Work or much punish

Do you remember Tenko? (Are you old enough to remember?) It was an ongoing drama series about a women’s PoW camp. Mum tuned in every week, as much for the location as for the story; it was filmed in the far from far-flung locale of south Dorset, not five miles from where we lived. I was too young for it really: little remains besides a memory of the Japanese guards constantly admonishing the women: work or much punish!

My husband asked me recently how I encourage myself. Well, that stumped me! Thinking about it, I discovered that I do not: what I do is push myself through unpleasant or challenging tasks or situations and, when they are done, I give myself some kind of reward for good behaviour. (It’s usually book-related.) I am aware of the reasons behind this but still it rattled me to be faced with it. Like many another, I have an exhausting habit of constant striving. There is never enough time to do everything that needs to be done and no matter how hard I work, it is not sufficient. I do not know how to stop, how to rest.

Last week I sent a second batch of twenty poems to Pascale ahead of our next mentoring session this weekend. My story “The Blue in the Black of His Wing”, for Stroud Short Stories, was on YouTube. (Here is the link : I made myself watch it. Lockdown hair aside, it’s not too terrible.) There were more notifications on Twitter than I have ever had and… I wanted to run away from it all! I do not know what to do with encouragement. It’s not that I think people are reverse-trolling me in some fashion (is that even a thing?!). It’s not even that I think they’re displaying a lapse of good judgement. I simply do not know how to handle encouragement.

I catch myself daydreaming about the cottage in Pembrokeshire we rented for a week a couple of years back. I walked to the small beach every morning before breakfast. There was never anybody else there. Several times I swam. Then I’d soak in the bath in the greenish underwater light that filtered through the shrubs around the window and, when I’d stopped shivering, I’d make a pot of tea and eat golden turmeric porridge from a blue bowl and, turn it whichever way I liked, there was no escaping the realisation that I was happy.

I am having a difficult week. I am tired. I am so far beyond ‘peopled-out’. I can’t remember when I last took time off. Come Sunday, I will switch off all my devices for the day. I will shut the door. I will have a lovely indecisive time choosing which of my new books to read first (thank you, Waterstones!) and drink endless cups of tea.

Zooming, stumbling, feeling the way

So. I’ve gone from being a Zoom newbie in March to attending five sessions in one week: two for NaPoWriMo; a mentoring catch-up meeting with Juliette from Dialect; the first of six Poetry and Journalling workshops; and Writers’ HQ’s weekly ‘flash face-off’ event’s 1st birthday party.

I have mixed feelings about Zoom. Yes, it makes ‘things’ possible (and I have attended readings and festivals etc. that were out of the question, pre-pandemic). But it does resemble an open-plan office. I find myself stressing about inefficiency every time the chat strays off-topic.

I do realise it is about more than getting work done and being efficient. And I do value being in a room with others who ‘get’ the writing thing, especially the poetry thing. I miss the monthly writing days with Writers’ HQ (and not just because of the sandwiches and cake, though that was obviously a draw). One of my worries about the mentoring is that when it comes to an end I will be returned to my disconnected, isolated routine, writing in a vacuum. I love my ‘anchorage’ and my solitude: loneliness is another matter altogether.

I would be more at ease on Zoom if I were good at making witty, insightful, or even coherent observations off the cuff. I like to consider things, have a good long think about them. I need to write things down (or draw, or paint them) to make sense of them. It surprises me this isn’t more of a writer-thing. The Whisperer, of course, tells me my lack of immediate response is construed as rudeness or stupidity. To my discredit, it’s the charge of ‘stupidity’ that bothers me the more of the two.

In more tech-related news, I have belatedly bought (pardon me, invested in!) a new tablet. My ancient laptop has become, at this point, a magic typewriter with email. I underestimated the degree to which it was exhausting me, all the hours spent peering into the screen of my phone. In the past fortnight, my new kit has gone from being a complete revelation to almost invisibility.

