as they stood, cut them up into their twenty sections, and started to move them around on the floor so that I could get the sequence right – or as good as I could. And when I had the sequence I went back to the painstaking task of editing, poem by poem, reading them aloud, listening to them, hoping they worked.
And then I thought, “Perhaps they could be published.” I started checking on publishers of poetry pamphlets to see if any were taking submissions. It was lockdown. Bookshops were shut. Few were. And anyway, I still didn’t know if what I had was publishable. I decided to risk asking Alan Baker if he knew of any pamphlet publishers open to submission. Because I know him and admire his work both as poet and publisher I didn’t feel quite easy about submitting to Leafe Press – but he said he would look at the poems. I expected more feedback but what I received was an offer to publish.
So here the poems are, newly available from Leafe Press Poetry (and from Five Leaves Bookshop). If you would like to read them, do buy a copy either from Leafe or from your local independent bookshop – because independent publishers and bookshops need your support. And, as a taster, here are two of the shorter poems as printed in the book and photographed, badly, by me.