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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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!
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.
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.
In my last blog, Creativity and the Slow Life, I talked about my quest for a slower way of living, a slower, more meaningful way of being a writer, and how I was exploring the works of other writers, looking at how they write but also why they write. because I’m quite focused on this journey I feel that almost everything I am doing at the minute; every poet I interview for Spelt, every poetry collection I read, every class I teach, is reflecting something back to me about my own practice. I think I needed to be self aware and open enough for this to happen and I’m pleased that I am now able to stand in front of myself as a person, and as a writer, and make decisions around my own practice and my own development; decisions that are about growth and happiness as much about the validation of publication and ‘success’. Which all sounds terribly pretentious, but that is part of the problem that I have with myself. I come from a place where working as an artist or a writer isn’t a real job and even though I know and am certain that this is what I am, even though I aspire to be a writer, to do the thing that I think I’m good at, to acknowledge and accept and use the compulsion that I have to create, use it to be a good writer, a good artist, I can’t quite shed that voice, the skin that hangs about me in shreds spelling out pretension. That word, pretension opens the door to other well worn internal phrases of mine, spoken from the ghosts of my own life: Who does she think she is and she thinks she’s better than us.
The thing that stops me from reaching a place of satisfaction with myself though, is in fact me. I am a meme.
If nothing changes, things remain the same.
This year is very much about doing work on myself, and on my writing practice. As part of that journey I am actively reading about other writers and their own journeys, how they face their own writing demons, how they develop as writers. It is a journey of absolute joy, and of connecting in a very real way to writers that I respect immensely. In my last blog I recommended Tanya Shadrick’s The Cure for Sleep. This time round I want to recommend to you Why I Write Poetry, edited by Ian Humphreys and published by nine Arches Press. It’s a collection of essays by poets on (you guessed it) why they write poetry, but also on how they approach their practice and the big and small things that they have done to find their own way, to find their own voice, to be true to themselves, to write authentically. The essays are wildly different from each other. Vahni Capildeo’s essay – Skull Sutra: On Writing the Body – is a piece of incredible creativity in its own right and simply couldn’t have been written by any other poet, such is the strength of their voice that I felt the essay could have been a prose poem. I absolutely recognised the connection to landscape and the way of responding to that landscape that I found in Jean Sprackland’s In Praise of Emptiness: On Writing about Place and Paying Attention, and found myself experimenting with my senses when out walking and writing because of that essay. There are essays in this collection that gave me insights into backgrounds that I could never have known about, Romalyn Ante’s essay – Pusikit: On Working as a Poet While Working for a Living is incredibly moving. I found it inspiring, it made me look at myself and ask myself where my own obstacles were and whether they were truly obstacles, or excuses. I found Daniel Sluman’s essay How I Built a New Voice: On writing and Living as a Disabled Writer astonishingly good also. The idea that a writer would choose to take the risk of stepping away from publication, awards, the striving and comparison that makes up so much of being ‘successful’ as a poet in order to develop a new way of writing authentically about their own existence struck a chord with me, in fact seeing someone else doing this was like being given permission to do that myself. Similarly, the way that Jacqueline Saphra writes about her own journey to poetry from a different career is just beautiful, invigorating. He essay Keep Ithaca Always in Your Mind: On the Journey and value of Poetry is another essay that has allowed me to revisit my own practice but also to remind myself of why I want to write in the first place. I posted on social media that I simply cannot recommend this collection of essays highly enough, it is better, in my very humble opinion, than any ‘how to’ book of craft, because the voices in this book are not talking about how, but why, which must be the most overlooked question in writing. Why do you want to write, what is the purpose? Why does it matter to you that you pull down your poems and set them on the page, or unwind the spool of thread that is your own story, or that you create a place of joy and safety for others in a world that you create. As a species we have always created, it is the thing that separates us from other non human animals, it is the thing that joins all of us together. That compulsion to change and translate experience into art is powerful, incantatory, magical. If you are a poet, you need this book in your life. I read one essay a day as part of my morning routine alongside journalling, morning papers, reading poetry etc. I found such solace in the beautifully curated pieces. It really is one of the best collections of essays i have read and one that I will come back to.
In other news I read my commissioned working class poem at the fantastic and wonderfully well organised Lyra Bristol Festival last week. I did not cry. Though I thought I would. It is reproduced below with kind permission of the festival. It’s a variation on a golden shovel. the version on the postcard is slightly shorter than the original version and the full title is Twelve Hour Working Day as a Golden Shovel.
My intention for the commission was to reflect back the narrative of the quote used, bending it to reflect one common moment from my own childhood. My dad was a bus driver, his last job of the day was to clean his own bus down before returning home to our little house. He must have been exhausted. I wanted to say something about the stereotyping of working class people, especially where poverty is concerned. But I wanted to do that without shouting about it. We didn’t live in poverty growing up, but we were often on a line between not quite having enough and having enough. We were aware that there was only ever a couple of steps between our lives and lives of poverty and desperation and there was an inbuilt respect for that, and awareness of it that stays with you if you come from a working class background. To be working class is to have restricted opportunities, and sometimes that restriction comes from within the community, within your own family. The fear of that line being crossed is enough to pressure children to not try and do something as flighty as be a writer or an artist, that fear pushes them to have a real job and have qualifications if you can get them and to have that stability that takes you further from that line. It’s where the voice in my head gets the idea of pretension and the act of creativity. Anyway, I got through the poem. And my mum and dad really liked it, which was surprising as they don’t really get this sort of poetry. Being able to explain the use of the quote and the motive behind it helps and I think my dad liked the recognition of those hard, hard years. His chemo starts next week and I’ll be driving him to Hull for it. I imagine he will have plenty of criticism over my driving and weirdly, right now I welcome that normality.
