Category Archives: Creative writing

Concerning the Chopping of Onions

Louise G Cole and Billy Collins
The look of disbelief is hard to disguise. Louise G with Billy Collins

You might know the ‘G’ in my name covers Giddy, Gush and Gabble?

No wonder – I’m trying to decide which part of yesterday’s memorable birthday was the best. Maybe all of it? Coffee and a chat with legendary American poet Billy Collins, then being showered with wonderful gifts when I got home, one of which was a canvas print of a photo from last year’s Hennessy Award.

Even if you don’t like poetry, you’ve gotta be impressed that I had a Dublin pub named after me, if only for a weekend! My lovely family had heard me claiming I was giving up the writing (I lie a lot, that’s what addicts do), and they wanted to remind me what happened last year.

And if you do like poetry, you might be impressed that Billy Collins bought me a coffee and talked to me about poetry, onions, mothers, and other stuff.

This week, alongside another 11 writers, I won a place at the Billy Collins Poetry Workshop at the John Hewitt International Summer School in Armagh, Northern Ireland. Well, just being there was enough to make me giddy (it is easily done) since he’s a former US Poet Laureate and I’ve loved his work for several years now (I’m a late starter here, forgive me). The poem of mine we workshopped was about chopping onions, my mother, and grief (the last two being common themes recently), and that was enough, I was happy to have had my work read by such an iconic modern poet.

Workshop participants were asked what they hoped to get from the session, and I think I gabbled something about wanting advice about being stymied by first winning the Hennessy last year and then being chosen for publication by Carol Ann Duffy (when she was UK Poet Laureate). I’ve hardly written anything since (well, anything I’m ready to share). How to get past that? Later, I was surprised to hear this is not an uncommon experience, and in the Irish idiom, I need to get over myself.

That aside, the workshop taught me a lot about poetic titles, endings and pace, which was invaluable. The next evening was a demonstration of how all that works, as Billy Collins read to a packed, appreciative audience.

I’d never been to the John Hewitt International Summer School before – I’d never been to Armagh either, and discovered it is lovely, even in a heatwave!

The week-long festival was a delight of all things literary, with talks, workshops, performances and readings. There was a pop-up bookshop that accepted plastic (which everyone knows isn’t like spending real money), and I networked my ass off (to coin a phrase). Brilliant!

One highlight was a reading by Kevin Barry, newly longlisted Booker nominee, interviewed by Jan Carson. I’ve just read ‘Night Boat to Tangier’ and found it great entertainment. If you know me, you’d be surprised to hear recommendation of a book I’d described on Twitter as being ‘seedy, sexy, foul-mouthed, intriguing – poetic’. It isn’t for the feint hearted, but oh, the language, the clever turn of phrase, the needle-sharp Irish expressions, the humour. Vile characters so deftly drawn, I found myself caring about what happened to them, which is quite a fiction-writing feat.

I’m probably not going to get sick of this image 🙂

And the other highlight? Yep, as I left yesterday, revealing to Billy Collins it was my birthday, and having him invite me for a coffee and spend 40 minutes chatting about my work. And unexpectedly, him asking me to inscribe a copy of ‘Soft Touch’ for him. No idea if the book is heading America-wards (I appreciate travellers have to carry luggage), but hey, how about that? No wonder I’m giddy and gushing.

And just in case you’ve got this far, the ‘G’ is really for Gillian.

Watch Billy Collins on Youtube here . My favourite bit starts at 12.53 when he reads ‘To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl’, which you’ll appreciate if you’ve ever had anything to do with teenagers 🙂   

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Draft Dodging. Not.

I won a short story competition this week and now have some lovely comments about structure and style ringing in my ears. I’m flattered the judge, Dr Kevin Hora, liked ‘The Potential Pleasure of New Soft Furnishings’ enough to award me the 2019 *New Roscommon Writing Prize. It’s worth €500, which for 2,000 words is good payback!

After the presentation, as everyone was scrambling to line up for the cameras, Kevin quietly asked me how many times I’d re-written the story. I owned up to many, many drafts, 10 wouldn’t be unusual, neither would 20. I’m always wanting to improve, although I rarely count drafts.

