Monday, April 14, 2014

Epicentre Magazine has moved to Raw Light

A few weeks back, I got all excited on social media, and decided to reanimate Raw Light as a poetry and writing-related blog.

My first thought, as a vastly busy person, was to solicit a few poems from other people, which would keep the blog going but not take up too much time writing endless new material for it myself. Canny, huh?

Random picture of me.

But then I remembered Epicentre Magazine.

I launched Epicentre Magazine two years ago almost exactly. I wanted an online magazine which would not be too taxing for me to run, and for a while it worked fine. But then I lost track of submissions, and frankly submissions were not brilliant anyway, so I just stopped posting work there.

But now, in a flash of inspiration, I have decided to move that idea of an occasional online magazine - updated at my whim, really - to Raw Light. This blog is a veteran of online poetry, after all, having been started back in the misty depths of 2005 and still ticking over today in 2014. It gets many thousands of hits every month, regardless of whether or not I post updates, and it seems like a great platform from which to 'relaunch' my idea of an online poetry magazine.

Unfortunately for those now rubbing their hands with glee and sorting out their best poems, I do not intend to load myself down with extra work by accepting unsolicited submissions for Raw Light. Instead I shall be inviting people on the (mainly British) poetry scene to submit poems, reviews or articles, and hope they are generous enough to say yes.

Relaunching Raw Light as a quasi-magazine ...
I shall also continue to post my own updates on Raw Light. So things will not change particularly, except that you may receive more frequent emails from me if you have subscribed to the blog. You can change this by clicking Unsubscribe at the bottom of any emails that arrive from Raw Light.

Meanwhile, I am not very good at asking people for things, having the memory of a flea, and there's every chance that if you're reading this blog AND writing the kind of things I enjoy reading, I may be happy to see your work here too.

So see Submissions for details anyway. Just be aware that I have a madly busy life these days and don't expect an instant response.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Penelope Shuttle and Caroline Carver reading Zeeba Ansari's poetry at Waterstones Truro

Caroline Carver and Penelope Shuttle about to read from Zeeba Ansari's work

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a poetry reading at Waterstones Truro, Cornwall, where well-known Cornwall-based poets Penelope Shuttle (on the right, above) and Caroline Carver (on left) were reading from Zeeba Ansari's debut poetry collection, Love's Labours, published by Pindrop Press.

The event was part of the Truro Festival.

Sadly Zeeba herself could not be present. But here is her book ...

And here are some other photos I took of the event ...

It was a packed audience, despite being an evening event.
Penny and Caroline choosing what to read.
Poet Graham Burchell

Some of my kids - probably wondering how much longer they would be required to look well-behaved!

Monday, April 07, 2014

Vote for the Saboteur Awards

The SABOTEUR AWARDS are here again: VOTE NOW for your favourite poets, publishers, reviewers, spoken word events etc. 

Key Dates:
Nominations are open 1st-30th April 2014
Shortlist announced 1st May 2014
Voting open 1st-25th May 2014
Winners announced and Awards presented on May 31st 2014, Oxford.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Poetry Wars I & II

Archive Post from March 2008: Poetry Wars I and II: reblogging for fun in April 2014.

I'm reading Peter Barry's Poetry Wars: 'British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court' this week, published by Salt. It's an absolutely excellent read and I highly recommend it for anyone even remotely interested in the politics of poetry, each page containing fresh hilarities and salacious gossip from the world of 1970s British poetry.

I'm still only partway through it so will probably blog about this again, once finished, but I couldn't resist a few juicy comments now.

Poetry Wars is not a linear read but a satisfying dip in and out read, as recommended by the author, who has constructed the book in several parts. First, you have the linear narrative of how, in the 1970s, the 'radicals' (i.e. those avant-gardists who consider themselves to have descended in a direct line from the gods of early modernism like Eliot and Pound) beat off the 'conservatives' (i.e. the poetic backlash against modernism, advocating a return to normalcy, traditional forms and cucumber sandwiches) to take over the Poetry Society London HQ, then situated in fading gentility in Earls Court. Then you have chapters devoted to various 'themes' connected to that - almost decade-long - battle, with further chapters at the back consisting of dated lists, relevant documents, explanations of terms etc.

