Janus Perspectives #4

The word January comes from the Roman god Janus who had two faces looking in different directions – behind and in front. In my December blog post I asked for responses to this. Today I am delighted to feature an image by artist Ruth Collett (Ruth Collett Artist), plus, below it, some of her reflections on her work. Thank you Ruth.

Comply 2. Ruth Collett. 2020.

Before the Covid 19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown I had a ceramics studio and was teaching practical arts and art history to adult learners, then suddenly I was alone in my flat 24/7 self-isolating.

Making daily ipad drawings came about as a way of exploring my reactions to the complete and sudden change of life patterns as I had been living them. This daily practise has been a major factor in maintaining my mental health, and feeling that I am still working, communicating & sharing ideas.

I have always created self-portraits as a means of understanding my evolving relationship with gender, sexuality, mental health and disability, so continuing this work on the ipad feels a natural progression.

What was surprising was my compulsion to create pattern, shape and colour to express my daily state, and to work mindfully but not critically. Using my finger rather than a stylus on the screen adds to the commitment and energy of the mark-making. I created images I would not have done in another medium – it freed me to be immediate and responsive to what was going on and how I felt about it.

Janus Perspectives #3

In my December blog, I posted this invitation: the word January comes from the Roman god Janus who had two faces looking in different directions – behind and in front. Do you have an image or a short piece of prose (up to 250 words) or a small stone (an ‘in the moment’ short poem (up to six lines), rough and ready) which either represents the year just gone or your hopes for the year to come? If you would like me to feature it on my blog in January 2020, then please send it to me.

I was delighted to receive a diverse bag of responses which I am happy to share with you over the next few weeks. Here is the offering from Suzie Millar. Thank you Suzie!

The time is NOW, not someday,
to work upon my dreams;
raise them up in real-time;
make them solid;
let them breathe.

Phot by Kate Evans. From a series of photos of gateposts which have lost their original function.

Janus Perspectives #2

In my December blog, I posted this invitation: the word January comes from the Roman god Janus who had two faces looking in different directions – behind and in front. Do you have an image or a short piece of prose (up to 250 words) or a small stone (an ‘in the moment’ short poem (up to six lines), rough and ready) which either represents the year just gone or your hopes for the year to come? If you would like me to feature it on my blog in January 2020, then please send it to me.

I was delighted to receive a diverse bag of responses which I am happy to share with you over the next few weeks. Here is the offering from writer and musician Bridget Cousins (Bennett/Cousins Music | Facebook). Thank you Bridget!

‘Yes, a year like no other’, she nodded sagely.
‘But we’re in good hands, aren’t we?
They know what they’re doing, don’t they?
And I’m glad we can go back to pounds, shillings and pence
And send all the darkies home.’
It wasn’t long before all her chickens came home to roost
And feasted on her bones.

Under the Arches by Phil Bennett.

Janus Perspectives

At the end of my December blog I sent out the following invitation: The word January comes from the Roman god Janus who had two faces looking in different directions – behind and in front. Do you have an image or a short piece of prose (up to 250 words) or a small stone (an ‘in the moment’ short poem (up to six lines), rough and ready) which either represents the year just gone or your hopes for the year to come? If you would like me to feature it on my blog in January 2020, then please send it to me.

I was delighted to receive a diverse bag of responses which I am happy to share with you over the next few weeks. The first is an offering from Karla Mcdonagh. Thank you Karla!

Looking back, what a year it has been.
An eye-opener: worry, panic, living in fear, so it seems.
A change of lifestyle, a new hobby to keep some normality, oh people were keen.
Parents struggling to keep their children’s faces a-gleam.
Isolating the vulnerable, the fight for human contact became extreme.
A needle of hope, the future seems promising and today will be of what has been.

Gateway in Farndale, March 2020. Photo by Kate Evans, from a series taken of stone gateposts which have lost their function.

There’s still time to let me have your Janus Perspectives. So get in touch if you wish.

