Lifesaving Poems: Ann Sansom’s ‘Instructor’

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Ann Sansom is one of my all-time favourite people, poets or normal, ever. I count myself fortunate to have worked with her on a number of occasions, not least because she is a fantastic professional who models patience, dialogue and enquiry in everything she says and does. If you have not encountered her teaching, I encourage you to move mountains to get to one of her workshops. Now.

I am still learning from the way she turns diverting anecdote into profound instructions for writing and for life: ‘The best time to write is when you are tired; your conscious mind is less interfering then.’ Or: ‘See if you can finish a draft of a poem in the time it takes to run a bath.’ I see these remarks as more of a life-raft than a touchstone. I have lost count of the times they have kept me afloat in dark times.

Sometimes in a workshop, just as you are starting to write, Ann will say:  ‘It is not a competition’; ‘No one is reading this’; or: ‘You can’t do it wrong.’ People often ask her if it is OK to ignore the constraints of the exercise she has just set up. ‘Of course it is. Rules are there to be broken. But it will give you a different poem.’

One day she turned up to a workshop with a slim volume of her poems in her hand. ‘This is for you,’ she said without ceremony, and began teaching. The book was a pamphlet called Vehicle (Slow Dancer, 1999). It grieves me more than I can say that it is out of print. I loved it instantly, sneaking quick readings of poems between exercises. It contains descriptions of things that are fantastically hard to do well: cats, dogs, unemployment, train stations. It has the most beautiful poem about and for one of my other heroes, Michael Laskey. All of it feels natural and utterly controlled.

For some reason, though, ‘Instructor’ is the poem from Vehicle that really got to me. It is a microcosm of everything Ann does so well, in poem after poem, here and in all her books: beginning in medias res, no flag waving or signposting from behind the poem, just jump straight in. There is trust in the reader. You see it in her use of proper nouns (Milnsbridge, Cowlersley), the one line of dialogue (‘Wave back. Don’t smile.’) which gives a whole life, the eye for the killer detail (‘reaching past me for his medicine’).

I wish, I wish, I wish Ann Sansom published more.

Instructor

This is the best bit; the steep glide into Milnsbridge,

the tight swing under the arch before the home straight,

when I’m behind the wheel, in the last minutes of my hour

and he’s there, foot well clear of the brake, mumbling

into his mobile or reaching past me for his medicine.

 

Twenty-odd years in the Force, he knows about sensors

and patrols, so we sail through the ambers and reds

up to the Cowlersley crossroads. Outside the pub

two constables pause and turn on the pavement to salute us.

A stickler for politeness, he says, ‘Wave back. Don’t smile.’

 

I file it under pertinent advice:

never trust another bloke’s indicators,

all dogs are unpredictable and ruthless,

know what the real speed limits are,

three ways to recognise an unmarked car.

 

Ann Sansom, from Vehicle (Slow Dancer, 1999)

Lifesaving Poems

 

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