Pakistan Diary: Karachi Lit Fest

February 15, 2016


Everyone we had hoped to meet at this trip is magically on the programme at Karachi Literature Festival, a free 3-day event.   At the Beach Luxury Hotel security is tight, starting outside with a metal rod checking under the car (divining for bombs?), and continuing within.  It feels like airport security without the frisking or restrictions on liquids.  I’m getting used to this, as it’s the same on entering fancy shopping malls or banks, and quite relaxed despite the guns.


The first talk we attend is The Dilemmas of the Transgender, with Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, author of Me Laxmi, Me Hijra.  Laxmi is charming, intelligent and witty – she soon has the audience eating out of her hand.   She and the moderator speak excellent English but most of the talk is in Urdu.  My Urdu is improving every day (it was obviously dormant) but I can only understand perhaps 20% of what’s said.  Luckily, Laxmi keeps lapsing into English.  I may enjoy nature’s femininity, but I’m not a woman and I’m not a man, she says.  Hijra means that I leave my own tribe in search of my own true self.  And later, We are not taught to be ourselves, and we don’t love ourselves.  But if we learn to love ourselves, womanhood is so powerful that man will bend to it...  I have to say ‘I love myself’.  Then I can ask somebody else to love me.   Later, I read a print interview in which she says, “If I were a woman biologically, then I would have loved to be a courtesan”.  When I get her to sign her book, we chat and she is interested to hear about the Sanskrit manuscript of 300BC which inspired my poem sequence and play, and which mentions a transgender courtesan.

Laxmi stage.JPG

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi from India

Aisha and I attend a talk on Fiction, Memory and Colonialism with HM Naqvi, Sadia Shepard (who Aisha knows), Kamila Shamsie (whose work I love) and Christoph Peters.  The talk is fascinating and in English, which is a bonus.   Afterwards in the food tent, I get samosas and a cup of Kashmiri chai [a deliciously spiced, pink, milky tea topped with pistachio slivers] and Aisha is delighted to find Dominos pizza, as her stomach is tired of being constantly challenged.   I recognise Kami, from the BBC documentary ‘How Gay is Pakistan’ and now accustomed to boldly approaching people, I go and talk to her, trying not to feel like a groupie/fan.  Kami is lovely and friendly, and tells us she found things somewhat difficult after the documentary came out: she’s had some backlash from it as it showed a very particular angle (a recurring theme) rather than exploring a more balanced view of the transgender experience in Pakistan.   My story of wanting to marry my partner of 5 years is not typical, she says.  She talks passionately and eloquently of her work as a young activist and what she wants to achieve for LGBTQI awareness and rights: she is a focal person from Pakistan at The Asia and Pacific Transgender Network and Naz Male Health Alliance.  I ask how she feels about the groups of young male groupie/fans buzzing around her, and she doesn’t much like their interest but has had to accept it.  I feel protective of her, and would like to shoo them away.  Kami is much in demand, so we leave reluctantly and with a huge crush on her (OK, I speak for myself, she is magnetic!) and we become Facebook friends.

Kami and me.JPG

Kami & Sid

Day 2 of KLF includes the talk I’m most interested in, Transgender Rights: Are there Any?, with our new friends Bindiya Rana, Kami and Laxmi.  The talk is in Urdu and Bindiya’s presence is understated beside Laxmi’s colourful personality, until Bindiya gets up to speak.  Pacing the stage and speaking with fire and conviction she reveals herself to be a true orator and gifted political figure.  I am proud to know her and full of respect for her determination to fight for the transgender community.

I have noticed that there is a real interest here in transgender, but many of the young men are clearly not here for the talks – their interest is less… honourable.

Bindya stage.JPG

Reema Abbasi, Bindiya Rana, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi & Kami Sid

I am very disappointed to miss From Life to Reel with Shahid Nadeem, playwright and co-founder of Ajoka Theatre, who I have arranged to meet in Lahore, but his event clashed with Bindiya’s.  I have wanted to meet him since I saw an adaptation of his play Dara, at the National Theatre last year and was inspired by his talk at the Q&A afterwards.  I hope our paths cross over the course of the festival.

