Wintery Solstice greetings. Let us all work together for a more peaceful and just 2012.


During my reading yesterday I came across this quote from French poet, essayist and thinker, Paul Valéry (1871-1945):

'The true poet does not know the exact meaning of what he has just had the good luck to write. A moment later he is a mere reader. He has written non-sense: something that must not present but receive a meaning, and that is very different. ... The verse is waiting for a meaning. The verse is waiting for a reader.'

(JR Lawler trans. In The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, ed J Matthews,
Princeton University Press)

I connected it immediately to the free writing I do. It is not until I read it back that I see meaning, indeed, having done the exercise of going back through my journals, it may not be until I re-read it some time later that I grasp what is being said. What I was trying to communicate.

It also applies to when we let our words go free to an audience beyond ourselves. How relaxed can we be about them not 'getting it'? How prepared are we that they will find their own meanings in what we have written, which might diverge from what we intended?


Going through my old writing journals I found an entry inspired by John O'Donohue, poet, priest and philosopher, who died in 2008. He contrasted the external world with each individual's 'profoundly nameless' internal world, and said that if we live only in the external our 'heart will whither in the famine fields of image, information and noise'. He also warned that, though there maybe some security in sameness and predictability, there is no growth or peace in a denied life and to renege on the call of our creativity is to rob ourselves of everything.

Though I love the lights and baubles which twinkle out into the darkness at this time of year, I fear the boisterous commercialism creates a famine for our souls which no turkey - however huge - can satiate. The accepted and banal rush and bustle and stress associated with the buying and primping and over-indulging of a modern-day Christmas will surely leave us feeling empty when the New Year comes around.


I have been watching Art of America on BBC4. In the last programme (I saw) the lovely Andrew Graham-Dixon was exploring the work of abstract painters and it occurred to me, where were the abstract movements in literature?

Perhaps poetry is closer to visual art than prose. I can see how some poems could be said to be part of an abstract vision in that they attempt to capture the essence of a thing or a moment, to grasp what's inside rather than what's perceived from the outside.

But novels appear to be less conducive to such experimentation. Apart from a few notable exceptions, we still write novels in the same way as we did when the 'first' ones took this country by storm in the 1700s. As a writer I've struggled to conceive of how to create a narrative which is only about essence, and as a reader I wonder whether I would accept such abstraction. Would I not miss the comfort of being taken by the hand through a story?


It comes from a well-known saying, I know, so not a new thought, but this Haiku presented itself to me this week:

Fragile and silent
the wings of the butterfly
may yet brew a storm.


A couple of weeks ago I went to 'Anniversary - an act of memory', a performance piece celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights created by Monica Ross. There was something compelling about the experience, however, I couldn't help thinking that the declaration is perhaps showing its age.

Proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on the 10th of December 1948, it was born out of war and conflict. A key phrase comes in its preamble: 'Whereas disregard and contempt of human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of humankind...'

There are still barbarous acts in this world of ours, yet, it seems to me, that the declaration no longer covers all the bases - and, indeed, sometimes came over as anachronistic. Article 17: 'Everyone has the right to own property...' and Article 23: 'Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment...' come to mind.

But for me it was mainly what was missing: the rights of our planet and our duties and responsibilities to it and to each other.

The preamble, with its repeated use of 'Whereas' has an almost poetic feel to it. I would suggest a few additions to it:
Whereas we are part of a larger family than the human one.
Whereas we rely on the bounty of the earth and her gifts.
Whereas we are not owners of our planet but custodians.
Whereas we have responsibilities as well as rights.
Whereas we acknowledge our mistakes of the past, let us learn from them.

I still feel the article which poses the greatest challenge is Article 29 which attempts to address the problem that our 'rights' often conflict with those of others. Maybe if the earth's rights became more central, this would be a way through such tensions and contradictions.


I went to see The Art of Persuasion at the Stephen Joseph Theatre this weekend, a first play from author Roger Osborne. It was masterful. I was going to add, 'for a debut', however, that would have been disingenuous. This was a play any dramatist would have been proud of writing.

To be honest, I wasn't keen on the topic, thinking I saw enough scheming politicians on the nightly news, I didn't need to spend my Saturday evening with them too. But I was gripped from the beginning. The Art of Persuasion explored how and why corruption happens with wit and intelligence, it also set up audience expectations in the first act, only to bowl straight through them in the second and continue to rip 'em down in the third.

This was apparently a 'workshop' performance put on with the minimum rehearsal and scanty resources. You would not have known it. The actors were superb, absorbing us into their sordid little drama whether we wanted to go there or not.

