“Outsider Heart” Trevor Wright (Big White Shed) – poetry review

Outsider Heart by Trevor Wright book coverTrevor Wright is fairly well-known in Nottingham’s spoken word and poetry scene and has even on occasion intrepidly drifted over the border into Leicester to read his anthologised poems. With “Outsider Heart” he dips his toe into the pool of poetry pamphlets enabling him to direct audiences to further work. His poems are personal, often deploying a self-deprecating humour. “Exit Wound” ends

“Gram n Emmy Lou done warned me that love hurts and wounds and mars
so perhaps it’s best to leave things be, and respect you for afar.
But that’s left a hole there in my heart that just doesn’t seem to heal
and the exit wound you left behind, for the whole wide world to see.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re not a fan of Gram Parsons or Emmy Lou Harris, the recognition that love doesn’t work as popular songs say it does is universal. The end of line rhymes are a nod to those popular songs but don’t clunk into predictability. There’s handy father to daughter advice in “A Father’s Message to His Daughter on the Day of the Commemoration of His Unexpected Demise” which is centred on the page and contains useful gems such as:

“This hire car clutch isn’t going to change just for you now is it?
Pack your rucksack properly and your shoulders won’t hurt.”

The poem ends:

“Sit on a sunny bench
Relax when it’s cold
Sing in your heart
You are beautiful
But above all else
Be yersen.”

The centring and the use of longer lines becoming shorter lines as the poem moves down the page, gives it the shape of a whirlwind. The easy, casual tone of the opening lines become less conversational and more direct towards the end. It suggests a hesitancy in the father and daughter relationship which becomes lost as the father realises he needs to get to the point. The key word, “yourself” is rendered in phonetically-spelt dialect, suggestive of the father wanting his daughter to absolutely understand his point, to bring her home almost as if he’s sharing a secret.

This observant eye is turned to a newspaper story in “Blues of Andrew” where a pudgy outsider is killed by a single punch outside a supermarket.

“Manslaughter.
Four years.
Most likely out in two.
I don’t really understand what all the fuss is about said the young boxer’s mum.
It will all be lining for chips tomorrow.
The other mum declined to comment.”

One mother has no qualms defending her child’s indefensible behaviour. The other mother retreats into her grief. I did wonder at the use of “mum” for Andrew’s mother, it seems too casual for the point being made. It does though get to the core of “Outsider Heart”, the outsider observing, recording and inviting readers to look again at the familiar and ask if they’ve really understood what they are seeing.

Further details from Big White Shed

“The Yellow House” Jeroen Blokhuis (Holland Park Press) – novel review

The Yellow House by Jeroen Blokhuis book coverSubtitled “A novel about Vincent Van Gogh” and translated from the Dutch by Asja Novak, this novel focuses on the painter’s life from August 1888 to December 1889, when he moved from Paris to Arles, hoping to paint the Mediterranean sun and create a painters’ school. The opening plunges readers into the aftermath of a murder, blamed on Italian migrants and Van Gogh is roped into ensuring the last two migrants are driven away. The migrants already know that leaving isn’t safe and go peacefully. On the way back into Arles, Van Gogh is thinking about the children who periodically throw stones at him when he’s static at his easel. Curiously, although the novel is in Van Gogh’s viewpoint, he never draws parallels between his situation and that of the Italian migrants. The implication is that Van Gogh sees himself as the outsider and doesn’t attempt to integrate with the locals, despite eating out and using a local prostitute.

When Gaugain visits, Van Gogh gives him the bedroom, anxious that Gaugain’s stay will be a happy one because he wants this to be the beginning of his school. He spends his days painting and his nights in long conversation with his guest, leading to lack of sleep and malnourishment. Readers see a Van Gogh who flits between reading and observing people and being completely baffled by them. He’s most at ease in front of his easel, but never discusses his paintings in detail although he describes what he’s trying to capture. In one scene, both painters paint Marie Ginoux where it is Gaugain who tries to put his subject at ease while Van Gogh observes and paints.

