Friday, 21 April 2017

Be Present

I said in my last post that I knew I wouldn't be able to write a poem a day for GloPoWriMo, but after this week I think I could surprise myself. I've pretty much completed 3 new poems. 

And it has to do with being present, being in place, ready to write every day or as often as you can. 

One of the benefits of doing writing practices every day is that like any skill the more you use it the easier it becomes and hopefully the better you get. If you make it a routine to pick up a pen or turn on your laptop at a regular time during the week then your mind becomes attuned to it. You start unconciously thinking of things to write before you sit down, you start to sculpt lines in your head. You cut through the dross of warm-ups faster. 

I've had 2 of the 3 news poems on my 'I want to write' list for ages, but making time to write everyday this week I was able to jump into ideas faster when I found time to sit down. My son's hour guitar lesson was just long enough to sit in a cafe with cake and tea and break the back of a short poem about cake - part of series I've been wanting to write about Finnish flavours for ages. 

The day before I spent half a page playing with a prompt from the NaPoWriMo site about writing a poem letter and then I felt warmed-up enough to start a poem about my daughter and language that I had previously made a page of notes on. The third poem was inspired by something I saw on a drive last week.

Practicing everyday means I am more focussed and ready to write when I sit down. I'm really enjoying the feeling, so hope I can keep it up over the next few months until school finishes and I have the kids every day. It will be harder to find time to write then. 

Here's a few more poems to enjoy: Anna Akhmatova whose poems I discovered in university.

You Will Hear Thunder

You will hear thunder and remember me,
And think: she wanted storms. The rim
Of the sky will be the colour of hard crimson,
And your heart, as it was then, will be on fire.

That day in Moscow, it will all come true,
when, for the last time, I take my leave,
And hasten to the heights that I have longed for,
Leaving my shadow still to be with you. 

When You're Drunk, You're So Much Fun

When you’re drunk, you’re so much fun -
Your rambling tales make no sense.
The early fall arrived and hung
Bright yellow flags upon the elms. 

In the land of fraud and guile, 
We have strayed, and now, repent,
But, what are these fictitious smiles,
On our lips, so strangely bent?

Not happiness or peace of mind, 
A biting torment - we pursued…
I will not leave my friend behind, - 
So tender and so dissolute.

Monday, 17 April 2017

GloPoWriMo - Global Poetry Writing Month

April is Global Poetry Writing Month, in case you didn't know. I didn't. Well, it's National Poetry Writing Month, but someone has realised that there is a world beyond the United States (a rant for another day), so a new acroynym has popped up. And I'm going with it.

Here's a bit of information about its inspiration and conception, but the basic idea is to inspire poets to write a poem a day for the month of April. And to read and share poetry. 

I can't write a novel in a month as in NaNoWriMo, just as I know I can't write a poem a day, I just don't have the time or energy to even start to sketch one out daily.  I used to join in and promote National Poetry Day when I was involved in the writing scene in Scotland and I do like the idea behind promoting poetry writing for a month, so I thought I could share a few favourtie poems on my blog today, just to get into the spirit. Poems that I have loved, been inspired by or wish I had written.

This first poem by Wallace Stevens was introduced to me by a lecturer back in my undergraduate studies. I think it was the first poem that I had ever dissected to see beyond the first reading and it opened new levels of writing for me.

Idea of Order at Key West

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.   
The water never formed to mind or voice,   
Like a body wholly body, fluttering 
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion   
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,   
That was not ours although we understood,   
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean. 

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.   
The song and water were not medleyed sound   
Even if what she sang was what she heard,   
Since what she sang was uttered word by word. 
It may be that in all her phrases stirred   
The grinding water and the gasping wind;   
But it was she and not the sea we heard. 

For she was the maker of the song she sang.   
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea 
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.   
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew   
It was the spirit that we sought and knew   
That we should ask this often as she sang. 

If it was only the dark voice of the sea   
That rose, or even colored by many waves;   
If it was only the outer voice of sky 
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,   
However clear, it would have been deep air,   
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound   
Repeated in a summer without end 
And sound alone. But it was more than that,   
More even than her voice, and ours, among 
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,   
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped   
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres   
Of sky and sea. 

