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Writer Peter Kenny reviews Home Farm

November 06, 2019

Exploring Janet Sutherland’s poetry

Peter Kenny writes about my work on his blog

There are perhaps only a couple-of-dozen poets I find myself returning to time and again. In the last year, however, Janet Sutherland has become one of them.

 

I own her four collections from Shearsman Books, which are, in order of publication,  Burning the HeartwoodHangman’s AcreBone Monkey, and Home Farm. Each of these books contains an embarrassment of riches, and the more I look into them, the less able I feel to convey just how much I admire this work. But in the spirit of not letting perfect be the enemy of the good, I’ll have a go here. I know it’s a spoiler, but the short version of this blog post is: do yourself a favour and simply read Janet Sutherland’s books now.

Certain themes and images recur throughout the collections. In the first of them, Burning the Heartwood, poems that refer to a Wiltshire farm background in poems like ‘an image of skin‘ are already in place. While in her second collection Hangman’s Acre we meet her character Bone Monkey, who gives its name to her third collection, Bone Monkey. This was the first of her books I read, having been told to do so by my pal Charlotte Gann. Many of the poems this collection contains are about this dark, Loki-like trickster, somehow bestial, but all too human:

Bone monkey knows himself a god
although his raddled arms, his ruined balls
and buttocks seem to say he’s less than that.

(As a God, from Bone Monkey)

 

I love the freedom the adoption of a dubious and unreliable character provides. In Janet Sutherland’s hands he becomes a violent, legendary figure.

Bone Monkey swaggers through a plain of thorns
crowned with insignia of warlike deeds–
emblems stolen from the wolves
are fixed securely to his skull with cords

(Emblems from Wolves, from Bone Monkey)

It was in the Bone Monkey collection that I first became enchanted by Janet Sutherland’s lightness of touch with images.

I think of memory
like three swans that sweep
over the river’s surface

ghosts
of the aerial
and of the deep

or like the rivers’ flow
tidal and complex
at an estuary.

(His exposition on the art of memory, Bone Monkey)

The poet has no axe to grind and never seeks our pity. Instead there is alchemy. Personal experiences accrue a near mythical force, in imagery that is dewy fresh and deftly condensed. Images return hauntingly in her work, such as her repeated association of  association of snakes with water…

little adders fall
out of pitch-forked hay

into the stooks
floating the swollen river

(Memory, from Burning the Heartwood)  

This river’s a snake that opens its mouth
and sings, looping and undulating, leaving
a sloughed skin oxbow by its side.

(At Cuckmere, from Home Farm)

Culminating in the wonderful weirdness of these eels.

                                                                 …At night
white water grinds over and over through this sieve,
and in that loneliness the eels come quietly, one by one,
driven by longing for a spawning place at sea. Slither
an eye across the peep show floor. The risen dark
pools where eels still hide trapped in a storage well,
somersaulting, tumbling and unbalancing.

(The Eel House, from Home Farm)

Home Farm, published this year, contains perhaps Janet Sutherland’s most autobiographical work. Here her childhood exists in several dimensions: in the awareness of the history of the land, of villagers who lived there before, of family history, in the names of fields and beasts and flowers, and in the suggestions of fleeting human experience, and the tragedy of lost memory. And the result is… Well, just wonderful.

For some reason, she makes me want to use the word ‘ontology’ for her poetry has a complex kind of ‘being’ that has, for me, proper heft and its own strange life. At her best, Janet Sutherland has the power to make her fabulously-realised world exist in the imagination as a place one wants to continually return to.  I can admire lots of poetry, but there are few collections I genuinely love as much as these.

Picture from a recent reading at Lumen Poetry Series

June 17, 2019

Ruth O'Callaghan presents the Lumen Poetry Series at LUMEN   88 Tavistock Place W.C.1. I was delighted to read there with Hilary Davies and Martyn Crucefix on 18th June. The event was beautifully compered by Benjamin Cusden. There's a very welcoming open mic at these events and poets from the floor are always very welcome. 

Home Farm Reviewed in the Poetry Book Society Bulletin for Spring 2019

March 01, 2019

I was delighted to see that Home Farm had been reviewed in the Poetry Book Society Spring Bulletin. Here is the text of the Review:

In this intense, earthy fourth collection, Sutherland digs assuredly through the autobiographical sod of a dairy farm and deep countryside. Animal, human and landscape hybrids run throughout; an opening poem glides from the image of a serpentine river to a water-snake and disease in cows is hauntingly reflected in the degradation of human bodies. Eloquently brutal, Home Farm explores life, place and family in a matter-of-fact, evocative manner and throws in several unusual surprises along the journey.