The ear cutting incident is dealt with in the aftermath, when, weakened by blood loss, Van Gogh is incoherent and taken to a psychiatric hospital. Gaugain leaves, fearing his visit triggered the incident, although Van Gogh already had a history of psychosis. Van Gogh recovers sufficiently to return to Arles and the novel ends before his final stay in an asylum.

Through “The Yellow House” readers see the painter as a man incapable of managing everyday life and driven to paint. Jeroen Blokhuis avoids the cliche of tortured, misunderstood genius and creates Van Gogh as someone inspired by his surroundings, who largely communicated by painting and a man blighted by poverty and an inability to integate with others, blaming himself for not being able to make friends. In this way Van Gogh is recognisable and sympathetic. He sees with a poetic (but not archaic) eye, often describing what he sees as eloquently as he paints it. Even readers who are not a fan of the artist, will find much to recognise in an empathetic portrait of a driven man finding his talents leave him on the fringes of society, observing but not invited to join in. An elegantly written, convincing novel that’s as layered and multi-dimensional as a Van Gogh painting.

The Yellow House is available from Holland Park Press.


 

Social Media Bullies

Would you

a) Tag a writer in a public Facebook status to ask them to read your manuscript whilst pointing out that they ought to help struggling or beginner writers
or
b) Approach a professional service to review and critique your manuscript because you’re aware that writers will charge a fee, may not have the time and acknowledge that just because a writer has had a book published, it doesn’t make them experts in how to get your book published because writers aren’t publishers?

Would you

a) Tweet a writer publicly to ask them to review your book with a link to where the book is for sale (effectively implying the writer should buy a copy and then review it)
or
b) Check if the writer has a reviews policy and follow it or find a contact address and email them privately to ask?

Would you

a) Tag a writer in a public status to ask about an event the writer is not taking part in and has no connection with
or
b) Sensibly realise the organisers might be better placed to answer your question?

Would you

a) Use a public Facebook comment to ask a writer for help with a school project saying you will lose marks or get a lower grade if the writer doesn’t help
or
b) Acknowledge that a writer is not obliged to help with your school project and make a polite request by private email without the blackmail?

Would you

a) leave a public comment after a blog post to ask a writer to review a blog site on the basis that the writer should be interested in the blog topic
or
b) Accept that a writer’s job is to write, not to review your site and certainly not for free and in any case a private request might be better?

Would you

a) Publicly tag a writer to ask them to recommend magazines or publishers to submit work to.
or
b) Acknowledge that there are no short cuts to doing your own research and targeting the right markets for your work and that another writer may be able to tell you where they got published, but would not be able to tell you which publishers would accept your work?

Did you answer mainly a) or mainly b)? Discuss.

Journeys in Translation – update

but one country Rod Duncan showing English original and Shona translation by Ambrose MusiyiwaJourneys in Translation is seeking translators to help translate 13 poems from “Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” (Five Leaves, 2015) from English into other languages for an event being held in Leicester on International Translation Day, 30 September 2017, as part of Everybody’s Reading. During the event the original poems and translations will be read and displayed.

So far the 13 poems have been translated into Bengali, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Shona, Spanish, Turkish and Welsh with assistance from 16 translators (translators working in a group have been counted as one translator) who have translated at least one poem each. The most popular poems to be translated have been Pam Thompson’s “Dislocation” and Rod Duncan’s “but one country”. Translators have said they picked these because they felt it would be challenge, particularly because “but one country” is a verbal mirror image poem and, like the original, translators have been ensuring their translations also work in a mirror image.

