Category Archives: writing

Amy Key’s Luxe

© Image by Travis Elborough

© Image by Travis Elborough

Amy Key was born in Dover and grew up in Kent and the North East. She now lives and works in London. She co-edits the online journal Poems in Which. Her pamphlet Instead of Stars was published by Tall Lighthouse in 2009, and her first collection, Luxe, was recently published by Salt. Amy is currently editing a new anthology of poems on female friendship Best Friends Forever, due from the Emma Press in November.
Luxe (Salt Publishing, 2013) is a magnificent spree in a bric-a-brac shop. A haul of pre-loved and glittering objets – pralines in a crystal bowl, a handful of tame ladybirds, a portrait in vinyl and cola-cubes – are artfully displayed on the poems’ shelves to represent the conflicts and connections of a fabulous circle of friends and lovers, those real, remembered and imagined.”

“”Layer your pulse/ onto my pulse,” she writes in ‘Brand New Lover’. “Dress me.” Only the reader knows if this is an order, an instruction or the sweetest sort of invitation. Read a copy of Luxe, keep it next to your fainting couch.”

– Julia Bird
“This delicious selection is a chocolate-box assortment of the work of one of my favourite poets writing today. Her delicate, dextrous writing belies the raw truths she tells. There are many centres to her confections that only reveal themselves when you take a bite. In her words “Poem with peep toes … Poem to conceal some feelings in … Poem to avalanche in your heart”. I love Amy Key.”

– Lauren Laverne
“If we are living in the material world, I want Amy Key to be my material girl. She makes her pleats and flounces move; she crowds the surface with colour and texture right where it needs to be to draw the reader in like a bee to the velvet bell of the foxglove; or like the silverscreen beauty who eats bonbons from a satin box, she wills our gaze to take it all in and to crave more. These poems are worn on the body, and like all great ensembles, they show just enough; they are hot and memorable.”

– D.A. Powell

© Image by Martine Charalambou

© Image by Martine Charalambou

You Ought To Be In Pictures
In my depression the energy goes everywhere. It’s diffused. And where it’s intense it’s in very short bursts. Enough to scrub the bathroom or change the sheets. Enough to write a poem. My book is as though I pressed play and record each time I had a burst.

Last night I posted lines from my iPhone notes disguised as Twitter and Facebook status updates to see if any of them stuck.

I read someone else’s poetry for the first time and worry that my book will be perceived as being derivative of their book.

Someone asks “What is your poetry about?” I am embarrassed and say “me” but I mean “being a woman”, I think. But then I really mean “my experience of being a woman”. Later I wonder if what I really mean is “what I want my experience of being a woman to be, distress included”. I’d asked the poet Kate Kilalea to read my book and respond to it. She said:

“Aside from all their purely poetic elements, what strikes me most about Amy’s poems is the kind of idea of woman-ness which they work with. It feels like what is happening is a kind of valorisation – as oppose to eroticisation – of feminine vulnerability, which is different from what I’ve seen before.”

This was an important moment for me. An embracing of the woman-ness. After all I had the comment “I can see why girls like your poems” ringing in my ears.

My poetry is endless recalibration of experience.

My poetry is a way of mind-mapping my insecurities.

It’s all mood board.
I’m struck by what Steve Roggenbuck says in his essay ‘toward a more flowing culture’:

“i want to be your poet … i want to inspire you and talk to you. in many cases, I really want to be your friend.”

This idea of friendship compels me.

In my poems am I trying to communicate more effectively with people in my life or who might be in it. To say “Look! I know I come across ‘this’ way, but here is something else I want to share”. This being able to talk without my physical persona intruding is something I need. There are so many ways into the truth of a person.
Grey Gardens 
In the documentary Grey Gardens there is a scene where Little Edie performs to camera. She sings and dances to ‘You Ought To Be In Pictures’. I find this scene very touching. Little Edie is a star, but she’s no longer the ingénue, about to be discovered. In singing it she’s saying to the crew “Look at me. I could have been someone” but also “Tell me I still could be someone”. It’s the “Tell me I could still be someone” that affects me. In my poem ‘On Typing Paper Stolen From Her Employers She Proceeds To Evolve A Campaign’ I get at this idea:

          Hopes should recede with age but this isn’t
          a right seeming present!


          My imagined future is a collapsed soufflé.

Never far away from dancing to ‘True Blue’ in the kitchen a grown-up’s face on. Never far from singing into the cassette. Singing into the dark. Hopeful someone will say what a nice voice you have. Never far away from maybe making it.
True Blue 
Just as Alabama, the main character in Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me The Waltz, in her hopeless pursuit of ‘making it’ as a ballet dancer feels that:

“[in] reaching her goal…in proving herself, she would achieve that peace which she imagined went only in surety of one’s self – that she would be able, through the medium of the dance, to command her emotions, to summon love or pity or happiness at will, having provided a channel through which they might flow”

I am my own delusional heroine. But I have to hope.
Save Me The Waltz 
I am also forcing people to look at me. In my poem ‘Emotional State Seen Through A Pale-Haired Fringe’ I am, chronologically speaking, at the beginning of a deep depression. Unable to speak about it to anyone, just quietly falling apart, I write the poem where even:

          […] the at-boil kettle maddens the bully
          of your memory, and no one there to see it blow.

Is it that I’m terrified of no one seeing me live? Is that the role poetry is playing?

I’ve often wondered if I write poetry because I’m scared of dying. I fear I’ve been negligent of my own fortune.

          Inside I fritter soft as cinders.
Where the Wild Things Are 
One of the recurring images in my poetry is of the lost child. The much loved children’s book Where The Wild Things Are was made into a film a few years ago and I became obsessed with it. And heartbroken by it, by the isolation of the boy and his imagination. I began to write a series of poems, inspired by the film and by the soundtrack to the film, written and performed by Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The poems turned out as childhood memoir and in implicating my siblings I found I couldn’t finish them. One has made the book – Igloo – and in it I try to express the self-imposed, necessary isolation of the child:

          […] Instead of talk,
          we will have stronger thoughts.

This is both a resistance to talking – there are some things I cannot speak to the adults about but it is also a power I can have. The idea of having secrets that I can snap into being, like activating a glow stick appeals to me. The secret as super power and malevolent force.
I should really talk about love.

When I was in John Stammers’ group he asked me ‘what I wanted to be’. I told him I wanted to be ‘a great love poet’.

What I really meant was ‘I want to be loved’.

This was some years ago now. Truth is my experiences in and out of love haven’t been at all happy, but it seems to be all I can write about. Perhaps that’s the recalibration I mentioned earlier. A need to ‘right’ my love experience in poetry. In my poem ‘Your Year in Review’ I address myself:

          […] Your heart went rouge. Desire
          kept in a gold compact, fell loose of its casing. Powder
          went everywhere.

The sense that I make a mess of stuff can’t be escaped. But I lavish my attention on love less experienced, more felt. In absence of the grand, all-consuming Love Affair (in the presence of the paltry, ill-conceived ones) I act them out in poems. My nights pour into the absence of my One True Love. But I know:

          Even this crochet blanket won’t
          address the lack of requited laundry.

Really my ‘it would be better to be hurt than not have any love at all’ from my teenage diary is simply reworn as:

          […] rather a cupboard of cut-off ponytails than this! I want a life
          that warrants excessive exclamation!

I suspect all the poems are just an attempt to neutralise my self-image.

© Image by Rebecca Key

© Image by Rebecca Key

Brand New Lover
I’ve abandoned vanity, since I became a body
of pixels, never quite set, since you rippled
the apparent skin of me.

I’m all texture. Silk rosette, billowing coral,
tentative as a just baked cake. Sensations
slide over my knitted blood.

My mouth is a glass paperweight
to keep our tastes in, like maraschino
cherries and water from a zinc cup.

This is not about a future
with a decorative child. Layer your pulse
onto my pulse. Dress me.
To A Clothes Rail
Dress folded as an envelope and posted to me
Hand-me-down dress taken up, then taken down again
The one worn once, to a party
Age-appropriate dress
Dress the colour of your skin long underwater
Margot dress, Marianne dress, Marie-Antionette dress
Paper dress, never worn, purely decorative
Dress employed as stand-in
Silk dress with scenes from Labyrinth
Pattern for a dress, unmade
Dress embroidered with every song I’ve ever loved
Pinafore that comes with caveats
Two sizes too small dress, bought for its primrose
One last seen doing the hula down the precinct
Shift once worn in a dream
Dress as though assembled from vegetable peelings
Woodland dress in the style of a fawn
Poppy-print shirtwaist, won in a tombola
Dress for slow-dancing to ‘Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)’
Fancy dress in want of a petticoat
Cocktail-drinking dress, un-sittable-down in
Dress best worn with brutalist pendant
Smock to bring to mind a meadow
Old-fashioned dress in crepe with self-covered belt
Little black dresses (numerous)
Acid light projections dress for crazing the eyes
Formal wear gown for selling on eBay
Dress bought for funeral, frequently worn to detach from death
Dress last worn when someone cried for you
Fretful dress, to be cut up for rags
Palladium dress for looking into mirrors in
A cake of a dress – whipped to frou-frou
Scented dress of mustard seed, orange peel and almond milk
Glitter-bellied hummingbird dress
Ex-favourite dress, now not quite right
Perfectly acceptable dress, given the circumstances
Emotional State Seen Through A Pale-Haired Fringe
Dawn is coloured sweet pea and warbles with birds.
From bed, you notice how dust garlands

your fake yellow roses, but what now could
be gained by licking them clean? You could

plan menus, polish the mirrors, call your mother
and sweep the yard. Cleanliness, if not calm

in your reach. But, storm sultry, you lack
resources for comfort: the last velvet sleep;

legitimate wretchedness.
Others tell you, I too have felt alone.

Imagine them, teary on the sofa or wrenched
in the bathtub, all their wishes declined.

And then your own confines of lonesomeness,
where the at-boil kettle maddens the bully

of your memory, and no one there to see it blow.
We Should Be Very Sorry If There Was No Rain
For Sarah Crewe
I mention lately I’ve lacked a honeyed mood,
delicates have evaded me. Again I’ve spent too much
trying to ornamentally tile my life. The sofa’s worn
down where I always sit and though my diary’s
clogging up I don’t know how to project.
I am ashamed to want a someone. Social
engagements are propelled by wine,
as unease goes up, eyeliner goes on. Sometimes
I imagine you in your kitchen, stirring soup.
Sometimes I make broth and pretend it will work.
Darling, it seems there’s no awning
to shelter under. Or perhaps I’m under the awning
unable to step out. Someone might cake crumb
a path for me but it doesn’t do to rely on others
to ice your day. I can see the dead roses
are as pretty as the live, appliqué
sleep to my brittle concerns. I have an aspiration
you will recognise my handwriting, in time.
Igloo (Where the Wild Things Are)
When it is cold enough to slice the snow
we’ll build an igloo and we will live in it.
The igloo will be like a poached egg,
the snow dome hiding a hot yolk. We will grow

sharper teeth and bedtimes will be later.
I will be cook and you will make fire.
I have stolen sausages from mum
and this will do us for tea. There is a story

I can tell at night of a runaway child
and you will ask if it’s you. We have
two brothers, but they never let us take charge.
No one will know we are in the igloo,

but we’ll find a way of telling we’re safe.
Your best friend will be a bird and mine
will be a deer. The bird will bring us berries
and the deer will guard the door. Instead of talk,

we will have stronger thoughts. Our skin
will morph into something more warm. In summer,
we’ll make bricks of mud to dry in the sun.
High Voltage
Just as I woke, you stomped into my head
and I thought of everything that makes me admire you:
not just your sass and nerve (although
it does deserve an explicit mention ), but how
Neverland it is to spend time with you, like a pop-up theme park –
each day abundant with vivid wants,

like how you’re era-less, confident as a portrait,
inconsolably hungry, you talk easy as an adult –
seems even your glamour isn’t at the top of my list,
admiration being such an intimate reckoning of a

friend. If I can’t say it now, when?
Oh, there’s nothing ordinary about decadent warmth
real as foxgloves and glow sticks and winter birds,
did I tell you how much I want you to dance with me?
From Luxe (Salt Publishing, 2013).
Order Luxe here, here or here.
Visit Amy at Leopard-skin Pill-box Hat.
Read ‘Here, For Your Amusement’ and ‘”Too Gruesome!” at The Quietus.

‘The Old and the Young’ by Rebecca Goss

© Image by Rosie Bennett

© Image by Rosie Bennett

Rebecca Goss was born in 1974 and grew up in Suffolk.  She studied English at Liverpool John Moores University and has an MA in Creative Writing from Cardiff University. Her first full-length collection, The Anatomy of Structures, was published in 2010 by Flambard Press.  Her Birth, her second collection, is published by Carcanet/Northern House and has been shortlisted for the 2013 Forward Prize for Best Collection. She has recently moved back to Suffolk after twenty years in Liverpool, where she taught creative writing at Liverpool John Moores University. She is married, has raised her two stepchildren, and now combines writing full time with caring for her young daughter.


Her Birth 
Shortlisted for the 2013 Forward Prize for Best Collection
“In 2007 Rebecca Goss’s newborn daughter Ella was diagnosed with Severe Ebstein’s Anomaly, a rare and incurable heart condition. She lived for sixteen months. Her Birth is a book-length sequence of poems beginning with Ella’s birth, her short life and her death, and ending with the joys and complexities that come with the birth of another child. Goss navigates the difficult territory of grief and loss in poems that are spare, tender and haunting: “Going home, back down/ the river road, will be a foreign route without her”.”
“The poems in Her Birth unfold their story of love, loss and grief for a baby daughter with pared-down precision and scorching intensity. The language, like sea-glass, has been ground by a tide that might have crushed words completely. Instead, it has shaped these translucent poems.”

– Helen Dunmore
“It is rare to read a book of poems which has the narrative compulsion of Her Birth. But even such a powerful and moving narrative as this one would not be effective without the beautifully crafted language in which the poems are expressed: clear, graceful, word-perfect. This is a wonderful book.”

