Thursday, January 10, 2019

Towards the sea

The song starts "A room with a window facing west/ Towards the sea". It's by the Staves and it's part of the repertoire of Wham Jam, the daytime choir I've joined this winter. As a newcomer, I'm daunted by the prospect of learning a set before mid March but this tune has stuck in my mind, particularly the line "Sing me a song, your voice is like silver...."

Sing me a song, your voice is like silver
It's an old metaphor but the melody's sweet and the invitation is lyrical. It was in my mind as I browsed Eurostar's £29 deals a few days ago, wondering if I could take some time out to stay at a friend's house in France. The question is still there in my mind, despite my decision to call myself semi-retired. The old work ethic nags and drowns out all idea of fun.

But then there are friends. Good, loyal, conscious and responsive friends, who remind me always of opportunity, of fun, of the need to make the most of what I have. And so this one friend, dear Michaela, texted me, "have you read your email?"

I'd been humming that line by the Staves as I cleared the front room, finding a space for Giya to work, filling bags with recycling. I felt like a sparrow brushing last year's twigs from the eaves and the sparrow gang was indeed outside at the time. So I went to my emails and could hardly believe what I was reading. There it was, that room facing the sea, and it was on top of a mountain.

It is as if that exercise of making the space for my daughter to work, the song, the earlier dream of travelling had become a living thing, had somehow found a place where thought and reality coincide and put an old Spanish house there, high above the sea, in a blur of green, ochre and blue. That the dream had, like the best secretary, matched the dates when I had no work, the time when I could risk leaving the allotment for a month, the time when Giya was here, and sung me that song.

I have neglected my writing over the past few months for all sorts of reasons. But I have a collection of poems to sharpen up, the South African book to continue editing and short stories to indulge in because I'm loving the looseness they create in me. I will plant two trees for my flights and ask favours of friends with strimmers and green fingers, to keep the grass down and bring on some seedlings. I have never felt so lucky.



Thursday, January 03, 2019

Is the family mending?

It seems to have been happening forever and yet been compressed into a matter of months - one moving out, the other now engaged.

None of us makes decisions rashly. The happening forever starts with the children going away to do their degrees.

One leaving, two of us left. Then the second leaving and me left. Then one coming back so two of us again.

And just as the second comes back, the first moves in with his girlfriend. Now the second has shown me her ring.

Mum went out and bought a bottle of Bollinger, I drove over to her house with both children and partners. We toasted, we laughed and blew on the fire to get it going. It was suddenly cold and the sky was clear. As I drove them back along the seafront, the offshore wind farm sparkled, the stars sparkled, the seafront houses, car headlights and street lights sparkled.

I like to imagine my odd, fractured and skimpy family is mending itself, like bones, like bark, just as I realise that the grandfather I thought I'd found may not be the one. My children's new lives make the broken links to Ireland and beyond less important.

And through it all I have fallen in love with short stories - with the hard honesty of Doris Lessing's African stories, the snow light of Tove Janseen's winter book, and I am nervous even about hoping that a desire to write might be coming back.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Between years

Starlings, sunsets and a multi-storey angel are what the days between 2018 and 2019 seem to demand.

I swing between fidgeting and slumping, between being full of great intentions and grim thoughts dragging me back to the past like a stalker.

At four this afternoon the cat was purring on the bed next to me and I was dozing off.

I have five books on the chest of drawers - three borrowed, two from charity shops. I am dipping in and out as if I'm on a summer beach.

These days remind me of the mercury we let run onto the floor, between the boards, in the school science lab.

Bobbles of it rolling away, shinier than anything.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The snowy past and its answering voice

When the snow came that year it was thick and marvellous. The teenagers became children again, knocking on each others' doors as soon as it was light, reclaiming the road which was more or less impassable, although some tried and slid sideways into junctions and kerbs.
Tove Janssen reminded me of it as the autumn turned with her story, Snow, describing how snow changes the light, changes sound, turns us into hibernating bears. Dylan Thomas reminded me of it last week in his story, A Child's Christmas in Wales, which remembers throwing snowballs at cats, singing carols to an empty house and hearing a faint answering voice through the keyhole.
I am reading these stories in a Reading Round group for young people who have mental health problems, hoping to provide an hour in which something eases.
That faint answering voice is in this photo somewhere, behind one door, perhaps my future door. The past is so present right now as my adult children move into the next phases of their lives, one clearing out childhood's shoe boxes full of stones and essays, giving away hats that once were as powerful as crowns, the other looking over the water and finding work after years of study.
I hear the answering voice as I collect belongings, help bag them up, help store them away for now.
I find myself clearing out cupboards and being ruthless with cobwebs, wondering about painting the kitchen and about the pile of plastic boxes I've accumulated.
This mild December, the borage, fushia and calendula are still flowering, rain has stuck the windows shut and expanded doors.
Rain light doesn't encourage me to fantasies of hibernation but it does draw me to the windows, to the sun when it comes, to the sky at 4pm and the surprise of stars when clouds clear.
It is always a case of standing at a door or window and singing, to hear that faint answering voice, isn't it, understanding the voice isn't just from the past.
Royal Literary Fund Reading Round
Dylan Thomas reads A Child's Christmas in Wales
Tove Janssen's A Winter Book


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Singing again


There's a choir for people who are homeless, church choirs, choral singers, rock and gospel choirs, LGBT choirs, choirs just for women, choirs just for men. Some audition, some don't. Once I was in Jam Tarts, the Brighton choir run by Li Mills, now performing far and wide at festivals. I dropped out when I was working a lot of evenings and now there's a waiting list as long as my street. But Li runs three choirs - one a much less pressured daytime group, Wham Jam. So I am back, singing, with homework.

