This changes things – Claire Askew

Claire Askew’s stunning debut poetry collection is written in two parts with the poem ‘Dukkha’ preceding.

Recently I was lucky enough to be able to chat to Claire about her poetry. She told me that the first section is, ‘confessional and autobiographical’, whereas the second section is ‘about a more general sense of travel, movement, and finding a place or space to be.’

My favourite poem in the collection is ‘Seefew Steading’, which Claire very kindly allowed us to reprint below.


Seefew steading


Precarious longhouse:

dislodged, shushing the night

with the dead leaves of sixty winters.


Back field lime-pit:

grave of shot dogs, spina bifida lambs,

victims of snap-leg and foot-rot; ghosts.


One-way half-mile phonebox:

clicking its tongue like a gramophone

unspooled, an old shrew.


Cow in the dark:

foghorn, moose-call, harpy, heavy

old banshee.


Then nothing.

And nothing.


And the river.


When asked about the genesis of this poem, Claire said: ‘Seefew is a real place, and one that’s held a place in my imagination for a long time.  As a teenager, I lived in the Bowmont Valley in the Scottish Borders, and for three springs, I worked as a part-time day-lamber at a sheep farm a few miles up into the Cheviots.  This farm had quite extensive hill pastures, and occasionally I’d get to drive my quadbike up into them to check on the sheep.  One of the pastures was at a place called Seefew: a deep basin completely surrounded by hills, hence the name.  It was a really lonely, sunless place – but in the middle of the basin was a ruined farmhouse.  There was no road up there, and there never had been – yet once, Seefew had been a place someone lived.’

Another of my favourite poems is ‘Anne Askew’s ashes.’ For those who don’t know, Anne Askew was a 16th century poet and protestant scholar who was burned at the stake in 1546 for heresy, and is a likely relative of Claire’s. She will feature in Claire’s second collection, tentatively titled, How to Burn a Woman. Here’s the first stanza:


All day, the stove has sulked and spat, sucking hard

 on knucklebones of coal. I shed my coat and kneel to sift the ash

between the grate’s iron teeth – restack the fire-bricks,

sweep and scrape – to reinflate this blackened lung.


When asked about this poem, Claire recounted how she’d been trying to write about the importance of being able to build a fire for a long time. This was a skill which her grandmother, who looms large in the collection, took very seriously. As Claire was writing, Anne Askew, ‘slipped in there and the poem – as poems like to do – became about something else.’  Of Anne Askew herself, Claire said, ‘With a story like hers, there’s no way I couldn’t write about her, really.’

Claire Askew taken by Sally Jubb photography


This changes things is a very approachable collection, full of humanity and a joy to read.

This changes things is published by Bloodaxe Books (25 Feb 2016). It is available in paperback and as an ebook from the publisher’s website: as well as Amazon. It is also available from Blackwell’s and Waterstones.

(Image courtesy of Sally Jubb photograpy)


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