The organised poet and other stories...

I have become a very organised person and people don’t expect that of a poet. Poets are meant to be spontaneously creative and sensitive souls, not advocates of online project management tools with supporting apps. I’m not entirely sure what it means to be the sort of poet people expect; presumably it’s a life of just wafting about, swishing a Stevie Nicks-style shawl wherever you go. There’s no inherent harm in this – and really if you get any chance to be more like Stevie Nicks you should take it – but it does hide some pretty damaging assumptions. 

I live on my own and I’m currently completing a PhD whilst also working. If I didn’t have everything carefully organised, some aspect of my life would collapse pretty quickly. I don’t have any rich relations to subsidise my choices and even on the day-to-day level of things like remembering to pay the electricity bill, there is no one around to share the workload. I don’t expect a medal for all my careful organisation but I think it should be acknowledged as a valid part of creative practice. It is only because I run a tight ship that I can have the time to work on my poetry.

Poets don’t all live in ivory towers and perhaps if we acknowledge this, then there could be more diversity both in the writers published and the readership of poetry. Working class artists don’t have the luxury of being scatty, distracted or temperamental. Every hour of creative time is hard won, having been clawed back from other obligations. Not having endless resources means saving up for every book you’ve ever owned, it means budgeting for every artistic competition you’ve ever entered. In short, if you’re working class and you want to pursue the arts, you’ve had to plan for it. 

The other reason this idea of chaotic genius is so frustrating is that it denies the very real work that goes into creating anything. It’s a romantic idea that writers have a single eureka moment and then somehow draw together about six layers of meaning within a complex metaphor. It denies all the planning, research, reading and revising that goes into the work. Every writer gets a flash of inspiration from time to time, but those ideas won’t be realised without a lot of hard work. 

Although the idea of the “born artist” – too sensitive and pure for this world – can be seen throughout the arts, it’s particularly prevalent in writing. Chen Chen’s recent discussion of how writers of colour are expected to focus on suffering – as if this will, by default, lead to art – is a case in point. 

Apart from the obvious problems with this expectation discussed by Chen Chen, the idea denies the extensive work behind the literature. Similarly, this article by comedian Jamie Kilstein discusses the idea that comedians are expected to be funny off-stage. It seems we want comedians to be naturally funny, not men and women who spend time writing, editing and refining their performance. We want comedians to be constantly happy the same way we want poets to live in worlds of heightened emotion or writers of colour to share their pain. 

Why do we revolt against the idea that artists often work very hard for what they create? And by association, why is any ability to plan ahead or organise your time seen as the opposite of being artistic? Both of these concepts – that art is work, and that work must be planned for – demolish the idea of the sensitive artist… or the privileged artist who has the time and money to wait for the Muse and have someone else pay the rent and remember to pick up the milk. There’s something distinctly unpleasant beneath those stereotypes because it implies that creating art is something you have to be born into, like royalty, rather than worked at like any other craft or skill. It implies, also, knowing your place and staying within it, even within a field that is meant to celebrate freedom.

Acknowledging the work that goes into writing does not diminish the creative achievements of the writer; it celebrates them. It also means that any writer from any background can write what they wish. There are, of course, structural issues to do with race, class and gender to consider before you can simplify it as far as saying that anyone can do anything with hard work. It would be a start, however, to demonstrate that creativity isn’t something you’re born into, or born with, and you don’t necessarily need a year off and an ivory tower to write your magnum opus. 

So yes, I have a pretty detailed spreadsheet to manage my PhD, very accurate filing (in hard and soft copy), a white board, regular reminders set up in my phone and routines which keep life ticking over. It’s only because I do all these things that I can spend a (planned-for) hour tinkering with a poem’s title, or bury my head and my heart in a new poetry collection or literary magazine. It is not the case that I am organised despite being a poet; it is that I am a poet because I made space for it by being organised.

Empathy for the incel

There were many reasons why I decided to study witches for my PhD; I don’t think I’d considered quite how relevant it might be to the world we’re living in. From the near-constant misuse of the term “witch-hunt” to describe the #MeToo movement to the frankly absurd claims from incel-enabler and pseudo-intellectual Jordan Peterson and the ooze of misogyny emanating from it all, I couldn’t possibly have picked a more newsworthy subject. That is at once fascinating and profoundly depressing.

