In these short dark days and long nights, light is ever more important. Over the coming month in the run up to Christmas I will be focusing my writing and my photography on light.
This year has been immensely difficult for everyone and I fear worse is to come as we head into 2021 and increasingly dystopian times. However bleak things are and however much bleaker they might become, there is always light.
This is the final verse from A Requiemand it feels so very relevant.
At this time, it feels like the edge of the world has risen up to meet us and we are tipping and tilting on a precipice that is ever-shifting. Multiple crises surround us and the failure of our systems, governments and structures are visible, perhaps more visible than ever before. It is easy to stumble and fall off the edge, to feel overwhelmed by waves of despair and hopelessness. Our smallness and lack of control over our world is revealed and it is not comfortable.
What do we do when that overwhelm comes and the world tilts? Each of us will find different ways of coping and of dealing with those primal flight/fight instincts we all have. My instinct, after dealing with either fight or flee, is to turn to two sources of wisdom and solace; nature and story.
The natural world, particularly the sea and the sky remind me of the mutability of existence, of constant change. An hour spent watching the sea is a lesson in accepting change. No two waves break in the same way. The light shifts moment by moment. As you stand there gazing, you too shift and change, in small but important ways. The same with the sky. Watch a sunrise or a sunset, they are dynamic experiences, full of wonder and change.
This year, gardening has been more important to me than ever before. Tending a small urban garden through the lockdown, watching it grow, caring for it gave structure and order to the day, and a place to lose myself and my fear and anxiety over the chaos ‘out there.’ Putting the garden ‘to bed’ for the winter this year feels like a solemn responsibility and an act of thanks and gratitude for all the garden has given me this year.
Story has been my other place of refuge. I have been writing but also forging a path back to reading and to the stories and tales I love. I have found it hard to read this year and have done so in short bursts. I have made a commitment to myself to read over the winter; to read the books I know I need to read, to rediscover the stories and tales that I need to help me make sense of the world and to step back from the edge and into the mysterious embrace of myth.
This is where nature and story intersect for me. The stories I want and need are stories about the land – and the sea – and our connection to it. I want to root deep into story and deep into the earth, while reaching for the sky and tasting the salt of the sea. This is where I will find balance, strength and courage to navigate the coming tumult and play my part in the world.
Breaking taboos I am pleased and proud to have been been published in a taboo-busting collection of poems written by women all over the UK. Bloody Amazing! explores the health and social issues that affect experiences of women of all ages yet are hardly ever talked about: periods and menopause. The anthology is intended to be a conversation-starter for everyone. If you’ve never had a period, you’ll find out what it’s like not just to experience it physically, but also to function on an everyday basis while you work hard to hide your secret. And as for what happens when it all stops… It is a book of very human experiences, full of humour, grit, anger, pain, hot flushes, mood swings and, of course, blood.
Bloody Amazing! already has celebrity support in the form of comedian Jenny Eclair, author of Older and Wider – A Survivor’s Guide to the Menopause. She took very little persuading to write the foreword:
“I don’t think I’ve ever come across a collection of poetry that is so relevant and accessible about something that happens to around half of the planet at some stage of their lives. Who’d have thought that periods could inspire such a torrent of beautiful words? … I cannot recommend it highly enough.”
I was inspired to write about my experience of the onset of menopause. I am entering the third age and have to come to terms with letting go of my youth. It is painful and challenging. My hair is turning white, I have expanded around the waist and I am finding that my body often feels like a stranger to me. The unknown country of the future currently feels very disorientating.
I have been reflecting on my bleeding life, remembering the trauma and difficulty I experienced for decades. I was adept at avoiding school -especially PE lessons during periods. I lived in terror of the boys in my peer group going through my bag and finding sanitary towels and using them as a weapon of humiliation. I remember sitting my O Level English Literature exam in agony and under-performing as a consequence. I look back and shudder at the days I spent curled up around hot water bottles, lying in hot baths, battling three-day long migraines that became an unmanageable, chronic condition.
