My poem for Jeremy Corbyn

I have a poem in a free anthology ‘Poets for Corbyn’ available for download here.  My thanks to editor Russell Bennetts from Berfois.

Poets for Corbyn

My poem ‘Coat’ is after the poem ‘Table’ by Turkish poet Edip Cansever, translated by Julia Clare Tillinghast and Richard Tillinghast,  which I first read in the wonderful Bloodaxe anthology Being Human.  You might like to read this blog article by Anthony Wilson which includes the original poem. Some thoughts about the anthology by Joe Linker here and Harry Giles has written about it at Prospect Magazine.
28th August – Post Update: The ‘Poets for Corbyn’ e-book has been downloaded over 5,000 times in its first week. Articles about this from The Bookseller and The Guardian.
after Edip Cansever
A woman filled with the gladness of living
refused to be suspicious of hope.
She was weary with the gloom of her coat
and she emptied its pockets of cynicism.
She took out timidity.
She took out pessimism.
She took out scaremongering
and put in honesty.
She took out the fear of being misinterpreted
and put in the gift of saying what she believed in.
She took out the analysis of opinion polls
and put in compassion.
On the street, other people admired her coat.
“That’s what I call a coat!” they said and helped her to fill its pockets.
The giving up of seats on buses they put there,
the opening of doors and impossible jars,
the carrying of baby buggies up flights of stairs.
They put compliments into the pockets,
they put in favours, encouragement,
patience, tolerance and understanding.
The sharing of belongings they put there
and the sharing of ideas. The lending of things:
clothes, make-up, books, tea, coffee, milk, sugar
– so much lending! And no guarantees of repayment!
Deep inside the coat,
the woman held on to the goodness of people.
Winter was coming and the coat was keeping her warm.
The woman kept piling things into the pockets.

The Day before GCSE Results Day

Twenty-four hours before my oldest child receives her GCSE results, it’s hard not to relive the day the game was up for me.   One thing I’ve learned about being a parent is that  it’s impossible not to revisit my own past as my children grow older.

Results Day

Until my ‘O’ Level (as these exams were called in my day) results arrived, to the outside world, I was a quiet, mousey, serious teenager, probably destined for ‘A’ Levels, university and a professional career. In class, my creative writing was read out to other students as an example of excellence. One of my English teachers once triple-underlined the opening sentence of one of my short stories and said “My God, that’s good.”

In class discussions about politics, current affairs and religion, I could be relied upon to have an opinion, to put across the underdog’s point of view and argue for social justice. I watched news programmes and Party Political Broadcasts and harboured the thought of a career in that realm, or in journalism. As well as this, I might be a writer, I thought.

My teachers, generally, knew my grades and, undoubtedly, knew that I wasn’t destined for academic success but that never stopped me from dreaming and planning my adult life. Among friends, I shared my ambitions and dreams, knowing that I wasn’t on target to receive high exam results but believing that my passion and strong beliefs would see me through. Somehow.

Everything changed when the envelope containing my exam results landed on my doormat. The results were no worse than I’d expected. I’d passed in five subjects and I’d failed Maths. I felt like the same person: a sixteen year old girl who liked reading and writing, going to the cinema, watching television, talking about current affairs. What changed was how other people interacted with me.

Rather than ask which book I was reading, which film I liked, what I thought about a TV programme, my friends asked about my grades. Meeting new people, going for a Saturday job, talking to new teachers in the Sixth Form, the question was the same. “How many subjects? What were your grades?” When I told them my results, it seemed to me that people were making judgements and assessments about me, about what I was capable of. Was I imagining it or were people speaking to me as if I was a bit stupid?

People who’d previously sought me out in a discussion now seemed to look away while I was speaking. Was it my imagination or were they no longer interested in what I thought about anything?

I made it into the Sixth Form and started studying for ‘A’ Levels in English Literature, History and Religious Studies. I found the work difficult and I began to wonder if I was making a mistake. What if I spent two years studying and ended up failing them all? Clearly, I wasn’t good at passing exams, in fact I wasn’t clever at all. Wouldn’t it be better to leave school and look for a job?

