I keep coming back to that family, crammed into the claustrophobia of the parsonage, all that intelligence and creativity bouncing off each other and exploding into the landscape. I wrote this piece for the brilliant online journal, Popula. It’s a very thoughtful site, with good prose exploring what it is to be human. I feel very honoured that they took this piece and published it.
Last year Antony was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes award for his highly acclaimed collection, The Nagasaki Elders. I’m a great admirer of his work, and also his work ethic. His work is unflinching, hard, emotionally charged and unsentimental. Where so many get swept up in the grief of war, often becoming part of the glamorisation of such wars, he stands rooted, immobile, refusing to tell anything but the truth. I admire this kind of honesty greatly and was so pleased to see his work recognised last year.
I will refer to Antony’s own words, taken from his website, copied below, where he talks about why war, and in particular the atomic bombing of Hiroshima are such a focus and drive for his work:
The first poem I ever wrote on conflict was when I was 12 years old at the height of the cold war in 1985 after watching nuclear documentary Threads which was the seed of me as a writer. Of all the testimonies I have heard or researched many stand out but two of them always reduce me tears because of the sheer tenderness born from the brutality suffered. Soon it will be 100 years until the end of World War One and I want to look at what we have learnt and in terms of remembrance, what now? Where does remembrance go from here. Before World War One let us look at the Napoleonic war where many of the fallen were put in communal pits and buried with a focus more on preventing pestilence than remembering them as predominantly poor people including slaves and immigrants dying for the great thief called Empire.
Once upon a time in Afghanistan there was a village and some soldiers shared their candy with them. There accents made the children laugh and they were welcomed, a connection was made away from the conflict. One day when the soldiers went a sweet wrapper got stuck against a plant and flapped against some thorns alerting someone who laid waste to the village for accepting candy from the enemy. That sweet wrapper in the thorns eventually was freed by the wind and like so many crimes it would get trapped in another bush, and another, and another. This is why remembrance can never and should never be branded. This is a place of opium, of poppies but to remember, to share the way a life was lived and the way a life was taken is to clear the path of thorns?
Here are two of my thorns of hearing of war
Thorn 1 – Hiroshima
One memory I cannot shake is a story of a mother who went to search for her daughters remains in the days following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Unknowingly the mother suffered primary radiation poisoning as she walked through the two-kilometre atomic flats yelling for her daughter. Littered all across the land were lamps of organs spilling out of human shapes, some trod in rib-cages and had to dislodge their feet and the smell was described as metallic and fishy. Eventually she saw a single clogg swaying from a shard of wood. All the clocks were frozen at 8.15am the time of the bomb blast yet this clog swayed like a pendulum for ghosts chiming like glockenspiel against twisted metal pipes. The mother noticed that the knotted fabric and the pattern of the fabric on the clog was that of her kimono. At this point she knew her daughter had no remains, that she was carbonised by the 5000 degree Celsius of heat near ground zero. The clog found her. I think of this account often.
Thorn 2 – To save a body
I can’t talk about this easily it rakes up a deep grave but sometimes soldiers do not save lives, they save bodies so parents can bury their children with dignity. I will say this only, if a mother and father can see the face of their son and kiss it then it is worth risking a life for. Those who do this are heroic but that is a jail of PTSD with no keeper. Soldiers are civilians so help them, give them a job and if they drop the F-bomb in front of a posh customer do not tell them off, protect them like the sharpest most broken pieces of glass that they are. Remember if you touch glass and bleed on it then it becomes stained yet also it is cleaner because you touched it and knew if would hurt you for doing so.
Where do we go from here? I think reconciliation, forgiveness, acceptance and acknowledgement. The folded flags are those who bend over graves mourning their loved ones lost to conflict, refugees, soldiers, the husband of Jo Cox to all the those battles we do not know of and should listen without prejudice to. I will not mention fascists because what is human is all that matters and we are the humans so let us remember and connect regardless of our race, culture and beliefs.
We live in an age where we become saturated with the truth of war, exposed to so many stories, images, campaigns and information that we become desensitised to it. I strongly believe that this is one of the reasons why we are seeing such a rise in right-wing and fascist extremism. We are also in a time when the people who actually remember some of the atrocities of war first hand are dying, and taking that first hand knowledge with them. Which is why it is so important to have people like Antony, who pass that truth on.