Reading this book has clarified for me, in a matter of hours, the terrible enmity that still exists between these two main strands within British poetry. Taking the bulk of its material from Poetry Society and Arts Council archives, memoirs, personal statements, plus a full account of the Witt Panel investigation of the Poetry Society's operations in 1976 - think full-blown McCarthyism in Piccadilly! - this book details, often meticulously, who said what to whom and when. There's rather less discussion of 'why' than I would like, but I suppose these memories must still be raw enough in some people's minds for that question to be approached with delicate circumspection.

And it's not all one-sided. Although Peter Barry is firmly on the 'side' of the radicals, by his own admission, he has tried to present evidence and anecdote in as unbiased a manner as is possible with such difficult material, not trying to hide mistakes by his own party even as he highlights occasionally underhand actions by the more conservative element as they attempted to get back into power.

So here's a quick taster of life at the Poetry Society in the mid-70s, in a marvellous anecdote apparently related by Peter Finch:

'We're sitting in the White House, the hotel bar next to the Poetry Society in Earls Court Square. Criton Tomazos is standing on the mantel piece ripping bits out of a book and chanting. Bob [Cobbing] has drunk almost half a bottle of whiskey and is still standing, or leaning. Jennifer [Jennifer Pike, Cobbing's wife] arrives in her small car to take us home. The vehicle is full of boxes, papers and bits of equipment. We push Bob into the front seat but there's no room for me in the back. I climb onto the roof rack. We drive. Somehow we get back.'

More of this later.

You can buy 'Poetry Wars' online at Salt Publishing.


Poetry Wars PART II

Tucked out of sight of the snipers, safe for now under my duvet, I continue my reading of Peter Barry's highly dangerous Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court. See previous post for full briefing.

March 13th 2008. Late evening. Skim-reading through Chapter Nine: Taking a Long View. Bombing less heavy tonight. Discussing possible reasons for the marginalisation of experimental poetry both then and now, Peter Barry writes from the quieter trenches of retrospection (pp.183-4):

'Part of the explanation, then, must lie in the specific social formation of avant-garde poets, and to some extent (to return to a point raised earlier) it concerns their attitude to publication, which is often very complex and contradictory, as frequently with avant-garde groups. Some variety of self-publication, in fact, has long been the norm for innovatory writing - it isn't an accident that T.S. Eliot first published The Waste Land in a magazine he was editing himself, or that Virginia and Leonard Woolf ran the Hogarth Press. By definition, almost, the quality of something new will not easily be recognised by major publishers, who must cater for an existing set of public tastes. But these existing public tastes are precisely what an avant-garde despises or distrusts ...

... In Liquid City (Reaktion, 1999), Iain Sinclair, en route to visit Eric Mottram [experimental poet and 1970s editor of Poetry Review during the running battles between what Peter Barry terms 'radicals' and 'conservatives' - JH] with photographer Marc Atkins, explains to Atkins who Mottram is and what he represents:

The names don't mean anything to Atkins. This is deleted history - Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths, Barry MacSweeney, the heroes of the 'British Poetry Revival' - have been expunged from the record. Poetry is back where it belongs: in exile. In the provinces, the bunkers of academe. In madhouses, clinics and fragile sinecures.'


For more on avant poetry versus the mainstream, here's a discussion of some antithetically opposed contemporary anthologies.

ARCHIVE POST: These two posts were first published on Raw Light in March 2008.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Poem Titles

A good title gets right to the root of a poem

This is a quirky essay I wrote about poetry titles, and which first appeared in James Midgley's excellent journal Mimesis in either late 2008 or 2009. I republished it here in 2011, and thought it might be nice to spin it out again.

My grateful thanks go to James for publishing it in Mimesis, a magazine which sadly doesn't appear to be active anymore.

What's In A Title?
A title is a title is a title. Right? It’s a simple framing device, a doorway into the world of the poem. The title of a poem is the ‘in’ just as the last line is the ‘out’. It’s about yin and yang. What else is there to say on the subject?
Perhaps you’ve read the occasional theory on this, thought about it in passing, frowned over an inapposite choice, made the right one unerringly yourself - or made the wrong one and been unable to do a thing about it. All of which suggests that it’s not so simple. That maybe a title is rather more than a doorway and a framing device, that maybe there’s something compulsive and instinctual about the selection of a title, something deeply linked to the poem’s psyche.

In exploring this question further, I don’t intend to look at the titles of collections in this context, because those serve a different overall purpose than the simple poem title. Instead, to kick off the discussion, here are some of the words, phrases and images that occurred to me when playing around with the basic question, ‘How to define the title of a poem?’

