A giant rainbow


a giant rainbow…
bending down with the load
                           of sky        (Sunil Unial)

This was the rainbow over our  garden a few days ago. Strange to think what rainbows have come to symbolise.  So uplifting, but tinged with sadness. I’ve seen one made of Lego in a window down my parents’ street, and one made with leaves and twigs on the Trans Pennine Trail near our house. I didn’t photograph them for fear of looking like I wasn’t taking the lockdown seriously.
I’m trying to use my unexpected amount of free time productively, which means I’ve started to edit my novel. I read in the Guardian Review the other week that agents and publishers are receiving double the number of novel submissions at the moment, so it looks like a lot of people have had the same idea. I truth, I’m not overly concerned. My goal is to complete a full draft and have a manuscript at the end of it that I can say is finished (to the best of my abilities). What I have at the moment needs a lot of work. It’s disjointed and full of inconsistencies. However, there are places where I feel the writing really takes off, so I’m heartened and keep telling myself it’s going to be worth the work. Of course, I’d have rather have had this free time under different circumstances.
I’ve written before on the importance of finishing a project, so I won’t go into that again, but needless to say the novel, at about 80,000 words, is very time-consuming. I don’t want to devote all my spare time to it. That would be another form of lockdown. So I’m trying to write poems too. And that’s what I wanted to blog about really, the beauty of a really short poem. I emailed a haiku prompt to our local writing group last week, and I’ve been writing them daily as an antidote to the novel: short, light, a way of encapsulating  the moment. They’re a great way to stay grounded but still feel productive.
Brief as they are, there’s nothing easy about them. They demand focus and concentration. What I’ve also enjoyed is discovering new sites and outlets for these poem (I’m tentatively thinking about submitting some). I’m not going to list all the sites I’ve visited. People will do their own searches and follow their own interests. However, there’s some famous examples at HaikuPoetry.  100 Best Poems also has some good examples – I particularly enjoyed After the Gentle Poet Kobayashi Issa by Robert Hass, which opens:

New Year’s morning—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

For Japanese season words and classical subject matter, I’ve found Renku Home useful. And if you’re totally lacking in inspiration try this Haiku Generator. It probably won’t generate a totally satisfying or finished poem, but I did find it turned up some lines and phrases that gave me a jolt, which is always good. So, be productive, capture some rainbows and make time in your day for writing.

PS Forgot to mention Dave Bonta’s video poems. I love Pennsylvania Spring.








Life in the Woods

life in the woods back cover cropped

A couple of weeks ago, a man I got talking to in the pub leant me Henry Thoreau’s Walden; A Life in the Woods. I’d assumed it would be the summer before I got round to reading it. How quickly things have changed. On much reduced hours (work is operating on a rota system) I, like many others, have had time to read. There’s a strange sort of synchronisity at play here. Someone lends me a book about a man who purposely isolates himself, then the nation goes into lockdown and I find myself isolated. No doubt this, in part, explains why so much of Thoreau’s writing has struck a chord with me. For example, I found myself sending a flurry of emails out at the start of the week, mostly for my own reassurance I think, touching base with friends, trying to get my head round what’s happening. How important were they? I’m not sure. I copied them into a file, to look back on later as a sort of journal of crisis. Almost immediately, I noticed they were full of everything and nothing, largely repetitive, devoid of any real meaning or insight. That’s email for you – cheap, instant communication. And then there’s the newsfeed you can’t help but look at as you log on.
Here’s what Thoreau has to say on the subject of communication:

For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications to be made through it. To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life … that were worth the postage. The penny-post is, commonly, an institution through which you seriously offer a man that penny for his thoughts which is so often safely offered in jest. And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked or one steamboat blown up, or on cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter, – we never read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principal, what do you care for a myriad of instances and applications? To a philosopher, all news, as it is called, is gossip … yet not a few are greedy for this gossip.’ 

Emails are our penny post. We are surrounded by news 24/7. Thoreau made a conscious choice to lockdown of course. For us, it’s been imposed. It’s early days. We’re finding our way. We keep trying to imagine the future, knowing that what we should hold on to is the present. Perhaps, as writers, we know how to handle the silence. Personally, I’m think I’m learning how to manage my time in a different way, to keep to some sort of productive routine, trying not to panic when I look out of the kitchen window and see constant queues outside the supermarket. And when I do feel that sense of anxiety, I go back to reading Thoreau and try to keep it all in perspective: I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.’


