Tag Archives: writer

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/


A Writer’s Life: Publication Day

When I was nineteen, I completed writing my first novel (on a typewriter – not even an electric one). As I started to send it out to agents, I knew exactly what my book launch would be like. It would be in a crowded bookstore. I would confidently do my reading before answering questions and signing the many books I was going to sell.

As time passed, I had some pieces published and writing sometimes came into my work, however, I did not secure the dreamed-of contract for my novels which I was searching for. I can’t say publication became less important, it is just that the writing became more important. Through the years, writing has developed into a passion; a support; a way to understand myself and the world better; and a friend.

Scroll forwards thirty-seven years, and I finally have a contract with a traditional publisher, Constable/Little Brown, to write three crime novels based in Scarborough. The first, A Wake of Crows, was published on the 3rd of June 2021. And the question I kept being asked was, what about a launch?

My editor explained that the main promotion would be done around the paperback coming out next year. Plus, well, we live in a Covid-world, so the idea of organising anything seems complex. Yet, I did not want this landmark in what I could loosely call my writing career pass without celebration. So I positioned myself in one of Scarborough’s many green spaces (one which helpfully has a refreshments van that serves vegan hot chocolate) and invited friends to pass by if they could. Some did and many others sent lovely supportive messages. It was very special.

There is a mix of emotions with any ‘birth’ of a creative piece. I remain excited and proud. Though I have not been able to actually open my book (in case my eye falls on a sentence I could have written better) I enjoy holding it, feeling the weight of it and admiring the cover.

The other week I spent several days camping by Coniston Water.

I visited the Ruskin Museum (a treasure trove of stories for any writer): Ruskin Museum – Telling the Story of Coniston Since 1901 It has a section on Donald Campbell. He appears to have been a driven man (no pun intended). Once he achieved one speed record, he was onto the next (even though he had no rivals snapping at his heels). I did wonder if publication by a traditional publisher would somehow be ‘not enough’ after all these years of pushing for it. The good news is that I feel content at reaching this particular milestone. I may not have had the launch I envisaged in my teens – all red carpet (tiaras optional) – but it has very much lived up to, and survived, my expectations.

A Wake of Crows is available as an ebook, as an audiobook and as a hardback from all the usual outlets (online or terrestrial). The paperback will be out in 2022. As will the second in the series, currently entitled Drowning Not Waving.

Writer’s toolkit: editing

This last weekend, here in this small corner of the North Yorkshire coast we were experiencing wintery snow flurries and spring sunshine. Occasionally at the same time. As the plants and trees begin to unfurl, so we are stretching out of the most recent Covid pandemic lockdown. I greet this with a mix of excitement and anxiety. If I can remember back to the me of thirteen months ago, I think I pretty much knew and could accept the uncertainties and concerns I lived with. Now there is a skip-load more to contend with. But there is no doubt I want to take off, be with people, see new places. As with the weather, it is a duality I imagine many are experiencing.

Meanwhile, I am getting closer to the publication of my first novel for Constable/Little Brown, A Wake of Crows, due out on the 3rd of June. Once again there is eagerness mixed with nerves.

Quoted in the Daily Record, author of Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh, talked about when he has a new book coming out and ‘That horrible fear of social embarrassment that my mum’s going to read it, my friends are going to read it, my girlfriend’s going to read it. I think you have to have that sense that you’re going to be humiliated and dragged through the streets on stocks with rotten tomatoes being thrown at me. If you don’t have that it’s not going to work. You have to be incredibly uncomfortable and feel you’re going to die of social embarrassment when you put a book out otherwise it’s not going to work.’ (Online article 11th April 2021.)

It’s not entirely clear what the ‘it’ is in ‘it’s not going to work’. However, I have taken the meaning to be that unless you feel uncomfortable about your work going out there, you have not pushed it to the edge, you have not taken risks, you are not revealing something important about yourself or society (or both). I am, therefore, welcoming in the trepidation. I am sticking my head up like the crocuses and daffodils and, I guess, there is the possibility of being trampled on.

However, one of the things which is keeping me giddy is that this bookshop: Home | Goldsboro Books has asked for 50 signed copies!

Meanwhile, I am also editing my second novel in the DC Donna Morris series, Drowning Not Waving. All writers are different. I love the blank page and the first draft when it feels like anything goes. I know others dread it. I find the next stage of re-drafting and editing more difficult, whereas others relish it. For me, what makes it troublesome is that the reader comes into the picture.

Editing a piece of work is another step in the creative process and here are some interesting pointers: How to edit a novel – working on the big picture … – Curtis Brown Creative

However, some of Anna Davis’s advice does not entirely fit with me. It might be semantics, but it feels more like the drafting rather than the editing stage. I am quite happy to work non-sequentially in the drafting process, but when it comes to this editing stage, the main thing I need to know is that it works sequentially. It is in the drafting process that I am experimental and trying things out. Once I am editing, it is about the totality, it is about the audience.

writer at work june 15 001

Here is what I do. I put away what I have written for at least two weeks. I then attempt to come back to it with new eyes, with a reader’s eyes. I re-read the work (printed out) over several days. It has to be slowly enough for me to really pay attention. It has to be quickly enough for me to keep the whole narrative clearly in mind. I am making sure that it makes sense, of course, that the shape succeeds in terms of it sustaining pace and suspense. I know what my weaknesses in writing are, and I keep a check-list of them to ensure I am always alert to them. I am also reminding myself (as per my previous blog post on dialogue: Writer’s toolkit: dialogue | Scarborough Mysteries) I will want to read my novel out loud at some point.

Though I can read fiction while writing the first draft, at this point, I have to keep to non-fiction or I get too confused.

Drowning Not Waving has quite a history. First devised for a course I took with Curtis Brown 2016-2017, I got it to a point where I was able to send it to agents and publishers. When Constable/Little Brown took it on, we agreed I would introduce my DC Donna Morris character with a different story, A Wake of Crows. Drowning Not Waving would become the second in the series. This has already meant substantial re-writing, including changing both point-of-view characters, even to get it to this stage.

I am now at the point when I need some reaction to what I am writing. I could spend a lot of time re-writing and editing without actually being certain whether what I am creating is communicating at all. There’s a ‘golden’ moment for garnering critiques. It has to be far enough along for your embryonic notions to be sufficiently robust to stand up to what others might say; but not too far into the writing that you have invested too much to change anything. Once I am through this re-read and re-write, I will send it to my editor and her assistant for comments. Whatever we are writing, feedback from trusted others, is a crucial part of the creative process.

Guest Author: Belinda Rimmer

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.

This work was originally published in Mslexia Magazine. www.mslexia.co.uk

Dog by Kate Evans, inspired by Dog by Belinda Rimmer, January 2020

Belinda Rimmer speaks about her writing process

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.

‘Dog’

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.

Publications.

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

A Writing Life: Solstice Reflections

Sunrise swim. Photo by Rachel Welford

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

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

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

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

Collage by Kate Evans 2020

An invitation

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

Thank you

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

Gateway, Brant Fell, July 2020

Poetry Bites #10: Rehearsing for this

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

Felix Hodcroft reading his own poem: Bosphorus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry Bites #9: Your Story Ended

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

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

Cover design by Tess Willoughby:

https://www.tesswilloughby.com/

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry Bites #8: Ekphrastic Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

Is it us or the cloth which is sorrowing?

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

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

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

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

Poetry Bites #7: Locating the Full-Stop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Musings #1: Pantser or Planner

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

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

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

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

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

What are you, pantser or planner?

Collage postcard by Kate Evans, Summer 2020

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

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

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

Have you any digital recommendations?