Changes are Afoot

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This time of year always makes me itchy to move forward. Is it the snowdrops, and the green shoots of daffodils bravely spearing through the frost? perhaps. Perhaps it’s the subliminal effect of blackbirds beginning to sing in the morning, the way I now sit at my desk in the early morning writing hour and see the sunrise, rather than the dark. And it is writing that I am doing now, every day. A while a go (a year? Two?) I began to change practice. I wanted to move away from so much workshop facilitating and teaching, and work on progressing my own writing career, but I wanted to do it in a way that meant that my life had a slower pace, I wanted to grow into myself, grow into my work. Focussing on my own work over facilitating and helping to develop other people’s work meant that, shock horror, I accomplished some of the things on my long term plan and took several steps towards being paid as a creative writer. My dream is to be a writer, that one day I will have that as my main focus, that all things that I do that are not writing will facilitate the creativity and peace needed to write. It feels like a very 19th century sentiment, to have a goal that involves simply living and absorbing, thinking and interpreting life in order to create. We live in a society in which everything is geared towards success, and success equates to popularity, it is difficult to identify the core of the creative process, which is the creative process itself, the development of the artist and their discoveries of communication, connection, which is then shared. Or something less pretentious.

January was a month of an absolute grinding To Do list, funding application, tax return, judging two poetry competitions, mentoring, setting up courses and on top of that trying to prioritise work on a book that now has a deadline (more on that in another blog) . It meant that the magazine I run got way behind, there was no time to work on it. At the end of the month, as the flood waters of work receded, I began to think about how this all fits in to my desire for a more focussed, less fussy life, the creative goal. I realised I’d reached yet another place of decisions. Something has to go. I worked so hard to pare back the workload I was carrying last year, taking a pay cut along the way, and found that switching focus had worked well enough that I need to make more changes. I became a little stuck, not by the idea of change itself, but by the idea that changing my work would impact on other people. Stuff that I’d been able to fit in (endorsements, for example) would have to be turned down more and more, along with other paid work, in order to move towards a different kind of life. It feels like turning an enormous ship, changing direction, moving something that is zipping along under its own momentum and turning it towards something else. There is the fear, the fear that all self employed people carry, that changing direction might be the wrong choice, it might mean accidentally tipping all your passengers into the ocean, and what do you do then? (I’m really pushing this analogy).

I’m starting the next phase of changes slowly. I’ve decided to start with my newsletter and my blog, combining them and switching over to a substack, which feels like it has more scope to be a substantial project on its own. I’m hoping I’ll be able to take my wordpress blog followers with me automatically, and my mail chimp followers, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet. There’ll be a link to the substack in the next couple of weeks anyway, if you want to come and join me over there.

There are other big changes happening, but I’ll talk about those another time.

Thanks for listening to the navel gazing, let me know if you’ve had similar experiences turning your ship, setting up a substack or slowing your life down.

until next time

x

Quick! Five Poetry Competitions With a Deadline of 31st January 2023

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January is nearly over, but have you met your submissions quota for the month? Don’t let your New Year’s submissions commitment slip away, here are five poetry competitions with a deadline of tomorrow. Sit down, tidy your work and submit. Face the fear and do it anyway, the worst thing that can happen is that they say ‘no thank you’ and then you get them back to send out again. Exciting!

  1. Kent and Sussex Poetry Society Open Poetry Competition. Fee: £5 per poem o three or more for £4 each. Full details can be found by following this link: Kent and Sussex
  2. Teignmouth Poetry Competition. Fee: £4.50 for first poem, £3.50 for additional poems. Full details can be found by following this link: Teignmouth
  3. Storytown Poetry Cmpetition. Theme: ‘Doorways’ Fee: £4 per poem or £10 for three. For full details follow this link: Storytown
  4. Magma poetry competition. Fee: £5 for the first poem, £4 for the second poem, £3.50 for the third poem and any subsequent poems. For full details follow this link: Magma
  5. Dorset prize for a full collection of poetry. Fee: $30 (US) for full details follow this link: Dorset Prize

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Remembering Elisabeth, Pepys’s Wife – Reading the 1663 Pepys Diaries

