Thursday, 30 December 2010

Kafka and Freud (still rowing that boat)

At the point where Kafka and I were about to part company (which would have been a pain because he's part of my theories assignment) I realised something. Kafka has weird categories of people that pop up in his stories. OK, there are the powerless leads like Gregor Samsa and K. who just experience unfairness without resistance. But there are also women (a strange breed in Kafka, very often unclean, deformed and promiscuous). There are a lot of talking animals, who function better than the people. And 'happy' people, almost inhuman people, like the ones in The Next Village, who don;'t have to sleep because they don't get tired, and all the 'assistants' in his stories who seem to just run and run. They are almost angelic (if I can use such a religious term with Kafka), creatures created but not quite human, who are musical, tireless and contented. They are part of the system without being victimised by it. Interesting. So I'm coming at it from that angle. What is the nature of these characters in Kafka's world? Hmm. So I feel like I've got an 'in'.

Meanwhile, I'm playing with the book, because I had to do a workshop I handed in chapters 3 and 4 but actually, missed out an earlier chapter which I think can go back in. That means I'll have a good chunk ready to work on back in Winchester when I get back. I'm so enjoying being home in most respects, but I won't miss all the interruptions!   

Monday, 27 December 2010

Having fun (when I ought to be doing an assignment)

Just when I weighed up what I had for my various assignments (265 lines of poetry for one, 4000 words for fiction, 100 lines for theory, one radio play and the very beginnings of a short story) I gave into an impulse to do a design to fit a poem. I do think poems should stand on their own words, but there's some fun to be had playing around with words and pictures, especially for a front cover.

This is my draft. A bit of fun! I am always amazed by the ravens that live above our house, and fly down every day. They are such graceful birds, even if the other birds often mob them. In fact, the first sign is often the noise the smaller birds make. It's still very amateurish, but I really enjoyed doing it and I rewrote a few lines of a poem today. I'm really enjoying writing at the moment, especially since I reassure myself just how much I actually have already done.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010


I have loved this year's solstice celebrations. The tree is full of birds being treated to a better quality of bird food, including a slab of Christmas cake that they have fought over all day. Magpies, Jackdaws and a jay have been enjoying the cake and leftover sandwiches, a squirrel legged it with a tummy full of nuts and the top of a piece of cake, woodpeckers have been down all day with the usual bunch of blue, great and long-tailed tits. Blackbirds have been rooting in each of the holes in the snow for bits of bread and softer foods along with a fluffed up thrush. We have nuthatches hanging off the nuts and pinching bits of fat ball. Everyone is fed and happy and has presents. The garden looks like a Christmas card dotted with robins. Lovely.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Trying not to be blocked

I don't want to believe in writer's block but I suppose we all have experienced it. So when I feel a bit of a waver in the force, I get nervous. So I'm trying to push through a freewrite every day. This evening I watched a snippet of James Rhodes blasting his way through a Beethoven sonata, amazing, especially since I don't really enjoy Beethoven. Anyway, I watched his hands, which seemed almost sculpted by the practice he does and especially each movement of the sonata, which seemed to change the shape of his wrists as he played. So 400 words and I put it into poem form for the fun of it, and actually I love it. Someone (amyg) suggested Erica Jong and I'm so enjoying her poetry! Thank you for's keeping me writing.

I think I'm a bit blocked by the whole solstice/Christmas thing, days and days of 'just' being mum, cooking, wrapping, organising etc. Today I refereed and lost a tournament of card games (I came last, pretty well), made a lunch for eight trying to remember who hates Stilton and who won't eat cucumber, watched the final Shrek film with most of the kids and then enjoyed my daughter's cooking. But it is the first meal I haven't cooked at all for a while, except for pizza night, which I am exempted from because I don't eat the stuff. It's hard work, being Mum. And in the back of my head is a constant stream of information about the amount of milk we have and whether we are going to be able to buy meat for Solstice as it only hits the shops on the 20th... So I'm going to try and ignore the mental distraction and at least write something each day. 

The other thing is I normally break out of this 'Mum' thing and start a novel which I usually finish about March/April. I'm getting jittery, as I want to write something new but am still a bit haunted by my last year's two novels. I'm wondering, if I come bursting out with something completely new if it will enthuse me and then I'll have to write it up into the dissertation. I'll have to try and find some time to think about character and plot.  

Saturday, 18 December 2010


If I have one gripe with the MA I'm doing it's the workshopping. Not that people haven't worked on each other's writing and given masses of useful advice, they have. But right at the beginning, I would have liked a few minutes of suggestions about structuring the critique. 'One thing working, one thing not' seems to mean different things to different people. Now, on A363 we had a load of suggestions from the tutor and ideas and examples on the forum as well. The whole point of workshopping is to look primarily at the writing, and whether the plot delivers what the writer intended. Not to argue with the story itself. Imagination is, in my view, a matter of taste. I don't like to read stories set in the holocaust, for example, but I have no issue with other people writing them and readers enjoying them. We have a wide range of writing styles on our course, and a range of strengths and weaknesses. It's exciting to be in a group of writers whose individual skills are stronger than mine, but I wish the tutor would add a bit of guidance to the feedback. If one student is heavy handed about something there is no argument from the tutor, and we tend to give much heavier weight to criticism. On our very first week I had a student state, very loudly, that she couldn't believe in my character at all because she couldn't believe that anyone wouldn't have heard a certain song. So the whole of my piece was trashed, despite maybe having (I think) a few neat descriptive moments. I then realised that the same student doesn't cope well with criticism herself. I want to say (to anyone about to critique a piece) be truthful, if you don't like something, say so BUT remember, it is just your opinion. And if you dish it out, remember you have to be able to take it. I'm fairly robust because a) I am pretty confident in my work and b) I know I make mistakes and am happy to learn as much as I can. And, like most people, I often pick up when other people make the mistakes I make! So the whole experience is a great educational one, but is diminished if someone is coming from an emotional and not a critical perspective. Rant over.

