Nine

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Every year I write a poem for my daughter, for her birthday. Writing poetry, for me, is a very organic process, it’s directly linked to my emotional state and is a sort of emotional intuition about myself, I notice myself and know who I am very clearly with poetry. There’s a shed load of craft that goes on too, but at its heart, without wanting to over romanticise the process, poetry is a something like scrying or soothsaying, the poems arrive when they do and are about what they are about. It’s a very magical process in the true sense of the word, less Harry Potter, more Mother Shipton. So it pleases me that the process has never let me down when it comes to my daughter’s birthday. Each year there is a slight worry that this may be the year that the poem doesn’t come, but even on the years where I have been almost unable to function through the utter crushing weight of grief, a poem has arrived. In fact at those times several might arrive at once. It feels like communion in that way, like a two way conversation, something happens that I don’t quite understand, and I would, I guess, liken this to speaking with her, or knowing her in the way that we knew each other when I was pregnant with her. You don’t have a conversation with your unborn child, but you know them in a way that you will never know anyone else. It’s an incredible, unique experience and even after what has happened, I feel lucky to have experienced this. I think that’s why the poems for Matilda are often about our symbiosis, the symbiosis of pregnancy, the sharing of genetics. I’m amazed by how she was a perfect mixture of my husband and myself. There is the miracle, we are not unique at all, and yet we are.

What I am rambling around saying then is this, art can be such an important part of the process of grief. When I say process, I do not mean ‘resolution’ this is not about finding a solution to grief, there isn’t one. My grief-fever broke last year after I finished writing the new collection. After being in mourning for eight years it was the furious process of writing which seemed to be the end of that period of grieving and I crossed a boundary and am now in that place where everyone had said I would get to, but I never really believed them. I’m in a place of sadness and contemplation, but I am no longer consumed by it. There is no resolution, there is no end to grief, it is something you live with. The analogy of the pebble is my favourite: you start out with a chunk of granite that you carry on your back and you can’t do anything except focus on carrying the huge rock around, but as rocks do, slowly, over time it wears down until finally it fits in your pocket, you rub your finger over it, you know it, it is familiar and it is welcome. The pain it is not unwanted, because the pain is the same as love.

 

Poetry has been such a huge part of this process for me. And this, the birthday poem has become a ritualistic part of celebrating Matilda’s birth and grieving her death, as important as the birthday grave visit, the gifts we bring, the choice of flowers and then the celebration of her life, just me and Chris, afterwards. The poem comes in the week before, usually, sometimes on the day. The process begins as I begin to count my way along the markers of her life, and am taken back there, like following a well known ordinance survey map of her loss: here is the night I spent frightened in the hospital, there are the silver fish running for cover when I went to the loo; there I am wishing I could hide from what was coming, here is the journey to Leeds; the bright sun, the blue sky, here is the hospital; we are early, here is the scan, the news, the sudden, terrifying running through the hospital, there I am reflected in the window, so pregnant, so pregnant, and not pregnant enough. Until we reach today. I have taken the pilgrimage to her death again, the journey markers, the fence posts that I know so well, the curve of the path, well trodden, here we are. Hello again, baby girl.

 

Nine

 

Your birthday arrives

and I shrug you back on,

expand into the loose sags

of maternity clothes, ready

to face our days again.

 

There is a fluttering, a papered-in hive

of bees in my belly as you return. Then

the slow drag from navel to sternum

as arteries fill with our blood.

My lotus flower heart opens.

 

Each April we rattle through

our pregnancy, distilling it

to these last journey markers:

running footsteps, slowing heartbeat,

swinging doors, heart monitor,

heat lamp, waffle blanket, blue hat.

 

2:01pm. Here you are:

fists scrunched, chin down,

thumb sucked, legs flopped,

just born. The pause where we

wait to hear your first breath

has lasted nine years.

 

Today you come back to me.

I give myself up, wholly.

I walk the hours

gladly.

