Saturday, 27 February 2016

Enchanting Truth

In the past two months I've written an article and a seminar paper on creative historiography and the process of crafting fact and fiction in my poetry. For me, both of these pieces hinge on one topic, mermaids. While working as a library assistant (the first time around) in 2002 I came across an old & falling apart copy of Sea Enchantress, a fascinating book that charts the evolution of mermaid myths across continents and centuries. With an idea for a poetry sequence already in mind, this book eventually provided the needed push to start putting my mermaid poems onto paper.

Fourteen years and many poems later, I still flick through my copy of Sea Enchantress with wonderment. No matter which page I turn to, information leaps up and my mind starts to make links between historical documented sightings of mermaids and the more recent fictional sightings. This 2013 'mockumentary', although impressive, would be much more convincing without the two men filming it being so fake in their astonishment!

The article, for a creative journal, and the paper required me to reach back into my notes and memory from the early beginnings of the sequence of poems, and I was pleased to find that the material for the writing felt as rich as when I first began. Now researching in and living near London, the mermaid sequence has formed part of my PhD in poetry, and along the way it has taken me to far-off reaches such as the isles of Iona, Kerrera, and Mull in the inner Hebrides as well as the isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, trips that provided endless inspiration already fuelled by an obsession with mermaids in my childhood (albeit those of Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida).

It is comforting to find this tangible through-line to my past and I am amazed to sense that the magic surrounding the possibility of mermaids (however remote) still has the power to hold my writing attention. The act of writing the article, on the process of keeping creative notebooks for long poetry projects, renewed the value I place on my current creative journals. Likewise, the seminar paper has helped me to structure the method I take in researching other poetry sequences that seek to reconstruct events from the past, both factual and those based more loosely on fiction.    


Friday, 5 February 2016

Triangulating poetry submissions: the small batch

Lately I have been submitting to poetry competitions, publications or projects that require the poet to send 'a small batch of work'. Sometimes they ask for 3 poems, sometimes it is 6-10 pages, but whatever the low digit number, the process of compiling the 'small batch' has been an intriguing one.

Firstly, this type of instruction requires one to consider selection and range: how can you possibly best represent the range of styles and forms that you use when writing? This is quite a tricky question and I usually approach it by tailoring each submission to best suit the blurby bit where the details about what the publisher is looking for are necessarily broad and sometimes too vague. Recently I've twice had to email the editor for more information as the website did not provide enough clues.

The stage I am at currently means I have a huge bulk of poems to choose from, those already published in magazines (if already published work is allowed), those poems that are finished but keep not-quite finding a home, the new poems that might be little gems but are rough and quite language-loose compared to finished drafts, and finally, the poetry sequences.

Ah, the poetry sequence. Joy, manna, inspiration and air that I breathe, yet also thorn in my bum, trickster, too-long-for-the-usual-40-line-count mistress of my work.  Apart from those very few publishers who specifically ask for sequences, most don't welcome poems of long length. Poetry sequences often elude the page count specification for these deadlines. They also don't fit easily into the 'send X number of poems' suggestion either.

What happens when a sequence is longer than the 4 page limit (or 6 page or 10)? In the past I have had to choose a selection from the sequence, often the opening or middle poems, to attempt to represent the whole. This sits uneasily with me as the very form of the sequence requires a different type of structure. To select a section is akin to say, choosing a stanza from an individual poem to represent the whole.  Possible, but not the best method I think.

If one is asked to submit by poem number rather than page, I always feel odd sending one long poem with two short ones. Perhaps I have that sometimes female tendency to think I'm over-filling my allotted space so I feel I should still keep the submission relatively short. If 3 poems are requested, chances are, most editors expect roughly 3-5 pages per poet, not two individual poems and then one, 13-page beauty.

Of course there are exceptions to every case and I am happy to have found a number of submission opportunities for short sequences, over time. On the whole though, the small batch requirement means a triangulation of sorts, in the geometric sense: you zero-in on a point (in this case, the publishing of a poem) by finding its location. In order to do this you must approach the point through the only source you have (the poems you have that might be accepted).

