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.


Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Osh Market, Bishkek

This morning we went to Osh Market before the heat became overwhelming.  We walked up the cracked and crumbling steps, past the locals at the front selling white tutu hair puffs for school girls, luggage, magazines and handkerchiefs, and into a system of narrow alleyways. Into and under a mosaic of brightly coloured scarves strung at angles to keep out the sun, a canopy we zig zagged through as we walked. 

Aisle upon aisle of men and women, their brown skins and wide cheekbones distinguishing them from their ex-soviet countrymen. Children and babies crowded in the throng, holding hands or each other. Bundles of dried noodles stacked higher than us, spices overflowing in colourful heaps from shot glasses: fire-engine red chili powders, amber ground cumin, purple garlic, feathered dill and bunches of fresh coriander. At several adjoining stalls plump bunches of grapes were strung up with pink gift wrapping ribbon above pyramids of golden and red 'bald peaches'. There were crates upon crates of almonds, walnuts from the forests nearby, brazil nuts still in their rough shells, yellow, black and purple dates, bright fuschia-coloured berries to soak and boil, dried salted fish. The air was heavy with the hum of wasps clustering on amber rock sugar, honeyed nuts, it was heavy with ripe tomato and melon, heavy with the smell of fields and earth and heat.

We wove around and through, into the center of the market where we found rice, lentils, beans, sacks the size of large dogs: whole wheat and buckwheat, cornstarch and white flour ground so finely it looked like face powder or the purest ash. Up the metal stairs, we were above the bustle, with women and girls fingering bolts of fabric from Turkey, Korea and who knows where else: wool and viscose, cotton, denim and cordouroy in burnt oranges and blacks, torquoise and royal purples, scarlet lace, creams and whites delicate for brides, zippers in stacks like tiny coloured teeth. At each purchase, a negotiation: heads to the side, some scowling, a nod and a handing over of blue or red or silver som then a спасибо, спасибо (spasibo, thank you). 

Back downstairs and outside rows upon rows of flat, golden bread, endless barrels of dried cheese, shaped, they say, by rolling into a ball beneath an armpit, on others, the fingerprints still visible in their husked shapes--as delicate and as ridged as small white leaves.

I've come away with an entire feeling for this city.  All things today have been remarkable: the sliding yet stuttery throat vowels of Kyrgyz or Russian, the fruit-ripe air and dust, the shining heat on my bare shoulders at 100 / 36 degrees and the snow covered mountain peaks in the backdrop like a mirage, where we will be heading in another day's time.


Sunday, 17 August 2014

Arrival, Kyrgyz Republic

The day began as I wish all days would: me waking with the very first dawn light, but today I saw the dawn from 33,000 feet. I'd been watching the few, sporadic lights on the ground as our plane flew over Uzbekistan, then I dozed off to my Indigo Girls playlist. When I woke, the blue-black night was feinter, the orange blinking wing-tip light grown dimmer too. On the horizon ahead, a line of blood-orange red. Over the next half hour the line turned a thick yellow, then oranger but the sky lightened only at this seam where it slowly held all the colours: indigo at the top of the stripe / blue, a line as pencil-drawn / greenish-yellow then a magenta orange with just the border of sky caught alight with the still invisible sun. And then
he rose
a flash of sun so sudden, blinding I jerked back from the small curved window so my friend in the seat beside me said, what, what?  
The sun's awake, I said.

After a full day of arrival whose remarkable things included:
  • The most packed and badly-driven roads I've experienced so far in my life
  • Hot, enveloping fullness of Kyrgyz summer (even on its way out) after all the English rain last week
  • An airport where our plane was the only arrival so far
  • Harry, the beautifully statuesque and nearly translucent hairless cat climbing me like a tree to say hello

--the day came to an end just as well as it began. After a wonderful dinner ouside in the evening air, with mint lemonade, skewers of chicken and beef, deep fried bread and aubergine salads, my newly made friend said, Look at the sky. Sunset in the clouds, a pale blue with indigo spreading its ink, a hint of tangerine fading to black. A warm breeze in the cooling evening, a fitting end to my first day in the furthest east I've ever been.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

River Walk at Maidenhead

Last night I finally did my homework for the third session of our Tidemarks and Timelines course at the Poetry School: walk along a river and see things, all the while noting them down but without putting any of our own memories of feelings into it, at least at first.  This was inspired by a lovely passage from Hopkins's Journals about the sea.

