The RA mid-Summer Exhibition, Day 1: The Map

Generally I dislike the mid-summer solstice. It always comes too early to be mid-way through the summer, to be mid-way through the year. This year it feels even more poorly placed. For me, the first half of 2020 has been weighted with a stew of emotions. First off, there was my contract with Constable for three novels – an ambition finally realised which I have held since I was 19. Then my father-in-law died. Then the pandemic descended. Then George Floyd was murdered. And all along, others have tragically died or been killed or been attacked or have had their lives turned upside down in one way or another.

I am aware that every day in every year is soaked in suffering for many, many people, not to mention for the earth and our fellow species. More often than not, my experience of this is mediated through the TV screen. Undoubtedly, this has continued even as I have hunkered down into my own ‘back-yard’.

Then there has been the counter-weight, in the form of acts of kindness and concern. Plus, perhaps, a shifting in our joint assessment of what is important and needs preserving or changing.

These last six months, it is my small world which has become more freighted than usual with a diverse swirl of feelings. I have responded to this with images and texts. I have decided to show them in the RA (Royal Avenue) online mid-Summer exhibition. There’s no doubt, that in some cases, the idea for the piece has outstripped my skills for realising it. However, for me, they do still capture an essence of a moment in the last half a year.

The RA (Royal Avenue) mid-Summer Exhibition, Day 1: The Map

A3. Acrylic & pen on paper.

Poetry Bites #6: my journey into poetry

I read poetry. I write poetry. Poetry nourishes me. This was not always so. Like many people of my age, I was forced into studying poetry for my ‘A’ Level and then happily skipped away from the form as quickly as I could. I did not come back to it for over twenty years.

In my late thirties, I applied to do an MA in creative writing at Sussex University. I went for an interview with Professor Peter Abbs. During this, he asked me what poets I read. I had to admit to not having read any since my late teens. On my way out, I noticed on his door was his designation: Professor of Poetry (or some such title). Despite my woeful ignorance of his speciality, he nevertheless gave me a place on the course.

He led a whole term’s work on poetry through the ages. I found it fascinating, though did begin to wonder, where are all the women? This led me to my own research. I asked at work (I was receptionist at the Women’s Press at the time) and was recommended The Rattle Bag (edited by Seamus Heaney & Ted Hughes). Despite still being light on women poets, it did turn me onto the joy of anthologies. I suggest an anthology is the place to start for novice readers and writers of poetry.

Reading took me onto writing…

Also, around this time, I fell into a very deep depression and began to have therapy which opened up all sorts of difficult emotions for me. It was a tough period of my life. At first, writing poetry was a way of venting. Then it became a way of exploring. Eventually, it became a way of healing. Discovering new poets who seemed, like me, to be struggling, was part of this journey. Anne Sexton was one of my companions through these difficult years. These days, I find her incredibly hard to read. But doing so, reminds me of the tempestuous waters I navigated.

Another tip for novice writers/reader of poetry: poets and poems will mean different things to you at different times, so if one doesn’t ‘speak’ to you, put it away for another moment or mood.

Once I had got over the venting stage, I wanted to understand more about the craft. The only way to learn the craft is to read, read and read some more. I also found Ruth Padel’s 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem useful. Plus find a community of poetry lovers to share both your reading and writing with. I was most fortunate to discover this when I came to Scarborough. For writing poetry, I needed feedback. However, the great joy was to be able to join with others in reading poetry and learn from others about poets I had not yet heard of. If there is no community near you, find a podcast… there are plenty out there.

More recently, my focus has been on writing novels, but I still keep up reading (and listening to) poetry. Writing less so. I think poetry has filtered into my use of words in prose in what I consider to be a good way. The editor at Constable/Little Brown praised my lyrical language when she offered me a three book deal, so perhaps I am not wrong.

It seems that for many, poetry is a bit high-brow, a bit scary, sometimes unintelligible. All this can be true of poetry. However, you don’t have to search far to find a poem which seems to be written just for you. It could bring you pleasure or recognition or an ‘aha’ moment. It could be a mirror or a window on the world – on your world or on someone else’s. Why not look for a new poem today…? Once you start, I’ll wager, you won’t want to stop.