– Bernard O’Donoghue
The Old and the Young
Since the death of my baby daughter in 2008, I look at old people differently. By old, I mean men and women well into their pensionable years. I have always loved the company of older people but there is an added poignancy to it now.

Twenty years of my life were spent in Liverpool. It’s rare to go anywhere in the city and not engage with a stranger within hours. Perhaps I am generalising, but I think women too, are particularly quick to confess and confide in each other. We have an ability to share and reveal information about ourselves, to females we barely know, in a matter of minutes. In the past five years I have met several elderly women who have lost children. Their stories were told to me in various locations: the gardens of a café, a bus, my own street. I didn’t know any of the women, we had not met before, but just the gentle crossing of paths prompted conversation. Their stories of sadness came quickly. I didn’t tell them about my own daughter’s death and what floored me about their stories was how quickly their ‘loss’ came to the surface. In each case, the death of their child had happened decades earlier but it was almost the first thing they told me. It defined them, all those years later.

Inside Liverpool’s imposing Catholic cathedral there is a Children’s Chapel. It houses a stone-finished sculpture depicting Christ surrounded by children. The windows have been likened to the ‘Oranges and Lemons’ nursery song. The woven hanging depicts the Sea of Galilee. At one end of the seat circling the chapel’s edge is a folder. It is overflowing, bursting with letters, cards and handwritten notes. I am not religious. I do not believe in God. I went to the cathedral on this particular day with my stepdaughter, as she was sketching part of the building for her school art project. I had no idea the chapel was inside. While Rosie sketched, I wandered into the chapel and gradually realised where I was and what this place meant to people.

I opened the folder and began to read. It was harrowing. There is no other word for it. Parents had come to leave letters for their dead children. But it was the dates that haunted me. My own daughter had been dead for less than a year. Some of the letters in the chapel were from women whose children had been dead for over fifty years. They had come to mark birthdays, or anniversaries and each card was written with the rawness of a recent loss.

I’m not frightened of getting old. I am frightened of forgetting my daughter, of sitting in a chair, stricken with dementia and being unable to recall her name or face. But I am also terrified of remembering her. That a part of me is going to be very sad, for the rest of my life. How selfish that sounds. How selfish too, to fear the day I will be old, an unremarkable presence on a bus and no one will give a damn that my daughter died. No one will know that I lived through that terrible thing. Now, when I see an elderly woman alone, I want to sit beside her and say Tell me everything. Tell me everything about your life.
I’ve been told of women in their eighties
who dial on birthdays, their story drawn

from the receiver in small damp breaths:
‘He would have been sixty’

and a voice wraps them in a blanket of vowels.
Somehow, a child has slipped from them.

They were unable to stop it, like sand collapsing
back down the hole, dug on that dry part of beach.
The final section of Her Birth covers the birth of my second child. I wanted the book to end with feelings of hope. Hope is there, but the poems are permeated with fears of something awful happening again. When your world has been that of hospitals, palliative care, bad news, it is hard to believe that children live to grow old.

I discovered Sharon Olds’ collection The Sign of Saturn (Secker and Warburg, 1991) in my very early twenties. I was single, had no children of my own but was drawn in completely by her portrayal of women, motherhood and children. She also wrote a lot about sex. Sexual relationships and the family were two key things I wanted to write about and I’ve always felt that book gave me a kind of ‘green light’ to go ahead. Olds observes not just the beauty of children, but their fragility and vulnerability too. In a poem about her daughter’s worn and abandoned pyjamas she describes how they “lie on the floor/ inside out, thin and wrinkled as/ peeled skins of peaches when you ease the/ whole skin off at once./ You can see where her waist emerged, and her legs,/ gathered in rumples like skin the caterpillar/ ramped out of and left to shrivel” (from ‘Pajamas’).

Her daughter ‘ramps’ through life, but what she leaves behind is as fragile and ephemeral as peach skin. The daughter matures at a pace and there is the mother, behind her, following the trail, collecting the discarded items of proof that her child existed. Of course, this is what we want. We want to see our children growing, maturing, achieving each metamorphic stage. Despite Olds’ poems about her own children being quite wondrous, she does not take anything for granted. The book is punctuated with stories of children who do not make it. A young girl is raped and murdered, a child goes missing – the tape of his information poster “beginning to/ melt at the centre and curl at the edges as it/ ages”.

In The Sign of Saturn Olds describes someone who “knows what all of us never want to know”. If you experience the death of a child, you then carry that awful knowledge. The final poem in Her Birth returns to the wondrous state of watching a child bloom, of allowing myself to enjoy her young life. But I admit, I wanted to share some of the awful knowledge too. I wanted to explain it, explore it, try and make sense of it in some way.
I let socks dot the washing, coats grace
a chair’s arm.  Her hospital bag, too hard
to unpack, stayed slumped and ignored

but eventually there was a gathering,
the limp outline of her size carried upstairs.
It accumulated in the cot, a cold pit

of pyjamas, dresses, jeans.  My heap of her,
visible through bars.  Insides of sleeves
brushed with her cells, last flecks compacting

in pastel matter, until her father found me
fretting at its edge, suggested it was time
for the careful mining of her things.

Our intention to sort, fold and label soon became
a quick, unhappy shoving into grey plastic bags,
the silent hoisting to an attic’s dark.  Her cot

collapsed, I sobbed in that desolated space,
while my desk was carried in, books and pens
planted on its surface, her father’s wise reclamation

of the site.  I kept a row of lilac-buttoned relics
in my wardrobe. Hand-knitted proof, something
to haul my sorry lump of heart and make it blaze.
The Lights

Pausing in traffic, I’m miles away
when a file of children forces me
to focus.  School now behind them,
they cross in a bustle of coats and bags –
their ages vague to me, but their limbs
bold and flailing, affirming themselves
with shoves and pushes. I marvel
this mass of certainty.  Even the loners

get to the other side, lights turning green
as they dawdle. I’m beginning to realise
most children make it. It’s rare to see
your child being fought for in intensive care;
to stay with her afterwards, saying her name.
It’s unusual, at the undertakers, to finalise
arrangements then fumble for a photograph,
so they could know her when she was warm.
© Her Birth (Carcanet/Northern House, 2013).
Order Her Birth here.

Visit Rebecca’s blog.
Rebecca will be talking about Her Birth on Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4, on Thursday, 15 August from 10h00.
Read Rebecca’s interview in The Observer about Ella, the book and the Forward Prize.

Rebecca writes about ‘Motherhood, poetry and loss’.

Read Rebecca’s title poem, ‘Her Birth’.

Visit Child Bereavement UK.

Emily Berry: ‘A Sculpture about a Phone Call’

Emily Berry 
Emily Berry is a poet, freelance writer and editor. She grew up in London and studied English Literature at Leeds University and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College. An Eric Gregory Award winner in 2008, she co-edits the anthology series Stop Sharpening Your Knives and is a contributor to The Breakfast Bible, a compendium of breakfasts published by Bloomsbury. Her debut poetry collection is Dear Boy, published by Faber & Faber.
Dear Boy 
Dear Boy (Faber & Faber, 2013) is the dramatic and inventive debut by Emily Berry. These characterful, intelligent and darkly witty poems explore lives lived strangely in unusual worlds, through a series of deft and seductive soliloquies.

In a collection with a taste for ventriloquy and wickedness, and a flair for vocal cross-dressing, the balance of power is always shifting in an unexpected direction – an ingénue masquerades as a femme fatale, a doctor appears more disturbed than his patient, and parents seem more unruly than their children. Eccentric, intimate, arch, anxious, decadent and sometimes mournful, the book’s confiding, conversational voices tell stories recognisable and refracted, carried along by the undercurrent on which the collection ebbs and rides: the anguish and energy brought about by a long-distance love affair, which propels and terrorises and ultimately unites the work.”
“Dramatic, honest, unstable and beautiful, what unites these poems is Berry’s understanding that absence is to love as wind is to fire: it may extinguish the small, but it kindles the great.”
– Ben Wilkinson, Guardian
“Disarming as often as it is charming, Dear Boy is an epistle to make one feel at once urgently wanted and spun right around upside down. It is, as Berry herself puts it, where “the language showed its seams” – and we are the dazed and fascinated visitors stumbling across its accidence.”
– Lytton Smith, Los Angeles Review of Books
“Reading this collection, which ranges widely in voice, is like meeting an unusual person whom you’d like to befriend. You can’t anticipate everything she will do or say – and some of it seems a bit much from time to time – but you want to know her more and better. You begin somehow to crave her company.”

– Jared Bland, Globe & Mail
A Sculpture about a Phone Call
Some people seem to have the language for speaking about their own work very fluently – I am still not sure I have learnt the language for talking about mine. It’s like trying to explain one mode of communication via another very different kind, like telling someone about a phone call through the medium of sculpture. Still, a sculpture about a phone call could be something interesting.
The way many poets talk about their collections makes it seem as though there must have been a point for them at which ‘writing poems’ became ‘writing a collection of poems’. This was not really the case for me with Dear Boy, which only really became itself – that is, a collection of poems, rather than forty individual poems in a row – when it was named.
The naming of books is a difficult matter. My friend and important poet-advisor (code name ‘Dewdrop’) suggested I call it The *TOP SECRET* And As Yet Draft Manuscript Of Emily Berry, which is what I had written on the front. So that was one option. Dear Boy was pretty much the only other. As I recall ‘Dewdrop’ picked it out from a very short and unconvincing list of possibilities I had effectively dismissed, and it was suddenly clear that this was the title. It brought together the themes in the book before I had noticed what they were. I now see it as suggesting various different moods – lovesick, sentimental, stern, camp and arch, as well as drawing out one of the key strands in the book: love letters written to a boy. What I like about the title is I feel it could easily be the name of a Young Adult romance novel – maybe this is why one reviewer said the book read like ‘an unusually discerning teenage girl’s diary’. I was happy with that assessment. I think teenage girls’ diaries should get more airtime generally.
The oldest poem in Dear Boy is ‘Two Budgies’, which was written in 2005 or 2006. The oldest phrase, though, is the title of the first poem, ‘Our Love Could Spoil Dinner’, which I wrote in poetry fridge-magnets on my best friend’s mother’s fridge when I was eighteen, circa 1999. I always liked the phrase so I kept hold of it, hoping it would come in useful one day. So there is a bit of genuine teenage girl in the book. Maybe the title and the poem finally came together because the poem in fact features a precocious young-girl character, who could arguably be described as ‘unusually discerning’. A similar character appears in the linked poems ‘The Incredible History of Patient M.’, David’ and ‘Manners’, though I wouldn’t want to state definitively whether or not they are the same person. The inspiration behind this/these character/s probably came from the children’s book Eloise by Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight, about a mischievous six-year-old who lives in the Plaza Hotel in New York with her nanny. It was given to me by an American family friend when I was nine or so and I rediscovered it a few years ago – I had written ‘Please do not tear’ sternly in the front. (I must have had a bad experience with ‘tearing’, because this strange injunction appears in the front of many of my childhood books.) Eloise is illustrated in pink and black and the text (all in Eloise’s voice) is laid out almost verse-style alongside the illustrations. She says things like:
          Nanny is my nurse
          She wears tissue paper in her dress
          and you can hear it
          She is English and has 8 hairpins
          made out of bones
          She says that’s all she needs in
          this life for Lord’s sake
I like how Nanny’s turn of phrase becomes something extra special the way Eloise reports it, and I adopted this style in ‘David’, a poem not uncoincidentally about a girl in the care of her (in this case) rather volatile nurse.
For me a poem is always a voice, and I am often struck by any kind of compelling voice. Nutty evangelical preachers are a favourite, and things said by unhinged people in general. I guess any kind of dogmatic statement is essentially a bit unhinged. I have a fascination with American Gothic, particularly Southern Gothic, which has its fair share of evangelical preachers. I see the Arlene poems, ‘’Sweet Arlene’ and ‘Arlene’s House’ as having an American Gothic theme (though they don’t have to be read that way). They’re poems about a domestic kind of terror. America does the Unheimliche – Freud’s idea about the eeriness of the unfamiliar familiar – really well, at least for a British person. American domestic scenes are so familiar to British people of my generation because of film and TV, and just embedded in the imagination is some intractable way, but at the same time it’s not really our culture, so it remains somehow other. Sorry to quote Wikipedia, but it says “Common themes in Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or disorienting characters, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events”, which makes me think I like Southern Gothic even more. Arlene is certainly a character like that, yet she holds some indefinable power over the narrator of the poem, which is where the fear comes from. The poems are about being beholden to some deeply unstable yet compelling authority, which is something that worries and interests me a lot.
‘Sweet Arlene’ begins with the line “In Arlene’s house we live above the mutilated floor”. Many of my poems begin with some sort of statement (maybe the unhinged kind mentioned above). “No one told me Times Square was a triangle”, “The mango’s bone is like a cuttlefish”, “I bit on the absolute nerve”. The poems that begin this way usually did literally begin with the first line. Sometimes one of these phrases occurs to me and I have it for a few years before it develops into anything. This was the case with the Times Square line. I visited New York twice about two years apart and after I’d been the second time I was able to add the rest of the poem to the first line. On that trip I was nearly hit on the head by a copy of Dylan Thomas’s poems while walking through Manhattan – it seemed to fall out of the sky, but must have been thrown out of the window of a nearby bookshop (but why?! Someone took such exception to Mr Thomas’s verse that they had to defenestrate it immediately?). It would have been ridiculous not to put that in a poem.
Because of these statementy openings, now that the poems are all together in a collection I wonder if the effect is a bit overwhelming – like being at Speakers’ Corner, or in a room full of actors. I’m not sure any of my poems are very good at teamwork. This is maybe one of the difficulties of putting a collection together – that suddenly a whole bunch of poems, which you have worked so hard to make robustly independent, have to learn how to live alongside others of their kind. There’s a poem by Joe Dunthorne called ‘All my friends regardless’ which begins “All my friends regardless / come to my garden and pretend to get along” – it plays on the awkwardness of bringing together all the different types of people one knows at an event. Deciding on the order of poems in the collection seemed to me a bit like that. Who should sit next to who? This is one of the reasons I never have parties! Sometimes I open the book and look at them all in there, and I wonder how they’re getting along. But mostly I just leave them to it.
Order Dear Boy (Faber & Faber, 2013) here and here.
Visit Emily’s website.
Sam Riviere interviews Emily for The Quietus.

