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

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.

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!

Poetry taster workshops – TICK

On Tuesday, I led the last of five poetry taster workshops at Battersea Park Library. Considering I first started planning these with the library staff nearly two years ago, this feels like quite an achievement. We’d aimed to start in early spring 2020, but we all know what happened.

Personally, it’s also an achievement, as I’ve not run many workshops, and still struggle with that inner voice that tells me I’m a fraud. So a big pat on the back for me. And guess what? I really enjoyed the sessions and it seems the participants did too! We had some good discussions about the sample poems I brought to each session, and it was great to hear the different ways individuals responded to the exercises. There was also quite a lot of laughter. Phew! Writing poetry can be fun, as well as serious.

I spent a lot of time planning the sessions and searching for poems to share. All of this enriches my own practice, of course. I scribbled away during the free writing and other exercises in each session too, so have some material of my own to work on. Our librarian has offered to display some of the poems written as part of these sessions in the library, which will be rewarding to see. And judging by feedback from my attendees, there is definitely appetite for further poetry writing sessions.

After Tuesday’s session, I spent a bit of time reflecting on how it all went and what I can learn form the experience. My top ‘takeaway’ has to be that I need to learn to trust and have confidence in my ideas. Second on the list: an hour is not very long!

I must also say a big thank you to Troy, one of Wandsworth Libraries’ staff and an accomplished poet in his own right, who assisted with the sessions, keeping an eye on timings and generally being on hand for anything I needed, as well as offering his own poetic insights! Long live libraries and poetry!

writing local / local writing

I’m happy to have a poem included in a new anthology, Words of Wandsworth, edited by Emily Zinkin, and supported by Wandsworth Libraries and Heritage Service and Moishe House. The anthology includes poems, short stories, art and photography by Wandsworth residents, with each contribution featuring an aspect of the borough of Wandsworth in some way. My poem, Lone Piper in Battersea Park, is one I’ve being trying to find a home for for quite some time, and has undergone the odd bit of tinkering and then a hard pruning, before finally landing safely in this local anthology.

The anthology was launched with an outdoor party on Wandsworth Common a couple of weeks ago, and it was great to meet some of the other writers and artists, some of whom were seeing their work in print for the very first time – always a special moment. There was fizz, cake and even a bit of sunshine. You can find out more about the anthology, order a print copy, or download a pdf version for free on the Words of Wandsworth website.

I’ve also contributed a poem to the Royal Society of Literature’s Write Across London Map. This project aims ‘to create a poetic snapshot of the city at an historic moment in its life’, with poems reflecting Londoners’ experiences of the pandemic and lockdown. Anyone living in London is invited to send in a poem for the map, with submissions closing on National Poetry Day, Thursday 7th October. You can read my poem In Other News here.

And in other other news, I’m preparing to run a series of free poetry taster workshops at my local Battersea Park library, starting on Tuesday 2nd November. The sessions are designed for adults with little or no experience of writing poetry to take their first steps in an informal and supportive environment. Spaces are limited so please contact the library if you are interested on 020 7720 4122 or batterseapark.library@gll.org

January was my August

I’ve been thinking about that ‘back to school’ feeling that many on this side of the world associate with the end of August and the beginning of September. For me, as I grew up in Australia, January was the long summer school holidays and the new school year began in February. August was winter, and we had two weeks school holiday in September, as the days grew longer and signs of spring appeared.

It definitely feels like summer is ending here in England now. There’s a distinctly autumnal feel to the air, and a creeping sense of melancholy. In Australia, it’s still summer in February, when schools return, and I remember sweltering hot schooldays in February and even March. In primary school, the quarter pints of milk for morning playtime were left outside, in direct sun (according to my memory), which put me off milk for a long time. I think our mother asked the school to excuse my younger sister and me from this warm, souring, drink.

But back to January. I wrote a poem about this month, as part of a South Bank Poetry workshop I did several years ago, led by Katherine Lockton. The poem was published in Brittle Star issue 39, and I thought I would share it here.

Summer Hols

January was paddleboats,
mint choc chip in a stale cone,
sunburn dressed in cold black tea,
French cricket on the beach
and the mad zigzag dash
provoked by march flies.
January was salt and sand
and high hot winds delivering
a peppery frisson of bushfire smoke.
January was Back to School sales
in town. January was endless
like boredom. One long 
Sunday evening of
low-level dread.