I have somehow fallen into a January ritual of reading one year of Samuel Pepys’s diaries as my first book of the year, every year. I’ve done so since 2020, starting with 1660. I’m currently up to mid September of this year’s diary, 1663. The diaries are a fascinating glimpse of the every day life of someone who is a fairly ordinary person working their way up in an administrative job. There’s a lot about the navy and the admiralty in the diaries, a lot of interesting stuff about Charles II and the way the court and parliament worked. But for me the really interesting bits are always the human encounters. There seems to be a lot of trouble with turds in Pepys’s world; lots of basements flooded with crap. Sanitation is still a bit random in London in the 1660s. Each year he is intent on bettering himself; always, trying to rise up the ranks. His house is something he’s proud of, he makes alterations, improves it while he is living in it. He helps his father and his brothers out, helping his kin to attain good positions, lending money, sorting out the wills of his relatives. He reads interesting books, he buys scientific equipment; and is interested in the arts, science, astronomy. he loves the theatre but tries to ration himself as it distracts him from work. The working day in Pepys’s age is not 9-5, it is all days, but with life threaded in and around it. he goes to his office at a ridiculously early hour – 4-5 am in summer, but also goes to the theatre midday and out drinking, then returns to his office. He travels all around and about taking coaches, walking, going by water. He is very good at his job, and is, in many ways, god-fearing, attending church regularly and trying to live a good, clean, christian life. Except for the women. Flirtations, sexual misconduct, affairs that he constantly asks God’s forgiveness for, but does not not seek. And he is a complete hypocrite and, sadly, he is cruel to his wife. We know so much about Pepys, we know so much about him as a person, but his wife is known only through his words. Elizabeth was just fifteen when she married Samuel, who was twenty two, in 1655. It isn’t that he disliked Elisabeth, he loved her. He wasn’t cruel to her because he hated her, but, I think, because he felt it necessary to have the right kind of wife. Pepys is insecure about his place, his value. When he was away from her he pined for her. When they were both happy and content they shared a great deal of intimacy. Many of the references in the diaries are about talking to his wife, about all sorts of things, not instructing her, but lying abed on a morning and chatting about life in general. But that doesn’t justify his cruelty. In the 1663 diary Pepys records that she tells him how lonely she is at home, without him and without company and without many friends. She tells him how she wants to learn new skills, have some interests of her own. Pepys is a keen musician, Elisabeth doesn’t seem to have a great aptitude for music, but does like to dance. Pepys hires a dance instructor, male, Mr. Pendleton, to teach his wife and then almost immediately becomes insanely jealous about him. Pepys’ is insecure. He knows he is insecure. He knows he is jealous but can’t seem to help it. He is cruel to his wife. Every time she says aloud that she thinks she is good at something, dancing in this instance, he pulls her down, or at least he pulls her down in the diary, maybe not to her face. He thinks her stupid because she can’t write or read as well as he does, and when she writes a heart felt letter to him telling him how sad she is, how lonely, he throws a fit of anger because she has written it in plain english, and left it where anyone could find it. He tears it up in front of her, he goes through her things and tears up all her letters, including love letters from him, that she had treasured, in front of her. He feels bad about it. But he doesn’t really apologise, or if he does, he doesn’t record it.

It is very difficult to make a moral judgement on him, though even at a time when wives were property and men were in charge of ‘keeping them in order’, people knew what cruelty was, and what unfairness was. He knew when he was being unfair to her, when he was emotionally hurting her and he did it anyway. He records his shame over it, but does it anyway, and keeps doing it, keeps being jealous, keeps being insecure. See also countless affairs, often with the household maids, in Elisabeth’s house. Right under her nose. They never had a family. Elisabeth never became pregnant. As I read through the diaries in my annual time travel period to the 1660s, I often wonder about her and how she felt. She almost certainly had endometriosis, she was often bed bound with period pain. I wonder what she thought and felt, did she feel the years of not having a baby, did she feel devalued by the society, her market value decreased, as Pepys’s property? I wonder how she felt, this ghost in the margins of Pepys’s diaries.

In one passage in the 1663 diaries, they have a blazing row, and Pepys calls Elisabeth a ‘beggar’ because she brought no dowry to the marriage and she responds by calling him ‘pricklouse’ (which vexed him) referring to him being the son of a tailor. A cracking insult. Since I read this altercation I have seen her in my mind’s eye, mad as hell, sitting on the bed with balled fists fuming at him. I wonder what else she was mad at. Pepys records how often she fell out with servants and lady’s maids, probably because she saw his eye turned to them. What a precarious thing it must have been, to live at that time and to be owned and how did those women create a life within the prison of their husband’s lives? I wonder what she would think of me, remembering her and her flung insults, 360 years after she flung them. She died of typhoid in 1669. Pepys had stopped writing his diaries by them, but there are letters to naval captains excusing himself from work for a good four weeks because he is so devastated. After her death he was in a long term relationship with Mary Skinner, but never married her. When he died he was buried next to Elisabeth.

The diaries can be quite challenging; they are, after all, written in a world very different from our own. But at the same time, there’s a thread of human behaviour which simply hasn’t changed and I love that. That the complexities of human behaviour are still complex, that marriage and love and this short span of life in which you try to do your best, and fail and win, that hasn’t changed. Mrs. Pepys, Elisabeth, today I remember you and your life; as a person separate from your husband, though I don’t know you but through your husband’s diaries, I acknowledge your life and your anger and your love and the short span of life you spent on the earth.

