Archive for the ‘Being A Writer’ Category

New poem: The flirt

Monday, August 29th, 2016

Night sky.
(Photo credit)

I’ve been writing loads of new poems on my Northwest Pacific Coast road trip, and I’ve been itching to share. This is the most recent! A sci fi poem! Also about manipulative men! And the erosion of women’s self esteem! Cheery, right? See what you think.

The flirt

Each instance of it hit me
like a hot rock, flung from some
deep reach of space, a place
I’d never charted.
I’d never seen such a man
up close, because
women like me aren’t usually
allowed. He had a face I knew
would improve with age –
a weapons-grade smile – his gaze
hauled me out of safe orbit.
This can’t be happening
I told myself, every asteroid
more devastating than the last.

I spent decades getting here.
I pushed the little craft of myself
out past the markered reaches,
followed star after star.
What I made wasn’t beautiful,
but god, it was strong – I’d built
a body I thought I could live in
without burning it down.
He had other ideas, though
I didn’t know them.
What did he want me for?
Target practice: the glare
of his attention a smatter
all over my radar.

I fell light-years in the wrong
direction. I spun out,
all my tools gone. Now
I can’t patch my rig
well enough to leave
as the stars harden
in the autumn sky.
I’ve become so weak
I can’t read them –
impervious, that’s
what I thought I was.
Now can’t even
lift my face
and look up.

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I wrote a book of poems! It’s called This changes things, and you can order it here! You can also support me by checking out the many sweet and sparkly things at Edinburgh Vintage, my Etsy-based store for jewellery and small antiques. Or if you just want to say hi, you can find me on Twitter.

Page/Stage: a conversation about poetry in performance, diversity in poetry and how we bring the two together

Thursday, August 4th, 2016

Performance poet and promoter Freddie Alexander.  Photo credit Perry Jonsson Art.
Performance poet and promoter Freddie Alexander. Photo credit Perry Jonsson Art.

Hey friends,

So, back in April I saw that the juggernaut live poetry night Loud Poets were advertising an event where the performers were strictly forbidden to read off a piece of paper. This triggered a knee-jerk reaction in me, and I [sub]tweeted about it, expressing worry about the rule without naming the night — and without being desperately constructive either. Performance poet, live lit promoter and all-round perceptive individual Freddie Alexander called me out (via excellent use of Kermit The Frog meme), and helped me start a more productive online conversation about the whole thing. You can see some of the tweets from that initial conversation here, here, here and here. I’d advise you to have a look at these because they’re the thoughts of poets who live and work at intersections of oppression that I have never experienced — these are trans poets and disabled poets, speaking from perspectives which are (as the conversation below acknowledges) all too often ignored or erased in contemporary poetry.

Out of that Twitter conversation, Freddie and I decided to meet and chat properly. We had a vague idea that the resulting chat might be turned into a blogpost for public consumption — Scottish Book Trust had approached me about the possibility of creating an 800-word-or-so piece for them, for example — but in the end our conversation became too knotty to be easily edited down into one pithy blog. We decided we’d prefer to publish the unedited transcript of the entire conversation instead, knowing that probably no one but ourselves would ever willingly host this 3,000+ word beast! So here it finally is. We hope it’s thought provoking, and if you have comments we’d love to hear them, especially on Twitter, which promotes a more ‘living’ conversation than blog comments, I find. (I’m @onenightstanzas and Freddie is @fredralexander.) We’re especially keen to hear thoughts on this issue from poets of colour, disabled poets, and LGBTQIA+ poets — we’d like to know how performance works at a variety of intersections, not just the ones we personally experience.

Here’s the transcript, typed up verbatim from a digital recording (we didn’t release the audio simply because the background noise is awful and it’s fairly unbearable to listen to. Typical poets, choosing a busy coffee shop as their venue!) Enjoy!

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Claire Askew: OK, the first thing I want to do is go on the record as saying – I’m really sorry for starting off this whole conversation with a subtweet…!

Freddie Alexander: That’s OK.

CA: It’s just – I say these things, I type these things – and I know this sounds really disingenuous, but I literally forget that I have nearly 4,000 followers, and then people respond and I’m like, ‘oh, people saw that? That was just me letting my gums rattle,’ as my gran would have said! So I really am sorry for the way the conversation was started!

FA: To be honest, I think that it’s the same on my side, it’s absolutely fine…

CA: Oh, I liked your response actually – good use of Kermit the Frog meme!

FA: I love it so much! And sometimes, I don’t know – people I follow – like Broderick Greer, who’s this big Anglican minister in the US – he subtweets like no one’s business. He’s very involved with politics and LGBT issues in Christian circles, and his subtweets are just perfect. So I highly recommend him if you want to read some good subtweeting.

CA: OK, Greer, subtweet minister, I’m writing down! I’ll check him out.

…OK, so I guess I kind of wanted to start with a question. And then – I don’t know, maybe I should figure out an answer first, but you might want to ask me why I’m so angry about this thing! This whole issue of setting up a system – or a night, or an event, or whatever – where the rule is you cannot read off paper – this is something I can’t get my head around. So my question is, what is the reasoning for that? I assume there have been people sitting down and saying, ‘right, we will impose this rule for a reason,’ so what’s the reason? Maybe when I understand…

FA: Yeah. I think that’s a really interesting one, because as far as my knowledge goes, there are two [events] in Scotland that have this rule: Sophia Walker’s BBC slam, and Loud Poets nights. Now, I don’t want to speak for either, because I am not the organiser of either, but I have lived with [one of the organisers of Loud Poets], and part of the reasoning behind it is, I guess – it is, I think, a discussion around how they want the aesthetics of their night to work. They have a particular vision in mind for what their audience is receiving – and I think maybe something that’s important and that’s going on in their head is that they structure their night from the perspective of trying to get an audience that is paying, and give them a product. So though it’s counter-intuitive from my perspective – because often I organise nights that are free, and largely for other artists, and if people come along that aren’t artists, that’s seen as good and exciting for us – but it’s different, organising an open mic night or whatever.

CA: That’s really interesting, I hadn’t thought of the onus being on the audience rather than the performers. I suppose that’s not something I’d ever really thought about – like, should your priority when organising a night be ‘how comfortable are your performers?’ or should your priority be ‘what’s the experience your audience is having?’ And I suppose the logical thing is that your audience are the people who’ve paid to come in the door, so actually…

FA: Well I think part of the difficulty around that conversation is probably twofold – it’s that if you’re cultivating an artistic community you have to make sure that your performers are still looked after and comfortable, so I think there’s definitely a thing with that. But also, at the same time, when you are paying your performers, how much is reasonable to expect of your performers?

CA: Right.

FA: If you – I mean, what kind of relationship is that? If you’re an organiser of a night that has a paying customer, and you’re paying your performer, is it then reasonable to ask your performer to provide a certain kind of performance? And how much pushback is reasonable within that relationship? I think that relationship is, necessarily, a thing that you have to be careful with, because within that you then would have the complicated relationship with other artists. But it is – I think it’s an interesting one.

CA: So, we’ve kind of just talked off the mic about a night like Shore Poets, and how it is becoming increasingly one of a kind to have an event like that, that’s still a traditional stand-up reading – the kind of reading where everyone reads off paper. But we talked about how that’s alright, upholding that tradition, because it caters to a certain audience who don’t maybe feel welcome at something more experimental. And similarly I think, nights where – the more experimental nights – they need to exist as well for that same reason – to create a variety of different types of events. So I kind of understand wanting to try new stuff and, like, ‘let’s impose this as a rule to try and separate ourselves out from the herd’. I don’t know if that’s part of the thinking behind it as well?

