Sarah James

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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 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.

Reflections/poem biography for Of fences

“Two things which life does not allow:
words that can be throated back,
and bullets which re-enter a gun.”

This poem started life at a time when I felt beset with overwhelming choices, and questions about what I wanted from my career, relationships, life. (Was my creative writing masters worthwhile or would the money be better spent elsewhere? Does anyone actually read poetry? Wouldn’t work directly saving or improving lives be more valuable than writing? How many children would be enough to satisfy my mothering instinct? Can any children at all be justified in environmental terms?*) But this was not just a re-evaluation of my personal values often summed up by the cliché ‘mid-life crisis’, it was also accepting the downside of being able to see many sides or viewpoints – potential paralysis or inability to make a decision.

*Answers: 1. I (mostly) enjoyed it and I learned – I don’t get to live the alternative to know if that might have been better. 2. Every reader counts. 3. Saving my own life is as good a place as any to start. Failing medical training, a word in the right ear/eye at the right time may be the next best thing. 4. & 5. I have two lovely boys!


But, in life, to not make a choice actively is often to make a choice by default in favour of the existing state – of family life, society, politics… At the same time, many questions of choice don’t have a clear-cut right or wrong, or aren’t the simple binary they might initially appear – as in the historical opposition of the church/religion and science.

All these again point for me to the importance of making a choice or a stand not because it is right or wrong in itself, but because it is the right or wrong choice for a person individually. (As someone who suffers from anxiety and depression, the realisation that there is rarely an absolute right or an absolute wrong is great for removing the pressure, weight of importance and fear of failure that often stand in the way of decision-making. On the negative side, however, it can augment any tendency to over-analyse or agonise over the past, because there is rarely firm confirmation that a choice was definitely the right or best decision.)

Like Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’, it also matters to me that each choice we do or don’t make carries its own story. Both art and science are places where, unlike life itself, we can enjoy the results of a range of options as well as the one actually taken. (For those that love film, I am thinking of Sliding Doors, where reliving a moment with only a slight change creates an overall different result. This is the nearest I get as a non-physicist to understanding some of the possibilities incorporated in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, where a world exists for each possible option at every point where an option arises i.e. producing an infinite number of worlds.)

From abstract ideas and word-play centred around options, ‘Of fences’ shifts focus to conclude with a deliberately very specific final image – the brave, bold and hope-filled example of making a choice and living that choice that Malala Yousafzai gave the world stage before and after she was shot in 2012.

But, for me, the poem also closes on a second very specific but missing final image. Through years of re-drafting, the poem’s final stanzas focussed around photographs by U.S. artist Alan Sailer of an air gun pellet caught as if in freeze-frame as it was shot through a red rose, shattering its centre in petal fragments. If the rose is a symbol of is life or beauty, the pellet is pain or death. But, captured in that moment, art is created not from rose or pellet individually but from their interaction. Also captured in these images is the hole left after the pellet/bullet has passed through.

Although this image is missing from the final poem – the trace of it is still there for me. Pain and death are, sadly, an unavoidable part of life. Coming through them enhances the beauty of the contrasting states of joy and life.

Both the absence of this image and the actual pellet/bullet-hole in the rose, might also be seen to represent the void, that emptiness, that sense of something missing yet undefinable, which seems to be very much a part of contemporary western life. While making a considered choice and taking a moral stand are important actions, they don’t themselves guarantee instant happiness or fulfilment. The void, for me, is not an actual state, more a state of mind. There is no filling it, only realising its non-existence outside of the mental thoughts and language-constructions that create the feeling of its existence.

To return to the actual final poem, life is what it is, in all its beauty, and all its grit. Hopefully, most of us strive as much as we can towards the beauty, rather than the grit.

Electric Questions - lit version smallerDiscussion Points

1) How is repetition with slight differences used to reinforce or alter the poem’s thrust both at a particular point in the poem and in terms of the poem’s overall central message?
2) Does the poem’s structure reinforce or undermine the sense of choices/opposites? How does it do that? (Couplets, lists, ellipsis, columns of text…)

Inspiration/Writing Prompt

1) Imagine opening a gate into a field of that proverbially greener grass on the opposite side of the fence. What would this look to you? How would it feel to finally step into it?
2) Choose a historical figure or inspirational character that you look up to. How does your life mirror or contrast with theirs? How would you/your life be if you had gone through the same experiences? What would it take to make your life like theirs?

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.

