Tag Archives: inspiration

Author Interview: Philippa East

Today I am delighted to welcome crime writer Philippa East to my blog.

Philippa grew up in Scotland and originally studied Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Oxford. After graduating, she moved to London to train as a Clinical Psychologist and worked in NHS mental health services for over ten years. Philippa now lives in the Lincolnshire countryside with her spouse and cat, and alongside her writing she continues to work as a psychologist and therapist. Her debut novel Little White Lies was long-listed for the Guardian’s “Not-The-Booker” prize and shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger. She has since published two further psychological suspense novels, Safe and Sound and I’ll Never Tell, and is currently working on her fourth. See more at: Amazon/Philippa East

What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on my fourth psychological suspense novel, currently titled The Hoax… It features a remote Scottish boarding school, a group of troubled teens, the untimely death of a therapist, and two ex-spouses thrown together to investigate. I’m coming towards the end of the first draft right now, which means the hard work of “making it good” starts soon!

What has inspired the novel you have most recently published?
My most recent novel, I’ll Never Tell, had lots of iterations before it fell into its ultimate shape! I think ultimately, it was a combination of two idea kernels. The first was of a couple arriving in a foreign country and having to confront their own marital crises in the process of searching for their missing daughter. I also was fascinated by the question of how a family might function with a child “star” at its centre. And then I thought: what if the child star was the one who had gone missing?

How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life?
As a crime/thriller writer, I definitely draw a lot of my story ideas from true crime TV shows and podcasts. I think I write to try and understand people and what makes them “tick”, so although I write fiction, I am definitely always trying to make sense of real life, and the people we encounter in it. Sadly, my novel Safe and Sound was inspired by the real-life story of Joyce Vincent, a charismatic, sociable woman in her thirties whose death went unnoticed for nearly three years. Since I wrote and published Safe and Sound, tragically there have been further similar stories in the news.

You are a working clinical psychologist, how does this help or hinder your writing?
I think mostly, it helps it. As therapists, we hear many, many narratives about people’s lives and struggles, and I think this has given me insight into some of the universal themes of the human condition: love, acceptance, belonging, self-esteem and truth. I think it also helps me understand how people generally “tick” – what affects us and how, what motivates or frightens us, and how we relate to other people.

For me, writing is a way to try and understand the world, other people, and myself. I think this drive originally led me into the field of psychology – and now story-telling has become my means to ask and explore those questions. Therapy is so much about empathising with other people – putting yourself in their shoes, with compassion. This is the way I try to relate to my characters too.

How would you describe your writing process?
Um… messy! (Despite being a very organised person generally in life.) I generally will spend a number of months exploring an idea and working it into a rough outline, before I start writing. These days, I steer clear of formal outlines (which tend to lead me down the wrong track) and I just make loose notes in a notebook to steer me along the right story track. I will then do a VERY messy first draft of about 80k words, writing about 2,000 words a day. I don’t edit as I go, and I write in a VERY undisciplined way. I will then usually spend another 2-3 months working through a number of further drafts to sort everything out before showing it to my editor. After which, I’m likely to go through at least another three drafts.

What helps you to write/what gets in the way?
Since becoming a professional author (wow, that’s weird to say!), I’ve learnt to keep a clear separation between my creative processes as a writer, and the business of publishing, promotion, etc. Too much focus on sales, reviews, the market, etc can really create a lot of instability and self-doubt which is fatal to creativity! On a more practical level, I treat writing as a job (which, um, it now is!), meaning I prioritise it and carve out time for it every week. Having author friends to chat to and share ideas with is also essential. As you’ll see from the dedication and acknowledgements for I’ll Never Tell, my fellow authors have been an invaluable source of support along the way.

What kind of research do you do & how do you go about it?
Mainly using Google! With the sorts of books I write, there isn’t usually too much research required, and most things I need to know I can find on the Internet. Occasionally, I will put a shout-out on Twitter for someone who knows about something more niche that I need help with. I generally focus on telling my story first, in the way that works for me, and do my fact-checking later, otherwise I think I would get too restricted by the facts and feel unable to keep the plot going. I have to give a shout-out here to my friend Stuart Gibbon, a retired Police Detective who has helped me hugely to get any police-procedural parts right in my books.