Peterson recently claimed in an interview that we all know that witches live in swamps and witches are real. Other than Peg Powler, who is better known for haunting waterways than swamps, I can’t think of one. I can’t see either the ferocious Baba Yaga or the heroic Nanny of the Maroons hanging out in a swamp, to be honest. I know fairy tales aren’t documentary evidence but if we’re talking about myths made real, then witches live in the forest in remote cottages, they live in castles and they live amongst us. That is rather the point of the witch myth. 

However, if we’re looking for a root of evil, I don’t think it’s witches we should be looking at. Witches are not spending their time cursing people any more than feminists have monthly meetings to decide who women will and won’t sleep with. The absurdity of the conspiracy is exactly what made people believe in witches in the first place – the reasons are so complex and multi-layered it’s easier to find a single focus to apportion blame. If Peterson is even half as intelligent as he claims, he knows that. He makes a lot of money from exploiting the insecurities of hopeless young men and puts many more people in real danger – as does his publisher and the media outlets that give him air time.

However, witches do have something to teach us. In magic, there is the “rule of three” which suggests that anything you send out into the world returns to you threefold. That means there’s a very specific reason why those young men pouring their vitriol and misogyny on the internet can’t get girlfriends – they’re putting out a measure of obnoxious fuckery which gets returned to them in spades. Even if you don’t believe in magic, it’s pretty clear that if you are rude then you aren’t going to get people falling over themselves to get to know you.

Historically, witches were often independent women with a measure of knowledge and a general attitude of not giving a damn what society thought of them. That’s the reason they’re considered a threat. All the whiny young men thinking they deserve a medal for figuring out how society works and how unfair it is are missing the point. If you can see that you have a lowly position in a hierarchy, you are entirely free to not give a fuck about that position. The dual tyrannies of status and looks don’t have to be obeyed – and they don’t have to be taught a lesson, either.  

I’ve been trying to write about this. I’m a single woman in my forties; in short, just like those angry, entitled incels, no one wants to fuck me either. My first idea was to have a bunch of middle-aged women taking to the streets with machine guns demanding young men sleep with them. I stopped because it seemed too comic – young women wanting sex may be slutty, but if you’re over 30 it tips over into ridiculous and vaguely pathetic – and I don’t think there’s anything funny about this. Then I had an idea that you could riff on Swift’s Modest Proposal with an “Immodest Proposal” that those incels sleep with the middle-aged women no one wants to admit have sexual impulses. In the end I abandoned that, not just because it is not incumbent on women to solve this problem but because I realised – I don’t care enough about the issue. Sure, no one wants to date me. Sometimes, it sucks. I still have a vague hope that I’ll meet someone at some point. Most of the time, though, I am way too busy with my friends, my family, my work and the many delights and adventures they bring me. I have a lot of love in my life and honestly do not care what other people think of me. 

There’s another lesson that witches can offer us – empowerment. They don’t ask permission, they don’t wait for some arbitrary allocation of status and they don’t sit and complain about how unfair life is. In that way, women are often like witches. The single women I know don’t worry about how they rank within arbitrary beauty standards, or what their status is and how other people view them. They’re way too busy living their lives. Actually, the women in relationships are the same. As are the men I know. The difference between this and a world view which sees violence as the inevitable result of perceived unfairness is empathy. I think that’s the reason I’ve been struggling to write about this. I know I need to have a measure of kindness that’s going to take time to get my head around. 

It's not the loneliness that's the killer

I’ve been reading a lot of news stories about what is called ‘a loneliness epidemic’ recently. There were reports that loneliness was more likely to affect young peopleand then read with mild bafflement about the invention by Korean researchers of Fribo, a robot designed to combat loneliness– I’m not sure how a robot helps to combat a lack of human contact. The problem, as I see it, it’s one of language and presentation, and it’s impacting people’s mental health. This is why words are so very, very important.

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On film snobs and solid direction

I’ve got a confession to make: I don’t know what “solid direction” is. I watch a lot of films, I have a membership to a cinema and I get so much more value out of it than my gym membership that I should probably be ashamed. I’m far from an expert, but I keep up with film news, listen to podcasts, that sort of thing. I have noticed this creeping trend on Netflix and Amazon reviews where people are damning with the faint praise of “solid direction,” or sometimes a “solid performance” by one actor or another. What makes it solid? Can performances also be liquid or gaseous?

