Update, September 2019

rainbow.JPGOnce in a while it actually happens. At the start of 2019 I applied for a grant from a locally-managed creative arts and heritage org., no doubt set up to counter the problem of central funding not coming into the rural areas. Even after years of effort you never feel like a real one, producing your work on zero budget while watching the city-based poets gain from development schemes and newsworthy projects. Not thinking I would have a positive outcome, I applied for a grant and –  out of the blue six months later –  an award letter arrived! For the first time since I began writing as a serious thing (c.1986) a funding org. is enabling me to reach the next stage. So, I have to acknowledge the good folks at InvestSK based in Grantham; the overall effects will be felt for a very long time indeed. There is plenty of community payback of course – I’ll be providing workshops in libraries, and a set of ‘poetry kits’ has already been distributed around the area. My funder logos are included here because it’s only fair. They took a chance on awarding me, and it won’t be wasted.

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I wrote several poem drafts as a result of the above, which is always helpful –  nothing like a real-time deadline for kicking you into action. Archives and museums are often good starting places for me, and I spent a day reading through Lincolnshire folksong and plough play texts at Nottingham University. I have some of the downloadable copies, but there’s nothing like seeing them in an original context, along with letters and comments from the people who first collected them. Another grand day out involved going to see the ‘Claribel’ material at Louth Museum – Charlotte Alington Barnard (1830-1869) was a hugely popular Victorian songwriter in the sentimental tradition, and there is a small collection of papers up there in her hometown. Only a couple of songs are available through YouTube (‘Come Back to Erin’ and ‘I Cannot Sing the Old Songs’IMG_kite) but there is a large repertoire, and copies may turn up in Victorian parlour-song anthologies. I’d wanted to write something about her for ages, but she is one of those subjects where I felt it was necessary to engage with the background first instead of relying on imagination.

I’m blogging this at the start of the new school term, so it’s a busy time for all college assistants as we get used to our new charges and work on individual strategies for their learning goals. So I’m thoroughly glad to have reached the end of a novella I was drafting earlier in the year; it’s currently in the ‘resting’ drawer while I gain some perspective on the process. During the winter I’ll do a speedy hack-through of the whole thing onto disk, before beginning the inevitable lengthy revising-up period. I thoroughly enjoyed writing this work, and I managed to crack its individual voice quite early on; so instead of finding the whole thing resistant, I was listening in to what the characters had to say, and following them around as they acted out the plot. I had a specific location in mind too – although the resulting place doesn’t look anything like Great Driffield in East Yorks., it occupies the same point on the map and you can get to the same towns from there. I’m looking forward to the next stage with this one, even though it might join the Grand Pile of Unpublished Typescripts in the cupboard behind me.

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Update, July 2019

It was the yearly bookbash at Lowdham on Saturday 29th June. As usual I enjoyed my time there, running a stall and joining with other Shoestring Press poets in a reading to celebrate the launch of Paul Binding and Malcolm Carson’s collections. I read from the Electric Artisan, which is still fairly current (no pun intended). The temperature was at a record high so visitors and participants alike were wilting by 2pm; bunewark.jpgt Lowdham has several pubs and places to eat, as well as an on-site cafe. As I knew I’d be trapped behind a stall table for the whole day apart from the reading, I took sandwiches and fizzy water – as an ex-Brownie and Girl Guide, it pays to Be Prepared. It’s a shame I didn’t see what else was happening around the site, since Book Fair Saturday is rich in performance and incident; I can recommend it as an ideal festival for those who find some of the big ones excluding towards audience members. At Lowdham, the atmosphere is always inclusive and informal. I have no picture from the event, so the image here is from Newark, which is also worth visiting!IMG_1378.JPG

There’s a Places of Poetry thing going on, as great and good people from another part of the UK have decided that Poetry is often linked to Place, and maybe we should all write poems to demonstrate it. Their website is quite lovely, although nothing unusual in itself when you can operate Google Maps and get your campsite showing up alongside its visitor rating. In this area, the nearest participating venue is Ely Cathedral –  so off I went, hoping to take part in something and maybe get a poem on the site for a Fenland location. Meeting Jen Hadfield was a delight, since I have enjoyed her work for years and I have her second collection, Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe). A Fens-based poet read one of her own works, and project facilitators explained about the idea as a whole, sporting some well-designed project T-shirts which should be on sale somewhere; they’re missing a trick. I wrote a few lines as a result of the experience, and I hope they will become a poem. Other poems have gone on the website at their real-life locations – one nr. Loweswater in Cumbria, two in rural Lincs, and one near Water Orton in the West Midlands. People can leave ‘likes’ on the site, which is a great idea –  I’ve liked several on my imaginary journey around the ‘Poly-olbion’ map, and I hope the favourite poems are gathered up for a new anthology later.

