The Art of Showing Up

There are few things more frustrating than setting time aside for someone or a group of people who then fail to show up. You may have prepared work or rehearsed for a performance in advance and you spend your time when you should be meeting them in a curious limbo with one eye on the clock. You daren’t start anything that requires focused concentration in case they do actually turn up and interrupt what you’re doing. If you’ve prepared work, it sits there without comment and unfinished. If you’ve rehearsed for a performance, it’s demoralising facing a reduced audience because people who promised to show didn’t turn up. When the no-shows fail to send apologies afterwards, it feels like a double blow: not only did they not turn up but they didn’t value your time enough to acknowledge it had been wasted.

Naturally emergencies occur or transport breaks down and, individually, some no-shows have good reasons for not being there and an after-the-event apology isn’t just a courtesy, it’s an acknowledgement someone was inconvenienced. No-shows don’t include those who signed up for an event or agreed to a meeting but warned the organiser that due to disabilities/health issues/transport/caring responsibilities, they may not be able to be there, because the organiser has been given chance to make contingency arrangements.

When one or two individuals become a group of no-shows who can’t be bothered to send apologies either, they need to bear in mind:

  • They are now labelled as time-wasters and will be treated accordingly
  • If someone has prepared work in advance of a meeting, they won’t be inclined to do such a good job or dedicate as much time to preparation if another meeting is arranged
  • If an event organiser has to deal with performers who are no-shows, those won’t be asked to perform again
  • If a workshop organiser is left hurriedly finding stand ins, you can bet the people who didn’t show up won’t be asked again
  • If the no-shows are members of a club or group and other club/group members managed to turn up, the no-shows are embarrassments and may harm the reputation of the club/group concerned
  • If someone regularly organises opportunities for other writers to perform or showcase their work, the no-shows are limiting their chances of taking up those opportunities
  • If someone organises opportunities for other writers puts on their own performance but then finds that people who promised to show up don’t, the organiser is less likely to bother with further events
  • Most local live literature events are organised by a volunteer or team of volunteers who will be less willing to give their time if their events are unsupported.

I regularly attend several writers’ groups and spoken work nights and also organise events both as myself and on behalf of other groups. There are some writers I know who enthusiastically sign up for performances or make promises to attend and I don’t believe them because, from experience, they won’t show up (this excludes those who say they may be there but can’t guarantee attendance). I also know when other organisers have been inconvenienced by no-shows. I have also been embarrassed when an organiser who knows I represent a writers’ group asks me where members of that group who’d signed up to perform don’t show up.

Be professional, be courteous and don’t underestimate the power of an apology, even after the event. If you find spoken word nights stop running, you don’t get invitations to perform or there are fewer opportunities for you to perform in your locality, ask if you contributed to that situation.


“Strange Fashion” Pam Thompson (Pindrop Press) – poetry review

Strange Fashion Pam ThompsonThe poems in “Strange Fashion” travel to Ireland, Scotland, Spain and America, moving back through history to a journalist trying to interview Virginia Woolf and Emilys Bronte and Dickinson browsing antiques in Church Stretton. The strangeness does not lie in the unfamiliar locations but in close observations of people’s behaviour when their guards are let down, when individuality shows. In “Gas Basin, 6pm” a woman kneels by the canal with a bag of fish food,

” She was just a woman with a few drinks inside her,
feeding fish, and if she felt like talking to them, waving even,
who were we to stop her, who were we to imagine
that our lives had bigger moments in them than hers?

We walked past on the other side, kept our eyes straight ahead,
carried on chatting until there was a safe enough distance
between that first sighting and the looking back.”

Despite the subject’s inhibitions being loosened enough to enable her to talk to the fish she’s feeding, the observers feel they can’t openly observe but look back from a safe distance. Partly this is down to the surprise of watching someone do something strange, but also the observers’ senses of decorum; they don’t want to be seen to be looking. There’s no judgment – the woman is not described as drunk and seems to be sufficiently in control to speak to and feed fish without the observers worrying she might fall in the water and the observers concede they have no right to intervene.

