Thursday, December 08, 2011

Mark Burnhope: The Snowboy

In October, I attended a poetry reading in Oxford where various Salteenies were reading (poets published by Salt) and one of the new books of poetry I picked up that night was by one of the readers, Mark Burnhope.


His first pamphlet, The Snowboy, published this year, is priced at £6.50 - which I found rather steep for a pamphlet of 28 pages. (Luckily, he offered me a small discount when I made my sad spaniel face.) But the quality of Burnhope's poetry is also steep, which made up for the high price. (I also notice it is currently reduced to £5.20 on the Salt website, which is more realistic from a buyer's point of view.)

Burnhope's work is an odd but dynamic combination of mythic or lyrical influences and sudden flat prosaic touches. He is not afraid to declaim or strike postures, which is something I thought had died out with the last of the Romantics, suggesting a return to that contradictory attitude of self-conscious looking outwards which is somehow embarrassing and yet satisfying to encounter. It's an attitude which says to the listener or reader, at least on a subliminal level: 'I am a Poet and this is Poetry with a capital P, yet I am perfectly well aware of what's being written today, thank you, as well as what was written three hundred years ago.'

Being wheelchair-bound, Mark Burnhope's poetry gives us an unusual perspective on life, of seeing things that perhaps others miss, and also an awareness of his own peculiarly stand-out - perhaps even combative? - spatial relationship with the world. One of the most compelling poems in the book is his bold 'Wheelchair, Recast as a Site of Special Pastoral Interest':

O evil scaffold, levelled
             and controlled by spirit.
O wing-black spectral-silver mass;
crass imposition upon the meadow
formed of iron-carbon alloy - steel -
and foam; O folk dance of spoke,
            wheel, tyre, seat, the latter
            to which, flush out of the field,
            the executed calf
                        and ewe contributed.

Here the hard, metallic, man-made structure of the wheelchair is placed in creative tension with the softer, ever-changing elements of the natural world, i.e. the 'meadow' (not a field, please note, which would be agricultural and therefore equally manmade) and the 'calf and ewe' (here, definitely from the 'field'). The 'folk dance' works beautifully with that idea of a pre-industrial world, a celebration of life and death, the 'executed calf' recalling the prodigal son's return, the forgiveness of the father for his wayward child.

And you also catch the most vital element of Burnhope's writing here, which is predominantly aural, focused on how the sounds strike the ear and play against each other. 'O, O, O,' this poem says. An exclamation, a sound of distress, an invocation on a stage. The wheel revolving. That final 'meadow' both prepares for and sparks off 'O folk dance of spoke'. Bach makes it into the final lines, 'bounding over the vales', as though the wheelchair had been constructed by music, or to music, so that music was somehow inherent in its structure, with 'vales' in the last line suggesting tears.


So the poet's love-hate relationship with his wheelchair does not so much dominate this book as underscore it musically. In a dream where he is imagined without it, Burnhope writes with grim humour:

In the absence of a wheelchair, I am walking
on one paw like a cirque-du-freak performer.

This seems to suggest that he sees the wheelchair as almost a normalising influence, a damping-down of creative energy, where its absence might allow him to become a daring 'performer', albeit one whose differentness is what people primarily flock to see, that 'paw' in place of a hand bringing an animalistic touch to the image. Burnhope's wild side? He then sees himself morphing into a scorpion that stings itself to death, perhaps through too much introspection. Other poems here mention sperm whales, Moby Dick, tentacles, skate, a cormorant ... Burnhope's touchstone is the sea, and it is a recurring image in this debut, as are those creatures which live within it.

Also a Christian, much of the imagery here finds its influence in the Christian religion, though with a certain dark pagan twist at times. (O folk dance ... ) I tend to dislike contemporary religious verse with extreme vehemence, though it's hard not to admire the sparing delicacy and slate-sharp edges of a poet like R.S. Thomas. It's also hard not to see that - very pleasing - influence at work here in Burnhope's debut:

Boscombe Pier pierces

the sea. On either side of me
the promenade extends

arms that end
in bending wrists of cliff-side.

The land is dark, but look, his fists
pin-lit,

loosing breakers overnight.

I want to ask Burnhope what 'pin-lit' means here - Christ's stigmata, one assumes, doubling up with the pinpoints of penny arcade or promenade lights - where or indeed what is the main verb, and how dare he casually toss the trauma of 'extends/ends/bending' into three consecutive lines and leave us to wrestle with that oblique, not quite understandable finale while we are still reeling from all those vibrating 'end' sounds? Meanwhile, this rather fine and striking piece of Christian imagery is a direct rebuttal to the prosaic opening to this poem, 'Christ is not your friend our lecturer said.'

Frankly, yes, wrong in places. But I love it. Not the opening though. I would say here, have the courage to back away from the inspiration for this poem, which adds nothing, and perhaps even detracts from or diminishes what follows it, and develop the lyric impulse instead. That's where the true power lies. Not in what we perceive as 'truth' (like those poor souls at open mic nights who say of their poems, as if to reassure us that it's not mere flim-flam, 'This really happened', not knowing that they are robbing their work of any possible power it might have possessed to ferry us into the magic territory of the 'story', as opposed to the stifling airing cupboard of the anecdote) but in the purely imaginary, the vital thought or image which creates its own reality as we attempt to capture it in a poem.

Though perhaps the prosaic is what anchors the poetry for Burnhope, gives the more powerful imagery  an excuse to exist without sounding like 'Art for Art's sake'. Well, I can see how that might happen. But we don't always need to see the working out. Sometimes the solution is better presented naked and shorn of its original props.

What else? Assonance and alliteration like an insane rash. Yes, yes, yes. Let's get back to that in poetry. An odd and discordant use of verbs, or nouns that double up as verbs, or possibly do, so that the poem is constantly wrongfooting the listener, i.e. 'Where the one/we conceived on Christmas Eve/ pools, swaddles grass'. I mean, just read that first clause again. What the... ?


But again, I welcome it. Somewhere beneath the slightly tyro feel to these pieces is my kind of poetry. It's not boring. It has the ability to slap you in the face without being unsubtle about such a gesture. It possesses oddly beautiful and powerful imagery. It hints at dark undercurrents which I would love to see coming to the fore. And above all, it is Poetry, and is unafraid of that concept.

I'm very rarely excited and interested by new books of poetry, being a curmudgeonly sort. But there's something in Burnhope's debut which makes me hope he isn't easily satisfied by what he's got here. Because if he is, he will have thrown away his chance to be a truly excellent poet.

Help to encourage a new poet. Grab a copy of Mark Burnhope's The Snowboy from Salt Publishing or Amazon.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Extracts from "Gawain" at Horizon Review

I realised just now, when posting up my comments on Christopher Logue's death, that I had completely forgotten to flag up my extracts from "Gawain" that appeared at Horizon Review a few months back.

Anyway, the extracts may be worth reading if you're into that kind of thing, i.e. free translations or versions of Middle English poetry. It's a version of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", of course, but I've just called it "Gawain", as the former is a bit of a mouthful.

I haven't finished it yet. I may never finish it at this rate, with all the other demands on my time and the need to earn a living. But what's been done so far is not too dreadful. In certain places.

Here's a mini-extract of the extracts on Horizon Review. As a teaser to encourage you to click the link.

