The Poem as Shared Emotional Experience

Photo by Susan Wilkinson on Pexels.com

Four weeks since we lost dad and how much the world has changed. I’ve taken the cards down from the windowsill, the flowers have died and been thrown away, the season is turning. He was diagnosed in winter, we drove to the chemo appointments in spring, he died in summer and now it is autumn and we are being carried away on the turn of the world. The place where he was begins to fill and there is a realisation that time is going to pass, that we are already changed, will continue to change. Yesterday I visited mum. While I was there I picked some potatoes up, she’s never going to eat them all, there are sacks and sacks of potatoes. They’re kept in the garage that is really a barn. When I went in there to get them, there was his presence again, next to the camper van where he had been working on something underneath it: a can of WD40, an old oily towel, his tools and the empty space in the middle where he had been kneeling. It was suddenly surprising because in the house, in the garden, his things are being moved, his presence is something we need to maintain in photographs and keepsakes and stories. It’s only been four weeks and yet we have a king now, instead of a queen and a new prime minister and he will know none of this, will not have an opinion on any of this.

We buried him a week last Thursday, in his field, as he’d wanted. We laid him on a bed of fresh mown hay which came from the farm I’d had a chance to go over with my metal detector; where I found my lucky gold sovereign. I specifically wanted to get the hay from there because I know that the land owner cares so much for the place. He’s a person who is very in tune with his land, could show me where the hares left their leverets, where the swallows and swifts nested, where the best place for gathering sloes was. Dad would have appreciated that. The funeral was full of people who had been in my dad’s life. More than a hundred people came. We’d all worked so hard to make it just right. The burial itself was beautiful. The chickens came to the fence of their enclosure to watch the wicker coffin lowered into the ground. The leaves were swaying in the breeze. The oak trees were heavy with acorns. It was so peaceful. It really did feel like we’d brought him home.

Someone on twitter said that this period of time between the death and the funeral was a ‘sacred’ time and that’s how it has felt, a place in which the family’s grief was closed off, private, a place where we kindled his memory back. On the day of the funeral we opened it up to everyone else. From a personal point of view, this grief is very different to losing my daughter. When we lost Matilda I became an animal called grief and that animal was insatiable in its need to be near her. A lot of it was the terrible instincts, the beautiful instincts, that exist in parenthood. I could not find my way through it, not for a long time. The loss of my dad is so sad, a great well of sad that runs right down inside me. But it is a slow pain. I do not feel eviscerated by this grief. There is an inevitability to losing a parent, a terrible knowledge that at some point, and you never know when, you will be without them, a knowledge hat a door will close and you will never be able to reopen it, that you will lose a person that you love, and there really is no getting away from it. The older I get, the more grief there is. What a terrible, wonderful thing is the human animal, that we are so aware of ourselves and so aware of the loss of a person we love. That we must live that.

In this slow, deep grief for my dad I have found myself reaching for poems, or rather the poems feel like they have been reaching for me. Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging‘ is one that I have come back and back to. The image of the father in the garden beneath the window:

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down

Reminds me so much of when we first moved to my dad’s dream house: the small holding he’d always wanted. I can see him now, from the bedroom window, in the veg patch, in his old coat and his little blue hat, throwing the spade into the ground.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.

Poetry is more than just words on a page, it is a vibration that you pick up. The poem becomes the place where the emotional experience is created and carried, a place where the emotional shared experience is relevant, where that great ache of grief is met, and I feel that in this poem. I relate to it, but of course cannot relate to it. I relate to the emotions. I feel that insecurity around purpose, the vulnerability of doing something different to what was expected, to move away from a path that a parent expected of you and that perceived disappointment, that way of trying to make them proud. I don’t really know what my dad wanted for me, but while we always had books in the house, I do know that my parents never saw being a writer as a way of making a living (to be fair, I am barely scratching a living from it so perhaps they were right).

I have dreamed my dad alive a few times since the funeral. Mostly the dreams are around the changes that are happening. I find myself talking to him, but can’t understand what he is saying. Sometimes he is further away. This last week I found myself moving towards the work of Jonathan Davidson. I’ve worked with Jonathan before and in fact he is our next four week course facilitator at the Spelt School. He is one of the most generous poets I know, in terms of how he facilitates and how he engages with poets and poetry. He’s also a very decent, thoughtful person. There are people that you come across in your career who have a hand in shaping how you feel and think about your own work and where you fit into the wider conversation, and Jonathan is one of them. he won’t know it, but the manner in which he approaches poetry as something that isn’t owned, but is shared has had a profound effect on me. And of course, he is a very talented poet. His poems about his own grief around his father now make me cry in a way that they didn’t before. This one, which I have his permission to share, in particular:

Father

I walked with my invisible father
out into the fields on the edge
of town. But they are gone now:
new roads, new names, new people.

Dad, stay here for a while, I said,
and I’ll go and find out what
has happened to our lives. He sat
on the newly installed bench.

And when I returned, furnished
with stories of change, I found him
utterly dead, his cold eyes
on the cold world closed. So

many years he had lived here
and then this: his roads re-named,
his fields built over, his people
now coming into view as strangers.

By Jonathan Davidson, from A Commonplace (Smith|Doorstop, 2020)

Now the world is closing over my own dad, and the places he knew, the land that he loved will change, the world will change and this poem in particular has that shared place of emotional experience where I can come and lay my hands on it and say, yes, yes, this is it. Thank you to the poets who make themselves vulnerable, who work at their craft in the deep recess of pain and create the places where we can come and be. Incidentally, Jonathan’s Spelt course is going to be wonderful. He is the sort of facilitator I aspire to be. You can sign up here: link to Jonathan’s course.