Next is The Oscar Lady with Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy of SOC films.  Sharmeen is the reason I am here, and without her introduction, I would not have been able to meet with Bindiya.   However, like most successful, famous award-winning people, Sharmeen is incredibly busy promoting 3 films around the world (I’ve seen a recent photo of her with Meryl Streep and Thandie Newton at the US premiere of Song of Lahore), and the festival is the only time our paths cross.  She talks about her 3 current films: Song of Lahore is about Sachal Studios, a classical Pakistani and jazz fusion project; A Journey of a Thousand Miles, about a unit of Bangladeshi women peacekeepers; and A Girl in the River, her latest film about honour killings, which has been nominated for an Oscar.  After the talk she is swamped by fans.

SOC talk.JPG

Later in the evening is a screening of Manto, the Movie, which is based on a TV series by Shahid Nadeem on the life of the celebrated Pakistani writer.   I am gutted to miss his talk again, but our ride is leaving, too much Biryani and Dominos has been eaten, and we have another day of the festival to go.   The day after, we leave for Lahore.


Me & Aisha

Check out Aisha’s photos of our trip on Tumblr and Instagram



Pakistan Diary: Meeting Bindiya

February 13, 2016
It’s taken almost a week to write this post because of the importance of representing Bindiya and her organization accurately.   Ideally this would be in her words, but my Urdu is not up to that. Once she starts speaking – she is eloquent and passionate, a true orator – we don’t want to interrupt her, so Usman has to paraphrase 3-5 minutes of speech at a time which he does with remarkable recall of specific quotes and details. We recorded the interview, and my transcription of Usman’s translation/explanation in english form the basis for this post.   It will have to do until I get a translation of Bindiya’s words from Urdu and Sindhi.

Bindiya leads us into her room and introduces us to Munnee and Sabna who have a bedroom upstairs. We sit on the sofa and Usman, Munnee, Sabna and Abbas sit on the bed with her (luckily it’s a double bed). B offers us juice, water, chai, checks the fan is not too much or too little for us.


Munnee & Sabna

This room is the Gender Interactive Alliance‘s base for the hospital – they are always on call, and if a member is injured or in an accident, they’ll go there and take care of them.

B tells us she’s extremely angry with people and organisations who come promising to tell their story, but don’t represent what is shown to them – they go away with their own script and angle. She’s also angry with organisations that come from America and England and throw money around, making them act in a certain way, to illustrate a particular aspect that interests them. She says it undermines her position as the president of an association because when she actually wants to protest over something or she wants to get transgenders to come together, they would ask ‘how much are you going to pay us?’ so it’s a bad habit that’s developed because of these documentary makers.



She wants to know why we are conducting this interview. I explain about my play and that one of my reasons for this trip is to gain insight into the experience of being transgender in Pakistan today, in order to more authentically represent my transgender character of 2000 years ago.   I also tell her that I also want to help her in any way I can, to promote her organization and raise awareness of the transgender experience in Pakistan.   I am also hoping that my play, whose main character happens to be transgender, might in some small way help to promote understanding and acceptance of khawaja-serás in Pakistan and abroad.   Aisha also explains her role: a audio-visual documenting of our trip and an artistic response in photographing transgender women and their lives.

Throughout our meeting, B’s phone goes off regularly, and she checks it and passes it to Abbas or answers it herself if it’s urgent. We are at the heart of the association, and she is sought after for advice and action.  She wants to know what questions I have for her.

Do you identify as a woman or a khawaja-será? I ask.

Look, inside, we are women…  But before I express that, of course I feel like a woman inside but there are limits. There are limits that I live in because I come from Pakistan.  She says that as a Muslim and because she lives in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, there are a lot of things that she can’t express and can’t do. If she was living in America or England, where it’s OK for 2 men to be married, it would be different.   But for her, even when she was with her guru (mentor/teacher), the only place where they were allowed to be themselves and to express themselves was when they would go to give blessings in a house where there was a newborn or where there was a marriage – that’s the only time. Otherwise, if she tried to express herself as a woman, her family won’t be supportive of it, and even the people around her wouldn’t be supportive of that.

I tell her that my play is set at a time when courtesans lived in grand residences and my character, a transgender courtesan, had a love relationship with a nobleman. ‘If you could do as you liked, with no limits, what would you wish for yourself, for love?’

