Sarah James

the possibilities of poetry…

When I say the ‘d’ factor, I’m not talking death or depression here, though many aspects of what I’m going to say will apply to these and life in general. The ‘d’ I’m particularly referring to is diabetes.

I was diagnosed with type 1 (juvenile) diabetes at the age of 6. Since then, life has been a constant balancing act – not just of food and insulin injections but all the other things that can impact on blood sugar level. So, that includes exercise, moods, temperatures, weather, nerves, anxiety, stress…

My parents were always keen to emphasize that diabetes didn’t need to stop me from doing anything. There are a few things like operating heavy machinery and driving restrictions that do apply to diabetics, but otherwise my mum and dad were pretty much right – as parents usually are!

Well, actually, they were ‘mostly’ right, but more on that later.

When I was about 13, I went on a Diabetes UK (then British Diabetic Association) activity holiday on Drake Island in the Plymouth Sound. I caved, climbed, abseiled and canoed, as well as generally having a good time.

Celebrity diabetics have also achieved many things – in the sports arena and elsewhere. Olympic rower Steve Redgrove went on to win his fifth medal after his diabetes type 2 diagnosis and actress Halle Berry has type 1 diabetes. These are just two of many examples.

img_2395-001Myself? Well, I try to juggle diabetes, parenthood, publishing, writing, reading and trying to do 1-3 hours of challenging exercise six days a week – cycling, swimming, climbing, dance, weight training, some running. Also training for triathlon and get out on the surf when I can. (On a good day, it’s all enjoyably within my stride. On a bad day, yes, I’m almost exhausted even listing it. Fortunately though, I was also brought up on another ‘d’ word – determination!)

However, while doing most things any healthy person can is possible, what is less often acknowledged is the added effort required and the extra energy, time and sometimes emotional cost of doing anything a ‘normal’ person can do. Mostly I manage (with help from those around me also fitting in around my blood sugars), but not always. Also, although I only exercise for a few hours, a large part of any day is spent getting my blood sugars to a point where I can hopefully exercise without having to stop just 15 mins in because of my blood sugar levels.

Fortunately for me, freelance life does give me more flexibility to fit all the day’s activities around my blood sugars. But nothing is an exact science, and even this flexibility isn’t always enough to predict and prepare for all eventualities that may alter my blood sugar levels in the wrong way.

Control is a word often used when referring to diabetes. However, as even emotions can affect blood sugars, this presupposes that we can control everything in our lives – which, of course, we can’t. In practical terms, control for me is more accurately described as close monitoring, fast reaction and some educated guess work when I have to predict the effects of an unknown/previously untested mix of many variables.

In other words, yes, I can do anything a normal (whatever that is!) person does but only with a lot more effort. In reality, this also means that I can often do anything a normal person can (though not necessarily in the same way a normal person can) BUT not everything a normal person can – I usually have to prioritise and let go of some things in order to make the most important goals happen.

When I was a journalist, the priority was being able to drive at an instant’s notice – so that I could get out and cover a news story. This meant I ran my overall blood sugars slightly on the higher side of what might be ideal, in order to avoid the risk of low blood sugars stopping me drive.

When I was pregnant with my first son, the priority was keeping blood sugars as low as possible so as to minimise risks to him. I wasn’t on a continuous-infusion insulin pump at the time and long-term insulin had an unmodifiable profile, so in practice this meant waking up every few hours every night to check my blood sugars and take extra short-term insulin when necessary. I was exhausted before my son was even born, and, almost inevitably, depression also took its chance to pounce at me from all corners!

[NB – The video below shouldn’t be watched by anyone who is adversely affected by the sight of blood.]

I now prioritise keeping fit, alongside my family, trying to earn a living, V. Press (our authors and our readers) and writing, of course. In fact, exercise (like creativity) has actually turned out an essential part of keeping my mind and body healthy and re-energising me so I can do the other things. But in order to have this, sadly, other elements of life (and social interaction/events/social media…) have to fit into the limited time and timings this dictates. The nature of my exercise itself also tends to be restricted.

