Rural Writing

photography of mountains under cloudy sky
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I’ve just got back from an exhilarating dog walk through the tail end of Storm Ciara, or maybe the head end of Storm Dennis, who knows. The lane follows the curve of a stream, which feeds into the river Hertford a few fields over, but you can see that it’s been manipulated at some point, the stream, to meet the requirements of drainage and farm land. In rough weather, when it’s rained a lot, the original river rises in the field, next to it, which once upon a time was a village park and cricket pitch. The old stream is slowed down to puddles of standing water, trying to speak its mother tongue, as if the compulsion to flow the way it has flowed for thousands of years is still strong. Whenever I see it, can see the track of it, the rises of its long gone banks, I think of this poem; Dunt, by Alice Oswald.

There are dozens and dozens of beech trees on my walk, and twisting, ancient hawthorn hedges, and strange rocks which have been used to shore up banks, rocks that have had a previous lives in walls or buildings or maybe something earlier, touching their fingers to the past. On one side of the lane is a sudden hill, which I felt sure was a tumulus when I first moved here, but now I’m not so sure. Either way, it’s terraced with the marks of medieval plough shears, the peaks and troughs catch the evening sun and cast long, spinal shadows at this time of year. The sun sets over it. Currently there are sheep in that field, and the magpies and crows that accompany them, picking the wool off their backs. But not today, today the sheep are sheltering on the other side, out of sight, and the birds are tucked up in hedges and trees. The storm is still raging. Hailstones were being thrown down the main street  as I came down the village – like having ice gravel thrown in your face – and the roar of the wind in the trees was deafening, it made my heart lift in my chest, a sort of thrill and fear at once. And then, after a satisfying, but not long enough walk home there comes the sudden, satisfying click of door and the total stillness within. As I write this, I can hear bins being blown about outside and the skittering of rubbish blowing over tarmac. We are the lucky ones, barely any flooding here. It’s good to be inside and back at my desk.

trees covered with snow
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I’m thinking a lot about how landscape, weather, nature continues to influence my writing of late, with a view to new writing projects for the future. I keep drifting to weather related poems, like Ted Hughe’s very well known Wind and My old favourite Sylvia Plath’s Hard castle Crags. Writers are so drawn to weather, it does something to us. I always come back calm in my heart after being outside walking or even just being in front of a window watching the weather.

This has been a bit of period of self reflection, in general, I feel I’m finally getting chance to do some work on myself.  I am delighted that Poetry Wales are publishing some poems of mine, but even more delighted that they commissioned me to write an article on my process of writing through grief and how that journey has influenced the collections of poetry I have written to date. The Hare and the Witch: Transforming Grief into Poetry is in the next issue, 55.2, and the first with wonderful new editor Jonathon Edwards, you can buy it here. The article caused me to reflect on how much returning to the loss of my daughter has enabled me to focus in on style and composition, but also hone the emotional side of poetry – working to how to make a poem work for other people and not just myself. I enjoyed going through my books, looking for the signposts that are there. It is good to reflect on your work, to look at where you’ve come from, where you are going. Right now, moving forward, I’m trying to reconnect to the things that mean something to me, that are a part of me, and this – living rural, being in the landscape which has been the backdrop for my whole life, the archaeology, the psychogeography- it’s coming through strongly and defiantly and allowing me to uncouple myself and disappear into in that wonderful, trance like state that writing often brings. I’m trying to re-focus, undo the need to strive and succeed and instead be present in the journey that I am on, and aware of the lessons that are there to be learnt, the enjoyment that is to be had here.

This valley that I call home was once the biggest lake in Europe. The lake was created at the end of the last ice age as the glaciers which had carved the valley melted and filled it with water. It took thousands of years for the lake to recede to wet land, bog land and this was eventually drained, like my village stream, to create farmland. In pre-history times it was a site of huge ritual significance, with people’s travelling to be near it. I’ve spent quite a lot of time researching the area, and reconnecting with my childhood memories of digs around the lake site. I’ve found myself thinking in terms of ‘lake people’ and finding that, living where I do, and having lived here all my life, I am a lake person too. This pleases me, somehow validates me, I want to make more of that connection.

There is something meditative about walking out, in the weather, it makes me write. Something perhaps about footfall and language rhythm, that connective part of the brain that comes alive with poetry, that rocking motion that babies in cars dream to, perhaps that is it. Now that I have stepped down as the editor of Dream Catcher, and given up all my other unpaid roles, I find myself, finally, able to place myself into my work in a more thoughtful and less stressful way. I am able to make more connection with the people taking the online courses, something which I’ll be building on, and I have increased my meditation practice and also started to add some daily yoga practice in, though this is less spiritual and reflective and more about undoing the aches and pains of sitting at my desk a lot. I’m hoping to have saved up enough to buy a lap top next month, so I can actually get out and about and change where I write occasionally. I’ve started writing the novel, too, and I need to get out and research some of the historical stuff, which I am so  looking forward to, but I’ll need a good laptop to do that too. All very exciting.

I got some good news last week. I have been offered an unconditional place at the University of York, to do my PhD. It’s a big deal. But I dare not get too excited as I cannot do the PhD without the scholarship, which I applied for at the same time, and which I won’t even know if I’ve made it to the next round with until March. Apparently there are roughly 400 people applying for forty positions across three universities. That’s a lot of competition. I do not know what I am up against, and I know academically that perhaps I am not the strongest candidate, there will be people applying who have gone from GCSEs to A levels, to BA to MA and then into a PhD, full time. And then there’s me whose gone from GCSE to office work, to shop work, to factory work, to more factory work, to lab technician, to part time BSc, to Microbiologist, to OU distance learning BA to distance learning MA, to dog walker, to failed PhD, to freelance writer, to workshop facilitator, to full time, self employed writer. I took the working class route, I took the scenic route and by God, I am glad I did. I have so much life experience and so much determination, but life experience and determination don’t often land you full scholarships and I know I would need support, which is also what this scholarship is offering. If the failed PhD taught me anything, it’s that I would have benefitted from a lot more support, that I wished I’d said more about feeling so working class, so much as if I didn’t fit in, didn’t know the system, wasn’t confident in myself, and I didn’t know what I was and wasn’t supposed to know.  I definitely could have made my feelings of isolation a lot clearer, only I was sinking into depression and it was a complicated situation with staff losses and a department under pressure, and I couldn’t make enough money working to pay my fees and have time to do the PhD, it all came apart so horribly and it was an awful part of my life. But, I have benefited from the experience, hugely, it taught me so much. And I wrote some kick ass octopus poems too. I want desperately to prove that I can do this, and do it well.

Anyway. If nothing else, I have been offered an unconditional place at the second to top university in England for English, to do a PhD in an area that I am hugely passionate about, on a subject that I am in love with, and all of it relating to a community where I feel the work would make a huge difference. And I’m going to grasp that achievement, and put it in my little heart locker, I’m going to be proud of that.

Until next time, look out for my #dailydiary tweets and also look out for news of a brand new online course I’m going to be running, which will open for bookings on Friday (14th February) for the starting date of 1st March 2020. It’s going to be a good one!

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