Claire Askew has been
featured in many past issues of Poets' Letter Magazine. She became Poet in
Residence at Poets' Letter, January 2008 and then became one of the six Poets in
Residence at the 4th London Poetry Festival 2008. It will take a while for us to
get all her published works together in one place. Please bear with us.
Coming Together: Claire Askew
Poet in Residence at the 4th London Poetry Festival 2008
In the early days, when your feet still struggled,
each morning, to find themselves, you inhabited a city
that only made sense on paper. I, the flitting
white cane that guided you, steered us
through espresso daydreams on yawning streets,
beneath bus-shelters – we were both blind –
doe-eyed and awe-full among stricken gallery frames.
I remember you burning curls of incense
in a paper cup, scrawling on yourself –
your veins seemed to run on the outside of your skin,
liquidising your heart into the palm of your hand.
It was from there that your ash fell in the rain –
you started to smoke like an army man, that night,
as we sheltered against the steel doors
We took turns at artistic hysteria. I was your
Dorothy Wordsworth, your emotional proof-reader –
a writer of long-winded, comforting notes; a patient,
smiling model for myriad screwed-up sketches. In turn,
you suggested adjectives from behind newspaper folds;
filled the bathtub with autumn leaves – you fitted
stubborn typewriter ribbons, cursing, and blackened
to the wrist.
Soon, you solved the conundrum of your new
existence – turned correctly at the lights
without my prompt. Just like your escape from a life
lived between the pages of an A – Z, you began
to solve me; recognised my bad traits in the identity parade
of our love. Stupidly, I never thought to try
and trick you; simply buttoned you up with revelations –
talismans for the expedition ahead.
And so, we find ourselves cover-snatching under the jaws
of the night – I wear your shirts, confuse you
with my inexplicable scent. You read aloud to me,
memorise the poetic names of the beers I drink, insist
on paying for groceries. Somewhere, it seems, between the lost
and the finding, we scooped out a mould for ourselves
where the sky touches ground; a groove in the wood –
and somehow, with hands locked like puzzle-pieces, unnoticed,
poem was included in the London Poetry Pearl Anthology, published in
celebration of the fifth year of The London Poetry Festival 2008:
has been nominated to be The Best New Scottish Writer 2009
but she needs your votes!
Claire Askew at the 4th London
Poetry Festival: Anxious waiting for the Festival to start: 2008
Claire Askew was
born in Northallerton, North Yorkshire in 1986. Her mother works in
childcare regulation, and her father in various kinds of PR – his
writing skills have been one of her major inspirations since childhood.
During her early life, Claire and her family moved around a great deal –
she attended four primary schools in around five years, and has lived in
North Yorkshire , Worcester , Herefordshire, the Scottish Borders and
Midlothian . As a result, Claire does not really call anywhere ‘home,’
but she currently lives in the centre of Edinburgh , and has done for
the past four years. The city is one of the great loves of her life, and
she is deeply attached to its cultural diversity and creatively charged
atmosphere. Claire is soon to graduate from her final year of a Masters
degree at the University of Edinburgh , reading English Literature. Over
her four year degree she has studied with the likes of
multi-award-winning Northern Irish poet Alan Gillis, and has also
attended weekly creative writing workshops with Brian McCabe. After
graduation she intends to enrol on an MSc course in Creative Writing –
specialising in poetry – with hopes of a PhD to follow.
‘career’ began in 2004 when, as part of her high school’s competing
team, she won both writing prizes in the annual Bar National Mock Trial
Contest at Edinburgh ’s High Court. Realising that writing was something
she wanted to take seriously, Claire went on to write a three-act play
for children, On A Wing and a Prayer, and the Kelso Young Players
performed it on a sell-out run in 2004. Since, Claire has concentrated
on honing her poetry, and her work has appeared in various magazines.
She appeared in two consecutive issues of New Leaf, the creative writing
magazine of the University of Bremen , and then made successful
submissions to Open Wide, The Beat, the Round Table Review, Brittle Star
Claire was also
recently awarded the Grierson Prize 2008, the Sloan Prize 2008 and the
Lewis Edwards Award for Poetry 2008, the proceeds of which she plans to
invest in “a big trip somewhere,” which will allow her some free time to
produce more work.
