Being Boring – A poem by Wendy Cope

‘May you live in interesting times.’  Chinese curse

If you ask me ‘What’s new?’, I have nothing to say

Except that the garden is growing.

I had a slight cold but it’s better today.

I’m content with the way things are going.

Yes, he is the same as he usually is,

still eating, and sleeping, and snoring.

I get on with my work. He gets on with his.

I know this is all very boring.

There was drama enough in my turbulent past:

Tears and passion – I’ve used up a tankful.

No news is good news, and long may it last,

If nothing much happens, I’m thankful.

A happier cabbage you never did see,

My vegetable spirits are soaring.

If you’re after excitement, steer well clear of me.

I want to go on being boring.

I don’t go to parties. Well, what are they for,

If you don’t need to find a new lover?

You drink and you listen and drink a bit more

And you take the next day to recover.

Someone to stay home was all my desire

And, now that I’ve found a safe mooring,

I’ve just one ambition in life, I aspire

To go on and on being boring.

Wendy Cope (July 21st 1945 – )

Wendy Cope writes ‘ I hadn’t written a poem for a while, and I thought to myself, ‘I’m too boring to write poems these days.’ Then I sat down and wrote this. It goes down well with adult audiences but I rarely read it in schools because I imagine that adolescents would find it shocking.’

Taken from Poem For The Day Two

Review – Man On Fire – Stephen Kelman

This book is a vibrant and visceral song of India. Part biography and part embellishment, it weaves through the lives of both its narrators, charting a path from pain to acceptance, reflecting on the nature of purpose and calling and what it means to be truly present; truly human; alive.

In the dust and glory of this story there is great peace and hope. The narrative prowls the line between life and death with the sure-footedness of the tiger and all the colours of Maharashtra flood the pages. It is a beautiful exploration of need and man, examining the ties that bind us and the desires which drive us, laying them as bare as the earth before the rains.

In choosing to enter into the life story of Bibhuti Nayak, the writer has found a cause which resonates deeply in the heart of Navi Mumbai. A multiple record holder and tireless worker for the health and welfare of others, Nayak seeks to demonstrate what can be accomplished with perseverance and determination, and he does so for those whose lives  demand determination on a daily basis if they are to continue. Nayak takes his place as hope-bringer, perhaps the highest title to which any of us can aspire.

There is foolishness and thoughtlessness, there is great love and great sacrifice, and there is wonderful flawed humanity; it boils from the page in the summer heat.

It is worth reading this book simply for the craftsmanship with which the writer drip-feeds information, gently leading us in the search for purpose, or for the poetry of symmetry with which he balances the plot, making each new revelation startling yet inevitable. It is to his credit that his guidance is always gentle, taking a backseat to the development of character. You should read this story for its richness, its beauty and its stunning sense of resolution. This is a powerful work beautifully written.

Stephen Kelman is the Man Booker-shortlisted author of Pigeon English. His new book Man on Fire will be published by Bloomsbury on 13th August 2015.

He can be found on Twitter @stephen_kelman

The Poet and the Poetry Reviewer

Author, historian and poet, Mathew Lyons in conversation with writer, artist and reviewer, Rachel Stirling.

RACHEL:  When did you know that you wanted to write?

MATHEW:  Quite early on I think. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t really entranced by books of one kind or another – or when I didn’t want to write in some way. Who inspired you to write?

RACHEL: The author of every book I have ever read and those I haven’t reached yet. Reading is joyful. I was, am, and always will be, such a bookworm. What led you away from the short story form, towards poetry?

MATHEW: Good question. Fear. Self-doubt. Those are the negative reasons. And they definitely have some purchase. But I also like the concision of poetry. The fluidity of form. The reduction of an idea or an emotion or a narrative -however you want to define narrative – into its barest possible expression. That’s very appealing. I am beginning to write more fiction now – short and long form. We’ll see what happens. The things that prompt creation are different for all of us, I think. My imagination tends to be both quite visual and – paradoxically maybe – concerned with interior spaces. How about you? Are the catalysts that motivate you to create the same for writing as they are for sculpting or painting?

