rhythm and balance

February 3, 2016

or balance and rhythm. Two key elements in any good piece of writing. And thinking about time, how I use it, how to structure it, I realise this is what I’m aiming for: rhythm and balance. I’m resistant to timetables. The word ‘routine’ gives me the horrors. But balance and rhythm — yes, these feel like useful concepts; words I’m comfortable with, that I’m happy to latch onto.

So, in pursuit of rhythm and balance, I’ve come up with a few none-too-original maxims and techniques.

writing first
I made this my mantra when I took a sabbatical several years ago, and I’ve come back to it. It means not looking at emails first thing. It means get up, have a shower, get dressed, make breakfast to eat at my desk and start scratching words onto a blank page. Or pick up that story or poem where I left off yesterday and keep writing. Don’t allow the world in yet. Two, three mugs of coffee. Write.

coffee break reading
A perpetual angst — the piles of unread books and magazines. But now I have my trendy ceramic pour over filter cone, the process of making a coffee takes around five minutes. It has its own rhythm. While I’m doing the rinse-bloom-pour over performance, I’ve time to read a poem or two, an article or a review. I’m nearly on track to finish the winter edition of Mslexia before the spring issue arrives.

part week planner
I developed this when Nick and I had overlapping work patterns. And our week still divides somehow into two parts: Saturday to Monday; Tuesday to Friday. Another rhythm. I write the days in French because — alors, pourquoi pas? The ‘ongoing’ section gets carried over to the next part week planner. We tick things off. We add things in. The part week planner does not replace lists — oh no, we have numerous lists! I think its main benefits are the at-a-glance view of the next few days, and the reflective moments as I draw up the next part week planner.


my non-patented part week planner

he naps, I read
I haven’t quite cracked this one yet. Nick has definitely cracked the first part. An afternoon nap has been part of the rhythm of his (non-work) days for many years. I feel woozy and headachy if I lie down during the day. On the other hand I do often experience an afternoon slump — nothing to do with the three or four coffees I’ve drunk in the morning, of course. So I thought sitting quietly and reading for an hour or so after lunch might help balance out the seesawing mood, as well as gradually whittling down one of the piles of unread books. I’ve managed it a few times and it is pleasurable and satisfying to read, for example, a short poetry pamphlet in one sitting. Those emails can wait. Yes, really, they can wait.


January poetry jamboree

January 16, 2016

Poets, it seems, don’t hibernate. The first couple of weeks of 2016 have been jam-packed with poetry events and I’ve managed to squeeze in a few, despite a visit from the sinusitis fairy.

My personal poetry fest kicked off before the new year, with two poems published in Ol’ Chanty online. The issue also includes new poems and translations by Louise Landes Levi, an amazing poet, musician and life-force. Editor Richard Livermore’s essay What is poetry about? is well worth a read too, especially if references to Deleuze, Sartre and set-theory excite you. That works for me!

Then Joolz Sparkes and I got a lovely new year boost with two poems from our London Undercurrents project accepted for the third issue of Severine literary journal – coming soon! That set us up nicely for a brace of London Undercurrents readings, firstly at Beyond Words on Tuesday 5th, and then on Wednesday 13th at the ever-wonderful Loose Muse. Both events were well attended with appreciative audiences. Nothing like a bit of positive feedback to stave off the January blues!

In between performing at those two readings, I sat back and enjoyed a couple of others. On Thursday 7th January, Telltale Press hosted a free reading at the Poetry Café. I liked the format – two Telltale poets, Siegfried Baber and Peter Kenny, plus two guest poets, Kitty Coles and Jack Underwood. It was a great mix of voices and styles, and as I already had the full set of Telltale pamphlets – purchased in a spending flurry at last year’s Free Verse Poetry Book Fair – turned out to be an inexpensive night out. I would have bought Jack Underwood’s Faber collection Happiness but by the time I approached him he’d sold all the copies he’d brought along. Instead, he signed a Telltale postcard for me and I promised I’ll buy his book.