Amongst other things, the title of a poem is a handle; a moniker; an entrance; an epiphany; an overview; a hinge; a first glimpse of the narrator; an illustration; a cover blurb; a foreword; a container; a puzzle; a mnemonic; a dreamscape; a proto-metaphor; a clue; a red herring; an impression; a surname; a signpost; a subtext; a précis; a brochure; a ritual; a contract; an escape clause; a souvenir; a programme; a translation; a polyglot; a market stall; an all-you-can-eat buffet; a description; a label; a magician’s hat; the secret name of the muse; an asylum; a safe house: a double entendre; an invocation; a spell; a charm; a warning; a skeleton key; a portmanteau; a joke; a mystery; a gesture; a flashlight; a tablecloth; a plot; a deception; a cast list; a question; an answer; a command; a suggestion; a conundrum; a kiss; a sword; a formula; a surprise.

When in doubt, go for the big gesture ...
 Let’s unpack some of those, and bring in examples to help with that process. I’m going to choose most of these examples at random, by scanning down the contents lists of collections near my desk in search of titles which might illustrate some of the phrases above, but a few of these titles were already in my mind when I sat down to write this short essay.

1.         Ted Hughes: Examination at the Womb-door
2.         Tobias Hill: A Bowl of Green Fruit
3.         Jacob Polley: Votive
4.         Joanne Limburg: The Fall
5.         Alice Oswald: Dunt
6.         Ezra Pound: In a Station of the Metro
7.         Don Paterson: The Forest of the Suicides
8.         Jane Griffiths: Travelling Light
9.         Catherine Smith: The World is Ending Pass the Vodka
10.       Sylvia Plath: Lady Lazarus
11.       David Morley: To Feed the Dead Who Would Come Disguised as Birds
12.       U.A. Fanthorpe: Not My Best Side
13.       Moniza Alvi: I Would Like To Be a Dot in a Painting by Miro
14.       Geoffrey Hill: Ovid in the Third Reich
15.       Stevie Smith: Not Waving but Drowning
16.       Katy Evans-Bush: The Life Mask
17.       Vicki Feaver: The Gun
18.       Elizabeth Bishop: At the Fishhouses

This first title, Ted Hughes’ ‘Examination at the Womb-door’, may be comic (who gets quizzed whilst being born, after all?) but in the context of the poem is actually quite a straightforward title. It comes early on in his macabre 1970 sequence Crow and does more or less what it says on the tin, though with the usual Hughes twist: ‘Who owns these scrawny little feet? Death./Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face? Death.’ So this title comes under the following headings: first glimpse of the narrator; a joke; a gesture; a ritual; a (literal, here) entrance; a cast list; a conundrum. Entertaining, yes, and ironic too, but not particularly layered with mystery and potential. Indeed, Hughes rarely does the heavily-laden poem title. He tends to present a bare-looking stall; you only see the rich and strange when you stop to ‘examine’ it.

Joanne Limburg’s ‘The Fall’ looks far more promising. So little is given for us to work on, yet paradoxically so much; immediately we need to ask questions, begin to whittle down the possibilities. Is this poem about the past or future? Is it about one person? (An incompetent mountaineer, for instance.) Or is it a biblical reference, encompassing all of humankind? Or perhaps it’s the American term for autumn and we should expect something Keatsian here from Limburg. With ‘The Fall’, we can’t choose between options until we start reading, so this title must be, variously, a subtext; a magician’s hat; a double entendre; a mystery; a tablecloth; a question.

‘Not Waving but Drowning’ is an all-you-can-eat buffet; a précis; a portmanteau; a label; a mnemonic; a joke; an illustration.
So now categories of poem are beginning to emerge from the earlier list of possibilities. Some titles are straightforward; they describe the contents of the poem in an - apparently - unmetaphorical manner. Others provide a more oblique approach; they suggest rather than describe, leaving interpretation up to the reader.

In the first category, we could at first glance put Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘At the Fishhouses’, Catherine Smith’s ‘The World is Ending Pass the Vodka’ and Tobias Hill’s ‘A Bowl of Green Fruit’.
But no, you start reading, and even Hill’s innocent-sounding title, so reminiscent of a still life painting, proves deceptive: new love turns out to be like unripe fruit, and lovers must wait patiently for it to mature, for ‘kisses//sweetening in our mouths,/ the hearts softening,/the riddles undoing themselves.’ By golly, it was a metaphor!