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Failure is not an option

I’ve been thinking a lot about failure recently. I seem to know a few people going through tough and uncertain times on various fronts who consider themselves failures. As I understand it, the only way to fail is to try something that doesn’t work out. If you’re trying new things and taking risks, how can you be a failure? Even if you take a leap and fall flat on your face, you’re further forward than someone that never moved.

US figure skater Adam Rippon has received some vile abuse on twitter for being an openly LGBT athlete at the Winter Olympics. Amongst the many nasty and unwarranted attacks was someone telling him they hoped he would fail. His inspiring response carries out beyond the world of sport.

For writers, a career can be littered with failures. If you’re going to be strict about it, it’s not just the rejections that pile up, smirking at you from your in box; it’s also all the ideas you couldn’t bring to fruition, the poetic form you couldn’t master, the story you never finished. However, if you let go of the idea that these are failures, you can learn a lot from these situations (I refuse to call them mistakes.) Maybe your writing improved, or you learned to manage your ideas better. I’ve written a number of failed villanelles; I’m fascinated by the form and each time I get a little closer to understanding how it moves and breathes. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but I enjoy the process of learning and improving all the same. They may not be perfect but so what? If I do ever write in that form successfully, it will only be because I travelled a path paved with my failures, so I must love every step of the way.

A writer’s life includes a lot of rejection and in some ways, it’s hard to take a direct lesson from that. When you pour your heart and soul into the work and get a polite - and only sometimes encouraging - “no thank you” back, it’s hard to learn anything. However, what these rejections can teach you is resilience. If something gets rejected, then take a look at it. If you still believe in the work just the way it is, send it out again. And again. And again. I have an advantage here in that I was born with a stubborn streak a mile wide and I think that’s as valuable to my writing life as my lifetime spent reading. I’ve made a virtue of rejection; it’s the only metric I track within my writing and it’s not to beat myself up, it’s for that moment when the underdog finally triumphs. I recently had a poem accepted for publication that had been rejected nine times. Nine times it took a leap and fell on its face but that tenth time, it took flight. It feels sweeter than those rare times I managed to find the right home for a piece on the first try.

Ultimately, in writing and in life, what matters is not whether you fell down, messed up or got rejected. What matters is what you do next. And sure, it’s frustrating when all you seem to get is knock after knock but as the saying goes, if you’re going through hell – keep going. 

New Year goals and the smartest numbers

I’m hoping now that the first week of the year is over, those “new year, new me” posts will die down. I understand that it’s valuable to share your intent to have a measure of accountability, but I get sad at all the goals stated and how many of them relate to numbers – lose x pounds in weight, run y miles by a certain date, read z number of books in a year. It seems to me that stark numbers can discourage people as often as motivate.

I understand this is partly the way my mind works – I’m not mathematically minded and I’m not at all competitive so numbers don’t help me. Also, it does depend on the goal. If your goal is to save money, for example, then numbers will help immensely and I recommend you take some time to build yourself a kick-ass spreadsheet to monitor and track your progress. Most new year goals, however, are about self-improvement and that’s harder to track in Excel.

I tried many different ways to get motivated to exercise and none of them really worked until I admitted to myself that although I understand that it’s important, I neither like nor really care that much about it. It simply doesn’t matter to me how far I can run or how many laps I can swim. I only got myself into a regular routine when I admitted that and incorporated things I do like into my schedule.

I watch TV while on the treadmill, and I don’t know how far I travel or how fast. I know that I can manage a speed walk through an episode of Daredevil or Preacher, but the variable episode lengths of shows like Stranger Things and Legion can still catch me out from time to time. I listen to podcasts when swimming – when I started, I’d swim for the duration of a short podcast – Radio 4’s Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry had me fascinated, and I got hooked on serials such as Homecoming and Welcome to Nightvale. Now my stamina is better, I can swim for the duration of long form interviews on shows like Distraction Pieces or Nerdist. I learn a lot, and I don’t drive myself crazy counting laps so the whole experience is much more relaxing.

