Archive for June, 2012

First Class HonoursThis turned up in the post last Tuesday. I was quite pleased, especially by the stamped “First Class” on the envelope!

To be honest, I wasn’t surprised by getting a first. Not because I think I’m brilliant, but because the Creative and Professional Writing course is completely coursework-assessed… so being a geek, I had a spreadsheet with all my assignment marks and I knew exactly what my final mark was weeks ago. But it did give me a nice warm glow to see it written down on paper, all official-like.

So, what have I learned over the last four years? Um. Lots.

(the images are from my final year project which, for reasons too complicated to go into, I did last year. Click on them to see full-size versions)

The Right Word1. Nothing worthwhile is easy
I thought writing was like maths – someone tells you how to do it and then you know. If you get stuck on how to write effective dialogue, for example, the teacher gives you the formula and away you go. Then all you have to do is practise. I’m not used to taking a long time to go through the four stages of competence. I don’t like being consciously incompetent and not being able to fix it straight away. Writing doesn’t work like that. You have to do it badly, then work out some of why it’s bad, then work out how to do that aspect better, then realise there’s another aspect of your writing that sucks and you have no idea how to fix it… and you realise you’re never ever going to be any good… but you keep going anyway and eventually you write something that you think isn’t too bad…

The Birds of Iceland2. I like poetry
When I started the course I didn’t think much of poetry. I wasn’t interested in writing or reading it. When I read (even now) it tends to be to escape from reality, not to have reality slammed into my head in exquisitely crafted stanzas. But… but but but… the beauty of the imagery that can be built in your mind by a real proper poem came as a huge shock to me. And the emotion… ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ wow. And the layers. Finding new meanings in words you’ve already read over and over. Making new connections with your own ideas. And writing poetry… gods, that’s difficult, but when you come up with a phrase or an image that somehow (you’re never quite sure how) says exactly what you want it to say, even if you didn’t know it was what you wanted to say…

Taking Photographs of Lundy3. I want to know everything and do everything
I was stagnating in the IT industry. Not learning anything new or doing anything different. Apart from the stress of working in a corporate misogynistic hellhole, I was bored. I thought writing a novel would be fun and easy (after all, I’ve read thousands of books so I ought to know what makes a good one)… so I started on that, then signed up for the CPW BA and discovered there’s SO much more to writing than ‘just’ telling a good story in reasonably correct English. Even that has myriad subtleties to the craft and art of using just the right words. Then you have poetry… and scriptwriting… and editing and copy-editing and proofreading and creative non-fiction and travel writing and memoirs. Then you start looking at the creative process – where writing comes from and how it happens – and a whole new dimension is added… and you start thinking about ‘why’ and ‘who’ and ‘when’ and it all explodes in a metaphorical big bang in your skull… So. Anyway. I’ve found out so many interesting facts and heard about so many interesting ideas simply from interacting with the writing community… I’m now interested in typography and graphic design and book design and ancient civilisations and quantum theory and ornithology and philosophy and the Victorian workhouse system and… I want to know everything and do everything!

Dark Winter4. Writers are lovely people
I’ve made so many friends and met so many lovely people. Before I left Experian I could count my friends on the fingers of one hand. Now I’ve got enough friends to actually consider having a party! In fact, as I was writing the last sentence I got chatting to someone sitting next to me who’s a friend of a friend… and so a new connection is made. I actually like networking with writers.

The End of the World5. The one downside…
You can’t make lots of money as a writer… contrary to popular opinion, there are very few people who make enough to live on solely from writing, let alone bring in a decent income.

6. …isn’t really that bad
This means if you want to write you have to do lots of other things as well, just to keep food on the roof and a table over your head. Or something like that. So I’m now working as a publisher for Five Leaves, for the University of Nottingham as a part-time tutor on the Humanities BA (and hopefully on the CPW BA next year), I teach workshops on poetry, and I’m a freelance proofreader, typesetter and graphic/book/web designer. And I do lots of other stuff that doesn’t directly bring money in but indirectly gets me out there and talking to people who might pay me to do something in the future. I’m on the Nottingham Poetry Society committee, the Nottingham Festival of Words steering committee, the Nottingham Writers’ Studio board, and the Beeston Poets steering committee. And I’ve put funding bids in for an EU project and a Heritage Lottery Fund project.

