Losing The Windmills Of My Mind

Views over the garden to the sea

I’ve waited for the dust to settle before writing the final instalment of my what-I-did-on-my-writing-course essay. I figured the gushing was a bit OTT and I needed to come back down to earth a bit.

Or not.

So. Tŷ Newydd (no, I still can’t pronounce it properly, despite being married to a Welshman and having lived in the country for a brief time during my formative years).

Well, what else is left to say? I had a BRILLIANT time. The place is lovely, the actual building as well as the surroundings. The accommodation was exactly fit for purpose. The tutors were generous and skilled in sharing their love of the form.

Collating the anthology,  L-R Alice, Sally, Louise and Oenone
Chef Tony with Maggie, the Tŷ Newydd cat

I learned a lot about poetry and enjoyed the workshops and the banter. I still haven’t got over the thrill of having my poems critiqued by Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke (did I mention they are the UK’s Poet Laureate and the National Poet of Wales respectively?). I met some very interesting fellow poetry writers, and ate some seriously delicious, home-cooked vegan food.

Even the sun shone on the final day as we raced around the gardens on an Easter Egg Hunt set by Carol Ann. There was an egg and spoon race, then a hopping game, but I settled on being a spectator at that point.

Gillian Clarke

We all had poems published in ‘Song House’ an anthology I will treasure – not least because my words are now in the same publication as those of our highly respected tutors.

I learned to look out for abstract nouns and unnecessary adverbs, to look at the form of a poem on the page, and to weave texture with language to produce mystery rather than obscurity. I also learned to work with rhythm and metre, to kill my precious darlings (no matter how loved they are, if they don’t fit, they have to go) – and to avoid daft nonsense in the style of ‘The Windmills of My Mind’.

 

In the Library

The final evening was spent in the Library reading our work to each other (and to David, Gillian’s husband who also shared a poem with us).

Since then, I’ve re-visited most of my poems and realised how they can be improved; that should keep me quiet for a while.

I am trying to think of what were the week’s negatives, because things that sound too good to be true often are. Except in this case.

True, I found the narrow bed a bit tricky (spoiled brat that I am), and the Welsh water had a nasty taste if it wasn’t flavoured with Earl Grey or coffee. How awful, eh? It’s a wonder I coped.

Oh, and I left my phone there. On charge, blissfully forgotten until I was well on the way home.

What? A whole week without a phone? Yep, but that’s another story.

Dammit, I Couldn’t Marry a Tree

Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy reading her poem for Tracey Emin ‘Stone Love’

The time of my life is now drawing to a close. Well, not literally, I hope, just poetically speaking.

I’m on the last day of a Masterclass with Carol Ann Duffy (the UK Poet Laureate) and Gillian Clarke (Welsh National Poet) at Tŷ Newydd, the National Writers’ Centre of Wales.

I’ve never before been on a residential writing course, though I’ve experienced the good, the bad and the ugly in workshops, seminars and classes, the you-too-can-spend-a-fortune-and-become-in-a-day-a-best-selling-author/poet/playwright/wordsmith (delete as appropriate).

This experience has been in a different league to anything I’ve ever done before. This has been intellectually challenging and stimulating, in the company of a lovely group of capable women poets ranging in age from 21 to someway past retirement. One of my initial fears was that I’d be the oldest here, surrounded by bright young things, and I’d be left wondering how I’d managed to let the poetry ship sail by without me. I’m still thinking that, but it seems I’m not the only one, and there’s hope for me yet, no matter how long of tooth I am.

The poetry writing exercises have been eye-wateringly challenging.  Group DiscussionsThis morning’s session began with Carol Ann reading a poem on, and then leading a discussion about, Tracey Emin’s marriage to a stone (Google it – fascinating!). It ended with us writing a poem ‘I married a….’ with each of us offered a random object to tie the knot with. I got a tree, but I couldn’t get past all the puns involved in branching out and leaving, so I failed miserably (although I may revisit that idea some time in the future).

