The Sealey Challenge 2023

The annual Sealey Challenge asks you to read a book/collection of poetry every day for the month of August. 

I surprised myself by enjoying it far more than I imagined. I never hit a point where it felt like an effort. And it reintroduced me to poetry after not reading much of it over recent years. 

I also discovered that poets and poems that used to really matter to me no longer carried so much weight.  And others that weren't among my favourites, now found a place in my memory and life. 

Would I do it again next year? I doubt it. But for this month, and this year, it was an inspiring and insightful experience. 

And here is the account of it: 

31st August

Canterbury Festival Schools’ Poetry Anthology 2009

I’ve adjudicated quite a few poetry competitions over the years but my favourites have been the ones for children and young people. And what always attracts me to certain poems over others is a sense of originality, a feeling of freshness. That comes through in the content, language and the story-telling which, for me, is more important than 100% accuracy in spelling and grammar. Those you can learn – authenticity is that X factor no-one can teach you.

I’ve been able to tell, at times, that my choices of awards haven’t been met with complete approval from teachers! Though often those choices were popular with the kids.

There are so many poems I could share with you from this anthology. But I’ve stuck with a selection from across the age spectrum, along with my comments. I wonder if any of these young people, now aged between 19 and 30 continued to write? Or if the encouragement and acknowledgement of their individual voices made a difference?

I remember winning an art competition run by the Western Mail in Port Talbot when I was around 6 or 7, and the teacher who encouraged me with my picture of spider webs, how she lent me a silver pen to draw over the pencil marks and make them sparkle. Miss Sage. Knowing that someone believes in you, at any age, always leaves its mark. 

30th August

The anthology The Result Is What You See Today (Smith Doorstop Books 2019) might be subtitled ‘Poems about Running’ but they’re also poems about regret, triumph, loss, about memory, epiphany, about landscape and connection. About life really, and how we run, literally and metaphorically, through it.

Poetry (or writing) and running are common companions. See this article in The Atlantic on writers and running. For me it’s a ‘mind-clearing, making sense of things, feeling connected to nature, and loving the solitude’ activity, as well as feeling so much physically better for it.

Sometimes my mind drifts and I just experience a sense of freedom during a run. Other times I write short poems I can hold in my head. Or work through a thought process or an emotion. And that might fire my imagination and trigger a longer piece of writing that starts to take shape. Then I have to stop for a minute to capture those words and thoughts on my phone’s voice recorder so they’re still with me later. Running and writing seem intrinsically connected in my life now.

And then there are Gu’s Salted Caramel Energy Gels. It’s worth running just to have one of them! 

I’ve copied my poem from the anthology and a poem by another woman poet, Elisabeth Sennitt Clough. Which makes me want to high-five her and say, ‘Good for you! You have this!’ It also makes me want to kick that guy in the hi-vis jacket, aiming for his personal bests! 

29th August

I had to double check myself re an idea I had about Simon Armitage’s Book of Matches (Faber & Faber 1993). So I Googled, and yes, I had remembered it correctly. The 30 fourteen-line poems/sonnets in the first section are each, supposedly, meant to be read in the time it takes for a match to burn. I guess the clue is in the opening stanza of the first poem:

“My party piece:
I strike, then from the moment when the matchstick
conjures up its light, to when the brightness moves
beyond its means, and dies, I say the story
of my life —”

Well, you just have to, don’t you?! My first match burnt out after a few lines and I realised the draft from my writing room door that opens onto the garden was to blame. My second attempt, different poem, had a second or two to spare. My third one had me squealing and blowing it out as the flame licked at my fingertips a couple of lines before the end.

But gimmicks apart, I like the poems in this collection. I like Armitage’s command of form and language, of rhythm and rhyme, and how none of those ever dominate the poems, only contribute to their music. What he has to say always transcends the engineering work. I feel he understands that the audience matters. He’s a poet that cares about his readers. The work can be both playful and serious. Serious but not solemn.

And if I hadn’t liked the collection of my own accord, I would have made myself like it after reading about poet Ruth Padel’s unfavourable review in which she said that praise for the book had come from mainly non-poets. Because that’s brownie points for me. The mainstream poetry world can be, in my experience, unpleasantly incestuous, with poets so often writing for and reading to other poets. To reach a non-poet audience seems like an admirable achievement.

I lost track of his work as Poet Laureate, maybe because his appointment in 2019 was so quickly followed by the Covid years and subsequent life events that took my full attention. But I want to read more of him now. Especially some of the poems mentioned in his Wiki bio: poems about the 1969 moon landing, those commissioned by the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Astronomical Society, about mental health, the Antarctic, the 100th anniversary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior, lives lost to Covid, in celebration of national parks and open spaces, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So many. So diverse.

I went running with my ladies’ running group yesterday morning and as we crossed a field at the foot of the North Downs I picked up a piece of flint, one of thousands that were scattered across the fields mixed in with the sandy clay.

So I’ve picked Armitage’s poem, ‘On the Trail of the Old Ways’ to share with you, as he mentions flint, and because I had such a strong feeling of gratitude for the landscape yesterday, how lucky I was to be able to run through it, and partly along The Pilgrim’s Way. A literal trail of the old ways.

And there's a ‘Matchstick’ poem for you to have fun with fire, if you want to 🔥 

28th August 

I’m revisiting Billy Collins today, this time his collection, Questions About Angels (University of Pittsburgh Press 1999) because it contains one of my favourite poems of his. I reckon it will resonate with lots of people, of my age, maybe younger too! 

It’s called, ‘Forgetfulness’ and opens, ‘The name of the author is the first to go/ followed obediently by the title, the plot,/ the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel/ which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of.’

