Friday, 19 January 2018

Fear and Self-Loathing in the Suburbs

There has been a lot of talk lately about working class writers.

What do you say when some one asks you what class you are? Do you know what class you are? I am not not sure that I know how to answer that question anymore. I definitely grew up working class - five of us lived in a two bedroomed council house. My dad worked in industry - although he was not a labourer but had a skilled job as an engineering draughtsman. I left school at 16. I was on the dole. I did a series of unskilled and labour intensive jobs - farm work, cleaning, warehouse work, catering. It was only in my late twenties that I began to study and therefore improve my lot. I trained as a nursery nurse and became a pre-school supervisor. I trained and became (albeit briefly) a reflexologist. Then at 40 I had an epiphany quit my job and went back to study full time - first doing a creative writing degree and then a poetry MA. Therein is the heart of the problem - I feel both working class and middle class at the same time. Basically I feel like I don't quite fit in either camp.

This is why I have a problem with the question 'where are all the working class writers?' To me it seems that if you are a writer the act of writing itself means that perhaps you are no longer working class. I feel like on some levels getting educated made me middle class. I feel working class and I can certainly write about my own working class experiences, however, looked out from the outside my life might seem very middle class. I work in the arts - teaching, writing, mentoring etc. I live in a middle class area (although I am poor and rent my house). I have a degree and an MA (and the corresponding massive student debt). My son went to university and did an MA. Our house is full of books and art stuff. I go to live literature events. When I can afford it I go to the theatre. I moved house because my son was unhappy and I wanted him to go to a better school. So as you can see on a lot of levels I am middle class now - however I have never felt like I quite fit in. I rent my house rather than owning it (some one once described my end of the street as 'the common end' - meaning lots of rentals). I was a single parent. My career started late, so consequently I don't have the advantages of years in a decent job.

The book I am working on is not really about class - although class does come into it. It is more about identity (and threat to identity). It is about what shapes and defines us - and in this collection at least it examines the things that threaten both us and our identity - things people say and do, ways we cause pain and discomfort to one another, conflict (familial, local, global), the stories we tell our families and those our families tell us, the stories we tell ourselves.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Books read in 2017

