New Year is somewhat delayed for me. As many of you know my Dad died over Christmas and the busyness of handling his affairs, supporting mom and the general work of grief has taken up much of my time. Writing has been present as a comfort and means of clarifying emotion, but other than that has taken a back seat.
An exhibition of poetry and pictures in Café 86’d Ironbridge
This doesn’t mean nothing has happened. Thanks to my talented, kind friends and neighbours Maggie Cameron and Lee Proudfoot, our collaborative exhibition of poetry and pictures is able to go ahead. We’re exhibiting our Inktober work in a fabulous local café 86’d in Ironbridge. The exhibition starts next weekend and will run for the month of February. It’s a chance to see Maggie’s stunning work, read some bird inspired poems and eat some of the best vegetarian and vegan food in Shropshire. You’ll be able to buy postcards of the work too.
A new poetry project
I’ve also begun plans for my next collection. After much saving I can finally afford to engage a professional mentor to help me polish my poems and explore the best way to publish them. What was originally an idea for a pamphlet has grown into what I think may be an interesting collection, bringing together key facets of my work under one thread. I’m excited to begin work and look forward to sharing my progress with you.
There’s not a great deal more to say – this is the first day I’ve spent with my work since losing Dad. It will always be bitter sweet – he was very proud (if slightly baffled) by my writing, and everything now comes with the backthought of wishing I could tell him what I’m up to. I’m thankful for all my lovely friends and fellow poets for their support in so many ways.
I’ve spent my morning creating a poetry film. It uses a piece I wrote about twelve months ago. based on the charming tale of the tiny owl found in the Rockefeller Christmas tree. The original poem is a “blackout” poem inspired by a transcript of one of the many news reports at the time and first appeared on the fabulous Sledgehammer Lit earlier this year.
I love blackout poems – the unsaying of things, the contrast between what the brain sees, what it knows and what it thinks it sees is a long-time conundrum and this type of poetry presents a powerful visual vehicle to express this. Transforming it to a film seemed like the logical thing to do and you can watch it here.
I’ve had news of another acceptance this week, for another more experimental poem which will be part of the next issue of Spelt magazine. I’m learning that I know when something is working – there’s a specific unnameable feeling that emerges. I need to listen to it more.
Poetry is a powerful thing. I’m reading Cooking with Marilyn by Angela Readman at the moment. It’s one of those books that stops me in my tracks. Inside the prettiest of blue covers are words that illuminate the realities of living with trauma, as well as illuminating the absurdity of living in the spotlight. It’s clever, tender, heartrending and the kind of poetry I dream of writing.
Which gets me thinking – what is missing in my own work? I think it’s the sense of other. I tend to write very domestic, down to earth stuff, which is fine, I’m often a no-nonsense type of person. My best/favourite work it the work that goes beyond this though – stuff that I read back and almost don’t recognise. Fear of being airy-fairy stops me I think – the old “who does she think she is” – what’s the answer?
The answer, I think is to shift my focus back to the words – I’ve had a taste of publishing and love the thrill of having work accepted. I write to be read, after all. But the temptation is to learn to the test, to try to figure out the current zeitgeist and reach the point where when people ask, “would I know your work” I can shout “yes!” and point at a billboard. And then the magic fades.
A zeitgeist is just that – something that captures a mood. It can’t be manufactured or pre-empted, not without diluting it’s very point. Popularity comes almost by accident – it’s the result of a huge amount of hard work of course, but the conflation of moment, time, people, cannot be predicted. Trying to anticipate and pre-create simply reduces the validity and impact of the work itself.
All this sounds like an excuse, and I wouldn’t blame you for thinking “well she would say that wouldn’t she”. Honestly though, this whole business is a pull between longing for success, for publication, for recognition, and longing to immerse myself in words, absorb and bathe in language and pay no mind to the outside world whatsoever. Getting the balance right it what makes a great poet I guess. Until I reach that point, I shall keep reading, writing, gnashing my teeth at rejection and being childishly delighted every time a poem is accepted for publication.
Inner critic. Inner cricket. Which would be worse? One spends its time pulling apart each morsel of effort, one, I imagine, spends its time attempting to fell stumps and win points.
So much work is disregarded because I think it is trite, obvious, too simple. Yet I read prize winning pieces that seem to me to be just that. They’re not, of course. They are simply speaking truth in a way that is easy to understand. Being oblique is one of my worst habits as a writer (and possibly as a person) I like to create a puzzle, a riddle because for me the worst thing is to be thought to be too obvious.