On July 14th I was headlining at Cheltenham Buzzwords. Now, this date was one I’d long had in mind, because I knew of its overall quality as a good gig for poets building up a performance schedule. But it took a while to come up, largely because its popularity (and the foresight of its organiser Angela France) meant the schedule for 2019 was booked at least a year ago. That’s a lesson to any poets looking for outlets – you really have to think ahead and decide where you would like to appear at least six months in advance, if not longer. As my reading coincided with spectacular cricket/tennis finals and the last night of Ledbury Poetry Festival, I didn’t expect a full turnout at the venue on Bath Road – but I made a number of booksales which sent me back holst photo.jpghome very happy indeed. I had most of the day in Cheltenham, so I went in search of the Holst Birthplace Museum ‘cos I’m a fan. Alas it was closed, although the curator explained they would have let me in ‘if only’ and ‘because’, and so on. Yes, the staff were on duty, but their exhibition-changers were in. Since I’m embarrassed easily, I didn’t make a fuss and I went away; although I bet someone who’d flown long-distance would have put up more of a fight to get in. Holst was not only an innovator in music, he was widely regarded as an inspiring teacher, and he’s one of my all-time arts heroes. There’s an impressive statue, however –  in Imperial Gardens near the Town Hall. The sculptor created an effect which means that on a night with any stars visible, the bronze figure will be ‘conducting the planets’. It’s nice when sculptors give them something to do.

Update, May 2019

decobike.JPGI decided on a 6 – 8 week gap between posts because this accurately reflects the likelihood of something artistic or equally worth talking about having happened in the meantime. Nobody needs to know the routine details like: what time I stumble off to work in the morning, and whether I think Brexit is a good idea (no of course not, have we all gone mad?) I can’t post cute photos of my cat because I haven’t got one – and when I spend my weekends hitting the keyboard then going around Lidl with a trolley, you can guess that all is not newsworthy. Today the backing track was provided by BBC6Music (thanks, folks) and sometimes I even got up to make a coffee. We all push on steadily towards our goals, helped along by seeing our colleagues realise something in print after it seemed like nothing would happen. This season I’m varying things a bit, compiling a scrapbook as I work towards one of my performing ideals – so if I don’t make any headway with a one-person-show, I will at least have a visual work which I can display at a future event. The decorated bike depicted on here isn’t mine; it comes from Peterborough’s Metal forecourt, where I went for an intensive masterclass led by Hannah Silva. She led us on an adventure into the world of sound, freeing up the voice and learning to be less afraid.

Meanwhile I’ve been writing sections towards the next novella. I know the title, but I’m not about to reveal it on here in case the whole thing never takes off. It sometimes feels that a cherished project can take a dive at the last moment, and it might spend a couple of years in a suitcase before being attempted again. It’s annoying, particularly when I can envisage what a whole thing is about from early on – the problem lies in making my way towards that distant light. You know how it is when you read a person’s work and you think ‘hey, this writer has rushed the last third of the script as they charged towards the finish line…’? Well, that would happen to me every single time if I didn’t revise up instead of down. I’m a poet and novella writer rather than a novelist because I just rush my way through scripts like a puppy with ADHD. Far from being one of those cut-it-down people, I have to convince myself to put more in – and that way I prevent the two-thirds/three quarters panic point which seems to overtake a lot of writers. As a reviser-up, I’m able to insert anything at any point until the script achieves its allotted size, which gives me some control over how fast the story arc is moving. Maybe other people’s editors and agents never tell them to try the Way of Adding More; I dunno. But I haven’t got an agent or an editor so I have to work it out for myself, imagining I’m the editor and then the subsequent reader. What would I want to read, if I wasn’t the person having to write it? If I hadn’t written it, would the stuff I’ve written look like a proper section in a real book?

