Saturday, July 25, 2020

Your mum and prizes

What a fantastic image this is, a photo I took of hoardings down by the marina last year, I think, winter anyway, on a stormy day. 

It reminds me of sweets we shared on the bus back from school, of the dilemmas boys face in rap battles, of my own mum, obviously, of being a mum, of all the conversations we have about family. 

Such a simple painting, so deeply affecting because of all those thoughts and more: the shades of pink, the taste, slightly fizzy, competitions to see how long you could make a sweet last, sticking your tongue out to prove you still had a tiny sliver. That sliver making you the winner. 

I was thinking about prizes this morning. How leaving social media has relieved me of them. How they've been put away for me until a friend is selected and momentarily I can celebrate with them. In fact a friend, the poet John McCullough has been celebrated recently and I am delighted for him. 

But then I thought I'd look for a list of poetry prizes and I found one on the Poetry Society website. I also found this statement: "The competitions and prizes are a central part of The Poetry Society’s work."

Knackered from not sleeping last night, from then having to go to pick on the allotment before the rain got worse, I don't read it as an uplifting statement of intent. Oh dear. The Academy of American Poets, whose website I often use, states it was founded "to support American poets at all stages of their careers and to foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry."

A prize, a competition win, is great for the money - support for years of writing without much payment. But to make these two things central to your work?  Your mum will say well done when you do well. But you hope she won't make it a condition of loving you. 

Thursday, July 16, 2020

A folder labelled missing

I'm not writing. I've repeated it more times than I'd like since my last book came out in October last year.

I am not going to the writing groups that have turned virtual. I am delivering writing workshops and one to one sessions on Zoom.

So when a friend cancelled an arrangement for me to help her write a letter this morning, I thought I'd scour the desktop.

Is there anything I've forgotten? Anything I've written in a moment I've forgotten? I look in the writing folder I keep. Nothing. I am smarting from an agent's stock reply pretending to be personalised. I know I shouldn't be. So many people who want to be published, who should be published.

I search for a new poems folder. Nothing. I'm stumped now - really, nothing? And then I notice the folder I've labelled MISSING.

Was I trying out a dark, lockdown joke on myself?  There they are. A handful of poems, like the handful of beans I picked the other day, the handful of first blackberries from the tips of green clusters.  I read through and tinker with some lines. Missing. Yes. It fits.


Sunday, July 05, 2020

All over instagram

The tall climbing peas have been eaten by mice, the blue banana squash has just about survived but I left it too late for aztec broccoli. The best result so far, which Giya and I ate last night with her home-made pizza, is a French lettuce, Reine des Glaces - Queen of the Ice. The seed's traceable back to 1883, but I chose it for the name.

I've become an allotment bore but in lockdown it's more than early cucumbers and constant rocket. I put my hands in the soil, cut bamboo poles in half, pinch out tomatoes, shrug my shoulders at the peas and plant another row of something else. The heads of other allotment holders sit on hedges. When I open the gate with the fierce black cat who stalks (and attacks) any dog in the street, I enter hours without words.

I've found it impossible to read during lockdown, other than for work. I used to get through three or more books a week. Now the radio show for Reverb, workshops, looking at friends' collections and skimming The Guardian online in the mornings is the sum of it. Sometimes I find a Public Domain Review essay or a long read but I can't concentrate. Spiralling into doom I'll never write again, my books have sunk without trace, no-one wants to read anything by an old woman. I argue with myself, give way, none of it matters, but it does, stand up...and so it goes. The old doubt, never being good enough, the old Catholic legacy, the scholarship girl......

Then at 7am I empty the freezer of last year's fruit, turn it to jam, making space for the next crop. I walk with Giya and Beth on the Downs where the Long Man of Wilmington is etched into chalk.

I'm slowly getting over Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. I no longer take a photo thinking I'll post it. I no longer think in post length bites. I realise I've been feeding those doom feelings for far too long on social media and competitive rankings I've felt forced into. I want to delight at amazing metaphors, a new way of seeing, a new voice.

And so the allotment feeds me literally and emotionally more than ever. It is like magic in the way it keeps the dread at bay. The plum tree is laden, each branch is heavy and drooping. The tomatoes are staked. The cucumbers are clinging onto netting. The queens of ice are filling out among October's main crop potatoes. The first yellow courgettes are a couple of inches long and the chard is showing its rainbow colours. The allotment is the great leveller, waving its sea-green ribbons, rioting about enclosure, my semi-rural rebellion within this city by the sea.