Oblivious to the hounds circling upwind and panting, muscular, rump
         to shoulder, eager for the chase,
the fox himself stands watchful at the edge of a clearing, surveying
stiff grass, ice-locked.
Frost clings raw to the iron-clad earth. The sun rises, ruddied
against the cloud rack, a red eye
utterly cried-out
that morning, scouring the welkyn, shuffling the sky’s massive drift
for signs of fox.
One whiff and he’s off. Helter-skelter, criss-crossing wet fields
and muddied tracks. The hounds
fly after him, their hard-baying tongues heard as far away
as Hautdesert. There, her white throat bare,
the lady is entering Gawain’s bedchamber. Tiny bright stones,
         exquisitely-cut, hang in her hair.
Both her back and her breasts are smooth and exposed: gorgeous,
light-footed, she comes to his bed
in a robe trimmed with fur, laughing and calling
         his name.
Gawain wakes, dazzled. With answering laughter, he lays aside
         all her kisses and hot protestations
of love. Again
she comes at him. “Take this ring,” she whispers. When he refuses,
         she unhooks a belt from her waist,
green and gold, hung with tassels and pendants, a rich girdle,
and urges him to accept it, bending her face to his: “A poor gift,
unless you wish to save a man from death.”
Horns blow, out on the reed-edged marsh. The fox doubles back
too late; the hounds have found his scent.
They fall on him, and he is rent, flayed by furious teeth and claws,
         bloodied, a trophy.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Christopher Logue departs for the shades


Sad to see that Christopher Logue has died at the age of 85, a poet and playwright whose visceral and blithely free translation of Homer, "War Music", had a profound influence on my own poetry.


In the Fifties, Logue also wrote a pornographic novel called "Lust" for the infamous Olympia Press in Paris, under the ironic pen-name Count Palmiro Vicarion. That alone would have made him a friend, but his "War Music" is such a towering achievement, I cannot imagine any poet of feeling being able to read it and not wish they had written the thing.


Christopher Logue won the Whitbread in 2005 for "Cold Calls", a continuation of his Homeric work. But it's "War Music" for which I will remember him. And the fact that, apart from that belated award towards the end of his life, his talent as a poet was almost never recognised by that shadowy institution, the Establishment. Thus the life of a maverick ends.

Picture the east Aegean sea by night,
And on a beach aslant its shimmering
Upwards of 50,000 men
Asleep like spoons beside their lethal Fleet ...

Buy "War Music" from Amazon UK.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

"Disreputable" launches as an ebook!

Browse this book on Amazon UK

I have just revised and launched the Kindle edition - also available to read on computers and smart phones - of my debut poetry collection (Bloodaxe Books, 1997), currently priced at only £2.14.

Originally published together under the title 'The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman', some of these tender young poems also appeared in: Blade, The Guardian, Iron, London Magazine, The Mail on Sunday, Making for Planet Alice (Bloodaxe Books, 1997), Oasis, PN Review, Poetry Review, Snooker Scene and The Times Literary Supplement.

Retitled "Disreputable", this collection is published here for the first time in digital form with some alterations of individual poems and a minor reshuffle of the order. I've even slung a few poems out that were either embarrassing, never really worked, or were just filler and didn't earn their place in the book. In these poems, English lyricism meets snooker exposé, the longer narrative form is explored, poetic influences are mocked and celebrated. The book holds something for everyone, in other words, and is unusual among debut collections in its experimental variety of form and subject matter.

'Jane Holland uses language both as a weapon and as a shield. This is an intelligent book, knife-sharp at moments, tender and gentle at others' - Brendan Kennelly.

'Poetically she puts the balls down with an elan rare in new poets' - Peter Forbes, The Guardian.

I originally wrote "Disreputable" back in the mid-Nineties, staggering about with all my influences on my back. It's the usual raw magic and intestines of a young poet's debut. But some of the poems here won me an Eric Gregory Award in 1996, and it's great value at £2.14.

Hope you feel able to grab a copy - bearing in mind that you don't need a Kindle to read an Amazon ebook; just go to the Amazon page and follow the sidebar instructions to download FREE software for reading Kindle books on your computer, phone or other devices.

Happy browsing!

And if you're based in the US or thereabouts, here's the link to "Disreputable" on Amazon.com.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Robert McKee: 'Thou Shalt Rewrite"

About twenty years ago, perhaps even longer, but certainly when I was a mere whipper-snapper and unpublished to boot, I watched a television documentary about a great American screenwriting guru who had come to London to dispense his wisdom to the great and good of the British film industry. For years later, the top British film writers, producers and directors were all going about checking their film scripts for 'writing on the nose' or  carefully 'putting a subtext under every text' and 'seeking the end of the line'.

That guru was Robert McKee, who even managed to make it into a film as himself (Adaptation), and this November he's back in London.

So for the first time in my life, I will finally get to sit through Bob McKee's gruelling but apparently awe-inspiring four day seminar on the art and secrets of screenwriting.

Yes, I know I'm a poet and a novelist, but almost everything I know about the structure of the novel has been learnt through studying films and reading books on film structure. The skills required for the screen are perfectly transferable to novel-writing.

Besides which, I still harbour dreams of writing for the screen one day.

And the day before the McKee seminar starts, I'll be having lunch with my lovely new editors at Random House Children's Books and discussing how the rest of my Witchstruck! series is shaping up. Which is just a fantastic day to look forward to. 

Another busy week in the life ...

Meanwhile, why not entertain yourself with some of Robert McKee's Commandments for writers?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Launch of 'The Wanderer' on Kindle

Available now on Kindle

I finally uploaded my single poem-version of 'The Lament of the Wanderer' to Kindle tonight, after months of dithering over whether I should augment it with other poems in the same vein.

In the end, I've just gone with the one poem, my translation of the haunting Anglo-Saxon poem, 'The Wanderer', plus the original introduction, with some changes, that was featured in the Heaventree Press edition in 2008. It's not very long as ebooks go, somewhere around 10 pages, but since the only reason I can imagine people wanting to download it would be to see an alternative version of the poem for academic reasons, it shouldn't really matter that it's so short.

It's possible that I may do a longer version, containing some other AS translations, but I'll have to make a few enquiries about that first, as all the poems concerned were originally published elsewhere.

My thanks go to Jon Morley, my editor at the Coventry-based Heaventree Press, who encouraged me to prepare the poem and its introduction for publication in 2008.

Monday, October 03, 2011

My 'lost' poem sequence, 'Umbra'

Continuing my series of Sixth Birthday Celebration repeated blog posts from Raw Light's past, this post on my lost poem sequence, 'Umbra', is from January 2006.

One of the problems of working on computers is the thorny issue of when to back up, and what happens when you don't. I am extremely lax about backing up and have paid the price. Hundreds of my poems written between 1997 - 2004 are lost in the belly of the beast - i.e. inside one of my dead computers - and I have no idea how to access them and no funds available to engage the services of an expert on information retrieval.

One of the major victims is my long verse sequence UMBRA - later developed into a play for voices which was performed at Brasenose College, Oxford - of which only four poems still exist from about 40 in the original sequence. The rest are trapped inside a now defunct laptop which I was using while at Oxford. Having moved house five times since 1998, I have also managed to become separated from the paper copies of my older poems - where they existed at all. So unless they come to light at some point in the future, UMBRA is no more. No great loss, perhaps, to the literary world. But a part of my past which I would rather still have access to, if only for the pleasure of it.

So today I thought I'd post up a poem from UMBRA, and maybe the others that I have, slowly, in the coming days, to give them a little airing. They are certainly among the oddest poems I have ever written but they do deserve to be seen, I think. Indeed, the only reason I have these four poems at all is that they were published in the poetry magazine ‘Brando's Hat’ back in 1998, I think, and can be found at the Poetry Library website where they provide back issues of poetry magazines online. The rest are lost, probably forever.

UMBRA is a story told in poems - rather than a 'verse novel' - a storyline or theme developed through a sequence of poems.

The title character, Umbra, is a young woman who believes herself to be the reincarnation of Barton's wife, and feels drawn to take her place in his life. His daughter, Stella, feels threatened by Umbra whom she suspects of superseding her in her father's affections. Barton, who may or may not have murdered his wife, is both excited and disturbed by Umbra's sudden appearance. The sequence darts between the three voices, sometimes explorative, sometimes lyrical, often violent.

If there is a clear-cut theme in UMBRA - though I dislike having to discuss theme, which can be such a slippery thing for a writer - it's probably something to do with mental breakdown, with the odd disturbing shifts in personality that happen at that time, the inability to see oneself clearly, or as others see you, and the constant suspicion that your entire environment is somehow 'against' you, in a very real and threatening way.