Below is one of Antony’s poems, do check out his other work. He has a new collection coming out next year, The Unknown Civilian with
and it will be one to watch out for. In the mean time, here is one of Antony’s poems, it has a beautiful, tender honesty to it.
Those who know the fall of maple
After the Canadian soldiers who fell at Passchendaele
I know where to find the codes of your passing,
in the self portrait of a dying leaf is the sprawling tree it was.
For me you were the maple fighting the elements until they plucked you
I picture you spinning like feathers of Icarus further from skies poisoned berry.
Last Sunday after dinner you melted into my arms like Nanna May’s Yorkshires,
you showed me a photograph creased like maple when we were blossoms
“Look how free we were”you said, the raggedy sun on manicured grass
you saw all the colours through mono but I was lost in the now.
In the salvaging of you we stripped the wardrobe like a harsh wind claiming you,
a painting we made where we pressed our hands in to paint, your lifelines.
You coloured your hands in greens and reds so yes you were maple,
I know where to find the codes of your passing, but not grief.
Last Friday we let you go over the rosebuds sprayed by our bay,
the wind farms wound back the sea, we heard you in the gull,
we saw you in the black locket clams revealing the innards,
we felt you in the battered lighthouse, its stretching light.
Yesterday, on a friend’s recommendation, I visited the village of Hackness, where they had gone to great lengths to do something special for the Armistice commemorations. You can read about it here: poppies
I was moved by the dedication that creating so many hand crochet poppies took, each one a tiny offering, a tiny act of personal remembrance which added up to a wave of remembrance, of people finding the humanity in each other and sharing something. All day today there will be canons firing and torches being lit and wreathes being laid and politicians trying to out do each other with poppies on their lapels and the media ripping to pieces anyone who doesn’t wear a poppy. There will be grand, huge gestures, marches, brass bands, hours of TV coverage interspersed with adverts for Christmas gifts and Black Friday sales, and that’s a part of today too, but the actions of this small village out do all this. There will have been planning; a committee meeting in a village hall, and designated crochet duties, and children from the tiny village school will have helped and learned, and someone will have made sure everyone had a part to play, and the result is generosity, kindness and true remembrance in small acts of memorial.
I’m hoping to post two posts today, because I want to talk about poet Antony Owen later. Antony is a peace campaigner who uses poetry to explore war and the repercussions of war, he deserves his own post. But for this first post I wanted to share a poem which appeared in Dream Catcher Magazine no. 37 It’s by Susan Wallace.
I am now taking bookings for the new course, which starts in January. You can find details of how to sign up here: How to Write a Poem. The course starts on January 1st (don’t worry, you will not be expected to do any work on new Year’s day, but you will receive the first lot of course materials) and lasts for four weeks, finishing on January 31st. There will be two lesson plans per week which include homework assignments.
Included in the course is personal critique of four poems per course participant, worth £18. You can choose whether these are poems which you have developed on the course, or something from another project that you’re working on. There will be a closed facebook group to chat, share ideas, share poem drafts and critique of each other’s work, but as always, this is not mandatory.
One of the things that I have noticed while running previous courses, and workshops and when mentoring, is that people worry that they haven’t had any ‘formal training’ as a poet. There is a fear that every other poet you will ever meet has been to poetry university and learned the secrets to writing a poem. In actual fact, there are far more ‘untrained’ poets than poets that have any formal education and you certainly do not need to have a university degree to write a poem. The aim of this course is to get the writer past their imposter syndrome. It’s perfect for those lacking confidence in their ability, good for beginners and also good for those wanting to refresh and get writing again.
briefly, the course covers:
Getting From Inspiration to First Draft
Developing exercises and techniques to actually get pen to paper. We’ll look at how and where inspiration can come from, the role of the poet and getting a first draft down without wanting to burn it immediately.
Working in Structured Form
We’ll be looking at a few different forms, and how to write in them. We’ll look at putting older forms into context and how and when to use form, how to choose a form for your poem and not to let the poem be consumed by the form.