Thoughts are recorded “For Those Who Walk Pavements”,

“who walk, as if on air, or weighed down
by something shocking left over

from their dreams. Spare a thought for the wanderer,
meanderer, the blinkered, the lost.
Spare another thought, light a candle,

for those who travel without compass
or map, who leave the house with vague intentions,
an idea of destination, yet happily drift off course.”

For most pedestrians, the walkers mentioned are those who cause annoyance and are barely worth a second glance, much less a thought, as those with destinations and one eye on a clock hurry past. The poem is an invitation to slow down and observe. There are moments of tenderness too, in “Prisms”

“The frayed ends of what the rain left.
Red seeping into blue.

It doesn’t matter in what order the colours come,
as long as they do.


It takes me back to that other darkened room –
us, tethered by lust.

The way we sucked the breath
out of each other,
the colours streaming through us in any old order.”

A search for light and colour is echoed in “The Sun (her Ex) on the Shortest Day”

“A satellite tracking your temperature, weight and height,
wondered where you’d gone. Dirty stop-out, you crouched in a stairwell,
wasted from dog days. Even so, the sky danced itself into unseasonal blue.

You crouched. I watched scraps of cloud; people in flats hanging out washing,
moving through rooms; then later, car headlights, pretending to be you,
tiny white bulbs in the tree outside Matalan.

Faking it, window by window: the glint of your stalker attentions.
Black canal. Swans stamped with leaf shadows. Your kiss
on the back of my neck in the middle of my forgetting.”

“Strange Fashion” is an invitation to observe without prejudice or judgment. It offers compassionate attentiveness that comes from a poet willing to slow down and watch and record. The poems are crafted, giving readers enough details to complete their stories based on acute glimpses into others’ lives.

“Strange Fashion” is available from Pindrop Press.

NaPoWriMo 2018

April in the US is National Poetry Month which also means it’s National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo although there’s also a #GloPoWriMo hashtag this year for Global Poetry Writing Month). The aim is to draft or write notes for 30 poems by the end of the month, an average of a poem a day although there is no obligation to write every day and it’s possible to have some non-writing days and catch up on others.

Benefits of NaPoWriMo

  • It can kick start creativity – gives you chance to access how you write and what inspires you.
  • Gets you thinking about poems, poetic forms and approaches to writing, perhaps offering chance to have a go at a form you’ve not tried before.
  • Discipline – sitting around waiting for the muse to strike is a lousy way of writing, the practice of setting time aside on a regular basis to write, even if only for a month, shows that writing, like most things, takes discipline and practice.
  • Reasons to prioritise writing that might otherwise get left on the To Do List or procrastinated away.

Risks with NaPoWriMo

  • Writing begins to feel like a chore if the focus is on getting 30 poems and it becomes about the numbers.
  • The temptation to compare how you’re doing with others – others might find the writing every day goal easy whereas you’re the sort who does a lot of reading and thinking before drafting a group of poems. The point is to focus on what you’re doing, it’s not a race and there’s no trophy at the end of the month.
  • If you’re not goal-orientated because you write for enjoyment and don’t particularly seek publication, it can feel a bit pointless.
  • Weaker poems can get written to meet targets. However, this misses the point: those weaker poems are still practice and can still teach you a lot about your own writing.

Personally, NaPoWriMo falls at a good time so I benefit from it. I start with the loose aim of writing a draft of a poem each day, but don’t get stressed if I don’t meet a daily target because the real focus is on the month end. I know I will have 30 drafts by the end of the month and I know there’s a point, generally around two-thirds of the way through, where inspiration dips: you’re over half-way but the end isn’t is sight. That’s when it’s useful to have some prompts or just take a day or two off and read to keep you inspired.  I also know that not all of those 30 drafts will make it into poems. Some will be too personal, some will re-explore a topic covered elsewhere and that’s worth bearing in mind if you’re watching others flag up their daily totals and you’re not taking part. NaPoWriMo isn’t for every poet: it might fall at the wrong time or not fit with your approach to writing so you shouldn’t feel you’re missing out if you don’t take part.

