Archive for September, 2010

Finding my poetry head

Yesterday, for the first time since the Arvon course I went on in August, I spent several hours immersed in poetry. And it was great. Hopefully it’s helped me find my poetry head again… we shall see.

Beware workshops, for they lead to philosophical thoughts

Supplement the word

Supplement the word 'supplement'

In the afternoon I attended the first part of a workshop run by Nottingham Poetry Society and led by Jacqueline Gabbitas. Storming stuff, and if I hadn’t had to leave
after 90 minutes I certainly wouldn’t have done. The exercise we started with involved mind-mapping from a word we
wouldn’t normally have considered using, taking some of the more tenuously linked ideas and trying to write something from them. I ended up delving into the depths of my feelings about ‘supplement’, which to me has connotations of ruthless con-artists selling fake remedies to gullible and vulnerable people… so unlike most of the other workshop members I focused in on one thing rather than casting my net wide. I did quite like the writing that came out of it though:

  lithe words
  twist themselves into tinsel
  braids, making magpies
  of mothers and dieters
  and new age believers
  saying there must be something
  to it, more or less

  but less is more
  so keep your supplements
  your extras, your shiny pills
  I have enough nonsense
  rattling inside me already

As we all read our writing, I noticed that the most powerful images seemed to be negative ones – what is missing, what is not there, what will never be there, things not said or done. This is something Eireann Lorsung put me onto in the last Nottingham Poetry Series workshop, sort of, when she talked to us
about making space within poems. To me, this means lots of things, but among them it means creating a framework with words that allows the reader to climb inside, search around and fill that space with whatever the words pull from their heads. It’s a weirdly intimate thing, reading a poem. You allow the poet to plant hooks in your soul (for want of a better word) and lead you around the world they’ve created, but at the same time you delve into their soul, and by the time you’ve read the poem a few times the boundaries between you have been blurred somehow. That’s one of the secrets of poetry.

I’m told the workshop just got better and better, and over-ran by a considerable amount. So, why did I have to leave? Well…

Nottingham Lyric Lounge

Lyric Lounge is an East Midlands performance poetry festival coordinated by Writing East Midlands that invades Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and Loughborough for a weekend each. Local poets work with local youth groups to develop performances for each event, and local and national poets come along and perform their work. The lovely Aly Stoneman had been working with young mothers at the YWCA on the theme of childhood and motherhood, and they’d written some really touching words using artefacts from bygone childhoods as prompts. Nicola, one of the mothers, also wrote a lovely poem for her daughter Louise, which was simple but so heartfelt it almost made me cry. Aly read us a few of her poems, followed by more poetry from Anne Holloway, which brought back memories of times when my kids weren’t looming over me in a gangly teenage way… yes, I remember when a stick could be anything! To finish, Aly hosted an open mic, where Michelle ‘Mother’ Hubbard, me, Eireann, Carol Rowntree Jones and Cathy Grindrod read a poem or two each about childhood and motherhood. It was a lovely relaxing session full of beautiful thoughts and words.

Deborah Stevenson and Andy Graves

Debris and MulletProofPoet at the anthology launch event

Shortly afterwards, the YARD theatre group with Andrew ‘MulletProofPoet’ Graves and Deborah ‘Debris’ Stevenson gave a stunning performance of poetry they’d been working on, using a theme of ‘Old and New’. I was absolutely bowled over by the inventiveness and enthusiasm of the youngsters in the theatre group, whose ages varied from about 9 to 18. They’d written incisive exciting poetry, and they performed it with skill and maturity that blew the audience away. I know of at least one person whose husband turned up soon after it started to pick her up, but she refused to leave until the performance was over… Deborah and Andrew somehow managed to follow the YARD group’s performances (not something I’d have felt at all confident doing!) with stunning sets of their own. I’ve known them both for a couple of years now, and it’s been brilliant to see their careers developing – there is no doubt that they will set the performance poetry world alight in their own ways.

James Walker has written a great review of these two sessions for Left Lion, so I won’t go into much more detail here. I’ll just say that I came away with more going on in my head than there has been for a long time. Which, in case you were wondering, is a Good Thing.

