Monday, 1 July 2019

Writer's Block

I have been thinking quite a lot about my writing practice over the past few days. I went to see Nick Cave in Nottingham last week - he is doing a Q & A tour - basically the audience asks him questions and he answers them, and in between he plays songs and piano. It was a very powerful performance and he was on stage for a whole three hours. I found the question and answer part of the show really interesting - he said a lot of things about song writing that really resonated with me about the way I approach poetry writing. He talked a lot about the commitment to just turning up at the page - which made me think that maybe I need to have a more defined writing practice when I am at home. I tend to be much more prolific when I am away - probably because I don't have all the distractions of home and at home I don't have a designated writing space - I mostly seem to write sitting on the sofa.

Cave also said that he doesn't believe in writers block - either you are writing or not writing. This is something I totally agree with and have had debates about with friends and students. My observations of writer's block are that they mostly stem from either - being too busy, being emotionally pre-occupied (grief, new love, new baby etc) or from being a self-editor. By self-editor what I mean is when a writer is so hung up on finding the right idea or topic, or by writing something perfect, that they don't write anything at all. One of my students definitely falls into the latter category. I think that this is a case where something like morning pages can help - even if you are simply writing over and over 'I have nothing to write about'. I believe that if you keep doing this something will come eventually - I sometimes write lists of things to do, goals, wish lists, moans, anything really to get the pen moving. Getting all that stuff out of one's head and onto the page makes extra room for creative thinking. I find national poetry writing month helpful in this way too. The goal of the month is to write a poem a day. I usually find it difficult for the first six or seven days - if I can keep going that long then something usually changes or shifts and after that I find that some days I am writing two or three poems. This is what Cave meant about turning up at the page - a self editor often has a (mistaken) belief that every poem they write should be perfect. Why would you put that pressure on yourself? Artists wouldn't dream of starting a big commission without doing some preliminary sketches. In fact if you are not practicing your art (what ever it may be) regularly you get rusty. You need to keep producing to get the good stuff. In national poetry writing month I may write forty or more poems but I am happy if I have two or three that I consider worth pursuing - any more than that is a bonus. My advice if you have writer's block is 'just keep turning up at the page.'

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Threat - New collection published May 30th

"Forensically detailed and disturbing, the dark and sometimes brutal undertow of small town lives seeps to the surface of these unsettling and visceral poems."
If I had to sum what Threat is about in one short sentence, it would probably be - that which makes us human.
Threat has been a long time in the making. Some of the poems were written before my last collection was published. Some of them are much newer. When I started putting the collection together it was tentatively titled Hometown. As it turned out that title had already been taken by the marvellous Carrie Etter - but as the collection evolved it seemed that it was growing beyond its town boundaries and that a different title would be more apt. Threat was the title of a poem in the collection - the poem itself was edited out but the title remained - it just seemed to perfectly fit the themes and concerns of the book. As a collection I am both proud  and a little terrified of it. It feels incredibly exposing - the poems feel personal - and some of them are - though others are not - or rather bits of them are - there is an overlap, always, between lived experience and fantasy - or rather my lived experience and the experiences of other people. Like Sharon Olds I feel I can't claim all the experiences as completely or directly mine.

"Poems like mine - I don't call them confessional, with that tone of admitting to wrong- doing. My poems have done more accusing than admitting. I call work like mine 'apparently personal'. Or in my case apparently very personal." (Sharon Olds, The Guardian, 26th July 2008).

There is some sense of working out or through some difficult stuff  - but equally the narrator is trying to put into words or make some sense of experiences and feelings that might ring true for other people - experience such as human fallibility, loss, familial dysfunction (which we all experience to some degree or another), what it feels like to live in the human body, what it feels like to be an adolescent girl in a small town, ageing etc. I hope the reader is surprised by where the collection takes them - just as I was surprised at where the writing of it took me. It certainly visits some dark places but ultimately swims back up towards the light. There is a playfulness in this collection too - that I feel Bird Sisters perhaps lacked.

