“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

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“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.

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

Write On, A Leicester Writers’ Showcase

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

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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.