And last Sunday, I had a fourth row seat (thanks to Jill Abram’s excellent forward planning) for the T S Eliot Prize Readings at the Royal Festival Hall. I hadn’t read any of the shortlisted collections, so I went with an open mind, ready to be wowed. The readings which impressed me most were:
Mark Doty – humane, demotic, poignant and wise
Sarah Howe – a powerful and poised reading from memory
Selima Hill (read by Karen McCarthy Woolf) – short ambiguous poems suffused with pain and humour
Rebecca Perry – fresh, unusual, her own self
Claudia Rankine – mesmerising

By the end of the readings, though, the sinusitis fairy, which had been hovering nearby, had definitely taken up residence inside my head, so I made my excuses and hurried home. Thankfully, I was able to dislodge her before Joolz and I were due to read at Loose Muse.

There’s no let-up next week, as I plan to attend the Lumen Poetry reading on Tuesday 19th featuring poets from Malika’s Kitchen and then a poetry workshop on Saturday. Yes, a workshop. Me. Maybe I’ve caught poetry fever.



pale green fingers

December 24, 2015

Gardens and gardening have been a bit of a them this year. There was the Poetry School’s Mixed Borders scheme, which didn’t quite work out for me, and my continuing involvement with my local community roof garden. That involvement always felt rather timid and tentative to me, all tied up with my own insecurities and lack of confidence around the nitty-gritty of actual gardening.

So when Louisa, the tireless chair of our community roof garden, asked if I’d help organise a gardening club, the aim of which was to encourage people just like me – hankering to garden but not knowing where to start – to learn a few basic skills in a supportive environment – well, I could hardly say no. With funding from Wandsworth council, the Doddington and Rollo Community Roof Garden partnered with Thrive to offer 10 free weekly sessions on Wednesday afternoons for local people keen to learn about gardening. Thrive provided a horticultural therapist to be our gardening expert, and we recruited 14 enthusiastic wannabe-gardeners for our inaugural Gardening Club. Count me in!

We started in mid October and continued right up until this week. Most of our sessions have been out in the garden, getting stuck in with weeding, pruning, cutting back and some mammoth bulb-planting sessions, thanks to a generous donation of bulbs from the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association as part of their Bulbs for London scheme. Marc, our Thrive horticulturalist, has imparted lots of useful knowledge and tips, and given us a broad overview of plant life cycles and soil types. All delivered with a dry wit.

these boots are made for gardening

these boots are made for gardening

I’ve overcome, to a certain extent, my squeamishness about getting my hands dirty (gardening gloves, provided by the roof garden, help!) and encountering worms and other creepie-crawlies – not the eight-legged kind, mind, but Marc’s with me on that one. I’ve just about got the hang of annuals, biennials and perennials, and I know the difference between a rhizome and a stolon. Marc’s mnemonic: stolons stay up, rhizomes don’t. Most importantly, I’ve got my gardening outfit sorted: a pair of old cycling leggings, black cycle top, two hooded jackets and that pair of purple wellies I bought years ago and have hardly worn since – until now.

The Gardening Club has been the best sort of hard work and a lot of fun. Thanks to Marc at Thrive, fellow garden committee members Donna and Hadas, not to mention Louisa, and especially the great bunch of Gardening Club recruits who’ve pitched in and helped transform a large section of the garden. Roll on, spring! By then, I hope to have written a new poem, provisionally titled ‘Things My Horticulturalist Says.’

this rose

November 22, 2015


This rose knows nothing about Paris, Raqqa, global pain.

This rose is silent. It is a wordless song of colour and perfume.

This rose is not aware of climate change. It blooms when it is ready. Mid November – why not?

This rose grows on a rooftop in Battersea. When the garden is shut it continues its rose-existence. It does not miss me.

When I lean in to sniff its rain-fresh scent, does it sense me?

When I say hello, does it hear me?

Does it know it is a balm for my atheist soul?



not at Aldeburgh

November 6, 2015

It’s the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival this weekend. Anyone who is Anybody in the Poetry World will be there. Or most of the Somebodies, anyway. I imagine.

I’m not there. I’m not going. I have been to Aldeburgh – for the music festival, a couple of years ago. But the Poetry Festival clashes with my birthday, and oddly (or not) I don’t want to spend my birthday at a poetry festival. Therefore, I am not a Real Poet, as I have confessed before.

I find the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair stimulating in an overwhelming way. Not to mention the hit my wallet takes. So the idea of three whole days immersed in poetry events, readings, debates, all those names I should know, should have read, with no means of escape – well, frankly, the idea terrifies me. Perhaps I am more of a homebody than I realised. Perhaps I can only take my poetry in short, sharp doses. Maybe it’s willful. No doubt I am missing out and need to get over myself.

