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.