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/

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 ...

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Rhyme Storms & Line Breaks

Something about the BBC's Poetry Season must be catching. I've been to a blitz of poetry dos this week, starting with my own Northern Lights event at the Space Centre.

Then on Thursday, I was lucky enough to attend a workshop with poet Mimi Khalvati on 'Line Endings'. 'Really? said my partner. 'The time must have just FLOWN!' Well, it did actually. I tried to explain that it was like he'd attended a session on using html for websites or something but I couldn't sound technical enough and he'd already wandered away to his on-line geeks-with-no-graphics game.

Getting down to the nuts and bolts of how a poem is put together is immensely satisfying. As Mimi showed us, without dividing verse into lines, you have no poetry. And since modern poetry tends towards free verse rather than those regular blocks, there are far more decisions to make about where to end a line and which word to draw attention to. She had a very clever exercise where she showed us different shapes of poems on the page from a distance and asked us to guess what kind of verse it was. 'Blank verse, male, pre-C20th, someone like Tennyson,' we said to a solid block of text. Others were spaced out verses or raggy, uneven shapes. It turned out each was the same bit of text transposed from a Virginia Woolf novel and set into verse lines. But how the lines were broken up made a huge difference to the tone and emotion of the piece as well as our expectations of it. In the blocked text, single images got lost in the mass of it, the narrative flow, but when it was set into couplets, we seemed to hold our breath and take in every beautifully described object in her scene. And words we end on or begin on take a much greater weight of significance - like a close-up in a film perhaps.

Anyway, I learned a huge amount from this very experienced poet and was grateful to local group Soundswrite for organising it. It's sent me back to my own poems with a fresh eye - 'Oh, that's why I do that! - and I see so many more possibilities.

And then, on Friday, I had the pleasure of hearing the poetry of Alison Flett who travelled all the way from the Orkneys to visit Leicester Poetry Society. Her early poems were quiet and fierce, conjuring voices from her native Edinburgh with their broad working-class Scots dialect. It was interesting to hear how much kids were penalised at school for speaking in this dialect but Flett was later inspired by the poet Tom Leonard to bring that voice into her writing, and with it a world of characters who rarely make it into poetry. I particularly loved 'Learning' but also the haunting new poems in her sequence about 'Veterans' of WW2.

And my 'poem a day' reading this week has been the 'Inferno' by Dante but that's another story and another blog ...

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Star-Gazers at the Space Centre

I'm still buzzing from a magnificent evening at the National Space Centre in Leicester. We were actually in the adjacent Challenger Learning Centre but what a perfect venue for an event about the Northern Lights! The room was packed to the rafters with enthusiastic star-gazers, thanks to an article the night before in the Mercury. I promised my audience a dizzy cocktail of auroral physics, poetry, arctic stories and stunning pictures, courtesy of the Norwegian photographer, Bjorn Jorgensen. And we began with an extract from my book, Firebridge to Skyshore, that relayed my own excitement at this 'Northern Lights Journey':

'Frost is riming the grass and the wet road already glistens with crystals ... Every sense is more distinct as we walk, wait, watch. We’re in the Arctic on an October night and we’re trawling for Northern Lights.'

And then we roamed around the Arctic Circle, exploring ancient stories from the indigenous peoples of the Far North. This was a very responsive audience. They oohed and aahed and clapped and laughed in a way that can only warm the heart of any performer. Together, we crossed:

'this no-man’s corridor where ravens fly ...
particles firing a frost-light mazurka'

I've been lucky enough to meet some top auroral scientists here and in Norway. Both the Radio & Space Plasma Physics Group at Leicester University, who sponsored my visit to the Arctic, and the EISCAT team at the Tromso research base were generous in their support of my work. So I performed a number of poems last night about the extraordinary story of the aurora science has pieced together and the inspiration of the professional 'Skywatchers'.

'Do Not Adjust Your Set
- if it’s sci-fi you’re channel bopping for
that auroral corona was only the trailer...'

It was also fascinating to hear local people share their experiences of witnessing the Northern Lights. Ann Bonell of the Leicester Astronomical Society, recalled the dramatic red aurora that erupted over Leicestershire skies during the great solar storms of March 1989. Another woman had seen the lights from the window of a plane, as in the poem:
'grazing an ionosphere ablaze
with burning colour, oxygen green,
nitrogen blue ...'

I'm very grateful to the Astronomical Society and especially Ann Bonell for the invitation to do this talk. It's been the most fun I've had since the gig at the Science Museum in London. And lovely to see there is just as much of a hunger for stories of the Northern Lights here in Leicester.