Sunday, 6 June 2021

A Poetic Daunder - Stepping Away from the Familiar

My poems don't rhyme or at least I don't usually use end rhyme or repeating patterns. I find them difficult and forced to write, a straight jacket that doesn't allow me to say what I want. 

But, a teacher friend has gotten me into the Poetry Unbound podcast and this has set me off on a new tangent. I'm also not into audio stuff much. I have struggled to focus on online lectures, audio books, music, podcasts, becoming distracted, flipping away if it's on a screen. I listened to one PU podcast because my friend was raving about the title of the poem being a sign of a great poem, so I though I'd listen to the poem at least. 

The poem read on the podcast was Hanif Abdurraqib's 'When We Were 13, Jeff’s Father Left The Needle Down On A Journey Record Before Leaving The House One Morning And Never Coming Back' and my friend was right. The title is killer, the poem even more so. The presenter Pádraig Ó Tuama has an amazing voice for reading poetry and he brings his own gentle enthusiasm for the poems he shares. So I listened on. And again on the way home from school that afternoon. I continued to pick another episode and another and another, in the mornings before work and often on the way home. 

One day after a partially tough morning with the child I support at school, I brought my lunch up to the classroom, rather than sit amongst the noise of fourth graders in the cafeteria. I needed to calm down before the next class started, so I stuck on a random episode called 'A Poem for What You Learn Alone' which seemed to suit my mood. The poem was Brad Aaron's Modlin's poem 'What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade'. It is nothing about fourth grade and exactly what I needed. I think I've heard all three seasons now, but keep going back to favourites or finding one that I that I've forgotten. 

Back to rhyming poems, I listened recently to the episode about Natasha Trethewey's poem 'Miscegenation,' written in the Arabic poetic form  ghazal. I have been struggling with a poem that skirts several issues and when I took it to my writing group a couple of people said that the stanzas didn't seem connected. One of the conventions of a ghazal is that each stanza couple should be a small poem in its own right, somewhat unconnected from the next, but that the repeating phrase or word at the end of each couplet brings them back to the overall poetic themes. 

So for my sins, I tried turning my hodge-podge poem into a ghazal. It's hard work, everything I worry about with strict styles is hitting me. Am I forcing the line to fit to those last words? Am I saying this just because I need to get that word in? Can I fudge the rules of the form to make it flow more like me? 

I'm still working on it and at the moment sticking to the form as it's used in English though I'm open to colouring outside the lines if I feel it will help my poem. After a year of not writing much due to work, it feels good to force myself to stretch my poetic self and try a new style.

Writing prompt: take something different from your usual style whether it be in a different genre or just in structure or format and break it apart, figure out how it works, its rules and see if you can adapt it to your own writing. You can attempt the style wholesale or pick and choose the bits you like. Try a villanelle or a ghost story or a ghazal. Don't force it until it hurts, but push yourself to try something new in your writing. 

Saturday, 29 May 2021

Book Review - Wintering by Katherine May

I have to admit I went into Katherine May's new book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times with specific expectations which is unusual for me with non-fiction books. Expectations about what wintering meant and what I was looking for from the book. I can't remember where I came across the recommendation for the book, but idea that caught my eye amounted to learning to cope with the winters of our life and a connection to Finland. 

I may have mentioned on this blog that I live in Finland and maybe hinted at that I'm not actually very happy about that anymore. While I'm making in-roads at finding a way to get out, I came to the book with the hope that I could find ways to make my stay in this very wintery place, both metaphorically and physically, bearable until I do. 

May says that 'wintering' is those times when we need to retreat from the world. It can be for a variety of reasons, illness, stress, ect. It's listening to your body's urge to hibernate, eat heavy meals, wrap up in wool and slow down. 

The book contains many of my favourite wintery things which is saying a lot because to be honest I am not a fan of the season of winter at all. But I do love the darkness and magic of Samhain, the Cailleach, standing stones, hibernation during the cold dark months, wolves. She also looks at a few I don't like as much like saunas and winter swimming. Both these latter things are very much part of the Finnish psyche, though Finland really doesn't feature much in the book outside of this. May turns to these various things to try and work through her wintering periods. 

Oddly, it felt like she was full of energy to go off and try all these various techniques, on her own and with other people, something I think many people who need to 'winter' would struggle with, to be social, try new adventures. I realise that the events and adventures she wrote about were maybe separated by years at different periods of wintering, but I would have liked more examination of how to face the dark stillness of winter when there aren't friends around or even strangers to go stand at Stonehenge on midsummer. This would have made the book even more helpful in the last year when we couldn't go out much when we have been forced to winter and many of us found it incredibly difficult.

She considers bees and wolves and other totems to give a sense of searching for an answer to how nature copes in winter. It still felt distant from what I was seeking. I guess as wintering is such a personal need it's hard to formulate solutions that will suit everyone. 

