Human beings suffer

I’m sure from the outside, the lives of writers and artists look easy. I mean, all you have to do is spend a lot of time doing the thing you love, right? If you’re a writer, it means you spend a lot of time writing and reading, which is all I ever really wanted to do so I can see that it might look easy. It means engaging your imagination throughout every aspect of your life, which is a way of truly appreciating it. The challenge, and the place where the real work comes in, is to keep doing these things when the everyday stuff of life gets in the way.

When it comes to major events, from a personal loss to national horrors such as the recent Manchester bombing, things get even harder. I’m not saying for a second that it’s harder for artists. It’s not. I lost my Dad a few years ago and I don’t think it was tougher on me than on my sisters just because I’m a writer. I’ve been following the news about the attack in Manchester with the same horror as everyone else. I’m not kidding myself that I’m somehow special or more sensitive. When I think of writing about it, lines from Seamus Heaney’s poem The Cure at Troy keep recurring in my head:

No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

That doesn’t mean it’s pointless to keep going in dark times. Poetry, for me, is about understanding; it has as many roots in kindness as it does in language. Looking at the world in a new way can help us to appreciate it, see things from a different perspective or articulate feelings we’re struggling to understand. Poetry is also about joy. Poets write for the sheer joy of it, and that’s a good thing to be sending out into the world right now. It can be hard to hold on to that when horrific events take us so far from it, but I feel that artists of all stripes have an obligation to persevere.

The obligation is there not because artists have been marked out for some special reason. It’s because it’s incumbent on everyone to keep going, to find kindness and love in even the most horrific of circumstances. There is as much courage in a teenage girl putting on a sparkly t-shirt and dancing at a pop concert as there is in a writer trying to find a new way to express an old idea.

What’s my point here? Life is hard, human beings suffer and it can be hard to make sense of it all. All we can do as artists is stay connected to kindness and joy. All we can do as people is share that same kindness and joy with others and never, ever stop dancing.

I wanna reach down and pick the crowd up

I haven’t blogged for a while, it’s been a tough few months while I adjust to various situations that made me re-think my approach to writing. However, a chance comment to a friend today made me think it was time to get back to it. I was both shocked and saddened by the announcement of Chris Cornell’s death today. I told my friend that he had always been an inspiration to me because although I never had much in the way of musical talent, hearing him sing made me want to write the way he sounded.

If you’re not aware, Chris Cornell is a rock musician, known for the bands Soundgarden and Audioslave as well as a successful solo career. You can find a proper biography online somewhere. For me, when I think of Cornell, I think of the moving Temple of the Dog album that was on almost constant rotation throughout my late teenage years. The album was written by musicians looking to process the loss of a friend and it is full of anger and love and most of all, life in all its messy and complicated iterations.

When I said I wanted to write how Cornell sounds, I meant a strong, unwavering voice that resounds with sincerity and power. A voice that demonstrates anger and frustration but has a foundation in humanity and love that will not be ignored, will not tire, and pushes to the edges of endurance to make a point. The power and strain of his voice is, to me, something to aspire to in poetry.

Part of my recent struggle with writing has been trying to balance what might make me successful in some measure and what makes my heart sing. I was already headed that way, but the news of Cornell’s death has sealed it for me. Maybe I should have learned more lessons in my years on the planet, got more cynical and focussed but my heart won’t let me. I really haven’t changed much since I was a teenager. I still want to write like Chris Cornell sings, and now I know that I will, for all he gave to the world in the form of his music, for teenage Zoe who felt shivers down her spine when she heard him sing – 

You’ve got to hold on to your time
Till you break through these
Times of trouble.

Influences come in many forms. Writers need to read widely, but they need to be voracious consumers of all forms of art and follow whatever makes their heart sing. They need to live as widely as they read, if that makes sense. I don’t know. It makes sense to me. Thank you Chris Cornell, for all the music you gave the world and for once again helping someone who was lost find their way in times of trouble.

