Lucy and Todd

Carol Ann Duffy — Collected Poems

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 24, 2016 at 2:01 pm

There are over three hundred poems here and most of them are hum-dingers – Carol Ann Duffy is nothing if not a bang-beat bell-ringing rip-roaring Poet Laureate of the first water. In terms of the intelligence and artistry with which she has discharged the duties of that appointment, she’s the best ever to fill the job. It even says POET LAUREATE in big letters on the jacket of this volume, in case you’d forgotten or didn’t know.

The trick to it is, of course, that she’s a great poet. She’s brave, witty, wry, depressed, political, lyrical, erotic, frightened and furious by turns, and it is fascinating to note how these qualities developed over the course of her writing life. She deals with a huge number of themes and one gets a sense, in looking through the Collected Poems, of how much control she exerts over the ebb and flow of them. In turning to one subject to scrutinize, in a run of poems or a book, she draws many other cherished things closer to her.

In The World’s Wife, a scalpel-sharp look at the women of various real and mythological males, she gave voice to females you never would have thought existed, or else they were so studiously ignored by history that it was time to do something about it. But not just poetic voice – witty, superior voice. Mrs Midas tells you what it really was like to have that touch: impossible and very sad. It broke up their marriage, like those couples who win the lottery. Mrs Pygmalion decides to become a red hot lover – punished for that of course. At the zoo, Mrs Darwin whispers to her hubby that a certain chimpanzee looks like him.

One thing that makes Duffy a great poet is her intimate connection with all of poetry. The spirits of many writers flit through her work. And as a defender of poetry, and of the idea of education, she’s something of a superhero. There are quite a few poems about the abysmal experiences of school, and an equal number about a favourite teacher or book or hour by the fire: transformative moments in the lives of children that are surely diminishing. She’s also an expert on repression, something she returns to often. ‘Mouth, with Soap’ is an anatomization of a mother or aunt: “She was a deadly assassin as far as words went. Slit-eyed, thin-lipped, she bleached and boiled the world. No Fs or Cs, Ps and Qs minded, oh aye. She did not bleed, had Women’s Trouble locked in the small room, mutely.”

Duffy is a British poet in a heady way. Her poems are full of the traditional English subjects: rain, coal smoke, tobacco smoke, poverty, train journeys, loneliness, puzzling and angry fathers, seasides and sudden funerals. Politics is one of her strongest suits (although one of her best recent poems, ‘Democracy’, isn’t included here). She can be very sexy, viz. ‘Stuffed’, in which it’s tantalizingly unclear if the narrator is talking about taxidermy or erotic games. And she has a real way with occasional verse, like ‘Valentine’, where the lover is given an onion instead of a card.

The release of a Collected Poems like this is perhaps the most important milestone in a poet’s career. It should be cause for rejoicing and a little festivity, but this book is too plain, too severely designed to be such a landmark. It is unnecessarily large and too heavy to enjoy easily, with a flat spine that doesn’t fit the hand, and has quite nasty sharp corners. The layout and type are uninspired and the sections are separated by inept fuzzy calligraphic pieces that show through the paper, which is too thin. A book like this ought to be sumptuous, no? Instead it’s kind of obnoxious. Prickly. But it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the author wants it like that.

Duffy likes writing about Christmas, and ‘Mrs Scrooge’ is one of the best of these. Now a widow, she and society both have benefited from Ebenezer’s transformation from Cameronian to Bennite. That’s Tony Benn, folks. She’s like a Guardian reader – she takes buses, is a vegan and forager, and buried Scrooge in an eco-coffin. But it’s deep: Duffy’s reanimation of Dickens’s characters and atmosphere is quite moving, and that is a power for which many historical novelists would pay with their souls. In ‘Bethlehem’ she describes the place on the night in question in terms of smells, food and sounds. But even a great re-imaginer like Duffy still fails to explain why there were no rooms available. Was there a convention in town? It wasn’t like it was Christmas or anything.