Osborne, already a well-known and accomplished non-fiction writer, has crossed genre with aplomb. Creative plasticity is something that I have addressed in previous blogs and it was raised again on the Culture Show (BBC2) this week. Steve McQueen was asked whether he was now an artist who expressed himself in film or a film maker who sometimes painted. Giving the interviewer a withering look, McQueen responded that he would go wherever his creativity chose to take him. I was considerably heartened by this (for myself and my attempts at melding the visual with the literary) and, further, hope that Osborne continues to take his talents for a turn on the stage.


I have just got back from the 3rd International Symposium on Poetic Inquiry ( which was held at Bournemouth University from the 20th to the 23rd of October. It was a very rich experience with researchers coming from Canada, the US, South Africa, Denmark, as well as from around the UK. I was the novice of the bunch. At the same time I did feel at home and that I had something to offer from my experience as a writer-poet, therapist and researcher.

Poetry Inquiry is a qualitative research method, it is relatively new, it is controversial. The symposium offered case studies as well as some of the on-going debates. I was pleased too that there was room for the magical. A candlelit evening of poetry at the Russell-Cotes museum ( and the conference dinner at the Langtry Manor Hotel (, the house built in 1877 by Edward VII for his mistress Lillie Langtry.

I was also given the gift of discovering how to perform Haiku, which I tried to do on the final day with this offering:

Hungry, I arrived.
Satiated by your words
I leave with silence.


Loved when
I turn to you.
Scared of how you might greet
The precious cargo of me, becomes
Entwined with you. Full knowing.
Now I exist.


I am very pleased to see my latest article in print: 'The chrysalis and the butterfly: a phenomenological study of one person's writing journey' Journal of Applied Arts & Health, Vol 2 No 2, 2011.

I am particularly proud of this piece as I think it accomplishes the mix of academic and creative which I've been striving for. I also believe it does justice to the moving story my interviewee entrusted me with. [I am working hard not to add in a 'nearly' and an 'almost' in these last two sentences].

One of the aspects of the creative cycle (that I've blogged about before) is the idea of fully completing the process by feeling the achievement before moving onto the next project. I am endeavouring to do that, though, of course, for me, the writing never stops.


Last week I saw a recording of Edith Sitwell being interviewed in 1959 by John Freeman for the BBC Face to Face programme. It was extraordinary to watch this woman, who I had read so much about and seen in so many still pictures, animated. I was initially struck by how bad her teeth were.

I became frustrated by Freeman's questioning style, so much was left out and unexplored. 'Poetry has two parents,' Dame Edith said. What did she mean?

A critic once stated that Sitwell was 'as ugly as modern poetry'. I, of course, don't find either unattractive. Edith looked beautiful, almost ecstatic in a religious sense, as she talked about filling a notebook with re-writes of just one poem and then, sometimes, 'putting it aside for a while'. Her poetry was inspired, she said, by a humble love of God and of humanity and she described the artist undergoing perpetual 'resurrections' as they find over and over renewed inspiration for their creative work.

It was wonderful to see how poetry could fill this woman - ill, depressed, at the end of her life - with such vigour. Maybe it will do the same for me when my days begin to run out.
I wonder how many other people after watching the entertaining Fry's Planet Word on BBC on Sunday, were left with the same question as me: when does a series of grunts move from being 'just' communication to being a language?

Fry argued, as many before him have, that it is language which sets humans apart from other animals. And, indeed, uniquely on this planet, we appear to have genes specifically geared towards making language acquisition a natural process, as well as the specialised vocal apparatus.

But what is language? Our nearest cousins in the primate world communicate with each other, and can be taught to use symbols which communicate with us. However, this is not language, according to Fry, because it is merely responding to an immediate emotion or need in the present moment.

So, in that case, when I request a glass of water or say, 'I'm scared', have I dropped from the pinnacle denoted as 'language' to the base 'communication'?


While at the Lapidus ( agm the other weekend, I attended a writing workshop facilitated by Vicky Field. We were exploring the idea of islands and afterwards I did one of my cartoons in my writing journal. It is the first time I have put one of my sketches on public view!

I am really enjoying seeing where my visual creativity can take me and how it complements or enhances my writing.

It is interesting that we tend to categorise ourselves in one art form or another, and yet, I'm beginning to feel, this is a false pigeon holing. There are famous examples of those who were wordsmiths as well as artists, such as William Blake, and less well known ones, for instance Daphne Du Maurier painted when she was blocked in her writing.

I heard Kwame Kwei-Armah say on the radio some time ago that in this country we distrust people who want to branch out into many art forms. It's a shame if this were true, since, I believe, the blossoming of one aspect of our creativity helps the fruition of another.