I’m not the least bit bored – and I’m happy. I don’t care that I’m skint. Life is good. First Class, in fact!

Thank you, Nottingham University’s School of Education, for helping me turn my life around. And thank you to all my wonderful tutors on the Creative and Professional Writing BA programme – Sheelagh Gallagher, Anthony Cropper, David Kershaw, Cathy Grindrod, Ann Hardwick, Nicola Valentine, Cathy LeSurf, Robbie Dewa, and Adrian Buckner.

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Beeston Poets logoIt’s official – Beeston Poets is back! We have a website and a logo and everything! (do you like the logo? I made it! (it was Cathy’s idea to make the stinger into a pen nib though.))

I’m so excited to be involved in this project… I can’t stop talking about it. I missed the first Beeston Poets series, which ran from 1983 for nearly 20 years and is still remembered fondly now by many Beeston and Nottingham poetry-lovers, so being a part of its resurrection feels like an incredible privilege.

Anyway, here’s a rundown of what it’s all about.


To bring the best in contemporary poetry to Beeston, of course!


At Beeston Library – the original venue for Beeston Poets – which is welcoming us back into its new upstairs space that might have been made especially for poetry readings.


This is the really exciting bit…

Jackie KayThe series will re-launch on Saturday 20 October with Jackie Kay, a favourite from past Beeston Poets readings. She is delighted to be asked to read for us at this event, and we’re pleased to have her. I’m particularly pleased, as I’ve wanted to meet her for AGES and what with one thing and another I haven’t managed it yet.

Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy, edited by Neil AstleyFollowing his adjudication of the Nottingham Open Poetry Competition on Saturday 24 November, Neil Astley will be reading for us from Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy, published by Bloodaxe this year. The Staying Alive anthologies introduced me to the breathtaking range of contemporary poetry, so I’m particularly looking forward to this.


1948, by Andy Croft and Martin RowsonOn Saturday 8 December we’ll be entertained and edified by Andy Croft, whose most recent book is 1948, illustrated by Martin Rowson and published by Five Leaves. It’s a comic novel, written entirely (and I mean entirely, including the foreword, contents and acknowledgements!) in Pushkin sonnets. Andy is a great performer, and this will be a highly entertaining evening.

What next?

We’re still considering plans for 2013… watch this space… or better still, subscribe to our email newsletter and we’ll keep you up to date with everything.

Whose fault is all this?

The partners in Beeston Poets are:

  • Nottingham Poetry Society (Jeremy Duffield, Cathy Grindrod, me)
  • Nottinghamshire Libraries (Sheelagh Gallagher, Gill Rockett)
  • Five Leaves (me, Ross Bradshaw)

… just so you know who to blame!

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Tickets and stuff

Tickets and stuff

Four weeks ago, I entered an online prize draw to win complimentary tickets for two people to five events at the Hay Festival. I know someone has to win these things, and I keep entering on the off-chance… but I never really thought I’d win this one. Then the email came: “Congratulations, Phillippa…” and I nearly junked it as spam. Luckily, I didn’t.

Along with the tickets came a Friends pass, which gave us access to the Friends tent and priority access to the events. And a beautiful slip of paper confirming I didn’t have to pay a penny.

Hay Festival

The Hay Festival site

The venue is lovely – 15 minutes walk outside Hay town centre, but there’s a shuttle bus for £1 a day if you’re feeling lazy. Lots of houses along the road had set up stalls for antiques, tea and cakes, funky clothes, jewellery… we didn’t get a chance to see them, too busy rushing backwards and forwards to events. Next time…

Literary bunting

They know how to do bunting in Hay!

So we (Kristin and I) arrived at 10.30 after sharing the driving from Nottingham, and went in search of breakfast. A strange tea shop obliged – it’s tiny, but has enough bunting and union-jack-ery inside to decorate Nottingham’s Council House. The chocolate cake was delicious though.

Got the bus to the site, collected tickets, spent an entrancing hour listening to Alain de Botton talking about the positive aspects of religion that atheists shouldn’t throw out with the rest of it. Hilarious to hear Richard Dawkins described as ‘mood music from Oxford’. I wrote pages and pages of notes, and have a lot to think about as a result. I think I’ll wait till the book’s out in paperback though, £18.99 is a bit steep.

Amazing Grating

Spotted this grating underfoot… had to take a photo… passersby thought I was weird. I guess they’d be right, at that.