I have found some books on my Kindle marked as ‘Read’ and I’m buggered if I can remember them, even when I swipe to check the ending! Sometimes I start them again and after around 20 or 30 pages I have shadowy recollections of a character or scene but the future remains blank. Maybe that forgetfulness is a gift, a kind of 2 x the enjoyment. Well, it’s good to remain positive.

There’s a pic of the whole poem below. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do, no matter how often I read it. 

Collins is so clever with language, but subtly clever. When I first read his poems it’s all enjoyment, but when I start to look closely at them, line by line, I can recognise how his language choices and phrasing are directing that enjoyment. Look at ‘followed obediently’ in that line above. That addition of ‘obediently’ is just so good. I can see ‘things’ trooping out of my memory, one by one, saying, ‘Sorry, we’ve been told to go!’

I’ve also given you another of his poems, ‘The Dead’. A gentle meditation on who watches over us. Throughout all his poetry, in so many collections, Collins manages to be both the master of comic understatement and the deliverer of comfort. 

27th August

It’s rare to read a poetry collection and enthuse about every poem included in it. Inevitably some poems will resonate with us more than others. But Matt Morden’s collection, Stumbles in Clover (Snapshot Press 2007) has me savouring every single haiku on every single page. I felt like that when I first bought it and feel it again today.

Nigel Jenkins, on the back cover, said, ‘They are as spare and translucent as it’s possible to be, yet they are deeply affecting...’. ‘Spare’ could easily suggest something that has been pared back to the detriment of content and meaning. But Morden has such a wonderful eye for detail, and humanity observed, that his micro poems expand beyond their physical boundaries. They are like miniature doorways into shared emotions, felt experiences. And the natural world, where it appears, always feels, through suggestion, like a parallel to the human one. Enjoy these few. 

gathering dusk
my son bowls me out
for the first time


a colleague’s sigh
arrives before he does
monday morning


women’s refuge
sunlight finds the blue
in painted glass


end of the holiday
a square of pale grass
beneath the tent 


I mentioned in a previous post that, for me, the best poets and poetry collections are the ones that fire me up to write too. Here are a couple of haiku written today, thanks to Matt Morden.


unsettled weather
she deletes her Whatsapp
while I am reading it


summer’s end
he buys me a chilli plant
called ‘Basket of Fire’



26th August

I didn't keep many antiquarian or collectable books when I sold up the stock of my bookshop in 2000. And the ones I did hold on to were more for sentimental and personal interest, rather than investment, reasons. Among the ones I still have are the first couple of mid-19th century books I ever bought in auction and had repaired/ rebound; an early 20th century Mrs Beeton; a four volume domestic science set called 'Cassell's Household Guide with beautiful colour lithograph plates; and this one: a Shakespeare Head Press 1912 edition of Shakespeare's sonnets. 

It's a dinky 12mo size limited printing (391/510) on handmade paper. The headers and footers of each page are very prettily decorated too, and some of the pages are uncut. It was completely missing its cover when I found it in a box of books so I had my binder recover it in something simple that would complement the interior. 

Like a lot of people I'm only familiar with a handful of the sonnets: so many of them are puzzling and elusive, tricky to fully understand. But the one most people will know is one that provided me with a short, sharp lesson, even if the context is a little woolly in my memory.

I was in a workshop of about 10 or 15 people, in London or Kent, and the writer leading the group was there to offer advice on reading in public. I ended up with Sonnet 18 ('Shall I compare thee to a summer's day') and must have been the first person to read aloud. I finished and she said, 'Now can you read it as if you're enjoying yourself.'

Ooof. Don't hold back! A lot of what I learned about teaching writing, later on in my career, came from how NOT to do it! But even though her response was inappropriately blunt in a group setting, from that moment on I remembered the point she was making. And started to believe that I could enjoy myself when reading my own poetry aloud. I realised that if words meant something to me, I could communicate that in the way I spoke them to an audience. That if people were making an effort to turn up and listen to you... you owed them your best. There comes a point when performance is as much, if not more, about your audience than yourself.

You'll have to imagine me reading it today though. But I can assure you, I do sound as if I'm enjoying the poem! I wonder what Shakespeare read like? Did he intend his sonnets to be read aloud or simply off the page?   

25th August

I discovered Eavan Boland’s poetry while studying for my MA in Writing with the University of Glamorgan between 1994 and 1996. I chose one of her poems, ‘The Pomegranate’, for analysis in my dissertation about how women poets used myth and legends in their work.

‘The Pomegranate’ appears in the collection I’m reading today: In a Time of Violence (Carcanet 1994). I still find it so beautifully written. It reveals itself slowly, like peeling back layers of soft paper wrapped around a precious gift. The myth of Ceres and Persephone is transformed into contemporary experience: a mother who chooses to allow her daughter to make her own mistakes in life.

Also tucked between the pages, as a bookmark, was one of Tony’s doodles – two cats in ink and ochre paint. The one on the right looks happier than the one on the left, and I’m reminded of two coffee mugs we used to have, printed with one happy cat and one cross-eyed cat.

How much of my past life has opened up through picking up this book this morning! I was running my own second hand bookshop in West Malling, Kent while studying for my MA. And living in Barcelona for most of the first year, where Tony was studying for his MA in Fine Art. I used to fly back to the UK every two to three months on book buying expeditions for the two women managing the day to day running of the shop for me. And then drive to Wales for a weekend in residence at the University of Glamorgan: workshops, tutorials, readings. A group of us used to stay in a fabulous B&B in Cardiff run by two fabulous gay men.

The poetry collection I submitted along with my dissertation wasn’t good enough to be published. I was a better essay writer than poet at that time. It was another seven years before Learning How to Fall appeared. And towards the end of that book those two cats make an appearance. I can’t remember when I wrote the original poem, whether Tony’s doodle came before the mugs, or the other way around. But they have been immortalised, along with the aftermath of an argument I have completely forgotten about.  