A Writing Life: Solstice Reflections

Sunrise swim. Photo by Rachel Welford

We have reached another hinge-point in the turning of the year: the Winter Solstice, or, more prosaically, the shortest day (in the Northern hemisphere at least). In some traditions, this darkest time of this dark season is seen as a moment for introspection and reflection. The lights we might dangle around our Christmas trees or over our windows, could represent the sparks of intuition and creativity which are possible if we allow ourselves to sit and be still.

2020 has been a very strange and disturbing year. For some people, it has been extremely tough in lots of different ways. I think those who initially found relief in the first lockdown, have perhaps grown weary of the continuing sense of impending (or actual) crises. Those of us who have come through 2020, have a shared experience like no other. However we have fared, I believe we will be effected by the grief, trauma and anxiety which is palpable in the environment. Whatever we may think about what has happened, we will be breathing in this collective angst whether we like it or not. It will take us all time to digest and process it. Many of us hope good things will come out of it: a greater sense of collective responsibility; more appreciation of those who work in retail, delivery, health and social care; greater awareness of the importance of the small kindnesses; pleasure taken in the natural world around us – to suggest just a few possible positives.

For me, 2020 has been exceptional in that I achieved something I have been working towards for over thirty years – a contract with a traditional publisher for my long fiction. In February I signed a book deal with Constable/Little Brown for a series of three crime novels set in Scarborough. And yes, I do have to keep repeating it, as I still have to pinch myself to make sure I am awake and not dreaming. I have delivered the first novel, A Wake of Crows. It has now been copy edited and is being proof read. I will see cover roughs in the New Year (completely thrilling, I love a good cover). The hardback and e-book is due to be published in June 2021.

The excitement and unbounded joy in writing A Wake of Crows has contrasted uncomfortably with the unrelenting grimness and bleakness stirred by the pandemic and (dare I whisper it?) Brexit.

Collage by Kate Evans 2020

An invitation

The word January comes from the Roman god Janus who had two faces looking in different directions – behind and in front. Do you have an image or a short piece of prose (up to 250 words) or a small stone (an ‘in the moment’ short poem (up to six lines), rough and ready) which either represents the year just gone or your hopes for the year to come? If you would like me to feature it on my blog in January 2020, then please email me: kateevanswriter(at)gmail.com

Thank you

Have a peaceful and pleasurable festive season, however you choose to spend it.

Gateway, Brant Fell, July 2020

Poetry Bites #10: Rehearsing for this

I am very happy to welcome fellow poet, Felix Hodcroft, as my guest for this post. He is launching his new collection Rehearsing for this. Below you will find a poem from this collection, plus some background to its writing. Enjoy!

Felix Hodcroft reading his own poem: Bosphorus

Bosphorus
Before I was – I was
an ash – a seed – a shred of
slime – I rolled on waves that
chopped and swelled – the
fishes’ muscled surge and dance – the
sun’s stain on the sea I
watched – for years – but
not with eyes.

When I’m what they call dead –
ten billion scuffed-off scrapes of
me – will tumble on cool breezes –
will kiss pale eyes that
seek what I lost – stroke warm flesh that
aches like mine – be
drunk by mouths that never
speak my tongue.

Alive’s a stuttering fumbling –
scrambling up while slithering down –
grains sifting softly in –
swept clean away.

So take this rope of breath – and
climb it – drink this cup  before it
smashes – catch life piping
hot – it soon
will chill.   

Notes from Felix Hodcroft about his poem Bosphorus: Although I can and do rhyme, usually within lines rather than at the end of them, rhyme is not the be-and-end-all of poetry for me. I’m more inclined to use other verbal patternings – alliteration and assonance, echoes, repetitions and parallels, onomatopoeia. I find they give much more variety, energy and challenge while still, I hope, achieving that sense of heightened intensity and sparkle that can differentiate poetry from prose. Another important poetic tool for me is rhythm. I will to vary it, but generally I seek to use start-line stresses to achieve a dynamic spring and energy. I often make use of narrative and characterisation, which some people think are more the stuff of prose than poetry. I always aim for intensity, compression and a balance between accessibility and mystery.