There is rather a lot of writing being done. In one week I have written good drafts of five new poems, all of them begun from prompts in the Zoom sessions. I am not necessarily writing the collection I thought I was, though. Some of the new pieces clearly belong to it, but other stuff is tugging at my sleeve, too. Is this a distraction? A new direction? I don’t know. Maybe I need to get these things out of my system, to clear the way for what I am meant to be writing. What I do not want to do at this stage is to veto anything.

In the corner, in the spotlight

Thinking about The Man Who Fell To Earth while waiting to have the light of ten suns fired at my retinas is not the wisest move but my mood is sufficiently buoyant I decide I can risk indulging in a brief, carefully contained, catastrophising session. No harm done.

It’s funny how opticians always remark on my distance-vision: we might see one like you a year… . There’s a metaphor here, no doubt, but it must be right under my nose. It’s an effort to bring it into focus. I come away with a prescription for new reading glasses, with light-sensitive lenses so I can take my books into the garden next time April stops reminiscing about January and gets on with the business of ‘breeding lilacs out of the dead land’ etc. Several days later and I have yet to get my ‘sea-legs’ with these glasses. While I’ve got my nose in a book they’re grand. But I forget I’m wearing them and am halfway down the stairs before dizziness catches up with me and I have to grab the banister and re-calibrate.

***

Last Sunday I attended my first poetry workshop, on Zoom, for NaPoWriMo. It was…challenging! I must stress there is nothing wrong with the group: they seem nice people. But everyone apparently already knew everyone else and there was a lot of chat and, as usual, I kept my distance, wondering what I was doing there, observing my fellow-humans as if they are an alien species. I am not unfriendly but neither am I sociable. I lack the talent for (and, if I am honest, an interest in) small talk. I miss my cues and by the time I’ve figured out what I’m meant to have said, the conversation has moved on. It took many years for me to be anything like at ease with myself on this account. To accept my quietness and not take on other people’s potential discomfort as something that I am responsible for alleviating. Not least because I’m a poet, for God’s sake: it’s not my job to fit in and make everyone feel nice and cosy! However, successive lockdowns have left me out of practice. I considered leaving the session, especially when the main writing prompt assumed a shared experience I don’t have. I didn’t leave: I worked some more on a previous prompt (and have since written two drafts of a poem) and even spoke up and shared something at the end, though to do so is like coaxing pears from a willow tree. I am determined to give it at least one more go, and see if it gets any easier.

UPDATE: I attended a second session yesterday and actually enjoyed it, even when we went into break-out groups and there was no corner to hide in!  And I came away with the rough beginnings of two more poems.

***

On Wednesday afternoon I went to the Cotswold Playhouse in Stroud to record my story for Stroud Short Stories’ next event, to be broadcast on YouTube on 9th May. Strangely, sitting in an upstairs office in front of a camera and microphone, I was more nervous than the previous time reading live on stage to an audience. Perhaps because then I deliberately shifted into ‘performance mode’ whereas this time I still felt like ‘ordinary me’. If my voice is a little nerve-strangled at times I do at least have the consolation that it fits the story. (I hope I have not over-compensated and delivered my poor words like the Ten Commandments coming down from the mountain-top.) I don’t get a preview. I will watch ‘my bit’ from behind the sofa but I can’t wait to hear the other stories!

Fear is a super power

You know that ice-breaker question, if you had a super-power, what would it be? I usually pick photosynthesis. I like my food, but just think of all the time it would free up: no more planning, sourcing, prepping, cooking and clearing up after meals. I could repurpose the kitchen cupboards as (yet more) bookshelves. I suppose I’d have to get used to green skin. That is less appealing, though anyone who wants to test my anger management skills by referring to my 5’1” frame as Hulk, give it a go. Although… in winter I am already a pale blue, which in summer becomes a startling white that reddens after twenty minutes beneath an overcast sky. I could adapt.

I hadn’t given much consideration to anxiety as a potential super-power. But now I think of it, residual traces of OCD in my system have likely helped keep me safe from Covid-19 these past twelve months. (For the record, I am NOT washing and sanitising my hands more than usual. We don’t all begin on the same starting-line: some of us are further round the bend than others.) But perhaps a long-term relationship with anxiety has put me in the novel position of feeling like the sanest person in the room as repeated lockdowns wreak havoc with the mental health of the populace at large. I have accidentally been in training for this for years.

