The Chalk Path – poetry PDF

The Chalk Path - front cover

My latest poetry pamphlet is now available as a free PDF. In The Chalk Path, Joe, Hugh, and myself turn our attention landward from the coast. The poems are drawn from walks over chalk downs, train rides beside white horses etched into hillsides and, in contrast, the bright red sandstone of my Mercian homelands.

Read it online

You can read The Chalk Path here. Please share it with your friends if you enjoy it.

Here’s one of mine from the collection:

PILGRIMAGE OVER CLENT

Red soil. Brown grass. White sky.
A glimpse of Harry-Ca-Nab,
the devil’s hunting man. Keep running.
Through mudbeds of slipping-danger.
Through the place of martyrs, St. Kenelm’s.
Here’s one known to me. I bow my head before
climbing into the cradle of these hills.

At St. Leonard’s, further along Kenelm’s pass,
I find the grave of Eliza Baylie,
unknown to me, her woven cross
symmetrical, upright, organic stone.
The good we’ve wrought becomes nature.
Chapel, trees, and stones are buried in fog.
Eliza’s cross marks the beginning of a hill
we once measured in bpm,
ears pounding with the body’s song,
where my heart stops me again.

Geese creak in the mist above.
Clouds curdle as they’re raked
like ghosts through evergreens. Rain thickens.
Ca-Nab’s hounds are close. Keep running.
Over the rise, leaving a pattern but no prints.
Carry the poem. Kiss the soil with each foot.
Let the hill carry you home.

 

Blurb

An experiential exploration of movement within the landscape, taking you beyond maps to the cries of buzzards, the feeling of chalk dust on fingers, and the glimpse of a white horse.

As always, the cover painting is by Hugh.

You can also read our previous poetry pamphlets in PDF form: The Inner Sea and The Tide Clock.

All feedback welcome in the comments or to mark@markdcooper.com.

Failure

titanic-mould-loft-design

The ship’s design pictured is the Titanic. The cross-section is drawn at full scale and the length at quarter scale.

I visited the Titanic exhibition in Belfast recently. The timing couldn’t have been better as I’ve been reading Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking, about how we learn from failures both catastrophic and small. The ‘unsinkable’ ship that went down on its maiden voyage is a prime example of the gap between our expectations and the complexity of the real world. One of the striking quotes in Syed’s book outlines how progress is largely bought with failure, and in safety-critical areas, with blood. There are starkly important areas where black box thinking and a related concept, marginal gains, can be applied. Syed contrasts case studies from aviation, medicine, and the criminal justice system to name a few.

The importance of feedback

Syed has an interesting metaphor for thinking about failure and feedback. Some disciplines offer instant feedback on whether you’re on the right track; others permit you to flail around without ever knowing. He likens it to practicing your swing on a driving range in total darkness. How would you ever know to adjust your technique? How would you improve? He quotes a statistic that says trainee psychotherapists “obtain results that are as good as those of licensed ‘experts’.” The reason for this, Syed argues, is that psychotherapists have only indirect access to their patients’ inner experience, and few therapists track long-term outcomes once a client relationship has ended. This means they have little opportunity to revise their judgements based on real-world feedback. Another example: apparently, people learn to steer cars much faster than boats because the effect of steering on tarmac is immediate where as the action of a rudder is delayed. So in any number of disciplines the question becomes how can we give ourselves more immediate feedback?

I wonder if the same problem faces meditation teachers, and how it might be overcome – perhaps through standardised questionnaires, as some therapists have advocated for. In meditation, many teachers encourage an attitude of playful exploration. A large part of the practice seems to be trying various approaches and inquiries, and seeing for yourself what the outcome is – classic trial and error. We call it meditation practice for a reason perhaps. One conception of how this works might be that meditation reconnects you to the feedback mechanisms of body and mind. After all, you are the most sensitive, subtle instrument at your disposal. The non-linguistic right hemisphere of the brain is constantly processing thousands of datapoints and expressing these through the body as feeling, intuition, emotion. If you’re wary of becoming a quantified self (as opposed to an unquantifiable one), take heart. In my view, as sensate human beings we are already data-driven so wearing a fitness tracker is like putting legs on a snake, to use a metaphor from zen: unnecessary.