The object isn't to approach the hoped-for outcome directly but rather to approach it slant, from the sides, from the periphery, like aiming out of the corner of your eye, half-glancing at the prize. And if the poems are good enough, they'll fly home true. Then the path will look like a direct one in hindsight: I just chose a few poems and sent them off. When really, you may already have quickly forgotten how you chose just the right ones to send, to try and represent your self / your work, the selection of that precious few pages of words and finely-crafted blank space.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

First frost and morning skies

It was my turn to do the early insulin injection for lovely Maya this morning, but it wasn't easy to pry her and the purring heap of Kali off of me to get out of bed. The house was cold, early cold. Early in the day type of cold and early winter cold. Last night it got below freezing for the first time and we joked before bed as to whether or not our rooftop would be the only one in sight that would be warm and steaming in the morning (due to our total lack of attic insulation at the moment).

But that was the last thing on my mind as I crept out of bed, quickly followed by the ladies of the house trotting along for a nugget or two of food before the jab. As I descended the stairs I saw the furrows the frost had made in the long seaweedy lawn and I heard an abundance of birds chittering and calling, as well as the neighbour's two parrots asking for their breakfast through the shared wall in the kitchen.

The sunlight fought overcast sky but some rays made it through and the grass was melting before I got my boots on. I left the cats to munch and walked out the back door and into the garden. I gave the birds an extra heap of seed, warmed their bird bath water with room-temp from the tap, then snuck back in to watch a hoard of blue tits take turns at the feeder. Then our pair of blackbirds came in together to pull out worms, our collared doves and pigeons for the seed on the ground, the robin first busy in the tree above.

Once the morning food and insulin was done, I rushed back up to the window in my study to watch the same birds fluttering up into the branches while they waited their turn for seeds and fat balls. Two goldfinches stared in at me, their slowness such a contrast to the blue tits. This morning, all I needed was to light a candle and settle myself in my armchair. The window held more action than most wildlife programs. As soon as Maya claimed my legs for a nap, I wished I had grabbed my notebook to write, but then thought, why not just watch? Why not just be here in the moment? So I was, as the sky went from bright back to dull gray, as the bird-hopping and bustle slowed down again, as the cold wind shook the few leaves left off the twigs, as the day grew into itself and time opened the day for me.

Remarkable Things

Long grass frozen in waves
Cats at head and foot motoring along in purr
Time I rarely have...slow catch up on reading

Friday, 25 September 2015

A few people have kindly notified me that the comment feature at the end of the posts is not working properly. If your comment has failed to appear, please be patient and try again later. I am attempting to sort out this problem.  Liz

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Poems, letters, blindfolded sculptors

photo thanks to Tamal @flickr

Some words from Denise Riley have inspired me today: 

Writing, you can feel like a blindfolded sculptor slapped around the head by damp lumps of clay which you must try to seize and throw back at the haphazardly forming art object before it stiffens itself into some shape you never quite intended. *

Although I find this comparison wildly crazy, accurate and exhausting in equal measures, it seemed the perfect springboard for writing today. I was also inspired by reading a blog piece on the Poetry School's Campus site by Miriam Nash titled 'The Poetry Postbox'.

Nash discusses her upcoming course of the same title inspired by years of letter writing, and as she clarifies, by this she means actual real pen-to-paper letters that get addressed, stamped and posted. I have also found this technique useful over the years, though I admit that I have more of a healthy stack of stationery, rarely the right stamp and quite a few typed up versions of letters that never made it to the post box than I do a routine for writing letters when I need to. Her discussion of this regularity in her own writing practice though did make me want to re-attempt my own. To return to those pen-pal days from my youth and thus, to receive letters as well as write them.  There is something immensely satisfying about receiving a hand-written envelope through the letter box and I am lucky that my mother and grandmother still regularly send me little musings, updates and photos this way. I owe each of them at least several hundred replies.

For those who may want to write and receive creative missives but don't have a buddy-system in place, you could try The Rumpus's 'Letters in The Mail', a wonderful subscription service where writers write letters and they get posted to those on the list. From what I've heard, most of the writers are also open to receiving replies. This too is something I have been meaning to sign myself up to for a long time and maybe now is the optimum moment to do so.

Riley's 'damp lumps of clay' or as I envision them, words, images, and rhythms that will go into the making of a new poem are what excite me in the every day task of sitting down (or sometimes standing up) and getting on with and into the writing. This summer I am really enjoying the hurling of my clay back into the face of who-knows-what to see what or how it will become. And in this becoming lies the process of writing, of engaging with sound and meaning. In the crafting of a trajectory and of an argument, my thesis is properly taking shape now, one word and sentence at a time. And all of it is new in the thinking-it-through for me, and the shape it takes is always a surprise.

quote from: The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony (Standford University Press, 2000) p. 67

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Serial writing / little-and-often

Since my previous post, I have been reading lots of articles and books about writing and today, as I prepared for the writing task at hand--to try and weave a 1,000 word close reading of a poem into my thesis chapter--I noticed a book on my shelf that I had not picked up for more than a year: How to write a thesis by Rowena Murray. This is a book I purchased (second hand, ex-library copy) in the first year of my PhD, way back in the pre-historic age.