 

 

 

 

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Advice From a Bereaved Mum on Mother’s Day

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I’ve just finished having my annual meltdown over the heartbreak of being in the hinterland of non-motherhood on mother’s day. It involved me sitting in my car crying, listening to Roberta Flack’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face . Then there was a valiant attempt to cheer myself up which didn’t work and I ended up an emotional puddle of sad all over twitter. I cleaned all that up this morning because, well, at this point in my journey I want to be ok to openly grieve, but I also don’t want grief to define me. It’s a bit of a tightrope walk, because I don’t want to ever stop talking about my daughter and her death, because we NEED to learn to talk about grief, we’re so pants at it, but I’m also very aware that that sometimes makes people uncomfortable, and in turn that makes me feel like an outsider. I have a poem in the new collection about it, about being a walking warning sign, and trying not to be some crazy with a ‘THE END IS NIGH’ sign, harassing people trying to enjoy their children and their pregnancies.

Mother’s Day is tough for lots of people, for lots of reasons, and I think it’s very important to be aware of that. But it’s also important to not let that suck the joy out of your joyful experiences. I’d love to be able to tell grieving mums how to survive mother’s day, but I haven’t really got my head around how to do that, so I can’t. Apart from just being selfish and distancing yourself from the constant barrage of adverts and radio shows about mums and mother’s day. You just have to cling on and get through it.

All the years we were trying to have a family, I dreamt of Mother’s day: hand made cards, daffodils in a little jar, breakfast in bed, my babies and my husband. Yet, when I was pregnant with my daughter and Mother’s day did come around, I felt a bit embarrassed to celebrate it. I felt like I was being silly celebrating something that hadn’t happened yet, like it might jinx it. If I could go back and give myself some advice it would be to celebrate all of it, because you can’t jinx things, things either happen or they don’t. No bereaved mum ever looked back and wished she hadn’t celebrated her pregnancy.

So I wanted to just give this piece of advice to those pregnant mums and those mums with kids: celebrate the shit out of Mother’s day. Don’t let people tell you that it’s commercialised crap, it doesn’t matter. If you’re pregnant, celebrate this utter miracle that is growth, that is your body doing all this amazing stuff on its own, without your control. Celebrate being fat, celebrate the difficulties, the hard stuff, the tears and tantrums, because you’ve bloody earned it. Being pregnant is hard work, have a good moan about it, and celebrate the fact that you’re doing it, surviving it, carrying your little person along with you.

If you have kids, celebrate the fact that they are there, that you are loved, that you have soft, solid little bodies crawling into your bed at what-bloody-time-do-you-call-this o’ clock. Even the shite bits, even the crap of laundry and mucky dishes and endless arguments, celebrate yourself for being a mum who cares enough to worry about that stuff. Celebrate the success of having them there, of being the survivors, of getting through each day, even when it is hard as f**k. I tip my hat to the single mums, they have it harder than most, we should all be celebrating those hardy little devils. Celebrate the chaos, celebrate the love. Don’t focus on only having one or only having two kids, just celebrate the hell out of the one you’ve got. No one ever died from not having siblings, but I know plenty that would quite happily murder theirs. Celebrate yourselves, mums, take photos of your bumps, take photos of your breakfasts in bed, swamp social media with them, but God, celebrate it. I wish I had. I wish I had.

And one more thing, please don’t forget us, us mothers who can’t mother, who’ve lost our worlds, who’ve let them go into the ground, who can’t get past that loss. We are mothers too. Don’t let our stories and our grief stop you from enjoying your joy, but don’t feel we need fixing, that our pain needs to be dealt with and got over, our joy and our pain run parallel, we talk about both at once, we can’t not. That’s our truth, we need to own it. And it doesn’t matter how long ago it is, we’re still mothers, it’s still hard, anniversaries are hard, Mother’s day is hard. I guess what I’m saying is go grab your kids, hold ’em tight and give ’em a squish from me.

 

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Writing and the Beginner’s Mind: Taking A Zen Approach to Creativity

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“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the experts there are few”

Shunryu Suzuki

This quote is taken from Shunryu Suzuki’s book on Zen meditation and practice, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Although Shunryu Suzuki is talking about the approach to practicing Zen Buddhism in this quote, it’s possible to apply this philosophy to the practice of creative writing.