What has this got to do with writing? I think sometimes too much focus can be put on the numbers there, too. How many poems you write or publish, how many books you read or how often you write. All those numbers seem arbitrary to me. I do track my publications, mainly so I know what’s out with a magazine and what’s free to send, and the only number I track is the number of rejections. That’s not as demotivating as it sounds – I find it immensely satisfying when something that has been rejected, say, eight times, finally finds a home.

Sometimes when I’m swimming, I listen to recordings of myself reading drafts of poems. If you can get over the sound of your own voice, it’s really helpful. I listen to the same draft over and over while I’m swimming and in the process, grasp the rhythm, and the points where it falls off. Phrases that annoy me on a loop are edited out. I don’t leave the pool until I’ve found whatever it was that was bothering me about the draft; sometimes that takes 20 minutes and sometimes that takes an hour and a half. Because I dropped my focus on the number of laps I swim, I can focus on what I really care about, which is my writing.

If you’re setting writing goals, try to focus on generating your best writing, rather than the highest volume, and trust that publications will follow. It’s not a race, and there are no medals to be won. By all means set tangible goals, but remember they’re there just to help you achieve your true aim, they’re not the aim in itself. If tracking word counts or publications helps you write your best work then by all means, keep going but if you find such things daunting then let them go. Write your best work, be your best self and find your own way to keep going. 

Time to take a breath

A report in the Guardian today shows a decline in literary fiction. There are some interesting points on how this will reduce the diversity of literature and that’s something that needs to be corrected. Kit de Waal’s point about how the time to write costs money hits home for me, I’m constantly trying to balance the wish to focus more time on writing with the need to keep a roof over my head. It’s true in poetry as well as fiction, there’s an invisible barrier erected by unpaid internships and residencies just as many writers who want to spend two years concentrating on a literary novel hit a brick wall. The result is that writers from many backgrounds and in a variety of circumstances are shut out and literature becomes more homogenous, and weighted towards those who can afford to take the time to write it. That in turn leads to a self-perpetuating definition of what literature is, and there it is - another wall stopping diverse voices getting in.

There aren’t any simple answers to this, but I’m very weary of those. If this year has been characterised by anything, it’s uninformed and polarised opinions, hot takes and hyperbole. I think that’s what needs to change. We need to look beyond poetry that is shareable on twitter or instagram or novels that generate headlines and movie adaptations and remember that art offers so much more than the instant gratification. I’ve read lines this year that send a shiver down my spine, but I’ve also re-read poems that present something new to me every time. That sort of work isn’t disposed to the instant culture we’re living in, it takes as much time to consume as it does to create.

As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Eminem’s new album and something that’s struck me about the online conversation about it is how polarised it is. The album is either “trash” or else it’s “fire”, and the verdict is instant. Artists are dismissed if they stay the same, and punished if they try something different, it seems. Heaven forbid they age and mature like a normal human. Personally, I’ve always admired Eminem’s verbal dexterity. He can pivot within a complex conceit like a metaphysical poet and exhibits real brilliance in his use of poetic devices such as enjambment. His work – controversial, challenging, witty and often vulgar – reminds me of Catullus. I don’t feel I can decide on a single listen of the album whether I like it – which is ultimately all anyone is qualified to decide.

What has Eminem got to do with literary fiction? Not much, maybe, but it’s related to what I wish for next year - that we all take a breath. If we want to revive literary fiction, or change the culture to allow more diverse voices, it starts with a pause before we react. Improving critical thinking and the accompanying conversation is just one piece of the puzzle, however. The elephant in the room is that art takes time and we need to recognise that yes, time is money. And on that, I will link Eminem to a discussion on diversity in literary fiction, particularly diversity of class, because we need to acknowledge the barriers that exist. As he says on his new album:

 
Pull ourselves up by our bootstraps
Where the fuck are the boots?
 

Birthday Blog: 42 or Life, the Universe and Everything

As all Douglas Adams fans know, 42 is the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything. So, in honour of my birthday, here are 42 pieces of wisdom comprised of some of the things I’ve learned – often the hard way – during my time on the planet. Strap in and don’t forget your towel.