There were other complications in my life, which I won’t go into now, but after two terms in the Sixth Form, full of self-doubt, with no confidence and low self-esteem, I did, indeed, leave school and start work. And, actually, it wasn’t a complete disaster at all, in fact I had some incredibly exciting and joyful times and made many new friends and achieved all sorts of successes to do with making a living and creating a home for myself.  And I quietly continued to educate myself by acquiring skills, continuing to read, learning languages and engaging with cultural pursuits.

But it wasn’t until I was 30, and finally a student at university, that I re-connected with my sixteen year old, pre-Results Day self and re-ignited my passion for reading and writing. It took me fourteen years to remember what was really important to me. I haven’t had a glittering career but I did enjoy some of the happiest days of my life at uni, not least because I met a wonderful friend who became my husband.  And I’m not a journalist but I do enjoy a bit of blogging and I’m not a politician but I do try to add politics to my poetry from time to time – two subdued interests given a second chance.

But back to Results Day and its associated memories looming large again.  My only wish for my daughter, and for anyone waiting for their results, is that they hold on to who they are and to what’s important to them. Don’t allow what’s written inside a sealed envelope change any of that.  This is what I would have said to my sixteen year old self.   And another thing: it’s likely that some people did react to me differently once they knew my exam results but it’s equally likely that there were plenty of people who didn’t judge me and who treated me the same.  I wish now that I’d sought those people out, that I’d brushed off other people’s prejudice and stayed true to myself and to what I wanted to do.

For now, though, I’m off to do some baking.  Regardless of what the results are, we’re eating cake tomorrow.


Postcard from Camhina and Porto, Portugal

Here are a few photos from our holiday in Portugal a short while ago. I’d really recommend the house we rented and the general area. We flew from Bristol to Porto, rented a car at the airport and drove about 45 minutes north, to Camhina. The house was lovely – spacious, comfortable and well-equipped, and near to lots of beautiful, white-sand beaches. I wrote a review on TripAdvisor which you can read here.

All four of us went: me, husband Andrew, and our two teenagers (14 and 16) and, I must admit, we were expecting the house to have Wifi – which it doesn’t. But this turned out to be an absolute bonus! It’s made me plan new strategies for spending less time on the internet – I hope to return to this subject in a future post. Talking to each other, reading, playing cards and charades all took the place of web browsing.

Plus there was a pool and tennis court at the house (shared with six other houses) so I was able to step up my exercise quota. The nearby town of Camhina has a plentiful supply of cafes and restaurants with free Wi-Fi anyway, so our holiday wasn’t completely bereft of the interwebs.

There was a lot of sharing and swapping of books including Kitty’s copy of Wuthering Heights (handy to take an Eng Lit ‘A’ Level student with you on holiday!)

Porto itself is a truly stunning city and justifiably a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Easing myself back into the blogging business so expect a few new posts soon!

‘Old Girls’ at Ink, Sweat and Tears

My poem ‘Old Girls’ from my pamphlet The Misplaced House is at the excellent webzine Ink Sweat and Tears. It’s one of the few poems I didn’t manage to place anywhere before the pamphlet was published. You can read the poem here.

If you’re interested in submitting work to Ink Sweat and Tears, submission details are here.

Why bother with Creative Writing courses and workshops?

Hello from my Summer Holidays! Hope you’re all well. I’m taking a leaf out of Anthony Wilson’s blog and re-blogging a few of my older posts while I’m in the land of intermittent wifi. The days seem longer here and I appear to be getting more done. That aside, I thought this short article I wrote three years ago was worth a re-visit since it’s a topic that often comes up in conversation once people know I’ve been a writing student. I think it all holds true but let me know what you think.

Anyone who’s attended a Creative Writing class or workshop, or who has studied Creative Writing at any level, will have been asked the following question at least once: “Can you teach/be taught Creative Writing?”

