a poem for Wombat Day 2022

I promised (threatened?) in my post celebrating last year’s Wombat Day, to post my wombat poem here this year if it hadn’t been accepted for publication by now. So here, in all its earthiness, I present to you:

Wombat Scat

The wombat is a curious species.
Of all the creatures known on earth
wombats alone drop cube-shaped faeces.

The benefit of cubic pieces?
Small solid cairns to mark home turf.
The wombat is a curious species.

The inner working that produces
cubes of poo is subject to research.
Wombats alone drop cube-shaped faeces.

So when a wombat sadly ceases,
struck by a truck, its gut is worth
a look; for it’s such a curious species.

Pumped full of air, the gut increases
our understanding of how on earth
wombats extrude cubical faeces.

Now stiff, now soft, their gut squeezes
chewed matter into blocks of dirt.
The wombat is a curious species,
not least because of cube-shaped faeces.

Photo by Meg Jerrard on Unsplash
Advertisement

busy as a Battersea bee

Once upon a time large areas of Battersea were covered in market gardens and lavender fields. The air must have thrummed with bees and other pollinators. Bees feature in the mosaic tiled floors at Battersea Arts Centre, no doubt referring back to these earlier times, but also, like Manchester, an acknowledgement of the role of industry and working people in the making of Battersea.

Lately I have been flitting from one project to another and feeling very much like a busy bee. Hot on the heels of my found ~ flow ~ flux project came an opportunity to lead a series of short walks in the Nine Elms area. The walks are free to residents of Nine Elms and Battersea, and part of a wider programme of free autumn classes. I’m enjoying working out a different route for each walk, sharing a bit of the area’s history and listening to other people’s responses to all the changes taking place.

At the same time, I’m preparing for a free drop-in Plant-based Poetry workshop on Saturday 5th November from 2-4pm. It’s taking place in the south alcove of Merchants Way, which is the new pedestrian walkway between New Covent Garden Market and Nine Elms tube station. If you’re in the area, do drop by and have a go at writing a poem inspired by a fruit or vegetable, or pick up a postcard with suggestions for you to try at home in your own time. The workshop is supported by Vinci St Modwen.

A couple of days before the workshop, I’m venturing north of the river to the beautiful Ink@84Books in Islington for the in-person launch of my great friend Joolz’s sizzling pamphlet Face the strain, published by Against the Grain Press. I’m so excited to get my hands on a copy of Joolz’s pamphlet. Having read earlier versions of some of the poems and heard her perform some of them, I know it’s going to be a stunner. I’ll be reading a short set of poems alongside Katie Griffiths and Charlotte Ansell as supports to the main star: Joolz Sparkes. The launch is on Thursday 3rd November at 6:30pm and you can book here.

Also on the horizon is a found ~ flow ~ flux reading at Northcote Library on Thursday 17th November at 5:30pm. The event will be free and some of the contributors will be reading their poems from the booklet. It’s lovely to be going back there after Joolz and I read from London Undercurrents earlier this year.

There are a couple more projects in the pipeline, so it doesn’t look like I’ll be hibernating any time soon.

found ~ flow ~ flux launched into the world

It’s just over a week since I launched the found text poetry booklet found ~ flow ~ flux into the world. This was the culmination of my project, which was commissioned earlier this year by Wandsworth Council. Held in the same room where I’d run the workshops back in June, the launch was such a joyous occasion that I forgot to take any photos once people started to arrive. Almost everyone who contributed to the booklet came along, as well as friends, partners and some interested locals.

Once everyone was settled with a drink and a copy of the booklet, the readings got underway. I started by reading Kurt Schwitters’ 1942 poem London Symphony, which I’d used in the workshop as an example of a found text poem, followed by my first poem in the booklet. Then one by one I introduced the contributors, who read their wonderful poems to an appreciative audience. It was great to hear these poems that I had only read on the page; and very special to know that for many, this was their first published poem, indeed their very first poem!