All this is relevant for me at the moment because TMA03 is all about critiquing someones work on the forums. I have found the A363 tutor group a bit intense and led by relatively few people. I put work up and didn't get any feedback, but then the same piece went on to get a very good mark. I've more or less got TMA02 sorted and TMA04 is already mostly written (it's formative anyway, you just have to send in a bit about what you intend to do for the end of module assignment, now confusingly called the EMA. So 3 is all about working on someone else's piece and how they adapted it and improved it etc. That would have been a helpful exercise on the MA, for us to get feedback on our feedback!

Creatively, I'm having fun with poetry still, though I feel the urge to sit and write something like a short story, something stand alone which might be adaptable for TMA05 but also just for fun.

Having all the kids home (including daughter's other half) means the cooking takes a lot longer and even breakfast is a big deal. Who would have thought 6 'kids' could consume so much porridge and then play in the snow for so long!

This is the girls fighting the boys. Rosie got her hat knocked off a few times!

Monday, 13 December 2010

Assignment work

I'm on a roll with creative work at the moment, I struggled to try and get a lot into a single poem and then my tutor suggested that it could be a sequence of poems, linked by prose. That worked. Well, I'm wrestling with it anyway. But another project I started has been terrific fun to write: twelve prose poems arranged as patchwork on the page, each describing the fabric and the history associated with it. I love patchwork and fabrics and especially old fabrics that hold history. For example:
flannel from an infant’s nightgown, baby that grew up into Uncle David and Uncle James and maybe even Dad until the flannel was soft like a baby’s skin and fragranced with dust and the heat of thirty years of airing cupboard, creamed by time and laundry soap and the mangle and drying in front of a coal fire, softened by big hands holding small bodies, cutting around the stains
This is very first draft but together they (randomly) tell the story of a woman and her marriage and affair and divorce. I though it was interesting and it's fun to write without line breaks, instead considering the words on the page as blocks, some orientated on their sides. I'm enjoying thinking about words as shapes and marks on the page not just the sound of the read out loud words.
I'm also thrilled to be able to sit in on a third year poetry class next year. That should be great fun, especially as I don't have to produce an assignment for that. I have a short story to work on too but I shall enjoy looking at other people's work for the next few days. Which will give my back a rest! 

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Helene Cixous and white ink

I've found the theory readings have started a lot of creative work. The whole idea of the language we speak having been so shaped by men we women struggle to exactly explain our experience was really illustrated for me when I recalled an occasion on which I was surrounded by naked women. This hardly ever happens, not to me, anyway! I was one of those kids who looked away at school and dressed under a towel. But suddenly I was surrounded by arms and legs and breasts and...whats? I didn't have a word for you know and down there, not that I would choose to use in a creative writing piece. Of course I'm familiar with the vulgar and/or childish words, but these aren't the words I would choose. And many of them are very derogatory to women. So I looked up a fascinating article called:   "Snatch," "Hole," or "Honey-pot"? Semantic Categories and the Problem of Nonspecificity in Female Genital Slang by Virginia Braun and Celia Kitzinger in 2001. They looked at words that both genders use for genitals looking especially at the difference between male and female nomenclature. Women do not label their genitals. Nor do many of the words used by either gender relate specifically to anatomical features in a commonly agreed way. 'Pussy' means one thing to one person and another to someone else. I read somewhere else that gynaecologists don't name names either, and if they do the words may sound stilted and impersonal. So, I'm trying to write a poem about my becoming aware of the whole world of feminism and the most emotionally striking feature is all know, down theres. In class, we discussed the problem and I've been left thinking, here is the actual heart of the problem. As Cixous says, we need to write in white ink, rediscover/co-create a language specific to the female experience to describe and explore female issues. This theory stuff is amazing. It's really made me think. I've even had to look (reluctantly) back at Derrida, at least, books about Derrida, who says something along the lines of words don't really mean what you think they mean. Words come with baggage.   

