The Undertow

Years ago I met multi-lingual concrete poet Peter Meilleur (Childe Roland) at his home in Llangollen and it had a profound affect on my work. Up until that point I wrote satirical, witty, political slam-style poems. I won the Bangor Poetry Slam in 2008 with a poem called Armchair Anarchy, but the genre was beginning to feel like a straight jacket. I was running out of space to create.


In 2009 Peter asked me to accompany him to the Hay-on-Wye Poetry Jamboree organised by John Goodby where we stayed with the lovely Penny Hallas and Lyndon Davies. Peter needed a driver and someone to read Ham & Jam and a Pearl: a two-hand two-act play that ‘is an extension of Act II, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet’.

It was simultaneously a mind-bending and mind-opening experience. I’d always used poetry like the most unsubtle prose. Like hitting a nail with a hammer. Job done. Next.

So here I am, a slam poet, at an experimental poetry event at Hay-on-Wye with the poetic equivalent of Doc Brown from Back to the Future and my job is to repeat this line after each of Peter’s responses:

Ham and Jam Childe Roland 01 Ham and Jam Childe Roland 02

What are your plans for the future of the planet my Lord Hamlet, what are you plans?

He begins with ‘Ham & Jam’ then ranges from:
Vans, prams, trams, tandems, charabans and tar macadams.
The best laid plans of mice and men.
Amphibian man.
Eleven page memorandums,
Eleven types of ambiguity
Eleven-man juries,
Eleven thousand stout hearted men,
Eleven-year wars,
Eleven-month years,
Eleven-hour hour clocks,
Elven-inch foot rulers,
Eleven commandments,
Eleven evangilists…

And so on.
The universe shifts. I experience what John Goodby describes as ‘a sudden awareness that my understanding of what was possible in poetry had been immeasurably, and brilliantly, widened’.

After typing that stanza I’ve forgotten what the word eleven means, and how to spell it, it is odd, misshapen. Twelve can also never be the same. The world is upside down. I’ve typed elven over-and-over. Although that could make sense as Peter does have a certain elfish quality about him. But it was this poem, this performance and playful use of language that informed a new direction for me. Which was a bit of pain. People like to pigeonhole poets, ‘oh she’s like a female John Cooper Clarke’. Ah. Artistically taking a left-turn can take a fucking long time for people to catch up, especially when you’re holed up in The Gogs. I stumbled around a linguistic hinterland for years sounding out different poetic voices. It was like trying to locate an echo in the mountains.

At this time the landscape of Y Gogledd Cymru began burrowing into my consciousness. In the 60s and 70s, Birmingham’s hard industrial soundscape shaped the music of heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, and again in the 90s, Bristol’s mouth moulded the trip-hop/experimental rock sounds of Portishead, Massive Attack and Tricky. I couldn’t keep writing American Slam poetry because that’s not where I live. The echoes were all wrong. Surrounded by the music of the Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, I read, wrote, walked, taught and waited for something to click…

A Pearl Childe Roland 01

Peter’s work contains a texture, a substance or mass or dark material I cannot describe. It’s what I’ve since called The Undertow. It’s that tug in the centre of the chest, the air-shift making your skin tingle, or shadow at the corner of the eye that vanishes when you focus. This is what my work was missing (and I’m not the only one). I can’t read about it in books. It cannot be taught. How do I explain The Undertow? More importantly how do I find My Undertow?

I hold my nerve, cast the net wider and discover the Undertow in the writings and performances of Zoë Skoulding, Jay Griffiths and Anne Waldman. Do I sound nuts? Maybe. Read Ham & Jam for yourself. Or read Six of Clubs – an epic collection documenting Peter’s great poetic conflict: how to journey across the page without sullying her, while letting her remain crisp and white and clear without falling into the trap of her.

Peter opens stage with: stage, page, cage, rage, sage, age! , again in trap: there is something of a trap in the facing pages of an open book. The book and text are white; the text has a slight grey shadow making it barely visible, boxed into the top left-hand corner of each page/cage/stage.

Six of Clubs Childe Roland 01 Six of Clubs Childe Roland 03

And I travel with this brilliant and difficult and often misunderstood poet on an epic journey across the open, wild, expanse of the page; traversing land and language I begin to execute an escape from everything I think I know about the creation of art:

the page, blown high into the
sky, was now in the mind’s eye
a kite, a window on the world,
and could be reached through
a particular line of thinking, a
string of corresponding words
-Childe Roland

When finally I return to earth I am not the same poet.