Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Silence - After Mentoring

My mentoring session has ended and I have returned to regular writing life, on my own. I had gotten used to having someone to talk to about writing, to getting feedback on my poems and suggestions about where to submit and what opportunities to take advantage of. 

I've joined an online poetry group but it has faded into silence as well. People have busy lives and things will get busier as summer nears, but it's frustrating to comment on other submitted poems but to have yours receive views but no comments. 

I'm not writing as much as before. I've got two poems on a slow boil and submitted some poems to a few magazines this last week, but often I just open my writing folder and just tinker with a line or two and then go do something else.

It doesn't help that the weather is beautiful so I'm trying to get some work in the garden and my allotment, that I have fallen behind on my housework while the mentoring was going on, so need to give that a bit of attention. I also need to keep some form of social life ticking over before everyone leaves Helsinki for holidays. It's hard to fit writing into all of that and this is the last week of school here, so soon I will have to fit it in between entertaining the kids and our own holidays. 

Overall the mentoring was very helpful, the criticism on my poems was exactly what I needed to gain new insight on how my writing had progressed since coming to Finland. I have been able to edit my older poems and take a stronger focus on new ones. 

I was a bit disappointed at the end with the feedback on my collection overall. The point of the extended mentoring for me was to examine my proposed poetry collection. I asked when I first began submitting sections that as well as feedback on the individual poems I wanted suggestions on how it worked as a group and on its flow. When I asked these questions again in our last discussion session she seemed surprised by my questions. 

I left our conversation feeling less sure of my collection and uncertain how to approach any editing. Though this might just be my response to the lack of support now. I look at the collection and don't know what to do with it, whether to reorder it, leave it as is and trying submitting it to publishers anyway. If I reorder it into chapters or sections I'm not sure if it's too themey and exactly how to group them. It is vaguely grouped with similar poems together, but sometimes I dip in and out of a theme as it felt too chunky to have them all together. I don't want to waste my chance with publishers by sending out a less than 'as good as I can get it' collection. I don't know which way to jump. 

It might be as with my novels when I finish them that I have to set them aside and let them mature in my brain before I can really consider a final edit and submitting them. I hope so. Besides making rough notes on possible sections I've not looked at the book as a whole since my session finished, just tinkered with some final edits. It might be best to leave it until after the summer and look at it with refreshed eyes. But I've been waiting so long to finish it and send it out, I feel I shouldn't waste more time. 

So I'm sitting in my kitchen working, sending them out into the void of submissions, writing to a silent audience, waiting for responses. 

It might be a good time to switch back to fiction for a bit. 

Monday, 15 May 2017

Blog Self-Publishing

I recently received a lovely comment on my blog from American poet Sarah Russell and since then I've been following her blog where she publishes her own poetry and works by other authors. I've enjoyed the blog immensely and it got me wondering about publishing my own poetry on this blog. 

I wouldn't publish work in progress or poems that haven't already been published, but it might be an interesting way to air out old poems that haven't seen the light of day in decades. I have had pieces published since 1998 and many of my early poems were published in my collection back in 2007 (which is out of print, but can be picked up second hand or I can sell you a copy if interested), so they've been quiet since then.

But then I feel a bit weird because it's a bit like vanity publishing. I didn't start this blog to flog my work, though hopefully it will be an added bonus, but it wouldn't be a bad thing to pull the occasional poem out of the moth balls and talk a bit about my experience writing it or getting it published. 

I would of course give credit to the press or magazine that first published the work and I would have to look up the copyright rules as I've been out of publishing that long I have forgotten, but I think since I am the author the rights return to me after first publishing in magazines or journals. Poems from my collection would be different but as the publishing company has totally gone under, there's no one to really ask for republication rights, so I'm guessing it's not a bother. 

I wouldn't publish poems that haven't been previously published because that usually negates the possibility to be used again as publishing work online counts as a use of their First Publication Rights. Most magazines don't want previously published work, though there are some who do, so it's best to stick to poems that have appeared on magazines or online journals.

So on that note, I might as well be brave as I've had a house guest this last week and not had much time to write or think about what to do here. 

This poem was part of the first Hidden City pamphlet series, (Dancing Rabbit Publishing, Glasgow, 2006). The idea was to write about the unseen corners of Glasgow. In 2009 I was a part of the event at the Merchant City Festival that took the listeners to the hidden sites where the poets read their poems. 

