by heart

Poetry Aloud

This week I’ve been hearing as well as reading poetry. I was one of the judges of the Poetry by Heart competition at St Augustine’s Catholic College, Trowbridge, a local secondary school. Poetry by Heart is a national competition in which school pupils aged 14 – 18 learn and recite poems by heart. Schools hold an internal competition, in order to select a pupil to enter the county contest, from where winners go forward to regional contests and, lastly, there is a grand final competition in March at Homerton College, Cambridge.
by heart
Here’s a lovely blogpost with pictures from St Augustine’s. I really liked the way the school made an event of their own competition and encouraged a large number of young people to participate in poetry, both as performers and as an attentive audience. Judging was a tough but thoroughly enjoyable experience and I was very pleased to be asked.

After spending several hours in the company of vibrant, talented and interesting teenagers, it was all the more shocking and unsettling to read an excerpt from a recent poem by Danez Smith, summer, somewhere, published in January’s Poetry magazine, available to read and listen to here and also featured in the January podcast available here.
poetry mag
summer, somewhere is Smith’s response to the police killings of young black men and boys in America, the regularity of which, in part, has been brought to the world’s attention because of media coverage of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting of Michael Brown. Smith’s poem is powerfully moving. His technique is wonderful. He has such a light touch. I think it’s Don Share, on the Poetry podcast, who draws attention to the poem’s playful rhythm and language which, for me, emphasised the youth of those murdered.
danez smith
Smith’s poem imagines the boys somehow reborn by death, in a place where being black no longer holds the same dangers and concerns that it does in modern-day America.

…… please, don’t call
us dead, call us alive some place better.

They boys are free to wander, to buy sweets, and to be safe. It’s all the more devastating to know how unreal the paradise is, given how often we hear of yet another young black person shot dead.

paradise is a world where everything
is a sanctuary & nothing is a gun.

The only way to be in paradise, for these boys, is to be dead.

do you know what it’s like to live
someplace that loves you back?

The poem is a masterclass for anyone wanting to write a political poem without preaching or resorting to a rant. Its innovation and grace are gentle and compelling: a must-read for anyone concerned with issues to do with race.

Danez Smith also featured in Robert Peake’s reading series Transatlantic Poetry and you can hear and see him reading here.

I’m a recent fan of podcasts, by the way, having been given a portable blue-tooth speaker for Christmas. I was able to listen to Poetry magazine’s podcast while I was cooking dinner. I’m also thrilled that I’ve discovered a shop in Bath – Magalleria – which stocks Poetry magazine and many other poetry periodicals. I’ll write more about it in a separate post.

book for header May 2015

‘The Misplaced House’ reviewed at HuffPost Books

I am thrilled that Robert Peake has taken the time to review my pamphlet The Misplaced House at The Huffington Post, alongside pamphlets by Victoria Kennefick and Rosie Miles.

Robert introduces the three pamphlets as follows:

Poetry bears both the opportunity and responsibility to take on taboo subjects like life, love, death, and politics without descending into the sound-bite conclusions of a social media status post. Yet some of its most hard-won insights can get buried under the modern avalanche of content. Here, dug out from the snow, are three slim volumes of poetry taking on big themes in new and striking ways

I’m really grateful to Robert for digging The Misplaced House out of the snow. He goes on to say that the collection

ripples outward in concentric circles of widening imaginative fascination.

and concludes

Finally, the collection touches on the widest circle, politics, in two poems that know exactly what they are doing by pretending to misunderstand.

Read the full review here. And thank you, again, to Robert for a fully-engaged, elegantly-written and sensitive review. The Misplaced House is available to buy here. Further reviews here.

misty canal picture challenge

On writing/not writing about illness and death

I’ve been thinking about illness and the realm of public vs private recently. The deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman came as a shock to me because both men had chosen not to reveal to the general public that they had been living with cancer. There was no public announcement about their illnesses until after they’d died and this struck me as unusual – I suppose, in part, because for the last twenty years or so there’s been an increase in the number of people publishing literary and journalism accounts of their illnesses.

Alan Rickman

As has now come to light, Dark Star, Bowie’s final album, (although there are suggestions that the artist planned for further creative pieces to be released posthumously) was the artist’s creative response to dying and death, made available to the general public through its release on his 69th birthday, two days before he died. Bowie’s approach brings to my mind a painter with an illness, creating self-portraits as disease progresses. Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long-time producer, said that the artist had made his death a work of art and that Black Star was Bowie’s parting gift. I agree that such works of art are a gift to those of us wanting to contemplate and better understand dying and death.

Bowie

I was very moved by this letter, generously shared by David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, sent to him by a palliative care doctor which spoke about how the artist’s story had already

..become a way for us to communicate very openly about death, something many doctors and nurses struggle to introduce as a topic of conversation.”