24th August

I left home at 1.30 to travel 5 miles to the M&S Foodhall and didn’t get beyond 2 miles as the M20 motorway was closed in both directions. A lorry had tipped and shed its load over both carriageways. The air ambulance had been called. Local roads were heaving with the fall-out. It took me 35 mins to find my way around the chaos and back home. Feeling grateful.

And gratitude is a good reason to make a cake. I actually blogged the recipe back in 2012 in my previous Hungry Writer incarnation, so rather than repeat myself here, I’ll give you the link:

So it feels appropriate that, today, I’m leafing through bite to eat place (Redwood Coast Press 1995), an anthology of contemporary food poetry and poetic prose.  

And because mothers are on my mind, mine and other women’s, I’ve included a copy of Lorna Crozier’s poem, ‘Childhood’. The last four lines reassure me of so much:

Your mother is calling, listen:
with her voice she builds a doorway
for you to enter, even now,
from such a long way off. 

23rd August

There's a poem in my collection, Learning How to Fall (Parthian Books 2004), called 'Turned':


Vinegar whiff,
crush of a rusted Coke tin —

I have let meaness in.
My mouth sifts its cold ash.

a glitter of insects
outside my window, leaves
a flush of applause
I cannot hear

Insects bicker.
Curse of a wasp.

How long this pick and scrape,
this blind against the world,
apple savouring its worm?

It's been one of those days today, from the moment I woke up from a dream in which I was sobbing because people wouldn't listen to me, through the morning and afternoon being snippy and impatient, and feeling weighed down by things I can't control. I planned to go for a run - that's generally a cure. But it was too hot. So I tidied my writing room instead. That helped. And eventually I talked to Tony who acts as a mirror for me so I can begin to breathe properly, look my grouches in the eye, and wave them goodbye. 

And haiku. The words of Carolyn Hall, in Water Lines (Snapshot Press 2006), re-anchored me to the world too, loosened me from my own preoccupations. If you’re having a ‘Vinegar whiff’ kind of day maybe these can help sweeten things for you too.


spring rain the cat’s pink nipples


            morning shower —
            finding just the word
            I was looking for




                                war news
                                the underbelly of a moth
                                pressed to my window


all the shapes
a cat can sleep in —
summer sky


                                                                    pulsing of cicadas
                                                                    we settle into
                                                                    the quiet

22nd August

I only heard Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney read once. And together. It was at the launch of The School Bag (Faber 1997), a companion anthology to The Rattle Bag that they’d edited together 15 years earlier.

I can’t remember the name of the venue. It was a large theatre in London and every seat was taken, from the stalls to the circle. Hughes was as legendary as I’d imagined – a magnetic stage presence and an intense, controlled power in his voice. I remember thinking he could read me the contents of a telephone directory and I’d still be captivated. Heaney seemed to be his opposite – warm, inviting, someone you could imagine sitting next to in a comfy chair and chatting with, hoping for a sprinkling of his soft magic. They complemented each other beautifully.

There were hundreds of copies of the hardback anthology piled up on tables in the foyer, signed by both of them. I think they were £25 each. I sold my copy about ten years later when I was moving to the South of France – a regretful but necessary surgical reduction of books that would have cost the same to transport as half the contents of my house! I think a bookseller paid me around £250 for it. I checked on Abebooks earlier and found a copy for sale at £650. But serious book collectors don’t read their books. And while they may have favoured authors, it’s always the condition and edition that matter more than the contents.

My paperback copy of Heaney’s The Spirit Level (Faber 1996) is cracked along the spine. The pages have yellowed. And they’re not far away from saying goodbye to the glue holding them in place. It feels precious though.

The poem I keep going back to in this collection is, ‘A Sofa in the Forties’, a journey back into his childhood. The lines, ‘When the insufficient toys appeared on it/ On Christmas mornings…’ still make my heart fold into itself. While the last few are magnificently worded and suggestive:

A tunnel coming up where we’d pour through/

Like unlit carriages through fields at night,
Our only job to sit, eyes straight ahead,
And be transported and make engine noises.

I enter another world when I read this poem. It’s like a miniature movie where I am both performer and audience. It is a piece of Heaney’s soft magic. 

21st August

The History of Wales in Twelve Poems, M Wynn Thomas (University of Wales Press 2021)

Wynn Thomas explains, in his preface, ‘There is no intention here to construct an anthology of the greatest poetry of Wales. Rather, the poems [from the 7th to the 21st centuries] … offer the reader what I hope is an interesting way in to the social, political and cultural history of the different phases of the long and varied Welsh past.’ And his commentaries after each poem are interesting, well researched and informed … but sometimes the poem feels redundant.

I’ve always thought of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Fern Hill’ as a nostalgic elegy for childhood, the loss of innocence, rather than:

‘Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’ was his response to a world that had taken an appalling turn for the worst with the murderous explosions of the first ever nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.’

That’s pretty specific, and perhaps there are sources in Dylan Thomas’ other writing that support this.

I guess I am more used to responding to a poem by what it actually says, and how it looks, on a page, rather than from outside references, or an assumption of the poet’s intentions. But the political and historical insights Wynn Thomas offers are powerful. I feel challenged by some points he raises and perhaps even ineffectual and lacking in any significant political impetus too.

At the end of the book, Thomas quotes Dafydd Iwan’s song, ‘Yma o hyd’ / Still here, which became an international sensation last year during Wales’ World Cup campaign. My English husband came home to Port Talbot with me last December for a family party. There were around 17 of us and my niece had brought her guitar. She sang the first verse of ‘Yma o hyd’ and then the whole room erupted into the chorus:

Ry'n ni yma o hyd

Ry'n ni yma o hyd

Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth

Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth

Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth

Ry'n ni yma o hyd 

Tony was amazed that we all knew it and sang without any hesitation at all.