I liked that the book did not look at self-care in the way the media portrays it of long baths and scented candles, it is about pushing oneself to face the cold dark months, to step into the liminal spaces that take us out of the rush of the everyday world. May was open to more unusual avenues. Saunas were crossed off the when she suffered from heat exhaustion, obviously doing it wrong. 

Cold water swimming turned out to be more of her thing. I have a friend who loves doing this and some day I will be brave or crazy enough to join her. But I'm a person who passed out from the cold after swimming in the sea in Greece, in June, so maybe not the best idea without a sauna nearby to revive me.

In the end, though I went in looking for answers and left without a satisfying one, I did have a sense that there were the possibility of answers in her words, her explorations, just not for me and my questions. I enjoyed reading about some of my obsessions from someone else's point of view and her attempts to use them to examine this difficult issue. Her writing is soothing, honest and, at times fun, and I was not disappointed with the book. 

In my wintering periods, I turn to writing, among other traditional things like gardening, baking and crochet. Not poems or stories, but journaling, note taking, writing around the darkness that's crowding in on me. I become an explorer through words, unable to get out into the light, I dig deeper into my mind. 

Here's a writing prompt, what is winter to you? This can mean the actual season where you live or where you grew up or winter in May's sense, the fallow seasons of our lives. What rituals or memories do you connect with the idea of winter? Do you enjoy being in the heart of winter or do you long to move past it as quickly as possible?

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Book Review - White Eye of the Needle - Chris Campbell - Blog Tour

Poetry has been a balm for many over the past difficult year, for others it has been an outlet to express the whirlwind of emotions. Chris Campbell’s White Eye of the Needle, currently available from The Choir Press, is the first published collection I’ve read that mentions the current epidemic, though its presence has been felt through poems in journals and online since this all began.

Covid’s stamp on the current poetry scene can’t be ignored as I’m sure it will continue to weigh down many poetic collections in the near future, but former journalist Campbell doesn’t dwell on the epidemic. The poetry collection themes range from travel to relationships. They are well-matched by Sandra Evans' sweet, detailed line drawings, gems in themselves.

Campbell’s writing is delightful, focusing on those simple moments that in retrospect carry so much importance now, especially as many ordinary habits of our life, visiting a café, going to an open air market have been denied us in the last year. His poems remind us to savour the things we once enjoyed freely.

Campbell’s mentions of Corona life start subtle and are rarely the main focus of the poems, but they increase and unfortunately ring too familiar. Some are humorous like ‘Mr Cat’ which plays with the joys and struggle of sharing living spaces and Zoom calls with cats. Others shine a light on the fears of our new reality during the epidemic.

Anxious. Flashing an impatient look, his eyes

Brighten in the dark. He lets us pass in silence.


I gesture a thank you–his mouth looks like it opens,

But it hides behind a mask.

                                                ‘Chimney Snorkels’

This scene suggests for me The Scream by Edvard Munch, an unspoken, bright filter of confusion and fear thrown over an everyday encounter.

Thankfully not all the poems have this cloud hanging over them. There are joyful moments of just living with people around us, enjoying the closeness of busy city life, of holidays, of distant family memories. They capture those minute details of travel, moving freely about our towns and cities, experiences we all hope to return to soon. The poems and illustrations work together to lift the reader with Campbell’s lightness in phrase and imagery echoed in Evan's drawings.

The last poems end on wistful notes, an empty restaurant around a newly married couple, a wish for time to slow down, memories of loved ones. In these poems, Campbell echoes the sentiments that many of us feel of being grateful for what we have, what we have experienced and what we can look forward to. But we can't help but look back at what we've lost and yearn for a second chance at those moments.

My review is part of a blog tour for Chris' collection. Check out other blogger's views via their Twitter handles below or follow @kenyon_isabelle for more book blog tours. 

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Breath and the Poet

I've been thinking about the poetic breath this week, how poets use punctuation and line breaks to direct the reader. I've been reading my own collection out-loud, listening for mistakes and difficult phrasing, but also how the speed of the poem is directed by these little internal controls. I've also recorded a couple of poems recently which requires you to slow them down even more for clarity. 

A poet in my writing group said he uses line breaks like punctuation, but then we noticed he used both randomly in his poem we were discussing and when he didn't pay attention to it, it lead to confusion for me. I'm not sure if he'll change it, but it was good to discuss.

Some poets are hyper-aware of how they use punctuation and line breaks to add emphasis and control how the poem is read. I enjoy this, read their work out-loud, measuring how I read to their layout. Short or long lines, big pauses and smaller intakes of breath, commas, full stops, line ends, it lends life to the poem that isn't always felt on the page.