The letter brought home to me the munificence of people who make widely available their experiences of illnesses, terminal or otherwise, whether as a creative piece or as a factual account, or a combination of the two.

Of course, it has to be a personal choice and I am not for one moment suggesting that it is any way anyone’s duty to share their personal experiences about anything. But I noticed a few comments, sprinkled around social media in the days following the announcements of the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, that there was something noble or dignified about the artists not revealing that they had cancer and that saddened me. I interpreted those comments as being quite judgmental and I really hope they won’t prevent anyone from talking/writing/making a creative piece about their own experience.

NoraWebsterWeb

I’d like to mention that I am very much a beneficiary of artists, writers and bloggers who share their personal stories of illness and death. In recent weeks I’ve been reading Colm Tóibín’s novel Nora Webster about the life of a widow in Ireland in the 1960s in the three years following her husband’s death, and two collections by John Glenday, Grain and The Golden Mean, which have frequently given light to my contemplations of love and bereavement.

Like many people I’ve experienced death and illness in my life and, even though I am in a secure and loving relationship and have many close family and friends, I sometimes find deep comfort in the stillnesses and silences offered by literature, music and art. It’s hard to explain but this comfort does seem different and further reaching than human companionship.

On a more practical note, factual accounts of illnesses can also be hugely helpful to many people. As I’ve mentioned before, Andrew, my husband, has been diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer. I’m not going into Andrew’s personal details here but, inevitably, there have been various procedures, tests and biopsies which Andrew has been undergoing in the last few months. We’re both grateful to people who’ve shared their stories online so that we’ve been able to read and compare symptoms, outcomes and concerns.

Over time, I hope I’ll find a way to write more about my personal experiences but, for now, I’m just leaving this post here as a thank you note to those of you who have, perhaps unknowingly, alleviated other people’s fear and pain.

love

The Lexicon of Love

The Lexicon of Love was the debut album by the British new wave band ABC, released in 1982, and I’ve pinched the title for this blog post. I’ve been tempted by the Weekly Photo Challenge again which, this week, is ‘Alphabet’.

I’ve chosen this title because ABC has reminded me of my first wedding anniversary, when a traditional gift is one of paper. Andrew gave me this set of dictionaries which is absolutely one of the best, most useful gifts I’ve ever received.

dictionaries

I guess there are many ways of defining love, and a dictionary is a good a place to start as any. It worked for me!

dictionaries 2

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I never met him but I felt he sang to me

Andrew left for work early this morning and I fell back to sleep listening to the radio. I woke up again at about 7am to the sound of Radio 4 playing David Bowie interviews and songs and talking about him in the past tense. What? He released his new album Black Star on Friday, his 69th birthday, and I’d listened to it in my kitchen, on my new blue-tooth speaker. Then I heard the announcement that he’d died and I came downstairs and made another cup of tea. It all seemed so strange and Bowie-like: to release a new creative work on your 69th birthday and then to die. It was if he’d re-invented dying. Then I checked Twitter and saw the tributes coming in. Words and phrases were on a time loop: ‘legend’ ‘hero’ ‘so sad’ ‘I’m crying’ ‘I’m devastated’ ‘what a loss’.

I said to my daughter, Kitty, who’s 16, ‘I’m sad but I’m not going to cry.’ We talked about dying. How it happens to everyone, in the end. How I find it sad when the end comes too soon, when it comes suddenly, when life is taken away before a person can make themselves ready. But Bowie had known he was dying, apparently, and he’d started work on Black Star as soon as he’d heard he had cancer. And he’d released the album to critical acclaim on his 69th birthday.

When Kitty switched the kitchen radio from Radio 4 to a music station and they were playing Bowie, I found myself crying. But I’d said I wasn’t going to cry! Then Kitty’s friends, Flo and Imogen, came round to our house as they do most school mornings. Bowie was still playing. Kitty asked if I had a tissue for Flo because she was also crying.

And all day the social media tributes came, the articles, the quotes, the snippets of interviews, the images, the anecdotes. I put Hunky Dory on Spotify and I cried again. I know all the words, as I seem to know the words to so many Bowie songs. I danced and cried and laughed.

hunky dory

Hunky Dory was the first David Bowie album I owned. It was released in 1971 but I remember listening to it, over and over and over again in 1974 when I was 12 years old. So when I heard it again today, I connected with my 12 year old self again, was in the house I lived in then, was with the same friends, was wearing the same clothes. That’s the thing about music, isn’t it, more than any other art form, it’s so evocative, so emotionally immediate.