Book Reviews, Poetry Book Society Spring Bulletin, 2019

The Lewes Launch of Home Farm

January 31, 2019

The Lewes launch for Home Farm was on the 31st January at the Elephant and Castle pub in Lewes; the pub has a lovely upstairs room for events. On the morning of the 31st there was a forecast of heavy snow with a 98% probability it would fall that evening beginning just as the event was due to start! Throughout the day there were phone calls and emails from guests apologising because of the weather, worried because they would have to drive on country roads and in darkness. But the show must go on even if only one person makes it.  So cakes were baked, the slide show of pictures from the farm loaded up to play on the large screen at the front of the room, boxes of books set up to sell, and fewer rows of seats put out in rows....

At seven a few people arrived. The snow had begun as light driftings of tiny flakes. At ten past seven a few more guests arrived and soon there was a steady flow of people coming up the stairs and then the room was full and we put out the rest of the chairs. At 7.30 my friend, the wonderful poet, Maria Jastrzębska made the introductions and I read with the farm pictures playing behind me. The curtains were drawn over the windows so we didn't know what was happening outside. At 9pm as people left to go home I drew back the curtains —thick snow had fallen on the sloping road outside and was still falling.... 

Clicking on the link below takes you to some more images of the event.

Robin Houghton reviews Home Farm on her poetry blog

February 07, 2019

Robin Houghton's poetry blog is a mine of information for poets navigating their way to making submissions to poetry magazines and anthologies. She also reviews poetry collections and writes about her poetry life. Her blog is always interesting, informative and encouraging and I highly recommend it.  I was very pleased to see she had reviewed Home Farm recently.  The link takes you straight to the review. Here is an extract:

"A seemingly simple poem about a doe making her way tentatively through a wood (‘She will enter’) is a moment of such intensity and understatement, very typical of Janet’s style. I hesitate to call it ‘nature writing’ as there’s something rather limp about the phrase.

The collection embraces experimental poems, fragments and illustrations, all of which I found absorbing, moving and mysterious, propelling me on.

A facsimile of a page from a letter is reproduced, phrases from which appear in a poem later in the book to heartbreaking effect:

'I was just looking at your room this morning
and wishing you were home

this room is already empty
the face above the sheets
has gone to clay

now son take care of yourself'

Even as I type this my eyes are welling up! Surely this is what poetry exists for."

Viva Lewes Reviews Home Farm

February 01, 2019

The first review of Home Farm appeared in early February in local magazine Viva Lewes. Editor, Charlotte Gann, reports that Home Farm is "Dark, tender, above all real" and says "I especially love the portraits of stoical cattle dotted through the farm, and book: 'Fastened to the earth/ and to the dawn through which this fog has settled/ they breathe out gust of steam'."

The Wombwell Rainbow Blog

December 13, 2018

The Wombwell Rainbow is a blog produced by Paul Brookes.  As part of the blog he contacts poets and asks them a series of questions about such things as how they came to writing, what inspires them, which poets past and present do they love. He gives the writers two options, a written list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.  There are many of these interviews on the blog, all fascinating in their similarities and differences. He's looking for more writers to answer these questions so if you are interested let me know and I'll pass on your interest.

Poetry Space Winter Showcase

December 03, 2018

I was very pleased to be asked by Sue Sims of Poetry Space to choose the poems for the Poetry Space Winter Showcase - I chose 10 poems from those sent in to go up on the Poetry Space website. Here's the selection with a few words about each of the selected poems.

 

Sue and I met at Hawthornden in Scotland last January when we were both chosen to stay at Hawthornden Castle for a month of quiet writing time. In the evenings after the day spent writing we'd read some of the poems we'd just written to each other, in their raw just written state - knowing they would need more editing. There is a very beautiful drawing room at the castle, an electric fire in the grate, snow falling outside, the sound of the wind in the frozen trees...

The first 21 pages...

December 03, 2018

Here's a little pdf sampler of my new book, Home Farm, which is also now up at the Shearsman Books website. The sample has six poems from the opening sequence which is called Water Meadows. I hope you enjoy them.  Home Farm is now available to pre-order from Shearsman Books or from Wordery, The Book Depository or Amazon. 

 

The London launch will be on January 8th with John Welch who will be reading from In Folly's Shade (October 2018) at Swedenborg Hall, Holborn, see events for details, and there'll be a Lewes launch on January 31st at the Elephant and Castle pub in Lewes, details to come.

The cover of my fourth collection HOME FARM

November 18, 2018

Here is the cover image for my new collection Home Farm. Out January 2019 and up now at the Shearsman website. Huge thanks to Nicole Griffin for her help with the design and to Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books, as always. To see details of the collection and the full image click on the link below.