                           It was her voice that made   
The sky acutest at its vanishing.   
She measured to the hour its solitude.   
She was the single artificer of the world 
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,   
Whatever self it had, became the self 
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,   
As we beheld her striding there alone, 
Knew that there never was a world for her   
Except the one she sang and, singing, made. 

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,   
Why, when the singing ended and we turned   
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,   
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,   
As the night descended, tilting in the air,   
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,   
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,   
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night. 

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,   
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,   
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,   
And of ourselves and of our origins, 
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

I often use this poem by Pablo Neruda in my writing classes to illustrate how anything can be the inspiration for a poem.

Ode to my Socks

Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder's hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts,
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter. 

And finally Elizabeth Bishop, the first poet whose works I wholly got into, not just dipping into a poem here or there, but soaking up as much of her as I could find. 

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master; 
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster. 

I found these poems on which seems to have a good collection mix of poems if you're looking for established poets. 

I hope I will be able to come back this month and offer up a few more poems. Try to spend a little time with poetry this month, writing or reading it. 

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Publishing Your Writing Online

I have to admit I'm old school when it comes to books and publishing. I love paper. I want to read from it, write on it and I want to be published on it. 

There is something most satisfying about the experience of reading a paper book, though when I was breastfeeding my youngest in the wee hours of the night I did reread the Sherlock Holmes stories on my phone as it was easier in that situation. I couldn't turn on a light, I was lying in an uncomfortable position and I didn't want to make much noise turning pages, ect. It was a stop gap and I have gone back to paper since. 

I also ideally want to see my work published on paper: in magazines, anthologies and books rather than online. While I still tend to focus on sending my work to printed magazines, I no longer avoid online journals. They have established their place in the world of publishing over the past decade and I am happy to see my work online from time to time. It's a double-edged sword; it widens the potential pool for finding a place for your poem or story but also means that you can be lost in an even bigger crowd of wanna-be-writers. 

I am not a total technophobe, sitting here writing my blog on my laptop, but I'm still wading out into these new-for-me waters. Looking at my Writing CV, I have been published on 6 online sites since 2004, four of them in the past 4 years with another one accepting 3 poems today - Writing in a Women's Voice. Thank you, Beate. Your blog is inspiring reading. 

Online magazines can come and go as fast as printed ones, but often their virtual presence exists long after the editors have downed tools which has its good and bad points: your poems are out there for everyone to see, even the ones you may have fallen out of love with. 

Publishing your work online means you have an immediate presence that prospective publishers can check up on. Getting your work into magazines and journals can be an important stepping stone to getting a book published, especially with short stories and poetry, but unless they subscribe to the magazines listed on your bio or they have somehow come across your work it's hard for editors to know if you really have the publishing record you claim.

I'm not going to go further and talk about self-publishing online here. I really don't have enough experience in the subject to offer any advice, but there are plenty of opportunities out there.  

Finding homes for your work online offers more chances to get that 'published' tick after a poem, but I still prefer to get that copy in the post and flip through to find my pages. It feels more real, I feel published, but while building up my CV, I will continue to take advantage of all opportunities to give my work a small showcase. 

Friday, 10 March 2017

Taking the Hits - Criticism

My mentoring session with WoMentoring started this week and though I knew what to expect it was always going to be an emotional journey.

The basic idea of mentoring is you work with a more established writer for a short period; getting advice on how to move your writing career forward, receiving feedback on your work and assistance in whatever areas you are struggling with. It is usually very individualised to your needs.

A big part of my requirements for my mentor was critical feedback on my writing. I have been in Finland for 7 years now and I've fallen away from the old writing groups, courses, literary circles I used to rely on to gauge responses to my writing. I still submit pieces to publishers so their yes or no responses are a rough guide, but not helpful in any real sense. 

I've submitted my work to group criticism almost from the beginning of my career. While at Uni pursuing my English degree, I joined a writing group and attended any workshops that visiting writers were offering. In Scotland, I took advantage of similar experiences: the great Scottish poet Tom Leonard ripped my poems apart back in 1992 and I still look back on it with a weird sense of pride. 