The location for my walk was a bit of a last minute decision.  Originally I had planned to do a long walk beside the Thames from central London outward, but then changed my mind.  I live in its more rural reaches and didn't think a city river walk would feel akin to my writing at the moment. (Even though we had a brilliant outing to the Thames Barrier at the weekend and I took copious notes).  After discarding the city walk idea I thought I'd like to make a visit to Teddington Lock, the boundary of sorts where the Thames becomes tidal, but Tuesday evening rush hour and the intermittent downpours of rain made me think yet again.  Then the suggestion of walking along the river at Maidenhead.

All day yesterday I had been struggling with a poem about summer.  I kept coming up against my known cliched thoughts: I only seem to be able to write about summer in Florida, never summer anywhere else in the world.  The imagery and experiences from my youth and the repeated trips home are so strong and I had yet to find any other imagery as potent.  With this in mind, I set off for the walk around 6pm, the air already zinging with midges and the sky a blanket of ever darkening rain clouds.  Good, I thought, interesting weather!

Along the way I took notes, it seemed easy to jot down sensory information in front of me and it was a nice relief not to think too much about what any one thing meant.  It was curious to notice what I was writing down too: oh yes, my obsession with signage, birds, water and trees in general filled quite a few pages in jarred scrawl as I walked and occasionally sat and did my seeing.

This morning, as soon as I woke, I took the notes and shaped them into something which really surprised me.  As I worked with the words, I found a river language for here, for the Thames, that was totally unlike the language I have used in the lots and lots of river writing I had done over the last decade about my favourite river in Florida.  The Thames brought out crisp and colourful words, and as I typed I saw a landscape arrive on the page that felt new.  Nowhere did I write about the summer and yet summer was everywhere in the detail.  What a gift this walk has brought me.  And another one too...

My friend came along on the walk yesterday and as I wrote he took photos, of what I wasn't sure, until today when I opened the files.  Each of the ways of seeing I had done with pen and paper he had done with a camera, down to the smallest detail.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Tides, times, summer writing...

Last night I woke up with heat around me like a thick blanket and I thought, it's going to storm.  The air was too Florida-like to avoid lightning and sure enough, sometime around 3am I woke to a huge flash outside the window, the first of many, and then low tremble and growl for the next hour or more.  There is something so satisfying about sleeping through storm like this.  As a child I remember feeling so safe when I'd wake in the night and hear a thunderstorm.  And last night was the same. Not that I hadn't been feeling safe, but there's an extra layer of weather around the house, around the dark room, around my body as it lays beneath the sheet listening for the distance between flash and thunderclap.

It was a temporary break in the gathering heat.  And I woke up this morning thinking of the word 'gathering' and how I seem to be using it a lot lately when I write.  Yesterday was the first session of Tidemarks and Timelines, Fawzia Kane's Poetry School course and I'd signed up months in advance, looking forward to writing about water and sky.  On my way home on the train yesterday, just as the sky was gathering the day to a close, I thought about darkness and light, about how I wanted to write about darkness and the comfort in it, about night.  So it was apt timing to wake in the dark and hear storm last night.  Around 5am I even got up, or rather, took a moment to find my glasses, heave the cats off of me and crawl out of bed to the window, to see light paling the sky to a whitish-grey like chalk sometimes can look.  But the storm had gone and the sky was too full of cloud to get a good look at any thing.  So I went back to sleep briefly and when I woke up, and gathered the energy to get up, I came here to the screen, to put down words, to start thinking about the themes we will explore in the course, but also to continue thinking about other themes in my writing.  So, here's a step toward that...

