Leicester statues – no poets found

The Leicester Mercury, asked their readers to vote on which additional statue should be added to the list of Public Art, according to which Leicester has statues of Gandhi, Thomas Cook, Arthur Wakerley, King Richard III, William Shakespeare, Cardinal Wolsey, John Wycliff, Hugh Latimer, John Biggs, Robert Hall, John Henry Manners and a statue depicting three sportsmen (Sporting Success). There’s also a statue to Queen Ethelfloeda (in the Guildhall courtyard), The Little Seamstress (a generic statue representing the textile industry) and Lady Liberty with one of Alice Hawkins about to be unveiled. Leicester city won’t accept nominations for statues of living people.

The Leicester Mercury options were David Attenborough, Richard Attenborough, Martin Johnson, Kasabian, Daniel Lambert, Gary Lineker, Nelson Mandela, Claudio Ranieri. Their article was closed to comments so there was no option to nominate alternatives or ask why there were no women on the list. I’m still waiting for a response from my letter to the editor. I’m not holding my breath and suspect if a response is ever forthcoming it will be suggested that the poll was a “bit of fun.”

So as not to starve Leicestershire’s daughters of ambition, here are some nominations (to conform to Leicester City Council’s stipulations, all are no longer with us):

Agnes Archer Evans – educationalist (aka Agnes Archer Kilgour)
Caroline Ashurst Biggs – academic
Mary Attenborough – founding member Marriage Guidance Council, Kindertransport supporter
Anne Ayre Hely – nurse
Ruth Banton – social worker helped form Women’s Labour League, involved in Highcross St Infant Welfare Centre & promoted a Municipal Maternity Home
Diane Battenham – sports
Anna Chrysogen Beale headmistress Belmont House School
Mary J. Bell-Richards – Board of Guardians, secretary NUBSO
Kathleen Benson – social worker chair of City Health Committee
Susan Bird – Leicester Hosiery Union, city councillor Humberstone ward
Evelyn Carryer – secretary of the Leicester and Leicestershire Women’s Suffrage Society, founder member of the WSPU in Leicester.
Agnes Spencer Clarke – suffragette and novelist.
Bertha Maria Clarke – founding member of the local WSPU
Doris Connolly – founder member of New Parks Residents’ Association. Connolly Close named after her (and her husband).
Dorothy Davis – teach, sered on the education committee of city council; rebelled in support of Ugandan refugees.
Sarah Louise Donaldson – involved with the formation of the Leicester Health Society, suffragette
Betty Driver – actor
Charlotte Ellis – anti-slavery campaigner on Leicester Board of Guardians
Jennie Fletcher – sports
Emily Comber Fortey – first woman elected as a Labour Councillor in Leicester.
Elizabeth Rowley Frisby – councillor Knighton ward and JP in 1927
Fanny Fullagar – Poor Law Guardian & councillor
Mary Catherine Gittins – secretary National Union of Women Workers, suffragette
Edith Gittins – artist (exhibited at Royal Academy), founded Leicester Women’s Liberal Association, suffragette
May Goodwin MBE – President Leicester Women’s Branch of the Boot and Shoe Union, city councillor
Maggie Gracie (aka Maggie Nandy) – secretary Leicester Campaign for Racial Equality, founded Inter-Racial Solidarity Campaign, teacher
Adelize Grandmesnil (wife of Hugh Governor of Leicester in 11th century)
Elizabeth Heyrick – writer
Violet Holmes – chair Public Baths & Cleansing Committee
Catherine Irwin – JP, Board of Guardians
Constance E. Jackson – city councillor Lord Mayor 1963
Marjory Kempe – Christian mystic
Maria Leafe – first secretary Leicester Railway Women’s Guild, counciller (Aylestone)
Lilian Lenton – suffragette
Mary Linwood – needlewoman
Sarah Eveline Lines (aka Eva Lines) – teacher, suffragette
Isobel Logan – suffragette
Ada Lovelace – mathematician/coder (lived at Kirby Mallory)
Kate O’Mara – actor
Lily Marriott MBE, JP – councillor Abbey ward served on Rent Tribunal, Hillcrest Hospital Committee, Social Serices Committee, Public Assistance Committee. Lord Mayor of Leicester 1975
Phoebe Mason – secretary Seamers and Stitchers Society, first woman delegate to Trades Council in 1875 and first woman to address the TUC (1877)
Bridget Paton – first woman officer Amalgamated Union of Enginers (1975)
Marina (May) Peach – founder member Labour League of Women, helped form Leicester Health Society (1905)
Edith Rimmington – painter
Deborah Ross – suffragette, secretary Leicester Secular Society
Mary Royce – doctor
Agnes Scott – ran a leper colony, thought to be a source of Black Annis myth
Janet Setchfield – councillor North Braunstone, served on Environmental Health and Public Control, Estates and Finance Committee, governor of several local schools and of Southfields Further Education College and was a member of the Leicestershire Health Authority. Lord Mayor 1985 (County Council)
Ellen Sherriff – suffragette
Annie Stretton – National President Railway Women’s Guild, founder member Woman’s Labour League in Leicester
Sue Townsend – writer
Susanna Watts – writer
Mrs Catherine Willson – social worker, executive member Infants’ Nursing Home, secretary Leicester District Committee of Cooperative Guilds
Elizabeth Willson – first woman to sit on Executive Council of NUBSO, co-founded (with Alice Hawkins) Independent National Union of Women Boot and Shoe Workers.