Found Poetry
I've just visited London, a place I lived on the edge of for some years, but never felt at home in. Going to pick up a tube map at Kings Cross, I found instead a similarly configured leaflet entitled 'Polish Poems on the Underground'.

What a trove. One poem, in particular, spoke to me immediately:

I returned to you years later,
gray and lovely city,
unchanging city
buried in the waters of the past.

I'm no longer the student
of philosophy, poetry, and curiosity,
I'm not the young poet who wrote
too many lines

(Extract from Star by Adam Zagajewski, trans Clare Cavanagh)
I'm still strimming my writing journals and have found this which appears appropriate for this time of year:

Autumn Jazz
Stewing apples on the old agar.
The last of the crop.
A nothing woman,
then she takes up the sax -
her notes crack the blue,
finding the lost.
While gazing at my four season collages, an artist friend said, and when you look at them, doesn't it take you back to the moment you made them?

I gave a non-committal reply as that didn't quite fit for me. On the other hand, delving back into my writing journals, as I have been doing recently, certainly allows me to time travel. Seeing my words and the way they are formed - the size and consistency of the letters - on the paper, tells me a great deal about how I was feeling at the time.

I've been discussing whether it is possible to keep a reflective writing journal on line. Perhaps for some it is. However, I wonder whether the technology not only means that the writing loses its spontaneity, that 'before the thought is fully formed' quality, but also the visual impact of how it was written when reading back.

In my journals I've been finding titbits to inspire my present writing projects. I also re-discovered this which I still like as a meditative little piece:

Those moments I lost
in the pettiness of things,
I find again in the sea's
underwater calm.

Those moments I lost
in the fear of things,
I find again in the sea's
night terrors.


I love to sit at the top of our garden by our lavender bushes and watch the indsutry of bees. I am humbled that they put so much effort in and, over their lifetime, produce just a tea spoon of honey. I wonder what my tea spoon of honey will be?

Bee Keeper
Today I feel the weight of honey,
the deliberateness of bees.

I sip my lavender cup
then slip to the next,
through draped cherry skirts,
my bloomers pollen yellow,
with a certainty and a fecundity
insects know
and humans have lost.

I will have my portion of nectar today,
create my share of sweetness.


My mind goes back to the International Human Sciences Conference which I attended in July. One of the keynote speakers was Professor Bernd Jager from the University of Quebec. He spoke about creation myths and how they might be used to understand (rather than explain) aspects of our shared humanity.

He suggested some commonalities in these myths: action followed by encounter, then a 'standing back' and a 'calling forth' of what has been created. This is followed by a benediction, a 'seeing that it was good'.

And I thought that it is often the 'benediction' which I forget, the moment (in Gestalt terms) of satisfaction, when the desire has been fulfilled. Perhaps that's why sometimes I feel like a hamster on a wheel.

Jager talked about the importance in myth of the rhythmic succession of 'creation' followed by 'benediction' and 'rest'. I wonder if there is something unhealthy in having lost this sequence.


How to get started writing? It’s no secret that I am a great advocate of what I call ‘free’ writing. Free writing throws off any inflexible rules about how writing ought to look or about what it ought to say. I call it free writing. Others have described it in different ways, such as unconscious or automatic writing where we write whatever is in our heads in as muddled up or disorderly fashion as possible. From this ‘mess’ can be drawn words or phrases which are often surprising and can be the springboard for further, more crafted, writing.

Natalie Goldberg in her seminal work Writing Down the Bones, gives the following 'rules' for free writing: keep to a time limit*; keep your hand moving; don't cross out; don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar; lose control; don't think; don't get logical; go for the jugular (if something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy)
* I would suggest initially three minutes, working up to five or ten.

The aim is to 'burn through to first thoughts … to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel', to 'explore the rugged edge of thought.' (Goldberg, p8/9)

This does take practice and may initially go against the writing instinct, especially if you have a particularly rigid attitude to writing taken from certain experiences in the past, school for instance.

Surrealists used free writing before they painted and I introduced it to a local artist, John Bell. He has recently sent me this wonderful painting which expresses for him the process of ‘free’ writing.

John explains: I just thought you may like to see the attached picture entitled ‘Golden Thread’. It is about free writing; it reads left to right. The upper horizontal line represents thoughts we are aware of, but there's lots going on beneath.

Tracing free writing along this upper line gives a peak to represent a gold nugget dredged to the surface. This, tracing further, gives an opportunity to be enlightened by this revelation, and a realisation of more, perhaps even larger ‘nuggets’ to uncover later.

(For more information about John's art,

So this Summer, set your writerly hand free and discover the treasure just below the surface.

I have just returned from the 30th International Human Science Research Conference: Intertwining body-self-world (St Catherine's College, Oxford, 27th-30th July 2011).

