Category Archives: writing

What Survives of Us, Kathleen Jones on the legacy of diaries and letters

What Survives of Us
by Kathleen Jones

It hasn’t always been respectable for women to write for publication. The 17th century poet Anne Finch put it perfectly:
“Alas! a woman that attempts the pen
Such a presumptuous creature is esteemed
The fault can by no virtue be redeemed.”

But women could write in a domestic context – diaries and letters, telling the stories of their lives as they did so, in an incredibly intimate way that wouldn’t have been possible if they’d been writing for public consumption. Most of this writing was ephemeral – letters thrown away by the recipients once read; diaries burnt by families after the death of the author. What survives depends on the wisdom of those who come afterwards – and sometimes on pure accident. Whole pages were removed from Queen Victoria’s diaries by one of her daughters, who deemed the content improper. Letters between William Wordsworth and his wife were found in the attic of a house during the process of demolition, and rescued from the builder’s bonfire by an antiquarian bookseller who just happened to be walking past.   
Almost all my biographies have been inspired by a fascination with journals and letters. At seventeen, desperate to become a writer, but not knowing how, I stumbled on Katherine Mansfield’s journals in a second hand book shop, and immediately fell in love with this other young woman’s struggle to become a writer, her homesickness for the country she’d abandoned, her chaotic personal relationships and the heart-wrenching efforts she made to come to terms with a fatal illness at the age of 29. The journals led me to her short stories and to her ascerbic, funny, intimate letters.  Eventually my addiction led me to write a biography, Katherine Mansfield: The Story-teller.
It’s in these intimate, private papers that the real story of a life is told. Fortunately the Bloomsbury group were compulsive communicators. They all kept diaries and wrote frequent letters full of gossip, lit crit and innuendo. In writing about each other they gave the biographer the gift of a multi-faceted view of each person – you can see everyone from several different angles. Virginia Woolf’s view of Katherine Mansfield was that she was unreliable, rather vulgar (not one-of-us) but a writer to be afraid of. Bertrand Russell thought she was immensely clever ‘her conversation is better than her books’, Aldous Huxley portrayed her as a manipulative shape-shifter who changed her personality to fit the company. The painter Dorothy Brett complained that an angry Katherine could ‘cut the heart out of you like a knife’ with her words, but that Katherine was one of the people she loved most. Katherine’s lifetime companion, Ida Baker, was ordered to burn all the letters that Katherine had sent her, and Katherine watched from an upstairs window to see that the sentence was carried out. It was to Ida that she had confided the most personal details of her life, illegitimate babies, love affairs, mistaken marriages,  the events that an older, more private Katherine wanted to keep secret. The loss of those letters is one of the great regrets of the biographer.
The ones that do survive reveal a vulnerable young woman, desperate to cope with illness and difficult relationships, a loving friend, but also bossy, neurotic and occasionally cruel. Most interesting are Katherine’s letters to the man she chose as a soul-mate, the damaged, emotionally unstable, John Middleton Murry. Katherine pulls no punches as their relationship staggers from crisis to crisis. She needs, and demands,  to be loved passionately and – as her TB advances –  cared for with thoughtful dedication, but Middleton Murry can do neither.  His attempts to do so make poignant reading in his own journals and letters.
Katherine Mansfield’s private papers – the journals and letters never intended for publication – contain some of her finest writing including this meditation on death and the beauty of the world she is about to leave, written in France after a doctor’s visit.
‘And yet one has these “glimpses” before which all that one has ever written (what has one written?) all (yes, all) that one has ever read, pales ….  The waves, as I drove home this afternoon – and the high foam, how it was suspended in the air before it fell …. What is it that happens in that moment of suspension?  It is timeless.  In that moment (what do I mean?) The whole life of the soul is contained.  One is flung up – out of life – one is “held” – and then, down, bright, broken, glittering on to the rocks, tossed back – part of the ebb and flow.’ 

It was also journals and letters that hooked me into writing A Passionate Sisterhood, an account of the lives of the women of the Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey families – the English Lake District’s poetic triumvirate. I went to the Wordsworth Trust at Dove Cottage to research a piece on Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy for a radio programme and found boxes and boxes of letters and diaries – many of which were unpublished – not just Dorothy’s, but also relating to the poet’s wife Mary Wordsworth and their daughter Dora. Research found many more letters and journals in American archives relating to the Coleridge family. Put together, they told a different story to the much publicised ‘LakePoets’ idyll’. The women wrote about walking miles in the rain to collect a letter, standing in cold kitchens cooking spartan meals, wrestling with wet washing in muddy, windy gardens, the agonies of toothache, the deaths of children, the failure of love. 
The personal, familial details overlooked in the literary biographies of their brothers and husbands gave a domestic context for the poets’ work that I felt was important, but it also revealed that their wives, sisters and daughters had often been gifted writers in their own right. Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals and letters have long been given literary recognition, but what of the journals of Mary Wordsworth? And her contributions to William’s poetry? Who knew that their daughter Dora had been a published author and talented artist? Coleridge’s daughter Sara wrote several books of her own,  spent many years editing her father’s work, and also engaged in literary journalism to support her family after her husband died prematurely.  She wrote an unfinished autobiography, and left behind a collection of wonderful letters.
The women’s voices came off the page very strongly, and I wanted those voices to be heard. Sara Coleridge’s letters and autobiographical fragments are elegant, scholarly, as beautifully crafted as her published work. Dora Wordsworth is more impulsive and passionate, alive to sensuous impressions and feelings. Her love letters to a young writer called Maria Jane Jewsbury are quite remarkable for their frank expression of emotion. Her account of travels in Portugal is witty and full of beautiful images, though her parents tried to persuade her not to publish it. From Dora’s mother we have a glimpse of the processes of composition in the Wordsworth household and William’s tendency to self-dramatise – a characteristic he shared with his sister Dorothy. Mary’s wry humour is apparent in her journal of a visit to Europe with her husband, who, she remarks dryly, is lying in bed ‘hurting himself with a sonnet’.