This list is not comprehensive and further suggestions are welcome.


The Institute of Physics Flash Fiction and Poetry Competitions

Open to any writer resident in the UK for a piece of flash fiction or poem of 500 words or fewer where the theme involves physics or a physicist. If you’re not sure if your idea qualifies, email writingcompetition2017 [at] iop.org. Entries restricted to one per person per competition so you can enter one poem, one flash fiction or one poem and one piece of flash fiction, but not two poems or two pieces of flash fiction. Full rules from the email address given.

Prizes in each competition: First Place £100, Second Place £75, Third Place £50.

Closing Date 31 October 2017. Free entry – entries to be sent to the email address.

Ideas:

  • Aspect of a physicist’s life or work
  • Fictional physicist makes a discovery or invention
  • Group of scientists working at a facility such as CERN or an Antarctic base or the International Space Station
  • A real-life physics-related event
  • A technological utopia or dystopia
  • Environments such as space, the deep sea, etc
  • Change a law of physics – what happens?

Judging Panel includes a physicist and fiction judge. I will be the poetry judge.


Leicester Writers Showcase Ella @ 100

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“four and twenty” anthology (Pinggg….K!)

“four and twenty” celebrates five years of Pinggg…K!, one of Leicester’s more eclectic poetry and spoken word nights. Pinggg…K! meet on the last Tuesday of each month welcoming metrosexual verse (in keeping with Rikki Beadle-Blair’s soap Metrosexuality), acoustic music and visual art. Icelandic artist Magnus Gesstson opened his Galleri Gestur at Pinggg…K! The set is one of open mics and featured performances. Featured performances have included Dean Atta, Mellow Baku, Rob Gee, Cora Greenhill, Helen Ivory, Carol Leeming, Maria Taylor and Lydia Towsey amongst others.

From the spoken word nights a serious of blackbird/earthworm joking couplets emerged with cartoonists in the audience providing illustrations. In turn these inspired blackbird poems. The best have been selected and compiled into this anthology, which takes its name from the nursery rhyme where four and twenty blackbirds were baked in a pie.

Liz Gray’s “When Harry ate Sally” plays on the sounds of words,

“it’s an…
.            earthbirk
.            earthwork
.            birthwork
.            birthword
.            both words
.            earthwords
.            worms!
.            earthworm!”

which then repeats “earthworm” seven times before ending

”       black
.               birth
no!
.        black
.              bird!

it’s an
.         earth
.            worm
.                black
.                    bird
.                       poem.

.             ah!

what was it again?”

In front of a familiar audience who are able to join in, this is probably fun. I’m not convinced it translates so well onto the page. Where a page poem is not reliant on specific typography or shape, I believe it also has to work as a performance. A performed poem also has to work on the page. That sometimes means cropping repetitions and considered whether a joke can still work on a second, third or fourth reading.