It has to be good, doesn't it, for a writer to experience words put under such pressure - repeated, harmonised, stopped and started again, broken up, mispronounced...

I am singing because I want routine, to have fun, to rehabilitate my lungs. I hadn't expected the singing to send me back to my writing and give it a different once over. The oldest Chinese poems, Shih Ching, are called song words.

Kwame Dawes explains better than I can in this interview with the LA Review of Books and delivers the phrase 'mistakes of sound' to explain what can damage a poem. So I shall go on singing as midwinter approaches, bleak and frosty.

Monday, October 15, 2018

More words for women than anyone can imagine


I've been collecting them for ever, since I discovered the Historical Thesaurus online and read it voraciously, gathered synonyms for 'woman' from there and other sources and put them together in a kind of word search format, on a postcard. There were no gaps between the words. Perhaps I felt embarrassed by the sheer misogyny they illustrated collectively, despite the loving, respectful and sweet words, which I wanted to put in too. 

Recently I've been bothered by social media viciousness, by an unfettered resurgence of misogyny, enabled by the politically naive and by cowardice. My upbringing, my political education emphasised mutual respect. Yes, I'm as flawed as you, but I believe in debate and as a writer, respect for people, for the languages we speak, for how we communicate, for differences we have. Dr Seuss, among others, is good on the insanity of wars about differences between us. When I put the first Words for women together, I wasn't sure how to define it. Not a poem, although it eventually went in Woman's Head as Jug. Not prose. There's no narrative.  It went into Binders Full of Women, the publication that was assembled when another US politican made an incendiary sexist remark. 

I feel the words being used against women now need to be more visible, less cryptic than a word search and so there are spaces between them in my latest version. The spaces represent hundreds of years of thought, abuse, love and hate. These are just the words in English and my lists are not comprehensive. They don't include swathes of slang from US or Australian English or from English spoken elsewhere in the world.

I'm no academic and wish I'd concentrated more in linguistics lectures when I was doing a degree. I have the Royal Literary  Fund to thank, in part, for the first Words for women, which germinated during a fellowship at the University of Surrey. My office was tucked away, the librarians didn't rush to promote what I was doing so I had time to browse the library. I found the linguistics section. There are so many lives I might have had and these shelves held one of them. But rather than regret, what came out of it was a card, imperfect, nearly in alphabetical order, of synonyms. My open mouth. 

Last night I went through my lists, ticking and adding. They need to be read together. The font on the most recent is Gil Sans MT. There are synonyms for girl, for prostitute, for mistress and old woman here. The oldest word is from Old English. Let's take care. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

The bass says more than words can

Nick Makoha's first collection, published
by Peepal Tree press in 2017
Nick Makoha's poems have been attracting attention in the UK for some time and rightly so. US poet Terrance Hayes says they 'animate in the space between story and song' and his work is an important contribution to British contemporary writing.

On the last morning of Winchester Poetry Festival, Makoha was reading with Karen McCarthy Woolf, who's also established a reputation for emotionally demanding material. The third poet, Katharine Towers, was shortlisted for the 2016 TS Eliot prize for her second collection The Remedies.

And the readings complemented one another perfectly - Makoha's are direct, sometimes hard to hear because of the violence they describe but they carry a sense of history needing to be channeled. McCarthy Woolf's are more personal, sometimes hard to access, fluid and uncompromising, while Towers stays in the natural world, her boundaries firmly established, the metaphorical landscape more familiar but still imaginatively sharp.

As I drank coffee I realised that this festival had a markedly different line-up to those I've been used to. And since counting the representation of women and other so-called minorities was good enough for Tillie Olsen, I did a count of the writers appearing at Winchester. It worked out well - about a third of participants were poets of colour and women (for once) outnumbered men.

Makoha said he wanted to stop feeling embarrassed at being Ugandan in an English space and McCarthy Woolf turned the language used to disparage migrants on its head with her poem telling the migrant narrative in the language of the super rich. She has edited a collection for Nine Arches Press, Unwritten, about the citizens of empire who faced racism despite their willingness to fight for Britain in WW1.

McCarthy Woolf's own poem for this unique anthology weaves three narratives in an almost documentary way. Later a Modern Poetry in Translation session, Profound Pyromania, explored the plurality of languages in Caribbean poetry, placing it far from the colonial centre of empire, as Vahni Capildeo put it.

Ishion Hutchinson went deeper into the influence of Lee Scratch Perry on his writing, explaining that dub had preserved the west African languages introduced into the Caribbean by the slave trade. Hutchinson explained Scratch Perry showed how music, particularly the bass, became a different kind of transport - away from daily life. Dub encapsulated the horror of the slave experience in a way words couldn't, said Hutchinson. Dance became a lamented joy, a journey through horror and a listener was overtaken by dub's deep oceanic sound.

Caroline Bird has had five collections published and she's only 32. The most recent, In These Days of Prohibition, came out last year. To my shame, although she's a regular performer, I've never seen Bird live and I was knocked out. It's her professionalism combined with her honesty, a sense of generosity of spirit that is perhaps a side-effect of her astonishing poems - she has a surreal, unfettered view of life, but also a deep humanity.

If I went to Winchester feeling a bit tired of poetry and wondering if it was relevant, I left in no doubt because there are these amazing writers putting life under the microscope and not giving up on the challenge to express what needs to be said, both personally and politically.