Dead Horses and Moscow Mules

My post-swim tea and porridge routine has relocated to the garden this week, where I have reclaimed my small corner between the overgrown bushes and the shed. I sit beneath the parasol, contentedly watching the birds on the feeders. It is so nice that I was moved to optimise the experience by planting out some special-offer bedding plants, which promise an abundance of gaudy joy in short order (provided the slugs don’t get them). I also installed a modest water feature, comprising a cheap solar-powered fountain and a builder’s bucket.

Cue a low-key summer solstice celebration, then, with the help of a homemade golden sultana soda bread, washed down with one too many Moscow mules. Yes, the vodka and lime have put in another appearance (along with a lively ginger fizz): my poetry manuscript was declined yet again, this time by Amy Wack, of Seren. Two significant doors slamming in my face in the space of a fortnight (the other being the Poetry Business) is hard to accommodate with equanimity.

Rejection, I get it (time after time). I know it’s an inevitable part of the writer’s life. But I have to question how sustainable this is as a practice. There are the emotional costs, certainly. But neither are the reading fees, competition entry fees etc. negligible. I know my work is good but this way of going about things is not getting me anywhere. Switching horses, mid-race? More like finding myself thigh-deep in the mud in the middle of nowhere, wondering what the hell I’m doing there (wherever there even is) and how to goodness I’m going to get home.

A hazy shade of something

In the slough of the post-project plummet since completing my poetry pamphlet, I have been unable to write for six months. It’s starting to look like a phobic reaction. It has happened before but never quite to this extent. I suspect it is not the writing, per se, that is the problem but the belief that I am obliged to “do something” with it (all the more so after the mentorship with Pascale Petit: she did not share her time and expertise so I can cram my desk drawer with unpublished manuscripts). But the material facts strongly suggest I am constitutionally averse to what I think of as “the poetry circus”. Nor is this just shyness. It is exhausting and stressful to engage with it. Not for the first time, I ask myself, “Do I really want that? Or do I only believe I should want it? If I am not writing,” so the logic goes, “then there will be nothing to have to send out.”

However, when I am not involved in a regular creative practice, I implode. My mind needs a bumper box of assorted chew-toys if it is not to tear up the place, and sufficient emotive and sensory content to prevent my drifting off-world into complete abstraction.

A series of synchronicities led to my signing up for Art2Life‘s Creative Visionary Program: a three-month intensive art course that proved to be every bit as joyous as it was challenging. It was just brilliant, and it didn’t take long to understand why Nicholas Wilton calls his company Art2Life: I learnt a tonne of art theory and have about 25 years’ worth of practise to continue with but, beyond that, Nick and his team amply modelled an attitude of living life generously. This is priceless.

I enjoyed the learning as much as the painting and set myself the task of making copious colour-mix charts, an activity I find immensely soothing and quietly thrilling! I learned that I enjoy working with a limited palette in muted colours (reduced risk of overwhelm-paralysis) and that what I really want to paint (though as yet largely lacking the skills to do so) is the emotive and sensory quality of the things I experience, and how I think about them, rather than an “accurate” portrayal of them.

I felt right at home with the course’s clear structure, and its amount of detail and re-iteration of key concepts. I continue to struggle with play which I persist in framing as chaos and mess (and I hate having paint dry on my hands!).

By the end of the program I had built the beginnings of a sustainable art-making practice (some of which I can transfer to my writing) and I had made a stack of acrylic paintings, including a series of three portraits of me, my sister, and my daughter as little kids. I did not anticipate this as a subject but they insisted. Fully engaging with the program required (and created the conditions for) painting personal and vulnerable work. I felt a need to honour the kids we were, to acknowledge the difficulties we each faced, and how those things remain part of what continues to shape the people we are today. Perhaps it is only through doing so that I can be properly present and get on with doing the damn work of being here now.

Disrupted Daughters no.1: Adrift

Disrupted Daughters no.2: Left

Disrupted Daughters no.3: Hexed

 

Burnt out and fired up

“So, how are things?” asked Juliette. The other Dialect mentees and I were meeting up with her on Zoom for a six-months-on debrief. After the usual dead air while I consider the myriad of potential answers to this routine question, I opt for burnt out. I’m a poet (am I still a poet when I’m not writing?): it’s a metaphor. Not remotely original, granted, but it conveys the all-consumed, scorched socket of a sensation: writing practice as landscape in the aftermath of a plague of fire-locusts. It’s no comfort to recognise that I struck the match, that I all but invited the voracious beasties, each one, by name.