Andrew Walton’s “eyeless in Gaza” is more successful.

“why do Blackbirds, with banners and placards,
eyes brimming with tears at wanton destruction,
comrades come rally,
against injustice,
senseless slaughter,
poor innocent Earthworms?

because…

Earthworm lay…
bruised and battered
concussed and shattered,
amidst ruins of what once was home
she had no answers.”

Interspersed throughout the poems are the couplets and cartoons:

“why were earthworm’s ears so hot?
blackbird blogging on the spot!”

“why did blackbird hop then stop?
she saw earthworm body-pop.”

As a souvenir it has a charm and fun. The energy of performances are captured, as is the friendly inclusive atmosphere of Pinggg…K!

Regular spoken word nights in Leicester include Word!, Shindig, Anerki, House of Verse and nights organised by Poetman. The end of September also sees the start of the Everbody’s Reading Festival.


Journeys in Translation Event during Everybodys Reading

Leicester Writers Club Everybodys Reading event flyer

“Hillbilly Elegy” J D Vance (William Collins) – book review

Image result for j d vance hillbilly elegy“Hillbilly Elegy” is subtitled ‘A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis’. J D Vance admits that, on the face of it, he’s not a celebrity, not achieved anything particularly significant and finds it “somewhat absurd” that this book exists. But this is one of J D Vance’s survival mechanisms – this shrugging off and playing down of achievements is part of the same dissonance that helps some survive trauma. What makes “Hillbilly Elegy” a compelling read isn’t just the writing skills learnt as an editor of “The Yale Law Journal” or his honesty, but also his ability to step out of his personal situation and place it in a wider context.

In a nutshell, J D Vance was born in Middletown, Ohio but spent most of his summers in his grandparent’s birthplace of Jackson, Kentucky. After graduating from school, he joined the army for a tour of Iraq before studying law at Yale where he met his wife and now lives amongst the middle-classes in Cincinnati. Like many, his grandparents had moved north in search of work. Armco, like other steel companies, encouraged employees to recommend family members. However, after a hurried marriage, not all family members moved with the grandparents so there were frequent visits back to Jackson, not the best way of setting down roots in Middletown. There were three children, a son and then a ten year gap before two daughters. During that ten year gap there were several miscarriages, thought to be a result of the constant arguments between the grandparents often provoked by the grandfather’s drinking problem and the grandmother’s frustration, instead of pursuing her dream she stuck with being a housewife and mother. In turn, not helped by family loyalty being uppermost and a belief that outsiders should not know what happened behind closed doors. Whilst two of the children seemed to shrug off the arguments, one daughter, J D Vance’s mother didn’t. She become a pregnant teenager in a short-lived marriage and then married again quickly into another short-lived marriage, leaving her a single mother to two children, Lindsay and J D.

Despite the revolving door of stepfathers, grandmother or Mamaw, remained a constant in Lindsay and J D’s lives. She urged both to study and do well. Grandfather helped J D with maths homework. J D acknowledges his grandmother’s consistency and support enabled him to turn around his school grades and realise he could aim higher than a job at Armco. Even though by this time, jobs at Armco were scarce, most teenagers in Middletown had a relative who still worked there and there was an assumption they would work there too. There was a collective denial about the decline of the manufacturing industry. Needing money and lacking confidence, J D deferred applying to college and joined the Marines. One key lesson from the Marines was that, if you failed at something, you simply tried again instead of quitting. Another crucial lesson was finance: he figured out that, as a poor student, he was better off applying for an Ivy League university than a hometown one. At Yale, he felt impostor syndrome and it took a professor to challenge his application for a clerkship to realise that he didn’t have to push so hard and could opt for a more appropriate route. The culture at Yale took some adjusting to: not just figuring out which utensil to use at a networking event in a restaurant, but also overcoming the urge to stay behind and help clear up. Networking was novel too: undergraduates didn’t apply for jobs but went to cocktail event and dinners to meet potential employers. Other students would lean on a family contact to open a door, which wasn’t an option J D had and he marveled at the confidence and lack of hesitancy others had in simply asking.

