Writing is a journey, both imaginary and physical. My first book took me to the Arctic to 'catch the colours' of the Northern Lights. Then I hunkered down to catch the wind-blown voices of polar explorers on Shackleton's 1914-17 Endurance expedition. More recently I'm obsessed by space: the race, the rockets, the final frontier.

Hear a BBC Radio Leicester interview about my space poetry at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03wfpyp
Explore my digital narrrative PHILAE'S BOOK OF HOURS, published by the European Space Agency, at:

My prose-poetry collections FIREBRIDGE TO SKYSHORE
and MAD, HOPELESS & POSSIBLE are both published by Original Plus Press at:

Contact me for signed copies or bookings at:

Visit the writers' development service I co-run at: https://www.facebook.com/TheWritersShed/

About Me

My photo
Leicester, East Midlands
As a storyteller, my work crosses boundaries of myth, science, history and spoken word. It has been presented in the British Science Museum, Ledbury Poetry Festival, National Space Centre and the European Space Agency website. In 2014 I ran a digital residency on WW1 for 14-18NOW and Writing East Midlands. I teach Creative Writing at De Montfort University and have experience of leading school events, workshop tuition and mentoring. In addition, I co-run The Writers' Shed, a service for writers, at: https://www.facebook.com/TheWritersShed/

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Death on the Ice

I'm hugging a mug of ginger and cloves today as I succumb to a bout of Christmas cold. But I have relished the past week of ice and snow. When not trekking over treacherous pavements or catching up with family, I've been lost in a story landscape of polar wastes. Robert Ryan's 'Death on the Ice' (published Headline Review) made for perfect winter reading. At 546 pages, I felt as if I'd camped out at Hut Point for a few seasons myself. If you like tales of derring-do and flag-waving heroism, then Ryan is your man. His characters, in this fictionalised account of Scott's 1901 + 1911 expeditions to the South Pole, say things like: 'What an echo they'll leave on this world … they died doing something great.' This reader is more struck by the folly and even arrogance of The Owner as Scott's men referred to him. In some of the closely-fought versions of this history, Scott has been accused of incompetence and even 'murder'. But more than 8,000 applied to join Scott's 1911 expedition and right to the last, men competed to be amongst the four who would claim the glory of standing at the Pole with him. So perhaps it tells us as much about the time and the country as it does about the man.

This is a meticulously researched book and sometimes, like Scott's sledges, the narrative groans under the weight of all those salvaged facts and reputations. I was surprised by how slow the first section of the book was. Ryan spends 200 pages juggling between short chapters relating Scott's first venture to Antarctica in 1901 and accounts of the army postings of Captain Lawrence Oates. I found it aggravating to be continually yanked away from the ice-bound Hut Point to the dusty veldt of the Boer War or the heat of Egypt. I'm not sure why Ryan decided to give so much attention to the backstory of Oates rather than any of the other men. Maybe because his reported last words, 'I am just going outside and I may be some time,' have become a key part of the Scott myth. Despite the continual disruption to the main narrative, one thing this achieved was to set Scott's venture in the context of the pre-war Empire. We see Oates fending off the Boers – 'mere Dutch farmers' – and heading up the summary flogging and execution of Egyptian prisoners. By using Scott's one Norwegian man, Tryggve Gran, as a kind of implied narrator, Ryan also points up the nationalistic tensions that riddled the attempts at the pole, with Scott becoming locked into a race with the far better prepared Amundsen.

But why read a novel about the race to the Pole when there are letters, diaries and survivors accounts as well as countless biographies? Ryan's skills as a novelist come to the fore when he's evoking the landscape of Antarctica and the harsh physical regime the men endured. There is one stunning scene where a group of Scott's doomed ponies are stranded on an ice floe during an attack by killer whales. Oates and another man try to save the ponies by leapfrogging across the floes but most of the horses go under to a terrifying death. I absolutely felt I was a witness to this scene just as I heard the strange cracks and sobs of the ice during those everlasting nights. Ryan is very good at capturing the penned-in atmosphere of Hut Point, the segregation of officers from the 'lower deck' men, the cliques and rivalries that form as well as deep loyalties. And when Scott confesses to Oates in the final bitter days, 'I've got us in a bit of a pickle, Soldier, haven't I?' - you really want to believe that clipped understatement is exactly what he said.

Scott's approach to the expedition has been much criticised in later years. Unlike Amundsen who lived for a time with the Inuits and learnt arctic survival skills from them, Scott's men were more enthusiastic amateurs. His refusal to wear furs or rely on huskie dogs smacked of not wanting to 'copy the natives'. Yet they did wear 'finneskoes' or reindeer boots and did stuff Norwegian grass down into them along with their homely woollen socks. Scott clung to the scientific justification of their expedition. He wanted to test out the efficiency of horses and dogs versus motorised sledges. Yet he also insisted on the moral superiority of 'man hauling', putting his half-starved men under greater pressure as they lugged sledges weighed down with geological samples as well as supplies. A photograph of the five men at the pole, devastated by their discovery that Amundsen had beaten them to it by a month, says it all. Defeated in 'this awful place,' they still had to face trudging back eight hundred miles, man-hauling all the way. Ryan's final section, as the catastrophe closes in around them, was the most compelling. And though it was an exhausting read, I was reluctant to leave behind the glacial landscape of the Ross Ice Shelf and the men lost in its white wilderness.

Friday, 11 December 2009

A White Weekend?

Today I trekked up through the fog and spooky tree lines of Victoria Park to see Stan Cowley and Darren Wright of the Radio & Space Plasma Physics Group at the University of Leicester. It's a familiar route by now because since they first sponsored my poetry project on the Northern Lights back in June 2007, we've enjoyed a no. of collaborations. In March 2008, Darren and I took part in a Northern Lights evening at the Science Museum in London. A sell-out event which was reprised in September last year. Now we're planning to bring that event to Leicester and where better than the dramatic Space Theatre in Leicester's own National Space Centre? The innovative film-maker, Brian McClave will be showing his spectacular 3-D films of both aurora and solar flares. And under that domed ceiling of the planetarium, we hope to recreate some of the magic of the Northern Lights, as we mix poetry, physics and film. Are you hooked yet?

At our planning meeting today, we were joined by Ather Mirza of the University's Press Office to think of ways of getting the word out there. We're dreaming up a blizzard of press releases, e-mails, tweets - you name it. And this weekend, I'll be busy on a design for the flyer. So here's the first flake ... It's fab, it's free and it's Tuesday 23rd February!


And continuing the arctic theme, I'll also be working on a webpage to launch another poetry adventure. In 2010, I'll be teaming up with poet, Susan Richardson, to form the Polar Poets. We're hoping to tour the country with multi-media performances, talks and workshops around the Arctic. She can offer Viking women, hardy Antarctic Explorers and penguins - I can throw in Saamis, scientists and reindeer. And together our material traverses the icy wastes of both poles.

Inevitably, our poems reflect on climate change in these regions. With the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change opening this week, this theme has never seemed more urgent. You might ask what use is it for 2 poets to versify about melting icecaps. I can only say that 2 years ago, I went to Tromso in the Arctic Circle to see the Northern Lights for myself. And I think too I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the little girl in my favourite childhood story, The Snow Queen, and journey across the ice and snow. What I found was rain and darkness. They were experiencing summer temperatures in December. The same week we were there, a White House press conference announced the Polar Bear was a 'threatened' species facing possible extinction by as early as 2050. By this August, for the first time in human history, so much summer ice had melted at the North Pole, that it was an island. It seems impossible not to write about this. And the least the Polar Poets can do is celebrate the extraordinary beauty of this wilderness that we so depend on - while it is still within our power to conserve it. It's not enough, for sure - but it's one thing storytellers and poets can do.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Kabatic Winds on the High Street

Deluged by a blizzard of reports and coursework drafts at the day-job, I've been taking solace in a sumptuous book I found in the library last week. Antarctica: Exploring a Fragile Eden by Jonathon & Angela Scott made me long all over again to head off for the poles. It has breath-taking photographs of glacier caves, katabatic winds blowing up storms and colonies of penguins stretched across the ice-bound horizons. A book to get lost in.