Dafydd Iwan wrote it in 1983. In an interview from November last year, he said:   "Margaret Thatcher was in power and closing factories and coal mines, farmers were feeling the pressure, there was a lot of uncertainty in regards to the future, economy and society as a lot of communities were ruined due to these changes. It was a difficult time and of course although things were improving with the language’s status, it still felt like we had to create songs to lift people’s spirits and Yma o Hyd became exactly that.

‘Er gwaethaf pawb a phopeth, r’yn ni yma o hyd’ - that is the message of the song, in spite of everyone and everything, we are still here. In spite of the challenges we face, we are still here and I think people to this day can relate to that. We are still here, overcoming challenges and fighting for a better future.”

I’m taking that message from the book, even if Wynn Thomas is rather dismissive of the ‘sentiment’ around Wales’ sporting and cultural successes. But even he admits to Wales’ ‘unbreakable determination to survive’, and, ‘Long may that gloriously perverse determination continue.’

Listen to ‘Yma of Hyd’ at this link.

20th August

I only bought Linda Pastan’s collection, The Last Uncle (WW Norton & Co 2002), a few months ago. I bought it after reading the title poem on a poetry website. It rang so true as I lost my last two uncles at the end of 2022 and the beginning of this year and one of my cousins had said, ‘We’re the older generation now.’ I posted about it on the blog here. 

Reading through the collection today it’s another poem (‘The vanity of Names’) that reaches me. It’s about a house staying ‘fixed in its landscape./ Rooms will be swept clean/ of all its memories. Doors will close./ Even the animal graves out back/ will forget who planted the bones/ …’ I am selling the house I was born in, two years after my parents died. In those two years I have spoken to them there and watched grief change shape. I felt less of their absence and more of their eternal presence. I came to be comforted by the home they lived in from the moment it was built in April 1957 until March 2021. But it is still hard letting it go. And that’s going to happen in the next few weeks: my last visit, the last time I open the front door. The last time I step into the room I was born in. The last time I close the door and turn the key. Before handing it to a stranger.

Pastan understands that her house ‘will enter/ the dreams of other people’ but ‘to acquiesce/ is never easy. It is to love the unwritten future/ almost as well as the fading past./ It is to relinquish the vanity of names/ which are already disappearing/ with every cleansing rain …’ Yes. A leap of faith into an unwritten future. And, ‘the cleansing rain’. I can work with those. 

19th August

The Blue Dress, Poems & Prose Poems, Alison Townsend (White Pine Press, Buffalo, New York 2003)

This is another collection I bought while teaching creative writing at the University of Kent between 2000 and 2007 although, as I read through it this morning, no individual poem feels familiar. But a couple of lines in one poem wave brightly at me - ‘…it is my forty-fifth spring/ and good to run in purple leggings…’ And I realise she’s around the same age as me, the exact same age if I take 45 years off the publication date. And when I come to a prose poem, ‘A Bowl of Sugar’, which opens, ‘Tonight I prepare apples the way my mother once made them…’ I have to stop reading for a moment, imagining a woman of my age making something her mother used to make, my mind flooding with the memory of my mother’s vegetable soup, and how I still make it.

I first wrote about Mam’s vegetable soup in my Hungry Writer blog, back in 2011, and posted her recipe online. The text itself was reprinted in my collection of haibun and haiku, forgiving the rain (Snapshot Press 2012).

These connections that I find when I read, more often in poetry than other genres of writing, feel important. They are reminders that someone out there feels as I do: a woman is missing her mother, her hands follow the patterns of her mother’s hands. They bring me comfort. But they also enlarge my capacity for empathy by responding to the experience of others. Not thinking of myself as unique or alone but a part of the universal human experience. We can all comfort each other.

18th August

If someone had read my collection of poetry (Learning How to Fall, Parthian Books) when it first came out in 2005 and then told me today there was one poem that they have always loved and remembered I would feel so honoured. It wouldn’t matter that the other 54 were forgotten, had made no impression at all. Because to have one poem that mattered deeply enough to one person, for them to have stored it in their memory for 18 years would be enough. More than enough.

So I hope Kate Clanchy would be similarly pleased that her poem, ‘Poem For A Man With No Sense Of Smell’, from her collection, Slattern (Chatto & Windus 1995), has stayed with me since I first read it. I have used it in writing workshops because it encourages writers to think of different ways to describe things. But I love it because it asks me to step outside of my own experience of the world and imagine a different one. I love it because her language choices are beautiful. I love it because it feels full of empathy and generosity. I love it because it makes me respond with love when I read it.


17th August

Shades of Absence, Harriot West (Red Moon Press 2018)

I’d forgotten how much I love Harriot West’s writing. It’s beautiful. It’s urgent, but calm at the same time, if that makes sense. It anchors me, with fierce intelligence, to the scenes and memories she explores: narratives and epiphanies about her mother, father, childhood, relationships. And I love the way each piece spills into the next and deepens my response.

Here’s one of her haibun, and the two haiku that appear on the following pages, that I find both distressing and poignant, but so necessary to put into the world.


Tucked Away

he liked her too much that’s what mother told me though she never said what too much meant simply that she hated how his sweaters reeked of mothballs how his mustache prickled how he whispered ‘darling little girl’ but I wonder why she needed pills to sleep and pills to smile why she was never thin enough why her hands were never clean enough or why she couldn’t say ‘I love you’ even when I asked

crushed velvet
the tiny key
in the jewelry box



I can’t rub out
heirloom silver


bone china
things we speak of
things we don’t

My favourite poetry books are the ones that fill me with an urgency to write. This is one of them.

16th August

I only knew him for a little over six years but he changed the direction of my life.

