Reading & Writing Poetry: Nick Makoha

I heard Nick Makoha read some of his work at last year’s poetry festival in Bridlington and I was blown away by his words. I am, therefore, grateful and honoured to welcome him to my blog and my occasional series where I ask poets to explain themselves – or at least explain the inspiration behind one of their poems. Find out more about Nick Makoha’s work here: https://nickmakoha.com/

 

Resurrection Man by Nick Makoha
Somewhere west of our sacred sites, the ghost
of your former self is rising from captivity.
Your student friend, the one who saw you last,
swears she left you alive in the taxi. Even after my
two-fisted punches. She denies being the one who
gave the signal for dark men to change their shapes
in the night, as you knelt, blindfolded. I want to believe
she had no part in the shaving of your hair and pubic mound
in front of onlookers. Rebels kneading your breast
like posho in their palms, begging in turn for your body,
bleached by their jeeps’ headlights. Once broken,
you were dragged by the arms across the grass
onto the unpaved taxiway of Arua airport. Then
one yelled, “Burn her! The witch.” Their echoes agreed.

One lit the match, another peeled the blindfold,
the rest poured gin on your face. I know you saw me
in the hollow of a tree. I wanted to run to you
but their bullets would have easily caught up with me.
I stood firm, learning to hide myself in the dark.
A man must have two faces; one he can live with
and one he will die with. The second face is mine.

Nick explains:
I thought that I was midway through writing the book that would eventually be Kingdom of Gravity. I did not know this at the time but it was actually the beginning. The original working title was The Second Republic. This is what Uganda was referred to in its second constitution. But after writing this poem and placing it into the draft, it seemed to shuffle the deck. It raised the bar for what the collection could be. Good poems hum in their conception, in their reading and re-reading. They exist at their own frequency like Derek Walcott’s The Schooner Flight or Tracy. K. Smith’s My God, It’s Full of Stars. When I write a poem like this it feels like a fluke or like when a  DJ finds a rare record. The lines are akin to musical notes.

One of my favourite songs is Human Nature by Michael Jackson, it transforms you whether you are in a car, sitting at your desk or at nightclub ordering drinks at the bar. The poem Resurrection Man has that quality. I first noticed this when it got commended for the Flamingofeather poetry competition. I have a lot of thanks for this poem. It opens up the Uganda of the 1970’s to the reader. It’s for that reason I named my second pamphlet after the poem and in many ways I think its resonance has something to do with why the pamphlet Resurrection Man (Jai Alai Books) won the Toi Derricotte + Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize. In many ways this poem gave me the confidence to be bold with my writing. It is the window through which I climbed to finish Kingdom of Gravity.

Nick Makoha’s debut collection Kingdom of Gravity is shortlisted for the 2017 Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection and nominated by The Guardian as one of the best books of 2017. He won the 2015 Brunel International Poetry prize and the 2016 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize for his pamphlet Resurrection Man. He is a Goldsmiths, Cave Canem & Complete Works Alumni. His poems have appeared in The New York Times, Poetry Review, Rialto, Triquarterly Review, Boston Review, Callaloo, and Wasafiri.

‘Nick Makoha’s first full-length collection, Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree £8.99), was the 2017 debut which most excited me. Focused on Uganda during the Idi Amin dictatorship, his poetry is charged with ethical sensibility. The lines protest as they sing “the song disturbed by helicopter blades…” but they don’t simplify things: they explore, and complicate. Personal witness and artistry are one.’ – Carol Rumens – The Guardian

Find him at www.nickmakoha.com Or on Twitter: @NickMakoha

Buy Resurrection Man & Kingdom of Gravity: https://nickmakoha.com/books/

Author Interview: Christopher Lloyd King

Good morning this rainy Easter Monday. Around this time last year, I completed the Curtis Brown Creative novel writing course. One of my colleagues on that course was Christopher Lloyd King. He has just published his first novel, Black Sun (available from Amazon: goo.gl/ApwVn9). I am delighted to have an interview with him on my blog.