Thoreau, H.D., Walden; or, Life in the Woods (Dover Publications 1995, f. pub. 1854)






Nothing can ever be the same as it was


Yesterday I think I truly understood what the word melancholy means, waving the children off from school for the last time this term, possibly for this academic year, not knowing what the future holds. Parents were upset, mystified, numb. I’m a teaching assistant, but we’ve all had to pitch in this week due to staff absence. During school closure we’re going to be working on a rota basis to cater for the children of key workers etc. Strange times indeed.
After work, I went for a walk. I don’t mind admitting that I was in tears. Everything seemed so overwhelmingly sad. I walked part of the Penistone Poetry Trail, a project I was involved in a few years ago. When I reached the corner of a fallow field, there was Marion New’s poem (above). It seemed to have taken on a new meaning. Odd how we’re wired to make these connections, to read words from the past and reinterpret them in light of the present. For me, the poem links back to all the writers whose lines were used in the cut-up process, but it also links to the landscape, the fields and boundaries, walls, stiles, ditches and streams I encounter every day when I walk my dog. I’ve posted some pictures below – it all looks fairly bleak at the moment, due to the heavy rain in February which somehow seems to have bleached the colour from the ground, as well as the fact that we’re so high up. Don’t be fooled though. New shoots are poking through. Things are starting to turn green again. The birds are singing. And there’s still poetry of course. It’s good to live in a place where ‘arteries of kindness converge’ and ‘love soaks into the ground’.


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The Five

The five

I’m reading Hallie Rubenhold’s book, The Five, at the moment. In 1888, five women lost their lives to Jack the Ripper. It’s a year that has special significance for me, because it’s also the year my great great grandmother, Margaret Hill, was murdered. I’ve only ever written about it once. The poem (reprinted below) appears in my pamphlet Breathing Through Our Bones, which I dedicated to Margaret, even though the  other poems aren’t particularly linked to her death. I felt it was important to acknowledge her in some way because I had a sense that her tragic death had somehow been silenced. The crime was largely forgotten (it occurred locally) and certainly never talked about in our family. In fact, it remained a secret until the 1980s. Whenever I tell people this story, they say I should write more on the subject. It would certainly be interesting, and my mother does have copies of newspaper reports from the time which would no doubt be a good starting place. However, I’ve never felt the urge to take it further. I think it’s one of those ‘slow burners’. The seed is there, but the impetus isn’t, at least for now.

Rubenhold’s book is non fiction; it’s an extremely well-researched account of the five victims and absolutely a story that needs to be told. I’ve read other books about Jack the Ripper – some are excellent, but most fall short. What Rubenhold does that is so necessary, is shift the focus away from the killer and onto the women he killed, women who have been silenced and misjudged. Feminism has long argued that women’s lives have been marginalised. It’s a shame that it’s taken 130 years for these women’s lives to be portrayed in a more honest and objective way. What’s so arresting is the way each woman’s life is so profoundly shaped by the times. They had so little self-determination. As a woman writer, I realise how lucky I am to have a voice. Here’s the poem I wrote for Margaret Hill, one of history’s silenced women.


In the wardrobe, my shadow
on a blue hanger that once belonged
to my mother’s sister,

her maiden name also the name
of my great great grandmother,
shot in an upstairs room

of the Blacksmith’s Arms,
the landlord’s lover,
two children to him, another

on the way. Three hours to die,
bleeding through the floorboards,
a last kiss on her dying breath.

The same year, Jack the Ripper
stalked the streets of Whitechapel,
fooled women to lift their skirts

for the price of their supper.
How do I know about the price
of porter, about fleas in the mattress,

the pawning of ulsters –
because I’m the daughter
in this history of mothers.





Trying to serve the work

DSCN2565 ver 1

I’ve been mulling over the question of simultaneous submissions this week. I don’t normally send the same piece out to two places at once. In fact, I’ve only had one instance of the same piece of work being accepted by two publishers and that was simply because the timing of my first pamphlet meant it was available before a magazine publishing one of the poems in it came out. The magazine was very understanding, by the way.
To purposely send the same piece to more than one publisher is generally (although not always) frowned upon. Often, in the submissions guidelines, it’s made clear that simultaneous submissions are not accepted. Having said this, the chances of getting a poem or a story in print are fairly slim, so to get the same work accepted by two publishers must be very remote indeed. If you look at it the other way round though, sending work to more than one publisher must surely increase your chances of getting it accepted.
In January I sent out a short story. I believed it was good. It was certainly the best I could do at that point in time. Six weeks later I came across a magazine that had a themed slot which my story seemed to fit. Not wanting to tread on anyone’s toes, I initially decided not to send it. I hadn’t heard from the first publisher but I know these things can take months. In the meantime, I decided to reread the story. I found that the opening wasn’t as tight as I’d originally thought. It lacked immediacy and impact. Because of this, I felt sure it would be returned by the first magazine. In an attempt to turn this into something  positive, I rewrote the beginning. In fact, I’ve rewritten it three times.
This is what I mean about trying to serve the work – trying to make it the best version it can be  so it stands a chance of getting into print. Yesterday, after some deliberation, I sent it out to the second magazine. If the first magazine does take it (although I’m certain they won’t) I’ll send them the rewrite.
So, I’m not advocating sending multiple copies of poems and stories to every magazine you can think of, but I am saying that if you believe in the work and you want it to be read, you owe it to the writing to make it as good as possible, to give it the best chance of being accepted. Sometimes this involves a bit of juggling, but I think most editors would forgive a simultaneous submission if it meant receiving a revised manuscript that was the best possible version, rather than one that feels a couple of drafts away.