One translator has commented, “The process of translation always involves a certain degree of what is known as ‘translation loss’. There are certain ideas, objects or experiences that can never be satisfactorily translated because they simply do not exist in the target language’s culture. For example, the phrase ‘a present from Skegness’ in the poem ‘Framed’ by Marilyn Ricci carries connotations for the UK-based reader, but will be lost in translation for the German reader. I imagine that sometimes when refugees try to describe the lives they left behind, the equivalent words are simply not available, which therefore means that on top of all the others losses there is a further loss on a linguistic level… this sense of powerlessness through the loss of communication tools can feel extremely uncomfortable. I found that when focusing on the words and stories within the poems I started to really focus on the human aspect of the refugee crisis, which I had not perhaps really appreciated until this point. Suddenly all those news images and statistics took on a more personal meaning.”

At the start of the project, coordinator Ambrose Musiyiwa held a workshop in Leicester with further workshops planned at the Soundcafe and local community centres.

We look forward to more translations into more languages and to working with people from everywhere.

Anyone who would like to have a go at translating the poems can join the Journeys in Translation Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/316952552020172/) or contact one of the organisers.

“Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” is being sold to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Leicester City of Sanctuary and Nottingham Refugee Forum. Copies of the anthology are available from De Montfort University Bookshop (Leicester) and Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham).

Lost and Found at Write On, a Leicester Writers’ Showcase 15 February 2017

9780956696793Write On, a Leicester Writers’ Showcase featured the anthology “Lost and Found: Stories from Leicestershire Writers” (Dahlia Publishing, 2016) at Leicester’s Central Library. The evening had eight writers reading extracts from their stories and question and answer sessions with the writers and Farhana Shaikh, publisher.

Farhana Shaikh welcomed everyone and introduced the first four readers. I was first to read with an extract from my story “Someone Else’s Wallpaper”. It’s about a young couple, Mark and Charlotte, who move into a new house with their baby, Bethany. The house had been refurbished before they moved in with the exception of the master bedroom which had a chintzy rose-covered wallpaper. Charlotte’s been haunted by the scent of roses and suspects the roses have been multiplying. When Bethany takes ill with suspected pneumonia, a well-intentioned neighbour reveals a secret about the previous owner to Charlotte. Next up was Drew Gummerson reading from “Adrian” told from a viewpoint of a fifteen-year-old boy whose parents have (separately) left home so he falls under the influence of Adrian. Grace Haddon followed with “Zenith”, a story about a community on a space station where it’s announced they will be returning “home” (i.e. back to earth) but one girl, who was born on the space station, wonders where exactly her home is. Tony R Cox finished the readings for the first half with “Under a Savage Sky” about a man trying to make a home in an isolated house when storm forces him to confront the reason he’d been force to leave his previous home, a reason he’d buried in denial.

The question and answer session started with a discussion on inspiration. Grace said she’s brainstormed and took the idea to an extreme – what does home mean if you were born in space? Tony placed his main character in a place where he has to make a home. Drew’s story had elements of biography. Mine was inspired by a house viewing where a house had been refurbished but it looked as if the builders had thought “let’s give the main bedroom a feminine touch” and gone for garish pink-rosed wallpaper which got me thinking about who might have chosen such a wallpaper to live with and why. There was a question on how writers felt about being edited. Being edited is part of the job. Drew mentioned one agent liked his novel on the basis of the first ten thousand words he’d sent her but then, seeing the completed book, she asked that the ten thousand words be cut. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those ten thousand words were wasted: the ideas, characters or themes might recur in other work. The “what are you working on now” question was replied with editing, finishing or thinking about novels, drafting poems, about to write a review and writing blog articles. A question about whether writers consider sounds when they write prompted a discussion about how useful it was to read work aloud – whether poetry or prose – because the writer not only heard how it sounded but it highlighted repetitions, tongue-twisting sentences and odd words that were out of keeping with the others. I discussed how sounds leant meaning to the story as well: long vowels create smooth sounds or short, clipped vowels give a staccato rhythm which could be employed to support or counter the narrative strand either reassuring or discomforting the reader. There were thoughts on the differences between poetry and prose, the former being more concentrated and distilled, the latter giving writers more space to explore themes. When asked if I preferred prose or poetry, I said I had a preference for poetry but someone else might answer differently.