RACHEL:  I’ve given that one some thought before, and it comes down to one word – reply. I’m a reserved person, a listener rather than a talker. When the world happens to me, as it does to all of us, creation is my response, my reply. It’s that simple and that complex. The writing seems to be reserved for those responses I can begin to articulate. It’s usually my way of finding my own thoughts among the noise.

MATHEW:  Who do you think of as your audience for each?

RACHEL:  I don’t. I never give a thought to the audience when I’m working. Does that sound awful? I simply work. The only exception to that rule would be in the case of a commission, which I take on rare occasions. The audience my work finds, if it finds one, is always a pleasant surprise.

I’ve been wondering which poets you like to read.

MATHEW:  The poets I go back to mostly are probably Auden, MacNeice and Tennyson. Especially MacNeice. But I go through phases of reading a lot by different poets at different times. Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Amy Clampitt, Derek Walcott, Billy Collins, Yeats, Byron, Rilke, Neruda…I could go on. I used to read the imagists a lot and I think you can see their influence clearly in my work. HD in particular. Which contemporary poets do you read most?

RACHEL:  I have a great deal of time for Robert Peake, George Szirtes and Mark Fiddes, but I am blessed with being able to read a vast amount of poetry. Sometimes I actually spend the most time with poets I understand the least. In that sense the question works differently for me. I spend my time working with the difficult to follow. My favourite poets? Rilke, Keats, Mary Oliver, Byron, Frost, Auden, Heaney – so many.

MATHEW: Szirtes is wonderful. His Twitter feed is a joy too! What do you look for in a poet?

RACHEL: They are all so different! [laughing] Poets and poems are a glorious puzzle. Here you have a person who has, often with great skill, distilled the experience of a lifetime into a few lines, and they are asking you to see them. I see the job of a reviewer as being willing to take the time to do that. I take every poet as they come, a new life, a new experience, a new approach, I don’t like to comment on anyone’s work until I have read quite a lot of their poetry. I do enjoy elegance of language. I also appreciate the usual courtesies and promptness goes a long way to helping anyone with a deadline, obviously.

How do you define a poem?

MATHEW: That’s difficult. A frame of words and phrases that allows the reader to respond imaginatively, emotionally and intellectually? Form is important. I don’t write too much in formal metres or structures but one of the things I list out for- or feel for – is the shape a poem is going to have, how long the arc of it is. I sometimes have to wait for that, even if I know I have the outline of what is going to be in the poem and what its core images and phrases are going to be. Rhythm is very important to me – not just the rhythm of the lines but the way that the ideas and images are interspersed. I think of my poems in spatial terms. I don’t know how usual that is. Phrase-making matters a lot to me too, the ability to put words together in a way that is both new and memorable and startlingly true. That’s what I look for in other writers and it’s something I strive for in my own work.

What do you look for in a poem?

RACHEL:  Effortlessness. There is a kind of beauty, as gentle as breathing, when a poet finds the right words to express their thoughts. The thoughts don’t have to be beautiful, and the poet may have wrestled the words to the page as if bringing down a wildebeest, but when they are the right words, everyone can breathe. Then the near misses interest me. Of course, to work these out you first have to work out what the poet is trying to achieve and how. Sometimes in the pursuit of this you also stumble on the why, but not always. It’s necessary to understand the what, the how is where it gets technical and the why is a gift of comprehension beyond the page. Sometimes a poet gives away more of the why than they intend and other times next to nothing, they are a barely open book and we get a sideways glimpse at the pages. Sometimes what a person doesn’t tell you is the most interesting thing of all.

What do you look for in a poem? How do you start? Do you begin with very structured intentions or do you write and see what arrives?

Mathew:  It varies to be honest. But what usually comes first is a line, or a phrase, or an image. i collect them – and at some point one will come along that seems to pull the others into its orbit and I will piece a poem together from those basic elements. I don’t know if that makes sense. What I start with doesn’t necessarily end up in the finished poem though. There are lines and images that have been in and out of various drafts of different poems before I find what feels like its home. The process can take years. Sometimes a poem will come more or less whole, of course. And other times I will have a sense of precisely what I want or need to say. But usually it is more worked at – and more allusive. How do you critique a poem? Where do you start? How important are formal considerations? – or do you prefer to focus on thematic and verbal issues?