After I had some haiku and haibun published in ‘Planet Magazine’ in 2007, Nigel Jenkins invited me to the launch of his haiku writing collection, ‘O for a gun’ (Planet) that summer in Aberystwyth. I moved back to France in the Spring of 2008 but we kept in touch and he subsequently invited me to edit ‘another country, haiku poetry from Wales’ (Gomer Press 2011) with him and Ken Jones. 

I travelled home from France for the launch of that collection in 2011.  I remember walking through Swansea Marina with Nigel and him asking me whether I’d ever thought of writing a ‘Real Port Talbot’. Nigel was the author of ‘Real Swansea’ I & II and was working on ‘Real Gower’, for Seren Books.  

‘Oh, I don’t think I could,’ I said.

I didn’t feel as if I had the ability to write prose at length. And the ‘Real’ books were so eclectic too, a collage of historical research, journalism, memoir, sometimes poetry, and photography. And eclectic was exactly what Nigel was: essayist, journalist, creative non-fiction writer, editor, broadcaster, poet, playwright, lecturer.

‘You could,’ he said.

And I decided to believe him. And I did. And he came to the launch of Real Port Talbot at Taibach Rugby Club in November 2013. I didn’t see him again. He died in January 2014 from pancreatic cancer.

I’d written to him after his diagnosis in December:

“I am writing from the top if my head because what is in my heart almost weighs too heavily to put down on paper. I want you to stay around for a long time. For Margot and your daughters and close friends. And selfishly for me too. When you like people, and they feel that warmth, it makes a difference to their lives, Nigel. Maybe because they know – I know – that you do not tolerate navel-gazers and clever dicks and pomposity! So we feel saved!”

I still miss him. And continually feel grateful for the gift of his words. For his openness and generosity. For the elegiac and the comical, and everything in between 

I open the window —
dogs barking in the nights
of childhood

no one about yet
except me and a rat —
who knows I’m trouble

the seal’s head and mine
bobbing face to face
on the tide

no rain all June —
the newspaper so much
noisier to turn

15th August

Today I am keeping company with animals, a panther, a wolf, a seahorse, a hare, a cat, a whale, a rhino, a grasshopper,  a mole… no, not a mole, his story is too sad. But let me introduce you to Bat, struggling with who he really is. And Squid, doing a good trade in ink.

These direct and engaging poems are part of ‘Les Animots, A Human Bestiary’ (Cultured Llama Publishing n.d.) and written by Gordon Meade and beautifully illustrated by Douglas Robertson.

Reading them is like taking a break from the world of frantic human activity. We might see ourselves in these pages but it’s through a different and thoughtful lens.

14th August

I bought Meg Kearney’s collection, An Unkindness of Ravens (BOA Editions 2001) after discovering her poem, ‘Creed’, which appears as the last poem in the book.

It’s one of my favourite types of poem because it works as a really good writing exercise for writers and non-writers alike. It asks us to write a list of things we believe in, or don’t believe in. The beliefs can be serious, frivolous, logical, metaphysical. They can be real and imagined. What it does is create a ‘word’ self-portrait of ourselves at a single point in time. One we can keep and read over again at some future date.

‘I believe/
there’s a difference between men and/
women and I thank God for it. I believe/
in God…

I believe/
the morning my father died I heard him/
whistling ‘Danny Boy’ in the bathroom.

I believe that/
“early to bed and early to rise” is/
a boring way to live…

[that] “Reading is Fundamental” …’

It’s a 70 line poem of passion and self-awareness and an insight into the poet’s relationship with the world she lives in.

I’m going to do the exercise again, later. I feel as if I’m at a point of change in my life, for a number of reasons, and I’d like to keep a record of how I am now. Then, maybe, open it in five years’ time and read what I felt and thought, what I feared and knew, and didn’t know. You can join me if you like.

13th August

Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ poem only properly registered with me when I heard it recited in the movie Four Weddings & a Funeral’. John Hannah’s character delivered it with such convincing emotional honesty: it was incredibly moving. Link below.

I must have bought the booklet, Tell Me the Truth About Love, Ten Poems by WH Auden, after the film was released. And I suppose I chose it for this challenge as it would be easy to read in a day.

We probably, first and foremost, relate ‘Funeral Blues’ to our own griefs and losses. But the news of other deaths over the weekend - people crossing the channel and those killed in the wildfires in Maui – made me think how everyone in the world feels like this when they lose loved ones. The desperation to stop, or turn back time, to ‘pack up the moon and dismantle the sun’ is universal.

The only line I’d re-interpret is, ‘I thought love would last forever. I was wrong.’ The love remains. It takes time, though, to feel the truth of it.

Funeral Blues read by John Hannah

12th August

There is too much tragedy on my poetry bookshelves. Already, in the first 12 days of this challenge, I have replaced books because I found them just too dark to read all the way through in one morning or afternoon. I don’t want to dismiss the work of poets who explore and share their personal suffering, tragedies, their terrible darknesses and loss. There is reward and comfort in their writing for both maker and reader. But those books aren’t the ones that feel a part of my life anymore.

Most of those poetry books represent two periods of my life, between 1988 and 2008, when I was first learning the craft through intensive study and work-shopping, and then sharing the craft by teaching informal and formally assessed courses. I was reading widely and without boundaries at that time – absorbing what was out there in all its forms, identities and shades.

I can be selective now. I’m also drawn to work that speaks more directly to me, that lifts me, contains some kind of redemption if it does deal with loss, or points a way towards dealing with it. Perhaps the path of my own life has contributed to that – both professionally and privately.

