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so after the mentorship with Pascale Petit: she did not share her time and expertise so I can cram my desk drawer with unpublished manuscripts).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!

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.

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.

Emotion recollected in mild agitation

I notice… . I wonder… . It reminds me of… .

My daughter gave me The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling for my birthday earlier in the year. It’s a beautiful book, and an inspiring one. Above are the cues that John Muir Laws uses when he takes his journal out and about.

Yesterday was an unusual day. With trepidation I went back to the pool for the first time in well over a year. Oh, how I have missed being held by cool water! Afterwards, whenever I caught the smell of chlorine on my skin I smiled. Then in the afternoon I visited the Museum in the Park in Stroud, to meet Juliette from Dialect and the other mentees: Sarah, Keeley and Audrey. When did I last spend time IRL with people who are not immediate family? It was at a Writers’ HQ retreat day, even longer ago than my last swim!

Successive lockdowns notwithstanding, I have yet to get round to missing human contact. I was apprehensive, even as part of me floated above the whole experience, conscious of the water I was swimming in. But it turned out to be rather lovely. A gift, in fact, to be amongst other writers; not at my ease, no, but in the right place. Me being me, it was wildly over-stimulating and, as always, I was first to leave.

I notice: how each person carries themself; how their hands move or are still; the tilt of their head; the complex choreography of their face when they speak; the pitch and rhythm and tempo and dynamics of voice; birdsong; the sun and breeze on skin and in hair; moving patterns of light and shade; the visual textures of metal chairs, fabric, the gorgeous planting; the colours and forms of flowers in themselves and how they influence each other; the aroma of those flowers, laundry detergent, shampoo; the internal sense of time passing… . Not to mention the ever-present interior monologue. And then I must attend and contribute to the actual content of the conversation.

This is normal. But I wonder: is it a creative-person thing to be quite so aware of this kind of sensory stuff? An extreme-introvert-at-large thing? Or just a strange Kate thing? There comes a point when I reach saturation and shut down. And so I leave before that happens. I wonder how it would have been had I followed my instinct and sat for half an hour afterwards in the beautiful garden focusing on one single plant until my attention was brought back to a more humanly-navigable scale. But… we had only just met and I fear it would have been too weird. I didn’t want my actions to be misinterpreted as lack of interest or, worse, rejection. In fact, I felt a sense of tremendous goodwill towards everyone. I hope a little of that, at least, came across.

And today? “It reminds me of…”? Isn’t that where the writing comes in: assessing the significance of these things; making meaning from them; finding or forging the connections between things? It is in pieces. I am in limbo between sending Pascale a batch of poems, last week, that I am not remotely satisfied with, and our next session on Monday. I am not getting nearly enough sleep. Everything is still in acceleration-mode. I have a nagging worry about migraines and the anxiety/OCD that have at times followed upon this state, the one taking my words and the other my perception of any control over my thoughts. I look around my own garden and can’t sufficiently separate myself from the unstemable exultation of it and my mind interprets it all as a kind of burning and I long for cool water, for blue and blue and more blue.

Gold Stars and Marble Jars

I am tired and restless, starting to fret about my work and whether it is (in all the ways!) enough, even as my mind appears hellbent on becoming a perpetual acceleration machine. This would be more concerning were I not a meticulous tracker of the ‘seasonality’ of my mental and emotional energies. Consulting my journal, I see a pattern of steadily increasing pitch through late winter and spring, which reaches peak intensity (subject to a variable degree of discordancy) in summer, followed by an abrupt plummet, then a minor revival in autumn before the next-to-nothing-doing of early winter (or, as more accurately reflects my perception of it, several months of November).

Perhaps perversely, then, winter is ‘my’ season. My worst episodes of depression and/or anxiety have occurred in the summer. Perhaps the excess of it overwhelms me. The garden turning to jungle when I turn my back on it for five minutes. The trees pulling the sky down with their leaves. The insufferable heat. Weeks of poor sleep. Worst of all,the inescapable human noise: lawn mowers, strimmers, neighbours’ music clashing and roiling like the meeting of oceans. The nauseating reek of charred flesh and smoke. Everything comes too close, is too loud, too bright. That aside, I like the long-light days. I like taking a table and chair into the garden to work. I love the abundance of fresh fruit (Cherries! Apricots! Oh, doughnut peaches!)

I am reluctant to inquire too closely into the ramifications of apparently working most intensely when I am leaping out of my skin. I had another mentoring session with Pascale recently, discussing the twenty new poems I’d sent her. It was a ragtag collection of episodes from childhood, an ambivalent attitude towards my kitchen, and strange half-bird beings. Of those that Pascale judged the strongest, the majority began from prompts from the Zoom sessions I attended for NaPoWriMo, during which I was far from my comfort zone. The best poems in themselves unnerve me; there is something Other about them. But I have learnt to recognise that if the work is worth doing, it will scare me. And the only effective way I know for dealing with that fear is to crack on with the work.

It’s not all existential angst! Considering seasonality, I wonder to what extent I have simply not outgrown the school year. I like best to write in cheap exercise books. Perhaps I am still writing poems and stories for Mr Furze from Class 4, so he will reward me with an actual pen to copy them up ‘in best’ to be stapled on sugar-paper to the wall display. There’s a child here somewhere hungry for encouragement and recognition. To that end I have acquired a packet of gold stars and a jar of marbles. I put a gold star on the calendar every day I have written. I place a marble in the jar for every complete hour I have written. The marble jar is filling with gratifying speed. The calendar begins to resemble a small galaxy. Yes, it is silly. But it might just keep me going until the kilo boxes of cherries are back in Tescos.