This poem, 'Heaven to be out there, under', comes midway through the sequence and is unusual because it is written from the dead wife's point of view. She wants to communicate with her husband, to describe the experience of being dead, I suppose, but since the poem is told through Umbra's voice, it may not be entirely trustworthy. Umbra has begun to learn about and identify with the dead woman to such an extent that the boundaries between them begin to shift and blur from this point. Is she really the reincarnation of Barton's wife, possessing a direct mental link to the secrets and tragedies of his past, or is she simply mad?



Heaven, to be out there, under

she might have told him,
not rolling, but holding, taking

the thunder, a wild bird
into shelter, dredging the surf

of the storm, shimmying.
Hell, to be in here, realised,

torn to a stand, stripped
of these leaves, these coverings.

A cold hand summons the star.
Warm breath mists the mirror,

repeating the winter,
the dead season, where I

reel from the whirlpool,
the sucking in, the bright mote.


N.B. This is the first - and only - poem in which I have used the word 'mote' (speck of dust) more commonly associated with poor imitations of nineteenth century verse. Personally, my eyebrows shoot up whenever I encounter it in contemporary poetry, yet here it seems natural. To me, that is. You may disagree.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

On Angels and Muscular Poetry

Continuing my series of Sixth Birthday Celebration repeated blog posts from Raw Light's past, this odd little post is from Christmas 2005:
Several days have passed since I last updated my blog ... and no surprise there, with Christmas-a-coming and five kids in the house!

I was also struck down by one of these mystery bugs over the weekend and ended up sweating it out under a duvet on the sofa. Shades of being ten years old again and being allowed to watch telly for hours. Except now it’s the DVD collection of ANGEL I’m watching.

I only discovered BUFFY a couple of years back, having married a serious sci-fi/fantasy/horror fan, and now I have the pleasure of steadily watching my way through both BUFFY and ANGEL on DVD, courtesy of the incredibly good value home rental system on amazon. I find both highly entertaining. Especially when laid low and in desperate need of some eye-candy, as the Americans would put it. I’m referring, of course, to the sultry David Boreanaz, who plays Angel, the vampire with a soul.

So, I did my Fourcast reading at the Poetry Cafe last week and it went very well. I was nervous up until the last minute, then found it easy to slide back into performance mode. The poems I read were all new, i.e. uncollected, and some were so new they haven’t yet found their way into any magazines. I was very impressed by Martina Evans, Kevin Higgins and Jacob Sam-La Rose, the other poets reading with me that night, and it was good to see Roddy Lumsden again, who was hosting the event.


Jacob Sam-La Rose

My thanks to my husband Steve, who stoutly accompanied me down to London even though it meant he didn’t get to bed until nearly 3am and then had to get up for work again at 7am, and to my oldest and dearest friend Judy Ewart, who bought my train ticket, bless her, sat through the reading and then did something almost unheard-of at such events, and actually bought books by the other poets there. With hard cash!


Martina Evans and Kevin Higgins (first from the left)

Yes, it was an enjoyable and fruitful evening; I’ve found that reading poems to an audience is essential for testing them on the air. Otherwise you’re only hearing the poems inside the space of your own head, or as a private exchange between yourself and maybe your partner or husband or cat, whoever happens to be listening when you first try them aloud, and it can be harder to spot glitches in the rhythm or words which don’t fit as perfectly as they should. So it was a useful exercise and I did take away some thoughts on possible structural changes to the more recent poems. I also noted which poems seemed to ‘grip’ the audience more than others.

To my mind, no sin in a writer is greater than that of boring the reader or listener. So it’s a relief to find a poem within your repertoire that, like a good and trusted friend, can be relied upon in almost all circumstances: a muscular poem with broad shoulders and, even better, deep pockets.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Death Instinct: from November 2005

Continuing my reposting of old blog posts to celebrate six years of blogging here on Raw light, this poem-post comes from November 2005:

When I first started this blog, I thought it would be nice to post up some poems from time to time, but never really got around to managing that. But being deeply involved with a new novel at the moment, it seems a quick way of keeping the blog active without having to bare my soul online.

This isn't a new poem but it is one of my personal favourites. I wrote THANATOS in about 1998; it was published a year or so later in PN Review, an intelligent poetry magazine edited by Michael Schmidt of Carcanet Press (PN stands for Poetry Nation). Since my second collection is still forthcoming, it has not yet been published in book form.

[This poem appears in 'Boudicca & Co.' now available in paperback or Kindle edition. Jane]

It's never easy for a poet to 'explain' a poem they have written, but THANATOS, I suppose, is a poem which likens love to being caught in a cyclone. It's quite different from the poems in my first collection, most notably in terms of form; I'd been reading some of Ted Hughes' later work when I wrote this - his BIRTHDAY LETTERS, in particular - and I was rather taken with the prosiness (which I'm not convinced is a real word) and dramatic tone of that collection.

Thanatos comes from the Greek for death. I think it means something like 'death-instinct' - at least, that's what I took it to mean at the time I wrote this poem. Later, I agreed to medication and am no longer driven to write this sort of grim, self-involved poetry. I'm not sure if that's entirely a good thing. I prefer compulsive poetry to light anecdotal verse, and it's quite hard to write poetry of a compulsive nature when everything's sunny in your life and you're not struggling with some terrible inner demon. Though I imagine there are many poets out there who would - and probably will - disagree with that particular generalisation. Fortunately, I don't care.


THANATOS

Schoolgirl vulnerable, still smarting from
the fumbled mismatch of a love affair, I fell
straight out of space and into hell
that night. He was only a voice
on the edge of nothing, but I kept returning
to him, flickering like a stilled film
against the mindless black ferocity of wind.
The roof was trying to suck me out, vast mouth
clamped like a mad baby’s over the breast
of a house, whining for milk. I wanted
then to loose my hold, know how it feels
to spiral in the infinite, to Catherine-wheel
across the space that once was love.
Thanatos, pricking at my blood: the truth
that I came searching for, a weariness
that threatened to unclasp my hand, saying
it’s over, all over, why resist?
But at the other end of light, the funnelled dark
was a dead body I clung to out of
sheer stubbornness.

And the black wind
could not dislodge me from my welding-place,
though its eye bent in and saw me there,
plucked at my white knuckles, severed
the electric umbilical of light. I took
that place and hid it underneath the other times,
less brutal, more arranged. But it comes back,
obliterates that flash between dark and dawn,
and I pretend not to recognise it; call it
desire for solitude. Expurgate, disown the truth.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Reading Thomas Wyatt: a post from October 2005

Continuing in my series of Sixth Birthday Celebration Repeat Postings, here is a post which has proved consistently popular with browsers since it first appeared on October 3rd, 2005. Seems there are quite a few Wyatt fans out there ...



A Tudor moment, with a glance at Whoso list to hunt (whoever chooses to hunt). This sonnet by Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) is a personal favourite of mine. It's a loose translation of Petrarch but entirely Wyatt's own, possibly written about a clandestine affair he's reputed to have had with Anne Boleyn, speaking across the centuries of frustrated love, impossible love, love at a distance.

A hind, of course, is a female deer.


Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind,
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list to hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain,
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold though I seem tame.


Noli me tangere = Do not touch me (poachers of the king's deer could expect the death penalty - as could poachers of the king's wife!)


This modern version of Whoso list to hunt comes from Hardiman Scott's edition of Wyatt's Selected Poems, which is published by Carcanet Press. Here's the back cover copy for those who'd like to know more.

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), 'the first great English lyric poet', remains one of the most popular writers of Henry VIII's court, and perhaps the most romantic, given his entanglement with Anne Boleyn, which resulted - legend has it - in some of his most passionate and vulnerable poems. This book contains a representative selection of the work: all the best-loved poems and many lesser-known pieces which illuminate a complex and sophisticated sensibility. Hardiman Scott sees Wyatt as a modern poet before his time and demonstrates the impact he and his younger contemporary the Earl of Surrey had on the development of English poetry. Wyatt introduced the sonnet, terza rima and other Italian verse forms into English, and invented forms and processes of his own.

