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Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Lyric Lounge Laureates & Street Anthems

When people ask me 'What is poetry?' I often say: 'Poetry is singing with words.' Never has that been more true than with the trio of laureates who make up 'Three the Hard Way.' The influence of Jean Binta Breeze, an original dub-poet, is strong on the show's performance style. Jean is a legendary Caribbean poet and recent MBE, who has long had a second home in Leicester - lucky us. The voices of Alison Dunne, formerly the libraries Book Doctor, and Lydia Towsey, a sometime poet-ghoul, are equally distinctive though and they make a fabulous, gorgeous threesome. But before they gift us their poems together and separately, here comes the anthem of community arts that is the Lyric Lounge.

Today the Lounge is a 'jam-packed day of live-lit, music, film, masterclasses, open-mic spots and family-friendly activities' at Leicester's spanking Curve theatre. This carnival of arts is FREE to all - yes, you heard it right. In these days of Gradgrind and Gove, of banker Culture Ministers and libraries staffed by volunteers, somehow we sneaked in a publicly-funded festival of lyrics, laughter and improvised rhymes. I only caught the tail-end of it but the songs and sets from workshoppees and community groups showed a good time had been had by all amidst the borrowed sofas and curtain swags of the Curve's Lyric Lounge corner. As they warbled their way through laments for Belgrave's fly-over and celebrations of Leicester City's promotion, through poems about broken boilers, red budget boxes and crack cocaine, George Osborne made a few appearances. Delivered off the cuff and scribbled crib-sheets, occasionally a rhyme clunked or a rhythm stumbled - but the energy and exuberance of creativity let loose for a rare day out lifted all. It was witty, husky with passion, ukelele-accompanied and often, as one of Jean's lyrics reminded us, there were moments 'that made you gasp'. I was reminded all over again of the glory days of the original Lyric Lounge five years ago, fronted by the same excellent community poets, musicians and artists.

And finally we were treated to three sassy word-artists in their 'full-flow' - pitch-perfect, swerving seamlessly from an autobiographical mother-daughter poem to a lyric on slavery or Rwanda and on to a rousing chorus of  'I know, me duck, I know/ how this country leaves you broken-hearted;/ the summer's over before it's started ...' And all too soon, it was indeed over. But well worth catching if you spot them on tour at a venue near you.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Space to Mourn

Another beautiful OystercatcherPress chapbook - a slim pamphlet titled 'atthe memory exchange', immaculate design but so spare in its contents. However a brief dedication to the poet's parents tucked away on the copyright page reveals they both died the year before publication. And this note anchors the first sequence for me. Kathleen Bell's 'They come for you to buy and sell' is a moving meditation on mortality, lives lived, memory, death rituals, loss. The buying/selling metaphor maintains its grip throughout and its idioms nail the dead into their place as the men in 'tall hats' arrive to do their business:

'We bought it years ago

cash down


... and if you have the price

to buy it back

well, pay it now.'

The bereaved have their moment too:

'a child enters a wood

                       and cries

for something lost

she cannot name.'

Brevity is all here and I am interested in the hesitancy of verse line layout, those speaking spaces:

'I leave you

                        empty air

and a white page

remember me.'

The second sequence in this chapbook is also full of sorrowful echoes but 'Off Lampedusa' reflects on a found story. Apparently these drowned refugees washed ashore off Italy after a fire caused their overcrowded fishing boat to capsize. 366 died including many children. I only know this because I heard Katherine Bell read her sequence at Leicester's bi-monthly Shindig poetry event. The beach scene is haunting enough:

'flame on the ship

and corpses on the sand

                              so many, unimportant ...'


But Bell deepens the impact of this narrative by drawing analogies with travellers and exiles from classical Western literature. First up is 'that many-travelled man' Odysseus is rescued by Nausicaa and honoured at the feast. Later Jane Eyre stumbles across the moor and 'our minds say "Please/ please take her in."' But as for the refugee 'bulrush baby/ there's no promised land for you.' Fragment 13 offers an elegy for all these modern wanderers, bundling their humanity into another tentative assertion:

'people like us

             but braver

more afraid.'

