Otters, gigs, pamphlets, gigs, projects

Hi all – quick round-up of what’s been keeping me away from blogging here – blogging HERE! Celebrating Change is a new Arts Council-funded project from me and my colleague Laura Degnan. We’re combining my writing experience with her filmmaking skills in order to run a year-long digital storytelling project for Middlesbrough residents. I’m also in charge of running the blog as a poetry/film/flash fiction online magazine, so please do check out the many poems I’ve been posting over the last few weeks.

Otters are through the first edit and getting their covers sorted, on track for publication in early October – you can still pre-order your copy, and even buy a print of my ‘Otters In A Bathtub’ illustration, or instruct me to draw an otter of your very own! You have until 10th October to get in on the deal, so do get clicking!

And finally, I will be one half of a brand-new pamphlet coming out in the Black Light Engine Room series. These are gorgeous little pocket-sized poetry gems, with a classy yellow cover, and only cost £4 a pop. I will be reading at the pamphlet launch at Python Gallery in Middlesbrough on Saturday 28th October, hope to see you there.

Lots of other gigs and readings lined up for autumn:

Autumn Gigs updated

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Workshops – during and after

Hello! This is for anyone who would like to know what kind of stuff happened in my recent creative writing workshops for The Forge in Stanley. It’s also a bit about how poems might develop after such a workshop. If that’s not for you, then no worries, see you later xx

justforwomen_4

I recently ran two versions of the same workshop, one as an open public 3-hour workshop for Northern Writes Festival, and a shorter 2-hour version this morning for the Just For Women group. The basic structure was the same, but with 3 writing exercises in the longer version, 2 in the shorter session. In both, we start by drawing a map of somewhere we knew well as children. Over 30-45 minutes, we add on layers of details – street names and nicknames; people, animals, significant trees; places where stories happened to us and to others; urban legends; colours, sounds, textures and smells. It’s incredible how much detail you can recall using the technique of mapping.

Then we read a couple of example poems. I think of this bit as a choice between ‘landscape’ and ‘portrait’. The poems I’ve been using have been The Bight by Elizabeth Bishop, and Jean by my friend Jane Burn. We talk for a while about images, how to make them vivid, how to make verbs work hard for you. (Jean’s hair doesn’t curl, it ‘fizzes’, for example). Then we free write a landscape or portrait of our own, using the maps and their memories as our inspiration.

In the longer workshop I also ask people to try a short prose-poem or piece of flash fiction telling a real or imagined anecdote, and hand people some examples of ludicrous but real headlines to get them going. (One person in Stanley used this one – Ghost Hunters Stumble On Graveyard Porn Shoot). At some point we have tea. At the end we give our pieces a bit of spit-and-polish, talk about what editing we might do at home, share the bits we like so far. And then…

Well this is what happened to mine – huge frustration, followed by a couple of edits that got me quite close to a finished poem. It may not be brilliant, but it’s more interesting than versions 1 or 2. In my opinion.

Blackbirds

Sleek among the rotten

leaves are blackbirds

dandily stabbing

swallowing small things

whole; should a brother

wear a white patch

volleying pecks at him

(naturally to death)

other as he is to the Race

and Nation of Blackbird,

that reaches in the dark

to the outermost edges

of the next bird’s song.

On retreat

Any repeated action has the potential to become a form of meditation. ‘Form’ not only meaning ‘type’, but also ‘form’ in the sense of ‘a shape that we can follow’. The shape of the repeated action endures, is a constant; the breath, a tai chi sequence, the schedule of a day, the structure of a retreat. We repeat the form not in order to ‘get it right’ or ‘be good at it’, but because by placing ourselves into the constancy of its shape we can more clearly observe ourselves. We provide the ever-changing contrast.

So this retreat was both the same as others, and at the same time completely different. Dhanakosa retains its form, breathing us and and breathing us out, but the dynamic of the people changes. We are here as a chance sangha, temporary and at the mercy of random association. We make the best of the situation that we can, through our external actions and relationships, and through our private contemplations.

The bells calling us from sleep to waking, from silence to community, from leisure to attention – these are like the changing postures of the tai chi form, guiding us to act and move to the same purpose, in the same direction at the same time. In this way our individual energies are brought into synchronicity, and are amplified, until the sangha emerges as a single energetic organism of which we are the cells.

The repetition of the days, our willingness to immerse ourselves in the joint endeavours of meditation, cooking, eating, silence and writing – these are the things that polish the retreat until it becomes a smooth, heavy gem. Then it is able to drop deeply, taking our joint and several practises to more profound levels.