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Power Ballads and Summertime

I've recently returned from a holiday in beautiful Snowdonia.  The landscape and days out got me revved up to get outside and play upon returning home.  And that has partially been true; even when I'm at home and working I've opened every window and the tree outside my study rustles in the breeze and every so often one of our robins comes to look in curiously...

The landscape in this photo is in such contrast to being back otherwise: no rugged mountains and changing mountain weather forecasts, no lazy Welsh mountain roads. The M25's fumy heat when stuck in yet another queue could not be less inspiring.  Yesterday though, when I found myself stuck in such a queue, I reached for my book of cds for some inspiration to keep me from a motorway-car-craze.  Recently, I dredged the very depths of my cd collection and had decided to put cds from which I couldn't remember the songs into my cd-car-carrier so I could listen and remember.  And yesterday's random motorway pick: Celine Dion, Let's Talk About Love.

What a throwback!  And this cd, I am somewhat ashamed to say, is one of only two albums I bought in multiple formats: first I owned the cd and then on one particularly long car trip through Florida somewhere back at the end of the 90's, I was bored out of my head so I stopped at a gas station and lo-and-behold, there was the album on tape, which I already owned and (at the time) loved, so I thought, 'what the hey' and got it on cassette.  Those were the days of driving through Tampa traffic in my awesome, unbeatable first car: a baby blue, HUGE 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera.  Oh yes, bench seats, a wobbly speedometer, a faux leather steering wheel cover and a bitchin' cassette deck.  I recall jamming my way through most of the state to that Celine tape...

...the same album I pulled out randomly yesterday and popped into my cd player in the midst of unmoving traffic somewhere between junctions on the M25. I didn't remember any of the songs, had even forgotten the gooey Titanic theme song was on the album, but I had a vague memory that there were two songs I was obsessed with long ago: one involving a violin solo that made me want to learn violin just to play it and another with deep and of course emotional connections to unrequited, or probably the more-likely, unknown nature of love in my late teens / early twenties.

Sure enough, by the time I got close to my destination yesterday, I was hitting 'repeat' on that violin solo song once again and belting out the tunes in perfect unison (of course) with the grand diva herself.  Nowadays I'm not so much a fan of Celine's English-speaking work but do still, admittedly, love her French albums: just bought one of the newer ones last month, and they always keep me hooked.  Love her, hate her or just feel annoyed by her, nevertheless, that album from the days of yore got me through yet another long and frustrating drive, though it wasn't quite the same without my lovely and enormous bombshell of a car, 'Babe'.

Not my exact car but close!

Friday, 23 May 2014

Jogging and Blogging (and Marking)

As Spring hesitantly turns toward a Summery-type of weather, I decided today that, rather than go to the gym as per usual on a Friday, I'd head out the door for a jog.  A good way to continue to acquaint myself with the local area.  There were glorious moments of sunshine though mostly very cold breeze, not as conducive to asthmatic breathing as the warm gym conditions, but today I wanted to listen to the birds, the traffic, and to get some fresh air after a particularly long two weeks with a very heavy work load.

Today was marking transition day, a fulcrum as it were, between handing in the first batch of marked portfolios (51 in total) to receiving the next batch of 42 drama scripts, short stories, opening chapters of novels or poetry sequence submissions.  The transition means the handwritten, green-inked feedback for the first university is done and now on to the online forms and digital submissions for the online university.  But fear not: I finally have a new tablet and will travel to cafes across the county to give myself a change of scenery while marking.

The brain fog I have been in, correction, the brain thunderstorm I have been in (it gathers while marking, it crashes and rages havoc) will have a moment to clear this weekend while I have two days off in a row.  Alas, not the third, bank holiday day, but oh well, bank holidays can't interrupt exam marking!  Then the new storm shall begin and by the end, exhausted, tormented, somewhat enlightened and usually a bit inspired, I shall turn my attention to my own writing again.   In the meantime, jogging has gotten me out of the house, tuned to vitamin D and breathing away the post-portfolio anvil head clouds...and as per usual it slicked up the writing wheels.

