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Not Just a Game: Sporting Poetry

19 March 07 words: James Walker
"For much of the twentieth-century, poetry and sport have inhabited different worlds. We wanted to produce a book to put them back in the same team"

Andy Croft has published seven books of poetry, (Nowhere Special, Gaps Between Hills - with Mark Robinson, Headland, Just as Blue, Great North, On Your Marks and Comrade Laughter) as well as numerous books. Nottingham based Sue Dymoke has been reading and writing poetry since she was at primary school and has a number of published pamphlet collections as well as a full length collection The New Girls published by Shoestring Press. In her work, as an education lecturer at Leicester University, she also researches the teaching of poetry in schools. James Walker, armed with his best tungsten darts and pig bladder, caught up with them both to discuss the recent publication of their innovative sporting poetry collection.

When did you get the idea for producing the anthology and why?
Sue: Andy had been amassing a collection of poems about cricket, football and other sports with a view to publishing an anthology while I had collected sports poems on a range of topics, many of which I had used with my own students. Ross Bradshaw (our publisher) put us in touch.
Andy: I was poet-in-residence on the Great North Run a few years ago. This involved - among other things - working in lots of the primary schools that line the route of the run, and writing a 1,000 line epic about the run. It was a hugely enjoyable project. But I was struck by the way that it was featured enthusiastically in running magazines and by the sports media in general - but completely ignored by the poetry world.

Why do you think this is?
Andy: For much of the twentieth-century, poetry and sport in this country seemed to inhabit wholly different worlds. The idea of poetry as an act of cool intellectual reflection, and as a private and personal statement of individual sensibility, was clearly at odds with the shared, public and physical passions of sport. Poetry about sport was left to the touch-line hyperbole of commentators and the studio and back-page cliché of ‘poetry in motion’. In recent years, however, there has been a resurgence of sports-poetry. One website dedicated to poems about football currently hosts over 7,000 poems. We wanted to produce a book which would help put poetry and sport back into the same team.

As sport is a particularly broad category for an anthology, what was your remit?
Sue: Most importantly, the poems had to be poems we liked and felt that other people would enjoy reading. We wanted to cover as wide a variety as possible (both in terms of different sports to be covered and different writers). We wanted the book to focus on 20^th /21^st century writers who were either from or based in the UK. The result of all this
is that we have included poems on skittleball, hang gliding, darts, synchronized swimming and playing marbles as well as more conventional sports. I think we were both influenced by poems we had read previously. For example I enjoy reading Ian McMillan’s work based on his job as poet residence at Barnsley Football Club and also liked using other poems with my students such as ‘Ping-Pong’ by Gareth Owen and ‘Unfair’ by Michael Rosen.
Andy: We also wanted to represent an age which has produced athletes like Denise Lewis, Kelly Holmes and Paula Radcliffe, in which female golfers make the cut, British-Asian boxers and Scottish curlers capture the public imagination and cricket players of both sexes can share in the joy of their Ashes victories. And we wanted to represent as wide a range of sports as possible. Above all, we wanted to avoid filling the book with poems about watching sport on TV…

I notice that there are at least six local writers featured. Is this a coincidence or were you hoping to get a local feel?
Sue: Because I live in Nottingham and our publisher (Five Leaves) is based in Nottingham we were already familiar with some sports poems by local poets’ work and wanted to include them - Adrian Buckner, Jeremy Duffield, David Duncombe, Cathy Grindrod, Rosie Gardner and John Lucas. However the scope of the book stretches far beyond the East Midlands and features poems from all over the UK.
Andy: I live in Middlesbrough, so I suppose there may be a greater representation of poets from both the East Midlands and the North East than you would usually expect to find in this kind of book, but this is not by design. Good poems happen anywhere, everywhere.

And increasingly in Nottingham…
Andy: Yes, I am currently putting together an anthology of poems to mark the seventieth birthday next year of the Nottingham poet and critic John Lucas.

Do you have any favourite poems in the anthology?
Andy: My favourites are Ian Macmillan's Barnsley poem, all the Betjemans, the Sassoon, the Arlott and the Wodehouse (try reading it aloud). Bill Scammell's tennis poems too.
Sue: I like all the poems so it’s difficult to have favourites! Neil Rollinson’s ‘The Penalty’ evokes the awful tension of the moment in an England v. Germany game (and is brilliant to read aloud). Wendy Cope’s ‘The Cricketing Versions’ amusingly explores the lack of references to cricket in English Literature. Linda France recreates the strange world
of Polo where well-bred horses and people seem to surreally combine and John Lucas’s tribute to Brian Clough (‘What Holds Them’) captures so economically what it was about Cloughie that endeared him to people locally:

… of thousands packing the Market Square
to mourn this day, half have no love of the game
he loved, but loved him, that cross-grained, rare
man whose sending off’s brought them to fill
this place for one last time and holds them still.
(from: What Holds Them by John Lucas)

And poetry in general?
Sue: I enjoy poetry by a wide range of poets, both the living (such as Jackie Kay, Edwin Morgan, Kathleen Jamie, Moniza Alvi, Carol Ann Duffy, Ian McMillan) and the dead (including Thomas Hardy, John Clare, Christina Rossetti, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Marin Sorescu and Miroslav Holub). I suppose what links these very different writers is their
ability to create distinctive voices and shapes on the page which resonate with me or make me look at situations in a new light.

How did you get along as dual editors?
Sue: I think we worked really well together, especially when you consider that we did not know each other beforehand. We have different tastes in poetry but this made for lively discussion and a good mix of poems. Andy lives in Middlesbrough so most of our work was done via e-mail and post. We did meet up at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park a couple
of times for day-long editorial meetings in their excellent café. We experimented with different formats but decided fairly quickly to group the poems by sport. The great design of the book (with the sporting graphics drawn by Brick) gives the anthology a clear structure.
Andy: I don’t think that Sue and I had any disagreements about the book - despite her being a Chelsea supporter. It was Sue who kept the door open for some of the less popular sports and some of the less well-known poets in the book. Without Sue it would have been a bit of a dull book, I am afraid. 

I hear you’ve dual edited before?
Andy: Yes with Adrian Mitchell on Red Sky at Night and with Cynthia Fuller on North by North East.

Why did you choose Five Leaves to publish the anthology?
Sue: Five Leaves has an excellent reputation for attractive, well-produced books on often unusual topics. Andy had worked with Five Leaves before very successfully so it was a natural choice.
Andy: A couple of years ago Five Leaves published the anthology of socialist poetry I edited with Adrian Mitchell. They are also publishing
Speaking English, the collection for John Lucas. Five Leaves publishes
good books, and Ross Bradshaw is a good man to work with.

Vital Statistics
Not Just a Game: Sporting Poetry
Edited by Andy Croft and Sue Dymoke
Foreword by Ian McMillan
Five Leaves

Published in 2006
ISBN 1 905512 13 9
225 pp and 130 poems

Five Leaves website
James Walker's website

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