My poem was about the small cemetary around the Glasgow Cathedal, tucked behind walls and the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. It started out as a touching moment about a long, but difficult friendship, but in 2015 I returned to Glasgow to say good-bye to my friend who was dying of cancer and I needed to say more about the place and the moment, so the second half has been added more recently. 

It was recently the anniversary of my friend's birthday, so it seems fitting to share this now.

Small Green Peace
For Carol

Reading the stones:  
one grave draws the eye,
a list of children each living
a few years longer than the one before.

The last had only thirty-nine years
to make his mark before he joined
the long line of his family.

A shower of white petals graces us
as you tell how
you found this silence as a child.

I wandered here on my arrival
through unfamiliar streets,
jet lag keeping me from sleep
as the city unfolded, embraced me.
Beneath the cathedral,
I watched the sky bleed
industrial orange to gray-green.

Years will pass and if we never meet again
in this quiet corner my words,
through letter or poem,
will chart the distances we have travelled.

Though you never move from this city
and I circle the globe, they will be the same.


Your final diagnosis
lingers between us,
raw and heavy.

You reveal the city
has removed the old stones,
cut down the blooming trees.

It matters
they tore apart
our past.

It doesn’t matter
because now you too
are gone,
your own carved mark
too short.

You left me in awe
of your truthful strength,
riding out the pain
but not beaten.

Keeping us all in check
if our faces got too long.

Petals drifting past your face
as we decided
in the midst of stony death
what was needed
was a pint and a chat
that would last all afternoon.

Thursday, 4 May 2017


I returned at the weekend from a short city break in Amsterdam. One of my goals while I was away, child-free, was to write as much as possible. 

Strangely enough, I found it quite difficult to find a focus for writing practices when I had hours in front of me. Finally, I could write about whatever I wanted for as long as I wanted and I struggled. Sometimes I'm better at being forced to write in a half hour. 

I wrote tons in my journal every day, made lots of notes, but I only started one poem based on an experience I had. I edited old work, worked on in-progress poems, but I didn't feel hit by inspiration to start new pieces. Even with the beauty of canals, tulips and tall houses all around me.

This didn't shock or bother me. I've often needed time to process experiences and ideas before I could write them. I have moved a lot in my life from country to country and alot of my writing is based around places I have lived or visited. For a long time I felt I could never write about a place while I lived in it. Which wasn't strictly true, but I wrote more about Greece years after I left it than I did when I was in the middle of the adventure. Once I lived in Scotland for 17 years that changed. I couldn't wait that long.

Sometimes we don't see a moment for what it is or we need time and space to analyse the importance of an event before we can start to shape it into a poem or other piece of writing. There are poems that come to you right away after something happens, others need to sink in and develop. 

I went to the Van Gogh museum while in Amsterdam. He's one of my favourite painters and being able to see so much of his work up close (with thousands of other people) was amazing. I knew beforehand I would write something about him or the paintings I saw. I knew while wandering around of at least one moment I would focus on for certain. A week later and I'm still skirting the edges of the poem. And the idea is changing. There might be two poems from the same moment: one the awe of what I saw, the other a more analytical poem delving deeper. I've made some notes, but it's still settling in my mind. Maybe they'll come together, maybe they'll never happen. It's early days.

I do worry that I will lose the raw emotion of the moment if I leave it too long. I've often felt this with going back to substantially rewrite pieces. It's hard to grab that lapsed energy and make the reader feel it months or years afterwards. Hopefully the skills are there to bring it back to the surface in the writing. 

Tips for processing and writing about events after the fact: take as many mental and physical notes as you can after an important event. I write regularly in my writing and everyday journals partially for this reason. Make a writing practice out of reliving a moment. Take pictures if you can. 

I realised I didn't take note of the name of the painting I want to write about, so I need to find that out, maybe not for the poem but for myself. Do some research, though sometimes it's better not to know too many of the details. 

I wrote a poem last year on an emotional response to an event. During the moment and afterwards while I was writing the poem I had all these questions about what happened, the people involved, the history behind it. I forced myself not to go to Google while I was writing. I wanted the emotion, the uncertainty to be real, without facts and explanations to clear things up  and I feel the poem is better for not knowing. When I felt it was solid enough, I researched and answered the niggling questions.

Don't be afraid to look to events in the past for your writing, don't worry if you can't find a way to immediately write about an important moment. Allow yourself time to process and play with ideas. If you make writing a habit and occasionally turn your writing focus to that event you might find the poem or story will come when you least expect it. 

Good luck.