There is one image of a gentoo penguin being shaken to death by a leopard seal. I was thinking of this as I digested a talk by literary agent Elizabeth Cochrane of Greene & Heaton Agency last Thursday. Her visit was hosted by my writers' group Leicester Writers Club and offered many insights into the world of publishing today. It was undoubtedly a 'very tough industry'. The harsh truth is most books make losses - only a few make money for the publishers. And there are thousands of novelists out there. 'Many writers will write perfectly publishable books that never get sold.' With the crash of Borders bookstore chain last week, the industry is in the throes of the credit crunch. Writers too will feel the pinch. After maybe 3 years work on your first novel, you might be lucky to get a £1,000 advance. Try living on that.

So that was just some of the tough talk. However, Elizabeth Cochrane was there to throw us a few lifelines, not just beat us about the head with home truths. She worked through several hours of detailed, practical advice about what agents were looking for, how to present your pitches and how they would fight for your interests in this climate. The talk was supported by Creative Leicestershire so free. A large room was packed with maybe ninety-odd aspiring and professional writers.

I've been lucky enough to hear a few agents and editors speak at LWC events so a lot of it was familiar. But there are always little gems. Having mentioned the horror story of an unnamed leading agency that kept the 'slush-pile' in a cupboard till some intern could send out all the rejection slips (gasp!) - she explained the routine in her own agency. They refer to 'the unsoliciteds' - not the 'slush-pile' - and take turns each week to do the initial sifting. I liked the mention of 'a little place in the kitchen' where other agents make their tea and get a second look at some of the submissions. A lot of the sifting inevitably has to go on in the margins of a busy day representing existing clients. So the question is always: 'Can I put this down yet? I've got all these other things to read - is this unputdownable?' That's the challenge with sample chapters.

Some DOS and DON'TS:
  • don't say your friends loved it

  • don't ask them to sign a security clause before they can see your top-secret manuscript ...

  • don't mention your holidays

DO mention other writers that your book is 'in the vein of'. But Elizabeth doesn't take to Hollywood-style pitches along the lines of: 'It's Smiley's People crossed with Anna Karenina'. Her talk also reinforced the importance of networking and making full use of any opportunities to meet agents at courses, parties, writers' conferences etc. And indeed, she was generous in her time during and after the event, handing out a great wadge of business cards.

So we were lucky indeed to hear an agent who was both witty and dedicated to getting up-to-date info. out there to writers. She also works for a consultative agency, Cornerstones, that writers can make use of to get in-depth reports on their books. With the freezing winds of recession blowing in, we need all the help we can get. Above all, Elizabeth Cohrane revealed, you need 'to see the joy in it' to sell books, and that's the hallmark of the kind of agent or editor you want to find in this business.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

But How do You Make Money?

  • Is a writer someone who publishes books? - or someone who works with story and words to help a community explore its identity?
  • Can an author's on-line writing become more important than their actual books?
  • could self-publishing - maybe to a niche audiences - play a vital part in building careers of new writers?
These were just some of the questions we tossed around in Damien Walter' fascinating talk, The Entrepreneurial Writer, offered as part of the Writing School's series on New Ways with Writing. Walter is a writer himself - of Weird & Speculative fiction - as well as a Literature Development worker and a professional blogger for The Guardian. So well placed to discuss some emerging trends in the writing economy.

With 1300 Creative Writing graduates emerging every year in the UK - and a similar no. of manuscripts appearing on the slush pile of one publishing house in that time - it may be time to review what exactly does a writer do? One answer could lie in the realm of Social Literature - where writing is about social outcomes rather than producing books. Damien gave us the e.g. of the US best-selling author Dave Eggers who in 2002 founded the 826 Valencia project in San Francisco to raise literacy amongst the Mexican population there. So a writer with a social conscience - but this also helped build his own career and profile. The same can be seen locally with poets like Lydia Towsey and Rob Gee, involved in Bright Sparks and WORD events.

Damien went to to look at the traditional divide between commercial literature and arts-subsidised literature. He told a wonderful story of the best-selling sci-fi author Neal Stephenson attending a writer's convention where another author asked him:
'So where do you teach?'
'I don't teach anywhere.'
(Pause) 'Yes, but what else do you do?'
'I'm ... a writer.'
'Yes, but - what do you DO? How do you make money?'

And so it went on. But Walter suggested that this 'never the twain shall meet' barrier was breaking down. He cited the e.g. of Graham Joyce, a highly successful fantasy author, currently writing screenplays as well as the script for the Doom 4 computer game, yet also lecturing in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University and winning literary fiction prizes. Walter believes the traditional market for genre fiction is collapsing with readers demanding more originality and literary technique. Commercial publishers are seeking out graduates of Creative Writing courses and universities are looking for successful commercial authors to staff their courses. Other means of authors making an income may lie with offering workshops or performances.

We turned to the advantages the new social media present for writers. Walter thought this media was changing the writer's role dramatically. It's now possible for authors or poets to go directly to an audience interested in your subject. The best-selling author Neil Gaiman - what is it with these Neil/ Neals? - has 1.5 million followers on Twitter. The 5 nominees for the Hugo Awards this year all had a huge blog following and arguably, their on-line writing is now a much bigger part of their role as writers than producing fiction. But it also sells books to a loyal and enthusiastic audience. Which led us on to the potential for new writers to find a niche audience to self-publish to, breaking ground perhaps before mainstream publishers think about taking them on.

Is that where the future-present of new media is taking us? Who knows? But this course of seminars for writers has given us a chance to take stock of an industry in the throes of enormous change. And like all change, while some time-honoured structures come tumbling down, other opportunities emerge. The The Entrepreneurial Writer, according to Walter, is looking out for these, whilst also opening up to the wider question of what are writers actually for?

See my blogs on the previous talks:

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Angel of Brooklyn

Are you looking for the ideal present for an avid novel-reader? Or maybe it's you that likes to snuggle into the armchair with a ravishingly good story that lasts for days. 'Angel of Brooklyn' by Janette Jenkins didn't last many days because it was a page-turner that kept me up at night. This was one of the year's best-reads for me with its spellbinding story and beautiful prose. How are you going to resist a book with the opening line: 'A week before they killed her, Beatrice told them about the dead birds ...'?

If you start with the promise of that line, you have to deliver a helluva story and Jenkins does. She's helped by a heroine who has emerged remarkably sane from a bizarre and lonely childhood. Glamorous yet good-natured, she's an American stranded in a Lancashire backwater just as the First World War breaks. Inevitably, her terribly English husband, Jonathon, abandons his new bride to sign up for the adventure in France. This leaves Beatrice to the mercies of the Anglezarke's small-town wives. You're rooting for her as soon as you hear one of them comment: 'You might speak English and have the same coloured skin and everything but it's the little things that turn you into a foreigner.'

Jenkins, like me, is a Bolton girl and knows her Northern landscapes. I loved her first novel, Columbus Day, set in my childhood summer haunt of Blackpool. But her writing has grown and 'Angel of Brooklyn' is in another league. This is storytelling that simply doesn't put a foot wrong. She has captured convincingly the hushed world of an Edwardian village with its back-room grocer's shop and annual day-trips to Morecambe. But she has cunningly juxtaposed this with the strange home-life Beatrice endured in Normal, Illinois, with her amateur taxidermist father and would-be preacher brother. As the back-blurb says, Jenkins expertly mixes 'American Gothic with gritty Northern realism' and it is an enchanting if disturbing concoction.