 

Quaking All Over

compassionateThis time last week, I was immersed in silence at the Friends Meeting House in Darlington, thinking about compassion. I’m sure that if I were a Christian I would have found my way to the silent worship of Quakerism by now, it appeals to something very deep in me, probably the same thing that has been sending me off to Buddhist retreats for the last eight years. I appreciate the way Quakers think profoundly about very big issues indeed – conflict, war, refugees, tolerance, peace. Their writings emphasise inclusion, welcome and bridges between faiths. I think this is an expression of compassion.

We had a very lovely time talking and eating the homemade carrot cake someone had kindly made. Everyone engaged with my fumbling questions with great integrity and thoughtfulness, but I’d like to share one anecdote here in particular, because it really illustrated for me the challenge and beauty of acting compassionately.

A man goes into his regular pub and finds to his dismay that there is printed material on the bar containing racist and anti-refugee jokes. He is boiling over with indignation and anger towards the two barmen, who he had previously thought of as friendly, welcoming people. He doesn’t know how to confront them, how to argue with them, how to defend the victims from this attack. He shows the ‘jokes’ to a friend who also drinks in the pub, and asks him how he would handle it. The other man goes up to the barmen and says “I have known you two for years. You are always the first to help people round here when they need it, I know you are kind. Why are you refusing help to these other people when they need it most?”

I don’t know the outcome of the story, and to a certain extent it doesn’t matter. Of course it would be wonderful if the barmen suddenly had epiphanies and stopped fearing immigrants, but I suppose it’s more likely they would have retorted with some ‘charity begins at home’ position. But for me, it’s an example of how to be in the world and actively engage with divisive issues on a personal level – without compromising on the aim of compassion for everyone.

StAnza – possibly the perfect poetry festival

I spent the weekend in St Andrews as a performer at StAnza, Scotland’s international poetry festival. Lucky, lucky, lucky me! Collected from the station, treated with unfailing courtesy and unflappability by every staff member and volunteer, fed at the poet’s buffet for free throughout the weekend, delivered back to my home-bound train in timely fashion – bliss!

This was my first time to StAnza, and even had I not received the perks of performer status I would have been bowled over by the finely-tuned balance of the programming, the range of poetic styles encompassed, and the inventiveness of the ‘extras’ such as table-side performances and hashtag poetry. (By the way, my set -collection launch went very well. There are reviews here and here, which I don’t expect anyone but my mum to actually read. Hi Mum!)

In one day you could attend: a serious breakfast talk about the concept of the body in poetry, led by a diverse panel of poets including multi-award winning Andrew McMillan and arch-innovator SJ Fowler; an intimate gathering in a graceful oval drawing room, hung with green watered silk wallpaper and garnished with immaculate white orchids, listening to Pascale Petit fill it with hummingbirds and jaguars; a lunchtime hour of sheer entertainment from a spoken word show like Jemima Foxtrot‘s Melody; an afternoon of splurge-buying beautiful small press poetry collections and chapbooks;  a double-bill main stage presentation of classic readings by Jo Shapcott right next to multi-lingual near-operatic sound poetry from Nora Gomringer (complete with jazz drummer); and then round it all off with a poetry slam hosted by current BBC Champion Scott Tyrrell.

Frankly, what this kind of programming says to me is that the team who put this festival together know their poetry, widely and deeply, and are passionate about it in all its various glories – at times to the point of fangirldom! If you have any love at for poetry, you should go. And it doesn’t hurt that a. St Andrews is charming and b. it has both gelaterias and second hand book shops. Perfect.

 

I Think Of All The Young Women To Come

Me at my lovely hotel
Me at my lovely hotel

One of the first things that happened to me when I went to boarding school, aged sixteen, was a mysterious summons to interview by the boys of the Upper Sixth. One by one, the new girls like me were taken to some common room or other, and were solemnly quizzed by complete strangers on such arcane matters as whether we preferred ‘pork’ or ‘beef’, and how short we kept our fingernails. There was an atmosphere of barely suppressed sniggering, a definite sense that we were being judged on the basis of our sexual orientation and availability, but in a code to which we had no access. None of us refused to go. None, that I know of, refused to answer the questions. We swapped notes once we were back in our own boarding house, all of us admitting to bewilderment, but none of us sharing the lingering sense of shame, that we had been subtley violated, made to perform for male amusement, manipulated into trying to ‘get it right’ in a game where we could never know or change the rules.

Welcome to patriarchy.