Had a look around the site, found a shop selling notebooks with a map of Lundy on the cover. Didn’t buy one, but plan to make one as soon as I have a spare moment. Then into Hay for lunch, and lots of shopping. Of course. Missed a couple of the events we’d booked, but we didn’t pay for them, and one cannot go to Hay without visiting at least a few bookshops.

Brave New World

Brave New World… in Korean. There has to be some irony there…

I found a few gems, but didn’t get anywhere near my previous form – the other five or six times I’ve been to Hay I’ve invariably gone home with over 100 new books. This time I managed to keep it down to ten. My favourite is Brave New World in Korean, which cost me £2. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a Korean-English dictionary.

I also got a book on logo design, two pamphlets from Cambridge University Press on manuscript proofreading/layout and indexing (priced at 2/6, which prompted me to try and explain Old Money to Kristin, unsuccessfully), Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy, and every book by Alice Oswald that I didn’t already own… more on that shortly.

Sheep Poo Paper

Yes, it is really made from sheep poo. I fully anticipate my mother setting up in business before long…

At one point we walked past a shop window and, glancing in, I saw it was a bookbindery. Wow! So of course I went in, drooled over the beautiful notebooks on sale for far too much money, chatted to the bloke, then saw a display of very odd cards and bookmarks. Had to buy a card for my mum – who has a flock of sheep – not so sure now it was a good idea!

Back to the festival site for a talk on the UK and Europe, given by three Cambridge professors who were very full of themselves. Kristin (sensibly) power-napped, while I wrote a poem about one of the profs. The Q&A session was interesting, so it wasn’t a complete dead loss.

Alice Oswald

Alice Oswald

Then… Alice Oswald performing Memorial. The Old Bat has a new heroine. It’s a fantastic book-length poem, to start with. She calls it ‘an excavation of the Iliad’. It’s an elegy for the men who died in the Trojan war. The words name them, bring them to life, and kill them (brutally, in most cases). Then they paint images that somehow find reflections of man’s brutality in nature… and each image repeats, driving home the message and forcing you to think about it in light of itself, to think about the beginnings in light of the endings, to understand.

Oswald performed the poem, almost in its entirety, from memory. She stood for an hour, speaking the words in a calm but impassioned and relentless tone, no pauses or stumbles, telling us about these men. It was literally (and I use that word advisedly) spellbinding. I have never seen or heard anything like it.

And, fellow Nottingham poetry-lovers, she’s COMING TO NOTTINGHAM sometime soon-ish! I don’t know details yet, but she said Matt Welton has booked her to appear at Nottingham University. You Must Go.


I’m still buzzing!

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Through the Aether

Through the Aether – the 2012 student anthology

I’m very very tired today. Exhausted. But I’ve been busy adding extra things to my todo list and coming up with new ideas … like I don’t have enough to do!

Why do I do it? That’s easy. I hate it when my life is boring, so I make sure it doesn’t get that way. I want to know everything and do everything, and I never quite believe in my own limitations. And… there are some things that just have to be done.

Last night was a perfect example of one of those things. I’ve blethered on about my involvement in the Nottingham University Creative and Professional Writing / Fine Art student anthology a lot over the last two and a half years (for example, here). Yesterday, the 2012 anthology – Through the Aether – was launched into the world in the Sillitoe Room at Waterstones Nottingham, and what a launch it was. I was so proud of Emily Cooper and Christian Ashton, this year’s editors. Grant Kent, last year’s editor, was there too… along with over a hundred other people… it was wonderful.

Niki Valentine (our course leader) talked about the need to ‘keep on keeping on’. This is certainly what I’ve been doing over the last few years, dealing with the odd problem or two but plugging away at building a new career for myself and learning how to be a writer. It felt like last night was a culmination of so many aspects of that. I won’t be involved in the anthology project any more, not even as a mentor. I’ve finished my degree – actually I handed in my last assignment nearly two months ago, so officially I guess I finished then, but somehow the launch event felt like my final act as a student. I guess, because of that, it could have been a sad occasion for me. But it wasn’t. It was intensely joyful. Watching fellow students and fellow writers confidently and skilfully performing their work, seeing the delight on the audience members’ faces, even small things like seeing extra chairs having to be brought out because so many people turned up to support us… it was magical. And it’s exactly why I keep on keeping on.

What was that…?