 

Poetry Bites #5: Collaborative Poem (part 2)

white blossom by Jane Poulton

Photo by Jane Poulton

One Day in a Life
April 2020

Morning
Walk to the breakwater on wind scribed sand.
A sassy breeze comes in with the waves.
The sun breaks a yolk across the sea.

Afternoon
Tree by tree
the chaffinch marks his domain with song.
Rowan.
Silver birch.
Horse chestnut.
Beech, its branches bending to embrace the other.
The cherry blossom, heady harbinger of Spring.

4pm
Newly learned language clogs our throats.
Daily death rate. Self-isolating. Pandemic.
PPE. Lockdown. Contact tracing.

Grant us the grace to keep tally of our blessings
on letterbox-red tulip petals and a forget-me-not sky.

Evening
Fingers of shadow slant across the grass,
our day’s jagged fold lines smoothed away.

Curated by Kate Evans.
Words/lines generously donated by Kate Boddy, Lesley Glover & Jane Poulton

 

 

The Process
A few weeks ago, in a blog post, I invited people to get involved with writing a collaborative poem. I am so grateful that several have generously donated their words and sentences. I have enjoyed the process and those who took part have also said they found pleasure in it. Whether the poem will pass the test of time, I do not know, but I feel it captures a moment, which is valuable in itself.

When I have done this type of thing in a group, usually at the end of a workshop where people have been working together for a day or more, I am always surprised at how easily the lines slip together. This did not happen this time. A writing friend suggested this is because we were not together enough to be ‘on the same wavelength’. Plus I was more anxious about what the contributors would think about the completed poem.

Consequently, at first I was, to be truthful, a bit flummoxed. Then I saw the two lines ‘fingers of shadow slant’ and ‘fold lines smoothed away’ seemed to have a fit and felt like an ending. Putting them together also gave me the idea of structuring the poem around a day. This helped enormously.

I had meant the poem to be about the Spring and to turn its back on the situation we all find ourselves in. However, the poem had other ideas. Covid-19 would not be ignored. Quite rightly, I guess. On the other hand, I was determined not to let it dominate, especially not in the way it overshadows the news and our daily intake on the radio/TV. So I pushed it to the right. The poem can be read without it. In addition I very much wanted to put nature’s counterbalance.

I struggled to know how much of the ‘newly learned language’ to put in. In doing this, I took inspiration from Julia Darling’s poem ‘Too Heavy’ from her collection Sudden Collapses in Public Places. It explores her feeling of being silenced as a patient by medical language. Darling uses words associated with her cancer treatment and juxtapositions them with ‘sweet tasting words’. The terms she uses, despite being ‘too heavy’, are also rhythmic and strangely poetic.

Inevitably, though I am greedily using the inspiration of others, this poem reflects my own preoccupations. In particular, there is the contrasting of the vivacity of Spring and nature against the overall grimness of human folly. Plus there is the new language we are being forced to swallow. Finally, there is the sense many have expressed, that we are living a kind of dystopian ‘Groundhog Day’, each day pretty similar to the last. The Bill Murray character in the film Groundhog Day, learns with each replay of the day until he becomes ‘good enough’ for his love interest. I do hope we can all (including thems-in-charge) make discoveries during this time which will assist in building a more caring, a more equitable, a more resilient world.

 

Poetry Bites #4: the Golden Shovel

 

I first came across a ‘golden shovel’ poem in Mslexia (https://mslexia.co.uk/). The form was created in 2010 by Terrance Hayes, a contemporary US poet, who used it to pay tribute to an underappreciated US poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000).

The process is as follows:

  • take a line (or lines) from a poem you admire;
  • use each word in the line (or lines) as the end word for the lines in your poem while maintaining the order. If the line in the original poem is six words long, then your poem will be six lines long. You should be able to read the primary source as an acrostic going down the right hand side of your poem.
  • Give credit to the original poem and poet (goes without saying).

I had a go at this with a couple of lines from Charlotte Mew.

Not for that City
‘It is for some remote and quiet stair.’

Péri en Mer
‘The crowded mast cut black against a sky
of fading rose.’

Between Species
April 2020

We were going some,
those days before we lost the remote.
We stashed it somewhere safe, behind the sofa perhaps. And
took to watching each other in the awful quiet,
only able to raise ourselves to a stunned and silent stare.