It is difficult to encapsulate the experience in one word. It was so many things: interesting; challenging; scary; lonely; full of encounters; warm; thought-provoking; curious; confusing... I think that what it all means to me will unfold and change over the coming months, depending, perhaps, on what happens next and on what ideas and acquaintances will be deepened.

Under the curious heading must come the 'workshop' given by an American Dennis Rebelo, who tutors business entrepreneurs in creating a more effective personal story (and, most amazingly, gets paid for it!) He put up his first powerpoint slide with his title: 'Phenomenologically-Structured Storying for Threshold Moments in Life and Work'. What made me start and look again was that he had actually trade-marked the phrase: Threshold Moments. It came as a complete shock to me that you can trade-mark words, trade-mark a meaning. Is this even possible? What happens if I decide to use threshold and moments according to my own fashion? I wonder, even as I type this, whether I need his permission to put these two words together in a sentence.

Yes there were times during the conference when I felt out of place, a little lost. On the other hand, I was impressed by the other delegates' passion for their research within the human sciences, and also their capacity to hold onto a belief that what they are doing will somehow improve the world around them. That was comforting.
Fry's English Delight on Radio 4 on the 18th of July was dedicated to brevity. So I will keep this short.

During the programme he talked about the Haiku, one of my favourite forms when writing poetry, with Caroline Gourlay. She said the Haiku captures a moment, it brings us to an awareness, it brings us to silence.

I had a big meeting last week and I lost my voice. I wrote:

the week I am to be heard,
my voice crawls away.

I found I wanted to change the last line to: my voice croaks because of the double meaning (to die). I'm still not sure which I prefer, however, the first version gives me the syllables normally required for a Haiku. Although, as Gourlay also suggested, I know the syllable 'rule' for the Haiku could be seen as spurious, given that the Chinese and Japanese languages (where the form originates) uses characters and not words which can be broken down as ours can.


The question is whether I am going to be the only blogger in the world (or, at least, in the UK and the US) not to post about the Murdochs? And it is tempting to think that there is nothing else going on of import, however that would be wrong. Wars are still being fought, peace is still being pursued, famine and poverty are still killing. Awful as what went on at the News of the World was - and I have always said it was a shabby enterprise and wondered why people propped it up by buying it - these other truths are equally as weighty.

We have two young, female language students staying with us, one from Spain, Laura, and one from Switzerland, Selina. Last night around the dinner table we tried to put the world to rights. Laura said she would give half the wealth from the richest in the world to the poorest. Selina said she felt the money should go into sustainable projects rather than to individuals. I said that it's been proved many times over that educating girls and women was effective in lifting the whole family out of poverty.

Laura, in particular, reminded me of myself as a late teen, ambitious for her writing, idealistic, fiery. She said if you're not a dreamer when you are young, it will never happen. Perhaps she is right. I have certainly become more cynical, more world-weary, less sure of what might bring about change. For Laura and Selina I hope that the future will not buff off their sparkly edges quite so much and that their ideas will be given the opportunity to shine.


My article on Writer's Block has been published. You can see it at:

Obviously any comments or thoughts would be gratefully received by email!


It is sometimes - though not always - reassuring to hear other (more famous, more published) writers talk.

Desert Island Discs, Radio 4, 17th June, 2011
Kirsty Young: When did you realise you were a writer?
Andrea Levy: Any day now.

Even one as Andrea Levy struggles with seeing herself as a writer. Writing, putting marks on a paper which form symbols that others can interpret, is something the majority of the population in this country do in one form or another, at one time or another. Yet to be a writer appears to be mean more than this.

Margaret Atwood (Negotiating with the Dead, Virago, 2003) suggests:
'A lot of people do have a book in them … But this is not the same as “being a writer.” Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. The latter takes a good deal more stamina and persistence. It is also, because of the nature of the activity, a deeply symbolic role. As a grave-digger, you are not just a person who excavates. You carry upon your shoulders the weight of other people’s projections, of their fears and fantasies and anxieties and superstitions…' (p23)

It has taken a lot for me to own the title writer. And it is still a work in progress, especially when the reviews are bad. Or, worse, there is no feedback at all - no-one is interested in what I am doing. At moments like that, the only way forward, for me, is to keep putting those strange symbols down and hope at some point they will make sense and have meaning to another person.


I will spread my wings,
one tranquil eve, as gulls do,
and ride the updraft.

Written after a beautiful evening in the garden of The Victoria at Robin Hood's Bay watching the sea birds.


I've just finished Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. Over-all I found it a slightly dissatisfying read. I didn't believe in the heroine Eilis. She didn't strike me as being like any woman I had ever met, come across or heard of, especially her attitude to her painful and underwhelming first experience of sex. It did occur to me that she might be more of a male fantasy of what a woman ought to be like.