How about Oswald’s ‘Dunt’, then? The name of a river - like her long poem ‘Dart’ - this one has got to be straightforward description. And so it could be. Except that it’s such a short, hard name, Dunt. Reminds me of ‘dunce’ or ‘don’t’ or ‘shunt’ or ... other similar words. And somehow the poem itself can’t get started, anymore than the river can get flowing. It stutters. It repeats itself. It bangs up against the intractable, like a ram obstinately headbutting a fence pole. ‘Try again,’ it orders us (or the river, or the poet). Like a poor page upload or an engaged telephone line. ‘Try again.’ 

So even what seems like a straightforward name-as-title - here, ‘Dunt’ - may actually be working hand-in-hand with the poem that follows it as a proto-metaphor, its impact based on sound and repetition; a subtext; a charm; a ritual; the secret name of the muse; a cast list; a command.

The best titles resist a second, third, fourth glance ...
The second category, that of the slippery or suggestive oblique, is easier to fill. Poetry abounds with such titles, being a medium perfectly adapted to the metaphorical. Here we might put Jacob Polley’s ‘Votive’, Jane Griffiths’ potentially straightforward ‘Travelling Light’ (reminiscent perhaps of Don Paterson’s pun-based ‘Landing Light’) and ‘Not My Best Side’ by U.A. Fanthorpe. We could hazard a guess at what’s going on here, judging by these titles, but even our best guesses would lack substance. Because of their slippery nature, it’s impossible to get a proper grasp on the poem from such titles; first the poem has to be read, and understood, and then the title can be returned to, for re-evaluation, to add an extra dimension to the reading experience.

Some extremely oblique titles, however, are rather good at conjuring up the world of the poem without presenting the poem itself. Try Stevie Smith’s ‘Not Waving but Drowning’. The poem is hilarious and poignant and hugely memorable. Yet you could actually imagine all of it simply by concentrating on the title alone; the title is so brilliantly comprehensive, the poem itself is almost superfluous to requirements. So ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ is an all-you-can-eat buffet; a précis; a portmanteau; a label; a mnemonic; a joke; an illustration.

There is a third category though, which seems to straddle the other two: the semi-metaphor or false-friend. This is the deceptive title, the one which appears to be leading you in one direction, and indeed may do so to a certain extent, but then suddenly you find yourself in an unexpected place, without the guidebook or companions you were expecting. Titles from the list above which might fall into this category include Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’ and Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’. You could even slip Vicki Feaver’s ‘The Gun’ in there too.
 In Plath’s poem, her shining energies and serial poetic violences wipe away the comfortable Biblical reference to Lazarus redivivus, leaving the reader disturbed and off-balance. Ezra Pound’s apparently straightforward ‘In a Station of the Metro’ would seem to promise a realistic, peopled, urban poem - and indeed gives us one, but packed into very few words; an impressionistic snapshot of modern life, taken with a soft focus lens.

And Feaver’s simple ‘The Gun’ might suggest something politically correct, or perhaps tragic, the accident or act of violence that ruined someone’s life; instead, the poem seems almost to revere the power of the gun itself, and its ability to change our lives with the mere fact of its presence. Is Feaver playing devil’s advocate here? The title gives us no clues; only reading the poem line-by-line may bring us to a deeper understanding of its purpose. Such a title, highlighting some elements whilst missing vital others, apparently friendly but designed to trip us up or lead us astray, is a magician’s hat; an asylum; a red herring; a warning; a gesture; a flashlight; a deception; an escape clause; a sword; a surprise.

What difference does the category of a title make to us as readers? The ‘in’ of a title can be a critical aid when the poem itself is fairly opaque - a clue, thank god! - or a delightful provocation when the poem seems at first glance suspiciously simple. It is also a way for the poet to make first contact with the reader.
For instance, on reading a playful or ironic, tongue-in-cheek title like Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’ or Moniza Alvi’s ‘I Would Like To Be a Dot in a Painting by Miro’, you know instantly that you are to be entertained as well as sung to. That this is not merely a joke, but the title as first glimpse of the narrator; a signpost; a brochure; a market stall; a safe house; an answer; a kiss.
Katy Evans-Bush gives us ‘The Life Mask’ and we think, yes! before even turning to it, the metaphor is so powerful.
The title, then, is a pact with the reader (though some pacts - as we have seen above - are based on a relationship of deception, often by prior arrangement if the poet is well-known for such trickery). But the metaphorical is more satisfying, on the whole, than the straightforward and the downright deceptive. After all, if we wanted to read something simple and self-explanatory, we would hardly be turning to poetry for that experience.
And as poets, of course, a substantial number of us like to butter our own egos with the more slippery title, with references that demonstrate our wide reading and metaphors that challenge the reader to play catch-up.
For where there’s no mystery, there’s no allure. Right?

