God loves an independent bookshop, yes she does, especially the self-help section. Independent bookshops are places of love and beauty, so small that thirty people assembled for an author talk is as good as a stadium crowd. (The best ones, like mine, also have a coffee machine.)
I loved the extract she read (enough to buy the book), but it was the Q&A session that delivered treasure – because, dear Reader, I am that unhappiest of creatures, a First-Time Aspiring Novelist.
Here are the marvellous titbits of inspiration I took from Steph’s talk, all of which I will immediately try to apply to my writing life:
1. There are no RULES for the writer’s working day, only PREFERENCES
Oh joy, you mean I’m not failing if I haven’t written 1000 words by 8am? No! Steph works when she feels most able to sit down and focus on the work. As it happens, for her that is first thing. A 2-hour morning might yield 1000 words that would take twice as long to squeeze out if she started in the afternoon. BUT – if the morning is taken up with other, unavoidable things, then a long afternoon of writing will happen. The woman has professional persistence.
2. 1000 words a day for 3 months = “a bad first draft”
I love that “bad”. If I could fixate on completion at the expense of perfection, I might be in with a shot of writing this damn thing!
3. Novels will bring their own ways of being written
Now, I’m working with a formulaic genre (cosy crime), which Steph is not, but I still found it inspiring to hear how each time she writes a novel she comes up with a different way of ‘how to write a novel’. This current book was meticulously planned using a spreadsheet. Her previous book, ‘The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Rae‘, was written in a huge outpouring and then sculpted into shape. It’s OK for me to not know exactly how to write this first book of mine. Even better, it will be OK for me not to quite know how to write the next one, and the next – better to be interested in the process than the product!
4. Don’t read inside your own genre while you’re writing
I’ve been a reading a lot of my genre, because as a first-time writer I need to spend a bit of time working out how it’s done. But now that I’m into the actual writing, I can see the sense of giving my brain some space. Should probably lay off the cosy crime TV dramas, too! Steph reads Young Adult fiction, and dystopian fiction, so this could be a great excuse for me to widen my reading landscape.
5. Editing is great, but after a while you’re not making the book better, you’re making it a different book.
I haven’t reached this stage yet, but I’m going to bear it in mind when I do…
And the bonus bit of info is this:
6. The presenter for uber-macho TV show Top Gear was actually Angela Rippon!
*’The Woman In The Photograph’ is a story about feminism and fierce friendship. It is out now from Zaffre Books and if you buy it online via Hive then you can nominate a local bookshop to collect it from. The bookshop receives a small fee. This is massively better for authors and booksellers than going to Amazon, but doesn’t make it any more expensive for you – please make Hive a habit!
After I worked as performance mentor on Rose’s show, The Empathy Experiment, I asked her some questions about how our process had been for her. I’m very grateful for her answers, which have helped me to assess and value my own practise, and which may prove encouraging for other performance poets out there wondering what support they would need to make a spoken word theatre show.
Why did you feel like you needed performance mentoring on this show?
The Empathy Experiment is my third solo show. I created my previous two shows with a small amount of input from others, but this is the first time I have had the resources (thanks Arts Council!) to develop a project in full collaboration with other artists. I knew I wanted to bring together people who could support specific areas of development. Dominic Berry helped me with dramaturgy and how to effectively incorporate audience engagement. Kate Morton brought her design expertise into how I could create a simple but unified look for the show. Eleonora Rosca composed and recorded original music for the show. And I knew you would be great as a performance mentor.
Even though I have a background in theatre and feel confident performing in front of an audience, I felt like there was more that I could explore in my performance in terms of how I use my body and my voice. The Empathy Experiment is different from my previous two because it follows a continuous narrative arc all the way through. I felt like I needed someone to be an outside eye to help me build that storytelling journey using movement, voice and characterisation.
What did you expect out of our day together, and what was it actually like?
To be honest, I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. I imagined we would probably do some activities playing with different ways of using my body and then matching them with different parts of the show.