FA: Yeah, I think part of it is necessarily being new. Because there are a lot of nights within Edinburgh who often have the same performers, who have similar formats, and so how do you then have an audience come back to your night? I think the decision on Loud Poets‘ part was to say ‘let’s have this rule.’ And it’s not just that – they also have a live band, and they try to create a kind of high-energy fun experience for the audience. I think that’s what interesting is that from the perspective of people who organise that night, their viewpoint is that they feel like they’re the minority. Not like the in the political sense of the word…

CA: No, I know what you mean.

FA: But like, there are many nights in Edinburgh that – most nights in Edinburgh don’t impose this rule. And that’s almost the answer as to why they impose that. But I think that within that there’s almost a false distinction, because then we’re talking about the aesthetics of how this is influencing what we consider to be performance poetry.

Maybe I can ask a question of yourself?

CA: Go on then.

FA: How have you found the experience of going between different nights, as a poet who is comfortable with their relationship with their audience – in coming across this certain kind of structured night, what’s your response to them?

CA: Well, I mean I think part of the reason that I have quite a kneejerk reaction to seeing the no-paper rules is because I had a bad experience. At a night – I’ll name the night, I won’t name the person – it was at Colin McGuire’s Talking Heids night, which is sadly defunct now I think…

FA: Yes!

CA: That was a great night!

FA: It was really great.

CA: So Colin, start that night again! Yeah – anyway, I read, and then the next performer after me was a performance poet who I think is someone who is at the height of his powers, shall we say – someone who is doing very well and is very popular around the place. So I got up and I read my poems the way I usually do – this was before I had my book out, so I was reading off printed bits of paper, and – I mean I’m not someone who hides behind the bits of paper, it’s a sort of glancing-down-at sort of job, but I did my set and I thought I did pretty well. And I kind of noticed that the performance poet in question was in the back of the room texting all the way through my set, which I found mildly annoying, but I thought hey, well, you know – maybe there was an emergency or something! Anyway – at the break he got up and said, like into the crowd, ‘how unprofessional was that? That a poet like her got up and read off bits of paper.’ ‘That’s like’ – and I quote – ‘that’s like a comedian getting up on stage with a fucking joke sheet.’ End quote. So there was this attack on my professionalism – you know, the idea that reading off paper is unprofessional, and amateur, you know? And I thought – apart from anything else, respect your elders, you young whippersnapper! I was gobsmacked. [the recording was paused here at Freddie's request] So to pick up the thread, I suppose that has really coloured my feelings about that whole no-paper thing. Because it means I am coming at it with, in the back of my mind, the idea that it’s linked to your professionalism as a poet.

But I think I wanted to say before – I think there’s something about – it makes for – I imagine that absolutely no preambles, and no paper, must make for a very slick show. I mean, is that something that you think is…

FA: I think that is part of how [these nights] try to reflect their aesthetics, yeah – so even within that, the poets – they can rotate it so that the other poets go up and introduce the poet they’ve read before. So the poet can just come up on stage, do their piece, and leave, and not have to do any faffing. Now, I think what’s interesting about that is that – typically, I’m one of them – some poets aren’t very good at that [introductions and preambles]! I fumble – and actually, that way [of running a night] sometimes takes a bit of the stress off. I think on the contrary side to that, sometimes it’s difficult because when as a poet you design a set, there’s a story that you’re telling – you are taking poems that relate to each other and telling the relationship, and then to just remove that, come on stage, do one piece and leave – it can sometimes feel a bit clinical, as a performer. But I think it’s about the relationship that you have with your work. That’s definitely – within the slam circuit, that’s how your work is presented. Single piece, leave. But within a show, or Fringe show perspective, it’s very different.

CA: So I suppose it’s a melding of that kind of slam style, where they say ‘right, you’ve got two minutes, get on and do the necessary!’ And so, match that with the slightly more relaxed context of a night, you know –

FA: Yeah, without being judged, yes.

CA: So it’s interesting – the more you’re talking to me, the more my anger about that bad experience is kind of ebbing away. Which is good! Because I’m also thinking about nights where you go and there’s someone who – I mean, there are really famous poets who are terrible for this, too – like, Liz Lochhead, I love you, but sometimes your preambles are longer than your poems! So, poets who talk for a really long time before the poem, and there’s this tendency to say, ‘this poem is about this, this and this,’ to the point where in the end you don’t even need to hear the poem! And then there are people who are going ‘oh, which one shall I read, which one shall I read?’ – and they’re flicking back and forth through their book – and nobody enjoys that! So I totally appreciate the logistical removal of that, and how that facilitates a much more slick product – and a much more enjoyable night, because nobody enjoys that period of silence while the poet tries to find the page!

FA: I think that’s definitely so part of the process of designing a night – I think a big part of this goes back to if we imagine how slam came to be created. Because slams didn’t really exist, and then they became this weird way of judging poetry, and I find that really hilarious, because all they really are is a way of structuring a night in such a way that it removes the faff, and is just concentrated poetry. It’s true that it’s more efficient, and that makes it more enjoyable for the audience – more so than the poets! I think that was the thought behind the best slams and behind things like Loud Poets – it’s trying to get an audience that doesn’t engage with poetry to engage with poetry. However, maybe to argue on your side, to be my own devil’s advocate, I think one of the problems is that there is this whole subliminal perception of professionalism. One of the things that I would bring up in particular – so for the last three years, the Scottish National Poetry Slam, all three finalists have been people that don’t read off paper. Now, that’s really interesting, because that’s drawing from a range of different performers, usually a range of different people each time, different audiences, and different judges – so is there a commonality when you’re looking and trying to judge the poems? Is that judgement – is your snap judgement to someone reading off paper to say, ‘that’s less impressive than someone who has memorised’? And is that a form of aesthetics that maybe we’re progressing?

CA: Yeah, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about one of the things that troubles me, which is – and I mean, I have absolutely no problem with one or two nights, which is kind of what’s happening in Edinburgh – having a bash at this kind of experimental thing to separate themselves out among these many, many, many poetry nights. And I mean, the point of experimenting is to see what it’s like, that’s how things change, and that’s interesting. But what troubles me is the idea that because the nights where this is happening are such a juggernaut, such a force – I’m now hearing poets saying to me things like, ‘oh you know, I’d be so much better if I memorised, that would make me a better poet…’

FA: And ‘that would make me get noticed,’ yeah.

CA: And you like of think well – I mean, the aforementioned Colin McGuire, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying this – he’s said that to me a few times. Like, you know ‘oh, I should really memorise my poems, that’s what everyone’s doing now, I should really memorise’ – and I’m like, Colin, you’re an absolutely brilliant performer!

FA: Oh god, yes!

CA: Right? I mean, you really don’t need to do any more! And – I mean, the way Colin brandishes a poetry book, that’s part of the whole thing! So yeah – that’s kind of troubling that it’s becoming – I mean, this sounds terribly pearl-clutching of me I know, but I’m kind of worried that it’s becoming a trend…

FA: I would agree. And what’s interesting within that trend is that the organisers – like, the organisers of Loud Poets – they’re seen to be the keepers of this, and yet like, Katie [Ailes] and Catherine [Wilson] will read off paper. Not because they’re trying to perform less professional things, but because it’s just about the night they’re going to. But I think this a complex thing, and also – it is a case of assessing what is your position within the scene, and what kind of people are coming to your night? I mean, if performers are coming to your night and they feel like they can’t engage with that because they find memorising difficult, for various different reasons, then that’s a real problem.

CA: Yeah. I also feel like this creeping trend, it kind of – there’s an extent to which, whether it’s intended or not, it sort of leads into this – and I hate even saying it! The ‘page stage divide’ – the perceived divide between page and stage. And for me, what’s interesting and unusual and original and exciting is when people try and be on both sides of that divide. So you’re saying that people like Katie and Catherine are doing both – memorising, and reading off paper. You know, that’s the kind of straddling of different styles which I think is interesting and exciting. What’s worrying is when people feel like they have to pick a side, like either ‘I am a poet who memorises things and therefore I am a performance poet,’ or ‘I am a poet who reads off paper and therefore I am a page poet.’ It’s not that simple, and I’m worried that people are reducing it to that kind of binary.

