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.

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?

 

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?

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?

Heavy weather

Oh, the relief! When we met on Zoom last week, Pascale did not say she hated my pamphlet nor that it needed drastic changes. She said it was strong and fresh (which are new adjectives I am trying on for size), also “unfashionably visionary” and “on the intense side” (which, to risk busting the seams of metaphor, are wardrobe staples).

We are meeting again in a few days’ time for an end-of-mentoring debrief and also to record a handful of poems for a podcast that Juliette wishes to make for Dialect. I’m not especially worried about reading the poems (I’ve got a couple of short stories on YouTube which I can actually bear to watch) but two things are giving me trouble. The first is that Pascale has asked that I say a bit about my experience of the mentoring process, and also to introduce each poem. “Don’t worry about it,” she said; “it’s just chat.” Chat! My wordy nemesis! The thing I am consistently, comprehensively, inept at!

The greater problem lies in choosing which poems to read. I want to do my pamphlet justice. I want to show my gratitude to Pascale and Juliette by sharing my best work. I feel compromised in both of these desires. How so? In that most of my pamphlet poems are currently out on the submissions circuit and because of the ‘rules’ (and, I mutter to myself, a patriarchal obsession with virginity) concerning simultaneous submissions and prior publication, any poems recorded for the Dialect podcast automatically become ineligible for magazine publication or competitions. This is the way things are and getting worked up about it will get me nowhere. I only remark it is somewhat ironic when magazines declare an aim to champion ‘new voices’, that common editorial practices in effect suppress those voices by keeping work tied up on first refusal for months at a time.

I may be trailing my coat-tails. This may be an attempt at last minute self-sabotage. My pamphlet is all but complete; it is a disorienting experience. The hot weather is not helping. The air is marmalade and I am toast. I am sleep-deprived and heat-delirious. Simple physical tasks take three times more energy and time than usual to do. Stringing a handful of coherent thoughts together is like watching the rise and fall of a civilisation in real time. I am not a poet this week. I am a stressed mammal whose chief concerns are aquatic. By eight in the morning I’ve already lost count of how many glasses of water I have drunk. By breakfast I am already nostalgic for the swim I have only just had. By lunchtime I consider appropriating the bath and snarling at anyone who approaches me and/or the toilet. These are indeed strange, ridiculous, unsettling times.

Pamphlet purgatory

This past fortnight I have been in pamphlet purgatory. Many are the occasions I have stalled, in irons, flapping about uselessly and fretting this will never end. At other times, the wind has been blowing in the right direction and the just thirty minutes I have negotiated with my demons has become several hours.

At our previous session, Pascale suggested I might have a go at writing a cento, a poem comprised entirely of the words of other writers. Challenge accepted! I decided to browse my writing notebook for quotes jotted down from my reading over a couple of years. This clarified my ongoing preoccupations/obsessions and resulted in a five-stanza poem which helped to consolidate the themes of my pamphlet. I am now more nervous about it than ever! Pascale has seen every poem included, but she has not seen the meaning I have made of them, put together. What if she hates it? What if she thinks I have gone off in an entirely misguided direction? I find myself immersed in a whole new level of vulnerability.

Our meeting next week will be the last ‘big’ session, with just a wrap-up meeting to conclude. The Poetry Journalling workshops I have been attending with Dialect finished this week too. I am sad, but it is also a relief: these past few months have been a significant mental and emotional challenge. I am exhausted! Also, I am not a great finisher of projects. I think I learnt my curiosity from a backyard magpie. Having other people involved, with deadlines, has held me to an accountability that I cannot in good conscience let slip. In the process I am having to reframe my view of myself as someone who finishes what they start.

I am mindful also of the ‘goal beyond the goal’. Previously, when I have completed major projects, doing so has precipitated deep and prolonged episodes of depression. I am scared of this happening again. I cannot simply stop (I mean, I need a break but…). I need to keep writing, and with purpose. Of course, there is the finalising of the pamphlet and the doing something with it. There are poems to keep sending out. There is a full-length collection to think about. Without deadlines and accountability, though, I am liable to be driven by every wind that blows and… it will never be done. I need to commit to showing up! To that end I have signed up for two courses with the Poetry School. One is ‘Into the Dark Forest: transreading Dante’s Divine Comedy‘. (I re-read Dante at the end of last year, thirty years after first reading him. I am still not done with him. This course should keep the magpies occupied.) The other is a fortnightly feedback group on poems in progress. It’s a daunting prospect but doesn’t begin until the autumn so for now I’ll leave that for future-Kate to deal with!

Unsettled

Last week I had another mentoring session with Pascale. Every time I go through the steps of the same tiresome dance beforehand. I get jittery and snappish with anyone who tries to talk to me. The Whisperer turns surly, to the tune of “why to goodness are you even putting yourself through this? whose bright idea was it? why the hell blah, blah, blah… .” Without fail the printer gets jammed or takes off on some kind of electronic fugue state or the broadband has an existential crisis and questions the whole meaning and value of connecting and… and… at the last minute everything pulls into focus, it is three o’clock, I’m clicking on “join meeting” and we’re off.

It does not get any easier. If anything, it was worse this time as I was unhappy with the poems I’d sent. (And I had been sleeping poorly. And my little back room was sweltering while the neighbours were splashing about beneath my window in their new patio-pool whose jacuzzi motor whined like an ignored child all afternoon and well into the evening.) But I know by now that I can be honest with Pascale and that I can deal with her comments on my work. She is never unkind. She is never dismissive. But neither does she say something is good when it is not. She tells me when I have wandered off into abstraction again. She tells me when I am losing the thread (and the reader with it). She tells me when things simply need fine-tuning, or re-ordering, or a thorough overhaul. I trust her professional judgement. I trust her as a person.

Throughout this mentoring process, I have sent her over sixty poems; many of them new, others substantial reworkings of existing pieces. I have done more work in these three months than in the previous three years. It has been difficult, occasionally miserable, sometimes exhilarating. And it has become not ordinary exactly (I don’t think writing poetry and sharing it with others will ever feel ordinary) but it is something that is done. Somewhere along the way I have lost the conviction that I must justify it to others as a valid way of spending my time and energies.

In the beginning I had a block, to the point of phobia, of showing my work, even my best pieces. As for sharing works in progress: not on your life! I also had a misguided notion, which I even recognised as nonsense at the time, that I had to do everything by myself, that to accept advice or suggestions from a “proper poet” was somehow cheating. My word, I had so many powerful strategies for making things unnecessarily difficult for myself!

I still have a lot of resistance towards sending work to magazines etc. I need to get over that, for the sake of doing my poetry justice, but also I owe it to Pascale, and to Dialect for giving me the opportunity in the first place.

Three months ago, if I had thought to ask myself what kind of feedback I really wanted, I’d probably have said I’d love someone to say my work was really good (not great: don’t think I could have handled that much!) and that I just needed to keep on doing what I was doing. I’d have been happy with sixty promising-to-good poems. No, not happy: I’d have settled. Amongst this session’s poems was one I had written as homework for the Poetry and Journalling workshop I am attending. Looking back afterwards through the scans of Pascale’s notes, I read “good but not special”. This is possibly my favourite piece of feedback! It offers a whole other order of possibility and potential. And so from these sixty poems I am now putting together a pamphlet of twenty. And they are better than good. I still can’t bring myself to think them special, but I recognise my voice in them. They are mine.

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.

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!