Sarah James

the possibilities of poetry…

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tania-front-cover-finalIn my twenty-fifth interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Tania Hershman about her short fiction collection Some Of Us Glow More Than Others (Unthank Books)…

I’d like to start by asking quickly about the title ‘Some Of Us Glow More Than Others’ – taken from one of the stories in the collection – and how that came to encapsulate the whole book? Was this the obvious title from the start, or a choice that came about more slowly – and what were the deciding reasons?

For me, that was the obvious title from the start – if I could I’d have had the entire story title, “We are all made of protein but some of us glow more than others”, I would have. I love long titles – but publishers don’t! I wanted, though, for it to be clear from the cover image what sort of glow I am referring to, otherwise I think it might sound quite negative. Hence the bioluminescent jellyfish! But also perhaps it does encapsulate the book, my characters are the ones who don’t think they have the glow, who want some of it in their lives.

The collection consists of seven sections, with intriguing titles and epigraphs. How did these groupings, titles and epigraphs arise – was it during the actual writing or during the compilation and ordering of the collection? And was this an organic thing that just happened or were there some stories specifically written to fit within one of the sections?

Let’s just get it out of the way from the start: very very little planning happened at all with this book! I was so astonished to have found an agent – after almost 18 years of writing short stories, and two published collections – that I put together everything I had that hadn’t already been in a book. None of the stories was written with any thought of being in a book. As a reader, I like sections, I find them quite helpful, especially when there are many stories, but I didn’t want to group by theme, or in any way tell the reader how to read the stories in each section. It’s very hard for me to put my own stories in some sort of order. My agent helped, we moved a few from one section to another, but mostly it was a gut instinct sort of thing. I was playing around. I play around a lot, and am amazed I get away with it!

Photo by Huntley Hedworth

Photo by Huntley Hedworth

You’re also a talented poet and these fictions have beautiful elements of compression, rhythm and language awareness that made me think of poetry/feel poetry within them. As a writer, how do poetry and prose interact and influence each other when you work? What defines the borderline between poetry and prose for you and do you have a clear-cut line where you know a piece is definitely going to be prose or poetry, or are there times when the final form is only revealed during the actual writing?

Thank you! Prose came first for me, many years before I ever tried to write something I might call a poem. But with flash fictions, I kept being asked by people why they weren’t actually poems. I didn’t read poetry, didn’t think I liked poetry, so that’s why they weren’t ‘poems’. Now that I do write and read and love poetry, what I understand is that poems are far less forgiving – or the poems I want to write – of the sorts of repetition I use in prose which perhaps is what gives it a ‘poetic’ feel. Poems come to me completely differently, they often tend to be more autobiographical, and I write poems out loud, so the writing process is different. That said, then there’s the prose poem, which I love and which sits right there in the middle, wanting to be both and wanting to be neither. I know when something I’ve written is a prose poem rather than a piece of flash fiction, but I prefer not to label anything, leave that to others. It’s even funny to me to separate my short story collection from the poetry collection I have coming out later this year – there are several pieces that are in both books, it’s important to me to celebrate the overlap not the borders.

There are a lot of strong and interesting characters in ‘Some Of Us Glow More Than Others’, including many different women. I wanted to ask firstly where you get the inspiration from for your characters? Related to this and my previous question, how strong and early a role does plot play in your writing – do you know what is going to happen when you start or do you start with the character(s) and the storyline reveal itself as you write?

Inspiration comes from everywhere – for example, one story is about a woman who works as a diver for the council, and that was inspired by an article I read in the weekend Financial Times, I think. I am fascinated by interesting jobs, I keep a list. The Special Advisor came from this list, for example, as does the chess piece designer in Empty But For Darwin. There is no plotting at all, a story comes to me with a voice and a first line, it all comes from that and I follow it to see what happens. The voice might be the character, first or third person, or it might be the narrator (War Games has a very strong narrator who talked to me from the start). It’s about me telling myself a story, and feeling like I have done justice to the people in my head.