And then I was awarded this mentoring opportunity. I was indeed anxious at the prospect of discussing my poems, in detail, with Pascale. Actually, I was anxious enough to wake at 5am for a 3pm Zoom meeting. But when everything has the potential to trigger the anxiety response, facing something properly scary doesn’t necessarily become the grand drama it would otherwise be.

Pascale is thorough! I’d sent her 25 poems and she talked about each one. I was delighted (if ‘delighted’ is a synonym for ‘incredulous’) when she called a handful of them ‘stunners’ and said she had no improvements to suggest. She talked me through some writing exercises I might try, for generating new work. And then we spent the rest of the three hours discussing how best to edit and improve ‘good’ poems. Primarily by being less abstract and removing anything that hinders the rapidity of the line (and by not introducing famous painters halfway through a poem only to drop them two lines later. Or having a seagull utter a phrase stolen from the mouth of a tetchy academic. How to goodness did I not notice those howlers?! The horror!) I had no idea how I would respond to having my work critiqued. Pascale did so with good humour, sensitivity and care. By the end of the three hours, I was mentally exhausted but emotionally buoyant. It is such a privilege to see my poems through her eyes. And as for hearing her read them back to me… .

Since then I have read through Pascale’s notes and made a rough schedule for ‘fixing’ those poems. I wrote a (terrible) draft of a poem using only one vowel (from one of Pascale’s exercises). I started two new pieces. I realised the enormity of the task ahead of me and felt briefly overwhelmed but mostly excited. I have so much work to do! I stepped into the unknown and booked a series of six poetry workshops.

I also sent two stories to Stroud Short Stories, one of which went on to be longlisted while the other was chosen to be broadcast on YouTube on 9th May. I have been invited to record it at the Cotswold Playhouse later this month. I am delighted. Having my story chosen and reading at SSS’s event in November 2019 was a turning point for me. It was a timely and much needed confirmation that I might actually be quite good at this writing malarkey. I was also astonished to discover that, despite threatening to go out-of-body with nerves (I was the ninth of ten readers that night), I loved being on stage and reading to an audience. Good memories, and positive things to take forward.

Notes from beneath the floorboards

It’s now three weeks since I learnt I’d been awarded three months of poetry mentoring. This past week has been full of good challenges, if very little actual writing. The week before that was horrible. My buoyant mood sank overnight and I woke with the familiar queasy awareness that I had committed to something when feeling reasonably capable that I will likely have to deliver on when feeling wholly inept. Sure enough, my path was soon littered with random obstacles (the injustice of one such incapacitated me for a whole day). I am blessed with the skill of turning a minor setback into a major catastrophe, except that I have learnt to recognise this pattern as a backlash that occurs whenever I approach escape velocity. I think of it now as a kind of threshold guardian whose job is to ask, “Do you mean it? Do you really mean it? How much do you really mean it?” before it will allow me to pass. Which sounds nice and empowering but is precious little comfort when I am stuck under the floorboards again with only dust-bunnies and desiccated woodlice for company.

The recurring anxiety dreams came back and brought a new one along for my benefit (psychological habitat enrichment, perhaps?). I was in the room I had in my late teens and a horde of rats was pouring up from under the floor and making for the door, which I couldn’t open. But. Also in the room was a 12-inch tall solid chocolate Buddha, which I began to eat: you can overrun my personal space, ye squeaking multitudes, but you ain’t getting your paws on my chocolate Buddha!

So. I completed line-edits on a short story. I worked on a visual art project on a related theme to my poetry collection so could legitimately claim I was still facing in the right direction and sending out scouts, even if I was not actually on the road. Once I was feeling sufficiently resourceful again, I made an inventory of all the poems I have written in the past few years. That is how much I really mean it!