Review links
Read Ben Wilkinson’s Guardian review
Read Kate Kellaway’s Observer review.
Read Lytton Smith’s Los Angeles Review of Books review.
Read Jared Bland’s Globe & Mail review.
Read Christopher Crawford’s B O D Y review.
Read Rebecca Tamás’ Literateur review.
Read Zeljka Marosevic’s Review 31 review.


Helen Ivory on writing ‘Waiting for Bluebeard’

© Image by Martin Figura

© Image by Martin Figura

Helen Ivory was born in Luton in 1969 and began to write poems at Norwich School of Art in 1997, under the tuition of George Szirtes. She won an Eric Gregory Award in 1999 and then disappeared into a field in the Norfolk countryside to look after two thousand free-range hens. When she emerged ten or so years later, she had two collections with Bloodaxe Books and had helped, with her own bare hands, to build several houses.

She is a poet and artist, a freelance creative writing tutor and academic director for creative writing for continuing education at the University of East Anglia, an editor for The Poetry Archive, editor of the webzine Ink Sweat and Tears, and co-organiser with Martin Figura of Café Writers in Norwich.

She has published four collections with Bloodaxe Books, The Double Life of Clocks (2002), The Dog in the Sky (2006), The Breakfast Machine (2010) and Waiting for Bluebeard (2013). She was awarded an Arts Council writer’s bursary in 2005 and in 2008 an Author’s Foundation Grant.

Her website is
Waiting for Bluebeard 
Waiting for Bluebeard tries to understand how a girl could grow up to be the woman living in Bluebeard’s house. The story begins with a part-remembered, part-imagined childhood, where seances are held, and a father drowns in oil beneath the skeleton of his car. When her childhood home coughs up birds in the parlour, the girl enters Bluebeard’s house paying the tariff of a single layer of skin. This is only the first stage of her disappearing, as she searches for a phantom child in a house where Bluebeard haunts the corridors like a sobbing wolf.”

© Image by Martin Figura

© Image by Martin Figura

“Helen Ivory creates a troubled yet beguiling world rich in irony and disquiet. She possesses a strongly-grounded narrative voice which, combined with her dextrous transformative takes both on reality and on what lies beyond reality’s surface, puts one in mind of the darker side of Stevie Smith who said that poetry ‘is a strong explosion in the sky’.”

– Penelope Shuttle
“A direct approach, via deep folklore and dream imagery, to the conundrum of being a woman … in keeping with what I think we mean when we say ‘women’s writing’. This book is mischievously dark, rich with anti-logic and harnessed to the power of something we used to call magic.”

– Katy Evans-Bush
“She is a visually precise poet, with the gift of creating stunning images with an economy of means … Ivory has established an eerily engaging style. Her poems are like mobiles suspended on invisible threads, charming to watch as they seem to spin by themselves in the air, but capable of administering more than a paper cut on the sensibility of the reader.”

– James Sutherland-Smith

© Image by Martin Figura

© Image by Martin Figura

When I started writing the poems based on part real, part imagined events in my childhood that make up the first part of the book, I had no idea I was going to go on to write about my experience of living in an abusive relationship which forms the second part of the book. But in retrospect this makes good narrative sense. ‘Waiting for Bluebeard tries to understand how a girl could grow up to be the woman living in Bluebeard’s house’. When you find yourself in an abusive relationship, it makes you question who you are. How did I end up there? I’m not that type of person, surely – a victim? An abusive relationship happens so invidiously, even the abuser probably doesn’t notice what has happened. Here I am, perhaps, being charitable.

So, the poems have at their heart autobiography – and form a narrative. When I was writing the childhood poems, there were many specific events I wanted to write about. There are those events from which you remember a detail and then try to construct a narrative as to what might have happened around it. It’s the same with photographs – our brain tells us stories as it tries to make sense for us. I was also attempting to get at a more powerful truth – a metaphorical truth to show what parts of my life have felt like.

There are more poems about my father than my mother in this collection. I think it’s because he was quite a shadowy figure, so I tried to create him in words.
My father was a shadow
who stood at the school gates
fresh from the factory
where he’d pieced cars together all night.

His old-fashioned clothes
were oil-stained and solder-burnt,
and his face wore the aspect
of moonless dark.

One winter, the north wind
pushed me right through him.
It was like losing your way
in the hills, in the rain.
I barely knew him, even though he lived with us. There was a deep feeling of sadness about him and he was incapable of expressing himself. This poem tries to draw him in his natural setting and to show how it felt to be his daughter.

Then there are poems that try to say how it felt to live in a house where your parents have an unhappy marriage that eventually dissipates.
The Inside-out House
The house turned inside out,
innards tumbled onto the grass;
trees watching
with the quick eyes of birds.

One has laid eggs
in the body of her parents’ bed
and is breaking them open
with a pin sharp beak.

It eats the yolk,
leaves the albumen
to dribble down
through the rusty springs.
I was thinking of the house like a doll’s house or maybe a garage sale, where everything is exposed. I think the bird is engaged in some kind of anti-nesting behaviour! This wasn’t a conscious metaphor, it just felt right as an image.

There are family deaths in the first part of the book – indeed, it is dedicated to the memory of my grandmothers, both of my mother’s sisters and my cousin Emma who was a couple of years younger than me and died of cancer at 22. This represents the way that home seemed to fall away from me as I was growing up. I didn’t intend to write such a personal book; it’s only when I think about it in prose that I realise just how personal it is. However, the poems kept coming and I began to think in terms of how I might shape them as a book. That’s when I decided to animate the world and the house in which the child/me lived. Poems like ‘What the Bed Said’, and ‘What the Stars Said’, which are peppered through the childhood poems, making the environment a threatening and dispassionate place.
What the House Said
When the sky feeds me birds,
I cough them up
in the middle of your parlour games.

When you examine them
you’ll see even the most vivid
burnt crow-black.

I do not have to pretend to like you,
we have signed no contract
yet you line my insides with your lives.

© Image by Martin Figura

© Image by Martin Figura

Then one day I just stopped writing the childhood poems and began to write about a character called Bluebeard. This was a coded way of thinking about somebody who I lived with for over a decade.  Marina Warner writes “Bluebeard is a bogey who fascinates: his name stirs associations with sex, virility, male readiness and desire”. And Bruno Bettelheim writes: “Bluebeard is the most monstrous and beastly of all fairy-tale husbands”. The story is essentially about a man who murders his wives when they become too curious: Here is the key to all of the rooms in my castle. I am just going away for a little while. Use the key to explore any room you want to, but I forbid you to open THAT door. Her brothers rescue the woman the story centres on, in the nick of time, so she doesn’t befall the same fate as her predecessors. The story most people are familiar with is a ‘literary fairy tale’ written by in 1697 by Perrault but in a chapter entitled ‘Demon Lovers’, in From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner traces Bluebeard’s ancestors back to the oral tradition of beastly bridegrooms. She points out that in earlier versions of the story, there was no mention of female curiosity, which was the ‘moral’ added later – Bluebeard was simply a wife-murderer. So when it came to finding the perfect man who would use his maleness to subjugate my female protagonist, the Bluebeard character muscled his way into my mind.

The poem ‘Waiting for Bluebeard’ came first, which is part memory, but was also intended to signal foreboding, which in retrospect I did feel standing outside his house for the first time.
Waiting for Bluebeard
The child in the garden wears a coat
collaged from the skins of paper,
sutured with lengths of my hair.
I am inside the house
in a matching coat.

There is no one to tell us not to;
called here, as we were
by the halloo of peacocks
who turned tail
the day we arrived.

We are waiting for Bluebeard,
and when he happens here
in his grey-silver car,
he will unleash wolves
like rain.
This is the last time, for a while, that the narrative ‘I’ is used as the ‘I’ becomes a ‘she’ and the woman moves further away from herself. There is a sequence of poems called ‘The Disappearing’, which forms the backbone of the second part of the book. Although nobody literally dies in Bluebeard’s house, the woman dies a tiny part at a time. As I mentioned earlier, an abusive relationship develops so invidiously – the abuser slowly gains control over the abused by keeping them remote, not allowing them friends nor financial independence. This is the first stage of her disappearing, in which the woman goes through a painful initiation into adulthood.
from The Disappearing
The tariff for crossing the threshold
was a single layer of skin.

She imagined a snake
unzipping itself in one deft move.

She imagined herself lithe
inside the house, her new home.

She didn’t imagine the scarring
nor the painstaking care required

to leave the ghost of herself
on the doorstep like a cold-caller.
Half way through writing these poems, I was a little concerned that Bluebeard was just becoming a big bad bully, so I wanted to write some poems that showed him as a vulnerable person, and to present some of his backstory.
Bluebeard the Chef
You coax the rabbit from its skin,
cradle the bruised flesh ripped with shot.
A deft incision and soon the tiny heart
is in your hand, its stillness
opens up a dark hole in the sky for you.

You climb inside
and all the stars are dying eyes
fixed into you like pins.
So you slice each optic nerve
and disappear.

The knife completes your hand
with such sweet eloquence
you part recall its amputation
when you were wordless
in your father’s house.
In retrospect, this poem touches on a similar relationship with his father as one I wrote about my father and his father.
My Father’s Accident
By then he had stopped painting us
so I picked up his book,
turned it upside-down
and filled up the last pages.

I couldn’t see the absence of floor,
the way the furniture floated on rafts
in a sea of lava,
so I painted in carpet round his chair.

Nor could I see his dead father
beating his stick like a metronome
against the ceiling,
nor the broken bones of his dog.

What I did see was the sketch of a man,
head held together with spiders’ legs
and the smell of the hospital
still trapped in his clothes.
I won’t go too deeply into analysis here, but there does appear to be a pattern emerging! Silent, controlling men who have as their hearts deep wells of sorrow. The poem I have chosen to end the book with conflates the two men in perhaps a disturbing way, but seemed to me to be the most logical way to end the book. It’s based on the Donkeyskin story, which is essentially one of incest, and I should state that there was no incest in my family.
My father made me a dress
from patches of sky
on my mother’s old sewing machine.
He stitched them together
with lengths of her hair
and carved all the buttons
from her neat white teeth
but I would not give him my heart.

My father made me a dress
from the light of the moon
pinned into place
with her fine finger bones.
He made me a dress as bright as the sun
and sewed her gold wedding ring
into the hem
but I would not give him my hand.

My father offered me
the pelt of his dog —
how quickly his knife
freed that beast from its skin.
I climbed inside while it was still warm,
zipped it up tight
then walked into the fire
so he could not give me his love.
I always say that we write poems to understand things about ourselves and to explore how we feel about inexpressible things.  Poems come from the same place that dreams do – the unconscious – and when we start delving into the unconscious we are perhaps surprised by what we haul out. If I set out to write Waiting for Bluebeard, I couldn’t have done it.  The poems came to me when they were ready, and when I was ready for them. Writing the poems did not feel exposing, and neither have I felt exposed when reading them at events these past few years. Now the book is out, it does feel a bit that people might be able to see my bones, and writing this piece most certainly does! But I have put the work out there because I must and I have dedicated the book to all of the women who have lived or are living in an abusive relationship, and have spent time inside Bluebeard’s house.
Order Waiting for Bluebeard (Bloodaxe Books, 2013).

Visit Helen’s website.

Visit Ink, Sweat and Tears.

Helen reads nine poems here.

View Helen’s artwork.

Helen on writing the visual for the StAnza blog.



Celebrating Keats, 24 May – 2 June

Keats House

Keats House

Poets and cultural organisations from Mexico, Armenia, Ethiopia, Iran, Australia and USA are among those taking part in the ‘biggest and best yet’ Keats Festival at the poet’s house in Hampstead to celebrate his legacy.
Organisers of the annual event – now in its fourth year – say they are hoping to attract record numbers of visitors to Keats House during the Festival’s two-week run from Friday 24 May to Sunday 2 June. This year’s theme is ‘Health is my expected heaven’: The body and the imagination.
Around 40 events are being organised, including poetry readings by established poets and emerging talent; musical performances; jewellery workshops; talks; family activities, and creative writing workshops, hosted by leading poets and fiction writers.
Highlights include:
Patricia McCarthy and Jane Draycott, the winner and runner-up respectively of the National Poetry Competition,  reading their prize-winning work;
events by, and for, young people, including the Foyle Young Poets workshop and an ‘open mic’ session organised by the Keats Youth Poets Forum;
Cherrell Avery, the calligrapher on Jane Campion’s Bright Star, will run an introductory calligraphy workshop for adults, and
the return – by popular demand – of George, the mechanical dragon.
This year’s Keats Festival will also mark the beginning of a new poet-in-residence at the House. Jo Shapcott, whose best-known work includes Her Book, Tender Taxes and Of Mutability, for which she won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2011, takes over the residency from John Hegley.
Vicky Carroll, Principal Curator at Keats House, said:
“Keats Festival is going from strength to strength, and we are building on the popularity of the first three events to deliver the biggest and best Festival yet. It will be a joyous – and truly international – celebration of Keats’ legacy for people of all ages, and I am delighted that, as well as attracting participants from around the globe, we are using the event to welcome Jo Shapcott to Keats House.  Jo is at the top of her game and she is excited at being part of the Festival and, as we go forward, to working with us to inspire poetry lovers and budding writers to celebrate Keats’ talent, as well as develop and nurture their own.”
Some events are free and there is a small admission charge for others.
All events at the Keats Festival must be booked in advance by calling 020 7332 3868,
or email

For more information about Keats House,

George, 'the mechanical dragon', at Keats House

George, ‘the mechanical dragon’, at Keats House

Keats Festival 2013 programme
Friday 24 May
Poetry Appreciation Group

Led by Ken Page of the Keats House team, the group meets regularly at Keats House to read and discuss works by established poets. In keeping with the theme of the festival, this week’s theme is Bodies.
Disabled Genius: Alexander Pope – Poet, Satirist, Scourge
and Wit