Do you have any crafting tips, eg to do with writing dialogue, for scene setting, plot or pacing?

There are five key craft elements that I would say all writers should aim to grasp, practise and master. These are:
# show vs tell
# point of view (POV)
# psychic distance
# the “five commandments of story telling” (the art of structure)
# story genre (NB: this is different to marketing / publishing genres!)

For the first three (and much more!), I recommend the various blogs that writer and tutor Emma Darwin has on her website here: https://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting

Regarding the last two, I highly recommend The Story Grid podcast series. Later episodes are highly technical, so I suggest you start here, and then work your way back and forward through all the early episodes: https://play.acast.com/s/thestorygridpodcast/shawn-rips-it-apart

For fun, I’ve also done some Twitter tutorial of genre and structure, all of which you can find here: https://twitter.com/philippa_east/status/1526255737508356101

You write crime novels which are stand alones. Have you ever thought about writing a series? What do you think are the pros/cons of writing stand alones rather than a series?
I tend to think of my books as standing “one step to the side of a crime”, rather than traditional crime novels. As a result, I’ve tended to write stand-alone books that often focus on interpersonal relationships and the emotional fall-out of extreme events as much as solving a mystery. For me, story-telling is about a character’s journey though challenge, conflict, “death” and “rebirth” (the classic “Hero’s Journey”). For me, the story naturally concludes once the protagonist has completed this cycle of growth. I can imagine that in some ways it is “easier” to write a series, in that you generally have your setting, characters, etc. ready and waiting for you at the start of each book. However, I think I’d feel too “hemmed in”, since I do like the flexibility of being able to explore brand-new characters, themes and set-ups each time – even if it means starting from scratch with each book!

Could you say something of your publishing journey and your experience?
I began writing ‘seriously’ about 12 years ago, with a terrible novel that I never finished or showed anyone, but which made me fall in love with writing. I then wrote short stories for many years, which was a great way to practise my craft and learn what it takes to get published. In 2015, I left my full-time NHS job to work part time as a private psychologist, and began another novel. After slogging through 12 drafts (yes, 12), an agent at the York Festival of Writing showed some interest. She read the full MS and then suggested I re-write the whole thing. The thing is, she was totally right. So I re-wrote it – cue another 12+ drafts! – and (thankfully!) the agent took me. This ultimately became Little White Lies, which subsequently sold at auction to HQ/HarperCollins. Somehow, I have since completed two further novels, and have a fourth in the pipeline!

The question you wished I’d asked you.
Oo, I’m not sure! I’ll take this opportunity to say do come and say hi to me on Twitter (@philippa_east), which is where I’m regularly hanging out. I love chatting to readers, writers and all book-ish people, so I’ll be happy to hear from you. Obviously you can keep updated on my book news there, and I also post about upcoming author events I am doing (online and in person), in case you’d ever like to join in on that. You’ll also get to know my cat Mimi who regularly appears in my posts!

Harrogate Crime Writing Festival 2022

Attending events – especially those where a certain amount of networking and putting myself out there is required – is not without its anxieties. Then Covid added its own peculiar menace to being around people. I have to admit, therefore, it was with some trepidation that I set off for Harrogate and Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival on Saturday.

Luckily this year the sessions were in a large airy marquee and eating and drinking could be done outdoors, which allayed some of the fears. And I was able to meet with a couple of authors who I already knew, so that also helped.

I enjoyed the sessions I attended. ‘Experts Chortling’ brought together some of my favourites: (Baroness) Sue Black and Carla Valentine with psychologist Emma Kavanagh. They were joined by former police detective Graham Bartlett. As well as being a wellspring of interesting information, they were all very funny too.

By the time I got to the book shop Sue Black’s books had sold out. I am not surprised. She manages to make the business of death and the dead fascinating and entertaining without ever losing respect for those who have died. Plus, if you are a newbie crime writer, along with Unnatural Causes by Dr Richard Shepherd, Black’s books, interviews and documentaries are gold dust.

During the panel, Emma Kavanagh said crime writers were too often drawn to featuring characters traumatised by their pasts. What is more remarkable in reality, Kavanagh suggests, are the number of people who fall apart after trauma, and then show resilience, recovery and growth. It got me wondering where this might fit into a crime story.