FA: Or even – I think also following on from that is, how much of a recognition is there that there are other types of events here, that will support people who have different styles and that are attuned to that problem. I think we can say all we like as organisers of night that, ‘oh, it’s OK, there are ten other nights where you can read a poem,’ but for some people, they don’t know – they know that the only poetry night they have, that they go to, is, say Loud Poets – and they don’t know that TenRed exists, or places like Shore Poets. And when we don’t go out of our way to emphasise that as organisers, we limit the ability of new people to enter and access the range of the Scottish live poetry scene.

CA: Yeah, I think it’s true that when you’re inside it – you know, you as a promoter, or a seasoned performer – you are aware – I mean, I’ve been doing this now for twelve years, so I’m at a point now where I can lament, sadly, nights that used to exist that now no longer do, like the Golden Hour – that was so good! You know – but when you are, like let’s say you’re a first year Uni student, and you’re coming here in September and you don’t know anyone, you’re going to go to the night that has the biggest posters, and not necessarily know what else is out there. So I think you’re right, there should be, possibly – I mean, I think there is also a thing where people say, ‘it’s so annoying, I’m trying to organise this night and there are like, two other nights on in Edinburgh on the same date,’ whereas I think that’s quite exciting, that’s good – and we should be promoting those nights as well, but it’s tricky, you feel like, I’m having to share my audience with these other people. So I also understand not promoting other nights. It’s a tricky balance!

FA: Especially when you’ve hit that perfect kind of double spot that Loud Poets and slams try to do, where they pitch themselves as poetry nights for people who don’t go to poetry nights. So a lot of people that don’t go to poetry night and don’t know about poetry nights go to these particular nights and think, ‘that is what poetry is,’ and that’s it. Now, part of that is intentional, because you want to create that positive reaction to poetry – but at the same time, there’s a case of how accessible is everything else? There’s a really difficult conversation there, that, as organisers – is it simply a case of promoting other nights? Maybe.

CA: Or is it about – I mean, we’ve talked about how certain nights are for certain audiences. You know, I mean – I’m soon no-longer-to-be-a Shore Poets organiser [note added by CA: I left Shore Poets in June 2016], but as a Shore Poets organiser I have been aware that people will say things like ‘oh, you know, Shore Poets is for x kind of person,’ which I think possibly fair and true – but that’s problematic, because that shows that as organisers we actually perhaps have not done enough to welcome people who do not fall into that perceived group. But is that a whole other conversation?

FA: Well, we’re discussing how this relates to audiences, but in regards to performers, I think there’s another interesting conversation that can happen – so, most promoters want to cultivate the scene, circulate and keep people updated about their different nights, but when you draw someone [a performer] from another night into your night, and then suddenly there are different rules imposed, that can be a very disorienting thing. It could be potentially alienating – and also, could give the poet a bad experience like yours. I mean, if this was the first time you had to memorise poetry, and you’re suddenly thrown into a scenario you don’t know, in an environment you don’t know, and then you fluff your line, that can be incredibly traumatising as a live performer.

CA: Oh yes, it’s the worst thing!

FA: It is the worst thing, it’s very unpleasant!

CA: I mean, I am not anti-memorising, I have memorised pieces before, and I know only too well that feeling when you get to the place in the poem where you’ve said the line about five thousand times, and yet for some reason, you just have the wrong thought at the wrong moment, and it’s all gone…

FA: That’s the nightmare, yes!

CA: And then it feels like you’re standing there in silence for about five hundred years, when it’s probably only a couple of seconds actually, but it feels like, ‘just say something, say anything!’ It is – it does rattle you, even if you’re a seasoned performer. But I mean, now that we’re talking about performers, I guess we get to the meat of the issue for me, which is diversity. And something that I’m aware of is – there are poets and promoters and a lot of people in the scene generally, who trumpet that Scotland has this wonderful, diverse poetry community, like ‘look at how diverse we are, look at all this wealth of diverse voices!’ And I kind of look round and think – ‘okay, but I’m trying to organise Grrrl Con! this summer, and I struggled to find women writers of colour.’ It was really hard to come up with a list of female poets of colour in Scotland! So just that, as one example, suggests to me that the scene is not as diverse as we like to think. And I mean, this is where we get into tricky territory, because I don’t want to hurl accusations at any particular night, but this is the reason, mainly, why I’m worried about – not the nights, but about this no-paper thing becoming A Thing. It’s because, for me, it appears to not only not encourage, but actively discourage certain voices – namely, disabled poets, who are already very much not in evidence in the Scottish poetry scene – and also poets whose first language is not English.

FA: Absolutely. I one hundred percent agree with this. And I think also on top of that one of the problems is that when the – and this is one of my own personal gripes – so I am involved with Inky Fingers. And I really love Inky Fingers – band the thing with Inky Fingers is that it’s a great night that new people enjoy, and it’s an important night because of those new people. So we have a few performers now who have disabilities, whose first language isn’t English, or maybe they aren’t performing in English, and we have a few people who are performing in Scots. That’s really incredible – they’re great performers. It’s like – the successful nights are the nights that orientate towards audiences, in the belief that in order to get an audience in you have to be slick, professional, often no paper. And all this draws all the funding, and the ability to organise successful nights away from the nights that provide the first steps.

CA: Funding is something I hadn’t thought about, but yes, actually…

FA: And I mean funding not just in the sense of funding from Creative Scotland, but funding that the audience pay for – if the only we can host a night is by having a raffle that people opt into, so maybe we can pay our feature performer and try to get enough money, and we’re still trying to pay a venue – it’s a very stressful situation! As opposed to being able to have a night that you can get people to pay to come into.

CA: That’s a really interesting point, actually. When you have funding, the pressure is off in many ways, and then you can think, ‘oh, let’s do something experimental with this night!’ because you can afford to.

FA: And then within that we can talk about how axes of privilege can operate in access to money. To me – and I don’t know what your opinion of this is, and I don’t want to – I mean, I know I am able bodied, and male for that matter – but I think that, to me, one of the problems is that we do trumpet this idea that the Scottish poetry scene is diverse – but by virtue of its performers. And one of the problems is that we then don’t examine ‘who are our organisers?’ Because when we have diversity of organisation, that is what leads to diversity full stop. We had a great performer, Taylor Johnson, at Loud Poets – but she was an exchange student from America. And she had this great, important, powerful voice, and is a woman of colour, who was able to be here for six months. And that’s diversity in inverted commas, of performers. But when we examine the organisation of a lot of nights in Scotland, what we have is predominantly white. There’s a reasonable split between men and women, maybe still skewing towards men a little bit – almost entirely able-bodied, and – I can maybe name one night in Scotland that is organised by a person of colour, and that’s Seeds of Thought in Glasgow. And that’s it.

CA: And that’s a bit of a sad state of affairs, really.

FA: But then, at the same time, it’s not enough to just simply turn around and say, ‘go organise a night!’

CA: Yeah – ‘organise your own night!’ No…

FA: Yes, because then we’re nor acknowledging the privilege that we have. Like, people who organise Soapbox can tap into that University space. And the people who organise Loud Poets can tap into that – Loud Poet space! You can’t just create that out of nothing.

CA: And we’ve talked about Shore Poets, and how Shore Poets is a very established committee, with very established names – Christine de Luca is on the committee, I mean – she’s the Makar! And again, that kind of thing comes with [inaudible] – it means Shore Poets can do things that a brand new person who doesn’t have a name like that on their committee can’t do. There’s certainly a power differential there which is really interesting. I hadn’t really thought about organisers, but that is a really good point.