That’s just as well because on Monday this week I had my first meeting with Pascale Petit. Oh my word, the nerves! We had some tech issues which resulted in a flurry of emails and which served to break the ice. All very silly! I soon realised that while Pascale’s poetic credentials are intimidating, she is not. She is friendly and encouraging and goodness knows I didn’t make it especially easy for her. I’m not a talker at the best of times and, for past trauma-related reasons, I find it excruciating to speak about things that are important to me. I either avoid the issue altogether and absent myself (hey, dust-bunnies; did you miss me?) or else am helplessly vague and inarticulate. With coaxing on her part and flailing on mine, we established that I write philosophical, spiritual (human)nature poetry. Which feels like an embarrassing thing to have to own up to, but that’s the beast we’re dealing with. Pascale explained that building a readership is key at this point. She suggested some magazines I might send work too, and some poets I might like to read. She noted my lack of any sounding-board for my work and suggested I seek a poetry-buddy, and try some workshops. We agreed that our aim for the next three months is to create sufficient poems to form the core of a pamphlet. To that end she asked me to send 20-30 poems for her to read before our next meeting on Monday.

I spent a goodly while shovelling muck and looking for tiny hints of shine until yesterday (Thursday) I could send 25 of my least worst poems. Vertigo? Sea-sickness? Something of both. And yet, unpleasant though this was, in its wake was a sensation I did not expect: the marked lightening of a burden, the realisation that I am no longer carrying this entirely by myself.

Exciting news!

I haven’t posted in almost a year. I’ve had little to say and I’m averse to jumping up and down, squeaking, just for the sake of hearing myself make a noise.

Today I am delighted to announce I have been awarded three months of poetry mentoring with Pascale Petit, courtesy of Dialect, funded by the Arts Council.

Late last Friday afternoon, an email from Dialect dropped into my inbox. The poetry mentoring scheme I applied for! I made an impromptu plan for how I would respond to disappointment this time (have a cup of tea, read my book, and then research other mentoring opportunities on Monday). I opened the email: thank you for your application… high standard of entrants… . How many times have I been here now? But then it said successful…, it said congratulations. It called my work wonderful. It told me I’d been paired with Pascale Petit, who had selected me personally. Pascale Petit, with her eight poetry collections and all the awards and prizes! I won’t repeat what I said: suffice to say that my imagery was vivid and my juxtaposition of profanities was both inventive and thorough. I showed the email to my loved ones. I had a cup of tea. Then I went wild and had a biscuit. I’m not exactly Dylan Thomas.

I am properly, thoroughly (excessively adverbially) delighted. When I read Juliette’s email part of me wanted to cry with relief that finally, something! Part of me wanted to hurl my phone to the back of the kitchen drawer and go and live in a tree. Within minutes my demons began their whispering:

  • Something good has happened. You’d best be on your guard against something bad occurring, to keep things in balance.
  • What if you freeze with terror and can’t do the work or can only turn in humiliating shite that would embarrass a schoolchild? Even worse, what if you don’t even realise how awful it is?
  • It’s a mentorship. That doesn’t mean your work is any good right now. What it means is could do better.
  • You’d better not celebrate just yet in case the email was actually intended for another Kate (our name is legion) and they don’t mean you at all.

This chorus chanted on in the background of alternating elation and quaking terror for the duration of the weekend. On Tuesday I had my (first ever) Zoom meeting, with Juliette. I can’t be certain but I think I came across as recognisably human. (My humaning is distinctly rusty: in fact, if you’re considering approaching me, don’t just wear a mask: check your tetanus jab is up to date.) In any case, she asked for a brief bio and a photo.

It’s possible that Dante featured the author bio as a penance on Mount Purgatory in his first draft of The Divine Comedy. God, it took me ages! How to sum myself up in a few sentences in a way that “sells” me to the reader without making myself queasy? I soon realised it’s not the summing-up that’s the difficulty (the 50-word version was fine: that’s little more than a Twitter profile) so much as the holding up of my threadbare materials to the light and despairing of finding something halfway presentable. The fear of not having enough of interest or relevance to say about my small life. A reluctance to get into all the false starts and failures of nerve, to flay myself, just to make the word-count. The constant fear, that is so familiar I mistake it for certainty, that I do not measure up. The shame. None of this is new.

