Episode 3: Gill Learner

This is the third in our Oxford Poets podcast series, which features interviews and discussions with local writers. The next episode, in which Niall Munro interviews Oxford-based poet Alan Buckley, will appear in late October.

The theme music for the podcast, entitled Leaving for the North, was composed by Aneurin Rees, and played by Aneurin Rees (guitar) and Rosalie Tribe (violin). 

Gill Learner was born and grew up in Shirley, just outside Birmingham, but has lived in Reading for over four decades. She retired from teaching Printing Studies in a local college knowing that she wanted to return to an early love, writing, but didn't 'discover' poetry until 2001. Since then she has been published widely and won several awards, including the Poetry Society's Hamish Canham Prize in 2008, the 2011 Buxton Poetry Prize, and the 2012 English Association Fellows' Poetry Prize.

The Agister's Experiment, which was published by Two Rivers Press in 2011, is her first collection and has recently been reprinted. The Poetry Book Society review said: '[it] displays a confidence usually seen in a much more experienced poet, though Learner herself has been widely feted, having been published in Poetry News, Acumen, Envoi, Orbis, Smiths Knoll and Tears in the Fence among many others. The poems here fizz and crackle while exploring the vast range of humanity – they are by turns funny, chilling and angry, but are all diverse in form and content. A strong sense of loss pervades these poems, too, and this nostalgia for times past, reflected in poems about motherhood and legends retold, leave a lasting impression on the reader in this excellent debut.' 

The power of ice came second in the Keats–Shelley poetry competition 2010, and was subsequently published in The Keats–Shelley Review (see Gill Learner, The Power of Ice, The Keats-Shelley Review, Vol. 25, No. 1 (April 2011), 30). Because of the 'high profile' of the winner, Simon Armitage, the competition received a lot of publicity that year.

The Power of Ice

Once all I knew was toe-broken puddles,
no-go ponds, snowy pavements beaten
to grey glass that begged for a run-up
and a sideways glide. My first ice lollypop
was snapped from the gutter of the porch,
promising coolness but tasting of old books.
On walks, the stream was crisped along
each bank and once we found a crow hooked
on barbed wire, a garnet drip frozen to its beak.

Measled in bed, I missed the post-war weeks
when drifts topped fences by the cinder path.
Later, the ice-house in the woods – strictly
out of bounds. Down steps in musty dark,
we shone our bike-lights onto cigarette ends,
shattered Ansell’s bottles and those things
we High School girls were not supposed
to know about. In winter ’63, when
washing lines held only swags of snow,
I had to jounce the baby in his pram over
solid ruts up the hill to the shops then brake
our descent by clinging to garden walls.

More recently I learned to steer into a skid
and now I know how water boiled of gas,
frozen, shaved and shaped to a convex disc,
will angle sunlight onto a twist of hay to make it
smoke then flare; that ice can conjure fire.

by Gill Learner