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

When I first started writing, it was at a difficult time in my life and I had a burst of inspiration that appeared to be unearthed amidst the turmoil. As I committed more deeply to writing, I found that the inspiration appeared to evaporate and the first few times that happened, I panicked. I felt like I’d lost whatever it was that gave me such joy and I was approaching an end to my dream of being a writer. Over the years, I’ve found this has happened on a frequent but entirely unpredictable basis and one thing I’ve learned is not to panic and trust that the inspiration will return.

A lot of writing advice, correctly, centres on the need for hard work as a writer and how you must write even on days when you don’t feel particularly inspired or even when the work you’re doing isn’t turning out well. I understand the value of that and certainly I agree that perseverance can pay off on that score. When I was completing my MA, I couldn’t negotiate assignment deadlines around a capricious (and let’s face it, fictional) muse so I did have to keep working to a certain extent, but I must admit I never kept myself to a schedule or particular pattern of working which required a set number of hours or words, per day or per week. For some writers, this approach works but it’s worth acknowledging that writing advice is pretty much like relationship advice – all the theory sounds correct but it’s never the same when you’re experiencing it personally.

When I find myself without the urge to write, the first thing I do is remember not to panic, which only makes me feel worse and therefore less likely to write anything of merit. I remind myself of all the times this has happened before and I have come through it. Then I set about doing anything to fill up my mind in a way that might cause inspiration to come flooding back. At the moment, I’m reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for the pure joyous beauty of the storytelling and Charles Simic’s book of poetry The Lunatic to help me keep looking at language in a way that is fresh. As I get used to a long commute, I’m also listening to an audiobook of David Copperfield to remind me of the way words conjure worlds. In doing all of these things, I am still a writer and I don’t see this as time away from what I do, it’s just time to refill the well of inspiration.

All writing advice should be taken with a grain of salt because each writer is on a personal journey akin to a love affair, it’s never the same as the theory or the experience of the next guy. Continuing to write despite how you feel might work for you and in that case, keep doing it. On the other hand, if you need a break, don’t think of it as failure. You might find inspiration from being outdoors, or from switching off your brain for a while and watching something comforting on TV, decluttering your home or going for a run. The important thing to remember is that you’re still a writer when you do these things and at some point, you’re going to get back to the blank page.

American Gods
By Neil Gaiman
The Lunatic: Poems
By Charles Simic
David Copperfield [Audible]
By Charles Dickens

Will you be my Valentine?

Love, like poetry, is a slippery creature and both love and poetry remain an enigma to me most of the time. In preparing this blog, I’ve researched love poems, thought about the structure of love stories and watched a couple of films and I’m at a loss. I recognise that Valentine’s Day is just a commercial enterprise and the aim is to make people feel they are lacking something which can be remedied by buying a certain product, or buying into a certain worldview. It still sucks to be single on Valentine’s Day, though. I miss having someone to sneer at it without appearing bitter. I miss being able to talk about romance at all without appearing bitter, tragic or, if I choose to think more positively, hopelessly naïve.

Love poems can be incredibly moving and address many aspects of romance, from consuming passion to unrequited love and the end of an affair. I haven’t written many love poems in my career because I’ve never found a way to break out of those categories. I have written some reflections on past relationships, but they’re rarely about love and more about self-discovery. I did write a poem for the wedding of two of my best friends and that was a tough commission because I felt a lot of pressure to get it right. I found the certainty of their marriage, the “rightness” of them being together very hard to express without resorting to cliché. The language around love is something that fascinates me because, I think, what it demonstrates in most cases is the inadequacy of language. So much remains unsaid and perhaps that’s why poets, novelists and musicians continue to try.

As a single woman in my forties, I may find much unsaid about my experience but that doesn’t mean it isn’t written between the lines – screaming at me between the verse and the chorus – and those are messages no one wants to write down. Love poems talk in elevated language about how superficial aspects such as age or looks don’t matter (and my friends do the same) but the truth is that in the real world, they do. In the rousing poem Wild Geese, Mary Oliver counsels that, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.” That may be excellent advice for life, but if that soft animal contains too many contradictions, if it loves delicate poetry and the most bombastic action movies, gourmet cocktails and a pint of Guinness, or loves being an Aunt but would rather have a puppy than a child, it makes for a truly terrible dating profile. Trust me.