So we might see ‘The Forest of the Suicides’ on a contents list and wonder, is Don Paterson about to entertain us, depress us, frighten us, or leave us none the wiser? Here, the title tantalises and suggests. It paints half a picture: the poem completes it. Katy Evans-Bush gives us ‘The Life Mask’ and we think, yes! before even turning to it, the metaphor is so powerful.
And what of David Morley’s eloquent but mysterious ‘To Feed the Dead Who Would Come Disguised as Birds’? Here we find the poem as epiphany; a puzzle; a dreamscape; a polyglot; a spell; a cast list; a conundrum.
The best titles are linked symbiotically to the poem which they open ...
But the title remains a viable entrance to the poem throughout its various, deceptive changes of appearance and purpose. The best titles are linked symbiotically to the poem which they open; with these, poem and handle exist side-by-side with complete naturalness and no amount of imagining could bring a reader, once familiar with that poem, to think of it with an alternate title.
When everything is working in harmony, the title as doorway to the poem is greater than itself; in other words, like Doctor Who’s T.A.R.D.I.S., the good title is bigger on the inside than the outside. (It may even travel in time.) So always stop and examine it. To neglect the potential significance of a title, to read it in haste or forget to glance at it on your way in, is to enter the poem not only without knocking, but without any idea of what you may find there.
And with good poetry, that might just prove dangerous.  

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Last book in the Witchstruck series

Yesterday I hit Send and emailed the third book in my Tudor Witch Trilogy for young Adults to my editor at Random House Children's Books.

Today I am starting a new book.

That's the way I'm writing at the moment. One in, one out. It's high pressure fiction, but there's a rhythm to it which I rather enjoy. Certainly no time to stop and worry about a book's reception. Which can be pleasant or frightening, depending on your perspective.

The manuscript I sent is called WITCHRISE. It concludes the story of Meg Lytton, teen Tudor witch, and her battle against the evil witchfinder. (Are there ever fictional witchfinders who are NOT evil, I wonder?)

Here's WITCHSTRUCK, book one in the series, which is out NOW in the States and the UK. To stick it in a genre box, it's Tudor paranormal romance for all ages.


Monday, November 04, 2013


Warwick Castle, Warwickshire, England
Today, another short extract from my long poem ON WARWICK CASTLE, originally published by Nine Arches Press in whenever-it-was, now out of print but still available on Kindle as an ebook.

This poem was written during my year-long stint as Warwick Poet Laureate and is about the past and present Warwick Castle.

It was described by David Morley, poet and Director of the Creative Writing Programme at Warwick University, as 'a Modernist piece de resistance' - he also wrote the Foreword - and by David Floyd, writing in Sphinx, as 'one of the more ambitious works of public poetry generated through a local laureateship.'

So you have been warned ...

The old man sits behind them
on the grass, clay pipe stuck to his lip:

         ‘It was a day like this
         we rode against the King. Fifty years back.
         I was a boy then.’

A black mist, first thing,
and out of that mist,
the hiss of an arrow-storm, burning.
Those that survived
were sent down into the dark for it.
So, with the concealed blade
from a pocket knife, Master John Smith
etches out his name, and date
of his imprisonment:

Master John Smythe, Guner to his Majestye Highness
was a prisner in this place and lay here
from 1642 - tell the

Here, he's interrupted by the blade breaking
or a tour guide, descending.
There are rules even in darkness.
For a really serious breach,
the guide book tells him,
such as plagiarism or pastiche,
a man might be hung alive in chains
near the scene of his crime.
'Tell them,' he was to have finished,
         'I am a traveller in time,
         a master smith
         forged here in the shadows. I fall.
         I stop. My flesh decays.
         Yet here my name remains until
         the very end of days
         when there may be time
         for the courtyard gift shop, after all.
         Follow the signs.'

Up here in the light, every movement
                  is blinding.