The second half followed the same format with readings from Jamie Mollart, whose “Home Game” looks at domestic violence through the lens of a crucial home game for Leicester City Football Club. Amy Ball with “Buzz’s Fury” about discrimination faced by a couple travelling with a circus. Rebecca Burns read from “Moving the Furniture” where a homesick woman yearns to return to England after circumstances push her to emigrate to New Zealand. Siobhan Logan’s “Whitby Jet” starts as a final holiday before an elderly lady surrenders to being packed off into a care home, which uncovers hidden memories.

When questioned about the differences between a novel and short story, the four seemed in agreement that short stories were more succinct, focused and offer more opportunity to experiment with form or structure. The writers felt their best short stories came when they could see how it was going to end before beginning to write. Farhana mentioned that in selecting stories for the anthology, all editors were clear that they wanted stories with a strong ending, not necessarily one that tied up all loose ends, but one that stayed in the reader’s mind and rewarded re-reading. Jamie pointed out that weak stories were those set up to end on a punchline that was interesting once but didn’t sustain re-reading. Some of the panel confessed to using music to set a mood. Jamie’s novels had soundtracks, music he’d played whilst writing, as it helped with a consistency of tone. Amy said she found music distracting while she actually wrote because she’d get caught up in the song and lose sight of the page. All four said they would read sections aloud while writing.

Leicester Writes is running a short story competition with shortlisted and prize-winning stories included in an anthology to be published by Dahlia Publishing. Full Leicester Writes Short Story Competition details here.

Copies of “Lost and Found: stories of home by Leicestershire writers” are available from Dahlia Publishing.


Welcome to Leicester event at DeMontfort University 27 February 2017

A Poet’s Biography

Following my article on dealing with rejection, you decided that sending out some poems (after following submission guidelines) was a good idea and managed to get some accepted. Now you’re been asked for a writer’s biography…

  • Check any word count you’ve been given. If there isn’t a word count, use 50 words as a guideline (that’s 50 words maximum)
  • It’s worth having a look at the publication’s current ‘notes on contributors’ to see if there’s a general format followed (that doesn’t mean you have to follow it but it gives you a starting point)
  • Always write in the third person so that your name appears in your biography (“I” could be any of the contributors and editors don’t have time to rewrite your biography)
  • Mention your best achievements to date: these could be your most recent collection, a reading, an award and your blog. A list of magazines is repetitive so stick to one or two and mention other things you’ve done.
  • A year of birth is better than your current age (which may be out of date by the time the magazine appears), but bear in mind that age is only interesting if you’re very young or very old and often best left out.
  • Take care when mentioning personal details. You may love your children to bits but they aren’t going to be taking a copy of the poetry magazine to school boasting about how their parent named them in the biography so stick to “has two children” or leave them out.
  • You need not mention your cat/dog/goldfish either, unless they happen to be relevant to the accepted poem.
  • Be wary of giving an exact location. Lives in City A is fine but if you mention a specific district, people may recognise where you live or combine with other information you’ve posted online or elsewhere and figure out where you live. It’s unlikely you’ll get fans camping on your doorstep, but exercise a bit of caution as to how much information you give out.
  • Quirky hobbies can add interest, but keep it relevant and make sure it’s not something you’re going to be embarrassed by in 10 years’ time.
  • Humour is difficult to carry off successfully. It works in a poem because the poem has its own context. A funny phrase or joke in a biography can just look odd.
  • If you stick to a format of name, a couple of publication credits, blog/website address, notable writing achievements, location and any interesting/quirky information chances are you’ll have met the word count before giving anything potentially embarrassing away.
  • Do tailor your writer’s biography to the publication you’re appearing in. It is easy to use the same wording each time you’re asked for a biography, but that gets very boring for readers.

