Gabriel Griffin, Monday Writer, 10 August 2020

Gabriel Griffin

After years living in cities – London, Rome, Barcelona, Venice, Milan, designing tableware and textiles, and helping organise seminaries and art exhibitions – I decided to bring up my children on a small island on a Pre-Alpine lake in Italy. I had always loved poetry and attended readings and performances in the various cities. I began to send poems to journals and competitions, and was encouraged especially by Kevin Bailey, the editor of the long-running HQ Poetry Magazine, and by winning first prize at Ripley, one of the first competitions I entered, in 1999. Since then my poems have often been prized and published in journals & anthologies: Temenos Academy Review, Orbis, Scintilla Journal, Aesthetica, Barnet Arts, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Chalk Face Muse, White Adder, Blinking Eye, Private Photo Review, Ripley; Peterloo, Writers’ Forum, Norwich Writers, Poetry Life, Beehive Press, Ceth Uclan. and others (gabrielgriffin.org). I have also written Along the old way: a pilgrimage from Orta to Varallo in the company of Samuel Butler (Wyvern Works 2010); St Giulio’s Isle, a guide (Wyvern Works 2015), and various magazine articles. My novel The Monastery of the Nine Doors won 2nd in Yeovil 2017. I have won a number of first prizes including twice a 1st at: Plough (short poems), at Barnet Arts, and at Split the Lark, run by the late John Whitworth. My Gothic short story Hells’ Bells won Canterbury Save As Writers 1st prize in 2018. Missing live poetry events, I founded Poetry on the Lake in 2001, to bring poets to the lake; in this year of Covid, POTL’s 20th anniversary falls in October. Over the years, I have been fortunate to welcome to the island: Al Alvarez, Gillian Clarke, Anne Stevenson, Carol Ann Duffy, Imtiaz Dharker, James Harpur, John F. Deane, Brian Patten, Penelope Shuttle, and many others. www.poetryonthelake.org

The Monday Writer Interview

The Beginning

Listening comes first; when a child I heard and memorised nursery rhymes, a good foundation for absorbing rhythm and meter. Reading followed, and writing seemed to spring from reading quite spontaneously. When I was ten years old, a marvellous teacher encouraged me to read the Romantic poets aloud and to learn many poems by heart. In the years following, so inspired, I composed a few – certainly dreadful – poems; happily, I cannot remember any of them. Writing a poem comes easily only if I have a compelling first line in mind, then the rest of the poem appears to write itself. Without that first inspired line, I have to work hard, to correct and re-correct.

Themes

When I was a child, I lived always in the country, mostly by the sea in Wales, which has influenced my writing; often my stories and poems are inspired by herbs, especially the poisonous ones. At that time, it was possible for children to wander the countryside and shores alone; we had a freedom that modern children appear, sadly, to have lost.
Writing is for me an exploration; when I begin, I have no idea where I am going or what I will discover on the way. I follow wherever the poem leads, often to somewhere surprising to me. I tend to focus on small things or moments, details rather than the great themes – love, life, death.

Why she writes

I write because I love words, because it is a pleasure, and in order to uncover what lies below the surface.

Biggest challenge faced as a writer

Time alone! However, I hope I never have too much.

Best advice received from writers and non-writers

Al Alvarez was charming and encouraging; he gave me several books by modern poets that he recommended I read and said to ‘trust the words.’ Best advice from a non-writer came from a Venetian exhibition organiser who said ‘whatever the chaos or urgency, always sweep the floor’; in fact, a swept environment clears confusion from the mind.

Her advice to other writers

Love words, investigate their etymology, casually open and read a few lines of dictionaries, listen to poetry, plays – anything – on podcasts, audio recordings or the radio, (forget videos or live performances not every poet reads well, and video distracts from the words: their sound, their rhythm, the images they conjure.

Her books

The first book I wrote, many years ago, was a manual for users of portable video cameras and editing techniques, in Italian. Some years ago, I wrote ‘Along the Old Way, a pilgrimage from Orta to Varallo in the company of Samuel Butler’ and, recently, a guidebook to ‘St Giulio’s Isle’ where I live. I edited and self-published twelve anthologies of poems by poets who participated in the Poetry on the Lake events over the years. I never seem to have the time to organise my own poems, widely published in anthologies, into a collection, or to find an agent for my completed novel. At present, I am writing short stories – and have launched a Poetry on the Lake short story competition.

Best five books she has read

The first five that come to mind are Eliot’s Waste Land, anything by Ezra Pound – widely considered politically incorrect but such a great poet – Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (the language is so beautiful), Edward FitzGerald’s version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, most of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I would like to have written all of these – and many others.

Which writers have influenced her the most?

All the writers I have ever read have influenced me; those above the most – along with other poets such as Louis MacNeice, Garcia Lorca, Rilke, Dylan Thomas.

Does it matter if her writing is misunderstood?