For those trying to remember the other much-anthologised poem by Wyatt, try this link to an online copy of his superb 'They flee from me that sometime did me seek'. More on Wyatt on this blog too, in an October 2007 entry.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

My first ever post on Raw Light: from September 2005



"For though my ryme be ragged,
Tattered and jagged,
Rudely rayne beaten,
Rusty and moughte eaten,
It hath in it some pyth."

I recently discovered a poetry performance venue in Coventry, called Night Blue Fruit and hosted by the Heaventree Press. It's essentially an open mic evening at the Tin Angel - a small and intimate bar on Medieval Spon Street in old Coventry - and something about the night's atmosphere kicked me back into revisiting John Skelton's work, who was a self-styled poet laureate back in the days of Henry VIII. I was thinking of one of his poems in particular, the gloriously scurrilous and jaunty Elinour Rumming, a poem of some 620 short lines dealing with the landlady and clientele of a disreputable Tudor ale house.

All through the evening at Night Blue Fruit, through the windows of the Tin Angel, we could see girls in high heels, short skirts, low-cut tops etc., out on the razzle, some of them drunk, others grazing on chips and kebabs in between night clubs. They would yell at each other, laugh as they staggered across the road for a taxi, while inside the Tin Angel the poetry continued to flow. By the time I got home there was a long poem brewing away inside me, a modern-day Elinour Rumming about poets and drunken girls and the English language ... though, of course, these things never work out the way you envisage them.

I sat up well into the early hours to finish it; a dangerous policy when you've had a few drinks. [This poem, 'Night Blue Fruit at the Tin Angel', was later a Guardian Poem of the Week - it attracted so many astonishing comments, the comments thread had to be closed after only a few days. You can read the properly formatted and finished version in Boudicca & Co. currently on Kindle promo for 86p! Jane]

But the poem was still halfway decent in the morning, which is a good sign that you haven't entirely wasted your time. I've tinkered with it since, cut some sections which weren't working, and inserted some additional sections which came into my head later. Naturally, it's a performance piece rather than what some might call a traditional poem. But would Skelton have considered that there was a difference between the two?

Over the centuries, many critics have dismissed poems like Elinour Rumming as not lyrical enough to be taken seriously or accepted into the mainstream. But I think their energy and the dynamic challenges such poems pose to the English language more than make up for a lack of formalism. That's what Skelton was about, after all; keeping English on its toes, constantly shocking and surprising us with what it can do when stretched and subverted. Some of his work is so modern, experimental and tongue-in-cheek that it's difficult to remember it was written in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century.

Here's the beginning of Skelton's famous satirical epic Phyllyp Sparowe, parodying the Offices for the Dead:


Pla ce bo,
Who is there, who?
Di le xi,
Dame Margery;
Fa, re, my, my,
Wherfore and why, why?
For the sowle of Philip Sparowe,
That was late slayn at Carowe,
Among the Nones Blake,
For that swete soules sake,
And for all sparowes soules,
Set in our bedrolles,
Pater noster qui,
With an Ave Mari,
And with the corner of a Crede,
The more shallbe your mede.

Whan I remember agayn
How mi Philyp was slayn,
Never half the payne
Was betwene you twayne,
Pyramus and Thesbe,
As than befell to me:
I wept and I wayled,
The tears downe hayled;
But nothing it avayled
To call Phylyp agayne,
Whom Gyb our cat hath slayne ...

This post was the first I ever wrote on Raw Light, back in September 2005. I shall be reposting old blog posts - my favourites, or those of interest - from previous years over the next week or so. Hope you enjoy them. Some of you may even have been there to see their original posting! Jx

Monday, September 19, 2011

HAPPY BIRTHDAY RAW LIGHT!


This writing blog, Raw Light, is SIX YEARS OLD this month!

Amazing to think how many years it's been going strong. Yet I still haven't got bored and stopped posting. That's impressive for me. Looking back at my posting record, there have been a few dry patches here and there, but I always picked up the slack in the end.

So please wish Raw Light a Happy Birthday, and tweet it Happy Birthday too if the spirit moves you to gain me new followers!

In celebration of six successful years of blogging, I'm going to repost some favourite or significant blog posts from each year over the next few weeks. I'll put the original date in brackets alongside the title, and at the top of the post too, so hopefully people will understand it's a repeat.

 Just a trip down memory lane for me, and perhaps for those who have been faithfully following this blog since its first inane flutters of life, back in September 2005.

The tag for old posts will be #RawLightRepeats

Many thanks to ALL my readers, past and present, and to those who are now Following Raw Light.

Couldn't have done it without you! Jane x

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Boudicca & Co relaunches as Kindle edition for just 86p!

'I was dashing from poem to poem, completely compelled.' Helena Nelson, Ambit magazine

Glorious news! 

My second poetry collection, Boudicca & Co, has been launched by Salt Publishing today in a Kindle edition. You don't need a Kindle ereader to buy it, you can download free software from that page for computer or laptop, Mac or PC, and read it on your normal screen.


The paperback is 9.99. The Kindle edition is only 0.86p!


Please help to support poetry on Kindle - still an undiscovered world for most readers - by buying this book for less than a pound, or a dollar if you're in the States, and sharing this link, letting others know that it's now available in a digital edition. 


Many thanks! Below are a few of the reviews and recommendations Boudicca & Co received on first publication in paperback.
*
'Jane Holland's Boudicca & Co is a book of adventurous, resonant inventions. As the title suggests, it offers a new view from the interior - of both country and psyche - in which history and geography are co-opted in effortless interplay. It's a work of synthesis, and of poetic and emotional maturity, in which Holland emerges as a true craftswoman, a supple and graceful thinker with an effortless grasp of line, at the heart of the English lyric tradition.'

Fiona Sampson, Editor of Poetry Review



'I reached the fourth section of the book, the Boudicca sequence, and everything went electric ... There's a touch of Vicki Feaver about the violence and the cool delight in blood and innards, but the work is quite distinctive ... I was dashing from poem to poem, completely compelled.'

Helena Nelson, Ambit 2007



'Extremely powerful and varied ... Holland has both the clarity for the reader and the mastery of language to say what she means in a way that makes the brain tingle with both shock and pleasure ... This collection is outstanding.'

Angela Topping, Stride Magazine



'... we need only compare Holland's work with the anti-war 'poetry' of Harold Pinter to gain some indication of how rich and rewarding her response to modern conflict is - by shifting methods towards the imaginative and narrative elements of poetry, rather than the rhetorical and political. In this sense, the 'Boudicca' sequence has a great deal in common with David Harsent's Legion, which represents a similar attempt by a non-combatant poet to engage intelligently with the realities of war. This is, frankly, an outstanding collection, and Holland, as a result, can now count herself amongst the front rank of contemporary British poets.'

Simon Turner, Gists and Piths, 2007
In her unconventional aspect, Boudicca is peculiarly modern, and there are moments in the sequence, where modern wars and conflicts appear to be invading the ancient story. In ‘'Last Stand'', the woods are ‘'thick / with sniper fire'’ and Romans beat the men with ‘'rifle butts''. By breaking with the historic period of the tale, Holland comments on the repetition of atrocities and war, as if Boudicca is looking forward to the suffering and dehumanisation of twentieth-century wars. 
Zoë Brigley in English Studies
Boudicca & Co. is a bold re-imagining of Britishness. Our contemporary England of Sunday roasts and cyberspace gives way to a wild and alien landscape, a place that Holland lays glinting before us “like a coin tossed in the sun / blunt-edged, foreign.” Steeped in myth and medieval poetry, this is a land of “ruins under rain,” hares, oaks, gargoyles and the Green Man. At the heart of it, embodying both Britain’s fierce beauty and its bloodied past, is Boudicca, and her voice is a startling achievement: modern, pitch-black, funny, and yet hauntingly lyrical. Jane Holland’s second collection is full of love and astonishment, a tribute to the resilience of women, to the power of literature, and, most of all, to: “England // my beleaguered sunken island.”