At the beginning of the year I decided I wanted to have a different kind of life. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what it is I am aiming for, but it is something to do with living a slower life: professionally, psychologically, personally and most importantly, creatively. It means allowing myself to bed into projects, prioritising my creativity and finding a way to hold on to a creative form of myself. Sometimes I feel like I have accidentally created the perfect nest that allows me to write well, and to hold onto that without quite knowing how I did it is like holding onto a thread of spider silk that could break at any minute. But creativity isn’t a magic trick. To be able to write well is as much about creating a place around yourself to be able to think, as it is about the discipline of sitting down and writing every day; something I am still doing, incidentally, it’s good practice.
Speak to any writer and they will tell you that it is difficult to force creativity, especially poetry which is a medium of translation – events, pain, love, happiness – into art. I feel I have burned myself out through striving to get to a place that is perhaps non-existent and more about my need to be recognised as valuable, than about my need to create. All the striving has, though, allowed me to climb high enough that I am now on a platform that I can, to a certain extent, control. I can sit on this platform and grow into myself and my writing. Right now I am working on myself. I feel like I am undoing myself, peeling away long papery layers of habit and compulsion and sitting with each version of myself, asking her what she needs and what I need to do to validate her. I’m addressing all sorts of things, both personally and in my writing. I mentioned recently that my next collection has been put back a year, which feels like a terribly long time but, actually I feel this might be fate playing a hand for me. Without the pressure of the imminent end of year deadline, I have been able to allow the poems to come when they come. I’ve used the last of my Society of Author’s work-in-progress grant to take the time to write when I need to; a change from what I initially planned, which was to set a big chunk of time aside to write write write, which just didn’t work for me. I always felt I worked best under the pressure of a finite time scale, but it turns out that my procrastination is a lack of confidence, the ‘working well to a last minute deadline’ is a way of avoiding having confidence in myself and my work, a way to ‘trust the gods’ and have an excuse if I didn’t do as well as I wanted. The truth is, we don’t always do as well as we want, that’s just part of it. Some things work, some things don’t.
As part of my growth as a writer (pretentious, moi?) I have been consciously making an effort to investigate how other writers cross some of the difficulties I am facing, especially around confidence and class. I’ve been reading about other writers and their journeys, how they come to their work, how they value themselves and how they turn away the internal voices that we all seem to have, the ones that tell us to give up as we are not good enough. I have book recommendations:
The first is Tanya Shadrick’s The Cure for Sleep. This is a memoir about coming out of a near death experience and reevaluating life, making different and difficult decisions. It’s more than that, but it would be difficult to create a one line summary on it. Tanya’s story is worth so much more than a soundbite line because the story itself is complicated, because life is complicated. Occasionally I come across a book that does something to me, it changes me. This is one of those books. It has allowed me to hold a mirror up to myself and has inspired me to change my own journey. And whilst I was already on this journey towards a slower creative life, this book created in me an impulse to grasp it, to stop having it as a wishy washy idea that I never did anything about, and make a stand, against myself, to make a decision to value myself and value my work more. I was wary of the parts of Tanya Shadrick’s story that were about learning how to be a mother. My daughter died at birth in 2010, and after two eight week miscarriages and thirteen years of infertility and infertility treatment, thirteen years of trying to have a family, we chose to draw a line and move on as a childless couple. we chose, I chose to create a different kind of life. But what I found with Tanya’s book was that I could empathise with her on the changes she needed to make in herself to be the mother she needed to be, to think outside of what society wanted her to be. Knowing me, I can see that if Matilda had lived, I would have wanted to be the perfect standard of motherhood and get it right, but I would hope that, (also knowing me), I would eventually find a path that suited me, that took me where i needed to be. In fact, that’s exactly what I did do, in many respects, I chose to have motherhood as a part of my life, a part of my story that wasn’t the focus of that story. A different kind of mothering, and a future doing something entirely different to what i had been doing. I took a hard right turn out of the hospital I worked at, whose clinical negligence had in part resulted in my daughter’s death, and went in an entirely different direction, with the spinning, glorious goal of being a ‘writer’ as my drive. I think what i’m doing now, in this part of my life, is reevaluating what a ‘writer’ looks like to me, and how I want to exist in that state. Because I have been calling myself a writer without quite having the guts to step over the line into that place. I make a lot of excuses, I lie to myself, I fill all the gaps and spots in my life where writing could occur with ideas that are related to writing, but often are more about helping other people to become writers. It is very much about how I value myself, to be help other people, and I hope I never lose that impulse, not that I’m some sort of saintly presence in the writing world, far from it, but I have tricked myself into thinking my purpose is a platform for other writers and have somehow lost myself in that. It is hard to value yourself. I find it excruciating. This book has an honesty to it about being a person with faults and a person with beautiful gifts and I love that, I love the openness of it. The journey we take as readers, with the narrator, is not a direct journey, it is a journey of ups and downs and finding the right way to be true to self, the right way to validate yourself and Tanya has become a real inspiration to me in that honesty, the honesty to confront yourself and your needs, the honesty to try different ways of living, but also to accept that the past has irreversible consequences on how one sees oneself, and will swallow you up if you let it. I’m not sure I am doing justice to this book, you need to read it. I guess I’m saying that I appreciated the idea of how the real journey is not about external validation, of fitting in, it is about internal validation and being true to self; which is a really obvious thing to say, but not an easy thing to accept. I have been recommending this book left right and centre, to every woman, especially the creative women, that I know, because at 44 years old, and still trying to get to where I want or need to be, I feel old. This book helps to undo that feeling of time limits and what the ‘correct’ way of getting somewhere is. It’s brilliant, helpful and inspiring and really beautifully written.