         Stone light, grey
as a pigeon’s feather, cold on the rise
to Blacklow Hill
where Piers Gaveston fell: a moment’s struggle
in wet grass,
then the surprised head of the king’s lover
         rolls free, his lips drawn back,
still twitching.

Down in the village, a boy
armed with a spade
washes his face; trudges to work.

This rough mound, the sign says, was fortified
on the orders of William the Conqueror.
So, while Mercians dug, Normans sat,
pining for the wheat fields of France.
         Hony soyt quy mal pence.
1066 and All That.

         'No matter the right or wrong of it,
         we had to follow Warwick.
         Sheer black mist, first thing,
         and out of that mist,
         the hiss of an arrow-storm, burning.
         My father fell there in the confusion,
         a few miles shy of London.
         He died at Waterloo.
         Took a bullet in the Crimean.
         Fell at Ypres. Was listed
         among the missing.'

The boy stopped speaking ...

Read the rest of ON WARWICK CASTLE as a Kindle ebook. Currently only 77p!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Proud, proud, proud

Dylan at Wroxeter (Roman town) last year.
I'm very proud of my son Dylan, who is not only incredibly clever but a chip off the old block when it comes to blogging and reviewing. (In other words, he doesn't blog often, but when he does, it's with some panache ... !)

Dylan is eleven years old. He is obsessed with science and technology, and that is not an exaggeration.

His most recent obsession within those fields is astrophysics.

And I would like to share his review of Stephen Hawking's classic, A Brief History of Time, with you. It's on his book review site, The Book Mangle.

His writing style is not perfect - there are a few errors here! - but for an eleven year old reading a book by Hawking, and attempting to explain some of the contents in an easy-to-follow way, it's really pretty impressive.

Proud, proud, proud ... 

Here's an excerpt from his review:

I warn you, this is not a children's book. I sometimes personally had to read each paragraph several times to get the information in my head, and it felt like I had forgotten the English language ...

Read more on The Book Mangle.  

Saturday, October 12, 2013

EXTRACT from THE CELL (fiction)

OVERHEARD: an anthology of short stories edited by Jonathan Taylor

Last November, I had a short story called THE CELL published in OVERHEARD, an anthology of fiction intended to be read aloud. The anthology is edited by Jonathan Taylor and was published by Salt. It is available on Amazon UK and direct from Salt Publishing, and can also be ordered from bookshops.

It's a brilliant collection of stories, and I can thoroughly recommend it to everyone who likes short fiction. Other contributors include: Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, Louis De Bernières, Adele Parks, Kate Pullinger, Adam Roberts, Michelene Wandor, Vanessa Gebbie, Judith Allnatt, Jo Baker, David Belbin, Panos Karnezis, Gemma Seltzer, Ailsa Cox and Will Buckingham.

I enjoyed writing this short story so much - which is about the interior life of a female Egyptian hermit of the third century - that I'm considering expanding it into a novel. Considering. These things are never certain ...

Here's a short extract from THE CELL, where my female hermit, after 17 years living alone in the desert, dwells on the rare visits from her spiritual father, Macarius, who is the hermits' new Abba after the old one died.

I am never sure if these visits help or hinder my progress. I am glad of them, for sure; my soul leaps for joy at the sound of a human voice, and my foolish vanity enjoys Abba Macarius’ flattering attentions, however fleeting. But afterwards, in the long stillnesses of the night, I recall each word spoken and regret them all. My pride asserts itself after these visits. It presses vicious thorns deep into my flesh, making me imagine, dream, recast each meeting until it shows me to best advantage, the least worldly of our order, the most pious, the Abba’s favourite. Mostly though, peace falls from my mind and I begin to remember how it feels to be alive in the world. My desire increases and pains me. The struggle to cage it becomes harder, almost impossible to bear. Some days the lure of the shimmering, heat-haze horizon burns my eyes like the desert burns my feet through my sandals. It can take weeks for equilibrium to return, for will to exert itself over my dizzying desire. Yet even will can corrupt the unwary. For it is the individual will, not the will of God, to which the body bows.

By speaking I weaken myself. Silence is the narrow way.

