Saturday, 15 March 2014

My Writing process

Rebecca Gethin (Liar Dice, A handful of Water and What the Horses heard ) has kindly asked me to take part in a blog tour of writers where we all answer the same questions and tag other writers who will do the same the following week. A nice way to keep in touch and learn about new people!  Becky posted her writers blog tour last week.

I have one person to tag at the moment and this is:
  • Judi Moore:

Judi’s novelIs Death really necessary is available on the kindle. As befits the author of a novel set in 2038 Judi lives in the new town of Milton Keynes with several (hard to be specific - they don't stand still) black and white critturs in an old Tardis-like cottage.

Now for my answers to the questions:

What am I working on?
I have several writing projects on the go at the moment. Social media friends will have noticed my current pre-occupation with London’s statues and I’m working on a top secret collaborative venture with another writer. I’ve also returned to writing prose as I have a couple of characters, a  father and son who want me to tell their story. 

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’m not sure that it does. But I do mostly write poems that are based on things that have actually happened in the past, even if I do invent a lot of the details.

Why do I write what I do?
This is a difficult question to answer because I write what I’m moved to set down and I don’t tend to examine why I’m doing it. It would detract from the writing if I started navel gazing about the whys. That said, many of the poems in Convoy were about the stories we are at risk of forgetting. So there was an element of capturing lost stories and as I was writing the collection it felt as if I was doing it for all the merchant seamen who are the unsung heroes of the second world war.

How does your writing process work?
I wait until I can hear the character’s voice or the voice of the poem. But I wouldn’t want it to sound as if I sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. You’d never get anything written that way. I’ve discovered that you can put yourself in the right place, usually just by sitting down with a blank page.

I’m just about to go off to North Wales for a writing retreat and based on previous experience I know that I will get lots written away from the distractions of home and the day job.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Good things

Any readers of my blog who know me in real life will be aware that there’s been little time for poetry in the last couple of months. But I’m making my way back into the flow and lovely things have begun to happen again, like the Magma celebration reading at Keats House. This was for all those poets who had won prizes or been short-listed in the competition, which was judged by Philip Gross. Much thanks to Tania Hershman who persuaded me to go with her. She introduced me to Jo Bell, who is doing marvellous things to inspire people to write poems on her 52 blog
I came away from the evening with poems ringing and reverberating around my head and a copy of Magma 58 clutched in my paws. In fact every hair on my head wanted to stand up and hum and sing. The winning poem, Snow Country by Dominic Bury is breathtakingly good so do buy a copy of the magazine or even better subscribe to it. The London launch of issue 58 takes place on Friday 7th March at the London Review of Books bookshop.

At the same time there was the Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy which Vanessa Gebbie enthused about so much I just had to go to see it. Letting architects loose in the academy turns out to have been a very good idea. They’ve all created extra-ordinary spaces and it’s the only ‘art’ exhibition I’ve been to where the other people going round wanted to share their impressions. Like the man who wanted to make sure I’d realised there were thirty five steps to the top of the stairs where the angels were. I did write a poem about the space in which I felt the least comfortable, never mind that everyone else thought they were in a library and that the hazel sticks resembled rolled scrolls or the spines of books. I was surprised but pleased to have the poem accepted for the Ekphrasis wandering words reading. This is also on Friday 7th March for anyone who isn’t already going to the Magma launch.

And like London buses there is yet another poetry event happening in the capital on Friday with a gathering of the five UK and Ireland current poet laureates, who are all female. At a time, when it feels to me like women are being demeaned in public life, it is absolutely marvellous that this is being celebrated. Wow  indeed. No wonder it is sold out.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Year in Books Part Two

I spent the summer and autumn reading and re-reading Wilfred Owen’s poetry, again in company with friends on Good Reads. Gillian Clarke puts it much more eloquently than me writing on the Magma Blog  when she says “Owen’s words, read once, are unforgettable almost a century after he wrote them.”
The on-line Getsparked project allowed me to introduce Traci Robison, someone who had never read his poems, to his work and she produced the most gorgeous painting inspired by Dulce et Decorum est. I ended the year of reading with Dominic Hibberd’s Wilfred Owen: The Last Year.

An unexpected delight of the year was Samuel Pepys. One of the reads for my local book group was Claire Tomalin’s magisterial biography. With one of those touches of serendipity that the universe is fond of I discovered at the same time that Caroline Gilfillan’s collection of poems, Pepys which capture the spirit of the man.

If you put water or anything to do with the sea into the title of your book then there’s a good chance I will pick it up. So no surprise that Rebecca Gethin’s A Handful of Water was one of favourite reads of the spring. In case you’re wondering I do occasionally read novels as well and during April I read Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat back to back with James Hanley’s The Ocean. The set up for both novels is the same – a group of people who was ship-wrecked and end up together in a lifeboat. Rogan’s is a compelling page turner of a read. I had only picked it up in the bookshop to admire the cover and found myself unable to put it down after reading the first few pages.