Just as there is a gap between the words found in love poems and our experience of love, there is a dissonance between how we would like life to be and how it really is. While no one finds the words to express that, Valentine’s Day can stake a claim in the gap, pulling us towards the dream and away from the reality. On bad days, I think there must be something wrong with me to have failed so utterly in the world of romance. I remind myself of the many loves in my life, comprised of my family and the most incredible friends, just to be reassured that I’m not irrevocably broken. I always write to find out what I think, so maybe I need to start with that experience and write love poetry which reflects my reality. Wild Geese may be relevant after all, concluding as it does:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Next time I feel like a romantic failure, I’m also going to remind myself of something I discovered while researching this blog – Amazon lists the recent film version of Macbeth under the category of Romance. I may suck at dating and remain mystified by romance but at least I know that Lord and Lady Macbeth aren’t the romantic model to strive towards.

I’ve told you a million times to stop using hyperbole

I’ve noticed that the word traitor seems to be popping up in rhetoric a lot recently. It seems I’m not the only one to notice, with a German panel labelling it the ‘ugliest word of 2016’ due to Nazi overtones. A traitor is defined as ‘a person who betrays someone or something, such as a friend, cause or principle.’ This means a person who is protesting against the actions of a government they see as deplorable is not a traitor, they are in fact staying entirely true to their own principles.

Protests which are designed to condemn the behaviour of a corporation – such as #DeleteUber – or deny a platform to alt-right speakers, as happened at the University of Berkeley are not betraying principles of freedom of commerce or speech. A company can and will do what it wants, but so can each customer. That alt-right speaker does have the right to speak, but equally everyone else has a similar right to ignore him, or speak up about why they don’t want him there. I, for example, have the right to tell you I’m going to turn up at your house once a week and read you poetry, and then send you a bill. You have the right to tell me you don’t want to pay for that, and you don’t want a stranger in your house. You’re missing out on some cracking poetry, of course, but you’re not a traitor to free speech to tell me so.

The word was used this week in relation to MPs who voted against Brexit, as if they were traitors to the country and the will of the people. Apart from the fact that the referendum didn’t deliver a resounding 100% vote, if you believe in the UK as a sovereign power, and you believe therefore in the sovereignty of parliament and the notion of parliamentary democracy, then you believe in the right of MPs to vote against something they believe is not in the national interest, or the interest of their constituents. They are, in fact, the living, breathing embodiment of faith in the system that they are accused of betraying.

It seems like ‘traitor’ has become shorthand for ‘someone I don’t agree with’ and that’s dangerous because the word has so many emotive associations. It is used as an argument-ending word to shut down discussion and will, in turn, become meaningless. The truth will always be more powerful than any amount of hyperbole or rhetorical tricks, and writers have a duty to preserve and defend language so that the truth can be shared with people. A good example of this is in the Pablo Neruda poem I’m Explaining a Few Things and the haunting lines:

and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like the blood of children.

Neruda is the master of simile and metaphor but in this poem, denouncing the Nationalist movement during the Spanish Civil War, he understands that nothing is more powerful or emphatic than the bare, unvarnished truth. In these times, writers must look past the rhetoric and maintain a clear eye and a steady pen. This is how to write beautifully but more importantly, it is how to live without betraying your freedom. 

Sympathy for the devil

At a poetry workshop last year, we were set an assignment to write an ode to someone or something we thought about negatively. On that occasion, I wrote about my school bullies and I never finished the poem because although I saw the value of the exercise, my heart wasn’t in it. This weekend I set about resurrecting this assignment in relation to the current political situation and once again, I couldn’t bring the thoughts into any kind of resounding whole. I’ve spoken before about literature being a vehicle for empathy and, it seems, mine has a limit.

When I wrote about my experiences in school, I could understand that those girls were afraid of anyone different, afraid of anything that toppled their tenuous grip on popularity. They were just as trapped in the complex, vicious social hierarchy of an all girls’ school, however cushioned they were by prettiness and popularity. The poem I drafted that day, though, rang hollow. Usually when I write, something rises up from within the poem that is more than just words and in this case, there was just an empty shell.