Some feedback is hard to face, of course. And this is where the problem of cognitive dissonance appears. To accept that we have made a mistake may imply some uncomfortable facts about ourselves that we do not want to see. It’s very hard to accept that you have made mistakes when it comes to parenting, for instance, but that admission could fuel future growth. This is how children themselves learn, after all. Every tumble and setback is part of an epic process of trial and error that leads from sitting upright to cartwheels and handstands. We are failing and learning all the time. Following Syed’s logic, perhaps one of the deep problems in depending on unhelpful strategies to cope in life is that when we go to excessive lengths to avoid failure and pain we also turn away from the mechanism that will spark future growth. As always, it probably pays to know where a compassionate balance lies.

Creativity

Syed emphasises that creativity is a response to a problem in a specific time and place. While we often buy into the idea of lightning bolt of inspiration, it is engaging with a well-defined problem that turns us into a conductor for the muse. Inspiration often then strikes when we step back and switch off, or when we are jarred into an epiphany by criticism, paradox, or an unusual connection. Syed, like others before him, claims that such a creative epiphany can almost always be characterised as a connection of ideas from previously separate conceptual categories. He also believes that true progress often requires both a paradigmatic shift and compounded marginal gains. Optimising existing processes may get you to the top of a particular hill while the mountain remains unclimbed.

Craft improves through failure. Sometimes exclusively so. This is the learning mechanism at the heart of practice. For example, every author begins by writing badly. Over the years, style, ability and judgement develop as we innovate around now familiar pitfalls. Every failure tells us something new about ourselves, our craft, and the world. Even an experienced writer will produce a bad first draft. In a sense, with each new project they should be trying something they have never done before. We wouldn’t call this a failure but it’s essentially the same: an iteration. Bad dialogue can be replaced. Awkward plot points can be straightened out. Instead of stigmatising failure and falling back on blame, applying the same mindset to other areas of life could be similarly fruitful.

With this mindset, there’s less resistance to thinking about why I haven’t managed to complete a novel, as I said I would two years ago. The idea, I think, is not to allow self-blame creep in but to analyse contributing factors compassionately. In the case of the novel, after trying for a few weeks I felt it was simply not the time, and not the right idea. I’d been cranking out words and projects of all kinds and had a unique opportunity to slow down, enjoy life, and let things happen by themselves.

If I undertake another long writing project in the future, I’ll know what I’m getting into a bit better, and where a few more of the pitfalls are. I hope that I’ll take Syed’s advice and get feedback early on to motivate myself and improve the work. In fact, he uses Pixar as an example of iterative story writing. The animation studio’s writing teams often end up drawing 125,000 storyboards or more. While I don’t think I can pump out quite that many iterations, I could start writing some scenes and character sketches on this blog and seeing what folk enjoy.

Every poet has a long career of being rejected from magazines and crashing out of competitions. Often, no feedback is provided. This is understandable because of the huge workload and time pressure editors and judges face. However, just think how helpful even a line of feedback could be to developing writers. One of my poems, ‘Vardøger‘, was rejected from Poetry Review with a one-liner that they really liked the first three stanzas but not the rest of it. They were right. I cut the poem down and submitted it in the Poetry School/Nine Arches Press Primers competition, where it was probably my strongest shortlisted poem. Perhaps in the future I’ll be more tenacious about asking for feedback.

Back to Titanic

But what of the Titanic? What was learnt from that? Well, not only were serious design flaws brought to light – the inadequate rudder, flooding compartments, lack of lifeboats – but regulations governing safety at sea and responding to ships in distress were overhauled. Probably not every lesson that could have been learnt was. As humans we often take the most efficient approach to problem-solving by doing things the way we’ve done them before. As a friend of mine says, “if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.”

Failure is inevitable but Black Box Thinking argues that embracing setbacks liberates us from future mistakes. It frees us to learn from failure instead of turning from the pain of it and being doomed to repeat it.

The Tide Clock proof has arrived

The new poetry pamphlet I’ve been working on with Hugh Greasley and Joe Franklin has arrived in proof form. There are a couple of minor errors to be fixed: I didn’t leave enough room between the bleed and the page margin on the cover, for one thing. These should now be resolved and I’ve put the order in for the first printing.

The cover art is Paziols Morning by Hugh. Check out more of his art at hughgreasley.co.uk.

Get in touch if you’d like me to post you one!