The cover art for the book was done by artist and graphic designer Natty Peterkin. I knew I wanted to use an image of Thetford forest as part of the art work but other than that I had to let go of control and let Natty run with it. Natty read the book several times and decided that he wanted to make some kind of painted semi abstract shadow creature part of the image. What he came up with is perfect - is it a man? Is it a beast? Is it a teddy bear? We just don't know.

Threat comes out with Nine Arches Press on May 30th and is available for pre-order now.

Julia will be launching the collection at Cafe Writers in Norwich on June 10th with Helen Ivory and at The Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden on July 19th with Jessica Mookherjee.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Books Read in 2019 - a record

  • 156) The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh (fiction)
  • 155) Bright Dead Things by Ada Limon (poetry)
  • 154) The Ward by Louisa Campbell (poetry)
  • 153) The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas (fiction)
  • 152) Mixed-Race Superman by Will Harris (non fiction)
  • 151) Fortune Cookie by Jenna Clarke (poetry)
  • 150) Meat Songs by Jack Nicholls, Mark Andrew Webber (Illustrator) (poetry)
  • 149) I CAN’T WAIT FOR THE WENDING by Wayne Holloway-Smith (poetry)
  • 148) The Weather in Normal by Carrie Etter (poetry)
  • 147) Disko Bay by Nancy Campbell (poetry)
  • 146) The End of Everything by Megan Abbott (fiction)
  • 145) Translating Mountains by Yvonne Reddick (poetry)
  • 144) The Distal Point by Fiona Moore (poetry)
  • 143) All the Naked Daughters by Anna Kisby (poetry)
  • 142) As Slow As Possible by Kit Fan (poetry)
  • 141) The Illegal Age by Ellen Hinsey (poetry)
  • 140) Solo for Mascha Voice/Tenuous Rooms by Jack Underwood (poetry)
  • 139) Jinx by Abigail Parry (poetry)
  • 138) The End of the West by Michael Dickman (poetry)
  • 137) Holloway by Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood (Illustrations), Dan Richards (non fiction)
  • 136) The Shepherd's Hut by Tim Winton (fiction)
  • 135) Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting by Shivanee Ramlochan (poetry)
  • 134) Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett (fiction)
  • 133) Nowhere Nearer by Alice Miller (poetry)
  • 132) Explosives Licence by Jonathan Totman (poetry)
  • 131) Get the Guy by L.A. Rich (non fiction)
  • 130) Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon (non fiction)
  • 129) Drinking: Vintage Minis by John Cheever (fiction, short stories)
  • 128) The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (fiction)
  • 127) What Are You After? by Josephine Corcoran (poetry)
  • 126) MFA in a Box: A Why to Write Book by John Rember (non fiction)
  • 125) Demi-Gods by Eliza Robertson (fiction)
  • 124) Familiars by Linda Rose Parkes (poetry)
  • 123) The Becoming of Lady Flambe by Holly Magill (poetry)
  • 122) Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (fiction)
  • 121) My Converted Father by Sarah Law (poetry)
  • 120) Faber New Poets 12 by Declan Ryan (poetry)
  • 119) Death in Midsummer and Other Stories by Yukio Mishima (fiction, short stories)
  • 118) Rapture (New Irish Voices #1) by Roisin Kelly (poetry)