This weekend, I tried to understand how anyone could support the racist, inhumane treatment of refugees. I checked some of my privilege - I imagined if, perhaps, I hadn’t had the good fortune to be brought up in a family where kindness and support were not only valued but enacted every day. I also considered whether if I’d had more – more money, more power – I’d feel like I had more to lose from an inclusive society.  In both cases, I could understand the rationale but - like that poem about my school bullies - there was no heart to the argument. This IS no heart to an argument like that.

I saw a lot of parallels between the school bullies and the racist arguments. The first, most obvious one is the name calling; it seems Social Justice Warrior (SJW) has been replaced by snowflake. For the record, if someone calls me a Social Justice Warrior, I feel like a combination of Captain America and General Leia so please do go ahead with that. Snowflakes are pretty, so again, be my guest. What the prevalence of such empty insults reveals is that these bullies are terrified of being called names because they haven’t got the backbone to withstand them. I’ve had a lifetime of ginger jokes – when I started primary school I was a chubby kid with ginger hair, national health glasses and a patch over one eye, so feel free to come at me with name-calling if you must, but I learned to cope with that when I was five or six and I just don’t care. If anyone thinks that might hurt me, all they’re doing is revealing their greatest fear.

Years ago, when I was learning to cope with bullies, my Gran, who had a bellyful of bad treatment in her life, told me to just ignore them – and if that didn’t work, then kick them in the shins. I used to talk to her about how I hated being singled out and she would say, “Oh Zoe, wouldn’t life be boring if we were all the same.” I think about that a lot as banning refugees is reframed as protecting us from terrorists, and racism, classism and sexism all rise to the fore. My Gran was right and I don’t want a boring life, I want to meet people from all walks of life and from all over the world. I don’t see the hypocrisy in wanting an inclusive world and being intolerant of bullies because, as I discovered over the weekend, there’s no heart there, nothing to connect with.

I abandoned my poem and instead wrote a defiant piece and worked on another poem where I’m attempting to make the title do a lot of heavy lifting. In one way or another, they both came from the work examining bullies and the power of words, so I’m still getting great value from that assignment. Maybe one day I’ll go back and try again but until then, actor David Harbour said everything I might have to say at the SAG Awards last night. I stand with Stranger Things’ Chief Hopper on the matter of bullies. If my Gran were still around today, she would stand to her full height of five-foot-nothing and do exactly the same.

And don’t think I don’t know that it was a privilege to have such a principled, bad-ass Gran. 

Oh hey, fixed those lists of dystopian fiction for you

In the last week, both The Guardian and the Irish Times published lists of dystopian fiction that might help their readers make sense of the current political climate. Neither list contained a female writer.  Not Octavia Butler, who foresaw insidious intent behind the phrase “Make America Great Again.” Not Margaret Atwood, who took the current treatment of women to its logical conclusion in The Handmaid’s Tale. Not Naomi Alderman’s recent book The Power, which examines gender inequality in a fresh and sometimes terrifying way. Not… OK, I’m not just going to list writers here, but I think the point is made.

Excluding women from lists like this may seem like a small thing to get upset about in the circumstances, but it’s upsetting nonetheless. The idea continues that men write great books of social importance, women write domestic stories about feelings. Even if this were true (and to be clear, it’s not), domestic novels such as Middlemarch or South Riding and the entire catalogue of Jane Austen demonstrate that such stories can and do also contain valid political and social commentary.

I understand that ultimately, what we read is down to personal taste and if you want to read exclusively male writers, that’s your choice - even if what you’re choosing is to miss out on a lot of what literature has to offer. It is worth examining, however, why lists like these in the media, and school reading lists continue to promote the canon of male writers – and predominantly straight, white men at that. I’m not advocating wiping men off the list, but reading something like Orwell or Vonnegut means more if you read it alongside Atwood or Butler.

