The Other Shore

I’m delighted to announce that my latest poetry pamphlet is now out. It’s called The Other Shore, and it’s been published by Eyewear Press.

Quite a few people have asked me about the title already. It comes from a Buddhist parable I first heard when I was travelling in China, about a man who journeys along a difficult path until he comes to a stretch of water. All around him are dangers and troubles, but the other shore in the distance looks calm and inviting. He works hard, and constructs a raft from twigs and branches and grass, and at last paddles out into the water. When he reaches the other shore, the Buddha asks, what should he do? Of course, he must abandon the raft.

meekings-4The parable is often taken to mean that teachings – be they Buddhist dharma, or any principles or beliefs that one lives by – can only take a person so far, and that there will come a time when you must venture further on your own. (Of course, this is not the only interpretation, and the meaning of the lesson has been much debated.) But this is the idea that appealed to me, to keep going you may have to give up much of you used to take for granted.

What is the Other Shore? It’s the place we aim for, and hope one day to reach. But it might also be the place we reach once this life is over. Not long after my brother died, I started travelling through China, in search perhaps of some other shore where life is different. All the poems in this collection were written during or after those travels.

My exploring took me along the path of the Silk Road, that winding and multitudinous trail that stretches across continents. In the past, travellers and traders working their way along it would have finally reached Xi’an, the capital city of Tang Dynasty China. It was here that I travelled too, and here that the germ of many of these poems was planted.

The book contains a number of translations and adaptations of Chinese poetry, all from the Tang Dynasty (618–907), often referred to as China’s ‘Golden Age’ of art and literature. I was drawn to the poetry of this time because it takes the strict forms of previous ages but uses them to reflect not on formal and ornate courtly themes but on the messy, untamed world beyond the palaces and temples.

In these translations, and in the other poems I wrote about the journeys I took, the places I visited, and the stories I heard from the people I met, I aim to draw attention to one reason for travel, and indeed for reading: of engaging in an unending conversation with the past. In this way, I sought to try what those poets from a thousand years did before me, by taking traditional forms, and adapting them to new ideas. After all, as any traveler knows, the end of any journey is also the beginning of another.

In other words, these are poems about how to reach that other shore.

 

Bunhill Fields: Poet-in-residence

I’ve had a great time this weekend as a poet-in-residence at Bunhill Fields. I’ve met all kinds of people come to explore this wonderful historic site in the centre of London: some who live nearby, others who have travelled from abroad for the Open Garden Squares Weekend; some with an interest in plants, flowers, trees and gardening, others with an interest in Blake, Defoe, and Bunyan, the great and unconventional British writers buried here; some drawn by the long and somewhat macabre history of the nonconformist burial ground, others happy to wander around in the present.IMG_2652

All of these people helped give me ideas for the poems I worked on over the weekend. I’ve talked to people about the history of Bunhill and the history of poetry, the death (and life) of poetry, and the purpose of poetry today. People have been interested to hear the drafts, and even to make the suggestions about things I should add! Others have been kind enough to share their impressions of the place, their feelings and ideas about the site, and have allowed me to use these in the poems I’ve been creating here. And a fair few people have come right out and asked me: what are you doing here?

It’s a good question. And I told them that what I’ve been doing is the same as everyone else who comes to explore this garden: looking and listening. Each of the gardens open this weekend is unique, and each has something to offer. In Bunhill Fields, history speaks to us about the present. It says something different to each of us, and sometimes its not clear exactly what it might be saying at all. But each place has stories, and that is what I wanted to discover, explore and share during my time here. The poems I wrote in Bunhill Fields are distillations of the unique things I learned, heard, shared and experienced in this garden.

IMG_2625It’s no surprise that the poem’s I’ve worked on and (mostly) finished over the weekend have reflected a balance that is intrinsic to this hidden oasis of calm in the middle of a frenetic city: between the past and the present, between the extraordinary and the mundane, between life and death.

 

Here’s one of those poems that I started yesterday and managed to finish today, about the many people sharing plots beneath the ground in every corner of the park. You can listen to it here:

Towards the edge of the afternoon, I read the poems created here to some of the people in the park, and that seemed like a great way to end the weekend and the residency: by sharing the experiences and ideas that had been planted and grown in this entrancing place.

You’ll be able to read some of the poems I worked on during the residency over at the Poetry School website. And if you’ve never been to Bunhill Fields, do pop by if you’re ever nearby to see this small but important piece of our history in the heart of the city.IMG_2655IMG_2638