Claire is part
of a five-piece writing group, consisting of young poets from Edinburgh
University , and named “The Blind Poets,” after their favourite local
pub. In June 2007 the group published a collective pamphlet, Type
Dreams, through The Forest Free Press, and in November of that year,
went on to establish the literary magazine Read This. Assisted by The
Forest, and printed by the University of Edinburgh ’s English Literature
department, Read This aims to provide a platform for young and emerging
writers from all walks of life – a subject Claire, herself the Editor In
Chief, feels passionately about. Read This is in print monthly and
has so far produced six successful issues, and held two full-house
Claire Askew: Why I write poetry
been reading literature – and poetry in particular – for as long
as I can remember, and even before. As a small child, I would
apparently like nothing better than visiting the library, and
sometimes demanded to be taken every single day. My Dad used to
read poetry to me, because I preferred it to bedtime stories –
things like ‘Jabberwocky’ and (a particular favourite) Patrick
Barrington’s ‘The Diplomatic Platypus.’ By the time I was seven
or so, I was addicted to TS Eliot’s ‘Old Possum’s Book of
Practical Cats,’ and loved DH Lawrence’s ‘The Snake,’ and ‘Night Mail’by Auden – I can still recite chunks of these poems by
heart. I think I must have started writing at around this time.
At seven I wrote a short story for the local fete, and won a
silver spoon, which suppose you could say was my first writing
credit. I also wrote various little animal-stories, and
adventure-stories in the style of the Famous Five – which often
involved my younger sister and I being captured by pirates, and
so on. We lived in a very rural area when I was that age, and as
I was always a bit of a loner, I found that I liked writing
stories better than doing real-life things.
Sarah Wardle and Claire
Askew at The 4th London Poetry Festival 200
now like I have always written, and it’s become therapeutic,
something of a comfort-blanket for me. If I go for too long
without writing something, I start to get crabby and feel
anxious. I’m part of a five-piece writing group and their
presence is invaluable to my work – they’re great for sounding
out ideas, sharing criticism or just sitting around having a
moan about writers’ block. I feel like writing is my therapy,
and when I can’t write, the group is my therapy. Often we just
keep each other going. I also attend workshops at the University
of Edinburgh , and workshopping can be a godsend if you have a
tricky piece that needs tweaking. Often other people see things
that you can’t, and their input can really turn a difficult
piece of poetry around.
in Edinburgh , which I love, but breaking into the literary
circle here is a little difficult. The mildly intimidating
Edinburgh Review, and other academic publications like Chapman
and Textualities dominate the literary magazine scene, and there
are only a handful of smaller publications. Poetry in Edinburgh
can be incredibly oligarchic - going to a poetry reading here
sometimes feels like straying into someone’s private dinner
party. This was one of my main reasons for starting up Read
This, which is totally independent and not-for-profit. We run it
out of my living room and use the printing services of the
University, and a local arts collective, The Forest (who also
publish poetry pamphlets and hold excellent monthly readings).
This accepts submissions about anything, from anyone, and we
read and respond to everything individually. It’s a lot of work,
but we want to be approachable. Poetry in particular is becoming
increasingly academic, and people – particularly young people –
just don’t want to read it anymore. I find that really sad and
frustrating, and the magazine – and indeed my writing – is just
a small attempt to try and right the balance a little.
Claire Askew's Poetic Works
The function room is filled, like a fridge,
with the edible and the dead. Filled
with blank, fish-like stares
and limp handshakes - limp
like the green, week-old lace
of a lettuce - it is cold, white, too-bright.
Here am I, bleeding under my purple dress,
quivering female aubergine. I gulp
at words that drift my way,
but eat nothing; pad the cream
linen chair with napkins, secretive.
I switch the place cards and stuff
my handbag with cutlery, a domestic magpie.
Later, in the softly buzzing kitchen
(a grey-metal Marie Celeste, strip-lit)
I find a trifle, untouched; a beautiful,
shuddering pool. I plunge a hand in,
but do not find Excalibur.
Sugar-spattered, I check myself.
Guilt leaves the stolen cutlery at the door.