I know what to expect and how to handle it, but like I said, I'm out of practice so that first reading of my mentor's comments on my poems felt like a kick to the stomach. I did send an email afterwards explaining some missed references, but then I just left the poems alone. On paper at least, I was rolling them around in my head constantly. I was gutted, I always wish for gushing praises, but I know that's not what I really want or need. I need someone to look critically at my work and point out the weak lines, the problematic areas, the chaotic jumble of ideas in need of a focus. 

I did a free writing in a cafe while waiting for my son that evening and I did rant a bit about how she couldn't see this or understand that, but after an hour my conclusion was she couldn't see my references or understand my images because they weren’t clear enough. My writing was at fault. 

Criticism is personal, it is the critic's opinion and they are flawed and human, just like us. The critic brings their own style, interests and experiences into a poem and this colours how they respond to it and how they criticise it. And even a writer as good as Tom Leonard may have a bad opinion of a poem that does work for other people. Just because they suggest a change, it doesn't mean you have to follow those recommendations to the letter. Though Tom was right on the money with my work, I was a young, naive writer who had received nothing but praise from my University lecturers over the years and I needed to see where my work was failing. It was a brilliant wake up call, if very scary. 

Over the years I have learned to take in criticism and use it to re-examine my poems. I don't automatically change everything they point out, don't rip away all the lines they don't like or rewrite as they see fit. If I did, I wouldn't have much of the poem that was mine and I wouldn't be following my own writing instinct.

So yesterday, I re-examined my mentor's comments and went back to the poems. There were lines I agreed were forced, so they went, to some extent. Sometimes I kept part of a line as it had something needed saying, just in a different way. There were lines that were just filler, so they went. 

Two of the three poems she critiqued went back to bare bones and I'm still trying to figure out which way to go with them. I need to recapture the original spark that caused me to write them which can be difficult years after the fact. The other poem I kept most of what she didn't like because there was a major reference that wasn't clear, so I'm rebuilding, focusing on that metaphor.

Finding someone who provides good criticism of your work is hard. I tend to avoid family and good friends. They usually don't have the knowledge to respond to poetry in a helpful manner, don't want to hurt my feelings, think that praise is helpful. I go with writers whose work I admire and whose opinions I trust, writers I know who won't let their egos or professional jealousy colour their view. Writers I've worked with for years.

Praise is good when it’s deserved and specific, so you can see what is working. General praise of the ‘it’s nice, I like it’ variety doesn’t help you improve. Vague critical comments are equally unhelpful. You need to know what lines aren’t beautiful, which aren’t getting their point across, aren’t carrying their weight. Fix-its needed to be given sparingly, don’t tell a writer how to fix their poem. Point out what isn’t working for you and let them find a solution, in their voice and style, if they feel it's needed.

When I had my first collection accepted I paid a poet I knew well to review it. Her comments and criticisms pushed me in the right direction to make the collection the best I could. Positive critical feedback helps you grow as a poet, negative feedback can stunt your growth.

Writing groups are not always the best atmosphere for improvement. I have been to some where all they wanted was praise. Any comment that was critical was automatically shouted down with more praise. No one walked out wanting to improve their work. I’ve been to others where the comments were so negative and full of ‘fix-it my way’ type feedback that everyone left hating their work, they could only see the negatives. Finding a group that offers a good balance is difficult and I’ve been very lucky to work with facilitators who know how to create a good group atmosphere and with fellow writers who know how to provide helpful feedback.  

Accepting criticism of your work and using it to re-evaluate your writing is a necessary and important step to moving into the more public realm of writing and being published. Learning to deal with the fear and exposure can help strengthen your voice, so it's worth building up that slightly toughened skin. But don't be afraid to stick up for your writing, sometimes you are the expert of your own work. 

Good luck 

Friday, 3 March 2017

Publish or . . . Goals

I had two poems accepted for publication this week and I won't deny that it felt like a major accomplishment. I came back to my writing after almost a week off for the winter holiday (all the kids and other half at home, who can focus on writing) and have to admit I was dragged a bit down seeing two more rejections waiting for me. The editors who added a personal touch to my acceptance the following day were most appreciated. 

I've been sending my poems out constantly in the past 6 months or so. Almost as soon as they get rejected I'm sending them out again. Submission portals like Submittable help with this immensely. I am so glad that magazine publishers are moving away from postal submissions, especially as everything I send has to go abroad now. IRCs are an absolute pain in the proverbial. 