Here’s what I say in response:

It isn’t so much about teaching as about being immersed in a writing community for a few hours every week. It’s about being with people who care about books, who read and like books. It’s about being with people who want to talk about the subject matter of a story or poem and about how it was written; how the writing has provoked a response in them, as readers.

I suppose you could say it’s about learning to read as well as about learning to write. It’s about sharing.

In the writing workshops I teach, after we’ve talked about a poem or story, I ask the students to have a go at writing something, sometimes stealing a first line, or using the same subject matter or borrowing the technique that’s been employed.

Most people leave my workshops with several new poems or stories started. I’m always thrilled to hear and read the different responses to my writing prompts. I love being startled by other people’s imaginations.

I enjoy attending Writing courses and workshops, myself. In the early 1990s I spent five years at university writing scripts, stories and poems in order to complete Creative Writing assignments for an English degree and an MA in Creative Writing. I had wonderful teachers, among them the writers Alison MacLeod, Vicki Feaver, Eva Hoffman, Hugh Dunkerley, John Saunders and Andrew Motion.

I also learned from other students on my various courses, some of them now acclaimed writers themselves (but no more name dropping).

We read and commented on each other’s work. “I liked how you wrote that because……” “I didn’t get that. I didn’t understand that – what were you trying to say?” and having to explain, having to articulate the nub of my idea, opened up a clearer, better way of writing something.

In the classes I teach now I find students splintering into smaller groups or pairs to talk about their writing or about something they’re reading. Sometimes they make friends, even if it’s just for the afternoon. This is what I mean by a writing community.

I still attend courses and workshops when I can. In 2010 I was pleased to be a runner-up in the Poetry category of the Bridport Prize. Michael Laskey, the Poetry Judge, was running a two hour workshop before the prize giving ceremony and lunch so I duly signed up. It was lovely to meet Jennifer Olds, another Poetry runner-up, and Miranda McLeod, joint First Prize winner in the Flash Fiction category, who’d also enlisted for Michael’s workshop. Both Miranda and Jennifer teach Creative Writing at American universities.

As well as reading many poems, some freshly published in poetry magazines, we all left with a clutch of new ideas, new lines, new words for our own poems. And new material for weaving into the courses we were teaching at the time.

Recently one of my students said that he was going to start a writing poetry group at a youth club he’d become attached to. He was going to use some of my writing prompts in the sessions.

Writing is about sharing.


How to format poetry in WordPress

First things first, I want you to know that this is a very basic ‘How To’ post but it might just be exactly what you need. I’m writing it because every few weeks I meet someone who wants to post poetry on their site but is frustrated because they can’t produce the layout they want in WordPress. Common complaints are a) the line breaks disappear and/or b) they can’t add in extra spacing. As you probably know, I’ve been publishing poetry over on my poetry site And Other Poems for three years so I’ve had to learn a small amount of computer code in order to this.

The two most useful tips I’ve learned are:

  1. Use ‘Text’ Editor rather than ‘Visual’ Editor.
  2. Adding the following HTML code     will allow you to add extra line breaks and spacing.

There is more indepth, technical info at WordPress Support – this post for example – but, generally, the above two tips work for me all the time.

In case you’re not clear what I’m talking about, I’ll give you three examples of poems with different layouts.

First, ‘Llandudno’ by Kate Wise.

The cries of seagulls smell of salmon sandwiches.
Tinned. On white; juice-soggy in their teeth-setting silverfoil.
Plastic bag jellyfish sculled the pier’s shadows.
We sat in the morning’s goosepimples,
park-bench thigh-marked, waiting for you to finish your
in matching turquoise shorts because it was
the Summer.

This is a straightforward layout, text is flush against the left hand margin, there are no stanza breaks or extra spaces between words on the same line.  So no computer code needed here.

Next up, ‘Something Understood’ by Edward Doegar.

Be seated. So much silliness. Go in fear
             of imperatives. Love,
as much as anything else, as little.
             Stop trying to touch
the stained light, it’s not for you. Feel
             the wood instead; use
has polished the grain, this is not good,
             this is not evil. Wood
is also stained. And so on. Deliver us
             from this, from that.