So I get myself fired up over another project: the Art2Life CVP course. It’s been a blast but this week was a challenge. We were invited to get the paints out and fill two panels just as we pleased, without thinking about it, being led by whatever felt good. We were invited to play. Sounds good, right? It turns out that, while I get the concept, when I come to do play, I end up miserable and anxious because my instinct to define the task and come up with a set of procedures to follow doesn’t work. (This might be funny if only it didn’t trip me up quite so much.) It’s too VAST, and I’m overwhelmed. I am choosing to view this as useful feedback… . I want structure, I want parameters: put that on a T-shirt and get paint on it!

Discernment and the absence of dinosaurs

There’s a quote in Eric Maisel’s Fearless Creating (Tarcher, 1995) that I turn to often: “You choose to do something challenging not because you expect a worry-free experience but because you want the experience so badly that you accept beforehand the new anxieties you are about to encounter.”

Recently I’ve been pondering the prospect of attending Swanwick Writers’ Summer School again this year. In brief, I’ve decided against. I will be sorry to miss poet Roy McFarlane’s new four-part course, and there are several other tasty offerings but… much as the necessity to do so frustrates me, I need to factor in the “local conditions”. These include public transport stress, inevitable social overwhelm, the likelihood of frequent hunger on account of the insufficient and inadequate (from a vegan perspective) food provision, and poor sleep; all contributing to mental, emotional and physical exhaustion. Last year I was excited to go. This year there’s not enough of a pull to offset the risk of a meltdown/shutdown. I’ll consider it again next year. For now, I have other fish to fry (beans to boil?).

After an epic bout of Olympic-standard over-thinking, I decided to raid my savings and enrol in Art2Life‘s 3-month Creative Visionary Program. That’s an encounter with impostor-syndrome right there! Creative Visionary?! Who am I kidding? I like to sketch in a half-arsed, don’t-know-what-I’m-doing kind of way. There are serious artists on this course! But I think that’s part of the appeal: to do something I enjoy without the pressure of expecting myself to be any good at it. This week we have been making inspiration boards. Mine is all birds, books, and blue, tea, swimming and the sea. I feel buoyant when I look at it. And yet, as it was nearing completion, I was struck by grief for the things I hadn’t the space to include. Where are the walks in the woods? Where are all the flowers? Where, I ask you, are the crocheted dinosaurs? Of course, I could make a second board for these and other things. I remind myself that my inspiration board is not actually a lifeboat on the Titanic (and yet, and yet… the way “things” are…). I sat with the sadness a while and contemplated this middle-aged species of discernment: it pains me that there is not “world enough, and time” to immerse myself in all the things that might hold my attention. I must choose.

Un-desire

One of my pamphlet poems has found a home, in the forthcoming Dialect anthology. Juliette asked me to make a recording of it, also (with a minute’s worth of introductory blurb) for the accompanying podcast. I’m a “page poet”, no question, but there is an unmistakeable power in speaking the words out loud, ventilating them, giving them air through which to move.

I am pleased (and relieved!) about the anthology and podcast and yet there is discomfort, discordance. Another four weeks have passed and still I am not writing. This has gone beyond any reluctance or resistance I have experienced before: it has the texture of a veto proclaimed far, far down in the unsighted depths. Meanwhile, the emails declining my work drip drip drip into my submissions folder.

And yet I remain compelled to put marks on paper: I turn instead to my sketchbook. I still have to circle the page a few times before I can sit down and begin. The first five or ten minutes of drawing are just awful but perseverance delivers me into the deep quiet of attention (entrancement, oftentimes) to whatever is in front of me. I don’t produce great drawings, but I sense the process is of inestimable value.

I tell myself I should be able to map my routines and experience of drawing on to the desire to write. Well, that’s the theory. In practice it’s not happening. And that’s when the assumption itself trips me up: what if there is no desire to write? What if I am mistaking the panic of not being able to do something for a true yearning to do it? What if it is not a question of discipline or mindset, transferable skills, but rather an absence of fundamental Eros?

