The swallows have been back a while; swooping over the lane, picking insects from the air above the village stream. They are quick: a beat of wings and acrobatics, the flash of white and orange. The house martins too are back; building their spit and mud nests under the eaves of the boarded up pub. They’ve been back and forth outside my office window, deciding if they are going to build there. A thin line of brown mud has appeared. They chatter incessantly, argue between themselves about who knows what. And now they have gone again, presumably they have found a better place to nest, one where there isn’t a woman constantly leaving out of the window to look at them.
But it’s the swifts I’ve been missing. I am lucky in that my twitter time line is full of other nature enthusiasts, and I have watched the arrival of the swifts in exclamations: the swifts are back! I’ve watched the way the sightings came slowly up the country until they were here in Yorkshire. Someone, I forget who, even posted a video of herself which she’d accidentally recorded, of herself seeing the first swift of the year, the sudden joy of it. The arrival of the swifts is one of those natural events that brings real joy.
Last week I thought I’d begun to hear the scream of swifts in the village, and yet every time I ran to my window or walked out into the garden, they were nowhere to be seen. And then, just last week, there they were. Three to start with, their silhouettes unmistakable against the blue, blue sky of early summer. I felt a mix of joy and a strange relief; as if they were symbolic of hope, and that hope had not abandoned us, after all.
Yesterday I lay on my sun lounger in the garden reading Matt Merritt’s A Sky Full of Birds and watching the swifts. The book is excellent, incidentally, a truly beautiful read. Later I walked the dog around the lanes of the village. Everywhere is lush-green, the air heavy with scent. We walked up to the wheat field, the wheat moving like water, and there they were agin, more though, maybe six, seven, all swooping and diving and skimming the wheat. I felt myself quite present in the moment, as if a picture was being painted: a landscape done in all blues and greens, with the dog and I in the corner, the wheat rolling away to the horizon, the swifts punctuating the sky.
We found her in the shadow
of the gas drum;
a pleat of otherness
pinched from her dominion.
Maw like a whale,
head slit to gill air,
a dark scythe
at our feet.
We willed her wings to open
her form take shape,
conflate to airy spaces.
A new crescent moon.
We picked the whole contraption up,
brindled, tawny, creamy throat;
she spilled over our hands
Her claws were shriven,
her eyes the eyes of something fallen,
the weight unbearable
so we sent her onwards,
to beat at the heels
of a young god’s sandals,
set her away, windward.
What do I like about the poem? Well, firstly I like that in this poem the swift is earth bound. It’s so easy to think of the beauty of the air borne swift, but thesis a different angle, an interesting look at the bird. We see that a bird that is so perfectly adapted for the air, so magically invested with flight, is broken when in our world. The god/mortal theme runs on through this poem to the glorious last lines. I like that the poem is unafraid of using imagery. It’s a rich soup of images, and they are all strong, arresting. A particular favourite is ‘a pleat of otherness’ which is so perfect for this bird that we so rarely see up close, unless something is wrong.
Later, the bird is a contraption which puts me in mind of a Theo Janson Strandbeest. It’s like we can’t imagine flight outside of human terms. And there is a moment in which the narrator is able to be the saviour, there is an almost biblical raising up of the fallen angel-like creature and the recognisable transcendental experience of saving another person, or animals’ life.
It’s a superb, tightly woven poem, which is so well observed I can see the scene incredibly clearly. Wonderful.
As I get older, and with no children to root me and turn me to the future, I look for who I am in the places that I inhabit. I have lived here in north Yorkshire all my life. I have never moved more than twenty miles from the place where I was born. I live in a valley carved by glaciers. I am ringed by the north sea, The Wolds, The North York Moors and endless farmland reaching inland. I read a lot about ritual within landscape while I was researching for the PhD (which is on hold and I have no idea what will happen with scholarship applications next year) and how we interact with the landscape we live in, how it informs our sense of self. When I write for Yorkshire Life magazine I am writing about the sea, and facing that wide expanse of blue that means you have reached the edge and can go no further. But mostly, in my own work, I am looking inwards to the valley and the moors and Wolds, feeling for my ancestors in the earth there. My people have been farmers around Thirsk for a long time, hundreds of years, though my mum’s side, we think, were cattle drovers from the north. We have ancestors in some of the small Wolds villages, names in the cemeteries that bear us like branding. But never far away: all within this area, all fairly near the valley that I now live in. I’m tempted to take a DNA test and see what comes up in my genes. My dad says my aunty did one and it basically just said Yorkshire through and through so perhaps a waste of time. Still, there is always an itch to find roots, to know myself somehow, or rather to imagine myself as the thing I want to be. I would hope for Viking, something even more northern perhaps, but realistically I suspect I am Yorkshire, Yorkshire, Yorkshire. I recently did some research on the anglo Saxon cemetery at Heslerton, in which, from the records, there seemed to be a difference between what might be assumed ‘the locals’ and the incoming Saxons: The germanic Saxons being tall and long boned, the locals being shorter, wider. I look at my family and think, yes, we are all five foot not very much and yes, wide, tough, could probably drive an auroch and a plough quite successfully. What has any of this got to do with my choice of poem today? I can’t imagine travelling and taking root somewhere else. But realistically, non of us know where we have travelled from, where our ancestors seeded themselves and look root. I find my guest poet’s story fascinating because she knows where she has come from and she knows where she is. What I mean by that is that her writing explores the landscape as a place to be in and be a part of, but a place that doesn’t define, rather it is to be absorbed. She seems to say that landscape can change around you, and you have to let it enter your personality. Her poems seem to say that you can be from more than one place at the same time. I love it when my eyes are opened by poetry and poetry, being a language of image and emotion is like opening a window directly into someone else’s experience. Maggie Harris is a Guyanese born writer who moved to Kent in the seventies, then to West Wales in 2007 for ten years, before returning to Broadstairs in Kent in 2017. I bought her collection, After a Visit to the Botanical Garden published by Cane Arrow Press after I’d put a call out of social media asking for recommendations of women writers writing about the landscape and the impact of it. Maggie kindly directed me to the poem you’ll find below. The collection, incidentally, is extraordinarily good. It is transportive, often witty, often moving and just sumptuously written, beautifully crafted poems and a really safe pair of hands. Once I get through my current reading pile I will be going back to Maggie’s work, and there is plenty to choose from. Without further ado, here’s the poem:
Cwmpengraig, place of stones
Where yuh navel string bury is not necessarily home
Dis gurl gon walk my grandmother say
And walk I walk from Guyana to West Wales
And leave I leave that place of oceans and slave bones
For bruk down cottages and hills where people still pray
And come I come with my forked tongue split syntax
Of Hinglish and street Creole to wander lanes
With no names and no map where even
Sat-nav wuk hard to find being alimbo
Beyond satellite beyond stars
And stars and dreams of stars and songs
Called these Welsh from home
To cross oceans to a continent
Of the imagination
And is peel dis country peel like onion
Garden cups my cottage in its fists of seasons
Caring nothing for my ignorance
Of names, pronunciation, language
And History running in the stream right there
Beneath the stone: mill-worker foot-bottom still indent
Ghost voice talking story wild a catchafire
How he catching boat with intention get the hell outa dis place
It nat fuh him to know some gurl would bring his story
Right back here and tell him tales of sugarcane
And captains tracing latitude and longitude
With quadrant, quill and octopus ink
Is laugh he would laugh, true true
Whilst that stream keep gurgling,
Stones keep tumbling,
Underscore the footfall of my feet.