So this is a post about good news: the good news of good news, but also the good news of bad news. I don’t talk about the latter as much as the former, but I do get both. Ironically, the bad news tends to register more with me than the good, which is a pity. The silver innards of that cloud though is that it’s a good reminder to be grateful for the good news!

So the past few weeks’ shimmers of glittering light include lovely words in a review of Kaleidoscope, poem acceptances for Amaryllis and Atrium. News that my Poetry Wales poem will be in the autumn issue and that my poem ‘Sleeping Beauty’ will be in the Three Drops from a Cauldron: Lughnasadh 2017 best of print anthology.

My gratitude and thanks to these journals and their hard-working editors.

Last night I had a fabulous evening at Poetry Extravaganza organised by Worcestershire Poet Laureate Nina Lewis for Droitwich Arts Festival. It was a cracking night. Lovely poetry, lovely venue, lovely atmosphere, and great to catch up with friends I’d not seen in a while. I left feeling very thankful to all involved poets, audience, MC Fergus McGonigal and organiser Nina Lewis – I’ve organised similar arts festival events in the past, so I know there’s no small amount of work involved!

I also got home to a wonderful email that I’m sure I’ll be blogging more about soon – but it’s another big gratitude and thanks.

Of course, so far this post is just a fraction of the thanks and gratitude owed in a very specific area. When I get a chance to stop and look at life (mine and others’) more generally, there are so many people and things to be grateful about. Yes, we live in a world where everyone’s under pressure and life can be massively unfair. There are those who will use others for their own ends, without caring about the damage they cause. But that makes all those who are genuine and working for others all the more important. I won’t name specific people – the list would be too long and they quite possibly might not like it anyway! – but my gratitude and thanks for all those is immense.

Moving back then to ‘working’ life writing gratitudes, my thanks also to reviewer Charley Barnes for her considered review of Kaleidoscope.



“Kaleidoscope is the pocket-sized sucker-punch penned by Sarah Leavesley…

“Leavesley wields the tool of an unreliable narrator with confidence and, given the psychologically fragmented tone that she is striving for, this unreliability and ambiguity is employed to good effect throughout the work.

“​One thing that I can say without running the risk of spoilers, is that this book is beautifully written. With a background in poetry, Leavesley weaves touching descriptions into her everyday prose here and it makes for a hard-hitting read – in the best way. It really adds something to the delivery to see elements of a different writing style incorporated so smoothly throughout…

“A troubling but beautiful read, Kaleidoscope is difficult look at a struggling mind, but it certainly makes for wonderful reading.”

Charley Barnes, Mad Hatter Reviews
(The full review can be enjoyed here, and an interview with me about the novella and writing here.)

Other – non-writing – gratitudes: my younger son’s beautiful leavers’ assembly (I didn’t cry, well, not really), the freshness of the swimming pool on a hot day, golden hour sunlight while cycling, getting back to the bouldering/climbing wall (if still not as often as I’d like), apple juice and diet tonic with frozen strawberry ice cubes, seeing not one but two live badgers (my first time), little gifts of time when I can read just for pleasure and catching up with family and friends after a busy busy few months!

This is not to mention the lovely time I had at Ledbury Poetry Festival, and then Birmingham Waterstones earlier this month talking to Birmingham Poetry Stanza about V. Press, publishing and our fabulous authors’ books. (A big thank you to Ledbury Poetry Festival, Steven Fowler, Roz Goddard, Waterstones, Brum Stanza and David Calcutt for very enjoyable evenings.)

And I’m already massively looking forward to being back at the Birmingham bookstore later in the year for another intriguingly/enticingly themed (I hope, as I love it when theming brainwaves strike) live reading:

plentyfish cover (1)

An Unconventional History of Maidenhood, Mothering and MistressesWaterstones, 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. Waterstones address: 24-26 High St, Birmingham B4 7SL.


And More!