I remember one particularly horrible day at work when the pain was so bad, I slid down the wall outside my classroom and slumped on the floor wondering how the hell I was going to get up and get through the hour and forty minutes ahead of me with twenty rambunctious A Level Literature students. A colleague (female) saw me there and made a lairy comment, insinuating that I should ‘man up.’ And that’s often the problem isn’t it? Women are expected to behave as if they are not bleeding, not in pain, not struggling month after month after month – and sadly I’ve often found female colleagues unsympathetic simply because they breeze through their bleeds with no issues and can’t empathise.
The irony now, as I cease to bleed, as periods are down to one or two a year, is that when they come I welcome them like an old friend. I put this down to grief. I am grieving for the part of my life that is coming to an end and it is a complicated physical and psychological process. This is why this book is so special and so important. It brings together a flood of women’s experience. It is a bold, brave and timely collection.
Only last year, I burst into tears listening to Dawn Butler talk seriously about legislation to help women in the work place with menstruation and menopause, bringing this subject into the public domain and acknowledging its importance. Sadly we will now have to wait longer for that legislation, for social and political change that acknowledges and understands bleeding and all its attendant issues in a grown-up way. But this book supports the movement for change.
“Women have kept quiet for centuries about ‘women’s problems’ but the taboo is beginning to crumble, especially with excellent campaigns like Bodyform’s #wombstories or initiatives such as The Vagina Museum in London. That’s why we thought it was a timely idea for the two publishing houses to combine forces with poets to create an anthology that addresses the taboos and experiences around menopause and menstruation. And they haven’t let us down.”
All proceeds from the sale of the book will go towards period poverty charities.
August was going to be the big month of novel writing. I had such plans. This book has been percolating since 2017 and it feels important and pressing. Getting to it is not straightforward as I’ve discovered. All manner of things get in the way of having a long run at writing, from laundry to projects out in the world that just need attention. I feel as if I am almost getting to things that need to be done but not quite and that includes the novel.
There are about 40,000 words of novel in existence. there are chapters, notes, fragments and plans. There are lists, drawings, mind maps and associated novel paraphernalia. I am confident that there will be a novel.
It’s just gone 4.00 pm, the tide is low and it’s perfect weather for swimming but I know I won’t. Swimming is another thing to get to; it requires preparation, including 20 mins of wrestling with wet-suit and sea socks. It has been on my plan of what must be done every day this week – it is yet to happen.
However, the sea is calling and I will answer, even if it is only to go and observe it. That might be enough today. And who knows, tonight, when the sun goes down and the world goes quiet, I might find the words and write some of that novel.
On Friday 15th February myself and the Alan Barnes Octet premiered our brand new collaboration, A Requiem,a brand new suite of music and poetry, commissioned by Grimsby Jazz Projects and supported with funding from Arts Council, England.
Having worked on the poems from the autumn of 2017 to a final tweak the day before the premiere, I was full of nervous excitement and anticipation – especially as I had not heard a note of the music and truly had no idea what to expect.
It was wonderful to be reunited with the full band again. I had been looking forward to seeing everyone again and have so many happy memories of outstanding gigs on our previous Fish Tales tour. This is truly an all-star band and each musician brings his own particular signature, which becomes apparent during the solo sections.
As we got underway with the rehearsal it was soon clear to me that the music was extraordinary. Full of twists and turns with complex rhythms and nuances; the music felt like a journey through time and through the story of war across a century that I was also telling with the poems. The music was full of drama and intrigue and I found it incredibly moving and intense.
The rehearsal day was given an extra layer of excitement as Radio Humberside were broadcasting live from the Central Hall throughout the afternoon and several of us gave brief interviews in which we talked about the work and the project as a whole. Friends and colleagues also came in to give short interviews about the work they are doing in the cultural sector in the town and so the rehearsal had the feel of an event in its own right.