Nage lle mae’ch llinyn bogail wedi ei gladdu
Yw’ch cartre—mae’r groten ma’n mynd i fynd yn bell
A mynd yn bell wnes i o Guyana i Orllewin Cymru,
Gadel, gadel y lle oedd yn llawn esgyrn caethweision
A moroedd. A chael yn ei le, adfeilion o fythynnod a bryniau
lle mae rhai yn dal i weddïo.
A dod gyda ‘ nhafod, dwy fforch iddi, ffordd o siarad hollt
Rhyw lediaith o Saesneg a Chreoleg y strydoedd, i grwydro
Lonydd heb enwau na map a lle mae hyd yn oed Sat-Nav
Yn gwegian ar goll, mewn gwagle
Heibio i’r lloeren , heibio i’r sêr.
A sêr a breuddwydion am sêr ac alawon
Wedi ei henwi’n yr heniaith, oddi cartre
I groesi o gefnfor i gyfandir
Ac yn pilo’r wlad, ei bilo fel winwns
Llond dysgl o ardd yn ei ddyrnau o dymhorau,
Gan boeni’r iot am fy anwybodaeth
Am enwau, ynganu, iaith na hanes
Sy’n llifo o’r nant honco monco
Ger y garreg; ôl troed a gwadn gweithiwr
O’r felin yno o hyd, a llais ysbryd yn gof
Y cyfarwydd am y goelcerth
Fel y daliodd gwch gyda’r bwriad o sgathru
A baglu hi o’r lle. A phwy feddylie y bydde rhyw ferch
Yn dod â’r stori nol yn ei chôl gan sôn am blanhigion siwgr
A chapteniaid fyddai’n olrhain lledred a hydred
Cwadrant y lle, gyda chwilsyn ac inc otopws.
Am chwerthin – fydde’n marw o chwerthin,
Ar fy myw tra bydd yr nant yn barbalu
A cherrrig yn dymchwel,
Dan fy nhraed, dan droedle fy nhraed.
Translation by Menna Elfyn
What do I like about it? I like that Guyana is so present in the poem: in the language, in the view point. There are so many roots here, so many strings reaching backwards and forwards to place, to identity, to family, to nature. That first line, wow. You can’t read it without it being a strong voice in your head. It’s possessive, it possesses the reader and opens the poem up – the narrator is going to tell you a story, and it’s going to be about travel and about belonging and though non of it is overtly spelled out, it is all there. There’s a vulnerability to it, and a defiance. I like the careful choices around punctuation and white space and what that does for the poem, opening it up, breaking rules as if the rules are not known. I like the repetitions, those little nails holding the poem together and guiding it. It is fluid, it moves; this is a poem that is almost alive in the way it searches memory out, like a fox or a dog. And then there’s that rhythm driving everything forward like walking, like travelling.
And is peel dis country peel like onion Garden cups my cottage in its fists of seasons Caring nothing for my ignorance Of names, pronunciation, language And History running in the stream right there
These lines in particular strike at something inside me. ‘caring nothing for my ignorance.’ The landscape, nature, it doesn’t care if you belong or not, you are incidental, and there is a peace in that sort of anonymity, isn’t there. And I like the connection to the mill workers, a nod to the heritage of the land being taken up by the narrator, a recognition of the stories embedded in every place, no matter where you go.
The other thing i love is that it comes with a Welsh translation, on Maggie’s website, it comes acknowledging the presence of another land and another tongue, and that’s how it should be.
Don’t forget that you can sign up to the next course now, which starts on the 1st June, details: Telling Your Story
It’s that time of the month again! This month I am re-running my very popular course ‘Telling Your Story’ with thirty brand new prompts. I am bringing back the tiered payment system out of necessity, but do remember that the tiered system is there for a reason and, especially under the current pressures, everyone’s financial situation varies. Scroll down to see how the system works.
The new course will start June 1st. It’s called Telling Your Story.
What the Course Covers
The course is designed to encourage you to tell your own story, to look at your life as a journey and use creativity to record the things that are important to you. The course is designed to be a safe space in which you can gently explore your own self and sense of self in a supportive and encouraging environment, using creativity to create a frame work on which you can describe your journey.
How the Course Works
The course will last the full month of June, with a daily prompt, weekly notes and poems, videos, links and other relevant material included as examples of the themes we’ll be covering, all of which is delivered directly to your email inbox. There’s also a closed facebook page where course attendees can share their work. The whole thing is moderated by myself and I interact with the group on a daily basis.