I’m reading other books too, but I’ll talk about them in other blogs. Right now, this is the one that is having the biggest effect on my own personal journey, and one I feel I needed to have in my life right at this minute.
The other thing that is slowing me down, for different reasons, is my dad’s illness. He has now gone through all the tests he needs to to be diagnosed with a T3 oesophageal cancer. A very serious type of cancer in which the treatment is surgery. The operation is enormous and complicated. The surgeon said it’s the sort of operation in which he won’t be doing any other operations on that day, the whole day is given over to my dad’s operation. It will mean dad will be in intensive care for at least three days in an induced coma and in hospital for about a month all in all. It has a year long recovery time and will irrevocably change him physically. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, there is a 1/20 chance of him dying during the operation or afterwards of infections, partly because during the operation they need to deflate one of his lungs. The lungs have to be strong enough for this in the first place, but it also increases the chances of infection and it is usually ex smokers and those with chronic lung problems that succumb, because their lungs are already damaged. My dad smoked for fifty years. He’s been given up a while, but it’s one of the things that makes it all even more dangerous. So myself and my brother and sister are trying to support them the best we can, trying to put in place the practical support we can to get them through this. At the weekend we met to discuss wills and inheritance and it was very difficult. My dad has very clear ideas of what he wants to happen in the event of his death, to the dream life, the quirky, self sufficient home-style, small holding life that he built for mum and him, and it’s very complicated in passing some of this stuff on to children, especially three siblings who are all so very different in their outlooks and needs. There is no getting around the crushing awfulness of the situation. There’s no avoiding it, there is no controlling it, you just have to live it and feel all the pain and sadness and fear and just get through it daily. It’s affected my quickness somehow, I’m struggling to get through the brain fog of it all, especially as Chris and I have just had covid and I am still coughing and feeling fatigued weeks afterwards. Chris’s mum’s partner is poorly in hospital too. And I could do without the constant threat of nuclear annihilation and feelings of helplessness over the appalling situation in Ukraine. What can you do except just plod forward. Apologies if you are waiting on stuff from me, I am even worse at getting back to people right now and have to just lean into whatever I need to do in any one minute. That’s a lot of details about my dad and I may delete that part of the blog. It’s not my story to tell, I’m a bit player in this trauma. Then again, this is how I deal with stuff and maybe I shouldn’t apologise for that.
I have a reading on Saturday, reading my Lyra Festival commissioned working class poem. Would you believe it is about my dad. I wanted to create a poem to celebrate the way my dad worked so hard when we were kids, to build the life for himself and my mum that they have now. I used a version of a Golden Shovel form to do that, using a quote by Boris Johnson as the structure. I’m pleased with it, and hoping I can get through the 30 seconds it will take to read it without pooling into a sad crazed mess on the screen. It’s a zoom reading, and free, and there are eleven other fantastic working class poet commissioned poems being platformed. I’m excited about it. Please do come along: Lyra Festival Tickets
Last week I got some writing done and an application for a writing residency. I feel like it was a good week. I am growing the poems in the new collection, using different ways to connect and bring them down onto the page and I am really really pleased with the work I’m producing. It’s a very different to Horse, much less organic, much more thoughtful. This week is all about prepping for courses I’m running, and tackling feedback. There are still a few places on my April Write-A-Thon . I’m about to set the closed facebook group up and invite folk to come and introduce themselves. I’m already looking forward to the community feel and the fun of it. Why not come and join us? Follow this link: April Write-A-Thon. And around all that, I’ll be trying to find the space to read, to think, to hold fast to that spider silk thread of creativity, to live a slow, thoughtful life.