OK, this is a little more complicated as you’ll see that every other line of the poem is indented.  Here’s how I created the layout I wanted for this poem using the basic computer code mentioned above.  In ‘Text’ Editor, I added the code   as many times as I needed to achieve the desired spacing.  Once it was right for one line, I copied and pasted the code into the next line to save time.

Be seated. So much silliness. Go in fear
                        of imperatives. Love,
as much as anything else, as little.
                       Stop trying to touch
the stained light, it’s not for you. Feel
                       the wood instead; use
has polished the grain, this is not good,
                       this is not evil. Wood
is also stained. And so on. Deliver us
                       from this, from that.

There is probably (of course there must be!) an easier, quicker way to achieve this layout (and if you’d like to share your tips and shortcuts, do please leave a comment below) but I’m a great believer in using what I know to get by. (I have the same approach to language learning).

Lastly, here’s ‘nothing’ by Andrew McMillan, who, as you see, is a poet who tends to use spacing instead of conventional punctuation.

which is really the sound of everything     slowly

if you write poetry and are even passably handsome
my heart will pretend it loves you for a while

all I know is      the first empty bed
for weeks      the first tea of morning

the man who was scared of paper was papyrophobic
as though making something unpronounceable diminishes it’s horror

the sunset is national      politics is local
except when it demands a foreignsand incursion

all I know is      the dark street
a doorman with a secret      sometimes rain

And here’s the poem with the code I used to achieve this layout

<strong>nothing </strong>
<em>which is really the sound of everything&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;      slowly

if you write poetry and are even passably handsome
my heart will pretend it loves you for a while
all I know is&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;      the first empty bed
for weeks&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;      the first tea of morning
the man who was scared of paper was papyrophobic
as though making something unpronounceable diminishes it’s horror
the sunset is national&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;     politics is local
except when it demands a foreignsand incursion
all I know is&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;      the dark street
a doorman with a secret&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;       sometimes rain

Hope this is helpful to at least some of you!  One other thing I’ve learned to do if I get stuck with any formatting or blogging issue is to type my question into Google. Invariably, someone, somewhere, has encountered the same problem and has been kind enough to leave their solution somewhere on the internet.

As always, please leave any comments or suggestions below.

What are your writing plans for the summer?

What are your plans for the summer? Are things staying the same or do you have a project in mind? Maybe it isn’t summer where you are but what are your plans, anyway? Here in the UK, I’ve been away from a regular, paid job since 1st May. This is intentional, I’m trying to use the time to write more and to be with my family. My 16 year old daughter has been on holiday since she finished her GCSE exams in mid-June. My 14 year old son finishes school next week and we’re all off (me, husband, teenagers) to north Portugal for a family holiday. I’m wondering where writing is going to fit into all of this. But I’m determined to squeeze it in, somehow!

I’m still reading through the submissions I received for And Other Poems and scheduling poems to appear in the Autumn. As soon as I’ve responded to everyone who sent poems, which if I put my mind to it and get on with it, should be by early next week, I’d really, really like to clear my desk and focus on my own writing. I keep a list of poems I’ve made some progress with but haven’t yet finished and whenever I’m given a block of time, I try to focus on completing some. A few poems have been there for several years. So I’d like to be able to devote myself to this list and will certainly be taking it with me on holiday. Although there’ll be Wi-Fi, I’m going to try to unplug which I know will free-up an hour or two a day.

Later on today, Sunday, I’m going to a workshop in Bradford-on-Avon with Philip Gross. I heard him read in Bath once and liked his work and liked him so when Dawn Gorman sent details of the workshop, I signed up. It will be a treat to be away from the house, away from my everyday life, and to have the chance to think about writing.