For the first couple of years I regularly dipped in and engaged with the writing tasks and questions set by the author in the opening chapters: 'How to write 1,000 words an hour' and 'Thinking about writing a doctorate' and even 'Starting to write'.  So when I opened the book today to the bookmarked place where I'd left off, I was somewhat surprised to see that since my last reading, I have moved on several 'stages'. I now found that my current PhD stage fell into the chapter titled 'Becoming a serial writer'. This comes as a great relief!

Open University Press

Murray's advice is always spot on, not just with regards to writing a thesis, but to living life as a writer. Here is an excerpt from the section 'What is a serial writer?':

A serial writer is someone who sees writing as a series of tasks, who progresses from one writing task to the next and connects the writing sessions with each other, to create continuity [...] writers establish a pattern of writing, a cadence of production that suits their working environment and a social environment that sustains--or at least does not undermine--their writing. (p 150)

During the past two years especially, my focus has been to build up writing in this way. I tend to work in this rhythm with academic writing or else (as she also warns) I tend to forget where I am in my thinking and then it takes several full days for me to re-approach and catch up with my thoughts and my argument. Very frustrating! Serial writing has also worked well for me with poetry projects and book reviews. This little-and-often quality also feeds into parts of life that happen around and between writing times.  In her section on regular writing, p. 160, Murray approaches the concept of binge writing. As I commented in my last post, although I have found binge writing helpful at times, I always hit the crash that comes afterwards. Being a long-time, part-time student, it has taken me at least five years of PhD study to realise how tiring the binge approach can be and I found myself nodding to and underlining this section today while reading:

With bingeing comes hypomania, the near-mania of euphoria and rushing. With bingeing comes busyness--because each binged task is followed by the need to complete other, overdue tasks while emitting all the busy signs of not wanting to be disturbed. And with bingeing comes a failing to find the times for rest and renewal that could provide energy and ideas for writing. 

This well-worded and humbling quote comes from R. Boice, How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency: A Psychological Adventure (1994, p. 240).

Right now, I feel lucky to be in a place where the ideas are flowing faster than I can keep up: ideas for my next poetry sequence, connections finally made on my chapter trajectory, books I want to review and articles with which I want to engage, blog posts to write. Each time I meet fellow writers and discuss, listen to, give feedback or throw around ideas, I come home head-abuzz with even more ideas.  But for now, I am trying to just keep on keeping on with the writing, though I guess I should make a list of the ideas so they don't just pass by.

Friday, 17 July 2015

To write or not to write? (there is no question)

Two streams of thought have come together for this post: the first, a conversation I had with fellow writers at my writing group yesterday and second, an article I read this morning in issue 65 of Mslexia titled, 'Get the Habit' by Bec Evans.

Having been a writer in some form or another since the age of nine, and a serious writer for the past twenty years, I am overly familiar with the ways we writers writhe and knuckle, struggle and knot ourselves up about whether or not we are writing or not writing: about how much time we spend writing and when and where.  Although I feel that there can be benefit in not writing, and by this I mean the occasional gestational period where ideas and themes are growing and forming, I believe that to be a writer, you must write! You must prioritise writing in your life and get down to the business of word craft.

Evans' article was a great refresher in the various ways one can begin or re-establish a writing habit and it got me thinking about my own. At the group yesterday, I brought a new draft of a piece as well as a discussion topic: procrastination (or in other words, all the things I do to sabotage my own writing practice). This is an issue I've been staring in the face particularly since March when I returned from my writing retreat in Wales. It was curious to see the heading, 'Beware of bingeing' also in the Mslexia article and I immediately identified this as a counter productive approach that I use: writewritewrite for a solid week and then collapse.  The collapse, unfortunately, takes longer for me to recover from than the time I've made up by binge writing.  Though I know that long writing spurts do work for some people, I think I need more of a balance for everyday writing.

