#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.

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.