 I can’t relate to this situation 2,000 years ago, I can only say my life. First and foremost the biggest problem is growing up you don’t get the support you want, you don’t get the support from your siblings you want. I wanted my brothers to treat me like a sister, but the way they treated me was like I was a hooligan… And then when it comes to love, or when it comes to someone having the choice of girls and expressing his love to her, I haven’t experienced that. There are people who are out here, even at their age, who would love to showcase their love to me, but can only do it within 4 walls. But if I want someone to hold my hand when I go for a conference, that’s not possible.



She says that for a young transgender of 14 or 15, they won’t really have much say in the matter of love, or expressing that love… You won’t be able to think ‘I am in love’, it’s more that when someone else says they love you, it’s just so powerful and empowering that you will go with it.

We are offered soft drinks and delicious Peak Frean biscuits with cumin seeds.  I ask about importance of pronouns – in the West most transgenders would be addressed as ‘she’ but others prefer a neutral pronoun, ‘hen’.

B is much more comfortable with being called third gender – she doesn’t want to be termed a woman.

I mention Miley Cyrus and how some people identify gender fluid – neither male or female, and how others consider themselves to be agender, choosing the pronouns they/them. B hasn’t heard of MC but Usman has.   [I discover later that YouTube was banned in Pakistan in 2012, and though the ban was reversed in January of this year, the Pakistan Television Authority enforces a block on ‘specific offending material’ – which would undoubtedly include twerking and MC].

B tells us about a girl who is a beautician – she’s a girl but she likes to hang out with them and go to their meetings, and she likes to be termed as a khawaja-será – she doesn’t want to be called a girl. I’m like her grandmother, Bindiya says.

In our way of life we can’t have any family ties in this country – we can’t get married, we can’t have kids – so when someone comes as an apprentice in our society, we call them our children, and their apprentice would be our grand-children, and their apprentice would be my great-grand-children, and that’s the only way we can make family bonds.

 Although the government recognizes transgender, although on paper they have given them more rights than the gay community or the lesbian community, what ends up happening, she says, is that you can’t really have a friend, being a transgender woman here.   I want someone I can talk to, who I can share my problems with, my companion.   She is a known name in the transgender community, so if she’s walking around with someone and says ‘this guy is my friend’, then people will accept it, because they know she’s part of an association. But if any other regular khawaja-será is walking around, even with her brother or father or uncle, the cops will stop them and ask ‘what are you doing? Are you soliciting?’ They can’t accept the fact that a khawaja-será has a friend, or has a platonic relationship with another man, just as a friend to talk to and share ideas.

I can do it because I have built a name for myself, but if it wasn’t for that, then there are no human rights and instances like this make you feel that you’re not even a human. You can’t even have a friend with you without being questioned.


She looks tired. So many people have come and promised things, and they’ve gone away and never been in touch, she says. They’ve told things with their agenda.

I tell her I’m different – I will be in touch, I will make great efforts for her group, try to link them with groups in the UK and promote them, raise awareness and tell their story so people can understand and accept them. I have no agenda except to understand and tell their story their way.

She begins to tell me about her association. The main work they plan to do right now, the funds they need, is to spread awareness in different provinces in the interior. The transgender community over there have no idea about the Supreme Court ruling.

They have no idea of what rights they have at present. They have no connections with healthcare facilities, they have no connections with human rights organisations, so what she wants to do is go around and spread awareness. For example, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly NWFT), khawaja-serás cannot even dress up and go out – they will be shot down, right there and right then. We would have to meet up with people over there, she says. Only they can convince – this is how it works in villages as well – the person who is of influence, if he says they can walk around like this, or that there’s nothing wrong with it, then they will be accepted.

Right now the movement is still in a nascent age, so they want to spread awareness more than anything else. And she wants to offer the sort of training that if someone takes a 3-hour workshop, they should know that they can get a job, so they don’t go out and start indulging in activities they were trying to get out of to begin with.

It looks bad on us when we go out looking for funds, when we go out looking for donations, she says. When a poor person does it, they call it begging. But when the leaders of the country are going out and asking for the exact same donations to get their policies implemented, then it’s perfectly fine.