Time then for more mingling, nibbling, sipping and celebrating. I’m very proud of the booklet and delighted with the feedback I received, both for the workshops and the booklet itself. See below for some quotes. I do though feel I missed a trick by not describing the event as a flaunch – the found ~ flow flux flaunch. Or maybe not…

Hilaire, dressed in black and smiling, stands in front of a wall to which A3 sheets of paper covered in hand written words and phrases are attached. She is holding a copy of the found ~ flow ~ flux booklet.
proud poet and editor, with a wall of found texts
A long table in front of the wall that has A3 sheets of paper attached to it. On the righthand side of the table various snacks are set out, including groans, crisps, strawberries, bread sticks, crackers, carrot and celery sticks, humous and guacamole. On the lefthand side are three piles of found ~ flow ~ flux booklets, behind them other poetry booklets are displayed.
Poetry booklets and refreshments

It truly is a wonderful snapshot of Nine Elms – a wonderful piece of history.

I did really enjoy [the workshop] and do feel inspired to repeat this in local neighbourhoods in Battersea

engaging & supportive workshop leader

The workshop I went to was excellent in conception & delivery.

and (belatedly) the winner is…

I began writing this post on Thursday 2nd June, but life, specifically Covid*, intervened. Now, very belatedly, here’s my account of the Manchester Writing Competition Gala Prize-giving Ceremony…

which has the aura of a dream to me. An almost out-of-body experience. And I was only a judge! After months of reading hundreds of stories, rereading dozens, some several times over, conferring with my fellow judges Nicholas Royle and Simon Okotie to arrive at our shortlist of six stories and the overall winner, the evening was a celebration of some of the very best contemporary writing – both fiction and poetry.

Although as judges we’d known the name of the winner since shortly after making our decision, we were sworn to secrecy – I’d not even told my partner Nick – so I felt a degree of awkwardness at the reception for finalists and judges before the official ceremony. I felt nervous as well, as unfortunately Nicholas Royle, Chair of the Fiction Prize judges, had lost his voice, and had asked Simon and me to cover his duties. Simon very kindly offered to take on the fiction judge’s speech before the announcement of the winners, so I had the much easier – but still daunting – task of announcing the Fiction Prize winner.

I took no photos that evening, as I wanted to be present, not distracted by my phone. I have so much admiration for all the writers, who stepped up and read an extract of their work before the winners were announced. I can imagine how their nerves must have jangled, but they all did justice to their words, and gave a flavour of the quality and variety of poems and stories that made our judges’ task so difficult.

Malika Booker, Chair of the Poetry Prize judges, then gave her judge’s speech before announcing the winner: Peter Ramm, who was initially lost for words. As a fellow Australian, I was thrilled. His poems are deeply rooted in the Gundungarra lands of the New South Wales Southern Highlands where he lives and writes; lyrical but also reflective of this dangerous, disruptive anthropocene era.

Simon’s speech was funny and generous, much like himself and indeed Nicholas Royle. Then the golden envelope moment, as I stepped up to the dais, opened said envelope and announced: The winner of the £10,000 Manchester Fiction Prize is…

Leone Ross!

Leone was sitting in the front row, plum in front of me, looking confused and disbelieving, and seemed to mouth what? me? so I leant forward and said: yes, you! It was an amazing moment, and an absolute pleasure to hand her the golden envelope for her brilliant story When We Went Gallivanting. It’s a bold, inventive and ultimately joyous story, pulsating with life, controlled anger and dazzling imagery.

Once Leone had gathered herself, she spoke movingly of how she had almost given up on writing some years ago, until Nicholas Royle published one of her stories as a Nightjar Press pamphlet. Moments like these keep writers going, and it’s been an honour, pleasure and a great learning experience to have been on the other side of the judging fence on this occasion.

You can read all the shortlisted story and poetry entries on the Manchester Writing Prize website.

*I’m well over Covid, but have also been busy running my found ~ flow ~ flux workshops. More on these soon.

workflow

Just a few weeks ago I met up with my fellow 2021 Manchester Fiction Prize judges Nicholas Royle and Simon Okotie to decide on the overall winner from our shortlist of six stories. Over the previous months we’d read hundreds of stories, and then gradually whittled our unofficial longlist down to six via email. It’s been a long process, which culminated in a civilised discussion of the shortlisted stories, weighing them against each other and arriving at our winner in just under an hour. No fisticuffs or hissy fits involved. And though it felt a huge responsibility, it was also thrilling to know we have chosen a brilliant story, and that its writer will be fittingly rewarded.