The days stretch out in this manner, my conscience knocked this way and that. Following a visit, I keep the cell door closed during the cooler hours when walking outside would be possible, afraid of my own weakness. Gradually, the stirred air of my cell settles. The humble stone walls and floor are my own again. Soon I find myself able to pray without distraction, and begin to follow the prayer cycles and meditations Abba Macarius has recommended for such trials. I sit cross-legged for days on end, examining one solitary word of the Lord’s teaching until it becomes as vast and complex in my understanding as creation itself. At such miraculous times, I feel His presence so near to me, it seems incredible that almost three hundred years have passed since He gave His life for mankind.

Read more of this story in OVERHEARD.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Alzheimer's Poem: Forgetting To Remember

In 1997, my artist grandmother died while suffering from Alzheimer's. I wrote this poem about her quite soon after her death, and can never read it now without tearing up.

I may have posted this poem on Raw Light before - it was published in my first poetry collection with Bloodaxe, THE BRIEF HISTORY OF A DISREPUTABLE WOMAN - but a conversation at dinner last night with fellow novelists Judy Astley and Katie Fforde made me think of it again.

I read this poem at my mother-in-law's funeral a few years ago, who also died from a complication while suffering from Alzheimer's.

(for my artist grandmother, Christiana Evelyn Beatrice Holland, 1903 - 1997)
by Jane Holland
You turned your face to the wall a year ago,
waiting for this. Not a word, not a whisper
passed your lips. In your eyes, not a flicker
when they came and went, those ghosts
dressed like your children, but unknown, older.
And your son was not your husband, though
you must have thought so, trying his name.
The nurse came by, with something
to help you sleep, but you didn't. Sat there
as though for a portrait, erasing the canvas
with cataracts, your glasses deep bottle-green.
A few years shy of the century, you were still
in that sunny front room at Maison Dieu,
preparing to paint, though they'd sold it
to pay the home fees ten years before.
I was almost as tall as you at eleven,
sunlight glinting off that shade you wore,
one eye patched like a pirate's.
And after the guns at Arromanches,
he could never hear the racing results
so you had to repeat, repeat yourself
until he too was gone; memory
evaporating too swiftly then,
like turps you'd left in the sun.

The whole poetry collection is available on Kindle.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Girl Who Cried "Publication!"

As I commented to fellow writer Carol McGrath on Twitter today, the only drawback to being a prolific author is that nobody pays any attention to your publications. New books come and go in a cricket-chirping wave of silence, where other less speedy novelists receive dozens of congratulatory messages and support with launching as soon as a new book hits the shelves.

As author problems go, it's a good one to have. And I fully understand this phenomenon. I too would hesitate to congratulate or support some Other Writer who appeared to have a new book out every five minutes, if only on the grounds that such prolificity is unfair and an affront to nature.

So I'm resigned to being ignored now on social media whenever a new book comes out, and entirely accept that I have become the girl Matilda in the apocryphal story, the tease who cried "Publication!" so often that, in the end, nobody bestirred themselves to click the link or even comment.

But a book is still a book is still a book.

And this one is WOLF BRIDE.

Debauchery and decadence at the court of Henry VIII form the backdrop to this arranged marriage between soldier Lord Wolf and Eloise Tyrell, lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn.

"Fifty Shades of Tudor Sex!" - The Sunday Times

Hilary Mantel meets Sylvia Day

Twitter hashtags: #WolfBride #feelupthebodies

Published August 29th 2013 by Hodder and Stoughton. Available in ebook edition now in the UK and Amazon US, paperback to follow in November.

First in the new Tudor series LUST IN THE TUDOR COURT.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Poetry Bazaar

Just a quick summertime reminder of my three self-published poetry titles on Kindle, as I like to make at least one poetry sale per year!

The revised Kindle version of my first collection: DISREPUTABLE (UK Amazon store and US Amazon Store): youthful poems of love, dreams, optimism, and loss.

Includes poems for which I won an Eric Gregory Award in 1996.

Then there's my controversial female narrator version of the Anglo-Saxon poem THE WANDERER (UK Amazon store and US Amazon store): 'Most days I wake/like a stone in the stillness ...'

Anglo-Saxon loner with depression ...

Finally, there's my long modernist poem ON WARWICK CASTLE, written during my tenure as Warwick Poet Laureate (UK Amazon store and US Amazon store) which is currently on sale at only 77p!

I'm only 77p!!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

What is the Point of Poetry?

I'm talking about How To Write Young Adult Fiction on a panel at the Penzance Literary Festival today as Victoria Lamb. My fellow panellists are Ian Thomas and Helen Douglas.