In complete contrast, I felt utterly taken by the protagonist in Siri Hustvedt's The Sorrows of an American. Is this evidence of better writing, or just that Hustvedt creates a female fantasy of what a man ought to be? And I happily buy into it (the erotic tenor of the first sentence of this paragraph is not lost on me).

There is an argument that the talent in good writers shows in how they craft characters very different from themselves. Then, on the other hand, it could be said that our stories are merely peopled by facsimiles of ourselves with different wigs on.

Perhaps it doesn't matter. Maybe there are enough diverse writers out there to construct abundant realities, and it is for us readers to decide which dream world we are prepared to step into.
An old man sits down to author his memoirs. For three hours every day he writes longhand in a notebook. He dies. When his daughter discovers his work, she reads page after page: 'I lived. I lived. I lived.'

Is this a short story? It being brief and a narrative.


A number of years ago I bought a CD, Poetry in Performance (Vol 2, 57 Productions, and I was immediately caught by the arresting 'the poem that was really a list' by Francesca Beard.

More recently, her haunting diction and striking rhythms have come back to me. I cannot claim this voice totally for myself, though the ideas are mine, and it keeps breaking out:

The caretaker who is really a poet.
The criminal who is really a protester.
The civilian who may be a rebel.
The child who is collateral damage.
The terrorist who might have been a goat herder.
The wrestle which was really an embrace.
The philosopher who was really stone.
The scaffold which was once a tree.
The meditation that was really sleep.
The words which became a knife.

Try it for yourself, especially while you are watching the news.
I am very excited to announce that poet, Jackie Kay, who was 'in residence' during the Scarborough Literature Festival in April, went to see 'Words in My Head'. She wrote the following:

‘I spent a dreamy, special hour transported by this extraordinary soundscape/art installation. It seemed as if it was reaching my very soul! Sitwell gets inside your head. She’s an inspiration.’


Recently, I was struck again by my relative safety as compared to what faces great swathes of my fellow human beings. Unlike many women, I am not scratching around for enough to eat, or walking miles for (supposedly) clean water, or living in a flimsy shelter, or under the constant threat of physical or sexual violence. Unlike many writers around the world, I am not worried that the next poem I create will mean I will end up in prison.

In this country, we have mostly come to see poetry as something safe and fluffy, comforting, perhaps, on ocassion challenging. But dangerous? Yet as I lie in my snug bed, I listen to a Lybian reciting poetry which has landed him in prison and caused him to be tortured. The authorities found these words (which, of course, I cannot understand as they are in his own language) so menacing and intimidating that they had to shut the perpetrator up. Incarcerated, he had no access to paper and pens, so he spent hours committing his poetry to memory, another act of difiance.

Words, these things we often use irreverantly or with little thought or effort, are seen in some parts as if they had the force of grenades and the power to topple regimes.
Barry Forshaw (biographer of Steig Larsson), speaking at the Scarborough Literature Festival, tries to convince us that Larsson's Millennium trilogy is good, despite how badly written it is. An interesting argument. Apparently, the rumour that if only Larsson had lived, his books would have been better edited, is false. His editor says they are exactly as the author intended. In other words, in my opinion, poorly structured, poorly plotted and with flimsy, unengaging characterisation.

According to Forshaw, Larsson enjoyed his comics, and that made sense to me, what he should have been writing were graphic novels. How they have gained the reputation for literariness is beyond me. Not that some graphic novels can't be literary, I should hasten to add, just that many are not, and don't pretend to be.

During the talk it was also suggested that Lisbeth Salander is Pippi Longsotcking (Astrid Lindgren's wonderful creation) grown up. I was saddened by this thought. Pippi is above all other things kind and generous. Not adjectives I would associate with Larsson's broken and brittle heroine.


The origin of words - etymology (from the Greek meaning true) - fascinates me. I have discovered that moonraker - the title of the James Bond movie - can mean simpleton from a story of two men found to be trying to 'rake' the reflection of the moon out of a pond. Or was it a barrel of smuggled brandy? Depends on which version you read.

And the word library comes from 'peel' as in a slice of bark or the papyrus on which our stories were originally written down. However, peel has other meanings, pulling back the layers to reach a core, for one, as we do when we read or write in order to undo the mysteries of existence.

