Sunday, June 04, 2006


Ever felt like you just wanted to be left alone? For once, I'm using one of my own pictures on the blog - this is one of my cats - Elijah. Now he's fully grown, he can't squeeze himself into the bookshelves but, he still has plenty of Garbo moments.

As evidenced by a distinct lack of entries here over the last few weeks, I am seriously struggling with my writing at the moment. The causes are simple enough – lack of time, lack of energy, lack of inspiration (yes, I do believe that is necessary) and the presence of a nasty cold virus.

Anyway, in an effort to share something with the world, I thought I’d share my favourite banana loaf recipe – Walnut, Date and Honey Cake:

Put all this stuff in a bowl:

8oz self-raising flour
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
6oz softened butter
4oz light muscovado sugar
2 tablespoons of honey
2 beaten eggs
2 medium ripe bananas (about 9oz in their skins) – mashed
4 oz stoned and chopped dates

Mix it all up together, beat for 2 minutes, and stick it in a greased and lined 2lb loaf tin. Level the top, scatter over 50g of chopped walnuts, and bake for 1 hour at 160C/Gas 3. The top will feel firm when done. Let it rest in the tin for 10 mins before turning out to cool and, when cool, drizzle the top with more honey.

Fabulous eaten warm too, but very good the next day – the bananas keep the cake really moist.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


I want to begin by thanking Eloise for starting me off on this thought yesterday when I read her blog entry, I just don’t know what to do with myself, and the attached comments. I continued to crunch away at the subject whilst having my weekly creative time with the hoover, and got that lovely warm feeling when things started to click into place.

The subject is really that of self-belief. This is a subject that has often blipped my radar and is mostly responsible for the title of this blog, along with my love of ancient history. Why do I often feel misunderstood (which sounds rather self-involved for a woman in her forties) and why do people so often think I am arrogant or pretentious? Why do I care? Hmm; the last question is probably the easiest to answer – I hate being misunderstood because I’m a communicator and it makes me feel like a failure.

I think I found the answer to this a little while ago when I worked out that most people judge according to their own standards and behaviour – thinking I’m arrogant, pretentious, or anything else negative, says more about them than it does about me. But when does self-belief become arrogance, or does it?

One of my clearest memories from childhood was the horror of having to use the telephone to call someone I didn’t know. I was incredibly shy, although anybody who has known me during my adult life would have a very hard time believing it. I used to work out exactly what I needed to achieve with the call, how I would do it and what all the possible permutations of the exchange would be (what if the person is rude, or I get a wrong number) – it was very important to have counter measures and contingencies fully planned out ahead, I couldn’t rely on my ability to react naturally. Writing that seems so odd – I honestly don’t recognise myself – my ability to think on my feet has served me enormously well.

So, if I was such an unsure child, where did my high level of self-belief come from? To add to the big negative of being naturally shy, I also have a mother who never tired of telling me I couldn’t do things. I don’t mean she wouldn’t allow me, I mean she would tell me that I would fail – she never gave me a reason why, she just gave it as an intractable fact. She wasn’t being evil or nasty – she truly believed it herself, because of her own life experiences. I simply never listened to her. I knew she was wrong, that I could do anything if I set my mind to it. And now I’m wondering if it was perhaps one single event that sparked that in me. Did I make such a good job of one of those horrible phone calls, or tell a really convincing lie (the one I remember best from childhood was that my dad was Elvis), or make up a story or a poem (the only ones I wrote as a child were funny and end-rhymed) that everyone I read it to loved? I honestly don’t recall – I just know that fairly early on in life, I knew I could do anything if I tried. Now that’s not arrogance – that’s self-belief. defines arrogance as: “overbearing pride evidenced by a superior manner toward inferiors” and that is something I have no memory of ever doing.

Sunday, May 07, 2006


The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s new album is out – my copy is en route from Amazon – so what a great excuse to revisit their other albums.

I was horribly disappointed with By The Way – there are probably only three tracks on there that I really liked, and I think the disappointment was doubled by having enjoyed Californication so much before it. Apparently, Flea has made the comment somewhere that if you don’t like Stadium Arcadium, you don’t like the RHCPs – I take that as a very positive indication for content!

I’ve also been reading Anthony Kiedis’ autobiography, Scar Tissue and quite enjoying it – following a shaky start. At first, I thought he was making a lot of the stuff up (like having Cher as a baby sitter) but, he’s probably not – some people’s lives really are that insane.

So having got the albums off the CD shelves, I couldn’t resist burning a compilation CD with my favourite RHCP tracks, interspersed with the likes of Nirvana and Queens of the Stone Age. Driving to work yesterday, the wing mirrors were jumping – brilliant.

