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.

A Violent and Fragile Mystery

Human Work by Sean Borodale
Cape Poetry 2015

Feeding people, and all that entails: a time-consuming, daily task that isn’t work, that too often takes me away from the work in hand, the attentive simmering of words, such that I rarely pause to consider what may be going on a fingertip’s depth beneath the surface.

Sean Borodale wrote Human Work amidst the pots and pans (it’s easy to imagine the jam- and blood-splashed pages) but while his kitchen is the arena of this work, its subject reads as an enquiry into the nature of the heart(h) of the home, of the fundamental sustaining of our human-animal selves. What are its concerns and its communal purpose (he is feeding family and visitors, not just himself)?

The first thing to become apparent is how violent a process it is. In the opening poem, Stewed Apple, the flesh in the pan ‘bellows and blows’ and he uses the technical term, ‘flensing’: this is not so much cookery as going whaling (with Captain Ahab?).

In Making Apple Juice with Makeshift Apparatus (and what a grand metaphor that is for the making of a poem, pressing out perception from the pulp of experience with the best words one has to hand – never mind for the actual business of living!) the work is revealed to be ‘part violence, part sacrament’.

There is a simmering restlessness throughout. In Apple Jelly (ongoing), the opening line, ‘I was asking is a body ever at peace?’ finds its answer later in Elderflower Champagne: to Serve

… you undress your principles
and expose the constant of you rummaging through perception
for an exit.

Nothing holds steady. Everything is in constant transformation. Life is feeding on life and it is not a delicate business.

the eaters wait:
staring,
sat in the trees of their nerves
like rooks.

Globe Artichoke

There is as much death as life in this book, to the extent of (metaphorical) murder:

Beans I kept

like a killer keeps a corpse –
in the freezer five months.

Broad Beans

Yet this prevalent death proves to be inextricable from birth, or rather from pre-birth:

Each stone opened like a wooden womb
or a small sarcophagus;
the vision – very mute nevertheless –
of the small pip, quite naked, pale:
two white foetal feet pressed sole to sole over each sought tree.

Damson Cheese in Detail (Part 1)

The further into the book one travels, the more the tenuousness of our being becomes apparent. The fragrance of Blackcurrant Leaves Steeped in Cream is ‘like the heat of a body / left in a bed’ while in Pears: to Poach (a Meal for Others)

the vapours climbed unsteady – through the existence of air,
vagrant and stray

even the line is stretched to breaking point.

I noticed that many of the lines that caught my eye were the closing phrases or stanzas of poems, which suggests that I was more taken with Borodale’s conclusions than with the reaching of them. On reflection, that would seem a fair assessment. I would also have welcomed a greater variation of tone and pace at the level of the collection as a whole. It may be concerned with the keeping of body and soul together, but it is to the mind that this book most appeals.

It’s not a comfortable collection, this, and I like it the better for that. This maintaining of our human selves – our tenuous and ultimately futile project – what a violent, bright-dark and fragile mystery it turns out to be, encountered and enacted through the ingredients we have to hand in our daily routine.

Reading Wrap-Up: September 2018

This month’s highlights:

Bee Journal by Sean Borodale. “You are not fully ordinary, bees.” I wasn’t sure I would enjoy this documentation of bee-keeping: poet Alice Oswald calls them, not disparagingly, pre-poems and note poems (of which I have a deskful of my own: finish the things, damn it!). I loved it! Here we have the mundane and the mysterious inseparable from each other, with a sense of immediacy throughout.

I opened the jar of honey I bought on holiday and sipped a little from a teaspoon. After reading these poems it tasted no less than a bee-spit sacrament.

The Great Passage by Shion Miura, translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. In which a small team of lexicographers compile and publish a dictionary over fifteen years. Sounds dry? Not in the least! It’s delightful: a feel-good book without saccharine or fluff. I enjoyed the contrast between Majime’s precision and exhaustive referencing with the definition of words and his ineptitude with the spoken word. As for his love letter, it is at once unintentionally funny and painful.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell. If the truth be told, London Above is scarcely less baffling and stressful to me than London Below is to Richard, a hapless everyman who finds himself in mortal peril in a world he didn’t suspect even existed. This is the first I’ve read of Neil Gaiman. I enjoyed it very much and didn’t want it to end. It has fascinating ideas, great characters, humour amongst the deadly serious bits, and plentiful illustrations in the margins. What more could I ask? Well, maybe more of the splendidly awful Mr Croup, an utter savage who speaks as though he digested a Stephen Fry vocabulary-builder at a formative age.

This month’s disappointments:

Ink by Alice Broadway. So, tattooing of significant life events is compulsory and, after death, one’s skin is made into a book to be honoured or publicly burned. Add a charismatic leader ramping up fear of the other and exhorting a return to “traditional values”. It had me feeling so tense at the start but as I kept turning the pages, that tension wasn’t sustained or adequately resolved and the book failed to deliver on its promise. Regrettably, it reads as though Broadway spent the bulk of her writing and editing time on the opening chapters with the rest being all rather “meh” with a headlong dash to the finish, where it becomes apparent that this is volume one of a trilogy. I won’t be reading on.

I spent too much money again although, in fairness, three of the books were bought during a special occasion day out (and two of those had been on my wishlist for some time). The other two I bought after first borrowing copies from the library. Poetry.