Once the places become too crowded,
people stand like masts
along the pavement, cut
off from each other. Wearing black
for the loss. One day you’ll lean against
me, we’ll watch a sky
in the last of fading
light, smell the perfumed rose.

I was surprised to find I had taken lines from poems written in the 19th century and turn of the 20th century and they became about now. Maybe that is inevitable.

Why not have a go yourself? If you like, you can share your experience or creations in the comments on this blog post.

 

Poetry bites #3: collaborative poem

wood anemonies Raincliffe Spring

A carpet of wood anemones, photo taken by Mark Vesey

The Spring which is bursting out all around is a balm for me in these troubled times. As is reaching out and making contact. So in this post, I am attempting to combine the two. I am inviting you, dear reader, to join with me in a collaborative poem in praise of Spring.

If you wish to take part, here’s what you do:

  • If you can take a walk in an open space. If you can’t, open your window or step outside your front door.
  • Open your senses and let them all assist you in observing nature. Notice shapes, colours, sounds, smells, textures, the taste of the air. Even in the most urban of settings, nature will be there, in the smallest weed, in the birdsong. Spend up to ten minutes drinking in nature.
  • Write for ten minutes. Write freely without worrying about spelling, sentence construction or even making much sense. If you can, write by hand and let the words wander as they will across the page.
  • Take a break of a minimum of an hour.
  • Return to what you have written and choose words or sentences which appeal to you.
  • Send me, either by email or in the comments section, up to three individual words or a sentence. Plus your name.
  • Please do this by Sunday 19th of April.

I will then craft this into a collaborative poem which I will post on this blog in the weeks to come.

I hope you will find this takes you to a more pleasurable place. Be kind to yourself, be patient with yourself, enjoy!

green man Raincliffe

The Green Man in Raincliffe Wood. Photo taken by Mark Vesey

 

Tips for Writers: writing through difficult times #2

I do find I am living in surreal times. Despite the very real misery and suffering which is surrounding us all, in this far flung corner of the North Yorkshire coast Spring continues to blossom with beauty and grace. Here is a wonderful photograph taken by my dear friend Jane Poulton (artist & writer extraordinaire, website). Why not use it as a prompt for some writing?

white blossom by Jane Poulton

Several of my writing friends have said that they are finding it difficult to put pen to paper in the current times and are seeking solace in other activities such as gardening or cooking or tidying up long neglected corners of their home. I believe that all writers – and artists and other creatives – will have a role in reflecting on, understanding and eventually effecting any healing possible for our current calamity. Some will find the words and the means later, once we are on the ‘other side’. On the other hand, I do think it is worth, if we can, recording some of this experience in the moment. However good our recall, ‘in the moment’ recording of a situation will always be different from writing done with perspective.

But how to get started? One way might be writing letters which will never be sent. Letters are usually very targeted on an audience, so choose yours first. Here are some suggestions.

The Anne Frank diaries are written in the form of letters to a ‘friend’ called Kitty. If you have not read them, see if you can find an extract on line to get a flavour (https://www.annefrank.org/en/). Writing to Kitty allows Ann to be intimate, to say things she would not say to those around her, to express emotions freely.

When I was a child, I was brought up to write thank you letters after every Christmas and birthday. My maternal grandmother had a talent for sending the most hideous and inappropriate gifts. Writing thank you to her stretched and honed my diplomatic skills. What kind of letter would you write to someone you did not want to worry or hurt? I am also thinking of some of the poignant letters sent from the front during the World Wars.

What if you imagined yourself on another planet? Sometimes it feels like I have slipped through to a parallel universe, where things are the same but not quite. What would it be like to write a letter to someone ‘back home’? I find Woman on the Moon by Jean Harrison (https://jeanharrisonpoetnovelist.weebly.com/sample-3.html) A very effective poem. When I have used this in workshops there have been many interpretations, including a person trying to communicate what depression is like to someone who has not experienced it. Have a read of it. Does it prompt you to write something about now?

If you are a sci-fi or Trekkie fan, how about you have just arrived here in a space ship. What kind of ‘log’ would you send back to base?

How about writing to a descendent or a historian in the future? What would you want them to know?