Thanks for reading

until next time

x

Seeking Mid-Winter Peace

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Back into the routine this week – 7am at my desk, entering into that place between dreams and waking where the writing seems to live. I watch the burnt orange sunrise and the jackdaws returning like a song, a score, streaming in single file to the beech trees outside my window. Then my second cup of coffee in the big mug with the speckled glaze, a chapter of my book (Samuel Pepy’s 1663 diaries right now) and a walk out with the dog, whatever the weather. This is what it is to be alive in the winter, not powering into resolutions, but, for me, it is about searching for that mid-winter peace. So often I have gotten lost in the cold and the dark of January. So often I have found myself winter-sick and waiting daily for spring. This year I decide to bed into it, to wear the fluffy socks, to tie my hair in a bun and wrap myself in a thick cardigan, to read by lamp light when the sun sets at four, to get out in my fleece lined walking trousers and pull down my bobble hat and head out into the sleet and the rain, across the valley, to sit on the bench in the wind and watch the fieldfares and rooks, to listen for the buzzard’s cry. It all sounds very romantic, but I find even here work needs to be done to find a way to find the peace. Paid work has to be moved around to fit a walk in, writing deadlines have to be prioritised, always, so some days are still spent at the desk. My desk looks out onto other houses in the village, but from my seat behind the computer I see only sky, one rooftop, beech trees. The perspective means an almost constant flow of birds balancing on the updrafts and breeze that blows off the Wolds or off the sea is visible to me between dawn and dusk. This, in itself is a place of peace amongst the stress of grant applications and tax returns, deadlines and submissions. Friday afternoons in January I run a poetry group, a small band of poets seeking the same thing, I think: a way into poems, the promise of absorbing the craft, of finding voice and finding paths through the words. This is how I work. I like to work with others in the same way. This week while the writers were working, studiously, heads down, involved in their own internal world, I drank my earl grey from my wide rimmed cup with the blue hares running round it and allowed myself to sit and watch the sky. The sun was setting, the jackdaws were leaving to their overnight roost. One day I shall seek out the evening roost. In that moment when i could feel the joy in my chest, watching them stream across the frame of the window, I realised I had found the peace I was looking for.

Even if this all changes again and I no longer have the privilege of seeking peace through my working day, I have it now. You have to love the things you have, in this world, and if you don’t then you either change the things you love, or you change your life until you love the things that are in it. I feel like I have been far out at sea for years, and now am resting on the shoreline I was seeking.

Next week I run the Dawn Chorus and will be joined by other writers in my writing hour, for that quiet pocket of writing time. I look forward to being in a room of people wanting the same thing.

I hope you are navigating midwinter, and finding the things that bring you peace.

Until next time

x

I Like Big Book (lists) and I Cannot Lie – The 50 Books I read in 2022 and My Top Five

In between reading work for Spelt, research papers and research books for my current work in project, journals and magazines, I managed to get through fifty poetry, fiction , narrative non fiction and non fiction books this year. In a year that was challenging at times as I dealt with grief around the death of my dad, books became my friends and my escape once again. Thank you to every writer who courageously puts themselves on the page, who creates something amazing out of the sparking of neural pathways in the brain, thank you to those who quietly wait for their books to be noticed, thank you to those who shouted from the roof tops, I salute you. You make the world a better place simply by doing the work that you love. Here are the fifty books I read in 2022:

  1. Poetry – Much With Body – Polly Atkin
  2. Non fiction – The Diary of Samuel Pepys v. III 1662 – Samuel Pepys
  3. Poetry – Are You Listening?- Gill McEvoy
  4. Poetry – The Kids – Hannah Lowe
  5. Non fiction – The Seven Daughters of Eve – Bryan Sykes
  6. Poetry – Litanies – Naush Sabah
  7. Poetry – All the Names Given – Raymond Antrobus
  8. Fiction – One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Marquez
  9. Non Fiction – Meadowland – John Lewis-Stempel
  10. Non fiction – The Cure for Sleep – Tanya Shadrick
  11. Poetry – Like a Tree Walking – Antony Capildeo
  12. Non fiction – Mantel Pieces – Hilary Mantel
  13. Poetry – Life’s Stink and Honey – Lynn Valentine
  14. Non Fiction – Becoming – Michelle Obama
  15. Non Fiction – Why I Write Poetry – Various authors
  16. Poetry – Field Requiem – Sheri Benning
  17. Non Fiction – Tamed – Professor Alice Roberts
  18. Non fiction – Body Positive Power – Megan Jayne Crabbe
  19. Poetry – Geography III – Elizabeth Bishop
  20. Non fiction – A Journey With Two Maps – Eavan Boland
  21. Poetry – Untanglement – Matt Nicholson
  22. Non Fiction – Manifesto – Bernardine Evaristo
  23. Fiction – Grown Ups – Marian Keys
  24. Fiction – Normal People – Sally Rooney
  25. Poetry – Shelling Peas with My Grandmother in the Gorgiolands – Sarah Wimbush
  26. Non fiction – Madhouse at the End of the Earth – Julian Sancton
  27. Poetry – The Battle – Antony Owen
  28. Non Fiction – The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd
  29. Poetry – Panic Response – John McCullough
  30. Poetry – Girl Parts – Betty Doyle
  31. Non Fiction – The Grassling – Elizabeth-Jane Burnett
  32. Poetry – The Illustrated Woman – Helen Mort
  33. Poetry – 163 Days – Hannah Hodgson
  34. Non Fiction – Islands of Abandonment – Cal Flyn
  35. Fiction – Black Car Burning – Helen Mort
  36. Non fiction/fiction – Wild – Amy Jeffs
  37. Non fiction – Fen, Bog & Swamp – Annie Proulx
  38. Fiction – The Luckiest Girl Alive – Jessica Knoll
  39. Fiction – The Book of Form and Emptiness – Ruth Ozeki
  40. Poetry – Following Teisa – Judi Sutherland
  41. Poetry – Dust – Kathryn Anna Marshall
  42. Poetry – My C&A Years – Roger Waldron
  43. Poetry – a girl in a blue dress – Rachel Burns
  44. Non fiction – Maid – Stephanie Land
  45. Poetry – The Telling – Julia Webb
  46. Historical fiction – The Gallows Pole – Benjamin Myers
  47. Poetry – Unexhausted Time – Emily Berry
  48. Fiction – The Lost Daughter – Elena Ferrante
  49. Fiction – Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan
  50. Poetry – Bunny Girls – Angela Readman