Join Colin Pinney to discover the life of ‘The Little Nightingale’, as Sir Joshua Reynolds called him, from his childhood in Windsor Forest to the coffee houses of eighteenth-century London – the age of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and John Gay’s Beggars’ Opera.
Keats, Cobbett and Cottage Gardens –
Fine Words Buttering Parsnips

Caroline Holmes
Keats’s poetry timelessly evokes the fecund beauty of cottage gardens. Cobbett’s political rant ‘Cottage Economy’ decries potatoes and tea whilst praising maize and homebrew. Caroline Holmes explores both in a talk which will culminate amongst the blossoms and borders of Keats House garden. A Chelsea Fringe event.
The Poetry Parnassus Postscript: Crossing Continents
A myriad of global voices – from the Performance poetry of Mexico’s Rocío Cerón to the Caribbean-inflected, UK-influenced work of Malika Booker and Karen McCarthy-Woolf; from the British-Iranian sensibilities of Mimi Khalvati to the poetry of Antipodean writer Cath Drake, via the lyrical works of Armenia’s Poet Laureate, Razmik Davoyan. A night of continental shifts through the power of the word. In association with Speaking Volumes Live Literature Productions. 
Saturday 25 May
Explore writing using all the senses, especially smell, with Cherry Potts, short story writer, novelist and owner of Arachne Press. If you have a scent that means a lot to you, bring it with you! For fiction writers and poets with all levels of experience.
Lovers’ Lies, and Weird Lies
Focusing (loosely!) on Keats’ involvement with science, medicine and nature, Arachne Press brings you stories of the Garden of Eden, conversations with tadpoles, a meeting of minds across disciplines and love, repression and an old-fashioned approach to doctoring. Writings by Tania Hershman, Cherry Potts, Bobbie Darbyshire and Tom McKay.
The Lyric Self
Find and channel your lyric self with Dante Micheaux. The lyric poem is a text of emotion and thought, expressed directly from the poet to the reader. Participants will compare examples of Anglophone lyric poetry and create a poem of their own.
Chinese Calligraphy
Free, drop-in
Family friendly
Try your hand at the art of Chinese calligraphy with Jing He. This drop-in workshop is suitable for adults and families. No booking necessary – just come along and enjoy.
House History
Nick Barratt, genealogical consultant for Who Do You Think You Are?, will lead a practical workshop showing how to trace the history of a property, from first steps to detailed archival research covering maps, land surveys, occupancy records, manorial documents and associated historic sources.
Shelley, Byron and the Allegra Story
Susan Brandt’s docu-play is about the love-affair of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont (Mary Shelley’s step-sister), and their daughter, Allegra. In this dramatized Reading, Claire narrates the heart-rending story using the characters’ actual letters and journals, revealing Byron to be other than the lovable rogue we usually see.
Sunday 26 May
Words and Music: Playing Poetry
An afternoon of classic and contemporary poetry spoken, sung and harmonized with musical accompaniment. Presented by MA Music Theatre students of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in association with Spread the Word, an Arts Council funded charity supporting new writing in London, and the Keats House Poets.
The Ode
Join Foyle Young Poets, Flora de Falbe, David Carey, Sarah Fletcher and Alex Hartley to explore the timelessness and evolution of the ode form. Read authors as diverse as Catullus, Neruda and Keats, and create your own odes through a variety of writing exercises.
Foyle Young Poets
Reading & open mic
Workshop participants will read odes written during the afternoon’s workshop, to be followed by an open mic session. 
flamingofeather Poetry and Dance
Reading & performance
Reading by winners of the flamingofeather poetry competition and the judges, Mimi Khalvati and Peter Daniels. Plus Performance by 55+ Sage Dance Company, directed by former Royal Ballet soloist Simon Rice.
Monday 27 May
Keats in Hampstead
Guided walk
£8/£6 concessions
Follow the story of Keats’s life in this walk with readings from some of his best-loved poems. Starting at Hampstead tube, we will stroll through old Hampstead, visit the Vale of Health, dip into the Heath and finish at Keats House. Please wear comfortable shoes.
All the Fish in the Sea
Family friendly
Create sparkling foil fish with artist Jennifer Conroy and frame them in a beautiful seascape to take home. Suitable for families with children aged four and upwards.
Jewellery Masterclass
£7, includes materials
Create your own exquisite, hand-crafted jewellery from recycled paper with artist Jennifer Conroy using a range of innovative cutting, folding and origami techniques. For adults, including beginners.
Tuesday 28 May
Drama Fun for Families
10.30am-1.30pm and 2-5pm
Family friendly
The Bunbury Banter Theatre Company will be running two audio drama workshops for families. Working on two different Keats poems, we will make discoveries, have fun and leave with lots of interesting recorded audio material, which afterwards will be edited and put on the web for the world to hear.
Anonymity & the Prizewinning Poem
Patricia McCarthy, Jane Draycott and Pascale Petit are top winners in this year’s National Poetry Competition, chosen from over 13,000 anonymous entries. They read together here for the first time, and discuss the liberations of anonymity, exploring how poems can escape their authors. Presented by the Poetry Society.
Wednesday 29 May
Volunteering at Keats House
Drop-in info session
Join us for a cup of tea and find out how you could meet new people and learn new skills by volunteering at Keats House. This drop-in info session is open to anyone aged 18 or over; no previous experience is required. No booking necessary. 
Introduction to Calligraphy
£7, includes materials
Explore the beautiful art of calligraphy using quills, nibs and pens with Cherrell Avery, calligrapher on the film Bright Star. Learn the beauty of the written word and discover how lettering styles are used to convey the emotion of the words to great effect. For adult beginners.
The Poet Next Door
Prize-winning biographer Lyndall Gordon will talk about the explosive and visionary character of Emily Dickinson, the poems she shared with her confidante next door, and the medical secret that kept her secluded in her father’s house. Presented by the Poetry Society.
Thursday 30 May
Feltmaking Demonstration
Drop-in demonstration
Discover the beautiful tradition of feltmaking. During this demonstration felt artist, Avigail Ochert will show you how to transform merino fleece into beautiful artwork using nothing more than soap, water and elbow grease. No booking necessary.
Felt Workshop
Family friendly
Come and make a unique and beautiful hand felted bag. During this workshop you will learn how to draw with wool and create a beautiful felted bag which you can take away with you. This workshop is suitable for children aged five plus with parents or carers supporting their children.
Creative Writing – Between the Lines
In a session aimed at the curiously minded, you will be gently encouraged to leave your comfort zone and explore writing a story from multiple points of view using forms such as poetry and letter writing. For beginners upwards. With Anjan Saha, Visiting Writer at Keats House 2012.

International Voices with Parnussus Poets & Guests
In 2012 Poetry Parnassus gathered poets from every Olympic nation to read at the Southbank. In 2013 some of the Parnussus Poets will be reunited alongside British counterparts to present the history of the world through their stories and “found” poetry. There will be live calligraphy and music to make for a truly sumptuous event. Hosted by Anjan Saha. Countries represented to include St. Kitts, Bermuda, Grenada, India and the UK. Curated by London Literature Lounge. 
Friday 31 May
Illustrating the Immortal Bird
£10, includes materials
Join artist Maggie Nightingale for a fun, immersive, experience focusing on Keats’s famous ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, written under a tree here at Keats House. The group will explore the grounds, consider how poets have represented their work visually, and contribute to mixed-media illustration to Keats’s poem. Adults at all levels welcome.
Getting Started in Life Writing
Everyone has a unique voice and experience. Join Andrea Watts in an afternoon of exercises to get your memory and writing muscles working. This course is ideal for beginners looking for fun, practical skills and inspiration to keep writing.
The Day the Grass Came – and Unmade Roads
Muswell Press poets Leo Aylen and Alan Franks honour Keats through their recent collections. Aylen performs his acclaimed theatrical poetry, with scenes from Brixton tube station to Vesuvius erupting, whilst  Times columnist Franks ‘A modern day Sydney Carter’ delivers ‘poetry of great musicality’ (Jo Shapcott).
Saturday 1 June
‘The Silent Mysteries of Earth’
Join Rommi Smith for an outdoor creative writing workshop. Together, we’ll take morning tea in the garden, tuning into Keats’ House’s beautiful garden space, as both muse and inspiration. We’ll explore the magic of seeing things from different perspectives and techniques for imbuing the everyday with the extraordinary.
Volunteering at Keats House
Drop-in info session
Join us for a cup of tea and find out how you could meet new people and learn new skills by volunteering at Keats House. This drop-in info session is open to anyone aged 18 or over; no previous experience is required. No booking necessary. 
Wild Writing
Cath Drake invites poetry and prose writers of all levels to stretch beyond the predictable, re-invent the ordinary, sneak into the surreal, flirt with freefall and have fun taking your writing to unexpected places. Put aside the editor and critic and let your creativity fly.  
Discover the joys of collaboration as Cath Drake hosts poets Kayo Chingonyi, Jocelyn Page, Saradha Soobrayen and Jacqueline Saphra. Some are part of online collaborative group, The Vineyard; others meet regularly, mentored by Mimi Khalvati.
Sunday 2 June
George the Dragon
Family friendly
George is a giant mechanical dragon. Rarely rolled out due to his great age and cantankerous nature, this marvel of grime and grease is a hand cranked mechanical wonder. Keith Moore invites the fearless and curious to step forward, turn the handles and bring George to life. Drop-in, no booking necessary.
Keats Youth Poets Forum
Reading & open mic
The Keats House Poets are back for another chilled-out afternoon of poetry and spoken word. Open mic, plus performances from headliner Anthony Anaxagorou, with Raymond Antrobus, Simon Mole, Deanna Rodger, Dean Atta, Laila Sumpton, Sonority Turner and Kaamil Ahmed. Arrive early to grab an open mic slot.
Regency musicians Frank Underwood and Angela Mayorga play romantic guitar and other stringed instruments of the period and Gillian Tunley supplies vocals and regency percussion, all in the costume of Jane Austen’s day. Suitable for all ages.
Strange Tracks
Celebrate the changing face of Modern Poetry in Translation with Chris Beckett, poet and translator of Ethopian poetry, Frances Leviston, whose first collection Public Dream was shortlisted for the TS Elliot Prize, and Fiona Sze-Lorrain, poet and translator from Chinese.
Here We Go Round the Mulberry Tree
Join us to celebrate the launch of the 2012 Keats Anthology. John Hegley and anthology poets will read work written in 2012 during the festival and other workshops during John’s residency.
Booking information
Free and paid events must all be booked in advance unless otherwise stated.
Phone 020 7332 3868 or email
If you book a space and then can’t come, please let the festival organisers know so they can offer the place to somebody else.
Keats Foundation members receive £2 off each event. Membership costs from £25.
Keats House is situated at Keats Grove, Hampstead,
London, NW3 2RR. 

Keats' letter to Mrs Brawne, The Keats Collection

Keats’ letter to Mrs Brawne, The Keats Collection

Pippa Little writes about Overwintering

Pippa Little 
Pippa Little is Scots, but now lives in Northumberland. She has received an Eric Gregory Award, an Andrew Waterhouse Award, The Biscuit International Poetry Prize, The Norman MacCaig Centenary Poetry Prize, The Scotsman Haiku Prize and was joint winner of the James McCash Award 2013. She has read her work in Mexico City and at festivals including StAnza. Poems have appeared in many text journals, on radio, film and online. She also won the 2012 Anam Cara Poetry Competition. The Spar Box, (Vane Women 2006) was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice, Foray (Biscuit Press) came out in 2009, The Snow Globe (Red Squirrel) in 2011 and Overwintering in 2012 from Oxford Poets, Carcanet Press.
Overwintering (Carcanet/OxfordPoets, 2012) is coming through, emerging into the light of a new season. Pippa Little’s book explores what survives and grows from the dark energies of winter, night and loss, from the buried past and the imagination’s depths. Landscapes speak of ancient violences and hold the hope of resolution. Love survives; the richness of the world replenishes.

Little’s poems have a sensual delight in qualities of light and texture, in imagined realities and the fantastical real. “Hope is winter light”, she writes, “is day arriving, numb and slow”.”
“Richly imagined, wide-ranging and subtly musical, Overwintering is a most welcome collection.”

– Sean O’Brien
“There’s a quiet courage here. Meaning dwells in the clear images of sense-perception but transcends them too. The real is fleet, elusive: but when it earths itself in this world, it is decidedly womanly. There’s an unexpected laughter, rueful, sly. This poetry will hold.”

– Gillian Allnutt
“I have come through”. This line from the first poem in my book, ‘Solstice’, means a great deal to me. My father died at the winter solstice (which is also the birthday of my youngest son). Six months later at summer solstice my father-in-law died. Looking back now I can see the narrative arc of those and other losses in these poems, how I struggled with making sense of my life and how, like the plants and seeds that ‘overwinter’ deep in the soil through the coldest part of the year, I found courage to sit out the dark and keep faith that light would return at some point.

Perhaps like a deep winter day some poems are marked with definite shadow and others by sunlight. I arrived ‘home’ from Africa as a young child straight into the worst winter Scotland had suffered for years – I had never seen snow before. So I think that ever since then, images of winter have affected me deeply,
               … snowflakes’
               see-through stars
               burning gently to the bone

               so ash of us, filigree,
               lilts up as we dance beneath,
               those of us who have nowhere to go
               but the rest of our lives.”

                                        ‘The Seaweed Chandelier’
Not all the poems are wintry, though. A summer couple pretends the bandstand is a liner sailing into New York, a bag lady pushes her Tesco trolley along the quayside in ‘Stella Maris’, a tattooed shamaness and her six horses are discovered in the Altai Mountains. Friends, real and imaginary, crop up, and so do journeys, near as the churchyard opposite to far as the Mozambique border. Memories rekindled from my son’s spell in East Africa, where I was born, creep into poems such as ‘Newala’. There are animals too, the elk who eats roses from a Swedish garden, magical bees, wild birds, horses, dogs. And trains. The world is a very rich, beautiful and surprising source. Landscapes too are important – I’m deeply attached to the bare spaces of Northumberland where I’ve been settled now for more than twenty years.