It strikes me that the disregard of women writers has a parallel in the continuing snobbery around genre fiction as somehow consider “less than” literary fiction. First of all, if you think you’re in any way a better person because you read the Booker shortlist instead of a fantasy series, you’re not. Secondly, you’ll find in genre fiction such as crime, science fiction or fantasy that the author base is more diverse – still not perfect, but certainly it is a more progressive arena. Finally, genre fiction can and does comment on personal and social issues, sometimes in a more moving and gripping way. I wonder if this is because in genre fiction, the story is so much more important than the writer. On this more level playing field, people of both genders and from all walks of life can and do succeed.

It only takes one book speaking directly to you to make you a lifelong reader. I would never judge someone based on what they choose to read – or not to read – but when compiling lists of recommendations, wouldn’t it be worth casting the net more widely, not least because you have a greater chance of hitting the mark? Reading is one of those self-perpetuating habits; the more you read, the more you want to read and I can’t understand why anyone would want to put limits on that.


I am aware I missed so many other examples of dystopian fiction written by women and that I could have listed so many more examples of female writers of social, political and literary importance. I recommend following #ReadWomen on twitter for more recommendations. 

Lights Go Out, Walls Come Tumbling Down

I’ve been thinking about walls. As part of my dissertation examining the relevance of Ancient Britain, I walked along Hadrian’s Wall and wrote a poem considering the perspective of that wall. I’ve yet to place it, and I can’t work out whether I’m pleased that it now has more relevance and might find a place somewhere or not. I always felt the poem was a warning not to repeat the mistakes of the past; I never wanted it to reflect the present. It’s still one of my favourite things I’ve ever written, but I feel a little sad for it now, poor wee poem standing on the foundations of the terrifying political landscape we’re currently facing.

When I was researching Ancient Britain, I learned more about the Antonine Wall in Edinburgh. Like Hadrian’s Wall, it was also built by the Romans as a means of marking the boundaries of the empire and attempting to keep out the raging Caledonii who didn’t take kindly to invasion. The wall is notable because the lines cut brutally across the landscape in a very vivid demonstration of how little politics is related to the natural world. The wall had forts dotted two miles apart along the 39 mile long, 10-foot high structure and was surrounded by deep ditches. Despite these fortifications and over 7,000 men stationed at the wall, it didn’t last very long. The Caledonii tribes were too effective at guerrilla attacks because they understood and worked with their environment and the Romans were frustrated at every attempt to effectively hold or advance the line.

Writers face metaphorical walls as well as real ones, internally and externally – perhaps you sympathise with the Romans and every time you seek to build up your career, a rampaging heathen comes along and topples your structure. Perhaps you feel like those native tribes who sought to frustrate imperial rule at every step, faced with a wall of established rules and requirements for an industry that both shuts you in and keeps you out of the wider world.

From the top of a wall, you can see both sides. Sometimes I’m the Roman and everything I build gets torn down. Other times I want to lace up my DM boots and put my foot through the latest barrier to achieving what I want to do in my work. Either way, I understand that walls themselves aren’t inherently bad – they’re pretty good at holding up the roof over my head, after all – but what they represent can be very negative. Perhaps both politicians and writers can take a different example from the Romans and consider the straight pathways they created to improve trade. The walls, after all, are now crumbling monuments to the folly of the past. Their roads, on the other hand, continue to connect people.


As an aside, with all this talk of crumbling monuments - has anyone thought of air-dropping thousands of postcards bearing the lines of Shelley’s Ozymandias in Washington DC?

Singing about the dark times

The use of literature- and poetry in particular - within the protest rhetoric of yesterday’s Women’s Marches was incredibly powerful. From references to Margaret Atwood’s (increasingly chilling) novel The Handmaid’s Tale to lines from Maya Angelou’s I Rise appearing on many placards, it is clear that literature has a role to play in the fight for equality and fairness.

Some of this is due to the fact that literature, at its best, breeds empathy. Once we have walked a mile in another’s shoes, even in our imagination, it is harder to dismiss, stereotype or persecute people. Stories take us beyond difference and unearth the same humanity we all share.