Poet, Clare Pollard

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Regency Celebration Day with the RNA

Do you love Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer? Do you wish you knew how to play Loo or dance a daring waltz?

Then this event is perfect for you: A Regency Celebration Day, hosted by the Romantic Novelists Association, with a varied list of activities for everyone to enjoy.
The RNA will be holding a Regency Celebration on Saturday 8 October 2011 between 9.00am-6.00pm at the Royal Overseas League, Park Place, off St James’s Street, London SW1A 1LR (near Green Park tube station).

This event will be a celebration of Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and the books they have influenced.  It coincides with the launch of a new biography of Georgette Heyer, written by Dr Jennifer Kloester, and 2011 also happens to be the bi-centenary of the publication of Jane Austen’s “Sense & Sensibility” – both perfect excuses for a Regency themed day!

The day will be a mixture of serious talks and more frivolous activities, and will include the following:-
Georgette Heyer, Her Life and Writing – Talk by Dr Jennifer Kloester
Sense & Sensibility: The Things You Didn’t Know – Talk by Amanda Grange
Austen & Heyer – Were they better than they thought they were?  Panel discussion
The Celestial Bed: Sex and the Georgians – Talk and panel discussion
Regency Scents: Odours and Malodours – Louise Allen and Christina Courtenay “sniff-and-tell”
Regency Clothing - Jane Walton demonstrates the fashions of the day
Regency Dancing – Mr and Mrs Ellis Rogers take us through the steps
Parlour Games – Learn how to play Whist, Piquet, Vingt et Un or Loo
Regency Walk – Guided tour of St James’s
Afternoon Tea **

(**  Please note, on a first come first served basis, fifty delegates will be able to attend a special afternoon tea at the East India Club in the room where the Prince Regent was given the news of the battle of Waterloo.  For everyone else, there will be afternoon tea at the Royal Overseas League.)

Throughout the day, there will be a book stall and author signings, as well as a chance to chat to authors of historical romance.  There will also be a competition and a quiz, with prizes donated by the authors.

The price for the day, including a sandwich lunch, tea and coffee, is only £55 (although for those of you wanting to attend the Waterloo Tea there is an extra charge of £18).  At lunchtime, there will also be a cash bar available for extra drinks.

It all promises to be a wonderful day, so please spread the word!

If you’d like to join us, please fill out the booking form on our site.  If you have any queries, please e-mail Pia Fenton at pia.fenton AT googlemail.com and you can join us on Facebook on the events page “A Regency Celebration” for regular updates. Authors – please contact Pia for a copy of our Authors’ Information Sheet.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Researching Shakespeare in Stratford


I've been in this lovely cottage this week, researching Shakespeare's home life in Stratford upon Avon for the second book in my Tudor trilogy, written under the name Victoria Lamb.

I'm also writing that book at the same time and researching 'on the hoof', as it were, which is the best way to do it with such complicated historicals. It may seem easier to do all the research beforehand and then start writing. But that tends to make people research the spirit out of a book, procrastinate endlessly - just one more trip to the library! - and never begin the writing itself.

It's also a massively inefficient method for a novelist.

This is because you never know precisely what detail you may need until you start writing a scene and hit a snag - what soap would a Tudor lady have used in her bath? (Castille scented soap); how old was Kit Marlowe in the summer of 1586? (he was 22 that year) - at which point you would turn naturally to a book at your elbow or the internet. So I'm both researching and writing this week.  

Although I love being here in Stratford upon Avon, with its quaint narrow streets and distinctive black and white half-timbered houses, my favourite topics for research so far have been the Tudor spy network and the brave new world of London theatres. The theatre in particular is a fascinating area for research, being a popular entertainment that was just beginning to expand in the late 1580s, though still dogged by plagues, repressive laws, and a dearth of good writers.

His Dark Lady - the second book in my Victoria Lamb Tudor trilogy - is due on my editor's desk on October 1st.

There's still quite a mountain to climb, even with the help of this stay in Stratford. Will I make it?
You can also follow my Tudor-writing progress on Twitter, where I am @VictoriaLamb1

Friday, September 09, 2011

'Every woman adores a Fascist'

This is a blog post from earlier this year on the site I run for readers and fans of my mother, Charlotte Lamb. I decided to replicate it here as it's quite a complex piece on the nature of women writing for other women, and in particular doing so in the late seventies, and might be of interest to readers of this blog too.


Festival Summer was first published by Mills & Boon in 1977.

The Magnificent Milfords are one of England's great theatrical families - brilliant, beautiful and witty. All except Katrine, who prefers to stay at home and has no yearnings for the limelight. But this summer, at the Cantwich Festical, she falls under the spell of the brooding, enigmatic actor-director Max Neilson, who soon co-opts her as his PA. But Max has other plans for Katrine beside fetching and carrying ...

This is a very early contemporary Lamb title, written just as she is emerging from several years of writing fairly conservative historicals, and it flags up territory she will revisit in later novels about the stage or actors in general.

Charlotte Lamb had little or no contact with the professional theatre, despite the number of novels where her hero or heroine are actors. Before becoming a writer, she worked for a spell at the BBC, where she came into contact with a number of acting folk, and of course she was a great theatregoer herself while still living in the London area. Lamb's knowledge of Shakespeare was exemplary, and she knew much modern drama too, reading plays even once her many children made it difficult for her to visit the theatre in person. Yet she never showed any personal inclination to write for the stage or to act herself, preferring the solitude of the novelist's life.

In Festival Summer, Max Neilson shows all the hallmarks of a later classic Lamb hero: worldly-wise, cynical, brooding, charismatic, even domineering. The sample text in the inside front cover sums up that kind of hero's bleak outlook on life, and his reliance on the idea of a woman's destiny - which usually turns out to be a place in his bed:

He looked into her upturned face with a menacing smile. "Cowards have to learn that it's easier to fight than to run away because no matter how fast you run fate can run faster."

Katrine provides the pattern for Lamb's younger heroines, the ones who have yet to taste life and whose primary objective is to keep a low profile and hence avoid trouble. They are the emotional 'cowards' Max Neilson refers to above.

Where Festival Summer differs from some of the later Lamb titles following this same model is that Katrine has been suppressing her talent as an actress in order not to compete with her actor father and older siblings, all of whom are depicted as shallow, demanding, egotistical and self-serving - while Katrine herself is humble, modest, patient and a domestic slave. But she's not a doormat. There's an early scene in which she brushes her father aside and sorts out his clothes for him in a slightly brusque manner, making it clear that while she isn't keen on the limelight her siblings enjoy, she does need to feel in control of the household - and of them.

The first kiss appears to come over halfway through the book - too early yet for the infamous Lamb bedroom scenes - and again, sets the pattern for later sexual contact in Lamb novels of this period. Goaded beyond endurance by her stubborn refusal to admit any talent, the hero Max grabs Katrine and kisses her:

Max laughed. "Ordinary? You're as ordinary as dynamite!" He caught her by the shoulders, his fingers biting into her flesh, so that she raised her head, gasping.

'Max! You're hurt ..." The words were smothered beneath his lips as he bent his head and kissed her with violent intensity, so hard that it forced her head back and stretched her throat until it was painful.

Sounds harsh, yes? Yet one sentence later, we get this: 'A sensation of intolerable bliss burst upon her.'

Max Neilson is by no means the brutal, domineering hero of later Lamb novels, who comes along to wake the sleeping princess with a kiss - and likes to make damn sure she's aware of what's going on - but he does appear to be a prototype for that man. Indeed, these archetypal Lamb heroes are disturbingly reminiscent of Sylvia Plath's "Daddy", a visceral proto-feminist poem written about fifteen years earlier than Festival Summer:

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

Here, the modest Katrine gets her reward. Max, who sees through her good-girl disguise to the star material beneath, tricks her into displaying her talent for all the world - but particularly her own family - to see. Because of this, she is cast in a major role, acting alongside her father and sister in the play festival of the title, and gains everyone's admiration. 'You could be a great actress,' Max tells her, near the end of the book.

