Dead Horses and Moscow Mules

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

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

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

A hazy shade of something

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so after the mentorship with Pascale Petit: she did not share her time and expertise so I can cram my desk drawer with unpublished manuscripts).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

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

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

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

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

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

Disrupted Daughters no.1: Adrift

Disrupted Daughters no.2: Left

Disrupted Daughters no.3: Hexed

 

Definitions and differences

I’ve been reading one of the books I got for Christmas: The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams. It’s like the Lindt chocolate shop for word-nerds! I told my daughter about mountweazels, made-up words inserted into dictionaries to serve as copyright-infringement traps. She misremembered the word as “snout-wurzel”, which I have since decided is a disparaging term for a dipsomaniac old man with a nose like a wizened turnip.

On being asked if she has a favourite word, Eley Williams expressed a fondness for “pamphlet”. I currently consider it one of the more triggering words in the English language. Eley Williams thinks it almost onamatopoiec, the breeze of fingers riffling through a slender volume. I am less socially appropriate. I suspect “pamphlet” to be a species of broken wind. Not the great florid rambunctiousness of fully letting rip but a muffled half-squeak of minor embarrassment: “Pardon me, I’ve just released a pamphlet.”

What, then, is one to call a poem from said pamphlet? I have one in the Dialect anthology, available here, anyway.

I am still not writing. What is the term for a non-writing writer? “A monster courting insanity”, if Kafka is to be believed. I cannot make myself write. I cannot force myself to power through a visceral aversion. I certainly cannot shame myself into doing so. It’s far from ideal, I realise that. But I sense that it will come back, provided I am not too insistent.

In the meantime, I am keeping my hand moving across the page in my sketchbook. This week I have taken a deep dive into Nicholas Wilton’s free Art2Life workshops. I have been exploring the concept of differences through the principles of design and value (whilst getting significant mileage out of the metaphors, to boot). Understand these, he says, and the majority of your (artistic!) problems are solved. And so I contentedly fill pages with shade and tone and the marvels of monochrome. Next up is, inevitably, colour. I’m a little apprehensive. This is the point, in previous courses I’ve done, that I get overwhelmed by the limitless possibilities available. But at the moment this feels like one challenge I am actually equal to. Mark me, then, daimons of the polychromaton, ye denizens of Pantonium; I have my eye on you.

Un-desire

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

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

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

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

 

In between years

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

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

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

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

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

Running away to sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#ambarelywriting

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

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

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

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

What’s Hecuba to me?

Or I to Hecuba? I wrote last time that I was revisiting, and enjoying, Virgil’s Aeneid. On Saturday morning I took a break from my usual exercise routine and did an hour of Latin before breakfast instead. Or rather, I intended an hour but stopped after 40 minutes. God, it’s hard work! I have to read verrrry slowwwly: that’s quite enough for one day. Now, where’s my porridge and mug of English Breakfast?

All lies, of course. The truth of the matter is I put Virgil down because Aeneas’ telling of the fall of Troy was upsetting me. How many times have I read or heard that story? How many versions have I watched? I only picked up the Aeneid because Dante led me back to it and I am currently feeding a fascination with his Divine Comedy. I thought I was returning to my Latin A-Level text: a nicely gratifying intellectual exercise. Damn it, Virgil, I was not expecting to be emotionally affected by your 2000-year-old hexameters! I feel ambushed. I feel ridiculous. And quietly jubilant that words, that poems, have this power – even in a work I assumed familiarity had rendered inert.

My own words appear to have gone into early hibernation. Checking my notebook, I am reassured on confirming that my writing does indeed tend to go underground at this time of year. It is not a worry, then, yet (though I must take care over other early warning signs of depression I have noted) but it is still a far from pleasant state to be in.

I have returned to my recently neglected sketchbook. Wanting to keep things simple, and not overwhelm myself with limitless possibilities, I have been focusing on pen and ink sketches of stuff around the house. Well, if the pen won’t write, perhaps it can still be persuaded to draw!

I picked up a pear to eat with my porridge this morning and actually said, “Oh, hello: it’s you!” when I recognised it as one of the three I drew yesterday. So the act of giving my attention to the contents of the fruitbowl has transformed them from ‘it’ to ‘you’. Hecuba… pears… where is this going? I don’t know. I have no answers, but that’s fine as long as I am still making responses to things.

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.