A writer’s biography is a way of giving readers a chance to find out more about you and your work so one that points readers in the direction of your publications or where to find your blog/website is going to be more successful than one that tells readers when you were born, where you live, contains a joke and fails to mention anything else.

Combining Writing and a Day Job

The clickbait headline, “As celebrity books boom, professional authors are driven out of full time work“, isn’t an accurate portrayal of the article where novelist Donal Ryan explains why he is returning to a day job in the Irish Civil Service despite having three bestselling novels in five years. It’s not actually the fault of celebrities and the article does point out that the average earnings for writers is polarising – as with with most wages – the gap between the high earners and lower earners is getting wider. Nearly 10% of writers earn as much as an MP (£74692) and 50% earn less than £10500 (the average wage in the UK is £26500 to put those figures in context). In a world where celebrities can fall out of favour quickly, it’s hardly surprising that agents urge them to make money while they can and I’ve not seen anyone suggest that celebrity perfumes are putting perfumers out of business.

Consequently Donal Ryan isn’t the only writer with a day job. Ultimately, does it matter?

T S Eliot and Wallace Stevens are frequently trotted out as poets who held down day jobs whilst writing. Search engines will find reams of articles on “good” day jobs for writers. Some argue for a writing-related job such as teaching creative writing or working in advertising. Others suggest jobs should have as little to do with writing as possible but offer life experience such as customer-facing jobs (although most customer-facing jobs offer little time to interact with customers and, in some cases, penalise workers who deviate from a standard script). Others suggest physical work as a counter to time spent sitting and writing. Some writers like the structure offered by having to work around a day job. Others point out that applying for bursaries, grants, funding and writers-in-residence opportunities is almost a full-time job.

Let’s not forget that Wallace Stevens got his secretary to type out poems that were either dictated or scribbled on scraps of paper. T S Eliot had lengthy lunch breaks where he could organise literary meetings and didn’t have to work in an open plan office. These points are not insignificant. Writers who successfully combine day jobs and writing do so because:

  • They have some control over the hours they work. Those who write in the morning negotiate a later start or pick a job that starts in the afternoon/evening. Those who write in the evening do the opposite.
  • The job offers space to think either in breaks where a writer can find a quiet spot or in the commute.
  • The job offers a regular salary that covers the bills. Freelancing or applying for frequent short-term jobs with all the associated insecurity creates stress and anxiety which are not conductive to writing. Short term stress, such as meeting a deadline, can be a useful counter to procrastination and help get the writing done, but prolonged, ongoing stress isn’t just bad to writing it creates ill-health.
  • Their jobs offer the chance to meet people without having to stick to a script who might provide inspiration for writing.
  • They operate strong boundaries between work and writing, albeit with some flexibility, so that one doesn’t overlap with or interfere with the other. That might still mean sacrificing some writing time to meet a work project deadline or being able to book time off work to attend a literature event.

The obvious disadvantage combining a day job and writing is less time to write, less time to research and less time to practice writing skills. There’s no time to spend an afternoon writing a sestina just so a poet can really understand the form. Research has to be disciplined and focused so there’s less time for interesting side lines and diversions. Time spent writing really has to be spent writing and not frittered away on cat videos (although cat videos are useful if they are a way of breaking through a tricky plot issue or figuring out whether the third stanza should really be the fourth stanza. Social media is not evil.)

When you’re juggling a day job and writing or struggling to make enough from writing to pay the bills, it’s easy to become envious of celebrities who have no writing experience yet manage to pick a book deal. But they are the wrong target. J K Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (UK title) was published in 1997 alongside Philip Pullman’s “The Subtle Knife”, Jacqueline Wilson’s “Girls in Love”, Rick Riordan’s “Big Red Tequila” and Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York’s “Budgie the Little Helicopter”. Guess which of those writers isn’t writing today?


Write On a Leicester Writers Showcase February 2017 Lost and Found