“Be Feared” Jane Burn (Nine Arches Press) – book review

Jane Burn Be Feared book cover

Jane Burn’s “Be Feared” explores survival of abuse and healing along with autism. Her poems use references to fairy tales with a rebellious streak and the power that comes from claiming your own power and transforming from surviving to thriving. In “How Autistic Spectrum Condition Made Her Worth Her Weight in Birds”

“This bird was born a murmuration. From inside her mouth
comes a flight, a flurry for this is the way she cries. Catch them,
though they are not perceptible things and flit, flit, flit,

there are hollows in her chest. This bird is built on bruised
and brittle sticks. Look how she carries a craw of knives that cut
through all her songs. Though she will say I’m fine, I’m fine,

there is no cure for cracks. The tap drips its chorus through dawn.
This bird has a secret, caught behind her lips. Look how her tongue
toils like a trapped wing. It will spiel feathers and sing, sing, sing

a question of sky. Her kitchen is an aviary. She sees blue, its colour
served through cracks. Who made her mocking brain?
Sometimes it is an eyrie, scribbled with scraps and full of bones.”

It’s a busy but controlled poem with the structure, repetitions and bird motifs holding it into shape. The woman’s thoughts are crowding her but she struggles to process them; they flitter and won’t settle. She also struggles to identify and process her feelings, leaving an emptiness. She can’t find the words to describe how she feels so pretends she’s OK. She tries masking, hiding her feelings but it leaves her biting her tongue, unable to share and vulnerable to them revealing themselves despite her efforts to keep them secret. Random thoughts are collected as a bird might collect things to make a nest. Although the quoted part of the poem is set in the kitchen, it doesn’t feel like the heart of the house where family connections are nurtured, but perhaps a refuge where she can try to make sense of who she is.

Other poems suggest home wasn’t always a refuge. “So you made a thousand shit decisions” features domestic violence and starts,

“Forgive yourself, you poor wreck Remember when he used to say
I’ll find you….. I’ll follow you…. Everything you do or say,
I’ll know……….I have my ways…….of finding out.”

It details abuse and the cognitive dissonance used to cope with it. It also highlights two issues, that this was a first serious relationship so she didn’t know what love was supposed to look like and that there were difficulties in processing what was happening. He blamed her, assumed silent was consent and the threats of tracking her down and find her if she left, kept her compliant. Even when the relationship’s over, the fear continues. In “This is a Frankenstein Night” the narrator walks back to her car after work on a dark evening,

“the stiffened grit. Turn to unlock the car. Be feared that someone
might grab your back, pull out your lungs, crack your spine,
ground you like a broken doll. Sit at the wheel and scream
your breath. Press a thumbnail to the opposite hand and scrape

a beautiful traipse of pain. Mourn the lack of spectacle. Too much
night for birds. Snatch what you can from the headlight’s fan.”

The birds that offered comfort, a way of making sense of the world, are absent. The fear of violence will be recognised by any woman. She presses a thumbnail into her hand to ground herself and stop her thoughts paralysing her.

The poems’ narrator refuses to remain a victim. In “Grin Both Ways”

“I look at the pane of glass, severing me from the cold.
Breathe a patch of fog upon it, trace one unbroken circle –

two open eyes. Sweep on a grin. The simple face
looks in at me, out at the opposite world and grins both ways.
I have to start myself again from scratch, go back

through every strange intricacy of my life – unpick
the cockled seam of every hour of suffered school, touch
around the sore wound of everyone I ever knew.

I turn to where the kitchen is quiet. There’s no-one to hurt you
on plain days like this. I don’t have to sketch on a smile.
There is nobody here to recognise but me.”

The kitchen is a refuge again. A place she can be without having to mask, to pretend everything’s fine. She’s free of the expectation and manipulations of others.

The birds return in one of the final poems, “The Un-flight of Porcelain Birds”,

“Spillikins of feather,
your wings are kept by clay.
Roost in my palm, echo of wild things.
You have never trembled evening from your throat.
You have never known
the blue sail of sky.”

There’s a note of regret: these representations of birds will never be wild but can be kept and domesticated. They aren’t sentient beings so won’t know they’ve never known flight, but there seems to be a transference: the narrator is transferring her feelings of confinement and lack of freedom to the birds. The lack here is not having the same freedoms as neurotypical people, the restrictions of suffering domestic violence and the fear that keeps her checking her reactions and actions appear “normal” to others.