Worries are often expressed about what biographers are going to do in the future without letters and diaries. But emails, blogs and online journals (providing the technology to read them survives) are so prolific that I think future biographers might well be drowned in information. Also, from DVD and MP3 files, they will be able to see their subjects move and hear them speak, something I would have loved to have experienced. Coleridge on You Tube? Mansfield’s blog on the Bloomsbury goings on at Garsington? What I wouldn’t give!
Kathleen Jones is a biographer and poet. Her published biographies include A Glorious Fame (Bloomsbury), Learning not to be First – Christina Rossetti (OUP), A Passionate Sisterhood (Virago), Catherine Cookson (Times Warner), Margaret Forster: An Introduction (Northern Lights) and Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller (Penguin/Edinburgh University Press). Kathleen lived for ten years in the Middle East working in broadcasting, and now lives in the Lake District, where she teaches creative writing for the Open University and is Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lancaster University.
Read poems from Kathleen’s recent collection, Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21 (Templar Poetry, 2011).
Visit Kathleen’s website.
Visit Kathleen’s blog.

Penning Perfumes (An Olfactory Adventure)

Les Senteurs, Marble Arch, London


Charlotte Newman, Tori Truslow and Tiffany Anne Tondut

Penning Perfumes
Claire Trévien
Penning Perfumes is a creative collaboration between perfumers and poets organised by Odette Toilette and myself. It will culminate in an evening of readings and sniffing at the Book Club (100 Leonard Street, London, EC2A 4RH) on 12 June and in the publication of a gorgeous poetry pamphlet. As part of a series of encounters between poets and perfumers in the lead up to the event, we brought a cluster of poets to specialist perfumery Les Senteurs’s Marble Arch branch on 5 March. The poets were Nia Davies, Emily Hasler, Amy Key, Charlotte Newman, Tiffany Ann Tondut, Tori Truslow, James Webster and Tim Wells.
This was a brilliant opportunity for the poets to experience a ‘blind’ test of various perfumes from the Editions du Parfum Frédéric Malle: What did they remind them of? What colours did they conjure? What time period did they evoke? Answers varied from: the powder room of a thirties’ music-hall dancer, to the inside of an incense-heavy catholic church, to the halls of a hospital with the packaging reality occasionally jarring with what the scent evoked.
Guided by Les Senteurs’s Nick Gilbert, the poets then had an opportunity to discover the full range of scents at the perfumery.  ‘Do you have a perfume that smells of gin?’ I asked him. With barely a second’s hesitation, Nick reached for Angéliques sous la pluie (also by Frédéric Malle), a gorgeous woody ephemeral scent. To the sea-air challenge, he found us Bois Naufragé (Parfumerie Générale), a salty fig scent that beautifully captured the Breton seaside to me. In the name of experimentation, poets even tasted Parfumerie Générale’s peppery perfume (Coze) after it had been sprayed to their skin.
At the end of the session, the poets received a mystery flask containing a scent. They do not know anything about its name, its ingredients or even its colour. Their challenge is to write a poem in a month in response to it. Hopefully, as a result of their session at Les Senteurs this will have been made easier.
We will also be pairing some poets (Lavinia Greenlaw, Emily Hasler, Lindsey Holland, Amy Key, Valerie Laws and David Morley) with perfumers on one-on-one collaborative exchanges, from which a new raw scent, inspired by one of the poet’s poems, will hopefully emerge. We hope to showcase the new scent alongside a reading of the poem that inspired it at the event. These meetings will be recorded and written up on our tumblr so you can keep track of our progress!

Visit Les Senteurs website.

Amy Key

Andrea Ashworth’s Somewhere Else, or Even Here

Somewhere Else, or Even Here
A. J. Ashworth

ISBN 9781844718801
Salt Publishing
(November 2011)
We love stories. We crave them. Whether it’s watching films, reading books, going to the theatre or listening to gossip – we need them. And we need to be surrounded by them. Writers, being curiously obsessive creatures, are hooked on them. So hooked that they want to make their own stories – for as much of the time as possible – and for the stories they make to have meaning, for themselves and others.