Instead, for my birthday, I’m planning a lie-in (I’m working again… I need a lie-in), brunch at a local café, and then a trip to the Small Publishers’ Fair at Conway Hall. I’ll need a drink and a debrief after that, I’m sure. On Sunday, it’s the Poetry Library Open Day and their provocatively titled live event The End of the Poem (which I had retitled in my head as The Death of the Poem). So it seems not everybody will be at Aldeburgh.

But for those of you who are – have a whale of a time! I look forward to reading your accounts. And thanks for going, so that I don’t have to.

not getting any younger

October 13, 2015

It’s a cliché and it’s true – none of us are getting any younger. But facing up to the reality of ageing, in a society that prizes youthfulness and demeans or ignores old age, is not easy. So The Emma Press’s new Anthology of Age feels like a small but much needed poetic intervention, a quiet prodding at one of our last taboos. I’m very pleased to have a poem included in the anthology – a poem I wrote nearly 20 years ago, but hadn’t sent out for nearly as long, because I was uncomfortable with the subject matter. There are a number of uneasy poems in this anthology, some unflinching looks at the difficulties and indignities too many people face in old age. But there are also splashes of humour, acres of compassion and humanity, and what the editor Sarah Hesketh describes in her introduction as ‘an immense outpouring of solidarity and shared feeling about ageing.’

One of my favourite poems in the book is 8 a.m. by Alison Brackenbury – four generous and joyous lines. Julia Bird’s Lethe and the Nightingale, composed solely from the words in Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, manages to be both a tour de force and a tugger of heart strings. For humour, head to Outside the Pub, Hurricane Bawbag by Russell Jones; while On the Ferry by Sandra Horn is understatedly defiant. Every poem is telling in its own way, and the anthology contains many tough and poignant poems, such as My Camel by Emma-Jane Hughes, which I read, put down, read again, and it still won’t let me go.

The book itself is a handsome thing, sensitively illustrated by publisher Emma Wright. After several tries, this is my first poem to be accepted for an Emma Press anthology, and the experience has been something of a joy. Detailed emails keeping contributors informed of progress, proofs to check, a proper contract, and one of the best organised launch readings I’ve attended. Happily, I’ve now had a poem accepted for the forthcoming second edition of Mildly Erotic Verse, due out in January 2016. Just don’t tell my Mum.

Anthology of Age

just in time for autumn — The Emma Press Anthology of Age

rounding off Mixed Borders

October 3, 2015

Top billing October 1st 2015

Top billing October 1st 2015

On Thursday evening there was a reading to celebrate the Mixed Borders scheme run earlier this year by the Poetry School in association with the Open Garden Squares Weekend. I’ve written previously about the scheme which, for most poets, led to a mini residency in a London park or garden in mid June. Over the summer, I continued to try to set something up with the park I hoped to work with, but unfortunately in the end this hasn’t proved possible. Nevertheless, I’ve learnt a lot along the way and have written a bunch of new poems about dew, orchards, old trees and more. Watch out, poetry magazine editors!

Thursday’s reading came under the umbrella of International Alert’s Talking Peace Festival, with the theme ‘peace in our city’. It took place in the cinema space inside the House of Vans, a thoroughly urban art and skate venue housed in railway arches beneath Waterloo station. Nearly a dozen poets from the Mixed Borders project gathered in the bare brick vault, perching ourselves on tiered plywood benches, and taking turns to clamber down to the front and read a short selection of poems. The attentive audience included friends and associates, but not too many skateboarders, as far as I could tell. As incongruous as the surroundings seemed for showcasing poetry about gardens, it meant there were no distractions and the poems flowered and dazzled in their own right. The variety and inventiveness were wonderful to hear – contemplative poems, collaborative and stitched together poems, lyrical, quirky, beautifully observed, and laugh-aloud funny poems. What also came through so strongly was the attachment each poet had formed with their allotted garden and how the experience has enriched their poetry in ways that will continue to ripple out. Even though my experience has been a little different, I’ve tackled new subject matter and poetic approaches, and written poems that have surprised me. My involvement with the Mixed Borders project has also deepened my appreciation of London’s green spaces and how invaluable they are to so many people.