Great Bookshops of the North East now. I was in Northumberland a couple of weeks ago, and while I appreciate the vast emporium that is Barter Books of Alnwick, the one I preferred was in Berwick on Tweed. Called ‘Slightly Foxed’, you will find it on Bridge Street a few dooseapinks.JPGrs down from a superb little Music Shop, with an artisan cafe lodged somewhere in between. You can’t go wrong with a combination like that. Best of all, the bookshop prices were very fair and I had no hesitation in replacing my worn-out paperbacks used for teaching and workshops. I’m sure it’s an open secret up there in the borderlands, but when you’re a tourist passing through, finding such a book-haven is a true delight. Berwick was a delight in any case, and I came away with a bagload of curios and musical spares after walking along the sea-wall. They’ve even got a stubby lighthouse at the end of it, and eider ducks diving in the estuary. A magical place, no doubt, for a lot of visitors.

Update, March 2019

I’ve been busy drafting an article for a critical anthology on W.H. Davies. This is a good example of one of those projects which come at you from nowhere, and –  rather than sit there deliberating over whether I’d have enough academic ballast on him to write trickanything decent –   I found myself saying yes and there I was, ordering editions in and looking for obscure out-of-print books. The project was proposed around 18 months ago, which means I wasn’t exactly expecting it to happen by the time it reached the end of 2018. Suddenly off it went, with me being dragged along in its wake; and it did a great deal to restore my confidence after another rejection from the ACE creative development awards.

Now, I know I’m not the only poet being rejected by the arts juggernaut that is ACE. On the week when their decisions were announced, Twitter resounded to the yelps of successful clients –  and a thickening silence accompanied by tumbleweed from all those ‘others’ who weren’t successful. It doesn’t do to announce disappointment, does it? We’re supposed to be humble and chastened, grateful that our little plans are forwarded in through the portal. And when it doesn’t work out, we’re supposed to get ourselves booked onto a workshop and learn how to jump through those hoops again. This was only my second time of applying, and quite frankly, life is too short. Why am I jumping through hoops instead of writing my stuff? I’m a poet, so it’s not going to result in much financial profit whichever way I look at it. Besides, when the earlier round of awards were announced, I downloaded the spreadsheet which told me all the details on who got what, and where. It didn’t surprise me to learn that nobody (yes, nobody) in my big rural county had received one, even though half of it is recognised as a poverty zone and the cultural services have been decimated. The East Midlands cities on the other hand, did get a couple of grants, whereas Bristol had an astonishing 6 literary development awards. You can work out this conundrum for yourselves –  if you are isolated through no fault of your own, if you aren’t in one of those pre-designated ‘centres of excellence’, just how likely is it that your application will succeed?

At the end of January I had a wonderful evening with the PoetryWired crowd in Nottingham – this little indie cafe is an oasis in the shopping district, perfect as a venue for readings. I was last there in 2015 –  the picture on my Homepage is from the previous reading –  and I had a whale of a time performing recent work and being interviewed by Rory Waterman, no less. He asked ‘what character would I be, if I was a children’s book?’ and I admitted to Millie, in Millie’s Marvellous Hat, by Satoshi Kitamura. I knew the wired 2019picture-books from working at Grantham Library, and there is such expressiveness and off-kilter kindness in his images. I even have a yellow mac like Millie’s, although I’m pleased to say that whenever I go into a hat-shop I usually have something in my purse.

Great, I went to Verve at last! Job dates intervened on previous years, and so with mounting excitement I set off for Birmingham this time round, hoping to partake of the unique festival. I’ve also never been to the old Birmingham Rep, and I was interested to go there too because of its associations with the original Georgian poets in 1913-14. However, on being told by one of the headliners about the differences between Stage & Page and Hierarchical v. Working Class styles of poeting, I was ready to throw paper-balls at the platform. Do Your Eng. Lit! I wanted to shout. This very theatre what you are standing in Was Actually Used By Performing Poets Who Did Popular Writin. So stop right there, sunshine, and look in the archives. The same event alerted me to the Sleaford Mods though, and I’ve since caught their work a few times on BBC6 Music. If you can take post-punk rants accompanied by minimalist thudding, it’s just the thing to liven up the brain when you’re in danger of becoming middle class.

