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?

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.

Words, hunger and overwhelm

There is always a ‘psycho’ on the train. Once, coming home from Exeter, I had the company of a chap who’d absconded after his rehab class (he had a tin of still-warm sausage rolls in his lap) and thus set off the ankle bracelet he was obliged to wear after committing GBH.

A fortnight ago, I got the train to Derby for Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. It was a Saturday morning in the school holidays: the train was full. Perhaps a third of the passengers were wearing masks. I spent the first ten minutes resisting the urge to run up and down the aisle shrieking ‘let me out!’ I calmed down enough to fish out my headphones for some quality time with Jeff Buckley: banging tunes, the voice of an exiled angel, and sufficient melodic interest to hold my attention. What I forgot to take into account is that when I am listening to songs (as opposed to ‘desk music’) I am on my feet, either doing cardio or pushing the hoover round etc. In other words, when I listen to songs, I move. Twenty minutes in, I opened my eyes to discover I was being stared at. A middle-aged woman, moving to music no-one else can hear. Must be a total psycho!

By the time I’d reached Swanwick and found my room at The Hayes, it was time for the Chairman’s Welcome. For the past eighteen months I have been in a household of three, only encountering the crowds during efficient raids on Tescos. Suddenly I was in a conference hall with 200 people and no social distancing and barely a face-covering to be seen. The demographic was (predictably enough) white, predemoninantly female, middle-aged and upwards (with a small cohort of millenials who’d won their places in writing competitions), and middle class. It would be interesting to learn how many of those present were hobby writers on holiday, and how many were professional writers doing CPD.

The opening event set the tone for the week. In the following days I began to suspect that an edict had been passed demanding that anyone seen sitting quietly alone had to be ‘engaged with’. I was neither lost nor lonely: I am an introvert with limited capacity for social interaction. I was doing my best to manage constant overwhelm. Everyone I met was great. Individually. Successively and en masse I began to view them as an ordeal.

Mealtimes in particular were a source of ongoing stress. I was looking forward to a week of not having to think about food for a change. I was not expecting to be hungry for much of the time. I’d been assured that a plant-based diet was catered for as standard. ‘Standard’ evidently includes hastily reheated leftovers (served with an apology) from the previous day. Half a small baked potato with a splash of passata, two broccoli florets and a spoonful of peas is apparently a ‘standard’ evening meal. I am a creature of energy and appetite: it was miserable!

I didn’t take part in the many social activities, partly through disinclination, partly through Covid-caution and partly through physical and emotional exhaustion. I did attend as many classes and workshops as was feasible. The highlights were Roy McFarlane’s four-part course Eliciting the Past, Present and Future Through Poetry and Della Galton’s hour-long session The Magic of Characterisation.  Roy’s approach focuses on ‘habit, habit, habit’ as the means to get poems written. To my delight, he even set homework! I wrote three new poems and came away with the seeds of several more. Those sessions were an absolute tonic: they were vibrant and inclusive and on the final day he gave us a fifteen-minute set. Mercy, can that man perform a poem!

Several times a day I asked myself if I would like to come back next year. Several times a day my answer changed. Back home, and after a few good dinners, I realise I appreciated my time at Swanwick more in retrospect than while I was actually there. Given a nicely full belly, less Covid-related anxiety, and not so much bombardment by the new, I would have the resources to appreciate it more. I might go so far as to actually enjoy myself! I think I would like to go back.

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.