And my top five books of the year, the books I fell in love with and know that I’ll return to again (in no particular order):

  1. Much With Body – Polly Atkin (Poetry)
  2. The Cure for Sleep – Tanya Shadrick (Narrative Non Fiction)
  3. Mantel Pieces – Hilary Mantel – (Non Fiction)
  4. Normal People – Sally Rooney – (Fiction)
  5. Why I Write Poetry – Various Authors (Non Fiction)

Happy New Year readers, I can’t wait to start my next book on January 1st. Thanks for reading this blog!

Until next time

x

Planning Your 2023 Writing Submissions – Ten Tips

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It’s that time of the year again. Right now you’ll be rushing towards getting all loose ends tied up in time for the Christmas break (unless you’re self employed in which case I salute your ambitions to have any time off at Christmas). But now is also the time to start thinking about how you will go about moving your writing forward in 2023. Here are ten top tips top help you get yourself sorted on focused on your 2023 goals.

  1. Identify Your Goals – Try not to think in terms of what would make you a ‘proper’ writer, but in terms of what would make you happy. If you you are drawn to writing romance novels that have happy endings, don’t let anyone take that away from you. Write the novels! There’s a market for them, and you’ll be a happy writer enjoying your life. Not everything has to be high brow literary, there’s room in the writing world for all sorts of writers and styles. Similarly, if you’re thing IS high brow literary writing, do that, even if your background means you don’t fit the mould for ‘writer’. The big secret is that there isn’t really a mould, there are just people trying to do what makes them happy. There are different types of goals, but the ones that you can see and potentially accomplish in 2023 are probably best. You might well have in your planner or notes ‘write a bestseller’ and that’s all well and good, it’s grand to have ambition, but the book has to begin somewhere, so make a concrete goal to sit next to your big goal – write 80,000 words of a novel by November 2023, submit to 20 agents by New Year’s eve 2023, for example. You could even break that down further – Goal 1 – create a writing space just for me Goal 2 dedicate 1 hour every day with no excuses to sit down and write Goal 3 join a free writing group to get feedback Goal 4 apply for funding/save up for a mentoring session with a writer I respect Goal 5 reach 80,000 words by November 2023 Goal 6 Submit to 20 agents by New Years eve 2023. Break your big goals down and create stepping stones to reach them.

2. Be Realistic With Your Time – Work with the time you have, not the time you’d like to have. This is a biggie. We are all optimistic with our time, but if you are going to get that novel/poetry collection/play written, you need to be realistic, otherwise you will become disheartened and end up not getting it done. If you can, find the extra time. I am a great believer in finding five minutes here, five minutes there to reach a goal, but what has worked for me recently is committing to getting an hour of writing in at 7am on a morning. Coffee on at ten to seven, at my desk for seven. It’s not always easy, but you will come away feeling like you have accomplished something, even if you just manage a couple of lines. I’m running an early morning writing group in January – link to eventbrite details

3. Build A Structure That Will Support You All Year Long – My biggest piece of advice is to put the work in now, at the beginning of the year when you are motivated. Build a structure that will support you when you are not motivated. When you are on the tail end of twenty rejections in a row and feeling like you just want to give up, a decent structure with a plan of what you’re doing next will save you, it will be the life boat in the rough sea of trying to get your foot in the door as a writer. What does it look like? For me, it is a spreadsheet. I am currently compiling a spreadsheet with a page for each month with lists of opportunities – grants, magazine submission windows, competition deadlines, retreats etc, with at least four things on each page. The work is getting done now, the details will be laid out for me, I will have written a biog that I can update, I will have an author photo I can use, I will have a generic cover letter that I can up date and amend when necessary. That’s the tool box, I just need to do the writing.

4. Resources to get you started:

NAWE – NAWE website link – https://www.nawe.co.uk

Cathy’s Comps and Calls – website link – https://compsandcalls.com/wp/

Poetry Kit – website link – https://www.poetrykit.org

ACE job search – website link – https://www.artsjobs.org.uk/search/node

Katie Hale ( five opportunities every Friday, posted on her timeline) link – https://twitter.com/halekatie

5. Follow Writers on Social Media – Lots of writers share the love by posting opportunities on social media, some also now post lists of opportunities directly to your inbox, and this can be a great way of staying on top of, and adding to your opportunities list. Google searches and social media are your friends here. Follow writers on twitter, follow writers on facebook, follow writers on instagram. Find those writers that can give you a lift up, and don’t forget to give back – share opportunities YOU come across too.