Birds flit through the novel, knitting narratives together. The stuffed birds of her father's kitchen-table. The migrating birds swooping over Anglezarke reservoir. And the angel wings Beatrice wore for her Coney Island show-girl act when she escaped to New York. The pre-war chapters begin as a list of 'Ten (or more ) True Things' our heroine can reveal about herself to her English neighbours. But they open into a nightmarish account of her father's degeneration from obsession to lunacy. In between, the English chapters move us through the unfolding bitterness of wives damaged by the fall-out of 1914.

It only takes two years for all semblance of politeness to unravel. Jenkins expertly stitches these two narratives together to build to the tragedy implied in her opening line. The resolution doesn't disappoint but I was sorry to leave her heroine and both fictional worlds behind.

Polar Embarkations

As my profile says, writing takes you places. Yesterday I headed west to catch up with Susan Richardson in Cardiff. Beside the Bay, we took in the Captain Scott white mosaic sculpture before diving into the Norwegian Church cafe. Cardiff, she told me, was twinned with Bergen and was Scott's departure point. As I tucked into a Norwegian Fisherman's Platter (delicious sweet-cured herrings), we traded arctic obsessions and planned a collaboration. Susan's beautiful collection, Creatures of the Intertidal Zone, is drawn from her journeys to Iceland and other arctic countries in the footsteps of 2 Viking women. My own collection, Firebridge to Skyshore, similarly traces a journey to the arctic to gather stories of the Northern Lights.

It felt like the beginning of an expedition into some white unknown. We took stock, mapped directions, drew up costings. Where are we headed? North certainly. We want to tell our stories of the arctic to diverse audiences who are off the beaten track of arts events. We want to celebrate this frozen wilderness and its heritage even as the thaw sets in. We want to entertain, to bind with word spells. And we figure two polar poets can exert more magnetism than a lone voice. Between us, we can conjure Viking women, arctic explorers, reindeer herders, auroral scientists, penguins and polar bears. Right now, the ship is in harbour waiting on a name ( suggestions on a postcard please).

Meanwhile, back in Leicester, another collaboration is underfoot, this one taking the aurora borealis as its theme. Following two sell-out shows at London's Science Museum (Dana Centre), we have decided to bring this Northern Lights spectacular to the National Space Centre in Leicester. It looks likely to be February 2010. Two auroral scientists from the University will join film-maker Brian McClave and myself to present a fusion of physics, poetry and film of the Northern Lights. It should be a knock-out show in the dramatic Space Theatre and thanks to funding by Leicester University's Radio & Space Plasma Physics Group, it will be entirely free! (Keep checking my website for date and details which should soon be sorted).

On-line Magazines

Last Monday, I attended another in the excellent series of talks on 'New Ways of Writing', run by the Writing School, Leicester. This time we had Farhana Shaikh of 'The Asian Writer' introducing us to the world of On-Line Magazines. This enterprising young woman set up her site in 2007, addressing a niche market of Brit-Asian writers/ readers and now gets 20,000 hits for each edition. There is no budget as yet to pay contributors but the site is regularly visited by agents and editors so it's a great showcase for emerging talent.

Farhana wasn't out to promote her own magazine to us but it's an excellent e.g. of the potential audiences of such magazines – far beyond the scale of small press journals with a readership of maybe hundreds. She showed us that the format of on-line magazines varies widely. Some are modelled on print magazine pages and may even be digital offshoots of such titles (see Marie Claire or The Guardian). You might sample and then pay to download a pdf file (see Five Dials). Or a site like The View from Here uses newer technologies and the style of social media with Flash design, You-Tube clips, hyperlinks etc. Typical features of on-line magazines include:
  • regular updates
  • original content if digital version of print mag.
  • Website channels/ options
  • features, columns, blogs
  • huge readerships
  • run by large media outlets or individuals
  • low overheads
  • use freelancers & often welcome submissions
Some on-line mags. do pay contributors. In particular, the US market for on-line mags. is huge and more lucrative. It's possible to identify possible UK sites through the comprehensive listings offered by Mslexia or The Poetry Library sites. The beauty of this is you can access a wide range of publications to sample for free at the press of a button. As with submissions elsewhere, you want to check guidelines, identify a named editor, research the readership and content and show you understand on-line media in any copy you send in.

Is it wise to write for free? It might be that such pieces could build a relationship with editors that leads to paid commissions. But understand you won't usually be able to sell published material elsewhere. But if that sounds harsh, take a peek at the Guest Writer's slot on The View from Here. This is regularly read by 7,000 visitors. Does your work usually reach that many readers in one go? It can't hurt to press that 'enter' button and take a trawl through the hyperspace of new media magazines. Just as soon as I stop attending writing courses, I intend to find time to do so!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Mutterings from the Wall

On a train through the flatlands
tunnelling east into skies
that crush the land with light;
crows flung windward from dark fields,
telegraph wires that slacken
and loop towards luminous ditches;
I am reading about men
counting bricks on a wall, longing
for moons and listening all night
to a sick bulb humming.

My reading material on my way to the Suffolk poetry weekend, (see below) was a compelling collection of poems. Brian Daldorph's Jail Time (published by Original Plus Press) is a clamour of voices, sorrowing, sly, sardonic, of men awaiting trial or serving sentences in the Douglas County Jail, Kansas. And on that first night inside, 'the moans, the moans, the moans'. The American idiom of these voices comes right at you out of the pages:

'… and I'm not comin' back here, I hate the way
they treat me here and I thank Jesus they treat me like that,
you know what I'm sayin'?'

I like the way Daldorph has paid attention, caught not only these inflections but the twists and turns of attitude and the everyday anguish of lives both inside and outside. The poet, a Yorkshire man, has served more than seven years himself, as a writer in residence. And time is an inevitable theme; doing it, dodging it, weighing it out:

'I'm trying to remember every moment
of my life: this should take me the first part
of eternity. Then I'll find something else to do.'

Walls is another, a concrete image, solid and tactile, but also figurative: 'in this cell/ there are four walls/ 492 bricks.' One man makes a big deal of the visit his woman has promised, is envied by others. She's coming because 'she has to tell it to his face/ and he ain't stupid' but still, 'she's coming to visit next week', he keeps saying.

Forms vary in this collection. There are short, wry stanzas. And there are tight packed sonnets that hammer out uneven rhythms and rhymes with a metallic clang:

'Last night the guy in the next cell
kept yelling, I hate jail, I hate jail …
He'd give up three meals to see the moon.
Alone he sits in his room.'

I love that this con has very precisely identified the worth of a moon in jail values. Sometimes the rhymes seem to be borrowed from inmates in Daldorph's writing class but he honours their freshness:

'the one about dying like a skunk
under car wheels
each time he quits junk.'

When the train pulled into Ipswich, I was thumbing the book a second time. 74 fine poems. And did I mention the haunting charcoal drawings, intimate mugshots of the men, by Kerry Niemann? For an hour or two I walked in their orange suits and velcroed slippers and touched those clammy walls. I listened in to murmured confessions. It felt a privilege to get inside these stories and a relief not to be living them. I was out in 'the big time' again but I suspect I'll be back.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Word Stitching in Suffolk

So a birthday blog! My present to myself this year was a weekend workshop in Suffolk. On Friday 13th, at Belstead House, 13 poets gathered. As a furore of winds and rain broke outside, we settled into the library for a warm welcome from the weekend's hosts, Michael Laskey and Joanna Cutts, editors of the Smiths Knoll magazine. We shared the well-equipped Conference Centre, a Tudor Hall in lovely gardens, with a group of quilters. As the weekend went on, it was clear the quilters were engaged in some huge and colourful undertaking, patches being laid out on the sitting-room carpet. We were similarly engrossed but never worked as late as those quilters.