And why is this the case? Well, I think it comes down to our old friend imposter syndrome. I still don’t think I’m good enough, definitely don’t think I belong and constantly feel I have to prove my worth. And I do this by swerving the obvious, clouding the true emotion. I’m not sure if this is helpful, hindrance, my style or just an annoying quirk. What I am sure of is that the constant placing of one’s emotions on a page means constantly placing myself in a place of vulnerability which, for someone who is constantly alert to attack, seems a little foolish.
I began this post a week or two ago. Maybe it was the moon causing me to feel so blue. Maybe it was the up and down of self-publicity. Maybe it’s just a bit hard to be sometimes.
I feel less vulnerable today – positive feedback, a new project, a way forward and determination all play their part. Kind words are the greatest gift though and I do so appreciate them – both public and private, the value of someone taking the time to say to me “I read your work and I like what you do” is enormous.
Monday saw the opportunity to take part in a workshop about building a poetry pamphlet. It’s ostensibly for people seeking to enter this year’s pamphlet competition from Mslexia. I’m no where near ready to enter but nonetheless it gave me a raft of useful tips to help me create a pamphlet “where every poem earns its place”. No mean feat to be honest but I feel I have some clear direction – I’ve also got a title which is a huge step forward.
As well as looking at my wider body of work, and what to do with it all, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks working on poems inspired my neighbour and friend Maggie Cameron. Maggie’s an incredibly skilled artist, and each year she produces wonderful images for Inktober. In an effort to maintain my morning writing practice, started as part of the Dawn Chorus writing group, I’ve logged on to see Maggie’s latest image each day. She does them before she heads to her day job as head of art – I write before starting my day job in copywriting. I find this incredibly pleasing somehow – genuine creativity for the joy or creating.
Maggie has adapted the prompts this year to create a series about birds which is a real joy – I write a lot about birds (I think they’re second only to the moon in terms of poet inspiration) and I’ve had so much fun writing these pieces each morning.
It’s interesting the different directions each image has taken me. Some have been purely about the bird – a rage on climate change or the foolishness of humans – others have sparked a deeper response, calling to mind mothering, loss, or freedom. Most of all I’ve enjoyed simply writing for writing’s sake. It’s been a while.
I had an interesting conversation with a friend this week, asking if writing about trauma is cathartic. My answer was not really. Now this is surprising, because of course it is – the very act of writing means I remove worries, thoughts, feelings from my head and place them on a page. That is a good thing. It can allow perspective, allow for reflection. Journalling is a healthy habit. Why is poetry any different? For me it’s because a poem is almost a living entity. It grows and changes with those who read it, it grows and changes each time I read it. The emotions that gave birth to the writing have not gone – they’ve become real on the page. Producing something wrought from some of the darkest feelings and experiences then reading, re-reading, editing, means revisiting those feelings and experiences time and time again. And that’s before I even embark on the terror of sending my work out to be judged for quality and possible publication.
Yet still I do it. Still countless people do it. We write and read, agonise over semi-colons and commas, place ourselves into the arena to be pulled apart or raised up high. Why? What drives me? I honestly can’t think of a sensible answer. All I know is that when I write there is some magic that happens somewhere that makes me feel as though I am the very best version of myself. I’d like to say I don’t mind whether work is published or not but that would be a straight lie – external validation is a joy. Would I write if I knew my work would never be published again. Absolutely. Would I write if no one else would read it. I think so – but some of that joy of connection would be lost.
Two new poetry courses
These musings have emerged because I’ve had a stellar writing week. Not one, but two courses on the go and I’ve adored them both. Dawn Chorus writing hour has been a revelation – that liminal space between waking and sleeping allows my brain to flow in such different directions and the simple act of setting aside time to write with others creates a gentle community. Getting up early to write is a habit I dip in and out of, but the difference to both my writing and general well being is such that I’m determined to keep that 5.30 am start and determined to protect an hour for reading and writing.