6. Keep a Record of Your Work as You Write it – At some point you’ll see a call out for a poem on a theme that you KNOW you have written about, but you’ll not be able to find the poem/short story/essay for love nor money. Keep a record (I keep mine on my spreadsheet) of poems/stories/essays you have written once they are finished so you always know exactly what work you have.

7. Keep Good Submissions Records – It’s not rocket science – you need three columns – title, where submitted, response. You can expand on this, as I have, with dates of expected results, whether you have chased them up, whether they accept sim subs etc , but if you want to keep it simple – title, where, response.

8. Be Your Own Cheerleader – Getting validation in the form of celebration or commiseration from your social media friends is great, it serves a bonding purpose, but it can be addictive. You need to find that validation inside yourself otherwise you’ll be reliant on other people’s validation to keep going as a writer, and that can lead to writing for other people. See point 1. do what makes YOU happy, not what you think other people want to read. And remember that everyone feels kicked in the crotch by a rejection, even if they are well established. Learn to tell yourself that your voice is as important as anyone else’s, that your work is valid, that you don’t need permission to write what you write. Give yourself permission, be your own cheerleader.

9. Keep at it! – You’ll want to give up. Don’t.

10. Remember Why You Started Writing – because it gave you a sense of joy and purpose. Hold that thought in your mind and when you feel like you are not being true to the original impulse to write, check yourself, check what and why you are doing and reassess your goals and priorities.

Last blog of the year next week. Thanks for reading!

Until next time

x

Pantoums: The Boulder’s Dream

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This week I was happy to see what I’m calling my ‘experimental pantoums’ appear in One Hand Clapping. The magazine is one of those online gems, fully of interesting stuff. This is all down to the editorial choices – it’s elegantly curated and varied. I think journal and magazine choice quality is subjective, I tell mentees that they should submit work the magazines and journals they respect and who feature work that they themselves like to read over where they think their work should appear, but there is definitely a difference in quality between a hastily thrown together online magazine and something like this one in which thought has gone into the aesthetics, the curation, the identity of the magazine. Putting together a magazine is a labour of love that takes many more hours of time that perhaps is imagined. I strongly suggest you settle into a comfy chair with a nice cup of tea and dive into the work in One Hand Clapping for an hour or so, and you can do that by following this link, where to you also find my pantoum sequence: Link to One Hand Clapping.

Pantoums are a nice form. I think I’ve said before that I like repeating forms. I like them because a lot of my work is about the overlaying of self over self, the seams between past versions of self and current, the way that times move in a non-linear fashion and often life events feel like they have just happened. This is, obviously, a difficult concept to capture in a poem. Any big concept is difficult to capture in a poem. Structured forms can help in that regard. Where free verse is structured from the inside, structured forms are containers, or exterior scaffolding of the poem. They can shape how the reader comes to the poem and a poet can use a structured form to enhance the content of the poem. Which is what my aim was for the pantoum sequence.

The pantoum form is derived from the ‘Pantun’ which is a Malay form, an oral poetry form thought to be older than written language. The idea that I can capture my own poem, about my own experiences, in a poem form derived from a form that was passed mouth to mouth in a part of the world far, far away, and that there is a link there; between the timelessness of language and story telling and more – humanity and our need to communicate via art, it gives me goose bumps.

A traditional pantoum, the english version at least, has repeating lines and looks a bit like this:

(find out more by following this link: wikipedia)

Stanza 1
A
B
C
D

Stanza 2
B
E
D
F

Stanza 3
E
G
F
H

Stanza 4
G
I (or A or C)
H
J (or A or C)

I do think that once you get to grips with a form you can and should explore it. Most structured forms were created in non-english languages, a lot of them are hundreds and hundreds of years old, it is, therefore, unnecessary to be a purist about the form, in fact it can be detrimental to the content if you try to remain rigidly attached to some structured forms as it ends up bending the content to breaking point, you end up sounding like you are pretending to be hundreds of years old yourself. If intentional that’s great, but if not, that’s distracting. Content is king in the world of poetry, the form you choose affects the reading of the content, it can enhance it, but it can also strangle it.

The boulder in my poems is a real erratic boulder, you can read a bit about it here, though I should add there is a factual inaccuracy in this blog – the boulder was moved in 1987, not 1947. I watched it being moved, I was nine. But everything else is right and it gives a nice over view of the history of it, and pictures of it. Link to The Crossgates Boulder blog

I’m writing a lot about my place in the landscape I grew up in and have remained in right now. Every morning I watch the sun rise while I sit in my office at 7am putting the work in. I’m mostly working in prose right now as I work on my big prose project. The next Spelt dawn Chorus sessions start in January, you can come and jin me for five days of 7am writing in the deep sleep of January dark if you’d like, here’s the link where you can book your place and find out more – link to Dawn Chorus. And if you fancy writing poems with me I’m running a four week zoom poetry group in January too. It’ll be nice to see you there. Here’s the link: Prompts and Poems Writing Group

I am thinking a lot about how my own magazine Spelt is run too right now, and how we will survive in a place where people are strapped for cash. Changes are afoot. So it’s even more special to see work, quite experimental and long work, being taken and platformed by magazines like One Hand Clapping. Bravo for editors who care about their writers and their readers I say. From this writer and editor, I salute you.

