Category Archives: Creative writing

Learning to Spell Annaghmakerrig

An autumn blue sky at Annaghmakerrig. I know, right?

I’m at the end of a week’s writing retreat at the lovely Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan.  Annaghmakerrig, that’s the place.

Lucky me to have such privilege, to have been here three times this year, each time with a huge creative burst which I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Autumn mushrooms – magic or what?

I came to try to finish the novel I started in February, and while I’ve done a lot more than I expected, I’m  managing not to put too much emphasis on daily word counts. The story is all done now, the characters and plotting sorted, I’m just filling in gaps and editing. And I have a title: ‘Three Ways to Lie’.  I’m not sure if talking about it will jinx me or spur me on to finish? We’ll see.

But while novel-writing is going on, my poet head keeps getting in the way. I’m not sure what prompted me to bring five years’ worth of notebooks to look through, but I’m glad I did.  I found unfinished poems I’d written about my childhood relationship with Catholicism, and they are now turning into a sequence of poems about religion. Bit serious for me, but there are a few light touches. There has to be if it’s my writing.

Then there has been wildlife to distract me.

A glass act

An enormous wasp paid a visit to my room not long after I arrived. It was probably already there, lying in wait. I’m not quite as terrified of wasps as I used to be (and I’ve no idea why I should be afraid of them, I’ve never been stung) but I’d rather they didn’t get up close and personal.

When normal rules apply, I just shriek for assistance and move myself to another room while someone else deals with the invasion. This time I was on my own with no-one to call (I’ve been going it alone in the self-catering cottages).

Keeping my nerve, I found a large (empty!) Guinness glass in the kitchen and used a stray copy of some battered poetry book, ‘Beyond the Green Bridge’, to urge the wasp into captivity before releasing it outside (in the rain – ha!). I don’t kill creatures like that unless they are threatening the general well-being of me and mine, me being of the live-and-let-live persuasion (with the notable exception of certain parasites, like tape worms and fleas – and rats who try to take up residence in my house).

Spot the heron. Did I mention it is autumn?

The wasp was the first of several wildlife encounters. A little wren flew in through the open window, landed on the writing desk (not the one I was sitting at), looked at me and flew out again. Then I went for a walk and surprised a lovely big grey heron fishing for his dinner. I was slow to get the camera out so he’s just a shadowy blur on the image as he took flight, but I know he’s there.

I’ve also seen jays, lots of other birds I can’t identify, swans in flight, a flock of teal, and best of all, three red squirrels burying beech nuts. They didn’t see me at first and I was afraid to move and switch on the camera, so I’ve not much photographic evidence.

Just as well really, because I should be writing, not looking at photographs, even squirrel ones.

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Name That Thing

Lou. No, not that one. The one staying in a room with a chaise longue.

Do you ever wonder how names get attached to things? I mean, who decides?

Obviously, your parents have a bit of a say in your name when you are a child. I went through a phase of shortening my name to ‘Lou’, which used to make my mother cringe. Even now, I have friends (does a husband count as a friend?) who call me Lou, although I tend to introduce myself as ‘Louise’. Lou Cole sounds like some sort of drain cleaner or an energy drink, perhaps. Not a poet who had a pub named after her for a whole weekend (ha!).

And I have that mad thing going on with the ‘G’ in the middle of my moniker.

I don’t know if anyone remembers me more because of the G-string story. You know the one: I Googled myself a while back and discovered Louise Cole is an underwear model.  She’s still there, I checked to save you the bother (you’re welcome).

But if you add in the G (for Gillian, if you really want to know), Google finds me, too. It is a gift of a story to serve as an icebreaker at poetry readings, although I sense some of my friends are getting weary of it now, it’s been done to death.

Meanwhile, I’ve been pondering how objects get names, as do other less tangible things. Like Petrichor. It’s the word used to label the smell of the earth after rain, a word first coined in the 1960s.