My second course, The Corn Dolly Speaks has been a journey through myth and legend, not tales of knights and dragons, but the tangible, domestic legends that are so much part of life they pass with scant comment. The poems we’ve read have been beautiful and challenging, and the prompts have set me on research adventures. The work I’ve written has grown from some innate understanding and sense of connection I cannot really name. It’s an affirming way to explore the correlation between past and present, and to explore how these old rituals inform my behaviour and perspective. What makes these courses work so well for me is that we share our work with each other online. I’m not terribly confident speaking as part of a group, so this gentle interaction means I can give and receive feedback in a non-threatening way, and at my own pace. It also means I read some incredible poetry from my talented course mates. I’ve tried a couple of different courses this year, but the work I produce from these courses created and facilitated by Wendy Pratt is far and away the work I feel most pleased with.
It seems that the act of finishing Dust has set me free to write again. In order to create something worthy of publication, and worthy of people’s hard-earned money I had to distance myself from my emotions and look at the work with a professional, critical eye. In the wonder that is hindsight it seems entirely logical, but in the midst of the process I’ve felt quite bewildered at my inability to really engage with writing. I’m very glad to be back.
More ways to buy Dust
Now the initial flurry of family and friends have bought Dust, I’ve placed it on Etsy for general sale. Buying direct from me is still the best option, simply because it means more money for the two charities, but I understand that using something like Etsy is a lot easier. You can also buy your copy from the excellent Poetry Pharmacy or Ironbridge Bookshop.
Your mini reviews have made a huge difference
Thank you to everyone who has taken the time and effort to talk about their response to Dust on Facebook and Instagram. This kind of marketing is worth a thousand posts from me (I guess hearing about something like this from a friend has more impact) and has been the most effective in terms of sales. It also increases my visibility, so when I do post, more folk will see it. Your support is really, really appreciated and the steady rate of sales means we’ve raised over £600 so far.
So that’s my week. Next week’s adventures in poetry will involve is more research into submissions opportunities, plus some time studying The Poetry Writers’ Handbook, which looks like it will answer a lot of my questions about the business side of publication – I have a couple of new pamphlets brewing so the timing is perfect.
And it feels wonderful. I’m part of a group delving into folklore and witchery as part of The Corn Dolly Speaks it’s a course which sparks my imagination and sends me off on merry research missions that spark it even more. I’m reading some amazing poetry, working with amazing people and feel excited by writing for the first time in a while.
I’ve been looking forward to this so much. I’d set my mind that I wanted to refocus on my work this autumn and this first week has proved positive. I have a schedule for going through my notebooks, planned time to explore submissions and I’m saving hard to afford some mentoring for what may be a new pamphlet next year. This feels like new year for me.
And perhaps it is. Working on Dust has taken more from me than perhaps I realised. Not so much the writing, but the fund raising, self promotion (thank you so much to everyone who’s joined my FB and Instagram campaigns) which never sits well has taken quite a lot from this old introverted psyche.
On the other hand working on this project has given me a huge amount. The sense of “I’ve done this” is hard to ignore. Realizing that I can collaborate with others to come up with something that really does what we hoped it would is fantastic. Reading the words of people who’ve got in touch to say that the work has moved them and even helped them with their own experience of grief, or the people who’ve just got in touch to say “well done”has had a huge impact on how I feel about putting my work (and by default my self) out into the world.
I’m reading a lot about Anglo Saxon tradition and understanding of the wheel of the year, how summer finishes so quickly, with winter coming in fast behind. There is something grounding about realising that our response to the seasons has barely changed and reading Eleanor Parker’s stunning book is a real joy. I’ve started reading a section each morning and the things I learn before even my first cup of tea are wonderful.
I usually dread this period just before Christmas – it’s been a grim countdown to the worst anniversaries for several years. I feel different this year. More understanding. More accepting. Peaceful, despite the absolute chaos going on in the outside world. I’m writing again and somehow that makes things feel alright. Bearable. Hopeful, even.
July has been a blur of time with friends and family, adventures including a visit to the Norfolk Broads as well as putting the finishing touches to Dust. It’s been a challenging month healthwise, but goodness all the ups and downs and careful planning have been worth it.
The big writing news is that Dust is ready to go. Sample copies have been pored over, final edits made and we’re ready to press the button and order our first batch of copies. It’s exciting and terrifying all at once. As you know, this is a hugely personal project and one that has taken heart and soul as well as a far bit of courage to produce. I’m thrilled with the final result, and I hope you will be too.