Last night, after another delicious dinner (did I mention how GORGEOUS the food is here?) we took turns to read out anonymous poems, and tried to guess which one of us had done the writing. I got three guesses right – I even recognised my own contribution. There were some jaw-droppingly brilliant poems read out – one of them (not mine, sadly) was immediately identified by Gillian and Carol Ann as a ‘competition poem’, the sort that goes straight to the top of the judge’s pile.

I am humbled to be in such talented company; I’ve had a ball, but my brain is scrambled now, and I need to find a quiet corner to mull over what I’ve learned, find the time to put all that good advice into practice.

Maggie, the chef's cat
Maggie, the Ty Newydd cat

It’s not quite finished yet – there’s a little anthology getting printed this afternoon, with contributions from all participants, plus Carol Ann and Gillian.

And tonight, we get to read our favourite, self-penned poems in front of the Poet Laureate and the National Poet of Wales in the Tŷ Newydd Library. We get five minutes each to make our mark.

No pressure then…

 

 

 

Welsh Rare Bits

Ty Newydd

Spoiler alert – I’m inclined to gush when I like something, so be prepared…

I was going to love it or hate it, wasn’t I? No half measures – a week-long Masterclass with two poetry icons, Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy, in the beautiful Welsh countryside (and it hasn’t even rained properly yet).

Ty Newydd, the former home of the late British PM David Lloyd George, is now the National Writing Centre of Wales. When I applied for a place on a residential course with the UK’s Poet Laureate (Carol Ann) and the Welsh National Poet (Gillian) back in December, I was hopeful, but not convinced I’d be worthy.

Fast forward to March when I discovered I’d been selected to take part (gasp!).  Sleepless nights worrying if I have what it takes to step up to the mark manifested an annoying cough.

I needn’t have been quite so worried. Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke are an entertaining double act who know their stuff.  They are wonderfully approachable and supportive – and it is lovely to witness their great friendship. And of course, the words of wisdom are plentiful and helpful.

There are 15 of us here – all wimin (because none of the men who applied were up to scratch – ha!) and I know I’m not alone in finding the pace frenetic, and the intensity and enthusiasm of some of the other participants, mind bending.

There’s something in me that knows talent can’t be taught, but I also know that insider tips, advice and a professional eye can go a long way to nurturing a germ of creativity.  While I’m surrounded by stunning wordsmiths, I’m smart enough to recognise that I’m not the most (or the least) talented here.  But my work is already greatly improved from my participation.

L-R: Gillian Clarke, Imtiaz Dharker and Carol Ann Duffy

On Tuesday night, Carol Ann and Gillian gave us a poetry reading in the library – all new, unpublished material, much of it getting its first public airing, which was thrilling.  On Wednesday evening, they’d invited Imtiaz Dharker who had us enthralled with a selection of new and old poems, beautifully crafted and delivered.

We’re over half way through the course already – and I haven’t even mentioned the delicious food (a vegan chef in charge of the kitchen – heaven or what? And he has a cat, I mean, well…).

Clearly, there’s more to follow.

 

 

 

The Boy Stood On The Burning Deck

Last year I was lamenting the potential demise of Strokestown Poetry Festival – Ireland’s longest running poetry event.  Thankfully, enough people rattled the right cages for the funding to get re-instated, and the festival goes ahead as planned this year, starting on April 28th.

Once again I am short listed in the Roscommon Poet’s Prize, and I’ll get to read my entry at the prizegiving ceremony in the lovely Strokestown House. It’s on at 10.30am on a (Bank Holiday) Monday, so if you can’t get there in person (I might struggle a bit myself), you can read the poem at your leisure here. I’ve taken third place in the last two competitions, and I’m thrilled to have been shortlisted again.

My head’s in poetry mode just now; I’m looking forward to Poetry Day Ireland on April 27th when some of my poems will be on display in the Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon, and nearer to home in Ballaghaderreen Library, County Roscommon. I’ll be in Dublin that day taking part in ‘Mind your own Business’, a seminar on the practical side of being a poet, organised by Poetry Ireland and Words Ireland.

But before then I’ll be heading off to Wales to take part in the Spring Poetry Masterclass with the UK’s Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and the Welsh National Poet Gillian Clarke.

