Monday, September 26, 2016

The workshop handbook for writers

I never did a PhD but the Workshop Handbook for Writers is my equivalent. It's taken a few years to make sense of the work I've done with such a wide range of people. It's taken a few years to actually publish.

It covers some of the busiest years of my working life, when I had school age children, when I was the main earner. It covers some major poetry residencies in the Surrey Hills, with Unilever and with Fabrica Gallery in Brighton.

Credit to Giya Makondo Wills for some of the photos I've included, to Arc Publications and Ben Styles in particular for persuading me to publish it as a book and not a giveaway PDF!

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Expeditions and other colonial habits

One of my neighbours asked me the other day to design an invitation to a magical mystery tour for her husband's 50th birthday. She wanted a picnic basket, some sandwiches and a flask.
I found line drawings of a man in a panama hat, an advert for ginger ale, an old fashioned picnic basket and a walker wandering into woods, plus a quote from Albert Einstein celebrating mystery. She also wanted me to write a letter for her to an estate agent that had been too over-enthusiastic in trying to get her to switch sole agency.
I remember the old men in Thohoyandou, Venda, with their typewriters outside stalls in the sprawling market where we bought mopani worms and dried ants. Along from the typewriters were the women with treadle sewing machines.
I wondered if I could put a typewriter outside my house - I've been keeping an eye out for one that works, regretting giving mine away, one after another.
And everything is sparking memories at the moment - perhaps it's anxiety, prospect of a stark autumn and winter without one of the jobs I thought I'd have.
So yesterday was a mixed day. We sat in my neighbour's garden going over the letter and fine-tuning it, then I came back home to take up the accounts again - I'm ahead this year because I have to send in a paper form. I found the image that could advertise my services as a letter writer.
And then I found some old adverts and this is where the stuffed birds come in - reminding me of the days of poetry and wine in Ptuj, Slovenia two years ago - Versoteque - a festival that must be one of the best in Europe for its friendliness (on a par with King's Lynn).
It was there I spent time with Astrid Alben, a fine poet, and where I was taken for a local more than once, which made me wonder again about my unknown grandmother, whose features I've inherited.
Browsing bookshops in Ljubliana, I found a report on a colonial expedition to Mexico which lists every bird the expeditionaries killed to stuff and lay in trays in European museums. Billions are not even on show.
There are many horrors in the world at the moment and a bird's death is probably not rated high, but I've always felt a connection between industrial scale killing of animals and decline in empathy.
Which brings me back to the other day on the allotment, sitting under the plum tree (its sparse harvest eaten by squirrels this year) with Rob and listening to a robin. Its song was different, sounded more complex, sounded like a bird neither of us had heard before.  I realised my pleasures have changed - I like sitting and listening, being on the allotment alone and not having to obey. I feel I should ask the birds' permission to enter the allotment early in the morning, when I choose to stay later in the evening. Those times feel like theirs.
There's a scene in a Jackie Chan film (I think it's Jackie Chan) in which a monk berates someone for killing a fly. It's not extreme, it's really not. When I worry I'm becoming sentimental, I remember this sensibility has been practised for centuries. It's just that in a life-time of work it gets pushed aside.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

My first taste of cous cous, 1975

I first ate cous cous in a basement room on the university campus in Caen, Normandy in 1975. I don't remember how I met the guy who lived there and cooked for me, I could never recall his face.  I could be sitting next to him anywhere and not know he was that young man.

He cooked the cous cous on a single electric ring we had in our rooms. Why do I have an image of looking down from the cobbled square, from a point towards the edge of the square, not far from the looming lecture blocks where I went for a course on cinema and never returned?

He belongs to the time of Michel, Patrice, the fire-eater and travelling circus. But he's in a basement with a bowl of buttery, crumbly grain, a sweet spicy sauce of potatoes, carrots and lamb with chick peas and red peppers.

It's a taste I'd go back to years later with Mark who had a thing about harissa, who made cous cous properly and who I bought a North African cookbook for, which I kept when we split up even though it was useless to me, a vegetarian by then.

The young man in that basement is fixed in the colours of a dim electric light - kind, generous, now utterly unknown to me, and I often think about him.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

How the garden feels after a difficult one to one session

It wasn't counselling, it was a one to one consultation with an expert about work. It wrang insecurities from the most blissful day, it exposed every rock pool of self-doubt.

So in a couple of hours before dusk, I managed to heavily prune two weigela (which I will cut down today), decided to hack out a winter honeysuckle, dragged kilometres of bindweed out of flower beds and made a plan to lop the jasmine covered sycamore. I want light in.

I chose to prioritise time over money and work a four day week. I chose to write poetry, which is generous with personal reward but mean with external affirmation. I chose not to have a career. And just as I often wake in the morning nowadays wondering if this will be the day the chickens come home to roost (all those bad choices translated into medical conditions), the consultation was a day of reckoning.

So why would you want to do that? Why not be happy with the way things are? Be 22 again and play. Feel alive. Don't wait for the space, make the space you need. 

It's taken a while for the penny to drop. To realise just how full the world of writing is of people who come to it late from successful careers, where they've learned how to be successful. They aren't afraid of wanting it all and aren't afraid of what they must do to achieve it. They aren't afraid of success and strategy.

Does success matter? In itself, no, but some kind of external validation does, certainly when you've been at it for years. I fear it is too late for me. I fear that this is what the session I went to was about. I fear the garden will feel my fear. How can I be positive? Write.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Ladies of the arts

I went into the Pound Shop on London Road for a pad of lined paper. I'd been for a walk with Jane and we passed a shabby black painted temporary building on the beach near Concorde 2. We were curious about it, what it was for, and a man standing outside mending the doorway told us it contained an 'immersive experience' about time.