I went back to work ‘officially’ last Monday and aside from feeling worn down, I’m pleased to be back in my routine and back working. I have some big chunks of writing time ahead of me through autumn, and I’m looking forward to that place of peace and calm that the new season brings. Last week I ran an early morning facilitated writing space as part of the new Spelt School of Writing. I got such a lot out of it. I’d taken some feedback on the new collection the week before so used that hour in the morning to go through the feedback and see what worked. Reader, I removed six whole poems and the collection is suddenly tight, clean, just right. I took a sestina that had a poem that wasn’t a sestina fighting to get out of it and re wrote it and I re ordered the whole thing and I think it’s done. Mind you, I do keep saying it’s done and then going and doing more work on it. At some point I’ll have to relinquish it and let it go out into the world. That space to write before the world has crushed the confidence out of you is important. If you want to come to the next Dawn Chorus writing group, by the way, here’s the link to sign up: link to Dawn Chorus

Until next time

x

Completing the New Collection

Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

A couple of weeks ago I put all the poems I’d been working towards for the new collection together – the good, the bad and the ugly. I scythed a few out, teased a couple of others in, and decided that, as a first draft, it was just about done. Then my dad died and I ended up writing a few poems about him, about loss, about the strangeness of death. They tie in well with the rest of the collection and feel like a good fit.

There is no one size fits all approach when you’re putting a collection together. Even to the same poet the process may change between collections. When I Think of My Body as a Horse took years to write. The poems in that collection were mainly natural, organic poems that were written in powerful emotional splurges, and then crafted, fettled and edited to where I wanted them to be. They were the blood-let poems of grief, poems that needed to be written. That collection took years to write, and the whole thing was redrafted and redrafted until it was saying what I needed it to say. With the new collection I decided right at the outset that I wanted to write poems that explored a particular theme, and took time (thanks in part to a Society of Authors work in progress grant) to research and explore and write. This way of writing didn’t feel natural to me initially, but I persisted, and I ended up producing work that pushed me out of my own comfort zone. I challenged myself with this collection, and I feel it’s paid off. The latest poems, the poems about my dad’s death; which have come from a more organic, natural place, I feel are as good as the poems in which I felt challenged as a writer in terms of style, content, function. What do I take from that? It’s good to push out of your comfort zone, it enriches you as a writer, it builds your skills, your ‘tool box’ and it allows you to reach further, evolve, grow as a writer. But there is nothing wrong with being a writer who feels happiest working in well worn groove of writing. This has been a collection that has helped me to grow as a writer and I am pleased with that. One thing that seems to be a part of my process no matter how I write is that I have a set amount of pages of poetry in mind and once I reach that number (60 in this case) I feel much more relaxed and can then start curating, removing and adding poems. It gives wriggle room. Putting a collection together is a long process, a years long process. I know that once this collection goes to the publisher I shall have time to change and adapt it still, if I need to, before it makes it to the final stages.

My mind has now shuffled things about so that the non fiction book is my priority writing project and edits to the poetry collection are now to be done on weekends and in spare mornings and afternoons. I’m awaiting some feedback on the collection that will help me to edit it, but I’m ready now to start moving away from the collection and to start to sink into the body of my Ghost Lake book and get really stuck in. Next week will be about research I can do from my desk, and around some teaching and of course around the inevitable grief of losing a parent, helping to organise a funeral and supporting family. My dad had some interesting ideas about how and where he wanted to be buried and we are trying our best to do right by him, but it is a bit complicated. We’re hoping this week that all the legal queries will be resolved and we can pin a date for the funeral. This morning I went to see my mum at my parent’s house and we took a stroll around the grounds. We walked past the scarecrow in my dad’s veg patch, which sits wearing his coat and his trousers, watching us. We stood in the polly tunnel and ate grapes off the vine. We walked through a flood of hungry chickens into the field behind the house where my dad has planted oak and ash and hazel trees, through the apple trees and pear trees laden with fruit, down to the nature pond, through the lattice of a hazel walkway, to the little swing bench where my mum and dad used to sit. We are taking joy in what he has left behind, but it is also quite heart breaking. He is everywhere – his tools are still by the fence where he was chopping back the blackberry bushes, his spade is still stood in the soil where he rooted up the potatoes he had for his dinner the day before the operation. A pile of weeds sits by the pond waiting for him to chuck them in the compost. There is three winter’s worth of chopped wood in the shed, with his axe still in the last log. It is as if he has been called to somewhere else, has just put his tools down and left. My little mum and my lovely brother are starting to tidy stuff away, are getting some of the weeds up before they become a nuisance, are planning how she’ll cope with what is, essentially, a small holding, on her own. I always quite fancied an allotment, and maybe this is a sign from the universe for me to get on and work with my brother to keep it going. Or maybe some things, some projects just come to a natural end, like the poetry collection, perhaps it has reached the point of being useful, perhaps that place, that area is a project that has said what it needed to say, and a new project is waiting to be started.

I am dreading the finality of the funeral, but also looking forward to the beyond point, to what happens next, to working to remember this complex, life-filled man, in death. I have written him into the poetry collection, and he’s embedded in the non-fiction book, and that makes me happy. I just wish I had had a bit more time with him. But I guess we are always wishing we had more time with the people we love. It’s never quite enough, no matter when they die.