The three poetryfilms created for my Disappear Here Coventry ring road collaborative commission with filmmaker Ben Cook can now be enjoyed here. A brief synopsis of the films can be found below. My main role was writing the poems and script for the poetryfilm. But there are some of my photos in the first part of the film, possibly including the odd selfie…

Ellipses is a three-part poetry-film inspired by Coventry ring road. It draws on the city’s past as well as the stories of those now living in the city and using the road.
Part 1) ‘Underbelly Undercurrents’ features Coventry ringroad and the River Sherbourne, which ‘slithers’ through the city, mostly hidden underground but occasionally surfacing, like the city’s stories. Both poem and visuals tap into the imagery of circles, snakes and ouroboros (a snake swallowing its own tail that is used as a symbol of wholeness or infinity). It is a poem about the flow of traffic, river, time, lives…

Part 2) Time continues as a strong theme through ‘Clocking In/On/Off’. Here, the poetry is dropped into a dialogue featuring a mum, Liz, and her daughter, Kate. Kate is having problems with her boyfriend, Tim, and is harried by the pace of modern society. Can her mum help her or will mum and daughter always be talking at cross-purposes across each other? Poem and storyline are set against a background that includes the history of the ringroad, Coventry’s clockmaking past and World War 2 when Coventry was bombed.

Part 3) The words for the final part are taken mainly from the names of the ringroad junctions and the slightly surreal line “Tickets, please”. Repetition with difference, the sense of a magical mystery tour of Coventry and ghosts of past and future were underlying inspirations for this part. Ben’s visuals pick up on the movement (tracing) of car lights on the ringroad – creating an almost dancelike pattern. The poem’s repeated words slowly transform into a reverbed sound that is choral and ghostly.

The end of the film then circles the viewer back to the beginning…

1-The Emptiness of Uncut Diamond-001 panormaicsometimes I smile

My Wednesday reflections started in the early hours of the early days of 2016. To be precise, it was on January 3 – a Sunday! I was thinking about my poetry collection plenty-fish and poets’ introductions that can give helpful or extra context in live readings. I wanted to do something similar in writing. The result was ‘Sometimes I smile’ a manuscript with a short commentary on each poem in the collection.

These initial thoughts focussed on inspiration, the how and why of writing and a poem’s personal significance to me. However, I’d always considered the possibility of using this on my blog rather than as a printed book. By the time I came to refine the text, I’d discovered the online readers’ guides that many American presses seemed to offer with their titles. I wasn’t aware of British publishers really doing this, outside of actual academic titles. I also knew myself that reading can be a great source of inspiration. I decided then to also include potential discussion points and writing prompts that might arise from each poem. I wanted to release these weekly on my blog, and mid-week seemed as good a day as any to dive into them. Launching these Wednesday Refelctions in July 2017 to mark the second anniversary of plenty-fish‘s publication was the next logical, and celebratory, move!

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From Anguish to Art – a short background

When I was six, I was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes (diabetes type 1). When I was 36, I began to realise that my depressions, my life, and, therefore, my poetry were more directly linked to this diagnosis then I had imagined.

However, this is not a commentary about me. Nor is it a commentary about diabetes or even depression or anxiety. I am not these dis-eases, any more than I am my poetry, but everything that is in my life is in my poetry, and vice versa.

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant –” Emily Dickinson said in her wonderfully concise poem opening with this line. But the slants between life and page are many. In looking at how the poems in plenty-fish came about, I wanted to cast light on some of the slants deliberately intended in the writing. This doesn’t set out to illuminate them all, nor to cover the very real and important slants that a reader brings to them in their own reading.

1-The Emptiness of Uncut Diamond-001 panormaic upside down

But, before I start on plenty-fish, I’d like to dip back briefly into my preceding collection, The Magnetic Diaries. For me, The Magnetic Diaries demonstrates one approach to pain and harnessing its effects artistically. With The Magnetic Diaries, I chose to write directly about illness. In doing so, the poems are based on my own experiences of both depression and repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation as treatment. But this is then set within the distancing/objective framework offered by placing it in the context of a contemporary, English, poetry version of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Using this narrative background allowed me to separate the writing from my own pain and also take the resulting poems beyond the limits of my own experience.

Whereas The Magnetic Diaries is moving from anguish to art through a direct if distanced (inward-looking) recording of pain, plenty-fish is almost the exact opposite. In plenty-fish, the creating art from anguish is through focussing deliberately (for the most part) on experiences outside of the pain.

In many cases in plenty-fish, the poems range across current affairs, objects of significance, real and imaginary relationships, literary influences and landscapes. Where depression features in this collection, it is written not in the immediacy of the pain but with a wider lens that covers also recovery, the experience of those around someone with depression, and the very small part this suffering plays in the world as a whole, no matter how encompassing it feels at the time.