Who the Course is Aimed at
The course is aimed at beginners through to established writers, there’s something for everyone. We’ll be working in poetry and creative non fiction (memoir style writing) and whilst you are encouraged to push out of your comfort zone, you don’t have to write in both forms if you don’t want to.
The No Pressure Style
This is a no pressure course in which you do not have to produce anything, nor do you have to comment or even join the FB page. It is much more important to me that you relax and enjoy the course, enjoy the prompts and enjoy engaging with your own story.
Sounds good doesn’t it! I’m really looking forward to having you on board
How to Sign Up
I now have a simple payment method in my shop where you can make a payment to sign up. If the email address you want your course materials, and your website invite, sent to is different to your PayPal address, let me know by emailing me at email@example.com.
To make things fair, and to make sure that my courses are available to those on lower incomes, I have a tiered pricing system. Details below. And don’t forget, you can sponsor a place for a writer who doesn’t have the money to sign up. What a great gift that would be!
For this course, and all future courses, I am bringing in a method of tiered payment, a ‘pay what you can’ method which relies on the honesty of course attendees. There are three payment levels: £20, £40 and £60. There is also the option to sponsor another place at the price level of your choice so that I can support disadvantaged writers.
Why I have given the option to pay more
Lots of previous attendees have told me, during feedback sessions, that they would have paid much more for one of these courses, comparing it to other courses available to them. But at the same time, lots of people have told me they were grateful for the lower cost as it meant they could afford to develop their writing within their own means. I am from a working class background and still live in a working class town. There’s a grey area when it comes to WC folk, and it’s the place where almost everyone I know lives – the place where you are certainly not living in poverty, but you can’t justify retreats, courses or workshops because there is always something else (Christmas, birthdays etc).
It’s my opinion that everyone should have access to exploring their world through the arts, creative writing is my niche and in a world in which the arts are being slowly eroded, where funding is reduced and reduced, I feel I need to do something practical to help people like me, from my background. At the same time, as a working class writer and workshop facilitator, I need to be able to pay my bills and continue doing the things that I have trained for. Hence the option to pay more if you feel you can.
I know from experience how difficult it is to work out which level is right for you, so I have put some guidance together, below. I’ve based my reasoning mainly on the value of £20 in relation to food and alcohol for some reason:
Sponsored Place –
If you would need to make a choice between the course and essentials like food and electricity, then you are most likely entitled to a sponsored place. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org for a chat. I don’t interrogate, this is an honesty system and giving writers a leg up is important.
If £20 is what you might spend on a takeaway and a bottle of wine, this is probably the tier for you.
If £20 is what you spend on a bottle of wine and a nice bar of chocolate, the forty pound tier sounds about right for you.
If twenty pounds is the amount that you might put into a charity box, or a church collection, then this is probably the tier for you.
YOU CAN SPONSOR A PLACE
Even if you aren’t interested in doing the course, you can still sponsor a place and give a leg up to a writer who has hit hard times and can’t justify the disposable income for a creative writing course. If you ARE doing the course, you can also sponsor an extra place. You might choose to pay £40 for yourself and sponsor a £20 place, you might be an absolute angel and pay £60 and still sponsor a £20 place, you might be a virtual saint and sponsor two £60 places. It’s up to you. Mix and match.
What Happens Next
Once you have paid by PayPal (please drop me a line if you have paid in another way, I may miss your payment otherwise) I will use the email provided to invite you to the Facebook page. I will also use this email address to send a welcome letter to confirm that this email is working.
Places are limited, so please book ASAP to avoid disappointment!
This post was originally going to be a YouTube video, on my new channel, which you can find by following this link: The Writer Life , but we are still in lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic, and my neighbours on both sides are using the time to do some serious DIY making it impossible to film, and since I have yet to line up this week’s Writing the Rural segment, I thought I’d do a little How To segment on setting up a submissions routine.
My biggest piece of advice, coming from someone who has been doing this quite some time and has made, I imagine, ALL the mistakes, is to set up your routine, and everything you will need for it, first. This will save time and avoid frustrations later on. The below is a very basic method of organising your submission routine. My other big piece of advice is to find your own way. Find the method that suits you best. But that’s really easy to say, but if you’ve never submitted anything before, you need somewhere to jump off from, a scaffold to build your own routine on. Hopefully this will help.
Keep it simple. It does not need to be complicated. There are really only five things you need.
Writers’ and Artists Yearbook
Access to the Internet
A recording system
Cover Letter Template
The F*ck It Bucket
Let me elaborate:
The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook
You don’t strictly need one of these, there is so much information on the internet to choose from, and it is an expensive book, but for me, this is like a bible. It has a tonne of useful information written by industry and art experts and it has thoroughly vetted listings. It’s done the gathering work for you. However, it retails at £25 and I know for certain that most writers at the beginning of their career, or just beginning to build their career, will struggle to afford that. I see it as a genuine investment, and that price usually pays for itself through paid opportunities and placing in competitions over the year. But, again, £25 is a lot of money. Some top tips:
Get your W&A from the library. Most libraries will have a copy and if not, you can ask them to get one in for you, it’s free to borrow, though won’t always be available to lend.
Buy it second hand. You can make good savings doing this. You can usually find them on the big site that doesn’t pay its taxes *cough* Amazon *cough* which has been a bit of a lifeline for me as a fairly isolated rural writer. You can usually get them for much less than retail price.
Buy last years. I used to just buy the previous years copy or even the year before that. Be warned though, the further back you go, the less relevant the information.
Access to the Internet
You could just use the W&A yearbook (see above) or you could just use the internet. But if you have both, my advice is use both. You can back up information and you will find things on the internet that aren’t in the W&A and vice versa. Cover all your bases.
I am a Passion Planner fan, as you will see if you follow me on social media.
The Passion Planner is expensive. You might not need something as complicated and thorough as this planner. Make it simple, work to your own needs, you basically need something with a monthly record. Passion Planner is designed for productivity and for me, as a full time freelancer, it has been a game changer. I don’t work for PP by the way, I just absolutely love them. This is the sort of planner you can use to increase your productivity and meet your goals, and I am very goal orientated. As I have lots of different revenue and arts streams at the same time, it really helps me to find my maximum productivity and find a way to work within that, but that’s for another video/blog. For now, you literally need just something that will give you space to record things over the month, and a place to remind yourself on the day.