Most of my poems arise from trying to think, and feel, very hard about things: problems, dilemmas – personal or public – to which it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to find an “answer”. Only by trying to translate my confusions into poetry can I keep reasonably happy (and, probably, reasonably sane).

I’m very preoccupied by the darkness I sense around us – often seeping into us. Plus by the challenge of really, really feeling what it feels like to be anyone apart from myself. I’ve always thought a lot about time, its passage and loops, and about death and legacy.

‘Bosphorus’ was sparked by a boat trip on that waterway, the divide between two seas, two continents. I was fascinated by the Bosphorus’s power, by its busyness, by the wildlife – fishes, birds and lots of jellyfish when I was there – by the pollution and the spectacular and stirring views of Istanbul (the most impressive city I’ve ever been to) on either side. 

These impressions, together with a sense, common when I travel, that I am holding my breath and touching briefly a life and civilisation fascinatingly/disturbingly alien, exploded into a vision of the waterway as a focus of an endless cycle of birth, death and recycling in which each one of us is but “an ash – a seed – a shred”. We can – we must, while we can – take joy from the beautiful, terrible world that lies around us. We can – we should – take comfort from the fact that others have lived, laughed and wept, loved and died, just like us. Not in black-and-white, not in any lesser way but just like us! They have grown chill and rotted but their joys and pain, their learning, the very compounds that formed their bodies and brains are recycled into us. They will, provided we allow ourselves to carry on existing, form and nourish generations more when we are but “scuffed-off scrapes”.   

I wouldn’t say that this poem reflects my ‘spiritual philosophy’. As a poet, I think it’s my mission not to have a mission, to think lots of different, often contradictory and definitely contrary things and not to have too clear a philosophy. However, having written ‘Bosphorus’ some years ago now, I still find it a poem that helps me to manage my life, and the death to come.

About Felix Hodcroft
Born (Manchester), brought up (in and around Oxford), took degrees in Eng Lit and Applied Social Sciences in my twenties. Worked briefly (18 months) as a Northern Ireland Office civil servant and, not at all briefly (36 years), as a probation/court welfare officer, based in Birmingham, then Hull, then Bridlington and finally, part-time, here in Scarborough.

I’ve been writing poetry for many years. I had a previous book, ‘Life after Life after Death’ published by Valley Press in 2010. I have never wanted to hurry into publication, being prone to the neurosis that there’s always something you could  fiddle with to improve (though, looking back on LALAD, I’m fairly happy). Such neuroses make me as much at home as an editor, anthologist and teacher/mentor as I am as a poet. Those activities, as well as the usual family traumas of someone tipping over from middle age towards – er, late middle age have delayed my second volume. 

I’ve performed and compered, collaborating with Kate and with artist Helen Birmingham to run Scarborough’s open mics and, more recently, Rotunda Nights. Also with Sue Wilsea as the ‘Hull to Scarborough Line’. None of these activities have stopped me writing but they’ve all got in the way of pulling it altogether into a second collection. As has aforementioned neurosis and an apprehension about stepping too far into what can sometimes seem the conflicted wokey-luvvie-bitchie world of the ‘professional’ ‘poet’. I’ve done it now though and would love to invite you to the on-line launch of my second collection ‘Rehearsing for This’, at 7pm on Sunday 29th November. Email me on feljen@feljen.pluscom if you’d like a link to attend, and/or if you’d like a copy of the book for just £8 including postage.

Poetry Bites #9: Your Story Ended

The other morning, I was delighted to find an email announcing a new poetry collection: Rainbow Parachutes: a collection of children’s poems from the 2020 Central Tramway Poetry Competition. It is always a joy to discover new poems. Plus the writers in this case were youngsters, whose creativity and wisdom defied their ages.

The Central Tramway Company runs one of the two remaining cliff lifts in Scarborough. Built in 1881, it is one of the oldest still running in the UK: https://www.centraltramway.co.uk/ The Rainbow Parachutes competition was organised by the company in aid of Young Minds: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/lockdownpoetrycollection

Cover design by Tess Willoughby:

https://www.tesswilloughby.com/

When I read the through the collection, this poem went straight to my heart:

Your Story
I stood beside you in your fading words
We’ve been through thick and thin, the normal and the absurd
I’ve laughed with you in parks through the gentle breeze
I still can’t get over losing you to this merciless disease
Death is vicious, there is no way to fight it
Your story ended, so I will rewrite it.

