Friday, 24 May 2019

Writing as a Woman of a Certain Age

I finally get a quiet day to sit down and work and I'm aching and tired and just want to go back to bed. But there's only one week left of school and no summer camps booked this year, so I need to make use of this me-time while I have it. I'll soon need to balance it with entertaining four kids, mostly on my own. 

I've broken the 400 poem mark this week. I've written over 400 poems, that just blows me away. This is counting the proper, grown-up poems that I think are worthy to share and try and get published. Over half of them are published in my books or in journals. Over 150 of them have been written in the last two years. Just imagine how much I could have written if I could have figured out the secret of writing daily earlier. I used to write every day pre-kids and even a bit after they were born, but I was slower at sculpting my poems and have spent a lot of the last decades writing novels that went nowhere.

I feel like I've found my stride in what most people would consider middle age, though I don't feel middle-aged. Or at least what I thought middle-aged meant before I got here. I just feel like me, maybe more tired and achey though. 

But then I looked at a list of competitions calls yesterday and realised once again that I don't fit into so many boxes in publishing. Most of the competitions I couldn't even consider because of my age, I'm over 30 or 37 or whatever random cut-off they choose. I get it, publishers and grant bodies want to support young, struggling, up-and-coming writers. I also read recently that more poetry is being read by under 35s these days than any other age group, so they want to appeal to that audience. But what about us older, struggling writers, there must be a group of us searching for support and an audience ready to read us. 

I also am the wrong nationality or live in the wrong place or have the wrong career or write the wrong genre. Does anyone have a call for poems from a 48-year-old white cis-women US poet living in Finland?

I worked at Chapman Publishing in Edinburgh for many years and while there we published a book of poems by Magi Gibson called Wild Women of a Certain Age. It was a brilliant, fierce and powerful book and I loved being involved with it. I was in my early 20s while my editor and Magi and some of the other women we worked with were a couple of decades older and I couldn't understand why this idea of fighting against the constraints of this 'certain age' was so important to them. I get it now. I need to find my own tribe of wild women soon.

Joining Twitter has opened my eyes to the new network of writers out there, I've discovered Maggie Smith recently through her empowering tweets. Her book Good Bones is my next book I plan to buy, her poem of the same name is a heart-shattering force, especially if you have young children. She's definitely a Wild Women I'd invite. 

Good news for my old bones, two of my poems have been included in this online anthology from the course I did with poet Wendy Pratt. I really enjoyed all of her courses and it was nice to have this as the cherry on the cake at the end of this one from April. 

Wendy is running another course in June. I'm still debating whether to do it due to time and money constraints. But Jen Hadfield, another amazing poet and friend, is running a free 5 day online course with Arvon which even though it falls while I'm on holiday I am definitely doing as I've never had the pleasure of working with Jen and am really looking forward to it. I'm not sure if the Arvon course will have the sharing element that Wendy's course does, but I'm sure her prompts and ideas will be worth trying. 

So I'll keep writing daily and churning out my work in the hope that I will soon find my niche, my tribe, my audience. 

Keep going. 

Saturday, 18 May 2019

A Poetic Detour

I took a little me time this week and went to St Petersburg, Russia. I didn't really have a plan, just wanted to take it easy, eat, walk, write. The weather was warm and bright, so it was a perfect short break. 

I was half-planning on going to the Russian Art Museum, but stumbled across a sign for the Anna Akhmatova Museum at Fountain House and decided to go there instead. It's set in the apartments that Akhmatova lived for almost 30 years with her son at times and her lover the art historian Nikolai Punin and his family. It's where she wrote some of her 'Poems without a hero' and other poems that so challenged Stalin and his regime that she was forced to hide her work and was a prisoner in the house. 

It was a place of such sadness. They've tried to gather photos, furniture, artworks that represent Anna, Punin and the period: Punin's overcoat left behind when he was arrested with Anna's son Lev, a drawing by Modigliani, travelling cases. They've also set up one room as the White Hall which is taken from 'Poems without a hero', featuring her poems and pages of handwritten texts. It felt so weighted with loss, every item connected with someone who carried so much grief around with them daily. 

No one wants to help us

Because we stayed home,
Because, loving our city
And not winged freedom,
We preserved for ourselves
Its palaces, its fire and water.

- 'In Petrograd, 1919'

The museum has an audio guide in English, but in the White Hall room the poems were all in Russian, which added to my feeling of disconnection, but it also made me want to read her work again.

Visitors scribble their favourite lines or dedications to the poet on the walls in the garden. 

I've always loved Akhmatova's work, but haven't looked at much in ages, so I've ordered her poems and some biographies from the library. The visit was sad and brought a lot of things I'm dealing with to the surface, but it was cathartic and eye-opening. Definitely worth the detour. 

Friday, 10 May 2019

A New Normal

The upheaval of the last nine months is over and now I have a clear view in front of me. I know next few years won't be easy, but at least it will mostly be on my terms. I'm trying to get my head around planning and figuring out what I want to do with it.