If a letter is too much of a stretch, how about a postcard? Just a few sentences. And a postcard has an image on the other side. What image would you choose? If you can’t draw it or photograph it or find it on the internet, describe it.

These are just some ideas. Try them out, they may be fruitful in themselves or they may lead onto something else. Remember you are not aiming for a finished product ready for sharing with others, just drafts/notes. However, if you do end up with something which you would like others to read, feel free to post it in the comments section here.

People have begun using online forums to discuss books, poetry and writing. I applaud all these efforts to reach out and make contact. On the other hand, I do wonder about those who do not have access to the internet. These may be the most in need of a friendly gesture. How about using the phone to have a conversation about a book or a poem? Or write a letter reviewing a book or a poem or short story and deliver it with the source material. With the latter there are some infection concerns and the receiver should not touch the envelope/package or what’s inside for at least 72 hours, preferably leaving it in the sunshine. If this is not possible, the receiver can move the envelope/package to where it can be safely left and then wash their hands thoroughly afterwards.

We do indeed live in strange times. Stay safe and stay well.

Tips for Writers: writing through difficult times

For those of you who read my blog regularly, you will know that I am interested in creative writing for wellbeing. How might creative writing be therapeutic? Yes, there are ways of gently writing through the troubling emotions and teasing out understanding. But, sometimes, creative writing for wellbeing is about diversion, it is about taking our thoughts away from the difficulties and for a short moment connecting with the uplifting. This is unlikely to solve any problems, but it might help in the way we feel in ourselves which could mean we approach worries in a different way.

Here are some suggestions. Give them a try, but don’t be down on yourself if you don’t connect with them. Perhaps they will spark off ideas of your own, in which case follow them.

daffsMarch16

#1. Find an uplifting word. My suggestions would be: love; friendship; joy; happiness; pleasure; sparkle; fun… But find a word which works for you. Write it at the top of the page and answer some or all of these questions:

  • what colour is it?
  • what shape is it?
  • what sound does it make?
  • how heavy is it?
  • what does it taste of?
  • what does it smell like?
  • what texture does it have?
  • what does it feed on?
  • if it were an animal, what animal would it be?
  • if it were weather, what weather would it be?
  • if it were a landscape, what landscape would it be?

You might want to add some questions of your own. Take about ten minutes to do this. If nothing comes, leave it. If you get inspired, follow your inspiration.

#2. Focus on a piece of nature. This might be something you have indoors – a stone, a feather, a leaf, a plant – or maybe you can look out the window or open your window and hear a birdsong or go for a walk. Find something from nature and focus on it for a couple of minutes. Then write for five minutes. To start with, write freely, whatever words present themselves. As you go on, start to think about the five senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, texture – and make sure you are using all of them as far is possible.

Write for another five minutes about the journey this piece of nature has taken to come to your notice.

Overall, take about fifteen minutes to do all this. If nothing comes, leave it. If you get inspired, follow your inspiration.

#3 Framing it. You might now have something quite crafted or a jumble of words. It doesn’t really matter. Go off and have a break. Preferably, do some stretches, get a gulp of fresh air, have some water. Make it a longer break if you want and return the next day or the next, the words are likely to look different whenever you choose to re-engage with them.

When you come back, read through the words or sentences or whatever it is you have on your paper. Choose several, the number is up to you. Write them in the middle of a plain piece of paper. Then create a frame around them using colourful paints, paper torn from magazines, pens, crayons… whatever you have to hand.

Try not to judge what you create. The process has been the thing, the time spent with words and colour has, hopefully, helped your mood.

However, if you wish to share your experience and/or your creation, then please comment on this post or contact me. My email is on my website.

 

Poetry Bites #2: Inspiration

The image is inspired by ‘The Wave’ a woodcut by Japanese artist Hokusai, created 1829/1833, the first of thirty-six views he did of Mount Fuji. I have obviously replaced Mount Fuji with Scarborough castle. It is a mix of collage and acrylic paint.

Once a writer puts their work into the public domain, it is for the reader to discover meaning and emotional connection if it is there for them find. So please read the poem and make what you will of it. On the other hand, I enjoy hearing from writers about their own take on their work, so that is below too.

 

The Day the Sea Froze Over at Scarborough

I walked to the shore as usual
and all was silent,
the scream of the seagull froze
above the un-pounding waves.