These stories are strange and moving and very gripping, making me want to read on and always delivering some element of unforced, natural, delighting surprise. Do you have any tips for other writers in terms of how you manage to create this? And, possibly related to that question, I found many of the fictions a beguiling mix of surreal, the wonder of science and the more everyday. Could you say a little about the part these elements play in your work?

Oh good, I am so glad to hear that they make you want to read on! In terms of tips, I am quite wary of writing advice (which may sound odd coming from someone who co-authored a book called ‘Writing Short Stories’) but it’s the rules and the shoulds that I don’t like. All I can say is that I write to surprise myself, and hope that if I manage to do that, I will manage to surprise a reader – but not every reader, the kinds of readers that like the sorts of stories I write, and the sorts of stories I like to read. ‘Permission’ is a big word for me, I get permission to try new things from reading widely, seeing what each new writer does with the short story to make it their own. The surreal is where my imagine likes to be, I don’t want to be constrained by the apparent reality around us – my background in physics definitely feeds into this, since quantum mechanics demonstrates the weirdness in the everyday, that nothing is actually as it seems to us on a large scale. I love science, but was never cut out to be a scientist, I don’t have that tolerance for failure, the perseverance, the focus. But I love to use science and scientific language as inspiration, to play with it. I wish more writers did this, science is a fertile source of stories and such rich language!

One of a great many things that I admire about this collection is the versatility – in length, breadth and style – almost as if each story breathes alive its own space. I’d like to ask about your writing process, how these fictions take or create their shape, if you have any particular compositional routines but also how you avoid falling into habits with regards to length or style?

These stories were written over many years, the earliest probably from 2010, so there’s no one way I write, there are many different ways. Sometimes a story comes out fast, sometimes it takes years, irregardless of the final length of the story. I tend to be able to feel how long a story will be when I start, or perhaps I pace myself. I’ve written quite a bit for Radio 4, those stories need to be around 2200 words, which is longer than my comfort zone, so those always stress me out a little! I think my ideal length is under 1500, but sometimes the story demands more. I don’t try and avoid any length or style habits, I don’t really know what my style is and don’t worry about that, but I do make sure – and am better at this now after nearly 20 years – that the story is writing, rather than me writing the story. I have to not think too much when I’m writing, otherwise I can feel it getting clunky and ‘being written’. I do this by distracting myself while I write, mostly by playing online scrabble, so that my brain, which loves to think, is occupied by figuring out the next scrabble move. I’ve been doing this for years, it works really well for me and for the kinds of stories I like writing – I need to be slightly discombobulated to write surreal stories, slightly at an angle to the world.

Which is your favourite story and why? (And can you give us a short taster extract from it, please.)

Well, this is a bit like asking someone to choose their favourite child – I do love them all equally! But I have a bit of a crush on War Games, that one started out so differently from the others, during a workshop run by my co-Arvon-tutor, Adam Marek, in 2011, where he showed us how he plots his stories. The first para of my story is the plot summary I came up with, but I can’t work like that, so I just stuck it at the beginning and carried on from there! Here’s a taster from the middle:

“I will tiptoe inside her head. She is singing. This tiny, smoking child, war all around, luring soldiers to Monopoly, is humming a lullaby to herself. Mother sang it to her, she remembers. But it didn’t work. She was never soothed, this child. Not by songs, not by silence. She screamed and screamed and screamed.”

What question haven’t I asked about ‘Some Of Us Glow More Than Others’ that is important to you as a writer?

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is whether my stories have anything in common, a thread that’s running through them, despite the fact that they were written over years and with no thought of being in a book. And I think perhaps that my characters, like me, have some sort of sense of their own wrongness, and are looking for a way, a situation or a person, to help them feel more right inside themselves. Does this make sense? [Yes, it does – Sarah] Maybe this ties in with the title: when we feel comfortable in our own skin, that’s when others see our glow?

tania-front-cover-finalWhere can people get a copy of ‘Some Of Us Glow More Than Others’?