As we were leaving he said we could email him and he'd give us tickets (they were selling for £18, pretty steep given the experience only lasted an hour). 'You are obviously ladies of the arts,' he said.

I thought I'd stop off in a cafe and do a bit of writing to cement the status he'd conferred, but I didn't have a notebook. Then I saw a novel by someone I know in the books section. The pound shop's not a destination for books, but it's always worth checking the shelves for the remaindered gem. Hers was one I'd been meaning to read. And that led me to The Investigation by Jung-Myung Lee.

All that MacMillan says about this Korean writer is that he "has sold hundreds of thousands of books in his native Korea. One, Deep Rooted Tree, was made into a popular TV series."

It's brilliant. As immersive experiences go, I have to thank the man at the black chipboard shack on the seafront, because if I wasn't so determined to explore why I was so put out by that title, Ladies of the Arts, I wouldn't have found the novel. It mixes poetry and prose in the most inventive way and now I want to know more about this writer but I can find almost nothing, although I have discovered the name of the poet the novel centres on - Yun Dong-Ju who died in 1945 two years after being arrested as a 'thought criminal'.

It's a book about how we are shaped - how a moment listening to a woman playing piano can influence your whole life. It is about writing, words and violence. And I'm so far only half way through.

Jung Myung-Lee was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015. Is it his choice to limit the biographical information on this fascinating book? Translator is Chi-Young Kim.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Where did June go?

Marble female figure 4500-4000 BC,
from the Aegean islands
Sometimes a month passes day by day, as June has. Rain, trying to get washing dry, endless admin, finishing things off, oh and marking at the start of the month.

Things broke - the phone developed a ring tone on constant, like an alarm, the Mac began to heat up and freeze in the middle of a crime drama, the reading group ended and the cat started to piss on the carpet. Mornings I was on my knees with white vinegar, scrubbing the wet patch.

The blow heater broke. Birds nesting in the brickwork by the kitchen sat on the washing line and shat on pillowcases I'd put out to dry. Airbnb guests came and went and the weeds grew tall on the allotment because of the rain.

Battalions of slugs ate everything I planted, every seedling that came up, they hid under the rhubarb, planks of wood, in the herbs, they stripped the four sunflowers I'd nurtured in the greenhouse.

The washing line broke with sheets, jeans, towels, the lot on. June passed and then there was the referendum. Days on Facebook. Still trying to break the habit.

But at the end of June I had the proofs for the Workshop Handbook from Arc. It's nearly ready. August is the month for Venda Sun. The odd poem emerges in between. I talked with Jane for Pighog at 88 London Road about our collaboration.

I bought a dehydrator for the soft fruit. At last the summer raspberries are starting to ripen, two weeks later than normal. There are black, white and red currants. Anarchist colours. Gooseberries and new potatoes.
18th century tea bowl in the Metropolitan Museum

And yesterday the Poetry Library dug out Black Slingbacks from a 1990 edition of The North and used it as their poem of the week.

Funnily enough, I might have written it at around this time because it came out of doing my accounts one year and finding a cheque stub for a taxi from the flat I shared with Mark off Jamaica Road, when there were still local shops down there, with grills on the windows.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Not writing for money

Trained as a journalist in my early 20s, I've always expected to be paid for what I write. Okay, when I began writing poetry more seriously I couldn't imagine that it could compare. But nevertheless, I still valued my time in £s. When I wasn't earning through journalism (and I have been freelance for all but seven and a half years of my working life) I was conscious of what I wasn't earning when I was trying to write poems.

Writers are polarised, it seems, about whether it's right to be paid to write. When I began earning money from running workshops or doing poetry residencies, I was able to cut back on the amount of journalism I did to keep my family housed and fed. Three times in my life I received grants to take time out of that constant struggle of looking after small children and being the wage earner. I was incredibly grateful for time to focus and think. Did what I produced meet 'objective' quality standards? I don't know. The grants were awarded to buy time to write.

A novelist friend once told me that she'd become aware of this privilege when she was travelling and meeting writers who fitted everything into their daily, working lives without the luxury of public subsidy. Yes, I know people who do that here. With public funding shrinking, it is the norm.

But what started me thinking about it again, apart from a thread on Facebook started by writer and publisher Charles Boyle, was arriving at the age when it is impossible to find paid work and wondering what I was going to do in the five years before collecting a pension.

Since becoming a seaside landlady with Airbnb, I've found the distance it gives from my own expectations is a massive relief. For years I was judging myself by what I could earn from writing and whether or not I'd be in line for a residency, grant or workshop. I had periods when the pressure was off, with Royal Literary Fund fellowships and the reading round - temporary and part-time jobs designed for writers that also released me from some of the insecurity of freelancing.

But with the reading group ending in June and just one surviving job providing a very small income, I thought I was facing serious problems. Airbnb has liberated me from that worry and from my own ridiculous equation i.e. literary work means I am valued as a writer.

It no longer matters. Washing sheets, changing the bed and cleaning the loo makes me happy. If I have a piece of writing on the go, I can think about it. If I don't, it doesn't matter, I enjoy the shine of the sink. Writing has gone back to being something I do for the love of words. Work provides me with a succession of fascinating people. I thank god for the sea, pier, Royal Pavilion and a washing machine.