Saturday opened with some free writing - two 7 mins. poems - to stretch our versifying muscles. Outside, a tree flamed orange against a wall of dark firs before a sheet of rain and hail drowned everything. Then it was the main business of the day, workshopping one poem by each poet. The group worked closely with each poem, sifted detail and asked useful questions. 13 is enough to hear a range of readings, some unexpected, of your poem. And experienced poets can not only sense a false note or a misplaced line but offer alternative ways in. You get as much out of doing the same for others, honing skills of snipping and sounding out and rejigging.

In the afternoon, Joanna and Michael gave individual 15mins. consultations. As a writer, you're always trying to develop your internal editor so it's a great opportunity to sit with two professionals who handle your work with care and insight. And these two enjoy poems and are good company. The rest of the time, we were free to walk, sleep, write, whatever. For Saturday evening's 'editorial meeting', Michael and Joanna brought a real sample of this week's submissions to select for publication. Joanna said they often end up placing a poem after 'a dialogue' with the poet i.e. they go through a process of drafts first. That's typical of the care taken with Smiths Knoll submissions - you get your work back quickly, sometimes even with a helpful comment.

The quilters were up at the crack of dawn on Sunday for the final push, stitching before breakfast. We continued with a successful format of free writing, workshopping and readarounds of favourite poems. When not busy with our 'poetry bee', it was great to share experiences and information with writers who really know the contemporary poetry scene. If you're looking for a good poetry workshop, I can really recommend the Smiths Knoll annual event. I liked very much the painstaking attention to craft, the encouragement to raise my game. And scores of poems by writers present and beyond, in every mood and form, stitched into the weekend's cloth. My thanks go especially to Michael and Joanna but also to my fellow poets who made it such a pleasurable 3 days. A good birthday treat.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Small-Press Sums for Shelf-Life

Another Monday evening at the Writing School's course on New Ways with Writing. When I arrive, the room is already buzzing with the tense energy of Ross Bradshaw pacing the room and gathering his thoughts. Ross is the force behind Five Leaves Press, an small press based in Nottingham, as well as organiser of the Lowdham Book Festival. He was here to open our eyes to the somewhat harsh realities of Independent Publishing but also the unique opportunities it offers to writers.

He began with sums. If a book has the cover price of £10, how much goes to the author? Who else has to get paid out of that? How much to the bookshop? What about distribution? We squirmed and struggled to pluck figures out of the air, making half-informed guesses with no option to phone a friend. 75p is the answer to the author's share - some of which might go to an agent. A whopping 50% to the bookshop. And if they're lucky, a measly 50p to the publisher, out of which they have to pay all their staff, premises, running costs etc. Although the maths made my head hurt, his lesson on the brutal economics of publishing today was unforgettable.

So Ross's talk renewed my respect for the hard slog and dedication of the small publisher, running on knife-edge margins. This includes my own publisher, Original Press - which like 49% of independent publishers is a one-person company. It's snippets like this that came thick and fast from Ross. And it's why getting to hear somebody with so much industry knowledge is invaluable for writers learning their trade. For trade it is. Published writers can go out of print very quickly if their books aren't shifting enough copies. Why? Because 'land is expensive' so keeping stock sitting in warehouses isn't an option.

The good news is 'Independents care what happens to writers'. They can revive careers with reissues - bringing a writer 'back to shelf-life' . They can discover new writers who go on to launch careers with the mainstream press. Small Press publishers are consistently more prepared to take risks on material they believe in. This is why publishers like Tindal Street Press or Canongate end up with authors on the Booker lists, for instance. The Independents also have more commitment to communities of readers. So the list of Five Leaves' celebrates the literature of Nottinghamshire, both past and present.

We moved on to new developments such as the arrival of Print on Demand. This is great news for writers as it becomes economical to bring back books that went out of print or to produce small print runs for books that won't sell like Jordan's latest autobiography. E-readers were also discussed. I was amazed to learn that Amazon US already makes more money from e-books than paper books. Ross predicted that the future for bookselling lay with the Grey Pound, especially women. We are the generation with a culture of buying and reading books.

It was a very wide-ranging survey of the publishing landscape from a real insider. You might like to dip into Ross' blogs on the Literature Network or Five Leaves websites. I particularly enjoyed the editorial meeting on swearing ...

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Text Bites and Blogspeak

Our seminar on Writers and the Internet the other evening (see below)was so thought-provoking, I want to come back to it this morning. Still puzzling over some things:

How is the Internet changing my practice as a writer?

Definitely this has become a much more publicly engaged role. We blog/ tweet/ facebook - all suddenly become verbs - and our interaction with our audience or readers goes far beyond the occasional event or publication. When I first thought of becoming a writer, I thought of the solitary life in the study producing a text. But it turns out to an existence full of performance, attending events, networking,e-mailing, interactions both face-to-face and virtual.

Is the Internet changing my brain?

Harder to say. Will suggested we're getting used to shorter, more episodic forms of communication - the blog, for instance. Rather than the hours-at-a-time reading or writing. We switch around, we hyperlink, we multi-task with windows on our screen. But the core writing for me is still the long, silent, interior conversation with my imagination. Though if I was novel-writing at present, I'm sure I'd be wanting to bring in some of that texture of modern communication into the work. I'm sure it will change the novel form.

Is blogging writing?

Well, obviously, I'm typing and shaping prose. But it's also talking. I'm in first person addressing you and you feel present to me, it's got an immediacy about it. And I'm improvising as we do in speech with barely a spell-check in sight. But the thing that I've discovered in blogging, is that it also has the PLEASURE of writing in it. That it's a kind of free-writing - no end in sight, no deadlines, no evaluation of the text produced. Just the pleasure in words, in shaping thought into them. Sometimes - in a Facebook snippet or text bite - it's even poetry.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

I am therefore I tweet?

Last night I went to a fascinating talk about Writers and the Internet, given by Will Buckingham of De Montfort University. This was hosted by the Writing School, Leicester, as part of their New Ways with Writing course. This excellent course, running for another 3 weeks, features talks and discussion about how writers situate themselves in a world of virtual technologies and upheaval in the publishing world.

The evening had a practical side with writers sharing resources and strategies. We carried out a Web Presence Audit to see how people actually find us on-line. What happens when you Google your name? I've discovered on a Google Image search, 13 out of 21 images are of me or my work but there other Siobhan Logans out there. We had discussions about why some writers might need multiple identities if they have common names or write in different genres. Within the group, we were all at different stages of tweeting, blogging, Facebooking etc. The elusive question of WHAT IS TWITTER FOR? was never quite settled - except it is a moving feast and one writer is scoring canny PR points by tweeting their next novel, 130 characters at a time ...

But what stayed with me most was the intriguing introduction by Will Buckingham on how the Internet is reshaping our world. He raised the idea that the web is not only changing how we send messages or produce texts but creating different ways of EXISTING IN THE WORLD. So as we click onto Facebook or tap out an impromptu blog or e-mail that short story, we are shifting into 'other ways of thinking that are not private and enclosed'. Writers are no longer locked into their studies in splendid isolation - it only looks that way to long-suffering partners. And as 'silent reading' gives way to tweeting and MSN chats, the status of the BOOK is also in flux.

Will's talk raised profound questions about self and identity and mass culture as much as practical issues of how we negotiate this new terrain as writers. I'm still wondering. Do I think differently now? Do you?