The crystal curve caught in mid-plunge,
surely the weight of it will crack
the prism, release what lies beneath:
the crab, the weed, the worm?

People stand and stare
at the roar-less sea, there’s ice enough
to burn a thousand tongues,
cold enough to ache.

The starlings fly and drop
and reform once more, our comma,
our full-stop, our question mark
punctuating the sky.

Even as I walk, the thaw begins.
Water droplets blindingly glitter,
slush edges the beach,
the dregs of souring ice cream Sundaes.

And we who have seen
turn to comfort one another
from the glare of others’
gleaming disbelief.

 

The Day the Sea Froze Over at Scarborough is a classic ‘what if?’ poem. The first time I saw snow on the beach, I was surprised. And I have always been interested by paintings of frost fairs on the River Thames. I began to ponder, what if the sea froze here? I enjoy watching nature and this has also gone into the poem. Lastly, but maybe most importantly, is the final verse. This covers a host of situations where a small group has seen or experienced something which others do not quite believe.

Poetry Bites #1: Be Bold

Currently, I am mainly focused on writing prose, having just secured a three-book deal with Constable/Little Brown for a new crime series set in Scarborough. And yes, I do have to keep repeating this to myself and others to make it real, as I find it difficult to believe that something I have worked towards for over thirty years has finally happened!

However, poetry is still an important part of my life. I am slowly re-reading the poetry collections and anthologies I have on my shelves and have recently supplemented them with two collections by Imtiaz Dharker. I first saw her read at Bridlington poetry festival several years ago and was smitten. I later accosted her on Bridlington station, stuttering in a deranged way how impressed I had been by her reading. I think she was relieved that she was getting the train South while I was going North. Links: http://imtiazdharker.com/poems and listen to her read: https://www.bloodaxebooks.com/ecs/product/luck-is-the-hook Unsurprisingly her voice matches her poems or perhaps it is the other way round.

Born in Pakistan, brought up in Glasgow, Dharker lived for a while in Wales and now divides her time between Bombay and London. She is a woman, a poet, who crosses borders. And she is brave, she is bold in what she has to say.

Be bold in poetry and innovate. Another poet who has found an original ‘voice’ is Janet Lees with her performances which combine words, music and images. Here is her latest Still Here. Evocative and arresting, the reader/viewer is obliged to stop and give the poem space, allow the poem its moment. In this frenetic world it is sometimes difficult to do this.

Which is why one of my intentions this year is to give myself permission to pause and read several poems. Then pause again and allow those poems to settle. I am always interested to find how this nourishes my creativity and my prose writing.

Try it. Take a poetry collection or anthology (if you don’t have any at home, go to a library to find one or borrow one). Let the book fall open at a poem. Read it. Pause. Read it again. Choose a word, several words or a line. Write this in your writing journal. At some point during the week, come back to this and add more words or sentences. Explore where this can take you.

 

 

Tip for Writers #1: Read

We’re all probably trying to find our stride again after the festivities and the turning of 2019 into 2020. How do we support our writing projects for this year? One way is to read. Read widely, indiscriminately and a lot.

We might read to research, or for background to, what we are writing. We might read the same genre as we are writing or to study technique. But, I would contend, it is equally important to read things which seem to have little to do with what we are currently working on.

Graze the shelves of your local library. Borrow from friends (and lend to them). Have a hunt round your local charity shop.

I think it is important to read as a writer not as a reader. Yes, of course, enjoy the story or the emotional engagement, but also have a third eye, a critical eye, looking out for technique, for ideas, for flourishes which surprise.

I keep a note of all I read, stating briefly what I thought worked and what I thought was less successful. I may not re-visit these ‘reviews’ but just writing them concentrates the mind and allows ideas to seep into the creative brain.

It’s easy for reading to get hustled to the end of the day, when we’re too tired to absorb anything. And I love to read in bed, though I tend to go to bed early to read so I am not dropping off over the pages. But I also put time in during the day which is for reading. For many people reading is a recreational activity. For writers it is work.

I am intending on putting more time aside for reading poetry, though I am currently working on novels. Dear readers of this blog, what are your writing projects for 2020 and have you any reading intentions you would like to share?