Uncapitalised, unnamed and '(not a phone among 'em)' they are nonetheless mourned in Bell's second meditation. Oystercatcher Press have packed two huge stories into these 20 pages, full of resonances that ripple outward. But I would have liked some little footnote to reference the identity of those lost souls at Lampedusa. Also a credit for the artwork, an evocative seascape, which really helped to sell it to my roving eye at the bookstall.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Adventures, Authors & Workshops

There's been a lot of discussion about the merits of HE Creative Writing courses recently but I want to raise a cheer for WORKSHOPS. I have much enjoyed both leading and participating in such events and they have been vital to my development as a writer. With this in mind, my writers' group, LeicesterWriters' Club, run workshops several times a year for members. We have just had one such Day Out and I came away feeling happily jiggered, with all my writing muscles toned and ready for the long-distance running that is a writing career. In a packed weekend, we covered how to assemble and pitch poetry collections, generate narratives from random prompts, and manipulate viewpoint. My own offering was a session on writing reviews as I've been doing some for this blog.

with thanks to Lindsay Waller-Wilkinson

Leading a workshop is always a good way to crystallise your own understanding of a genre or technique. A writer never stops learning, especially when teaching. Back in October 2013, I ran a workshop for adults on Voicing Your Writing as part of the Everybody'sReading literature festival. Participants ranged from newbie writers to published authors but all suffered from 'public-speaking' nerves. You never know what will click most with individuals or different groups but we did a bit of everything. Over a flapjack-fuelled hour, we assembled body-words, hummed songs, warmed-up throats & mouths, practised abdominal breathing and throwing our voices and explored the mysteries of winning over an audience. The latter proved to be the most appreciated element for my workshopees. One writer, a seasoned ex-teacher, said she always expected an audience to throw things at her. Happily, she is now immersed in a popular library speaking tour promoting her first novel. Another emerging poet has gained the courage to run the gamut of Leicester's lively open-mic scene since the workshop. My tip was simple - 'remember audiences are always your best friend because they want you to enjoy entertaining them.'

With children, I find the special pleasure is sharing my enthusiasm for storytelling in whatever form. Some years back, I was invited to perform my Northern Lights poetry to an assemblyhall full of 7-9 year olds. Since my poetry is for adults and quite complex, I wasn't sure how this would work. But they seemed genuinely excited and fully engaged with the performance. After a lively interactive session of Arctic warm-ups, reindeer quizzes and football chants, I then announced a workshop on story-writing. 'Oh noooo - not stories!' groaned a group of boys which quite shocked me. Of course, in practice, it wasn't stories they hated but writing which seemed the Devil's Work to them. With some skilled teacher guidance however, they came up with wonderful narratives in response to the question - 'Where does your flying reindeer take you?' To a World Cup Final on Mars - which is made of chocolate apparently. With an abundance of imagination and curiosity, these Reluctant Writers showed they wanted adventures not endless assessment ... but that's another story.

I also want these kids to feel that creative writing or storytelling is not the exclusive domain of adults, specialists or author-geniuses. The craft of narrative or verse can be taught. For myself, there's no question that attending writing classes have sharpened my techniques and stretched the flexibility of my writing voice. I love the throw-away, no-pressure, playfulness of workshops just as much as the Holmfield kids did. Over the years, I have learned how to cast off poetry conceptions with John Gallas, grasp poetry as show-not-tell-business with Liz Lochead, understand the function of line-breaks with Mimi Khalvati, plumb the power of taboos with John Siddique, sense out the musicality of poetry with Jean Binta Breeze and explore the nature of our creativity with Mario Petrucci. Each of these experienced practitioners has enriched my writing practice and I look forward to many more such encounters in the special environment that is the workshop.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Hyper Texts & Applique Astronauts

As I prepare for a weekend of workshops with Leicester Writers' Club, I'm still enjoying the harvest from last Saturday's publishing fair - States of Independence. This wonderful event is organised very year by the team at DMU's Creative Writing Department and is a highlight in the packed cultural calendar of Leicester and the East Midlands. Indeed the dozens of indie publishers came from far and wide and the rooms of the Clephan Building were thrumming with free workshops, book launches, panel discussions and readings. That's if you could tear youself away from corridors lined with bookstalls. The one laden with luscious-looking poetry chapbooks was especially seductive - how often do you get to browse such a range of contemporary poets and chat to the editors? And while you were burning the plastic and amassing a rucksack of new purchases, you were also greeting new and old writer friends because everybody was there ...

