Discovering ourselves in soil and sky on National Poetry Day

It’s National Poetry Day and the theme this year is The Environment. To celebrate, we asked poet Claire Booker about her relationship with the natural world, and the way she represents it in her new collection, A Pocketful of Chalk:

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in awe of the natural world: its endlessly creative
hutzpah; the refreshing disinterest it has in our little human concerns.

A Pocketful of Chalk came together from what I could see was a build-up of poems
connected to natural phenomena. By nature I also include the dream world, which arises
from our inner natures. Dreams are forces inside us which we ignore at our peril, just
like the forces outside us.

Five years ago I moved to the village of Rottingdean just outside Brighton in East
Sussex. I’d spent three decades living and working in south London, which is
particularly blessed with woodland and open spaces. Urban nature is a force for change,
because it offers millions of people a relationship with the wild which they wouldn’t
otherwise have. By virtue of its fragile hold within the city, urban nature is also a potent
symbol of what we’re losing.


Moving to a rural, farming area, placed me right in the middle of wildness (it can get
pretty wooly up there on the Downs if a storm’s coming!). But even this wildness is
under threat. During this year’s drought, the wheat fields were scorched, newly planted
woodland saplings dropped their leaves, there were tiny, misshapen black berries. Then
the rains came in biblical proportions, and top soil was lost.

As humans, we’re in a unique position. We’re part of nature, but also the enemy outside
its gates.

So what, as a poet, can I do about this? Very little, in reality, but even that little is worth
going for. Poetry can take you to the heart-beat of emotion. It can remind people of
what they’ve lost, or fear losing, or want to fight for. Above all, poetry offers quiet
contemplation, an enrichment of understanding – questions that could do with answers,
answers that need questioning.

The environment is us, it’s our relationship with each other, made manifest. We live in a
rushed, frenetic, some might say, frantic world. Poetry can help us draw breath, stop,
consider, appreciate. I find that by simply walking along the sea front, or up on the
Downs, the world starts to unravel a little. I get to see the same places over and over
again. But of course, they’ve never the same place more than once. And when I feel a
poem start to pupate, I pick up my pen. Learning about the planet, is learning about
myself.

So in A Pocketful of Chalk, there are poems about evening shadows on the Downs, and
how we can be stretched by light. There’s a poem about drought and how the loss of
plants is like losing children. There’s a young child who is impatient with her little
radish patch, but then flings herself onto the soil to listen to the seedlings grow. There
are poems that are fantastical, apocalyptic, about a drowned world, and others that look
at rain as a flow of emotions. Some of the poems are persona poems where I imagine
what it’s like to be a wild creature. I find it fascinating to try and enter a world without human parameters. After all, the best poetry leaves ego behind, and that’s always worth
striving for.

At times, in the face of the night sky, or mesmerised by a murmuration of starlings,
even the idea of writing can seems absurd. The very first poem in the collection,
ironically, is about just that. When you’ve seen the “the impossible exactness” of a
Marbled White butterfly, words can seem a pointless add-on. As Ted Hughes wrote in
Poetry in the Making: “It is not enough to say the crow flies purposefully, or heavily, or
rowingly, or whatever. There are no words to capture the infinite depth of crowiness in
the crow’s flight.”

So that’s the challenge. To be part of nature, yet at the same time its observer and
protector. Poems live as much between the lines as in them – surely an ideal medium for
expressing such a paradox?

Not crows, but herons… watch Claire Booker reading Grey Heron at the launch of A Pocketful of Chalk:


#NationalPoetryDay is the annual mass celebration on the first Thursday of October that encourages everyone to make, experience and share poetry with family and friends. www.nationalpoetryday.co.uk

Exclusive first chapter extract of In the Blood

As the end of summer approaches we’re looking forward to the autumn publication of In the Blood – an unforgettable twentieth century family saga that explores the impact of historical events on the lives of three generations – a mother, a daughter and a grandmother.


In the Blood
 is set in 1980s London, Prague and Munich, against the backdrop of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, and the novel opens on this day, 21st August, 1988; twenty years after the Warsaw Pact invasion of then Czechoslovakia.

Exactly to this day, twenty years ago Russian tanks rolled under our Prague balcony, Mama reminded Agata only this morning. Imagine! Military invasion in central Europe! ‘Now we’ll never see our daughter again, she’ll stay in England,’ your father said – no, he sobbed. Soft. That’s what Pavel was, but here – here they are not interested in what happened to us in 1968, here the radio is interested in some actress from some Corporation Street and her stupid breasts!

Author Anna Fodorova opens the book on this day to emphasise the intertwining nature of personal and political histories:

“In the Blood begins on the 21st August 1988, twenty years after the Russian tanks rolled into Prague, the brutal invasion that shocked the world and altered the fate of my main character, Agata.

When I wrote the story, I couldn’t know that history would repeat itself this year with another catastrophic Russian invasion – I was interested in how the past shapes our private lives.

Agata’s story culminates a year later with the fall of the Berlin Wall, another world-changing event which is paralleled by Agata’s crumbling relationship with her family, particularly her mother, who has built her life from half-truths and secrets.” 

Read the first chapter of In the Blood now.

Pre-order your copy of In the Blood.

International Women’s Day Submission Call

Thinking about International Women’s Day, sometimes you wonder how any of us manage to live to grow up, the world can be so hard on women; and sometimes you want to celebrate everything we can be. Being of a cheerful disposition, we’ve gone for celebration.

We thought today was an excellent time to launch our submission call for an anthology of women’s writing. We are giving you a spectacularly long run in on this one, because we want it to be truly amazing, and because we are planning some writing workshops which will be run by editors Cherry Potts and Catherine Pestano (as soon as the funding is in place, we’ll let you know!). These will definitely be available online, for maximum reach, and may also be in person, depending on where we can find suitable writer-friendly venues and what the position is with Covid.

Our October 2023 Anthology is aimed firmly at older women, lesbians and women from the global majority. Our theme is menopause, and the book will be published on Menopuase day 2023 (October the 1st), we want your stories, flash and poems that go waaay beyond the empty nest and feelings of sexual redundancy. Tell us something we don’t know, go wild and magnificent…tell us about surgically induced menopause, unexpected benefits, the freedom of not bleeding… whatever genre you want (within our guidelines), but surprise us.

Submissions via Submittable ONLY

If you need a steer, Helen Morris’ magnificent The Change in Departures is our favourite Menopause story (so far!)

Helen Morris reads from The Change