Monday, 2 April 2018

collection as an entity in its own right - making sense of chaos

The second day of NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) and today marks a long awaited return to thinking about my collection. At the beginning of March I went to see my mentor (Pascale Petit) in Cornwall and I have avoided looking at it since. I had thought it was finished and I had shown it to a friend who also thought it was finished. Pascale, however, didn't agree. She felt that the title was misleading and that I needed to rethink the sections and put a different poem as the opener. She was right of course, it is just uncomfortable to hear and involves a major rethink of order. Since I saw her I have been engaged in a period of busyness, creative procrastination and avoidance, but of course while all that is going on the subconscious mind is worrying away at the problem.

Today I started really thinking about the order in earnest. Pascale was definitely right about the poem she suggested as the opener. I realised that I have  been resistant to putting it first because it feels more scary, as of course it sets the whole tone for the book. Aside from that I am still nowhere near knowing how to reorder the poems. This morning I spent some time looking at some of my favourite collections (All My Mad Mothers, What the Living Do, Falling Awake and Say Something Back) to see how they are ordered. I also re-read Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, which is a book I read when I was working on my first collection. One of the things I realised from reading it again is that maybe I have been too obvious in clumping themed poems together - for example family poems, relationship poems, home town poems etc. I may need to be more fluid in my connections and find other ways that the poems speak to one another. Originally the book was divided into five sections, the titles of which were: Honey Don't Blow Up the Kids; Heart is where the Home Is; Tell Me More Lies About Love; Family and Other Distractions; and Evidence of Body. I may keep a couple of these in some form but I am not sure yet.

To help me think about order I started thinking about what the themes are in a less overt way. This is what I have come up with so far:

body as an entity in its own right

body as a house for the soul or spirit

body as commodity (that which we have become)

grief vs guilt

making sense of the past

making sense of emotion

the physical weight of the past

class and the struggle to know where/how/if one fits in

the family as guardian and destroyer

self vs identity

the curse/blessing of femininity (woman and her relationship to the world)

hometown (where do we come from/where do we really belong?)

Of course some of these overlap one another, but I am hoping it will help me think about how the poems hang together. I have also started writing more bits that may help tie it all together. I had also been waiting to see if a sequence I started in Devon was good enough to go into the collection - it's always wise to get a bit of distance between writing something and deciding if it actually has legs. It is too easy to get overexcited about something fresh and think it is the best thing you have written. I think this sequence is good enough though and including it will change the shape of the whole, which is probably a good thing. The hardest thing will be saying goodbye to a few poems that I am fond of and that have already been published. Never easy but it will make for a better MS in the long run.

My plan now is to work some more on order and fitting the new poems in and then make a date to meet up with Jane at Nine Arches Press, who has brilliant editorial eye.

Read about ordering my first collection here

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Mother's Day Poem - Knitting

My mother is knitting a womb,
soft click of needles in the semi-darkness,
pictures from the turned down TV
reflected in the half-moons of her glasses,

she watches a mime of cowboys
slinging guns in a dusty street,
a stampede of shooting and horses;
all that death.

My mother is knitting a womb,
out of wool the colour of wine or blood,
her glass of wine on the low coffee table,
a man falls down dead in the dust.

My mother smiles,
she hears me in the doorway,
come in dear she says don’t just stand there,
I sit down next to her in the semi-darkness,

sinking into the cushions of the old red sofa,
she pours me a glass of wine,
a man falls off a roof,
a horse rolls in the dust.

Julia Webb

Sunday, 11 February 2018

New Directions and Big Decisions

This collection that I am working on is becoming increasingly problematic - not so much because of its themes or even the ordering of the poems - but because it is simply too big - and to make matters worse I can't stop writing. I have culled it by about half already and it is still at 90 plus A4 pages. I know I shouldn't moan - most people I have spoken to have pointed out that this is surely a good problem to have, and in some ways they are right. I am beginning to wonder whether I should pull one of the threads out (hoping, of course, that the whole thing doesn't unravel like an old jumper) and make it the back bone of another book.

To do that feels rather scary. For one thing most writers want to put their best stuff in their collections - why wouldn't you? For another thing there is no guarantee that I will even have a third collection published. I am lucky to have a second - and if the second is not well received I may not get another chance. The things I am writing now feel risky, and at the same time I am finding it incredibly exciting. Things that I am doing with my Arts Council funding (like the research trip to London) seem to be really bearing fruit and taking my ideas in new directions. The new stuff feels more rooted in the physical and less in the landscape of personal history - this in itself I find intriguing as I went to London to look more at my 'personal history' and while I did do that I found myself more moved by the physicality of the places I visited than any past connections. I would like to spend more time visiting there to see what more will come.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

A few thoughts about the use of language in poems

Language is glorious isn't it? For the last few months I have been fascinated by colloquialisms - those cliched sayings (often metaphors) that people use all the time in everyday speech. This morning, for example, I am obsessed with the phrase "the whole kit and caboodle." Looking it up on the internet I can find several different definitions and roots it stems from - but actually that's not what interests me about it. What I love is the sound of it. The shapes it forces the mouth into when you say it out loud. The images it conjures when you put it into the mouth of someone in a story or a poem. You can instantly imagine the type of person who might say it. In the poems I have been working on for my new collection I have slipped in a few of these kind of phrases. Yes they ARE cliched, but they are also the language of everyday speech and using the language of the everyday can make poetry more accessible. I think one can occasionally get away with using a cliched phrase when it is done deliberately and for a good reason. When you can't get away with it is when it is simply down to lazy writing - the phrase is used because it was the first that came to hand, or worse still - you hadn't noticed it's a cliche. Well I think I have got away with it. I guess time will tell.

Another thing I like to do is make up words or run words together (I got my class to write poems where they joined two words together and now a couple of my students are obsessed with it). I did an exercise from Helena Nelson's How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published which asked me to make up a word and use it in a poem. Making up a word is surprisingly difficult but it is fun to try. In the end I made up several words and used them all in one poem. For me it helped that I had an idea of the poem I wanted to write using the word and I wanted the word to sound wistful. You can read my poem here on Amaryllis. I think I can get away with it because it is one poem - although if I did it too often it could feel tired or gimmicky. For me the excitement of writing poetry is being able to constantly reinvent style and try out new things. I am influenced by what I am reading of course (both prose and poetry) but also by what's going on around me and by the world in general. I was reading a poem by Lynn Emanuel this morning (from her collection Then Suddenly) where she compares prose to poetry and she pretty much summed up how I feel about it (and why I have never finished my bits of novels). In poetry you don't need all the detail - the reader does a lot more of the work of getting from a to b themselves. "So please, don't ask me for a little trail of bread crumbs to get from the smile to the bedroom, and from the bedroom to the death at the end, although you can ask me a lot about death. That's all I like, the very beginning and the very end. I haven't got the stomach for the rest of it." (Lynn Emanuel 'The Politics of Narrative')

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.