196) The Blackwater Lightship - Colm Tóibín (fiction)
195) Murder Bear - W.N. Herbert (poetry)
194) Bottle - Ramona Herdman (poetry)
193) The Price of Water in Finistère - Bodil Malmsten (non fiction)
192) The End of the Alphabet - Claudia Rankine (poetry)
191) Starlight on Water - Helena Nelson (poetry)
190) Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow - Ted Hughes (poetry, re-read)
189) That Eye, the Sky - Tim Winton (fiction)
188) A Herring Famine - Adam O'Riordan (poetry)
187) Ideal Cities - Erika Meitner (poetry)
186) The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx - Tara Bergin (poetry)
185) What I Was - Meg Rosoff (fiction)
184) Understudies for Air - Daisy Lafarge (poetry)
183) Mancunia - Michael Symmons Roberts (poetry)
182) Cur - Martin Malone (poetry)
181) Nox - Anne Carson (poetry)
180) Selfie with Waterlilies - Paul Stephenson (poetry)
179) Nothing Here Is Wild, Everything Is Open - Tania Hershman (poetry)
178) Elizabeth Jennings: Selected Poems - Elizabeth Jennings (poetry)
177) Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit (poetry)
176) The sky is cracked - Sarah L. Dixon (poetry)
175) Ideal Cities - Erika Meitner (poetry)
174) The Likeness - Martha Kapos (poetry)
173) The Darkness of Snow - Frank Ormsby (poetry)
172) The God Baby - Hilda Sheehan (poetry)
171) A Journal of the Plague Year - Daniel Defoe (fiction)
170) Terms and Conditions - Tania Hershman (poetry)
169) Primers: Volume Two (poetry)
168) All My Mad Mothers - Jacqueline Saphra (poetry)
167) To Sweeten Bitter - Raymond Antrobus (poetry)
166) Eyrie - Tim Winton (fiction)
165) The Night My Sister Went to Hollywood - Hilda Sheehan (poetry)
164) In the Winter Dark - Tim Winton (fiction)
163) Grief is the Thing With Feathers - Max Porter (poetry, re-read)
162) The Knifethrower's Wishlist - Nicola Warwick (poetry)
161) I Capture The Castle - Dodie Smith (fiction)
160) The Rosie Project (Don Tillman #1) - Graeme Simsion (fiction)
159) Winter Migrants - Tom Pickard (poetry)
158) The Nameless Places - Richard Lambert (poetry)
157) A Patchwork Planet - Anne Tyler (fiction)
156) Seasonal Disturbances - Karen McCarthy Woolf (poetry)
155) Moonrise - Meirion Jordan (poetry)
154) Dirt - William Letford (poetry)
153) On Balance - Sinéad Morrissey (poetry)
152) No More Milk - Karen Craigo (poetry)
151) Would Like to Meet - Polly James (fiction)
150) Carry Yourself Back to Me - Deborah Reed (fiction)
149) A Year Without Apricots - Kate Foley (poetry)
148) The Mezzanine - Nicholson Baker (fiction)
147) Antinopolis - Elizabeth Parker (poetry)
146) Slate Rising - Alison Hill (poetry)
145) Gig - Roger McGough (poetry)
144) Nothing Personal - Sibyl Ruth (poetry)
143) Hunger - Knut Hamsun (fiction)
142) The Dig & Hotel Fiesta - Lynn Emanuel (poetry)
141) Strawberries and Black Pudding - Joyce Mansour (poetry)
140) The Number Poems - Matthew Welton (poetry)
139) Fence - Tim Cresswell (poetry)
138) The Silvering - Maura Dooley (poetry)
137) Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human Being - Henning Mankell (non fiction)
136) The Months - Susan Wicks (poetry)
135) The Sorrows of an American - Siri Hustvedt (fiction)
134) Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals - Patricia Lockwood (poetry)
132) The Blazing World - Siri Hustvedt (fiction)
131) Pool Epitaphs and Other Love Letters - Agnes Lehoczky (poetry)
130) Tonguit - Harry Giles (poetry, re-read)
129) Bird Sisters - Julia Webb (poetry, re-read)
128) Measures of Expatriation - Vahni Capildeo (poetry)
127) I Saw a Man - Owen Sheers (fiction)
126) Astéronymes - Claire Trévien (poetry)
125) Breath - Tim Winton (fiction)
124) The Unaccompanied - Simon Armitage (poetry)
123) Mouthy - Emily Rose Kahn-Sheahan (poetry)
122) Our Animal - Meredith Stricker (poetry)
121) Still Life with Feeding Snake - John Burnside (poetry)
120) Identity Papers - Ian Seed (poetry)
119) Dirt Music - Tim Winton (fiction)
118) If I'm Scared We Can't Win - Emily Berry, Anne carson, Sophie Collins (poetry)
117) Life as It - Daneen Wardrop (poetry)
116) Except by Nature - Sandra Alcosser (poetry)
115) The Wall - William Sutcliffe (fiction)
114) Jackself - Jacob Polley (poetry)
113) Waiting for Bluebeard - Helen Ivory (poetry, re-read)
112) Bird-Woman - Em Strang (poetry)
111) See You Soon: Poems - Laura McKee (poetry)
110) Rather be the Devil - Ian Rankin (fiction)
109) Nine Stories - J.D. Salinger (fiction, short stories)
108) Night Sky with Exit Wounds - Ocean Vuong (poetry)
107) The Dogs That Chase Bicycle Wheels - Ilse Pedler (poetry)
106) The Poem Is You: Sixty Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them - Stephen Burt (poetry, non-fiction)
105) Looking For Trouble - Charles Simic (poetry)
104) Knocks - Emily Stewart (poetry)
103) Five Sextillion Atoms - Jayne Benjulian (poetry)
102) Wintering - Megan Snyder-Camp (poetry)
101) Blood Sugar Canto - Ire'ne Lara Silva (poetry)
100) Void Studies - Rachael Boast (poetry)
99) Zeppelins - Chris McCabe (poetry)
98) A World Where News Travelled Slowly - Lavinia Greenlaw (poetry, re-read)
97) A Tug of Blue - Eleanor Hooker (poetry)
96) Communing - Ben Banyard (poetry)