And, I mean, I think we’re getting to the issue that I really want to talk about now, which is the wider scene, because – as you say, we are both able-bodied people, we have privilege, we both move with relative ease through the poetry scene, I think – and so I am aware that we’re not the ideal people to be discussing this. But I did have a chat with a couple of poets and promoters whose experiences are more aligned with this stuff. So, Markie Burnhope is a trans woman and also disabled, and she said that generally, there is not enough accommodation for, in particular, her disability within the poetry scene – I think what she said was that if your nights need to appear a certain way, like, impose a time limit, or be in a venue that’s really fancy but is inaccessible – she was saying, if you place this above her comfort and well being as a performer, then there’s a problem there.

FA: Absolutely.

CA: And Sandra Alland kind of expanded on that and said that the no paper thing is really irrelevant, and even – all this stuff, it’s all irrelevant, because changes are the event, whatever event, is in a venue that she can’t physically get into anyway, as a disabled person. And she said, you know, before you even get to the stage, and the rules that are imposed on performers on stage, there are already a bunch of hurdles that the performer might not have been able to get over. So that raises a question about the wider scene, and whether we are having conversations about how do we just start to encourage performers like Sandra and Markie, other disabled folk, trans women, trans men…

FA: I absolutely agree. One of the things that I’d like to address is that – it would be naive of me to say that ‘we’ll make our nights accessible, you can read off paper.’ That’s almost like the most superficial thing you can say! That’s not to say that it won’t help some poets, but I think it’s a very serious issue. Many venues in Edinburgh that are used by live poetry nights aren’t mobility accessible, that’s a fact. And that’s a real problem, because then we have to look at – Edinburgh doesn’t have many venues for live poetry nights. Should we as organisers be looking harder for those venues? Because it shouldn’t simply a case of what’s the cheapest venue that you can find!

CA: That’s often the priority, isn’t it? And that’s again where funding is power.

FA: And also you need to think about it from different angles. If you’re thinking, ‘we can invite trans folk,’ is the venue accessible to them? If we have poets – or people who are not organisers – introducing other performers by name, can we be absolutely sure that they’re going to introduce them in a way that isn’t demeaning or insulting? This is all maybe something that we don’t currently address.

CA: I think what you’re pointing out very eloquently is that in order to make an event fully accessible, you have to take into account so many variables – and I think a lot of promoters just don’t have the capacity to do that. And I think that comes back to funding. It’s really interesting, I didn’t think we were going to talk about funding this much, but actually – I mean, I’m thinking about a night that I went to just recently, which was an anti-austerity event at Kinning Park in Glasgow. It was organised by these great women Heather McLean and Ealasaid Munro, and actually Sandra Alland was performing there with her band, the They They Theys, Harry Giles was performing – and there was this huge list of all the ways that they had tried to make things accessible. So Kinning Park is a mobility accessible venue, it has unisex bathrooms, they had organised BSL intepretation, organised people to guide folk coming in in wheelchairs to an accessible seat with space around it, all that – they had obviously done so much work to be able to do that. And you kind of think, if you didn’t have funding and resources, how would you do even one of things? I mean, I can’t think of one venue in Edinburgh that offers all those things in one place, so how do you do that?

FA: Maybe, off the top of my head, some of the University of Edinburgh spaces might do all that, but then that’s a whole other kettle of fish because often, the University live literature spaces specifically aren’t mobility accessible.

CA: So then there’s the issue of – should we be starting our own venues, or petitioning for more venues? Should we be raising money to build a venue from scratch? Not necessarily from bricks and mortar, but to create an ideal space?

FA: I know this is something that Harry Giles and Kat McMahon are thinking about.

CA: This is the Workers’ Theatre.

FA: Yes. Because to have ownership over your own space means that you’re able to make decisions that you can’t make as a renter, going in. Those are decisions that relate to using the space, to begin with, for money – being able to charge a fee or not – but also in order to provide accessibility in any way you want. And that – I think it’s – I know that a lot of nights in Edinburgh do make very serious decisions regarding ensuring that their nights have performers with a range of voices. People will turn down applications to open mics, because they’ll say, okay, we’ve got too many performers coming from this perspective, we need some more from this perspective, let’s advertise for that. And that’s brilliant, that’s really good work. But I think when we reduce diversity in our scene to the question of…

CA: Of ‘have we got a black woman on the bill?’

FA: Yeah – or have we got fifty-fifty white, cis men and white, cis women. That’s diversity…

CA: By numbers.

FA: By numbers! Yeah.

CA: We keep coming back to funding, and the fact that funding gives you the power to do things like making a night more experimental – so what is the place of the funder? Is a question maybe, are funders not prioritising attempts to make things more accessible?

FA: No. Funders look at how successful a night is. And success for funders is how many numbers do you have through the door, how much money are you raising? A small night that is organised with BSL interpretation, for example, for a small audience for whom no other night will provide – that’s never going to be as “successful” as a slam night that has twice the capacity of people. And that’s a really sad situation. I think one of the things that I’ve – that’s become one of my personal gripes – is that when we as organisers look for funding from the same places. When we do that, we start creating nights that all do the same things. We’re not looking for funders who specifically ask this of us. We should be being challenged by our funders to provide this – and our audience. We should be in a position where our audience is asking this of us. As organisers we have a responsibility to go to other nights, and – gently – help people to recognise that there are ways to do more.

CA: It’s really interesting that you say we should have audiences that ask that of us – I’m kind of sitting here thinking, this is a really interesting conversation, we’re basically brainstorming ideas and coming up with ideas about venues, thinking about funders – and to me, these all sound like great ideas. But I’m also aware that I am not a member of any of the groups that are not currently adequately represented. So what I’m thinking is, actually, really this brainstorming has to be expanded to include disabled poets, trans poets, poets of colour, so they can say things to us like, ‘oh actually, that’s not my priority at all, my priority is this.’

But I’m really interested in this idea of success that you’ve hit on – that funders see the key to success as how many people came through the door. And there’s this whole idea about legacy as well, and to me legacy is an often misued word Is the legacy of my night that a Deaf poet got their first opportunity to perform, therefore went on to xyz exciting things? Whereas actually legacy is often too much like, ‘my night is able to keep going because we raised x amount of money last time.’ So there are these two words, success and legacy – and I wonder, do we need to change what success looks like, what legacy looks like. And we can’t do that – that needs to be funders. And that raises the question: are funding bodies diverse? Do funding bodies do enough? And then we get into a whole other conversation!

FA: Yeah, and I think we can then almost bring this back to what our first conversation was, about how we present our nights. How we try to introduce people to poetry.

CA: So I suppose basically, the nights that we’ve started out by talking about – and maybe all the Edinburgh nights – all they’re trying to do is, do what they can to set themselves apart and welcome as many people as they can. You know I certainly don’t think there are nights where people are going, ‘no we don’t really want this whole diversity thing’ – you know I think everyone cares about it, they’re just limited in what they do, or can do, about it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do more.

FA: I also think that a really serious consideration is that we have these – I don’t know what the term is, but these nights that continue on beyond just one event.

CA: Yeah, I know the ones you mean!

FA: When we think about legacy for these nights, and we are passing on the mantle of these nights to other people – how are we doing this? Are we passing it among our friends? Who are our friends? Are they people who are in the same place in the scene? Are we looking to create difference, or are we looking to create something that’s the same? How do we want to be seen as being successful? One of the real challenges for me – like, one of the things I really want to advertise is, I think there’s a real problem with lack of persons of colour in the scene, because the problem is, I know those poets are out there. I’ve heard those poets before, I’ve seen those poets before.