Electronic submissions are more likely to make their destination and are usually dealt with more quickly. You also have this permanent record of your rejections. I currently have 28 rejections and 2 acceptances in Submittable since 2015. That doesn't count the submissions I made via email or occasionally snail mail.

Although publishing has never been my major goal, I do want to get published. Ten years ago I had my poetry collection published and it was a rush to see the copy in my hands, my name of the cover. I am aiming towards that again, but I dither about how important getting published is to me.

I love getting my work accepted. Some of the joy is getting to put the little mark on my submissions file to show that the poem is no longer available to send out. To add it to my publications list, to know that someone else thinks it is a good piece of writing, but it is a fleeting excitement. Even when I get a copy of the magazine and see the poem in print, it doesn't have that same buzz. The magazine gets read, put on a shelf and forgotten. Getting a collection published or the ultimate goal for me one of my novels published, of course, is a greater prize than a magazine printing, but it's not why I suit up as often as I can.

I believe I get more enjoyment from writing and finishing a poem than from getting them published. When the writing is going well and I find a phrase that is just right, the buzz is much stronger, longer lasting than seeing my work in print. Everytime I reread what I think is a good poem or section of fiction, there is that sense of satisfaction. Of knowing that I have the ability to say what I want, to make it special. Having someone else see that beauty and talent is so reaffirming. I write even when all I see is rejections, month after month. The glimmers of hope last for a long time.

So I keep writing and I keep sending my work out for publication. I submit my novel to the occasional competition or to agents, I make up chapbooks or poetry samples for competitions, I'm finishing up a poetry collection so that can go out to publishers. 

I write to be heard, but my first audience is myself. The desire to continue writing has always been with me, it waxes and wanes with the phases of my life, but even when the literary world is saying No, I continue to push on. 

Friday, 17 February 2017

Away from the Desk

After a week of feeling like I've had no time to work due to appointments or illness, I've sat down at the computer to realise I have 3 poems hiding in the mess of scribbles I've been doing in my wee pockets of free time.

I've been taking my notebook out more and more when I have a moment and doing writing practices, just stream-of-conscious writing not part of a poem I'm working on or my novel. I start with describing interesting details about the scene around me and then just let my mind wander, follow any thought I get attached to. If I get stuck for ideas I go back to my 'I Want to Write' List or notes in my writing journal. If I have more time, I go through these practices and write out lines that work or have potential and start to expand on them.

One of the poems is connected with notes I made earlier on my third culture theme. I sifted through the lines that were good and started to shape the poem. I must have rewritten all of it or some sections up to three times in the 45 minutes I had while I waited for my son to do his guitar lesson. Typing it out today I realise this poem is pretty much done, though I will leave it for a while and then go back and tinker with it before I'd consider sending it out for publication.

The other poem about my trip to Ireland to do genealogy research is only partial but it has a direction now. Again it comes from a previous writing practice. 

The third poem is from random writing I made while sitting in a seaside cafe for an hour before a meeting at the hospital. I started with the scene but then got caught up in the conversation of two girls across the very small room. They were American and Australian, travelling the world, very loud and full of their youth. The poem is about me looking at them from a position of 'been there, done that, now older and my priorities have shifted'. It is almost done as well.

I've been struggling with lack of inspiration and material, so feel quite chuffed with myself that I've managed to get so much accomplished from a week when I thought I hadn't been able to sit down and write. 

One thing I love about my craft is that it is portable; you can sit anywhere and write. Laptops and tablets make it easy to write out and about on the computer, but I still prefer my journal and pen for practices. Less of a sense of needing to be correct, no spell checker or automatic editing, emails or alerts popping up. 

As a teacher I constantly pushed for my students to take up the habit of doing writing practices, sit still for at least 10 minutes and write about anything. These can be the fodder for future material or can just be a good way to making writing part of your life. 

I had fallen out of the practice because until this autumn I always had a child with me that needed attention. I love being able to go to cafes on my own now and just curl up, soak up the scene and write. I like a bit of activity and people around me, but not needing to be involved with it. And cake is also a good incentive. 