Friday, 30 October 2009

Lutterworth Writers' Group

I spent a delightful evening on Monday with a writers' group based in Lutterworth. This small group of local writing enthusiasts was boosted by some visitors from both Leicester Writers' Club and the Grace Dieu group from Coalville. Which just goes to show you that stories are written into the hills of Leicestershire.

I'd been invited to give a talk on the Northern Lights. And being as this was a group of writers, I reflected on how this project has developed over the last 4 years. It was November 2005 when a fellow writer and artist Jackie Stanley first asked me to write some poems about the Northern Lights for a film she wanted to make. It's rare to stumble on a subject that proves so rich in inspiration. Since then, I've visited the Arctic to see the lights for myself and performed my poems in places as diverse as the Science Museum in London and a primary school hall in Leicester.

Audiences never fail to be fascinated by the mystery and spectacle of the Aurora Borealis and Lutterworth Writers were no exception. We had no powerpoint facilities this time but we managed with a map of the Arctic, a handout of pictures and our imaginations. (see more of these fabulous pictures by Bjorn Jorgensen on his website.) My talk ranged through the stories created by indigenous peoples of the Arctic over many centuries and then on to the modern narrative that science offers of the origins of the aurora. We took a break for tea and fig rolls and book signings and then a busy question/answer session. It's great when audiences are so engaged. A lot of the questions were about how I came to get my book, Firebridge to Skyshore: A Northern lights Journey, published - always a topic of interest to writers!

There was a lovely atmosphere in the little Church Hall and I was surprised with a gorgeous bouquet of flowers as we finished. Many thanks to Frank for chairing and Cathy and Michael for chauffering me. I'm very happy that my first gig since the summer was such a pleasurable one.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Sitting Down to History

Unfortunately, I missed National Poetry Day through an outbreak of something like flu that my sickly 2nd years passed on to me. But here is my contribution belatedly. This year's theme was Heroes & Heroines and I dug out a poem I wrote in a workshop with the fabulous Caribbean poet, Jean Binta Breeze. She invited us to write a letter to someone famous that we admired. My subject was the late Rosa Parks, Civil Rights protester from the 60s, a woman of considerable courage and dignity. This poem about the Montgomery Bus Boycott also sits well with Black History Month - which I'm not too late for, after all.

So tell me, Rosa

what were the bus journeys like
after that one? After the man at the station
snapping your picture with his headlamp camera
and the man stubbing your prints into dirty stains,
pulling your fingers like you didn’t own your hand,
- after the jostling and mutters, all eyes watching,
I mean long after the pitched battles -
when you shifted the weight
of a day’s long hours
into the padded seat by the window,
were your bags loaded full of history,
or did you put on ordinariness
like a buttoned-up coat,
lean back against the thrust of brakes,
sitting in a world of your own
only a little straighter?

Monday, 5 October 2009

Plans, Gigs, News

Since I've not managed to update my 'events' page yet on the website, here's some of the news that is soon to appear. Now that I've got my Writer's Hat firmly back on - after the mayhem of a new teaching term in September - I'm pursuing new projects and bookings. I was delighted the other day to get an invitation in my Inbox to put on my Northern Lights show at the Ledbury Poetry Festival in July 2010. We hope this may include me appearing with an auroral scientist again, as at the gig we did at London's Science Museum. According to The Guardian, “This celebration of verse is the largest of its kind in the UK and also the most energised, giving a real sense of poetry as an important living, contemporary literary form.” Having caught the festival bug this summer, I'm really looking forward to that.

Closer to home, I'm doing a talk for Lutterworth Writers on the evening of Tuesday 27th October. It's always interesting to visit other writers' groups and see how they collaborate on their writing. My own group, Leicester Writers' Club, has been invaluable to me. I'm also keen to take the 'Firebridge' book and show out across the region now. Recently, I visited the new Writing East Midlands office in Nottingham to discuss how to do that. And the possibility of a gig in the Peaks has opened up - which is one of my favourite places. We'll be heading over there for a week walking the hills at half-term.

And now before a day of teaching kickstarts at nine, I want to get back to some research I'm doing for a new project around migration. I'm reading a book by Dr. Alice Roberts based on her excellent TV series, 'The Incredible Human Journey'. It tells the story of human evolution and the gradual colonisation of all five continents by the modern human species. I'm just up to a chapter on the spread from arctic Europe into the Americas - which ties in the research I did into indigenous arctic groups for my 'Firebridge to Skyshore' book. Roberts is a wonderful storyteller and she brings to life her own journey to these far-flung outposts of archaeology,learning from surviving indigenous groups along the way.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Arctic Hunger

It's a perfect sun-fired day. Every leaf and brick gleams and out on the street, the whole neighbourhood is gearing up for the Divali lights switch-on. And on this crisp, autumn day I am thinking of ice. I'm re-reading Susan Richardson's beautiful collection of poetry, Creatures of the Intertidal Zone (published Cinnamon Press). I was lucky enough to hear Susan read at the summer's Polyverse Poetry Festival and was envious of her account of visiting Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland – all places on my travel wish-list. Because like the penguin that recurs in this collection, I feel :

'… a force that's attracted to the north in her,
the thunder of summer light,
the blood of explorers in the tundra,
the tilting cap of ice.'

Susan undertook this trek to trace the footsteps of a Viking woman and the first sequence of poems, Gudrun the Rare, follows her on a life of sea-voyages. From the first line, it is utterly spellbinding: 'I know the gasp this grass gives/ when it's first touched by snow.' I was also very moved by the following poem, which relates the 'Resettlement' of an old woman from a remote, fishing island. As the men are lifting her wooden home into the water, she reflects on:

'… the lives of its five generations,
the twenty-eight births,
the labour pains ingrained in the wood of its walls,
and all those oil-skinned hours of waiting
while the men were at sea in a storm.'

No less engaging is her account of the evolutionary journey of a penguin, from migratory bird to ice-locked creature of the pole: 'Her need now beats its wings… propels her against/ the speckled shell of the sky …' The language is all lucid and unfussy like this, images arising naturally from the environment of her stories. The rhythms are also seductive, pausing sometimes to let you take that ice-tanged breath:

'So now, with tender eyes,
I must hunt for a hole in the white

and wait


at the rim
for the whiskered nose of inspiration …'

This poem is about the act of writing and it is indeed 'tender eyes' Richardson turns on the Arctic world and its creatures, both animal and human. In a clever structure, the collection begins with sequences about 2 Viking women and ends with a section about the male Arctic explorers of the early twentieth-century. Here is the voice of Edgar Evans, the first of Scott's men to die:

'My hand is quite okay, sir.
Yes, I'm quite okay.

I just feel such crimson hunger.
My ribs are what's left of that rotting ship,
wrecked in Rhossili Bay, stuck
in the sand for dogs to piss on.'

I hope to get the chance to meet up with Susan again and share our mutual arctic fascination. Meanwhile, if you're another ice lover, I can't recommend this book highly enough. And even if you're not, there's much to relish in these stories of human wanderings and foibles.

Friday, 2 October 2009

The Ghosts of Eden

So let's break the silence that was September on my blog with a throwback to one of my best summer reads. The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew JH Sharp was the kind of good thick book I like to nestle into during the holidays. This is a wonderfully lyrical novel set in Africa. The early sections depict two worlds that overlap in the lush landscape of colonial Uganda; the childhood of Stanley, an 8 year-old cattle-herder, and the childhood of Michael Lacey, son of missionaries.

There is a sense of each being a closed world vividly experienced - yet each is doomed by modernity pressing on its edges. The boys are both engaging heroes, similarly shy, loyal, deeply sensitive. For me the depiction of Bahima nomadic culture as the herd boys follow out the rituals of their daily lives was utterly enchanting and convincing. We see through their eyes the strangeness of Bazungu (European) behaviour as they encounter white people for the first time. We feel the jolt of that meeting and fear for them as they face exile from their own people with the prospect of boarding school.