You can get it directly from my publishers, Unthank Books, and from all good online booksellers. You can buy a signed copy direct from me, if you’d like! Details here: http://www.taniahershman.com/wp/books/

Thank you, Tania, for these interesting answers about the characters, influences and creative process for ‘Some Of Us Glow More Than Others’.

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.

GIVEAWAY

To mark the launch of Tania’s book this month, her publishers have offered a free copy to one lucky U.K.-based reader of this interview. Simply tell us “What is the most glowing thing in your life?” before the end of Wednesday, May 31, using the blog comments section below, and Tania will choose her favourite to receive a copy of ‘Some Of Us Glow More Than Others’.

(Please note that comments left on this blog have to be manually approved before they are published, so do not worry if it takes a few days for your entry comment to show publicly.)

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This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week runs from today until Sunday, with a theme of Living with change /’Surviving or Thriving?’. Over this week, I have shared work from some writers on my From Pain to Poetry/Anguish to Art workshop at Birmingham Mac last year. To mark the end of the week, today’s poems are:

Anchored

Stars exist in a constant battle between energy
and gravity, so do I.

Like an invisible gas, how I feel cannot be seen.
It is toxic, kills.

Light passes through me even in darkness,
neurogenesis has the beginning in it.

I know this will pass. I do not know the ending,
I cannot think far, not even to the next minute.

I sleep to save my mind. Switch myself off,
shut down. It is not restful, it is not avoidable.

Going under I leave. Flat-line existence.
Memories fall away as more of me becomes unstuck.

There is no scale of hope. No ladder to help
reach solid ground.

This is the deepest I have ever been
and I cannot bare to be awake.

Hallmarks

When I first saw you
I thought we were the same.
After our second conversation
I stopped myself looking back.

I wanted to know you,
the itch of worry blocked me.
I clawed myself raw.

You came and found me,
danced me to safety.
I checked for a Silver Mark.

It was a long time before the night
I worked letters down your back,
fingers filled with other people’s stories.

Blemishes guild with age.
Scars and broken bones
become who you are.

This stain a memory, this knotted tissue
linger-filled pain, this cut
a wound that will never heal.

With arms about each other
we find the blank skin,
smooth out new parts
etch our virgin words in.

Nina Lewis
Nina Lewis is published in a range of anthologies and magazines including Under the Radar, Abridged, and HCE. Her poems have been used in an Art Installation and on Wenlock Poetry Trail. She performs at Poetry Festivals and in 2014 was commissioned to write and perform at Birmingham Literature Festival. Nina organises an annual writing retreat in October from https://awritersfountain.wordpress.com/ Her debut pamphlet Fragile Houses was published by V. Press in 2016. Nina had a break from writing for over a decade, if she hadn’t suffered depression she may never have found her way back to poetry.

heart-trace-haikuA complete guide to mental health problems, topical issues and treatment options may be found on the MHF’s Mental Health A/Z and useful information can also be found at Mind.

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week runs from today until Sunday, with a theme of Living with change /’Surviving or Thriving?’. Over this week, I have been sharing work from some writers on my From Pain to Poetry/Anguish to Art workshop at Birmingham Mac last year. Today’s poem is:

A Different Life

You wouldn’t get out of bed today. No reason.
The chart tells all.
They spy on you while you sleep, logging every movement;
there is no privacy.
Sometimes you speak, breaking into the oncoming
well-practised routine of sympathetic speech,
while revelling in imagined irritation written on faces.
Why should you care?
They are nothing to you. You are nothing to them.
So why speak?
They hear but they don’t listen.
There is no-one left to listen.
Fingers that once danced between ebony and ivory
now fidget and twitch to their own tune.
Blind eyes pierce the gloom looking for loved ones,
familiar places, well-thumbed books,
but only see shadows, so drift gently shut.
Suddenly the room is full.
Mother, brothers, wife and lover, son and daughter,
all gathered in the oneness that is family.
Laughter echoes around they walls
as the strains of an Irish jig fight for supremacy
over the rising tide of chatter.
No reason to get out of bed today.

