Sunday, 11 August 2019

Taking Yourself Out of the Box

A recent essay by poet Bob Hicok in the Utne Reader has caused a minor furore in the poetry world because though he celebrates the fact that more and more poetry is being published, more jobs and awards are being won by minority writers, he feels that he, as a white, male poet, is dying, losing out on recognition and opportunities. I'm not going to pick apart his essay as there are far better writers out there doing so.

I do, however, want to examine more an idea that fellow Poetry Blogging Network writers Kelli Russell Agodon and Jeannine Hall Gailey have brought up - scarcity mentality - which hit home with me. Scarcity mentality is the idea that there is a limited supply of opportunities and if one individual or group get more that leaves less for the rest.

I know I've been worrying on here about where I'm going to find opportunities for my writing as I don't fit in a neat box, living in a country where I don't write in the language. I'm also not getting any younger and miss out on a lot of competitions and calls for younger writers such as those collected by @noentry on Twitter.

I hate to be seen as self-pitying and whining because I'm not really. I learned in publishing that there are always other chances after rejection, but you have to be resilient and stubborn to find them, to keep taking the knock-backs until you find your place. I thought I had found it, then I gave up the country I called home, a developing career to move to Finland and take care of my kids. It was my choice, but now I'm kind of stuck here and trying to get my writing/ publishing feet under me again, starting from scratch and it's scary. I sometimes use this blog as an outlet for that fear and worry.

But the truth, as I'm slowly discovering, is not being tied to one country does open some avenues I may have not considered if I was still in Scotland. Starting over with the wider scope of social media, looking beyond my local network is a benefit I didn't have before. Even though so many jobs and awards specify age, colour, gender, location, I amy trying to stop thinking of myself in those terms. My writing is good, if I don't fit a certain grant's guidelines, I look for ones that I do. 

I have tried to push myself forward for things that I don't exactly fit the remit for and sometimes I get accepted. I've recently had some poems accepted for a journal that was looking for essays and non-fiction writing on migration, language and identity. I usually don't get work accepted for immigration-themed issues because I am an immigrant by choice rather than through need or a refugee. As the scope of this issue was looking more at language and identity which my poems often examine, I took the risk. The staff even sent me an email saying this wasn't really what they were looking for, but would give it to their readers anyway. All six poems were accepted. I'm very excited to see the end result, not only because I had my poems translated for the issue as well. 

As writers, we are not limited by the boxes we fit into or those we don't. The pot of opportunities does not have to be finite if we're willing to push ourselves and try new things. More jobs can be created, more books published, more awards, grants and residencies offered if a greater interest is shown by poets, poetry readers and book buyers. If you don't exactly fit the brief, be brave and try anyway. Always follow the guidelines and ask if you have any uncertainties, of course, but sometimes you might be the unexpected that gets noticed because you've approached things a little differently. 

Good luck. 

Saturday, 3 August 2019


I've been lucky enough to be asked by poet Paul Brooks to take part in his poet interview series on his blog site, Wombwell Rainbow. Check it out, he's putting up new interviews every day. He's also looking for poets to interview in the future, so contact him via the website if you're interested.

His questions about the inspiration and motivation behind my reading and writing really got me thinking and were strangely echoed in my Finnish language tutorial this week where I had to discuss why reading is important and how it inspires us. Trying to verbalise this in a second language was just marginally harder than for the interview. That's when you learn you don't know the Finnish for inspire, explore and adventure (inspiroi, tutkea ja mielikuvitus). But I didn't even know the Finnish for vocabulary - sanavarasto, a stock or warehouse of words, so I still have a long way to go.

I love breaking words apart, especially words in foreign languages, and learning their etymology and usage. The idea of having a word warehouse in my head feels like the perfect analogy, the words all stored in various boxes and filing cabinents. I'm sure the organisation is an absolute mess, like most of my real-life storage, items organised by need, use and more random connections rather than some systematic method. When I lived with my parents I kept my library card in a laundry basket in the basement. If someone moved it, I could never think where it should sensibly be, but I could always find it with my way. Our own systems work.

So when I look for the word 'door' in Finnish, I know I'd be shuffling through files of Scottish Gaelic to find it. I was just watching a video of the Scottish Poet Laureate/ Makar Jackie Kay reciting her poem 'Threshold' to the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 2016. She mentioned that in Gaelic they say 'dùin an doras' for 'shut the door' and that took me back to learning Gaelic in Glasgow, so many years ago. 'Open the door' was also one of the first phrases I learned in Finnish when my son shouted it over and over at nursery when it was time for me leave. These memories pile up on top of the word 'door' in a wonderful scrapbook.