Do you remember your first experience of creative writing? It’s likely to have been at primary school, or even before. Do you remember the joy you felt when you completed that poem about leaves or trees or dogs and cats? Do you remember the pleasure in rhyme, in the sounds of words, in the meanings tucked in behind the vowels and consonants? How does it compare to how you feel now?

What about when you came back to creative writing as an adult?

It’s so easy to get bogged down in the push to be a writer, we forget to enjoy writing.

Similarly, the more we learn and the more knowledge we process, the smaller our field of vision becomes. We begin to judge the poetry we write by a bench mark we set ourselves, or a bench mark we are set by the perceived success of other writers. We want desperately to emulate the writers we respect, to have someone say that our poem is the best, the most moving, the most perfect. We want the validation of competition wins and publications. We study and we learn what makes a good poem according to this professional writer or that professional writer and we learn we shouldn’t say shards in a poem or shouldn’t use rhymes or shouldn’t write about nature or cats. The tools available to us as writers become fewer and fewer, the rules become more confusing as we see writers being successful, even though they have used the word shards or written about cats. We look at other writers and judge their work. We look at ourselves and judge ourselves, usually harshly. We begin to feel it in our writing: the pressure to produce, the fear of not producing something good, good, that is, when held up to the bench mark that we have decided is What a Poem Should Look Like. We start to only read the books that have made massive international award lists because they must the the right sort of books. We look at competition winning poems and think that they must be the right kind of poems because they win competitions. We try to be the thing that people want.

How exhausting to live under so much pressure, to be a writer fighting for the light like a sapling in a forest. I’ve done all of this. I do all of this. It’s part of human nature to want to be in the pack, to want to not be the animal on the outside because they’re the ones that make a nice meal for a hungry lion. But I think by developing a beginner’s approach to writing, and to reading, by first asking yourself “Do I like this?” without the fear of getting it wrong and showing yourself up in front of the imagined poetry judges who know what a ‘proper poem’ is, is a good start. This isn’t to say you should approach your writing with a crayon and a slap dash approach, it’s more about approaching your writing with an open mind, open to the possibilities of different styles and different voices, and different styles even within your own work. Open to compassion too, for yourself especially. No one ever wrote the perfect poem, because the perfect poem is different for everyone.

I find it sad that so many people, especially women, in my experience, look at their own work and think ‘this is wrong.’ or ‘My work doesn’t fit in’. How different would they feel about themselves and their work if they thought ‘my work is different’ or ‘there’s room for everyone here’ or ‘My work is different, I add something to the writing world that wasn’t there before’.

How do you approach your work with a beginner’s mind? You come to the blank page without preconceptions, ready to enjoy the experience. You allow the negative thoughts to arrive, but allow them to leave too. You remember the first poem you wrote, and aim for that sense of happiness and joy. You remember the feeling of possibilities before you hedged yourself in.

How do you approach reading other’s work with a beginner’s mind? You arrive at it without preconceptions of good or bad, only difference. You allow yourself to read the poem openly, allowing yourself to enjoy it or not enjoy it.  You are conscious that not liking something doesn’t mean you are less educated, less talented, less a part of the writing world. You remember that there is an entertainment factor involved in all creative practices, and it’s OK to be entertained without needing to be artistically or intellectually challenged.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. I compare myself constantly to others and it makes me miserable. I’m working on it. I’m working on being kind to myself. I think  the most important thing is to be kind to yourself, allow yourself to just write without the pressure to fit in or make a ‘proper’ poem. Be a friend to yourself, be a friend to your writing. And don’t confuse excitement with happiness. They’re not the same thing. I aim for contentment. Contentment is massively underrated in all areas, and I think in the writing world, contentment – enjoying what you do and enjoying what others do is important.

 

Thus ends the lesson for today.

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The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 1660: What I Read in 2019

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I’ve been wanting to read Samuel Pepys’s diaries for years and never got around to it. For those who don’t know Mr. Pepys, Samuel Pepys was born in London in 1633, he made a decision in 1659/1660 to start keeping a record of his day-to-day life, and made a diary entry every day for ten years. This has allowed historians to get a fantastic view into this era in history, from the view-point of a middle class London citizen, rather than from the view point of a historian or a royal record keeper. I’ve become fast friends with Mr. Pepys’s, so much so that after a few diary entries I began to think of him as someone I actually knew, I started to refer to him as simply Sam, and found myself building something of an attachment to him.

