A Wake of Crows has a back story which dips into the history of the former GDR (East Germany). I have wanted to write about the GDR for some time because of a long term friendship I have with a woman from Dresden and because of visits to that city and Berlin in the 1980s and after. One thing I noticed soon after the Berlin Wall came down was that the years of communism were being glazed over. Especially in Dresden where it was like the history of the city jumped from Baroque glory to the present day. This is changing somewhat particularly in Berlin. When I was last there, a park was being built up around remnants of the wall and oral histories of the communist period.
However, I do think as humans we are good at forgetting.
Recently I have been reading various books exploring racism to help me examine my part in it. The one I am currently on with is Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch. She brings into sharp focus how racism is experienced by Black people in the UK and how white people in the UK have not even attempted to understand our history of slavery, prejudice and denigrating those who have been ‘othered’ and exploited because of the colour of their skin. We white people want to forget, because it is easier to do so. As Hirsch writes: ‘We want to be post-racial, without having ever admitted how racial a society we have been.’ (P125.)
Non-remembering is easier, but it means nothing changes.
There is a danger that the true visceral horror of the pandemic is being lost in the sprint to ‘get back to normal’. Plus, that the trauma and mistakes are not going to be springboards for a better way of doing things. We lurch, it seems to me, from one crises to another without any real vision. And we fall into the trap of silo-ing issues. An item on the news about climate change is quickly followed by another on ‘growth’ or holiday flights or problems with fuel deliveries. No link is made. No pause is taken to say, well maybe, because of climate change, we should be looking at things differently.
I certainly do not have any answers. But as a writer, I do think I have a role in keeping the collective memory alive. I have a role in pointing and saying, ‘There look’, even when it’s uncomfortable and upsetting. This is what I attempt to do, in a very small way, in my writing in general as well as in my novels.
Today I am delighted to welcome Adrienne Silcock to my blog https://www.adriennesilcock.co.uk/poetry/ She has recently published a collection of herbal poems with The High Window Press called Of Gardens and Witches. Below is one of the poems from her book, plus her thoughts on what inspired it and the whole collection. Enjoy!
Dill Anethum Graveolens
give seeds for luck to the bride to place in a shoe to the groom for the pocket
give seeds to protect the baby – a small bag in the crib – or to children during church to hush and stay their hunger
give leaves to the person who believes themselves bewitched
give tea for hiccups, swelling, insomnia and pain
infused by Neolithic chef and Pharaoh across Russia and Rome
consider the smallness of seeds
Adrienne writes about her collection:
Even before the Covid pandemic, many of us were beginning to turn towards the natural world for answers and for healing. Some had done so a long time ago. I think I’ve probably been one of the latter, but somehow societal issues seemed to be coming to a head. Climate change, continuing international conflict, people’s mental health issues (I was keenly aware of these, having worked in mental health for a large chunk of my working life)… I started to consider how people over the centuries have turned towards herbs for help.
I began to do the research. Society has had a very long relationship with Dill for instance. Ever since Neolithic times in fact. People used seeds to support superstition, to suppress hunger in times of starvation, to treat mental health issues (give leaves / to the person who believes / themselves bewitched), to treat insomnia or simple physical discomfort, such as hiccups! In a way we have learned to take herbs for granted. On the other hand we’ve forgotten about their magic, their taste, how they can be part of a healthy diet. Suddenly I found myself writing a herbal!
There are so many ways to talk about different herbs. Some of the poems in the collection engage with history and/or mythology, others reflect their usage in modern life, or in the case of Hyacinth (who knew that is considered a herb?) a symbolism for the brevity of life itself. Some are edible, others poisonous. Some have disappeared. I found man’s imprint on the planet and the world’s fragility appearing in my writing again and again. Some poems are light, others wistful and sad, some poems are written with form, others are free. And there are even notes for the curious at the back. I hope that there is something here for everyone.
