Sarah James

the possibilities of poetry…

Browsing Posts published by editor

Reflections/poem biography for Elliptic

A Modern Moth-eaten Moonstruck Myopic for Otoliths-001   A Modern Moth-eaten Moonstruck Myopic for Otoliths-001B&W

“Viewed from here, our moon’s sphere
is flatter than the world he left behind.”

 
 
 

While ‘I bite down on the memory’ is about wanting to move on from guilt and grief after a loss, ‘Elliptic’ is about actually finding the way to do so.

Again, it is a fictional scenario fuelled by real emotion. Like many strong emotions, it is, perhaps, best given plenty of space to work itself out. Sometimes both words aren’t enough and are too much.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Point

How does focussing on one important object intensify and channel the sense of loss and grief in this poem?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Choose an object to use as an important symbol of something in a relationship between two real or fictional characters. Can you use this object to create a background narrative to your poem/story about these people and this relationship?

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

It’s been a while since I blogged about my news. But one of the best things about this length of time is that the good news has amassed more than it might have if summed up fortnightly!

I’m delighted that my lovely things to celebrate include a novella and poetry pamphlet to be published next year. But also lots more – from competitions and individual pieces published right through to hard copies of my new illustrated writers’ and readers’ guide Sometimes I smile.

NEW POETRY PAMPHLET

On the poetry front, I’m delighted to have had a pamphlet How to Grow Matchsticks accepted by Against the Grain Press. The poems in the pamphlet are inspired both by strong women and the pressures women face in modern society and the pamphlet is scheduled for publication spring next year.

OTHER POETRY NEWS

Other news includes a different pamphlet ‘After My Mother Broke’ shortlisted in the Paper Swans Press pamphlet competition. (Big congratulations to the winner Paul Stephenson!)

I’m not quite sure where I go next with that pamphlet as a whole but I’m really pleased that one of the individual poems from my pamphlet have also had competition success. I’ve had to keep the news to myself for a while, but ‘The Day It Rained Horses’ has been highly commended in this year’s Wigtown Book Festival Poetry Competition!

This week I also found out that I’d been chosen as one of the poets to take part in a collaboration commission project Still Born. I will be writing a poem in response to beautiful, moving and thought-provoking art by Adinda van ‘T Klooster. The subject matter is hard – but important, so I’m very much looking forward to being part of this. Poems and art will be used for a book next year – so more on this as it develops.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a poem ‘Walking the Existential Dog’ published on Snakeskin, issue 243, September 2017.

Also three nature/eco-inspired poems ‘Reliance/Relevance’, ‘To hold a world steady’ and ‘Not It’, plus a spectrogram-photo published on Molly Bloom, 14, September 2017.

‘Chicken for dinner’ has been accepted for publication on Algebra of Owls later this month.

‘Another Shell’ accepted for Critical Survey.

‘Correcting a Stutter’ accepted for Eye Flash.

Meanwhile, I’ve also had my poem ‘How to be a Chinese Lantern’ accepted for the ‘light’ themed issue of Popshot.

kaleidoscope-coverNEW NOVELLA NEWS!

I’m very very very delighted on the fiction front to reveal that I’ve been commissioned to write a sequel novella to Kaleidocope – entitled Always Another Twist.

Although I signed my contract for the sequel with Mantle Lane Press earlier this summer, I’ve been nervous about sharing the news because it’s the first time I’ve agreed to publication of something so big before actually having finished it!

The sequel is told from the view point of Julie, the sister of Kaleidoscope‘s main character, Claire. I already had a draft version of Julie’s take on what happens to Claire from when Kaleidoscope was a much longer novella. But this needed to be expanded and developed into something more if it was to work in its own right. As a sequel to Kaleidoscope, Always Another Twist features many extra twists and turns in Julie’s life – also more love, lust, intrigue and betrayal than Claire’s story.

Despite my writing nerves, I really enjoyed working on this. Even better – not only is my publisher also happy with with the manuscript, but the cover design has now started too!!! Always Another Twist is scheduled for publication in spring 2018.

FLASH FICTION

My flash fiction ‘Not Running’ longlisted in the Casket of Fictional Delights competition.

My flash fiction ‘Making Space’ published in Firefly issue 11, September 2017.