A happy side quest has come up in the form of my being invited to read some of my work at a local event to support world suicide prevention day. I’m honoured to be invited to be part of this event, and whilst I know it will be nerve-wracking it feels right as a next step for the story of Dust.
Competitions and funding
I’ve avoided competitions this year. My focus has been firmly on fundraising and finalising the pamphlet but this month has brought a couple of opportunities I don’t want to miss. The first is the annual Spelt poetry competition. I love the magazine so much, and whilst I know the calibre of entries means my chances of winning are small, it’s good to feel part of something I respect. The second entry is to something even more daunting – the first ever Ironbridge Poetry Competition. The fact that this is local makes me feel under huge pressure. With most poetry competitions, few people have heard of them, and fewer still are terribly interested – a local event is a little different. Watch this space.
I’ve also made my first foray into funding applications. Like many things this is an area of creative practice that is new to me and one that I’ve shied away from – asking for help rarely sits easy. Nonetheless, the simple fact is that extra financial support will buy not only time to write, but other things like access to education, mentoring and workshops to further improve my skills.
I’ve made a couple of changes to my website that I hope will make it easier for people to buy my work and to commission bespoke poetry. On my homepage you’ll find three new buttons that you can use to pre-order Dust, buy a copy of Yes to Tigers or simply buy me some writing time. Let me know if they work!
So that’s it for this month – fingers crossed next month will bring news of a firm publication date and news of new projects and exhibitions.
I’m almost a week in to my crowdfunding project and things are going well. Funding is coming in slowly and it seems like there will be enough interest in the book for it to go to press.
I’ll be honest, this is hard. It’s so much more than a book of poems I suppose. It’s a stage of grief – I won’t say final because I suspect it never ends. It’s part of my goodbye to my brother and part of my learning to live with the jumble of shame, sadness, anger and guilt that weaves through the very real fact that I don’t have a brother any more.
I have spent the last week wondering if I’m doing the right thing, if I should just do a sponsored run (!) whether that would get more money. It probably would. But this isn’t just about money. .
Until we start talking about suicide, about the impact on those left and the things that lead people to decide the world will be better without them then this will keep happening. The work I’ve written is honest, brutal and suffused with love. These are poems that will start conversations. Framing this work as a fundraiser places this work firmly in the poetry with purpose category. And I suppose this is another way of absolving the never ending “if onlys” that pepper my thoughts each day. It’s difficult to revisit all those feelings, but the support and care I’m getting is so helpful. Thank you.
Over the next few days I’ll be writing more about the charities, and about the look and feel of the book. In the meantime to find out how to support the project financially head over to my crowdfunding page.
Self-belief is both nectar and poison. Too much – I risk being seen as arrogant, pushy or proud, too little and I remain shadow side, whispering about the things I like to do and *might* be good at. Self-belief is not for people like me- female, working class background, chronic illness. Self-belief slips through my fingers at every turn.
And yet it must be there. There must be something that wanders in to my mind and tells me that I have something to say, and people to hear it. A poetry tutor saying “You’ve a voice that needs to be heard” took my breath away. I mean, everyone needs to be heard, but I think this was meant in a positive and particular way.
Yet still I wrestle with myself – to grow courage to join in with the group, to speak in class, to read what I’ve written during an exercise. Yet I feel wonderful once I’ve done it, once my breathing has calmed, my heart has slowed. Once I learn to quiet the voices that mutter of the fool I have made.
Reinvigorate your writing
My third workshop with Nine Arches was led by Ian Humphreys. Ian’s book Zebra was one of the first books of modern poetry I read from cover to cover, and one of the first that showed me that poetry does not have to be a puzzle. The concept that poetry must be oblique, must be something to “get” is one I was taught, and one that leaves many people thinking poetry is not for them. Popular poets are derided and sniffed at, well-known poets are seen as somehow letting the side down. The idea that poetry is not for everyone is perpetuated.
Back to the workshop. Yesterday’s session was all about writing poetry in a direct manner. Reading for the session included work form Andrea Cohen, Collette Bryce, Hannah Lowe, and a stomach twisting performance piece by Lily Myers. It is the kind of work I love to read, and the kind of work that I seem to write.
Giving my self permission
I’ve long worried that I’m not “poetic” enough. I use the all the tools, love to play with rhythm, repetition, white space. I love the way imagery insinuates itself into my work without my really knowing and I love that these tools work to create a connection with other people. Reading and hearing work from people that write in a way that is direct, that is pointed, makes me feel there is a place for my less than pretty style.