Alongside his story are insights into the attitudes of he society he grew up in. J D Vance’s chaotic family home wasn’t unusual. He and his sister scored 6 on the scale of adverse childhood experiences such as being humiliated by parents, feeling a lack of familial support, having parent who are separated or divorced, living with an addict, living with someone who is depressed and watching someone be physically abused. Both married spouses who scored 0. During a temporary job in a store, J D Vance witnessed people on food stamps buy soda in bulk to sell off later and noticed that these same people rarely bought fresh food. Children lost their baby teeth to “Mountain Dew Mouth” where sugared drinks were put in baby’s bottles (Mamaw intervened to prevent J D’s mother putting Coke in his bottle) and then later lost their adult teeth in fights or to a poor diet. Those in Middletown who were in work resented those out of work and on food stamps who seemed to be playing the system and doing better. Those out of work would say that welfare should be for the deserving poor who would work if there were jobs available and that work was the way out of poverty, whilst conveniently ignoring their own situation. In another temporary job, J D Vance witnessed a nineteen year old and his pregnant girlfriend get offered jobs in a warehouse. The girlfriend worked in the office when she actually turned up – in a five day week, she might make it in on three days and never gave notice or reason for absence. The boyfriend was invariably late and took lengthy bathroom breaks. After a serious of warnings, both were sacked and the boyfriend complained, asking how the employers, who knew their circumstances, could sack them.

In conclusion, there is a discussion about how the problems of those living in poverty and without work can be solved. He doesn’t see it as a problem that can be solved without a profound shift in hillbilly culture. There’s not much point in creating jobs if, like the nineteen year old and his girlfriend, people can’t be bothered to turn up and work. There’s not a lot of point in expecting children with no working adult in their household to have aspirations to get a good college degree, although putting poor children alongside middle-class children in schools, raises expectations in poor children, that can’t be achieved if the middle-classes have deserted places like Middletown. One thing the American government could help with is to redefine a family to include aunts, uncles and grandparents. J D Vance argues if his grandmother could have fostered him, he would have had less chaos in his background, but instead he was left dreading social workers getting involved because his grandmother would not be recognised as a potential fosterer and he’d have been shipped out to strangers. His chief argument is that hillbilly families need to take a long hard look at themselves and accept that chaotic backgrounds and parental addictions harms children and the state of denial where all problems are someone’s else’s fault is a trap of their own making.

These conclusions are compelling argued in non-legalese. J D Vance uses language to communicate, not obfuscate and his vocabulary is engaging. “Hillbilly Elegy” is both a successful memoir and a social history of growing up in the 1980s. It’s also proof you don’t have to be a celebrity or prize-winner to be interesting.


Leicester Writers Club Everybodys Reading event flyer

Journeys in Translation Event during Everybodys Reading

Write your Poem first, worry about Readers later

Figure skater performing a layback spin

Figure skater layback spin

On a busy rink with no one paying attention, a figure skater will land their double axel perfectly. Five minutes later, with their coach watching, the figure skater will wobble just after landing the jump. A month later, on an empty rink with a prize on offer, the skater knows the only way she’ll land that double axel is to imagine there is no one behind the barriers watching her.

There are generally two reasons for writers’ block:

  1. You wrote yourself into a dead end and need to back out by a couple of stanzas and take the left instead of the right turn.
  2. You’re staring at a blank page or screen and that idea you had just won’t articulate itself.

The blanking issue generally comes from performance anxiety: either you’re putting yourself under too much pressure – “You’re a Writer, Write!” or you’ve finally carved out some time for yourself to write and now you can’t – or you’re worried that you won’t find a reader/editor who will like what you’re trying to write. Naturally the more you urge yourself to write something, the blanker the page looks. It becomes more like a bully, “Look at all this blank space you could fill with words, but you won’t because you’re not the writer you thought you were.”

The cure is to take away the anxiety and that’s never as simple as it sounds. Try these steps and adapt them to suit you.