Handling artistic imagination smaller file size
CREATIVE-NON-FICTION

I’m delighted that dna magazine have published my real life inspired piece ‘Hair today…” for their identity themed issue. (What I think my hair says about me, maybe!

Arachne Press have also published my blogpost ‘Significance’ about writing, inspiration, the imagination and more. Take a look around the Arachne Press site and it’s incredible to see what the press has achieved in just five years!!!

READER/WRITER GUIDE/SOMETIMES I SMILE

The response to my Wednesday Reflections for Sometimes I smile has been so great that I’ve put the year’s worth of poem biographies, reading discussion points, inspiration prompts and images as a book.

The blogposts will continue to be released on a weekly basis. But for anyone who would like to get them in advance, or have them all together in one place, I’ve now published Sometimes I smile as a paperback book/resource. You can find it on Amazon.co.uk Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.

V. PRESS & POETRY EVENTS

SEPTEMBER 30, FREE VERSE, LONDON

This year’s Poetry Book Fair takes place on Saturday, September 30 at Conway Hall in London and I will again be taking V. Press.

As well as a stand, this year we also have a V. Press reading by Stephen Daniels and Nina Lewis at 3pm at the GARDEN CAFE in RED LION SQUARE.

“Unbroken : V. Press poets celebrate connection/disconnection.
Stephen Daniels reads from ‘Tell Mistakes I Love Them’, exposing social nerves and poking at the wounds with very vulnerable and very poignant poems. Worcestershire poet laureate Nina Lewis offers a very authentic and very fervent glimpse of ‘Fragile Houses’ – tender and sharp snapshots of people, places and memories carried through life.”

Later that day, I will also be reading for Arachne Press at 4.30pm at the Garden Café in Red Lion Square.

The fair itself is free to enter and is open to the public from 11am – 6pm, with an Evening Do from 7pm onwards, at Conway Hall (25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL).

OCTOBER 6, WATERSTONES, BIRMINGHAM

Thursday 5th October – An Unconventional History of Maidenhood, Mothering and Mistresses
Waterstones, Birmingham – Thursday 5th October 19:30 – 21:00

Katy Wareham Morris will be performing poetry from her collaborative pamphlet with Ruth Stacey, Inheritance. Ruth Stacey will be sharing poems from her collaborative pamphlet with Katy Wareham Morris, Inheritance, and her collection, Queen, Jewel, Mistress. And Sarah James (aka Sarah Leavesley) will be reading from her poetry collection, Plenty-Fish, and from her brand new novella, Kaleidoscope.

There will also be a book signing. The Waterstones event page here.Waterstones address: 24-26 High St, Birmingham B4 7SL

waterstones pic cropped

FINALLY, AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, BIG THANKS AND GRATITUDE TO ANYONE AND EVERYONE INVOLVED IN MAKING THESE LOVELY THINGS HAPPEN!!!

Reflections/poem biography for I bite down on the memory

lipsred dark bacground lips dripping smaller

 
“because I do, and suck the night without moon,
the shrivelled fruit berried without juice;”

There was a young woman, there was a young man. Their lives met, then parted. He chose to enter the wood and never return. She never saw him enter the wood to know the paths he had to choose between.

Over the years, I have known several people who have committed suicide. Each one was a loss. I also have friends who have lost close family members in this way. And, at certain times over my life, I have found myself walking near to this edge.

‘I bite down on the memory’ is loosely based on my discovering that someone I had known briefly had killed himself. The poem itself is best described as a fiction based on real emotions from this suicide, and the loss of a closer friend through illness at a young age (his twenties).

In real life, I’m not sure I was close enough to either by the time of these deaths to have any strong claim to feelings of loss. But both events still affected me. Mostly through the tragic waste, but also guilt. Though logic tells me that there’s no way I could have known and nothing I could have done to stop either, the mind has a way of tormenting with what ifs. If things had been different, if I had done x or been more like y… Perhaps in a different quantum world somewhere, happier versions exist for all lives. In this world, there is grieving, and remembering and honouring. Every life leaves its traces.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

1) How does repetition work/not work in this poem? When/where does repetition reinforce a poem’s thrust and when/where might it become boring or a distraction?
2) How does listing in the form of phrases differ from a list poem of just simple objects? Does the length of phrase bring more flexibility to the list poem or weaken its underlying structure?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Choose either something important that you or a fictional character has done, or a time when you/they’ve had to deal with strong emotions. Write a list poem/story using the reasons behind this behaviour/decision, or their reaction to that emotional event. Explore how this phrasal listing technique might be used to build up character, narrative, drama.