I don’t think I’ve stopped grinning since the news broke that I have been selected to take part at Tŷ Newydd, the National Writing Centre of Wales. I shall probably spend the week totally star-struck and in awe of the huge talent of these two writers – they’re among my favourite poets, of course.

I’m hoping some of the magic will rub off and in less than a week I can become a proper poet myself. Abracadabra, just like that!

Well, I can dream, eh?

Crossing The Language Barrier

This article first appeared in the Roscommon Herald’s ‘The Write Note’ feature in September 2015. I damn well figured 2017 might be time to re-publish. Bloody hell Harry, and all that…

When I first came to Ireland more than a decade ago, I was shocked by the language.  I don’t mean Gaeilge (although that’s startling enough to the English ear) I mean the Irish twist on Anglo Saxon vernacular.  Swearing, in other words.

I am married to a serial curser, and my sister’s married to a sailor, so I’ve heard quite a lot of fruity language in my time. But it seems that what used to be called ‘foul language’ is now quite mainstream, an everyday occurrence, especially in Ireland. What I always thought of as rude words are now pouring out of the radio, on our TV screens, headlining newspaper and magazine articles, and that’s without mentioning graffiti and artwork.

And it’s not just the gutter press and reality TV where the language is colourful. Pick up any novel described as ‘literary’ or a magazine publishing modern fiction, and you can be sure of a stream of abuse littering the text. It seems it is not enough to express yourself using a clever selection of the million or so words in the English language. No, in order to be at the cutting edge of the literary scene you have to include a liberal sprinkling of profanities in your work. That makes it realistic, I’m told. And describe your writing as ‘experimental’ and forgo all rules of grammar and punctuation and you’re on to a winner, but that’s a discussion for another day.

I just wonder when it became so acceptable to swear all the time? In my day, my mother would have had me to the kitchen sink to wash my mouth out with soap and water if I’d only so much as whispered the word that rhymes with sit. She probably only ever did it once – but it had the desired effect and I don’t often swear.

But brought up in Ireland, my own children frequently and cheerfully curse each other, which seems to render the words meaningless. But then if I join in, it stops them in their tracks because I so rarely swear, when I do it has intent and is thereby shocking.

And that’s my point really. Can’t we go back to respecting language in all its forms and save the bad words for compelling, dramatic effect?  I’ve no fecking idea how to make that happen, of course. Perhaps I’ll just start with a swear box…

 

 

A Beginner’s Guide to Procrastination

So. You are going to have a Writing Day. No appointments, no need to leave the house, no distractions – the kitchen floor doesn’t even need mopping – brilliant! Ahead, a whole day of writing .

Here’s what you do:

First, take a nice view, preferably one with a lovely comfy chair in front. Settle down to spend some time relaxing into the moment (mindfulness – it’s all the rage these days), watching the birds/clouds/treetops/passersby/traffic (delete as appropriate).

Imagine what a wonderful poem you could write – a sonnet, perhaps, 14 lines of stunning verse with a twist in the middle – based on your view of such extraordinary ordinariness. Words are hopping through your head, time to pin them down. A villanelle might be the way to go. What about a pantoum? Choices, choices.

Start hunting for a notebook. Not any old pad of paper, discarded chocolate wrapper or old envelope as Emily Dickinson did (I kid you not), but your special hand-stitched, pink floral A5 lined velum pad, the one that’s part bujo and part writing journal, full of  good ideas and the beginnings of poems and stories that you really should get around to finishing.

It might take a while to find the book because along the way you’re going to stumble upon distractions like the post arriving, 22 unread messages in your inbox, and the houseplants crying out for a watering. Then there’s a cup of Earl Grey to brew and a packet of ginger biscuits to locate (that alone can take a while since you’ve hidden them for reasons known only to yourself and you can’t remember where).

At this point, your partner/best friend/neighbour/least favourite sibling/offspring may call for a chat, either in person because they know you’re at home and you’re only writing (which isn’t real work as everyone knows), or because they’re on the same network and like to get their money’s worth with the free calls.