Her organisation is limited when it comes to helping transgenders in this community when it comes to healthcare, because when they go to government hospitals, what happens is that they get their appointment at one place, and they have to travel somewhere else to get free medication. Transgenders can rarely travel by bus –because in some buses they would be asked to go and stand with the boys, and in some buses they would be asked to go in the ladies section. There is a lot of harassment on both ends

Also, if someone is sick and they show up and say ‘this is the medication I need and I have no money on me’ it’s difficult. They have to link themselves to different organisations. There are fair people everywhere, she says, so there will be someone who will help us out, but at the end of the day, that’s not a sustainable model, to have to depend on someone else’s kindness. Their association needs to be more empowered, so that they don’t have to go to different organisations.

Without the funds, without any financial support, it’s a toothless organization – they can’t really do much. Because she is the voice of GIA, she can walk around with people, she’s not afraid of anything. But the transgender standing on the road who gets raped, or who gets arrested, or has to lodge an FIR (complaint), gets hassled by the cops, by the person who’s the aggressor, and there’s no way to resolve it. So after a while they stop talking about it, because nothing will be done.

It’s strange, she says, because people will do a protest for anyone else, any other organization, they’ll go and protest, but when it happens to us, people feel embarrassed to come and protest with us, for our cause.

We talk more about her work with GIA and it’s clear that she this is her life’s work.   A charismatic orator, in 2013 she was one of Pakistan’s first transgender candidates to stand for election.  She continued despite death threats and the difficulties of campaigning with negligible funds.  She hadn’t expected to win the election, and considered standing for election a win in itself.

Our meeting comes to and end – Bindiya has already delayed another meeting she was meant to be at. We say goodbye – she gives me her card, and we become facebook friends.  I feel I am saying goodbye to a real friend, but I know this is the beginning of something rather than the end.


Me, Usman, Aisha, Bindiya & Abbas








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.

Ego and the Artist

January 29, 2015

I’ve been thinking about ego and art lately – how it’s necessary for an artist to have self-belief, to keep going in the face of challenges to time, money…but how it can also get in the way of the work. Attending to Ego – that petulant, unruly child – can distract from the work. In my experience anyway.

A few weeks ago, I saw BIRDMAN or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance – a thrilling, thought-provoking, funny, sad meta-commentary about theatre and the pitfalls of fame, ambition and ego. It was co-written and directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu whose father used to tell him,

‘When you have success, just taste it and spit it out, because it’s really poisonous’.

Sage advice but can you imagine someone spitting out success? Perhaps Alex Garland, who found the attention after the success of his first novel, The Beach so uncomfortable that he gave up writing novels. He turned to screenplays including 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, and most recently, Ex Machina – which he conceived, wrote and directed. Success makes it easier for an artist to keep practising your art… even if it does mess with ego in unhelpful ways.

A while back I attended Caroline Bergvall’s launch of her project Drift and her residency at the Whitechapel Gallery. I think of it still. Despite the accolades and huge respect for her work over 2 decades of dedication to the craft, and her constant innovation, she seems to fly under the radar. Drift was thought-provoking experience, which gave me a new perspective on words – their limitations and possibilities; on collaboration and open-ness and generosity; on attending to the work rather than the ego; and on social consciousness and responsibility. At one point, CB reflects on safety, and the awareness that ‘I am safe, but others are not safe’.

An insistence on putting the work first is one of the reasons I so admire Mimi Khalvati – for her dedication to the craft and for the intelligence, skill and tenderness she brings to her intricate, carefully-wrought poems.

Perhaps collaboration is the way to keep the Ego from rampant, unsustainable growth. I’m reminded of a BBC4 documentary I saw called ‘What do artists do all day’. The programme followed Akram Khan on a 3-day collaborative project in Seville with Israel Galvan, flamenco dancer and choreographer – which became ToroBaka.
In the documentary, Galvan reflects on collaboration:

You approach things first of all with the idea of sharing … a coming together, let’s call it learning, OK? You might find things out about yourself that you didn’t know existed.

For Khan,

…the comfort zone is a dangerous place to be… Sometimes you have to put yourself in situations where you don’t know where you are… it allows you to look at yourself in a new way… You can become stagnant as an artist. It’s very dangerous to become comfortable in your own success.

This idea of openness and collaboration, of not getting too comfortable, is my resolution for this new working year – so I’m putting ‘Openness, collaboration, don’t get comfortable’ on a yellow post-it in my shed. Next to it is a pink note which says ‘Be more Fun’, and a yellow one that says ‘Finish what you start!’ So I have finally finished this post I started in September. That’s 1. Being fun is tough, day-to-day… I could let the children off tidying their rooms today, even though they said they’d do it yesterday and didn’t, even though the big one’s clothes cover most surfaces in her room, and the smaller one’s floor is strewn with lego and cars and books. I’ll watch the Voice with them instead. That’s 2.