I used to think I chose to exercise alone because I liked combining it with working through thoughts and emotions. More recently, I’ve realised that though this is sometimes the case, I’d mostly love the motivation and pacing of exercise with friends but just find it too difficult to ensure my blood sugars will always be right to train whenever they want or we agree to go. Spontaneous sport is only possible when my blood sugars happen to match that spontaneity.

So, the reality is that I spend a lot of time exercising alone in order to start as and when my blood sugars are spot on for that activity, rather than put others out if I can’t get my blood sugars to the right level for a pre-set time. I also tend to stick to things that don’t require me to drive very far to take part, so that I don’t have to worry about balancing blood sugars not just for exercise but also a safe drive there and back.

I’ve talked a lot here about exercise – perhaps one of the things most likely to require extra effort and thought for diabetics. But, particularly as I get older, doing just about anything with blood sugars that are too high or not quite high enough feels pretty awful. High blood sugars can affect my concentration and make me feel tired, sleepy and irritable. Meanwhile, if my blood sugar drops too low, I’m liable to I have no energy and feel overwhelmed by even simple tasks.

And many other activities beside exercise can impact on blood sugar levels. Driving, performing, even just being out and about instead of at my desk bring with them slight changes in exertion level. But, more than this, they can also bring with them anxiety or nerves. And anything that induces nerves or adrenaline (the fear of heights/falling that is a part of climbing is a prime example) means my body will be automatically releasing chemicals that will also affect blood sugars. Then, I can get nervous about this effect on my blood sugars, creating a vicious circle.

These are the kind of things that happen. Having been diagnosed age six, my diabetes has mostly always just been there, in the background. While pretending to be invisible, it is in fact a shadow, lurking. Although I’ve been factually aware of the control element and my potentially shortened life expectancy since my late 20s (writing about it once ten years ago in a poem ‘Prognosis‘), this knowledge has mostly been at an emotional distance/viewed through the protective lens that youth often allows. To be honest, I’ve actually spent most of these 35 years since diagnosis occupied by another ‘d’ word – denial. This denial not so much of the condition itself, more of the difference it makes (yes, yet another ‘d’!) Quite how much diabetes actually affects my daily routine and pretty much every aspect of my life has only really become obvious to me over the past few years.

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This is partly because I started climbing – an activity that can’t easily be enjoyed alone (the reason I boulder on my own more often than I’m able to actually climb with a buddy belaying). This has been a very real reminder of the balancing – or juggling – act involved in coordinating food, exercise and insulin so that it doesn’t impact negatively on what I want to do or my long-term health. (Blood sugars need to be high enough/insulin levels low enough not just to start exercise but to keep going over a certain period of time. Any delay starting may mean my blood sugar levels then go too high to start. But if they dip too low at any point during exercise, it’s likely to be a minimum of 30 mins before I can restart properly…and so on to a potentially phd-length essay on all the variables that can and do come into play.)

Over the past few years, I have come to realise too that the depressions which I get from time to time aren’t just linked back to the childhood trauma of my initial diabetes diagnoses. There are the teenage years in which my Grandad, who lived with us, lost his sight and one leg through diabetic complications. On top of this, the bigger part of my depressions may itself simply be the exhaustion of 35 years of diabetes – trying to do not just anything but everything a ‘normal’ person can do. (My poem about this – ‘Thick-skinned, Thin-fleshed’ can be found in London Grip here.

Diabetic burnout (or diabetic distress) is a term I only came across for the first time this past year. (Diabetes UK has a long definition of this on its website here. Reading up on diabetic burnout, suddenly, lots of my own symptoms and frustrations seemed to make sense.

I imagine people with many other different life-long medical conditions may also end up with something similar. Of course, the truth is that there are and always will be people much worse off than me. Also, as with any other kind of burnout, there’s no miracle cure – the main advice seems to be to do less, which is kind of at cross-purposes to the frustration at not being able to do everything a normal person or as easily as a normal person.

But Diabetes UK describe such burnout as ‘a natural response’ and this has helped me both to be kinder to myself and to give myself more credit for the anythings that I do achieve despite added difficulties. Although I personally don’t have a faith as such any more, it has also brought home to me just what an amazing creation the human body is when it works properly and does all this automatically/naturally/near-perfectly!