Until next time

x

Saying Goodbye to Dad

This is one of the last photos I have of my dad. It was taken during chemo, towards the end of chemo I think, mid June. Rather than resting like he should have been, my dad, always keen to suck the marrow out of every possible experience, had accompanied myself, mum and sister to a tour of an archaeological excavation nearby. Whilst building new houses the private archaeology team had discovered a fantastic and curious Roman building, but it was going to be covered over soon for future archaeologists to examine. I remember it being so hot that day. I got the back of my neck burned. Dad eventually went to sit in the air conditioned car, but his curiosity and sense of wonder meant that he had made it through a couple of hours on the site. He did really well with the chemo, but it drained him. He struggled with the nausea. It didn’t stop him living his life. He was quite bullish like that. I don’t think I have ever come across anyone with such a zest for experience and a willingness to try everything and anything. He was seventy one years old, with the fitness of a much younger man. He was someone who had his own ideas about life and just went ahead with them. On Monday last week (is it really only a week ago?) we (mum, dad and me) drove to Castle Hill hospital to drop him off for his surgery. We all knew it was an extremely high risk surgery with a high death rate. In reality it was three major operations in one sitting, a surgery that took ten and a half hours. He was nervous on the day, and it manifested in a no-nonsense, not-making-a-fuss, very businesslike approach to the operation. When we parked up he got his stuff out of the car and was striding across the carpark to the hospital before I knew it. I shouted across “oi! Aren’t you going to say goodbye?!” and he turned round and said :”sorry, bye then, thanks for driving”. And he was off again. He was always striding everywhere at pace, my dad. When we were little we had to run to keep up with him. The last thing he actually said to me, and the thing that I keep thinking about, was “make sure you tuck that seatbelt in, otherwise it’ll bang all the way back”. That was my dad all over, not wanting a fuss, not wanting the emotion to show. He’d turned, after that goodbye, and I actually thought he was coming back to hug me, but he walked straight past me to check on the car seatbelts and then that really was it, he was leaving. I told my brother about that later on and we laughed because it was so Dad. I let my mum take him into the ward because dad wasn’t just dad, he was a husband too and I wanted them to have that crucial alone time together. He didn’t take any form of communication with him, no mobile phone. He wanted to do this on his own. This was how he was the whole time he was poorly. His main worries were for my mum, about who would look after her, about her not being stressed or upset because he saw her as fragile. I never heard him say even one thing about his own worries, I never heard him talk about his own fears for his own health. He worried about what would become of his house, because his house was his project. He was slowly taking it entirely off grid and creating a carbon neutral house, effectively. Solar panels, heat pumps, I think something to do with batteries next. He had a quarter acre veg patch, he had a polytunnel, he had a camper van that we now find no one can drive because of all the ‘dad-fixes’ that mean you have to know every quirk and how to address it, as you are driving it. It’s got no power steering. It’s a very old truck with a camper van built into it. My dad never shirked away from any sort of fix or build project, as long as he was interested in it. If he was doing it, he was doing it. Other projects – kitchens, bathrooms, cars – that weren’t as interesting, tended to take a back seat which meant we lived our lives in half finished bathrooms, with toilets that you had to know the knack of flushing. He had an enormous capacity for joy. You could hear his laugh two streets away, you could hear his sneeze two miles away. Everything with my dad was quite loud.

We fretted all day on Tuesday, waiting to hear how the operation had gone, and finally got the phone call late evening to say he was back on the ward, all had gone well. I started to imagine the conversations we’d have when he was well enough to leave ITU and go back to the ward where we could visit. He’d been such an influence on my non fiction book, he’s so much a part of the book, I was excited to tell him about the next piece of research, the next walk or hike I’d taken, the next burial mound I’d found, the next piece of social history. I’d gotten into the habit of popping round to show him stuff on maps, to talk to him about his own history, his own life. The chemo, though gruelling, had allowed him to be in a reduced amount of pain and I’d hoped to take him up to Seamer Beacon, a local landmark that he’d never visited. But he managed to get an infection in his foot two weeks before the operation, which took a lot of resolving with daily antibiotic drips, so we never made it. One thing that I am grateful for is the time that the chemo gave me with my dad, and my mum. Being self employed, it was easiest for me, out of my brother, sister and myself, to move work around and drive them back from appointments in Cottingham, about an hour’s drive away. So when mum couldn’t accompany us I got to sit with my dad for a couple of hours as we drove over the Wolds. We talked about his life a lot, about what he’d seen, about the different jobs, different experiences he’d had. He left school at fifteen and was working full time straight away. My mum and dad were together since he was seventeen, my mum just a bit older. They were married fifty years. I shall treasure those chemo trips. Not just for having that precious time with dad, but for the hours that I spent chatting with mum while we waited. My mum is closest to my sister, they’re very much alike, which I know is going to be a great comfort to her now, but it was nice to sit and talk about books, about her life, about what her hopes were for the future.

On the Wednesday we got a phonemail to say that when they’d brought him round from the induced coma he had been in a lot of pain and they suspected a blocked or twisted bowel, so off he went to theatre again for his second major operation. It was hours. Then a scan showed another problem, something not quite right with the join in the oesophagus and stomach. Back to theatre he went for his third major operation, and when they opened him up again they found the tissue at the site had died. They did an emergency removal of it and he went very quickly from being very poorly indeed to being critical. The surgeons, the consultants, the staff were all fighting for him. He was on dialysis, he was on a ventilator, he was category three intensive care, the highest you can be. We wished and prayed. My brother took my mum up to be with him. But he was deteriorating. We were told the next forty eight hours would be critical, but twenty four hours later he had deteriorated again so we went as a family to see him and sat around his bed telling him he had to come back to feed his fish and his chickens and continue with his projects. We told him to get well, to pull a miracle out of the bag, to come back to us. We spoke to the surgeon who was very open and honest about my dad’s condition. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. The next day, Saturday, another phone call. It was time. We sat with him and said our goodbyes and told him how loved he was by all of us, by his sisters, by his nephews and nieces and friends. Slowly the desperation to say what we needed to say before he died calmed and we were able to then talk over him, to each other, bringing him into the conversation. We sat round his bed and told stories from our childhood about all the crazy adventures we’d had, we reassured him that we would look after mum, each other. He was a man of faith, my dad. My mum read psalm 23 The Lord is My Shepherd to him in that air conditioned room in the ITU, and even I prayed by his side. We held his hand, though it didn’t feel like my dad’s hand. I felt like he was journeying away, and all the time I was in that room I could imagine him nearby, speaking to us “don’t cry honey, I’m going to a better place”. He’d always believed in there being a time for people to die, and that life should be lived to the absolute maximum, and not wasted, that when your time was up, it was up. He would have hated to not partake fully in life. My mum will be comforted by that, I think. The staff knew we’d need a break, and had set up some drinks in a quiet room. It felt like stepping into this space of normality where the sun was shining in and the tea was hot and good. We ate biscuits. Then, fortified, we went back in and prepared for the machines to be turned off. We sat quietly, we watched him slipping away and away. He was gone.