The Poetry School has also produced an online pamphlet featuring a number of poems by each poet. You can stroll through our garden here: http://campus.poetryschool.com/campus-pamphlets-mixed-borders/

Or download the pdf version here: http://campus.poetryschool.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Mixed-Borders-FINAL.pdf

Yesterday I went to the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair and came home with:
One free notebook – thank you, Poetry School!
Two bookmarks
Three business cards
Three anthologies, including the free, chunky, Free Verse Poetry Book Fair anthology
Four collections
Nine free postcards
Ten pamphlets, including the full set of four Telltale Press pamphlets for a super-duper bargain price of £10.00
Assorted leaflets and flyers
One paper carrier bag with a broken handle
My head buzzing with conversations and possibilities
The word ‘budget’ devoid of meaning

When I spread out my spoils on the bed this morning I felt slightly queasy. I think that’s called a poetry hangover. Nothing that a little light reading won’t cure.

Poetry Book Fair spoils

Poetry Book Fair spoils

High-flying Hilda

September 20, 2015

Yesterday morning I joined a small crowd on Vardens Road, SW11, for the unveiling of a Battersea Society plaque honouring Hilda Hewlett.

Hilda who? Only the first British woman to gain a pilot’s licence, back in 1911, aged 47. And an extremely enterprising woman, who opened a flying school in Weybridge with her French business partner, Gustave Blondeau, and later diversified into manufacturing aircraft. This is where the Battersea connection comes in. Hewlett and Blondeau set up aircraft production in premises on Vardens Road. They built monoplanes and biplanes, employing skilled locals in their workshop, until the outbreak of the First World War. Then, with increased demand, they moved production to larger premises in Bedfordshire.

Pauline Vahey

Pauline Vahey at plaque unveiling, 4 Vardens Road SW11, September 19 2015

At the plaque unveiling, Pauline Vahey, from the British Women Pilots’ Association, spoke about the continued importance of celebrating such pioneering role models as Hilda Hewlett, to encourage and inspire girls and young women to pursue careers in aviation and engineering – or simply to consider recreational flying as a possibility.

Hilda’s grand-daughter-in-law, Gail Hewlett, was also at the unveiling. She gave a brief and entertaining overview of this formidable woman’s life, and concluded by saying that if Hilda knew there was a plaque commemorating her she would be amazed – and secretly rather pleased. Gail’s book about Hilda, Old Bird. The Irrepressible Mrs Hewlett, looks to be a cracking read with some great photos. I’m going to have to track down a copy somehow.

and behind the purple pashmina...

and behind the purple pashmina…

I am an immigrant. Have you heard of this campaign? Have you seen the posters? What an urgent and vital voice it seems at the moment.

I am an immigrant too. I was born and grew up in Australia. I lived in Melbourne until my early twenties when I decided to move to London. My father was Scottish, which means I have dual Australian and British nationality. An accident of birth.

My story is not extraordinary. I wasn’t fleeing persecution or civil war. All I had to do was obtain my British passport and purchase a one-way ticket to London. My reasons for migrating weren’t economic, but personal and probably a bit mixed up. I arrived in London at a time of high unemployment. Ironically, one of my first jobs was working in an Unemployment Benefit Office. I remember the long queues on signing on days, and the antiquated ticker-tape computer, which was operated by a rather fierce woman, feeding the tape into the machine to send data to Reading. Happy days.

I am acutely aware of my privilege/luck/good fortune/luxury—to have the choice of two countries to reside in—both relatively stable and with all the first-world trappings we take for granted. I’ve been able to fashion my life broadly as I’ve wanted, and my struggles are mostly around writing and seeking some kind of creative fulfilment (whatever that might mean).

Yet on our doorstep, desperate people risk their lives to escape deeply desperate situations. There is an issue around language, here, and it matters at some level I think. In many of the reports I’ve read about Calais, and the boats sinking off the coast of Libya, and the abandoned lorry in Austria, the tragic victims are referred to as “migrants”. The word “refugee” seems to have gone missing. To my mind, the word “migrant” diminishes or disguises the extreme plight which such people are fleeing. A few other terms worth rehabilitating would be “humanity” and “compassion”.

We’re full of awe for nature’s epic migrations. Why do we find it so hard to acknowledge, let alone celebrate, similar tenacity and spirit in our own species?


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