As the number of people with diabetes rises, hopefully, this type of burnout is also an area that will get more medical research funding, understanding and improved treatments. Meantime, I’ll continue my own experiential assessments of what works best for me as an individual – writing up and sharing what and where I can anything that might be useful.

Every individual’s life – diabetic or otherwise – is different. This is pretty much the first time I’ve ever written about my diabetes. Recently, I also had a piece commissioned by the Wellcome Collection where, for the first time, I’ve written directly and publicly about my experience of depression. This piece on depression, repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation and inspiration can be found in my Wellcome Collection article here.

Although, diabetic burnout and depression are two different things, if anyone thinks they may be suffering from either, please do talk to someone about it and get medical advice. The symptoms for both are not dissimilar, and it’s possible not only to have both but that they may be closely interlinked.

In my article for the Wellcome Collection, I quote from a Gram Joel Davies’ poem ‘Damned’ in which he likens depression to a certain type of hydro-generated electricity, where it takes more force to restart the machine than it creates in its brief high output. For me, this is very much like diabetic burnout too – days where the effort needed to manage and live with the diabetes seems to greatly outweigh the enjoyment found in that day.

On days like that, I’ve learned to try to remember both the small things that give pleasure – music, poetry, walking, exercise, sun on my face, birdsong in the garden, my boys’ smiles…and also to try to live for the next day, as yet still unwritten.

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When I’m able to start each morning afresh rather than assuming a bleak continuation of the same, I’m both open to possibilities and whatever new things it brings. Yes, the diabetes, and depression, may be there beside me, but on good days we can work with each other rather than setting ourselves at odds. In fact, on very very good bad days, you may even hear me whisper, “I’ve nothing I have to prove, no need to do anything but be.” And, yeah, it’s quiet, but slowly, slowly, that voice IS getting louder!

PS Obviously I was diagnosed a long time ago – I’m sure diagnosis and advice may be very different now!

PPS I’ve never really written about this before for a whole raft of reasons – from denial through to knowing there are plenty worse off than me and preferring to grit my teeth rather than run any risk of giving in to self-pity. But I also worry that people don’t know the full reasons when sometimes I’m not able to do things. Also, a big thing that concerns me more and more is how society – those in full health as well as those with hidden conditions, or disabilities – is going to cope in the future as people are expected to give more and more time and energy, with even healthy people often now finding themselves exhausted or overwhelmed?

PPPS Just to acknowledge my thanks and gratitude to the many individuals and organisations that have helped me over the years. (A particular recent shout-out and big thanks to Rob and the Rivers team at Droitwich Leisure Centre for helping to find quick and practical solutions/alternatives when unexpected hitches and glitches cause problems with my planned exercise. It really does make such a difference!)

PPPPS Also, for those interested in creativity, poetry and disability, I’d really recommend ‘Stairs and Whispers. I have no personal link or involvement with this Nine Arches Press anthology but have found the pieces inside, moving, thought-provoking, motivational, eye-catching, innovative…great reading! (In fact, it’s probably this book, along with my Wellcome Collection commission and memoir longlisting in this year’s New Welsh Awards, that has helped me finally feel brave enough, and have the confidence, to start talking about this.)

PPPPPS Yes, disappointment and driven are other ‘d’ factors that have come into play many times along the way – but so also has durability!

PPPDDDS These are just my own personal experiences. Please do use the comments box if you want to share your own thoughts, feelings or experiences of dealing with similar conditions or difficulties.

instructions-fot-making-meIn my twenty-seventh interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Maria Taylor about her poetry pamphlet Instructions for Making Me (HappenStance)…

Could you say a little about the process of bringing these poems together and how the quote from the deliciously entitled ‘Poem In Which I Lick Motherhood’ came to be the overall pamphlet title?

I was over the moon when Nell Nelson asked me if I’d like a pamphlet with HappenStance. It took about 14 months from the initial offer up to seeing the poems in print. When we were ready, I sent her a batch of over twenty poems and we whittled them down to seventeen. I also sent some new unpublished poems too. The poems worked well as a group, but there was no official title for ages. I had a working title of Not About Hollywood. It didn’t make it to the final stage as we thought it wasn’t fluid sounding enough. A Walk Past Floating Houses was also touted, but this sounded too calm and zen for the collection. Instructions for Making Me is a phrase from the Motherhood poem. Nell suggested it. It felt absolutely right. If it feels right I think that’s a good indication that it is.

