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Opera North - The Little Greats

Poet and Smallholder Di Slaney Talks Writing About Chickens

5 January 17 words: Aly Stoneman

After appearing on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, rescuing a whole bunch of farmyard animals, running her own small farm and publishing her first poetry collection, Di Slaney must be about ready for some down time over the festive period...

illustration: Ian Carrington

What's the inspiration behind your first collection, Reward for Winter?
My lifestyle change back in 2011, when we bought the field next to our farmhouse in Bilsthorpe (Nottinghamshire) and restored the land back to the farm, complete with assorted rescued and rehomed livestock. I didn’t have any farming knowledge or experience, so it was a significant shift and a huge learning curve. It wasn’t hard to find things to write about. I think the starting point was writing the chicken sonnet sequence – there are so many fascinating facts about hens, it almost wrote itself – and from there, more poems about the animals, land and local folklore.

Do the chicken poems also relate to the creative process?
It was thinking about the complex social world of poultry, and how many similarities it had to the poetry community that I was just entering as a newly fledged writer, which kick-started that sequence. The chicken-as-poet/poet-as-chicken voice can be heard throughout if you choose to read the poems on that level. Quota is very much about the idea that for a writer, creativity might be a finite entity, and if so, how we cope – or don’t cope – with that.   

Does being a poet influence your approach to running a smallholding?
No. My belief in the importance of animal welfare and preservation of the land stems from another place, I think – but the reverse is definitely true. Being a smallholder has absolutely shaped my development as a poet, and sharpened my senses to being alert for material in the smallest happening, or visual observation.

The majority of your animals are rehomed and rescued, with many having suffered severe abuse or neglect…
Working to bring them back to health and effecting positive behavioural changes is challenging but extremely rewarding. Rehomer’s prayer is a dedication really, to all the animals in our care and to other people who take on the waifs and strays. Each description within it relates to one of our animals here – one-legged, eartorn, head-and-hand shy etc. For me, it’s a very personal litany evoking their characters and how far we’ve come with them all. Creation is about the start of that endeavour, looking to be involved in something beyond myself, to add value and repay something to the land where we’re privileged to live.   

My favourite fact from your book was that the colour of a hen's ear determines the colour of the eggs she lays.
All hen eggs start out the same colour inside the hen, but in travelling down the oviduct to be laid, they’re ‘spray finished’ in their final colour, almost like a car in a finishing plant. If you scratch gently at the surface of a darker or green coloured egg, you’ll see the same pale ivory colour underneath. Nature is wonderful.

Did you enjoy being on Woman's Hour back in April 2016?
Yes. Poor Jenni Murray had a bad coughing bout and  as it was a live recording I wasn’t sure if the audience could hear that or not, so I just carried on talking to fill the space. Fortunately it seemed to turn out OK. Definitely one of my highlights of 2016.

You also own the wonderful Candlestick Press. Any new titles coming out?
We have three new titles for Christmas 2016, including our eighth in the Twelve Poems of Christmas series, edited by Carol Ann Duffy, and a lovely prose pamphlet The Wood in Winter by John Lewis-Stempel. You won’t be surprised that this is a piece of nature writing, given my own reading and lifestyle preferences.

What's next?
The early part of 2017 is going to be busy. I post details of forthcoming readings on my website and also on social media, if anyone wants to come along. I’m working on a new sequence of poems, so hopefully my personal writing quota isn’t done. I’d like to think there might be a few more poem-eggs in me yet.

Creation

In the beginning there was a farm house without a field, and a woman and a man without children. The man was content but the woman wanted. The old farm house knew, it had always known what the people who lived in it wanted, although most wouldn't listen. This woman listened. She heard the house breathe her thirst through its beams, wear her desire into its scuffed flags. She smelled its loss when wind spat ancient soot down the chimney, saw how every spring wildgreen crept a little closer to the back door. So the farm house and the woman made a pact, a promise without words. They sealed the bargain with palmpress to wood, flesh on oak. She proved her faith first, reclaimed the land though it wept scars of rubbish when it rained. The woman marked the field with scent and sticks, walked it over and over till she knew the pits and folds like her own body in the dark. The farm house waited, humming on a frequency only she could hear. That first winter, with planting done and everything suspended, she doubted the bargain. The cold seemed to freeze out good intentions, make every possible thing one step closer to impossible. But the house still thrummed its constant yes, and when spring returned, and new trees perked first buds east to face the pale sun rising, hope fluttered like greedy sparrows on the feeder.

Reward For Winter, Di Slaney, valleypressuk.com, £8.99

Di Slaney website

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