CA: And why don’t they get booked as much as other poets?

FA: Right, why don’t they get booked, when they’re great? Why is their voice being used as ‘the token diverse voice’? Why aren’t they being given the agency to have more ownership over nights where they appear? And that’s, I think, a very serious question. I really question, when I see another person in poetry setting up a night, who is male, white, able bodied – and they’re booking people who are male, white, able-bodied – it’s like, I can name ten other nights that do that!

CA: So it’s like, why do we need you?!

FA: Yeah, why do we need you! What’s different about you? Is it just an ego thing for you where you want to have your own night, or are you contributing something new to our scene?

CA: Maybe that’s the note to end this on, that’s quite a powerful question. What are we all contributing? How can we each contribute more? We probably all could, right?

FA: Right.

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That’s where we stopped the tape, but this is a conversation that needs to continue. As you read above, we’re particularly keen for it to continue in a way that doesn’t just include, but actively prioritises the voices of poets of colour, disabled poets and LGBTQIA+ poets. Please do tell us what you think, discuss among yourselves, and take the discussion out to your networks and peers and friends.

On a personal note, I’d just like to thank Freddie for expanding my viewpoint and for correcting my knee-jerk reaction. I am now much more open to ideas like the ‘no paper’ rule, though I still think that meaningful intent and context is everything! Thanks Freddie, for being patient and thoughtful as always.

You can keep up with Freddie’s work at his Twitter, and make sure you also support Inky Fingers, the night he helps to run!

Thanks for reading.

How Many Wrongs Make A Mr Right? Debut novelist Stella Hervey Birrell on rejection, writing, and men jumping up and down in nightclubs…

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

Hello friends! Remember me? I am indeed still alive, though my blog hardly shows it. Thankfully, I am lucky enough to know the brilliant Stella Hervey Birrell, and even luckier enough to be able to host one of the stops of her blog tour… so I am, rustily, back to blogging! (Thanks, Stella.) Stella’s debut novel is described as “chick lit with grit,” a slogan so great I wish I came up with it — and it’s called How Many Wrong Make A Mr Right? I managed to corner Stella for a small interview… you’re going to enjoy what she has to say, so grab a cuppa and get settled!

1.  I’m always interested to hear about how people started out writing.  I know that you’re also a singer-songwriter, and wonder — did that come first, then story-writing, or the other way around?  Or do you see them as being wholly unconnected?

Not wholly unconnected, no. I had to think really hard about this question: which did come first? It was terribly earnest poetry, really, as a child and then an angsty teenager. Songs have been part of the deal as an adult for a long time, and my husband normally writes the tunes, so it’s something we do together.
But when I gave up work, it wasn’t to write songs, it was so that I could write a commercial, full length novel. Songs are mostly written as gifts, or for my band, The Domestics, which isn’t a full time job.
I’d love to think that writing lyrics informs my prose, but actually I think they’re pretty different. Although it’s probably best that I don’t write in rhyming couplets!

Sam Burns Yard Domestics Pic
‘And now I will read you my full-length novel…’ Stella with her band, The Domestics. Picture by Caroline Pearson.

2.  Kind of related to that first question: what do you think, say, your sixteen-year-old self would make of the fact that you’ve published a novel? 

Oh my goodness she’d be delighted! She was so pretentious though, she’d have been super snooty about the fact that I don’t have a traditional, paper based publishing deal, or an agent.
She’d probably be more surprised that I’m a generally happy, settled person though, neither of us thought that would ever happen…

Correct cover!
Available on UK Amazon, US Amazon, Kobo, Nook and iBooks. (sorry, 16 year old Stella)

3.  What do you see as the major themes of your work?  What questions are you interested in exploring?  Not necessarily just in your novel, but in your writing in general, I mean.  I’m always nosy about the things folk want to drive at with their writing.

At root, I write for women. In my first book, the strongest theme is probably ‘loving yourself first.’
I’m also interested in writing about the female orgasm, in an educational way though – I don’t write erotica.
In other work, women’s empowerment, women’s support networks (good, bad and non-existent), and the whole parenting lark: things I’m experiencing now. For example, my youngest son started school last year, and the piece that came out of the devastation I felt was accepted by the Ropes Journal. Nothing is wasted, as they say.

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Melissa, How Many Wrongs Make a Mr Right?

4.  I know (*eyebrow-wiggle*) that you’re a member of at least one writer’s group.  Can you talk about the ways in which being part of writing community helps or influences your writing?  

When I started writing ‘seriously,’ my cousin advised me to join a writers group. I’m so glad she did. Being part of Tyne & Esk Writers means I have a place to read works in progress, the impetus to improve as a writer, a community of writers that I now consider friends, access to a ‘proper’ published author and mentoring from her, a beta-reader who surpasses all other beta-readers, the opportunity to read and comment on other people’s work, and somewhere I go every second Wednesday where I know I’ll have a laugh.

5.  If time, money, and lifestyle circumstances were not a factor, what would your writing career look like in 10 years’ time?

In ten years’ time I’d like a readership, not made up of my close family and friends, and a good few novels under my belt. Like about a million other people!

6.  I have to do it: what advice can you give to other writers?  What have you learned that you wished you knew before you started?

Oooh, advice. Er, no idea. Actually, there have been a few things I didn’t do, because I didn’t think to use Google. For example, I didn’t write a one-line pitch for my debut novel, and at first I didn’t write a good cover email either.
Having short works placed in journals really helps, as you have something to write about in said cover letter. All this advice is online, I wish I’d done my research before going out to agents and publishers! Or read ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. Especially as one agent emailed me the other day saying she doesn’t accept a second pass, once you’ve been rejected, she’s not interested in looking at future works.

Rejection email table
This is part of the deal folks. I love the smell of rejection on a Monday morning…

7.  I guess we should devote at least one question to your novel…!  What’s your favourite moment in the novel?  And was that moment the most fun part to write?

I really like the scene where the ‘gang’ all go dancing. I’m too old for clubbing now, but I used to go out a lot. It was fun, trying to get across the whole club atmosphere: how you lose all your friends but you don’t care, how obvious it is when a guy wants to snog you on the dancefloor, how, when a particular type of song comes on, all the men jump up and down a lot…

8.  Finally… what’s next for your writing?  Do you have a new novel in progress, or is there something else on the cards for you?

I have a work in progress (The Perfects) which is with my aforementioned beta-reader that surpasses all beta-readers. I am really excited about this second novel, and can’t wait to share it with other people. And I’ve got a sketchy plan for a third too (Having it All). My sisters are slightly nervous about it, because my main characters are two sisters. I’m still submitting short works as and when I can, and blogging twice-weekly.
For me, it’s about keeping going. Helen Fielding said ‘there’s always someone trying to tell you you’re not really a writer,’ and for a long time that person was myself. But with the support of my writing community and the validation of a publishing deal, I’m very nearly convinced.

17.11.2015. Stella Hervey Birrell.
Trying to act normal while getting your photograph taken, there’s another lifeskill I could do with learning… (Photo: Gordon Bell)

Stella says: “please come and say ‘hi’ in one or more of these places!
My blog space is
https://atinylife140.wordpress.com/
Twitter is @atinylife140
I have a page on Facebook here.
Email me at atinylife140@gmail.com.
I can also be found wandering the streets of various East Lothian villages.”

Thanks, Stella!

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I wrote a book of poems! It’s called This changes things, and you can order it here!

You can now get more content from me — and help me pay the bills! — by supporting my Patreon. Get a monthly writing support pack for just $5 a month! It’s like buying me a pint.
You can also support me by checking out the many sweet and sparkly things at Edinburgh Vintage, my Etsy-based store for jewellery and small antiques.
If you just want to say hi, you can find me on Twitter, or email me via claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. You’ll get a fairly good sense of the kind of person I am by checking out my Tumblr.