Monday, May 01, 2006


Having completed the first proper draft of the third (though not chronologically speaking) in my series of serial killer poems, I am facing the questions I usually face – does it stand alone, does it need to? As usual, I don’t feel that I am any closer to answers that satisfy me.

I’ve looked at other series and sequences and it seems to me that whilst it is perfectly possible to make single poems in a thematic sequence stand alone quite satisfactorily, it isn’t entirely possible to do that with a character based sequence – without the other poems in the series, the reader will never see the full character / story. But, what I really can’t work out is what each of the poems needs, to enable it to stand alone.

To me, each of the three poems so far stand entirely alone and, apart from tinkering (which could still be substantial), they all feel complete as far as content is concerned. My problem is that, to some of their readers so far, at least two of them don’t feel like complete pictures in themselves – they rely on the others in the series.

Even if I do decide that one or two of them don’t stand alone, does it really matter? I’ve read some discussions about series and sequences and about what is ‘correct’ but, isn’t it more important for me to ask myself what is important to me and to these poems?

Still thinkin’. By the way, the picture is of a Remington ‘Bullet Knife’ that appeared in the latest poem. This one is an R293 jack knife, known as a ‘Hunter / Trader / Trapper’. Don’t you just love authentic detail?

Saturday, April 22, 2006


Apart from the one day when I had to go into work to deal with everyone’s annual pay review, this week has been really good. I badly needed a rest and some time to myself as work has had me fairly frazzled for the past 18 months (and only the last 4 months have been busy in a good way). I have been feeling guilty that I haven’t used my time off work to get other stuff done (like proper housework rather than the weekly scoot round with the vacuum) but, for once, I’ve managed to ignore it and relax properly, just doing what I feel like doing.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time at the latter end of the week at PFFA critiquing, and have really enjoyed it – I had got badly out of practice. Strangely, I haven’t had a real urge to write myself – I usually have lots of ideas when I’m properly relaxed. However, I’m not concerned – I’m beginning to understand that moods to write, read and critique come and go, and it’s more fruitful to go with them than to fight them. How very Zen of me.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Well, rather than making my usual pretend Ragù Bolognese for lasagne today, I decided to try and make a proper one. Of course, I didn’t venture into classic Italian cookery books (I only wish I could be that authentic) but checked up with good old, reliable Delia and found her recipe.

Even if I say so myself, my pretend Ragù Bolognese is usually quite tasty – I tend to use peppers as well as lots of garlic and onions, along with bacon, a good concentrated beef stock, passata, tomato puree, red wine and fresh herbs – but I just use steak mince – no mixture of pork and beef and chicken livers, and certainly no nutmeg. However, having made Delia’s today, I will never make it any other way – it is amazingly gorgeous and actually didn’t take that long to make – about 45 minutes all told.

Obviously, I couldn’t bear to follow the recipe exactly, but I only made minimal adjustments – swapped the tinned tomatoes for a large jar of passata, used far less olive oil than Delia gives, only a squeeze of tomato puree and added a tub of sun-dried tomatoes that I chopped up finely.

I’ve just used half of it to make a lasagne and put the other half in a tub for the freezer. If only I could stop eating it out of the tub with a spoon…

Saturday, April 15, 2006


I really can’t decide what I want to write about today. I finished work for a little holiday on Wednesday and I haven’t done a stroke since – lovely. The only issue with that is that the lack of work-based mental acrobatics means that I’ve gone into overdrive-any-subject-under-the-sun-based mental acrobatics, and now I can’t pick just one thing to concentrate on.

I do have an idea for a new poem lounging around in my head somewhere – something to do with a character who collects pebbles in the pockets of a gabardine coat but, at the moment, I’m not sure if it’s a he or a she, why they’re collecting the pebbles, or if the pebbles should be polished or not. I’m also heavily into revisiting the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ work as their new album is about to come out, and I’m trying to read Pushkin’s Onegin at the same time as Anthony Kiedis’ autobiography, the course books from A103 that Barbara sent me to see if I thought I might like to tutor it, and Juvenal’s satires.

Where to settle? Easy answer – don’t. That’s the option I’ve gone for so far. I reckon that when I’m ready to settle on something, I will.

Meanwhile, I’m thoroughly enjoying reading my selected NaPoWriMo threads on PFFA and trying to resist the temptation to branch out to others that I very much want to read, but really can’t afford to give the proper time to. They’ll still be there in May.

For now, I’ll continue butterflying around and enjoying my mini-break over Easter. Oh yeah, and I accepted my honours degree today – have plumped for BA (Hons) Humanities with Classical Studies at a 2:1 classification. Job done – lovely.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


I’m currently working my way through an anthology of ghost poems Chance of a Ghost, to write a review for Gerald England and, whilst it is taking much longer than I’d like due to a continued shortage of reading time, it’s already paid off with a new discovery – Marjorie Stelmach.