“Be Feared” are poems from a poet taking back control of how she expresses herself, how she centres herself, not to dominate others, but to assert her boundaries and encourage others to accommodate her. They acknowledge her suffering from abuse, from being neuro-diverse and how she moves from surviving to coping and thriving. She draws on folklore and myth to make sense of a world that is strange. Jane Burn has created a series of poems of resilience and remaining true to oneself in a world that demands compliance and capitulation.

“Be Feared” is available from Nine Arches Press

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

“Tainted Lionheart” Christine Weimer (Our Galaxy Publishing) – poetry review

Tainted Lionheart Christine Weimer book cover“Tainted Lionheart” is a narrator’s journey into self-discovery and growth following the breakdown of a relationship that had been abusive. The abuse is not explicitly detailed because the poems’ focus is on acceptance and learning. This isn’t a lament or wallow in self-pity. “Fireflies” suggests red flags were ignored,

“we poked holes in the lid
thinking we could let breathe
what we had enclosed.
reveled in their sights
and watched them flutter to escape.

blinking lights dancing around
that closed jar
and while we were delighted,
they were damned and we knew that
but we did it anyway.”

There’s a sense of the fireflies being metaphors for the relationship: there were issues that needed addressing but weren’t and became bottled up for later release. Both parties were too caught up in the romance of being in love to allow warning signs to their due. “Broken” further explores this,

“not because I couldn’t fathom
laying my head down with a lonely heart
in an uninviting bed.

it was because I still loved you.
even when the lights were out.

i loved you broken, still.”

The collection is split into three sections, the middle of which, ‘Brooding’, explores the aftermath, moving from acrimony to acceptance. In “Beating”,

“heart ache is not just
lost love or
intimacy’s infidelity or
broken bed posts.
it is the
fear to fail and
welting worries and
endless empathy and
drifting desires and
it’s selfish sins.”

The ‘and’ enjambment pushes the reader on as the narrator ruminates, admitting that the reluctance to end a relationship is as much about a reluctance to admit failure, to accept the relationship was faulty and the necessary self-examination to avoid making the same mistake again.

In this case, it seems that whilst the narrator is undergoing self-examination, the other person involved is busy shifting blame, in “Storyteller”

“you’ve told your version of my story so many times
i am beginning to wonder if I should be taking notes here.
you know me better than me.

and I must be getting to the climax in your tale
because my ears have been ringing and
people are talking, and it seems I’m getting looks
i’ve never got before.

you’re telling a good one, aren’t you?”

The implication here is that his desire to get his version out in public is part of the continuing coercion that was present in the relationship. While the narrator is trying to figure out why she was drawn in and manipulated, he is concerned with his image and moving on by absolving himself of responsibility for what went wrong. Readers are invited to suspect his next relationship will repeat the same pattern.

The third and last section is ‘Breathing’, its theme captured in “Inhale”,

“i only allow what kept me from breathing
to leave me now.
i exhale my enemies and release my ridicule
and let go of that which made me lonely.
i just wish to breathe now,”

“Self” reflects on progress made,

“today the light shines a bit brighter
on the parts of who I am
that I could not see for many mornings.

i manage to make it a whole day
without shifting eyes to reflective glass
in assessment of myself”

In contrast, the narrator has learnt where her boundaries are and what she will and will not accept if there is a future relationship. Her learning is summarised in the poem that gives the collection its title, “A Letter to My Tainted Lionheart”,

“i’d tell her that even the most ferocious lions
have been known to fall tame to sly and stealthy hunters.
i’d let her know she is not broken because she is tainted
and it was the corruption of her heart
that gave her the reign to be

the Queen of this forest.”

For the metaphor to fully work the final image should be a savannah, not a forest. But the poem does focus on the learning and discovery that the relationship breakdown allowed her to undertake, that perhaps she wouldn’t have undertaken had the relationship not happened. The narrator emerges a stronger and better person who is no longer defined by her relationship.

Whilst “Tainted Lionheart” explores a universal experience, it keeps sight of the personal and steers clear of self-pity. None of the poems feel self-indulgent or exclude the reader. The narrator acknowledges this is her side of the story without tipping all the blame on the other side. She has a clear message: you’ll repeat the same mistakes unless you learn and learning makes you stronger and more self-aware.