I’ve written two poems about this over the week that we were losing him. I feel like my brain is trying to process his very quick demise. I’ve been thinking about whether it was the right thing to have the operation, to take that risk, worrying that we pushed him into it, worrying that my mum will always wonder what would have happened otherwise, if we’d chosen death by cancer, had turned down the chance the operation offered. But we didn’t make the decision, how could we? No one made a decision for my dad, dad made all his own choices, whether we disagreed or not, and it was him that chose the chance to be a whole person – vital, present, capable of another fifteen years to complete his projects, to have holidays, to build memories. When they tell you the risks in an operation, they are real risks, not just something they have to tell you to tick a box. And this was a very high risk operation. But still, so quick, so hard to align the vital presence of my dad, with the old man who looked so much like my grandad, in the ITU.

When he left us, striding across the car park, he’d removed all his jewellery. The letter he got from the hospital told him to bring nothing but himself. He took them literally and didn’t even take a mobile phone. We had no contact with him at all. I thought at the time how it felt like some sort of religious ceremony, a baptism perhaps; the stripping away of all worldly goods. But actually, it was much more primal than that. Much more like a warrior facing a final challenge. Much more like a man going into the desert alone. Something he knew he had to do himself, a rite of passage. He entered into a place where there were only two outcomes. I don’t see that as losing any sort of fight. His faith gave him two options, not one death and one life. And I have never met a braver person in my life, how brave must you be to make that decision, to take that chance. That was the bravest thing I’ve seen anyone do. He did it for himself and he did it so he could continue to be married to my mum. And he was a warrior, did fight this, with every sinew, he fought to keep the life that he had with my mum. He fought to continue to suck the marrow out of every experience. I like to think of life as a journey, and our job within that life, as we move around it in the vessels; the bodies that we are in, is to experience every part of it, to find joy where you can, to be compassionate, to live a full life. My dad did that. I like to think of him continuing to journey. Journey well, dad, journey well.

Until next time

x

Avoiding the Urge to Conquer: Nature as Experience

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This week the geese began to fly over the house. They’ll go back and forth between two lakes in the area for a while yet. They will be strengthening wings, practicing formation, presumably getting newbie geese into the rhythm of long flight. Then one day soon they’ll go over the house in a great skein and not come back. It will be dusk and the nights will be drawing in and it will be early autumn rather than mid or late summer and I will have to put my sandals away and wear proper shoes. It will make me both happy and sad, as season changes always do. There are already crisped leaves lining the road to the back lane. Soon we’ll be turning our faces towards the dark months; cosy months, months of thick socks and jeans and boots and scarves, but also months of little light and rain and cold. When I think about my life I think about it in terms of seasons. When I look forward I’m always looking forward in terms of ‘what will I be doing in winter/spring/summer next?’ Changes are afoot. Over the summer I decided to take a big risk and launch a big project with Spelt. To run this (unfunded) project properly I need to find time from other areas of work, so the risk here, as a freelancer, is reducing the certainty of my paid incomes to almost nothing in the hope that this new project will fund itself, pay for my time running it and help to fund the magazine. It’s a big risk. It’s an anxiety dream invoking risk. I don’t know how many more times I will dream I’m at Everest base camp wearing flip flops with people behind me telling me to hurry up and get climbing. I’ll feel better once it is announced officially and I can begin all the marketing stuff that goes into launching any sort of project. I hope that by September, by autumn, when the project really begins, I will be settling into the routine of it, focussing on that alongside running just a couple of my favourite courses, and working on writing of my own in the mornings. Talking of courses, this week saw the last week of the first series of my Writers on Writing courses. It’s been fantastic. I have absolutely loved working with the writers, and I have loved having the opportunity to discuss process and poetry with Danial Sluman, Polly Atkin and Kim Moore. I’ll be running this series again, probably from September with a new set of writers whose work we’ll be deep diving into. I find that what I enjoy most are the small groups of writers who are focused and serious about moving their work forward. There’s a pleasure in dissecting, discussing and having the time within the group for talk to wander outside of the poetry and to touch on the world around us because that’s where poetry comes from, it comes from the place of observation and interaction, the lens through which we view the world and our place in it. It doesn’t come from a muse, there is no elemental strike of inspiration, the poems grow from you; the writer. They’re not magical fairy dust scattered towards you, they’re an organic language that describes where you fit into the world, even when you are not writing about yourself. That language needs tending in order for it to thrive. I hope that that’s what happens in my courses: that nurturing of self that leads to poetic growth. My Fettling course begins again in August, I have two places left on it, so if you are thinking about it, now is the time to book as I’ll be contacting the Fettlers and taking down the payment button next week. I’m looking forward to weeks of reading and writing, workshopping and chatting. The Fettling courses are very good if you need a bit of a boost to your writing. Writers are encouraged to think about how they might take risks with their work and push at their own boundaries, and we have great workshopping sessions.

I feel like I am rolling with the seasons at the minute. Autumn is always my most productive season, writing wise, and I’m excited to be finishing the new collection off. Nearly there. After I decided that my sonnet crown wasn’t working and lopped it off like a diseased tree limb the collection really started to come together, the poems seem to have been waiting behind the dam of the sonnet crown and now they are pouring out of me. I’d forgotten how good that feels. It means I’m ready to get some trusted feedback on it, get it polished, send it to the publisher. I had a poem published on the Friday Poem, the first from this collection to be published. Nice feeling that. You can read it here.