Making a manuscript: seasonal affective poetics

Sunday, November 1st, 2015

This post is the fifth (and maybe last?) of a series I’m writing about the creation of my second poetry collection (the second post is here, the third is here, and the fourth is here). I am grateful to Creative Scotland for financial assistance from their Open Project Fund, which is allowing me to create this manuscript.

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A photo from my summer holiday to Cornwall earlier this year… feels like a long time ago, now!

I love autumn… but every year when it gets to this time of year, I feel myself starting to hunker down for winter. An Edinburgh winter is hard to thole (I know — Shetlanders are rolling their eyes at me right now!), and although every year I try to start out with optimism, by February I’m desperate for an end to the darkness and sideways precipitation. Writing this poetry collection, I’ve realised how much I am — and by extension, my poetry is — influenced by the seasons. In fact, I think this might be something I’ve learned from poetry — to try and pay more attention to the details of what’s happening in the natural world around me.

During my PhD, which I completed at the end of 2013, I read a lot of Kerry Hardie’s poetry. I mean a lot: I read and re-read and re-read and re-read. I wrote a chapter on Hardie’s work that was eventually cut from my thesis — but I think Hardie ended up being my favourite of all the poets whose writing I analysed and wrote about.

Hardie’s poems are intimately connected to the changing of the seasons. She seems to write most in the autumn and winter — or perhaps she just prefers the poems she writes during those seasons, because there are more of them in her collections. She also writes a lot about being ill, or being ill-at-ease — and in many poems, the seasonal weather is foregrounded and the illness or unease is the subtext underneath it.

I’m realising with this new collection that I’ve pinched that idea — or tapped into it, or emulated it, if you want a kinder version. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but as I come towards the end of this collection-making process, I’m realising: I’ve written a book full of weather. Lots of ominous clouds. But underneath the weather is the unease the weather makes — specifically, the feeling that something’s coming. The way I feel about winter in Scotland, as we get into November. It’s coming. Brace yourself.

It was always my intention to write eco poems in this collection. In fact, I hoped I might write a whole collection of eco poems, and it’s actually turned out to be more of a mixed bag than that. But what I definitely have written is a bunch of poems in which, lurking underneath the (often freak) weather, is the sense that this is just the start. The something that’s coming in these poems is climate change, and coming it is.

Here, have some poems. They won’t help, but have them anyway.

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

Making a manuscript: changing the record

Monday, August 31st, 2015

This post is the fourth of a series I’m writing about the creation of my second poetry collection (the second post is here and the third is here). I am grateful to Creative Scotland for financial assistance from their Open Project Fund, which is allowing me to create this manuscript.

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So, I mentioned two posts ago that I was, for a while, struggling to write about anything other than my grandfather’s death earlier this year. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: clearly the poems I wrote in the spring just needed to be written, and written right then. But after a while, I got the feeling that I was essentially just writing the same poem-story over and over again in different ways. I realised that a lot of what I was doing was poetry-as-therapy… which has its place, but not when you’re facing the challenge of writing a whole poetry collection manuscript in a year.

I realised I needed a change of scene.

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I don’t have loads of cash, but I wanted to find somewhere I could go that would definitely give me plenty of inspiration to write poems, and which might also, just maybe, be sunny and warm.

Cornwall, it turned out, was the place.

There were plenty of inspiring landscapes…

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…but perhaps more importantly, there were lots of weird little quirks and oddments, the kind of things I generally like to insert into poems. I mean, what sorts of stories lurk behind these places and things?

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Perhaps best of all: Cornwall is witch country. I have begun to get very interested in folktales about witches — since my visit to see Long Meg, I think — and even more interested in the real-life (miserably terrible) stories of women who were accused of witchcraft. Boscastle, which is just a few miles away from where we were staying, is home to the UK’s only witchcraft museum… AND it has a bookshop. Needless to say, I was in my element.

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Happily, it seems my change of scene worked. While I was away, I wrote a good few poems, some of which I’m happy with. They’re about things like the surfers I witnessed, joyfully running towards the beach as a storm came in, while everyone else ran for cover; about things like that weird feeling you get when you’re staying in someone else’s house — freedom and isolation and out-of-place-ness all at once. I’m also planning a fair few poems about interesting women who were once accused of being witches. Watch this space.

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

UPDATED! Where is Claire? Readings and events for Spring 2015!

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

I’m going to be reading words at people from stages across Edinburgh and Glasgow this Spring! Come and find me…

Inky Fingers Open Mic Night: April
Tuesday 7th April, 8pm, Forest Cafe (Edinburgh)
Inky Fingers say:

We want to hear from YOU. We want your poems, your rants, your ballads, your short stories, your diaries, your experimental texts, your heart, your mind, your body. We want the essay on your summer holidays you wrote when you were four, your adolescent haiku, and extracts from your eventually-to-be-completed epic fantasy quadrilogy. We want to hear your best new work as well. And we want people to care about the way words are performed.

Aaaaand you’ll get to read with me, ’cause I’m the booked headliner person for the night!

Best Scottish Poems launch, Aye Write! 2015
Sunday 19th April, 7pm, Mitchell Library (Glasgow)
So as you’ll know if you follow my Twitter, I was PRETTY DARNED HAPPY to have my poem Bad Moon selected for the SPL’s Best Scottish Poems anthology (this is the third time I’ve been picked! 2008 and 2009 too, baby!). I’ll be reading that poem at this event, alongside some brilliant other folks including JL Williams and Richie McCaffery.

Shore Poets: APRIL (the open mic night!)
Sunday 26th April, 7.15pm, Henderson’s at St John’s (Edinburgh)
Every year Shore Poets hosts an open mic night in April — this one is already full, I’m afraid, as we had people signing up as early as September last year! However, I’ve seen the list of performers and can tell you, you’re in for a treat. I’ll be the Shore Poet on the night, which means I’ll also be reading a set!

Illicit Ink: The SEX Show!
Sunday 3rd May, 8pm, The Bongo Club (Edinburgh)
OMG CN LESTER IS PART OF THIS! Is that not all you need to know? In case you need more (wtf), there’ll also be readings from the holy trinity of hip young everywhere-at-the-moment Glasgow writers Alan Bissett, Kirsten Innes and Kirsty Logan. I’ll be reading ranty feminist poems about things like witchcraft, burying bodies and setting things on fire. Yay? Here’s Illicit Ink’s website, and here’s the Facebook event in which I am billed last because I am OBVIOUSLY the least interesting performer.

Hot Tub Astronaut: Launch!
Thursday 7th May, 7pm, Sneaky Pete’s (Edinburgh)
Hot Tub Astronaut say: “Please come to help us launch the beginnings of Hot Tub Astronaut and its project to foster a creative community and to facilitate all kinds of innovative making. Hot Tub Astronaut publishes contemporary words, images, sounds.” They do indeed! In December, they published one of my poems as their first ever creative output (woo!) and they’ve since published many a fine writer on their e-zine. Now, they want to spread the word to more folks and a launch is the way they’re doing it! Not all the acts are announced yet, but I know you’ll be able to come and hear me and the Great Colin McGuire for sure. Entry is a bargainous £2 and you can buy your ticket on the door, or here at Eventbrite.

My appearances at these events were in part made possible by Creative Scotland’s Open Project Fund, who have allocated a small grant to allow me to develop my work during the period January 2015 to February 2016. Thank you, Creative Scotland!

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

Making a manuscript: writing through loss

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

My gampy <3
Gampy, with my gran, a few years before I was born.

This post is the second of a series I’m writing about the creation of my second poetry collection. I am grateful to Creative Scotland for financial assistance from their Open Project Fund, which is allowing me to create this manuscript.