TMcE

(This review appeared in The National, Dec. 21st, 2015)

PRAISE FROM WRITERS WE HAVE HELPED

In accolades, Our Students Vouch for Us on May 30, 2014 at 11:40 am

LEILA ABOULELA (whose novel Lyrics Alley, 2012, Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Grove Atlantic, was the Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards; author of The Kindness of Enemies, 2015, Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Grove Atlantic, and several other novels, short stories, and radio plays –  Aboulela’s “The Insider”, her take on Camus’ L’Etranger, was broadcast on Radio 3, November 2, 2013) [the following mentions are from published interviews]:  “Thanks to…..Todd McEwen, my writing tutor, whose belief in my work made me take myself seriously as a writer” –  Mslexia  “Thanks to McEwen, Aboulela found an agent and in 1999, her first novel, The Translator was published by Scottish independent, Polygon.” The Big Interview  –  New Books Magazine

NANCY GAFFIELD (author of Tokaido Road, 2011, CB Editions – winner of the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize for poetry, and now an opera; Owhere, 2012, Templar; and Continental Drift, 2014, Shearsman):  Todd and Lucy are that rare breed of professional writers who are outstanding at teaching. I highly recommend them to anyone who is serious about writing. Not only will you be given in-depth and critical feedback, you will also get practical help in learning how to get your working published.  Todd has been instrumental in my launch as a poet.

EDDIE GIBBONS (who has published several poetry collections, including: A Twist of Lime Street, 2013, Red Squirrel Press, and Roughly Speaking, 2014; his What They Say About You, 2010, Leamington Books, was shortlisted for Poetry Section of the Scottish Book Awards):  If Todd and Lucy were mechanics, they’d work for Rolls-Royce or Ferrari. They are fiction engineers. Todd McEwen set me on the path to five published collections of poetry by instilling in me a belief that I could become good enough by building on my raw ability through application, study, editing and enjoyment of all these processes. But he didn’t stop there. Once he thought that my work was of a sufficient level he encouraged me to send it out into the world, where some of it got published in literary magazines. Not only that – he actually brought the editor of one of those magazines to meet me, whereupon he offered to publish my first collection. But it doesn’t end there. Todd and Lucy have inducted me into the wider world of authorship by introducing me to many luminaries of the writing profession, including Billy Collins, former poet laureate of America. Their tutorship and continuing friendship are things I treasure.

NEIL BUTLER (author of The Roost, 2011, Thirsty Books):  Lucy and Todd will NURTURE your book – they won’t tell you what you should write or how THEY would write it.  They’ll help you make YOUR book the best it can be.  Which is a long way of saying they’re the real thing.  They’re not the friend who’ll tell you they don’t like your subject-matter or that they don’t get what you’re trying; they’re not your mum who’ll tell you you’re just brilliant: WHERE did you get that IMAGINATION from?  These are people who know how to write, they know what writing IS – so they know how you edit.  Todd edited my book and left me a book I’m proud of.  His cuts were fine plastic surgery, not butchery; his advice was practical (i.e., not ‘this is how I WOULD write it’ but ‘here’s a way to improve this’); he spotted the glaring errors that make it into every piece of writing that passes 140 characters.  Lucy gave me my cover quote – ‘It’s wonderful’ – (and meant it!).  One last thing.  They do a very good seminar, the only seminars I ever came out of feeling excited, inspired and not in need of a stiff drink.  So, tip: bring a pad and paper and scribble down the books casually mentioned, quiet-like, under your desk.  Trust me.

PETER BERCZELLER (author of Doctors and Patients: What We Feel About You, 1994, Macmillan, and The Little White Coat, 2014, Metroverlag):  I was first attracted to Fiction Atelier by their clever ad in the London Review of Books. Indeed, as I quickly found out, individual therapy beats group therapy by a mile. Lucy does not provide tough love; her gentle nurturing made my novel “Max: The Anality of Evil” into a much more coherent work. What’s more, Lucy provides tender after-care. Her interest does not end with delivery of the edited product. She is always available for subsequent musing and shmoozing, a welcome antidote to the fluctuating self-esteem which is every writer’s lot. I am only sorry I did not meet her earlier. My previous books would have vastly benefited from her sure guidance.

GREG KLERKX (author of Lost in Space, 2004, Pantheon; his first novel, The Emissary, 2014, was shortlisted for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award):  I was lost in the proverbial wilderness with a new novel when a writer friend recommended Fiction Atelier…oh lucky man me! With each comment and point of advice, Lucy showed that she cared about my novel the way I cared about it, and she was as exacting about improving it as ever I might be. Her insight and skill had a profound, positive impact on the book, and I’d work with her again in a heartbeat.

KYLIE GRANT (winner of the Unbound Press/Spilling Ink Review Holiday Flash Fiction Prize 2012 and author of The House that We Built – shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2011; winner of Wise Words Fiction Prize, 2014; reviewer for The List, Scotland):  Todd McEwen and Lucy Ellmann were utterly wonderful teachers, editors, and mentors during my time at the University of Kent.  One of their many strengths is that they actively want to engage with your writing, both as writers and as teachers, giving you the freedom to experiment and create your own confident writing voice.  In encouraging you to read and question a variety of thought provoking, frustrating, beautiful and ultimately inspiring pieces of writing they improve the quality, depth and structure of your own writing. I honestly couldn’t have finished my novel without their enthusiasm, guidance and feedback.