I wanted to make stories from quite a young age. My first such memory was of sitting in my bedroom at about the age of six or so and making a book of poems. I still have it. It’s a little dog-eared now but it’s surviving. It has a cut-out of a rose stuck on the front and is rather inventively called ‘My book of poems’. Inside are a scattering of poems, in various colours of felt tip, about the seaside or flowers in a window box. And there’s an interesting type of binding which has somehow lasted more than thirty years – staples (now rusted).
I didn’t have to design or bind my short story collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here – thankfully my publishers Salt did that. I just had to worry about what was inside – the stories themselves.
Writing them was an intriguing, and, at times, difficult process. When I started out on the collection, about four years ago, I had no overall plan for it, no unifying subject or theme. I just wrote one story at a time and kept going. Each story was unplanned too. For me, there’s nothing better than feeling as if I’m in new, unknown territory when I’m writing – it’s like being an explorer. Only, you’re not discovering new continents or planets, you’re discovering something else – something new that you yourself are writing into existence.
The stories are all quite different – from child narrators to the elderly; failing relationships to failing health. And there are certain themes which have emerged in the collection too, such as astronomy, loss and hope. There’s a darkness to many of the stories, but, as with yin and yang, where there’s darkness there’s light. It’s strange how, as the writer, you don’t always see everything that the stories you’ve created contain. It’s like being blind to yourself. Which, I suppose, to a greater or lesser degree, we all are.
So what about the inspiration behind the stories? Well, sometimes there didn’t seem to be any obvious trigger at all. Stories such as ‘Sometimes Gulls Kill Other Gulls’ or ‘Overnight Miracles’ began after the first sentences dropped into my head, seemingly from nowhere. ‘Gulls’, about a girl on a beach who is lured away to a cave by a boy, just started with the words “A stick scraping over sand”, and from this I got the idea of a girl writing her name in the sand and a boy coming up to talk to her. It was only when I sat down to write it that the story began to open out in front of me, like a path revealing itself, one piece at a time.
‘Overnight Miracles’ was the same. This tells the story of a bereaved woman who starts performing magic rituals in a desperate bid to try to bring her dead husband back to life. With this one I just had the sentence “We are in the blackest part of night now”, and from this I somehow knew that this woman was in bed and aware of something lying next to her in the dark – a presence that she could only feel but not see.
‘Bone Fire’ had a more obvious genesis: this story of a troubled boy who drags a bonfire into the basement of his school was inspired by a visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. On the day I went there was an exhibition of photographs showing groups of children standing in front of some rickety bonfires they’d made. I jotted down my impressions of the exhibition in a notebook and when I later sat down to write, I wondered about what might happen if one of the boys decided to carry out an act of destruction using such a bonfire. The story was the result of those ponderings.
One aspect of writing the collection which really fascinated me was the effects gained from using different points of view. ‘Zero Gravity’ features a gang of girls, so it seemed logical to use first person plural (we) for most of the story, but to shift this to first person when one of the girls breaks free and begins to narrate the story herself. I enjoyed the feeling of writing in second person (you) as this gives a sense of dislocation, of separation, of being outside of things – something which can help to create an almost otherworldly atmosphere, giving stories a different kind of charge.
I loved going through the process of putting a collection together, especially when I didn’t even have the bones of a plan to hang the stories onto. It was a great surprise when my manuscript was chosen as one of three winners of Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize last year – something which I didn’t expect to happen but which I’m so glad has. I am going to continue to write more stories in the months and years ahead. New stories, slightly off-kilter stories, the kinds of stories that will hopefully give me that thrill of discovery again. It’s that feeling of being somewhere else that I want – that sense of being in another place. The thought that, while the landscape may seem somewhat familiar, it’s really no place that I’ve ever visited before.
Order Somewhere Else, or Even Here here, here or here.
Visit Andrea’s blog.
A. J. Ashworth was born and brought up in Lancashire and has an MA in Writing from Sheffield Hallam University. Her short story collection Somewhere Else, or Even Here won Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize and was published by them in November 2011. Her stories have been published widely, in the likes of The Warwick Review, Horizon Review, Tears in the Fence and Under the Radar. They have also been listed in competitions such as The Willesden Herald International Short Story Competition, the Fish Short Story Prize and the Short Fiction Competition.

Cassandra Parkin on New World Fairy Tales

New World Fairy Tales
Cassandra Parkin
ISBN 9781844718818
Salt Publishing
(December 2011)