Available via Our Galaxy Publishing


“Persona Non Grata” edited Isabelle Kenyon (Fly on the Wall Poetry) – book review

Persona Non Grata“Persona Non Grata” is a poetry anthology to raise funds for charities Shelter and Crisis Aid UK and looks at the roles of outsiders and the sense of not belonging. It covers homelessness, those seeking refuge, the mostly invisible workforce who clean and care and attempts at integrating into society.

Debbie Hall’s “Sonnet for a Homeless Woman Named Beth” suggests how outsiders can still manage a sense of society,

“A ribbon of chain link and razor wire
keeps the freeway at bay, forms a laundry
rack. On the corner, a shuttered market.
Tacked to a telephone pole, a sign:
Will pay cash for diabetes test kits.”

The make-shift laundry rack and sign show a sense of inventiveness and community despite difficult circumstances. It contrasts with Judith Kingston’s “Sostenuto” where the outsider is unable to re-integrate,

“He was my father’s uncle dressed in the skin of a ghost,
his wit muffled under the layers of horror, dulled
by the headstones that were never placed on
graves. Later, he would tell stories, but not now.

Whenever I saw him he wore a suit – his own, but
under his clothes lurked the bleached bones that
rattled in time with the train he was still on, which
could not take him from that place that never left.”

“Ghost” captures the image of someone hollowed out by what they’ve witnessed and the way shellshock and PTSD haunt someone long after the initial trauma. The reference to “suit – his own” suggests someone keeping up appearances and burying experiences. Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar’s “Citizen of a morphing nation” continues the theme of integration,

“Will I have to ubiquitously register myself?
Sit in surveilled booths in gatherings and stadiums?
Would yellow stars be sewn to my lapel?
A tracking band secured around my ankle?

Will my son return home from school
Whole and unbruised as he had left?
Loyalty and sentience, he’ll be asked to pantomime
Else fall prey to slurs and virulent hate crimes”

The questions accumulate an image of someone joining a society she knows she’s not necessarily welcome in; she’s apprehensive and nervous about whether it’s the right decision.

The last section brings in a note of hope. Ceinwen Haydon’s “Let’s celebrate (after Mandy Coe)”,

“Let’s celebrate –
that badass girl with purple hair,
tattoos and piercings. The one
who helps a tired mum
with her baby, heavy pushchair
and bags of Poundland shopping
to get safely of the last bus home.”

It’s rarely the person in a suit who steps in to help. Ceinwen Haydon’s use of enjambment, keeps the motion of the poem forward and energetic, keeping with the sense of celebration.

“Persona Non Grata” explores the themes of being an outsider on the fringes of society whether through poverty and homeless or the need to seek refuge; people who have been traumatised yet still seek community and company. It’s not a depressing read though, the poets bring compassion to difficult issues and experiences.

“Persona Non Grata” is available from Fly On the Wall Poetry.

“A Witness of Waxwings” Alison Lock (Cultured Llama) – short stories review

“A Witness of Waxwings” is a collection of 20 short stories, some under 1000 words, on a range of topics from the natural world, selkies, clocks, a girl with Olympic ambitions and King Knut who knows it is folly to attempt to govern the sea but is distracted by worry about his queen, returning from a sea journey. In one of the longer stories, “Blue”, an elderly Edith has failed in her search to find the baby she was forced to give up for adoption. Through the fog of dementia, she remembers through fragments and pieces together how her baby was conceived in rape.

In the title story, a woman watching a documentary on waxwings on an small isolated island, she recognises the birdwatcher captured on camera and remembers the abuse he doled out to her. Not having bruises for proof, she found it impossible to tell her side of the story.

“Creels” sees a mother and daughter fleeing domestic violence. The daughter had kept her father’s phone number in her battered soft toy. Her father made her promise she would phone and tell him where they were. A helpful receptionist repairs the toy and the daughter discovers the piece of paper with her father’s phone number is no longer in the toy. It’s not until she frees a lobster from a creel she understands when she and her mother left.

In “Dissonance”, a badly-maintained clock that has a line of mannequins appear on the hour, appears to hold the town’s fate in its hands. Tradition states if the clock stops, the town will burn as it did once before. During the annual carnival celebrating the town’s burning after the great fire, the clock’s hourly parade judders, causing panic for one witness whilst others have forgotten its significance.