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Positive feedback and bad backs

I came back to Devon with a sheaf of copies of my third and fourth chapters, all annotated with helpful suggestions from fellow students and many positive comments about the story etc. I was heartily relieved, they are a tough audience but so helpful! It's inspired me to get on and rewrite chapter 5, especially as I want to divert the story from its previous trajectory and make it go in another direction.
Then I really trashed my back. In a garden centre, reaching for something. For goodness sake! Anyway, I managed to avert the whole kablooey but I am now extremely sore and can't stand upright. My checklist for a really bad back includes: have i got control over my bladder (yep); and can I still feel my feet (yep). So it's not as bad as it could be, but I can't sit at the computer for very long. About 500 words at a time. This is forcing me to do a bit more thinking between bouts of writing, which is probably a good thing, as I can easily write for 20 or 30 thousand words - before I realise that train of thought isn't going anywhere. 
I'm wary of letting any kind of relationship goo sneak into my books because I'm a sucker for a romance and it takes over, but this time I'm attempting the fine line between sexual tension and giving in to it. Tricky. In between painkillers and cuddling up to my new microwaveable heat pad (thanks to my husband, who is a genius!) I am wrestling with the vivisection of innocent bystanders and the historical research I have to do lying down. 
I'm going to miss a week of lectures, which I hate, I'm one of those nerdy people who like to go to everything I've committed to. But I have read all the theory and followed up with a fair amount of research, as well as having completed almost all of the toolkit. that just leaves the fiction stuff, which I will work on tonight. Meanwhile, the same husband has had to go down to Winchester to help the boys out, work, and will be back later in the week. Which gives me the centrally heated bedroom and king sized bed all to myself...lovely after the cramped and cold quarters in Hampshire!  

Friday, 26 November 2010

Poetry again

I treated myself to a poetry writing book a few days ago and it's already come into its own. The book is by John Whitworth, unimaginatively titled 'Writing poetry' but I'm really enjoying it. He's enthusiastic about the great and popular poets but irreverent, explaining that they, too, write the odd stinker. It was good timing, another student on my course and I have exchanged poetry and are going to look it over on Sunday before exposing it to the group (possibly, well, me anyway). Her poetry is intense, strong, with a lot of rhymes and slant rhymes, passionate stuff. It makes me wonder if mine is too polite, too intellectual. I used to get told off for writing fiction that had the emotion drawn out of it. It's making me work, anyway, the Greenham poem is growing, and the ideas suggested by the Cixous readings (and others ) I've been doing has helped. I feel as if I read something, the tutor and group explain it to me, then I go back and read it with some understanding. There's no guarantee I will understand Jacques Derrida's piece though, that may be forever obscure. But Cixous, I loved, especially the idea of 'white ink', that women need to write to express their femininity rather than echo men's way of expressing themselves, in order to promote the feminist agenda. I've been reading all sorts of feminist literature, some from the 1970's and 1980's but some more recent stuff too. I've also realised how much of the semester has already ticked away and how little time I have left to put together a portfolio of poems and this Kafka/Freud thing (though I have read Kafka's letter to his father and The Blue Octavo Notebooks, the hunger artist and a few other short stories).

 I'm so tired, I'm looking forward to coming home and looking over the Cairn and writing. Snow permitting, as Exmoor is in the firing line again, and this often closes the link road. Stupid to build a main road lower than the fields all around that catch the worse of the weather! Snow is like a soft and a duvet cover in the wash, the sock goes in easily enough but is less likely to find its way out. Mind you, the worse bit of the journey is usually the steep drive!

Covered with snow it's impossible. We just get locked in. Oh, well. Home soon. 

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

I'm reading a book for fun, amongst all the books I 'have to read', the above historical novel, The White Queen. I've enjoyed books like The Other Boleyn Girl but I prefer real histories normally, like Alison Weir's book about Katherine Swynford (though I adored Anya Seton's Katherine - at least part of the inspiration for Weir's project). Nevertheless, I'm really enjoying it. I am tutting at the writing though, she is a bit repetitive in places, using very similar phrases and sentences, and the language is sometimes a bit contrived. It's so difficult to suggest medieval sensibilities and language without alienating the modern reader. Anyway, Elizabeth Woodville achieved something unique at the time - a commoner who married a king, even if a Yorkist pretender who took the throne while the existing king, Henry VI, was insane and incapacitated and had a wife and an heir (though there were real doubts about the boy's parentage!). Edward IV spent half his reign teetering on the throne with the help of Warwick, 'the Kingmaker', and I think it would have been nice to see a more complex picture of this complicated and clever man. From Elizabeth's point of view, I suppose, he is just a monster. The story is told mostly from a first person POV, Elizabeth's, but has an omniscient third person POV for the battles. It's all told in the present...which I know is a bit of a trend at the moment. It's a good read, and I have romped through it, but it doesn't entirely do it for me. The romance is too fairy tale, and the history isn't authoritative - little is actually known about Woodville's early life and the marriage. Still, a great read and I will probably read The Red Queen when it comes out.
This course hasn't made us read too much, I've enjoyed studying the two books about writing we have been set, and I have room to do more. The 'Fantastic Fiction for Children' module for next semester has set a book a week, and they are excellent reads. I've read some already, though I haven't read them 'as a writer' as suggested by Francine Prose. So I'm working on one of my assignments, the discussion of writing by Freud and Kafka. Back to work!

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Matthew Sweeney, hedgehogs and agoraphobia

Last night, Matthew Sweeney came to the university to read from his new book and some of his old ones. In preparation, I read a few of his poems and a bit about him. I loved his stuff, largely because he writes in such a soft, prose poem sort of way. His lines end on soft words, the story or theme is more important than rhymes or structure, and his stresses produce a lovely rhythm when read (especially in his Galway accent). He was also very funny and his intelligence spilled over (hopefully) in the group. Well, into my work, anyway. I've had a free write on Greenham I've been working on, trying to turn it into a poem, but it wants to be fiction, but the language is so poetical. So, I'm going to have a good look at his work and let my Greenham piece have a go at working itself into a prose poem. That's how it feels, as if it has a  form it's aiming for, and me (the stupid secretary) keeps getting it wrong. 