There is one technique I have started to use in the past few months and I am finding it really helpful in undermining my procrastination demons: when I encounter the side of myself I recognise as toddler throwing a strop, I ease off and change direction. In practical terms this plays out as follows:

Let's say I have a chunk of time I've ritually set aside for writing. For me this means I have also identified WHAT I want to write / get on with in this time (such is the life of a PhD poet). When the time approaches to sit down and DO the writing, the toddler starts throwing lots of toys around and the toddler wants to only do other things, LOTS of things to keep her busy including but not limited to--

laundry, weeding the garden, unloading the dishwasher (funny how the adult me hates doing it...), food shopping (ditto previous task), endless Pinterest surfing, weather checking for various interesting locations around the world, reading the teeny tiny local news articles for foreign countries, reading trashy fiction--

So when the toddler begins the strop, instead of giving in to it or getting cross at myself or really really struggling to just get on with the set task, LATELY I've tried taking a deep breath and asking myself, Well, if you don't want to write this, then what do you want to write?  A choice. Toddlers love choices and feel more in control if they have some (even if they are really false ones).  And my brain goes, AHHHH, oooh, I get to do something else!  And I happily choose an alternative writing task (ergh, today's blog post *may* be one of these activities) but this means I'm still writing...writing...writing... and as I write I relax and I begin to see how the other task, the one set for now, isn't so bad at's simple's just like's just more writing and I love writing!

Voila!  It's been working for me and maybe it can work for you? Especially if you've tried other things or just want a new idea to combat procrastination.  At the end of each day, I've felt more calm and much clearer and I've been getting far more work done, more words on the page.

Please get in touch, I'd love to hear how others get on with their procrastination / self-sabotage bashing techniques...

Now here's a toddler who gets down to his creative job right away, no procrastination in sight and really, isn't writing just as much fun as this?

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

'Untitled': a dramatic reading

@ The Rialto theatre bar, Brighton

Last week I was asked to participate (as a late-minute stand in) in a dramatic reading of the play 'Untitled' by Brighton-based writer, Katy Matthews. I've been involved in dramatic poetry readings before and I've been on stage as an actor in my youth amateur dramatic society, but I had never been part of a dramatic play reading in front of an audience.

After a quick rehearsal and some extra coffee to bolster us, we assumed our places on stage, seated in a half-round with photographs of our characters in front of us so the audience could have an idea of who / what we were.  I say 'what', as Matthews' play contains some very interesting not-quite-human characters. The premise of the play is the coming-to-life of paintings and other art work as the main character, Gert, comes to terms with her life's work in the art world, a collection that is, untitled.  The most hilarious of these characters is Buster, a marble bust of a Roman general, who is polite enough to take tea with visitors, to chip in his two cents worth of commentary on everything from relationships to ageing, to the state of dustiness in his confines.

The play came off superbly well, with the particular expertise of the readers.  I myself cannot really take credit for much as I only read stage directions and the nearly-inaudible French mumblings of a Picasso figure who was only soothed by chewing gum for awhile.  All in all, it was a great performance and it was interesting to watch the main readers bring their characters to life without the help of stage movement, props or set.  The rapport between them, especially in some of the snarkier scenes, where barbed words threatened to overspill into physical action, meant that I really had to hold back my laughter to stay focused on when and where I had my next line.

Being part of this play reading was an experience I'll never forget. Matthews' play is one I would now love to see in a full stage production. Watching the characters come to life, from their paintings and plinths, would now add a completely new dimension to the life that oozes from their powerful dialogue and status play on the page.

Cast of the dramatic reading of 'Untitled', The Rialto Theatre, Brighton 26 May:

Caroline Cooke - Gert
Daniel Beales - Buster
Nick Duke - all the other men!
Katie Child - Lady
Sophia Behn - Young Gert
Liz Bahs:  stage directions / Dora

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The Place for Poetry

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a fantastic poetry conference at Goldsmiths, University of London. All ready to present a paper on the first day of the schedule, I turned up with an open mind, very excited to be part of the variety of seminars, workshops, readings and presentations at the conference.  The festival programme was absolutely jammed with interesting topics and speakers and it was really difficult to narrow down what I wanted to see and hear without overloading myself.  In the end, there were many highlights and my presentation was followed up with a discussion which has now fed back into the creative process for my writing on the polyphonic poetry sequence for my PhD.

Among the highlights were Niall Munro (Oxford Brookes University), who gave a talk on Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, a book of which I was previously unaware before attending the session. To say that Rankine's work is arresting falls far short of the praise she deserves in the unsettling of the public with Citizen's comment on and engagement with racism in the US. 