  • Take a break. This might be as quick as getting a cup of coffee or a longer break to take a walk.
  • On your break, think about what you want to achieve with the poem you’re struggling to write. How would you want a reviewer or workshop to discuss it? Why do you want to write this poem – are you trying to raise awareness of a subject or resolve an issue or record a memory before it’s completely forgotten?
  • When you get back to your blank page, quickly write down in note form what you want to achieve.
  • Now your page isn’t blank anymore. You’ve still not written your poem but you know where you want it to go.
  • Don’t worry about the beginning, start in the middle or work backwards and sketch out what shape the poem should take.
  • The writing may be hesitant, uneven or full of false starts, but you are writing.

You’re writing because, like the figure skater, you took your focus off the audience and placed it back on the poem.


Leicester Writers Showcase Ella @ 100

Journeys in Translation Event during Everybodys Reading

“The Spirit Vaults” Sheila Hamilton (Green Bottle Press) – poetry review

Sheila Hamilton The Spirit Vaults book coverSheila Hamilton’s poems reach out and she seems to reveal in stories from or of others. “Inuit Tales” sets up the idea “Hunger is the hawk/ that will never fly away” and ends,

“A young man falls in love with a blow-fly,
cannot be persuaded of the folly
of this. It would be better, everyone else says,
were you to fall for a seal, or a gorgeous guillemot.
The young man and the blow-fly get married,
regardless. And so on.
The couple set up home.
On the fence outside, even
in the beautiful weather, sits
the hawk.”

It doesn’t matter if the blow-fly is real or a metaphor, the young couple’s defiance is recognisable and the hawk no better than the gossips and meddlers waiting for the marriage to fail so they can smugly pick apart its bones, like a cloud edging into a sunny sky. The title poem is a tour of Liverpool taking in pubs, hotels, industrial units, charities and the church that takes in bodies of the drowned,

“And the public come, press their faces
to the deadroom’s window, agog
to see the bloated bodies, their pallor,
their contortions. It’s a daily show,
and never cancelled.

*

Between us,
membrane.”

Rather than finishing with the “daily show”, the poem reminders readers of the window separating the viewers from the viewed. It asks how comfortable readers are with leaving themselves to understand another’s situation. Those gawping at the bodies in the church, don’t do so solely from fascination but also from a position of reassurance that it’s not happening to them, that death is something that happens to others. The window gives an allusion of safety, because death catches up with everyone, and a place from which to view something that’s normally taboo. The dead are normally whisked away to funeral homes and prepared for showing, not left on view with the ugliness of death uncensored.

In “Waiting for the Immigration Papers”, a man in New York living in a pumpkin-coloured house projects his anticipation on the house,

“Every night, that house shines brighter —
glows, lit from within.
Eventually the sun flows in and out
of all its windows simultaneously.

Then the house glides, bird-like,
over New York Harbour.
Someone had painted the word ‘Liberty’ on it.”

Mary Anning, fossil collector and amateur paleontologist, never met John Clare as far as anyone knows, but Sheila Hamilton imagines a connection, in “Mary Anning’s Letter to John Clare, 1841”

“What I perceive in your poems is a deeper knowing.
Emmonsail’s Heath I have not visited
but I believe on account of your Poems
that I know it, its Seasons and Flowers,
Birds and Beetles. As for me,
I am acquainted with the beaches
of Dorsetshire, pebble and boulder and cliff,
and have been Blessed to know not dragonflies
or Meadow Browns, Skippers or Gatekeepers
but long-ago creatures embedded in such stones.
I cannot say how my Eye saw them
when the Eyes of the much more Educated
did not. I can only think, Mr Clare,
that you and I are cut from a similar Cloth”

Which poet wouldn’t be delighted to receive a letter with the opening sentence of the quote? However, this isn’t just a fan letter. It distills the common theme in “The Spirit Vaults”: no matter how different individual humans seem, they all have a universal desire to meet or connect with someone who understands them. Even mavericks and rebels need that connection with fellow beings.

A gardener gets to speak in “Ekaterinburg”

“I dug them up one summer,
An accident. I hadn’t wanted my spade
to hit bone, but it did.
I covered everything up.
Autumns come, killing leaves on the trees.
White winters white out the dump-side.
Every spring, that tangle of ribs and corsets is visited
by moles, worms, a hundred species.
I still tell no-one.
I think of them, though, those people,
how they ended in the woods by my garden.