He also talked about inspiration striking just as he was going to catch a plane and the compulsion to write it down. That's a magical moment, for me anyway, trying to scribble it down while words are coming, overlapping and the pen can't write fast enough and the pen splutters. He also talked about a single line grabbing him and forcing him to finish it as a poem. I've got a line like that at the moment, I had to get out of bed, find a pen that worked and write it on the back of a card. The reading was brilliant, even though I was really anxious about going into a new building. Sounds daft, I know. 
I've been agoraphobic since I was ten. I first had a panic attack outside the Co-op in Portsmouth, where we were living. It's not an issue 90% of the time, and I've has enough help with it, but the last few weeks have ramped up the tension and with Christmas/solstice coming (no joke for a woman with a large family) I'm struggling a bit now. I didn't tell the university, though I could get support there, because it's usually a small flutter in the back of my mind. But, just recently, it's appeared again and last night I had a small (very small) panic in class, probably brought on by the reading. Now I feel a twit because I can't just go and say how hard it is to, say, ask for a tutorial. Perhaps I should write about it, that sometimes helps. Because otherwise, I will lie awake worrying about the next high stress moment (like having to buy milk or Advanced Fiction tonight) and then I won't get enough sleep and that makes things worse...

Talking about fiction, we workshop fellow student's work each week and this week the work is by a student from a different culture (cool) and with a different approach to English (interesting) but it's difficult to actually go from the kind of critiquing we give each other straight to a different type of writing. I know this is my problem, not the writer's, but it's hard to work with just the same. I'm ahead with the reading (thank whoever-may-be-listening-and-helped-me-get-ahead) so am starting to do some background reading on Kafka for the theory assignment. I'm also working my way through A Very Short Introduction to Poststructuralism. I like to start with a book that will give me a fighting chance of getting the basic ideas before they let me loose on the big ideas. Derrida left me baffled. Even Foucault (not the most readable of fellows) found his writing dense and confusing. He keeps using new words, ones he made up, and then he drifts away from his original meaning...very poststructuralist of him. We are reading Cixous as well, a feminist writer and her stuff is so easy, so interesting. I think this course will ring with echoes for years to come.

The other day, my husband looked out the window and saw a hedgehog. I rushed to weigh it (it's a compulsion, I'm working on it) and the poor little thing was starving to death. It was too small to hibernate, and probably only a baby, born too late in the year. It's now being nursed back to health in a plastic box in the lounge, where it's eating its own body weight in cat food a day and inflating like a balloon. I've seen a lot of babies around this year, probably born in the autumn and they don't have time to put on weight. So if you see a hedgehog out in the day or under 650g, corner it and pass it to an animal charity (list here). Hedgehogs have had a very bad year and numbers are down. Adult hedgehogs are helped by leaving cat food out. Lecture over.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Feminist literature

Since feminism is largely dead and the world is still full of inequalities and unfairness, it's a pleasure to read Helene Cixous (for my course) and reawaken my interest in Susie Orbach, Germaine Greer, Betty Friedman and the 'new' writer Natasha Walter.

Women now are under such pressure to be happily partnered (and there is still a cachet to marriage), have successful and bonded children, great careers and live somehow at 100 miles an hour in the modern world we wrestle with if we're single. The house is still always a measure of how successful she is, a pile of smelly laundry in the corner of the bedroom means you aren't coping. Having children who play up at school or being passed over for promotion because of all that sick time you had to take when he had chicken pox and then gave it to her means you have failed. Women are as much defined by society's expectations as ever, and now they have to be eternally thin and young. I was shocked to see a programme on plastic surgery recently when they interviewed boys and girls between 14 and 16. All would have plastic surgery if they could afford it. Gorgeous in their youth, girls wanted liposuction and boob jobs, to make themselves more 'successful'. Men still talk to the boobs, apparently. Boys were self conscious about weight, their musculature. No-one was prepared to exercise or diet to achieve this goal, it was all to appear like the role models they see all around them, in shops, in magazines, in toys. Every actor and presenter now has to meet an artificial standard of beauty, that seems unreal. In the case of airbrushed images, of course, they are literally unreal. I say all this as the mother of an eleven year old who's developing breasts and a twenty three year old who didn't really do much in the boob department. Both seem cool with what nature has/hasn't provided but the world puts pressure on them every day.

It all seems unfair to women, stereotyped as I have made them sound, as well as men. Reading the subject again makes me cross that feminists were shouted down as 'fat, hairy lesbians' at a time when we were striving for equal opportunities, better quality of life for all, and are now buried in a layer of history. Feminism, real feminism, needs to be redeveloped and back on the march or the TV interview so people can be the people they are born to be and enjoy the lives that they will value, not society. Soap box moment over.

Anyway, to celebrate this revival I'm writing a prose poem, something that I'm new to. I wonder about the relationship of prose poetry and flash fiction. Both make each word count, quite possibly do the work of two words, each cuts the topic down to its interesting bones. I'm trying to tell a story as much through the feeling of what it was like to be there as the action, but the action is still there. I've got 350 words so far, and wonder if it will turn into flash fiction anyway, though there's something about the language...maybe that is the real difference.     