If you want to read some more pantoums, you can find a good stash of them on the Poetry Foundation website, here’ the link to it: Link to Poetry Foundation website

Until next time

x

The Winter Hedgerow

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I’m just back from a very wintry dog walk with my very slow and elderly dog. There is something to be said for the slow walk and the honesty of bad weather, how a really good soaking freezes you so deeply it’s like it’s cleaned the very bones of you. And going so slowly allows for a close examination of the landscape; not just the valley and the hills around you, but of the landscape with a small L, the place where we exist every day, the areas that, in some ways, become background. I think of hedgerows like that. Hedgerows are a constant in the landscape, acting as dividers, boundary lines, shade for livestock. They sew the lands together, tracking across the countryside and lining the lanes. The hedgerows around my village feel timeless, and some are in fact likely to be boundary lines going back a thousand years or more. Hedgerows are like that – timeless, ancient, magical. Even the name – hedgerow, feels old and rounded with time, so close to the old english hegeræwe I can feel the weight of all those years in my mouth as I say it. I like the way you look at a hedge and see its history. Here’s a picture of a hedge in my village that has a history of being maintained in the traditional way, in which the living Hawthorn is cut down through the stem almost to the ground and then bent over and woven through the other stems to create a living fence. This is called ‘plashing’ and the bent part is the plasher. It’s an ancient technique that is lovely to see still in use. Sometimes you might see a lovely old hawthorn on its own and you might notice that it has a strange ‘elbow’ shape to some of its lower branches. That is the history of the tree, its brethren all gone and only the angle of its branches telling how once it was part of a hedgerow, a living fence that kept sheep in.

In some ways, hedgerows are the ultimate nature reserves. Even in winter the hedge is a hub of biodiversity. Beneath the soggy leaf mulch round the base and in the bark and branches of the plants, insects are hibernating, worms are turning, birds are feasting. I am lucky enough to live in a village in which the biodiversity of the area is important to the farmers who have lived here their whole lives. The hedges are well managed, but not over managed, and the fields tend to have small oases of copses and bogland which is allowed to just be – the trees that fall are not removed, for example, the thistles and seed heads are left for the birds. As a result we have a good range of wildlife around the village and I regularly see buzzards, kestrels, barn owls, roe deer, hares and foxes, as well as rooks, crows, jackdaws, hedge sparrows, tits, fieldfare, woodpecker. Most of these animals I see around the field lines, where the hedgerow provides cover and food for them. The rabbits in the top field have riddled a hawthorn with burrows, the foxes on the other side of the same field have dug below another hawthorn and into the bank of a diverted stream. Where the hedgerow becomes a small copse, the buzzards nest. In the barn that sits behind the hedgerow on the other side of the village, the barn owls nest. The small birds – sparrows, dunnocks – spend a lot of time deep in the hedgerow in winter where the air might be slightly warmer and food easier to find. Mice and other small rodents nest there too, which brings the fox, and the kestrel. Once upon a time people too, common folk, used the hedgerow as part of the common land, they foraged it for berries and plants and it was an important tool in their ability to survive. My own mum remembers picking rose hips from the hedgerows around the council estate where she lived, selling them to the council so they could make rosehip tea and give it to the poor kids to stave off vitamin deficiencies. She herself was one of the poor kids who received it. An old hedgerow will have lots of different plants and trees, many of them forgeable. Foraging doesn’t happen so much these days and actually, because we’ve decimated the wild areas of Britain so utterly throughly, any food in the hedgerows should probably be left to the animals living there. If you forage, go carefully and think of the non humans who rely on the hedgerows for food.

My dad remembered the hedges and orchards around the farm where his family were tenants being ripped up and burned to give the farm owners more land to farm. I wonder how many of the red list birds might not have been red-listed, how many floods prevented if we’d known then what a disaster it would be for the environment. I came across this poem by American writer Stirling North published by Poetry Magazine in 1937. The lighthearted rhythm and rhymes overlaying something tragic underneath, I think. When I think about the pulling up of the hedgerows it makes me feel queazy, and I think about the people doing the labour of removing it, how they might have been local people who had known those hedgerows and the animals that lived in them, grown up with them, took pleasure in them – it must have been heartbreaking, done in the name of progress, and of course done to ensure people could eat. I know it broke my dad’s heart to see it, the memory was very vivid for him.

You can’t turn back the clock, you can only go forward. I’m reminded of my place in the world, and the interconnectedness of everything and how really we are all a part of everything and if you want to make change you should do that with whatever skills you have, but that enjoying and celebrating the small wild places is important too, to take joy in the moment of observation, the way we might look at a hedge and see our ancestors, how we might imagine the felt hatted hedger with his billhook, mallet and hand rake and the constant work of remaking and maintaining and how his handiwork is right there, in the crooked elbow of an old hawthorn tree in the middle of a field.

Thanks for reading.

until next time

x

Shelfie Stories: Five Books to Curl Up With on a Wintery Sunday Afternoon

You can never get a cup of tea large enough, or a book long enough to suit me

C.S. Lewis

Winter is setting in and despite the mild weather, it’s making me want to curl up in the old armchair, put the reading light on and listen to the rain lashing the window as I disappear into a good book. Here are five books I’ve read this year that suit a Sunday afternoon of cosied up reading.