The Ocean was first published in 1941, my copy was the Harvill Press re-issue published in 1999. The contrast with The Lifeboat is profound. Hanley, like my grandfather was a seaman. Born in 1901 he was a near contemporary of my taid and Hanley spent nine years at sea and how it shows in the writing of The Ocean. There are only six of them who make it onto the lifeboat in panic of getting off the Aurora when she’s torpedoed just after midnight. One of them, Crilley is killed immediately when the lifeboat is machine gunned and he protects the water keg from being holed. The main character Joseph Curtain explains p12 “When they machine gun a boat like this there’s always a chance of them drilling holes in your water supply. These days they don’t kill you directly, but if you plug a water keg with bullets then you kill everybody…” I don’t know if Hanley was ever on board a ship which was sunk but his novel reads as if he may well have been. He is someone whose work I want to read more of in 2014.

Having read The Stalin Organ in 2012, (another War and Literature choice) I read Gert Ledig’s second novel, Payback in the summer. Both books are based on his own experience as a German soldier in the Second World War and are important albeit searing accounts. Payback deals with a night in which an unnamed German city is bombed by the Allies with appalling consequences. I have Alexander Voinov to thank for persuading me to take Payback out of the ‘to-read’ pile. Voinov has written two books, Skybound and Unhinge the Universe from the German point of view in the last world war. These are romances and far gentler reads than Ledig. Ledig published a third novel, Faustrecht in the late 1950s which has yet to be translated into English. So I shall have to blow the dust off my rusty German to read it.

One of the pleasures I rediscovered this year was being read to. In this day and age that means audio books and Chris Patton reading Josh Lanyon’s Adrien English series. How very American he sounds I thought on listening to the first, then realising that in my head I’d given Lanyon’s characters English accents. An absolute treat was discovering Anton Lesser reading Wilfred Owen’s poems which was a very early Christmas present to myself.

Another of my page turning reads was Michael Crawshaw’s To Make a Killing, a thriller, a whodunit set in the City of London where one by one bankers are being killed. This pulls off the neat trick of making you see them as ordinary human being rather than the hate figures they’ve become in the popular media. Crawshaw worked in the City so he knows his stuff including the difference between a banker’s bonus and  a lock-in payment. Mike is a friend. We meet up every summer with our children at a family camp in Derbyshire but this was the first year when we each realised how seriously the other takes writing. So proceeds from the book go to support the Hands Together project in Nepal.

I dipped into Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman in the early autumn. I’d registered for an on-line course on Modern and Contemporary American poetry only to realise life was too busy with work, family and my own writing for me to keep up. I did make it down to Brighton for the launch of Vanessa Gebbie’s Half Life of Fathers. Having seen this collection take shape it was one of my poetry collections of the year. Another which I frequently took down off my shelves was John McCullough’s Frost Fairs. I discover another favourite poem in it every time I re-read it. Thanks to Anne Ystenes I’ve been introduced to the work of Olav Hauge, a Norwegian poet. His work is available in translation in the UK and US by luminaries like Robert Bly although I’ve enjoyed rather reading Anne’s careful word for word translations alongside the original Norwegian. His poems are full of hjarta (heart) and havet (the sea, the ocean).

During the year I got into the habit of carrying around poems in my bag. The first was Antoine Cassar’s Passaport which looks quite like a passport although it’s not so much a poem as a project to make us all think about borders, boundaries, immigration and emigration. I even had the temerity to offer it to a UK Borders official on my return from France in October. He did reach for the unofficial passport first, puzzling over it before deciding he did really need the one with all the stamps in it.

Thanks to Sabotage Reviews I discovered Sarah Hymas Lune – a foldout poem about the sea at Morecombe bay which has people coo-ing over it whenever I produce it out of my bag.

So here’s to lots more poetry in 2014.

The year in books Part One

I’ve decided to look back over a year of reading rather than producing my list of books of the year and therefore things that you should read too! There are books which I’d recommend but it’s up to you as many of us have more books to read than hours in which to read them.

The year began and ended with Mary Renault’s The Charioteer, which I re-read at the turn of 2012 and start of 2013 in company with a group on Good Reads. Then as an early Christmas present BBC Radio 4 had Anton Lesser reading a severely abridged version of the book but he read it so convincingly with seemingly a different voice for each of the characters. I’m hoping it will be available as an audio book so that I can listen to it all over again.

During January 2013 I was putting the final touches to the manuscript of Convoy. Well actually I was panicking over whether it was good enough to let my publisher have it so I kept going back to my shelf full of Malta books. You can read blog posts from earlier in the year to discover my favourites amongst these books including those by Tom Neil and Laddie Lucas.