RACHEL:  I begin by putting aside all thoughts of critique and reading the poetry. I usually make three passes through the whole body of work. The first pass is for pure enjoyment. It usually leaves me with an impression of theme, rhythm and ideas. I make a brief note of these and any obvious poetry forms, such as sonnet or villanelle, then I go back through the work again to check that I haven’t caught the wrong end of the stick, or indeed the wrong stick. On this pass I pay more attention to the language and technical considerations all the while asking myself what the poet is doing or attempting to do. Again, I make short notes. On the third pass I choose one or two of the poems that I consider to be typical of the collection, or particularly interesting, and I take them apart, very gently, looking at the rhythms and sounds and the technical aspects of construction. Often at this stage that it will occur to me which poetry a poet likes to read, a bizarre side-effect of having read a lot of poetry. At the end of the process I usually have enough information to write my review. I don’t consider any structure or classical form to be better or worse than any other and I don’t prefer classical forms over modern interpretations. I do like to recognise each poem for what it is and think about whether it is a good example of its type, and how it differs. The interest often lies in the difference. Sometimes a structural hiccup is a poet’s exclamation point Your writing interests me because you have such a broad range. You have fiction and non-fiction work running side by side with your verse. How do you divide your time between journalistic or historical writing and the intricacies of poetry?

MATHEW: Ha! Well, copywriting, journalism, editing, etc are all there in order to pay the rent. The noise of it kills the ability I have to write creatively, well certainly as far as poetry goes. Poetry requires a kind of intellectual space – I need to withdraw a little inside my head so I can hear the words clearly, get a sense of rhythm and weight, and also hear or feel the way they resonate for me intellectually and emotionally. It’s a separate thing for me. It’s also a space to reflect on myself – my thoughts and feelings, my responses to the world. I hesitate to call it a form of therapy because it isn’t, but the two things occupy similar states of mind I think.

RACHEL:  You’ve published several books written largely from a historical non-fiction perspective, most recently The Favourite. How did, or did, the research for that book feed back into your poetry work?

MATHEW:  I’m not sure that it did, necessarily. At least, not yet. I can see that the theme of my previous book Impossible Journeys resonates subtly here and there in my poetry. The idea of impossibility, hope against hopelessness, is something I can see I’ve returned to, not always intentionally. And my first book on Tolkien and the ancient history of the English landscape I think helped clarify for me something about how we experience the physical world intellectually and emotionally. But I consciously used poetry to help me with the writing of The Favourite. I worked very hard on the prose of that book at a time when my private life was beginning to go through a fair amount of turmoil. I lost my way quite often – but I found that reading contemporary poets like Medbh McGuckian, Jen Hadfield,  and Jane Griffiths helped me to focus on the clarity of expression. Why do you write fiction as opposed to poetry (as far as I know) while thinking deeply and writing about the poetry of others?

RACHEL:  I did pass through a phase of writing song lyrics but that is as close as I have come to writing poetry. I’m not a poet, as far as I am aware. The things that I need to say simply seem to come out in story form. Poetry is an intricate dance and I don’t consider that I know all the steps. Maybe that will change in the future. I look forward to finding out. I also review novels, short story anthologies and other written work. Poetry is the most beauty in the shortest amount of time. It takes me time to think through work to my satisfaction and so, in order to paint, sculpt and write, I am drawn to the work of poets. Poetry is a great deal of literary feeding in a very small space. It helps to ground me in a creative place. What are you trying to achieve when you write?

MATHEW:  To get the idea out whole, to find its ideal form and expression. I don’t think I ever have or will – but it’s important to try!

RACHEL:  And where do you go from here in terms of creative writing?

MATHEW:  I have more non-fiction projects to pursue and, as I said earlier, I’m working on some fiction. I don’t necessarily think of them as very different as writing projects. I try to make my non-fiction writing a pleasure to read and as a historian the human elements in  any story are very important to me. I’d like to start publishing my poetry properly and working towards a collection. How about you? You do so many different things. What is on your horizon creatively and critically?