Yes, of course I took photos!

Getting ready - Christian, Emily and Shane Maxwell-Atkin

Getting ready for the event – Christian and Emily with Shane Maxwell-Atkin, Waterstones’ events manager

The audience starts to arrive

The audience starts to arrive…

Looking natural for the camera

Matt Sawyer, Sam Fallows and Veronique Falconer try to look natural for the camera…

About to start

About to start… and it’s standing room only!

Emily and Christian welcoming everyone

Emily and Christian welcome everyone to the event. Not a sign of nerves – totally professional.

Course leader Niki Valentine

Course leader Niki Valentine

Christian and Emily

Christian and Emily watching the performances

Some of the performers

Some of the performers (sorry I didn’t get everyone – my camera battery ran out).
Top row, right to left: Lisa Shipman, Veronique Falconer, Sam Fallows, Jim Hall.
Bottom row: Lum Huey Shan, Sadie Greening, Matt Sawyer, Bee Patience.

And I had to finish with this photo – taken by Helen’s friend Alan – I hope he doesn’t mind me pinching it.

All the editors

All the anthology editors so far, holding our babies!
From left to right: me (2010), Christian and Emily (2012) and Grant (2011)

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Something I haven’t had much time for lately is my own writing. I’ve been doing bits and pieces, and taking opportunities when available. At the beginning of May, for example, I went down to Chipping Campden with a friend for a one-day workshop run by Mario Petrucci. The title of the workshop was ’16 ways to write a poem’, and we did a lot of listening and a lot of writing.

The best thing for me about the day was getting my mind back into the poetry groove for a while. You know how it is, you spend hours and hours writing copy for websites or festival programmes, or proofreading other writers’ work, then it takes a significant effort to switch your head into a creative mode.

KeyringOne of Mario’s 16 ways was called ‘The Third Mind’. He asked us to write ten lines about an object – any object. I chose the keyring my mum gave me as a graduation present back in 1987 – a comment on my tendency then to lock myself out! These were the lines I wrote:

Goldish colour fading to silver.
A present from my mum.
Slightly corroded, pitted by time.
Holds my keys.
Gets tangled up in itself.
Makes a nice rattling sound.
Heavier than my keys.
Gucci logo (the old one).
Has interesting links in its chain.
Works by pulling (not turning) the bit that looks like a screw.

I read the lines out with no explanation, then Mario gave them a title selected at random from a list of feelings we’d generated beforehand… for mine the title was ‘Friendship’. Try reading the lines again with that title in mind…

Amazing, isn’t it?

I love poetry, the exactness of each word, the way every single nuance feeds into every single line and makes it more than it is. I’m working on a poem at the moment which, on the face of it, makes no sense. But when you read it in light of the title the whole thing clicks into place somehow. And one of the joys of poetry is talking about it with other poets. On Friday I went to the first meeting of a new poetry critiquing group. I was so pleased when my poet friends, who hadn’t seen that poem before, instinctively understood what it was about and gave me some invaluable advice on how it could do its work better. I’m looking forward to finding a couple of hours to work on that poem, now I know what it needs.

Perhaps in another blog post I’ll be able to identify more clearly just what it is about poetry that has grabbed me and won’t let me go. I doubt it though. I just know it gives me great joy and a sense of being with words in a purer way than any other kind of writing or reading.

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Today was a good day… and this was one of the reasons…

After them!

Emily and Christian spot a porter with a trolley of boxes heading towards the finance office… “Quick! Don’t let them get away!!!!”

I suppose we'd better...

“Come on Christian, open that box!”

It's hard to cut parcel tape with a key

“OK, OK, it’s not easy to cut parcel tape with a cupboard key…”

Maybe not...

“I hope they’re all right… perhaps it would be best to leave them in the boxes…”

Too late!

Oh… wow… it’s looking good so far… those spines are just beautiful…

Just... wow...

Looking pretty damn good to me…

A delightful foursome

Just look at them. Perfect.

You may be among the three people in the world who don’t know that Sheelagh Gallagher recently became a granny. Well, now I know pretty much how she feels. I’m so proud and excited… and I didn’t have to do all the work to produce that bundle of joy!

Christian Ashton and Emily Cooper have made something awesome. Remember those names – these two are going places! And… make sure you go along to the launch event on June 7th at 7pm, Waterstones Nottingham.

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