 

I guess there’s often a story about the cover image of a book—I grew up with the Standard Cyclopedia of Modern Agriculture, 1908, a 13-book set, kept in the bookcase in the sitting room of the farm. In some of the volumes there were paper anatomical models of farm animals, a horse, a pig, a sheep, a cow and these models had lungs and livers which could be folded back to reveal intestines, stomachs, the heart (which could be opened out to see the chambers), and a painted embryo underneath pretty much full term. I spent many hours poring over these models as a child, folding and unfolding them. When I was writing Home Farm, I wrote a short poem called Early Anatomies remembering the model of the cow with its four stomachs.  The Cyclopedias had long gone—I’d taken them myself to the second-hand bookshop in Salisbury when my parents were retiring thirty years ago, they had no room for them in the new house and neither did I in my small London flat. But when I finished writing Home Farm the image I wanted for the cover was the one of the cow. It seemed unlikely I’d find it in Lewes where I live but I went out looking anyway.  I tried a couple of second-hand bookshops and then tried the 15th Century Bookshop – there, in a frankly grubby corner on the floor, was a partial set of the exact Cyclopedias my father, and grandfather before him, had owned. The cover was immediately familiar.  In this partial set was the volume I wanted, the one with the cow! The other detail in this tale – the volume is embossed with the words Fordingbridge, Hants – which is just 5 miles from where the farm was – so it’s possible it was the same one I sold to the bookshop.

Poems about Suvla Bay, Gallipoli

November 11, 2018

Josie Holford wrote to me recently asking if she could use a poem of mine about Suvla Bay, Gallipoli (1915) in her blog. She quotes poems by Charles Causley, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, and Michael Longley and my own piece reproduced here in full with some photographs of some of the original family documents I used in the poem including letters from my grandfather, DR G. N Smyth, to his father in Dublin sent from Gallipoli. I've attached a photo of my grandfather taken by me around 1975 towards the end of his life.

Artists International Development Fund - events in Hungary and Serbia

October 01, 2019

While I was travelling in Hungary and Serbia I took part in eight readings. Some were part of the Serbian Writers Association 55th Annual International gathering of poets and some were readings organised by my translator, Ivanka Radmanovic, in libraries and other venues and one was at the University of Debrecen in Hungary. I took with me my great great grandfather's travel journal of 1847 and was able to show this to audiences, to hand it round and to show the pictures he had painted in water colours of the messenger house in Aleksinac, Serbia. At the same time each evening I wrote my own hand-written journal documenting my own journey. Click below to see local news video of my reading in Vrbas, Serbia with Ivanka Radmanovic translating. 

Artists International Development Fund

February 20, 2018

I am delighted to say I have been awarded an Artists International Development Fund Award from the Arts Council for travel to Hungary and Serbia in September 2018.  This will enable me to re-trace the footsteps of my great, great, grandfather who travelled through Hungary to Serbia in 1846 and 1847. He wrote two journals about his travels which I have transcribed. I will be writing my own journal as I travel and this will be followed by a collection. The image below is a page from one of the journals.

The Rainmaker's Wife, Bone Monkey and other birds and beasts

March 21, 2018

Kathleen Jones is launching her new collection, The Rainmaker's Wife, partly written on the islands of Haida Gwaii, published by Indigo Dreams, and Janet Sutherland will be reading from Bone Monkey and giving a preview of her next collection - both published by Shearsman. There will be two short open mic slots. See events for more info.

Hawthornden Fellowship for 2018

October 14, 2019

Hawthornden Fellowships are awarded annually to writers who apply to spend a month writing at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland. Days are spent quietly writing and in the evenings the resident writers, there are five each month, socialise over dinner. Janet will be going to Hawthornden Castle in January 2018.  Vanessa Gebbie has blogged about her experiences at the castle - click on the link to go to her blog to read more about Hawthornden.

Kent and Sussex Poetry Competition 2017

April 17, 2017

Catherine Smith (judge, centre) with prizewinners  Janet Sutherland (L) and Sally Douglas (R) at the Kent and Sussex Poetry Competition prize giving. The first prize was awarded to Janet Sutherland for her poem 'Braided Wire'

Watermarks Anthology

April 26, 2017

Watermarks: Writing by Lido Lovers and Wild Swimmers was published in April 2017. Kathleen Jones blogs about Janet's poem Cloud Chamber and about her third collection, Bone Monkey, in her Tuesday Poem blog. 

New Collection for Winter 2018

November 01, 2018

Janet's collection will be published Winter 2018 from Shearsman Books. More information will be added here when there's a firm publication date.

Pepys and a Nightingale

January 19, 2017

A new poem by Janet Sutherland in the New Statesman. The poem Pepys and a Nightingale was written after reading the diaries of Pepys and finding the phrase Pepys wrote about wrapping "a rag around his little left toe, it being new sore" as he set out to listen to Nightingales.

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For any inquiries, please contact Janet Sutherland:

01273 470 413

07753358111

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