Tuesday, 16 November 2010


Despite being emotionally out of sorts, I have been writing all sorts of interesting stuff. I went to a 'writing marathon' and one of the exercises was with a poet who is one of our tutors. He got us using a style called 'cut up', a strange attempt to reconstruct reality invented by William S. Burroughs and it was interesting what came out of a short free write about a recurring dream; an article about the movement of stars; and the humane device for killing crustaceans. I took a piece of the short story 'Cyberpunk', a piece of Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat and a piece I wrote about reading on the bus to school, and came up with sixteen lines of poetry: now I have to think of a title! I don't know how it works as a poem, but it was great fun to write.

Out of my sleepsack, cyberpunking to purgatory
Seven miles on the transys to school
The seat was booby trapped, apple carts
Spinning wheels on the way out of the prefabs
Sprawling over the hill, Jerry built, no really,
Custom built from the motherboard up by POW’s
Enslaved to the corporation, greentoothed,
From the red-eyes hollowness of the war.

Easing myself into the planet machine
Deep in the book, following Jim DiGriz
Down the stainless steel sewers, a bug
Oozing into the programme, no-one flags on us
The right salute, the right uniform, corporate zombies
Charming the drones, tough program to crack,
On-line in nano’s, blew a chip, shut down fast
On the seven ten bus from the end of the line.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Reading to order

I don't like reading to order. I'm completely happy reading non-fiction with a highlighter pen, I've just finished John Gardner's The Art of Fiction and Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. But Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf) was difficult, and this week we've had Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night A Traveller. Now I'm reading The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald). I know I should be better read if I'm going to do a literary course but it's hard work. Fiction is for fun, I'm just not that fussy a reader, I'm just finishing the Garth Nix trilogy (again) aimed at kids - Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen. And having read all these literary masterpieces, along with Chekhov and Joyce and Kafka, can I say I recommend Sabriel: as good a book as any of them? Great literary fiction it may not be, but an absolute rollercoaster of a book full of dazzling descriptions and characters and a believable world of magic and the land of the dead. Go Mr Nix. Back to Gatsby. Sigh.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

A363 assignment back

I'm over the moon to have got 94% for my first assignment with the OU. Better still, I enjoyed writing the piece. the only problem is that my tutor thinks it would make a good screenplay which I have absolutely no idea (really) how to write. I don't have time to study anything beyond the screenplay chapters in the coursebook, even though I have books on the subject, I haven't had time to open them. I have a feeling McKee's story, which I have at least looked through, is going to be heavily relied on! It helped that I am writing every day, when do we normally have that luxury? Though I suppose I do go on Facebook every day - maybe there's no real excuse. Anyway, for eight more months I get to work, and work on the MA and the book and find time to learn a whole new skill...screenwriting, how hard can it be? (Hollow laugh). Maybe I'll just go with my first thoughts and radio play it.

Inspired by nature (again)

Having been visited yesterday by a wren, I have to be happy with little glimpses of wildlife here. Anyway, the mention of a buzzard that was amazing Russell yesterday on the phone, was enough to get me writing.

It sits, on a tree stump
or a weathered post, hunched
in its oversized feather jacket.
Buzzard is the collective
noun for feather dusters.

It stretches banded wings,
feeling for the air, the uplift
pulling, unfolding into the sky.
It wheels like linked hands
fingering the clouds.

Rabbits corkscrew into brambles,
pigeons tremble, fat, against tree trunk,
nest, wall. Raiding parties form,
of crows, or rooks, that harry
it from above the meat-hooks.

In summer its rag bag children
follow, hawking death clumsily
missing, crashing into the grass;
striking trees in explosions of leaves.
Rip and squabble over the dead.

One mistook a paper sculpture,
a papier-mâché pig, fat and brown
on our windowsill, and fell,
then understood and threw out
five foot wingspanned brakes.

A buzzard eclipse, as it darkened
six panes of glass, claws clicking
before folding into shrubs,
to scramble unhurt, ruffled;
to derisive shrieks overhead.

By late autumn, the buzzard,
paired and childless, having driven
off competing marauders,
hangs in the last summer thermals,
circles, adjusting a single feather.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Poetry is invading my world again

OK, so there's this research module, that flings tasks at you, that I find irresistible. Write a bibliography... so Harvard referencing which I have always used for essays pops into my head, and i think how pointless it is for really creative pieces, and I'm much rather steer my reader down the same creative path that I took. So this is my (very kind) draft.

Harvard Referencing

Here are the inky footprints
of my research, academic name dropping
on the treasure map of my resources,
in citations and publishers and authors.

References that don’t mention the time
I wrote them, wine-dazed at three
in the morning, book in one hand,
toast or remote or lover in the other.

Citations pepper the text, season
it with the magnitude of the published,
the security of peer reviewed words.
My ideas smothered by a patchwork of texts.

Me (2010) locked into the half truths
and slant rhymes of writers who loom, heavy
tomes shadow me; lose me in their pages,
pressed, library scented until released
in a deluge of post its, fine pencilled notes.

I would rather reference the other
way, through coffees sipped, poems
fallen into, music that drew lines
under thoughts, italicised words, coloured.