I particularly enjoyed book launches by Margaret Penfold - for her marvellous novel Patsy set in the British Mandate of Palestine - and Caroline Cook - for her chapbook Primer, an exquisitely packaged volume of poetry by Soundswrite Press.  A panel discussion on Digital Poetry was quite mind-blowing on new possibilities for poetry as an art form blended with e-technology. Questions like: can the hyper-text become the text? do we need a fixed entry/exit point into a poem? can the text play simultaneously with other aural/visual/ tactile media? is the 'reader' the 'performer' of the text in the interactive world of e-communication? I have no idea of the answers to these questions. But just as the printing press transformed our approaches to narrative and invented the novel - so I do think we will reach a point where we stop just 'loading up' poetry texts onto the computer and pretending it's a page - and begin to create in new ways that the screen ennables.

And as for the tottering pile of new books I brought back, the first I reached for was an Oystercatcher Press chapbook by Lucy Sheerman: Rarefied (falling without landing). I was inevitably drawn in by the beautiful image of an astronaut who seems to have been stitched out of applique. It turns out to be inspired by a documentary about the Apollo wives, who were not only trapped in a media circus throughout the Apollo years but who subseqently suffered a spiralling rate of divorce. I remember watching that progamme and thinking 'someone will write poems about those wives.' The dozen poems in this sequence are haunting, lyrical, witty, sad, mysterious and - spaced out. Distances open between their ten lines. Separation ruptures. Loss leaks out. I especially liked her referencing of the myth of a spellbound Theseus abandoning Ariadne on an island after their love- affair:

'... she finds him gone again.
... She just looks upon the moon and the stars,
gifts he gave to the dark and empty skies.
Incongruous as rain in the desert.'

I am sure I will be returning to this chapbook, even as my own space obsession grows. And my reading will be deepened by this interview with the poet on her experience of writing it.

Monday, 24 February 2014

My Writing Process - the Blog Tour

I was delighted to be invited to join in the 'My Writing Process Blog Tour', having always been fascinated to hear how other writers go about their business. My lovely Leicester poet friend Jayne Stanton asked me to follow her in the chain.  You should check out Jayne's posting but here is my own take on the 4 basic questions asked of writers about their 'process':

1) What am I working on?

A collection of poems about the Space Race and the rocketeers who made it happen. Tentative title: Desert Flowers by Moon-fire - The Men Who Raced to Space. Of course, that's really two titles - because I want this book to straddle the poetry and non-fiction divide, as my two previous books did. Having completed a sequence of 32 poems, I'm now working on some prose essays to sit alongside the poetry. My notion is that this is the first of 3 books because I'm itching to get out into space with the astronauts next - and then the Voyager space probe now travelling beyond our solar system. Journeys feature heavily in my work so far from indigenous peoples of the Arctic to Edwardian polar explorers, all navigating extreme landscapes. So it seemed natural to move out into that ultimate wilderness of space ...