The other afternoon session I went to was a discussion of the ‘future of the police procedural’. The panel was: AA Dhand; Jane Casey; Parker Bilal and Adam Lebor. All were clear on the duty of the crime writer to tackle difficult issues in a responsible way. Casey suggested crime authors are the ‘Rapid reaction squad of the literary world’ developing stories around current debates quicker than other writers.

Lebor said (as I have done in the past) that there are far too many young women who end up dead in the crime fiction genre. His series is set in Hungary and has a detective from the gypsy community (apparently ‘gypsy’ is the term used by the peoples themselves in this country). It has plenty of scope for exploring the lives of refugees, as well as the prejudices against the Roma.

They all characterised their protagonists as ‘lone wolfs’, especially AA Dhand’s Harry Virdee who the author likened to a gothic comic book hero (not my taste at all and I realised why I had never taken to his books). With my Donna Morris mysteries, I have gone in the other direction. Donna is definitely not a maverick and she needs the team, just as they need her (though she struggles to properly comprehend this). The relationships between the police officers are something which has been praised by some readers. I hoping the future of the police procedural includes space for a team player.

After paying £4.35 for a cup of tea (yes!!) and spending more than I would care to mention on books, I wended my way home. A shout out to Northern and Transpennine Express whose staff were friendly and whose trains were on time, comfortable, clean and not too busy.

Have any of you some good memories of literary festivals you would like to share?

Workshop!

I am exceptionally pleased to be offering this workshop in February 2022 for NESTT. All details below.

Nourishing the Creative Self: Sustenance for the Journey

A creative writing for wellbeing workshop
Saturday, 12th February 2022. Arrive from 9.30 for 10am start.  Finish at 3pm Venue: NESTT CIC, Pocklington, East Riding of Yorkshire.
Covid arrangements:  This will be a small in-person workshop with 6 participants and 2 facilitators.  We intend to include a short walk.  If government regulations do not permit us to meet in-person, this workshop will move online.  On this occasion, we will not be offering a blended experience. 
Fee: £50
Tutor: Kate Evans
Booking through Lydia Noor lydiamnoor@icloud.com

For those of us who choose to take on a caring role either professionally or within a private capacity, there is often an emotional toll which we are sometimes not fully aware of. To be available for others, we need to develop a certain psychological robustness. We need to take care of ourselves. If we are shredded, then we are no use to our clients or those we support.

Exploring and nourishing our creative spirit can be part of our self care and creative writing for wellbeing one route into being more attentive to our needs and providing for them.

Through some gentle facilitated writing prompts, this workshop offers the opportunity to discover what creative writing for wellbeing might bring us. It is suitable for those who are new to this approach, as well as those who have some experience and want to go further. We all have a creative self, all it needs to flourish is time, space and permission. This workshop will offer ways of encouraging it to breathe. The focus of our time together will be on the process rather than the product, therefore, participants won’t be asked to share their work.

Nourishing the Creative Self: Sustenance for the Journey is a creative workshop organised by NESTT. It is aimed at therapists, those who work in the caring professionals and also those who have chosen to take on a caring role for a member of the family.

The tutor
Kate Evans is a writer. She trained as a psychotherapeutic counsellor. She has facilitated creative writing courses in academic settings, as well as within the community and for health professionals. She is a firm believer that creativity is good for our wellbeing. This belief stems from both her own personal experiences, in addition to her training and academic study.

She writes poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction. She has a MA in Creative Writing, Education and the Arts from Sussex University and she trained to be a psychotherapeutic counsellor at Scarborough Counselling & Psychotherapy Training Institute. She is involved in organising events within the spoken words community in Scarborough. Her non-fiction Pathways Through Writing Blocks in the Academic Environment was published in 2013. She is currently writing a crime series for Constable/Little Brown. The first novel, A Wake of Crows, came out in June 2021

The Writing Process: Turning Up

I am not the first person to say that one of the most essential things for becoming/being a writer is to turn up. Of course, there are other factors like: reading; cultivating the creative process; finding support; getting feedback. But in the end, unless we are there with pen in hand or fingertip to keyboard, we won’t be writing. It is not something which can be done in theory.