Periodically, I’ll update my NaPoWriMo page with titles of poems drafted and whether any get accepted for publication.

“How to Grow Matches” S A Leavesley (Against the Grain) – poetry review

How to Grow MatchesThis collection looks at everywoman through myths, legends, art and the everyday such as shopping lists. It looks at timeless, classical women and those who post selfies on social media. It refuses to define a woman by her status as a mother or singledom. The title poem is timely for the #MeToo era, starting with an instruction to take a match,

Snap one – like a sharp blow
sideways behind a man’s knees.
Then another and another
for each jibe or slight.

Note how easily the wood splits
after years of hidden anger.
A felled forest at your feet,
and still the pile grows!

Lay the toppled pieces
against each other’s thinness,
rested on crumpled paper.
Now you have a bonfire.

It ends referencing those “hip-sways and lip expressions/ condoned for your office/ as a woman.” A reminder of the way a woman’s outward appearance is policed, not just by men, for the male gaze. The short vowels quicken the rhythm, just as words spoken in anger quicken. The compression could also be a reflection of the way woman are permitted to use public space, constrained into a thin ideal shape, not unlike a matchstick.

“American dream” is an abcedary shopping list, although not the one a reader might conventionally take to Walmart,

“an apple, & ambition;
baby milk & a burnt-ochre bra;
cocoa & cotton / fresh with sisters’ sweat;”

it continues,

respectable reductions / but no responses or responsibility;
somewheres to live / some of these known as homes;
time at twice-light-speed;
ugli fruit side-lined behind the white lychees;
vaginas of future children: / shaven, vajazzled & perfectly man-shapen / an
unfillable void / visas in place of green card;
wool-brains & would-you-evers!;
xx large pants, Xtra Value Soap & X-rated news;
yeses in part-exchange for timid noes;”

Note, she buys questions but not answers, is lumbered with “respectable reductions” but not “responses”. The uncertainty in “yeses in part-exchange for timid noes;” shows someone not in control but being guided towards a response which is not originated by her. The varied list keeps the mood light but underlines a more serious point.

In “That Christmas” an ice maiden appears on a lake

“Mystery glistened. Crowds gathered.

Days passed. She didn’t melt,
but her glass clarity scuffed

from white to tarmac dirty
with the impact of every touch.

More pilgrims flocked; birds flew
off track. Time clothed her in myths.

Someone recalled how a shower
of falling stars hit the Earth’s cold dark,

like sparks tumbling from a lit taper.
At her feet, a scattering of spent matches.”

The match theme is picked up again. The ice maiden is missing a voice so cannot answer questions or tell her story. However, this doesn’t stop gawking on-lookers inventing one for her. Voiceless, she is talked over and talked about.

“How to Grow Matches” is a timely pamphlet that explores the roles and expectations foisted on women along the with reams of unsolicited advice which also restricts and places limitations on women. The pamphlet also looks at women in story-telling and myths. The poems highlight without complaining and touch on potential role models, enabling women to move from victimhood to survivors who can take control.

“How to Grow Matches” is available from Against the Grain

“Spools of Thread” Angi Holden (Mother’s Milk Books) – poetry review

ah_spools_of_thread“Spools of Thread” was the winner of Mother’s Milk inaugural pamphlet prize. The title comes from the opening poem “I Measure My Mother’s Love” which starts “In spools of thread:/ royal blue Sylko and scarlet Gütermann./In sixpenny cards of buttons” and ends

“in running stitches tacking shapeless fabric
to lithesome bodies and coltish limbs.
In smocking and twice-sewn French seams,
in the electric hum of the black and gold Singer,
in turned hems, let down as we grew.”

The evocative details create an image of a thrifty mother making clothes for children: the smocking can expand for growing bodies and French seams are used to prevent fraying so the clothes are designed to last.