Much With Body

Polly Atkin

Poetry

Find it here, at the Seren Books Website: Seren Website

If you’re familiar with Polly’s work you’ll know how her poems fold you into them, how they open worlds. If you ever get a chance to see her read, do it, don’t hesitate, do it. I’ve been lucky enough to have her read as part of a course I ran and double lucky in that she has run a zoom course for Spelt, which has been a big hit. I read this one in January. I read a little bit each day and each day it was like being given a gift. She’s an extraordinarily gifted poet. Much With Body is Polly Atkin’s second collection. These are poems that explore the connection to nature, in particular the authors connection to her own place in nature, in the Lake District. There’s a thread of found poems running through the collection that use Dorothy Wordsworth’s diary entries to explore the body through the lens of chronic illness. Every poem in this collection pulls at something in the brain, every description captures something unusual and special. I can’t recommend it enough. Pour yourself a cup of tea and settle in, you’ll not be able to put it down.

Shelling Peas with My Grandmother in the Gorgiolands

Sarah Wimbush

Poetry

Find it here, at the Bloodaxe website: Bloodaxe website

Sarah is a Leeds poet, brought up in Doncaster. She has a very earthy, no nonsense and yet somehow magical way of putting a poem together. Again, if you get the opportunity to hear her read, do it. She has such a gentle manner about her, but it’s underscored with something steely and indefatigable, and I think that comes through in her poems. We were winners of the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Award together and I remember hearing her read at the launch event and being absolutely blown away. I knew of her pamphlet, Blood Lines, which won the Mslexia poetry competition – genuinely one of the best poetry collections I have read – and was so excited about this full collection. It did not disappoint. In this collection Sarah explores her roots, her traveller heritage and her Yorkshire heritage, it’s a fantastic collection.

Black Car Burning

Helen Mort

Fiction

You can buy Helen’s novel from all good bookshops.

I’m a big fan of Helen’s poetry so I was delighted when she published a novel. I’m always interested in how a poet will write a novel, the two genres are very different. Sometimes I think the voice of the poet is lost in the transition between poet and novelist, and then sometimes you find that a writer is equally adept at both genres, whilst keeping their own style, and Helen is one of those writers. This is a fantastic novel, it is gripping and cool and beautifully crafted and strange and unusual and all of the things I like about a novel. It’s a book about trust, and about human frailties, it’s about identity and how we build our identities, how fragile we are as people and how easily damaged; how trauma can live in the bones of a person. It made me want to climb. I loved the naming of the landscape, the precise and familiar descriptions of rock climbing, the way that Helen knows her landscape. This is a writer who knows how to write the lived landscape and, again, I really can’t recommend this book highly enough. I’ll re read it at some point, I’m sure.

The Living Mountain

Nan Shepherd

Non Fiction

This was one of those books that I’d heard about and never read. I’m not sure what stopped me, perhaps an already teetering TBR pile? Though that has never really stopped me bringing more books into the house. It is a surprising read. I am so used to people writing about landscape in an almost clinical, distanced manner, that to read someone who is focussed not only on the nature and the landscape itself, but the spiritual connection to the landscape and to the mountain. She’s not afraid to consider the communion between landscape and person and ask why and how that happens. It is well worth a read. I felt very connected to Nan Shepherd as I was reading it, in particular the descriptions of sleeping outside. I had a real thing about sleeping outside as a child, it’s quite a strange and magical experience. There are so many people in love with this little book, and rightly so, something about it makes you feel like you are talking to a friend, rather than simply reading a book. A wonderful exploration of landscape and connection.

Wild – Tales from Early Medieval Britain

Amy Jeffs

Fiction/Non Fiction

You can buy Amy’s book from all good book shops.

What a joy this book is. The illustrations, the design, the feel of it in the hands. I do think reading, as an experience, is more than just what happens in your head. The sheer joy of a good book in the hand, with a cover you just want to touch is magical, it adds to that magical experience, and this book really doesn’t disappoint. I felt like I was literally walking a journey with the author. The book took me into the dark ages and shone a soft light to illuminate the context of the stories being told. Amy Jeffs is a Somerset based artist, author and print maker. She has a PhD in art History and a special interest in early Medieval literature. Each story in this book is a journey. The book is beautifully researched and presented. Each chapter has a short contemporary version of an early medieval story, which is then followed by context and explanation. This is the one that you want to get the log burner going for and may I suggest a glass of red and a cat on the lap to add to the experience. A beautiful book. I haven’t listened to it, but I also hear that the audio version is excellent, combining music and story telling.