 

In between years

This disconcerting inter-tidal zone between the end of one year and the beginning of the next might be custom-made for auditing my greater and lesser failings, for using the scourge of “not enough” upon myself. I suspect mine is not the only household to observe this custom: finish up the Christmas goodies, welcome in the New Year with Jools Holland, hang anxiously upon the minute-hand and perform a thorough character assassination before extorting a panicked vow to be less lacklustre henceforth.

Not that I am one for resolutions: I resolve nothing. But. This year Michelle Lloyd from United ArtSpace persuaded me to take part in her Best Year Yet fortnight. It’s early days but so far I have drawn up an alarming mind-map of both sensible, achievable goals and awesome ridiculous ones, and have reflected upon the year just gone. And I must concede that 2021 was a year that “counts”: it was rich in challenges, most of which I rose to (with more stumbling and swearing than grace and aplomb, but never mind).

Some significant milestones:
I was awarded four months of poetry mentoring with Pascale Petit (no less!) by Dialect, by the end of which I had completed a pamphlet and undergone a sea-change in how I think and feel towards my poetry and what is possible for it.
I took part in various poetry workshops and classes (with Dialect, for NaPoWriMo, and with the the Poetry School) via Zoom.
I sent two pieces of work to Stroud Short Stories: one made the shortlist; I recorded the other for their event on YouTube.
I attended Swanwick Writers’ Summer School for the first time.

And, at the risk of turning this into an Oscars acceptance speech, here are some people without whom….
Juliette Morton, of Dialect – for awarding me a poetry mentorship and for getting me to do things I thought were beyond me (breakout groups on Zoom; sharing works in progress …)
Pascale Petit – for all-round mentoring excellence and for not letting me settle for “good, but not special”.
Michelle Lloyd, of United ArtSpace – whose free “Kickstart Your Art” program got me drawing again, whose “Motivational Mondays” on YouTube allow me to believe in possibility, and whose “7 Keys” course helped with focusing on the why and what of my poetry pamphlet, and continues to guide me in the practicalities of making and sharing my creative work.
Roy Mcfarlane – whose poetry class every morning during Swanwick week was a joy, and took my mind off the inescapable social and sensory overwhelm.
The good people of Litsy – for encouraging me to warble on about my bookish enthusiasms to my heart’s content; also for contributing towards building my TBR tower to near-blasphemous heights.

So there we have it! As for this year… excuse me a moment while I consult my mind-map: in the words of Octavia Butler “So be it. See to it.”

Running away to sea

Things have been difficult since finishing my poetry pamphlet. I have sent out bunches of poems to magazines etc. that Pascale recommended and, to date, have been met with refusal or months of silence. Not one acceptance. I did have a refusal from Granta that was so positive it almost felt like an acceptance but frankly I am not content with being grateful for crumbs that fall from the table. This is evidently the way of a writer’s life. It is difficult, but it is not the difficulty.

Since finishing my pamphlet, the exhaustion and sense of vacuum that followed in its wake allowed my demons back in. I have been stressed and miserable, overwhelmed by the smallest things. For the life of me I have not been able to sit at my desk and write. I thought this was the warm-up act to the familiar post-project depression, but now I am not so sure.

A handful of synchronicities and pressing irritability led to my spending a fortnight alone on the Dorset coast in the town where I was born. I love the sea. For twenty years we’ve been visiting Pembrokeshire and I have come to love it with a simple, joyful love. Dorset is complicated. I was always in my element on the beaches but childhood was misery and I left at the first opportunity, only returning for very brief visits a handful of times since.

I couldn’t believe my luck: I’d rented a one-bed loft apartment on the seafront. I watched the ships in the bay. I watched birds (turnstones, particularly). I befriended a pair of juvenile herring gulls who showed up every time I put food on my table. I sat in the deep window sill and let the sea and sky soften my eyes for hours. I read Alice Oswald’s Nobody out loud to the sea (it persisted in talking over me, but no matter). I walked on the beach for an hour every day at first light, and then again towards sunset. And I quickly realised I was not, in fact, depressed.

Neither was I happy, exactly. But the agitation, the sensation of being constantly assailed by everyone and everything, and having nothing to set against that, was just… gone. The flat was simply furnished and tidy. I could read and meditate and watch the sea in the sitting room. At the little dining room table I designated one chair for eating and another for drawing and journalling (of which I did plenty). There was no “catering” to do: I had only to feed myself, whatever and whenever I liked. Cheerfully greeting strangers on the beach without breaking my stride turned out to be the perfect amount of social contact. The sea, though, the sea!