Another point made by Ian was to embrace the power of the new – to push out of what makes us comfortable. Again, this requires confidence but what I love about taking part in a workshop is the sense of immediacy. There is little time to mither and fret – the focus is firmly on writing and embracing the now for that workshop moment the words come and knit themselves together – and later I will remove the fluff. Above all, the time spent yesterday helped me feel there is a place for my writing, and a reason to keep trying. That’s got to be a good thing.
I was brave today – I went to a real life poetry reading; now I understand that that may not seem like an act of bravery, but for someone like myself, chronically shy, awkward and terrible at chatting to folk, it was a big step. Poetry is important to me – it’s also a way of communicating with others without having to actually talk. Lately though, I’ve felt I’m missing out. I’ve enjoyed the zoom readings and classes I’ve attended, and in a lot of ways the way the world has opened up to people like me has given me the courage to try “real life” poetry things.
Country Voices is as close to on my doorstep as I could wish. It’s hosted by Offa’s Press, in the beautiful setting of The Water Rat, just on the edge of Ironbridge. The poets reading today were Jean Atkin, whose work I’ve long admired, Jane Seabourne, who is new to me but made me laugh and reflect plus we enjoyed a wonderfully entertaining tale courtesy of Micheal Thomas. I’ve been aware of these monthly sessions for a while, but kept finding excuses not to go. Today I took the plunge…and I’m so happy I did. In an hour and a half I took a journey by bicycle down the east coast of France, did a spot of time travel and pondered on whether an invasion of sweet potatoes might look a little like a walrus herd. Hearing the nuance of tone, hearing the exact emphasis the poet’s intended, seeing their expression, their body language made words come alive, and made that magic fizz I recognise when I encounter something that resonates with me.
It was a fab afternoon – I did slip away from the social side (everyone was very friendly) but I shall be brave next time, and chat more. I realise that if I want to be working as a poet in the community, I have to find the courage to become part of it, and today was the first step. I feel proud of myself today.
On Monday I started a new course with York Centre for Life Long Learning. It’s called Crafting and Redrafting, and is created and facilitated by Wendy Pratt. I’m hoping the course will help me hone my editing skills – I’m at a point where I have dozens of drafts, some which are good to go, and many that need more work. I’ve also got a few that keep getting turned down, despite the fact that I think they’re ok – a sure fire indicator that a few tweaks are needed. The image of the beleaguered poet agonising over each comma is indeed accurate.
I’m excited about this course. It’s meeting my need for a bit of stretch when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the poetry business. I spend a lot of time on developing my creative practice but have been quite reserved about the mechanics of promotion. The fancy answer would be that I didn’t want to sully my art. The truth is twofold – I was a bit scared, and I didn’t have a strong body of work that I really believed in. I’m hoping the work I do over the next eleven weeks will help me understand how to fine tune my work – how to step back and look at it with an editor’s eye.
There are good habits coming already from the course (and it’s only week one!) I’ve always known don’t read enough poetry and one of the key directives from my first week was to read much more. Now, this lack of reading isn’t because I don’t want to or have any ridiculous notion that it will cloud my own voice. Good reading is essential to good writing – it’s how we learn what works, how we learn what gives us goosebumps and what leaves us cold. If I know all that, why not just do it?
Lack of time, of course – plus reduced energy and M.E. brain swish in to take a chunk of each day. By the time I’ve completed whatever copywriting work I have (and I’m so glad to have it), and taken care of the general business of living, reading is almost impossible – my brain just won’t take anything in, and the physical act of making sense of the page is beyond me.
Clearly this has to change. My strategy is to adapt the way I spend my journal time. I’ve always written a journal of sorts and I try to do it early each morning. Now in that half hour I set aside, I’m reading three poems. I’m making really brief notes on them too, but that’s not the goal – the goal is simply to read. I’m choosing from different sources, choosing different styles, falling in love with some, not really liking others and being simply baffled by a few.
The desired outcome is undefined, and to this extent my liking or disliking doesn’t matter – what I’m hoping is that I will become even more immersed in language, even more immersed in how it plays and moves me. And I’m hoping this understanding will make me a better writer. Regardless of all this, I’m enjoying my reading, enjoying writing, and feeling a bit more like a proper writer than I did a few weeks ago.