Christopher Lloyd King came to writing fiction after a career in television. He directed single plays and series over a thirty-five period. Credits include BBC’s ‘Forgive our Foolish Ways’ for which Kate Nelligan received a BAFTA nomination as best actress, ITV’s ‘The Thing About Vince’ starring Timothy Spall, which won a Silver Rose at the Montreux TV festival. He directed two series of Channel 4’s ‘The Manageress’, starring Cherie Lunghi, and many popular series, including ‘The Professionals’, ‘Minder’, ‘Soldier, Soldier’, ‘The Bill’, ‘Casualty’, ‘Holby City’.

He was educated at St. Peter’s College Oxford and L’Université d’Aix/Marseille, with an M.A. in film directing at The National Film and Television School.

Please say something about your writing journey to the present day.
During my directing career, I wrote screenplays (with a view to directing them myself), so have always been interested in telling stories, placing characters in a landscape. My scripts have tended towards historical settings, ranging from post-World War 1 rural Ireland to the Welsh mountains of the interwar years. Subjects have included sexual intrigue within a ménage à trois, the social ostracism faced by a gay pacifist during the build-up to war. A common thread in these scripts is an interest in the ways political events on the global scale affect the everyday life of ordinary people.

It was this preoccupation that led me to the story of Black Sun. I read Ian Knight’s Zulu Rising, an account of the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879-83, and was struck by the similarities between those events and the Blair/Bush invasion of Iraq in 2003. There was the same slender pretext for declaring war, the same impulse from British politicians to control the natural resources of a ‘third world’ country, the same demonisation of a tyrant. and the same outcome: huge loss of life and the creation of a power vacuum leading to devastating civil war.

Zulu Rising led to my reading more widely. I became fascinated with the story of Mehlokazulu, whose impetuous action to punish his adulterous mother became the justification used by the British. I wondered how this young warrior could bring himself to garrotte his own mother. Without any ambition to start writing a book, I set out to examine his motives. It was like unravelling a mystery; one thing led to another and eventually the architecture of a novel was revealed.

How did you do the research for Black Sun, and  how you feel about writing about another country/culture?
I was, and am, sensitive about describing historical characters from another culture. In the case of Black Sun, cultural appropriation is far from my purpose. Black Sun is written objectively in third person, which I hope helps maintain a detachment and avoids any blurring between author’s attitude and the value system of the characters described.

One difficulty I had to overcome is that most histories of the period are Euro-centric, written from a European perspective by British or South African writers. Zulu history is essentially oral, word-of-mouth stories passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. Two exceptions are Bertram Milford’s Through the Zulu Country and Paulina Dlamini’s Servant of Two Kings. Milford travelled through Zululand soon after the Zulu defeat, interviewing the Zulu participants – including Mehlokazulu and his father Sihayo. He took down verbatim their testimony, thus presenting Zulu eye-witness accounts of the battles.

My most important source was Paulina Dlamini’s book. A short, eighty page, monograph, this is a direct account of the war through the eyes of a thirteen-year old Swazi princess sent to work in the Zulu King Cetshwayo’s household. Nomguqo (her pre-baptismal name) was therefore witness to conversations at the highest level in the royal court and remembered them in detail. After the fall of the kingdom and ensuing civil war, she converted to Christianity and became an evangelist. Her fellow missionary, the German Lutheran Heinrich Filter, transcribed her stories and published them in 1911 (the English edition wasn’t published until 1986). Paulina’s memories are fresh and in exquisite detail. Consequently, she became the second principal character in the book.

Available on Amazon: https://goo.gl/ApwVn9

As a boy growing up in the North-East of England, I was aware of the history of the Zulus from reading Henry Rider Haggard’s romances set in Zululand, specifically Nada the Lily. The writing was so vivid I wanted to visit Zululand and see for myself where the story was set. The opportunity came after leaving school. Before starting university, I spent nine months in newly independent Zambia, as a volunteer teacher. During the Easter break I travelled down to Durban and went inland to kwaZulu, where I spent some time in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. It was exactly as I imagined it, a vast landscape with traditional ‘kraals’ (which I know now are called iMizi in isiZulu) dotted over it.