‘Instructions for Making Me’ is full of interesting and intriguing characters. How and where did you find your inspiration for them, and for your writing more generally?

The ‘Invisible Man’ in the poem of the same name is thanks to my daughter Rosie. One day she was pushing an empty swing in the garden and announced it was the invisible man in the seat. So I wrote about him and then he became lots of different people. The ‘Speakers of Half-Finished Sentences’ is thanks to someone in Leicester on London Road who was being absolutely ignored in a conversation. I did some eavesdropping and thought that person deserved a poem. Of course they will never know this! Some of the characters are based more directly on friends and family. Some are me and not quite me. Daniel Craig is a cameo role. It was good of him to drop by.

Underlying all the poems here is acute observation (of human characteristics and behavior, as well as the background settings). In some cases, this takes the form of beautiful, evocative, very real, and sometimes also painful, description. (This might be likened, perhaps, to the view through a window where the light is exquisitely slanted to catch a scene’s striking or unusual aspects.) In others, the scenarios are more surreal, imaginative and playful, with, for example, phrases taken literally or character traits pushed to an extreme. How or when do you know and decide that something is definite inspiration for a poem, and also which direction you’re going to take with it?

maria-taylor-1940s_meWhen poetry is going right it feels right. I’ve said that before and believes its true. To quote the old chestnut, ‘you have to go on your nerve’ as Frank O’Hara said. I don’t stick to one style of presentation, I go with what works at the time. When an idea takes me over or when the subject matter feels imperative then I can’t help but write about it. In the first book, Melanchrini, it was a little more autobiographical. In the pamphlet it had less to do with me directly. However, I do like characters and people in poems, so I don’t tend to write abstract poems, or ones which are solely about landscapes or animals as many poets do. I’m glad you used the photo image. I like taking photos, and I also like the idea that a poem is a snapshot too. Albeit in some instances a snapshot of a more surreal or imagined event.

These poems are wonderfully spare and taut, with a sense of poise, weight and precision behind every word choice. The language, images and striking lines made me gasp with awe/admiration/emotion time after time. How much work – from initial inspiration, through editing, redrafting and polishing – was involved in achieving this?

Well, thank you very much for saying that. I’d say there were only one or two poems in the whole collection that received minimal drafting; they were ‘Hypothetical’ and ‘The Horse.’ Both are comedic poems and they came spontaneously. All the other poems were drafted very carefully and some over were edited over a long process of time. At the time of writing them I was very single-minded about the editing stage. I prioritized writing and editing poetry above a lot of other things. Looking back on it now, I wish I was more single-minded like that again!

Which poem was the hardest and/or took the longest time to write, and why?

The ‘Landfills of Heaven’ poem took a while. I thought it was a strange idea for a poem at first, but I persevered and didn’t give up on it. It’s quite easy to give up on a poem. There’s never a promise a poem will reward you with anything. You do it because you have to. I knew I wanted the poem to be about waste and loss, but I wanted it to be original and wanted it to be musical in its delivery. The image of the empty champagne flute is based on a memory of randomly coming across Dusty Springfield’s grave somewhere and seeing an empty flute glass someone had left for her. It was moving to capture that image in the poem. When I get grouchy with poetry (which is often) it’s reassuring to remember that good things can come out of poems. Normally the good thing is just a sense of cheeriness that you achieved something with your time and expressed something that you otherwise wouldn’t.

What question haven’t I asked about ‘Instructions for Making Me’ that you wish I had? (And what is the answer?!)

I think your questions have been very good! There’s only one question you might have asked and I’m glad you didn’t. That would have been, ‘when do you see you next full collection coming out?’ My answer to that would be when I feel as if I’m back on the (poetry) horse. When I’m part of the world of single-minded writing, editing, sending out and being published I’ll feel more ready. Things are a little fragmented.

Could you give us a small taster from one of the poems in the pamphlet?