The central poem sequence ‘The Karlovy Vary Trains’ describes a circular walk around Prague beginning and ending at the railway station. I’d been reading about the 1942 assassination of the Nazi Rheinhard Heydrich, so visiting the church where Jan Kubis, Jozef Gabcik and the others hid after the shooting, the place where they were discovered and dragged out, was very powerful. I always felt a connection with this perfect, beautiful yet somehow menacing city and had also been listening to a friend talk about how his family, Czech Jews, disappeared during and after the war and about his recent visits to Prague trying to find where they were buried, if they were buried at all. The railway station itself is very striking: above ground it’s modern and ordinary but its subterranean level is decaying art nouveau grandeur, a kind of living ghost-museum. I associate Prague with winter, having always made my visits then; the city’s draped in lights and Christmas decorations which give it an even eerier atmosphere.

I think if I had to sum up this collection I would say it records my questioning of ‘home’; what belonging is, and exile, in terms of personal loss. Looking back gives a wider angle of view: “you walk right through me, and keep going”; “I let the dark/ smudge you across the glass/ into my own face”. But it’s also an effort of separation, a growing up and apart: “ … the old house turned its face away/ forbidding me to enter even in dreams” and an active coming to terms with what results – “ … that way the years of speechlessness I shed”.

Re-reading that first poem, ‘Solstice’, with its image of the house in the woods, I realise the house is me – that whatever I meant by home was really in myself, in the world I make through memories, imagination and poems, that “coming through” is a process at which I must keep working. And that delight in small things, in the world around, in friendship and fellowship and love, in keeping hope – “a pocket-stone forgotten long ago/ found by your hand and known/ as a corm is married to the loam” – having faith in the making of things (a life, a poem, a bowl, a cairn) is part of that process: “winter, but with roses in it, somewhere”.
Order Overwintering (Carcanet/OxfordPoets, 2012).
Visit Pippa’s website.

Penelope Shuttle writes about Unsent: New and Selected Poems 1980–2012

© Image by Jemimah Kuhfeld

© Image by Jemimah Kuhfeld

Penelope Shuttle has lived in Cornwall since 1970, is the widow of the poet Peter Redgrove, and has a grown-up daughter Zoe, who works in the field of sustainable energy.

Her first collection of poems, The Orchard Upstairs (1981), was followed by six other books from Oxford University Press, The Child-Stealer (1983), The Lion from Rio (1986), Adventures with My Horse (1988), Taxing the Rain (1994), Building a City for Jamie (1996) and Selected Poems 1980–1996 (1998), then A Leaf Out of His Book (1999) from Oxford Poets/Carcanet, and Redgrove’s Wife (2006) and Sandgrain and Hourglass (2010) from Bloodaxe Books. Redgrove’s Wife was shortlisted for both the Forward Prize and the T S Eliot Prize in 2006. Sandgrain and Hourglass is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her latest book, Unsent: New & Selected Poems 1980–2012 (Bloodaxe Books, 2012), is drawn from ten collections published over three decades plus a new collection, Unsent.

First published as a novelist, her fiction includes All the Usual Hours of Sleeping (1969), Wailing Monkey Embracing a Tree (1973) and Rainsplitter in the Zodiac Garden (1977).

With Peter Redgrove, she is co-author of The Wise Wound: Menstruation and Everywoman (1978) and Alchemy for Women: Personal Transformation Through Dreams and the Female Cycle (1995), as well as a collection of poems, The Hermaphrodite Album (1973), and two novels, The Terrors of Dr Treviles: A Romance (1974) and The Glass Cottage: A Nautical Romance (1976).

Shuttle’s work is widely anthologised and can be heard on the Poetry Archive website. Her poetry has been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4, and her poem ‘Outgrown’ was used recently in a radio and television commercial. She has been a judge for many poetry competitions, is a Hawthornden Fellow, and a tutor for the Poetry School. She is current Chair of the Falmouth Poetry Group, one of the longest-running poetry workshops in the country.
“Adventurous, searching, interested in the luminous instant of reality that dwells in the perpetual now of the poem, Penelope Shuttle is a poet who clearly shares Picasso’s view that ‘If you know exactly what you’re going to do, what’s the point of doing it?

If a poet’s work is her personal experience of the universe then this book takes us deep into that Shuttle-verse …”
          ‘ … but I don’t really know how poetry gets to be written.
          There is a mystery and a surprise, and after that a
          great deal of hard work.’
          – Elizabeth Bishop, from Letter to Miss Pierson
Although my New and Selected Poems stretches over thirty two years I remain no wiser as to how poems get themselves written, as ruefully noted above by Elizabeth Bishop.

Since I began writing in my teens, nothing has so enthralled me as poetry; before my first attempts at writing, reading poetry had thrown a similar glamour over me, as it continues to do. Words are made of the breath of life, its essence, and they land on the page still breathing. That, I think, is the mystery and the surprise, for me, and then follows the hard work.

But what kind of hard work is involved? The whole process of editing and re-shaping and learning further meanings from that first draft is an addictive and deep pleasure for me. Seeking to keep the spontaneity alive is also an exciting challenge.

It takes a long time. Many of my poems are in various draft versions for years. Some poems prefer to develop at the speed of geological time, it seems! There is also the phenomenon of the now-and-again poem, as all poets know, which arrives as a free gift. It falls on to the open page through some kind magic and needs only the tiniest of tweaks. But these are rare and seldom occasions. I think perhaps that they only happen if the poet’s radar is switched on all the time.

Here’s some background. I published my first full collection of poems in 1980, when I was thirty three years old. The publisher was Oxford University Press, and my editor there, Jacqueline Simms, created a wonderful and unique stable of poets, including Jo Shapcott, David Harsent, Michael Donaghy, Hugo Williams and Fleur Adcock, to name but a few. By 1998 I had published six collections with OUP, and in that year my first Selected Poems appeared. In 1999 OUP’s superb poetry list was shut-down by The Press, in an act of unparalleled cultural vandalism. The poets dispersed, and continued to play highly-significant roles in the life of poetry in the United Kingdom and beyond, winning numerous prizes such as the Forward Prize, the T S Eliot Prize, and the Griffin Prize. But nothing to me in my publishing life has been sadder than that wilful destruction of a living poetry list.

My 1998 Selected Poems was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. In a review in the TSL, Gerard Woodward said: ‘Shuttle is a poet of immense reach, both in the range of her subject-matter and the breadth of her language. She is both an acute observer and an inventive fiction-maker. One senses that she has her life perfectly in tune with her poetry, so that it registers the slightest variation in her state of being. In this sense, the narratives of emotional, erotic and maternal love that can be traced through these poems collocate into the drama of a life lived in the full flood of being’.

I published a seventh collection in 1999, A Leaf Out Of His Book, with OxfordPoets/Carcanet. They also took over the distribution of my OUP books, including the Selected Poems, which went out of print a few years later.

There was a considerable gap before my eighth collection, Redgrove’s Wife, appeared from Bloodaxe Books in 2006. This was due to the death of my husband, poet Peter Redgrove, in 2003, after some years of ill-health. Redgrove’s Wife contained a number of elegies for Peter, and for my late father Jack Shuttle, who had also died in 2003. This collection was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Collection, and for the T S Eliot Prize. A ninth collection, Sandgrain and Hourglass, appeared (also from Bloodaxe, 2010, Poetry Book Society Recommendation), again containing elegies for Peter, Dad, and my friend, artist, musician and poet Linda Helen Smith who died in 2008.

I’m most grateful to Bloodaxe Books for their generous and sustaining support over the past six years, and for publishing in October 2012 Unsent, which contains all the poems from my OUP 1998 Selected Poems, with further selections from the three subsequent collections.

It also contains a volume of sixty-two new poems entitled Unsent. Whereas I had tempered my two previous volumes of elegies (Redgrove’s Wife and Sandgrain and Hourglass) with poems covering a wide range of other topics, Unsent is a book of elegies. I wished to include this volume in my New and Selected Poems to create a triptych of elegies. They seemed to fit naturally together. One theme which emerges in this third volume is the question – how long do you  continue writing and publishing elegies? And I try to find and suggest some answers. I felt that to publish Unsent as a stand-alone collection would be asking too much of a reader, an overwhelm. There comes a time (and this is delineated in these poems) when I must cease ‘to weep on the world’s shoulder’.
Cloud to Cloud
When I couldn’t
bear another day,

I cloud-watched
for dear life –
no two skies alike

Those skies
made plain to me
where my thoughts began
and where they ended

I saw the witch Kikimora
and her white Cat
scudding from cloud to cloud

          Stop weeping
          on the world’s shoulder!

          spat out her good advice
Your Three Hats
Your three woollen hats
found such pleasure in covering
your bald head.

King Solomon could have found
no more faithful servants.

Your retinue of Musto hats
that while two could be lost
somewhere in the house

one would always be available
          at the drop of a …
to take its rightful place
on your crown.
I hope that this new collection of elegies can be read, seen, experienced as part of my life story in poetry, a continuum where ‘the narratives of emotional, erotic and maternal love’ of my earlier poems are carried on into the narratives of loss, bereavement, and renewal of self.

Now I catch myself thinking of this book as a time machine. It travels me back to the poems of my first collection, when I was a young woman and a new mother, and it fast-forwards me through the rich and complex years with Peter, our shared life as poets, the ups and downs, the landscapes of Cornwall ever-present …. as in this poem about Mylor, a creekside village close to the town of Falmouth where we spent our years together and where I still live.
The Well at Mylor
At Mylor
the water of the well

bears the armour of the light,
it hides and escapes

and stays still
under its hood of rock

amid a galore of graves
and green leaves,

spring of fresh water
beside the sea,

a find, a treasure,
a pedigree,

no idyll
but the essential source,

now retired
from its work of sole sustenance,

living among memories
of former fame,

a saint’s hand dipping in
like a taper unquenched,

coins splashing down
for reverence, not luck,

from time to time,
a self-baptism,

secret and quick,
for some

prefer their ritual
out of doors,

water understands this,
and loves the brow

fanned with its body
for reasons the water easily guesses,

for it is the one who blesses,

freely it runs
its long unceremonious

through my fingers,

and on my lips
tastes ferriferous,

blood-hint at the periphery,
pell-mell mint at the heart.
I’m sure I’ll continue to write elegies, for they are a way of continuing to talk to Peter, to Dad, to Linda … but I don’t plan to publish any more elegies. (Though, as the old song has it, never say never!). The poems in Unsent have been a process of release and re-awakening to possibilities for me though language, rhythm and experience. They have liberated me into whatever new kinds of poems I’ll be writing next. Those poem-drafts are already beginning, taking me to new places and opening new doors. What else are poems for?
Order Unsent: New and Selected Poems 1980–2012 (Bloodaxe Books, 2012) here or here.

Visit Penelope’s Bloodaxe Books author page.

Sally Read writes about The Day Hospital

© Image by Dino Ignani

Sally Read’s first collection The Point of Splitting (Bloodaxe Books, 2005) was shortlisted for the Jerwood-Aldeburgh prize for best first collection. Her second collection, Broken Sleep, came out in 2009 and her work was recorded for The Poetry Archive in the same year. Her poems have been anthologized in Roddy Lumsden’s Identity Parade (2010), The Picador Book of Love Poems (2011), and Poems of the Decade (2011), among others. A selection of her work, Punto della Rottura, translated into Italian by Andrea Sirotti and Loredana Magazzeni, is due out this month.
Read, an ex-psychiatric nurse, is based in Santa Marinella, Rome, where she is Poet in Residence at The Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs. The Day Hospital is out with Bloodaxe on 22nd November.
“Across one day in London, twelve elderly men and women sit in flats, walk, or wait, and speak about their histories, their hopes, their loves, their disappointments and griefs – and above all seek to express who they are and what their life has been. Most are immigrants – Irish, West Indian, Polish, Italian, and German, struggling with a feeling of rootlessness.

Drawn from Sally Read’s experiences as a community psychiatric nurse in central London, these twelve monologues are the voices of schizophrenia, dementia, depression, and anxiety. Authentic and moving, they form a vivid portrait of the capital – its richness and its sadnesses, its waves of immigration, and its living witness to the devastating effects of World War II. Four of the voices are Jewish refugees who arrived in London as children, leaving parents to die in Nazi-occupied Europe. Candid and vivid, these monologues make us privvy to entire lives through a poetic voice that is at once brutally realistic, and beautifully realised.

Above all, these poems give marvellous expression to people whose speech, memory, and coherence is often marred by illness. The result is a stunning insight into other people’s stories, and how we may come to measure our own.”
“Direct, searing, and very, very truthful”

– Bonnie Greer
“Read defines herself by her risks … violence and elegance walk hand in hand – her style is not unlike that of Plath’s middle period. There is real pleasure in the disparity between her light lyric touch and the menacing and/or visceral description she frequently employs; she disarmed this reader and defied the expectation”

– Kathryn Gray, Magma
If ever a book wrote itself, it’s my third collection The Day Hospital—although it took ten years from the experiences that informed it, to its birth.

Years ago, I was a psychiatric nurse in London, specializing in the care of older people. The catchment area was central London. Looking back, it seems as though at least 80% of our patients were of non-British origin. And a startling proportion had ended up in London as Jewish refugees from Nazi occupied Europe. In 1998, a group of over 65s inevitably thought much about the war. Sometimes, over afternoon tea, it seemed that Hitler was still alive, and that we all kept a gas mask under our chair. Too, the patients gave a strong sense of where they were from—as though they’d just arrived by ship and barely unpacked. This strong attachment to country of birth bleeds through, especially in old age. Many dementing men and woman, who had lived in London for as long as 50 years, began to speak almost exclusively in their mother tongue.

But it was one particular lady who made me want to write a poem about her. She had come to London to work as a young woman, leaving her mother behind in Nazi Germany. The guilt and grief she felt at her mother’s disappearance (she never knew by what means her mother had died), had made the woman mute. She also tore at her clothes every day; every day making new the Kriah—the Jewish rending of clothes in grief. The relationship that developed between us broke her silence. We came to share a certain tentative and limited confidence, that—bearing in mind her history and pathological reservation—was remarkable. It made me want to give her voice when she died. I thought I owed it to her to give witness to her terrible story, to give words to what she couldn’t bring herself to entirely utter.

