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:
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.
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.
You can never get a cup of tea large enough, or a book long enough to suit me
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.
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 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
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
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
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.
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
I’ve just finished reading Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment. It is an extraordinary book, beautifully written. It’s one of those books that you can sink into, and carry around with you, exploring the themes and questions and points of view in your mind. It came at just the right time, as I feel I have been exploring my own, metaphorical islands, some of them abandoned, some of them not so much. Cal Flyn’s islands are real places in which human intervention has stripped and scorched them, the interest is in the psychological attachment to them, and the physical response from nature. My metaphorical islands are grief, writing, friendships. Last week I sent the new poetry collection to the publisher. I know they’re waiting on ACE funding, like so many indie publishers, so I’m really just waiting to see what happens before I can release any details. One nice thing about it was the way that my editor shortened the title of the collection in her response email. Something about that made it feel familiar, wanted, warmed to, and that made me happy. The collection has passed through that strange place, has gone from being a Schrödinger’s collection that exists only when I perceive it to be a collection, and is now a manuscript on a desk in a publisher’s office with a title that is solid and firm, a title that can hold the weight of being shortened for ease of communication. Put simply: It exists as a complete thing, it is created.
And so I bed into the non fiction book. I’ve started getting out and immersing myself in the physical places on which the non fiction book is based. It’s been wonderful. These places are islands of time in which I can almost touch the people who came before me, who lived on this land. I’ve been out walking in the early autumn light, smelling the loamy earth, quietly making my way through the richness of this place, disappearing into it, crossing from one island of interest to another through fields of black earth. The research for the non fiction book has been wonderful too. I have spent days holed up in my office with only the old dog and the rain on the windows for company, structuring a story I want to tell. When Hilary Mantel died recently I found myself revisiting her work, pulling quotes from her books to share, so that I could somehow express to the world what she meant to me. Hilary Mantel, though she will never know it, gave me permission to trust myself as a writer exploring, as an amateur researcher, as someone with ambition, someone from a working class background. I admired her drive greatly, I admired her genius response to the complexities of historical fiction, her way with language, her risk taking. We have lost a great writer there and it saddens me to think I’ll never read a new Mantel book. This quote in particular I find reassuring:
“Some writers claim to extrude a book at an even rate like toothpaste from a tube, or to build a story like a wall, so many feet per day. They sit at their desk and knock off their word quota, then frisk into their leisured evening, preening themselves. This is so alien to me that it might be another trade entirely. Writing lectures or reviews – any kind of non-fiction – seems to me a job like any job: allocate your time, marshal your resources, just get on with it. But fiction makes me the servant of a process that has no clear beginning and end or method of measuring achievement. I don’t write in sequence. I may have a dozen versions of a single scene. I might spend a week threading an image through a story, but moving the narrative not an inch. A book grows according to a subtle and deep-laid plan. At the end, I see what the plan was.”
I spent a whole, precious day of research not finding what I was looking for, eight hours of researching and instead of the thing I was searching for, I found an image, a tiny paragraph in a loose interview with someone who knew someone who is important to the book, from forty years ago and boom: I could see the place and the time and the life of the people I am writing about, like a wormhole opening up. The whole chapter will now open with that single image. Much of what I’m reading and researching is structuring other parts of the book, but there’s no way I can set a word limit and work to it every day, I just don’t work like that. I have to immerse myself in a project, from all angles, I have to let the structure form itself, I have to let it become a ‘special interest’ otherwise I cannot write it. If I’m not obsessed with it, I can’t write about it, and I have to feed the obsession before i get to the writing part. That is the way I work, and that is the way in which I produce good work. I wish I’d worked that out sooner. For me, to be a writer is to abandon myself on an island in my head, and turn inwards.
And of course, seven weeks after my dad’s death, I am still on an island of grief. Still finding some days challenging, other days less so. I went to see his grave last week and found it surrounded by fallen acorns and fallen apples. My mum says he has a friend – a squirrel – who comes and sits near the grave. I like that idea. I keep meaning to say thank you to everyone who sent messages, cards, flowers. It meant a great deal to me to be remembered and acknowledged with these kind acts, and I apologise if I haven’t gotten back to you. You find out who is willing to make themselves uncomfortable for you when you lose someone and are walking the road of grief. Some people will walk with you a short while, even if that company is just in the form of a letter, a card, an email, a message. It is noticed, it is noted, it isn’t forgotten. Some people surprise you in their absence. Some friendships turn out to not have been friendships after all, not really, and you feel the sting of your nativity in their absence of thought. Grief then, is a kind of cleanser, it brushes out the corners of your life.
Next week my days begin with the Spelt Dawn Chorus Writing Group which I got a lot out of last month. I’m hoping I can get a lot out of it again this month. It’s a quite, peaceful yet productive start to the day, feel free to join us!
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:
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
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.
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.
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 fromyou; 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.
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.