So far, I haven’t found out much about her, except that she's Canadian, has one published collection and various poems published in various journals. I'm continuing to dig. Meanwhile, here’s her poem from the anthology (I think the second strophe is outstanding):



I appear in doorways. I always know
something they should know.
I call them in to hear the tidings, or out
to watch the world do whatever it’s doing.
Sometimes I’ve come to warn them – No.
Don’t look: the shuttle’s crashed;
the beautiful child’s stillborn; wait,
the stairway’s gone.
Then I vanish or my words wake them.
Either way, my part is over.

It’s a gift of sorts, a calling: I appear
and disappear my body like a wink
or a moon,
thin into rooms and out,
as if my cells could take the shapes
of ornamental spaces in a lacework of worlds.

Meanwhile, in my own dreams I move slow motion.
Dreamfields unfold like lifetimes before me;
buffeted by landscapes, I can’t seem to fly.
I watch my doorways fill
with clear gaps where no one stands,
and never will again. I listen.
No word comes.

After years of being told at breakfast or in letters
of my appearances,
I’ve begun to feel an awkwardness in living.
Our comings and goings, the expansions
and contradictions of the air between us,
these cumbersome tissues we call our lives,
how could these be real?

And dreams?
Words spoken in dreams stay
Or they don’t. Screams
doppler off into breakfasts,
words of comfort sink into the sweetened milk.
If, in broad day we suddenly turn
and look over our shoulders at doorways,
it’s nothing. We know we’re alone;
but sometimes
we think we may not be.

Sunday, April 02, 2006


I had my first ‘one to one’ meeting with my new (new since the end of last year, that is) boss this week and when he asked me what my goals were for 5-10 years time, I realised, with a considerable shock, that I didn’t really have any.

Although I’ve always been a bit woolly about direction, I can’t recall a time when I felt like I didn’t have any at all. Perhaps I’m still spaced from finishing the degree, since that has been my major goal for the last six years?

Anyway, it was a good thing he asked me, and a good thing that I was freaked, because, of course, I immediately got thinking and planning.

The first possibility to consider was more study. Hmm, no. Now I’ve learned how to study independently, I don’t need the structure that doing the degree gave me. However, I’m the type that constantly needs new ideas to thresh, so I’d like to stay involved with the OU and its community. Maybe I’ll take a few short courses, but that’s just filler – what I’m looking for is meat. So, maybe I’ll teach instead – I know that I have a real passion for the Humanities and for helping people learn so, okay – maybe I’ll try that. Barbara has already sent me her old books for A103 (Introduction to the Humanities – a course I never did), so I’ve got somewhere solid to start, before I apply. I certainly can’t afford to do it this year – paid work is making way too many demands on my time and energy.

So that’s it – getting a part-time job tutoring A103 online is my new ambition. Hmm, not entirely though – that isn’t much of an ambition, is it? I’ve also got writing (don’t see that as a goal – it’s an unquestioned part of life) and the fulfilment I’ve been getting from my paid job of late, but that’s not real meat, more of an incidental side-effect. And then it came to me – what I truly want is to be able to give up work in 10 years time – that is my ambition. Wow – now that’s a piece of fillet.

Thursday, March 30, 2006


Well, I’ve been working my way through my A.R. Ammons book (The Selected Poems) and what a surprise – I find that I enjoy his poems more when I read silently. I usually read all poems out loud, since the sensuality of sounds is a major component of poetry enjoyment for me, but Ammons is very different – very cerebral. It is almost as if he is whispering secrets to you through the poems and you can only hear them if you’re very quiet. I know that is a very fanciful way of describing it, but it as close as I can get to explain how I feel.

I think this is a collection that I’ll come back to again and again. Even though he is making me work a bit, whenever I do work, I’m always rewarded.

Here are several poems that I really enjoyed straight off when I picked up the book again today, to read a few more:


I said I will find what is lowly
and put the roots of my identity
down there:
each day I'll wake up
and find the lowly nearby,
a handy focus and reminder,
a ready measure of my significance,
the voice by which I would be heard,
the wills, the kinds of selfishness
I could
freely adopt as my own:

but though I have looked everywhere,
I can find nothing
to give myself to:
everything is

magnificent with existence, is in
surfeit of glory:
nothing is diminished,
nothing has been diminished for me:

I said what is more lowly than the grass:
ah, underneath,
a ground-crust of dry-burnt moss:
I looked at it closely
and said this can be my habitat: but
nestling in I
below the brown exterior
green mechanisms beyond the intellect
awaiting resurrection in rain: so I got up

and ran saying there is nothing lowly in the universe:
I found a beggar:
he had stumps for legs: nobody was paying
him any attention: everybody went on by:
I nestled in and found his life:
there, love shook his body like a devastation:
I said
though I have looked everywhere
I can find nothing lowly
in the universe:

I whirled though transfigurations up and down,
transfigurations of size and shape and place:
at one sudden point came still,
stood in wonder:
moss, beggar, weed, tick, pine, self, magnificent
with being!

