St. Augustine’s and Toes

I spent National Poetry Day (yesterday) at St. Augustine’s Priory School in Ealing, West London. I was at the school for a reading and Q&A with sixth form students, followed by a workshop with Year 9s. The students asked some interesting questions about constraint and the creative process.

In July I was asked to write a poem for an anthology celebrating forty years of creative writing at the University of East Anglia. I’d bumped into the Creative Writing Professor in Norwich and he’d asked if I’d have a go at writing in response to a Derek Mahon poem called ‘Head’. Mahon’s ‘Head’ would appear last in the anthology and my poem, should I choose to take up the challenge, should be titled ‘Toe’ and would appear first; a kind of top and tail, or tail and top. So, ‘Toe’… and it needed to be about inspiration/creation, either stubbing a toe or building a golem beginning with the toe. So, ‘Toe’… and I had little over two weeks to write it. Two weeks in which I was working in schools and away at Latitude. Not long. So, ‘Toe’…

A few days from the deadline I considered requesting an extension, but, as I said yesterday, deadlines are good, as are constraints on subject; they squeeze and steer the writing. I still don’t know how I feel about my ‘Toe’. It’s kind of mine and not mine, but it is there.

Thank you to the students and teachers at St. Augustine’s for an excellent National Poetry Day. Here’s ‘Toe’.



It makes sense to start with the toe and work up.
I pull off my sock to check my own dumb digit,
get a sense of proportion, follow tendons and joints
to the nub that’s furthest from my head and mouth.
It’s best not to think too much, just get something down:
a big toe from which to build the foot, the shin, the head.
I warm a pound or so of clay between my clammy hands
and roll out the capital letter of his body’s first line.

When he’s complete, I’ll prop a ladder against his chest
to scratch a title into the bluish slab of forehead,
then wait for him to move a toe or suck up breath.
Tonight I’ll lead him, broad-backed, into your city,
leave him to sleep in oily lock-ups and walk the streets
with nothing but this poem rolled beneath his tongue.

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