But, aged 28 and still a nurse, I couldn’t write the poem. The experience, my attachment to her, was too strong. Over the course of the next ten years I wrote numerous lengthy poems about her. And yet nothing seemed to capture her or her grief. I was also still finding my poetic feet, and wrote exclusively in a close mixture of first person and self—hence, I was the nurse writing about the patient. It was ten years from both my exit from nursing, and the death of this lady, before the way was shown to me. For some reason I began watching old Meryl Streep films—first of all Sophie’s Choice. Streep’s immersion in character, her Method, made me realize with a clang what I had to do: the dramatic monologue.

The morning after I’d watched the film I wrote the lady’s, ‘Anna’s’, monologue in, of course, her own, fictionalized voice . Almost superstitiously, I collected Streep films—The Bridges of Madison County, Plenty, The Hours, The French Lt’s Woman. The subject matter wasn’t relevant: what struck me was her ability to get absolutely inside the psychological framework of a person—and particularly to find that one slash of grace within their character, the redemptive streak. This was not to let them off the hook or to sentimentalize them, but to give them the capacity of being understood.

As far as my own ‘voices’ were concerned, I had the job of fleshing out a person who—for example—couldn’t remember their own name, or who repeated the same story over and over, or who had attacked a nurse. It was only by considering, fully, a person’s history, and the dynamic of emotion and expression coupled with that history, that I could make these people live on paper. The process wasn’t so very different to the way I nursed: I always sought to find the young face in the old, to hear about people’s jobs, dreams, what—at the end of the day—they put store in, what had made them happy.

After watching each Streep film another ‘person’ would come to me, another voice, and with astonishing ease.

Of course, the characters in my book are fictitious. The blessing of a ten year gap between knowledge and writing is that I can barely remember the facts about my patients’ lives anyway. That, coupled with a disciplined approach to fictionalizing means that none of the people are ‘real’. But what came through in the writing was the essence of a person—an emotion, a turn of phrase, a fear, a mindset. The voices grew in number—an Italian Jewish man who throws himself from a high roof, a depressed Irish lady with agoraphobia, a Russian lady with vascular dementia, a Londoner with advanced Alzheimer’s.

Meanwhile, the creation of these souls was working in me, and troubling me. Once again, even at a distance, I felt bogged down by so much misery. More, I was up against existential and practical problems—even with the faithful and holistic approach to character that I noticed in Streep’s work, how do you write a monologue for someone who has no memory for his story, if his emotions are incomprehensible, if he can barely speak? I used the word ‘soul’ at the start of this paragraph, and it’s a word that comes easily these days. Then, it didn’t: I was an atheist; I didn’t really believe in the soul. But when I was confronted with someone apparently stripped of their personality and functioning, did I really believe that that person ceased to exist?

The spiritual process that this set in train has been recorded elsewhere. I was an atheist when I began writing the monologues, and a devout Catholic by the book’s completion. It’s hard to say if this would register for the reader. The saving element for many patients I would, now, call grace. The moments of lucidity, and even joy, in patients, I would also call grace. Even in pain, I would locate the divine. As one Jewish character, Ruth, puts it “In the guard’s footfall to murder, there is a vacuum and there is God’s vigil”.

After about a year I had twelve voices written, and they spanned the course of a day. It does look like a cross section (albeit displaced, sad, unwell) of a certain London generation. Soon people whose parents were killed in the death camps will all be dead. The World War Two pilots and soldiers I nursed will be dead too. And the wave of Irish and West Indians who came to London in the 1960s. Soon, old ladies, I suppose, won’t wear felt hats, or live in chintzy flats over sex-shops in Soho. The book is a day, and twelve voices that I hope, in a small way, I’ve saved.
Order The Day Hospital here or here.

Visit Sally’s Bloodaxe Books author page.

Visit Sally’s blog, The Far Near.

Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch on her new collection, Banjo

Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch
Picador Poetry
ISBN 9780330544665
Publication: June 2012
Launch: The Hay Festival at 16h00 on Tuesday, 5 June
“While Banjo (Picador, 2012) opens with a clutch of fine lyrics, elegies and set-pieces, at the heart of Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch’s new book is a remarkable tale of darkness and light, music and silence. Celebrating the centenary of Captain Scott’s arrival at the South Pole in 1912, Banjo gives us new psychological insight into the lives of the early Antarctic pioneers, as well as an extraordinary account of the role played by music in surviving the long Antarctic winters. Banjo is Wynne-Rhydderch’s most accomplished collection to date, and further evidence of a writer of great imaginative versatility.”
“There’s a lovely peremptoriness in Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch’s poetry. She’s like a nurse with a scalpel: she heals with cuts … Everything is close to the nerve, everything under cool emotional pressure. The cuts blossom into freshness and colour. And delight, the delight borne out of precision of sound and an exquisite command of register.”
– George Szirtes
“Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch’s lines are full of beauty, sometimes gorgeous, sometimes stark. But this is never decoration; it is a responsible beauty, implicating us in the essential human situations, life, death and survival, she explores.”
– Philip Gross
Notes on the background to Banjo
Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch

I started this collection in 1999 with the intention of completing it four years later, but within a year I had lost my confidence as a writer and begun to question whether I had the experience or even the moral mandate to handle the subject matter. By 2003 it was in a drawer. Then I came across a photograph of members of the crew of Discovery (in Discovery Point Museum in Dundee) dressed up as black and white minstrels. I began to reflect on the fact that a group of white men sailed and marched south to the coldest place on earth, and when they arrived they dressed up as black men and sang African songs. What did it all mean? The poems became an exploratory journey of their own.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain funding to travel to the Antarctic. When I heard Stef Penney speak about how she wrote The Tenderness of Wolves although she hadn’t been to Canada, she gave me the encouragement I needed to return to the manuscript even if I couldn’t afford to travel to Antarctica. Letters, diaries and photographs helped me to build up a picture of what had enabled the explorers to keep going, and one of the aspects that struck me time and again was the role played by music, dressing up and the theatre during what has since become known as the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. Most expedition leaders would aim to have at least one piano on board.

Writing in the voice of historical figures requires a lightness of touch so that the poem does not become ‘research-heavy’. All the research ought instead to be put to the service of the poem. I think that if you are engaged enough with your subject you can enter into any historical experience to make it your own and re-create it for the reader. If you are not, the poem will simply end up regurgitating the story, which is a waste of your time and the reader’s. The story ought merely to be the backdrop to the poem. What matters is the language, how you tell the story, whether it’s a well-known story (as in this case) or an unknown story. The better known the story, the harder it is for the writer to ‘make it new’. I remember hearing Matthew Hollis in 2004 say that the poem must become the event, not be about the event and this is what I aimed to do in Banjo so that the poems are not simply an account of what happened; in each poem I have tried to inhabit the cameo, becoming a character in the scene.

For example, my poem ‘Ponting’, is not a poem “about” an Antarctic expedition. Rather, it examines through its language and form, the spectrum of experiences faced by photographer, Herbert Ponting (which ranged from vomiting in the ship’s darkroom to training the explorers to take a photograph of themselves at the Pole without him), both during his voyage south on the Terra Nova as well as on the ice.

Since completing Banjo I’ve moved from ice to textiles, as I’m currently Leverhulme Poet in Residence at the National Wool Museum in Drefach Felindre. I think there can’t be a topic which is off-limits for writers, whether it’s ice, making apple pies, murder or fishing, be it your own experience or a made-up experience or that of an historical figure or a blend of all three.

Pre-order Banjo here, here or here.
Visit Samantha’s website.
Visit the Picador Poetry website.
Samantha Wynne Rhydderch’s second collection, Not in These Shoes (Picador, 2008) was shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year 2009. Her third collection, Banjo will be published by Picador in June and will be launched at the Hay Festival at 4pm on Tuesday 5th June. She is currently Leverhulme Poet in Residence at the National Wool Museum

© Image by Keith Morris


Arja Salafranca, Communion with self

Arja Salafranca’s debut collection of short stories, The Thin Line, was published by Modjaji Books in 2010. Her first poetry collection, A life stripped of illusions, received the 1994 Sanlam Award for poetry, while a short story, ‘Couple on the Beach’, was a winner of the same award in 1999 for short fiction. Her second collection of poetry, The fire in which we burn, was published by Dye Hard Press in 2000. An anthology of prose and poetry, Glass Jars Among Trees, which she co-edited with Alan Finlay, was published by Jacana Media in 2003. Arja’s poetry is also collected in Isis X (Botsotso, 2005). She edited the anthology The Edge of Things: South African Short Fiction, published by Dye Hard Press in 2011. She is editor of the Life supplement in the Johannesburg-based The Sunday Independent and keeps a blog here

Communion with self
Diary excerpts from Volume 40
by Arja Salafranca
I’ve kept diaries since the age of eleven – I can’t explain what compulsion made me begin. A friend of my mother’s gave me a beautiful red corduroy book to write my poems in, which I did, but the itch was there. After a few pages of poems I started – it was January 31 1983, and my large childish handwriting set out the details of my life: only child of a divorced single mother living in Orange Grove with three Maltese poodles, attending Standard Four at HA Jack Primary. And then onward, to a bosom friend, Leora, to a trip to California to visit family, through the teen years, university, first years working as a crime and entertainment journalist. First relationships, going to live in London briefly, and then back home to Johannesburg.
The habit had begun, it’s one that’s simply unshakeable, even when I have tried to break myself out of it. No matter how busy I am I must return to the diary sometime in the week – it’s where I think, discover what I think, and make sense of the ebbs and flows in my life. I use it as a writer’s diary, making notes, examining the flaws in my characters, thinking about character and plot, finding my way through. At times I plunder it, taking passages and using them in other writing – journalism, essays or even fiction. I use it as a travel journal when I leave home. It’s also a space where I go if the world feels ashen and I need to discover why; I use it to note nights out with friends, to explore conversations and encounters that are meaningful and I use it to explore other relationships in my life as well. It’s something akin to a life’s work – I’m now on Volume 41. I take care with my writing, I use a fountain pen, I write in A4 covered/bound books, I like the almost silent glide of pen, the communion with self and the subsequent exploration and discovery of self.

Diary extract from October 2010

Sunday, October 23 2010
Marianne Faithfull’s ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’ and Elkie Brooks’ ‘Pearl’s a singer’ remain, still, among my favourite songs. I’ve loved ‘Ballad’ since I first heard it in my late teens or early twenties, or even before. Influence of my mother who had the tape cassette of Broken English, the album that contains the song. I heard ‘Pearl’s a singer’ on the radio sometime in my twenties and then tracked down the song and the lyrics after we returned from England. This was pre-YouTube days and pre-everything-on-the-net days too. At various times I have played both songs over and over, watching Faithfull and Brooks performing them on YouTube, getting my fix. Both songs talk of broken dreams, lost hope, promises that have turned sour. Pearl the singer singing of ‘the things she never got to do’. I’ve ached listening to these songs. Of Lucy Jordan at the age of thirty-seven realising ‘she’d never/ Ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair’. The ultimate suicide song, Lucy Jordan climbing onto the rooftop, ‘ … when all the laughter grew too loud/ And she bowed and curtsied to the man who reached and offered her his hand/ And he led her down to the long white car that waited past the crowd’.
I remember reading somewhere about the disputed nature of the meaning of the lyrics, but the ultimate sadness shines through, and I think that’s what so many fans of the song respond to when Faithfull launches into the song. At least, I do. I ache for the woman who has no choice but to reach for the man who offers her his hand, whose life has become mind-numbing, ‘a world turned to orange and the room went spinning round’. A life without hope, the lyrics have always resonated. In some ways it’s been my song – the always inevitable pull, the drift of hopelessness, it’s always been there. I recognised it first hearing the song decades ago, that hopelessness in me, which I’ve always fought against. Yet there, and present even at the age of ten when I tried to drown myself in the swimming pool at the complex called Sanlam Park. And then, years later, hearing ‘Pearl’s a singer’ and I felt the same ache and pull and sadness. Here was another lost and lonely soul, a failed artist, wanting to be Betty Grable but now sitting at a beer-stained table, ‘dreaming … all those dreams that never came true’. How achingly, awfully sad. Dreams should come true. And yet it happens all the time: dreams are lost along the way, discarded, sometimes it’s too difficult. People’s dreams don’t work out, for whatever reason, lack of talent, lack of opportunity, being too afraid to take a risk, or taking risks, still not getting there. And this song ‘Pearl’s a singer’ speaks to the longing of those who’ve tried. And it reaches deep into me too. As though somehow I knew how hard it would be.
Sunday, January 23 2011
I’m writing this with two cats sitting on my desk sharing my writing space – good thing I have a large desk. Leelah’s just finished licking Jamie’s back and neck, I snapped pictures of this love on my phone and I emailed them to myself. It’s dark out there, muggy still, which is why I have the overhead fan on. And this new extra-fine nib on my fountain pen gives me problems, the ink flow is sporadic, I press hard. Hurts the writing hand. And as I sit here, with my old-fashioned fountain pen nib, I wonder how many other people in Johannesburg, the world, are struggling with fountain pens … Why in the era of ballpoints, gel inks, a huge variety of fine liners and hi-techpoint V5 pilot pens with pure liquid ink, do we continue to use fountain pens? In my case I like the way they write cleanly, the thin nib producing needle-like strokes, and paradoxically I like the way it slows down my handwriting marginally, making me take care in forming mostly beautiful letters. The fineliners glide too quickly over these journal pages – I almost always feel letters slipping from me. And I don’t like ballpoints, they move too stiffly; and the liquid gels, the nibs are too thick for me – and for whatever reason I’m not alone. There’s an entire industry catering for us with our cartridges and delicate nibs, bottles of ink and beautiful journals. There’s some kind of hankering, some nostalgia, some sense of wanting to touch the written word which you can’t do when you’re inputting digitally.