I am still in here, despite the siege. Still here,
behind the maze of scaffolding and duckboards -
business almost as usual, though I daren't leave.
I watch the men through the drawn blind like TV,
as they paint over the rotting windowframes,
drink tea from flasks, sandblast, dig up pipes outside.
I keep the windows locked, just in case - paranoid,
I hide the jewellery box . On cold days, they slither
about on the slats, four floors up - a precarious ballet.
Some nights, I like to haul myself through
the wet window with a steaming cup, and sway
on the scaffold, scaring myself. I can choose -
to look out over the rainy slates, streetlights, the stretch
of council yards, or plunge. (Cobbles wink in the alley
below, its discarded mattress a festering fall-breaker.)
But it will be gone soon, this crows' nest, climbing-frame
for drunks, this cage. They will come in the morning,
wake me early, and pack it away, whistling.
Where was Satan?
Where was Satan when I was six?
When I was doing child things -
scuffing my school-shoes
on the chalk of a hopscotch frame,
losing bouncy-balls forever
into the greedy throat of the gutter -
was he crouching close-by?
I don't remember Satan,
not even from the many Sunday sermons
I endured - squirming in a pew
under dust-in-sunlight window-beams -
though his name must have been mentioned.
No, Satan only came along at sixteen;
swaggering top-hatted into view -
the same grin, though never quite
the same skin. It was Satan
who cheered on the sidelines as I slapped
the local schoolteacher's daughter;
Satan who slipped me
the heady high-school cocktails of sunshine
and lust, and Satan who spirited away
the last bastion of my innocence
in a dusty garden summerhouse, taking notes
no doubt, to pass behind God's back.
Nowadays, Satan sits quietly
on my kitchen stools, or lurks behind
the basement door, chilling my neck.
He plants the stray thumb-tack
in the bathroom rug, tornadoes
through the plate-rack, inching crockery
over the edge, reminding me I'm human.
Satan hums the fragmented tunes
that set up home in my head, and refuse
to leave. It makes me glad that God stops by
sometimes, drops the occasional £5 note
in the pocket I'd forgotten about.
We came in the cold afternoon, having driven
miles; late - the fire lit for us since lunchtime -
and lost beneath the shuddering tent of sky.
We are strangers in the land that birthed us,
long ago; though our speech coats quickly
with the curve of its tongue, its Nordic towns
familiar - Broxa. Hackness. Helmsley. Thirsk.
This country is stone walls, whitewash
and farms; the woodsmoke tang of chimneys
on plateaus above the sea. We stoke our fire
with inexpert hands; drink tea,
boil potatoes in salt and scour the plates.
Outside, the wind tests the windows, and upstairs
the old bed warms and warps, like a woman.
The room steams with stove-warmth.
Lightbulbs sputter, and we light candles, nervous.
We miss the yawn and gape of the city -
the morse-code of streetlight, the restless cabs.
Here, our feet flap like fish on the cool flags of the floor -
the wind peels back the slates, and sighs,
restless, in the dark grey skull of the hill.
At the weekend
The schoolgirls are all reading 1984,
scaring themselves crazy.
They crowd on the gum-pocked steps of the amusement arcade,
alongside drunks with souls for sale on cardboard signs,
and chain-smoking Saturday boys.
And they shuffle a weary dance among discarded newsprint,
fag-ends and beer-bottle caps; wind-blown,
they settle like sand in window-ledges, back-door steps,
and mourn – all the world’s a fruit machine, and no change.
Across the street a park full of purple dusk waits,
under thrashing trees.
Copyrights @ Claire Askew
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Tonight, as I drive along a purple lane
under the swallow-tail of the evening,
I will think of you. I can picture you -
your delicate skirts like the petals of a poppy,
stalk legs, black, with heels clicking -
your quick-step, on cobbles in a lamp-lit square.