I love the beggar in this piece, and the line breaks and use of colons haunt me as I try to discover their sense but then decide it really doesn't matter! There’s a really interesting piece about him and how he wrote in the Guardian, here.

Winter Scene

There is now not a single
leaf on the cherry tree:

except when the jay
plummets in, lights, and,

in pure clarity, squalls:
then every branch

quivers and
breaks out in blue leaves.

The image of the naked tree quivering to the “squall” of the jay seems both playful and delightful.


When the sun
falls behind the sumac
thicket the
yellow daisies
in diffuse evening shade
lose their
rigorous attention
half-wild with loss
any way the wind does
and lift their
petals up
to float
off their stems
and go

Although the very short lines turned me right off this one at first, the idea of the daisies being “half-wild” due to the loss of the sun, kind of took my breath away – such a simple yet dramatic image.

So, if you don’t know much about Ammons, I recommend you take a look – I’m finding him pretty fascinating.
This web site is a decent place to start.

Sunday, March 26, 2006


It’s some weeks since I mentioned that I’d been kicking around an idea for another poem in my ‘serial’ series but, finally, I’ve put fingers to keyboard and come up with a first draft.

Writing a series is weird. On the one hand, you have the ease of writing within a pre-decided set of parameters (in this case, I know who my narrator will be and what he will do, or will have done, or is about to do!) but, on the other, until you’ve completed the series, you don’t truly know who the hell your narrator is. Well, that has been my experience with this series, at any rate. My frustration as the writer is that I know a little more about him every time I write a piece and therefore, I might not do him justice in any piece, until all the pieces are written. But context is probably the biggest issue for editing and revision because most of my readers and commenters are aware of the whole series, so each piece is seldom read independently. See – weird.

Before Yvette. Breakfast in bed

Deleted for revision

Sunday, March 19, 2006


I am a tortured poet. But not in a good way.

I’m tortured because I can't stop worrying about whether I might not be tortured enough to match up to some folks’ ideas of what a poet should be. I don’t suffer from depression, angst, soul searching, navel gazing, or any of those kind of emotional gewgaws that seem to be so precious to the ‘true’ poet.

Okay, I'm not really worried about it, but does having a cheerful disposition make me an impostor poet? Should I weep rather than laugh and flow rather than craft? See that? It rhymes – I must be a poet!

This is an aspect of poetry that occasionally bothers me – why do so many people feel that ‘true’ poetry is a matter of heart and soul rather than head and intellect? Is a poem that touches on some insightful philosophical question worth any less than one that touches one’s heart? Neither are easy to write, nor so common. But I would much rather read a thoughtful piece that failed to reach insightful, than an emotionally soaked piece that failed to touch any part of my left ventricle.

Saturday, March 18, 2006


I wonder if it’s normal to feel pleased with a rejection? On the advice of (the very kind) Rob Mackenzie, I submitted a couple of poems to the magazine Anon and today, I heard they hadn’t made it (they've taken some of Rob's work though). However, they were short listed and, I just can’t help it, that makes me really pleased!

The poems I sent were ‘Dante’s Café Bar’ and ‘The Gypsy’s Devoted Son’ and I hadn’t sent them anywhere before. In fact, this is the only submission I’ve made in almost a year – I just never feel the need to send things out usually – but I was feeling quite pleased with where I’d got these two to and thought it’d be fun.

So, glad I nearly made it – and maybe I’ll send them somewhere else some day. For now, they’ve returned to the ‘work in progress’ folder, and here’s the Dante one (never can get those line breaks right):

At Dante’s Café Bar

I. Superbia
At six o’clock the host lights up
each table’s centrepiece, and edging
chairs with the toe of one lustrous shoe,
marvels at his creation of such a homely
mood. By seven, he’s polishing his palms
for the diners at five tables, and glowing
with resplendent satisfaction, he welcomes

II. Invidia
the latest customer who takes the sixth
with an awkward air, a meandering step.
As she twists her body into a chair, smiles
at him without her eyes and orders a green salad;
she stifles her desire for his polished silverware,
condiment bottles and convivial surroundings.
Appetite aroused, she appraises the possessions

III. Ira
of the man seated at the next table, stabbing
ravioli to a staccato ceramic screech. His concentration,
splendidly absolute, colours his skin the same vermilion
shade that smears his plate. He forces
a gulp of yielding sweetness past the garrotte
that is his shirt collar and, unappeased, he growls
deep in his chest, disturbs his neighbour,