A Recording System
I use a spreadsheet, but you don’t have to. You can use a piece of paper, you can create a word document. I’ll show you how I create my spreadsheet further down, but remember, you need to find your own way. there’s no right or wrong in this, it’s just about finding ways that work for you as a writer.
A Cover Letter Template
This is a sort of generic cover letter that you can adapt to each individual submission.
The F*ck It Bucket
An essential piece of metaphorical kit, this is where you put your rejections, your frustrations and your failures. Grieve briefly, then put them in this bucket.
First Things First
Sit down, look, realistically at your ‘free’ time. Find at least a day, but more likely two, in which you can give yourself over to setting up a system. How often you update your system is up to you. I do my ‘big plan’ in the week between Christmas and New year and it’s for the whole year. It’s part of my annual goal setting. Did I mention that I am very goal orientated? And I like lists. I LOVE lists. List lovers unite! You should have a goal in mind. Keep it simple. It might be ‘I want to submit to one competition and one magazine a month’ which is admirable, but I find that it’s better to choose where you want to submit by how much you want to win/be published in a magazine or competition, rather than trying to meet a set of numbers. There are really two types of submission goal – 1. to get yourself seen in as many places as possible to raise your profile and 2. to get seen in the competitions and magazines you most admire, to raise your profile. One is easier to accomplish than the other, but you have to choose which one is right for you and your career. I think I probably started out aiming for no. 1 and gradually moved over to no. 2.
Go through your W&A with post it notes, or a highlighter (this is probably frowned upon with a library copy, so don’t do that) or a notepad and pen, and highlight all the comps and magazines that interest you. My approach is to first go through them highlighting as many as I like, then go through them again, teasing out the ones that aren’t right for me. Once you’ve found the ones you think you will definitely apply for, put them in the planner. These are the things you need to make a record of:
Competition/ magazine title. Don’t just put: Nature Comp. You will not remember what that is. Put Rialto Poetry and Nature Comp, for example.
Deadline. This is the closing date. Lots of magazines have reading windows and competitions always have a deadline.
Deadline TIME: This one has caught me out so many times. Don’t assume the deadline is midnight, sometimes it’s midday, sometimes it’s 5pm. Make a note of it. You shouldn’t leave it to the last minute anyway, but I can’t really say anything about that as I am a last minute girl.
Theme. Some issue/competitions have themes, some don’t. It is quite soul destroying to prepare a piece only to notice at the last minute it’s a theme that doesn’t fit the piece.
Method of Submission: Some places only accept paper subs, some places accept email. Obviously you’ll want to send a paper sub long before the deadline.
Other. Is it a sonnet competition, is it a rhymed poetry comp…this sort of thing needs recording
I then have a couple of places online that I like to check, one is The Poetry Kit which is lovely and friendly and always has loads of good competitions on, the other is The National Poetry Library which has a comprehensive list of magazines and competitions. These are obviously poetry resources, I’ll update if I come across theatre and fiction lists, if you know of any comprehensive resources, let me know. Duotrope is a good one, but I don’t use it so much anymore, not for any specific reason, I just fell out of love with it, I think. Oh, and Cathy’s Comps and Calls which has loads of free to enter stuff on it.
Right. So now you’re ready to actually submit.
Submitting Your Work
I tend to set aside a specific day of the week (Monday, in case you’re interested) when I put my weekly planner in place. When doing that I see what deadlines are coming up. I then look and see when I have time to have a look over the work I have ready to go out and to make sure I have time to edit before sending it. Next you’ll want to look up the details of the place you’re submitting to online, to make sure nothing has changed, to check word count, line count, submission guidelines and to prepare your file. Some places like each piece of work on an individual document, some like it all in one document. These are things you want to check. if you’re submitting to a magazine, or a publisher with a manuscript, you’ll need a cover letter. If you submit through submittable, you usually need a cover letter too. Here’s the template I used to use with mentees. This one is for a pamphlet/collection.
Dear [ Try and find the name of the specific person you are emailing, if not able to find the information, ‘editors’ or Sir/madam]
Please find enclosed a copy of my pamphlet, [name of pamphlet in italics] to be considered for publication with [name of publisher in italics]
My name is…. And …here’s where add a short paragraph about where you live, your own personal history and where you are in your career. If you feel you haven’t got anything to pad this out CV wise, it’s worth just talking about why you write and what you love about poetry, where you’d like to be etc.
e.g. My name is Wendy Pratt, I am a full time poet and freelance writer living on the east coast in North Yorkshire. The enclosed pamphlet is my fifth, my last four have previously been published with…blah blah blah boast boast…
This pamphlet is…. this is where you add a paragraph telling them the influences that have caused you to create this pamphlet – where did it come from, what life experiences is it reflecting, how long has it taken to write – and possibly where you see it fitting into the wider scale of publishing (egg the rise in poems about motherhood, is your pamphlet unique (spoiler alert – yes it is)
I have always liked…this is a couple of lines which say what you like about the publisher and why you are submitting – generally something like “I have always admired …publisher’s commitment to new and diverse writers…
Thank you for taking the time to read my submission, I look forward to your response
Any social media tags
Some top tips when submitting to magazines:
Include a cover letter. I was Dream Catcher magazine editor for a short time, and it really annoyed me when people just sent an attachment. Without introducing themselves.
Do not assume the editor is a man. I cannot stress this enough. It is another thing that annoyed me.
Try and find out the name of the editor and use it. It proves you’ve done a little research.
Include a short biographical note. editors do not use this to judge your worth as a writer, they simply use it to know a bit more about you, and sometimes, if you are published by that magazine, it ends up in the back page of the magazine, so that people who like your work can look out for more of your work.
Date available again. The submission guidelines usually give some sort of indication, but if they don’t, the general rule is to leave it up to twelve weeks before chasing up.