The threads of family relationships is a theme throughout. “Other Mothers’ Sons and the Publican’s Wife” features sons who had to find a substitute mother figure. A publican’s wife encouraged US soldiers stationed in the UK to talk of home and taught them British pub games. Letters were found stuffed in a desk long after the war, letters from “Nevada, California, Texas, Idaho.”

“And when her son came home – whole despite a body pocked
with shrapnel – she wondered how those other boys had fared,
how many made it back. And then the precious letters came
from grateful mothers, who hearing of her kindness
thanked for her being there, when they could not; thanked her
for cherishing those Stateside boys, those other mothers’ sons.”

A mothering instinct is not restricted to blood relations. I suspect the publican’s wife felt motherly towards most her of the pub’s clientele, creating a protective sense of community. The preservation of the letters confirms this need to nurture and protect. This instinctive motherliness contrasts with a nosy professional who queries why an adult son hugs his mother in “Son”

“‘I’m a professional,’ she says. ‘Special needs.’
As if to explain the directness of the question.
His kiss burns my cheek like a touch of sun
as I grope for an appropriate answer
somewhere along the autistic spectrum.”

The shock of a mother’s instinct being challenged stops the narrating mother telling the nosy woman to butt out. A professional woman who is used to having her questions answered, doesn’t see how inappropriate her question is in a social setting where issues of confidentiality and stigma haven’t been considered.

The pamphlet isn’t just about mothering. “Weekend Solstice” looks at the tenderness in a long-term partnership after a family gathering.

“Later there’s woodsmoke, the scent of barbecue and chiminea,
the tang of zested lager, cider, Pimms in glasses topped
with mint and strawberries, ice and chunks of cucumber.
There will be ice-cream and Eton Mess.

And finally between those linen sheets we’ll touch and kiss
and spoon away the shortest night.”

The evocative, lyrical details build the scene. The short listing of drinks gives away to more details in the food. There’s comfort in “chunks of cucumber”, rather than wafer-thin slices designed to be spread as far as possible, and the promise of ice-cream. The children of “I Measure My Mother’s Love” wouldn’t have known of barbecues and patio heaters but have learnt to nurture and share.

“Spools of Thread” is a cohesive, contained pamphlet of poems with sensory details that accumulate to build to resonate beyond their evocative scenes. These poems are stitched as carefully as those French seams, giving a smooth outline so readers focus on the pattern and shape of words and images.

“Spools of Thread” is available from Mother’s Milk Books.

Poetry Reading Emma Lee Leicester Writers' Showcase

“Birds without Sky” Malka al-Haddad (Harriman House Ltd)

Malka al-Haddad left war-torn Iraq to seek asylum in the UK. The poems in “Birds without Sky” loosely follow that journey. This isn’t a review. I was part of the team of co-editors who selected some of Malka’s poems for both “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” (Five Leaves, 2015) and “Welcome to Leicester” (Dahlia Publishing, 2016) so a review would justifiably been seen as biased.

In “Children of War” she explores why civilians leave, the poem’s speaker address a father who gifted the speaker a gun,

“You told me my gun would be my best friend.
It has been with me each day and night. And still

Every child in my land suffers torrents of war.

Every child in my land suckles milk mixed with fear.”

The poet settled in “Leicester”,

“How I longed for such a home
like summer waits for rain.
People see me as a refugee.
But I am a free bird nestling in your grass.
I have nothing, only love and rain, but I’m richest
under your warm heart, drawing me to your depths.”

During her launch, Malka explained that she tends to write poems straight into English, even though it’s her second language. Arabic has far more rhyming words and she grew frustrated at the impossibility of translating poems from Arabic into English because the rhyming sounds and patterns couldn’t be replicated. Some of her poems have been inspired by experiences of the asylum process, the paperwork, the endless questions.

“To Bush and Blair”

“Your war killed our peace.
You stole all our hope.
The name of God and peace kills everyday.
And still you want more.

We run towards fate unknown.
Then you face us, judge us, plunder us,
as you did when you came to our country.
Such a sheep-gathering on the deck.
Where do I begin? Where does it end?
All I have in exile is pen and paper.”