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Two months ago, my grandfather died.

He’d been in twenty-four-seven nursing care for over twelve years, following a devastating stroke that left him paralysed down one side. Gampy, as we grandkids called him, was bed-bound for most of those twelve years. He couldn’t do most basic things. Perhaps most crucially, the stroke rendered him unable to talk.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been figuring out how I feel about what happened to Gampy (not just his death, but those twelve-plus years, too) by writing poems. Normally, I need time — sometimes a long time, like six months to a year — for ideas to percolate before I can write about a real-life happening. This is different. The death of this most beloved person has taken everything away with it, and this is all I can write about for now.

This was obviously not something I planned.

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How to navigate through the terrain of grief? It appears, as the poems emerge, that I am doing it in much the same way as I navigate the other landscapes of my poems. I’m picking up objects and having a good look at them. I’m pointing out the weird little details that seem to litter this place. I’m trying to figure out what they mean — or what I can try to make them mean.

Like: arriving at the crematorium, we were encountered with a massive skip. Not even a skip, bigger than that — like a shipping container with no roof. It was right in the middle of the crem car park, and it was filled to the top with flowers. Some of them were barely wilted. We were early, so we had to stand outside, and at some point I realised that the flowers in the skip were the flowers people had agonised over just a day or two before. Our flowers had also been picked out under the weight of grief and strain. Our flowers felt important and symbolic. Yet in a day or two they’d be on top of that skip.

Other things from the crem: there were dogwalkers in the grounds. I’d never thought of the crematorium gardens as being the sort of place where people might walk dogs. I liked that they were there, though — my Gampy loved dogs.

The altar in the crem had a plastic cross. We’re not talking subtle, here, either. It looked like it came from a joke shop.

The tiles in the ladies loo in the crem lobby were a vivid pink, like the colour of a headache. Lined up on the windowsill were about thirty miniature cacti, all different shapes. This bathroom looked like something off the set of A Clockwork Orange.

For a while afterwards I was haunted by how small the coffin looked.

My Gampy worked as a Spitfire mechanic during his National Service. He rescued and did up beat-up old Aston Martins, and raced them in hill-climbs. He once raced his Aston against a young Jackie Stewart on a track day he went to. He built things. He made things go. He could make a good fire. He was a competitive swimmer. He loved cars. He loved all creatures. I never heard him raise his voice.

I can’t imagine twelve years of silence. Or twelve years of almost total physical stillness.

A lot of the poems are about that.

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Making a manuscript: what do I want to do differently?

Saturday, January 31st, 2015

What I Did On My [Christmas] Holidays

OK, so big news: Creative Scotland have generously offered me a small grant from their Open Project Fund to allow me to work on a second poetry collection.

I know what you’re thinking. Second poetry collection? Where’s the first poetry collection?! The answer is, it’s coming — not for another year, at least, but it is coming. It’ll be published by Bloodaxe Books in early 2016, and its title is This changes things.

This changes things took the best part of ten years to write. The oldest poem in it dates from around 2006. A few of the poems in it were written during my MSc in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Edinburgh, from which I graduated in 2009. A good chunk of them were written during my PhD, which I started in 2009 and completed in late 2013. Then there are a few that were written after then… and I’m still tinkering. In short, it’s been a long, slow road, and for a lot of it, I didn’t even realise I was writing a collection of poems at all. I thought I was just writing a poem, and then another poem, and so on.

So what would I like to do differently, with the making of this second manuscript?

Well, firstly: I’ve pitched this as a year-long project to Creative Scotland, so the manuscript needs to be completed in a year. Given how long the last one took, that’s going to be a big challenge, and I am a little scared of it. But I don’t think it’s unrealistic. I think it can be done. And I am relishing the chance — I definitely do not want my second book to take another ten years. My plan is to write as many poems as I can between now and May-ish. I want to just bang them out and not worry too much about quality. Once I have a good batch of them, I am start editing them and shaping them into something that might actually be decent. This is so not the way I usually work (I am terrible for editing as I go along, making draft after draft after draft longhand in my notebook before anything gets typed), and I am looking forward to getting out of my comfort zone and forcing myself to be OK with rough drafts.

Secondly, I want this second book to be more of a coherent thing. Because many of the poems in This changes things were written with no thought in my head that they might ever be in a book, I did very little to tie them together with unifying themes, or to get them to “speak to each other” in any way. I’ve been lucky, in that as I underwent the extremely painful process of putting together the MS that eventually became This changes things, themes did begin to emerge. (I am forever grateful to the brilliant Sarah Ream — who was my mentor for a year after I won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2012 — for sitting me down and pointing out that all of my poems are, in some way, about place and space. I’d literally never noticed.) But this time I’d like to be able to think about the themes first, and write poems that speak to them… rather than writing the poems and then trying to decode possible themes from them afterwards.

Thirdly, I want to be a bit more overtly political in this new book than I was in This changes things. I mean, This changes things is not an unpolitical book — its first half is made up of confessional pieces that very much “make the personal political,” for example. But I think, now I look back at them, that the poems are written in a way that means you have to want to see that in them. It’s perfectly possible that someone could read the whole book and not identify it as feminist at all, if they weren’t clued up to intersectional stuff (which, fair enough, a lot of folk aren’t!). So I want to write something that’s more obviously sending a message. I’m starting to get really interested in eco poems and ecopoetics — I wrote a whole chapter on Kerry Hardie’s ecopoetics for my thesis that I didn’t end up using, and I’ve been reading about the brilliant Norman Nicholson, who began writing eco poems back in the 1940s, way before Silent Spring. So I think you can expect some poems about climate change, about my fear that there’s basically a climate apocalypse coming (cheery!), and perhaps one or two about animal cruelty. Am I selling it to you?!

Finally, I’m just looking forward to being thrown into the process. This is, after all, the Difficult Second Album. The task is not undaunting, but it’s also exciting-looking, from here. Let’s see how I do…

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

What I’m Doing Now. (In case you’re interested!)

Monday, September 1st, 2014

Ginsberg & typewriters

I’m not blogging all that much lately and this is a good excuse. I nicked it from Dorkymum, whose blog is excellent.

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Currently I am: sniffling. I’ve been off work sick twice in the past ten days, which is most embarrassing — firstly with what I thought was a migraine. Turned out it was sinus pain, and now I have full-blown snotball face into the bargain. I’m wrapped up in a cardi drinking tea and avoiding doing anything too taxing.

Reading: I just re-read White Oleander in a single Sunday. I think it was my fifth time reading it. I have never met another book so compelling, even when every word is familiar! Before that I read Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi… a novel that got a lot of hype and lists Andrew Wylie and Toni Morrison in the acknowledgements. I started it with a cynical eyebrow raised, I can tell you, but it really is very good. Takes a while to warm up, but you should read it.
(Of course, I always have some poetry on the go, too. Right now it’s Radial Symmetry by Katherine Larson — which is kinda bland, but with a few sparkly lines here and there.)

Listening to: Magpies. My street seems to be full of them at the moment, their monkey-like rattling. Supposedly if a magpie sings outside your window it means death.

Laughing at: Black Books. My bff Martyna — who was my undergrad housemate a shocking ten whole years ago — has just moved back to the UK from Poland and is crashing with us til she finds a flat. I have been introducing her to all my favourite TV shows (she loved House of Cards but shockingly does not share my undying love of The West Wing) and Black Books is her favourite so far. So funny, even if you’ve seen every episode a million times.

Swooning over: this flat, which Martyna, Lovely Boyfriend and I will be staying in when we head to Barcelona in six weeks’ time! I am very, very excited.

Planning: how I am going to use my extremely generous prize money from the Edwin Morgan Award. Right now I work three jobs — if you count Edinburgh Vintage, which I do — and I’m trying to think of a way I can give one of them up in order to use my time to write more. Not a bad dilemma to have, really!