IV. Acedia
who sighs. She pushes her fork around the dish
she has eaten countless times, and wishes
for something more than equilibrium, but her transitory
hope subsides. Complacency returned, she eats
(remembers to chew), a daub of sauce escapes
the slackness of her lips, oils her blouse.
She spreads the stain with languid fingertips, shrugs

V. Avaritia
as a man across the room takes a moment
from his Blackberry to notice her and suppress
his distaste. His dinner pushed aside, he immerses
himself in thoughts of greater pleasures, of the market’s
thrills and tides. He taps at numbers on the screen,
checks his balance; his surplus succour an indulgent
need. His coffee arrives, the aromatic tendrils drift

VI. Gula
to the receptive nostrils of a fellow patron
who pauses, fork in hand, to anticipate delights
yet to come. Returning to her unstinting
plate, she eats with large and steady eyes, punctuating
pasta with generous draughts of wine, that hint
at an excess of summer in European climes.
Numb, her nourishment ever incomplete, she watches

VII. Luxuria
a couple move from table to bar, perch on stools,
order Amaretto over ice. The woman’s foot, heel hooked,
bends until the satin of her shoe gapes wide; the man’s
shoelace sprawls untied. Leaning forward, muscle straining
the red silk cover of her thigh, teeth pressed against
her bottom lip, unconscious of the sin she is enraptured
by; she loosens the restraining knot of her married lover’s tie.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


Some people have very relaxing jobs – like the lovely Elle here. Sadly, I do not. I spent no more than one hour on line for my own amusement this week, and about the same last week.

As for writing, well – not a chance. My usual thinking time for blog and poetry subjects was safe though (it's usually when I do the weekend hoovering) however, I never then had the energy to follow them up. Last weekend, I was thinking about Marcus Aurelius and wondering if his Meditations might count as the very first blog, but I never had the energy to follow it up after I’d finished the housework. Mindless crochet projects have taken over – they are about the only thing that can make me relax after work when I’m really busy – anything involving thought is just too much!

Anyway, the good news is that I have an idea for another poem in my serial killer series – just a few images so far, but it is starting to come together in my head. It always helps me to have something to focus on when I don’t have much free thinking time.

Hmm, wonder how one goes about getting a job that involves a lot of reclining, other than modelling? Although maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on myself – I could model, perhaps I could get a few gigs doing photo shoots for ‘Crochet Today’ or something?


I’ve had very little time on line for the last few weeks, and when I popped on to read the selections for this month’s Guardian Workshop (well done again Victoria – “bones of my news” will stay with me for quite some time) and revisited my own entry a little later, I positively squirmed. Self-editing after a few weeks break, certainly seems to breed contempt!

Although I was pleased with my little offering at the time, mostly because it expressed a sentiment that I deeply felt and have never before attempted to express, it now seems, well; trite. In fact, so much so that I can’t even face posting it here.

Note to self – when writing on personal themes, take a very long time to edit and refine. If you think it’s bordering on hackneyed now, just wait and see how much worse it’ll look in a couple of weeks!

Saturday, February 25, 2006


This formula is, apparently, the secret of happiness, according to the theory discussed in this article in The New Yorker by John Lanchester, which makes for very interesting reading.

Lanchester follows the arguments of two scholars who “explore the fragility of contentment” and his explanation of the formula for happiness above (as designed by positive psychology), is:

H = your level of happiness
S = your set point
C = the conditions of your life
V = the voluntary activities you do

Seems very straightforward as an explanation, but doesn’t seem to help one increase one's level of happiness!

I’ve always thought of myself as a naturally happy person. Although I can get as sad, annoyed, irritated and disillusioned as the next person, I’m seldom down for long and never ‘moody’. What was particularly intriguing about the article was what happened to people when the part of the brain that is most sensitive to pleasure was damaged in some way. The damage means that the emotions are effectively shut down and all choices are made with cold logic but, rather than producing a cool Spock type, this produces a lacklustre zombie type. See, now, I always knew that Spock character was flawed.

I like the comment from the closing paragraph that: “A person in good health in a Western liberal democracy is, in terms of his objective circumstances, one of the most fortunate human beings ever to have walked the surface of the earth”. Couldn't agree more and will remind myself of that the next time I'm feeling unhappy about having to do something dreary.

Sunday, February 19, 2006


As threatened, here’s my review of the Open University’s short course, A175 Start Writing Poetry.

The course lasts for 12 weeks, has 5 blocks, 2 tutor marked assignments, and is an online course, which means that the main materials are made available on a dedicated web site accessed from the OU Student Home page (all OU students get one of these when they enrol on a course). They do also make most of the materials available in paper or as PDF downloads (the Anthology is sent in printed form along with various other booklets), although the downloads are slightly abridged when it comes to the block material.