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Writing vs Writing

There are lots of things happening in my life at the moment, some expected, some not. For example, #1 son’s 18th birthday was fully anticipated, but the feeling of extreme age wasn’t. And I knew #2 son’s benign but intermittently bleeding mole needed to be removed, but a phone call on Monday saying ‘bring him in tomorrow’ was a bit of a shock. And I know uni term has started again, and was expecting to pick up a bit of note-taking work, but 7 hours a week of first year maths lectures was definitely not on my radar…

While I was sitting with Blake waiting for his op yesterday, I finished the book I took with me. Then I finished the other book I took with me. All the books on the ward were romances, and I do have some standards (not many, but shying away from romance novels is one of them). So I got my notebook out and started trying to write a poem. The ideas were all there in my head, but they just wouldn’t come out poetically. So I did a bit of free writing, which was stilted and precise. In the end I gave up and just sat there trying to doze off while eavesdropping on the people sitting round the next bed.

Fra Filippo Lippi

Fra Filippo Lippi: self-portrait

I think I’ve just worked out why I was having trouble with the poetry. I’ve done so many different types of writing over the last few weeks, my head has slipped back into its default business-style mode of writing. I can knock off a blog post easy as anything. I can write about a book I’m supposed to be marketing for Five Leaves. I adjusted #2 son’s personal statement to make him sound like the best amazing kid ever (which, of course, he is). I wrote a draft proposal for a grant bid, and advertising copy for two possible workshops.

More importantly, I haven’t been writing anything I really want to write. No fiction, no poetry. I put a submission together for the Nottingham Poetry Series juried readings, and I wasn’t happy with it, I made a few changes but couldn’t get my poetry head on at all. Didn’t get accepted to read, unsurprisingly.

This is wrong. Totally wrong. So my resolution for today is to do something about that. I’ve promised to write something art-related for Aly Stoneman’s open mic at the Hockley Hustle, and something suitable for Deborah Stevenson’s open mic at the Playhouse for Black History Month, hopefully the deadlines imposed by those promises will help me kick my head into the right space.

I have the first line for my art poem:

I fell in love with Fra Filippo Lippi

As soon as I have some more lines, I’ll post them. In the meantime I’m off in search of my poetry head.

My Poetry Head

My Poetry Head

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Personal Development

So, I want to build a career in this ‘ere writing industry thingy.

The Balance

This stunning debut novel from Pippa Hennessy marks the start of a glittering career...

When I first started writing seriously, 3-ish years ago, I had a clear plan. I’d write a novel, which would take maybe a year or so, get a publisher to accept it (perhaps inciting a bidding war between three or four publishers), sell the film rights, and retire on the advance. Easy peasy. I had the plot all mapped out and I’d already written a few thousand words.

Reality didn’t take long to pounce.

  • First, there are very very few authors that make their living entirely from writing.
  • Second, my novel idea wasn’t actually that good. It’s a shame it took 45,000 words to discover that.
  • Third, I much prefer writing poetry (who knew? I hated the stuff when I started my BA), and there aren’t any poets in the whole world that make a living from writing poetry.
  • Fourth, I don’t have a rich partner or patron to support me while I ascend the literary ladder, so I need to make enough money to actually survive.
  • Finally, as I find out more about the creative industries, I’m constantly coming up with new ideas of Things To Do.

This is not a bad place to be. It’s actually very exciting. The possibilities are endless, and as it turns out there are quite a few things I’m good at. But… and there had to be a but… I don’t know enough about the industry to work out how best to get to where I want to be and how to make a living on the way there.

Personal Development Plan

This is where PDPs come in to the equation. Basically, someone with more experience than you spends some time helping you working out what your goals actually are, based on what you need and want from life, what you’re good at, what you enjoy doing, and what might be stopping you get to where you want to be. Then you work together to come up with a specific set of actions to help you achieve those goals.

Cathy and Pip at anthology launch

Cathy and Pip at the launch of 'Into the River'

Last Wednesday I spent a morning going through this process with the wonderful Cathy Grindrod. By using a structured series of steps, and asking incisive objective questions, she helped me to identify the aspects of my life that are most important to me:

  • Producing something worthwhile – concrete outcome from my work.
  • Intellectual stimulation.
  • Being among people, helping them and working with them.
  • Having control over my life, and a good work/life balance.

Then we looked at where I want to be in three years time, identified a set of goals, and checked them against the above requirements:

  • Build up a reputation in the East Midlands writing industry as someone who gets things done well.
  • Start a small press which makes ‘beautiful objects’ with words.
  • Make a regular income from teaching.
  • Publish some of my work.

After that, we talked through ways of achieving those goals and came up with a list of practical steps I could take. Cathy also gave me some valuable advice on ways of keeping my goals in the forefront of my mind when deciding which tasks to take on. I left the session full of enthusiasm and ideas, and since then I’ve felt much more focused and in control of my life.