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for The je ne sais quoi of it

Lone Breakfast after Prévert’s ‘Déjeuner du matin’

Lone Breakfast after Prévert’s ‘Déjeuner du matin’

“his lips on the rim of my white espresso cup;
his long fingers, stirring;”

Until I was horrendously sick and rushed to hospital in a fire engine while pregnant with my first son, I loved France. I still love the French language, but I am more wary now of the country. I also love the work of French poet Jacques Prévert.

Inspired partially by Prévert’s ‘Déjeuner du matin’, my ‘The je ne sais quoi of it’ was written in great retrospect (20 years later) to some of the experiences within the poem. My study of French and linguistics at the University of Oxford included eight months living and working in Normandy. It was one of the most homesick and depressed years of my life, but also one where I learned a great deal about myself.

When I went to France, I had a serious boyfriend, unfortunately, sent to teach at a school on the opposite side of the country. Like most young loves, we thought we could breeze through being apart, but we didn’t.

Following our split, I spent a few months ‘playing the field’. The man breathed after in the poem is no particular man. He is more an amalgamation of a number of lovers, combined with the break-up with my long-term boyfriend. I merged them, so I could use the ‘Déjeuner du matin’ framework, which features one man leaving.

In real life, as opposed to the poem, my boyfriend and I got back together for the last few months of my time abroad, before splitting up for good six months later. I have mostly very fond memories of him, but less so for some of the other men in my life during that year. Although bitterness is an unpleasant, and ultimately harmful, emotion, there is something to be said for it as an essential stage of moving on. It can also be useful for remembering what people were really like, not nostalgia or love’s romanticised version of them. Sometimes, a little hissing or a few fricatives may be required!

For those interested in the linguistics, the sounds ‘p’,’ b’ and ‘m’ are made by both lips moving as they might for a quick kiss. Fricatives are consonant sounds produced by the friction of breath through a narrow opening, creating a turbulent air flow, e.g. ‘f,’ ‘s’ and ‘z’ sounds.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

1) How does using foreign words and phrases add to, or detract from, the poem? (Atmosphere, authenticity, exclusion/distance for those who don’t know that language…
2) Do we need to know what every word/thing in a poem means or can it be enough just to enjoy the music, atmosphere, colour…?

Writing/Inspiration Prompt

Is there an incident from your past which you keep returning to? Explore the je ne sais quoi (I don’t know what) element of nostalgia, regret, hindsight… that draws you back to this event. In a poem or story, would you rewrite the ending differently?

 

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Cutting to the Bone

Cutting to the bone neak face smaller

“often clattering in cutlery harmonics;
cutlass-bent stabbing ice from the freezer.”

Given its title, it is perhaps not surprising that this should be a poem in two parts. This was not always the case though. Originally, it was one long poem, that later split into two non-identical bodies of words.

I wouldn’t classify this as an autobiographical poem, though I have used some real details from my childhood. The poems itself explores a fictional family and what may be handed down or inherited not through genes but through upbringing.

Form-wise, I was responding to a creative writing masters’ exercise set by Jean Sprackland, in which we looked at long and short line lengths. Instead of choosing one or the other, I chose to explore what jagged or hacked-up effect might be created by jumping between the two.

The first part of the poem is precise description borrowed from childhood and used to imply the effect of words on the central narrator: neatening, cutting, hurting. ‘Age’s metal rainbows’ is a fragment from my memory of how some metals may change colour (oxidise) after long exposure to air, or something acidic or chemical in the air.

The second part of the poem is where imagination takes over. In my intended version, the body being cut open is the narrator contemplating what might be found if she were dissected to reveal the hard words lodged like knives in her heart. But it was also in my awareness that some might take this to be an imagined vengeance – the narrator cutting open the person behind the hard words and then stabbing them with these words.

Either way, families may be loving, generous and confidence-building or hard, under-mining and cruel, with or without realising that their words may have this effect. In reality, perhaps many of us are capable of both (and in talking to ourselves as well as others), without always being aware of the point at which damage may be caused.

Electric Questions - lit version smaller
Discussion Points

1) Is pure truth every possible in writing?

2) What are the benefits and dangers of mix real memories and fiction in a poem or story?