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well, if my main genre is poetry, mixing it with non-fiction seems unusual. Fortunately, my editor at OriginalPlus, SamSmith, is a man of many genres himself. In my first book Firebridgeto Skyshore: A Northern Lights Journey, he enabled me to combine lyric poems with travelogues, essays about mythology and science and woodcut illustrations by my sister. My Northern Lights book appealed to aurora enthusiasts as much as poetry lovers and feedback showed the mix of material was appreciated. I'd like my current book to be picked up by space geeks as well as those who want their poetry to transport them in time and place ...
3) Why do I write what I do?
Some novelist friends asked me recently if I might return to writing fiction which is where I started. But I seem to be addicted to themed poetry collections, each relating an epic tale rooted in history, in 'fact' and biography, in geography and science. In the world of modern poetry, narrativeverse seems rather old-fashioned. But I like to write in sequences which offer a story arc as well as the 'intense moments' and 'micro-universes' of a lyricpoem. It's a challenge to let each poem breathe and not be overwhelmed by the narrative function. But poetry was once THE vehicle of choice for storytelling. Think of those fantastic story-poems by the Romantic poets - TheRime of the Ancient Mariner or Keats' Eve of St Agnes - or go right back to Beowulf or Dante's Inferno. It's the immediacy of voice, the rhythms of the bard 'singing' the story, as well as the intricate patterning of metaphors across a large canvas that I enjoy.

4) How does your writing process work?

With poetry I found myself released from the 'work' of fictionalising into the accessibility of the 'real'. I love the excavation of the historical, the scientific, the biographical - the total immersion in a specific time and place. On reading Hilary Mantel's WolfHall, I realised I too am trying for that richly textured world, the smells and sounds of a culture going about its business. In that 'other country' of the past, I find my imagination breathes differently. So an initial wave of research comes first - books, films, SpaceCentre visits or You-Tube clips. It's amazing what you stumble across on Google Images. I'm writing a poem about the Russian engineer Korolev's childhood - and I find photographs of a museum in his home-town where they've reconstructed his mother's house. These borrowed details become the movie set of my poem, now 'dressed' for action. A poem needs that 'right-there' quality.
After research, there follows a quite intense, rapid period of writing first drafts. I've picked out 'moments' in the story arc that I want to zoom in on, stretching from 1902 to 1977. It takes a few months to get 20 or so poems mapped out. I read them aloud at LeicesterWriters' Club; I need to 'hear' them with an audience of listeners. Then lots of editing. I find poems benefit from being 'left in the dark' like a tray of seedlings for many months. When I return I re-enter the world of the poem afresh and see that it's about something else or has to arrive at a different place. Here dissatisfaction is my best friend. I need to listen to it and stop settling for quick fixes; I need to worry at some of these poems like a dog. Others I need to woo, circle with sidelong glances. Editing is creative too. It takes me in at a deeper level of the excavation. Sometimes all I can see is the rim of the trench, the glint of a coin ...

More research follows - the beauty of the specific often illuminates a poem. I assemble a new palette of words, a semantic field bringing its distinctive music. Yesterday, researching sedan cars from the 30s, I found vintage car dealers onYou-Tube lovingly detailing the selling points of restored models: white-wall tyres, split wind-shields, headlamp buckets and 'suicide doors' now enter my language. Sometimes ready-made metaphors leap out at me. I came across an account of the Cuban Missile Crisis where Korolev's wife served up watermelon to his anxious men. That detail became my 'Martian Watermelon' poem. And that is how poetry can offer a path into history that is wholly different from non-fiction.


I also consider how one poem interacts with another elsewhere in the sequence. Recurring themes and imagery offer a wider textual cohesion that needs tweaking across the collection. Reviewing the story arc - I write new poems to fill in gaps. But by now, the poetry is nearly done and I am turning to prose and even ideas for illustrations. And I am beginning to enjoy the wholly different rhythms of writing non-fiction, the elasticity of this after the compressed music of poetry. Eighteen months on, I am still in the throes of an obsession and I am writing for people who are likewise passionately curious and who love how words sing even in the darkest of stories.
Watch this space for news of the 3 writers I've chosen to pick up the baton on this Blog Tour ... First up is  New Romantics 4 novelist Margaret Cullingford:

Margaret Cullingford, Mags to her friends, escaping the rumpus of a university department, decided to generate uproar she could control. She realized a long-term ambition to write fiction, and published her debut novel LastBite of the Cherry [eBook and paperback] in October 2012. Publication of her second novel, Twins of a Gazelle is imminent. Mags lives in Leicestershire with her long-suffering partner and their cat.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