Maggie Doyle

Maggie has been writing poetry for seventeen years and is the Worcestershire Poet Laureate Emeritus. After many years of false starts and several requests, she is putting together her first collection.

a-sunlit-heart
A complete guide to mental health problems, topical issues and treatment options may be found on the MHF’s Mental Health A/Z and useful information can also be found at Mind.

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week runs from today until Sunday, with a theme of Living with change /’Surviving or Thriving?’. Over this week, I will be sharing work from some writers on my From Pain to Poetry/Anguish to Art workshop at Birmingham Mac last year. Today’s poems are:

Threshold

How?
Elephantine yet
Too small for any mortal. Metal?
Seemingly impassible;
Keyless keyhole, hip- height,
Half-hidden away
Flush against the surface
Safe, memory box or keepsake?
Opening now by some invisible hand.
At first nothingness, then-
Eyes adjusting to the blackness
A tunnel reveals itself and
At the end
A warm, white glow
More than light or love
A bluish hue around its periphery
Like tiny stars
Or vision on the edge of tears.
Then in the distance, the silhouette
Of two figures approaching
And although I could not make them out
Nor hear above the cacophony of silence,
I knew.

Mum

It must be 9 o’clock.
She sings the theme tune.
Sits still glowing, slightly damp
Framed by apricot antimacassar
Applying rollers to freshly-washed hair
That perfumes the plastic tail comb infallibly
Condenses at the cold, clouded window.
Nehru unimaginable in a satin, quilted dressing gown
Cornflower waterfall which meets the floor
Where my cheek lies on prickly, patchwork tufts
Looking beyond the silky theatre curtains of the sofa fringe
A hint of chocolate lingers in my mouth
Heart-breaking even then
Like lace, the pliable moulded mirror-edge
I held to walk on ceilings,
Beginning to tear itself away.

Jenni Schütt

Working as a fine artist, Jenni is interested in the continuing bonds we have with places, including those on the periphery of our consciousness. She mainly writes detailed accounts of her extremely vivid dreams.

sparkle-illusion-with-words-larger-reduced-sizecopyrighted

A complete guide to mental health problems, topical issues and treatment options may be found on the MHF’s Mental Health A/Z and useful information can also be found at Mind.

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week runs from today until Sunday, with a theme of Living with change /’Surviving or Thriving?’. Over this week, I will be sharing work from some writers on my From Pain to Poetry/Anguish to Art workshop at Birmingham Mac last year. Today’s poems are:

Tulpa

I am – the stardust sleepwalker
tip-toeing rainfalls of fireflies,
surfing into auroras dolphin dancers,
fading to ghostly geishas –
climbing again – into crestfalls of spiritfire
thought forms – sigils
grappling from grimoires
– now –
– a smouldering tulpa –
I – was – once –
almost – real.

Ethers

Under what condition do you dream of the dead?
Do they waver under the surface of pitch and stone?
Are bodies severed, grotesque without a head?
Or decomposed, exposing sinew and bone?

Do they glide through marshmallows clouds
dressed in earthly clothes or shrouds?
Or walk suspended on a pedestal of air?
Are they visioned in daylight, or nightfall’s lair?

Do you wander as old friends down memory lane?
Does the dream essence echo, like a musical refrain?
Or slowly disintegrate in a haze of perplexity?
In your subconscious do you decipher the mystery?

Under what conditions do you dream of the dead?
Are questions aired, answered, or left unsaid?
When the cold winds of terror have twisted and flew
In the debris of their ashes do you feel blue?

Keep Our Home Fires Burning

I’ve seen it – in your eyes
It burns –
Sienna-gold as the Serengeti sunrise.
It’s in the bloodbeat of your ancestors
left in clawprint glyphs.
It carries on the scent of splicing rainfall.
On the soaring feathers of freedom,
in a warriors steel digits fraying air.
In the breath of buffalo bones long sleeping.
Long before shamans dwelt in spirit worlds,
Or the ghostly pounding of tribal spears,
amid the tumbleweed and dust.
In hooves fading into twilights wind chimes –
And sunsets of mulberry and mulled wine.
This is your treasure –
The kindling of home.

