Discover more from By the Book: Jamie McGarry at Valley Press
Forward Prize mini-blog
No lengthy missive, just four amazing poems
For the first time since I started By the Book, life has got in the way of delivering the next post. Expect normal service to be resumed at the weekend.
Instead, a quick update on Emma Must’s The Ballad of Yellow Wednesday. Although the collection didn’t ultimately triumph in the Laurel Prizes (you may recall my giddy announcement in August when it was longlisted), it did end up ‘Highly Commended’ in this year’s Forward Prizes, which is a great achievement in itself. The ‘Forwards’ are considered to be the most prestigious awards in British poetry, and to get anywhere close is as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth. The last time we had a nod was in 2016, with Di Slaney’s Reward for Winter (which did feature actual hens).
The prize for Highly Commended poets is to feature in the annual Forward anthology, the cover of which you can see above. They selected four parts of Emma’s extended sequence ‘Holloway Letters’, which – having been chosen out of all the poetry published in the UK last year – must be deserving of a place on this blog, too. They describe the poet’s time in Holloway Prison, after protesting the destruction of a natural landmark for the sake of a motorway (see previous article); and as you can see from the sequence’s epigraph, the prison’s name was subtly appropriate. (Those who remember Reward for Winter will find it appearing here in spirit, too.)
from Holloway Letters (The Martyr’s Crown)
for Becca Lush
holloway – lane or path that has been grooved down into the landscape due to the erosive power of, variously, feet, wheels and rainwater
Like the cork oak, in a circle of herself,
each full-grown woman would turn a little girlish
at the prospect of a proper hairdo.
Sitting in lines of three or four, or pairs,
we’d plait each other’s hair in tight, flat rows –
part a section to get things started,
make stitch braids out of the strands,
adding in hair from the row below.
We dreamed in parallel:
of fields double dug, rough-hoed by the tiller
then ploughed into kick-waves of keels and furrows …
We’d reach the nape and keep on plaiting,
secure each end with a snap bead, bolo tip or barrette,
our loose braids mirrored as a shoal of minnows.
Our loose braids mirrored as a shoal of minnows,
we’d go to ‘Education’ in the library
and browse through De Profundis
or The Ballad of Reading Gaol. You could chat
to Annette Tibbles: in for years for conspiracy
to free caged rabbits, so she got a job
shelving novels and looked after the cats.
Dear Annette, thank you for the Marmite
and that amazing information about
police surveillance tactics. I hope
you are out now, that you live on a farm
somewhere quiet with as many animals
as you care to love, rear, feed,
and as many books as you care to read.
And as many books as you care to read
would not be enough to haggle for a lighter,
which, after tobacco, tops the hierarchy
of tradable prison commodities.
You’d hear tales of a two-day barter:
the swapping of a sweatshirt for a quarter
of a matchstick, split along its length.
I was more than happy to peddle hair gel
for chocolate to eke out the portions
dished up in the small dining hall
on a tray filled with hollows –
supper at four then you’d starve till morning.
We swapped a bit of this for a bit of that,
though some would give anything to exchange futures.
Though some would give anything to exchange futures,
we were content in our new, shared cell.
We shunted our metal beds into an ‘L’
and pinned up a cutting of the cutting
from the Guardian to make it more homely.
We learnt that letters out must be unsealed;
that letters in could be collected at 11.30;
that we got a lot more letters than anyone else.
Letters matter. Once, before our appeal,
I was woken by a face through the grille:
‘You’re on production.’ It disturbed the whole dorm.
In the middle of the night, I got up and packed
and everyone started writing letters home.
I’ve done my time learning how to write back.