In the final chapter, we see that Katrine's talent is undeniable, a shining future in theatre absolutely guaranteed. So does she pursue a career in the theatre, and outshine her talented father and siblings? No, because Max asks her to marry him immediately after the festival and she readily agrees, insisting that she wants to have children, not a career.

Those five minutes of fame are all Katrine wants - swiftly reverting to good-girl type before any of her readers can throw the book across the room. She will be quite happy to return to ironing shirts and cleaning up after other people, now she has a man in her life. Here the heroine validates the domestic drudgery of the typical late seventies romance reader by giving up her own dreams too and choosing marriage instead of a career.

Max resists for a few lines, 'incredulous' at this unthinking sacrifice: 'You mean you would give up the theatre, despite having made such a hit, just to have babies?' and then rapidly capitulates. But Katrine has earned the good virgin's reward with her sacrifice. His brooding violence is gone. She has tamed the beast, and now finds 'passion' in his eyes instead of anger and impatience.

It's hard to read these earlier Lamb novels now without being aware of how much British society has changed since the mid-late seventies. Yet these main characters are drawn in a complex way, with deeply contradictory impulses and hang-ups Freud would have recognised, something which is not always true of today's more politically correct short romances. Even the secondary characters here, the rest of the Magnificent Milfords - the flamboyant and emotionally flawed father, in particular - are masterpieces of psychological understanding.

Nor is Katrine's decision to abandon a career in acting irrelevant to today's readers, despite the three decades that have elapsed since it was written. Most women these days still face the same choice that Katrina faces here (even if she doesn't see it as a dilemma) once children arrive. Now, however, women are expected to 'have it all' - which, in real terms, means we are expected to cope with both the responsibility of raising children and the demands of an ongoing career - where that possibility would not have been open to the vast majority of women in post-war Britain, when my own mother was having her first children.

The irony of all this, of course, is that the writer herself was managing to do both, whilst tacitly condoning her heroine's decision to throw away her chance of a glittering career and be a 'stay at home mum' instead.


Visit the Charlotte Lamb fan blog, or see her books listed on Wikipedia.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Writing Retreat


I'm off up to North Yorkshire tomorrow, to a remote little cottage nestled on the edge of the moors, not too far a drive from the salty air of Whitby. There's a log fire if the weather turns gloomy, and a table out in the pretty garden for sunny days. There I intend to write my novel and think deep thoughts, surrounded by my research books and listening to music.

Sounds idyllic?

Yes, it would be idyllic - if I wasn't so hard up against my deadline. Instead, picture me hammering away at the keys like a lunatic, pacing the small living room of the cottage as I consider how to get from A to B, or staring out of the window in despair because the story has stalled.

Meanwhile the final copyedits for my first historical novel, The Queen's Secret, will be sitting on the table, laughing at me. They are due back with the publisher just after my return from Yorkshire. They involve tricky and detailed research on which stuffed birds might have been served at Elizabeth I's table, other than the varieties already mentioned in the book, and some fiendish logistics which will probably have me tearing my hair out as I confront their impossibility.

I shall take one or two of my mother's diaries with me for comfort and inspiration. There's nothing like reading over a few random entries in her journals to burst my bubble of self-importance, reminding me in my darkest hour of 'Why me?' that writers have existed who write quicker, harder and without complaining so much.

Catch you all on the flipside.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Decided Against Standing, Prefer Sitting and Writing


Today was the deadline for nominations for the Board of Trustees of the Poetry Society, and I decided not to submit my nomination form. Thanks to those who wanted to support my nomination, but I was only ever doing it to ensure there were some poets on the Board, and since announcing that I intended to stand, several other poets also leapt out of the bushes with their underwear pulled up over their tights.

In other words, I'm not needed, and good luck to them all.

I've decided, in fact, that at the moment I'm much better off sitting, either in front of my computer keyboard, writing my latest novel, or at a café table, working on my copy-edits. I'm quite good at just sitting, so why try to change things?

Judith Palmer is back at the Poetry Society too, so things are looking up as the summer of discontent draws to its fitful end. I no longer feel comfortable sending work to Poetry Review, which is sad, given my long and fruitful association with the flagship magazine of the Poetry Society, especially as a reviewer, but at some point that situation may change. I live in hope.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Should I Stand for the Board of the Poetry Society?

I've been in conversation with various poets behind the scenes about standing for the Board of Trustees for the Poetry Society.

I'm not sure this would be the right thing to do, not least because it's a huge commitment, and I am already heavily committed to my writing for the next few years.

However, it was suggested that not enough people who are active poets are standing, and this was enough to make me feel I should. I don't feel comfortable with the idea that the entire Board of the Poetry Society should be made up of lawyers, accountants, and corporate types who also serve on other Society Boards. The ones I saw on the retiring - technically sacked - Board of Trustees at the EGM seemed to me quite scornful of poets, one describing us afterwards as mad. People who have sympathy with poets ought to stand, as the Poetry Society site makes clear, stating on its page for Trustee candidates: "A demonstrable interest in all aspects of poetry, including written, studied, spoken, electronic and performance is essential."

Although I've announced that I'm standing, and have two nominations from other members - I need a third, otherwise this is all academic - I haven't yet made a definitive decision. Since deciding to stand, Kona Macphee, who describes herself as an 'Australian-bred poet', has joined Polly Clark as a poet standing for the Board. I'm not sure now that I am particularly needed, in light of that, but it's hard when I have only sketchy information about how many are standing altogether, and how many are active poets.

Here's my statement:
I’m a poet, novelist and former editor with a strong knowledge of grass-roots poetry, especially performance and independent poetry presses.

I received an Eric Gregory Award in 1996, have been Warwick Poet Laureate, and have published three full-length collections of poetry, one with Bloodaxe and two with Salt Publishing. I edited a poetry magazine in the nineties, and more recently was Editor of Horizon Review. I have also been a commissioning editor for Salt Publishing, both for poetry and fiction.

I currently write commercial historical fiction for Transworld as Victoria Lamb, plus Young Adult fiction for Random House from 2012. I have a professional knowledge of what it takes to work in the arts as a practitioner, while my experience as an editor has allowed me to understand the practicalities of making that work public.

I have tutored for the Arvon Foundation, taught poetry and creative writing to adults and children over the past fifteen years, and have sat on arts committees as a specialist. My main aim in standing is to ensure we balance out a board of arts-friendly professionals from other walks of life with serious, long-term practitioners of the art.

There's also an interesting piece just published in the New Statesman by Daniel Barrow which discusses the current situation, quoting various poets, including Polly Clark and Tom Chivers, and indeed myself. It sums up how I feel about the direction the Poetry Society ought to be taking:
"I would be glad to see a return to a more inclusive programme at the Poetry Society, and by that I don't necessarily mean 'anyone who writes poetry' but a better understanding and sympathy for the aims and achievements of the small presses, including smaller magazines." .... A re-engagement between the small presses and grassroots groups and the Society is necessary: "it's about time we returned to a position of cheerful amateurism".
If another poet stands between now and the deadline on Thursday, I shall probably not bother putting in my nomination form. My only wish here is to serve the Poetry Society by ensuring there is a balance on the Board between poets and corporate professionals brought in for their expertise in other areas. If enough poets are already standing, I see no reason why I should also stand. I may be better placed to serve the Society in other ways.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Writing in Hotels: Coventry City Centre

Just surfacing here from three nights at a hotel, largely spent writing my current novel but also having some alone-time, reading and thinking, staring out of the window, enjoying my solitude.


It's not really solitude though. I prefer to pick busy hotels rather than quiet country spots, because I like to hear city life going on around me while I work, the patter of toddlers' feet down the corridors, families moving in and out of rooms, the hum of traffic outside.

Too much noise would drive me crazy though, so I tend to pick hotels which have a high degree of noise insulation. City centre hotels, airport hotels, these are perfect.