It’s author is Vikram Kochhar, aged 11, hailing from Kent in the UK. I am delighted that he agreed to be featured on my blog and answer a few questions.

Tell me something about yourself
I enjoy lots of different activities, from English, especially creative writing, to riding my bike. Things I like include Japanese food, holidays (I suspect most people do!), writing, and most sports. I don’t like things like comprehension and grammar (mostly in tests), watching TV for over an hour (unless it is a movie), rugby and rain. Unlike many others, I enjoy both opiniated subjects, like English, and straight-forward subjects, like mathematics, where there is usually only one answer. This is mainly because I enjoy learning new things and getting good grades!

Tell me something about your writing and your approach to writing:
I usually end up turning the writing task at hand into something I enjoy, as it makes it easier to think of new ideas. I like writing very metaphorical pieces, which emphasise the current time, or an emotion. A story or poem with a larger meaning makes it easier to change in more ways than a story with a simple plot. If I am given a task which suggests this, I would probably do as asked, but try to make it more relatable to the reader. A ‘relatable’ story means something which is easier to understand, so the audience can appreciate the writing completely. This is precisely what I aim for when I either must or would like to write. Sometimes, when I’m bored, or have a sudden urge, I like to write a story or poem, as it gives me something to concentrate on.

How did you come to write your poem for the Tramway Competition?
I wrote the poem on a regular day, at the time of what could be called the ‘peak’ of coronavirus. As I said in the previous paragraph, I somehow felt the urge to write something. I then looked at a website named Prose (for those who don’t know, Prose is a writing website with weekly or monthly tasks and challenges), and saw a challenge to write a story or poem, ending with the phrase, ‘your story ended, so I will rewrite it.’ This appealed to me because it related to the times when restrictions were in force. I decided to enter this, but I didn’t submit it to the original challenge, because it didn’t feel as important. Instead I submitted it to the Central Tramway Writing Competition, as I thought it deserved a proper reviewing. In times like now and then, it is important to remind people about the risks of now, and to reminisce about the times before. 

Poetry Bites #8: Ekphrastic Poetry

I love going to museums and art galleries. What I find there often inspires me to write. I have recently discovered there is a formal term for this: Ekphrastic. The idea is not necessarily to give an accurate description of the art work, but to delve deeply into your own interpretation of its underlying story or significance.

The intention is to add to the artwork by having a kind of conversation with it. Am I always saying poetry starts with a conversation…?

We have been lucky enough to have our art gallery open (https://www.scarboroughmuseumstrust.com/scarborough-art-gallery/) and there is an excellent new exhibition on show. It is the New Light exhibition: https://newlight-art.org.uk/prize-exhibition/. This has moved me to some ekphrastic writing. I am not going to claim them to be poems, more ‘little stones’, as they are not particularly crafted, but intend to give a sense of a moment, of an encounter.

My method for Ekphrastic writing?
Spend some time with art work. Stand in front of it. Look for the details. Study it closely and then from afar. Write for about five minutes in your writing journal. Write loosely, words or phrases which occur to you. Do not judge or edit at this time. Leave this writing alone for at least a week, maybe more. Go back to it. Pick out the words which still appear germane and have a play. This may end up with a little stone, or the beginnings of a poem.

Sorrowing Cloth
A winding cloth,
a shroud,
in a burning world.
It offers little shelter,
or luxury,
adrift, in a lily strewn swamp.

Is it us or the cloth which is sorrowing?

Inspiration: https://newlight-art.org.uk/selected-artworks-2020-21/sorrowing-cloth/

I challenged myself to work from a piece which I was not drawn to: https://newlight-art.org.uk/selected-artworks-2020-21/booby-no-2/

A daughter, not a son, held by her teeth to her mother’s teat,
Our Madonna unholy shuns our gaze.
‘Look away,’ she says.
‘Do not preach.
Do not bring your gifts of platitudes.
Do not think I care.’