Like most writers, my childhood was soaked in fairy tales. Even before I could read properly I spent hours poring over the illustrations of my Ladybird editions of Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Rumplestiltskin and reciting the text from memory. Slightly older, I was fixated on my mother’s hardback edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham and very little expurgated.
I think it’s impossible to overestimate the debt we owe to these stories, or the number of times and ways we retell them. They’re some of the very first narratives we learn; they tell us the things we human beings need to know to understand each other, in ways that have meaning whether you’re four or ninety. They deal with the very bones of life – birth and death, love and jealousy, sex and violence … They’re dark and bloody and sexy and visceral, and in interviewing their tellers and recording their voices, the Grimm brothers undertook one of the greatest acts of cultural preservation of the last five centuries.
But there’s no getting away from it – almost everything about them is weird. They’re heavy on action, but oddly light on explanation. A whole bunch of stuff happens; why it happens is up to you. Why does Chicken Licken believe Foxy Loxy when he tells her the King lives in a hole in the ground? Why does the Princess love her golden ball so much that she’ll kiss a frog to get it back, and what on earth did he do to end up a frog in the first place? Why, exactly, are seven adult men, all with dwarfism, living together in an isolated cottage with no female company? How could a teenage girl mistake a large carnivorous predator for her grandmother? Why are all the princesses beautiful and all the witches ugly? Why does Death want a Godson? How can pigs build houses, and why do they share a common language with wolves? Why does Cinderella hide away from the Prince? What the hell is going on?
The easy answer is “Well, they’re all metaphors, aren’t they?”, and of course, in many ways, they all are. But I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to re-tell some of the original narratives as modern, believable, adult stories – tales where real people with real lives really do fall in love with a masked stranger, or climb the beanstalk and rob the giant, or discover a beautiful prisoner trapped in a tower by a witch. I wanted to find the real-life equivalents of Godfather Death and the Wicked Stepsisters and the many, many Big Bad Wolves, and tell their stories for modern audiences. The result was New World Fairy Tales.
The most exciting part of writing the collection was exploring how much – or, more accurately, how little – I had to change to make the tales work in a contemporary setting. While some elements (Jack’s beanstalk) found their place as symbols, others (seven workmates with dwarfism) work surprisingly well with no amendments at all. Names, puns and modern colloquialisms felt as though they’d been expressly designed for some of the animal stories. Even elements which seem, at first glance, to belong entirely to the world of Faerie – such as the power of knowing someone’s true name – turn out to be surprisingly true. I found out one afternoon that there really is a fabric so light and delicate that a small garment made from it could feasibly be compressed into a walnut shell. It’s made from the filament tufts used by molluscs to attach themselves to rocks, and it’s fabulously expensive.
The decision to place New World Fairy Tales in America came very early on. If you’re British, America is as close to the original landscape of Grimm’s Fairy Tales as you’ll ever get. I don’t mean this in a flowery oh-my-gosh-your-country-is-so-amazing way (although it is). I just mean that if you stand in Britain, look out across the ocean, and then compare the two landscapes – America and Fairyland – they come out very similar. America contains all possible spaces and places; mountains and deserts and plains and oceans, great cities and curtain-twitching suburbs and tiny, isolated rural hamlets. It’s composed of many kingdoms, loosely federated, each with their own distinctive culture and autonomous power. Getting there requires a long and arduous journey, and when you arrive at the border, it’s weirdly difficult to get in. Its population is at once more devout and more violent than we are; when we visit, we tread softly and are cautious with what we say, and to whom we say it. Even if we’ve never been before, it looks strangely familiar – after all, we’ve been there so often in our dreams. Its citizens speak our language, but also … don’t.
Oh, the language, my goodness, the language. When I look back on the start of the New World Fairy Tales project, my main emotion is utter bafflement at myself – “Hey, I know! I’ll write an entire short-story collection in a language I don’t actually speak, set in a country I’ve never lived in!” What was I thinking? How much more arrogant could a writer possibly be? But there was never any question for me that these fairy tales belonged in the New World. Learning to reproduce what I hope are convincing American voices was a humbling and wonderful journey. I spent hours emailing and chatting to my unbelievably kind and patient Stateside friends, trying to learn the rhythms and cadences of American speech. I read, and listened, and talked, and questioned, and then read and talked and listened and questioned some more (seriously guys, thank you for everything you did and for all the stupid questions you answered). Even at the final proof stage I was still frantically combing through my manuscript for rogue instances of Brit-speak. I’m sure there are still places where, despite my best efforts, my roots are showing.
Choosing which stories to include in my submission to Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize was a bit of a balancing act. I wanted to reflect the wild diversity of the Grimm brothers’ original collection – to include not just the romances, but also the horrors and the comedies and the mysteries, and the tales that are frankly too strange to be categorised. And all in only forty-five thousand words! Since Salt’s list includes some of the most scarily talented short-story writers of our time, I almost didn’t submit at all … Eight months after the announcement of the 2011 prize-winners, I still can’t quite believe I’m one of them.
Order New World Fairy Tales here or here.
Visit Cassandra’s blog.
Cassandra Parkin has a Master’s degree in English Literature from York University, and has been writing fiction all her life – mostly as Christmas and birthday presents for friends and family. She is married with two children, has so far resisted her clear destiny to become a mad old cat lady, and lives in a small but perfectly-formed village in East Yorkshire. New World Fairy Tales (Salt Publishing, 2011) is her first published book.

Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons

“Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will—whatever we may think. They flower spontaneously out of the demands of our natures—and the best of them lead us not only outwards in space, but inwards as well. Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection…
These thoughts belong to Venice at dawn, seen from the deck of the ship which is to carry me down through the islands to Cyprus; a Venice wobbling in a thousand fresh-water reflections, cool as a jelly. It was as if some great master, stricken by dementia, had burst his whole colour-box against the sky to deafen the inner eye of the world. Cloud and water mixed into each other, dripping with colours, merging, overlapping, liquefying, with steeples and balconies and roofs floating in space, like the fragments of some stained-glass window seen through a dozen veils of rice-paper. Fragments of history touched with the colours of wine, tar, ochre, fire-opal and ripening grain. The whole at the same time being rinsed softly back at the edges into a dawn sky as softly as circumspectly blue as a pigeon’s egg.
Mentally I held it all, softly as an abstract painting, cradling it in my thoughts—the whole encampment of cathedrals and palaces, against the sharply-focused face of Stendhal as he sits forever upon a stiff-backed chair at Florian’s sipping wine: or on that of a Corvo, flitting like some huge fruit-bat down these light-bewitched alleys…
The pigeons swarm the belfries. I can hear their wings across the water like the beating of fans in a great summer ballroom. The vaporetto on the Grand Canal beats too, softly as a human pulse, faltering and renewing itself after every hesitation which marks a landing-stage. The glass palaces of the Doges are being pounded in a crystal mortar, strained through a prism. Venice will never be far from me in Cyprus—for the lion of Saint Mark still rides the humid airs of Famagusta, of Kyrenia.
It is an appropriate point of departure for the traveller to the Eastern Levant…”
— Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons (Faber & Faber)
Order Bitter Lemons.