Nearly thirty years later, I find myself by some random chance hired by a private school several orders of magnitude more expensive, prestigious and intimidating than the one I attended. My job is to perform my show, The Moon Cannot Be Stolen, to their sixth form , and to have a convivial dinner with the students of the Lit Soc beforehand. I speak to intelligent girls, one a scholarship student who like me was state educated until receiving a bursary to attend this vast Palladian edifice. She feels a teensy bit stunned into submission – I sympathise. I speak to a quiet, thoughtful girl who would like to write about gender politics, but is too afraid to put herself and her thoughts out there for the trolls to piss on. When I ask her if there are feminist issues to be explored at her school, she replies that the opinions of female students ‘aren’t really taken seriously’.

Hello patriarchy, you again.

I start to perform my show, amid the impeccable acoustics of the rococo Music Room, but I am distracted by the (impeccably amplified) snickering of three boys in the front row. (The front row is pretty much all boys, I have watched the girls filter in and take their seats further back.) I try to ignore them, and the rising sense of inadequacy, self-conciousness and failure that their reaction is provoking in me. It can’t be done. In an instant flash of anger so strong it is virtually an out-of-body experience, I halt mid-sentence, spin on my heel and advance forcefully on them, tell them exactly what I think of being disrespected in this way, then seamlessly return to my performance. From the mulish shock on their faces, I imagine that perhaps women don’t generally speak to them like that.

Oh patriarchy, you don’t get it, do you?

The heart of the show talks about young women and their vulnerability to attack, rape, manipulation. Usually I end the short segment by saying “and I think of all the young women to come”. This time, for the first time, I get to say “and I think of you”, looking directly at these young, bright, well-bred young women, who are in receipt of such a privileged education, but whose native fierceness has been, and is being, trained out of them. A few of them are looking at me with faces close to rapture, eyes shining, listening to my one little story about finding myself. At the end, I am surrounded by girls wanting to ask questions, and I have never felt so useful and proud in my life. May they one day rule the world.

Read widely, read deeply

SunderlandHere’s a few thoughts for National Poetry Day…

In his pamphlet-essay, ’13 Ways Of Making Poetry A Spiritual Practise’, award-winning Buddhist poet Maitreyabandhu advises reading widely, from the classics to contemporary to work in translation; and also reading deeply, because “if reading is to give us genuine pleasure and fulfilment it needs to be a kind of meditation”.

Which is why I’ve been trying out three ways of deep reading lately.

Firstly, I’ve been reading Derek Walcott’s 1992 Nobel Lit Prize-winning collection, The Bounty, which starts with his return to the Caribbean for his mother’s funeral and then expands like a storm front to encompass all of European culture and his relationship to it. So much bounty – that of God, in whom his mother took refuge. The bounty of nature, the endless moods of the sea and sky and vegetation which underpin every memory of his boyhood and every turn of his grief. The bounty of his homeland, which of course was plundered. The bounty of European civilisation and literature, which he has made his own but with which he sits in a sometimes uneasy relationship, a self-aware black intellectual in a white tradition. The poems are dense, their thought processes profound, their sentences compound and folded clause over clause into oblong packages that sit on the pages like blocks. In fact, they remind me of wood-printer’s blocks, as if they were artefacts produced by Albrecht Durer, each word a clean, sharp, chisel mark, a simple enough  vocabulary creating through the intensity of focus and repetition a series of perfect complexities.

In order to read this amazing collection, I have had to read a maximum of three cantos a day, out loud, after meditation. It’s taken me over two months, allowing for gap days and repetitions. It has been utterly marvellous, and every other poem seems a bit flimsy in comparison, but I’m starting the process now with Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘I Speak For The Devil’.

Secondly, I gladly accepted an invitation to join a little, informal book group with the purpose of discussing Claudia Rankine’s collection ‘Citizen : An American Lyric’, which has just won the Forward Prize. A dazzlingly contemporary, genre-busting piece of work, it is a forthright exploration of everyday racism in America, told via a collage of prose poems, essays, free verse and photo-art. Some pieces are presented as companion texts to videos, though we weren’t sure whether those video pieces were imagined or if they exist. The visual art is taken from a number of other artists. The prose poems are incredibly similar to Facebook status updates of people I know who record daily incidents of their experiences with prejudice, while the free verse is darker, more a case of fluidity, interiority and sub-bass emotional synapses connecting across white page space.

It was great to discuss ‘Citizen’ with a group of writers, both British and American, although it was different from the kind of close textual response I was expecting. We spoke less about form than about the issues raised and our own experiences of prejudice, which was equally enjoyable but perhaps a little surprising given how formally iconoclastic the book is.