In the cavernous chapel of my mind's eye,
I will watch you emerge, moth-like
in soft reams of white - watch as you waltz
between pews, take the arm of a man
I recognise. I will think of your smile
behind a newspaper counter, the sound of silver
against the rings on your hand - I will think
of your pearls, like a cold, smoothed spine
across your neck, of your thumbs, turned black
with newsprint. I am reminded
of your best teaset, the tall, slim coffeepot;
the Welsh dresser, full of porcelain horses
and silver spoons. In my mind I will pass
the lake you loved, glimpse its shimmer between trees,
then speed away. I will wander through
the rooms of your house, still heavy
with flower-scent and the breath of your cigarette -
finding your knitting and handkerchiefs,
the secret bottle of whisky, your stockings
and letters in the coffin of a drawer.
I will fold you away in crackling tissue,
carefully, with the yellow photographs
of soldiers you knew. I will fold up your image,
to carry with me - white, brittle and dry,
like a word, a whisper, always on my tongue.
I shiver at the kitchen window, watching
as he works the garden. A dim figure
in the dusk, he ducks in and out
of the steamy greenhouse, flexing his hands
over the heaters. I remember the time
we slept in there - drunk, and locked out, lying
on concrete under glass and sky. His tall marijuana
hid among the tomato plants, and we were sleepless.
I blanch the window with breath. He throws a match
onto a mound of leaf-mould, and the lawn
stutters with sparks, then smoulders. Back-lit by this bonfire,
he muddies the path to the door, arrives - boots
and everything. He holds out a skinny hand, black -
dirt in the creases from hours of splitting soil,
sowing, stirring the earth like dough. Look.
It falls in my palm - a smooth, white skull, the size of
a matchbox, once a bird. Christopher blows silt from the sockets,
and it sings, an ocarina. He leaves, to tend to something
still alive - amyrillis, snapdragon - this man my mother
is right to disapprove of. The leaves on his fire sigh
into smoke, then nothing; dusk settles. I let the skull fall,
smash, soundless on the tile, and see him shudder.
As if he'd listened for it, heard. As if he felt.
The last cigarette
All day he's been reminiscing about them,
one by one, as if they were lovers.
There was the first, of course - surreptitious,
cold in the concrete backyard with Brother.
He claims he never coughed - a natural,
exhaling his absent youth into the coal-dust air.
Then there was the pack his mother found,
hidden in a cassette-box on the floor of the car.
She yelled, but bought him a filigree case
for Christmas that year. Later, his parents
divorced downstairs, and he amassed ashtrays -
wore the tang of their scent with a strange pride.
I met him when his hair was long.
He'd been to Canada , loved and lost - learned
to cut with herb and cloves, a connoisseur.
For a while he kept a pipe like a pet,
liked one in the pub, when you still could -
thick smoke and a dark pint, seething, half-alive.
For years I tore myself in half, trying
to stop the endless draws, the late-night
filterless flings, save his lungs. And yet
at the same time, loving his shaking hand
as he lit the first - of the morning, of the pack -
loving his hunger; this devil's curse, his flaw.
Now we sit, silent and transfixed, like chess-players
in the presence of his swan-song cigarette.
He says he's picked it specially - a beauty,
the best of the pack - fizzing with the silver foil
of his favourite brand. This is the last, he says,
the very last - and the Zippo's delicious click.
I almost believe him.
A package arrived for me today:
no bigger than an eggcup, or a Christmas bauble;
it rattled in my mailbox, among bills and bank statements.
In the palm of my hand, it felt light, slightly damp -
brown and crinkled, like a teabag; the leaves inside
arranged to tell some strange fortune.
Inside, when I peeled back the paper, breathless, was
your locket; the one I remember from childhood -
the talisman that hung at your throat, with an air of witchcraft
about it. Back then, I remember trading whispers under quilts
in your spare room, lights out, with my sister;
about this locket - this strange, hollow heart, its properties.
She - always a little afraid of you - supposed it was laced
with poison; some crushed black leaf from the garden,
some powdered bone, some explosive.
To me, it was akin to a crucifix; a small piece of God, captive.
Inside it was a prayer, a spell to ward against death.
Inside it was a lock of coarse hair from Jesus' donkey.
And so, this morning - with eyes blurred by tears I thought
I'd long since exorcised with acts of closure -
I undid the tiny clasp, swung your heart open on its hinge.
And inside, so logically, there was almost nothing -
only a tiny, cut-out photo, in monochrome:
my sister and I, small and sunlit, sitting in your lap.
Copyrights @ Claire Askew
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