Your turn?
Have a go using the link to the New Light exhibition and share in the comments box if you like.

Poetry Bites #7: Locating the Full-Stop

A friend’s teenage daughter asked a question to help with a presentation she had to do at school and it got me thinking. The question was around whether poems are ever finished. It echoed others I had received from students during my teaching years. Is this poem/piece of writing completed? Can it ever be said to be finished?

There is the famous quote from French poet, Paul Valéry (1871-1945): A poem is never finished only abandoned. Which suggests it is indeed difficult to know the end point of a poem.

I think a poem, perhaps more than any other type of writing, begins with a conversation with oneself. Some of our deepest conversations with ourselves are life-long and, therefore, so is the working through it in writing. Themes and characters reappear in writers’ works over and over. Colm Tóibín is the first to admit he has spent many a novel trying to deal with the early death of his father and the relationship with his mother.

However, I do believe a poem captures a moment in that process, which means it can have a full-stop at its end. I think it is can even be healthy to find that full-stop so we avoid returning and returning again to the same spin of the record. When I was training to be a psychotherapeutic counsellor we would get exasperated with ourselves for ‘playing the same record’ when we repeated old scripts or behaviours. It came as something of a relief when someone suggested, yes it’s the same record, but it’s a different track. Finishing a poem could help us move the needle to an alternative groove.

Concluding our work on a poem could also depend on whether we want to share our conversation with another. This brings in all sorts of considerations about comprehensibility, acceptability and whether we are open to our writing being understood in different ways from how we intended. Writers have very varying attitudes to the latter. Some want to retain a lot of control over how their work is read and what is taken from it. Personally, I love to hear others interpreting my poems in their own way – even if it is not at all as I anticipated – because it shows they are engaging with it and finding their own personal meanings in it. (I should say there would be a limit to this, I would not want my poems used in a way to promote something I found abhorrent. I hope never to hear Trump reciting something I have written at one of his rallies!)

I have noticed that some writers and students of writing seem to want everything they write to be directed towards an audience. Visual artists are allowed their studies and sketches, musicians can practise their scales, dancers have their warm-up routines, but writers? Once words are on the paper they should be destined for a finished piece. For me, this is not the best approach. As creatives we also require the space to experiment and develop. I have ‘delivered’ A Wake of Crows, my first novel of three to the publisher Constable. I am now turning to the second, Drowning Not Waving. It will be essentially a re-working of a novel I have already ‘finished’ but I am changing both narrative characters. It means that the story as seen through ‘Sarah’s’ eyes won’t be read by anyone (a good third of the novel as it was originally written). But it is not obsolete, it is not wasted. I have learnt so much about Sarah (who is still in the novel) by writing through her, this will enrich the new version.

Evaluating our own work
Deciding whether a poem is finished will entail some evaluation of our work. My friend, writer and artist, Jane Poulton asked me once: how do we evaluate our own work?

My first response was, with great difficulty. Though it certainly becomes easier with practice, with writing, with reading (as a writer, ie critically) and with the support of friends who are writers. We do need to be aware of our own internal psychological processes. Generally are we perfectionists? In other walks of life, do we think we are rubbish at everything? What shape is our internal critic in? All these things will effect how we evaluate our writing. And whether we can finish. Perfectionists tend to find it hard to say it’s done, for example.

Plus, who are we evaluating it for? Is there a real audience/editor? Are we clear about what they want from us? Or are we evaluating it with an ‘imagined’ audience – this can be within or outside of awareness. For instance, when we evaluate our work are we unconsciously trying to prove something to a parent or a teacher (who are no longer even around)?

Bringing psychological processes within awareness aids assessing whether they are helpful or not and how they might be attuned to be more beneficial.