Today I am reading the ordinary and the nurturing. I am immersing myself in Ferris Gilli’s collection of haiku, Shaped by the Wind (Snapshot Press 2006). She is showing me the connections between people, creatures, the natural world. And I feel grateful for them.


spring sun
the blind girl asks
the color of my hair


eroded dunes —
the boy draws a fish
in the sand


night rain …
the small serrated song
of a frog


lights out
the cat’s purr
guides me



11th August

The Country Between Us, Carolyn Forché (Jonathan Cape 1983)

I have only two references for the country of El Salvador. One is the Oliver Stone movie, Salvador, from 1986 starring James Woods, which was strongly critical of the US-supported military dictatorship. It is harrowing in parts, as the truth can be. The second reference is Carolyn Forché’s poem, ‘The Colonel’, written after visiting El Salvador as a human rights activist in the late 1970s. It’s a poem you should read. It’s a poem you shouldn’t read. If you do it’s a poem you’ll never forget. If you do, then also read her own account of writing the poem – links to both at the end.

In his poem, ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’, WH Auden famously said, ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’. But then he went on to say, ‘…it survives/in the valley of its making… it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth.’ He’s not saying that poetry is ineffective only that it doesn’t directly influence things. It survives, its voice is preserved, it remembers; that’s where its power lies.

Because if poetry was really ineffectual, poets would not be arrested and persecuted by regimes and governments. An article in The Guardian from a couple of years ago sheds both an historical and contemporary light on the subject, link at end.

I will not say that the rights and liberties we experience in this country are perfect. But I will say we are more blessed than others. And perhaps that’s a reason for speaking out, against injustice, against prejudice, against wrong-doing, when we perceive them. Because we can.



Forché’s account:

‘The Guardian’, Flogged, imprisoned, murdered: today, being a poet is a dangerous job:


10th August

I remember using Michael Laskey’s collection, The Tightrope Wedding (Smith Doorstop 1999) when I was teaching creative writing at the University of Kent. It may have been his opening poem, ‘Home Movies’, in which the film of his parents’ wedding is rewound after they finish watching it, and they watch it again in reverse – stepping backwards up the steps of the church. a plate of cake being snatched away, a ring slipped off a finger. I think I would have shared it to illustrate different ways of using time to tell a story in a poem.

Or maybe it was ‘Clock Work’, a persona poem in the clock’s voice, how it observes the people who live in the house as they sleep, ‘their lumpy unfinished faces’.

But these aren’t the poems that speak most loudly to me today. Today it’s the soup-making and the beach walking, picking raspberries, ironing and the luck of driving through multiple traffic lights on green, that pull me in. The ordinary things of daily life expressed quite simply.

Books don’t change. We do. When I first started to write, back in the late 1980s, I remember buying a book of poetry from a charity shop because I recognised the poet’s name. When I got home and read it, I didn’t understand a word of it. It seemed so obscure. I opened that same book a decade later and it couldn’t have been more clear.

I guess things in life can be like that too. What matters to us. What we devote time to. Things we don’t then do understand. People we spend time with. They all change over time. I definitely appreciate stillness and simplicity more now. I don’t need fireworks. Just a soft glow from a wood-burning stove.  


9th August

I have a Speed Awareness Course later today. A camera snapped me doing 86mph in a 70mph ‘variable limit’ section of the M4 a couple of months ago. Apparently, ‘Oops, I must have lost concentration for a moment’, doesn’t qualify as a defense!

I am constantly looking at the clock to make sure I don’t forget about the time, a kind of low-level anxiety in response to the repeated warnings on the letter and booking forms about latecomers NOT being admitted and will have to pay again to rebook, that you should check your journey in advance for any traffic issues. And I’ve made sure that I have photo ID in my purse three times already.

But I have tried to force myself into the present moment, rather than persistently futuring. I took cuttings from the Virginia Creeper we are training around the armillary, trimmed their bottom leaves, doused them in rooting powder and planted into a pot.

And I have read some of John Stevenson’s haiku in his collection, Live Again (Red Moon Press 2009). Stevenson is a master of the observed moment shared. When I read his haiku I feel the stillness that was necessary to notice what was happening, or recalled, in those elusive seconds. Moments that must happen by the million in all our lives, but we mostly don’t notice because we’re too busy thinking and oblivious to what is in front of us. 

I think that when I started to write haiku I wanted to pack them full of meaning, themes and ideas. I’ve learnt restraint now. From practice and from studying writers like John Stevenson who employs such deceptive simplicity in his work. Less is more.

So before I have to leave home to pay for my past speed crime, here is one of his haiku to say quietly to yourself. Read it once. At a measured pace, then read it again. My mind flowers in response. Perhaps yours will too.

end of summer  —
shopping for something
less comfortable


8th August

Picnic, Lightning, Billy Collins (University of Pittsburgh Press 1998)

Reading Collins is like listening to your favourite person in the world telling you stories, their eyes alight with gentle fun and kindness. If that sounds soppy I don’t care.

His poems are steady, insightful contemplations, fanciful wonderings, admissions of fallibility, and understatement. They emerge from a world we already know and recognise – seeing cows in a field, shovelling snow, wondering about what animal you could be reincarnated as, listening to music, waiting at an airport departure lounge. Even flicking through the pages of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue and imagining what the models are thinking:

Yes, she is pouting about something,
all lower lip and cheekbone.
Perhaps her ice cream has tumbled
out of its cone onto the parquet floor.
Perhaps she has been waiting all day
for a new sofa to be delivered …

His poems make me smile; my heart seems to relax. There are no big laughs. But a consistent sweet joy. And he’s never glib. And he can be serious without ever being solemn. And, you come across food and drink in his poems too: breakfast, lunch and dinner, tea, espresso, fruit, hot milk, duck and a bottle of Merlot. It can’t just be me, can it?! But when food is missing from books, and from TV series and movies too, they feel ‘incomplete’, and unconvincing.