Chased up? This is a handy column. You can record their response here too. This column works well for manuscript submissions when you might chase a couple of times. (editors are very very busy)
Result. I tend to mark with A for accepted or D for declined. Declined is a gentler way of saying ‘rejected’. If I win or place in a competition, I put that in too.
Underneath the columns I keep a list of work that I have ‘available’ that is, unpublished and not submitted anywhere. This is so that I don’t accidentally submit the same thing to the same place twice or submit a piece to two different places at the same time.
This is how I fill in the spreadsheet. I cut the title of the piece from the ‘available’ list and place it in the ‘Title’ column. Then fill in all the bits around it. Once it is available again, I copy it and paste it in the ‘Available’ list. I don’t cut it, because I need the record of where it has been sent previously.
the empty chart
2. with the available work listed
3. with a competition entry filled in. Note that the title is removed from the available list, to avoid mistakes.
4. The result is added. Congratulations, 1st place!
5. You have had a piece declined, you keep the details on the sheet and copy and paste the title back into your ‘available’ list.
The F*ck It Bucket
You will be rejected, a lot. You will find that magazines sometimes lose your work. If you see a lot of success, you might find that other writers get a bit sour grapes over it. Allow yourself a short time to get annoyed, angry, sad, then put it in the F*ck It Bucket, and move on. If you dwell too long on the things that don’t go right, you will end up only seeing those things. The best way of dealing with them is to keep walking, keep submitting, keep reaching for your goals.
I’m sure you will all have your own systems and this is really just a bit of a beginners guide, but I equally hope some of you will find some use in it.
Don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel and sign up for the newsletter! I will be back with another ‘Writing the Rural’ segment next week.
Last week, I was lucky enough to have a ringside seat at a bird murder. I saw a sparrowhawk take a jackdaw in my neighbour’s garden. It took me completely by surprise. I was padding past the window in my early morning routine when it happened. I did not see the hawk appear, I saw instead, a black mass of feathers hit hard and fast and pinned to the grass like a magic trick. I didn’t see much after that as it took the jackdaw into the shadows, behind the neighbour’s greenhouse, dragging it as it kicked and screamed and fought, really fought back. What I did see was the reaction of the other birds in the garden and in the surrounding trees and roof tops. There was a racket: the herring gulls were circling, dive bombing, crying in a raucous cacophony of excitement or warning. The other jackdaws, whom I know well as they live on my roof, were on the telephone lines around the site of the attack and would drop down, glancing off the sparrowhawk’s back then dive back up, cawing and crying to each other and into the air. Other, smaller birds looked on under the constant circling canopy of seagulls, jackdaws and now crows. After a while I could see the movement was becoming calmer. I could no longer see the shadowed flaps of the jackdaws wings and assumed that the sparrowhawk had killed it. They eat their prey in situ, wings outspread above the corpse. The seagulls had moved in, but were no longer dive bombing. The jackdaws had given up and moved to the roof tops to watch, their caws became quieter and directed at each other. They were huddled. It would be easy to say ‘grief’ and perhaps this was the case. Two magpies turned up and got closer and closer, rasping and hopping through the branches of a nearby tree, several more carrion crows arrived and they too got closer, spiralling down, into the trees and then dropping onto the grass. The Jackdaws had something to say about the arrival of the crows, there is no love lost between the resident crows and the resident jackdaws. It was clear that the killed jackdaw was now a buffet, and everyone wanted some. I think at this point the sparrowhawk had had its fill anyway, and left them to it. And then, calm, quiet, a slight lull perhaps, in which I imagined the birds gathering themselves after seeing an accident, and then the world moved on.
Sparrowhawks are quite a common bird of prey. But that isn’t to say they are background, they are uncommon when witnessed up close. I’m looking at a picture of one now, in my RSPB Wildlife of Britain book. Everything about them is focused, quick, right down to the small black pupils in a disk of bright yellow, the brows ridged for aerodynamic, precision flight. Short wings, long tails, long legs, they are an incredible bird. Look at this:
After the event I went looking for poems specifically about sparrowhawks. The poet, Roy Marshall stepped forward, after I did a shout out on social media, and in his gentle, self deprecating way, offered up the poem below, fresh formed and waiting to be appreciated. I’ve known Roy for a while, the poetry world is small, I follow his career and know him as a poet of incredible, quiet talent. His poems are refined, careful, precise. His poems feel like they are being crafted with a jewellery makers kit, they are delicate, perfectly complete, the sort of poems that make you look and look and look to absorb the thing that he is seeing. I’m reading his collection The Great Animator published by Shoestring Press at the minute, which you can buy directly from Roy (follow him on twitter here) and it is beautiful. I’ve only recently fallen in love with poetry again, I’d abandoned it after finishing my new collection, which has seen delays in publication, but this sort of poetry, the beating circulation of language, is the thing that has drawn me back. I am grateful for poetry during the pandemic and grateful for poets who generously offer up their words. Here is the brand new poem by Roy, which is something special:
I’m coming out of the house
into the sort of quiet, clean air
I remember from a nineteen-seventies childhood,
and spread-eagled on the hawthorn
is a Sparrowhawk, her out-stretched wingspan
surprisingly broad. She is sunbathing
maybe, or waiting for the flit of sparrows
from the heart of the hedge, brown contour bars
rippling down through the cream
of her chest and neck, a flash of yellow leg
visible underneath, as she turns to lock me
with bright citrine eyes; she, caught
in the act of her luxuriant sprawl, and me,
awkward in my trespass, straddling the threshold.