On heat and hemispheres by Kona Macphee

Byron Bay Lighthouse

Recently, I re-read the 1999 poetry collection Wicked Heat by Australian poet Kevin Hart. The book doesn’t belie its title: on the contrary, I was reminded of just how much heat-related imagery the poems contain.
I haven’t lived in Australia since before Hart’s book was written, yet his poems bring back all kinds of recollections: the scorch of a sun-roasted vinyl car seat on the back of my bare legs; the way my flip-flops (or, to be Aussie, “thongs”) would get stuck in the melting car park tarmac at the local shops; those scorching, insomniac mosquito-haunted nights spent lying on a coverless bed, turning the pillow every few minutes in the forlorn hope of finding some coolness and refusing to open the windows in case a night-prowling huntsman spider came in.
When I first moved to the UK in September 1995, I lost a summer, skipping directly from southern hemisphere spring to northern hemisphere autumn. Somehow this absent summer seemed symbolic of the bigger climatic adjustment I’d made, from a city where serious frost was a rarity to one where a day of twenty-six degrees centigrade was “a scorcher”. Indeed, a few years later I was to write, of my arrival into Heathrow, that the landing plane’s engines spilled “a last Australian heat”.
It might be tempting to conclude that life in the Northern Hemisphere – where I’ve done all of my “proper” writing – has had a big effect on my creative landscape. For example, just for fun I once ran the text of my first poetry collection through a word-cloud generator that emphasised the most frequently-used words. The thing I immediately noticed was the prevalence of chilly words – ice, snow, frost, winter, cold. Since then, cold-as-metaphor continues to crop up regularly in my writing, and interestingly, certain words have become proxies for coldness in a decidedly un-Australian way – “North” and “January”, for example. Is my location really the source of these images? I’m not so sure. Isolation and loss tend to figure more strongly in my writing than (for example) rage and passion, so maybe the cold imagery is an expression of an inner emotional landscape as much as, or indeed more than, an outer physical one.
There’s a subtext to my pondering all of this right now: I’ll shortly be visiting Australia, for the first time since 1997, to be reminded of the “wicked heat” of my first quarter-century. On my journey, I’ll be accompanied by the uneasy knowledge that it was shortly after (or – to introduce a note of writerly superstition – perhaps resulting from) that last brief visit to Melbourne that my writing life began.
Now that I’m sixteen years a Northerner, I don’t know what to expect from the imminent return to the Land Downunder. Perhaps what I’ll be noticing this time, as the plane makes its final approach, is not the heat spilling from the engines but the tendrils of high-altitude frost melting away inside the plane’s double-glazed windows.
Born in London in 1969, Kona Macphee grew up in Australia. She flirted with a range of occupations including composer, violinist, waitress and motorcycle mechanic. She took up robotics and computer science, which brought her to Cambridge as a graduate student in 1995.
She now lives in beautiful Perthshire, where she works as a freelance writer and moonlights as the co-director of a software and consultancy company. She has been writing poems since 1997, and received an Eric Gregory Award in 1998. Her first collection, Tails, was published by Bloodaxe in 2004. Her second book of poems, Perfect Blue (Bloodaxe, 2010) is now available. Visit Perfect Blue’s Bloodaxe page, Perfect Blue’s dedicated website and Kona’s website.

Wintering, A Novel of Sylvia Plath

“This engrossing debut novel depicts Sylvia Plath’s feverish artistic process in the bitter aftermath of her failed marriage to Ted Hughes—the excruciating yet astoundingly productive period during which she wrote Ariel, her defining last collection of poems.
In December 1962, shortly before her suicide, Plath moved with her two children to London from the Hughses’ home in Devon. Focusing on the weeks after their arrival, but weaving back through the years of Plath’s marriage, Kate Moses imagines the poet juggling the demands of motherhood and muse, shielding her life from her own mother, and by turns cherishing and demonising her relationship with Hughes. Richly imagined yet meticulously faithful to the actual events of Plath’s life, Wintering locates within the isolation and terror of Plath’s despair remarkable moments of exhilaration and fragile hope.”
“Kate Moses, against all odds, has produced an admirably just and unexaggerated work of psychological empathy. She succeeds in making her readers feel what it must have been like to be Sylvia Plath while sympathising at the same time with Ted Hughes and his perplexed response to his wife’s desperate needs. Everyone who seeks a valid, impartial explanation for Plath’s suicide should read this book.”
– Anne Stevenson, author of Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath 
“Kate Moses knows everything on record about Sylvia Plath, but her novelist’s imagination takes us into those crevices of Plath’s mind where no one else has ever penetrated. No other version of those mysterious nine months before Sylvia Plath’s suicide goes so far to restore to life the poet, the woman, whom I knew.”
– Peter Davidson, author of The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston,
   from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955–1960 