It was in struggling to answer the questions that Malka turned to poetry. “Drug” (complete poem),

“Learn poetry
There is no more healing drug than swimming with words.”

Poetry allowed and enabled her to express tumbling emotions and thoughts by giving a structure to work with and framing her emotions. In “Birds without Sky”, Malka shares her struggles with empathy and energy.

“Birds without Sky” is sold to raise funds for Leicester City of Sanctuary, North Lincolnshire Area of Sanctuary and the Boabab Women’s Project.

Poetry Reading Emma Lee Leicester Writers' Showcase

“Ice and Autumn Glass” Mark Fuller Dillon (Leaky Boot Press) – poetry review

Ice and Autumn Glass Mark Fuller Dillon bookcoverIt’s natural that a self-confessed fan of Jacobean poetry would also be a fan of traditional poetic forms and it also felt natural for the first section of the book to be about a lost love. The test was whether the rhymes intruded or supported the poems or whether natural word orders were distorted to accommodate rhymes. Although not all the poems rely on end of line rhymes. From the poem that gives the collection its title, “This Heritage of Ice and Autumn Glass”, the landscape is Canadian,

“I could show you moonlight in the wind
When cold star crystals leap above the snow.
And even as the autumn leaves reflect
The lava flows of sunset, new leaves burn
Red as marsh lights, for a single noon
Before the green appears. The moon, you see,
That egg within a shattered nest of mist?
The heron striding on its own reflection?
The raisin-scented torches of the sumac
That draw the chickadees in hornet crowds?

This heritage of ice and autumn glass
Is all I have to offer…”

It’s the detail that stops this becoming a cliched list of nature’s bounty. It was good to see a proper abcedary in “Xylotomous Xenogenesis” that didn’t skip over ‘x’. It ends:

“Unless unfeeling logic take the wheel,
Veer vehemently ’round and quit the course,
Would we see an end to my surreal
Xylotomous xenogenesis
— Yes, yell it! — carving efforts to create,
Zig zag fashion, works that captivate?”

There may be a nod to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”in the fourth line of the quote, but I think too, a recognition that a story’s parent – the author – has little control of how readers see the offspring once the story’s out in public. The reference to “carving” in the fifth line supports the use of “xylotomous” in the preceding line, giving it a coherence suggesting it was more than just an interesting word plucked from the dictionary to fit the demands of an abecdary form.

The mood lightens after the opening section and writing about a writer’s life is looked at with humour. In “Dreamed in a Colder Bed”

“‘Your story does not suit our present needs.’
And I agree, it cannot suit the times;
For it was crystallized in colder climes,
Dreamed in a colder bed that supersedes
The warmth and welcome that your office heeds
As bait for any buyer. Let the chimes
Ring out for those who match the paradigms
Which I cannot encompass. (He concedes.)

For I would be the first one to declare:
I have no fond connection to this age.”

Performance nerves, anyone? In “Could Someone Else Read This For Me?”

“That weak and ragged instrument, my voice,
Detuned by all my decades and the dust
Puffed away from paperbacks, now thrust
Into the public ear by desperate choice,
Would make the least articulate rejoice:

For I could never wave or smile, and trust
My spoken word to charm, or waken lust:
My talking never rolls, and has no royce.”

And a dash of wonder at “Those Who Persist”

“Those who persist under punches of rejection,
Who can take every slap as a cue for resurrection
In writing or in love, in craftsmanship or dreams,
I always wonder

You can rise from the mire of your own incomprehension
And go back to your chair despite all of the dissension
That denies what you whisper in your modulated screams.
I need your guidance

Perhaps it’s natural that other writer would warm to the final sections in the collection, but Mark Fuller Dillon’s poems pass the test in that the use of traditional forms feels natural and, where rhyming schemes are used, they don’t intrude on the poems. The collection shows a love of words and a range of tones, craft and a dash of self-deprecating humour.

“Ice and Autumn Glass” is forthcoming from Leaky Boot Press.

Poetry Reading Emma Lee Leicester Writers' Showcase