Here’s ‘Also Ran’ which was originally published in the web magazine ‘The Compass’:

Also-Ran

That word made Babba angry
and curse the slack horses that didn’t win.
Growing up I knew what it meant
but never felt its meaning,
till I stood behind you one day – invisible,
and overheard you say to a friend
you dreamed of her the night before.
The whip-crack of your tongue
buckled my knees ahead of the finish.

Babba, why didn’t you look up
from the sports pages and warn me,
You can’t compete with the ones they dream about.

instructions-fot-making-meWhere can people get hold of a copy of ‘Instructions for Making Me’?

All the details are available on the HappenStance website which I include here:
https://www.happenstancepress.com/index.php/shop/product/47766-instructions-for-making-me-maria-taylor
Thank you for asking me to take part. Your questions have been thoughtful and generous!

Thank you, Maria, for these wonderful insights into ‘Instructions for Making Me’ and your inspiration and writing generally.

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.

In the pink - buzzing with sun & honey for The Mystery Summer is coming. Time for butterflies, clover, warm fields, lazy days, romance and…

Delighted to have my poem ‘The Mystery’ published at Rust + Moth this week. The full poem here. And there are many other fabulous poems online here to enjoy from this and past issues of the journal.

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Delighted to have a two-part flash ‘Two Sides’ – a fiction of love and doubt, hope and disappointment – published at Legend Press this week. Although this year has been the publication of my first short novella, Kaleidoscope, my first piece of longer short fiction was published by Legend Press in the 2005/2008 anthology The Remarkable Everyday.

Twelve years later, it’s great to be back, in their new weekly 200-word flash fiction slot. ‘Two Sides’ is also a flash in two parts – ‘Blue’ and ‘Half-buried’ – so, in having several shifting perspective/two interlinked stories, it’s also very similar to my longer ‘commuter story’ in The Remarkable Everyday. Read ‘Two Sides’ here.

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The past few weeks I’ve mostly been on a big workload catch-up, post-several weekends away. (I had a fabulous half-term enjoying some surf in Wales with my boys and then a wonderful catch-up with my sixth form/college friends.)

It’s been good news over at V. Press with new titles in the pipeline and great reviews of recently published pamphlets and collections.

I’ve had various bit and pieces going on myself in the background. Not everything has gone to plan or had the outcome I’d hoped for. But, as always, these things and national events set each other in perspective.

I’ve mentioned the ‘big commission’ in other blogposts. This was due to go live last Monday (June 5). Unfortunately, it has now been delayed, but as I’ve been dropping teaser hints, I will say that it’s a Wellcome Collection commission for an article, photos and poem, hopefully going live on the website on June 19…touch wood, and watch this space!

Meanwhile, following my Nine Arches Press and West Midlands Readers Network Adopt a Poet scheme residency at Brownhills Library last month, I was absolutely delighted to receive a new poem from a talented young poet who came in to to talk to me and was inspired to write as a result of it. More on this soon…meanwhile, this lovely piece about the residency and my reading with David Clarke was featured in the Express and Star.

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Although this year has been the publication of my first short novella, Kaleidoscope, my first piece of longer short fiction was published by Legend Press in the 2005 (and 2008) anthology The Remarkable Everyday. Twelve years later, I’m delighted to be having some much much shorter work published by them. The press has just started a new weekly flash fiction – 200 words – slot at the Legend Press website. I’m delighted to have ‘Two Sides’ scheduled for Tuesday June 13 – a fiction of love and doubt, hope and disappointment. ‘Two Sides’ is also a flash in two parts (or a two-part flash sequence) – ‘Blue’ and ‘Half-buried’. So, in having several shifting perspective/two interlinked stories, it’s very similar to my longer ‘commuter story’ in The Remarkable Everyday.

Also in the pipeline, plans for Elbow Room‘s fifth birthday celebrations. Plus advance notice of this collaborative event at Ledbury Poetry Festival on Sunday, July 9 from 6.15pm-7.15pm. I’m delighted to have been invited to be part of the ENEMIES project. Sadly, the poet I was originally due to collaborate with has had to drop out. But I can’t wait to find out who I will be paired with instead!