Working in Free Verse
The course will look at the natural rhythms and structures of free verse, the use or non use of punctuation. We’ll look at poems which push out of their boundaries as well as looking at line breaks, and the tools in the poets work box.
Smoothing the Edges
The course will also look at editing, what to kill and what to keep, how to develop a critical eye and how to stop editing. The course will also, briefly, look at finding an outlet for your poems, how to write a cover letter and how to keep a good record of submissions.
Cost: £50 to be paid up front.
This course is slightly more intense than the ‘prompt a day’ style course but is still a no pressure, fun way of breaking into poetry and boosting your confidence. i hope you’ll join me in January to kickstart your poetry year!
The first three poems from my new collection (I’ve not done a blog post about the acceptance by Valley Press of the new collection, When I Think of My Body as a Horse, it’s coming) are out in the world today, being featured on Josephine Corcoran’s wonderful, inspirational website And Other Poems. Do check it out, it’s beautifully done.
I absolutely love reviewing theatre. I’m currently writing a play myself, actually I’m currently taking my play for voices and adapting it for the stage, which is becoming more and more complicated as the characters want to burst out of their set roles and make their own storyline. Writing plays is hard. When you go to the theatre and see something like Jess and Joe Forever it brings it home to you what an expert playwright is capable of. The play got a standing ovation when I was there last night and it was well deserved. I’m so glad I had my scarf with me as I didn’t have any tissues, but I wish I’d worn water proof mascara!
Here is the review that I wrote for The Stage. Go see it, not only for the brilliant play, but for the absolutely wonderful art deco splendour of the Stephen Joseph Theatre
This week I’ve been completing my responsibilities as guest editor for Issue 38 of Dream Catcher Magazine which has been a very pleasant experience. I went through the last batch of paper submissions (Dream Catcher are paper submissions only at the minute) and entered the details into a spreadsheet I’d created, then wrote the editorial and sent it to the editorial team. It’s been great to work with the team over at York and I think there’ll be an announcement soon about the future of the magazine, which I’m very interested in indeed.
It’s been ages since I worked with hard copies of poems. When I’m mentoring or critiquing poems or editing other people’s manuscripts I work entirely on the computer, I don’t print work out. And it’s rare that I start my own work on paper, though I do keep a hand written journal which I write in daily and occasionally notes for poems appear in there first. It was actually quite nice to sit in bed on a morning with my big mug of black coffee and my little cat, reading the submissions and marking them with any comments, turning them over one by one and ending up with a satisfying, physical representation of all that work. The submissions came in all sizes and styles, and there was a huge variety of cover letter styles. Whilst the cover letter shouldn’t ever put an editor off reading through a submission, remember that the cover letter is the first thing that an editor sees of you, the writer. If poetry is a conversation between writer and reader, the cover letter to the editor is the ice breaker to that conversation. I’ve put together a few ‘don’ts’ for cover letter writing below.
1. Type, don’t write
Don’t send a hand written cover letter. As neat as your writing is, it will never be as neat and readable as a type written letter. Handwritten letters are difficult to read and although they might feel personal to write, they feel unprofessional for an editor to read. Lots of submissions we received came with beautiful little greetings cards and postcards, which is a lovely touch, but send these alongside a typed cover letter, not instead of a typed cover letter. As a half way house, if you don’t have access to your own computer or typewriter, it would be acceptable to type most of the cover letter out and leave gaps to personalise it for separate publications. We understand that you might not be able to get to the library or internet cafe for every submission you want to make, so will want to create a batch of cover letters at once, but please also understand that we can’t read your writing, so when we email you to tell you how much we love your short story, you may never receive it because email@example.com looks very much like firstname.lastname@example.org in your handwriting.
2. Don’t assume we’ll remember your address
The average publication receives hundreds and hundreds of submissions. Even if you have been published by the magazine before, please don’t assume that we’ll remember your email address and postal address. We might remember you, might love your work, but we won’t remember where you live. If we did it would be weird. So please, please always include your email address, postal address and your name.