Eating lots of: takeaway. Having Martyna around is making me feel 19 again, which is a good thing in all ways except I seem to have reverted to my undergrad diet of pasta, or takeaway if I can’t be bothered. Which may explain why I’ve recently got sick. Dear self, please return to adulthood now!

Feeling: conflicted, my usual autumn feeling. Autumn is my favourite season, I absolutely love it — but it is also a time that I use to steel myself for the long Scottish winter, which more often than not depresses the hell out of me.

Discovering: new places in my writing. I’m working on this brand new writing project that I have told only five people about (my parents, my sister, Lovely Boyfriend and Martyna), and I just can’t quite allow myself to tell anyone else what it is just yet. But it is proving to be hard and surprising and very fun. Watch this space.

Looking at: the trees. One of the things that really makes me depressed about winter is how bald the trees are, and for how long. They seem to be in full leaf for such a short period of time! So I am trying to look up as much as I can right now, and enjoy the last of the foliage.

Wearing: a cardigan I knitted myself! My first attempt! I made it way too big, because I didn’t follow a pattern (I’ve inherited my gran’s contrary knitter gene) and apparently I genuinely don’t know what size I am (I always just assume: huge). But it’s very cosy, actually quite neat and a great colour (this is the wool, in Blueberry). Mainly though, I am just proud I managed to make something that isn’t a hoop scarf for once!

Cooking: very little — see my “takeaway” answer earlier!

Wondering: how my garden will look next Spring. I am already excited to see things start growing again, as the growing season seems to be winding down. Eventually I want my front garden (an all-edible herb garden, except for two clematis which I’m training over my ugly porch and my uglier fence) to be really wild and fragrant and tasty.

Trying out: procrastination. This sounds ridiculous, but I am always doing something productive, even if it isn’t the thing I’m supposed to be doing. I procrastinate from writing by cleaning my house or listing new items on Edinburgh Vintage, or I procrastinate from preparing writing sessions for the Inside/Out Project by scribbling poems. Right now I am trying out real, not-getting-anything-done procrastination… drinking tea without my computer next to me, reading a book I’ve read a million times before, even (whisper it) watching TV. It’s actually rather good.

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

Seven pieces of writing advice from the speakers of The Business

Monday, May 26th, 2014

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (1)

Last week, I was extremely flattered to be invited to speak at The Business, an event run by the University of Edinburgh and hosted by their Writer in Residence Jenni Fagan. The event was designed for budding writers who were keen to know more about the ‘business’ side of being a writer. I was asked to speak alongside publishing megastars like Francis Bickmore and Jenny Brown (!!!), and my topic was, essentially “is a Creative Writing PhD right for you?”

I think my talk went OK: the best part about it was definitely making my supervisor, Alan — who was hiding at the back of the room — blush quite a lot as I talked about what a brilliant mentor he’d been. But much better than my barely coherent ramblings were the talks of the other speakers. I hand-picked some useful advice from each of them for your reading pleasure…

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (4)

1. Jenny Brown of Jenny Brown Associates, literary agent:

“Don’t write to trends.”

I’ve seen Jenny Brown speak on many occasions, and she always manages to make her advice to writers fresh and relevant to what’s going on in the book world at that very moment. However, this piece of advice is always in there and I think it’s something a lot of young novelists (in particular) need to hear. “You can never get on top of a trend,” she says, “because by the time you get your novel out there, you’ll have just missed it.” Instead, she advises, you should concentrate on writing a great novel that you love, and that your agent will love. “I don’t pick books based on genre, or based on whether or not I think they will be commercially successful,” Jenny said. “I mean, those things are factors, but at the end of the day if I love your book, that’s the main thing. All the books I’ve picked to represent, I have loved.”

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (6)

2. Chris Hamilton-Emery of Salt, publisher:

“We need more narrative non-fiction.”

Did you know that the market for non-fiction is far larger than the market for fiction? “Fiction is declining,” Chris revealed, and he picked up on a point that Jenny had made about her love of nature writing. “Jenny said she was disappointed not to see more nature books. I agree. I wish more young writers would break into non-fiction earlier.” He said that for every fifty novels that landed on his desk, he’d see only one non-fiction work. (He also mentioned poetry’s market share: less than 1% of the entire book market. But then, we knew that, right?)

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (8)

3. Francis Bickmore of Canongate, publisher:

“The hair shines with brushing.”

Francis gave his own seven rules for writers, all of which were great, but this was by far my favourite. He said it came from a friend of his, another publisher, who’d been listening to one of their writers moaning about how many edits they were needing to do on their novel. “The guy’s response was, ah yes, but the hair shines with brushing. The hair shines with brushing. I think it’s Flaubert or something, and it’s so true.” In other words, edit, edit, polish, edit, polish and then edit some more. Make your writing shine.

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (9)

4. Stuart Kelly of The Guardian and many other places, critic:

“If you’re not interested in writing a novel that changes what the novel is capable of, get out of the business.”

This was probably my favourite piece of advice from the entire event. It’s something I might nick, except I’d replace the word ‘novel’ with ‘poem.’ What Stuart was saying is that the best novels are the ones that really push the boundaries of the form: one of the audience members gave the example of Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad, which happens to be my favourite novel ever, and really does do what Stuart’s talking about. “It’s not enough to just mention Twitter here and there,” Stuart said. “I’m talking about really experimenting with what this form can do.”

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (10)

5. Peggy Hughes, of Dundee Book Festival, promoter:

“Perform your work in public.”

Peggy, aka the most-loved person in Scottish arts administration (no joke, she’s awesome) was in attendance to talk about the role of literary festivals in the writing business. She revealed that she routinely attends poetry readings, open mics and other literary events in order to scout for potential talent to book for her festival. “Go and read at these things,” she said. “You never know when someone like me might be sitting in the audience thinking, I should book this person.”

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6. Kevin Williamson of Neu! Reekie!, promoter:

“Embrace the improbable.”

Kevin’s talk was mostly about his whirlwind experience at the helm of the Creative Scotland-funded cabaret sensation that is Neu! Reekie! He talked about having his face put on a new whisky brand’s label, meeting Richard Hell and somehow managing to get Primal Scream to play at one of his gigs. But it wasn’t just half an hour of how cool Kevin Williamson’s life is: he also talked about how rewarding community work can be for writers, talking a bit about his experiences teaching the poetry of Robert Burns in Scottish prisons. “All the things that have happened to me have been pretty improbable,” he said. “When Neu! Reekie! started we had no idea where it was going to go. So just embrace it, just go with whatever comes to you.”

The Business writing event at Pleasance Cabaret Bar (12)

7. Jenni Fagan of the University of Edinburgh, writer:

“Pace yourself… and get off Facebook.”

Jenni is in the middle of developing her novel The Panopticon (which is good and you should read it, by the way) into a film script, so she fielded a lot of questions from the audience about that side of things. However, she warned that “98% of all films never get made,” and pushed the importance of focussing on the writing first and foremost. “I got off Facebook because I found that I was looking at things like the best way to peel a banana, and then from that I clicked on to a really cute photo of a koala bear… and then before I knew it I’d spent a whole hour and all I’d done was surf a bunch of crap.” She says writers ought to focus on removing anything from their lives “that takes you away from words,” but she also noted the value of pacing yourself, and knowing that everything does not happen at once. “I have this idea for another novel,” she said, “but I am pretty sure I won’t start writing it for maybe another five or ten years. You just have to let things take their course.”

Incidentally, if you have any questions about Creative Writing PhDs, keep an eye out for a post on the topic in the next little while!

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Like shiny things? Check out Edinburgh Vintage, a totally unrelated ’sister site’ full of jewels, treasures and trinkets. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!