Rather, I would send the reader on a journey
to stand in galleries and walk under trees,
stand knee deep, as I did, in spring tides
or row onto the lake, fingers trailing in snowmelt.

Or make them sit by the Aga, with a notebook
full of poems; tear out the least desired
and leave them on the hotplate to singe
and curl; fold into ash by morning.

Or I'll reference the shopping list or recipe,
or words whispered into my ear;
or the lies I tell in-laws—or out-laws.
Blog, unblog, quote friends on Facebook,

pin down praise from my mother
in instructive citations. Draw in lipstick,
cartoons on the mirror, reference the scent
of the t-shirt I wore to mow the  lawn.
Write in cardamom scented ink.
References, citations and bibliographies are used in a piece of academic writing to enable a reader to identify and locate the sources which have been consulted by the writer.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Being at home

It appears I can be creative at home, and I can edit in Winchester. Of course, being at home has many other benefits as well, but tomorrow I shall get on a  train at Barnstaple and progress towards Winchester, hopefully finding time to enjoy a bit of reading along the way (Freud again). At least I mastered Mrs Dalloway, although I don't think I'll read it for pleasure, I got my tired head around it. I don't like reading books that haven't caught my interest (I'm re-reading Sabriel by Garth Nix for fun - hard to think this is a kid's book). But the chore has been done, and I did get some pleasure from the language itself. The most useful thing I have done is read biographies of Woolf, explains the book's themes.

So here, because I miss it so much is another picture of the house, so I can remind myself that it's still here, and waiting for me!

I ought to be waving back at the Tarka trail, but I missed that opportunity. Walking along the old railway, now a cyclepath and footpath to South Devon, gives us some stunning views and inspires some poetry along the way.  The wildlife here is lovely, we had a jay six feet from the living room window this morning and I saw deer last visit. Onwards and trainwards....

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Second best

It's really hard being the second wife. It's not as if the first wife drove him to drink or infidelity or divorce, they were happily married: that is to say, they had their ups and downs. Then she died. Suddenly, horribly, in an accident. She stopped being annoying, wrong, demanding, needy or whatever it is that we can sometimes be. Then I stepped in. The problem for me is that she used to keep little mementos like birthday cards from him, her husband who is now my husband, tucked into the pages of books. We have very similar tastes in books - and men, as it turned out - and I periodically find these little bullets between the pages of books, waiting to shoot me in the heart.
Anyway, I'd been writing poetry (on the subject of nature, long autumn walks hand in hand earlier that day) when I was ambushed by a recipe book. A card from him, all love and sweetness, and completely understandable. I am completely wracked with unreasonable jealousy, in fact, we were close friends during her life and I hardly knew the man-in-a-suit that she was married to. They had this lovely romantic story about how she met him when she was engaged to someone else, and nearly didn't marry the other guy, but they were both so young, she married Mr Wrong but never forgot Mr Right. When it all fell apart he was still waiting... and they lived happily ever after until a moment of fate took her away.  It's hard to compete with that. I literally came second.
My problem is, she's smiling in photographs, video, smiling back from her children, and she never gets it wrong. He doesn't look back, he's changed so much because losing a partner like that transforms you (it did me, anyway, many years ago). I'm not sure they would even want each other. If she came back,. which she can't. So why do I feel so insecure? Anyway, I walloped out a poem from previous jealous rants and hope to put it behind me. And yes, it is deeply self indulgent crap first draft but I need to get it out of the way so I can work on chapter 4 and my TMA01 for A363, which still needs a commentary.   


His first wife whispers, pressed
between the spines of books on my shelves,
her Canterbury tales alongside mine, postcard
from him, bookmarking the Knight’s tale.

She never lies now, she never says ‘no’.
Her hands are smooth in memory,
He says he loves her on notes in blue biro.
Jealousy papercuts my soul, stings.

Delia Smith archives their love, florist’s cards
for flowers longer composted than she
sucked dry by the tree, woody fingers exploring
her bones, silver birch dancing in the winter winds.

Birthdays seasoned their lives in  
‘My darlings’ sprinkled like flour, tart tatin
and chocolate brownies, in the Good Housekeeping
Cookbook, love from Mum and Dad (but not mine).

The letters drop from a dictionary, about babies
they conceived, sweaty and earthy nights loving
her and not me. She cradles my children on video,
birth wet, still raw, in her dead arms, blows kisses.

‘My darling’ on a card with forty on it, final
celebration before a Nissan Micra crushed her,
death blown, waxy, a still life in the mortuary
hollowed by death, ageless. I grieved.

I didn’t know then that we would be sharing him.

I keep his letters nested in a wooden box,
when I die, burn them, so wife number three isn’t pierced
by his words, his love, his passion for me
as it browns and shrivels in the winds of winter. 

Coming second sucks.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Agh! Poetry drafts.