The thing about the diary is that it’s so human, so normal. Clothes and laws and monarchies and buildings have changed, but people haven’t. He’s just a bloke, going about his business and living his life. Sam was the son of a tailor. He was educated at St. Paul’s school in London and then Magdalene college. In 1655 he married his wife (more on that later) and then he landed the job that would see him rise to a very comfortable position.

Sam’s observations of human life, his sheer joy at finding he’s making a good living by working really hard, his exuberance with learning musical instruments and his happiness in decorating his home are massively endearing, but so are his faults – he gets drunk and then regrets it the next day, he feels bad when he’s upset someone, he goes to bed worried about whether he’s going to have enough money. When he does get to climb another step on the career and social ladder, he gossips about it with his wife, and shares his excitement in his diary. He’s proud of where he is, and he really loves his mum and dad.

As far as his wife, Elizabeth Pepys is concerned, she is a bit of a mystery. We only, obviously, see her through Sam’s eyes. She doesn’t get her own voice, she’s shadowy and unformed as a person, and a lot of the time you get the strong feeling that she’s more property than companion. They don’t have children, though they try to have children.  We know she’s messy and drops her clothes on the floor because Sam kicks off at her for it. And we also know that he misses her when they are apart, but we don’t know about her passions, her thoughts, her favourite things because non of her letters survive, she becomes a face in an etching and these few lines in Pepys’s diaries. I’d like to know more about her.

One of my favourite things about the diary is the little windows into the food and drink of the time. It seems so much less regimented, Sam eats when there is food on offer, rather than sticking to set meal times, sometimes he eats barely more than a bit of bread and butter all day long and this isn’t seen as odd, no one’s telling him he should eat more. Other times he has elaborate meals. He complains quite a lot about badly cooked food. Oysters seem to have not only been a fairly staple food item for the people of Pepys’s time, but an exchangeable item: a barrel of oysters is given as a gift, and at one point, whilst dining important friends in one of the many pubs he visits, he sends for a barrel of oysters to share. I’m assuming it’s a reasonably small barrel. He regularly eats udders and cow tongue and a LOT of roast meat. It is no wonder that half of London had piles, there doesn’t seem to be a single vegetable consumed in the whole of the city in 1660. And of course, they don’t drink the filthy water, they drink beer and wine and then strong wine and then sometimes stronger wine. They must have all been hammered constantly. They all seem to start their day with a ‘morning drought’ and then pop in and out of pubs and clubs throughout the day as business is conducted before going to the pub for a few beers or a PINT OF WINE. They drink wine in pints! No wonder, again, that gout is so prevalent and kidney and urethra stones are big amongst the people.

Something else that struck a chord with me are the descriptions of death and particularly child mortality rates. Child death is so prevalent. There’s a tendency, looking back, to assume that because it was so prevalent, it was expected, the norm and wasn’t as devastating for the parents. It was. It has never been any different. I found the description of people whom Sam knew who had lost several babies in a row quite moving.

Thesis such a funny, interesting, poignant diary. I would recommend it to anyone, and I do.

My favourite bits:

  • Any and all of the food and clothing descriptions
  • Sam falling in a  ditch because there’s no street lights
  • Sam stepping in a pile of human turds in his own cellar, because the people next door keep climbing through a window to shit in there. Also, Sam seems to sneak in and out of pubs without even buying anything so he can crap in their privies.
  • The descriptions of musical instruments and the entertainment scene, which seems to have been people getting together to sing.

I’ve already bought the next one. I can’t wait.

 

April Write-a-thon

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New workshop!

April Write-a-thon is not just for poets, it’s for fiction writers, poets and creative non fiction writers. You’ll receive a prompt a day delivered directly to your in-box, plus once a week throughout April you’ll receive a list of sources for great creative writing blogs, articles, online magazines and even videos, everything you need for a month of creative motivation.