To give you a good overview of the course, it’s probably best to quote directly from the Course Guide:

“This course is designed to introduce you to some techniques and approaches to poetry writing. You will be looking at such technical aspects as rhyme, metre, stanza size and the use of metaphor. Through activities, short readings and longer assignments you will have an opportunity to practise, improve and reflect on a range of skills. The course proceeds from the premise that writing poetry is a craft that can be learned, but a craft that also presents obvious imaginative and creative challenges. The course will help you build confidence through diagnosis of your writing strengths and weaknesses. It is ideal for anyone embarking on other Open University Arts courses, for those studying literature, for instance, and those interested in reading poetry. This course is suitable for those who are completely new to writing, for those who have written some poetry before, or those who may have written in other genres.”

The other thing you get is access to dedicated online conferences – one is a ‘café’ where any and all OU creative writing students (they do other courses – have a look here), can go for general chat (most of which is of the “hello, where are you from?” variety) but the main one is your tutor conference. Here your own tutor can set up a variety of conference rooms – for work-shopping, for posting the activities that you do throughout the course, for chatting about writing generally, for tutorials, whatever.

The course material is very good for what it is – an introduction to poetry. If you are already writing, self-learning and active in a decent workshop, the materials themselves will be a waste of your money – a good ‘how to’ and a decent anthology will be much better value. Where the real value lies is in the tutorial experience and what you get here, as you might expect, it is a complete lottery. If your tutor is active and skilled at running online collaborations, and at least some of your fellow students in your group are at the same level of learning as you (whether you’re a rank beginner or a more advanced beginner), you might have a very good time and be happy to have spent £125. If, however, your tutor does the bare minimum, your group is dominated by one or two users who post rhyming journal junk and the feedback is of the “I can really feel your pain” variety, you might feel like you was robbed.

So, on balance, I would recommend this course to anyone who wants a steady paced introduction to writing poetry, a first experience of online work-shopping that is ‘supportive’, and has plenty of cash to spend on their whims. Otherwise, stick with the self-learning path and find yourself an online workshop where you feel comfortable.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Well, this week has been rather mixed. A good work week with lots achieved and a whopping big pay rise to boot, but the writing has been very thin. I’m still trying to settle down to write something I have in mind for the Guardian workshop, but I’m getting nowhere with it so far.

Today, I also received back my second and last assignment from my tutor on the short poetry course. When I saw the 75% mark he’d given ‘Mrs Slingsby’s Surreptitious Occupation’, I realised that I really didn’t like anyone marking my creative writing. I’m still trying to work out why. It isn’t any element of criticism inferred by the mark (I can take the harshest criticism and learn from it), I suspect it might be because it feels like a kind of price tag – “this poem is worth 75 out of 100” – I don’t like that. And I suspect I wouldn’t like it whatever the mark was from 0 to 100. Sadly, what I really needed was pretty much absent – feedback. My tutor commented about:
  • My strong observations
  • The nature of the poem being “darkly comic”
  • One line break he liked and one he didn’t (some of my breaks are “clumsy” – like L4 of S4)
  • The last line, which he liked and felt it made the poem
Apart from that one line break, he hasn’t given me a single thing that helps me improve the poem. But maybe I totally misunderstood the point of the course – maybe that wasn’t what it was all about? Either way, it was a fine waste of £125. Nuts.

Saturday, February 04, 2006


Well, the Guardian Poetry Workshop looks really interesting this month and I've already got a couple of ideas for poems. Of course, they may not yet materialise but, they’re swirling about.

Now that my short poetry writing course is over, I need what help I can get to keep me writing. My day job is still making hefty demands on my energy – I’m just grateful that I’m not studying this year – if I were, I wouldn’t have time to write at all.

So, this was the piece I ended up submitting for my last short course assignment. I’m not sure if it has any future yet. If so, it is probably the only one from the pieces I wrote for the course that does:

Mrs Slingsby’s Surreptitious Occupation

Deleted for revision

Sunday, January 29, 2006


I’ve been reading Rob’s Mackenzie’s ‘How (not) to Write a Poem’ instalments on his blog, which has got me thinking about my own writing process and looking at revisions of my own poems.

Looking at the number of revisions various pieces have had (although, for me, this is misleading because I only make a new version when I’m making substantial changes – tinkering doesn’t count!), it seems that the longer I write, the more I revise. I’m sure this must be a very good thing. ‘The gypsy’s devoted son’ is now on version number 10 and, reading it this morning after not looking at it for a few months, I confess that I’m still quite happy with it. However, that may well change a few months down the line – that is one of the most unsettling things about poetry writing to me – the frequency of feeling dissatisfaction with work that I have been previously pleased with. The effect of this (for me) is that although I’m always writing new things, my ‘collection’ is constantly decreasing rather than expanding!