95) Occupation - Angela France (poetry)
94) The Occupant - Jane Draycott (poetry)
93) A northern spring - Frank Ormsby (poetry)
92) Everything is Scripted - James Giddings (poetry)
91) Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth - Warsan Shire (poetry)
90) Terry Street - Douglas Dunn (poetry)
89) The Fabulous Relatives - Stephen Smith (poetry)
88) Savage - Rebecca Tamás (poetry)
87) Brother of the More Famous Jack - Barbara Trapido (fiction)
86) Inquisition Lane - Matthew Sweeney (poetry)
85) Tell Mistakes I Love Them - Stephen Daniels (poetry)
84) Bastard Out Of Carolina - Dorothy Allison (fiction)
83) Incarnation - Clare Pollard (poetry)
82) Stranger, Baby - Emily Berry (poetry)
81) Foxlowe - Eleanor Wasserberg (fiction)
80) Nine Horses - Billy Collins (poetry, re read)
79) Beans in Snow - Jennifer Copley (poetry)
78) Anima - Mario Petrucci (poetry)
77) Gone Fishing with Samy Rosenstock - Toadhouse (poetry)
76) Every Little Sound - Ruby Robinson (poetry)
75) Supreme Being - Matha Kapos (poetry)
74) Euclid's Harmonics - Jonathan Morley (poetry)
73) Slant Light - Sarah Westcott (poetry)
72) To the Left of Time - Thomas Lux (poetry)
71) One With Others: [a little book of her days] - C.D. Wright (poetry, re-read)
70) Exercises in Style - Raymond Queneau (Fiction - short stories)
69) Momentary Stars - Edward Vanderpump (poetry)
68) The Shape of a Forest - Jemma L. King
67) The Dead Sea Poems - Simon Armitage (poetry)
66) That Little Something - Charles Simic (poetry)
65) Ghost of the Fisher Cat - Afric McGlinchey (poetry)
64) Eclipse - Kim Lasky (poetry)
63) Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric - Claudia Rankine (poetry)
62) A Spillage of Mercury - Neil Rollinson (poetry)
61) A Career in Accompaniment - Alex Reed (poetry)
60) Anchored - Lorna Shaughnessy (poetry)
59) Dreaming of Our Better Selves - Marion Tracy (poetry)
58) The Man With Night Sweats - Thom Gunn (poetry)
57) CivilWarLand in Bad Decline - George Saunders (fiction, short stories)
56) Settle - Theresa Muñoz (poetry)
55) Ghosts - Anna Wigley (poetry)
54) Brother - Matthew Dickman & Michael Dickman (poetry)
53) Which Reminded Her, Later: Family Snapshots - Jon McGregor (fiction)
52) Henry and Susie are Missing - Hilda Sheehan (poetry)
51) If I Talked Everything My Eyes Saw - Natacha Bryan (poetry)
50) The Mole in the Mountain - Cressida Lindsay (fiction)
49) The Back Door Man - Dave Buschi (fiction)
48) The Book of Tides - Angela Readman (poetry)
47) The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion (non fiction)
46) Complicity - Tom Sastry (poetry)
45) The Swan Machine - Dean Parkin (poetry)
44) Contemporary British Poetry and the City - Peter Barry (non fiction)
43) Waiting For Spring - R.J. Keller (fiction)
42) The Bricks that Built the Houses - Kate Tempest (fiction)
41) Winesburg, Ohio; a group of tales of Ohio small town life - Sherwood Anderson (Fiction, short stories)
40) The Enchantment Of Lily Dahl - Siri Hustvedt (fiction)
39) Singing Underwater by Susan Wicks (poetry)
38) The Glass Age - Cole Swensen (poetry)
37) Meeting the British - Paul Muldoon (poetry)
36) Bolt Down This Earth - Gram Joel Davies (poetry)
35) From A to X: A Story in Letters - John Berger (fiction)
34) In Doctor No's Garden - Henry Shukman (poetry)
33) Saints of the Shadow Bible (Inspector Rebus, #19) - Ian Rankin (fiction)
32) The Plural Space - Matthew Mahaney (poetry)
31) Even Dogs in the Wild (Inspector Rebus, #20) - Ian Rankin (fiction)
30) Youth - J.M. Coetzee (fiction)
29) Mending the Ordinary - Liz Lefroy (poetry)
28) Ways of Seeing - John Berger (non fiction)
27) Under Milk Wood - Dylan Thomas (play/poetry)
26) Nine Horses - Billy Collins (poetry)
25) West South West - Erin Moure (poetry)
24) New European Poets -Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer (poetry)
23) The Deptford Trilogy - Robertson Davies (fiction)
22) Species of Spaces and Other Pieces - Georges Perec (non fiction)
21) The Elephant Tests - Matt Merritt (poetry)
20) Twenty Four Preludes And Fugues On Dmitri Shostakovich - Joanna Boulter (poetry)
19) The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris - Edmund White (non fiction)
18) Edgelands - Paul Farley and Michael Symmonds Roberts (non fiction)
17) The Ruined Elegance: Poems by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (poetry)
16) Carillonneur - Agnes Lehoczky (poetry)
15) Flatrock - Fran Lock (poetry)
14) The Land Between - Wendy Mulford (poetry)
13) Amazon - Catherine Ayres (poetry, Re read)
12) Geography for the Lost -Kapka Kassabova (poetry)
11) On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft - Stephen King (non fiction)
10) Tonguit - Harry Giles (poetry)
9) Mrs Uomo's Yearbook - Danielle Hope (poetry)
8) Profit and Loss - Leontia Flynn (Poetry)
7) Before I die - Jenny Downham (fiction, YA)
6) The Cabal and Other Stories - Ellen Gilchrist (fiction, short stories)
5) How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published - Helena Nelson (non-fiction)
4) Species - Mark Burnhope (poetry)
3) Lustful Feminist Killjoys - Anna Percy & Rebecca Audra Smith (poetry)
2) Deepstep Come Shining - C.D. Wright (poetry, re read)

