RSL Brookleaze Grant

November 26, 2015


I recently had the fantastically good fortune to be awarded a Brookleaze Grant by the Royal Society of Literature.  Small and perfectly-formed, it means I can take time out from teaching and translation to research a chunk of my next poetry collection at The Museum of Childhood – and more importantly, to write!  As well as feeling like a huge vote of [royal!!] confidence, I’ll be able to focus and produce work that would otherwise progress at a snail’s pace in the scraps of time between paid work, other projects, kids…   I am so grateful to the RSL.

I almost didn’t apply for this, but alerted by a reminder on my calendar, decided to go for it, with my nose against the deadline.

If you are a writer based in the UK who fits the criteria, I urge you to look into it.   It’s an unusually simple process and as I reasoned, they need to give the money to someone so why not to me?  Why not to you?

The next round of applications will be in Spring 2016 – so put a reminder in your calendar.

Awarded by Royal Society of Literature’s Council, the Brookleaze Grants support writers (novelists, playwrights, poets, short story writers) who need time away from their normal lives – to take sabbaticals from their jobs, for example, or to travel abroad for research – to write.





Reading, a diary

March 21, 2015

I’ve been re-reading Alberto Manguel’s A Reading Diary in preparation for my workshop at the Guardian’s Reading for Pleasure conference.

reading diary

Here, Manguel responds to the news that his neighbour Barbara, died the night before:

I am furious at the taking away of things, at these brutal changes. And the older I get, the faster changes happen: friends disappear, landscapes clutter. I want my friends to be there always, I want the places I like to stay the same. I want there to be certain fixed points on the universe on which I can count. I don’t want to keep missing voices, faces, names…

He looks for consolation the book he is rereading, The Wind in the Willows, and finds it in an account of Mole finding his old house again.
But if there is no home we recognise, no friends around us, where do we find consolation?

The past 2 months I have been training as a Living Words artist. There are four of us training and we are all writers. But rather than documenting our experience and choosing how to tell it, we are scribes for the people we work with, who are experiencing dementia. We are learning how to receive and hold their words, their experience of life at present and return it to them in a book. Often they recognise themselves in the pages, even if they don’t remember saying these things. I have been working with A and we are coming to the end of this project. I read her book with her and ask her how it feels to read her words in the book. Beautiful, she says.
You can read our blogs about the process here.

In The Myth of Alzheimer’s, Peter J Whitehouse M.D., Ph.D., disputes the current notion that Alzheimer’s is a slow death, and suggests, what if we approach it as a process of brain ageing, albeit accelerated?

By changing the way we think about Alzheimer’s, we change the story we tell about our ageing brains. That matters because stories surround us, shape us, serve as the building blocks of our lives, and weave us into our human communities.

He changes the lens through which we look at Alzheimer’s and other dementias:

Aging is a project, a work of existential art, a story that one continues to write until one can write it not more – it does not end when one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by a doctor. The stigma of AD is powerful. But it should not restrict persons whose brains are ageing from finding meaningful roles for themselves.

I think about A and G’s Living Words books, the stories they have told of themselves and their experience of life at present. In these stories there is sadness and pleasure, loneliness and consolation. They are telling their stories, their truth, in their own words.

The same week I was putting together A’s book, trying to stand back from the words and their arrangement, I was also looking over the final proofs of my collection. As I write this, The Art of Scratching is on its way to the printer. You can get an inkling of it on the Bloodaxe website here.

My publisher N is very understanding. He hasn’t complained about all the small changes: commas removed here, a word changed there, the sequencing adjusted. It’s a slightly longer book than originally planned so I was able to replace a poem with 2 new ones and look again at the sequencing. I notice the way poems speak to each other from opposite pages, and how earlier poems suggest possible meanings in those that follow them. I’m happy with it – the small world of my book.

The Writing Process Blog Tour

June 29, 2014

Here we are on the deluxe tour bus with roofgarden, mini-bar and infinity pool.