 

Update, January 2019

IMG_1171At the time of writing, our poet laureateship is once again up for appointment. Now, while it’s a great idea to have it time-limited and keyed in to impressive projects as opposed to minor efforts on behalf of our Royalty, it always seems to be a throwback, completely out of context in these universal credit days. I became interested in poetry as a result of the Platignum National Schools competition c. 1972, so I’m even old enough to remember John Betjeman as the Poet Laureate – but it’s the sort of non-job where nobody wins unless they’re already part of the committees and schemes, maybe having a sinecure Fellowship or two where it’s okay to hobnob around the vintage port with likeminded characters. There’s something so eighteenth-century about the whole business that you wonder why it hasn’t been dumped long ago, together with the Spinning Jenny and turnpike roads.

Personally, I can’t think of anything worse than having to write about a Royal event or a national anniversary, to intone on Radio 4 about the Battle of the Somme, or to hang around at official functions being sneered at by politicians who don’t like the arts. I’ve been to talks where a previous Laureate described how the post ruined his ability to write; and on listening to the voice of our first female Laureate recently, she was valedicting like the world was already lost, old before her time. Alas for the days when she read a blistering anti-Thatcherite poem at the Aldeburgh Festival.

What does it do to them, this wretched job? They seem to come out with their minds altered, like people who’ve been through a weird experiment. It can’t be the butt of malmsey or whatever it is. It must be the pressure of continually being on the spot, having to write what you’d rather not be writing after years ohalloween spiderf putting what you believe in. Having to front projects which take away real writing time, modify what you’d rather say, and make pronouncements on topics you’re not a specialist in. That kind of appointment isn’t a great honour, it’s the same as a day job in the media without the salary. Yet the race is on, with one poet already spouting nonsense about what the post ‘should’ involve, what the ideal candidate ‘should’ be like, what their writing ‘should’ be about, how cultured they ‘should’ be. When poets start telling others what they should be like, perhaps they should be questioning themselves and their own reasons for doing so. If it was up to me, I’d vote for someone genuinely public like Pam Ayres or John Cooper Clarke, although I rather think they’d turn it down.

It’s the New Year already; I’m glad to be under way with another novella, and looking forward to giving a reading in Nottingham on the 23rd January. The Wired Cafe on Pelham Street is a lovely venue, and one which serves excellent fancy coffees and food – if you’re in the Nottingham area, I heartily recommend it. Better still, if you’re there on the 23rd, come along between 6 – 8 pm and join in with a poem of your own! There’s open mic slots available. Meanwhile I promise I won’t be doing any poems about Brexit, the Laureateship, or writing about writing.

Update, October 2018

This year there’s been various Twitter threads about working class writers. I’m one of those – from a council estate in Leeds. I’m proud of this background, even though my schools were nothing special and there weren’t any jobs when I left. But I was always aware of writers from the working class because our local ones were published by the blockbuster firms and they were interviewed by the Yorkshire Post. I klobster  potsnew about the poets too – Tony Harrison, Ted Hughes, and incomers who worked at the university like Geoffrey Hill. Keith Waterhouse was local, Barry Hines wasn’t far away. We studied these writers at school, so nobody was in any doubt that working class writers existed. Some traded on their background, others didn’t. But their names were common currency and their works were available.

Nobody curated them; anthologies weren’t micro-managed on their behalf. Project grants weren’t held by someone else while the little working class writers jostled and begged for attention. The working class writer got published, performed, written about. BBC/ITV producers were available, and newcomers could send their work in direct to the regional centre. You didn’t pay for expensive courses which promised a fast-track towards publication, routes which cut you out because you were on the minimum wage. You didn’t have to know anyone when you started off. The conditions were therefore right for a working class person to get a foothold on Parnassus. Lots of routes in, from different angles; not much financial outlay needed.

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Now there’s social media call-outs and projects for ‘working class writers’, because apparently there aren’t enough of us. We must be rare, or not intelligent/successful /ballsy/in the know enough to get on. Perhaps we haven’t realised that only certain types of people can become writers, and it’s not us. And of course, we need an expert to show us the way, we’re not able to handle it ourselves. And hopefully we write about raw real life and people having fights in pubs, not pitch-perfect mood pieces about divorced architects. How exciting we must be, with our unusual working class habits. And hopefully we’re so grateful that we don’t realise we’re being exploited, that the brief run of special access will end as soon as the grants are gone.