What do I like about it? It captures the ‘commonness’ of this incredible bird and makes it uncommon by placing it within the context of an ordinary event: leaving the house to go somewhere we never find out. It’s directly and precisely narrated, present tense, we’re immediately in the thick of it, and there is no fanfare, no build up, no applause, we step into the scene with the narrator, into the
…clean air I remember from a nineteen-seventies childhood,
I like that line. It says something about wild childhoods perhaps, I’m thinking of Kes and playing out in the fields and poking things with sticks; that sort of thing. There’s also a beautiful internal, unobtrusive rhythm to it, a natural rhythm, and the whole thing is contained within fourteen lines. Is it a sonnet? Maybe a flexible, organic sonnet, there is a turn around line eight when the poem’s perspective turns from the narrator observing the bird to the bird observing the narrator. This is what I like about Roy’s work, it is deceptive, it is so well crafted that you don’t notice the craft in it, which is how it should be. Then those final two lines, that observed/observer point of view reenforced at opposite ends of the spectrum in a mirror of physical positioning: the narrator is straddled, awkward, but the bird is luxuriously sprawled.
What a journey the poem is.
I have some sponsored places left on the new course Walking and Writing which starts on the 1st of May, it’s officially fully booked now, but I have sponsored places still to fill. If you are facing financial difficulties drop me a line.
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I am thinking of a walk I took in the last of the late summer of 2019. I am reminded of it by the sound of the trees that I now hear every morning from my new office on the other side of the house. These are big, graceful, beautiful trees which are clustered along one edge of a field and horse stables, land belonging to a farm in the village I live in. My morning routine is an early one, i like the dream time at the beginning of the day, when my brain hasn’t settled itself into worry and routine: meditation, journal writing, coffee, work. The first thing I do each day is to pad, barefoot, into the new office, my writing room, and open the window for the breeze and the trees. I feel I breathe better around trees. I don’t think it’s the extra oxygen or anything to do with any sort of chemical reaction, I think it’s the sound. I have loved the sound all my life. And today I am reminded of a Ted Hughes poem because I am reminded by the trees, by the sound of the trees outside my writing room. I am reminded of a walk I took last summer when it was not something unusual to seek out the landscape and the feel of muscle burning, feet gripping, the push and climb of walking. I had driven to a spot I know, somewhere I came across while I was a professional dog walker. I had seen a sun rise here once and wanted to capture it with my camera. It was early, not even six. There was just me. I slipped out from among the houses of the nearby village, where I had parked the car, and climbed a steep slope to the woods. I did get the picture I was looking for: the sun rise, I got it coming over a hill which was smoothed to white with morning mist, the scene broken by rolls of hay bales.
I entered the woods with reverence for this quiet, creaking place of unseen wings flapping, and the breaking of dry twigs by who knows what. There were deer here, I’d seen them before, and I’d seen a sparrow hawk here too. The sun filtered silently down. Though I tried to walk quietly, it was impossible not to crunch and scrape over the dense detritus of the forest floor. I must have alerted all animals in the area to the fact I was there. I didn’t see much in the way of wildlife except the roe deer. This was a plantation forest, neat, except where it wasn’t. I don’t know the first thing about plantations, but at some point the straight, chalky path fell away and the trees were different, straggling, their roots exposed. There is something watchful about forests, about trees. After doing quite a lot of research around them for a course I ran last year, I genuinely believe they are watching, communicating with each other, testing the air for chemical danger signs. In the darkest part of the forest there was a dead bird, it had once been a pigeon, but now it was just wings, a rib cage, not much else. It lay among the soft detritus of the forest floor. I don’t know why I would remember it so keenly except that its coloured had muted and it seemed to be becoming the forest, as if through osmosis it was being absorbed back into the earth. That image arrived in one of my own poems years later. At some point I sat down on some exposed roots and inhaled the smoky, earthy smell f the trees. I closed my eyes and listened to the slight movement that had begun as a breeze began to lift from the coast. I breathed it in. And then I saw the deer. They were doing nothing, and by that I don’t mean that they were stood still and listening, they were doing nothing: not sleeping, not resting, they were laid delicately on their knees, or stood by the trees staring into the middle distance, as if they were at the side of a stage waiting to go on. They were not aware of me, I must have been down wind and I realised that the way I had always seen animals was really the way they were reacting to me, I realised that I had very rarely seen a roe deer simply being. It reminded me of this Ted Hughes poem, which I am reminded of today as I watch the trees from my window, because poetry speaks like that, doesn’t it, in ripples.
THE HORSES, TED HUGHES
I climbed through woods in the hour-before-dawn dark.
Evil air, a frost-making stillness,
Not a leaf, not a bird-
A world cast in frost. I came out above the wood
Where my breath left tortuous statues in the iron light.
But the valleys were draining the darkness
Till the moorline – blackening dregs of the brightening grey –
Halved the sky ahead. And I saw the horses:
Huge in the dense grey- ten together-
Megalith-still. They breathed, making no move,
With draped manes and tilted hind-hooves,
Making no sound.
I passed: not one snorted or jerked its head.
Grey silent fragments
Of a grey still world.
I listened in emptiness on the moor-ridge.
The curlew’s tear turned its edge on the silence.
Slowly detail leafed from the darkness. Then the sun
Orange, red, red erupted
Silently, and splitting to its core tore and flung cloud,
Shook the gulf open, showed blue,
And the big planets hanging-
Stumbling in a fever of a dream, down towards
The dark woods, from the kindling tops,
And came the horses.
There, still they stood,
But now steaming, and glistening under the flow of light,
Their draped stone manes, their tilted hind-hooves
Stirring under a thaw while all around them
The frost showed its fires. But still they made no sound.
Not one snorted or stamped,
Their hung heads patient as the horizons,
High over valleys, in the red levelling rays-
In din of the crowded streets, going among the years, the faces,
May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place
Between the streams and the red clouds, hearing curlews,
Hearing the horizons endure.
I had to get my battered old copy of The Hawk in the Rain out to find this poem again and to help me to re-experience the first time I read it. This was one of my starter poems. One of my guiding poems which helped me see that there was room for me in the poetry world. I didn’t really know who Ted Hughes was when I found this collection on a shelf in my local library. But reading it opened something in me. I could feel my own connection to land and nature in it. How wonderful is a poem, that it can be a box in which so many connections are stored. Ted Hughes is not everybody’s cup of tea. It’s difficult to separate the personal and the artistic, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop loving his work. Why do I love this poem? You can spot a Ted Hughes poem a mile away, and this is definitely one. I like the space in it, all that white around the (mostly) couplets. And look at those line lengths, the poem is moving in and out and in and out. It’s alive, it’s breathing. There’s a rhythm in it, and a great deal of word repetition. One of the things that people critiquing poems pick up on as a negative is the same word used more than once in a poem. But here Hughes knows the power of repetition, and that there is no one rule that fits all poems. This repetition is bold, it works:
making no moves/making no sound.