3) What is gained, or lost, through this being a sequence rather than one long poem or two entirely separate poems?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Take five words or phrases that you really hate (or evoke strong emotions in you). Turn them into a poem/story about beauty/warmth/love (evoking the opposite emotion).

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Let’s Remember

heart of the cityflippedquadrupledterracessmall

“cradled in my mother’s strange young arms.
Her voice
is hushed sea in a shell, a whispered name’s
sounds spliced”

I have a long-standing fascination with memory, explored in different ways and for different purposes in a number of the poems in plenty-fish.

If every cell in our body has renewed many times since birth, are the chains of thoughts and memory the only things that remain to tie together ‘me’ then to ‘me’ now as one person? Do we have one continuous identity or a constantly changing and fluid identity tied loosely, not by specific events (at which others may also have been present), not by a particular viewpoint (as our viewpoint of event X may be very different to our viewpoint on event Y) but by our connected memories of ALL these events and viewpoints?

But my fascination with memory includes not just what we remember, why and to what ends, but where we remember it from. How many memories are of actual events, and how many created by later looking at photos from a past event or their being retold again and again in family anecdotes until we remember them ourselves, even though we were to young to remember or not actually there at all?

Two influences came into play while I was writing ‘Let’s Remember’. The first was working with a psychologist to discover what past events might have a bearing on my depressions and whether these might be treated using NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) techniques to un-anchor and thereby change my reactions to triggering stimuli and circumstances.

The second influence was the style of poet Jorie Graham’s PLACE. Mixing long and short lines fitted with my central conceit of events pegged out on a washing line and the unsorted nature of memories, where underpants may find themselves hung next to long dresses. Rhyme seemed to mirror the way we try to pin these separate events together, to make sense and find some kind of coherency, even if only in a superficial way.

In my ‘real’ life, there are two potential traumas that I remember. The first is my diabetes diagnosis, age six. The second is moving house age 11-12. This move turned out not to be a swift process but a drawn-out one in which I first had to watch my former best friend make a new best friend. Then I had to try to make new friends mid-year at a school where I stuck out like a sore thumb – in my own head at least.
What interested me for this poem though, as in the psychological work, was not the events that I remember myself (however subjectively and inaccurately!) but the possibility that my subconscious might have memories of childhood events that my conscious mind couldn’t recall. One of the incidents that I know from family anecdotes is cutting my hand when I was about three, after deciding to play with the glass bottles in my grandma’s pantry.

My end conclusion from this whole experience is that the past can very much echo, linger and live on in the present. But, at the same time, while memories are fascinating, it’s not always useful to place too much significance or weight on them.

As for identity, and what makes ‘me’ then also ‘me’ now – my mind remains open. More importantly, perhaps it is in that very gap between ‘me’ then and ‘me’ now that the potential to change lies, and with that the possibilities for becoming a happier, more fulfilled person.

Electric Questions - lit version smaller

Discussion Point

How does alternating long and short lines affect the reading experience (rhythm, speed, emphasis, sense of unevenness, disjointed meaning…)?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Take a vivid childhood memory. ‘Hang’ it alongside something that features a lot in your life/personality now. This might be a love/fear/habit… Are the two (past and present) connected? If not, imagine they are. Explore how and why they’re linked. If you’re working in poetry, try mixing long and short lines to emphasise a contrast of create a broken-up effect or jolting slow-fast-slow effect.

 
plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for For Her, A Different Skin

 PICTURE 2 - The first ‘Skull with Yellow Roses’-012
                      “Unseam a red circle; cut deeper.
Not for a bitter scream’s squeezed juice.”

How many times do you have to cut a poem to reach its heart? Of all my poems in plenty-fish, this question is particularly relevant to ‘For Her, A Different Skin’. The 15-line poem is the final result of draft after draft, cut after cut of the original 55-line version, entitled ‘A New Coat’ (March 2012).

The initial core inspiration was about living with depression and my husband’s frustration at how impossible it is for someone else to make things right, no matter how much they care. I wasn’t happy in my own skin, he would have done anything to find a new skin that I could be happy in. Of course, in real life, we can’t solve depression by cutting someone free from their skin. But, in a poem, we can, or at least try to.