This particular story had its beginnings in the creative space that is the **Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan (ROI), where I’d retreated for a week last year with the intention of writing more poetry. I was still giddy after being chosen for publication by Carol Ann Duffy, the then UK Poet Laureate. I needed to spend some time writing new poems.

So of course, I began a short story or two.

Lots of revisions later, I thought I might be ready to enter a couple of competitions with them. One became a local winner, the other was shortlisted in a national competition, which will be revealed next month.

“The difficulty is in knowing when I’m finished,” I confessed to Kevin as we grinned for the cameras.

He nodded sagely. “I could tell your story had been worked on because it was well polished. And you knew exactly when to stop,” he said.

Truth is, with such an uplifting element to this writing lark, one way or another I’m never going to be able to stop, am I?

* My win in Roscommon is something of an object lesson in persistence – I have entered every year since the competition began in 2014 and have been shortlisted a few times. This win was sixth time lucky.

** I attended the Tyrone Guthrie Centre (aka Annaghmakerrig) three times last year, twice by spending my children’s inheritance, and once with a bursary from Roscommon County Council’s Arts Office, for which I am very grateful.

A Gloom of One’s Own

Annaghmakerrig rhododendrons are inspiring, right?

Inspiration is a funny old thing – one minute it is there slapping you in the face, insisting you write, write and then write some more, next it has disappeared into the ether without a trace and you are left wondering what on earth to write about. And whatever made you (me) think writing for publication was a good idea?

The secret is of course, to carry on regardless, ignoring the helpless feeling of being uninspired, and just empty your head onto paper. Messy, I know, but the muse often has a way of creeping back to take a look at what you’re up to – and then suddenly, you’re an item again, inspired.

There, I sound like I know what I’m talking about, yet recently I’ve been beset by doubts and have found it difficult to get anything much down on paper.

Rejections and disappointment will do that to you, but I know they’re part of a writer’s life. Social media has a lot to answer for – watching other writers blossom, while I seem to have disappeared under a stone. I shouldn’t compare myself to anyone else, but it can be difficult not to sometimes…

Success and failure are frequent bedfellows for a writer, everyone will tell you that. I’ve had quite a few writing knock-backs recently, plus some personal sadness to deal with, which has left me a bit gloomy and uncreative.  That’s despite having had a great year as a poet (which was unexpected – I didn’t know until fairly recently I could write poetry anyone else wanted to read).

Mind you, it is good that rejections for a writer can stay mostly private. I don’t need to tell you which magazines and journals have turned down my work, or which competitions I’ve failed to get shortlisted for.

But I can tell you about the ones who like my writing. And I’m very, very happy to report that a story of mine has surfaced as a success. It’s been a while since any of my short fiction was published, but a new short story is due for publication in a Cork Libraries anthology. It didn’t win but was shortlisted in the ‘From the Well’ competition judged by author Billy O’Callaghan, resulting in publication. I was in a similar anthology back in 2015.

Meanwhile, the journal The Ogham Stone is about to be published (in June) and this time includes a poem of mine, which I’m thrilled about.

And then there’s another anthology published this week in the UK, Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Laureate’s Choice’, featuring the 20 newcomers she chose to champion as Poet Laureate. I haven’t seen it yet, but it looks like an exciting project to be part of… yes, me, I’m in there!

And while all that’s going on, I’m hiding away in County Monaghan trying to be creative, without distractions, enjoying another writing retreat at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre (and I’m grateful for the promised support of County Roscommon Arts Office which enables me to be here).

Now. Here, muse, muse, muse. Are you here? There? Anywhere?

Filling in the Gaps

I was reading a story in this occasion. I am using poetic licence here…

Trying to find new ways to say old things can be a bit wearing. In my case, wearing on the old computer keyboard.

My laptop was bought with the winnings from a short story competition in…damn, was it really three years ago? Anyway, I’ve worn the face off some of the keys. A R E S T to be precise. I don’t touch-type, but I know my way around a keyboard, so it is no real bother for me.