Patience Agbabi gave the keynote talk, capturing everyone in the room with a few excerpts from her new book, Telling Tales, a remix of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Although not the same performance, here's a little taster:   I hadn't heard Patience read / speak her poetry since before she started working on this new book and she's fired me up to go hear her again as soon as I can, to listen to more of her tales.

But it is the final event that I went to on the second day of the conference that sticks most in my mind. A reading from The Complete Works crew--some poets from the first wave and some from the new wave--which also included a discussion with us, the audience, on the crafting of the poems and the whole process of the mentoring that has gone into the program.  I was totally blown away by all of the poets but especially Karen McCarthy Woolf's tender poem about her mother in law, Malika Booker's amazing chanting haunting poems and Kayo Chingonyi's quiet reflections.  And to top the day off, at the start of my very long train journey home, I bumped into Kayo and he gave me a copy of Ten: The New Wave. Talk about icing on the cake of the already sumptuous two days.  I read it the whole way home and it's now happily residing among the other beautiful slim volumes on my poetry shelves.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Collectives and companions

cover design by Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis

Last Thursday, March 26th, the literary events committee known as 'The Needlewriters', an East Sussex collective of poets and prose writers of which I have been a part since 2008, launched its first print anthology and its online 'companion' publication. The launch itself was something of a major watershed moment for me, and the mood was one of relief and celebration. The year of hard work from everyone involved in putting together the publications, not to mention the hours upon hours of conversations and meetings that went on behind the scenes toward the process of decision making, communication among writers as well as design ideas and sourcing of material was now all coming to a smooth and beautiful close. The magnificent print anthology in itself, with Mary Anne's painting on the front was just the perfect icing on the cake and when I walked into the Needlemakers cafe in Lewes, our host venue and namesake-inspiration, where every single event has been held (four each year plus book launches), I saw the smiling faces of all the contributors. Among this number were friends, colleagues, ex-students of mine, and the partners and family that attended by invitation.

The old red-brick walls of the cafe created a warm and grounding atmosphere as it always did, but this time, like our most memorable evenings, the room was packed and buzzing with conversation and the meeting of old friends before the readings had even begun. In my own connections during the evening, I greeted the other members of my own writing group, teaching colleagues who I rarely see outside of exam-marking meetings, and it was with much delight that I bumped into a writer friend of mine with whom I had lost touch for the past four years, a woman who co-organised the very first writing group I attended when moving to the UK.

As the evening kicked off, Needlewriter Alice Owens gave a moving introduction which included the reading out of the long list of names of anthology contributors, all of whom had been a reader at a Needlwriters event sometime in the past (nearly) seven years. Hearing the names of everyone involved and seeing the faces of these poets, novelists and short story writers in the crowd I was reminded just how full the writing community in Sussex has been for me.

Home to me from 2001--2014, the villages of Sussex, but especially Lewes, have held nearly all of the adult years of my life, the studying for my MA, the beginning of my teaching career, the start of my experience as a published poet, and the first half of my time working on my PhD. The Needlwriters as a collective has been the third writing / events group I have taken part in since moving to the UK and it has been the longest lived and most significant.  As a group we have meet several times a year, often with scones and tea and fruit in the sun or with tea and cake and a roaring fire indoors in winter and autumn (and sometimes spring!). We have compared notes on new writers in the area and ones which some of us knew and others did not.  We've decided on dates and readers and the tone of upcoming events, we've balanced the readings of prose writers and poets and carefully selected the MC for each evening series of readings.

For me the launch was a completion of a huge project, one which saw our group of nine work together through the intricacies of publishing an anthology (most of us involved in such a venture for the first time).  But it was also the penultimate event for me in the life of the group.  Now a resident of a county not even bordering Sussex, my involvement over the past year, since relocating, has become exhausting (always an M25 pileup on the day) and increasingly, my energies have needed to be elsewhere (my PhD and bigger teaching commitments).  All of this considered, it was still with great sadness that I made the decision, just before the launch, that it was time to pass the baton on to a new member of the collective, one who will join just now, at the end of the anthology work / start of the next round of readings.  So my attendance at the next Needlewriters reading, on April 9th, will be my last as MC and as part of the collective. I will miss the meetings and discussions with group members who I now consider friends, but will surely still attend the readings, though from now on at a more leisurely pace. 