My tears keep taking me by surprise. What was it about Bowie? As others have been saying all day, he was creative, he endlessly re-invented himself, he broke rules, he was innovative, he was dedicated to his art, he was hardworking, he was consistently interesting. He was quirky but also mainstream. He crossed genres. He sang us stories and ideas and personas. We gave us access to his inventions. How wonderful to have listened to his stream of creativity as a young teenager. He dared me to dream, to imagine, to make. He gave me permission to be playful, to be different, to try different ideas, to be open-minded. I don’t think I’ll ever stop listening.

Here’s a link to lots of programmes about Bowie from BBC radio.

Cheltenham.8

My writer’s diary this week

I was lucky enough to read at Buzzwords in Cheltenham last Sunday night. Cheltenham is about an hour and twenty minutes away by car and Andrew, my husband, kindly offered to drive. It might sound strange, but sometimes car journeys are the only times we spend quality time together these days. Andrew tends to work away during the week and weekends are often pretty busy. Anyway, it’s great that he doesn’t mind driving.

He ended up staying for my reading and the open-mic, driven to poetry by a rather loud pub quiz taking place in the main part of the pub. Because of work commitments and because we don’t like to leave our two teenagers alone too long, it was the first time he’d heard me read from my pamphlet, The Misplaced House even though it was published over a year ago. I’m pleased to say that he really enjoyed the evening! It was great to talk about the poetry on the way home in the car, and hear Andrew’s feedback on some of my newer poems. It was really interesting to hear his thoughts about the open-mic poems we heard, too, and to compare which ones we remembered and liked. It’s always useful to do this and just confirms to me how arbitrary opinions are. It puts the logic of submissions, acceptances and rejections, into perspective.

Buzzwords is a terrific reading series, I really recommend it if you ever have a chance to go. It’s beautifully managed and compèred by Angela France and it’s held in a spacious room above the Exmouth Arms pub (which was hospitable and very comfortable). I was made to feel so welcome by a very friendly crowd.

I led a workshop for the first hour then there were about 30 minutes of open-mic poems, a 20 minute slot for me, a break to buy drinks and books (really pleased that I sold ten pamphlets), then another open-mic session followed by a final 20 minute reading by me to close the evening.

Me reading at Buzzwords Jan 2016

The standard of poems at the open-mic is high which is hardly surprising considering Alison Brackenbury, Cliff Yates, David Cooke, Lesley Ingram, Rosie Jackson, Dawn Gorman (and many others I’ve probably forgotten to mention) are regular members of the monthly series. An absolute pleasure to be among such wonderful listeners, too.

In other news, I’ve had a poem taken by New Walk which should be out around April, so that’s two print publications forthcoming in 2016 (Poetry Wales has taken two poems, as well). Really pleased about this, after a not brilliant year last year. I think I’m even more pleased that my rejections bother me less. I still get down but I seem to be recovering more quickly. Progress!

My diary has also been filled with reading through poems submitted to And Other Poems during a brief open window last year. The standard is even higher than usual which is fantastic but it means that I’m having to turn down some poems because there isn’t space (I publish two poets a week). I’m trying to forge ahead with reading the submissions but find I need to stop after about five poets (to be fair to every poem) so, please bear with me if you’re waiting to hear from me.

Poetry collections I’ve been reading over the last few weeks include Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade, Rebecca Perry’s Beauty/Beauty, John Glenday’s Grain and The Golden Mean and One Cloud Away from the Sky and nowhere else but here by Andrew Rudd. What pleases me most is the range of styles and subject matter in each book. I’m trying to find my way in to write some new poems and each poet is offering me options and ideas.

books I'm reading this week

Wishing you all a productive, cheerful, peaceful week, whatever you’re up to!

clutter

Does it really matter what your blog looks like?

I know, I know, another delaying/procrastination activity, but the truth is I seem to constantly want to change the look of this site. I don’t if it’s because I spend a lot of time (too much time, probably) staring at it but I often have a feeling of dissatisfaction, a feeling that it isn’t quite right. I’d like a simple, plain, uncluttered look, with lots of white space. I’d like readers to be able to find their way easily around the site. I’ve tried various WordPress themes including Origin which, in retrospect, was probably the best theme I had and should have stuck with. I might go back to using it. One disadvantage of Origin is it doesn’t have an automatic ‘Home’ button. I know that you’ll tell me I can add a Custom Menu to solve that issue but I haven’t been able to work out how to do that yet. I don’t know how important a ‘Home’ button is – personally, when I’m reading a site, I like to be able to press that to return to the Home page. I don’t pay for Premium, I only use free WordPress themes which I really like, but I do pay for the site to be ad-free.

Before I take the plunge and change themes again, please tell me what you think. How important is site-design to you? I must admit that if a site is too cluttered, I’m not keen to hang around too long. I really hate adverts jumping out at me, that’s a sure fire way to chase me away from the site. I don’t like white writing on a dark background, either, I find that too difficult to read. There’s been a big trend at WordPress to increase the size of the fonts and the overall size of the blog to improve readability on mobile devices but I’m beginning to hanker after the smaller-scale blogs of yore, hence my nostalgia for the Origin theme and others like it.