And now that the poetry collection is at the finishing stage, I can spend the next few months immersing myself in the non fiction book. I am looking forward to research, and walking and writing with the window open and listening to the trees in the breeze. I’ve just finished reading Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. I’m surprised I’ve not read it before. It’s been on my reading pile for a while. What a book. What a woman! I felt connected to her through her sense of place. She doesn’t just describe the flora and fauna of the mountain, she describes her place in it, her presence next to the presence of the mountain. My favourite parts were the parts in which she describes wild sleeping. As a child I loved sleeping outside. Odd thing that I was, I would take myself away to a field or some overgrown wasteland and curl up to sleep on the ground. When Nan Shepherd describes the mountain, she is doing it from the viewpoint of someone who has had this place as background to her life, as someone who connects to the small details of this background. When she talks about the mountain she talks in terms of avoiding the desire to conquer nature, and instead embracing the experience of that place. That’s one of the most important parts of my own sense of belonging, and is really what I’m trying to capture in my own book: the experience of being within and exploring a place that you know like the back of your hand and still finding nature that surprises and engages, nature that reflects your own self. It is important to connect to your own nature, and that doesn’t necessarily mean climbing Everest, it could just as easily be about noticing the small details on an early morning walk, smaller still : it could just as easily be noticing and experiencing the nature in your own garden. We are not tourists to nature, we are a part of nature whether we like it or not, whether we see it or not. I find that, for most people, the more they recognise the importance of nature and place as a part of them, the more joy they are able to take in the world, despite the horrors. I think that’s partly what we are trying to do with Spelt too. Create that connection, celebrate the lives of people living in and connecting to the rural, to nature.

I have waffled enough. It’s Chris’s birthday. We’re just back from a lazy Sunday dinner in a pub in a nearby village and now it is time for the sofa, films, maybe a glass of wine later. Life feels good at the minute.

Until next time

x

What I’m Reading: Manifesto by Bernardine Evaristo

June has been a crazy month. The first set of my Fettling workshops ended (keep eyes peeled as I’m about to open the next set for bookings) my Fantastic Ekphrastic 2 course ran beautifully with a really lovely group of writers bedding themselves into some very challenging, but I hope interesting, prompts around art.(new course starts this week, there are three places left so don’t hang about! – sign up here) I was lucky enough to get to run my first Creative Non Fiction workshop for Crossing the Tees festival and also my first live gig in…forever… at Darlington for the same festival. And of course my lovely Writers on Writing group is continuing. The first live author event for WoW, with Daniel Sluman was fantastic. Daniel is such an open and responsive poet and the group got such a lot of of it. Thursday’s live event is with Polly Atkin (If you’ve not got a ticket yet, grab one here)and I know it is going to be excellent. I’m also pulling Spelt 6 together and fighting through the Arts Council Grantium portal to put a complicated, brain-hurty funding application together for some stuff for Spelt. And I’m also organising a big unfunded thing for Spelt, which is nerve wracking and time consuming but I hope will be worth all the work. I feel like I’ve barely had time to come up for air, and as a result my blog has slipped further and further down my To Do list. This week is much less manic. I’ve started to deliberately put some ‘recovery’ spaces between intense work weeks. I have started to not judge myself so much on getting so overwhelmed and burnt out by ‘peopling’ – face to face stuff. I struggle with face to face stuff. I don’t want to talk too much about this sort of thing, but I did recently start thinking about how quite a lot of the things I struggle with can be attributed to something else that I think is quite prevalent within the creative community and it’s something I’m looking into. I reached out to someone about it recently and they were very very supportive, so thank you to them. It’s good to know that someone else has been in this place and is able to act as guide. All a bit vague, I might talk about it at a later date.

I have always felt such gratitude to those people in my life who have been supportive, especially other writers and creatives who ‘send the elevator down’. There are so many people who don’t, who pull the ladder up behind them. Which leads me on to the title of this post. I don’t intend on reviewing every book I read, (you can see a list of all the books I’ve read on my twitter feed if you so desire – follow this link) and this isn’t really a review in a traditional sense, but I thought it might be nice to share some of the books I’ve read that have helped me in one way or another, especially in my slow journey to self as writer.

I picked Manifesto up on a recommendation from another writer, but for the life of me I can’t remember who recommended it. So thank you, mystery book lover. I’m always on the look out for writers talking about their own journeys. I feel I’ve learned more from creating my own reading list, exploring the art, auto biographies and essays and examining the lived experiences of other writers, than I did in my MA. Although I don’t regret doing any of my degrees, I do feel there is a great deal of value and growth in finding your own way too. I’d loved Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo’s Booker Prize winning novel. The novel was non traditional in terms of structure and style and I found this fascinating. I wanted to know what drove Evaristo’s choices, where she’d come from and what she had to say about writing and the writing world. I’m pleased to say I found Manifesto both fascinating and surprising.

Manifesto is a book that spans different genres. It does its own thing, it is not simply autobiographical, it is more than that. It is a set of sign posts, but it is also not a guide, in the traditional sense. It’s the story of how this extraordinary woman worked towards goals she set herself, how she learned from her own transitional stages, how she observed the mistakes she made in love and life and in art and determined how she would do better. It says in the blurb that the book is an ‘intimate and fearless account’ and that description is entirely deserved. Not because there is some harrowing story of overcoming odds, though the odds that Bernardine Evaristo has overcome are indeed harrowing, but because the author herself is so willing to be honest about being human and having faults. We live in a society that is increasingly polarised over everything with very little room for honest debate, discussion and acceptance, so it’s very refreshing to see someone being an ordinary human being, but an ordinary human being with a strong sense of moral purpose, and someone not afraid to use their platform for good; recognising the value of supporting others.

I liked in particular the way that Evaristo developed the narrative voice in the book, as the reader is reading it. It starts out simply, the language uncomplicated, the voice describing the world in which Evaristo came from which is one of love, certainly, but also one of racism and complex family dynamics, alongside somewhat claustrophobic judgement from schools and church. But as the ‘story’ develops and the author becomes more confident in herself and in her work, as she builds her CV the narrative voice slowly changes to one that includes a more authoritative academic style, without ever losing the humour, the ballsiness or the vulnerability. I love the way the author is playing with the book, how she is expressing this growth in style, manipulating and reflecting content. She has always chosen her own route through poetry and prose and this book is no exception to that. I also like how the author calls out shitty behaviour from exes, whilst simultaneously accepting this as part of her journey. She does not hold back on the folk who have wronged her, but she also doesn’t hold back on herself, recognising that she was/is also capable of shitty behaviour with partners.

But the thing I liked the most about this journey is that Evaristo set out a map, a route for herself and she did. not. give. up. There were so many places where anyone would have forgiven her for admitting that odds were stacked against her, but she didn’t let herself believe that, or rather she acknowledged that and did it anyway.