And through this transition, I have the poems and stories of the print and online companion anthologies to keep me busy: there is so much good stuff to read and re-read!

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Writing Retreat, Llanybydder, West Wales

Today is my first day back to work on the PhD after a twelve-day stint of intense academic writing, followed by a few days off.

In January I went looking online for a cozy place to get away and write while we were due to have some major house renovation carried out in February / March. To add complexity, I needed to find somewhere that would also accept two lovely, well-behaved cats as I needed to take them with me, away from the plaster dust and noise, and to keep the older one on her insulin schedule.  So with all of these requirements, plus my own: that the place be warm, clean, remote, within a four hour drive of home (one cat also gets car sick), and simple to keep up (I didn't want to be de-furring a huge house every day), I went hunting on-line.  After quite a few sessions of looking I came across Ann & Terry's cabin in Wales, quite near Lampeter.  Thank you

After a few reassuring emails with Ann, I booked myself in for 9 days and looked forward to it as the weeks got closer.  As packing day came I admit that I panicked a little: if I forgot any of the 25 books or so I needed, if I didn't remember some vital cat accoutrement, if I forgot laptop charger or usb sticks or ____________ (fill in the blank), I wouldn't be able to work, or so the fear went.  When the day arrived, and all of my packing lists were fully ticked, I bundled myself and two wide-eyed cats into my compact car, now loaded to the hilt with catnip mice, scratching posts and bags and bags of library books etc and I set off.

After an easy 3 hour and 20 minute journey, I arrived at the end of a farm track, shut off the car and went into the cabin to see what I'd signed up for (the owners were in town for the day).  I was greeted by beams of sunlight through the kitchen window, a welcome pack of fresh eggs, milk, juice, an immaculate little wooden cabin with a high stained glass window, a red leather sofa and just the right amount of space and quiet for the coming days.  I settled in right away and quickly met the owners when they returned, who were happy to see that myself and the 'girls' had arrived.

And the days were a blur of typing, cooking simple meals in the warm kitchen, waking up to the sound of blue tits nesting in the huge tree outside the window in the bedroom, my cat chittering back.  The weather was wild and weird and sometimes even scary but I managed to get out most days either for a walk along the farm tracks or through the hidden magic of Ann & Terry's small holding: its lake and little wooden bridge to get there, the Hobbit house, the ducks and turkeys and hens and of course Daisy, the ever-vocal sheep who seemed to keep constant conversation with the cats when they sat in the windows to look out.  Every day I woke up and wrote: journal and poems, then started in on the end of my first chapter, beginning of the second for my thesis.  I read book after book, so many library books I wouldn't have thought it possible to read if I had been at home.  And by the end of my time (and due to the house works still ongoing) I extended my stay for another few days.

All in all I am shocked at how much work I completed, at the quality of being in the Cabin for nearly two weeks.  I am grateful for the helpful kindness of my hosts (emergency vet trip, extra laundry washing, miscellaneous advice on solar panels and rescue pets) and I am certain I will find myself heading back there for another wonderful week or two before the end of my PhD.  To find fresh air, a lack of interruption, space to think and plan and write, a warm welcome and the perfect retreat space in West Wales.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Mind and ears spinning...

Wayleave Press
Last night, on my train journey home through darkening fields and dusk, I rootled in my bag to find the reading treat I'd brought along: 'Moon Garden' by Ron Scowcroft.  I was recently asked to review this poetry pamphlet for The Frogmore Papers and, new to Scowcroft's poetry, I wanted to give myself time to fully engage with the work.  For me there is no better place to do this than aboard the quiet coach on a train journey home after a long and satisfying day of working on my own poetry.

Much to my delight, this pamphlet grabbed me immediately. Before I knew it I'd read the first five poems without pause then, quite startled, went back and started again, trying to rein in my reading dive and pace myself.  But again, the poems reached out and curled around my synapses and I was off...

And then there I was on the train mouthing words, testing some of Scowcroft's rich language in my cheeks and hovering them between my lips before breathing each into the night air of the carriage.  From the first poem in the pamphlet: 'Kite Flying at Porlock Weir, Easter 1982', some image fragments:

an explosion of crows from the cornfield
a shrapnel of black...

          the unwinding weight of string...

To the opening of poem two's terrifying scene 'Dog in a Minefield':

So there we were,
down-draft kicking out grass
and me leaning out the side hatch
waving a ham sandwich...