I’m even trying to squeeze a poem out of the scenario, all about naked keys, worn to the bone. I think the concept needs a bit of work (because I could always re-label the keys if I wanted).

Some poems jump out of the ether and hit you between the eyes, they just have to take on a form. Others have to be coaxed from a vague idea, some can be prompted by workshop triggers. I’ve even dreamt some words of poetry before now. Mostly, it’s a single good idea seeping into my consciousness, which is then worked and worked at until it takes shape as a poem. Easy!

It is Poetry Day Ireland next week (May 2nd) when people far and wide are encouraged to dive into poetry, with the theme of ‘Truth or Dare’. I’m doing my bit by running a short poetry workshop: ‘Finding a grain of truth in the fiction of poetry’.

This will be taking a look at how you can bend the truth to suit the occasion and leave your readers guessing as to which bit of the poem is true.  I do this all the time, confident that if I’m challenged, I can just say writers don’t lie as such, they use their imagination and call it fiction. In particular, I’ll be pulling apart one of my own poems, ‘Fur Coat and No Knickers’ to demonstrate my point, and also I’ll be looking at some other poets’ work.

Then there’ll be a brief reading (me gasping through a few of my recent ditties) followed by an open mic for anyone to come and share poetry, their own or someone else’s. There’ll even be tea and coffee and a few biscuits. Its free of charge, is from 10.30am to 12.30pm, in Charlestown Arts Centre in County Mayo, Ireland, (above the town library in Barrack Street) and there is no booking required – just turn up with a pen and paper.

I’m looking forward to this event, not least because it is exclusively poetry. At the writing groups I run, there’s often a collective groan at the prospect of poetry. Anyway, we like to chop and change genres to keep things interesting as a lot of the members like to write memoir, prose and short stories. I’d love to inspire them to enjoy writing poetry though, and I’m working on it…

Meanwhile, my big break is a few days after this workshop when I’ll have a reading in Strokestown Park House at 3pm on Sunday, May 5th when I’ll share the stage with Iggy McGovern. Its part of Strokestown Poetry Festival, which takes place in County Roscommon over the Bank Holiday weekend. More details here. There’s an anthology out, too – with a new poem of mine. Last year’s anthology poem was about my father, so I thought for balance I’d better have one about my mother. It’s called ‘Learning to Sew’. You can buy the book here.

Better still, come along to Strokestown Poetry Festival and head for the pop-up book shop where my books (and a goodly number of others) will be on sale.

A Bolthole for Writers

Retreat. The word conjures images of battle-bashed battalions backing off, or of a cowed religious heading for the caves of a hermit life. Or even tea-and-dry-toast navel-gazing and prayer on an island for a weekend.

But a writer’s retreat? Well, that’s different. Think stylish, distraction-free space and time to write.

So, in need of just that, some creative headspace away from home, I headed for County Down in Northern Ireland last week. I could have chosen a remote seaside cottage from Booking.com, but it is unlikely I’d have enjoyed it as much as my stay in the River Mill Reading and Writing Retreat, Downpatrick.

I’ve had my eye on the place since it opened last year, and I’ve read the reviews, which are rightly of the glowing persuasion.

Well, what’s not to like about a former 18th century flour mill now a five-bedroomed country bolthole for writers looking for peace and quiet? Small, but perfectly formed, the River Mill is run by Paul Maddern, who is an accomplished poet himself, so he understands what a writer needs: comfort, good food, space, tranquillity – and a library stuffed to the gills with an eclectic selection of books and literary journals. Paul has a long list of writing accolades and is a former creative writing tutor for the Seamus Heaney Centre, so he’s a good person to have running a retreat.

I realise my homeplace distractions are of the trivial kind, precious, pampered, privileged person that I am, but it is still a marvellous creative boost to be able to get away from the daily grind with the sole intention of writing. I had a lovely time and would highly recommend the River Mill. I even did a good bit of writing (maybe even a bit of good writing?).

Check out the River Mill  here.  And if you go, tell Paul I sent you. But don’t blame me if you gain a pound or two because the food he cooks is delicious and plentiful. Just saying.

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.

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?