I'm wary when reading other poets' work of placing my values on how they create pauses for breath in a poem. I read a poem this week that seemed so badly broken up for no reason that it made it painful to follow, sentences broken repeatedly across stanzas it seemed just to keep the two stanza format going. It made me wish to hear the poet read his own poem, so I could understand how he envisioned the poem. 

It's worse when editing, so if I query a comma or line break in a poem, I have to stand back and look at it without my own poet's lenses on. Usually, I discuss it with the author just to make sure it's not my voice I'm imposing on their poem. 

I often tell my writing students to use their layout and punctuation wisely, keep line endings strong so the image or sound carries to the next line, unless you're making a point by breaking it on a less poignant word or mid-sentence. But I realise that this is a personal thing, not every poet follows the same rules, just like some poet like to capitalise each line of a poem, mid-sentence or not. 

And I'm aware I'm not always great at it myself, sometimes I get caught up in the image or how the format is working that I forget to listen to how my poem sounds when it's read. Sharing my work out at my group is often most helpful just because I hear where it's going wrong with the line breaks and rhythm. Having a dramatist in the group is also beneficial for this as he is quick not notice stumbles as well.

It's something to play with, to ponder, to challenge oneself with as a poet.

For a GloPoWriMo challenge, focus on the breath in a poem. Pick a moment where breath is essential or obvious and write about it for 15 minutes. You could try and reproduce that feeling of breathlessness after a run or the faltering proposal of a shy teenage asking for a date or the adrenaline-fueled excitement of a rave. 

Then take some time reshaping the poem, so you direct the reader's breath as they move through your sentences. How can changing the line length, adding pauses through punctuation or line breaks affect the reading of your poem? Can you control how it's read or where the emphasis is placed? 

In GloPoWriMo news, I've started a few poems this week, but not every day as expected. Some days it was just scribbled notes, other times I've managed to sketch a rough draft of a poem. 

I've taken to using poetry as my 'pause. be.' time. Our school counsellor runs a lesson where she teaches the kids breathing and calming techniques. I take myself into a corner a write poetry as a way to decompress. I've never been able to meditate as my brain is always firing at full blast, so this seems a good compromise. 

How's your GloPoWriMo going?

Sunday, 4 April 2021

April is the . . . Month - #GloPoWriMo

It's Global Poetry Writing Month again and while I probably won't be able to write a poem a day this year, because of work, but I'm going to give it a try. I've only written a few new poems this year so far, though I have a huge pile of rough drafts from previous years I've been working on. I'll be happy with any new poems started. There's no pressure to be creative daily, so I'm going to see how each day goes. The snow melting and the air scenting of spring is enough to make me want to try.  

So here's a prompt for the week to begin with, inspired by Kelli Russell Agodon's (@KelliAgodon) tweet about T S Eliot's early drafts of The Waste Land. The final draft started his cycle with 'April is the cruelest month . . . ' but is it? 

Use this line as a jumping off point for a writing exercise. What does April mean to you? Is it the cruelest month or does some other emotion overrule April? What month is the cruelest, if not April? What do the months' names evoke to you, their etymology or just your personal relationship with them. Look at each month individually or just focus on just one. 

There are more prompts available on NaPoWriMo website. You can also use the online collection of the The Metropolitan Museum in New York as inspiration. Get scribbling. 

I'm also going to be doing more editing in April. I'm working with poet Willie Gowans on his new poetry collection Glimpses which includes evocative illustrations by Ann Terris. It's been nice getting back into book design and editing. Strange and fun also to be working with Zoom to go over corrections as Ann is in Scotland and Willie in England, but it's becoming kind of second nature now after a year of virtual lockdowns. Hopefully the bursting of spring will give me more energy to bring it to fruition. 

I also hope to get back to doing a few book reviews in the spring as well. The sun always fills me with high hopes. We'll see how it goes. Enjoy the brighter weather.  

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Going on an Adventure

It's light in the morning when I go to work and light when I come back, even from my later clubs. This makes everything that little bit easier. We're still covered in a hard layer of icy snow, but every day it melts back a tiny bit as we're hovering just around zero at the moment. Spring is coming, but we're still getting hit by blasts of takatalvi, a return to wintery weather that will last well into May. 

I'm hoping with the return of the light, the warming temps and my after-school clubs soon finishing, I will find a new burst of energy. My writing clubs were a bit of a disappointment to begin with. With Corona, they said we couldn't hold them inside and Finland January to March is too cold to take your gloves off to write. I tried rap and rhyming games and even verbal story-telling, but it's hard when you're in a dark park and the kids are hyper and tired after a long day. So we usually went sledging. 