Adrienne’s most recent publication is Of Gardens and Witches, a collection of herbal poems is from The High Window Press (September 2021). She has also published a poetry pamphlet Taking Responsibility for the Moon with the Mudfog Press (2014), has appeared in the independent press and various anthologies, including Chaos (Patrician Press, 2020), Geography is Irrelevant (Stairwell Books, 2020) and is a featured poet in Vindication (Arachne Press, 2018). She has published two novels, Vermin (Flambard, 2000) and The Kiss (on Kindle) and was shortlisted for the Virginia Prize 2009 for an unpublished novel Controlling Aphrodite.
I am sometimes asked: where do you get your ideas from? My response is: everywhere. To be creative, all we have to do is open up our bodies and our minds. Feast our eyes, our ears, our nose on the world around us, stick out our tongues to taste the day, be curious, reach and touch the varied textures (Covid restrictions may apply).
I was very happy to learn, therefore, that one of Britain’s greatest dead poets, Wilfred Owen, was also stirred by his environment, the town I now call home.
When I moved to Scarborough eighteen years ago, I found out that Wilfred Owen had been here just before he was sent back to the front near the end of World War One. In late 1917/early 1918 he was billeted at the Clarence Gardens Hotel, now the Clifton Hotel, on North Bay. Several years ago, I heard a talk by Dr Paul Elsam and John Oxley MBE FSA in which they discussed how this sojourn had fed into Owen’s poetry. I was overjoyed to find this talk expanded into six podcasts for the recent Big Ideas By the Sea festival. Each podcast takes a poem and explores the links with Scarborough. The series is accompanied by an art installation at the railway station.
I have always said graveyards are a great resource for writers. Half told stories adorn every grave, demanding: ‘What happened here?’ And ‘What if?’ In the current novel I am working on, Drowning Not Waving, DC Donna Morris walks through Dean Road cemetery, the dedications to fisherman giving her a new perspective on her investigation. The paths she walks, I have walked dozens of times. And, according to the podcast on the poem Strange Meeting, so did Wilfred Owen. He stood in front of a memorial which has always intrigued me and, perhaps, like me, it got him wondering.
I was very glad the podcast on the poem The Calls explained the background to it, as, at first, I was not taken by it. However, as I sit overlooking the South Bay, it comes back to me and I write.
The Calls, 25th July 2021 The drone of the speed boat. The excited prattling of the children paddling. A man arguing into his mobile phone. The (not quite) silent beat of the wing of a seagull gliding in to grab.
A winter visitor in 1918, he would not have noted these. Yet, a hundred or so years apart, we can share the shush-shus-shush-shoosh — the inexorably incoming tide.
Both Wilfred Owen and I have been inspired by Scarborough. Now his words have stimulated mine. That’s how writers roll, moved by our surroundings, but further stirred by the language of others who have also been inspired in this way. A never ending process, whirling on and on.
Now I invite you, dear reader, to use this blog post as a portal to the Wilfred Owen in Scarborough podcasts:
How Taljinder Met Tarlochan She pierced her ears at 11, punctured her nose at 13 and was ready to be married by 15. She had the colouring of light cha, a northerner living in the city of five rivers and she would breathe in its life; the musical sultry nights, powdered peacock holis, the cracked mud villages, the first monsoon of the season: the outpour of warm rain on her arms, her face, seeping into her clothes. The dry heat would burn through the night and into the next day, where she would lie in the blades of grass, until the world fell away.
And then she flew the sky, leaving the clouds, the fields, the mud and the rain. Landing in manicured pastures, she would discover a new tongue, faces met by arrangement, a new house, double glazed windows, instant mashed potato, brown bread, fish and chips, her bridal self and Tarlochan: whose mother and siblings would teach Taljinder that for a few decades her body was a planting pot for purple, yellow and green flowers to bloom under her skin.