“A Shift of Light” follows Glenn as he returns to clear out his late parents’ house. A act that triggers memories of his sister, the girl who wanted to be an Olympic swimmer, who sneaked out of the house at night to practice in the local lake, determined to be the first to swim from one side to the other. He returns to the lake for the first time since childhood. Memories surface, he calls out.

Each story offers a transformation, sometimes literally, where a main character has to accept and understand their past and its effect on their future. Alison Lock brings a poet’s eye for details, offering sparingly, which enable a reader to imagine the scene whilst leaving the reader enough space to engage with the story. Each bears re-reading too. “A Witness of Waxwings” is a skillfully crafted collection of engaging short stories.

“A Witness of Waxwings” is available from Cultured Llama

Verbs that Move Mountains book coverVerbs that move mountains is a glimpse at the way poets, promoters and storytellers engage with spoken word around the world. The anthology includes histories of specific scenes, hard looks at how to make spoken word a more accessible and open space in terms of sexuality, mental health, indigenous languages and more…. Academic analysis co-exists with personal reflections. Current topics, such as the ethics of honesty in slam poetry, or the very real dangers faced by many poets around the world, are also discussed. These essays give you snapshots of scenes from Singapore to New Zealand, via Leicester and Palestine.

Verbs that Move Mountains is Available here

“The White Crucifixion” Michael Dean (Holland Park Press) – novel review

“The White Crucifixion” is subtitled “a novel on Marc Chagall” and is split into parts that explore Marc Chagall’s beginnings as a painter, his first stay in Paris, his return to Vitebsk, his promotion to Director of the Vitebsk School of Art and then his return to Paris. The structure is linear as it follows Moyshe Shagal (not yet Marc Chagall) from childhood in Vitebsk where he first learns to paint, to discovery in Paris, a muted return and fatherhood in Vitebsk, where he is trapped as war breaks out and finally Chagall’s return to Paris as his rival wins dominance.

Michael Dean’s novel blurs the line between fiction and creative non-fiction in that the events are based on Marc Chagall’s life but the conversations and reactions are fictional. I imagine, too, that the cast of characters has been limited because the named characters have an impact on Chagall’s life and some resurface as the painter moves from Vitebsk to Paris and vice versa. This approach means that the tension and drama in the novel is not based on events in Chagall’s life, since a biographical overview is widely known or available after a quick online search, but relies on the interactions and Chagall’s reactions to them.

Moyshe Shagal is born to a herring-schlepper and a grocer and carries a guilt about a younger sister’s death, believing her to have choked on a piece of charcoal he’d given her. His mother, the grocer, is actually the main breadwinner and she allows him to go to art school. It’s through art school that he finds himself mixing with teenaged children from the richer areas and how he meets his future wife, Bella. Bella’s parents, who own a jewellery shop, are not initially impressed with the idea of their daughter marrying a painter but don’t prevent nuptials. Moyshe is invited to Paris where he joins an artists’ community and is discovered by a dealer. Bella joins him. She vacillates between becoming a writer or an actress and fails to pursue either. Readers only see Bella through Chagall’s eyes and he fails to appreciate the limitations she faces and, at times, she becomes merely someone to share a bed with rather than a fully-formed character. There is a good sense of the rivalries, camaraderie and petty jealousies that dog an artists’ community. There’s also a good sense of what it means to be an artist, “I cannot lose the totality of myself in Bella because something of me must always remain outside and aloof from anything which is not my art.”

It is back in Vitebsk that Bella gets her break as an actress but is thwarted by a sprained ankle. The sprained ankle seems to trigger labour, which feels surreal because Chagall failed to notice his wife’s changing body during her pregnancy. Nonetheless, Ida in welcomed into the Chagall household. Chagall gets what he thinks is a break when invited to be director at the new Vitebsk People’s Art School. However, he soon discovers his title doesn’t confer any actual power. He tries to resign but Bella urges him to hang on. Her panic attacks have made her agoraphobic and, some days, bedridden. This isn’t explored or explained and Chagall doesn’t seem bothered that his wife, happy to explore Paris and nurture ambitions, is reduced to one room in their apartment at the school. At this time, against the back-drop of the First World War and Russian Revolution, Chagall describes his paintings as “documents”, recording a Jewish world which is being destroyed. As soon as travel restrictions are lifted, the Chagalls return to Paris and the story can re-focus on art, building towards the painting “The White Crucifixion”.