The advice in my planner this morning, as I sat down at my desk with the window open, listening to the birdsong in the garden, was ‘Become less connected to the outcome and more committed to the work‘ attributed to Iman Europe. Strangely, this is something I had already been thinking about this week. I feel that stepping back a little from what was a frantic work schedule has given me the space and time to grow into my own writing. Seeing the advice in the planner felt very much like one of those fate moments in which a path that you are following is confirmed to be the right direction by something or someone stepping in to your life at just the right time. Chris and I have both been suffering with Covid this week. Not seriously, but enough to force me to spend time in bed reading rather than working. I’ve been reading Tanya Shadrick’s The Cure for Sleep and recognising parts of myself in it. Not in the parts about the journey through motherhood, though I would hope that if Matilda had lived I would have found my own way though it and grown as a person, but rather the later life revelation of the creative impulse, the casting off of what was expected in order to be something else, the falling off the cliff-of-reality sensation of death, being near death and the unrelenting truth that life is so short, not a day must be wasted somehow juxtaposed alongside the need to find a way of living slowly. I have been forced by the virus to live slowly this week, doing the bare minimum of work and then retreating to bed, propped up with pillows and surrounded by tissues and tea and books while the seagulls drifted past and the birds sang in the garden. It reminded me how much I am in need of this peace-time, and what it does for my own writing. I am a better writer when I slow down and embrace the process, rather than reaching for the end of the project. I managed to get a good week of writing done in the week before covid, days in which I wrote from morning to lunch and then worked in the afternoon, and it was good. Nourishing. The rest of the month is going to be ruled by work, but I got a good draft of a chapter done on the non fiction book and felt like I was making real process.
Next week I’ll be busy running my my online writing retreat. I’ve had a couple of last minute cancellations, so there are places still available. It’s going to be a relatively small group, and that is something I am really looking forward to. To give yourself permission to settle in and write with others, to give yourself permission to put yourself and your writing first is so important. I’ll be joined through the week by Steve Nash, Caleb Parkin, and Kim Moore, all experts in their fields and ready to help you get to where you want to be with your writing. And as well as workshops and readings from all of the above, we’ve got Naush Sabah giving a reading too. We’re going to be doing early morning writing groups, writing in response to the nature table and I have to say that the workshops that the guest facilitators have lined up look incredible. The winter retreat was a nourishing experience, a chance to connect in the darkness with like minded writers. I think the spring retreat will be a chance to connect again, as we emerge from that darkness into a spring of small joys in a world of chaos and pain. I know I need that right now.
One of the good things about it is that it’s entirely online, so you don’t need to even leave your house and there’s no pressure to attend everything in the plan, come to the ones you want, the ones that work around your life. I hope to see you there.
We (myself and Steve Nash) are currently reading submissions for issue five of Spelt Magazine, the magazine I founded just over a year ago. Spelt is a print magazine in which we seek to celebrate and validate the rural experience through poetry, creative non fiction, author interviews, columnists and writing prompts. We’ve made it through a whole year, which is a huge milestone, and we are excited about our second year, which will involve further growth, more platforms and, hopefully, some extra funding. Starting and running a magazine, especially a print magazine, is definitely a labour of love. But It is also incredibly rewarding. It’s a thrilling feeling to be part of the writing and publication journeys of other writers, and to provide a platform for people, and to create something that is so very aesthetically pleasing, it is a great source of joy for me, and something that we are very proud of. It seemed crazy to start this magazine during a pandemic, but it really has helped to give purpose and stability in times when there was none. if you are thinking about starting your own lit. mag, here are ten things that really worked to help us reach our goals and stay motivated.
Have a Plan
Not everybody is a planner fan, but I am. Having a solid plan helped to make this a reality, was something to refer back to when it got a bit overwhelming and helped me to take the magazine seriously. I’d been thinking about starting a magazine a few years before I actually did it. I got some experience editing other magazines, got myself into a position of feeling competent as published writer, an editor of manuscripts and an editor of magazines, then started thinking about what was important to me in terms of values and ethics. Running a magazine can be a long term project, especially if you decide to take subscriptions, so it’s important to have a magazine that you are in love with. Then I started planning out the logistics of the magazine. Here’s my original plan:
2. Be Unique
Anyone can start a literary magazine. Especially with the growth of online magazines, some of which are very very good, but anyone can start an online magazine on a free wordpress site. There are many, many literary and poetry magazines out there, so what will set yours apart from the rest. Is it enough to ‘just’ platform really good writing? I wanted to do something special with Spelt, something that would reflect the community that I come from as a working class rural person, something that was not elitist, but also not dumbed down. What is the gap that needs to be filled? don’t be afraid to be a bit niche.
3. Print or online?
This is an important question. I thought a great deal about whether Spelt would be online or in print. There are up sides and down sides to both. The main one is cost, Spelt costs money to produce, and where that money comes from has to be factored in. I am always on a treadmill of raising the funds to produce the magazine which is a job in itself, but the magazine looks amazing, it brings me joy to think of it on the bookshelves of the British library, in bookcases up and down the country and abroad. And as a poet I know the absolute thrill of seeing your name in print in a high quality print magazine. However, online magazines can be equally high quality, but with reduced start up and running costs. You still need to put the time into running the magazine, but don’t have the stress of the money and printing and delivering and postage and all of the other things that take a lot of time.