1. A better world is always worth fighting for.

2. Realising your dreams is hard work, but it’s worth it.

3. Your friendships are some of your greatest achievements.

4. Happy ever after is a fairy tale.

5. Literature is nothing short of miraculous.

6. Your heart will be broken, repeatedly and unexpectedly. You will heal.

7. Don’t let anyone else decide your limits.

8. You had it right at 13 – you really will always love George Clooney.

9. Ditto Christian Slater.

10. Your Mum would walk through fire for you. Try not to let things get that far.

11. No one really knows what they’re doing. Don’t sweat it.

12. Never stop going to loud rock gigs and dancing the night away.

13. Learn to accept help.

14. Tequila is never a good idea. Champagne always is.

15. The rules of grammar can be broken in pursuit of style.

16. Speak up.

17. Being alone and being lonely are not the same thing.

18. Nothing tastes as good as not giving a fuck how much you weigh feels.

19. You’re wasting your time trying to fit in.

20. Whatever else happens, your family will always fight for you when you need them.

21. Poetry is the closest mortals can get to magic.

22. A little stubbornness goes a long way.

23. Jump in and start swimming, even if you can’t see the distant shore.

24. Obviously, don’t panic.

25. Save your anger for the things that are worth it.

26. Doc Martens are the only reasonable choice of footwear.

27. Say no if you want to.

28. Romance is only one of many ways to enjoy love in your life.

29. Every night at the movies is special.

30. Forgive when you can, walk away when you can’t.

31. Don’t compare yourself to others.

32. If you love someone, tell them.

33. Support artists and live performance – it’s always worth the investment.

34. Your nieces and nephew just might be the loves of your life.

35. 42 pieces of wisdom is a lot.

36. It’s never the end of the world. Get up.

37. When people tell you who they are, believe them.

38. Trusting people may make you vulnerable, but do it anyway.

39. Time and distance don’t mean anything to true friends.

40. You can never have too many books.

41. Change is scary, but so is everything staying the same.

42. Don’t listen to anyone else – earn your own wisdom.

 

It was a dark and stormy night...

I love a scary story. I never used to be like this; I didn’t read horror novels or watch horror films, mainly because I’m not the toughest person on the planet and I thought it would scare me too much. When I was little, I watched Day of the Triffids on TV and it used to give me such chills that afterwards I’d have to run up the stairs to bed (so nothing could “get” me) then I’d get under the covers and lie awake listening for that eerie clicking noise they made. So, given that it scared me and probably I was a bit too young to be watching it, why did I? The answer is that my Dad loved it, and I loved watching things with my Dad the same way I loved sharing books with him. I never told him how much it scared me because I didn’t want to stop watching it.

We associate this time of year with darker narratives; from Halloween to Christmas ghost stories, as the nights draw in we seem to be drawn to more darkness. I went to a lecture about Halloween recently that said this impulse carries on throughout time and within different cultures. Spooky stories allow us to face the darkness, to contain it within a fiction. As Christmas draws closer, I’m currently enjoying the audible production of Mark Gatiss reading EF Benson’s classic stories and soon I’ll be moving on to the excellent Neil Gaiman reading of A Christmas Carol.

I was very excited to read about The Eden Book Society project from Dead Ink Books because it’s exciting and so relevant to now. Even when winter gives way to spring, we’re currently living in dark and sometimes frightening times and I think horror stories can teach us a lot about living through them. Horror stories are metaphors writ large. Stephen King’s The Shining is about alcoholism, IT is about fear itself. One of the novellas in Joe Hill’s latest book Strange Weather - Snapshot, 1988 - is about memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. Two of my favourite recent horror novels, Hex and Nod, are both about the dark power of mob rule. Horror stories can hold up a mirror to society – one that is distorted and grotesque, but somehow understandable and, in most cases, surmountable.

Dead Ink Books is currently running a kickstarter campaign to get The Eden Book Society off the ground and I implore you to support it and tell everyone you know. They’re planning to release six books throughout the year and backing it now will get you all six, delivered the day they’re released. They’re an independent publisher supporting new writers and looking to push boundaries. If you think you’ve seen and read it all when it comes to horror, supporting an independent publisher means you’ll get a chance to read some of those stories that are less mainstream, and quite possibly more likely to give you a fright.