That event is at 3pm in the Open Shed, Champion's Yard, Penzance TR18 2TA.

At 6.15pm today, I will donning a different hat and asking 'What is the Point in Poetry?' at a discussion with Angela France and other poets and readers. That event is at the same venue as the YA panel.

You can book tickets for these and other Penzance Festival events here. Or follow the individual links above.

Fascinating stuff, though I can ill afford the break from writing today. My summer is packed with book deadlines, promotion and festival events. And I have still not decided what the point of poetry is.

Perhaps it will come to me on the long drive to Penzance ...

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Labels, and why I like them

Yesterday we had an epic - but also minor - family adventure. Epic because on the face of it something very important happened. Minor because it does not affect our family life in any meaningful way. Life will carry on at home much as it did before. But a new label has come into our lives, and we are very pleased to welcome it onboard.

What happened was that my ten year old son was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome.

As a family, we have known for the past three years that Dylan has Tourette's. You can't live with someone with this syndrome and NOT KNOW.

"It would be hard to imagine a less likely troublemaker."

But although he already had a diagnosis of autism and ADHD, like his twin brother, the only concession to this further condition was a side note on his file that Dylan has 'tics'. Tic Disorder is a milder and more general condition than Tourette's, and usually of shorter duration - though medical opinions vary. In particular, Tic Disorder is fairly common in schools, with as many as 1 in 100 children showing possible symptoms.

So yesterday we took our son to yet another consultant at yet another hospital for yet another opinion, and FINALLY, after speaking to him for fifteen minutes, this new consultant pronounced it Tourette Syndrome.

But why is this a good thing?

Isn't Tourette Syndrome just another problematic life-long label, like ADHD and autism, to be hanging about our son's neck at the tender age of 10?

In some ways, yes. But the truly vital thing is the timing of this diagnosis, rather than its significance in general. Because a diagnosis makes no difference to his condition. There is no cure for Tourette's. There is no particular treatment, though some doctors believe in medication to alleviate symptoms. (We are not keen on medication, having already gone down that route in the past and disliking the side effects.) It may last his whole life, it may go away on its own, it may make his teen years a living hell.

"There's a word for what he does, and that word means he is not to blame."

But when he starts secondary school this September, his new teachers will be handed a file detailing his special needs, and now the tag Tourette Syndrome will feature on it. And when he tosses his head violently twenty-five times in a lesson, or makes a repeated high-pitched noise like dry windowscreen-wipers throughout his school assembly, he will not be singled out for punishment. Or if he is, we will be able to object on the grounds of this official diagnosis.

And when you have a child who, from the age of five, was humiliated and made to sit apart from the rest of the class for 'wilful disobedience', for an inability to sit still or work quietly, for making funny faces or noises when the teacher was in full flow, to be able to point to a diagnosis that completely explains his behaviour is a miracle.

Let's be clear about this. My son has moments of naughtiness, like every child, but on the whole he is well-behaved. We will not be treating this label as an excuse for genuinely rude or disruptive behaviour. Though it would be hard to imagine a less likely 'troublemaker'. My son is excruciatingly polite to adults, a favourite with the teachers at his new (more relaxed) village school, and marvellously intelligent, enquiring and eloquent. People remark on it everywhere we go, often with amazed expressions at his responses.

But Dylan also has these other difficult conditions that mean he sometimes misreads non-verbal signals, or prefers his own company to playing with peers, or can't sit still for longer than thirty seconds and will rock violently if forced to do so, or can't help repeatedly making odd squeaking and sniffing noises - often at the most embarrassing moments for him.

So that is why I like labels. Because this particular label will save my son from being labelled a troublemaker at his new secondary school, and help him to concentrate on his school work without worrying about being excluded for 'disobedience'.

I know many people hate labels - especially for long-term issues like this - and would prefer not to be stuck with them. But labels that save our children from being discriminated against are nothing short of fantastic.

And Dylan himself, having seen other kids with Tourette's on Youtube and knowing - absolutely knowing - that he has the condition too, is very pleased with his diagnosis. There's a word for what he does, and that word means he is not to blame. When you're a born people-pleaser, and you've been consistently blamed for things you can't control since you were old enough to sense the irritation and disapproval of your teachers, the sense of liberation and relief that accompany such a realisation cannot be overstated.

So thank you, Monsieur de la Tourette.

For those interested in knowing more about the syndrome, here is an extreme case of Tourette's on the This Morning show.