It's also how my writing works, I start with a prompt, specific or more general and I just follow it where it leads me, jumping from one image or connection to the next. I might look at crafting a poem from the idea of shutting the door in several languages just from writing that paragraph. My poems have begun to cross over into Finnish and other languages more and more as I shuffle through the collected images and memories in my brain while I write. 

My brain is a bit scattershot today. It doesn't help that we're on the last week of our ten-week summer holidays and I'm tired of having the kids home, of having to organise things for them, they're tired of all their friends being away, of having so much unstructured free time. We're sick of each other's faces, but they also want me to be involved in everything. I can't sit and write for longer than 2 minutes without someone asking me how to pour melted white chocolate into a straw to make a fake pen or for money to buy a can of spray whipped cream for the waffles they must have for dinner even though it's lunch-time.

I know I'll regret losing this time when they go back to school and we have to wake up and go to sleep and do everything to a schedule. When I have to pull out my calendar to slot everything in, even time to write. So I'm trying to enjoy these last unstructured days with them and with my writing by starting another poem-a-day course for August on the theme of summer. 

Best wishes for your summer. 

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Back to Work and to Barnhill

I've started back into writing slowly after my long break. I'm not currently doing a poem-a-day prompt, but working everyday on older poems. I'm editing those started on my last two month-long courses, focussing the language and intent. A few are ready to submit to journals, along with the pile of rejections that came in while I was away. I've noticed most American magazines seem to be on hiatus, but the British ones are still working on backlogs. 

I'm also going through some of my old journals for details of poems I've had on the back burner because I couldn't remember what actually happened. It's lovely how they have jogged my memory and taken me back to those places and times. Little details I have forgotten or placed onto different scenes brought into firm focus. Unfortunately, I didn't write about everything. Moments that seem important now often didn't get mentioned in my journals at all, either because they didn't seem of consequence at the time or life just got in the way of writing. I've never been one for writing every day which would help to rebuild moments later. 

I'm starting new poems on specific subjects that I decided I wanted to write about when I was travelling. I will start a new poetry course in August, so this seems to be a good way to get back into that more intensive work.

I finished reading Norman Bissell's Barnhill and it was a surprise as I bought it mostly on the connection with the place, rather than anything to do with George Orwell. I thought it would be more of a biography, but it's a biographical novel based on George Orwell's later years, especially those in connection with Jura and Barnhill and the writing of 1984. Less dry quoting of dates and details and more trying to capture the writer and his obsessions with writing, Jura and creating a strong family for his son.

I knew very little of Orwell's life, so learning about his connection with the Spanish Civil War, his marital and other relations and his illness were all very intruiging. Bissell also included the point of view of Orwell's second wife Sonia Brownell whose voice unexpectantly pops up and gives the reader new insight. The book also illustrates how Orwell might have drawn details from his own experiences when writing 1984.

While Barnhill tries to stick strongly to the facts of Orwell's life and there is a list at the end of known details which contribute to the story, it's the scenes where Bissell allows himself to imagine Orwell that the man really comes alive for me, spending Hogmanay in Glasgow, his worries about finishing his book when he knows he's dying and the connections he had with his friends. 

Though Bissell is a poet and director of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics he doesn't get caught up in the romanticism of Jura and life alone there which must be difficult to do as I was overawed by the place when I visited. The attention to Orwell's physical life there, taking care of the garden and fixing machinery sometimes taken from entries in Orwell's journal feels very focussed and fits in with the George Orwell drawn in the novel. I could very well remember my journey down the 'Long Road' to get to Barnhill from Ardlussa as I read Bissell's description of cars and motorbikes breaking down while trying to get along it.

I could occasionally feel a modern voice of hindsight coming in which felt as if it wanted to make sure the reader could see how spot on George Orwell was in his predictions of Big Brother and his fears of government control. When they came from George's mouth they worked, felt in character, but sometimes the narrative pushed too much. But I have to admit with the way current media and politics is going, I would have found it hard to resist pointing out the connections as well. I recently reread 1984 and was gobsmacked about how much closer we were creeping towards Orwell's nightmare vision than when I first read it in 1984 in high school in America . 