Every spring, wild primroses grow there.”

It’s the site where Czar Nicholas II and his family were buried after being shot during the 1917 Revolution. The gardener knows the bodies are somewhere in the garden but not exactly where. He inadvertently uncovers their bones but re-buries them, not yet ready for a public revealing of history that he wants kept hidden. He wants to think his motives are pure and allow nature to take over, but the shameful act of their murder keeps haunting his thoughts. For now, though, their location is his secret and something he can control.

“The Spirit Vaults” is full of humane, compassion poems that seek to give voices to people who don’t usually get chance to speak, to strengthen common bonds and explore ways of excepting differences. They are not afraid to criticise, as shown in “To Pablo Neruda who did not denounce Stalin”, and take to task those who behave inhumanely.

“The Spirit Vaults” is available from Green Bottle Press


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Writing Retreats

Whether in (mostly) rain-soaked Wales or (mostly) sun-drenched Greece, the aim of a writing retreat is to enable writers to take a break from everyday concerns and have a focused space for writing. Most retreats offer a structure, whether that’s just a post-dinner discussion on works-in-progress or a schedule of more detailed teaching workshops, and some will specify whether they are aimed at beginners or those with some publication experience.

Looking at the wealth of retreats available, how do you decide whether one is suitable for you? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you viewing a retreat as another means of procrastination (e.g. I can put this project on hold until I get to the retreat)?
  • Do you have a project you can take to a retreat or are you looking for a retreat to kick-start or get you back in the habit of writing?
  • Do you want to write or are you more interested in the social side of a retreat?
  • Are there specific skills you want to work on or do you want to be left alone to write?
  • Are you looking at the location and thinking of places to visit/see nearby or are you looking for a location that offers no distractions?
  • How confident are you in your cooking skills?
  • What’s your budget?
  • How important is wi-fi?
  • Will a retreat offer you something different from what’s already available in your locality?

If you’re looking to procrastinate and/or thinking of places to visit, then a holiday without pressure to write might be a better option. A holiday isn’t a waste of time if it also offers chance to dream, think, research and explore ideas in a different environment. Sometimes a break from the notepad or keyboard can bring you back recharged and refreshed.

If you’re looking to work on a specific project or want to be left alone to write, than a retreat without a heavy structure of workshops would be better. If you’d like a retreat to revive inspiration, look for one where the workshops are geared to getting participants to write rather than edit or revise existing work.

Some retreats will ask participants to help with cooking the evening meal. Some retreats may not have internet access. Also check if you are expected to share a room and whether that suits you.

If budget’s a problem, seeking out local or online writing communities or courses might be a more realistic option. Some universities and colleges offer online courses (MOOCs) taught via video and reading materials with online forums to discuss what participants are learning. Some retreats may offer bursaries or local arts funding might be available and these might be worth exploring if you can prove that you have a measurable aim and can show whether you will achieve those aims in attending the retreat.

Signs a Writing Retreat may not be right for you

  • The brochure isn’t clear about the aims of the retreat or there aren’t enough details for you to be clear about what’s on offer
  • The pricing structure isn’t clear about what’s included and what are additional extras
  • The retreat offers workshops but doesn’t say who the tutors are or doesn’t let you know who the tutors are in advance of booking
  • There are no testimonials from previous participants or, if it’s a new retreat, no indication of what experience the organisers have in administering retreats
  • You don’t have a clear idea of what you need to bring to the retreat – “turn up and write” isn’t a plan, but “improve this skill” or “work on a body of poems towards a coherent pamphlet/collection/performance” are.
  • You don’t have a clear idea of what you want to achieve – are you looking to improve technique, work on a specific project or just get together with some writers to revive inspiration and try a new direction in writing?

Like creative writing courses, retreats either fill you with enthusiasm or leave you cold. Neither matters, because it’s about whether it is right for you, but, like most things, research and preparation will enable you to pick the right retreat for you and ensure you get the most out of the experience. A retreat isn’t necessarily about getting published and poems written during a retreat may not be the ones you seek to get published, but those poems do offer practice, experience and will help you develop as a writer.