I managed a couple of times during the year to take part in the War and Literature Readalong organised by Caroline of  Beauty is a Sleeping Cat blog. It provided the motivation to read Kevin Powers fragile butterfly of a book – The Yellow Birds and I’m currently late with finishing the final book The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, because it is so moving and humane I don’t want to rush it

As you might expect my year’s reading had lots of poetry in it. Hearing Sharon Olds read from Stag’s Leap at the TS Eliot prize event in January was a highlight of the year, as was her book.

During the year I took a long time over David Jones In Parenthesis – his long poem about the first world war. It was a reading which gathered momentum as I followed the journey of the soldiers over to France, in training and then moving up to the front line and then on to Mametz wood where for many of them their lives ended. My own copy of In Parenthesis is now dog eared and got considerably water logged in October when I took it to Mametz to read n the company of Jeremy Banning and the Writers Pals; Vanessa Gebbie, Zoe King, Tania Hershmann and Sarah Salway.

I think Jones would have been somewhat bemused at the thought of his book being taken back there where he had to abandon his rifle under one of the oaks. I like to think he’d also be pleased that his work is still remembered. If you haven’t already read In Parenthesis I would encourage you to do so and you are allowed to take months to do so.

Tony Conran died at the end of January 2013 and it seemed fitting to remember him by reading his elegy for the Welsh killed in the Falklands and here is an extract. You can read the whole poem in The Shape of My Country.

Elegy for the Welsh Dead, in the Falkland Islands, 1982

Gwyr a aeth Gatraeth oedd ffraetheu llu
Glasfedd eu hancwyn, a gwenwyn fu
Y Gododdin (6th century)

(Men went to Catraeth, keen was their company.
They were fed on fresh mead, and it proved poison.)

Men went to Catraeth. The luxury liner
For three weeks feasted them.
They remembered easy ovations.
Our boys, splendid in courage.
For three weeks the albatross roads,
Passwords of dolphin and petrel,
Practised their obedience
Where the killer whales gathered,
Where the monstrous seas yelped.
Though they went to church with their standards.
Raw death has them garnished.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Poetry dinner party

Following on from the early posting about Half Life of Fathers the poetry dinner is now in full swing with guests, William Blake, Issac Rosenberg, Christina Rossetti, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney and whoever it was who wrote the Song of Solomon. Vanessa Gebbie is organising them into reciting their poems as follows:

I’d like to hear the visionary William Blake reading ‘The Tyger’, 

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears: 
Did he smile his work to see? 
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 

Then Rosenberg will read Dead Man’s Dump, including:

None saw their spirits' shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the
doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.

Christina Rossetti will go next, and read ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, with special emphasis on the lines:

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:

Dylan Thomas will choose ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ which closes:

Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion. 
Then they’ll all read bits and bobs from the song of Solomon, while the brandy flows (poured by DT), and Rossetti will blush.
The last word goes to Seamus Heaney reading his Haw Lantern. flinch before its bonded pith and stone,
its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,
its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.

The Half Life of Fathers

Today I’m delighted to welcome the multi-talented Vanessa Gebbie to my blog. Vanessa is the author of The Coward’s Tale, published by BloomsburyWords From A Glass Bubble and  Storm Warning  two short story collections published by Salt, editor of  Short Circuit, A Guide to the Art of the Short Story which has recently gone into a second edition, winner of many awards and facilitator of writers’ workshops and retreats. Most importantly her first poetry book, The Half Life of Fathers has just been published by Pighog Press.

Welcome Vanessa.

My first question is how does poetry fit in with the rest of your writing and how do you make time for it?

Hmm, that isn’t an easy question to answer, in that I don’t ‘make time’ for poetry, really. If something arrives and is a poem, it gets written down whether I am in the study (unusual), doing something other than writing, thinking about something else (more usual), or reading poetry by others (even more usual). I do however ‘make time’ for writing in general. It’s ‘what I do’, so most of my time is devoted to some aspect of writing, whether it is creating, revising, editing, teaching, or reading.

Do you consciously look for subjects for poems or do poems come to you? In short what inspires you?
If you examine too closely that which inspires you, asking of it why it does, it loses some of its magnetism. Not sure why that is - maybe something to do with a weight of expectation. ie, me expecting to write something ‘worthwhile’ - so is it deliberateness that undoes the creativity? Having said all that, there are some things that never fail to move me, make me want to explore, record, whatever it is we are doing when we write. Human endeavour/ human courage is hugely inspirational - and that manifests itself most perfectly the more I discover about the ordinary men and women who were caught up in the Great War. So, knowing that, I do make a conscious effort to surround myself with that particular inspiration - by visiting the battlefields with other writers (as you know!), by reading, and doing my own research for prose projects.  Other inspirations tend to be non-categoriseable. Just experiences that make me feels something, I guess - so I also feel the need to capture it in words. 