Writing will probably have to find a lesser place, I need to get a real job of some sort though I'm hoping I can work with some sort of creativity. We'll see, but the upshot is I need to find a way to keep writing within a different life once I get that sorted. So for now, I'm trying to keep to my promise of writing every day.

I'm setting out my shingle as an editor and proof-reader again, but it's a very different scene from the one I joined in 2003 in Scotland. I had been working in a publishing company since 1997 and had picked up some typesetting work that my employer didn't have time or interest in. That slowly blossomed into my own little publishing company Grimalkin Press that I set up to publish short runs of work, usually connected with the groups I was teaching creative writing. They didn't have the resources or skills to publish their own books, so I would do the work, get it printed and they would fund it, usually through arts grants. I really enjoyed it and miss working with community groups and schools, helping them bring their projects to fruition. 

Social media wasn't a thing then so everything was done word-of-mouth. I was recommended by one organiser to another, from one small poet to another. I miss that, it's still there, in various electronic formats, but I need to learn the new system. 

I can't publish books as I just don't have the contacts or funding here in Finland. Not speaking the language means I'd be very limited, so I will just focus on the editing side of the business. I'm building websites and linking medias accounts and joining Twitter and Linkedin. I've had some lovely friends and some new colleagues walking me through possible venues to market myself, looking over my website, suggesting places to contact for work. Good old school networking even if we're communicating at a distance. Hopefully something will come of it. 

If you're looking for a editor, proof-reader, typesetter, book designer kind of gal, contact me via the website link to the top right. I am also available to teach creative writing classes  and workshops to kids or adults or do poetry readings here in Finland.

Tiny steps, but I'm getting there.

Friday, 3 May 2019

My April GloPoWriMo Assessment

April is finished, thank goodness, it's been a tough month for a variety of reasons. Now I can do a review of my efforts over GloPoWriMo, the Global Poetry Writing Month - my attempts to write at least one, sometimes two poems a day for my two online courses. 

I wrote 22 poems that I consider done or almost done and 12 poems that still need a lot of work or will probably never make it past draft stage. There are also some drafts that I couldn't see going anywhere, so I haven't counted them. That's just over 30, so I'm very pleased with that. Some days I wrote nothing, some I wrote two, but I sat down regularly enough to have a poem a day for the month. 

Forcing myself to write a rough draft of a poem a day has pushed me to not avoid difficult subjects, to delve deeper into moments that have weight for me, but might not necessarily be an interesting telling on the face of it at first. I have pushed myself to write even when I'm not in the mood or don't like where my writing is going. Sometimes just ranting on the page or exploring those emotionally charged subjects helps me to deal with them in a healthier way than bottling them up and letting them fizz inside me until I explode over nothing. 

The online courses have also allowed me to join in a wider virtual community of writers, in the UK and Ireland. We support each other in the rough draft stages, but we also celebrate when we have poems published and do a bit of networking when opportunities come up. It's nice to see familiar names in journals and know that you will also be remembered when they scroll or flip past your work. Being so far away from my writing groups and publishing work in Scotland, from the collectives I spent so long finding my space in, it's reassuring to have that sense of community again but also to not just be a lone voice in the writing darkness. 

I've gone back to one of the online pages that the tutor has left open for former participants and will continue to try and write a daily poem draft there to keep up my momentum and to keep my mind focused. Writing daily has also meant I have more poems to submit, so am getting more work published and have a better chance of being seen by publishers. Just need to find one to take one of my collections. 

It reminds me a lot of my friend who decided to try running to lose weight. She didn't necessarily enjoy it, but after a few days she liked the idea of keeping track of how many days she had done in a row. It became an obsession with her, not to miss a day, even if that meant mostly walking or going on a treadmill, she did her run every day. Last I heard the number was in years rather than days. She's run a few marathons, lost tons of weight and now really enjoys it. Sometimes it's something as simple as watching the numbers that keep you going. I don't track every day I write, but I do track how many poems I write each year, how many I submit and how many get rejected or published. I enjoy seeing those numbers tick upwards as well as finishing a poem and knowing it works. 

I hope you find whatever works for you, to keep you writing. Keep on trucking. 

Friday, 26 April 2019

Can you write American?

Sometimes I think I just submit poems to American magazines via Submittable, the portal which many magazines use for receiving work, just to get my reject rate up. I've had very few acceptances via Submittable in general, but of the six over the last 4 years, half are from American magazines, the other half are international magazines. I don't seem to appeal to American writers, even the ones I approach via email. Of the nine acceptances I've had so far this year, one has been via Submittable and I think it was the only American one, the others have been from Europe.

I was brought up in America, studied literature in America and started writing my poetry there, but it seems I can't write poetry that American publishers like. I wonder if I write in a British or Scottish style or if it is like my accent, a hybrid of the three with a dash of that foreign flavour that can't be pinned down.