Sophie Herxheimer, mutli-talented artist/poet, invited me to join this blog tour that asks four questions. Sophie’s thoughts on her process can be found here. Mine are below. I’m then handing the baton over to Laurie Gough, Anna Selby and Philip Cowell – I hope you’ll follow them.
Laurie Gough is an award-winning travel-writer in Canada, and long-time friend. You will shortly be able to see her response on her blog.
Anna Selby is a poet, dance collaborator, wild swimmer and Literature & Spoken Word Programmer at the Southbank Centre, London. I will be hosting her response here on my blog in the next little while.
Philip Cowell is a writer and part-time clown training in mindfulness. I will also host his response here.
I look forward to following this blog tour to get an insight into the processes of other writers. I hope you will follow it too – you can go backwards as well as forwards… maybe even sideways.

Comments are welcome, as always. You readers are such a quiet lot.

What am I working on?
I finally completed my first full collection at the end of last year. It’s been well over a decade in the making, with a lot of tweaking/adding/subtracting over the past 2 years. Stephen Knight, my mentor, gave me this very valuable piece of advice: “find the weakest poem and ask ‘would I be happy to stand by this, if this is what I was known for?’ Of course the manuscript is far from perfect but I am happy with those poems representing me. And I’ve started to think about possible themes for my next collection.

I’m also working on my first play, The Jasmine Terrace, which is an adaptation of my chapbook ‘The Courtesans Reply’. Playwriting was the last thing I expected to do, finding it hardest to write dialogue, but when I was writing the courtesan poems I kept seeing the characters on stage. The play as a form is exciting and demanding, with surprising paralells to poetry. A play is defined in Doctor Johnson’s dictionary as ‘a poem in which the action is not related, but represented..’ But once inside, it’s a completely different machine, and one I had little idea how to work. Thanks to some funding from the Arts Council, I had the support and guidance of a mentor, the wonderful Ella Hickson, who helped me to progress in a focused and supported way. The funding crucially allowed me to keep working on the play (instead of abandoning it for a badly-paid job as a half-rate secretary). I set myself the deadline of June 30th to finish another re-write – responding to feedback from the reading reading I had at Soho Theatre – before I look for a theatre who might help to develop it further. Hmmm… that’s tomorrow. So I’ll have to extend my own deadline.
When I’m working on the play, I have to get right in, like going into water over my head. Then I feel far from poetry. And when I’m working on poetry, the play feels far and unreal. So I constantly feel like a bit of a fraud – either playwright or poet, but not both at the same time, not actively.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’ve always been interested in the shadowy terrain between forms.
With poetry, I think my poems that seem autobiographical very often aren’t – the I is not always me. Whereas the most autobiographical poem is one that is written as a fairytale. I like to play.
With playwriting, I’ve been told that my writing is very ‘very beautiful, very poetic’ – which immediately feels like a problem. It needs to be dramatic rather than poetic… which is what I’m working on fixing. I feel like Alice in Wonderland in the world of the play. It’s very exciting and new, but also disconcerting not to know for sure which way is up.

Why do I write what I do?
Subjects usually choose me, rather than the other way around. Something I’ve read or heard sticks its barb into me and niggles at me until I give it the attention it deserves. I came across the idea for my next play 3 years ago, and it’s been there on the back burner on a very low heat. It’s now coming to a simmer. The courtesans play is also on the heat, and nearly cooked. When I’m cooking, I find it hard to do several things at once – I do it but things are sometimes undercooked or burned. Can that happen to a play?
I once made my son sausages that were so burnt I tried to pretend it was intentional: ‘look, witches’ fingers!’. He obligingly ate 1 smothered in blood (ketchup) then said ‘I’m sorry Mummy, I can’t eat any more. It tastes like wood’. He was right – it did.

How does my writing process work?
See above. And I rewrite and rewrite. It’s hard to stop. Who was it that said ‘Art is never finished, only abandoned’? It was da Vinci (I just googled it) and not Andy Warhol as I read on someone’s t-shirt the other day.
When I’m working on something chunky like a play or a poem sequence, I tend to carry it in my head always, marinading, so that things I see – paintings, curator’s notes, flowers – can connect with it.
And now I must get out of bed (where I go to write and hide from the children) and hang up that wet laundry before it starts to smell. It’s a sunny day!

I am no longer young. What of it?