I know that what I write, the all-important *content* – is what really matters but I want to get the look spot-on, too. Whatever I decide, I’m determined to stick with my decision for the rest of the year, and to stop playing around with themes. Anyway, if you’re not too busy, do throw your two cents in (actually, all currencies are accepted here). Also, feel free to tell me to get back to work. Thanks!

Big clock

On blogging regularly

Judging by a few comments I’ve read recently, It seems that New Year is a time when people decide to start a new blog or make a decision to blog more regularly.  For the last two years, I’ve been trying to write in this blog at least once a week although I haven’t always succeeded.

In 2016 I’m aiming to be a weekly blogger again although my focus this year is going to be on writing poetry.  I’d like to complete a full collection to follow on from my pamphlet (published by tall-lighthouse in November 2014).  There are other writing projects I’m interested in and have already started but I’m not ready to talk about those yet.  In any case, it’s the blogging side of things I’d like to zoom in on.  I see this blog as a journal or diary, a semi-public space where I write about what I’m up to and include some of my ideas and plans, even the odd dream or two and the occasional moan.  It’s a confessional space, in some ways, but I don’t think it’s excessively revealing (you might disagree).

I think I’ll continue to blog like this and perhaps talk about my life in general, not just the aspects of it that relate to writing.  Everything feeds into writing, after all.  I like to hear about my readers lives, too, (that’s you!) and it’s good to hear when something I’ve written resonates with you, for whatever reason.

I try not to spend too long writing each post but some take longer than others.  If I sketch out ideas in my notebook , I’m able to write the post quite quickly, once I sit down at my computer.  If I find myself taking a long time – several hours – to write a post, I question what I’m doing.  I don’t want blogging to be the main focus of my writing but one aspect of it.  I have got quicker at post-writing since I first started, however.

With all this in mind, I was impressed with the blogging habits of writer Alec Nevala-Lee who was featured at Discover recently.  Alec has been posting twice a day for five years!  He posts a quote of the day, which offers thoughts on different aspects of the creative process,  and a ‘regular’ post which, true to the blog’s tagline, encompasses  “Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.”

While I have no intention of blogging as frequently as Alec, I’ve taken note of his technique for completing each post in about one hour.  He does this by keeping his posts fairly short and adhering to the same pattern:

If you look at my posts, you’ll see that the vast majority follow the same basic structure, which evolved naturally over the first year or so of the blog’s existence: an image, two paragraphs, another image, and two more paragraphs, all roughly the same length. It’s flexible enough to accommodate any subject I feel like discussing; it’s concise enough to be written, revised, and published in about an hour; and it means that I don’t need to spend a lot of time worrying about how a post will look or how I’ll know when I’m done. It frees me to concentrate on the writing itself, and I don’t think I’d be nearly as productive without these few practical constraints.

I think this structure also shows consideration for readers.  The layout of each article at Alec’s blog makes reading an enjoyable experience.  I might have a go at structuring my next post in this way and begin to approach blogging  in a less haphazard manner.  Anyway, maybe some food for thought here for your own blogging practice.  Maybe you are already a far less cluttered and more streamlined blogger than I am.  Feel free to spill your thoughts!

Another year has come full circle

Of course there are a million and one other things I should be getting on with but I haven’t had a go at one of the weekly photo challenges in ages and I just felt like doing this week’s challenge which is ‘Circle’.

Calendars 2015 and 2016As I was replacing our family wall planner earlier today, I glanced at last January and had that familiar “gosh, was that really one whole year ago” feeling.  Here we go again. But not in a weary way, more in a “thank goodness we’re still here to do it all again,” kind of way.  2015 wasn’t the easiest of years to live through.

Plenty of circular baubles onbauble our Christmas tree.  This was the first tree I had nothing to do with the buying or decorating of (husband paid, teenage children decorated). So a three kingstradition that comes around every year that is the same, but different…. as is the tradition of putting up our Nativity set during Advent. It’s only a plastic set which the children used to love to play with when they were little (I remember my son adding a Lego Ninja character one year….).  It seems quite babyish now but we can’t bear to part with it (at least, I can’t).  The gifts the Kings are carrying are rather circular, aren’t they?

There’s a new, BIG circle in our kitchen.  Something I’ve Big clockfelt we’ve needed above our breakfast table for a long time.  “But I’d like to approve the purchase,” I warned everyone when I added a clock to my wish list. No need, my daughter chose the clock and I love it.  No excuse for anyone being late now, she doesn’t do things by halves, my daughter!

I’m looking forward to seeing how others have interpreted this challenge.