  • 117) Faber New Poets 15 by Sam Buchan-Watts (poetry)
  • 116) playtime by Andrew McMillan (poetry)
  • 115) The Republic of Motherhood by Liz Berry (poetry)
  • 114) Kiss In The Hotel Joseph Conrad And Other Stories by Howard Norman (fiction, short stories)
  • 113) Who Seemed Alive & Altogether Real by Padraig Regan (poetry)
  • 112) Human Wishes by Robert Hass (poetry)
  • 111) Blackbird, Bye Bye by Moniza Alvi (poetry)
  • 110) Depths by Henning Mankell (fiction)
  • 109) The Theatre of Confection by pauline suett barbieri (poetry)
  • 108) The White Road and Other Stories by Tania Hershman (fiction, short stories)
  • 107) A Bag of Hands by Mather Schneider (poetry)
  • 106) Noose and Hook by Lynn Emanuel (poetry)
  • 105) In Her Shambles by Elizabeth Parker (poetry)
  • 104) Black Bicycle by Lesley Quayle (poetry)
  • 103) After Eden by Stella Wulf (poetry)
  • 102) Good Stock Strange Blood by Dawn Lundy Martin (poetry)
  • 101) When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Díaz (poetry)
  • 100) Moon Over Melbourne and Other Poems by Yu Ouyang (poetry)
  • 99) Dirty Laundry by Deborah Alma (poetry)
  • 98) The Bitters by Susie Campbell (poetry)
  • 97) he True Keeps Calm Biding Its Story by Rusty Morrison (poetry)
  • 96) No Art: Poems by Ben Lerner (poetry)
  • 95) A Bargain with the Light by Jacqueline Saphra (poetry)
  • 94) A Hurry of English by Mary Jean Chan (poetry)
  • 93) stack by James Davies (poetry)
  • 92) Suffolk Bang by Adam Warne (poetry)
  • 91) Wound by Richard Scott (poetry)
  • 90) Soho by Richard Scott (poetry)
  • 89) Alarum by Wayne Holloway-Smith (poetry)
  • 88) small white monkeys by Sophie Collins (non fiction)
  • 87) A Watchful Astronomy by Paul Deaton (poetry)
  • 86) A Knowable World by Sarah Wardle (poetry)
  • 85) Big Bones by Laura Dockrill (fiction)
  • 84) Fox Unkennelled by Myfanwy Fox (poetry)
  • 83) Mayakovsky's Revolver by Matthew Dickman (poetry)
  • 82) Self-Portrait with the Happiness by David Tait (poetry)
  • 81) Dying Notes by Reuben Woolley (poetry)
  • 80) Fields Away by Sarah Wardle (poetry)
  • 79) The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (poetry)
  • 78) The Wound Register by Esther Morgan (poetry)
  • 77) Cumshot in D Minor by Melissa Lee-Houghton (poetry)
  • 76) Primers Volume 3 edited by Jane Commane (poetry)
  • 75) Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan (poetry)
  • 74) Fourth Person Singular by Nuar Alsadir (poetry)
  • 73) Inside the Wave by Helen Dunmore (poetry)
  • 72) Weemoed by Tim Dooley (poetry)
  • 71) We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (non fiction)
  • 70) A Question of Blood by Ian Rankin (fiction)
  • 69) Orpheus in the Park: Poems by Rose Solari (poetry)
  • 68) A Communion Of Breath by Derek Harper (poetry)
  • 67) Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (poetry)
  • 66) The Casual Perfect by Lavinia Greenlaw (poetry, re-read)
  • 65) The days that Followed Paris by Paul Stephenson (poetry)
  • 64) Somewhere Between Rose and Black by Claire Walker (poetry)
  • 63) Asylum by Sean Borodale (poetry)
  • 62) All My Mad Mothers by Jacqueline Saphra (poetry, re-read)
  • 61) House by Myra Connell (poetry, re-read)
  • 60) Shrines of Upper Austria by Phoebe Power (poetry)
  • 59) I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast by Melissa Studdard (poetry)
  • 58) Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar (poetry)
  • 57) Seal Wife by Kitty Coles (poetry)
  • 56) In These Days of Prohibition by Caroline Bird (poetry)
  • 55) So Glad I'm Me by Roddy Lumsden (poetry)
  • 54) British Museum by Daljit Nagra (poetry)
  • 53) The Forward Book of Poetry 2018 by Various (poetry)
  • 52) God Loves You by Kathryn Maris (poetry)
  • 51) The Ice Factory by Philip Gross (poetry)
  • 50) Enough of Green by Anne Stevenson (poetry)
  • 49) Cry Baby by Gareth Writer-Davies (poetry)
  • 48) The Devil's Tatoo by Brett Evans (poetry)
  • 47) Uninvited Guests by Gill Lambert (poetry)
  • 46) The Son by Carrie Etter (poetry)
  • 45) Record and Play by Degna Stone (poetry)
  • 44) Every Salt Advance by Andrew McMillan (poetry)
  • 43) The Moon is a Supporting Player by Andrew McMillan (poetry)
  • 42) The Knowledge Weapon by Annette C. Boehm (poetry)
  • 41) You've never seen a doomsday like it by Kate Garrett (poetry)
  • 40) White is a Color by Rosemarie Waldrop (poetry)
  • 39) Don't Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (poetry)
  • 38) The Hoopoe at the Execution, Villebois by Tom Kelly (poetry)
  • 37) All We Saw by Anne Michaels (poetry)
  • 36) ShallCross by C.D. Wright (poetry)
  • 35) Who Is Mary Sue? by Sophie Collins (poetry)
  • 34) fAt aRouNd tHe MiddLe by Jane Burn (poetry)
  • 33) Eidolon by Sandeep Parmar (poetry)
  • 32) Glass by Elisabeth Sennitt Clough (poetry)
  • 31) How to be a Poet by Jo Bell (non fiction)
  • 30) The Pocket Poetry Book of Anger by Sarah Miles (poetry)
  • 29) Swims by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett (poetry)
  • 28) Natural Phenomena by Meryl Pugh (poetry)
  • 27) Then Suddenly-- by Lynn Emanuel (poetry)
  • 26) Metropoetica by Ingmāra Balode (poetry)
  • 25) Assembly Lines by Jane Commane (poetry)
  • 24) A Slither of Air by Alison Lock (poetry)
  • 23) Flies by Michael Dickman (poetry)
  • 22) There Is an Anger that Moves by Kei Miller (poetry)
  • 21) You are mistaken by Sean Wai Keung (poetry)
  • 20) Incorrect Merciful Impulses by Camille Rankine (poetry)
  • 19) Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli (non fiction)
  • 18) Caldbeck by Jenny Pagdin (poetry)
  • 17) Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (fiction)
  • 16) Speaking in Bones by Kathy Reichs (fiction)
  • 15) Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott (poetry, re-read)
  • 14) Grace by Esther Morgan (poetry, re-read)
  • 13) Standing Female Nude by Carol Ann Duffy (poetry, re-read)
  • 12) BOOM! by Carolyn Jess-Cooke (poetry)
  • 11) Ten: Poets of the New Generation by Karen McCarthy Woolf (poetry)
  • 10) little armoured by Rebecca Perry (poetry)
  • 9) A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf (non fiction)
  • 8) Ticker-Tape by Rishi Dastidar (poetry)
  • 7) Bestiary: Poems by Donika Kelly (poetry)
  • 6) lemon, egg, bread by Laura Elliott (poetry)
  • 5) The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson (non fiction)
  • 4) Joy by Sasha Dugdale
  • 3) Hyem by Robyn Bolam (poetry)
  • 2) LaRose by Louise Erdrich (fiction)
  • 1) Sphinx by Cat Woodward (poetry)

Friday, 16 November 2018

Running with it - back to writing (again)

After a few weeks of barely writing (post hand in slump!) I have been on a writing binge. Partly fuelled by the workshops and readings I went to at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and partly fuelled by a shift in my poetry thinking - something too hard to quantify exactly, but nevertheless I know it has happened. It's true I have been reading a lot and that definitely helps, and not just poetry books, but books concerned with writing - I found Mark Doty's "The Art of Description" particularly inspiring and really readable. Through looking closely at some well known (and not so well known) poems Doty focusses in on the essence of what makes good poems good.

Which brings me to this week when I was lucky enough to attend not one but two really inspiring poetry events. the first was Jacob Polley performing his show "Lamanby" at the National Centre for Writing in Norwich. "Lamanby" is a show featuring poems from Polley's award winning collection Jackself with video, sounds and music and atmospheric lighting, the Medieval Dragon Hall was the perfect setting for it. Polley is a superb performer and I am still thinking about the show almost a week later and have started re-reading the book - which, has, in turn, fed into my writing. The second inspiring performance I attended this week was Jill Abram's Stablemates in London featuring Mark Doty, Andrew McMillan and Fiona Benson. I don't very often book up for events in London as it is such a pain to get there, but Mark Doty rarely comes to Britain so it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I was certainly not disappointed - what an evening. Benson read from her forthcoming collection - the poems were mostly concerned with rape - to be honest I found them quite harrowing and was glad that she went first, though I think the book will be really good. Andrew McMillan is always a joy to hear read and did not disappoint. He read from "Playtime". Mark Doty was amazing - he read a bunch of new poems of his laptop. He was erudite and engaging and I went home with my poetry well brimming over and very pleased I had gone.

I started my latest writing binge in Aldeburgh. I began writing almost the minute I got there - it was like I had been given permission to put on my writing head - and I haven't really stopped since. I have begun several things that might become sequences of sorts. One thing came out of an exercise that I set my Friday class. We had been talking about sequences and what kinds  of topics might be good to write sequences about. We had brainstormed a list and I suggested writing about the thing on your list that you were least attracted to writing about. My subject was writing. I never usually write poems about writing - it's just not my thing - so that was the topic I felt I had to choose. I had bought in some books of sequences - one of which was "Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil" by C.D. Wright. The book is an exploration of writing, part essay, part poetry, part memoir. I picked it up and started flicking through it for inspiration and some phrases in pages I had previously bookmarked leaped out at me. This is how my sequence started - it is part comment on writing process, part fictional narrative and is interspersed with quotes by C.D. Wright. I am interested in juxtaposing the different elements against each other - I am not sure if it works but I found it exciting to write and edit. here is a short extract:

"The bishop had stopped paying attention and was dipping his biscuit into his lukewarm tea.

The poems were roaring along the road outside the overlarge window, they had the shapes of busses and lorries, cars even – but I wasn’t fooled.

‘Some of us do not read or write particularly for pleasure or instruction, but to be changed, healed, changed.’ (C.D. Wright)

When I returned from the bathroom the bishop was scrutinizing my notebook.

Your trouble, he said, is the undercurrents, everything beneath your surface is oily dark."

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Ye Gods

It is September. I am doing the September write a poem a day challenge. I am doing it because since I went to Rugby to meet with my editor and we licked my collection into a final order I have not been writing much, and I miss it. I need to get back to it.

After the initial excitement of finalising when the book is coming out (May since you ask), and the tweaking of the poems - I went into a kind of limbo. I wasn't too worried, I recognise the pattern. At university we called it the post hand in slump. However much you think it won't happen, it does. I see my son go through it every time he comes back from being on tour with his band, and every time they finish an album. I have seen my friends go through it too once they have sent collections off to their publishers.

The second stage after finalising a collection (and I recognise this from last time too) is the oh my god what have I done phase. The phase where you become convinced that your book will upset and offend everyone on the planet. The phase where you start to doubt yourself and your choices - where it is tempting to fiddle and tweak - and mostly at this stage it is best to sit on your hands and not do that (beyond the odd comma) because the book has been accepted and edited after all. It's also best not to burn the manuscript, blow up the computer, or run screaming into the distance - all of which become hugely tempting at this point in the process. It's funny I had been thinking about this when I was walking into the city today and my friend Rose who is preparing for her first art show posted about it on Facebook. She described it as the urge to throw herself out of a window. Yes I get that - I really do. I am hoping writing a poem a day - even if it's just five minutes of writing (which mostly it is). I am on day 13 and so far I have written one thing I like - onwards and upwards.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Collection Update

Over a month since I last blogged and a lot has happened.

Firstly I went away to a little chalet on the Norfolk coast that has no internet and spent several days finally getting the new collection in an order that I was relatively happy with. There is a kind of magic that happens when I am away from home alone, and that coupled with the fact that I was mid way through NaPoWriMo meant that as well as working on the collection order I also wrote a whole new sequence of poems. The new sequence is very different so it won't go in the collection I am currently working on - it may be a pamphlet in its own right, or it may turn out to be the beginnings of another collection - only time will tell. I am quite excited about it though.

I did finish the ordering and then last week I went to Rugby to meet with Jane at Nine Arches HQ. I have to admit I was more than a little nervous in case she didn't like it. Luckily she did! We spent a very intense and productive day going through the collection poem by poem - the upshot was that the order is now pretty fixed. We took thirteen poems out and I need to find or write something to bring together the final section. I am very happy with it. There is still a bit of work to do - but it doesn't feel insurmountable. We settled on "Threat" as the title - which was the title I have liked all along - but we took the poem of the same title out as it is not strong enough to bear the weight of being the title poem. Publication date has been set as end of January 2019. Very exciting.

Monday, 2 April 2018

collection as an entity in its own right - making sense of chaos

The second day of NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) and today marks a long awaited return to thinking about my collection. At the beginning of March I went to see my mentor (Pascale Petit) in Cornwall and I have avoided looking at it since. I had thought it was finished and I had shown it to a friend who also thought it was finished. Pascale, however, didn't agree. She felt that the title was misleading and that I needed to rethink the sections and put a different poem as the opener. She was right of course, it is just uncomfortable to hear and involves a major rethink of order. Since I saw her I have been engaged in a period of busyness, creative procrastination and avoidance, but of course while all that is going on the subconscious mind is worrying away at the problem.

Today I started really thinking about the order in earnest. Pascale was definitely right about the poem she suggested as the opener. I realised that I have  been resistant to putting it first because it feels more scary, as of course it sets the whole tone for the book. Aside from that I am still nowhere near knowing how to reorder the poems. This morning I spent some time looking at some of my favourite collections (All My Mad Mothers, What the Living Do, Falling Awake and Say Something Back) to see how they are ordered. I also re-read Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, which is a book I read when I was working on my first collection. One of the things I realised from reading it again is that maybe I have been too obvious in clumping themed poems together - for example family poems, relationship poems, home town poems etc. I may need to be more fluid in my connections and find other ways that the poems speak to one another. Originally the book was divided into five sections, the titles of which were: Honey Don't Blow Up the Kids; Heart is where the Home Is; Tell Me More Lies About Love; Family and Other Distractions; and Evidence of Body. I may keep a couple of these in some form but I am not sure yet.

To help me think about order I started thinking about what the themes are in a less overt way. This is what I have come up with so far:

body as an entity in its own right

body as a house for the soul or spirit

body as commodity (that which we have become)

grief vs guilt

making sense of the past

making sense of emotion

the physical weight of the past

class and the struggle to know where/how/if one fits in

the family as guardian and destroyer

self vs identity

the curse/blessing of femininity (woman and her relationship to the world)

hometown (where do we come from/where do we really belong?)

Of course some of these overlap one another, but I am hoping it will help me think about how the poems hang together. I have also started writing more bits that may help tie it all together. I had also been waiting to see if a sequence I started in Devon was good enough to go into the collection - it's always wise to get a bit of distance between writing something and deciding if it actually has legs. It is too easy to get overexcited about something fresh and think it is the best thing you have written. I think this sequence is good enough though and including it will change the shape of the whole, which is probably a good thing. The hardest thing will be saying goodbye to a few poems that I am fond of and that have already been published. Never easy but it will make for a better MS in the long run.

My plan now is to work some more on order and fitting the new poems in and then make a date to meet up with Jane at Nine Arches Press, who has brilliant editorial eye.

Read about ordering my first collection here