I find myself wondering what it was called before then? Surely it is a phenomenon not exclusive to the 20th and 21st centuries?  And it isn’t just a smell, either. Go out after rain and Petrichor is not just a scent, it’s a complete sensory experience, certainly out in the countryside (you might not get the same effect in the city, though). It is everything: sight, sound, taste, touch as well as smell. Petrichor? No, the word doesn’t do it justice. I want to find a new name, something fancier and more majestic, but I’m at a loss to know what. Still, I’ve wrestled a poem out of the notion, so it’s not all bad…

Names, and who they are attached to, have me perplexed this week as I meet so many new people and try to put the right combinations together. I’m getting better.  By the end of the week I might have it cracked.

I opened the windows in case Miss Worby needed more air

I’m on retreat (yes, I know I should be writing. Well, I AM writing, sort of) at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan (thank you Roscommon County Council!). I waxed lyrical about Annaghmakerrig when I was here in February; this is a different experience as I’m staying in the Big House (no, not THAT one).

The surroundings are luxurious, the food lush, the Miss Worby ghost stories hair-raising, inspiration is flowing, and the company is interesting, but my favourite bit has to be walking in the lovely grounds (450 acres of them).

Being August, there are plenty of rain showers, so I’m getting countless opportunities to experience Petrichor first hand. But I still want to call it something else. Yes, but what?

Pay, Pals and Poetry

poetry dosh
I was so excited to get my first poetry reading fee, I took a picture.

Did you ever hear about writer’s block? I heard it’s when your imaginary friends won’t talk to you.

In my case, it’s when I’ve too many things going on and not enough time to write. I’m lying, of course. I have time to write EVERY day (I keep a personal journal). Oops, that’s not right. I don’t lie, I write fiction. Even in my journal sometimes.

Truth versus fiction, writer’s block, where to find inspiration, getting paid to write* – we’ve had some interesting discussions at the weekly creative writing sessions I’m running in Tubbercurry in County Sligo. We’re over half way through now, and we’ve covered a lot of interesting creative writing themes, including mining memories for memoir, point of view in short fiction, journal keeping, and writing for local newspapers. This week we’re going to be looking at poetry, a prospect which caused a few people to blanch.

king house june 2018
I’m not reading poetry here, but the opening page of a short story. This was at King House, in Boyle, for the New Roscommon Writing Awards 2018.

Poetry is something frequently seen as a form of torture for schoolchildren, and a good or bad English teacher can make all the difference in how you take to it.  I’ve asked everyone on the course to bring a favourite poem to share, and I’m looking forward to hearing their choices; mine changes by the hour. It could be something from Seamus Heaney, Roger McGough, Wendy Cope, Maya Angelou, Simon Armitage, Gillian Clarke, Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy, Paul Muldoon, Billy Collins…

Or I might choose something from Pascale Petit, Simon Lewis, Jessamine O Connor, Eleanor Hooker, Kevin Higgins, Jacqueline Saphra, Maura Dooley, Moya Cannon, Jonathan Edwards, Jane Clarke, Geraldine Mitchell, Peggy Gallagher. These are just the few names to spring to mind as I’m writing. There are hundreds of wonderful poems and poets out there, it is hard to pick favourites. Lots and lots of talented people who can put words together in such a moving, entertaining way.

The creative writing course I’m running is aimed at beginners, but a good few of the participants are old hands, and have already been published. Like me, they probably attend workshops (even ones aimed at newbies) to pick up tips and tricks, and for ideas – I don’t think there’s a use-by date on learning. Not for me anyway.

thelma and louises
One of us isn’t Thelma, but one is Louise. That’s Jessamine O Connor on the right.

And I love to mix with like-minded people. Writing can be a solitary pastime, but there’s fun to be had in sharing with people who get it, which is why I belong to two writing groups. One of them, run by my friend Jessamine O Connor, is publishing an anthology this year, which I’m helping to edit.