There's nothing for the writing quite like moving: driving, dancing, walking, running, moving around.  And as soon as I switch off my work brain and start to move, the words, phrases and lines start to float into my clear-sky head like a lovely soft breeze that brings petals or a few leaves sweeping in.

Perhaps this weekend will include some writing.  I'm certainly inspired to keep reading and doing some more writing from the images on

Remarkable Things
  • giant hail stones in the grass looking like lemony sweets
  • cat 2 sleeping through my skype call without having a go at me
  • a GIANT coffee to celebrate being halfway through the marking

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Biology 101...digging near the fence

'Walter', urtica dioica and rumex obtusifolius

I spent the majority of today out in the lovely sun weeding the garden.  It's the first opportunity I've had to get out and assess what's been happening out there since I bedded everything down for winter.  Over near one of our fences is a long plot of earth, excavated by me in baking hot sun last August.  I spent about four days in this two foot deep, ten foot long plot hacking back the enormous blackberry bush that had completely taken over the length of that end of the garden (all in total probably about 25 feet of bramble, over half of it still in existence).  During this strenuous and exhausting dig last summer, we unearthed the head of an enormous bone, a bone much larger than my fist and we dug it up from beneath that fence.  It had been tucked behind brambles and a rusty oil drum and I knew right away I would keep it.

I already have quite a collection of found bones: jaw bone from a seal, small bird bones, a collection of exoskeletons from crabs etc, and the memory of the one that got away--a fully intact sheep skull found when walking on the isle of Vatersay last year (I didn't have anything to carry it in and I needed both hands to steady myself along some precarious, high ground so I had to leave the skull behind).  But this bone, the one dug up beneath our fence, this bone...was Walter. I named him affectionately after my favourite scene from one of my favourite films of all times, 'The Burbs', all the while feeling slightly odd at the size of this bone and that it too, like the one in the film, came from underneath the fence shared with a neighbour... (I suspect that Walter is actually the remains of a dog bone bought for the German Shepherd that used to live in this house, but you never know...)

Anyway, today while digging along the same fence line where we found Walter, it struck me over and over how amazing it is that nettles and dock leaves grow alongside one another.  My recently weeded patch of earth was starting to reproduce just as many as I'd dug up last summer, although luckily for me these were still very small and easy to dislodge.  The dock leaves had grown quickly and the nettles much more slowly, so that each grouping of them appeared as if the dock leaves were actually sheltering the nettles.  A symbiotic relationship perhaps?  And today lots of things started appearing in pairs: my two cats playing with a bottle cap out in the grass, our pair of mating robins busy building an unseen nest, pairs of socks drying on the line in the sun, two buckets filled with weeds, two children playing next door at a game which involved one passing a secret note down from the upstairs window to the one on the ground, two earthworms desperate to get back in the ground, me and Walter out in the garden.

What a wonderful day to be outside, breathing fresh fresh air in the sun, digging, planting seeds, getting close up to look at the buds on the trees. 

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Peut-être que l'hiver ne l'aurait pas brisée / Maybe the winter would not have broken

Today my teaching day seemed very long indeed: two seminars separated by a much-needed two-hour break in which to feed and nourish myself--cottage pie in the postgrad / staff cafe and a blissful read of my current detective novel. But each side of lunch was a whopper of a class--twenty students in each group and three-quarters of these staunchly 'not poets', or so they declared last week at the start of lessons.  Let's just say that by 4pm I was exhausted and ready for home...and then I remembered that I'd promised myself I'd go to the gym after work.  

I drove back toward home longing to put my feet up and have a nap but decided to go anyway as the gym is right on my way home and it was getting difficult to ignore the nagging feeling that I hadn't been in over a week due to last week's back-to-term workload.