On occasion the drama is undermined. After an attempted suicide by Indenbaum in the Paris artists’ colony, readers are told “During the course of his long and by and large contented life, Indenbaum never did anything remotely like this again.” On another, when Chagall is facing starvation, he is rescued in the next paragraph, the sense of danger passes too quickly.

The novel is at its strongest when depicting La Ruche artists’ colony in Paris and exploring Chagall’s inspirations and motivations to paint. It succeeds as an evocative, layered story of one man’s drive to describe his world through art. Its subject isn’t just about the painter and his work but an insight into Jewish history through the lens of Chagall’s subjects – often based on Jewish tales and proverbs – and how the Russian Revolution, initially seen as a positive, anti-oppressive move, became another means of oppression.

“The White Crucifixion” by Michael Dean is available from Holland Park Press

Please Hear What I’m Not Saying

Please hear what I'm not saying poetry anthology to raise funds for MINDThe “Please Hear What I’m Not Saying” poetry anthology will be released on 8 February 2018 and includes 116 poets from around the world exploring a range of mental health issues. Editor Isabelle Kenyon said “I knew I wanted to work collaboratively with other poets and it was actually the theme of mental health for a collection, which came to me before the idea of donating the profits to charity MIND. This was because I knew how strongly people felt about the subject and that it is often through writing that the most difficult of feelings can be expressed. I think that is why the project received the sheer number of submissions that it did.”

She discussed how she selected the poems, “In some cases of course personal taste came into my selection, but I tried to be as objective as I could and consider the collection as whole. I wanted the book to have as many different personal experiences and perspectives as I could find. Because of this, I have not been afraid to shy away from the ugly or the abstract, but I hope that the end of the book reflects the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ for mental health and that the outcome of these last sections express positivity and hope.”

Every poetry acceptance is a delight, but, on occasion, some strike a deeper chord than others. Editor Isabelle Kenyon’s acceptance of my poem, “The Gift of Sadness”, was one such occasion. I had a friend who edited a music magazine that also took short stories (and very occasionally poems because my friend wasn’t a fan of poetry). Our tastes overlapped and we shared news and gossip about bands, commiserated each other on rejections, I wrote reviews for her magazine and occasionally she’d take a poem. Her story stories were published by magazines and she’d been working on a novel. We were geographically 100 miles apart so contact was online, by letter or by phone. It seems ironic she is commemorated in a poem, but I have also written a published short story inspired by her. Even now, I have to catch myself as I reach for a phone to tell her about some new song that I know she’d have loved if she were still here to hear it.

An extract from my poem appears below:

Your parents’ words were a hollow
you’d retreat into until I could tug you out
with a ribbon of cassette tape,
wrap it into a vinyl spiral,
a stylus needle to stitch words
with music, wishing I could
get you to spiral out instead of in.

More information on MIND here. More on “Please Hear What I’m Not Saying” here.

Inheritance Ruth Stacey and Katy Wareham Morris (Mother’s Milk Books) – poetry review

Inheritance book coverAnother in the poetry duets series where two poets create a sequence of poems by one writing in response to the other. Here nights with a new baby are interwoven with inspirations from a nineteenth century relative’s letters and diary entries. In the title poem Ruth Stacey writes,

“I would do something with it all
one day, find out her story.
Then real life, taut and bright,
with its newly made tendons
tugged me into tomorrow
and tomorrow. I forgot her.
Late nights, late nights;
they taste of tannin and tears.
I stubbed my toe on the box
beneath the bed and dragged it angrily
into the room, blindly opened it
and began to read the old wounds.
My baby turns in the crib.”

The alliterative “t” sounds act as a reminder nagging readers back to remember the box of papers. Newborns leave a primary carer with short slots of time to do things inbetween feeds so it’s difficult to find a length of time that can be focused on one thing. In response, Katy Wareham Morris’s “Spellbound”,

“I reach for your testimony:

soft, soft words sit
sharing my bed, sequence my mind.
I catch your beat –

feel your skin on the paper,
misty ink, the blue black blood
of your heart.