4. Where is the capital coming from?
If you’re going for a print magazine you will need to have the funds to get the first issue off the ground. This might come out of your own pocket, but most of us don’t have bags of magazine money lying about the place. We crowdfunded £1600 to start Spelt and that got the first copy to the printers, ensured the second issue would be partially funded and helped us fund some bits and pieces like zoom (for launches and further down the road workshops etc) and some of that went into launching our first competition. You might try the Arts Council, or you might try getting small companies to help fund it for advertising space. Make sure you cost everything out so you know exactly what it is going to cost. We run Spelt on a shoe string, but every bit of money we have in the magazine comes from somewhere. Use the capital well, grow it to help you keep your magazine going.
5. Partner Up
Running a magazine is very hard work. I asked Steve to be my Co ed because he is a brilliant poet and communicator, a really nice and genuine person and he is really good with tech. We make a good team because we have different skills, but some of those skills over lap. He has an excellent eye for layout too. It is such a relief to have someone there on the journey with me, someone who I get on well with and who has the skills to do all the complicated techy stuff from the off. He’s also someone I can moan to about magazine stuff. Steve is great and I know that I can rely on him. He copes well with my caffeine fuelled early morning messages about what we should do next with Spelt. Having a Steve is essential to any magazine. Not just because I can hand over bug chunks of work to Steve, but because I have someone to celebrate with too. Steve works as a teacher, and I am self employed and being able to move work between us when we have more or less time is a life saver.
6. Be realistic with your time
A literary magazine will eat your ‘free’ time. Be realistic, right from the start about how much time you are willing to spend on it. I spend around ten to fifteen hours a week, sometimes in the daytime, mostly at weekends, getting the magazine put together. It is a huge commitment, but that’s because of the type of magazine we produce. If you don’t have lots of time to spend on it a smaller, easier to manage magazine is probably the way to go. If the magazine takes more time than you expected or had budgeted for it will quickly become a chore rather than a joy, and that’s not what you want.
7. Protect your mental health
This is a biggie. Once you are on your magazine journey you will find a whole range of stuff to stress about. Mostly I stress about letting people down. I had to work really hard to place boundaries around my time and to tell myself that no one will die if I am a week late getting a submissions response to them. Also, and this pains me to say, be prepared for the nasties. My little rural themed magazine often gets weird and nasty submissions. In my previous role editing another print magazine for someone else, we had racist hate mail directed at the previous editor. With Spelt there is sometimes a sense of entitlement over submissions. I’ve had a couple of angry ‘Don’t want to be in your shit magazine anyway’ responses to rejections (par for the course, it’s an emotional time for some writers to be rejected, if a writer is unable to moderate their emotional response to a gentle rejection that really is their problem to work on, not mine) but I’ve also had accusations of racism over a misspelt name, (turns out the guy is a well known literary fraud so unfortunately he is now blacklisted. ) I had one person furiously rip us to bits on twitter because we hadn’t sent the zoom link for an event for which the person had got the wrong day. No apology, over it, which is just rude. I’ve also had the most hideous rape and murder based poetry submissions, which took the form of threats directed at me, and when I told the writer to stop sending them as we wouldn’t ever accept his work, and that his ‘poems’ could be construed as direct physical threats against me he retaliated by calling me an ugly c*nt. This was the only time I felt unnerved enough to feel slightly unsafe. I was pro active and involved the writing community, kept a log and was ready to inform the police about this. I also did my own research so I knew exactly where this person was from and who had published him previously. What can you do? Twats are gonna twat. Perhaps it is because I am a woman editor. I wonder how many male editors receive rape threats? But I do know that all editors whatever their sex receive shite from people. Remember to feel sorry for the person who feels so small in their own life that they have to make themselves bigger by attempting to reduce another person. Being able to be safe and aware whilst not letting these tiny instances of atrocious behaviour spoil the enjoyment of running the magazine is key, but do be prepared, as you grow and become more well known, to draw weirdoes and twats towards you, like a magnet. Just so you know, for every one person being a twat, there are thirty odd having their day made by what you are doing. It’s really easy to focus on the bad, being prepared and armoured and actively thinking about the good stuff is the key to not getting beaten by it.
8. Be prepared for things to go wrong.
They will. Mistakes are made, we are human. People will pull their work from you at the last minute because it has been taken elsewhere, despite you specifically asking for no simultaneous submissions. Printers will be delayed, paper stocks will change price, the whole flipping fiasco of sending stuff to Europe, all these things. But they are just things, they are not your fault. See above, it is a literary magazine that you will mostly likely be running for free, so don’t stress about it too much. Just do your best.