3. Don’t make us do any more leg work than we need to
If you have a list of previously published works as part of your biography, please don’t dangle it as a reward: ‘details of previous publications are available on request’ is not really a biog and it doesn’t really do you any favours. With the best will in the world I can’t justify the time it would take me to chase this up as it would mean other submitters work remains on the ‘to be read’ pile while I’m doing that. Better to just write a brief list, with your pride and joy at the top: ‘I have been previously published in The Rialto, Hair of the Dog, The Queen’s Handbag’ etc. We will always be interested in what you’ve been doing and where abouts you are in your career, we just can’t afford the time looking for that information.
4. Please do actually send a cover letter
I was quite surprised to find a few submissions without cover letters at all, just six poems in an envelope with the email on every page as a contact. I’m trying to put my finger on what it is that makes this bad form, after all, we do judge the poems/prose on the quality of the work and not on the cover letter, but it just feels a bit like you couldn’t be bothered. Going back to the conversation analogy, I guess this is the equivalent of going to a party, walking up to someone and just shouting your poems in their face. At least prepare us with a ‘hello, my name is Tod HotBod and here are six poems’. It’s always nice to have a hello.
5. Never, ever, ever address the letter to ‘Dear Sirs’
Even if you are sure that the editor/s are male. The best thing you can do is actually use the name of the person you are addressing: Mr. or Ms. is acceptable, Dear Editors is acceptable, Dear Sir/Madam is acceptable. Dear Sirs makes the assumption that either all editors are male, or that even if the editor or the person dealing with the submission is female, they are of less importance than any male working for this company. This is 2018 not 1818, and we are not impressed with this rubbish. Dr Who is now a woman, we have reached the highest level in the universe, address us appropriately.
6. A little bit of research goes a long way
If you haven’t got any publication history, if you don’t really know what to say about yourself, rather than just saying ‘my name is Tod HotBod, here are six poems’ and signing off, tell us why you love poetry, even better, tell us why you love the magazine that you are submitting to. Buy the magazine, get it out of the library, borrow it off a friend and find something you like about it. It’s really difficult to get feedback on magazines, so reading that you get the magazine out of the library every issue and read it cover to cover will make our day. It won’t automatically get you into the magazine, but your enthusiasm for the magazine won’t be forgotten.
7. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
Feedback is good: ‘Hello my name is Tod HotBod, I enclose six poems to be considered for issue 300 of The Queen’s Handbag. I really enjoyed that last issue, but I wish there had been more short stories’ is good. ‘Hello my name is Tod HotBod, I enclose six poems to be considered for issue 300 of The Queen’s Handbag. I got your last issue and have to say I was very disappointed, there were no naked ladies and very few poems about cats’ is not. Especially if you’re trying to get a poem into the magazine. Just saying.
8. Don’t ignore the submission guidelines
This is quite an important one. If it says in the submissions guidelines not to send more than six poems, don’t send twelve because they’re part of a series. Read the submissions guidelines and adhere to them. They’re there to speed the process up. Sometimes they’re there to ensure there’s not a massive amount of faffing about when creating layouts for the magazine, so if it says 12 point Times New Roman, don’t send it in 16 point Wingdings. Also, please, please don’t put it into a teeny tiny size to fit it on two pieces of paper instead of four. I understand that paper is precious, but, as an editor, if I can’t read it then I’m going to struggle to accept it.
9. Don’t be afraid to send a query
Thankfully, in the literary world, there are no hard and fast rules. You might have something which doesn’t quite fall into one category, perhaps you have a monologue or a slice of a script or a word scape that is unusual. Magazines like unusual, if it’s good quality. Don’t be afraid to email an editor and asking if they’d like to see it, or sending it in a submission. Use the cover letter to explain what it is, your intentions behind it and why the magazine might be a good fit for it.
10. Don’t stress too much
After all that, a cover letter is really just an opener for the work that you’re sending, so don’t let a fear of getting it wrong stop you from submitting. Keep it clear, polite, concise. Don’t worry about getting it wrong, don’t worry about not having much in your biog, not having a long list of publications or not having submitted anywhere before. A cover note that says ‘I am new to submitting my work. I wanted to try the Queen’s Handbag as I’ve always really enjoyed it, here are the titles of the poems enclosed. Thanks for your time, I look forward to your response’ is as welcome as any page long CV and publication history.