Baby suckles now,
your voice is my calm.”

It’s tone is softer with sibilant sounds with long vowels countering the abrupt “bl” alliteration. The words being read calm and centre the mother as she calms and feeds her baby. Ruth Stacey then takes the reader back to 1887 in “Knowledge” where a new mother leaves baby in crib in a houseful of guests,

“Mindlessly I walk to the pool, linger
To watch the rabbits jump
I am fixed on their lazy pleasure.
Turning sodden, I head for home.
There is nothing unknown – a herb
For this, a prayer for that. Women
Come to the cottage; if I shouted
My voice would carry and someone
Would come. A woman would come.”

This contrasts with Katy Wareham Morris’ 2016 “Answers”

“Why is it the things I know must be Googled?
It shocks me and scares me but I do it anyway
even though I know the truth; your truth
is not shocking or scary, it just seems that way
when we’re on this derailed train
for days and nights. I rely on the net to figure out
where you fit in this heavy volatile spree,
even though you are surging away from me.”

Modern mothers are often left to muddle through on their own and sometimes the wealth of generic or unreliable information available in a matter of seconds on the internet can be overwhelming rather than helpful and lead mothers to mistrust their own instincts. In a time before the internet, women turned to each other and new mothers weren’t so isolated.

Ruth Stacey returns to 1887 and the new mother suffers a fever and writes to her sister, Maggie, in “Sister”,

”                                Maggie, what I mean
To say is this, will you care for my baby
When I am dead, for this fever burns me,
And I am finding it hard to write this,
My last letter.
Sing to her.”

In response, Katy Wareham Morris’ “Easter” the contemporary mother takes her baby on a walk,

“Moving in the wind, waiting to dissolve,
wandering through meadows. I hold you,
wrapping my arms tight enough around that you would be buried
with me. If I shouted

My sharp tongue

I cut this up it
.                            s
.                                c
.                                     a
.                                          t
.                                              t
.                                                   e
.                                                        r
.                                                              s”

A different approach to the same fear: who cares for a dependent baby when the mother can’t. Whilst the pamphlet’s focus is on mothers, the fathers’ absences are felt.

“Inheritance” does capture those early days with a newborn baby with tenderness and craft. It shows that the utterly dependent relationship between baby and mother is timeless and universal: there’s as much to recognise in the nineteenth century’s relative’s diaries and letters as there is in a contemporary mother’s Google searches. It’s not afraid to look at the frustrations and bewilderment as much as the rewards of early motherhood.

“Inheritance” is available from Mother’s Milk Books.

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.


  • 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

Write On, A Leicester Writers’ Showcase

18 January 2017 from 6.30pm at Central Library, Bishop Street, Leicester.

















Review of Jessica Mookherjee’s “The Swell” will appear on 18 January 2017.

Guest Post: Writing about home

The Widows Confession Sophia Tobin book cover “The Widow’s Confession”, my second book, is a murder mystery set in 1851. Thanks to my madcap writing process, the plot has gone through various twists, turns and changes, but the setting has remained constant: Broadstairs in Kent, the seaside town where I grew up.

Writing about a place I know so well was initially daunting. I thought that being so familiar with a town would make it hard for me to reinterpret it and see it through Victorian eyes. But it wasn’t difficult to edit out modern buildings in my mind, and see the traces of the past: the grey flint cottages, Holy Trinity church, and the pubs, like Neptune’s Hall and the Tartar Frigate. A scan through Victorian directories shows they were there in 1851, and the names of those who lived there. I used the places, but I left the real people in peace – only one character in “The Widow’s Confession” bears the name of a real person, and I hope I have treated him well.

There were advantages to the familiarity. I know what it feels like to live by the seaside: its bleakness in winter, its intense vivacity in summer. I knew I could distill something out of those feelings, and see if I could make them correspond, even a little, with the thoughts of those who lived there 150 years ago. I well remember the jolt, each year, when our empty town suddenly filled with holidaymakers, and took the seeds of that to imagine the attitude of Broadstairs folk in 1851 when the Londoners arrived by the carriage-load and made the town their own.

There are also places in Broadstairs which have an extra potency for me. The driveway leading up to the Rectory of Holy Trinity is one such place. Looking up that shadowy, winding driveway as a teenager always stirred my imagination. Rather than delving into its past, I drew upon its significance to me as a psychological space, and the ominous, complex feeling it provokes in me. For me, those memories are as valid a source as all my research.