The whole process was anonymous, so it was only after our shortlisted stories, and the overall winner, had been confirmed with the administrative team that we found out who the authors were. The fiction and poetry finalists were officially announced on Monday and their shortlisted stories and poems are available online to read now. And on Thursday 26th May I’ll be heading up to Manchester for the Gala Prize-giving Ceremony, full of excitement and maybe a few nerves. The event, which includes readings by all the shortlisted writers, is free and open to the public but advance booking is essential.

No sooner had I packed away my judge’s wig, than my focus shifted to planning the found text poetry workshops I’m delivering in June as part of my found ~ flow ~ flux commission from Wandsworth Council. I’ve devised three different walk routes, one for each workshop, each one passing through or alongside several of the new developments in Nine Elms. I’ve also made a poster to distribute locally, and set up registration details on Eventbrite, which went live earlier this week. The next steps are to finalise the content of the workshops and continue promoting them.

I’ve also created a task list with approximate dates, so I can see what I need to get done in the following couple of months. July looks like being busy, as I collate and edit poems for the booklet! But before that, I need participants for the workshops. If you can help spread the word – or decide to sign up yourself – I would really appreciate that.

making art – and finding poetry – in Nine Elms

When I saw a call-out earlier this year for artists’ proposals to make new work in Nine Elms on the theme of ‘movement + metamorphosis’, I knew I wanted to throw my hat in the ring. I’ve been following the changing nature of the area around me for years, and here was a chance for me to respond creatively to these changes.

The call-out, a new initiative from Wandsworth Council’s Nine Elms Arts and Culture team, stated that the decision about which proposals were commissioned would be made at a community event at the end of March. There were a few eligibility criteria to meet: artists had to live, work or study in Nine Elms/Battersea; the proposal had to include a budget of up to £3,000 including artists’ fees; and successful projects were expected to be delivered over the next six months.

There were also a few unknowns, such as how many proposals would be commissioned, and the format of the community decision making event (I was assured it would be informal and ‘not like Dragon’s Den’).

I made some notes, jotting down initial ideas and thinking about different approaches. I wanted to play to my strengths, but also to push myself. I thought about the short poetry residencies I undertook with Thrive in Battersea Park in 2016 and 2017; the construction site tours I led at Battersea Power Station several years ago; the collaborative booklet indoors looking out I made with the artist Stephen Graham in 2020; and the poetry taster workshops I ran at Battersea Park Library last year. And I asked myself: What am I good at? What do I enjoy? And importantly: how can I relate this to ‘movement + metamorphosis’?

I realised I wanted to include a participatory element, and also to create something tangible. Gradually my ideas began to coalesce: three workshops for members of the local community, each starting with a walk around part of the Nine Elms area, on which we’d gather found text: words and phrases from construction signs, billboards, graffiti, overheard snippets of conversation and so on. Then, at the ROSE Community Clubroom, I’d deliver a workshop using some of the found texts as prompts for creative writing, so participants could write a poem in response to the changes in Nine Elms. Following the workshops, I planned to create three poems from the found texts, one for each walk, which would be published in a free booklet alongside contributions from workshop participants. 

After more ruminating, I came up with a title for my proposal: found ~ flow ~ flux. As well as a 250 word proposal I had to submit a CV and itemised budget; all sent on the morning of the deadline. Only a week later I heard that my submission had met the eligibility criteria, so the next hurdle was the community decision making event on the evening of 25th March. Now, I’ve never watched Dragon’s Den, but I have a pretty good idea that the style is combative, so being told the event was ‘not like Dragon’s Den’, somewhat counterintuitively, did not reassure me.

The event took place in the main hall of the ROSE Community Clubroom. A2 boards, one for each of the 20 or so eligible proposals, were displayed on the walls, with an outline of the project, budget, and example of the artists’ work. Most of the artists attended, as well as local residents and people who work in the area. And although I was nervous at first, the supportive energy in the room was soon palpable. 