And the beautifully raw 'Red Aeroplane':

I slept with lacerations, left tiny smears
of blood on balsa ribs and struts,
peeled glue from the copy of my fingertips,
...applied a cellulose of skin.

There are so many poems in this pamphlet that I fell in love with on first read, then on second read, fell in love with again. Scowcroft has a way with language that causes the ear and mind to take notice at once. He allows for no superfluous word to sit among the finely-hewn lines of each poem. It is poetry to be read aloud as well as silently.  I'll leave you with a taster from my favourite poem in the pamphlet, 'Snig' (also reminiscent of E. Annie Proulx's language-dance in The Shipping News):

...his zig-zag capitulation, the certainty
he's taken both lob-worm and hook to gut,
that even new whelped from the water
he'll come out a disappointment,
exuding white lard as your grip melts...

Thursday, 1 January 2015

On not walking on New Year's Day

On this new year's day I spent the entire day indoors, unless you count the brief, wildly-windy walk from my car to my front door at lunch time when I returned from the eve's sleepover party.  All week I'd looked forward to the new year beginning and to what I might do on that day, today.  I even wrote in my diary, 'walk' and imagined the sunny brilliance of the first day of a new year.  In preparation for today's potential walk, earlier in the week I went for a lovely 4km mission to find the best path to our local park and back avoiding main roads.  And yesterday afternoon, in the frosty, orangey-pink light of dusk I savoured the idea of my new year walk.

Not to be! This morning I woke up early and peered through the curtains at the...murk that greeted me.  What time was it?  Where was the sun?  Why had British winter suddenly descended upon us like a fug?  Didn't anyone tell the sun it was New Year?  Over breakfast I looked out and wondered at what time I would wrap up and brave the misty cold.  By lunch it was tipping it down outside and by early afternoon the wind had picked up to howling force.

So instead of walking today, I decided to draft a poem that had been bothering me, lying unfinished in my notebook like a ticking bomb.  By early evening now, the poem has been expanded, rewritten, hacked, shaped and twisted and finally...finally reduced down to its pithy core.  By the end of the process I was sweating (from the cups of hot tea no doubt and the cat on my lap and the heating on high) and breathing heavily (from the overly-long lines I had attempted to squeeze into the rhythm with failure), and I may as well have just come back from a walk.

So the new day, new year, has started us off with a usual British winter.  In the past week since returning from a cold but sunny trip to South Carolina, I'd thought of almost nothing except the sun and the beautiful, unusual Berkshire weather we'd been having all the way through Christmas.  I woke every day since my return on the 23rd to sun, frost glinting with light, sun and more sun.  Vitamin D here I come!

And today, instead of light, I think of darkness.  The type of darkness that badgers and hibernating bears live in: curled up, waiting, cozy darkness.  The kind that is outside my shut curtains right now.  The trees whipping around, the odd firework exploding and a kind of wind song in the ache of cold that comes from old year ending.  And I am content with this.  I am content to end the first day of the year with a new poem and a blanket of darkness around my lit house.

And in ode to the sunny day that never was today in the place where I live, a sunrise poem from a whole collection of sunrise poems: from 'Readable But Not Read', The Sunrise Liturgy by Mia Anderson (Wipf & Stock, 2012)

'...Your eye, reading. Horizon a blink
the far shore the eye-lid with its lashes, the near shore the lower lashes
you the pupil in the middle...

...blink, and the colour has changed
like a carousel of old-fashioned slides, blink and the flame
has gone rose, the rose peach, the peach
gold, the gold ivory and the luminous cream, and then--

Brother Sun has sprung

pop-up jack-in-the-biodegradable-box of night
coming up from down-under
gasping for air as he clears the watery fleuve.'

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

In the grips... (reading lists and actual reading)

Over the past month I have been catching up with my always lengthy and always lengthening PhD reading list. This list includes academic tomes as well as individual poetry pamphlets and collections. The poetry reading usually slings me back and forth across decades and centuries and to writers based all over the world.  Recently I've been discovering Canadian writers published in the 1980's, a time period during which I was too young still to engage with the world of adult poetry.

My poetry highlight of the month comes from Robert Bringhurst's 1986 collection Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music. His sequence near the end of the book titled 'The Blue Roofs of Japan' contains an interlinked score / dialogue between two voices and these are laid out on the page with overlapping text: one voice in black ink, one in blue.