I’m now on version 7 of ‘After Carl. Sunday in Dad’s Car’ and it feels to me like its in its teenage gawky phase – all awkward angles and unsteady plodding:

After Carl. Sunday in Dad’s Car

Deleted for revision

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


I first came across Pattiann Rogers on PFFA when Howard posted her poem ‘The Hummingbird: A Seduction’ and, after reading some more of her work online, I followed up his reading recommendations and bought her latest collection of poetry, Firekeeper, along with The Dream of the Marsh Wren in which she talks about her experience of writing. Throughout the discussion, she uses her poems to illustrate her points, which is very effective. This is the book I decided to begin with and it is one of those books that, as I read, I want to show it to people, to tell everyone about it, because what she says resonates with me so strongly. She verbalises so many ideas I have about poetry writing that I haven’t yet managed to articulate, as well as others that are (so far) outside of my experience. Although I’m enjoying every page, I’m looking forward to getting to the poetry collection too!

Sunday, January 22, 2006


The American by Henry James, that is. The second novel in my ‘chronological reading of Henry James’ project, and so different to the first novel, Roderick Hudson.

Roderick Hudson read to me like a real beginner’s novel (although there were several flashes of the sparkling prose he would write so much more of in the future) with mistakes such as naming the two main male characters Roderick and Rowland – everyone knows that using the same first letter for two major characters is a huge mistake! Again and again whilst reading, I stumbled over this small but significant irritation. The story itself is quite simple – Rowland Mallet is a wealthy and cultured young American man who decides to sponsor the brilliant (younger American) sculptor Roderick Hudson, who ends up losing his head over a beautiful and cruel young woman in the pleasure grounds of Europe. To be completely honest, I found the novel clumsy in many ways, as if it was constantly looking for its purpose but never quite finding it. The other major irritation was the dialogue which didn’t flow naturally to my ear, and that James used in a rather ham-fisted way in places to push forward the narrative. However, it was fascinating at the same time, given that it was James’ first novel.

The American is a different book entirely. Although I detected a slight lack of purpose as with Roderick Hudson (though not so pronounced), it was much more engaging and structured. I found The American to be a real page turner and read the last 100 pages at one sitting – something I rarely do these days. If I have one complaint, it is the light nature of James’ characters – they never feel entirely drawn and the ‘hero’, Christopher Newman, is rather unconvincing. Perhaps this was the first hint of James evolving his style of writing from a central character’s consciousness as he does in The Portrait of a Lady? Although, for my money, he certainly didn’t achieve that with Christopher Newman. The dialogue in The American is a bit hit and miss, but a huge improvement on its use in Roderick Hudson.

I’m thoroughly enjoying this project so far. Next it’s on to The Europeans but first I’m going to have a bash at Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

Sunday, January 15, 2006


I am frequently amazed by how much stuff I don’t know. My thanks to fellow OU student, Dermot O’Rourke, who has this week introduced me to a writer I had previously never heard of – Ivy Compton-Burnett. Her biography certainly makes very sad reading, but I love the sound of her writing.

Dermot is writing his MA dissertation this year and Ivy is his subject. He speaks passionately about her and his enthusiasm having infected me, I’ve added Ivy to my ever growing ‘to read’ list. So many authors, so little time.

As a result of chatter about Ivy and Henry James, I also got into conversation with Dermot about the academic versus the creative mind. Dermot said that:

“If all the literature departments, in every university in the world, were shut down tomorrow it would be no great loss. The creative, not the academic, mind is what is important.”

And my immediate reaction was:

“You're so wrong though. Why do you think creative people create? They simply want to communicate and 'thinking' people are absolutely essential to that dialogue - they bring the words on the page to life by engaging with them.”

Dermot still holds to his original argument and I’m thinking over the whole question of what academe gives us of value before responding again. Is it enough for the student of literature to have intelligence, curiosity, awareness and enthusiasm (supported and informed by the opinions of other like minded and non-academic people who have ‘gone before’) to enable them to take what is of value from literature, or does the literature student need the academic world as well if they are to succeed? Mmm, I suspect I still disagree with Dermot…

Monday, January 09, 2006


I love watching TV programmes about makeovers, plastic surgery and the like. If you were to ask me why I like watching them, I’d struggle a bit to answer – they just fascinate me in much the same way as I’d be fascinated to watch some strange and foreign religious ceremony that I hadn’t seen before and didn’t understand. I was watching one this afternoon (a makeover programme – not a strange and foreign religious ceremony) about a 44 year old woman who put herself through a number of plastic surgery procedures, fillers, botox and extensive dentistry work because she had a low self image. Why? Just get the poor bloody woman a psychiatrist, a life coach, a change of diet, a new hobby, a few yoga sessions, or maybe an OU course – put down the scalpel, canula and Botulinum Toxin and move away from the patient!