Except my first graders. They were struggling with writing and sitting still indoors anyway, so with them I've been going on 'adventures'. It started out as a 'Going on a Bear Hunt' type walk around the school, but it has evolved into an elaborate game where each child takes turn leading us through some imaginary world that they hold in their heads, but never fully explain to us. Some bits we do over and over, going into the bushes which we treat like a house, hotel, tent and resting, sliding down the icy hills. Sometimes we're hunting things, other times we're being chased by monsters. We often are given super powers, weapons or vehicles. One little boy loves to organise the food, so is always making me cups of tea and fishing for dinner or making pizza. They love it and can now run their adventures on their own, so I just follow along and let their imaginations tell me what I should be doing. 

I introduced the second graders to it this week and they also loved it. One of the other club leaders only had one student, so they came along on our space adventure. We even got a chance to sit back and let them run about themselves while we had a chat. After a year of not having much social interaction, standing in a cold park to talk about something other than work for 10 minutes while watching kids runabout after polar bears is a real blessing.

I had fourth graders on Friday and on that day all the clubs have started going to the same park, so the teachers can have someone to talk to. My kids were officially bored of the park, so I had the girls create the basis of a space adventure for the younger kids. After a bit the the big kids, little kids and teachers separated to their own interests, joining up to share info or ideas. One little girls had made a map for me and whenever they were unfocussed I brought it out and sent them to a space station or to look for alien treasure. Everyone left tired and happy, ready for the weekend.

I wish I had tried it with all my groups sooner, but I thought it wouldn't be appreciated, but they all seemed to get into. Since next week is our last week and it should be warmer I think we will take some whiteboards out and see if we can actually do a bit of writing for the older kids, but the younger ones will still want an adventure. 

It absolutely exhausts me after working all day to run, climb and jump around for another hour, but I love the kids' enthusiasm and their imaginations just being let loose. Climbing frames become rockets, ice studied as an alien treasure, a wall becomes a black hole. I'm not going to offer another club next session, I'm just too tired, running home to feed and sort my own kids, but maybe next autumn?

On the writing side, I'm still getting some steady acceptances and few poems have been published recently:

My poem 'Graybeard' has been published by Horse Egg Literary Journal. 

A poem written in a great workshop with Anna Saunders and Clean Air Cheltenham was published last year online. I totally forgot about it and just found the page. Wild to be with the UK Poet Laureate Simon Armitage. 

And five! poems in a new issue of Tipping the Scales. It's rare to have so many accepted in one place, such an honour. 

Enjoy the weekend. 

Saturday, 27 February 2021

The Light is Starting to Return

I seem to only be able to find the energy and focus to write my blog when I'm on holiday. Day to day life with the kids and a full-time job is exhausting. I've also taken on a small editing job which requires focus when I just want to relax, but we're getting there. I'm waiting on my final grades for my course and considering starting a new one in the autumn, but at the moment that feels like a big ask. But my job is only until the end of this school year, so I might have more time on my hands next year. Or maybe not. 

I'm writing, here and there, editing pieces that have been hanging around 'in progress' for the last year or longer. My Scottish collection is up in the air. The publisher is struggling with the changes Brexit has brought to the publishing industry as well as personal issues and everything has been delayed and delayed again. I'm just trying not to think about it because I'm sure my living in the EU is going to throw up new problems when my book is considered. 

My writing group went through a rough patch and has re-emerged a bit bruised, but hopefully stronger. I am grateful that we're managing to reshape the group into something of which we can be proud. They have been a lifeline over the past year, even if only virtual and I would have hated if it broke apart.

Spring is coming, I'm sure. I can see it, patches of dead grass reappearing in the garden, but find it hard to put much faith in it's promise. Covid is getting a stronger foothold here in Finland and while we're trying to get the vaccine out, it's a slow, painful wait. There is that chink of light slowing expanding.

I've had a few poems published while I've been dormant here. I'm very grateful to all the time and hard work all these editors and their staff have put in to produce these issues. I know it's not easy. I've been wallowing in memories of my experiences in publishing in Edinburgh and though it's very rose-coloured at the moment, I do remember it being very difficult and rarely rewarding from the day-to-day perspective.

Severine has published my poem 'Fever'. 

Poetry and Covid have published three of my poems that resonate my feelings about, you guessed it, Covid. 

Literati Magazine has published three of my American poems

I appeared in the inaugural issue of Tír na nÓg and joined in with an online launch which was a lot of fun. 

Sideways Magazine has also shared one of my poems

Writer's Block Magazine published two of my poems and were a great help in bringing one to fruition. 

Mooky Chick published my piece 'The Cailleach Wakes in Finland' and it has found the perfect home. 

And Porridge has published one of the poems closest to my heart 'To Be Six in Your First Italian Gelateria'.

I've dipped in and out of most of these issues and am amazed to see so many people still writing, still working away amidst all this uncertainty, myself included. It reminds me that though the present is exhausting and time-consuming it will bring fruit, maybe not not, but soon.