Overall, I enjoyed the book, it was informative, but it created a rounded and interesting view of Orwell's character and the time he was living in. The novel manages to illustrate the complexities of a difficult man who allowed little of his personal life to be seen by adding a greater depth to his novel masterpiece.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Holiday Break and Barnhill

I've just spent two weeks on holiday in Scotland, out of routine, barely writing. The first week I was away from my family, relaxing. I wrote in my journal about my trip and took notes of images and lines that popped into my head about what I was experiencing, but I didn't work on any poems. A lot of rejections came in, unsubmitted poems piled up. It felt weird and strangely liberating. I missed my daily routine, but enjoyed soaking up the new experiences which I will hopefully work into poems in the future.

While on the island of Jura, I took a long walk to Barnhill, George Orwell's house, where he wrote 1984. We got lucky to manage the 12 miles between the rain showers and had a beautiful view to eat our lunch just below Barnhill. Twelve miles was too much for me, I was pretty tired and sore by the end, but earned my shower and wine reward at the hotel. My friend walked all three Paps of Jura the next day, so I feel like a total weakling. 

I've ordered a copy of Barnhill by Norman Bissell to read when I get back home. It's about Orwell's time on Jura, writing the novel 1984. I had hoped it would arrive before I left for Jura, so I could read it while I was there, but it will be a nice chance to relive the place. I'm looking forward to it.

I also took a boat tour to the Corryvreckan where Orwell almost drowned saving his young son's life. One of my friend's son was planning on taking part of a yearly race across the Corryvreckan whirlpool gulf. Not for the faint of heart, but I'm told it's well-supervised. I learned it's not just one constant whirlpool but an area where the tides from the loch rush out over a sea bottom that goes from super deep to shallow in a short space, so the water becomes very rough and changes constantly, causing standing waves and whirlpools. Here's a small whirlpool on a calm day. 

One of my holiday's highlights was rescuing my childhood/ youth's diaries from the attic along with a pile of old writing journals and favourite books. The books and journals are being posted, but I carried the diaries in my carry-on back to Finland. I really feel like I've been missing a limb with them being gone. Hopefully I have all of them, but with 36 years worth it'll take a while to sort through them and check. Hopefully there will be lots of material there for me to reconsider.

Both Angela Carr and Wendy Pratt are running online courses in August. I can highly recommend both and have joined one to help me turn my experiences and old writing into new poems. 

I'm back to the grind this morning. Need to get into writing again as well as admin.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Writing Your Life

I used to run a memoir/ autobiographical writing class called 'Writing from your Life'. I loved reading the stories my students wanted to share, a 90 year-old writing for his family, a woman coping with chronic pain, a man involved with the quest to prove life on Mars to name a few. They learned to open up and share their passions through words, real bravery. 

My own poetry is rooted in my life stories; joy and pain, discovery and regret. But when my tutor asks me to focus on myself with her prompts; to examine ourselves in a mirror, to label my personality, to greet myself as a friend head on, I find it immensely difficult. I can write about aspects of my life, pick them apart, but looking at myself clearly, recognising who I have become is painful. Not even because of the pain of recent events, just that up-close scrutiny. It is easier to treat myself as a character in my poems, to allow that distance before facing difficult moments. Am I who I want to be, am I a good person, a good friend, do people want to be with me? That microscopic analysis of my personality, of my self is uncomfortable. It may only be my weary view, others will see me differently, but we never like ourselves when we examine too closely.

Not sure where I'm going with this. While I'm comfortable writing about my life, I'm not comfortable with opening my self to being explored in my writing. Cracking open a nut to find the insides too bitter. I'm trying not to shy away from the challenge these prompts are placing before me, but I can feel myself resisting. My writing is too pat, contrite lines trying to sum things up when there's no exact answer. 

It all depends on my mood, what's happening around me, a multitude of things that can tip my attitude one way or the other. Writing daily on a variety of subjects can capture this, the wildly swinging up and down of my moods, my opinion of my self.

I've been meeting online a few writers who write a daily haiku or short poem and post them as a kind of diary. My daily writing works in the same way, I guess, though I don't always share them. It's interesting to see the ebb and flow of my thoughts. This blog written over the last weeks also shows that flitting. 

I've been talking on here about struggling to find outlets and my support for my work. I find sometimes when you complain about something out-loud, verbalise the frustration or pain, the knot eases in some unexpected way. I started this blog originally to lay out some of the issues I was having with conceiving my last child, the guilt and grief, but shortly after starting, I conceived after years of trying. So the blog eventually changed to be about writing.