Happy, shiny new Year, dear Reader. May it be surprising and satisfying, fun and not too comfortable… like a carved chair I saw once, that seemed to be made of antlers. A beautiful, beautiful thing.

Between Sandy Bay and the Dumps

September 14, 2014

In Kerry one day in August I sat in the sand dunes between Sandy Bay and the Dumps, a breathtaking stretch of beach frequented by surfers, reading Ulysses in the sun and wind. I read this, about a boy called Sargent:

“Ugly and futile: lean neck and tangled hair and a stain of ink, a snail’s bed. Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him under foot, a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own. Was that then real? The only thing in life? His mother’s prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode. She was no more: the trembling skeleton of a twig burnt in the fire, an odour of rosewood and wetted ashes. She had saved him from being trampled under foot and had gone, scarcely having been.”

Long-intimidated by this book, I found it to be an unexpected pleasure – lush, poetic, technically thrilling, moving. Like poetry, it doesn’t always reveal its full meaning at first reading, and perhaps not ever, entirely, It’s enough to let the words and image wash over the thinking brain.

Parent-love is something I think of often, and surely most of us do, as parents or children or both? It struck me when I saw King Lear at the Globe last month, how un-dated it seemed, relating to life today as it did to audiences 400 years ago. Having given everything to his two daughters who professed to love him most, Lear, played by Joseph Marcell, discovers their duplicity and  pleads with Regan:

“Dear daughter, I confess that I am old;
Age is unnecessary; on my knees I beg
That you’ll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food…”

She doesn’t of course – she dismisses him cruelly, judging him past usefulness. It made me think of all the people in homes for the elderly, judged to be past usefulness or too much work.

Back to Ulysses: what put me off for so long, more than its difficulty – though I confess I am lazy when tired or overwhelmed, and resort to easy-to-read crime or feel-good novels which often leave me unsatisfied by their predictability or cliched writing… another dead girl in an attic? … where was I? Oh yes – the length of Ulysses!  933 pages in Bill’s Penguin edition.  It’s a big commitment when there is so little time to read.
It will be far more rewarding than a desperate encounter, I know… but it languishes under my bedside table, along with Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book (which is wonderful but I keep putting down and then can’t remember who is who so have to go back), Taboo by Fouzia Saeed about the red-light area of Lahore (humane and illuminating), Toast by Nigel Slater and Love Over Holland by Alexander McCall Smith – the latter two bought from Oxfam in a desire for comfort. The Iliad is also there gathering dust (shame on me) and the Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt which I’ve been meaning to investigate since I picked it up on Spencer Road where someone had piled up dozens of books on the pavement. It was the first decent book I had got from this pop-up ‘help-yourself’ experience my daughter calls ‘Crazy for Joy’, though I did once get an elegant wrought-iron chair and a heavy wood sun-lounger on wheels (the sort you get poolside in fancy hotels) which I lugged home and wrestled through the front door and out the back door only to find that it took up the whole back yard and you had climb over it to get past.  I eventually put the lounger back outside my front door, back to Crazy for Joy where it found a new home.

My thoughts and this blog are all over the place, I know. That’s the state of my mind after the school holidays whose lack of structure, though glorious in some ways, does my head in. I can’t think straight over the holidays and when thinking is 95% domestic, it’s extremely frustrating as well. Oh, the relief when the kids get back to school and we get some structure back into the days, so I can build scaffolding for time to write and time to think, as well as for the work that pays, and for drumming up more paid work…
Bear with me, please. I am going to resist the urge to go back and edit this post into coherence, because this is how it is.

What is this all about? Structure. I’m consumed by the need for it – in my life but more importantly, in my play. I haven’t got the hang of structure – of a skeleton for the play that will allow it to stand up and move without falling over. More than that, to run, to dance, and sometimes just stay still. I find I am looking for structure in everything I read and see – yesterday I saw Two Days, One Night with Marion Cotillard, and found it profound and so elegantly put-together, with such beautiful bones that I will need to see it again and take notes.

p.s. if you have the key to structure, or can tell me where to find it, please write.

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!

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