RACHEL:  This year I will be making headway with my Tower-of-Babel-sized review pile. I have a great deal of reading to do. I will be reviewing poetry every month for Sabotage Reviews, and I will be working on my own novel ‘Indigo’. My spare time, should I find any, will be spent completing a sculpture that I started about a year ago. She is currently wrestling her way out of the stone, which looks uncomfortable, bless. The lovely thing about sculpture is that you can simply down tools and walk away, safe in the knowledge that the piece will keep. It isn’t quite that easy to shelve a painting in progress…

Mathew Lyons can be found here:

MathewLyons@wordpress.com

MathewLyons.tumblr.com

and @MathewJLyons on Twitter where you can also find me @Stirlingwriter

Why The Eighteenth Century?

This is what happens when you ask the obvious question of a Historical Fiction author. Thank you to the wonderful Rebecca Mascull for her time and patience. Why the eighteenth century? My second novel SONG OF THE SEA MAID is set in the eighteenth century and what a century it was. Violent and chaotic – there seemed to be a more or less constant state of war in Europe and beyond for much of the century; flamboyant and appalling – the fashions were extreme and the poverty was grinding. Life was cheap, children were treated as badly as animals, and the animals had a very bad time of it themselves. Women were generally seen as a lower order or a larger form of children. The poor were sometimes thought to be a different species, let alone those of other races. Religion ruled the roost, politics was rife with corruption and you could be sentenced to horrible punishments for blasphemy or for treason against the king. So, there’s plenty of material there for a novelist. But why in particular did I choose it for my setting? I knew that I wanted my main character to be a woman of science. She was going to begin with lowly origins, then later study, travel and get into scrapes. I wanted her to make a scientific discovery and develop a theory, formed by the experiences she has as she grows up and goes further afield. I could have set my protagonist down in another century – the nineteenth perhaps – and still achieved the same aim. The Victorian era was not easy for women either, or orphans for that matter (see Dickens!), so the nineteenth century would provide enough obstacles for our woman of science. And let’s face it, even the Twentieth century had only just shifted a little along the line to equality, when one thinks of the problems a woman like Rosalind Franklin had to be taken seriously by posterity. But my decision came when I realised that I wanted my scientist to be after the gigantic strides forward made by Isaac Newton and long before the mould-breaking work of Charles Darwin. I wanted her to be in the midst of the age of reason and yet still constrained by the rule of religion and also superstition. I wanted her to be born into an age that still believed in unicorns, dragons and mermaids, before dinosaurs were named but giant bones had been found and erroneously labelled as monsters. Into this melee comes my heroine, Dawnay Price, and through it she must negotiate a path of study and science. She is a creature of her age and yet she strives to escape it. Despite its horrors – scurvy on ships, stoning people in pillories, kidnapping boys for impressment – it’s such a fascinating age, that once I’d made my decision to use it, I fell headlong and was thrilled by it. The fabric of everyday life was wonderful – chairmen carrying the gentry, frost fairs on the Thames, children playing knucklebones – and when I’d finished writing, oh how I missed it! I might just open up SONG OF THE SEA MAID again and climb back in there, horrors and wonders all. Twitter – @rebeccamascull http://www.rebeccamascull.tumblr.com http://www.facebook.com/RebeccaMascull

Review – The Ship – by Antonia Honeywell

This is an emotionally complex, chilling, and compelling read. The author takes the Dystopian genre and the YA Fiction genre and slams them together to produce anything but simplicity. What initially seems to be a first person narrative written by an undeveloped writer, turns out to be an essay in selfishness through the eyes of an extremely broken protagonist. Again and again the world proves to be the author and creator of its own destruction, not least in the creation of its flawed beacon of hope.

This is a disturbing read which will stay with you long after you have read it. The unsettling nature of the work stems largely from the psychological truth in the actions of its characters. We are forced to face the reality of desperation. We are made to ask ourselves if we would fare better. Would we make similar choices? We are made to ask ourselves if we are capable of terrible things. The truth is that under certain circumstances we all are. It’s not an easy thought to take tea with.