“The poems of Ariel that swarmed from Sylvia Plath as her marriage collapsed form the point of departure in this beautiful novel, which is exquisitely attuned to the strange half-life of the nerves produced by shattered intimacy.” 
– Diane Middlebrook, author of Anne Sexton: A Biography and
   Her Husband, on the marriage of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath
“She knows, too, something about the movement of the poems as a body, how they rise like a startled flock, flying as one, wheeling, spreading chaotically across the sky, finally alighting in the same tree. She knows the story she wants them to tell. It is her story. It is where she wills herself to go; it is an incantation. She’s giving shape to her life, past and future, with these poems. Like the arrangement of cards in a Tarot deck as they are turned up, it is not just the poems but their relation to each other that matters. She knows where she wants to begin.
The first poem is “Morning Song”; its first word is “love”.”
Kate Moses was born in San Francisco in 1962 to a British father and an American mother and grew up in various parts of the United States before returning to California to attend college. She subsequently worked as an editor in publishing and as literary director at San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts. In 1997, she became one of the two founding editors of’s Mothers Who Think website, which led to the American Book Award-winning anthology Mothers Who Think, coedited with Camille Peri. which in turn inspired the nationally bestselling, American Book Award-winning anthology Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood (Villard 1999, Washington Square Press 2000) and Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race & Themselves (HarperCollins 2005, 2006). In 2003, her first novel, Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath (St. Martin’s Press, Anchor Books 2003) was published to international acclaim. Translated into thirteen languages, Wintering received the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and a Prix des Lectrices de Elle in France. Her latest book is Cakewalk, A Memoir (The Dial Press, May 2010), the result of a lifelong love of sugar and stories. 
Kate is a contributor to several anthologies, including Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave edited by Ellen Sussman, The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath edited Anita Plath Helle, and The Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors edited by Laura Miller. She has been a MacDowell Fellow, an Affiliate Artist at Headlands Center for the Arts, and the recipient of an Everett Helm Research Fellowship from the Lilly Library at Indiana University. She lives in San Francisco with her family — journalist and founder, Gary Kamiya, and their two children. 
Order Wintering, A Novel of Sylvia Plath.
Visit Kate’s website.

Secrets and Lies by Margie Orford

So, I fly up to Jo’burg to take part in celebrations for Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer’s 88th birthday. The taxi driver, who took me and the group of writers I was with, was pulled over and extorted in central Jo’burg. An enormous man with muscles rippling up the back of his shaved head climbed into the front of the minibus and told our driver to get out and hand over cash. The driver, a sensible and experienced man, did so at once. He peeled off notes three times before Muscle Head let us go. It made me feel dirty, knowing that it is so easy to be rolled over and ripped off.
But be that as it may, last Friday was the day the Mail & Guardian did the time warp. They blacked out a story about arms, secrets and lies that they had been prevented from publishing. The reason? The journalists were threatened with arrest for publishing a story that was clearly, fairly and squarely in the public interest. The censored pages were an instant flashback to the 1980s when censorship by a vicious and paranoid state, aware that power was slipping from its bloodied hands, reached a feverish pitch.
The laws governing freedom of expression and the press were draconian then. They were designed to silence the public and to keep secret what officials were doing. That was all swept aside in the euphoria of the early nineties, and freedom of expression – the right to the truth, I suppose – was enshrined in the constitution. We all should have lived happily ever after but there was to be a twist in the ending of this tale.
It was called ‘The Arms Deal’. Despite a lot of complicated detail, the story is mind-numbingly simple in essence. Senior party members and government fleeced a trusting and hopeful nation by ordering obsolete, unnecessary weapons at inflated prices. Kickbacks from arms manufacturers were brokered and money flowed into Swiss bank accounts. It has felt a bit crazy for a while. They know they did it. We know they did it. They know we know they did it. We know they know we know they did it …
It’s enough already because the arms deal, a dark, vampiric twin has shadowed South Africa’s democracy since it was brokered. The arms deal, I’ve heard it rumoured, goes back as far back as 1992. This venal deal was struck between nasty businessmen representing European governments and arms manufacturers, and the revolutionary wideboys whom they’d assiduously courted with the single malt and Cuban cigars.
It’s almost twenty years that this malignant party-spoiler has lurked. Most of us – the fleeced – wished that they – the blustering fleecers – would go away. That they would go to jail without passing Go, without collecting more money. That was too much to ask, as became clear after Shabir Shaik went to jail briefly on behalf of everyone. Those within government and the prosecuting authorities who worked to prosecute those involved were sidelined or silenced.
The garments of ethics and trust are fragile. The high temperature wash required for money laundering shrunk the rainbow-nation garments we all invested in. They no longer stretched over the plump, governmental bellies. Hubris, however, has seen the politicians clinging to power, clogging the arteries of public life.
There have been frantic fig leaves of spin, but all of us looking at this tawdry spectacle can see that the emperor is naked. So are many of the courtiers, the jesters, the pageboys, the lords and ladies in waiting. And after such a long, sustained journey on the gravy train, they are not looking good.
Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, and from where I am looking it is not pretty. It is also too late for a cover-up. No amount of nipping and tucking of the truth can hide the extent of the rot. It is this knowledge that is behind the ANC’s sustained attempts to push through the Protection of Information Bill, the ‘Secrecy Bill’, through parliament. This legislation, a toxic mixture of the dystopian visions of Kafka and Orwell, will hide naked greed and corruption under a cloak of secrecy and ‘classified’ information. It will criminalise those bringing governmental wrongdoing, corruption or plain ineptitude to the public’s attention.
There will be no recourse. This legislation does not even have the flimsy protection of a ‘public interest’ clause to protect the body politic. The Secrecy Bill is the legislative equivalent of a date rape – an intimate assault on a trusting public by a democratically elected government.
Visit Margie’s website.