Why it’s important to finish …

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Saturday was fraught with tension as I hurriedly tried to finish a pamphlet submission for the Poetry Business competition. Against my better judgement. I decided to add a couple of new poems. This forced me to rethink the ordering of the other 18. Hence a lot of faffing about, and no doubt, a great deal of over-thinking. But after completing and submitting the manuscript, I experienced an odd feeling of euphoria.

I’ll be honest here; I have little hope of being placed in this year’s competition. Ultimately, I felt my poems lacked the carefree openness that I value in a good poem; you know, that lack of awareness of it actually being a poem. This might sound like nonsense. After all, when you pick up the pen, you intend to write. Poetry or prose, you’ve no doubt decided, on some level, what it’s going to be, before you start writing. So how can a poem lack awareness that it is a poem? Well, I’ve recently returned to Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds. It’s full of beautifully rich language and imagery, but what I admire most of all is the sense of the writer allowing thoughts and images on the page without telling the reader what to think, allowing the reader to take part in the poem and run with it. So, in terms of a model of what poetry should be, for me, Vuong’s debut is it, because it’s full of poems that aren’t screaming, ‘Read me, I’m a poem. Look what tricks I can do.’

This is quite nebulous, and very subjective, I know. And being brutally honest and self-critical, my poems fall far short. So why the euphoria? Well, it’s that small but vital ‘hit’ of completing the work. The manuscript will sink or swim, but that’s out of my hands now. I’ve done my bit. I’ve turned up and done the work (see Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way – she’s big on this). There’s something satisfying about completing a task, so much so that I rewarded myself with a trip to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park today, to see Saad Qureshi’s Something About Paradise (photographs above and below). 


Detail from Saad Qureshi’s Something About Paradise

Maybe something about this exhibition will feed into my writing. Maybe it was just because it wasn’t raining this afternoon. Whatever the forces at work, underlying it all  was a feeling of satisfaction with life which was self-induced. I’d submitted 20 poems to a publisher whom I respect, and who has been totally supportive of my work so far. That submission depended on no one else. It was down to me. The judging is out of my hands. I can’t control or influence it. And what would be the job of a judge if no one submitted? You know the saying, ‘It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part.’ Well, there’s some truth in it.





Under construction

DSCN2538 pamphlet

Prompted by John Foggin’s recent post on poetry competitions and an email conversation I’ve been having with a friend of mine, writer and academic, Zoe Walkington, I thought I’d pitch in and share what I’ve been doing over the last couple of weeks, which is putting a pamphlet together. Smith/Doorstop, who have published my previous two pamphlets, are running their annual Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition, so the obvious thing seems to be to get it together for their deadline (1st March). I can highly recommend entering, as being a winner of this competition in 2011 was a massive boost for me. However, if I miss their deadline, there are other small presses, so I’m trying not to be too hard on myself if I don’t get the work ready in time.
Zoe and I have agreed to read each other’s submissions, so here’s part of the email I sent her which outlines my thinking:

I’d love to read it [the pamphlet manuscript] so please do send it. I’m trying to get some poems together myself, not so much in the hope of scooping a prize, but more as a way of submitting myself to the process, if that makes sense. I’ve been out of the loop with poetry a bit, and I know putting poems together for a pamphlet makes you think very differently about them, so I’m treating it as a sort of refresher course (with all the attendant anguish it induces). My feeling is that if you’re paying to enter, you force yourself to take it seriously. And once you’ve got the poems together, they can always be sent elsewhere if they’re not successful.
So, in the spirit of comradeship, do you want to read mine by return? No worries if you can’t fit this in, and I’ve not quite got them as I want them yet. However, if I don’t get on with it this weekend, it won’t get done at all!
You are possibly a bit further down the line with yours!
As for the judges, it’s probably best not to think about them at all as they won’t know what they’re looking for until they see it. If it’s any help, I’ve scribbled the following criteria on the front of my manuscript (in no particular order): cohesion/ groupings, pairings, authority/ maturity, variety, titles. For me, these are all areas where I feel I need to be more rigorous. As I said at the start, I really don’t expect to be placed but the other thing about entering is that it shows the readers where you’re up to with your work, and they do sometimes publish pamphlets without them being comp. winners. You deserve to win by the way – that last pamphlet was really good. Did you send it anywhere else?

Looking back over my poetry with a view to putting it in some sort of order is something I find always difficult, but I’ve been telling myself it’s doing me good, shuffling poems about, tweaking final lines (like titles, they’re sometimes hard to pin down), cutting an adjective or two. Of course, it’s taking up most of my spare time, but hopefully it will be worth it. And when I catch myself thinking, ‘This pamphlet will never win’,  I try to remember what John Foggin says: The odds of your winning a poetry competition are dramatically increased if you enter.