She would understand from Tarlochan that sex is not love, sex is for babies, all four who would teach them the boundaries of respect and that the borderless state of love between them both is at first friendship, hardened by the lightning bolt of disappointment that would strike when their children defied religion and tradition. And yet, their strength would be found in the soft sigh of knowing that the ones who they gave the future to had found a loop hole: left open, a freshly painted door through which they too, could one day, walk through.
By Prea G Kaur First published in Mslexia March/April/May 2021 Issue 89
Reflections on writing the poem by Prea G Kaur
My writing explores generational trauma, it seeks to examine how my family’s traumas and the way they dealt with them can be passed on to their children, including myself. My parents are British Indians and landed in England in the 1980’s and fell straight into a society that was mostly hostile to migrants, and to an extent, it still is. How Taljinder Met Tarlochan is quite an intriguing poem, not only for readers but also for myself. I first wrote it in my third year as an undergraduate and back then it was a very different poem. The beginning was strong, but the ending was flat and so before I submitted it to Mslexia it underwent quite a rigorous editing. In fact, not only did the title and structure change but so did most of the poem. This change comes from growth, your views and opinions are always evolving, so I think it is always worthwhile revisiting a poem. When Debbie Taylor, the editor of Mslexia, informed me I was to be published, she also sent me a new version of my poem which Karen McCarthy Woolf had rearranged, and as a result it read much better. I agreed to the change in structure and so it was published in three more compact stanzas rather than the original longer ones I had submitted.
On a leave of absence, technically I am not supposed to write or work academically but I find this impossible, if not very damaging to not do. For me poetry is therapeutic, it allows me to express pain in a way in which it can be dealt with. So not only am I still writing, but I was also recently brought on as a voluntary poetry editor at a new online start up magazine founded by Isla Telford called Hencroft Hub. With Isla, I run online workshops where we breakdown the work of already published writers, so that participants can see where narratives work and where they don’t. I often find that the stories and poems which don’t quite work, are where the writer is too scared to express themselves and so hides behind language. I was once this writer and sometimes I still am, but I have learned that I can bypass hiding behind language if I pull on the heart of the poem: the thread of raw emotion. Emotion which lives in memory, people, places, and events and which should be weaved throughout the poem or story. This is how I build a poem and then I edit, edit, and edit, until I am happy with it. The job of poetry, and I suppose all writing, is to make comprehendible something that an individual may not understand. Narrative must arrest, interest, and overwhelm the reader’s attention. I try to connect to my readers through emotion, so that they can empathise or sympathise with my work, which as a result can lead to a stronger connection between characters and readers. Everyone has had different upbringings and experiences, but we can understand each other through the way in which we feel and empathise—this, I believe as humans, is our first and last connection to each other.
The poem follows my mothers’ journey from India to England, there isn’t one emotion here, there are sets which include love and pain. When I say sets of emotions, I mean to say that love is a feeling made up of emotions such as happiness, fear and surprise; which goes hand in hand with pain, made up of sadness, anger and disgust. And so, love and pain become a symptom of each other, and I think this is the base of my poem. It follows my mother’s life from beginning to its present; the unknowingness of leaving an environment where she is comfortable in India, to flying to England to get married. I hoped to convey the fear of leaving a place she knew and entering one she didn’t. Where after a while, British culture such as “fish and chips” and “double-glazed windows” are a part of her life, which are contrasted by the mud villages she once knew.
Arranged marriages are common in the Indian culture and this was very much the case with my mother. She left India to get married to my father who was already in England. Here, I wanted to portray a different sort of love. A love that is born through a lack of free will, chance and friendship rather than passion at first sight. A love that weathers hardship and mutual pain but also a love that is forced to follow the tradition of the Indian culture; one where the female must have children, be the angel in the house as well as work to earn a wage. The poem ends with the hope that the next generation will do better, that they will not have to conform to tradition or religion; that they and the generation before can live in the freedom that is allowed through choice. In many ways this poem skims the surface of the collection I am working on, there are so many stories and avenues in here that I am yet to explore and perhaps that is why I don’t love this poem, because I do not yet see it as complete—as a writer this is always the case, for the end is always unwritten.