Many placards seen at the marches showed pictures of talented writer and actor Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia from the Star Wars franchise declaring that “A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance.” There is a straight line between the Star Wars stories and those in ancient myth; George Lucas was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s book on comparative mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces which directly links our stories to our psychology. The message on those placards is simple and clear – when you act against women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, those with disability or any other marginalised group, you are not some edgy hero grasping at freedom, you are not The Resistance everyone roots for in those films, you are The Empire.

Ancient myths and classical epics tell the same stories over and over of oppression by the elite and uprising from the disenfranchised and what they have in common is that it is those resisting hate and oppression who triumph. It is, therefore, literally wired into our brains to stand against this tide of hatred because whatever your religious and cultural upbringing, the stories we tell and those we hear remain the same. The details in those tales bring us closer both to empathy for each individual and an understanding of the universal human condition.

I also came across a quote from poet and activist Audre Lorde yesterday:

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.

Reading that made me want to know more, and I looked up the context of those lines. Here is her statement in more detail:

I speak here of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean--in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

Literature, then, not only allows us to tell our stories, it gives us the language we need to articulate them. In this context, the personal is incredibly political. A recent example of this is found in Stephanie Northgate’s poem Miracle published recently on the And Other Poems website. The poem paints a clear picture of the vulnerability of refugee children by connecting them, and their parents, in the quiet and tender moment when a small child finally falls asleep. This is something all parents can recognise, and this personal experience of motherhood makes a strong and moving point about how we all have more to connect us than to divide us. Refugee parents want the same for their children as we do; those children exposed to danger and cold could be ours.

Writers must keep working. Representation matters in the arts and more must be done to make it happen. Lorde is right, finding the words to express and then address the challenges we face is not – and never will be – a luxury. To all the writers and readers, have faith in the fact that in your heart, you already know the story you need to tell and it is a vital necessity.


Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water

I am delighted and honoured to be one of a number of people taking part in a reading of Keats’ poetry to coincide with the completion of a statue of the poet due to be placed in Eastgate Square in Chichester. The event takes place on St Agnes’ Eve, a poem Keats composed in that very city. I remember the first time I discovered Keats’ connection to Chichester and I was thrilled to discover that one of my heroes had visited my hometown.

I have written before about the sense of urgency in Keats’ work and the beauty of that alone is enough to elevate him as one of my favourite poets. However, it is his life that lifts him to heroic status in my eyes. It is not just that he achieved so much in his short life, but that he lived very much on his own terms. Keats did not belong in the luxurious high society of the other Romantic Poets and often felt uncomfortable in their presence. He did not have the same education, connections or leisure as other writers of his time. Despite the beauty and delicacy of his work, Keats knew about the realities of life and the pain it can bring. He studied medicine at Guy’s Hospital and worked as a dresser – dressing wounds, setting bones and assisting in surgery – prior to deciding that he must become a writer. He did not receive positive reviews when his first book was published and, outside of a small liberal circle of writers, was heavily criticised by the literary establishment. John Wilson Croker said his work consisted of “the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language,” and John Gibson Lockhart called him a “vulgar Cockney poetaster”. I almost want to raise them both from the dead for an evening just so they can hear his work still being read and see the statue in his honour.

Keats is my hero because he defied all the snobbery and prejudice and stayed true to his own convictions and artistic vision. He wasn’t rich and didn’t belong in Society; the literary establishment didn’t want him and tried to tear him down as soon as he began writing. In short, there was nothing in Keats’ life to suggest he should become a poet and he did it anyway. His clear-eyed passion for writing allowed him to put aside the frustration of being considered an upstart and create work that is timeless and continues to move and inspire people.

It used to make me feel very sad that Keats died believing he was a failure and that his epitaph: Here lies One / whose Name was writ in Water betrayed a certain amount of bitterness. On reflection, though, I think of the lines in Catullus LXX – sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti / in vento et rapida scriber oportet aqua, which means, “but what a woman says to a passionate lover should be written in the wind and the running water,” – and I think that perhaps, once again, Keats showed immense vision in seeing his work, and his name, as something both ephemeral and eternal, like love. 

I hope to see many rebellious-minded writers and artists there - I think Keats would like that.