I know there are people who just seem to think in poetry, who pin beautiful words and phrases onto a page and then move them about into a harmonious and beautiful form. I'm not one of the those. However, one useful tip I can pass on to those of you who share my struggles: Translate roughly 150 words at a time through babelfish, into French (for lyricism) or Italian (for wit) or even Russian if you just want to go earthy and sexual. Then cut and paste the result and translate back into English - you find some lovely ideas and words. 'The Gathering Tree' becomes (somehow) 'l' sourcilleux tree', which somehow found my intention, to try and describe the magical congregation of rooks and jackdaws in a tree on the ridge opposite our house. (It actually means 'beetle-browed' but for me will be the sorcerer's tree). The innocent sounding 'And clouds of inky rags approach from the east / Spiralling to the valley floor, brushing the brook / With feathery fingers, then riding the wind up, / Up to the ridge, to land in the Gathering tree.' became 'and the clouds of inky of rags moor from the east Of [zakruchivayushch] into the spiral to the sex of valley, cleaning [ruek] by brush [pri] feathery of finger, after this wind upward, to the ridge, to the earth in gathering the shaft.' Via a bit of Russian. This is why I like writing poetry, I've remembered.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Theories again

I find Monday nights' theory sessions fascinating but the reading is hard. Maybe it's because I don't have any education in literature... I knew this bit would be hard, but it has produced the odd bit of amusing fiction. I wrestled with Walter Benjamin's ideas about Kafka - only ten years after Kafka's early death and I think, a product oif their own time. It was way easier to look at Kafka in terms of Freud. I thought I would get them sitting together chatting and that turned into a row across a lake (major metaphor for the whole conscious boat of a bottomless lake of unconscious crap, which came up quite 'by accident'. There are no accidents in Freud. Which is why I'm a humanist...) They got chatting about something I am aware of - how much we are revealed by our writing. Looking back over writing that I thought was quite transparent, I see so much more now. Doubts, angers, fears, sadness, hope, love...even in old blog posts and letters. Anyway, I knocked up a first draft :

Rowing on the Lake

Freud pulled back, feeling the slight spring in the oars against the green water of the lake. ‘Spruce oars,’ he said. ‘I grew up with ash, a beautiful wood, but heavy.’ As they passed under the beech branches clutching the sky, Kafka was cut into strips of yellow and grey. Freud smiled, sighed into his beard, the warm air reflecting back onto his lower lip.
Kafka turned his head to watch as Freud dipped the blade of the oars into the water, creating vortices, spinning in different directions and flashing with light.
‘I never learned to row.’ His voice was soft, very precise.
Freud took another stroke of the oars, then another, the boat beginning to pick up a pleasing momentum, surging ahead with each stroke, coasting in between, in open water. The lake seemed darker green, as if it was bottomless. ‘I don’t analyse any more, you know. I have many students who do. I can recommend one.’
The younger man put one hand onto the water bubbling beside him, his fingers barely skipping on the surface, trailing lines and bubbles of their own. ‘I know.’ Kafka was neatly dressed, thick socks travelling between the turned up hem of his trousers and small black shoes, which were in need of a polish. He had the hungry look of many consumptives. His voice was hesitant, nothing like his writing. ‘I simply find myself…haunted, I suppose. Haunted by dreams and images.’
Freud stretched back and shipped the oars. Drops of water streamed down them onto the bench beside him, and he pulled out a handkerchief to mop up the two pools.
‘Cigar, Mr Kafka?’
Kafka leaned forward to take one.
Freud took one himself. The match flared into life in an acrid cloud of phosphorus, blown across the boat. He offered the matches to Kafka, who shook his head, preferring to hold the cigar for a moment before tucking it into his jacket pocket.
‘I shall smoke it later.’ He smiled, and Freud immediately warmed to the man. His smile enlivened his solemn, child-like face and brightened his dark eyes. He immediately seemed younger.
‘How old are you, Mr. Kafka?’
‘Franz. Please, call me Franz. I am thirty seven years old.’
Freud studied the younger man. ‘I have read your novella. “The Metamorphosis”.’
Kafka, inclined his head. This was one area on which he appeared more confident.
Freud watched smoke drifting starboard, dropping onto the surface of the lake, cut into ever-changing trapeziums and triangles by the wind over the water.
‘Of course, it is possible to interpret the beast, the verminous monster Gregor is transformed into, as the pre-eminence of the id.’ As the younger man did not speak, Freud continued to address the water. ‘His transformation is the beginning of the transformation of the family, the mother and father, the sister Grete.’
‘Indeed.’ When Freud looked at Kafka, he caught him chewing on his lower lip.
‘Was that your intention?’
Kafka looked away, thoughts chasing across his face in fleeting expressions, one hand clasped tightly in the other.
‘Perhaps. Not consciously. I suppose my thoughts were that Gregor was not the benefactor for his family that he thought he was.’
‘So, in some sense his return to support for the family was a castration of his father?’
Kafka rolled his head on his shoulder, as if the muscles there were tight. ‘I suppose so. But that was not in my thoughts when I wrote the story.’
Freud opened the wicker picnic basket between the men’s feet. ‘Do you care for a blanket? There is a cold breeze.’
‘Thank you, no.’ The man leaned forward, his clasped hands resting on his knees as Freud dropped a blanket over his own legs and reached for the flask of coffee.
‘So, tell me, what were your thoughts when you started to write?’
He poured Kafka some coffee and this time, the younger man accepted it, cupping reddened fingers around the china mug. He seemed to think, lifting his head as he looked around the lake, the distant shores barely visible in a haze to the east. ‘I suppose I was thinking of…how mundane life is.’
‘Mmm.’ Freud sipped his coffee, grimaced at the strength of it. Josefina, the maid, always stewed it.
‘I just wondered, what it would be like for something so extraordinary…so different, to happen to someone so ordinary. I had no ending planned, nor any beginning, really. I was as surprised as any reader to find Gregor had become a—monster. ’
Freud let his gaze wander over Kafka, who was staring into his coffee, frowning, as if to find answers there. Kafka looked up suddenly with his deep, dark eyes. His face was drawn from wide Slavic cheekbones to a pointed chin, his cheeks hollow.
Kafka spoke quietly, as if they could be overheard, even hundreds of metres onto the lake. ‘These words, these ideas…they intoxicate me. I write and even I cannot believe that these thoughts have come from me.’
Freud nodded, allowing a smile, that he hoped would be reassuring, to curve his beard. ‘All thoughts, all ideas and fantasies are possible, and permissible.’ He touched the fingers of one hand to the corresponding fingers of the other. ‘These forms rise from the unconscious, as symbols of deeply buried desires and needs.’
‘But what desire could be represented by becoming a creature so repulsive?’ The writer’s thin, brown fingers trembled on the cup.
Freud shrugged. ‘How repulsive? You did not describe the creature, other than to suggest it was vermin, unclean, insect-like.’
‘I hardly know myself.’ He drained the cup, handed it back to Freud. ‘I am drawn to these images that haunt my sleep.’
‘Mmm.’ Freud looked at the wrinkles on the man’s forehead, the paleness of his skin beneath the dark hair.
Kafka looked up at him, reached out a hand to grasp Freud’s jacket sleeve. ‘If I publish these stories, people speculate…people see what is in…my depths.’ He swept the other hand across the surface of the water. ‘Like this lake. If it were transformed to perfect transparency, what wrecks, what monsters would we see? Drowned sailors, smothered babies, the detritus of all the towns along the river, discharging into the lake.’
Freud patted his hand for a moment then gently detached it.
Kafka continued. ‘If these monsters live inside my soul…and I reveal them in my stories…’
Freud shook his head. ‘Inside the mind of every man and woman, my dear Kafka. Your soul I cannot comment on.’
Kafka blinked as if there were tears there. Freud looked away to allow him to compose himself.
‘Perhaps, my dear Kafka, you should consider analysis after all. I could refer you to a colleague of mine.’
‘I shall stop writing.’
Freud picked up the oars, dipping them into the water, left hand ahead of the right so they did not clash. Pulled more on the right side, to turn the boat back towards the jetty. They had drifted maybe half a mile down the lake.
‘Would you care to take an oar? A brisk row shall soon warm you up.’
He made room for the slim writer, who stooped and shuffled crabwise onto the seat. ‘That’s it, dip—pull, swing back.’ As they pulled, Freud kept an eye on the shore. ‘There ideas are not harmful. They simply represent experiences and emotions from your past.’
‘I understand…that.’ Kafka was pulling hard, out of breath after a dozen strokes. ‘I prefer to…keep them private, however.’
‘Indeed.’ Ten, fifteen more strokes and the boat was moving strongly against the slight current. ‘You could consider not publishing them all.’
Kafka lost the rhythm for a moment, and Freud allowed him to catch up. Pull, lean, pull, lean. The leather soles of the younger man’s shoes slipped a little on the boards. ‘Spruce, you say?’