In terms of my writing and submissions generally, I haven’t had a huge amount of success this year but, importantly for me, this hasn’t affected my mood or my writing confidence (much!). Sure, I’ve been disappointed but I haven’t allowed my disappointment to swamp my writing energy. Time away from my poems while they’ve been out for consideration has given me much-needed distance from my work, so I’ve been able to re-assess a poem with a cool eye when it’s been returned to me, rejected. I’ve recognised flaws, re-drafted and sent out again, somewhere else. I’ve also acknowledged what’s good about a poem, what’s working and, in one instance, I hardly changed a poem at all, decided it’s a good poem, not for that particular editor, too bad, sent it out to another. This is a big change and a sign that I’m becoming much more confident about my work (this week, in any case – yes, I fluctuate madly).

me relaxing July 2015I fully intend to allow myself some time off over the summer. To read more. This is crucial to my writing so I’m packing a few books in my suitcase. Although I own an e-Reader, I much prefer to read physical books, I find it more relaxing. I’m going to make a few notes about what I’m reading, start writing a reading journal again. I find it very difficult to talk about books, to say why precisely what it is about a piece of writing that moves me. It might be a confidence thing and a self-consciousness. Writing about such matters on this blog feels quite exposing but I’d like to overcome my nervousness and have a go at writing about what I’m reading. It’s on my list of things I’d like to do.

Well, I’ve shared a few of my plans for the summer, perhaps you’d like to tell me what you’ll be up to? Hope you enjoy yourself, whatever you do.

Speaking French

Yes, I have mixed up my avoirs and my êtres and confused La Gare for La Guerre and, once, having forgotten my glasses, I explained “Je ne suis pas mes lunettes” rather than “Je n’ai pas…..”

Nevertheless, when in France, I always have a go at speaking French. I’ve often come across people who won’t try to speak another language, perhaps because of fear of ridicule (I’ve been laughed at on more than one occasion!).

For Bastille Day, here’s a poem I drafted on this blog two years ago, now updated slightly and recorded on SoundCloud.

Speaking French

At the beach bar a man, half my age, is centimètres
from my sanded breasts, as beautiful as the café crème
between us, and what I still call centimes
lie blurred and glittered on my upturned palm.
“I am not my pair of glasses,” I confide.

What have I learned
since a driver shouted down his bus
that I had asked him for a ticket
to The War
That I would rather mime my girlfriend’s diarrhoea
than be the man standing in la pharmacie
chanting “English, English,”
as if these syllables are all it takes
to halt ridicule and stomach ache.

Dashing in and out of this blog

I’m typing at speed today because I’m leaving for London soon with my 16 year old daughter, Kitty, to drop her off at a friend’s flat where she’ll be staying next week while she’s doing work experience.  I’ll miss her!

On Friday, I wrote and sent off a job application for a writer-in-residence post.  I doubt I’ll get it but my philosophy these days is that I just have to try for these things.  Plus, it was a perfect opportunity to update and polish my Writer’s CV which isn’t looking too shabby at all, though I say so myself.

I hit the ‘Send’ button 40 minutes before the job deadline after working on  the application on and off all day, in between teaching my 14 year old son, John, how to weed and water the garden (he was home from school because of a Teaching Training Day) and in between writing a micropoem for a competition also with its deadline on Friday.  I doubt I’ll get anywhere there, either, but…. you know my philosophy.

Once I’d sent the job application off, I realised that I’d made a glaring grammatical error in the covering letter and said to Johnny “I’ll never get the job now but at least I made the deadline.”  “Don’t be ridiculous!” he said “Tell them you’ve made a mistake and send a corrected letter in, quick.”  Ever been parented by one of your children?  Thank goodness for the common sense of fourteen year olds.

Anyway, Friday was also the day I finished writing a guest blog post for Anthony Wilson who has kindly posted it today! It’s basically a love letter to my diary, journal, notebook, call it what you will.  I’ve been writing in one for almost the whole of my life.  Thank you, Anthony, for your hospitality.  You can read “Dear Diary” here.

notebooks for post 2015

Seven/Seven: Where Were You?

