I mention poet/publisher/teacher Helena Nelson on here fairly regularly. We're not pals or anything (more irregular correspondents) but I have known about her work ever since I moved to Scotland in 2002. I first came across her, I think, when she was chairing an event at the StAnza poetry festival but since then I have sent her poems, had them rejected, sent her more poems, had the odd one sneak into an anthology, asked her advice, only taken bits of it, put her in my list of '25 writers who have influenced me' (here) and then last year booked her for one of my Brilliant Poetry events (where she was one of the best guests ever – reviewed here by me and here by her... that sounds a bit Two Ronnies, doesn't it..?). I guess all of that kind of makes me a fan... and I suppose I am really... of her work and her determination and vigour. She is a very good poet and a very good person and if we are all a stereotype (and I think we often are at some level) then Nelson is the hardworking woman who doesn't (yet) have quite the reputation to match her work. Luckily she is such a diamond that this kind of thing doesn't really bother her – she is far more interested in other people's work and poetry with a big 'p' (as it were) than just her own role in it, I'm pretty sure. And plenty of people say that... but how many really mean it...
Maybe Nelson's not-exactly-high-profile is partly to do with the fact that, whilst some poets are larger than life, Nelson is almost the opposite - a wee wifey in Fife, getting on with business, not shouting 'look at me, look at me, look how loud and right I be!'. Then you look at her life and work and you see where the size comes in – her workload is huge! She puts out other poets work with her madly busy Happenstance pamphlet operation, she has various poetry books of her own with various different publishers and, as far as I know, she has a full-time, hard-work teaching job. Heck, she makes me feel very lazy...
But the reason I am talking about her today is that Nelson put out a new book of poems at the very end of last year with Shoestring Press. It's called 'Plot and Counter-Plot' and it looks like this:
Design by Nathanael Burgess from a painting by Gillian Beaton
I'm not a book reviewer at the best of times (and I have no desire to be one either – did you read the last post..?) so I'm not going to review 'Plot and Counter-Plot' in the conventional sense (and by the way Nelson reviews well too of course - read her here about Irish poet Tom Duddy's new collection, a lovely job). Rather than get into that territory, I offer you instead a list of observations:
1. It took me ages to decide which poem from 'Plot...' I'd like to post here – most of all because they all have something special and they are all pretty different. I'd say that's a plus for the book for sure – variety is not to be sneezed at (especially variety like this).
2. A lot of what Nelson writes about Duddy's book (see link above) could be said of her new one just as truthfully. I'm not going to quote that review because we'd be here all day but it is worth a read so click away, click away.
3. I'm not sure that the title of 'Plot...' will attract readers in the way that some titles can... but I am sure Nelson knows what she is doing. There is a lot more to poetry than catchy titles after all (even in this day and age).
4. There is a lot of rain in this book... and rain can mean sadness... and yes, it does feel a sad book in some ways... a getting-older book, a time-ever-so-slightly-running-out book. But all that makes me like it of course (I love Philip Larkin, let's not forget, and he's hardly the prince of positivity). And it is not sad-moan anyway - it is sad-wow-look-at-the-beauty-of-that-sadness.
5. The word 'song' appears in this book quite a few times too. This makes me very happy and even dare to wonder if maybe (just maybe!) I've had a tiny influence on Nelson too. Though of course those songs could have many other sources (music for a start... oh and you know...Rabbie Burns... a few other folk...).
6. At £9 it's quite expensive for a slim paperback... but it has gentle wisdom inside and 50 or so pages of gentle wisdom for £9 – that doesn't sound like quite such a bad deal, does it? Also it is £6.75 to HappenStance subscribers via the HS shop.
7. 'Plot...' is a clever book – and not look-at-me-aren't-I-clever clever... just simply clever (and cleverly simple). Anyone could read it (from the lowest brow to the highest ponytail) as it's aimed neither at the elite nor the dumbled down dregs. It's just words - good words, well-chosen.
And now the poem I picked. I ummed and ahed and ahed and ummed... and then I went for this one – a good, old-fashioned love poem. I picked it because although Nelson and I don't have much in common (in fact we are almost complete opposites in some ways...) I think one place where we do meet is that we both value real, good quality, well-executed love and we would probably fight to the death to protect it (and that love can be for a significant other, for a mother, for a child... these are all important loves). Again the title here is almost too small for the poem (for me – but then I like big power-titles... I could almost write a book that was nothing but titles...) but I trust Helena Nelson like a fish trusts... well, not a bicycle. Whatever she went with, she had her reasons.
Love is like riding a bicycle of light
spinning on two great wheels of moon and sun,
clean rain in your hair, and the air
kissing your face and tugging your clothes,
balance as sharp as a rush of stars.
You would ride forever
but it is only a simile.
Love is not a bicycle. Love
waits in a country lane.
Love will unseat you.
By Helena Nelson
from 'Plot and Counter-Plot' (Shoestring Press 2010 £9.00)
You can buy it here.
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