Do you remember Keifer Sutherland’s ‘24’? No one ate, and hardly drank, a damn thing in all the nine series! I once read a novel by a friend of a friend and couldn’t believe there wasn’t a single mention of food. Once, the two main characters met in a restaurant and I thought I was going to at least enjoy a light snack… but no. The scene cut away before even a bread roll had been delivered to the table! 

I may be angling this post towards food because today I tried a new recipe and it was SO good I really need to share it. Italian Zucchini Scarpaccio (that’s Courgette in old money 😂). I never say OMG. But O.M.G. Link below. Right now, I can’t think of anything better than Billy Collins accompanied by crispy Italian deliciousness:


7th August

Elegies, Douglas Dunn (Faber 1985)

Apart from a Welsh poem I memorised, while at Sandfields Comprehensive School for a recitation competition at the local Urdd (Mae Abertawe yn yr haul/ Yn cysgu’n dawel ger y lli./ Traeth o aur o gylch ei thread/ A Browyr wrth ei hystlys hi... - I came second), the only other poem I’ve memorised, successfully in its entirety, is Douglas Dunn’s, ‘The Kaleidsoscope’.

It was several years ago when I was running a couple of performance workshops at Simon Langton Grammar School, Canterbury with some of the 5th and 6th formers who were entering Poetry by Heart, an annual national poetry speaking competition. And there was no way I could stand in front of a group of young people offering advice on memorising and recitation if I couldn’t do it myself! Dunn’s poem is a sonnet, so only fourteen lines long and with a regular rhyme scheme and memorable imagery, which was a doddle to imprint onto my memory in comparison to some of the poems to choose from on the PBH list.

When I picked up the book again today, I couldn’t quite get through it without glancing at the page in a couple of places. But the overall shape of it was still there, hanging like a comfortable, old winter coat in the attic of my mind.

Dunn wrote Elegies after the death of his wife in 1981. I mentioned in my last post about most poetry being written in response to sadness, loss and despair. But it’s not only written by practicing poets; people who may never have read or written poetry in their life find themselves turning to it when they are grieving. It’s as if poetry, words shaped on a page, offers a receptacle for that overpowering sense of grief. For its expression, translation and communication, to self and others.

I’ve written over 20 poems about Mam and Dad in the last two and a half years and the closing line of the last poem in Elegies, ‘Leaving Dundee’, reminded my of a line in one of mine. ‘My love, say you’ll come with me,’ writes Dunn as he plans to move back home after spending time in Dundee after his wife’s death. We want our memories with us. ‘Wherever you are, there I am,’ I wrote. ‘Wherever I am, there you are.’ When I say the words out loud they ring with truth and comfort. 

6th August

What Do We Know, Mary Oliver (Da Capo Press 2002)

Mary Oliver’s poems are all about the joy to be found in the natural world. And that’s a good thing. I really believe that my relationship with nature is essential to my well-being. So, I felt like the Poetry Grinch when, after reading through this collection, one poem after another, I wanted to say, ‘Girl you’ve celebrated the dolphin, the mockingbird, the snake, a pond, the owl, the hummingbird, the rain, stones, crows, even a skunk… do you need to do bats, now, as well?!’

I’m thinking that these poems need to be read differently – one or two at a time. Let their blessings dissolve in me, slowly. Avoid overload. And, psychologically speaking, that makes sense. Research has proved that us contrary humans respond more easily to sadness than to happiness. The latter requires far more attention and effort. 

Maybe it’s a generalisation and responses will vary from person to person. But then I think about poetry, in general, and I reckon more of it has been, and is, written in response to sadness, loss and despair than happiness, achievement and joy. Perhaps writing about our own happiness can come across as smug, or self-indulgent? So, I suppose if that’s what we want to do, we have to find a way to do it that includes the reader in our joy and wonder. But maybe, as readers, and observers of and participants in life too, we can make ourselves more open to the joy in the world, and of other people, however it manifests. 

Mary Oliver opens one poem with, ‘It’s morning, and again I am the lucky person who is in it’. Another with, ‘Sometimes I am victorious and even beautiful —‘. I want to celebrate with her. 

5th August

The Handless Maiden, Vicki Feaver (Cape 1994)

When I was studying for my MA in Creative Writing at the University of Glamorgan in 1995/1996 I chose one of Vicki Feaver's poems to analyse as part of my dissertation on women poets revisioning myth and history. 

The poem 'Judith' tells the climax of the story from The Book of Judith, which was removed from the King James Bible in the 1800s. Judith, a widow, saves her city from invasion by the Assyrians by convincing their general, Holofernes, of her desire for him, entering his tent and decapitating him. And after reading about the death of her husband, in battle, her almost unbearable grief, I feel I could be capable of doing the same.

Most of the poems in this collection are about women: young women, middle-aged women, old women, mothers and daughters, female friends, male lovers, love made and lost, menace and satisfaction. One of the blurbs on the back cover describes the collection as 'domestic gothic'. It's a bloody (sometimes literally) good read! 

The story of Judith and Holofernes also appears in classical paintings. And a clutch of other poems in the collection were also written in response to paintings, by Lucien Freud, Van Gogh, Roger Hilton, Andrew Wyeth and Hobbema. 

I've Googled them all now. Perhaps that's what all good books, not just poetry, do. They open doors to what exists beyond them. I'd never heard of the Dutch artist, Meindert Hobbema, but now his painting, ‘The Avenue at Middelharnis,’ sits on one of the shelves in my mind alongside Vicki Feaver's words: 

The land is so flat
the people who till these fields
still secretly refuse to believe
the world is round.

They plant cabbages and potatoes.
They keep a cow and a pig.
The men carve Meerschaum pipes.
Their women are embroiderers.

On summer evenings they walk out
between tall lines of poplars
brushing midges from their faces
with fat brown hands.