The commentaries of Wednesday Reflections/Sometimes I smile… are offered as a companion to those reading plenty-fish, or interested in the biographies of individual poems. But I hope it works too as a companion to anyone who has experienced depression or other difficult situations. Finally, I hope the writing prompts will also bring inspiration.

plentyfish cover (1)‘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.

skull ideas

This week’s In the Booklight is unusual – to the point perhaps of being the exception that breaks the rules. Instead of an author interview or article, I’ve decided to feature poems by young poet, Solomon Mansfield. Solomon came in to see me when I was poet in residence at Brownhills Library as part of the Adopt a Poet scheme. I was struck both by the poems that he brought with him (including ‘Funny Bones’), and ‘Poetry Extravaganza’ that he was inspired to write afterwards.

Funny Bones

The skull, my brain’s home
The fibula lies a lot
But the humerus is the funny one
The triquetral is not to trusted
And the ilium is always sick
The sacrum sounds like a vegetable
Maxilla – isn’t that someones name?
The lunate – one of Saturn’s moons?
Ulna, I swear that’s a shoe brand!
The coxa sounds like an animal
And these all belong in my body.

by Solomon Mansfield


Hands trembling, nerves have arrived!
Sweating, as we enter the library…
The house of words and reading!
There she waits, WHAT! She’s human after all!

Just like me and you, no 16th century ruff
Or tunic like Shakespeare.
Just a normal person.
I’m interviewed like a celebrity.

Answering her questions – me, like a stone statue.
Then, a one-on-one recital of “Wired Flesh.”
“Pixelated people”, “plugged in” she read.
A taste of poet life,
I could get used to this!!

She reads my poetry with a smile.
“Amazing…” she whispers kindly.
“Funny Bones” her favourite.
Making notes in her LITTLE notepad
OF BIG ideas!!!!

Bu-bump-bu-bump my heart goes.
A literacy goddess face-to-face.
That could be me one day!!!
Words in the air and everywhere!!!!!

Thank you Sarah James for your time and inspiration.

by Sol Mansfield

Solomon Mansfield was born in 2005 in Brownhills, West Midlands. He has been home schooled since the age of 4 and is now 11. From and early age he had a great understanding of words. His poetry is inspired by every-day life, i.e. family,nature,underpants,hunger and being naughty.

Photo credit: Pic & words by Sarah Leavesley, featuring young reader Daniel Leavesley.

Photo credit: Pic & words by Sarah Leavesley, featuring young reader Daniel Leavesley.

And my thanks to Solomon for his lovely poems – I’m still blushing at the generosity of his Poetry Extravaganza!

In response, I’m going to share below one of the poems that I wrote while poet in residence at Brownhills Library.It’s one with a similar theme – the thread of inspiration and arriving at the library.


for Solomon Mansfield

Bypassing the M6 – no mashed
Mills & Boon underlaying
Scholars Walk, Pelsall Common
and this tarmac’s unfolding tour
of village shops, front windows,
bus stops and people waiting for
the 8.48 running late, a change
in luck or brighter weather.

A truck trundles towards me,
and past. Moulded tyre treads
vibrate like an old music box
turning tunes from metal cylinders.
The road whirrs with this mantra
of motors, familiar sights, strange meetings.
Rain falls, sun dries – briefly – feet cross
from pavement to pavement

towards something that might be
destination or simply a passing pause
for chat or breaking up a grey day.
Ideas hover – a butterfly pulses
from its chrysalis, paper-thin wings
startle air into patterns, new shapes
from mothed shadows. I follow
my thoughts along The Parade

and into Brownhills’ Park View Centre
with its foundations of mortared brick,
well-placed words and space to think,
to dream that fairer weather
or to magic a finer luck. Doors open
and I merge with the library’s mantra
of turning pages, a textured beat
waiting for me to play its rhythms –

inspiration at my fingertips.

Sarah James, Brownhills Library ‘Adopt a Poet’ poet in residence 2017

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

There are many resources for young poets, including The Poetry Society’s Young Poets and, locally, Writing West Midlands’ writing groups and activities.

The past few weeks I’ve been busy with so many projects across a wide range of writing, and as publisher, editor, writer and reader.

My small snippets of good news are a poem highly commended in the Festival of Firsts poetry competition and a flash fiction accepted for Firefly Magazine. I’ve not had much time lately to write new stuff or edit and submit my own work, so these are a real bonus!

Meanwhile, lots of exciting events lined up for today and the coming week!!!