We had time to look at the different proposals, to chat and mingle, and marvel at the range of exciting and varied ideas. And then, the most nerve-wracking part, three minutes each to present our idea and explain how it met the key criteria: 

  • the idea has artistic merit/is of high quality
  • is relevant to and reflective of the diverse communities of Nine Elms
  • will reach people in Nine Elms and allow new voices to be heard
  • delivers good value for money

Some of the artists had brought props – paint, clay, some kind of martial arts sticks – but as a writer I relied on words. Every presentation was cheered and applauded, and it was great to see so many talented people gathered in one room. Apart from council staff and event facilitators Elizabeth Lynch and Aminita Francis, everyone attending had a ballot paper listing all the artists’ proposals, and voted for first and second choice following the presentations. The council officials disappeared into a side room to count the votes, while the rest of us continued discussing what a wealth of creative talent and exciting ideas exist in our neck of the woods. And when the seven commissioned projects were announced in alphabetical order by first name I noted them all down – with an exclamation mark against my own name!

It may sound cheesy, but it truly is an honour to be one of the first artists commissioned by my peers and the community to create new work in Nine Elms/Battersea. I’m really looking forward to working with the community to transform some of the words we’re surrounded by in our environment into poems – to create a poetic snapshot of Nine Elms in 2022, just before Battersea Power Station opens to the public.

You can read more about the initiative and the successful proposals on the Nine Elms London website.

Signs galore at Nine Elms Park construction site

that live vibe

What a buzz it was to read to a real live audience last Thursday. Around 16 people attended my reading at Putney Library and it could hardly have gone better. There was applause! There were smiling faces! There was even a Bravo!

I split my set into three sections, reading first from Triptych Poets, followed by some of the short poems in indoors looking out and a few urban nature themed poems. And for the last section, I read poems from London Undercurrents, reading poems from the north side of the river as well as the south, as Joolz couldn’t make it to Putney that evening. It was her poem What Did You Do in the War, Granny? that elicited the Bravo! I was a bit overwhelmed at the end, unused to live applause, and I think I made a little bow. Afterwards, there was time to chat to some of those who came and to sell and sign some books*. No wonder I was buzzing!

And it was great to have three guest readers from Clapham Originals, the monthly poetry workshop group I belong to, reading a couple of poems each to add some variety and show what a talented bunch the Originals are. My thanks to Claire Collison, Steve Hoy and Clapham Originals’ ringleader Tessa Lang for their contribution to a fizzing evening of poetry. A big thank you to the Putney Library staff, too, for being so welcoming and hosting the event.

*I have copies of indoors looking out and Triptych Poets available from my Shop page.

Putney Library 3rd February 2022
Reading from indoors looking out
Reading my poem Lone Piper in Battersea Park from the Words of Wandsworth anthology

Photos: Nick Rogers

a display, a reading, and a little poetry news

Late last year Stephen Graham, with whom I collaborated on the booklet indoors looking out, mentioned he was planning a show of new work at Putney Library, and that there was an empty display case in the library, which he suggested I could use to showcase some of my books and any related visual material.

The idea appealed to me, so I paid a visit to the library to check out the display case, and also spoke to one of the library staff, who was encouraging and also supportive of me doing a reading in the library.

Then last week I gathered up copies of a range of books my work has appeared in, including Paper Swans Press’s The Pocket Book of Suffrage, Salt Publishing’s Best British Short Stories 2021, my one published novel, Hearts on Ice (Serpent’s Tail, 2000), various poetry and short story anthologies, and of course London Undercurrents – over five years of research and writing with my poetry mate Joolz Sparkes packed into that handsome orange Holland Park Press book. I also ransacked our bookcases for books that are close to my heart, by writers who have influenced and inspired me. And how could I not include some of the music that fundamentally changed me, in my miserable late teens and early twenties? Bands such as The Birthday Party and The Triffids, who’d relocated to London, whose lyrics were burnt into my brain. London – the destination on my one-way ticket when I felt I had to force a change in my life. So, yes, I packed some vinyl. Nick helped me carry all those heavy books to Putney Library and set them up in the display case. Stephen’s Graham’s show of new work, which he describes as word or poem pictures, is on in the library until 6th February, alongside paintings by Gary Chappell. You can check out my book-and-record display until then, and maybe spot a few quirky items in there too.

To coincide with the display, I’ll be reading a selection of poems from my œuvre (please allow a little pretentiousness, the giddy delight of seeing my work in a display case has gone to my head) in Putney Library on Thursday 3rd February, 6:30 to 7:30pm. There’ll be some guest readers too, for added variety. It’s free, all welcome but please wear a mask unless you’re exempt. And make sure you check out the library’s Gallery space, showing Stephen Graham’s word pictures and Gary Chappell’s paintings.