Perhaps because of their colour, foxes have always sat closely for me alongside the story of little red riding hood. A fairy-tale scene of being chased through a dark forest by the wolf, depression, seemed to fit with skin-changing, or shape-shifting. At the time, I was also exploring the possibilities of interweaving two very different strands in a poetry narrative, and the tensions that can be created by contrasting found factual knowledge with more lyrical language.

I shared the piece with my long-standing poetry-critiquing buddies. Although the poem had already been under the knife many times, it was still too long and too complicated. There were sections that worked well, sections that I had the right feedback on, but overall there were too many loose threads or distractions.

I almost gavpathe up the poem as too weird. But ‘For Her, A Different Skin’ was one of those poems that wouldn’t disappear quietly. Finally, I realised that I had to let go of the red riding hood angle. Although the ghost of that forest scene might remain in the background, it wasn’t the main focus. Cutting this helped to tighten the poem. Losing a lot of un-necessary flesh allowed me to see the poem’s inner bone structure.

The first line of each of the seven full couplets was based on practical instructions for skinning a fox. The second line of each couplet would be about the reason. In the first three couplets, the second line would rule out the negative reasons for why someone might skin someone or something: it is not done to cause pain or to own the skin that is removed. In the next three couplets, the second line would give the positive reasons for doing this. The final couplet, with the fifteenth lone line, then gives the overall reason why. Although I’d not set out to write a sonnet, what had finally emerged was a 15-line poem that would fit into the general skin of a ‘sonnet or not’ discussion.

The poem itself and the cutting process involved in the re-drafting also made me aware that the poem wasn’t just about depression but more generally about the ‘not feeling right as a person’ that leads to illnesses such as anorexia, or to seeking cosmetic surgery.

‘For Her, A Different Skin’ was and always has been a strange poem, one that has worn many ‘poetry skins’ throughout its 24 months of redrafting and edits. But, when this final version was accepted for the Bloodaxe anthology Hallelujah for 50ft Women and then my collection plenty-fish, it felt like confirmation that the poem was finally happy in its given skin.

The poem in 2012 draft form.

The poem in 2012 draft form.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

1) How obvious is the intended form in this poem? When (if) do you first notice the structure of instructions and reasons? Would the poem work better/differently if this structure were more or less obvious?
2) If you have a 13 or 15 line sonnet, what kind of things might that extra/missing line make possible?

Inspiration/Writing Prompts

1) Try writing a one-word-a-line sonnet. Notice what aspects and techniques you have to prioritise in order to ensure that it still feels like a poem. (If you’re stuck for a starting point, take any existing piece of your writing and try to condense it into this structure.)
2) Take a poem/story draft that you’re not happy with. How long is it? Prune it down to an enforced line/word count that’s half its current length. Does it now need a different skin/ title?

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Still the Apple

Snapshot 2 (01-08-2015 19-16)a4
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

“His mouth moon-craters my flesh,
curves tiny ribbons in flushed skin.”

Once upon a time, I put a definition of ‘feminism’ through a computerised Oulipo N+? generator.* What this automatic replacement of certain words did to the definition sums up how much the word has been used, abused and confused over time – to the point of become almost meaningless.

Defining the/your/definitely-not-our Problem

“feminism: The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” Oxford Dictionaries online

Femme in ism – each woman lost
between the gaps in mass generalisation.
A term so m(i)sunderstood and manhandled
that it’s worn like a misshapen sweater.
Not her choice, but the interpretation
picked out by those around her.
Fighting for women’s rights:
on the ground of the equality of the sexes;
on the groundnut of the equalizer of;
on the groundsheet of the equation of;
on the groundsman of the equerry of;
on the group of the equilibrium of;
on the groupie of the equinox of;
on the grouping of the equipment of;
on the grouse of the equity of;
on the grove of the equivalent of;
on the grower of the era of:
on the growl of the eraser of
the sexes…. The machine suggests;
do we accept these emptied tokens,
or question and reform?
 
Snapshot 1 (01-08-2015 19-017Because ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’ are words that have been stretched, appropriated and endowed with meanings that may or may not be the same for the writer as the reader, I’m reluctant to use them to describe ‘Still the Apple’.

What I will say is that this poem was written at a time when I was feeling frustrated with the different values and expectations still sometimes placed on woman compared to men, even in twenty-first century ‘civilised’ society. The traditional tree of knowledge and Adam and Eve binary provided a wonderfully concise skeleton for this seed of frustration. (As Jean-Baptise Alphonse Karr said, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”/”the more things change, the more they are the same,” Les Guêpes satirical journal, 1849.)