So that has been this week’s task: to be aware of the injurious internal monologue without paying heed to it. I am keeping my eyes open for signs of self-sabotage. Meanwhile I have got two poems I have been working on to “done for now” status. I have not even met Pascale yet, never mind discuss my poetry with her, and already this mentoring scheme has begun to challenge me. Good!

Places of Poetry anthology

Have you heard of the Places of Poetry project? It is an online map to which writers were invited to pin poems to places of significance to them as a means of ‘celebrating the diversity, heritage and personalities of place’ in England and Wales. The project is led by poet Paul Farley and academic Andrew McRae. (The map is now closed to submissions, but is still available to read .)

Last summer I wrote a poem, “Welle”, and pinned it to the map in the stream that runs alongside my old primary school, here in Dorset.

I am now delighted to share that my poem has been selected for the Places of Poetry: Mapping the Nation in Verse anthology, to be published by Oneworld Publications later this year.

Mazurka and Other Stroud Short Stories

I will be reading my story, The Truth and Several Lies About Butterflies, at the Stroud Short Stories event at Stroud Book Festival on Sunday.

Also reading are: Peter Adams, Sallie Anderson, Ali Bacon, Georgia Boon, Nimue Brown, Philip Douch, Sophie Flynn, Sarah Hitchcock, and Rick Vick.

every morning, whether or not

As though asking me to witness a gruesome miracle, a domestic Turin Shroud, Bee holds up the sheet of kitchen roll with which she has blotted the grease from her cheese on toast. She says that dairy is bad for her skin. I probably shouldn’t be eating the cheese either. It’s the tasty Mexican one with the peppers, left over from chilli night. I weigh the likelihood of a flare of indigestion against the savour of it. I eat the cheese. In the category of items likely to unsettle my stomach, spicy cheese barely makes the long-list these days.

Is it weeks now or only days that it’s been raining? The sky has become a vast warehouse of marked-down stock rapidly approaching its expiry date. We sit snug in our houses, waiting it out, with only the News for news and the endless scroll of status updates to connect us to each other. An inscrutable algorithm judges us, determines which of our prayers will be seen and heard, by whom and how many. See how we bait our hooks! See how we shower each other with glib hearts! Today I cannot stomach any more. We venture out for a quick pond and Tesco’s combo-outing. At the petrol station Tesco’s we buy milk and haribos. I shouldn’t eat the haribos either, because of the gelatin, but just this once I want the delivered promise of empty sweetness.

Walking around the water we see that, improbably, the little egret is still there, looking wholly misplaced in this scruffy, suburban overflow pond. I struggle to reconcile myself to its presence. The swans flew off months ago and haven’t been seen since. I am glad it is there. But I do not trust it to be all right. The pond is scuzzy; the water level dropped significantly over the spring, transforming the moat between the shore and the willow tree island into a sucking mud-wallow and, despite the heavy rain since, the water at the pond margins has a flocculent and fly-blown, jellied look to it.
‘I don’t know why he stays, Bee,’ I say. ‘Perhaps it’s just his home.’

Emergency sirens scream at us on our way back. Nothing out of the ordinary. The shopping bag is heavy on my wrist. I rub it tenderly, nursing a soreness from weeding out the front at the weekend. This rain has turned the lawn into a meadow. Next door complained about the weeds, airing to visitors his genuine bafflement that we do not jump to it with alacrity now he has expressed his wish that we do something, ‘take action’. I do something. I stroke the grasses gone to seed. I admire the clover and search for, and find, the leaves of self-heal. If the rain ever stops I will mow the lawn, but not yet. I want a moment’s peace with the world in which I live. Is it too much to ask to feel at home here, to be allowed sufficient room as I am, without meeting anyone else’s expectations? I want to be able to drink my mug of tea in the morning and read my book and watch the small grey-brown slug abseil down the rain-beaded window and not need to justify such small pleasures to others as an acceptable response to this world, at least for this moment. I would like to find the courage to be happy, even (especially!) amidst the many things about which I cannot possibly be happy.

*The title is from ‘Morning Poem’ by Mary Oliver, from her collection Dream Work.