Then in 2016, my eldest son and I made a trip to kwaZulu on a trek through the uKhahlamba mountains. We made a trip to iSandlwana and had the good fortune to meet Lindizwe Ngobese, a local historian. Lindizwe is the great great grandson of Meholokazulu, the hero of Black Sun. We have kept in touch ever since and I am waiting, with my heart in my mouth, for his reaction to my evocation of and tribute to his ancestor.

What is your ‘writing process’?
The research and writing of the book went hand in hand. I discovered the characters, and therefore the story, as I read about the history. I wrote narrative ‘sign-post’, scenes which I knew I had to describe, like the ‘battle of the first fruits’ in Book 1. These provided guides to direct the story, but at no time did I follow a prescribed plan. It’s fair to say that the novel wrote itself – serendipitously. There was a good deal of back-tracking and re-writing. In retrospect, it would have been more economical and practical to have written a story plan, but since I had no idea of what I wanted to write, I allowed myself to be guided by the characters.

Five years in the writing, the manuscript ended up at an unwieldy one hundred and fifty thousand words. I had no immediate plan to seek a publisher, content with the reaction of my wife, who cried at the ending. Job done, I thought.

However, pure chance led to the manuscript being read by Simon Clegg, MD of PiqWiq, a small independent publishing house. He showed it first to Rob Dinsdale, an agent with A.P. Watt. Rob’s notes were invaluable and produced a quantum shift in how I considered the book. He reminded me that I was writing character based fiction and not history. He made me realise that characters are not aware they’re living through ‘history’; they’re living each day as it comes. ‘History’ is how we interpret events from the perspective of time having passed, where we have the advantage of seeing patterns and knowing the ‘ending’. I wrote a whole new draft with this injunction in mind.

Simon Clegg then showed this draft to Sadie Mayne, a freelance editor, who deemed it worthy of publication. Then came the time-consuming task of turning the clumsy manuscript into a book. Sadie was very helpful in shaping the narrative, cutting sections that were overwritten and redundant and encouraging me to expand areas that were underdeveloped. There was considerable to-ing and fro-ing.

The title Black Sun suggested itself very early on. One of the most dramatic features of the battle of iSandlwana, the first encounter between the British invasion force and the Zulu army, was the partial solar eclipse. According to contemporary Zulu accounts, the ‘sun went black’. The image provides a particularly apt metaphor for the eclipse in fortunes of the Zulu nation.

PiqWiq suggested that the novel might provide material for two books. Various dividing points were offered, and eventually it was decided that the themes of Book One, dealing with the build-up of hostilities, would be neatly rounded off with the Zulu armies marching to confront the British invaders, with Book 2 starting at the battle of iSandlwana and ending with the annihilation of the Zulus as a fighting force.

Have you any writing tips?
It would be invidious of me, as a beginner, to suggest writing tips to other novelists, but I myself have been helped by my previous experience of directing for television.

I know, for instance, that characterisation is all. Story is the consequence of the interaction of characters, what they say and do to each other. I am interested in the ambiguities in behaviour, inconsistencies which lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. This is the essence of conflict. So, finding those ambivalences is key to plotting, determining what the key objectives are for each character and deciding how these intersect or contradict each other.

Also from editing television programmes, I’m aware of the unwritten rule to start a scene/chapter late and leave it early. Rely on the audience/reader to fill in the missing information. As readers, we all construct in our mind’s eye the rest of the narrative as we make our way through each stage in a novel. This is the key to understanding how to maintain suspense, keep the reader’s attention.

Brevity and concision are also lessons learned from TV. This applies to description and scene setting. It’s important that the reader has a sense of where and when an action is set, but this works most effectively when it is integrated into the action. It should not appear as imposed, or arbitrary

What motivates you to write?
I write as I read, to be taken into another world, the imagination of the author. I’m always surprised by what my imagination throws up. There’s a strange alchemy that transmutes half-buried ideas and half-remembered thoughts into concrete images, and from there into a coherent narrative.