9. Be humble
Difficult to do when you run the world’s best rural themed magazine *inserts winking emoji*. What I mean by that is, if you make a mistake, admit it, do something about it. If you upset a contributor or reader, apologise. Remember that the magazine isn’t really about you at the end of the day, it’s about the work that is in it, and you are in a unique and humbling position when you take people’s hard won poems to put in your magazine. If you think something would be better slightly edited, suggest it to them, but don’t just change it. The editor’s role is to work with the contributors. This is where being a published writer yourself comes in handy as it means that you can really see things from the contributor’s point of view. We always give a date of when we should have a submissions response and ask people to chase up if they haven’t heard, usually it’s because we’re late getting through the inbox and I welcome being able to tell people that. Treat your writers as people, and remember that there will be other magazines they’ll want to submit to if it’s a no. While I am wary of very quick turnarounds in literary mags (I like to sit with the poems for a few days), I hate to be waiting for more than twelve weeks myself as a writer, so we try and get responses out in no more than eight weeks, but life has a habit of scuppering plans. This month, for example, I’m dealing with my dad’s oesophageal cancer diagnosis, which is very serious and has obviously reduced my hours to spend on the magazine, but also I’m quite emotionally drained so the magazine is getting less attention. We don’t always get Spelt right, because we are human beings learning as we go, but I hope we always apologise when we get it wrong.
10. Know where you are going and how to get there
I have a five year plan for Spelt and it keeps me motivated. Treat your magazine as a business, even if it makes no money, work out how to grow so that you don’t sink or disappear. One mistake I see a great deal in the literary magazine and publishing industry is being too reliant on blocks of external funding. Spelt is self sustaining, as long as I sacrifice my time to it. I’d love to be paid for that time, but that will take years and I want the contributors to be paid before I am, which is also taking time. Spelt isn’t a vanity project, but it’s got to grow into its boots, the magazine has to be sustainable and safe before i can start reliably paying people. We do offer contributor copies, but we’d like to go further. We’ll be applying for ACE funding this year expand and to add to the platforms already in place, so that we can speed up that growth, but we have absolutely no intention of being reliant on being funded every year. It would make the magazine too vulnerable and I feel we have a commitment to the contributors and subscribers to make sure the magazine is robust. We’re in our second year now, so still right at the start of our journey, but I do feel we are doing ok, more than ok, we are doing some good work here, we are more than just a literary magazine, we are a kind of movement. And it feels great to be a part of that movement.
…WTF/every moment is precious. Who’d have thought that on the tail end of a global pandemic, a new potentially world devastating event was about to occur. I am sick of living through historical moments and so, so sick of the word ‘unprecedented’. I want precedented times only now, please.
It feels entirely selfish and strange to be thinking about anything other than Ukraine and kyiv, and those incredible people taking up arms against Russia and how utterly 2022 is is to have a Ukrainian president who is famous for being an actor/comedian who played the president in a sit-com. What a time to be alive. I’m watching WW III beginning on TikTok and Twitter because this is the world we live in today, one of mass communication via social media apps. I genuinely think that while those platforms have and will be used to disinform they are also one of the greatest ways of informing people. I’ve just read that the hacking contingency Anonymous hacked Russian state TV and played either (depending on your source) the Ukraine national anthem or Rick Astley into Russian homes. I don’t know if that’s true, I desperately want it to be true.
And so I limp to the end of February literally not knowing what the future holds, but knowing this: the birds are building nests, the rooks are in the rookery that overhangs the road and are carrying twigs about, the snow drops are out, the daffodils are emerging. The corner of my garden which was horribly flooded by a burst pipe and completely dug out during the pandemic, the corner that just so happened to be my source of spring joy with its overflowing snowdrops has, this year, come back with even more snowdrops, as if the obliteration of the soil woke them up and made them work harder to be even more splendid. Spring is coming and I will be grasping it and enjoying it. I’m so ready for winter to be over.
This month I started submitting poems from the new, new collection, which is strange but satisfying and a bit terrifying. A lot of them aren’t there yet, and the collection has been put back due to funding, but that’s a good thing because it means I now have time to put poems aside and return to them, to submit them, to tweak them and to build something I’m really pleased with, rather than rushing it.
I’ve also made progress with the non fiction book, one chapter of which I am tweaking and changing after taking advice on it. More on that when I have more news.
Reading wise I have been a bit slow. I am determined to get through Gabriel García Marquéz’s One Hundred Years of Solitude by the end of the month, it is something of a tome, and (spoiler alert) not one I’ve fallen in love with, but I hate leaving a book unfinished once I start it. Other books I read in February:
A non-fiction book, The Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes, which is all about mitochondrial DNA
Naush Sabah’s poetry collection Litanies, which is beautiful.
Raymond Antrobus’s poetry collection, All the Names Given, which is a must read, genuinely brilliant collection.
I’ve been to several events and had the good fortune of hearing Polly Atkin and James Dermott read at the launch of issue four of Spelt magazine. Issue four marks a whole year of Spelt. We have made it through a whole year and we continue to build the magazine. It’s satisfying to see that the work we are putting in to building a platform for rural experiences outside the traditional, is beginning to work, that we are seeing more and more submissions from people who are often marginalised in the rural experience. It’s time to start thinking about funding for some of the bigger projects. The magazine pays for itself, the extra money we make on workshops etc goes into paying workshop facilitators and guest readers so that we can offer our launches for free. But we want to do more and to do more we need some capital. I imagine the next step is Arts Council Funding, but if you know me you will know how much I abhor the time it takes and the lottery that ACE funding feels like. Still, we feel we do something special with Spelt and if that’s how we grow, that’s how we grow, so watch this space.