Museums and outdoor places are also ideal for being witness to the buzz of life but to also be able to single out any detail that takes your fancy. Find a favourite place, go to new and unusual haunts, places that clash with your style or theme. Embrace the silence or immerse yourself in chaos. 

And write. Let your mind wander and follow with your pen. Don't edit yourself if you go off topic or seem to say silly things. This is a practice, it's supposed to be rough and disorganised, it's supposed to delve and engage in fancy. 

If you get stuck, start to describe something near you or jump to a prompt like 'I remember' or 'I wish' or if your a fiction writer use your character to remember, wish or try to forget something. Use some of the conversations going on around you, pick up words from the text on the newspaper next to you. Borrow, embellish, expand, adapt. Enjoy. 

Have a good writing week. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Rewriting and Second Drafts

In some ways I love rewriting and editing my work. With poetry I'm always tinkering, a poem for me is never done until it is published in a book. Then I don't look at it again. But as I'm trying to get it published in a magazine or anthology I'm always changing a line here or a phrase there, sometimes overhauling the whole thing if I really feel it's not working. 

With fiction I dislike rewriting. I do editing as my paying 'job' so I don't mind rereading things, fixing grammar and syntax, but it's a big step from writing a novel to that final editing stage. First drafts are hard work, but fun: pushing to the finish, seeing where the characters take me, the satisfaction of completing a chapter or the entire novel. But it's not really done, it's tens of thousands of words that need to be re-examined, picked apart, enhanced, tightened, expanded, reworked before you can just correct grammar and tidy it up. I usually set a novel aside when I finish the first draft and then come back to it when I feel fresh. There is a sense of exhaustion and relief when you complete and the thought of of going back to it to start again is something I dread. 

With my second novel there was a 6-year gap between my first and second drafts. I'm not sure when I started writing it but in 2008, according to writing journals, I was working hard on it. I finished the first draft in 2010 and went back to it in 2016. Not all novels go this way, my first novel was much quicker and one continuous process with shorter gaps. 

Part of it was the unusual situation I found myself in: moving country with a young family, being heavily pregnant during the move, trying to settle into our new country and language with a newborn and a child who was struggling with previously unknown special needs. I couldn't focus on anything longer than a few lines of a poem at a time. I looked at the novel contemplating revision at least once, but couldn't summon the energy required. 

So when my youngest started nursery and I reread the novel for the first time properly in years, I realised I still loved the characters and could see the potential in the story, so I knew I was ready to start the second draft. But reworking a novel is almost as hard as writing it, especially the way I wrote this one. This novel didn't have a plot when I sat down. I had a setting, a main character with a question I needed answering and a format I wanted to work in. I wrote each chapter with no plan other than what the characters wanted to do. 

My novel has two narrative points of view from the same character, one as a teen and one as an adult and I alternate between the two. It was hard to write the adult POV as I didn't know the answer to the teen's question which was the crux of the story. I knew her choice would have repercussions on her adult life, so allowing both timelines to evolve simultaneously meant I was writing the adult sections blind for the first chunk of the novel. 

As you can imagine it didn't flow smoothly. When I started the adult narrative was going to be a minor reflection of the events of the character's past, the bulk of the action was taking place when she was a teen. But when I sat down to start to stitch them together in the rewriting stage I realised that the adult section as as important and needed a great deal of catching up, expanding and elaborating, so I've done a lot more writing with this edit. 

Rewriting also has to fill plot holes and sort what seemed like minor problems in the first draft. Yesterday I was doing some research on things I hadn't examined properly and realised that my timeframe for the teenage part of the novel doesn't work. I wanted it set in the spring and early summer, but I now realise that may not work without giving up some ideas I had. You can't change nature or deadlines and as both play important parts in the timing of the novel, I'm going to have to have a rethink about some important elements. 

Rewriting is frustrating, challenging, time consuming, enjoyable and invigorating. I work on print-outs, on the computer and in my notebook, depending on what sort of work I'm doing. My first draft was 65,000ish words, my current count is 88,000ish. I still have a lot of writing to do before I can get to the tightening stage. It's a slow intensive process, but each step reveals a lot about the story and myself as a writer.

So time to post this and get some real work done.