Meanwhile, Ruth Stacey and I 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.

jill-munro-2In my twenty-sixth interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Jill Munro about her poetry pamphlet The Quilted Multiverse (Fairacre Press)…

I love the title ‘The Quilted Multiverse’. Not only does this reference one of the poems but it also encapsulates the whole pamphlet’s wonderful quirkiness and mix of the everyday with concerns from the much wider cosmos. What was your process for bringing together, ordering and titling the pamphlet?

Thanks – glad you like it. I’ve always been interested in the idea of parallel universes – and how we all live in versions of our own universe. The poem ‘The Quilted Multiverse of Gardens’ was written before I extracted part of the title of the poem for the whole pamphlet title. The poem considers how we can sometimes get small glimpses into others’ worlds when passing through – but probably never totally understand them. I think that premise sets up the various strands which run throughout, as you say – the everyday as part of the wider cosmos, the patchwork quilt that holds us all together.
The poems were written over a relatively short period of time as I had just brought out my first collection ‘Man from La Paz’ (Green Bottle Press, July 2015) and the Fair Acre Pamphlet prize was judged in November 2015, so there wasn’t much time between. Luckily, Nadia from Fair Acre was very helpful with the editing and ordering (though the first 4 poems remained in position as the judge, Jonathan Edwards, was particularly complimentary about the opening four, so I didn’t want to rock the boat!).

A lego fan, a riff on the song ‘She sells seashells’, a poem featuring Woolf’s purple ink…and these are just the three opening poems. How and where do you find such a breadth of subject matter? (Does inspiration arise by itself, do you have to coax it out or do you actively look for new areas to write about?)

Well, as you’ve referenced those particular poems, I’ll try to explain their provenance. The first one came about following a direct statement from a friend regarding her son – ‘I’ve got the b****y Sydney Opera house in my living room!’ – her son being an avid Lego fan. I held this image/thought in my ‘Book of quotations/titles that need a home’ until I read about AFOLs (adult fans of Lego); then the poem fermented and was born.

The seashells poem came about as I’m part of a poets’/artists’/photographers’ collective in Tunbridge Wells called ‘Fractals’ who each ‘riff’ (to borrow your phrase) off each other’s work. This poem was in response to a photograph of some ‘wet-glazed whorls/like Chelsea buns’. I’ve found this collective a tremendous source of inspiration taking me to places outside of my normal writing; indeed, three other poems in the pamphlet are also from the same source. We are having an exhibition of much of our work this June at the Trinity Theatre in Tunbridge Wells, which is exciting.

The Woolf poem followed my immersion in ‘Orlando’ for an OU English Lit Degree I was doing (the start of my poetry career!) and was a ‘whoosh’ poem – rare, but lovely when they arrive. A thought in the middle of the night had to be written down and appeared fully formed – and I do write in purple ink too!

So, to answer your question, ideas come from just about anywhere…

jill-munro-1I’ve mentioned quirkiness already, by which I mean both a lightness of tone and outlook in the poems but also their uniqueness. There’s a lovely flow and exuberance that runs through your writing, even those poems spare in form or featuring more ‘serious’ topics. Is this something that is a natural part of your approach to life generally, something that reveals itself through the editing process or an aspect that you consciously try to create in your writing?

I think you’d have to ask friends and family about whether it is part of my approach to life generally, but I think it probably is. I love enthusiasm and exuberance as a trait in other people (Nadia of Fair Acre being a great example!) and I try to bring that into my poetry, albeit it does occur naturally rather than being an edited afterthought. I try to write ‘accessible’ (how I hate that word!) poetry that people who don’t really ‘do’ poetry enjoy. I think my poems can appear outwardly light but, if you examine them carefully, there is often a darker centre to them if you care to find it.

“all mushroom memories turn butterfly” [from ‘Girl in a Bright Blue Dress’]

Memories feature throughout the pamphlet, as well as the general lightness of touch and butterflies/wings as a motif and even a form in itself (in ‘Butterflies’). I wanted to ask about the importance of memories and how solid or ephemeral both memory and poetry are for you? (Perhaps also what/how you consider a poem’s ideal role – is it a way of fixing things/memories so that they can’t be lost, a means of temporarily catching a passing moment as a snapshot in words, a mixture of these depending on the poem or something else entirely different?)