Many authors attribute their choice of career and passions to entering a library. And I find the atmosphere in a library, not to mention the quirky mix of people, something special. Yet, knowledge is available from many different sources these days and, perhaps, books will become a thing of the past, so, maybe, our temples to them will too. Public libraries have been around for, what? 100 or 150 years? I wonder what community spaces will become as iconic to the coming generations?
Rejection. Sarah Waters speaking at the recent Scarborough Literature Festival remembered sending out Tipping the Velvet to publishers. Three sample chapters and a synopsis plus a SAE. So when an envelope was posted through her letterbox with her own hand writing on, there was no doubt what was inside. Rejection.

Once we writers decide to seek an audience, rejection is inevitably a part of our lives. Whether it is in a tutor’s marking of an assignment; a manuscript returned from a publisher which looks like it has been handled only enough to deposit it into the pristine SAE; or a visitor exiting from ‘Words in My Head’ and saying loudly, ‘Now this is interesting,’ on finding a painting to examine (I am, of course, happy for that artist that they were appreciated). Rejection hurts. A little or a lot. It still hurts.

How to recover from it? The age old advice of:
(a) doing something nourishing for your writing;
(b) putting the rejected material aside for a while and getting on with something else;
(c) hoarding positive comments and praise which can be referred back to at this point;
(d) after a short period of time going back to the feedback and considering whether it has anything valid to say.

To survive as a writer, somewhere inside us we need to develop a steely reed of self belief, which may bend with the comments of others, but does not snap. And there is something to learn from rejection. Whether we choose to take it on board (partly or fully) or toss it aside, we find out, in that process, about what is important to our writing and to ourselves.

I would never wish rejection on anyone, however, I do occasionally wonder at the writers who appear to get beyond it, who are in a position where it seems no-one dares to offer up even the mildest critical comment. A bit like dictators who stay in power for thirty, forty years, who must begin to believe in their own invincibility and rightness because they are not told otherwise, is this healthy for any writer?

I love Edith Sitwell’s later poems. They are what inspired ‘Words in My Head’. Though even I would have to admit that there are not an insignificant number which could have done with a good edit.

Hideous though it is, there is perhaps a danger in no longer experiencing it – and, indeed, even forgetting what it is like – the rejection.

'Words in My Head' is having another outing as a fringe event at the Scarborough Literature Festival.

What is a short story?
While teaching this current module on the University of Hull at Scarborough creative writing programme, I am constantly struck by the parallels between writing a short story and a poem.

Is this a short story?

The Incredibly Sophisticated, Utterly Grown-Up Helen Walters
Leeds: leggings, tutu skirt,
diamanté clips, sparkly pink make-up.
Stilettos - dagger heels - ten Wickeds sunk.

Filey beach: leggings, tutu skirt,
outsized jumper, sparkly pink wellies,
rod and net.
'Nan, look, the rock pool
has sunk the sun.'

I also like that the title is almost longer than the poem-story.
Writer AS Byatt (as quoted by Dr Giles Fraser on 'Thought for the Day', the Today Programme, Radio 4, 16th March 2011) has said that since we no longer have religion to tell us our position in the world, we need social media, as we only exist if people tell us we do.

On the other hand, Byatt cites poet Wallace Stevens: 'From this the poem springs, that we live in a place that is not our own and, much more, not ourselves.' Suggesting that with the creative endeavour we have to come out of the self which others reflect back to go to another landscape, perhaps a lonelier, a bleaker, a less chatter filled one.
What is a short story?

Tash Aw: 'For me, the short form is about suggestion, about the murkier, more troubled existence that lies beyond the confines of a few thousand words.'

After the Census by Kate Evans

‘Have you done it yet?’ ‘What?’ ‘The census.’ ‘Still got a week.’ ‘Yes, but you might as well get it done now.’ ‘Yes,’ she lifts it up and then quickly puts it down again without making a mark. ‘I’ll do it later.’

He turns back to his paper, flicking the pages with sharp snaps of his thick wrists. She knows it’s the idea of a great-great-great niece or nephew finding him in the 2011 records which is behind his keenness. He clears his throat, a guttural huh-huh-huh. She leaves the room as if an urgent appointment has just presented itself.

Once through the kitchen and back door, she slows her pace. The sky makes her think of being enclosed in one of those Fabergé eggs he so hankers after. Yolk flowers are beginning to spatter her forsythia twigs, the daffodils and crocuses have cracked through the ground and are rattling their heads together in a breeze laden with the earth’s dampness. She’d pulled on her wellies and an old jumper over her cashmere twin-set on the way out. Now she sits on a low wall and lights a cigarette. For a moment she considers the red-veined, oxalic-acid-green tongues waving above the pink stalks of rhubarb forcing their way through a bottomless upturned bucket. It was question 4 which had stopped her in her tracks.

How could she possibly know?