Lastly, I was thrilled to be selected as one of the winners of The Poetry Society’s Members competition on the theme of ‘Survival & Extinction’, judged by Sujata Bhatt. She had to read 668 pages of poetry and could only select six poems as the winners, so it is quite an honour. The winning poems are published in the winter issue of Poetry News, which is sent to all members of The Poetry Society. The poems are also available on the Society’s website – you can read my poem Late Questions here.

half a dozen joys

It’s not been the easiest year, but here are a few things that have brought me joy:

Flickerbook by Leila Berg, published by CB editions. I have read quite a lot this year but this is the book that immediately comes to mind as my favourite. I loved it from the very first page. Berg’s autobiography is so sharp, vivid, funny and believable. It really gave me a sense of being inside the mind of a very young, very curious girl, growing up in the Jewish community in Manchester in the early 20th century. Truly a joy to read, even as the story gets darker as the rise of fascism and the Second World War overshadow her adolescence.

The Beatles’ song Blackbird performed by tenor Allan Clayton with the Aurora Orchestra. I’m not a big Beatles fan but when I heard this version on Radio 3 I was captivated. You can listen to it here. I could listen to it on repeat all day.

Mending my own clothes. Yes, I can sew on a button, maybe stitch a bit of a hem that’s come unstitched. This year I have tackled slightly more tricky repairs, inspired by Repair What You Wear, in an attempt to extend the wear of clothes I already own and love. I’ve darned a lot of holes in my jumpers, and restitched the seams on pair of gloves, which were coming apart where the thumb joins the main part of the glove. They’re not invisible repairs, I expect I’ll be re-darning some of those holes, but I find the process meditative and rewarding.

Gazing up at the sky. Or gazing out of the window at dawn, seeing the sky lighten and briefly smoulder as the sun rises. The sky over the River Thames. Clouds, sunsets, contrails. All this colourful changing drama for free. Never fails to lift my spirits. Well, okay, some days a sky of low brooding clouds mirrors my state of mind too closely, but mostly, yes, looking up at the sky is a tonic.

Yoga. A new departure for me, and one I probably wouldn’t have tried if not for the free community yoga sessions on my estate delivered by Live Karma Yoga in partnership with The Foundation LBT. I did a couple of sessions last year, but it’s really since the summer this year that I’ve been going regularly. For that hour on my mat, I’m focussed on breathing and following the yoga flow. I’m getting better at balancing on one leg (yay!), and have surprised myself with some of the positions I can achieve. But really it’s about the unconditional support I feel in the group, and focussing on my wellbeing for that one hour in the week.

I took in an orchid plant earlier this year and have kept it alive! Look at this beautiful spread of flowers. All I’ve done is soak it in water for half an hour once a week, and say a few encouraging words to it. I can’t see anymore buds coming through, so its glory days may be over, but it has brought me so much simple joy.

Wishing you and your loved ones brighter days in 2022.

Best British Short Stories 2021

I’m beyond delighted that my short story, The Red Suitcase, is included in Best British Short Stories 2021 edited by Nicholas Royle and published by Salt Publishing.

The Red Suitcase was originally published as a limited edition short-story chapbook by Nightjar Press in October 2020, but is now sold out.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading one story a day from the collection and have now read all of the 20 stories, bar my own (I know what happens in that one). What fabulous company to be among! From the opening story, Rings by Tom Bromley, which caught me off guard with its perfectly judged brevity, to the final story, 99 Customer Journey Horror by Iphgenia Baal, a nightmarish accumulation of property developer jargon, there are stories to enthral and intrigue you, unsettle and even inhabit you. Particular highlights for me included Leather by A. J. Ashworth (compellingly strange, à la Angela Carter), Wendigo by Julia Armfield (glad I read this one during the day, not right before sleep!) and Hair by Isha Karki, a disturbing tale of sexual politics, where boys climb girls’ hair.

Reading this anthology has made me even more excited for my role as one of the judges for the 2021 Manchester Fiction Prize. I’m really looking forward to reading a (very large) bunch of short stories, and seeing what kind of journeys those stories take me and my fellow judges on. The competition is open for entries until 5pm (UK time) on Friday 28th January 2022, so if you’re thinking of entering get writing, editing and polishing now. Good luck!