I thought writing here and speaking to other writers at the Lahti conference would help me in practical ways to find out about resources I was unaware of. It was kind of helpful, but the group I was pointed towards is aimed at supporting writers working in languages other than Finnish and Swedish, the two national languages of Finland, but the group is primarily focussed on languages that aren't English as they feel languages such as Arabic, Russian, Spanish, etc, have less support than English here. While again, I understand and agree to some extent, it does leave writers such as myself out of the loop. I'm going to meet up with one of the organisers after my holidays and see what they can offer or suggest. 

But after the slight disappointment of contacting this organisation, I woke to an email from Hedgehog Poetry with the results of the 'Neglected or Selected Competition' I entered. I had won, a total surprise. I don't usually enter competitions, especially ones that require a fee, but the Press has intruiged me for a while. I was hoping to join their Cult which gives members special challenges, but also allows them to enter competitions for free once I had some money, a great deal, but now it looks like my collection Totems, which is a smaller version of my huge Scottish collection, is coming out with Hedgehog Poetry in 2020. I can't wait to begin the whole process. 

So it's worth plodding on, seeking out new opportunities, pushing past your reservations and speaking out even in small ways. 

Monday, 17 June 2019

LIWRE, Writers in Lahti, Finland

This weekend, I attended the Lahti International Writers Reunion LIWRE in Lahti, Finland. A collegue from Scotland contacted me on all the various social media I have recently joined and finally I noticed, so I arranged to go up for the last session and the poetry reading in the evening. The theme was Nature and Writing and it lead to an interesting and varied discussion that talked about the Death of the Author and distancing the author from their work, the role of social media, the difference between nature (ie the world around us) and nature (our character) and how they come together and are kept apart in writing. 

I really enjoyed the reading; eight writers from around the world with very different styles, but at times similar themes. I really enjoyed Kätlin Kaldmaa's singing in Estonian and bear poems and Kári Tulinius's energetic Icelandic poems. It would have been nice to have some kind of social gathering that the audience could also join in after the reading, drinks or something, as the writers all ran off to a dinner and I didn't get much time to speak to anyone, including my friend. I know the event is mostly for the writers, but it would maybe attract more guests if there was chances to speak to the writers.

They did a great job of translating all the speeches on paper beforehand (though some went off script) and translating the discussions and even the poems for the poetry evening were translated into English and Finnish, but all the social media announcements I could find on Facebook and Twitter were in Finnish. It would be good to have someone providing a bit of English social media commentary as I've been struggling to find literary events in English. It's a biennial event, so I hope to be able to see more (and maybe be included) in 2021. 

I did get to chat to an non-Finnish author based in Helsinki who made me aware of a group called Sivuvalo which helps non-Finnish authors, so I will contact them next week and see what they offer. 

All in all, an interesting day and hopefully the beginning of more literary things for me. 

Monday, 10 June 2019

Writing with Monkeys

It's the summer holidays here, kids everywhere and I don't know if I'm coming or going with my writing. We've all been sick with various bugs so I've been too tired or ill to focus much on the Wendy Pratt course I've joined though I'm enjoying the different focus of the prompts. I'm not able to write every day, but I'm trying to grab time here and there. I hate not being able to join in on the Facebook page as much as I would like, though we had a good online group chat last week. Wendy's releasing a new course soon, so keep an eye on her site for details. 

The current course is focussing on 'Writing with a Beginner's Mind,' offering techniques that help you lose that critical voice that often plagues writers, the worries that the work isn't good enough, the guilt that we never will be able to balance our lives and writing. I do struggle with the later most, trying to be a single parent and a writer and find a real job to support my family has more than its share of guilt. I need to try Wendy's meditation and focus excercises more, my monkey brain has monkey brain and I can never turn all the noise off. Even more so with four monkeys climbing around the house. 

One of my favourite prompts so far has been to think about the idea of 'banned words' in poetry, words that are too dated, over-used, purple. I went and found a list of archaic words and wrote a poem playing with them. I love dictionaries and thesaurus and using them to find new words and meanings. It makes you see language in a new light. What do you think, should words like shard and gossamer be banned from contemporary poetry?

My poem 'Dripping Winter' has appeared in Crossways Literary Magazine. I hope you take a wander over and check out the issue and maybe purchase a hard copy.

And finally, Happenstance Press is having an interesting challenge to write a rhyming poem on a wrapper. I'm not very good with rhymes, but thought I could try something short, maybe with some Finnish words. What rhymes with suklaa?