Prea G Kaur, brief biography I am undertaking my PhD at Keele University but I am currently on a leave of absence; I think I can speak for most when I say it’s been a hard year. Among the death, despair, and endless stream of devastation in this pandemic, poetry has allowed me to keep seeking the joy in living. Faced with the possibility of non-existence, like many others, the pandemic made me realise that I was far from being content. I was despondent doing an English PhD up to the point that it made me very ill. Struggling with depression, an eating disorder and the pressure of a PhD that no longer reflected what I needed to tell the world, was just not how I wanted to live my life. So, I decided to take a leap of unknowingness and get some of my poetry published. I entered the Mslexia 2020 poetry competition with three poems. The one which I thought was my weakest, How Taljinger Met Tarlochan, was chosen by the judge, Karen McCarthy Woolf to be published and was awarded the unpublished poet prize.
During my undergraduate and Masters I took a few modules in creative writing. I was and still am a good writer, and I enjoy it with a wicked passion. But I chose to ignore my strength as a writer because still as it stands, creative writing is frowned upon by some academics and students. Yet I find this quite perplexing because most academics would not exist without creatives. The world needs more writers who choose to feel and reflect our humanity. I can’t quite explain what poetry means to me; it’s in my blood, every atom of my being, it’s akin to oxygen and I can’t see myself living without reading or writing it. Being published gave me the recognition I needed to believe in my voice and my writing. I am no longer doing an English PhD. Keele and the arts and humanities research council have allowed me to change the output of my project to creative writing; where I’m still exploring mental illness and trauma as I had originally planned, but it’s now more personal and, of course, poetic.
I subscribed to the Poetry Book Society (The book club for poetry lovers. (poetrybooks.co.uk) last year to widen my understanding of poetry and to introduce me to new writers. This it has done. And one of the poets I have been fortunate to discover is Isabelle Baafi. As soon as I read her poem ‘Plantain’, I wanted more, and ordered her pamphlet Ripe (ignitionpress, 2020). Here is a fizzing cornucopia of poetry in a fresh voice. The mundane is often used to explore emotional depth. The white space on the page is sometimes innovatively employed to underline what the words are expressing. It’s not always an easy read, but it is worth spending time to ponder over and reflect on. I found fascinating how the the first poem of hers I read, ‘Plantain’, took on a different flavour when nestled in the context of the others in the pamphlet.
How grateful am I, then, that Isabelle has agreed to allow me to reproduce here one of her poems and has graciously answered some questions (see below). Thank you Isabelle.
Finding my dad in a can of baked beans
In supermarket aisles, you teach me to need; stacking cans up to my chin—baked beans, corned beef, carrots, peas. I heave our trolley against the weight of a fear you have never unlearned.
At night, your prodigal car lights creep across my bedroom wall, and I add you to my list of things that come to us tightly sealed. On school runs, I plant tiny feet in the back of your driver’s seat—hoping you’ll feel something.
Beanstalk-tall and paraffin-scarred: Google Translate says your laugh means wandering echo And me—your youngest bean. If I knew the way back, I’d bury
scoops of me for you to find: in the Bantustan, near your mother’s house; the chirp of grasshoppers saturating the bush. In the tracks on sloping road, made by your father’s dusty Navara. In the belly of the mine that swallowed your brothers every night.
The first time I hear your language, it’s in the song of a baked beans ad. White families rush through drizzling streets to huddle in kitchens, fall into dining room chairs. Uniformed, backpacked kids drift home to the baritones of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
You’ve played that song on the stereo. I don’t know the words. But you say it’s about wise men, who cross the world looking for home in a man they have always hungered for.
At the table, I nudge beans around my plate, clustering stars; trying to navigate the miles between us. At the window, the sides of the curtains shine like the rim of a half-opened can. In the pauses between ads we chew on silence.