Does Your Writing Environment Impact your Poems?

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

Mary Oliver

Virginia Woolf famously wanted her own room, Mary Oliver prefers solitude and J K Rowling wrote in cafes while her very young daughter napped (although I’m guessing now she has a home office.) Some writers take over the kitchen table after other residents have gone to work or school. Others have an office, some at home, some in a separate building so they have to leave home to go to work. Some write directly onto a computer. Others insist on writing out first drafts by hand.

How much does environment impact on writing?

The last six pieces I wrote – reviews and five poems – were all written in different places under different circumstances:

  • I wrote my reviews in the lounge of a rented apartment, computer on my lap, TV in the background because the person I was with wanted to watch it.
  • One poem was drafted by hand in a notebook while I sat in a parked car, background noise supplied by the breeze and birdsong. The person I was with was playing a game on their phone.
  • Another poem was written by hand in a notebook whilst I was sitting on a public bench overlooking the sea, background noise a combination of lapping waves and seagulls.
  • Another poem was written by hand in a notebook in a noisy café.
  • Another poem was written straight onto a laptop at home. This was probably the only uninterrupted draft.
  • Another poem drafted in the notepad app on my phone during lunch break in a noisy office where the radio leaks from the neighbouring warehouse.

The reviews have been accepted. One of the poems has been accepted, the others are still being worked on and aren’t ready for submission yet. The accepted poem was the one written in a noisy office.

If I needed privacy, a place of my own or insisted I could only write drafts on my laptop or in a specific notebook, I wouldn’t get much writing done. Habit has made the ideal writing environment redundant.

I tend to do a lot of drafting in my head before committing words to paper or screen. I have a reasonable memory and experience has taught me that if an idea is good enough, it won’t get forgotten. It will haunt you until you write it. However, it may start in the form of a rough pottery urn but then may shatter and the shards regroup into an elegant china coffee pot and then it may decide that a coffee pot isn’t much use without cups and a milk jug so will reach out and link to those shapes too, bringing them together on a graceful tray. At this point, I’ll pour the coffee and start writing, wherever and whenever I happen to be. I’m not fussed about drafting by hand or on screen.

Ideally, I’d be able to sit at my desk at home with a familiar keyboard and screen. Reviewing has disciplined me into reading from a screen just as I would read from a printed page so I don’t fall into the lazy habit of skim reading from a screen, although I will skim read a boring article in an online journal just as I would speed reading a boring article in a print newspaper. Ideally, I’d have something close to silence (inevitably nature will intrude, the fridge will hum, the computer itself is not always silence). I can filter out predictable noise such as a radio or background chatter, but it’s hard work and makes the writing process more tiring. I have never been able to filter out someone else humming, whistling or tapping in the background whilst I write a poem, particularly if the humming/whistling/tapping is arrhythmic or I don’t recognise the song and can’t make the distraction predictable.

Habit has taught me to seize the moment and write with the environment and tools available. If I wait until I can get home and sit at my desk with minimal distraction, it would only give me a narrow window of opportunity to write and, of the last six pieces, only one was written at home. I would lose a lot of poems if I waited for the ideal environment or indulged in the luxury of only using a certain type or notebook or pen or downloading apps or switching off the internet hub to make me focus on word processing instead of social media.

For most of us, the best writing environment is the one we create with the place we happen to be in and the tools at hand. Worrying about the ideal environment or creating the right set of circumstances is just like waiting for the muse to strike: procrastination.

 


Leicester University’s Centre for New Writing is undertaking a three year collaborative project, Colonial Countryside, which will mobilise child historians to develop new audiences for cutting-edge research about British country houses’ Caribbean and East India connections. Peepal Tree Press will publish and resource new writing. To kick-start this project, a pilot event will be held with Colmore Junior School in Birmingham and Kenwood and Harewood Houses. A crowdfunder has been opened to pay for 20 children to visit country houses and related archives along with a historian and a writer to support the children in creating a podcast about their experiences.

The JustGiving page for the project is available here: https://www.justgiving.com/campaigns/charity/uniofleicester/colonial-countryside