There’s great craic to be had with these friends – and the creative juices certainly run. I have just heard that a poem started in that group has been chosen by Nessa O’Mahony for this year’s Stony Thursday Book published by Limerick Arts Office. That news came less than 24 hours after I won a certificate and €100 as one of the runners up in the New Roscommon Writing Award, this time for a short story. Happy days!

* I picked up my first payment for poetry the other day (I’m not counting competition prize money). My first ever payment for a reading, €25, was my share of the Hermit Collective’s fee for performing at Strokestown International Poetry Festival in May. All the many, many public readings I’ve done have been by invitation or at open mics, and I’ve done them for free.  I really have hit the big time now, eh?!

May I?

Tubbercurry Writing May 2018sSo, what’s the best thing to do when you’re really, really busy? Yep, that’s it – find something else to do as well.

So here I am, just surfacing after the head-wrecking weekend that was Strokestown International Poetry Festival, participating in a social media training course. (Don’t laugh. And no, I probably shouldn’t have responded to my terror of Facebook by deleting my page recently, but that’s another story.)

While I’m at it, I could have a go at developing my memoir-writing skills with the legend that is Michael Harding, couldn’t I?  Roscommon Arts Centre’s Bealtaine course this year.

And what about running a series of creative writing classes for beginners in Tubbercurry? OK, I’ll do that too.

Strokestown International Poetry Festival was an absolute blast – a hectic five days in which I met some wonderful writers and got to launch my collection, ‘Beyond the Green Bridge’ alongside poets Majella Cullinane (who was over from New Zealand for the occasion) and Erin Fornoff.

The sun shone, words flowed and good humour abounded, and I had a really great (if exhausting) time. I even got to sign a few copies of my new book and read at the launch of the 2018 Strokestown Anthology, and did a street performance with the Hermit Collective.

Strokestown 20th Logo jpeg2As a member of the organising committee, I hadn’t before appreciated how much time and effort goes into setting up a world-class poetry festival – and how much still has to be done after everyone goes home. This was the 20th Strokestown Poetry Festival, so everyone pulled out all the stops to make it a memorable occasion. It was certainly that (in a good way!). Check out what happened  here: 20th Festival Highlights

So now I’m hoping to have enough people to join me in doing some creative writing on Thursday evenings in Tubbercurry, County Sligo, just for ten weeks.

I’m hoping I can inspire a few new writers with some of the enthusiasm I still have for the craft – not just poetry, but short stories, flash fiction, memoir, journal keeping (one of my favourites), and other forms of the written word. I’ll be able to pass on some insider tips and information about publication opportunities and writing competitions, but will also encourage newbies to just have a go.

Anyone can be a writer if they want to be.

A good writer, though, that’s a bit trickier. Writing is like any form of culture, it is subjective. It takes practice of course. And luck. A thick skin. A support network.  And pink pyjamas and a ping-pong ball. Oops! Look at me, I’m giving everything away already.

If you want to know more, you’ll have to book a place on the course. At a fiver a session (because it is supported by the MSLETB Community Education Scheme) I think it’s a snip…

 

 

 

Watching the Dust Settle

The sadly missed Ashley Cole, who could always be called upon to investigate things lurking under the sofa

I’ve been busy lately coaxing dust bunnies from under the sofa, not least because I’m mad for cleaning when I’m stressed or sad.  When I’m laid back and cheery, I can’t see dust, so my house is a mess. But right now, there are lots of things going on and I’m trying to fix them with a (faux) feather duster.

When I’m not waving a microfibre cloth at dirty skirtings, waiting for the phone to ring with more sad news (long story), I’m getting ready for my book launch at Strokestown International Poetry Festival. Less than two weeks to go (quick, fetch the mop, that floor needs attention). I wrote an article about the Festival and its background, which has appeared in the Irish Times – you can read it here. 