Interested? It’s just ten pounds for the entire month and that also gives you access to the closed facebook group where you’ll be able to share your work, comment on other people’s work, chat and generally enjoy the buzz. I’ll be about every day to motivate, encourage and moderate. It’s going to be good fun.

Suitable for all levels, joining instructions HERE

 

On Being a Rural Working Class Writer

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I recently applied for a very big thing, and didn’t get it. I knew I was punching way above my poet weight with it and not getting an interview shouldn’t really have bothered me, but it did. One of the things that bothered me about it is that I felt like I was too working class to apply. I applied anyway, and actually, in the application I attempted to make my working class background a positive, an asset, something that they would benefit from. I pointed out that, whilst I didn’t have a first class oxbridge degree or an Eric Gregory to my name (when I was still young enough to be eligible for an Eric Gregory Award I was working in a cake factory in Bridlington and hadn’t started my writing career. I didn’t start my writing career until I was in my thirties) and, in fact, didn’t have a PhD either because I couldn’t afford to pay my tuition fees, I had something else. I had a great deal of life experience, had worked in shops, cafes, factories, had been a scientist, worked in the NHS and put myself through university two and a half times (not including my NHS funded science BSc), whilst working full time, each time. I also pointed out that for the most part I worked with adults who were sometimes shyly trying poetry for the first time. I laid out what I would like to do in the position being offered, which would have been to look at what was important to the working class people living in the city at which the position was being offered.

Anyway, I did not get the position, along with many, many, others. But that working class chip is still there. Every time I find myself pushing out of my working class boundaries I think of this Sean O’ Brian poem: Cousin Coat .  I’ve probably shared it before. I know I’ve talked about being working class before. I don’t think it would matter how well educated I was, how successful I was, how much progress I’d made towards my goals, I don’t think I’ll ever shake the feeling off that I’m too working class for certain situations and positions. I also feel a sense of guilt that I’m trying to escape that working class background.

And I’m the wrong type of working class at that. When you say ‘working class’ to people, they envisage inner city schools, industrialised city scapes with smoking chimneys and a hundred kids living in one room of a falling down tenement. It is all those things, but that’s not me. I come from one of the most beautiful places in Britain, nay, the world. I’m from rural North Yorkshire. I grew up in the countryside and on the beach. How idyllic! And it was, is, but my home town also has one of the lowest average incomes of the country, extremely high unemployment levels and one of the highest drug and alcohol related mortality rates in the country. Yet we also have one of the highest council taxes in the country. Scarborough is a mix of grandeur, kiss me quick hats and extreme poverty, it’s a weird place to live because everything is so geared to scraping money in from tourism, it’s not generally spent on residents. Added to that we have a lot of elderly people here (retirees to the seaside) and a stretched and underfunded local hospital. There’s a lack of identity for people living here. There’s a lack of confidence, it’s like the whole town suffers from low self esteem. People move here for a better life, poor people on the whole, because who wouldn’t rather be poor in this beautiful, beautiful countryside if you can choose?

Where am I going with this…how does poetry fit into all this. Well, people think of poetry as a means of self expression. But actually, poetry is a means of communication, it’s a language, it’s an ancient form of language which directly accesses parts of the brain that are related to emotional communication. It’s why we reach for it at times of emotional crisis, why we hear poems at weddings and funerals (which reminds me, I have an article in the latest Breathe Magazine about this) and it’s really important that everyone has access to this form of communication. But unfortunately, especially in rural working class areas, and especially on this side of Yorkshire (W.Yorks seems to be well served, poetry wise) there aren’t that many places to access it, especially if you don’t know how to get into poetry. As a professional poet and freelance writer, there are not that many opportunities either, so I’ve generally made my own opportunities. The thing is, to give people access to poetry and the arts in general, it has to be more than just offering open mic nights, it has to be about offering people a way in, and that means it has to be accessible to lower incomes. Most of the people I grew up around think of poetry as difficult, complicated, distant stuff, because that’s how we were taught at a school where the main objective was fitting you out for shop or factory work. They wouldn’t go to a poetry event if there was one, but if poetry workshops were part of healthcare in the workplace, maybe they would find a way in. I don’t know. Anyway, what I’m saying is that it’s really important to me that I am able to work with people with little or no previous experience of poetry including those on low incomes, and it’s important to me to be able to offer that in a safe, encouraging environment where they don’t have to ‘be’ a poet.