Fordsburg, January 2011

I went on a late afternoon tour with Gillian and Stewart yesterday. It was run by Jo Buitendach, who runs PAST experiences, taking inner city tours to Braamfontein, art tours of Newtown, yoga in the city and more. Young, twenty-something, wearing dangly earrings in the shape of Johannesburg’s skyline. We met at the famous train – now a restaurant. A group of mainly curious whiteys, one black, two Indians, all of us local to judge from accents. We were warned to be careful of our bags, although told the area is safe. Still Gillian carried a backpack and I had my camera bag diagonally across me – old habits die hard in this city where we never walk. Taken first to Shaheen’s Sweets and Bakery, we swooned over the sweetmeats: rich concoctions of condensed milk, nuts or chocolate, and coconut. Fried chunks of meat on skewers piled over a stove, even samoosas in the window, golden skin pitted into bubbles. I tasted a potato and brinjal one, a delicious combination. Into a Hindu prayer shop, where Indian music seemed to dance in the background, there was incense for sale, face creams, camphor cream, pooja clothes, photos of Hindu deities, CDs of music – like being plunged into another world and that feeling grew, persisted delightfully as we walked through the streets. Walking, another activity we don’t do in Johannesburg and that too lent the tour an air of exoticism, the feeling that we were somewhere else, not quite in the city we know.

Shoes, the Fordsburg Market

Past the Majestic cinema, the 1960s lettering still on the brown facade. Fragments of information from Jo, part of the 1922 Miners’ Strike took place here. After going to the movies at the Majestic or going to the dance halls, people ended up at Solly’s, an institution in the area, a small, non-descript cafe/tearoom, shuttered yesterday afternoon although usually open, we were told. The area was classified for poor whites in the early years of the twentieth century, Indians moving in only later.

Fordsburg, the wall near Feitas

We moved on to view artworks under the bridge linking Fordsburg with Feitas, now derelict, a husk of its former, brighter self. The JDA (Johannesburg Development Agency) has brought improvements to the area, the paving is new, and part of the improvements included asking former Feitas residents to paint their memories of the place under the bridge. One family contributed the design of the wallpaper in their home. There’s a drawing of a street scene, people jiving, a mural of faces, a policeman demanding a look at someone’s Pass Book.

Artwork depicting a policeman demanding a look at someone’s
Pass Book

Back through the small radius of streets that is the main shopping centre. Past an old-world tailor’s, a small, higgledy-piggledy general grocer/dry goods shop, pausing at the shuttered Maronite Catholic Church, which used to serve the Lebanese in the area, now shuttered. In 1913 there was an attempt to classify Lebanese as non-white, the Lebanese fought against that and won. Jo suggested that the church could be turned into a little museum, which seems an excellent idea. Past shops selling burqas, a mannequin of a young boy wearing a skullcap.

At the Fordsburg market

The sun starting to turn oblique, the smell of drains and sewerage and the occasional blast of music from cars. People turned to look at us: this obvious tour group, expensive cameras dangling, our wide-eyed full of wonder stares giving us away as tourists in our own city.

Cutting coconuts

Drinking coconut juice from a freshly-hacked coconut. The market next, tasting pickled and vinegared dried fruits, chicken tikka at the food hall, boiled peanuts, other Indian savouries. Brightly-coloured shoes and dresses for sale, all warranting a closer look, religious signs in Arabic, some from the Qur’an. And then supper at the rather mediocre Al-Mechran restaurant, the only culinary disappointment on the tour. The restaurant hot and sultry, the air damp, almost tropical. I felt again as though I was somewhere else, remembering Bali’s sultriness. After, leaving the restaurant, we went past beggars who had been given left-over food from the restaurant, asking us for a rand or two, eyes solemn in long faces, heads covered by skullcaps.

Drinking coconut juice

At half-past eight at night the area was pumping, as Jo had promised. Shops stay open late, Mint Road jammed with cars, people walking, eating, socialising, shopping. The market stays open till ten or eleven at night, barber shops, hairdressers and beauty salons open, shops selling clothes, the bakeries selling sweetmeats. Almost like a carnival for us: this glimpse into an ordinary Saturday night in Fordsburg. We are used to our sterile malls, the shops that close early, our quiet suburbs. Only Parkhurst and Greenside have any kind of nightlife – but centred around restaurants only, the shops aren’t open. We left wanting to return. The area pulsed, glittered, moved, the energy palpable. We left, awed, amazed, envious. It was like stumbling on a jewel, it was also, as Gillian put it, like travelling. Like finding yourself unexpectedly dropped into another world, a world you did not suspect existed in the city you inhabit. Like Europe or India – we felt like we were far away from Johannesburg.
Saturday, February 5 2011
I’m reading The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982 – both a dispiriting as well as an encouraging exercise. The prolific Oates. By age forty, in 1978, she had published so many novels, short stories, essays, poems, plays etc that she was already part of the Establishment and was invited into the American Academy of Letters. She held down a job teaching literature at university (although it doesn’t seem to be a 9-5 set of hours) and she had been blissfully married to Raymond Smith since age twenty-two. What luck. Luck yes, but also hard work – she was/is continually writing, revising, working hard at her talent, constantly being accused of being too prolific. But that’s the “price” you pay for all that graft. It’s astonishing. So, not only luck, because there’s an element of “luck” in anything, but also damn hard work.
And her so happy marriage. That is astonishing too. There’s luck – in meeting the man you know you will love, and getting married two months later and all those years later you are still so blissfully in love, still so enmeshed, still so happy in being part of a “we”, rather than an “I” – she took to it like a duck to water. In fact, reading up on her, her husband had died in 2008, and they had been married forty-eight years, I was astonished to hear that she remarried a Princeton psychology professor in 2009, a year after her late husband’s death! My god, it seems almost indecent, obscene, don’t you need more time to mourn? How do you go on so quickly? But you can’t judge someone else’s life and emotions and ways of being … I’ve taken decades to get over Michael, that’s not healthy. In fact Oates’s behaviour is far more healthy.

Journal of Joyce Carol Oates

Sunday, February 6 2011
My mind too pulsy, too racing, thinking of the diary section of Anna’s for Déjà Vu, one of my novellas, and how her version of events is going to be different to those just recounted in the previous section, playing with words, playing with time, looking at how things are different when told by others and also I think showing that the previous section is Anna’s imagination, not reality, but that it also is reality – and it’s fiction, and blurring fiction and non-fiction as Damon Galgut does in In a Strange Room, although I’m not intending to do what he did there, call his characters Damon, who are all him, but are also all rendered into fictional constructs by the act of deciding to do so.
The central female characters in my novellas all have names beginning with A: Anna, Alexia … and so will the others – they are all parts of me, born from me, splinters of me, I’m the mother ship, the creator, they are the splintered-parts of me that live in fiction. And if I go on to write the “Cat” novella not only do I need another name, beginning with A, but that will show all the possibilities of this “A” character who cannot live. But perhaps actually calling them Cat, Catherine, Catie, Caitlin, etc is a step forward – as they have moved beyond A, beyond the first letter of the alphabet. These people are living, all the branches of where they could have been and what they could have done – which the “A” character is too fearful to do, follow.
Saturday, February 12 2011
Jenny and I saw Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi is Dead at the Market Theatre. A revival of the famous play. I read it at Wits. The Laager Theatre was packed, a hot sweaty theatre, the aircon not coping with the suddenly ferocious heat we’re having. An absolutely brilliant evocation of apartheid, what it meant and how it emasculated people, deprived us of all our humanity, both oppressor and oppressed.
The play revolves around the illiterate Sizwe Bansi who receives a stamp in his passbook that he can’t read. He goes to his friend Styles, the photographer, who sees that the stamp is ordering Sizwe back to his own township, and he should’ve been there yesterday. When a man is found dead outside Styles suggests that Sizwe appropriate the man’s identity, a man with both a worker’s permit and permission to stay in Port Elizabeth. What to do? As uncomfortable as he is, Sizwe reluctantly takes on the man’s identity and passbook. Sizwe Bansi is truly dead. Horrifying that a system as brutal and dehumanising as apartheid could force such a choice on a person. It’s fiction, a play, but who’s to say that this situation didn’t occur during the apartheid years? For anyone wanting or needing a snapshot of what apartheid meant, this play provides a stark snapshot or introduction. And the use of wit and humour only serve to underscore the strength of the story told. It received a standing ovation that night and I’m sure other nights too. It’s simply one of the best plays I’ve seen in months.
Friday, March 11 2011
A feeling of ennui and boredom over me this week. The world ashen as though nothing really matters anymore. I don’t know what to do with this feeling. I am never bored, never at a loss. There’s always so much to do, things to write, nights out, and always books to read. I haven’t even wanted to write in here, as though the things I want to say are not worth saying. As though everything that has happened has already happened to me, and there will be nothing new, is nothing new. It will all be the same. Does this hopeless feeling stem from what I perceived as Tania’s words in therapy last week, of thinking I am not ready for intimacy? And if I’m not ready for that then I can never hope to welcome in another relationship? To place so much store on the words of a therapist – someone who supposedly knows you. Yet how much does she really know me after seeing me only an hour a week for just over a year, excluding the December breaks and missed appointments?

Dead Girls by Nancy Lee

Sunday, April 3 2011
Too tired now but to list the events. Exhausted yesterday, finished The Best American Travel Writing 2010, read Paul Auster’s short novel (novella) Travels in a Scriptorium, today started the wonderful short story collection by Nancy Lee, Dead Girls. Emailing today, working in here, making notes on stories, a step forward. But to have written fiction, now there’s success! At least the Easter long weekend is coming up. And now near ten, and I must try and be in bed by eleven to get to work at a normal time … so, list. Last Wednesday supper with Megan, the bruised friendship endures, is restored. Thursday, Craig Higginson’s book launch of The Landscape Painter at Kippies. Went with Gillian, met Hamilton Wende there, always good to chat; Friday supper with Gaby and some of her friends at Bellini’s. Saturday and Sunday at Utopia with Gillian, Sipho and Stewart. Arrived home on Sunday, Leonie (my mother) sleeping over here, cataract operation on the Monday and I had to take her in and drive her back. In between all this writing a review of The Best American Short Stories 2010 for Tania Hershman for The UK Short Review (UK-based website).
Wednesday I was home, but exhausted after early mornings, Leonie and her op. The creative writing circle was that night, but I had to bow out. Came home, fell asleep from six to seven-thirty. So dead. No way I could have gone. And then Thursday I had to get cracking writing two book reviews for Diane de Beer for The Star and the Pretoria News, wrote up Kerry Hammerton’s These are the Lies I Told You and Donvé Lee’s An Intimate War. Reviews. But writing makes me feel good, even if it’s non-fiction when I want to be doing fiction. But what matters and counts is to write, to feel I’ve achieved. And then The Edge of Things is published – short stories selected by me. I included one of my own, the polio story, ‘Iron Lung’. Looking at cover designs. Such satisfaction, again.

Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler

Sunday, May 1 2011
I’m reading Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita, published in 1996, an account of her seven months spent at the Antarctic. I was madly inspired to start reading books on the Antarctic after reading Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s novel The Big Bang Symphony. But of course the novelist’s continent is not the travel writer’s. And each writer interprets a place depending on who they are or where they are coming from. In fact I have read books on this continent before: Don Pinnock’s Blue Ice: Travels in Antarctica and Alexa Thomson’s account of being a cook there, Antarctica on a Plate: Misadventures of a Polar Chef. But it was Bledsoe’s novel that sent me soaring for something more. I even looked up jobs and requirements for going there. There’s a writer’s and artist’s programme you can apply to, something more in my line since I’m not a scientist, engineer, cook nor anything medical.
There are strict physical and dental examinations you have to pass. And if you choose to over-winter there’s a psychological exam to make sure you can survive the dark nights and the shuttered life. Sadly I don’t think I’d survive either winter or summer there, despite my fascination. Never mind the cold – you do get issued with extreme weather gear – I know I’d probably run screaming the first day. My problem with leaving a safe place, the enforced togetherness. No, at the moment the Antarctica’s not for me, and I just have to satisfy my curiosity by reading the books. I’m fascinated by the cold, clean continent, the fierce blue ice, the groups of people who choose to go there, and why, and a place where nothing degrades, as Wheeler states in her book.
Therapy continues, as I told Jake when I saw him for supper last week. And at times it’s hard to know whether I’m applying a plaster to a bleeding wound or if the changes are deeper and more permanent. I mentioned to Jake that Tania had saved me from breaking up a friendship, and that was worth its weight in gold. But are there other changes? It is so hard to say for sure. At one of the sessions when I again brought up the question of whether therapy is working, Tania said there had been a change in that I had returned to therapy in December after dramatically cancelling, and after the whole Megan incident, and that I had gone to meet Megan even though every part of me was screaming not to. Yes I suppose that was progress. I recognised that if I didn’t meet Megan it might have ruptured the friendship beyond repair. And she thinks it was great progress that I returned to therapy. I still haven’t told her my feelings towards Megan, I still can’t explore that with her as they know each other and I need to. I’m never going to be over it, beyond it, if I don’t discuss what Megan really means to me, as if I even know. Or can figure it out.
Sunday, May 22 2011
God, the sanctuary of the diary. The clean lined pages, my handwriting, the promise of talking to myself, of attempting to sort the confusion and welter of thoughts in my head. The promise of quiet, the handwriting is quiet. Letters to myself, that’s what the diary is, letters to now, mostly, but also of course, a letter to the future …
The week past – the whirlwind of the Franschoek Literary Festival. Supper with writers on Friday and Saturday nights. I was on a panel talking about South African English with linguist Rajend Mesthrie on Saturday; on Sunday on a panel chatting about writing with Edyth Bulbring as convenor, with Doreen Baingana, interesting to hear her chatting about the different covers for her short story collection Tropical Fish published by Oshun in 2005. Back home Sunday exhilarated. Stimulated. Such an amazing festival, although so much to take in.