June Review

June was a busy and rewarding month for me. The Wandsworth Heritage Festival, postponed from last year, kicked off at the end of May, and on the third of June Joolz Sparkes and I gave an online reading from our co-authored poetry collection London Undercurrents. We’d chosen poems that related in one way or another to the Festival’s theme of Homes and Housing, and accompanied each poem with one or two images. And although we hadn’t given a live reading together for quite some time, as soon as we started it all seemed to flow and we both thoroughly enjoyed it. More importantly, so did the audience! The reading was recorded and is available to view on Vimeo, thanks to the Battersea Society who hosted our event.

I attended several other Wandsworth Heritage Festival events, and continue to be inspired and excited by the area’s rich heritage. A number of online talks are still available on Wandsworth Libraries’ YouTube channel, and I’m particularly looking forward to watching A Tooting Childhood, with best-selling author Beryl Kingston sharing memories of growing up in Tooting.

Nine Elms was a featured destination of this year’s London Festival of Architecture. Alongside all the new buildings going up, new public spaces and through routes are being created. One of these is Arch 42, under the Nine Elms to Waterloo railway viaduct, which is being opened up as part of a new pedestrian route through Nine Elms. I was commissioned to research the history of Arch 42 and the impact of the railways on the local area for a webinar as part of the London Festival of Architecture. The timescale was tight, which made it quite a challenge, but I quickly felt that buzz of delving deep into obscure corners of history and suddenly becoming a bit of railway nerd! Once again, too, I felt so grateful for library and archive resources, and the patient staff dealing with my requests and queries. I was surprised at how many books about the railways there are in Wandsworth’s libraries, though I shouldn’t have been, given the huge impact they had on the area’s development, and Battersea in particular.

The next challenge was whittling down all that research into a five minute talk for the webinar. On the day, I was pretty nervous, but took some deep breaths to calm the nerves, and delivered the talk without any waffle or hiccoughs. There was also a panel discussion and I surprised myself by feeling quite relaxed as I contributed, helped no doubt by knowing my subject quite thoroughly by then. The history of the railways, and their infrastructure, is really fascinating, and I now view the numerous railway bridges and viaducts near where I live with a deeper appreciation.

I hardly had time to catch my breath before my next challenge – delivering an online workshop for Capital Growth. I’d seen their callout for online workshops earlier this year, and pitched my idea for a workshop themed around writing about gardens and gardening as a way to create a deeper connection with your garden and nature. The process then of developing my initial ideas into a full presentation including some writing exercises I found rewarding, though I did have to tune out of those doubting voices in my head, which love to undermine my ideas. I did a couple of practice runs with my willing guinea pig, Nick, to check the timing and test the content. Again, some deep breaths needed before the workshop started, and then the hour and a half flew past. Although I’d suggested after my first couple of slides that participants could unmute and chip in (it was a manageable sized group), this didn’t really happen until the end, so it was hard to gauge as I went along how engaged people were. But there were a few favourable comments in the chat, which encouraged me, and, as we wrapped up, in person too. And Capital Growth forwarded more lovely feedback afterwards. There are a few things I will do differently next time, for instance one of the participants pointed out that the Chat function on Zoom is useless for people who are visually impaired. But I’m definitely giving myself a pat on the back for delivering my first online workshop.

I’m also, in a very small way, involved in this year’s Wandsworth Arts Fringe. Nine Elms based creative duo WHABBstudio asked for community responses to the question ‘How do you feel about climate change?’ I sent in a reworked version of a short poem I’d posted on Twitter in response to Poets for the Planet’s #BeginAfresh prompt last year. You can see this and other responses online and at various sites around the borough during the Fringe. My poem is on display at Downshire Field, Alton Estate SW15 4PS.

Lastly, my absolute cultural highlight of June was the Women Making History exhibition at London Scottish House. This is a display of over 100 banners made by groups of women in 2018 for PROCESSIONS to mark the centenary of some women in the UK getting the vote. The variety, creativity and passion displayed in these banners is uplifting and inspirational. They are also a reminder that the fight for equality is not won. As Charlotte Despard enjoined, we must BELIEVE IN DISCONTENT. The exhibition is on until 11th July – do see it if you can.

Nine Elms banner for Processions