Future plans?
I have another historical novel on the stocks, set in the same period of history. The 1870s threw up conflict across the world, where indigenous people fought to protect their lands against the incursion of greedy, land grabbing settlers of European origin. For some years, I’ve been reading histories of the American Wild West (childhood fascination with ‘Cowboys and Indians’, I suppose). I chanced upon Empire of the Summer Sun by S.G. Gwynne, winner of a Pulitzer prize. This tells the story of Quanah Parker, the last of the Comanche war-chiefs. Quanah’s understanding of his people’s need to adapt to new circumstances is poignant. The friendship that developed between him, leader of a nomadic nation, fighting to preserve an unsustainable way of life and R.S.Mackenzie, colonel of the 4th Cavalry, who defeated him in battle, is the basis of the new book Blue Norther.

‘Which question did I wish you’d asked?’: which book would I like to have written? Sebastian Barry’s Days without End. The first-person narrative of the seventeen-year old Irish volunteer, in love with his brother-in-arms through the horrors of the American Civil War, is a masterpiece of characterisation.

Talks, Ideas, Inspirations

Vanessa Bell’s cover for Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘To the Lighthouse’ British Library collection.

A Book By Its Cover

Do we make judgements about what book we want to read from what’s on its cover? I love books. I love reading them. I love writing them. I love the feel of them. I love the smell of them. I love book covers. I became more interested in book covers when I volunteered in the library here in Scarborough and picked for clients of the home library. I became more aware of how the book cover influenced my decision over whether a certain book would be suitable for a certain reader. My interest was further developed when I became involved in designing covers for my own novels.

the idea of having an illustrated cover came slowly. Right through the 19th century books were sold with ‘dust jackets’ but these were merely to keep the book clean, were usually made of stiff brown paper and were thrown away once the book was taken home. It would be into the 20th century before this dust jacket would be routinely illustrated. By 1911 a writer was complaining of a new commercial turn, publishers being “convinced that a book, like a woman, is none the worse, but rather the better, for having a good dressmaker”

What to learn more? Come to my talk on Book Cover Art which I will be presenting at various venues in April:

Saturday, 7th April, Scarborough Library, Vernon Road, 1045-midday for Friends of the Library (all welcome).
Tuesday, 17th April, Woodend Creative, The Crescent, Scarborough, 1-2pm. Ticketed event. Please call: 01723 384500.
Monday, 23rd April, Filey Library, part of World Book Night. 6pm-715pm. Please call: 01609 53 6608

The Human History of Walking

Women walked in protest to get the vote.

People have walked because they had to, to get from one place to another, to explore, to go on pilgrimage. And they have walked as protest. If we look back at a revolutionary time in the UK’s history, the 17th century, when we beheaded a king and, for a brief time, had a republic, pilgrimage and protest became intertwined. 

It’s 1655, two women are walking the muddy bye-ways towards Salisbury. They are wearing plain dresses and bonnets, stout boots, a warm cloak. They are the itinerant Quaker preachers Katharine Evans (my namesake) and Sarah Chevers. They believe – as preached by George Fox – that God’s light is within them, as it is within everyone. It is a type of pilgrimage, but it is also a protest. A protest against a church where the power rested in the hands of a few rich men. A protest against a religion which said God’s words had to be mediated through a male priest. A protest against a church which gives divine authority to unjust wars and injustice in society.

….

Some 18 years ago, I was in the grip of a severe depression. I had always enjoyed walking, but during that time, it became a necessity, it became a way for me to untangle some of the mess that was in my head. Since then, I have become more interested in how walking is essential to wellbeing and to creativity – which is, in itself, nourishing of wellbeing. 

I am a writer and walking has become an intrinsic part of my writing process. In September 2015 I walked St Cuthbert’s Way with my sister, a 100km route from Melrose in the borders of Scotland, to Lindisfarne in Northumberland. This long-distance walk also gave me an opportunity to experience the intertwining of walking and writing.