The Tide Clock proof

The Tide Clock - Mark's poems

Sea music: foreword to a poetry pamphlet

Sea music - foreword to a poetry pamphlet

I’m hoping to send our new poetry pamphlet to the printers this weekend. It’s the second collaboration between myself and poets Joe Franklin and Hugh Greasley. To whet your appetite, here’s a draft of the foreword:

Sea music

Ted Hughes once said that if the reason we travelled to the coast during our holidays was to relax, we’d be better off avoiding the traffic and crowded beaches to stay at home in the garden. He was hinting at another reason for our habit of staring out over an ocean, and that is to connect with a reality much larger than the habitual selves we usually are. Returning to the sea frames our lives. It presents a new surface each time we visit.

Viewing the expanse of the ocean brings the mind back to the immensity of reality, and broadens our perspective. No wonder it has been a central character in the work of poets from Homer to Walcott. And yet in nearly 3,000 years there are still new things to say about the sea. The way people relate to it and earn their livelihoods from it continues to change. Yet the sea can hold our lives because it’s both a uniform vastness and a unique weathering of the coastline. The stretch of coast between St. Ives and Zennor that Hugh and I walked last summer is famed for resembling a splayed hand grasping the edge of the water.

Many things have happened in our lives since our first shared collection, The Inner Sea: much of which can be glimpsed in these poems. It seems fitting, then, that The Tide Clock and Other Poems is centred around coastal transformations. One of the oldest truths is that everything changes but change. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the fringe between land and sea: the intertidal zone where, even when it seems the waters are calm, they ebb or flood imperceptibly under the hidden influence of the moon.

So, The Tide Clock… is an exploration of boundaries and connections. With this in mind, we collaborated on the title poem, each writing one of its three movements. The intention is that our theme will flow between the boundaries of our individual styles and perspectives to find its own expression in this particular pamphlet you now hold. We hope you enjoy it.

Mark Cooper, Cornwall, 1st March 2015.

If you’d like a copy of The Tide Clock, email me at mark@markdcooper.com. I’d welcome any reviewers, bloggers, or readers who’d like to take a look at it. In the meantime, have a read of our first poetry pamphlet, The Inner Sea.

Shigeru’s Cave

i.

When Shigeru was twelve, he found a cave
no one else had explored. The other boys
avoided that part of the wood. Their base
bordered the hillside near a soldier’s grave
now used as a bookmark for civic grief
but Shigeru went on deeper forays
into the forest. He staged one man plays
under the teeming emptiness. He tried to carve
murals in loneliness and what was slight
became whole, wider than the cave itself.
Even the dust made shadows when he lit
an oil lamp and ghosts rose to a swarm.
Their dreams were parables in low relief,
unknowable but easy to transform.

ii.

Shigeru blew out the flame and black verbs
gathered the unlit part of their burden,
climbing like fireworks with each blink, hidden
like smoke wrapped in a darker sky. Suburbs
called him from beyond the wood, offering bribes
of long stillness when the clearing was done.
A blind thief arrived. He made his den
out of insults, heartbeats and rubies.
He polished their blood-beauty like you would shoes,
counting them over decades, relieved
to find company in his own echoes.
For all the thief’s effort his only prize
was a hundred smooth-dull stones. Shigeru breathed
from the forest, smiled and opened his eyes.

iii.

The silence became floodwater, so bright
it glittered between branches yet so dense
it pulled the cave inside out and blindness,
regrets and blessings tumbled free. Black roots
erupted from the ground. Bare branches wrote
poetry in their scrawl against a wilderness
where swallows flew. Shigeru watched them dance.
Small deafenings and tensions came apart
as he stepped into a larger, deeper cave.
Meandering home and late for his tea,
a schoolboy paused for a minute and gave
his hands to the slow part of the river
to feel its cool alignment with the sea;
a darting, unexpected scale; quicksilver.

 

‘Shigeru’s Cave’ was shortlisted for the 2014 Live Canon Poetry Competition and appears in the competition anthology, available from Amazon. It was inspired by the formative experiences of Nintendo game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto.

The meaning of Tolkien’s one ring

Possessiveness is a recurring theme in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. At the beginning, Bilbo is attached to his quiet way of life. His daily trials are no more strenuous than avoiding the Sackville-Bagginses and no more rewarding than a pint of ale and a hearty repast. He has a quotidian existence and Gandalf’s invitation to re-order his life in the shape of a quest is a troubling challenge.