The words of the speakers together form this spidery tattoo of language on the white page, language that shapeshifts as the poem progresses.  Weeks after reading the sequence for the first time, I am still thinking about the delicate blue text beneath the black, the words laying over and under each other like song, and the surprising way the lines sounded as I read them aloud--glancing between pages, imagining a duet.

And alongside of the PhD reading, perhaps as a late-in-the-day hangover from a too-brief fiction reading stint in the summer--my prose indulgences of the moment.  These books are not on any reading list, and they certainly cause a distraction from the more serious studying I should be up to, but the books eye me seductively from my bookshelf whenever I walk past it, and eventually (with a sigh of delight, mind you) I reach out and grab the next one I've been looking forward to reading, the next novel I'd been biding my time for, hoping to find some hours during which I can lose myself in their worlds.

For the past 18 months or more I have been reading two authors simultaneously: Lucy Maud Montgomery and Stephen King.  I wonder as I type this, whether their names have ever been in the same sentence before?  Their writing is so different from each other, so exquisitely diverse.  I have been reading and listening to Montgomery's short stories and novels (available in audio at in a particularly intense period of time.  Because of her style and way of looking at the natural world, I have found myself utterly immersed in contemplating the sky, the movement of cloud, the quality of a sunrise or sunset, the slant of rain and the autumnness of leaves.  Her language is as rich and succulent as a really good piece of cake and when I finish one of her stories, I remain in a dreamy, moving state for weeks, and until my days ache without her words...and I choose another one of her novels and start the process all over again.

Meanwhile...quite without warning, I have been pulled, mayhaps willed, back into another of my happiest reading pleasures: King's The Dark Tower series.  (currently finishing book 5)

So different from Montgomery, the landscapes of Mid-World are moody and stark, they ripple with tension and deeply involved plot and character.  For weeks at a time, Roland, Susannah, Eddie and Jake seem to look at the earth, to engage with the dilemmas of the modern world going to ruin. I become absorbed in King's characters and their journey. The rose at the heart of their quest becomes my own and I dream gunslingers and billy-bumblers while I'm reading.

And so it is, perhaps an apt coupling: daydreams set off by Montgomery's landscape description and night dreams prompted by King's epic tale.  And in between is the marrow, the poetry and creative writing critical engagement, the grist I tangle and wrestle with, hold and applaud. All of this poetry and prose that I devour, that holds me week upon week as I read myself from summer to autumn, from autumn-ing toward winter.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Writing Communities

photo credit: Cappucino

I've just returned home from two meetings: one with my writing group buddies and another with a writing friend from a previous writing group. Both meetings filled me with ideas and inspiration. It is wonderful to sit and have cups of tea or coffee with those who talk the same language, who know about the ins and outs, joys and hardships of writing, sending out work, of acceptance and rejection. And today the talk proved as good as always, and with the specific concerns and new tidbits of information: which tv programs are worth tuning into, new websites and competition deadlines, agent updates, an adaptation of a bestseller to a film, applications for new jobs, finding time to write when you have children.  One friend has recently started to use Twitter and is loving the connections it brings. Another is brushing up a synopsis for her third novel. I sit in wonder at both the idea of a third novel and at putting oneself out there on Twitter!  My other friend is wrestling with revision of her novel while also editing work for an anthology.  All in all I felt inspired by their work and continuing commitment to writing. 

I don't find it easy to stay indoors on a day like today, one which falls in a line of days where the mist and fog and low-hanging cloud creates a damp and dim autumn. Indoors one has to switch on lights that normally only go on at dark.  I feel moody and itching to get out when I'm in the house in day time with lights on.  It's as if something doesn't quite fit.  And today I was fortunate to have meetings with colleagues I also call my friends. A chance to meet in kitchens and cafes. Friendships that have formed over a decade or more of tussle with words and editing, characters and titles and all the technical elements of the prose and poetry we write.  Today my offering was a stack of poems, a shortlist of pieces I dug out to share at a reading I will be doing next week.  It was fruitful to sift through pieces and talk them over, to talk about why or why not I might want to structure a reading to include newly-written work.  As always, the discussion proved to be part of the process and I came home feeling supported and guided by my fellow writers.

My writing community is invaluable, so much so that at one point in my life it was the only thing keeping me resident in the geographical location I found myself in.  The community I have built around me has become solid and full. In pairs, threes, quads and larger groups, we have allowed for a space, for each other to share work and to watch it change and shapeshift into the finished pieces we then send out into the world. We allow for connection and through connection, the building of a commonly-held and much needed community.