Elaine Christie

Elaine Catherine Christie is a poet & publisher from Birmingham. She published a limited addition anthology ‘Restless Bones’ to raise funds for Born Free Foundation in 2014. Her poetry has won prizes in Trust Talk, and appeared in First Time, Dial 174, Poetry Rivals 2011, Forward Poetry, United Press, Silhouette Press, Warwick Dodo, Pixie Chicks’ For the Love of Animals, WWF Earth Book, I am not a Silent Poet and Born Free Foundation Supporters poetry.

in-outsretched-hands

A complete guide to mental health problems, topical issues and treatment options may be found on the MHF’s Mental Health A/Z and useful information can also be found at Mind.

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week runs from today until Sunday, with a theme of Living with change /’Surviving or Thriving?’. Over this week, I will be sharing work from some writers on my From Pain to Poetry/Anguish to Art workshop at Birmingham Mac last year. Today’s poem is:

Nothing is lost

It’s water under the bridge,
they said, as if the past
were a black hole,
as if water flowed backwards.
Don’t they know
about the constant trickle,
the slow, silent seeping,
the underground streams
that well up, resurface
in unexpected places,
the never-ending cycle
evaporating–cooling–condensing,
the mists and drizzle and sudden storms?

Ros Woolner

Ros lives in Wolverhampton with her family and a cat that likes to sit on paper. Her sonnet Sons and Roses came joint third in the 2016 Cannon Poets Sonnet or Not competition.

soft-sun-2

A complete guide to mental health problems, topical issues and treatment options may be found on the MHF’s Mental Health A/Z and useful information can also be found at Mind.

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week runs from today until Sunday, with a theme of Living with change /’Surviving or Thriving?’. Over this week, I will be sharing work from some writers on my From Pain to Poetry/Anguish to Art workshop at Birmingham Mac last year. Today’s poem is:

What’s Left

by Lorna Meehan

It’s strange
What’s left
When all the clothes have been given
To a friend of a friend of similar size.
When all the books never read
Go back to the charity shops they came from.
When the jewellery has been carefully chosen,
Handed over softly
To those who will wear and remember.
When the threadbare letters have been stored away for another time.

When we feel stronger.
More distant.

When the pictures have been shared out among relatives,
To fill walls and cover heart cracks.
All the photos of:
That time we went there,
That time she did this,
Carefully sectioned to go into albums,
So we don’t forget.

When we are ready,
When we’ve given it time.

All these things that surround a life,
And suddenly it’s all just empty space
That doesn’t know what to do with itself.
And everyone’s filling the horrible silences with:
“It’s only been six months,
Of course you’ll still wake up crying.”

It’s normal,
Natural.

But talking will help,
When we can bear it.

When I can share without
An abyss opening in the back of my throat.

In the end,
Before the keys are given back to the landlord,
It’s the oddest thing to realise,
That all that’s left in this space that she filled for ten years
Are old batteries,
Half filled shampoo bottles,
Lists with only half the time fillers crossed out.

What do you do with old cassette tapes with no labels?
A Boots loyalty card?
Sex toys?

And with every object I clutch my fingers around as if it was sacred –
A hairbrush,
The cafetiere I won for her in a poetry competition,
A blanket that smells of memories –
I ask myself the same pointless question:
Where have you gone?

Then I fling the windows open in the frustration
Of the unfairness of it all,
And I look up,
Breathe in,
Realise.

Your voice is now birds singing,
Your skin is every flower unfurling its rainbows,
Your laughter is the breeze.
When I’ve been punishing myself under the sun too long,
Your words are the roots of every tree,
Sprouting endless revelations.

Your heart,
Returned to stardust.