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Reading and writing

I've been concentrating on books since the boys left. I took up the recommended book The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks and read it in one go. It is a story of a rather revolting character who graphically tortures and kills animals, and describes his three murders, committed while he was a child. Yet somehow Banks manages to write the character so well, that although you are repelled by what he does, you start to concern yourself with his welfare. Somehow you start to see Frank as a real, damaged and deluded individual. The final twist came as a huge surprise to me, though cleverly signposted. It's a kind of Gothic novel for the modern world. Fantastic writing. Truly, a book I would not recommend as light entertainment or bedtime reading, but amazing.

On to poetry, from the snippets I sketched out in Devon and on the train. I have a vague outline, based (at the moment) on James Joyce's interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas' views on beauty: wholeness, harmony and radiance. For me, one of the wonders of the natural world is the way huge flocks of corvids, mostly jackdaws and rooks but sometimes crows too, come together into huge flocks, gathering, lifting into the air then settling like washing in the trees until they set of to make an even bigger group somewhere else. the birds travel miles to do this, and they do it regularly.

Mark Cocker in Crow Country described 40,000 or so in the most gorgeous prose. Meanwhile, I struggle to describe the sight and sound of hundreds of jackdaws assembling last year over the Cairn and the beginnings of a gathering when I was in Devon last week. I was literally breathless, wordless, by the sheer beauty of nature and all the sensory experiences of it. I love it when that happens, but it makes it difficult to put into words. I think it's like sketching, you see a lovely view but the lines on the page, or the watercolors for that matter, don't capture the original. Even photography, by emphasising the visual, kills the rest. Difficult. I have come up with 18 lines, so far, a miracle for me, as I end up with really small poems. My tutor suggested 4000 words of fiction or 150 lines of poetry. I'll never be able to come up with that much poetry, it's like making magical potions ('first find an unopened pine cone that has been nibbled by a squirrel, soak for three days in melted hail...' OK, made up, but you get my drift?).