And thankfully I did go.  Given my exhaustion I decided not to do my regular jogging / weights routine but to swim. And I realised as I took my first huge breath and pushed off the side, head under, that I hadn't swum properly in...well, years I think!  I had been a regular at my previous gym for a number of years, only using the pool there, but I know it has been, at best guess, 3-4 years since I last swam in a way that was more deliberate than doggy paddling or treading water or soaking in a hot tub.

Lap after lap I looked at my hands under water, remembering how, in the early years of my writing group, I'd brought a poem about swimming and how my hands looked beneath the surface as they came together and separated, came together again and again, propelling me forward. It felt good, it felt great to move through water, to breathe in rhythm to my own strokes and to focus on nothing but this...

and the day just fell away.  All of the stress of new classes, their worries about poetry and my own worries about this.  My exhaustion fell away, the heaviness that this winter has brought with the flooding and blowing down of our fence (twice) of the decisions on whether to insulate the loft and how and when, of redecorating the house and always being busy busy busy.  In the pool there was stillness, there was peace: an abstraction we talked about today in class: peace.  But I found it and it didn't feel abstract.  It felt full and as warm as the water in the pool.  It felt as if, as suddenly as I've begun to recognise that the days are getting longer and the light lighter, as if winter had broken...all because I took some time out to breathe and look at my hands.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Sleepy lizards and live birth

This photo thanks to Craig's blog:
As I veer into another consecutive day of marking academic essays, I have been thinking about what it means to stick to one task for a long time, longer than I need to.  Commitment.  Well, of sorts.  And I'm struck by last night's quality viewing.  We are halfway through watching Life in Cold Blood, the wonderful David Attenborough series from 2008.  As a lover of animals of almost every variety, I sat down fully prepared to be engaged and interested in the lives of lizards and amphibians and I was grateful for the fact that we'd finished Life in the Undergrowth as I was a bit squeamish about some of the nefarious ant-tactics and wasp relationships of insects.  Big sigh, on to animals with backbones...and I do love lizards.

But I was not at all prepared to be awestruck by these scaly creatures...most of all the sleepy lizard of Australia. I knew absolutely nothing about this creature until yesterday, least of all that it is one of the few cold-blooded creatures to give birth to live offspring instead of laying eggs.  (The episode we watched included a chameleon giving birth to live tiny ones high up in a tree too).

When it comes to commitment the sleepy lizards win all prizes.  Not only are they romantic creatures, they pair for life and stick together through lots of harsh reality.  A scene I found really distressing was one of a long term pair mourning the loss of its recently dead partner.  As these lizards love to lie in the road and sun themselves, death is a reality all too often.  The mourning lizard stayed by his dead partner for days, in the road, head butting it and checking it over.  Now this, I thought, is true commitment. Commitment of a type far beyond my commitment to sticking with marking difficult essays for another day when I could easily set it aside for now and come back to it next week.

I'm moved by the sleepy lizard as well as some of the deeply intriguing behaviours of others in the lizard suborder. And most of all I'm glad that yesterday contained surprise and awe, if even at a nature documentary.  Can't wait to see what Attenborough has in store for the next episode.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Over a giant mug of coffee...

After a morning of note taking I'm having a quick flex of the writing muscles before launching into a first draft of my next PhD chapter on 'Voice'. 

In the past few weeks I've been immersed in theory that really excites me. Particularly relevant to my chapter are the concepts of narratology, the science behind narrative.  A brilliant introductory book I found includes many intriguing charts, diagrams and circle graphs from multiple theorists on the subject.  In this one book it's as if science, or at least math, has merged with literary theory for awhile and this pleases my organised approach to unpicking my argument. 

Here is my favourite figure from the book--F.K. Stanzel's typology of 'all narrative situations conceivable' (!!!!)

It reminds me of a giant colour wheel I once worked with in a watercolour painting class except without the colour!

No time to work out whether he really does cover all conceivable narrative situations but there certainly are many to muse over this afternoon...