How long did it take you to write the poems which are in the Half Life of Fathers? When you were putting together the collection how did you decide on the order of the poems and were there any which had to be left out?

I suppose the answer to that is, as long as I have been writing poetry - so some six years or so. At no point did I ever think, ‘I am writing for a collection’, as most of my poems never got sent anywhere, just the odd few. The rest were forgotten about in the depths of  the computer. When the collection was eventually on the chocks, I had to look at the overarching themes of those poems. They tended to fall into groups - lost places, lost people - especially my own father -  and responses to the battlefield trips, or other manifestations of war - notably some Rolls of Honour. 
       Ordering them - it made sense to begin with a poem that encapsulated the theme of ‘The Half-life of Fathers’ - en elegy to a friend, whose legacy will remain with me through his poetry and his encouragement, as well as happy memories of his maverick nature. It made sense to keep the war poems together, to keep poems about my father’s final decline into dementia together, and to keep a loose grouping of lost places and lost family snippets together. I read somewhere about the importance of the first lines of the first poem of a collection, and the last line of the last.  Hopefully, there is a coherence between the two.  
        There were plenty I decided not to include! For no reason other then they weren’t good enough, to my eye/ear.

It can be notoriously difficult to get a collection of poems accepted for publication, do you have any advice for someone else who is sitting with a pile of poems and wondering what to do with them?

All I can suggest is what I did, because it worked for me - send  what you believe to be ‘the best’  to good poetry publications, and to competitions. It was a competition success that gave me the impetus to seek a publisher for a first pamphlet. That begs the question, ‘how do you define ‘the best’? For me, it was those pieces that still made me feel again, long afterwards, the intense emotion I felt as I wrote them.

Unlike novels there doesn’t seem to be a ready-made audience of people willing to buy and read poems. What about this particular set of poems would pique the interest of the general reader.

You can understand them! I enjoy poetry I understand at first meeting, as well as that which reveals more layers on re-reading. But that initial meeting with the poem is like meeting someone for the first time. If they go out of their way not to communicate, to make you feel stupid, why would you want to waste any more time on them? If they are interesting, you sit down and engage in conversation, and maybe discover a few unexpected things

And finally this is the dinner party question but since it is nearly Christmas rather than asking which six poets you’d invite over for supper I was wondering which poets, living and dead would be on your Christmas card list?

Can I go back to the dinner party model? Christmas cards may not be entirely appropriate. And I’m sticking to those who are no longer with us - choosing living ones is far far too hard, and I don’t have a dining table big enough! 

1.        Whoever wrote the Song of Solomon.  

2.        Dylan Thomas.

3.        Christina Rossetti. 

4.        Isaac Rosenberg

5.        William Blake

6.        Seamus Heaney

Quite right too. Who wants to be reminded of the dreaded Christmas card list a dinner party sounds much more fun. I'd like to come to this one as I can imagine the conversations. Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney will have read all the others poetry of course although I think it will probably be Seamus who makes sure that someone like Isaac does know that we are still reading his poems and remembering him. It would be good to get Rossetti, Rosenberg and Blake discussing London, what has changed and what has stayed the same. If I am allowed to come to the party I'd bring David Jones along with me who I'm sure would also be interested in telling us about his London. The evening will have to end with a poetry reading won't it? So your final task is to decide which poems they should read and in which order. I think we should end with the Song of Solomon myself 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Julia Copus at Woodstock

It was the second Woodstock Poetry festival in Oxfordshire this weekend. This is an up and coming festival and I didn’t know about it last year. So with the assistance of Cassandra the satnav I and a friend set off on Saturday to hear Alice Oswald recite Memorial in the entirely appropriate setting of the Woodstock Methodist chapel. I’ve previously written about Memorial and it was just as mesmerising to hear it for a second time

Next on the bill was Julia Copus. I like her style of poems and this was a chance to hear them in a smaller setting than the TS Eliot prize readings of 2012. Her most recent collection is  The World's Two Smallest Humans .
She is credited with having ‘invented’ the mirror poem in which the lines of the second verse repeat those of the first but in reverse order. As she charmingly and disarmingly explained she thinks this form has been around for a lot longer than her. One of my favourite poems of the evening, Raymond, at 60, is a mirror poem about her uncle, who remained child-like even as an adult. There were more real people in some of the other poems – Jan Grzelski who was in a coma for nineteen years, an ex-husband in ‘This Is the Poem in which I Have Not Left You’ and the German great grandfather of her current husband. He was killed in the first world war and this is one of the poems commissioned by Carol Ann Duffy for 1914 Poetry remembers. Julia Copus gave just enough explanation before each poem to give you the context. I left Woodstock wanting more poems which is just as it should be since I came away with a copy of The World’s Two Smallest Humans.