Gillian Schutte’s After just now

Gillian Schutte is an independent filmmaker and freelance writer. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Wits University. She loves nothing more than to read literary theory and create fabulist and absurdist storytelling around philosophical constructs. Her writing rejects the protocols of realism in favour of postmodern precepts and narrative practices. She writes from the seam of the intellectual and the arcane and her work is often fused with gender concerns and sexuality, which she writes about frankly and revealingly.
Gillian has directed and produced many documentaries and children’s television programmes. Her interest lies in the personal narrative documentary and social justice and human rights. Her choice of film style is cinéma vérité and her narratives are usually quirky and gritty – much like her writing. Her collection of 14 poems was published by Botsotso publishers in an anthology called 5 (Five South African Poets) for which she received a favourable review in NELM. She is currently working on turning her first novel – After just now (Ludic Press, 2011) – into a film script.

Lila, her husband Lunga, and Tau (their little boy) are driving through the Karoo when they are involved in an accident. Lunga goes through the windscreen, Tau lands safely in his car seat and Lila suffers a severe head injury. Lila moves in and out of consciousness and as she does so we move with her in a journey to find her name, and who she is. By turns laugh-aloud funny and unbearably poignant Gillian Schutte constructs (or deconstructs, destructs and reconstructs) Lila’s story from flashes of history as she falls through time to meet her eighteenth century ancestors and becomes embroiled in their reality. For more recent life story she is given her diary to read when she finds herself in a white hospital room from which she struggles to escape. And all the while, as she surfaces and sinks, Lila the writer, the wife, the mother, the daughter, meets characters from fiction and biography who help or hinder her in her quest to find herself, to keep her son safe and to put her husband back together again.
“I can only give a small indication of the complexity and texture of this finely crafted novel. Despite its intricacy it’s easy to read and it doesn’t take long to suspend disbelief and follow wherever we are led next. Add to this the fact that it’s wonderfully witty (in an advanced Jasper Ffordish kind of way!) and you have a book that you’ll devour in one sitting and then return to over and over again  – for the sheer pleasure of it.”
– Maire Fisher
“An effortlessly poetic narrative that is playfully subversive, resonant and topical within the South African context. The writer’s joy of narrative and love of palimpsest is palpable in this daring and sometimes terrifyingly fast storytelling. Her writing performs the fluid multiplicity of feminine sexuality in the style of ‘writing from the body’ (écriture feminine).”
– Professor Deidre Byrne, Unisa
“Exuberant, poignant, grotesque, visceral and deliciously sexy.”
 – Narene Stevens, Bluestockings Salon
Hettie has brought me one of her dresses to wear. She has had to take the scissors and cut off half a metre from the bottom. She cannot believe I am a de Waal because I am so short. I tell her about my tiny grandmother who married the son of one of their descendants in the future.
She stares into my eyes and says, ‘I don’t know where you came from, but you crashed into our ox-wagon when we had just arrived back from the Cape of Good Hope. Now I do not think you are really very well. Let me give you some remedies.’
She throws some odd-looking brown acrid slime down my throat. I feel light-headed. I need to get to my son.
Hettie tells me I must wear a bonnet when we go for supper. We walk through some weighty hessian curtains into the centre of the house. There is a table made out of heavy wood, some equally heavy chairs and two candles that smell like sheep fat burning in the centre.
The young Xhosa woman waits to dish up the food for Hettie and Hendrik as well as the nine children who have suddenly filled the room. The noise is unbearable. I see my son with his golden dreadlocks holding onto his mother’s legs as she begins to dish up. Hettie turns to him and hisses spitefully. He recoils backwards in terror.
I get up and shout, ‘How dare you treat my child like that! What is your problem, woman?’
She stares at me aghast. ‘But he is just a little bastar … What is the matter with you?’
Hendrik ignores it all and reads solemnly from a huge dusty bible.
I say to Hettie, ‘What year is this?’
She tells me it is 1790.
I say to her, ‘Hettie Venster! I know who you are.’
She says, ‘Thank God, because no one else seems to care.’
I can see she is weary, drawn and unhappy. She looks like a woman who harbours a secret. She shows no interest in her children or her husband, who sits at the table and looks at the Xhosa girl. He smells terrible. I can smell him from where I am sitting. I get up and move to the other side of the table. My son is staring at me with large almond-shaped brown-black eyes. I try to say something to him. He takes his thumb out of his mouth and puts his index finger to his lips, cautioning me to stay silent. I want to hug and kiss him. My heart starts to bleed until there is a crimson red stain on the tablecloth. Hettie clicks her tongue and wipes it up.
Later I creep outside to pee in the dust. I see Hendrik disappear into an outhouse. I see Hettie huddled at the dining room table with a candle glowing. She is reading a heavy leatherbound book. Her fingers trace the words slowly and she mouths every word in Dutch. I realise we have all been speaking Dutch since we met. I feel for this woman. She seems so intense, so detached. If she were from my time she may have been a literary professor or a writer. She has the writer’s brow with the single hard line slightly to the side of the centre of her forehead. While I am watching her she begins to wail softly under her breath. She cries out, ‘Jesus.’
I call out to her, ‘Hettie, are you all right?’
She turns to me, wild-eyed, and says, ‘Jesus is my lover. He is a beautiful man on a white horse. He comes to me nightly and one day he will take me away with him. I am the whore of Jesus.’
from After just now (Ludic Press, 2011).
Order After just now at for the pre-launch
special of R120 (excluding postage).
Visit Gillian’s blog.
Visit Handheld Films.
Visit Media for Justice.