I had, at least, a little distance: I left Broadstairs in my twenties to work in London. My relationship with London is entirely different: its liveliness, endless variety and freedom has been hugely important to me as a writer, and as a result I set my debut novel there. But writing about my first home means drawing on layers of memories and experiences, from the sound of the sea on rough winter nights, to the sight of a beach full of tourists. If my relationship with London has been a rollercoaster of an affair, my relationship with Broadstairs has been one of quiet solidarity and friendship. We know each other well: in happiness and sadness, through all the seasons. And I hope that intimacy lends depth and colour to the portrait of it in “The Widow’s Confession.”

Sophia Tobin By Sophia Tobin

“The Widow’s Confession” is published by Simon & Schuster

Sylvia Plath The Spoken Word (British Library) CD Review

The Spoken Word poetry by Sylvia Plath

The British Library’s “The Spoken Word” series of CDs feature poets reading their own work from the BBC sound archives and have finally got round to Sylvia Plath (according to the list in the CD, the only other women to feature are Stevie Smith and Edith Sitwell).  She made 17 radio broadcasts between 20 November 1960 and 10 January 1963, although only 7 survive.

The CD opens with an interview recorded with Ted Hughes, “Two of a Kind” where both were invited to speak about writing poetry and living with another poet.  As you’d expect, Ted Hughes is rather reticent and Sylvia Plath more generous with her answers, although the questions are fairly inane and the interview doesn’t reveal anything people aware of both poets’ biographies don’t already know.  At the point of the interview both poets are living in a small flat in London with a small child, Frieda, and effectively living off savings and small amounts of income from writing.  Sylvia mentions that Ted can write even with the distractions of other people in a room whereas she needs solitude otherwise she’s too tempted to join in the conversation.  There are hesitations and interruptions as there always are in a live interview where the subject is not given the questions in advance.

There are poems too, including “Leaving Early” and “Candles” recorded in October 1960, “Mushrooms” recorded in January 1961 along with Ted Hughes reading his “The Pike”, “The Disquieting Muses”, “Spinster”, “Parliament Hill Fields”, “The Stones” recorded June 1961, “The Surgeon at 2 am” recorded in August 1962 and “Berck-Plage” recorded in October 1962, with Sylvia’s brief introductions.  At first Sylvia sounds wary and her pronunciation is cautious.  So it’s not surprising that where she sounds most at ease in on “Tulips” which was read in front of a live audience rather than in a studio.  But the later tracks show her becoming accustomed to reading in a studio and more at ease with presenting the poem as a live recording.  Sylvia did read her poems to herself whilst drafting and editing but there’s a huge difference between murmuring to yourself in a study and reading a poem for broadcast. 

That’s not to say she was precious about her readings.  There’s also a brief interview where she was asked why she stayed in England.  She starts with Milton’s tree at Cambridge, wandering round London and see double decker buses and scenes recognisable from Dickens.  But goes on to her first experience of English sea: the muddy grey mizzle of Whitby poles apart from growing up on Cape Cod.

Sylvia was hampered by being tone deaf: she would have struggled to hear her own tones as she read so would find it hard if not impossible to judge how the recording sounded to others and whether she’d got the emotional tone right.  This would have added to the self-consciousness of the earlier recordings.  Tone deafness is a bit of a misnomer in that problem lies with an inability to interpret the tone when listening to someone speak.  Seeing someone face to face allows you to see facial expression and body language so you can compensation for what you can’t hear.  But when you only have the voice and you can’t interpret whether that voice is happy, sad, irritated, angry, bored, although speed and volume of the voice may hint at the mood of speaker, you’re generally left with just the words.  Problem is, most people are sloppy with words because they rely on tone to get their message across.  Sylvia would have had a more acute ear for rhythm and sound patternings in works whilst simultaneously being disadvantaged by not being able to interpret the tone the words were said with.  It would be more difficult for her to assess how her own recordings sounded.

The CD is rounded off with her review of an anthology, “Contemporary American Poetry”.  It’s a shame some of her recordings have been lost but wonderful to hear her read some of her own poems.  I could practically feel those tulips burn through their wrapping as she read.  Warmly recommended.