All in all, it was an incredibly useful session, and I would heartily recommend this process to anyone who isn’t sure quite where they’re going, or how to get there. It’s not easy making a living as a writer, and structured help from someone knowledgable and sympathetic like Cathy is worth so much more than any self-help book.

(and yes, starting this blog up again was one of the actions that came out of the session!)

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Feeling Old

Simon, Mower of Lawns

#1 son: Simon, Mower of Lawns

#1 son turned 18 yesterday. This is a very scary thing to deal with – almost as bad as my little brother’s 30th birthday. My own age doesn’t bother me, I’m 44 in body and 21ish in spirit, but for some reason significant anniversaries of those younger than me make me stop and think.

18 years ago yesterday Norman Lamont pulled the UK out of the ERM, and the country almost went into financial meltdown. To me it was the day an anonymous doctor pulled a new life out of me into the world, which was mostly a horrible experience, but nothing will ever beat the overwhelming joy I felt when they put a squealing wriggling baby on my stomach. I tease him that he was born on Black Wednesday… #2 son was born on the day of the Oklahoma bombing – it’s probably a good thing I stopped having children after that.

So much has changed in my life since then. On September 16th 1992 I was married, working as a researcher for a small university spin-off company which had just employed a CEO who didn’t understand the value of research and development. I was 26 years old, but didn’t have much idea about the real world or what my place was in it. I’d only been out of university for a couple of years, and the work I was doing was pretty much the same as the stuff I’d been researching for my PhD in Computer Science.

And I had absolutely no idea what to do with a baby. They don’t have power-off switches or helpful error messages, and the instruction manuals seem to have been translated through several different languages on their way to English.

Blake, Destroyer of Trees

#2 son: Blake, Destroyer of Trees

Now… I’m divorced, a full-time student of Creative and Professional Writing at Nottingham University, a part-time marketing assistant for Five Leaves Publications, I know what I want my place in the world to be and I’m busily carving it out (more on that in my next post).

More importantly (most importantly), I’m the mother of two of the most incredible human beings on this planet. I wrote this poem for them… needless to say, when I read it to them they looked slightly confused, and very quickly started talking about something else after mumbling vague compliments.

Something of Nothing
for Simon and Blake

How can you make something of nothing?
Nothing is not
                       sugar, butter, eggs and flour.
It’s not bricks, not mortar,
not blocks of marble or iron chisels.
Not words. Especially
                                 not words.

How can you bake, build or sculpt?
How do you make thoughts
of nothing?

You and I are nothing, without substance.
We pass through each other
like ghosts, you cannot rest a comforting hand
on my shoulder, I cannot demand passion
from your lips.

Yet somehow
we made our sons of nothing
and oh,

they are something.

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Where have I been?

I’m back again again again… I daren’t look at how many times I’ve said that in a blog post. So I won’t promise to write more regularly this time.

The summer’s been full of ups and downs – had a few very nice breaks from ‘normality’…

Common Lane

Prize-winning photo of Common Lane (!)

The kids and I spent a week down at my mum’s in Dorset where we did lots of sawing logs and building bonfires and general manual labour in the garden and the field. Very relaxing, apart from having to concentrate a bit on getting uni coursework done.

I won a prize for this photo – £10 book token for being ‘highly commended’ in the I Love Common Lane competition. It was organised by my mum, so I had to adopt a pseudonym to avoid accusations of favouritism. I hasten to add that Mum wasn’t the judge.

Poetry group at Totleigh Barton

Poetry group at Totleigh Barton

A couple of weeks after that I went on an Arvon poetry course at Totleigh Barton with Frances Leviston and Daljit Nagra – absolutely amazing. We produced an anthology of our work, which we called ‘Blouaugh’ after a line from William Carlos Williams’ Sea Elephant which Frances played to us – superb stuff! An inspirational week with 17 inspirational people.

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral

Finally, I went up to Durham for three most enjoyable days, to hear a friend sing in the cathedral for choral evensongs, to see the sea, to fondle the Angel of the North’s feet, and to explore. I’ve never been to Durham before. It’s a fantastic place. I spent a whole day just at the cathedral, where I saw some wonderful illuminated manuscripts, watched pipistrelle bats flying around the cloisters, enjoyed the peace and atmosphere of the cathedral itself, and climbed the 325 steps to the top of the tower for the spectacular views. I think I’m going to need to go back there for a bit longer next time.

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