JP, herself had some more useful thoughts which she is happy for me to share. She suggested some questions:

  • Would I want to read this if I hadn’t written it?
  • Is this so personal other people might not identify with it?
  • Am I making enough bridges/connections for readers to identify with it?
  • What – specifically – would be relevant to anyone else?
  • What will others take from this?
  • What is really essential to this story/poem?
  • What could I take out and it not really matter?
  • Is it in a relevant style bearing in mind the subject matter?

She also cautions avoiding repetitions – saying the same thing in other ways – and overt sentimentality. She counsels a lightness of touch, less is usually more – suggestions often carry more impact than long descriptions of something.

On re-reading her contribution, JP did want me to point out that she doesn’t always manage to, and sometimes chooses not to, follow her own checklist.

Finding your own way to a conclusion
Since I consider a poem to be an essence of a moment, or of me in a moment, then I rarely go back to one to re-write once I deem it finished. Other writers are completely the opposite, forever revising and reworking. There are some poems which I would not share anymore because I do not judge they have stood the test of time. However, I would not alter them. I sometimes like to return to older poems to chart my journey – emotionally or as a poet. But if I want to return to the theme or image, since I am in a different place (in terms of understanding, psychologically, age-wise, geographically), I will make a new poem.

How do you know if something you have written is finished?

 

Musings #1: Pantser or Planner

For devotees of this blog – thank you for staying loyal – the concept of pantser or planner, when it comes to writing a novel, will not be new. However, to recap:

  • a planner plans meticulously each twist and turn in their novel before they start writing;
  • a pantser writes ‘by the seat of their pants’. They start writing without any real idea of where their story is going or even what it might be about.

I used to be a pantser. After now writing six crime novels – three self published, two unpublished and currently one under contract with Constable/Little Brown – I am moving towards becoming a planner. And, like many things in life it is a continuum, not an ‘either/or’. Or it should be, I believe, for any writer.

‘Pantser’ is joyously following your imagination and characters where they wilt. It means the writing surprises you the writer and will, therefore, surprise the reader. It will mean the writing can really plumb the layers of your sub-conscious and come up with what is truly original, unique to you and what you really what you want to say. On the other hand, perhaps especially with a crime novel, at least keeping a plan as you go along saves time in the future. Clues and red herrings have to tie up in the end. Whatever is written later in the novel has to be presaged by something earlier on. Tweaking or rewriting earlier passages in the re-drafting process means things have to be altered down the line. A prosaic example: in my current novel, A Wake of Crows, late on in the rewrites I decided my main protagonist had to have married when she was just 20, rather than just 19, this changes the wedding anniversary she thinks about in the ‘now’ of the story.

Val McDermid has said she has moved from being a planner towards being more of a pantser and, let’s be honest, her novels have improved over time (perhaps not just for this reason, learning ones craft is also important – writers are rarely born, they have to be developed). I was interested to learn from Ian Rankin (interviewed at the Edinburgh International Book Fair 2020, more of that below) that he writes a first draft and then does the research – a pantser turns planner. I would imagine this must mean the second draft requires a good amount of care in keeping everything straight.

What are you, pantser or planner?

Collage postcard by Kate Evans, Summer 2020

Zoomed Out
This pandemic has spawned a host of new language in the usage of once familiar words. Pandemic, in itself, was once something which happened elsewhere but not to us – not anymore. Self and isolation when brought together have developed new meanings (and attendant feelings). Language is always evolving, though often more slowly, it is interesting (if unnerving) to watch it happen over just a few months.

Many of us are spending more time online. Hence the term ‘zoomed out’ (other platforms are available) to suggest too much screen time. I know I have been zoomed out more than once. However, there has been an upside to being forced more into the digital realm. I am a devotee of radio and am now discovering and enjoying more and more podcasts. Plus various events which I would never have thought to attend in person have become accessible to me. For instance, I joined an excellent series of poetry workshops exploring racism facilitated by Charmaine Pollard (https://charmainepollardcounselling.co.uk/) and Victoria Field (https://thepoetrypractice.co.uk/home/about/). In addition, here are a few other suggestions which may serve as an antidote to feeling zoomed out:

This is all pretty much free, so don’t forget, if you can, donate to a cultural organisation, they really need our financial support right now.

Have you any digital recommendations?