£43 - Guerillas in Love

'How to Make a Movie for £43' is a wry comedy about the urgent realities of independent film-making - and also a love story. This is low-budget/ NO budget filming and it has been delightful to see it emerge from a quirky idea tossed about by the HIVE team of Davies & Duncan, through to a full-blown premiere last night at the Phoenix Arts Cinema in Leicester, complete with red carpet and spanking poster. Delightful because this IS the story of guerrilla film-making at its best. It begins with the witty premise of a down-at-heels director, (formerly a logistics manager) being persuaded by his charlatan producer to make a movie for the record-breaking low of £43 - bringing 'guaranteed PR'. The support of the Phoenix seems to have been vital - the arts complex features often as a location in the movie - and its premiere offered just the right vibe for this 'from-the-ground-up' indie film. In places, it evokes fond memories of that bio-flick about the legendary B-movie director Ed Woods - like inserting a snow scene into the film just because it happened to be snowing in Leicester that day - 'a backdrop' money couldn't buy' intones the documentary voice-over.

I also enjoyed the pastiche/homage style of filming. The snow-scene is shot as a colour-tinted music video, camera circling our woolly-hatted heroine. Other episodes include an art-house love scene with heroine in red dress wading through a rape field ablaze with yellow. But the dominant style is that of shambling mockumentary realism, a little dog-eared and smoke-stained, shot in empty pub function-rooms and warehouse floors. In the post-screening Q&A, writer Rod Duncan revealed that actors' improvisation was crucial to the film's naturalism. Sometimes his writerly bon mots needed to be cast aside in favour of a muttered-in-the-moment authenticity. But scenes always had their 'through-line' which the actors could hold onto when letting loose - as in the wonderfully expletive-strewn 'Not the Blue Ray' scene.

The film-within-the-film is an 'epic romance' shot in Leicester's side streets and by-ways. Rhys Davies, the real RD, coaxed beautiful performances out of his actors. In the 'talking heads' documentary interviews, Olwyn Davies evinces a sweet fresh naturalism and James Murton totally nails a gently self-mocking portrait of an up-for-anything student actor who sheds clothes at the drop of a clapper-board. His performance is entirely unself-conscious but deftly comic throughout, as understated as The Office's Tim. But a comedy needs its grotesques. Sylvana Maimone's Producer is deliberately stagey. A woman always performing herself, she could have stepped straight out of the PR-spun world of Twenty-Twelve. She also reminded me a tad of Frasier's agent Bibi, whose voracious amorality I always adored. More downbeat is the shuffling figure of The Writer, a paranoid recluse in a man's dressing-gown. Her face is obscured by badly applied digital blurring like a cut-price Crimewatch and she has even managed to slip out of the closing credits. Another tortured soul is the film's protagonist, the mock-Director played by Christopher J Herbert. He serves up the cringing realism of a character whose ambitions for his hand-crafted film are 'epic' but who cannot bear to be fixed by the camera's gaze himself, delivering his CU lines into his straggly face hair or faux-leather hat. Yet he carries the film by making the viewer care about his 'journey' from pitch to premiere.

Indeed the film has a lot of heart as well as hip indie wit. It conveys the underpaid, possibly never paid, passion of guerrilla film-making. And it even draws us into the fictional romance of the two 'leads', cast  because they have the vital 'chemistry' of  just-found-each-other lovers. In Duncan's clever script, their passion waxes and wanes in inverse order to the scripted romance. But the film  created a genuine lump in the throat moment in a moving climactic scene between Olwyn Davies and James Murton. Although Duncan has included a great joke about the script being mangled and tossed away in the editing room, in fact, the shaping of the story arc is one of the film's most satisfying elements. It is beautifully patterned, working through an elliptical orbit which perfectly counters the mockumentary's air of shambolic realism.