We learn that this bother with Smaug is the upshot of greed: the greed of Thorin Oakenshield’s father and grandfather, and their coveting of the arkenstone. Later, when they seize Smaug’s stronghold, their lust for gold has the potential to bring all to ruin were it not for a clever burglar. A burglar is someone who relieves the burden of possession. Bilbo relieved Gollum of the ring, though after too many years for the darkness-dweller to adjust to the burden of not having it. Gollum might not possess the ring, but the ring still possesses him. In Jungian terms, Gollum is Bilbo’s shadow: the repressed part of himself that he cannot consciously acknowledge but will come face to face with through his quest. Gollum is wild and violent; he also takes Bilbo’s anti-social, obsessive tendencies to an extreme. Like Bilbo, he enjoys small comforts and games – but of a darker shade. Smaug, too, is shadow. He represents more than the dwarves’ uninterrogated greed. He is an usurping serpent in the heart of the mountain and the human heart. His possessiveness of gold is witness to his colossal covetousness of his own self, his massive ego. He loathes nothing more than a thief who might relieve him of his burden and has no greater blindspot than flattery.

When Frodo comes to bear the ring we see exactly how a possession may possess its owner. Like Bilbo, Frodo begins to echo Gollum’s speech: my own, mine. We learn that the ring, though forged, cannot be unmade except in special circumstances. It’s this idea of the ring as a discrete object, whole, existing objectively and immutably as fact, that forms part of its attractiveness (contrast with the Buddhist concept of emptiness). It represents something absolute, apart from other objects, and so able to satisfy dark longings for power and security that all other possessions have failed to quench. The hobbits’ relative resistance to the one ring has its root in their humility; the allure of the ring is the support it lends to the assumption at the root of possessiveness: that there is an enduring ego that gains security through possession. It literally prolongs the life of its bearer, but in doing so unites them with the shadow of their nature. Ultimately, Tolkien dissolves the deadlock between possessor and possession as the ring melts in the belly of Mt. Doom.

Look ye also while life lasts

The wonder of the world
The beauty and the power,
The shapes of things,
Their colours, lights and shades,
These I saw.
Look ye also while life lasts.

These lines are tucked away at the beginning of Benji Davies’ beautiful children’s book, The Storm Whale. At first I thought it might be a quotation from a crow’s nest reverie in Moby Dick. In actual fact, these wise words appear at the start of every book by another children’s author, Denys Watkins-Pitchford, or, to use his pseudonym, BB. BB’s father found it inscribed on a gravestone. Where that gravestone is, or whether it is still legible, who knows.

That puts me in mind of another gravestone inscription, a heavier memento mori my mother noticed in the churchyard at Zennor.

As you walk by pray cast an eye,
as you are now so once was I.
As I am now, ‘ere long you’ll be.
Therefore prepare to follow me.

So, forget this talk of ebooks. Weightier thoughts are etched in stone. Think on that, ye pantheists!

How to read a city

The weekend brought me to Dublin for a wedding. I had some errands to run in the morning and went out to beat the streets. Inevitably, I found myself in a bookshop on the north side of the river where I picked up some titles in the Penguin Great Ideas series. For a tense moment, it looked as though the credit card transaction wouldn’t go through but, no, the shop assistant manipulated the card reader’s cable and I was spontaneously €35 poorer.

Temple Bar seems vibrant and a huge amount of fun with plenty of restaurants, pubs and bars and an entire street of musical instrument shops. However, it’s bookshops that serve my drug of choice. In the past I would have been scouting for record shops but they are now few and, for better or for worse, I just don’t buy music in a physical format these days. But what would be the point of a city without bookshops?

I started wondering about what would make a successful bookshop in the age of Amazon. There’s no way that even the biggest of chain stores can compete with the range of an internet retailer, so bookshops might as well be small and specialised with a lovingly selected stock. ‘Human capital’ is another advantage they have over internet giants: a bookseller performs a role that’s similar to a museum curator, surfacing interesting titles the customer might otherwise have missed. Staff should be free to engage with customers and find out what they’re looking for. A good bookseller won’t meekly ask ‘can I help you?’… more like ‘what have you been reading lately?’. This becomes easier if the shop has a guiding theme or philosophy. The third advantage bookshops have is the space itself. Occasional celebrity signings are fine, but it would be better to have regular events, readings, book clubs, creative writing sessions, talks etc. that bring in dedicated, returning customers. Finally, you could combine the shop with something more interesting than a coffee house, like a restaurant, bar or something unusual.