Want to learn more? Come to my talk on Tuesday 24th April, Woodend Creative, The Crescent, Scarborough, 1-2pm. Ticketed event. Please call: 01723 384500.

 

 

Little Boat by James Nash

The hills and cliffs are rinsed with mist, the green
Is muted, and the brass band sun turned down,
There is a breeze more felt on skin than seen
And roofs are silver in the distant town.
Then now before me is a little boat
Floating aslant the waves and bobbing low
Beneath a sky of clouds which I take note
Whose names and types I used to know.
So little boat, will you take me away
To a far ocean where I can be free
Beyond surging waves of everyday
And I can drift and drift into that sea.
And perhaps there’ll be a lantern bright
To take me out further into the night.

© James M. Nash

James introduces his poem: As a child I loved Robert Louis Stevenson’s  ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’.  Their beautiful simplicity soothed and enchanted me, I think some of that childhood innocence has crept into this sonnet.

 

 

James Nash is writer and a poet.  A long-term resident of Leeds, his third collection of poems, Coma Songs was published in 2003 and reprinted in 2006. He has two poems in Branch-Lines [Enitharmon Press 2007] among fifty contemporary poets, including Seamus Heaney and U. A. Fanthorpe. In 2012 his selected poems ‘A Bit of An Ice Breaker’ and a new five-star collection, ‘Some Things Matter’, were published by Valley Press. ‘Cinema Stories’ written with poet Matthew Hedley Stoppard was published in August 2015.  It celebrates the history of cinema in Leeds, in a series of poems.  

His next collection ‘A Bench for Billie Holiday’ will be published in 2018.

See The Valley Press website: https://goo.gl/aeeXvT

 

The Joy of Re-writing

For this New Year, my project is to re-write my crime novel Drowning Not Waving. Re-writing is often a real struggle, especially for novice writers. Where to start? What to do? Here are some pointers.

Firstly take some distance. I finished the first draft of this novel over six months ago. That’s a good length of time to leave before attempting a re-write. It should mean that when you re-read your work you can do so more as a disinterested reader than as the involved writer. Six months ago I thought I had done a pretty good job on my novel. However, when I re-engaged with it in January, I could immediately see problems with the pacing, with when and how clues are revealed and with keeping the tension going. Being a crime novel, these aspects are important. What’s paramount in making your novel work will depend a bit on what genre it is. Though issues around pacing, reveals and tension are probably worth considering whatever the type of story it is.

Secondly get some feedback. I got some following a writing course I did with Curtis Brown Creatives and this has helped me to focus. I started by tightening up the character profiles. I usually discover a character by writing about it, but at some point I pin down a profile with everything I now know. I had done this last year. I re-visited them and ironed out inconsistencies, worked on back-story and refined motivations.

I then pulled apart the time-line, creating more space for characterisation and creating jeopardy. This has also meant moving chapters around which does get a bit hairy, as I then find things happening in an earlier section which can’t until something in a later one occurs.

When I am writing my first draft, I generally find I am carrying all my characters around in my head. At this stage, I have them and my narrative arc which – as a friend helpfully put it – is currently a partly unravelled piece of knitting. It feels like a delicate balancing act, so excuse me if I appear distracted….

Thirdly ensure your feedback is from someone who understands the concept of re-writing. This is not the moment to show your writing to someone who is pernickety about grammar or spelling. What you want is a fellow writer or a reader who is able to take in the narrative as a whole and see where the kinks are or the patches where it limps along. Who is able to meet the characters as real people and suggest where they become too thin to be believed. Who can hear your dialogue and root out where it clangs or where it is unnecessary. It is not an easy task, nor one for the faint-hearted.

I am about two-thirds through this re-write, with all the unpicking and re-stitching I have done, I have no idea whether it will work as a whole. But for the moment I feel confident and energised, so I hope this will carry me through.

What are your tips for re-writing?

Last night we were undressed by the wind by Janet Lees

It took our shoes first;
we watched them rise like odd dense birds
into the indigo sky.

It undid buttons, habits, words;
twirled away the shadows on your face,
the lines engraved on mine.