‘Finding my dad in a can of baked beans’ was first published in harana poetry. It also appears in Ripe, which can be bought from the ignitionpress website, here.
Photo of Isabelle Baafi by Sarah Kiki Nyanzi
Kate: Can you tell us something about your creative process? Isabelle: I write as often as I can, which is almost every day at this point. I recently started writing full time, and that has been such a rewarding experience. Normally, after going for a run, I’ll write in the morning until lunchtime. For me, writing often involves a lot of free writing, which has allowed me to explore the many associations, memories, random thoughts, and concepts that are trapped within my subconscious. But also, I often think about new things that I want to try, and experimentations with various forms and devices. In the afternoons, I’ll usually do some admin, or work on projects, and then in the evenings I read.
Kate: Looking back, how did you come to write poetry? Isabelle: The first time I wrote a poem, I was 14. I was very into the Brontës, and I came across the poem ‘High Waving Heather’ by Emily Brontë, and I loved it. So, I wrote a poem after it about a rainstorm. Over the next few years, I wrote more poems. But I didn’t get very far, and I suppose that I lost confidence in it, and I put all my energy into writing fiction and screenwriting. Then, in 2017, I read Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, which reignited my love of poetry. Warsan Shire’s writing is such a force. At the time, I was also writing flash fiction and sharing excerpts of stories online, and gradually the stories became shorter and shorter, and increasingly poetic, until eventually I realised that I was writing poems. I had always wanted to be a writer, and yet I never really pictured myself as a poet. But poetry is a great form. There is so much that only a poem can do, and so it’s a really cool genre to work with.
Kate: Where does the title ‘Ripe’ come from? Isabelle: At its core, Ripe is about the desires that propel us through life, control our actions, and define us as human beings. The pamphlet grapples with permutations of physical hunger, sexual desire, spiritual curiosity, and relational need, and how they all overlap and inform each other. The poems explore pubescence, trauma, submission, reclamation, and self-discovery, and so, what I think the title captures is a sense of allure and temptation, and the sensation of existing on the verge: on the verge of knowledge, the verge of beauty, and the verge of destruction.
Kate: In many of your poems you use the white space and the placement of the words on the page in an innovative way. Can you explain how this came about and your thinking around this? Isabelle: For me, the form of a poem is as much a part of the poem as the words themselves. Also, I think one of the greatest things that literature can do is encourage empathy — and so, when I write a poem, I want the reader to feel what the speaker is feeling. For that reason, I will sometimes try to convey the speaker’s experience through the form. For instance, a poem in which the speaker feels trapped might have a justified alignment to convey a sense of rigidity and external control. However, it’s something that I try not to do too often – and only when it serves and enhances the poem. I think anything that you do too often can become predictable and gimmicky. But experimenting with form is something that I really enjoy doing.
Kate: What are your future plans? Isabelle: At the moment, I’m preparing to start a Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford in September, and I’m also looking forward to some editing opportunities that I have lined up for later this year. Plus, I’m gradually writing towards my first collection, and I’m hoping to put that together next year.
Kate: The question you wish I’d asked? Isabelle: Your questions have been great, Kate! I suppose, one thing that I haven’t talked much about is how the pamphlet has changed my relationship with my work. Nowadays, whenever I write anything, I consider it as a piece of a puzzle, and I’ll think about its place within a body of work or larger narrative. Every choice that I make will take into account every other poem that I’ve written, as well as the end result that I have in mind; the ideological framework that I’m building. These days, I’m holding onto poems longer, and waiting for them to speak to each other before I send any of them out into the world.
Brief biog. Isabelle Baafi is a writer, poet, and critic from London. Her debut pamphlet, Ripe (ignitionpress, 2020), was the Poetry Book Society’s Pamphlet Choice for Spring 2021. She was the winner of the 2019 Vincent Cooper Literary Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2021 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, the 2020 Bridport Prize for Poetry, and the 2019 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition. Her poems have been published in The Poetry Review, Magma, Anthropocene, Tentacular, and elsewhere. She is a Ledbury Poetry Critic, an Obsidian Foundation Fellow, and a Board Member at Magma. She is currently working on her debut poetry collection.