What I’m taking away from this book are two things: The first, a reminder about generosity. She recognises how hard it is, especially in the world of social media, to see other writers doing well, and the feelings of imposter syndrome and slight despair in wondering if you don’t fit in, or are consistently doing something wrong or aren’t good enough. She meets those feelings in herself, including jealousy, with acts of generosity. I think this is the key to surviving the literary world, which can be quite back biting and certainly quite elitist. Because you hope others do the same; are generous in return, when you are on the up turn of the wheel. You will always be either at the top or the bottom of that wheel. You can’t really change that, but you can change how you react to it. The second thing, a very practical thing, that I’m taking away from this book is the idea of creating affirmations for yourself and your writing projects. These aren’t simply ‘I am brilliant’ on a post it note stuck to the mirror, they are short descriptions of the finished project, the awards its won and the people its reached, done before one starts writing it. I tested this method out while I was having yet another moment of self doubt around the book/s I’m working on, and it actually helped me to recognise and remember what it was that I was trying to do with the book/s.

Bernardine Evaristo is not afraid to set her targets high. Her model of determination is to say ‘why not me’. Just because you are from a non traditional background, don’t have money, are learning as you go along, why does that exclude someone from attempting to meet those high standards that the industry sets. Why not me, why not challenge the gate keepers of the literary world, why not. What do you lose. Don’t give up.

Until next time

x

To London and the World of Stonehenge exhibition

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog, mainly because I’m feeling a bit burnt out with lots and lots going on in my life. I’m in a crazy work place at the moment. I made the decision to (mostly) spend each morning working on my writing and that decision has been something of a game changer.I think of it as investing in the future as apposed to working for no money. Acknowledging that I need to write in order to move projects forward, get funding, sell books etc is what i want to do allows me to give myself permission to take myself seriously as a writer. I find I am falling back in love with writing and feeling so much more capable and competent as a writer. I tend to not go on social media, not listen to the radio or watch any tele on a morning, it’s given over to the writing so that I can, as Picasso once said ‘leave my body at the door’ when I enter the studio, or in this case the bedroom I converted to an office which has, mysteriously, become a junk room too. However, this also means that there is no space in the afternoon for any real down time or breaks – all my work has to be done in that space, so I spend Sunday’s meticulously planning my work week to fit in to this tight schedule. I’m working on the next phase of Spelt magazine too, which is a really big growth step with two big moves towards expanding the Spelt platform, which will hopefully result in greater diversity and a genuine place for people to access the skills they need to get their work published. I can’t do that without more time to work on Spelt, so I am back to applying for funding for it, which if you’ve read earlier blogs you’ll know I absolutely hate. I wish I could just have a face to face interview. Oh well, them’s the breaks. I don’t want to say too much about the plans right now, but next month work really starts on the big thing that I am simultaneously excited by and terrified by, whether we get funding or not, so I shall enjoy telling you more about it then. Alongside that there is a brand new course starting in July, which I’m planning for, as well as some online and in person events to plan for, plus the course I’m currently running which I am enjoying immensely. You can find out about stuff I’m doing by following this link: courses and workshops. A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to run a workshop for Scarborough MIND, which was my first in person workshop for a while, and it went beautifully with a bunch of really engaged writers. The week before that I read at Filey Literature festival with the lovely Ralph Dartford. It was a small audience, but that made it a lovely way to return to the stage. It was quite magical, we had the door open to the street and the swifts were zipping up and down while we were reading our poems. I’d forgotten what thrill it was to do that. Next week I’m running a workshop for Crossing the Tees and also doing an in person reading in Darlington at the library. Tickets are available and it would be lovely to see you. It will be the first time I talk about the new collection and also the non fiction book alongside reading from the current collection and I am thrilled and excited but also quite nervous about it. My anxiety is proper peaked lately making things I should just out and out enjoy feel incredibly challenging.

Last week we (Chris and I) finally made it down to London to see the World of Stone Henge exhibition at the British Library. It is very difficult to get away anywhere due in part to my crazy work schedule, but also because our elderly dog can’t really go in kennels anymore and gets stressed around strangers so we are reliant on people we know sitting him while we are away. My parents very generously agreed to come and sit him a few times over the course of the day, and that meant we could get away. My dad’s just finished the first four rounds of absolutely brutal chemo and is now in the scans and appointments part of this journey before the big scary operation. We grabbed at the window of opportunity when he felt well enough to come and watch films at our house, and off we went early doors to get to London at lunch time. Some how I had failed to notice that it was also half term and also the week of the queen’s jubilee celebrations and I was dreading the crowds, but actually, goodness, what a thrill. I am showing my privilege here, because I am able bodied and vaccinated and feel ok being around people, though not crushing crowds, as long as I am taking as many precautions as possible. Everything at the BM was beautifully organised. It was ticketed with only a certain number of people let through at any one time, so there was no crushing around the exhibits and you could take your time. As soon as we arrived at King’s Cross and I felt that unmistakable London vibe; a mix of voices and languages and styles and music and smells and street food, I felt invigorated. The exhibition itself was just incredible. I am so glad I got to see it. I’d been wanting to do a research trip to the BM for the new poetry collection, and the non fiction book, so it was great to be able to combine a little day out with that very necessary part of my creative practice, which is to be physically present around the things I’m writing about. I was awed. I felt connected to the people who I have been writing about in a way that is hard to describe. This object in particular (below) which was found just outside Scarborough, at a place that I have visited several times, a place that I have written about and whose people I have tried to imagine being near and being connected to, I found particularly moving. Its use is uncertain but most likely it was used as a lamp, or as a ritual offering bowl, the light passing through the carved holes. It is the first piece in the exhibition, displayed simply, elegantly, with a plain background allowing the piece to speak for itself. I feel like I know these people who lived near where I live, and to see object, held in their hands, see it all the way down in London, in this enormous museum with all those people looking at it, admiring it as the opening feature of such a beautifully curated exhibition made me emotional.