* The N+7 procedure (constraint), invented by the Oulipo literary group’s Jean Lescure, involves replacing each noun in a text with the seventh one following it in a dictionary. This technique has been adapted, using computerised generators, to allow substitutions of the next noun in the dictionary (N + 1) up to N+15, which substitutes the 15th noun following the original noun. A computer generator may be found here.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

1) How does the language we use reinforce potential stereotypes and how can word choice be used to challenge or subvert unthinking prejudice?
2) Does this poem assume, or over-assume, a shared cultural background (knowledge of the story of Adam and Eve/Garden of Eden) that may not be a given in contemporary society? What does the poem lose without such knowledge – and does it matter?
3) Does the placing of this poem next to ‘Journey of the Fruit’ allow the two poems to add depth/perspective to each other?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Take an object and describe it as it is. Try contrasting this with what it might be/have been given a different setting, history or cultural context. What wider aspect of human experience might it work as an example, symbol or metaphor for?

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

Reflections/poem biography for Journey of the Fruit
orange bug pic smaller

“silver spoons glinting on porcelain,
beside thin cuts of lemon drizzle.”

Artists have the fruit-bowl to study still life. As a poet who suffers from depression, I often feel I have life to study for stillness. But physics tells me that nothing we actually experience is still; all molecules, atoms and their tinier composition parts are vibrating or in motion. Stillness is very much an emotional experience that comes from the mind.

Life is a journey; the growth of seed to fruit and of fruit to fruit bowl are two more, different, kinds of journey.

Writing ‘Journey of the Fruit’ started from a point of observation. Like the fruit in the orangery observed at Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire, the poem’s growth was not entirely natural but fertilised by the time restraints of being part of a summer project organised by Droitwich Arts Network with the National Trust. Following a day-visit to the hall, I had somewhere between two weeks and a month to produce my poem, though it has been tweaked since.

From artists’ fruit bowls to Eve eating from the tree of knowledge, there is, or has become, something inherently symbolic in the creative’s gaze when it comes to fruit. My own contemplations started with what I could actually see, and the immediate metaphor that evoked for me – trees huddled in the orangery, as tiny nursery-school children might huddle around their teacher. But, almost as long as I have been a writer, I have felt the danger or fear of writing about what may be automatically dismissed as ‘women’s things’. In short, I didn’t want to go down a route focussing on children.

Instead, I whittled and whittled the actual physical description to see what other metaphors would emerge. The one green lemon that was just tipping towards yellow was particularly noticeable. Focussing on this brought in both the notion of how far away from their natural home these plants were, and the contrast between Britain’s cold climate and their more exotic origins. It also made me think of the various uses of ‘lemon’ as a slang term, in particular for a lesbian. The elements of class and servants still existing today in the shadows came fairly late in the drafting process, inspired by a suggestion by poet-friend, Ruth Stacey. History is history, but traces of its effects can often still be seen around us, when we look closely.

Electric Questions - lit version smaller
Discussion Points

1) What features literally in the poem and what is used here as an analogy or symbol for something else?

2) Where does the poem’s focus change from fruit to people and history? Is this a gradual or sudden turning point – and what effect does that create for you as a reader?

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

Write a line /phrase describing something you’d like to change. This is the start of your poem/story. Next, write a line/phrase describing how things would be if this did change. That is the end of your poem/story. Now write the rest of the poem/story – the journey – that takes place in between/might be required to bring about that change.

plentyfish cover (1)At poetry readings, I often enjoy hearing about the background to a particular poem. ‘Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile’ is my attempt to share the inspiration, frustrations, pain, philosophies and thoughts that lie behind my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’. Each Wednesday, this blog will contain one of these ‘poem biographies’, as well as points for potential reader discussion and also writers’ prompts. My collection ‘plenty-fish’ may be bought from Nine Arches Press, here, or my website, here. More Wednesday Reflections on other poems in the collection can also be found here.

9780993431524In my twenty-eighth interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Andrea Mbarushimana about her poetry, art and fiction collection The Africa in my House (Silhouette Press)…

‘The Africa in my House’ is a beautiful and also heart-breaking book. Could you tell us how and why the collection came about?