The author, like his characters, then takes a rather brave step. We jump forward some 30 years to find Michael as an adult on a plane to Uganda for a 3 day conference. Another jolt. The adult is entirely disassociated from his past, the child's vulnerability buried in the clinical efficiency of a gifted surgeon (here Sharpe draws on his own experience as a medical practitioner.) Uganda is still raw from the trauma of Idi Amin's rule and its legacy. But the past griefs that threaten to engulf Michael take more time to surface. Inevitably, the paths of the Bahima and the Bazungu now cross.

But it is very much Michael's story and I missed the chance to explore Stanley's point of view in this second half. I was too emotionally invested in the Bahima characters by then to see them only from the outside. So it is Michael who negotiates the minefields of cultural difference and personal loss and alienation. There are big themes here but always firmly grounded in this individual story. I'm glad the author resisted too neat a resolution but the rhythm of the novel is towards a much-needed redemption for Michael and his Bahima counterpart. Overall, this was a very satisfying read and an impressive debut for Sharp in his first novel.

Underfoot Poems

Well, here we are edging into October and the faded glories of a Whitby summer are long past. I've been thinking about the rhythm of the year and the way that my teaching work and writing get twined into the seasons. Come the end of August, everything goes crazy as students stream into college for enrolment. My garden wilts and the blog falters. What I call the 'day-job' takes over for a while. In this last month, it's been hard to get my Writers' hat on at all - except in the early mornings. Before sun-up, I'm jotting in the purple notebook. And I'm pleased to say a string of new prose-poems - snippets shall we say? - are beading together in the margins of my days.

But suddenly leaves are crackling underfoot and half-term is only a spit away. October could well be my favourite time of year. Because as the new classes bed down - as the nights get darker and clocks change over - I come into my best writing season. Outside the reddening trees and early sunsets make me giddy with anticipation. On the front street, they're hanging the Divali lights and Halloween and Bonfire Night will tumble after. Inside, it's dark and cocoon-like and the hibernation seems to stir something in that place the writing comes from. So bring on the conkers and firecrackers and frost, I say.

But before the summer gets forgotten altogether, I'm hoping to do some catch-up blogs after my long silence and tell you about some of the wonderful books I read on those long, lazy days by the sea.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Sand-marked Paperbacks

Zandvoort aan Zee takes beach-lounging to an industrial level with rows upon row of plastic sun-loungers and tractors that go out to 'clean the sand' in the morning. But if you get down there early, before the sun-worshippers have stirred, the silver-blue sea and honeyed sand are stunning; the shale underfoot of broken shells pleasingly crunchy. You can sit under the dunes and listen to a storm of tidal detonations that are pestle to the mortar of this shore. And after a mesmerising morning walk, treat yourself to a croissant breakfast at Cafe Neuf.

In between house-sitting a menagerie of pets this week, I enjoyed the cool of the garden and finished off a delicious collection of poems by Mark Goodwin, called Else. Goodwin's poems transport you into places you will never find on a map. They leave the reader land-wrecked in wordscapes, tangled in an undergrowth of sounds, senses, images. On the first page, I am already arrested:

'Silas Tarn's willow-agile feet pick
out a code of stones to step on; he moves
with the slime-ribbony
mood of a river ...'

Goodwin is in love with language and its many registers. The river's stones are 'synovially smooth as a newborn's joints' and Silas 'sweats hints of sea zawns'.
I find this word 'zawn' in a glossary of Climbers' terms, meaning: 'Small steep-sided channel of sea ...' It's a West Cornwall dialect word and so its usage reflects not only one of Goodwin's favourite locations but also his own passion for climbing. And the poet is very present here, his hurt knuckles, his 'puzzler boots', his father with the dead dog, his chef brother who loves fireworks, his own children from the womb onwards. I particularly liked 'Three Men, a Boy, & a Four Pound Trout' which takes us through the rhythm of a day's fishing;

'The bloodknot is neat and tightly tied
to a little grappling hook with barbs like

prongs from a shattered star.
And the spinner is the way a boy smiles

years as sunlight swirls through ...'

It's hard to pick out a clutch of lines that do this 8-part poem justice, as it is hard to single out poems in this rich hoard. But I am still entranced by certain images in the early poem, 'Summer Conundrums of Happiness', which tells us that 'happiness hides in ditches'. It evokes the sinister smells and 'spear-beaks' of the 'slow-hot uncoil of blurred summers' before delivering a killer line:

'how our wounds
are frilled with
fibres of being

The gorgeous blue-moon cover with the gold birch leaf gives just the right hint of treasure excavated from the border of human and natural worlds.

And then, on an overnight visit to the beautiful city of Haarlem - but let me digress. I have to mention the Indonesian rijsstaffel we had at Wisma Hilda. We go there every year and without fail, this is died-and-gone-to-heaven food. In the morning we revisited other favourite haunts; the market in the medieval square, the spell-binding shafts of light and stained-glass colours in St Bavo's, the cobbled trails of side-streets. And in the bookshop, I snapped up a copy of Kate Atkinson's 'When Will there Be Good News?'. Atkinson made her name with literary fiction such as 'Behind the Scenes at the Museum' and her fiction became ever more playful with novels like 'Human Croquet'. But where I felt her characters got a little lost in the experimentation with form, in her latest series of detective novels, they are the beating heart of the story. And strong, page-turning stories these are. I devoured this one almost overnight, the perfect summer read for a long train journey or hotel room.

Most pleasing of all, on a five-day jaunt to the Low Lands, were the notes I jotted in the new lilac notebook. I got three short pieces written - they might be prose poems, or the raw material for poems. I'm just calling them 'snippets'. All being well, I'll have something to read at my next Leicester Writers' Club meeting. But first, there's a trip to York and then on to that magical seaside town, Whitby, on the North Yorkshire coast. There will be day-trippers and Cod + Chips; there will be Guided Ghost Walks and Dracula trails; there might be plastic rain hoods but there'll be no sun loungers, I'm sure of that.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Seduction of Elsewhere

Ah, the literary life ... posting e-mails, chasing bookings, filing receipts, paying the printers, looking aghast at tax forms. This stuff can and does take up whole weeks. What I need now is a few quiet hours to find my way back to some new writing. A blank page and a world of possibilities. Hopefully, some long hours in terminals and on trains will do the job. John Hegley said he does a lot of his writing on trains and I can see why. The steady hum of the engine, an endless moving screen of landscape and people - and most of all, the lure of elsewhere. Someone asked me recently why so much of my writing seemed to be about other places like the Arctic. My answer was 'I like writing that take me into other people's stories and lives. That has been very liberating ... not to be confined to the 'me story'.'

For inspiration, I shall also take a pile of reading. Today is packing day and I'll be sifting through the pile by my bed. Will it be Susan Richardson's delicious arctic collection 'Creatures of the Intertidal Zone', Mark Goodwin's 'Else' or Brian Daldorph's 'Jail Time' - a collection that certainly reaches into other people's stories? For novels, I have Andrew Sharpe's exquisite African tale, 'The Ghost of Eden'. You can see the titles all speak of 'elsewhere'. I also have a choice of notebooks - my arctic one with the hide cover, a shiny hardback one with the 'Blue Cats & Butterflies' design or the plain but sturdy Sainsbury's hardback with a smoky lilac cover. Sometimes colour can seduce the mind into the 'write mood' ...