The Constant Mistress by Angela Lambert

Sunday, June 26 2011
Read Angela Lambert’s The Constant Mistress. This is the first chapter describing the main character Laura’s relationship with Kit, the man she cannot feel desire for:
“It is so easy to dismiss unrequited love. We watch coolly, wondering at the poor victim’s inability to see that there isn’t a hope. But in fact hope is all he does possess. In the name of hope, the unrequited lover sacrifices real life for fantasy, not knowing, or not caring, how ludicrous a figure he cuts. Hope blinds him to the indifference of the beloved.”
Utterly sad, utterly true. At one point in the novel a character says to Laura that everyone has a ‘man of your life’ and towards the final bit we discover who that has been for Laura, and the terrible guilty secret she’s been carrying around. A book, which for me, cut so close to the bone. Like looking into the mirror, it’s frightening and unwelcome, both of us unpartnered, childless, alone. We find ourselves single for a variety of reasons, but don’t most of us, men and women, yearn to connect with others, to be in love, to share? That is the success of life, a sign of having achieved, the single woman (and man) has failed in some important sense, we feel. The single state may be more acceptable than at any other time in history in the Western world, but we somehow still look down on it fundamentally.
And the morning when I finished the novel, again Megan was on my mind. And anger, regret, sadness, lingering hurt. Of course what I felt for her was unrequited love. The easiest – and hardest – thing would be for me to cut her out of my life. All I feel is hurt and anger when I see her, or think back on those days in December. But to cut her out entirely? It would be cleaner quicker, kinder to myself in the long run. And it’s not her fault that I feel these things for her. I’m not hurting her, I don’t think, but I am hurting myself. Sometimes it’s kinder to yourself not to spend time with someone who is and always will be just a friend, when so much of you needs, wants more …
I keep thinking of Jake, and in a lesser sense Steve, two men I’ve had relationships with, but we are, of course, now just friends. I ended it both times. Both have to now make do with simple friendships with me, that’s all. Both want more, both have to accept that it’s not coming. It doesn’t stop Jake from saying that he still finds me attractive; looking at me with that look in his eye; or Steve ‘jokingly’ saying, ‘I wish we could get married.’ It’s cruel: it’s cruel to the person on the receiving end, what can I say to them? And it’s cruel and awful for them to be on the other side, knowing me still, and knowing it’s impossible.

The Edge of Things, Dye Hard Press

Sunday, July 3 2011

Johannesburg launch of The Edge of Things at Love Books on Thursday night. A success even though I find it very hard to write about. Janet on the other end of email the night before, I was asking for her advice on the questions I was going to be asking. She’s read the book and reviewed it for Litnet. Left work early, wash hair. Took my drugs, beta blockers and Ativan and then calmed down. I’d also booked a table at Picabella’s for supper afterwards. Couldn’t believe how many people had RSVP’d.

Arja Salafranca and Gail Dendy
at the launch of The Edge of Things,
Love Books, Melville

I chaired the discussion with the writers from this city: Gillian Schutte, Hans Pienaar, Fred de Vries, Hamilton Wende, Jayne Bauling (lives in White River down for the launch), Bernard Levinson, Gail Dendy, Bernard Levinson; unfortunately David was Mahlamela was stuck in Limpopo. I chaired well, I was told, and so people commented on Facebook afterwards. Twenty-four of us for supper, hard to relax, jumping between people so I could talk to them all. Wanted so much to talk more to Kay hardly see her – she said it had been inspirational from a writing point of view. But whacked this weekend though. So drained. God, public speaking really takes it out of me. Yet it’s vital as a writer.

Kate Turkington and Arja at Tau Lodge, Madikwe

Sunday, July 17 2011


Off to Tau Lodge in the Madikwe with Kate. The highlight of the trip was sighting the mound of the elephant that had died of old age, or so the rangers surmised, four or five days previously. It lay in the veld not far from the lodge, its trunk already nibbled at, its insides exposed, spilling out, a mess of liver and other organs, the huge curve of ribcage exposed, flies buzzing imperceptibly. It was incredibly moving to see this great animal, exposed, lying dead, motionless. We are so used to seeing elephants monstrously alive, moving through the grass and bush, kings of the wild. To see one hacked by predators, a lumpen piece of meat now, rather than animal, was inexplicably humbling. Nearby two lions stretched into and blended into the bush. Two brothers, they had taken turns guarding the elephant, food for them, taking it in turns to drink at a nearby waterhole, one always guarding the metaphorical kill.

Madiwe Game Reserve

We went off to Tlou Dam, the sun setting, the trees in silhouette against the orange light, rhinos drinking, their shadows on the water. Birds and ducks skimming against the dam.

Tlou Dam, Tau, Madiwe Game Reserve

The next morning, back at the mound of elephant, a jackal nervously, quickly taking bites of the trunk, watching out for the somnolent lions. But that afternoon, we saw the most moving sight of all and one not often seen, although read about. A bull elephant had approached the carcass, and was mourning the dead elephant. The bull sniffed around the mound, trunk curling over the body, moving around it. My photos show the grief, tangible in the stance, it’s not hard to spot grief. The bull mock-charged one of the game drive vehicles that had got too close; and then spotted the lions, and chased them away, ears flapping, trumpeting distress and anger. We were all silenced by the sight as we bumped back along the tracks through the reserve.
Tuesday, August 9 2011
Life has rushed on. I’ve been to Cape Town for the Cape launch of The Edge of Things at the Book Lounge, stayed with Janine and Lyndall and discovered things about myself, had a hectic week, another hectic weekend, and here I am.
The launch went well; met Mervyn Sloman. Was in conversation with the Cape writers included in the book, Margie Orford, Jenna Mervis, Jennifer Lean, Tiah Beautement, Jeanne Hromnik, Liesl Jobson, Aryan Kaganof, Silke Heiss, Rosemund Handler and Karina Magdalena Szczurek. After, supper with Janine and Nerine Dorman and her husband in Roxy’s a funky place near the Book Lounge, newspaper cuttings hodge podged to the tables, old 50s movie posters on the walls. Finger supper. And then crashing out, stress of flying, the public speaking, as usual.

The Bell Tower, Castle of Good Hope

Met up with Janine on Friday and stayed with her and Lyndall at their new home in Bloubos the next two nights. We went to the castle on Saturday as I’d expressed interest in seeing it. I’d just written my story, ‘Jane and Lisa’, set on Málaga’s Alcazaba Moorish castle; and found myself once more inspired by a castle, by this grim, grey-walled, pentagonal, utilitarian castle fort. It could be the scene of some grim short story, something caught my imagination although I don’t know what will result. Looking at the torture chamber, the tiny prison cells, walls flaking with damp and neglect, a grim feeling. But somehow also inspiring and both Janine and Lyndall also enjoyed the visit.

Torture Chamber, Castle of Good Hope

Lunch at a Hout Bay hotel, calamari, sea in the near distance. Then walking along Sea Point promenade as the sun set, following the story of the girl and the dragonfly, a series of sculptures set up by a young Cape Town artist called  Marieke Prinsloo Rowe. Watching the sea roll in and out, the bleakly dark grey rocks lining the shore, recalling the photos taken of me as a child of five, newly arrived in this country. I played on a beach as the sun set, it looks like the same beach, I’m sure it was. There’s something so soothing and restorative about watching waves, the sea, birds calling and swooping, couples walking, sitting, watching the sun set, people jogging, dogs being exercised, people out, alive, using their city. It was magical.
By then I was aware that I loved the energy between Janine and Lyndall. They are a good fit, despite their differences, superficial or not. Lyndall so deftly calming Janine down when she got into a panic with her new car in the narrow streets around the Biscuit Mill; Lyndall calm, orderly, taking control, steering Janine out of it physically and metaphorically. Or Janine carrying a large bag with three notebooks while Lyndall has a small bag, saying ‘It’s all about simplicity’. And the two feminine energies inside their home – I liked it. I found myself wanting this energy more than the male-female coupling. And I also realised that a relationship, gay or straight, is not purely about the sex. It’s about the energy as well, about whom you want to share your life with, and about where your attraction lies. I liked the space, the energy; it’s as nebulous sounding as that. If I had any doubts before I couldn’t ignore them after spending the weekend with Janine and Lyndall. Yes, I have been attracted to men, I’ve had sex. But perhaps it wasn’t right because it wasn’t right.
Home. And work, and weekend, editing my story ‘Jane and Lisa’ to send to the Outcasts* anthology on Monday night after I was back, the deadline. No time to really revise the story finished the previous Tuesday. But I’ve been wondering all week if I have put too much emphasis on Lisa’s feelings, her experience of being rejected for a heterosexual ‘normal’ life, rather than why Jane is doing this (going back to the heterosexual life). I wanted previously to explore why Jane would do this (as Anne did in real life), but I only touched on this. Was it enough? I’m not sure and no one has read it besides Janine, I sent it to her on Tuesday and she said she couldn’t stop reading, that I knew how to get into the emotions of a character. That nagging feeling though, that the heart of the story is why Jane would do this. So hard to judge your own work. I did learn a tremendous amount about writing about lesbian desire. Describing how Lisa looks at Jane, what she sees, and finds attractive awakened me. I have so often had to repress that in myself. So we wait and see. Wish I had had more time to revise or rethink, but that’s what comes of busyness and procrastination.
* The story is due for publication in 2012 in the Outcasts anthology.
Wednesday, August 24 2011
Two and a half thousand words written of Triangle today; yesterday another two thousand. The novella is now 32 000 words. Ten thousand words ago I thought I had maybe another ten to go; and now here I am again, saying another ten thousand. At times I feel like it’s becoming a novel. But a novel is at least 60 000 words, and I don’t think I am only halfway through this. She’s now met Paul a second time, for coffee, left confused, anxious, guilty? Runs to her best friend Megan, crying on her shoulder (still remember Venise coming over that time last year, after my work saga). And in some way I’m trying to stop her, pull back, halt it; but at the same time there’s no stopping the trajectory of the story, putting on the brakes. It will go on, and Alexia will do what she must and needs to do. And part of me doesn’t want to go there, doesn’t want to see her cause all this mayhem and destruction. And I am, in a way, dreading writing it. But at the same time I am in the story. I have to carry on writing it; I have to get to the end. Not to mention the fact that finishing it is part of my MA requirement. (At the back of my mind I do worry about publishing it, a collection of novellas – who is going to want to publish it? But I shut that voice up: the point is to finish, to write, and to think about publication later.) And so, I’m back in it. I was worried about returning to Triangle because I had no idea how to carry on. Alexia having left Paul after her meeting in Pretoria: what then? Just write, the story, the solution will come, was the answer. I’m asking questions as Julia Cameron does, learning to listen to whatever you want to call it. And so, yes, the story did start telling itself. The characters’ lives continued. They did what they had to do. I had to trust them, the story. (I’m still not absolutely sure how many words it’s going to end up being, but that’s another matter – part of the journey.)

Skoonheid, which means “beauty” in Afrikaans

Sunday, August 28 2011

I saw the movie Skoonheid, directed by Oliver Hermanus, on Friday night with Louise and Estelle. Gave Louise her birthday present – a copy of Re-claiming the L-Word as well as a packet of ‘dog’ cards like angel cards or other spiritual cards. She loved the cards and proceeded to ask us both to pick a card to see what it meant for us. Later she BBM’d thanking me for the ‘meaningful gifts’. So good to have read her correctly.
The movie was a shocker. I had been so looking forward to it and it didn’t disappoint. It’s the story of Francois van Heerden (played by Deon Lotz), a middle-aged married man. He lives with his wife in Bloemfontein where he owns a timber factory. At the wedding of one of his daughters, he notices twenty-two-year old Christian Roodt (Charles Keegan) up from Cape Town. He becomes infatuated with Christian and even invents a business trip to Cape Town for a few days so that he can be closer to Christian. Before that, the first of two shocking scenes. He drives off to meet other men on a farm where they are awkwardly introduced to each other, drinking beer, hardly talking. When one man brings in a Coloured teen, one guy angrily berates him, ‘Ons is nie moffies nie’. What follows is a group orgy: men giving each other blowjobs and having sex.
In Cape Town obsession and lust explode. Watching Christian from a distance. Going to a gay bar, hit on by other men where he rejects their advances. After all, he isn’t gay, is he? He gets horribly drunk and calls Christian to rescue him. A sense of menace and waiting throughout. They eat burgers in a restaurant and Francois tells Christian he wanted to be a pilot, has always held things together and chose family responsibilities instead. What follows is a climactic horrifying explosion at the heart of the movie.
Francois flies back to Bloemfontein where his wife picks him up from the airport. He answers her in his typical half-sentences. The final scene shows Francois ordering food at the Spur, sitting alone. He notices a young man sitting by the window who is joined by another young man and they kiss and laugh openly. Lovers. Francois’ bland expression turns into one of longing and regret. He’s watching what he will never have: an open, happy relationship with another man. Instead of the dried-up unsatisfying marriage he will remain in. The final scene shows him driving out of the parking lot, going round and round the circular ramp, screen slowly fading to black. It’s the only possible ending there could have been. Francois isn’t going to change.
The power of the film lies in Lotz’s superb acting and Hermanus’s directing. Lotz’s face is ordinary, seemingly blank. We’re waiting. We don’t know what we’re waiting for until that pivotal scene in Cape Town. A deeply powerful affecting film about Conservative Calvinistic Afrikaner manhood, about unrequited love, about not staying true to who you are, no matter whom or what that is. We sat speaking about the movie long afterwards, its meaning, its ramifications.
I left on a high, so enjoyed seeing them, connecting again, I feel as if in some way I was meant to meet Louise and Estelle.

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Destiny? … Destiny to the rescue in Triangle, my novella. I devoured Elif Shafak’s novel The Forty Rules of Love and then I had the answer as to why Alexia goes, again, for Paul. She believes he was the one, it was destiny, and they were meant to be together. A fortune teller once said that to me about Michael. Alexia felt dead when it was over. Life was never the same again. That’s why she’s seemingly throwing away her life, her marriage, her supposed happiness. That stubborn faith in destiny and fate. I’ve also never stopped believing that Michael and I were meant to be, but we couldn’t get past our personalities – and this is why Alexia pursues this ill-fated relationship. She has to know. No amount of logical reasoning from friends or in her head can sway her. Even if she’s wrong, she has to know. The fact that she has felt half alive all these years strengthens her argument, decision, resolve. She has never again bloomed as she did once, and so, in a way, she doesn’t have anything left to lose. She lost it before. And if she loses again she returns to the half life she’s lived up to now. She may be changed, yet again, by the experience, but perhaps, she still loses, or does she gain?
Read more of Arja’s writing at her blog.