In general, I would suggest what gets in the way of ‘turning up’ can be separated into two categories:

(1) External pressures.
(2) Internal scripts.

I have been lucky not to fall prey to (1) too often. When I did paid work full-time, I wrote in the evening and at the weekend. I have (selfishly, some might say) never felt responsible for feeding/clothing/entertaining another nor for cleaning the house/tidying the garden. I have never had to negotiate a ‘room of my own’ and time and space to write. However, if you want to write, then this negotiation – with self or others – has to take place.

On the other hand, my internal scripts can pull me up short. They are often along the lines of ‘I am not good enough’ and ‘this is a waste of time’. Ten years of therapy has helped and the support of writing friends. Plus writing around these internal scripts, playing with them, having a dialogue with them can also be beneficial. I would be amazed if there was a writer alive who did not have to wrestle with some internal scripts, so acceptance that it is part of the process can also be useful.

Stepping Away
As well as turning up, I have found stepping away valuable. My creative process works best with bursts of writing (60 to 90 minutes) followed by some kind of exercise. I walk, swim (pool or sea), do yoga or cycle. And then come back to the writing with renewed vigour and fresh ideas.

I think, perhaps, some writers find themselves blocked because they haven’t worked out when they need to step away. However, it is also important to recognise when the ‘stepping away’ is an avoidance or a distraction rather than a refuelling. The clue will be that you are not getting any writing done at all.

What is it about movement and the creative process? Over centuries, a division has occurred between what has been designated ‘the mind’ and ‘the body’. This wrong step is slowly being re-examined with research around holistic medical approaches, and around thoughts/feelings originating in the body to be interpreted by the mind.

It becomes complex exploring this without falling into the dualistic trap. But basically, we are one organism. When we are writing, it might feel as if the creativity is coming from our head and our body is merely the mechanism by which the words reach paper or screen. However, I (and others) do not believe this to be true.

Our head and body work as one system – complementing and informing each other. The creativity swishes around like blood circulating. If we become too static, sat at a desk or scrunched in a chair, only our hands shifting, then the dissemination gets blocked. It is only in getting up and moving that we can release it again.

Creative Process
We all have our own creative rhythms. Be sensitive to them. Notice them. Encourage them. Working out what they might be and working with them will aid us to be the writer we want to be.

Sea Swimming by Kate Evans (mix media/collage: acrylics; felt tip; paper) November 2021

The Art of Remembering

On Saturday the 16th of October, I will be appearing on a panel at the East Riding Festival of Words – East Coast Crime (festivalofwords.co.uk). My first public outing with my novel A Wake of Crows, published by Constable/Little Brown.

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.

Of Gardens and Witches

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’ Illustration from Of Witches and Gardens by Hannah Green

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.

Strange Meeting

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.

https://bigideasbythesea.com/festival/index.php/wilfredowen

Art installation at Scarborough railway station by Kane Cunningham, Ben Cunningham & Dr Paul Elsam.
Window based on the poem, The Calls. Photo by Mark Vesey. July 2021.

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.

Photo by Kate Evans, July 2021

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:

https://bigideasbythesea.com/festival/index.php/wilfredowen/

If you love reading or writing poetry or stories, I can guarantee you will find them fascinating.

Guest Author: Prea G Kaur

I was lucky enough to come across one of Prea’s poems in Mslexia (For women who write, Mslexia is a national magazine of women’s writing.) and was even happier when she agreed to appear on my blog. Below is her poem, followed by her thoughts on the writing of it. A short biog and links come at the end of the post.

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

Dancer at Cranford Community School International Women’s Day celebrations 1993. Photo by Kate Evans

Reflections on writing the poem by Prea G Kaur

Prea G Kaur June 2021

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.

Links:
Instagram https://www.instagram.com/preakaur/
Hencroft https://www.hencrofthub.com/


Guest Author: Isabelle Baafi

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 by Kate Evans
isabelle_baafi[23224]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.

Pamphlet: Ripe (ignitionpress, 2020)
Twitter: twitter.com/IsabelleBaafi
Website: isabellebaafi.com

Guest Author: Anne Goodwin & free e-book

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:

https://www.subscribepage.com/sugar-and-snails-free-e-book

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.

AG at jesmond

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.