As the the Q/A afterwards told us, it takes a lot of practice to make a film look 'amateurish' but the end result is anything but. Can I also mention that this film was a 'crowd-funded' venture in which local people invest in home-grown film-makers and where the production calls in favours and conjures small-daily miracles to keep the cameras rolling? In £43, Suresh Dippy's suitably dour Editor literally eats, sleeps and lives on the mixing board in a 'borrowed' editing suite. It's a precarious business as this indie-comedy explores but HIVE productions have by now mastered their guerrilla art. '£43' more than re-pays the investment and offers a finely crafted indie gem that will tickle your funny bones and make you care not only about its lovers but the guerrillas behind the cameras.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Five Voices Leicester

A city that boasts some 35 languages spoken in our streets deserves an on-line Gallery of  Writers to give voice to that clamour of stories and cultures. Grassroutes is a project hosted by the University of Leicester which 'is designed to foster local, national and international appreciation – as well as critical recognition - for the best of Leicestershire's writing.' They have sought out examples of 'transcultural writing from the 1980s to the present ...' and their website is well worth a look, featuring many faces familiar to me but so many discoveries too. It makes you realise how the city is positively buzzing with literary inspiration. We are fortunate to have a number publicly funded organisations that promote literature and writers and one of these, WritingEast Midlands, collaborated with Grassroutes on a commission which went to the talented AnitaSivakumaran.

The resulting poetry sequence of 'FiveVoices Leicester' are not so much dramatic monologues as poetic dialogues. I really enjoyed the strong sense of diverse Leicester voices - these poems have the wonderful immediacy of conversations overheard on a bus or in a queue. And Sivakumaran reveals that as a new arrival to the city, she would 'chat to the locals' and this gave her the idea for their form. My favourite poem is probably Auntie from the Nuffield Sauna.
On first reading I found the use of indirect as well as quoted speech a little confusing as to who was saying what. But it repays a second reading or better still reading aloud. One voice, that of the self-declared 'Auntie', rattles along, gathering up the poet's brief answers into her own torrent of conversation.

'Call me Auntie,' she says. 'Come sit down.'
She comes here every day. Keeps her fit.
Should she pour more water? I will?'

Sivakumaran has a great ear for the idioms of this kindly, bossy voice with its tag questions: 'I must be Gujerati no? No?' English phrasing with an Indian twist from a British Asian who's 'never been' to the subcontinent she speaks so much of. The listing conveys the older woman's curiosity and the barrage of questions with which she gently bullies her newly adopted 'niece':

My family, fortune, friends?
My height, weight, sun, moon and stars and their respective houses?
My expectations of matrimony?

There is a very winning humour here: 'she needs good girls in her family'. But more than that, the recurring lines about adding water to fire up the sauna deftly reveal an underlying theme:
'Closest she gets to tropical heat ...
Ooo baba, the heat is now roasting.
It must be like this all the time, no, over there?'
I found this quite haunting - a Leicester woman who apparently longs to connect to that lost 'homeland' by re-creating its tropical heat in an English sauna. It's a typical throwaway comment from a second or third-generation child of immigrants whose identity is still referenced by a faraway, never-visited place. Instead, place names and foodstuffs locate her cultural belonging: 'Eat ghar ka khana ... good for baby'.
As the 'Auntie' bustles about, ready to return 'to some cool English weather', I was left wondering about the implied relationship of the younger woman who sits quietly, towel-wrapped, in the background of the conversation. This poet's persona is somewhat reluctant ('Before I can back out') when she's snared in the intimate space of the sauna but something passes between them that goes beyond family credentials. And now I liked that Sivakumaran has held herself back in the dialogue and left that space for the reader to sense out the subtlety of this exchange.

Equally engaging are The Butcher on Queen's Road ('A good strong cleaver like this ... chops clean'), The Neighbour reclaiming her cat ( 'a bit of a stray myself') and two others poems that feature local writers reminiscing and aspiring to be part of a 'centre of the arts for the New England'. While you're at it, take a look on the Gallery page at Sivakumaran's powerful poem Citizens which particularly resonates after recent events in India. I cannot get over the image of a man in the street cupping his penis 'as if holding a chick'.