And for setting, we have the seaside which is a special treat for a landlocked Midlander. First, Zandvoort in the Netherlands where we get to housesit for friends - Trev (aka Smashy de Clown) and his lovely family. Another chance to inhabit someone else's life - and language even. Then it's Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast - a place which I have a special fondness for. The town that inspired that literary masterpiece, Dracula. We first stayed there in 1995 so it's part of our history too. I have the jet and amber earrings to prove it, the jars full of fossils and a 6,000 word short story.

So back to a morning of e-mails before the excitement begins. I'll be away for most of August and then I'll let you know what the tides washed in.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Filling a Lounge-shaped Silence

The Yellow evening at the stupendous Lyric Lounge did not disappoint as a finale. Lydia was a black and gold star in lace and tulle. John Hegley was a revelation. Just about all his poems were SUNG or spoken to a very groovy soundtrack of live music from 'the Megend Keith Moore' on bass cello - or was it Ken? That's the problem with a 'megend'. There was also his nephew on acoustic guitar. John sang in a wild spoof-bluesy sort of way and the poems were a joy - witty, whimsical but often with an emotional punch too. I think my favourite was about his father - formerly Renee Robert who became 'Bob' to fit in at his English office and never spoke French except when 'Grandmere' suddenly visited after 20 years. Do take a look at some of them on his website.

In addition to the fabulous John Hegley, there was a live band, 4 'talented older men' from Lyric Lounge who dished their own brand of comic poetry and a rousing chorus of Hegley's poem/song dedicated to his native 'Luton bungalow'. The audience was required to sing along, translate French and tap our spectacles in rhythm like an answering morse code. It's impossible to convey how much we laughed and why. Like the whole week, it was generous, fun and in love with versifying. When the circus packed up, what was left was a Lounge-shaped silence.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Green Lyrics Singing

Oh the lushness of green at Lyric Lounge. As I arrive, everyone's in a corner creating something. Pillars are filling up with brand new poems and drawings. Some of them make their way into our lunchtime open mic session. Graham has brought green laurel leaves (from his neighbour's garden) to garland our offerings. He improvises a reading of 'Auroral Football' with me, playing with those green Northern Lights. Ishi Khan-Jackson runs through a gentle comedy set about her Punjabi grandmother. At one point, John Hegley strolls in. He's asked if he'd like to throw something in and he plucks a poem off the wall that's caught his eye. It's by a young man called Josh who absolutely doesn't want to read it himself. So John reads it for him and it's a blinder - the lyrical rush of 'The Hungry Moon' blows us away. John bows out. Jean Binta Breeze moves in, hurls in poems about tropical sunshine and tropical rain while the weather outside is lashing windows. She does a wonderful poem called 'Lyric Lounge' which I must track down for you. And then it's the music.

What can I say about the music - Aly and Milk? Aly - aka Alysson Stoneman - is a gifted poet who's set her words to the sweet acoustic guitar sound of Milk, her mate. I've said before that I think of poetry as singing with words, with the voice, and her phrasing is just on the edge of singing. It's sublime. And when she's not busy doing gigs and writing, she is also a co-ordinator for Nottingham Writers' Studio - another happening place for words.

And that's the great thing about Lyric Lounge - the buzz of the place and the people you meet. More tomorrow when we part in yellow and round off with John Hegley's evening show. Not to be missed.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Dolls' House Blue at Lyric Lounge

Blue day at the Lyric Lounge. Rain streams the windows but inside is sunny as ever. Tables are littered with fascinating, rust-bitten objects from Leicestershire Museums. In the corner, the Book Doctor has her stethoscope out for a surgery with two writers. People begin to pull chairs around and I find myself kicking off the open mic lunchtime set with 2 poems in blue. At the last minute, a bus-load of children arrive and I am weaving between them as I unfurl this arctic story:

'... like a ribbon of blue
green or violet
your breath will
loose in the sky ...'
(Last Breath Singing)

Mark Goodwin reads a series of poems from the Behind the Scenes workshops inspired by museum objects. As he does so, the curator Nikki Clayton opens a mysterious box-case and sets out 6 Victorian dolls' house chairs. I lay a porcelain dolls' head amongst them and Mark moves on to a spooky poem about a doll dressed in Red Riding Hood clothes. The children are snapping pictures on their mobile and digital cameras. Some of the young Lyric Lounge attendants read their own poems, fresh from this morning's workshop. Jean Binta Breeze drifts across to throw in her 'Third World Blues' poem and a musician takes up his guitar, sings us through to the end of the set.

Lydia rushes off to take some young people to a Truvan film project that is part of the Lyric Lounge festival. It transpires that the children who were snapping were part of a press pack that now descends with forms to sign away permission for those pictures and requests for an interview. My mini-interview is written onto a speech bubble card and I'm photographed beside it. A creative chaos emanates from the Lounge. As I pack up my things to go, people of all ages are crouched with crayons and pencils for the afternoon's Drawing workshop. I'm half reluctant to leave but I'll be back for the Write Way Up evening performance. Seven poets inspired by museum artifacts ...

And a quick evening post: Home from Write Way Up - a fabulous show at Lyric Lounge putting really original work by young writers together with film and music - why isn't poetry presented like this more often? Kevin & Pam did a great job with these performers - cheers all round ...

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Purple Poetry at Lyric Lounge

Today I drifted into the sunlit Lyric Lounge for 'Bridging the Gap', a discussion on the relationship between the Page verses Stage. This is a phrase I've been hearing more and more frequently with poets often announcing themselves to be 'a page poet' or a 'performance poet' or some hybrid of the two. Page poets write for literary magazines, with a readership of subscribers, and work to get a chapbook or collection published. Performance poets play at live spoken word events on a growing scene of slams, open mic sessions and gigs. Here the twain met in the pleasant no-man's-land of the Y-theatre lounge to shake hands and swap challenges.

The panel intros. were very good natured with much agreement but the discussion was wide-ranging and threw up all sorts of questions. Is poetry on the page seen as better, 'proper poetry', more complex, more 'academic'? Is there an Establishment of the poetry world, a class divide between page and stage? They certainly have very different audiences. How has performance poetry been rooted in music and the rhythms of an Afro-Caribbean or Black American culture? What part does non-verbal communication, movement and personality play in performance poetry? Why do many page poets 'murder their own work' in reading it aloud? Are some performance poets lacking in writing 'craft' or 'morality'? Can performance poets get published? Can and should page poets learn the skills of communicating with an audience of listeners? What can either 'side' learn from the other?

Inevitably, this discussion challenges us all to see where we fit in. I write for both page and stage and one reshapes the other in a fluid process with no clear boundary, though some poems obviously work better with listeners than others. The label 'performance poet' might lead an audience to expect a different style than mine, I'm not sure. But I have learnt a great deal from the performance poets I've seen at Leicester's WORD events. I love their theatricality, how they use movement and claim the whole space of the stage, how they cradle the audience within their performance. And I try to do all those things in my shows. But the same poems do their stuff on the page in my new book - the white space they originated on.

I very much enjoyed not only the interplay of ideas but the generous vibe between panel speakers and audience in today's Lounge. Graham Norman of Leicester Poetry Society, conveyed his love of words on the page but also his growing awareness of the power of live, spoken poetry. Sureshot, aka Michael Brome, revealed the same love of reading song lyrics on vinyl records and the importance to him of crafting the poem on the page first. Lydia Towsey and Alison Dunne shared their own experience of both forms. And Jean Binta Breeze strolled in, gorgeous in purple (today's Lyric Lounge colour) to share some final words from a poetry mistress: 'A love of language is everything - without that, you don't have a poem.' 'Your voice is your instrument - your sound should seduce your audience and create that space where your poem can live.' 'The performance is a conversation between artist and audience - it begins even before you get on stage.'