When you can get back to your chair-with-a-view, you might have to ignore the stomach rumbling because it’s now almost lunchtime. But you realise that you don’t have your favourite pen to hand, the one you’ve written your best work with.  Not that you’re superstitious or anything, but why take the chance? Spilt salt over the shoulder and into the eye of the devil, right? (left actually); no walking under ladders (isn’t that just common sense?); no putting shoes on the table (who does that anyway?); no opened umbrellas indoors (no need surely, unless your roof has a leak, which is bad luck in itself).

So the pen with which you wrote your prizewinning poems has been put in a safe place so it doesn’t get lost. And although it is eventually found, it is then definitely time for lunch, because even writers need to eat. It doesn’t need to be a lengthy affair of more than an hour or two. Roasted Butternut Squash Soup from scratch is nice, and you can check out the news headlines while its cooking, make a couple of cats purr at the same time, and dash off a few important WhatsApp messages to make good use of your time. And you know you shouldn’t bolt your food because indigestion isn’t conducive to creativity, is it?

So then it is well into the afternoon when you head back to the nice view, pen and notebook at the ready (because first draft poems have to be proper pen on proper paper, no exceptions).  Time to recapture the moment when you felt a poem coming on.

Drat!

A blank. Nothing. Not really writer’s block (which I’ve heard described as what happens when your imaginary friends won’t talk to you), more a memory lapse. You’ve forgot what were the right words in the right order.

Time to stare into space (or back at the lovely view) in an attempt to pluck appropriate words from the ether. The thesaurus might help, but where did you leave it? If you’ve the energy left to look for it, that might pass a few more minutes…

And there you have it. Procrastination.  Distraction. Writing. A whole day of it. There’s nothing to it really, is there?

In Praise Of. Punctuation!!!

wtf-1I’ve never been much taken with ‘experimental’ fiction, not least because all that stream-of-consciousness malarkey often eschews the rules of good grammar and punctuation.

It’s not that I don’t want to be challenged by what I’m reading (although sometimes I just want to read something that’s easy on the brain, in soothing, warm bath style), but frankly, reading some so-called experimental writing is just plain hard work.

And not worth the effort.

Sticking my head above the parapet here, but I’ve never got on with ‘Ulysses’ (or much else by James Joyce come to that). Gasp! Did I really own up to such heresy?

Of course there’s plenty more out there in the Ulysses mould. Endless tomes challenging the reader with stories that are inside out, back to front,  no beginning, middle or end, from multi or singular points of view (in the same sentence) and the like. Long pages of confusing metaphors, allusions, and vague references that could mean anything (and probably do).

But it’s the one long sentence trend that’s got me just lately. What’s. That. All. About? I mean, just what is wrong with proper punctuation?

eats-shoots-leavesI don’t know why punctuation matters so much to me, but it does. And I probably don’t always get it right, although I try. One of my most-thumbed reference books (beside my Roget’s Thesaurus) is ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ by Lynne Truss, enjoyable for me because I totally get it.

It’s not that I find poor grammar and punctuation unforgivable, just irritating when it’s from people who should know better. A whole novel in one sentence? Really? OK – but why?

I have a friend who is dyslexic and when she writes her annual Christmas letter to me, I don’t bat an eye-lid at the phonetic spelling and sprinkling of inappropriate apostrophes. I usually understand what she’s trying to say and I’m pleased to hear her news.

But if her efforts were to appear in print I’d be miffed. Not just because she’d beaten me to it (ha!), but because the pedant in me wants published material to follow certain rules of grammar and punctuation. And I fizz and grumble when it doesn’t.

And while I realise that not all experimental fiction is ungrammatical, why should novels written in one long, long sentence be held in such high esteem? I just don’t get it.

Of course, when I get around to reading Mike McCormack’s ‘Solar Bones’ (which so many people are raving about) I’ll probably change my mind. I might even have a bash at one terribly long sentence myself, instead of trying to put together so many of my usually short ones.

Meanwhile. Let’s eat Grandma! Or: Let’s eat, Grandma! Or even: lets eat grandma because nothing else here makes sense…

Or you could try reading January’s story in the Hennessy New Irish Writing section of the Irish Times – one long sentence by Manus Boyle Tobin: The Drizzle on the Windscreen. I’m not sure how to say this, but I grudgingly admit that it works. And I rather like it!