I left this book understanding but not liking any of the characters. This is not a bad thing. The characters are extremely well constructed and we have to take into account the inability of the protagonist to make sense of her world. The information we receive is filtered through a shattered looking glass and the struggle to piece it together is evident throughout the story. People will have different reactions and take different things from this tale. I had to take away confirmation of the struggle with brokenness and darkness  in all of us. I had to ask myself whether I was disliking people for who they are or humanity for what it is.

The story drives you forward in a bid to gain comprehension. We seek to eat the apple of the tree of knowledge and are damned.

Read it. You won’t forget it.

Review – The Shadow Owner’s Companion by Eleanor Hooker

This is poetry born of Ireland and all its beautiful contradiction. There are few places in the world where Christianity, Paganism and Mythology collide with such force and rain their colours into the literature. With the poet we walk the boundary between the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown. We walk on the water and between two worlds. There is wonder in both and fear in both. And there is an anxiety here that a sideways step will lead to an unintended crossing. The battle is between the old gods and the oldest God, creator, creature and land. And always we return to the water, the point of passage.

The poet uses her understanding of form to isolate and highlight the uncanny. She draws out the emotion of fear and turns it over and over in her hands, looking deeply into it for truth, however that comes. Truths that are sometimes easier to see with the eyes of a child. Remembered knowing. We learn that strong does not mean never lost, that adult does not mean fully grown. She turns over the experience of endings and leaves them open and questioning.

This is poetry of the boundary. This is poetry of balance, of gain and loss, afraid and unafraid of pain. The poet has a gentle gift for repetition that sings her intentions into each poem. The structure is precise and studied but at no point does it overwhelm or even distract from the message.

This is way-finding.

The Shadow Owner’s Companion is available from Dedalus Press. http://www.dedaluspress.com

Eleanor Hooker can be found @eleanorhooker_ on Twitter

Letters to my Husband – by Stephanie Butland – Debut Novelist

Today I have the pleasure of heading up the Blog Tour for debut novelist Stephanie Butland.

ButlandBlogTour (2)

I had the opportunity to ask Stephanie about her journey from idea to novel and this was her reply:

‘Letters to my Husband’ is my first novel (it was originally released in hardback as ‘Surrounded By Water’). It’s the first of three novels set in a small town of Throckton, and it’s a story about loss, love and the unexpected places that life can take us to. It begins when Michael, a well-respected police office, drowns, saving a teenage girl who had fallen into a lake on a cold January night. We follow his widow, Elizabeth, as she struggles to come to terms with his death, and the shocks and surprises that come to light in the aftermath of his death.

This novel had a prologued journey from my head to the page to publication. It began as a comic novel about a committee – I had made an impulse decision to take part in Nanowrimo in 2011 and hadn’t really given a lot of thought to what I wanted the book to be about. 20,000 words in it stalled, and an insightful reader suggested that the committee – which I had thought would be a great way to bring together a group of diverse characters – might be holding the story back When I took the idea of the committee away from the book, I found that the real content was in Elizabeth’s bereavement. So I started again, writing a series of interlocking first person narratives which told the story much better – although once the book was bought by Transworld, my editor suggested that a third-person narrative would be even more effective. She was right. But the letters of the title have remained unchanged since the very first draft.

I’m now writing my fourth novel. I’ve learned a lot about the writing process, and the way I write is now better organised, and less wasteful of words, which is a great relief ( there are few things more dispiriting than spending 6 hours working on a book and ending up with 18,000 words less than you started with). But ‘Letters to my Husband’ taught me something really important about writing, and it’s this. Start somewhere. Write something. Keep going. If you do that, you’ll get there eventually.

Letters to my Husband  by Stephanie Butland is published by Black Swan 9/4/15.

Stephanie can be found at

http://www.stephaniebutland.com   or  @under_blue_sky on Twitter

The next Blog in the book tour is http://www.shazsbookboudoir.blogspot.co.uk