You could also pledge to give the subscription as a gift. I love subscription gifts because people get a regular reminder that you care, it’s not all loaded into Christmas. If you know a horror fan who waits impatiently for a new release from a favourite author, or a cynical teenager that could benefit from a broader horizon, or a bookworm hungry for new voices then this could be the perfect gift. Or maybe, if you want it for yourself, you can forego the usual socks and smellies and ask for this instead. It will give you joy throughout a year that promises more darkness and uncertainty, you get to be there are the start supporting independent artists and best of all, it’s really, really easy to wrap. Just remember to get yourself securely under the covers before you start reading.

Day of the Triffids [DVD] [1981]
Starring John Duttine, Emma Relph, Maurice Colbourne
The Shining
By Stephen King
Strange Weather
By Joe Hill
HEX
By Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Nod
By Adrian Barnes

If this has been a thin year for poetry, I’m living in an alternate dimension

I wasn’t the only person to be annoyed by John Burnside’s comment in a recent Spectator article that it has been a “thin year for poetry” but apart from the fact that it’s so patently wrong it seems to contrary to the spirit of the poetry community. The whole idea that any one man can translate their personal views into some kind of objective statement on the state of anything seems tone deaf in the current climate, anyway. Perhaps the world of poetry has moved on from the handful of stately white chaps patting themselves on the back for their cleverness but it’s been long overdue and poetry is the richer – dare I say, fatter – for it.

One thing I love about being a part of the poetry community is how welcoming, warm and supportive it is. I think it is this very drive to open up to people from a range of backgrounds which contributes to the fact that it’s such a positive environment. All that Burnside’s comment reinforces is the outmoded idea that poetry is some kind of elitist, old boys’ world. And listen, unlike that unfounded comment, I have receipts.

If you can wade through the noise and discover poetry twitter, you’ll find a community of writers who all spend a lot more time promoting others’ work than their own. There’s an infectious enthusiasm for any new work, for new voices and perspectives. US-based poet Kaveh Akbar uses his twitter following to share new work that excites him. When Zeina Hashem Beck shared an emotional poem about a traumatic experience from her past, I discovered her incredible writing because so many people were applauding and sharing her work and showing solidarity. That’s just two examples of something I’ve seen happening throughout the year, and it’s a demonstration of what an incredible year it’s been for poetry and for poets opening up into the wider world. The only negative impact I can think of is on my bank balance, as it significantly increased my book purchases this year (but I regret nothing).

The community extends beyond single poems or shared promotion. Deborah Alma, AKA The Emergency Poet is currently pulling together an anthology of women’s poetry in response to the #MeToo phenomenon. The collection provides an outlet for voices that have been previously ignored, and all proceeds will go to Women’s Aid UK. I currently have a poem shortlisted for the collection and I’ve got my fingers and toes crossed on that score as I would be immensely proud to be part of such a valuable project. Either way, I’m determined to promote the hell out of that book next year because it’s important and it will add another dimension to the world of poetry. There is nothing thin or mean-spirited about something like this project, from Deborah’s strength to read what must have been a distressing collection of submissions to all the women speaking up for the first time and the many others who can offer support to make the book a success.

And while I’m talking about a supportive community, I should also shout out the amazing Salome magazine, launched this year to support female writers. I am very proud to have a poem in their second issue but it’s about more than that; I love the atmosphere that they’re creating within the magazine. It’s a supportive community, all published writers are paid, all who submit receive feedback, the team are relentlessly positive and their launch events are a celebration of writing and writers. I simply can’t see how, if the year has been a thin one for poetry, how they would have achieved all this within their first year.

On a micro level, I’d also point to all the writers who encouraged me in gathering up my courage, fighting back the imposter syndrome and applying for a PhD. I am part of three workshops with truly incredible writers and there’s never anything but support and insight within those groups. No one shakes their head at how little poetry there’s been this year, no one suggested to me that I shouldn’t follow my dream. I’m now studying something I love, and it’s a direct result of it being such an inspiring year for poetry.

My first instinct on reading that Spectator review was unprintable, but on reflection what I want to say is this – “Hey John, come over here where all the other poets are, get yourself a gin and tonic and listen to all the incredible voices that have categorised this year – you’ll never experience a thin year for poetry again.”