I met new friends this month, went out for pints at the pub with one, coffee in a nice coffee shop with another and I made the effort to get myself out of the house, something I struggle with. It’s really nice to know more creative people and to have friends willing to go to events and perhaps even work on joint projects is lovely.
In February i found that the adjustment of my working life is really, really working out. I am able to fully commit to the work I am doing because there is less of it, and I am getting more time to write. Sometimes I get whole days to write, sometimes two whole days in a row and that is such a blessing. I am settling into this new routine, trying not to think too rigidly about it but becoming adept at recognising when I can realistically take time to write and it feels amazing.
I have a slew of readings coming up which I’ll update on my events page and some workshops I’ll be running and the big thing in March is the Spring Writing Retreat (digital) is all set up and full schedule details can be downloaded here. I’m excited about this and excited to be giving that whole week up for the event which, if it’s like the last one, will be wonderfully nourishing. It would be brilliant to see you there.
Sometime near Christmas, it might even have been Christmas day, a black pheasant appeared in the woods and tree-lined lanes round the village. I say it was black, but in actual fact it was the most lustrous dark green/black, an oily, moss black. I was out walking the dog when it appeared from the grounds of the manor house: elegant, watchful, picking and placing its feet among the beech leaves, moving forward in that slightly hunched-shouldered way. It had with it a brown, bog standard pheasant and they were moving through the murky, rainy dusk of winter without knowing how beautiful they were.
It felt like some kind of ornithomancy, I kept reading into its appearance a dark mark. But it was/is so beautiful, I was always pleased to see it. I kept seeing it around the village when I was out and about, sometimes with its friend, sometimes on its own. I saw it after a flurry of snow had set once, it seemed to grow more elegant against the white. I wanted to write a poem about it, tried to write a poem about it and have been trying ever since. Nothing seems to quite do it justice, it slips from me, slips away from the poem and ends up being some Christmas card depiction of a pheasant. I can’t quite seem to find the way into the poem, the direction of it, the purpose of it. There have been some great poems written about pheasants, perhaps I should stop making myself feel bad about my own by reading them, but when I come across poems like this one by Graham Mort, on the Poetry Society website, it makes me want to read every poem ever written, and strive to create something better. Here it is on the PS website: Cock Pheasant. People are often caught by a regality in pheasants. You can see the sense of strangeness and regality here, in this Sylvia Plath poem:
You said you would kill it this morning.
Do not kill it. It startles me still,
The jut of that odd, dark head, pacing
Through the uncut grass on the elm's hill.
It is something to own a pheasant,
Or just to be visited at all.
I am not mystical: it isn't
As if I thought it had a spirit.
It is simply in its element.
That gives it a kingliness, a right.
The print of its big foot last winter,
The trail-track, on the snow in our court
The wonder of it, in that pallor,
Through crosshatch of sparrow and starling.
Is it its rareness, then? It is rare.
But a dozen would be worth having,
A hundred, on that hill-green and red,
Crossing and recrossing: a fine thing!
It is such a good shape, so vivid.
It's a little cornucopia.
It unclaps, brown as a leaf, and loud,
Settles in the elm, and is easy.
It was sunning in the narcissi.
I trespass stupidly. Let be, let be.
I wanted to catch a bit of that, but something else too; the view point of it’s special status, how it is only really us that see it, not them. I shall persevere.
I have been trying to write poems since January, not just poems about pheasants, but poems specifically for a new collection to be published by Smith-Doorstop. I’ve struggled a bit to push through imposter syndrome and also to remember how to write a poem. I heard this week that the collection has been put back a little, as have many other collections. I think the pandemic has had a big effect on the publishing industry and I do think the canaries are always the smaller, indie publishers. I thought I’d be disappointed, but all of a sudden, with the pressure off, knowing I have more time, I started writing more poems; in fact I started writing better poems and started to see how to edit and adapt the poems already written, how to push the boundaries in them. This week I finished the first draft of a sonnet crown I’d been working on since December, and whilst it needs fettling, needs the judders tuning and the angles sanding, I’m pleased with it. I’ve ended up writing about twenty sonnets in all, but my aim was seven, and I can see that the other thirteen sonnets are the tools I’ve been using to dig down to these seven sonnets, this sonnet crown. I collected all the other poems I’ve been steadily filing away as I try to reach this collection’s seam and was surprised to find there are about thirty six in all. I thought there would be about seventeen at most.
One of the things that has been blocking me is that I’m also trying to move the non fiction book forward, and in doing so I am waiting on various bits of news around it. I was worried how I would work on the two projects together and then, like I say, the collection got put back a bit and it opened up this gap of time where I could find the space to focus on the non fiction project, whilst allowing the poems to arrive when they wanted. They usually arrive in their own time, when I am relaxed and happy with time and space to write. I’m feeling good about the two projects.
This has been a much better week than last week. I am, finally, in a place in which work is not overwhelming. I have time to think and more importantly, time to write, so next week I’ll be continuing to try to tame the pheasant poem, but I’ll also be concentrating on the non fiction book. This week was very much about workshops, getting students to share work and engage with each other, and that will be happening a little next week, but while this week I did three nights working until 9pm, next week I only have one of those, and two afternoons of teaching and facilitating. I’ll get a chance to catch up on my ever over flowing inbox, to work through my ‘awaiting feedback’ folder and I will make sure I get some writing done.