There are lots of styles of poetry in both groups, many poetic 'schools', but I've never been able to categorise the differences between British and American poetry. I could Google of course, find articles to give me ideas, but I'm not sure how up-to-date they will be and it is a more organic thing, I believe. There's the language, of course, I can hear America in so many American poets' poems, the casual, loose sound of the language. It's not that British poetry is more stiff and formal, but there is a feel to American poetry that I can't emulate or properly explain. And, of course, I'm generalising from the smattering of American poetry I read in magazines and here and there   

I'm sure my references and experiences do separate me from the American reading audience, they are often British, European or specifically Scottish and Finnish. Having to explain the Finnish culture is often hard work, but I don't look at the British-isms I use, beyond language, just basic references that might be putting off or confusing an American reader.

But in the end it comes down to the editors and their preferences. Their education and their experiences will lead them to choose poems that speak to them and this will lean heavily towards other American writers though I'm sure they don't not choose poems because of where the author is from. They will, I believe, have an unconscious preference towards writers who speak of things they can relate to, in styles they like and possible write in themselves. I'm not saying poetry editors don't like to step outside of the box, choose poems that challenge them and their readers, I'm sure many do. But it is harder to be accepted when you are seen as difficult or different.

I must admit I do send to more British magazines overall as I do find I get more work accepted there, but also I feel more at home among those names I recognise. I'll continue to submit to American magazines, just on the off-chance. I do have poems based in America that might appeal more, but I won't restrict myself to just sending them. 

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Letting Out that Held Breath

You know when you've been holding your breath for a long time and you finally let it out and take a slow breath in. You realise how good it feels, it almost goes to your head, the beauty of it. Then someone comes along and kicks you in the gut, taking that breath away just for a moment. It hurts, but it reminds you that breathing is the best thing ever. Even so, you can't help holding it still for small moments because you're afraid someone's going to take it away again. Yeah, that. It's been that sort of complicated, exhausted week. But I'm taking the occasional deep breath and am ready to move forward full of new energy. Soon it will be easier.

I've continued with my two GloPoWriMo courses and am trying to write at least one poem a day. Some days I manage both, some like yesterday when I had my first day of teaching in forever I managed nothing. So today I made up by finishing one draft I had started and sketching another rough one. It feels good to keep the momentum going.

I had a dream last night that the publisher I sent my collection to last year had recently responded, but my email had a secret, unsearchable folder it was hiding things in and I couldn't read it. I hate my technology nightmares. Waiting a year for a response from a publisher is not unheard of, but it's so frustrating. I sent a query last month which I also haven't received a response from. I don't know if there is a problem with my emails or if they're just too busy to respond or what. I also don't know if I should send another query to their general email. 

I've sent my collection this week out to another publisher as I've kind of given up hope. I think it's the third publisher I've tried since I sent to the original one last year. To be honest, I've given up hope that my preferred publisher will accept it. It's been a tough year, especially the last six months and I did find myself clinging onto the hope of an acceptance, but I realise it was silly and I need to try other places, lots until I find someone who wants to publish it. So exhale and move on. 

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Home Truths

Writing a poem a day or even two for GloPoWriMo means I often have to scurry around for subjects. I've been doing prompt a day since August and it's no surprise that sometimes the same theme comes up. I've had Brexit twice, mythical animals, smells, colours about four times, pets, ect. I don't want to rehash old subjects unless I can really see a new avenue to explore, so I'm not holding myself back from looking at ideas that maybe feel a bit too personal or too close to the bone if they pop into my head for a prompt. 

I've often avoided writing about my family, my childhood in the past, not because anything too horrible happened, but it feels like it's not only mine to use. Many of the people I could write about are alive and might take my delving into past moments they are connected to as an invasion of their privacy. Others are dead, but living members might not like their 'dirty laundry' being aired in public, however limited the poetry reading public may be. I don't use names, but I guess if you know my family it wouldn't be hard to trace relationships.  

I published a poem in my first book about tracing my family tree through rumours and the characteristics I felt were passed down from one generation to the next. I made the mistake of sharing it with my ever-opinionated grandfather. He took exception to most of it, but it may have been the fact that I pointed out that there was a trend of sons not talking to fathers, which included himself, though I didn't mention anyone in particular. 

The truth hurts sometimes but I don't want to avoid it. I don't attack anyone, go out of my way to hurt them and, of course, everything is my opinion and point of view, but I do want to be able to explore difficult moments even if they might not be comfortable for those involved or myself for that matter. I don't need to try and publish them if they're too raw, but I want to be able to write them.

So I've waded into my childhood a lot recently. I noticed a decade or so ago how my grandmother, maiden aunt, even my mother would spend a lot of time together just revisiting the past, the good old days, the people they knew, the food they ate. It felt like such an 'old' thing to do when I was so caught up in the now, but I can now see there is some comfort in going back to favourite childhood haunts or bringing back cherished moments. And it also widens my fodder for my writing material.

That said I'm stuck for both prompts for today.