Are we really so shallow today that our self-worth is measured solely according to what we look like? Okay, I know that not all of us think that way, but I guess many people do, or there wouldn’t be so many TV hours devoted to it. Don’t get me wrong, at the end of the procedures, I have a smile of happiness for the poor downtrodden victim who finally thinks they are worth something, as ridiculously large as the next person but, at the same time, I feel a bit sick – it’s totally twisted. At least on the programme I watched today they had a psychotherapist working with the victim as well as a stylist (one of those weird looking creatures who are so perfectly styled that they look like a cartoon), and one of the things the psychotherapist did was to ask the woman to position people according to their careers on a ‘social ladder’. A ship’s captain made it to the top, followed by a doctor, then a model and then the woman herself on the bottom ring, alongside a shop assistant and a tramp. Jesus. Of course the helpful psychotherapist made sure that she corrected the woman’s ideas by simply swinging the ladder on its side and telling her that all those people were “just the same as you, dear”. Please.

After the makeover was completed, her hair was done (by Trinny and Susannah’s stylist, no less), she was made up by a professional make-up artist, dressed by cardboard cut out stylist man and presented back to her husband and two daughters who managed to look both thrilled, and as if they’d just seen a horrific car crash at the same time. Totally twisted.

Friday, January 06, 2006


One of the things that Santa brought me this year was the double CD ‘The Ultimate Collection’ by Electric Light Orchestra. Totally retro, totally fab. Driving to work this week has been a complete retro singing party for one. Even at the time they were popular, it wasn’t hip to like them, but I didn’t care then and I don’t care now – it is really enjoyable, melodious, sing-a-long pop music.

So, if you’re old enough to remember them first time round, give yourself a treat and pick up a copy. Although, be warned, if you listen to it on the way to work, you will arrive at the office with a ridiculous grin plastered on your face and may even have to resist the urge to skip…

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


This isn’t a form I mess with much but driving to work this morning I was thinking about an old piece I wrote that had one key image. As I’ve recently been looking at very short poetry for the OU course I’m doing, I thought I’d do a rewrite of the old piece in a very short form.

Rare hedgerow blossom
of fast 'Rosso' red - signals
bent metal drama.

Monday, January 02, 2006


Having recently read an article from the New Yorker about Wordsworth that talked about the poet’s role in shedding light on ‘the human condition’, I found the conclusion in this article from Contemporary Poetry Review particularly interesting. After looking at three new releases, Joan Houlihan concludes that “the lack of an authentic attempt to reach for, and connect to, an emotional center, a universal and human matter … is what’s so dreadfully absent in all these collections”. Personally, I find that a very depressing thought – both reading and writing poetry has always been an exploration of the human state for me – I’m really not interested in writing that exists for little other reason than to be ‘clever’. Of course, the price of thinking that way is that I run the risk of not being open minded enough to recognise something really worthy when I rush over it waving a dismissive hand.

To be honest, I don’t feel sufficiently literate in contemporary poetry to truly engage with this article as much as I would like to but, I understand what Joan is saying in essentials. On the one hand, she seems to be wondering if we’re about to cross a new boundary in writing poetry and, on the other, she seems to be afraid of what that new poetry might look like – rather soulless. From her opening comments, she is also, perhaps, a little afraid that she might be occupying the seat of the fool who fails to see the clear brilliance of the new ‘thing’ when everyone else around her has already been indoctrinated and are worshipping at its temple. I think I know how she feels.

Sunday, January 01, 2006


Aren’t birds cool? If I were a bird, I’d like to be a goldcrest like this one because it has to eat continuously in winter to survive. Sounds like a plan. It also has a very cute outfit and a lovely song. The RSPB site is a great resource if you want to find out about birds – as I discovered today when I wanted to do some research for a poem I was drafting that included a merlin and a lapwing.

The poem is the second in a series I’m playing with about a serial killer, and because I’ve been feeling a teeny weeny bit homesick for Yorkshire this week (added to by watching Wuthering Heights the other day and somewhat influenced by having mentioned Rob Mackenzie’s poem, ‘Sketching the Moors’ recently), I decided to set it there. I settled on a first draft after fidgeting for a couple of days but I’ve already started messing with it – writing a poem seems to have quite a bit in common with birds sitting on a clutch of eggs, only the poem takes significantly longer. Having said that, I wonder which kind of bird holds the record for the longest time taken to hatch out its young?