May 15, 2014

I feel far from poetry lately, so I visited Louise Gluck:

Morning quivers in the thorns; above the budded snowdrops
caked with dew like little virgins, the azalea bush
ejects its first leaves, and it is spring again.
The willow waits its turn, the coast
is coated with a faint green fuzz, anticipating
mold. Only I
do not collaborate, having
flowered earlier. I am no longer young. What
of it? Summer approaches, and the long
decaying days of autumn when I shall begin
the great poems of my middle period.
[from To Autumn, Poems 1962-2012]

Summer is approaching – the weather today is warm, sweater-less. But according to the numbers, I am in the autumn of my life.
Why is it so hard to say this? We grow, we grow older.
I have always loved autumn, which somehow holds more promise than Spring. It’s cozier, more thrilling. Perhaps I’m still programmed for the academic calendars where September is the beginning of something. Or perhaps I forget I’m no longer in Canada, where autumn is crisp and bright, red and gold.

Where are the great poems of my middle period? Or even the good ones. Or any ones? They won’t come while I’m worrying about money or my digital profile – i.e. can I keep not being on twitter? Why do we want or need to be so visible? Is it because there’s so much out there – so much chatter and ideas and images – that a person needs to keep jumping up to be seen and acknowledged?

I returned to Louise Gluck and found Swans:

You were both quiet, looking out over the water.
It was not now; it was years ago,
before you were married.
The sky above the sea had turned
the odd pale peach color of early evening
from which the sea withdrew, bearing
its carved boats: your bodies were like that.
But her face was raised to you,
against the dull waves, simplified
by passion. Then you raised your hand…
[from Swans]

I want that quiet, and the water, and the pale peach sky.
Swans speaks from the ’80s, when there were no phones capturing the view, no messages pinging into them.
There was only him and her at that moment, and the water and the sky. Until the swans came.

I don’t want to turn back the clock – I like it here. I just want to slow down and find some quiet. And then the poems might come. And the play might find its equilibrium and sense of purpose.

Life feels too busy to think or read enough. What’s the solution? More time? Fewer distractions?
How do other writers manage finances and other commitments (like family) and still make time to write?
How do you do it?

The crab

April 10, 2014

“If a man die”, William Carlos Williams once wrote, “it is because death / has first possessed his imagination.” Death possessed the imagination of my patients that month, and my task was to repossess imagination from death. It is a task almost impossibly difficult to describe, an operation far more delicate and complex than the administration of a medicine or the performance of surgery. It was easy to repossess imagination with false promises; much harder to do so with nuanced truths… Too much “repossession” and imagination might bloat into delusion. Too little and it might asphyxiate hope altogether.
-from The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Muckherjee

I returned to this book I love, after a year of absence. It had come too close suddenly, cancer the monster, snatching at people I loved, ending their stories abruptly like pages and pages ripped from a book.

There is much comfort in the pages of this book, such hope in the many heroes, strength and kindness in Muckherjee, storyteller, modest hero.
But then the book transformed from thriller-biography to horror story… perhaps because of how I was reading it: before sleep, after watching the last 3 episodes of Breaking Bad. Suddenly it seemed the monster was at the door, in the house, looking into the childrens’ rooms, his heavy breath loud in my ears. It seems there is no escape – it will hurt us all somehow.

Cancer is my astrological sign, my son’s too. We get crabby and retreat into our shells. He shuts the door to his room and plays loud music; I retreat to a friend’s house while she’s at work, and escape into books at home.
Oh for a small space of my own, to burrow into.
I know there is no such thing as ‘safe’ while we are alive. Only quiet, love, work – welcome harbours.

In praise of simplicity

January 25, 2014

I think there is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity, in clarity, in efficiency. True simplicity is derived from so much more than the absence of clutter and ornamentation – it’s about bringing order to complexity.

This are my thoughts about poetry, but not my words – they come from Jony Ive, Senior Vice President of design at Apple, talking about iOS 7.

I was thinking about clarity when reading last Saturday’s Guardian Review which featured this poem by Sinead Morrissey who won the TS Eliot Prize recently for Parallax:


was not last winter, we said, when winter
had ground it’s iron teeth in earnest: Belfast
colder than Moscow and a total lunar eclipse
hanging its Chinese lantern over the solstice.
Last winter we wore jackets into November
and lost our gloves, geraniums persisted,
our new pot-bellied stove sat unlit night
after night and inside our lungs and throats,
embedded in our cells, viruses churned out
relaxed, unkillable replicas of themselves
in the friendlier temperatures. Our son
went under. We’d lie awake, not touching,
and listening to him cough. He couldn’t walk
for weakness in the morning. Thoracic,
the passages and hallways in our house
got stopped with what we could not say –
how, on our wedding day, we’d all-at-once
felt shy to be alone together, back
from the cacophony in my tiny, quiet flat
and surrounded by flowers.

