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.”

Backwards and in High Heels

There is a famous cartoon talking about Fred Astaire with the caption, “Sure he was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, ...backwards and in high heels.” I always used to think that meant that women had to be twice, perhaps three times (depending on your views on staying upright in high heels) better than men just to share the same stage. While that may be true, it’s not the only reason this quote rings true for so many and why it resonates across many forms of art.

If we ask, for example, why the dance demands that the woman travels backwards, or why she dances in heels then we get closer to the issue. It’s an external accepted standard that it’s just the way things are done, a standard unlikely to have been set by female dancers. You could argue that the style and look fits the music but then, who decides the music? If Rogers is allowed to be more than a decorative foil to Astaire, if she’d been allowed to pick the tunes and the style of dancing, what more was she capable of?

The reason I’m thinking about this is because there’s a structural problem within many of the arts which automatically locks out women and minorities because of the accepted standards and assumptions. It’s certainly there in poetry. For example, there has recently been a translation of the Odyssey published by a female translator and while that’s fantastic and I’m excited to see what she’s made of Homer’s poetry, we’re all trapped within that tale. These stories are inexorably skewed towards men and dominant cultures. There could be as much drama, interest and joy in the story of a woman finding peace, but this would be deemed a domestic story. The overall message is that women’s stories are for women, and men’s stories are universal. Minorities, presumably, need not apply - although personally I feel that the Aeneid is crying out for a modern translation reflecting the challenges and struggles of migrants. I’d love to see an actor of colour at the top of his game like Riz Ahmed retelling Aeneas’ story in the way we should all learn to see it.

Many of the barriers to greater visibility of women and minority groups are hidden. If nature and classical music are accepted subjects and inspirations for poetry, for example, and you live in an urban tower block with no access or connection to a concert hall, you’re at a disadvantage. If you’re LGBTQ and the standard love stories don’t fit your understanding of romance, your work will be considered specialist or niche. If you’re a person of colour, you might have a whole rich tradition of culture embedded in your work but because it’s not recognised in the predominantly white canon, you won’t get the recognition for this scholarship.

What I can’t understand is why, when they’re plain for all to see, we don’t let go of these implicit standards. Why not let Ginger Rogers kick off her shoes, pick her own tunes and let’s see what she can do? And while we’re at it, let’s invite some of those minorities who’ve never before been invited to take the stage, those who can’t afford a spangly costume or have a different idea of what constitutes beauty – or music, or dance. The end result is more beautiful art in the world and even if it does mean that white men have to relinquish centre stage and the standards they hold dear, I think we all benefit from that. 

The Odyssey
By Homer Homer, Emily Wilson

The magic of reading to children

Roger McGough is 80 today and I honestly can’t think of a writer who’s been so influential on me; I believe he’s the reason I’m a writer today. It’s all because of a very strange picture book he wrote called Mr Noselighter. It’s about a man with a candle for a nose, and it’s strange and dark in a way that’s still quite rare in books for young children. I loved that book so much, I used to make my Dad read it to me over and over. Later, when I was too old for bedtime stories, I would listen in when he read it to my younger sister. I loved the sound of the words, the strange and startling images - the rhymes and the rhythm seized me and I don’t think they’ve ever let go.

I love that book also because it reminds me so much of my Dad. Until the day he died a few years ago, he could recite the whole thing because he had read it so often. When I look at it now, it’s a strange book for a child to get attached to; the images are quite scary, the ideas are surreal and the ending doesn’t offer any resolution. Quite why this would become a touchstone isn’t immediately obvious, except it’s all there in the words, the music and magic of them.

The circumstance, too, played a part. My Gran was a strange and unknowable woman who wasn’t much interested in her grandchildren, and she bought the book. I think she chose it because it was dark and she liked to stir up difficulty. I think she thought it might annoy my Mum, or that she could laugh if it gave me nightmares. If so, it backfired because that book is part of the fabric of our family’s history and despite all the darkness, holds nothing but happy memories for all of us.

I think that might be the secret of all family histories, a sense of happiness despite the darkness, despite the lack of resolution or neat conclusions. Obviously, that never occurred to me as a child, I just loved the sound of it, and the shivers that would travel down my spine as my Dad read a perfectly timed rhyme. From there, I started reading more children’s poetry and I don’t think I’ve ever looked back.

When I was little, I thought there was no one better in the world at reading stories and poems than my Dad. Part of me still thinks that, but looking back I can see that he enjoyed it as much as I did. He also loved words and language and every time he read that book he gave it his all. We both put so much into that one story, and it repaid us a hundredfold.

So, happy birthday to the man who opened my eyes to poetry, who still shares his enthusiasm and talent on Radio 4. And while I’m here, let me take the time to say… read to your kids. You’ll make memories to last a lifetime and you never know when you’re going to ignite a spark.