Lastly, I have signed up for an online course with The Poetry School all about close reading the work of Alice Oswald. Every week we can download a PDF of selected works, accompanied by reading notes, questions and creative prompts. So far we have looked as her sonnets, the long poem ‘Dunt’, and some works from her collection ‘The Thing In The Gap-Stone Stile’. I chose this course because I LOVE Alice Oswald, but I’ve only read the book-length poem ‘Dart’ and her collection ‘Woods, Etc’, so I wanted to expand my knowledge. She’s some kind of pantheistic dowsing-rod of a poet, channelling the music of nature and all that is immanent into poems so uniquely crafted they are like fantastical hand-blown glass bottles filled with liquid godhead.

The poems selected and the prompts to thought are good, but I feel like I haven’t yet got to grips with the idea of conversing via a chat-room. Although there are no ‘real-time’ chats, people are encouraged to post up thoughts and responses, and add comments to other people’s posts. I find I am continually behind with the work of this course, never finding the time to write my responses. Maybe this is because I am an extrovert, so I prefer to think with my mouth, and often don’t know what I think about something until I talk it through – face to face works far better for me.

So there you go. Hope this is interesting to anyone wondering how they can start thinking about the poetry they read, hope this encourages you to read some of the poets mentioned if you haven’t heard of them before.

 

Behind the scenes at a workshop

IMG_0148Last Wednesday I gave a workshop to the writers’ group at Hartlepool Library, as part of my role as poet-in-residence at the Heroism & Heartbreak WW1 project, (latest poem now available here) which was a lot of fun to plan and research. So I thought I’d tell you what I did, in case it’s useful for anyone.

I knew that the group were split between poetry and prose writers, with some of the prosers habitually reluctant to try verse (which can seem daunting even to those of us who are poets by temperament). So I thought I’d trick them all by doing a session on prose poetry!!! Mwahahaha!!! This entailed me researching what the hell prose poetry is, which I did by reading stuff online and an anthology about The Great American Prose Poem (thank you Degna Stone for the loan). About four hours of this, on and off, on trains, et cetera, and I had selected four prose poems that I thought were accessible, memorable, full of interesting formal devices, and related to themes of war. The poems I chose were The 12 O’Clock News by Elizabeth Bishop, Monument by Mary Ruefle, No Sorry by Catherine Bowman and The Most Beautiful Word by Linh Dinh.

The workshop featured an intro to prose poetry, where I went off on a bit of a passionate rant about how they are fired by a similar impulse towards documenting the subjective experience of modernity as also powers many early twentieth-century visual movements like Dada, Cubism, Vorticism, and how the fragmentation and re-configuration of form, and therefore meaning, is common to all of them, and I may have totally made all that up…

Then we played a game I made up called ‘The Prose-Poetry Venn Test’, where I had made a load of cards saying things like ‘humour’, ‘formal rhyme structures’, and ‘true stories’ and everyone had to decide if they were features exclusive to prose, to poetry OR…..wait for it….could be used by both! In this way we laid the foundations for a world where poetry and prose were almost entirely overlapped.

After that, we read the four poems out loud and discussed them, which was GREAT, love a bit of controversy! At this point I was massively over-running my lesson plan, and everyone’s brains were dribbling out of their ears, so we had some tea and came back for two short free-writing exercises. In the first one, I read out Carl Sandburg’s WW1 poem ‘Iron‘, but line by line, with each line acting as a prompt for 45 seconds of free-write, which rolled on line by line to a full time of about 10 minutes. Then we immediately did 5 minutes free write in response to a variety of prompt questions inspired by my looking through the online archive. Then we had another 8 minutes to edit one or both of our source writes into a prose poem, which I assigned the arbitrary ‘rule’ of a 100-word limit.

I pushed them hard, really hard, but the final pieces when we shared back were uniformly excellent. As usual, I just have to remember that what I tend to plan for a 2-hour session is invariably 3 hours-worth of activity….

A Teensy News Round-Up

IMG_0024Hello everyone! I haven’t said anything for a while, even though I’ve been thinking Thoughts. So here is just a bit of humblebragging about places you can check out my work…

So I have a poem in The Fat Damsel #4. This is a great online magazine set up by the very talented Jane Burn, with guest editors. You should absolutely follow them, they’re fellow WordPressers. This is ‘my’ edition.