For those who haven't seen it in today's Scarborough Evening News, my review of the latest biography of Edith Sitwell:

‘Edith Sitwell, Avant Garde Poet, English Genius’. Richard Greene’s title says it all. Rightly, in my opinion, he argues that Sitwell’s brilliance has been much misunderstood, ignored and, ultimately, forgotten. She did not, of course, help her own cause, making enemies of many a reviewer, labelling them the ‘Pipsqueakery’. And the ethereal nature of her work was out of step with the kitchen sink realism of the 1950s and ‘60s. Even so, Greene suggests, Sitwell’s almost complete rubbing out from the literary annals after her death in 1964, is deplorable. It is fitting then, that this new biography, thirty years after Victoria Glendinning’s, should be published to right this wrong.

Greene, in his 444 pages of narrative and 64 further pages of notes and references, does an admirable job of re-establishing Sitwell’s reputation. He also places Scarborough at the centre of her influences; not only her childhood experiences here, but the place itself. ‘Scratch the surface of Edith Sitwell’s poetry and you will find Scarborough and its contradictions. … In this seaport, fashion and frivolity formed a thin façade beyond which lay grief and catastrophe.’ However, it is not just, as Greene says, in terms of content, that Scarborough pulses through her poetry, it is in its very rhythms, echoing the sea’s which, as Sitwell herself wrote, came to beat within her veins.

Greene had access to documents that have only just become available, and his extensive volume comprehensively charts her life from unhappy childhood to the respected writer whose biography of Elizabeth I was once optioned by Hollywood. It details her torturous relationships, with her parents, her former governess and the artist Pavel Tcheltichew, as well as the more nourishing ones, especially with her brothers and fellow creatives such as Siegfried Sassoon and Stephen Spender.

Though Greene’s account is robustly written, for me it lacks the warmth of Glendinning’s. He appears to be very concerned with rooting out what ‘actually happened’. He seems to forget that, for a poet, honesty is not about facts, it is about a much more complex and compelling emotional truth.

'Edith Sitwell, Avant Garde Poet, English Genius' by Richard Greene was published in hardback by Virago on 3rd March 2011, £25


Coastival was a success. Seven hundred people visited Wood End Creative Industries Centre during the three days to experience the various exhibitions there. Whether they all sat and listened through the whole of 'Words in My Head' cannot be known, however I like to think that maybe they were all touched by it in some way. It's as if I had produced a poetry collection and 700 people have at least picked it off the shelf, that's an achievement in poetry terms.

A few people also left praise-full comments, such as:
'A wonderful installation for the place - and a wonderful place for the installation!'
'Wonderful theatre.'
'Brill' signed, 'a non poetry person'.

Then there was the Cober Hill residential which generated a store of great writing for me and the participants. I went to see poet, Sean O'Brien, talk and read last Friday and he spoke about 'the silence' which follows the creation of a poetry book. It seems to me that we all need that moment of silence when we 'stand and stare' - marvel even - at all that we have done.


Written on the Cober Hill residential:

And if we were to love
what then?

Would we dare to
spend a thousand years

Would we fight and scratch,
what if we did?
What would survive then?

And if we did love
ourselves and each other?

Deeply as the ocean rifts.
Passionately as the volcanic earth.
Secretly as the forest greens.
Endlessly as the desert drought.

And if we should love
more than hate?

Turn guns to ploughs,
bombs to heat,
soldiers to peacekeepers.

What then?
What then.


Reflections while co-facilitating a residential workshop at Cober Hill:

The power of the word, the pen writing the word, why is it so unexpected? Visual art, music and dance can surely be as impactful? Is it the ordinariness of writing which makes its power extraordinary and startling and terrifying?

We meet ourselves in painting, sculpture and dance too, but, perhaps, we sign up more consciously for that - by taking up a special instrument or going to a demarcated space such as a studio or a dance floor?


The age old question, when is it a Haiku and when is it a short imagist poem?

Spring's barefoot dancers,
ragged skirts, their heads lolling,
- sun satiated.


I have been watching Faulk on Fiction (BBC2, Saturdays, 9pm, part of the BBC's season of programmes leading up to World Book Day in March). I did note, on his first outing, SF did not mention any female writers, though since he has some in the coming three episodes, maybe I can forgive him.

The hero is dead, he says, at least in the modern literary novel. I am continually fascinated at how literature follows society following literature. The novel is the mirror, but, in seeing itself, society - or the individual - is transfigured. So have we come to a place, perhaps, where heroes are no longer welcome?

It is also interesting how great creative explosions are also dependent the more prosaic. Van Gough needed the development of the paint which could convey his imagination. Novels required the printing press, higher levels of literacy, people who saw a business opportunity in bringing bound pages of tales to the masses. What will the invention of our age, the internet, ultimately mean?