1) Acts of God - Ellen Gilchrist (fiction, short stories)

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Arvon and a tentative return to form

It has been a busy couple of months since I last blogged. In November I went on an Arvon course at Lumb Bank. The course was called The Difficult Second Album and was aimed specifically at poets writing a second collection. I had been looking longingly at it in the brochure on and off all year, knowing that there was no way that I could afford it. However in September I decided that I would ask them for a grant - assuming they would say no - they said yes, and then I got my Arts Council grant and that paid for the other bit and the train tickets.

On arrival I was initially disappointed to find that Helen Mort was too sick to come and that Bill (Herbert) would instead be running the course with Tara Bergin who had originally been the planned mid week reader. Tara stepped in as tutor and Kim Moore took her place as midweek reader.

On the first evening we were asked a series of questions about our own writing practice (things we were happy or unhappy with, things we might want to change) and about the collection we are working on, these were questions to take away and think about during the week. This was extremely useful. I found that during the course of the week some things had begun to shift in the way I was viewing my collection and how the poems were working together as a whole.

In the morning workshops the tutors gave us lots of exercises that were designed to take us out of our comfort zones and our usual go-to ways of writing. All the exercises were fun but some were quite challenging. I found that even if I didn’t produce anything immediately usable I was almost always left with the beginnings of something to work on later. These exercises gave me some new approaches to my subject matter that I will definitely take forward and use in my collection. I produced several poems during the week that once edited might well go in the collection too.

The tutorials that I had with Tara and Bill were immensely helpful. Bill provided interesting ideas on ordering of lines and stanzas within individual poems. We also had a really interesting discussion on how the poems (and the voices of the poems) were fitting/working together in the collection as a whole – ordering the collection is something that I have been struggling with so this was really helpful. I have come away with new ideas on how to approach this – for example I am now planning to break up a sequence of poems that had previously been clumped together and use parts of it between the other poems in the book to tie them together thematically. Tara gave me some really useful ways of thinking about and owning difficult subject matter and on how to tap the power of particular poems. She also gave me a very helpful suggestion about retitling a poem to make it more alarming and powerful.

The group was lovely and right from the beginning it felt like a very supportive and creative atmosphere to be in. I came away from the week invigorated and inspired - and sad to leave the hills and my new poetry family behind.

Of course once back in everyday life it is hard to keep up the momentum. I have managed little bits of writing though, and this week I found myself writing a specular. The specular is not a form I had been particularly drawn to before, although I had written one - or rather made one (from bits of John Berryman's letters to his mother) during my week at Lumb Bank. I have been using a lot of repetition of words, phrases and lines in my recent poems - although not using strict forms. I have been using some rhyme as well, which is something I am not usually a fan of. It is interesting to me that I am being drawn to rhyme and repetition. I have often felt a real resistance to writing in form in the past. I like the way a specular can change the meaning of what has previously been said and bring new insights into the subject of the poem. I am now beginning to wonder if I will end up having anything like a sestina or villanelle in the collection - some of the repetitive poems almost feel like they could be in one of these forms - however where the subject matter is very chaotic it felt more natural that they were almost in form but not quite, so that the poem becomes as dysfunctional as its subject matter.


Saturday, 11 November 2017

Home Town - Notes to Self:

That feeling of belonging yet not belonging

A feeling of unsafeness now in some of the old familiar places

The way I no longer fit, though it haunts my dreams

The way places change

The way people change

Wanting to tread those familiar paths

Looking for familiar faces in the precinct

Place names and what they represent

Stories we tell ourselves

Memories or half memories

The things that make up the self

The way things look different

That slight sense of disappointment

The way places change

The way it still fits like a comfy old shoe

But there is a hole in the sole and it rubs a little where your feet have got wider

But you remember where it took you and you can't quite let go

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Self as Hometown (or hometown as self)