Lorna Meehan

Lorna is an actor, performance poet and playwright and writes and co-directs with RoguePlay. Over the past few years she has moved into long form narrative poetry merged with theatre. This poem came out of her first experience of grief and subsequent depression and she found the poetry workshop very therapeutic. You can listen to more of her work at http:www.soundcloud.com/lornameehan.

heart-composition-5-smaller

A complete guide to mental health problems, topical issues and treatment options may be found on the MHF’s Mental Health A/Z and useful information can also be found at Mind.

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week runs from today until Sunday, with a theme of Living with change /’Surviving or Thriving?’. Over this week, I will be sharing work from some writers on my From Pain to Poetry/Anguish to Art workshop at Birmingham Mac last year, starting with:

Hide and Seek

Finding a door or a window into a poem, a constant search, once found, the relief, uncensored, moves to comfort, safety, solace, joy. Once through one door the search is not over, looking through a window is never enough. Smash the glass, disregard the shattered shards, breathe in the freedom of expression, engage in risk taking, disclose too much yet not enough and what does it matter anyway?
Once the door is opened, once the window has been looked through there is no going back. Just travelling on in the endless search for words, gathering, collecting, savouring, or tossing aside like yesterday’s breakfast that burnt itself to a cinder because you were too busy seeking ways into other worlds to bloody concentrate on on something so mundane as feeding yourself.
And what does it matter anyway?
Words are the real nutrition that you seek, words to fill you up, to feed your mind, inject vitamins into your spirit, calories into your starving soul which seeks only the solace it strictly forbids itself for oh so much of the time.
And what does it matter anyway?
And the locked doors, the curtained windows, denying entry, how long to bang with clenched fists demanding to be let in, how long to hold space for the gnawing fear that warns in strident tones that you will be sorry if you open the curtains, for what terrors might you see beyond? It could be anything. Or worse. It could be nothing. And then where will you be? Can you guarantee that you would find the words for nothing? What if nothing means there is nothing left to say, no words left to seek, swallowed up in the nothingness of nothing.
And what does it matter anyway?
Finding a door or a window into a poem, when the hunt is on all else is forgotten, knock on this door, move along, ring the bell, move along, step inside, move along, peer through panes hoping that if pain is what you see looking back at you, you will find the words you need to offer comfort, declare understanding, make it worth the view and the memories which will no doubt linger long after that pain, staring back at you through the window you so stubbornly insisted on opening, has long since subsided and faded into obscurity.
The breakfast is burning again.
But what does it matter anyway?

Louise Stokes

Louise Stokes, Philosophy/Politics Joint Honours B.A, ex-psychiatric nurse,(RMN, Diploma in Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing) counsellor, (Cert Individual and Family Counselling), MA in Research in Social Health Care, professional actor, ( training: Birmingham Theatre School and HND Community Theatre and Performing Arts) writer, poet, performance poet, stand up comedian, published author and member of Writing West Midlands Room 204 Writers’ Development Cohort.

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A complete guide to mental health problems, topical issues and treatment options may be found on the MHF’s Mental Health A/Z and useful information can also be found at Mind.

little-jar-version-6scaled-down-friends-copyrighted

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week starts on Monday, with a theme of Living with change /’Surviving or Thriving?’ and a slightly different approach. As the Mental Health Foundation puts it: “Rather than ask why so many people are living with mental health problems, we will seek to uncover why too few of us are thriving with good mental health.” (More on the campaign generally can be read here.)

To mark this week, I will be sharing work from some of the writers on my From Pain to Poetry/Anguish to Art (writing from or away from personal experiences using objects and mindfulness inspired techniques) workshop at Birmingham Mac as part of The Magnetic Diaries tour last year. There will be pieces on my blog here each day from Monday.

Why is mental health important? And why is it so often overlooked? I’m not going to attempt to give a full answer to this. But statistics show that around 1 in every 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year, with mixed anxiety and depression the most common mental disorder in Britain. The TED talk below about emotional first aid is also interesting and inspiring.

A complete guide to mental health problems, topical issues and treatment options may be found on the MHF’s Mental Health A/Z and useful information can also be found at Mind.

For those interested in mental health and writing, this links to a short piece about my own different approaches to exloringing or moving away from painful experiences.

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