Sometimes, of course, it seems that just when you get one area of your life sorted, back comes grief to knock you sideways. We’ll find out the treatment plan for my dad next week, and get some answers about his illness. So far the healthcare team are supporting my parents very well, which is reassuring. But still, what a shitty thing. A not uncommon thing (I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t been touched by cancer in some form or another), and of course it is not unexpected that as your parents age you should face difficulties, and be prepared to deal with horrible, challenging situations, it’s inevitable. But still, what a shitty thing. I hate the waiting and the not knowing. I hate feeling this useless. But I’m also frightened of knowing. How strange to feel so much like a child and so much like an adult at the same time.
I’ll be sending the newsletter out this week, so expect some promo stuff around the Spring Retreat. I’ve started to get some info on what the workshops that the guest facilitators will be running will be and it is so bloody exciting. I’m ridiculously excited about it. I should be able to share the full programme next week.
I find myself taking my time when returning from tasks outside of the house, taking the Ghost Lake route, my mind wandering the contours, the black peat fields, the terraced valley sides. I watch the crows, I watch the way the rain makes the leafless trees darker, so that their bark is black, the water filling every cell, every crevice, every crack. I feel like I am absorbing this week in the same way, letting the darkness of it into me, filling me up until it comes out of my mouth, or at least out of my fingers, leeching out of my finger prints, through the pen, the computer, onto the white of the page. This is where I am right now. This week has been hugely challenging. I had two writing days planned and ended up under a blanket watching rubbish on TV and weathering it out instead. I can’t talk about the thing that happened mid week, only to say that it upset me immensely, and ate into my confidence and made me question myself. It was to do with a teaching job I have. What happens sometimes, and this is not new to me, when you put yourself forward, when you get up in front of people and trust that you know something that is helpful, something you can impart to them, is that just by being in their line of sight you become a target, a kind of collateral damage, a place in which the fury of whatever is going on in people’s lives at that time can be thrown. Sometimes people don’t have the skills to manage their own emotional stress. Who the hell does, after the last two awful pandemic years in which all the ‘normal’ trauma of being a living human being has been neatly packaged inside the trauma of a disease that has picked people off with what feels like no rhyme or reason. We have all been in a state of pre flight or fight for so long, no wonder people are struggling to find outlets for it. But still, my confidence is knocked, my enjoyment of one area of my life that I was already pushing hard against the anxiety of self doubt is spoiled a bit. Still, small stuff, really. At the end of the week I found out my dad is poorly, proper poorly. The sort of poorly where you are waiting for news on outcomes, scans, treatments to see how the next part of your life will be. You have to just ride it out, I guess, there’s nothing to be done but to just do it, just get through the days and see what happens. There’s no controlling stuff like that, but I remind myself that I’m allowed to be a bit down about it all. It is not happening to me, but involves me, it’s happening to my dad and I struggle to imagine how this is going to effect him, how it will ripple through the family, how it will effect us all. The certainty is that whatever happens, things will be changed now, and a door is shutting behind us, there’s no going back. What I’ve learned to do it give myself an allotted time to be a complete drama queen; wallowing in my own misery, and then after that, until that ‘wallowing time’ is necessary again, I try to go back to what I am doing in my normal life, and to grasp it and enjoy it. When I wasn’t stuffing my face with wine and chocolate and whimpering under my blanket I had my planner out. Things like the negative ‘teaching thing’ that happened last week often feel like signs, a reminder that that I’m perhaps getting entrenched on the wrong route, that that part of my life has become bigger than it was meant to be, it was only part of the plan I set myself all those years ago, that it is a stepping stone to the big goal, the main goal. I opened an A4 page of my planner and put the Big Goal on the far side of the page, then separated the rest of the page into smaller and larger boxes, the stepping stones to get there. I always feel better when I have a clearly defined plan. And then I got my laptop out and wrote a flash fiction piece; something I wouldn’t normally write, to remind myself that I can, that I have talent, that I have ability, that I am not stuck in one place, that I am moving forward. The piece is good. Is it excellent? It could be, with a little tinkering.
Tomorrow is a new day, though the rain is set to continue for a good week. I have lots to look forward to: I am loving my own The Caged Bird Sings course, my Friday afternoon group are so engaged and willing, and kind and fun, it is genuinely the highlight of my week. Next week I’m also looking forward to running a workshop for the Poetry Business on de-romanticising the rural, you can book a place here. I love talking to people about poetry and finding new ways to write, so I’m really looking forward to working under the PB banner. And I’m looking forward to the private course chats I have scheduled over the week. I’m also meeting a new writer friend for coffee. It’s going to be a very ‘people heavy’ week, something I’m not used to, being the rural hermit that I am, but perhaps something that will do me good.
I see so many people facing so many challenges lately, I want to give us all a hug. Spring’s on it’s way, though, catkins in the lane, the jackdaws are poking their heads into last year’s tree-hole-nests. We just have to weather it out.