The idea of hometown is something that I have been exploring in my writing recently - exactly what hometown means to me, where my hometown is, what it is/was like, what effect the environment that I grew up in had on me etc. I have often found myself perplexed by the term hometown - people often ask me what my hometown is and I am never really sure how to answer them. Is it the place I was born, the place where I spent my formative years, or is it the place that I have lived in for the longest amount of time? Or is it the place that I am most drawn to - the place that feels like home? In these migratory times I suspect that there are many people who feel just as rootless as I do. I rather envy people like my son, who was born, grew up and still lives in the same place. I usually answer the question by saying where I grew up, the place where I spent my formative years. This is the place that I am revisiting in some of the poems for my new collection, not just the place itself, but the people and the attitudes of the place and time. Hometown also suggests to me the idea of self and selfhood, as if the self is a type of hometown whose streets and borders change over the years much like those of a real town. Buildings are knocked down and newer modern ones are erected. The self, of course, operates within the language and parameters of the actual hometown. It is, when one starts to examine it, a many layered, multi-faceted thing. And, of course, our recognisable self begins to be formed in our hometown during our formative years, it is moulded by our families and schools, the people we meet and the experiences we have - both good and bad. I am not sure exactly where the collection is going to go, but I am finding it an exciting process getting there. 

Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Difficult Second Collection

I am working on my second poetry collection. I have been working on it for what seems like a long time. Writing poems is not the problem for me, I have pretty regular flurries of writing. The hardest part, for me, is putting the collection together - deciding what order to put the poems in, where the gaps are, what to leave out.

The trouble is that it is hard to always be objective about your own writing. I think that I am fairly objective when editing. I am good at taking on board criticism and responding accordingly. I am actually a pretty rigorous editor of my own work - I edit and re-edit. I am always tweaking right up until publication. But viewing the poems as a body of work that work together as single beast is quite another thing. I had a few nights away earlier in the year to try and get to grips with it. I ordered the poems, then I re-ordered them, and then I ordered them again. Then I gave up and started writing. By the third day (when it was almost time to go home) I had started writing a sequence. I think that the sequence is going to be important to the collection, but I haven't had the mental space to get much further with it at home.

One of the things that happens if I am away on my own is that I get into a creative rhythm. It takes a few days to hit it - usually around three. I have to do a lot of reading and a lot of mediocre writing, then suddenly I hit my stride and I am away. When I was writing my first collection I had a week away in Wells-next-the-sea. I thought I had gone there to work on ordering the collection. What happened instead was that I wrote one of the major sequences in the book. It is rare that I write proper sequences at home. I don't have the time or the mental space that it needs. I don't have a designated workspace. I have work and demands and noisy neighbours and all the day to day stuff that I am able to put aside temporarily when I am away.

I have applied for an Arts Council grant - one of the things I have asked for is time away to write.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

some thoughts on subject matter and away time

In my writing at the moment I am exploring place/time/class through methods that are both usual and more experimental than in my first collection. I plan to explore the idea of "hometown" and what it means and how it is located in time and space - and currently I am exploring my own experience of hometown by writing about the place where I grew up. I am exploring in the idea of belonging and not belonging through examination of my own past and experiences growing up in a small town in rural Norfolk in the 1980s -  a small town fraught with its own particular prejudices and restrictions.

When I was away for a few days recently I began to write a sequence of poems that are a more fictional exploration of the them. To really get inside a sequence one needs time and space. I find it takes me two to three days to switch off and tune in, by the third or fourth day away I start to write in a new and more exciting way (unfortunately I only had four nights away this time). Sequences that spring from these away spaces and reading times are very different to to poems and sequences written at home; they arrive from an unbroken thread of creative thinking and I may, given the time, write ten to fifteen poems about the same characters or on the same subject over a few days. I won't keep all those of course, but writing that many means that I really explore something deeply and that the finished poem will only contain the strongest of the stanzas/poems I have written. It is important to mention too that reading is an important part of this process.

I was trying to describe to a friend how this away time works on me and I could only liken it to an opening out of the brain. At home (and in the city) I my thinking feels very constricted and compartmentalised. I do a lot of different things and consequently I have lots of different threads of thinking tumbling over each other vying for space - writing/reading/editing Lighthouse/teaching/Biblio/Stanza/social stuff/Gatehouse/domestic chores/my son/mentoring etc. I cope with this by trying to contain each thing - but it means that my head is very crowded and stressed. When I go away I am able to put most of that stuff aside and after a while it feels like my mind is expanding outwards - a bit like someone taking the blinkers off and allowing the light to pour in. It is a great feeling and I would really like to try doing it for longer than a few days at a time because I suspect that it would have a dramatic effect on my writing. Unfortunately finances do not allow for that right now.