It was a long day and the work required considerable concentration from everyone. After only a short rest for tea, showtime approached and I really felt the nerves kick in. I now have a better understanding of my ‘gig-zone’ and my need to have some space to mentally and physically prepare for performance. It’s an odd place where in equal measure I do and do not want to perform, where nervous energy builds and I have to turn inwards in order to find the right mood for delivering outwards to an audience.
Before I started writing A Requiem I never thought that war would be a subject I would want to work with. I spent a great deal of my undergraduate degree studying the world wars and the literature of war of the twentieth century. But it was not an area I ever wrote about in my own creative writing so when this process began I was taken aback by how I was gripped by the subject and how urgent it felt for me to write and to read and to go back to some of the literature that had so absorbed me when I was younger.
And it was not just the literature of war and the nature of conflict and its impact that gripped me, it was also the processes and rituals of commemoration and the artistic expressions of remembrance that I wanted to explore. I heard in my head the words of the Libera Me of the Latin mass for the dead;
Libera me, Domine, de morte æterna, in die illa tremenda Quando cœli movendi sunt et terra Dum veneris iudicare saeculum per ignem.
I couldn’t quieten the words, words I had sung over years of on-off membership of various choirs. I had the sense that the words were telling me something and I had an obligation to listen.
Using the structure of the Requiem mass for the dead gave me a clear starting point and an over-arching theme to work with. Alan and Pat liked the concept and so we all worked towards the production of words and music that would culminate in a work to both honour the dead and call for peace. I didn’t want to write a religious piece and worked carefully to ensure that my words would acknowledge all the dead of the century past regardless of creed, colour, gender or nationality and see every victim of war as first and foremost, human.
The work proved challenging to perform on Friday night. It is emotionally charged, powerful and in places bleak and dark. The subject matter is solemn and serious and I felt that solemnity around me as I delivered my words amidst powerful, strong and stirring music. However, one of the central motifs of the work is light, lux aeterna. The light always returns, however dark it has been.
I am now looking forward to recording the work and publishing the poems. I am also excited about touring A Requiem later this year and taking it to audiences across the country.
I can smell autumn coming in and the damp mornings, busy garden spiders and darkening evenings all testify that the season is changing.
After a turbulent and painful summer here’s hoping that the autumn brings some peace, calm and gentleness for all souls on this great blue planet.
Among the things I am looking forward to is the return of the choir with a fresh start and an independent future which I am pleased to be guiding alongside the supremely talented Jo Townell. The choir has become a central focal point of my life and weekly routine. It is a place of joy and light and sustains me as much as it sustains its members.
I am thrilled that the Fish Tale tourbegins again in October with dates around the country. Being on the road with such consummate musicians and my great friend and jazz champion Gill Wilde is exciting and fun and I am chomping at the bit to get out there.
There are several beautiful, creative projects in the pipeline including two forthcoming La Luna publications and some poetry events and opportunities. I am always grateful that I have so many creative outlets. There have been some very dark days of late and the light that gets in always comes from places of creative energy.
Autumn is a good time to reflect and look for a bit of peace and quiet, if not externally then internally. The equinox on the 21st and the returning darkness open a space for that to happen and I will be taking advantage of this time for just that. We all need that quiet and for the noise of life to abate.
Yesterday saw the launch of the La Luna Young Voices poetry project at Franklin College. This project provides an exciting opportunity for young writers to develop their writing craft both for performance and for publication. Later this year La Luna will be publishing an anthology of writing from the young people involved in this project.
Special guest poet Antony Dunn came to Franklin College to deliver a workshop for the young people. Antony is a gifted and inspiring teacher and it was such a pleasure to see the students engage in some challenging exercises, and to hear the work they produced which was full of wit and inventiveness. Antony encouraged the students to work to develop their thinking and to run with their thoughts to see how far they could take them. This led to them being able to fully realise their ideas on the page.