TONIGHT: Sunday, July 9 – Enemies collaborative performance at Ledbury Poetry Festival

I’ll be taking part in this collaborative event at Ledbury Poetry Festival on Sunday, July 9 from 6.15pm-7.15pm. I’m delighted both to have been invited to be part of the ENEMIES project and to be working with Roz Goddard for this performance!

Tuesday, July 11 – Brum Poetry Stanza, V. Press publishing/editing Q&A and reading

Sarah and V. Press designer Ruth Stacey have been invited to join Brum Poetry Stanza at Birmingham Waterstones (24-26 High Street, Birmingham, B4 7SL) on Tuesday, July 11 to talk about our work with V. Press and also share some of our own poetry. There should be plenty of time to put questions to us too, so if you’re in the area and love poetry/flash fiction, do join us there at 7pm.

THE MAGNETIC DIARIES – July 13, Somerset

Reaction Theatre Makers will be taking The Magnetic Diaries to Wedmore Arts Festival in July. Details below and on the festival website (for tickets too) here.

“The Magnetic Diaries” featuring Vey Straker
Thursday 13th July
Wedmore Village Hall BS28 4EJ
Starting at 7:30pm, doors open 6:30pm
Tickets (seating not numbered)
£10 each – no concessions

A different kind of chick lit…

gloria cover Jun 2017

Today on In the Booklight, Khadija Rouf shares some of the background and inspiration behind her novella, Gloria Exbat.

Gloria is a kid’s story about girls in human and avian form. It’s a multi-perspective story, told from the viewpoint of an ex-battery hen, Gloria, who is rescued and comes into the lives of two bereaved sisters, Frankie and Bobbi.

Though the book spans some serious issues like bereavement and animal welfare, I deliberately wanted to touch on those issues lightly, whilst being respectful of their complexity. I wanted the characters to shine through, especially as it is ultimately a story about hope and resilience.

I wrote it when my daughter made a very thought through decision to become vegan. I was worried about her decision as she was a young teen. We were both vegetarian, so I did have some insights into how she felt, but I was uncertain about her taking a decision to stop eating any animal products.

I didn’t want to turn food into a battle, so I had to quickly understand her perspective. I searched for books which might help us to talk about the issues and also to understand her strength of feeling. I soon realised that I couldn’t find anything for children and young people.

We did talk about the treatment of battery farmed animals, and I also have friends who kept rescue hens. Gloria soon clucked her way into my imagination and Frankie and Bobbi materialised soon after…so I had to start writing!

There were dilemmas in writing the story – it’s a multi-perspective story, and I wanted the three main characters to open up their inner worlds to the reader. This posed some challenges in trying to orient the reader to who was narrating at a particular point. I eventually solved this by inserting small, symbolic graphics at the start of each new voice. It was also a challenge to try to write from the perspective of a hen! I talked to friends who keep chickens and researched how battery chickens are kept. I also made a choice to keep the language spare, in order to hint at things and not overwhelm the reader.

I wrote the story some years ago, and after revisions and ‘cooking time’, I felt the story was ready to send off. Busy with work and family life, it was hard to sustain the stamina of sending off work that often never had any type of reply at all.

Eventually, this year, I decided to be brave and self-publish Gloria on Amazon. It’s great to know it’s out there being read. I’m delighted with the feedback I have had so far, both from children and adults. I found it difficult to judge what age readership I was aiming at, but have settled on 10 – teens. I didn’t have a particular ‘market’ in mind, and it isn’t a story that I think easily ‘fits’ into a particular genre.

I just had a story in my head, which I felt strongly that I needed to write. It’s been a wonderful surprise that adults have responded so well to the story too – and it’s opened up some interesting conversations between parents and children. It’s been lovely to hear that the story has been thought provoking and readers have empathised with the different characters. I couldn’t hope for more!

gloria cover Jun 2017

So if you fancy a read that’s maybe a little quirky, then please come and find Gloria Exbat here:

I hope you enjoy!

Khadija Rouf

Khadija RoufKhadija Rouf works in the NHS and is a writer. In 2013, she completed an MA in Poetry with Manchester Metropolitan University, and is published in Orbis, Six Seasons Review, Sarasvati and other journals. In 2016, her short story was commended in the longlist for the Manchester Fiction Prize. In 2017, her poem, Care, was commended in the Hippocrates Poetry Prize.

Thank you, Khadija, for these wonderful insights into the inspiration and writing process behind Gloria Exbat.

To read more In the Booklight interviews (and articles) 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.

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