I was in the house I’m in now in Trowbridge, West Wiltshire.  We’d moved here from south London two years before.  Our children were six and four.  We’d left London because Andrew had been made redundant from his job working in IT for a large accountancy firm in the City and found another job which allowed him to work from home.  So we made the decision to move somewhere with cheaper houses and good state schools that our children could walk to.  Plus, two of my brothers had moved here years before with their families, so we’d be near them.

DoorNot having the pressure of a big mortgage meant I didn’t need to look for paid work, so could try to write, and Andrew was able to take an unpaid sabbatical from his job for ten months to work on renovating the dilapidated Victorian semi-detached house we’d bought and help care for our two young children.

But, by July 2005, he was back at work.  Our six year old daughter was in her second year at the local Catholic primary school and our four year old son had a free place for two and a half hours a day at a local play group.

I woke before 7am on the 7th July.  Andrew had already left the house.  The cup of tea he makes me every morning was cold on our bedside table.  I hadn’t even heard him go.  Though we live in West Wiltshire, Andrew’s clients have always, mostly, been in central London; what we’d gained with an affordable house, he’d had to sacrifice with early mornings and long working days.  I’ve always felt sad about this and questioned whether the price has been too high.  But it is what it is.

A to Z 2

I hadn’t long been back from walking our children to their respective schools when Andrew telephoned me from his mobile to ask if I knew about any industrial action on the London Underground that day, or any reason why services wouldn’t be running as usual.  He and his boss had arrived at London Bridge Station and were trying to get to the tube but weren’t being allowed through.  There was no information displayed anywhere, he said, and more and more people were gathering and nobody knew what was happening.  In the background of his call, I could hear Emergency Service sirens.

I telephoned my sister who lives in Peckham, South East London, and asked her if she’d heard of any disturbance to public transport.  She didn’t know what was happening either but one of our brothers, who was visiting her in London, had just walked back to her house saying that there were no trains running from their local station.  I could hear sirens in the back of her call, too.

I switched on the television and the day’s news came streaming across the screen.  Andrew rang back and I read aloud to him the information that was being broadcast into our home in Wiltshire:

Major incident in London………… fire on an underground train…….. suspected incendiary device……..

There were a dreadful twenty minutes when I lost telephone contact with Andrew and it became clear that there was a risk of further incidents in London that day.  Reports of an explosion on a bus came in and the pictures broadcast on television made it clear that this had been a bomb.  Meanwhile, where was Andrew? Why wasn’t he answering his phone?  Without telling me, he and his boss had decided to walk across London to their day of meetings and then proceeded to try to carry on as normal.

For twenty minutes I felt panic and imagined that my husband was at risk.  I hadn’t even seen him that morning or kissed him goodbye.  Our children hadn’t seen him since the day before as they’d been asleep when he’d come home from work.

Was I now a widow?  Were our children fatherless?  Then I heard from him again and cried with relief.  Then immediately felt guilt and thought of women in Iraq and Afghanistan – I thought of the conflicts in those places that my country, Britain, was heavily implicated in.  How indulgent of me to imagine, even for a fleeting twenty minutes, that I had any idea what life must be like for them.

I felt an urge to try to find out more about these women.  I searched on the internet and found some first person accounts of what it was like living with the daily threat of bombings.  One woman wrote

In the mornings, when my husband leaves for work and my children leave for school, we never say ‘See you later’ we only say ‘Goodbye’.  This could be the final time we see each other.

I felt  humble and ashamed when I read this and thought that what I’d experienced momentarily was something that people living in places like Iraq and Afghanistan were enduring daily and continuously.

I was filled with a surge of gratefulness when I collected my children from school that day and when Andrew finally arrived home.  I try to remember this feeling whenever I can.   But I’m thinking today of people whose lives were changed unalterably after the events of 7th July 2005, of the people who died that day, of the family and friends who became bereaved, of those left injured, of the people who saved or tried to save lives.  And I’m thinking of people who are still living in places of conflict, who still endure the threat of bombs, who don’t even have the luxury of calling to their loved ones “See you later.”

Please leave a comment if you have a memory or thought you’d like to share.