Thank you, Sarah. The poems began as far back as 1999, when I was a VSO volunteer in Rwanda. They chart a kind of awakening – living in another culture makes you question your own and the norms of behavior you grew up with. It began a journey for me, a long time of writing and thinking, being married to a Rwandan and having our daughter. That led to telling stories, things I thought she might be interested to read about when she’s a little older. I feel very fortunate that Silhouette Press wanted to publish a book that focused on those things.

The book contains a beguiling and thought-provoking mix of poetry, stories and art. How does inspiration strike you? And do you automatically know what form or genre it will take, or is there a particular process or processes that you go through in deciding?

I begin with short phrases and if I can’t express myself with them, they get longer and become narratives. There are things in the collection that just came to me pretty much complete and things that I struggled with for years. The collection had a different title to begin with, then I found a drawing I’d done, titled ‘The Africa in my House’ which became the cover image. Once that happened, I wanted to paint and the paintings in the book came very fast. Some of those images had been in my head a long time and people who know me well might recognise them. The hyena figure is one I’ve played with over and over and there are several stories attached to it. I let things ruminate and find their form organically over time, but this might take several attempts.

Andrea MbarushimanaI found the book both very moving and unsettling in revealing sides to human nature that do exist however much we wish they didn’t. Which piece was hardest to write and how did you overcome this?

The hardest poem was Murambi. I had written and rejected lots of poems after visiting the Murambi genocide site with a neighbor. It was a turning point for my relationship with Rwanda and although I wanted to tell people about it I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to express. I had also struggled to write about my Dad’s death. One day, I began to write about both at the same time. I realised what I wanted was to make the point that those thousands of deaths were all personal. Those people were all loved. I put my last moments with my Dad into that context and that’s what created the poem.

I’ve never been to Rwanda, but reading ‘The Africa in my House’, it feels like it gives a very vivid and real portrayal of lives there. It also exposes many ‘unthinking’ stereotypes – on both sides of the world. I wanted to ask how you see the role of writing and art? Is it an act of witnessing, of understanding, of protest or change…a mixture of these and other things?

I’m so glad you’ve said that! Unthinking stereotypes is a great phrase – it’s exactly what I wanted to get to. In making something, whatever form it takes, I am thinking through something, trying to reach something true, moving towards an understanding of the world. Sometimes I never completely reach an understanding and I think sometimes that makes the most interesting art. Social justice is very important to me. The damage wrought by Colonialism on people’s personal lives that I saw in Rwanda was shocking to me. I had though Colonialism was consigned to the past. Initially there was that imperative. Now, making an effort to understand and expose racism is also my way of trying to protect my husband and our daughter. I’m using the tools I’ve got.

‘God of the Shadows’ is a particularly haunting story, and one that will stay with me. Partly, following on from my previous question – but less directly writing-related – how important do you think remembering is in terms of changing things for the better?

In the space of a generation, Rwandans have rejected so much of their indigenous culture and religion. These things tell Rwandans that there was a time before the genocide, before colonialism, where the most important things in life crossed the boundaries of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. I think that memory is an important piece of Rwandan identity. I wanted to bring some of that culture up to date, to preserve it, to show how it could make sense in the now. In knowing something of her culture, Conny has a choice, she accepts all of herself. I’ve had to do that, too – accept my whiteness and everything that means. It’s not always easy, but I can’t function in deliberate ignorance of my privilege, just as Conny can’t function under the illusion of her spiritual inferiority. I think this kind of awareness is a strong catalyst for reconciliation and change.

Is there a question I haven’t asked about ‘The Africa in my House’ that you’d particularly like to talk about – and why?

I feel I’ve already said too much! Thanks so much for all your questions and your interest in the book. I’m just delighted that people are reading it and (kind of) enjoying it.

9780993431524Where can people get hold of a copy of ‘The Africa in my House’?

You can get a copy from www.silhouettepress.co.uk in the BOOKS section.

Thank you, Andrea, for these interesting and thought-provoking insights into the background, inspiration and writing process for into ‘The Africa in my House’.

To read more In the Booklight interviews with authors, please click on this link.

Anyone interested in being interviewed for In the Booklight about a new poetry project or book can email Sarah on lifeislikeacherrytreeATyahooDOTcom. Thank you.

Powered by WordPress Web Design by SRS Solutions © 2017 Sarah James Design by SRS Solutions