Frost making stillness/ a world cast in frost.
It’s all about the rhythm, and Hughes poems, especially from this collection, which is early Hughes (1957) are very rhythmic. He is tapping into the oral tradition here, using it, utilising it, building around it and playing with the imagery of gods and myth and magic. He places imagery like monoliths or henge stones. The language itself is also big, gripping, powerful; I want to say masculine, but what is masculine, what is feminine? It’s almost biblical, this narrative in which al things are given personality, power. I think my favourite line of the poem is this:
The curlew’s tear turned its edge on the silence.
Isn’t that just the most beautiful, enigmatic, atmospheric line? I would strongly suggest you read this whole poem out aloud, slowly, letting the words rest on your tongue. Go on, do it, you won’t be disappointed.
Ain’t that the truth. Look at those last four lines, the way the poem circles around and comes back to what is known about life by the narrator.
When I think about Ted Hughes poetry I think of him as being a bridge between the language of the wild world; which is movement and blood and bone, and the language of communication; which is emotion and experience.
Now I am away to re-read The Hawk in the Rain, with the window open and the trees moving in the breeze.
Stay safe and don’t forget I am still taking bookings for the new online course starting 1st May 2020: Walking and Writing
It’s that time of the month again, time to launch the next online course and I have a treat for you, another brand new course to keep you writing through lockdown.
I said this last time, and since the situation prevails, I will say it again:
Unless you are already living as a hermit in a cave, you will be aware of the current pandemic of Coronavirus, COVID-19, which is forcing events to shut, book launches to be postponed, festivals to be put on hold and regular meetings and gatherings to be temporarily closed. Everybody knows that public health must come first, but it doesn’t stop it from being a little bit gutting, especially for people already isolated, who rely on getting to small gatherings to stay sane! From an economic prospective it’s a bit of a disaster too, especially for the self employed and those in the creative arts who rely on community engagement for their living.
Keeping this in mind, the fact that more people will be worried about their income and there will be less money for entertainment, I’ve decided for this course to have one single low price of £20. You can still sponsor a place for someone who is going to be lacking that £20, and please, please do, if you can!
Because I am expecting a larger group than normal I am briefly reverting back to a closed facebook group model, rather than the closed website model until I have ironed out the glitches in the new model (it does look like a new bells and whistles website will have to be created specifically for the course now, which is no bad thing, but will have to wait until the financial fall out of Covid19 is over and done with!) which means no live chat nights on this one, which is a shame. However, every course I have run so far has had fantastic, warm groups – each one slightly different – that have taken the courses so far. And there is always lots of chat and encouragement on the facebook page.
What’s Walking and Writing About?
The course will begin on 1st May 2020 and end on 31st May 2020. Over the four weeks we’ll be talking a virtual walking tour of four different locations and using that walk as our inspiration to write. We’ll be visiting cities, forests, nature parks and towns, we’ll be looking at nature, community, physical health, mental health and how landscape and geography influence and inform our work and the works of the writers we’ll be using as examples. Although the examples used are mostly (but not all) poetry, we’ll be working in poetry, fiction and creative non fiction and you’ll be encouraged to push out of your comfort zone and try new was of writing in a safe and friendly environment.
Do I Need to be Physically Able to Leave the House for this Course?
No! If you are able to leave the house for your daily exercise you’ll be able to marry the prompts and notes into your daily walk, but the idea of the course is to create virtual ways of visiting nature and exploring the world.
How Will It Work?
Once you have signed up, you’ll receive a welcome note and a link to the closed Facebook group. You do not have to join the facebook group at all, lots of people don’t, but in my experience it has been a real bonding experience – open, friendly and encouraging. Within the closed group people are able to share their work, and post comments on the work of others. You can join and not post anything, or you can lurk quietly if you want. Everyone is different, and what creates anxiety for one person may not for another, so there is no pressure. This is a no pressure environment where the purpose is to get writing, not necessarily to produce a finished piece of work. You’ll be sent a set of notes exploring the week’s theme at the beginning of each week, and every day you will be sent a new writing prompt aimed at stimulating your creativity and getting you to set pen to paper, fingers to keyboards and get writing in a supportive and encouraging environment. The courses are suitable to all levels of experience, from complete newbies to experienced writers wanting a little motivation.
How Do I Sign Up?
Simply go over to my shop and pay the fee. If the email that you want your materials and prompts sent to is different to your PayPal address, drop me a line at email@example.com. Once you’ve paid you’ll receive your welcome letter and facebook group link and you will receive your first set of notes and first prompt on May 1st, direct to your inbox. When you join the facebook page you’ll be asked if you have paid for the course. If your facebook name is different to that used on your PayPal, let me know as I marry up names to PayPal in a spreadsheet and I don’t want to inadvertently block you from entering the group! That’s it.
Places are limited, and I am expecting this course to be very busy, so please don’t wait and be disappointed!
YOU CAN SPONSOR A PLACE
Even if you aren’t interested in doing the course, you can still sponsor a place and give a leg up to a writer who has hit hard times and can’t justify the disposable income for a creative writing course. If you ARE doing the course, you can also sponsor an extra place.
Simply visit the shop and choose the appropriate button!