It was really useful to have our Skype meeting beforehand. You asked great questions about what I hoped we might explore together. In particular, you commented that you knew my performance style was often very still and poised, and you wanted to play with different ways I could use my body. You were very understanding when I said I often struggle with anxiety and that I may have to work through some of that in our session together. You struck a great balance between listening to my ideas and offering suggestions for what we might try together. You asked me to have a think about different kinds of physicality at different parts of the show.
On the day, we leapt right in. After I did a run through of the show for you we dove in to creating different bodies for the various stages of the performance. You came to the session with lots of specific ideas for me to try in each section. For example, we watched a YouTube video of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ song ‘Give It Away’ (which is what my poem ‘Put It Away’ is modelled on) and you asked me to play with how I can infuse that raw animalistic energy into my performance. We drew pictures related to the ‘Little Match Girl’ poem, which then gave me specific things to visualize when I perform it. We discovered very distinct physical differences between the two voices in my ‘Mirror Mirror’ poem (about Trump speaking to a magic mirror) which has sharpened the performance.
We hit an emotional nerve when we played with tension and anxiety in the penultimate poem, which is written to be a crisis point in the show anyway. You were very compassionate and receptive to my unexpected outpouring of emotion. After a bit of a break, we talked through how I can access that emotional intensity in performance with care and caution, which felt very reassuring.
The whole process was incredibly organic. I feel like we created bodies that I can authentically embody in performance. I feel like we created a body-centred road map that I can journey through in performance. I feel like this work has added another layer to the full experience of performing the show, and has hopefully added a depth and richness for the audience watching the show.
It was a super intense day, and I still can’t believe how much we achieved!
What made you choose me to help you on this project?
I knew you had seen me perform several times, so I knew you had a sense of my work and my performance style.
Having seen you in performance a few times, I always noticed that your physicality worked in tandem with your poetry. You often move in intentional and nuanced ways that connect with the words you are saying. I really admired this and wanted to explore incorporating that into my own performance.
I also really enjoyed the workshop sessions that you facilitated when a few of us poets gathered to prepare an opening set for Shane Koyczan’s performance in York in summer 2017. You led activities that gave our group an authentic and organic process for deciding what poems to perform. When we rehearsed our pieces you offered feedback that strengthened our performances, using language that was full of imagery. Your overall approach was joyful and enthusiastic. You guided us to discover nuance and technique in how we shared our pieces. I liked the compassionate and detailed way you worked. I found I really connected with your development style, and this led me to wanting to work with you on The Empathy Experiment.
What could other poets and theatre-makers gain from employing a performance mentor?
I think working with a performance mentor in this way can help poets / theatre-makers dig into their performance toolbox (so to speak) and really play with all the performance tools they have at their disposal … like vocal tone, movement, pacing, physicality, characterization, etc. I think poets in particular (and I include myself in this) can get stuck in being talking heads. There is so much emphasis on the words that the body can be forgotten. Working with a performance mentor can bring a performance poet to life and can bring their words to the next level. I also think it’s useful for poets at any level of experience to do some performance mentoring. When we workshopped our pieces for the Shane Koyczan gig, we were all sharing poems we knew really well and (in some cases) had been performing for years. Digging into our performance toolboxes in our workshop meant we were trying new things with familiar material and injecting our pieces with new life and ideas.
How was this experience different from being directed as an actor?
Part of what was different was that I had written the show and so I was very close to the scripted material. It was a good challenge to release any fixed ideas about how I thought something should be performed so that I could be open to your suggestions. For example, I initially felt some resistance to going full Chilli Pepper in my ‘Put It Away’ poem or going full Sandy from Grease in my ‘Dear Facebook’ poem … partly out of feeling anxious
and self-conscious. But being open to playing and committing to your suggestions gave me space to discover. I also felt like we worked very much in collaboration with what we were exploring. You offered ideas and guidance, but all along the way you checked in about how I felt or what I thought. That sense of joint ownership over the creative process was different to my experiences as an actor, and was really positive in our process.
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:
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
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…
Freewrite in workshop
Edit 1 in workshop
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.
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
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.
Last 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….