The Lyric Lounge is part of the cultural program for the Special Olympics and as such is a vibrant and inclusive affair with all sorts of workshops, performances, open mic sessions - you name it. If you want to experience a passionate engagement with live literature wrapped up in lots of fun, head down there. Jean is doing her stuff every lunchtime. And they have John Hegley on Friday. Tomorrow, the colour theme is blue for those who like to chime with the time. I'll be dreamy in turquoise.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Icebergs and Dark Flames at Polyverse

I feel my recent silence in the blogosphere needs some explaining. For the past fortnight, I've been nursing a bad neck strain, negotiating the world at eye-level gaze. Even neck swathed in scarves, peering at my keyboard aggravated it so blogging was out.

Luckily, I was able to rehearse my revived show STORIES DRUMMED TO POLAR SKIES. I was thrilled to be appearing this weekend as one of the headlining acts at the Polyverse festival. On Friday evening, I played to a very responsive audience in the Martin Hall theatre at Loughborough University. It was great to be doing this show in a theatre space again, with Saami music drifting over the PA and dramatic lighting to capture the mood of these arctic stories. At the end, one audience member said she wanted me to rerun the PowerPoint images and replay the whole thing; poems, music, auroral physics and all. Now that's what a poet loves to hear.

Polyverse was my first ever poetry festival and I was completely smitten. I heard some stunning poetry, bought a heap of books and chatted with editors and jobbing poets from across the country and beyond. It was especially good to finally meet my lovely editor from Original Plus, Sam Smith, down all the way from Cumbria. The festival lived up to its name with an astonishing range of styles and voices and subjects. I particularly enjoyed the other 'arctic poet', Susan Richardson, whose vivid performance was a revelation. I am so envious of her journeys to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland and her poetry found a magnetic resonance in my bones:

'It's a force that's attracted to the North in her,
the thunder of summer light,
the blood of explorers in the tundra,
the tilting cap of ice.'

There were many other very engaging readers, including some startlingly talented young poets, and of course, Carol Ann Duffy was sublime. A consummate storyteller, here is no declaiming. Her delivery is sly and taut and draws us in to collude in her mischief. The hair is all dark flames. She has a way of holding back on the last line, leaning into the mike and loosing that killer phrase with a glint in her eye. Her wicked narrative poem, 'The Laughter of Stafford Girls High' , rang a real bell with me from my own Catholic girls' schooling. This was delivered in separate slices to keep us begging for more. And then the moving sonnets of Rapture to finish. Here in the lover's 'Row', Duffy's images are so astonishing and right and conjured for me that stomach-pit feeling:

'But when we rowed,
the room swayed and sank down on its knees,
the air hurt and purpled like a bruise,
the sun banged the gate in the sky and fled.'

On Sunday I attended 2 really useful workshops on 'what to write' with Pam Thompson and 'who to ask' with Damien Walters of the Literature Network re. resources, funding, publishing etc. So I feel I got a glimpse of the whole poetry landscape. We were incredibly lucky to have this festival on our doorstep and let's hope this is the first of what will become a long tradition. I'm indebted to Radcliff Gregory for his vision of it and also Kerry Featherstone who steered this rambling herd of poets in the right direction all weekend. Fabulous!

Now I would mention Lyric Lounge, that other great spoken word event in Leicester, running all this week - but my neck is starting to do that twisty, creaking thing. More later ...

Monday, 22 June 2009

Map-poems and Bar-codes

I love poetry workshops where you do quirky little exercises and allow writing to be as free as play once was. I was completely hooked today from the moment where Jean Binta Breeze asked us to draw around our hand on a page. The workshop was on 'Identity' and there we were - with an emblem of something so uniquely and solidly ourselves. This hand became our 'island' and we began to name its oceans and straits, its bays and inlets, its peaks and cliffs and the long meandering 'life-line' road that straddled its palm. In no time, we had our maps and marking a cross, began to trace a journey around this island-self. By the end of the first hour, we were sharing a dozen 'map-poems', negotiating the Cliffs of No-Eating, the Troubled Straits, the Inside-Out Road. I was astonished by the variety of images, witty, dark and surreal, from our varied Pilgrims' Progresses. My map-poem began:

'Backstreet Point has walls black as the berries
that hang-over from the elder tree,
rooted and glittering in the field where things
get lost and forbidden ...'

And then we were down to the main business - to let ourselves be inspired by the multiple pieces making up The NHS Open Art Show in Leicester's City Gallery. Jean invited to find one face amongst the many and let it speak to us. I chose a montage piece called 'Identity 9615 13395165'. This played on ideas of identity-tagging with snippets of forms pasted over family photographs and a black mounting cut to suggest an overlaid bar-code. It was a clever and suggestive piece and this is one verse it inspired:

'Barred face
lifted bravely to the light;
lamplight in the parlour
cut by the bar-code,
spliced by faltering
neuronal narratives ...'

It's hoped that some of the poems we produced in this workshop will appear with the exhibition as it tours The Hinckley Ten 2 Gallery, Victoria Hall (Oakham) and Charnwood Museum (Loughborough). So you might look out for this striking piece amongst others. The workshop was free, organised by the lovely Lydia Towsey of BrightSparks , and Jean did a great job of steering us through. And now I'm away to edit up my two brand new poems!

Saturday, 20 June 2009


Blogs, poems, even meals – were scattered to the winds this week in the headlong rush to get the show on the road. And I have to confess, I love the frenzy of rehearsals almost as much as the greasepaint and lights of the performance itself. The show was WRITERS ON THE ROAD – as the photo suggests, an attempt by Leicester Writers Club to get out of our comfort zone and take our work to new audiences. On Thursday night we gathered 18 writers into the Richard Attenborough Centre and slogged through 4 hours of dress rehearsal. The pace was manic because we'd had so little rehearsal time together and now there was set, lights and sound to add to the mix. But the ensemble camaraderie was in full swing and we knocked things into shape. A night later, we were back for the real thing before a lively and responsive audience of over 60 people.

Suffice to say it was a roaring success because each performer had put in hours before the mirror or mouthing scripts in the Green Room. And our technical crew somehow delivered sound effects or powerpoint magic bang on time. The programme ranged from children's fiction to poems to several plays and some edgy and powerful literary fiction. Everything from the heart-breaking to the laugh-out-loud. It effectively displayed the diversity of writing in the club – the thrill of good storytelling in every genre. The gasps and giggles from our audience more than repaid the hours of fine-tuning that it took to put the show together. And in a week that took in the excellent Short Fuse spoken work event, it got me thinking again about the pull of live literature.

As writers, we spend so much time struggling to get our work into print, to get the permanence and kudos of that. And indeed, turning pages of your own words in a real book is a pleasure hard to beat. But I also find myself drawn to the very different excitement of communicating story and emotion to a live audience. And the challenge of events like Writers on the Road or Short Fuse is to find new ways of presenting material and bringing it to life for an audience of listeners who have no page to revisit or linger over. Short Fuse do a brilliant job with a set of about 6 writers reading on a spot-lit stage with breaks to digest what you've heard. We also had powerful solo readings from writers experienced at standing in front of a mike. To that we added the dynamics of a play with several actors – or two voices sharing a poem. There was live music from Julian Wright. There was a truly bizarre and ingenious depiction of a Dalek, complete with plunger, from Chris de Lacey. There was a shimmering sari to evoke the Northern Lights – my own contribution. Given the chance, I will always veer for that element of theatre.

Personally, I think every writer gains from this exposure to live literature, to developing the skills of doing more than reading from the page. And it's wonderful to be part of a whole team sometimes, not just you and the keyboard. As we packed up props at the Attenborough Centre last night, I was already missing it. Don't be too surprised if you hear that I've chucked everything to run off and join the circus ...