I think both memory and poetry are ephemeral (as is life, the cosmos) and poetry that can successfully capture a snapshot of a moment in time has done its job, especially if it sparks some kind of recognition in the reader. I think memories in the hands of a poet are particularly ephemeral as they have often been altered or adapted to be either more beautiful/dramatic/ sad/surprising to evoke a particular emotion in the reader – butterfly moments indeed. I think that reader empathy or emotion is the most important thing for a poet to strive for and if this can be done through an evocative description of a particular memory, then that’s job done. The poem ‘Five Stars’ illustrates my quite recent memory of a particular B&B stay in a Midlands town (which shall be nameless) and nearly every detail is accurate (apart from the poetic, butterfly flight of fancy in the last stanza …).

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

Ooo, that’s a hard one? Am I allowed two favourites?

‘Linda’s Bedroom’ is one – my sister died when she was 31 (and I was pregnant with my first son) and this poem is a snapshot of a memory of her when we were young, her environment and the early seventies. I recently got back in touch with her named boyfriend in the poem (her first love) who didn’t know she had died. He was in floods of tears at both the fact of her death over 30 years ago and the poem. This poem is therefore particularly emotional for me, especially following this contact, and I guess also relates to your last question.

‘Photo-me fours of you laughing with a blue-eyed
boy fall from scribbled pages. I spot a secret –
the day-marked silver foil of The Pill –
and all the bedroom’s eyes widen’.

On a lighter note ‘Missing’ is another favourite – one I can remember to recite aloud! It is also my husband’s favourite poem of mine and my extended family all read one line each to me at a dinner following the launch of my first book, so I have a particular fondest for it. I don’t often write rhyming poetry, and hopefully this one works.

What question haven’t I asked about ‘The Quilted Multiverse’ that you would have liked me to ask?

‘The Quilted Multiverse’ was produced as a result of you winning the inaugural Fair Acre Press Pamphlet competition; do you think this is a good way for poets to get their work published?

Yes, I think it is a brilliant way for poets to have their work exposed to a wider audience. The anticipation and excitement of a long-listing or short-listing in a competition are wonderful, and to actually win is extremely exciting. To then be involved in the editorial process and meeting the judge etc and, in my case, reading at Wenlock was all a fabulous experience, so I can thoroughly recommend poets take the chance and enter. In fact, I am judging a pamphlet competition for Paper Swans Press which has recently been announced and entries are now open. Go to the Paper Swans website for details – roll up, roll up!

jill-munro-2Where can people get a copy of ‘The Quilted Multiverse’?
You can buy it from the Fair Acre Press bookshop (£4.99): link below.
http://fairacrepress.co.uk/shop/the-quilted-multiverse/

Thank you, Jill, for these fascinating insights into ‘The Quilted Multiverse’ and your writing and editing processes and inspiration.

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.

leominster-reading-18-may-2017It’s been a while since I blogged about personal events and successes, so this week’s blog is fuller than usual with good news.

ADOPT A POET

I’ve had a fabulous fortnight of readings with David Clarke at Leominster and Brownhills Libraries, as part of the Nine Arches Press and West Midlands Readers’ Network ‘Adopt a Poet’ scheme. I was also delighted to spend the day at Brownhills Library as their Poet in Residence for the day – talking to people, admiring the tapestry displays inspired by the Walsall area and tweeting poems/poetry snippets throughout the day.

 
 
 

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ACCEPTANCES/PUBLICATIONS & WINS

This past month, I was delighted to win the ‘Short poems for Journeys’ contest run by HappenStance, with my poem ‘The Melting’. You can read here the poem here, along with judge Charlotte Gann’s comments about it.

I was also pleased to have a flash shortlisted in the first quarter of the 2017 Flash500 competition.

Meanwhile, I’ve had photos published by Irisi, part of a sequence accepted for Poetry Wales and a poem ‘The Mystery’ for the summer Rust + Moth.

Behind the scenes, I’ve also been busy working on a couple of commissions. More about these to follow soon!

THE MAGNETIC DIARIES

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

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.)

adopt-a-poet-leominster

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.

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