All this walking the tideline, back and forth, back and forth. All this compelling liminality! For the whole fortnight I was constantly within earshot of the waves. (I did not use my big headphones once.) And I found myself asking, as I had thirty years previously, “how am I going to leave?” Oh, how differently the question resounds now!

My husband asked me how it felt to be back there. I’d been giving it considerable thought. It would not be quite accurate, or honest, to call it “home”. I am wary of using the word “belonging”; I suspect it entails duties and obligations I am as yet unaware of. I thought about the ships in the bay. I felt I was riding at anchor: still at sea, no longer drifting.

Back in Gloucester (after a distressing journey involving a broken-down bus and subsequent yomp across Yeovil with a heavy rucksack, a train packed to capacity, a “service” that was cancelled at Bristol, and a wait outside in the cold for my poor husband to come and rescue me) I don’t know what to do with all this. I can’t face people, either IRL or online. I have stopped drawing again. This is the first thing I have written in two weeks. I am sleeping poorly. Everywhere I turn there is chaos: cups, butter knives, sirens, flashing Christmas lights. I don’t know what meaning needs to be made of this. But if I am not depressed, what, then, am I? Responsible for sorting out this ungodly fuck-up of a life? That’s a big ask, currently. But I don’t want to drag myself or my dear ones across an endless expanse of misery. I need to listen to what the sea told me: to listen and listen and listen until something begins to make sense.

#ambarelywriting

“Just imagine how much worse you’ll feel if you don’t… .” Thus, my all-purpose metaphorical cattle-prod. It gets the job done but, as motivational strategies go, it doesn’t exactly have me aglow with inspiration. It’s been a difficult couple of months; the amount of effort needed to do the things I know make me feel better increases by the week. I am relying on staggering amounts of willpower, spiked with potent doses of shame and fear.

We finally got away for a week in a rented cottage in my beloved Pembrokeshire, a fifteen minute walk from a tiny cove. It was wonderful, but a week is not nearly enough: I was still should-ing myself throughout (not helped by a tight writing deadline to meet midweek). One morning after breakfast I sat alone on the beach and realised what I want right now is four weeks of solitude, a complete cycle of moon-soaked tide-watching. Books, good bread, tea. A logfire in the hearth. The sea. Sufficient respite from the usual human clamour.

Writing is barely happening. This is more than tiredness, or lack of inspiration: it feels like a refutation-tight veto issued from the depths of the depths. I skirt round it as best I can. (I am currently doing two courses with The Poetry School). To do so is exhausting! I cheated it last week by tuning into Joelle Taylor’s Zoom workshop, for Arvon and the Working Class Writers’ festival, on the body in poetry. She gave a fantastic performance and shared several timed exercises, which I could pretend were ‘just playing, really’. The two hours flew by!

As for my poetry pamphlet… I don’t want to think about it. Possibly because I have a bad conscience in its regard. I feel deflated, defeated, vaguely embarrassed. Perpetually simmering. I’m accumulating rejections of batches of poems, which is disappointing but by no means devastating. What I cannot endure at this time is the required jumping through social media hoops etc. apparently necessary for ‘profile-raising’ in order to make a success of the work. I love doing the work of writing poems, and the more it challenges me, the more I want to give to it. But the business of ‘being a poet’, what does that actually mean anymore? Is it something I’ll grit my teeth and do, for the sake of the writing? Dare I ask myself, at this point, how I really feel about the prospect of being published? Is it even something I truly want? Or is it something I am afraid to let go of after the years of effort and intention I have given to it?

Writing is for life, not just for Swanwick

“What do you do?”
“I write.”
“Oh! So you actually make a living from your writing?”
“I make a life from it.”
“But it puts food on the table.”
“Tea, perhaps. Ink.”

What do you do? Even at a writing school this is the question I am invariably asked by new acquaintances, before they ask my name. As if even here people must be sorted according to, and validated by, a recognised economic activity. If that is so, I am in-valid. Do I believe that? Sometimes, yes. (Keeping me hungry, sleep-deprived and in fear of the shared air we’re breathing certainly fosters that belief.) Amongst writers it’s beyond depressing: I mean, where’s the imagination? Where’s the curiosity?