But every fifty years or so
someone tears himself away
from family and farm
and goes in search of the edge.

Expanding my world and making connections. Good things to be doing.

4th August

My Sealey Challenge has been challenged - with what turned out NOT to be Covid (🙏 Universe) but was still a whackeroony of a throat infection, fever and head cold. I'm only a day behind with reading, but 3 days behind on writing. Catching up now... 

A friend sent me this book when I was recovering from surgery: Ten Poems of Happiness, selected and introduced by Deborah Alma of The Poetry Pharmacy, an independent book, gift and stationery shop in Bishop's Castle, Shropshire.

Each of the ten poems explores happiness in different forms, from laughing out loud to quiet contentment. The back cover says about happiness, 'Sometimes, we even fail to notice when it's there.' And I guess we've all done that, when we are in pain, grieving, and suffering, or even when we're just generally grumpy.

I've been grumpy these last few days; I'm a bit like a wounded animal when I'm ill. I just want to curl up in a corner and be left alone. If you touch me, I growl! But I'm over the worse now and it was good to go out into the garden, this morning, and pick a courgette, two small cauliflowers, and a windfall of dwarf green beans that have been the gift that keeps on giving this summer. It was a quiet happiness. A flush of gratitude. When I came in and saw that Tony had hoovered the whole house, I told him, 'It looks so lovely everywhere.' And saying it made me feel happy.

The poems in the books speak about little stones (oh yes!), horses in a field, cake, peaches, music. What's your happiness today? 

3rd August

It always surprises me that Dylan Thomas died almost 5 years before I was born. Perhaps because I have known his words for most of my life, starting with Under Milkwood, early on in secondary school. Perhaps, too, because of his young age, 39 at the time of his death, combined with the eternal exuberance of his words, the energy imbued in them, regardless of subject matter or form. They live on the page. They ring in the air around us when spoken aloud.

In my copy of Deaths and Entrances (JM Dent & Sons Ltd, London), a 1954 reprint of the original 1946 edition, there’s a folded up, yellowed newspaper cutting from the Sunday Times, from April 22nd 1956: a review, by Edith Sitwell, of John Malcolm Brinnin’s book, Dylan Thomas in America.

Brinnin was one of the people at Thomas’s bedside during his ‘terrible last days’. He was also ‘a much-valued friend’ of Sitwell, who acknowledges ‘many passages of great interest’ in his book. But she is scathing about ‘a procession of fatuous persons’, ‘nasty little floozies’ and ‘male zombies’ who were only around Thomas ‘to rub some of his fame on to themselves’.

She exhorts people to read his ‘noble and holy poetry. Only this is their concern. The failures of a great man’s private life are no concern of the public.’ Those ‘dirty hands that dragged him down’, she wrote. So, imagine the media feeding frenzy that would happen in this day and age, a life and death dissected, exposed, the parts slavered over, the scurrilous headlines and soundbites.

Sitwell’s words are still infused with their original emotion: ‘His was the warmth of the spring that loves and forgives mankind, that speaks of immortality. His was the warmth of the common heart.’

It will be the 70th anniversary of his death on 9th November this year. Dylan, you left us ‘parables/ Of sunlight’.  And ‘Time’ still holds you, both ‘green and dying’.

2nd August

Brian Tasker's book of #haiku, a ragbag of haiku, is printed on handmade paper and hand tied. There's a beauty in handmade things - from books, to toys, to clothes, sandals or soap... it's as if the care and love of the maker has settled into the fabric of them.

Haiku are often single observed moments captured in words. And they're often moments that could easily be missed. But the writer's close attention preserves it for us.

lamp-lit room
the spider
stretches it shadow

I 'see' this and smile. And I'm reminded of a moment when I was living in France, sitting on the terrace outside our house in bright sunshine at midday and noticed a line of ants crossing the sandy stone beside my feet. And suddenly they were more than themselves; they were a caravan of creatures crossing a desert landscape. Because ants have shadows!

I will always remember that. How such extra-ordinariness existed in such ordinariness. I'd like to notice more of that.

Haiku are tiny poems but small can be BIG. 

1st August

The Sealey Challenge 2023 started yesterday, and in the midst of packing up my house in Wales I sat down in what Mam & Dad used to call 'the garden room' and read TS Eliot's Four Quartets out loud to myself. 'Footfalls echo in the memory', he wrote on the first page of 'Burnt Norton'. And, 'Time past and time future/ What might have been and what has been/ Points to one end, which is always present'. And later, ' the still point, there the dance is.' And I felt the comfort of poetry. I felt their presence in the house they'd lived in since 1957, before they both died within three months of each other in December 2020 and March 2021. The memories of them, their life's dance, distilled into the stillness of that present moment.

In the fourth section, 'Little Gidding', he says, 'The end is where we start from'. Selling the house, the place where I was born, is not an end. It is the beginning of a way forward towards something new. 'And all shall be well and/ All manner of thing shall be well.../

One down. Thirty to go.


The annual Sealey Challenge asks you to read a book/collection of poetry every day for the month of August. When I first read that I thought a poem a day might be a more effective way to really appreciate poetry, but then I remembered some of the '30 day challenges' I have done in my life: Couch to 5K,  swimming in the sea, cutting out alcohol, walking and writing something in response. 

And there was something about that committment, that sense of focus over 30 days that engendered new things in me, insights and realisations, even when I 'failed' on any one day. 

So I decided to accept the challenge and chose my books in advance. 

And burst out laughing after I'd arranged them between my favourite book-ends! That's not the sentiment, or the word, I had in mind!  

I know from experience that the first week of any daily challenge is always the easiest. Enthusiasm and determination are buoyant! It's around Day 9 that things can start to flag, and excuses are made. But I won't beat myself up if I do lapse. Just see it as a pit-stop and keep going towards my destination.