EFFIE CURRELL (author of short story collections published by the Kreol Institute in the Seychelles, and a children’s book published by Macmillan Caribbean):  So many things keep pulling me away from writing, and sometimes it would be easy to abandon a story that no-one will miss if it’s not told. So, as I sit to write sans publisher, sans book deal, sans contract, sans any of the things that I – perhaps naively – imagine help writers to feel that they are not suffering from delusions of talent, I am glad that I am at least an apprentice at the Atelier.

KYRILL POTAPOV (winner of the first Bloomsbury Writing Prize, 2009, University of Kent; novelist and playwright): Lucy Ellmann is probably the reason I’m still writing, against all odds and temptations. She gave me the confidence and direction that I needed as a young writer and helped to provide the right literary contexts for me to be able to place my writing in a wider tradition and to broaden my pool of writing mentors. Six years later I have completed my first novel and Lucy has been there for me every step of the way. Her input has ranged from loving encouragement to comprehensive commentary on editing strategy. She has shown me a far more suitable direction for my first draft, and with Todd’s input has revealed dimensions and possibilities in my writing I certainly hadn’t considered. Several people have read my manuscript but only Lucy has provided me with a vantage point from which I can see the work as a whole and feel empowered to do what’s needed to make it good.

RUPERT SMITH (Winner of the Bloomsbury Writing Prize, and the T. S. Eliot Prize, at the University of Kent; his short story, ‘Fripperies’, was broadcast on Radio 4 in October, 2011):  Lucy and Todd were meat and drink to me whilst at Kent. I never dreamed that my writing would be invigorated in the way it was – suddenly I was urged out of my comfort zone, but at the same time I was never happier in taking the risks I took on the page to the extent that I almost forgot I was on a degree course. What was so revelatory was how the reading fed so appropriately into the creative process; works I’d never before come across (by writers I’m still exploring) were shoring up all the experiments I doubt I would ever have otherwise undertaken, and validating them.
Lucy encourages her students to think deeply about their craft, and I’m delighted to say that the generous feedback I received during her module ‘The Body’ was instrumental in helping me to strike out and complete what was to become my Radio 4 short story debut.
And Todd is just so supportive and wise: who can resist a tutor who asks, à propos of nothing, ‘What’s exciting you?’?  His tutorials are mini literary adventures: invaluable assistance with envisioning the writer’s journey alongside an uncanny bibliophile’s sixth sense in steering you towards your next feeding frenzy. I never shifted to the uni library so fast.

AARON SIMON:  Todd and Lucy were amazing mentors at Kent. With their prodding and encouragement, I was actually able to finish writing a novel and–even more amazingly–start legitimately rewriting huge swaths of text.

JAMES WRIGHT:  Todd and Lucy, as writers, readers and editors, helped me to trust and develop my ideas of fiction and have inspired the confidence to do my ideas justice and successfully write exactly as I aspire to. Their editorial support is artistically sensitive and, with the reader in mind, logically sound, so as not to lose sight of the essential narrative.

EMMA GLASS:  I would like to say that it is always such a pleasure to receive feedback from you. The response is always prompt, always honest. Even when I send long, intangible lines of random words with minimal punctuation, you always help me to find a focus. You read with such patience; guiding my rough chapters and shaping them, helping me to see through the creative fuzz. Observations always objective, practical considerations about the reader, about the narrative voice. But always, and most essentially enthusiastic and encouraging.

CHRIS BENNETT:  Truly wonderful! Fiction Atelier has not only polished my work but their feedback and guidance has improved my writing immensely. It’s a personal service that is tailored to each individual and Todd and Lucy are always available to help – just a phone call or an email away. I couldn’t have completed my novel without them.

NIK WILLIAMS (writer for Index on Censorship):  Never erosive nor evasive, their editorial help offered constructive directions out of a manuscript tangled up by syntactical choices, pockmarked by plot holes and crowded by superfluous characters. I would recommend their services to any writer without hesitation.

KRISTEN LOWMAN:  You won’t find anyone better than Lucy and Todd.  I can say this; I’ve attended some fine workshops, but I have never received such detailed, precise, thoughtful notes; some dealing with the story’s subtlety, some addressing the technical, all of them honoring and enhancing the story.  They also have a unique way of making me reach higher, without fear – it comes from their generous natures as artists, as professional writers.  After working with them, I find myself enthused, excited to get back at the story.  They pass on their joy, igniting my own.  Thank you.

 

 

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