Perfectly formed, it does so much and makes it look effortless. I’m trying hard to resist buying her book and put in on my birthday wish list instead. Though the summer is a long time away and I want it desperately – not as words on a screen, but the actual book to hold in my hands, its cover a promise, with pages to linger over and turn.
Meanwhile, I have Louise Gluck’s Poems 1962-2012 (a much-awaited Christmas present). Luxuriating in its generous bulk, I’m enjoying being at the beginning. In her first book, Firstborn (1968), the poems don’t feel in any way dated – with their strange, quiet beauty, their forms a delight, they could have been written today. This is Solstice:

June’s edge. The sun
Turns kind. Birds wallow in the sob of pure air,
Crated from the coast… Un-
real. Unreal. I see the cure

Dissolving on the screen. Outside, dozing
In its sty, the neighbours’ offspring
Sucks its stuffed monster, given
Time. And now the end begins:

Packaged words. He purrs his need again.
The rest is empty. Stones, stone-
blind she totters to the lock
Through webs of diapers. It is Christmas on the clock,

A year’s precise,
Terrible ascent, climaxed in ice.

We have time. There is so much to be grateful for, such pleasure to be had. So it’s raining again and our debt is growing, worry climbing like ivy, obscuring the weak winter light… But we are alive and there are so many ways to feel happy.

In The Seagull, which I’ve been reading, the characters are also worrying about money – there isn’t enough to live on, to pay for horses to take one to the station or back home to the baby, not enough money for Treplev to have a new coat to replace his shabby one which is 3 seasons old. Chekhov’s stories and plays have that deceptive simplicity, the writing uncluttered and resonant with truth. The characters fall in and out of love, have dreams, are disappointed… Is anyone happy? Probably not – and probably happiness is not the point either, in life.
Is it foolish of us to keep pointing ourselves at happiness? We know it’s fleeting but we’re disappointed when it goes, even associate this with failure.
And if we could be happy with what we have?

In The Seagull, Nina quotes a line from Turgenev:
‘On a night like this, happy the man with a roof over his head and a warm corner to rest in.’
But of course, she wasn’t happy.

Beauty and the Beast

December 12, 2013

Last night I saw Beauty and the Beast at The Young Vic Theatre in London with Mat Fraser, the wonderful British disabled actor/writer as the Beast and his wife Julie Atlas Muz, American burlesque star and Miss Coney Island, as Beauty. They told their love story alongside the fairy tale with help from 2 puppeteer/slaves called Jess and John and some vegetables.
Honestly? It’s the most moving, surprising, playful production I’ve seen – I was on the edge of my seat, laughing, barking and seeing vegetables in a whole new way. Mat and Julie are naked much of the time, so it’s x-rated, but also utterly joyful. Go see it. Don’t take your mother.

From one beautiful beast to the beastliness of war.
In The Odyssey: a soldier’s road home in a recent Guardian Saturday Review, Charlotte Higgins considers what happens to soldiers when conflicts end.
They “come out of one war into another”, says David Finkel in his new book, Thank You for Your Service, on the experiences of returning soldiers.

Higgens tells us this:

According to a report published by the Department of Veteran Affairs, 22 US veterans killed themselves every day in 2010.

And in the UK more soldiers and veterans killed themselves in 2012 than died in combat in Afghanistan.

She refers to Euripides’ play, Heracles Being Mad (Heracles Mainomenos), where where the goddess Lyssa causes Heracles, recently returned from his labours and reunited with his family, to turn on his wife and children and kill them.
Lyssa represents a particular madness – combat-craziness.

According to Finkel, the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan have have
created about half a million mentally wounded American veterans. That’s only the American soldiers. The tip of the iceberg.

What can we do from our safe little bubble?

All this past week, the Special AKA’s ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ – that joyfully righteous anthem – has been playing in my head.
My son told me they played it in his school assembly, to commemorate his death.
I’ve been thinking of this bit:

Are you so blind that you cannot see.
Are you so deaf that you cannot hear.
Are you so dumb that you cannot speak.

%d bloggers like this: