The right word flutes and perches on my hand...

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire.

Saturday, 11 March 2017


I've been inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert's latest book, Big Magic. As with a lot of writing about creativity, it's not so much what she says as the voice she says it in, that endearing, intimate, enthusiastic voice that many of us have enjoyed from her previous books. 

One thing that really struck me is this:
 "I told the universe (and anyone who would listen) that I was committed to living a creative life not in order to save the world, not as an act of protest, not.....[long and wonderful sentence follows, building up to:]  .....but simply because I liked it."

And she urges:  "So try saying this: 'I enjoy my creativity.' "

Elizabeth Gilbert got me thinking.  As she says, few people speak about creative enjoyment out loud, for fear of not being taken seriously as an artist.  We tend, ok, I tend, to emphasise the difficulty of the creative life. All than pen-gnawing anguish, the myriad drafts destroyed and rewritten, the times of block, the times when you feel no-one will ever read a word of the thing you've been toiling over for so long...all of that.  And yes, it is true. It is hard, quite often. But Elizabeth Gilbert reminds me what I don't remember often enough: I love it, anyway.  I enjoy the challenge, the puzzle, the struggle with that slippery customer, language; I enjoy the desire to make something out of the texture of life, and the attempt to fulfil that desire;  I enjoy the difficulties of making the writing work, even when they are driving me to distraction.  But I so often forget to really inhabit this enjoyment, and own up to it.

Elizabeth Gilbert says she long ago decided to "reject the cult of artistic martyrdom," and to trust that she has been made a writer for a reason. To trust that the work loves her as much as she loves it. She describes, in simple but powerful words I long to quote even unto the breach of every copyright law, how she seeks to be open to inspiration, to believing that inspiration wants to come to her. We all live under delusions, she says, so why not choose a helpful one?

"The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made by you."

I'm currently wrestling, there I go again!  Rather: I'm currently working to discern the shape of my new book, and I feel stuck, and frustrated...oops.  (You can see how much I need to hear Gilbert's message right now).  Yes, the book is being slow to emerge; but I do love the stuff of it, the materials I'm gathering to make it with; I love the feel of it, elusive as it is, and so vague; in the last few days I have crept a smidgen closer to its hidden form, like a photographer trying to approach the animal in hiding; and I am trying to be welcoming to the wisps of creative stimulus I might miss, if I yield to panic about how fast time is passing or about the impossibility of doing what I want to do....I am trying, but I do need these reminders. It's humbling, but true, that I can be helped by words like these, or by Anne Lamott in the classic Bird by Bird, or by Annie Dillard, who in The Writing Life says that every work has an insoluble difficulty, but the writer

"....writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he strengthens other virtues; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air, and it holds. And if it can be done, then he can do it, and only he."  (Or she, of course, like the brilliant Annie Dillard herself).

..."he can do it, and only he."  "The work wants to be made through you."  

However it's said, whoever is saying it, this is the message to live by; but if requires trust, and hope, and faith. And humility—an openness to reminders when they are needed!

New Growth

From February 18th 2017:

No blog posts since just before Christmas....a disgrace in my own eyes, though I doubt anyone else has noticed!

But here we are, in early spring, and the signs are all around now: I'm seeing crocuses, snowdrops, even the bright flowers of the tiny tête-à-tête daffodils I bought in a pot to have indoors last spring. I planted them outside when they had finished blooming, and now they have come back. This small thing pleases me no end; their little flaring trumpets make me rejoice.

Yes, it has been a cold February, but the flowers are so encouraging; they bring hope....
Spring is also in my mind because I have been editing my forthcoming poetry collection Sudden Arabesque. Not only is the cover a wonderful image called "Easter" by artist Ruth End, there are quite a few poems about spring in it, or really about the impossibility of catching the spring, of rendering that delicate insinuation in the air, that hint of coming growth and green....poems trying to say in a fresh way what has been said before. It's the freshness in the expression of it that matters, I believe, and not the newness of the subject: for it's been well said that there is nothing new under the sun.

I find it a fruitful challenge to try to say in a poem why, not just in spring but in every season, the sight of some quite ordinary thing, or of an ordinary thing seen in a new moment or in a different light, can be so moving. Many of my poems are about what I've seen in my normal surroundings, in the small town of my home in the States, or the larger town I'm in now, walking around, looking at parks and gardens and hills and trees. The transformative moments in every-day life....
Even saying that sounds like a cliché! That's the struggle of poetry, the war on cliché (I think Martin Amis has used this title for a book....which illustrates that other writerly worry about inadvertently saying something in exactly the same words as someone else!).  But the struggle of writing, the meaty work of grappling with the language, building with it, playing with it, structuring and restructuring, knitting a sentence and then picking it apart...that's the work I love.

Only those who also do this work understand the joys of it, and the demands; the difficult tight-rope walk between hope and humility; the long slog, and the sudden shafts of light (all too infrequent).  We should support each other, and encourage each other when it seems too hard.
I wondered whether I would ever succeed in writing a whole novel, and not only did I manage it (after, it must be admitted, a ridiculously long time!) but the book found a publisher and won a prize. Many times a poem, like a sudoku puzzle, has seemed insoluble, but then the answer—though sometimes after months—does come.  I hoped that a publisher would want a book of my poems some day, but was never sure; so I am delighted now that Oversteps Books is bringing out Sudden Arabesque. 

These things have happened to me, so they can happen to other writers too. Onward and upward!

I wonder as I Wander

From December 23, 2016:

Last week I heard this lovely Appalachian folk carol sung in Gloucester cathedral, where the extraordinary acoustics made the voices of the St Cecilia's Singers soar and echo and resonate between the vaulted arches...they sang many wonderful works that evening but this simple and poignant piece was one of the most moving.

There is much to wonder about in this world, especially at this time of year when, for those who celebrate Christmas, spiritual attempts to see the past in the present, to transcend time and ponder the meaning of Bethlehem, come up against the crass consumerism all around. Not to mention the ongoing horrors of terrorism and war.

"And is it true? And is it true/This most tremendous tale of all...." so wrote John Betjeman in his famous poem "Christmas," juxtaposing the humour of the "tissued fripperies" and "hideous tie so kindly meant" with the mind-blowing possibility "The Maker of the stars and sea/Become a Child on earth for me?"

I cannot tell, I do not know, but I would like to celebrate Christmas as if it were indeed true. (And I would like to consider Christmas as lasting for twelve days from Christmas day onwards, not starting in early December and ending on Boxing Day!).

One of my three children is already with us, two are wandering in from abroad and I wonder if they will arrive in time, despite storms and strikes. Then we will have an enormous Christmas gathering with my many siblings and their families, and our mother. Even through this ghastly cold I have been fighting, which as colds do has been making me feel as if the end is nigh, I have the sense to know how very fortunate I am, in so many ways.

We have a candle in a glass jar behind our lovely German advent calendar, a cut-out of San Marco in Venice, with angels by great artists in every window. As the light shines through the windows, the angel paintings glow. But the candle is burning low, and stammers like my own faith or spirituality or whatever name I can give the thing within me that keeps flickering, but feebly.

Blessings on us all, whatever we believe, trust in, or hope for; and now it's back to a few more tissued fripperies, bed-making, and nose-blowing. May "a star's light" fall on everyone this Christmas, and may the New Year bring a more peaceful world, and hope of a home for all.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Ring Out, Wild Bells!

Actually I'm using this quotation from Tennyson's In Memoriam (section CV) a little ahead of season. It's about the bells that ring out the old year and ring in the new.  We aren't quite there yet; there will be Christmas bells first. But his lovely lyric illustrates the emotional power of church-bells.
Last Sunday afternoon I was in Gloucester, on a crisp, sunny day; the cathedral tower was bathed in light and the blue sky burned through the fretwork of its turrets. From that tower cascaded peal after peal of bells, rung by the bell-ringers, as every Sunday from one-thirty to three pm. I stood there with the glorious sound washing over me, and was grateful for the bells, for the ringers, for this ancient sound that has been part of our landscape for so many long centuries.
The imminent closing of Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the birthplace of Big Ben, the Philadelphia Liberty Bell, and other bells all across the world, prompted a brilliant piece by writer Jane Shilling HERE. She starts with "Ding dong merrily" and ends up quoting "the great Nigel Molesworth's" version of Donne's "It tolls for thee;" in between, she shows the importance of bells in our culture.  Will our grandchildren, she asks, hear as many bells as we do? Ancient villages are being swallowed by sprawl, church congregations age and decline;  "the knowledge of how to ring the bells may vanish along with the skills of casting them."
Yes, there are still many campanology-lovers and bell-ringing groups, thank goodness, and they are finding new recruits. I recently met an American writer who now lives in Scotland, and, with her Scottish husband, rings bells there.  There are some bell-towers in the States, and active bell-ringing groups, but the ringing of church bells isn't a part of the national soundscape there, as it is, or was, in Britain. My American husband, one day at Stow-on-the-Wold just after a wedding, was sceptical when I said the peals were made by real people pulling on bell-ropes at that very moment. But it was so.  (And the ring of eight bells we were hearing is actually the heaviest in  Gloucestershire. Its oldest bells date from the 1600s).
Change-ringing began in Britain. Christopher Howse, in a brilliant piece  HERE  prompted by the simultaneous ringing of all the country's bells for the 2012 London Olympics, writes, "Change ringing sets bells free; paradoxically by a strict arithmetic formula, like a complicated knitting pattern."  I read thIs essay while living out of England, and found my eyes welling with hapless nostalgia. By a lovely serendipity, on the same very day (reading about the mid-nineteenth-century for my new novel), I learnt that Gabriele Rossetti, Dante Gabriel's Italian father, marvelled that in his newly-adopted city of London, "The very bells play tunes!" (The Rossettis in Wonderland by Dinah Roe.) 
Howse quotes "Church-bells beyond the stars heard," from George Herbert's extraordinary poem "Prayer." And in a 2009 piece about bells HERE he cites another marvellous poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Two of my most beloved poets *; their poetry, the bells, the landscape....all this is inextricably mixed in our heritage, interconnected, like that complicated knitting pattern. 
Howse's 2009 essay was a lament on the closure of "the other British bell foundry", Taylors. So now, if Whitechapel Foundry is closing too, does it mean there will be nowhere left in Britain where bells are cast?  
That would be cause to ring the mourning-bell.
*(in fact, ahem, that church-bells phrase is an epigraph to my poem "Fabric," in my collection appearing with Oversteps Books next year. End of shameless plug).

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Orla & Super Sowilo!

Sowilo Press is an imprint of Hidden River Arts, a Philadelphia arts foundation. As anyone visiting this website can't help knowing by now, this small independent press awarded my novel Inscription the Eludia Prize in 2013, and published the book last year. Then, in the 2016 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, Inscription was chosen as one of twelve semi-finalists. This is a serious award, and the winner, The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, has been named Book of the Year in many quarters, including Oprah's magazine. My book was in excellent company!
In 2014 the Eludia Prize winner was Northern Irish writer Orla McAlinden, for her collection of short stories The Accidental Wife. Sowilo Press published the book this year. Now one of those stories, 'The Visit,' has won a major award—it's the Irish Book Awards Short Story of the Year!  
This means that a small press in Philadelphia has international reach, publishing books that have been connected with major awards both in the USA and Ireland!
Sowilo does publish home-grown authors too; Tree Riesener of Philadelphia won the Eludia award in 2012 for her own book of stories, Sleepers Awake! and she is also a prolific and much-published poet. There are earlier Sowilo books by American writers as well.
The point of all this, apart from my wanting to celebrate Orla's success, is that small publishers can be an important part of a book's journey to finding readers. Writers shouldn't overlook them.
I have some good news of my own: my first poetry collection will appear with Oversteps Books in 2017! More information to follow. 
And now I am trying to really make headway on a second novel. It is so true what they say: you know you have written one book, but you just don't know how you did it, and you can't believe you will be able to do it again.
But I am forging ahead, if forging is the word for a process that feels like wading through treacle. I have help from writing friends; it's good to be accountable to someone. Good to check in with a fellow writer and compare notes....which is exactly what I have to go and do right now.
Forza, fellow writers! Forza is a word I learnt in Italy, it's how you cheer on your team; something like "Go for it!" combined with "Courage!"  Forza, and forge onward, and never ever give up.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Present and Past

It's about time I mentioned Maria Popova of the website Brain Pickings. Her compilations of inspiring and thought-provoking words from writers, artists, and thinkers of all types are marvellous, and her newsletter brings regular treasures to my inbox. The latest is about poet Mary Oliver and her book Upstream: Selected Essays.
The whole thing is a brilliant meditation on the creative life. And I will copy out these words of Mary Oliver's and put them where I can see them, often:
The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.
I've been going to various events at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, listening to writers who have heard that call to creative work, and who have, by dint of dedication and sheer hard graft, succeeded in making something beautiful or powerful or interesting out of nothing.
I loved the poetry of Matthew Hollis, who read from his pamphlet Stones. 
What passes in the present is present in the past. 
And there it lies upon the latch. 
Our hands tremble on the morning match.                                                                                                                                                            
The book is letterpress printed and bound by hand; Hollis prefaced his poems with an illustrated talk about how the pamphlet itself was made. We understood a little of the care and skill that went into making this slim volume; the work of setting the type, hand-spacing it, line by line, page by page; of the printing itself, of trial and error until it is just so, and of letting the ink dry, which takes three days. It was fascinating, and seductive, and a celebration of the book-maker's craft. 
Other poets whose work I enjoyed were Sarah Howe, who wrote Loop of Jade, and Rebecca Perry. Confusingly, nomenclature-wise, the Festival also brought us the novelist Sarah Perry, speaking about her book The Essex Serpent. Sharing this event was Francis Spufford, author of The Child That Books Built and the brilliant Unapologetic, about faith; he has now written a novel, Golden Hill. There was an interesting conversation about setting novels in the past; Perry's is set in 1890s Essex, and Spufford's in 1740s New York.  The moderator Andrew Holgate asked if either of them had hesitated before writing something that could be called a "historical novel," because, he said, a snobbish attitude is still sometimes found towards to such books. Both replied firmly, No. Sarah Perry said that she did hesitate five years ago, when she was writing her first novel, "...because I wanted to be taken seriously," and didn't want to be accused of shirking a novelist's duty to grapple wth the present day. (I'm paraphrasing here, from memory and scribbled notes). But then  she realised that even a novel set in the past is "as much about us as it is about them." And besides, she said, "human hearts do not change, human behaviour does not change."
When writing Inscription, I thought about the same issues, wondering about the difference between "historical novels" and novels that just happen to be set in the past. Francis Spufford made a distinction between novels that are written like a theme park trip back in time, where you know what you are going to get, and those that offer creativity, surprise, and invention. Others might say that since so many "literary" novels are now set in the past, we should drop the genre label "historical novel," or at least stop thinking of all historical novels as "bodice-rippers" with minimal literary value. Indeed, A. S.Byatt, Hilary Mantel, David Malouf, Jesse Browner, Marguerite Yourcenar, and many other writers have amply shown that a novel set in the past can be of the greatest literary excellence.
The Festival, as always, prompted much thought about writing, reading, and creativity.  Now to see what inspiration I have gleaned and use if in my own writing. I hope it will help me as I shape what I hope will be my own new novel set in the past; this time, not as distant as the first century AD of Inscription, but much closer to us: the 19th century. Which I have been thinking about for several years, and, for the record, before I knew of Sarah Perry's book or any other of the recent 19th century novels. It must be in the Zeitgeist. I am trying to find out what, and why.  Trying to give some "power and time" to my own creative instincts. For after all, as Hollis says, "What passes in the present is present in the past."

Friday, 2 September 2016

Feeding the Lake

Third time lucky. I've been trying to write a blog post for a while now, and actually wrote two                                pieces that both somehow vanished when I tried to save them. I was hoping to manage a post                                 while it was still August, which would have meant for the first time achieving two posts in the                                same month. But it was not to be. A poor show, considering I have been aiming for once a                                  week! But the weeks fly past nowadays, as fast as months used to do.
One of the lost posts was about the tragedy of another terrible earthquake in Italy, while the                              memory of the 2009 devastation of L'Aquila, once my home for five years, is still fresh. That                                  city and surroundings lost 300 people and will never be the same. Nor will Amatrice and the                                   towns around it.  But whatever I said about it would have been not very coherent and after all,                               what can one say, or do? Except weep, and prompt each other to donate to the Red Cross....
Now it's September. My poem "September Afternoon in the Schoolyard"—its final lines are                                         on this website's home page—begins like this:
Taut, amazing, lazuli sky: September:                                                                                                                         four o'clock: each leaf is distinct: the brightness                                                                                                        edges every pebble: the shadows sharpen                                                                                                                    woodchip and grassblade.
This is North America's clearest season,                                                                                                                    lucid, unequivocal; this light suits white                                                                                                              clapboard houses ruled like unwritten schoolbooks.
It was started, as the title indicates, in a playground in the town in Pennsylvania where I lived                                  for twenty-two years, in that extraordinary clear light you often get in the north-eastern US in                        September and October.  But as the poem shows, lovely as that light was and as much as I                                   enjoyed its clarity, I missed England:
                                         But I keep wanting                                                                                                                          muted English shades; and a crumbled honey                                                                                                           limestone wall, its time-softened contours blurry,                                                                                                          lost in moss....
Now I'm in England again, among the muted shades and limestone walls. Yet sometimes even                               here there is a clear bright day, and yesterday was one of those. Bright sunshine, brilliant blue                             skies, and in the afternoon as the sun dropped lower, the air cooled fast, and this autumnal hint                             gave me that September feeling. A feeling of those new school notebooks, and of new                                 beginnings. I haven't been  part of academia since I left university, but I have three children                                   fairly widely spaced, and so for a huge swathe of my life September meant "back to school."                                   Once they were all at school full-time,  this also meant back to work for me, back to days with                           solitude and time to write, as I was in the lucky position of not having to go off to a nine-to-five                                job. So the feeling of a clean slate, a new leaf, a fresh notebook, affected me too.
Today, on September 1st, I have this frisson again. Over the last month I've been sorting poems                               with a view to gathering them into a collection. Despite the luxury of time over the years (or some                       would say, because of it) I have a very small oeuvre (!); I am an exponent of slow poetry. (Very                           trendy, surely, like slow food?). Also of slow novel writing. And slow essay writing.  So there                                 aren't that many poems to sort.
But I am done with the collection-gathering, for now, and am ready to turn to other work. I have                              a couple of projects in view: my embryonic new novel is seeking its shape; I also want to write                            some essays, and re-enter the freelance world. Time to dig in, to get cracking....slow writing is                                  all very well, but I don't have all the time in the world. I must work harder, I must do more.
What is it that drives us to write? It's a mysterious thing.....though in my own case, using language                               is really all I know how to do well (except for various skills acquired during the raising of those                            three children, skills that aren't much appreciated in the world at large). But still, what impels me                            to keep doing it, to keep honing words and phrases and listening to their sound and trying to                               balance it all? I am not sure; its something to do with loving what Jean Rhys called the "huge lake"                        that is all writing. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, she says,                             and we can add the writers we admire; and there are "mere trickles, like Jean Rhys." (Of course                           now she is acknowledged as much more than a trickle). I do not matter, she says. Only the lake                         matters. You must feed the lake. 
And so I keep trying to feed the lake with my own tiny runnel of writing. And now, the nights                                 are drawing in.