I was staying at the Premier Inn - my chain of choice, because the beds tend to be very comfortable and the service is of a high quality, but relatively inexpensive - and I chose my favourite, only half an hour from where I live, the Coventry City Centre Premier Inn.

I wrote about 10,000 words, which isn't a huge amount for a three night stay, but had a very calming time of it, away from my kids and the constant interruptions of home. I had a large, comfortable room on the 4th floor, sat and looked out over the city lights at night, watched teenagers roaming the streets below me, shut my window whenever the sound of car stereos or sirens distracted me.

On my last night there, I was writing (as Victoria Lamb) a scene where Shakespeare, as a young theatrical, returns to his home town of Stratford, not far from Coventry, to see his wife Anne. Although sitting in a modern city centre hotel, it was surprisingly easy to imagine myself back in sixteenth century Warwickshire, for Coventry is a medieval city itself and steeped in history. Indeed, it's a city that Shakespeare would probably have known well; he may even have visited its magnificent medieval cathedral once or twice, now a burnt-out shell courtesy of bombing raids across the industrial Midlands during World War II.

It was quite a wrench to leave the hotel, but I have a trip up to Yorkshire booked for the end of the summer, where I hope to put the finishing touches to this novel. Meanwhile, I want to recommend the Coventry City Centre Premier Inn to travellers. I have stayed there many times over the past two years, while writing my Tudor novels, and can confirm that it is a great place to stay. All the staff there are invariably courteous, friendly and helpful. The cooked breakfast is probably the best I have ever eaten in a chain hotel in Britain - cooked to order rather than a buffet-style breakfast, with sausages and bacon bursting with flavour, and fluffy scrambled eggs (none of that runny mush you usually encounter). And the rooms are excellent: spacious, comfortable, very clean, and fully insulated from noise.

I only once had a problem while staying there, and that was when I was woken by a couple of noisy student-types eating a kebab outside my room at 3am. I rang down to reception, a burly security guard appeared after a few moments and moved them on, and in the morning I was told the cost of my room was being refunded.

It's also situated in the city centre, about 3 minutes on foot from the main shopping area, so when I get tired of writing alone in my room, I can pack up my laptop and saunter into Costa in Waterstones or Starbucks or whatever, and write there amidst the bustle of shoppers.

I expect the young Shakespeare left his digs in London and wrote in the occasional 'inn' too. The stories just seem to flow better in a crowd.

Novels, Weeping, Romance, Catharsis, & The Crucible

It occurred to me tonight, seeing my bloodshot eyes in the mirror after putting down the book I had just finished reading, that I had never seen my husband cry while or after reading a novel. Yet I do it quite regularly. Indeed, it's almost a benchmark for me of a novel's quality, if it moves me to tears.

Of course, this rarely applies when reading poetry or what I would call 'straight' literary fiction. I'm talking largely about genre fiction here, and mainly romance. With poetry, if it's good, I do feel moved emotionally - perhaps 'thrilled' or 'disturbed' would be a better description - and frequently also moved to write something myself. But only a few poems have brought me to tears.

With literary fiction, it's more a sense of having some truth revealed. Not usually a truth which pertains to matters of the heart, but one about human nature in general, the momentary lifting of some veil covering one of the mysteries of life and death. Something important and significant, but not necessarily emotional in quality. The kind of quasi-mystical, revelatory impression one receives from reading almost anything by E.M. Forster, for instance. Or perhaps James Joyce, before he erroneously decided longer was better.

So is it normal to cry after reading a novel? Is it because men don't tend to read romances that we don't associate them with snuffling into tissues as they reach the last page? Or because they go to fiction for other things than that cathartic moment when the Darkest Moment passes and you finally remember that everything is going to be all right, because this is fiction and not reality?

I'm probably asking the wrong questions here. Perhaps the real issue for me is, why is something that can elicit such a powerful emotional and even physical response so often considered second-rate by those who value literary fiction above genre? Or science-fiction above romance? Is it because they only work on the emotional level and don't necessarily uncover the mysteries of existence?

If only they could do both.

This continues to be a problem for me, both as a reader and a writer. With my head, I know that certain kinds of writing touch me deeply but intellectually, and that these are considered by the literary establishment - and often common consent - to be more 'worthy' than the novels which touch me deeply but emotionally. With my heart though, I admit to loving the latter and returning to them more often than the former.


Here's something else though. A few years after quitting a professional sport following an unpleasant and bloody run-in with my governing body, I went to an amateur production of Miller's The Crucible. And I wept openly in the theatre because, at the time, that play spoke to me on such a deep level about betrayal of trust, about the bullying and persecution of individuals by group consent, and about the importance of standing up for one's principles, whatever the cost. Emotion came together with intellect at that moment and metaphorically crushed me, forced me to suffer and remade me, sent me out new and somehow changed - precisely what you would expect to happen in a crucible.

I think of Shakespeare, and the same is true of his great plays. 

So is theatre the only place where both emotion and intellect can be invoked in equal measure? Can film ever have the same effect, or do we need to be there in person, witnessing it live, becoming complicit in the event, for a full and rounded catharsis to occur?

Catharsis. Perhaps if we had more of that, more bread and circuses, and less emotional starvation of the masses, we wouldn't have riots. Does literature ever make a difference? Is 'acting-out' the most effective form of literature we have? Why did I cry and, more importantly, why did I want to and welcome it?

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Battle for London etc.

Not since the Vikings have we seen so much looting and arson across the UK. It's got to the point where I can no longer blog about writing and poetry without feeling as though I'm completely out of touch with what's going on in our society at large.

So here goes.

I have no personal photos, and don't want to use any without permission, but here are some horrifying and telling photographic images for those who need to see for themselves what has happened. 

An angry demonstration against the police shooting of a young man in London turned to rioting on the streets of London over the weekend. The rioting spread last night to other major cities. To my nearest city, Birmingham, less than an hour from my home in the Midlands, and also to Liverpool, Bristol, Nottingham, Leeds, Coventry, and possibly also Manchester. I imagine there may have been smaller scale disturbances in other places too, with youths across the country stirred up by rapidly-changing reports of a violent or provocative nature on Twitter, Facebook, Bebo ("Bebo provides an open, engaging, and fun environment that empowers a new generation to discover, connect and express themselves" according to their own publicity) and probably YouTube too.

London burnt for hours and is still smouldering this morning. There were many casualties among civilians and the police. Large numbers of innocent families, caught up in the arson attacks, have been displaced without possessions. Some have lost everything they owned, including their homes and livelihoods, and may never recover from this. People were beaten up, their property stolen. Restaurants full of customers were attacked. People had to barricade themselves into pubs and other places of business. One hapless youth swept up in the violence yesterday was helped to his feet, bleeding copiously from his nose, then mugged by his helpers: the whole disgusting incident captured on CCTV. Young people out 'on the loot' went about masked or with hoodies drawn down to protect their identity. Others strode about with utter fearlessness, jeering at police and gesturing obscenely to cameramen. Looters attacked anyone with a smartphone who might have been taking photos of them.

Some have claimed these were all kids, and from the footage a large number may have been as young as twelve or fourteen years of age. But many of those appear to have been thrill-seekers or opportunist thieves hanging about on the fringes rather than ring-leaders. "Let's get some watches!" exclaimed one excited youth on a snippet of film taken at Clapham's Debenham store as it was looted. But clearly this kind of widespread looting was not a free-for-all that happened by accident. "It's not just young people," said one man in London, whose property was threatened by rioters. "Don't believe news reports about the age of these looters. There were adults involved too, and they were very well coordinated, using their mobiles to move groups from place to place."

"It was like being in another country," said one horrified eyewitness to the rioting and looting on the streets of Liverpool last night. "The police were there, but they just stood about at the ends of roads, holding a line. They didn't confront looters or arrest anyone." "We were trapped in the middle of a confrontation between looters and police," said another witness of the riots, who could only watch helpless from his flat as youths tried to set fire to the pub opposite. "We were ready to leave if necessary, but it was too dangerous to move."