It even includes a picture of the late Seamus Heaney at the Festival in 2006, an image I share with you here. Just because I can 🙂

This year’s festival is certainly going to be an interesting few days – May 3rd to 7th –  when 70 poets, from schoolchildren to international celebrities, are going to descend on Strokestown in County Roscommon to do their thing. I’m particularly looking forward to the Poetry Divas on the first night – Kate Dempsey, Tríona Walsh and Barbara Smith, who will be ‘blurring the wobbly edge between page and stage’. They perform their own work at events around Ireland and have appeared at Electric Picnic. You can buy tickets here.

The official opening of the 20th Strokestown International Poetry Festival takes place on Friday evening (May 4th), but before that ceremony, Roscommon author Gerry Boland will be launching the new Strokestown Poetry Anthology in the Percy French Hotel at 7pm. I’m very honoured to have been asked to read out my poem ‘Watermarked’ from the anthology, thrilled to have been included in this year’s 20th anniversary book. And in a wonderful twist, because it’s all in alphabetical order, I share a two-page spread with Harry Clifton!

The following day, Saturday May 5th, is going to be a busy one. I’ll be in Bawn Street at 12 noon, making an appearance with my friends from the Hermit Collective – eclectic words and music in the open air (free of charge!). Then I’ll be hot-footing it back to Strokestown Park House for 2pm to see the indomitable Rita Ann Higgins, ahead of the 4.30pm launch (also in Strokestown Park House) of my first book, a limited-edition collection of 60 poems, ‘Beyond the Green Bridge’. (Hopefully, the stickers proclaiming my Hennessy win will be ready by then. Not that they’re taking ages to materialise or anything.) Anyway, I’m lucky to be squeezed into a launch slot alongside Majella Cullinane and Erin Fornoff – the weekend’s programme is packed to the gills with readings and book launches.

Saturday evening is one to look forward to as well – Jane Clarke is doing a reading alongside Lemn Sissay, with music by Danny Diamond,  buy tickets here, and then James Harpur leads everyone into an evening of nostalgia, looking back at the highlights of 20 years of festivals.

There are two more frantic days of poetry themed events after that, but I’m not thinking that far ahead just yet because I’ve other stuff going on this week. Like the launch of ROPES 2018 in Galway on Tuesday (April 24th). I’ve a story in it (yes, I know, I’m claiming to be a poet lately, but I scribble other stuff too). ‘Sparks’ will be launched in the Town Hall Theatre Galway as part of the Cuirt International Festival of Literature.

And Poetry Day Ireland on Thursday, April 26th is not to be missed, either. Lots going on that day. If you’re even remotely interested in poetry there’ll be something for you, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Here’s all you need to know.

Now. Where did I put that can of Pledge? And another thing, why are dusters no longer yellow?

Creative Thinking?

brollies s
I’m being creative here. Just be glad I’m not ranting about the awful weather…

I’m riding a particularly delicious literary wave after winning the Hennessy Award two weeks ago – my feet have hardly touched the ground, but in a nice way.

I shouldn’t really have had any time for thinking, let alone writing, should I? What with radio interviews, trips to Dublin, and all those Facebook and Twitter messages to respond to (and I was the reluctant social media participant a while back. Ha!).

But here’s a surprise, I’ve been as busy writing as ever, scribbling away, plucking poems from the ether and wondering where such creativity comes from.

I like to think I’ve always been a creative person, someone who makes their own greetings cards (too mean to give Hallmark my business), and I’ve made some very inspired birthday cakes in my time (penguin, cat, dinosaur anyone?). And of course, I’ve written reams of journalism, poetry and short stories over the years.

But I still don’t know where creativity comes from, how a random idea suddenly becomes a poem which someone else understands and likes. I wish I could bottle this recent rush of inspiration for the times when I’m staring at a blank notebook wondering what to write.