Amateur comes from the Latinamator‘lover’, fromamare‘to love’ – one who does something for love. The modern definition is less wonderful, describing an amateur as a person who is incompetent or inept at a particular activity. Curious how it is no longer enough to do something just because you love to do it. The response I hear most when I tell people I write is “ooh are you going to be the next JK Rowling” –I scuttle away from the subject, and feel ashamed that no, I haven’t made a great deal of money from having work published, nor do I expect to. Those who know me know that making pots of cash has never been a driver for anything I do – I’m not an aspirational type of person and have no wish to be anything other than happy. I make a little money from writing…
These are such strange times. It’s difficult to know how to approach blog writing, and social media engagement. I’m about to start a YouTube channel too, which will be aimed at helping writers who might have come to working in the arts from backgrounds in which it’s difficult to get a leg up – working class folk, people living in rural areas, people who didn’t go to university, or people who have come late to their writing careers, that sort of thing. It all feels strange though, to be carrying on with life, to be aiming for goals and aspiring to move career and business forward. It feels wrong, but I’m not sure what is the right thing to do, what is the right approach to take. So many people are facing such intense emotional and physical pain and danger, it feels selfish to be living a relatively normal life. But what else can one do? We must all do what we can do, help where we can, do what we can and, I guess, not lose sight of the end, the other side, the place at which we are going to emerge.
And so I come back to the blog. While I have been working out a plan for the YouTube channel I decided to rejig the blog and make a plan for that. I want it to reflect the research that I am doing now, the poetry and prose that I am coming across and I want to use it as a platform to explore the rural writing experience and the validation of writing about the countryside, which includes landscape, nature and the lived experiences of people who exist within a rural setting.
I am a rural writer, working class. My work, even the poetry and prose that is very personal, is informed by the place that I live, the world that I live in. I want to explore that further in terms of roots, ancestry, pyschogeography, art, writing, writers and poetry, of course poetry.
There is a tendency for the rural experience to be seen as either pastoral or primitive, or both. The experience of rural living is often devalued because it is not metropolitan and the arts, and funding for the arts, is often centred around cities and bigger towns. This in turn leads to the idea that art based around or informed by rural life, landscape and or nature, is often (not always) seen as ‘less than’ rather than ‘different but equal to’ writing based on the personal or the urban. I want to challenge that in my own writing and my work. It’s important to me that the rural experience is recognised and validated and I want to use my blog to talk about and explore this further. This will be a regular blog, on a Friday. There will be occasional blogs that are more personal in nature too, and maybe the occasional ‘how to’ blogs, but the backbone, I hope, will now be about the work and the research I am doing.
And so, to my first ‘show cased’ poem, Coalend Hill Farm, 1962 by Pippa Little. You might remember a review I wrote of Pippa’s collection Twist, which I wrote for Northern Soul a while ago. Here it is, in case you want to revisit it: Twist Review
Coalend Hill Farm, 1962
I don’t remember the Beanley orra-man,
his boots down the lonnen black as a wet day, his caravan
under a butchered elm’s imaginary wingspan,
rusted, cantankerous: ‘all that can’s been done’,
my mother said, then, low, ‘he’s God’s own one’.
I can’t recall his singing of the Kingdom come,
or whispering from underneath his hands ‘if my soul the Lord should take’, or how he crept away
like Billy Blin, awake long hours before the blackbirds, eager to begin
carving off a dead lamb’s skin to roll one barely-living in
under a dazed ewe, force tongue to tit, tit to tongue :
mole-blind he’d move, from east to western sun, more whole
in his Gomorrah than the doucest thing, but slow,
immortal, helpless as his beasts to conjure up tomorrow.
What do I like about the poem? Well, firstly, it’s a sonnet. And I like to see writers using structure to enhance the power of the poem. Structured forms are challenging, they’re fascinating in their own right, like trying to solve a puzzle, but at the end of the day, the structured form is a tool to enhance the content of the poem. So what’s that sonnet structure doing here? It’s keeping the content contained, it is ensuring that nothing is wasted, the limitations of the form are condensing the imagery. And it’s a kind of love poem, not quite nostalgia, but something closer to appreciation. I feel that the structure is containing the poem in a metaphorical sense too. It’s mirroring the character, the orra-man who is also a contained person, contained within his own personality, his solitary caravan, his religion. The turn at around line eight or nine is deftly done too, it see-saws the poem, turning it so we are looking up at this man, rather than down at him. Clever stuff.
There’s also an unapologetic use of dialect. That first line opens up so purposefully with ‘orra-man’. There were three words in total in this poem that I had to google. That’s on of them. And I am richer for it. Too often colloquialisms, dialect and non english language are seen as barriers to accessibility, but I don’t think this is the case. We have the world at our finger tips. We are enriched by the experiences and language of others. Not everything should be a walk in the park, some things should be a joyful climb into another world. I love how this poem does this, it makes it stand out, it defines itself, places itself in a region, a geographical locality and it doesn’t say ‘I hope you understand what I’m saying’ it ‘says: ‘This is my experience, this is my language, this what is how I say it.’
What else do I like? I like that perhaps I haven’t seen everything, or understand everything that the poet has put in here. The narrator begins with ‘I don’t remember the ‘Beanley orra-man’ before going on to describe him in depth. How can the description be so full if the memory isn’t there?I don’t think I want to know. Part of why this strangely dark and unnerving poem works is because we don’t know. Again, we, the readers are given space to decide, to imagine. We’ll interpret it differently, we’ll be part of the conversation, the exploration that good poetry ensures.
There are other things I love about this poem. I love good imagery and wow, this has some fantastic images. The line that includes : under a butchered elm’s imaginary wingspan,
is perhaps my favourite. It is an incredible, earthy, grounded image. ‘Butchered’ used in this description is setting something up too, isn’t it. Something real and bloody, a signpost to what is coming. The structure too helps lead us through the poem, like stepping down stairs into a cellar in which there is real vulnerability amidst the care of a new born lamb. My dad’s cousin used to farm sheep. The skinning of a dead lamb and jacketing a new born is something that happens, it is an age old custom and very effective. This is what we ask of farmers. This life and death is a fact of farming. Incidentally, if you want to follow a real life farmer on twitter, someone who is passionate, and compassionate about his livestock and his land, I recommend @herdyshepherd1
And then that last line, wow. It feels like the narrator is dusting their hands off, job done, tools set down.
I would love to know your thoughts on it, and any recommendations you have for poets, creative non fiction writers and fiction writers that you think I should know about!