Victoria Field on Writing Routes

Writing Routes
A Resource Handbook of Therapeutic Writing
Gillie Bolton, Victoria Field and Kate Thompson
Foreword by Gwyneth Lewis
ISBN 9781849051071
(November, 2010)

All poems have been on journeys. Some have made a quick sprint from the poet’s unconscious onto the page, a leap from origin to destination with no baggage, ticket or chance to look at the passing scenery. Others may have travelled many miles, shape-shifting en route, collecting memorabilia from different places along the way.
To most readers of poetry, whether the poem’s journey has been long or short, makes little difference to an appreciation of the final product. Sometimes, a lot of effort goes into creating something consciously artless. John Sparrow wrote of a poem in Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, that ‘of its four stanzas, Housman tells us that two were ‘given’ to him ready made, one was coaxed forth from his subconscious an hour or two later, the remaining one took months of conscious composition. No one can tell for certain which was which’.
Jessica Kingsley Publishers has a growing list of titles in its Writing for Therapy or Personal Development series which are about the ways in which creative writing interacts with the writer’s psyche. The emphasis is not so much on the final product but rather on the process of creating it. There is less concern for its ultimate literary merit, but more for how the act of shaping the material, finding form for thoughts and emotions, might illuminate issues and questions in the writer’s life. A recently launched title, Writing Routes, co-edited by Gillie Bolton, Kate Thompson and myself, explicitly takes the journey as a metaphor for how writers of all kinds travel alongside their writing and what they learn as a result.
Here are some examples of writing journeys featured in our book:
Penelope Shuttle writes of how Virginia Woolf describes mourning as time when nothing happens, because ‘one is simply imprisioned in time, frozen from any action’. Water is a theme of her piece, ‘The Healing Fountain’, its title taken from WH Auden’s poem ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’. She describes coming across her late husband, Peter Redgrove’s poem ‘The Harper’, full of arresting images, including a ‘woman swimming in her evening clothes’. Reading these astonishing words, Penelope describes how she ‘felt the dried-up well-springs of poetry and life flow in me again’.
Depression, Les Murray reminds us ‘can be a fatal illness’. He describes the process of writing a poem about bullying and suicide and how writing the poem ‘initiated a programme of accurate research into my experience and what it could show me’. Sometimes, it takes great persistence and courage to get to real issues behind an incident or the events surrounding it. Les writes, ‘you have to cast a clear light on piggy little neuroses … you have to tell their stories over and over …’ His resulting poem, ‘Burning Want’ takes him back to his school days and events in the early 1950s. In terms of it clarifying the events of that time, Les writes ”Burning Want’ was a start and gave me an instinctive relief the moment I completed it’.
Myra Schneider chooses to create some distance from personal events in her poem ‘The Mincer’. She was aware of the ‘heavy sense of sunlessness’ in her home as a child, particularly connected to female drudgery. Rather than describe it directly, she personifies the mincer as a character ‘clamped/ to kitchen’ with no inkling of ‘subtlety nor beauty’.
Abi Curtis, Glynis Charlton and Wendy French take published poems as starting points for their own journeys. Kate Compston, Maggie Sawkins, Robert Hamberger and Carolyn Henson describe how, paradoxically, the restrictions of writing in form gave them more freedom to explore their material.
And there’s more – the book has over seventy contributors. Many write poetry but others tell stories of their journeys through prose or drama. The book is arranged arranged by theme and cross referenced by the type of writing.
We hope Writing Routes will serve as a map of a still little-explored continent, that of our writing selves. We hope too you might consult it and plot your own journey and that you might set out knowing that others have been similarly courageous.
Gwyneth Lewis writes in her Foreword that the trickiest part of a journey can be ‘finding the beginning of the path. Once you know that your feet are on a way which has been followed by others, then it becomes much easier to pay attention to the surroundings and enjoy the view’.
Order Writing Routes (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2010).
Visit Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Victoria Field is a writer and Poetry Therapist. She is a regular tutor on the Writing in Health and Social Care programme at Ty Newydd. One of her poems is Poem of the Month on the Second Light website.  Read more of Victoria’s work at poetrypf.

Victoria Field © Christopher North