Strokestown 20th Logo jpeg2Meanwhile, I’m still part of the organising committee of the Strokestown International Poetry Festival, getting excited as May Bank Holiday gets nearer.

sliabh bawn 2s
This is what a bunch of poetry enthusiasts on a a mountain treasure hunt looks like…

We launched the festival on the side of a mountain on Easter Monday (as you do), with a poetry-themed treasure hunt. Now, we’re spreading the word about everything going on during the festival – including readings by no less than 70 poets, from well-known international names to first timers and local schoolchildren.

There will be pub poetry, and a recitation competition where visitors can read a much-loved poem, perhaps one from their schooldays. There’s a cracking line-up for the weekend, starting on May 3rd – check out the Strokestown Poetry website for more info here.

If you missed me on the radio, gabbling like a mad woman, talking to Mary Claire Grealy on Shannonside FM, and reading my poem ‘Dirty Little Dresses’, I’ll be reading it again this coming weekend (but not on the radio).

Along with other members of our creative writing group, I’ll be reading some poems at the launch of a new pop-up art exhibition by local artists in Charlestown Arts Centre (County Mayo) on Sunday next (April 8th), between 2pm and 4pm. Its free admission and everyone is welcome – call in and say ‘hello’ if you’re in the neighbourhood.

We can spend some time marveling at the wonderful creativity on display!

On the Winning Side

hennesseyCompetitive creative writing. Now, who would have thought I’d buy into such a thing?

I swear I’m not a competitive person, although I’ll have a tantrum if someone beats me at Scrabble. But creative writing competitions? What’s that all about? I don’t hold with that, do I?

Um, well, yes, I do…

I’m involved in running a little creative writing group in Charlestown, County Mayo, and I’m often to be heard urging members to submit their writing to competitions. It’s that third party validation thing that I’m always on about. Winning, or being shortlisted, in a writing competition offers proof that someone besides your granny or your best friend enjoys what you’ve written.

I tell my writers – most of whom are new at this game –  to look out for free-to-enter competitions, those with good prizes and plenty of kudos for the winners and runners up.  Also, literary magazines and journals are usually free to submit to, and the process is much like a contest.

And there’s the key – lots of writing for publication can be considered competitive; there are so many writers out there, you are bound to be pitting your efforts against theirs in an attempt to get published. And isn’t that why we write? For publication, to connect with other people because we’ve something to say? And we think we’re saying whatever it is that has to be said in the best possible way. Right?

A lot of the poems and short stories I have had published have been because I’ve won or been shortlisted in competitions. The latest is my poetry which has been shortlisted for a Hennessy Literary Award – the presentation is on Wednesday next (March 21st) when three writers will win prizes, and one will be crowned ‘Hennessy New Writer of the Year’. There’s a considerable amount of dosh involved (€1,500 each for the category winners, plus an extra €2,500 for the overall winner), but regardless of the outcome, I’m thrilled to have got this far.

When the shortlisting news arrived in an email, I was beside myself. Giddy doesn’t even come close to the feeling, especially when I discovered there were 17 poets for the judges to choose from, and here I am, in the final six.

My first nomination for a Hennessy Award was in 2015 when my first ever published short story was shortlisted in the ‘First Fiction’ category.  The story, ‘Flying Lessons’, was published in the Irish Independent, and you can still read it on-line here.

That validation started me off on an exciting creative writing journey which I feel is still only just beginning. In my head, I’m serving an apprenticeship, and the more writing I do, the more I learn, and the better I become, which makes it more likely other people will appreciate my work. So, I keep entering competitions to prove to myself, as well as to others, that I can write something people want to read.

If you missed them, my October 2017 poems in the Irish Times, ‘Fur Coat and No Knickers’ and ‘Dirty Little Dresses’ are here,  plus there’s an extra poem,’Ways with Rotten Cabbage’. I hope you enjoy them 🙂

more scrabble
Who needs real Scrabble when you’ve got fridge magnets (and witty house guests)?

Now. Anyone fancy a game of Scrabble?