Not really; it is not my intention to communicate meanings or messages. I have noticed that sometimes a comment about a poem of mine surprises me, but I let it go. The listener/reader is free to make of the poem whatever they wish.

The poems

Nicotiana tabacum
“… a viscid annual or short-lived perennial”

In Umbrian fields stooping, tanned, straw
hats over cotton fazzoletti, they slowly pan
down lines of green; flowers cow-lung pink,
clustered in a brazen showing. Heat
shimmers the scene unreal, a card discarded from
a faded pack, its colours smudged and blurring.
On shaded terraces we pour cool wine, gaze
while they heap baskets, barrows, carts, straighten
sighing, take the loads in lines to sheds, seeds
of sweat and tiredness shining.

*

No, thanks, I don’t! Leaves shrivel, twist,
contract like hands whose fingers yellowing
lose lymph, as they their cool ellipses.
Heat swirls the smoke haze of the shed;
in the darkening day a choking, bitter scent.

*

You cultivate flowers of your own; their petals
soft as ash, flyaway as clocks of dandelions.
Cut it out! Or down, at least. You’re young…
You laugh, inhale, breathe blossoms newly blown,
whorled, impalpable, feathery as down.
I close my eyes, see petals flake and fall, compose
loam where spores seed, mycelia creep
and black fungi slowly grow.

Lament for an illegal immigrant

No moon, but fishermen
are used to that and the sea’s chanting,
the descant of the nets. The decks
silvered with sea verses,
the minims and trebles of fish
hushed into songbooks of ice.

Something didn’t sing, humped
in the net, thudding onto the deck.
Its ears heard no notes, its eyes
were blind to the men standing round,
its throat choked with words
that no one would hear.

They let the sly octopus
sidle to the ship’s side, forgot to stop
the arch and leap of bream.
The sea moaned, the fish
slipped out of tune, the kittiwakes
hurled screeches like broken strings.

The men unfroze, thumped
what didn’t sing, what was lost for words,
over the hissing deck. Tipped that which
had no hope, had never had a hope,
back to the sea. No spoken
word, no hymn, no prayer.

But the wrack on the deck wept. The sea
beat its fists on the boat. And the wind got up
and howled till dawn.

The Nuns’ Araucaria

Not at all the kind of tree you’d expect to find
in a monastery garden. It squears above the wall
its giant fingers horning the heavens, effing
up at the skies. And the nuns who moved in have
left it there, yet chopped down
the stammering mimosa, the cherry whose blossom danced
a swan lake over the boughs, the sacred yew by the gate with
scarlet berries we plucked and sucked and spat at
the monastery well. But a monkey puzzle?

Was it an abbot who planted it, a symbol
of life’s labyrinth or of evil’s intricacies? Did he intend it
to stand as a speechless sermon long after he’d died?
Is it a warning of purgatory’s trials or a statement
of the life we are confusedly living: snared, squittering
in Fate’s mesh, while the Dark Hunter, unmoved,
looks on? Or does it symbolize nothing
at all, have no significance, is just a prelate’s whim,
a caprice to slip between the lines of the Rule?

From my window at night that tree plays games
with the stars, tracing Snakes and Ladders
over the mooning sky. Soundless as shadows nuns
slide under its boughs – who’s to tell if it grabs at their
veils or pricks them on their silent way? Or do they –
for some penance or for a sly joy – clamber
Into its bristly branches, struggle out of their
caught and cumbersome habits, and wriggle,
naked and lithe as monkeys, up to the winking stars?

Cistern

Turks don’t like
still water. In time they forgot
it was there, heavy, silent, pressing
under the quick streets, the fretted palace,
the sky-painted mosques; the fountains
threading silver sounds through the sun,
the voices dancing in the shade.

The cooks said nothing, slipping onto painted plates
white blind carp. Bought from one who
knew his way in the watery dark, dared
to row through the clammy columned maze,
dodge the Medusa’s stare, looped
in the chill vapours of the sunless damp.

*

When the slaughter began, I ran
through the shouting crowds, past the carts
of green cucumbers, spiced cakes, popcorn, baked
potatoes; choking on smoke from black
grills toasting sausages, kebabs, pink
floppy flesh, plunged

down the steps, slipping on the green slime of
vaults fifteen hundred years dark, into
an antique silence, away from
the screams of the dying, the butchers’
laughter, the crimson trickle in the gutter.

Pale fish slid under my feet, weaving
amber and black. I stepped over the water
hunting the Medusa, found her reversed, her eyes
reflecting Time’s waste. Should I stay, my life
turning to stone in an underground world?
Or return to the run and flow of blood
in the festive streets?


‘Nicotiana tabacum’ was first published in 4th Writers Bureau 2007.
‘Lament for an illegal immigrant’ was first published in Barnet Arts anthology 2010
‘The Nuns’ Araucaria’ was prized and published in Peterloo Poets Competition Anthology 2006


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