Several years have gone by since I tumbled over Anne Goodwin’s website annegoodwin.weebly.com and her thoughts on how therapy and therapists have been portrayed in fiction. Since I had been in therapy for some time and was training to be a psychotherapeutic counsellor, we had some enjoyable exchanges over fictionalised therapists – the good, the bad, the ugly and the just plain wrong.
I also read her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, which I found compelling and thought-provoking. Until the end of February, Anne is offering you a free e-book of Sugar and Snails. It was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize (given for works which best explore the LGBT experience). Just follow the link:
Meanwhile, I am happy to re-post a piece Anne wrote for my blog: ‘Why I’m Thanking My Therapist’ Here it is, Anne Goodwin writes:
About eighteen months into my therapy, the death of a relative almost rent me apart. We were talking about my tendency to prioritise caring for others above caring for myself, when That Woman (as she’s identified in the acknowledgements to my novel) said that I probably didn’t even know what I wanted for myself. In those early days, I was loath to contradict someone who was so unusually attentive to my needs, but this time I did. Yet I think I was as surprised as she was when I proclaimed that I wanted to be a writer, so successfully had I put my whispered youthful ambition out of mind.
I’d been scribbling stories on and off all my life, but my professional training and practice as a clinical psychologist had consumed most of my time and creativity. I’d vaguely planned to pick it up again on retirement, but That Woman nudged me to make space for what I wanted there and then. She helped me realise that I didn’t need to justify the time spent writing with prizes and publications (which was fortunate, given that it took much longer than I’d imagined for these to be forthcoming). It was extremely liberating to discover the world wouldn’t come to a halt if I indulged myself.
We didn’t discuss so much what I was writing at first. It was more a matter of tackling the barriers to taking my apprenticeship seriously, being picked up from the knocks and disappointments along the way. But the larger focus of our conversations wasn’t about my writing at all.
One of the themes of my therapy was my traumatic adolescence. I’d gone to That Woman thinking myself lacking for not having put the past behind me (as Diana is urged to do in Sugar and Snails). Now that I recognise the enormity of my experience, I see that as a ridiculous pressure to put upon myself, compounding the original trauma with the blame and shame of being unable to toss it to the side. Not that, outside the therapy room or wrapped in the arms of my husband, I showed any indication of not coping. I kept my wounds hidden from the wider world.
So perhaps it’s inevitable that my first published novel should feature another traumatic adolescence. I’d had other ideas, other novels begun and abandoned, one even getting as far as the second draft, but it was always Sugar and Snails to which I returned. Not that it was easy to write: from inception to publication, this novel consumed seven years of my life. My therapy has been equally epic, the successive transformations of my novel proceeding in parallel with my increasing understanding of myself. While each would feed into the other, That Woman helped me maintain the boundary between my own biography and that of my character. She also provided a container for my frustrations with the publication circus, that Kafka-ish world in which logic seems not to apply, and encouragement to claim my author authority as publication date approached.
I believe that my therapist has been of greater benefit to me as a writer than any of the industry experts I’ve consulted along the way. But, having paid my bills more or less on time, I don’t owe her anything, not even my gratitude. Yet I felt it would be dishonest not to include her in the acknowledgements for my novel, for my sake more than hers. Conscious that some writers are suspicious of therapy, I was anxious about this initially, but the support I received when I posted about this (thank you, Kate and others) convinced me I was doing the right thing.
It’s not easy to write about a therapy, partly because it’s such a private endeavour, partly (judging by the mistakes writers commonly make in creating a fictional therapist) because it’s so difficult to get to grips with from the outside. Maybe, on reading this, you’ll understand why I’m thanking my therapist, or maybe you’ll just have to take it on trust that this novel would never have got written, let alone published, without her. Yet because of the confidentiality inherent in the relationship, she can’t tell anyone else what part she played.