It freed the magpie in your ribcage,
unzipped each one of my muttering scars,
opened our heads to the blazing dark.

And then there was only bright skin.
And then we were
just air

Last night we were undressed
by the wind. This morning
we woke in our clothes.

This wonderful poem by Janet Lees was first published in the Write Out Loud ‘Milestones’ anthology 2017, selected by Brian Patten.

Here Janet gives us some insight into the writing of her poem:

‘Becalmed’ Photo copyright Janet Lees

I wrote this poem in a workshop on my Creative Writing MA at Lancaster University. We were given the line ‘Last night we were undressed by the wind’ as a starting point to free-write from. So the first draft was done very quickly and I think that’s why there’s some surprising imagery. The ‘odd dense birds’ for example – I can’t imagine ever thinking up this description, but it came flying unbidden out of the unconscious.

I think the poem is about two things which are essentially the same thing. The poem captures something of the time when I fell in love with Ian, my husband. It was a time of complete elation, when anything seemed possible and love felt boundless – not restricted to any person or thing. A few years later, I went on a retreat holiday to Greece. Through long solitary sea swims and hours of loving kindness meditation with a group of amazing open-hearted women, my poetry came back to me. I hadn’t written poetry for many years. After being mired in addiction for much of my adult life, poetry was one of the things I’d lost. But as I swam the words came back – it was as though they were flowing into me from the sea. Again, it was a time of limitless possibilities and boundless love.

‘Free’ Photo copyright Janet Lees

It’s these times in life that the poem represents for me – the times when we are open without fear, and the edges between us and other beings soften and dissolve; when we feel and embody infinite love. Of course, for most humans, these times are fleeting and far between. Conditioned to protect ourselves against nakedness in all its forms, we inevitably default to the comfort zone of our clothes.

 

 

Short bio
Janet is a poet, artist and workshop facilitator based in the Isle of Man. Her poetry has been widely published and anthologised, and her visual work selected for international festivals and prizes including Filmpoem and the Aesthetica Art Prize. She is currently working on a collection combining her poetry and images, and hosting a long-running series of community writing workshops funded by the Isle of Man Arts Council.

janetlees@weebly.com
Instagram: janetlees2001

Keeping Motivated

For most people, the festive season is a break with routine, which will probably mean a break from writing. Then January dawns dark and cold, possibly accompanied by a hangover caused by too much indulgence, too little sleep, or too little peace and quiet (or all three). How to get writing again?

I love to write. I love the act of creating something which will communicate to another, crafting an idea in a way so that it can be shared and understood. I like to tease over words and sentence construction until I have that well-turned phrase or that evocative description. I love to create and enter into imaginary worlds. I also feel better when I’m writing. The act of expression – even if it is only between me and the page – can bring pleasure and relief.

Even so, it is sometimes hard to get going again. Making space and giving permission to myself to write are key. This year, I made some physical space. I spent two days re-organising shelves and filing drawers along with sorting and shredding documents. There’s space there now for new works and that is exciting.

As those of you who have read this blog over some time will know, I have indie published three crime novels based in Scarborough. I still have a couple of boxes of these books and I have decided to run down my stock. The best way I have found of selling books is to get out there and give talks. I now have five set up – see my events page. And I have been enjoying developing a new talk about book cover art. It is a fascinating subject which I will bring more of to these blog pages in due course.

I am also re-writing a fourth crime novel based in Scarborough which is tentatively entitled Drowning Not Waving. Where to start with re-writing? Here are some suggestions: (1) Get feedback from trusted sources. (2) Leave several months before going back to it. (3) Re-visit character outlines and time lines to ensure they are coherent and characters are well-rounded with a decent back-story. (4) Re-read with a reader’s head on, with as much distance from your work as you can muster. (5) Make guidance notes for yourself. (6) Use your notes to start re-writing from page 1 and keep going, one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time….

I feel energised with these projects on the go. I hope whatever creative projects you have this year, they prove to be satisfying and full-filling for you.

Any tips for keeping motivated when writing?