Because the exhibition was so well organised I was able to linger around the artefacts and look at them from every direction, getting up close to the backs of them to see the way they were worked. One day I dream of having access and permission to engage with and look at things like the Star Carr headdresses (picture of one above) with no glass between myself and the object. Perhaps on a future project this might be arranged. But the next best thing is this elegantly put together exhibition that allows space and time to look at the objects owned by our ancestors.

There is something quite beautiful about writing the poems for the new collection. I am feeling, with these last series and sets of poems about ancestry that I am somehow drawing the collection together, like a string being pulled taut through the eyelets of a cloth bag.

After the exhibition we went and got some fabulous veggie street food and a glass of wine, then flung ourselves back on the train and managed to get to York at 9pm. Chris then managed to accidentally drop his bag on the track which meant we caused all sorts of bother retrieving it and didn’t get back to Scarborough until gone eleven, and then had to get a taxi back to our village and Scarborough being Scarborough, this was a challenge. Home by midnight, bed, needing a day off to recover from the day off.

I’m looking at my planner for July and seeing some nice big gaps and hoping to have time around Spelt to get more writing in, more paid writing too, I hope. But for now I am in crazy work world and loving being around creative people.

Thanks for reading this rambling blog!

Until next time

x

Women Asserting their Place in Poetry

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

Imagine this: A line of women poets stretching back, back through history, back through through layers of crinoline and taffeta and silk and underskirts and corsets and back, and back through kitchens and studies and libraries and maid’s quarters and milking sheds, back and back, all the way back to the oral traditions, to the women we can’t name, the anonymous women of history, their poems; their voices lost. This week I’ve been thinking a lot about those women, and the tail end of that link that is me, and how I sit here, how I am attached and connected to this line, how I sit alongside the other women poets that I know. Last night I met with my regular Fettling group. This is a group I set up a while ago. It’s a small group of just eight people, who meet every two weeks, and the purpose of the Fettling groups is to really focus on moving poems forward with group discussion, but also to find new ways to invigorate the way that attendees write, to find new ways of taking risks and pushing boundaries and comfort zones. Of all the groups, workshops and courses that I run, this is probably my favourite. Last night I brought along some wisdom from Eavan Boland. We discussed the ‘domestic poem’ and the revolutionary act of writing about interior life; how these mostly female spaces had been marginalised, de-valued, how poems about these places were perhaps devalued too, in the wider context of the poetry ‘community’, how that might, in turn, put women off writing the ‘domestic poem’ for fear of not being taken seriously. And then we took the radical act of writing a domestic poem, based on a painting by Eric Bowman. We talked about the term ‘poetess’ and the way that it’s purpose is to highlight the feminine of the poet, how it has become something of a criticism, or at the very least a condescending term that ‘others’ the woman poet, dividing her from the flock and herding her away. There is something to be said for this sort of contemplation, alongside being prompted to write, there is something necessary, at least for me, in accessing the thoughts of other poets in the development of my own self, in terms of becoming a poet. The wisdom of other poets is crucial to me, it connects me to the poets that have come before me and especially to the women poets and authors upon whose shoulders I am standing, precariously, and hoping that I am doing a good job. It was good to be in a group sharing this with other poets. There is something special about the way that a small group can meet on zoom, and open themselves up, how the intimacy of the safe space means that poems shared become as much about craft as they are an acknowledgement of the experience and process of creating the poem.

This morning I read this quote:

I like to think that the customs of friendship, as well as the loving esteem which are so visible in the communal life of women, will become evident in the practice and concept of the poetic tradition also. That women poets from generation to generation, will befriend one another. Eavan Boland

That’s what this is to me, this slow journey to myself. I am finding the connection to other writers and especially women writers and poets to be a kind of befriending. I feel welcomed into this long line of poets, this long line of women writers, and I am cherishing their wisdom.

I still have places for my Writers on Writing course which starts soon, and you might like to know about this course that I am running for Spelt Magazine: Reading and Writing Contemporary Nature Poetry.

Until next time

x

A New Venture – Writers on Writing: Poetry

Photo by Wallace Chuck on Pexels.com

If you follow my blog regularly you will have seen that I have been delving into my own practice, exploring what it is to write poetry and how I can break out of some of the habits I have fallen into as a poet. I have been learning to take risks with my own work. I have thought about this development in my own writing as a slowing down, a cessation of striving for publication and success and a re-evaluation of what I want to achieve as a writer, and as a person. The two are not mutually exclusive. Happiness and contentment make me a different writer, they make me a better writer, I think. In my quest to find my own way I’ve been reading books and essays by poets and writers who have explored the impulse towards creativity, and I have been reading about the range of expression that poetry brings, how different art forms merge, and particularly about process; how we think our way to the poem. It has done me good. For me, learning your craft should be more than just creating the impulse to write, or finding a muse or being inspired. We can learn so much by listening to other poets not just reading their poetry, but talking about their process.

This week has been about laying out the foundations for the next set of courses I want to run, without losing the writing time I need to further my own work. Being a freelance writer is a kind of time-tetris in which writing time and activities that will pay the mortgage are fitted around each other. This time I’ve focused on my own passion for exploring the poetic process and created a course that I think will help those wanting to further their own work. This series is called: Writers on Writing and my intention is to include more genres. But initially I want to start with poetry. I’ve limited the number of people on this course to just 10 people to ensure that we get time to talk, discuss and write in a relaxed atmosphere.

The course is nine weeks long, and split into three sets of three weeks. In each set there is a close reading week; a kind of book club week in which we close read and discuss the poet’s work, look at themes, styles, technique and use this to prompt risk taking in our own work. The second week is a workshop week in which poets get to give and receive feedback on their work in a constructive and friendly environment. The third week of each set is an event at which the poet we have been reading and discussing will come and give both a reading and a question and answer session led by myself. Whilst this is a ticketed event and open to the public to help cover fees, participants of the course get free access and priority for asking questions. This event also has an open mic, at which participants will get priority for the open mic.