What do you do?
I sit alone in a small room, gazing at the sky, muttering rags and tatters of phrases.
What do you do?
I spend hours in the company of people I know do not exist. (And, while we are on the subject, I struggle to accept the belief that the people in Tescos are more real.)
What do you do?
I am told “No” a lot. I wrestle constantly with the Great Doubt (and occasionally with the Great Faith.)
What do you do?
I walk the path of failure. Even the best poem is a muffled echo of what I originally heard, a distorted reflection of what I saw. And if it were any better, it would replace that “revelation” with itself; a small neat murder, the way a memory is supplanted by the story one makes of it afterwards.
What do you do?
I persevere.

***

From writing to reading. Perhaps it is the pull of the tide of the new school year, but I’ve been compelled to acquire a bilingual edition of Virgil’s Aeneid  thirty years after Book 2 was my Latin A-Level set text. I’m reading a handful of pages each day. It has rapidly become something I look forward to. Of course, it is gratifying to discover that I’ve “still got it” (with the help of a vocab. list and quick glances at the, distinctly archaic, English translation when I get stuck), but the necessity of reading slowly rather than racing along at my usual clip is leading to a richer experience of the story. Juno is angry and attempts to shipwreck Aeneas. Who cares, right? But Juno is really feckin’ pissed off over repeated slights upon emotional wounds and I don’t blame her. Aeneas has been through ten years of war, his homeland has been destroyed, his people murdered or forced into slavery; he would rather share their fate than be in this boat breaking apart in a storm in the Mediterranean.

What was I saying about people I know do not exist?

Actually, it is Dante’s doing. Last year I read his Divine Comedy (in translation) for the second time after a gap of thirty years. And less than a year later, I find myself reading him again, scribbling copious notes and responses. I do not pretend to understand what is driving me. I don’t especially need to know. I trust that it will become clear enough in time: for now I’m just following my nose.

The end of the beginning?

What a difference a few degrees’ drop in ambient temperature (and subsequent better sleep) make: I am still waking at half five in the morning; I am still cycling to the pool at ridiculous o’clock for a much-needed swim; but I am once again capable of joined-up thinking.

It took a few days for it to sink in that the poetry mentoring program has now ended. I had my debrief session with Pascale on a sweltering Monday afternoon, with the window closed because my neighbour had the grandkids round and I had poems to record. I think it went ok (I’ve not heard the playback) but I was a little thrown by the extraordinary introduction Pascale gave me. And I am still stewing over the fact that I couldn’t share my best poems because they are out on submission elsewhere.

The next day I had a meeting with Juliette, and my fellow Dialect mentees. It was good to catch up and to share our experiences of the program and to acknowledge, not for the first time, that some of my peculiar difficulties and struggles are not in fact exclusively mine. We have now arranged to meet for afternoon tea in Stroud in September. Yes, I may indeed allow myself to be lured from my hermitage by the promise of tea and cake! (Throw in a free book and I’ll be the first to arrive.)

For ten days and more afterwards, I couldn’t get started on anything. I shied away from my desk like a Shetland pony in a puissance arena. Eventually I stopped fretting about it. I’ve worked hard. Not only have I written a folder full of poems, my attitude towards my writing and what is possible for it has undergone equal parts revelation and revolution. That being so, it is unreasonable to expect my daily writing routine to continue in undisturbed serenity. (And, to be fair, when have I ever been serene?!) I have learnt to say ‘yes’ to the work. Now I need to learn to say ‘no’ to it on those days when all that happens is I bedevil and exhaust myself with ‘should be writing’ rather than having a break and getting on with something else. I still need to learn how to rest.

I can always rely on other people to say ‘no’ to the work for me! Earlier this week, The Rialto declined a bunch of my best poems. I am deeply disappointed, but not devastated. I have not drawn the usual conclusion: rejection = bad writing = failure as a human being. And it helps that I have been too busy to dwell on it: I have now finished my pamphlet!

All being well and God willing (insert the caveat of your choice), at the weekend I will be going to Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. I booked it eighteen months ago but… things: now it’s only days away. I’ve not been before. I am so nervous but excited. The unknowns are legion, and one certainty is that there will be PEOPLE! Anxious as I am, my presiding fear currently is that my dear ones or I will get pinged or show symptoms and I won’t be able to go (it’s even a struggle to write the words). I’ve come up with a Plan B, in the event, but there’s no denying it’s second best. And so I challenge myself: have I the courage to want things?