I also have a poem about to appear in Magma #63, which has the theme of ‘Conversation’. I’d never submitted anything to Magma before, as it’s One Of The Biggies, but I happened to have three poems that fit in with the theme, so I gave it a go. I’m extraordinarily proud not only to have got in (with only a minor editorial cut of one line), but to have also been asked to read at the launch. I will be one of many contributors doing a quick 2-poem set, in an evening that features headline poets Jane Draycott and Daljit Nagra – HUGE! If you’d like to come, it’s at 7pm on Friday 30th October at the LRB Bookshop, 14 Bury Place, London WC1A 2JL

Other gigs coming up are wildly varied! I have been asked by the lovely Jeff Price of Radikal Words if I would enter the Great North Slam at Northern Stage on Thursday 5th November, which is swiftly followed by me zipping down to the immensely posh Stowe School to deliver a private performance of my show, The Moon Cannot Be Stolen, to their sixth form English students. (Preceded by a three-course meal, not sure if that’s going to work in my favour…) Sorry, no public admittance to that one! But you can come and see me as one of eleven ‘alumni’ of the fabulous Free As A Bard nights in a big celebration gig happening on Sunday 29th November at The Jam Jar Cinema in Whitley Bay. Many thanks for the invitation to fellow WordPresser Elaine Cusack, who co-programmes the night with Pete Mortimer of Iron Press.

Work continues in my voluntary role as Poet-In-Residence at ‘Heartbreak & Heroism’, the current project from the Hartlepool History Then And Now online community archive. I’m attending their library roadshow, listening to people recounting their family’s connection with military and merchant naval activity during WW1. The next roadshow is coming up on Friday 9th October at Seaton Carew library, 10am – 1pm. I hope we get some stories as good as the last one, all about a lighthouse keeper who had his leg torn off by a dredger, and who sent his 10-year old son into the Merchant Navy as an apprentice just 2 years before war broke out. Watch this space for the poem, when it gets posted up!

The other huge project is the finalisation of the manuscript for my first full collection, coming out with Burning Eye early next year. We have an internal structure, we have some choices for cover design (beautiful circular motifs designed by my talented father-in-law, and coloured in the best clashing style by designer Monica Tuffs), and we have some amazingly generous big-up quotes from my fellow poets for the back cover. What I also have is a growing idea for a residency + show tour, which yesterday I pitched to some likely venues at the very helpful biannual Meet the Programmers event. I am very excited to say that I have definite interest from The Witham in Barnard Castle and Jabberwocky Market Festival in Darlington, so yes, you guessed it, I can feel another Arts Council bid coming on…

Some Advice On Editing Poems

None of the advice below is written by me – it was given to me at last week’s Wolf At The Door retreat, by one of the retreat leaders. I have no idea if Vishvantara wrote these points herself, but if she did she’s a genius. I hope and trust that she won’t mind my sharing them on.

IMG_0059

Fifteen Ways Of Working On A Poem

  1. Take an unfinished poem of twenty-five to forty lines or more. Remove half of the lines (whichever hand-picked lines you choose). Now cut it in half again. Scream as loudly as you like.
  2. Take a poem of ten or twenty lines and make it forty or fifty. Stretch it, milk it, pad it, free-associate, spider-diagram it and repeat things in Spanish if you have to.
  3. Find the energetic points. Where are the ‘hot’ areas? Put one as your first line. Put another as your last line. Rearrange the other lines or verses in between.
  4. Divide your imagery into ‘heart’ and ‘head’ and cut out everything not heart-felt. Where there used to be ‘head’ imagery, try using simple language that doesn’t compare anything to anything else.
  5. Make sure you consider cutting your last line and the few above it as well. Where does the poem itself want to end? (Beware of the ‘it’s not over until the fat lady sings’ feeling). The end must come as a surprise to you as you write, not be the one you started out thinking you must have. Have you strained the poem into finishing where you want it to go? Poems often delight in stopping midstream, taking off, drizzling away or turning around and biting us playfully. Only rarely do they delight by ‘the moral of the story is’ or ‘so this is how it all ended up’.
  6. Find a phrase or a line or two that you are a bit complacent about, a bit of writing you think is quite good, and rephrase it noticing how attached you are to the previous version. Ask a friend which is the better option.
  7. If you are writing from or about a memory, insert a detail from you present experience. If writing from or about the present, include a memory.
  8. Imagine that at a certain point you rose a hundred feet into the air and looked down at the tableau vivant of the poem. What is its gesture? Can you somehow include this in the poem?
  9. Imagine that at a certain point in the poem you became very tiny and sat within a phrase that you had just written. Write what you see around you.
  10. If you have too many little prosy words, articles or linking words, try re-writing those phrases with fewer small words.
  11. The word ‘of’ is a poetic cliche, so delete the ‘of the’s, e.g. ‘the gate of the mind’. It should be ‘the mind’s gate’. Also beware of any words you wouldn’t use in conversation – e.g. ‘aplenty’.
  12. Try translating your poem for the benefit of someone with limited knowledge of your language.
  13. Try explaining your poem to a philosopher. Add some of this explanation to the poem.
  14. Always keep you original draft – that’s very important.
  15. Put your poem in a drawer for three months and start something else.