Following the workshop we adjourned to the Franklin garden for tea and poetry with an appreciative audience. Antony is a seasoned reader and is compelling to hear. He introduces poems without paraphrasing them and gives profound insight into the poetic imagination that is the heart of his work.
Alongside Antony, the young people read their work, several of them for the first time. In fact for one student it was the first time she had allowed anyone to see her work. Her courage astonished and moved me.
Every one of those young people who read in the garden yesterday gave voice to something unique and beautiful about themselves. The honesty, openness and authenticity of their work was powerful. It felt like a great honour to be there, hearing their words and knowing that La Luna has the time, the money and the expertise to help these young writers to grow over the course of this project.
The project continues later this week when Nick Triplow and I will be getting down to the business of submissions, editing and handing work over for that all important critical feedback. I am looking forward to seeing the work on the page and to working with Nick, the students and their wonderful teacher Carolyn Doyley over the next few weeks. I think the outcome will be a truly magical book.
Thanks and credit must also be given to Brooke Downing, photography student at Franklin whose photographs not only capture the participants but also the spirit of the day.
It’s a big week at Moon Towers, the imaginary house inside my head where I spend a lot more time writing and a lot less time ‘doing’ in the world. Moon Towers is an enormous, rambling old place with an orchard and a rose garden in what was once a ballroom. There’s a pile of old dogs sleeping on couches in a conservatory that is west facing so as to welcome the sunset each day. There is always a sandwich, always a coffee and never any laundry or washing up to do.
And we’re back in the real world for a moment. The real world this week actually is a manifestation of the fruit of the time spent in Moon Towers. This week sees the beginning of the tour with Alan Barnes, Pat McCarthy and the fabulous Fish Tales orchestra. We begin on Thursday 6th July at Kardomah 94 in Hull. I’ve been rehearsing and buying frocks.
Also this week I launch the first part of my ACE funded poetry project and am thrilled to be working with Antony Dunn, Nick Triplow and the young writers at Franklin College. This part of the project will culminate in a La Luna anthology of new writing from the young people later this year.
As if that wasn’t enough, A Fish Tale for Juniors goes to print tomorrow, just in time for the children’s singing festival next week. I get to dress up as Saga, the Norse Goddess associated with poetry and history for the festival. Appropriate for a storyteller I think.
Last but not least, Pat McCarthy and I will be getting our heads together and launching a new and exciting mini project featuring jazz and poetry.
Sometimes I think I don’t do enough, that I’m not busy or productive enough. I fall prey to feeling guilty about the time I spend on the roof at Moon Towers, counting stars and dreams and singing to the old dogs downstairs.
But it’s all worthwhile and beyond exciting when a week like this rolls in; when your doves come home from the mysterious places they’ve been in flight and settle in their cote under a twilight blue sky with the scent of old roses drifting in on the breeze.
I’m delighted to be able to announce that my submission to the Arts Council was successful and a grant has been awarded for a wonderful project, The Poetry of Person and Power.
The grant will enable me to work with young people at Franklin College in Grimsby, producing an anthology of their work. Through the production process the students will be working with established poets, Helen Mort and Antony Dunn and editor, writer and project director Nick Triplow, who has extensive experience of producing outstanding publications.
The grant also covers a commission for Vivienne May and Maria Garner, two artists working together on an ambitious project, Calling To The Moon in which they are exploring a range of media including painting and poetry to produce a book and exhibition. Vivienne and Maria will be offering workshops for the community and details of those are to follow.
Finally the grant is enabling me to produce my next collection and to work on my own practice as a poet with editorial support from Nick Triplow. My project is still under wraps as I am immersed in the world of A Fish Tale for now but suffice to say that I am planning something innovative and exciting. I am so grateful that I have this opportunity and time ahead of me to devote to my work. It’s very exciting and there will be much more to follow.