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!