If you’re a struggling new writer, you sometimes have to balance your need for progress with this willingness to be put in a category. I minded this very much back in 1985, and it just made me more determined to be a poet on the route I was following. My best incident involved being told by a writer-in-residence that I was a typical ‘northern clown figure’ because of a student drama workshop I’d just been in. Overnight, I decided: ‘right, I’m taking those serious poets on at their own game’, and it pretty much set my direction for the next 20 years. I obviously appeared like one type of thing on the outside, and ‘the experts’ thought I was that type of thing, yet my brain told me I was something else.

Now of course, I don’t care. But it mattered back then, and being categorised due to my accent and background was simply not on. It’s no accident that more comedians come from the ‘working class’ – it’s one of the traditional ways they get noticed for their creativity. But surely, access to an arts career haIMG_1336.JPGs moved on since the early 1900’s. Surely all this access to technology and part-time jobs, grants, projects, and higher education has levelled out the playing field for those of us who didn’t have the playing fields at prep school. I’d like to think so – but when I attended a litfest recently, there was a row of carefully intense posh people on the stage while I sat in the audience listening to them. The signal was clear: these were the spokespeople on behalf of Literature as far as that festival was concerned. I could have been a character from Dickens sat there, pressing my nose against the bookshop window. The problems persist, and if you’re not writing in the blockbuster genres, it’s like chipping your way up a mountain with a slot-headed screwdriver. If I was a new ‘working class’ poet I would be clinging to those promises put about by special project advocates. But I’m older and I’ve learnt. I want the same projects the other poets are into, not special ones devised for my class and background as others see it.

Meanwhile in the real world, remember there’s always more of us than there are of them. It must be true therefore, that a greater number of people with backgrounds like mine are doing their writing and succeeding at it. So I’d like to think we’re all out there, like the ironic points of light in the Auden poem, holding up our torches so that other working class writers can see where we are.

Update, September 2018

Much against my better judgement I sent in some work for a couple of competitions. I’m usually a comps duffer, having an ability to avoid even the longest runner-up list in my pursuit for better visibility as a poet. But some of the newer anthologiespoetry trusts are connected with the heritage of poets I admire a lot, and therefore I felt it was okay. I’m not supporting a remote arts committee whose efforts never touch the provinces, I’m putting a bit of sponsorship directly into projects and events, ones which involve local communities and aren’t just about hiring headline writers.

As a result I feel slightly better about the whole competing-for-a-place thing, but I’m glad to say I didn’t download any advice guides about competitions, or read anyone’s article, their blog, or any books about creative writing beforehand, or beat myself over the head about it. No, we really don’t know what the judges are looking for – in many cases, they choose a winner by personal feelings once the initial ‘can they write’ question is answered. I know, because I’ve been a preliminary judge for three competitions and I’ve see the lack of logic going into the process. The person who hates poems about cats isn’t going to choose a poem about a cat even if it happens to be a brilliant one. The old guy on the panel who thinks women can’t be funny is probably not going to award a woman in a funny poem contest. And so on. I worked on a competition where the main judge was a prominent literary figure, except the panel members lower down the food chain were doing the selecting, and sending him a shortlist to choose from. He got a substantial fee, the rest of us didn’t, even though we’d done the work. Did I feel like putting loads of effort into the selecting process? Guess.

It was agreen manlso the same year when a literary prankster was passing off others’ poems (slightly ‘deconstructed’) as his own, and while his folly was blazed across the media, he’d sent a work in to our competition which was probably genuine. But we couldn’t take the risk, and although he’d ended up on the shortlist, we had to disqualify him. It happened before, too, when I worked on a short stories project; a different local prankster decided to chance his arm and forwarded a story which was actually written by someone else. I found out because it was broadcast on Radio 4 one afternoon, attributed to its original author. I pulled the pranksters’ effort out of my files and read along, paragraph by paragraph, just within enough time of the printing date to halt our selection and find a replacement.

Occurrences like these make it all the more annoying when I send work out and get nowhere. In the resulting postbag there’s going to be absolute first-timers, people sending the same poem each year, people who can afford to send 30 separate entries, and maybe even a canny prankster who thinks he’s onto a good thing with his brand of homage and re-appropriatio20170526_162811.jpgn. And maybe the judge has a sore head that morning or she fell out with her partner and immediately wants an ‘I Hate Men’ rant to win. You just don’t know. You look at the glossy promotional literature and the list of sponsors, the well-known judge at the head, and it’s all down to how they feel on the day. Therefore, never imagine that you are a bad poet because you don’t win. It’s all accidental.