And when the oil which turns the turbines which creates the electricity which lights our computer screens runs out, how will we tell our stories then?


I am watching a news report from a war zone. A soldier crouches over a rifle, there is a gentle 'phut', no more than the final breath escaping from a balloon. The journalist tells us this soldier has just killed a man.

It is an explanation which we need because the soldiers talk about a 'target down' and having 'dropped him'. It all reminds me of the the over-used, 'collateral damage'.

I wonder at how language can take us so far from the act. And at the seemingly innocent sound of a gun.


A friend of mine said in an email that she was shocked by the sentiment expressed in the poem I posted recently. I couldn't understand what she was on about, until I re-read it and realised how it might be taken, out of context, as it was, posted on my blog. As part of the 'Words in My Head' sequence, hopefully it will be read as a homage to Edith Sitwell's 'Façade'. And for those people who know her story, they will recognise that it is taken from an experience she describes in her autobiography, Taken Care Of.

Though, on reflection, it is indeed shocking that the little girl Edith should be so estranged from her mother as to not understand why other children would cry at the loss of theirs.

I am very excited at the moment as 'Words in My Head' is really beginning to take shape. I heard it in its entirety for the first time last night and my co-conspirator, musician Matt Barnard, has done an amazing job. He has created a rich tapestry of sound that envelops and enhances my poetry which sits at the very heart of it. I don't think my poems have ever sounded so good!

In addition, my lovely Mark has created the pedestal and my sister Ros has dressed the head superbly:

Next week, we are trying it all out in the space it has been designed for, the Sitwell Library, and I am exceptionally excited about that!

When I was in my twenties, I would devour novels at the rate of one a week. In recent years, I've been reading poetry and non-fiction, less fiction, and have become more discerning in what I spend my time on.

However, I'm getting back into novels and had a couple recommended so picked them up over the festive season. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, should have really gripped me - a murder-mystery, some political comment and a feisty female character. However, it didn't. It needs a thorough edit, probably bringing it down by at least a third. The pace, which should carry the reader through, plummets as it over-explains, repeats itself and uses five sentences where five words would do. I understand that Larsson died shortly after handing his manuscripts into the publisher, so could not have done the edit. It's an enormous shame no-one else thought to do it in his memory.

On the other hand, another doorstopper of a work, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, should not have appealed to me at all. About an armed robber who escapes prison in Australia to end up being involved with the mafia and violence in India (and beyond, though I haven't got to that bit), I would not normally have picked it up if a friend hadn't handed it to me. Yet it is tightly, subtly and evocatively written. Another friend appeared to dismiss it as 'that hippy classic they're making a film of with Johnny Depp'. However, I think it does a better job of looking at the nature of goodness than Larsson, who is, perhaps, considered more literary.

Shantaram is based on truth, so the author claims. And the detail gives it an authenticity - at times engaging, at times horrifying - which is hard to dismiss. At first I had difficulty accepting the beauty of the book, knowing it was written by a man who had deliberately set out to cause harm to others. Roberts has since been re-captured, done his time in prison, re-invented himself. And in my head I do believe in rehabilitation, yet in my heart I found it hard to trust in the redemption of this writer. Maybe, in the end, that discomfort is at the very kernel of this disturbing book.
My article about Edith Sitwell appeared in Poetry News:

And Coastival is approaching ( Some of Edith's most famous poems - Façade - are my least favourite, though they were innovative for their time and surely the fore-runner of today's rap.

My tribute comes in this poem:

Childhood 1
Old Sir Faulk,
misplaced his wife.
Mollie and Gladys,
little shadows in mourning weeds,
wept their loss at high tea,
- even the chittering song birds knew to chitter no more.
Lady Faulk, lost, gone, for now and for ever.

I imagined my own mother so disposed of
and asked, persistently.
But why, why, why did they cry?
Happy New Year. This season's greeting. Though, of course, it's all rather arbitrary. Some pagans consider Samhain as the New Year, others Midwinter. The Chinese will be celebrating in weeks to come and some Christians haven't even seen Christmas in yet. I could go on.

However, for everyone, there does seem to be a need to mark a completed cycle of time and, perhaps, take a moment for reflection. I am not immune to this. Looking outwards, I hope for peace where there is conflict, relief where there is pain, possibility where there is despair. Personally, 2010 has been good to me and I do not need more from 2011. I wish for love and nurturing relationships and the opportunity to continue to explore my creativity and to make the best use of my talents. I want to encourage a more caring and just way of being for myself and for those I am able to be in contact with. I want the space to make mistakes and the humility to admit them and learn from them.

It is all a work in progress, as the planets make another revolution above our heads, only with very subtle alterations to their course.