This is turning into a ramble, but I wanted to express the fact that rural working class people exist and deserve access to the emotional language of poetry. Which is obvious. I’ve had a couple of people tell me I should charge more for the online courses I’m running, but that would just shut doors to people who might not be able to access guidance and help to communicate through poetry. Having said that, I still have to pay my mortgage and my bills and the way I’m working at the minute isn’t actually allowing me time to write. I’m not just a workshop facilitator, I’m a writer, and I don’t want that to slip away. I’ve started writing a novel or a novella, I don’t know which yet, and that’s a big thing, it’s six months work (I’m adapting my play to be a novel, so the structure is already there, but I need to do more research and obviously actually write the thing) so what I’ve decided to do is add a ‘tip’ button on here, and on my courses, etc so that those who feel they’d like to offer a little more, can. It’s completely optional. I feel cheeky doing it, but wanted to explain why I’d done that. It’s not about keeping me in white wine and coffee, it’s buying me writing time. People have been very generous and I am grateful.

I’m rambling a bit again, apologies, it’s been one of those weeks. But other wonderful things that are happening this week include working with a new mentee, who is enthusiastic and talented and I’m loving reading her short stories. We’ve set a target for the end of the month and I have no doubts that she’ll make it. Next week I’ll be visiting an ex mentee to look at where we might take her children’s historical fiction book, it keeps coming very very close to being picked up by a publisher, I still think it will be, but we need to put a plan together to tackle anything that might be putting publishers off. Then it’s over to York Literature festival for this brilliant Poets on a Boat event, then an open day at Ebberston Studios where I’ll be running an Introduction to Fiction course in September, I’ll be chatting to perspective clients and might try and run some mini ten minute workshops to encourage people to join in and sign up. It’s a busy old month. And I’m about to edit my own manuscript for Valley Press so that we can get moving on the new book, which is super exciting. And now…I’m writing a novel too.  Oh and I went to see this fantastic play last week, read the review here: Glory review for The Stage it’s a touring production so go and see it, it’s brilliant. Worth four stars.

Oh! and, here’s a free poetry anthology of women writers, which you can download in PDF form, it has some amazing poets in it, and I have a couple in here too: Eighteen Working Women Poets

Here endeth the ramblings of a slightly hung over rural working class writer. Thanks for hanging in there. PS if you did want to buy me an hour of writing time, the button’s to the right >>>>>>>>>>>

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The Wild Within 2019

 

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In March I’ll be re-running the very popular Wild Within month long poetry course.

This poetry course is designed to be accessible, both financially and artistically, meaning that anyone who wishes to write can get something from it; whether you are new to writing and would like some guidance, or you’re an old hand who perhaps wants a bit of affordable motivation to get the creative cogs rolling. The theme is The Wild Within and the course will look at poetry of nature, place and self, our connection to the living world and how poetry can not only be a way of noticing and describing the world we live in, but can be a way to evoke change within ourselves, and change in the outside world. You do not need to live ‘in’ nature, to be aware of it, it is there whether you notice it or not. This course is designed to help you notice and write about your own connection to nature. We all have a wildness inside us that connects us to the world.

The term ‘nature poetry’ is almost a swear word in modern poetry, it tends to be seen as old fashioned and unconnected to the poetry which deals with personal issues or world problems. But we forget that we are living, breathing, biological organisms, we are automatically a part of nature, because we are animals, we are nature. Come and join me for four weeks of looking at the world in a different way. Last year the course received some wonderful feedback, which you can see here: Testimonials

This is the most popular of the online workshop/courses that I run, so worth booking in early. It will be starting on March 1st and it’s just £10 for the full four weeks during which you will receive a weekly themed lesson pan and a prompt every day, delivered to your inbox. There is also a closed facebook group for those who want to share poems, photos, ideas and chat. It’s a fun course, and perfect for springtime.

I do have some sponsored places, do get in touch if you are on a low income or facing difficult circumstances, I may be able to help you with a place.

 

Details on how to book can be found here

 

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