Today, a Riot Clean Up in London has been organised - ironically, also via the medium of Twitter. (See http://twitter.com/#!/Riotcleanup to join in with the action.)

Many local people have come out this morning armed with brooms and buckets instead of sticks and burning bottles, and are just waiting for the go-ahead from police investigators - who are gathering fingerprints, CCTV footage and witness statements - before moving in to return the devastated streets of the capital to some kind of normality.

That same weary but determined clean-up effort is being repeated across the country. "People have been very good with the clean-up and it's business as usual,' said a local spokesperson in Birmingham city centre a few hours ago.

So why were the police stretched so thin and unable to cope last night? Why were so few arrests made over the weekend, and will more follow now that the violence and lawlessness have escalated to such an extent? Will the looting happen again tonight, and in the future? What's gone wrong with David Cameron's "Big Society"?

"In this country we police by consent," said a tight-lipped Theresa May, Home Secretary, speaking on BBC News24 this morning. Obviously though, consent by many young people in our cities, and in particular in London, has been withdrawn. Was it ever given? Only very grudgingly by some, it seems, and once the leash was off, so were the dogs.

An activitist speaking on the BBC news today, Darcus Howe, claimed that the action we saw on the streets of London last night was provoked by police brutality and the injustice of stop-and-search that mainly targets black youths. He felt the looters were disaffected and angry youths fighting back against a government that no longer cares about them. In rebuttal on Twitter, author and journalist Dorian Lynskey said: "Sad that Darcus Howe, such a vital figure in the black community in the 70s and 80s, is reduced to barking self-parody."

I was not involved in any of the rioting or looting. I was nowhere near any of the many areas affected. But the ensuing bill for tax-payers and the impact on our economy from the last few nights of unrest and lawlessness will certainly affect me as an individual and a member of the larger UK community in which we all live and work. I don't have any waterproof answers to the question 'why', and I don't know if we should call in the army or hope that increasing police presence and their powers to control looters may help to contain the escalation. I don't know why any of this has happened, and I'm not even sure it will become clear until we have a good few years' distance between ourselves and the Battle for London, as some newspapers are calling it.

But at the moment, it feels like a viral summer madness, spread via the internet and eagerly seized upon by those whose primary desire - at least for a few insane hours - is to deny the consent of all well-run societies to work together peaceably and obey the law. Others may have been dragged in unwillingly, through a fear of not appearing part of the 'group', the Borg mentality which drove the rioters and looters last night. See this article in the Independent for more on this.

My deepest sympathies go out to all those involved, and I can only hope that the madness has now burnt itself out. Whether or not that is a false hope will be seen over the next few days and weeks of the summer.

Monday, August 08, 2011

On the Dubious Hierarchy of Writers


One thing that still chafes me as I do the rounds, both on the internet and at writers' conferences and get-togethers, is the difference in the way writers are treated according to their publication status.

On the one hand, there are those who are published. (And these further sub-divide into those published digitally only, published in the small presses and independents, or published by major publishers: the latter being considered VIPs, in general.)

Then there are those who are either unpublished or self-published. (Pre-published is a newish term that attempts to circumvent the perceived weakness of this position.)

In my experience, which is not insubstantial, there are two main things which decide where writers are placed in this dubious hierarchy.

One is hard work. The other is luck.

Talent is important, yes, but you can get there without it (see celebrity biographies and surprise successes) and a lesser talent can be honed by hard work and application.

Luck is either dumb or smart. Usually the latter. That we make our own luck is self-evident. Any fool can find themselves next to an agent in the queue for the conference buffet, but a smart person will know what to say to get their attention - and what NOT to say.

Now, forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but unpublished or self-published writers may be working just as hard - sometimes harder! - than published writers, and also struggling to get Lady Luck on their side year after year. They may make the big breakthrough next year, or never. But that doesn't mean they should be disrespected for not having 'made it' yet, or for having decided to eschew the lengthy and often tedious agent-publisher route by publishing themselves.

Everyone has their story. Being published doesn't necessarily make it better than anyone else's. Just more high profile, perhaps.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

You shall have a fishie, in a little dishie ...

Back from holiday. Many thanks to those who left messages on Raw Light in my absence. These have now been approved and posted.

This little beauty was one of two caught by my twin boys and daughter (aged 9 and 7 respectively) in Normandy last week. Is it a trout?

They found a hook and part of a nylon line on the grass one day, tied it to a long tree branch, then left the whole thing in the stream which ran beside our house, with a little wriggling worm attached.

As you can see, it was a successful idea!

Friday, July 29, 2011

On Warwick Castle

I'm off on my holidays soon, so here's a poem post instead of prose
- apologies for the lack of formatting; no time to do the proper indents here - and please be aware that comments may not appear until after I return.

Catch you all on the flipside!

On Warwick Castle - a 25 page poem - was written during my year-long tenure as Warwick Poet Laureate and published as a pamphlet by Nine Arches Press in 2008. Many thanks to them!

This is the first page. And yes, that's my own made-up Middle English.


On Warwick Castle

One year floods rose,
one year they fought in the snows,
one year hail fell, according to the Cantos
(Canto IX, to be precise)
and that year there were metal-tipped arrows
loosed from embrasures
and hot pitch
dropped out of diabolic machicolations
and other fourteenth century garrison defences
and holes cut for cannon
and two dank side rooms in Guy's Tower -
one possibly a bedchamber
the other reserved for calls of nature -
GARDEZ LOO!
and down it went.

And þa mudde þær wæs so thicce
þæt wuden patens motan we weren
Forþæt ure feet he may not stynk

And the old man bent with his shovel
under that filthy drop
and there were many flies there
and a breathless heat in the white tents before battle
and a young boy with his skull dented by a mattock
and the want & the waste of it
and still the rallying cry 'For Warwick!'

the half-pint at dusk for the regular staff
and the brass-eyed army of cleaners, steady
in trainers and flip-flops
with steaming mops and buckets
come to wash it all off, swabbing down the turrets
from courtyard to dungeon, from parapet
to parapet, from Royal Weekend
to lavatory block.

An Open Letter from Kate Clanchy

Extract from an open letter by poet Kate Clanchy, being circulated late Thursday night.

You can read the full text of her letter directly at the members' Poetry Society website, where you can read many other things and also be directed to a Petition to reinstate the very talented Judith Palmer as Director of the Poetry Society.

"Poets are easy to poke fun at. Their lives' work may well be shorter than a cook-book, and have fewer readers. Their art-form is notoriously ill paid. And they fuss, almost by definition, about things which seem incomprehensibly small to outsiders: scansion, line-endings, reviews, precedence. They fuss with each other too, again over goods which may seem petty: a professorship, an editorship, a review.

All this can make for a difficult atmosphere at parties: a paranoia of poets, our Poet Laureate once proposed as our collective noun. But I’ve always maintained that the paranoia was only skin-deep. I was treated very generously as a new poet, and I have always told other new poets that they will be treated generously too. In particular, I’ve always laughed at the notion of a ‘London-based cabal’, and a sinister group ‘in control’ of prizes and publications. I’ve always pointed out, for example, that prize juries rotate, and so does the editorship of our central Journal, Poetry Review. If your work is not the taste of one judge or editor, it might be to the next’s.

I went into the work of organising a Requisition to find out what was going on at the Poetry Society in this same spirit: I thought that something very poetical and principled, something to do with an ampersand, would be found to be the problem, and that everything would be sorted well before I collected my 300 signatures.

I have been horribly disappointed: at each turn, with each anguished email and late-night strange phone-call, I have found out more and more things that seem to have come straight from the imaginings of a paranoid poet. For example, that the Editorship of Poetry Review doesn’t rotate at all, any more. The Editor’s post was made permanent in 2008, and no one was told. Now, this may be one of those facts that seems incredibly petty to outsiders, but to poets, it’s like being told that driving licenses have only been given out through one instructor for the last 3 years, and no one thought that to know this was any of a learner-driver's business. Poetry Review is a gate-keeper magazine. The keys can’t stay with one person."

Read the rest of Kate's letter ...

Sign the petition.