Thanks for reading

Until next time

x

Writing and Reading the Trauma Poems

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I used to think I was really good at splitting myself up to do lots of different projects at once. Turns out I’m not, really. If I can, I much prefer being completely involved in one project at a time. Right now I am fully invested in the non fiction book, I’m walking it, I’m talking it, I’m dreaming it, I have lost myself in it and it is a completely wonderful sensation. To be completely obsessed, completely in the work is where I always aim to be with every project. It’s part of being a writer for me; that deep dive into the thing I’m writing about. Part of my research involves walking, so out I go in all weathers, walking the local landscape, taking photographs, making notes, absorbing the land so that I can then put it onto the page. I’m sort of petrified by the idea of that delicate thread being broken and that has spilled over into fears of ‘tainting’ the place that I am in by reading something that will make me want to write differently. But reading is my life, I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t able to read. I have a stack of poetry books, journals and magazines to attend to, but find myself drawn to non fiction, and sometimes the escapism of fiction. I am finding it hard to even turn my head back towards poetry and away from the non fiction project. The poetry still returns, mind. A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to Sheaf Festival in Sheffield to read alongside Kim Moore and Rachel Long. It was quite a strange thing to return to When I Think of My Body as a Horse and I found that when I was looking through my poems, selecting the ones to read, it was like returning to visit an older version of myself. A much sadder version, I think. I felt tired out by that story, though, to a certain extent grief and ritual and remembrance play into the themes of the non fiction book. These are themes I have an interest in outside of my own story. I have not read out very many times from Horse, the pandemic saw to that, and perhaps that was a good thing as, while I do think the book is good, and I am proud of my work there, I’m sort of turned the other way now, looking away from that time. I feel like that about my other books a little too, but to return to Horse is to open a box that has my heart in, and to pick it up and to pin it out like an anatomical dissection. Oh, there she goes again with her highfalutin similes. I don’t know if I’m explaining this well at all. Anyway, for the evening event that the festival had organised I let my anxiety get away with me a bit. Imposter syndrome crept in, who the hell am I to be sharing a stage with these two stellar poets? For the first time in years my hands shook. I think there’s a recording, I haven’t dared to look at it, to be honest. I wanted to do a reading that said something other than ‘this is my story’, I decided to read in a different way, to involve less of the personal and more of the general, to talk about infertile women, bereaved women and the narrative around validation of women, how so much depends on whether you do or don’t have children. I had a good reaction from the audience, there were infertile and childless and bereaved mums in there and they came and spoke to me about their own experiences afterwards, which I always look forward to – that connection and sense of understanding – unfortunately I had to rush off as my last train had been cancelled and I didn’t know how I was getting back (it was a nightmare). I would have liked to have gone for a drink with everyone afterwards.

I felt as I was reading, and afterwards, and weeks afterwards because overthinking is a personal hobby of mine, that I had come across as ranting, or whingeing, or attention seeking or any of the those negative labels that are often put on people talking about uncomfortable stuff, challenging stuff. I am certain there are plenty of people who think of me that way, because people are people, but I don’t want to think of myself that way and I think it might be my default setting to do just that. I am confident in my reasons for writing, my style of writing, the content that I write and the quality of the work that I produce. i just need to tell my brain that. The non fiction book feels like such a joy to be writing right now, and such a balm, somehow, but that project is at the ‘not many people have read it and judged it, or me’ stage and perhaps that will change, who knows.

I think some of the things I’m doing right now that are part of my work for the NF book – visiting museums, walking, reading – are exactly what I should be doing and I am realising just how stressed I get if I do too much ‘people’ stuff in one week. I’m trying to train myself out of feeling and labelling myself as ‘pathetic’ or ‘ridiculous’ or ‘weak’ if I need more rest than perhaps other people seem to, or if I’m not juggling 100 projects at once and just want to plod slowly into a book. This is where I have always wanted to be – plodding into my work, absorbed in it like the utter library nerd that I am. I just want to read books and write books and have the time and energy to do that.

Perhaps my dad’s death has opened up a few old wounds, wounds I thought I’d packed and sewed up tightly. I don’t know. It’s been a hell of a year, again. I’m starting to think about goals for next year, starting to think about my rituals of the new year. I’m ticking off some big goals from 2022 and that makes me wonderfully happy, and I am surprising myself with the new goals in my planner, they are much less poetry centred. I feel strangely guilty for moving away from poetry, even if it is only while I work on the non fiction project. I’ve cut my work back to some mentoring, running Spelt and running the occasional course. which still sounds like a lot really, on top of writing a book. Having the opportunity to help other poets progress their own writing is really important to me, and it’s also a source of absolute joy for me, mentoring in particular. And I love the camaraderie of the email courses I still run. When I come to write prompts and notes for a course it feels like putting a comfortable cardigan on, and mentoring always feels like meeting friends. I find, more and more, that the work that I am choosing to do brings me joy, I find that when I look around myself, my life is good. Terrible fretting over what the next terrible loss will be aside, I am happy and enjoying the way my brain works, and I’m looking forward to reflecting that in my writing. But still a part of me clings to the idea that if I’m not cramming in more stuff, applying for more things, winning more things, making more connections…I’m not doing well. I need to change the definition of ‘doing well’ and emphasise ‘feeling happy’ more I think.

If you would like to work with me, I have a nw course beginning on 30th November. This one is called Exploring Ritual and you can read about it by following this link: Exploring Ritual. And if you want to polish your magazine submission skills I’m running this workshop next Saturday (26th November 2022) The Dos and Don’ts of Magazine Submissions

Thanks for reading

Until next time

x