The idea behind the course is to do more than simply generate new writing. It’s a chance to explore the work of poets who are at the top of their game and who are willing to share not just their experience and advice, but their own writing process, their own thought processes and their own inspiration. The three poets we will be working with are Daniel Sluman, Polly Atkin and Kim Moore. All three are writers who are using poetry as a medium not just of self expression, but of connection and response, using their own experiences to reflect more than just themselves. I am really excited about this new venture, I know I’ll learn a lot from the series and I hope you’ll join me.

Whilst this course is open to any poet at any level, I feel it would be particularly well suited to writers who are wanting to make a step change in their own writing, poets who want to enhance and rejuvenate their own work. The course is zoom based, and will run on Thursday evenings 7-9pm. the first session is 26th May.

You can book your place by following this link, which will take you to my sales page: Writers on Writing.

If you are of a generous nature and want to help me to facilitate writers on lower incomes who you feel would benefit from this course, or if you have someone in mind who you would like to give a place on this course to, please pay through the payment page and drop me a line at wendyprattfreelancewriter@gmail.com I always have a waiting list of writers who would like to work with me but are in financial difficulties and any help in meeting their needs is very much appreciated!

Until next time

Wendy

x

Twelve

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com
Thoughts on Deer Grazing at the  Cemetery on the Day My Daughter Would Have Been Twelve Years Old


Two deer coming down out of the woods
each foot a needle sewing 

footprints to the dew.
Two Roe adults the colour 

of last year’s leaves, 
picking through the headstones 

gentle as mist, eating the heads 
off the flowers. It pleases me to think

I have been leaving offerings 
at your altar, yellow roses

to the spirits of this place,
inviting them to be near you. 




Travelling Without Moving

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This week I made progress on a writing project. I have passed through a psychological gateway with The Ghost Lake, my Nan Shepherd prize longlisted creative non fiction book. I was lucky enough to be offered representation by two different literary agents in the same week. I met with them both and then had a torturous week of decision making. They were very different agents, both offering the next step on the journey, both with excellent credentials and so much to offer. It was the most exciting thing in the world and the most stressful as I feared the wrong decision. I had a friend help me pick apart what I wanted from an agent, undoing the ‘should dos’ and undressing the ‘this is expected’ and burrowing down into my core values, the way I work as a writer and who would best work with me on that. In the end I chose Caro Clarke at Portobello Literary. And now that the stress of the decision making is over, I am absolutely overjoyed at the prospect of working with Caro and excited to see where the book lands. In my head, this was a big milestone for the project, for the book. It means that I can hand over the ‘hustle’ of getting the book out there to someone else who knows what they’re doing, and I can concentrate on just writing it. But it’s also, on a less practical note, a way of giving myself permission to write the book. It is no longer a waste of time to work on it; time that I could be teaching or mentoring etc activities that mean I would be making physical money that I can see. Instead it is an investment in a future payoff. Having someone who trusts me as a writer, trusts me to create good work and is invested in me is going to keep me on my toes and also keep me focused on putting the writing first, which is something I struggle to do. And just like winning grants or awards, it is a kind of validation. I am slowly turning from facilitator/teacher/mentor who writes, to writer who mentors/teaches/facilitates. There’s a big difference. There’s a sense of achievement, a genuine thrill about it. I feel good, I’ve met a goal I set and am now ready to move on to the next one.

This has also been a week of travelling in a physical sense, as I’ve been driving my parents back from my dad’s first chemo appointment. A strange day. A long day as he had to have his PICC line fitted before the very intensive chemo started. My mum and I spent quite a lot of time sitting in the car together and chatting. I like to feel useful and these small practical things that I can do around work are, to be honest, as much about me feeling like I am doing something practical to offset the anxiety as it is about supporting them. As we sat in the car we discussed all sorts – kitchens, underwear, the agency decision I was in the middle of making – we spent six hours people watching, reading, snoozing. We wondered if we could get away for an hour to go shopping in Hull. This merging of the ordinary, even enjoyable stuff, with the trauma of cancer treatment and the over hanging question that is, realistically, ‘are we going to lose him’ is a strange thing, isn’t it. It took me back to the grief days after my husband and I lost our daughter, Matilda. How we might be watching TV together, laughing even and then the reality of it all would slowly seep back in like seawater filling up holes in the beach-sand; the reality that everything had changed, nothing could go backwards, there was only the forwards motion of time and the knowledge of living with it all, getting on with it, of having no other option. I’d forgotten about that bit.

I drove their car back, it was a joy to drive, much nicer than ours. It took about an hour, with my dad in the front seat. They were both getting smaller right before my eyes. He did really well, all in all, and is very stoic, but I can see already that he is changed, he is frailer. They both are. As I drove I pointed out the landscape features and we talked about churches they’d visited nearby, the myths and village folklore that surrounded them, the way the road swept away into the fields, the beauty of it. Mum sat in the back and read her book. There was a sense of role reversal, I thought back to the same conversations we’d had as children, the driving to see relatives in Thirsk, the pointing out of the landscape features, the stories that were attached to those places. I had a sense that we were driving forward to an unknown point, and all there was to do was to move, to progress, to mark off each small accomplishment, to celebrate the wins and manage the losses.

I am sat in my office, just returned from a walk in the lane. It is warm; the first proper warm day of this year. It was good to feel the warmth on my skin. No coat or even cardigan: I wore my cut off jeans and a loose flowered blouse, no make up, hair pinched up in a clip. There is something about this unpeeling of winter clothes that is very freeing. The swallows are back; a pair in the lane, exactly where I first saw them last year. They skim the fields and flit and turn like bats on the wing, they sit on the telephone lines, forked tails hanging, chattering and they bring joy with them. Tiny things, moving across the globe, directed only by the purpose of existence. I stopped to watch the buzzards, paired up again. I was hoping to see the courtship display I’d witnessed last year – that death defying tumble of claws and wings and sudden rise to circle the air drafts opposite each other. Not today.

We have starlings nesting in the porch, the house is alive with their chittering and whistles. The office window is open to the blossom and the grass scents, the rumble of sheep in the fields, the lambs calling back. This is blissful. Life can only ever be lived in the moment you are in. The future, the past, they don’t really exist. There is only this moment.

Until next time

x