I discovered this gem in my Mslexia (Dec/Jan/Feb 2020/21) and wanted to share it. Belinda has been kind enough to allow me to do this, she has also given some insight into her writing process.
Dog by Belinda Rimmer
He’d hung a ‘No Entry’ sign on the door and added a proviso: ‘Dog in Mourning’. They were both in mourning, him and Dog. But if you could make a mountain out of grief, Dog’s would be higher.
The vet had raised his eyebrows when Dan had told him, ‘She’ll only sleep if I hold her, and under the sheets, it has to be under the sheets.
Maybe he was one of those rare types: a vet who didn’t like dogs. He’d said, and he’d said it sharply, ‘A dog doesn’t need holding, all a dog needs is a basket’.
What Dan didn’t say was that at night Dog called out:’Marie. Marie.’
The vet had wished them both well and charged a week’s rent.
That night Dan lay beside Dog and they both cried, but Dog cried louder; and they both thought about Marie, but Dog thought about her the most; and they both had nightmares, but Dog’s were rockier, steeper to climb, more treacherous.
Dan fetched Marie’s red cardigan from the wardrobe, which seemed to bring Dog some comfort. He brought all Marie’s old clothes and heaped them on the bed, on top of Dog. Dog stopped howling. But Dan still held him tight, and together they called her name, again and again, as if Marie were in the room next door and had never gone away.
These days, I spend most of my time writing. Poetry is my main passion, but I am increasingly drawn to flash fiction. I find it a very hard thing to do, to create a story in so few words. I am learning as I go along, reading and taking workshops (Meg Pokrass is a wonderful teacher). I have many more poems published, but last year one of my flash fictions made it into best microfiction 2019, and the TSS Publishing list for Best British and Irish Flash Fiction 2018-2019, which inspired me to continue submitting.
I need silence to write and often cocoon myself in a rickety gazebo, away from distractions. In winter, I write in my study at an old pine desk. Solitude is necessary, but I also need to interact with other writers. I have taken several courses with the Poetry School and belong to a poetry workshop group. My career has been varied: psychiatric nurse, school counsellor, dance development officer, arts practitioner and part time lecturer – work that has involved communicating with and attempting to understand people. I take the same approach with my writing, trying to understand my characters, their motivations, loves, insecurities. Even when writing about my own life, I try to discover something new and unexpected. Curiosity or a need to make sense of the world is a driving force.
I scribble in endless notebooks. These notes are quite often illegible, which I quite like. I then try to pick out lines that resonate, or words, or look for patterns, or whole sentences. I don’t try to make too much sense at this point. I like to surprise myself with where my writing takes me. I can always add layers of meaning afterwards. Later drafts are written on a laptop. My approach doesn’t vary much between poetry and flash fiction, although I do feel a little freer when writing flash. Ideas come from so many different sources: photographs, art, memory, inspirational people and their lives, nature. My writing can also be driven by emotion. Not being able to verbalise something leads me to pen and paper.
I wondered what it would be like if the grief of a man and his dog became entwined, so it was almost impossible to know where one began and the other ended. What if a dog came to stand in for something or someone missing. In my story the characters of Dog and Marie become entwined, leaving space for readers to find their own points of understanding too.
In 2018, I was joint winner of the Indigo-First Pamphlet Competition, with my pamphlet, Touching Sharks in Monaco (published by Indigo Dreams, Spring 2019) which was about childhood and personal relationships: memory and its distortions. www.belindarimmer.com/pamphlet
During the summer, I completed a 12 poem chapbook called, How To Be Silent, inspired by the life and work of the American writer Tillie Olsen. I first encountered her work many years ago as part of my PhD research. This is to be published in 2021 by dancing girl press. Twitter: @belrimmer
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!
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 email@example.com if you’d like a link to attend, and/or if you’d like a copy of the book for just £8 including postage.
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.
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.
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?